Perilous Adventures
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Bride of the Deep

by n a bourke

Rebekah loaded the camera and went down the ladder, into the mouth of the sinkhole. She descended, rung after rung, and the hot desert disappeared, their tents and equipment, Nate’s diagrams, the trowels and brushes, the crates of small artefacts.

In the sinkhole there were only echoes and coolness.
Rebekah had never liked sinkholes. Too many archaeologists had died in their inky depths. The stink of limestone and broken bones rose from the water like the black creep of disturbed silt. Thirty metres into the hole she clung to the ladder, ankle-deep in water, the well of the cave endlessly deep beneath her. She knew Nate had to go down alone; the caves were narrow in places, too narrow for two divers, or for too much equipment, and the silt that lined its walls was thick. One touch from a stray hand or floating piece of equipment and the disturbed silt would become a cloud of impenetrable darkness; Nate would quickly lose his sense of direction, and drown.

Rebekah wished he had trusted someone else to come to the site with them, one of his grad students, someone to supervise the dive while she worked on her translations. She resented the heat and boredom of waiting at the lip of the sinkhole, waiting to find out whether he had died, alone in the treacherous cave.

The red buoy dipped nearby, its bell echoing.
Her husband’s great discovery rose from the dark like Ahab’s whale. It climbed steadily beneath a cluster of air bladders, swathed in yellow plastic long and slim, wider at one end than the other.

Nate had been in the water almost twelve hours, diving to 270 metres to retrieve the artefact he had discovered resting on a ledge in the brackish dark. In the infrared video it looked like a casket of some kind, perhaps a makeshift coffin. After all his careful research, the poring over ancient manuscripts, painstaking hours mapping each inch of the limestone karst – his doddering methodology – he was still calm. Twenty years of uncovering the remains of spears and bowls, shattered beyond repair. Important finds, but discoveries that barely ruffled the surface of history. Finally, her husband had uncovered something major, something that could change everything they knew about history, and the thrill that should have been there, the bone-deep enthusiasm, never reached his eyes, never shone from his face.

Rebekah peered into the dark water until she saw her husband coming, hand over hand up the guideline, his white face turned to the surface like a reflected moon. When he reached the surface they moved quickly and silently, hooking the winch rope through the chains, and disconnecting the bladders that had lifted the object from the anoxic depths of the cave.

Nate stayed in the sinkhole, at the water’s surface, as Rebekah climbed into the world again, into the red expanse of desert. Her feet collected damp clumps of ochre dirt as she walked to the winch and wound up the slack. “Ready?” she called to Nate.

“Slow and steady,” he called back. Rebekah started to wind the winch. She could hear the water sluicing from their treasure’s slippery sheath. They raised it slowly, conscious that the ancient timber was tender and swollen with water. She watched the ladder take the strain of Nate’s weight as he climbed up to help her lift the artefact, easing it through the sinkhole’s four-metre wide mouth, onto the waiting trolley. It would have been easier with a complete team, but Nate was determined to keep this find to himself, no matter what it cost them.

They wheeled the large bundle into the work-tent where Rebekah had prepared the bath of polyethylene glycol – the PEG would slowly replace the wooden artefact’s internal water. Nate checked the bundle nervously, worrying at the seams of the plastic outer bag. He was still in his dive-gear, though he had taken off his rebreather and slipped the hood back from his hair. He frowned in the fading light; sweat collected in the furrows. The heat of the desert rose through their tent’s thin floor and warmed the soles of Rebekah’s feet. When the solution was ready they submerged the artefact in the PEG bath and Nate peeled back the layers of protective wrapping, inch by painful inch. First the outer bladder, the inner plastic, and finally the black, insulating rubber.
He made love with the same deliberate concentration.

Rebekah tried not to look at what they were uncovering as they worked, but she couldn’t help glancing at it every now and then, feeling the quiver in her belly as she saw dark timber, a subtle curve. Elation rose slowly from her tailbone, through her spine, until it rang in her head like a bell. Finally, the rubber sheath was completely open.

A boat, around two and half metres long and a metre across at its widest point, shaped like a dinghy with a pointed prow and narrow, flattened stern. The timber was dark. Old. Two large eyes were carved into its prow, and a swirling pattern of fish, seal, and waves trailed backward above the boat’s waterline. Below the waterline there was a sinuous engraving of a sea-dragon. The eyes were ovoid, heavily-lashed eyes. The style was unfamiliar to her, smoothly-curved and three-dimensional.

