I often get stopped on the street by people who ask me what became of the deep sea diver. Initially, I used to pretend not to hear the question and walked on, but then, without knowing why, I started nodding in response to their curiosity, and now I even stop and tell the diver’s story in detail. I decided there was no need to directly reproach the human thirst for sensation, but rather that it was better to examine and question it through the present tale.
Let us imagine that you stop me on the street and ask, “Excuse me, you were friendly with the deep sea diver, weren’t you? Do you know what happened to him after that incident?” Then, I would tell you the following, word-for-word:
“This is correct, the deep sea diver and I were good friends. I believe your interest in him is motivated by the kindest of feelings.” You would naturally confirm this. “Since this is the case,” I would continue, “it would be my pleasure to recount to you what happened to him after that incident.”
“The diver returned to his village house with a few golden coins—the only thing he had remaining after it was all over. He fixed up the house, the garden, managed to send a gift to the last survivor of World War I, somewhere in Western Australia. He had made up his mind never to go diving again. Whenever I asked him what he was going to do, he answered, ‘I will live.’ But how will you live if you don’t do the thing that you do best and love the most? ‘Don’t you think there’s a way to live despite everything?’ There is, but that’s not living. ‘What is it, then?’ Existing. ‘What’s the difference?’ The latter is devoid of meaning. ‘What is meaning?’ To you, it is diving. ‘Then I can live without meaning.’
He answered all my questions with this kind of feigned innocence. Then I usually stopped arguing and we moved on to small talk—about the village’s climate, about the best times to plant tomatoes, about the need for a rooster in the coop, about the orientation of the sun, and other such casual topics. All traces were gone of our old philosophical dialogues, which he had claimed to ruminate on while underwater and which I used to consider during my parachute jumps.
No matter how good of a friend somebody might be, the moment your last interest in common disappears, you become acquaintances standing on both sides of nostalgia. That’s exactly what gradually happened between me and the diver. He was broken, and I couldn’t wrap my mind around what may have happened then to explain how things got to this point. Back when he and I still used to meet, I could see that even the slightest reference to the topic caused him pain, which is why I stopped referring to it. Until the following happened.
I was headed to the diver’s house, in order to return a few medals that he had left behind back when we used to go to the air-water games on the islands together. The gate was open. I entered the yard and headed toward the house. Behind the last row of tomatoes in the neat garden, he sat in a small wooden chair, wearing nothing but shorts, and trembling, his head bowed—the former diving champion who used to be able to spend almost ten minutes underwater without any air. He didn’t register that somebody was standing next to him at all. He continued counting ants—which I realized he was doing once I stood right by his head.
“Champion?” I said quietly, as to not startle him.
He turned his head toward me and I fell back into the tomato beds. I sensed I was on the border between reality, dreaming, and a third thing that I still can’t define, but which was probably engendered by finding the special place in that planting bed. I knew I was lying in a garden, but knew not which, I knew I’d seen a face with no eyes, but knew not whose, I knew the face was counting ants, but knew not how. I saw that face diving, deeper and deeper, but just the face, without a body—an eyeless face with puffed up cheeks and a clip on its nose, descending toward the absolute darkness. The scariest part was the perfect calm with which the monstrous head was doing all this. In that moment, I was convinced I was standing in front of a TV and even reached out to change the channel, but to my horror, I could not locate my arms and when I looked down, I saw my legs had disappeared. The television screen suddenly turned into a mirror, in which I clearly saw my own lonely face, only its eyes were missing. A bitterness appeared in my throat and before I could ask myself how I was able to see myself with these two empty cavities, I came to from a tickling sensation on my neck and cheeks. I opened my eyes, saw I was entirely covered in ants, and looked at the small wooden chair, but it was empty. I entered the house—the front door was unlocked. The diver was nowhere to be seen. A note was left on top of the cold stove.”
At this point you would surely ask, “What did it say?” And since you’ve most likely listened to me attentively until now, I’ll award your good manners by revealing the note’s content to you. The following quatrain was written on it:
On air and water, the flow will make you sway,
again it will scare you into the bear’s den,
if you can’t laugh every step of the way,
send tidings, and I’ll help you if I can.
Some empty space was left on the bottom, where the following phrase was written, “Finish it.”
Now I must leave for Western Australia, because my friend is most likely there.
I don’t think I’ll ever reveal how I completed the quatrain. Actually, anyone of you could complete it and feel for yourself whether you must leave for Western Australia, regardless of what happened then.
—Translated from the Bulgarian by Ekaterina Petrova