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The Sea, Yet Not the Sea
[8 mins reading time]

Koan: Kai Mu Kai [Sea-Not-Sea]

This was the sea, yet not the normal sea.

The sky was overrun by racing cloud. The tired land teemed with water. Ice turned to air, ice to sea. Old glaciers were gone from this and all the worlds they ever knew.

It was once thought, this coast would never be lost. Not soon, not ever.

And anyway, what was there, a sandstone cliff, the wash of coloured chalk, a rubbish tip eroding bones, caravans in ranks coming closer to the cliff top, a church tower slipping downward to the beach. The bells still ring from underwater, they say.

For there are sea ghosts, if you care to listen, crushed by mudstone, at abandoned mill, at tinker’s cottage the roof all gone to sky, sailors fallen from a ship, fishers clipped by boom and frozen to a mast by spray.

Death was not a disappearance, it was a shift into the vastness of the sea.

In those days, the good sea gods, Ægir and Ran, old Poseidon himself, they brought gale and rime-encrusted dawn. Yet they came to hear, the river gods being such terrible gossips, their trolls hiding in the arches under bridges, they came to feel the fossil fires, see that fish and whales had also gone from all the seas.

Not far from the eastern coast of cliffs, there is a bay called Botany, where convict hulks were stationed, right by the Canvey Isle now hemmed by concrete river walls. There were six hundred men on board by night, hungry ones who stole perhaps a loaf, out on chain gangs by the daily dawn. This was not so long ago, when the country’s poor laws sent a tenth of the adult people to the workhouse, they worked till early death could set them free.

There was once a time, long before, when these cliffs and shores and isles looked out upon a land.

In those distant days, Dogger was a wide dry plain.

On hunting hill and grassy plain, the Sky People of Doggerland camped at salty-marsh and wide lagoon, by a million whistling waders. At the still point, a lovely ash propped up the sky, and a serpent circled all the brine, the guard of all their ground.

They were stalkers, chasers of the horse, the hackneys and their mares, the broad-browed aurochs and great bison herds. Harried by their hounds were giant elk and reindeer. One day they learned of creeping shift, icebergs severed free. Those waves they begged to wait would bring a great betrayal.

For the seas were rising up, they sensed a warp of salt and sand.

Every place to them, was protected by a spirit guard. Each spring and cave a link between the in and outer worlds. They daily paused to pay respects and place an offering, where lancing from a cloud, light rays shone on grass so lush. It might rain for days, the dry gulch flooded. In a drought, they called on clouds and stamped the rain-dance song, till there came the rose of dawn. Their tents of skins were warm, though soon enough grey hair came to all.

Now waves were rising, the height of you or me in half a hundred years, so in and up they carried camps, where elders warbled lovely lullabies, and watched the rising waves, the currents lapping at their gate.

They were not alarmed, just now shifted often. Those People had always trekked, but routes now grew shorter. The world was shrinking, so they stirred in ochre with the water from a sacred spring. And in a holy cave high upon a scarp, each tribal member held one palm upon the sacred rock. They blew a fine red dust. They wanted each to have the spirit, of an evening summer cloud.

The air was life, the wealth of sun and rain. Yet as the gannets screamed, a storm was coming to their home.

Gulls seethed about the shore, sooty petrel plunged, cold-cried the cormorant, they knew it was another sign. They could not tame this tempest, all their shamans tried. Had they eaten fish forbidden, had a snake whispered in the grass, no one could recall.

It seemed they had been fastened, inside a frightful spell. And one sharp dawn came a shocking sight. The sun-star rose from water, at dusk it slipped into the western waves.

The plain and steppe of Doggerland had sunk before their very eyes. Each dark hide of land and fire pit, each vale and fell had been seized by the rising flood, the swell of sea had beaten down defence.

This was the sea, yet not the normal sea.

At that time, no one really knew, would the rising waters ever stop.

They launched their boats, lashed and loaded auroch-skin, and flexed the oars. Among the furs and flutes were sobbing infants, fastened tight to strakes of birch. At last ahead appeared a strip of land, they saw a hall upon the cliff. The brine now bore them on, toward a beach where figures stood in shadows under sighing pines, the squadron now drew near.

The Forest People watched this ragged fleet approach. They drew ash bows, for this had been a year of shore attacks and sorrow, so took the strain. Herne the Hunter called his men to arms, “Aweigh the anchors, sail around the flanks.”

Yet the Queen of Woods, her name was Erce of the earth, she was renowned, her long sight was the best in tribe. She now called, “There are babies in those boats, I see no shields arrayed. We should pause and help, these people come ashore.”

After countless battles, Herne the fabled hunter now could see these folk were people fleeing demons. A tall woman stepped ashore, from the leading vessel, others staggered at the land, hands pulled the boats through breakers. An infant fell and Erce shouted to the rescue party, “Watch those children,” one was face down in the wash.

The boat people scattered over sand and dunes, they gazed up at mottled sky, muttered thanks to gods of solid land, and drank from skins of water that the forest people proffered,

And the dark-skinned woman, her one eye crimped, stood tall before her people, bowed to king and queen, thanked them for their kindness. She said quietly, “We have come far, our homes have drowned.” And the queen motioned, “Lay your goods on the polished floor, you are safe to rest with us.”

This was how the flooded people came to voice their story, of their race from home, how their soul birds fast flew ahead.

Yet the sea god had more to say. This was the sea, after all, and not the normal sea.

The assembled crowd stood on the cliff the next morning, saw the tide retreat.

It did not stop. The sea disclosed an old land and rotted homes, a dry steppe east toward the rising sun. The leader of the prairie people, she unwrapped a beaver skin, revealed ancestral bones and ribs of people, let them breathe again. There came cries from children of the forest people, some were on the beach. A distant surf appeared, a grumble from the far horizon.

And now the tidal bore advanced, pouring over sandy flats.

Before the wave was a billowed cloud of dust. Matter floated in the air, the crowd stood and pointed. They could hear a roar, as the ocean ran at land. Young men rushed down paths, grabbed up the children, and all were scrambling up the sandstone cliff. None had heard such sound, never seen such a wall of angry water. The breaker raced ahead, soon would drown the infants buried in their tiny graves.

The water tore at amber trees, ripped roots from ground. At the base of the cliff, the lower hall was struck yet stood. They could smell the brine, the churning mud. Then all fell silent, now the middle land was shallow sea.

Doggerland was bank and swale, where once the horse had run. Sighed the oaken-king, “Light the fire pits, bring food and vintage mead.” He called on their leader, “We hope plain words, will help us apprehend this mess.”

She soon would fill their sinews, with every kind of sorrow.

Silence followed when her tale was near complete. Gripped by the spell of words, the forest people then applauded, tapping hilts of knives on hollow blocks of wood.

At last Herne stretched his tendons and said, “True wealth is not the gold abandoned, in our graves and in the ground, it is our sons and daughters. It is the land secure and safe beneath our feet.”

But then he stepped up and said, “So why did the sea rise, and will it ever stop?”

From the camp was silence, not a fly was buzzing. A cuckoo called three times, and settled on a nearby branch.

There was a blue flash of bird, a halcyon kingfisher flew towards the sea.

So now the people smiled, for they knew the sea would surely never rise again like this.

Jules Pretty

[Kai Mu Kai]

[Source: The Drowning of Doggerland, in Sea Sagas of the North (2022)

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