SHALLOW WATER BLACKOUT
At any given moment every person on earth is exactly one breath away from his death, and I was getting close to mine. I clutched onto the anchor chain of the Eastern Islands Expedition boat, wondering what in the world I was doing, pretending to be a blue water hunter out to spear big fish. I was a professional ornithologist, for heaven’s sake, the director of the Paradise Island Bird Park. Which is where I should have been, fussing over my breeding pair of the nearly extinct Leucospar rothschildi, or Bali starling, instead of twenty feet underwater, running out of oxygen, surrounded by little fish that I didn’t even know the common names of.
Damien hung in the water beside me, his gray eyes calm behind his goggles. A real blue water hunter, he was training me on breath-holding. On the surface above us floated Nike, backlit by the sun, her hair drifting like sea grass, as graceful in bikini and water as she was in Balinese dance costume and stage lights.
My lungs drummed their heels against my ribs. I let go of the anchor line to head up, but Damien grabbed my waist and mouthed our training mantra. “Relax, push past the pain.”
I controlled my convulsions. My lungs ceased their tantrum. The pain dissipated as tingles through my limbs. My consciousness crimped around the edges. I really did need air. I pointed to the surface. Please.
The water above me imploded in a cone of bubbles, out of which appeared hairy outstretched arms that grabbed me under my armpits. I didn’t resist as they lifted me. When the surface was just inches away, I reflexively opened my mouth to suck down a breath, but my consciousness got pole-axed. Bam, instant blackness.
When I came to, I was on my back on the back deck of the Pure Heart. The sun-heated ribbons of black caulking between the wooden planks pressed like hot stripes against my flesh. A juvenile Haliaeetus leucogaster lazed in an amiable expanse of tropical sky. What was a sea eagle doing this far from the roost?
An angry voice broke into my light-headed musing. Earl Golden stood by the fantail, his shorts and unbuttoned shirt dripping water. The bristles of his stubbled beard were aimed like soggy porcupine quills at Damien. Earl was the expedition’s leader and the man who held the world record for black marlin that Damien was out to break, something Damien had not kept quiet about.
“What the goddam hell were you doing?” Earl said. “Wesley is out of shape and out of his element.”
I sat up, my pale belly draping over my trunks. “It’s okay,” I said.
“It is not okay. You just had a shallow water blackout.”
“Thanks for the helping hand, Earl,” Damien said. “I probably couldn’t have gotten him up all by myself.”
“You’re a menace to all of us, the way you push it.”
“You realize that was the first time you’ve been in the water this trip?” Damien pointedly gazed at the weal of scar tissue dimpling Earl’s stout chest, where five years previously a marlin had speared and nearly killed the Golden Earl of blue water hunting. “There’s talk, you know, about you having lost your balls to that fish.”
Earl glared, drawing a thick knuckle across the bottom of his nose. Without reply, he flung open the salon door, disregarding the NO WET GEAR sign he’d put up himself. Wisps of air conditioning and sounds of the plasma screen TV leaked out. The other divers were watching a movie, waiting for the tide to turn and the game fish to start hunting.
Nike hoisted herself out of the water, her body shedding sea droplets to glow like freshly ground cinnamon. She uncoiled the freshwater hose and rinsed her hair that flowed black over her elegant shoulders to her slender waist.
I got to my feet, trying to ignore her. This was hopeless. I was thirty-eight years old, prairie born-and-bred and landlubberly all the way down to the soles of my size fourteen feet. My hair was a fibrous red, my skin was mottled with sun-splotches, and I possessed the grace of a broken-winged pelican. “Why are you riling Earl like that?” I said to Damien.
Earl had been working hard, taking care of the expedition’s considerable logistics. He was the one who dealt with the boat’s insufferable British captain, a white uniformed demi-god who denied us access to the bridge and only appeared on occasions of worship.
“You were down a minute and half,” Damien said, patting my shoulder. “That’s pretty good.” He padded across the deck to that companionway that led down to the rear cabins.
