We set out early, the ocean calm and the sun just rising over the horizon. The colors of the sky and water mimic each other’s pastel blues, the puffy white clouds reflect in the clear flat ocean.
Every year we meet in paradise; always somewhere with crystalline waters and a turquoise sky. Beautiful locations with thick green leaves and various shades of sand, where the sun beats life into a yellow glow.
I marvel at the clarity of the colors; away from the dry desert heat, the grey city skies, the congested desiccated lives that we all live.
Four of us, best friends from college, come from different parts of the globe—different lives, different commitments. Sarah, Jess, and Mae.
Sarah married her college sweetheart and moved to France. Jess jumps from partner to partner, always falling in and out of love; in love with being in love, traveling around the world for a new face. Mae married her job, and moved to New York; she is attached to her phone, her computer, her online meetings.
Alone and bored.
In the same town I grew up in. I didn’t know what to do after college, so I went back to the place I always dreamed of leaving.
I work. But that is all it is; a daily cubical with a screen staring back at me.
I date. But that’s all it is; occasional dinner, occasional sex. The faces aren’t new, most of them are the same faces from high school.
My life has faded into routine, and not a routine I like.
Even this trip, with Sarah, Jess, and Mae giggling over champagne and strawberries.
Sarah talks about her husband and her kids, about wanting to have more babies, about how they have tried and tried, but the last baby is starting kindergarten and maybe she can’t have any more children.
Jess flirts and talks about her insatiable sexual appetite, imagining what the bartender and waiter would be like in bed; one, the other, both together.
Mae checks her phone with every vibration, telling us about upcoming meetings and mergers and unreliable employees.
It has all become predictable.
The same trip every year under slightly different skies. The hoards of tourists litter the beaches like an invasion of cockroaches.
We are cockroaches like the rest.
The thing that keeps me coming back is the sea; the familiar weight pressing in on me as I listen to my own breath, in and out, a meditative silence. To dive is to find my center of balance if only once a year.
If only with these three women.
The sun lingers over the horizon as our skipper drops anchor in the shelter of a secluded bay. He raises the red flag with the white diagonal stripe, letting other boats know there are divers in the water.
I’m partnered with Mae, clinical and organized. We go through our partner BWRAF checklist.
We check that our quick releases and toggles are clear with no binding or tangles, looking at the low-pressure inflators to be sure we know how these specific ones work and that the air is flowing.
We check our weight belts, checking the releases should one of us get in trouble.
Mae tugs on my tank to be sure it’s secure and then turns for me to do the same.
We check that our valves are fully open with a tiny turn back, check our tank pressure and each take some full breaths, to be sure that our oxygen tastes and smells normal, and that we are getting our necessary air.
We each breathe from the other’s alternative air source, our life supply should something happen to our own.
We check our dive watches, our masks, and give each other and the skipper our final okay.
All four of us ready, we move to the platform which sits slightly underwater on the back of the boat. I go first, placing my right palm over my regulator and fingers over my mask so they don’t get dislodged as I hit the water. I hold my weight belt with my right hand so that it doesn’t unhook and sink.
I take a giant stride, my left leg stepping far from the platform as I feel the water swirl up around me; my breathing and the bubbles of the water the only sound. The ocean water fills the spaces between me and my suit, cool against my skin.
I glimpse the underwater world, my refuge, and bob back up to the surface.
I put my fist on my head, the signal that I am okay. I paddle my feet, moving away from the boat, and feel the familiar power of kicking that fins provide.
Mae steps in next and swims to where I am, away from the boat but close, so that we can come together as a group before we descend.
While Mae is my partner, the four of us tend to stay close together, each finding animal life and pointing it out.
I feel a certain peace with the weight of the water splashing over my shoulders. The excitement of the dive is building in me.
I want to descend; am ready to descend.
Even with the others at my side, I feel alone when I’m beneath the surface. I long for that feeling of isolation.
Together, we face our partners and begin to release air from our vests. Keeping eye contact, very slowly we sink, the sea covers the tops of our heads. We move steadily, adjusting the pressure in our ears and we become a part of the depths.
This is not a deep dive, our first dive of this trip. Most of the ocean floor here sits between 30 and 50 feet, moving deeper towards the open ocean. We have come to the bay to see an old wooden ship, sunk hundreds of years ago, and the plant and animal life that has formed around it.
