Edition 30: The Essence of Flow by Rhoads Brazos
A man floats in the deeps of Malta, returning to a place he has spent most of his life avoiding. The power of the ancient sea has long overshadowed his life and tonight marks a new turning point in its history. -SY
Thirty miles off the shore of Malta, his wife of forty years wept like an orphan. It was their first vacation in far too long and taken at her insistence. A return to the old country. Needless to say, it hadn’t gone well. Call it a clash of cultures, a patriotic scrimmage. These kinds of wars were fought on quiet fronts.
Back in the navy, he’d been little more than a handyman for the Marinai housing outside of Sigonella, a lowly liaison to the local contractors. Still, he’d been proud of his uniform, and she had too. It’s what caught her eye when he’d first sat at her table. Tonight, when he asked her to dance, she shyly agreed. This was a game they played, pretending the old days were new. When every kiss was the first, there would never be a last.
A dozen men in long beards and tourist prints took offense to his attire. When they tipped him overboard, they made sure he fell facing the night sky. They wanted pop-eyed fear, cries of desperation. He turned his face to the sea. He couldn’t bear to see her framed by such filth.
The waters slapped hard against him, wrapped tight, and pulled him down. He floated in darkness and thought only of her. Already the ship was distant, the slow roll of its wake finding the Mediterranean’s rhythm. They would reach the Syrian coast in two days. Maybe someone would stop them, but it wouldn’t be him. He would exhale. He would inhale. After a quick struggle, he would rest.
The voice was as clear as a Sunday sermon. At first he thought it to be an angel, but it had come from below. He fought for the surface.
Upon still waters, he floated on his back and watched the receding lights of the Bella Pellegrino sparkle like a chandelier. Carina would already believe him to be dead, and she’d be right. Before they’d dumped him, they’d knocked his front teeth down his throat. He’d already spit his death sentence into the waters.
“My dear Tommy,” she said, and he couldn’t pretend not to hear.
As a young boy, he’d set out with two buddies to the muddy river at the Highway 529 crossing. Their laughter echoed off concrete pylons. The sound of occasional traffic whooshed overhead, each big rig rolling by like a shock of thunder to shake him in his skin. The three of them bobbed on inner tubes, racing from the shore to their campfire on the central island. When Joey slipped and went under it hadn’t even raised a smile. Such things happened. After he was gone curiously long, Stickler dove in after him. Another moment and Thompson followed.
“It’s been a while,” he said.
He’d had Stickler’s hand, fingers hooked under fingers. He’d imagined him down in the murk grinning that stupid tall-toothed grin. The braggart had Joey by the hair. He was about to be a genuine hero, so why didn’t he pull the lout up on his own? Why was he screaming a hollow shriek that seemed to come from every direction? A soft song accompanied him. Cellos at a funeral.
“You’ve never spoken before,” Thompson said.
“Not true.” The waters curled about him.
“But at the river, I used to—”
“Why should I answer the living?”
Of course she couldn’t expose her existence. She couldn’t offer up proof to anyone who asked, not even a young boy who tossed dandelion offerings into the waters and wept pleas with the sincerity of a saint. He needed the others to know it wasn’t his fault. Yes, he’d floundered ashore and ran, but he’d tried to save them.
“I’m deeper than the sea,” she said. “And yet in your every tear. I know how many have fallen. Ah, another?”
Thompson searched the stars. There were so many. He tried to picture the path the ship had taken. Two hours ago at sunset, they’d skirted St. Julian’s, its rows of resorts a shade of taupe custard, each honeycombed balcony lit amber.
“You’d never make it,” she said. “I wouldn’t be speaking to you otherwise.”
“You know my thoughts?”
“The easy ones,” she said. “I flow in your veins. I’m inside your skull. Feel.”
His vision blurred and memories awoke.
After the accident, his parents had tried to bribe him into the tub—just an inch of water, perfectly safe—but he never relented. He bathed with a cloth until he was twenty.
Driving by the local swimming pool. He sank down into the back seat. The tip-top of the slide, the high dive. He shuddered.
Micky in the gutter laughing. His was a new approach, one crafted by the sadism and peculiar concern of an older brother. The jerk sat with his legs down the sewer drain. Water boiled in a swirl around him. When Thompson burst from the house into the downpour, each drop stung like a needle. At that point his brother could already claim victory.
Micky waved with both hands and then she took him.
“If it makes you feel any better,” she said, “in the end he believed you.”
“Why do you hurt people?”
