Daniel Dlamini, a postgraduate student in marine biology at the University of Cape Town, switched on his laptop and checked his email. It was a daily routine. He would get fried hake, thick-cut chips, and a cheap beer from the cart parked outside the harbor, dine on the edge of his boat while the sky darkened from summer to winter blue, then check his email. His mentor, Dr. Samson Saris, was on an expedition and was due to have his reserves restocked, but two months had passed and Saris could not be reached.
When Daniel checked his email an hour later, there was a new message in his inbox. With quivering lips and frenzied eyes, he clicked on the link and watched the first video attached to the email.
He adjusted the camera mounted to the dashboard, smiled broadly, then began to speak.
“I am Dr. Samson Saris,” he said. “I am a marine biologist, lecturer at the University of Cape Town, and inventor of The Kraken, a submersible fashioned after its name and designed to attach to the sea floor. I write from within its steel womb, which will be my home for the next few months while I am on an expedition to investigate and capture the strange life which exists in this wonderful and peculiar environment.”
He adjusted the camera to show the outline of a boat on the ocean’s surface. A stream of froth was visible as it jettisoned toward shore.
“That ostentatious boat belongs to my student, Daniel Dlamini. Aided by The Kraken’s GPS, Daniel will visit me to replenish my supplies. He has expressed great unhappiness at the solitude of my expedition, but I could hardly have brought him along. He is just now experiencing the vibrancy of young love, a volatile relationship that might have crumpled with separation, and besides the submersible has been designed for only one individual to rest comfortably within it. He worries about my health, but curiosity burns a fire in this aged scientist, one that endless oceans cannot quench. Besides, I am not as alone as he believes. All around me the sea floor courses with life, pulsing like an elevated heartbeat.”
He positioned the camera to record footage of the environment, then reached for the submersible’s controls. While Saris navigated the terrain, he narrated everything he experienced.
“The Kraken crawls along the sea floor, and I search for the ideal spot to rest her for the night. Its iron tentacles move one at a time, raising sand and shaking deposits off rock, as I direct it to a perch that will increase my area of vision. Its large and curved window gives me a brilliant view of the area in front of me, and two mirrors fastened on either side allow me to see behind. Both add eccentricity to its appearance.” He laughed.
“Shoals of fish pass before my eyes, seeking safety in number. A crab shakes itself free from the pale sand and stutters away. It is neither high nor low on the food chain, but the presence of a larger and foreign being causes it some unease. Another crab emerges and hurries away. Then another. And another until there are dozens of crabs walking across the sea floor, their queer legs moving as though they are jiving to some unknown beat.”
Dr. Saris took a large intake of breath, audible against hurried scurrying, and Daniel leaned forward with fearful anticipation.
Saris laughed. “The crustacean ranks have been broken. A large manta threw aside his cloak of invisibility, and its lunging mouth grabbed hold of a startled crab. The crab now disappears into the darkness while his companions scuttle away, and the manta settles back again, waiting to pounce on another unfortunate pedestrian.”
“As I look about this place, admiring the coral and seaweed and the pace of it all, I admonish sleep from my bones. I can only wait in anticipation for the arrival of nocturnal predators. Yet, I know that excitement is not strong enough to evade sleep. When light stops refracting off and illuminating the sea floor, I will sleep. Exhaustion has already begun to gnaw at my mind, enforcing lethargy, and very soon I shall succumb.”
Daniel picked up his cellphone and dialed the coastguard. He needed to alert them about the missing marine biologist. Although he had only just completed the first video, he was certain his mentor had come to harm. Saris wouldn’t have mailed him the videos. He would have edited them – shortened out the space between interesting incidences and deleted the parts where he had dozed off. Something had definitely gone wrong.
He swore when a familiar tone greeted him – the melodious jazz of a busy call center. Daniel flung the cellphone across the cabin, retrieved it after some thought, then turned his attention to the second video.
Daniel noted that the marine biologist’s breathing was calmer and more natural than in the first, and it was clear he had adjusted to life in an ephemeral Atlantis. His words, often intellectual and poetic, were now tinted with vigor and unconcealed adoration, and Daniel could not help but feel a little envious. He was surprised, however, when Saris mentioned him.
“Half a month without human contact,” Saris remarked, “and I cannot help but wonder over the activities of my favorite postgrad. I suppose he is studying for finals, distributing time between work and companionship. I wonder about him, and I wonder about the world above which feels more alien than it did yesterday. Down here, predators act without malicious intent. Food is of sole importance; avarice and prejudice are human words and human vices. I cannot think of leaving this place without sadness consuming me. I cannot fathom existence after this expedition.
“I slept for four hours during the day, giving me enough energy to make this nocturnal recording. I adjust the lights of the submersible until they are bright enough to illuminate the way.” Saris paused. There was the sound of
a water bottle being opened, three softer swallowing noises, and a satisfied sign. “Time to begin my midnight observation.
“The sea floor is constantly surprising and brings marvels incomprehensible to the mind. At night, this aquatic courtyard is no less magical. Bioluminescent creatures dazzle me, some as small as my fingernail, others longer than my arm, most master contortionists. An octopus seems as mesmerized by The Kraken as I am by the brilliant red lights she reflects. She flits closer and closer until the suctions on her tentacle attach to my windshield and I am left staring at this great mass probing my machine. I place my hand on the glass and trace it along each of her tentacles. She is brightly colored and poisonous, yet there is intimacy between us. Departing promptly, the octopus leaves me to watch after her like a wounded suitor.
“Clouds from far above unveil the moon, and the light it brings enables me to cut out the artificial kind. I sit here, observing a smoky terrain where vast species swim. In the dark spaces, in crevices and caves concealed, I hear the stirring of tenebrous organisms.”
