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A day of Ichthyander’s - The Amphibian Man by Alexander Belyaev

It is still night but dawn is near.

The air, warm and damp, is full of aromas of magnolia, tuberose and mignonette. Not a leaf stirs. All is quiet; the crunch of sand underfoot is the only sound. Swinging from his belt in time to his step as he goes along the garden walk are his dagger, a pair of goggles and webbed gloves and swimming shoes. The path runs between black blobby shapes of trees and bushes, only visible by comparison. Ichthyander brushes a branch every now and then, sprinkling dewy drops on his hair and cheek, still warm with sleep.

The path veers to the right and dips a little. The air gets perceptibly damper. Ichthyander feels stone flags and halts. Unhurriedly he dons his swimming gear. Then he exhales all the air from his lungs and plunges into the pool. The water is invigoratingly cool, sending a prickly sensation through his gills, which are now moving rhythmically. Man has turned fish.

A few powerful strokes take Ichthyander down to the very bottom of the pool and a little — way along it. His outstretched hand meets the first iron bracket sunk m the stone wall, then another, then a few more, till he’s in the tunnel and walking bent forward against the incoming cold current. A push with both feet and he’s up but feeling as if he has plunged into a warm bath. It’s where the warmer water from the ponds travels to the open sea. Ichthyander turns over on his back, folds his arms and drifts head first, letting the warm current do his work for him.

The end of the tunnel is drawing near. He can already hear the rustle of stones and shells where the spring in the sea-floor at the tunnel-mouth throws up its jet of hot water.

The amphibian turns over for a better view. But it’s still pitch dark. He stretches his arm forward and the next moment finds the iron grille, its bars thick with slimy seaweeds and rough barnacles. For some time he fumbles with the intricate lock. Presently the heavy circular door swings slowly open, Ichthyander slips through and as he heads for the ocean hears the lock click behind him.

It is still dark underwater. Only below, in the black depths, there is an occasional bluish sparkle of Noctilucae and the dull reddish glow of a passing jellyfish. But dawn is almost there and the phosphorescent creatures of the sea one by one extinguish their tiny lamps.

Breathing comes less easy to Ichthyander; there are constant little pricks in Ms gills. That means he’s already past the rocky headland and in the stream of muddy water from a river that flows into the ocean there.

I wonder how the river fish can live in that silty water at all, he thinks. Must have tougher gills.

Ichthyander turns sharply to his right, due south, then goes down till he strikes the clean water cold current that travels along-shore northwards to a point where it veers to the east under the impact of the mighty Parana River pouring into the ocean. Its bottom layer flows rather deeply, but its top layer-Ichthyander’s destination-is only about fifty feet below the surface. He can rest now: the clear waters of the current will take him a long way out into the ocean.

He can even have a nap while it’s still dark and the fish of prey are not up and about yet. Sleep comes sweetest when dawn is near.

While he sleeps his skin registers every little change in temperature and water pressure. Presently his ears detect a hollow clank, then another and still another. Those are anchor-chains. A few miles away, in the bay where he’s drifting to, asleep, smacks are weighing anchor for dawn fishing. Then, superimposing on all other sounds, comes a steady rumble, far-off but powerful. That comes from the screws of the Horrocks, a large British liner plying between Liverpool and Buenos Aires. The liner must still be another twenty miles off but that’s nothing for sound; in sea-water it travels at a speed of some fifty miles per minute. By night the Horrocks is a sight to feast your eyes on-a gay town, brightly illuminated and floating. But to see her at night Ichthyander has to leave for the ocean in the evening. It is a different Horrocks that makes harbour in Buenos Aires soon after sun-up-all her lights out, bulky and blaring. But he’d better come out of his nap. The liner will soon have all the inhabitants of the ocean wide awake, what with her screws, engines and lights. Surely the slight change of pressure that alerted him a few moments ago was caused by dolphins, always the first to sense the approach of the liner. They must be well on their way to the liner by now, eager to meet her.

As the harbour and bay come to life the clugging of ships’ engines closes upon Ichthyander. He opens his eyes, shakes his head to drive away the last of sleep and propells himself up.

Surfacing, he takes a careful look round for any boat or schooner, sees none anywhere near enough to bother, and treads water.

