Author / Speaker

















Chapter Fifteen
Swordfish





   Each day the routine was the same. Maas woke everyone, including Cedar, by turning on the radio and the coffee at precisely 5am. When she offered to get up earlier and fix the coffee, Maas had simply said, “If you do, I’ll just get up at four-thirty.” He was in the water by six. Everyone else went in between seven and eight. Though unspoken, Maas’ time alone was honorary. He was the legend. Legend earned him first shot.
   Everyone exited the water at eleven-thirty for a brief lunch – sometimes sashimi from a freshly speared yellowfin, more often Cedar’s finger sandwiches  – everyone except Maas, who went up and down all day like an Eveready cork, with rare breaks for grape juice swigged while he rested his elbows on the swim step. Even Justin couldn’t keep up with him.
   Maas stayed focused even during his swim step rejuvenation, but once, when Cedar handed him his grape juice, he smiled up at her.  
   “Boy’s got lungs,” he said. “Makes me feel my age.”
  Cedar spent most of the day on the bridge. The bridge afforded a 360-degree view of her charges, who wandered much farther from the boat than she liked. But she said nothing. As Ernan aptly put it, “Their skill is as visible as their complete disregard for the rules.”
  On the fourth day Cedar took them far to the east, to an isolated sea mount she had discovered accidentally almost a decade earlier. The mount was a free diver’s dream. It rose like a spire, 5,000 feet from the ocean floor. Smaller fish used it as protection on an otherwise empty plain. Bigger fish knew it as a buffet. It was a locus of life, but she never brought clients here. It was distant and dangerous. Currents were unpredictable; the water was often murky and big fish were on the hunt, although often you never saw them. It was stark and beautiful. But mostly it was a world that was not theirs -- powerful, primal and wholly uncaring.
   She had a first aid kit on board, the best money could buy. She knew Maas had brought his own; more than likely, the other divers were prepared too. But if something serious happened, all the first aid kits in the world would not be enough.
   It was part of the thrill.
  Everyone reacted to the sea mount as if they had just been goosed, even Maas, who to Cedar had always looked as dour as an undertaker in his magazine pictures. Without exception the writers gushed about the man, claiming he had a supernatural affinity for the sea, a photographic memory that allowed him to recite conditions that made for a successful hunt – tides, currents, bait fish activity – twenty years earlier, and the stamina of a honeymooner. But the photographers captured only the undertaker.   
   When they pulled up on the mount, Maas did a jig, his gangly form all shadowy knees and elbows against the setting sun.




   That night at dinner Murray told her, and the rest of the table, that Maas had arrived in Palau with a better-than-rough fix on the sea mount.
   “Got it from whispered rumors and the diligent application of Google Earth,” Murray said, forking up a potato. “He was hoping you might take us here. Kind of you to save him the agony of asking.”
   “It’s the perfect spot for your group,” Cedar said. She gave Maas a playful look. “But I didn’t know you were such a big fan of technology.”   
   Maas returned a sheepish grin.
  “I dislike technology but I’d be a fool to ignore it.”
   “Whatever it takes to make dreams come true,” said Murray.
    Finishing his beer in two enormous swallows, he gave a happy belch.
   “To dreams come true,” he said.
   “Men are pigs,” said Mary Jayne, belching.
    Maas said, “Tell me why I travel with unrefined heathen?” and then he burped.
    For the rest of dinner, everyone carried on like ten-year-olds.  
    Cedar was glad she had brought them here.
    That night, although she was already fairly certain, the gay couple revealed themselves. The women’s cabin was next to hers. No doubt, they tried to be discrete, but if she listened she heard their sighs and rustlings, and something that sounded like prayer.
  She glanced at Issy. The girl snored softly, sleeping with the ease of the young.
  The murmurings continued, rising, falling away and rising again. Cedar tried to think of something else, but it was no use. She felt herself begin to tingle. She had an inkling of what it was like to be with a woman.




   These divers are different. They hunt as we do, with stealth and cunning and selectivity. None of your kind is meant for our world, all flailing limbs and awkward jerks, but these divers come close. The one in particular. He fins deep into the fuzzy blue and drifts upright, legs crossed, fins pointed down, turning ever so slowly. His stills his heart so that even I can barely detect it. The stupider fish nearly bump into him. But while his heart stills, his mind crackles, absorbing barely perceptible intangibles. It is quite impressive, though when he is finished diving he still swims to the boat as if he is pithed. You are all fish out of water.
   They could learn a thing or two, but I must confess they all exhibit a degree of skill. They are hunters. If I wore a hat, I would tip it to them.





