Hardy Wakowski stood on the brink of the spirit world and smiled for the first time in days. It was a flat worm-like expression that curled only the corners of his mouth and never reached far enough to meet his eyes. This pathetic specimen was mustered up from a genuine sense of satisfaction that had crawled all the way up from his tired heart and into those uncooperative invertebrate lips.
“Finally.” they muttered.
He stretched out his arms, looking down at the prize he’d traveled so far to discover. The Cenote, a natural stone water basin surrounded by thick jungle, slithered with steam. Vines and creepers hung long languid fingers to dip into the cool recess. Above, the Yucatan sun was evidently in the business of cooking the poor vegetation alive and the heady aroma of plant sweat was almost thick enough to chew. The dark pond wasn’t as large as the ones Hardy had first considered on the tourist maps; places with names like Ox Bell Ha, Nohoch Nah Chich, and Dos Ojos. He had tried the last place, because it was the only name he understood and he too was looking for something, but there had been too many people. The crowds of Cancun pressed close and he left quickly before something bad happened. Here, the closest civilization was the infrequently visited ruin of ‘Zack Chili’ a hundred miles away. Turns out that Mayan architecture is much more exciting when located within easy driving distance of surfing, parasailing, and sunbathing. This place was isolated, his only company the malefic sun and the endless swath of smoldering jungle.
The inside of his wetsuit was slick with perspiration but heat didn’t bother him. Crappy weather was invariably the price of uninhabitable areas and solitude was what he sought. It was a quarry that had eluded him many a time and a hunt that had grown dangerous within him.
Hardy dropped to his knees before the pool those currently neglected Mayans used to believe led to another land.
“Thank you.” he breathed. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Bending over, he stretched out his neck, closed his eyes, and kissed the surface of the water. Ripples.
Hardy stood and awkwardly pulled on his tanks. He checked his dive light, took a few breaths through the mouthpiece, and gave a final look to the lush green around him. It wasn’t a long inspection because Hardy didn’t feel nearly as worried as he should have, preparing to dive for the first time in his life without any backup. The dangers didn’t matter, he had something he needed to find, at any cost. The mask covered his excited eyes and he jumped.
His skin recoiled at the cold water, the first chill he’d felt after days of bug laden humidity. As the curtain of bubbles rose the surroundings revealed themselves. Where the jungle above had been a thousand shades of jade, here below, the world was stained brown with tanic acid and it was more like swimming in tea than water. The rusty shaft of illumination from the dive light cut a wide arc and circled the cenote. Smooth stone striped with algae growing on the sedimentary outcroppings, beams of sunlight cut angular columns off to the left. Pointing his hand-held down, Hardy kicked and began his decent. It struck him then, as the pressure began to swell in his ears, that he’d made it. The pain intensified as the darkness beneath him expanded, surrounded him, engulfed him. But it didn’t matter. He was here now, and nothing could stop him. No amount of cold pressure or bleeding ears would be enough to make him turn back. Pressure was something Hardy was coming to terms with.
The city he called home was a beehive of pressure. People were everywhere, inescapable. He’d tried doing yoga with earplugs, but could still feel their vibrations in his backside through the floorboards. Someone was always right there on the other side of the drywall. He wanted to take an axe and chop through it, to find his irritation and chop through that too. The images of his neighbors silent corpses silently dripping into the muffled carpet thrilled and frightened him. He had thrown all his cutlery down the garbage chute. Just in case.
Fortunately, the bottom came before his eardrums burst. A soft moss looking layer of dead brown leaves ended with two opposite cracks in the wall, passages into the underwater cave system. He glanced at the surface, a tiny circle of tan the size of a silver dollar far above, and chose the left passageway.
In moments any residual glow vanished as he rounded a corner, kicking gently. Everywhere his light descended wonders sprung forth. Stalactites, the teeth of some primordial crocodile god, hung above him. Down below rested a field of stalagmites that looked like a fantasy mountain range as seen from the sky. Tiny white flashes, he suspected were cave fish, darted and vanished into the gloom at his intrusion. Joining the floor and ceiling rose a massive column of mottled stone that reminded him of an orgy of mushrooms. He swam up next to it, breathing deeply, bubbles rising above him in a shimmer. The realization crept upon him that no living man had ever seen these things before. This was exactly what he needed.
