Resolutions and Recorrelations: On Becoming an Ex-Suicide

“The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work, at eight o’clock on an ordinary morning:
The non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest.
The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.”

-Walker Percy, “Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book”

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The Great Affair of Moving: A Fantasy Train-Travel Itinerary, inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson

British author Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote: “I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”

Agreed. Movement is major, no matter how you accomplish it. And, lately, I’ve felt strangely compelled to do a bit more of my moving by rail. Not by air. Not by highway. Not by feet. Give me, instead, two simple, snaking parallel tracks of steel, wood and creosote, and an ample-bosomed parade of linked cars to shepherd me willy-nilly across its shiny, tempered back, ever onward toward the disappeared horizon.

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Tough Truth for Writers #1: You are not Don Quixote

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

I am currently finishing up the first draft of my first-ever e-book! The backstory: three years ago, against the advice of many, I left a budding career in journalism to build my own freelance copywriting and editing business, and since then, I’ve fielded a regular stream of emails from and about people searching for a way to make writing pay.

Most of the emails go something like this:

“Hi, Erin! My brother/friend/co-worker needs some help. He’s always been a great writer. His teachers told him so. We tell him so. But he’s lost. He hated his last job and now he’s unemployed. Do you have any advice for him?”

Yes. Yes, I do. And I am currently in the process of fashioning what I’ve learned into a short guide for newbie writers. The first hit is free! And I’d love to know what you think.

Tough Truth for Writers #1: You are not Don Quixote.

Matter of fact, neither am I. And neither is that guy in your writing group who just scored his first book deal, or your sister’s friend who made a zillion dollars off ads on her Quirky Mommy Blog. I’m not trying to be harsh. In fact, I don’t even blame you, Dear Writer, for hoping that maybe we were Don Quixote. (It would certainly explain our rumpled clothes and the wheezing chariots we drive ourselves around town in.) After all, every culture since the dawn of the alphabet has romanticized Itinerant Dreamy Creative Types.

Every good movie has one, and so does every interesting family or group of friends, and we love them for their wandering ways. We let them sleep on our couches. We sometimes lend them cash. We fawn over their adventuring spirits and invite them to all our dinner parties because they’ve got, like, the best travel stories ever.

But as you may have noticed, especially if you’ve tried to nominate yourself for the position, what our culture doesn’t do is pay anyone to be an Itinerant Dreamy Creative Type.

Even IDCTs with multiple writing degrees and a good measure of natural talent are unlikely to find anyone waiting at the foot of their bed each morning, offering up wads of cash in exchange for the first rights to trumpet their eloquent observations far and wide. Even when those observations are really, really fantastically crafted.

We are not Don Quixote. But like him, because we are writers, we feel irresistibly, cosmically compelled to seek out strange and interesting fodder for our literary reveries, to chase shadows and inspirations to the far corners of the earth, or, at least, the far corners of our minds. So, like his, our paths will inevitably wind and twist. And this is where the trouble can start.

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

For many would-be-writers, the first part of the story goes something like this: Your sister wanted to be a lawyer. So she majored in political science, earned admission to a respectable law school, took out her nose ring, wrote for the law review, and eventually landed a cushy government job. Your best friend wanted to be a legal secretary. So she scored a filing job at a downtown law firm straight out of undergrad and worked her way up over the course of half-a-decade, taking advantage of free on-the-job training and saying “Yes” to every promotion until, voila! Legal secretary at 26.

And then there was you. Maybe you majored in English, communications, or creative writing, or at least you fantasized about it during those interminable, soul-sucking chemistry labs. Maybe you stayed up all night reading Raymond Carver short story collections and writing bad fiction that became, over time, slightly less bad and maybe even eked its way into the realm of good. Maybe you wrote a column for the college paper and thrilled at the rush of being published – and read, and discussed – by your peers. Then, graduation. By default (and the need to, like, eat every day) maybe you ended up working in an office doing corporate communications or managerial work or some other thing that was only tangentially, if at all, related to the written word.

