Author / Speaker
Chapter Thirty One
She drifted up on Long Drop Off as she always did, but this time she dropped the anchor; fixing to the mooring buoy alone at night was too risky. She knew the reef well. She lowered the anchor, felt it settle in sand. Backing the Wendell Holmes she felt the anchor catch.
Briefly she thought of Able. No doubt he had broken a promise or two for the greater good.
The night was warmer than normal. Dry-mouthed, she put on her gear.
She slipped quietly off the swim step and sank beneath the surface. The water closed overhead, sudden cool on her scalp, the familiar feeling of a curtain closing.
She kept her dive light off. She descended to thirty feet, feeling the change in pressure in her ears. She stopped and drifted.
The world crackled.
Bracing herself she looked down.
There was nothing. She was out and away from the reef, the ocean floor 4,000 feet below. Fear traced a finger down her spine.
She floated, willing herself calm. There was the faintest hint of current. She felt herself rocked slowly in the balmy darkness. Like birth.
They appeared first as thousands of tiny sparks. They rose toward her, wavering hypnotically, like embers from a fire. She was drawn toward them. Half aware of her own descent, she stopped at 80 feet. Turning on her dive light, she swung the beam through the water.
The scattered embers were now a deluge. As they drifted close, passing through the beam of her dive light, they assumed implausible and lovely shapes. Something that resembled the Mad Hatter’s chapeau. Then a fish, no bigger than a thumbnail, staring back at her, its fins like hands. A thumb-size jelly floated past; it appeared to house a delicate stand on which rested an equally delicate diamond.
Wafting, twirling, cilia legs running in numbers uncountable, they rose from the deeps, transparent glories that pulsed and sparked color.
It was Eden.
And then, in the deep, a pale spread like a reef itself.
She had come for this, but panic still gored her, clawing inside her chest, turning her breathing ragged and making her heart gallop. In the first instant she wondered if she had made a foolish and fatal mistake. She saw again the meth addict’s distended face, a last question before blurting out his innards.
She rose slightly, fighting back the urge to kick wildly for the surface.
The shape, so familiar and yet so otherworldly, continued its rise. Her mind slowly pieced it together as it drew closer. She knew the shape by heart – the lovely, three quarter crescent of shell, dark zebra stripes etching the ivory surface, the protective plate, resting like a warrior’s shield above the head, the army of snow-white tentacles wafting like streamers in a slight breeze -- yet she struggled to assemble the outsize proportion in her mind. As it rose it bobbled slightly like a bubble.
The creature stopped rising. Enormity made it difficult to judge how deep it was, perhaps thirty feet below her.
In front of her the sea of ctenophores, sea angels, heteropods, salps and venus girdles danced; the loveliest ballet, for her eyes only.
The single tentacle came toward her slowly. It was one of the smaller tentacles, yet as it drew close she could see it was thicker than her torso. As easy as a breath, fear left her. She saw the slow ascension for the signal it was. Apprehension. Anticipation. At last, long-awaited realization. She had reached for her son’s tiny squalling form in the same way, a gift not be believed
She felt her own arm extend. In the funnel of her dive light she saw her hand, pale and pimply. Like a chicken, she thought, and she almost laughed.
Contact was gentle, a spongy bump, and then all serenity was blasted away. The phosphorescent dream waters disappeared. Terrible images ran ragged through her mind, passing so quickly they were barely more than flashes of shadow and light. It was like rolling beneath the hooves of a stampede. Whatever tore through her mind was screaming, a heart-wrenching sound born not of pain but of hopeless despair. Cedar wished for pain, for the despair was worse.
Her eyes were closed tight but the flashing stampede continued unabated, a melee of blurred images, the screaming riding alongside, only now she knew the screams were her own.
Something pushed at her and she was tumbling through the water. When she remembered to open her eyes the nautilus was nearly gone, receding into the blackness which snuffed the giant form as easily as a match.
The phosphorescent masses were gone too.
She floated alone in the water column, crying.
For as her eyes absorbed the here and now, the stampeding visions came to her clearly, a ruined world of stinking oceans and rancid rivers, where great storms razed sea and land, and governments and order toppled, and men, women and children did not reach out to each other but performed unspeakable acts in the name of survival, and glistening, half-recognizable things slid from a porthole in a gore-splattered slurry, puzzle pieces that had comprised a whole.
Instinct saw her out of the water. Curled on the deck, she held herself.
Overhead the stars laughed.
It required all my strength and cold-bloodedness but now is not the time to coddle. We are nearly past the crossroad. She needed to see where the other paths lead. She had to see because she matters greatly in this game, which is no game at all. So many millennia, arriving at this juncture: time and fate and mounting woes intersecting. Yet even as the terrible visions swirled between us, she did not draw away. I felt the press of her fingertip, warm blood propelled there by a right heart. She did not falter. It seems when it comes to judging some of you, I am not entirely blind.
Drifting down, I know I have made the right choice. It is the second time I have seen tears underwater, tears without recrimination or self-pity, tears of simple knowing.
Tears of apology in the clear sea eyes.
In the dark I think. I try to retain objectivity in the face of my own shock. Rational was what I once was. Cold, calculated, objective and, yes, merciless. Uncaring and unfettered by emotion. I try to concentrate on what truly matters. She absorbed the lesson. She will pass it on. This is a victory for hope. But here in the darkness my insides are sick and hollow too. It is not the visions that make me sad. I am quite familiar with them. It is loss that assails me. When we touched I knew that she will not be part of this pageant much longer. I know now she is dying.
