Abyss; or, Concerning the Relationship of Mermaids with the Pyramids of Egypt

By Hannah Christensen

As the tip of the cone began to glow in the fire, Ajax gently turned it with his tongs. The metal leapt into flames. He snatched it out and waved it about.

“Ay-yi! Don’t get that thing near me!” Zorby ducked away. “Here, put it here.” He shoved the shop’s water barrel with his foot.

“If I cool it like that it will—” Ajax tripped over a chronometer and quickly plunged the fiery metal into the water before he dropped it. “—ruin the alloy.” His thick, red eyebrows turned down.

“The alloy didn’t look much good, especially with you fanning the flames like that.” Zorby grinned. “Maybe I should be the metalworker.”

“Then the first thing you should do is clean up that mess you made. That is the first rule an apprentice learns: keep your workplace clean. You don’t want any accidents.”

Zorby sighed, but hefted up the chronometer. Instead of putting it back in place on the worktable, he admired it from one angle and then another. “When are you going to make me one of these?” he asked.

Ajax cautiously tapped the now dull cone. He scowled at the cracks and warbled surface. “When will you be able to aford one?”

“Ah, come now, we’re best friends since the cradle. Remember Aunt Catima and the blanket peeking?” Zorby put the chronometer down and mimed pulling a blanket over and off his face. “Boh, boh! Boh, boh!” He shoved Ajax in the shoulder. “Only think, I could take you anywhere then and not get lost. A chronometer this fancy would probably even tell me the tides.”

“You know the tides, Zorby.” Ajax strode away toward the door.

His friend followed. “We could even go to Egypt. What do you say?” He ducked out the door in pursuit.

Ajax looked over his work once more, then threw it into the scrap heap. “One, it will probably take that long for me to learn how to make a chronometer like that. Two, it’s too late for Egypt. Years too late.” He shook away the start of his friend’s protest. “Even if they have finally recovered, everyone who knew how is either dead or has forgoten. That’s why it’s so important for me to figure out how they powered their pyramids.”

Zorby sighed at the familiar glint in the metalworker’s eyes. “And then not only will the world be restored to its former glory, our own little Pegeo will bask in the benefits. Right now I would be happy with just a chronometer. You could use it as a step in learning.”

“I have an idea.” Ajax scooped up a stone in one hand and tossed it into the other. “Let’s go fishing.”

“Fishing? But it’s close to midday.”

Ajax hurled the rock toward the sparkling sea. “Comus won’t mind. And that will make it easier to see. That old Egyptian wreck went down before the plagues. Maybe it holds some clues.” He started down the hill.


Ajax looked over his shoulder with a grin. “You can have all my profits.” But Zorby was already following. His feet were always ready to head toward the sea.

On the water, Ajax leaned out over the gunnel. One hand gripped the side of the boat, the other curled around a support rope to help balance to the bob and dip of the vessel. Wind ruffled his red-orange hair.

“Here—right here. If we drop anchor, I should have a straight dive down.”

Comus raised his heavy brow. “What type of fish are you after?”

“Can we pull out just a little farther?” asked Zorby. “Then we would have room to cast a net. And there might be fish over there.” He looked wistfully at the clear, fishfree water between his boat and the sunken one.

Ajax pulled himself back on board. “Hurry, drop it. We’re passing.”

With a sigh, Zorby heaved the anchor over the side. “You know, there is a reason no one else is out here fishing.” He began to gather in sail.

There were some fishing boats in sight, but barely. Most of those were headed toward shore.

“Maybe I’ll scare up some big fish for you while I’m down there.” Ajax pulled his robe over his head.

“Scare them away, more likely,” said Comus.

Ajax rolled his clothing up and stowed it by the tiller. “You brought lines and hooks, I assume.”

“And my fishing spear.” Zorby stroked the shaft of the spear where it stood lashed to the mast.

Ajax pulled out the satchel under the bow filled with fishing supplies. “I can help you set hooks before I start.” He tied a line onto a hook and slipped a minnow over it.

Zorby studied the heavy line his friend had chosen. “Do you think we’ll run across one that big?”

“If we do, he better hope it’s feeling lethargic,” said Comus. “Otherwise it will go after him rather than that nibble.” He jerked his head toward the port side of the ship. “Drop it seaward. Then as long as you remember to come up on the right side, you won’t swim into any hooks.” Zorby’ father had taken Comus into his boat years ago when Comus’ father had crushed a leg in a fishing accident. He had fed upon the lore of two staunch fishermen, drinking in the waves and wind far from shore when Zorby and Ajax had been young enough they could only splash in the surf while waiting for the fishing boats to return. Comus stood in the place of an older brother, or almost an uncle, to them.

The hook dropped through the water, drifting out at an angle in the pull of the water. One by one, more shining minnows and waving squid slid out into the water on lines of various weights and lengths.

“On to discovery,” Zorby encouraged.

“Rediscovery,” said Ajax, scooping up a diving stone from a basket full. “And recovery!” He dove.

“I thought it might be Egypt again,” said Comus. “Didn’t Spiro bring him enough details when he came back from Egypt?”

The last time Spiro had taken a trip to Egypt, he had wriggled his way into a tour of the inside of the pyramids. He had come back with enough descriptions of casings and workings and shafts to keep Ajax occupied through all dubious criticism.

“He can’t figure out the alloy.”

Comus shook his head. “What is he expecting to find down there? Instructions?”

“It was a government courier ship,” Zorby said. “They might have even been carrying parts.” He smiled, eyes out of focus. “Imagine, the power net up again. Do you think he could find a way to make a mobile unit? That would be even better than a chronometer!”

“And more susceptible to sea water.”

“It would take some work.” Zorby checked a line. “Maybe the Olmecs would have some ideas. They have more moisture over there than in Egypt.”

“Long trip.”

