THIS PLACE is mapped on the inside of her skin. The archway, the hole that tumbles down, driven into the earth as if some great creature had dug and dug—the stone sides like the walls of a mausoleum. 30 metres down the tunnel cuts to the side and there is a second archway lifting towards the light.
Cold kills through disbelief. A person will think themselves warm and start taking off their clothes or lie down to sleep, believing they are safe. The air above is -25 degrees. The water is as inhospitable as another planet. Close to the shore it is too toxic to freeze. Sometimes it radiates a feverish heat. Sometimes she dreams she is drowning in it, warm as in bath water. There is ice further out, massed pod structures that descend like anchors but rarely show on the surface. She has swum the length of some of them. Now and then someone will catch a fish and cutting it open, find its organs reorganised, its flesh turned to rubber, its sex unclear. When the whales beached they were cut open too but she had not seen what their insides looked like and when others took their meat to eat she had known it was a mistake.
THE BOAT is an old whaling rig, tough as a boot, stained from top to bottom, with an ice breaker hull. Attached to the prow is the iron rope, heavy enough that she doesn’t need weights when she dives. The harpoon—once a rich boy gun for spearing swordfish—has been recalibrated. One summer a man had fired it at an angle and got himself through the leg, come bleeding and wailing to shore where Mona and Matius, drinking in the bar, had watched him being dragged onto the rocks. She had looked at Matius to gauge his reaction. He had a fatalist point of view; god lived in his belly and told him more than once that everything happened for a reason. Except he only waved a hand for another drink. She was pregnant then, though she didn’t know it.
BY THE TIME of the whale boat and the recalibrated gun and the fish with their insides wrong, the baby is about a year old. Time is less simple to count now. Something about the snow perhaps, or the way it’s always a little like night, or that being a year old and only having known the world this way is inconceivable. Mona remembers what the sea used to smell like. It used to smell like salt and she would go crabbing and think that one day she would have a child and would take the child crabbing too. A list. What was lost, what could never be found again. A list she would never make herself write.
The front of the boat cuts through the flint-coloured water and Mona thinks of the baby. Last week the baby had learnt the sign for bird, one hand opening and closing. The week before she had walked ten steps without help. This week she had learnt that the world continues beyond herself—that when someone is not in the room with her they still exist. The knowledge is brutal. She will cry when she finds Mona is not there and though Matius will try to comfort her, he will not be enough to make up for the knowledge that Mona is out there.
BRICK IS driving the whaling boat. Mona can just make out the shape of him behind the steering wheel. Before whatever happened happened, he was the librarian at the only library for a hundred miles. Facts like that made a person think the end of the world has come already. He was the kind of man who would have said something like that. Afterwards, no one could be what they were before and Brick soon found a new calling as the man who could find what a person was looking for. Mostly what people sought was food and water and tampons, but when Mona said they should get a boat and diving equipment he merely nodded and had both within a week. Louise who’d taught design technology at the school had taken apart the harpoon gun, made it fit for purpose. A couple of the fishermen had set up the radar on what remained of the oil rig and took turns staying up to watch it. Mona’s job is not so dissimilar from what it was before: she is to wait for the call to come and when it does she is to go out and dive.
BEFORE what happened happened, she would take the tourists to the arch and watch them swimming over or diving down towards the tunnel. In the good weather months, she would bring out fifty, more, divers a month. In the bad months, the bodies of the mad free divers—who she would not take out—floated to the surface, or were washed up further down the coast; lips eaten away by fish, fingers still counting how far they had to go. Only after it happened did they begin to ask her what she’d seen down there. Had she seen anything she shouldn’t have? Had she heard promises or prayers under the water? And she would say she never had, though later— with that awful, shaking force of hindsight— she would wonder if she had and if she should have known and warned of what was coming. But when she voiced this to Matius he only breathed out until he whistled and she understood that he thought she had a nerve to suggest she could have changed anything at all.
