“The Face of the Deep” is an original story, written specifically for publication on this site, available nowhere else except for purchase at Payhip and on this blog. 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 here on this website, for free, as I have now fully published the story with the below third and final installment. The first part can be found here, the second part can be found here, and the third and final part is below. All three are linked on the Stories page.
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The Face of the Deep: Part Three
by Joel Caris
(Read Part One here and Part Two here.)
He awoke in dirt and darkness. Stirring, the soil shifting underneath, he pushed himself up, pulling his legs in beneath him. Brassicas stood sentinel around him: broccoli, kale, cabbage. He brushed against the broad leaves of a cauliflower as he rose and its rustle was muted, hushed. The sky spread vast and blank above him, cloudless but devoid of stars or moon. The world hovered somewhere between twilight and darkness, a deep purple hue, and in the distance was a soft glow at the edge of every horizon, as though the land was far off ringed by fire.
The farm spread around him, familiar yet alien. The colors were wrong, cast strange by the disturbed lighting. Greens had turned purple and blue and the soil was near black. The brown of wood now appeared rusty, like dried blood. He moved down a row of crops, brushing along the edge of the plants, and came out in the dry grass in need of a mowing—one more task he had not yet gotten to. It rustled against him but that sound too was muted in the deep quiet of the world. It all felt as though he and the farm were underwater, yet he breathed the cool air easily.
A chill swept through him. It came partly from the deep strangeness that had taken over the world but also from the cold of it, the air’s temperature having plummeted with loss of the sun. Standing very still, he swept his gaze back and forth across the farm, the plants around him, and began to pick out the oddities of the miscast world. The plants had transitioned to a nighttime state, flowers closed to the darkness and leaves tightened in toward their core. Off to his right a pair of ducks slept in the tall grass, their heads turned backward and beaks nestled in their feathers. From the wooden coop not far away, the door standing open, he heard the soft rustle and murmured clucking of roosting chickens. The farm had bedded itself down.
Yet it was not night. He knew this, somehow, despite the lack of sun, despite having no way to tell time. He could somehow feel the sun echoing from elsewhere, from above, hidden but not absent, and he again looked at the sweeping glow that ran the full circumference of the horizon and knew that it was no fire but the sun’s own—that it was the light of day kept at bay by some inexplicable, blanketing darkness brought forth out of mystery.
The unease of this strange world settled deep into him as a growing terror. He remembered the wall of blackness bearing down on him, sweeping over him, and knew that this bizarre reality was its settling. What he could not know was how long it would last: if it would eventually ebb and flow out from the valley or remain permanently, some impossible new existence that would slowly suffocate the farm and him under a dearth of light and warmth, all the life he had worked to grow and nurture on these few acres starved of the energy needed to survive. The thought of a permanent darkness taking upon his home panicked him while the impossibility of what had occurred angered him. What right had the world to bring this on him, especially after all he had suffered?
He made for the house. A deep foreboding grew in him as he passed the barn, the compost bins, and came near the kitchen entrance and the front gardens off to his left. The purple cast of light and altered colors disturbed him; his home had become something foreign and it felt a betrayal, an affront from on high. Some vague memory came to him: a beast towering in the air, a god spiraling into an infinite sky. He could not place it, but he shuddered at the memory, at the idea that some cruel deity had brought this down on him for unknown reasons.
Something caught at the edge of his vision and he turned with tight breath toward the front gardens. Nothing there; and yet he had thought he saw a shadow, some movement. For a long moment he stared, but nothing emerged.
The house was very dark, the kitchen a clutter of vague outlines. He was dismayed to find that the altered hues came even indoors, casting the farmhouse’s pale yellow walls into a sickly green-brown. He ran his hand along the kitchen counters, his steps falling strangely loud on the wooden floor, especially given the otherwise muted soundscape. And then from upstairs, whispered, came the creak of a bed, the shifting of weight—a presence.
Their bedroom, above the kitchen.
