What it is, Simon Limbres’s heart, this human heart, from the moment of birth when its cadence accelerated while other hearts outside were accelerating too, hailing the event, no one really knows; what it is, this heart, what has made it leap, swell, sicken, waltz light as a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, what has stunned it, what has made it melt—love; what it is, Simon Limbres’s heart, what it has filtered, recorded, archived, black box of a nineteen-year-old body—only a moving image created by ultrasound could echo it, could show the joy that dilates and the sorrow that constricts, only the paper printout of an electrocardiogram, unrolled from the very beginning, could trace the form, could describe the exertion and the effort, the emotion that rushes through, the energy to compress itself nearly a hundred thousand times every day and to circulate up to five litres of blood each minute, only this could sketch the life, life of ebbs and flows, life of valves and flapgates, life of pulsations; and when Simon Limbres’s heart, this human heart, slips from the grip of the machines, no one could claim to know it; and on this night—a night without stars—while it was bone-crackingly cold on the estuary and in the Caux region, while a reflectionless swell rolled along the base of the cliffs, while the continental plateau drew back, unveiling its geological stripes, this heart was sounding the regular rhythm of an organ at rest, a muscle slowly recharging—a pulse of probably less than fifty beats per minute—when a cellphone alarm went off at the foot of a narrow bed, the echo of a sonar inscribing the digits 5:50 in luminescent bars on the touchscreen, and everything suddenly shot ahead.
On this night, then, a van slows in a deserted parking lot, comes to a crooked stop, front doors slamming while a side door slides open, three figures emerge, three shadows cut out against the dark and seized by the cold—glacial February, liquid rhinitis, sleep with your clothes on—boys, it looks like, who zip their jackets up to their chins, unroll their hats down to their eyebrows, slip the bare tips of their ears under the polar fleece, and, blowing into cupped hands, turn toward the sea, which is no more than sound at this hour, sound and darkness.
Boys, now it’s clear. They stand side by side behind the low wall that separates the parking lot from the beach, pacing and breathing hard, nostrils inflamed from piping iodine and cold, and they probe this dark stretch where there is no tempo besides the roar of the wave exploding, this din that swells in the final collapse, they scan what thunders before them, this mad clamour where there’s nothing to rest your eyes upon, nothing, except perhaps the whitish, foaming edge, billions of atoms catapulted one against the other in a phosphorescent halo, and, struck dumb by winter when they’d stepped out of the van, stunned by the marine night, the three boys get hold of themselves now, adjust their vision, their hearing, evaluate what awaits them, the swell, gauge it by ear, estimate its breaker index, its coefficient of depth, and remember that bluewater waves formed on the high seas always move faster than the fastest speedboats.
All right, one of the three boys whispers, this is gonna be awesome, the other two smile, then all three of them back up together, slowly, scraping the ground with the soles of their shoes and circling like tigers, they lift their eyes to bore into the night at the end of the village, the night still sealed shut behind the cliffs, and then the one who spoke first looks at his watch, another fifteen minutes, guys, and they get back into the van to wait for the nautical dawn.
Christophe Alba, Johan Rocher, and him, Simon Limbres. The alarms were ringing when they pushed back the sheets and got out of bed for a session planned by text a little before midnight, a session at half-tide, only two or three like this a year—rough sea, regular waves, low wind, and not a soul in sight. Jeans, shirt, they slipped outside without a bite, not even a glass of milk or handful of cereal, not even a crust of bread, stood outside their building (Simon), stepped out the doorway of their suburban house (Johan), and waited for the van (Chris), which was just as punctual as they were, and the three of them who never got up before noon on Sunday, despite any and all maternal summonses, the three of them who, they say, don’t know how to do anything but pendulate, wet noodles, between living room couch and bedroom armchair, these same three were chattering in the street at six o’clock in the morning, laces loose and breath rank—under the streetlight, Simon Limbres watched the air he exhaled disintegrate, the metamorphosis of the gas and smoke that lifted, compact, and dissolved into the atmosphere until it disappeared completely, remembered that when he was a kid he liked to pretend he was smoking, would hold his index and middle finger stiff in front of his lips, take a deep inhale, hollowing out his cheeks, and blow out like a man—the three of them, that is, The Three Caballeros, the Big Wave Riders, namely Chris, John, and Sky, aliases that act not as nicknames but rather as pseudonyms, created in order to reinvent themselves as planetary surfers when really they’re high-schoolers from the estuary, so that saying their real first names pushes them back immediately into a hostile configuration, back to icy drizzle, feeble lapping, cliffs like walls, and streets deserted as evening falls, parental reproach and school’s summonses, complaints from the girlfriend left behind, the one who, once again, came second place to the van, the one who is powerless against surfing.