“Not if he gets the Power Net working again.” A few active pyramid sites still sprinkled the lands, but most of the world had fizzled out of touch when Egypt crumbled. He looked wistfully into the deep. “I wonder if he’s finding anything.”

Ajax hung suspended in the water, his diving stone dropped The ship drew close, and he wished to find the best approach. There—a crack in the hold. If he could get in there, it should be faster than pulling his way through the mud-drifted hatch.

Progress was slow. Each dive only allowed a short time for investigating before returning to the surface.

The crack in the hull where papyrus bundles had pulled apart from each other was too narrow to squeeze through. Ajax could push his arm in up to his shoulder, or even most of his legs, but the rest of his body would not fit through, especially with his chest so full of air. Feeling around with his hands found nothing interesting, so now he put his feet in to explore farther. Gently he slid his toes through the soft mud, trying to be careful without thinking too hard about the stonefish, sting rays, and other things he needed to be careful about.

There was something hard—hard and round. Carefully he curled his foot around it and started dragging it toward him. It was almost close enough to pick up when it bumped. He readjusted his grip on it.

Pain jabbed up his toe.

Ajax shot out of the hole. He barely clapped his hand over his face in time to prevent a yelp. He glanced down, wondering what poisonous spines he might need an anecdote for. A hermit crab clung fiercely to his toe. Ajax kicked. The corner of his eye caught it arching away through the water, but he did not stop to watch. He thrashed his way towards the surface.

The bright afternoon sun began to darken to his oxygen deprived eyes by the time he reached the air. He thought he would drown before he caught hold of the gunnel. As he gasped and coughed at the waves, Zorby leaned over.

“Find anything?”

Ajax could only shake his head.

“You look like you need a break.”

Ajax hauled in a few more lungfulls of air before he attempted answering. “You…turn?” His lungs hurt almost as much as his still throbbing toe.

“Sure.” Zorby hooked his hands around his friend. “We haven’t caught anything anyway.” He hauled Ajax up onto the ship. He leaned over with interest. “It looks like you’ve had more luck than we have.”

Ajax followed his glance and screamed. Except it came out as more of a gurgling yelp. Clinging to his toe was something pink and wrinkly and twisted.

“What did you find? A mutated shrimp?” Zorby leaned over for a closer look.

“Here, let me see.” Comus stepped over and pinned down Ajax’s kicking leg. “No, those pincers look wrong. I would call it a hermit crab, but without its shell.”

Ajax began to thrash his foot back and forth.

“Really?” Zorby caught the foot and pulled it closer to him. “You’re right. What did you do with its shell, Ajax?” He carefully opened the pincers and held the crab up around the middle. “We can’t just drop you down like that, little fellow. You’d be snapped right up.”

“We could use it as bait,” said Comus.

“He’s no bigger than what we have. Here, I’ll just bring him down with me and find a nice little cranny for him to hide in until he can find a new house.”

Comus grunted.

Ajax covered his eyes and groaned.

With a diving stone in one hand and the crustacean held carefully in the other, Zorby dived overboard.

When he had collected himself, Ajax rolled up to his feet and joined Comus watching the lines.

“Not a bob yet,” said Comus.

Ajax nodded, keeping his eyes on the lines. He was glad Comus was here, not some other fisherman. Most other fishermen would have teased him for months over an incident like his reaction to the crab.

A splash indicated Zorby had come up for air. After some labored breathing, he splashed down again. Ajax kept watching for a catch. During Zorby’s third dive, one line jerked. Ajax reached for it.

“Too small,” said Comus.

“It was big enough to eat the bait,” Ajax pointed out. “We could use it to catch something bigger.” He waited. The soughing wind and lapping water seemed quieter than the underwater’s muted murmur.

Comus nodded. He pulled in the line to make sure its new bait would be properly affixed.

Now Ajax relaxed. He turned to see how his friend was approaching the search.

Zorby seemed to ignore the ship itself. Instead he was filtering through the nearby sea floor. Did he just pick something up? Ajax smiled. “Of course. Why wouldn’t things spill from the hold? I wonder how far they may have traveled by now.” He tried to scan the seafloor for traces of cargo or instruments.

Zorby turned upwards. The closer he got, the more his hands looked full. When he finally broke the surface and threw an arm up over the side of the ship, his hand bulged. Ajax practically pranced with impatience.

“Look what I found!” Zorby loosened one hand’s grip. Ajax thrust his cupped hands under to catch it. The rough, brown ovaloid mass felt lighter than any metal he had come across before. It felt more like wood or…Ajax peered closer. An oyster?

“Do you think they have pearls?” asked Zorby.

Ajax quietly set the oyster down, pushing it hard into the planks.

“I just brought up the biggest, but there’s a whole bed of them down there.”

“Where there any Egyptian remains?”

“Ah…not that I noticed.” A guilty look slipped across Zorby’s face. “But pearls would make up for not catching anything. And you could use some of the profit to help with your experiments.”

“I have an idea. Since I’ve rested, why don’t you come up and see if there are any pearls while I go back down and see if there are any power artifacts.” Ajax tipped his face up and breathed slowly. It wouldn’t do to get upset. Zorby couldn’t even stick to fishing without distractions; he frequently disappeared for a day or two, giving travelers a ride. What they paid rarely compared to what he would have made catching fish. Besides, upset muscles tensed up, and he didn’t want tensed muscles limiting the air to his lungs.

Searching the ground around the sunken vessel gave no sign that anything crafted by man had ever touched the place. Either forty years had destroyed and scattered everything, or nothing had left the ship. It was time to find another way in.

“Tide’s turning,” Comus warned during a breath break.

“Give me a few more dives.” The two on board had managed to catch a few fish since Zorby got back on board, but not enough to make the trip profitable. Mending nets on shore would have been more practical. “We’re running low on diving stones as it is.”

Comus grunted. “Watch for hooks.” Yes, the lines would be slacking, dropping the hooks closer to the boat.

“I can do that.”