It was then that his terror morphed into something different, something more elemental. It dissolved, fell away; in its place rose a resignation, an understanding that everything that would happen next was fated. He angled toward the entryway into the living room, for the stairs beyond. He had no options—the darkness had brought him here, to this moment—it demanded an acquiescence. He could see all the ways that up to that moment his life had been a series of decisions, of successes, of mistakes, of revelations and failures, of all those small acts of being human; and now he moved along a track, his life built to this moment that he no longer had the opportunity to avoid or even embrace. He could only move into it and discover what life, or what else, lay beyond.
He climbed the stairs a heavy step at a time, the wood creaking beneath him. The sound of it came as an affront in the quiet of the new world, and yet he continued on, drawn toward the bedroom he had shared with Jenny, the place where they had slept together, where they had made love, where they had reached for each other; where they had spent so much of their lives.
He reached the landing; crossed to the door; put his hand on the knob. Then he paused and listened, and from the other side he heard the same soft rustlings from the night before, another soft creak of mattress springs. Somebody on the bed, twisted in the sheets, perfectly solid. A real body, moving.
It could be nothing else. He could do nothing else. He saw it all unfolding: the door opening, the presence within, the denouement. He did not understand what any of it was or why it had come to him; why the world had gone so mad or why—how—Jenny would haunt him like this; and yet he knew what came next. He turned the knob and pushed the door open and he stepped inside the bedroom. He did not look up.
He saw the hardwood floor—dark, stained, discolored in purple twilight. He saw the edge of the bed and a messy sheet hanging down, once white but now pigmented dark blue by the altered light. Of course; he had made the bed before closing off the room, but of course the sheet hung down crumpled and disarrayed; of course. And on the bed, he could feel it: a heavy presence, the press of another mind, a radiance. He heard her soft breath, shallow, and an odd scent hung in the air. Fresh compost, he thought. A perfect decomposition—clean, fresh, well made.
He would not look up. He told himself this and in the wild fog of the moment, his mind made murky by the impossibility of all that was about to happen, the room faded into a blur and his senses ceased to work right. The smell of compost faded and a gray mist slipped over his vision and even the sounds of her breathing filtered out into a soft buzzing nothing—and then he sat. He settled himself onto the floor and crawled over to the edge of the bed, his vision swimming back into a focus on that edge of sheet and avoiding with urgency the rest of the bed. He touched the firm side of the mattress to anchor himself as he turned and placed his back against the bed and pulled his knees up against his chest, slipping his arms around them as though a little boy comforting himself, and pushing back against tears.
There in that room, in those memories, his senses came back sharp and he heard her breath, sensed her perched above him on the bed, and felt the edge of the mattress shift as she moved her weight and settled in just above and behind him, looming. He stared terrified at the far wall, blank but for a small painting done by Becca, given as a gift to Jenny two years prior. It was the crest of a hillside, treed, cast at an odd angle with the sky spiraling up and away, riven by dark clouds and the trees bent by wind. The angle of the scene was askew, as though the viewer had been knocked scattered to the ground and looked up at the scene wildly. In the foreground, at the corner of the painting, half a great bird spread wide its wings as though to take flight, to let itself be swept up by the incoming storm. There was a darkness and power in it that he sometimes disliked as a presence within the room but Jenny had treasured it, told him that looking at it reminded her what it was like to be alive on an inexplicable planet.
