The explanation of it, however, is pure fiction.
October gloom hung low over the Delaware River, wisps of mist rising from the murky, oil-slicked water to vanish into the uniform gray of the clouds. Nick Dominique and Brady Elkano tramped silently through the knee-high grass, boots making squelching noises in the muddy ground that sloped at an imperceptible angle down toward the river’s shore.
“Whose stupid fucking idea was it to come down here today?” Brady pulled his scuffed khaki jacket around him and shivered.
“Yours,” Nick said.
“Well, I’m freezing my ass off.”
“It’s not that bad.” Nick was tall and lanky, his bony limbs never quite covered by shirts and pants that always seemed too wide in the waist and too short in the arms and legs. He ran fingers through unkempt curly brown hair. “Better than playing computer games in the apartment all afternoon.”
“At least the apartment has heat.” Brady was compact and sturdy and dark, and turned a wry eye on his friend. “There’s nothing down here but trash anyway.”
“I dunno. There’s the stuff from the military depot. Jake Warshawski said he found some kind of old air pump. It was half-buried in the mud, but he took it out and cleaned it up and he said it needed a few parts but looked like he could get it working.”
“What do you want with an air pump?”
Nick laughed. “Dude. You know what I mean. There’s not gonna be another air pump. I just mean, you never know what we might find.”
Brady shivered again. “You should drop out of college and be a junk collector.”
By this time, they were at the river’s edge. On the other side they could see the skyline of Wilmington, Delaware, vague and fogged and surreal, its perpetual noise and bustle and traffic deadened by distance and still air. The water flowed smoothly, silently, only a few eddies showing turbulence as it flowed over unseen obstructions. Nick picked up a rock from the mud and sent it skittering across the surface, leaving a trail of circular waves before disappearing with a plunk.
“I think my boots are leaking,” Brady said. Nick ignored him, and picked up a stick to poke around in the ragged, brown stalks of dying grass.
“What are you looking for?” Brady said, after watching him for five minutes.
“I’ll know when I find it.”
Brady swore under his breath. “My boots are leaking.”
“Take ‘em off.”
“You are ridiculous.” But both boys wandered along the shore, kicking at washed up garbage and branches, every once in a while leaning over to fish something interesting out of the saturated soil. Nick found a gear wheel missing two teeth, rinsed the grime off of it in the river, and shook it dry.
“What’re you gonna do with that?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Upstream they came on a long concrete jetty, sticking out into the river like a finger. On the upstream side the mud was thicker, and there were pieces of net, a chunk of a Styrofoam cooler, and an old wooden sign that had the words “Keep Out” painted on it in stenciled black letters. Brady stepped up onto the jetty and walked the thirty or so feet until it began to look crumbled and unsafe, and stood there, looking out over the river. Nick stayed nearer to shore, poking around in the mud, still looking for interesting finds that the current might have washed his way.
That was when he noticed something shiny.
It was a mere pinpoint, like a speck of glitter on the surface of the black, smelly ooze. He was still holding a stick he’d found earlier, and he pushed at it, and it didn’t move. He could feel that the speck was just the top bit of something large and solid, so he lay down on his belly on the rough cement surface of the jetty and reached his long fingers down into the frigid mud.
Whatever it was had a smooth surface, and it was stuck more firmly than he expected. He pulled on it, and felt it give a little. Then with a thick slurping sound, it came loose, and sat, dripping sulfur-smelling goo, in the palms of both hands.
He swiveled around and dunked it in the comparatively cleaner water on the other side of the jetty. Now the whole thing showed itself to be a gleaming metal ring, about two inches wide and perhaps five across. It was heavy, gold in color, and had an inscription around it that said:
AQUA * VITAE * EST *VITA * SAPIENTIAE * AQUA * MORTIS * EST * MORS * SAPIENTIAE
He stared at it, frowning. Nick had taken a couple of years of Latin in high school, and he recognized the word for “water,” but the rest of it didn’t make much sense. He thought vita meant “road,” but something about that didn’t sound right.
Honestly, at the time he was taking Latin, he’d been far more interested in hiking and climbing trees and learning to shoot a bow and arrow than in memorizing conjugations and declensions.
He stood up, gripping the ring tightly, as if he were afraid it would escape from his hand. “Hey! Brady! You gotta see what I found.”
His friend turned, his expression unreadable in the gloom. Nick walked down the jetty, his long stride closing the distance quickly.
“What is it?” Brady said as Nick approached. His voice sounded ready to be unimpressed. “Something else for your trash collection?”
“No. This is really cool.” He held out the ring.
Brady’s dark eyebrows rose. “Wow.”
Brady took it, and peered at the writing that encircled the outside. “What does that mean?”
“Beats the hell out of me.”
“Well, it’s interesting. You think it could be some kind of Indian artifact or something?”
