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Friday, March 12 (part two)

From the Diaries of Peter M. Sexton ● Santiago de Cuba, 1920

Friday, March 12 (continued)

Out beyond the peninsula, halfway to the Caymans, there is a peculiar reef, discovered only recently by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps—how’s that for a jawbreaker?—in the course of their mappings of our Caribbean here. At that time the seamen on board happened to notice some strange what you call fauna in the vicinity, I mean to say fish and sea animals and what have you. Strange fish, large, primitive-looking, like armor-plated, and not too observant of the boat above, despite having more eyes than is customary for fish, three, sometimes five. Also when they haul up the sea anchor they find a severed arm caught wrapped around it, like an octopus’s, though from the size it would have been a big one, bigger than most. This much I heard from the university people, who had caught wind of it somehow and so of course felt that it would reflect well on them as a hall of science and bring them some little measure of fame if they could capture and name a whole barrel of new species all in one go. So, they outfit their entire biology department with all manner of fancy diving equipment and down the fellers go.

Now what do they find? Well, the fishes of course, and some crabs like no one has ever seen, as wide as a railroad tie and striped like tigers. Unfortunately the fish turned out to be a bit too slippery for the eggheads, rather a bit more sly than expected, and there was more of a chance of the crabs catching them than the other way around. They had to satisfy themselves with coral and anemones, which were also strange and unheard-of, aggressive little barnacles with razor legs that could leave scoring on steel, or so they said.

But they found more than that. From the surface, the reef is just a shallow patch, not even a danger to ships except in bad weather, but seen from below of course it’s a mountain, a peak heaving up from the edge of a great undersea cliff. On the south side it drops down and away to, well, who knows? The abyss as they call it. The bottom of the world. So one of the divers swims over to that side, chasing one of those three-eyed fish I suppose, and, shining his light into the depths, what do you think he sees halfway down the mountainside? He sees a great yawning cave, but not just a cave, no. On either side of the opening, like gateposts, are these two pillars. Obelisks. Cleanly polyhedral, symmetrical, geometrical. What I mean to say is man-made, or else made by a very smart lobster with a plumb line and a chisel. What did it all mean? The ruins of some ancient city, sunken beneath the sea by an earthquake or what have you? The only problem was that the obelisks were too deep for the divers, being one-fifty or two hundred feet below the surface. But not too deep for a submarine.

So, one year later the university people outfitted C-7 with underwater lights and cameras, ones mounted on the outside that could be triggered by a portable radio wave transmitter from within the ship; we were to try to take photographs of the two obelisks and to see what else of interest might be there at the edge of the cave. Down we went, my crew plus Riesling, the engineer from the university who was to snap the photos, and Straworthy, the head of the bunch; the other two cooled their heels up top on the tender that towed us. We made our way using the echolocation device as best we could. There’s no windows to look out from in a submarine, you understand! Nobody goes down in a submarine to enjoy the view, you’re steering with your brain and your gut, not your eyes. We made it down there, though, almost two hundred feet down, and it was a pretty piece of navigation if I must say so myself. We had ourselves lined up with something according to the man at the Fessenden machine—the echolocation device, you understand—so we make any God’s number of passes past the place and Riesling snaps a bunch of photos and back up we go. On the surface he dismantles the boxes mounted on the bow and goes off to play in the little darkroom he had set up down in the hold of the tender. We all wait in the galley, playing at cards and listening to the science men talk, and finally at suppertime he comes back out ready to bust his rivets, starts handing out copies of photos to anyone who’ll look at them. Sure enough, his jury-rig worked like a charm, and on the few pictures that he happened to snap off at the right moment you could see these pillars plain as day, or at least parts of them. Everything about them had the look of having been hand-carved; they had flat faces and corners, and upon them were carvings like hieroglyphics or hydrogriffins or however it is that you call them. They were not quite letters and not quite pictures, but strange arrangements of wriggling shapes and circles, but somehow meaningful, like you could almost figure out what they meant to say if you stared at them long enough.