Nike gave me a small smile and handed me the shower hose. Her hand brushed mine. My heart flopped like a landed fish as I tried to hide myself under a stream of water.
“Wesley, tell me something,” she said. “Do you really like spear-fishing?”
I’d been going blue water hunting with Damien every weekend for several months, trying to shoehorn myself into a world that wasn’t mine. I turned off the shower. “I’m trying to,” I said.
“You be careful. Damien takes too many chances, but I’m used to that.” Nike stepped closer to me and murmured, “I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed me on the cheek. Her breath smelled warm and spicy. “A minute and a half. Congratulations.”
She grabbed a towel, wrapped it around her sarong-style, and slipstreamed down the stairs. I touched my cheek, holding my breath again.
I’d been crammed into a tiny cubicle between Damien and Nike’s cabin and the bathroom, which on a boat is called a head, but after a couple days of stormy sailing and puking in the toilet, I didn’t give a damn about things nautical. I shucked on dry shorts and shirt and went into the salon. The dining table offered a buffet lunch of salad and sandwich fixings, mostly untouched. The first afternoon dive was only an hour away, and since food in the stomach reduces lung capacity, the divers weren’t eating. They were up getting their gear ready.
Earl had changed to jeans and T-shirt and was making a ham sandwich. He lathered mayonnaise, which he spiced with a dollop of Tabasco. “Sorry for snapping, Wesley. We were all novices at one point.”
I poured myself a glass of cold water and sipped as though the water were communion wine. I wanted to spill my confession, that I hated spear fishing, that every time I plunged into depthless water, my pounding heart wanted to climb out my throat. “What’s shallow water blackout?”
“Your lungs expand when you rise in water, so the remaining oxygen in your system gets less concentrated. Too low and your brain blinks out. You can be inches from the surface. It’s a leading cause of death for spear fishermen.”
“Thanks for jumping in.” I hesitated and added, “Damien was way out of line with what he said.”
Earl plopped down on the sofa, cramming a huge bite into his mouth. He said with a muffled voice, “I shouldn’t really let him get to me. He’s an asshole.”
The ocean beyond the salon windows was tinged with violet. “He wants to break your black marlin record,” I said. “And he’s the kind of guy who will.”
I first met Damien went I along on a police raid to his cliff-top mansion cantilevered over the Indian Ocean like a temple. Damien was keeping two Bali starlings in illegal captivity. To get proof, I’d skulked around his property for several weeks with a telephoto camera, pretending to be a tourist enamored of the vista. I was feeling pretty sour about a fellow expat who really should have been a shining light to the locals.
We found nothing during the raid. Damien walked through the back gate as we were poking around the rear gardens where the bird cage had been the previous day. It was now gone. Wearing only black Speedoes, lithe body glistening from the sea, Damien shouldered a spear gun. From the tip dangled a string of red snapper. He cheerfully told us to carry on while he showered. A few minutes later, changed into a colorful sarong and parrot-print silk shirt, he invited us onto his verandah for coffee. The cops sprawled on the sofas, smoking their clove cigarettes and joking with our host in colloquial Balinese. I perched on the end of my chair, rigid with aggrieved righteousness as sweat trickled down my neck.
When we left, he gave each of the cops a fish. I declined mine.
“They’re tastier if hunt your own,” he said. “Maybe one time you’d like to come?” He raised his brow in something akin to an amused invitation, as though daring me to accept the challenge.
The next week, on a wet and windy monsoon day, he showed up at my office and said he’d read one of my conservation articles. He would like to organize a fundraiser for the bird park. I stared at him in astonishment and then suspicion. “What’s the angle? Do you take a cut?”
“I have enough pennies,” he said. “I do free charity fundraisers from time to time to justify my existence.”
Again that grin, that hook of brow, and God help me, I found myself grinning back.