THE FIRST TIME anyone saw it they thought it was a whale. Those were the early days, when all manner of sea creature washed up dead or dying on the snow-covered beach and the people would go down to see what they could do, or to stand and watch. Still, the fishermen would go out with their nets and try to catch what was left. A fisherman called Henrick had been sitting all day in the cold and so the first time he told the story of what he’d seen, nobody believed him. A drinker they said (but then who wasn’t.) Only later, other people on other boats came back speaking the same, saying that they’d seen something rising up from the berg strewn lanes, seen its careless face as it came to the surface and then dropped away. A whale, a whale, it was a whale. But every time another person saw it there was less conviction in this belief. What sort of whale could be that size, could look that way? A small step to: what sort of whale could bring the cold, kill everything in the sea, make storms so high and wide and vast that Mona knew more people buried than alive.
IN HER SKIN and in her bones she already feels how the water will be: the cosmic cold of it, the nuclear waste tingle that she will taste for a week, the way that it appears lighter the further you descend. The boat slews to the side and she stumbles as Brick drops the anchor. She slings the pack onto her back, legs through the harness; tests the mask, feels the sting of oxygen on her chapped lips. Takes off her boots and pulls on flippers. Goes through the tests once and then, slower, again. The tank is near new but they’ve been having trouble filling it and she has less time than she could. The silence is bewildering. She cannot help remembering how, on clear days, you could make out other coastlines from here. Now the whole world could be cracking, moving further and further apart from itself and she would never know.
She had not left a note for Matius who was sleeping when she got the call. She, doing the checks a third and final time, thinks now what she might have written. Coffee on the stove. Back soon. I love you. Except they do not dwell in that place of platitudes, they move around one another in spheres of existence, of survival: this is what we will do to live, this is how we will make it to a spring that might never come—the spring that is so long away. She wishes she had left a note.
AND WHAT IS remembered, of course, is meeting Matius that time on the boat. The way his face had distorted through the glass mask, the way she’d looked for him beneath the water— partly because he was the least good diver and partly because she wanted to see him— and had found him, turning in the milky water, ignoring the bubbles of fish, looking for her. Afterwards, she’d taken the group to a local bar and ordered plates of salt-cooked chillies and beers stoppered with lime. How good it was to see him responding to her, circling to get nearer, moving ever closer—pressing his thumb down hard onto the scar below her collar bone. The sort of evening when she already felt what he would be like when they had sex, saw so carefully and in great detail what would happen, how it would go. And how, lying on the floor beside the bed afterwards, he would scrape the hair out of his face and tell her that he believed everything happened for a reason and that to try to change anything was a great mistake. And at the time he meant, of course, that they should see one another as often as possible, move in together, have a child. Now, those words come back to her as she sits on the back of the boat—watching Brick break the ice—and she understands that he meant he would never be where she was then, that he believed she should not do what she was doing. I have never even for a moment believed in god, she told him once and watched disappointment lift the corners of his lips.
Brick’s mouth is moving and—without hearing— she understands and tips backwards into the sea.
LOOKING UP she can see the fissure where she came in, the ice thick around it, the shadow of the boat thrown down from above, the rope trailing behind. Throughout the water there are the pillars of ice. She stops to let her body adjust, resting the harpoon against her hip. Too fast and the pressure would bring trauma, a busted eardrum or a vacuum in a lung. Too slowly and she would be out of oxygen, or frozen, before she’d seen anything. There is always the possibility —and she needs to remember this— that she will see nothing, that there is nothing to see. She can already feel the cold working, slowing her responses, gritting around her. Below, she can see the archway and, beneath, the tunnel, the slant of light as it curves away and rises back up. More than one diver had grown confused; seen the light, thought they were heading up as they swam down. In the bar they used to call the place the white hole, the trick dive, the final way. Of course, she thinks, twisting her body to face it, the creature had come up from here—had been borne of here. She is glad for the rope for she can use it to find her way back up.
