SONG IS NO DIRGE
JUDY T. OLDFIELD
“She could no more hold herself back than the seal wife could when she found her skin.” – Old Proverb of the Faroe Islands
“You won’t find it in any guidebook, but there are selkies down there,” Tom said.
“Selkies?” the tourists repeated.
“Seal Folk. Like Mermaids. Shed their sealskins on land. You laugh, but I’ve seen ‘em.”
Casey had to interrupt. “Don’t listen to Scottish Tom over there. He’s been drinking here a long time.”
Tom raised his glass. “Does nae make it untrue.”
“Could it be a dolphin or manatee or something?” the tourists asked.
“None of that in the Red Sea. I’ve dived in every ocean on the planet. I’ve seen dugongs, great whites, humpbacks. And I’ve seen selkies.”
“You saw an Egyptian in a Burkini,” Casey said.
Tom ignored her. “You divers?”
The tourists nodded.
“Advanced or Open-Water certified?”
“We all have our Open-Water, but Casey was just telling us that you need your advanced to dive the Blue Hole, so we were all thinking to get it while we’re here,” they said.
Tom smiled. “I’ll give you a good price on the class.”
Reminding herself to be patient, Casey lit a cigarette. Tom was all right, but she’d been working on these guys for twenty minutes already. She exhaled smoke and said, “Sure, go with an instructor who believes in mermaids.” She rolled her eyes hard and exaggerated.
“There’s more to diving than breathing underwater,” Tom said.
Ali walked in, nodded to them, and ordered a tea from the bar. He brought the steaming cup over to Casey’s table and opened four packets of sugar into it.
“This is my boss at the dive shop, Ali,” Casey told the tourists. “Have you ever seen a mermaid, diving out here?”
Ali looked at her through his long eyelashes, “Tom has been telling stories again?” He stirred his tea, and blew through the steam to cool it. “No. There are no mermaids. No Ariel. Nemo, but no Ariel.”
“I did nae say anything about Ariel. That Disney shite gets nothing right.”
“Are there any Egyptian stories about them?” the tourists asked.
“There is, in Arabian Nights. A story about people who live under the water. But they are shaped like humans.”
Tom clicked his tongue. “And what would be the odds of that if there were no basis in truth!”
“This is just a fairy tale,” Ali said, waving his hand in dismissal. “There have been Egyptian scientists, Saudi, Israeli, Australian, British, American scientists studying the Red Sea for years. No mermaids.”
“Scientists! What does science ken about the sea? The sea is a feeling!” Tom cried.
The tourists agreed to meet Casey at the dive shop in the morning.
Out over the Red Sea, stars spread across the abyss of night sky. So much expanse above and below. The stars had no pattern, twinkling haphazardly up there, their light reflecting now and then on the still water like a scattering of fish scales scraped from a fillet and fallen onto the kitchen floor.
Casey rode her bike home from the bar and hit a rusty nail, blowing out her tire. Seven months she’d been in Egypt, taking tourists out diving. She was getting sick of it. Sick of the dust, sick of the politics. Sick of squabbling with other dive shops over a couple tourists because they were that desperate to get patrons.
She lit another cigarette and walked her bike the rest of the way home.
In her bathroom she found nail polish remover, nail polish, and lotion. This was her one luxury: taking off her nail polish, moisturizing her cuticles, and repainting her toes every night. Casey thought there was something remarkable about the human toe, descended from the same DNA that allowed for flippers and paws. She blew on them to dry the wet paint.
The smell of cool sea salt came through the bars of her open window and carried a faint song with the lilting rhythm of waves, several octaves higher. She closed her eyes, trying to focus on its notes, but it was just far enough out of range to hear properly. Quiet as it was, it was expansive, stretching her chest wider than she knew it could go.
Casey woke to the Muezzin’s prerecorded call to prayer warbling tinnily through speakers blocks away. A heartfelt piercing cry to infiltrate deep sleep. Casey’s Arabic ended at Allahu Akbar!—God is the greatest!—but she didn’t need to understand the words to understand its meaning.
It was not yet 5 AM and she’d become adept at falling back asleep before the call was over. An hour and a half later, she woke again with the second call signaling dawn, but as the sunlight worked its way across her bedroom it was harder to return to the world of dreams. Casey covered her head with a pillow and slept fitfully until she finally gave into the day and got up.
