Phil gave the signal, his arm a swift blur in the
heat-shimmering air. Pragna, her head tilted to catch the sun, dark glasses
hiding her expression, lowered her book to her belly; at seven months pregnant,
she couldn’t dive.
“Go!” Phil called as his arm fell, and in the next
instant Jonathan was over the edge, disappearing into that sea, so blue, so
green, the water a liquid gem closing over him. Then, Gunnar, lean and tan,
plunged into the sea and disappeared. I sat on the edge of the boat, adjusting
my mask. “Go, go!” Phil called, and I pushed off, sliding after
Gunnar into that other world.
It was so quiet. Falling, I noticed this first. Light fell in
shafts and then diffused, the water turning dimmer and more opaque and suddenly
cooler. A school of tiny silver fish scattered before us like sparks. Below,
Jonathan’s limbs were luminous against the ocean floor. I felt the water
shift as Phil dove in, and turned to see him silhouetted against the clear,
wavering ceiling of the ocean, a wide stream of bubbles in his wake.
It was the fifth dive of the week. For me, the last. Tomorrow
I would leave these islands, this resort built so unobtrusively amid the white
beaches and jungled mountains. Jonathan’s research on current-wave
dynamics often took him to remote places. He always went, eagerly—it was
the bane of his existence that he taught oceanography in Minnesota, a thousand
miles from any ocean. He had discovered this resort while wandering around
archipelagos of the South China Sea on a grant. One morning I’d answered
the phone in Minneapolis, heard static sweeping through the line like snow. Then
Jonathan’s voice came, fading, clear, echoing itself.
“Anna? Can you hear me?”
“Kind of,” I said, sitting up.
It was eleven o’clock in the morning and I’d been
sleeping, a Minnesota winter sleep, the kind of sleep you sink into for a few
weeks after a patient throws up on you and ten minutes later a doctor tells you
off for a mistake that was his own, after you go downstairs and hear the
receptionist arguing with a woman who’s maybe forty-five, maybe fifty, a
woman who is clearly in great pain, and the receptionist is telling her that she
can’t see a doctor if she can’t pay, but there’s an emergency
room in a hospital across town that still takes the uninsured. I’m too
sick to drive the woman says and she looks it. Pale, she’s leaning on
the counter for support, like she might fall. She is well dressed, in a dark-red
skirt and matching sweater, though her hair isn’t combed. Her hands are
shaking, and she’s having a hard time catching her breath. Please,
she says, and the receptionist looks grim and troubled; it’s not her fault
that there’s nothing she can do, and you stand there in the doorway and
hear yourself saying look, don’t worry, I’ll drive you
there. Anna? the receptionist says, and the doctor, who moments ago
was screaming that you were a bloody fucking idiot, totally inept because you
didn’t notice the medication error he’d written on the chart, comes
in and says, Anna? I need you upstairs right now. And everything slows down as
you cross the room instead and take the woman’s elbow. She is puzzled but
in too much pain to protest. There is a moment when your eyes connect, you see
the fear in hers and you know it could be you standing there, your throat
closing up, fear and pain making you light-headed, and that’s when you
decide. You take her across the narrow swell of the Mississippi River to St.
Paul and get her admitted to that hospital and then you don’t return to
your job as a physician’s assistant. You go back home and fall asleep,
waking at strange hours to eat cold cereal or watch TV, wondering what the next
thing in your life will be.
Jonathan, a world away, didn’t know any of that, of
“How are you, Anna?” he asked. “You sound
“It’s a long story,” I said, walking to the
window. My breath clouded the frozen glass. Beyond, the suburban world was flat
and white. Cars crawled along I-35W like bright-shelled bugs. Even here, in this
clean midwestern city, traffic had multiplied; in the summertime, ozone alerts
forced the very old and very young to stay inside. I’d treated them, the
elderly gasping for breath, their heads arcing back to meet the plastic mask;
the infants, limp and wheezing in my arms. That morning the cars were stalled,
heat shimmering from their hoods into the snowy sky. I imagined the hospital,
its regulated air and gleaming white walls and swarms of business managers in
their cubicles, calculating and adjusting and maximizing the potential of every
human resource. “What’s new with you?” I asked.
“Look, cash in your vacation time, all right? Anna, I
can’t explain any of it long distance, but please. Say you’ll
I didn’t answer right away. We’d been together for
five years and had reached some sort of intersection: whether an ending or a
turning we could not yet tell. But I heard something different, imperative and
inexplicable, in Jonathan’s voice.
“Anna?” My name traveled through dark space,
echoed from satellites. Anna, na, na, like a song. “Are you still
there? I’m having trouble hearing you.”
“I’m here,” I said, and there was a pause as
my words traveled back over the curve of the globe, over oceans.
“Just come,” he said. “I’ve sent you a
“I’ll think about it,” I promised. But I
already had—long beaches, deep seas, sun all over my skin. The minute I
hung up, I started packing.
Jonathan met me in Singapore and then we traveled for two days
more, by incrementally smaller planes and boats, until we reached this remote
chain of islands. They emerged slowly from the horizon as we approached: the
white lines of beach, the tree-dense hills. The low buildings were teak and
thatch in the style of old sultans’ palaces, their tile roofs the same
dark red as the earth. Chalets, barely visible, were situated only yards from
the sea. The resort was elegant, yet also an ecologist’s dream: the
toilets were self-composting in bathrooms of Italian glass tile, and the
electricity came from windmills on the hillside and solar panels on the roofs.
The airy rooms had high ceilings; windows and doors opened onto shady verandahs.
We slept to the sound of waves and waded each morning into water as clear as
That sea: limpid around our ankles in the shallows, dense blue
now as we dove. Gunnar, my diving partner, kicked his way down to a giant clam
nestled in between two boulders. Gunnar was elusive, I’d noticed, prone to
floating off in his own direction. Freedom first, he’d said one
night over beers, after a dive, and Pragna had looked up, her eyes narrowing.
Her dark hair was swept back in a clasp and long silver earrings brushed against
her neck. She spoke intensely, her eyes flashing. Yes, but what frees a
community must necessarily restrict the individual, she said. Gunnar waved
his hand, dismissive. We will raise this child to be absolutely free, he
insisted, and Pragna flushed, clearly angered by this old argument between them.
