Sisters of the Blessed Diving Order of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew
By A.C. Wise
5 January 2009
Lucy came to the Blessed Diving Order of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew in the usual way: her parents abandoned her as a babe in a little woven basket on the shore. Her first lullaby was the hush of waves rolling smoothed stone over stone and stringing tangled seaweed around her cradle. But with seaweed and stone, the waves brought something far more unusual as well. Drawn from the depths by the uncanny ability to sense an unwanted child crying, they brought a nun.
Sister Francine of the Eternal Abalone emerged dripping onto the sand. The first part of her to appear was the rounded curve of her copper diving helm. As she broke the surface, the tubes hooked to her oxygen tank hissed. Her breath clouded the glass of her faceplate as she leaned over Lucy in her basket and cooed.
"Who's a darling little girl? Who's a little darling abandoned by Mummy and Daddy? You are! Yes, you are!"
With one finger, covered in a thick rubber glove, Sister Francine touched the tip of Lucy's nose. The baby gurgled and kicked her chubby, little legs happily. Her eyes were as blue as the sea.
Sister Francine carefully fitted a tiny diving helmet—kept by the order for just such occasions—over Lucy's head, and wrapped her in a thermal, waterproof blankie. Then she turned with the babe in her arms, clumping heavily in her massive boots, and submerged, her bright copper helmet sinking like a setting sun.
Upon her arrival at the drowned chapel of Our Lady of the Waters, Lucy was given a new name. She was christened in salt water as Sister Amelia of the Holy Conch. Still, in later years, when she learned to think of herself as an independent being, she thought of herself as Lucy. It was the name left pinned to her chest by her absentee parents, and she kept it carefully sealed in a clear but impermeable bag, taking it out to look at it when no one else was around.
"A new name is a new life," Sister Francine had explained to her once when Lucy asked. They were sitting on the chapel roof, watching schools of bright fish graze among the carefully tended kelp gardens.
"It's like being born anew. Whatever troubled you in your life before the waves can't touch you anymore. It's a second chance. It's freedom."
There was a faraway look in Sister Francine's sea-gray eyes, which were like the waves just after a storm, as she explained this. The expression was one of wistful sadness, or regret for something long since passed. At the time Lucy had not thought to ask about it, and in later years it seemed too late. But she always regretted not asking.
Despite Sister Francine's explanation, Lucy liked having two names. To her mind it meant she had the freedom to choose exactly who she wanted to be when the time came to decide such things.
As Lucy grew under the order's care, she learned. The first thing she learned was how the Blessed Diving Order of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew had come to be formed. It was a vague, somewhat mystical tale, involving a boatload of nuns bound for the new world, a deep-sea diving expedition on a mission to explore the waters off the coast of Greece for the lost city of Atlantis, and a terrible collision mid-sea during an epic storm.
The second thing Lucy learned was how to care for the drowned chapel. As a junior sister, it was her duty to replace chipped shells in the mosaics depicting, variously, the sainted lives of Peter and Andrew, the parable of the loaves and the fishes, and Christ walking on the waves.
She polished the pearls in the eyes of the Drowned Virgin until they glowed with an eerie, beautiful light, and she kept algae from growing in the baptismal font. She tended the bright garden of anemones and kelp surrounding the chapel, and cared for the long, green-white bones of ships and unnamed sailors in the graveyard.
She sang the strange, warbling masses that echoed through the waters, which in times past had been taken for the song of mermaids. And when she was finished with her chores, Lucy swam up onto the chapel roof, and fed the fish that flocked like pigeons to roost in its walls. In these moments of stillness and solitude, Lucy learned the greatest lesson that the Sisters of the Blessed Diving Order had to teach her—how to listen to the waves.
By the current Lucy could tell the mood of the sky. She could guess the color of the sunset and the direction of the wind, or know when a storm was brewing. When she was thus listening one day, Lucy heard the waves groan.
Cocking her head inside her copper helmet, full-sized now, Lucy listened as something shifted in its sleep. The dreaming rumble was followed, after a moment, by the oddest and most beautiful sound she had ever heard. It was singing, but a song far more lovely than even whale song, or the entire choir of the drowned chapel singing Ave Maria in perfect unison.
The brightly colored fish that had been nibbling at the tips of her gloved fingers darted away. The light filtering through the blue-green waves overhead darkened, and for a moment the ocean was hushed, almost still.
Lucy braced one hand against the bell tower and peered out through the sea. Through the newly dark waves she could see nothing. A shiver of fear traced her spine, and a sharp intake of breath, followed by a quick exhale, fogged her faceplate. Very slowly she pushed away from the bell tower and let herself drift down through the waves.
