Lake Oreyd – Damien Krsteski

The lake’s still surface was a golden quilt. The churches which amassed along the shore over the centuries now had their fossilized features balanced between day and night. A most sacred moment. The eyestalks, V-shaped like the chalice from which the Savior had drunk her poison, framed the setting sun, the tails like the scepters with which she’d been prodded to trial facing the rising moon.

One intake of breath, the sun dipped down, pulling the moon up, and the alignment was broken.

The podvodnya sank; my ears popped as we descended, and looking out the thick, round window it seemed as if the lake’s waters darkened in hue with each blink of the eye. When we neared the bottom some hours later, all was pitch black. The vessel’s searchlight turned on to sweep below us.

Corroded broken pipes lay in the sediment, barnacled and covered with algae. Our podvodnya crawled the lake’s bottom, much like benthic creatures of the past must have when they sought the source of God, tentacles sifting through silt, clawing at mud, chasing away eels which sparkled in the dark.

We could see only within that circle of pale light: our window to His underwater Kingdom.

#

TAPE A/0; ARCHIVED

Q: [garbled]

A: Woolsbnick College. On the first, second, and fourth expedition. I was slated to join the last one, too, but certain academic obligations kept me from doing so. Fortunately, as it turned out.

Q: [garbled]

A: Ah, apologies. Professor Vyktor Claude.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: That’s a very personal question.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: Yes, I suppose it is relevant. Well. Why couldn’t one believe in both? I’ve spent my entire life—not just academic life, mind you—reconciling my faith with science. And while it hasn’t always been straightforward, I believe I’ve managed quite well thus far. My work in academia is an extension of my beliefs, you see, a study of the color and shape of the individual tiles making up our Universe. Science is the details. But then I pull back, and admire the mosaic. And that’s my faith. So, yes, both.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: No, I don’t think that makes me biased. I’m an academic first and foremost.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: It was a tragedy. I lost brothers and sisters down there, and it’s an insult to their memory to so casually dismiss the expeditions as unsuccessful. One must look beyond the official records, peel away the dry facts on the surface to realize we didn’t altogether fail to find something. Perhaps we failed to define that something. But down there we knew, may the Savior bless the souls of those now gone, we knew we felt it. Certainly those of us unblinded by bitter skepticism did. I kept a journal of my research which I may someday publish, primarily as a counterweight to that bland report released by the College, and perhaps people will accept the truth then.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: It’s difficult to describe to somebody so obviously skeptical.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: You’re right. I’m not here to disabuse you of your notions. [sighing] A presence. That’s the simplest way to describe the feeling, even though that particular word, loaded and full of connotation, a cliché, really, doesn’t do it justice. And before you even bring it up, yes, I do take into account underwater pressure, dizziness, claustrophobia, low levels of oxygen, anxiety, the hypnotic effect of the drone of the podvodnya sonar exacerbated by the syncing of our breathing. All those figure into the equation, as it were, and I still end up with the conviction that the particular presence we—that I felt, was a physical manifestation, and not something imagined, conjured out of fantasy.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: Glad to, but first, may I have a glass of tap water?

#

TAPE B/0; ARCHIVED

Q: [garbled]

A: Helmsman Petr, sir. I piloted the podvodnya on two of the five dives.

Q: [garbled]

Petr: Only as a replacement for the Master Helmsman, may the Savior cradle his soul in Her arms.

Q: [garbled]

Petr: Descent number two and descent number three.

Q: [garbled]

Petr: No, sir, didn’t pay them much mind, truth be told. They had their faces stuck to the windows, fogging ’em up with their breath, and they scratched notes in their little pads. My eyes were on the path ahead. Hands never leaving the control levers.

Q: [garbled]

Petr: Like I said, mainly quiet. As you’d expect from learned types, professors.

Q: [garbled]

Petr: Sheets of rusted metal from old sunken vessels, broken pipes of sewage, silt, mud, the occasional fish here and there. I’ve been to the bottom dozens of times when training with the Master, and these two descents with the scholars weren’t any different, I can assure you.

Q: [garbled]

Petr: Why, of course, sir. I loved him like a father. [pause] More than an employer, he was my mentor. [pause] And to think how much I still had to learn from him…

Q: [garbled]

Petr: That’s all right. Thank you.

Q: [garbled]

Petr: No, we never spoke of clients, that’d be unprofessional. They weren’t more than cargo to us, if you see what I mean. We pilot our vessel, we take passengers down, bring them back up. All there is to it. The Master never spoke of what went on in the podvodnya, and neither did I. At the end of the day, we got paid, that’s all that mattered to us, that we’d a hot meal on our table.

