Justine Saracen lives and writes in Brussels. It is her personal mission to “…repopulate history with ‘the likes of us,’ by which she appears to mean people who, not by their acts, but by their very lives, still scare the ignorant.” That is no small goal, but Justine is making some pretty good headway. Beloved Gomorrah, her seventh novel, is available in March from Bold Strokes Books. To learn more about Justine and her work, visit her website HERE. Or on facebook HERE.
by Justin Saracen
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made…
With fifty odd pounds of equipment on my body, I leapt from the boat into the sea. Instinctively, I held my breath, then released it and took a long inhalation through the regulator. Bemused, I heard my own exhalation bubbling up over my head toward the surface. All the rest was silence. The only voice was the one in my head, congratulating myself on my first dive in ‘wild waters’ with full scuba gear.
The idea for the novel had come first, and so had the title. Beloved Gomorrah, and a heroine named Joanna. It would be an ‘ancient artifact’ thriller in which a brave lesbian would make a shocking discovery that could shake the world. I’d done that before. But having my heroine flee the bad guys across desert dunes, through war-torn Berlin, or along Venetian canals just wasn’t heating my blood any longer. It had to be Really Dangerous and very far away. It had to be someplace without air. The Red Sea, for example. And that would require a research trip. No problem.
To be sure, I had to learn how to scuba dive, get certified, buy a ton of equipment, and join a club that would take me on a scuba diving cruise. Moreover, living in Brussels, I had to do it all in bloody French. No problem.
And OH MY GOD, was it worth it! For there I was, finally, in that amazing blue world. The first thing I did was turn slowly on my own axis like an ice-skater, to get my bearings. The sense of three-dimensionality was so completely different from the horizontal of solid ground. Here I was suspended at the center of a sphere, seeing divers above, beside, and below me, all with long column of bubbles rising from their heads. I recognized no one, for all were uniform in black wetsuits and masks. And yet, in that warm nutrient-rich water, that eons ago had spawned our most ancient ancestors, every nerve of my body told me I was home.
Fish, in such gaudy glowing colors they seemed cartoons, swam by unfazed, and a few hovered teasingly within reach until the last second, then darted off. A shoal of silvery sweepers engulfed me, like a shower of coins, surrounding but never touching me, as if magnetically repelled, then swept away. It was so awe-inspiring, so – literally – breathtaking, that in twenty-five minutes I was already on my reserve air tank. Oh, Joanna was going to LOVE this.
But if under water was paradise, on-board reality was tough going. The boat was crowded, gear was heavy and cumbersome, and being a woman d’un certain age, I dreaded stumbling. Fortunately, the Egyptian team helped us loading and unloading, and at the end of the dive someone was always at the ladder to remove my tank. All I had to drag on board was the leaded weight belt and my own exhausted derriere. It was much harder, though, to remove the wetsuit and attach the vest and regulator to a new tank in preparation for the next dive. It was tortuous to stand lurching back and forth on the heaving stern while peeling off skintight neoprene as the dive-master took roll call. Then, with teeth chattering from the cold wind blowing along the port side, and without my glasses, I had to squint to thread the regulator screw into the new air tank valve. This part, obviously, was not going to be in the novel.
After lunch we geared up again and I discovered that the only thing worse than peeling off dripping wet neoprene in a cold wind was wrestling it back on again.
But by the second dive, I was becoming adept at snaking, eel-like, over the vast gardens of soft coral. I could not have landed on them anyhow since they were huge spongy growths that, even if they didn’t sting, would swallow me up like gargantuan overcooked cauliflower. What would Joanna think of them, I wondered. Or should I entrap her in one of them?
Knowing my fast consumption of air, I regularly checked my tank pressure, made the “T” sign for “Half tank” to my monitor and he signaled back “fine.” We explored the terrain, coming across a moray eel, scorpion- and stonefish, both of which are in the “for-godssake-don’t-touch-if-you-want-to-live” category, and a variety of more benign flora and fauna. We were not allowed to dive with gloves, so all of us fastidiously obeyed the No Touchy rules. But after another twenty minutes, I was on reserve, and up we went back to our boat.
