Heqet just left. Our conversation was not good. Things in Atlantis are bad. The spinefish represents an indomitable threat to the Atlantean people, and their tests on me have yet to produce results.
“I am responsible for my people,” she said, via Pincoy, striding around the tear-room in the Healing Center. Her crustacean guard stood looming near the door. “I must make this right. I must contend for a cure.” She tapped her scepter against the floor, palming the bloom on top like it was a magic lamp.
I was seated, cross-legged, on the floor with Jonah. He was sitting up easily, slapping his palms on the ground. I try and keep him at a distance, but he refuses to be held at arms length. Maybe all babies are this way. Who know? Not me. I’d never even held a kid until Liz put mer-Mann in my hands. His hands clench and unclench around my clothes and every now and then he looks up and into my eyes. He always smiles when I catch him.
“No one is to blame for this,” I said, only half-heartedly attempting to ease her self-recimination. “It’s random. Coincidental.” I had been silent for the last few minutes while Heqet tantrummed, but now I was starting to feel compassion toward her. Compassion! For the commandant of my incarceration…Sheesh.
“Nothing just happens, David Mann,” she snapped, still pacing.
“Fine. Then it’s an inherent part of the underwater ecosystem. You can’t fix it. You’re not that powerful.”
“Rahab has made me Queen,” she said, walking straight toward me with her finger aimed at my nose. She thinks her goddess has placed her over Atlantis and tasked her with finding the cure for the spinefish toxin. She feels it’s her duty, her destiny. “Your weakness is a problem. You owe a debt to Zebulon. I have brought you into my home. We have saved you from death in the water. Be thankful.”
Apparently Heqet doesn’t know I’m also immune to guilt-trips. I’ve had enough of those in church to last a lifetime. I don’t feel guilty about wanting to keep my own blood in my own body. The only guilt I feel is for the year I spent wallowing, bitter and resentful, while my wife got traded away like a fishy-baseball card. “Your Majesty,” I began, “with respect, this problem is beyond you. Take it to God.”
“Mine or yours?” she asked cynically.
“Whichever one gets the job done,” I said. “But I can tell you where I’d put my money.”
“I do not understand you, David Mann. Everything we have is a gift from Rahab. Why then would I look to Yahweh?”
“I have been wondering about that,” I said. “And I’m wondering why it’s okay for you to hunt, since everything is a ‘gift.’”
“Hunting is not violent,” she said, clearly confused. Violence is seen by the Zebulani as the greatest crime. They are the pacifists of the Pacific, the ocean’s conscientious objectors. “It is how we gather the ocean’s gifts.”
“And you later give them back?” I asked. “I’ve seen Iara and some of the other priests do that in the outer colony, but no one seems to do that here.”
“Those actions are important. But they are rituals only. We do them when we must.”
“Was it always this way in Zebulon?” I asked. “Has violence always been forbidden?”
“Long ago, before we sank beneath the waves, we were a warring people.” She began to explain how, technologically beyond their peers, their naval empire allowed them to stride the seas like giants over the mountains. “We made our way with war. The Flood was our punishment. We fought too much. Rahab did not want to deal with us any longer. She sent the Flood to wash away our sins. It takes a bath to remove a stain.”
“I thought the flood came from Rahab’s tears after chaining Yam to the ocean floor?” I asked, confused.
Heqet glared at me, answering without the benefit of her translator. “Many tears. She cried on purpose. So we drown.”
I chuckled. Heqet was right – the Flood was a punishment, but beyond that I thought she was using all the wrong nouns.
The Queen went on to speak about the difficulties they had while first adapting to life under the water. There is a gap in their national memory. No one knows how they found the first cavern. No one remembers how they got there, only that the first few generations barely eked out a living. They starved. They lost most of their remaining population. It was only when the priests evolved their gills that the Zebulani began to finally assert some measure of dominance and creative control over their environment. This happened almost overnight. One child was born with gills, and then several dozen others in the following months. Their parents were among the most devoted to Rahab, and the people came to think of these children as holy. The red worms grew heaviest near their homes, giving the tubers a spiritual significance. As they grew, this emerging population of holy children explored further and further into the reaches of the deep. They grew wise, and shared their wisdom. These were the first priests, and they told everyone else the mysteries of the ocean. The hunters and the farmers adapted their skills, their tools, and their lives to accommodate this knowledge.
All this was fine and good, I thought. But I sniffed out some inconsistencies with their whole gift-giving deal. Since I was her captive, I might as well fight back in the only way I knew how. I told her about Christ and about His death on the cross. But I took special care to emphasize the generosity of God. Christ gave His life for us. No one took it from Him. He went willingly to the cross. The Father gave his Son. The Son gave His life. The Father and the Son gave the Spirit. The Spirit gives life to the world.
“Your gifts are derivative, Heqet. You understand that giving is important, but you don’t entirely understand why. It seems good to you, since life is a gift. But there is a quality of life you do not yet understand. We call it eternal life, or the life of the ages. You might think of it as divine life, or life forever with God. But that life is a gift that only God Himself can give.”
“If God gave me a gift, David Mann, I would pay him back. That is the way.”
“Not his way. This gift is too great for you. I wonder what he would make of your actions here. You claim to give, but all you have done is take from me. You withheld Liz. You kept her from me and then you gave her away. She was not yours to give. The Giver does not appreciate such things. You know this.”
It was difficult to read her expression as she stalked off, but something was there that was part resignation and part refusal. I had her, but she wasn’t ready to admit it yet.
“I like your Christ,” said Pincoy, beginning to speak his own words instead of translating those of Heqet. “He would have been better treated in Zebulon than in Jerusalem, I think.”
“Everything you say about gifts is true, David. Your Christ knew this. He gave His life. Not just the dying, but the living too. It is a great thing for God to give up his power. It is a great thing for God to suffer, just so he understands. We appreciate this in Zebulon. Perhaps his own people did not.”
“Have you ever been a guest here, Pincoy?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“No, David Mann. It is not. We have taken your blood like the Romans took your Christ’s. I do not like.”
“Then get me out of here. Or, at least, help me find someone to take care of this kid.”
“Heqet is Rome. But you, you are the whole world, David. You do not know what you have been given. You have been taking from the beginning. We are tired. Do you know that your name now means ‘takes-but-never-gives’ in Zebulani? You are called ‘thankful for nothing.’”
Thankful for nothing? But the more I considered this idea, the more I realized there might be some truth to that statement.
“I leave you to think on that, my friend. Good-bye.”
I did think. In my head, I understand perfectly how Christ came into this world as a gift. But did my actions reflect His generosity? In the Bible, the wise man and the fool are often juxtaposed. But the fool isn’t someone who doesn’t know what to do. The fool is someone who knows what to do and doesn’t do it. Wisdom is the application of knowledge. The wise man knows what to do and actually does it.
I knew what it meant to give my life to the world. But I wasn’t giving anything. I was still calculating everything owed to me. By Liz. By Pincoy. By Atlantis. And by God.
I was a fool.