“Don’t be so maudlin. Without my currents, you wouldn’t be.”
She spun him slowly upon the sea’s surface, or he imagined she did, for the heavens twirled.
“No reed in the shallows, this one,” she said. “This is the mystery of deep kelp.”
There could only be one thing she wanted.
“My wife…” he said.
“Is a mote. You are my treasure, my polished pearl. You knew I’d be waiting and yet you returned. Why are you here?”
He’d asked himself the same question many times. Why would a man who knew the consciousness of currents dare book a cruise? He’d finished a thirty-year stint in the navy. His parents had been dumbstruck. The ambiguity couldn’t be explained. Long ago, he’d ceased trying. Though he had put it into words once, it seemed. Carina had been squeezing his hand tight…
“You are mocking me,” her currents said.
“Suicide,” she said.
“No. I want to—I need to live.”
“You didn’t a moment ago.”
“Impossible. You wound me with words.”
The sea to his left tossed and seethed. He slipped from his back and tread with slow strokes, his chin just clearing the waters. A smooth mass floated to the water’s surface. It was twice his length and close enough to touch.
“Zambezi,” she said. “Head full of teeth and an empty stomach. He wanted a taste.”
“You saved me?”
“For one crest and trough. Why are you here?”
He unbuttoned his uniform and sank below to tug it free. He wouldn’t get a second chance at this. After checking the stars one final time, he turned east. He fell to a steady forward crawl, putting old muscles to a task they’d always loathed, and with years, had nearly abandoned. He ignored the pain slicing at his side.
“You’re going the wrong way,” she said.
He couldn’t reply. With every other stroke, he gulped a great breath. He pulled himself steadily out to sea. Even in his prime, he couldn’t have made it back to Malta. Battered, bleeding in the dark, no one could.
Twenty minutes later, he paused to rest. Then fifteen, then ten. He couldn’t feel his arms. If it weren’t for the splash of each pull, he’d doubt they were there. He repeatedly sliced his tongue on the shards of his front teeth. The stars kept him aligned.
When he could go no farther, he pushed on. When he felt so light-headed he thought he would faint, he ground his gums one against the other and spit blood.
More than once the nearby waters churned and sounded with the snapping of spines. The sharks were near, circling his position and striking when his trail left them frenzied, but not a one touched him. She saw to that.
A storm billowed in from the west and set the sea to a loose roll. He slowed to a stop and shouted his wife’s name. She was miles away. He prayed they hadn’t harmed her. Every passenger was worth a sow’s price, that’s what they’d said.
He tried to rest on his back again, like he’d been taught during his recruit training, but the seas were too choppy. He floated corpse style, face down. From below, she gazed up at him. She’d fashioned a body of delicate convections and phosphorescent scraps gathered from the depths.
He turned his head, forced in a rasping gasp, and rested again. She drifted near enough to illuminate him. He’d shed his last clothing an hour ago, and though he didn’t assume her to have a lady’s sensitivities, an intense shame burned his face.
“Don’t be shy,” she said. “I caressed you in the womb. Your own mother never held you so close.”
Her face, or the approximation she’d sculpted, spun with silt lit from within. Each grain tumbled through a microcurrent of flow. Her irises whirled with chipped coral. Her hair was an iridescent cascade of slivered shells. She was beautiful. Royalty.
“Thank you,” she said, and examined the sea’s moonlit ceiling. “A shipping lane. Instead of the shallows, you headed for the deep. It’s a very clever plan. I’m flattered you know me so well, truly I am. But I have bad news.”
Another breath. He should be able to hold it better than this.
“Do you remember when they put the boots to you? Well, sandals. You do? It was meant to be as much an insult as a punishment.” She floated upward and whispered against his lips. “That was your moment of no return.”
With his next breath, his vision swam.
“All that exertion,” she said. “I can feel you trickling out from within, right here.” Soft fingertips touched his side. “Weakened by the bottle of your younger days, or you might have survived tonight’s abuse. Drinking yourself to death, but did you ever consider? That was me too.”
She rolled him onto his back and he heaved with a stab of pain. She slipped her arms around his chest and buoyed him afloat.
“You are in rare company,” she said. “Listen.”
She told of other times, of the favorites she’d taken.
The Water Witch of Catamount, accused of conjury and drought but innocent to a fault. With an assist from the pond’s gloom, she survived the ducking stool in ten-minute breaths. Half a day later, she screamed infernal allegiance, but not because she was afraid. While she’d been under, she’d seen too much. The town spoke her name for centuries, a precious gift for one so timid.
