Word Choice features original works of fiction and poetry. Read an excerpt from J.M. Ledgard's forthcoming novel, Submergence.
He had lain down beside the trench and had a dream so lifelike he could not believe it was his alone. It was a Lenten carnival. A Christ-like figure was leading a crowd of young people in a dance. The music was techno. The street was narrow. Bodies were pressed up against old buildings. There were shouts in German and French. It might have been the pharmaceutical town of Basel. The Christ spelled out a message in hand movements like the hand movements of the flagellants who marched through Rhineland towns during the Black Death spelling out I am a liar, a thief, an adulterer, except that these hand movements were not confessional: the Christ and the crowd repeated over and over with their hands a thousand years of love, a thousand years of peace.
The faces were diverse. They were moved by a common happiness. Then there was a pop of a suicide bomber’s vest, a drawing in of air, and an exhaling, so that the carnival float, the Christ, and many in the crowd were reduced to shreds.
They carried him from the sea to a whitewashed mosque separated from the beach by a wall of coral and lava stone. It was an old mosque; the first believers in Kismayo were buried in a shrine in the courtyard. The doors and window frames were intricately carved from planks of mango wood.
They put him on a cement floor in a smoke-blackened room at the back of the mosque. He was nauseous. There was ringing in his ears. A pile of mobile phones on a carpet vibrated, stirring motes of fecal dust and frankincense in light that slanted down from windows which were barred but held no glass. His vision blurred. When he came to a lantern cast the same room more richly, so at first sight the faces of the commander and the fighters were like those in a Netherlandish painting.
The commander was sitting cross-legged on the carpet. He recognized him as Yusuf Mohamud al-Afghani, a forward commander of al-Qaeda in Somalia: thickset for a Somali, but with the usual Somali vanity, the hair crimped and made to shine like a songbird, like a jazz singer, the beard short and smoothed with ointments and dyed with henna, so that its underside was ginger.
Hair was the quality of the Pakistanis sat on either side of Yusuf: it curled and spilled astrakhan-like from their faces and shoulders and down their forearms and wrists and knuckles and piled in a greasy sheen under their headscarves.
He counted a dozen others in the room, most were Somali boys with very white teeth. Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers were stacked against one wall, sacks of frankincense piled high against another. Some of the men sat on crates of ammunition. A cheap Chinese clock with a picture of the Grand Mosque in Mecca on its dial hung over the door.
On the wall behind Yusuf was a framed page of the Koran, a newspaper cutting of Osama bin Laden before his submergence, and a poster of the French footballer Thierry Henry playing for Arsenal. There were rat droppings. There was litter. A teakettle simmered on a low paraffin flame in the center. Beside it were bowls, a pot of steaming rice, sacks of chickpeas, sweets, and sultanas brought by boat from Karachi. It was a badger sett: close, mephitic and possessing the threat of danger, Netherlandish brushstrokes painting the faces with depths and shadows.
The ardent young Saudi who had stood over him on the beach and fired his gun into the air and covered him in his headscarf breathed in close and fed him sultanas one at a time: Saif was there. Saif the gap-toothed, who was also known as Haidar, the lion, because he was a suicide bomber who had done all that was asked of him: whose vest had not exploded, and so was between the living and the dead, invincible, a martyr who went among them still.
Saif’s smile was misleading; he was calibrated, in this other respect a detonation waiting to happen, prone to violent mood swings and other reversals. He had memorized scenes from Pink Panther films, poured sweet tea for the poor, slit the throat of a student in Jeddah, and without regret threw a grenade into a video shack in Mogadishu, killing those inside for the crime of watching a Bollywood film.
Yusuf picked up mobiles at random and texted orders to the battle lines. When he finished he scooped rice into his mouth with his fingers and sipped tea. He ate in silence. He stood up and stepped over the legs of his men with care and courtesy. He paused over James, read aloud the words on the Englishman’s t-shirt, and continued out into the starry night.
A wind blew in off the sea. The courtyard of the mosque was sifted with sand. Yusuf washed his hands and feet and entered the mosque. He carried a lamp into the dark and knelt behind a pillar in the back and prayed. The jihad had been hard. His men had fought Ethiopian soldiers, African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi, and the Somali Transitional Government troops and its allied militias. At one time in Mogadishu the Ethiopians fired in phosphorous shells with a petroleum-jelly-like napalm which ignited and burned through shacks and stuck to the flesh of his men and smoldered through them. There was another offensive where they had to scrape together the pieces of the boys who had been directly hit by mortars and gather them for a funeral. He had resorted to the methods of Iraq, hiding among the poor, using them as decoys, placing improvised explosives in the marketplaces, and training suicide brigades for attacks on Crusader targets.
