A long time ago, I used to scuba dive with my college buddies. It was my passion. It made me feel like an intrepid explorer, charting the unknown and discovering the unseen.
That was way before my daughter. Way before my ex-wife, too. Like so many things, I gave it up when the drive to start a family kicked in. After Penny was born, scuba was just a frivolity I had no right to focus on. And that was that.
Twelve years later, after the divorce, I started looking at the world like I had before it all went south. I could resume the activities and hobbies I’d abandoned. Scuba diving was at the top of the list.
Once everything was finalized, I bought a house two states away from the one I’d shared with my wife and daughter. It was nothing special. It wasn’t the house I cared about when I closed the deal on the property. It was what sat behind it: a lake.
The lake behind the house is huge; not exactly Loch Ness, but nonetheless impressive. When I told the realtor I was into diving, she told me if I looked hard enough, I’d probably find some old Indian artifacts. That was all well and good. I just wanted to be underwater again. I felt like it might bring me some peace after such an acrimonious split with my former soulmate.
The first time I went out, I was dismayed by the amount of silt impeding my vision. It was like I’d been trapped in a brown fog. I got discouraged and quit after only fifteen minutes, but I resolved to give it another try.
I was glad I persevered. The next dive was beautiful. I guess the heavy rain from the night before the initial dive had been the reason for all the silt, but it had since settled. The water was crystal clear and I could see for what felt like miles all around me.
I swam around and explored. The lake was exceedingly deep. When I bought the place, I asked the realtor if she knew how far down it went. She estimated it was 900 feet. I didn’t believe her until I saw it firsthand.
The steep drop-off after the first twenty feet reminded me of a video I saw of divers leaping off the edge of a continental shelf. The drop was staggering; I knew my equipment couldn’t handle the full depth of the lake, but I’d be god damned if I wouldn’t try to see as much of it as possible.
That was how I spent my summer. I’d work from home, like normal, until the market closed at four. As soon as the closing bell rang, I was out the door and into the water.
I’d been keeping track of the areas I’d explored on a rudimentary map I’d drawn up on my computer. On that fateful Wednesday in late June, the only area I’d yet to explore in the grid zone nearest the pier was the wall of the drop-off itself. To be honest, I’d been avoiding it.
This may sound a little weird coming from a man in his late 40s, but I’d held off on exploring that section because of dreams I had after my first dive.
In the dream, I am underwater. It’s not an unusual setting for one of my dreams. Normally, the sensation is freeing. I float and bob in the currents and enjoy weightless bliss. I should tell you this is not my normal dream.
This dream begins with me standing on the edge of my pier. The sky is black but everything else is bright enough for me to see without any problem. I look down to where I’d normally see water. The lake is empty; or, at least, it appears that way. Something causes me to lose my balance and I tumble off the pier. I scream, expecting to crash on the rocks below. Instead, I float. The water is invisible.
I bob on the surface for a moment, but then something unseeable wraps around my leg. I gasp in a lungful of air and am torn below the surface. I fight against whatever the force is, but it’s hopeless. I get carried down.
To my eyes, it looks like I’m floating through the air. I still feel water against my skin, though. I know I have to continue holding my breath. And hold it I do. Helpless to return to the surface, part of my mind says to just wait until I can wake up gasping.
My body is sucked down, over the edge of the shelf. A sheer wall of granite towers in front of me. After about fifty feet, the pulling stops. I float, motionless, in front of a massive hole in the rock.
In the perfect clearness of the water, I can see the hole is a cave. It goes far into the rock – farther than I can see. I notice multiple tunnels in the sides and know those, too, branch. A feeling of dread enshrouds me. My lungs burn. I feel the pressure of a hundred feet of water on top of me, squeezing my skull and threatening to perforate my ears. God, my ears hurt so badly.
“Wake up,” I whisper to myself in the dream. “Open your eyes.”
A voice bursts from the mouth of the cave with a colossal surge of water pressure. The air explodes from my chest and my eyes bulge. I gasp. Invisible water fills my lungs.
“SEE ME LIKE I SEE YOU.”
My eyes open to the morning light flooding my bedroom.
I’ve had the same dream three times since I started diving in the lake. It’s stuck with me. I hated how it tainted my subsequent dives and caused me to dread exploring that one unseen zone. That would have to end. I’d see for myself it was all just residual stress from the divorce impeding on the one thing I love. How typical.
That Wednesday, I stood on the edge of the pier like I had in my dream. The water was not invisible. It was gray and calm and sloshed lazily against the pier’s wooden supports. The sky was cloudy. It looked like it might rain. I’ve always enjoyed diving in the rain. Something about the water in the sky meeting the water of a sea or ocean or lake gave me a feeling of connectedness, as if I could swim all the way to the clouds if the rain were heavy enough.
