For three months and twenty days, the Cyclops sailed to various ports across the Pacific. The crew spent time on both the north and south islands of New Zealand, then pushed on to Australia, stopping for a week in Townsville, on the Great Barrier Reef, before continuing up the coast. Finally, on the 18th of July, on a day when the sky was a lovely cobalt hue, streaked here and there with long, narrow strands of gray cloud, and with a gentle wind from the northeast blowing, I ordered my men to drop anchor at a spot that turned out to be almost directly on top of the City.
That day, the ocean surface was flat as a millpond. The water itself had a strange grayish cast that made it seem more mineral than liquid. As we waited for the anchor to settle below, I observed swarms of iridescent fish flickering about.
Is there anything as singularly impressive and affecting to the imagination as when, in a perfectly calm tropical sea, under a vertical sun, one is able to look down through a depth of thousands of fathoms of clear water and see on the ocean bottom glimpses of the City and all its strange and wonderful objects? The discovery of such a City existing under fathoms of ocean is an occurrence with no precedent in the annals of exploration, one that overshadows even the discovery of the Americas by Columbus.
The City exists underwater at a depth that approaches the elevation of the loftiest peak of the Himalayas, though no one has yet ascertained exactly how many fathoms with a string or sounding-line. The line must be extremely strong, and dropped into the sea with such a weight that it shall reach the bottom without being borne off by competing under-currents. The location is 184 nautical miles southwest of the island of New Guinea, just at the entrance to the strait between that island and the northeastern tip of the continent of Australia, which sailors the world over know as one of the busiest sea passages in the world.
Later, trying to describe the first time my gaze was able to pierce through fathoms of ocean water, I would say it was like looking at one of my mother’s moss gardens. She kept them under glass of varying sizes. The bright green moss was interrupted here and there by dark pebbles, and tendrils of colorful foliage. I believed I had never seen anything so beautiful, until I discovered the City.
That first day, the crew labored over seven hours at the dredging equipment. Nothing appeared except for a quantity of light-colored, mudlike ooze. This ooze was found to contain a number of fragments of some hard mineral. My curiosity was aroused when Atkinson told me what microscopic analysis had revealed—the mudlike ooze had properties in common with human—and not animal—excreta. And the fragments showed uniformly angled edges—clear evidence, I thought, of human manipulation. As more and more of these fragments were dredged up and examined, it became clear that some of the pieces were interlocking, like the pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.
We went further and deeper with our measurements. And still we watched, as the City and all its treasures spread out before us—remaining just out of our reach. Finally, on the 4th of August, with the sounding-line stretched to the utmost, we hauled up a pillar approximately two feet in circumference and twelve feet in length, the surface of which was entirely covered with pictographs of a kind similar to those in the Temple of Amun in Egypt.
And that was when everything changed. I could see it already: Broderick and Taylor and Lumley and Simon. Imagining the accolades, perhaps a band greeting us at the harbour at Doonhaven. Perhaps their own ships at last. And our Master, Owen Williams of Bronsea, what would he not give for such a treasure?
It would make a change for me as well.
Broderick then said, with a finger pressed to one cheek—Broderick was always a great one for going on—that if the writings of the philosopher Plato were to be believed, there had once been a great City that began life 2,000 years ago on the island of Santorini, in ancient Greece. Then, a great cataclysm caused the entire foundation to sink into the sea.
“Atlantis, you mean?” I said.
I did know this story. For centuries, we had been hearing tales of a City on the ocean floor, one populated by people half-god and half-human. The City was sometimes located in the Mediterranean, at other times off the coast of Spain. It had become nearly impossible to untangle truth from fact until now.
Over dinner that night, I cautioned the others that the imagination, in this as in many other cases, sometimes resulted in a distortion of reality. “Furthermore,” I added, “whatever we find belongs in a museum.” They seemed to grow surly at my words.
As soon as I could, I escaped to the deck, and remained a long while looking at the water. Were there indeed people down there? How many centuries had they spent observing the passage of our surface vessels, passing like ghosts over the water? Had they, too, tried to imagine us? How curious to think that no one before us had thought of the simple act of looking down.