The fundraiser was held two months later in the immaculate gardens of an exclusive Ubud resort. By that time I had gone spear fishing with Damien exactly once and had no intention of going again. The pleasure of his intriguing company did not make up for the uncomfortable dinghy ride and the alien element of deep water. He’d scared the hell out of me when he disappeared into an underwater cave and did not come out again for several minutes, a grouper on the end of his spear. Languid on land, Damien in the ocean became a different man altogether, as though the smidgen of Apache blood that tinged his skin and gave him his high cheekbones came to untamed life in a hostile environment.
Included in the fundraising show was a Balinese flirtation dance called a joged, accompanied by raucous gamelan music. Male guests bid for the privilege of dancing with the star Balinese dancer, a stunning beauty. The winning guest would the one she allowed close enough to inhale her scent. One of staff told me that she was a renowned painter and artist. Older than the troupe’s regular teen girls, her extra years added a sensuality that suggested the winner might be lucky in more ways than one. Of course, all the booze consumed up to that point helped as well.
I was not drinking, but I was intoxicated nonetheless, lurking in the shadows to gaze upon this gorgeous exotic creature. When the bidders had danced, Damien shoved me up on stage. I stood petrified with embarrassment. Nike fluttered around me, enticing me with her beauty, coming close enough for me to catch her scent, as powerful as any mating pheromone. I was soon lumbering after her, hamming it up to the crowd’s laughter. She did not let me catch her. That she saved for Damien, who danced last. I returned to the shadows and watched. The audience cheered Damien’s conquest.
He jumped off the stage and slapped me on the back. “When we going spear fishing again, Wesley?”
The sea mound was the shallowest of a series. Earl wasn’t expecting much. The real prize was the isolated mound a hundred miles further out and only newly discovered, with rumors of marlin being whispered among the elect.
Still, the present mound was disappointingly barren of game fish. The tide misted the water with plankton, reducing visibility. Damien nailed a jack hanging around the drop-off. Instead of flinging it into the large inflatable dinghy that Earl was driving, he hung the fish on the end of his float and sliced it open with his ankle knife. The blood billowed in clouds.
Earl yelled at him, “Don’t fucking chum!”
Within a minute a beast lazed into view from the blue-green gloom, a shark twice the size of the few blacktips we’d seen cruising around. Damien and I were on the surface twenty feet apart. Frightened out of my wits, I removed my snorkel and screamed, “Shark!”
He saw it. But a dogtooth tuna had also appeared from the other direction. Damien dove into position for the tuna while keeping a wary eye on the shark. Earl motored up to me and ordered me into the dingy.
“That’s a fuckin’ tiger,” he said. “They’re man eaters.”
Earl shoved on a mask and ducked his head over the side. I did the same, breathing through my snorkel.
Neutrally buoyant in wetsuit and weight belt, Damien effortlessly hung at fifteen feet, waiting for the tuna. The tiger idly swam toward the dead jack. Then it swerved and accelerated toward Damien, its mouth opening as it closed the distance with unbelievable speed. Damien barely had time to aim the gun and shoot. The spear slammed into the tiger’s mouth. Its jaws reflexively closed on the shaft, severing the attached float line. The shark went into violent paroxysms, spiraling out of view in its death throes.
Damien surfaced by the tender, shouting at me for my gun. I threw it into the water next to him. My rig wasn’t as powerful as the others. It had only two shorter bands. I was not after world records. Damien let his empty gun float and loaded mine. He dove at an angle to hide between the dinghy’s shadow and the tuna. The fish stood off the bait, not coming closer. Damien waited I silently counted off the seconds. Forty, fifty, sixty. Finally the tuna darted toward the jack. Damien shot. The spear struck too far behind the gill plate to instantly kill. The tuna rocketed down, dragging my light float after it. Most divers at this point would have surfaced and waited for the float to pop back up, but Damien swam hard and grabbed it. The fish still had strength to pull him even deeper, yanking him out of view in the plankton mist. The last I saw of him, he was drawing out his ankle knife. He’d been under two minutes by now, and that spurt of swimming had used up a considerable amount of his oxygen reserve.
