I have spent the last few days being lugged in and out of the pools, laid on my back and strung out like an instrument. In those few moments when I wasn’t being hammered or pinged or registered, Scyla and Schylla allowed me to watch the games with Jonah.
I have become a fan, if only because it means watching the games also means not being used as a whack-a-mole. Of all the Atlantean games I have watched during my quarantine, none were as astounding as spear-polo. It was, by far, my favorite: a man’s game if ever there was such a thing. Two teams, with three players in the water and a fourth minding the goal, competed to throw a blunted spear through their opponent’s goalmouth. The spear was used in place of a ball because nothing round could move through the water. Apparently the urchin-temples, or “churchins” as I’ve now come to call them, get used for all kinds of things underwater. The goal was made from such a husk, with all of the front-side tines removed to form a ten-foot net. Most of the goal was above the water, though about a foot remained submerged. Only one spear was used, and both teams had to fight to pass it, shoot it, and wrestle it from each other, equipped with only their kickboards. The goalies remained outside of the pool until they saw a player about to shoot. It’s worth mentioning that when these guys pop out of the water, they explode—from nowhere, instantly!—and the spear is thrown at about fifty miles an hour. When the goalie anticipates the shot, they run toward the pool, using their board at just the right moment. This is different than the finboards I’d seen before. This board has no straps for feet and is exactly like the skim boards little kids use on the beaches at home. The goalies use them to slide out across the water’s surface and either snag the spear with their hands, get in front of it with their bodies, or somehow cleverly use their boards to knock the spear aside. The best goalies are able to finish their “save” by landing their skimboard on the far side of the pool; if they fail to do so, however, they quickly sink and lose their ability to get in front of shots above the waterline. The first team to score five goals wins.
I was fortunate enough to see the final competition between two teams whose names were unpronounceable. I gave them names, so I could identify them here, based on their style of play. I call them “the Awesomes” and “the Trickys.”
“We’re nearing the end of the second half,” I said to Jonah, bouncing him in my arms as I pretended to be an old-school radio announcer giving the play-by-play. “The Trickys are down a goal. The pace has been relentless. The Awesomes are putting on quite a show. It’s gonna be a nailbiter.”
Jonah smiled. That look on his face was contagious. But when I happened to glance up over his shoulder, back at the games, I saw that I knew one of their players.
It was Lithe, of course.
I was unprepared for my visceral reaction. I started to sweat. I began to clench and unclench my fists. My hands turned red and my knuckles turned while. Jonah put his hand on my cheek and started to whimper a little. I pushed him away.
I continued to watch Lithe with only half my attention as I scanned the crowd, looking for Liz. He repeatedly burst through the water, and above the water, with his lean back arching and his eyes on fire. He was focused.
So was I.
So many people were there that it was hard to make out any one individual. I mentally split the crowd into sectors and started working my way through methodically. Jonah made a kind of squealing noise and I resumed my commentating, just to keep his quiet. It wasn’t as fun as before. “There’s Lithe. Filthy, wife-stealing Lithe, coming out of the water. You see him, Jonah? He’s your baby-daddy. He’s mommy’s new boyfriend. Let’s hope he doesn’t get his teeth bashed out.” Jonah laughed.
Lithe, teeth clenched, let a shot go that should have won them the game. But the Tricky’s goaltender, a dizzying little gal I had named Monkey, was already moving through the water. With impossible speed she pressed her weight on the back of the board and it popped up from under her, shooting into the path of the spear, redirecting it. Another of the Awesomes was there to grab the spear and try to stuff it in, but Monkey had somehow managed to grab hold of the top of the goal with her right arm and swung herself in front of his second shot, taking a jab in her gut. She screamed, dropping from the goal, but grabbed the spear with both hands and wrenched it away from her opponent and slithered into the deep water.
I enjoyed the metaphorical implications of Lithe’s inability to score. “That was a great save. I wish someone had been there to keep Lithe from scoring all during the past year. Wouldn’t that have been nice?”
There. I saw Liz with her hands clapped over her mouth, intent on Lithe’s performance. I felt disappointed that I had found her, and doubly-disappointed that I hadn’t wanted to. She looked even worse than when I had seen her before. Her skin was so pale as to almost be green, but not like one of the Zebulani. She was the color of seasickness and betrayal. She had the pallor of palliative care.
