In the Spring of 2020, my short story - In the Abyss - received Honourable Mention in the Writers Federation of NB's short story competition.
I'm grateful for the award and want to share the story with you this week.
Honourable Mention : an award or special praise given to someone who has done something extremely well but who has not won any of the official prizes
For the longest time, the idea for this story, floated around in my head with no place to land until I was invited to participate in a writer's workshop one fine day in Shediac. I was invited by Zev Bagel, one of NB's creative chaps and fine storyteller. Surrounded by other creative minds and wonderful support, the words flowed... and this is the result.
Into the Abyss
What is there left to be discovered? In our moments of curiosity, perhaps there are a few stones that should be left unturned.
Julius Castor – Jules to most – is at the local library. He’s adjusting his black-framed bifocals as he scans the titles of the travel books, a row of confusion, looking for Hiking Trails of New Brunswick. A co-worker had mentioned it after she heard about his plans to take a long weekend. He had decided to dig out his backpack and camping gear and spend three days off in the wilderness by himself. He’d been looking forward to this for the last two weeks. He needs the time away. But the joy over his upcoming excursion is balanced by his frustration at being unable to decide where to go.
His girlfriend has broken up with him a month ago. It had been totally unexpected. They’d been dating since they graduated high school together, six years ago. Out of the blue, she told him she was moving to India to head up the new call center their company was opening. He was offered an opportunity to go too, but India held as much appeal to him as having his toenails removed with a pair of pliers. So he had lost his job as well as his girl. On top of that, his faithful companion, Charlie the cat, passed away, and now, a month later, the once-lanky Jules is fifteen pounds heavier from stuffing his mouth with chocolate due to bouts of depression. A weekend of solitude is what he needs. Just him and the birds, and the trees and whatever else he finds. What he really wants is to drop this dead funk that is pestering him.
As he browses the shelves, he takes a deep breath. He loves the smell of books: the aging paper, the bold odor of ink. It’s why he had studied literature in college. Which is why he works at a call centre. At one time he had hoped to teach English but after being a supply teacher for a short time, the unruliness of the seventh graders made him change his mind. He’s too sensitive to be bossy and dish out punishment.
Some books have shiny spines; others are dull and unreadable. Some have bold letters that yell out their title; others have print so small they might as well be in another language. Jules scratches his head, mussing up his wavy hair. He’s been back and forth several times over this aisle where the librarian had told him he would find what he’s searching for. And he can’t find it. Seeing her at the end of the aisle, he calls out to her in a too-loud voice and she interrupts his query with a finger to her lips and the compulsory, Shhhh! Then she walks down the aisle and stops several feet away. Her eyeglasses hang on a silver chain around her neck and she replaces them on her wizened face, she reminds him of his grandmother. Moving a couple of books around, she finds the title he’s looking for. He’s impressed with her memory. Both for the title he had given her earlier and for the book’s location. It’s not exactly the latest best-seller. A bit shorter than him, she has to look up at him when she passes it to him and whispers,
“There you are, young man. Going on a hike, are you?”
Jules only nods and his round cheeks redden a bit. He’d passed that spot at least three times and never noticed the book. She leaves with a small wave and a half smile.
“Don’t get lost.”
Heading to a nearby table, he scans the pages, flipping them like a fan. In doing so, a paper falls to the floor. He kneels to pick it up. It’s folded in quarters, and when he opens it, a corner crumbles and pieces fall to the floor like confetti. Realizing it’s very old, he handles it gently. Sitting at a plain wooden table – the kind that are popular at church halls and cafeterias and, obviously, libraries – he unfolds the paper as delicately as possible. The overall color is sepia, with edges frayed or broken. The creases where it’s been folded are worn, proclaiming the many times it’s been opened and closed. The lower left corner states that it was once the property of the Albert County Coal Mining Company.
It’s a topographical map, with dark brown highlights and lines twisting and turning ophidian-like. Glancing at the legend at the bottom, Jules sees that the scale is one inch to one thousand feet. The thickest line ends near a mountaintop and has a star at the terminus. A small lake is depicted nearby. It looks familiar, but he thinks that’s unlikely.