There are only cormorants and sea-gulls round him, skimming the water often so closely that their chests of wing-tips touch its mirror-like surface, sending tiny wavelets scurrying away. The cawing of the white sea-gulls is like a child crying. Swishing with its mighty wings through the air directly above Ichthyander so that he fancies he’s struck by a minor gale, a huge snow-white albatross heads shorewards. The red-beaked orange-clawed bird has black-fringed wings, every inch of twelve feet from tip to tip. It’s not without envy that Ichthyander watches it go. What wouldn’t he give to have such wings!

Night is retreating behi
nd the distant mountains in the west. The eastern sky is slowly turning rosy. Barely perceptible ripples appear on the ocean, like so many tiny streaks of gold. When the sea-gulls soar up they turn pink.

Blue patterns crease the pale level surface of the sea as a gentle breeze starts to blow. It gathers force; the restless blue becomes deeper. The first yellowish tongues of foam begin to lap the beaches. The water closest inshore turns green.

A string of schooners comes in sight, low on the water. Ichthyander remembers his father’s orders to avoid people and goes down in a steep dive. Soon he’s back in the cold current that will carry him further offshore, eastwards. In the lilac twilight that reigns at this depth red, yellow and brown fish flitter about like a motley swarm of butterflies.

A buzzing sound comes from above; for a moment the water darkens. That must be a sea-plane flying low.

Once, he recalls, a sea-plane landed on the water close to him. He went for a doser look, held onto a float — and came very near to losing his life. All of a sudden the sea-plane took off and Ichthyander was whisked some thirty feet aloft before he recovered enough presence of mind to jump for his life.

* * *

Ichthyander looks up. The diffused ball of sun is almost plumb overhead, indicating that midday is close at hand. The surface of the water is no longer a vast mirror that faithfully reflects the sea-bed where it is raised, the bigger fish and Ichthyander. Like a fun-house mirror it is now distorted and assuming an infinite variety of shapes.

Ichthyander comes up. As he draws near the surface he becomes aware of a choppy sea. Presently his head and shoulders are clear and he’s riding up on the crest of a wave, then down, then up again… Oho, the sea is choppy! There’s quite a surf already where the swell of the sea breaks upon the shore, roaring lustily, overturning big boulders. The water next to the white foamy line has been churned a yellowish green while a sharp south-westerner goes on whipping up waves, tearing off white tips of foam. Every now and then spray blows into Ichthyan-der’s face giving him intense pleasure.
Why is it, Ichthyander wonders, that when you swim through the waves they seem deep-blue but when you look back they are much paler?

Shoals of flying fish skim away. Gliding up over the wavetops and down across the troughs they fly some forty feet and touch down, and fly up again. The gulls dart about, crying. The fastest birds there are-frigates — cut the air with their wide wings. The one over there — with a huge curved beak and sharp claws, dark-brown feathers shot with green and an orange-hued crop — is a male. His mate, white breasted and with paler plumage, keeps at his side. Suddenly she drops down like a stone and the next moment is up again, a silver-scaled fish struggling in her beak. Albatrosses are soaring aloft, a sure sign of a storm brewing.

Somewhere up there, dauntless birds with the undignified name of screamer are already speeding to meet the inky clouds. The fishing smacks are less eager to encounter the storm. Under a full press of sail they seek the shelter of the harbour.

Greenish twilight reigns below the waves and the amphibian tells his way by the big ball of sun that can still be seen through the double screen of gathering cloud and water. He’s got to reach the oyster-ground before the sun is blotted out by clouds if he’s to have his lunch at all. Swimming frog-wise he spurts on.

From time to time he turns over on his back to take his bearings by the blob of sunlight overhead which is only a shade lighter than the surrounding bluish-green semi-darkness. His gills and skin are of great help too, registering little changes in water content. Near oyster-grounds water is richer in oxygen and feels altogether lighter and more pleasant to the body, for there’s less salt in it. So Ichthyander tastes the water. Like an old sea-wolf that can tell the approach of land by signs revealed only to him, Ichthyander is sure of his way.

At last to his right and left loom up the long-familiar outlines of underwater cliffs. There is a piece of level ground between them with another wall of a cliff behind. Ichthyander calls the spot his underwater harbour, for it’s calm in the worst of storms.

It’s a harbour for multitudes of fish as well, the water is as thick with them as a kettle of chowder! Small ones, with a yellow band across the body and a yellow tail; others with several dark bands running almost diagonally, and numerous brighter kinds, magenta, orange, azure. They shy away in shoals, then reappear from nowhere again. When you come up, fish are milling round you all the way, but you look down and there are none. Ichthyander puzzled over this for a long time till he caught a fish. Its body was the size of his palm but flat as a pancake. Then he knew.