Again Ajax thrust himself through the water, aiming for the deck this time. As he had feared, water and mud had sealed the deck tightly. He wished he had brought a knife to help pry his way through. So as not to waste the dive, he lowered himself down to search the floor some more.

He frowned. The side of the ship here had some give. He turned and looked at it more closely. Something here had sliced through the bundles of papyrus. The damage was not as visible as the gap on the other side. Here, the cut ends frayed out, covering the damage. Ajax pushed in with his hand. The reeds bent away. Access at last! But first he would need a fresh breath.

Ajax came up directly under the boat, and scrabbled over to its starboard side. Comus, leaning over, raised an eyebrow. Ajax refilled his lungs as soon as he could and headed back down.

The damaged area was small enough he had to bend almost double to push through. Still, the bundles had unraveled enough to enter without difficulty. Reeds bent before him, then scrubbed across his skin. Beyond he had to use precious time waiting for his eyes to adapt to the gloom. Almost he began to feel around with his feet while waiting, but instead curled his toes and hoped the crabs didn’t come to investigate.

A pale ray of light entered through the crack on the other side, helping eliminate everything it fell on from being worthy of examining. Ajax eased into the darker shadows.

Here only dim outlines showed themselves. He picked a likely looking medium box shape and edged toward it. He bumped his head on the large, bale-looking object by it when standing back up.

The large object moved.

Ajax jumped back, away so it could not fall on him.

The object followed.

Shaken now, Ajax decided he should leave to get some air and see what his box was. He backed toward the entrance.

Now the object moved into the glow of light. It was a large, round fish—larger than Ajax. It opened its cavernous mouth, and he could feel the water around him flow toward it. He clawed his way back through the reeds.

Ajax kicked as hard as he could to try and make up for the arm clutching his find. He risked a peek backwards and saw the fish exploding out of the ship after him. It was a grouper, and an agitated looking one at that. Its fins thrashed the water as it swerved to and fro. Ajax increased his arm strokes.

Next time he looked back, the grouper was in pursuit. Its mouth gaped and swallowed, gaped and swallowed. Soon Ajax could feel a pull in the water by his feet. The surface was not close enough. He would not reach safety before the fish caught up. Ajax did the one thing he could think of. He threw the box at his pursuer.

His heart screamed at the loss. His mind argued the inevitability of his action as opposed to the unlikelihood of ever having such an opportunity again, but his body surged up faster than ever.

He almost swam into a hook before his brain recognized it. Twisting through the water, he tried to regain his bearings. He was on the wrong side of the boat now. Air was beginning to be a desperate need, but the only way he could escape the fish was to come up where he could climb into the boat.

There was no time to look back. He looked up instead—and flailed away from another baited hook. Swim out and up. Maybe he would come up by the stern.

Water paled as he went up, until he finally surged into the air. Ajax gasped for breath and blinked the salt water away. There to his left was the bow. He flung himself over and seized it, expecting any moment to be dragged down into the piscine abyss. In his mind he berated his companions for not watching. He needed their help. An attempt to get their attention by hitting the hull only left him vulnerable to the pull of the water. He held on.

As his breath returned, Ajax was able to get his bearings. He had not come on the wrong side after all, or rather, Zorby and Comus had moved the fishing lines to the landward side of the boat, and the seaward side was the right side now.

Ajax pulled himself over to the safe side of the boat. Safe from the fishing lines, in any case. He peered down, looking for the grouper. It seemed to have given up the chase. His stomach cramped. And taken the artifact with it. Even if something else lay in the shadowy wreck’s hold, the gaping mouth of the cantankerous grouper effectively guarded the way. Maybe Zorby would be interested in going down with his spear and taking it in its den. It was a feeble idea, he knew. Even if he caught Zorby’s enthusiasm, Comus was sure to object. There was not enough light to aim a spear thrust in the wreck, and even if good luck smiled, bringing the fish back up to the boat would be near impossible. He threw one leg over the side of the boat.

“Ajax, is that you?” called Zorby. “Guess what I got.”

Ajax looked toward his friend’s voice only to come face to snout with the grumpy looking grouper. He fell back into the water

“Have you ever seen such a big one?” Zorby’s face peered around one side of giant fish. Only one straining arm was visible.

“Bring it back—” Comus began.

The grouper opened its cavernous mouth. The movement was too much for Zorby’s already taxed muscles. It slipped away and surged into the water.

Ajax kicked away as fast as he could. It was not fast enough.

“Hurry, Comus!” yelled Zorby. “Ajax, can you grab it by the fin?”

That might be his only hope, Ajax realized. He flipped around and headed toward the charging fish. His fingers brushed against the fin, but the fish gulped and he was pulled away. He landed lengthwise across the mouth, just tall enough to keep from being inhaled. Ajax went rigid. He feared that even moving his arms would lose his lodging place. A giant tongue swelled up and slid across his stomach.

Something splashed nearby, and he lunged for the life-line. It was a net. He pulled at it and shook it, looking for the edge, but only got his hands tangled in it. Now his legs were engulfed in a clammy rubber mouth. He tried to kick, but the grouper closed its mouth around his middle.

“Hold tight!” called Zorby.

The cords around his fingers pulled taut. Ajax wanted to scream, but there was too much water around his head.

“Need assistance?” someone called from across the water.

“No need,” Comus called back. “Proceed on course.” Fishing custom dictated helping in crises, but any profit in the end would be shared between the crews. Ajax wished his friends would take the offer. He would gladly pay them for the loss of the whole fish, if he could keep the box it had swallowed and be rescued from its mouth that much sooner.

Finally the net hauled them up and over, rolling over into the middle of boat. Ajax freed his fingers from the net, only massaging them a moment before reeling net in to get to the edge.

Zorby scratched at the wispy bristles on his chin. “Hmm. I’ve never seen anything like this before.” He leaned on his fishing spear. “What do you think, Comus? Do we just run a spear through it, or—”

“Give me that.” Ajax flung the last rope away from himself and lunged at the spear.

