The Boundless Deep
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Chapter 1


It starts with the dream; it always starts with the dream.  The boat is rocking, the waves slapping iron-fisted against the hull.  A cold wind is screaming out of the south, blasted up from the chill Antarctic, chapping the cheeks and watering the eyes.  There is nothing around but ocean, on all sides as dark and forbidding as the scarred backs of the leviathans when they finally surface in swirls of water and spouts of steam.  Overhead, the sails creak ominously, taut under the strain of the fierce Antarctic-driven wind.  A momentary lull slackens the canvas, then snaps it into place with the sullen crack of a slavemaster’s whip.

The ocean, my dreaming mind tells me, is a harsh mistress, hard and unforgiving.  But it is also the cradle of life.  The cradle...and the grave.

From the slender hoops in the mast high above, the lookout gives the call, his voice high and thin in the teeth of the screaming winds: “Thar she blows!  She blows!”

And it is there, rising off the port bow like some beast of legend, water pouring off its scarred, balck back like waves off a rock.  Its breath, moist and hot in the chill air, hisses forth: the fires of hell unleashed. 

Frenzy erupts with the lookout’s cry.  The decks of the ship boil with motion as it begins its slow, ponderous turn into the path of the whale.  The whaleboats are flung from the sides; men pour like ants over the rails.  The boatsteerers take up position in the bowsprits, their harpoons flashing silver in the pale light of the morning sun, ropes coiled like torpid snakes behind them. 

Senses are heightened at such a moment.  The salt-tang of the air, always so familiar,

now rakes at the throat with caustic fingers.  And the voices of the crew echo back and forth like macaques in the jungle: all noisy cacophony, devoid of sense.

“Hold fast the course!” the captain cries—a voice so familiar to my dreaming mind that I know it for my own.

Oars are shipped, the whaleboats skimming across the water like bugs across a pond.  The rowers are well-trained, the oars a poetry of synchronized motion.  Rise, dip, stroke; rise.

The whale, too, dips below the surface, then rises again, ecstatically blowing.  The dark, squarish head, the stubby ridges of its dorsal hump, reveal it to be black gold: the mighty sperm—the fiercest and most valuable of the cetaceans.  Kings are anointed with its oils.  And under it flukes, scores of whalemen have met their maker.

The cries go up from the men, echoing eerily in the chill air.  The whleboats gain speed, fleeting after the leviathan.  Harpoons are poised for the toss, their deadly points gleaming.  And we who are left behind, riding above the waves as the leviathan rides below, wait in taut anticipation, nerves belled out like canvas before the wind.

For myself, watching in a state not quite awake and not quite dreaming, there is a sense of dread inevitability.  I know this scene—as well as I know my own shape, the feel of my own flesh beneath my fingers.

As captain, I don’t know it; but I know it, in my dreams, as inevitable as sleep.  Because it has happened before, this endless dance of hubris and doom.  It has happened many times, night after night.  Yet still the sun shines above me, and the deck rail, hard beneath my fingers, drives splinters into callused flesh, so tightly do I grip it.

Maybe this time, all will be different.

Once again, the whale breaks the skin of the sea.  The lead boatsteerer poises; casts.  The

weapon soars a silver arc, the lines singing out behind it.  And then again, in quick succession.  Both shots are true.  Barbed and deadly, the points sink, one by one, into a mountain of black flesh.  The lines snap taut.  And then the monster rises.  Not just breaking the surface this time but thrashing upwards in a wake of foam, small eyes appearing, and then that ridiculous afterthought of jaw, seemingly so fragile yet with teeth the length of a grown man’s hand. 

The toothed jaw clashes; the beady eye gleams with rage and pain.  Higher and higher the monster rises until it looms over the small boat like a wall of storm-tossed water.  And here is the moment of choice: whether it will drop once more and attempt to flee the harpoon’s sting, towing the whaleboat behind it like a child’s toy, or whether it will rise up until it almost clears the surface of the waves then dive down deep, our last view of it the mocking flap of its mighty tail.

