Portrait of a Scaphander
Etymologically, Orthobiosis means something like “right living”, and the term has cropped up now and again in the history of science, always to invoke a promise of bringing our actual (messy, painful, diseased, confusing) lives into line with…well, something better. The “ortho-” in there comes from the Greek term for “straight” — straight like a line. The “-biosis” part means nothing less than “life” — life itself. But what in “life” is “straight”? Not much. Maybe nothing. Except, of course, time. Sure, you can sort of loop it (with memory), or kind of meander in it (with daydreams), but it is a damnable feature of time that, whatever our tricks or hopes, it runs on a line. The events line up. Historians, as a rule, love this. The “time-line” is the magic wand of historicism: no matter how complex things get, there is always chronology, and it orders things with a ruthless logic. So history loves its timelines. But story-tellers tend to squirm and jump. They tell yarns, after all — and yarns will tangle. In “Portrait of a Scaphander” Brad Fox tells a history-story that pulls on a life-thread in the tangle of things. But that only makes it all a little knottier, no?
— D. Graham Burnett, Series Editor
February 2, 2022
In the winter of 1660, Voivode Constantin Basarab sat in his chamber inspecting a colorless, serpentine creature with malformed legs, a head backed with frilly pink gills, and soft skin like a child. It had been found in the Dinaric Alps after a cave flooded — a larval fish-human incubating in the Balkan earth. Laying it aside, the voivode picked up a walking stick sent to him by a Moldovan courtier only to have a rolled-up piece of paper slide out. He inspected the note and found it contained detailed instructions on how to overcome the palace guard and assassinate the Moldovan prince. Glancing back at the strange animal, Basarab shut his mind against this subterfuge. He alerted his ostensible victim, and the authorities went in search of the plotter.
When Alexei died, rivals had the star courtier sent to Siberia, but Peter restored his old tutor’s honors, made him court interpreter, and deeded him an estate in Ukraine. Spătarul married a woman from Moscow and lived to be 72. The Romanian family name, meaning sword-bearer, was Russianized as “Mechnikov”. He spent his last years immersed in a work called Arithmologion, in which he discussed questions of theology, philosophy, and ethics in the language of numbers.
Everything seemed to be ready — until the surgeon unexpectedly quit. They couldn’t very well travel without a doctor. Just then a cable arrived from Brooklyn, from a surgeon named Frederick Cook who said Antarctica was his lifelong dream. Gerlache wrote back to say they’d pick him up in Rio in September.
If it’s through need that our sensitivities become senses, what might we need next? Maybe to know where Danco is now that he’s dead. We are as blind to that as the worm is to the gloomy sky, so much so that we can’t imagine knowing anything about it at all. It’s a hole in the ice you slip through, never to return. But in fact the afterlife is as natural as the moon reflecting off the hummocks and the scent of seal steaks on the grill. It’s as close to us as the air is to the sea.
Racoviță drifted over toward the Frenchman and helped him arrange his equipment. Boutan then climbed onto a boat, and from there he pulled a cord that exposed the photographic plate and injected magnesium powder into the alcohol lamp. When the powder hit the flame — pow! — a brief but bright explosion. In that flash of light, Racoviță saw, momentarily, a clear image of the engineer in a scaphander suit holding a sign — photographie sous-marine. Only later did they realize the engineer had been holding the sign upside down.
There had never been any light here. Even microorganisms were scarce. To find these flea-sized troglobites thriving in this inert earth challenged the fundamentals of how life was expected to work. Segmented bodies pressing into the creases of his palm — like Mamma Mechnikov, naked and inconsolable, dazzled by dayflies. In the iciest ocean, and here in the subterranean darkness, these modest creatures, largely unseen, met the world with their chitinous shells, blind and colorless, with miniscule growths full of nerve endings, sensitive as lips. Touching, tasting, the troglobites formed a squirming, writhing sentience that, wherever he went, emerged from the deep to meet him.
Brad Fox is a writer, journalist, translator, and former relief contractor living in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review Daily, Guernica, and in the Whitney Biennial. His novel To Remain Nameless was released by Rescue Press in 2020.