On the day they made love for the first time, she spoke to him about her work. They were sitting by the table in her room. Her papers and photocopies were stacked at one end. The filing cards were loosely arranged at the other. In the center of the table was a glass ashtray. She pulled from among her papers an aerial photograph of a ship. It was her way of easing into the subject.
“The Research Vessel Knorr. Home port: Woods Hole, Massachusetts. It carries all of the instruments that are meant to assist oceanographers. On longer expeditions there is often a submersible on board.”
It was summertime on the Arctic Ocean. There were fragments of ice. The decks were arranged in rectangles. There was a hangar at the back of the vessel. It struck him as industrial compared to the whaling ships in the paintings hung in his family home, which were curved, studded with whale teeth along the rails. Then again, what he did know? He was a paratrooper who had become a spy.
“I have a French view of science,” she said. “Very romantic. Don’t get me wrong. I am sensible. It’s just I have to stop myself from falling for comments, like ‘exploration is a hunt whose prey is discovery.’” She lit another cigarette. “Anyway, I’ve never worked in France. When I began my doctorate I divided my time between Zurich and a town called La Spezia in Italy. Do you know it?”
“The locals call it Spesa. It was convenient; not so far along the coast from my parents’ place. It’s the Italian naval base for the Ligurian Sea. There’s a lovely mural by the Futurist Prampolini in the town post office. There’s also a submerged statue of Christ in the harbor, a few meters down. You can’t see it, but I always felt it under me when we headed out, the hands stretched up”—she held her two hands over her head—“blessing all the boats passing above.
“The Ligurian Sea is one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean. It looks like this”—she doodled with a pencil a gash on a line she indicated to be the sea floor—“it goes down to 2,850 meters. An underworld within touching distance of the Riviera. Amazing.
“I’d gone to Spesa to work on a NATO project to protect the Cuvier’s beaked whales in the Ligurian Sea. They needed a mathematician to understand how noise reverberated in the undersea canyons. The hope was to track the diving range of the Cuvier’s and see if the navy sonar was damaging them. There were dolphins in the Tigulian Gulf and fin whales, pilot whales and very occasionally sperm whales further out. In my work I only had eyes for the Cuvier’s. They’re rough-toothed whales.” She sketched one. She was a teacher. “Seven meters long from short beak down its sloping head to its tail fin, here. They’re shy and difficult to spot. They live to eighty.”
Her drawing made them look like dolphins.
“Are they playful?”
She thought about it. “No, I wouldn’t say so. They’re hard to place. At first I felt they hadn’t grown up, that they were childlike, but the more we studied them, the graver their lives seemed to be. What is really interesting about them is how deep they go. They are the deepest diving creatures in the world. They stay underwater for an hour, to a depth of 2,000 meters, using sonar to hunt for squid there.”
“Not for me.”
He poured himself a whisky.
“I appreciated the way they looked, they were pretty things, chalked up under the jawbone, with heavily lidded eyes. The work wasn’t challenging, I grew tired of it, by the end the whales did not interest me any more than a partridge, or one of those funny three-legged dogs you sometimes see in the parks in London. The Cuvier’s are K-selected under the constant conditions of the ocean: slow maturation without predators; large brains, long gestation and low birth rate. If I had been an engineer like you I suppose I might have been interested in how they were at one time rendered for watch oil, causing the seconds to tick on Swiss watches.” She tapped her dial. “If I was a biologist I would definitely have been interested in how they can’t swim into the rivers that flow into the Ligurian Sea because their kidneys can’t clean out the bacteria that’s in freshwater. I probably should have marvelled at their intelligence. Instead there I was on the boat, and the boat was tipping, the boat is always tipping, listening for them first at this many fathoms, then deeper, and . . . do you know what a whale sounds like underwater?”
“Like a piece of plastic bending and snapping. Or sometimes telephonic clicking. Finally I got the message. The Cuvier’s were showing me the way, that was all. Nothing was the same after that. Instead of looking at creatures, I started looking at the sea itself, how it filled the canyons, and what is it like at the bottom, what happens there.