There was one other photo he had brought out which at first we ignored but, at his insistence, gradually captured our interest until it eclipsed that of the others; it was taken during what must have been a very close pass (in fact you could say that we had very nearly killed ourselves and not even realized it), and what we were looking at was a photograph taken directly into the mouth of the cavern. What surprised us initially was the roominess of the space, for the cavity did not become smaller as it deepened but, after a short, tunnel-like passage, it apparently broadened and increased in size. There seemed to be a large empty space there just inside the giant reef, the cave walls strangely smooth and regular, and then just at the farthest edge we thought we could make out a second pair of obelisks. Then Riesling pointed out something that had particularly piqued his interest: the picture gave a reasonably good view of the top of the cave, and in the open space the end of the tunnel, just at the last reaches of our light, the rocky roof widened and then unaccountably it disappeared and was replaced by a flat, reflective surface, as if it were the skin of a giant bubble. An air pocket!

It didn’t take long before one of our university friends wondered aloud about the possibility of steering the submarine into the cave and surfacing—so to speak—at the far end, where the signposts led. Well! I was quick to inform him that this was a rather drawn-out and complicated method of committing suicide, and that surely we could all simply tie rocks around our necks and jump overboard and thus avoid the loss of the submarine and all the other expensive equipment. Seagrave—for I think it was he who had suggested the idea—backed down immediately, saying that of course I knew best and that the safety of the crew was paramount and all of that sort of thing, but the idea had been planted, planted in soil which had already been tilled and made ready by those damnable photos of the carved monuments come from who knows where. I could see the boys in the crew mulling it over, thinking how the adventure might just be possible with a little luck, and truth be told I was thinking the same. Off in corners I could hear them talking of discovering Atlantis—in tones of jest, but at the same time trying on the words for size, practicing, curious to see how they rang in the open air.

The next morning I could see that every man on board had chewed the notion over all night in his bunk and that it was only a matter of time before someone broached the subject. Perhaps a better man would have bellowed at them all, swatted their heads and instructed them to go to hell on their own, for I would not lead them…but I did not. Looking back on it now, I can see that there was something in me too, some reckless mood that wanted this madness, this all-or-nothing turn of the wheel. For where was I headed, now that I had left the Navy? I’d spent the war patrolling the home front, I was no hero. I was lucky to have even had this job, not to put too fine a point on it, and I chafed at the thought of living out my days tootling along in some miserable steamer, some backwater tug, serving every man but myself. So, when Straworthy asked if it would be possible to risk entry into the tunnel, I said that it would be.

By nine o’ clock we had reassembled in the sub, this time with all four university men as passengers, Straworthy, Riesling, Seagrave and Chaplin. We were able to scrape together a fair sort of expeditionary outfit, including lanterns, compasses, a camera, an inflatable rubber raft and even a breathing apparatus should the air in the pocket be unwholesome. The scholars all sat in a huddle up by the torpedo tubes, hugging knees to chests, and we worked as best we could around them. It was no small thing we were about; may I remind you again that there is no window in a submarine, these being at cross-purposes to the necessity of keeping the ocean on the outside. We had only the Fessenden oscillator to guide us, and once we approached the place where we thought our cave lay, any freak current could have pushed us up against the rocks and compromised the ship. Regardless, we moved down the side of the mountain, and then suddenly our man at the headphones says he found an empty space where there once was a solid wall, and we hoped and prayed we had found our cave and not merely some other depression, for otherwise we would be moving directly at the side of a mountain.