I stopped counting. Time elongated, holding its breath. He reappeared like a distant mirage, swimming up with long sure strokes of his fins. The float was tucked under his arm, his hand gripping the taut rope, the fish at the other end. He was about three feet from the surface when his mouth opened and a silvery billow of air escaped. His eyes rolled in their sockets as he began to sink.
Earl jumped in, catching him under the arms and hauling him to the surface. I grabbed the line and reeled in the dead tuna. Damien had killed it with a knife jab.
As Earl putted back to the boat, Damien returned to full consciousness. He lay on dinghy’s aluminum flooring, next to the dead fish, half as long as he was, but thicker. “How’d that get in here?” he asked.
“I hauled it up for you,” I said.
He jerked upright. “You what?”
“You blacked out –”
“You dumb jerk, you don’t ever touch a guy’s fish until it’s landed.”
“Relax, Damien,” Earl said. “That’s a nice doggie but it ain’t no world record.”
Damien blew his nose over the side. “How big do you think a black marlin’s got to be to break yours?”
“Head’s got to be over the bow and the tail over the transom. A fish that size, you better make sure it’s a kill shot, or you ain’t seeing it again. Unless, of course, it decides to get you instead.” Earl scratched the scar on his chest. “Blacks are mean motherfuckers.”
When we got back to the boat, Nike was at her easel. Damien clamped a wet-suited arm over my shoulder and said, “Wes saved my life.”
The exaggeration was his way of saying sorry for losing his temper.
Tuna sushi, cold beers, and a sun exhaling its last sighing light catalyzed an impromptu party. Music pounded out of the outdoor speakers. Several tequila bottles appeared. Damien darted to the bridge and returned with the captain in tow, whose stiff-upper lip soon relaxed around a lager beer. He laughed along with the rest of us at Damien’s fishier-than-fish fish stories. Damien spun the tale of how Earl had been nearly gored to death by a black marlin. Dangerous territory but he told it with friendly humor. Even Earl guffawed.
I stood in the darkest shadows by the hydraulic hoist, sipping tequila and lime, watching Damien and Nike. They both wore sarongs, he shirtless, she in a shimmering silk blouse, both adorned with grace and beauty. Damien put a joged gamelan tape into the player. The syncopated rhythm of the xylophones and gongs sounded like the night was fracturing into something new and shiny. Damien pursued Nike, his quicksilver flesh flowing to the beat, but she kept twirling away with him, her eyes flashing, her undulations a warning rather than tease. The others cheered, but I was silent.
Damien finally threw up his arms in mock defeat. Nike picked up a hand towel and swayed up to Earl. She draped the towel over his neck, tugging him into the center of the open deck. His broad face reddened as everyone hooted. Even the Brit captain hollered for him to bloody well dance. Earl shuffled his feet like an animated log. The captain, whose upper lip was now loose enough to sink the ship, cut in with a lecherous gleam. Nike let him get close enough to almost warrant victory at sea and then spun away at the last moment. She fluttered to my darkened corner of the deck and put the towel around my neck. I tried to resist, but with one gentle tug, I fell into her gravitational orbit with all the willpower of a rock. I lumbered after her, oblivious to the fool I was making of myself. I was only conscious of the distance between us, which slowly grew shorter. The music stopped. I became aware of Nike’s cheek against mine and of her spicy warm breath. She pulled away and the oxygen in my blood thinned. My vision dimmed. But perhaps it was only the tequila, which I promptly retched into the sea.
For the next two days, we dove on the intervening humps of reef. The sea life and game fish became more abundant. Talk of the outermost mound and of marlin began to creep into the divers’ conversations. It became more difficult for me to roll off the dinghy into that blue-shadowed world. The weather held good, with serene skies and seas joining seamlessly together, but the ocean’s sparkling surface became more and more a barrier I did not want to penetrate.
