Bogleech.com's 2019 Horror Write-off:
Do You Remember Water?
Submitted by Dia
The divers, the boats and their hooks had left a long time ago, but Grigori remained. He stood alone on the southern shore, his car parked in the dirt lot behind him, and coughed out smoke and condensation into the prickly morning air. He brought the cigarette to his lips again and traced the shoreline with his eyes.
The lake was smaller than in his memories. It, and the nearby town it hid from, was nearly dead center in an imaginary straight line between Hlukhiv and Kursk. The lake nearly spilled over into the Ukraine and sometimes, during flood season, it did. Conifers surrounded it, except for the thin north shore, which was fenced in by a birch thicket. Their trunks looked like a forest of white toothpicks from across the water.
The morning fog receded.
A tall bird was wading in the shallows. One of Luca’s birds, Grigori thought. It was a crane, or maybe an ibis, with glossy black plumage, blue and white wings, and red stilt-legs. Every so often it would plunge its bald head into the water. Then it would swing back its long neck and swallow whatever had been caught in its bill.
Soft ripples trailed from the bird’s legs as it crept through the shallows. They were the only movement on the surface of the water.
“So much tragedy for a bunch of birds,” Grigori said. He looked it in its reptilian eyes, which were surrounded by puffy orange wattles. “And some goddamn ugly birds too.”
His head throbbed, in that way that always came before a migraine. It would be a comically awful time to get one, but he suspected the cause. He bent down, stubbed out his cigarette gently, then examined it in his hand. Unfiltered. He hadn’t smoked those in ages.
Should never have left Russia, he chided himself. Damn it.
He flicked the cigarette into the water.
Tank. Regulator. Mask- it squished his nose a bit. Wetsuit, he could still fit into that pretty well, and his ego floated up cautiously. The gloves were in decent condition, at least for a pair that he also used while cleaning his apartment. The fins didn’t fit exactly, but there was no one around to complain to and a finite amount of daylight. If the lake isn’t deep enough for daylight not to matter, he thought. Off the crescent beach that he played on as a kid the water was shallow, but he and Luca had always stayed in the view of at least one of their mothers. If they ventured out half a meter too far they would get yelled at, or even grounded.
Once, when Luca’s mother had turned her back to get something from her car, the adventurous spirit seized Grigory. He swam out further than ever before, and the lake had gotten deep enough to stop feeling friendly.
Grigory snapped his snorkel into place and adjusted his pack. He’d paid a painful amount of money for his two new oxygen tanks. He unbagged them, one at a time, and turned them over in his hands before strapping them into his backpack. They had the weight he associated with a quality product.
The mist had evaporated under the high sun. Enough time had been wasted.
Grigori squinted and scanned the lake. He couldn’t start searching from this beach. But the entrance to the beach, the crescent beach, got fenced off years ago. Bushes had swallowed the old dirt road, the road that was bumpy enough to almost give Grigori a childhood concussion. But he still saw the bend in the shore, that smooth C-bend that still repeated itself in his dreams a decade later. The beach hadn’t vanished, and it beckoned to him- from almost halfway down the west shore of the lake.
He cursed and started walking.
It had to be the other beach, Grigori reassured himself, trying to balance while walking forward on the narrow, stony shore. No one would dump a body right off from the dirt lot, where anybody could go for a swim and trip over a femur. And if Luca was in the lake, he was put there. It didn’t matter what the police said or declined to say. The crescent beach was the smart place to start.
The bird was meandering Grigori’s way. Its knees bent backwards in that way he’d always found slightly unsettling. It waded through the water with the effortless grace of something free of obligations. It might as well have been making fun of him, the contrast between their movements was so stark.
Eventually the rocks turned back into sand. Grigori made it to the beach and sat down and sighed. The air was still sharp. He rubbed his hands together.
After a few minutes he peeled off a glove. He let his fingertips brush over the silver sand.
As boys, the two of them used to race through the water and pretend they were seals. Luca, the egghead, had told him there were only seals in Lake Baikal, but Grigori would retort that water traveled through underground tunnels, and it was perfectly reasonable that seals would travel with it. They had this conversation about a dozen times, and always with the intensity of a political debate.
