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Rapture of the Deep

Rapture of the Deep
By Fiona Honor Hurley

I have seaweed for hair and barnacle-encrusted stone for skin. Saltwater runs through the marrow of my bones. Little is left of the human in me, but for my blood and my song.

* * *

Michael watched the green light of the radar blip across the screen.

“Nearly at the site now,” Yiannis called from the wheel as he slowed the boat. “You think she’s nervous?” He nodded towards the woman outside the cabin.

“Zoe is an experienced diver.” Michael lifted his scuba tank over one shoulder. “Don’t you know Aussies are thrown into the sea as soon as they can crawl?”

The boat came to a stop. The radar circle continued to blip but the seabed markers were still.

“How old is this site?” Yiannis lifted his cap to scratch his head.

“We won’t know until we’ve collected the articles and dated them.”

This was the Aegean, after all. For thousands of years, ships had crossed and re-crossed this sea road. Every archaeologist working in these waters hoped for a B.C. date – hoping to make a discovery that would change the knowledge of the past – but Michael tried to temper his hopes with realism.

He walked out onto the deck and blinked several times to accustom his eyes to the sun. The sky was the same blue as the Greek flag that fluttered at the stern, and the sun reflected off the sea as off a bronze shield.

Zoe leaned over the side, facing away. She was a good head-and-shoulders shorter than him, her dark hair cropped so that a trail led down the nape of her neck. The wetsuit was not unflattering on her.

“Looking forward to the dive?” he asked. Then, shaking his head at his own mistake, he tapped her shoulder so she turned towards him.

You like dive, he signed.

I love to dive.

You like see old things?

I love seeing old things. That’s why I’m studying archaeology.

Was she making fun of him? She had a face that might have belonged on a Mycenaean vase, but for that shimmer of a smile.

My signing bad?

It’s getting better.

“I can lip-read,” she said.

“I just want to practise my sign language.”

“We’ll get plenty of practise underwater.”

“That’s true. Hard to lip-read with a reg in your mouth.”

* * *

A friend of Zoe’s once asked her what it felt like to be deaf. Zoe didn’t know how to answer, because she had nothing to compare it to. There were animals that could sense the magnetic pull of the earth, and to Zoe, the sense of sound was just as mysterious and as meaningless to her life.

There were times when she felt as if a membrane separated her from the hearing world. Her large Greek-Australian family always seemed to be arguing, or making up from some argument, or telling jokes that got lost in translation to sign. Zoe had been the serious sister, the studious daughter, the girl at one remove from life.

But then she discovered underwater, where no-one could use sound to make sense of the world any more than she could.

* * *

I once knew bright sunlight and blue-and-white air. I miss it sometimes. My home is darker now, where only refracted rays reach me.

* * *

Michael and Zoe had already checked their own gear. Air gages working and tanks full. Each regulator – or “reg” – letting air in and out. The spare regulator – the “octopus” – working the same. The dive computers, hers looking enormous on her slender wrist. The weights and the fins. Now they performed the buddy check on each other.

Underwater was an unforgiving environment, so you checked everything, doubled-up everything, made sure you were as prepared as possible before you went down.

He spit into his mask and wiped it clean with his thumb.

All good, he signed.

She sat on the starboard, leaned backwards, and splashed in. Michael came after her. They didn’t go under straight away, but bobbed on the surface for a moment.

He had learned to dive in the English Channel, near his own home town, where he wore a dry suit to keep out the heart-stopping cold. He had dived in the Gulf of Mexico, where the sensation was more like stepping into a warm bath. The Aegean was neither extreme, just slightly cooler than the surrounding air. He licked his lips; they tasted of salt.

Yiannis threw out the buoy and Michael caught it.

“Pull on the rope if you are in any trouble!” the Greek man called.

Zoe popped the reg in her mouth and turned her thumbs to indicate down. Michael returned her signal and then they went under.

It was a strange sensation, to put your head beneath the sea, to watch the bubbles of your breath trail above you. After many years of diving, he still felt a second of amazement and terror before his rational brain kicked in and told him he was really, truly breathing underwater.

