The Hungry Abyss

They found me rolling in the surf on a beach near Arecibo, Puerto Rico. By the time they had me safely in the hospital, and were safely convinced that I couldn’t remember how I got there, they were satisfied; I should be grateful, praise God, that I had survived the storm which had taken the rest of the crew aboard the Endeavour. Besides, I was going to have my picture in the newspaper, maybe national news! And I’d be flying home next week! But no one thought it strange that I was found more than 150 km from the vessel’s last known position, or that I remembered being inside the submersible, Orpheus, more than 3 km down when the storm hit.

I guess I should begin with why I was on the Endeavour in the first place. After a bachelors in chemistry, I began to specialize in geochemistry, and gained a PhD in the subject as well some experience in Oceanography along the way. My principal interest was in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, but if something seeped weirdly or violently from the ocean floor, chances are I would want to study it. My place on the Endeavour was agreed after exchanging emails with former colleagues who had been finding strange compounds at the bottom of the North Atlantic. Put simply, these chemicals just shouldn’t have been there. The lab had been finding unusual isotopes by mass spec., too. It was all very exciting, but in a way that would glaze the eyes of anyone you happened to mention it to in a bar.

When I got home there was a few weeks’ worth of emails to occupy me as a recovered. The ship had vanished inside the Bermuda Triangle, so I had the full spectrum of conspiracy theorists and nut-jobs asking me questions or telling me their theories. One guy even claimed to have the Endeavour sitting in his back-yard, and he sent me a hastily photo-shopped picture of a luxury yacht on his lawn when I asked for a photograph. Despite that, some of the people were clearly intelligent, eloquent and made a disturbing amount of sense. My friends attributed it to boredom when I told them some of what I thought were the particularly compelling theories, and looking back on it they were probably right. There was one man, however, who we found more difficult to dismiss.

He was Harry Akeley, a professor of psychology from a small community college somewhere in Ohio, and had credentials which just about launched him into credibility with my friends, who, like me, were post-docs, already accomplished scientists, and particularly arrogant about it. The professor’s email stood out since he was not concerned with exactly what had happened, just the fact that I couldn’t remember it. His field of interest was memory, and recently, he wrote, he had had some success using hypnosis as a means of memory recollection in combat veterans. I was given an open invitation to visit him at his office when I was better and it was convenient.

Although it was agreed that I should treat him with respect, the professor’s invitation was met with plenty of eye-rolling by my friends. In the end, I politely declined for the moment, but assured him that I would get in touch if ever I changed my mind. That was how things stood until the nightmares began.

Those nightmares. Have you ever woken up from a dream with no recollection of what happened in it? Whether you wake up happy, or sad, or shaking with fear, the emotion sticks to you like treacle; I was to become terrified of sleep without knowing why. They started slowly, coming every few days, but eventually I was awake a couple of times a night. Even worse was the horrific sense of somehow being pulled that would linger long after I had woken up. By the end, my partner, Jane, decided she couldn’t share the same bed as me anymore, and confined herself sympathetically to the couch until I could see a specialist.

The specialists came and went, but the nightmares did not leave so easily. Medication seemed only to deepen the pool I was swimming in, and I would burst from its surface more violently and more breathless the higher the dosage I was given. My thoughts turned inevitably to Professor Akeley’s offer; if something was haunting the dark, it felt only natural to want to turn on the light. If I knew what I had forgotten, wouldn’t it be easier to come to terms with? At the very least, I thought, it might start troubling me only when I was awake. I would get a good night’s sleep again.

It was the beginning of winter when I finally decided to go and see the professor. Although I never had much of a poetic inclination, when Jane jokingly pointed out that changing season was matching my moods, I couldn’t get it out of my head. The iron-black branches of the bare trees began to remind me of my scraping headaches, and the lengthening nights seemed a blackly comic metaphor for the worsening nightmares. That the plane touched down in Ohio on a greasy runway under a dark sky and thick curtain of rain felt oddly comforting and proper.

