From the Vault: “A Child of the High Seas” by Jules Supervielle
From the Vault: “A Child of the High Seas” by Jules Supervielle
Of the 1500 or so books that New Directions has published since 1936, around 1200 are in print. The ND library contains every single edition published. A dark, dusty room, the library holds first editions, Alvin Lustig covers singed by James Laughlin’s cigar, forgotten anthologies, stern handwritten warnings, and an unwrapped present without a card. (I peeked inside—it contains typewriter ribbon.)
The room is locked and the door is always closed. Great works of literature line the shelves gathering dust. This post is the first in a series, wherein we will break into the vault—and publish a story, poem, or essay—in order to share the treasure with you.
“A Child of the High Seas” by Jules Supervielle was published in Orpheus: A Symposium of the Arts (Volume 1) edited by John Lehmann in 1948. Orpheus is described as ideal, “for anyone who wishes to know what is going on in Arts and Letters in England and Western Europe.” The final line of the jacket copy reads: “From now on New Writing and Daylight will not be published. Orpheus, more rich and diversified in content, takes its place.”
Only two volumes were published.
A Child of the High Seas
How was it made this floating street? What sailors, with the aid of what architects, had built it on the high Atlantic ocean, on the very surface of the sea, above a gulf of some six thousand meters? This long string of red brick houses, so discolored now that they had taken on a shade of French grey, these roofs of slate and tile, these humble, immutable shops? And this spire with its lacy stonework? And here a little patch containing nothing but sea-water, though evidently it was intended for a garden, enclosed as it was by walls topped by bits of broken bottle, over which occasionally a fish leapt?
How did all these things manage to keep upright, without ever being washed away by the waves?
And this lonely, twelve-year-old child, who went in clogs and with a firm step along the watery street, as though she were treading the earth’s hard surface? How did this all come about?
All these things I will explain to you in good time insofar as I myself understand them. And if, when all is said, some things still remain, they will do so in spite of me.
Whenever a ship approached, even before it was perceptible on the horizon, the child was seized with a great sleepiness and the village disappeared completely beneath the waves. So no sailor, not even from the end of a telescope, had ever set eyes on the village, nor even suspected its existence.
The child thought she as the only little girl in the world. But did she really know that she was a little girl?
She wasn’t a very pretty child, because of her teeth that were rather uneven and her nose a little too turned-up, but she had a very white skin with a few gentle freckles on it. And her small person, dominated by two gray eyes, rather shy but extremely luminous, sent through you, from your body right up to your soul, a sense of great wonderment, a wonderment old and deep as time itself.
In the street, the only one of this little village, the child sometimes looked to left or to right of her, as though expecting a light wave of the hand or a nod of the head, some friendly sign of recognition. It was simply an impression she gave, without knowing it, for nothing and no-one could ever come to this lost village, always ready to swoon away beneath the waves.
What did she live on? From what she caught fishing, you may think? No, I don’t think that was what she lived on. She found food in the cupboard of the kitchen safe, even found meat there, every two or three days. There were also potatoes, a few other vegetables, and occasionally an egg.
In the cupboards the food was constantly renewed. And though she took jam from the pot, the jam remained at the same level, as though things had one day been like that and must remain so evermore.
Every morning, at the baker’s, half a pound of new bread, wrapped up in paper, awaited the child, on the marble counter behind which she had never seen any person, not even the hand nor finger of one, pushing the bread towards her.
She got up early and raised the metal drop-shutters of the shops (here you could read Public Bar and there Blacksmith, Modern Bakery or Draper). She opened the shutters of all the houses, fastening them back carefully because of the strong seawind, and she left the windows open or closed according to the weather. In some of the kitchens she lit a fire, so that smoke arose above two or three of the roofs.
An hour before going to bed she began to close the shutters as though it were the most natural thing in the world, and she lowered the shop-shutters of corrugated iron.
The child carried out these tasks as though moved by some instinct, some daily inspiration that forced her to watch over everything. In fine weather she left a carpet hanging from an open window, or a piece of washing to dry, as though it were necessary at all costs for the village to preserve an inhabited air, to appear as life-like as possible.
And all the year round she had to take care of the flag on top of the little mairie, for it was much exposed to all the weathers.
At night she lit the candles or sewed by the light of a lamp. Electricity had been installed in several of the houses, and the child switched on the lights gracefully and naturally. Once she put a crêpe bow on the doorknocker of one of the houses. She found that very nice. And it remained there for two or three days. Then she hid it.
