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Breathless in the Deep

Breathless in the Deep by Cory Skerry (Illustration by Galen Dara)

When Jantz spotted a black skeleton jutting up above the water, at first she thought it was just a tide-battered tree, but before long she could make out the shredded ropes and scraps of sail. The wooden bones were the charred yardarms of a sunken ship.

“Wreck to larboard bow,” Jantz called from her perch on the prow.

“It’s bad luck to say that word,” muttered Pigeon.

“What, ‘larboard’?”

Her scrawny friend ignored her and returned his attention to gently guiding Sandina farther seaward. After he’d lost his right arm in a diving accident, their boss, Sakre, didn’t often let him at the helm. In calm weather like this, however, it wasn’t much of a risk. The eerie witchlight barely swayed where it hung from the sloop’s prow, and the sails hung in tired folds.

Sakre’s voice drifted down from above. “You two be ready to fill your bags.”

Jantz glanced over her shoulder in time to see Sakre swing down from the shrouds and drop lightly to the deck. Years of rum and sailing had whittled him down to necessities, left his skin plastered over his lean muscles like wet canvas draped over ropes. He wore the same threadbare captain’s jacket as he’d worn the day she’d met him, even though he could have afforded a replacement.

Sakre spat once over the side. Pigeon winced at the insult to the sea, but if the Wavekeeper himself had surfaced then to demand retribution, their boss would have haggled over the price of his own head.

“These are the ripest beds on the Grey Coast,” Sakre went on. “Once, one of my divers brought back a pearl the size of a cat’s skull.”

“Then why haven’t we come before?” Jantz asked.

“It takes a long time to grow pearls this big. No use taking ’em while they’re olives if they can be apples. Besides, more often we come out, the more likely someone’ll follow us and pick ’em clean.”

Jantz had never seen another diver in the three years since Sakre had bought her from the orphanage, but she shrugged and helped Pigeon tack into the shelter of the bluffs. She wasn’t going to argue with Sakre, not while he still owned her debt, and especially not when she was so close to paying it off.

“You remember how much I owe?” she asked.

Sakre pulled his saggy-brimmed hat off and smeared away the sweat with the fine hairs on the back of his arm. “Two pearls, same as the last two times you asked. Be sorry to lose you―you’re the best diver I’ve trained. Search extra-hard tonight, since if you bring back more’n two, I’ll owe you in cold coin.”

It was hard to believe she would be diving for herself soon. She didn’t begrudge her debt to Sakre—for teaching her to dive, for fronting the money for her tattoo—but to emerge from a dive with a sackful of her own wares, to afford her own flat and maybe her own boat, maybe even someday her own orphaned divers . . . She swallowed a lump in her throat, remembering the day he’d rescued her.

Sakre had asked her if she wanted to become a diver, and since she’d been told to say yes to anything he asked, she nodded. He’d taken Pigeon and her for a meal at a pub, with meat and a whole slice of pie for each of them. Afterward, they’d gone straight to the inkhouse.

The tattooist had injected tiny dots of fishy-smelling kraken’s ink into Jantz’s flesh. The ink flowed into runes that formed a poem of Sakre’s personal design, an incantation to turn water to air. The runes trailed down her sternum and spread out over her growing breasts. Getting a tattoo didn’t feel good, but she’d been hurt worse before, and she was proud that she didn’t cry like Pigeon had.

“Will it glow?” Jantz had asked, thinking of the witchlights that were fueled by droplets of kraken’s blood.

“Yes,” the tattooist had answered. “But not until you’re wet.”

The tattooed runes had soon puffed up and felt hot to the touch, and her brown skin turned a brick red around the edges of the poem. The runes neither lit up in the bath nor when it rained, and she began to suspect the pretty poem was broken.

When the scabs had hardened and had begun to itch, Sakre caught her scratching at them, peeling up the edges with her thumbnails to see if the ink glowed underneath. He’d slapped her across the face so hard that she’d tumbled to the ground. She curled in a ball while he bellowed.

