Bourbon Penn 15

The Further Shore

by J. Ashley Smith

Renault was out beyond the littoral when the fear bloomed.

Drifting with the currents, he bobbed above the reef. The sun warmed his back, cast a spangled net of iridescent white on the ocean floor. The only sound was the rasp of his breath in the snorkel, the faint pop pop of unseen creatures in the labyrinth of black coral below.

The black reef, with its oil-slick glimmer, stretched as far as he could see. Crooked spires. Towers that jutted and curled like obsidian fingers. Was it a trick of distance or movements of the water that made the coral writhe and sway? It was profoundly hypnotic, drew him out over ever-deeper waters, farther from the shore.

Renault had noticed the pattern two days before. It was madness to think there should be order out here, among these chaotic accretions; yet there it was. The deep grooves of shadow that drew together, converging like vast, curved spokes around a distant axis. It had been too late to explore that first afternoon, and yesterday had been overcast, the light too diffuse to make out any detail in the reef. This morning he had woken early, determined to swim out to the point where those dark channels met.

His excitement mounted as each stroke brought him closer to the center. The crevasse he was following narrowed, its arc tightening around smooth plates that resembled the petals of an obscene black flower. These segments overlapped uniformly, interlocking at the hub around something that glinted, that refracted light in soft, shimmering rainbows. It looked very much like a pearl. A pearl the size of a boulder.

Renault strained to make it out, unable to believe what he was seeing. But his mask had fogged and his sight was confined to a blurred rectangle. Just outside this frame of vision, he caught a movement.

He spun, scanning the water around, below.

There was nothing. He could see nothing. But his back tingled, his chest tightened. Something was there. Something.

Renault became suddenly aware of the depth of water beneath him, the distance to dry land, the darkening sky. The shadows within the black landscape were spreading, swallowing the reef. And within them—

Fear propelled him. He turned shoreward, beating at the waves with his arms, with his fins, battling the currents of the outward tide.

Though every muscle screamed, he did not stop thrashing until he felt the sand beneath him.

• • •

The reef obsessed Renault. For days now he had been coming here, following the water’s edge to where the salt-and-pepper sand turned gritty black. To where he had first found the shells.

He thought of them as shells only because he had no better word to describe them — organic forms that twisted and coiled without order, without repetition, conforming to some other geometry. Some ribbed, some spurred, some perfectly smooth, the shells were all black when dry, but iridesced when submerged in water, revealing shifting patterns of color. All alluded to the familiar, yet all eluded classification. No two were alike.

He was quick to intuit the connection between the shells and the black sand, but the existence of the reef was a hypothesis he was unable to test without proper equipment. A search of the shack had revealed a mismatched pair of flippers left by a past occupant, but it took hours of scavenging along the coastline before he found a mask, and weeks before a snorkel washed onto the shore.

To stave off the madness of impatience, Renault killed time collecting shells. He studied them, took them back to his room in secret, always careful to hide his discoveries from the others. From Benson. And from Webb.

After weeks of frustrated speculation, he finally swam out beyond the breakers. When he dipped his head beneath the waves, caught sight of that landscape of black sculptures, it was the closest to pure joy Renault had felt since he first awoke in the shack.

• • •

The wind had picked up, blew the tang of saltwater and rotting kelp in from the sea. Renault’s stomach growled.

He knew he did not need food, yet the old triggers persisted. Mealtimes were the worst.

He walked north with the sun low behind the mountain, with shadows reaching seaward across the wasteland of scrub and saltgrass. The ocean was marbling blue and golden red, a web of light that danced toward the horizon and the chain of hulking black ships. His feet made impressions in the moist sand, a trail of prints that faded beneath the lapping tide. He had stayed out too long, left barely enough time to make it to the shack before dark.

Renault quickened his pace, muttering, cursing. He was raging at his irrational fear, elated at the discovery of the black flower and the pearl. And his excitement made him rage all over again, impatient to be back out over the reef.