The weirdest part is the picture of a woman in an oval frame in the bottom right corner. It looks like it’s not meant to be there – as if it was added later on. Only the head and shoulders are visible. She is staring at something to the right of the photographer. The eyes are dominant, wide and shaded by fear. The non-smiling mouth makes him think of the Mona Lisa. From the hairstyle, headband and clothing, Jules thinks the picture might be from the 1970s because it reminds him of photos he’s seen of his mother when she was younger. But checking the legend, he notices the date: July 26, 1902. The hairs stand up on the back of his neck. Today is July 26, 2002. A hundred years to the day.
The coincidence of the dates is not lost on him. He senses the map is telling him where he should go. Bending to study the details more closely, he sees why it looks familiar – he recognizes the jagged coastline he’s followed so many times. It’s the Bay of Fundy, and this is the old mining trail now situated in Fundy National Park. The lake stumps him, though. To confirm his suspicion, he opens the hiking book to the proper section and traces the trail to find that he is correct. He can see how the roads line up with the topography of the terrain. They have to be the same. Only, in the book, the lake is not there. That settles it. He’s going to go find the lake on the map.
Looking around casually, he sees no one is watching him. He carefully refolds the map, places it between the pages of his own notebook, and returns the book to the shelves. He’s not a thief, but he feels compelled to take it with him. A pang of guilt makes him feel like a bandit though. So, he stops at Don’s Printing Service to have a copy made of the map and then he returns it. He stops at the grocery store for some nuts and berries, oatmeal and raisins. Back home, he makes his own gorp. Once that was done, he packs and is ready to leave first thing in the morning.
Next day by noon, Jules is sweating profusely in the midday heat. A red polka-dotted handkerchief is tied around his head. Clad in new hiking boots, which he curses because they’ve made a blister on the back of his heel, rugged walking shorts and a black T-shirt, damp with his perspiration, that says Kindness is Contagious in white letters, he’s leaning back on a gnarled and knotty birch tree, trying to catch his breath. Normally he’d be stopping more often, but an inner urge propels him to find this lake. Breathing deeply through his nose, he smiles at the aroma the forest offers: the decaying leaves, the scent of pine sap, the pleasant rot of dead wood. Checking his watch, he estimates another hour before he’s there. Taking the bag of trail mix from his pack, he gnaws on the contents to satisfy his hunger pangs and carries on. Birds cavort overhead, trilling their love songs or warnings into the emptiness. Crows caw at his intrusion. Small animals enter the path and are startled by the presence of a strange biped. All of it has a calming effect on him, but some of his troubles still nag at him like the blister on his heel.
The last section of the trail is like a tunnel. Fingers of maple, poplar and oak stretch overhead from both sides, toying with each other to create a living canopy. The path is dappled from the slivers of the sun that penetrate the thick foliage. As Jules crests the last rise, the tunnel opens to a clearing overgrown with long grasses and young shoots. Jules escapes the shadows and their cool caress and walks into the sunlight, relishing the warmth. But there’s no lake. He checks the map, certain he’ll see a sign that says, “You are here.” Disappointment causes him to frown. Tired now, he decides to rest for a bit and make a more substantial lunch later. Dropping his backpack, he leans it against a fallen tree covered with moss and forest debris. Sitting on the ground beside it, he leans his head back and closes his eyes, meaning to momentarily bask in the sun’s golden glow before eating. Fatigue is greater than hunger and he falls asleep.
Waking to the sound a coyote howling in the distance, he squints at the sun, which seems to be in the same spot in the clear sky as when he fell asleep. Rubbing his eyes, he tries to focus, but all he sees are sepia tones. The tree he was leaning on is gone. He’s lying on the grass and his backpack has fallen over. The clearing is much larger; the trees nearest him, much younger. He sits up and shakes his head, thinking he’s still asleep and dreaming, but nothing changes. Wiping the sleep from the corner of his eyes, the reality of the setting unsettles him. Goosebumps pepper his flesh; his heart pounds in his chest. This is not where he fell asleep. Nothing is the same. Even the tunnel he had emerged from earlier is not yet formed; the limbs have not reached each other. He thinks out loud:
“This is strange. I have to be dreaming.”
