SEVEN FATHOMS DOWN
1 fathom/6 feet
If an experience was to literally warm the cockles of your heart it would have to heat up the valves between the aortal chambers. Even a cold heart has cockles because a cockle is a simple valve and muscle; but cockle is also mussel and sound, sea creature and white noise, object and metaphor. It is a word with physicality, with body and breath, surface and depth. Perhaps what we mean when we write using such clichés is that the warming of one's cockles enables their heart-valves to work smoothly, effortlessly, and efficiently; or perhaps when a cockle is warmed it dilates open wide and blood flushes fast through the opening, the heart fills with blood and swells, and what you're saying is, "My heart is flooded."
The dictionary tells me that, figuratively speaking, "cockles" in this context refers to one's innermost, mostly deeply held feelings and emotions, and the phrase does seem to suggest an intense flush or flood of feeling; and of course, though the operation of our heart-valves is mostly an unconscious involuntary body function, the heart muscle also responds to emotion and to the unconscious signals of stress or love or fear or excitement sent from our brains. The faster our heart pumps the warmer our cockles become.
A cockle is also a bi-valve mussel, a shellfish with a heart-shaped shell. And to cockle means to pucker or gather into folds. When you give someone a kiss, you cockle your lips. When your baby daughter reaches out her tiny hand and gathers up your shirt in her fist, she's cockling the fabric. And when a wave breaks on a beach you hear it cockling on the sand like a whisper.
Cockle is object, animal, metaphor and sound. And when turn of phrase or a line of language tries to warm the cockles of a reader, chances are those words are flirting with nostalgia, that unique sickness of memory that's defined as a sentimental longing for the past.
Occasionally as a boy I would stumble across a conch shell, maybe at a friend's house, sequestered on a shelf of knick-knacks, and I'd be tempted to touch it, to hold it up to my head. Pink and white, it looked almost human, like an enormous calcified ear. But it was an ear with a voice. I'd press the shell to my ear, listening to its hushed secrets. We lived in Kansas and I'd only seen the ocean once or twice in my life. Most of our family vacations took us to the mountains of Colorado and summers were spent playing in cold-water streams, building dams of river rock. Today I'm mildly afraid of the ocean, convinced that it wants to hurt me, that it wishes me ill and dislikes my body's intrusion into its body. But my son, born in Colorado, but identifying as a Californian in most ways, charges into the waves unafraid, letting them bash him about. To him the ocean doesn't seem malevolent. He seems to have long shed my baggage of fear; and it does crank and flush the valves of my heart to see him happy. Such moments with my children stretch the intimate muscle until it pumps so full I think it might break some ribs. And it's almost enough to recapture the romantic relationship I had with the ocean as a landlocked child who grew up on muddy lakes and who loved the magic of placing an ear to the conch shell and hearing the faint white noise of a distant ocean's waves cockling against a distant shore.
2 fathoms/12 feet
Sound and sight will always be intimately, synesthetically connected, if only through the metaphors we choose, the language we employ to try and convey our efforts to see and understand through sound. But sound is also more than metaphor and form. Sound has body and weight. Sound is practical. It's a tool and a lens. We see with sound when we are functionally blind or when light cannot penetrate the place we're looking at, when we need to see in the dark or beneath the surface of something vast and impenetrable. We use sound to see under skin, bone, muscle, and tissue, beneath the earth's crust on the surface of the planet, or to extend our vision deep into a body of water. We use sound to map mine-tunnels and the terrain of the ocean floor. We use sound to find signs of life or death from trapped miners; we use it to explore caverns and cavities, and to discover tumors or capture earthquake tremors. We witness through sound what we can't see through the eyes. Sound can now give us a three-dimensional digital image of our growing baby, a picture of the future conjured up on a computer monitor; and sound can show a fish or school of fish swimming in the water. I can help the fisherman find his catch. And sometimes I feel like I'm sounding my way through an essay, navigating by means of echolocation—flying blind in the dark, sending out a signal of sorts, listening to what bounces back. It takes a lot of lines to map the under-places.
3 fathoms/18 feet
Consider the catfish. Bottom feeders. Freshwater shit-filters. They only come to the surface sometimes to roll in the shallows, exposing their white bellies. I've been thinking about catfish lately, perhaps because I spent much of my teenage years around these odd creatures and I sometimes credit fishing with saving me from the kind of trouble that found a lot of my classmates in high school. When they were partying, I was often fishing.
