Discarding anthropocentrism, James Sturz has written an epic from under the sea. Reading Underjungle, Sturz's forthcoming novel which begins with this excerpt, invites suspension at varying depths—at different equilibria of deep water buoying you up and overhead water keeping you submerged. At the most reductive level, Underjungle is a story of an intelligent species known as the yc who encounter a human body. But the discovery of this land creature provides the cephalopodian narrator with the armature for Homeric simile on love and war, the perspective to wax metaphysical, and the possible resolution of the yc species' fracture into seven distinct tribes. Sturz's greatest feat in Underjungle is to make you wonder if he composed the entire thing on a waterproof laptop from the reef floor, such is his ability to light the world aqua.
I fell for you from far away. You had skin like waves. I know it wasn’t the pull of the moon. You smelled like fresh water, pureness and trouble among the pulverized sand and shells. I already knew what you looked like, and how you moved.
I was a puddle in the ocean. I wanted to turn you into jelly. There has never been a world like ours: a place that was perfect even before I knew you were in it. Our world is canyons and ledges and phosphorescent trickles, and mountains and swirls and sponges. It is plankton thick enough for farmers to herd, and fissures that flash-boil lobsters into feasts. It is polyps and oysters and undulating pelvic fins. It is our origin and the future. Amid the bleats and yowls, the sea fills quickly with ballads about satisfying every kind of hunger, not all of them requiring food.
I was flailing fins, a somersault of nerves. Hints of you washed across me, and I opened my mouth. There were bubbles in my stomach. I kept reminding myself to breathe.
I’ve always said this is a peaceful world. There is no stillness. No possibility of getting caught in a morass. What choice is there but to let the current take you? We urge our young to go with the flow. Among the surge and saturation, the hold of water is all around us. To know someone is to engulf them.
Eventually, the tide will bring you back.
This is the only place I know, but it is one of vastness. Of roiling sands and squeals and moans, of thick seaweed forests, abyssal plains and hills and lava pillars coated with volcanic glass. But it is also a cradle. This womb is everywhere. It is a place you never have to leave.
Deep below the surface, our world is cold, dark and content. Colors are fickle. Red disappears first as you descend, followed by the yellow of the sun. The hundred shades of blue last the longest, but eventually there is only black—and the candied ooze of the ocean floor. Where the pressure is constant, it clings to you as an embrace. We are most comfortable there, in our sheath. But sometimes we’ll approach the surface to see the spectacle of lightning strike, and it is a dangerous kind of ecstasy. From the right distance, you feel the water tingle. Closer up, you see and hear the zooplankton fry.
The world is flitters and ripples and secret vibrations. It is languorous undulations and scarlet bellies. When I first sensed you across the ocean, I knew I wanted to make you spill your eggs, so that my gentle army of warriors would attack them.
We are creatures of love. Of amorous frenzy. Our tongue-like bodies turn each other into Antarctic slush. Our males flaunt and wiggle their fins in the most ardent ways, and then press themselves ferociously against their mates. But when you bear a thousand eggs, you know it’s because nearly all of them will die. The sadness of love is unshakeable for us. Only the sea cucumbers—so soft and round, and then swelling and stiffening as you knead them, before finally spurting from one end in delirious spasms—exist in a world of sweet euphoric ignorance.
When our children grow, we urge them to stick together. We make sure they understand their brothers and sisters are not their dinner. It is violence to kill another creature, but it is a necessary violence. The choice not to kill is surely the one to die. When our young decide this (as they sometimes do), it is hard to mourn, since it is a great dishonor to the parents, who expended the time and effort needed to raise them. You can only hope the child grew sufficiently fat and muscled before making the decision to become another animal’s food.
But there are different kinds of killing. To watch a cookiecutter shark carve a hole into a wahoo’s flank so that it can immediately start feasting on its squishy innards is to witness a peculiar form of ghastliness. But many sharks eat their brothers and sisters before they are born—so what do you expect? I’d rather not think about tilapia in the ocean’s farthest reaches, where the water turns brackish, whose females brood their young in their mouths, while bachelor males suck them out and swallow them, in a single decimating kiss. And yet those barbarians still leave the female’s tongue attached, so the mothers can wail about their losses.
When an animal bleeds from its mouth, you know its tongue and gums and cheeks will soon become a feast for many, so perhaps it is more discreet to enter through its side, although I would not like to experience this myself.
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We urge our young to make friends with animals of sufficient size. Make friends with animals with tentacles, but do not always trust them. Make friends with ones without tentacles, but don’t expect them to be much of use. Make friends with ones with rotating eyes, because they will always be able to look themselves in the face. But mostly we tell our young never to worry about getting lost, for they’ll always be guided by the smell and taste of the water and the irresistible pull of the electromagnetic field. They’ll be drawn back home. As I was to you.
Sodium chloride. Magnesium chloride. Agitation. Magnesium sulfate. Calcium sulfate. Potassium sulfate. Fear. Exuberance. Boron. Sadness. Copper. Zinc sulfide. Gold. Each of them maps an unmistakable trail.
You can smell your prey and feel its vibrations in the water. The same is true for someone you desire.
Sometimes a partner will say, “I need space.” But we live in unlimited space. How can’t you already have all the space you need? If you do need more, where are you supposed to go?
Our movements look brooding, but even we are surprised by our speed. It doesn’t take long to cross the universe, to seek out warmer waters for a few days and make a meal of the local tropicalia. If those fish don’t want to be eaten, why are they so brightly colored, in all of those bite-me hues? Life can’t all be about preening and flaunting in the hope for a little sex? The flounders know about humility. Many toadfish are open to earnest conversation. Sometimes there is sense to burying yourself in the sand. And yet when I saw you swimming with that school of anchovies around your neck, I was hypnotized. You never said how long it took to train them. I know you wanted to bring them back from the Coral Sea, but they fled our colder waters. At least you still had your oyster shells. You’d balance them across your chest.
