The Diver: Short Fiction by Travis Lee

By Travis Lee

The Diver

In nature we have many masters, water the cruelest.

I am a diver. So was Pa, his pa, and his pa too. Pa first took me diving when I was four. Before we went in, he told me the water can you kill you anytime it wants, and you’d better understand that before you ever set foot in it. Because if you don’t, it will kill you. I understood. I was afraid too, but I didn’t let it control me. Only low men do that. We both understand the water, but only one of us can keep our fear in check, and dive.

Besides fear, the other key to diving is controlling your breathing. Pa used to take me to the bottoms of lagoons and hold me there. I held my breath until it felt like a bomb was about to explode in my chest. Each time I squirmed, Pa took me topside and beat my bottom with reeds. Eventually I stopped squirming.

I can hold my breath for over half an hour, which is great even by diver standards. I have nothing on Pa though; in his prime, he could go for over an hour. They say the ancient divers could last for hours. I believe it too. Seven decades old, Pa could still outlast me. They like to say it’s a lack of courage, that divers just aren’t what they used to be. There’s some truth in that. People have grown more afraid.

They also say more divers drown now than in the past. I don’t think so. Divers drowned back then, they drown now, and they’ll drown in the future. Each time you go under, you are racing against the water and I don’t care how good a diver you are, one day it will catch you.

That’s what happened to my older brother. An undertow snagged him and trapped him under a rock. Pa recovered the body himself. I was maybe six when they lowered his casket into the dead waters, where some caskets hold bodies while others just hold names.

Early on, I dove with Pa. We stuck to discovered areas. The underwater caves are immense. Pa took me through the ones he knew by heart, even letting me surface in the airhole rooms and in one such airhole the sun poured in through a crack in the ceiling as the reflection of the water played out timeless over the smooth stone walls, and I can remember looking up into that crack and feeling that I had not just gone into a cave, but that I had stumbled upon another world. As we were coming out of the cave, a school of fish swam by us, each carrying a piece of sunlight like keepers of the sun itself. What’s underwater is seen but unspoiled. We may visit, but we will never be part of it.

As I got older, Pa cut me loose. Just like you get scared the first time you go under, it’s worse when you do it alone. Or swim the caves alone. You cannot breath, and the deeper you go, the more the shade closes in.

You can’t panic. That’s the worst thing you can do. My light-crystal broke my first time alone in the caves, and I was already in deep. Plunged into a breathless, sightless tomb, my mouth began to slip open. I forced it closed and turned until I thought I was facing the way I’d come. My chest was aching. I kicked along with my hands held out and eventually found my way to light, where I surfaced and crawled onto the beach and just laid there face-down, sucking in huge steals of air. Admiring a world I could actually see. I never told Pa about this. I never told anybody.

cave 1Every diver has his own brush-with-death story. In fact, they’re full of stories, and how much we’re willing to believe is up to us. I’ll tell you one thing though: I never doubted Pa. I believed every story he told me.

Like the one about the Rumble Room.

Just past our islands are floating mountains. Divers have gone past them before, and none of them have returned. Does the water end? I don’t think so. After we’re gone, the water will still be here. The islands and the people who live there exist on the water like an infection.

There is a system of caves under these mountains that nobody has mapped. These caves quake at all hours. We’ve known about them for years–Pa’s pa knew about them when he was a boy–but few divers go down there. With the quakes, the cave walls shift: ceilings collapse, and the water down there can boil your skin right off your bones.

Pa was smart enough not to swim past the mountains. He held no such reservations about the mountains themselves. He explored those caves three times. His first time, just as he was entering a cave, a quake started up. Heat rushed towards him like a great underwater hand, trying to pull him in. He barely broke free. That was the first time.

The second time he found the Rumble Room.

Other divers tell stories. Pa tells the truth, and this is what he told me about the Rumble Room: it is bigger than any of the islands. In there you can surface on a wet mound of mud and rock, and you can just lay there listening to the earth quake all around you. The sounds of this planet’s birth, of its renewal. The ceiling is open and at the sun’s highest point you lay there baking in its light as below you rocks shift, caves collapse, and you know that this, this is why you are a diver. This is why you have turned your life over to the water.

Pa’s the only one who’s been to the Rumble Room. The other divers called bullshit. Then they started claiming they’d been there too, stealing Pa’s descriptions, and I would just shake my head and walk away. Time wasted on fools is the worst way to waste it.

There’s always been pressure to live up to Pa. To make him proud. From my first dive on, I’ve been afraid of letting Pa down. Of putting a stain on his name that the next generation will inherit, and I have to wonder which is worse: living down a stain or living up to greatness?

The water always catches you.

Midnight tonight marks a new full moon, with it a full month since Pa’s third trip to the Rumble Room. Ma says to let it go but she doesn’t understand. How could she? I believe the spirits of old divers live on forever in the sea, diving without fear of drowning. As I write this, I see my life going in two directions: one towards Pa, the other towards marriage, helping sire the next generation of divers.

But the Rumble Room. All dives from here on mean nothing now that I know about the Rumble Room. I’m not going to bring Pa back, not yet. First I think I’ll take him to the Rumble Room and we’ll surface there for awhile. Once we’ve had our fill, I’ll bring him back and lower his casket into the dead waters myself.

I’m so excited I can barely hold my pen. The kind of excitement you have as a boy. Divers can’t live without it.

Tonight will be my first time to go down there. I’ve been putting it off for too long already. I will go with nothing but my light, and I am not leaving without Pa.

To all divers who read this: your fates are sealed with the water. Treat it with the respect it deserves, and never forget the power it has over you. It doesn’t matter how well you swim.

It will always catch you.


Travis Lee is the author of four books, including Tear Sin and The Seven Year Laowai. He lived in China for two and a half years and is currently shopping around a novel about a journalist and a cult in south-central China. For more info:
Illustration by Wikimedia Commons user Wusel007.

One comment

  1. Because I am a poor swimmer who panics under water, reading this story caused me to take frequent deep breaths to assure myself that I am not about to suffocate. I find it intriguing how men choose to do things which put their lives in jeopardy for reasons I personally can not fathom.

    Like

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