My best friend, Rob and I regularly skipped the big house parties and the keggers in the country so we could sit up all night fishing for channel catfish at a lake outside of town. We used spin-cast fishing rods and chicken livers for bait. And as much as I liked fishing for them, I didn't particularly enjoy catching them. I didn't like handling catfish. They seemed prehistoric and wicked, and if you didn't hold them just right, gripping them hard with your fingers behind their front fins, they'd thrash around and spine you. Rob, on the other hand, would hold them up to his face and "talk" to them. Catfish make a kind of croaking sound like a frog and Rob would croak back at them before pulling the treble hook out with pliers and tossing them back.
Noodling is fishing for catfish with your hands. In the Kaw river it means swimming blind in the muddy waters, diving down, feeling along the bottom for sink-holes or trees under which a catfish might be resting, using your hands to see the bottom feeders. My father did this a couple of times in college. The big ones, often channel cats or flatheads, park themselves on the bottom facing into the current and they don't move. They use their negative buoyancy and their heavy bony skulls to settle into the mud and they let the current push food past their wide toothless mouths.
Much like a shark, a catfish's whole body is covered with sense receptors that allow it to smell and taste anything that touches it or passes by it in the water. Catfish don't have scales. They have skin. They also use their namesake cat-like barbels, or "whiskers" to reach out into the muck and navigate through the muck, feeling and smelling for a passing meal. If you're dragging a chicken liver past them and they should happen to sense the bait, they will strike quick and hard; and if you're not careful, they'll take your line and drag it deeper. They'll find a log and tangle you up until your line breaks and your fish story becomes a fight story.
If you're fishing with your hands, if you're noodling, however, you have to get down to their level, down to the bottom, surprise a fish and grab it with both hands in front of its spiny poisonous fins, or you have to cram your hand down its toothless mouth and drag it up to the surface. A catfish's bony fins are barbed and can emit a stinging protein strong enough in some breeds to disable or kill a human. The Kansas channel cats I encountered just made you bleed and ache for a day or so, sort of like a bee-sting. But legend held that in the old days, the catfish, particularly the river cats, were bigger and meaner. They use to pull giant catfish out of the Kaw, some as big as 200 pounds, a fish that must have been absolutely terrifying and prehistoric-looking; and I've heard stories of 500-pound catfish in the Mississippi river. I've seen a 50 pounder in a tank at a bait shop and it was grotesquely huge, its skin mottled white, purple, and black like a corpse. It looked like something out of a horror film—dumb, wet, and malevolent.
The old noodlers used a hay-hook to land the big ones and stories tell of the frustrated fisherman who after losing one too many, tied his hook to his wrist with a stout hemp rope. The foolhardy fisherman went into the Kaw, determined to land a big cat, to pull something big up to the surface, and he was never seen again--dragged to the bottom and drowned by his subject, the two of them tied together forever.
4 Fathoms/24 feet
Radar uses sound waves to see, and if an entity or idea "flies under your radar," it operates outside of their line of sight, even beyond of reach of their sound waves; or more figuratively, it exists outside of your focus or immediate area of attention. It is acting and moving unnoticed, practically invisible; and such stealthy ideas or memories or experiences may very well be influencing your thinking in ways that are unseen and difficult to articulate. I believe that most of us are fishing for ghosts—those spectral ideas about life and death that hover at the edge of our consciousness or just beneath the surface of our waking life. Sight promises knowledge; but perhaps it's only by closing our eyes and listening, by echo-navigating through the landscape of memory that we can explore the unseen terrain below. Sound is used to see during warfare because we understand that the most meaningful adversary, the most insidious vehicle of espionage is often the vessel operating beneath the radar, moving fast and low to the ground, just outside your peripheral vision, or traveling below the surface of the water. These are the vehicles that can bring you down before you realize what has hit you.