What had those residents of the deep made of our faces, eyes full of curiosity, looking down at them? My own face was the face of a man no longer young. The sea had kept me away from family and friends for many years. Yet, I mused, I had been willing to perform this sacrifice, all in the hope of experiencing that one moment when the depths would be illuminated, as when a room’s lamplit interior is spied through a window. Over the decades, stubbornness and persistence had become the two main elements of my character. Who knew the greatest discovery I would ever make would involve so simple an act as peering down?
Of the City and its inhabitants, we still know very little. We still do not know whether, for example, the City dwellers are divided into classes of rich and poor, or into different races, or whether they have great universities resembling Oxford and Cambridge—centers of learning where new generations can be schooled in the wonders of mathematics and science.
It lies beneath a translucent, greenish dome. The walls, the inhabitants’ clothing, even their countenances have a greenish cast. A breeze might ruffle the surface of the ocean and for a moment one can see—imagine one can see—a corresponding ripple in the green dome below. Almost, a tearing. I would hold my breath, gripped with anxiety, imagining the worst. But, in the end, my fears proved misplaced: nothing disturbed the tranquility of the City or of its inhabitants.
As far as I could tell, the residents of the City resembled ourselves: they possessed two eyes, two ears, a nose, hair, a mouth, and so forth. They in all likelihood possessed limbs, for despite the fact that their physical forms were always modestly concealed beneath a kind of shiny material, they seemed to get from place to place by walking. And walking, as we know, is only managed with legs.
I noticed something perplexing about the under-dwellers’ manner of locomotion, for they seemed only to move in a forward direction. I had never, not once, observed anyone move in reverse. Perhaps there was a law requiring them to do so? Toward what purpose? Their steps always followed a fixed orbit, from which not a single person deviated. They appeared to be circling, endlessly circling, rather in the manner by which the moon circled the earth, drawn by magnets, perhaps, or water currents.
I thought of my own city of Doonhaven—all the various arteries of roads cris-crossing the landscape, all the density of human and vehicular traffic. I imagined the underwater City was no different. For the need for quick transportation—the simple human need to move from one place to another—must have been acknowledged eons ago.
Perhaps, I told myself, I should not think of roads as one does, as constructions over a flat surface. Perhaps their conduits were vertical, like the chutes and elevators one finds in factories or other city buildings. How lofty must be their cities, how wonderful their flora and fauna, how altogether astonishing to the mind and heart!
Once, after peering down for what seemed like hours, I thought I caught a glimpse of a very young woman who reminded me, with a pang, of my own daughter, Wilhelmina. Wilhelmina! I could see her pale face, her tears when I informed her I would be leaving on my next voyage.
The woman below had lovely, long, red hair that streamed gently behind her, held aloft by the ocean currents. Her eyes, set in a pale green face, were limpid and large, an intense black. Around her neck was a string of large, white pearls alternating with bright red stones that resembled rubies. As to the rest—her clothing was minimal, perhaps so as not to impede movement: only a simple tunic, over a narrow skirt that stretched to her ankles.
Six months prior, Wilhelmina, whose mother had died when she was scarcely ten, departed for Singapore with her new husband. It grieved me, this move of my only child to a far-away Asiatic city. Even though my time at sea had outweighed my time on land, Wilhelmina and I had been close. When I was on land, I rarely accepted social engagements, desiring only to spend as much time as I could in my home. It could hardly be surprising, then, that my attention was caught by a woman who seemed similar in age to my own daughter.
The woman beneath the water, while never breaking the pace of her walk, now stretched her lovely arms upward towards me, as if in supplication. Unable to think, unable even to breathe, I waited to see what else she might do.
Slowly, she reached one arm to the back of her neck, pulled off her necklace, then held it up towards me. Her lips moved. Naturally, all sound was impeded by many fathoms of ocean, but I could see that her lips formed words that had no correspondence with English or with any other language on the surface of this Earth. Had I been more courageous, I would have pitched myself over the side in an effort to close the distance between myself and this stranger.