As they moved downwards, a shoal of blennies darted past their masks. The sun refracted through the water, glittering green and silver through the blue. Zoe tapped Michael’s elbow and made a sign he didn’t recognise. She pointed to her right at the dolphin that swam in the distance. He heard its squee-squee and then it was gone. A sign of good luck, he would say, if he were a superstitious man.

They descended slowly; as divers and as archaeologists they had both learned patience. The sun dispersed in a hundred new directions. All he could hear now was his own Darth-Vader breath and the rushing of blood in his ears. He wondered if this was an approximation of what it was like to be deaf.

* * *

Unlike most creatures down here, I have warm blood. Like the dolphins that play, like the seals that flip over and back, like the giant whales that sometimes pass. Like the humans, with their voices and breath and pumping hearts. I miss their voices. I need their breath. I want their hearts.

* * *

50 metres down, light penetrated thinly through the plankton and the seagrass emerged as if from a fog.

Michael unclipped the torch from his belt and scanned it across the sea floor. Zoe took out her camera and snapped a photo of some pottery sticking out of the sand. She signed the word amphora, and he noticed more of the vessels, a substantial number. Maybe the site was older than they’d first thought: a ship from ancient Greece, its wood long since dissolved in the saltwater of the Aegean but its amphorae still containing residue of wine.

He felt his breathing quicken and consciously slowed it. No point in getting excited and using up his air.

He made a few more notes before lifting the torch to scan ahead through the seagrass. Something reflected back, something eerily white, like marble. Frog-kicking so his flippers wouldn’t raise silt, he swam to take a closer look.

And then he heard the song.

* * *

He wants to know, of course he does. My song – is it from a whale? A dolphin? The echo of a bird? Or is there something human to it? They always want to know. It is their strength and their weakness.

* * *

Moments like this were why Zoe had become an archaeologist. It was even better when she could share such moments with someone who felt the same excitement. Michael had worked on underwater sites throughout the world but he’d confessed that Greece was his real love.

The amphora nearest her was buried in sand except for a curved handle and neck. Terracotta, hard to determine its colour in this light.

Her eyes followed Michael’s torch as he swam away from her. She checked the figures on her dive watch – plenty of air, plenty of time. All was going according to the plan they had laboured over. She saw his light catch on a white post that tilted sideways out of the sand. No, not a post, a statue of some type. Hard to see with the seagrass waving around like green fingers.

Her heart quickened; this could be a substantial find. She put her camera back into its pouch and took out her own torch before swimming towards him. The statue was marble, encrusted with barnacle. A woman with long hair, her tunic draped so one breast was exposed. From an ancient temple perhaps?

Michael tilted himself at the same angle as the statue and waved his hands in front of it. Signing at it. Talking to it.

She tapped his mask and signed What are you doing, you idiot?

* * *

Thousands of years, and all that keeps me going is the memory of warmth and breath, and the hunger inside me. They sail above on boats of animal hide, of wood, of iron – and more recently, on rubber rafts packed too full. I sing to them, and they come to me, down, down. Sailors and fishermen and mothers grasping their children.

* * *

Zoe snorted so the bubbles came hard out of her mouth. She’d seen this type of behaviour before. He was “narced”, suffering from nitrogen narcosis or “the raptures of the deep”, his brain high on the build-up of nitrogen in the blood. She needed to call off the dive, to get him to ascend before he did something stupid.

He took out his reg and offered it to the statue.

Something stupid like that!

She tried to take the reg from him, but his arm swung backwards, knocking her into a semi-circle. Water shot into her mask and sand scattered upwards as she hit the seabed. Her torch skid away from her, throwing the whole scene into odd shapes.

She emptied her mask and took a long breath, assuring herself that she was physically fine, that Michael hadn’t meant to hurt her. One of them had to keep their head; that was one of the reasons for diving with a buddy. She picked up her torch and swam back towards him.

You’re narced, you bastard! Crazy! You need to breathe. She loop-the-looped her finger around her temple; even hearing people understood that one.

She put her own spare reg in his mouth so he was sharing her air tank. As she pressed the button to force air in and water out, he neither pushed it away nor acknowledged her presence. She focused her torch on the statue’s face.

