J. Michael Neal
©2013 Melancholy Donkey Press
Growing up, my favorite relative was my uncle Harold. I loved my mother, respected my father, and had mixed feelings about most of their siblings but I loved the time I got to spend with Crazy Uncle Harry. If there was something I wasn’t supposed to do but enjoyed anyway, the chances are good that he was the one who showed me how to do it. My parents tolerated him for two reasons. The first was that they didn’t know about half of the stuff we did. The second was that he taught me how to do irresponsible things in a responsible manner.
My mother grew up on a farm in South Dakota, the youngest of ten children. Harry was the oldest and they were separated by fourteen years. As a consequence, she has no memories of him as a child. Others describe him as studious, polite, quiet, and perfectly conventional. In short, almost nothing like the man he became.
In his case the change was both sudden and easy to pinpoint. In 1942 the destroyer he served on was torpedoed in the vast expanse of ocean that lies between Guadalcanal and Australia. There were four survivors, three of whom were found in a lifeboat after ten days adrift. Three weeks later Harry washed ashore on Espritu Santo on a makeshift raft, crazed from thirst. He had no memories between the sinking and the Navy hospital where he recovered and so a remarkable story went untold.
I always found it striking that this was how he began the odyssey of the rest of his life, with the one story he couldn’t tell. The rest of his life was an epic that he described freely. There were so many tales, most of which were at least partially true. You could never be sure. A little digging would reveal that he’d fibbed about something mundane, and yet some of the most outlandish things turned out to be entirely true. He really did save the life of a Dutch prince stung by a scorpion while they raced the Paris-Dakar Rally together.
That was his life, a long series of adventures interspersed with visits to his family. It’s easy to see why, as a kid, I adored him and lived for time I spent with him. It was harder to figure why, out of his myriad nieces, nephews, and cousins he singled me out as someone to take a strong interest in. I certainly wasn’t going to question it. He took me to Tokyo when I was fifteen and introduced me to hallucinogens four years later. Harry was an unquenchable womanizer but he also drilled into me that you have to respect any woman you sleep with and to make sure you show it.
For two weeks in August every year from the age of 7 until I was 25, he abducted me from a normal life and showed me wonders. The last time came shortly after I got engaged to a woman who didn’t entirely approve of this disreputable figure in my life. In that year of 1988, Uncle Harry took me behind the crumbling Iron Curtain. The Wall didn’t tumble down until the next year but I’m sure he had something to do with that, too. Maybe that’s why he was too busy to vacation with me from then on.
“How can you stand it here?” I finally asked him as the most colorful man I could imagine walked past yet another gray, ugly concrete apartment block, this one in Warsaw.
“You’re looking at the wrong things,” Harry said, almost yelling. “Don’t look at a bunch of rocks. Watch the people.”
“I am,” I insisted. “They look almost as poor and downtrodden as the architecture.”
He came to a dead stop and glared at me. “Stop being as stupid as the Soviets. Don’t see the things a bureaucrat does. Really look at them.”
I tried. I didn’t see it. Not then.
All Harry could do was sigh at my cluelessness. We talked about it again on the flight home, sparked his talking again about the dissidents he claimed to know. He responded in the closest thing he could muster to a solemn voice. “Joseph, if you act at all times as if you are a good person, then other good people will find you.”
“I think you’re just lucky,” I replied.
He gave a deep laugh, disturbing the person in the window seat who was trying to sleep. “Of course I’m lucky. I’m the luckiest man alive. But that only changes which good people find me. It doesn’t require luck to make friends. It just requires behaving in a way that makes you worthy of having friends.”
“All right, then, let me change my question. Why are you so lucky that you make the kind of friends that you do?”
“That, Joseph, is beyond my ability to answer. I simply take every risk that crosses my path. When opportunity knocks on my door I tackle it, beat it into submission and make it mine. It never backfires on me. That’s all I can say. Before I first traveled in Eastern Europe I read the dissidents’ writings. I went looking for them, hoping to learn from those who would take such risks. I found them and they taught me. I hope I helped them in some way, too.”
“So you’re just lucky?”
“Only a fool denies that luck plays a role in his success. And only a fool denies that unluck plays a role in others’ failures. I am lucky but I try not to be a fool. Tell me again how you met Melissa.”