They’re in the van—they never say it in French, camionette, rather die. Scuzzy humidity, sand granulating surfaces and scraping butts like a scouring pad, brackish rubber, stench of paraffin and the beach, surfboards piled up, heap of wetsuits—shorties or thick steamers with built-in hoods—gloves, boots, bars of wax, leashes. Sat down all together in the front, squeezed in shoulder to shoulder, rubbed their hands together between their thighs letting out monkey yelps, it’s fucking freezing, and then munched on energy bars—but they couldn’t peck it all down, it’s afterwards that you devour, after you’ve been devoured yourself—passed the bottle of Coke back and forth, the tube of Nestlé condensed milk, the Pepitos and the Chamonix, soft sugary cookies for soft sugary boys, finally pulled the latest issue of Surf Session out from under the seat and opened it on the dashboard, leaning their three heads together above the pages that gleam in the half-light, glossy paper like skin rubbed with suntan lotion and pleasure, pages turned thousands of times before, which they pore over again now, eyeballs tumbling out of their sockets, mouths dry: giants in Mavericks and point breaks in Lombok, Jaws in Hawaii, tubes in Vanuatu, swells in Margaret River—the best coastlines on the planet roll out the splendour of surfing before their eyes. They point at images with a fervent index, there, there, they’ll go there one day, maybe even next summer, the three of them in the van for a legendary surf trip, they’ll go in search of the most beautiful wave that’s ever formed on Earth, they’ll set off in pursuit of that wild and secret spot they’ll invent just as Christopher Columbus invented America and they’ll be alone on the lineup when it finally emerges, the one they’ve been waiting for, this wave risen from the bottom of the ocean, archaic and perfect, beauty personified, and the motion and the speed will stand them up on their boards in a rush of adrenaline while over their whole bodies right to the tips of their lashes will pearl a terrible joy, and they’ll mount the wave, joining the earth and the tribe of surfers, this nomadic humanity with hair discoloured by salt and eternal summer, with washed-out eyes, boys and girls with nothing else to wear but shorts printed with gardenias or hibiscus petals, turquoise or blood-orange T-shirts, with no other shoes than those plastic flip-flops, these youth polished by sun and freedom: they’ll surf the fold all the way to shore.
The pages of the magazine brighten as the sky pales outside, divulge their colour chart of blues, like this pure cobalt that assaults the eyes, and greens so deep you’d think they were painted in acrylic, here and there the wake of a surfboard appears, tiny white line on the phenomenal wall of water, the boys blink, murmur, that shit is epic, that’s sick, then Chris shifts to check his phone, the screen illuminates him from below and turns his face blue, accentuates the bone structure—prominent brow, prognathous jaw, mauve lips—while he reads the day’s forecast out loud: Petites Dalles today, ideal northeast swell, waves between one metre fifty and one metre eighty, best session of the year; and then he punctuates, ceremonious: we’re gonna pig out, yesss, we’re gonna be kings!—English embedded in their French constantly, for everything and nothing, English as though they were living in a pop song or an American sitcom, as though they were heroes, foreigners, English that makes enormous words breezy, “vie” and “amour” becoming the offhanded life and love, and finally English like a show of reserve—and John and Sky nod their heads in a sign of infinite agreement, yeah, big wave riders, kings.