Now, in the ocean winds, Jonathan and Phil drifted lower,
examining anchor damage at the base of the reef, setting up the instruments that
would measure tidal shifts and currents. I had done dozens of dives with
Jonathan, in the weedy bottoms of the Minnesota lakes, to wrecks off the Florida
coast, and in sinkholes in the Virgin Islands. I was struck, each time, by how
happy he seemed in this world, isolated and self-contained, while I was always
longing to erase the distance—to hear his voice, feel his touch. I ran my
hand across the bottle brush coral. The fronds, waving red and yellow and purple
like exotic flowers, pulled inside and disappeared, leaving only a stony, pitted
brain. A manta ray flashed, scattering a school of butterfly fish, silver and
striped with dark gold, each moving like the pulse of a wing. Chains of clear
eggs drifted near my face. The rush of air, and some faint, distant clicking, as
if the coral were speaking, or the stones. I hung suspended for a moment in that
blue silence, watching the others, isolated and yet bound to them, the water
around us a living thing, embracing and sustaining.
I touched Gunnar’s shoulder and gestured beyond the
coral to the field of sea urchins, their black spines waving like dark wheat in
the currents. He smiled and waved me off.
I swam low over the field, spines just inches from my skin.
All week I had been fascinated by these sea urchins. Each was the size of a
baseball and had a dozen spots, blue and orange set in white, like bulbous eyes.
Clustered on the ocean floor, they seemed to watch me with an infinite and wary
gaze. I was searching for a skeleton. The inner shell of a sea urchin is a
hollow globe, scored in five curved sections that taper at the ends into a small
hole at the top and bottom. Echinoderm echinoidea, whose shell is known as
Aristotle’s Lantern. In the hushed lobby of the resort there was a
sculpture, delicate, made of bronze: an Asian goddess with fifteen graceful
hands, the shell of a sea urchin, white and cream and rust, balanced on each
open palm. The dark spines of living sea urchins were quite poisonous_I’d
seen a fellow tourist with an ankle like a grapefruit, downing Valium and gin to
kill the pain. But this was my last day, and it seemed worth the risk: I wanted
A glimpse of white. Mud bloomed from the ocean floor as I
cupped the shell, a fragile sphere, in my hand.
When I turned back, Jonathan and Phil had moved off into the
gloamy distance, but Gunnar was still drifting by the bank of brain coral. A
rush of guilt—I’d let him slip completely from my mind. And something was
not right: Gunnar’s regulator trailed free. Air rushed in my ears; even
from this distance I saw Gunnar’s pink lips, a wildness in his eyes. He
waved, and then drew his finger swiftly, definitively, across his throat, the
diver’s universal signal of distress.
I swam to him, and he grabbed my arm with such force that the
shell slipped from my hand, tumbling slowly back to the spiny field. The arrow
on his oxygen gauge was in the red. His grip hurt. He was all desire, all
desperate need, and yet I hesitated for an instant, taking one last, deep breath
before I passed my regulator to him.
Water moved against my naked lips; the taste of salt, the
taste of panic. It seeped into me, became a slow welling, as Gunnar breathed and
breathed, as my own lungs grew taut. Jonathan and Phil were still dozens of
yards away and did not notice what was happening. My lungs began to burn. I
touched Gunnar’s arm. He did not respond. I grabbed him harder. He opened
his eyes, calmer now, and put one hand on my shoulder. He passed me the
regulator, warm in my mouth from his lips.
Together, then, with many pauses, we kicked our way toward the
surface. A deep breath, a passing of the regulator, acts as intimate and
essential and full of question as a kiss. I breathed, and then Gunnar did. It
was a kind of dance, urgent and calm, full of fluid grace. One creature, with
one purpose: the surface of the water far above, that invisible border where the
water opened to the sky. It seemed to take forever, but at last we broke
through, flinging our heads back, releasing each other. I drank in the
“Anna!” Gunnar shouted, gasping. He ripped off his
mask, sunlight in his dark-blond hair. “Anna, you saved my life, you
That night, in the darkness of our chalet, my bags already
packed, I lay next to Jonathan. We had eaten grilled fish with the rest of the
group and had drunk a lot of beer in celebration and farewell, watching the
sunset flare the world pink and gold. The manager had walked down the beach
setting coconuts on fire, leaving them to blaze like skulls against the sand.
Now it was late, the fires had died, and we were alone with the moonlight and
the waves, but even though I was leaving in the morning with nothing settled,
what Jonathan was talking about was the dive.
“I was right behind you,” he said. “I know
it must have been terrifying, but it was also beautiful to watch, Anna. You were
I shifted, turning to lie on my side. What went unspoken
between us had always seemed like its own sea, full of mysterious shifts and
currents. Jonathan’s dark hair brushed my arm. He placed one hand lightly
on my hip. I wondered when he was coming home to Minneapolis. When or
“I didn’t want to be splendid,” I told him.
“It was awful to be without air. I was afraid every time that he
wouldn’t give it back.”
Jonathan looked at me, his expression so intent, so focused, a
sort of intimacy he didn’t often allow. “Still, you did it,”
he said. “You didn’t miss a beat.”
I remembered the shell then, its slow, tumbling fall through
the dark-blue water. And I thought of Pragna, how she had stood up in the boat
when we broke through the surface, leaning to help Gunnar in, her arms slender
and muscled, his hands running down the swell of her belly, his cheek sliding
down to rest there. An intimate moment, so passionate, so spontaneous; I’d
paused in the water, watching, glad to be alive, yet struck with
“I’m a little bit in love with those two,”
Jonathan observed, as if he’d read my mind. We often had the same thoughts
at the same time, a fact that had comforted me when Jonathan was gone or
distant, distracted by his work. That night, though, for reasons I
couldn’t name, his comment made me restless and annoyed. I went to the
dressing table and sat down.
“In love?” I asked, turning on a lamp and reaching
for a comb. “What are you telling me? Are you in love with
“No.” Jonathan sounded surprised. “With what
they have between them.”
He came and stood behind me then. He took the comb from my
hand. We studied ourselves in the mirror, blond and dark, blue eyes and brown,
the perfect twinning of opposites. What they have, I thought. And what
“You’re not coming back,” I said, meeting
his gaze in the glass.
He shook his head, slowly. Then he surprised me again. He
leaned down and kissed my neck, just at the point where my hair brushed the
“You don’t have to go tomorrow,” he said,
kneeling beside me, resting his chin on my shoulder. “You don’t have
to go at all.”
“Not go?” I echoed, puzzled.
“Anna,” he said. “There’s something I
want you to see.”
“A secret?” I asked. The ceiling fan clicked.
Jonathan put the comb down. Gently, he massaged the base of my neck, my
“Yes,” he said, his hands moving up then, through
my hair. “A secret, yes.”
At dawn, rather than leaving, Jonathan took me out in a small
boat, pulling away from the resort into the pale white mergence of the sea and
sky. The sun rose, becoming oppressive as we traveled through the chain of
islands. At last Jonathan pulled the boat up to a narrow dock. Here the beach,
crushed white coral, was sharp against our feet. A few yards into the trees we
came to a single bright-yellow car of a funicular railway.
