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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Surf-Swimmer

By Charles Warren Stoddard (1843–1909)

[Born in Rochester, N. Y., 1843. Died in Monterey, Cal., 1909. South-Sea Idyls. 1873.]

WE found the floor of the valley very solemn and very lovely, when we at last got down into it. Three youngsters, as brown as berries, and without any leaves upon them, broke loose from a banana-orchard and leaped into a low hou-tree as we approached. They were a little shy of my color, pale-faces being rare in that vicinity. Two women who were washing at the ford—and washing the very garments they should have had upon their backs—discovered us, and plunged into the stream with a refreshing splash, and a laugh apiece that was worth hearing, it was so genuine and hearty. Another youngster hurried off from a stone-wall like a startled lizard, and struck on his head, but didn’t cry much, for he was too frightened. A large woman lay at full length on a broad mat, spread under a pandanus, and slept like a turtle. I began to think there were nothing but women and children in the solitary valley, but Kahéle had kept an eye on the reef, and, with an air of superior intelligence, he assured me that there were many men living about there, and they, with most of the women and children, were then out in the surf, fishing.

“To the beach, by all means!” cried I; and to the beach we hastened, where, indeed, we found heaps of cast-off raiment, and a hundred footprints in the sand. What would Mr. Robinson Crusoe have said to that, I wonder! Across the level water, heads, hands, and shoulders, and sometimes half-bodies, were floating about, like the amphibia. We were at once greeted with a shout of welcome, which came faintly to us above the roar of the surf, as it broke heavily on the reef, a half-mile out from shore. It was drawing toward the hour when the fishers came to land, and we had not long to wait before, one after another, they came out of the sea like so many mermen and mermaids. They were refreshingly innocent of etiquette—at least, of our translation of it; and, with a freedom that was amusing as well as a little embarrassing, I was deliberately fingered, fondled, and fussed with by nearly every dusky soul in turn. “At last,” thought I, “fate has led me beyond the pale of civilization; for this begins to look like the genuine article.”

With uncommon slowness, the mermaids donned more or less of their apparel, a few preferring to carry their robes over their arms; for the air was delicious, and ropes of sea-weed are accounted full dress in that delectable latitude. Down on the sand the mermen heaped their scaly spoils—fish of all shapes and sizes, fish of every color: some of them throwing somersaults in the sand, like young athletes; some of them making wry faces, in their last agony; some of them lying still and clammy, with big, round eyes like smoked-pearl vest-buttons set in the middle of their cheeks; all of them smelling fishlike, and none of them looking very tempting. Small boys laid hold on small fry, bit their heads off, and held the silver-coated morsels between their teeth, like animated sticks of candy. There was a Fridayish and Lent-like atmosphere hovering over the spot, and I turned away to watch some youths who were riding surf-boards not far distant—agile, narrow-hipped youths, with tremendous biceps and proud, impudent heads set on broad shoulders, like young gods. These were the flower and chivalry of the Méha blood, and they swam like young porpoises, every one of them.

There was a break in the reef before us; the sea knew it, and seemed to take special delight in rushing upon the shore as though it were about to devour sand, savages, and everything. Kahéle and I watched the surf-swimmers for some time, charmed with the spectacle. Such buoyancy of material matter I had never dreamed of. Kahéle, though much in the flesh, could not long resist the temptation to exhibit his prowess, and having been offered a surf-board that would have made a good lid to his coffin, and was itself as light as cork and as smooth as glass, suddenly threw off his last claim to respectability, seized his sea-sled, and dived with it under the first roller which was then about to break above his head, not three feet from him. Beyond it, a second roller reared its awful front, but he swam under that with ease; at the second of his “open sesame,” its emerald gates parted and closed after him. He seemed some triton playing with the elements, and dreadfully “at home” in that very wet place. The third and mightiest of the waves was gathering its strength for a charge upon the shore. Having reached its outer ripple, again Kahéle dived and reappeared on the other side of the watery hill, balanced for a moment in the glassy hollow, turned suddenly, and, mounting the towering monster, he lay at full length on his fragile raft, using his arms as a bird its pinions—in fact, soaring for a moment with the wave under him. As it rose, he climbed to the top of it, and there, in the midst of foam seething like champagne, on the crest of a rushing sea-avalanche about to crumble and dissolve beneath him, his surf-board hidden in spume, on the very top bubble of all, Kahéle danced like a shadow. He leaped to his feet and swam in the air, another Mercury, tiptoeing a heaven-kissing hill, buoyant as vapor, and with a suggestion of invisible wings about him—Kahéle transformed for a moment, and for a moment only; the next second my daring sea-skater leaped ashore, with a howling breaker swashing at his heels. It was something glorious and almost incredible.