“Blood of the Five! If you dive with a ruined tattoo, you’ll just drown, you foolish girl. And when your body floats to the surface, I’ll cut that expensive fucking ink out of you and poke it back into someone else’s skin, someone who respects magic. Do you understand?”

It was the only time he’d ever struck her, but she still sensed that violence in him, a glass-toothed eel waiting between rocks, always angry, never closing its eyes.

Yes, she owed Sakre, but she couldn’t wait to be free. After her first dive, she began making tally marks inside the lid of her trunk to mark the winnowing balance on her debt.

Jantz avoided looking at Pigeon as she outfitted herself for what would probably be her last dive. Her tools were so familiar they felt like clothing: an empty sack to fill with pearls; a flask of cider to warm her guts; a bundle of propsticks to prop open the maws of the giant striped oysters; and a sash sewn with gravel ballast, which she slung over her shoulder so she would sink. Last of all, she hung a thumb-sized witchlight around her neck, so she could see where she trod on the seafloor.

These days Pigeon didn’t come back with much. He wore all the same equipment as Jantz, but he also wore a cloak of fear that hunched his back and cramped his fingers into a fist. He placed his hand over his forehead to hide himself from the five death gods, mouthed a prayer to the Wavekeeper, and jumped.

Jantz, like Sakre, wasn’t superstitious. She left her forehead free for the gods to mark as they might, since she doubted they would. But as always, she did hold her breath before she splashed into the water.

As the sea swallowed her in its cold mouth, the runes on her chest flared into hot green life, glowing through her sleeveless shirt. The poetry on her chest seemed to know the sea, and it awakened at the touch of salt water the way barnacles hissed to the approaching tide.

A flock of bubbles tickled the length of her body, rolling off of her chin and up toward the moon where it splattered on the surface. The splash of waves against the hull became the dull swush of her limbs through water, and her muscles went stiff at the sudden cold.

She peered down past her feet as she sank, aiming for the solid rocks revealed by the witchlight. The combined weight of not just the water above her, but the entire ocean smothered her tiny home of bones and meat. It was still less pressure than living on Sakre’s ship, eating food he provided, sleeping in the berths he’d built long ago for other protégés, saying only that which she thought he would approve.

Her chest grew tight, but she pressed her lips together. Not yet.

Crabs and small fish nibbled at the carcass of a seal just ten steps due north of Sandina. The ribcage looked human, but she could see its dog-like skull wedged in between the rocks. If there had been sharks feeding here, they’d fled at Jantz’s approach―inexplicably, even the largest were spooked by witchlights.

Her lungs burned. No matter how many times she dived, she couldn’t trust her tattoo, couldn’t trust that something as powerful as the ocean could be held back by a few scrawled words hovering over her weak little lungs.

She concentrated on searching for oysters. Sakre’s claims of abundance didn’t match this barren vista. There were plenty of the regular edible variety, barely the length of her hand. Each time she spotted the stripe-shelled breed she sought, it was just half of an empty shell, cracked and seaworn.

Fifty or so steps from the ship, the rising panic in her lungs finally reached a crisis. She clenched her fists as her mouth opened and she inhaled.

The water in front of her face heated immediately, as warm as if she’d pissed where she stood. Air flowed into her lungs, chill in comparison. She exhaled, and a stream of bubbles swirled toward the surface, heading for the fever-shaky shape of the moon above.

Jantz struck out across the sloping seafloor toward deeper water. The witchlight around her neck didn’t illuminate anything farther than its own perfect sphere, so she could only examine the ground for threats a step ahead of where she stood. Sometimes, she spotted decisive schools of finger-sized fish, but mostly nothing wanted to swim into the sphere.