Among the tangles of driftwood and seaweed that littered the shore, a framed picture was caught in the foam, a monochrome of a woman and child in shades of silvery gray. It was drawn back with each inhalation of the tide, rotated gently, washed forward again with each exhalation. The photograph was buckled and warped, but Renault could see it clearly, felt deeply the ache it gave him.

Those people. He—

But he did not know them. Knew nothing of his life before the shack. Whatever memories the picture alluded to were gone, if they had ever existed.

Renault kicked the picture as he passed, back into the surf, where it tumbled and rolled beneath the curling waves.

• • •

Renault’s first morning in the shack, he woke with no memory of falling asleep. When he thought back there was … nothing. He had no idea where he was. No idea who he was.

There was only this moment. The muffled swell of the ocean. The rusting tin ceiling. The gritty, unwashed feel of the sheets.

Benson had loomed in what passed for a kitchen. Another man, Stacks, was seated at the table. His head was completely bald, with a face that sagged above its ridiculous handlebar moustache. They stared as Renault lurched into the room, slumped on a tea-chest. The table wobbled when he leaned on it. Benson brought him coffee.

Both men stared. Their look was neither kind nor unkind, neither surprised nor interested. Renault sipped his coffee, avoided their eyes, struggled to remember.

That morning he had taken his first walk out along the shore. He had first seen Benson’s armchair sunk in the wet sand, seen Benson staring out toward the dark ships that girded the horizon. That morning he had claimed his first piece of flotsam.

Stacks hadn’t lasted long. Just a few days after Renault’s appearance he announced that he was going to scale the mountain. He set off at dawn and never returned. In the morning, his bedroom door had opened and out stepped a stranger with a confused look on his face.

Since then, Renault had seen them come and go.

They were like devotees of some terrible god, one that nobody quite believed in. They stumbled up and down the beach gathering their combings from the surf, eyes alight with the promise of revelation, hoarding their half-eroded trinkets like sacred totems. Mostly they made it to the shack before night fell. Sometimes they did not.

All wore the same blank expression: a mask of vacancy, ecstasy, melancholy. All believed they would be first to discover the hidden meaning, to reassemble from those worthless treasures the puzzle pieces of who they had once been. All feared they would never remember.

No one dared speculate that there was no meaning.

• • •

The path to the shells, to the discovery of the reef, had been opened by the question of food.

The shack was exposed to a stretch of coast too vast to explore in a single day, and there was no question of staying out past nightfall. In all his excursions, Renault had come across no evidence of habitation. There were no buildings, no roads. He had found no path or animal track through the scrub, no footprints in the sand but his own. No one but the occupants came to the shack. There were no deliveries.

So where did the food come from?

Before turning in one night, he had checked the fridge — a monstrous, noisy machine that bore the scars of a past life on the ocean floor. Inside, there were just scraps: leftovers under clingfilm, desiccated condiments, half a tin of beer.

Yet when he opened the fridge next morning, it was full to bursting.

That night he sat up, played hand after hand of solitaire with the shack’s one, incomplete deck of cards. He sat on a milk crate, watching the fridge, trying not to listen to the night-time sounds: the slithering and sucking, the scratching and chattering, the groaning of the shutters beneath whatever moved over them.

He awoke in the same position, aching, numb, an unfinished game on the dusty floor. The night terrors had retreated, but it was not quite dawn, the shutters merely scratched by gray half-light. Renault groaned, stretched, opened the fridge. It was full.

The next night he stayed up again, but this time left the fridge door open wide. He perked himself with the bitter tar Benson called coffee, patiently built and rebuilt a tower with the playing cards. He did not sleep, but nodded with prickling eyes, enduring the noises. He placed card upon card until they collapsed, then drew them together, began again.

At dawn the fridge door was still open, its shelves as disheveled and bare as the night before. Renault felt both excited and disappointed, not entirely certain what it meant. He rose and closed it, padded toward his room, to bed. He paused at the entrance to the living room, looked back toward the fridge. He strode back, flung open the door. It was completely full.

After that, he lost his appetite.

• • •

The sun was no longer visible behind the black mountain. Renault was jogging now, his feet slapping the wet sand, fins bouncing against his thigh.