5 fathoms/30 feet
The word "fathom" refers to both the unit of measurement and to the practice of measuring the depth of a body of water by means of "sounding" lines. But the practice is also called a "sounding," or "taking a sounding." Here's how it worked: one sailor, known as the leadsman was charged with one of the most important jobs on the ship--to see, or rather feel the unseen terrain beneath the water's surface. To "fathom" meant that he dropped a lead-weighted sounding line over the side. The rope spooled through his coarse hands and the leadsman waited for it to hit bottom and go slack; then he might let it bounce and drag a bit over the bottom before he hauled it in, feeling the changing tensions in the rope. When he was ready to measure depth, he'd grab the line loosely with one hand and pull it through with the other, stretching his arms out as far as he could reach; he'd pinch quickly and count off each time, hollering the number of fathoms up to his captain, first mate, or fellow leadsman. A fathom was roughly six feet, the same depth at which you bury a man.
A good captain, with the help of his leadsman, could discern the depth of the water and, therefore, know how far he was from land or if they were traveling through dangerous waters. A good leadsman was like an oracle seeing in the dark. A good leadsman could guide the boat past unseen obstacles lurking beneath the surface, sandbars or rocks that could rip a hole in his hull or ground the ship. To fathom then was to measure the depth of a body of water, but fathom was also the unit of measurement. It was action and form, verb and noun, sounding and seeing through careful touch.
The more scientifically inclined leadsman might have fathomed with a weighted basket of sorts and a hunk of sticky tallow, by which he took sediment samples from the ocean floor, using them to and help determine their geographical location. To fathom was not just navigation but also an effort to understand the unseen ocean terrain in a way that other sailors didn't or couldn't touch. The lines were an extension of the leadsman's own limbs, a long arm or a tentacle; but they've mostly been replaced in modern times by sonar technology, or echo sounding, a process that uses a transponder to generate sound waves and bounce them off the ocean floor, and then translates them into a reproduction of the topography on a computer monitor. Today's sailors mostly measure with waves instead of lines.
Ultrasound machines and fish-finders work in similar ways. The human element is mostly removed from mapping the unseen, or at least reduced to passively reading output on a screen. Of course it's a more complete picture of hidden terrain, all the canyons and crevasses, the mountains and valleys of the ocean floor, a more comprehensive picture of the dangers below.
Just as the digital heart monitor has largely replaced the stethoscope as the primary tool of auscultation for cardiologists and obstetricians, for sailors the traditional sounding line has been replaced by echo sounding technology. Though I might argue here that the leadsman with his plummet and doctor with his stethoscope are able to see through sound in ways that a computer can never truly approximate, the picture provided is admittedly a less accurate, less comprehensive map, shaped as much by not-knowing, by uncertainty and mystery, as it is shaped by knowing. And sometimes we just need to know. Sometimes we need to see clearly beneath the surface. But I still wonder if in all of our technological advancements, in the use of sound waves to replace the human act of sounding, we are losing touch with the true depth of things in the world, losing the tangible connection between the leadsman's hands and the lead weight mapping the bottom. I wonder if we're losing mystery to the great wash of knowledge.
6 fathoms/36 feet
Muckraking was the signature practice of so-called "yellow" journalists who "scraped the bottom" in any story to dig up sensational or salacious, often fabricated details; and still today writers of nonfiction are often accused of dredging up the past and digging up bones. But sometimes such work has to be done. When someone disappeared without a trace in my Kansas hometown, at some point the decision might be made. When no other evidence appeared, suspicion often turned to the Kansas River, or the Kaw as we called it, a name that evokes the sound of a crow's ragged cry but which was also a nickname for the Kanza Indians who originally inhabited the region. Drag the river, they'd say. Drag the Kaw. See what comes up. And the boats would motor into the river and drop their lines aft. The ropes, weighted with lead plummets and three-prong grappling hooks, or a metal drag-bar with steel teeth, spooled out behind as the pilots plowed a wake upstream, dragging the hooks behind them across the muddy bottom. When you dragged the river, you weren't searching for a person any longer; you weren't trying to save a life. You were searching for a body. If you're lucky the body wasn't knotted around a driftwood stump or pinned beneath a waterlogged tree. If you were lucky the body floated to the surface downstream and got stuck in an eddy current, swirling around with the flotsam and jetsam. Often they never found anything and you had to wonder, had to try and fathom the disappearance of a person. That person was someone's child. Most likely that person was loved by another person, or at least by a loyal pet. The questions always swirled. The stories crested like a wave, pushing at the foundations of family and community. What had happened? How did he end up in the water? Where did he go? You don't think he tried to swim it? In the winter? But if the hooks bit into a body and the boats dragged up an answer, the truth of it would stretch the sounding lines taut like an awful big fish and you'd hear the boat's engine whine from the strain.
