Old men say that life began in the sea. Blood is salt, like seawater; the heart moves an ocean in miniature. The moon pulls tides in the womb.
What old women say is this: what is taken from the sea, the sea will take back.
The Isle of Hatera is a patch of sand sprinkled with rocks. My Lord Sallus promised that I would get to know every stone and pebble of it. He was right. It takes less than half an hour to walk its shoreline. I was exiled there for a crime against nature.
I never knew who built the house on the lone outcrop. It was very old. Sallus had it cleaned and furnished. He also had the cistern repaired and the latrine on the rise to the west. It wasn’t his way to let me be lacking.
My provisions were brought twice a month and left on a sea stack like a stone pillar north of the island. I had to stand at the foot of the iron pontoon bridge when they came. They wanted to get a good look at me. They sailed from some big island beyond the horizon. I don’t know which.
The first weeks don’t bear description. There is an art to being alone, and my frivolous life had provided me with few resources. I did everything I could to get my mind off the gray infinity that stretched before me. Strangely enough, carnal fantasies about my wife—my former wife—became my constant companions, until exposure had almost obliterated her face from my memory.
The only thing that saved me from outright madness was the regularity of my keepers’ coming. One day while I was waiting for them, listening to the surf and the silence, I saw that I would lose my mind if I kept on as I had. What I needed was a project. Various ideas for escape had occurred to me, but something useful would have to wash up first.
Two peninsulas encircled a little bay on the southern shore, the side that faced the open ocean. There the water was shallow and calm. I decided I would build a spiral jetty.
A few days later, I was sitting at the wooden table in my house when a pair of armed man-servants stepped in. They stood on either side of the door. I seized my bread knife and backed against the wall. A slim figure entered between them. It was my wife.
“Disarm him,” she said. “Search the room for other weapons.” I threw the knife at her feet in disgust. She colored, then nodded to the guards. They went outside.
Her eyes went flitting about the room. “Don’t bother,” I said nastily. “You’ll say something half-hearted about how well I keep house. I’ll know that you’re thinking something quite different and push you to tell me the truth. You’ll pretend to spare my feelings for a few minutes, then break down and tell me how disgusting I am, how you’ve always reviled me, how your precious Great Uncle Sallus would never behave as I have, and how I’m the one to blame for all of your problems. You see? No reason to go into it.”
“If you already know what I’m going to say, I don’t see why I even bothered to come.”
“Then get out,” I said. And she did just that.
I stood there in the middle of the room for a long time. It hadn’t gone at all as I’d planned. Except that she’d looked better than in my most titillating fantasy.
Why had she visited? Was it at Sallus’ behest? I thought not. In the end I decided that she’d come to apologize, to ease her guilt for moving on to some other man, or whatever it was she had done. Suddenly I was glad I hadn’t played along.
There is, woven through this world, an occult skein of luminous threads, a web of relations, with signs that signify themselves. I knew it then but darkly, through the silence of wind and surf. But there is in truth little to tell. They aren’t the kind of thing one talks about.
In building my jetty I followed them, as the sun draws the scale-tree up out of the earth, pulling its branches and leaves along the channels laid out for them; as the stars steer their courses through the sky; as the fishes swim the paths of the sea. They were like a trellis; I the trained plant, restricted (some might say) while drawn ever upward, granted new freedoms, new visions. All I had seen so far was only a trace or projection of that larger universe. The ocean, the limitless ocean, that has beaten the shore infinite in its devious turnings for five billion years—the ocean is its alpha and omega.
I may be disbelieved when I tell how I, all unknowing, began to attune myself to these siren song-lines, trace them with the fingers of my soul, and so sidled crab-like into a more congenial frame of somatic organization. But so it is. The world is big with significance. We just stand too close to see it. With each step we put our foot out over the abyss, and the earth rushes in to catch us at the last instant. The true life is a walk in darkness, its destination hoped-for but unseen.
And so the jetty proceeded apace. I’d begun with a mound at the center, collecting stones from around the island and depositing them in the bay. My involute unwound from there. As I finished each section, I poured gravel into the crevices and formed a level surface along the top. The jetty’s appearance pleased me. Its brown-black rocks and pale sand stood out against the green sea.
My daily schedule was rigid. Each morning I greeted the dawn and contemplated my work, then went searching for suitable stones. Heavy labor I saved for the afternoon, when I otherwise grew restless and weary.
