First of all, you must know this: they can’t sing. At all. That much is pure folklore.
I remember how we met; it was my first day on the job. The ocean started halfway down a dark flight of stairs. We were equipped with wet suits, oxygen tanks, and flippers, which made it a little difficult to navigate the steps. The water came up to my knees, then up to my chest, then it was over my head and I couldn’t get over the strangeness of breathing underwater. I snapped on my flashlight and was startled by the number of bright, swimming things all around me, garish as a toddler’s plastic toys – spillover from the nearby artificial reef. I snapped my light back off, a little frightened. To think the whole world was once that way!
A complicated set of airlocks took us out into a subterranean parking garage, with pumps roaring to keep it dry. Sooner or later, I’m sure, the U.N. will eliminate the loophole that still permits automobiles as long as they aren’t on land. We squished up several flights of stairs, past a shopping mall mezzanine and the kitchen of a fancy restaurant. The cooks waved us over and pointed to a half-sized door. “There’s more ocean down that way,” they said, “but be sure to knock first.”
Well, guess who we found on the other side. And she wasn’t alone, either.
She had a dark and roving eye, and her hair hung down in ringalets. So went the old sea shanty.
Actually, I don’t mind her roving eye, as long as it stops roving long enough to take me in. It’s when she looks through you or past you that you want to die. Picture Odysseus straining at the mast, the surf roaring in his ears, in his throat, mad to fling his body against the rocks…
Sailors have always been fairly unreliable types, I guess. Still, it’s surprising that it took the scientists so long to verify what sailors had sung about for centuries, whenever their bodies stopped swaying long enough for them make contact with a barstool. Manatees, the skeptics said at first. Then, porpoises. But no: these were true descendents of the hominid line, gone the only direction they could go to escape the genocidal tendencies of their Cro-Magnon cousins. They saw what had happened to the Neanderthals.
It’s hard to imagine the long-term vision and cold-heartedness required to subject your own tribe to a program of selective breeding and strict natal screening, generation after generation killing the infants who didn’t take to the water, then for extra measure killing all who weren’t beautiful. But somehow they must’ve done it — or so my shipmates tell me. It stands to reason. Why else would they still be here, when so many other things are gone forever?
Time passes differently at sea: more slowly, yes, but in a good way. Landside, you’d pay a lot for this much free time. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours down below, watching the light show of luminescent plankton being sucked in through the baleeners. It’s kind of hypnotic. We can catch 20,000 pounds of krill and plankton on a good day — that’s a lot of fireworks. Sometimes I like to imagine I’m inside one of those great sea creatures, the whales, that died out back in the 21st century. Sitting in the darkness, surrounded by flickering curtains of blue and green and red, I straddle my cello and broadcast slow improvisations on longing out into the farthest reaches of the interstellar net.
Edited 8/24/06 in response to reader comments.