Now for his lunch. On the patch of level sea-floor oysters are plentiful. Ichthyander settles down beside a thriving colony, reclines at ease and prises open the first mollusc that comes to his hand. The choice titbit goes into his mouth. He has a way of eating underwater that makes it an easy thing. Taking a mouthful he ejects water through half-clenched teeth with a movement that has become automatic with him. Naturally he swallows a little water with his food but he’s used to it.

Seaweeds sway round him, the perforated greenery of the Agars, the pinnate grass-green leaves of the Mexican Caulerpa and a tender pink kind of algae. But today, because of the storm and resultant darkness, they all look a uniform sombre grey. A muffled peal of thunder penetrates down to Ichthyander’s abode. He looks up.

There’s a dark spot right above his head. Now what could that be? His lunch over he can go up and investigate. Gliding upward along the cliff-face he approaches the surface and sees a huge albatross rocking up and down, its orange-hued legs within a tempting reach. Up go his hands and close round the bird’s legs. What fun! Bewildered the albatross unfolds its mighty wings in an upward rush, dragging Ichthyander clear. Once in the air Ichthyander’s body regains weight and the albatross drops heavily down, covering him with its soft feathery breast. Ichthyander doesn’t wait for the giant bird to start pecking his head, dives and the next moment breaks surface again some distance off. The albatross is winging its way out to sea and out of sight beyond the mountainous seas.

Ichthyander is floating on his back. The storm has passed by on its way to the east. Thunder rumbles, receding. Rain is pouring down in sheets. Ichthyander lies back, his eyes half-closed with exquisite pleasure. By and by he opens them, turns over and treads water for a better look round. He’s on the crest of a colossal wave. Sky, ocean, wind, rain-all are one big wet whirl, roaring in its primordial fury. As if in impotent rage, little beards of foam tremble on the wavecrests and run in angry zigzags down their sides. What with the swell from the storm and the savage wind the mountains of seas pile one on top of the other and crash down to pile up again.

What strikes fear into the earthly man is great fun to Ichthyander. Of course, waves can be dangerous for him too, but, like a fish, he knows their ways. There are many kinds of waves. Some will toss you up and down, up and down, others will turn you feet first before you know where you are. He also knows what goes on under the waves, and how waves disappear when the wind has died down. It’s the small waves that go first, then the big ones, but the dead swell stays for a long time afterwards. He delights in turning somersaults in the surf, though that isn’t without its danger either. Once an extra big wave overturned him and threw him against a rock unconscious. That would have been the end for an ordinary human being, but Ichthyander came to in the water, only slightly the worse for the experience.

There is no rain any longer; it has shifted, as has the storm, eastwards. The wind has veered too, blowing in warm blasts from the tropical north. Heralded by patches of blue sky torn in the clouds, the sun thrusts its rays through — seawards. In the south-east across a still menacingly black sky a rainbow throws its double arc. It’s an entirely different ocean that Ichthyander beholds now, no longer black with frothy fury, but a blue cheerful ocean, with emerald patches where sun rays have struck its breast.

The sun! In one moment it has changed everything-sky, ocean, shore, distant mountains-beyond recognition. And oh! How wonderful the air is after the storm. Ichthyander now gulps in the exhilarating sea-air, now breathes through his gills. No one knows better than Ichthyander how easy comes gill breathing after a storm has mixed sky with ocean, making the water a good deal richer in oxygen. No one, that is, among men.

But the numerous fish, and the sea-animals too, can appreciate this.

After a storm is over the sea depths, the crevices of the cliffs, the thickets of coral and sponge discharge their occupants; small fry show the way to the bigger fish and when it’s quite calm again, to soft weak jellyfish, transparent, weightless shrimps, delicate Porpita and various Ctenophora, including the most beautiful representative of the group, the Cestus Veneris.

A sunray strikes the water close to Ichthyander, turning it a bright green. The glitter of tiny air bubbles, the hiss of foam… Ichthyander’s playmates, the dolphins, are gambolling nearby, throwing him gay, mischievous glances. Their shiny black backs flash into view in the waves as they chase one another playfully, snorting. Ichthyander laughs and joins in the game. He feels as though this ocean and these dolphins, the sky and sun, were all created expressly for him to enjoy.