Daniel started when he heard a fist rap the cabin door. He had fallen asleep on his laptop. In his slumber, the keyboard etched strange markings across one side of his face and the video had followed its natural progression into black nothingness. Another knock on the door jolted him out of his seat, and he rushed to open the door. Daniel’s boat had been boarded by the coastguard; a beautiful yet stern-faced woman appraised him.
“Are you Daniel Dlamini?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered. “Have you found Dr. Saris?”
“We have found The Kraken, and it is being brought into the harbor. Meet me at the west end in one hour.”
Dr. Saris held the camera between his hands, and Daniel looked at him with growing concern. The marine biologist’s happiness had not evaporated, but Daniel thought he looked considerably aged. His wide eyes floated on disks of discoloration, and a dark beard had taken root at the bottom of his chin. Dr. Saris continued the documentary.
“Today I venture into the heart of Cape Point. This area has claimed numerous fleets and beguiled survivors with the tale of The Flying Dutchman. Unlike those periled ships, The Kraken is a master maneuverer and will be able to climb over and between the sharp rocks which have pierced many hulls and impaled many men. Yet I move slowly through the treacherous terrain, leaving little to Lady Luck who is angered often.
“This morning, I curtailed my expectations to the finding of singular shipwrecks along this beat. To my great surprise, this is what I have come across.” He turned the camera and exposed a valley of chipped and rusted ghosts. Sharks wove between the shipwrecks, like motorists determined to avoid devastating accidents, yet uninterested in the remnants of human folly.
Suddenly, Saris screamed. Daniel bit his lip when he realized why. A red, gaping mouth had closed on The Kraken’s window. Daniel shivered at the sight of multifarious rows of powerful teeth and moaned when the shark clamped its jaws. For a few seconds, there was nothing but the sound of teeth scraping and chiseling away at glass. Daniel counted the seconds and wondered if the dome would withstand the pressure of that monstrous mouth. It did. Disappointed, the shark swam away.
Saris let out a small and nervous laugh. “Well,” he said, “that was interesting. I’m glad I relieved myself earlier.” He chuckled loudly, then slipped into his usual state of contentment. “More sharks arrive. Most marvelous about these creatures is that they are not solitary beasts. Occasionally, they gather and follow the scent of migrating shoal. I wonder what this herd could accomplish if they harnessed the collectiveness of the orca whale – superior hunting strategies paired with the sharks’ own brutish strength would make a nearly indestructible creation.
“I park The Kraken at the foot of the iron valley, and watch these sharks for as long as light permits me. Superstition will force me to leave before dark. I can picture the ghosts of dead sailors flitting amidst the gauntness of midnight moonlight, their hands clawing at my submersible while they encroach me to join their immortal band.”
Daniel checked his watch, noted the time, then played the last video attached to the email. He needed to see what had happened. He needed to know what to expect when he looked upon The Kraken. Daniel needed to ready himself.
Saris’ last entry was melancholy, and the shadow reflected on The Kraken’s window looked broken-backed and weary. The marine biologist cleared his throat, coughed, and recorded his last entry.
“I have spent many days fixating over the great whites. Although my time and reserves are limited, I cannot help but tarry to observe these magnificent creatures. They do not swim about me as they once did, with curiosity edging them close and encouraging them to probe my submersible with teeth and tail. Now they regard me with the same fascination as seaweed. Look! Their ranks break, companionships are forgotten, and I follow the largest of these beasts.
“I have named him Odysseus after the great warrior hated by Poseidon, a name fitting to a beast of many scars. A heinous one cuts across his right eye, further impeding his naturally poor vision. I long to know his story. Was he attacked by a ferocious predator or was he exposed to the defense of a desperate seal? Which creature would dare harm such a warrior? And where? I need to know. I must know.
“But I will not. It is time I abandon Odysseus. While he departs to warmer currents, I begin my ascension to the surface, but I cannot absolve myself of the paternal helplessness I experience when I wonder about his fate. I am abandoning him, forcing him to face turmoil alone while I replenish my reserves. I exchange one companion for another. Daniel for Odysseus. Both temporary in my journey between land and sea.”
Daniel stared at The Kraken, an expression of disbelief slowly disintegrating into horror. The window had been shattered inward, blood crusted on shards of glass, and there were countless holes in its steel hide.
“What happened?” he asked the coastguard officer.
“Two months ago, Dr. Saris surfaced as per your agreement,” she began. “However, the submersible popped up near a fishing boat. The ocean was tempestuous on that day, the sky dark, and a drunk fisherman mistook the submersible for a sea monster. He was armed with a shotgun and fired eight shells at the machine. Dr. Saris was killed instantly, the reality realized too late. The captain of the boat quieted the fisherman, scared him half to death with the consequences of what had been done, and they agreed to keep the matter silent and not alert the appropriate authorities. We’ve found Dr. Saris’ body, but . . . it was exposed to the ocean and its species for some time.”
The coastguard placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezed gently, then turned and walked away. Daniel remained on the dock, transfixed as local men prepared The Kraken for transport, then shook off his paralysis and stumbled forward to assist them. While he worked, he thought of Odysseus. Daniel convinced himself that Dr. Saris, like many mutualistic fish often do, attached himself to that legendary creature to explore the enchantments of the ocean. He lived on, in the deep.
Kimberley M. Munsamy is currently completing her Masters in Counselling Psychology at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Her work has appeared in The Misbehaving Dead Anthology (Sisters of Midnight), The First Line Literary Journal (The Architect), Ripples in Space 2018 Fall Collection (Succession) and the Mystery Tribune (Il Consorte).