I wonder how it all got started, this business
about seeing your life flash before your eyes
while you drown, as if panic, or the act of submergence,
could startle time into such compression, crushing
decades in the vice of your desperate, final seconds.

After falling off a steamship or being swept away
in a rush of floodwaters, wouldn’t you hope
for a more leisurely review, an invisible hand
turning the pages of an album of photographs-
you up on a pony or blowing out candles in a conic hat.

How about a short animated film, a slide presentation?
Your life expressed in an essay, or in one model photograph?
Wouldn’t any form be better than this sudden flash?
Your whole existence going off in your face
in an eyebrow-singeing explosion of biography-
nothing like the three large volumes you envisioned.

Survivors would have us believe in a brilliance
here, some bolt of truth forking across the water,
an ultimate Light before all the lights go out,
dawning on you with all its megalithic tonnage.
But if something does flash before your eyes
as you go under, it will probably be a fish,

a quick blur of curved silver darting away,
having nothing to do with your life or your death.
The tide will take you, or the lake will accept it all
as you sink toward the weedy disarray of the bottom,
leaving behind what you have already forgotten,
the surface, now overrun with the high travel of clouds.

Billy Collins

On the water were four ships, one winged and purple, one red and iron clad, one fat and slow, and one crippled with decks awash in blood. Below the water swam the hordes of the drowned, nearly three hundred Imperial sailors who had escaped death by fires and fangs above, only to embrace the cold sleep below. In the middle of it all, a mermaid thrashed in a net.

“Up and away!” came the command, and with a mighty downbeat of wings, one ship was airborne. The ship hovered, quite the feat, and the mermaid, still in her net, dangled below, some two-hundred feet above the water. Ropes were thrown down to the fat ship and a small handful of men scrambled up to the flying hulk.

“Nuke it!” came the second cry. A pearl, black as night, was anointed with blood and tipped over the rail. It fell with a hiss and landed on the deck of the fat ship with a deafening explosion. A shockwave of bile and blood billowed out, and screams followed.

Moments later a horde of crazed, misshapen beasts wearing the remains of sailor’s uniforms came pouring up out of the hold of the fat ship and turned their blood-hungry eyes on the crew of the iron-clad. At the same time, the ovine crew of the iron-clad, bleating and frothing, dove, four-hundred strong into the water. The demonic sailors were soon over the rail as well, and the waters churned, frothed, and ran red.

Demon sailors fought demon sheep. The living dead under the water, who had so recently been intent on scuttling the four ships, were no more, crushed in the press between the two demon crews. Demons died and were drowned and died again. Within minutes the nearly one thousand lost souls in the water were no more, save a tenth of the vicious sheep, who paddled back to their ship as if nothing were amiss.

On the ship in the air, a debate raged. Crossbows were called for. Men lined the rails. “Shoot the mermaid now,” said the sly half-orc. “She’s a Knight of the Bath,” said the dwarven peer. “Drag her up and question her,” said the bard. The great black unicorn smiled, a frightening thing, and everyone relaxed. The bard won out.

“You sank my ship,” said the mermaid. “We were scouts, hunting pirates. The main fleet, fourty ships and two thousand marines, waits at Port Montague under Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt. The Intelligencers were watching us, they know you’re out here…”

The enraged pirates lashed out with blades, hooves, and pseudopods. A stray slash cut the mermaid free. A missed hoof sent the unicorn plummeting into the water. The sweep of a trident sent the sly half-orc and the bard after him. Two hundred feet down there was the sickening smack as the three of them hit the water. The mermaid dived after with barely a ripple of entry.

The unicorn sniffed. To its nostrils came the scent of a horse in heat. Forsaking the fight with the mermaid, the unicorn swam down, down into the darkness. The bard waved a hand and the unicorn bobbed helplessly to the surface, unable to fight its own buoyancy.

The mermaid stabbed the half-orc, and stabbed again. He tried to retaliate, but was out of his element. A mare with the tail of a fish swam up out of the darkness below. “Ah,” thought the bard, “a kelpie.” It swam past the mermaid, who grabbed at the saddle and seemed primed to escape.

“Bonzai!” came the yell, and a ton of cubic, gelatinous demon came crashing down from the flying boat. It missed the mermaid, but hit the bard.

The mermaid and her horse turned. The trident was couched like a lance. The horse-fish charged and the sly half-orc was impaled through the chest and killed. His lungs began filling with water from the outside. The sea isn’t the worst place to die…

On the ship the first mate shook her head. Nets were called for again, and the skilled fishermen brought up. The nets were lowered and the mermaid and her horse were caught again. Another downbeat of the ship’s wings and they dangled helplessly.

Ropes were thrown down, again. The bard grabbed the half-orcs body and hauled him onto the ship. The unicorn became a man, and climbed up as well, stopping only to punch the netted mermaid, knocking her out. Tumbling over the rail, he passed out as well.

The cleric was sent for. “Sacrifice the mermaid,” said the bard.

“No time,” said the cleric. She consulted the half-orc’s book and called for an old man and the unicorn. “It’ll have to be a quicky,” she said, taking the gnomish carpenter in her hands and mouth and the unicorn between her legs and working at a maddening pace. They didn’t even stop to ask the unicorn if it wanted to.

With a ear-splitting wail and the smell of decay, a misshapen bird with a distended belly clawed its way out of the half-orc’s corpse. It had too many wings, and too many beaks, and all of them feeble looking. It demanded that the cleric force others to worship mothers who had lost their children.
The demon looked at its form. It looked at the bard. Drowning might have been better, it thought. Rage filled its eyes as it charged the bard and dove overboard. It clung to the bard, holding him tight as it swam deeper and deeper into the watery abyss.

“Fuck,” said the cleric, who had been doing just that only moments before. She called for a knife, and called for the unconcious mermaid, and started stabbing, and stabbing, and stabbing some more, reading incantations from the black book.

For the second time in only a few minutes, there was a rending and tearing. Vines sprouted from the mermaid’s mouth, nostrils, ears, and every one of the stab wounds. Thorns sprouted from the vines. Seed-pods sprouted from the thorns. Monstrous hooved legs sprouted from the seed pods. The vines twisted together and with one final gush of blood, a four-legged plant-like monstrosity tore its way into the world of men and began to sing.

The plant-demon demanded that the cleric consume the flesh of those she fornicates with at least once a week. The cleric crawled away to pass out somewhere.

The unicorn, aroused (in more ways than one) by the cleric’s ministrations, lumbered over to the still-netted water-horse, which now looked like an attractive young woman. “I break all the bones in your body if you don’t sleep with me,” he said.

“And if I do?” she asked.

“You get another bone in your body.”

“Right here, right now?”

“Yeah.” And it was so.

To be continued...