I checked the readout on my tank. It was full. I was planning on doing a two-tank exploration before retiring to the lonely house and drinking my night away.
Into the lake I went. A few feet below the surface, the visibility was low. Silt. I was instantly disappointed.
It wasn’t as bad as it had been that first time. I could still see maybe twenty feet in front of me. But it wasn’t what I’d hoped. Part of me wished for the invisible clarity of the water in the dream. This was anything but. It made the prickles of dread I’d tried to ignore force themselves into my consciousness.
I swam toward the edge of the underwater cliff. It was easy to locate. A stygian abyss loomed ahead. I floated to the edge, crossed myself, and lept off.
The silt cleared quickly once I was on the other side of the muddy drop. I descended slowly, my hand never leaving the sheer wall of rock at my side.
I checked the depth gauge. Forty feet. Fifty. At sixty-five, a fissure developed in the granite wall. It widened as I sank further. I did my best to avoid connecting it to the memory of the cave in my dreams.
Eighty-five feet down, the fissure was a chasm. Glancing lower, I saw it widened more. Everything in me said to start kicking my feet and swim back to the surface and forget about this part of the lake. I had miles upon miles of lake I could be exploring. There was no need to see this particular spot.
My body overrode the protestations of my mind. At ninety-six feet down, the mouth of a cave yawned before me.
There was nothing I could do but stare with disbelief at the gaping hole in the rock. I had no reason to know of its existence. Dreams aren’t prescience. They don’t convey new information. I had never been here before. “Never physically,” my mind reminded me.
I was helpless to ignore the message in that little reminder. No, I’d never been there physically. But I had been mentally. Somehow.
“Just go in,” I thought. “See what it’s all about.”
The hatred I felt for myself for betraying my better intentions was profound. And I knew I’d obey that betrayal. Curiosity always won out with me. I aimed my body at the center of the cave and kicked. I switched on my headlamp. The ghostly beam illuminated the dim, lifeless walls.
A hundred feet in, I thought back to all the warnings I’d heard from diving instructors. “Never explore an underwater cave on your own,” they’d say. “You WILL die.” They emphasized “will” as if it were a foregone conclusion. Like the first person to discover a cave always died. Like it was the law.
Two hundred feet in, I would have sworn the water was brighter.
Three hundred feet in, I realized it really was brighter.
Maybe “brighter” isn’t the right word. “Clearer,” maybe. “Becoming invisible,” my mind interjected.
Four hundred feet in, I couldn’t deny it. The water was invisible.
I looked back at the mouth of the cave. Its enormity was far less pronounced from that distance. I checked my air. I had a half hour left. If I left in ten minutes, I’d have to swim for twenty straight minutes. I’d be cutting it close. Maybe too close. I needed to leave right away.
“Don’t go yet. Just a little deeper.”
More betrayal. My flippers pushed me ahead. The walls of the granite were pockmarked here. It appeared as if each hole was a separate branch, disappearing deeper into the cave. I imagined myself getting stuck in the narrow walls, struggling and screaming until my air bled away and I’d drown, never to be found.
Five hundred feet into the porous confines of the cave, an expanse opened before me. I’d reached the top of a colossal chamber. Thanks to the invisibility of the water, even though it was dark, my light shone hundreds of feet down. It never reached the bottom.
“Maybe it’s time to turn around,” my mind suggested. It was the first hint of sense it had made since I leapt from the pier.
I obeyed. I began to turn. Then something in the water changed. I felt the pressure shift, as if something had pushed an enormous amount of water out of the way. I turned back toward the chamber.
“SEE ME LIKE I SEE YOU.”
Before I even saw what had made the sound, I screamed around my mouthpiece. The voice was so loud. It was a sound unlike anything I’d experienced. “Except for the dream,” my mind reminded me.
Except for the dream.
My headlamp illuminated a creature of massive bulk and impossible proportions.
Paralyzed with primal, palpable horror, I tried to train my eyes on it. It shimmered and shifted, moving with erratic and stuttering jerks, but, at the same time, remaining in place like the infinite presence the universe itself.
My head spun. The creature was the embodiment of expansion and collapse. Boulder-sized clusters of eyes would open, bulging outward and popping out of existence like soap bubbles. Mouths gaped and inverted in the same instance, pinching into geometries that caused pain to erupt behind my eyes when I tried focusing on them.
“SEE ME LIKE I SEE YOU.”
I reflexively checked how much air I had. Three minutes. My panic had exhausted all my remaining oxygen. I was dead.
“SEE ME LIKE I SEE YOU.”