We moved forward, as slow as possible, sailors and passengers alike on tenterhooks, expecting at each moment for the walls to stave in and water to come gushing in upon them; I imagine that every man aboard was fighting off a panic, a voice in their head screaming at them to turn back, to give up this mad idea. I stood close by the men at the controls to watch for any sign that they might flinch and throw the boat in reverse. They in turn watched the man listening to the oscillator, whose primary function I think was to alert us should we be about to die. He did not do so however; instead he told us that we were closed in on the sides and clear straight ahead, and so we went forward. Then there was a frightful shout; an obstacle dead ahead. We reversed the engines and the ship slowed to a stop. We had Riesling shine the radio-controlled lights now, and I manned the periscope; slowly we rose, and I watched for any sign of a rocky ceiling coming down to crush us, but there was only emptiness and water. Then we breached a flat, shimmering plane, and I realized that we had done it: the submarine had surfaced—inside a mountain two hundred feet below sea level!

We yet had a terrible risk to take in merely opening the hatch, however, since we had no idea as to whether the air in that pocket was breathable or poisonous; if anything, chances favored the latter, since if the reef had been formed from a volcano, then the trapped gases were likely to have come from deep within the earth and be laced with all manner of vapors and acids. One of the more reckless members of our crew volunteered to open a ventilator and take a sniff. He did so, with the rest of the crew and myself secretly holding our breaths. He reported that the air was stale and had an odor, but it did not burn his nostrils or cause any lightness of head. As a final precaution we struck a match and drew it close to the pipe, since we would have to use lanterns to see in the darkness, and so needed to know if there were any combustible gases without, but the flame only flickered as usual and then guttered out.

Two of my men went topside with a lantern to drop anchor, and I followed soon after, with Straworthy and Seagrave behind me. I had worried earlier that the periscope and conning tower would be pinned against the rocky roof of our cavern, but to my surprise there was only darkness above us; in fact, there seemed to be nothing but darkness—darkness and silence. There was not even the familiar lap lap lap of water against our hull, for the surface was as smooth as glass, and I tell you now that it was as if we had traveled back to chapter one of the Holy Bible, except instead of the spirit of God hovering over the waters, the formless and emptiness, the darkness over the deep, it was our little submarine. Ha! I say it in jest but He knows himself that it is the truth.

We stood there looking about, not knowing precisely what to do, almost afraid to speak, and then, as my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I saw something out there, just at the very edge of the light. I walked out to the farthest tip of the bow, lantern in hand, and turned my face to the unknown, and finally I could see them, those damned things, those pylons, again, upon a faint shining shoreline, with their fairy script carved upon them. It took my breath clean away, I tell you, whether from triumph or awe I cannot say, but my companions soon crowded around and saw the same things too, so they were no mirage. Straworthy began calling for his rubber dinghy and I knew that we were going ashore.

Fifteen minutes later I was paddling in the dark with the four professors and seaman Kine, paddling towards the ghostly monuments floating and bobbing in the darkness before us like a will-o’-the-wisp, if you know what that is. The echoes of our oars passed back and forth over our heads, bounding away and then coming back at odd intervals to frighten us. At one moment we even halted to make sure that there was not indeed two boats, ours and some phantom in pursuit, but there was only ourselves and the submarine and the gate in the darkness.

Finally we struck land, and it made us shudder to do so, for only now did we understand the size of the things that had led us here; they towered over us like two great trees, their tops lost in the dark; I could fit my entire hand into one of the carvings near the base, and I had to stretch myself to the last unfurling of my person just to reach it. My two arms outstretched could only just encompass one side, and the edges and faces were not chipped and marked with pocks like ruins but still had a smoothness to them. No wonder, said Riesling, for what was there to erode it? Not wind nor rain could harm it here. And I tell you I would have no more tried to make a dent in the things than I would kick a sleeping tiger, so there they sat. For a while the university gentleman made sketches of the hydrogriffins and I sat on the ground and watched them, until we heard a yelp from Kine, who had been poking about the surrounding area. What he showed us was that the ground was uneven and rocky where it rose up to the left and right of the gates towards the darkness, but there was a long, wide ribbon of flatness extending from between the pylons and out away from the shore—in other words, a thing that had every appearance of a road, heading off into the darkness.

