By Paul Mirabile
The ship hauled anchor then glid smoothly over the placid, thick black waters. Overhead, thousands of stars studded the midnight sky. Most of the passengers chose to sleep but not Reuven, who at starboard, leaning heavily on the railing, inhaled and exhaled that nocturnal air of sea lust he nurtured, yearned and desired. Reuven had walked the decks of so many ships at night. He slept restlessly during the day. For it was at night that the treasures of the sea beckoned him with their illuminating allure, whose phosphorescent radiance touched and tugged at his heart as he attempted to pry open the lid of that still undiscovered treasure hidden unfathomed within him.
The ship rocked ever so gently as he peered into the inky depths. Deeper and deeper Reuven sought to probe, to sound, to err amongst the phantoms. But as night advanced, and the air grew cooler and he had to stop. His lungs were at the point of bursting. He gasped for air. He had failed once again, panting breathlessly. It was only the first white ray of the morning that he returned to the surface, throbbing with anguish, shivering with cold, smelling of brine.
He would have to exercise himself more strenuously, discipline his breathing rhythms, purify his heart further in order to attain … to attain what ? The un-pried trove ? The entrance to the azure cave whose lithic cavities and chambers would deliver him to the heart of his ‘Quest’ ? “But all three are One !” he murmured to the morning light. “All three are decidedly One, I’m sure of it.” He concluded.
But was he absolutely sure ? Since the nineteen-seventies how many years, how many vessels, how many dives into the oceans and seas of the world had he waited, ridden out, taken in in search of the seemingly unattainable? How many nights aboard the rocking and rolling bridges, under the brilliant or luminous less skies had he held his breath and made the vital plunge ? At times, he felt that he had ‘touched’ something : shoals of darting fish, a school of breaching dolphins, curious at this interloper, a lone blue or white whale ready to swallow him up like Jonas, yet hesitant due to the urgency of the diver’s dive downwards, and perhaps also to the oddity of such a ‘mouthful’. Once a soft, silken squid touched him with its suction-cupped tentacles. This touch sent icy chills through his body. Other odd phantoms that wiggled through the depths eyed him with their bulging, bulbous eyes rolling in their protruding orbits as they rubbed noses with him. Alas, this was the furthest he had sounded: the crushing coldness of the sea enveloped his body, and his lungs, aching, failed him once again. His lungs and his will ! This lack of intestinal fortitude and energy in overcoming the frigid deep would bring tears to his red, fatigued eyes …
“How many plunges would it then take ? How many crossings and trials ? Confrontations with the phantoms of the deep ? Were these uncanny and oftentimes terrifying creatures the guardians of the cherished trove ? Were they responsible for my lack of will … my shortage of breath … my fear of limits ? But is not the tracing of a limit a means of surmounting it ?
“I class these plunges as voyages. They are extraordinary. Extraordinary because beyond what I may call ordinary reality. For this extraordinary reason I believe my will retracts, my lungs fail, my fear reaches an acme of indescribable terror. Yet, I persevere. No treasure chest is easily discovered and its lid pried open. This knowledge I acknowledge, and in doing so, have hurried half the way by overcoming the consensus of a sole vision of reality. For I have come to understand that the treasure I have so desperately sought lies not in an ordinary vision of things, but within them, through them, over and under them. There lies the treasure I am speaking about. There in a land or space of the ‘Other Reality’,” wrote the dauntless diver in his logbook.
