This Water: Five Tales
It is stated on the cover that this book is Beverley Farmer’s last. If that is the case, it brings to a close a prose writing career of sustained ecological sensibility.
All five of the stories/ novellas in the book are related to myths and legends and feature a female main character, ‘opposing an oppressive authority’ (as noted in the blurb). The natural world is intrinsic in each story, as is death and the ‘otherworld’. There is much resonance throughout by the use of motifs such as water, blood, stone and light. Eggs, seals and swans also feature, as does a gold ring and a red silk dress. The book is beautifully written – detailed and poetic - yet some of the tales are stronger than others.
The first novella, ‘A Ring of Gold', is set in the place where Farmer resides – Point Lonsdale at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, Victoria. It is a second and third person narrative about an elderly widow (in the last summer of her life) who spends much of her time at the beach. The novella is focused more on the natural world than on human characters, and respectfully so: ‘And so it is, the underwater, another world half-hidden in this one, a world of its own, and mirroring, matching, where one twitch of waterskin is enough to send hills and valleys warping to the horizon' (23).
In the narrative, this last summer is a very hot one: 'no one can remember a hotter one' (39), alerting the reader to the topic of climate change. ‘It is a long time since the last rainbow or fall of rain here, where time and the weather are coming to a standstill' (24).
The woman feels very connected to the ocean and often is in it, in her dreams and daydreams. ‘A heat wave floats you off into another life, swollen with lightness, diaphanous, a water being’ (41). Words and phrases such as ‘tide’, ‘shallows’, ‘living on the surface’ and ‘backwashes and rips’ about non-marine events re-occur in the story.
Woven throughout the novella are references to seals and silkies (in particular the Scottish myth of The Grand Silkie). Near the beginning of the narrative a bull seal appears on the sand. The seal, then, with, ‘a throat stretched wide, a ring of golden bone’ (6), twists back into the sea. The woman stands in shock: 'Before her eyes is the salmon-red gullet of the seal bared in a mute, a mutual scream of mutual recognition’ (7). Later, in a seeming reference to environmental destruction: ‘More and more ... she feels the presence of a swimming self who has hovered, open-armed like a bird over this sand, these rocks, time and time again and will again, its shadow in green shreds drifting over the dry sea floor’ (19).
The woman spends much time meditating on her past life. She reminisces about when her mother told her that puberty is the ‘same for all us mammals’ (13), and when she discovered that, ‘she was sprouting hair down there, dark fur. What on earth was she turning into, now?’ (15). In reference to a book on barnacles from childhood, she notes that intertidal periwinkles climb into shells after barnacles have died, ‘responding in the flesh to the memory of the tidal rhythms of that original place. How can a living thing in a blue crumb of a shell no bigger than the pupil of an eye have a knowledge of the sea so vast that it outweighs absence? ' (30).
In the novella, the connectedness between all living things, the cyclic nature of life and a blurring between life and death are all distinct ideas. A reference to Venice comes with the statement: ‘the way the world is going ... there will only be this one blue abolished world, a silence ... dead and swarming with life. Newborn’ (57).
The next entry in the book, ‘This Water,’ gives the collection its title. ‘This Water’ is based on Dairmuid and Graienne, the Irish myth dating back to the 10th century about a triangle of lovers. The main character is a beautiful daughter of a high king who runs away with her love when she has been betrothed to a much older man. The young lovers live off the land, using magical rowanberries to survive.
Water as the essence of life is a theme of the story. The main character states that her lover died because of a lack of water. And, in later life, she says, ‘Sometimes when I close my eyes ... two cupped hands appear before me and water springs up in them and they are holding out this water. But when I bow my head ... at the touch of my lips. The water of life is gone’ (80). A fascinating scene refers to the first lover of the woman being revealed as water, not the man she has run away with: 'an icy splash surging up over my thighs and deep inside them’ (77). 'The marvel of this water! said I. How came it to be bolder and go further than the bravest of men has dared to go?’ (78).