Q: [garbled]

Petr: Of course. Will try, sir.

#

Fish swam into view in our light cone. Each a miracle of life, a proof of the versatility of the Creator and His blessed agile hands, but also a gift from this world to our Savior, the holy daughter who sacrificed Herself so we can enjoy our lives here.

The tentacles of the podvodnya cleared away corroded debris from our path. The boy helmsman, wet behind the ears but utterly focused on the task at hand, started when I put my hand on his shoulder.

Here,” I said, my finger on the topographical map of the lake’s bottom. “We should be in this section by now. We can pause here.”

He shot me a sidelong glance, as if questioning the gall of my dishing out orders in his vessel, then he blinked, and his expression was that of a naïve child again. “Of course, sir.”

The area was part of a bay around which many of those gigantic molluscs had gathered to slake their thirst. I gazed into the dark waters, enthralled. Innards grumbling, the podvodnya crawled to a stop. I recited a short prayer (my two colleagues indulging me with silence) and pulled the plunger set into the curved wall of the pod, slowly drawing out the one liter of water from the lake I needed for studies.

The boy watched us intently while my colleagues fiddled with their instruments, performing their own studies, and while I marveled at the murky view.

When we surfaced, we emerged from one darkness only to plunge into another: night had fallen, and starlight rippled around the buoyed vessel. The boy helmsman switched off the main engine, and popped the top-hatch; I climbed half-way out of it to help paddle to shore. As if sailing over the heavens themselves, I was rearranging constellations with each dip of my oar.

On the shingled beach, the boy started to service his podvodnya, and my colleagues broke into a livid discussion on the aquatic life—and incongruity thereof—we’d just witnessed. Quietly, I walked up to one of the churches, preserved forever perched with its beak dipped in the lake.

Its mother-of-pearl shell was coated with creamy starlight, the preserved ommatophores sticking out of it. I caressed the hollow shell with the tips of my fingers. I could sense the thrum of the wind inside it. The tremor spread into my hand, arm, torso, and legs, and my knees buckled. I crawled through the opening into the shell of the animal, into holy ground, and prayed in whispers.

#

TAPE C/0; ARCHIVED

Q: [garbled]

A: Professor Perevana, Woolsbnick College, Department of Natural Sciences.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: I joined the rotating cast of researchers from Woolsbnick, once. Went down on the very first expedition. The helmsman was a burly, bearded man. Poor soul.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: I don’t think I recall—oh, you refer to the helmsman’s apprentice, perhaps? Now that you brought it up, I do remember a young boy milling around at the dock.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: Once proved enough for me.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: Because God is not to be found lurking in the depths of some lake. There’s nothing there but mud and rusted iron.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: My colleague’s theories? No, I’ve heard no theorizing from him, I’m sorry to say, only posturing. He’s a blowhard interested only in himself, his own fame and fortune.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: Wasn’t I clear enough? Of course I don’t believe him. Neither him nor any of the other endemic-religiosity quote-unquote researchers. I’ve been opposing Oreyd creationist myths my entire career. That’s why I signed up for this expedition, why I went down. To shut those nutters up once and for all, to have an ace up my sleeve: Yes, I went down there, and saw nothing preternatural, and nothing was unearthed, and nothing ever will be. The skeptics are always right, remember that. Professor Claude is a clown with an agenda.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: Feel free to leaf through my section of the official Woolsbnick report.

#

TAPE A/1; ARCHIVED

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: Yes, let’s talk about the churches. [sipping water]

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: I’m sorry but I see no contradiction. Like I said before, I am a scholar first, conciliator of faith and science second. I accept scientific findings, and see how they can be superimposed over my view of the world. Fit into the mosaic, to return to my earlier analogy. So, I say the fact these churches are of biological origin does not make them any less divine. Those creatures, whose anatomy resembles our most holy of symbols, were drawn to Lake Oreyd, miles away from the southern mangroves, despite an abundance of drinking water from lakes and rivers near their initial habitat. No one in their right mind can chalk that up to chance; it took me a while to understand, but it was a pilgrimage, pure and simple.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: Papers have been published claiming either way. But based on recent fossil dating techniques, these creatures lived around 255 S. E. The first symbols of our faith had already appeared—see the great archaeological work of Professors Swolia and Alynia, around Mynistiris—circa 100 S. E., so the chalices and the rulers’ scepters appeared some 150 years prior, before our race had even set foot near any of these creatures’ habitats.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: Absolutely. A simultaneous appearance of our Creator’s symbols in our world, half a continent apart.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: There seems to be a certain connection between us, these creature-churches, and the lake. A symbiosis. It is my belief the link itself is of divine nature, yet another intricate puzzle our Creator has set up for us to attempt to solve. We always try these puzzles, and always end up with a small but crucial piece missing.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: No, I see that as the Creator’s sense of humor. [laughter] A way to show us there still remains joy in this world.

