Literary Excerpts

It's a Jungle Under There

by James Sturz
Underwater Photo by Hiroko Yoshii / Unsplash.

Over the years, novelist and journalist James Sturz has taken Fathom readers on tiger safari in India, into the Canadian wilderness, biking in the Rockies, Airstreaming across America, and through the wilds of Paris Fashion Week. He is clearly a man adept at finding wonder in new environments. And he does so beautifully in his new novel Underjungle, a tale of love, loss, family, and war set entirely underwater. According to Jean-Michel Cousteau of Ocean Futures Society — himself no stranger to the sea — "This book will make you think about the ocean in ways you haven’t before, and that might just make you want to protect it."  We couldn't ask for a more timely message. Here's an excerpt. 

We are peaceful and serene. That’s what we like to say, since there’s no one in our world to correct us. The equator does not stop our movements from hemisphere to hemisphere, as it does the whales. But that does not mean we are all brothers and sisters. Or that we are even friends. Sometimes I wonder if our cultures have grown too different, too far apart. We are shards of a single shell that have been swept away by the current, breaking and tumbling until too many pieces have been lost. Or else they’ve become too eroded to fit back together. There is much to argue about besides protecting territory, mates, offspring, food. You hardly need a brain for that. Our domain is vast. There is room for all of us here. There always will be room. There is space enough even for the marauding whales, even if they have their own inscrutable reasons for not using it all.

It is shameful to be that large and superstitious.

I’ll say it again: it is shameful to be a sissy whale afraid of the unknown or of swimming in the dark.

Once we were a single, perfect shell. Perhaps we were a nautilus who grew within it, forever expanding in marvelous, glistening whorls.

Or maybe we were slime worms. Or squirming eels in the abyss.

We were never tuna. We were never anchovies.

Eventually, we became something important. We grew, we flourished, we scattered. We explored. The ocean made us, but we remade ourselves.

As we expect our offspring to do.

When we met, I wanted to build a family: a thousand kids, a safe place where we could love or hide. We don’t wear shells like many of the creatures you come across on a daily basis, and I’ve never been especially fond of sleeping in caves. I prefer a fresh current nestling around me at night, water slipping and slapping against the rocks.

What did I hope for? That we’d become each other’s home, a movable fortress with nooks and crannies, where we could put our memories and keep them safe. I wanted the opposite of the ocean’s endless space. But I also thought our fortress could be a boundary that would move around with us, like the wake that forms behind you when you swim and doesn’t disappear until you stop.

That first time we kissed behind the corals, and we thought no one was looking, you wiggled your snout, and said, “You better not turn out to be an Ecdda and eat my tongue.” So I promised you I wouldn’t. I knew it would be easier for you talk if you still had it, and I expected that same propriety from you. But love and friendship are a dodgy business, and we both understood the risk of running out of things to say.

“Kiss me again. Kiss me again,” you whispered.

That’s always how it starts. Each of us has flavor, piquancy, texture, tang. We taste, and we’re tasted. It never hurts how we appear. Or how we ripple and contort, as the water rushes past us and broadcasts our scent. But it’s not just the currents that matter: a tongue has to pay its keep. Our tongues are explorers, like the rest of our bodies. Our tongues are preachers. Our tongues are minstrels. Our mouths are hunters. Our tongues are their lures and spears. Only sometimes are they sheathed inside our cheeks.

When we gnash our teeth, our tongues know to get out of the way. But when we close our lips, they’re like garden eels protruding from the sand, and then they start to feast.

“Kiss me again. Taste me again.”

Once everything we did was simple. We were newborns ourselves, and our offspring were only our imagination.

We live in a world of sharks and storms. Despite its grandeur and beauty, it’s never going to be safe here, truly. We know this from the start.

It used to be fun to pretend. We’d nuzzle together in caves and imagine the rest of the world wasn’t outside, not the broken shells or hyperiid amphipods or giant squids or the nosy fish. I’d try to imagine an invisible force field, a flawlessly transparent sheet of ice. You could see and smell and hear through it — you’d bump your head if you swam into it — but we’d be safe inside.

Then the walls of our cave would recede. All we’d have to do was use our minds to move them back, and the creaking stones would make more room, creating a succession of spaces and chambers, like the inside of a heart. This would be our world, a place where we could stay, untouched, forever. The real world is home to many creatures, but a universe is only two.

We’d remain untouched, while we touched each other. We would be all we’d need.

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Reprinted by permission of Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2023 by James Sturz. All rights reserved.

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