We are in Tangle. Fierce, heat and sweat and pumping blood. Skin singing, fingertips tracing jawline and collarbone and pelvis, easing, deep breaths, slow and not, all-at-once emotion swirling, dizzy brain chemicals flowing thick and fast. It is bliss as always, tears and crying out, whispered nonsense, language lost in the haze, pleading for release.
And then – Disengagement. Limbs unlocking, cold water on hot skin. I feel the lump of flesh peel away along my side, see it drop to the bottom of the pool, followed by a sleeker slice of him. I watch the pieces harden, turn to shiny shards of glass, lock in place in the glorious mosaic of skin tiles below.
I ask. I should know better, a veteran like me, three lifetimes a diver, but I ask anyway. He says there was a glitch. Incompatibility of spirit. Pleasure, yes, but not The Perfect. Not even close.
“Must move on, carry on seeking. You understand.”
“Of course! Yes, of course. Please, don’t let me keep you. Let me just get that leg… Oh, your hand is still… No, the other hand… Ah! Thank you. Good luck!”
Smiling. Gracious. Not at all bereft, apart from the chunk of me now decorating the floor. I look down at the place where an old wound is starting to patch over. The patch is thin, stretched only halfway over the wound. It will take two more encounters to cover it fully, and another three or four to patch the new wound.
The way of the dive. One step forward, two steps back. We know this. We know this and we keep diving, because the truths tell us to seek The Perfect. The truths, and the dizzy brain chemicals, and the eye-rolling advice of elders. So, we dive. And we Tangle. And we disengage.
I swim to the surface, tired.
In my last lifetime, I heard a rumour of another kind of Perfect. Not the one we divers seek, not at all. A Perfect beyond perfection, one to give meaning to life and death, to make it all worthwhile. Adventurer like me, lover of Perfect, I sought it out.
I went to the places they told me to go, the funny crooked hollows in the rock near the shallows, where there was less diving and more paddling. I went and I saw the crowds, glowing neon colours and skin on fire.
I said, “What is that? Why do they burn that way?”
And I was told it was the fire of Perfect, the Ultimate Perfect, the truest Perfect from which all other Perfect comes. And I said I wanted to burn, too.
So, they took me deeper into the hollow, among the writhing, glowing souls. I longed for their ecstasy. There was a purity to it, a sort of desperation that seemed familiar, like something that had once been human in the days before the days before. Primal, was the word that came to mind as I watched the colours spread over their skin. Primal and frantic. Hysteria.
“Must I swim?” I asked.
“No. No swimming. No diving. No Tangle.”
They showed me to a shadowy corner and a pond of clear water.
“Drink,” they said.
I knelt down, scooped the liquid into my hand and sipped. It tasted of rock and ashes.
“Drink deeply,” they scolded. “With your whole heart. Put your head inside until you can’t breathe. Drink and when your lungs burn you will be one with the Ultimate Perfect and never want for anything again.”
But there were little white things in the bottom of the pond, slowly dissolving into the water.
“It’s a drug,” I said.
“It’s a cure,” they told me.
I saw then that this was not the kind of Perfect I was interested in. I left. I returned to the pool and continued diving.
I wait a while. I tell myself maybe it’s time to stop, to give up the dive and settle. And I come close. I find new things, distractions and contrivances, insight and purpose. Things that steady me, bind me, choke me. I take them in but before long I’m cutting them away again, restless and weak like I’m fighting a fever, wondering why and when, and what it all means.
The truths say we need The Perfect. We are incomplete without it. There are other truths, some that encourage the dive for its own sake. Revel in the dive, they say. Tangle and Disengage and Tangle again and that in itself is The Perfect: the Tangle, the moment, the Now.
Those truths make me giddy and confused with their cleverness, their Yes-of-course-that-makes-sense, their deep and meaningful, their soul divine. Those truths are esoteric and there are divers who live for them, for the hum of the mystical and the buzzing in their blood when they dive for the greater purpose, for the sacred sound and the Thisness of the dive. Those divers are fearless, cleaving and ripping apart so fast, with such abandon, that when you see them drifting past they seem like little more than floating bones covered in patches.
