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There’s a Hole At the Bottom of the Sea

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The words were strange. Will’s head buzzed. He felt sore, as after a long run, and thirsty. He turned his head, but the sound only grew louder. Between the words and the buzzing was a dull, rhythmic roar. What language was that?

“Italian,” Hannibal said, his voice low and soft. Will felt the pressure of his hand over his chest, and realized for the first time that he was covered with a blanket, lying on something wooden. “You’ll pick it up. Now then...”

Will dozed. Hannibal read on for a while; then the reading stopped, and Will felt a metal cup touch his mouth. He drank. It was cool, clear water, and as it washed over his lips, it carried along a tang of the iron and salt that had been left on them.

“Thank you,” he whispered. Hannibal said something in Italian again. The blackness returned.

*

“There’s a hole at the bottom of the sea...”

Will tossed and turned, murmuring to himself. The air smelled different—crisper and emptier somehow.

“There’s a hole... there’s a hole... dear Liza...”

“You’ve been singing that for several days now. I don’t know it.”

Will coughed. He hadn’t really noticed the sound of his own voice.

“I got that mixed up,” he said. He turned over. It was dark; the sky was grey, either just before dawn or just after sunset. “One of them is about a bucket, but you can’t fill it, because...” He shivered. He couldn’t remember. Several days? “Because there’s a hole at the bottom of the sea...”

“You’re cold,” Hannibal said, and Will realized he was cold, and then Hannibal was under the blanket with him. He seemed to have a hard time catching his balance. The rhythmic noise was louder.

“Going my way,” Will whispered, “sailor?”

“Sleep,” Hannibal said, wrapping an arm around Will’s waist. Will could feel Hannibal’s smile against the back of his neck.

*

“Wait, go back,” Will said. It was bright; seagulls flew overhead. He shaded his eyes with his hand so he could see Hannibal. “I recognized a name. Judas?”

“The ninth circle of hell is reserved for treachery,” Hannibal said, his lecturer’s air returning. “As the betrayer of Christ, Judas Iscariot was condemned to eternal torment in the very mouth of Satan.” He looked down at his hands. “Although perhaps I should not have spoiled that for you. That verse is yet to come.”

“You’re reading me the Inferno,” Will said, sitting up on his elbows and putting out his hand for the book; but Hannibal simply handed over his own palm, empty save for memories. His expression shifted only minutely as astonishment, and then wonder, spread across Will’s face.

*

The deck of the ship was not very large. Will could walk around it in about five minutes. They were at the rear of the ship, which was smellier, but on the other hand was also less cold and wet. Hannibal had found them a blanket and some food, and, miraculously, clean shirts. Will’s wounds had been expertly tended; when he ventured tremulous fingers toward his face, he found rough stitches, and his fingertips came away colored with iodine. Hannibal still limped, but the sea air seemed to be doing him good.

It was a cargo ship, unglamorous and squat, crewed by a handful of scrawny young men who bothered them not at all except to bring Hannibal the occasional nibble of food or drink. Now that he was awake at night, Will could hear them talking on the other side of the boat sometimes, and he picked out a few words.

Mostly, though, he watched Hannibal. They didn’t talk; there seemed nothing important to say. Sometimes Hannibal would point out an unusual seabird, or Will would ask him to check his wounds. At night, they slept together under their blanket, pressed together for more than warmth, and Hannibal would whisper to him in Italian.

One night, though, when it was especially cold, Hannibal remained quiet.

“No more Dante tonight?” Will prompted. Though he couldn’t see Hannibal’s face, he felt his body grow taut; his hand slipped up to Will’s chest and settled there, just over his heart.

“We’re so close to the end,” Hannibal said. “I thought I’d wait until we made land.”

Will smiled in the dark. “You know I can’t really understand the words. Can’t you just tell me what happens?”

Hannibal said nothing, but he gripped Will’s chest a little harder.

“All right, I’ll wait,” Will sighed. “Patience is among the virtues, after all.”

There was a pause. Then, incongruously, Hannibal sang:

“There’s a hole at the bottom of the sea...”

Will laughed softly, curling his hand around Hannibal’s own where it clutched his heart.

*

“Land, boys,” said one of the crew. “Not that you got much to pack up, I suppose.” He nodded at the blanket. “You c’n keep that.”

Even in this dark smuggler’s hour, it was obvious that the blanket was sweaty and bloodstained, and Will imagined the crew would rather have burned it than touch it; but Hannibal, ever the well-mannered guest, said, “Thank you,” and gave a little nod as he folded the blanket under his arm.

“What did you pay them?” Will said.

Hannibal’s mouth quirked slightly. “Enough that blankets are included in the price.” Then he pointed. “Look up.”

Will looked up. “What am I...” Then he noticed. “Oh,” he said. He gripped the rail. “Oh.”

The stars were different. Will grew up knowing his stars; not just the dippers and the North Star and how to find your way home, but all the zodiac signs, and the Great Bear and the Little Bear, and Draco, the dragon. He knew them all, and they were all gone. Their stars had changed.

“We’ve passed through to the other side of the world,” Hannibal said. Then he took Will’s hand, gently, as if he expected Will not to give it; a strange, tender hesitance, so much that it made Will look away from the heavens and back to Hannibal’s face. The lamp which hung on one of the rear cargo containers swung back and forth as they began to ride the rougher waves into shore, and Hannibal’s face was alternately shadowed and illuminated as he began to speak the final lines of the Inferno.

When he was done, Will said, “So what happens to Virgil and Dante at the end?”

“At the end of the Inferno,” Hannibal said, “they sink so far down into hell that they pass through the icy lake in the ninth circle, and then all the way through the center of the earth, so that gravity is reversed. They emerge in the other hemisphere on Easter morning, and they see the stars.”

Will swallowed. “And then?”

“And then,” Hannibal said, “there are two more books. The Purgatorio and the Paradiso.”

He seemed to hesitate.

“Of course,” he added, “I haven’t memorized all of those yet.”

Will leaned over and kissed him. It felt just like their old kisses. Just like all their kisses would feel, he imagined.

“I can wait,” he said. “What’s that constellation, do you know?”

“Canis Major,” Hannibal said. “The hunting dog.”

“Well,” said Will. He looked at Hannibal. “It’s a good start.”