FICTION | Rapture of the Deep

30/9/2021

Full fathom five thy father lies; / Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes; / Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.

– William Shakespeare, The Tempest

The sea is sparkling on the surface but at the bottom black and cold. My father used to tell me stories about the things he found in those inky places, which he said was like outer space, full of alien creatures with tentacles and teeth, silky white membranes which are like some inner organ of the moon. There were other animals that looked a bit like the human brain, and some that were like slow fireworks in the night sky, with half-transparent flesh and veins that glowed with all the colors of the rainbow. He said that there comes a point, if you go very deep, when you stop swimming and begin to fly, floating over the tops of enormous dunes which are like secret mountains. But this can be dangerous: sometimes the gravity pushing down on something is equal to the volume of water underneath, which pushes upwards, and the object is flattened, unable to rise or sink. This is why sometimes you come across bodies which are like pancakes, and their eyes are as flat as coins in their head.

 

When conversations took a macabre turn, my mother would generally interrupt, saying it was time for bed, or calling us in to eat. I noticed she was not such a fan of these stories; once, at dinner, when my father was telling me about the time he saw a ragged tooth shark in the middle of a shipwreck and swam right up to it, I saw my mother roll her eyes discreetly.

 

On holidays, we would go to a small grey house which stood all by itself on the shore, far away from the village; it had thin, white curtains which blew in and out, as though the house was breathing. While my mother read her book on a deckchair, I would swim around the craggy rocks with my goggles, discovering that underwater world where everything seems bejeweled, where lines of light ripple over the reeds, and the fish are lit up hanging, trembling.

 

When I came back for dinner, my mother would hold up my little hands, wrinkled with water, and laughingly say that I had become a grandma. I had a bucket, and every day I brought back bits and pieces that the sea washed to shore, which I would display proudly to my father: a piece of the shell of a harlequin shrimp, a pink pebble, the delicate crenellations of a starfish, pieces of oddly shaped driftwood (I learnt not to bring back plastic bags or bottles, because he became inexplicably angry, and it would take a while before my mother could calm him down). He said all these things I brought back were little pieces of a vast puzzle, and that we would probably never know the whole, but that the sea was leaving us clues in its own language, and we must try to listen very carefully and do our best to understand. He could never understand why so much money was spent exploring the spaces between stars, when the biggest mystery was here on earth, in the darkness of the sea. The sea has its own secrets, he said; think of an oyster shell, so gnarled and grey on the outside, but once you crack it open, smooth and shimmering, and sometimes there’s even a pearl in it.

 

The sea, he said, is much bigger than all the land put together; it covers two thirds of the surface of the world. If you drop something into the sea, it can never be retrieved. That watch I had lost last year, my father explained, was still ticking somewhere in the depths, and would probably never be seen again by human eyes. The bottom of the sea is the place where all of the things we ever lose end up.

 

My father warned me that the sea was beguiling, dangerous. The deeper you descend, the more the sea wants to pull you down and keep you. It does this by making the pressure of the gasses that you breathe much higher as you go further down, resulting in nitrogen narcosis, which is also called the rapture of the deep. This means that you are lulled into a pleasant drowsiness, and sometimes you feel a sudden euphoria. Maybe you even start to hear the sirens singing in your head.

The stories my father told me were my first instruction in the sea, my first taste of the obsession which would never leave me, but they also taught me things about him which he kept hidden from us. Looking back, I can see that behind those tales of the depths was a mind that delighted in whimsy but was helplessly drawn to darkness, and that for all his fairytale descriptions of the city of Atlantis, his vision was a haunted one, which could not help but look for the bodies on the seafloor, their dead, white eyes flashing like pearls. Sometimes he sat up all night in the living room, not bothering to turn the lights on, or would go for long walks and come back hours, even days later, and at last go to bed in his big coat, snoring loudly. He would lose things: his keys, his passport, even his shoes (“How did you manage to lose your shoes,” my mother shouted, “when they were on your feet!”) He became increasingly vague, stopping mid-sentence to stare out into the distance, and never answered his phone. When my mother and I moved out, he barely seemed to register the change at all. I wrote him emails about the different types of coral I was studying, or some new obsession I had found, like radiolaria, the tiny mineral skeletons which under a microscope looked like cathedrals. His replies were enthusiastic but not very frequent, and one day he stopped writing back altogether.

 

The sea was wintery but still, reflecting the grey sky, and my mother and I rented a motorboat and went out to where we could no longer see the outline of the town. The air was cold on our faces as we huddled together, and the sea and sky all around us were separated only by a slightly darker grey smudge on the horizon. I remember being slightly disappointed, as I had imagined that we would scatter his ashes into the wind, watching them fan out before settling into the water. But there was no wind that day, so we just put the ashes, in their white cardboard package, into the sea, and watched it drift away, until it was quite far, a white shape on the grey water, and then all of a sudden it went down, and we watched it sink.

 

Then I imagined the white package spinning slowly on its way downwards, the light dimming around it as it got deeper and deeper, until at last everything was luminous, and strange fish would swim by it on the seafloor; jellyfish, with their milk-white tentacles, would reach out to touch it. Maybe it had happened to fall in the place where my old watch had come to rest, still ticking, but grown over with green and purple seaweed. I was thinking about all the things that are lost at sea, and can never be recovered, and I imagined for a moment that everything that was lost came to the same place, a magical city underwater, somewhere like Atlantis, and that I would go there too one day. Then I would pick up the old watch and put it on my wrist, and looking up, I would see a little grey house, with thin white curtains billowing in the windows, and after a while my father would come out, with his hair and clothes floating around him.

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