His whole life had been spent in the company of people, and they’d grown to sicken him. He’d found himself becoming a recluse, angry and resentful that he never managed to be truly alone. He didn’t want much, just five simple minutes. If he found that, was able to suckle upon some lonely silence in a dark nothingness, then perhaps his soul could be satiated. The rising fires of rage would extinguish with no tinder to burn upon. It sounded nice to Hardy. He was tired of being irritated and scared of what he was turning into. He didn’t watch the news, but he knew what he was becoming; the sound-bite of the night. The guy that surprises everyone. “He never said much, always paid his rent on time. I still can’t believe someone could kill so many people with a toilet brush.”
Hardy threw out all his cleaning products and had begun planning his trip.
He reached out to touch a bulbous stone outcropping, fingertips on smooth stone. Just as his ears adjusted, he could feel his life balancing. The happiness pounded like a tribal drummer inside his ribs. The anger was melting. He had to see more. Kicking feverishly he passed the column on his right, dropping down toward the floor. Two strange formations, one from the top and another from the bottom, reached for one another but did not touch. He swam over and put his flippered feet on top of the lower outcropping and reached, his extended hand just long enough to connect the two. It was magnificent. He was grinning so much he had to be careful of water seeping into his regulator. There were buttons on it to purge the line, but he had no idea how they functioned. Ahead of him there was a dark portal in the wall, another passage to new wonders. He moved toward it, but pulled back in alarm.
When he shone the dive light on the opening it did not extend into the tunnel, but stopped on a strange vacillating wall of liquid. Approaching he frowned. It looked, for all practical purposes, like a sheet of lumpy gelatin, or the gobs found in a lava lamp. Cautiously he reached out and touched it. To his surprise, his hand passed directly through without resistance and seemed to vanish. Shocked, he quickly pulled it out. The surface jiggled slowly. Treading in place he considered the phenomenon. He couldn’t see where he was going, but he would never find better seclusion than this black doorway would provide. Making up his mind, he swam through, vanishing into the shadow.
The first difference he noticed was the taste, and he immediately gagged, biting hard down onto the mouthpiece and trying to make sure no more got past his lips. That it was not water was certain, more like oil or alcohol. It didn’t support him as easily and he lost buoyancy, dropping fast, having to kick harder to stay in position. He kept scissoring and, to further his surprise, passed through the dark veil and back into clarity. Horrible clarity.
Where the last chamber was vast, this room was a hallway; high walls barely six feet apart arched up to a cathedral ceiling. These were carved full of small shallow niches, and within each the sunken dead eyes of an inhabitant looked at their new aquatic visitor. Row upon row of shriveled and mummified bodies surrounded Hardy like cans on a grocery store shelf, extending down a seemingly endless hallway. They were tied and bound in the Mayan fashion, legs pulled tight to the chest with stick-like arms hugging them, skeletal chins rested on bony knees. The limbs were secured with rough cords and some of the bodies were wrapped as well, anchored into place.
Hardy screamed in surprise and instantly the fulminating liquid surged into his mouth, scouring his tongue. He choked, coughed, sinking to the floor of the cavern as he did, gasping for air and trying to regain control of his breathing. The rancid stuff was in the line, blocking the air. Desperate, he swallowed, strange fluid burning his throat, rolling into his stomach. The chest spasms won out and he managed to pull in an acrid breath. Trembling against the cold oily sensations he panted as best he could, fighting off nausea. Minutes passed and his body relaxed.
