© 2003-2005 by Steve K. Lloyd (All Rights Reserved)
What do we know absolutely? What human condition exists about which we cannot say there is some extreme not already experienced, some exaggeration of hunger, or fatigue, or thirst, or emotion, or sensory input that others have not sampled in greater measure?
Surely there exists a place that is blacker, more secure against the penetration of the merest speck of light, more bereft of an infinitesimal glimmer of illumination. However, I am content in my conclusion that in no other place have I experienced darkness that was as softly formless as the inside of this dead, sunken, rusting steamship.
The images I saw—and did not see, could not—faded like antique Daguerrotypes.
I will forgo a lengthy description of how I came to be there, or why. But my thoughts and actions on that day compelled my conduct and my conduct, in turn, placed me deep beneath the surface of the ocean. I entered where I always do, through the emptiness that was once a picture window in the ship’s dining room.
Starboard side. Salon deck.
Hoses and lights clutched tightly to my belly, I exhale slightly. A gentle kick, the steel tanks on my back thud on the iron hull of the wreck as I pass. I am inside.
Stay off the mud, the pillow-soft silt that covers every surface with mossy pervasiveness. Not too high, though, for another blackness waits above me, the syrupy muck of bunker oil that has crept from the liner’s ruptured fuel tanks over generations, rising in delicate tendrils through tiny holes deep inside the wreck, captured now against the ceiling and waiting. Waiting. Blood is thicker than water. Bunker oil floats.
Inside now. Slow movements, deliberate. No hurry. Aware. Alive.
On the left, another opening, larger. A doorway into the pantry. Long-dead waiters passed through these doors, steaming platters held to their shoulders. Broiled shoulder of veal. Roast goose with shallot dressing. Broiled mutton chips. Sounds of laughter. The tink of wine glasses. Steam hissing from the galley. Everywhere, young men in white. 1920s gaiety. Gone now, silence.
Through the doors, pulling myself gently with just the tips of my fingers. Exhale and I begin to sink. Toward the silt. The black.
Inhale, rising. More black above. Thick.
In the middle, horizontal, not high or low. In, out, rise, fall. Suspended. Stay above the silt, below the oil. There. Further. The light I carry with me, for I know that inside is only pure, perfect, silent darkness.
Passing counters now, piled still with the remnants of past lives. White circles and ovals—all sizes. A dusting of silt lays fine as mist over everything. Bowls, plates, butter dishes, saucers, cups. Serving trays, water glasses, vinegar carafes. Inside each, a perpetual serving of seawater.
First course—appetizer. The napkin is on the plate or left of the forks. All glasses remain throughout dinner.
Thirteen pieces at each setting, six settings to a table, three dozen tables, two seatings each night for dinner. Breakage—spares. Here. Somewhere.
Darkness everywhere. My light chases the dark, teases it. It does not pierce the dark, or dissipate it. The two are not friends. The darkness endures the light, humors the narrow beam. It is nothing.
Second course—soup. The soup plate is set on the service plate after the appetizer and its silver are removed.
Disarray; the violence of the unexpected sinking so long ago. Tables up-ended, counters tilted crazily. Decay, the sea reclaiming the ship and all that it holds. White blood cells attacking a virus, a foreign invader. Digesting it.
Third course—fish or entrée. The service plate is replaced by an entrée plate. Warmed in winter. Use the outer knife and fork.
Warmed. For the first time now, I notice that I am cold. Insulating layers beneath which I sweated at the surface now capture icy whisps under my arms and at my groin. I am cold.
I am moving, but slowly. Carefully. There is no hurrying underwater. Not here.
Fourth course—roast. The large dinner plate follows the entrée service and is removed with its silver.
A wire hangs from the void that was the ceiling. Just beyond, a light fixture (or what in another life may have been a light fixture) tilts crazily. On the floor are shapeless lumps that could be anything, or nothing. My passing—gentle and deliberate—displaces enough water that the silt is awakened. Diaphanous plumes arise where I pass, the fine particulate disturbed. Exquisitely sleeping for a lifetime, I woke it up. My light and me.
Fifth course—salad. Plate and silver are both smaller than for the meat course, and the plate should be cold.
Ice cold now. Quiet. Peaceful.
There is no sound here, nothing but the muffled whoosh of the air I inhale through my regulator. As I exhale—not completely—the bubbles that an instant before were exchanging oxygen through the membranes of my lungs rush past my face. They gurgle, laughing as they dance into the darkness of the ceiling, into the oil.
Oil, water, blood—air. Which will rise above which?
Sixth course—dessert. Each place should be cleared completely except for the glasses. The table should be crumbed before the dessert plate and silver are placed.
A glance over my shoulder, toward the place where I know the door must be. I cannot see it, for there is no pale green glow from without—I have turned a corner. Any daylight that has penetrated these many fathoms, that caresses the outside of this rusting womb into which I have crawled, is stranded outside. I am inside. I can see, but only because I have carried with me a device with wires and batteries and waterproof o-rings, engineered to withstand the crushing force at this depth. Pressure.
Seventh course—coffee. When coffee is served away from the table, the finger bowl with its doily may come in on the dessert plate.
Stacks of coffee cups. Hundreds. I have reached the far end of the serving counter, have passed the shapeless, silt-dusted mounds I know to be china. Prized as souvenirs, sought-after by collectors, coveted by wreck divers. Each piece adorned with the logo of the steamship line whose flag once flew from the mast that still stands somewhere far above me. Closer to the surface. Above me. Outside.
The doily and the bowl are slipped off by the guest as dessert is served.
I cannot lose my way here. Not a mantra, but a fact. I know this place. I have entered the dining room, turned left through the double doors, into the pantry. My passage has been straight—yes, straight. Behind me is the exit. Ahead is blackness, water. Pressure. Icy death.
When coffee is served at the table, the coffee cup and saucer are placed after the dessert is served.
Enough. Out. Turn around. Now.
Silt uncoils from the floor, reaching for me. My light is a delicate caress against the dark, rough cheek of nothingness. I pivot—slowly. Facing the door. Safety. Surface. Air. Light.
Blink! Darkness absolute.
The meal is completed, and guests are excused.
I am facing the door.