That afternoon, as we sailed out to the last mound, a bird materialized out of a thin sky and flitted for several minutes alongside us. A tern of some kind, but I could not identify the species, although it was surely named and catalogued. Not being able to identify a bird is a grievous affront to a professional ornithologist, who will scour the literature and email colleagues until the bird’s identity is known and all becomes right with the world once more. But my curiosity was not aroused nor was my pride wounded. I was uneasy, as though this specimen had come from a place beyond the powers of my knowing. It peeled away with a shriek and was gone.
We would be diving the mound on the next day’s noon slack tide. During a late afternoon meeting while the boat was under sail, Earl told us he wanted to assess conditions before allowing a hunt during the feeding currents of a tidal change. Damien did not argue. Afterwards the two of us sat silently by the transom rail, sipping beers cold enough to make my teeth ache. Nike painted a sky bruised by a violent sunset. The Pure Heart was nearing the mound, and the shallower waters agitated the undulating swells. The ocean shivered like a creature ready to shed its skin. I was a naturalist, but this was nature I had not seen before, not merely untouched by civilization, but untouchable.
Damien went over to Nike. She looked up at him, smiling. He bent over and kissed her. Her left hand slipped around the back of his head to hold him close. He broke off the kiss and smiled at me. She turned her head and held my gaze for a moment, her face blank as a canvas waiting to be painted. They disappeared down the stairs. I drained my beer. Ignoring the trash bag hanging on a stanchion, I tossed the empty over the transom. For a few seconds the can bobbed in the water, catching the last illumination of the day’s dying sun, and then the wake sucked it under.
Damien woke me at dawn. “Let’s go,” he whispered. “We’ll do a quick one before the others are up. Nike will drive the dinghy.”
I was disoriented, finding myself on the salon couch. Then I remembered the sounds from the adjoining cabin that had driven me here, Damien’s groans, Nike’s cries.
“But Earl said –”
“This isn’t the army, Wes.”
Fifteen minutes later, we were in our wetsuits and in the dinghy, seated on the pontoons and holding our spear guns upright between our knees. Nike wore her painter’s frock, dark sunglasses shielding her eyes from the rising sun as she puttered away from the Pure Heart. The boat’s anchor chain vibrated against the current’s tug. Damien pointed to a spot where the ocean surface swirled in a smooth laminar curl. Nike cut the engine. We floated along. Everywhere the water was a dark indigo, as though the night had sunk into its depths, with plankton motes bright as distant stars. An ancient clairvoyant fear rose within me. Damien slipped his mask into place. I didn’t want to put on mine. I looked at Nike, her eyes hidden behind dark lenses. She had never been more desirable or more unobtainable. Damien smiled that sly amused smile that seduced me one final time into surrender.
Our guns loaded, we floated on the surface. The contour of the drop-off was a line of dark green shadow sixty feet below. Apart from the flashing motes of plankton, the water looked sterile. The current swirled us further from the Pure Heart. From time to time Nike started the outboard to stay with us. I lifted my head once upon hearing a surface splash. She had shucked her dress for a cooling dip. She wore only a bikini bottom. She hoisted herself onto the dinghy again, where she sat topless, bathed by white light. The Pure Heart was now a distant speck.
I jackknifed into a shallow dive. A silver cloud boiled upwards. The tiny fingerlings swarmed thickly around me in agitated panic. Then they were gone, and what was left behind in the deep below was a metallic crescent moon, rising slowly. I found out then that, despite its name, a black marlin really isn’t black, and shines brightly. Without moving a muscle, the marlin soared upward in majestic orbit. Damien glided down, and stopped to hold his position at twenty feet. The enormous fish languidly curved broadside to Damien. He shot. The spear, a woefully inadequate toothpick, darted out and impaled the marlin underneath its partially elevated sail. The marlin shuddered, its sail fully flexing for a moment. With a flick of its tail it rocketed to the deep, dragging the buoy. Damien surfaced next to me.
“Give me your gun,” he said. His eyes were huge.
I handed the butt out to him.
