“The Face of the Deep” is an original story, written specifically for publication on this site, available nowhere else except for purchase at Payhip. It’s a story of grief, of loss, and of strange happenings. It is run through with mystery, horror, and suspense. It’s a story of this world, but made mysterious. I’m proud of it. I hope readers enjoy it.
There are two ways to read the story in full. The first is to be patient, as I will be publishing it in three installments, roughly 4,000 words each, over the next week. The first part is below, the second will be published on Wednesday, July 29th, and the third and final part published next Sunday, August 2nd. At that point I will move it over to the Stories page with a link to the text in full.
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The Face of the Deep: Part One
by Joel Caris
THOSE FIRST DAYS, the soil was all that kept him alive. He went back to it, again and again, and there in its infinite life and kind disregard for his pain he found momentary ways to push forward. The beetles and earthworms, the soil’s scent, the flecks of plant debris, the microscopic life he could not see: all of it reminded him of the breadth of the world and all he had yet to discover. Part of him no longer cared but the stronger part wanted still to learn; wanted to see the ways of the world he had yet missed and revisit the ones he had so loved. In those first days, he dug and he lived.
The mornings were mist and chill and then a slow reveal of the burning sun above. He woke early, alone, and crawled from an unfamiliar bed and reveled in the pain and ache of his body. It was living if nothing else. His hot showers eased those pains before he pulled into the rag and dirt of his work clothes, as though he had not just cleaned himself, and went into the field to find the soil, his living, the one reason still to wake each morning.
Those first days were like that. In the early evening he returned to his small farmhouse and rattled through the kitchen, assembling grain and vegetable dinners he barely tasted but would give him enough energy to do it all again the next day. Every third day his body cried for meat and he would pull a steak from the freezer or roast a chicken, sometimes make himself a burger. It all came from down the road, one way or the other depending on the species. His neighbors fed him and he fed the neighbors, and in their reciprocation they made a community and a small way of living.
When they came by to trade, most eyed him with sympathy and wariness. A few eyed him with empathy. The former feared what he had come to know and the latter knew his loss. They would all know in time, he told himself, and it was an empty consolation. Here, he said, and pushed toward them the vegetables he grew. Appreciate it, James, they would say, holding out wrapped cuts of meat or a bound chicken carcass. This is a fine one. It’ll feed you well. And their eyes would flash at the way you had once meant two and now it was just him, alone, with his crops and soil, with a piece of land too big for one person, the weeds crowding in at the edge of the fields and the beds a mess of inescapable neglect.
James and Jenny. They had been that once, a too-cute pair making a name for themselves in this small and insular valley, somehow breaking through from the outside to become accepted neighbors, even at times confidants.
And now she lay mouldering in a grave.
Jenny had been dead two months. That marker kept pounding in his brain as he straggled out from the kitchen to the poultry house. The birds waited—chickens and ducks, more of the former than the latter—and they streamed out into their morning freedom as he opened the door to the coop. One of the hens burst into excited low-altitude flight while the ducks grouped in circles, trailing one another in an endless stream of quacking as they struck out on their own. He gave them free run of the place most days and enjoyed watching them in their freedom. The occasional hidden nest of eggs or loss of a bird to a raptor was a price he found willing to pay to see them in their joys of exploration.
From the poultry house to the barn, to his tools and equipment. He snagged his favorite hoe and marched toward the main field. Every day he felt behind in the weeding. It had been Jenny’s favorite task and time and again she would spend most of a day tackling the weediest beds, trimming the edge of the field from encroaching grass, grooming the soil until the rows of crops ran straight and weed-free, bringing order to the unruly and tidying the farm until it made the neighbors whistle with respect and raise an appreciative brow. That’s a fine field you got there, James, they would say and he would say A fine partner I got and they would nod and give him a quiet Ayup. They always seemed a little unsure about Jenny until they started talking to her and then she would charm them, the way she did, and they left the farm smiling as often as not. She would laugh and shake her head—her mess of dark, tangled hair—and he couldn’t even count how many times he had heard her say Goddamn, this is a strange place, even though she told him she loved the valley and could tolerate the neighbors—even liked a few of them.
You don’t get lonely? he asked her once, because he knew that he liked the place more than she did, that it burrowed into some sense of home he held that she had never quite needed in the same way. But she just shrugged and said, I got the birds, I got you, and I got the dirt. I don’t really need much more. It was a lie; he knew that. But within a month she started to take regular walks down the road to the Lessie place to visit with Becca, then started working a day or two a week at the small bookstore in town, acting as a combination bookkeeper and clerk. Her mood lightened and his did as well. He started to believe he hadn’t ruined her, and them, and that’s when he let himself really fall into the farm and the odd community and the careful nurturing of a place within it, a small holding of responsibility and reciprocity that echoed out from the farmstead into the neighboring ones beyond.