The song was softer now, but she could still trace it—a tangible vibration, shivering through the water. It was coming from the boneyard where the drowned ships creaked and sighed behind their beards of barnacles and seaweed—grumpy old men disturbed in their dreams. As she drew closer, the waves groaned again and a hollowed ship that was all but rotted away rocked upon the ocean floor. There was something trapped underneath.
The thing was roughly human and almost luminous in the slanting shafts of light piercing the murky fathoms of water. Tatters of flesh hung from long, wave-polished bones and eyes the very color of the oceans' deepest depths gazed up at her. The mouth was open and he was singing.
Lucy gasped, and swam towards him, crouching beside him where he was pinned beneath the remains of the ship. She could see the dead man's face more clearly now. There was a longing in his sunken expression, a lost quality to the dimmed lights of his eyes. A curious fish, one of those that Lucy had so recently been feeding, darted close and nipped experimentally at the dead man's arm, and Lucy saw a chunk of flesh rip away.
"What are you?" Lucy whispered.
The man turned his watery eyes upon her and answered simply.
"I am dead."
"Oh." Lucy rocked back on her heels a bit and considered.
"Does it hurt?" she asked after a moment.
"I want to go home."
There was an ache in the dead man's voice that wasn't exactly fear, but more like a memory of longing. Lucy considered the ship pinning him down. Even hollowed by years of waves its bulk was too much for her to shift alone.
"Will you wait here for me? I'll be right back."
The dead man nodded, though in truth he had little choice. She kicked off, and her long, powerful legs carried her back to the drowned chapel. She touched down lightly, and white sand rose up around her in a shimmering cloud.
Once more she swam up to the bell tower, and peered in through one of the many ragged holes in the roof. The waves had lightened again, but the sun was setting so burnished gold shafts gleamed through the sea-colored glass in the chapel's windows. Sister Francine, who was now Mother Superior of the order, was humming to herself as she prepared the sacraments for evening mass.
Lucy drifted in through one of the drowned chapel's empty windows.
Sister Francine turned. Blue and green light dappled her copper helm, and she smiled behind her faceplate.
"Yes, my child?"
"I've come to ask a favor."
Lucy bowed her head and folded her hands, trying to look demure and modest. But she couldn't help peeking up at the Mother Superior to gauge her reaction.
"There's a man . . ."
"Oh?" Sister Francine arched an eyebrow, a gently mocking smile ready to play at the corners of her mouth.
"A dead man," Lucy continued, and behind her faceplate the Mother Superior sucked in a sharp breath.
"He needs our help," Lucy finished, raising her head to plead silently with her eyes.
"Sister Amelia," the Mother Superior's tone was warning, but if she noticed Lucy flinch at the name, she was kind enough not to draw attention to it.
"The dead are unclean things. We have no business with them." She set her mouth in a line to match the firmness in her voice, her arms crossed before her, already bracing herself for Lucy's retaliation.
"He isn't unclean! He's lonely, he wants to go home."
"The dead aren't lonely, they are simply dead. Once they have passed through the veil, there is nothing more that they need from us, or we from them."
Through Sister Francine's faceplate, Lucy could see two spots of color—bright as coral—blooming high on the Mother Superior's cheeks.
"He's hurting," Lucy plead.
"And what would you have us do about that?"
"I thought . . . I thought maybe you could give him a new name, christen him the way you did me."
Lucy looked up, hopefully. The coral blush was gone, and now Sister Francine's face was very pale. Her eyes shone, and her mouth was set in a grim line.
"The dead are not baptized, they are shriven. What you're suggesting is not only unclean, it's unholy!"
Sister Francine trembled a little inside her heavy diving suit. Lucy had never seen the Mother Superior so upset before, but she couldn't help herself. The dead man's song, the longing in his eyes, had worked its way inside her bones, and she plowed on.
"But, Mother Superior, he was singing!"
Sister Francine threw her hands up, whether in exasperation or silent prayer, Lucy couldn't tell.
"Of course the dead sing, child! Do you think we're all deaf except for you? It doesn't change anything. There's nothing we can do."
"But it isn't right. We can't just . . . "
Sister Francine held her hand up to stall Lucy's words. Her sour expression and the quirk of her mouth suggested that she knew the truth of Lucy's words, but that any reasonable person should know better than to parade such truths around in polite company.
Lucy bowed her head again, looking properly abashed. Over the Mother Superior's shoulder the polished pearl eyes of the drowned virgin shone serenely. The faint smile on her marble lips suggested a secret, maddeningly out of Lucy's reach. Lucy forced herself to take a deep breath, and keep her voice calm.