Sinking slowly, we find our equilibrium, our feet hovering a few feet from the bottom. We are always careful to keep our fins from touching, to leave that white sandy world alone.
Our bodies are leaning forward now, our feet stretching out behind us. Mae and I give each other the signal that we are okay and she points in the direction of the wreck. I signal my yes and together we begin to move.
Brightly colored fish dance around us as we glide through the water.
You must always know where your partner is in this underwater world. You are their safety and they are yours.
I still pretend that I am alone down here; that this is my world. The only place I feel at home.
Mae points and makes the hand sign of a sea turtle.
I see it.
We move toward the creature, gliding easily through beams of yellow light.
We watch with reverence, keeping our distance, but following gently as it heads in the direction of the old wooden ship, now broken and decayed at the ocean bottom.
The turtle makes a sharp turn to the right and in the distance, in the direction it is headed, I see something glimmer. It appears to be an arch, but within the light of the water, I’m not sure what it is I’m seeing.
I get Mae’s attention and point in the direction the turtle is headed, now away from the wreck.
Mae shakes her head and points back to the broken wooden remains. This is why we came, I can almost hear her words echoing in my head.
I point again towards the turtle and the arch, curious. I put my hands together like I am pleading with her. It is not a standard scuba signal, but she gets my meaning.
She waves to Sarah and Jess, and points in the direction I want to go. They give us the okay signal and turn to come with us.
The archway becomes clearer as we move closer; a complex curving stack of stones on the ocean floor. They reflect black, like obsidian.
It appears to be shrouded in golden mist, which makes no sense to me, being underwater.
Everywhere else down here, the water is clear.
As we move closer, I point to the arch, but Mae shakes her head and shrugs her shoulders. She points back to the sunken boat.
I swim closer. The water seems warmer here.
I point again at myself and then at the arch. I want to go closer.
She shakes her head and points back to the underwater boat.
Sarah and Jess are just behind Mae, but they seem disinterested.
There was nothing in the guidebooks or websites about this unique structure. We can’t be the first to see it and I can’t understand their lack of curiosity.
I swim back to Mae and take her hand and with the other point back to the arch.
What I can see of her face appears annoyed. She shakes her head, shrugs her shoulders, and then waves her hand in the direction of the arch.
She seems to be signaling that she doesn’t understand what I’m looking at, as if what I’m seeing isn’t even there.
I point at myself one last time, point at the arch, and then point to her and hold up my hand. I am trying to tell her “Give me a minute to look, but you can wait there.”
She seems to understand, although I can make out a face of confusion behind the mask. She signals an okay with her hand.
I feel like the turtle as I swim to the arch. It is perhaps 8 feet tall and another 8 feet from base to base. I want to swim through it, feel the need to swim through it. Then I will go back to my friends, go back to the undersea wreck.
The closer I get, the mistiness seems to clear. But when I look back at my friends, they are the ones who appear cloudy.
Just a quick swim through the arch.
The water is colder as I reach the beautiful structure of black rock.
I rarely use my hands when scuba diving. My head leads the way, my hands hold together at my chest, helping me correct my balance, and my feet propel me forward.
My head moves through the arch first.
The light through the water changes.
No longer does the sun beam as rays through the water. It is as if the water itself glows yellow, like honey.
I turn back to my friends, feeling a sense of accomplishment, a satisfaction of doing what I wanted to do. I feel free.
My breath catches, and for a moment I almost let go of the respirator between my teeth.
Behind me, the landscape is different.
The arch lies as a pile of rubble, scattered black rocks on a black sandy-bottomed bay. Cliffs jut out among deep shadows that look like caves.
My breathing quickens as I look for my friends and begin to swim back in their direction.
No friends, no sunken boat that I can see.
The bottom is stretching further down, becoming deeper. The plant life is nestled next to the black rocky cliffs.
It is yellow and gold and red, autumnal under the sea.
A creature, squat and round with tiny legs and what appear to be wings soars in front of me.
Penguin? I think. That’s impossible, there are no penguins here…
Another swims past, darts past.
As I turn beneath the honey-colored water, trying to follow it visually, I see that there are more swimming among the cliffs.
They are shaped like small penguins, darting among the crags and caves.
I look up to the surface, I am deeper than I was; deeper than I should be.
While the water is golden, there is no light shining in from the surface. Beyond the water appears dark, a deep shade of purple.
Oxygen, I think. Oxygen runs out faster at deeper levels.