   In the afternoon, the other divers taking a break and warming in the sun, Cedar went to the stern where her son sat on the swim step, pale legs dangling in the water.
  “You should get out of the sun,” she said.
  “He’s been under for two minutes and thirteen seconds.”
  She gazed at the choppy green waters, a paltry mirror of the currents below.
  “It’s amazing.”
   She meant every syllable.
  Justin’s eyes didn’t leave the water.
  “I’m wrecked,” he said. “He’s been diving since five-thirty and still going strong.”
  “Don’t try this at home.”  
   She said it as a joke, but not entirely. Every year free divers died of shallow water blackout. Shallow water blackout was precisely what it spelled out, although it occurred as readily in deep water as shallow. Stay down too long and one second conscious, the next drifting and dead. Or sinking and dead. Dead either way. Tired divers made more mistakes, pushed already fatigued limits, took foolish chances. She had personally known two free divers who died of shallow water blackout. One was a twenty-four-year old girl.
    She felt she needed to say something without outright telling her son Jimmy Maas was unsafe. That would only make Justin mad.
  “He’s spent years doing this, Justin. I’ve also heard he’s a physiological freak.”
  “I could do it. With practice.” He turned back to her with that smile she couldn’t resist. “I know what you’re thinking, Mom. It’s not a risk if you’re prepared and careful. I’m not naive.”
   No, but you are sixteen.
  “No one is beyond physiology” she said softly.
   Justin was watching the water again, lost to her.
   “No,” he said, “but you can come close.”
   Thirty minutes later Maas swam to the swim step. Justin had his water bottle of grape juice ready. Maas pulled off his mask to drink. His face was swollen.
   He drank. Justin handed him a banana. He ate it solemnly. Swaying with the waves, he got a large portion of banana on his face.
  Cedar thought of Jonathan. The day chilled a little.
   Maas handed the bottle back to Justin.
  “Thanks. Just saw a good-size bluefin swimming around with its stomach gone.”  
  To Maas and the rest of the free divers, the presence of big predators was happy news.
   He was already treading water, settling the mask on his face.
   Behind Cedar, Mary Jayne said, “Didn’t your mother tell you to wait twenty minutes before you go back in the water?”
   “Nope,” said Maas, his voice made slightly whiny by a pinched nose. “Nothing to lose but a banana.”
   Placing the snorkel in his mouth, Maas gave a honk and finned away.
   Nothing to lose except an appendage, thought Cedar. What is the matter with me?
   The other divers were pulling their camouflage wetsuits back on.
   Justin reached for his mask in the rinse bucket.
  “No,” Cedar said.
   He turned, hand still in the bucket.
  “No?”
  “The swell’s picking up. I need you on the bridge to keep an eye on them.”
    Justin started to protest.
   “I shouldn’t need to remind you that you’re part of the crew,” she said.
    She saw his jaw clench but she didn’t care. A mother did what a mother needed to do.
    



   The screaming turned Cedar cold.  
   She went up the ladder to the bridge without realizing it, mind racing through the emergency checklist.
   Shit, shit, shit, shit.
   The screaming stopped.
  “Over there!”
  Justin and Ernan were pointing southwest, directly into the sun. She couldn’t see a damn thing. She squinted, saw Maas a football field away, waving his arms frantically overhead amidst the bobbing swells. The universal distress signal.  
   Shit, shit, shit. How in the hell had she let him drift so far away? He was still screaming, the sound waxing and waning. The swell had risen. Maas disappeared, reappeared, disappeared, thrashing the water. Shit. She could barely see him.
   Stay calm. Push everything else away. Calm saves the day.

