The Face of the Deep

“The Face of the Deep” is an original story, written specifically for publication on this site. It is available two ways: in full, just below, and for purchase at Payhip as a well-formatted, downloadable PDF file. It was originally published in three installments on this site’s blog.

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Story


The Face of the Deep

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.

Two months.

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.

—§—

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.

—§—

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.

THE END


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