When he saw Benson’s armchair up ahead, he broke into a sprint. The shack was only minutes away.

Though Benson was tall, at least a head taller than Renault, he was dwarfed by the chair. It was an ugly thing, a huge reclining easy-chair in beetroot maroon, half bleached by the sun, half darkened by the tide. Only Benson knew how long it had been there, rimed with salt, eternally moist.

As soon as the theatre of the morning meal was complete, and he and Renault and Webb went their separate ways to pursue their separate obsessions, Benson, stooped and scrawny, in his sleeveless pullover and rolled-up trousers, would slump within the decaying mounds of his armchair. He sat motionless from sunup until late afternoon, staring out toward the distant ships.

Renault passed within meters of Benson, but neither one acknowledged the other. He was in sight of the shack when he heard the splash.

He turned back, but the chair was empty. Benson, still fully clothed, was swimming with confident, powerful strokes, away from the shore. Past the breakers, past the bar, and out into the darkening ocean.

• • •

Renault still came to meals. He still sat with the others around the rickety driftwood table, still picked at the food that Benson placed before him — the barbecued meats, the exotic salads with their unusual dressings — still drank tin after tin of the beer. How else could he sustain himself?

But then he noticed that, despite preparing the daily meals and sitting down to each with he and Webb, Benson did not eat.

The gangling cook served himself, pushed food around his plate, sometimes lifted it on his fork. But never once did Renault see a morsel pass Benson’s lips.

Neither did he drink. He sat with the others, at the table, on the couch that smelled of rat dirt and brine, clutching a tin of beer, a cup of coffee, a glass of milk. But he did not so much as sip.

Benson kept up the vague pretense of sustaining himself, and for Renault and Webb — and who knew how many others before them — that was enough. They were too preoccupied with their own sustenance to notice, too immersed in their own worlds.

But once Renault had seen, it was impossible to unsee.

At every meal, as Webb shoveled forkfuls into his mouth and swilled them down with beer, Benson would feign interest in the other’s jibber-jabber, move food from one place to another on his plate, raise and lower an empty fork. Before Webb had scraped his last mouthful, Benson would rise and scoop away the plates, mugs and bowls, emptying his untouched meal into the dustbin.

Renault watched him with increasing curiosity. If Benson did not eat, then he must know something about the food. If he could live without eating then he must have discovered some means of sustaining himself. Or learned that he did not need to sustain himself.

Renault had to acknowledge a grudging respect of Benson. He longed to find out what went on beneath that shiny dome, with its wisps of hair like spiderwebs. What else did Benson know?

Benson was not open about his knowledge, clearly unwilling to share his hard-earned secrets. The few times Renault tried to steer the conversation toward these hidden insights, Benson changed the subject, or gave answers to an entirely different question. Renault dropped that line of inquiry, decided instead on his own empirical study.

It was painful, at first: the pit in his stomach, the weakness, the exhaustion; the agony of yearning, sitting out mealtimes in his room, trying not to notice the aroma of cooking meat that wafted under the door; the long nights clutching his belly, pillow pressed against his ears to shut out the slurping of the terrors. But after several days, Renault recognized that the pain was mostly in his mind. It was a pain of wanting rather than a pain of hunger. After a fortnight there was no pain at all. Only the triggers at the old mealtimes, echoes of habit rather than need.

This self-denial acted like a gateway, opening him up to a new view of their world, of this endless shore, and of his place within it. Following Benson’s example, Renault overcame his obsession with the beach-combing that, up until then, had been his sole preoccupation. Instead, he posed questions, he framed and tested hypotheses. He ventured, by day, farther and farther from the shack.

He began looking for a way out.

• • •

In the twilight, the shack looked more dilapidated than ever. A simple structure of graying wood and rusting tin, it nestled against the shifting dunes, half buried at the back by sand.

A wooden sign hung from the roof by weathered chains, its forgotten message worn away by the moisture, salt and sand in the evening winds. The shack creaked as he approached, shook slightly as he opened and closed the door.

Webb was at the table, legs spread, scratching idly beneath luminous board shorts. He was poring over some new collection of flotsam.