AT 30 FEET she starts searching in earnest. The pressure holding the mask against her face is enormous. She controls her breathing, gives herself more time. It is a disability that she has not previously seen it. Those early days of sightings, she’d been out on the boats often, hanging into the frozen wind, looking and looking until every iceberg could have been a creature come to the surface. One day a man, leaning out from the rigging, had fallen into the water. They’d pulled him out dead. Another day she’d felt— hands cupped around her eyes, seeking—a twanging all up and down her nerves, a dawning of such panicked knowing that she’d forced them to turn and, upon landing, ran for the house, certain that Matius had slipped carrying the baby, or that the baby, sleeping, had smothered itself.
There’s nothing to see, Matius had said when she got back, raging, roaring into the kitchen, clasping the child so tightly to her chest that she howled. There’s nothing wrong. And only later had she thought that maybe the twanging had not been the baby after all, had been, rather, the creature, calling to her, sensing her out. What an impossible thing to think. But, then, everything was impossible.
The walls of the tunnel are wide across, cragged, marled with weed and holes where crabs and lobsters once lived. She goes straight down, legs tipped above her head. The water is solid; it is hard going. She thinks: let me see it now. But she sees nothing besides her own hands moving like the ghosts of moths and the sides of the tunnel and the light that makes it seem as if up is down and down is up. She can feel the chill in her ribs, can feel herself losing parts of her body to it.
A MOVEMENT further down and to the side. Fumbling the harpoon up. Here it is. Here it is. Except when she reaches the spot, there is nothing. She has sunk 60 feet now and the entrance to the tunnel is to her left. She is seeing memories, fades; what might be there, what never was. She holds the tunnel’s edge and looks up at the fractured light, just visible. The boat will be there and Brick waiting in the cold, reading a paperback, timing her. And on the shore, everything left behind.
ONCE the decision is made it is a simple one. The tunnel recedes behind her. Beyond 100 feet nitrogen narcosis comes, gas changing under pressure. At that depth you have to accept you might not come back up. (At any depth you accept that.) She has watched the free divers fitting, their hallucinatory black outs—the way they come out of them looking as if they wished they hadn’t. I was happy, one said to her and she’d believed them. It is beginning to be that she cannot see the tunnel’s sides. There is a torch stuck in the back of her harness. She rights herself, holds the gun in one hand. It is heavy, unwieldy. She stretches round for the torch. It sticks. She tugs it free. The gun slips. She grabs for it. The torch spins free. She goes for the gun, watches the torch until it is out of sight. Flips her legs over her head, keeps moving. At some point, Brick may realise that time is short and start pulling her up.
The point, of course, is that a person at the end of the world is never the same as they were—they are irrevocably changed. She has begun to think that when they say they love one another they no longer mean it.
SHE DOES NOT KNOW what depth she is at but Matius is there, turning in the water, his body the way it had been that first time, his toes grown long enough to cling to rocks. The baby is there too: star-fished, tiny, chubby arms, pale eyes wide in the water. Why has she lost them here? Why has she brought them with her? There is a sound—a static like an electric burn in her hands and face. When she tries to swim her body rebels and she moves sideways instead. Down, she says and then goes on again, holding tightly to the gun.
THERE IS SOMETHING there. It is too dark to make it out but she knows it is there by the way the water feels. She can feel her memories seeping into the depths. There is the smell of ice-bergs, of the earth. The harpoon in her hand is pulled upwards by the rope—gone. She puts both hands out in front of her face. The baby is there, back inside her, a steady pressure beneath her ribs, on her bladder, an insistent second heart beat. She tries to think of what day it is, of what year, of what time it must be beyond. The years coagulate, will not organise. The man’s face is different, belongs to someone else. She is so happy that she opens her mouth to laugh and laugh. For a moment, she thinks of the heaven that the man believes in; believes in with such certainty that it must be true. Underneath the water, and from inside her, she can hear the baby scream and scream. She grasps and grapples. There is something on her face, sucking the air from her lungs, heaving the life from her. She pulls at the metal, feels her teeth disconnecting from it. There is something in front of her. It is her, or something like her. It is waiting for the spring. She is herself and believes nothing more than she ever has. She is herself and she is waiting for the spring.
Daisy Johnson's debut short story collection Fen (Vintage Penguin / Graywolf Press) is now available in paperback.
Photograph by Marc Bruxelle / Thinkstock