I looked at Jonathan, who simply smiled. “You’ll
see,” he said, fastening the door behind us. “Just wait and
The car lurched and we climbed high up the face of the cliff,
the rock raw and rough behind us, the beach below sliding beneath the clear
smooth water. I don’t know what I expected to be shown_a fabulous view, a
virgin jungle. But when the car came to a stop I stepped out into a clearing,
lush with tropical foliage, coconuts and palms and swaying mango trees. A group
of children played with a rattan ball on the grass at the far end, where a wide
gate, like those outside Japanese temples, opened onto a village street. We
walked on a path of finely crushed shells that caught the light and gleamed.
Hundreds of people of every race, every age, were carrying baskets or babies,
ringing the bells of their bicycles, hoisting packs with rice or bread on their
backs, holding hands, pausing to talk beneath the shady casuarina trees. We
passed one simple building after another, made of teak or covered with
clapboards painted in pastel blue, yellow, peach or mint green. Hibiscus and
bougainvillea flamed by the doorways and the white fences. These buildings
housed restaurants, coffee shops, stalls for fruit and vegetables. People sat at
tables, drinking tea, cats weaving around their ankles. We passed a community
center and a sign for the health clinic. After that the path narrowed and the
buildings became small chalets, scattered amid the trees and overlooking the
Jonathan was known; people kept stopping him to talk.
Don’t go, he’d said, and I’d imagined some kind of
nomadic life, just us, some place where we might become slightly different,
better, people. I kept glancing at him, his long tanned arms and the familiar
line of his jaw, trying to understand who he was. Just beyond the community
center we turned down another path. Tropical flowers brushed my arms. There was
a fragrance, dense and heavy as the heat.
“Here,” Jonathan said as we came to a low teak
building. He held the door open for me, and I stepped into an astonishing room.
It was circular, half of it set into the cliff, half
cantilevered out over the ocean and framed by high, curving walls of glass,
filled with light. Filled, I saw as I drew closer, with a view of the sea. The
room was vast, a full three stories high. People lounged on sofas, read
newspapers, chatted by a fountain in the center. Gunnar was there, and Pragna
too, sitting at a small table, empty cups before them. They smiled and waved.
Jonathan and I crossed the room and sat on a sofa by the glass wall. A hundred
feet below the waves slammed in, seething into a white spray flung
Nets of light, reflected in random and chaotic patterns from
the waves, played over people as, one by one, they came to join us.
“Where are we?” I asked Jonathan.
I spoke softly, yet my voice filled the room. Everyone
laughed. Pragna sat on the sofa opposite.
“This is the atrium, Anna. We’ll
She began to talk, then, and others broke in, telling me the
story. Ten years ago this chain of twelve islands had been purchased by a
consortium of investors. They planned a development of high-rise hotels, the
jungled hills denuded and flattened for airstrips, a restaurant built over the
fragile coral reefs we had explored all week. I knew just what this meant and
how bad it could be: Jonathan and I had spent a week on the southern coast of
Thailand, where the beaches were littered with tourists and trash, where raw
sewage poured into the sea and chunks of dead coral, loosened by anchors, washed
up on shore. The villagers, fishermen for untold generations, had taken jobs
waiting tables, their black shoes slipping against the sand. Nights were neon;
young girls, lured from poor villages, flickered on the corners until dawn, and
when the sun rose it was reddened by the haze, pollution from logging fires
raging in Borneo. It was more hell than paradise, but it was profitable in the
short term. The developers here had envisioned the same thing. The plans had
been drawn: bulldozers had been lined up on the mainland like orange and yellow
insects, set to invade.
Then Yukiko Santiago intervened.
Yukiko Santiago. I had never heard of her, but the people in
that room spoke of her with something close to reverence. She was daughter of a
Japanese samurai family, whose grandfather had supported the imperial army and
committed seppuku, whose father had rebuilt the family fortunes in the wake of
the Second World War. Yukiko, as a child, had witnessed both the horrific
machine of the state and the devastation of war. Half of her mother’s
family had died in Hiroshima. She had grown up to marry a wealthy Peruvian
businessman, and when he was killed in a plane crash she had taken his
considerable wealth, coupled with her own inheritance, and set about
philanthropy. Reclusive, generous, she had a simple philosophy: she had seen the
worst that human beings might do, and she wanted now to see the best. She had
flown in to buy these islands, offering the investors cash settlements greater
than the returns they would have seen for twenty years. Then she had turned the
development plans inside out: the high-end ecotourist resort where we had stayed
would preserve the coral reefs and island jungles, all the while funding her
real interest, a global coalition of research stations known collectively as the
Sea Earth Institute—SEArth.
“All right,” I interrupted. “But
there’s a village out there. A town. Schools and a community center.
“Yes. We are a community.” The woman who spoke was
thin and strong, a sarong skirt tied at her waist. Her name was Khemma. A
Cambodian, like many here she had been a refugee, a survivor of war or other
atrocities. She was now the community librarian. “In the beginning this
place was simply for research. The growing happened very gradually. Very
organically, as researchers brought their families. There has never been any
plan imposed. But once it was clear what was happening, Yukiko Santiago
appointed a board to assess and guide the evolution of the community. To provide
what came to be needed. To see, in essence, where this other, new, experiment
“Yes,” Gunnar said. He was leaning forward with
his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped. I remembered his fingers on my
shoulder. “It is Aristotle’s idea of entelechy, applied not to
biology but to our human community. Entelechy—it is the science of the
possible, of unlocking what is otherwise merely potential. As we see it, Anna,
the ideal is like a vessel, with which a community may select those
possibilities suitable to its own nature. Those which promise to further human
development. We do not impose here. We discover.”
I turned to Jonathan. That sensation I’d had on the
path, that this man I’d known was suddenly strange to me, returned. I
watched the way he spoke, his fingertips tapping on his bare knee. I
couldn’t believe we’d ever stood side by side at a counter, dicing
vegetables, or that these same hands had reached for me last night.
“How long have you been here?” I asked,
remembering the long Minnesota nights, his infrequent e-mails from what he said
were Internet cafés.
He nodded, acknowledging his lies. “Ever since I left.
Remember that trip, that conference, a year or so ago? I met Pragna there. Phil
and Khemma, too. They invited me to visit. I’m sorry that I didn’t
tell you, Anna. I couldn’t. But from the beginning I wanted you to come.
And after yesterday,” he added, “you’re more than
Everyone smiled. Understanding flashed through me, sudden and
“It was a test?” I said, too shocked to be
angry right away. “That emergency was engineered?”
“My air was gone,” Gunnar told me. “But the
event was planned, yes.”