“I think I first started to think of this when my colleagues began to study the decompression the Cuvier’s suffered when they came up for air, they came up and it was as if they had left the world and the coming back to it was violent. They stay motionless at the surface and we still don’t know whether it is the pain of the bends, the osteonecrosis fizzing in their bones, or that they are blinded by the light.
The strategy of the jihadists allied to al-Qaeda in Somalia is to create chaos in order to establish a supreme Islamic nation pure in its religion: a caliphate of Greater Somalia at the forefront of the global jihad. Local and foreign fighters will strike at Christian Ethiopia and Kenya, seeking to liberate the Muslims in those countries, thereby dragging America, Europe and the other Crusaders into the fray. The goal of the global jihad is to replicate itself through force of arms, creating a Muslim superstate: intercontinental, without borders, adjudged by the same laws and united by prayer.
Yusuf prostrated himself behind the pillar in the mosque by the sea. He was a zealot, a soldier, an Arsenal football club fan, and Allah alone knew he prayed for clearness of mind and motive. He prayed for religious men. He prayed for the submission of Somaliland and the return of the Ogaden to Somalia. He prayed for the city of Mogadishu. He prayed that the thieving and whoring pirates be dragged by their hair into the burning presence of God, or else be strangled.
He was al-Afghani—the Afghan—because he had trained at the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan as a sniper, then in tactics. He had been a bodyguard to Abdullah Azzam in Peshawar until Azzam’s assassination. He had later been assigned to protect Hamza bin Laden, one of Osama’s younger sons. It was Azzam who laid out the path for Yusuf to follow: jihad and the bullet alone; no negotiation, no dialogue, no surrender.
He had been with Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora in 2001 for some days. He returned home to Somalia in 2002 a few weeks after escaping a raid on a safe house in the Asir mountains in south-western Saudi Arabia. When the counter-terrorism police burst in they found a bowl of porridge steaming on the table and a stack of passports from different African countries, each with Yusuf’s photo on them, each with a different name. The escape was celebrated on jihadist websites and bundled on videos along with bomb attacks and decapitation of infidels. Yet it was only a deception: an inside man in the Saudi police redirected the search team while Yusuf scrambled down a cliff.
He was at war with the warlords and the faithless others who had destroyed Somalia after the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. They were illiterate, syphilitic, irrational killers. But then, so were his men. The jihad attracted more than its share of sociopaths. What he needed were boys with pure motives who were prepared to go into battle, or strap explosives on and blow themselves up. He had spent his childhood as a shepherd in Somalia and he knew how tough and resourceful and undismayed boys were and always preferred them to men, who were unreliable, or who were in the jihad for pay or clan loyalty. He personally indoctrinated the boys in his camps: Kill in the name of Allah! Kill until the end of the world! If you are the last believer, kill! If you are killed, Allah will avenge you. If you are killed, paradise will be yours! He chanted the Koran. He told the boys how he had found no home in the twentieth century, with its Crusader and Communist empires, with the state of Israel and the Zionist plot, but had found a home for himself in the jihad in the twenty-first century. The boys quieted and hardened the more he talked. They punched the air. They hid their faces in scarves and performed forward rolls down rocky slopes with their machine guns. They were taught to fire mortars by a white-skinned former United States Army Green Beret, who had converted to Islam after serving alongside mujahideen units in the Bosnian war. Yusuf ended the training by talking about the caliphate. The caliph was coming, he said, the holy times were returning. The caliphate was a state of innocence protected by severe laws, where musicians and all people who acted like strangers were flogged, the hands of thieves lopped off, liars branded, and agitating Sufis, Christians, and Marxists beheaded. There were fewer parties, no cigarettes and no qat.
To pay his way, give to the poor, and support his wives and children, Yusuf traded in frankincense. The money for his militia came in tax revenues and extortion from the towns he governed and private donations from Arab countries. His weapons arrived by dhow from Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, and by plane from Eritrea. He fought alongside the jihadist factions under the command of Muqtar Robow and Hassan Turki, who called themselves the Shabab, or youth; he kept his distance from the rival Hizbul Islam of Hasan Dahir Aweys.
