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The Underwater Cathedral

by Martin Cathcart Froden

The Underwater Cathedral

The first time Petros tried he managed three turns of the hourglass. Then he blacked out and his father had to pull him out of the water, forbidding him ever to try again. Petros was only six and all he wanted was to go out on the boat with his grandfather, so over the next three years three turns became four, five, seven, and by the time he was thirteen, a lifetime of secret practice had amounted to eight and a bit turns.

He now spent all his time in the beryl world. In the underwater cathedral. He fell in love with the resistance of movement and the notion that he was just a fish in a man’s body. He walked around on the bottom knifing sponges and feeling his lungs go concave – in a nice way. The natural buoyancy of his body was counteracted by a fifteen kilo flat stone, a skandalopetra, tied to a rope he held onto when going down. Once he got back up, after turning the hourglass in his head seven times for luck, he reeled in his ballast, and the bundle of sponges tied to it. He laid his harvest out to dry on the deck of his boat. Then he waited till the dizzy stars went away and he couldn’t hear his pulse in his ears and went under again. And again, and again. Seven turns was good, eight amazing and nine supernatural. But he wasn’t happy. He wanted to be under for twelve, twenty-nine, seventy, infinity.

The day he found a colony of sponges to harvest at the depth of a plethron he bought a lamb for his mother to cook. After the meal his gran told him his skin was now webbing between his fingers. Just like it had on her husband.

He was growing tall but he was still enough of a boy to sit next to her while she told him stories. About the man in the whale, the serpent squeezing ships – eating its own tail until the armada was splinters and the gold lost, about men in church bells, a huge bubble of air trapped inside, a platform suspended underneath. How the heaviest bells were the best, and as her father had been a blacksmith she told him the thickness of a church bell at its thickest part, the sound bow, is one thirteenth its diameter. Maths and myths and marine life in a mixture swallowed with watered down ouzo.

His gran both helped and made him restless on land.

‘I loved him all my life. And your grandfather loved me, but only as much as he loved being under the sea, and now he sleeps in a comfortable bed in a house on the outskirts of Atlantis,’ she said one evening, then she turned to look out over the water, now dark as Turkish coffee under a teal sky. ‘Knowing your grandfather he’s probably got a girlfriend down there. I just hope it’s not Cleito.’

‘Cleito?’

‘If you were only up longer than to draw a breath you might learn something. You don’t even go to school these days.’

‘Can’t afford it. I only make enough for the family by diving.’

‘I know son, I know. Well, she was the daughter of Evenor and Leucippe, she was the goddess Poseidon fell in love with, who bore him five pairs of male twins.’

‘Sounds like the sort of trouble grandfather would get himself into.’

‘He was born with gills,’ she said, ‘a trait which usually, but not always, skips a generation, and now it’s landed in your lap, like a bird that’s died mid-flight.’

In the same breath she asked him, eyes a-twinkling, if he had a girlfriend, the question brought on by the waves of generations crashing onto and receding from the island. When he said no, she said she’d find him one.

She tousled his hair, said, ‘So you want to build a boat that can sail underwater?’

‘How did you know?’

‘So did he. And his grandfather before him.’

The boy smiled.

‘You know Alexander the Great dove in a glass diving bell at the siege of Tyre, and the Persians used goggles made from the polished outer layer of tortoise shell.’

‘Really?’

‘Your grandfather told me lots of things. Some say the ark stayed underwater for forty days and then bobbed to the surface. I think our own country recently bought a steam powered submarine, a Swedish design, reputedly to save us from the return of the Ottomans. It came in boxes and your grandfather travelled to see it being put together by the Ifaistos Works in Piraeus. He received messages about it for a while but I don’t think it was ever used properly.’

‘That’s a shame.’

‘It’s not easy. Maybe we’re not meant to be underwater too long.’

‘You don’t believe that.’

‘No I don’t. I’m just saying it’s not a new idea, and that some of the world’s greatest men, including your grandfather, have considered it, you’re in good company.’

He started asking around, sketching on the back of the newspaper, staring into the distance. Then, like an abyssal Noah, he began building a ship on land. He called his submarine Skandalopetra.

The whole village on his island Kalymnos, told him it wouldn’t work.