He knew the story. He’d had me tell it to him four times already but I did so again. “I rear-ended her car. I was trying to change stations on the radio and missed the light turning red. She yelled at me for ten minutes. Neither of us had a pen and paper to exchange insurance info so we had to go to a coffee shop a block away. I asked her out to dinner while we were there.”
“And now you two are getting married. Was that luck or skill?”
“Both?” I guessed. “I wish the two of you liked each other.”
He chuckled. “We don’t need to. We both like you. She’s a fine woman. I know that because you’re a fine man.”
“That seems naïve. I know plenty of fine people who married unpleasant people.”
“But I am naïve. Someone as lucky as I am never learns to be otherwise. But that’s how I know I’m right about this. I’m too lucky for someone I love to marry someone who will make him miserable. It is the luckiest thing possible to find the person who makes you whole, who becomes the love of your life.”
“If that’s true then how come someone as lucky as you hasn’t found that person for himself?”
“But I have, Joseph.” He smiled. “I have.”
Uncle Harry shook his head. “Maybe someday I will explain. But not now.” He refused every attempt I made to probe, saying that he had one story he wanted to remain untold.
For the next six years I exchanged letters with Uncle Harry, at least when I knew where to send them. Aside from my wedding I saw him twice at family gatherings, once at Christmas in Iowa and the other a reunion in May of 1992. My wife adopted a pose of amused indulgence when I talked about him. And he was right: meeting Melissa was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.
Everything had settled into such a routine that it was a surprise when, six years after our last jaunt together, I received an invitation to join him on his annual trip to the South Seas. The one way that Uncle Harry repeated himself was that every October he revisited the site of his first adventure, traveling to Vanuatu and renting a fishing boat. He’d cruise out into the Coral Sea and spend three weeks . . . well, no one really knew what he did out there. It was a trip he always made alone and no one quite believed his tales of fighting pirates.
After more than forty trips by himself, Harry asked me to come with him. As astonishing as the invitation was the speed with which my wife, then pregnant with our first child, agreed that I should go was more so. I’ve always suspected that they had worked it out before he ever sent the letter, but neither ever confirmed that.
So in the fall of 1995 I learned that Uncle Harry actually owned the boat he used. It sat in the harbor of Espritu Santo for eleven months of the year. As we cruised out into the middle of nowhere, Harry insisted on teaching me how to do it. When I protested that I had no interest in the ins and outs of captaining a fishing boat, he just looked at me. So, with a sigh, I did as I was told.
I watched my uncle as he steered, one eye on some gizmo he’d placed on whatever you call the dashboard of a ship.
“What the hell is that thing?” I asked.
Harry just smiled. “You’d be amazed at what the government can do with technology. This baby can tell me where I am, anywhere in the world, and it’s right to within two feet.”
“How?” I asked, betraying my own lack of the gizmo gene.
“You’ll find out,” he replied, laughing. “Give it ten years and Radio Shack will be selling them.”
He was 75, but you’d never have known it looking at him. He looked like one of those hucksters in an anti-aging infomercial: full head of silver hair; a weathered face with wrinkles from too much sun, and a body still capable of running me into the ground despite the 44-year gap in our ages.
He killed the engines in a spot that was no different than anywhere else, with nothing but waves to be seen in any direction. “Why here?” I asked.
“Why not here? Sometimes you need to just throw your line into the water and see what you catch. In this case, I mean it literally.”
The sea was too deep to anchor so we just drifted. Harry broke out the fishing tackle and set himself up in the chair in the stern of the boat.
“Do I just get to watch while you fish?” I asked.
“Hell, no. You’re supposed to watch while I fish and learn. Then I’m going to just watch while you fish.” He attached some pretty disgusting-looking bait to the line.
“I don’t know if I’m up for that much excitement. We’re supposed to spend two weeks just watching each other sit in a chair and occasionally turn a crank?”
“Shit, kid,” he said, almost yelling, “I thought the point was that we were going to talk to each other.” I was impressed with the distance he got on his cast.
“About what? I’m not sure even you are that interesting.”
“Well we could start with the fact that I’ve been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.”
That shut me up. It never occurred to me to doubt him. I sat there for about five minutes, just watching him fish.
He had to break the silence. “Jesus, kid, I’m lucky, not immortal. This was going to happen someday.”
I launched into a string of obscenities unlike anything I’d uttered since the last time I’d gotten into an argument with him. “For fuck’s sake,” I yelled as I wound down, “you don’t just drop something like that and then criticize because you shocked me into having no fucking idea what to say.” I realized I was stalking around the stern of the boat, flapping my arms about.