Both carry their risks.  In the former case—on that mad journey named after my homeland: the Nantucket sleigh-ride—the whaleboats can be dragged miles from the ship in the fury of the chase.  And in the latter, both boats and crews can take the fast path to Davy Jones’ locker if the ropes are not cut with enough speed.

But this time, it is the third and most deadly possibility that occurs.  The vast, black body twists in mid-air, and descends on the boat like a hammer on an anvil, crushing it as if it were no more solid than a nutshell.

The toothed jaw clashes, shearing through the second boat so that it falls in halves, spilling human cargo like seeds from a pod.  A mighty flap of the tail annihilates the third.

It is hard to see if there are any survivors in that welter of wake and foam, nor is there time to evaluate, for the whale is turning, spying out the larger ship: the ultimate source of its torment.  The harpoon juts from its back like a pin, the lines streaming behind it like a flag of victory as it comes.

And then that vast, squarish head is hammering into the side of the ship.  I hear the crack of timbers, feel the wallow that lets me know the ship is wounded.  It is not enough, though.  The whale comes again, striking up into the hull.  I can feel the ragged hole it makes, as if this vessel is an extension of my body.  As, perhaps, it is.

My fault, I think, as the water floods in and the ship founders.

My fault...

I have done something, I don’t know what, but something terrible.  Something that has drawn down the wrath of God himself; doomed not only me but my crew as well.  I am twisting with guilt, impaled like a fish on a line, even as the waters flood in and the ship begins to split.  I hear the boards groaning, then tearing apart with a tortured scream.  Soon, the frigid waters will embrace me: the only lover’s touch I deserve.

The ship shudders again beneath the beast’s assault.  It is not, I know now, a whale.  It is some avenging demon out of Hell: my fate and my punishment.

Expiation for my many sins.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil... 

Except that I do fear.  I can smell its stink upon me, sour and acrid in my sweat.  I can taste it on my tongue.

For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me...

But it is too late for comfort now.  Too late for repentance.  Too late for the words that once formed a cornerstone of my life, but which haven’t had any true meaning for me in years.  It is too late for anything.

The cold waters claim me, and I wake—as drenched with sweat as if I, too, had been swallowed by the sea...


In the bright, morning light, my room looks strangely surreal: too cool, too clean, too modern.  Everywhere white walls, straight lines, squared angles.  It is all wrong.  I’ve known other rooms—sometime, somewhere.  Not my childhood rooms either, in that quaint, midwestern house that has comprised most of my life up until now.  But something far more distant, with one tiny arched window and oddly-angled walls.  Wood and calico, and something yellow...or is it green?  The smell of sea and salt in the air, the mournful cry of the gulls; the sounds of a busy port town rising to go about its business...

It is always like this, when I first awake: this sense of disconnection, of things not being quite as they should.  But gradually reality filtered back around me, and the familiar press of my things ceased to feel so alien.  It was just my room after all: my abstract posters in their artistic black frames, my spare Ikea furnishings—the standard décor of the impoverished graduate student.  The morning air streaming in through the open windows smelled of earth and flowers, and a vague sense of something burning, with nothing of the sea in it at all.  Which was just as it should be.  I had never in my life lived by the water.  And there was not a thing nautical about this room at all; not even the prints on the walls.  Honestly, I must have been the only English major ever to graduate without reading Moby Dick.  I had spent my life ducking the sea—at least, when I was awake.

When I was asleep, however...

“You’ve been dreaming again,” Jane said knowingly, poking her head around the bedroom door. 

I sat up, pushing a handful of damp, clammy hair out of my face, and sighed deeply.  I’d had these dreams all of my life; you’d think I’d eventually find another topic.  Something a bit less...watery.  But no; it had to be this.  And it had been growing worse over the past few weeks, these nightly excursions into the cold, dark deeps.