Recovering the light he’d dropped, he raised the beam. Fumes assaulted his nose inside the mask and made him tear up, but not enough to obstruct the circle of light moving along row after row of mummies. There was no escaping the feeling that he was inside a huge preservation jar, something you’d see on the shelf of a high school science classroom. Kicking hard against the thinner embalming fluid he moved down the hall, stinging eyes wide in fear and amazement. The hallway went on and on, but after eighty feet the mummies stopped, leaving a long dark corridor filled only with empty niches. Hardy stopped, not seeing any reason to press on. The formaldehyde substance buzzed in his head like the sound of traffic and as the reality sank in the fear was quickly gobbled up by disappointment. Here, even here, he could find no peace. The bottom of the world and there was a crowd of dead people just waiting to ruin his plan. As if they’d known. His mind did not try to comprehend the odds of what happened, they were impossible. This was no accident. Someone had decided he would never get his five minutes. The realization boiled hot in Hardy’s head, inflamed his veins, and set loose the rage he’d so long been holding back.
He swam to the closest mummy and took it in his hands, gripping the slimy ribs and smashing it back against the wall. It crumbled as he tore at it, furiously ripping off the arms and legs, strips of muscle and skin. Jerking the head free he swam to the next and used the skull as a bludgeon, crushing, bashing, breaking. From mummy to mummy he went pulling them from their niches, dismembering them and cracking their wet brittle bones when he could. Over and over they fell from their enclaves, broken parts gently drifting to land on the ground below, kicking up clouds of slow motion dust. He did not stop until none remained, utterly destroying what would have been an archeologists wet dream. He would have his solitude at any cost. The chamber was murky and hazy now, flakes of skin and grime floated on disturbed currents.
There, suspended above a field of bones, in the belly of the earth, he clicked his dive light into oblivion. With eyes closed in utter darkness and dead silence, he finally took his damn five minutes of peace. He thought about some of the neighbors he’d fantasized about locking in the building trash compactor and how lucky they were that he was sorting out his head. Would they notice how he’d saved them? Probably not.
An odd sound came to him, lifted up on the strange water. A clicking and tapping noise. Cracking his eyes he noticed that it was no longer entirely dark. A strange sepia glow filled the room. Looking down he saw the source of the clattering luminance; there, in the haze of dust, the bones were rolling and moving, each emanating a low amber phosphorescence. In some places they were joining, not always into the shapes they’d originally been. Unnatural disfigured forms; skulls crowned with ribs here, feet rising from shoulder blades like wings there, and long tendons stretching over crossed bones like dream-catchers of human framework. The current swelled and they rose and fell upon the floor.
Hardy wasted no time watching the gruesome spectacle. Kicking like a madman he thrashed through the dark watery veil and back into the main chamber. He had to get out, away from the repercussions of his need. He felt, more than saw, oily shapes that were not fish moving in the water around him. Flickering yellow pulses played like lightening off the cave fixtures, flashing and moving between the stalagmites below him.
Something bumped his hip roughly as the small crevice that led back to the cenote came into view. There was a jerk on his dive light and he let it go, guided on by the faint light of the exit. Pummeled and harried he rounded the corner and looked up to see the small disc of surface above.
He sprung upwards but something held him down, the straps of his tanks tightening across his chest. His destination in sight, he pulled the cords and the tanks dropped, jerking the regulator from his mouth. Unencumbered by the heavy diving gear, he raced to the top. Beneath him the bright gold glow increased, but he did not look at it. Lungs near to bursting he breached the surface, body aching and heaving for air. As he pulled himself out of the basin the current tried to drag him under again. Backing away on the grass he looked down at what was no longer the tranquil pool he’d entered. Rushing and turning upon itself the glowing liquid circled and churned in a whirlpool. Dark fetal shapes bobbed in the new rapids, skulls and limbs, fragments careening. Over-sized embryos, like big sunken faced raisins. Hardy screamed at the swirling urine colored stew of the dead.
“I just needed to be alone! Don’t you see that?!” He cried. “Just a little! I had to!”
In response, the ocher tarn rose up in a heavy wave, thick as honey and filled with the desecrated, to crash upon Hardy. Shards cut through his suit, cracked teeth sunk into his skin, and fingers found his limbs. Down and down they fell, sinking deep into the underworld cavern below.
The release of unconsciousness did not descend upon him as his knees were lifted and his wrists were bound around his legs.
There was a niche just for him now, and he would always have plenty of company.