“Okay, fair enough,” he said evenly. “I admit it. I never thought about the possibility, either. It took me a while to get used to it, too.”
“By ‘a while’ you mean about ten minutes, right?”
“Fucker.” I took a deep breath and made a conscious effort to stop pacing.
“I don’t think it’s that big a deal to be honest,” Harry said. “I don’t spend enough time with anyone for it to really impact lives. I’ll come to a stop and the rest of you will go on pretty much as you’ve been doing.”
“You really think we don’t care about you?”
He laughed. “You do. Some of the others I’m not so sure about. But I didn’t say you don’t care. I said that it won’t have a big impact.”
“Well you’re wrong.” I paused. “Shit, I think you just upended my entire world view. I mean that. The idea of you not being out there somewhere having a blast doing something I’ve never tried is . . . something. Unsettling, maybe. Bizarre. Do you have any idea how often I find myself in the middle of a shitty day, trying to pacify customers who want the impossible delivered yesterday, and the only way I can relax is by wondering what you’re up to?”
“No,” he said softly. “I don’t.”
“You really have no idea how unusual you are, do you Uncle Harry?”
“Probably not,” he admitted. “Mine is the only life I’m really familiar with.”
“Well you are.” I spent a couple of minutes thinking about life without him somewhere around. “How long do you have anyway?”
“The docs gave me about a year. That was three months ago.”
“So did you drag me almost exactly halfway around the globe just to tell me that you’re going to kick the bucket?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“You could have just called. Or even visited.”
“There’s more to it than that but it’s all a part of telling you.”
“Have you ever considered just saying the things you want people to know?” I was yelling again. “Just tell me. It’s not that hard.”
“Not yet. There’s one more piece that needs to be in place.”
“One more piece? We’re in some random spot in the Pacific Ocean and you’re expecting one more piece to show up? We are still in the Pacific, right?”
“We are and there’s nothing random about this spot. You’ll see.”
I looked around trying to identify any sort of landmark. “This is different from any other spot in the sea?”
“Absolutely. This is where we went down.”
I took a moment to process this. “Wait. You always said you don’t remember anything about it.”
“When you were eleven you insisted that memory doesn’t work that way, that there was no way I’d forget that long a period of time.”
I dropped my face into my hands. “I should be angry about that.”
Harry snorted. “You know me too well to be that surprised.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I told you. You’ll see. I’ll tell you the whole story while we’re out here. Just not yet. Let me tell it my own way.”
“Okay, okay. You’d better order up some fish, though. I refuse to wait quietly for this revelation if all we’re going to do is sit here and stare at each other.”
If I’d been there with anyone else I’d have been stunned by the fact that a gorgeous Pacific sailfish chose that very moment to take the bait. When I saw how large it was I wondered how we were going to get it into the boat. The answer, it turned out, was that we wrestled it. I held the fishing rod while Harry leaned over the side and grabbed on. It was a hell of a strong fish, which made sense since the thing could swim in excess of sixty miles an hour; I looked it up when I got home and Harry wasn’t bullshitting me about that.
Spending a half hour fighting with a hundred and twenty pound fish broke the tension and we began sharing stories, mine mundane and his exotic, as we gutted the fish and turned it into steaks. That’s how we spent the afternoon. As it got dark Harry retired to the galley to make dinner out of our catch. The storytelling continued late into the night fueled by a bottle of scotch he broke out.
The next morning we were fishing again, but Harry kept looking around and pauses interrupted his conversation. Despite his distraction I was still caught off guard shortly before noon when someone climbed up the ladder on the side of the boat.
“Hello, Harry,” she said in an oddly staccato way. “I am so . . .” She caught sight of me and her voice trailed off. I just stared as she came to a stop, one leg over the gunwale.
In my defense the oddities extended beyond a person suddenly appearing two hundred miles from the closest dry land. That she was completely naked out there in the middle of nowhere wasn’t too startling but it did reveal her exquisite and distinct beauty. Exquisite because of her delicate face and long, elegant limbs. Distinct because of the faint turquoise hue of her skin, deep blue hair and webbing between her fingers.
She returned my gaze and made a series of clicks and groans that caused Harry to chuckle. He replied in the same manner, though even I could tell he wasn’t good at it. Then he switched to English. “Tess, this is my nephew Joseph. I’ve talked about him. Joe, meet Tess.”
