Chris, Lin, and I decided to take the day to explore our new (and hopefully temporary) home. As we began, Lin took my phone from my hand and opened the camera app. “Is the picture quality any good?”
“No,” I said. “The light in here is so strange, it can’t get a good reading. The meter reads everything backwards, like silhouettes, and the aperture settings aren’t adjusting properly. But it’s the only other camera we have besides Jo’s digital, which still feels a little weird to be using.”
Chris shook his head. “What’s weird?” He asked, flippantly. “She’s dead. Free camera.” He walked a little further ahead, pressing deeper into a cavern that had to be the size of Chicago. I was tempted to throw the phone at the back of his head, but I didn’t want to have to wash it later.
Every time we wander past an Atlantean comb, they invite us either inside or to stop a moment on the stoop. Usually we are invited to share a welcome ritual. The Atlantean people are sociable to a fault.
I noticed that the Atlanteans never exchanged any coins or money. They used no visible form of currency. For example, a small thin man approached an elderly woman behind a stall in the large open-air market at the city center, offering her two pups that looked like some kind of cross between walruses and foxes. In return the vendor gave him six sets of clothing. Scenes like this were exceedingly common, and we surmised that Atlantis runs purely on trade.
Everywhere we go, we are given something. They always offer us water, then warm shrimp or skewered prawn, and then finally a brackish and blackish licorice-tasting drink that would burn the buds off your tongue and keep you from driving for a month. It isn’t alcoholic, but it doesn’t need to be. They always smile when they give us that, and even more so now that we have learned how to refuse it politely. Then the sweet treats come out: little pastries wrapped in seaweed, flaky and savory, but with sweet orange or purple orbs in the middle. It is like candied caviar. I laughed out loud when I imagined what it would have been like for Liz to try this stuff. She hated foreign food, and weird sweet stuff always turned her stomach. Not me. I enjoy it at every opportunity.
I kept an eye out for Liz everywhere we went. I was holding onto this secret fantasy that she’d be shopping or reading somewhere. In my fantasy, she’d look up from her basket and see me. Her face would light up and she’d run into my arms. We’d swim back to the surface, naked, and back to our old happiness. I knew that was pretty far-fetched. It seemed unlikely that Liz had settled in Atlantis and was working as a science teacher.
As Chris, Lin, and I kept walking through the warren of Atlantean tunnels and caverns, we realized that one side of the cavern is terraced. By following a series of switchbacks, we had made our way up, overlooking the city. The impression was of a festival like Woodstock, maybe, or Burning Man. We saw life in every direction.
But the best view from that height was the aquarium. Shelves had been cut into the cavern walls and drilled down deep. I’d guess there were a few dozen of them, in various sizes and shapes, in a large room about the size of a basketball court. Children stood clumped together there, looking over the edges of several large tanks. It looked like they were on a field trip, with a striking woman cooing over the backs of their heads as they watched whatever was in the tanks.
“I think this is a marine exhibit,” Lin said.
“Underwater?” I asked.
“Sure. We have zoos,” she replied, “they have aquariums.”
Each tank held a diverse collection of sea creatures which were mostly gelatinous and shape-shifty, but I also saw a few starfish and sea-cucumber types that remained relatively immobile.
“They’re like TV sets,” I said. When I peered over the edge of the tank, my head cast a shadow on the water, and these little guys quickly began what I can only describe as a performance. “They’re telefishion.”
“That’s stupid,” said Chris.
I was about to respond when the woman at the front of the class made a chirping noise. The children all looked up at her reverently, like they were in the presence of the Pope.
“She is one of the gillies,” I said, noting the long robes that clung closely to her body. Clicking her tongue, the gilly woman winked at the kids, and little smiles bloomed across all these little faces. They ran into her arms for hugs and snuggles just as another Atlantean adult emerged from the back of the room and clapped her hands. When the kids turned to the new arrival, they happened to see us. It was funny to watch their reactions. I think they were trying to prove how brave they were, as a few came running up to us only to stop short and then retreat back to their class.
The newcomer was not impressed.
Chris snickered at the changing dynamic. “If those kids loved the gilly, they’re gonna hate this lady.”
“Yes,” Lin agreed. “From beloved priestess to taciturn headmaster.” The children removed themselves to the newcomer with slouched shoulders and heavy feet. The headmistress bowed low to the gilly and led the children out of the room, saving all her meanest looks for us.