This work in its content and style is a contrast to the first story. Written in the first person and narrative heavy, this story is the slightest entry in the collection, perhaps because a lack of direct speech has a distancing effect on the reader.
‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’, another novella, is the next tale in the collection. This novella, told by an all-knowing narrator, is a very touching and engaging one. There is quite an amount of dialogue in the text which may account for this reader feeling more for the characters than those in ‘This Water’. Set in an earlier period of Irish history than ‘This Water’, it refers to the myth, the Children of Lir. It is about four siblings who are changed into swans by a vengeful stepmother, and their relationship with a monk.
The wanderings of the swans in a variety of habitats / environs are described. ‘This water has a long memory’ refers to the lake where the swans had their transformation and: 'In some lights the unearthly green of this water reminds them of the green afterlife' (132). As the 900 years of their swanly life goes by, the
world is changing ... More fields of yellow and brown cloth have taken over the forest ... A seal tangled in kelp turns out to be ... a man, sleek and smooth, and a line of mourners file down to take him up and bring him home. The swans have never seen such people before. Is this what lies ahead when the spell ends? So be it, they say. (121-22)
The monk and the swans are very close (the changeling children in their swanly skins still speak and sing as humans). However, when the monk steals eggs at the start of one spring, ‘he hears the swans sorrowing overhead and his blood chills with understanding' (131). In a conversation with the eldest swan (a female) the monk says, ‘What lives in no matter what body is the soul’ (132). The placing of the monk in the story allows for a comparison of Christianity and a pagan world view. 'The universe is his handiwork’, says the monk and he refers to the swans as ‘apostles or angels’ (136).
‘Tongue of Blood’, based on a story from Greek mythology, is about Clytemnestra mourning the loss of her daughter by decree of her husband, the king Agamemnon, so that he could go to war in Troy. Clytemnestra has then taken the king’s life in revenge and is now dead, a shade in The Underworld, with no strength or purpose. The background to this tale – in a direct connection to ‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’ – is that Clytemnestra’s mother was Leda. Leda had four children – two girls and two boys – hatched from eggs, after Zeus (the God of Gods) in the form of a swan swooped and entered her, the same night as she was with her husband, Tyndareus.
The interweaving of grief with concepts to do with blood, water and stone is pervasive in the story. As well as The Earth, blood and stone are all written of as essences of life. ‘I avenged her whose blood cried out of the earth', says Clytemnestra. ‘If blood spills and sinks out of sight, it cries out for justice and the soles of the feet of all the living carry the stain over the earth' (176).
Prose, poetry and prose poetry are all employed in ‘Tongue of Blood.’ Therefore, the story has a looser, broader feel than the other narratives in the collection – for example, conventional punctuation is sometimes dispensed with. The writing is powerful but loses some of its power because of the amount of detail employed.
The last part of the collection, a novella entitled, ‘The Ice Bride’, has more of a narrative arc than ‘Tongue of Blood’. This novella, written in the third person, resembles the myth of Pygmalion. The gradual awakening of the wife of the Master of Snow and Ice to objects and concepts of the world outside her palace is engrossing and skilfully done. There is suspense and movement in the plot and the writing to do with water, stone, light and time is very beautiful, although some of the dialogue is not pithy enough and some detail could have been dispensed with.
The interconnectedness of matter is again emphasised in this narrative. ‘She waits, swaddled now in silk, now water, silken of skin, as she is and barely conscious of a distinction, silk, water, skin, it is all one’ (211). The Fool, a late appearing character, says to the woman, ‘Undo one such small matter as the behaviour of water and ... the rule is that you may undo the universe' (262).
Overall, in this book, there are clear references to humans’ interrelatedness and responsibilities to the natural world. Farmer is also an expert at rhythm, the use of metaphor and simile and of detail. However, less detail would have delivered more punchiness in a few of the tales.
Beverley Farmer, This Water: Five Tales. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo 2017. ISBN:9781925336313