Penetration

by Alpheus Williams

Once I dove nights, skimming along sandy bottoms and sharp coral reefs. Ocean predators love night, they feel vibrations, panic and distress, read them like neon signs along a fast-food strip mall on a highway to the netherworld. They smell fear, injuries and blood, so it’s best not to bleed or panic. I watched things burrow, shelter beneath the sand, under reef ledges, in small caves. I watched silent predators cruise like shadows suspended in a liquid sky. There is a haunting stillness to it. Water surges over shallow reefs and shatters into glittered silver. There’s beauty in the exhaled ascent of your bubbles to the corrugated ocean surface where the moon shimmers like fear.

Once, I ventured into the darkness of an underwater cave. Swim-throughs, where you can see the opening on the other side, framed by rough, rocky walls of darkness. I calmed myself and rode a sweeping current through that dark tunnel. I became trapped at the exit, my tank tintinnabulating on the roof of the cave like a giant monastic bell, my shoulders bumping into the sides. I could see freedom but couldn’t touch it. There was no going back. Swimming against current with a tank strapped to my back and lead weights was not an option. I didn’t favour crawling along the dark bottom, upsetting carpet sharks, wobbegongs, and other critters with sharp teeth and no tolerance for intruders. A conundrum. I could remove my tank, my link to life and breath, shove it through the hole, follow after it. A calm, calculated manoeuvre, but I wasn’t calm. I turned over. Supine, my face towards the blackness of the cave roof, I grabbed the lip and worked my way through. I never entered a swim-through again.

Once, I dove to dark colourless depths into the hull of a wreck, a penetration dive. A large, looming hulk mortally wounded by torpedo in the Pacific War. A great gaping hole yawned in its metal side. At forty metres, sunlight struggles to exist. Our bottom time was short. Three or four minutes, no more. Algae like fine dust collected undisturbed for decades, it coated the surface of sake bottles and human skulls that burst into powdery dust when touched. I took a compass reading. There were three others. I didn’t know them well. It was a charter. We swam through the ragged wound into the dark interior. A careless fin kick released a shower storm of silt. Watery dust fell in a blinding clouds. Surrounded in inky darkness, the dim light of the entrance was lost.

I swallowed panic. Inhaled. Pressed the compass to the glass of my mask. Five measured kicks, a dim corona of light. Two kicks. Freedom. I heard frantic clangs of bodies slamming into the iron walls searching for light.

I ascended to a line of tanks, the first decompression stop. Grabbed a regulator, breathed. Heart pounding, ecstatic in escape, guilty in surviving, struggling for control. I looked down at the wreck, checked my watch, eight minutes waiting on the line like a baited hook before I finned to the next stop. A cloud of grey burst through the hole in the ship, a diver emerged. Hope. A halo of light hair. Her name was Iris. She finned towards me. Then something else. A lean, human shape, half again as long as her, webbed, taloned, and scaled. Eyes solid black larger than jam lids. Eyes for dark places. Fast and liquid, it was on her, an explosion of dark blood, limbs tumbled to depth. It came at me, gaping mouth in primate head. I dropped my weights, filled my vest and kicked, rocketed to the surface.

They said I shot through the water like a balloon, delirious, hysterical, incoherent, screaming in pain. They hauled me aboard writhing in agony, vomiting, scratching at my skin, drawing blood. I was restrained, sedated, and flown in an unpressurised plane to a decompression chamber.

Nitrogen narcosis and air embolisms are not conducive to a lucid mind; my account was dismissed. A rescue party, professionals, returned with body parts. Their consensus was sharks driven to frenzy by divers’ panic and first blood had made a picnic of it.

*

I love the sea, but I no longer dive. I feel safer on the surface, around people. In the evenings, my minder wheels me down to the promenade. I can watch the lights of the city, the huge clown face of the amusement park across the harbour, the tranquil flow of ferries on the water, traffic crossing the bridge. When I watch these things, it makes it easier to believe I never saw the thing I think I did.

Alpheus Williams is an American expat who lives and writes in a small coastal village in Australia with his wife and border collie, which enrich his life and he loves more than himself. Surrounded by fire and flood, he mourns the damage of our unique Australian wildlife and environment. He can be found here, here, and here
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