Zorby blinked, but allowed him to snatch it away by the head. Ajax shifted his grip, then began jabbing at the fish’s head with his makeshift knife.

“Careful…” began Zorby, then winced as the spear head met the grouper’s eye. “Ouch.”

The grouper opened its mouth again. Ajax kicked wildly a few moments before scrabbling away from the fish.

“Let me have my spear now.”

“The stomach. Get the stomach first.” Ajax needed to have the box in his hands. He needed proof that being half swallowed by a fish was worth something. He clambered to his feet and took a step back.

“I’m not sure.” Zorby wedged his spear beneath the distraught fish and rolled its back against the gunnels. The whole boat tipped a little. “Wouldn’t it be easier—”

Comus cut it. “Remember last—”

The grouper convulsed, launching itself almost into the air. Comus and Zorby staggered. Ajax outright fell. The boat began to right itself when the grouper convulsed again. Diving stones rolled and bait baskets tipped. The grouper heaved itself once more and cleared the gunnel. It plunged into the water, heading almost straight down. As the depths clouded it in blue, it pulled out to open sea.

Silence hung heavily over the fishing craft. Ajax finally closed his eyes and shoved his head into the mast. “I hate fish.”

“Ajax!” Zorby’s face could have belonged to someone who just discovered his brother had hired an assassin against him. “You promised.”

“Do not try to tell me that…that monster was only acting with a fish nature. That was an unnatural attempt to swallow me whole!”

“That’s how they eat. Sometimes fish do attack. You know—”

“Sharks, yes. Barricudas, other things with teeth, yes. But have you every been tongued by one of those things?” Ajax began yanking his clothes on.

“You’re upset it didn’t bite you?”

“No.” Ajax stopped and looked out toward sea, where he thought he could still make out a speck swimming away. “But it got away. Clear away. I’ll never see it again.” His heart keened after the Egyptian box.

The wind moaned, too, leaning the boat against its anchor rope.

“Um.” said Zorby.

“Pull in the lines,” said Comus. “It’s time to put him back on land.”

As the anchor came up and the boat surged forward, Ajax eyed the scattered dots of boats across the water. They didn’t look close enough to have seen his earlier predicament. “Just don’t tell anybody, okay?”

“Scrolls!” Ajax exclaimed half under his breath. “All that trouble for scrolls.”

It was three days later, and the news at the tavern was a catch down the coast of an unusually large grouper with a recently blinded eye. What was even more unusual about the catch was the box of scrolls found in its stomach.

“But they might have been valuable ones,” said Zorby. “They could have even held all the secrets and instructions of the power of the pyramids.”

Ajax glared down at his cup. “And how many years of seawater do you think it would take before they were as useless as the power masters in Egypt have become?” He rubbed his forehead and sighed. “I’m sorry, Zorby. I was just hoping to bring up something special.” He shrugged.

Zorby bit his lip. “If we waited a week, I might be able to convince Comus to try again. You never know what you might find.”

Ajax sighed and looked down.

“The sea is a mystery, a living mystery,” said Kalogeros, a sailor at a nearby table. He had been one of three they had encountered on their way home after their trip. They had all asked after the day’s catch, an ever present topic in a fisherman’s village. “Not much,” Comus had answered. Ajax had winced, looking at the meager brace of fish laying on the deck, not even enough for supper. Only one fisherman had pressed further. “It looked like quite the commotion onboard.” Comus had grunted. “That one got away.”

“You never know what strange catch you might drag up,” Kalogerous continued from his tavern table. “Have you ever seen a fish with arms?”

It took several moments before Ajax realized he was looking at them. “No, we didn’t catch an octopus.” There was only one thing he could think of that Kalogerous might be referring to, and he didn’t want to talk about it.

Kalogerous nodded. “Didn’t think so.” He leaned back in his seat. “Thought someday when I have an extra few hours, I might try that spot myself.” He squinted one eye at the two friends, waiting.

“We didn’t get much,” warned Zorby.

“Sometimes it takes patience before the sea will surrender her secrets.” Kalogerous nodded to himself.

Zorby smiled. “You sound like an Atlantean,” he said. “They say they have inlets into the wisdom of the ancients, and that the very depths give up its secrets to them.”

Ajax’s head went up, and he half rose from his seat. “Of course!”

“Ah, what’s hooked you now?” objected Zorby. This was not the look of his friend when he settled down to diligent pounding and tinkering. The blaze in his eyes was the same look he had when as a boy he had decided to loop a rope around a shark so it could tow them to its favorite hunting ground.

“Atlantis has the key!”

“They don’t have any pyramids.”

“Of course not. They have their own source of power, and are too arrogant to join the communication of the rest of the world. It is a point of pride on their part that the world comes to them, not the other way around.”

Zorby scratched his head. “They still have ambassadors and wandering wondermen. And it’s not true that everyone comes to them. I’ve met occasional Atlantean merchants, even given some a ride. Though they’re usually not so open in their work as others.”

“Smugglers, you mean.”

“Well, I wouldn’t—”

“And word is, they managed to communicate with home anyway.”

Zorby frowned. “You believe those stories about the ambassadors being able to talk mind to mind with each other?”

“No, of course not. I’m sure they keep their real method as secret as they do their power source. The point is, they have the knowledge of the ancients. I bet they could make their own Power Net if they wanted to, but they have something better.” He lowered his voice. “They probably know how to make dozens of alloys!”

Zorby tucked his lower lip under his teeth.

Ajax gripped his friend’s arm. “Don’t you want to see Atlantis?”

The wind was sharp the morning Ajax swung his last bundle onto Zorby’s boat and clambered aboard, waiting. Zorby still stood on the shore, trying to wheedle Nelvia into a good-bye kiss. She pulled away.

“Is that how you tell your man good-bye?” He tried to catch her hands.

