Rime of the Algae Gatherer
by Jessica Sequeira
In his Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge describes a ‘rotting sea’ full of ‘slimy things.’ What is a slimy thing? On a purely physical level, something ‘slimy’ is defined by its texture, its slipperiness. A moral element is also involved: to be slimy is to be dubious, to contain a suggestion of the primitive. Sliminess provokes a response in the observer: a distaste, an uneasiness.
Now onto the word ‘thing’. There is a vagueness in ‘thing’, but it is appropriate as a partner to ‘slimy’. Something about ‘slimy’ demands to be paired with an abstract noun, i.e. ‘slimy character’. ‘Slimy things’ acquire an added dimension of vagueness; as fear has its source in the unknown, an element of horror also looms. There are two reference to ‘slimy things’ in the poem, in Part II when Coleridge writes ‘Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / Upon the slimy sea’ and in Part IV when he writes ‘And a thousand thousand slimy things / Lived on; and so did I.’
Further down in the same passage, the mariner sees ‘water-snakes’. Are these the ‘slimy things’ to which he earlier refers, or are they other creatures entirely? ‘Slimy thing’ has the same syllable structure as ‘water-snakes’, and water-snakes arguably fall within the category of ‘slimy things’. But if they are the same, why doesn’t the mariner call the water-snakes ‘slimy things’, as he has been doing for some time? The hyphen provides new rigidity, structure, probity; the description of the creatures themselves also shifts, into a far more exuberant tone. The snakes are ‘blue, glossy green, and velvet black’; they are ‘happy living things’. A transformation in perception has taken place, toward love.
She put down her notes for a future essay. The man moving along the shore had caught her eye.
What does he want with that stuff? she asked. Is it food? Is it a game?
Cleaning the water I reckon, said the friend beside her.
A necklace of algae is slung round his neck like an Albatross. But of course it’s not an Albatross, it’s a slimy thing.
Variation on Coleridge, the friend noted.
Together they were silent, two devotees of English poetry on holiday.
It must be funny to feel so close to something that can’t talk. Hell, is it even alive?
Is what alive? asked the friend.
Algae, she said impatiently.
The friend shrugged.
I guess it’s alive since it’s a plant, but how do the cells go on living while they float through the current? she insisted. What do they eat? Are the bits that break off alive too? I mean really. If you work long enough with algae, do you think your skin starts to take on its texture? Do you start to become what you always touch? Do lovers feel they are becoming one with the other body?
Toss me the water bottle? the friend asked.
When you start thinking about something it never ends, she said. Algae’s a sort of hidden force in history, isn’t it? I wonder if its scientific name shows up in sailors’ logs. I wonder if algae contains memory in its cells? Do you think it experiences time a different in way?
Her friend was asleep.
She looked back at the man moving along the shore.
As he waded through the water, a great thread of brown algae dragged behind him. Both hands were necessary, one in front and one behind, to pull the thick material. Meanwhile, the great sea washed up wave after wave. But the deep blue did not distract; he saw it everyday and he had a job to do. The loose leaves just under the surface of the water were of no interest. He only wanted the big pieces with the thick stalks.
The algae was firm in his hands, heavier than you might expect when above water, lighter than expected when it floated below. Sometimes he thought of it as a serpent that needed to be guided to some land of utmost happiness. He wore pants rolled up to the knees and a T-shirt. A child trailed after him for a while in imitation, scooping up algae and pressing it against his little body, before his mother called him back.
People don’t want a dirty beach and there were a lot of possible beaches in that town; if there was too much algae they’d just move along. He did his job well. Even so the task was endless. The sea does not recognize territories. There was always more water, bringing more kelp, more bracken, more algae.
A machine went by at night, a more efficient version of himself, a bulldozer that grabbed the algae with its teeth, clenched it tight and bore it away in its enormous jaw. In the morning the plant mass was treated and sent it to Japan to be used as the black wrapping around sushi. Japan, now there was a place he didn’t know. Then again, the kiosk just down the road was just as far away, just as strange, as another country. Japan was an island like his little stretch of beach, and he felt that it was somewhere he’d be able to live just fine.
