The Sub-Aquatic Diver
by Renata Certo-Ware
For days at a time, he is underwater, although how many he can never be sure, floating just below where the sun or the moon or the crisscrossing searchlights of boats can penetrate and filter through. Daylight, afternoon, and the depth of night are one and the same to him, all are illuminated in just the same pixilated, sometimes flickering glow of a headlamp fixed to his forehead.
Drifting and gliding, he chuckles to himself, producing a tiny stream of laughing bubbles as he speeds just past the stabbing tips of oars, unbeknownst to the small men navigating gondolas and taxis and boats full of souvenirs.
He's obsessed with finding evidence of civilizations lost, proof that Venice was once the center of the universe, its waters the amniotic fluid that sustained the earth's most extraordinary thinkers, inventors, artists, lovers.
On each expedition, combing through the mud and muck at the depths of the canals, his fingertips dislodge trinkets that speak to him of another time. The broken heel of a lady's shoe, a waterlogged watch, a decayed bible in an ornate silver filigree case, a pearl-handled pistol with a fluted barrel big enough to shoot out an ostrich egg.
He made his first dive decades ago, when he was still a lean, brown little boy, the assistant to a surveyor who had been a friend of his father. While the surveyor floated, face down with his back above the surface and his hands paddling busily like a dog's paws just under the heavy log of his body, the young diver careened all around through the canals, switching directions and propelling forward at magnificent speeds, like a bronze salmon making a frenzied pilgrimage upriver.
He outswam the surveyor, and soon outgrew him, taking up missions of his own, mapping and sketching the waterways in his mind until he knew them as well as he knew the creases of his water-wrinkled palm.
When the surveyor died one April morning, the result of a failed mechanism in his oxygen tank during an expedition just off the coast of Venice, the diver was sought out. A sinkhole opened in his heart when he heard the news, but it came as no surprise - he knew the surveyor was a man of maps, of order, of pencil marks on grainy paper, not a man of dihydrogen oxide and mud. He was simply a victim of choosing the wrong medium.
When the Magistrate to the Waters asked the diver to take over leading the mission of outlining the municipality's unknown waterways, he accepted, not out of interest in creating order of the chaos but out of a sense of duty to his father's friend the surveyor, who had in fact become more of a father to him than his own had been in the short amount of time their lives overlapped.
And so the diver found himself the head of a team of timid and lazy explorers who, he was sad but not surprised to discover, had no real interest in exploration. In order to stay within the realm of their limited scope of competence, he found it best to simply float languidly near the surface, where his upturned back provided his less intrepid assistants a totem of security that they could rationalize, one they used as their polar north.
In this way, work that would have taken him an exhilarating morning on his own began to stretch over periods of weeks and months. Water eventually took on an unbreathable character for the diver, and in it he felt like a fish thrashing itself to death on a stony dock.
So each afternoon, while his team settled in for a leisurely lunch of crumbling bread and crumbling cheese and cured horse meat from which they would never recover enough to resume work in the afternoon, he slipped into the water without his government-issued equipment like he used to all those years ago, once more training himself to swim farther and faster until he could again reclaim the status of diver.
His days once again became beautifully indistinguishable. He mapped in the morning, swam his team to the safety of the shores at midday, and passed long afternoons, often until nightfall, breathing water, searching for signs of civilizations.
The wife he had married at twenty, the surveyor's daughter, and the two children they had had together, finally stopped wondering aloud where he was, although his absence was felt around the table at mealtimes and on the thin mattress in the antique bed frame when the last lamp was turned off at night.
Still, they were satisfied with the treasures he brought back - shells and figurines for the children and beautiful pearls and jewels for his wife. Indeed, he was slowly curating tokens of overlapping civilizations, stockpiling his home full of talismans and outfitting his family in trinkets that tied them beyond doubt to societies that once were. But to the civilization into which he was born, he was nearly completely lost, a myth made up of whispers on the water and only occasionally made real by his increasingly infrequent visits to land.
At first, his return home was signaled at night by the creaking front door and quiet, sloshing steps through the kitchen, where he stripped off his wetsuit and hung it to dry above the sink.
But then, he stopped coming back at all, although sometimes in the morning before school the children would open the door and find an array of objects - small toy cars, a doll's brush, a fireman's cap, a scallop shell full of sea glass - arranged on the narrow front step with excessive care, from smallest to largest.
They would gather all the pieces carefully and tuck them into their backpacks, dividing them up between themselves diplomatically and, for the most part, fairly. Then, the two children would set off to school, over bridges and along waterways, feeling the weight of their bounty and occasionally casting stolen glances down towards the canals, towards where their father was swimming just underneath them, looking for treasures and speaking to ghosts.
He’d watch them walk, gliding along unseen below the surface, and when the last, littlest one slipped through the door to the school just as the church bells rang out, he’d dart off, already combing the bottom of the city for something that his fingertips could pry from the mud.
Lucky me, he thinks to himself, I never have to come up for air.