Rebekah’s eyes drifted over the boat’s rails to its interior. She grasped the side of the tank, her hands leaving smears of sweat on the clean surface. Lying in the boat, on its left side, was the complete skeleton of a human, half-submerged in a layer of silt. A stone child lay cradled in its pelvis.


They came to explore the sinkhole thinking there might be small artefacts; a bowl, a spear. Nate’s discovery overwhelmed them. They took photographs of every centimetre of the find, mapping the location of each bone of the skeleton in its silt grave before they removed her, spreading her bones carefully on a clean trestle table. They were in the tent, hour after hour, cleaning the boat and bones, removing silt, refreshing the solution. Nate removed slivers of timber and bone for carbon-dating. Rebekah lifted the stone child from its resting place and placed it in a small, plastic tub of its own. It lay as if newborn, swaddled.
The child’s features were simplified; a gentle nub of a chin, the faint bump of a nose. The bones of its skull were so thin that, when cleaned, they were opaque. The fontanelles were unclosed. When Rebekah lifted it from the boat it was heavier than she had expected. Its arms and legs ended in small nubs rather than fingers and toes. Its knees were drawn up to its chin, its arms pressed to its sides. It was a morbid doll; the calcified shell of a daughter, never born.

After three days Nate pulled Rebekah away from the work-tent to feed her cold baked beans and show her her own grey visage in the mirror, her sunken, bruised eyes and wild hair. He coaxed her to lie down on the mattress for a few hours. He was patient and tender with her, stroking her hair back into place and cupping her face in his hand as he kissed her. She wanted to slap him. Rattle his bones. Startle him into life.

At four in the morning Rebekah was awake, watching Nate curled up, facing her across the mattress. His dark curls were pasted to his forehead with sweat, his mouth slightly open as he breathed. His body was pale and sexless. Did he dream, as she did, of passion, of a bodily fire that streamed through him, concentrated his blood?

Rebekah rose and went into the work-tent, exhausted and frustrated in equal parts, unable to stay away. The artefacts – the bones and still-damp timber – drew the light to them, gleaming in the dry air.

Nate had been working on the boat itself, meticulously cleaning silt from the engravings. As Rebekah peered at the pattern of short strokes her husband had uncovered her mouth went dry. Not a pattern. Not mere decoration.

A language.

She was wide awake, lighting the kerosense lamps that illuminated the tank and its surrounds, grabbing her camera and setting the resolution as high as she could. Nate, slow and methodical as he was, had barely finished cleaning one length of the rub rail – from prow to stern – finishing at the corner and sifting all the silt from the tank. The solution was clear as rainwater. She photographed the rail in over-lapping sections, careful to get each sign.

At 5:00 am Rebekah made coffee and sat at her desk. The sun was rising, burning the last coolness of the night from the red sand and rock surrounding them. She was still in a t-shirt and underwear, grimy with dirt and stale sweat, her face greasy, but she couldn’t turn away from the slowly-resolving images that floated in the developing solution. The language was ancient – built of logographs and a vaguely Sumerian syllabary.

Rebekah lost time. Nate brought her food and she knew, in some peripheral, unconscious sense, that he was working beside her, still cleaning the artefacts: measuring, weighing and cataloguing them. Occasionally he went out to the sinkhole and dived. Once he was gone for fifteen hours. She didn’t notice until he returned and stood before her, wet and exhausted, his freckles like pin-points of blood on his white skin.

“Didn’t you hear the alarm clock go off?”
“It’s her boat – her story,” Rebekah said, without looking up from her translation.

“What if I hadn’t come back? When would you have noticed? Come looking?”

Rebekah turned on her stool, feeling the stiffness in her neck and shoulder, her wrist and hand. “You should have told me you were going down.”

“I did.”

“Did you find anything?”

Nate looked at his wife. She was thin, but she had always been thin. There was a bright sheen to her skin, a fevered spark in her eyes. Even sitting down her body was strung so tightly it thrummed. Her leg jiggled, her fingers flickered over the papers of her desk. She turned away from him, eyes restlessly scanning the photographs, the unfinished translation.