By this time our scientific friends were on the verge of giddiness, prattling away at each other in their own kind of talk, and before I had a moment to think they had announced their intention of following that road wherever it led, provided it was not over a precipice. I proposed that Kine and I should make camp between the obelisks and await their return, as I did not like the idea of all six of us marching into the darkness and leaving the men on the sub to wonder and worry at themselves. We checked our watches and they agreed that they would return after two hours to report their progress, and then a second expedition would be discussed if we felt it was warranted. After a round of handshakes, Kine and I watched the four depart; there was a slow rise beyond the monuments, but then the ground dipped and wound down into what looked like some kind of valley. There at the top of the ridge there were no obstructions to block the light from their lantern, and so Kine and I watched every step while the men became smaller and smaller, until they were no more than flickering moths before a candle spark. Then Kine and I both gasped together, for the dim distant light now shone upon what looked like a collection of smooth walls and cornered angles. Dwellings?

Then the lantern disappeared behind a shadow and was gone.

Kine and I waited, but there was no more sound or light from the valley. Instead we investigated the immediate surroundings, but found only rocks and empty space, so in time we walked back down to the water and simply sat on the ground and waited. I hallooed back to the ship the best I could, trying to tell them the situation on the shore. I heard a halloo back, but whether they heard all that I had said I was not sure, for the crossfire of echo and counter-echo confused all speech at that distance, though in truth they were really not so very far away. When this was done with, the silence soon became oppressive, and we found ourselves clearing our throats or scuffing our feet just to chase it away. Every once in a long while we would hear what sounded like a far-off sound from the valley, but as soon as it came it was gone. What amazed us both was that through all this we had seen barely any hint of a ceiling; down by the bay (or so I was calling it in my mind by then) I had thought I had seen a far-off shimmering reflection of the light on the water, but here on the shore there was nothing, like a starless sky. I took a walk off to the right and could just see in the lantern glow the side wall rising out of the water, but the rocks simply rose up into darkness, only curving slowly overhead. Repeatedly we went back up to the top of the hill to see if there was any sign of life in the valley beyond, but there was nothing. It was like the cave had swallowed them up.

In time I sent Kine back to the sub in the raft to inform them that it would be some hours’ wait and not to be worry themselves on our accounts. I gave him instructions to come directly back, and he said that he would, but even so those long minutes of solitude on the banks of that midnight world began to work against my nerves. I fancied that I heard things, muffled bumpings that were at once close by and miles off, but I couldn’t be certain they were anything more than my own heart beating in my ears. I paced back and forth like a rat in a cage until finally I saw the little raft detach once again from the sub and make its way back in my direction. I could only stand on the edge of the shore and stare at its coming, so desperate was I for company in that lonely place. I watched and watched. Then, strange to say, as I faced that little boat on its way, I became terrified at the thought of turning back around to look behind me, for it had been so long since I had glanced that way that I began to imagine that surely something must be waiting there now, some fiend of the depths that had already torn to pieces the other four and which now crept up to take me as well, silently stretching itself to its full height, waiting for my terror to reach its uttermost peak before it fell upon me and pulled me apart by the limbs. Oh God! It was horrible!

But finally the boat reached the shore, and I was surprised to find that it was not Kine but Lionel Jackson who had returned, my previous companion having decided that his presence was necessary back on the ship. Young Jackson was eager to see the great stone things, and he inspected every surface with many comments and speculations as to their origin. I was only happy to have another soul beside me, and the more talkative the better.

And yet time ground on, like a millstone, crushing the minutes one by one. Two hours had long ago passed and presumably the university men were returning, so we stood at the top of the ridgeline and looked down, but still there was nothing. After a time we became jumpy and unsettled up there on the edge of the darkness, and so retreated back down to the shore where we could at least see the lanterns on our sub.

Finally a full four hours had passed, but still we were alone. Now, it did not surprise me that the explorers would have stretched their curfew, being eager, no doubt, to coo and jaw over every new vista before returning, but in the intervening time I found myself making imagined appeals to the absent men to return to the sub and quit the place for good. Fortunately Jackson had had the happy idea of bringing victuals with him, and so the two of us sat down to eat our salted pork and soda bread. The food lifted my spirits, until I considered that our missing companions had nothing in the way of provisions with them, and that surely they must be getting hungry themselves. Their canteens of water, too, would not last forever.

