Dagonism by Ashley Bullen-Cutting




Today is my Dissolution Day. I’m supposed to be relieved. I’m not. I’m not anything. 

I place my ear against the wall of our shared quarters and ignore the half-hidden glances of my bunkmates. This far down there is only a head’s width between us and the water. It’s a constant, a lapping hiss that keeps awake as much as it lulls asleep. I hoped it would sound differently today, louder or subtler, but the sea’s song never changes. We do.

“Are you scared?” Rosa asks, sliding up to my cot. “You look scared.”

“I’m not scared.”

“Well, you look scared.”

“Go away.”

Surprisingly she does just that. Only, she stops twice to look back at me with newly reddened eyes. Sixteen years we have known each other. Every shared smile and laugh a stolen, beautiful gift. I know I should say something to her, but her day will come. Today isn’t a day for sentimentality. 

Another face comes close, a warmer one. One I’ve known since birth. A smile cracks her face like a hardwon splinter as she hands me a bowl of watered-down porridge.

“It’s a deep honour,” my mother says for the fiftieth time this week. At this point, I feel it’s more for her own benefit than mine. I echo her weak smile, and duly disregard her worrying hands. Today isn’t a day for sentimentality. 

She looks older today. Sun-beaten. A deck-shift will do that. Or, that’s what they tell us. She glances around and then leans in close. “Are you scared?”

It’s a question I expect from Rosa but not from her. What is there to be nervous about? This is it. There is nothing else. 

“Should I be?” I search her face and find the answers wanting. 

Waving the question away, she sets about busying herself with my bedcover, folding and refolding. “Of course not,” she answers. “It is the way.” 

Cogs turning slowly, clogged up with sleep-stuff, I suddenly sit up. It is my turn to whisper. “Is this a test? Is this part of it?” 

The Fisher-King is known for his tests. Devotion is the bread and butter of our saveship, what keeps it afloat. To show any deviation from belief is heresy, and “heresy unravels from within”. I am not a heretic, I scream at my mother with my eyes. I believe; I always have. 

“I am not nervous,” I say, when she offers no reply. “I am steeled. Ready.”

She nods. “Good, because it is time.”


I have never seen the sky or sea. I only know the disillusioned tales orated by Fisher-King Herbcliffe and the ones Rosa and I knitted from half-heard whispers under covers when we were children. Rosa thinks the sky is as white as winter wheat, an always-sun lighting up everything. My mother laughs at this, she being one of the few who have actually seen it. Whenever it is my turn to guess, I say, “Nothing. That’s the point, right?” 

There are rules to living as we do:

No looking out (you see the deck only on Dissolution Day);

No looking beyond (there is only Dagonism);

No hesitation.

The first and the last are the hardest. 

Being so close to the water and not trying to look or ask about it is like being Pandora with the everything-box in your lap. “Do you see what she did wrong?” the Fisher-King asked us one learning day. None of us raised our hands. He smiled. “Curiosity is sacred, certainly. Something to be encouraged, but only in moderation. What Pandora fails at is responsibility.” He found all our eyes as he said the last word, lending it extra weight. “She has the power to do nothing, to just be and let all else be, but she lusts for control. A peek is all that is needed to release power and the race for its possession into the world, and she does more than peek. She upends.” Here, he stood up. “What we do here, now, is put all that back in the box and seal it away forever. We dissolve what was; we make amends.”

I had never seen the sky until now. It’s beauty is blinding. It is Rosa’s winter wheat but also barley and oat and one great big pumpkin seed. It is an impossible expanse and, if not for my mother’s hand at the small of my back, I would fall to the deck.

“Woah,” I say.

“Yes,” my mother replies, squeezing my hand. “Woah.”

I see the sea next. It is everywhere and dominating. The waves I have listened to all my life as they slapped against the wall by my cot are now roaring blue hues, with swells and ripples tipped in an ever-cycling milky froth. Dagon help me, but I cry at the sight of it. Water for water. 

“It is broken,” she says, following my gaze and guiding me forwards, shattering the spell. “We must make amends.” 


Fisher-King Herbcliffe nods encouragingly. His smile is tectonic, something inescapable, something felt in the knees. You could spend a lifetime on a saveship and have the sturdiest of sea-legs and still keel beneath the breadth of that grin. It is a grin of the enlightened. 