‘You’re as mad as a drunk donkey – Why do you want to die so badly boy – Now I know your mother dropped you on the head – You’re as dumb as a mutt on heat…’

He took it all in. Absorbed it like the sponges he had learned to dive for with his grandfather, and after almost a year of building and testing and hoping, he realised they were right. He had built a casket for himself. The submarine had become a two tonne razor to his throat, so he chopped it up and built a fire, a beacon to his own single-mindedness.

But the thinking and the planning was a habit once started, hard to give up. The underwater ship was too bulky, too inhuman, too many engineering mismatches waiting to happen. The solution had to be closer to the body, had to be smaller.

So when an idea from the mainland travelled across the sound to him he was easily enamoured. He was the first person to try the Standard Diving Suit or Skafandro. It was brought to the island by Philippe Bayard, a thrifty businessman too cowardly to dive. Philippe said he would give Petros the suit if he volunteered to guinea-pig it, and if he managed to convince three other divers to buy one each.

After Petros had talked himself hoarse about the advantages of the innovation, walked on the ocean floor seventy metres below the ship, and brought up more and better sponges than anyone had seen in a hundred years, twelve fellow divers signed away most of their income that year in exchange for a Standard Suit. Petros told Philippe it had been difficult, only three had been willing to give it a go, but he would maybe be able to convince one or two more if he was given twenty percent of the profit. They shook hands on twelve percent and from his sleeve Petros brought out his nine aces. Philippe smiled like someone was tickling his balls with a feather.

Again, like when he decided he wanted to train himself to breathe as little as possible, his father put his foot down and forbade him to go against tradition and the wisdom of his own father and grandfather and all the men before them who had relied on their lungs and on the Gods and not on machines. Petros smiled and tugged at his father’s greying sideburns and gestured to his mother – a mid-air motion as though patting an enormous dog – to calm her. Be careful Ichtioandre – fish-man, she said sternly and he smiled.

That evening when he came back from the test dive his gran introduced him to Delphine, a niece of one of her friends. She was straight as a mast and hard as a gale, her hair blacker than the eyes of a spider, but when she smiled he drowned in her dimples and when she flung her hair in a nightly nimbus to re-braid it with a spithamē of red silk presented to her by his gran, he was lost, his heart beating faster than when he came up after staying under for too long.

He was already happier than ever, and as a smile is an infectious disease the two of them soon disappeared over a hill, him with an arm around her, describing his plans, his adventures, his fortunes. He mimicked his father, and the two of them laughed at the voice of caution urging further tests, and patience, always patience.

Petros decided to press on. He felt golden and he was in a hurry to prove the old guard wrong.

The next day he walked to Delphine’s house with an errand, an excuse. Her brother, a sponge diver too, was soon the owner of a Standard Suit. The eyes of the household were glued to Petros, and Delphine looked like she was about to erupt with laughter. Walking home his feet didn’t touch the ground, as though he was swimming.

Two weeks later he was paralysed from the neck down and the same week three of his customers, his friends, died. Only days after his disaster Delphine’s brother descended into a coma. She delivered the message to him and told him that was the last thing she ever wanted to say to him.

The unseen enemy, the incurable plague, continued to attack the divers, and people blamed Petros. There was no science, there was only superstition on the island, and there was no guessing who the Diving Disease would hit next. The profits from the sponge trade were staggering, the cramps and death throes staggering too, but there was an army of boys willing to put themselves on the edge of death. Willing to plumb the depths for soft lumps of gold.

After another three weeks he pleaded with his family to take him out to where his grandfather was last seen diving. He kissed his mother and his father, but his resolve was unfaltering. The last thing he held was his grandmother’s hand, warm, living parchment. A hand unwilling to let go, but one old enough to know youth’s resolution is a force stronger than all Gods combined. The last thing he saw was Delphine on the shore, one hand on her stomach, the other waving, the red silk in her hair once more. Smiling and crying at the same time.

He buried himself in the underwater cathedral he had grown up in, under a great slab of water in an aisle, next to the knights and heroes like his grandfather who no longer had to keep air imprisoned in their lungs. He relaxed and let out his breath one last time. His father saw the bubbles come to the surface after nine turns of the hourglass and wept, saltwater staining the deck where the boy’s sponges had now dried and become brittle.

Petros joined his grandfather in the comfortable house just outside the mud bank that had been Atlantis and when Delphine gave birth to a boy Petros and his grandfather rose to the surface to welcome him. They watched the umbilical cord being cut, the last connection to the watery world the boy had been created in. They smiled so much three ships broke loose from their moorings when they saw he had gills just like them.