Or maybe you reformed your writerly ways earlier on: you penned poetry and plays all through high school, then opted for the fast-track into early adulthood and became a teacher or a cop or a construction worker or a cocktail waitress. Now you’ve woken up five or 10 or 20 years older and you are longing to reconnect with your youthful love for the quiet craft. You mightn’t have written, I mean really written, anything in years, but the itch is back and worse than ever. It’s not too surprising. If you’ve got writing in the marrow of your bones, it will always call you back, eventually.

Or maybe you are just starting out your career, and determined to give the writing biz a shot, because you like working with words and you figure it’s worth it at least to try.

Whatever your story, and whether or not you’ve ever even read Don Quixote, I’ve got some good news. The happy reverse of this rusty coin is that you wouldn’t probably want to be Don Quixote anyway, even if you could. Because he’s so wrapped up in reveries that life ends up happening to him and not for him, and that’s no way for a creative person to live.

Now it’s your turn: Any other Bohemian archetypes you find yourself pledging questionable allegiance to as you fashion yourself into a writer? Dean Moriarty? Truman Capote, perhaps? J.D. Salinger? I’d love to hear about them, and about how they  help and hinder your progress.

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

 

Under His Spell: In Scrabble as in Love, it’s the Little Words that Count

 Deep down, I think, what most writers really want is to be loved with words.

Forget the short-shrift gestures, the achy-breaky looks, the profound silences. Forget ever, ever leaving anything unsaid.

But, ah! The hand-penned poem, the stumblingly sincere email missive, the drunken, napkin-back confessional. These are the mightily longed-for asseverations of a writer’s native tongue. They are ardently imperfect. And they are beautiful.

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Fake jobs, real jobs, and the Internet of Vocations: Why it’s no longer embarrassing to earn a living playing online poker

I met this guy on a tropical island in Belize once. Steven.

He was very New Jersey, and I feel somehow qualified to describe him as such although I have never even been to New Jersey: pasty skin, caterpillar eyebrows, and costumed always in an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt and a pilled-up Bowler hat.

Steven sauntered around town in a pair of tacky sunglasses, chain-smoking Colonial Light cigarettes and making frequent allusions to some obscure Internet business he was running.

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Tilting at Castles: On writing, risks and unintended time travel

As I may have mentioned one or a thousand times since I arrived in Spain back in early June, our terrace has a front-and-center view of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.

This sprawling, Roman Catholic Basilica is a work in progress, to put it mildly. Construction kicked off in 1882. It’s supposed to be finished by 2026, on the centenary of Gaudi’s death. (Tragically, ironically, unbelievably, he was struck by a tram while crossing a street near the church, headed to another day at his life’s great work. I can just picture him, starry-eyed, gazing up at the unfinished spires, and BAM! Poor guy.)

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It Happened in Tangier! Photos and a brief dispatch from Morocco

We are just back from a side trip to Tangier, Morocco. I pushed hard for this journey, as I’ve long been fascinated by tales of the various and sundry and sometimes-even-legendary creative types who have landed there through the decades, from writer Paul Bowles to The Rolling Stones to a few of the more rough-and-tumble Beat poets.

They came, mostly, I suppose, for the mind-altering substances and the whores and the general social permissiveness of the place. (Odd, considering that it is and always really was a devoutly Muslim corner of the world.) I came for the mint tea and the nostalgia, characteristically late to the party, and it turned out to have been a good thing, as this place has changed its stripes drastically in the years since all those poorly behaved artistic types recast the medina as their own personal drug den.

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Good work, career crap factors, and the “Is-ness” of it all: Thoughts on finding meaning in a creative profession

Two full weeks here in Barcelona and I’m finally settling down to the primary task I’ve set for myself during our time in Spain: rejiggering my worklife, and rethinking entirely what I want out of my career as a writer.Yes. So. What do I want? It’s such a huge, bloated, amorphous, nebulous, terrifying, wonderful, impossible, fascinating and inevitable question, isn’t it?

