the histories of Jacques Cousteau {a fairytale of the drowned}

In most lakes, a body sinks once water fills the lungs. It goes down down down down down until the bacteria in its gut produces enough gas to float it back to the surface.

Histories of the Lake

In most lakes, a body sinks once water fills the lungs. It goes down down down down down until the bacteria in its gut produces enough gas to float it back to the surface. But different extremities fill up at different speeds, legs versus arms versus torso; the chest and stomach float first with the other heavy danglies draped down like jellyfish tentacles.

This is not how it works in this lake.

Histories of Love

The thing I love about Jacques Cousteau is his nose, haughty and French, too long and angled, as if it thinks it is a hundred noses all at once. This is the first sort of love: cartilage and hair and blood. The thing I love about Jacques is his journey into the abyss—what nobler search than for the sub-perceptible, the impossibly deep? This is the second sort: to love the idea, then the man.

The thing I love is that every movement is a performance, and even though it is impossible to know what he did when he was by himself, I can see him practicing his “surprised” face in the shower, awed eyes toward the tulip beds. This is the world through someone else. This is how he pronounces himself on the bow: one leg bent and raised on the rail as in salute; short sailor shorts; hands on hips; eyes narrowing into the distance, watching something conquerable just beyond the camera. He wears a red hat. He is long and lean, as if his whole self is in the legs of a flamingo. To love his words—“the bottom that came to life” and “Zut, alors” and “the virtuosity of shipwrecks.” To love his mandates—two bottles of wine per person per day aboard the Calypso. To love his crazy love for his wife, Simone, who rode giant land tortoises across the island of Aldabra and appears, stoic, in the background of all his portraits, and to love how he snatched her at 17 by entering her father’s party with a video camera and trapping her inside. … Nothing aboard the Calypso would ever make it if it weren’t for Simone, Jacques said. She stands in the cabin with 30 men and smoothes their minds away from the bends.

To love the wife. To love what she grows inside. To love the sons.

Histories of Monsters

“[T]hey writhed, gasping as Scylla swung them up her cliff, and there, at her cavern’s mouth, she bolted them down raw—screaming out, flinging their arms toward me, lost in that mortal struggle.”

—Homer, “The Odyssey”

To ease the terror of the infinitely vast, it is named. Men stomp and cross their arms and stand in a circle. “I am afraid,” they say, “of this —,” and name the unknown. “This — with teeth and claws,” they say, and fear the teeth, abhor the claws, dream of the slash or pierce but secretly, under everything else, revel in this identifiable horror after years of dreams where the cause of the scream is everything.

Histories of the Lake

This lake is Lake Tahoe. This is the largest, deepest body of fresh water in the United States, long and blue (like you’re sick it’s so blue), with spackles of fir trees and pines along its edges, and mountains like eyelashes around the sunken eyeball of the lake. Children who live along the shore tell stories about what lives at the bottom. The children might sing: that it’s 1,600 feet down in some places; that it’s deep like 200 yetis standing on each others’ heads … or 48,000 clams in a vertical parade … or 27 large pirate ships bow to aft.

What’s alive down there? What’s dead?

Histories of Lake History

The wake is gentle on the lip of the lake in the Sierra Nevada. Before, the Washoe lived here. They called themselves “the people from here.” As in most such stories, the Washoe were chased away—unless they opened their protesting mouths, in which case they were chased into the lake.

Then everyone stomped west in the gold rush, and white men with moustaches wanted transcontinental railroads to weave a sinewy trail around the lake and across the mountains. Chinese laborers came in by the thousands and were lowered in baskets along the granite peaks to blast away rock. They lived in little wooden shantytowns, ate dried oysters and mushrooms, and in 1867, a Chinese woodcutter was murdered on Trout Creek. The Sacramento Reporter of June 30, 1870, reported that a train bearing the accumulated bones of 1,200 Chinese workers passed through Sacramento, those lucky bones taken somewhere together. Newspapers and government documents give conflicting reports of train cars with new shipments of laborers, falling off the tracks and into the lake; conflicting records of knifed railroad workers dumped into the lake; conflicting records of palm-on-mouth drownings in the lake; uncontested records of the fires: charred remains of spoons, pillows, rice, hats, letters, boots, fish, plates, curtains, shirts dumped in the lake.