She was with that conglomerate of sycophants: Enki, Derkato, Hadad, and Dagan.
Worse. She was cheering.
From above, it was hard to make out what happened next. I saw Monkey pass the length of the pool and then slowly pull herself out after collecting her board. There was a commotion at the other end of the pool, and then one of the Trickys acted like he was coming out of the water only to feint and slowly slide the spear into the bottom of the Awesomes’ goal.
Jonah patted me on the arm, forcing me to keep relating the in-game action. “The score is tied at four, the pitch is fevered…” But it was ultimately Lithe that came through.
I watched Liz rise to her feet, holding hands with Derkato and Enki, breath held as Lithe kung-fu-ed through his opponents. Another spectacular shot lured Monkey out onto her board, but this time Lithe caught his own rebound in the air. He was close enough to snatch and release before he hit the water’s surface, laid flat on his back so he’d have extra time to fire. And even though Monkey caught a piece of the spear with her outstretched leg, it wobbled on the lip of the churchin before finally clattering into the goal and deciding the final outcome of the match.
Liz burst into the air, cheering and hugging. Jonah looked up at me and cried. What made me extra-sick was how cool it all was. If they sold Lithe and Monkey action figures, I would have bought them in every size, at any price.
I continued to watch as Lithe took the podium and Heqet placed a coral coronet upon his head. He had increased. I had decreased.
Liz came up to join him, kissing him on the cheek. Others might have thought that was chaste. I wasn’t ready to acknowledge any such thing. The whole situation was just so bizarre. How it all happened. As a guest, Liz had been adopted into Heqet’s household. She was a ward. And Heqet felt it was important to gift her with a husband: Lithe, that fine specimen of Zebulani manhood. But once Heqet gifted her, none of the other four colonies could refuse to give her someone also. Not husbands, but consorts. Like best friends. But more. Each of them represented the entirety of the Zebulon population. They were political arrangements. I would have felt happier about that if my one set of Zebulon clothing had not been perpetually covered in the puke of my miracle baby. I was still jealous. And angry. And resentful.
Fed up with all this messing around and confusion, and definitely fed up with all this wailing and moaning and feeding and crying and sleepless nights, I went out onto the balcony and started a fight. “Elisabeth Mann!” I called out at the top of my lungs. “I’m coming for you!” I didn’t just want her to hear. I wanted Lithe, and all of Zebulon to hear and bear witness.
I jumped down with Jonah in my arms (it was a short drop…though I may have squished somebody on the way down). I bullied my way to the front of the games, people making space for the weird immigrant yelling in his foreign dialect. I got to the podium and Hadad stood in my way, trying to calm me down. I knocked him on his back and stuffed the baby into his hands before blowing past Enki and bashing my forehead into Derkato’s nose.
Lithe rose immediately to stand in my way. “I want my wife back, fishlips,” I told him, and though he doesn’t speak my language, a finger in the chest is the universal sign for “You’ve got some explaining to do.”
Rising to the occasion, Lithe grabbed my wrist to pull it away. “Stop it, both of you!” Liz yelled, hoping to cool us off, but by then it was too late.
There are two kinds of people you don’t mess with: religious fanatics and jealous husbands. I was both. They put adulterers to death in ancient Israel, and I was about to get Old Testament on this seaweed licker. I beat his face with the meaty bits of my fists and bashed his nose into a blossoming pudding with my head, bringing a hurt-full of passion, piety, and monogamy on my foe. Truthfully, I don’t know how I managed to last as long as I did, but I got in fast and Lithe was bleeding quickly. I snarled and kicked and thrashed and, had it not been for Dagan’s late arrival, I think I would have killed him in that first outburst.
But after Dagan pulled me off, I lurched back at Lithe and we fought again. I fared poorer this time, as the Zebulani’s strength had me at a considerable disadvantage. I was on my hands and knees, throwing up blood in front of the Queen, when several crustacean guards arrived and pulled me off.
With a furious silence Heqet took in the mayhem and then spun on her heel. Lithe followed, slinking like a child, and I was hauled to my feet by the Knumai. They dragged me into a back room in the palace where Lithe and I both now await the presence of Heqet.
He thinks I’m a fool for talking into my magic cell phone. I think we’re in big trouble.
We’ll find out soon enough.