Evan Paulson of a Trenton suburb. No friends, black eyeliner, and too much Poe. After three years of careful bottling, he took a triple dose of Rohypnol and died face down in a bowl of his own tears, the only person in history to achieve such a literal demise. He’d been too drowsy for a goodbye note, so she wrote it for him, a lost ode she’d seen two centuries past at the tip of his hero’s quill.
Thompson sagged into the waters. He slipped downward. She had his toes.
“Only one in a million can hear the strain,” she said. “They stay far away, but not you.”
He sank into black.
“My children called me Nammu.” She knotted herself about him. “Does it make it easier if you know me? Speak, and I’ll keep your words lucid.”
He whispered a plea. As she’d promised, the waters caught it.
“No, the nature of your end is my choosing,” she said. “Tell me.”
Again, that same name, his beloved. A time and a place.
The moment of calm resignation arrived. She’d seen it countless times.
He opened his mouth wide and inhaled her.
Her own years were without end. She’d been waiting only a drip of a drop of nothing for this meeting, that instant when she came rushing in, unstoppable, the quenching deluge, yet each year had dragged on in gray monotony. She’d seen it all. Very little surprised her, except him.
He thrashed in her arms.
She sighed the shush of spilling breakers and readied his final thought. She considered letting it be her song, the same soft dirge of undercurrent he’d heard circling the pylons that fateful day. It would have been apt, but she didn’t. Despite his rejection, he was still dear to her.
She touched pressure to lobes and honored his request.
“When you were young?” Carina asked.
“What do mean?” Thompson poured himself another glass of Oro Marsala.
Five years into his enlistment and the two of them had been seeing each other the entire spring. Every weekend she showed him another sight of Catania—the noisy fish market, the Roman theaters carved from lava floes, the beaches of Lido Azzurro with waters as pale as her eyes.
Today, they sat together outside the sculpted gardens of Villa Bellini at one of the Savia’s quaintly tucked away tables. She rested her chin on her hands. Her dark hair fell shining over her shoulders.
He’d had too much to drink again. Sobering up for his Monday duty shift would entail a painful penance. She usually discouraged such indulgence on his part, but not tonight. She sought a confession.
“I spoke,” she said, “to your babbo.”
A modest call from Sicily to the Texas coast would have cost her a busy night’s tips. He wondered how the conversation had gone. Her English was impressive. His father’s hearing was not.
Thompson set his mouth in a thin smile. “Don’t believe everything—”
“Why didn’t you say?”
“I didn’t think—”
“Liar. You hide from me.”
After half a bottle, each sip left his thoughts warm, neighbor melting into neighbor. He focused on one but spoke the other. He gave his wineglass a swirl and eyed the essence of flow.
“Why did you come here?” To see her. And then I found you.
This drew her laughter.
“Does she know?” Probably. She’s everywhere.
A brew of impressions. His explanations forced her levity toward concern. She heard his loss and his grief and how he no longer blamed himself. If the currents were alive, why should he bear the burden?
“If you really…you wouldn’t be here, no?” Not necessarily.
“You wish to be with me.”
He didn’t need to answer that charge with words.
She pushed the bottle away and took his hands in hers.
“…would you fear it, and yet come so close?”
And he replied without hearing.
But she did, his wife-to-be, his widow. She knew.
Upon the seafloor, in the glacial cold a mile below the midnight zone, they danced. She, Nammu, the Cosmic Ocean. He, her returned paramour, away for so long on a distant crusade. The currents played as a bow over strings and echoed her mournful song through fathoms. She seemed to follow his lead, but really she set this waltz.
“Shall I bend to a swain’s will?” she asked.
He didn’t reply.
They spun lazily, in a perfect embrace.
“You wish to tempt me,” she said. “I don’t know if this is by your design or by fate’s, but did you consider…I could take her too?”
He dipped her low, his hand at the small of her back.
“After all that has happened between us,” she said.
For the first time in eons, she laughed. Every ocean rippled.
“You trust me.”
Three hours after being commandeered, the Bella Pellegrino sailed full bore eastward. The ship had already radioed a delay to the port at Santorini. They would call in a second notice as they cleared the south coast of Crete. As a final ruse, they would claim to have stalled far away from where they could be found.
The new crew slouched upon the rim of the main deck and held their weapons level. They grinned at their captives, each of which promised to raise a fair sum. When a broad-shouldered youth dared to be surly, they removed his fingers with bolt cutters, and then everyone was smiles.