They blossomed, each in their own ways. Jenny kept the farm’s books and guardrailed him into a kind of solvent farming; self-taught, she took those skills out into the community and found an extended use for them. The bookstore owner, Linda, hired her on as part time help, passing an increasing amount of the store’s financial operations on to her after Jenny offered the assistance at an unreasonable rate, part trade and part cash under the table. The pleasure of Jenny’s side work mattered more than the pay and the pleasure of Linda’s operation of the bookstore mattered more than its profit; in that regard, the two made a perfect pair.
Meanwhile, Becca Lessie began to spread word around the valley that Jenny knew her numbers inside and out and could well identify the weak spots in a farm’s finances and provide straightforward strategies to patch the holes. Settled in their ways, a number of the grouchier long-time farmers dismissed the idea as madness itself. They had pieced together their finances over the decades just as well as they had pieced together their farms, and they scoffed at the idea some fresh young newcomer could evaluate their frugality and find ways to make it thriftier. But once Edward Halcomb—a reserved dairyman of seventy-three, content to die milking, two years widowed but good-humored and prone to the occasional modest gamble—took a flier on Jenny’s services, the other old-timers in the valley began to fall like dominoes. They all took note late that summer when Edward put a new roof on the dilapidated farmhouse he called home. They took even greater note one rainy, dreary fall night when he sat at the local bar—a rare but occasional occurrence for him—nursed a few beers over the course of about three hours, then said to no one in particular, “Well, it’s been a pretty good year.” No one outside of Sonny Lether, Edward’s one and only good friend, had ever heard the man mention a word about his finances. And while technically no one knew if that was what he referred to, about the whole town decided it must be, if for no other reasons than that new roof and Edward’s declaration a few months prior in the feed store, at the owner’s pointed question about how he was getting along with Jenny’s efforts, that she was “a pretty good gal.”
“Christ, that man is lonely,” Jenny had told him one afternoon after coming back from a morning review of his finances, smelling faintly of manure. “Sweet as hell, though.”
While her blossoming took place out in the community they lived within, his was a more intimate one rooted in the particular plot of land that sustained them. While he came to know the neighbors, his relationships with them were distracted ones, made in passing while his attention stayed firmly fixed on the farm’s ecology. Outside of Jenny, the relationships that most called to him were the ones in the soil, the ones between him and his crops, between him and the livestock. They were in the farm’s function and how its parts and its memberships interacted. He wondered constantly how to bring it all into alignment; how to make the farm a self-sustaining network, an ecosystem riven by a life that fed and replicated itself, all under his guidance. The work consumed him and sometimes Jenny would snap her fingers by his head. Come back to earth, dear. And he would say Where the hell do you think I am? and she would give him a tight look at the edge to his voice—just enough to bring him a proper shame.
Occasionally, late at night, he would hold onto her and apologize for the ways that he lost himself and she would struggle to respond, sometimes telling him she loved that about him and other times telling him it was a deep goddamn annoyance. They usually ended the conversation by making love—sometimes in a fury that took his breath away and other times awkward and stilted, their uncertainties settling deep into their attempt to reconnect—and in his darker moments he wondered if it was all an avoidance, just a way to not acknowledge how they saw the world different and wanted to be in it in different ways. In his lighter moments, though, he marveled at her: the grace with which she crafted them a place in this odd community; the way she surprised the old-timers who thought they could know her but didn’t; the ease and blunt humor with which she dealt with others, even with him. He understood the ecosystem of the farm but she understood the ecosystem of their community—how its members interacted and why, what brought them success and failure, the ways relationships were formed and how they were broken. It perplexed him as often as not and she would just laugh and tease him for being obtuse—but it genuinely amazed him that she could move so deft through such a fraught social world, that she could navigate the vagaries of human emotion as easily as he could put in a day’s work on the farm, and in his moments of uncertainty he knew he was a lesser man without her and just hoped to god that she was not a lesser woman because of him.