I am Akia, bride of the deep.
This is my boat. These are my words.
I have seen the great hold of my enemy.
I have drunk from my enemy’s cup;
I have slept in my enemy’s bed.
I have carried his child, who will never
be born.
I have made a pact with death.
I am Akia, bride of the sea-dragon.
I am Akia, bride of death.


Reidar flooded my home with the blood of my people. He ate the salted hearts of my mother and my father. He urinated on the stones of our temple and cut out the tongues of the temple maidens. He burned the children of Alga in their cradles. He murdered our past and our future. Alga is dead.
Reidar brought me and my sister, Shaxa, to his homeland. He put us in the hall with his dogs, guarded by men with sharp blades. We are women of the Alga; we do not serve.
He came to us each night, when his wife refused to lie with him, and took one of us to his bed. When he lay with my sister, his great bulk grunting behind her like a beast of the field, she pressed her throat against his blade and died, a curse on her lips.

I was the last to be taken, and he was wiser by then. He tied my hands with rough rope and filled me with wine. He was not tender. Because I was the last he kept me safe, guarded by two men whose manhood he severed. His wife would spit on me and say things I did not understand. Their language was rough and brutal. It is the language of murder. The language of cold fields and ice-bound hearts.

Reidar came to me each night, his sex leading him into the dark hall. He loosened the rope and laid me on the foul straw. When he was done he would lie and mutter against my breasts and belly. The guards looked on with unblinking blue eyes.

When my belly curved with child, Reidar brought me fresh clothes. He curved his hand over my womb and chanted to it. He gave me a small room of my own and bid me live there alone. He set guards at the door. His wife brought food each night, which she spat on. Her blood laced the stews and breads I ate.

As my belly swelled Reidar’s wife grew crueler. While he was in the great hall, working up his lust with drink, she came to my room and raked my face with her nails; she took a blade and sheared away my long, dark hair. Finally, she convinced her husband his seed would harm the child, that the babe would swallow it in the womb and grow monstrous, or die. I was filled with bitter gratitude.

I was given more food and permitted to take short walks in the forest to build strength for the impending birth. Each time I left the hold Reidar brought his dogs to me. He cut open my palm and squeezed blood onto their slavering tongues. “Do not run,” he said, in clumsy imitation of my people’s language. “Or they will come for you.”

The trees were smooth-trunked and tall, their leaves long and thin as needles. I found a small inlet and bathed in the cold water. I scrubbed at my skin until it was raw and red. I sat on a rock and combed my short hair with my fingers, bound my breasts with winding cloth, and drew my gown over my head. I wept for Alga, for my dead people. And for the devil’s child growing in my womb.

A great sea-dragon rose before me. His long neck was blue, his scales flecked with gold. I stood to greet him.

“Why do you weep into my mother’s ocean?” he asked.

“My people are dead, my homeland destroyed. My enemy has planted his seed in my womb.”

The dragon slithered onto the rock beside me, curling his great neck around my feet and rising to peer at my belly. “This is not the child of your heart?” he said.

I shook my head. I was unable to speak. He coiled around my thighs and belly.

“I could curse this child for you,” he said. “I could ensure he is never born.”

I trembled in the sea-dragon’s embrace, feeling the cool press of his scales as he rested his monstrous head against my shoulder. “What is the price?” I asked.

“You will build a boat,” he said. “We will travel to the south, where my mother, Tiamet, does not gaze down from the heavens each night. We will journey to the Fresh Waters of my father, Apsu. You will be my honoured bride.”

“Why would I exchange one slavery for another?”

The sea-dragon hissed. His long tongue flickered against my cheek. “You will be the bride of the ocean, the bride of Ea the life-giver, the bride of eternity. You will not be a slave.”


Rebekah was still at her desk, huddled over her notebooks and photographs, translating Akia’s story. The translation was slow-going, the language new to her eyes. She was building a vocabulary, but it was an uncertain process. She made mistakes. She had tried connecting to the home computer to access her files on Sumerian and Emilate pictographs and cuneiform syllabaries, but the connection kept dropping out.

Nate had offered to help, but Rebekah pushed him away. She couldn’t stand to watch him fumbling over the simplest signs. This was not a known language and he worked slowly, hovering over each sign, his brow creased in concentration as his lips mouthed the unfamiliar syllables.