Professor Akeley is (or rather was; regrettably he passed a short while ago) a small, old and amiable man. I had been imagining a stern and Freudian figure, and I suppose he was in a way, with his shockingly white hair and beard, but he was also much softer and rougher at the edges. He apologized for the state his office as he led me into the small, oddly round room; it was the end of the semester, you see, and he was a little behind on grading the exams. He gestured me to the chair in front of his desk. Several simply-framed certificates hung on the walls, not to draw attention, but to provide reassurance if you needed it. A strange seascape found place behind his desk, grey sky over sickly-green, empty water, with peculiar waves that rolled away from the beach. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the way the waves crawled corpse-like out to sea. He caught me looking at it.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I should’ve thought - does it bother you?” I nodded, and he turned it round to face the wall with an apologetic smile. “It is an eye-catching piece, and not to everyone’s taste.” He sat down in his desk chair and turned it to face me. “But what can I say? Most people look for art they find beautiful, whereas I find myself looking for what’s interesting.” He opened a cavernous draw in his desk and began to rummage through the nest of papers which had settled there. “Now first of all if I could possibly ask you to sign the consent form?... If I can find the thing…” Finally, he pulled out a slightly crumpled sheet of A4. “There we go!” After a half-hearted attempt to iron it flat with his hands, he turned the paper to me and slid it across the desk. “I’m sorry I have to give you this; these waivers always seem so damn intimidating. It is college policy, though, and the fact is that some people do not like what they remember.” I tried to focus on reading the waiver, but by that point I was so tired that the words slipped through my mind like fine sand through fingers. I signed it. The Professor took the page gratefully, and returned it to the tangle of the draw. He set a small, silver Dictaphone onto the desktop and switched it on. “Okay, good. Now if you wouldn’t mind, Dr. Wilmot, could you please describe the last events you can remember before the black-out, and the first events you can remember after it.” His tone was more officious now.

“I’m sorry, Professor, don’t you know all this already?” He smiled and paused the recorder.

“I do, but I’m afraid I have to have to have a record of it, too. It helps us to see if the hypnotic therapy has any impact on already conscious memories.” He switched it on again. “If you don’t mind.”

“Okay, err… Well…” I didn’t know how far back to begin, or whether to address the Dictaphone or Akeley, who was listening with a face as impassive as the device now anyway. “Well the last thing I remember is being in the submersible, of course. About 3,000 m down I think, maybe 3,100.”

“Could you describe the surroundings?”

“Okay, well to start off with it was cramped. And smelly; we were down there for a while, and I don’t think Jones had showered. There was the sonar ping, and all the instruments were working…”

“And outside the vessel?”

I thought for a moment. “Well the water’s deep there, but not the deepest, so I think we were already onto the abyssal plain. This huge flat expanse of nothing but white sand which shimmered under our lights... And there were these fish, these rat tails, which would hover just above the sea floor. I remember they cast perfect, black shadows onto the bottom. It was…” It was like I was seeing it again for the first time. I realized I had been unconsciously trying to forget the whole thing, and how ironic it was now I was here trying to remember. “It was… Ethereal”

“But a strange place for a geologist to be?”

“Geochemist, but yes. It was Jones’ idea. On one of the other dives we’d seen these tracks on the sea floor, big tracks like those from truck tires. They went on for as far as we could follow. He said it might be a new, giant form of those sea urchins which ‘roam in weird herds over the unknowable fathoms of our oceans’,” I chuckled, remembering the wild-haired, comfortably overweight biologist, “He was an eccentric man.”

“Did you like him?”

“I guess I did. It was his funding that was paying for Orpheus and the expedition, so we couldn’t say no when he wanted to go down to the plain to look for them. Since he was going down anyway, we thought we should take the chance to test some of the new equipment.”

“Okay. Now what is the very last thing you can remember?”

I took a while to respond. A strange effect of being so deep for so long is the increasing stillness of time. It made it hard to piece everything into a coherent timeline.

“I think… I think we had just found another of those tracks,” I paused again “Yes, in fact I remember Jones being excited about it.”

“And you have no memory of anything after that?”

“None.”

“There were three dives in total, including the one during which the incident the occurred.”

