They took Tuesdays off. Even now, with the cost of college keeping her awake at night, she refused to relinquish the day. Tuesdays were theirs. She’d take out an extra loan or pick up more repair jobs. She still had a year. She knew Wyatt thought she should be running trips seven days a week, but he never said anything. There were times when she wondered if she should have left him.
Some days she and Justin went back out to Long Drop Off. If there was no one there, they stayed, wiling the day away free diving, playing poker, and drinking orange soda in the shade. More and more often though, boats were moored at Long Drop Off, and they waved at the captains and motored on.
Today there were four boats on the reef, rolling easily and throwing off flashes of sun. Chrisman saw her and waved. She liked Chrisman, an energetic fireplug of a Kiwi, and she tried to muster an enthusiastic wave, but the sight of all the boats made her feel soiled. She had been the first to do the nautilus dives. She had even taken a dive magazine writer out on one of the early trips, rationalizing that if she didn’t do it someone else would; rationalizing because she knew the publicity would be a boon for business. Regarding that she had been right in spades, and now there was no turning back. She often thought of Pandora’s Box. In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on earth. The first time she came upon Long Drop Off, she had felt like Pandora.
Once they were beyond the boats, she nodded to Justin and he opened up the throttle. The wind pushed his hair back, exposing his fine-boned features. The sun lit up the downy hairs along his jaw line. Shaving cream and razor had appeared in their shared bathroom six months earlier.
Her boy-man. Just watching him produced an upwelling of joy. Did mothers always fall in love with their sons? She wanted to find something to dislike, it would make things easier, but he only continued to charm her in newfound ways.
She stepped up beside him.
“Where to, Captain?” he shouted.
His teeth were straight and white. Braces had never been part of their life. The Wendell Holmes leapt forward like a puppy.
“Bring me the horizon,” she shouted back.
“What about fuel?”
“What about it?” she said, and laughed.
Justin banked the boat left, then right, then left again.
“Second star to the right and straight on til’ morning!”
Her son was Peter Pan. Beneath them the hull of the Wendell Holmes chattered happily.
The eastern seas were the windward seas. They almost never came this way with divers; rough seas and distance were things few divers fancied. Even the fishermen kept to the inner reefs. With no landfall between here and California, wind and waves had plenty of fetch to work up a head of steam. But today was windless. The ocean lay inert, rippled only by smooth swells.
Sheer luck saw them find the reef. One minute 3,000 feet of water; the next, forty, though neither of them needed a depth gauge to note the change. Beneath the blue water they could see the top of the sea mount clearly.
Justin throttled back. The Wendell Holmes settled in the water, her wake running around to the bow.
Beneath them spread a madcap garden of brain, plate, and lettuce leaf corals.
The reef was big. It took nearly ten minutes to putter around the perimeter.
There were no moorings. Justin positioned the Wendell Holmes above a patch of sand and Cedar carefully winched down the anchor.
The world went to lapping silence.
“Pursuing the horizon has its rewards.”
She looked up toward her son’s voice. Justin stood, balanced on the bridge railing two stories up and then he whooped and fell to the sea, a lovely dive that sent up the barest raindrop patter. He was still whooping as he swam back to the boat.
There is a heaven.
They geared up. They spent the first thirty minutes combing the top of the reef. Cedar had never seen healthier coral. The brain corals were the size of small cars, the sinuous folds of lettuce coral as thick as her hand. Tropical fish swarmed like confused commuters. She heard Justin laughing through his regulator.
They nearly missed the two openings, side by side like unblinking blue eyes. Cool water rose from each opening, causing the water above the openings to waver milkily. Cedar floated hesitantly above the left eye. Turning she watched Justin pump his fists overhead and then disappear into the other opening. For an instant she was irked that he hadn’t consulted her first. Then she laughed, unclipped her dive light and finned into the opening.
The passage was roughly two arm lengths wide. It descended virtually straight down, a chute of dark rippled wall. It was like swimming down a throat. Cedar made a slow, hypnotic fall, checking her depth gauge. At seventy feet, the chute yawned wide and she drifted out into the cavern.