With sleep still hanging on her eyelids, Casey made coffee while browsing the Internet. There was a bombing in Sharm last night, a resort city just an hour away. Four dead. This would mean even less tourists. Less business. She ought to get out of here. Belize, or Thailand, or something.
She knew what she’d find when she checked her email. Another message from Ryan, asking her for the third time to move to Australia with him. “You can get a work visa, and until you do, I’ll pay you under the table.” He’d left Egypt a month after she’d arrived and had been trying to convince her to come to him ever since.
At work, she told Ali that she was going to leave, go to Australia. “This you say every day,” he replied.
It was true. Even though she hadn’t yet responded to Ryan, she kept saying it.
“First we met, you said you want a job for three months. Now it is seven and here you are. Everybody says they come here for a short time. Years later, they are still here.”
“And yet, here you are. Just don’t open your own shop like Scottish Tom or Kiwi Tom or Noelle or the rest of them. Keep working for me, O.K.?”
When the koshari cart came by a minute later, Casey bought herself breakfast to escape the conversation. She scooped the mixture of lentils and noodles into her mouth with a plastic fork. The recollection of the song from last night pricked at the back of her neck. She tried to fill the chasm it had carved inside of her with food.
She was, she knew, a lonely person. It’s why diving suited her. She didn’t have to talk to her customers. A few underwater hand signals sufficed. A little chitchat before and after, but for long stretches, only the back and forth of her own inhale, exhale.
The tourists from the bar last night showed up just before lunch. Casey gave them the manuals they’d need for the course.
“It’s five dives in all. You could do three today and two tomorrow. They all have to be different, cover different things, but there’s many to choose from. You’ll want to do The Blue Hole, of course, that counts as a drift dive. Canyon is best for the deep dive. And you have to do one nav dive. Those two are mandatory for the class. What else are you interested in?”
The tourists had little opinion, turned it back on her. “What do you suggest?”
Casey ran over their options with them. Courses covering fish, buoyancy proficiency, underwater photography or videography, night diving, and more.
Casey took their credit card information and gave them instructions to meet back at dark.
“Absolutely no drinking beforehand,” she told them. “I will not take you out if you’ve been drinking. That gets people into trouble.”
“Then we probably won’t see any mermaids,” they joked.
After dark they suited up for their night dive, and Casey handed out waterproof flashlights. “It’s spookier at night. Imaginations loom large. But the only concern are the lionfish. They’re poisonous, and they’re more active at night. And they’re attracted to the light, so watch out. I mean, they probably won’t kill you, but it’ll hurt like Oedipus.”
“Like a motherfucker.”
The group waded into the shore right across from the shop. Just before she gave them the sign to go under, Casey paused. She thought she heard the music from last night, but it was just a lingering memory playing in her ear. Casey shook her head and put her regulator in her mouth, breathing in the compressed air of her tank, and let the surface close over her head.
Eerie darkness surrounded them. Irregular shapes floated by; shadows hovered just at the edges of their flashlights. This was the deep place of imagination, where reality bent itself through the veil of dark water.
Casey pointed out the occasional bioluminescent dots pricking the darkness. An eel slithered out from the coral, through the flashlight’s beam, and off into concealed depths.
The mind fills in gaps to make up for what it can’t see. Inside the opaque belly of the night sea, people see stories. Ghosts. Myths. They see fear.
She shone her flashlight towards her divers, exchanging “O.K.” signs with them. When she passed her light over to the last one, a lionfish hovered just behind his shoulder. Casey gestured him to stop, come forward, then shone her light on the fish. Shaggy spines spread out in the brine, waving with gentle menace. Invasive creatures. Ships brought them from the South Pacific, and without natural predators they grew plentiful.
The diver’s eyes widened when he realized it was there; he flailed his arms whipping his light around. Panicked divers were risky, and Casey grabbed his arm to keep him from rapidly rising up and getting the bends. Tucking her flashlight under her arm, she pulled her hand towards her mouth and away, telling him to breathe long, slow, steady. Casey stayed close to him for the rest of the dive, just in case. She had to wonder though, what out there could see them that they couldn’t see. What lurked, what spied, what waited with patience as endless as the darkness of the sea.
