Fiction in response to Life Below Water
February 2019

An Underwater World

By Kelsey Cashman

A splash of salty droplets mist against my face as the ocean waves gently crash against our boat. The black rubber of my wetsuit compresses my body, and the heavy oxygen tank weighs down my back as I sit waiting for our scuba guide to finish his basic instructions. I barely hear anything he says, my head instead filling with memories from the last time I had been scuba diving.

 

It had been years ago when I had gone scuba diving for the first time. My parents thought it would be a good experience, something to do “before it was too late” they said. And they were right. Even now, looking back twenty years later, I can still remember the vibrant colors of the fish and the coral. I remember the way the light danced through the water, painting the bottom of the ocean with thousands of shades of blue. Effortlessly kicking through the water, I made my way through an entirely new world. Schools of fish would drift close, darting out of the way when I reached out a curious hand. Eels hid behind the elaborately shaped coral, like kings in their marble castles. Shelled majesties littered the sand below as stingrays gracefully flew above them, their wings taking smooth and powerful strokes. At one point, we even saw a shark, a slow-moving mass of grey muscle. It cruised through the domain of the reef, glancing languidly at us as it went past with deep black eyes seemingly full of confidence. Awestruck, we stayed still, frightened by its regal beauty.

 

After that experience, I had always dreamed of going again. But the years passed quickly, filled with school and work and meetings. Finally, after twenty long years, I had gotten the chance. My coworkers told me not to go, that it wouldn’t be worth it. Over the years, the skies had become grey with smoke, the air had become heavy and almost unbreathable. Only stumps of once majestic trees were left, the green leaves of the past now simply a distant memory, the vibrant green of freshly grown grass replaced with the gaudy green of turf fields. Even the wildflowers were gone, no longer decorating the hills and fields with their playful beauty. My coworkers said that the ocean would be no different, that years of pollution had sucked the beauty out of it. Yet I held out hope that the ocean was okay, that it still remained as it was in my memory. I believed that nothing could destroy that secret underwater world.

 

Finally, the instructor finished his safety speech. He looked old, about my parents’ age, and had a face worn with salty ocean breezes and lined with past laughter. But today, though his face held a smile, his eyes were dulled with a deep sadness. He helped me zip my wetsuit and step up onto the side of the boat. And then, filled with anticipation of the wonders ahead, I jumped.

 

Bubbles flooded my vision for the first few seconds, but immediately I sensed that something was different. No light played in the corners of my vision. Instead, everything was a monotone grey. Confused, I kicked up to the surface, thinking maybe that the boat had brought me to the wrong place. But when I made eye-contact with the guide, he gave me a sad, knowing smile and told me to keep looking. I dove back under, kicking to where the once magnificently colorful coral reef had stood. In front of me was a structure of chalk, the greens and blues and reds gone forever. No eels lurked in the crevices, no fish darted back and forth between flowing grasses. No shelled creatures crossed the sandy floor, shells instead lay empty, forgotten. The reef was a forgotten ghost town, drained of any sign of life or beauty. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. There, half-submerged in the grainy sand was a long gray shark, aged and beginning to rot. Muscles that once propelled it fiercly through the strong currents now lay dormant, teeth that once ruled the ocean now nothing more than a showpiece, a charm to be worn on someone’s necklace. And the eyes, the deep black eyes that once seemed to hold all the secrets of the ocean, were forever dulled, emptied by the tragedy that had destroyed this underwater world. 

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