I was never one for the esoteric. I want The Perfect. Not the myth of it, or the drug Ultimate, or the for-the-moment Perfect. I want the Tangle that heals, slow and cautious, thin layers stretching, stretching, stretching until – yes! The old wounds are scabbed over, fading into scars; wounds that led somewhere.
As things stand, I am covered in patches of all different shades, pieces scooped out of me. I live on the outside as long as I dare, as long as I can bear the solitude, but my patches crack in the sun and the sand rubs against my wounds till they’re sore and crusty. I must go back to the pool. I was born to dive.
The water is crystal clear, alive with Tangle bodies. In the days before the days before, we couldn’t dive like this. Not for days, months, years on end. We’d have drowned, the stories say, because we had no gills. But the stories also say we were once creatures of the water and it was inevitable that we would return home to find ourselves, to find the things that make us whole.
Sometimes I think our search for The Perfect is a search for something else. I don’t know what.
I tread water for a while, watching the ripples across the surface, wondering whether any of the divers below have found what they seek. Then I dive deep and swim fast, searching. I swim around interlocked figures and falling skin tiles. I swim down to the bottom and watch the mosaic form. So many pieces of us, embedded there forever. Pieces we can never get back. I don’t know whether this is tragic or beautiful, whether I should weep for us or celebrate the masterpiece.
Electricity shoots up my leg as someone brushes against me. I turn, and a single arm reaches out in a flirtatious question. I shake my head. My skin is too thin for flirtation; I lose too much in return for too little. The diver moves on. Another approaches, two hands outstretched. I take them. We dance, testing, fingers intertwined, leg brushing leg, arms grazing. No, not quite.
“Thank you,” she says with her skin, smiling, politely disappointed.
I release her and swim some more. Hours, maybe. Hard to tell down here. And then comes another. Test, touch. A match. We draw close. Limbs erupt from both our sides. All over my skin the tiny suction cups awaken, buds flowering in anticipation. We press against each other. Limbs lock in place. Cups twist into each other. Information flows both ways, a slow trickle at first and then a flood, making my nerves tingle.
It’s a good union. We Tangle for months, wounds patching over, data flowing in an endless stream between us. But it is not The Perfect. Reluctantly, we begin to Disengage.
“Not a problem at all. You were wonderful.”
“Oh! You, too. This was one of the best I’ve had in a long while.”
“Me, too. I’d love to stay…”
“Maybe we could…?”
“No, we shouldn’t linger. Are you open to a Return?”
“Absolutely. If we cross paths again, I think we’d have an excellent shot.”
“Yes, I agree. Thank you.”
“Thank you! Good luck!”
“And you. I…”
“Yes, I know. Me, too.”
We take our time letting go. A mistake, we both know it, but we all have our flaws. When at last we are no longer in contact, the slice that tears out of my thigh is so large it makes me whimper. I watch it drop, a massive chunk of flesh spinning in the water, turning into glass. I hear it clunk as it hits the bottom. We shouldn’t have lingered. Silly thing to do at our age, but old habits. Anyway, it was worth it. My last wound is patched completely.
Sometimes in Tangle I dream of The Perfect. It pumps my skin full of vitality so the patches form in seconds rather than days, layer upon layer upon layer. As we’re locked together, exchanging memories, stories, songs, I feel my skin grow thicker. When I look at myself I see that I’m a mosaic, like the pool floor, an artwork of rainbow patches threaded together and held in place, patches that will never fade or weaken or tear. There are no more gouges in my skin. I am whole.
I never see the face of the other diver. I suppose it doesn’t matter, really. We chase a feeling, a connection. The carrier is irrelevant.
I wake from the dream as soon as Disengaging begins, to find myself partially patched, still raw, and watch another piece of me fall.
We meet again, that good diver and I. Kindred spirits drawn together once more by the current. Sometimes the pool does that. Sometimes it intercedes. It’s been a long while, long enough that we are both worn and weathered, our limbs thin, our suction half-hearted. Our testing dance is slow and languid, neither of us in a rush anymore. We’re nearing the end of our lifetimes.
“Do you still believe in The Perfect?”