Some time after that it seems that I fell asleep, despite my intention to stay alert in that strange place. I remember terrible dreams, dreams like I had never had before. I was lost, far from men and their history; somewhere their trials and fighting continued on, but not here; it was as though I had returned to some antediluvian time when mankind’s actions went unrecorded, except to say that they were mad and brutish and scorned by God, and indeed I did feel that remote from our world. As I cowered there in that lost place, ferns and vines reeling out of holes like fire hoses, colossal armored insects perched shining and terrible on high rock pinnacles, I felt monstrous presences about me, enormous but invisible. The presences were the true horror of the dream, for I knew that they could see me, could see through me—could, if they wished, tear apart not just my body but my very soul, stretching my consciousness on a rack until it snapped and broke into pieces. And I knew I disgusted them, like a bug, like a mouse trapped on a cellar floor, but I was beneath their notice…for the moment. Desperate to hide, I pushed myself into the empty recess of a rotten hollow stump, only too late realizing that it was no stump but the remains of some other animal destroyed by the presence, some ancient bearlike creature reduced to bones and leather. Still I cowered in the rotting cavity where its entrails had once been, its bare ribs the bars of a cage, its head suspended over mine, the mouth torn open in a final shrieking scream….

The scream was my own when Jackson shook me awake, and it took some time before I realized that I was now back in my own senses and not still in the nightmare. It was hours later, nearly eight since the departure of the university men, and Jackson had heard something moving in the dark.

We took a moment to collect ourselves, and then together we walked up over the rise, the lantern held out before us like a bow light. Shadows bounced across the rocky terrain as I strained my ears for any sound, barely daring to breathe. Sweat covered me like ghosts’ tickling fingers, and I felt like I was walking to my own execution, except that somehow I was advancing towards it of my own free will. The frontier of the light’s edge moved forward, and each second we expected it to reveal something monstrous, but there was nothing, only tumbled stones and silence. Then we heard it: a shuffle or a pant, just a little ways off to the right. We swung the lamp, and off on a rise, on a little hillock, we saw a great crumbled stone block, and, lying in a heap at the base of it, was Mordecai Seagrave.

We ran to the man, calling his name, but he did not rise or turn his face. He seemed instead to be in some vacant state of mind, terrified, or out of his wits; he did not show any sign of recognizing us, or even speak at all, but simply looked at the empty space before his nose and panted raggedly, blinking somehow hurriedly, as if he were afraid to shut his eyes for even a moment. He had some small object clutched in his hands, but his pack and equipment were missing; how he had made it back this far in the darkness was a mystery. We tried to talk to the man, to bring him to his senses, but our words had no more effect on him than a gust of wind; repeatedly we asked about the others, shaking his shoulders, shouting, but it was of no use. He was like a man destroyed.

We shone our light in every direction to look for sign of Straworthy, Riesling or Chaplin, venturing away from the giant stone as far as we dared, but the landscape was dead and empty, and there was no sound save for Seagrave’s strange breathing. Oddly, despite our worry, neither of us had dared to shout; unspoken between us was some acknowledgment of fear, and the possibility that there was something out there in the dark besides the men. Finally, though, I caught Jackson’s eyes and read my own thoughts in them: it was the final step we had to take, because once taken, we could then return to the submarine and leave the damned place where we had found it. We steeled ourselves, and then I took a deep breath and shouted. “Straworthy!” The word shot around us like a flock of bats, echoing and amplified by every angle; it disappeared and then returned again, weirdly altered, so that I was not sure that the voice was still my own. It tacked and wheeled about the vastness of the chamber, and before it had died Jackson had one of Seagrave’s arms and I had the other and were were running over the hill. We threw him in the bottom of the boat like a sack of flour and our paddles struck the water, I on one side, Jackson on the other, the lamp blown out and only the silhouette-on-gold of the submarine to see by. Never in my days as a midshipman with the threat of a beating hanging over my head did I ever work like I had that day! We near leaped out of dinghy the moment our deck was in reach, all but kicking it away.