“Correct.”

“And there were no strange events that you can recall?”

“I guess the sea urchin thing, but, other than that, none that I can recall.”

“And with you in the vessel were Professor Rodney Jones, and Dr. Alice Haagen?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“And your first memory after the blackout?”

“The hospital.” I said simply.

“In Arecibo?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, Dr. Wilmot.” Akeley turned off the recorder.

“Is that all?” I asked as the professor carefully stowed the Dictaphone away.

“That’s all I need to record, but I’d like to start some of the exercises now if you’re up for it?”

I wasn’t. I suddenly felt very heavy, and although the hotel room was uncomfortable and I couldn’t sleep, Jane would be there and I wanted to talk to her. But I forced myself to stay; the sooner we started the sooner we’d be done.

“Good.” The professor stood up and walked behind me to a low, armless sofa. Covered by his jacket and more papers, I had barely registered it before. He cleared it and gestured for me to sit. “If you could make yourself comfortable; it’s best if you’re relaxed. Most people like to lie down.” I did so. He returned to his desk and placed an ominously black briefcase on its top which opened like a prison cell with a metallic click. The delicate bells he pulled from within were rather anti-climactic.

Professor Akeley’s first exercises were not aimed at recovering the memories, but rather the goal was to get me to associate different breathing exercises with the ringing of each bell. He could the use the bells, he said, to control the hypnotic state of the subject. The lower pitched bells matched more relaxed, controlled states, and vice versa. The idea was that the higher pitched bells would put me in a “heightened recollective state”, which he could discourage with the lower pitched ones if I became distressed. He likened it to controlling the water through a faucet. The careful and methodical approach was somehow comforting, and by the time we were through I felt much better. Indeed, I got back to the hotel and instantly dropped off. After sleeping for fifteen hours, I woke up to fresh coffee, Jane, and a flood of golden sunrise. It felt over.

I was scheduled to see Professor Akeley again that day. I arrived in a good mood, and noticeably so. 

“That can’t have been my work, can it?” he asked, jokingly.

“I don’t know if it was the exercises, or just talking it through with you, but I’ve not felt this good in months. I slept last night!”

The professor nodded and smiled broadly. “And I’m glad to hear it.”

I mentioned the thought I’d been cradling all morning, “Does this mean that I don’t need to go through the rest of the therapy? I mean, I don’t want to stir anything up again…”

“Unfortunately not. From my experience with other patients, I’d be surprised if the nightmares didn’t come back eventually.” He gestured me to the sofa again. “And what kind of scientist would I be if I didn’t give you a little shove into completing the study!” We talked for about half an hour about nothing in particular. I was terribly conscious of him trying to set me at ease, and the forced conversation did precisely the opposite. Eventually he looked at his watch. It was time to attempt the first round of hypnosis. After this session, he said, I would probably not remember everything, and probably not right away, but I would definitely remember much more than before. He gathered the bells, and we began.

In the end Akeley was wrong; the full series of events would be pieced together in one disturbingly, maddeningly vivid dream, but first I feel it appropriate to give the details of what happened in that initial session. Shortly before his death, I received the audio recordings which the professor had taken throughout the treatment. He had no intention of making use or even mention of any of them again, but neither did he discard them. The following is a transcription of my first “hypnotic treatment”, starting after I had already been asked a series of control questions.

*Low pitched bell*

Prof. Akeley: Now I want you to remember your third dive in Orpheus. You are seeing some kind of track on the sea floor.

Me: Yes.

Prof. Akeley: How does Professor Jones react?

Me: He is excited.

*Middle pitched bell*

Prof. Akeley: What does he want to do now?

Me: He wants to follow it.

*Middle pitched bell*

Prof. Akeley: And what does Dr. Haagen think.

Me: We should follow it. We are following it.

Prof. Akeley: And what does the Endeavour say?

Me: The Endeavour is reporting a possible storm warning. We should be prepared to surface at any time. We are following the track.

Prof. Akeley: For how long?

*Pause*

*High pitched bell*

Prof. Akeley: For how long?