It’s time. Beginning of the day when the shapeless takes shape: the elements gather, the sky separates itself from the sea, the horizon grows clear. The three boys get ready, methodical, following a precise order that is still a ritual: they wax their boards, check the leashes are attached, slip into thermal rash guards before pulling on their suits, contorting themselves in the parking lot—neoprene adheres to the skin, scrapes and even burns it sometimes— choreography of rubber puppets who ask each other for help, requiring that they touch and manipulate each other; and then the boots, the hood, the gloves, and they close the van. They walk down toward the ocean, surfboard under one arm, light, cross the beach in long strides, the beach where the rolling pebbles crash beneath their feet in an infernal racket, and once they’ve arrived at the water’s edge, while everything grows clear before them, the chaos and the party, they each wrap a leash around an ankle, adjust their hoods, reduce the space of bare skin around their necks to nothing by grabbing the cords at their backs and pulling them up to the last notch of the zipper—it’s a matter of ensuring the best possible degree of waterproofness for their teenage-boy skin, skin that’s often studded with acne on the upper back, on the shoulder blades, where Simon Limbres sports a Maori tattoo as a pauldron—and this movement, arm extended sharply, signifies that the session is starting, let’s go! And maybe now, hearts get worked up, maybe they shake themselves inside thoracic cages, maybe their mass and their volume augment and their kick intensifies, two distinct sequences in one same pulsing, two beats, always the same: terror and desire.
They enter the water. Don’t yell as they dive in, squeezed inside this flexible membrane that guards body heat and the explosiveness of the rush, don’t emit a single cry, only grimace as they cross the low wall of rolling pebbles, and the sea gets deep fast— five or six metres out they already can’t touch the bottom, they topple forward, stretching themselves out flat on their boards, and with arms strongly notching the wave, they cross the surf zone and move out toward the open.
Two hundred metres from shore, the sea is no more than an undulating tautness—it grows hollow and swells up, lifted like a sheet thrown over a mattress. Simon Limbres melts into his movement, paddles toward the lineup, that zone in the open where the surfer waits for the wave, checking that Chris and John are there, little black barely visible floats off to the left. The water is dark, marbled, veined, the colour of tin. Still no shine, no sparkle, just these white particles that powder the surface, sugar, and the water is freezing, nine or ten degrees Celsius, no more, Simon won’t be able to ride more than nine or ten waves, he knows it, surfing in cold water exhausts the organism, in an hour he’ll be cooked, he has to select, choose the wave with the best shape, the one whose crest will be high but not too pointed, the one whose curl will open with enough breadth for him to enter, the one that will last all the way, conserving enough force to churn up onto the shore.
He turns back toward the coast as he always likes to before going farther: the earth is there, stretched out, black crust in the bluish glow, and it’s another world, a world he’s unlinked to now. The cliff, a standing sagittal slice, shows him the strata of time, but out here where he is, there is no time, there’s no history, only this unpredictable flow that carries and swirls him. His gaze lingers on the vehicle decked out like a Californian van in the parking lot beside the beach—he makes out the side studded with stickers, collected over many surf trips, he knows the names clustered shoulder to shoulder, Rip Curl, Oxbow, Quiksilver, O’Neill, Billabong, the psychedelic fresco mixing surfing champions and rock stars in the same bedazzled jumble, including a good number of girls with backs arched in itsy-bitsy bikinis, with mermaid hair, this van that is their communal artwork and the antechamber of the wave—and then he follows the tail lights of a car that climbs the plateau and plunges into the interior, Juliette’s sleeping profile traces itself, she’s lying curled up under her little-girl blanket, she has the same stubborn look even when she’s asleep, and suddenly he turns, away from the continent, tears himself from it with a jerk, a few dozen metres more, then he stops paddling.