They’d marvel at the little ecosystem at the bottom, the carpet of green slime and the branches and rocks that had been underneath it for who-knows how long. The lake bottom that looked like a jungle floor and the shapes of fish passing through the darkness.
Grigori stood up, tied up his sandy hair, and pulled down his diving mask. “Never dive alone, they tell you,” he said to the lake. His words fogged up his goggles. “But we’re not really alone, are we, Luca?”
He left the beach and waded out into the water with his arms held out awkwardly. Each step could be dangerous. The shoreline had receded since his childhood- it was more of a U than a C now. And his memories weren’t clear enough to remember where the slippery shallows dropped off into the full depth of the lake.
Grigori felt a pinch on his ankle. He looked down and grimaced. A leech had bitten onto a sliver of bare skin between his left boot and his wetsuit. He pulled it off and flung it as far as he could. It hit the water with a distant plop. The bird took wing after it.
Grigori popped in his regulator and went under. The water soaked through his wetsuit. The cold was sharp. He shivered reflexively as his wetsuit adjusted and his skin acclimated.
A sickly green fog came up over his field of vision. He groaned. The visibility was a meter at most. His goggles might as well have been made of old beer-bottle glass. He began to swim away from the shore and kept his hands out in front of him, hanging low to the lake bottom.
The green fog thinned a little as he went farther out. Now, the problem was clear. For as far as Grigori could see- still less than two meters- the lake bottom was torn up in long parallel gashes. The body-dredging had raked up the benthos and transformed the water into green soup. Luca won’t be happy with this. And it’s in his name, too, thought Grigori.
Grigori tweaked his headlamp. On the drive he’d let his brain dance around all the gruesome possibilities. Always he’d pulled his thoughts back before accepting any of them. The body (he paused to scalpel-sever the concept from his memory of Luca) might be in pieces. He’d seen that trick on TV. It would fool the radar, if the police had bothered to use it. You know they didn’t.
A sterlet passed him by. It looked like a little dinosaur.
Luca was a limnologist. Kursk Oblast had been flat, tedious farmland for centuries and since his teens Luca felt the surviving patches of wilderness should be cherished like jewels. There was a reason, Luca explained to Grigori, that their area had fens but no river. Underneath their feet (Luca would gesture down in enthusiasm) was deep and ancient water. A pristine aquifer. Springs rose out of it like spindly fingers and where they touched the soil, wetlands had formed. Their lake was born from this same prehistoric water. It had, actually, very little glacial fluviation. Grigori would grin and nod in enthusiasm while this information slipped off his brain like beer spilled on laminated paper.
He swam out deeper, gliding between every stroke. By measuring his movements he kept from kicking up any more algae or silt. The water cleared to a delicate turquoise.
Still, he could see nothing below but plants and the usual lake debris. Rocks, driftwood. Beer bottles and tin cans.
And the furrows. It looked like the lake had been raked by the talons of some giant beast.
“It has to be made a zapovednik,” Luca had said, in their first meeting in four years, their only meeting after Grigori had slunk back to Russia. The two of them spent their afternoon in the town’s only bar. It was a miserable place that always smelled faintly of piss. They sat together, Luca with a beer, and Grigori swigging bad cocktails.
Grigori had told Luca his whole sorry saga over the phone. “I thought it was a real spiritual calling.” He’d certainly had the money- he’d been saving for it since childhood. He’d had the materials. He’d had the talent- or so he flattered himself. He thought he would travel west and paint the world, he explained to Luca. Then he would return to Russia and put on an exhibition using the trip as a publicity angle. It would be his explosive entrance into the Moscow art scene. He’d gotten as far as Venice and four canvases before a hangover and an unlocked door ended in his money missing and his art scattered around the hotel room like trash.
Luca offered him sympathy and cigarettes. Their paths forked years ago, he said, but they still ran parallel. He’d been studying biology. Now he was working with a handful of other new graduates on surveying the wetlands around their hometown. “I may have begged to be part of this project,” he admitted, “But I didn’t have to beg hard. There’s a big push to make some of this area a nature reserve.”