Its hair waved like seaweed, and its mouth widened as if screaming.

Zoe blinked. In the dim light, all she could see was outlines. Outline of Michael, still as a statue. Outline of a statue that wasn’t still. No, the statue couldn’t have moved; she must have imagined that; the floating seagrass had fooled her. Her breath came out faster and she realised she wouldn’t have enough air for both of them much longer. Would she have to leave Michael to save herself?

Beautiful. He signed. The song, so beautiful. Wish you could hear the song.

Zoe gave the statue one hard kick with her flippered foot. It tilted farther, and Michael at last turned to look at her. Behind his mask, the pupils were so wide they nearly covered his irises.

Come with me. She took his hand, and this time he didn’t resist.

* * *

No! Why does she not respond to the song? They always respond to the song.

* * *

The song stopped inside Michael’s head as he became aware of his surroundings again. Zoe’s hand was in his, leading him upwards. Breathe in, breathe out. He was sharing her air, sharing her breath. Her torch lit the way through silt and plankton. She found the rope and lead him upwards, hand over hand.

Part of the way up, her dive watch pinged a warning and she pulled still. In a portion of his brain, he realised they’d reached the depth where they needed to make a safety stop; ascending too quickly could lead to the “bends”. The song was no longer outside in the water, but an echo remained in his skull.

* * *

How can you leave me, without knowing all I can tell you? How can you go without giving me your breath?

* * *

When Zoe decided the nitrogen narcosis should have worn off, she took her spare reg out of Michael’s mouth and placed his own back in.

The waiting was always hard. The ocean wanted to keep you moving: to pull you downwards, float you upwards, or push you sideways. And now she had the added desire to get away from whatever was beneath them. By training and temperament she was not inclined to panic, but right now her rational brain was struggling to stay in charge of her terror.

Well, that was interesting, she signed.

He gave her a weak smile.

I need to go back to the song, he signed back.

She blinked behind her mask. He couldn’t be still narced, surely, now that they’d reached shallower waters? But his eyes hadn’t lost that wild look.

What song? She responded. What’s it like, this song?

He looked downwards into the darkness. She remembered the statue with its waving hair, and she shivered.

It’s beautiful. So beautiful. Telling me I’d know everything there is to know.

She looked upwards towards the dimpled light.

We’ll never know everything. Not as long as we’re alive.

His pupils narrowed to more normal proportions.

Not as long as we’re …?

She squeezed his hand, and they both treaded water, waiting.

* * *

They do not know what they have, the humans, with their breaths and their pumping hearts. They only know when they are close to losing it.

* * *

The dive computer pinged again, letting them know their safety stop was over, and they kicked gently upwards. When they broke the surface of the water, she pulled off her reg and mask and gasped in the clean air. Yiannis yelled from the boat, too far away for her to read his lips. Water ran into her eyes, sparkling and stinging.

“Zoe?” Michael had pulled his mask under his chin, leaving a panda-rim of red skin around his eyes. “What happened?

“Buggered if I know,” she said.

* * *

Thousands of years I’ve been at this depth. Little is left of the human in me, but for my blood and my song. And only one woman ever proved stronger than my song.

* * *

Fiona Honor Hurley lives in Galway, Ireland, where she works as a technical writer. She has previously lived in Dublin, Glasgow, and Valencia. Her main interests, in no
particular order, are history, mythology, swing dancing, hiking, and making up stuff in her head. Her fiction has previously appeared in Number Eleven, Crannog, and Literary Orphans. She sporadically posts on her own blog, Tales of the Wild Atlantic Way.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

I have several ideas a day, but only a few stick around, like a bit of grit in an oyster that might become a pearl. I am often inspired by mythology, but I like to take a sideways look at it. “Rapture of the Deep” has a few sources: the myth of Odysseus and the Sirens, a documentary about ancient finds in the Mediterranean, my husband’s stories about scuba diving (particularly one about his friend diving with deaf people), a conversation with an underwater archaeologist. The characters of Zoe, Michael, and the Siren grew their own voices from there.