Admittedly, there had been other dreams in the past—happier dreams—of sea and sky and the freedom of a fleet boat beneath my feet.  But lately this dream had dominated, and it was getting harder to shake off with each new morning. 

But then again, perhaps this was just a function of the fact that I was finally facing my fears.  I glanced down at my suitcase, more than half-packed by the side of my bed, then back up at Jane, who had come all the way into my room by now, with her usual blithe disregard for other people’s privacy.  The burning smell grew stronger as she entered, and I masked a groan.  My punishment, it seemed, for sleeping in.

Still, I managed a wry grin in response.  “Was I screaming again?”

“Like a banshee,” she informed me cheerfully.  “I could hear you all the way from the kitchen.”  And when I raised an eyebrow, she added, “Well, since it is your big day and all, I figured I’d make the breakfast.  And since you’re such a fan of French toast...”

Yup, that explained the burning.  “So you decided to make it Cajun style?” I teased.

Jane grinned.  “Blackened, you mean?”  My roommate was all manner of things, but slow was not among them.  “That was the first batch.  The second batch is...  Well, you’ll see.”

I couldn’t help it; I laughed.  As a distraction, Jane Bryant was first-rate.  I had almost forgotten that she had dyed her hair green last week.  Or at least green in virulent streaks, as if her previous copper highlights had oxidized and run.  And perhaps that alone accounted for the sense I had woken with: that something green was missing from my room.

Still, it was a definite improvement over last week’s red.  That had simply looked as if Jane’s head had rusted.  But then, Jane changed hair color as frequently as other people changed their clothing.  In the nine months since I had answered her ad and taken up residence in the apartment’s second bedroom, she had sported at least fifty different colors, ranging from almost normal hues to things Mother Nature had never intended in her wildest nightmares.

Her personality was similarly mercurial.  She absorbed fads and trends with the same ease she adopted hair colors—and with as much staying power.  There were flirtations with nose rings and henna tattoos; with mysticism and feng-shui.  Whatever the new age flavor of the month, Jane was out there sampling and absorbing it, maintaining the bits she chose and discarding the rest.  She was like one of those crazy quilts my grandmother had been so fond of making: little bits of this and that combining into an oddly cohesive whole.

The only obsession that hadn’t seemed to go away in the months I had known her was her insane fascination with my dreams.  She had cooked up theory after theory to explain them.  I was haunted; I was channeling some sort of universal consciousness.  (I scoffed at this.  A universal consciousness about whaling?)

Jane’s latest theory was reincarnation.  It remained ridiculous, but at least she was taking it seriously.  My mom—in most ways a practical Midwesterner to the core, save for the perilously romantic streak which had led to my ridiculous name—had always put it down to ‘Liza’s fancies.’

“So, which one was it this time?” Jane continued, folding herself onto the foot of my bed with the fluid grace of an Indian mystic—for yoga had, until recently, been an obsession as well.  She was wearing a faded black t-shirt cut off just below her breasts, revealing a taut, tanned stomach complete with the inevitable bellybutton ring, and a pair of old grey sweatpants.  Her bare feet revealed toenails painted a virulent, metallic blue.  “The bad one?  The one where you know you’ve done something horrible and are being punished for it?”  Jane gave a delighted shiver, and I grinned. 

“Yes, that one.  Again.”

Jane bounced a little on the mattress, her dark eyes lighting.  “I knew it,” she declared.  “That is so cool!”

Perhaps to her, but normal girls did not dream of whale hunts—especially not in the era of environmental politics and Greenpeace.  I mean, if I was to have a recurring dream, then couldn’t the universal Powers That Be at least have chosen a more socially acceptable one?

Except that choice had never entered into the equation.  It had been whales as long as I could remember.  Whales...and Nantucket.

“I just know we’re going to find the answer,” Jane said, her eyes bright beneath her emerald bangs.  “There’s a reason you keep dreaming this; we just have to find out why.”  She leaned forward and pushed excitedly at my shoulder.  “I mean...Nantucket!  Can you believe we’re finally going?”

