Author / Speaker
Chapter Thirty Two
It would be easy to call an end to it. We could usher you toward your oblivion. It might very well be the best way to start anew. A clean slate to begin the planet’s resurrection. Ecosystems bounce back with surprising speed after even the most massive die-offs. Our planet has a bright history of rapid recovery without any help from you. Eden without Adam and Eve. Eden again.
To each of your generations, the same facts surprise as if they are brand new. Oliver Wendell Holmes was bewitched by the lustrous coil. Jules Verne observed Nature’s glorious engineering and imagined a submarine of many compartments, christening it the Nautilus. When the first Nautilus shells arrived in Renaissance Europe, collectors fell to respectful silence. They saw the perfect spirals as reflecting the larger order of the universe.
Your forgetfulness would be amusing if it didn’t have such deadly repercussions.
I am not forgetful, but I have been rendered indecisive. I suppose I can blame my indecisiveness on a tug-of-war. Sister Phyllis Newman. Three putrid corpses choked down to dispose of the evidence. Abraham Lincoln. Adolph Hitler. The semen already staining the man’s boxers. Cedar Mahoney’s tears. Yes, no, yes, no, yes. If I didn’t know better, I’d say someone was playing games with me.
It wouldn’t really matter if you disappeared. Many among us see your throwing yourself on your own sword as proper punishment and no loss.
Again and again I debate with myself, like an old woman standing at a half-familiar street corner. The debates vary, but they always end the same. I see the limp boy rising toward the sun, his pale body lighter than them all, so light he draws me up with him. A boy raised on a fleck-of-birdseed island in the middle of the Pacific. A boy, light as a sunbeam. Hope given form.
Hope above doubt. Hope above evil, ignorance, indifference, sloth, hatred, lust, greed.
Perhaps this is no more than a hope itself. My own hopeful delusion.
In the oceans, creatures are stirring of their own accord. I sense it. I have not forgotten. Liopleurodon banking slowly, vectoring with a fin-changing course, turning about. Fang and claw. A force of Nature I may or may not subjugate.
It is possible I am losing control.
It is certain we are sliding close to a tipping point from which there is no turning back.
At least not for you.
But all is not lost. Time, the patient educator, has taught me many lessons. What is your expression?
Never put all of your eggs in one basket.
He is one of the world’s preeminent underwater photographers, aboard this boat to shoot a magazine story on the Sea of Cortez. After a long day of diving the other divers are drinking in the galley of the Becky Lee, already dozy drunk. He is a teetotaler and mildly shy. He needs night shots too, and when he walked to the stern thirty minutes ago to share a little quiet with the stars, he saw the Humboldt squid, attracted by the Becky Lee’s lights, darting just below the black surface like gray shooting stars.
Humboldt squid were once confined largely to the Southern Hemisphere. They are spreading now into waters off California, the Pacific Northwest and the Sea of Cortez. You have not yet pinned down the reasons for this outward migration -- gradual ocean warming, pollution, over-fishing of the squid’s predators, the squid fleeing deeps now sucked dry of oxygen (recall the Dead Zones?) – but sometimes a reason is not what matters.
Make way for the aggressive opportunists.
Recently scientists attached your so-called crittercams to Humboldt squid and learned some startling things (a recurring theme). Humboldt squid hunt in tightly coordinated groups, a behavior heretofore unassociated with invertebrates. You knew they flashed colors, but the cameras showed the squid flash specific red and white color signals when they encounter an individual of their own species. They “may”, you hypothesize, be talking. And, when inspired, they move very, very fast. Your crittercams have clocked them at speeds of nearly 45 miles an hour, comparable to the fastest ocean fish.
Remember the octopi experiments.
The squid you catch on camera, they may downshifting.
You don’t need to be capable of abstract thought to have a sense of mischief.
On the back of the deck he pulls his gear from his dive bag and suits up. He has done this thousands of times. Still he triple checks his air, breathes through both regulators and examines his BCD to ensure his backup dive light is clipped tight, if, for some impossible reason, he should lose his camera rig with its white bright strobes. Complacency kills. He has heard dozens of stories, and twice witnessed it first-hand.
He glances toward the door leading to the galley, warm light behind the porthole’s scratched glass. He should tell someone, but now that he is suited up he just wants to go. It is a calm night; the ocean’s surface barely fidgets.
He places his camera carefully on the swim step and slips into the water. He pulls the camera in after him. Its weight makes him sink. For an instant he sees both worlds through his face plate; the lights of the Becky Lee and the black water. The thought strikes him every time. Two distinct worlds, distinctly one. He tells this story at every lecture he gives. As the oceans go, so we go.