Another time she found herself beginning to beat on the drum, the big drum of the village, as though to announce some piece of news. And she had a violent desire to cry out something that might be heard in every corner of the ocean, but her throat closed up and no sound came. She made such a desperate effort that her face and neck became almost black, like the face and neck of a drowned person. Then she had to put back the drum in its accustomed place, in the left-hand corner at the bottom end of the big room of the mairie.
The child mounted the steeple by a spiral staircase, its steps worn away by thousands of feet she had never seen. The steeple, which the child thought must have at least five thousand steps (there were really ninety-two) let in large slices of sky through its yellow, widely-spaced brickwork. And arriving at the top, she had to readjust the clock weights and wind up the clock with a crank, so that it would strike the hours truly, by day and by night.
The crypt, the altars, the stone saints giving their silent orders, all the chairs in good straight rows, and scarcely making a rustle, stood awaiting people of all ages; these alters where the gold had tarnished, would go on tarnishing through the ages; all these things both attracted and repelled the child, and she never entered the tall house, contenting herself in her hours of leisure by half-opening the padded door and snatching a brief glimpse of the interior, holding her breath as she did so.
In a trunk in her room were family papers; there were picture postcards from Dakar, from Rio de Janeiro and Hong-Kong; and they were signed Charles or C. Lievens and addressed to Steenvoorde (North). The child of the high seas knew nothing of this Charles and this Steenvoorde.
She had also, in a cupboard, a photograph album. One of the photographs showed a child that very much resembled the sea-child, and she often contemplated it with humility. It always seemed to her that the child in the photograph was the true, the right person; she was holding a hoop. The child had searched in all the houses of the village to find one like it. And one day she thought she had succeeded. It was the iron hoop of a barrel; but as soon as she began to bowl it along the sea-street, the hoop rolled wide and disappeared into the ocean.
In one photograph the little girl was standing between a man dressed as a sailor and a bony woman in her Sunday-best. The child of the sea, who had never seen man or woman, had long asked herself what these people meant, had even puzzled over this question in the depths of the night, when lucidity sometimes comes in a single flash, with the force of a lightning stroke.
Every morning, she went to the village school, with a great cardboard folder under her arm, in which she kept her exercise books, a grammar, an arithmetic, a history of France and a geography book.
She also possessed, edited by Gaston Bonnier, member of the Institute, Professor at the Sorbonne, and by Georges de Layens, laureate of the Academy of Sciences, a little herbal containing the most common plants, including both useful and harmful varieties; and the book was illustrated by eight hundred and ninety-eight drawings.
She read in its preface: ‘During summer, nothing is easier than to procure in large quantities the plants of field and wood.’
And the history, the geography, the countries, the great men, the mountains, the rivers and the boundaries, how explain them to someone who knows nothing more than the empty street of a little village in the most solitary spot on all the wide ocean? But the sea itself, the sea which she saw marked on all the maps, did she even know she lived on it? She had once thought it possible, one day, just for one second. Then she had chased away the notion as dangerous and unwise.
At times, and with complete submission, she listened, then wrote a few words, listened again, then began writing once more, as though under dictation from an invisible schoolmistress. Then the child opened her grammar, and for a long time, her breath held, she bent over page 60, exercise CLXVIII, for this was the exercise she loved above all others. Here the grammar seemed to speak directly to the child of the high seas:
—are you? —are you thinking? —are you speaking? —do you want? —must I appeal? —is it happening? —are they accusing? —are you capable? —are you guilty? —is it about? —are you keeping this present? Come, —are you complaining?
(Replace the dashes by suitable interrogative pronouns, with or without the preposition.)
Sometimes the child felt an insistent desire to write down certain sentences. And she did so with great concentration. Here are a few of the sentences she wrote, chosen from a great many:
Let us share this, shall we?
Listen carefully! Sit down, don’t move, I beg you.
If only I had a little snow from the high mountains, the day would pass more quickly.
Foam, foam that surrounds me, will you not one day become something hard and firm?
To sing rounds, at least three people are needed.
There were two headless shadows walking along a dusty road.
Night, day; day, night; clouds and flying fish.
I thought I heard a noise, but it was only the noise of the sea.
At other times she wrote a letter, giving news of the little village and of herself. It was written to no-one, and when she ended it she sent her love to no person, and on the envelope there was no name.