“You?” She shook him off. “You’re just a boy. A soft faced, slug-a-bed boy. When will you give over playing and become a man?”

Zorby swayed back. “Nelvia, sweet, it’s just a short little trip. Think of it as a quick little passage, a few short days. Then I’ll be back, pulling in enough fish to swamp the dock.” He stretched out a hand to her. “Most everybody takes on a passenger now and then.”

“Next you’ll be expecting me to believe the old-wives tales Telma is telling about half-fish creatures.” She turned her back on him. “Good-bye, Zorby. Try not to forget where you belong.”

Zorby walked slowly to his boat. He stopped and turned back once, but she hadn’t moved, so he jumped in and pushed off into the early morning fog.

The trip took the longest day Ajax and Zorby had ever had. Once the sun had lifted high enough to burn away the fog, it seemed content to stay put. In time, Zorby became obsessed with taking measurements in the sky.

“I wish I had a chronometer,” he grumbled. “An hour must have passed by now.”

“More,” agreed Ajax. “I’m hungry again.”

“It can’t have been that long. The sun would have moved.” Zorby fussed with the tack. “It’s like we’re caught in one place, and we can’t move out. We feel like we’re moving, but it’s just the same water, the same waves, even the time is stuck.” He pulled back sharply on the rope in his hand.

“I’m sure it’s not that bad. My stomach must be playing tricks.”

Zorby rubbed his splotchy beard. “Does she really think I’d forget her?”

“If it makes you feel any better, I’ll row.”

They both did considerable rowing, and at one point broke down and ate, though neither spoke or looked at the other while they did. They had just started rotating shifts when the sun resumed its course. Neither quite dared mention it, but Zorby quietly cried when Atlantis broke into view early afternoon. Light gleamed from the buildings growing from the cliff-faced shore. Already they could hear echoes of the waves playing in the caverns beneath the city.

“It…it was supposed to be a two day trip,” Zorby said as they neared the dock. He scrubbed his large arm across his eyes.

A lump in Ajax’s throat kept him from answering.

On shore, everyone’s lips was full of how the day had lasted the length of two.

“It’s a sign,” declared a scrawny wine merchant.

“Of famine, or of war?” asked his neighbor, who tended a fig booth. A pucker was grooved into his forehead above his nose, and white sprinkled his beard. Ajax wondered how much was from the past day.

The wine merchant sniffed. “A good sign. Atlantis will soon take her place as the glory of the world.”

“So the priests say.”

“You doubt them? Have they not produced a sign like none other? Soon we will rise on the wisdom of the ancients, hidden by the floods from all others, and bind the world together in our unsetting glory.”

The fig merchant grumbled about wine dreams, but Ajax ignored him. Instead he went up to the wine merchant.

“So it is the wisdom of the ancients that makes you one of the greatest kingdoms of the world?”

“One?” The merchant’s mouth pinched.

“The greatest since Egypt failed?” Zorby tried.

“Egypt!” The merchant rose to his feet. “What is the power of Egypt, I ask you? The Nile. She makes her boast of power based on a ribbon of water that trickles through her. The strength of Atlantis, however, is the sea. There is no greater power. Even the ancients were subdued and overrun by the billowy depths, but we have command over it. The sea pays its tribute to us.”

Ajax started easing away. “We’re newly arrived visitors, and have much to learn. I’m looking forward to learning about your secret knowledge. Where would be the best place to start?”

“Our supremacy is shown everywhere!” Now he was waving his arms as though he had taken too much of his own wares.

“Unless you want to know something,” said the fig merchant. “The priests keep all the secrets. Occasionally they let a few out to high craftsmen or a wonderman, but all you’ll get out of them is maybe a few stories. They didn’t even bother mentioning this oh so splendid sign of theirs until afterwards.”

Zorby didn’t listen. He was still frowning at the wine merchant. “But you have to admit that Egypt has a bigger domain than—”

Ajax grabbed him by the arm and towed him away. He didn’t slow until they were safely several streets away. “Don’t talk, just look. We want to find a place that is forbidden.”

By evening they had spotted three possible places.

“I think we should try the school,” said Zorby, and ripped a big chunk of bread off with his teeth. They were eating back on board his fishing vessel, both because it was cheaper than renting sleeping quarters and for the privacy to talk.

Ajax nibbled on his dates.

Swallowing, Zorby went on. “It’s a big building and probably has more scrolls than Damary’s cart has fish on market day. All we need to do is polish our speel on how we want to see how wonderful the best realm in the world is.”

Ajax shook his head. “Too many people. They wouldn’t let us read the secret scrolls, anyway. I doubt they even keep the really important things in such a public place.”

“They were checking everyone who came in,” protested Zorby.

Ajax still didn’t look convinced.

“Besides, of the only other possible places, I refuse to help raid a temple, and the building site is too close to the sea to hold much.”

Ajax dropped his date-filled hands and leaned forward, sparks in his eyes. “That’s it! The temple has too many people coming and going, even with worshipers confined to the court. They archive and study things there, but the construction site is the key.”

Zorby sighed. “Ajax—”

“Don’t you see? To begin with, what are they even building?”

Zorby scratched his head. “Some sort of building? Another temple? I can’t tell yet. They only have the gate finished.”

“Exactly! A great, big fancy gate in front, but all that was behind it was a makeshift shelter with a thatched roof.”

“All that we could see, you mean.”

“Yes! The gate and wall bar anyone from seeing what’s going on, and calling it a construction site is a cover for having all their excavation equipment there. Being close to the sea isn’t keeping it from being the place of their wisdom; it’s what makes it so! They’re excavating the wisdom of the ancients right from the sea itself.”

“But why is the gate so fancy?” Zorby twirled his half-eaten bread. “All that gold and engraving and sculpted work.”

“It doesn’t look suspicious for priests to always be entering something that looks so much like a temple door.” Ajax flicked his hand. “The question is, how will we get in?” He stood and started pacing. “The land side is too well guarded. We must go by sea.”