They were childish things: a toy robot; a muscular doll in a battle stance; an abstract, plastic shape that might have been a bird. Webb held each one up to the light of the oil lamp, the puffy moon of his face transfixed with wonder, delight, confusion. It was an expression both ecstatic and anxious: intoxicated with the promise of meaning, afraid it might never be fulfilled.

Webb pulled a cord that dangled beneath the bird thing. It lengthened with a grating, ratcheting sound. When he released the cord, hidden chimes plinked a lullaby, not quite in tune. Webb looked up at Renault with foggy eyes, a maudlin half-smile.

“Still works,” he said, choked with tears.

“Benson’s gone.”

Renault sat down across the table from Webb, making no effort to conceal his distaste.

From the moment Webb first appeared at the shack, he had made Renault’s skin crawl. Something about his doughy physicality, the way he spread himself like melting butter over every surface he covered, the way the roll of his gut overlapped his shorts, the way he was not disgusted by himself as Renault was disgusted by him.

What grated most was Webb’s almost sociopathic extroversion. Withdrawn silence had always been the rule in the shack, with conversation kept to a terse, functional minimum. But, since Webb’s arrival, there had been no escape from the torrent of banalities. Renault often imagined he would prefer the terrors of night to another second of Webb’s overloud platitudes.

As long as Benson had been in the shack, he had acted as a fulcrum that kept Webb at a safe distance from Renault. Without Benson around, there was nothing to hold Webb’s boorishness in check. Renault was not sure how he would get through the night without killing Webb, or himself.

For all the good that would do.

“Gone, where? It’s almost dinner time.”

“Benson’s gone gone. He’s not coming back.”

Webb’s face grayed. “You mean, they…?”

“Look outside, Webb; it’s hardly dark. No, he’s gone off on his own. Swimming. I think he’s trying to make it to the ships.”

Webb looked sick. He rocked, rubbed his palms against his thighs. His eyes bulged.

“Why would he do that?” Webb moaned. “I mean, he’ll never make it. And what’ll we do about dinner? Why would he go out to the ships?”

“I don’t know,” said Renault. But he wondered.

Webb was right about one thing: There was no way Benson could make it to the ships before night fell. And who knew what horrors emerged from the water once the sun went down. It was possible Benson had discovered some secret about the ships, something that might justify his insane gambit.

But then perhaps it had nothing to do with the ships at all. Perhaps Benson just wanted to drown.

• • •

Renault never quite believed in Benson’s whimsical suicide attempts. He had all but passed them off as a dream, choosing to ignore them rather than accept what they implied.

The first time, Renault had found him in the bath. The tap was still running and the cracked enamel tub had overflowed. Red water gushed from the sides, pooled on the floorboards, dripped steadily through the cracks.

Benson had been fully clothed, submerged to the neck. His head was cocked to the right, eyes glazed, just cavities in his parchment face. One arm hung over the side of the bath. Dangling from the limp fingers was an ivory-handled razor.

His forearms, from wrist to elbow, were open, the edges curled back like sneering mouths. A provocative last gesture.

Or so Renault thought.

It was after dinner and the shack’s third occupant — at that time, a man named Baker — had retired to his room. The terrors were out in force and, while Renault drained the tub, he could hear them pulsing and squelching against the outer walls, converging on the bathroom. Renault hefted Benson’s limp, sodden body out of the bath and over his shoulder. The head struck the wall, arms flapping against Renault’s legs as he staggered toward the bedroom.

He toed open the door of Benson’s room, dumped the sodden corpse onto the bed. The room was otherwise bare, just a driftwood desk with a small arrangement of treasures: a leaping fish made of smoky glass; a wooden cigar box; a silver pocket watch with no hands; a rusting sextant. Renault folded the razor and placed it with the other objects, flipped the lid of the cigar box. Inside were two large brown coins. They were old, thick and dented, greening at the edges, and covered with symbols he did not recognize.

