Featured July 16, 2020 Fantasy Literary Fiction weird fiction children ocean magic realist

Deep Water

By Rebecca Campbell
Jul 10, 2020 · 2,481 words · 10 minutes


From the editor:

A scar on her ankle. Something strange about his eyes. Nothing’s been quite the same since that childhood afternoon at the lake, when something emerged from the water. If only they could remember what it was.

Rebecca Campbell writes weird fiction, often about the islands and woods on the west coast of Canada. Her work has appeared in F&SF, Clarkesworld, and Shimmer, among others, and been shortlisted for the Sunburst Award.


From the author: A brother and sister remember (or fail to remember) something strange from their childhood.


Tara had a scar on her left ankle and she couldn’t remember where it came from, though the cut must have been painful: sharp granite or barnacles, maybe a nail. Her other scars had provenance, like the barbed-wire puncture-wounds on her stomach or the stippling beside her right eye, where her face kissed the road’s gravel shoulder over the handlebars of her bike.

It was only her ankle that troubled her, a permanent ornament earned in a moment she could not remember.


***

The dormant scar opened again one Saturday afternoon in September. On that day her brother Dylan visited unexpectedly-- unusual because Dylan didn’t like the city, preferring the summer cabin he rented for the off-season. Out there, he said, it was properly dark at night. You could see the stars, and you’d hear nothing human, nothing at all.

At noon he texted one word from the sidewalk outside her building: lunch.

They walked around the park together and ate hotdogs. She wanted to ask him why he had come to see her, but they had arranged an enduring silence between them. She wasn’t sure he noticed the silence, but to her it was permanent and unbreachable, not so much the absence of words as something material that barred the way between them.After a long pause she said the first thing that came into her head, “do you remember the rope game?”

“Why?” He said it as he said everything: deliberately, as though speech required great effort and calculation.

“I keep thinking about it.” She said.

“Why?” he repeated.

The air seemed to shudder around his question, and she thought of sunlight refracted through seawater.

Neither mentioned Tara’s scarred ankle—because why would they?—until they walked through the door of her apartment in the late afternoon and he pointed at the floor behind her. There were puddles of water where she had kicked off her sandals. It was a moment before she identified the sensation she was feeling as pain. The scar on her ankle opened cleanly, like the wound made by a newly-sharpened paring knife. Blood trickled and bloomed in the puddle at her foot.

Tara snapped, “What?”

As it opened the wound’s history also resurfaced in her mind. It was not a memory, exactly, but a flicker of familiarity, and certain sensations: a current, as of water, against her skin; the conviction that beneath her feet there was not the wood floor of an old house, but water far deeper than any she had ever known.

Dylan shoved her into an armchair. He sat on the floor and lifted her foot, pressing a tea towel to her ankle. She said, “do you hear water? I hear water.” Not just water, she realized: the sound of pebbles on a beach, and the flash of a kingfisher dropping from a dead branch, the glance of a curious river otter—

That was just silly. There were neither river otters nor kingfishers in her apartment.

“I think I remember the rope game,” Dylan said. “Can you tell me? Maybe I forgot—”
Her ankle split to the bone. In the moment before she lost consciousness she saw through pain’s distorting haze her white Achilles tendon laid as bare as an anatomical drawing.


***

When she opened her eyes the shadows had changed. Dylan raised his hand and showed her, on the tip of his finger, a tiny sea-snail, grey-shelled, glistening not with blood, but with saltwater.
For the first time she noticed that Dylan’s eyes had no whites. He was, she thought incongruously, seal-eyed. How strange it was, but not strange because she had always known that about her brother, even if this was the first moment in a long time that she had noticed.


***

In the twenty-two years between the wound and its unraveling there were signs she might have noticed if she hadn’t forgotten so much. Her brother’s eyes were one.

Once while she was on the ferry watching their wake split the water, folding back the surface and revealing—if one looked quickly—what lay beneath: a dark ripple, a huge body as supple as seawater.

She often visited the aquarium in Stanley Park just for the hallway that ran past the beluga tank, where she could look up through the glass and the green water toward the surface and see, in the corner of her eye, a sea-creature drifting past.