"Mother Superior, isn't it the duty of the Sisters of the Blessed Diving Order of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew to help and give succor to all those stranded by the sea?"
Lucy raised her head, sea-blue eyes meeting Sister Francine's sea-gray ones. After a moment Sister Francine sighed, a frown tugging her lips downward as though she had tasted something bitter.
"Listen to me very carefully, child. The good book promises salvation for all christened souls, and we must trust in that. Only children and ships can be christened, not dead men, do you understand me?"
Sister Francine's eyes shone like the pearls of the drowned virgin. Lucy stared at her, trying to fathom the meaning behind her words. She was about to speak again, when Sister Francine spun in place, an oddly graceful movement.
"It is a lesson you must learn well, child," she called over her shoulder and then, with a swift kick, she disappeared through a window.
Lucy stared after the Mother Superior, through the broken window where she had disappeared. After a moment Lucy kicked off as well, and swam through the darkening waves back to the boneyard. Above the waves the sun was sinking further, tinting the water a deep gold, warped by the ebbing tide. Lucy swam under a mirror of beveled glass like polished bronze, and all around her rainbow-hued fish darted close to tease her fingers, though she barely noticed them.
She touched down again by the hollowed wreck of the ship, and the dead man turned his face towards her. She wondered what it must have been like for him to wake up under the waves. Were his last memories of the touch of wind on his cheek, the sunset playing in his hair, and the roll of the deck beneath his feet? All those things that she herself had never felt. . . .
A sudden ache, a sudden longing, rose in her—quick as a swell. More than ever now, she wanted to help the dead man. Carefully she took his fragile fingers in hers, feeling the bones shift beneath his soft, water-logged flesh.
"I'm sorry," she murmured. "I thought I could help you, but I guess I can't."
The dead man said nothing, and Lucy let herself sink until she was sitting on the ocean floor beside him, her legs crossed and his hand still held in hers.
The waves shifted, like a cool breeze that might have stirred her hair up on land. Beside her the hollow bones of the ship swayed and groaned, and beneath them the dead man's bones lengthened in the waves. Absently, Lucy reached out with her free hand, picking at the frayed and splintered edges of the ship's hull, peeling large strips away and worrying the boards back and forth until whole chunks of the ship came away in her hand.
"Of course!" she exclaimed, and the dead man looked at her with startled, lantern-like eyes. She wondered if he was seeing horizon and shore instead of the endless blue-green around them, whether he felt a breeze rather than the current moving against his drowned flesh.
"It's so simple!" Lucy grinned.
She jumped up and spun a little pirouette in the waves. The water was almost completely dark now that the sun had set. Even so there was luminescence all around from glowing seaweed and phosphorescent eels, moving like slow bolts of lightning, and darting fish like lost stars.
"Don't worry," Lucy assured the dead man. "I know exactly what to do."
"I want to go home." The dead man's voice was very soft, as though he had barely heard her words. There was a plaintiveness to his tone, and now Lucy was certain he was remembering the stars beyond the water's beveled-glass sky, and aching after them.
The dead man's hair lifted in the current, stirring against the mossy algae clinging to the bones of the ship. Through one side of his ruined face, Lucy could see his skull; it was the same color as the ship's hull.
Lucy grasped the weed-slick wood with her bulky-fingered gloves. It was soft and rotten, and she was surprised at how easily the plank came away in her hands. She continued stripping the flesh from the bones of the ship, and as she worked the dead man began to sing.
It was more than a sound. It enveloped Lucy and cradled her, as familiar as the waves that had borne her up all her life. She drifted in the dead man's song, and it was an echo in her bones—a sweet, aching longing that spoke of all the things she had never known and whispered of their wonders. Inside her helmet, Lucy caught her breath, and her faceplate fogged with tears.
When she had a sizeable pile of timber beside her, Lucy turned to the dead man.
"Do you think you can wiggle free?" Her voice was husky with the tears, but she smiled through them, tasting the salt that was like her native home.
The dead man nodded, and she grasped his arm, ignoring the softness of his flesh. After a moment of gentle tugging he was free. He drifted before her, anchored to the ocean floor by her touch. The lost look had not left his eyes, and she could see the hurt in the low-banked fires of his gaze. The years of salt and waves drifting through him had hollowed him out, but left enough of his humanity that he could still dream of what had come before. How long, she wondered, had he been dreaming?
Lucy took a deep breath and forced herself to meet the dead man's eyes.
"Do you trust me?"
"I want to go home." The dead man nodded, as though that was all the answer he had or all that was needed.