I look at my pressure gauge. No, that doesn’t make sense.
Time goes quickly when diving, but I haven’t been down here long enough to be this low.
I must start ascending, and I need to do it slowly so nitrogen doesn’t cause bubbles in my blood. If I drop my weight belt, I will rise to the surface too quickly. If I start to fill my vest with air from my tank, I lose precious oxygen.
The risk of the bends is more real to me than running out of air. If I get too low, I can drop the weight belt and face the consequences.
I press the valve to start my gentle ascent. The vest increases slightly in pressure, not too much air, only enough to give me lift. Slowly, I begin to move upward.
Something moves in the shadow of the caves.
Something like a face.
I can’t be sure, it looked like a primate of some sort.
But that makes no sense. I am afraid that I am losing oxygen; perhaps I am hallucinating all of this.
Calm my breathing. An excited person takes more oxygen. Breath deeply and slowly.
I see it again. Another face.
Something is swimming towards me.
I feel myself starting to panic, I reach toward my weight belt.
What is that?
It swims towards me like the iguanas of the Galapagos island, its reptilian tail stretching out behind. The face that looks at me is almost human, partly primate, primal with a broad forehead and wide-set eyes. The skin of its face and hands and feet, almost human, appears to be covered in scales. The rest is covered in soft golden hair that moves with the water.
I push back against the water, trying to move away, trying to make distance from this creature. I refuse to turn my back on it.
I begin to scream, unaware of the water around me, as my regulator falls from my mouth. Bubbles rise from my open lips, but when I gasp to take in air, my lungs are filled with sweet amber liquid.
The creature, a bit smaller than me, stops just a foot ahead of me. It turns its head as if contemplating.
The edges of my vision are turning dark and my body fights for oxygen.
From behind me, I feel hands grab my shoulders. I look down to see that they are scaled and reptilian.
But I have nothing left.
The world fades as the animal before me moves the last bit of distance.
I can not move back as the hands of the creature behind me hold me in place, there, deep beneath the golden ocean’s surface.
The creature before me moves its face closer, pressing its lips to mine.
I cease to remember.
To be continued…
This Week’s Prompt
Week 23 – Adult friends on vacation in the tropics
Include the words; scuba diver, champagne, invasion, archway, hoard, strawberry, penguin, autumnal, cease, mist
Check out these two other versions of the Week 23 prompt:
First note… this is not the end of this story. I don’t know what the end is yet, but I expect to use another prompt in these 52 weeks to figure it out.
I had an idea to take my limited experience with scuba certification (back in 2011) and play with the quiet of the underwater world. While I have only scuba dived once (and all of these photos are from that single trip), I loved the quiet and isolation of the experience.
Despite the fact that I was with my husband and his family, I felt essentially alone and recharged beneath the water. Something akin to parallel play, where you are having a deep and personal experience along with others having their own experience.
Seeing the word archway, I could imagine an underwater arch as a part of ruins, Atlantis perhaps. However, I wrote about the rising of Atlantis back in Week 4 with Rapture in Reverse.
I wanted to figure out if I could connect this story to that story, but it was an internal fight. Plus, next week’s prompt centers around Zombies and I really want next week to become the sequel to that original story.
So then I started seeing a different world through that arch, a different world for my protagonist to experience.
About 10 years ago, I was working on a middle grade novel where one of the main locations is an undersea villiage with a creature called the Simi. They are a mix of chimpanzee and Galapagos iguana, brilliantly smart, and vital to the movement of that story.
Perhaps, I thought, this arch can take my character to the bay that the Simi live in; a bay of honey gold water and purple skies. I haven’t visited that world in a really long time, and it’s a world I need to revisit in a book that I also need to revisit.
I don’t have an answer as to what will happen to this character in the underwater world. I’m not sure if she’ll stay, or perhaps return to the world she comes from. I’m not even sure she could return to her world if she wanted to, and honestly, why would she want to?
I hope you enjoyed this chapter of a story. If you did, I hope you’ll share it.
Every Friday, I send out a newsletter with any recent writing. You can sign up for it here.
I’m in the process of creating a new art website, you can sign up for notifications at www.loscotoffart.com
Next Week’s Prompt
Week 24. The early days of the zombie apocalypse
Include the words; motherboard, buffalo, Eiffel Tower, raven, motorcycle, envelope, tulip, moon, reflect, sycamore