When I’d met Avani Mar at a party a member of the Málaga expat community had thrown at a seaside villa rented for the purpose, I’d thought the man an extraordinarily tall and well-built specimen of humanity. Now, watching him at the helm of his sailboat, broad chest naked against the wind and spray as his handsome face looked to his right at the monolith that served as Spain’s Pillar of Hercules, he might as well have been that heroic demigod himself. What was it he’d said at the party before eventually inviting me, along with my friends Angela and Hugo, on this sailing trip through the Strait of Gibraltar? That the Romans believed Hercules had created the Strait by forcing the Atlas Mountains apart during one of his twelve labors? Well, Avani Mar seemed to be splitting the intermingled Mediterranean and Atlantic seas now, mastering with the ease of a cleaver what others at the party had privately told my friends and I would be no easy passage, considering the channel funneled both the wind and the water.
It was a strange feeling, being here in this narrow passageway between one continent and the other, less than ten nautical miles separating the Rock of Gibraltar on the Spain side and Jabal Musa on the Morocco coast at the narrowest point. Like being enclosed in the open; trapped in the gaps between the oneness of the world. Stranger still, the sense of being caught between the now and the past, a victim of history and its own restless tides. Yet neither space nor time accounted for the déjà vu that kept creeping in as the boat sliced through the restless water between the channel’s shipping lanes and the Spanish shore, while our eyes, meanwhile, like shafts themselves, pierced the uncertain future in front of us. What else had our pilot said? That the pillars marked the End of the World, the point beyond which nothing was to be found save Hades itself?
The day was mid-September hot. Spain hot, Morocco hot, despite the salty breeze that seemed to be coming from every angle at once, as though in testament to the Strait’s self-contained weather patterns. Angela and Hugo, who’d been playing around under the on-deck shower while I was lost in my thoughts, approached me now where I sat along the rail. Teasingly flicking water at me, in their annoying way, as they came.
“What’s with?” said Angela, the American to her French-Dane husband Hugo. They both taught at the university in Seville, where the two of them had met some years back and in which town the three of us lived when not chasing invitations to parties down south.
“What’s with what?” I said.
“When we left you fifteen minutes ago to change into our swim clothes and cool off, you were in a discussion with the captain there about the myths associated with the Strait. Not a word between you for the last few while Hugo’s been trying to seduce me under the showerhead.”
“Not myths,” said the captain, looking back over his shoulder.
“Oh?” Angela said. “Atlantis is not a myth?”
“I believe we were talking about other things besides Atlantis,” Avani said, now turning far enough around that his golden-brown eyes lost the afternoon sun, picking up that peculiar, almost luminous intrinsic quality we’d all commented on at one time or another.
“Don’t be shy,” she said when he didn’t go further.
He smiled. A handsome, unreal thing—like everything else about him. “The sirens. I told you about my friend and fellow sailor from Greece.”
“Yes, yes,” she said, rolling her eyes at me. “One of a group of Holocaust orphans left on an Ionian island by a smuggle-artist mariner who was supposed to come back for them but never did, leaving them to be raised by mermaids. Or some such.” She tossed a hand as if to say, your tales are fun and all, Cap’n, but let’s not bore us all by visiting those waters again.
“Or some such,” Avani said.
When he didn’t say more, Angela coaxed, “And?”
“And what, Angie?” her husband Hugo entered. “It was their conversation, not yours.”
“And yet the subject’s up again. I mean what are we talking about here? Mermaids in the Strait of Gibraltar? I’ll bite my lip and allow our captain his Ionian Isles sirens. I’ll even give, say, Lorelei and the Rhine. But I just don’t see any place a fishtail can lie in the sun here. Don’t they need islands or something?” She was a professor of European history and as unlike the part as could be imagined with her never-ending scratchy, feline witticisms.
“Who said there weren’t once islands in the area?” said Avani Mar, eyes off on the Rock again.
“I don’t know why we are talking about any of this in the first place,” Hugo said. He was an English instructor, and the pragmatic voice to his wife’s whimsical, often wayward one. Of course it could all be said to be in fun. In the way Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf could be said to be fun.