“And this space exists ! I have plunged into it, but have been thwarted in my attempts to reach ‘the bottom’, if that is all possible. The ‘bottom’ where lies the treasure …”
And so many years passed. Many decks paced. Many plunges plunged. Many expectancies sunk …
“It was on this particular cargo vessel as we left Southhampton for Cape Town that my efforts would prevail …or I believed would prevail. At the equator, one very still and humid night, the waters of the Atlantic were as thick as molasses, as calm as a pond in a wooded glen, as black as pitch. I leaned at the railing, quite alone at late hours of the night. I peered down into this uncanny oceanic instant and a sentiment of great excitement crept up upon me …
“It was the instant expected : I plunged anew …
“As I slowly descended the stillness of the cool waters, the titillating sensation of my kindling blood awakened a contrast that my mind found difficult to organise. It were as if my subjective make-up, my ‘personal space’ lay exposed to the various living entities that either obstructed my way, obliging me to circumvent them, or rushed towards me as if to scrutinise this alien interloper that had trespassed their ‘personal space’. It was not an uncomfortable feeling at all, but the collision of the two ‘personal spaces’ seemed to meld into an ‘impersonal one’, drawing me now out of my self now drawing them into me. Beautiful crimson corals provided the backdrop of this alternating movement, aglow with bulbous branch tips that undulated at my approach ; its branches were aswarm with sponges, molluscs, star fish, sea urchins and sea spiders. The coral quivered and quaked under their continual agitation, a silent and stunning quavering as I passed them by, several detaching themselves to examine the diver! Yet, they kept at a reasonable distance, hardly inhospitable, even friendly, my ‘human aura’ perhaps attracting them as they slid through the myriad incandescent branches …
“I felt so relieved that these fellow creatures welcomed my presence amongst them, and I thanked them for not upsetting my rhythmic breathing as I descended. I broke through layers of soft, silent, swishy beds of seagrass of the most viridian green. Nothing stirred within them; only the strong current of waters tossed them to and fro — like the sea vessel that I had long since abandoned — or so it seemed. Here at these depths ,Time had lost its tick-tock humdrum. It had become Space.
“Gradually the waters became terribly cold. My heart was palpitating. At these inky depths, no ray of the sun penetrated. No sound, human or other, pervaded. Now the queerest of creatures swam in the wake of my vertical drop, glaring at me either through tubular eyes that swivelled or through telescopic ones with lenses. They appeared amiable, in spite of the fact that I had disturbed their environment. They meant me no harm, even a giant squid, terrifying creature, who had made a bee-line towards me, stopped a short distance away. The creature began to feel my body with the many suction cups that padded its lengthy tentacles. I imagine it was verifying whether I were friend or foe. After several minutes, it let me pass, its beady eyes encrusted in its bulbous mantle fixed on me as I drifted deeper into colder waters, waters that were compressing my body and soul more and more.
“The darkness became truly frightening. My drop slowed down as if the waters were solidifying, gripping me in some viscid, glutinous substance. An image from the past darted through my mind : it was in the Pacific, I had encountered the terrible phantom of the abyss and had skirted that danger, miraculously. All of a sudden I was shaken out of my reminiscence by many spots of soft ochre-yellow light that sluggishly trudged their way towards me : I believe they were lantern fish flashing upon their prey. They swarmed around me, training their luminous photophore organs into my face. What an unusual prey they had stumbled upon! So huge. So unappetising. So unlike their daily diet. I think I was dealing with a viperfish, whose enormous dagger-like teeth shone under the softness of its lantern organ. And there, to the left, swimming as speedily as the thickness would allow it, a humpback angelfish, an ugly beast indeed with its deadly spiked teeth ready to devour me. Both of them eyed me, until at length turned against themselves. The turbulence of the waters blurred my vision, thousands and thousands of bubbles jolted and jostled me from left to right, dragged me downwards, helplessly caught in the vortex of this bellicose maelstrom. When the tempest had abated, peace and darkness reigned once again. Regaining my composure, I ventured a peek upwards: nothing …
“Heavier and heavier my body weighed, lighter and lighter my head as I plummeted to deeper depths, quite unknown to me. I became estranged from my Self … from my human identity. I had never experienced such uncanny emotions in my former marine voyages. It were as if my body had blended into the environment, had become one with it, whereas my mind, quite lucid, refused to yield to this inhuman ‘It’. Was my body detaching itself away from my mind ? How could that be ? They are inextricably connected … or so I thought … How many hours now beneath the ocean ? How many days ? Would I have both the physical and mental strength to weather the fathomless Deep … the soundless ‘It’ ? To overcome the abyss ? To reach the treasured Depth ? Yes, I must advance wither : Had I any other chance ? It was too late to turn back … Yet I had to surface at some time …