“Don’t you think they’ve thought about that? There are a lot of ships around.”

“If we learn what type of protections they have, we can figure out how to get by.”

Zorby sank his head into a hand.

“It can’t be too formidable,” Ajax assured him. “Atlantis is known for her secret knowledge, not for her fortified mine knowledge. Secrecy is her main protection. Tomorrow I’ll poke around in town some more and see what I can hear. What I need you to do is sail around tomorrow and see what types of barriers or guardpoints they have.”

“Ajax, if secrecy is their chief protection, they are not going to be happy about that. You may end up stranded, never finding anyone who’s even heard of your friend or his fishing boat.”

“You just need a cover. Tell them you’re here to see the grandeur you keep hearing about, and it is so wonderful you had to paint some pictures.”

“I didn’t bring my paints.”

“That’s fine. It’s just a cover.”

“If someone stops and asks what I’m doing, it’s going to look mighty suspicious if I don’t have any paints with me.”

Ajax sighed. “We can pick up some paint supplies for you in the morning. A few. Maybe you could make some sketches of the key pieces of layout while you’re out there.”

Zorby started to perk up. “Do you think they have some good umber here?”

“A few, Zorby. A few.”

The next morning, after picking up more paints than Ajax thought necessary along with parchments and a brush—he absolutely refused to let Zorby get more than one brush—they went their separate ways. The plan was to meet back at the dock at noon, but Zorby sent a message by way of a passing fishing boat that he would be out a few more hours. The sun was swelling as it dipped down before he clomped down the pier where Ajax sat listening to dockside gossip.

“Ajax! You have to see these pictures!” he boomed.

Ajax sprang up and hurried to meet him. “Not yet. Wait until after we eat.”


“Here. We’ll eat on board your boat. That will save time. You can show me then.” He led the way to a food vendor and carefully measured out the copper for a meal of fish and bread with watered wine.

Back on board, Zorby brushed the food aside to spread out his parchments. “The light’s getting a little dim, but you can still see most of the color. Look! I really think I got the water movement in this one.”

Ajax studied each picture in turn. His friend had found the perfect place to cast anchor, with a view to the city’s profile and a straight line of sight to the back of the building site in question. Embedded in the images of stately city over the cave-textured cliffs and the majesty of the sea about its feet was the line of defence to the site of the world’s greatest lost secrets.

The back of the building site opened onto a cove closed off by a wall of rocks, some visible and some submersed. Only one familiar with the waters would know if a channel big enough for boats even existed. In addition, a slender penninsula extended along one side of the cove, and at the end of the land strip was a tower bearing a light. Presumably it warned away ships from the nearby rocks, but the light tender could easily raise the alarm over anyone he saw trespassing in the cove.

He questioned Zorby about water depth and currents as he examined the pictures. When he finished looking at one, he flicked it to the side to see the next. Suddenly he stopped. “What…”

“Isn’t it lovely?” Zorby beamed. “It’s a different type of tern than we have. But look how soft the light is on its feathers.”

Ajax scrutinized it. “You forgot the background. Or is what it’s sitting on important?”

“Na. It’s just a rock. And a background would only distract.” He sighed gustily as Ajax held it aloft to look at. “Do you think Nelvia will like it?”

Ajax dropped the picture. “Why did you put it in with these? No, no, it looks fine. It’s just…irrelevant. Here.” He quickly looked over the remaining picture. “I think I have a plan. We need to start as soon as it’s dark.”


“I picked up a few supplies. There’s no time to wait. The priests are practically promising some sort of revelation by the end of the week, and that will be—”

“Wait…today would be the fourth, no, fifth day…if the sun never sets, do you count it for one day or two?”

“It doesn’t matter, we’re running out of time. They’ll count it whatever way suits them best. A revelation means more searching about in their secret cove, and we’re more likely to get noticed—”

“Or maybe they are launching some plan. You don’t think this showing their glory to the world bit will include invading, do you?”

“That wouldn’t help us, either. The key is go quickly, and find what we need before anyone even notices we’re looking.”

They split the time before leaving into two watches, though Ajax did not rest much in his time. Only a sliver of moon came out, almost a new moon. They unmoored when the last of the fishing boats slipped away, and lingered until they could circle around unnoticed. On the opposite side of the cove from the light tower, they pulled the boat up and tied it close to a great upthrust of rock. With the mast down, the rock was big enough to shelter it from sight. Zorby carefully tied it with three times the number of mooring lines as usual. The tidal flow was in his favor, but he still wanted no chance of waves dashing his boat against the jagged outcrop. Ajax waited impatiently, rope coiled over one shoulder and a bag slung over the other.

“Are you ready now?” he whispered. When his friend scooped up his bundle, he scurried over the limestone barrier to the cove.

A careful look revealed no one around to object to a diving expedition. Ajax slipped into the water. The weight of the bag dragged him straight beneath the waves. He struggled to come up again.

“Stop splashing so much,” whispered Zorby. “Someone will hear us.”

“Could—” Ajax choked on some water. “—use some help.”

Zorby sighed, carefully set his bundle out of the waves’ reach, and slipped into the water as well. He wrapped an arm around his struggling friend, and immediately dipped, too.

“Gah!” he exclaimed as soon as his mouth was clear of the water again. “How many diving stones did you bring with you?”

Ajax did not take the effort to answer.

“This is not working,” Zorby said after a second dip. “Here, let me try this.” He grabbed onto a coil of rope and struck out for a nearby rock outcrop. Climbing up, he looked back. The rope trailed loosely through the water. “Hold on,” he hissed over the waters as he drew the rope to him, then flung it back out to his friend. Ajax managed to grab hold, and Zorby towed him to safety. They flopped against each other to catch their breath, legs dangling into the water.

“I think this plan of your needs some more thinking,” said Zorby.

Ajax huffed in some more breath.