I remembered my guilt at forgetting him. My fear and panic
when I saw his air was gone, what it had cost me to trust him. And all the time
they had known, they had been watching me.
When Jonathan touched my arm, I pulled away. I couldn’t
speak, but my feelings must have been working on my face.
“Is Yukiko on the line yet?” Ahmed asked Khemma,
softly. “Can you get her? Because she will explain it best,” she
added, turning to me. “Of course you are angry, Anna. We would not expect
otherwise. We have all been through this, and we have all been angry too.”
She flashed a slow smile. “You might even say that getting past the anger
is the most real test.”
And then Yukiko was there, flashing up on a screen against the
rock-faced interior wall, a diminutive woman in a pale-blue dress, her dark hair
falling loose and streaked with gray.
“Hello, Anna,” she said, and I was startled to be
addressed so warmly and directly. She smiled, and her smile was kind. “You
were tested, yes. Perhaps that was not very fair. But since you are in love with
a scientist, I hope you will understand. This is not simply a community here,
and it is not only about the coral reefs. We are engaged in a greater research,
which involves charting currents and wave systems. We wish, ultimately, to
harness the latent power of these forces. To find an alternative form of energy.
It’s important work, and many here are political refugees, whose lives
could be endangered if their whereabouts were known. So we must be careful. We
recognize our interconnectedness, and our own fragility. Not everyone suits. And
not for everyone would this be a good place.”
A skeletal light played over the array of faces, and the room
filled with the muted crash of waves.
“You can talk normally,” Pragna said.
“She’ll hear you.”
I was still stunned, but at Pragna’s voice, anger
shattered through me like silverfish. She had reached for Gunnar as if he were
returning from the dead.
“Everyone in that boat lied to me,” I said, and
then I turned to Jonathan. “Including you. Especially
“Jonathan was your very strong supporter, Anna,”
Yukiko said. “He went through a similar experience on his arrival. He did
not wish you to go through it also. Yet we had no choice.”
“Anna,” Gunnar said. “We were taking a risk,
also. We did not want to lose Jonathan.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to take it all in, what
had happened, what was happening.
“Take some time, Anna,” Yukiko said, and I opened
my eyes to see her smiling at me, one hand lifting, as if she might reach
through the air and touch me. And I wanted that suddenly, to be a part of this,
to please them, and yet—and yet—so much had happened so quickly.
“Take your time,” she repeated, and then her image
“Here,” Jonathan said after a few minutes of
silence. “In case you think I wasn’t paying any
He handed me the shell I’d lost, or one just like it.
Aristotle’s Lantern, round, slightly flattened, the surface rough, pierced
with tiny holes.
When he spoke again Jonathan’s voice had an urgency I
recognized. This, I knew, was a moment he’d been imagining for weeks.
“Anna, the word ‘test’ comes from the Latin
testa, meaning shell. In the Middle Ages, a test also was a kind of
vessel, in which experiments were done. You just heard Gunnar say that the ideal
is a kind of vessel, too. He’s right. In some sense, every day here is an
experiment. Every day, a test.”
I turned the shell, so delicate, nearly weightless. I
understood that he was offering me, in his oblique way, in the only language he
could use, another way of seeing what had happened. And in that moment I saw how
the curve of the glass wall swelling over the sea mirrored exactly the shape of
the shell in my hand. I held it up on my palm, looking from shell to wall and
“Yes,” Gunnar said. “Good eye,
“But not good enough,” I answered.
He looked up, sharply, at the bitter edge in my voice. Then he
cleared his throat and went on.
“As you know, Aristotle classified the animals. He named
this shell. You can see how the shape is like a lantern, how the light could
flow out of the pattern of tiny holes. These urchins are indigenous, and
beautiful, and so we took their name for our community. But Aristotle is
important to us for another reason. He was the first to challenge Plato’s
ideal state. Plato’s utopia was many good things, but it was also static.
Plato did not allow for growth or change or self-transformation, and in some
sense this flaw_of fixation_led very naturally to the dystopias we have all
seen, and which many of us have experienced and have fled.”
“Is that another test for admission?” I asked,
glancing around the room. “Surviving oppression?”
Gunnar, unamused, shook his head.
“It is not. But people with such histories tend to
understand our purpose. You see, while Aristotle’s view, too, was flawed,
for him the community was alive. He believed it could grow and change, like
every living organism. For Aristotle, politics was the science of the possible.
That is what we believe. And this belief sustains us.”
I cupped the shell and remembered Gunnar’s eyes, his
finger making that frantic slash across his throat, the bubbles flowering from
“I risked my life,” I said, still angry.
“Yes,” Pragna said. “You risked your life
for a man you hardly knew. Precisely.”
That night, as Jonathan slept, I lay awake and listened to the
pounding of the surf. If I stayed, as they had asked me to, I would become the
community health-care specialist. There was a doctor who came three times a
month whom I would assist, and in her absence I would oversee the clinic. And
once a week I’d go to the mainland, to a community there, and work
training nurses and midwives, treating patients, giving vaccines.
I dressed and walked to the park, where I sat on a bench above
the vast ocean. The stars were vivid, near, and the darkness was filled with
sounds I didn’t recognize: birds and insects and the rustling of unseen
animals. I’d never felt so unsettled, so unsure of what to do, the world
unmoored, swimming. I wondered how my life would be if I stayed, what I’d
gain and what I’d sacrifice forever.
Footsteps, then, on the crushed shells. Gunnar passed through
a small pool of light from the community center. I remembered his voice, his
passion, as he talked about this place. I remembered, too, the feeling I’d
had on the dive, when we all swam, isolated from each other yet so intimately
connected. I was flattered to have been chosen, it was true. And I wanted to
explore the possibilities with Jonathan. But as Gunnar disappeared again into
the darkness, as I made up my mind to stay, it was yearning, finally, that
compelled me. A yearning to know what Gunnar knew, to understand this place at
its unmoving center. A yearning, too, for that brief moment of connection, as
elusive and beautiful as the changing color of the sea.
The next day I went to work. The village was small_only 867
people_and relatively young, so I was surprised to find the waiting room full,
even at that early hour. On my first day I treated three kinds of skin rash and
diagnosed two cases of giardia, several minor respiratory infections, a broken
finger, one case of pinkeye, one urinary-tract infection, and a pregnancy. I did
three well-baby checks and tested the eyesight and hearing of one of the retired
scientists. The pharmacy was well stocked, and I was to prescribe within my own
comfort levels. I’d never had such autonomy, such a feeling of
accomplishment. And I liked the doctor, a no-nonsense Vietnamese woman who had
trained in Poland, who invited me over for sushi and asked difficult questions
about English grammar, and who could find a vein in any arm with a single try
and no break in conversation.