“Could be,” Nick said, but he sounded doubtful. “Did the Indians around here cast stuff in gold?”
“You think that’s gold?”
“It’s heavy enough to be. But it's got a Latin inscription. I don't think the Indians would have written in Latin.”
Brady frowned, and handed it back. “I wonder if we should, like, contact a museum or something.”
“Maybe.” Nick held it up in the thin, gray light. “I wonder what it was for? It’s too big to be a bracelet.”
Brady shrugged, and looked out over the river again. Nick continued to stare at the metal ring, which is why he didn’t see what was happening until he heard Brady’s voice saying, “Nick, what the fuck is that?”
Nick peered past his friend, and at first thought he was looking at some sort of optical illusion, a trick of the odd, attenuated light or the rank mist that hung low over the water. But it was unmistakable. The river water had bubbled up, like there was some sort of disturbance underneath it, as if a giant head was about to surface. Waves rolled off of it, making soft slushy noises and proceeding outward in all directions. The boys stood still, watching. Already the first and smallest ones were rocking against the tip of the jetty, splitting and turning down the sides until they dissipated against the mud.
“We should get out of here,” Brady said.
For once, Nick didn’t argue. Brady shoved past him, taking off at a jog down the cement wall, Nick following him at a fast walk. They reached shore in a few seconds, and Nick turned over his shoulder to look out over the river. The disturbance was still there, like a dark, wet hill, churning waves now slopping against the shore. But nothing else was visible of whatever it was that was causing it.
Brady kept at his jog all the way across the grassy meadow, and up toward the road where Nick’s truck, an aging Toyota pickup, was parked. When they scrambled up the embankment, both boys turned back toward the river, but the low scrubby trees along the road obscured their view.
It wasn’t until they were both in the truck, the engine coughing into life, that Nick spoke. “That was creepy.”
“What do you think it was?”
“I have no idea.”
“Maybe a big fish or something.” He pulled the truck out onto the road, and accelerated back toward town.
“I dunno. You got a better suggestion?”
They made the rest of the drive in silence. Even Nick was happy to step back into the warmth of the house where he and Brady rented rooms, both leaving their mud-caked shoes on the front porch.
“I’m hitting the shower.” Nick pulled off his jacket and threw it on the couch in the living room.
“Let me know when you’re done,” Brady said, plopping down in a rocking chair and turning on the television with a remote. “I’m next.”
Nick trotted up the stairs, his sock-clad feet making little noise on the wooden steps, and went into the bathroom. He shucked his damp, dirt-splotched clothes and turned on the shower, giving it a minute for the antiquated water heater to pump some warm water up to the second floor, then he stepped in.
The heat felt delicious on his skin, but he noticed something else almost immediately. At first, he thought he was overhearing Brady downstairs listening to the television, but he quickly realized it couldn’t be that—there was no way it would be audible from this far away, not with the door closed and the water running.
But he heard a voice. Thin, low, but clearly audible.
Where did you put it? I can’t see it. I can’t. Where is it? Where did you put it?
Over and over, a monotonous drone, repeating the same words over and over. The voice had a strange, rolling accent, but he couldn’t place what sort. It sounded antiquated and stilted and vaguely British, the sort of accent you might expect from a second-string actor in a Shakespearean play.
Nick stood there, the water cascading over his skin, his shower forgotten for a moment. He frowned, listening, trying to figure out where the voice was coming from, but it seemed not to be localizable. He turned the water off, hoping to hear it more clearly.
As soon as he did, the voice stopped.
Nick stood there in the shower, naked and dripping wet, his face a study in confusion. After a moment, he turned the faucet on again.
The voice started again, as soon as the hot water hit his skin.
He hurried through the rest of his shower, then dried off and cinched the towel around his waist. He picked up his filthy clothes and walked back to his room, pitching them into the hamper. There was a loud clunk as the pocket of his trousers hit the side of the hamper, and he reached in and pulled them out again, extracting the gleaming metal ring.
He stared at it for a moment, then set it on his dresser, and got out dry clothes and began to dress.
Where did you put it? I can’t see it.
When he was fully dressed, he picked up the ring again, looked at the inscription, and then sat down at his computer.
Twenty minutes of messing about with Google Translate later, he had scrawled on a piece of scrap paper the words “Water Life Is Life Wisdom Water Death Is Death Wisdom.” Vita evidently meant “life,” not “road.” But he was no closer to figuring out what the mysterious words meant.
He went to the window, where gray light was filtering in through the grimy glass pane, and turned the ring over in his hand. Bits of river mud still clung to the surface, now drying to a gray-brown, fouling the inside of the ring where there were other, fainter engravings. Nick went back into the bathroom. From the upstairs landing, he could hear Brady’s television show still playing. Either his roommate had forgotten about showering, or (more likely) had fallen asleep in front of the television. Nick pulled a couple of pieces of paper towel from a roll hanging on the wall, turned on the tap, and put the ring under the stream.