When the dive ended, the fish tale began.
“It was this close! This close!” they all cried.
“So close it could’ve kissed you!”
After they peeled off their suits and Casey schlepped the empty tanks back to the dive shop, she joined them at the bar for beers, where the lionfish grew three times as big and twice as close.
“It was acting strange. Aggressive.”
“It didn’t like you, that’s for sure.”
“It didn’t like me, I didn’t like it.”
Casey sipped her beer and listened.
Back in the clarity of the sun the next day, Casey led the group through the navigation dive, testing their abilities to use a compass underwater, find their way back to shore, weaving in between elliptical parcels of rainbow-colored coral and schools of yellow and black bannerfish, their dorsal fins electric with filtered sunlight.
This time, they concentrated on fish. How amazing, how different, the water and its inhabitants were in the light. The visibility was clear, at least twenty meters in every direction, and the fish happy and plentiful. Along the sea floor, amorphous animals bloomed themselves into existence. The pulse of the sea beat in Casey’s bones.
Ali greeted them back at the dive shop. He poured out strong, sweet Arab tea into small cups and Casey set a bunch of bananas on the table for them.
“Aren’t bananas supposed to be bad luck for divers?” the tourists asked.
“There’s a superstition, that they’re bad for sailors, bad luck on boats,” Casey said. “Because they would cause other food to spoil. So sometimes you still hear about it if you’re boat-diving. But it’s mostly shore-diving here, so you’re alright. Besides, the dive is done for the day.” She smiled, “So I wouldn’t worry too much.”
They talked about the fish they saw. “A lot of Nemo. No Ariel.”
They all laughed. “I’ll tell Tom,” Casey said.
“Oh, there’s no telling him anything,” Ali said.
“Tomorrow, Blue Hole?” they asked.
“Your deep dive at Canyon, then the Blue Hole,” said Casey.
“What’s it like?”
“There is nothing like it,” Ali said. He lit a cigarette and the smoke coiled around his dark curls, spirals around spirals. “People come from all over because it so spectacular. Clear and vast. It is like looking into infinity.”
“It is,” Casey agreed. She reached over and helped herself to one of Ali’s cigarettes. “It’s a wall of coral, with no bottom in sight. In fact, it goes hundreds of meters down, far past where you can see. The color is bright and fills you up with . . . I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s a word for it. There’s a longing down there. It’s almost spiritual. There is nothing so empty and yet so full.”
“Be careful down there. People get confused sometimes,” Ali warned.
“So no bananas for breakfast, just to be sure,” the tourists laughed.
There was a chill to the evening air. The heat of summer had relented, and fall was progressing into winter. On the shores of the Red Sea, the leaves didn’t change. Out of the water, palms kept their long green fronds and the coral remained just as vivid underneath. But the cooling weather signaled an end just the same. Tourists would come less and less. Soon Casey would find herself wearing a 0.5 millimeter-thick shortie over her long three mil wetsuit while diving. The added thickness would make inexperienced divers unwieldy with the extra buoyancy. The Red Sea was already one of the saltiest, and therefore most buoyant, places to dive, and hard for beginners to manage. She’d have to carry extra weights for them and hand them out as needed down below.
If they came at all. After this group, who knew what lay ahead.
Casey walked down the main drag in town, all but empty of people. Most of the shops had closed for the day, and those that were still holding out for one last customer looked gloomy in the purple glow of twilight.
“Come in! Just a look!” a man called, gesturing her into his store.
Casey looked at him, arms folded. “I’m not a tourist,” she said. She walked down here every day and would have thought most of the shopkeepers would have known her by now.
“So? You have to be a tourist to look? You need sun cream, maybe? New snorkel mask? Postcard? Don’t you have anyone to write to?”
She stepped closer. She wanted to say, no, I don’t have anybody. But that wasn’t exactly true. Out front of the shop hung racks of postcards, glossy rectangles of brilliant fish and coral, of sunsets glittering over the Red Sea, of the hills of Saudi Arabia silhouetted in morning light, of camels bedecked in intricate red and black Bedouin weaving.
“Do you sell cigarettes?” Casey asked.
“I know what you need,” the man said.
“Come in. Come in and I show you.”