There were, right from the beginning, crises: a septic
infection, an ectopic pregnancy, an alarming lump in one woman’s leg. A
botanist in his mid-fifties came back from a jungle hike and dropped dead from a
heart attack. There was nothing anyone could do.
The dives, too, involved risks. Much of the research happened
underwater, and there was always the danger of a tank failure or an accident.
One evening, just as I was about to close the clinic, Phil came in. He had been
diving deep that afternoon, at a hundred fifty feet, working with a team to set
up motion sensors, and as he worked he’d felt himself growing detached and
dreamy. A slender white shark passed by; instead of fear he’d felt a surge
of joy and reached to touch it. Phil was an experienced diver and knew what was
happening: a kind of nitrogen poisoning that distorted reason. He knew he should
rise to the surface—that getting out of the deep would restore the balance
in his blood—but he didn’t. He swam on. After some time he floated over
the shattered remains of a boat, where he thought he saw a human skeleton. He
wasn’t sure if it was real or a hallucination.
I was listening, making notes on his chart. When I looked up
he was handing me a human bone, a femur. It was both smooth and porous, bleached
“Boat people,” he said, “that’s what I
figured, people fleeing Vietnam in the eighties who hit bad weather and drowned.
It’s not uncommon to find them. But the light was odd, you know, and I was
narked. I knew I was narked, I told myself I ought to go up, but instead I kept
floating by the boat. Little by little it seemed to me that there were people in
it again. Alive, I mean, but underwater. I talked to them,” he added, and
then stared at me, defiant.
I put the femur on the counter. I’d heard these stories
a lot over the years.
“It’s lucky you had enough will to come
Phil nodded. “Gunnar saw me drifting off. He had to pull
me by the arm, hard, because coming up was the last thing I wanted to do.
I’m telling you,” he said, laughing at himself even as he spoke.
“I felt New Age or something, as if I’d become one with the
universe. Sentient and yet diffused. That sounds crazy, I know.”
“The rapture of the deep,” I said, thinking not of
Gunnar but of Pragna reaching to pull him into the boat. “There’s a
reason divers call it that.”
We talked some more—he wanted, mostly, it seemed, to tell his
story. I gave him some Valium to see him through the next few hours. After Phil
left I studied the femur, wondering about the life that had surrounded it, the
dreams that had propelled it. Wondering what should be done with it now. In the
end I took it to the deck off the atrium, where I leaned far out over the water
and returned it to the sea.
In this way the days passed with the fluidity and continuity
of waves. I was very happy. Even as I rose in the middle of the night to a knock
on the door, even as I helped the ill or injured, I felt a sense of peace, of
purpose. Once a week I traveled to the mainland village’s makeshift
clinic, where I taught the young nurses how to dress wounds, give shots, and
disinfect equipment. Then I came back to swim at sunset in a sea as calm as
glass. In Minnesota, Jonathan and I always had a hard time coming back together
at the end of each day. Often, we’d sat together in the evenings, hardly
speaking, each absorbed in our separate lives. Here, what we did connected us,
and when we were together we talked as never before. In the distance windsurfers
moved in slow lines, like the ever-shifting point of a triangle made from light.
I found myself thinking of Plato and his theory of ideal
forms: a triangle drawn on paper, no matter how precisely, is only a crude
representation of a triangle’s essence. Plato believed in a framework of
perfection hidden behind the visible; I believed we had discovered that
framework here. Jonathan and I were determined to see what would evolve between
us. There were details we would need to attend to—our house, our
things—but we rarely spoke of them.
At the end of the hot season, near the advent of the monsoons,
many people left the islands, either to escape the tedious weeks of rain or
because they feared that rough seas and skies would make travel impossible.
Pragna, now at the end of her eighth month, would go to Singapore and wait in an
apartment near the hospital. Gunnar would join her near the due date. At the
boat Gunnar put his hand on the curve of her stomach and I saw it again:
something invisible but real passing between them, the glimpse of another
country, a place they inhabited alone. I felt pierced with loss. Jonathan was
standing next to me, and I reached to take his hand.
A week later, the rains began. I woke to what I thought was
thunder, rain so loud that Jonathan, lying next to me, had to shout to be heard.
Laughing, we went outside and stood in the deluge, the water hitting the earth
and bouncing high again, already filling the dry gutters and sliding in sheets
from the roofs. By noon the island was transformed, water standing in shallow
places and dripping from leaves, the flagstones of the paths small islands in
Over the next days, mysteriously, the clinic filled up with
crickets. When I came in the dusky light of early morning they were singing, and
when I opened the door they jumped beneath the tables and onto counters, their
narrow legs humming. I swept them out with a broom, great leaping piles of them.
All day I leaned close to hear my patients, their breath against my ear. When
the rains eased, momentarily, or for a few hours, we all relaxed, as if silence
were a kind of space that had opened up around us. Our sheets and clothes grew
damp. Mildew erupted overnight on Jonathan’s huaraches. One morning, I
found toads nestled in my shoes.
The rains were excessive, the worst they’d ever been. In
meetings at the atrium the sky and sea were indistinguishable. Just a few
hundred miles away in Indonesia whole towns flooded, and a wedding party was
washed away when a temple collapsed beneath a tidal wave. In the Philippines, an
entire season of rice was destroyed. We left these meetings sobered, but
sustained by Yukiko’s vision, imagining these powers transformed into
energy, into light, by the ways we might change the world.
Three weeks into the monsoons, the resort, emptied of its
tourists for the season, began to flood. This was not supposed to happen. The
work Jonathan had done on current dynamics and surface-wave prediction was
supposed to have averted any major disaster on those beaches. We listened,
helpless and disbelieving, to the reports the manager sent up. Jonathan
couldn’t sleep. At night I’d wake to the scent of kerosene and find
him at the table, poring over his charts and graphs beneath a flickering
On the first calm day all of us boated over to view the
damage. In places the beach had been totally resculpted. Two chalets had been
swept away, the ceiling fans and Italian tile and comfortable deck chairs all
carried out to sea. The main building had escaped damage, but its grounds had
been flooded, and the receding water had left behind lakes of mud and
We silently walked amid the beauty and the ruins, picking up
trash, skirting new lakes. Generators ran everywhere, fueling the electric pumps
and vacuums. Jonathan was silent, his face as shattered as the
When we reached the sunken garden behind the main building,
Phil, his beard three days old and stubbled with red, stepped down off the stone
fence and waded between the ornamental bushes. Fish were swimming in the grass,
a strange and joyous sight that cheered us all. Laughing, Phil reached down and
caught one in his bare hands, holding it up, a flash of white against the gray
rain dripping from the sky, the leaves, our clothes. We were still laughing when
we heard the soft crack, the rush of falling branches in the air. I stepped into
the water, looking in the wrong direction, thinking the rushing sounds were
coming from the beach. Then someone, shouting, pushed me so hard I staggered. My
foot slipped in a low ditch and I felt my ankle turn. So slow, it all was, I
struggled to keep my balance and yet even as I fell I saw the branch floating
down, taking wires with it. I saw Phil see what was about to happen, the line
writhing like a snake and then dropping into that lawn where water was not meant
to be, where fish swam. Electricity traveled through the new lake like
lightning, traveled through Phil, who dazzled us all for a terrible instant,
sparks flying from his hair, his fingertips, like the flash of silverfish in the
air. Phil, who was dead before he could even gasp or scream.