He was sometimes disappointed. Words were used instead of guns, and guns were fired where words would have done. He was a tactician, and his first tactic was absolute trust in Allah, the most merciful, the most benevolent. He had hidden at various times the al-Qaeda operatives wanted for the attacks on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 and on Israeli tourists in Mombasa in 2002. Some of those operatives had been picked off in American air strikes or captured by the Mogadishu warlords and sold on. He himself was always on the move. He spent most of his time in the desert or in the swamps. In towns, he slept in mosques or close to the marketplace. He hid his face, or went in disguise.
He cut out tongues in broad daylight. He won battles. Together, the jihadists controlled south Somalia and most of Mogadishu. He had established terrorist cells of three men in Nairobi and Dubai and he had sleeper agents in Mwanza, Johannesburg, Cardiff and London.
His true beliefs were not much different from the indoctrination he handed out in the camps. He was in it to the death. It was only that he was more experienced. Belief came first for him. For the boys, martyrdom preceded understanding.
Still, there was a question of what religion meant to a jihadist. There was no introspection, except what was needed to look within yourself and decide to die for a cause. There was a detestation of science and an abhorrence of philosophy. Their wives, sisters and daughters were elsewhere. They had not considered a place for them in the caliphate, not even any place they might go and get medical care.
Yusuf prayed and prayed. He looked to the right and to the left. He banged his forehead on the ground. He was leaving Kismayo early in the morning to coordinate the fighting in the Medina district of Mogadishu. The prayer was that he would not be reduced to an animal, like the jihadist commander who smashed in the headstones in Sufi cemeteries for pleasure, and killed an old Italian nun at a hospital in Mogadishu, emptying bullets into her until her body came apart. There was no justice without the possibility of mercy, for instance, for the Englishman they had taken hostage.
“Allah, protect me from the fire of hell,” was his last prayer.
“The Cuvier’s,” she continued, “have learned to dive deeper over a million-year evolution. They edged further in from one mutation to the next. Thinking about the way a beaked whale dives is a good way to think about the dimensionality of the ocean.” She selected softer lead pencil and drew in thick lines on the paper she used for her calculations: a cross section of the planet from its stratosphere to its molten core.
“The oceans cover 70 percent of the planet surface.You know that. It has five layers. The first is epipelagic. o.k. That’s wristwatch depth. It contains all the plant life and coral reefs and all the shipwrecks that can be dived with aqualungs; all of Jacques Cousteau. Whatever memory we have of baptism or any other form of submersion is here in blue water.
“The next layer is the mesopelagic. This is the twilight zone, into which blue and all the other colors and light vanish.” She drew more lines. “Everything under the mesopelagic is night. First the bathypelagic zone, then the abyssopelagic, finally the hadopelagic.”
She looked up. They both did.
“The hadopelagic is what interests me. Hadal from the Greek hades, meaning unseen. This,” she said, shading it in, “is the other world in our world. The only light is the bioluminescence of fish who move under the weight of a thousand atmospheres.”
She drew circles representing the inner parts of the planet.
“There are 3,481 kilometers of molten rock and 2,690 kilometers of mantle. No one knows much about the mantle. It has no life and therefore no possibility of reanimation and so is without scientific interest. I disagree. I’m studying what I think is the living bit of the mantle, the first few kilometers underlying the Hadal deep. I believe the fissures on the sea floor into the mantle are filled with microbial life.”
Her pencil lingered on the core and mantle.
“The biosphere is the dermis. All life and regeneration in our world belongs to it. Thick as it seems to us, with our histories of evolution and extinction, exploration and colonization, the abiotic mantle is several hundred times thicker.” She drew another scale showing how nearly all the biosphere was in the ocean.
“We exist only as a film on the water,” she said. “Of course, this goes against the religion of the Garden of Eden and the canon of political documents ending with the international law of the sea which promote the primacy of man on the planet. Just take a look at it,” she said, running the pencil again over the lines and curves. “We’re nature’s brief experiment with self-awareness. Any study of the ocean and what lies beneath it should serve notice of how easily the planet might shrug us off.”
“Wow,” he said.
“We use the words ‘sea’ and ‘ocean’ interchangeably in English, and that’s fine, I do it myself, ‘sea’ is a powerful word. A yacht belongs to the sea, it’s aimed always to the next port of call. Surfers likewise belong to the sea, not the ocean. You saw how tiny they were on the waves today. How they’re spun around like in a washing machine when they fall off their boards. Sometimes they’re ground into the bottom. When they ride out a wave, it carries them home, to land. The sea has its transformative power, its own history. I told you my mother is from Martinique. For Martiniquans the history of the sea is slavery. The sea goes across, that’s the point. The sea is a pause between one land-bound adventure and another. It joins lands. The ocean goes down and joins worlds.”