   It was a stupid little ditty she had learned in a long ago Coast Guard Reserve class.
   It took her a moment to realize only Ernan stood beside her. Her eyes jerked away from Maas – cardinal rule number one, never take your eyes off the victim -- sweeping the deck. Justin was at the starboard railing, fins and torpedo buoy in his hand.
  “No!”
   One foot went to the railing.
  “It’s our only choice!” he shouted.
   Even in her panic she noticed he didn’t take his eyes of Maas.
   He was right. The other divers were in the water and she didn’t know where. Plunging ahead full throttle wasn’t an option. If she ran over a diver she’d have a certified nightmare on her hands.
  “One of the other divers might be close to him,” said Ernan.
   Please, please. Someone surface.
  She summoned every ounce of authority.
  “Justin! Wait!”
   A hand took her wrist, squeezing once, firmly but gently.
   “Good advice,” said Mary Jayne.
   The woman spoke as if she were complimenting an entrée suggestion.
   Cedar thought it ridiculous to voice the obvious, but she did.
  “He’s in trouble,” she said.
  “No, he’s not. He’s a little boy who loses all control when he gets stupendously excited. I wonder what he’s seen,” she said with genuine curiosity.
  Cedar felt her jaw go slack.
   “What?”
  “I said he’s absolutely, perfectly fine. Awfully loud, but perfectly fine.”  
   Cedar felt the air leave her.
   “Jesus Christ.”
    It didn’t seem possible, but Jimmy Maas yelled louder. The words rode clearly over the swells.
   “Holy fucking shit!” Maas shouted. “Murray!”
    They could see Murray now. He had surfaced twenty yards from Maas, a second dark silhouette on the sun-dashed surface.  
  “Apologies again,” said Mary Jayne. “When he’s really excited, he also suffers from severe potty mouth.”
   Cedar didn’t smile. The way Maas spun in quick circles made the nape of her neck prickle.
  “What?!”
  There was an edge in Murray’s shout.
   Maas yelled.
  “Fuck! Didn’t you see it?”
  See what, God damn it.
  “See what, God damn it!” yelled Murray.  
   “Huge swordfish!  Swimming right at you. It just disappeared. Bang! Gone. Fuck!”
  Cedar saw the other divers now. They were scattered far off the stern. Everyone was casually treading water like it was a Fourth of July pool party.   
  “Hang on!”   
  Mary Jayne and Ernan snatched for the captain’s chair as Cedar shoved the throttle forward.  Cedar was on the two men in seconds. For an awful moment she thought she might actually run over Maas. He was now waving his arms with genuine alarm.
  As the Wendell Holmes sank back down into the water, Mary Jayne whispered,  “Whoa.”
  “Get out! Now!”
   She heard her panic, the words lurching between her rapid breaths.
   Maas shot her a puzzled look but he was already swimming. Still, he looked around for Murray as he swam. Cedar looked too. Murray was gone.
   Maas stopped swimming. He hesitated, started to turn back, then put his head down and sprinted for the boat.
   She heard the swim step bang.  
   Maas was by her side, scanning the water. His voice was flat.  
   “You didn’t say what it was.”
  She didn’t give two shits that he was angry.
   “It took the swordfish,” she said. “That should be enough.”
   Some of the flatness left his voice.
   “What takes a swordfish like that?”
   She didn’t answer.   
  They waited. Maas looked at his watch.
  “Murray doesn’t have two minutes in him. Something’s wrong.”
  He turned for the ladder.
  “No,” said Cedar. “You’re not going in.” Her mind was working, churning through what she thought she knew. The other divers were now 150 yards off the stern. If she was wrong she would not be able to get to them in time.
   Dispenser of justice. Arbiter of vengeance.
   Please be right.

  “You don’t go anywhere. You’re on my boat.”
   Maas swung on to the ladder.   
  “Your boat, my friend.”
   The screaming came from far away. The cold flooded back.
  Maas was beside her again.
  “Seven o’clock,” he said.
  She was throwing the throttle forward, hands spinning the wheel. They were moving fast, Maas shouting out the decreasing distance. Murray was clearly visible, thrashing wildly on the surface. He was three hundred yards from where he had been. No one swam that far underwater. He had been dragged there. The way he jerked about on the surface made Cedar sick.
  Only when they were on him did Cedar see the beatific smile.  
  “Take your sweet fucking time!” Murray yelled, arms and legs egg beating the water to a foamy froth. “I’ll just wait here treading water until Elvis is president, holding the biggest fucking swordfish you’ll ever see.”



   
   They all stood silent, gathered around the black form stretching the length of the stern deck. Only a man as strong as Murray could have stayed afloat.
   But it wasn’t the size of the swordfish that earned their silence.
   They had all changed and showered, except for Murray, who had gone straight for the cooler of beer. Now, on some unspoken agreement, they had all wandered back to the stern.
   A cool breeze ran across the water. The sea mount jutted from the water like a halved thumb. The low sun turned the exposed rock deep amber.
   Maas crouched. For a long moment he simply looked, and then he ran his fingers lightly over the lacerations.
   Murray tipped back his beer, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
   Cedar had already seen Murray crumple at least four cans.
   “Like a cat-o-nine tails,” Murray said. “I thought I was fucked when it started to run after I speared it. Fucking autobahn to the bottom. Then the line just went slack. Maybe its heart burst.” Murray tipped the can to the setting sun. “Here’s to Lady Luck. This is much better than the bottom.”
   The eyes bulged unnaturally. Cedar knew what Maas was feeling with his fingers, doing it again even though he was already sure. The bulges and compressions rolled like waves across the body of the great fish. The sword had snapped off, leaving a ragged stump. Coagulated blood nearly filled the open mouth.
   “Always a bigger fish,” slurred Murray.
   Maas did not take his eyes off the swordfish.  
   “She should have been dead when you speared her,” he said quietly. “I don’t know how she made that last run.”
   “I do. At warp speed.” Alcohol and uncertainty turned Murray’s smile loopy. “Still a bitch hauling the line up. Like a fucking Volkswagen filled with cement.”
   Maas looked up at Cedar.
   Unable to hold his gaze, she looked away.
         