Khemma started toward him—he had fallen face down by the
bougainvillea—but Jonathan grabbed her arm. The line was still alive in all that
“Someone shut off the damned generator,” he
shouted, his voice hoarse. And when no one moved, he went to do it himself,
walking backward, his eyes caught on Phil. Already fish were beginning to rise
up and float on the surface of the water. I stood up slowly, enveloped by the
scent of burning flesh, singed hair. The generator ceased, and we all waded at
once toward Phil, poor Phil. We pulled him out of the water and I leaned close
to do CPR, though his skin was blistered beneath his new beard, and I knew it
was hopeless. Still, I held his face in my hands and pressed my lips against
his, remembering his conversation with the dead at the bottom of the sea. They
let me work for a while, and then there were hands on my shoulders, my arms,
lifting me up.
“Anna, that’s enough, Anna. Anna, look, you have
to stop, you’re bleeding.”
It was only then that I noticed my leg, the gash on my shin
from where I had fallen, streaming blood.
Jonathan tore his shirt into strips and he wrapped my leg. His
face was taut, a muscle jumping in his cheek. His eyes kept running over the
ruined beach, Phil’s body. I tried to touch him, but he shrugged me off.
When the rest of us left the island he refused to come, determined to see where
he’d gone wrong. Besides, he said grimly, someone had to stay with the
body. When the hydroplane reached the other island, Khemma helped me all the way
back to the clinic. At the doorway I paused, remembering the day not long ago
when Phil had come to me, excited and disoriented, full of visions.
“What will they do with him?” I
“I don’t know,” Khemma said. Her smooth
olive skin was pale, and she was shivering, her arms folded tightly across her
chest. “Find his family, probably, send him home.”
“I was about to step into that water. Someone pushed
“Yes,” she said. “That was Gunnar.”
She helped me onto the examining table and brought me a light blanket. “I
need to step out for a minute. Will you be all right? I have to call Yukiko
“Go,” I said. Alone in the clinic, surrounded by
the hum of crickets, I held my leg out straight and unwrapped the layers of
Jonathan’s shirt. When I got to the wound, a neat dark slash against my
shin, blood welled up at once. But not before I had glimpsed it, the flash of
white bone beneath the flesh. Bone that had never felt the air.
I pressed the cloth back down, applied pressure. For a long
time, I just sat. When Gunnar appeared in the doorway, I was weeping.
“Let me see,” he said gently, pulling the cloth
away. “It’s deep,” he acknowledged.
I nodded, wiping at my eyes with the back of my hand.
“It’s cut to the bone. But it’s clean,
fortunately. If you could get me the medical kit in the cupboard. And hold my
leg while I do this, please.”
Gunnar nodded and came back with the equipment. I filled a
syringe with novocaine and took a long, deep breath before I injected the drug
all around the gash. The numbness spread quickly, and after I’d cleaned
the cut the blood subsided to an ooze. Still, when I put the first stitch in,
catching my own flesh with the needle and then pulling the suture through, I
felt a wave of nausea and was forced to stop. Gunnar reached up and pressed one
palm against my forehead.
“You don’t have to be so brave,” he said.
“Lie down, Anna. All right?”
“But I have to have stitches.”
“I can sew,” he replied. “My grandmother
believed it was an essential skill for all human beings, male or
“Well, that’s great,” I said. “I
don’t suppose you practiced on human beings?”
Gunnar, wisely, ignored me. “My grandmother is still
living,” he said. I felt his fingers, and the pressure of the stitches
going in. “She will be a hundred years old next year.”
He told me stories of his country as he worked, the long
tongues of glaciers reaching down valleys, the fertile rivers and charming
cities. The interior of the island so rugged that American astronauts had used
it to practice moon landings. Swimming pools filled by geothermal springs, where
the snow melted in the rising steam as people swam. Every few months he went
back to teach, and to collect data from the Icelandic seas.
“All right,” he said, putting one hand on my
shoulder. “Sit up.”
The stitches were ugly, rough and uneven, but they were tight
and secure. I dressed the wound and stood, testing my weight on my
“Oh,” I said, looking up at the pain, tears in my
eyes. I was thinking of Jonathan, the lines in his face, but what I said was
Gunnar nodded, studying me.
“Can you walk, Anna?”
“Yes. Yes, I think so.”
He studied me a moment longer, deciding.
“Good,” he said. “Follow me.”
We walked down an unfamiliar path, and arrived at a black sand
beach. The sea was rough, but the setting sun had broken from the clouds and
everything was vibrant in the sudden light. There was a shallow cave in the
cliff, stairs opening into a passage lit like the aisle of an airplane. Gunnar
saw me limping and put his arm around my waist, helping me down the steps.
We emerged into a room under water. It was built like a
greenhouse, with walls of glass. But in the same shape, I saw right away, as the
swelling walls of the atrium. We were in the deep water before the drop-off, so
that the dome—a pleasure dome, I thought, remembering some long-ago
poem_stood as if on the edge of a cliff, fields of coral, the spiny dark sea
urchins all around us, and then on the far side the drop-off_a sudden darkness,
the edge of an abyss. Light fell in nets through the water and shimmered across
the floor, across my skin, wavered on Gunnar’s face as he turned to me.
His eyes were the same blue as the water.
I went to the glass and pressed my hands against it, my face.
My breath gathered and disappeared. A school of parrot fish swam by, an inch, no
“We are about thirty feet below the surface,”
Gunnar said. “The site was very carefully chosen. No coral was
“It’s so beautiful,” I whispered. I felt as
if I might cry, I wanted so to feel those fish brush against my hand.
Even as we spoke the light had begun to fade, the sun setting
“It is a research station,” Gunnar said, gesturing
toward the drop-off. “We take AUVs out of an antechamber to this room and
travel half a mile down to the site. I am talking about a series of hydrothermal
vents on the floor of the deep ocean. Near them we have discovered biological
communities—novel, strange communities found nowhere else. And from these
communities we are learning extraordinary things about the evolution of life.