Finally, she found an oyster, a real oyster, large enough to enclose a whole seagull, its jagged edges like a cat’s teeth. It was cracked open a handsbreadth, and in daylight, she would have been staring into darkness. At night, however, with the witchlight around her neck, Jantz could make out the glint of blue-green opalescence inside. Before she risked her arm, it was good to know there was a prize.

Jantz worked a t-shaped propstick out of her quiver and eyed the oyster for a moment, to gauge her trajectory, so the stick remained stout instead of splintering. Every time, she wondered if Pigeon had made a mistake, or if his stick had been defective, as he claimed. She pinched herself for judging the living. Even the gods wouldn’t be so cruel.

She popped the pronged end into the oyster’s jaws. It snapped down, fanning cold water toward her belly, but the stick held it open just far enough to fit her arm. The oyster’s furious body was slimy under her fingers as she groped for the fist-sized pearl cradled in its guts.

As she drew out her prize, she saw that it was a fist, five knuckles smooth with pink-white nacre. Two opalescent bones stretched out from the petrified wrist, jagged at the ends where the oyster had severed them. It was a common enough fate among divers, but Pigeon had been lucky to live. This was probably a dead person’s arm.

Jantz considered cracking open the fist and pulling out the original pearl, but after a moment, she tucked the whole arm in her belt. If she could find two regular pearls for Sakre, she might sell the arm for herself. The fortune-witches on Salt Street might pay her well for something both precious and macabre.

She kicked the propstick out of the oyster’s mouth so it could close again, then looked up to orient herself by the moon. In her peripheral vision, however, she saw the telltale witchlight of another diver. Had Pigeon already passed her?

No. A glance proved he was still behind, lurking directly beneath the ship where he could swim to the surface and get quick help if injured.

This other diver’s witchlight hovered motionless near the wreck.

If this was one of Sakre’s ex-workers, Jantz wanted to have a word, see why she never ran into them elsewhere. And if it was a competitor, she had an entirely different set of questions. She’d need to know how she could compete with Sakre’s ship and crew once she was independent and selling the pearls herself. She and Pigeon weren’t allowed ashore unchaperoned, so she’d never had the chance to gather information about the pearl business.

She climbed over rocks, brushed away eelgrass as it licked at her legs. Near the surface, in the liquid light of the moon, she could see the silhouettes of cracked yardarms―just a little sloop, not much different than the Sandina, aboard which Sakre was probably getting impatient.

When she crested a small rise, she found herself close enough to touch the light she’d seen.

It wasn’t another diver’s witchlight; it was a searing green eye, with a star-shaped pupil blacker than the water beyond.

She sucked in a breath, and warm water lapped against her cheeks and chin even as the chill air froze her tongue and throat.

The creature’s skin was nubbly and a deep orange-red. Long, suckered arms curled around a destroyed oyster. A kraken, barely the size of a horse, not the ship-wrecking behemoth she would have expected.

One warty arm rippled, shedding shell fragments like snow. It swiped at her; not violence, but an exploration, the tip of its arm aimed toward her witchlight.

No wonder sharks were afraid of the witchlights―they associated the glowing orbs with kraken’s eyes. So, apparently, did baby kraken.

The empty oyster shells, the dead seal no sharks dared go near . . . Jantz didn’t have time to berate herself, though, because she had seen smaller multi-armed fish hunting in the shoals, and she knew what was coming. She wasn’t about to let it compare her to a tasty snail.

She flicked her knife out and with one hand, grabbed the suckered appendage, and with the other, she slashed at its rubbery skin. Its squeal reverberated through the water, humming through her bones like a bad deed long remembered.

The kraken’s eight arms stretched out, a jagged flower stained green by the witchlight, and suddenly they flapped at once. The current spun Jantz end over end. She thrust her arms over her head, afraid that she would slam against a rock and lose consciousness. She couldn’t drown, but she could die of cold.

