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First of Two Installments: THE HEAVEN BELOW
Clare Boothe Luce
August 11, 1958
It lay in the crystal waters of a Bahamas reef and was found after days of storm. It was, as always, a place of beauty and adventure, a new world
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August 11, 1958

First Of Two Installments: The Heaven Below

It lay in the crystal waters of a Bahamas reef and was found after days of storm. It was, as always, a place of beauty and adventure, a new world

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*"The Reef Fisher," from Collected Poems. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Co.

Afternoon. Sky clear; water so smooth sargassum weed floats on surface, motionless.

Art knows it is our turn, the turn of the lens-divers and the joy-divers. He gears up cheerfully. He drops me gently off the stern, and I gear up in the water, still sparing the back. I level off and, clearing my ears, glide down slowly....

This at last is it: the magic mansions of the sunlit reef, the heaven below. I swim down through liquid green heavens, down through the poem of the sea. Down to delicate castles of convoluted corals, pale fish and rainbow-hued fish, fishes supple and rigid, festoons of fish, festooning the coral festoons of the reefs. I set out on my explorations through waters satin smooth. I am a small child again. It is Christmas; I want to see everything, everything I see I want. I am a child in a summer field. I run from daisy to dandelion, from branch to bee to butterfly. I seem to touch, lift, pick, gather everything; but somehow I am always empty-handed. I go up and down, over and around the reef....

I am looking at an upended pipefish when I have an uneasy impression: something big and strange is following me. I rotate swiftly. Something is, something amazing: a thing part human, part fish, part machine, part firefly, and all held together somehow with strings. It is Dave in a scuba with a flashlight camera. He sprawls like a giant sea spider, trying to remain motionless while he focuses. His long legs, looking curiously thin and attenuated, end in big woolen socks, which are tied with strings at the ankle. They slosh over the heels of his giant blue flippers. He is wearing a purple shirt and red, blue and green Scotch plaid shorts. His hair stands on end, gently waving in the slight current. His black breathing tubes are like great mustachios. Behind his sea-washed mask, his eyes look like boiled onions. A blue plastic knife sheath dangles on a string from his wrist. Over his head, behind the big rusty tank, floats a black string bag full of white flashbulbs. He wriggles nearer, shoving his plastic-encased camera ahead of him. It looks like a big captive jellyfish. Then his flashlight pops and for a magical second Dave disappears completely in the flash. When I see him again he is losing his balance as he tries to snag a fresh bulb out of the string bag floating over him.

Unencumbered, Art, with only mask, flippers and spear, is a thrilling sight to behold as he prowls the sea. But Dave, held together by strings, Dave, who really isn't that passionate about "diving," is an inspiring one. He is modern man with all his weaknesses, resolute to conquer new worlds: his photographs are among the first records of man's new dominion under the Salt Curtain.

It is Louisa who first spots below her the big moray eel swaying in a pocket under a six-foot coral head shaped like a toadstool. She goes up and gets Art, who plummets down, beckons to me, and we swim to the moray's hole. While Art goes up for his interim lungful of air, I lie on the bottom, looking at the moray from a respectful distance. Three nasty feet of his slowly swaying, thigh-thick body jut out of the hole. He is the color of a rotten avocado. The end of his banana-shaped head is twain-split by a gaping mouth studded with rows of spiked teeth. Before I see Art, I see the spear hit. It pierces the neck of the loathsome creature. He shudders convulsively back into his hole. A thin plume of blood comes out of a crevice near the top of the coral toadstool, dissolves like smoke in blue water. Art goes up, comes down with a second spear. He peers in the hole, then swims around fast to the other side of the coral head. Cautiously I swim around after him. Not cautiously enough: there I am mixed up in a hideous brawl. Art's second spear has landed next to his first one in the eel's neck. Art is dragging at his spears, while a long slimy green tail, lashing furiously, tries to free the head it belongs to. Breathing fast, I start to swim away. But Art swims after me, and passes me the twice-speared eel. I am horrified, but I take it, because I know now that whatever Art tells me to do I can probably do safely. I spread the spears, holding them like the handle bars of a bicycle. As I flipper hard to the surface, the stabbed eel fastens its jaws around the nearest shaft, the tail gives one last anguished thrash, then body and tail coil themselves into a great slimy ball around suffering head and jaws which gnaw the spears helplessly.

Sydney gaffs the ugly thing from the water. He shakes it out over the side of the boat. It is five feet long. Then he lets it slither into the fish box among Art's and Don's other but handsomer victims.

I feel depressed by the slaughter of the moray. For a while, I bottom-swim after flounders as they plop along in the sand looking up with their black button eyes which are where any other creature's (except the octopus') shoulder blades are. The beauty of the reef slowly captures me again. I follow a small school of purple and gold fairy bass until they disappear under a ledge. Coles joins us and suddenly begins to behave in an extraordinary manner. He points under the ledge, then rolls over on his back, flips his hands in the air, rolls back on his face, looks at me eagerly. I proceed to do the same, though what it is all about I don't know. Coles shakes his head violently, points again, and goes through his "Fido-roll-over" routine, and again looks at me hopefully. Utterly baffled, I shrug my tubes and flipper away after a pair of French angelfish, until I lose them in the gorgeous Gorgonian gardens of the reef....

On board Coles tells me he was trying to show me, by imitation, that the blue and gold Gramma (the fairy bass) always swims upside down under ledges. Why, he couldn't explain.

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