It was the birds that really got him animated. He pulled a photo he’d taken of one out of his pocket. Grigori took it and looked it over. It was a bad shot of a crane with its back to the camera. He handed it back. “These were a keystone species, and culturally important, too! Archaeologists have found jewelry in Scythian kurgans depicting them. They were in the same style they used to depict gods and magical beasts. Oh, and Siberian shamans would use their feathers in their cloaks! They clearly had mythic importance. And now they only live in a few tiny dots on the map, and one of those dots is here.” Grigori nodded and sipped his beer and tried not to scowl. He failed.
When Luca started to go into painstaking detail about last year’s class schedules Grigori had enough. He put his beer down, groaned, and rubbed his forehead.
“What’s wrong, Grigori?”
“Luca. Are you serious?” Grigori said, slamming his hands on the bar. He was almost laughing. “Are you really trying to say you understand what happened to me because you’ve had hard classes? Luca, all my money is gone- and the Italian government said ‘Go fuck yourself!’ when I tried to get it back! I have no prospects! I have no career!”
“No yelling!” yelled the bartender. Grigori ignored him.
“Luca, I have nothing! I’ve sat here and listened to you fucking brag to me for almost an hour, and you’ve barely even acknowledged me. You invited me here, I thought you wanted to reconnect, we could be friends again-”
“We never stopped being friends,” Luca snapped. “I was trying to distract you from your problems for a while.”
“Horseshit! You brought me here so you’d feel better by comparison!”
Grigori threw down a wad of money and stormed out. Luca wouldn’t humiliate him by paying for his drinks too. He slammed the door behind him.
As he walked to his car he passed the bar’s front window, and through the decals and lettering he could see Luca, sitting high on his barstool with his face buried in his hands. He was devastated. Or maybe just embarrassed.
I’ll apologize later.
Grigori paused. He floated in the water for a minute, trying to decipher what he was looking at. There was some sort of stripe across the lake floor. Its off white color was stark against the green water and algae. Not any sort of police paint as Grigori first thought, it was made of tiny pebbles and was wide as Grigori’s hand. There was a faint hint of a bend where it faded out from visibility. Grigori hesitated and worked up the courage to touch it. He scooped up a handful of the white particles, and let them run out of his fist like an hourglass. They were too big to be sand. He pulled off his right glove and ran his fingers over the stripe. Too sharp, too. Like sandpaper or sharkskin.
He thought about a nature documentary that showed a pufferfish making a nest from circles of sand. He was still trying to invent a convincing backstory for the stripe when he saw the second one.
It was the same width and color, but there was no question of what it was made of. At least the bones were too small to be human.
Fish bones? Grigori pondered. They must have been raked together by the dredging hooks. But the stripes were perpendicular to the furrows. Well, maybe the divers gathered them together by hand. To keep them from catching on the hooks. Or so they wouldn’t mistake them for Luca’s?
On a closer look, they were clearly fish bones.
Little ribs of minnows, thin as white hairs.
The skeletons of perch picked clean by insect nymphs.
The gaping skull of a water bird, still crowned with a few feathers.
He turned and followed the stripe. He kept close above it like he was riding a rail.
“I’m never taking you or Luca to the lake again,” his mother snapped as he picked at the bandage on his hand. “You two will just have to find another hobby. And this wouldn’t have happened if you’d told me the water was full of that rusted trash.”
“Mama,” he said with as much patience as a twelve-year-old could muster, “I’ve never saw that stuff before.”
“Mama, I’m not!”
“Lies by omission are still lies. I know history, you know. This area was one huge battlefield. That lake is probably one kilometer-long dump full of rusty cars and tanks and old bombs just waiting to go off. Count yourself lucky you didn’t touch one of those!”
The door next to them swung open and the nurse called for Grigori, and he went to get his tetanus shot by himself.
He hadn’t seen that car in the spot he remembered. It was probably removed years ago.
Or maybe his memory was off. It could’ve been in a different part of the lake.
Maybe it wasn’t a car at all.
In fact, he was certain. It wasn’t really a car. But, dammit, what was it?
His head throbbed again.
Grigori stopped. Panic was lurking just behind him, he could feel it, the strain was building in his eyes and he could feel the cold zaps in his fingers. It was like the tide receding before a tsunami. “Divers who panic are divers who drown,” he recalled his instructor saying, which was the opposite of helpful. He scanned the water. A tall flat rock sat to his left, a mossy heap of fishing net to his right. The ground sloped up slowly behind him. He switched his headlamp off and looked up. The surface was marked with gentle dancing sunlight.