Cedar was relieved to see Justin floating upright in the cavern’s half-light, pumping his fists wildly again. As she watched, he turned a somersault and spread his arms wide. Half-conscious of her movements, she sank to the cavern floor some thirty feet below, going to her knees with a soft bump on the white sand.
Kneeling was appropriate. When she was a girl, her father had taken her to see Winchester Cathedral. They had arrived late. The cathedral had just closed. Her father had charmed the dour caretaker. She had never forgotten how it was, standing alone in the vast nave, daunting yet uplifting at the same time. Her father had died in a car accident two years later.
Slowly she turned. Her father would be pleased to know there were two Winchester Cathedrals.
She didn’t need the dive light. Although they appeared wholly enclosed inside the sea mount, light came from everywhere. Cedar saw now the thin fissures in the basalt. Light wormed through the cracks, gracing the cavern with a deep purple hue, sunset’s last toehold before dark. The water was clear as sky. Even in the dusky light, Cedar could see the cavern’s far reaches.
A cold draft touched her hands. Halfway through her pirouette she spotted the enormous arc of opening just off the sandy floor, the dark basalt walls nearly blending with the indigo sea beyond.
Above her Justin finned easily along the cavern wall. She was rising up off her knees when she heard the clanging. Justin stopped banging on his tank. Sheathing the knife, he flicked on his dive light and swung it back and forth.
Cedar swam up to where her son hung, suspended some twenty feet below the ceiling. Placing both his hands to his forehead, Justin gave a muffled hoot and fell back so she could press close.
The rock shelf was recessed, disappearing into total darkness. She trained her light on the interior.
They resembled Chinese lanterns, white, with a liberal dusting of gold. There were eight of them, each roughly the size of a football. It was the most pointless reaction in the book, but Cedar pinched her eyes shut and looked again. They were still there, resting like ancient artwork in a flooded museum. Her heart raced and her mind whirled. Justin tapped her shoulder. She was almost surprised to see him there. His hands were pressed together in prayer. Their private dive signal. Beautiful.
Back on top of the reef, they were accorded a final treat. They heard the sound first, a muted pop, like a fist smacking into a palm, the massive bait ball displacing water as the tiny fish jerked as one. The enormous tornado funnel of silversides was at least twenty feet wide and forty feet tall, though it was hard to measure as its shape changed from instant to instant as muscled bluefin tuna slashed through, gulping as they went, the thousands of silver shards swirling and pulsing like a living rainstorm, a glistening world of predation. She did not need to look at Justin to know his hands were pressed together again.
On board the Wendell Holmes she made lunch. They ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drank lemonade in silence, Justin staring out at the ocean like a happy village idiot.
Her mind still raced. She was virtually certain, but she was also certain she couldn’t be right. It was not possible. Her imagination was duping common sense. A sleight of hand, a card trick. Perhaps a tincture of narcosis. She needed time to think.
She closed her eyes, tried to forget for a moment as her tired thighs dissolved into the warm deck.
“We should name it,” Justin said.
She opened her eyes.
Justin looked at her, eyes radiant, sandwich tumbling inside his mouth.
“Hello? Were you here today? The reef, Mom.”
She smiled back.
“You should name it,” she said. “But not with your mouth full.”
She loved watching him think. He took his time.
“Did you hear the sound the water made?” he asked.
“Not the bait ball. The sound just above the openings. Just before we went in.”
She saw herself hovering over the milky opening. She remembered no sound.
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“You could barely hear it. That was the coolest part. The water whispered.” He took a bite of sandwich, chewing with satisfaction. When he smiled there was peanut butter on his teeth. “Water whispers,” he said.
He gave an odd nod of confirmation.
“It is perfect,” he said.
The look on his face was the same one he used to get when he finally solved a particularly troubling math problem.
“What are you thinking?”
Her son gave the universal dismissive teenage shrug.