Inchthyander raises his head and screws up his eyes at the sun. It is in the west of the sky. Evening is near. But today he doesn’t feel like returning home early. He is going to rock on the waves until the first stars appear in the dark sky.

Yet lolling about soon tires him. And then, how could he forget all the small sea-creatures that are perishing that very moment. He treads water and looks in the direction of the distant shore. For the sand spit! That’s where his help is really needed. There where the ocean surf is playing havoc.

After a storm it hurls ashore heaps of sea-weeds and sea-creatures, all kinds of fishes, crabs, jellyfish, starfish, sometimes even an unwary dolphin. Jellyfish soon perish but some of the fish manage to wriggle their way back. So do most of the crabs; in fact they themselves leave the water for the beach to prey on storm victims. And it does his heart good to come to their rescue.
For hours he roams the beach in search of what it is not too late to rescue. It gives him real pleasure to see a fish, thrown into the water, splash with its tail and swim away. Or, still more, to see a fish at first floating lifeless side or belly up come at last to life. Picking up a large fish he will carry it seawards, pressing its wriggling body to his, laughing, as he talks to it in soothing accents. Of course, he would have eaten that very fish without any compunction had he been out in the ocean and hungry. But that’s an evil of necessity. Here, on the beach, he is the sea-dwellers’ patron, friend and saviour.

Usually Ichthyander returns home as he left-using the underwater current. But today he doesn’t feel like going underwater for long, so beautiful are the ocean and sky. He dives, swims underwater and breaks surface again, not unlike a sea-bird hunting fish.

The last rays of sun are gone. The yellow band is dwindling in the western horizon. Gloomy waves like grey shadows chase one another.

Compared with the warm water the air has a nip in it. It’s dark but Ichthyander feels safe; there’s nobody to attack him at this hour of quiet that divides day and night.

* * *

Here is what he needs-the southbound current flowing quite close to the ocean’s surface. The swell which is still felt makes the underwater river rise and fall a little as it traces its slow course from the hot north down to the cold south. A great deal lower — and in the opposite direction — runs a cold current. Inchthyander makes good use of both of them when his trips take him along the coast.

The warm current will carry him all the way home. He only has to keep awake so as not to overshoot the tunnelmouth as he once did. Stretching his arms behind his head and out to the side by way of exercise, and pulling his legs apart and slowly back together he lets himself be carried southwards. The warm water and slow movements have a soothing effect on him.

As Ichthyander looks up he sees a heaven dotted with stars as small as specks of dust. Those must be Noctilucae, rising to the ocean’s surface with their tiny lanterns lit up. Here and there in the darkness he sees bluish and pinkish luminous nebulae — tight clusters of minute luminous animals. Balls emitting mild greenish light sail slowly by. Shedding light quite close to Ichthyander is a jellyfish looking for all the world like a lamp under an elaborate shade of lace with a long fringe. The fringe stirs as in a light breeze at every movement of the jellyfish. In the shallows starfish have already put on lights. In the depths below the lights of big fish of prey cruise at speed. They chase one another, circle, die out and flicker up afresh.

Another shallow. The bizarre trunks and twigs of coral are illumined from within in blue, pink, green and white. Some corals flicker waningly, others gleam like red-hot metal.

On land at night you can see the stars, far off and tiny, sometimes the moon. Here there are thousands of stars, thousands of moons, thousands of small multicoloured suns all radiating soft delicate light. Night in the ocean is infinitely more beautiful than night on land.

To compare them Ichthyander breaks the surface again.

The air has become warmer. The dark blue heaven spread overhead is thickly studded with stars. A silver moon rides low above the horizon. A silver runs from it across the ocean.

From off the harbour comes a low prolonged hoot. That is the giant Horrocks, getting ready for the return voyage. Hey, but it’s late. Dawn is not far off. He has been gone nearly twenty-four hours. Father will definitely scold him.

Ichthyander heads for the tunnel, thrusts his hand through the iron bars, opens the grille and swims on in complete darkness. He is now in the lower, cold current that runs from the sea to the garden ponds.

A light knock on his shoulder wakes him up. He’s in the pool. Quickly he comes up; starts breathing through his lungs, taking in the air fragrant with familiar flower scents.

A few minutes later he’s fast asleep in bed-to please his father.

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