#

TAPE C/1; ARCHIVED

Prof. Perevana: Humans have imitated nature since time immemorial, we derive symbols from natural occurrences, recognize patterns where there are none. The quote-unquote churches are the remains of an extinct species (nautilus giganteus superior) that used to feed in the lake, most probably on the endemic trout (salmo letnica), now also extinct. Our ancestors must have been drawn to these magnificent shells, and their fossilized eyestalks and tails, and fashioned religious symbols out of them.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: Many species migrate for one reason or another. These creatures might have shared the fertile land around Mynistiris with the early human settlers before being driven away by hunters; or humans might have traveled south to explore warmer climates and encountered the beasts there. In my opinion there’s a higher probability of beasts and humans coexisting long enough for early hominids to derive religious symbols from the animals’ appearance, than this ridiculous story of spontaneous manifestation of the Creator.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: Yes, probability, possibility, may be, could be. That’s the key difference. Our camp avoids speaking in absolutes.

#

Laboratory examinations of the lake’s water proved inconclusive. Apart from plankton already studied and cataloged by scholars fifty years before, no further microscopic life was found. Could there exist life even more minuscule than what our apparatus can see? Or should I discard biology altogether, and trust my instinct, my belief that this water itself is of divine provenance, regardless of what microbiota swirl within it?

No, my belief is my belief, but it won’t silence the skeptics. Further experiments need to be performed.

Electrolysis, and spectroscopy, and its effect on physical materials, and administration to living tissue.

#

TAPE B/1; ARCHIVED

Q: [garbled]

Petr: Thank you. Good to see you too, sir.

Q: [garbled]

Petr: Yes, I suppose that’s how these things happen. Out of grief, I’d just … didn’t want to think…

Q: [garbled]

Petr: Some water would be great.

Q: [garbled]

Petr: The other day I was at the cabin by the lake, you know, from where we ran our business. Went through the equipment, checking, re-checking ropes, pipes, pulleys and levers, the diving logs again—

Q: [garbled]

Petr: No, everything was in its place. It’s just—holding the Master’s tools again, his pencil, his yellow scratch-pad diving log, it made—it made me remember things that’d slipped my mind, sir. I mean, truth be told, I don’t know whether it’s important, or relevant to your investigation, but last time you said to let you know if anything came back. Anything whatsoever. Regardless of how unconnected it might seem. Well, holding my Master’s tools like so, I remembered the night before the last dive. [pause] How he was up all night.

Q: [garbled]

Petr: The night prior to, yes. Which was unusual, he always slept soundly. I sleep in the room next to his, and on this night, I remember hearing his bed creaking as he’d get up and then lie back down, hearing him pace his room, open and close desk drawers, the clinking of tools, even. They woke me up throughout the night, those sounds coming from his room, but I’d cover my head with the pillow, each time, and go back to sleep.

Q: [garbled]

Petr: No, just in his room.

Q: [garbled]

Petr: The vessel seemed to be in good condition. So far as I know. Normally, I help him check it myself before each dive. Another pair of eyes, he always said. But this morning he seemed uninterested in my assistance. I did a sort of cursory glance inspection, so to speak. Then he said everything was all right, I’d better get back to cleaning the storeroom.

Q: [garbled]

Petr: I know it’s not much, but you said anything, and this came to mind…

Q: [garbled]

Petr: Well, who knows? I’m going to take a breather, first. Clear out my head. But then, I suppose, I’m going to keep running the shop. I owe it to the Master’s memory, if nothing else.

#

I held the last drops of the lake sample in a vial in my hand. Pale blue water swirled in it, a piece of the depths, of the dark of the lake now brought to light in my laboratory. In my hand.

Into my pocket.

I hurried home.

Enough of this. The machines have declared no difference exists between holy water and what comes out the faucet, but that’s to be expected, because machines don’t have the eyes to see the Creator.

One more crucial test remains, a test whose results cannot be jotted down in numeric symbols. The test of subjectivity.