Unusual symbiosis we had never imagined possible. As a scientist, you must
always ask yourself the same question, again and again: why this form, and not
another? Why this path, and not any other?”
In this short time the water around us had grown dark, and
fish had begun to emerge, giving off their own pale light. Flashlight fish,
shimmering blue-green, and bioluminescent plankton glittering in their wake.
Gunnar was no more than a shadow beside me, but his voice, too, was lit with
“It is not fixed, is what I am saying, Anna. The
evolution of life. In these communities we are not studying fossils or shells or
the dead artifacts of creation. We are watching life evolve, before our very
eyes. You see these fish, giving off their own light? This phenomenon happens
very rarely in the world. In freshwater, not at all. In fireflies, yes, and in
some worms, but on earth, almost never. Yet in the deep ocean ninety percent of
all animals are luminescent. The chemical process has evolved independently in a
dozen different paths. In that same way, these new communities are seeking a
different form from anything which now exists. Discovering their potential is
the center of our mission here.”
“And the coral reefs?” I asked.
“Jonathan’s work on currents, on waves?”
“Also important,” Gunnar said. “But not the
center. Anna, do you understand? We are what we are, you and I. Our evolution
has followed a particular path to bring us to this moment and no other. But
imagine if another path had been taken, long ago. Imagine if a new evolution
naturally occurred, so that an organism such as plankton, say, suddenly
contained the chemical properties of fuel. Or of a perfect protein. Not
something engineered by humans. Something natural, driven by evolutionary
necessity. Imagine if these resources were plentiful and cheap, what this would
On the surface far above, plankton glittered like a sweep of
stars. I felt a surge of excitement, power, the thrill of possibility.
“You would change the world,” I said, softly. I
thought of the streams of cars back home, exhaust hiding the sun, starving
children, struck by drought. “You would save it.”
“Yes,” Gunnar said. “I would. I will.
Perhaps it will take decades, but we will do this thing. Without Yukiko, of
course, this would not be possible. Pragna knows, a few others here. But I would
ask you not to speak of this.”
“No,” Gunnar said. Medusa jellyfish hovered
nearby, their light a translucent green. “This is me, trusting you to see
what I am seeing. Sometimes I come here simply for the beauty. To remind myself
of what is at the center. Of the mystery.”
“You’re a scientist,” I said, trying to
imagine this same passion in Jonathan’s voice when he talked about
boundary-layer data. “I didn’t think scientists believed in
Gunnar laughed. “If there were no mystery, Anna, there
would be no science.”
I loved his voice, the way he spoke my name, as if there were
waves running through it. We were quiet as we left, walking back through the
passage and up the dark stairs. I had been given a gift, I knew this, a gift
meant to ease my sorrow. And it had. I never spoke of that place to anyone, and
yet I could not stop thinking of it. A rush of the surf and I might close my
eyes, imagining the strange light of this other world, hidden beneath the
surface of the usual. And sometimes, leaving Jonathan in his restless sleep, I
returned to that silent room. I pressed my hands against the glass, plankton
scattered high above like stars, fish moving past in their slow orbits, like
planets, like strange moons.
People believed it was the shock of watching Phil’s
death that had unsettled me, but I knew the source of my restlessness was more
complex. Even as the rains abated and our things dried out and people began to
return to the islands, I remained alive with secrets, changed by what I’d
seen, and the act of not running into Gunnar became as deliberate as running
into him would have been. Jonathan was distracted by his failures and his small
habits got on my nerves. The rituals of my life and work, once so satisfying,
seemed increasingly empty. More than once I stopped in the center of the clinic,
halfway across the room to fetch something I could not remember. More than once
I went to the cliff edge and stood gazing out at the water, that high wind in my
hair, and the abyss of air just a step away.
“This happens to everyone,” Jonathan said one
morning, handing me a cup of coffee, but I knew it had not happened to him, not
in this way, not for these reasons. “Why don’t you take a vacation,
Anna? It’s a bad time for me right now, anyway.”
And so I traveled by boat to the mainland, where I boarded a
prop plane and then one jet and then another, all the way back to Minneapolis. I
had been gone five months, and I felt like a ghost, returning to a home
I’d never inhabit again.
In the city, too, I felt this. Litter swirled, and sirens
screamed through the streets. The papers were full of things I’d
forgotten: murders and racial tension, car accidents and congestion. NPR did a
story on a food shortage developing in Nigeria and the effects of drilling for
oil in the frozen arctic sea, and I found myself sitting on the edge of my
chair, gripping my coffee cup so hard my knuckles turned white. In this world, I
was helpless. I fell asleep at all hours of the day, and dreamed of the waves,
rushing one against the other on the shore. I dreamed of falling through the
water, or of standing beneath it, my hand held flat against the blueness of that
I had planned to stay for several weeks, but when Jonathan
e-mailed that Yukiko Santiago was planning to visit the islands, I changed my
mind. It took just two days to clean out our lives in Minneapolis. I
didn’t ask Jonathan about any of it—I just wanted it done. A few old
pieces of furniture from his family I put into storage, but almost everything
else I gave away. When the plane lifted off, I felt, for the first time in my
life, completely free.
When I got back, patients were lined up in the waiting room. I
was so busy, and so glad to be back, that for several weeks I hardly thought of
Gunnar. I glimpsed him now and then, standing on the boat or walking along the
beach. Sometimes he waved across the distance, and I waved back. Pragna had
returned from Singapore with the baby, and I saw them too, sitting on the
verandah of their chalet or strolling in the park at dawn or dusk. It was a
girl, named Analia. After no one, they said, a name they’d invented, a
name without the weight of history. I held her once, so small and warm, when
Pragna came in for a well-baby check, and sometimes I saw her in the nursery,
when Pragna stopped in after work to use the treadmill or the pool. Pragna
seemed restless to me, as changed as I felt. One night, walking home late, I saw
Gunnar pacing their porch with Analia in his arms. In the distance, behind the
sound of the waves, I heard Pragna, faintly weeping.
The days slid by, one into another. The paths hummed with
gardeners, painters, carpenters. Jonathan spent long days, and sometimes nights
as well, on the other island, overseeing the installation of new drainage and
wave-forecasting systems. He took the damage, and Phil’s death,
personally, and worried that he might have made equally catastrophic errors in
his greater research. Late at night, when he slipped into bed, I’d touch
his shoulder and he wouldn’t respond. Jonathan, I’d say,
are you all right? And he’d sigh and say he was tired, too tired to
talk. Often, when I woke in the morning, he was already gone.
Yukiko Santiago arrived on a brilliantly clear day.