Staring at it now, the painting’s chaos wrapped itself around him. The bed again creaked and cool hands settled on the top of his head, fingers wrapping themselves in his hair, pressing in on his scalp. Her touch was strong, almost aggressive, and he stared intent at the painting to try to push back his fear, imagining now that he could see the trees tossed in the wind, whipping back and forth in the fury of the storm. A hot, heavy breath settled on him, sour, as she leaned down to put her lips against the top of his head, a hungry kiss that he shut his eyes against and—
the world opened out into a growing infinitude, into a nothing of expansive darkness that somehow contained all colors—suddenly clear, light—the hot breath gone, no longer sour, and the air clean and cool, fresh—and he could feel pressed against the top of his head her lips, soft, gentle, just a small press that he knew, had known for so long—
and he lay with her in bed, one morning full of sun and warmth with the two bedroom windows open and the cool air slipping in clean and refreshed and sliding over the both of them, entangled in each other and he kissing her forehead, smelling her hair and her running a hand up over his chest and in that morning a perfect ease, a satisfaction as deep as he had ever known and the belief that while it would not last it could come again—and how many times would he yet get it? incredible to think how many yet to come—and in those moments again and again stretching over the years and the decades this life would become as much as he could ever want, complete in a way he had never dared to believe it could—
and that darkness inside him now, and him falling, thinking of all the perfect moments ripped away from him, all the mornings when now he woke confused and alone, in a room unfamiliar and haunted by what it should instead—
then the lightning flashing across the painting, the trees near breaking in the wind, and the rain a sudden torrent as a blackness poured out of the forest and down the hillside and out of the painting into the room, washing over the floor and over him, suffocating, and waves crashing up over the bed, eddying around her, around the now warm flesh behind him and—
dirt rained down on him. It fell in his hair, cascaded down around his face and into his lap, sifting through his fingers and stinging his eyes and settling in small ridges along his arms. The soil tumbled down his nose, along his cheeks. He blinked it away, took a gasping breath. The smell of clean soil, of a perfect humus, washed over him. It was the best way he had ever understood life, that smell. It was the beginning; the prelude to birth, to growth. He looked down at himself, at the dirt all upon him, and tried to imagine just how many living creatures writhed within it, just how much life had fallen on him.
She was gone. Or transformed. No one waited behind him on the bed, nor anywhere else in the room or the house. Not, he suspected, on the farm or in the gardens, anywhere on the land. She was gone, somewhere else now, except for the dirt. It had come from—it had been her; he felt it spreading, this understanding. She had fallen into dirt, had given herself to him.
He stood. Soil drifted down from him, sliding over skin and sifting out of hair, dusting the floor beneath him and darkening the sheets. He tasted it on his lips. He coughed, and the smallest of its grains found their way into the air.
He asked what to do and thought he heard an answer.
He descended the stairs in darkness and silence, dirt falling from him. Each step jarred him, as though he could not control his weight or gravity. He gripped the railing and moved slow. All that had happened in the room swirled around him, impossibilities piled on impossibilities, and he struggled to square somehow the world that had come into being the past two days with the one he had known before. But his mind could not make sense of it, could not accomplish the task, and instead it lurched toward something else: a memory, something faint and scratching. It was of Jenny, of some time they had been together at the edge of the pond. He could almost make it out.
And then he remembered and he paused, in the kitchen now, in the odd cast of light, and he put a steadying hand on the rough edge of the wooden counter adjacent the stove. It came back to him—that moment with her. It came back, shuddering through him.
When had it been? Some months back, when she had murmured those words to him—those words he had first tried to retrieve the day before while looking down on the pond and the vast blackness that had overtaken it. When had he forgotten this? When had he put it from his mind, set aside as a reality he did not want to make his peace with, that he refused to make a permanent part of his world?
He remembered it now, though: the both of them on some hot summer day perched on their usual log, close to each other but sitting still in their quiet. She was distracted, he could tell, her thoughts elsewhere. He wished he could know where, wished he could be there with her; and in a small retribution, he interrupted the peace of the moment with a question even he found unimportant. Why haven’t we done it? he asked her, gesturing at the water below. Why haven’t we ever gone in, just take off our clothes and get in? She looked at him, almost surprised. I have, she said, and he said You have? When? and then her look turned from surprised to guarded, hard in a way he didn’t often see from her. All the time. When I’m here alone.
But you’ve never with me, he said, and it was a wonder, and she just stared past him and said Well it’s not for you, it’s for me—it’s just for me and then the air settled thick around them, a tension that never should have been necessary. He remembered she wouldn’t look at him then, not for some long minutes, and so he looked out along the water instead and traced some skippers and noted the bugs hovering just over the pond’s surface, the way the sun shimmered in its ripples. He tried to take her hand but she slid it away, just so, and flashed him the briefest guilty look that he managed to catch as he turned in surprise. Then the moment had passed and after a bit they eased their way back into the day and did not speak of it again. But it pulled at him afterward, the sense that there was something of her that he couldn’t know—that she would keep from him, that she would guard. It stayed with him for days until at some point, he realized now, he had pushed it back into some corner of his mind, burying it as a small disappointment he no longer wanted to carry.