Sighing, she followed him into his narrow shop, past a rack of cheap bathing suits and rows of plaster Sphinxes. In the back was a display of evil eyes: cobalt blue glass discs, painted with concentric circles of white, light blue, and ending in a large black dot. She stopped. The glass was not quite the blue of the sea. But it evoked the feeling of the sea all the same, and of the penetrating song she heard the other night.
“Here!” the man called.
Without taking her eyes off of the display, Casey said, “I don’t think I really need—”
“That? Ha. No, No. This!” the man said, pulling out a wetsuit. “Nine millimeters! It will get cold soon. You will need a thick long wetsuit. You don’t want to get too cold diving. Very dangerous. You know, many people die at the Blue Hole. You can’t be too careful.”
“Nine mils is ridiculous and I already have both a—”
“Here, feel, very good. Very thick. I can make you a good price.”
“I’m really fine.”
“Try it on! In the back behind the curtain. It will fit you like a second skin. Why take a risk? When you can be comfortable?”
“I actually have—”
“You seem like a smart lady. Get it now and I make a good price for you. Later . . .” the man shrugged, as if to say he wouldn’t be held responsible for increasing the price later on.
“Maybe I’ll just take the cigarettes and one of these. These evil eyes?”
The man scowled. “Those? Yes, very good. But won’t keep you warm. The wetsuit now—”
“Fine then. Just the cigarettes.”
“Well, I mean, evil eyes are still a good souvenir. And very pretty. You can hang it in your flat. Very nice. And! You never know. Good protection against all sorts of bad things, bad magics, spirits, Djinn.”
Casey paid for the cigarettes and evil eye, pretty sure she’d overpaid for the trinket by at least a dollar.
“Hey,” she said as she turned to go. “I heard a song the night before last. Was it a holiday? Or a party in the Bedou village next door?”
The man frowned. “No. Nothing. But the Bedou, they drum sometimes.”
“No, it wasn’t drums. I don’t know what it was.”
She did hang the evil eye in her flat, next to a Coptic Cross she’d bought in Cairo. She’d been drawn to its intricate blue lines, how they reminded her vaguely of old Irish Catholic crucifixes. Casey lit a cigarette and blew the smoke between the bars, trying to hear the music again, but only a cool breeze flitted through.
After she painted her toes, Casey opened her email. She started to reply to Ryan, wrote something, changed it, deleted the whole thing.
Stay or go. Stay or go.
Casey loaded the tourists and their tanks into a pickup. The deep dive was first.
“You might feel narced,” Casey warned them. “It happens to people the first time or two they go that far down.”
“What do you mean, narced?”
“Nitrogen narcosis. Didn’t you guys do the reading?”
They looked sideways at each other. “I did it,” one of them said.
Casey was annoyed. “You get a little sleepy, a little mixed up. It’s from breathing nitrogen at such a great pressure. We’ll go through a few tests to judge your cognition down there.”
Reading or no reading, Casey took them down close to 40 meters. Then she tested them, holding out her fingers, two on the left, one on the right, waiting for them to flash back three. Four on the right and three on the left, waiting for seven. Her customers took several seconds to add the digits together. One tried to take off her mask, and Casey grabbed her by the elbow and took her up a couple of meters until her head cleared.
They didn’t spend long at that depth, and she meandered them to shallower water and finally to the shore.
“That was crazy!” the tourists laughed.
“Don’t worry. It happens to everyone,” Casey told them, smiling.
Casey hauled their tanks back onto the truck and the rumbled on down the road towards the Blue Hole.
“Is the Blue Hole really dangerous?”
Casey considered. There were more fatalities here than just about any other dive site on earth.
“People get lost down there. It’s a popular spot for technical diving. Tech divers, one hundred meters down, forget which way is which. But most death are stupid mistakes. Russians who have been drinking, people not paying attention. For tourists, for us, it’s fine.”
The tourists nodded.
She didn’t say, “what’s danger? Four dead in Sharm the other day. If you walked out into the desert, you’d be dead in days.”
When they unloaded, she took them over to a nearby wall, a memorial for those who had died there.
“I don’t usually show people until after we come up,” she told them. “Most people don’t want to think about it, but since you asked.” Pictures, scribbles, names and farewells cluttered the wall.
