“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 am currently publishing it in three installments, roughly 4,000 words each. The first part can be found here, the second part is below, and the third and final part will be published on 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 Two
by Joel Caris
HE WOKE ON THE COUCH. His initial confusion eroded away into a vague memory of crawling onto it after lying some long while on the floor, the ceiling above throbbing and his stomach churning. Faded memories of a dream clawed at him: Jenny’s books tumbling off the living room shelves onto the floor and lying there a moment before stirring into motion and building themselves into the air, into something monstrous that towered deep into the night, the house disappeared and the dark sky echoing off into infinitude.
A weak gray light filtered in through the living room window: the slow drift of dawn. He stumbled into the kitchen and rattled together a breakfast of bacon and eggs and toast, ate it while drinking strong coffee. Then he showered, too hot to start and too cold to finish, and finally started to awaken.
A world of work awaited him but he made the decision to avoid it, intent on a different kind of effort for the day. Still suffering the haze of a hangover, he dressed in a clean pair of work clothes and stepped into the morning’s blooming light. Dawn had burned into an early summer heat. The sun rode low but bright in the sky, just over the horizon, promising a clear day that would turn too hot and lazy by afternoon. As he crossed the farm, an unease settled over him—a sickening anticipation of what was to come.
On his way, he let out the birds. They swarmed to the edge of the farm, scratching and poking at the bottom of the hedgerow planted there. From the coop he cut alongside the main field and angled his way toward the trees far beyond, the edge of the forest that had offered him such a strange sight the day before. The sun burned on his back and the grass scratched at the cuffs of his jeans. Insects whirred into the air. The trees rose before him and as he closed in on them he peered intent into the shadows beneath, looking for any sign of movement—or a flatness, or a darkling. But nothing revealed itself other than the thin outline of underbrush, the low hanging branches of the trees.
Birdsong filtered through the still air and he soon caught sight of their quick movements through the branches of the nearest trees. He came up against the edge of the tree line and paralleled it for about a hundred yards before cutting in along a rough trail, intimately familiar to him but easy to lose in the gloom of the forest. The temperature dropped and within a few moments the underside of the forest brightened to life as his eyes adjusted. Sunlight filtered down from above and the familiar sight of ferns and shrubs and leafy ground cover stretched off along the forest floor.
The trail wound thin and obscure through the trees, overgrown in many sections and losing itself elsewhere in stretches of open forest. Despite this, he traversed it with a surety ingrained over the years, the journey so familiar that he could venture it without the least attention paid to the path. Indeed, he paid little attention to it now, quickly losing himself instead in a melancholy brought on by Jenny’s absence. Before her death, it was a rare day that he entered the forest without her by his side, and walking now outside her presence left him unnerved, aware of the absence that only grew more obvious as he moved deeper into the forest and closer to the place he sought.
It did not take him long to arrive at his destination. As always, it opened before him dramatically, falling into being upon the earth as he came around a bend in the trail at the top of a slope. Before him, the hillside dropped down sharply to the edge of the pond, the mirrored water visible between two small clusters of maples: the sky brought down to the earth. Mud flats ringed it—marshy ground thick with horsetail and insects, the massive leaves and blooms of skunk cabbage. Douglas firs and vine maples clustered around its banks, their branches hanging out over the water. On the far end, two large trees had fallen in a tangle, their limbs a chaos just above the water. He and Jenny had often picked their way carefully out along the logs, settling in above the water with their legs dangling and the calm and quiet of the pond beneath them, its stillness broken only by the tiny ripple of water skippers and the occasional surfacing of a newt. Those days echoed a joy in him he desperately wished to retrieve.
He paused a long time at the top of the hill, staring down at this place that had for most all their time on the farm served as a special retreat—a secret escape they had never seen peopled, where they could go when they most wanted to spend time alone and be lost in the natural world that renewed and lifted them. Over their few years in the valley, after having discovered the pond only weeks after moving into their new home, James and Jenny had never once come across another person in their frequent visits; and in casual conversations with neighbors, they had never discussed the place as a common knowledge. It surprised them, and they suspected that others must have known of the pond—for there were residents who had lived their entire lives in the valley, whose families went back generations, and who surely knew its every inch—but no others came during their visits and never had they stumbled on anyone else in their arrivals. So they had considered it a gift, some hidden gem given them by the valley’s gods, and they came thankful every time for its seclusion, always aware that some day they would inevitably have to relinquish their private hold on its waters and muddy banks.
Most often they came to the pond together, and James had only been to its banks alone a few times over the years. Jenny, on the other hand, made private visits more frequently. Most weeks she would beg off from his company at least once to spend an hour alone at the water’s edge, fortifying herself in the solace of its clarity and quiet calm. Each time she came back to him renewed, and in that revitalization he found an easy comfort in her departures, knowing that she would return to him a fresh approximation of the woman he had fallen in love with years before. They spoke easily in her return and often fell into bed together, their lovemaking intense.