Renault went back to the bed, pulled the blanket up over the corpse, looked down into Benson’s staring eyes. The pupils were so black and wide. Renault saw himself reflected as he leaned over, brushed down the eyelids, placed one coin, then the other.

Renault lay awake all that night, going over and over the scene. The red waterfall in the bathroom. The ancient pennies on the pinched, skeletal face. He had no idea what to do with the body. Perhaps he and Baker could bury it in the sand. Or throw it out to sea.

But when he rose, bleary-eyed and aching from the night’s exertions, he found Benson in the kitchen, making breakfast. There were no marks on his arms.

They did not speak about it.

Weeks later, when dinnertime came and Benson was not in the kitchen, Renault pushed open the bedroom door, found Benson dangling from the rafters by a length of sea-worn rope. Renault did not bother to cut down the body.

Next morning, Benson was at his place in the kitchen, frying bacon, making coffee for the new occupant — this time, the white-haired Ogilvie.

Benson could not die. At least, not of his own volition.

Renault grasped, without fully understanding, the possibility that this phenomenon might apply not only to Benson, that it might even be a condition of this in-between place, this limbo: the shack and the endless shore. But he did not dare test the hypothesis. After all, no one else had come back. But then no one else he knew had attempted suicide: they had ventured too far on their wanderings; or chosen deliberately to leave, to explore the mountain or the wasteland beyond the dunes; or they had gone cuckoo, run screaming into the night.

Renault assumed that all of them had failed, because every one of them had been replaced: Baker by Ogilvie, Ogilvie by Ng, Ng by Argento, Argento by Webb. The new occupant waking up the next morning in the bed of the old.

No matter how they tried to get away, not one of them lasted the night. Because night meant the terrors.

Benson knew that. So what was he doing?

• • •

“…and now there’ll be nothing to stop them.”

Webb was spouting nonsense, delusional gibberish that went from brain to mouth without review. Renault wasn’t listening, had his own thoughts to chase.

“All this time,” Webb maundered, “they’ve been waiting for his signal. A lantern in the window. A secret radio. A spy, that’s what he was. And now his mission’s complete. They’ve called him back.”

Webb sniffled, wiped his nose along the length of his arm.

“I never trusted him, always knew he was up to something. Standing there in the kitchen with his queer smile. Peering through cracks in the wall, taking notes, transcribing all we say or do. Now they’ve called him back, to tell them everything he knows.”

Renault closed his eyes, tried to tune out Webb’s ravings. Benson had been gone little more than an hour and things were already falling apart. Without the familiar routines, without Benson in the kitchen, dinner on the table, Webb was losing his mind.

“Black figures. Shadow people. On deck with their spyglasses, watching everything. Recording everything. But why? What do they want? It doesn’t seem real. None of it. I just want to wake up, Frenchy. But the dream won’t end. And if it’s not a dream, then what? Some twisted game show? Then Benson’s only gone and —”

Renault looked up. “What,” he said, “is a game show?”

Webb stared back at Renault, bloodshot eyes ringed with painful red. His lip quivered, on the verge of tears.

“I…” he said. “I… I don’t know.”

They stared at each other across the table. Webb swallowed, rubbed at his thighs. The shutters rattled, and from behind them came the first slurps and gurgles of night.

Webb started, glanced up at the sound, as though whatever was out there might rip through the boards, slither over and digest him where he sat. Renault eyed him with disgust.

“Don’t dwell on it, Webb,” he said and stood, pushed back his chair.

“But what about dinner?” Webb called after him.

Renault paused at the door to his room.

“I think you’ll survive,” he said.

• • •

Renault sat on the bed with his back to the inner wall, farthest from the sounds of night.

His ears were plugged with pillow stuffing, but he could still hear Webb in the living room, talking to himself, tugging at the string of the bird toy, falling silent to moon over the lullaby. Renault could still hear the sobbing.

He stuffed the wadding deeper, continued to fondle, one after the other, each shell in his collection.