Arms that rest but legs that steer, hands holding the rails of the board and chest slightly raised, chin high, Simon Limbres floats. He waits. Everything around him is in flux—whole sections of sea and sky emerge and disappear with each swirl of the slow, heavy, ligneous surface, a basaltic batter. The abrasive dawn burns his face and his skin stretches taut, his lashes harden like vinyl threads, the lenses behind his pupils frost over as though they’d been forgotten in the back of a freezer and his heart begins to slow, responding to the cold, when suddenly he sees it coming, he sees it moving forward, firm and homogeneous, the wave, the promise, and he instinctively positions himself to find the entrance and flow into it, slide in like a bandit slides into a treasure chest to steal the loot—same hood, same millimetred precision of the movement—to slip onto the back of the wave, in this torsion of matter where the inside proves itself to be more vast and more profound than the outside, it’s here, thirty metres away, it’s coming at a constant speed, and suddenly, concentrating his energy in his shoulders, Simon launches himself and paddles with all his might so he can catch the wave with speed, so he can be taken by its slope, and now it’s the takeoff, super-fast phase when the whole world concentrates and rushes forward, temporal flash when you have to inhale sharply, hold your breath and gather your body into a single action, give it the vertical momentum that will stand it up on the board, feet planted wide, left one in front, regular, legs bent and back flat nearly parallel to the board, arms spread to stabilize it all, and this second is decidedly Simon’s favourite, the one that allows him to grasp the whole explosion of his own existence, and to conciliate himself with the elements, to integrate himself into the living, and once he’s standing on the board—estimated height from trough to crest at that moment is over one metre fifty—to stretch out space, lengthen time, and until the end of the run to exhaust the energy of each atom in the sea. Become the unfurling, become the wave.
He lets out a whoop as he takes this first ride, and for a period of time he touches a state of grace—it’s horizontal vertigo, he’s neck and neck with the world, and as though issued from it, taken into its flow—space swallows him, crushes him as it liberates him, saturates his muscular fibres, his bronchial tubes, oxygenates his blood; the wave unfolds in a blurred timeline, slow or fast it’s impossible to tell, it suspends each second one by one until it finishes pulverized, an organic senseless mess and it’s incredible but after having been battered by the pebbles in the froth at the end, Simon Limbres turns to go straight back out again, without even touching down, without even stopping to look at the fleeting shapes that form in the foam when the sea stumbles over the earth, surface against surface, he turns back toward the open, paddling even harder now, ploughing toward that threshold where everything begins, where everything is stirred up, he joins his two friends who would soon let out that same cry in the descent, and the set of waves that comes tearing down upon them from the horizon, bleeding their bodies dry, gives them no respite.
No other surfer comes to join them at the spot, no one approaches the parapet to watch them surf nor sees them come out of the water an hour later, spent, done in, knees like jelly, stumbling across the beach to the parking lot and opening the doors of the van, no one sees their feet and their hands the same shade of blue, bruised, purpled even beneath the nails, nor the abrasions that lacerate their faces now, the chapping at the corners of their lips as their teeth clatter clack clack clack, a continuous trembling of the jaws in time with the uncontainable shaking of their bodies; no one sees anything, and when they’re dressed again, wool long johns under their pants, layers of sweaters, leather gloves, no one sees them rubbing one another’s backs, unable to say anything but holy shit, holy fuck, when they would have so liked to talk, to describe the rides, to write the legend of the session, and shivering like that, they get in the van and close the door, without pausing for even a second Chris finds the strength to put the key in the ignition, he starts the car and off they go.
Maylis de Kerangal is the author of nine novels, including Naissance d’un pont (Birth of a Bridge) and Réparer les vivants (Mend the Living).
Jessica Cox was formerly director of Alphonse Berber Gallery in Berkeley and Alphonse Berber Projects in San Francisco. In a computer folder, along with the stories, poems, and essays she’s written, is her first full-length novel-in-progress about the wolves and ecologists of Isle Royale, Michigan. She lives in Portland.