The witchlight around her neck went out, and a moment after that, the tattoo glow under her shirt went dark as well. She stuffed the severed kraken’s arm into her belt, alongside the empearled bones, and used her free hands to grope for the witchlight around her neck, to see if it was broken. For a moment, as she rubbed her thumb over it, she saw a flicker of green.

Her lungs burned. The spell had malfunctioned. No matter how hard she gasped, neither air nor water passed through her lips. She’d never missed the reek of burnt salt before, had even cursed it for flavoring her breath for hours afterward.

She rubbed her fingers in the water; it was like touching snot. A black, viscous substance had killed the light of her tattoos, and the spell couldn’t turn it breathable, because it wasn’t water.

Kraken ink.

Precious seconds leaked away as she fumbled for her flask, pried out the cork, and dumped the lukewarm cider into the ocean. Yes, she needed air, but she knew she could hold her breath longer―would have to―because kraken ink was one of the most precious substances in the ocean.

It felt like her lungs were being pressed between the palms of an angry god, but she couldn’t stop, not until she filled the flask with ink. She pinched the leather sides and pulled them apart like a bellows, until the flask was heavy with ink. She recorked it and kicked toward the surface, oily strands clinging to her skin like a tattered cloak as she flailed toward the moon. After a few strokes, she made it into clear water, and her witchlight and tattoos glowed again.

Chill air flooded her lungs just as she was beginning to see red. She paused before she broke the surface and frogged with her legs, thinking hard.

There was one thing that could fetch a better price than pearls, and she had enough for twenty tattoos―forty, maybe a hundred. If Jantz surfaced with the ink now, Sakre would take it. Anything hauled from the sea onto his sloop was his property until her debt was paid.

Two pearls, that’s all she needed. If she had to give up the one in her belt, so be it. The kraken couldn’t have eaten every oyster in Hangwitch Cove.

She only needed one more pearl.

A scheme scuttled in from the dark parts of her mind, quick and shifty. Even if she didn’t find pearls, she could keep the ink. She let herself sink a little farther and stroked toward the wreck.

The witchlight illuminated the spars as she reached them. Barnacles and anemones crusted the old wood. Jantz tucked one of her matted locks back into her ponytail and scuttled face-first down the mast, pulling herself along by rope tangles and clumps of thumb-sized mussels. Once, she caught a glimpse of white bioluminescence floating just outside the witchlight’s influence, but she didn’t have time to marvel at egg sacs or jellyfish. Sakre may have finished his bottle already.

Jantz just needed to find a place she could stash the flask of ink. It wouldn’t hold forever, but at this depth, a regular storm wouldn’t tear everything loose. She could leave it here until she’d settled her account with Sakre, then come back and sell it.

She could buy Pigeon’s debt, too. She smiled as she imagined his face when she told him he was free.

As she kicked toward the bow, hoping to find the fo’c’sle hatch unobstructed, she caught sight of another wisp of jellyfish drifting below the witchlight. Below that, there was a jagged hole in the rotted hull, revealing a luminescent garden of sea-cups, anemones, and coral that grew in animal patterns: spider’s webs, dunecat spots, and concentric rings like a meatbeetle’s shell. They glowed fiery violet and intoxicating orange, so beautiful she wanted to touch them, and so brightly that she knew better.

A pale diver drifted through the glowing jungle, reaching out unnaturally long fingers to caress the sea-cups.

Fingers as white and dead as the pearl fist that Jantz had tucked in her belt.

“Blood of the Five,” she swore, the sound no more than the fluttering of a moth against glass.

The ghost turned its head at an angle that would have snapped a living neck; it had a translucent gourd of a skull on a long, gelatinous body. Above its tiny pink eyes, there was a radiant pink glyph carved into its forehead. Jantz couldn’t read much, but everyone knew and feared the word for Breathless, the mark of the five death gods when they took you for their own.

A clutch of tentacles dangled where the ghost should have had feet, and they rippled as it drifted up toward the hole in the deck, toward Jantz.