Grigori scrambled upward and surfaced. He trembled and spat his regulator out and drank down the free air in huge gulps.
He pulled up his mask. A gentle breeze chilled his face.
He looked around for a moment, treading water and steadying his breaths.
The dirt lot was barely visible. His car was a red speck. A green speck was parked next to it, and if he squinted hard, he thought a person in a white shirt might be fishing on the beach.
He put his mask and regulator back and floated down. He calculated the depth to be around five meters. The stripe wasn’t gone.
It’s a circle, he realized. It’s curving with the shore of the lake. If I follow it I’ll loop around.
For some reason, this had the weight of a much greater revelation. It had to be tested. He’d follow the stripe for a bit longer and then, if he didn’t find what he was looking for, he’d break off to search somewhere else. He clicked his headlamp on.
A little while later he reached what looked like a smaller stripe branching off the main one, but in better visibility turned out to be a birch tree laying across it. He followed it with his eyes, from its branches down to its stone-clogged roots. Next to them, a line of footprints in the algae were leading off into the distance.
Police divers wear fins.
His mind flooded with a thousand conflicting images, like a dozen television stations blaring at once. All of them were of Luca.
It didn’t matter what he found at the end of the footprints. He had to follow them. He had an obligation to his friend.
So he followed them. They wound around piles of dredged-together trash, over stones and across thickets of tangling water-weeds. And after a while they brought Grigori down a steep rocky slope until the water was too deep for algae. A crayfish scuttled by and hid itself beneath a stone.
The water was painter’s-palette blue.
He reached the bottom of the slope. It dropped down into a wedge-shaped chasm, comprised of a short sandy plateau overhung by a massive slab of a cliff. The clifftop was overgrown with water-weeds, like the roof of an ancient earth house. Right under the overhang, and nearly tall enough to touch its dangling moss, was a row of birch driftwood brambles. No, on closer inspection, they weren’t wood. Neither were they bone, Grigori’s second guess (though nothing has bones that big you know, nothing but a whale). They were- you’ll need new gloves now, good job- too jagged. Not stone, either- their branches were too intricate, delicate. Featherlike.
Grigori worked himself through a small gap between the brambles and the cliffside. His hunch was right- they weren’t a line, but a ring viewed from the front, and the cliff was actually the roof of an underwater cave. The brambles were less crowded towards the back. He swam over and peered through a head-sized gap between two toothy branches.
Inside the ring of brambles was a blue void. A huge pit, almost six meters across. Into the pit seven protrusions were dangling, weird warped outgrowths of the fence material.
He pushed through the brambles and shivered when they snapped. He had never heard anything echo underwater before.
There could be a hundred bodies in that pit. What a perfect dumping ground. Try not to get killed by the mob after you don’t drown down there.
He looked up into the broken bits of sunlight between the cave roof and the fence. Then he went down.
On close examination, the growths were actually long tendrils of bramble wrapped around white spheres bigger than Grigori himself. He worked up the courage to poke one with a finger. It was soft. Six of the growths were wrapped around spheres, while a seventh was empty and skeletal.
Was this the real reason Luca wanted this area protected? Grigori wondered as he descended. Whatever this is- some freak ecosystem or something more- did he know? Did he know all along that this was here? He looked upward. He couldn’t even begin to reckon the depth.
Luca had told him once about water being in different layers, just like rock. Grigori wondered if he’d descended to a lower stratum. The shallow waters had few fish but were green, and primal. Vacant but alive, like a temporarily abandoned disaster zone. The chasm and pit were stagnant. The water was too deep for moss now, and silt had replaced the biofilm.
As a teenager Grigori had profoundly changed. He’d become grandly religious but started to shun the church. He believed in God, he was almost certain, but not the Orthodox God. Neither, after sampling them, did he believe in the Catholic or Protestant Gods. He concluded that God was absent from all the heavyweight churches and their arthritic rituals. Luca agreed. God, Luca theorized, breathed through the wind, saw through the eyes of his creatures, circulated his essence through the rivers and the currents of the seas. Anyone could connect with God. Their energy just had to be attuned.
