This evening a city-wide celebration was held in honor of Goliath bringing home the elephantfish. Judging from the singing, his position on the dais, and all the pretty ladies paying him every bit of attention, I gathered his feat was something special and rare. There were several tellings and re-tellings of the event. A little girl read a poem.
Unfortunately I was the counter-melody and was asked to sit just below Goliath. I was Robin to his Batman, and felt every bit the boy-blunder. No one offered any official songs or stories told about me, but Jailer took every opportunity to pantomime the scene in which I nearly got swallowed by the elephantfish, adding surprised coos and baby-like squawks at all the right moments. Children sang for Goliath, but ran up to feign biting my leg.
It was funny the first time.
There was quite a ceremony associated with carving open the elephantfish, through it ended comically. Two older farmers were coaching two younger ones about how to properly cut open the fish. “I’d wager this is an important skill down here,” Lin said. “The lower pressure atmosphere inside the cavern, versus the highly pressurized atmosphere of the sea, means that the gases in the fish’s belly will have expanded considerably.”
“You think that’s what those farmers are trying to tell their students?” I asked.
“Sadly, those students are not ready to learn,” she said as the elephantfish stomach was punctured prematurely, causing a riotous profusion of rotting chum. I threw up a little in my mouth when it happened.
When the farcical formality concluded, a generous portion of the elephantfish trunk was ceremoniously delivered to Goliath. He took a large serrated blade and sawed me off a piece. About four porterhouse worth. I relished every bite. It wasn’t rubbery, but steak-like, a white fish. I felt like a truly masculine specimen.
I was also served the saurian I had killed. It had been cooked, but not de-boned or carved. I was left to figure out how to do this on my own, again the fool. But everyone applauded and cooed when I yanked the spine out of the fish. For show, I swung it over my head like a lasso, but that stopped the celebration pretty quickly. I felt stupid and quietly went back to eating.
We ate on fancy flat shells. They were clams of a sort, but polished and treated to glimmer. They were hard, too, as I realized when I dropped one and it didn’t break. The Atlanteans are very gracious. One of them, a woman, quickly picked up the shell and ran away, bringing back another one full of food. I find myself wanting more and more fresh fish arrays. We ate with small, delicate spears, as everything had already been prepared in bites and organized artistically on the shell. We had only to stab at it and stick it in our mouths. The Atlanteans have a more refined motion for eating, sliding the utensil in sideways like they are threading a needle, so their mouths never touch the spear.
I ate like a homeless man at the Old Country Buffet.
Goliath wheeled through the crowd and came to stand before the remains of the elephantfish. I am amazed that such a big man can move so smoothly. Despite his ferocity in the water, he is graceful in a crowd. He waded shortly into the large pool and grabbed one of the elephantfish’s exposed ribs. He pulled and wiggled and levered that rib until some of the tendons snapped, and then he wrested it from the carcass itself and dragged it back onto the ground. Goliath sat in front of the rib, rubbing his hands along the length of this mammalian joist, and something about his movements reminded me of the way Iara had rubbed my thumbs the first time. For some minutes there was an intense silence, and then, standing up, he raised that mass of bone above his head, turned it on its end, and softly inserted it point-first into the water. A warmth passed among the people as it happened, a tenderness, as though something was done right. This, I gathered, was why I had not seen anyone make an offering at the edge of the training pool. They were saving it for a special occasion.
When the elephantfish rib had receded to the farthest deep of the visible bottom of the pool, Goliath turned to me. We walked toward the saurian leftovers of my dinner and once I stood in front of the fish I understood I was to emulate him. I did. Again I felt useless and weak, as my efforts against this much smaller fish were far greater than those of Goliath against the giant in the pool. The prior holy tone had evaporated. Everything I did now the Atlanteans perceived as obligatory. Goliath had worshipped, giving honor and respect. I was going through the motions, learning to pray. I felt like everyone judged me to be insincere, thinking less of me as a result. But I shrugged it off and lifted my voice to the Lord over the waters. “I give back to you, Lord, what you have graciously given me. It’s all I have, but not all you deserve.”
Goliath stood behind me as I sunk the saurian rib, placing both his hands on my shoulders. He spoke commanding words, bringing a glimmer of dignity to my reflection in the pool. More singing and dancing followed, and Goliath never left my side. He was vouching for me. To be honest, it felt unbelievable. I had devoted my life to helping others better understand God, and here was Goliath helping me do the same. Atlantis is quickly beginning to feel like my mission field; only instead of bringing the gospel, I am living it for the first time.
At this point the feast was interrupted, and I was treated to perhaps the single most disturbing event of my entire life. I will try to describe it accurately, though I confess I am still troubled so deeply I may skip over some of the important details. Four Atlanteans were involved: three men and a young boy, who looked to be about seven. We were alerted to their presence when the men came out of the water making a horrific noise, a blaring, whale-noise. I chilled when I heard it: a lamentation. A warning.
