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Thursday, March 11

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

Thursday, March 11

Lying in bed last night my thoughts circled around the events of the evening, and I wondered about my new housemates and why two young American women would be in south Cuba talking of madness and murder. My first thought was that Miss Pulver must be the sweetheart of some officer at the American naval base in Guantánamo Bay, but if that were the case, why was she not there instead of here? It was all quite curious. Images of her face and her tears hovered before me until my own weary world closed in and I disappeared into nothing.

The mind works in strange ways, I think, for upon waking this morning I found myself recalling a newspaper article that I had glanced through a couple of days prior; at the time I had been distracted by business affairs and so gave it very little of my attention, but in this morning’s idle moments it struck me as being important—capturing my imagination, as it were. It concerned an ill-fated underwater expedition carried out via submarine, and, according to the article, a portion of the scientific team had inexplicably gone missing. How it was that a number of people could disappear while confined to the insides of a sealed underwater vessel was rather a mystery, and as I recall the news item was generating a fair amount of excitement and interest among the local population. I myself would have certainly been intrigued by the affair had it not been for the soaring sugar prices and upcoming political election, which were demanding my attention in a rather more pressing way.

As I dressed myself I let my imagination wander the doomed bathysphere, picturing the smooth metal egg diving into the gloom, until my reveries were disturbed by strange sudden noises from above my head. There were heavy footfalls and thumpings which seemed to adhere to no pattern of ordinary human activity; now it was as if there were a footrace, then a heavy rhythmic squeaking of the floorboards, and next a heavy slam that shook dust from the moldings. And then further sounds of an even more unfathomable purpose.

It was, of course, our new house-mates—the American ladies occupying the third floor—and as I stood listening to the cacophony in amazement it suddenly struck me that these two separate mysteries, the ladies’ presence and the underwater disaster, must be somehow related. Had they not mentioned an undersea city and disappearances? Suddenly everything made sense, or at the very least everything became a bit more connected, which had to be some kind of improvement. I descended the stairs feeling that there was an eerie sense of portent in the air.

Ayana had some thankfully edible eggs and leftover pork ready for breakfast, and when I asked her about the early-morning noises from the feminine quarter of the house she informed me with a certain thrilled wonderment that the ladies were engaged in an exercise regimen designed to promote health and beauty. Without a word of warning the girl then began demonstrating one of the purportedly salubrious techniques, raising her arms over her head and swinging up and down at the waist like some kind of pinwheel or out-of-control oil derrick. The display was actually somewhat alarming, and I began to feel anxious that the lady of the house would enter the room and be scandalized by the frenetic carryings-on; it was all well and good for wealthy guests to behave like lunatics, but the servants were expected to maintain a certain reserve and decorum. When Ayana began puffing like a bullfrog and performing back-bends I gulped down my coffee and bolted out the door.

* * *

I had a luncheon scheduled with the agent Valdes today, and we were to meet in a café near the Plaza de la Libertad, also known as the Plaza of Mars, where men in grave moustaches walked alone or in pairs, oblivious to the radiating blue of the sky, the high white zeppelin clouds casting no shadow. The day was fine and still, the time moving by with typical Caribbean slow fecundity, as though anything could happen but only at its own pace. My skin prickled.

Señor Valdes turned out to be a lean, middle-aged man with a creased brown face and dark, expressive eyes. Though the meeting had been arranged with much apparent enthusiasm by both sides, something must have changed in the intervening time, for as we talked I began to feel that the tide was inexorably turning against me; my attempts to broach the subject of the Cieloverde plantation were met with bluff and digression, and Valdes seemed more inclined to discuss the qualities of the coffee and the waitstaff—the former acceptable, the latter in doubt. Unsure if I were truly being rebuffed or if it were just my companion’s nature to be slow to come to the point, I made a stronger push towards the matter at hand, advancing to the very edge of what was permissible to force him to either step forward or back away. As I waited for a response, Valdes looked across the plaza, then back to the table. Time halted. Then he caught sight of the dubious waiter, frowned and signaled him over. An elaborate order was made, a plate of shellfish that was to be seasoned in a very particular way and then garnished with plantains and stewed papaya slices arranged in a interweaving loop at the periphery of the plate, the fruit in an over-under arrangement in the clockwise direction. As the thin, pockmarked steward retreated to the kitchen, Valdes touched his nose gravely and informed me that he would be watching to see how closely the old man would be able to reproduce that for which was asked, for upon this task the very gratuity hung in the balance, so to speak.