“Nothing much. Maybe how great this lemonade tastes. A little tart. I like it.”
“It’s Marty’s recipe. More tart, less sweet. He says it’s like me.”
“He knows you,” Justin said, but his eyes were already wandering back over the water, the bright armor surface turning back the noon sun. “What do you think those things are?”
“I don’t know,” she lied. “Some kind of shell probably.”
“Mm.” He got up and poured them both more lemonade. “You know something?” he said, handing her her glass.
“It felt good just being down there.”
He was right. It had. The realization surprised her.
He stuffed a last half of sandwich into his mouth.
“I really wanted to touch them,” he mumbled.
They had been too far back to touch. But had they been able to reach them, Cedar knew they wouldn’t have felt like a shell.
Eggs cases were slightly soft to the touch.
They stayed the night. She asked Justin to wear his earplugs.
The bagpipes made her feel better. Again, she wasn’t sure why.
When they returned to the harbor early the next morning, they went directly to the fuel dock. Cedar doubted they had a leftover drop.
Today Santy was his jovial self. He hailed them as they swung toward the dock.
“Ah! The pirate queen and the crown prince. Tell me you have the smelly bat and my day is complete.” He tugged his ear. “It’s possible I have let my bananas go rotten.”
Justin jumped to the dock and gave the old man a playful jab.
“Hi Santy. Jonathan’s off in the jungle. Mom says you have kittens.”
The bump of the Wendell Holmes had already set off a mewling.
“You want them? I’ll give you a good price.”
“He does not, and you will not,” Cedar said from the bridge.
“Queens become too accustomed to having their way. Maybe that is why they are so short-tempered and difficult,” said Santy. “No matter. It would be impossible even if you decreed differently. Like most females, the kittens have eyes only for me.”
Justin crouched close to the box.
The mewling stopped.
He held out a hand, making soft cooing noises.
“Two problems, crown prince,” Santy said. “The hand is empty and it does not belong to Santy.”
The first kitten, a calico, stutter-stepped cautiously into the sunshine. The second tottered forward, a midnight black puffball.
Justin cupped his hands. The black kitten stepped into his palm, followed by the calico. They circled, executing small stampings before sprawling atop each other.
Gently Justin brought his hand to his chest and stood.
The kittens purred.
Cedar almost forgot her troubles.
“Apparently, in this rare case, you have competition as a suitor,” she said.
“I’ll be goddamned,” said Santy. “Keep this boy away from the Heidi Klum.”
That night Cedar turned on the laptop in bed. She didn’t want Justin coming up behind her.
She typed in the words and clicked.
Identical egg cases, infinitely smaller, appeared on the screen.
She sat back against the pillow, impossibilities swirling. Her mind snatched at them, a child grabbing at bubbles, but the breeze lifted them and they moved out of reach, impossible to absorb.
Mostly she thought of the flayed chickens. A jungle of tentacles peppered with sharp radula, a crushing beak.
Given the right circumstances a grown man could disappear entirely.
You wonder if we have memory. I believe I have already answered this question, but our memory is not yours; and so you struggle to define us within your narrow parameters. Recently your scientists conducted rudimentary experiments that again provided surprise. They fed Chambered Nautilus after setting off a flash of light. Several hours later the scientists flashed the light again. The nautilus, and I quote, “appeared to show interest in the flash of light.”After twenty-four hours no one, with the exception of the scientists, responded to the light. Although the experiment was officially complete, three days later the youngest scientist, prodded by his own forgotten lunch, flashed the light at the Nautilus again. This set off a waving of tentacles and discussion of potential study flaws. In the end the scientists published only the 24-hour study. Still, they were floored to find even short term memory. Our brain, by your again narrow definition, lacks the requisite regions dedicated to learning.
I propose an alternative. Perhaps science should design an experiment to determine a region of the Nautilus brain dedicated to humor. Maybe we are conducting experiments on your scientists.
I also raise a related, more sobering, suggestion. Perhaps we are not the ones who should be tested for forgetfulness.
Author / Speaker