***

Tara’s eyes fluttered as though she was dreaming while underskin creatures emerged from her bones. Her ankle ringed in barnacles, and bubbles of rockweed surfacing like blisters in the green skin of her foot’s arch.

A crab scuttled across her toes. The ferric scent of blood fading until the room filled with a freshness like saltwater.


***

Tara received the scar at the end of the summer she was eight. Dylan was about to turn twelve. They swam out together with one end of a rope, while Dad held the other end on the beach, waiting to drag them back in.

For the first time ever Tara swam out past the reach of the shore’s reflected trees, out to where the water was blue. It was a bit scary because she was used to the shallows, paddling in the company of purple starfish and the tiny grey sea snails that loved the rocks. She mostly liked the shore because her only stroke was a convulsive dog paddle, no matter how many lessons.

At the end of the rope Dylan asked, “you ready?”

Before she could say “yes!” one toe stretched down and she felt that other element, the dark one. Something flickered past, a trick of the cold current whispering past her left foot.

Then again, perhaps the tendrils of seaweed, the dog-eyed seal, the heavy-shouldered sealion, the flicker of winter herring, the run of salmon--

“Dylan? What—”

That dark element reached up toward her with fingers like little fish and kelp forests. The warm surface water parted. Something wrapped around her ankle, and she kicked hard and held tight to the rope, while Dylan kicked beside her.

His head went under first, but hers followed. The thing held fast to her ankle. Her up-reaching hands could not feel the surface. Below her was water deeper than she could imagine, maybe deeper than the world, and in it she sensed something she could not see: an opaque eye, whiteless, glancing upward at two slippery little bodies, struggling in the warm upper waters, two little squirmers rippling the element with their unsuitability.

She seemed to hear it think, who is that little slip? Whose tiny foot invades the lower waters?

Dylan’s eyes cracked, and darkness spilled into the whites. The skin of her ankle split—


***

—a tug on the rope still wrapped around her wrist. Another tug from the thing that held her ankle, before it released her, and the rope dragged them both upward.

“That was so scary,” she said on the beach. “What was the thing?”

Dad turned to Dylan, “Did you see something?”

“Don’t know what she’s talking about.”

Dad laughed. “You probably just saw a whale, kid,” and when Tara tried to explain he just laughed again.

On the way home she just wanted him to say what it was, the thing, the moments under water. She asked, “did you see it too, Dylan? What was it?” And he wouldn’t answer, so she kept asking until—

“Shut. Up.”

“Don’t tell your sister to shut up,” Dad said from the front seat.

Dylan in bristly silence. He didn’t open his mouth properly to growl, “Stop. It.”

When they got home she was angry in the bad way that got her in trouble. When Dylan said again just shut up she chased him into the house to his bedroom door, which he slammed, still telling her to shut up just shut up. She was so angry she kicked it the door. Once. Twice. Salt water puddled at her feet, threaded with blood. It made her so mad, him telling her to shut up. They had seen what was under the water and now he was just being stupid.

He opened the door and gazed at her with his seal-eyes and she wondered, for the first time, if he had seen something different.

A little crab crept sideways from the sore place in her ankle.

His dark eyes fixed, his voice low as he uttered the irresistible command: “Forget. About it. Tara.” Each syllable distinct and bright. She heard a faint, musical clicking, the patter of waves on stone—

“—you’re stupid!” she said, because she was still mad, but she had forgotten, somehow, what the fight was about, and why the floor around them was covered with salt water and a tiny, lonesome crab. Dylan was looking down at her, his bright, brown eyes—which made her think of a seal—full of grownup disdain.

“You messed up the floor,” he said, “Dad’s going to be mad at you.”

***

For a long time Dylan was angry. She’d do something like open his bedroom door before she was invited to and he’d crackle. The air around him electric, so her hair stood on end when he was in the room.

She shouted, “why are you so mean?”

“Just forget about it!” he said and slammed the door.

On the days he wasn’t angry he was setting goals. How many books he’d read. How far he could bike. Then it was distance swimming, and when he was nice he told her stories about how Matthew Webb swam the English channel, or someone else swam the Hellespont and the Tsugaru Strait.
That was all boring, Tara told him, not like starfish. It was less boring when he told her about men drowning on the swim to Catalina, or in the grey water off the Mull of Galloway, but only because it was scary.

“But but you could drownd!” She said when he told her he was going to swim the inlet. Dylan shrugged and set out from the beach. It was only 1.6 nautical miles, Dad pointed out, it was sixteen across the Cook Strait, and people swam that every year.

Tara watched him until he was a speck, then trailed back to the high tide line where Dad was reading. Twelve, he explained, was different from being eight, or even from eleven. You’ll see what I mean.


***

Eventually Dylan wasn’t even a swimmer, he was just another lanky kid indistinguishable from all the other lanky kids she saw waiting at the bus stop, carrying a backpack with the strap over one shoulder, slouching his hands into his pockets on cold mornings. He turned fifteen, sixteen. He shut the door of his room so tightly it seemed, to Tara, insurmountable. Forget. About it. Tara, she heard when she wanted to knock, though there was nothing to forget.

She didn’t knock. Pretty soon she was shutting her own door, anyway. She painted the walls of her room a dark blue-green, nearly black near the floor, so at night she seemed to float in bluegreen darkness, staring up toward the paler ceiling.

She started to pick fights with Dylan, to criticize his shoes, and make fun of the music he liked. He didn’t seem to register her, so she made fun of his haircut, too. Once when he was packing to leave after he graduated she stood in the doorway and summoned all the dreadful insight of fourteen.

“You,” she said, witheringly, “are just, like, weird.”

It was a long time before Dylan came home again. It was an even longer time before he said much of anything to her.


***

When Tara woke again it was dark. Dylan lay on the floor, curled on his side, his sleek, dark head resting on his arm.

The scar encircled her ankle like a tide line, now blooming in sea snails and limpets, in rockweed and beach glass and barnacles, and the scuttle of little crabs among what had once been her bones.
She didn’t want to wake him up, but when she stood up her new, stony foot dragged across the floor toward the kitchen, and he joined her. She made toast. They climbed out through the window to the roof below her kitchen and looked for stars. Tara felt as though they were looking up from the bottom of a drowned world, which was also a city full of regular people taking buses and panhandling and holding onto their kids as they cross at the light.

His eyes were large and whiteless, with—she could see it clearly now—a nictitating membrane that slid out from the inner corner. How could it be, she thought, both familiar and entirely new?

“Your eyes are,” she began, and ended, “have they always been like that?”
 “I think so. Sometimes. I’m not sure.”

“Did it hurt?”

“I think it did.” She was trying to think of something to say, maybe I’m sorry, or that must have been scary when he added, “do you remember? Sometimes I think I remember, but then it’s gone.”
Forget. About it. She heard, the incantation as familiar as the untranslatable language of waves, she had heard it once in the deeper waters when something noticed her—without malice, with only its alien curiosity. But that was enough, after all, to bring about a seachange in her bones.


***

Shortly after dawn they drove out of the city, north toward the empty beaches. At high tide they parked on the side of the road and walked—slowly, because her foot dragged—toward the rocks.
Something darkened offshore, as though it was rising to greet them. “It’s still out there,” she said.

“What is?” Dylan asked. She heard again the injunction—forget. About it—and looked down at her ankle, the creep of stone rising, she thought, like a tide line up her calf. She wondered where it would stop.

“Remember. It.” She said.

Somewhere a kingfisher dropped to the water. Somewhere, a curious river-otter sensed a new current and surfaced to watch them. Something dark, just out of reach, some cold element crept in to shore, and she felt its affinity, though they were stuck in the dry, human world.

She sat on a boulder and watched the skin of his arms ripple, and his skull—always short-haired and sleek—shift beneath his skin. He slid into the water. As he did she cast an imaginary rope, a bit of soul, maybe, stretching out to follow him through the coastal islands and off the continental shelf to the richest and strangest deeps. Toward it, whatever it was.

She felt the moment he reached the channel where the water was cold, and when he met the darkness she laughed her terminal human laugh, a nice chuckle like the patter of drops, and it seemed that the transforming tide rose toward her heart, and she was stone and shell, and then it was over.