I hadn’t been thinking about world record rules. I brought the gun around to shoot it into empty water. The tip traversed Damien’s chest. I felt my finger tightening on the trigger, my consciousness distancing itself from whatever it is that goes on in the primitive parts of the brain. My finger squeezed, and the spear shot out a hands’ breadth away from Damien’s ribs. He glared at me, snatched the gun from my hand, and hauled in on the line to retrieve the spear.
The marlin had vanished, but the float remained an orange blob at thirty feet, where it hovered motionless. The visible portion of the rope began to curve back around, and the marlin ghosted into view behind Damien, who was still reloading the spear. I framed a warning shout that did not make it to my vocal cords. The marlin surged forward, closing the gap. Damien must have sensed something and whirled around. He did not get the gun up in time for a shot. The fish missed him with its bill but slapped him with its head, tumbling him through the water, and then dove steeply, yanking the float with it.
Unhurt, Damien oriented himself. He took a breath, and dove after the marlin. The cloud of sardines swarmed back around me. I cursed them, trying to kick my way clear. Finally they were gone again. I breathed slowly through my snorkel. I did not see anything. Then I glimpsed a round shimmering light far below that was the faceplate of Damien’s mask. He ascended with rapid kicks of his fins, a float tucked under his arm, the line taut beneath him. His eyes were fixed blankly on the surface, his diaphragm convulsing. Then he stopped kicking. His breath came out in a long billowing bubble.
I watched for a second, and then another as he started to sink. I violently shook my head, breaking free of my trance, and swam down as fast as I could. I was deeper than I’d ever been before, the light losing its merry tints. The pressure clamped against my eardrums in a piercing ache as I ripped the float away from his arm and grabbed him from behind. Underwater, he didn’t weigh much, but he was still an awkward bundle, his head slumped forward onto my locked hands. My lungs ached and then burned. The pain spread to my limbs and fizzed in excruciating sparks.
Push past the pain. Push past the pain.
The surface was a few strokes away. All that air. I pushed past the pain. A warm fuzziness replaced it. I was acutely aware, as if I was watching myself from the outside, of my consciousness shrinking fast around the edges.
There was one last pearl of light. But it was water beading off my facemask to reveal the sun. My last act was to whoop down a breath even as I was fainting. The blackout was short, but sharp, like a jolt of static to a TV screen. Then the screen stabilized, and my consciousness exploded back to life with spinning colors. I whooped down more air as I struggled to lift Damien’s face out of the water.
Nike was right alongside in the dingy yelling something I couldn’t understand. I ripped off his weight belt and let it sink. Somehow we got Damien hoisted into the dingy.
“He’s not breathing!” Nike cried, slapping his face. “He’s not breathing!”
I pushed her aside and clamped my mouth over his, blowing air into his lungs. Again. And again. And again. I didn’t beg for him to breathe. I didn’t yell. I didn’t curse. I had waited too long to swim down to get him. Those few extra seconds had cost him his life. His face was bluish and cold, his lips colder yet and purple. He was dead, and I had surely killed him. There was as yet no emotion to the certainty, but I could sense that distant tumult coming.
I gave him another breath.
Nike moaned incoherently, clutching his lifeless hand.
And yet another breath.
Damien convulsed in a sudden spasm. I jerked back, but not in time as he vomited sea water puke into my face.
Seven months later, I attended Damien and Nike’s wedding, a full-blown Balinese affair at her family compound. She looked resplendent in her bridal costume, and was radiantly pregnant, her belly pressing against the swathes of gilt brocade.
The reception was held at the neighboring golf course. The lavish spread featured a dozen fish, from tuna to mahi to snapper.
“Did you get these?” I asked Damien.
“At the fish market,” he said. “You been diving?”
“I’m sticking to land.”
“You were there when it counted, though.” He patted Nike’s swelling belly. “Seven months. Two more to go.”
“We already know it’s a girl,” she said.
“We’re naming her Weslyn,” Damien said.
“That sounds pretty,” I said.
Nike smiled. “She’s going to be as kind and brave as her namesake.”
It’s been two years now. I haven’t been diving once. But every month or so, I go with Damien and Nike to the beach, where I play with Weslyn in the shallows.