By Olga Pavlinova Olenich
Sometimes when you walk along the well-trodden path following coastline, there is a moment when the suburban elements – the ugly new houses behind you, the road with its speed bumps and impatient cars, the distant metallic glint of industry – disappear from your vision. They are stripped away to reveal an old seascape, unchanged by the human story. Black rocks glistening in the brilliant sparkle of blue waters, long silver sandbanks rising up from the sea, pelicans gliding down from the sky in symmetrical formation, black swans floating between the black rocks, their long necks arched over ripples of clear water – all of these elements are caught in your one moment of vision.
And you, too, seem to be stripped back to something that is perhaps less than you are but feels as if it is more. You have lost the sense of your body and its all-consuming needs and you are separated from the perpetually recycled concerns of an ordinary life – the fears, the obsessions, the battles with your own self – they have suddenly evaporated. You are left in one of those perfect moments of contemplation that lift your existence to some other plane, if that is the way to describe the defining moment that throws up the question of existence and holds within it all the spiritual imagination of human beings in all places and at all times. Is this moment, perhaps, what life is all about, this little point of perfect understanding between the natural scene before you and the you that contemplates it? Is everything else a mirage as the Buddhists would have it or is this the mirage that makes the other bearable? The moment holds the answer within it but, strangely, you can never remember that answer when the moment has passed. Not completely, anyway.
I try to walk this stretch as often as my crowded days will allow. I suppose I am, in some sense, pursuing that defining moment. I have acquired a thirst for it. Perhaps it is a greed that grows with every passing year and with the sense of my own mortality. Sometimes I am granted such a moment, sometimes I miss out. There are no guarantees, even if the setting is right and your mood seems receptive. On the day I first saw the walker my mind was too crowded with the detritus of days, and my eyes too affronted by a new outcrop of tightly packed houses where there had been, until recently, one rambling weatherboard place with a wire fence and an eccentric garden. I was disenchanted and bad-tempered and not prepared for a special moment or for the walker.
He materialised on the bend in the path where the revegetation program has been the most successful and the low shrubs and indigenous grasses have taken up their rightful places again, casting shifting shadows across the path so that it no longer seems as intrusive. He came out of those shadows, a tall man with a shock of silver hair. I was annoyed. I was used to having this stretch to myself, especially during the week at a time when children were at school and adults were at work or having their coffee in some cafe near the public beach.
We walked towards each other on the narrow path, knowing there was only room for one. One of us would have to step aside into the grasses between the shrubs so that the other might pass. I looked around searching for a spot where
I might step off the path without scratching my legs or crashing into a bush and appearing to be a complete fool. He did not look as if he would veer from the path. He looked as if he belonged on it, his long strides taking easy control of its distances, his silver hair another kind of seaside plant rippling in the wind.
He approached. I became defensive. Would stepping off the path now show a submission that I did not wish to show? Why did I have to be the one to step off the path anyway? After all, it was my path as much as it was his. Just because he was taller, just because of his hair, just because he was. And just then, he stepped off the path to let me pass. He stood in the grasses with a slight smile playing around his mouth and I hurried on, wondering if I should have said thanks but reassuring myself that it was, after all, my path as much as his.
After that, I came across the walker regularly. I would see him walking along at his particular pace that had its quiet determined rhythm and never seemed to change in response to some external urgency or a shift in the weather. At different points on the path we would pass each other. Sometimes, in the narrow stretches, we would repeat the same small ritual. I would approach and he would step sideways, standing silently against the silvery undergrowth and the glistening sea. It didn’t seem right to thank him. It was just something he did.
I had waded out from a small inlet where the beach came and went with the tide but where the black rocks remained above water so that the seabirds gathered on them to dry off their wings. I sat very still on one of the rocks and watched the sea. The birds were generally undisturbed by my presence. The seagulls gathered on a long sandbank, their silver white breasts caught in the afternoon light and the great pelicans came in, gliding in formation, skimming the water and settling on it in a perfectly formed arrowhead. The wading birds, I can never remember their names – egrets perhaps – balanced on their impossibly thin orange legs near the edge of the water and were as untouched by my intrusion in their wavering reflections as they were in their reality. Only the swans kept their elegant distance. They were just on the periphery of my vision partially merging into the dark reflections of the black rocks on the other side of the beach and then separating out in the brackish water near the old boat enclosure. Floating spots in the corner of my eye. I concentrated on the mesmerising pelicans. Larger than the other birds, stranger, belonging to some ancient time in which our species did not figure. And yet there was a familiarity about them and their presence was a quietening one. I sank into one of those moments.