Nick jerked his hand out of the water as if he’d been stung. There was water dripping from the ring into the sink, and in rhythm with the water drops, he heard clipped bits of words. it… give… where… you?... NOW.
He retreated into his room, drying the ring on the edge of his shirt, listening for the voice and hearing nothing but silence.
Nick looked at the inside of the ring. There were shallow grooves running the circumference of the ring, but they were difficult to see. The metal was polished smooth, whether through artifice or through long use was impossible to tell, and it had all but eradicated the markings. He squinted at them, and thought he could make out the rippling contour of a long body. At first, he thought it was a snake, but after some turning of the ring this way and that, he could make out the impressions of jointed legs ending in claws. A dragon, perhaps.
Still holding the ring, he trotted downstairs to the living room. His roommate, as expected, was lying sprawled in the recliner, eyes closed and mouth hanging open, a game show of some kind playing unheeded on the television.
“Hey, Brady,” Nick said.
Brady opened one eye, blinked, and said, in a slurred voice, “You done with the shower?”
“Yeah. But that’s not why I woke you up. Take a look at this.” He handed the ring to his friend, who peered at it, then looked up and shrugged.
“I think this ring is…” He had started to say cursed but stopped in time; it sounded ridiculous, even to him. “...weird,” he finished.
“Weird how?” Brady gave him a wry eye. “Some kind of artifact, maybe.”
“Look, dude, just get up, I need to show you something.”
Brady gave a groan and stood up. Nick led him into the kitchen, then put his hand out for the metal ring. Nick turned the faucet with a squeak, and the water began to flow over the ring. Immediately the monotonous droning voice began again, in the middle of a sentence, as if it had been speaking, unheard, the whole time.
yours. Give it back. Now. It must come back to me. I will find you. You must not keep it.
Brady jumped, and said, under his breath, “Holy shit.”
Nick shut the tap off, and once again, the voice broke up into fragments.
I will find you. You must not… ring… Give… I… find… keep…
And then it stopped.
"You heard it, too." It was not a question.
Brady looked at his friend with wide eyes. "Yes."
"This has to do with the thing we saw in the river."
"All we saw was a bunch of waves."
"Yeah, but something was causing them. There was something under there."
Brady didn't have an answer to that.
"What should we do?" Nick asked.
"I dunno. Give it back?"
"Throw it into the river?"
"That's what I'm thinking." Brady's voice shook.
"What if it's valuable? And besides, suppose there is some kind of, um, thing, there in the river. How could it get it back? There's no way it could know where we are."
"You didn't notice how the voice broke up when the water stopped?"
"And there were pieces of it whenever a drip hit the sink."
"Okay," Nick said. "I see where you're going. Whenever the water makes a connection, it can talk to us. But that doesn't mean it knows where we are."
"All water connects. The water goes down the sink, into the sewer, then to some kind of treatment plant, then out to the river. It's linked all the way. If it can talk to us, it can find out where we are."
"When I was in the shower, I heard the voice, but all it did was ask questions about the ring. When I put the ring itself under water, it said, 'There it is.'"
"There you go," Brady said. "There's no reason to think that it doesn't know where we are."
"Not if the ring is away from the water."
"You need to throw it back, dude."
"I dunno." Nick could hear the doubt in his own voice, and wondered if he was just making excuses to keep it. "If it's worth something, we should try to find a museum to buy it from us. I'd split the money with you." He smiled, even though it looked a little shaky. "Even though I'm the one that found it."
"Okay, I guess. But I don't think it's a good idea. This is freaky."
There was no arguing with that. But Nick looked at the gold ring, with its strange, archaic words, and his heart beat a little faster. Not yet. It could wait until he'd thought more about this.
Sleep was restless that night. There were no dreams, or at least none of note, but Nick tossed and turned, troubled by a vague anxiety that things weren't right. Several times he found himself lying in bed, listening, hearing nothing, but all of his senses on alert. Finally at around four o'clock he drifted off into a doze, but he got up at six feeling unrefreshed, hoping that a shower and coffee would wake him up.
He walked into the bathroom, and had turned on the tap before he remembered about his experience from the previous day.
He turned the water off, and got dressed. He could skip a day's shower.
Nick put coffee on, being careful about getting his hands under the stream from the tap, and was standing listening to the comforting gurgle from the percolator when it registered that the ring was gone.
He'd left it on the counter, he was certain of that, after his demonstration to Brady that the voice in the water was real. But the counter was empty, except for the dirty dishes from last night's dinner. Frowning, he went up the stairs, his bare feet making little noise on the steps, and knocked on Brady's bedroom door.
"Hey, Brady, wake up."
Still no answer.