Now he held close the unearthed memory, standing very still in the kitchen. He turned it over in his head, taking it in from each angle and trying to bring back the fullness of that day. He remembered how they had retraced their steps along the log back toward the bank, the tension still hanging in the air, and he had stepped off wrong, onto muddy ground he had expected to be solid. The muck swallowed his shoe and he had twisted his left knee—still on the log, just enough of a twist to shoot a pain through it but not enough to hobble him—and he had snapped at her then, some pointless words he still could not remember but that had cut her. He had seen it in her face, and even now, so much time later, it shamed him.
The worst of it was how useless it all had been. Why had he cared that she held something from him, that she had made a small part of her life just for her? He had done no less, day in and day out, striking out into the farm in his own solitude, gathering to himself hours that built into days that would never be anything but his own. And now those days faced him endless, stretching out to the glowing horizon: alone and nothing but his own, impossible now to share with her even if he was willing.
Tears came to him and he allowed them, briefly, standing there alone in the kitchen but sensing something of her near. And then he held them, dried them, and listened again to a small voice that urged him on, that told him what came next.
Outside the house the strange twilight remained. The farm’s quiet was eerie. Passing through it, he wanted to yell, to call out. He glanced at the sleeping ducks as he passed and strained to hear the sounds of the chickens within the coop. Along the edge of the field he stared out at his crops. All of it brought him a kind of thankfulness, an affection.
Dirt settled deep into his scalp as he crossed the back pasture to the edge of the trees. He came to the path and entered into the forest, afraid that here the darkness would be too much, that he would not be able to see his way. But the level of light was more or less the same, the twilight encompassing. Through the trees he glimpsed the flicker of the sun’s far off fire. In the forest, nothing moved. No birds or ground squirrels rustled the undergrowth. He saw no slugs or beetles along the path. Not a sound came from within.
The journey passed as though a dream. His mind kept working at all that had happened and he thought he understood it but didn’t. He thought he could never understand it. The trees marched past him, or him past them, and always in the distance was the sun’s fire. He kept seeing Jenny’s hand slip away, heard her words echoing.
He could barely see the pond as he descended toward it, the water lost in the blanketing darkness.
At the water’s edge, near the log that he and Jenny had sat upon so many times before, that log where she had revealed a small other life to him, he shed his clothes. More dirt fell around him but still he could feel the graininess of his scalp, the way the soil there had worked itself deep into the roots of his hair. He ran a hand over his face and felt grit against his skin. He called to Jenny, he asked for her. He looked out on the pond, lit strange in the darkness, and imagined her there, unseen but naked in the water, her body long and languid, her movements small, almost nothing. He imagined her floating and waiting, somewhere deep in herself and contained. And he knew then that he had never fully known her, not quite—and that there in the water she was most herself, that she was some spark that would continue on, would burrow through the world and somehow escape it, at least for a time.
He walked into the water.
Here the darkness was complete. As he slid beneath the surface of the pond, a blackness came all-encompassing over him. In the water, he opened his eyes and could see nothing, could feel little but the water’s sharp cold against his skin and the thin sensation of his hair floating. Above him, below him, he saw nothing and already he was becoming disoriented, unaware of where the surface of the water was. After a few moments his lungs began to ache.
Then the light came. It blossomed around him, brilliant and bright, startling in its clarity. The pond stirred to life and above him, through the distortion of water, came the reflected blue of the sky. His body materialized: his hands and arms, his legs below, the sudden familiarity of naked skin—and in its sight his sensations rooted themselves in place. The sharp cold of the water placed itself against the skin of his limbs and the pond’s soft currents slipped around him in a pattern he almost could grasp. One foot brushed against the muck of the pond’s floor and slime slipped over his toes. His lungs, too, asserted themselves: told him to surface, to breathe. And as he looked upward, intent to obey, he saw her—there, in the water. She was a bloom, an aura. She encircled him, pale and brown, drifting out in an ever-widening circumference. It was soil, life, sloughing off him, venturing out into the water, and as he stared at its drift—at its slow fade and disintegration—he imagined for a moment that she was there with him, floating beside, skin against skin, and he felt the soft tangle of her fingers in his hair, and he wondered what that bright world above would unearth.
He pushed for the surface.
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