7 fathoms/42 feet
When a whale breaks for the surface, breaches, spouts, gulps in air, this is also called a sounding; whereas a sound in geographical terms—as in Prince William Sound or Puget Sound—finds it derivation from a different source and refers to a body of water, an inlet larger than a bay, deeper than a bight, and wider than a fjord. A bight is a shallow bay. A bite is a shallow stab at understanding, a sampling of a larger idea. I love the way language tries to capture the geography of thought.
To fathom, of course, also means to embrace, to wrap your arms around an idea and to understand, but the term is mostly used in the negative, to express a failure on the part of the speaker to grasp the meaning of something or, in a more generous, interpretation, to express the speaker's sense of wonder at what he has witnessed. Hardly anyone says, "I think I fathom what you're saying about cockles and whales." Instead you might say, "I cannot quite fathom how it all fits together," to which I might respond, "Yes, right. Me neither."
Or I might say: "But can you fathom what it would feel like to drown?"
This is what it comes down to.
And what I'd be saying is that it feels at times nearly impossible for me to wrap my arms around the enormity of a thing like subject in an essay, nearly impossible to reach the emotional bottom without diving in too deep, without wallowing in the muck of sentimentality and nostalgia; and I'd be acknowledging the heavy angst of talking about a drowned boy and a man in a boat with a fish-finder.
I cannot fathom is a statement of the mind's failure expressed through the body's limitations, but it is also perhaps an expression of the failure of language, our primary vehicle for expressing our understanding of something. If you cannot fathom something then your arms are not long enough to find the words for it.
It was a hot day at the lake. We'd just wanted to cool off. We didn't see the boy slip under the surface.
Words still cannot reach this depth, not quite.
It's true. We dove down after him again and again. Blind in the muddy water, I swept my hands and legs out along the bottom, feeling through the muck for his body. But we never touched him. We couldn't see a thing until the man with the boat and the fish-finder showed up. The divers moved back. My friend and I had been joined by a crowd of six or seven, all of us diving down into the dark in search of the drowned boy.
The man in the boat stopped his boat and killed the engine. We all paddled around him in the water like ducks waiting for a peanut. A woman in a bikini yelled at us, "You need get a buddy! Does everyone have a buddy?'
She meant a swim buddy. So nobody else disappeared. I looked at my friend. We'd known each other for fifteen years. We kept paddling while the man checked the monitor of his fish-finder, basically a low-tech short-range ultrasound device that fishermen use to locate fish and to map underwater terrain. The minutes ticked by as he trolled slowly through the water. The boy had been underwater for at least twenty-five minutes. Suddenly the man in the boat leaned over the side and pointed at the water.
"Right there!" he said. "There's something big and it's not moving."
The divers all slipped beneath the surface, pushing for the bottom. One swimmer found the boy there in the mud. But he couldn't pull him up. They tried again. But it was too deep and the boys lungs were already full. Rob and I were exhausted. We'd been in the water the whole time. We swam to the bank and sat down on the rocks.
Tiny waves cockled against the lakeshore.
The boy stayed on the bottom. He stayed there, the currents dragging on his body, until the Search and Rescue divers showed up a few minutes later. One of them in a wetsuit, mask, and air tank rolled off the back of the boat and disappeared, and it seemed like he was gone a long time, but it was only a couple of minutes before he brought the boy's body back to the surface.
I sat there and watched the scene unveil itself. I listened to the boy's body thump against the fiberglass hull of the rescue boat, and honestly I was surprised to see him at all. I feel terrible admitting this. But I think I had already committed to never knowing, never quite reaching the possibility of his death. I couldn't fathom how it would resonate through my consciousness, how these indiscriminate lines I now spool on to the page might bite into that day and drag it back up again. I couldn't fathom how I would still feel guilty that I couldn't do more. Part of me wanted to believe that the boy didn't actually die, that he would always exist below the surface of my thinking, like the ghost of an idea, as if he were just part of a story I tell again and again; but the thump of his body against the boat still reverberates up these sounding lines and rattles my grip on the present action of thought.
Ack...This is the third essay that I've written and published about the same event, each one a different essay, exploration, and attempt. I suppose it's some sort of testament to the lasting power of such things, though not a testament I set out to write. It may seem like bullshit, but the essay found its way to the drowning and I didn't see it coming. I just followed the pull.