Bones of the Washoe. Bones of the Chinese.

What escapes the water?

Histories of Love

The thing I love about Jacques Cousteau is that there is so much not to love. Over the Romanche Trench, Jacques pauses his conservation documentary when an army of rust-colored squid rise from the depths to feed on flying fish. All the men grab rakes and spears and stab the squid. Squid after squid. The men laugh and spit and see which man can drive his stake through the biggest one, and suddenly, Philippe Cousteau, 15, hollers and curses, and the men snap a photo. A monster squid in front of grinning Philippe in his little red cap. Philippe learns to own things. He learns what he must hold on this boat. To snag a squid funnel, pierce the mantle, deconstruct the sucker, tentacles, collar, eyes, heart.

It is so much easier to love dead men.

Histories of the Lake

“A corpse remains suspended and motionless (in Tahoe) at a depth of 200 feet and over, frozen stiff as though encased in a block of ice, and the great pressures encountered in the vast deep of the lake reduce an adult’s body to that of a child’s stature, exercising a clamping effect that holds the person in a viselike grip, preventing its rise to the surface.”

—San Francisco Bulletin, 1872

Adding to the trouble of fetching bodies is the limited depth that divers can reach due to the lake’s elevation: 6,225 feet above sea level. Relative pressure prevents bottom exploration. Since the lake became a recreational escape over 100 years ago, an average of 12 people have drowned each year. Imagine the lakebed, like a wax museum of children’s bodies slowly moving in a heat mirage.

Histories of the Monsters

“There appeared a very terrible sea-animal, which raised itself so high above the water that its head reached above our maintop. It had a long, sharp snout and blew like a whale; had broad, large flippers; and the body was, as it were, covered with hard skin, and it was very wrinkled and uneven on its skin. Moreover, on the lower part, it was formed like a snake, and when it went under water again, it cast itself backward, and in doing so, it raised its tail above the water, a whole ship-length from its body. That evening, we had very bad weather.”

—Hans Egede, Norwegian missionary from a voyage to Godthaab/Nuuk

The men with crossed arms stand in a circle and better each other’s tales, fear the claws and teeth, imagine their destinies. What it might feel like to be split in two by the colossus, the potency of his venom.

*Histories of the Lake*

Lake Tahoe was formed by a geologic block fault, a fracture in the Earth’s crust. How can you expect something to have a clean history when it comes from a fault? The temperature at the bottom hovers just above freezing, low 30-something, depending on the season. Imagine what that sort of cold will do to a body.

*Histories of the Drowned*


*Histories of the Monsters*

“From the ocean rose a giant,Mighty Tursas, tall and hardy. …”

Iku-Turso, monster from Finnish national epic “Kalevala”

“I am afraid of the beast,” says a man.

And what do you fear if you fear the water? Everything.

*Histories of Love*

The thing I love about Jacques Cousteau is his secret campaign against the Nazis through the development of clandestine diving gear. The thing I love is his vanity. The thing is that in Jacques, I can see all of the things I’d like to be and the things I’m afraid I am. I measure my proportions against him; I weigh my worth.

Jacques Cousteau poses on Easter Island with me and groupings of the other headless, stone demigods. Look closely at Jacques Cousteau’s scythe eyes and I am clinging to his eyelashes as if they are rope ladders in a flood. Jacques Cousteau is smoking a cigar at the maritime institute, and I am the peg leg on display in the foreground. Jacques Cousteau is on a business airplane, and I am the stewardess, 30 years his junior, whom he pulls into the bathroom for a secret affair, which lasts the remainder of his life.

*Histories of Disaster*

The nose of the plane is about to touch the water with the same grace that you can imagine from a water skeeter, the water like clasped hands keeping each landed thing up. Water: full of submarines and fathers and hammerhead sharks and the kingdom of known things. The airplane crew is exploring the surrounding islands for the Cousteau shoot the next day. Giant land tortoises litter the ground. The mother digs a hole to drop the eggs, covers her clutch with sand, and the babies emerge months later with an embryonic egg sac, which feeds them for a week. The mother and the things that grow. The babies and their self-sustainment.