At 19 Grigori realized he didn’t believe in anything at all. He called Luca and cried for the first and last time in years. He begged Luca to tell him about energy waves. He wanted elaborate metaphysical explanations he could lose himself in. He didn’t want to think about how alone, mortal, naked he was.
Luca was uncomfortable being cried at over the phone. “I really have lots of studying to do right now,” he said. “We can meet in a couple days and we’ll talk about this in person.” They never did.
Grigori followed the headlamp beam down out of the pit. He emerged into the darkness of a cavernous underwater sinkhole. Perhaps, he thought, even the mouth of the aquifer itself.
He went deeper.
He clicked up his headlamp until it was as bright as a spotlight. Half-disappointed, he saw the pale bottom of the sinkhole rising up to him as he descended. For a brief moment he hung upside down, suspending himself in blackness a meter above the slimy floor.
He somersaulted to right himself and pale shapes surrounded him. As his eyes adjusted the shapes took on structure and sharpened into stone heaps and ruined walls. Inside this sinkhole, underneath the lake for all these years, was the stone skeleton of a medieval village.
Here’s your zapodnevik, Luca, he thought, This’ll be a world heritage site. Maybe, he thought sentimentally, the universe had meant him to find this, even if he didn’t find Luca.
Grigori was tearing up. His goggles started fogging and he smacked himself back to his senses.
The ruins were magnificent. Grigori thought of photos from books that he’d owned as a child, about the Italian monasteries he hadn’t gotten to see and about which dumpy ruin in Britain could be the real Camelot. The stones were as worn as the latter and swung up in arches as grand as the former, and the idea of swimming through any of them made him somehow nauseous. He hovered above.
The whole ruin was arranged in three rough rings. An outer circle of low walls had borne the brunt of erosion. A second circle, inside but partly overlapping the first, was of low boxy buildings, and in the center was a ring of tall intact structures. One was a tower with a single window near the top, possibly for a bell. Across from it was a nondescript slab with no visible entrances. Between them stood an ancient and beautiful chapel. The mortar was off-white and speckled with dark stones. Only the inner three buildings still had roofs, which were peaked and made of dozens of separate dark slats.
Grigori noticed a glimmer coming from the chapel’s right wall. That’s a bad light, his civilized mind told him. An anglerfish-light, chimed in his memory of Luca.
But under that, his primitive mind, older, stronger than the other, urged him on.
He didn’t disobey. He floated towards the light in respectful silence.
I mean, I’ve been trespassing here, haven’t I? He laughed. Swimming as a kid, pissing in their water, eating their fish. And now they’re calling to me, they know I know, it’s time for the formal introduction.
The light turned out to be his headlamp beam reflecting off a stained glass window almost twice Grigori’s height. It glinted with every color Grigori could imagine. The largest pieces of glass barely reached the size of Grigori’s head, and all were round and worn, giving the work an almost pointillistic appearance. The style was totally alien to modern churches.
The subject matter nearly was, too. Grigori guessed it was the eagle of St. John, but he’d never seen it fused with a human’s lower body before. The weirdness of its proportions could be chalked up to style, but the small monk that bowed in front of it was proportioned fine. The eagle-saint knelt and extended one hand to the monk as if inviting him to climb into its palm. With its other hand it made a gesture that was painful to mimic.
He looked through a clear piece of glass and saw movement inside the chapel. Grigory froze, enraptured with fear.
Inside, the building wasn’t a ruined chapel, or an intact chapel, or any building Grigori had seen in his life. The walls bowed and bent at angles not reflected in the exterior. They were slimed with something that made them glimmer like mother-of-pearl. There were pews and tables, arranged madly, some stacked on their sides, and all groped and overgrown with white bone-bramble. Thick veins of it grew over the floor and lower walls like kudzu. In the center of the room, floating, was a massive black slab that Grigori realized was a dining table, and seated all around it were figures in blue cloaks.
These are the People of Nature, Grigori thought insanely. Look right now, they’re signing a secret treaty about who’s going to fossilize and who’ll decay. You’re on the long list, Grigori, sorry, looks like you’ll be coal-
The water moved slightly and Grigori jolted back. A fat white hand closed around where his neck had been.
