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Back in the sea - The Amphibian Man by Alexander Belyaev

Breathing in painful gasps Ichthyander ran along the road that skirted the sea-front. As soon as he was out of that dreadful city he left the road and headed straight for the beach. Taking shelter behind an outcropping of rock he peeled off his suit, hid it among the stones, ran to the water’s edge and plunged in.

Exhausted as he was, he had never swum so quickly before. Fish scattered away out of his path in fright. It was only after he had put a few miles between himself and the city that he slowed down and turned close inshore. Here he was at home. He knew every stone, every crevice on the sea-bed. Right below him spread flat on the sandy floor lived sedate turbot; over there grew red bushes of coral, a hiding place for small red-finned fish. Two families of octopuses, shared that fishing boat wreck-and, incidentally, there had been a recent increase in their families, too. Those grey stones were the haunt of crabs. Ichthyander could watch them for hours, delighting in their small joys of a lucky hunt or sympathizing with their little griefs — of a nipper lost or an octopus invading. And the offshore rocks marked the breeding grounds of innumerable oysters.

When he was near the gulf he at last broke water and looked round. Seeing a school of dolphins gambolling among the waves he gave a shout. A large dolphin snorted gaily by way of acknowledgement and headed for his friend, his sleek, shiny back now disappearing in the waves, now rising above the surface again.

“Come on, Leading, be smart about it,” Ichthyander was shouting as he swam out to meet the dolphin. Presently he had a hold of it, and without stopping, “Off we go! “ he urged.

Obedient to the young man’s guiding hand the dolphin turned for the open sea and dashed forward in the teeth of wind and waves. The animal churned the water as it cleaved its way through the waves and spread a fantail of foaming wash behind it, but Ichthyander was not to be satisfied. He kept urging his mount on.

“Come on, Leading, faster! “

The dolphin’s sides were heaving heavily when Ichthyander put a sudden stop to the race, although still far from being his calmer self. He just slipped off the glistening back down into the water and was gone, leaving his friend behind in utter bewilderment. The dolphin waited a moment, snorted, dived and immediately reappeared, then gave another snort of displeasure, canted sharply and headed shorewards, glancing back from time to time. The amphibian was not to be seen anywhere, so Leading joined its school. Meanwhile Ichthyander was going deeper and deeper, down into the gloomy depths of the ocean. All that he had seen and heard that day was so unexpected, so beyond the beat of his experience, that he wanted to be alone. He was going deeper and deeper down, oblivious of the danger of it. He wanted to be alone to try and understand why he was so different from everybody else, why he was a stranger to both land and sea.

Then he slowed down his dive. The water had become denser, it pressed on him, making breathing increasingly difficult. A greyish-green pall cloaked everything around. Sea-creatures were fewer here and mostly unfamiliar to Ichthyander: he had never been so deep down before. And for the first time this silent murky world gripped Ichthyander’s heart with terror. He went up as quickly as he could, broke water at last and swam shorewards. The sun was setting, its slanting, stark red shafts driving into the sea. Once in the water they blended with the blue of it into tender tones — from pinkish lilac to greenish blue.

As Ichthyander was not wearing his goggles the surface of the water from below looked to him as it looks to fish — not flat but cone-shaped, much as if he were at the apex of a huge funnel. The rims of the funnel seemed to be encircled by rings, red, yellow, green, blue and violet. Beyond these spread the bright surface of the water which reflected, mirror-like, the things below-rocks, weeds, fish.

Ichthyander turned face down, coasted along the bottom quite close inshore and squatted down among a group of underwater rocks near a shallow. The fishermen from a boat nearby jumped overboard to pull her clear. One of them stood in the water knee-deep. Ichthyander saw a legless fisherman above, and separately his legs below the water, duplicated in the mirror of the water’s surface. Another fisherman got in shoulder-deep. And below the water a weird creature with no head but four legs suddenly reared up, looking like identical twins placed one on top of the other, shoulders to shoulders, their heads chopped off for a better fit. Whenever there were men wading out Ichthyander could always enjoy a good, fish’s-eye view of them, full-length, but seen as in a glass ball, and swim away before they spotted him.

But today the strange bodies with four legs and no head, and the heads with no bodies to them looked definitely repulsive to Ichthyander. Men… They were so noisy and smelly, they smoked such foul cigars. Yes, dolphins were better — the clean gay dolphins. Ichthyander grinned as he remembered how he had once tasted the dolphin’s milk.