Lucy braced herself, and reached for the dead man's arm. She held it so it was stretched straight in front of him, worked her fingers under a loose chunk of flesh, and pulled. It was like peeling the boards from the ship. His skin was rotten and soft and came away easily in her hands.
The dead man did not flinch, and that was almost harder to bear. Lucy felt her eyes well up with tears again, until she could barely see through the smudged blur of her faceplate. But she forced herself to keep looking at him. And once more, the dead man began to sing. It was a lullaby, like the first she had ever heard as a babe abandoned by the shore.
As the dead man sang, Lucy continued methodically stripping his flesh from his bones, casting it into the waves so the fish could feed. When she was done the man stood before her—all naked salt-bleached white, gleaming in the light of the distant moon. There was an aching beauty to his vulnerability, and Lucy almost lost her nerve. But she took a deep breath and, as gently as she could, Lucy began to take apart the dead man's bones.
His eyes, as luminous as any of the star-bright fishes, tracked her with a kind of detached curiosity. Even stripped bare, he continued to sing. Even when she wrenched his skull from the remains of his spine and laid it on the cold ocean floor, impossibly, he continued to sing.
When she had a pile of clean, white bones beside the pile of wood, she started to fit them together, interweaving them with long strands of seaweed until a small vessel began to take shape. The waves were dark and Lucy was exhausted when she at last fit the dead man's skull to the prow. With her hands on either side of his bleached skull, Lucy looked into his glowing eyes.
"Are there others like you? Other dead men who sing beneath the waves?"
Very slowly, on his curving prow-neck of wood and bone, the dead man nodded.
Lucy nodded in turn, her jaw set into a firm line. There was a nervous fluttering like a school of fish swimming in the pit of her stomach, but in an instant she had made up her mind. She knew who she wanted to be.
Through the dark waters, Lucy swam, pulling the boat of wood and bone behind her. When the final mass of the day was at an end, Lucy slipped into the chapel and led Sister Francine of the Eternal Abalone out to admire her handiwork. Lucy held her breath as the Mother Superior studied the little rowboat.
Sister Francine's lips twitched, caught halfway between a smile and a frown.
"And just what do you plan to do with this boat, child?"
"Increase our ministry!" Lucy answered evenly. It was not a lie.
"You propose to become a missionary, then?" Sister Francine arched a brow, her expression wry.
"If you'll allow it, Mother Superior." Lucy bowed her head demurely, and hid her smile.
Sister Francine shook her head, a gesture that was both exasperated and amused.
"Very well. May the Drowned Virgin watch over you and guide you, child."
When Lucy looked up, Sister Francine was smiling.
"One more favor, if I may, Mother Superior." Lucy looked at Sister Francine hopefully.
"May I gather the order to help christen my ship?"
Sister Francine sighed and shook her head again, but her lips quirked upwards at the corner. With a smile Lucy swam up to the bell tower, and rocked the great lichen-crusted bell. It was heavy and hard to move underwater, but the clapper in the sleeve echoed through the waves and called the sisters back to the chapel yard.
There, among the bright anemones and the gently waving kelp, Sister Francine blessed the ship of wood and bone and gave both it, and the dead man, a new name. Lucy could feel the other sisters around her. On one side, she was flanked by Sister Genevieve of the Holy Kelp, and on the other, Sister Iris of the Unwavering Coral Reef. Their voices were strong in the water, and they gave Lucy strength, too. As the order prayed, Lucy raised her head and snuck a glance at the Mother Superior. Behind her faceplate there was a twinkle in Sister Francine's eyes—a spark that might have been pride.
At dawn the next morning, Lucy pulled the little boat up to the surface and righted it upon the waves. As she surfaced, her copper helm was a gleaming twin to the rising sun. Lucy pulled herself on board, and then looked back down through the waves.
The beveled view was strange, like seeing the world upside down. Drifting in the current, the Sisters of the Blessed Diving Order waved, and just beyond them she saw Sister Francine, hanging back a little, but still smiling. The Mother Superior raised her hand, and Lucy raised hers in turn.
The waves lapped gently against the hull of wood and bone, and though it had been hastily built the sea bore it up and it did not leak. Cautiously Lucy reached up and undid the seals on her helmet. There was a hiss of air as she twisted it and lifted it free. The breeze kissed her cheeks with the new sun, and both light and wind played in her long red-gold hair.
Lucy leaned forward, and rested her hand on the dead man's skull. She let her touch linger a moment, and then she took up the oars. The dead man was silent in the prow, his bony face turned into the wind, but faintly she could hear a song much like his shivering through the waves. There was much work to be done. Lucy turned The Fisher of Men towards the sound, and began to row.