Slowly, I walk towards the bow of the ship – the deck is longer than I ever imagined – and the silk dress whispers in my wake. It is too tight, too small, and too much, but that is the way. “Do it beautifully, because we are not beautiful” as decrees Dagonist mantra.

My throat constricts with every step and I swallow and swallow, but it is never enough. I try blinking away the light, blinking and blinking and blinking. I feel the wind against my skin for the first time, and then I register the heat; a hotness from head to toe. First on my face, then on my bare arms and legs. It tingles in a way that I know is forbidden.

Without moving her lips, my mother asks again if I am scared.

“I can feel it,” I reply, a little louder than I intended. “The wrongness, I can feel it.” 

A new respect for her blossoms within me. She comes up here every single day and still she carries on. The burning she must have felt over the years! I find her face in the brightness and dimples break out on my cheeks. I touch her arm, her feverish arm, and everything makes sense. “Let me help you,” I say. 

She turns away.

The people on either side of me nod knowingly as I pass them, lifting up their salt-knives in solidarity and repeating without end: “Hesitation is heresy. Hesitation is heresy.” And I know now it really is. The things they must have lived through for us! Well, this is the very least we can do. “Let me help you,” I say to each and every one of them, clasping their hands as I go. “Let me help you.”


“I long knew of a day,” the Fisher-King orates as I approach, “when [the land {would} sink, and the dark ocean floor {would} ascend amidst universal pandemonium], and that day is today. We have made it so. I dream of a day when the fruitful undershores receive us openly, and that day is today. We will make it so. I dream,” he slows right down here to instill gravitas and reflection, “of Dissolution.” 

He reaches out to me amidst a clatter of clinking salt-knives, and I meet him, truly, as if it were the first time. 

“You honour yourself, child,” he says enclosing my hand in his. My mother steps aside, now just another person, another believer, as he swivels me to face the open ocean. He tucks a stray strand of hair behind my ear and leans close. “Tell me, what do you see?”

The hissing – the cry of Dagon – is loud now. Deafening. You wouldn’t know what was really in the water just by looking at it – all that city-fire, the loosed Pandora-stuff from those who lusted for worldly power. It’s there, though. Dagon’s stirring is proof of it.  

“Nothing,” I breathe. “Everything.”

He stays in close and his words are warm against my ear. “Are you ready to hear about the world?” I nod, scared my voice will break at the tipsy thought of breaking rules one and two of our creed. Until this morning, the cabin and Rosa had been my world. Now a new forbidden one loomed all around. I take a deep breath as the Fisher-King raises a hand and the sail overhead fills with wind. 


“A hundred years ago”, he begins, as we crest wave after wave, “we ended the world. Stung a billion times too many, the Sea ate it all up and then dissolved it piece by piece. Cities, stationary decks on solid land, fell. Concrete and cinder blocks were corroded by angry surf and disappointed eddies; cattle and cars consumed by sun-hurt waves. People persisted, because we always do. Those we brought along to suffer our fates – the pets and the forcibly domesticated make-us-feel-betters – perished. Baked and re-baked, the Sea’s life soured and stunted and silenced.” Here he stops to cup an ear. “That’s what the hissing is – an angry whisper. It hates us, you know. The susurration is a reminder. A promise. The Domain of Dagon is displeased and rising. We must make amends.” He turns to look me dead in the eye. “What must we do?” 

“We must make amends,” I echo. “Re-seal the box.”

 His face crinkles at this. “Sorry?”

“Pandora’s Box. We must re-seal it.”

The Fisher-King looks at me with new eyes, thinking this over. “Quite,” he replies, nodding. “Yes. The Box. You’ve a keen memory, child.” Beyond me, he shouts to a direction-man and our course changes ever so slightly. 

I look left and then right. “Where are we going?”

“There is no where,” he retorts, his eyes once more an objective, impersonal slate. “Explain.”

“I only meant-”

“Did you not listen?” His hand takes hold of my arm and squeezes. “‘The Sea ate it all up.’”

“Hesitation is heresy,” the assembled people chant anew. “Hesitation is heresy.”