Who was this woman? What could she possibly need? I ached to know. Somehow, she had perceived me. In our perceiving of each other, she had confirmed my existence, as I had hers.
Before I could react, the woman was gone. Though I spent the subsequent days peering with eyes that positively ached with the effort at fathoms of ocean, I never saw the woman again. She was lost among that mass of endlessly circling people, who never gave the slightest acknowledgment that they knew they were being observed.
Weeks passed. The weather remained tranquil, and the Cyclops remained anchored to the spot. Such good fortune was unprecedented, to say the least. I could not shake the feeling that we were being held in place, could not help feeling that the City’s inhabitants, though not desiring to communicate, did not wish us to go just yet.
I knew that, in this part of the world, the gales and rain of the monsoon would not be long in coming. I became conscious of a corresponding ripple of anxiety among the crew. Not all were like myself, thirsty for adventure. Most were in it only for the chance to put some food in their families’ bellies. In the minds of the men were memories of meadows and hills, soft air and blue skies, the gentle landscape of the country of their birth.
Several times, the men drew up the line too fast, and the winches groaned as if they might snap in two. It was strange, but after the raising of the column, no further treasure came to us. Broderick, who of all of us had seemed the most keen to introduce the riches of the City to the world, could barely contain his frustration.
As I was standing on the deck one day, supervising the dredges, a cloud came across the sun, a spot of rain fell on my head, and without warning we found ourselves in the middle of a tremendous gale. I ordered the men to secure the hatches, and hastily they set to. For almost a week, we were at the mercy of the waves, and we lost two good men. After, when the weather cleared, the ocean depths were murky. It was then we realized how far away we were from home.
When the crew had recovered sufficiently from their exertions, I ordered the ship to turn for home. “Not in our time, not in our children’s time, then,” Broderick said. “Perhaps,” I told him, “in a hundred years, it will be possible.” He turned his back on me in disgust.
In matters regarding right, or wrong, I am fully persuaded that I have chosen right, no matter the difficulty of such a choice. I was saving the lives of my men, or so I told myself. Moreover, I had signed a contract with the line, the contract had laid out the terms of my employment. I was morally bound to fulfill them.
When we put in again at Doonhaven, a stranger was standing in the harbor, waiting. He was tall and bent, and leant heavily upon a stick. He was around sixty years of age, with light blue eyes and a deeply tanned face. “Good afternoon, John,” he said to me. “You seem to have been on an adventure. I wonder how you managed it.”
“An adventure, aye,” I said. “But tramping hills and roads will serve me well enough for now.”
“What do you know of this underwater City?” the man asked.
I felt a reluctance, even a repulsion, at his words. “Perhaps the fairies told me about it,” I said.
The man smiled and scratched his white hair with the end of his stick. It was then that Broderick came up beside me. “There’s no harm in anyone knowing now, Captain,” he said.
I became stiff with anger. “You only seek to profit from it,” I said.
“We shall see,” Broderick said. And with that, we parted ways.
Some months later, I heard that the Cyclops had set out again, Broderick at the helm. I heard it proceeded up the sun-struck west African coast, and was attacked once or twice by pirates. Eventually, the Cyclops made port in Cape Town. And then, it simply vanished. None of the crew, not Broderick or Kent or Mooney or Atkinson, were ever seen or heard from again. The next year, the bent man came to visit me in my home. I had been expecting him.
“May we trouble you for another voyage?” the man asked. At my response, the smile disappeared from the man’s face and he said, “Ah, you can laugh, you with your Trinity education and your reading and your grand and progressive ways.” Then, when he had exhausted all his rhetoric, he climbed back into his chaise.
I sailed again, but never for Mr. Owen Williams of Bronsea. At each port, I invariably found a letter from Wilhelmina. Again and again, she beseeched me to have a care—nay, to abandon my quest altogether. But I had too much ambition, and moreover had made promises to my men that I could not renege from.