Not wanting them to linger, Casey ushered the group away and sat them down on cushions at a tea shop to go over the dive plan. They’d go down El Bells, a silo shaped entrance, confined and so named because people clinked their tanks against its sides as they descended. “We’ll go down about thirty meters, let the current take us. It’s an easy drift. We’ll stay down about 45 minutes or so, and then come back here for tea.”
They gathered up their gear from the truck, and zipped up their wetsuits.
Tom from the bar unloaded gear off of a similar pickup with a similar group of tourists nearby.
“Watch out for selkies,” he said.
“Yeah? Tell me, Tom, how’d they get to the Red Sea?”
“So they haven’t always been here?”
“No, just like the rest of the Europeans. They came from the North Sea, Irish Sea, and Mediterranean. They colonized the place.”
“Mediterranean? I thought those were sirens.”
“Homer got a few details wrong. But selkies are musical beings. It makes sense.”
Casey turned to her customers. “O.K., buddy check.” She watched them as they tested each other’s regulators, belts, weights, and then led them to the shore, where they waddled in. Thigh deep in the water, Casey covered her painted toes with her fins.
From the surface it was easy to see the Blue Hole as a cemetery, hear all the stories of those who’d died—those whose bodies had been recovered and those who settled 300 meters down, where no human had ever been. But as soon as she put on her mask and slipped below, it was a place of immense life. Tiny fish flitted through beams of sunlight. Coral ran jagged and bulbous. The sea is murder, but its song is no dirge.
She stopped her group, made the “O.K.” sign to each and received it back in turn, made the thumbs down sign to start the descent.
The passage was narrow enough that they had to go down one by one. Bubbles from the divers below her tickled Casey’s neck and obscured her vision. Down El Bells, the sea wrapped its skeletal arms around her. Down she sank, and then, out into the outstretched water. Once through, they drifted down and south, letting the current take them. Thirty meters down they still had 25 meters of visibility, which meant that they could see as far down the wall of coral as they could up. Another 25 meters of coral left and right, and then behind them, the intense blue of nothingness. Swarms of fish. Rocky coral, then smooth, then rocky again. Scatters of colors popped out of the blue-green coral wall; vibrant swaths molded into familiar shapes, some vegetal like kale, some fleshy like brains.
How could she ever leave this place? This was Holy Communion, was the only thing that filled up the wideness inside of her. She’d have to put off Ryan a while longer.
In some respects, The Blue Hole is an easy dive. A drift dive carries the diver along. There’s little actual work. Mostly the diver’s job is to observe, to soak in the beauty.
They drifted through hundreds of little fish, letting the schools split around them and regroup again. The fish did not fear them. This was their home, and they had not learned to see humans as predators. Casey pointed out a trigger fish, a trumpet fish, a parrotfish. She looked down. Down, down. What was down there? Her heart fluttered. Beneath her the depths lay vast and bright.
She checked in with her group periodically, using signs to ask how much PSI was left in their tanks. When one dropped below 100 bar, she gave the group the thumbs up to ascend, and maintained neutral buoyancy as she watched them rise above her. Casey glanced back down. The wall of coral loomed large, like a skyscraper. Against it, her party looked so small, miniscule beings flying overhead. Another glance down. She controlled her breathing, dropping slowly down the wall. Eventually the visibility dissipated, and the shapes of the coral blurred together. It was like trying to look into the sky past the clouds. Just a minute, just a little lower. She’d catch up. She was an experienced diver, did this every day, had plenty of air. She knew she should stay with them, technically, but she couldn’t resist a few extra minutes.
Forty meters, fifty meters, sixty. The vis reached farther down still. Her group was out of sight. The song from the other night came back to her, its beat steady with her low breaths through her regulator. Casey loved it down here. Loved this communion of life, this vibrancy, this gaping space into which she could hurl herself.
Down, down, all the red and purple from the coral was gone. Shades of blues and greens swirled around her. And out behind her still the great epic of nothingness. She would see how it all ends.
Casey was cold, but her wetsuit grew over her head, sealed in her ankles. Her toes grew out into her flippers, her fat reservoirs grew thick and generous. She breathed, long and slow. The regulator slid down her throat; the tank melted into her spine.
Down, down she swam.