The pond below shimmered, sight of it passing between the trees as he descended the hillside. It truly did look a mirror; the blue sky above burst brilliant from its surface. He thought of the many times he had encouraged Jenny to go on to the pond on her own, and in his loss a small selfishness bloomed: the idea that he ought to have kept her closer. But he could not hold it: he could not have held her if he tried, and he knew that the extra time would not have diminished his loss but possibly would have their relationship.
Rounding a steep switchback, he again caught sight of the pond’s surface through the trees and his breath hitched at this new sight. The blue brilliance was gone. The sun still shone above him, filtering a green light through the leaves of the trees; the sky still stretched clear and bright blue above him; but down below him the pond’s surface spread black and fathomless, as though cast in the shadow of an eclipse. A sickening fear spread within him. The darkness lay flat upon the water, inky and depthless, thick as though an oil spill, and the water itself stayed in a stillness deeper than any he had seen, as though all life and dimension had been taken from it.
The lack of reflection unnerved him; somehow the sun still shone upon the water’s black but only fell into it, was absorbed rather than lightening or reflecting or illuminating. It was an impossibility—a violation of the world’s normal function, and it carved out a hollow fear within him. He stared, trying to comprehend, and he took a step back as though from some threat. He did not turn, though. He could not take his eyes from the bizarre sight below.
Then it all changed as a new reaction spread throughout him. He could not place it or even understand it, but that great blackness below seemed suddenly familiar to him. It came to him as a known presence, as something he had encountered before. It was almost a deja vu, almost a remembrance, and in his mind he returned to some afternoon with Jenny, sitting above the water of the pond on their familiar log, their bright laughter and well-cadenced conversation echoing through the warm summer air. The memory was shrouded, uncertain—he could not remember any of it exact, or place the day, or know even what month it had happened, how long at that point they had lived in the valley. He did not know if it even had happened, if the memory was real or imagined. And yet it rose in him vivid as some strange outgrowth of the horror below. Some murmured words of hers hovered just out of memory, something she had told him once but that he could not quite remember. He struggled to retrieve it and it took his mind, dimming his vision so that for a long moment he did not even see the pond or the darkness on its surface, nor did he notice its new movement. But then he blinked back to the view before him and saw that the darkness had spread, had grown—that it had begun to lift from the surface, to pour out over the pond’s banks and flow into the reeds, the horsetail, the skunk cabbage; to stream out into the trees and around their trunks, moving as though a liquid of its own but something more ephemeral than water: gaseous, maybe, or some kind of heavy mist. And yet it was more opaque than translucent, still heavy in its obscuring darkness, and it moved fast. It flowed, and rose, and began to swallow the surrounding forest even as it moved toward the bank of the hill. The sight dropped a cold terror through him and he turned then, finally, seized by instinct, and plunged back up the trail, up the hillside, desperate for home and a world turned back sane.
His swift return trip to the farm proved uneventful, the forest’s dark mysteries receding with his retreat. Nothing, to his knowledge, followed behind him. No great blackness or suffocating shadow let loose from the pond stalked him in his return. And yet a deep uneasiness followed him through the trees. He tried to push away thoughts of what he had seen but it clawed and scrabbled at his mind, snaking a deep fear through him.
That fear began to fade, though, as he left behind the forest and returned to the comforting familiarity of home. Tracking along the edge of the main field, his adrenaline eased and mind calmed; just looking out at the familiar crops and then back at the tree line to again confirm that nothing emerged in pursuit brought him an almost exhilarating relief.
Yet as the terror of the moment ebbed, a confusion replaced it. He almost immediately began to doubt what he had seen and wondered if the stress and depression of his loss—or a lingering mental discord from his drunken night before—had caused him to imagine the dark presence upon the pond’s surface. It made no sense, of course; that shadow had been some kind of impossibility, or at least a misunderstanding: a cloud passing over the sun, perhaps, or some brief darkening of the day that his fogged brain had inaccurately concentrated on the water’s surface, had failed to see spread more broadly across the land.
The confusion brought him up short, standing now at the edge of the main field not far from the coop. Off to his right a pair of ducks probed beneath the broad leaves of dandelions, searching out slugs to eat. The sight took him in its simple familiarity; he watched them and in their focused efforts lost himself, lost the impossibility of what he had just seen, and for a few long moments turned present to the world he loved.