“May I enter here?” I said. “The original question was, why are Avani and I not chatting it up at this specific moment in time. The answer to that is simple. And Hugo, you’ll no doubt relate here. We saw you coming, Angela.”
Angela: “Ah! Now that I can put a firm finger on.”
All in fun, as said. But there was some element of truth to my dialogue with the captain having suddenly fallen off. It had done that at the party more than once; it had likewise done that here more than once. Avani seemed to be perpetually engaged by something that didn’t involve those around him, was a secret to which only he held the key. This could be unsettling at times, even more so than his eyes.
And yet he never failed to re-engage when external forces that could be construed as being at odds with him insisted upon it. He said: “Let’s leave the mermaids then, shall we, and let the ocean itself in again. What mysteries might it hide besides the sirens and sea monsters and all the luminous organisms that enchant the imagination’s eye?”
Hugo, glancing over the rail: “A marine biologist’s dream—that’s what I see.”
“Indeed,” said Avani. “A sample size as broad as the universe. Everything begins and ends here, does it not? In the sea? In water, the essence of life?”
“Now we’re getting corny,” Angela said.
“Not at all,” said the captain. “The question is not ‘what can be found here’ but ‘what cannot.’ Especially as you leave these closed quarters and begin to enter the expansive Atlantic, as we’re doing now.”
And so we were, without perhaps realizing it for those of us who were mere passengers on this craft. He had that way about him, the captain, of seducing us into his realms, however casually we might have otherwise discarded them.
As the mouth of the Strait competed with the greater maw of the Atlantic Ocean, I found myself wondering. Wondering about the seas and the world and the cosmos in general. So much to know beyond the Pillars of Hercules, where nothing was supposed to be known.
Hades…that’s what the captain had said. For the Romans, the Pillars represented the Gates of Hades. Nothing Lies Beyond—that’s the note Hercules had left his world. What happened out there exactly? Avani Mar would show us. As surely as it was his realm to show.
With the whole gulf out in front of us, Angela said it best. “And where do we port?”
“Now or then?” said the captain cryptically.
“I don’t understand you,” she said.
“You’re a history professor. Think on it. There is the Atlantic as it is now. There’s the Atlantic as it was eleven thousand years ago.”
She considered a moment, then smiled. “You mean when Atlantis fell into the sea, according to Plato?”
He smiled; winked. The conflicting currents of the Med and Atlantic had quit. He guided the craft easily now. “We like Plato, do we not?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Mm-hm.”
“We trust him, yes?”
“Hmph. That’s a little different. What are you getting at?” And again, where do we port? she might have added in the oddly suspicious voice she’d assumed. We did the Straight, that’s enough for the day. And enough for the day wouldn’t have been far off the mark as dusk had settled on us and the sky about to be littered with mythologies in the form of stars.
“Don’t worry,” Avani said, a crooked smile that scarcely became him on his face. “We’re not going to sink you into the depths or anything.”
“We?” I said.
“Figure of speech. Port is Meophadine.”
“Never heard of it,” Hugo said. “What happened to Punta Camar-whatever it was.”
“It’s just there,” Avani said, gesturing ambiguously. “See the lights? The lights are always fascinating at this hour, aren’t they? You can almost see them beneath the air you tread.”
I could feel both Angela’s and Hugo’s eyes on me, as though I knew something about something—which I assuredly did not. Still, I took the reins:
“You okay, captain? We’re still on schedule, right?”
His eyes, in the lamps that had now been lit, were too bright. Their color too like honey pierced by a sun that had disappeared on us too soon. His hair, dead-tossed in a wind that no longer blew, shone blacker than the descending night. Indeed the world itself had grown so flat, motionless, cold. As if teetering in stasis on that brink Hercules had warned of. As if on the edge of some discovery mankind had no business realizing. Who was he, this Avani Mar? What did he seek to accomplish by stranding us in the mouth of the Atlantic as he abandoned the wheel as if to approach us, only to turn and look over the side of the vessel.
