There it was on the globe, a dashed line of darker blue on the lighter blue Atlantic. Words in faint italic script: Tropic of Cancer. The adults told her to stop asking what it was, as if the dull reply they gave would satisfy: “A latitude, in this case twenty-three degrees.” She pictured daisy chains of seaweed stretching across the water toward a distant horizon. The globe depicted different shades of blue wrapping around the continents in concentric layers. How can there be geographical zones in the sea, which belong to no country? Divisions over a surface that is indifferent to rain, to borders, that can hold no object in place. The child had read about a woman from Guernsey who threw a bottle with a message inside into the ocean. It floated all the way to Africa and was tossed up on the beach at Dakar. The man who found it wrote to the woman from Guernsey. Upon receiving his letter, she invited him to dinner. The newspaper article didn’t say whether he was planning to attend. It seemed like an awfully long way to go.
The child selected the color black from a list of topics and wrote her paper, despite feeling that reducing Treasure Island to a list of recurring black was a degradation to the experience of reading the book, which was not about black, but perhaps how boys need fathers, and how sometimes children are more clever than adults and not prone to the same vices. The Jolly Roger was black, and there was Black Dog, who showed up mysteriously at the Admiral Benbow, demanding rum. There were black nights on the uninhabited Caribbean island, creeping around in shadows amidst yet more blackness: the black o f impending peril. Also, the “black spots” that pirates handed out— a sort of summons. A death sentence, really. “Who tipped me the black spot?” asked Silver. This ominous summons, a stain of wood ash on a leaf of paper. This leaf, torn from a Bible, which now had a hole cut into Revelation. And holes are black as well.
The lonely woman put her message in a green bottle. Other things float on the Atlantic, not just bottles. Jetsam, which is what sailors toss overboard to lighten their load. And flotsam, things caught and pushed out to sea, like coconuts. Which rolled up onto the shores of Guernsey in an era before anyone knew what lay to the West. Maybe coconuts still wash up, but they aren’t eerie and enchanting, now that you can buy one at the store. In that earlier time, people displayed them as talismans. Or cut them open. A strange white fluid poured out, greasy and noxious. Not poisonous, just spoiled from such a long and arduous journey, a fruit thousands of miles from its home under the green girandole of a royal palm .
To get from green to red is easy: they are twins. Thin membranes, like retinae, attached at their backing. There is a red grass native to Guernsey that produces green dye. By some mnemoptical trick a Nabokov character remembers cherry-red shutters as apple-green. Through the 15th century, the term sinople meant either red or green, depending. Now, picture red velvet drapes. Part them. Beyond is a room with perfect acoustics. In it, a gleaming black piano. You can see your face in its surface, like you’re leaning over a shallow pan of water. You sit down to play, something in a minor key: Chopin. A prelude for dinner parties with men from Dakar. The sea can be green, we understand. After his exile at Guernsey, where the green foam incessantly pounded the shore, letters reached the author addressed simply “Victor Hugo, Ocean.” There is the Red Sea. Also, the Black Sea. And whether it means red, or something else— perhaps “not mirror-like” or “very opaque”— the sea is wine-dark in the Odyssey. It can also be mirror-like. Or blue. Like an eye, it both reflects and refracts the sky at which it gazes.
Originally published in the Summer 2005 issue of Fence.