I mumbled greetings as she finished climbing aboard. She continued to watch me and I realized that she never blinked. “Hello, Joseph,” she said in her stilted accent. After a pause she smiled, revealing sharp, pointed teeth.
Uncle Harry set aside the fishing rod and got up to stand next to our visitor. He touched her with an uncharacteristic tenderness. She turned her head to regard him and they gazed into each other’s eyes for a moment before Harry looked over at me. “Tess is the love of my life,” he said softly. “She’s responsible for my life, really.”
“Do not blame me, Harry,” she said. I found it impossible to read her expressions and could only assume she was joking.
“We met very near here,” my uncle continued, “almost exactly 53 years ago. I was drowning at the time.”
“He is a terrible swimmer,” Tess said.
“It is one of the few things he doesn’t do well,” I agreed.
“I think the bigger problem was that I can’t breathe underwater.”
“Yes,” Tess said. “I had to carry him back up to the surface.”
“She’s stronger than she looks,” he explained. He caressed her shoulders and I could tell he had no idea he was doing it. Tess leaned into him with a look of satisfaction on her face.
“Did she help you build the raft?” I asked.
“No,” he laughed. “I had to do that myself. That’s why it was so shoddy.”
“I do not know how to build things,” she said. “It is different in the sea.”
“She made sure I had food. It took us four days to get to an island and I was pretty damned hungry by then.”
“He didn’t like raw fish. It was funny watching him try to eat it.” Tess stroked his cheek.
It was my turn to laugh, remembering sushi joints we’d enjoyed together. “He doesn’t have that problem now.”
“I don’t have any problems now,” Harry insisted. Then his face fell as he remembered that, for once, he had a big one. “Excuse us, Joseph. Tess, I have something I need to tell you.” He guided her into the wheelhouse. I could see them through the windows.
He rejoined me in a few minutes while Tess went below. Uncle Harry was subdued. “There was more to bringing you down here than just learning my whole story. I have something to give you, too.”
“I’m almost afraid to find out what it is,” I answered.
Something broke the somberness in him, or perhaps it was just an incapacity to remain melancholy. “Hell, no, kid. You’re going to like this.” He started gathering the fishing gear. “Two days of that is about all I can take,” he muttered.
“So what are we going to do?”
“Tess and I usually spend the first week screwing like weasels but we’ll skip that part. Mostly.”
“Don’t let me stop you. I brought a bag full of books.”
“Nah. We actually have something to accomplish. I need to retrieve your inheritance.”
“Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I live the lifestyle of someone who is loaded.”
“I’ve only asked you about it a couple dozen times in my life.”
“What did I tell you?”
“Let’s see.” I counted them off on my fingers. “Three times you told me you were a professional poker player. There was the story about finding the lost gold of the Romanovs. You’re Stephen King’s ghost writer and the secret of the Rolling Stones’ success. You patented a process converting cow manure into gasoline. You smuggled diamonds out of apartheid South Africa for the African National Congress. I really did like the one about collecting the secret bounty after capturing Adolf Hitler in Paraguay though I didn’t believe it for a second.” I’d run out of fingers on my right hand and decided to give up trying to recite every wild tale he’d told me. “The rest of them were pretty plausible, all things considered. In fact, I think the diamond thing was true.”
“Professional poker is boring,” he said. “Stick to friendly games with amateurs.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. I’m sure Melissa will appreciate that advice.”
“Did I ever claim that it was treasure from sunken Spanish galleons?”
“No. I actually wondered about that. It seemed like a strange omission.”
He clapped me on the shoulder. “I left it out because it’s the one that’s true.”
Tess came out on deck wearing a lightweight silk robe with a pattern of orange and yellow flowers. She stood next to Harry. “It’s time to raid that boat we’ve been saving,” he said
“The one with the emeralds?”
“Wait,” I interrupted, “what are you planning to give me?”
Harry raised his arms. “Whatever we can get off the sea floor in a week. That should give you a nice tidy sum.”
“He means that he will give you however much treasure I can bring up,” Tess explained.
He waved a hand dismissively. “I figured that was obvious.”
“Wait. You really found sunken treasure ships? I guess that shouldn’t surprise me.”
Tess hit him on the back of the head. “He found nothing.”