Me: Until a second track crosses the first. We’ve stopped.

Prof. Akeley: What does the Endeavour say?

*Pause*

Me: The Endeavour does not reply.

*High pitched bell*

Me: We continue.

Prof. Akeley: For how long?

*Pause*

*High pitched bell*

*Pause*

*High pitched bell*

*Rapid breathing*

*Middle pitched bell*

*Low pitched bell*

*Long pause*

*Middle pitched bell*

Me: We can see something…

Prof. Akeley: Are you still following the track?

Me: What is that, Alice?...

*Low pitched bell*

Me: We’ve stopped.

Prof. Akeley: Why have you stopped?

Me: Because we’ve seen something.

Prof. Akeley: What have you seen?

*Long pause*

Prof. Akeley: Have you found the giant sea urchin?

*Pause*

*Middle pitched bell*

Me: What is that, Alice?...

Prof. Akeley: Do you go any closer?

Me: Oh my God, it’s crawling

Prof. Akeley: Do you go any closer?

Me: God help us, it’s crawling…

*High pitched bell*

Me: Don’t go fucking closer, Jones!

Prof. Akeley: What does the Endeavour say?

Me (quieter): Oh, Christ………. Ohhhhhh, Christ…

*Rapid breathing*

*High pitched bell*

Me: WHAT THE FUCK

*Rapid breathing*

*Something falls to the floor*

*Breathing stops*

Prof. Akeley: Dr. Wilmot?

*Recording stops*

When I came to Professor Akeley had a bottle of whisky and two glasses set on his desk, explaining weakly that he thought I might need one. I was bemused, but took one anyway. He apologized for pushing so hard; patients didn’t usually react so badly. The last one who did had come in trying to convince himself he hadn’t killed his dog during a blackout, but in the session he had remembered the pitchfork going in. Now I didn’t physically feel any better or worse, but the professor’s fearful reaction rooted a sense of uneasiness would continue to grow as I returned to the hotel and had dinner with Jane.

My memories of that evening after the first session are strangely vague. I didn’t have any nightmares, so by that token it was a better night than many that had come before, but Jane told me afterwards that the way I behaved made her deeply uncomfortable. I would stare into space for slightly too long, and whispered under my breath as she was talking to me. Upon listening to the recording, Jane said she thought what I was whispering was only a repeat of what I had said in Akeley’s office, and I’m glad; even now I still do not want her to know the full truth.

I returned to the college in the morning, and found the professor apprehensive but no less sure that the therapy must continue. We did so for three more days, and on the fourth came what was to be the last session. The other recordings I have reveal no more than the first, although Akeley was more tentative in his approach. Of the last session it seems he made no recording, or, as now seems more likely, he destroyed the one he did make. The only memory I have of it is waking to a visibly shaken Akeley, who hurried me out of his office, apologizing for wasting my time with a treatment which he now felt was deeply, impossibly flawed. I was of course rattled, but having already begun to sleep peacefully, I felt like I could finally consider the matter closed. It was two more nights before I remembered.

Now I must add that I do not expect everyone to take what I write from this point as the truth. You may roll your eyes and quote research detailing precisely why my memories were not recovered under hypnosis, or even claim that it was the professor himself who deliberately sowed these events into the blank spaces of my mind. But you must understand that to me it is truth, remembered now as clearly as I remember the events of yesterday and the day before, and I set the story down only for the fear that I should go mad if I don’t.

The dream, or rather nightmare, begins where my memory ends, with the track illuminated in the headlights of the submersible. We follow it in silence. Despite the storm warning, we are not afraid. Maybe Jones’ excitement is contagious, but there is also something mesmeric, almost sacred about this path which winds into the hidden darkness outside our fragile shell of light. The motors click and whir, and we follow the path.

A second path meets the first and flows into it like a river. Alice calls the Endeavour, but there is no response. Jones is glad; he will be the first person to see this thing, and he will see it today. We follow the path. Something glows white in the heavy curtain of light. What is that, Alice? Jones has seen sea-cucumbers that color before, but never that size! But sea-cucumbers don’t have feet... Shit, is that a...? Oh my God, it’s crawling… Jones lifts the submersible above the sea-floor and takes us closer. I feel the immense weight of darkness above me as I watch the corpse crawling through the sand.

