The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Unwater, plunged into water

Posted on: April 6, 2007

The creature saw them descending through the thick sliding curtain of greenish light. She saw the horny soles of their feet and the four trampling pistons of their legs, and between them the bobbing tubelets of their sex, and the water bubbles in the hair around them, like nests of eggs. She backed away under a flat stone. The pale light of Sir Tor’s belly wrinkled and swayed above her. Their arms flailed but she did not know what arms were and stared at the wild perturbation they caused. There were tree arms. Sir Tor was grasping his nose with the fourth. Slowly the four splayed feet bounced across the silt, the toes gripping and stirring. The creature clicked her nostrils shut. She heard the roar and gasp as they blew out between their flubber lips and saw the blocks of their bodies rise up in the water, up and up, turning the thick lentil of the surface into a boiling of bubbles. Just as she was whisking out to inspect they were descending again, plunging, bounding, trampling, bubbling.

Two things happened at once. Hew’s big toe hit a man-made disk of stone or metal and a ring, in which for a moment his toe caught, so that he had to battle himself free, his lungs bursting. His toe was bleeding. The creature sipped the blood he left on the stone. Simultaneously Sir Tor was seized by cramps along his calves, his thighs, his backside, which caused him to float and flounder, gasping, like a beached whale. Hew saw his eyes roll up, swam over, and held the lolling old head above water by grasping his hair and beard. It was some time–during which Hew clung to the coracle and to Sir Tor–before the old knight had the energy to tumble himself back into the boat. He lay there, staring at the sky, while Hew paddled to the rim.

Hew said, “I trod on a thing like a well cover. With a ring that could be twisted.”

Sir Tor said, “Good man.”

“Can you get back to the house?”

“With pauses, yes. We are a couple of fools.”

“Indeed we are. If I went down headfirst, I could twist it loose with my hands.”

“We should employ a younger man.”

“I don’t like to. This is my task. So to speak. Our task.”


Now they undertook more active construction work. They went down again and explored the outlet–Hew did the exploring, with his toes and fingers; Sir To, who insisted on participating, carried down implements to scrape and twist–a spike, a claw hammer, finally a length of lead tubing, which Hew forced into a kind of stone nozzle he had found down there.

The creature, curiously attracted by the invading flesh and blood, wound her body round and round the bubbling and seething hill water, made little darts into the swirling muck to investigate the hands and feet and their traces. She picked up flakes of skin from between Hew’s twisted toes and turned them in her pincers before swallowing them. She prowled around the new piece of lead pipe and snuffed up the stains of blood and salt sweat. Most other creatures had retreated to the outer reaches of the lake. Only this one felt invigorated by the contact with the unwater, plunged into water.

From “The Narrow Jet” by A.S. Byatt, The Paris Review, Spring 2005.


This is the first moment in the story in which the men enter the creature’s world. Before this it was elements from the surface–sun light, a pebble–being dimply perceived and, for the men, a fish defying gravity, leaping into the air, before descending into the lake. Near the end we’ll see the fish enter the men’s world, when she is fished out, exposed to the sky and air for the first time, experiencing a curious thrill and bliss even as her “armour” dried out. Byatt explicitly referred to the evolutionary theme, wondering about the thoughts of the fish who first walked on land.

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