We were left with the chirping female. She came over to us and raised her right thumb and two fingers to her forehead. It was a gesture almost like a bow. I found it hard not to stare. The Atlanteans have such striking figures: taut, muscular, so lean and straight. And their peculiarities–teeth and ears particularly–are attractive to me. I have a little rule as a married man that I always look for one unattractive trait in a beautiful woman. I focus on that trait–dandruff maybe, or a little redness in the eyes, or a strange way of walking–and then I am able to ward off any inappropriate feelings. Fortunately, it’s easy to be put off by mint skin. The last thing I wanted was to fall for a mermaid while mourning Elisabeth.
At least that’s what I kept telling myself.
As I stood there thinking, she’s green, she’s gross, right? the woman looked full into my eyes. She held me there, without blinking or even seeming to breathe, and then slowly mouthed her name.
She said it like you’d fog up a window. Iara. I spoke it back to her, loudish and clumsy, and she tittered. She put her right hand on my chest, raising one eyebrow. I guessed that was the subterranean prompt for “now show me yours,” and I told her my name was David.
I laughed out loud. Stupid on my part. Her smile faltered, but I placed my hands over the one she had on me, shook my head and said again, “David.”
Lin went through the same exchange. I was a little jealous. Lin’s name is easier to pronounce. It’s monosyllabic and also has the advantage of being part of some word in pretty much every spoken language ever. Chris didn’t participate, walking off instead into a corner and refusing to make eye contact. He has a knack for discourtesy.
Iara took us to a tank in one corner, holding up a finger, and I got the idea these telefishion vignettes were sequential. By walking through the exhibit, viewing each tank in turn, you experienced a story unfolding. The tanks were like the cells of a cartoon. Each tank played out a little scene over and over again. When it ended, you moved onto the next tank and watched the next scene in the sequence.
In the first scene, little sea creatures moved about, seeming to multiply, dance, and even construct buildings. The creatures pushed little rocks and plants together in the tank, arranging and then congregating around them. I realized we were watching the first stages of societal development. They were building towns. It was like a roach circus or a theatre for sea monkeys. Tank two was even fuller, and I could see great clusters of these things all cushioned together energetically.
I tentatively broke the silence and asked Lin, “What do you suppose these are?”
Lin thought about this for a moment before answering. “Not sure,” she said. “It’s their history, I think.” Looking down on the current scene replaying in front of us over and over again, I concluded she might be right. “I wonder,” Lin began again, “if perhaps these creatures could be sentient.”
“Come on, Lin. Trained fish and snails?” She didn’t retract her suggestion. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if it was possible. People train dogs to do tricks and gorillas to speak sign language. Was it really so impossible that water-born Atlanteans, absent electricity, could train small fish to “perform” their ethnic tradition out of necessity? “Okay.” I conceded. “Maybe…”
“These last few make me think we’re looking down on them.” Lin said.
“We are,” said Chris. He had stopped sulking for the moment and was looking down on the current tank, scene number six or seven I think. It was like surveying a game of Risk. This is all very difficult to put into words. There is nothing else like this at home. Except maybe .GIF animations, those short little cartoon things on the internet. But even those are so different in that they’re made with a computer rather than with symbiotic organisms. I don’t want to cheapen the experience by overplaying its curiosity. It was fascinating, but more importantly it told a fascinating story: the story of Atlantis.
“I can make out islands and boats and large clusters of people.” Chris said. “If I had to guess, I’d say we’re looking at a military overview.” I could see what he was referring to. It looked like there were armies congregating at opposite sides of tank number nine, racing toward one another in the center of the pool and fighting amongst themselves.
Lin smiled, pointing to the large central mass. “Looks like somebody won. Atlantis, I’d guess, given that this is their history.”
I was momentarily distracted by something in the tank, one of those red worms. “Have you seen these before?” I asked.
“In the restroom,” said Lin. “They were in the marketplace as well.”
“This one doesn’t look happy,” I replied.
“Seen a lot of angry worms, have you, David?” she smiled. “I agree. It’s quivering. The light is pulsing more aggressively. Notice how the other creatures are keeping their distance. There is an ecological significance inherent in this exchange. The worms are an integral part of the Atlantean environment.”
“These tableaus are leading me to think in another direction, Lin,” I offered. “I think Atlantis is spiritual: the people, the creatures, the whole thing. They live in a harmonious interdependence. The things in the tank revere the red worm. It represents a sanctified symbiosis. You can’t separate ecology from spirituality down here like we try to do upstairs.”
