THE UNDERWATER DEVIL by José Fernández Bremón
Translated by Toshiya Kamei
Plencia is a little village located a short distance from Bilbao: its sandy beach is enclosed by two rock walls on two sides that create an opening giving a glimpse of a ship cruising in the distance; the beach is at such a shallow depth that when the tidal waters recede, a ship would have to seek the sea to get to its shore; I never saw a boat in that dry port, where the Bay of Biscay reaches as a thin tongue of water that licks the sand, hardening it. Plencia has ocean views, but it has no harbour.
I bathed in water and sand on that beach many years ago. There I met a retired sailor, a man of about fifty years of age, whom the doctors had sent, not to take the waters, but the salty sea air. His name was Tiburcio.
“Don’t you ever take a dip?” I asked him one afternoon to start a conversation with the man, who was always near the sentry-box-like hut that was then on that beach.
“No, sir,” he answered in a grave tone. “I have bathed so many times without desires that I have lost even the urge to wash myself. The doctors have prescribed some fresh air for me and I come to breathe. And believe me, not everyone knows the value of this medicine like me.”
“Do you feel relief when you breathe?”
“I have held my breath so many times that I learned to know what a breath of fresh air is worth.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“I’ve been a diver. And believe me, there is no wine or brandy as tasty as a sip of wind, after having been submerged underwater.”
“You have chosen a bad place to dive. Here it’s necessary to take a trip offshore to find depths.”
“I have chosen this town because I don’t want to dive: the real sea is full of pitfalls even for a good swimmer; a man who drowns, an object that sinks, for whatever reason, has to take off his clothes and throw himself into the waves. And I’ve sworn never again to throw myself into the water.”
“Did you run into any danger?”
“Some of them happened down there, especially when we were looking for a pearl bank near Jolo Island. It’s tempting God and defying him to go down into the depths of the sea, where the sun does not reach, and it seems to get dark at noon, where one is felt but not seen, and we see schools of fish swimming above our heads, instead of birds flying over us here.”
“And have you gone down with gear or without it?”
“Anyway, with a bell, with a wetsuit and without more help than my arms. I don’t want to remember it. To think that I have descended to that hell of water, where I could have been imprisoned between two shells as large as two doors, or pricked by a needle shell, or crucified on a living cross bristling with moving spikes... or absorbed by a sponge, or lost in the dark galleries of a coral cave. I still dream and what I’ve seen seems like a nightmare. The clarities that sprout from the depths of the waters to illuminate what the sun leaves in darkness; jungles that seem to move agitated by the air, and are petrified; quicksand covered with white shells that look like slabs of a seemingly endless cemetery; elastic masses that change shape and colour like clouds and roll down the depths of the sea; threads, triangles, S’s, arrows, and living crescent moons; plants that look like curtains or comets tied to a thread: and I hear that hollow sound we hear when we apply a large shell to our ear.”
“But what made you leave your profession?”
“One day, as I was diving in the wetsuit, I thought I saw in the background one of those churches called pagodas in India. The whole building was full of pieces that turned into spirals, and it ended in a tower like our temples, but those ornaments were Indian.”
“Did you see a temple?”
“It seemed like one at first: when I went down again, it appeared like a gigantic shell, and I felt internal palpitations as I touched its thick walls; on submerging for the third time, I saw the entrance or porch, tortuous, but magnificent, covered with pearls as large as my head; when I approached the entrance, something was shrinking or hiding inside, and I didn’t dare enter; I descended several times, observing the exterior such as vents or openings, and finally, I thought I saw a woman leaning out of the window.”
“A woman underwater? Weren’t you dreaming? Did they find you unconscious?”
“I could be wrong, but I was wide awake.”
“Give me a description of her features, of her figure. If that lady wasn’t a fish, which is the most probable, or confusing one with another; and I don’t ask about her clothes, because we take our own to enter the sea.”
“I saw her only from the waist up. Have you seen lobsters in the water?”
“Yes, I’ve seen them in an aquarium. There’s no more delicate and elegant creature than a lobster. Its whole body is transparent like a liquor bottle; its complicated movements are as graceful as those of a ballerina who prepares to perform her solo: it rests its paws on the shells and pebbles with such grace, and recognizes and explores everything around it with its thin tentacles.”
“Well, that woman was transparent and rosy and her movements were graceful: her breasts looked like curdled glass, and her eyes were emerald green, and her loose hair was white with silver highlights.”
“And you saw her only from the waist up? A great pity. We would have known if she was a mermaid: human above the waist and fish below.”
“I could barely look at her because I was attacked by a monster: he had a human body, huge, tangled hair, and two twisted shells came out of his forehead. When I saw him... feeling he was hitting my back... and he was hitting me with his horns... I’m still alive by some miracle.”
“What do you think he was?”
“The sea devil.”
“If he had been the devil, how could you have outswum him?”
“You don’t know how fast one can swim when motivated by fear, and what helps to outswim a horned... Besides, in that instance, I’ll bet he was the devil.”
Whenever I spoke with Tiburcio, he firmly insisted on the existence of the underwater devil, conceding only it could have been an illusion or an apparition of a female-like figure. His imagination rejected what approximated the natural, surrendering himself without restraint to the most extraordinary.
Having said that, the depths of the sea remain unexplored and hold great surprises for the man of the future. When naturalists, equipped with a device to breathe underwater, go through the deepest valleys of the ocean, classifying plants and monsters and recognizing in them the origins of many fables and legends, they will find under the seas the aquatic race who worships God in a huge pagoda-shaped dwelling.
I just know the underwater devil won’t be found so easily.