“Shan’t we stow it?” asked seaman Lamb, who was idling on deck.

“Leave it to the devil, you fool, we’re getting out!”

The crew was stunned, near exploding with questions on what had happened—all except Kine, of course, whose surprise appeared to be of a somewhat milder degree—but I waved them off and began bellowing orders. “Weigh anchor! Turn her about! Lamb, to the fore with the lantern, and hold tight! Put those filthy pylons behind us and then we dive!”

It was no easy task, for while the bay was large it was still yet small for a submarine, but by alternating between forward and reverse we were able to turn the sub about face without incident. Happy I was to give the order to dive, and all but forgot about the danger of the tunnel, but instead urged my men on to make our exit. When it finally seemed that we were well and truly out in the open sea I felt as though I had returned from the land of the dead, and I wanted to kiss my shipmates and dance. The only thing that stopped my celebration was young Seagrave, who, when we began the process of resurfacing, unexpectedly let out a choked kind of shriek. By God, the crew jumped then! We stared at him in wonder, but he was silent after, staring off into nothing, as if listening to some far-off voice; then spasms rocked him, a look of fear, and he clutched his head with his hands and buried his face in the corner, his legs kicking. Something rattled on the deck and at my feet I saw the object that Seagrave had been clutching in his hands all that time; it was some kind of relic, some little carved thing, and I stuffed it in my pocket and went to help tend to the man. Seaman Henry tried to get him to take some whiskey (and be sure that I wondered how he had smuggled that aboard, let me mention in passing), but I think he sooner would have swallowed a baseball, with a bite of the mitt for good measure. I should like to say that it was us who eventually calmed him, but truth be told I think it happened of its own accord; in time he unclamped his ears and his yelling was replaced by the same frightened stare, twitching, flinching—listening, it seemed, listening to the churn of the engine or something beyond.

Now, here on dry land, you might judge us cowards, or even murderers, having left the other three behind, and you can be sure the same thought ate away at me as we reached the tender and birthed ourselves out from the sub and the sea. Were they still alive, and only lost or sleeping or down in some ruin where they couldn’t hear our shouts, then we had condemned them to die of thirst or starvation, trapped in the darkness—forever! It stabs at me, day after day! Not for one moment have I forgotten those men! All the rum in the world will never drown that out! But then…then I remember what it was like to be down there…buried…stranded on that shore, stranded at the gates to the abyss, the obelisks. I remember Seagrave gone out of his wits, I remember the look in Kine’s eyes when we returned, a look that told me that if I wanted him to go back I would have to tie him up and carry him screaming. I remember the dreams, and…I can’t say how, and I can’t say why, but by God, I knew those men were dead.

* * *

It was late when the captain had finished his story. Vionaika had settled her head on my shoulder, eyes drooping, her arm curled through mine; the other leaned against Adamski, quietly smoking a cigarette, playing with a lock of her hair. Between us all lay a plate of broken crab shells, gray and translucent. The rum bottle had weathered many forays but now it was at its last gasp. The captain was tipsy, looking unsteady in his chair, but there was a fire in his eyes, a tenseness to his face, and he looked at me as though I were the one who was supposed to provide an answer to him, as though he were looking to me to judge what had happened and what he had done. What had he done? Was any of this even true? I suppose his crew would corroborate some or all of it, unless…certainly there remained the possibility that Adamski was a murderer, and that his crew were lying on his behalf. Or…

“Did it ever occur to you that Seagrave may have gone mad and murdered the other three? Or perhaps he was always mad? Really we…that is to say you…know very little about the man, no?”