So grand, and yet so essential, to put one’s wants – not one’s needs – at the center of things, to shout them out to the huge, busy, noisy universe and confidently, cosmically await a reply. Just who do you think you are, asking for all that happy, being that you are so very tiny, and in case you didn’t notice, this is the Milky Way, not the Hilton, thank you very much; you knew that long before your birth and you chose this galaxy anyway and just what do you expect the gods to do about any of your carbon-based woes?

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My kingdom for a book!

Books - Erin J. Bernard

Books – Erin J. Bernard

It’s 8:56. In 24 hours’ time, we’ll have passed through four countries and landed in Barcelona. I hope the future Erin and Emiliano are enjoying a drink and not suffering too mightily from kinky neck. I’m sure they’ll let us know.

Our ride to the airport will be here in approximately 139 minutes (Hi, Em!). I need to make the beds, finalize packing, take a shower and hopefully do a few minutes of yoga. And get dressed. And call my grandmother. But there’s always time for a little writing. Speaking of that …

Some big changes are on the horizon for me … Man, I feel like I say that a lot. I feel like I feel that a lot. Change, change and more change. But what’s ahead is more about slowing down than speeding up. I am pondering a radical reorganization of my weeks that would carve out fully half of my work hours for personal writing projects. For my essays. It’s time to get serious about them. I’ve been so caught up these past two-and-a-half years in the cycle of writing-and-editing-for-money. I am thrilled that I’ve had success with my little freelance business, and the fact that I get to shoot photos on the side for extra cash is like the sweet little syrupy cherry on top of it all. But I can’t help but feel there’s something I’m forgetting. Why I started all of this in the first place: to send my essays out into the world. I love helping others become better writers. I love helping them tell their stories. But my stories end up on the back burner way way way too often.

This summer in Spain, I am determined to change my workaholic ways. I’ve vowed to work only half-time in Barcelona, and to spend some serious time pondering and clarifying my goals as a writer. I’ve been threatening to make a book for a long time, now, and maybe it’s time. This little website has been my touchstone for more than a decade. It’s held me up when I could barely move, let alone stand. Having a place to land my fears and hopes and successes and failures has kept me sane through some pretty bad crazy stuff. I think I’ll always write here. But lately, when I post essays, I find myself despairing that they disappear into the void. If I’m lucky they’ll get 200 views. I appreciate every single one of those views and wonder immensely who out there is reading my writing. But it doesn’t feel like enough. I want a book to hold in my hands. I want a book you can hold in your hands and pass on to a friend when you are done.

So, yes. I’m saying it here. Book! Time. Now. Good.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday

It’s a gray pre-spring day here in Portland. I’m on momentary hiatus from a pile of projects. Namely: twiddling my thumbs while the final draft of a manuscript I’ve been editing prints out. I’ve been working with the author on this project for two months now and it’s hard to believe that we’re almost done. This afternoon, I’m feeling stir-crazed, so I’m going to walk to a nearby coffeeshop with my mighty, mighty manuscript printout and give it a final pass. Or perhaps drive, on account of the rain. Or perhaps stop bringing shame to Native Oregonians everywhere by walking anyway. We shall see.

A lot gets said about writer’s spaces. I’ve always been something of a nomad when it comes to where I work. I have a sweet little office full of books and plants and posters that I spent a lot of time working in, but after a couple of days secreted away in here I invariably start to feel like a mole in a hole at the end of an interminably long winter. Then I tunnel out. I have yet to find a coffeeshop in Portland that just totally does it for me as far as third place workspace goes, so I continue to roam. There’s just some little thing wrong with every single one of them: a little dirty, too cold, too hot, not enough tables, not enough plugs, too minimal, too cluttered, no cheap snack food, snotty baristas, etc. I am a cheapskate of discernment, it seems!

I’ve been submitting writing all over the place these days. Problem is, most magazines/websites don’t want anything that has been previously published *even if* it was only on one’s personal blog. This is a bummer, as I have some really cool pieces that I’m opting not to post on here. I feel like I’m cheating on my blog, and, maybe, my readers. But it’s time to find some larger platforms. I’ve got that sense, at least.

While I wait for this beast to finish print, two photos. First, my Little Office. Second, this really amazing croissant my roommate bought me recently from Petite Provence on Alberta Street in Northeast Portland. It is hands down the best French food around!