“Okay,” he admitted, “Tess found them.”
“Not really. I never lost them.” She smiled again, showing her needle teeth. “The sea is my home. I know what is there.”
“Fine.” Harry threw up his hands. “You describe it.” He headed into the wheelhouse to start the engines.
I looked at the strange, beautiful creature that had come aboard. “Do you two want to be alone for a while?”
She inclined her head. “Thank you, Joseph. That would be appreciated.”
“Just call me Joe.”
“Very well.” She reached out and touched my cheek with her webbed hand. “I would get to know you while we are here, Joe.” She didn’t wait for a response before she followed my uncle. I sat down in the fishing chair and wished for some actual scenery to pass by that I could watch.
We cruised for several hours and when the engines shut off we were in a place as featureless as the one we had left. The sun shone fiercely over the brilliant blue waves with no land in sight.
They came out on deck. “Come help me set up the equipment,” Harry called to me. I went below deck with him and discovered that one cabin contained an elaborate winch. We hauled it up to the deck and, after removing chair from its housing, we set it up and hooked up the electric motor. Tess, despite the earlier claims of her strength, merely supervised, offering comments. I think they were mostly sarcastic, but I couldn’t be sure. When I complained that she wasn’t helping, they both laughed. She declared that we already expected her to do more than her fair share.
We had to use the winch’s motor to pull the chain we’d use up from the cabin, making sure it didn’t get tangled on the way. It wasn’t thick, but they told me it was about two miles long and weighed several tons. “How deep is this wreck?” I asked.
“About 8,000 feet,” Harry replied. “We’ve done deeper than this.”
“This is my home,” Tess said.
“So are you like Aquaman? Commanding the denizens of the deep to do your bidding?” This no longer seemed like such an impossibility.
She looked at me as Harry laughed. “He’s referring to comic books . Someone who talks to fish and whales, getting them to do work for him.”
“Fish are stupid,” Tess replied. “You can’t talk to them.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling a bit disappointed.
“She does all the work,” Harry told me. “There’s a hook at the end of this and she either attaches it to something we pull up or, more often, just fills a bucket she takes down.”
“And it’s all just lying there?”
“Yes,” she said. “It’s too deep for human divers to find. There’s very little treasure left in shallow waters.”
“We’ve left all of that for other people to find,” Harry added. “We just grab the stuff that would stay there forever if we didn’t.”
“No one would get it? Aren’t there more of you?” I asked Tess.
“Yes,” she said, “there are a few, but none of them are interested in treasure.”
“She only cares about it because of me.”
I looked at Tess. “And none of them . . .” My voice trailed off as I tried to figure out how to describe their relationship.
“No. I am considered odd.”
“For interacting with one of us?”
It was Uncle Harry that answered. “No, no. They interact with humans all the time. It just usually involves drowning and then eating us. We’re something of a delicacy.”
“She tried to do that to me. I was in the water and she swims up and grabs my leg. She wanted to pull me under but I just happened to have the flare gun from the ship. So I threatened her with it and she let go. I’m there treading water and she starts circling me so I have to twist around to keep the gun pointed at her.”
“Why didn’t you just shoot her?” I interrupted.
“You ever fired a flare gun, kid? You can’t hit a house from ten paces with those things. I was just lucky that she didn’t know that and thought it was a real threat. She started talking to me. Her plan was just to wait until I got tired went under, so getting me to talk would hasten the process.”
I listened to him but I watched Tess. “What did you talk about?”
“Anything I could think of. I wasn’t a good storyteller then. I talked about your grandparents. I talked about being a radioman on a destroyer. I mentioned that I didn’t want to die a virgin, which, by the way, was the first sensible thought I’d had about sex in my life. In retrospect it’s a hilarious scene. I’m trying to keep afloat and keep the gun pointed at someone who can swim like a fish and . . .”
She interrupted him with something between a grunt and a snort. “Sorry. So I’m trying to keep the gun pointed at someone who swims really well and trying to be interesting while I talk and trying to understand her horrible English. You think she’s bad now, you should have heard her back then; she had the grammar of Chico Marx and the accent of a Chinese teaching assistant.
“Uh, huh. What did you say that changed her mind?”
He didn’t let my obvious skepticism slow him down. “Corn. Nothing else I said interested her but I described these big fields of corn like vast beds of seaweed except that they stood up straight on land. And yellow. Corn as far as the eye could see. Nothing else in sight. And when the wind comes through it produces ripples that look just like waves in the sea. And then we harvest it and it all gets cut down only to come back again the next year.”