The curious squid are already bumping his legs. He trains his strobes out into the darkness. The school is far larger than he thought, a continuous wall of flesh, whipping past. His experienced eye picks out individual squid. Some are big. It’s hard to tell in the kaleidoscopic movement, but he knows from experience the Humboldt squid can measure up to six feet and weigh over 100 pounds. He is experienced but not jaded. His heart beats faster. He’s going to get good shots. Possibly great shots. Maybe a career changing cover.
They are on him before he raises the camera, swarming as if on some collective signal. They fill the parabola of his vision created by the strobes, flashing iridescent rainbow colors. They fix to the strobes, his hands, his mask, his regulator, powerful suction cups wresting. He kicks for the surface with everything he has. His mask is torn away. The world goes blurry but he knows he is wide-eyed because his eyes sting. His regulator is yanked away. He still has a chance; the surface is ten feet away. He swims daily to keep in shape. He kicks hard, rises, feels the first fin pulled free. His wetsuit tightens about him. Pressure builds in his ears. Away from the pinnacle, there is nothing but deeps. He recites the figure to himself as if he is standing at a lectern. Three thousand feet to the bottom. That is where he is going.
When it is finished the squid flash their electrifying colors, translucent and beautiful and different from any color they have flashed before.
Your scientists are bewitched by cephalopods. Puzzle solvers. Tool users. Communicators. Cephalopods, you surmise, may be able to see with their skin. Or laugh. I find nothing funny in this. The man, he was one of the good ones. A small savior.
Squid are far more intelligent than you believe. I won’t burden you with details. I will only say there are some shocking discoveries just over the horizon. I will tell you this. These Humboldt squid in the Sea of Cortez, they were playing. A conscious game of cat and mouse, without conscience.
I don’t need to explain such behavior to you. Your own bullies have graduated from playground fisticuffs to drive by shootings. The squid, they were wrong, but similar soul-less ugliness unfolds in your world every day.
Your crittercams have captured how Humboldt squid, at times, ruthlessly cannibalize their own. You believe the larger squid are simply eating the smaller. Let me suggest an ancillary theory. The indecisive are being eaten. A selective winnowing to hasten the genetic advancement of the brutish species.
Your writer Robert Louis Stevenson said, “To become what we are capable of becoming is the only end in life.”
A double-edged sword, no doubt.
When I reprimand these squid they pulse as one, a shimmering, laughing wall.
Cedar woke in a cold sweat, her stomach queasy. She returned to the present slowly, and when she did she saw Marty sleeping soundly beside her and she smiled. She wondered if anyone else on earth slept so peacefully. Except for the slow rise and fall of his chest, Marty slept as if he actually was a log. Wyatt had been a fitful sleeper, tossing and turning and grinding his teeth, perhaps tormented by the alpha male confrontation of the upcoming day. Oddly, her otherwise serene Justin had inherited this fitful gene.
In the night silence she realized how much she missed him. He was coming home for the wedding, but that was still a month away.
She looked at the clock radio, the numbers red. Three ten. Just past noon in Chicago. It had been two days since her encounter with the nautilus. She had waited too long already. She wasn’t sure why she was delaying. Maybe she wanted Justin to get on with his own life. But she also knew his life was part of this.
Something saw her rise from bed.
Slipping from the cabin she padded into the galley and flicked on the computer. She left the lights off. She listened to the computer whir and click to life. Her gaze fell on the basket of fruit on the counter and the single overripe banana. Her heart gave away a beat. She missed Jonathan too. She would give anything to have that damn fruit bat drool banana bits down her front again.
It took her more than an hour to compose the e-mail. She did not apologize for her secret. It didn’t matter now, and she had known he was never in danger. She labored to describe every detail of the encounter. As her words scrolled across the screen, she realized how absolutely impossible they looked. It was so much to tell and so much to accept. Dreams made real.
She wrote and rewrote, envisioning Justin’s face as he read the words; worry first, and then a furrowed brow as he worked at choosing his own words, words that wouldn’t outrightly call her insane. This time when she reached the end of the letter she didn’t allow herself to hesitate. She clicked send.
It was done. She sat in the dark. Justin could be anywhere. She realized she did not know her son’s life. He might not have his phone with him. It might not be on. Even if he was reading her e-mail right now, his response wouldn’t be quick. It was too much to respond to in an instant.
She was sliding back her chair when the words appeared.
It’s exactly what I dream. It’s what I’ve always dreamt.
A pulse banged in her head. She was barely aware of her fingers typing.
Why didn’t you ever tell me?
She held her breath, waiting for the answer she knew was coming.
It was my secret.
This she understood.
I come to the harbor again and settle against the hull of the boat, every groove as familiar as the habits of an old friend. I do not come for her now. She no longer needs me. I come for me. I wish I could sweep the dark dream away, but the dream is hers alone. A dream like this, it cannot be erased. It is not a metaphor. It has nothing to do with oil spills, pollution or wanton destruction. The darkness is coming just for her.
I cannot stop it.