“For instance, how am I going to bring the lighting equipment over and keep it dry?” Zorby waved back the way they had come.

“Put the…kindling in the glass part…and try resting it…on your head.”

Zorby frowned. “I’m not a maidservant. How am I supposed to keep that on top of my head?” Getting no answer, he sighed and pried himself up. The swim back to the rock was awkward and wobbly with one arm clamping the bundle to the top of his head. Ajax pulled it to relative safety as soon as it was close enough.

“You did fine. Now, is this where you said the water dropped off deep?”

Zorby rubbed his chin. “A bit over there, actually. If you dive too steeply here you’ll hit your head against the rocks.”

Ajax nodded. “Do you want help with the light, or should I test the waters while you set it up?”

“Umm…” Zorby peered into his sack. “Maybe you had better watch me.”

The sack included an oil lamp with an attachable glass bulb for the top. Air was let in through a spout on one side, to which they attached a woven kelp hose. A swiveling brass mirror at the base of the bulb allowed the light to be aimed, and a length of rope tied around the handle let Zorby anchor it from going too deep when he saw the length of hose running short. Ajax also tied a rope around himself. “You can help if I find something too big to lift by myself,” he explained.

The dive in the dark was eerie. The lamp lit the boulders well enough to send their black shadows sliding through the water like elusive sharks. He almost thought bare moonlight would have been better, but reminded himself of the slender crescent and the deep ocean floor, too low for starlight to touch. As it was, the lamp could only descend far enough to render the crags along the bottom indistinct black shadows against an almost as dark blue background.

It took several dives to find his way through the crags to the bottom and still have enough breath to look about. Looking actually used his feet and hands more than his eyes, which still made him nervous. Twice on the way up something disentangled itself from the shadows to brush by him.

Zorby looked as nervous as he felt.

“Should have brought a hook or something, I see,” Ajax tried to joke after coming up one time.

Zorby’s smile stretched as taught as a fishing line with a shark on the other end. “Hands are too full, anyway,” he said. “Have you found anything?” He opened his mouth to say more, then closed it again.

“Not yet. I think I saw a marker just a little closer to shore, though. If I can find one of the Atlantean’s excavation sites, I should be able to turn something up.”

Zorby bit his lip and gave his head a quick nod.

Two dives later Ajax was able to positively identify the marked crevice. His heart pounded harder as he followed his fingers down the rows of shovel gouges into the shaft itself. He stretched out to explore.

A few spear lengths in something smooth brushed his fingers. It was too smooth, too rounded, too cylindrical to be anything but manmade. He trembled. Could he have found something already, so near the surface? He tried to pick it up, but it wouldn’t move. Further exploring revealed it was trapped in loose, fist sized rubble. A throw-away, perhaps, or something overlooked and lost. Even if it did not cradle secrets of power, it might be the key to a lost piece of knowledge. He began to clear the rubble.

Just then the rope around his middle jerked sharply. Precious air escaped his lungs. Irritated, Ajax jerked back and reached for more rocks. This time the pull came strong and continuous. He laid a hand over the rounded sides of his treasure, but now he would need another trip for air before he could finish the job. He snapped away and followed the pull, acidic comments rolling about in his mind.

Halfway up, the light went out. The back of his neck prickled, and he struck out stronger. He couldn’t even tell how close he was to the surface until it ripped away into the air.

“What happened to the light?”

“Forget the light.” Zorby reached over to seize his friend. “I heard rumblings.”

“Rumblings?” Ajax tried to squirm away. “No, forget your speculations over power seizing—”

“Rumblings! From the earth. We have to leave now.” Zorby hoisted his friend up and half tossed him towards the rock with the boat hid behind. Without checking to see if Ajax was coming, he arched out in a long, shallow dive toward the rock.

This is what convinced Ajax. Zorby never just left. Even that time when they were about to be caught up on the roof of Philetus he hadn’t climbed down and left. He had hung over the side of the roof, pleading with Ajax to leave the magnetic pole and come along. Ajax struck out for the boat as fast as he could.

They scrabbled over the rock and tumbled on board. Ajax frantically tugged at the knots, but Zorby pulled out his knife and sliced them free.

“Row!” he yelled.

“The sails—”

“No wind, no time.” Zorby unshipped his oar and shoved away from their docking point.

Ajax grabbed up the other and thrust it into the sea. This time he could feel it: a grumble so deep his ears throbbed more than heard, and it shivered the surface of land and sea. Ajax leaned into his oar as hard as he could.

Behind them now came grinding, as though the very earth were gnashing its teeth. The shivering water turned into jagged waves. Ajax clung on and rowed as best he could as the growing troughs and crests jolted his body and wrenched at his oar. The water continued to thrust higher until they used the oars to steer away from visible rocks rather than speed them on their way.

“Grab the tiller!” yelled Ajax.

“Didn’t you hear it go?” Zorby yelled back. “Watch out!”

The rock was too close to row away. Ajax smacked at it with his oar, pushing away. The oar cracked, but the boat shifted its course enough to grate across it without smashing to shreds. Ajax didn’t think any holes were punched, though it was hard to tell with the water washing on board from above.

Now there were crashes and human voices lifted in terror. They had just made their way past a rocky iselet when the thunder set in. It was not thunder from the sky, but earth thunder, grating and gravelly and all-enveloping.

A glance back showed the glimmering pinpricks of lights in Atlantis fall. Some tipped slowly out toward the sea before toppling in, but others crumbled inward, collapsing down toward itself. It was if the sea had opened a cavernous mouth beneath the city to swallow it whole.

Ajax began to flail with his oar in an attempt to go yet faster, then noticed the movement of the boat. It was no longer straining forward, tipping and bobbing in the waves. It was starting to pull up, bow lifting, as though straining at the end of an anchor rope. And then the whole world started moving backwards. Waves sucked back, streaming now in foaming rivulets. Seaweed and debris dipped up here and there to streak the surface, and the shiny scales of a fish flashed in the pale moonlight. The boat raced along with them, stern first.