“Ah ! Now what is this ? I’ve seen that bugger before in picture-books – the black swallower. This phantom of the deep can be a deadly adversary with its bloated, distensible belly that even swallows small whales. It’s coming straight at me and I have nothing to defend myself, only prayers, only a thought of the Absolute One whom I seek with firm resolution. And there, a blazing light burns through the thickness. Either it too is headed for me or for the charging black swallower. It’s the pelican eel that was going into battle against the other, brandishing a large photophore at the end of its tail to attract the terrible black swallower away from me. Its enormous mouth has dropped open and in a jiffy the unprepared black swallower existed no longer, gobbled up within the grinding cavity. The spot lights of the eel flashed on and off as it struggled to digest such a crude repast. All this emotion caused my heart to beat faster and faster … my chest ached and swelled. My breathing became more and more erratic, almost uncontrollable. As I witnessed these turbulent events a rather metaphysical thought crossed my mind : Are all these creatures not traces, imprints, vestiges of His Presence ? Are they not, in the chilliest depths of the deep, enigmatic signs, obscure indeed, even frightening, of my communication … no, of my communion with Him, however ugly, gruesome or hostile their appearance be to me ? They are the true signs that I am on the right road : the Royal Road …
“My eyelids no longer obeyed their nerve commands to remain on the alert. I wished to sleep. To lay down and doze off for a while … a long while. I’ve had enough. I’ve come too far and my quest has come to nothing. I long to see the light of day, to savour earthly creatures, to breathe an unsalty air. I yearned to return to humankind. To the colours and sounds of life … Yet, I’m still alive, or at least I believe I am alive, albeit everything I touch has no feeling. A numbness has settled into my drifting body ; so light, so weary, so empty … a floating debris from an embattled, erring vessel …
“The debris floats into the crevice of a sponge-like lithic palisade. I am penetrating some sort of grotto, drifting in an airless, soundless world, tugged along horizontally as if a strong current were tossing and rocking me gently from one wall to the other. The haze that had veiled my eyes slowly lifts, and I discern a phosphorescent glow of myriad colours. The colours played upon my sensations without disturbing the numbness that had seized my body. At last, the ‘Separate Reality’? The twilight of gleams and glimpses ? Of undulating figures or phantoms that emerge in my mind when I feel myself entwined within the fumes of sleep ?
“But I am fully awake to my novel surroundings: A purple haze has crept into this grotto, chandelier-like stalactites hang in series of threes, all perfectly symmetric in their sponge-like textures and forms. I reach out to touch them but I felt nothing, my arm balancing heavily in some sort airless vacuum. Gigantic stalagmites studded with bulging, knotty boles and prominent tumours soared high into empty chambers like frothy fairy chimneys, dripping colours of blue and green, fading fast as they penetrate the darkened upper cavities. And away I drift, billows of silken lithic walls roll by. I serpentine like a snake through this intestinal gallery, chamber to chamber, passageway to passageway, the air or water current conducting me deeper into intermittent contrasts of sapphire flush, ultramarine malachite and pall blackness. Air or water current ? My body breathes ‘normally’, although I cannot ‘feel’ the air through my nostrils or throat. Have I transcended the conditioned reality ? Have I identified myself with this unknown alienness … reached the ‘Separate Reality of the Divine One’? The Absolute One is indeed known to us naturally, but will I be able to recognise him ?
“Nothing moves: no fish, no reptiles. I myself cannot move, yet beyond the inertness of my corporality something enlightens me upon the marvels of this cavernous world. All beauty does have a sense of the physical. Alas, I am quite unable to participate ‘corporally’ in that sensation, for I possess at these very moments none. A tulle-like curtain is drawn before my eyes; but on each side of me what an enchanting view of so many enfiladed pillars, like ossified soldiers on guard duty. Are they real ? Am I dreaming them ? I must say, however, that in spite of my benumbed state, I do feel this polychromic beauty. A sort of conscious feeling of a penetration of colours and configurations that leaves trails and traces as I sail by them, or better put, as they engulf me then expel me further into the never-ending warren of passageways and chambers.