In the background, his mind worked at the problem of what he had seen at the pond. It faded further into uncertainty and doubt. Vague explanations for the phenomenon filtered through his mind, most of them nonsensical, and as he lost his attention on the ducks and instead put it back on the memory of what had happened, it all started to tire him. He began to walk toward the house, scattered, and stopped. It was too early, the day still stretching out in front of him. He had expected to spend more time in the woods, had meant to spend at least a portion of the day at the banks of the pond in remembrance of Jenny. But now the afternoon hours stretched before him unoccupied, and he turned back to stare at the main field and the trees beyond. He watched a long time at the edge of the forest, at the darkness within, and grew attentive to each shift of sunlight and shade, at the slow dance of shadow brought on by the breeze. He tried to pick out strange movements, odd glitterings—anything to suggest mystery or unknown presences. But it all looked terribly familiar, and so he instead drew his attention to the crops in the field, the weeds, and began to make a mental list of all there was to be done. It did him no good to neglect the farm.
He turned toward the barn and the tools within. He would make use of the day yet.
Work, he had always found, was the best antidote for discord. Tending the crops, digging in the dirt—it calmed his mind and spirit, settled his body into a familiar rhythm, and passed the day free of angst. As the sun fell low in the sky, he felt a renewal in his fatigue. The odd occurrence at the pond became little more than strange memory, an uncertainty that occasionally filtered into the forefront of his mind only to be pushed back into its recesses.
Putting the tools away in the barn, he found himself tired and ravenous and with a start realized he had not eaten since breakfast. Somehow the idea of lunch had never come to him. Ready now to devour a large meal, he made for the house in heightened spirits, a kind of false euphoria brought on by his ability to ignore all the day’s strangeness. He stripped and showered and then banged about the kitchen, inadvertently slamming cabinet doors and knocking cast iron pans against one another, rattling dishes and cursing as he clattered a knife on the kitchen floor. At one moment he found himself shaking and then he paused a long moment, settling before returning to his meal prep.
Uncertainties probed at the edge of his mind only to find fierce disavowals and denials. He focused intently on the task before him and after an hour of work, his blood sugar plummeting and hands shaking, he put out on the table a small feast, more than enough for two: a bowl of roasted potatoes and onions; a heaping fresh salad of lettuce and mustard greens, shaved carrot and fennel and diced shallot with a bright buttermilk dressing laced with herbs; a thick cut top sirloin steak crusted on the grill, rare inside; slabs of warm bread alongside a bowl of softened butter; a pile of green beans scorched in the steak pan, sprinkled with coarse salt and pepper, with a squeeze of lemon; an overflowing bowl of ripe raspberries from the gardens close to the house—vines put in and tended by Jenny, doted upon—and a large beer, cold, in an icy mug from the freezer. It was all too much, of course, and the gluttony of it only made his loneliness more stark. He had cooked in his memory of Jenny and set a table for company that could not come.
Pushing back dark thoughts, he sat and ate. In his hunger and desire not to think, he ate too much. And then he left the half ravaged meal on the table and fell to the couch in the living room, full and uncomfortable. He lay there a long time, first staring at the ceiling and then propping himself up enough to look out the window to the gardens beyond. Staring, he allowed himself his memories of Jenny and their incomplete happiness, and then allowed himself an uneasy sleep.
James awoke disoriented and in the dark. A diffuse moonlight set a small glow to the room, enough to outline the furniture and cast everything misshapen and grotesque, looming out of shadows. Before him the living room’s window framed a silvered view out to the driveway and gardens beyond: vague shaped plants and tangled shadows twisted into a distorted and unfamiliar landscape.
He rose and moved as a ghost through the room. The floor creaked beneath him but otherwise all was a nighttime hush, too still in its preternatural quiet. He came to the stairs and began to take them to the floor above, the familiar bedrooms that waited.
A small window in the upstairs hall looked out on the neighboring field and here again a cast of moon and starlight came through the glass. Two doors stood illuminated in that soft glow, both closed to him. The one on his right entered into the small room he had slept for the past few weeks, the one to his left into the shared room of a past life. Since Jenny’s death, he had not been able to sleep in there or even to enter. He had closed it off, unable to handle the artifacts of an ended life. But now he paused outside it, drawn to the memories within, and he considered for a long moment reaching out to open it, to reenter that old life and its hauntings. Within the room, something called him—maybe the memories, maybe a desire for return, maybe Jenny herself, brought back alive in the familiarity of their marriage bed, between the walls that had enclosed so many of the intimacies of their life together. His breath slowed and for a moment, briefly, he thought he heard something on the other side of the door: the rustle of bedclothes, a shifting of weight.