"Dude, did you take the ring? I hope you didn't get any smart ideas about throwing it back on your own. 'cuz I'll be pissed if you did."
Nick opened the door.
What struck him first was the damp chill in the air. The window stood wide open, and a cold breeze was blowing in.
The next thing he saw was that Brady wasn't there.
Nick walked in, feeling an icy sensation that the winter air was insufficient to cause. Brady's bedsheets were rumpled, as if he'd slept in it, but the blanket and bed surface were soaking wet. From the mattress came the heavy smell of river water. There was also a wet spot between the window and the bed, cool and slick under his feet.
"Brady?" His voice came out in a breathless whisper.
No answer, not that he expected one.
Nick ripped apart Brady's room, becoming more and more frantic, pitching aside sodden textbooks and piles of clothing, pulling boxes out of his closet, opening drawers in his desk. He finally found the ring in Brady's sock drawer.
It couldn't see the ring, because it wasn't underwater. But it found Brady. It found him, and took him away.
Nick went to the bathroom, walking like a somnambulist, turned the tap on, and dunked the ring under the stream. Instantly the voice started again, thin and whispery and evil.
"What did you do with Brady?" Nick said, his breath coming in tight, painful whistles.
He is here with me. You will be soon. You will stay with me forever.
"Where are you?"
You know. And I know where you are. Give it back. It is not yours.
A catch formed in his throat, an angry sob that wanted to exit, but Nick kept it behind clenched teeth. "You killed him."
He will be here with me forever. So will you, very soon.
"I'll give you your fucking ring back. Why do you want it so much? So much that you would kill?"
Because it is mine. It has been mine since I came here.
"How long have you been here?"
Longer than I can remember. Years uncounted, I have been here. I will be here when you are gone. Unless I bring you here to be with me. Then we will stay here together forever.
Nick turned off the water, and the voice was cut off.
Still holding the dripping gold ring in his hand, he went to the closet and grabbed his jacket, pulling it on as he walked outside and toward his truck. He grabbed something else as he walked, from where it leaned against the wall of the garden shed, and tossed it into the bed of the truck before he got in.
He kept himself from thinking as he drove toward the Delaware River and the jetty where he'd found the ring the previous day. If he let himself think, he'd fall apart. There was time for falling apart later. Now, he had a task to accomplish.
As he scrambled down the embankment into the wet field that bordered the river, he saw drag marks. Something large had passed this way, very recently. The dead grass was crushed and slimy with mud in a great swath between the river and the highway. As he walked toward the jetty, his boots squelching in the ooze, he saw once again the bubble of water about twenty yards out, rising from the flat surface of the river. There was something under there, something that sensed his approach and was coming to meet him.
He walked out onto the jetty, reached the end, stood there, leaning out toward the oil-slicked water.
"You want your goddamn ring back?" Nick shouted. "Here you go."
He set the ring down on the stone, and hefted the sledgehammer he'd brought from the garden shed. There was a sloshing noise, and the disturbance began to move, accelerating toward shore.
Nick raised the steel head of the sledgehammer high, brought it down on the glittering surface of the ring. It took three strikes, during which time the raised blob of water began to boil and churn. White waves of turbulence streamed away from it, like the bow wave of a boat. But on the third hit, the ring split in two, twisting and blackening, and there was a smell of sulfur that quickly dissipated on the winter breeze.
A woman walking her dog found Brady Elkano's body washed up on a gravel spit downstream two days later. An autopsy determined that he had drowned, although there were some unexplained gouges in the skin of his left leg. Suicide was suspected, but given Brady's personality, it didn't seem plausible. Nick argued against that explanation with particular vehemence, although he didn't have any better explanation for why his friend had apparently hiked down to the river in the middle of the night to go swimming wearing nothing but a pair of boxers.
Brady's parents came a week later to take his belongings, his father sternly silent, his mother weeping quietly as they boxed his clothes and books and personal items.
By that time, his bed had dried out, although a year later, when Nick Dominique graduated from college and moved to Colorado, the air in Brady's room still carried the faint stink of river mud.
Neil deGrasse Tyson has become deservedly famous for his efforts to bring the latest findings of astronomers and astrophysicists to laypeople. Not only has he given hundreds of public talks on everything from the Big Bang to UFOs, a couple of years ago he launched (and hosted) an updated reboot of Carl Sagan's wildly successful 1980 series Cosmos.
He has also communicated his vision through his writing, and this week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is his 2019 Letters From an Astrophysicist. A public figure like Tyson gets inundated with correspondence, and Tyson's drive to teach and inspire has impelled him to answer many of them personally (however arduous it may seem to those of us who struggle to keep up with a dozen emails!). In Letters, he has selected 101 of his most intriguing pieces of correspondence, along with his answers to each -- in the process creating a book that is a testimony to his intelligence, his sense of humor, his passion as a scientist, and his commitment to inquiry.
[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]