“Ah ! Wonders of wonders ! Here and there I discern mural drawings of the most exquisite artistic stamp : aurochs, bisons, horses, hands with thick thumbs, tiny ochre-coloured men shooting arrows … Perhaps these regions were inhabited by creatures like myself. Prehistoric or primitive artists carving out their visions of reality, real or imagined.
“Am I then dead to this forlorn world ? To mine ? Am I passing into the Other World ? Is this where the quest has brought me … to the end … or to the beginning ? The phosphorescence glows of melding colours: blues slipping into turquoise, greens into shades of violent. Slashing amber yellows drip into rushes of rusty reds, which in turn suddenly explode into large patches of black shutting out all until bursts of dulcet rose and bright orange bring tears to my half-closed eyes. This I sense but without a sense of being separate from it all.
“Yes, there is something eerie about this voyage, something uncommon. From one of the arched, vaulted chambers a shower of arrow-like sparks falls upon me ; yet I feel nothing. I speed through a maze of silver and gold. I circumvent a sulphurous gauze of stalagmites of the most confounding shapes: pillars whose capitals overflow with spongy tendrils and drooping pistils, sprouting mushrooms, swollen menhirs, frozen standing stones and other awesome monoliths coated with red damask, crustacean Moorish arches, spiky gold steeples and then the passage cleaves into opaque chambers, odourless, soundless, fraught with the feeling of hopelessness. From one of the greenish Moorish arches, I see a stone mouse hanging by its tail, or so it appeared, and from another, silken silvery threads of weird waning, waxing waterfalls.
“Here, afloat, I am spinning through a wondrous world quite impervious to its smells and touches, yet moved by it as if it were sheltered within me. Sheltered by the commotion of colours and the seductive shapes, the endless erring of the same patches of pitch black, exposed to the sudden bursts of iridescent colours, I turn and turn and turn in circles ever wider.
“The momentous moment has it arrived? The Great Encounter — I mean between myself and the Absolute. No, impossible, why all this turning and turning ? Why the intermittent snatches of blackness that smother the chromatic bursts of phosphorescent hope ? Why am I not able to voice or move within the vortex of the revelation ? And the sacred trove ? Am I not worthy of it ?
“My heart bursts with melancholic joy. Pangs of glee spill out … I sense the midst of mellow musings rising like a curtain; the lid has opened, and the image of the Invisible One has come upon me … I gasp in awesome delight: No more angry, reddening suns will henceforth set upon me…”
After several hours of searching the sailors finally found Reuven’s bloated body floating in the ocean. The crew and passengers had been searching for him since his disappearance on deck after midnight. The doctor aboard concluded that his lungs had burst. His body was filled with water and microscopic sea creatures.
When the cargo ship ported at Cape Town, the captain reported the incident to the police. A certain Reuven Whaler had apparently fallen overboard during their route, and not having been seen by either crew or passenger, had drowned. When the police enquired whether he might have committed suicide, the captain shrugged his shoulders. When asked about a possible murder, the good captain turned red and vehemently denied any possible attempt of murder, premeditated or not!
In spite of the captain’s affirmative disposition against any sort of mischief aboard his vessel, all the crew members and passengers were subject to long interrogations: No one was permitted to disembark for two or three days until the coroner’s inquest had been completed and delivered to the police aboard the ship. The inquest stated that the aforementioned passenger, Reuven Whaler, forty-nine years of age, had drowned by accident off the coast of Gabon. As he had no family or close relatives, no further enquiries were made.
Reuven’s death thus remained somewhat veiled in mystery. Whether his body was buried or thrown back into the sea is anyone’s guess …
Now the readers may be curious to know how is it that I have come to relate these incidents given the fact that Reuven vanished one balmy night off the coast of Africa quite alone. How is it that I can account with such precision and emotion his ‘plunge’. Fortunately I was Reuven’s cabin mate aboard that cargo vessel, and when his body was discovered, before the captain arrived to check his cabin belongings, I quickly recuperated the logbook that he had been keeping and hid it in my belongings. I do not consider it as a theft, but as a keepsake … a testimony to Reuven’s ardent quest for the Absolute.
Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.
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