Hey, Portland writers! Where do you like to work when your toes get to itching?

Petite Provence Croissant - Erin J. Bernard

Petite Provence Croissant – Erin J. Bernard

ErinOffice1

To Dos

Beer night with Emiliano - Erin J. bernard

Beer night with Emiliano – Erin J. Bernard

Heard on the radio this morning that the vast majority of rich people keep regular to-do lists. I’m a big fan of TDLs, and I always have been. But for some reason I haven’t gotten rich yet. Maybe I’m doing it wrong? At any rate.

Lately, I’m up early and cranking out work all morning. (I’ve already worked 6.5 hours and gone running and it’s only 2:30. Not being required to commute or get dressed really cuts down on lost productivity hours.) The afternoon is for loose ends and creative writing. As of Tuesday afternoon, here’s what’s on my personal to-do list. I feel like this list is an interesting microcosm of the larger arc of my days as a freelancer. Lots of little things.

Hold me to it, friends!

To Do | Jan. 28, 2013

• Skype meeting with Irwin

• Find retainer

• Clean kitchen

• Apartment hunting in Barcelona for next summer

• E-mail friends I’ve been neglecting

• Send photos to lady

• 1 hour of writing/querying

• Organize office/room

• Write note to idiot postman re: misdelivered mail

• Meet Mom for tea

• Update planner

• 20 pushups

• Text L re: photos/hops

• Update blog

The Man Drowning, or, Lazy Fiction for the Reluctant

I am usually not a fan of caveats or throat-clearning, but I must disclose that I am most certainly not a fiction writer. I adore fiction of all stripes. I adore fiction writers. And when it comes down to it, I subscribe to the school of thought that writing great fiction is a far more daunting task than writing great non-fiction. Everything I put to paper or screen is truth, down to the letter. My great task is figuring out how all of that truth fits together, and separating what’s profound from what’s pompous, sorting out what’s compelling to others and what’s only interesting to me because it happened to me. But creating an entire universe that actually functions in a consistent manner, and doing it from nothing but a bunch of letters and sounds in a language that lacks color and rhyme? Much more difficult.

That said, I made a rather pitiful attempt at participating in National Novel Writing Month in 2012. I was in California that Nov. 1, recovering from a Halloween glut during which I had my favorite black peacoat stolen by some dick in a rainstorm and then got hit on by both the Duff Beer Man and a balding playwriting from Los Angeles (one of whom I am still meaning to e-mail … argh!), and working away at a Starbucks in Oakland, when I unhappily recalled my vow to participate in NaNoWriMo, and my vow to write as fast as I could for 1-2 hours each day of the month, revising minimally, until I’d stitched together a rough opus of some manner or other. Just sort of literary diarrhea, I guess. Just to see. Just to practice finishing, which is incredibly hard for all writers. (Or at least for this writer. Harder, even, than starting, which can be very hard, indeed.) My efforts that day in Oakland went reasonably well, despite my peptic exhaustion, but I am ashamed to admit that I never wrote another word the entire rest of the month. A sorry showing, indeed!

But I like my failures, especially when they are so unapologetic. Besides, I was organizing my computer files a week or so ago, as I am wont to do at a year’s end, and I came across that NaNoWriMo folder titled, oh-so-hopefully, “The Man Drowning.” I had a whole elaborate magic realism kind of concept sketched out for my novel, full of talking fish and shifting perspectives and color symbolism.

Although that maybe-opus never came to pass, as I spent the rest of my SF trip eating noodles, drinking wine, and jogging up and down Nob Hill in recompense, I figured I’d offer up that one day’s worth of writing to the world. Not because I think it is particularly well-written, although it has a few nice bits, but more for posterity and whatnot. Because it’s a new year and I’m feeling prolific and motivational.