Something about Tess’ posture was the final straw to his credibility. “You’re bullshitting me.”
He grinned wide. “Of course I’m bullshitting you!” He was practically yelling. “I’ve had fifty years to imagine how I would tell this story. You think I’d tell it straight when I finally get the chance?”
“Only if it made a good story.”
“Joseph,” he said, sounding disappointed, “I’d bullshit you even if the truth was a good story. Which it is. This way I get to tell it twice. Or more.”
“Please, just twice,” I said.
“I’ll tell it,” Tess said. “We don’t eat humans. You don’t taste good; it’s all the fat. We eat strictly fish. I heard his ship get torpedoed and sink. I can hear a ship sinking from hundreds of miles away, thousands sometimes. I investigated. Sailors from sinking ships are . . .” She paused, searching for words. “Important to our life cycle,”
Harry smiled at her. “Go ahead and tell him what you mean.”
She looked at him. “Are you sure?”
He spoke to me, rather than Tess. “She didn’t used to be squeamish about this.”
“Maybe I should have just eaten you.”
He laughed. “I was struggling in the water because a Japanese sub fired a half a ton of amatol into the side of my ship. We had more in common than she thinks.”
She gazed at him for a moment before continuing. “We drag sailors down, deep under the sea. As they drown we rape them. It is the only way for us to reproduce.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I objected. “We aren’t the same species. I think.”
“No,” she agreed, “we are not. But we are not mundane creatures. We are magical. Your uncle has told me that we are, in fact, biologically impossible. We shouldn’t exist, according to your natural laws. And so it shouldn’t surprise you that we have daughters in an impossible manner.”
I shrugged. “I’ll take your word for it, I guess.”
“So I swam to him. By the time I got here most of them were already dead. I poked around in the wreckage and found Harry clinging to a large wooden chest. It was the middle of the night and sharks were already at work among the bodies. I had to chase a couple away from him to make sure I could claim him. Then, when I came to grab him and take him down, Harry kicked me in the face.”
“It was an accident,” he said with mock sheepishness. “Just lucky. I didn’t even realize she was there until my foot made contact.”
“Yes, just lucky,” Tess said. “He broke my nose. Once it started bleeding it just made the problem with the sharks worse. Stupid fish. I had to fight off a big bull shark. By the time I was done doing that I was really angry. So I decided I wanted to torment Harry before I drowned him. Worst mistake of my life.”
I watched the chain spool around the drum of the winch as they talked. I was having trouble believing that I was going to be rich, but standing there with a woman who was obviously not human I was having trouble believing that I wasn’t going to be rich, too.
“This head pops up a few feet away from me,” he broke in. “Remember, it’s dark. The only lighting was some burning fuel oil on the surface behind her. So I have no idea she’s blue, just that some beautiful woman has appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the Coral Sea. I thought I was already dead. So when she started telling me all of the things she planned to do to me on the way down I got confused because I was trying to figure out why an angel was taking me to Hell.”
Tess put a hand over his mouth. “It is my story,” she continued, talking to me. “He wasn’t scared at all. He was angry, too, and yelled at me. He’d always been nice to everyone and accepted Jesus as his savior and that he didn’t think it was fair that he was going to Hell. And I’m yelling back at him that he kicked me and that I was going to break his arms and legs because my face hurt so much.
“He’s also lucky that I spoke English thanks to the Australians. I used to float around the Great Barrier Reef and listen to them when I was hunting.”
“It explains why her English was so bad.”
Tess glared at him and he fell momentarily silent. “If he’d been Japanese I’d have just killed him right there. Instead I got insulted that he thought I was a devil and started arguing theology. Before I knew it I was telling him I’d prove it by saving him.”
Harry pulled her into an embrace and his eyes shined merrily over the turquoise skin of her shoulder as she continued. “It took me four days to drag him to an island. That’s when I fed him the raw fish.”
“Why did it bother you so much that he thought you were a demon?”
“Devil,” she replied. “He thought I was a devil. Demons and devils are different things. If he’d thought I was a demon it wouldn’t have been as bad. But we hate devils. Long story.”
“Do you tell any other kind?”
They both laughed. “That’s a hint, Tess,” Harry said. “He wants his loot.”