I couldn’t—not even today, when my suitcases were packed and awaiting only the final additions.  I was a landlocked girl from the Midwest.  Both high school and college had been spent as far away from either ocean as it was possible to get.  And now, graduate school as well.  So why a small, Atlantic island dominated my dreams remained a mystery. 

But a mystery, as Jane said, which might shortly be unveiled.  I couldn’t help feeling that answers really did lie on Nantucket.  Or, at the very least, the answer to the most vital question of all: was there really something to this delusion, or was I slowly going insane? 

Either way, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d know something by the end of this summer—which was why I was haring off to Nantucket on a whim, and ignoring my mom’s eminently practical advice about getting a job and earning some much-needed money over the summer break.  Besides, Jane had insisted.  Her aunt Kitty lived on Nantucket, she had gleefully told me, shortly after she had learned of the dreams.  When classes were done and school let out, we would both go visit.  Kitty had a huge old house; she would be delighted to have the company.  We wouldn’t have to pay for board, and as for spending money…  Well, there were always a ton of jobs on the island we could do to earn a buck; there were too many rich people there, and never enough service staff.  And besides, it would be fun; an adventure.

The practical, midwestern part of me balked at the idea of spending two months in a stranger’s house, but Jane was adamant—and lavish in her descriptions of the wonders that were Aunt Kitty.  Although the thing that probably swayed me most was the fact that, at twenty-four, I was finally ready to stop hiding.  And maybe it was no more than Jane’s acceptance of my dreams that changed things, making me feel as if they weren’t just another of Liza’s crazy idiosyncrasies.  That there was a truth behind them—and that maybe, if I discovered that truth, I could stop having the damned things and get on with whatever I was meant to be doing with my life.  Which might or might not be the teaching degree I was currently pursuing.

After all, there’s only so long you can live with your head buried in the sand before you suffocate, right?  So, off I would go, to stay with Jane and the unknown, but apparently marvelous, Aunt Kitty.

Yet, once the decision had been made, I found myself both eager and apprehensive to see this island from which the dreams originated.  Eager because I had dreamed of it so long that sheer curiosity impelled me to see how closely it mirrored my reality.  And apprehensive because…  Well, what if the dreams were real?  What if there was some basis in fact they entailed?  Because while it would be reassuring to prove I wasn’t crazy, the alternative raised even more unthinkable questions.

I suppressed a shiver, but it was hard to be apprehensive when Jane was quivering with excitement atop my covers.  Of course, this whole trip was more for Jane’s benefit than my own.  Jane itched to dive into my psyche like an oyster-diver after pearls.  But then, academic dilettante that she was, psychology was Jane’s field of study de jour.  By the end of the summer, she would no doubt have fixated up another cause.

But, by then, I would have finally gotten to see the ocean.

“Well, get up!” Jane now said, grabbing my arms all but towing me from bed.  “We’ve got to get an early start.  We’ve a long drive ahead, and Aunt Kitty is expecting us for dinner on Thursday.  You’re going to love Aunt Kitty; she’s just like me!”

I laughed.  “God, now there’s a thought,” I said, imagining a feisty old lady, her hair sensibly knotted in a viridian-streaked bun.

Jane reached out to swat me, and I ducked.

“Okay then, shower first,” I told her, shaking out the tangle of my hair and popping out of bed—almost tripping over my suitcase in the process: an auspicious start.  Really, it was a good thing I didn’t believe in signs and portents.  “And then...  How bad is the French toast, anyway?”

“Frankly?” She grinned.  “Lumpy doesn’t even begin to describe it.  It looks totally revolting!  But it tastes okay.  I mean, I ate one just before you started shrieking, and I haven’t died yet.”

“As good a recommendation as any, I suppose.”  And I set off for the shower to rinse the drying crust of salty sweat off my body—the closest I had yet been to the sea.





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