playwright-legislator-diplomat CLARE BOOTEE LUCE discovers a strange new world and describes it brilliantly in a two-part article
Oh, flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified!
There I was, slithering along the bottom of the pool like an eel, an eel whose head was imprisoned in a rubber-sealed pickle jar, from which little bubbles noisily escaped, while a quiet trickle of water stole in. A human eel whose body, encased in a clammy black frogman's shirt and black ballet tights, propelled by black rubber flippers, was tightly trussed to a long, gray, pickle-shaped steel tank which slithered along with it.
On my writhing way toward the pool's deep end, I gaped frog-eyed out of my glass prison. The aquarian scenery was not inspiring. I seemed to be in a flooded and deserted quarry at twilight. Through the murky water, cement walls loomed high on all sides. The walls began to shimmy. I looked up.
Ten feet above, the quarry's liquid lid broke into a steely broth, churned by a downflash of king-sized blue flippers. A second later another bottled face confronted mine. It stared at me. I stared back. Its fishy blue eyes seemed full of questioning concern. But I could not verify the expression because its mouth was not in its jar, like mine. Its mouth was sucking lemon-wise on a white rubber bit from which trailed giant rubber-tube mustachios that were joined behind its head to a round alarm-clock-sized gadget affixed to the top of its own tank. It raised its blurry eyebrows higher and swam at me, pointing a gray forefinger. Then the forefinger met the thumb to form a circle. Plainly, in the language of bottled eels, it was asking if I were O.K. I considered the matter. Well, I am not yet drowned. 1 formed my own fingers into an answering circle, noting with faint dismay that they had become as weirdly white as a sea anemone's.
Something—I thought it was relief—came into the confronting eyes. Anyway, they now looked less like watery blue onions; indeed almost human. A muscled gray hand fastened on my arm like a limpet, and I was floated a few feet up. With a flip of its fins, it shot ahead, beckoning me to follow. I followed. Now we were flippering around and around the pool, like trained seals. Good. I have graduated from eeldom to sealdom.
Now my fellow seal rounded on me again, jabbed gently at my chest, then at his own: this was seal talk for "You do what I do." Then he jackknifed and rolled, again and again, mask over flippers. Through my mask this performance looked part fish, part human and part washing machine. Nevertheless, the thing looked easy, and graceful, in a ridiculous sort of way. I began to tumble with him, awkwardly. Sometimes my bottled head came out of the water, sometimes my widespread flippers flailed the air. Good. I am making the novice mechanical-porpoise class.
Suddenly I was quite out of breath. I gulped for air, and swallowed water. I breathed through my nose. Water came that way too. I snorted and spat, held my breath, and fought to surface. Instead, I sank fast, arms up, legs sprawled, in a sitting position. The bottom of my tank hit the metal drain on the bottom of the pool. There was a resounding clang. It echoed through the pool like the bells on the lost island of Atlantis. It knelled doom. I sat there, not breathing, frozen with fear. Now I will drown.
The eyes in the glass were again confronting me, and a finger was pointing to the button on the side of my mask. I pressed it hard. Air hissed sharply into the mask, cleared out the water and escaped: gurgle, gurgle, gurgle! All around my head bubbles panicked to the top to join their own element. And mine. I gulped air deeply and found myself shooting up in the bubbles' wake. I grabbed the side of the pool. How very extraordinary. I can always go up—if I can breathe.... What if I can't? I emptied my lungs and let go of the side. The tank clanged on the bottom again. How very extraordinary. I will always go down when my lungs are empty. I filled my lungs again; I ballooned up. I emptied them; I plummeted down. Up—gurgle! Down—clang! I breathed slowly and shallowly. I made a new discovery: If I rationed my breath, I could lie there on the bottom, inert as a collapsed puffer fish, and rest. I rested. This posture of aquatic repose was followed by the slow return of my mental faculties. Thought began to trickle into my mind the way water was trickling into my mask. I am cold. Very cold. I have a stabbing earache. I have been down here as long as the wreck of the Hesperus.... And yet I could not have been eeling and sealing and porpoising about and lying here like an exhausted flounder in 10 feet of water for more than 15 minutes. I've had it.
My bottle-faced companion, who all this time had been patiently goggling at me, standing on his finger tips, like a lobster, made a "thumb-up" gesture. He also knew I'd had it. I won't surface. I'll go out the way I came in: gallantly, like an eel. I slithered back toward the shallow end, punching my air button every other second and fighting claustrophobia all the way. Then something on the barren floor caught my attention. It was something very small. I eeled over to it and picked it up, and held it before my mask. It was a rusty bobby pin. I dropped it in disgust.