Way down to the south there was a small secluded cove. A belt of razor-sharp reefs and a great sandbank made access to it from the sea well-nigh impossible, while steep craggy cliffs cut it off from land. Neither fishermen nor pearl-divers visited the cove. Colourful marine growths thickly carpeted its shallow bottom. Small fish weaved to and fro in the warm water. For many years a she-dolphin had come here to bring forth her young, two, four or sometimes even six of them. Ichthyander found it great fun to watch the baby dolphins. For hours he would hide among the rocks and watch them romp in the waves or rush back to their mother to nudge their way to her nipples. Then Ichthyander started to tame them little by little, treating them to small fish. By and by the baby dolphins and their mother got used to him. The little fellows didn’t mind him chasing them, catching them, tossing them in the air. Indeed they seemed to like it-they wouldn’t leave his side and flocked to him from afar as soon as he appeared in the cove, his hands full of titbits-fish or, still better, small octopuses.

One day when the dolphin he already knew had just had her young and they ate no fish yet but only drank their mother’s milk, Ichthyander thought why he himself shouldn’t taste it.

The next moment he was under the dolphin, clutching at her and pressing his mouth to a nipple. The creature, only a moment ago absolutely carefree, now rushed off horror-stricken. Ichthyander let go of her at once. The milk had tasted strongly offish.

Rid of her unwelcome suckling, the terrified dolphin went right out of the cove while her young stayed behind, dashing here and there, also terrified and bewildered. It took Ichthyander some time and effort to round up the silly little dolphins. By the time he had them all together the mother was back for her young and took them to a cove nearby. It wasn ‘t until days later that he won back the family’s trust.

* * *

Cristo was nearly off his head with worry. Ichthyander had been gone for three days and nights when at last he appeared, his face thin and tired, but relaxed.

“Now, where’ve you been hiding yourself?” the Indian inquired in a stem voice, overjoyed though he was to see Ichthyander back.

“On the sea-bottom,” Ichthyander replied.

“Why are you so pale?”

“I–I nearly lost my life,” Ichthyander told his first lie and started on the story of an adventure that had happened to him quite some time before.

There was a rocky plateau out in the ocean with a big oval hollow in the middle of it, looking exactly like a submarine mountain lake.

Swimming over it one day Ichthyander was struck by the extraordinary light grey of its bottom. Going deep, he was amazed to find that the hollow was nothing else than a vast cemetery of sea-creatures-from small fish to sharks and dolphins. Some of them seemed recent additions but, strangely enough, no preying carrion-eaters were to be seen anywhere. The scene was one of death and quiet unchallenged. Only here and there tiny bubbles of gas would escape and trace their way up. Ichthyander was swimming above the rim of the hollow, when he was prompted to go still a little deeper. Suddenly sharp pain seared his gills and he fell in a helpless heap, all but unconscious, onto the rim of the hollow. He lay there, his heart racing wildly, a ceaseless pounding in his temples. It was the end. Then through the red mist in his eyes he saw a shark, its body writhing, falling into the hollow only a few feet away. It must have been stalking him until it too had come into contact with the deadly water of the submarine lake. Its belly and sides heaved and fell, its mouth gaped open, baring the sharp white plates of its teeth. The beast was dying. Ichthyander shuddered. His teeth set in a supreme effort, trying to keep water out of his gills, Ichthyander crawled away from the fatal spot on all fours, then struggled up to his feet and lurched on. He felt dizzy and fell to the ground again. Then he pushed off it, struck out with his arms and there he was at last, a dozen paces from the hollow and swimming desperately away.

To round off the story Ichthyander added for Cristo’s benefit what he had subsequently learned from Salvator.

“Some harmful gas, hydrogen sulphide or carbon anhydride, has accumulated over the years there, most likely,” Ichthyander said. “You see when it reaches the surface it’s already oxidized and no longer harmful but in the hollow it’s highly concentrated. Well, I could do with a bit of breakfast now-I’m fairly famished.”

After a hasty meal Ichthyander grabbed his goggles and gloves and made straight for the door.

“What, have you only come back to get those?” Cristo said, pointing at the goggles. “What’s the matter with you? Why don’t you tell me?”

But Ichthyander was no longer his open-hearted self.

“Don’t ask me, Cristo. I don’t know myself what’s the matter with me,” he said and hurried out.

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