She had not even begun with chemosynthetic life and the rest—the refractory molecules of anoxygenic photoheterophotic bacteria—but she could not recall having spoken so acutely with a lover. Perhaps it was because they were so close to the Atlantic, or that he lived in Africa and she would not see him again, or perhaps it was the opposite, that she would see him all the time.
They talked into the night and were awake to each other. The uprightness of the chairs worked against intimacy. There had already been a consummation and their courtship was subsequent; in talk, not in the silence of touching.
He felt a brittleness inside him. He was not able to share his career with her, and it was the imbalance in their conversation that perhaps made him speak about the Midgard serpent, which lived so enormously in the ocean the Norsemen believed it encircled the world.
“Do you know the story?”
“Vaguely,” she said, “hardly.”
“The bond which held the Midgard serpent in was the weight of the sea itself, which was too heavy to push away. The serpent had a sister and a brother. The sister, Hel, became Death. She was given power by Thor to send the dead into nine separate worlds. Her table was made of hunger, the walls of her house were built with agony, and the mortar was horror. The serpent’s brother was the wolf Fenrir. He was bound by chains made of the opening and clamping of fish gills, the footfall of a lynx, the roots of stones under a glacier, the moods of bears and the droplets on the talons of an eagle dropping down on a lamb.
“Of these three siblings it was the Midgard serpent who remained alive in longest in the sea.” He smiled. “I mean the ocean.”
“Who was the father?” she asked.
“Loki, the god of mischief. Of course, he ended up badly too. Odin had him chained to a rock and venom spat into his face.
"His writhing caused earthquakes underwater.”
She got up and stretched herself.
“The Greeks,” she said, touching her toes, “believed in Okeanos, the ocean about the Equator shown on the shield of Achilles which kept the known world afloat.”
She told him this and they spoke about Atlantis. She said nothing of Sumer and Enki; Abzu was as private to her as numbers were.
She instead spiralled down the axis of time in the ocean. She held up for him the example of the orange roughy.
“It is a fish that takes forty years to reach maturity and lives to one hundred years on the seamounts, but it has been fished nearly to extinction in a generation.
“Let’s say the Atlantic is 160 million years old,” she continued. “It might be older. We appeared less than one million years ago. We walked in yesterday. It’s not much of a claim. Yet somewhere in the Atlantic right now and in the other oceans, some man, I’m sorry, it’s always a man isn’t it, some man is smashing up a seamount more ancient than any greenwood on land, which he can’t see and refuses to value.”
She was taken aback at her own vehemence. She stopped, then began again. “Tens of thousands of seamounts have been destroyed in our lifetime. Any seamount is sure to be demolished the moment it is located. The chains of those bottom trawlers will break into powder the cold-water corals and sponges which were there before there was an English language and which contain in them the most powerful antibiotics and chemicals which might be used for the cancer treatment. If this was happening in a science-fiction world we would see it clearly for what it is, but we don’t because it’s happening here and now. It’s obscured by the money someone is making off it. Scientists are partly to blame. We’re always raising our hands after the destruction has taken place. There are scientists who become industrial collaborators, bringing out tailored research for one company or another. I’m lucky to be working at a depth beyond the reach of industry. They want the manganese nodules, gold and fuels that are in the deep, but it’s too expensive to get at now. There’s still some undisturbed time,” and as she said this she was thinking very precisely of the abyss, its compass, duration, its secrets: of species of hagfish older than the Atlantic, who lived on those sunk from above and tied themselves in knots so as to give their jaws purchase on the rotting and blanched forms of the dead.
It was already dark. They sat at the desk in silence. It had began to snow; again the winter night, again the illuminated sign above the hotel door spilling out.
These few facts and reflections, which had not even touched on biomathematics, nonetheless set in front of them a common question, which they were too tired to see: is man the joker god Loki, who must be bound in chains?
They had different understandings of time and space. He worked on the surface, the outside of the world. For him, everything was in flux. He was tasking agents to infiltrate mosques in Somalia and along the Swahili coast. He was concerned with alleys, beliefs, incendiary devices; with months, weeks, days, with indelible hours. For her, an age was an instant. She was interested in the base of the corrosive saltwater column, delimiting through mathematics the other living world which has existed in darkness and in continental dimensions for hundreds of millions of years.
