THE TRUE WEST COAST:
A Waterman Magazine
The Ancient Diver
The Ancient Diver, first published in 2008 in Waterman Magazine
It was five years B.C. and the water of the Mediterranean had not yet been walked on by our Lord. The blue waters off Cyprus had seen many a Phoenician and Carthaginian ship pass, throw anchor in her coves, take off her daughters, drive up on the rocks and break apart. Jason stood at the stern of the ship, listening to the captain and chief of the crew, curse and pull the boat back and forth in the two-hundred feet of water. After trying it from different angles they called out for Jason, their Greek navigator. They didn’t like to risk losing him, but he was the only one with skills to free the anchor. They had already lost three anchors en route from the Carthaginian city of Motya in Sicily.
“Jason, my master, the captain he must speak with ye,” said Bekele, the Ethiopian cook and harpoon man. “Ye must free the anchor.”
“Great Athena! Not again,” Jason sighed.
“The Gods want to be the death of me.” His hands were rough like the chin of a whale. The span of his shoulders was the same as the ship’s dining table. Sandy Macedonian hair. Tight chin. Deep green eyes like the emeralds of Adulis. His heart started to still like the backwaters in the great port near the Bosporous.
“Neptune be praised,” he said slowly, smoothly, silently to himself.
“ Captain,” he proffered as he walked up the stairs leading to the bow. “Your command. My lord.”
“Jason, my son. Thou’st knowest I don’t like to ask so much. But the anchor is swallowed again by that cheap whore of a shelf below the mast.”
“Captain! And we have not another?”
“No lad. Ye know we already have lost all our extras. I promise ye I will not let the first mate anchor the boat another time, only you. Will ye do us the honor?”
“Your command. My lord.”
And he slowly turned, walked down the short stairwell and turned into his cabin. He changed into his black seal pants, pulling on a pair of tight fitting gloves made out of the same material. Bare-chested. The pants and gloves were made from seal fur from the islands near the Pillars of Hercules. He had fashioned them into gloves that fit onto the hands like the feet of a duck, with material in between the fingers. The webbing allowed him to pull better through the water. He hoisted his diving cross onto his back. It was made of the same iron as the ingots that served as the ships ballast. The Romans had used such shapes made of wood to affix their enemies to, but Jason’s was a sleek small cross, five feet long with a ring at the long end with his rope tied off to the ring.
He hoisted the apparatus onto the ship’s railing, the azure Cypriot waters showing the angle of the rope under the boat where the anchor disappeared under a sunken ledge. He lay down to rest on the railing, calming himself, breathing deeply, slowly, with his eyes closed. He called on Neptune to still his heart. No one on the boat talked, only now and again the cry of a kestrel. The silence was deep, like the blue water and the descending sun.
He tied the rope to both of his legs in an easy knot to undo, heaved a massive breath of air, and popped his arms onto the railing after toppling the cross into the water. He whipped his legs into the line and from there he seemed to see everything from the perspective of a man with too much wine in his blood. Slowly, he hit the water with the smooth cut of his pointed toes. The metal weight beneath him careened to the bottom. He held his nose, and as Neptune’s force pressed down on his head, he blew out, hearing a click behind his temple and in his ears. He tried to call out to Neptune at times like this; he became like a worm in a cocoon, his arms folded tightly over his chest, waiting for him to awake. At two-hundred feet he clanked to the bottom and opened his eyes. He looked up and could see the boat and the anchor line. He held his arms in front of him, opened his eyes wide underwater, untied the line and swept away and out to the right, along the ledge where the anchor was hiding.
With each movement of his arms and feet he calmed himself. He remembered the feeling of relaxation in bed with his three wives after furious love-making. His body slowed, but with each movement of his legs and arms, he flexed to the chant of his benefactor – “Neptune, slow, silent… Your presence. The realm of the Gods.” He peeked under the ledge and saw a grouper the size of two men, swirling around the anchor that had been wrapped around a large rock.
“Out beast,” he spoke to his acquaintance. He held out his hand to the giant fish and tapped her on the gill plate, a rush of water and silt exploding from thrashing tail to shaking head. He laid his hands on the rope and slowly pulled himself along up to the point where he could lift the rope over the boulder and drape the line outside the ledge, pulling the anchor tight. He turned. He waited silently, patiently. When the water had cleared enough he opened his eyes again and saw the anchor, head in a crack off to his left. He pulled himself back up the line and pulled it out of the crack, dragging it to the edge of the cave. Turning, he gave three curt yanks on the anchor rope.
His servants were swimming on the surface near a raft, looking down on him with a glass plate affixed to a wooden box sealed with tar. They could see him now emerge from the cave. At that point he lifted his arms and swept himself towards the surface. Rhythmically pumping, he calmed himself more and more, the sponges, fish, and rocks faded behind. At twenty feet he blew out what was left of his air as his servants dove down to aid him in the last few feet. Sometimes he did not remember the last part; sometimes he woke up in his bed minutes later… dissatisfied he had not seen the Gods.
T S Lockie