We stop unceremoniously at a seemingly random stretch of ocean. Nowhere. I am told to step back as the-now silent chanters – strangers from other cabins – and now my mother move a long piece of wood into position. Weather-worn, the surface of the plank is almost smooth, and yet, it is riddled with knots, as if stained with the soles of all the heels before me. I catch my mother looking at me once or twice as they set it down, but she is like a scorned child caught in the wrong, looking away before I can show her that I am not scared. The Fisher-King’s hand never leaves me.

“Step up, child,” he commands, offering his hand for support. “Step up and save the world.”

I am dizzy before my second foot can find purchase on the plank. The sea chomps at me below, ineffectually taking wet-bite after wet-bite out of the hull. The saliva spray douses my ankles. Stings. I am not scared. 

 The Fisher-King motions me forward with a flick of his wrist.

I take step after step, careful and determined. The plank groans and bends the further I go. Soon, there is a bounce to it. Precarious and growing. 

“Stop!” I do. 

“Turn.” I do. 

The Fisher-King finds my face and grins his catching grin, and I smile back. Everyone on board smiles. Everyone except my mother. She is looking away, her head turned and her face hidden by a curtain of hair. The Fisher-King follows my gaze and his jaw tightens. Waving a hand, two believers approach her and say something too quiet to carry. They must say it again and again because it is only after a full minute passes that she looks up. Her eyes are like Rosa’s before I left this morning: red and wet.

“We’ve been called insane,” the Fisher-King shouts, now competing with the wind, “and we’ve been called zealots. We’ve been called crazy, and we’ve been called cowards.” He takes a breath. “But, Dissolution isn’t pathological or viral, no, it is ontological. It is Knowing. This is no Ship of Fools, but one of Neutralisation. We are piecemeal Remedy and we are making amends for the whole’s malady.” 

 The sea is ferocious. A raging coverlet over everything, frothing at the mouth. Hungry. What must we have done to cause such anger? The plank teeters once more under the growing wind. This is the way. I am not scared.

“Child,” Fisher-King Herbcliffe says devoutly, his voice now laced with the tell-tale tones of assurance, “now, is the time for medicine. Now is the time to make amends with your Dagon. Step.” 

The chanters echo the last word, “Step. Step. Step. Step.” 

 This is really it. This is the day my whole life has led up to. Dagon awaits me. For sixteen years I have been growing to this point, hardening for this very moment. It is all I have ever wanted. All that I am. To be wedded to the future, a stepping stone for the next, is a great honour. I am to serve as a bodily apology. Sea-given. 

I am scared. 

My foot hovers over the edge. Hovers and hovers some more. I try looking for my mother but my hair betrays me, loose red curls whipping up frenziedly in the winds. I do catch sight of the Fisher-King though, his eyes like twin moons. He, too, is hungry. 

The water is darker now, closer. The hissing I have heard for so long now a clamouring. Our learning tells us there are darker shores yet ahead, darker and hungrier, but if we decide to make amends, soon we can live with them – within Dagon’s merciful embrace – and prosper.

There are no depictions of Dagon on our saveship. “Belief surges beyond countenance,” the creed teaches. He is too big a concept. Hearsay makes me think of Him as a great slumbering sunfish, slowly waking as His sleepwaters blacken and boil. The spurned warden of Pandora’s Box. But now he is angry and disappointed and we must appease. 

There are words suddenly at my back. Hurried and eaten by the ocean’s crashing wave-teeth, I hear none of them. The fear I have all day denied freezes me to the spot, erases all my senses. Hesitation is heresy, my mind remembers; hesitation is humanity, my heart screams back.

The plank sinks a few centimeters as new feet drop onto it and it takes everything I have to fight to maintain my balance. The sky tilts, no longer the warm earthy whites that first welcomed me, but a growing grey, encircling and morose, hanging in the air.   

I feel a hand grabbing for me. I see the sea sizzle in anticipation, and I decide. Closing my eyes, I wish myself back in the dry cabinworld with Rosa and mother, and then I make it so.


Ashley Bullen-Cutting is a creative-critical English Literature PhD candidate at The University of Sheffield. His poetry and prose has featured in over a dozen journals, and sometimes it gets read. He is the current fiction editor of the Route 57 2020 special ‘Traces’ and a co-editor of Short Fiction at Barren Magazine.

30 November 2020