#

TAPE A/2; ARCHIVED

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: Well, she can insult me as much as she wishes, but same goes for her, don’t you think? Milla Perevana built a career out of trying to dismantle our arguments. She, too, has something at stake. She’s not the impartial observer she portrays herself as.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: No, we avoid each other skillfully at Woolsbnick. Our paths cross only in scholarly journals, taking shots at one another from opposite thematic sections. [laughter]

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: Yes, let’s go back to that.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: Well, tell me, have you ever set foot in one?

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: There’s a hum that envelops you, and you sit down in the middle of the shell, breathe in, breathe out. You can hear your pulse. But gradually, as you calm down, the hum becomes a whisper, morphing into a speech consisting of your inner thoughts, and you breathe in, breathe out, and listen to what you’re thinking. The Creator speaks to you, through you, then. It’s a beautiful experience. You learn about yourself.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: That I feel… Look. Can I tell you a story? Tape won’t run out? All right. When I first started going to church, one particular memory seemed to resonate in that shell. When I was a kid my mother would sometimes read to me at bedtime from this book, Stories from the City in the Mirror. Not often, but some nights. Nights when my grandfather was out and it was late and we wanted to keep each other company. We wouldn’t speak of him: I never asked where he was, she pretended not to care. It was our ritual. She’d read, I’d listen, and we’d try not to think of what would happen when he returned. One particularly rainy night, she read to me, and I remember the drone of her voice—I could hear it in the hum of the church—and the rain lashing against my bedroom window as if in waves, at the mercy of the wind. From the hallway came the sound of key turning in lock, of our heavy oak door opening—being thrown open—before slamming shut. A tremor passed through the walls. My mother stopped reading to listen to her father’s footsteps, mentally charting his stumble through the house. When the footsteps neared my bedroom, she shut the book, and got out. Throughout the clamor that ensued I had my eyes glued to my little bedroom window, at the pale starlight smeared onto the pane by blotches of rain. A while later, she returned. I tried not to look at her face. She placed the book in her lap again, and picked up the story where she’d left off. Growing up, I’ve been telling myself stories were her way of getting away from everything, keeping his looming presence and the crushing agony of our poverty out of her mind. Childishly protected, almost, in that fairytale bubble we shared. But the Creator’s voice, distinct in the hum in His church, made me reconsider my interpretation of events, and memories returned to me of her focus, her verve, the cadence of her reading voice. No, it wasn’t a perfunctory act. To say her reading was an escape would demean the act. She was there because she felt an obligation to the stories, an obligation magnified by those bursts of unkindness of which she’d been on the receiving end her whole life, and storytelling was really sacred to her, one of the last sacred things, a way to preserve some kind of balance. She must’ve believed what I myself believe now, that all stories are windows into one big, eternal Story, a Story that screams to be told, even to a frightened, bedwetting child who wouldn’t remember a single word come morning.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: When you’re told a story, you experience a created world, a world in which everything has purpose. Characters say words for a reason, sunbeams caress the faces of pretty women, kings rule over kingdoms, and peasants revolt; there exists a beginning, a middle, an end. A plot drives the actions of the protagonists of the tales; there is a reason for the telling, a moral to be derived at the end. When one believes in the Creator, one applies those same principles to this world we inhabit. Every individual moment happens because it’s been slated to happen, every monad is placed where it ought to be. Our world has a beginning, a middle, an end. It has a plot, and a reason for being.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: Life means something, don’t you agree?

#

I am sitting on the beach. I write this as it happens. Important details could be lost, and it’s crucial I note down everything.

I drank the water less than an hour ago. When I did, I felt like vomiting, but I chalk that up to nerves. It tasted fresh, still cold. I felt as if drinking our Creator’s essence.

The sky won’t give up its darkness. The lake is calm, ready to accept us once again into its depths. Dawn is moments away. The city still sleeps behind the hill.

I sit, and wait.

#

TAPE C/2; ARCHIVED

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: One could easily whip oneself into a frenzy, especially if one has the predilection to believe in one’s own mysticism.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: Papers have been published by colleagues of mine, which you can read through, studying the so-called self-delusion effect: it appears in children who’ve suffered trauma, supplanting painful childhood memories with made-up stories; in dying patients who see visions of dead relatives; in sleep-deprived people hallucinating scenarios where they—

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: Point being, seeing things, having visions, is not medically mysterious. It’s quite common. Keep in mind, the subject might be dead certain the hallucinated events had transpired—they might not necessarily be lying.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: I’m not accusing anybody of anything. Citing research is all I’m doing.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: Look. [pause] Understand, it’s far from innocuous what they’re doing, diverting precious College funds from vital research and into expeditions to prove their … fantasy. There’s nothing personal here.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Perevana: Not necessarily my research, but more important, scholarly work. Lives could be saved if those funds are funneled into, say, medical studies.