          
   

   The swordfish was a cocky mistake. It is true I have few matches, but swordfish are quick and strong. There is also the matter of the bill. I was lax as I pulled her close. Her bones were already splintering. I heard a lung rupture and felt her heart racing toward its last beat. Foolishly, I relaxed. She wrenched free and drove her spear forward. Had I not instinctually twisted, the spear would have pierced my eye. My opportune twist saw the bill snap off against my shell. In my moment of frozen surprise, the man finned down from the surface and released his spear. I was already backing away, and we were already deep. At nearly 80 feet it was very dim. And the man had eyes only for the billfish.
    I would have known if he had seen me.
    There is some small humor in this. Had the swordfish succeeded in her attempt, she would have written the theme for our pageant.  
  The blind leading the blind.
  But my amusement dissipates quickly. It was a foolhardy mistake. If I am wholly honest with myself, it was an act of conceit. I was showing off for the hunters. Here’s how it’s done.
   I wonder if I am not the only one doing the influencing.





   Back at the dock Maas said, “I don’t know what to tell you.”
   It was so unlike a man not to have advice. She was grateful he had waited until they were alone. The others were still on board, gathering the last of their gear and saying goodbye to Justin, Issy and Ernan.
  Standing in the sunshine, the water sighing around the pilings, she had told Maas what she had told Marty. Marty was right. It was too much responsibility. Maas had spent his life around the ocean. He might be able to help. He might tell her she was wrong.
  He didn’t.
  “You didn’t report any of this?” he asked.
  “No.”
  “Do you think you should?”     
   “I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone would believe me. The last time they went on a shark killing spree. Who knows what they might kill this time around. They’ll have to kill something. Even if I do tell them, I know they won’t find it.”
   “You knew this thing was out there,” he said.
   “Yes.”
   “But you don’t think you put us at risk.”
   “No.”
   “How can you know that?”
    She had known him before he came here. She had watched him all week. She knew he would think it through, applying cold logic. She decided.
   She spoke before she could stop herself.
   “I think we communicate in some way. I think it reads my thoughts. I think, to a small degree, I feel what it feels. I don’t think it’s dangerous. At least not to most of us. I think it’s selective in what it kills.”
   For some reason she couldn’t say “who.”
   Maas stood quietly, digesting this new puzzle.   
   “Do you think there’s more than one?” he asked.
    The thought had troubled her since she found the eggs.  
   “I don’t know.”
   “Does anyone else know?”
   “A friend. That’s it.”
   “Mm.”
    One of the sea’s most formidable predators crushed as easily as a sponge. They had all worked together, cutting the swordfish into fillets. The fillets were on ice in the hold. She planned on passing them out to the needier families on the island. Aiding and abetting. Erasing the tracks.
   I think I can feel it. I think I know it. I think we communicate in some impossible fashion. I think it comforts me, and then some.
   I think you should put me away.

  It was like gathering water in a strainer.
  She felt the weight of it, pressing down on her.  
  “I know I sound crazy.”
  Maas gave a half smile.
  “You do.”
   She wanted to hug him.
   “Are you going to say anything to your friends?”
   “Do you want me to?”
   “No.”
   “Fair enough. But I have to tell you, I’m not sure I’m right in this.”
   “Neither am I.”  
    They stood looking at each other.     
   “I let my son go in.”
   “That’s the reason I believe you.”
   Maas tossed his dive bag over his shoulder.
  “It’s a mysterious world, isn’t it?” he said.
  “It is.”
  “I don’t envy your position.” He settled the strap on his shoulder. “Well, one thing’s certain.”
   “What’s that?”   
   “Murray’s getting another tattoo.”




   That night, sitting on the deck beneath the stars, she felt the wind caress her like a tentative hand, offering apology.
  She had another erotic dream. It wasn’t quite Wyatt, it wasn’t quite Sean. She was embarrassed to recall there might have been a bit of Jimmy Maas, and maybe even Marty, too. Whoever they were, they did a masterful job. Her body jerked and bucked as if it wasn’t her own.
  She woke up sweaty, exhausted and smelling of sex.