There was the ribbed black finger that made him think of a talon, only where the claw should have been was a sphere, like an eye. There was the spiral stack of cogs, its minaret crowned by splayed black tongues. There was the curved fetish, shaped like a rodent; only the insides were on the outside, the folds and striations so very like nerves, organs, entrails. Then there was the screaming mouth, the severed ear, the mechanical skull, the necrotic penis. All these almost shapes. All in the same cold, smooth coral. All as shiny black as hardened oil.

And these were just the handful he had kept. Back on the beach, where the salt-and-pepper sand turned gritty black, there were hundreds, thousands more just like these. Alike, and yet wholly not alike.

He thought again of what he had seen that afternoon at the reef, the abyssal grooves of shadow all curving toward the same central point. He tried to picture the vast structure from a vantage point far above. He imagined a great wheel, a black eye with the gleaming white pearl at its center. What did anything matter compared to this? Benson? The ships? The terrors of night? All were meaningless compared to this other world that he alone had discovered.

Overwhelmed with fatigue and with his mind adrift, Renault sank beneath dark waves of sleep.

He was awakened by a bang. He fumbled the wadding from his ears and listened.

Silence. A complete absence of sound, as though even the terrors were holding their breath. Then the shushing of feet through sand. And sobbing.

Webb had snapped. He had run out the front door and was out behind the shack, trying to scale the dunes.

Renault sat up, straining to listen. He heard nothing of the terrors on the walls. Just the feet in sand, the sobs, and crazy muttering, some phrase repeated over and over. Then Webb began to wail.

Then he began to scream.

Renault lay back down, plugged the wadding deep into his ears, stuffed it in so far it hurt.

He closed his eyes, wrapped the pillow round his head. But he could not escape the sounds — the slurping, the guzzling, Webb’s final, bubbling whimpers.

It was a long time before he fell asleep again.

• • •

Renault woke before dawn, pushed himself upright, pressed his feet against the cool boards. He listened. The shack was silent, just the whisper of sand on tin as the wind blew out to sea.

An indefinable sense of wrongness pervaded the shack, as though everything had been blown wide open, leaving nothing certain. The kitchen was dark and still, but the door to Benson’s room was ajar. Renault listened at the crack, peered into the gloom. Nothing. He swung the door open and stepped in.

The bed was empty, neatly made. The desk was clear; all the mementos — the razor, the cigar box, the glass fish — all were gone. Benson had not returned.

But he had not been replaced.

Renault pulled the door to. There was a cough from Webb’s bedroom, then a groan. Not Webb. Renault tiptoed through the living room, grabbed his fins, his snorkel and mask. He slipped out of the shack and down to the water’s edge, turned south toward the reef.

Ahead of him, and behind, the endless shore merged with the horizon in a white haze of sea and sand. Renault wondered, not for the first time, if there might not be something out there in that indistinct distance; other shacks, other people. He imagined an infinite beach lined with dwellings of driftwood and tin, each little further than a day’s walk, but too far to be reached or even sighted before nightfall. He pictured a multitude of amnesiac beachcombers, each blind to the other, scouring the interminable waterfront for some clue to their previous life. Might there not be others, too, just like himself, looking for a way out? Others, like Benson, who had perhaps found one? The thought was both dizzying and strangely comforting. More so than the gnawing suspicion that there was nothing, that the beach stretched indefinitely nowhere, serving no purpose. That they were entirely alone.

He saw Benson’s armchair ahead, like a monument jutting from the surf. He half expected to see Benson’s angular knees, his long pale feet, but the chair was empty. Renault sank into it and looked out to sea, out to where the ships—

The ships were gone.

Renault stared and stared. The absence made the skyline naked, vulnerable, as though only the ships had kept the sky and sea from collapsing into one another, swallowing the world in a swirling, bubbling deluge.

His heart raced. Benson had swum out to the ships, had not returned. And now the ships were gone. What did it mean?

An insane thought gripped him, made him panic. What if Benson’s disappearance had begun a chain reaction? First Benson, then the ships, then…

Renault jumped down from the chair and sprinted along the beach, fins bashing against his thigh, not slowing until he reached the bar of black sand. He fell into the waves, tugged on his flippers, bit the snorkel, swam out past the breakers, scooping and kicking at the water with fearful urgency.