The message was clear. It was as though I had been performing on stage and the backdrop had suddenly fallen to the ground, the footlights abruptly snapped off to reveal a darkness of empty seats. An unseen stagehand advanced from the wings and whispered into my ear in a stony workman’s voice that not only was the play over, but that the tickets had never been sold.

I sat in stunned silence for a moment, and then I shrugged and made conversation. What else could I do? My companion seemed relieved and became a bit more expansive, perhaps by way of apology. In spite of my professional disappointment, I found myself rather liking the man; he had a warm, busy intelligence to him, and beneath his severe exterior I thought I glimpsed a foxy kind of wit about him. It suddenly occurred to me to broach the subject of the mysterious newspaper article that I had half-read earlier this week, and it turned out that Señor Valdes was an authority on the topic. What follows is the gist of the incident that he related to me.

It had all started some years ago. During the war, the Americans had begun to take an understandable interest in hydrography and the mapping of their surrounding waters, in particular the Caribbean, home not only to their naval base here on Cuba but also to the strategically important canal in Panama and their new submarine base in Coco Solo. One noteworthy item they had discovered in the course of their watery inquiries was an undersea ridgeline running straight as an arrow from the southwestern tip of Cuba all the way to Belize City, and to demonstrate this terrain Señor Valdes hastily arranged a map composed of silverware and salt cellars, with a creased napkin standing for the ridge. He pointed to a particular point halfway between the soup spoon of the Cuban coast and a jumble of lime seeds representing the Caymans, for it was at precisely this location on the ridge that a promontory was discovered—an underwater mountain or failed island, depending on one’s point of view—with the peak of this rocky, miles-wide reef being only some thirty feet below the surface. Even more curious, peculiar animal specimens were seen in the vicinity—unheard-of octopi and new crustaceans—and so the biological department of a famoso American university organized a diving expedition to collect specimens. What they discovered was…something else, though no one in Cuba knew what exactly that something else might have been. What was known was that another expedition had been undertaken this very month, funded by that same American University, or rather by some of its more well-connected trustees. However, this time around the expedition was not undertaken by divers but rather by an underwater vehicle. What was also known was that the American scientists involved were not biologists but rather experts in human archaea. Had they found the ruins of an ancient civilization, sunken into the sea after some antediluvian earthquake had crumbled its foundations? Perhaps fabled Atlantis itself? Señor Valdes performed a theatrical Latin-American shrug. It seemed the expedition had only found disaster, for—and here Señor Valdes leaned in close and whispered for dramatic effect—three of the four scientists did not return, and the one who had made it back was brought to a private hospital in Santiago in some kind of cataleptic state and had not spoken a word to anyone in the five days since. The police had interrogated the submarine crew (though the question of jurisdiction was of course somewhat fuzzy and complicated by the wealth and position of the expedition’s backers) but no arrests had been made.

At this point the waiter returned with the platter of mussels, which my companion began examining with the care of an engineer, sniffing shells and checking the undersides of plantains. It was deemed unsatisfactory, and the waiter was informed of the many divergences from his original instructions, but in the end Señor Valdes chose to suffer the inadequate luncheon rather than waste hope on a second attempt, which of course might go just as poorly as the first. The waiter was dismissed, and for his many faults was left with a tip that was merely extravagant instead of princely, after Valdes had demolished the plate with blithe and well-mannered ferocity.

* * *

I left the restaurant and wandered the streets in a funk, playing hide and seek with the bay and worming away from the thoughts of defeat and the voyage by sea that would send me home. I lost myself in the white pillars and red clay roofs spilling down to the shore, the slopes and steps, the thin dark faces in doorways, the drays and trolleys, the starched young ladies behind their ironwork gates, sudden lovely dictators with Spanish faces. It was a boon to be lost, a roaming stranger in the wild and beautiful city, a kind of freedom known only in the dreamiest moments of childhood, when we wandered into the meadows and trees looking for arrowheads, hardly speaking, every stick a sword, every deer trail an outlaw highway. I stopped to watch a gang of boys climb a pair of trees; they saw my gaze, warned me to go on my way, told me that they were pirates waiting in ambuscade for a rival band of buccaneers. I asked them if they went to church on Sundays, and grudgingly they admitted that they did. I gave them the coins in my pockets and went on my way. For what is a pirate without treasure?