I spent about 2 more hours editing this piece during the past week, which means I’m shoving it out the door in under 4 hours total. That’s less than half the amount of time I spend on a non-fiction essay, on average, and it leaves plenty of room for polishing. Which I will not be doing. Because, as I said, I am not a fiction writer. So nothing much is at stake, except, I guess, you thinking I am cool and impervious. Which has never really been my schtick. I’d definitely say I’ve gunned more, during this past decade or so of blogging, for lovably haggard. So if you find mistakes, friends, don’t bother to point them out, because I’m not interested in correcting them this time around. Writing – not writing well – is the point here.

Thusly. Just for fun, just to see. Here you go.

Vallarta Water - Erin J. Bernard

Vallarta Water – Erin J. Bernard

“The Man Drowning” by Erin J. Bernard

Never in all his days had The Man seen water such a brilliant and terrible shade of blue.

Blue like icicles and blue like Depression glass, blue like infinity, blue like a hand that grabs you by the throat and starts to squeeze.

The Man knew he was too far out. He was bobbing up and down and up and down in the warm turquoise sea like a bloated, fleshy cork. He was fumbling with a tangle of snorkeling gear.

He pulled at his mask, which released itself from his face with a juicy, reluctant pop. He positioned it upon his forehead and looked around.

A few hundred feet to his left, The Captain and The Man’s wife were waiting in the little hired speedboat.

The Wife had thrown a patterned sarong over her eyes to block out the infernal glare of the Caribbean sun. She burned easily. The Man thought suddenly of their honeymoon on a nearby island, when even her eyes had burned.

The Captain was bent over a knot of fishing line, doing something with his fingers. His shoulders bunched in concentration as he worked.

Little tickly blue waves were lapping at The Man’s own, softer shoulders. He was treading water. The sky looked vast and empty and hungry and The Man imagined he could feel, for the first time, the true weight of the universe. Pressing down on him from above. He was human-shaped flotsam. It pained his gut to think of it, all that that heaviness.

The Man waved a cursory hand in the direction of the boat. A congenial wave, a test wave, just to see. Nobody looked.

The Man was too far out. He knew this. He would swim for it.

“I’ll swim for it,” he said aloud, and the sound of his own voice make him startle. It was gravel and liquid. Too many Mexican cigarettes. Too many years.

With effort, The Man kicked his feet back until they popped up to the surface behind him. He dipped his hands into the water. He adjusted his red flippers. He replaced his mask and he bit down on the snorkel.

He would swim for it.

The Man kicked hard, right foot, then left foot, angling his body westward, toward the little boat. He kicked and kicked and soon he was swimming, his face below the surface. He was breathing wetly through the mouthpiece and staring straight down into that infernal blue.

So many things down there. The calcified, cratered remains of an old fishing rig, coral castles, strange flashes of light and low, moaning sounds. Families of fish scattered slipshod in front of him as he cut forward, then closed ranks behind him as he went. He could feel them back there, forgetting already.

The Man felt that pressure again, this time from below as well as above, and he kept on kicking. The pair of legs below him looked puckered and vaguely trunk-like – two great pumping albino fish that propelled him forward through the universe.

He thought of other blue things: the glass eye of his father, the glittering, manic-depressive sheen of a Kansas Summer Sky, the achy blue of his toes after a pre-adolescent afternoon lost in a Michigan snowstorm.

Something was yanking him, from all sides. He stopped kicking momentarily and lifted his head out of the water, just to see. The boat was further to his right, but he thought he might be getting closer.

Again he waved, with a little more urgency. The captain was still busy with his line and the caught fish was now flip-flopping on the deck in a ghastly heat.

The Wife was plastered flat to the boat’s rear deck like some great, blubbery starfish, her breasts cutting points against the horizon like menopausal mountain peaks.

He was still too far out, but he would not panic. The Man dipped his head back into the water and started to kick again. The low, mean rumbles continued under the water as he plowed on, albino legs pumping, the pressure keeping pace at his side like some ghostly companion.

He stared down and saw in the rippling water the bed in their hotel room, with its blue flower-pattern spread. Or was it a duvet? He pictured wife’s hand sweeping across those tropical petals. Hibiscus? No matter.

He thought of lobster for dinner, and drinks on the beach, later.

He thought of breakfast. The ghost was poking at him, now, an accusing and bony finger sharp in his side.