Once offshore, the shelf dropped away and he saw with relief the tangled spires of the reef below. It was still there. Of course it was still there; just as it had been the day before, and the day before that. He calmed his strokes, matched his rhythm to the rise and fall of the waves, steered himself in what he hoped was the direction of the great wheel. And the pearl.

His anxiety did not entirely ease until he reached the first of the reef’s shadowed trenches. He swam above it, glancing ahead to the point where the dark furrows converged. The morning sun cast its net of white gold among the black sculptures; the coral seemed to move, an illusion caused by the purling iridescence. When he saw again the petals of the black flower, the hub of the vast coral wheel, his heart began to pound; but with excitement this time, with anticipation.

He let his arms hang behind him, flipping gently with the fins until he drifted above the black flower. It was larger than he remembered. The petal-like structures formed a jagged disc almost fifty meters across, and there in the absolute center, lustrous and opalescent, gripped by fingers of black coral, lay the pearl. Renault’s pearl.

But it was so far down. Impossibly far. Renault sucked air deep into his lungs and dived. Down he went, two, three, almost four meters, before his lungs began to burn and his ears threatened to burst from the pressure of depth.

He jerked up, thrashed for the surface, broke free of the water gasping for air. At the lowest point of his dive, the pearl had seemed no closer than it was at the surface.

He trod water, letting his heart calm, his breath ease, then bit down on the snorkel and dived again.

This time he made it almost five meters before his flaming lungs drove him back to the surface. He dived and dived again, and though, with each successive dive, he got no closer to the pearl — in fact, made less and less progress — he kept diving until he was overcome by exhaustion.

Renault rolled onto his back and closed his eyes. He had to get down to it. But it was impossible; the water was too deep. He felt imprisoned, shut out of the world beneath the waves as surely as a moth, hurling itself against a window to reach the lamp behind.

The sun was now at its highest point in the sky, and bright, even through closed eyelids. It was past noon. Lunchtime. Renault felt the old hunger grip him. Lightly, true, but it was still there; an echo of the habits of that other, forgotten life. The life before the shack. But, in spite of the hunger, he knew he did not need to eat. He was sustained. He continued.

Benson could not die, and yet Benson was gone. And with him the ships. Precisely what this meant, Renault did not understand. But he knew he did not need to hold on any more to that other life, whatever it had contained, whatever echoes still surrounded him.

He inhaled deep into his belly, felt the air lift his body, hold him at the surface of the water. He exhaled slowly, felt the air warm at the back of his nostrils, his body dipping below the water again as he lost buoyancy. When he breathed in once more — his last breath — he let the air fill him until he radiated. Then he dived.

As he swam down, he pulled the mask from his head and let it drop, saw it spiral, catching glints of sunlight as it descended. His eyes stung at first, vision blurred from the salt, from contact with the water, but they soon cleared, revealed a perspective on the reef that was wider, an almost one-hundred-and-eighty degree view.

He reached the five-meter mark and his lungs began to broil, then to blister. He panicked, started thrashing. He could no longer hold his breath and now had no time to make it back up. He gasped.

And water filled his lungs.

• • •

Renault hung. Motionless. Suspended. His chest rose and fell, rose and fell.

He knew that water cycled through him, from his nostrils to his throat to his lungs and out again, yet he felt only … he had no word for it. The ocean, the reef, the mass of coral had its own breath, a gentle, measured inward–outward motion, and Renault felt himself breathed within it as he breathed without breathing. A sense of peace washed through him, from his chest outward to his feet, to his fingers, to the crown of his head.

He raised his hands, studied them, the lines of his palms, the creases at the joints and knuckles. He clenched his fists, checking their solidity. He was here, and yet—

He moved his hands through the water, kicking gently behind, swimming down without effort toward the ocean floor. Within the reef at last, he observed how the movements of the coral seen from the surface were no illusion. It was not just the refraction of light, or the patterns of iridescence. The reef was alive in a sense that the shells’ dead matter could only hint at. It was dynamic, animate, ceaselessly creative.