Diminutive, almost frail, with her hair swept into a severe bun, she wore a blue
suit, black high heels, and glasses too large for her face. She walked among us
in the park, Gunnar at her side, pausing to greet old friends. When she reached
me she held my hand for a moment and said she was glad I had stayed. I was so
pleased I could hardly speak. For several days I glimpsed her traveling along
paths in a golf cart. I imagined her in secret meetings, or standing in that
I did not expect to talk with her again, but on her final day
she came to the mainland to observe my clinic. I was nervous during the
hydroplane ride, the wind in our hair and salt spray staining her glasses. But
in the clinic she was warm, pragmatic, easy to approach. She prepared the
plaster for a cast and held the boy’s arm as I applied it. She noted
vitals, took throat cultures, and talked through an interpreter to the nursing
students. At the end of the day, we sat on the edge of the dock with our legs
dangling. Below, the waves moved over the white sand.
“Gambate, Anna,” Yukiko said. I felt
myself flush with pleasure. “Very well done, indeed.” She looked at
me directly, taking me in. “Anna,” she said, “tell me
honestly: is there anything you need?”
I thought she meant the clinic and started to tell her about
which supplies were running low, but she interrupted me with the wave of one
“Not that,” she said. “You. Are you happy
“Yes,” I said. “I am.” But to my own
surprise I started talking about Jonathan and his worries, the way he
couldn’t sleep at night, the growing gulf between us.
Yukiko nodded, staring out over the clear water to where the
hydroplane was now visible, a dot on the horizon.
“His error cost a great deal of money,” she
acknowledged. “Still, I am not so concerned with the loss itself, which
may open up a new path, a better path. That is always the advantage of failure.
But Jonathan’s reaction does concern me. He has not made much progress on
the new plans. He’s become too afraid to be bold.”
“He loves this place,” I said, dismayed, for I
understood her implication, and the irony. Jonathan had brought me here; now he
might have to leave.
The wind swept at Yukiko’s hair. She took off her
glasses and polished them on the hem of her shirt. “I know,” she
said. “It would be a loss if he left. But the community will survive. It
is only Gunnar, finally, we could not spare. His vision is essential to us
I nodded, feeling helpless as I remembered his voice in the
underwater room, the sound of Pragna weeping.
When I got back to the chalet Jonathan was sitting at the
table, peeling a mango. We’d hardly touched in weeks, but now I put my
hand on his shoulder.
“I spoke with Yukiko,” I told him.
Jonathan put the knife on his plate and stood up. He walked
over to the window, and when he spoke his voice was bitter. “Great,”
he said. “That’s just terrific.”
And suddenly, out of worry and frustration and a sense of
impending loss, a fierce anger rose up in me. I remembered Jonathan sitting
beside me in the atrium on that first day, watching me apprehend all that had
been hidden. I remembered him putting the delicate shell into my hand saying
This, too, is a test. How disoriented I’d felt, as if the world were
no longer a steady place, but something that swam and glittered and changed in
“I know how you feel,” I said, trying to stay
“You can’t possibly,” he snapped, and
something in me broke loose.
“You’re right,” I said, preparing to be
cruel and taking pleasure in it, too. “I’ll never know what
you’re going through. After all, I passed the test.”
I slammed the door and walked to the atrium, where a group was
already drinking on the balcony. Gunnar was there, on his second beer, and I
found myself watching him, remembering our time below the water, what Yukiko had
said. There was a bright sheen of red on the water, phosphorescent algae that
traced the waves. Someone suggested a night dive. I was a little drunk already,
and I ran to collect the waterproof flashlights and our gear, then joined the
others on the beach, where Pragna and Gunnar were arguing. Pragna was holding
Analia, her voice rising above the waves.
“Gunnar,” she said. “This is
“It’s perfectly safe,” he insisted, and I
remembered the play of skeletal light on his skin as we stood together in the
silent dome, his fingers on my leg as he made his clumsy sutures. The others had
already gone as he stepped into the waves, and when Pragna called to him again
he did not stop. After a moment I followed him, swimming to the beam of light he
held. The waves crashed hard against the rocks and the currents pulled at us. I
touched his arm.
“It’s Anna,” I said.
“Gunnar!” Pragna’s voice came to us, broken
by the waves, edged with anguish. “Gunnar! Please, Gunnar. You are
frightening me. Come back this instant! Gunnar! Do you hear me?”
“Ah, she is ruining it all,” he said, and there
was anguish in his voice, too. “She wants to leave. She wants us all to
“No,” I said, trying to imagine staying here
without him. “No, don’t, Gunnar. You can’t.”
Our hands brushed one another in the water and he reached for
me. I couldn’t seem to help myself. I ran my hand along Gunnar’s
leg. He did not speak, but faced me as he had on that other day, that last and
first day, when we passed the regulator back and forth and each one, each time,
saved the other’s life.
We swam, breaking a path through the phosphorescence, past the
rocks to the black sand beach, where we shed our gear, our suits. Sand gave way
beneath our feet and then our bodies were on that sand, half in the sea and half
on land, and with every movement the water eased from beneath my back, and his.
Faint light from the plankton trailed across his skin and mine, glowing where we
touched each other—the line of his jaw, the curve of my shoulder, our
lips. For a long time after we lay there, touching length to length, fading
slowly back to darkness. I knew, of course, that the future might evolve in a
thousand different ways, but in those moments I believed Gunnar would stay. I
believed he would stay with me.
When he sat up, without speaking I knew what it meant.
Freedom first he’d said one night, long ago. His lips were on mine
again; his hands touched my face, leaving coolness in their wake this time.
Anna, he said. You are so beautiful. And I—I am so sorry.
Then I heard the splashing, glimpsed the momentary break in the
phosphorescence—he was gone.
I stayed where I was for a long time. I’d lost the
flashlight. Also, my suit. Even my hands were invisible in that darkness. I felt
my way to the edge of the path and began to climb, slowly, gradually, through
dense foliage, feeling the air change, faintly, as the path rose. When I reached
the ridge, the atrium was visible, swelling from the edge of the cliff and
I stopped, suddenly afraid. Loss gaped like an abyss. For I
understood that I would leave this place, and that my leaving had been seeded
long ago, when I handed Gunnar my regulator, when the live wire had fallen,
twisting, to the lawn where fish swam, when Pragna had called out, her voice
laced with anguish. When Gunnar had turned to me.
I gazed out into the darkness of sea and sky, thinking of that
hidden room, the secret locus of all yearning. A faint wind moved through my
hair. I thought of Phil, conversing with the dead, and then of Gunnar, swimming.
I imagined the fields of sea urchins unfolding beneath him, their perfect,
hidden bones curved to hold the light, their thorns repelling, interweaving. So
beautiful they were, so strange. Echinoderm echinoidea, with a thousand eyes,