Camouflage, you’d say.
We undulate and flitter about. There are coquettish things some females do with their pelvic fins. To see our younger ones practicing this in groups is at once amusing and upsetting. When the humpbacks start to sing—not those lower moans and thrums, but the deep-water booming, whistling and yelping—their chants are thrilling and infectious, bouncing through the currents and coursing through the dark. When you hear their songs, how can’t you feel your body shake? How do you resist jiggling your booty like a sea lamprey sucking at a salmon’s skin?
Their songs vibrate the twilight zone with eddying bursts of light. We are acrobatic and lithe, and quick to alter course with the minutest flick of a single fin. Only my childhood guardian Gola* is the exception. With the grievous wound to his swim bladder, he keeps rising and sinking uncontrollably. We’ve all seen him shoot up awkwardly in the middle of a conversation.
“My injury,” he says, “makes me ridiculous. Everyone says I have trouble staying on point.” Only fragments of soft coral float up. Intelligent life is better known for attempts at depth.
Once a month, we visit the tomb, our prayer house in the canyon. Encrusted with urchins, and mottled with calcium carbonate, magnesium hydroxide and iron-manganese oxide, it is a magnificent figure. We’ve all heard the whales gulp and drone as they pass. Ribs rise in aching columns from the floor, like ancient hydrothermal vents. Its vertebrae are shattered chunks. The massive caudal fin sits a quarter-league away. No one admits to having played hide-and-seek in the body as a child, but it is what we all remember, and it is what we think. Some claim this place isn’t truly sacred. There are places where the water is too cold and deep. They say, that is God. That is the afterlife. That is heaven. But to see the remnants of this beast—this thing that turns blue whales into blennies—is to remember that other creatures have come before us from faraway places, and that our infinite realm must have even more infinity along its edges.
Existence extends through space, as it does through time. We are a sea in a solar system of seas.
What do we know of life? The alchemy of the ocean provides our essence. We take its oxygen and calcium, its plankton and its meat, and we turn it into frenetic, multiplying life. We take its roiling energy, too. We know that all creatures need food and water, and a place to live. But what about empathy and love? We have grown too advanced and complicated to prosper without a purpose.
Can love be a purpose?
Or is it what we substitute for the absence of one?
Some say God is the jellyfish, the very essence of water jolted alive, but personally I think that idea is stupid.
God is the absence of everything else. A purpose.
When I was younger, one of a thousand before I became one of six, I marveled at the clearer water, at how it shimmered along its upper reaches, sparkling beneath the last glimmering rays of sun, and then how it darkened as it deepened—colors filtering out one by one, even as the particles and protozoa multiplied, and the water became thick.
When food floats down to the ocean’s floor, the life processes there are so slowed that it takes nearly forever for the food to rot. We think of it as manna. We are grateful for it, but it is expected. There is always something sinking down—onto a ledge or crag, or into your mouth. Some say the heaps of dead creatures across the substrate must be a sign of God—proof of his existence, an indication of his love. It’s food you don’t have to kill for, that arrives as benefaction. Isn’t that the sign of a blessed life?
But seeing a hundred of our kind gorging on the ocean floor, tearing bodies apart with their teeth, does not fill me with a good kind of belief.
We live. We die. Some of us love.
Everything else is distraction.
We number in the millions, or the billions. There is no way to count. Like particles of the water, none of us stays in the same place very long. Sometimes we’ll sweep along the continental slopes; or above the mid ocean ridges, seamounts and abyssal hills, stealing through the twilight and midnight zones, invisible to anyone who relies on their eyes to see. But mostly we remain at four and five hundred fathoms, where the intelligent animals all know who and what we are. Even the sea cucumber, who breathes through its anus, clad in that frolicsome ring of teeth.
We have no need to spurt murky clouds of ink or mucus, or trail tentacles barbed with nematocysts behind us. There are two ways to catch your prey: bite down with crushing, edged or serrated teeth; or open your mouth so quickly it creates a vacuum and your victim is sucked inside. You can also emit loud bangs to stun them, and sometimes this makes the smaller fish hemorrhage inside. If you do it right, your prey transforms into a delicious stew. Some of us will then take a stunned, scrambled fish to the volcanic vents to turn it into a savory meat pocket. But like other creatures, we enjoy variation in our diet. Gulps of plankton are quick and easy, but algae, bacteria and protozoa three times a day is a recipe for monotonous meals.
We hunt by day, because that is the proper thing to do. To kill at night is disgraceful.
When you gave in to my advances, I thought I was the luckiest creature in the ocean. You laughed when my belly turned bright scarlet. I couldn’t hide it. You knew I was aroused. Like other males, I’d spent my youth watching female shrimp molt—who wouldn’t want to watch them strip in public, drop all that body armor, and become so open and defenseless? Of course, you had armor too, but that was just your good sense. I swam endless loops around you until you let me approach. I know you sniffed me each time I passed, and I peed a little so you could smell that, too.
Then I took my chance and came closer, and I saw you were drinking my effluvia. And then I drank yours, and we were heartbreak, hope, misinterpretation and wonder, and that was love.
The amazing thing about your body is when you’d inflate your chest like two pufferfish. You always know how big to go, not like those others who just want to astonish you.
You even let your skin turn translucent for me on our first date, so I could peer inside.