He reached a hand out to touch one of the spires, surprised by its warmth, its smoothness, the way it yielded beneath his fingers. The coral reacted to the contact, rippling into new forms and patterns. Human body parts coiled to form reptilian tails. The obsidian cilia of jellyfish writhed into plaits, breaking apart, becoming exoskeletons of implausible crustaceans. Dead eyes opened and shut. Mouths yawned, bit, drooled. Black saliva hardened and split, morphing into the carapaces of crawling beetles. Black teeth impaled black flesh. Black claws ripped at their own black bodies; the coral tore at itself in a destructive orgy of generation. It was grotesque, beautiful. Renault was mesmerized, in an ecstasy of horror.

He swam through the labyrinth of iridescent buttes, marveling at the half-creatures born from the reef. Unformed things that scurried, slithered or clung to its surface, feeding on it; only to be devoured by it, as some other, contiguous part of the whole drew them back into itself. He saw crabs with legs of human fingers, snakes with a gorgon’s head of squirming blind rats. He saw organic machines, reptilian organs, the sex acts of impossible mechanisms, all bound to the writhing black coral. All within it. And of it. A super-organism in perpetual evolution.

He was so absorbed in the spectacle of transformation that he did not notice the shadows lengthen, the rainbow luster dim, the sun descend.

The light faded so gradually he was not aware of it, the water hazing from crystal blue to gray, until it was almost as black as the reef; until, looking upward, Renault could see nothing. Only darkness. No way to tell where the water ended and the air began. No way to tell what was up and what was down.

He panicked. Swam crazily toward what he thought was the surface, crashed instead into a coral stack, recoiled, thrashing, at the sickening movement like fingers, like tentacles, like the grasping claws of an invisible predator that clutched at his back.

He screamed. But, without air, there was no sound, only water expelled into water and the burning fear in his chest. He spun, twisting to his left, to his right, feeling again that sensation of being watched, of being reached for, of being hunted. But, in the dark, there was nowhere to hide. Whatever was down here could not be escaped.

Renault went limp, let himself drift, up or down it did not matter. He felt a pull in his chest, that sensation of being watched, but different somehow; as he let go, as the fear began to melt, the pull seemed less a feeling and more like … a song, a song without sound. It was a call. He was being beckoned. Renault drifted toward the source.

He became slowly aware of shapes ahead of him, rising from the gloom. Deep in the reef a light flickered, gray-white-silver-gray-white, streamers of incandescence that strobed behind silhouettes of gnarled coral. Renault moved toward it with gentle strokes, the tugging in his chest growing stronger as he drew nearer to the light. He saw beneath him the polished surface of the vast, petal-like forms, crackling silver-gray with the light bursting from their center. From the pearl.

He swam closer, the bioluminescence fizzing like electricity in the surrounding water. Almost upon it now, he reached out his hand, fingers outstretched, longing to feel it against his skin.

But he never made contact. For there was no surface.

Renault’s hand sunk inside the pearl, tingling as though nibbled by tiny, electric fish. He laughed, delighted, only half-aware of the segmented, chitinous limbs that rose up around and behind him.

He reached out his other hand and plunged it into the snowstorm, entranced by the flickering speckles of light, by the prickling that rose up his arms, along his shoulders, up and down the length of his body.

He felt nothing as the limbs, like the jaws of a trap, snapped down upon him. Then wonder, as the brutally sharp, talon-like points pierced his chest, his shoulder, his thigh. And when the coarsely serrated edges tore at his flesh, stuffing him down into the crackling sphere, there was only rapture.

“I am reborn,” thought Renault, as his head disappeared inside. “I am—”

But the thought was drowned within a swell of white noise.

J. Ashley Smith is a British–Australian writer of dark fiction and other materials. Two of his short stories have won national competitions: Old Growth won the SQ Mag Story Quest Short Story Contest 2016; On The Line won the Australian Horror Writers Association Short Story Competition 2015. Other shorts have appeared or are forthcoming in Dimension6, Midnight Echo and Tales to Terrify. J lives with his wife and two sons in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires and whispers from the Hills Hoist.