Pinching his leg, he feels the pain; he must be awake. A need to urinate gets him moving. While relieving himself, he keeps looking over his shoulder, eyes darting at any suspected or imagined movement. Things are the same, but not the same. Why can’t he see other colors? It’s like looking at the map. He spies another path, partially hidden by the branches of a young sycamore tree. He stares, trying to recall if it was there before but can’t remember. Wandering over to the trail, he’s surprised to see it is well worn. Checking that his pack is still where he left it, he hesitates. Something nags at him to stay put. An eerie feeling comes over him as if he won’t like what he finds. Yet the urge to see where it leads is compelling. Something beckons. Against his better judgement, he pushes the young tree aside and cautiously enters the track.
The path is mostly downhill, the walking easy. He keeps rubbing his eyes, hoping to clear the sepia tones. After a few minutes, he follows a bend and a lake is soon visible. He thinks it’s the one in the old map. At first all he sees is the blinding sparkle of the sun glistening off the dimpled surface. Approaching the end of the trail, to his surprise, colors slowly return to the surroundings. The fear he initially felt dissipates, and the jitters leave his body. The white and brown boles of the large trees are the only break from the verdant splendor of leaves and grass. The lake is as blue as the cloudless sky. With the heat pressing down on him, a body of water has never been so inviting. It calls to him, a voice in his head, soft and mellow, urging him in.
The sun grows hotter, his clothes cling to him. He looks around and feels foolish for doing so. He doubts there is anyone about. Removing all his clothes, even his underwear, he wades into the cool, refreshing water. The bottom is silty, and soft mud squishes between his toes. He craves to go deeper but is nervous of swimming alone. Almost up to his neck in the water, a peace comes over him that is unexplainable, an intense sensation, like an orgasm or that first hit of marijuana, the consciousness of mouthwatering chocolate. He forgets everything that has been troubling him and a singsong voice startles him.
“Come in. Come deeper. Let me hold you.”
The tone is mother-like, melodious and tender. He looks around – three hundred and sixty degrees – but sees no one. Pushing himself off the bottom, he dives in and goes deep, maybe ten to fifteen feet down. Looking up, he sees rays slice the surface and marvels at the sunlight refracting in the water, like a curtain slowly opening. He needs to breathe, but before he propels himself upward, he glances to the depths and sees what looks like a porcelain arm waving to him. Thinking it some kind of fish he resurfaces and notices that the sun has settled in the west, as if several hours have passed since he dove in. But that’s not possible. Is it?
Looking east, he sees dark billowing clouds roar through the sky like steam engines. An overwhelming urgency compels him to set his tent up before dark, gather some wood for a fire. He paddles toward shore, but it doesn’t come closer. He’s pushing with his arms and kicking, but he’s not going anywhere. Turning on his back to rest, he feels something grasp his leg, like a hand, and a penetrating fear engulfs him. Just before it pulls him under, he gulps in a large breath. Down he goes. He’s fighting the downward pull until the voice comes back, soothing, beckoning.
“Relax. Give in to the depths.”
Mesmerized, he gives up his struggle. Mere seconds later, he’s staring at a porcelain statue covered with algae. He realizes it is the body of a woman. His struggle has disturbed the sediment in the water and visibility is poor. His lungs burn; he needs to breathe. As he stares at the figure, the face becomes clear. He screams silently into the water. It’s the woman in the picture on the map.
July 26, 2027
Debbie Foster is at the local library. She and two friends are visiting from Ontario and want to go hiking while they’re vacationing in New Brunswick. The librarian leads her to the travel section and digs out a copy of Hiking Trails in New Brunswick. Debbie thanks her, and waits until the lady returns to her desk to flip through the pages. Halfway through, a map falls out on the floor. The first thing Debbie notices when she opens it is the odd sepia color. On the bottom, looking out of place, is a photo of a young man with round cheeks, wavy hair and black glasses.