Chapter Twenty
The Poet

   On the nights when Marty didn’t stay, she returned to the computer. Now she skipped the celebrity shenanigans and alien sightings. The trend had risen slowly to her consciousness; first one news story, then another and another, gathering raindrops buried deep within the Sisyphean heap of words. Now she found the items virtually every night, short news bytes that most readers likely still didn’t see, buried in the trivia.
   Altered migrations. Strange feeding frenzies. Never before seen behaviors. Unprovoked attacks. Shocking mutations.   
    She told herself the stories were simply the result of more reporting. Random stories with no possible connection. Filler in infinite internet space. But in the dark galley of the gently rocking Wendell Holmes, they felt like something more. Like scratchings. Like whispers. Like clues.
   They fit like puzzle pieces.
   And there were more and more.

   She waited until Marty had logged fifty dives before she took him on the nautilus dive. The dive was easy. They strayed no deeper than fifty feet, but with Justin gone she was alone in monitoring the divers underwater. Ernan had to stay with the boat, and with college on the horizon she couldn’t afford to hire another crew member. On the paying trips she couldn’t babysit Marty.
   But Marty now had his buoyancy under control, although he still insisted on stroking through the water with his arms, no matter how many times she told him how much easier it was to just kick with his legs.
   “I allow you to fly with your arms and your legs,” replied Marty, who somehow managed to look regal even when defending the indefensible.    
   Marty’s first nautilus dive took place on an unusually windy day in early June. The wind was unexpected. It started to build as they left the harbor. By the time they were halfway to Long Drop Off, it was blowing hard, scouring the tops off the waves, increasing Cedar’s worries. Novice divers do not like floating on the surface in choppy waters. It slaps at their faces, obscures their view, pushes into their mouths. More than once she had seen beginners panic in chop.
  Cedar had a full boat, a group of Japanese divers from Nagasaki who had chartered the boat. Language was a bit of a problem, but the Japanese visited Palau in droves and Cedar, with a small gift for languages, had picked up enough Japanese to manage. Plus these Japanese were, as always, unfailingly polite, and when they dove they clustered together like preschoolers in a haunted house.
   Six nautili had come up in the cages, the divers handling them as if they were 3rd century vases. Cedar couldn’t help but smile.
   Occupied with her responsibilities, she had virtually ignored Marty, although she had noted proudly how he had helped one diver get into his gear, and replaced the broken fin strap of a smitten thirty-something.
   That he was attractive made her proud. That he was good with his hands gave her other pleasures.  

   That night after they made love, they lay quietly, the smell of brine drifted through the porthole. A sliver of moon hung just off the porthole’s center, a fish hook, waiting.
   Marty stared up at the ceiling.
   “Well?” she asked.
   “Well what?”
   “What did you think?”   
   She was so surprised she sat up and stared down at him.
   “We’re discussing the lovemaking, correct?”
   She jabbed a muscled rib.
   “You know what we’re discussing, smart ass.”
   The word made her think of Ted Marple and her happiness dimmed.
   “They were absolutely beautiful,” said Marty softly. “Like time in a shell.”
    She watched his eyes search the ceiling an arm’s length above them.
   “How can this one be so much bigger?” he asked.
   For a time, the subject had gone away. Cedar hadn’t known whether to feel relieved or abandoned.
   “I don’t know. My simple guess is it’s much older. Much, much older.” For some reason this didn’t frighten her. It made her feel secure. “Even the,” she searched for the right word, “conventional ones keep growing. They secrete new chambers as they grow.”
   Marty still looked at the ceiling.
   “The chickens were torn to pieces.”
   “That’s what nautili do.”
   “Do you think it was there while we dove?”
   It was the question that was always on her mind.
   “I honestly don’t know,” she said.
    Marty rolled to face her.  
  “It’s a big leap of faith you’re taking,” he said. “Maybe it’s riskier than you think.”
   “Nothing has happened. Nothing will happen.”
    They both heard the anger in her voice. Was she lying to Marty? To herself? The nautilus dive was her breadwinner. College loomed. She knew it was what Marty was thinking, but he knew it wasn’t necessary to say it out loud.
    Delicately tracing her spine, he said, “End of interrogation. I’m sorry.”  
   “I worry about it, too.”
   “Well, you worry too much.”
   Gently he pulled her back down.
   They lay facing each other.
   The finger, graceful as the man, traced her chin and trailed a crooked tingle down her neck. It continued making pleasant circles down.
    “I love your touch,” she said, her voice already husky.
   “I love to touch.”
    The finger stopped just short of where it had performed its earlier magic.
   “Please,” she said.
   The berth creaked as Marty repositioned himself.
   He kissed her navel, his lips now performing the slow, excruciating downward spiral.
   She spoke to the ceiling.
   “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul, as the swift seasons roll. Leave thy low-vaulted past. Let each new temple, nobler than the last, shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast, till thou at length art free, leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea.”
  “It’s beautiful,” he said, his warm breath making her quiver. “Who wrote it?”
  “Oliver Wendell Holmes.”
   “Your poet.”
    The chill that ran through her was not from his kisses.
    She sat up.
   “What’s wrong?”  
   She didn’t hear him.
   The words rang in her head.
   Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee, child of the wandering sea…

   Yes, I knew this man Oliver Wendell Holmes and he knew of me, but no one, not even his loving wife, knew of our connection, at least not directly. Poets are sensitive souls, but they are not fools. In Mr. Holmes’ day, sanatoriums were particularly unpleasant places.
   The Chambered Nautilus, you might say, was a collaboration.  
  Mr. Holmes and I also knew Emerson, Longfellow and Hawthorne. He (and I) outlived them all. This led him to comment, “I feel like my own survivor… We were on deck together as we began the voyage of life… Then the craft which held us began going to pieces.”
   These were his words alone, but they are endowed with appreciable foresight, wouldn’t you say?
   Let me be clear, so that you may understand. They speak their own minds, but unconsciously they speak mine, too. You know these people. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Henry David Thoreau. Jules Verne. Moving closer to your time, Theodore Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, Jacques Cousteau, Sylvia Earle. These days even a few television actors turned environmentalists. The latter are no Oliver Wendell Holmes, but your television is quite the bully pulpit. And at this point, every bully pulpit must be utilized.
 “The globe began with the sea so to speak; and who knows if it will not end with it,” penned Mr.Verne.
   A little ghost writing.
   I did watch them as they dove. As always, she was bewitching. He was a mess.

  Three days later, Marty delivered a ham radio and medical supplies to one of the remote islands. He stayed overnight, showing the younger villagers how to work the radio.
  Cedar slept alone. She dreamed of Chinese lanterns. Inside them, the flames danced.

Author / Speaker