Morning to night he worked pulling out the algae. Not continuously of course; half the day he was at the kiosk. He sold sweets, packets of crisps, ice cream on sticks; drinks, DVDs, cigarettes; toys like plastic balls and pail-shovel sets. He rented out beach chairs too, and it pleased him to see people sprawled in the sun on the colored bits of tarp and metal he charged them to use, sand sticking to the lotion on their legs and belly starting to go brown, as they flopped over now and then on their towels, one hand stroking the handle of their bags, the umbrellas doing turns over their heads in the wind.
Property meant something in a town where everything moved: the water, the sand, the tourists, the vendors, the street dogs, the sea. Everything came and went. He was one of the few fixed points, and proud of it. The items in his kiosk, replaced every few days, changed too; but the place stayed put.
When he was at his kiosk he could see a ghostly second self pulling up the algae from the waves, and when he was heaving in the algae he could see his face in the kiosk watching. Although this piece of beach was a speck on earth, it was his. The great sandy middle was what counted, and he’d always protect it, but his heart lay on its two sides, kiosk and sea.
The great sandy middle, meanwhile, he had to share with vendors and dogs. The white sand loomed up like a fat man’s belly and the sellers of beads and cool drinks and junk food roamed over its surface like ants. Person to person, solicitous, they finalized their low-cost exchanges while he remained at his kiosk, anchored.
It was almost unfair, he thought, a trick on their part. He had his little house, his solid place, his hut that gave him a certain security, sure. But he also had to give a cut to city government, the price of sitting there unmolested. The vendors sold the same things for less and annoyed him with their hoarse cries that went on all day. No, he did not like those vendors.
The dogs he dealt with better. He felt closest to one stray that came back again and again to the same hollow without reason, marking its territory by the wall, laying claim to some nook just like he had. The German shepherd sat there watching with its dark eyes; sometimes it headed out on reconnaissance, never too far, or disappeared for a while, never too long.
Then there was the sea. It brought business but betrayed business, too. Tourists, his clientele, were drawn to the same waters that kept sending the vegetation his way which repelled tourists. He began to resent the God of this circularity who delivered algae to his beach everyday, creating meaningless work, taunting. Wouldn’t a benevolent divinity find some other way to manage things? Turn the tides toward some uninhabited place, or dissolve the algae before it came within a mile of shore?
He knew his were not the only interests, of course; even so, his kind of God would know how to deal with the situation more effectively. He was conscious, furthermore, that his work, visible to all, demonstrated a certain dedication that people found attractive, and that in itself floated part of the great tide of tourist activity toward him. Why couldn’t the ocean, or whoever was in charge of it, work with him?
Night came on and the algae floated to shore, clustering up against itself in the pursuit of shared thought, a collective intelligence. It spoke of the man who gathered it up, the bulldozer that lowered its jaws to take parts of it far away, the tourists on the beach who watched it, the sand that allowed it to lay its body down a stretch, and the gentle tide that called it back, sweeping it once more into the vast sea.
While the woman watched the gatherer of algae, her friend alongside dreamed. Water lapped against the algae over and over until it formed an island. For now it was small, but perhaps one day it would be large springy loam for an algae palace. If nature took too long, the island could be formed by artificial means. All you needed was to pile up kelp on some lonely part of shore.
Sculptors helped mold it, carving out rooms, tunneling in hallways, chiseling out staircases. The compliant material responded to the shovel at first then hardened into place. The palace did not sag when waves slapped against it. Those rocklike formations formed part of the tourist circuit. Many local residents objected to not being consulted beforehand, but accepted the fact and did not bother to lodge a complaint. There it was, the citadel, immutable. The shadow of the algae edifice fell over the town. Who would live in this castle? No one dared, not even she.
Strange new flora and fauna began to settle in. They made themselves at home in the glorious uninhabited towers. The prehistoric algae mass welcomed the primitive animals that grew on its surface. Both animals and algae were more determined than human dwellers; they came from a different time. Perhaps at the bottom of the sea, all this had happened before. Perhaps kingdoms already existed in which a red eye appeared now and then through the swaying gloom. Perhaps the reign of slimy things was here yesterday and will be morrow morn, happy and alive.