#

Black gives way to violet gives way to blue. The lake’s surface brightens, reminding me of that emergence from the depths, that coming back into the world. The lake is a womb, our each resurfacing a rebirth.

A light breeze picks up.

The churches around me glimmer with the light of a sun still unseen. Their nacreous shells catch color. Catch the first rays of sunshine, as the sun quietly rises.

I breathe slowly, contemplating my work. Tingling in my legs. Like spiders crawling all over my skin. Tingling becomes a burst of electricity that grips me. Excitement courses through me, and I begin to laugh, laughing hard and loud, because I realize—how stupid I’d been to think otherwise—I realize the machines were right all along.

Yes, there is no difference between faucet and lake water. Of course. They are both one and the same—holy water, touched by our Creator, drunk by our Savior, by all of us.

The world is starting to spin around me. Waves on the lake. Surf, nibbling on the shingled shore. The ground beneath me gives way, I feel unsteady, as if on a buoy.

These churches, creatures, their thirst for this lake’s water was a pilgrimage, not for the contents of what they’d lapped up on these shores, but because every step is a pilgrimage and every movement a celebration of life. All of us, searching, we’re nothing but pilgrims.

A noise. From further down the beach. The cabin.

Clanging of metal. Voices. The sky is radiant with light and I’m sprawled on my back.

I’m dizzy. It’s hard to write. But I must. I will.

The voices, a noise two-fold. Two figures on the shore. They’re gauzy shadows. Can’t make them out. They’re talking. God and Goddess.

Creator, show me what my eyes ought to see, whisper to me what my ears must hear. The world spins faster.

I get up and hide behind a church. My heart is racing.

My hand trembles when I hold the pencil. Must not pause. I press my cheek against the cold hard shell of the church, and it soothes me.

God and His Daughter, the Creator and the Savior, caressing the podvodnya, blessing it with their touch. I just threw up. Nerves, getting worse. Hard to see. Harder to hear. Surf, wind, pulse pounding in my ears. Must focus and write.

They don’t notice me watching them.

Home. Decided to go home.

I stumble homeward, making brief pauses to catch my breath, throw up, and write this down. The world’s no longer spinning as much.

In my home now after a long walk. A quiet apartment, no humming.

Welcoming this new day drained, empty of fluids. Calmer. My body has expelled all skepticism. Exhausted. Must sleep now.

Will write more tomorrow. Am shaking.

#

The Creator has spared me. There’s nothing more to it.

I was trembling in my blanket in the afternoon when Professor Colym came to see me. He was relieved to the point of tears I was there, sick in my house, and not on the expedition. He informed me of the accident.

They’d just dredged it out, he said, the podvodnya. Crushed from the pressure like a tin can under a boulder. A crack on the outer hull, some overlooked structural weakness, the politsiya had relayed to Colym. Their bodies ruined, a paste of bone and gore. The merry faces of our colleagues came to me, and we both cried for them.

When he left I stopped crying. I was confused. The beach, the shapes on the beach, my vision. The Creator and the Savior took care of me.

They’d taken those poor souls in Their embrace, but chased me away from the beach, keeping me away from that dive, leaving me on this world a while longer to spread Their Story.

#

Prof. Claude: How do you know I was on the beach that morning?

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: Who gave you the permission to read my diary? Who let you in my office? Was it the Dean? That idiot always favored—

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: Okay. Okay. I’m calm, I’m calm.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: What are you on about? I did not witness—I know what I saw there. Certainly not Milla Perevana and that boy.

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: …

Q: [garbled]

Prof. Claude: For—for manslaughter? You’ve got to be joking. You’re arresting them for manslaughter? Sabotage—? I never would’ve thought. Unbelievable!

#

I went back to Lake Oreyd this morning.

Walking along the shore made my heart pound, I felt as if at an unknown place, my eyes drinking in the scene, yet the old lake was washing up on the old beach, impersonal as ever.

Beautiful as ever.

I made my way around the churches to the water.

I gazed across the shimmering surface, dipped my fingers in the cold water, and smiled.

We were shaking hands goodbye, because the lake is gone, with that enigma in its cold depths begging to be studied and solved. Another lake has taken its place, a deep blue tile in this new mosaic of the world where each part is as great as the sum of all, and that one was shaking hands with me, too, its gentle waves lapping at my fingers, saying hello.

###


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