Navigator James has never thought about becoming a navigator. After all, why should he be? True, his late father was a captain at sea and he has been on ships before as a little kid. But he has never worked there, he doesn’t know anyone there, and he doesn’t live anywhere near the ocean. His house belongs to a big trading post at the edge of the desert, and on a clear day after one of the rare rainfalls he can make out a small wadi from the top of the clock tower, the only natural body of water within two days on horseback. James has a good life there. He is a foreigner, but you would not know from his Arabic; he has grown into the community for many years since he was a young adult, and his mind was keen enough that he was elected to become the new Imam a few years ago. On Friday, the local mosque is the place to be, because there is no one better than him to regale the people about the wonders of the big world and the beauties of the cosmos.
In his house, he lives around a giant labyrinth of books, scrolls, folders, globes, charts, models, instruments, and handwritten notes in many languages, having arrived there for all sorts of reasons, carried by all sorts of traders from all sorts of countries, documents about astronomy, optics, mathematics, chemistry, medicine, physics, the many cultures of the world with their religions, laws, and customs, and illustrated encyclopaedias about all the animals and the plants that grow on the earth. And then, alone on the far right of the lowest shelf, lies the most important book which he ever read, the book because of which he is here. A stark contrast to the rest of the bright, sunlit library, a giant and heavy tome with a dark blue cover, measuring thousands of pages of fineprint, in English. This book, a compendium translating hundreds of professors and other experts, each one a luminary in their own field, is only here because his father imparted it on him as his last gift before his final journey. If a visitor found and opened it, they would read the title in big, elaborate letters: OCEAN.
James wakes up from an English voice telling him that it is noon. He wears a purple robe of silk and lies on a big red velvet bag, surrounded by soft white globes of the Earth and the sky, a big atlas, and a round piece of coal. The walls of his chamber are covered with expensive carpets with floral patterns in brown, yellow, and green, and warm orange light emanates from four hemispherical lamps embedded into the top portion of each wall. Two tall, muscular Englishmen come through a hidden door in the wall, constrain him, and force-feed him mashed potatoes through a funnel. Later, one clears the funnel and cutlery from the room, the other unties him again and explains him the circumstances he is in. James’ face becomes pale. He barely succeeds in swallowing back his own vomit, for which an orange bucket would have been on standby. It appears that the crown has given great thought to the design of his room specifically. When he is alone in this chamber, neither sharp, hard, nor long objects can be in here, and no part of the interior is allowed to be blue. His chamber even has a floor made of lead and exists suspended within a spherical container to which it is connected by springs; this mechanism was specifically developed to counterbalance all the possible vibrations, turns, and lurches that happen on the outside. Navigator James is here to chart the course of the “Hope”, a research vessel exploring the vast, untouched regions of the Pacific.
The problem is that James is afraid of the sea. Since his father’s final departure, he has been feverishly imbibing every page, every last line of the dark blue parting gift. For him, a strange fascination emanated from the ocean, as if he was being called by something. But once it dawned on him that his father was away for a time beyond any ration of food and drinking water and that he could impossibly return, he started to recognise this fascination as morbid and possibly lethal. He was haunted by nightmares of being alone at sea and drowning in a storm, of sinking all the way to the bottom of the sea, over two thousand times as deep as his own height, nothing but dark blue and black surrounding him to all sides. Every morning he woke up in cold sweat as his dream ended in him being swallowed or dismembered by deep-sea creatures which appeared increasingly enormous, hideous, and grotesque in his imagination. This is why he took it upon himself to travel the entire way from Gibraltar through all of Europe, over the Caucasus, and through Persia and Egypt, down to the Southern rim of the Sahara desert, the driest inhabited place that he knew of, and the furthest removed from any coast, any lake, any river. As he lived and taught there, he became famous among the merchants passing by as a great scholar of the Islamic sciences, and they slowly spread their recollections about him being the preeminent authority specifically on astronomy, mathematics, and meteorology, who had ventured further into all the sciences related to navigation than anyone else. Because they relayed his correspondence to other experts, word of him arrived in London, where it was decided that he was to be forcibly anaesthesised and kidnapped in the dead of night to work aboard the “Hope”.
Because James never had a military or civilian post in England, even Paul and Luke, his personal handlers and the only people he ever sees in his chamber, outrank him. They, too, need to follow strict procedures: As soon as James is to be visited for any reason, he is to be restrained so that he cannot escape or commit suicide. They are there to provide him documents detailing the position of every instrument on the bridge and every asterism in the sky, wait for him to perform the calculations with his piece of coal, chart the course on the maps, and then bring them to the captain. They also relay to him the captain’s questions of a deeper, more general nature. Other people on board, too, are interested in James’ thoughts on all sorts of matters. But in the eyes of James, these two fulfill a far more important function: They are his one point of human contact, they sit by him nearly all the time and listen with open ears while he teaches them what he used to teach the merchants and townspeople in his khutbah every week; much more than the non-blue furnishing of the non-rocking chamber they are there for him to dispel the nightmare of being suspended over the eternal night of the blue depths, alone. Meanwhile, Paul and Luke tell him of their much different experience with the ocean. On all their voyages, they have been surrounded by sailors and fishermen. They both enjoy the work outside, the songs, the booze, the breeze, the deep bonds of friendship one makes stuck on a boat. They may not be allowed to distract themselves outside for this job, but at least they aren’t stuck on the continent, with the strange continental societies which they have never understood nor wanted to.
One day, the positions and questions stop coming. They look outside and see that unbeknownst to them, the ship has been hit and scattered by a monster wave, and the suspended chamber mechanism was the only construction sturdy enough to survive the wall of water. Before even the realisation of losing the rest of the shadowy, anonymous crew can hit them, Luke and Paul jump out to swim and dive outside the vessel, while James gets a good view of the clearing sky and, far less pleasing to him, the endless dark expanding below the construction. Overcome with pure fear, he retreats into the chamber, followed by Luke and Paul who do their best to console him. Days and nights pass as they drift through the empty expanse of the Pacific ocean. During that time, James forms his first association to the sea other than dread. The happiness of his two friends swimming out there, the freedom of leaving his stuffy chamber after weeks, even the excitement of the look down below that, even while it terrified him, also exhilarated him and at the very least made him someone that has seen it in person; a first step outside into a fresh new world! On the next morning, they notice that the outer shell must have hit something solid, perhaps land. The three hug each other full of joy and emerge out of the hatch, where a giant squid awaits to quickly grab them with its arms and pulls them underwater into the endless black void.
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😧 Oh shit!
I really enjoyed this