I got better and dove deeper every day, and on the sixth dive went down to the Giannis D, a wrecked cargo vessel that lies about 90 feet below. I was struck first by its size and I felt quite small as our group swarmed around the vast steel hull like so many seagulls in slow motion. My monitor suggested entering the bridge and the engine room, but since I was at my depth limit and had visions of being trapped and DYING A HORRIBLE DEATH, I declined. Watching from outside, I was entranced to see glass fish in the thousands in the interior spaces, and brooded on how to trap one of my characters in such a place with a near-empty air tank.
At 90 feet, nitrogen accumulation in your tissues becomes a factor. But we had been trained in the dangers of decompression sickness and knew to ascend from the wreck in timed stages, letting the nitrogen dissipate. My wrist computer indicated the required time at each stop, and my monitor also confirmed when it was safe to move on up. Could I torture Joanna in this way too, or should I save it for one of the villains? So much pain. So many characters to spread it over.
All went well until the last dive when perhaps the spirit of Joanna took its revenge. Typically, I hit reserve long before my monitor did, and before he had time to lead us back to the anchor rope, so when we surfaced we were very far from the boat. Bloody hell. With no more air to submerge, I had to surface swim, which is very difficult with a tank and inflated vest. I paddled and crawled and breast-stroked like a crazy woman, but I could make no headway against the current. The boat was still ominously distant, and I was spent. O crap, I thought, momentarily panicking. I’m going to be swept out to sea and they’ll find my shark-shredded remains washed up on the shores of Saudi Arabia!
Fortunately both my monitor and dive partner were stalwart men, and when they noticed me fading into the distance, they returned and towed me much of the way back. Humiliating, but way better than ignominious death.
Alas, more humiliation was to come, in the initiation ceremony for first-time Red Sea divers. After we repeated a long oath to the sea, in barely comprehensible French, mind you (so I think I may not be legally bound) the veterans smashed eggs on our heads, rubbed flour into it, making a sort of cake mix ,and dumped us back into the sea without benefit of wetsuit and fins. All in good fun, of course, and there were no fatalities, but sea water is not optimum for washing egg paste out of one’s hair. I was pulling tiny shell fragments from my scalp for days.
Eight months after that experience, I had a rough draft of Beloved Gomorrah. But just in case I missed something the first time around, I returned to Egypt, this time to dive at Sharm el Sheikh. I was more experienced, but no less overawed as I made the first dive of the trip, into warm water filled with garishly-colored and iridescent fish.
Undersea, everything is new, nothing is banal. Crevasses between walls of coral, curious fragments of fired clay, a moray eel gawking at us as we gawked at him, a few dolphins, a small reef shark. They all gave me ideas.
And the best idea was Charlie. A white-haired veteran of countless dives, he was my regular diving – and drinking — partner. We dove together to the most famous Red Sea wreck, the Thistlegorm and I knew I could trust him with my life. I wove him with all his charm into the novel. Diving attracts a quirky collection of characters, and some of the real life people I met seemed like walking fictions themselves. Blam, into the novel they went as heroes, accomplices, villains.
What I didn’t have, was a hot woman. Lots of nice ladies on both diving trips, but none of them with sufficient glamor and mystery to be fictionalized. So I chose an opera singer, who shall remained unnamed, though she is Polynesian, and a drop-dead knockout. To keep from being sued, I reinvented her as a Hawaiian actress, but my poor Joanna has her work cut out dealing with this beauty, and with the vengeful men laying claim to her.
What has all this to do with the biblical tale of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Well might you ask, my friend. A great deal in fact. If we read that biblical morality tale from the right perspective, and with sufficient irony, those angels and prophets and sinners can take on the faces of people we know, and that loathsome homophobic legend might take on a meaning its writer never intended. With the right lighting, in fact, it can even suggest an underwater city full of art and artifacts.
My Joanna paddles her way through ancient and modern outrages, and through quite a bit of abuse as well. She can handle it, of course, because it’s all fiction. I never put her through the terrors of real Red Sea diving. She never has to claw on a damp wetsuit in an icy wind, have flour and eggshell rubbed into her hair, be rescued by dive buddies from a dangerous current, or suffer a messy case of Pharaoh’s Revenge.
Besides, in the end, she gets the girl.