She whipped off the weighted sash and kicked her way up to the surface. She changed her mind about leaving the kraken ink, because she was not coming back. The wet sound of her heart in her chest matched the sound of water gurgling against the spell as she panted.

Luminous white shapes drifted toward her, lit not by the witchlight, but something else―maybe the glyph on their foreheads, maybe what was left of their souls. At least they were slow.

Jantz made the mistake of looking down.

There were three below her, reaching for her feet. Their dark mouths opened, and far down their black gullets, she saw the faint glow of more pink magic. Whatever bright energy leaked out of the glyphs on their skulls also lurked in their bellies.

Panicking, she kicked without looking up and slammed her head into a broken spar. In the moment when she floated, stunned, one of the ghosts wrapped its cold fingers around her ankle and pulled down.

Jantz reached for her knife just as a second ghost clamped onto her other leg with its toothless cavern of a mouth. Cold, colder than the water around them, so cold it burned. The edges of its lips wriggled over her skin, and she stabbed it, but the ghost’s flesh sealed behind the blade as if it had never been stabbed at all. It continued to suck the warmth out of her body.

Winter crept through her veins, streaking out from their mouths and freezing her thighs, her labia, her navel and hips. Sakre would be angry at the loss of her expensive tattoo, and there was grim satisfaction in that, at least.

Her tattoo . . . A thought flitted by, too horrible to contemplate, an affront to the gods. If it failed, it would only end her sooner; if it worked, she had best not submerge herself where the gods could see her blasphemy.

Jantz uncapped the flask and smeared kraken’s ink over her forehead. It clung as it had minutes ago, oily and thick. She slashed at her forehead with the tip of her knife. Left to right, a loop, downward zig-zag. The pain was still a fleabite compared to the lifeless agony consuming her legs.

The gods marked the dead with the glyph for Breathless; the only magic Jantz knew how to work was the breathing tattoo on her chest. If she counterfeited the Breathless glyph with the magic of the kraken’s ink, perhaps she would die, but perhaps she would merely pass for dead.

She raked her fingers over her wounds, smearing the sheen of ink into the crevices in her flesh. The enamel on her teeth ground off in flakes until it felt like sand on her tongue.

The ghosts let go.

Jantz glanced down and almost let go as well, almost succumbed to the symphony of light throbbing in the wreck below. What she’d seen before had been nothing compared to this borrowed brilliance. The ghosts were ferociously white, like the sun burning through an overcast sky. They caressed the luminescent flora and fauna, drinking magic through their too-long fingertips, their bodies pulsing in time to the currents.

The ship had burnt, she could see that now. There were too many ghosts to have crewed a sloop this size, however—too many to fit on the ship at once—so there must have been more than one tragedy in Hangwitch Cove. A one-armed ghost poured through a hatch and wandered aft. It was a common enough injury for divers, but she still wondered if she carried its lost limb in her belt.

“Why are y—we all here?” Jantz asked. The words came out in bubbles, garbled by the weight of the sea.

The ghosts who had been chewing on her feet had dropped back to the deck, and they ignored her. The closest ghost faced away from her, apparently tangled in the rigging. But when she spoke, its head sunk through its own chest and appeared again between bony shoulder blades. The ghost regarded her with two pink jewels lodged in an upside-down face.

 

Its voice was wet and rough, as if it spoke with a rotting canvas tongue. “Why would we go anywhere else?”

Jantz considered this for a moment. “Were you a diver?” she asked.

The ghost’s fingers stroked barnacle plumes the way Pigeon stroked their mangy old cat. “Of course,” the ghost replied. “Oysters and pearls, pearls. If I find more than three, he’ll owe me in cold coin.”

A chill wriggled down her spine only to die in her gut.

For long minutes, Jantz prowled the ship, asking each ghost how it had come to be here. Some didn’t answer, but those that did recited stories of murder and arson, cut throats and bashed skulls, robbery and betrayal.

She propelled herself to the surface.

