Sea Foam
by Cesare Pavese

Britomart, the Cretan and Minoan nymph, is mentioned in Callimachus. That Sappho was a Lesbian from Lesbos is regrettable, but far sadder is the dissatisfaction which made her throw herself into the Aegean sea. This sea is full of islands and it was on the most easterly of them, Cyprus, that Aphrodite the wave-born came to land. It was a sea that knew many tragic stories. Ariadne, Phaedra, Andromache, Helle, Scylla, Io, Cassandra, Medea--who does not remember their names? They all passed that way and some of them stayed there. Those waters, one might say, were drenched in sperm and tears.

(Sappho, Britomart)

SAPPHO    It's boring here, Britomart, the sea is boring. You've been here for ages, aren't you sick of it?

BRITOMART    You liked being alive better, I know. To become a curl of frothing wave isn't enough for you mortals. And yet men seek death, this death. Why did you drown yourself, Sappho?

SAPPHO    I didn't know it was like this. I thought everything ended with that final jump. I thought the longing and the restlessness and the tumult would all be done with. The sea swallows, the sea annuls, I thought.

BRITOMART    Everything dies in the sea, and comes to life again. You know now.

SAPPHO    But you, Britomart, you were one of the nymphs. What did you want from the sea?

BRITOMART    From the sea? Nothing. I lived on the mountains. A man pursued me and I ran away. You don't know our woods, Sappho, how tall they are. The mountain falls away sheer, and the sea way below . . . I jumped, to save myself.

SAPPHO    To save yourself? But why?

BRITOMART    To get away from the man who was pursuing me. To be myself. I had to, Sappho.

SAPPHO    Had to? Was he so horrid?

BRITOMART    I don't know, I didn't see him. All I knew was that I had to get away.

SAPPHO    But why? I mean, to leave your daily life, the hills and the fields? To leave the earth and become sea foam--all this because you had to. Had to what? Surely all this meant something to you, weren't these things part of you too?

BRITOMART    But Sappho dear, it was desire and longing that made you what you are now. And yet you blame me for running away.

SAPPHO    You weren't mortal, you knew that there is no escaping.

BRITOMART    But I didn't try to escape from desire, Sappho. I have what I desire. I was a nymph of the rocks, now I am a sea nymph. This is how we're made. Our life is leaf and trunk, spring water, sea foam. We play with the surface of things, we don't run away from them. We change. This is our desire, this is our destiny. Our one terror is that a man should possess us, catch us. That would be the end of everything. You know Calypso?

SAPPHO    I've heard of her.

BRITOMART    Calypso let herself get caught by a man. And nothing could help her any more. For years she never left her cave. They all came, Leucothea, Callianeira, Cymodoce, Oreithyia, Amphitrite . . . They spoke to her, they carried her off and saved her. But it took years; and first the man had to go.

SAPPHO    I can understand Calypso. But I don't understand why she listened to you. If she'd really been in love, how could she have given way?

BRITOMART    Oh Sappho, mortal wave, will you never learn what it is to smile?

SAPPHO    I knew when I was alive. And I went in search of death.

BRITOMART    But that's not smiling, Sappho. Smiling means living like a wave, like a leaf, accepting your fate. It means dying in one form and being reborn in another. It means accepting--accepting oneself, accepting fate.

SAPPHO    And did you accept, Britomart?

BRITOMART    I ran away, Sappho. It's easier for the nymphs . . .

SAPPHO    I knew how to run away too, when I was alive. My way was to look into things, into the tumult, and turn it into speech, into song. But fate is something quite different.

BRITOMART    Why, Sappho? Fate is joy, and when you sang your song you were happy.

SAPPHO    I was never happy, Britomart. Desire is not song. It destroys, and burns, like a snake, like the wind.

BRITOMART    But have you ever known mortal women who lived peacefully in desire and tumult?