“No, that wasn’t it at all,” I protested.
“Maybe not, but that sounds like a good note on which to end the conversation. We’ve still got days talk to each other. Let’s get busy.”
Within a few minutes Tess was over the side and the winch was paying out chain. There was another piece of equipment that went into the water: a microphone and speaker. Through them Harry and Tess communicated in the strange language they’d spoken when she first stepped on board. It reminded me, very slightly, of the sound of humpback whales and I realized that it was pitched to travel huge distances through the water. Harry passed on enough of what they said that it was clear they could talk to each other even though she was more than a mile down.
“How does she survive down there?” I asked.
“Don’t try to explain it,” he said. “It really is magic. She doesn’t just live in the ocean. She is the ocean. That’s true in the physical sense. She can function 8,000 feet under the surface because that’s what she is. The pressure is as normal for her there as it is here. There’s no light down there but she can see.
“It’s not just physical, though,” he continued. “She is as capricious as the sea. Her personality is filled with sudden squalls that blow up and then blow away. And don’t think that she was joking when she said that she first approached me with the intent to rape me and kill me. That was absolutely serious. It’s as much of who she is as a shark is defined by its desire to eat you.”
“How can you love her, then?”
He smiled. “It’s easy. I don’t expect her to be human. I just focus on what she does for me. I don’t mean saving me fifty years ago. It’s what I learned during those three weeks. It was like being born again, except that I don’t remember the first time. I don’t know how much of it was her and how much of it was just the fact that I should have died and then suddenly didn’t. Either way, when I crawled up onto that tiny islet with one palm tree after four days in her arms it felt like I was starting all over.
“I felt like I had given my life for my country. There was nothing left for anyone to ask for. Everything after that belonged to her and she gave it back to me. It was freeing. I don’t mean to imply that I was miserable before. I really wasn’t. I liked who I was and I have no regrets about anything I did up to that point. It was just that it didn’t have anything to do with who I was after she saved me.”
“So do you really love her or just who you became?”
He smiled at me. “They’re the same thing. I’ll try to explain. It all has to do with magic. Ever since then I’ve tried to learn about it. I’m not sure how far I’ve gotten. I can’t do a lick of it; I don’t have a magical bone in my body. But one thing I’ve learned is that magic is all about symbolism. It’s nothing but metaphor. And in important ways it’s all subjective. Tess is nothing but magic; it’s her whole being. So when I decided that I was going to live in a way that seemed fitting for her, I erased any difference between loving her and loving myself.”
“There’s an awful lot of bullshit packed into that,” I said.
“I won’t disagree with you about that, but you’re missing a key element.” He grinned at me. “I’ve always believed my own bullshit.”
I looked at him for a moment. “I suppose you’d have to.”
“And more than believing it, I like it. I have the best bullshit in the world. That’s been my entire life ever since the Navy let me go. I served for the rest of the war, though it’s safe to say that the Navy wasn’t thrilled with me for the last three years of it. When it was over, I came back down here. Tess and I had talked about seeing each other. And when we did, she told me that I could live however I wanted. That’s when she told me about all of the treasure she knew about.”
“How did she know about it? Has she investigated every square inch of the Pacific?”
It took him a bit to answer because he was talking with Tess in those sounds I couldn’t make sense of. When he did, he said, “Maybe, but that’s not how she knew. Tess is a thousand years old. She didn’t need to find any of these wrecks. She was here before the Spanish ever began transporting Peruvian riches to Manila. She listened to every one of these hulks go down. On more than one occasion she killed sailors herself.”
“How old she is or her violent tendencies?” Harry asked.
He shrugged. “Her age wasn’t a problem for me. For the other, she’s the sea. She is all of those old legends rolled into a sentient package. That’s always been the attraction of the ocean. It’s beautiful, it’s mysterious, and it’s deadly. I’d be lying if I said that the implied danger of her wasn’t a part of the attraction.”
We sat there for a few moments, waiting for some sort of signal from Tess. It was I who broke it. “You’re not coming back, are you?”
“What makes you think that?”
“Lots of things. The way you talk about her. The way you talk to her. When we’ve got the treasure, you’re going down with her. She’s going to kill you and mate with you. That’s why you insisted I learn how to pilot the boat, so I can get back by myself.”
