Photos by Nikki Irvine
I have woefully neglected blogging of late, but may reasonably be excused as I’ve been away on holiday for a while. Nothing like a change of scene to give you food for thought and writing fodder. A scuba diving holiday has done just that and I thought I’d get back to the writing by sharing a short story inspired by one of the places I dived: the Cenotes in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. My favourite being Dos Ojos, El Pit, which inspired the story below. I will try to put up a few things over the next few days too. Hope you enjoy the dark, fervid imaginings concocted during my cavern diving (deepest of which I went to being 36 meters, a new record for me) 🙂
The pit opened up as the two divers descended. Their torch beams pierced the gloom, illuminating a cathedral roof of stalactites. Paul took a breath through his regulator, moving his jaw and successfully equalised; hearing the expulsion of his breath clearly again. He glanced at Ana, noting her descent steadying as she added a little more air to the buoyancy jacket. They leveled their path at 30 meters, coming down through a white mist of sulphur, caused by the decomposing vegetation in the cavern. A leaf caught in the glow of the light, almost transparent, but for its tracery of veins, fine as gossamer.
Paul finned harder, his light flickering slightly to his right as he checked on Ana. Beyond her, he caught sight of a wide-berthed tree that rose up through the mist. It sat at an angle in the cloud, looking like an upturned banquet table, its rotting surface having long forgotten the feasts of the past. Paul wondered for a moment, perhaps they should turn back, perhaps this was wrong. He couldn’t shake the feeling that in the surrounding caverns and watery passageways something was waiting for them.
Paul slowed his pace and caught Ana’s eye, nodding to her. She held her breath for a moment, but fell in behind him as planned, careful not to direct the torch ahead. Paul’s beam was poised aloft as he continued through the halocline, the cavern ahead becoming distorted as the salt and fresh water mixed together. As he came out into the water again, tales that Ana had first told him of her ancestors percolated. The Mayans held that Chaak resided in these caves, stocking them with earthenware jars, which he poured from the sky to give the people rain for their crops. Imagining the green canopy of the jungle above only made the waters seem more hostile and he tried not to remember how much more comforting this dive was during the day, with shafts of light colouring the underwater terrain.
Their purpose dictated discretion: the night was necessary. Paul stopped finning and waited as Ana drifted over, holding herself next to him. Her deeper breaths made her movements more pronounced than his. She stilled as she caught sight of the wall: ammonites decorated its wide expanse, their swirling forms telling a story millions of years old. Paul tried to recall what he knew about the mollusks. They had become extinct in the Cretaceous period. Cephalopods lived in the last chamber of a pod. The animal could rise and fall by filling the tube that connected all the chambers with water or gas.
Ana’s hand latched onto Paul and tugged at him. He’d started to rise as his breathing had quickened. Ana’s brown eyes were round behind the plastic of her mask, but their usual rich hue was leeched by the darkness. Her look was fierce, endeavoring to conceal the yearning and desperation, but it still threatened to engulf him. The last few years had been hard on her, on both of them. They’d been trying for a baby, but no amount of prodding or poking, tests or consultants were going to produce that miracle. As Paul felt his will crumbling, words his mother had taught him as a child, which he’d never believed in before, now marched through his mind with ferocity: Sheol, Gehenna, Hinnom, Bor, Abaddon, Sha’hat, Tehom, Hell.
Ana finned ahead and as she stilled before the wall, he knew the choice was hers. Even if they ascended and discussed it further, he could not take her place; the old gods only dealt with their own people and his Christian musings belonged to a modern world that was devoid of hope for her. Her gods were of the deep: ancient and powerful. They believed in trade. If you wanted something enough, you had to give a thing of equal value.
Slowly, he lifted his torch until it shone over Ana’s form, projecting her shadow onto the white wall of fossils. Paul imagined the porous limestone absorbing her just as the rock had swallowed the rain water above, thousands of years ago until it had collapsed in on itself to form this very cavern. The lines of Ana’s shadow grew sharp and its expanse was heavy on the stone, like pigment seeping into plaster. Its edges blurred until her shadow disappeared entirely. Ana remained as before: rising and falling in the water.
They ascended side by side, circling gradually upwards, until hovering at their 5 meter safety stop. Paul felt uneasy being stationary and grew stiff, surveying the water around them as if expecting something to swim at them. They surfaced in the glint of the moon. Paul’s stomach lurched. Ana’s eyes, their warm resin light was extinguished. He knew that the exchange was complete. The water had been a vehicle for the trade, and if it wasn’t already, Ana’s womb would soon be heavy with life. The water had taken its payment too, and Paul could see the bright tones that had once resided in Ana’s eyes now bathed in firelight: the newest fresco on the walls of Hell.