It crawls jerkily, heaving itself along with sickening eruptions of sediment. The legs are broken at grotesque angles, and jagged bone pokes through the skin of one of them, but the rest of the body is immaculate. Crabs and hagfish won’t touch this evil flesh; something else is hungry for it.

Don’t go fucking closer, Jones!

Orpheus slides forward, turning and dipping so as to be head onto the thing. We can see the US navy insignia on the corpse’s jacket, and… Oh, Christ… The ragged neck, flopping forward like a doll’s, bending and rolling with each savage jerk of the body. The thing pauses… Ohhhh, Christ… The head begins to turn impossibly towards us…

WHAT THE FUCK

The face. It’s the worst part. I can forget the rest in the morning, I can force it to become vague and distant, force it all out of my mind like a scary movie I shouldn’t have watched. Except that face… Even as I close my eyes I see it again. The head turned and the thing stared at us. Its eyes were white and blind, yet somehow seeing. But it was the expression that made it truly horrifying; the mouth and smashed nose curled into a grimace of intense pain, but also maddening, obscene joy.

I don’t know what Jones was thinking then. Neither me nor Alice could speak, but if we had it would have been to shout and scream at him to return to the surface. Instead, his face turned to steel, he lifted the sub and moved it to follow the same path as the corpse.

It's hard to remember how long we moved over the tracks; the only measure of time was the steady ping of the sonar, and the healthy clicking of the life support systems, which gave everything a sense of absurd normality. The abyssal plain began to slope downwards, and though the gradient was gentle, it still came with that stomach turning feeling of looking over the edge. Suddenly it came to a sickening plunge, and serene, white sand gave way to sharp rocks and a deeper darkness beneath. Jones sent Orpheus sailing over the precipice, and then we were falling. This was when we saw the second body. And the third. And the rest.

By some fate or weird chance, we had come across the place where all paths lead. It’s hard to fathom what we saw then, evil but oddly comical, a bizarre terror forgotten from Bosch’s garden. On the jagged sea floor, tangled and writhing like worms in a bait-box, was an immense mound of humanity. Something was clearly drawing them to the center; the corpses struggled and fought with each other, biting and clambering, some even pulling off limbs in their desperate crawl to the pleasure that waited for them. I could see Jones’ face, and he had an expression which I imagine haunted ancient warriors when they knew they were the only ones standing; when the only thing they had left was to show that they were not afraid. He lifted Orpheus up and over the mound. We were now hovering above a blackness which even our most powerful lights couldn’t penetrate. A hole not much wider than the sub itself. Innocuous, but as close to the mouth of hell as I can imagine. Every now and then a body would manage to detach itself from the pile and fall gratefully into the dark. I looked at Jones again and I could see what he was going to do. He killed the motors. And then we were falling.

This is where my memory truly ends. Whether I fainted, or something more sinister was at work, I do not know; the next thing I remember is from the hospital in Arecibo. What happened to Alice and Jones, I don’t know either. The optimistic part of me hopes they drowned gently in the waves of some nameless island paradise, as I almost did. I fear, however, they might have found the bottom of that horrid abyss.

As far as how I survived goes, I do not care. All I can do now is live my life the way it was before any of this happened. I have restricted myself to the center of the country, and avoid international flights whenever I can, since, no matter how hard I try, I can no longer stand the sight of the sea.

I have, however, been doing some research to find any hint of what I’d seen somewhere else, mostly to prove to myself that I’m not mad, but also out of a strange masochistic fascination that's been creeping up on me. Recently I was given a book about the south pacific island cultures. Apparently it is the custom of the Atua people to row out to sea with the bodies of their departed. Weighted down with stones, they drop them into the retreating tide, for it is said that the deep calls to the dead, and the dead answer.

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Aquapig
Created by Aquapig

Last Updated: 05/08/14
Originally Created: 03/08/14