They finished sorting the women by age and desirability and agreed upon an order for the honeymoon suite. As a sign of respect, the oldest men would go first. The next in line would act as guard. Youssef, a curly-haired fire pot and the youngest of the lot, grumbled at his misfortune, but not too loudly.
A woman climbed over the outside railing and hopped lightly to the deck. Across her shoulders was draped an unbuttoned jacket, the twin of the one cast overboard with the Yankee. She wore not a stitch more. The silvery sheen of her painted curves shimmered. Such harlotry could only have been meant for the ship’s stage, for the hungry eyes of impiety.
She smirked, as indifferent to the cries of the approaching men as she was to her own nakedness.
Youssef reached her at a sprint. Perhaps he saw an opportunity to chasten one of the decadents in private quarters. He’d been chagrined to be last, now he was first.
“Drown and boil,” she said, and he did. He flattened himself against the deck and frothed into paste. Her laughter smothered his screams.
Gunfire crackled down, but she didn’t seem to notice. With a word, the sea rose up and blotted out the stars.
On favorable currents, the Pellegrino reached the Greek isle of Santorini within the hour. The passengers were too busy cowering below decks to notice the ship’s arrival. She’d let them go. None interested her, save one.
Carina, the delicate lily he’d chosen as his wife, held herself close. She leaned against the windows of the upper deck lounge and feigned strength, yet her pulse was racing.
The pool swirling at her feet rose and fell with smug contentedness. There was a special thrill in having a witness to the occasion.
“They still live?” Carina asked.
The men had been stretched into creative poses across the deck, their flesh shaped to new purposes—spindled about the railings, fluttering as pennants, gasping in soggy heaps from a thousand puckered mouths. The human body was mostly water.
“It wasn’t their time.”
“Was it his?”
Her currents stilled and considered. No, it had been proper.
She presented his uniform, folded, self-pressed, and smelling of the sea. When Carina took it with trembling hands, the eddies brushed a tender wave against her cheek. Though the gesture earned a shiver, it had been meant to seem comforting. Such displays were foreign to her.
“I’m not the one who decides,” she said. “Does that bring you solace?”
“Not really, I—” Carina’s voice faltered, and then broke.
The woman couldn’t hold her sorrow at bay. She buried her face in his jacket and wept a dozen-score tears. It seemed a curiously even number to end on. Such odd creatures.
The tide at her feet spiraled higher.
“Your husband…” her waters said, and explained that long ago day at the cafe.
Carina listened with wide eyes. When the tale was told, she collected herself. “I remember,” she said. “That was when he quit the drink?”
For a moment her words caused confusion. No one could manage such a feat.
Carina turned her attention to the night sky. “Why did he seek you? You really don’t know?”
“Woman, do not provoke me.”
A flurry of activity was building down on the lower docks. Workers raced the length of the Pellegrino and cried out to one another. The ship shouldn’t be here, not two days early.
“Well,” Carina said, “he didn’t either, not in a way he could say. I think he felt it would be disrespectful. To his fratellone, you see? And his friends. He couldn’t admit such a thing even to himself.”
“But he told you.”
Carina idly fingered her wedding ring. “Anything so vast. It lives forever.”
“A reasonable fancy.”
“And the eternal is sacred, yes?”
“As I have always been.”
The ebb of her motion faltered. Her liquid mind reeled. The woman couldn’t be proposing such an absurdity. Even a hundred generations ago, her presence had been forgotten. Yes, Thompson had heard. He’d seen her artistry and knew she was near, but the suggestion was folly.
“He worshiped me? Nonsense.”
“Not to him,” Carina said.
“I have no followers.”
“You had one.”
She’d shown him the divine. He’d responded not with veneration, but with fear. The frailty of species cursed them all; he was no exception. Yet he’d dared to see something greater than himself, to touch the timeless, and like all the others, he’d been devoured by a miracle.
“He told me that night, just once,” Carina said. “He called you Nammu.”
Rhoads hails from Colorado, where he lives with his wife and son. His morbid fascination with horror and weird fiction takes his writing down paths he’s perhaps too willing to follow. Somehow, his work has seeped into this publication and other unsuspecting venues, including: The Best Horror of the Year, vol. 7 (edited by Ellen Datlow); Apex Magazine; Death’s Realm (Grey Matter Press); and SQ Mag. The first installment of his occult detective novella, The Devil’s Trill, book one of The Ladies Bristol series, is now available through Grey Matter Press.