Poem-15 (7.1)


Teesta Review: A Journal of Poetry, Volume 7, Number 1. May 2024. ISSN: 2581-7094


Tomorrow Never Knows (A prose poem)

--- Tim Tomlinson


Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void…

--The Beatles



We anchored over a place known locally as The Void, a bowl-shaped depression in the center of a lush green field of turtle grass. The grass beds occupied a more or less flat plateau of seabed around thirty feet below the surface. The Void dropped down to sixty. It was bone white granular sand in which nothing grew. From our decks, we could watch the shadow of the anchor line point across the bowl the way an hour hand drifts over a watch face. If we leaned over the gunwales, there our shadows would be, looking up from sixty feet below, defined as charcoal sketches, featureless gray shapes like the face on the Shroud of Turin. Sometimes I looked so long at my shadow, it felt like it was staring back at me.

Locals tended to steer well clear of The Void. They had superstitions I couldn’t quite figure out. Some said it spun like a whirlpool and sucked you down under. Others said a multi-armed monster, something like a squid, lurked just under the nadir. Sometimes a fisherman would shout from his boat, always a good distance away, warning us of the danger we were in. Sometimes you’d run into a local at the commissary, or over at Eva’s Dry Goods and Picaroon Restaurant, and they’d back away as if somehow you were bad luck. To us, it just made sense to anchor in The Void. There was nothing there, no corals to damage.

          Every three weeks I was left alone while the others went back Stateside for supplies. I volunteered for the solo duty. No one else wanted it, said they’d go crazy from the isolation. But I’d read somewhere that the most strongly enforced taboo is the taboo against knowing who you really are, and you can’t get to know who you really are with other people around. Other people didn’t mean to, but they prevented you from discovering your true self. So yes, those were lonely times, but they were meditative times, and I loved them. Me, the stars above, The Void below, and not a human voice except now and then when I’d sing songs by Dionne Warwick. “Valley of the Dolls” was a favorite.

          Most mornings I’d get up at sunrise, boil some water and drink instant coffee on the foredeck while the sea birds streamed off into hot bright endless days of eating and avoiding getting eaten. The boat sat in the path of one of the bird lines, and sometimes the gulls and pelicans threw shadows into The Void, too. It looked like an Escher down there, as if the bird shadows rose from The Void out of our shadows, and it made me think of that great line of Beatles, “the deeper you go, the higher you fly.” I’d toss the bitter dregs of my awful coffee into the water, watch the brown cloud of it dissipate like ink from an octopus, then I’d get to work.

          If you know anything about boats, you know there’s never a moment when there’s no work. It all adds up to a simple understanding: the one thing that you neglect to do, that’s the thing that’ll kill you. Everything might appear flat and calm and shipshape like the lake in a rich man’s backyard. But the sea is deceiving. You love it, but you don’t trust it. You’ve got to stay a move or two ahead of it, when you know all along that the sea never loses.

          My work involved deck maintenance, engine maintenance, hull maintenance. I was a maintenance man. A guy with a greasy rag and a screwdriver in my back pocket inspecting the deck for some rust to chip and wire brush, or some barnacle growth to scrape off the boat’s flat bottom. I liked scraping barnacles more than chipping rust because for hull scraping I’d get to scuba. Toss on a tank, back-roll into clear water, and hover weightlessly beneath the great hulk of our vessel while shoving the flat blade of a scraper along the hull’s bottom, digging through inch-thick encrustations of barnacles and algae and sea flotsam, watching the detritus drift down into The Void, something that always attracted fish from the nearby fringing reef. Then The Void became an aquarium. Blue tangs and yellow grunts and mangrove snappers nipping away at the falling debris, following it down to the sandy bottom, giving what-all a shake and swallowing solid sharp-edged utterly non-nutritious stuff that I imagined must wreak havoc on their assholes on the way out.

          One day, around lunch, I was scraping away and getting hungry. The usual fish activity was going on, but this time I noticed a shadow in The Void larger than any I’d seen before. I dropped down the water column to get a look, make an identification. It was a Nassau grouper the size of a bass drum. I wasn’t big into hunting, but I wasn’t big into eating canned beans every day either. I went up top, grabbed my spear gun, and dropped back down.

          Generally fish are wary creatures. But they’re also curious and opportunist. If they think you don’t pose a threat, and you’re doing something that might stir up an opportunity to eat, they’ll come right in and take a chance. With my spear tip I pried an omelet-sized hunk of algae-encrusted barnacles off the hull and dropped down into The Void. Tangs and grunts swirled in cautious circles around me. The grouper hovered right off my shoulder. I set the omelet just at the conical point of The Void and put my face right up against it like a dog licking a bowl. That got the fish even more curious, and the grouper was the big fish. He came right down alongside my face and I backed off as if frightened, as though I was making space for the big dog. He got to nosing that omelet, nipping at its edges, and I rose softly in the water column, my spear pointed right at the spot where his dorsal spine met the brain.

          You ever wrap a knuckle against the side of an aquarium? Every fish in the soup responds at exactly the same moment, that reflexive flinch. Well, I pulled the trigger and, in a blink, all the tangs and grunts and snappers disappeared, right up over the edge of The Void and back out over the turtle grass. It was like they were never there, and now it was just me and this enormous grouper, who kept spinning in circles like a marlin on a hook with a force that that felt like it could tear my shoulder from the socket. Up he went. Down. Out. Back. He spun me like a top. And his blood, which looked green, started spelling out weird messages in the clear blue water. I remembered times on LSD, when front lawns turned into alphabets and started marching down driveways, forming clusters that resembled words that broke apart as soon as you tried to read them. That’s what this grouper’s green blood was like. Words, phrases, even sentences, but in language I couldn’t read, language that disappeared like smoke in a breeze, and all that was left was the violence at the end of my spear.

          And that’s when the shark appeared. A thick-trunked tiger the length of a pick-up truck. It seemed like she understood the message of that green ink, because in an instant that grouper disappeared down her gullet, and my spear line went slack. She struck me as the kind of creature that didn’t lose many arguments, or miss many opportunities. And that got me to thinking: how was I going to get back to the surface and not become one of them, in this place known locally as The Void?



Tim Tomlinson’s books include Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire (poetry), and This Is Not Happening to You (fiction). Listening to Fish: meditations from the wet world, launches at the Himalayan Literature Festival in Kathmandu, May 2024. Recent work appears in The Bombay Literary Magazine, Live Encounters, and Best Asian Short Stories 2023. Tim is the director of New York Writers Workshop. He teaches in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies.