Sounding the Depths

The last stone clatters to a rest, and you feel a thick layer of rock dust settle across your hands and face, almost as though a light summer blanket has been draped over your exposed skin, muting the damp coolness at the bottom of the shaft. Two things stand out immediately: the silence and the darkness. As the trailing reverberations sprint into the unseen corners of the yawning expanse, they leave an oppressive silence in their wake. At the same time, a colorless glow emanates from everywhere and nowhere at once, lending the kind of omnidirectional illumination that adds a depthless quality to the darkness. If you spend too much time down here, and you’ll almost certainly go mad.

After a few hours—minutes? It’s impossible to tell down here—your eyes finally adjust to the shifting dimness and you start to feel your way around the your immediate surroundings. You quickly realize that you’re in a sort of natural antechamber at the opening to a much larger space. There are a few scattered objects lying around as if artfully arranged by an eccentric interior decorator–a 3/4-length shovel, a rusting toolbox, a spool of galvanized electric fence wire, a box of assorted old-fashioned screw-in fuses, and other miscellanea–all of which you quickly dismiss as either dangerous or useless.

Then your eye lands on the silhouette of an ancient hurricane lantern outlined in the frame of an overturned peach crate. There’s an equally antiquated striker resting against the base, and when you heft the lantern, a satisfying weight and faint slosh of liquid from within suggest a mostly full kerosene reservoir. The valve opens reluctantly, and an instant later the smell of the escaping gas punctuates the musty scent of earth and stone in the air.

Each absurdly loud report of the striker peals out with a briefly blinding spark, filling the still air with a miniature thunderstorm that causes some distant caveman part of your brain to recoil with the fear of disturbing a lurking predator, but on the fourth try the wick catches and a gentle amber glow surrounds you. Somehow, the intense light appears to die a few feet from the lantern, underscoring the blackness at the edges of your vision. At the same time, the soft hiss of kerosene overlays the impossible silence with a ubiquitous whisper.

There’s nowhere to go but out into the cavernous space, but even if you had a choice, an inexplicable compulsion to wander ahead pulls at your belt buckle, and you stride forth into the widening expanse, half unconscious of your footsteps. Before you have the chance to consider your actions–just as the thought that you’d be better off following a wall than ambling about without a clear frame of reference to guide you–you realize that you have no idea how far you’ve walked.

Turning around to face back the way you’ve come reveals nothing but a uniform scrim of shadows, and by the time you’ve turned a full 360 degrees, you’re not entirely sure you’re even facing the same way you were a moment before. A feeling of mixed agoraphobia and claustrophobia go to war on your nerves, and through the panic, the kerosene hiss takes on a thick panting quality. It’s best to keep moving at a steady pace, lest the panic get the better of you and cause you to bolt headlong into the formless depth ahead.

Another immeasurable timespan passes, the muted rubber tread of your soles acting as a poor metronome, further throwing your senses into confusion. Your breath grows heavy, mingling with the strange sighing ambience causing the intensity to swell and ebb in gentle waves. Soon the shadows appear to throb along with the sound, stopping when you stand still to check the lantern, but immediately resuming their steady pulsing when you renew stride. You have to get out of here.

You almost don’t even notice when the ground before you oozes out into blackness pierced with a V of reflected light. It takes a moment for the impression to come into focus, and when it does, you almost fall headlong into the chasm flanking you to either side of your steadily narrowing sliver of solid ground. The desperate urge to scramble back to safety is cut off abruptly by a sound so alien it threatens to dislodge your last frame of reference.

Was that your name? For a moment it sounded so clear–the familiar syllables causing the disbelief in your unreliable senses to recede–and then… nothing. A terrible quality of wrongness settles over you, tugging at your nerves, but not so urgently that you stop looking for the unseen speaker. Peering down into the pit below, a darkness so intense even the persistent ambient glow is lost within draws you down to your knees, out to the very edge of the limestone ridge that separates you from the endless void. If you could only get closer–just a few more inches–you’d know for sure. And as your trembling hand lowers the lantern down into the deepest shadows, realization washes over you. The breathing sound has stopped.


Note: I actually wrote this story to go with the illustration, which I drew for a contest in the summer of 2016.