It caught him, and he reached out to touch the door. The wood pressed cool against his fingertips and in its solidity the sounds quieted, disappeared. He stepped back, slipping his touch from the bedroom door, and then turned toward the window and stepped toward it, all as though in a fugue—and he startled, his heart quickening. Outside in the plain field beyond, a figure stood motionless, the tall grass up to its hips. He could not make out any details in the night’s darkness but by its outline it could only be human. A cold fear knifed through him. He could not tell if the person stared at the house or was turned away from him, looking out on the stretch of field to the soft-rising hillside beyond—or if it stared at all, or was nothing but a darkness: some nameless, faceless presence come to stalk him.
And then as he watched, it fell into the earth. It was a half moment, a blink, but he was certain what he had seen: a disintegration, a falling, as though it had crumbled to dust at impossible speed, as though it had been called to return to the soil beneath it. In that brief tumbling chaos, a few glints of moonlight sparked as though off ice or glass and James remembered then the muted twisting of shade and shadow at the forest’s edge the days before. It all felt of a piece—but of a piece he could not understand.
He waited at the window for the figure to reform, to rise out of the earth and take shape above the ragged grass. But nothing came, and even the grass stood still out there in the moonlit night, not even a breeze to disturb it. His cold fear ebbed and the strange mysteries of the night began to resolve themselves into a mundanity, into nothing but the usual dark and still quiet of the late hour. So he went then to the small bedroom that had become his nighttime outpost and settled into the bed and, eventually, into a heavy sleep.
The next morning, James started slow. He cleared the dining table of the remnants of his meal from the night before, did the dishes in a fog, then finally took clumsily to his usual morning routine: the hot shower, bacon and eggs, coffee—and then out into the farm, letting out the birds before standing a few long moments in the barn trying to spur his mind into a list of the day’s needed activities. He gathered the necessary tools, lining out an order of operations as his mind finally opened and settled into the farm’s routine.
The morning started out cool and gray but it was not long before the sun broke through and the sky began to burn off into a brilliant blue, the field lit and warmed by sunlight and the plants stirring into a blooming life. It cheered him, though not enough to bring him out of his half-haunted mood. Memories of the day before gnawed at him and as he worked (hilling the potatoes, the sharp cut of the hoe into the ground a satisfaction) he could not help but turn the oddities over in his mind again and again. He saw the pond and its darkness; he saw the featureless figure standing solitary in the field; he heard the soft rustlings within an empty room. He could not piece any of it together into coherency and its mystery settled into a deep unease. The world had come round bad enough for him of late; he did not need dark impossibilities making it worse.
As usual, though, his work in the soil calmed him. The plant and debris; the musky scent of dirt; the blackening of his hands; the cautious ache of his muscles—it all coalesced into a kind of relief. The mystery of the world was somehow lost in it, giving way to an agreement between him and the farm’s ecology, a process that he did not control but whose rhythm he knew how to work within. It structured his understanding of the world and in that knowledge and familiarity he could move forward into the next minute and the next, on to the next hour and the next, and eventually into the days and months to come, the life spiraling promised out before him but lost of its greatest anchor, of the other force who had once structured his life in tandem with the farm. In Jenny’s absence he wanted only stability, not upheaval.
But the world would not offer him that. It was near lunchtime—late in the afternoon, nearly three, as his lunches had grown later in the wandering absenteeism grief brought upon his mind—that he stopped his work in the main field, rising from his haunches to let the easy, warm breeze of the afternoon slip over and around him. It came down the hill, from the edge of the forest, and a hint of musk in it—of rot and decay, of return to the earth—wormed into his attention. It felt familiar but he could not place it, and some element of the scent brought a chill to him. He put his attention to the line of trees up and at the edge of the pasture and there saw the familiar black flat from two days prior, the muted twisting of shaded gray upon it. It hung just beneath the trees, obscuring the inner forest floor, but filtered also into the branches and leaves, hanging around them as though a dark fog. And then, as he watched, the blackness burst out of the forest, beyond the line of trees, and they were swallowed within its darkness as it cascaded down the hillside toward him.
It came as a monolith, as a horror. It was a complete blackness, sturdy and thick, swallowing the world as it approached. Within it—or on it? on its depthless face?—writhed the flashing, twisting shadows, somehow lighter than the substance they rode, not quite gray but rather a black that seemed incomplete on the face of the lightless, infinite wall on which they moved. He saw them twist into shapes, into figures, and then crumble and reform into new ones, a dancing echo of indeterminate beings. In that attempt at comprehension he hesitated, a few seconds at most, and in that brief moment the black came almost upon him, a heavy wave bearing down. His balance dropped out from beneath him and a plummeting fear took him as he turned, thoughtless, in hopes of escape—and felt a coldness slam into and around him, wash over him like water, and drown the world in an infinite darkness, in an ever expanding nothing that plunged him into oblivion.
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