Dawn had spilled in the east, and though the sun wouldn’t rise for another hour or more, the sky was red and swollen like freshly tattooed skin. She swam for Sandina.

Jantz carefully combed her hair down over her forehead. If the gods saw her counterfeit glyph, so be it, but no one on board that ship needed to know of her blasphemy.

She climbed the rope ladder topside to find Sakre leaning on the rail, his silhouette black and jagged against the witchlight and the coming dawn.

“What the hell took you so long?” he demanded. “Pigeon found one, like usual. He got tired of waiting for you and went to bed.”

Jantz doubted that she would ever see Pigeon again.

“That’s too bad,” she said. “But let him sleep. We can sail without him, to the wreck. I found too many pearls to carry, so I hung them in an old sail, like a hammock.”

What?” Sakre asked. He hunched over like a bird considering a bug, ready to lunge.

“A kraken has been eating the oysters and spitting out the pearls. I scooped up armfuls,” Jantz said. She plucked the sucker-studded tip of the kraken’s arm from her belt and tossed it to Sakre.

He caught it against his belly with one hand, still holding his bottle in the other.

“Good work,” he said.

When the sloop neared the spars of the wreck, Sakre dropped anchor. He watched Jantz, waiting for her to jump in the water.

“Well?”

“There’s so many, you’ll have to help,” she said.

“You’re not paid off yet,” he said sharply. “You work. I’ll wait.”

“There aren’t any pearls,” Jantz said. Her smile hurt her cheeks like someone was pinching them into place, but she couldn’t stop.

Sakre’s face cramped, and he was silent. She’d never seen someone calculate her death before, and a few hours ago, it might have scared her.

“Will you wait for me to turn around, like Zekre, and hit me with the handle of a chisel?” Jantz asked. “Or do you think you can take this knife from me, the way you took Makarn’s knife from her?”

Even in the sick green glow of the witchlight, Sakre lost color.

“I know why you don’t dive anymore. You have a question that no one’s been able to answer,” Jantz said.

“Shut your—”

“The answer is yes.” Jantz laughed. “They are waiting for you.” She lifted her knife, darting forward fast and low. She would shove the blade into his gut like a propstick into an oyster’s maw.

As Sakre backed up, his eyes tracked the motion of her arms. Jantz was tired from a long night; Sakre was only a little drunk. His fingers pinched onto her wrist, and he squeezed so tightly she dropped the knife.

She shoved off the deck with both legs, and they tumbled into the water together. Jantz blew out her breath immediately, kicked with all her strength, driving them deeper even while Sakre struggled to wriggle free.

The past divers drifted closer, drawn by the thrashing and cursing. White like leaving a temple at noon, with too-long fingers and gawping mouths, they reached for the man who had bought them new lives and then taken them away. Shrieking, streaming bubbles, Sakre tried to swim away, but his victims were many.

Jantz climbed topsides for the final time that night and went in search of Pigeon. He lay on his bunk. While she could find no wounds, he also had no pulse. Poison, perhaps, or a broken neck. She pulled his blanket up over his already-cold flesh, covering the expensive poem that now wouldn’t give him even one more breath.

Her grief seemed too quiet, almost drowsy, but perhaps it was only fatigue and the sloop’s familiar motion. Perhaps it would hurt later.

Jantz lay down in the aft cabin’s big bunk. She thought of dead men, with her head on a dead man’s pillow, still clutching a dead man’s nacre-covered fist.

Her heart still beat with the suppressed thunder of waves thrashing against rocks, as heard from beneath the sea.

© 2013 by Cory Skerry.

Cory Skerry

Cory Skerry

Cory Skerry lives in the Northwest U.S. in a spooky old house that he doesn’t like to admit is haunted. When he’s not peddling (or meddling with) art supplies, he’s writing, reading submissions, or off exploring with his sweet, goofy pit bulls. For more stories, visit plunderpuss.net.