“Open your eyes. Open them.”
He did so. It was morning. The smoke-blackened room was
empty except for a mujahid—from Chechnya by the look of him—who was squatted by the door breaking apart a Zastava machine gun and placing the pieces in a satchel. The color coming through the windows and door was blue. Yusuf was dressed like a Mogadishu Bakara market trader in jeans, sandals and a short-sleeved shirt, sunglasses tucked in the pocket. Only the scars of a flesh wound on his neck hinted at his cause and fight.
“You’re alive. Good. Drink this,” Yusuf said, and passed him a cup of water.
He drank from it.
The Chechnyan brought over the satchel with the gun in it and, at Yusuf’s command, held the oil lamp close to James’s face, close enough to feel the heat of the glass. Yusuf moved in behind the lamp. He had shaved off his beard in the night. His face had become massive, scarred.
“Why are you here?” Yusuf asked, in Arabic and the broken English he had learned in Peshawar.
“I’ve told your men,” he replied, in Arabic. “I’m a water engineer.” To his own ears, his voice sounded weak and faraway. “I wanted, I want, to plan a water system for Kismayo. I was invited.”
“Not to do something else?”
“We are fighting a war here.”
“I understand, but your people need water.” Your people. Did Yusuf have any people?
There was the sound of laughter from outside, rare laughter, but it altered nothing in there. There was no equality between them. Yusuf was a Somali, never tiresome about black and white, always superior.
The man’s teeth were yellow in the dankness, rodent yellow. The eyes were yellow also, from a liver complaint. Big eyes: he was one of those brigands who never blinked when he pulled a pistol on an unfortunate.
He identified it as a Ceska, a beautiful gun, easy to handle. It must have been a Somali army officer’s sidearm from when the country was a client state of the USSR. The grip had been painted over with enamel flowers, most probably in Afghanistan.
“Is your work important to you?”
“Yes, very much,” he said, and like a prayer he said to himself, water be my cover, water cover me.
Yusuf touched the tattoo on his arm with the pistol. A parachute. The regimental badge.
“What is this?” Yusuf asked.
“A mistake. I had it done when I was young.”
“Coming here was a mistake.”
The pistol was jammed deeper into his face. He felt the o on his cheek, pressed to his teeth.
“Please, don’t. I am needed. Please, please.” He wept. He was shameless. Standing in the sea at the moment he believed was his death he had said nothing, yet now he thought he would say anything to survive, or perhaps he did not believe Yusuf would pull the trigger. The sky was not closing in, he was not turning, no, the pistol was exploratory, another way of getting to know him.
“You have children?”
“I am not married. My employees rely on me, and so do . . .”
“We will call you Mr. Water,” Yusuf said, decisively.
“My name is James. I need to make a phone call to my family. I need to let them know I am alive. We can organize a deal. I am worth more alive than dead. I am worth a sum of money.”
Yusuf held the Ceska by its flowery grip as if to pistol-whip him. “When we want to know about water, you will tell us. My men wanted to put you to death. I said no, Islam looks gently on the merciful, and your work is merciful. What nation are you?”
“Correct. You are British and you are worth nothing. There is no money. The Spanish they pay, the Germans they pay, the British they never pay.”
Yusuf broke into long recitations in Somali. After some time, he made an aside in Arabic. “How sweet it would be at Eid, if instead of slaughtering an animal in the name of Allah, we would slaughter an unbeliever.”
Involuntarily, James shook. It was a shattered fairytale. Fee-fi-fo-fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll cut off his fucking head. Fictions, none of them buoyant. Yusuf believed that Allah had hung an invisible curtain from the top of the sky to the bottom, separating the believers from the unbelievers. He was looking for quarantine, not Leviathan.
“Do you drink alcohol, Mr. Water?”
“Yes, I drink.”
“Alcohol separates you from the Creator.”
“No doubt,” he said. He was rotted through, anyone could see that; his kidneys infected, his piss sea green, and the sun was coming, illuminating the doorway, the shrine in the courtyard, but he wanted a tumbler of whisky, Macallan, Bell’s, Paddy, whatever; some ice, the bottle left open on the floor beside him.
“It is important to me that you are treated generously. It is Allah’s wish,” Yusuf said.