The nose of the plane is about to touch the water, and the four crewmen gather at the front to admire the momentary marriage of metal to water. The pilot and Philippe, with his spectacular nose ready for the cameras, just like his father; the pilot with his red hat; the pilot as the nose of the plane touches water and rips metal from metal. The crewmembers thrown into the water. The crewmembers rescued by locals. The pilot not found on day one. No pilot still, day two. Half a pilot body underwater, day three.

Jacques Cousteau alone, days later, outside, choking, his son lost to the abyss.

*Histories of the Lake Monster*

The reports from Lake Tahoe say she is over 60 feet long. Eel-like. Green or white. The reports say she looks like a sturgeon. She undulates. Black or gray. Horns break the surface. She hovers on the bottom in a flattened, gooey mass. She has teeth longer than ship masts. She has flagellating gums. The reports say she is related to the Loch Ness Monster but has flames in her eyes. She is a ghost. She is the mechanical genius of Chinese engineers who have built a research station at the lake in order to track the spending patterns of vacationing Americans. She is a vacationing American. She is dead on silk in a glass case at the bottom of the lake, haunting those who disturb her slumber. The reports say she was first seen after an explorer reached the bottom of the lake and was too terrified to say what he discovered there.

*Histories of Lake Discovery*

According to most official reports, Jacques Cousteau did not submerge the bathyscaphe 1,645 feet into Lake Tahoe. He was probably not there to investigate the myriad histories and biology, was officially not there at all. He didn’t go deeper than anyone ever before. He did not pass the mackinaw, brown trout, kokanee salmon, rainbow trout; did not pass forests of kelp and the iridescent layers of oil. He was probably, most likely, maybe never there at all. And yet. Yet. Not everybody agrees.

There are little myths in the world that remain buoyant, resist deflation, continue floating and are made up of more than what has or has not happened. And so: In my myth, he submerges past the mackinaw, trout and salmon; he assembles a team of reporters on the lip of the lake to await his return. The reporters see the bubbles and lights in a mad descent. Cameras, graphs and charts in the bathyscaphe whir and click. Jacques is prepared. He will report.

“The other world is no longer with us.”

—Jacques Cousteau

Forty minutes later, Jacques Cousteau rises to the surface of the lake. The reporters see the bathyscaphe, a 4.5-foot steel chamber with quartz glass portholes, break the water like the head of a sea monster. It was created to peer into the abyss. It knows how to look for things beyond our comprehension.

“A hand is strangling me. I must get out. I must go back to the surface.”

—Jacques Cousteau

I imagine Jacques Cousteau stays inside the bathyscaphe for a long time. The reporters are getting restless. They have lipstick to apply. The have 6 o’clock news slots to fill. Simone Cousteau approaches the bathyscaphe with her quick, small steps and knocks on the window. The reporters cannot see the wrinkles on her forehead. They cannot see Jacques’ red eyes or wet cheeks when he unhooks the hatch and brings his head out, close to Simone’s. What they can see is Simone placing her hands over her O’d mouth and Jacques placing his hands over his face. What they can imagine is what Jacques has seen at the bottom; what they can’t imagine is what he’s seen at the bottom. Simone turns away, and Jacques walks from the bathyscaphe toward the reporters. He stands in the center of the semicircle of microphones, as if the cables and arms are his many long necks and heads. He clears his throat. He gives a small smile.

“Friends,” Jacques Cousteau begins. He surveys the faces and bodies around him, the mountains, the firs, the blue that goes blue forever. There are certain horrors that must remain unnamed.

“The world is not ready for what is down there,” Jacques says. He turns and walks toward his wife.

“Wait!” one reporter shouts.

“Where are the photographs?” another calls out.

“Gone,” Jacques says without turning around. “Gone, gone, gone.”

The reporters huddle in a tight circle. They cross and uncross their arms. Somebody must write a story to explain this monster.

About the Author

Tessa Fontaine

Tessa Fontaine is from Woodacre, Calif., and is currently in the MFA program at the University of Alabama.

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