Later, as I crossed the thoroughfare and rounded a standing streetcar, a colossal square building with an imposing façade caught my eye. It seemed to have an air of ill luck about it, for no idlers sat on the broad steps leading up through the arches, and those who moved in and out scurried like shades. As I looked over its yellowing cornice and eerie blank-eyed windows I realized that this was the very hospital to which Señor Valdes had said that the young American archaeologist had been brought. The unlucky hero of the ill-starred expedition that had baffled Cuba was just behind those walls, perhaps only a few staircases away.

My skin tingled again. Dreamy thoughts of adventure still clung to me like smoke, and it suddenly occurred to me that I could go inside the hospital and try to learn more about the young man, to see if it was in fact the Mordecai Seagrave that the two young ladies had mentioned the night prior. As an American I could pose as a relative of the cataleptic, and I might find out some little piece of information about his condition. Perhaps I might even encounter the winsome Miss Pulver.

I hesitated a moment more and then strode forward. My mind was a blank; I did not know precisely what I was about, but I went on nonetheless. At the desk I informed a young woman that I was there to see a cousin, Mr. Mordecai Seagrave, all the while feigning a hesitating, apologetic Spanish, as if I were recalling the words from a very great distance, and I pitched my voice to the somber sad churchtones of one who calls at a sickbed. I knew not what to expect, and readied myself for rebuff, but the woman only looked at me with a moment of reciprocated solemnity and then skittered off her chair through the crisscrossing functionaries to an office in the rear. Like an elastic ball she bounced out again, this time with a small, bald, professional man in a doctor’s white gown. With extreme courtesy Dr. Segurredad shook my hand and steered me by the arm to the great bustling hallway in the rear.

We walked through a doorway maze of beds and invalids, the doctor all the while informing me of the patient’s condition in overconfident, incomprehensible English, extrapolating on his technical terms by making odd gestures with his free hand, now fluttering like a caught bird, now moving across an invisible flatness, now still with fingers curled to thumb in quiet. There were shrugs and lip-pursings and brief appeals to the ceiling or what hung above, and then finally he opened a door into a sunlit room and gestured inside. Red rays poured in from the west, and facing the windows was a single bed in which a young man lay. The doctor remained in the doorway as I stepped forward and then withdrew.

The patient was a well-proportioned and handsome young man with a broad, clear face, thick dark hair and irregular patches of beard growing in tufts along his lip, jowls and chin. Looking at his form as it lay beneath the sheet I could see that his primary vocation must be book-study and the warehouse of the mind, but that he also had some little bit of athleticism to him as well, perhaps as a rower or a stalwart of some New England track and field team. Nevertheless, he lay slack and still in an odd position, like a rag doll that had rolled off a table onto the floor; his face was tilted away from me to his right while his left arm was thrown back away from him across the bright yellow coverlet. I could see that his eyes were open but that the gaze was as blank as snow, staring off at something which was not there or perhaps anywhere. The lids were unblinking but now and then closed and opened slowly, deliberately, like a lizard on a stone. So this was Mordecai Seagrave.

I watched him for some time, lying still, unheeding, and then I clasped my hands before me and silently asked Christ to help the young man. Quaint as it may seem to some in this modern age, I do believe in the power of intercessory prayer; I have seen some minor miracles in my life, and my mother and grandparents have related as many or more to me from their own times. It requires only a certain sincerity, a concentration of caring and good will, and just this in itself I find to be a worthwhile exercise—a stretching of the empathetic muscles, one might say. Were the prayers to flitter off and be trapped in eaves and trees like shining paper kites, never reaching the ears of God on high, still they would have a purpose and usefulness in the world, for I would be a better man for them. This much I believe.

When I looked down again Seagrave was staring at me, and I started. Had his senses returned? My voice seemed stuck in my throat, and I could not speak. He was clearly looking at me, but not as one man looks at another, but rather as an animal might look at a patch of peeling paint or a shadow upon the wall—blank, incurious, beyond. Then he turned away, back to the west and the setting sun, and closed his eyes, slowly, and then opened them again.

It occurred to me then that I had rather much to do, still terribly much to do, and so I departed, eager to leave the inmates to their dinners and to be free to pursue my own.

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