Nate went out to the sinkhole. It was deeper than any of its closest cousins, the cluster of sinkholes and caves spread throughout the limestone karst near Mt Gambier, deeper and clearer and more voluminous than Picanninnie Ponds or Hell’s Hole. It was so deep its anoxic, brackish depths had no microbial activity. The artefacts they retrieved had been preserved in near-perfect condition. The lack of bacterial decomposition meant they had even been able to retrieve traces of brain tissue from the woman’s skull.

Nate checked all his equipment, put on his thermal underwear and drysuit, his flippers and mask. He left most of his slates behind – there would be nobody at the surface to read any messages he sent up. He checked the batteries on both of his lights and stood at the edge of the sinkhole watching the sun rise. It was going to be a hot day, but Nate would be down in the cold depths of the cave while the heat rose and sank. The day would be over by the time he re-surfaced.


I stood in my boat.
The great hold of my enemy burned in my wake;
The smoke of my enemy’s death was my bridal veil.
I stood in my boat.
Reidar’s child was a stone in my womb;
Reidar’s salted heart was the meat in my belly.
I stood in my boat.
The reins of my dragon-groom in my hands;
The ice of my enemy in my veins.


The child hardened in my womb. It did not grow or turn. It would never be born, just as Ea had promised. Reidar grew cruel again. His eyes, as he took me, were thick with wine and fury. He smiled when his wife beat me, when she spat on me and made sport, allowing the young boys of the hold to suckle at my breasts and press their hairless manhoods against me. He laughed when she sheared my hair again, slicing flesh from my ears, though he would not let her slit my nose or cut off my lips. Not yet.

Ea’s smooth coils embraced me in my dreams, his tongue flickering gently at my breasts. He retracted his claws, ran his paw over my stiff belly to the damp eagerness of my sex, and smiled.

The days had shortened. Soon, the midwinter night would come and spread its mantle over the hold for several moons. Ea would not come to the surface during the night, when his mother peered down on the earth, seeking revenge for Ea’s murder of his father, Apsu.

“We must leave tomorrow,” he said. I suppressed a ripple of loathing as my groom coiled his shining length around my shins and thighs. My blood rose to my cheeks, my nipples grew hard beneath my gown.

“Will you grant me a bride-gift?” I asked. “Will you perform a lover’s task for me?”

Ea coiled a little tighter, sliding up to encircle my waist. His eyes glimmered in the muted light. “Of course, beloved Akia, what would you ask of me?”

“Burn Reidar’s hold to the ground,” I said. “Burn his wife and his dogs, his warriors and his temple-boys, his maidens and wives and crones. Burn all of his people. Burn his ship. His soul. And bring me his salted heart.”


Nate was sleeping on their camp bed, spread out like a starfish, naked and gormless as a child. Rebekah knelt and traced the vein leading from his wrist to his elbow and up into his armpit. He stirred a little in his sleep, frowning at her touch and curling onto his side. His soft penis rested against his thigh. There were dark circles under his eyes. She curled against him, felt his hot arm slip over her waist. “Finished?” he murmured, his breath warm against the back of her neck.

“I want to go down there,” she said. “Tomorrow.”

“There’s nothing else down there,” he pressed closer to her spine, curving around her, pressing his feeble erection against her buttocks. “Nothing we can reach. I’ve explored as deep as we can go.”

Rebekah turned in his arms, pulling his face close to her own. She could smell the brackish water when she kissed him. The scent of limestone, of the dragon’s hold, mingling with the red dust in his hair and on his breath. She rose above him. “I want to see it for myself,” she said, her hair coiling around her shoulders, her skin gleaming in the half-light. “I want to know what it’s like.”


I am Akia, daughter of Alga,
Queen of the Fresh Water,
Bride of the sea-dragon.
Guardian of the dragon’s gold.

Ea has brought me to his home.
Here there is rich land, a domed sky.
Here there are trees ripe with fruit.
Here is the ocean of Apsu, clear and

Here is Paradise.
Here is Death.


