Complete Story – 1900 Words
There once was a forbidden quarry where the old divers did not go. Even Old Dan, who had swum along the gunwales of the lost Thomas Hume and to whom sharks came when they needed hooks pulled from their lips, would not dive there. But Jack was young, and mermaid’s tales did not scare him. And so it was that one warm night when the moon lulled fat and round, Jack loaded his truck and drove the long gravel road to the quarry.
The track was rutted by rain and Jack bounced happily along as he sang country songs to himself in a fine voice that would have made any troubadour proud. Gravel crunched beneath the tires as they slowed to a stop. He hopped down from the truck and strode onto a large stone that jutted out over the flooded pit. The night was clear, and the moon shed a ghostly light that shimmered on the glassy, black water broken only by the reeds and lily pads that grew in the shallows. From these havens, frogs crooned their own backwater hymns in exaltation of the old gods.
Jack nodded in satisfaction. A dive in the day might have been easier but even Old Dan would take notice if he dove the quarry in the dead of night when the moon was full, and the fey water spirits had full sway. He sauntered back to the truck bed and let down the gate. Much was already assembled, and he carried two steel cylinders of pressurized air, fully rigged down to the water’s edge where he laid them gently in the mud.
He did not fear the quarry but that did not mean he was without caution. Old Dan’s voice would not drop to a whisper when he told the old tales if there was no risk in this venerable place. This Jack knew and, being no fool, he had decided to dive in the sidemount configuration where he would carry his cylinders at his sides. In doing so, he would be warded against failures and could outmaneuver snags. He was surely much too clever of a man for whatever ghosts swam these waters.
After only a few short minutes, Jack had donned his wetsuit and kitted himself for the trials ahead. His first steps carrying the heavy steel cylinders sunk firmly into the soft mud but, as he made his way to deeper water, the weight fell away. And he floated in effortless ripples along the glassy sheen. He finned out to deeper water and wrapped his lips around the mouthpiece of his regulator listening to the soothing rattle of his own breath through the device.
A cold wind blew in with a mournful howl that silenced the frogs and thrashed the reeds. Small waves grew from ripples and then abated only to form again from the next gust. The wind came in buffeting rushes as if blown from great unseen lips and all the world stood still to heed its words. All the world but Jack. If Jack had listened, he might have heard its warning, but he did not. Instead, he lifted a corrugated hose from his chest, held it high above his left shoulder, and pressed a button to allow the air from a bladder on his back to hiss free from the hose’s port. He slipped into silence, beyond the counsel of the wind.
The black water rose and swallowed Jack. As he fell, his heart rate slowed, and his breathing relaxed to the fringe of lethargy. Just as automatically, he pinched his nose through the mask and equalized his ears while his left thumb tapped out what might have been morse code on a second button on the corrugated hose. His descent slowed and then stopped. He hovered, comfortably supine and weightless as a feather on a satin pillow.
A diffuse glow lit up the water around him as his light bent and scattered among a thousand million particles suspended in the still water. He swam ahead following the gentle slope of the quarry road as it wound its way deeper and deeper into unknown fathoms. The saucer like eyes of blue gill flashed in the gloom. The proud fish huddled closer to their circular nests, unnaturally cowed as he drifted past leaving only bubbles behind.
The rasp of his regulator was a roar as he spiraled deeper into the otherwise silent night. Day glow green numbers counted up on his wrist computer as the water column amassed overhead. Twenty. Thirty. Forty feet. Branches and roots festooned with algae beards crept in from the gloaming. Their fingers snatched at him, grasped his hoses and tugged him to a tangled embrace. Jack slowed his kicks and did not struggle. His fingers crawled along his body until he found the places where the tree hands held him. He took their hands in his and soothed them. The oaken fingers unfurled, and he slipped away.
At eighty feet the road leveled and eventually led to a trailer with dark, dead eyes. As his gloved fingers touched the knob, a distant shimmering melody flowed like a current through his head. The song was rapture and a sleepy giddiness slid pleasantly through him. His ears grasped at it trying to pull its full fleeting magic within, but it was a slippery fish. The tighter he gripped the faster is shot from his hold. The music drifted away, and the euphoria faded with it. Clear headed again, Jack’s heart beat a shade faster. Rapture was a dangerous thing in the deep.
