Without warning, he handed me the parcel.
“I think they know I have this,” he said.
I took it with trembling hands, unwrapped it with reverence. I probably held my breath in awe as I opened it, although I ached to inspire its longed for, much aged aroma. I had no doubt it was the secret edition of the fourth volume, Der Fischbuch, The Book of Fish, of Konrad Gessner’s great zoological work “History of Animals.” Not the Latin folio that had appeared at Zürich between 1551 and 1558, nor the German translation of 1563. This had been printed at the same time as the Latin original and it had remained well hidden for many centuries, for the information it contained had been considered subversive by both the Catholic Church (Gessner had been a Protestant) and the scientific community of the time.
I flicked through it almost irreverently to reach the last chapters more quickly. I was familiar with the Old German and the Gothic alphabet in which it was written. I was familiar with the grotesque images of the sea-monk, and the sea-maiden, and the sea-swine, and the hydra. But what I saw further was beyond my hopeful expectations. This is only what I could take in a frantic glimpse, before he snapped the book closed and reclaimed his possession of it. There were maps of the northern lands, of the cold seas that bathed the Scandinavian countries, all the way up to the frigid Arctic Circle. On these maps there were marks indicating spots in the seas. There were drawings of bulbous submarine towers, suspended spheres with myriad windows, foul beings floating among them. A glimpse I had – and nothing more.
“Please!” I gasped. “What is this?”
“You knew what to look for,” he said quietly.
“Gessner knew where they were… are…”
“Yes, they’ve been there for centuries, maybe millennia, the truth of their existence dismissed by mainstream science. A world parallel to our own…”
His eyes drifted into a distant dream. I waited.
“I’ve seen these cities in the sea,” he said, while his features seemed to loose consistency through the thick smoke. “I know in what chasms they hide, where they keep their servants, their sea-devils, their sea-men. We often navigate above them, oblivious to the swarming in the depths. Sometimes, they’re simply invisible, as if they had hidden onto another plane of reality. But they leave the boats alone. They let us take our fare from the sea…”
“Surely you could punish them easily,” I said, allowing for a moment resentment to overcome my scientific spirit.
“And what will happen then? The lives of these islanders are their boats and the fishing. If we harm them, they will turn against us, they will sink our boats, take away our livelihood. The kraken is with them, one with a horse’s head and a red mane.”
“This is sick,” I whispered.
"It is madness,” he echoed.
“Why don’t you leave?”
“I can’t,” he said. “Nobody can.”
What did he mean by that? Surely, something could be done for this tiny forlorn island. His strange heavy-lidded eyes on mine, he pulled down slightly his coat at the neck. Almost against my will, I looked. His skin was sagging, but where he pulled it with his fingers I noticed two boils. My heart stopped, my lungs collapsed in a maddening terror. I looked around me at those I didn’t dare to look before, discovered the deformed faces of the patrons. A tacit, unofficial quarantine, this is how the unexplainable isolation of the island was explained.
“You didn’t know,” he whispered, and I thought I could distinguish genuine compassion in his eyes. “Leprosy… Well, this is what it’s believed it is, although it’s hard to explain it in such a northern climate. I didn’t know either when I… we came here… Nobody leaves.”
I was shaking, trying to think of all the things I had touched unknowingly. There was no point.
“It comes from them?” I mumbled.
“Maybe… It’s been like that for centuries. From Gessner’s times… He mentioned it, though vaguely, but I was too eager, too impatient to ponder the hints. And now, you see, even if I could, I wouldn’t leave, my son is there, with them. I can’t leave him. I’m still too cowardly to join him, to plunge in the dark abyss, there where their cities are, but I will only leave him when I die. Soon… Not soon enough…”
My heart tightened.
“Your son… is among them?”
A distant memory brightened his face, if only for just a moment.
"We came here together, to find them… Christian was just like you, maybe a year or two older… He was daring… he… They took him.”
His voice faltered, broke miserably.
I wondered if or how many times he’d encountered his lost son, and if he’d tried to seize him from their clutches. I didn’t ask. We both knew there was no more to be said that evening.
He stood and left the tavern, walking slowly, the precious book under his arm. I followed him into the fog.