At this point I was reaching the first of four rounded corners in the room, and when I made the corner, the scenes changed dramatically. More and more red worms began to emerge in the telefishion tanks, and the other creatures began to attack them.
“My God, David,” Lin said. “It’s civil war.”
“The red worms have stopped multiplying,” I said. “Everything in the tank is dying. It’s like all the other species in the tank have zeroed in on the worms. The fish are killing them.” We looked at one another, and then at Iara. “It’s a bloodbath.” Iara was politely ignoring our conversation, but I could tell from looking at her that she was upset. Maybe we shouldn’t have been talking. Maybe we should have been angry. Or grieved. Iara seemed troubled that we didn’t better understand the significance of what we were seeing.
I was not prepared for what I saw at the next corner. I tried to move on, but Iara firmly placed her hands on the side of my head and redirected me to watch. I resisted a little, but something told me to pay attention. To start, an inky bloom came through the water and filled the entire tank with darkness. All the creatures sank to the bottom and were lost from sight. The sun became black and the moon has turned to blood. This was their End of Days, the abomination of desolation. With the eradication of the red worms, Atlantis had torn itself apart. The citizens had turned on one another and in so doing had brought about their own destruction. The red worms were a biological necessity. No worms, no life. Even after the sequence concluded, Iara persistently held my head in her hands and made me stare at the black water. When she finally let me go, her eyes were quivering and large tears had run tracks down her cheeks. She nodded, and then we continued.
Turning the corner, we saw an empty tank, totally vacant save for a single large red worm. The lone survivor. The Mediator. It glowed faintly and then with increasing intensity until I was forced to blink more and more often. When its light went out, we moved on. In the next few tanks there were only a few scattered red worms. They began as the others had in the very first sequence, but looked less certain. They were afraid. Here, giant barnacles combed across the sides of the tank and a false flooring of grey jellyfish swam about six feet below the surface. I understood then what I was seeing. This was the Great Flood, recorded in Genesis 6 during the account of Noah and his children. What’s more, if I understood what I was seeing correctly in the telefishion sequences, then the flood was responsible for Atlantis.
I have no idea how many years each of these tanks were meant to represent, but there were seventeen of them after the Flood, and it took five or six before something other than the red worms reappeared. The final vignette looked much like the first, except for a small group of red worms that had hived off to live in isolation. Other red worms lived among their fellow creatures, mostly sea dragons and guppies, but I got the impression that things weren’t quite back to normal. Not yet.
Iara reached into the tank and picked up the largest of the red worms in her hands. Holding it up to Lin and me and Chris, she showed us its distinctive features. Tentatively, I reached out and touched its open hood. I felt a shock, and all the orange bits inside gave off that common Atlantean current, magnified. More curiously, as Iara held it in profile, I saw that the red worm had gills part way behind its hood. As she pulled open the gills of the red worm, her own gills also slowly flared.
“Iara,” she said, nodding, and placing the worm back into the tank. She was showing us that the worms were important not only to the Atlantean ecosystem, but also to the Atlantean people. There was a connection between the gillies and the red worms. And, if my suspicion was correct, then it meant there was a connection between the Atlantean civil religion and those worms as well.
Before we left, Iara led us back through the room. Several times I tried to interrupt this exiting procedure and ask about Liz. Despite all the excitement, I still felt anxious about my wife. I held little hope that she was alive, but I still had some hope. We survived. Maybe she did too. Even if she didn’t, I still wanted to know. I wanted to see her body.
Obviously the language was a barrier, but I thought I could make myself understood through hand gestures and whatnot. This took an eternally long time, but Iara was patient. At the last pool she stopped, and reaching her hands into the water she withdrew a handful of the bioluminescent fluid. She prayed, I thought, and then flicked her hands gently back so the drops landed once again in the pool. Lin and I did the same, prompted to imitation by Iara. Chris splashed his hand around in the tank, looking away. Iara looked at him, trying to discern why he was so disrespectful. I wondered that too. Was it hate? Was it anger towards the sacred things? Toward spiritual things? Or was it merely impatience.
Iara scraped two kinds of rocks together (both of which were readily available in the overhanging sections of the tanks) and flaked something into each of the tanks. The worms inched over and ate the flakes, which caused them to glow and to swell immediately.
I made the mistake of putting one of those flakes on my tongue once I was back on board the Monk. It was like licking a 9volt battery. I felt like a child, but mischievously so.
Atlantis electrified me.