The possibility of just such a surprise is precisely why I spread the word. I have tried, as you say, to cover all the bases. But planning does not alleviate sorrow. I do not descend beyond hearings’ range. When the engine throttles to a start and the boat begins to move away, I drift in the direction of the receding sound.
Even as I rise I tell myself her passing will be a small setback, but the cause will not be lost. She was right. She has already accomplished her task. She has raised a child. This shock, I tell myself, doesn’t qualify as shock at all. It is merely one of life’s countless surprises, almost inconsequential given what else is at stake. Soon enough, stronger players by far will take up the cause. Her passing is no cause for alarm. As I tell myself this I know it is not alarm that sees me break the surface.
I cannot bravely soldier on with this quest in every moment. In this moment I am not sad for the world. I am sad for me. I need to see the stars. Two women sharing secrets in a quiet kitchen can become friends and even lovers.
I apologize. I must modify what I stated earlier. On certain fronts, I can predict the future. I know I will pine for plumeria and bagpipes. Yet another ache in an accumulating sea.
Toward dawn the wind rises. I hear its song.
The next time the wind laments, listen closely. Is it not the sound of bagpipes keening?
When Cedar returned to Koror harbor late in the afternoon, Marty was at the dock holding a bouquet of lilies. They said nothing until after they made love, gently and quietly, quick breaths and the cries of tropical birds in their ears.
“I can’t just forget,” Marty said.
She kissed him. For an instant she felt like a mother again.
“We’re not supposed to forget,” she said.
She was no longer in this alone, but still she hesitated.
“I need to tell you,” she said.
The tears came again. When she finished, Marty said, “Is that our future?”
“I don’t know.”
She knew why she thought of Justin.
She returned slowly.
“Are you frightened?”
The men did not return to their single rented room. After three days the proprietor, who catered primarily to a questionable clientele, reluctantly called the police. Able drove the police van to the shabby hostel. He watched quietly as two of his officers placed the drug paraphernalia, porn magazines and ratty backpacks in the evidence bags he knew would reveal no evidence. For a week the island buzzed with talk of the missing men and a small band of citizens came into his office – was a serial killer afoot in their paradise? -- and then everyone returned to their jobs, their lovemaking and their lives.
At the end of the week, Able called Cedar.
They were past pleasantries and gambit.
“Do you know what happened to these men?”
“They disappeared without a trace. It has a familiar ring.”
“I know you don’t believe me, but no.”
“I was almost certain this call would be a waste of time, but I had to be able to tell myself I tried. You understand, I have to do something Cedar. I am charged with protecting the people on this island.”
“They aren’t in danger.”
He wasn’t angry. He was just very tired.
“I no longer believe that is an accurate assessment,” he said.
He knew what her face looked like.
“What do you propose?” she asked quietly.
They both knew what he would say.
“We have to expose it and kill it.”
“You saw the photos.”
“That assumes you even find it.”
They were adversaries now, but they had been friends.
“It’s not what you want to do,” she said.
It stopped him for a moment, but then the policeman in him was back.
“I know you are not with me on this, Cedar. I am truly sorry.”
“I’m sorry too.”
Able kept the phone to his ear, although he expected nothing else. The silence and Cedar’s even breaths were soothing.
In his mind, the distended sharks hung in the town square amidst a cloud of flies. If Justin and Issy hadn’t cut them down, he would have.
She hung up softly.
He considered summoning Cedar and Marty to the station, but he knew the summons would yield the same result as his phone call.
He turned on the computer and, in his first break in the case, connected to the internet on the first try. It never ceased to amaze him that a tap of the finger brought information from every corner of the globe.
This also made it hard to know exactly who to notify. He had always been a precise man. Never before had it been more important to be just right.
He finished his research after midnight. He made his decision. He would make the call the following afternoon. It would be morning there. He would have to plan what he would say; otherwise he would be heard as a lunatic, a policeman gone troppo.
Before turning off the computer he went to his downloads. He clicked on the photographs one by one. He had looked at them countless times, yet each time they shook him, touching him, not with fear, but with an inexplicable sadness. Each time he felt something else too, the faintest drumbeat behind his temple, almost imperceptible, struck again and again. He felt he should grasp this drumbeat -- that it was beating out a message he should decipher -- but the drumbeat contained nothing resembling words, only a hypnotic rhythm that was probably just an overexcited pulse in his head. Yet some nights he would wake to his wife’s soft snoring and hear the beat clearly, and something in it would fill him again with the weight of loss and sadness. Several nights, alone in the kitchen, he wept. He didn’t know why. He wondered if even the crime of this small place had turned him into a melancholy man.
It was well past time to go home, but after he turned off the computer he remained in his chair. Rocking gently he idly considering last week’s Manila Times folded neatly on his desk. The paper contained an article about a Florida toddler who had fallen into an exhibit housing African painted dogs. The boy was torn to pieces. African painted dogs, explained zoo officials, are pack hunters.
Man had traveled an inconceivable distance beyond the taming of fire, but the prehistoric was never more than a fingernail scratch beneath the veneer.
He gathered up the pages he had printed, slipping them into a file. For four hours he had read everything he could, so many words his eyes stung.
For some reason one phrase stuck in his head.
Naturalists have long marveled at the shell of the Chambered Nautilus. The logarithmic spiral echoes the curved arms of hurricanes and distant galaxies.
Perhaps he had finally come up against something beyond him.