Weeks turned into months. The equinox came and went, and the cool of the year arrived. The days were short and the nights were chilly. The tides varied from neap to spring and back to neap again. The winter solstice went by, and the spring equinox as well. The beams of the sun grew stronger. The days waxed longer and longer.
My beard fell down to my chest. My tattered shirt became a rag. I went with back bare, my skin toasted a shimmering bronze, my limbs supple and strong. I was the golden god of the desert island, the master of my own solitude. But I went with seared vision and brains slightly cooked; for one cannot look long upon the sun.
One night I rose from my cot and went to the window. Strange clicks and whirrs mingled with the sigh of the surf. The gibbous moon made a chessboard of the island. Dark forms flitted about where the white breakers rolled in. I feared nothing on Hatera, so I went to investigate.
They were crawling around at the edge of the sea, hundreds of them, their high carapaces like domes of burnished bronze, their sword-tails scoring the sand behind them. They seemed excited. Their clicks sounded like speech.
At first they didn’t mind my presence. I succeeded in getting close to one and flipped it over with my foot. Its pale spider-legs writhed frantically as it whipped its tail against the sand, trying to right itself. Its head was distinct from its soft, jointed plastron, eyeless but with facelike features. It rolled over at last and scuttled into the surf, hissing with agitation. After that, the creatures avoided me.
The next night was much the same. I began to recollect certain old fables about a preadamitic race of ensouled decapods that did battle with the giant eurypterids and ammonites of the whirlpools in the southern straits. Do you see? I thought of the sea-folk only after their first appearance. And yet my labors were their ineluctable summons, as I had known (without knowing) that they would be.
Then, on the third night—the night of the full moon—the females came.
I knew they were females as soon as I saw them. They were larger than the males and had ornate, sculpted hulls. The acrid perfume they released in the surf stirred strange feelings in me. Some of them were attracted to my jetty. They crawled all over it while the males hissed disconsolately from the shore.
From a distance I watched them pair. A male would cling to his mate’s carapace while she dug a hole in the sand. Then she would drag him over it, pause, fill the hole, and go to repeat the process elsewhere.
This went on until dawn paled the sky. Then they vanished into the sea.
My wife paid her second visit at midsummer, nearly a year after the first. This time she was alone. I was working down at the bay. She came and stood on the shore, waiting for me to notice her. She wore a dress of black brocade edged with black lace. Her auburn hair streamed in the wind.
I was still putting the finishing touches to my jetty, but it was essentially complete. The space enclosed by its turns had begun to shelter a sea-garden. Green anemones spread their carnivorous blossoms. Trilobites skittered over the stones. Sea lilies waved in the currents.
My wife surveyed it from where she stood. “What is it?” she asked as I waded onto the beach.
She began walking along it, following the paved path around and around until she reached the center. There she stopped and regarded me. “I wanted to talk to you.”
“Let’s go to the house.” I waited for her to wind her way back, then led her up the path.
“You look like the Old Man of the Sea,” she said as we went along.
“It was you who put me here.”
I looked at her, but I couldn’t read her expression.
We got to the house. “Welcome to my abode,” I said. “Take the chair. I’ll sit on the cot.” I sat cross-legged on the wood-frame rope bed while she settled herself at the table.
The color had risen into her cheeks. She avoided my eyes. An ugly look appeared on her face. “I’m sorry for what I did,” she said.
I was so gratified by this that I found it hard not to gloat, unseemly though it was. “You’re sorry. That’s wonderful. Now that you’ve unburdened yourself, you can go back to court with a clean conscience, and I can finish my days here, content with the knowledge that you’re sorry.”
“I can’t go back there,” she whispered, covering her face with her hands.
“Just tell me one thing,” I went on, brimming over with glee. “What was it that made you turn me over to him? I mean, you didn’t want a child any more than I did. In fact, if I recall correctly, it was your idea to practice—”
“No, it wasn’t. You’re the one who suggested it.”
“Well, you practically forced me to. Remember? It was the night of the fête. You said—”
“Enough! Enough!” she shrieked. “Do you always have to have everything worked out? That’s why I did it! Gods! How I despise you sometimes. I didn’t want to say that, but I can’t help it. I despise you!”
That silenced me. I suppose I had achieved my goal. For a long time we sat there without saying anything. I listened to the surf and thought about my project. “Do you like my jetty?”
“It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
“Does Sallus know you’re here?”
“Of course not. My people wait in the boat. They won’t bear tales.”
“Why did you come? To apologize?”