The water pressure shifted again with a hideous jolt. I felt my sinuses and bladder and bowels contract and release. A coiled spiral of matter shot from the center of a fleshy bubble between a honeycombed mass of eyes. It tore through the water in my direction, and before I could move, it had split into multiple, thinner coils and penetrated my nostrils and eyes through my facemask.
I howled with agony. Everything went black. I felt the coils corkscrewing behind my eyes and packing my sinuses. I screamed again. My mouthpiece fell out. I scrambled in the darkness for it as my lungs burned. I located it and plunged it back in. I took a deep breath. Nothing came out. This was the end. My end.
“SEE ME LIKE I SEE YOU.”
The blackness evaporated. I gasped, expecting water to fill my lungs. No water. Air.
I looked around. I floated in the chamber. The water was still invisible. Now, though, the darkness was gone. Everything was bright. My panic, still near its peak, had again taken the backseat to fascination and curiosity. I could see the creature in front of me without experiencing pain or disorientation.
I had underestimated its enormity. What I had seen before was only its topmost portion; below, previously hidden by the darkness, was a thick, tube-shaped body reaching a thousand feet down to the cavern floor. At its base were webbed appendages like veined leaves or fleshy wings.
I tried to blink. My eyelids fluttered uselessly against the coils piercing my eyes. I felt them turning, drilling deeper and deeper into my head. Same with those in my nose – they coiled throughout my sinuses and chest. I assumed they were why I was able to breathe.
“SEE ME LIKE I SEE YOU.”
Impelled, I gazed at the creature. Its angles were foreign to me. It was as if it occupied physical dimensions I’d never before encountered; dimensions my brain wasn’t wired to process.
“SEE ME LIKE I SEE YOU.”
The coils in my eyes widened. I felt my pupils stretch.
The world dropped out beneath me. I stared at the creature against the backdrop of dense stars and glowing nebulae. Violet light illuminated us. It was even larger in this new setting – its bulk stretching beyond my line of sight.
“SEE WITH ME.”
I observed the cosmos stretching before me. In the distance, I saw a planet with a yellow atmosphere.
Before I could register the words, the view had changed. We hovered under a yellow sky. Geysers of mercury erupted below and showered us in a constellation of liquid metal.
Light beyond light bathed my vision. It was a star. Before my coiled eyes, it burst in a supernova. Hard radiation that would have vaporized me a billion times over struck my body like a gentle caress. I began to weep.
“Please. I want more.”
I could tell by the change in pressure we were back in the cavern. The water was black and impenetrable. I could not see the beast looming ahead of me, although I could still feel its coils.
“What happened there? What are you? I want to go back. Please, I want to explore. God, I want to see it all.”
“TWO FOR ONE.”
“What is two for one?”
“TWO OF YOU TO INCORPORATE INTO ME. THEN YOU MAY TRAVEL.”
“Two of me?”
A light burst from the direction of the creature. The coils pulled me toward it. Its flesh split and I peered inside. It was filled with bones and carapaces and chitinous matter I couldn’t recognize. They looked like parts from entirely disparate beings, all knit together by slabs of muscle and tendons to form the interior of the colossus before me.
“TWO FOR ONE.”
A dull sense of realization bloomed within me.
“If I give you two people, you will show me how to explore like you do?”
“YES. TWO FOR ONE.”
“Okay,” I whispered. “Two for one.”
I felt the coils straighten as I was moved backward though the cave. I reached the mouth and swam upward, assisted by the gentle water currents. At the surface, I felt the coils retract from my eyes and sinuses. There was no pain. Only a sense of emptiness.
I pulled myself to the shore and looked around. It was almost dark. I walked to the house and let myself in. I was exhausted.
Ignoring the confusion and hunger I felt, I hauled myself into bed and slept. My dreams were of the stars.
The next morning, I called Meg. I told her I wanted to reconcile. I said I wanted her and Penny and me to be a family again.
It’s been eight months. Meg and Penny moved into the lake house with me after Christmas. From all outward appearances, we’re a lucky family who triumphed over divorce and despair. Sometimes, I even believe it.
Every night, though, I’m granted visions of the sights I’ll see. The planets. The galaxies. I’m teased by glimpses of what lies outside the curvature of the universe – and everything beyond that, as well.
Penny and Meg had their first scuba lessons on our trip to Jamaica in January. They loved it. Once the water warms up in the lake behind the house, I’ll give them more lessons. We’ll go deeper and deeper every time. I know they’ll be amazed when they see the cave. As for what waits inside it, they’ll learn, too, what I did.
The difference is, I’ll get to leave that cave while they’ll become a very special part of it. What part, I can’t say. But I’ll be long gone by then. I’ll be exploring the stars. All I have to do is fulfill my part of the bargain: two for one. And I’m well on my way to doing just that.