We journeyed across night and day. At night Ea dove into the sea’s depths, when the sun rose he slipped into the boat’s harness and we sped across the oceans of the world. Great beasts lumbered through the sea below us. They rose and bowed their formidable heads as we passed. The people of Hittia presented me with a wreath of elephantine Kali-flowers. The priests of Enlil blessed me. I embraced the feet of the Queen of Heaven. I broke bread with the White Bull. They each greeted me with grace and humility – Akia, maiden of Alga, mother of Peria the unborn child, bride of Ea.
Whenever we reached land Ea stretched his great body at my feet, forming a bridge from my boat to the sand.

Everywhere we went the people of the earth offered him treasure in return for his protection from storms, for his wisdom. He removed curses from their wells, filled their streams with fish, blessed their wombs with wriggling babes, and cursed their enemies with drought. He took all the wealth they gave him into his great mouth and swallowed it; plates of gold, jewelled crowns, ebon flasks and lapis bracelets. Silver and brass, garnets and emeralds.
After many months we arrived at his homeland.

We stood on a desert plain, the boat at my feet. It had cost Ea dear to bring me here, to slither a thousand miles over rock and sand, his scales growing dull with dust. My royal bridegroom bid me sit in my boat. He flickered his tongue against my bare shoulders, and smiled.

“We are almost home,” he said.

I looked about me – brown scrub and red desert spread as far as I could see. Even the wind was dry, cracking my lips, burning my skin.

“Akia, maiden of Alga. I grant you freedom from your bond. Your will is strong as mine, your spirit noble. I would have you a willing bride; else you are free to go.”

“Where would I go? The desert would burn the flesh from my bones.”

“If you asked it of me, I would take you to a place of your choosing.”

I stood in the middle of the great desert. My people were dead, my womb cursed. I had no home to return to, no land of my own. “I will be your bride,” I said.

Ea sang a long, terrible note. A great cloud of dust rose around us. He curled his body into a spiral and lifted the boat, with me in it. We slithered down a newly-formed embankment. I peered through the red cloud but could see nothing. The sand cloaked my hair and skin. I covered my eyes and mouth with my hand, but the sand stole between my fingers, spiralling into my nose and ears, filling my mouth. I feared it would stop my breath.

With a slither of his coils, Ea slipped into the dark earth.


Rebekah slipped from their mattress, her thighs still sticky with sex. Nate stirred in his sleep and rolled onto his side, breathing contentedly. The early evening air was warm and rich with silence. She put her robe on and went out to the winch, to the lip of the sinkhole.

The pale arc of the moon and a handful of stars were reflected perfectly in the water’s surface. She could see the small, dark nub of her own head at the circle’s edge, the long line of the ropes.

The stars shuddered. The moon trembled. A long ribbon of scales broke the surface of the water and rippled around its edges. A great cry dropped into Rebekah’s body, heavy and round and sharp. She leaned into the sinkhole, reached out a hand as if to comfort someone. Something. Rubble trickled into the cave. The water surged, white with foam, and a great head rose toward her. The sea-dragon opened its mouth, flicked its tongue towards her. A great flood of longing swarmed in Rebekah’s blood and lungs, in her bones and sinews. She felt his thoughts press into her own, forcing her cells to flatten, her breath to grow shallow.

And then, just as quickly, he was gone.

Rebekah pressed her belly against the rock and willed the creature to return, but the water was still. She lay until her head ached, the earth beneath her prostrate body was rough with stones. She grew stiff and numb, but he did not return.
She would have to go down, into the cave, and find him.


I am Akia, bride of the sea-dragon
I am Akia, bride of the dark,
Guardian of Ea’s heart.
Guardian of Life.

I am Akia, mother of Peria
I am Akia, mother of the stone child,
Guardian of the never-born.
Guardian of Death.


Light slips through fissures in the domed ceiling of our world, miles below the earth. The crystal dome of Ea’s kingdom catches and refracts the light. There is a great lake and, in its centre, an island.

Ea nudges my boat onto the white shore of the island and dives into the cool depths of the water to disgorge his treasure. The water glitters with the reflected plenty of his wealth. I bathe in the clear water; silken waifs drift around me, their hands forming warm eddies against my skin. When Ea rises to greet me, his scales glisten as brightly as the stars. He plucks fruit from the island’s trees and offers it to me in a golden bowl. I want for nothing. I am rich with beauty.
Tonight my bridegroom will claim his bride. Tonight I will go out onto the great water in my little boat. I will look down into the glittering lake and watch him rise toward me, his face like a sun rising from the sea. I will kiss his mouth. I will feel his touch rise through me like light. He will lay me down in my tiny ship. He will take me: his true, his only, bride.