“I—I want to get you out of here. I’m working toward it. I just wanted to tell you that.”
“And if you aren’t successful? Because we both know you won’t be.”
“Then I’ll come share your exile with you.”
“They’ll never let us be together.”
“We’ll escape. We can live in secret in Panormic Styrrhena or the Golden Horn or the Deserits. Someplace my uncle won’t find us.”
I nodded. “When?”
“Give me a few months.”
We spoke then of unimportant matters. She kissed me—I could tell she was a little reluctant—and went out. I watched her pick her way to her ship. I didn’t expect to see her again.
The fall equinox went by. I finished the jetty and began to extend the path into a design that encompassed the entire island. As I worked I felt that I was tracing something foreordained. At each stage I merely did what seemed most fitting. My house’s knoll was the pole of dynamic symmetry.
I made a discovery in the dead of winter. The day was too cold and stormy to go out. I was just sitting there, listening to the wind, when I noticed that one of the flagstones had come loose. Out of boredom I began idly to work at it.
I succeeded in flipping it over. There was a hole in a corner of the depression. I used this to get a purchase on the neighboring stone, and pried that off as well. The hole I’d uncovered was large enough to admit a man. I spent a few minutes preparing a torch, then dropped down into it.
The chamber had once been a natural cave, but human hands had shaped it into a cubical space. An altar ran along one side. Carved above it was the image of an architeuthic ocean goddess with vacuous, lidless eyes; hundred-handed, a corporeal icon of divine energy.
The other walls were adorned with painted bas-relief. They told the story of the rise from primordial chaos, when demiurgic spirits of flame kindled the spark of life in the vents of the deep sea, and of the advent of man and a race of marine arthropods.
Several panels recounted the whelming of a human kingdom by an inbreaking ocean. The survivors gathered on a mountain peak that rose above the waves and there made a sacrifice to the goddess. A spring welled up from the earth. Some drank of it and joined the sea-folk. Others made their way ashore. The arithmetic spiral was a motif throughout, in the coils of the mantled goddess.
When the weather improved I began to investigate Hatera with a new end in view. I crossed over to the sea stack and searched for a cave like my own. I found nothing but a shelf where the surf slapped noisily underneath. After that the outcrop became a kind of asymptotic attractor for the whorls of my design.
The sea-folk returned later that spring. The females emerged under the full moon. I awaited them on the spiral jetty. They swarmed up it, surrounding me, feeling me with their bifurcated forelegs.
I continued to visit the sea stack every spring tide. I knew now that a cave was submerged beneath the shelf. Each month it was a little more exposed. Finally, at the new moon nearest midsummer, I was able to enter.
The sides were carpeted with dripping seaweed. I went up a flight of slippery steps into a small chamber. A stream spurted from a crack. The water, I found, was fresh. That one taste filled me with a sudden singing desire to devoutly consummate my union with the authoress of my soul’s longings, the belemnitic mother of life. I filled a jug and bore it back to my house.
To this day I wonder whether the spring would have been there had I not sought it.
My wife paid her third visit a month later. It took her a long time to come to the point. I made one or two little attempts at intimacy while she talked, hating myself all the while, knowing how deftly she would turn me aside. It was just another way of spilling myself in the sand, but I couldn’t help myself.
Giving up at last, I said: “How’s it coming?”
“How is what coming?”
“What we talked about last time.” She didn’t say anything. “Have you made any headway with Sallus? Or are we going to try to escape together?”
“Escape where?” she laughed bitterly. “No, I haven’t made any headway. How could I? It was stupid of us to think we could get around him. He’s had all sorts of people banished now, you know. They call him the Reformer.”
“So...you don’t want to escape?”
“Like I said, where to? What would we do? You don’t have any useful skills. I can embroider a little, but not enough to make a living.”
“That wouldn’t matter to me, so long as we were together.”
“That’s very well for you to say. What do you have to lose? But I—” She froze.
“That’s how we stand, then,” I said. I turned to the window.
“Darling,” she began, putting her hand on my shoulder. I shrugged it off. Inwardly, though, I was dancing with joy. I knew I had her.
“Spend the night with me,” I said. She didn’t answer. The silence was taut. I could feel her eyeing my sun-hardened skin, my unkempt hair and beard. I hated her for it, oh, how I hated her! “Just for company,” I forced myself to say. “For old times’ sake. You can go in the morning. Then you needn’t bother with me again. You take the cot. I’ll make do with the table.”
“I’ll have to go get my things,” she said at last.