And the letter finished, she threw it into the sea—not to get rid of it but because that was what she had to do with it—like those shipwrecked mariners, maybe, who leave in some desperate bottle their last message to the waves.
Time did not pass in the floating village. The child was always twelve years old. And it was in vain she stretched her small body in front of the wardrobe mirror in her bedroom. One day, tired of resembling the photograph in her album, with its wide forehead and plaits, she became vexed with herself and her portrait and spread her hair wildly about her shoulders, hoping that her age might thereby be violently and immediately changed. Or maybe the seas that surrounded her would bring some kind of transformation and she would see come out of them large goats with foaming beards, who would come near to her out of curiosity.
But the sea remained empty and the only visits she received were those of the shooting stars.
And then, one day, it was as though at last there was a change of destiny, a little crack in its firm purpose. A real, live cargo-boat, headstrong as a bull-dog and riding easily over the sea, even though lightly loaded (a lovely red band painted below her water-line gleamed in the sunlight)—a real, live cargo-boat passed along the sea-street of the village, and this time the village did not disappear nor was the young girl overcome by sleep.
It was exactly mid-day. The cargo-boat blew its siren, but the call of the siren did not mingle with the notes which struck from the steeple. Each sound preserved its independence.
The child, aware for the first time of a noise from the world of men, rushed to the window and cried out with all her might:
and she threw her little black school pinafore in the direction of the boat.
The man at the helm did not even turn his head. And a sailor, with smoke coming out of his mouth, passed over the bridge as though nothing had happened. Others continued to do their washing, while on either side of the prow dolphins turned aside to make way for the cargo-boat which seemed to be in a hurry.
The little girl descended quickly into the street, lay down in the wake of the boat and embraced its tracks for such a long time that when she got up nothing was left but a stretch of immemorial and virgin sea. On going back to the house the child was amazed that she had cried ‘Help!’ She knew nothing at all of the word, only its very deepest meaning. And this meaning frightened her. Did the men not hear her voice? Were they blind and deaf, these sailors? Or were they more cruel than the depths of the sea?
Then a wave came to find her. This wave was extremely independent and had hitherto kept a distance from the village. It was a large wave and could spread out on either side much further than any other. In its crest it carried two seeming eyes of foam. It was as though it could see and understand certain things, without always approving. Although it formed and broke many hundred times a day, it never forgot to furnish itself afresh with these two eyes, always set in exactly the same position and very life-like. Sometimes, when the wave’s attention was taken by something interesting, it might be found resting for a whole minute together, its crest in the air, its function of wave that made it necessary to break and remake every seven seconds completely forgotten.
For a long time this wave had wanted to do something for the child, without exactly knowing what. The wave saw the cargo-boat sail off into the distance and understood very well the agony of the one who was left behind. Keeping aloof no longer, it drew the child a little way off, without any word being spoken, and as though leading her by the hand.
After kneeling in front of the child, in the manner of waves, and with the very greatest reverence, it rolled the child in its depths, pressed her there for one long moment, seeking, with the help of death, to snatch the child from her unhappiness. And to help the wave in this grave task, the child stopped breathing.
But the end did not come; so the wave threw the child high in the air, tossed her easily, as though she were no bigger than a sea-swallow, caught and recaught her like a ball, till she fell back at last among foam flakes big as the eggs of an ostrich.
At last, seeing that nothing could come of all this, that it could not succeed in bringing death to the child, the wave, in an immense murmur of tears and apologies, carried her back home.
And the little girl, who had suffered not a single scratch from this ordeal, began once more, without hope, to open and shut the shutters, and to disappear momentarily into the sea, as soon as the mast of a ship began to point towards the horizon.
Sailors who dream on the high seas, your elbows leaning on the taffrail, beware of thinking too long, in the darkness and the night, of a beloved face. You might risk giving birth, in these places so essentially desolate, to a being that though endowed with human sensibility, cannot live or die or love, yet suffers as though living and loving and always on the point of death; a being most infinitely disinherited among those watery solitudes, like that child of the high seas conceived one day in the mind of Charles Lievens of Steenvoorde, a deckhand aboard the four-master Le Hardi, who having lost his twelve-year-old daughter during one of his voyages, had, one night, at a latitude of fifty-five degrees north and a longitude of thirty-five degrees west, thought of her for a long time and with terrible intensity, to the great unhappiness of that child.