“Pelicans have an extraordinary sense of symmetry,” he said. And I knew it was the walker. I turned to see that he was just behind me, his trousers rolled up and his feet in the water. A giant egret with tanned legs, not really orange but in the same spectrum of colour. He waded a few steps and sat down on a rock near enough to mine so that I could see him properly for the first time but far enough for the water and the breeze to separate us on our own rocks and in our own moments.
I looked at his reflection in the water. It was long and indistinct and it stretched between us like a bridge.
“I think it is their positioning in relation to each other that makes them so beautiful.” He had a nice voice. It hung in the air without disturbing it. I did not feel an obligation to reply. What he said was what I had been thinking, or so it seemed. I continued to watch the pelicans but I felt that I was watching them a little differently, now that there was another set of eyes on them. They had been on the water for a full minute, bobbing slightly on the wide ripples but keeping their formation.
“It’s like a trust,” I said, “they don’t even have to look at each other.” And I smiled to myself more than at him because I realised we were, both of us, also saying something else. It was a pleasant thought, easy to encompass because of our surroundings. Anywhere else and I might have kept it to myself. We sat there for a while, looking at the pelicans. The afternoon took hold of the sea. The blues took on purple. At the very edge of the water there was a show of silver. He left as quietly as he had come. I hardly noticed him go but the seagulls were alerted by his movement and took off from their sandbank, a great cloud of them spreading out above my head.
After that, we met regularly on our walks, but only for a few quiet moments. He would appear, we would exchange a few thoughts or perhaps the same thought and then he would walk away. I never thought of following him. It didn’t seem necessary.
One day I was standing on the observation platform that has been built above the salt marshes. This is the one point in my walks where I expect to see people. I catch them reading the information about plants that cleverly convert salt water into fresh, birds that visit at different times of the year from as far away as Siberia, fish and other creatures that complete their secret cycles of life under water, never comprehending what it is to walk on land. The local council has done a good job. The wooden walkway and the weathered platform are unobtrusive in the landscape. On this particular day, in the quiet of a late March afternoon, there was nobody around. For some reason, I felt a surge of disappointment. Perhaps I needed somebody else to be witness to the season’s turning. The breeze was cool, the sea was choppy and the clouds hung low over the grey-blue horizon. Summer was over. I shivered. And then I heard his footsteps. I did not turn around but for the first time, I was not entirely easy with his coming. I deliberately leaned over the wooden rail and looked into the pools of water below. I had to find a focus to still my mind. The pools reflected the grey clouds, their surfaces were rippled with all the shades of the sky and something else besides – their own green-blue translucency. Suddenly the sun appeared between the clouds and everything below the platform turned into diamonds. Every ripple shone and threw out a cutting light that hurt my eyes. I took in my breath. The walker was beside me, looking down too.
“It’s beautiful,” he said.
“Yes.” Together and, I think, also apart, we continued to watch the sun dancing on the water. I wanted to say something important or nothing at all but nonetheless words came out of my mouth, very slowly, it seemed to me. “We live in these moments,” I said. There were swans in the distance and the seagulls were somewhere, their cries scattered on the cold breeze that was beginning to work itself up to being a wind. I hadn’t seen a pelican all day and the egrets had taken off for a different world at least a week ago. He was silent for a while and then he said, very quietly,
“Perhaps we also die.”
I heard him walk away and I did not turn around. I wonder if I missed an important moment. I never saw him again. I continue to walk the path whenever I can. I suppose I am still looking for those extraordinary moments. Sometimes I find them. As has always been the case, they come when I least expect them to come -the soft splash as a pair of pelicans descend onto a stretch of water, the delicate feathers of a wading bird caught in a shaft of light, the horizon suddenly turning an impossible shade of turquoise. I come back again and again but I don’t know if I am looking for the walker any more.
About the Author:
Olga Pavlinova Olenich is an Australian writer whose work appears in local and international publications. Her prose and poems have been broadcast on national radio and have featured in national newspapers. Her memoirs have been included in the collection Best Australian Humorous Writing (Melbourne University Press, 2008) and The Best Travel Writing Volume 11. (Travelers’ Tales Series. Solis House Palo Alto, 2016) Her poetry is included in several anthologies including Australian Poetry Anthology 2006,2016 and Best Australian Poems (Black inc. 2015)