The trailer was a time capsule. Desk, filing cabinets, and chairs all sat frozen in the moment of their death as though their masters had only stepped outside for a cigarette. Even the girly calendar on the wall still held true with Miss July holding her American flag in place lest the current leave her bare. A name plate of tarnished bronze rested tantalizingly upon the desk near a sodden computer monitor. It would make such a fine souvenir, irrefutable evidence of his triumph, but Jack fought down the urge to pilfer. Nearly every old timer had a souvenir or two and they were all cursed. Old Dan’s were why he could not dive war wrecks and why dolphins no longer heeded his call. Jack would not fall into such traps. Instead, he tugged a small camera free from a pocket and in the eerie, diffuse light of his torch, he filmed the stagnant details of the interior.
When he was finished, Jack swam to the doorway. Outside, a shadow glided along the black. His heart hammered. The melody returned. It was louder this time, much closer at hand and yet still unseen in the midnight waters. Jack’s eyes grew leaden, and a profound weariness crashed over him. Maybe he would rest his eyes. Just for a moment.
No, there could be no rest but the eternal here. This was only the rapture and he resolved he would not be bested by it. He blinked away the heaviness and finned out of the trailer. He glanced at the computer on his wrist. There were only a few short minutes left. Jack began a slow swim towards the surface. Bubbles brushed past his cheeks and he let them race ahead. His climb would only grow more dangerous with speed.
The shadow appeared in the water beneath him, swimming a liquid spiral closer and closer to his fin tips. Jack’s heart beat faster until its pounding formed a duet with the roar of his breathing. Still, he did not hasten. The shadow grew closer. Soon, it was no longer a smudge of black against the darkness but resolved itself into the silhouette of a tankless diver. Jack swallowed hard and checked his depth. Fifty feet to the surface.
He glanced below as the shadow emerged from the edge of the light. A face formed, a female face without mask or regulator and with hair of streaming weeds. Her eyes were the dead, luminescent saucers of bass and when she ceased her song, her mouth gaped impossibly wide to reveal rows upon rows of needle teeth. She reached for him with boney, webbed fingers with algae between the scales.
Jack screamed into his regulator causing a blast of bubbles to pour over his mask. He lashed hard with his fins knocking away her outstretched claw. The surface was growing near now. He could just make out the watery orb of the moon when a shriek ripped through the deep. The rusalka’s hair fanned out from her head like a mighty fin and then snapped upward gripping his ankle with the strength of hawsers. He was pulled down five feet before he could blink.
The water roiled as Jack struggled and kicked against the creature’s pull. The hair was strong and rusalka was stronger still. Every second the moon dimmed as more and more water piled above. The pressure in his ears grew faster than he could clear them. The pain howled as his eardrums bowed like bursting levies. Jack crotched down, fingers hunting the knife he kept strapped to his leg. He tugged it free, and it gleamed like Excalibur in the bouncing torch beam. He grabbed a fist full of hair and sawed until at last he was free.
As he swam upward, the rusalka dipped out of sight for only a moment and then in a fury, mouth wide enough to swallow his arm, it shot toward him with a howl. It moved with such tremendous speed and he knew the knife was no match for the maelstrom of teeth and claws. Jack fumbled with the clasps that held his left cylinder and, just as the fishy nails scratched his fin, it fell from him like a meteor. The steel cylinder struck the rusalka hard in the face knocking free a cluster of long, thin teeth. As the cylinder plummeted, Jack’s ascent picked up speed until there was nothing he could do to slow himself. He exhaled with all his might, squeezing his ribs painfully against his lungs to keep the slackening pressure from popping them like party balloons.
Jack broke the surface with a speed that carried his chest and shoulders out of the water. He gulped air through the regulator, swimming hard and fast towards the shore. Stumbling through the reeds, he threw his remaining cylinder to the side and collapsed on his back in the soft mud, dive knife still clutched in his fist. Not a creature stirred but all the world listened to his panting.
As his breathing calmed, the frogs resumed crooning and the moon once again polished the black glass water. Jack laid there under the midnight sky listening to their hymn. He thought of the songs that would be sung of him upon his return of his daring escape and of his ultimate triumph. A melancholy settled in his heart at that. When he returned and the story was told, he would no longer be Jack but newly christened as Old Jack. And he too would whisper if he spoke of the forbidden quarry.
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