“Yes. Less than before, but yes. You?”
“Same. Maybe it’s a quest for younger divers.”
“Maybe. Yes. You are still lovely.”
“You, as well.”
There is a long silence as we explore, brushing lightly against each other, catching and sending vague, whispered signals.
“We should have stayed,” she tells me.
“Yes. The fact that we’re here now is proof. It was a good union. We should have stayed.”
“Maybe. But there were other good unions in between.”
A sigh. “True. Even the bad ones, I wouldn’t trade.”
“Yes, yes. Even the bad ones. But maybe we will stay this time.”
Laughter, because we are old and will likely never Tangle again after this. “Yes, maybe this time.”
We enter Tangle, easing our way in with the luxury of the aged. I am one tentacle shorter than I used to be, and she has lost a few suction cups, but we make it work, laughing, coaxing. It is a good union, as we knew it would be. We share the years since our last union, marvel at each other’s sensations. It isn’t The Perfect. Not even close. And yet it is enough.
We remain locked together. Death comes for us, me first, I think, though it’s hard to tell in Tangle. In the final moments we become aware and laugh at our foolishness. There is no Perfect. There never was. The knowledge fills us with peace. We slip away, sated.
In the birthing chamber the voices ask what I would like to be next lifetime.
“A diver,” I say.
“You’ve been a diver three lifetimes already. Is there nothing else that interests you?”
I think back to Tangle and Disengaging, to the ache in my side when my other limbs emerge and the tingle in my skin when the suction cups open. I recall the sensation of water lapping against my thighs as I’m submerged in the pool, and the mosaic of skin tiles below.
“Diving is pain,” they remind me. “Diving is loss.”
“To find The Perfect.”
“There is no Perfect. It’s an ideal. You can’t find an ideal.”
This time I have to think before I answer. “I don’t really know. Because I am human, I guess. Many-limbed, gilled, nothing like my ancestors would have imagined, but still. Human. Since the days before the days before, we have sought The Perfect, or something like it. It is who we are. It is what we do.”
“You need not be human next lifetime.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Take your time. Consider.” There is silence for some time, and then, “Well? Have you considered? What will you be next lifetime?”
A disappointed sigh. “Very well.”
I take form once again. It’s a long while before I have eyes to open. When I pry them apart, I find myself at the water’s edge. Small, all my limbs exposed, skin soft as sand. All the way up and down the beach are others like me. Tiny little divers, waiting to wake. I stretch, testing my body. I scuttle carefully into the water and let it carry me. Within minutes I’m swimming. Within hours I’m strong enough to withdraw my extra limbs and rely only on the basic four.
At this stage I am all need, all hunger. I must dive and make a union if I’m to survive. I swim faster, my body growing more powerful with each stroke. At last, when my hunger is too great to bear, I dive deep as I was born to do, in search of The Perfect.
In the back of my spotless new mind, on the freshly painted walls, is a vague something. A stain, the ghost of a conversation. Something from another life. The memories will come later, growing more solid as my body ages, and by the time I’m ready to die again I’ll recall the details of every life I’ve ever lived.
But there’s no time to dwell on old things now, not when I’m young and strong and seeking. Testing is a frantic thing at my age, frenzied gasps and hurried murmurs against cheeks, hands clasping.
I enter the first Tangle of my new life. It’s bliss, as always, until we disengage. I watch a slice of skin peel away from my arm and drop to the bottom of the pool. This feels strangely familiar. I wonder…
But another diver is approaching, and I’ve not yet had my fill. There’s no time to wonder. I must dive, and Tangle, and carry on seeking. I have a long life ahead.
Cheryl S. Ntumy is a Ghanaian writer based in Botswana. She writes novels and short stories in various genres, including speculative fiction, YA and romance. She is a director of Petlo Literary Arts, a company that promotes Botswana literature and publishes the Petlwana Journal of Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in The Goddess of Mtwara and Other Stories, Will This be a Problem, Molecule: A Tiny Lit Mag, Botswana Women Write, Breathe: Anthology of Science Fiction, We Will Lead Africa Volume 2: Women and Apex Magazine, among others.