SAPPHO    None. Wait, yes, perhaps . . . But not mortal women like Sappho. You were still a mountain nymph, I wasn't yet born, when a woman crossed this sea, a mortal woman, who lived always in storm and strife. Perhaps she was in peace. She killed, destroyed, blinded. She was like a goddess always herself, unchanging. Perhaps she didn't even have to smile. She was lovely, no fool, and around her there was nothing but fighting and death. Men fought and died for her, Britomart, asking only for her name to be joined to theirs for a moment, for her name to be given to their living and dying. And they smiled for her. You know her--Helen, the daughter of Leda.

BRITOMART    And she, was she happy?

SAPPHO    At least she didn't run away, that much is certain. She was sufficient unto herself. She didn't ask what her fate was. Whoever had the will--and the strength--carried her off. For ten years she followed a hero; they took her away from him and married her to another man. He too lost her, countless men fought for her across the seas. Then the second man took her back and she lived with him, at peace. She was buried, and in Hades she knew still more men. She lied to no one, she smiled at no one. Perhaps she was happy.

BRITOMART    And you envy this woman?

SAPPHO    I envy no one. I wanted to die. It's not enough for me to be someone else, and if I can't be Sappho, I would sooner be nothing.

BRITOMART    Then you accept your fate?

SAPPHO    I don't accept it. I am my fate. Nobody accepts his fate.

BRITOMART    Nobody except us. We who know how to smile.

SAPPHO    What's so hard about that? It's part of your fate. But what does it mean?

BRITOMART    It means accepting, and accepting oneself.

SAPPHO    Yes, but what does it mean? How can you accept a force that seizes you and turns you into desire, into shuddering desire that struggles over a body, a man's or a girl's, like the foam between the rocks? And this body rejects you and crushes you, and you fall and long to embrace the rock, to accept it. Sometimes you are the rock yourself, and the foam and the tumult are twisting and turning at your feet. No one is ever at peace. How can one accept all this?

BRITOMART    You have to accept it. You tried to run away, Sappho, and what are you now? A bit of frothing wave.

SAPPHO    But don't you feel it, Britomart, this languor, this deep tidal unrest? Everything here is torn and

 tormented endlessly. Even dead things go on struggling.

BRITOMART    You should know the sea, Sappho. You came from an island.

SAPPHO    Oh Britomart, even when I was a child it frightened me. That ceaseless life is monotonous, sad . . . There are no words for the weariness of it.

BRITOMART    Once on my island I saw people coming and going. There were women like you, Sappho, women who lived for love. They never looked sad or tired to me.

SAPPHO    I know, Britomart, I know. But did you follow them on their journeys? There was one woman who hanged herself from her own roof beam in a foreign land. And one who woke up one morning on a rock, abandoned. And the others, so many others, from all the islands and all the lands who went down to the sea. Some were enslaved, some were tortured, some killed their own children. There were some who toiled night and day, and some who never touched solid land again and became things, creatures of the sea.

BRITOMART    But Helen--she came out unscathed, you said?

SAPPHO    Sowing fire and slaughter. She smiled at no one, she lied to no one. She was a woman worthy of the sea. But Britomart, do you remember who was born over there?

BRITOMART    Who do you mean?

SAPPHO    There is one island you've never seen. Every morning when the sun rises, it touches this island first.

BRITOMART    Oh Sappho.

SAPPHO    It was there she sprang from the sea, the goddess who has no name, the tormented, restless one who smiles to herself.

BRITOMART    But she doesn't suffer. She is a great goddess.

SAPPHO    And everything that is torn and tortured in the sea is her substance and her breath. Have you seen her, Britomart?

BRITOMART    Oh Sappho, don't ask me. I'm only one of the little nymphs.

SAPPHO    You must have seen her, then?

BRITOMART    In her presence we all run away. Don't speak of her, child.

© Copyright Eridanos Press, Boston 1989, translated by William Arrowsmith and D.S. Carne-Ross

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