Now with her gone, he existed at the edge of that world, on the outside of the community and lost in a haze of uncertainty. He was still well liked, but he believed that to be a halo of Jenny’s successes more than his own; and he feared that as time went on and memory of her faded, the neighbors would turn on him, questioning why they had ever let him be a part of their community in the first place. The reciprocity would dry and shrivel and he would be left a forgotten widower, an outcast scratching in the dirt and turning to his plants and poultry for thin company. In quiet moments the idea terrified him, but most of the time he was able to forget it by putting himself back in the farm, lost in his pretense that the human community surrounding him could be subordinated to the non-human one on his land. Jenny would have laughed at him for the idea, but he did not allow himself to think of that. Memories of her laughter, even when at his expense, ate too deep of holes into him.
For two hours he attacked the weeds—with the hoe, with his hands, standing, crouching, on his knees, digging into the dirt and ripping out deep tap roots, coming away with handfuls of torn stem and leaf. He did it without gloves and his hands were black with dirt by the end. He wiped at his forehead, at the sweat of the work, and smeared a streak of accomplishment along his face. The sun rode high in a sky dotted with clouds. The wind was soft but insistent, a steady cooling that cut across the farm.
The main field stretched at the back end of the farm, farthest from the road that ran past the house. It extended fifty yards deep and about thirty across, separated into two blocks of planting beds divided by a grid of pathways. Beyond the crops lay a field of grass climbing upward at a slight incline to a line of trees: alder and Doug fir and hemlock and maple, crowded together into a cluster of arboreal darkness but beset with paths he had come to know well over the past few years. In her time, he and Jenny had walked them several times a week, enjoying the shade of the forest and engaging in amateur bird spotting. They would point out the different birds to each other, delighting in their quick and furtive movements, their color and song, the way they graced through the world.
The forest was not large. Pathways zigzagged through it and toward its middle lay a small pond, spring fed, cool and clear throughout the year. Large trees hunkered around its banks, casting shade on the water. Time and again on hot summer days he and Jenny would break for the day and take cold drinks to the water’s edge, sitting at the bank with them and watching the water skippers, the newts that floated in its depths, the birds that hovered about its edge and darted in and out toward the muddy banks from overhanging limbs. Sunlight would filter down through the leaves, fragments of sky caught in glimpses through the canopy. Often they had talked of shedding their clothes and slipping into the cool water themselves but somehow never had done it. So often they felt content to sit at its banks and let the meditative calm of their surroundings take them.
Watching now the distant trees, he could imagine the pond lying off in the forest’s depth and realized with a small surprise that he had not been to its banks in months; that, in fact, he could not remember in exact detail the last time he had visited. Without Jenny it felt almost a sacrilege, or at least meaningless: the pond had served as a shared joy, a physical place in the world that over time had come to be a marker of their marriage and love. To be there now without her struck him as a kind of emptiness, a pretense toward a life lost. Yet it seemed an abandonment never to visit it again, as though to ignore it would be to turn his back on Jenny herself, on the substance of what they had built and lived together.
Decided in an instant, he left the hoe where it lay and marched toward the back of the planting field, passing crops to wade into the knee high grass beyond. The line of trees stood sturdy before him. The darkness of their shadow appeared deeper than he remembered and it surprised him how little the diffuse light of the day seemed to penetrate into the shade of the trees. He could hardly see into their depths, even as he drew closer to them, and their shade looked almost painted on, flat and one dimensional.
He slowed as he approached and as he came within fifty yards of the trees, he stopped, the shade of the trees somehow wrong. Wind swirled up the slope and past him, whispering its way through the grass and sweeping into the trees ahead. Their branches swayed, their leaves cascading into waves of movement, and for a moment he thought the wind had torn them loose, had sent them fluttering down to the ground, for the shade beneath the trees began to move, to dance, as though the air itself were churning and reforming itself. There was no light within that darkness but the shadows fluttered and flashed, muted shades of black turning and twisting in upon themselves, writhing just beyond the reach of the day’s light—but still flat, with no depth. His breath caught at the sight and he took a step back even as he squinted to try better to see, to understand what was before him. It was as if the shade itself had coalesced into a creature—something not quite of substance—and yet more than shadow, more than movement—something small and squat, planted firmly on the ground but never still, as though in its constant movement it could avoid any true detection, could avoid the messy business of taking honest form.
And then the wind died and the slow sway of the trees stilled and whatever had started to take form in the forest’s shade disintegrated into nothing. The dense darkness beneath the trees faded and the forest floor emerged into a dim view—that familiar sight of interlaced branches and crowded underbrush. The depth of it reasserted itself and the forest bloomed back to life.