The Man stopped again and pulled off the mask. The eyepieces were clouded over. He spit into it, as The Captain had taught him, and rubbed at the plastic casing.

The boat seemed even further off to the right.

“Hey!” he cried, throwing his garbled voice upward.

His breath was coming in sharp, angry pinches. He thought of his hotel breakfast, the eggs and the sausage, and he felt the sickness rising.

He angled his body until he until he was floating on his back with his belly rising out of the water like some beaching, bloating thing.

He needed to catch his breath, to rest for just a minute.

He closed his eyes, but a new session of waves came washing suddenly over him, splashing into his nose and mouth until he coughed and sputtered.

He was just so tired.  The Man kicked his legs back down and felt his stomach heave with a sudden jerk as he popped upright. The ghost was in his throat, now, in his chest, plowing its fists against his insides.

He wretched into the infernal blue water, once, then twice. Eggs. He kicked his feet against the pain, moving away from the sick, and felt one red flipper drop off. Peering down into the water, he saw it drifting slowly toward the ocean bed.

Never, ever, ever had he seen a thing so blue as this.

He hurtled himself forward violently, paddling full-force in the direction of the boat. But those tiny waves kept coming, pushing him to the right, too far out, farther out than he’d ever meant to be.

It wasn’t working. He started to splash, balling his fists and smacking the water.

“HEY.”

He was screaming.

“HEYYY!”

His Wife was still splayed out. The Captain didn’t turn.

“HEYYYYYYYYYYY!”

The ghost had become a part of him. His heart felt too big for his body, his blood was too heavy and too much, his stomach was contracting.

The little waves kept coming. He was treading water.

He thought of the hibiscus bedspread and threw his chubby arms skyward. The tropical sun was a tiny, angry eye a million miles overhead.

The first mouthful of water was surprisingly salty. He coughed and choked in protest as it washed down his throat. Spitting and gurgling, he cried out again.

A lucky gust of wind sent the sound hurtling toward the boat.

The Wife and The Captain looked up in unison. He saw The Wife leap up from her perch, the sarong dropping, as the captain threw down the fishing line and dived for the engine.

More water came.

The man heard the tiny boat engine roar to life as he caught the third mouthful of saltwater. He choked and drank and waved.

He noticed that the other flipper was also gone, and that he was still gripping the mask in his left hand, and that the mouthpiece was still hanging near his chin.

He splashed and kicked and felt the current picking up, and carrying him. He bit down on the mouthpiece and took another mouthful of water, and a gasp that sent it into his lungs.

So terribly, terribly blue. He let the water pull him under. Far, far below, the two red flippers waved softly in the current.

Time slowed, and The Man found he could examine his thoughts one by one.

Down at the bottom, the flippers were waving at him. Yes. Or maybe clapping?

Two orange fish swam past, a few feet away, and he watched their little mouths pucker as if they were deep in discussion.

Long strings of seaweed wrapped themselves around the boat skeleton banked far, far below. Mermaid’s hair, he and his brother used to call it when his sister gathered strands from the lakeside and braided them into elaborate knots. Green, green mermaid’s hair.

The water came in, more and more, until he could no longer tell if he was breathing or drinking or eating it, until the roar of the approaching motor grew quiet, imperceptible above the strange symphony of blips and blups, as he sank into the in-between place.

The ghost had retreated. Now, there was only quiet, a feeling of being held.

The man opened his mouth and watched a little row of bubbles floating out. The thing delighted him, somehow. What was he becoming? All mermaid hair and blips and bubbles.

His fists opened with his mouth and the snorkel fell away, moving in a slow, uncaring trajectory toward the bottom. It hit softly, kicking up a little sand.

Everything settled. The Man’s eyes grew heavy. He was all light and air and water. He felt his body only vaguely, the uncurled fingers and toes, the tickle of hair, the heaviness of the chest where a heart and lungs once worked furiously. Things were slow, blessedly slow.

Above, a dark shadow loomed, something strange and foreign that The Man could no longer place. His ears registered the sounds of a vague and distant chaos, the splash of a body breaking through the surface far above.

It was all so terribly, terribly blue.