Wilhelmina accused me of fancying myself a modern Livingstone. In the course of penetrating the African interior, the explorer had crossed numerous rivers and new river systems, identifying distinctive geographic features. Starting from Zanzibar and proceeding westwards, Livingstone found a new geography: mountains and rivers no one like us had beheld before. He made discovery of Lake Tanganyika, and many other places, and enabled the expansion of the Empire. I was not of the same bent.
“I shall pay well for honest work,” I told my men. And they believed me and followed me.
I told them that there was a City underneath the ocean. I described the contours of its landscape, and the aspects of its existence. I told my men that there, on the ocean bottom, there were plains and mountains and plateaus, mirror images of our own. I described the vegetation, the undulating forests of kelp, the magnificence of the City’s architecture. I described, in detail, the City’s strange inhabitants and their unusual method of locomotion.
Wilhelmina is thirty-nine now. The world, she writes, is so very different: there is so much more misery. She can scarce believe my stories of how, in Africa, hundreds of slaves stand in chains by the auction houses. I tell her how men of different religions look upon each other with suspicion. I tell her I despise nothing more than men who justify violence for the sake of their gods. I tell her that joy has become increasingly scant in our society. She writes back, months later: “And whose fault is that?”
I reflect on my many voyages. What had all this been for, if not for a better future? Ah, I thought, if I could have found the City, I would have written a book, I would have delighted to share my discovery with the world.
I am, as Wilhelmina knows, a man living in the past. But I do not now work for a Master, and never shall again.
The image of the City remains fixed in my memories: powerful and intractable, mysterious and graceful, glorious.
Years earlier, an old sea captain had told me that a seaman’s mission was to be the eyes and ears of those who could not or would not venture forth, and that if I was truly meant for a career on the sea, I would know because I would never cease to look for things in the water.
I often think on this conversation. It took place on a ship’s bridge. The sea at that time was coated with black—a kind of slick, viscous oil. Oil poured forth from all the greatest ships of those days, it was nothing special. It bubbled and seethed, reminding me that there had been a ship capsized on that very spot, not long ago.
I gestured vaguely towards the water.
The old captain took note of this movement. “Ah!” he said. And that was all.
Setting off on a journey must be a little like launching off a cliff. The sensation of leaving the earth, the lightness as one catapults through air. And then the inevitable downward pull, the plunging into the ocean depths: frigidly cold, menacing, all-embracing. To each jump I find myself giving the same answer: Yes.
I still dream about the Cyclops. In my dreams, I feel the rolling of the waves as they rock the hull. The day is bright. I pass multitudes of islands on either side, islands of all shapes and sizes.
Inevitably, I know it is time to turn back to shore. A melancholy settles over my dream self. I do not wish to return to land, but in my dream, I am not given a choice.
Gradually, the ship begins running out of deep water. I begin to panic. Then I awake, feeling as though I have narrowly avoided some disaster.
My house sits on top of a hill. A little beyond the harbour of Doonhaven is Doon Island, with the grey castle of Clonmere, standing at the entrance to the bay like a faithful sentinel guarding the waters. Every day I take my chaise down the hill and into town, passing the harbour, scattering geese near the market-place.
One day, as I happened to be passing the Post Office and the chemist’s, I was overtaken by a feeling of disappointment so profound it seemed to cleave my chest in two. The gate to the widow Donovan’s stood open, as it frequently did. It had always been my inclination to stop in and exchange pleasantries with her, if for no other purpose than to feel human companionship.
But I pass on. I never stop, driven yet by the vision of some bright and imaginable future, waiting there for me beneath the waves.
Marianne Villanueva is the author of the story collections Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (Calyx Books), Mayor of the Roses (Miami University Press), and The Lost Language (Anvil Press, Philippines). Her most recent book is the novella Jenalyn. Her work has appeared in Fourteen Hills, the New Orleans Review, Wigleaf, Threepenny Review, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, a prior issue of J Journal, among many other journals. Born and raised in the Philippines, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches in UCLA Extension’s Writers Program.