James stood steady. Before long, the wind swirled up the slope again, shaking the trees before him, but the typical view he was so accustomed to did not change, the flat darkness did not reassert itself. Nothing odd emerged out of the shadows. Branches swayed and leaves fluttered and a few fell through the filtered light of the forest interior, but nothing appeared out of place. For a moment, he considered continuing on to the pond; but in the end, he turned and made his way back down the slope, retrieved his hoe and returned it to the barn, and then returned himself back to the house. He made a small meal as the sun dropped low in the sky—and as it slipped below the horizon he sat on the porch with a cold beer and drank it slowly, trying not to peer off toward the trees so far off at the edge of the back pasture, just barely in view, looming dark on the horizon.
His beer turned to a second and a third, then a fourth, and soon James found himself drunk in the living room. Narrow and wood paneled, odd in its dimensions, he nevertheless found it comfortable in its familiarity. A large window looked out on the driveway and the gardens beyond: smaller beds, close to the house and diversified, part of the overall farm production but geared more toward easy access and variety for house meals, as well as for quick harvests for friends and passers by. They were designed for beauty, too, a mixture of production beds and looping borders filled with flowers, pollinator mixes, and small shrubs. Often he would sit and stare out at the gardens, pleased with their beauty. Of late, though, that had become harder: Jenny had taken lead on the house gardens and their beauty was a reflection of her attention. They could not help but be a reminder of her.
But then, those reminders were everywhere. The living room held its own, most notably the oaken bookcases lining the wall opposite the window. Packed with books, they reflected Jenny’s insatiable thirst for reading, her ability to spend long hours curled on the couch or in their bed, flipping pages, taking in an endless stream of words. The books she read spanned the full spectrum of possibility, but in particular she had gathered a formidable library of titles on metaphysics and the occult. She discovered most of them among the sagging shelves of the bookstore she worked in, which served the local community with a mix of new and used books, plenty of which flowed within the mainstream tastes of society but plenty more of which tucked themselves into odd and quirky corners of human thought and consideration. The owner had esoteric tastes and spent a considerable amount of time tracking down strange tomes, often rare and out-of-print. In her browsing of these titles, Jenny had discovered a world far more mysterious than the one her parents had introduced her to, and she wrapped herself in those mysteries with an enthusiasm and glee that mostly charmed him—though at times unnerved him, particularly when she talked about death.
Death itself did not disturb him. Rather, it was the proposed worlds beyond that did. He dealt with death day in and day out on the farm as the underpinning of all he did. Each season he worked to craft the farm into its own ecosystem, as enclosed and contained as possible. Each year he failed, but most often came a bit closer than the year before. And that system was built on death as much as life; each fed into the other in an unending cycle within which he found meaning. It did not frighten him that he was a part of that cycle; that he would one day join it; that his own death would inevitably come upon him and that it would, in turn, bring new life into the world. It heartened him, as it was, and in the dark moments that took him so often in the wake of Jenny’s death, he returned to that idea again and again, in that small but crucial belief that her body gave to the next—that it could do nothing other than birth new life into the world.
What terrified him was eternity. Jenny spoke of new lives, of worlds beyond—of reincarnation, of spiritual evolution, of worlds as real as the physical but otherwise, non-material. She spoke of ancient beings, of spirits, of incomprehensible creatures, of gods, of myth She spoke of it with an affection, a fascination—and she wove for him tales of a universe so old it might as well be ageless; of a universe so large and varied, it might as well be infinite; and of a world so mysterious, it might as well be unknowable. She speculated about the lives she would lead next, the near-infinite lives, spiraling out into an impossible conception of time, into an existence beyond this body—and the next, and the next, and the next—that was as close to unending as his mind could comprehend. The idea of someday dying satisfied him; the idea that it would lead him back to a timeless existence of unending incarnation brought a great dread on him. He wanted his death to lead to new life, just not new life for him.
Jenny never understood when he told her this. She would only look oddly at him and wonder aloud how he could be satisfied with just this one, how he could not want more—not want to know what came next. But he wanted a conclusion, the opportunity to do his best and then pass the world on. You don’t really want to be around forever, do you? he would ask her.
She would just shrug and give him her best smile. Why would I want to leave?
How does one leave? How does a woman, his wife—young; far too young—just fall apart dead? How does her heart fail her, misshapen, unknown, just a small flaw that becomes large enough to swallow the world? And when she was the one most dedicated to the world, why would she be taken from it?
Why not him—willing to pass the world on?
The fifth beer ruined him and he sat on the floor, his back against the edge of the couch, unable even to cry.
Continue reading Part Two here.
Part Three will be published Sunday, August 2nd.
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