“Such memories,” he said, seeming to abandon himself to the rail’s support as his eyes disappeared into some ether unknown but fitting to such a voyage.
The three of us looked at each other in alarm, knowing he’d lost it. Knowing we weren’t supposed to be here. I stood beside him, placed a tentative hand on his shoulder—at which point his eyes abruptly opened. Honey on fire as they sucked me into spaces I’d no interest or business in. In fact, in that moment he terrified me.
“It’s difficult sometimes,” he began in earnest, and then as suddenly seemed to cool, saying with decidedly less intensity: “It’s difficult to…to, you know…breathe.”
His eyes closed again, and for the moment he was lost to us. And the sea, as if acting off of him, swarming up against us in his absence, producing waves that pitched and crashed and yet might never have been. Lights that flickered and faltered and finally died an inglorious death. Wherever they could be said to have come from. Whatever gulf, indeed, we occupied in time or space or wherever it was we found ourselves in the vacuum.
Hugo, that voice of reason of his the strangest voice in the universe right now, said, “You know I have a boat and can navigate pretty well. A small one compared to this, yes, but I can get us back, I think. We seemed to have been hitting headwaters as we were coming out, so the tide should be with us going back.”
On what channel had he been? Not mine, for sure. But sure, get us back if you can. But remember as you try, we’re past the point Where Nothing Lies Beyond.
Angela, for her part, didn’t seem to quite understand. Not that her husband or I did, but she was still catting. “Our luck we got a captain who believes in it, bathes in it, and drowns in it. Sirens indeed.”
Having nothing to say to that, I looked over the side of the boat and froze momentarily, imagining I’d seen something in the dark depths. Were there supposed to be twinkling lights down there? Was this that electric life form the captain had mentioned in his sirens, sea monsters, and luminous organisms bit?
My next thought came unbeckoned and quite out of nowhere. And dare that unspoken utterance, as familiarly alien, as foreignly familiar as any such word could be, bear repeating? For hadn’t that been what we’d been doing all along? Repeating without actually uttering that one otherwise unmentionable name? What had the good captain, before his flake-out, in fact said to that? That it was one of history’s dreams?
Was that really what we were talking about here?
Upon which thought, Avani Mar stirred again, first clutching, then looking over the rail and into the deep Atlantic waters…
I woke from it holding my head on the deck of Avani Mar’s vessel—which now traveled with the tide back through the channel—or did it? Indeed, had Angela been on hand, I’d have invited her to massage my skull back into context. Hugo had never minded, in fact he’d encouraged it in drunken dreams, which I’m sure didn’t belong here…not now…not here. Where I am, I wanted someone to clarify. The way they swim around me, the way they pull me up and up until a very city rises in front of me…and some moon that is not our own bleeding through the depths like the oil of another species’ existence.
Once upon a time and let’s leave it there…
Until that’s what’s got you in the grasp as you try to recover from your nightmares back at home in Seville, your monthly check a surreal reminder of what you are, where you’ve been, what life means in context. The truth is, you did make the passage, there were abnormalities that you yourself—what are you? Only a retiree?—recognized. But why were you down there in Málaga in the first place? Why did you get on that stranger’s boat? ‘What’s with?’ as Angela would say?
It’s fair, that question, seeing as how I scarcely remember the rest of it. There was the ship, yeah. Inverted, ascending, something right. Upright. But that’s not itself right, is it? And then the sense of being pulled down, deeper, deeper down and the last tendrils of the idea that it wasn’t supposed to have been this way rotting in the grasp as the tails batted at the currents and the currents batted at the memories of what might have been, had the forces not conspired in such a way as to inflict the bewildering darkness upon the children of myth, the orphans of evolution.
Darren Speegle‘s work has appeared in various venues, including Subterranean, Cemetery Dance, ChiZine, Clarkesworld, and Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy. A new collection of his work, A Haunting in Germany and Other Stories, is due soon from PS Publishing.
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Story illustration by Derek Schulze.