“Steer!” screamed Zorby, churning up a froth. “Steer clear!”

“Steering doesn’t help! We’re getting sucked in!” Still, he pulled himself out of his horrorfied reverie and fought the water too. The current nearly snatched the oar from his hand.

“Island!” cried Zorby.

Ajax glanced at the iselet they had just cleared, the water now splitting itself into a foamy seam around it. A cleft in its steep, rocky side especially agitated in foam.

“Island!” said Ajax. He didn’t have time to hope. He only had time to act. Leaping to the other side of the boat, Ajax dug his oar in and stroked as hard as he could.

“You’re turning us in circles,” protested Zorby.

“Not circles. Just turning.” Ajax glanced at their path. The iselet was upon them; with luck they would crash into it at the turbulent water at the cleft. “Get ready to reverse strokes…right…now!”

The boat, aiming stern-point at the cleft, swung around just in time to hit the islelet broadside. The jolt flung Ajax off his feet and across the deck.

“Grab the cliff, grab the cliff,” he called as he staggered toward it himself. He dug his fingers into every crevice in the rockface he could find, trying to cling to the boat with his knees and toes. He could feel the boat stretching away in the current, and hugged it to the cliff tighter. Then it shifted ever so slightly and the dashing water was pushing it into place against the rock face. Hot tears dragged across his face and he almost collapsed with relief. Instead he closed his eyes and leaned his head against the rock.

Zorby’s clatter and thumping almost did not register in the chaos around. When Ajax opened his eyes, he found the mast mostly set and the sails up.

“The water’s dropping.” Zorby raised his voice just loud enough to be heard through the roar around them.

Ajax looked back blankly.

“Remember the earthquake of Aqabar.”

He did remember. Not that he had been there, but one of the survivors had sojourned at their village for nearly a year, and had never tired of telling the tale. His relief froze into panic. “We can’t stay. We need to leave.”

“Not yet, not yet. But soon.” Zorby flicked the rope he was holding into a knot and gently pulled Ajax back from where he was pushing against the isle’s cliff. “We’ll be ready.”

Ajax steadied himself, rubbing his fingers together and breathing hard. “Yes,” he said. “Yes.”

The water continued to swirl away until they could see the dark bottom. Then the current began to ebb, letting up its tight push against the boat.

“Get ready,” said Zorby. He made one more adjustment to the sail. “And…go!”

They thrust away from their shelter, losing way a few cubits at first, but pulling it back again as they made open water. Stroking as hard as they could, headway was slow at first, but then they could hear, could see, could feel the water as it swung back in its course.

“It’s coming,” called Zorby.

Behind, a swelling mountain of black raised its curved head, extinguishing stars until it reached and covered even the moon.

“Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!” Ajax tried to initiate a faster coordinated pulling, but his arms could not keep up with his mouth. The boat began to billow up. “Can we make it to land?” he yelled.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Zorby yelled back. “Row!”

But the wave was upon them now. It shouldered under them and thrust them away, harder even than it had it had drawn everything into its maw before. Ajax and Zorby screamed as they hurtled toward the shore.

A frothy deluge spilled over the sea’s boundaries, covering it in strangeness. Even a native could not have picked out any landmarks. The river was small, almost a creek, nowhere near the grandeur of the Nile. The might of sea overwhelmed it, drowned it from view, but it was that humble river bank that saved the two travellers.

The sea drove the boat toward land, but it missed the smashing coastline and slipped into this hidden passage. The waves pursued, pushing it farther inland, but the rising land cut off the peaks of the waves from their strength. Around, solid pillars and trees were torn down and scattered, but the boat continued its retreat. Finally a bend caught its hull, and it shuddered to a stop. Water curled up around it and smashed down, but it was the edge of the wave’s strength. The sea sighed away, reluctantly retreating.

The fishing boat remained, broken against the river bank. The water slowly resumed its normal course. A breeze quested through the wreckage. Two bodies stirred as the young men realized they were still alive.

Ajax and Zorby took almost two weeks to make their sore way back on home foot. By then Ajax felt like his life was travelling; arriving seemed unreal.

“Is…is that…?” Zorby said. Tears streamed down his face as he stood in the hills and gazed down on the little thatched roofs.

“I think so…yes. Yes, there’s the shop. And your house. And Kalogerous’ boat.” Pegeo looked different approaching it from the land.

“Nelvia will never let me leave again,” Zorby said, but smiled as he broke into a run.

That night the whole village gathered around, crowding closely as though to make sure the two travelers were truly alive. Nelvia always kept at least one hand on Zorby the whole evening. No one said anything about the little projects Ajax’s father brought along and left in little piles around the grounds to lay a hand on Ajax’s shoulder or gaze at him until he could no longer stand still and went back to a project.

As food gave way to wine, tears lightened into laughter. Flames danced and spun shadows in joyful spirals.

Children pressed in.

“Tell us what happened!”

“Were you in Atlantis when it fell?”

“Did you hear the maids of the sea? Telma says they wailed over Atlantis’ destruction and thrashed their tails.”

“Maids of the sea?” asked Ajax.

“The ones human on top. Like the one Zorby and Comus caught.”

Ajax frowned, and then covered her eyes and groaned.

“No, no, no maids of the sea.” He glanced wistfully back toward the way they had returned from. “I didn’t even see my cylinder.”

Zorby looked over at him. “Where will you look now? Maybe I could take you…someday.” He smiled up at Nelvia. “When your father is willing to spare you again?”

Ajax shook his head slightly. “There is no sea by Chaldea, and Olmec is so far away.”

“Olmec. That would be an adventure.” Zorby reached up and covered Nelvia’s hand on his shoulder. She looked down at him and curved an eyebrow up.

Ajax smiled. “Maybe I should work on learning to make that chronometer first.”

Back to Mermaid Stories

Other Stories by Hannah Christensen

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