“You’ve always been a sharp kid, Joe. Yeah. The moment I got the diagnosis I knew what I was going to do. It’s more than just the mating thing, though I like the idea that I’m going to be a father. I want to see her in her natural habitat. I’ve brought diving equipment a few times and gone in with her but I can’t get very deep. One year I rented a submersible and managed to go down quite a ways but it wasn’t the same with the glass between us.
“She says she can keep me alive for a long time down there if I have a bit of gear. I’ll never get back to the surface. She doesn’t get the bends but I would. So I’ll look around. We won’t make it to the bottom, of course, but I’ll see some things. And then we’ll make love. Her way, finally.”
“Good for you.”
“I’m glad you approve.
“I couldn’t picture you dealing with cancer. I’m sure you could surprise me by becoming one of those guys who climbs Mt. Everest with his oncologist or something but . . . did you ever climb Mt. Everest?”
“Nope. I never felt the urge.”
“Amazing. But I’ve spent three days thinking that you were going to find your own way to go without waiting around for it to kill you. I’m just happy that you picked something that seems sensible.”
Tess said something and Harry started up the winch. “You’re on your way to wealth, kid.”
“Thanks. I don’t want to seem greedy, but how much are we talking here?”
He guided the chain as it slowly emerged. “I don’t really know. It depends upon how much time we want to take. A ship like this might have carried couple tons of silver, about a tenth of that in gold. So maybe ten million dollars if you sold all of it off. Tess said that this one also has a large cache of emeralds but there’s no telling how much they would be worth. It was probably sailing from Peru to Manila where they’d trade all of that for spices and then go on to Spain.”
“Yep. We won’t get nearly that much out of it. Maybe a million bucks if we’re lucky and diligent. We usually settled for a couple of hundred thousand every year but obviously this time is different.”
“What am I going to tell Melissa?”
“That’s your problem,” he said as the bucket emerged from the ocean. It was filled with gold coins. “What I highly recommend is that you tell the IRS. Not necessarily how you got it; they won’t really care about that. But definitely how much. You’ll save yourself a lot of hassle.”
“You sound like you speak from experience.”
“There are a few things I don’t talk about,” he said animatedly. “My taxes are one of them.”
That’s how we spent the next three days. We stopped when the sun went down mostly out of a sense of propriety since its disappearance in no way affected Tess’ ability to see in the deep. We spent the evenings on the deck, telling stories and drinking whiskey. When we ran out of that we drank rum and tequila. There was no danger of running out of stories.
I ended up with more gold than I could carry and a small chest full of emeralds. I had no plans for the money I would sell them for. That part hadn’t really sunk in.
I had a better grasp on the notion that this was it for Uncle Harry. My comprehension was helped by the fact that he’d chosen an appropriately odd way to die. Whenever I go I doubt I’ll come up with anything as clever as “screwing a magical sea creature at 200 fathoms.” The only problem is that even by Harry’s standards no one was going to believe me when I flew back to the States without him.
The next morning the three of us stood on the deck. Uncle Harry wore an oxygen tank and was ready to put a rebreather over his face. “Sorry to cut out on you early, kid.”
“It’s okay.” I smiled at him. Let’s face it, a 75-year- old man with an enormous erection is pretty amusing. I pointed to my right. “Espritu Santo is that way, right?”
“Not even close,” he said, chuckling. “If that’s the best you got, start going that way.” He pointed over my left shoulder. “Australia is a lot harder to miss.”
“Don’t worry, Joe,” Tess said. “I’ll come back and make sure you get home safely.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it.” I looked back to Harry. “Goodbye.”
He clapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Harry, there isn’t anything you wouldn’t do.”
“Sure there is. Lots of them. But I doubt you’d do any of them so it was more a figure of speech.”
I stepped forward and hugged him. “I hope you enjoy this as much as you clearly intend to.”
“Count on it.”
With that he slipped the mask over his face. He gave a thumbs up as the air started to circulate and stepped up on to the rail. With a mighty yell he leaped out over the water in a cannonball and plunged in. Tess followed more gracefully. They treaded water briefly and, while Tess remained unreadable, the joy on Harry’s face was radiant. He took out his mouthpiece long enough to yell, “Make sure you enjoy your fucking life, kid.” After giving me a quick wave, they vanished beneath the water. I sat down on the gunwale and contemplated the blueness of the waves and the white foam that appeared at their crest. I briefly wondered if there was a metaphor there and then went into the cabin to try to figure out what I was going to tell my wife.