“Are your people with you?”
“No, I hired a boat in Ket. I can’t trust my servants anymore.”
“You sailed over alone?”
“Of course not. The fisherman is anchored beyond the islet. I rowed myself ashore.”
“Will he wait for you?”
“If he wants to get paid. I’ll be back in a moment.”
While she was out, I prepared our meager repast. I got myself water from the cistern; her water I poured from the jug. Then I laid out the board of fare: purple dulse, hard oblongs of fungous fruit-bread, two boiled cheboth eggs.
I was just replacing the flagstone over the storage cellar beneath the house when my wife returned. We sat down to eat. She pretended to put on a brave face but made it clear all the same that she wasn’t used to such viands. She wrinkled her nose when she tasted the water. “Is this from your cistern?”
“That’s right,” I said.
“Is it quite clean?”
“Oh, yes. It’s just a bit musty from sitting in my jug.”
“It makes me feel strange. You’re sure it’s safe to drink?”
“Quite safe. I’ve never gotten sick.” She emptied her cup, then, oddly enough, asked for more. She drank that down as well.
Her sleep that night was troubled. It took her a long time to get up in the morning. “I don’t feel right,” she said as she swung her feet down.
It was true that her skin had grown a little pale. Also, her eyes looked unnaturally large and protuberant. When she stood, her gown swung loosely from her shoulders. Its hem touched the floor. “What’s wrong with me?” she grunted. She stumbled to the jug and drank straight from its mouth.
“Maybe you should stay for a day or two, until you feel better,” I said. She nodded and went back to bed.
I went out and dragged the dinghy ashore. The boat was beyond the sea stack. The fisherman was nowhere in sight. I hoped he would give up waiting and return to Ket.
My wife was asleep when I got back. Her face had new wrinkles. Her skin was so thin that I could see all her veins through it.
She slept through the rest of the day. By evening her hair had begun to fall out. At sunset she opened her eyes wide with horror. “What’s happening to me?” she rasped. She got up. Her gown dragged on the floor now, but it was stretched tight over her back, which had begun to broaden. “Help me,” she said.
I gently stripped off the gown. She hardly looked human now. Her abdomen was shrunken, her bones deformed. Her vertebrae had begun to thicken and shoot out strange growths that moved beneath the skin.
Suddenly her shriveled legs gave way and she went scuttling about the room, hissing bewilderedly. I coaxed her back into the cot. She fell at once into a deep sleep.
In the morning she looked more like a larva than a woman. Her eyes were dark spots on her pallid face. I went out for a long walk.
When I returned the cot was empty. A hardening, fluid-filled sac was hanging in the corner, cemented to the ceiling by dried mucus. There was movement inside it. Her face was a grotesque mask at the bottom. A bulging, jointed dome was taking shape on the back.
When I saw that, I drank a draft from the jug myself.
The tree of life springs from one stem. The segmented worm gave rise to the joint-shelled tribes, but also to fish, and hence to man. Do you doubt this? Man is segmented. It’s true. His skull and his spine are but a great sea-worm that carries its brine with it, in blood. Do you still doubt? Set side by side the embryo of a man and a shellfish, and tell me which is which.
And so, as I followed my wife’s transmutation, no violence was done to my form. I was only stepping from one branch to another of the same family. I slept the great sleep in my sac on the ceiling, and emerged on a morning of pale sun and placid water.
I went out. A dark form sat at the edge of the sea. She waited while I approached. She was much larger than me now. It was impossible to tell if she knew me. Her eyes conveyed nothing. Had her mind even survived the change?
But how tenderly, oh, how tenderly did she rear up a little and touch her foreleg to my carapace! Our shells knocked together, and it sent a quiver of excitement through my soft insides. I began to hiss and wave my tail. She turned, inviting me, and I clung to her carapace.
And there, on the beach, we made love after the fashion of the sea-folk. When we were done we climbed out on my jetty and surveyed the view. The great goddess hoved upon the unbroken waters, her mantled miter an arrow to the sun’s lidless eye, her pliant, muscled arms snaking sublimely through the deep, with pointed fingers and paddled hands playing the organ stops of oceanic profundity. The vision faded, or rather, resolved itself into the enigmatical reserve of blank infinity.
The green sea beckoned. We plunged into it and swam side by side, upside down, steering with our tails as rudders.
Now we dwell in swaying gardens and calcareous houses on the abyssal plain, watchful for dread things of the deep, of which no man may know or speak.
Return to Issue #144