Thinking that the other Atlanteans would run away in terror, I was surprised to see them come running closer instead. Many were crying, and they gently restrained Lin and me from getting too close. The crowd stayed still, creating a circumference of about fifty feet near the edge of the pool. I got the eerie sensation they were watchers of a sort, Atlantean security cameras, and that I too was meant to bear witness. I struggled to edge nearer but was restrained. I felt no violence or ill intent in the Atlanteans’ actions against me, but I could not move forward. I stretched on my toes and peered over the throng, anxious and dumb.
No one would enjoy what unholy thing happened next.
The little boy was thrashing and yelping madly. He yawned violently, gnashing his jaws. The sound that came out of him was like a slow snarl, pierced periodically with a sonic knife. His rolling eyes had turned red and his veins were black through his ashen skin. He was suffering. He looked like a porcupine, black needles sticking out of him at all directions. He must have tangled with a spinefish. He broke free from the men holding him for a moment and the circle of Atlanteans quickly stepped back two paces. But one of the men was on him fast and tackled the boy to the ground. When he got up, he was holding the child’s hands behind his back. But, looking down, the man’s expression changed. His shoulders slumped and his head hung forward. Several of the black darts were stuck into his chest. He looked at his two companions and shook his head, and then placed his hands over the boy’s mouth and nose. The boy thrashed spastically for a time, and then he grew still.
Lin’s scream died in her throat before I even understood what had just happened. When I realized, I started screaming, “What are you doing?” I fought against the crowd, swimming up the Atlantean stream. But they wouldn’t budge. This was a species-wide conspiracy and we were aliens. Goliath looked at me with shame, his down-turned mouth a pitiable claw. I’ve never felt so helpless. I’ve never been so humiliated by a collective failure to intervene. The boy’s life had been smothered. I pitied myself for my uselessness.
I had seen no prior evidence of violence in this place. I could not imagine what caused this. The man was weeping, but no one came near him or the boy. Blood ran from the boy’s mouth and nose into the pool, turning the water pink and vague. Then the killer grabbed the boy and held him in his arms, ignoring the pricks of the spinefish needles, beginning an ungainly procession toward the rear of the city.
Silence stretched. Everyone fingered their grief all the way down. A woman kept trying to get close enough to touch him, but the other members of the hunting party prohibited her. She must have been his mother. She was feeble, too weak with grief to put up much of a struggle. Her sobs persisted in the ungodly reserve that comes upon us when our feelings go so deep they rob us of the ability to speak, or cry, or even breathe.
Lin and I tried to get closer, to help somehow, but we were always restrained. I confess I have no idea what we would have done in any case. I began to feel agitated, to panic, and started shoving and pushing, but Goliath pressed in tightly once more. He was at the head of the crowd, and we followed the boy and his killer for almost twenty minutes to a backside pool behind the place where they prepared the food. Several times we waited, whenever we got too close, and then we would begin again to keep pace with this horror.
Next to the hot cavern wall, still an active volcano, there was a pool unlike all the others. Around the pool many sad faces had been etched into the cavern wall. Some were crying and some had sorrowful eyes. Some seemed to be in great distress and pain. These were men, women and children captured in regret.
The water in the pool itself was not clean. No light emanated at all. Flotsam and jetsam, debris and clumps, floated and bobbed. It was sludge. All of the scraps and garbage from the feast were being dumped into this sludgy pool at the back of the cavern. It burbled and sucked and went under like the water was eating it up, sipping the stew of our discard pile.
With a bellow more angry than sad, the killer dropped the feral boy into the water. The body stayed on the surface, but the man grabbed one of the hunter’s spears and pushed him down. The people began to coo with the most heartbreaking sound. They were saying goodbye. Lin and I held one another on our knees, overcome and exhausted by a great transgression.
The killer, bristled now with a few needles, had that same redness encroaching upon the whites of his eyes. His veins were already filling with ink. The man smiled but couldn’t raise his head. Goliath knelt beside him, careful to keep his distance, and nodded. The killer considered the pool as he began to pull the darts out of his chest and break them into pieces. Goliath’s shoulders slouched. These little pieces the killer crushed up into a powder with a stone. He wet his hands in the pool, flattened them against the powder, then cupped his hands and filled them full of the sludge, drinking his poison. His eyes widened. His throat constricted. We watched him topple into the pool, swimming down as he died. His body threatened to give up, but down he went deeply, deeply until I could no longer see him. A final bubble blipped and told us he was done.
They sang. An anthem, maybe, or a hymn. I recognized it, actually, from Nessa’s time in the glow pool. But I could not raise my voice. I thought about Nessa and Jo, about Sebastian and Liz. The sadness harmonized with death.
What are we possibly supposed to make of all this?