“Thank you,” he said, lowering his eyes.
Yusuf demanded submission and James offered it, while the truth of their exchange was that the Somali had ordered him to be held hostage, to be laid in his own waste, and to be beaten there. He had lost a tooth, another two were loose, his nose was broken, his ribs fractured. They had sliced open his hand and shoulder with a blade and in another tussle a mujahid had reached in and grabbed his cock and balls and yanked down on them, tearing a muscle.
It was true. He was worth nothing. Yusuf already had his passport, phone, electronic tablet and other possessions. Her Majesty’s Government would never pay for his release. They would not even acknowledge the kidnapping in his case, unless forced to do so by a precise piece of reporting.
Somalia was dried up. The rains had failed. The people were dying of thirst, and he knew better than any real engineer that he was alive only on the promise of water. He was grateful to live on as Mr. Water.
“You will go to see the doctor,” Yusuf said, quietly. “He will take care of you. You will eat, you will drink. Understand?”
He looked away. “Yes.”
“Hold out your hands,” Yusuf said.
He held them out.
“Take this.” Yusuf placed in his hands a small bottle of perfume with a sticker of a rose on it. “Open it.”
It was cloying; the substance was sticky, like deodorant dispensed from a plastic ball. “Thank you.”
Nothing more was said. There was only the tick-tock of the plastic clock above the door and the sound of the surf and the wind coming through the cracks in the thick walls and the muttering of the mujahid—he was a Chechen. Yusuf stood up and slung the satchel with the machine gun over his shoulder. He sat up and watched the clean-shaven commander go down the whitewashed steps to the beach and seemingly into the sea.
The Chechen hauled him to his feet.
They were half in and half out of the light and he saw a powder of frankincense on the Chechen’s fingertips of a quality that might have been presented to Christ at his Nativity.
The Book of Psalms says the Heavenly Father gathers the waters of the sea together and lays up the deep, as in a treasure house.
What the hell is down there? 91 percent of the planet’s living space, 90 percent of the living creatures. For every flea; nine sea fleas. No dogs, no cats, but so many other creations with eyes and thoughts, moving in three dimensions. It needs to be explored. With what?
There are only five submersibles in the world capable of diving deeper than 3,000 meters. These tiny submarines can spin on a coin, yet have trouble braking in the water column. Among them are the twin Mir submersibles of the Russian Academy in St Petersburg; Japan’s Shinkai, sailing out of Yokosuka; America’s Alvin, operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; and France’s Nautile, named for Jules Verne’s Nautilus, jointly operated by the French Navy and ifremer, the national research organization. Their operating depth ranges to 6,500 meters, or 680 atmospheres, putting 96 percent of the ocean within reach of man (including most of the Hadal deep), but none of these submersibles are capable of matching the feat of bathyscaphe Trieste, which in 1960 touched down on the Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench; at 11,034 meters, the very bottom of the known world.
An aquanaut is someone who explores the ocean in the same way an astronaut explores space. The first aquanauts were dangled on a cable in a steel ball to depths only those buried at sea had previously plumbed. There were trays of soda lime in the ball to absorb the carbon dioxide the aquanauts breathed out. “I felt like an atom floating in illimitable space,” one said.
In 1954, two French naval officers made the first dive into the abyss, descending 4,023 meters in the waters off Senegal in the FNRS-3 bathyscaphe. This unremarked dive marks the beginning of ocean flight, less celebrated than space flight, but no less heroic.
Because in many ways the ocean is more hostile than space. Space flight is a journey outwards. You can see where you are going, which is why the crews in spaceships generally sit in swivel chairs facing a giant window or screen. Space is about weightlessness and speeds never before achieved by machines and which can scarcely be felt; the discharge of aerosol is enough to propel a vessel forward, a nudge of a pencil sets its course, and all the while the air inside of it presses against the void outside. Ocean flight is, by contrast, a journey inwards, towards blindness. It is about weight, the stopping of the craft on thermal layers, the pressure of water pushing in, and the discomfiting realization that most of the planet you call your own is hostile to you. There will never be a Neil Armstrong moment in the ocean. There is nothing to light the way, no prospect, no horizon; even encased in a metal suit the human body is too liquescent to contemplate stepping out onto the deep sea floor.
This is an excerpt from Submergence, Jonathan Ledgard's second novel, forthcoming from Coffee House Press in April.