“Aye, that it did,” said the Captain. “Though I must say that he struck me as an ordinary enough fellow when I first met him. Young, enthusiastic, thoughtful…a pretty fiancée, too, I later found out. Girls like that don’t marry madmen, that much is for sure. I was introduced to her in fact, gave her the object that her young man had carried out of that place.”

“What was the object?”

“Just a piece of carved stone, but not carved fancy like a statue; it was just a circle, or rather what you call a cylinder, like a stubby, fat, gun barrel, one end all curved and smooth and the other topped with a flat ring coming out of it sidewise.”

He was describing the object I saw in Miss Pulver’s hands two days ago. “Like a pendant?”

“A what? Ah, you mean like what a woman might put on a necklace to wear upon her bosom.” He winked and then nudged his drinking companion, who had drowsed off and now woke up with a start. “Yes, very much like that, though perhaps a little heavy for that purpose. It was very plain, however, not worth much, I’d say.” He stared past me for a short while and then spoke again. “Did he go mad? To be sure he did. Did he kill his companions? That I cannot say. Certainly it would be the easy explanation. Or perhaps he broke away from them, ran into the dark, and by some crazy happenstance he found his way back and they did not? Perhaps they stumbled into a pit in search of him? Yes, these things are all possible, but….”

I waited, but the Captain did not continue. He was staring off beyond me, or perhaps I should say through me, his face transfixed, as though he were listening to some distant voice. “But?”

His eyes did not move, but in time he spoke again. “The dreams…that place…at times I think it touched me too. I felt it. I feel it. Sometimes I think I hear things…not loud…I can’t make them out. But they’re speaking to me. Me! I’m out of there, it should be better, but at times I think it’s only getting worse. No…no more under the sea!” The captain suddenly became more animated, grabbing the sleeve of my jacket and holding it tight. “No more under the sea! I’m finished with that! Land! Dry land!”

One of the other drinkers spoke softly in Spanish: he’s getting bad again. The barman’s voice rang out like a warning shot. “Señor.”

Captain Adamski looked up, then let go of my sleeve and collected himself. He stood and grabbed the bottle off the table, drained its contents, and then swept up the older woman by the arm. She patted her clothes to make sure all was in order. The captain was glaring at me. “Who are you?” he asked with a snarl, eyeing at me like a tiger. I opened my mouth to speak. A coin rang on the table.

“Go to Hell,” he said, and they were gone.

* * *

I offered Vionaika a ride back to town, and she accepted. We strolled outside together like an old married couple, arm in arm; I do not know why. I should have stood apart, spoken to her about the moral dangers of her trade, but truth be told I liked the warmth and the softness, I liked how neatly she fit into the crook of my arm, and in it there was some grain of shared kindness that fit in somehow with Christ’s teachings. After all, did He not treat Mary Magdelene with the regard of an apostle? But of course I am not Christ…perhaps it is even sacrilege to compare myself to Him. I do not know.

Captain Adamski was nowhere to be seen when we exited El Club Huracán, but I was pleased to see that my driver was still there. Unfortunately it appeared that he had been passing the time by drinking, and all on credit in anticipation of his fare—the man was stinko, not to put too fine a point on it. He instructed me to pay his money to a third party standing hard by, and then he collapsed in the rear of the cab. I drove, Vaika drowsing on my shoulder, and though it was now past dusk and the road awash with darkness the horse knew which way to go. My mind was churning with thoughts of the captain and Seagrave and that cursed reef under the sea, of mystery and excitement and three men lost, but at the same time my heart felt easy and free. The air was cooling and a breeze blew across my skin, carrying with it quiet sounds of nighttime. The silhouette of the land was still beautiful, curved in nature’s way, suggestive of frontiers of discovery and idyllic groves, heights from which to look down and lowlands to call home. My cares seemed far away, and once again I allowed myself to indulge in the fantasy of the aimless traveler wandering through some paradise, unmapped and unstained. Eventually the woman departed at a group of wooden shacks on the outskirts of town, where a waiting boy of twelve or thirteen stared at me with frank hatred. She did not look back, and I went on alone.


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