On the martyrdom of Saint Siobhan the Pale (I)

They are on a secret expedition, the purpose of which is both scientific and theological. He is a biologist, and she an oceanographer. Specifically, she’s interested in trenches. There is conflict between the two over the course of their voyage. They travel on a big, white boat. They go to the bright tropics, where they pick up a stranger. The biologist doesn’t tell his wife whom they have collected, but she sees a woman in white embark late one evening. The oceanographer cries angry, bitter tears, careful that no one else sees her. She believes that her husband is having an affair – and rather openly, despite the charade of secrecy. But the woman in white is only a decoy. Their true cargo is a giant albino squid, preternaturally intelligent. She swims under the boat, or off the bow, breaching only long after the sun has set and consorting with the biologist nightly. He has left the affections of his wife, although he loves her no less than before, and his motives are opaque. The squid’s name is Siobhan. They arrive at a wharf populated with low piers close to the waterline. Twenty-plus storey hotels glitter above them. They go into the city to meet the biologist who first discovered Siobhan. He is a small man with a deformed hand and kind eyes. He tells them a story. When they first found her, she was nearly dead. She’d been torn from her habitat, a cold, deep trench in some unknown part of the sea, and then dumped into a filthy fish tank locked in the bowels of an abandoned oil rig hidden away in some poisoned part of the Sargasso Sea. Someone tipped them off. Siobhan was infested with parasites, slick with the slime of sickness. Eyes milky with death. Her pure white flesh was yellow, like the skin of a cancer patient. You brought her back to life, the oceanographer says. No, he replies. On their way back to the boat, she asks her husband why he had kept this from her, but he has no reply. On the bow, she meets the woman in white, who says to the oceanographer, Did you really think he didn’t love you anymore? She gestures to the sea, and, just then, Siobhan breaches the surface, bone white like a ceremonial dagger and slicing open the water’s silky black skin. The biologist appears behind her, his hand resting on the small of her back. Leaning forward, he whispers into her ear why Siobhan has so much significance to so many. She is worshiped, a deity from the deep. That night the oceanographer retires to the hotel alone, looking over her shoulder as her husband waves, white lamps swaying starkly over him, cones of light shifting with the wind. I’ll be up in a bit, he says tiredly. When she’s gone, he boards the boat, going below deck to a sort of open-bottomed tank. He stands on the rungs of a ladder that descends into the darkness. And Siobhan appears suddenly, a great white happening, alien and profound. Her tentacles caress him. It is not a sexual union, but a spiritual one, and it seems to last forever. Eventually from below comes a great silvery eel. On its brow there’s a prehensile feeler, like a finger. Siobhan is unsettled, but too distracted to identify the source of her unsettlement. The biologist, blithely unaware, takes the eel’s feeler in his hand, stroking it as if it were the tip of a tentacle. It stings Siobhan, who thrashes wildly, and using its muscular length, it drags the biologist from his ladder and beneath the surface. After he disappears, Siobhan eventually ceases to move and she sinks, boneless and slow, down into the gloom. In the morning, the oceanographer comes looking for him. She brings coffee. When she realizes he isn’t there, she calls a detective. The detective promises to help her, but there are so many things he needs to know. They reconstruct much of the foregoing over the course of several weeks. She cries frequently. But they discover almost nothing new. Just that the night the biologist disappeared was somehow unnatural and that something savage stalked the sea. The sky was painted a mottled, oily orange, the color of a dull, evil wildfire reflected on low-hanging clouds. But there had been no clouds that night and, of course, there was no fire in the depths of the sea.