This place is a deep black cacophony; you hear the noises, some noises, not all the noises, and you feel the pressure ripple pulling under you. We’ve been swimming for so long to prepare for this. 5000 calories a day and five hours at the pool: butterflying, twisting, diving. But that was all under bright lights and floor-tiles, and blue and red lines to guide you along. Your whole life a series of intervals.
I started all this when I was very young. My father wanted me to be an Olympic swimmer, but the point of all my swimming wasn’t to win medals or have the best muscles in my class; the point was to enter another world. You reach the bottom of a pool and the light above you is another sun, the gurgling swirls of current reach out from your limbs and this is what it is to be alive; to be alien, to be brilliant.
Down here, the ocean is a dull roar. The university paid for all of it: the travel costs, training, equipment. The transition is easy, leaving land behind you. When you pull on your wetsuit, you morph into another being. I was hoping for whales; everyone is always hoping for whales in America. Maybe it’s just their taste for scale, or maybe it’s the Moby Dick factor.
Anyway, we were five days into the expedition and still no whales.
Just the vast blue darkness.
Sometimes, though, when you get to a certain depth, you can hear something. Well, it’s not hearing exactly; it’s hard to put into words – more of a feeling, something passing through you, like that shiver you get when someone walks on your grave. Each trip we always take the same amount of oxygen, but there are parts of the ocean where time slows and you are down there for longer – everything drags around you, and even the movements of the glittering shoals of fish seem different, prolonged.
As I flex and pulse my body, I imagine all the echolalia around me. I have listened to the whale sounds on countless documentaries. They are like the susurrations of wind or the bleeping of glitched computers; there is terror in the beauty of those long, hollow tones. Or perhaps they are more like songs, or melancholy moans. You think of all you are missing, out here in the blackness without friend or family, your body lost to the whims of the sea. I swear I can feel it, the sonar rising up inside of me, vibrations pressing my brain.
That’s when I made it, the Grand Discovery.
They called it a Whale Fall. My supervisor suggested we name it after me, as a reward, but an American scientist got there first. The name makes you think of tragedy and sadness; of the massive carcass, once elegant, crashing down through torrent and wave to land forever at the bottom of the ocean. Americans have a thing for tragedy, especially grand tragedy.
I knew it was a whale immediately, because it had no teeth. Its skeleton seemed to go on forever.
But it was no mere skeleton; it was a malignant village, a cancerous community. Unnaturally-coloured crabs crawled in and out of its spinal discs, and swarms of luminescent worms and anemones coated its yellow-crusted surface. Nature’s most brutal carnival was slowly eating up the once dignified bones. I swam cautiously right round it to get a better look. There were a few minutes where I lost contact with the other divers, forgot they even existed. I was part of the ecosystem, my eyes aglow with the rotting carcass and its bright detritus. You could not tell what was once skin or flesh or sinew; all was a composite of ragged weeds and stringy feelers and unknowable, slimy things. I was truly at the bottom of the world. As I stared at this terrible marvel, history itself seemed as perishable as this animal’s soul. I saw the whole Earth being eaten up by these nasty, many-legged worms – these disasters of ecology. As I watched them gorge on the skeleton, I saw that they were consuming the future itself. Eating out every second and minute, never growing full. Life and death shuddered before my eyes and I felt my brain swell in its skull.
At the ceremony they told me I had risked my life to investigate this miracle of nature; that I had held on to the end of my oxygen tank, brought back from the brink. I would be rewarded for my efforts, they said, a bright career ahead of me.
But did they not know what became of me? For I too was a skeleton, then; a new ecosystem unfolding as I rotted at the bottom of the ocean.
(Prompts: whale sounds video, terror, reward)
by Maria Rose Sledmere