He wheeled around and one of the cloaked things was almost on top of him. The bell-ringer had come to greet him. It grabbed at Grigori again, sluggish in its waterlogged cloak. Grigori’s adrenaline only barely won out over his fear. He rolled over and it missed by a hair.
Grigori dove. If he could have heard anything besides his heart pounding in his ears, he might have caught the hooded thing’s indignant cry. The headlamp beam had caught it full in the face, and for one precious second, it was blinded. Grigori dolphin-kicked, for the first time since diving class, and shot around the corner of the chapel and up past the tower. When he looked over his shoulder he didn’t see the bell-ringer, but he did see the bell, or the abomination that grew in place of one, thrashing and snapping its shelled head like a giant pair of jaws.
Grigori ascended the pit in maybe a tenth of the time he’d gone down it. His limbs were burning and he felt ready to melt into jelly. He would pass out. He had to stop.
He took the deepest breath he could and floated over to one of the spheres on the rim of the pit. If he stayed on top of it he’d be hidden to anything below.
Grigory picked a wide straight branch and snapped it off. It was the closest thing he could get to a weapon. Scraping together remnants of his courage, he looked over the side, down into the pit.
The sphere shuddered and bulged under him and Grigori screamed.
He forced his way up and past and through the brambles and they snapped around him like finger bones. Then he turned and tried to climb up the slope on his back. He had to keep from moving his burning legs. His eyes stayed locked on the cave.
He’d gotten up the slope, turned over, and made it halfway back to the ward circle when a white figure shot up behind him. The bell-ringer had dropped its cloak.
For fuck’s sake.
Grigori was still on his back. The thing loomed over him like a living avalanche. He’d known it wasn’t human, but it wasn’t even subhuman. It looked like it was made of drowned flesh, soft, pitted like trench foot and soggy like a wet paper bag right before its contents burst. Its arms and legs, bloated as they were, had fused to its body with a membrane that receded before Grigori’s eyes, and its face was a cross between a sucking mouth and an anus.
It lunged. He kicked out and hit it straight in the gut but it was like kicking a water balloon. It rippled and staggered back and swung one of its swollen fists.
“Fuck!” The water muffled Grigori’s voice.
Grigori jammed the branch forward and lanced through the bell-ringer’s fist. It jerked its hand back. The branch slid out with sickening ease.
Blood like blue ink started to pulse out of its wounded hand. Its face opened like a melting clam and an eye, algae-green and pinprick-pupiled, gaped out.
Grigori stabbed the branch into it and the bell-ringer howled. It grabbed and and pawed at its face, but its jelly hands couldn’t grip it, they were shredded by the jagged bramble.
The branch sunk further into the thing’s face, which was warping, gaining and losing features both familiar and alien. Human eyes appeared, too many of them, then glossy white fur. Green scales rippled across it and vanished, then bare bumpy skin, cartilage, and finally it lost all features and sunk in on itself like a rotten pumpkin. Grigori flipped over and fled the thing as it spasmed in its own blood.
In its death throes it shot its arm out and instead of a hand there were jaws, a snapping mouth like a moray’s head. They barely missed his foot and snapped down on the edge of his fin. He felt himself being dragged back.
Some deep reptilian part of Grigori compelled him to death-roll. His foot twisted out of his fin and he was free.
As he kicked away he could swear the silt he whipped up was forming into faces.
After the longest three meters of Grigori’s life he surfaced. Without thinking he ripped his mask and regulator off. He threw them as if to say, I’m alive, I’m not drowned, I’m free.
He vomited, turned and made for the closest land. That was the east shore, and someone was already standing there. It was the man in the white shirt who had parked his car next to Grigori’s. He was gazing out at the lake through binoculars.
“Please!” called Grigori, flailing. “Please help me!”
The binoculars dropped to the ground. The man raised his hands, as if in terror.
It was Luca. His features were unmistakable.
Grigori felt like his bones had been turned to ice.
“Grigori, I- I’m sorry-”
Something heavy landed in the water behind Grigori. It was not a bird.
Luca’s voice trembled.
“But it didn’t want me.”