Rebekah watched the sky contract to a blue, pupil-less eye above her. The air grew cooler as she descended through the dry section of the cave. The light was blue, then bluer. She put her mask over her face, her flippers onto her feet, adjusted the rope at her waist and slipped below the surface of the water. The light was bluer still, growing green as she sank. She went hand over hand down the line. The blueness deepened to green, then slowly into black.

At 100 metres Nate had attached an orange tag to the line, and an air bladder. At 150 there was another. She checked her equipment, turned on one of her lights, started the video camera. The tunnel narrowed. She kept her kicking tight and slow, conscious of the silt lining the walls; one kick and she would be caught in a whirl of solid black. Unable to see anything, unable to discern up from down, left from right.
She stroked the beam of her lamp slowly along the walls, noting the markers Nate had placed for each find, each useless chip of rock he had brought to the surface. She was tempted to remove her mask, certain her eyes would penetrate the gloom more surely without the film of silt gathered at its edges.

She brought a hand to her face. It approached her slowly, like a dark fish, her fingers boneless weeds swaying in the tideless water. She wanted to loosen her hair, let it stream ebony in the dark. She circled silently about the rope as she dived, spiralling into the cave.

Finally, in the wintry dark, she found the shelf where Akia had rested in her boat for thousands of years. Nate’s marker was a mere flicker of colour. As her hand reached out toward the rock, Rebekah heard the dragon seething below her. His great coils slithered against the rock.

Rebekah’s mask felt tight and her skin cold. At this depth every second meant another hour added to her ascent, another hour during which Nate could wake and find her gone. If he discovered that she had gone without him he would abandon the site, pack up the tents in his quiet, furious way, and go back to the ventilated rooms of the museum. If she was going to go down any further she had to go now, while he was sleeping.

Ea’s coils rasped across each other. Rebekah reached out her hand and felt him – finally – slide past. His body was firmer, stronger, and cooler than she had expected. His scales rippled beneath her fingertips. She grasped at him, but he was smooth and quick. Something firm and thin flicked against her ribs, across her breasts and neck.

Why do you seek me, he hissed.

Rebekah peered into the darkness – a glint of something moved far below, a flicker of light. She closed her eyes and thought of Nate, asleep in their tent, the dry, red earth spreading around him. The soft stink of his sweat, the tranquil emptiness of his heart.

I could give you what you want. Ea’s words dropped into her body like stones.

Rebekah’s question formed itself in her mind. What is the price?

You will come down to me.

At 310 metres she had reached the end of the guideline. Her safety line pulled at her waist. She checked her gauges and tried to remember the number of markers she had passed; less than a minute until she had to start the slow ascent, the endless, mind-numbing hours loitering in the dark at each marker, waiting for the certainty of Nate’s disappointment, for his round moon face sinking toward her.

Come down, Ea said.

Rebekah felt the dragon’s voice pulling at her. Her thighs were thin ribbons, her blood raced through her body, warming the near-frozen tips of her fingers, the chill of her cheeks. Her sex throbbed. She pressed her thighs together. When Ea rose again, and rubbed his slick coils along her hip and belly, she felt heat burn through her. When he moved away she gasped, feeling the cold pinch her breath.

Rebekah turned and unclipped the safety ropes holding her to the guideline. Her torch flickered out. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness she saw the promise of something, deep in the cave, a flash of gold as sharp and brilliant as a drowned sun.
Ea rose to greet her, his scales rippling with phosphorescent light. He took her hands as she let go of the guideline. His body swirled around her, grasping her in his coils. She could feel the slow beat of his blood as his face floated before her; the great eyes, the flick of his tongue, the thick rope of his neck.

Ea reached up a monstrous hand and removed her mask.

You stole my true, my only, bride, he said.

Rebekah’s breath was painful. Her throat burned as the frigid water entered her lungs. Her heart beat painfully against her ribs. Her skull seemed wide and hollow.

Ea’s eyes glittered. She was my Guardian, my Queen, he said, as Rebekah lost consciousness, as the last of the oxygen left her aching lungs. This is my price.


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