A Voyage to the Deep, By Andrew Barclay – Part 1

Hello, blog. Been a minute.


Do not go into the Deep.

There: you have heard what I have to tell of the place. Read further at your peril, for I have already said everything I believe needs to be said. The remainder is ought but the ramblings of an old man with nothing better to do than write newspaper articles and smoke his pipe and complain.

(However, should you find yourself to be a very great fool, know this: If ever someone offers you tobacco in the Deep, do not take it, and for the love of the Savior do not smoke it. This lesson was learned hard by me, and now I pass it on to you, reader. Should you find yourself adrift in that benighted place, be sure to pack along your own smoking stuff or be prepared to do without; but of the tobacco to be had in the Deep, steer well clear.)

#

I believe that I was twenty-five years old before I ever heard anyone tell of the Mormons. I was born in the Salinas Valley, in California, which I now know to be the most singularly beautiful place on the Earth. I did not know that then, and so, being young and a God damned fool as a consequence, I left that place on the back of a sick old pony and went up to San Jose, and from there to San Francisco.

It was in San Francisco that I met my first Mormon. He seemed a cordial enough fellow and we got on famously. I asked of him his business in San Francisco, and he told me that he had been dispatched there so as to procure goods for shipment.

“Oh!” I said to him. “And what manner of goods might these be then?”

He would not say.

At the end of our parley I rose, collected my hat, and proffered a hand for the shaking, which my new friend took. THen (and the pox and a curse on my memory now) he said something to me which I cannot quite recall. Whatever it was, it struck me as odd, and a queried the man on the subject. Somehow, the conversation that followed rambled around to the question of faith and he revealed to me (after a furtive glance about the place) that he was a Mormon.

Well, that meant nothing to me, so I wished him all the blessing which the mysterious god or gods of Mormondom are capable of bestowing and went along my way.

#

I did not think of the Mormons again until a few years later, when the unpleasantness of the Haun’s Mill incident found its way into the papers. I will not recount the details of that slaughter here, for I know not what company may read these words and such a story is best reserved for those with the sternest of constitutions. Suffice to say that the Mormons were thrown out of Missouri and wound up in Illinois.

Then, a few years later, they got themselves thrown out of Illinois too, and that made the papers also. I remember reading an article somewhere which claimed, with bald-faced certitude, that the Mormons had decided, “Well, to hell with all of them who are Americans!” and had elected to depart for the most distant and unpleasant regions of the West. This, the paper said, was on account of the fact that no one would ever think to follow them there.

But that, I suppose, was vetoed by whatever ruling body governs Mormondom, for they of course did not voyage west. They turned their coaches and their wagons and their draft horses north, and, I am told, the ruts from their wheels may still be seen in places along the Mormon Trail, which was blazed northward unto the shores of Hudson’s Bay. From there, they went below.

#

My own sojourn into the Deep came many years later, at the suggestion of my editor Randolph Wilson, Jr., of New York. Mr. Wilson had heard queer rumors of the place, and over bourbon one evening he broached to me the subject of a journalistic expedition into the Deep.

“No,” I said.

“But Andrew-” Mr. Wilson said, but I cut him off.

“I will not do it,” I said. “I am old, I am tired, and I am curmudgeonly. I will not do it.”

But of course I did. All it took was a few more bourbons, I am sorry to say, and when I woke I found myself honor-bound and engaged to the voyage. More fool I.

#

I steamed for the Deep aboard the most atrocious ruin of a boat I am sure any man has ever seen in his life. Her hull was rotten, her captain a sot, her boesen mean and foul. I found my bunk to be home already to a family of rats, and on the second day found my very favorite pipe to have up and walked off somewhere without first asking my leave. Foul. Foul indeed.

We steamed north out of Boston and around the triangular tip of Labrador. I spent my days smoking voraciously and standing at the fore, watching the distant countryside change with distance. The coastal cliffs were in time denuded of their forests and their grasses and everything else, and gave the country a raw, unfinished look. It was as if God, in his infinite wisdom, had given up on the place shortly after willing it into being. I did not like it.

I did not like the gray clouds which hang low over that part of the world. I did not like the biting cold which cut right through my layers of oiled wool and leather as if it were so much cotton doily. I did not like the seedy, dishonest sailors with whom I sailed. I did not like any of it.

Still less I liked the Vigil Keep, when it slid into view. Its name had been told to me before my departure, by an associate of Mr. Wilson who had some familiarity with the place. And though I had been told what to expect, still the sight unsettled me greatly.

Imagine: the slate of Hudson’s bay, stretching out to starboard for as far as the eye can see. To port, a length of the most frigid and unwelcoming coastline any man could ever imagine; flat, flat as a pancake, flat as a starched shirt yet unremoved from the ironing board, and covered in snow. Above, an iron sky sprinkling a light fall of snow upon the proceedings. Myself, standing at the prow, hands as deep in my pockets as I can make them go, squinting into the distance and, occasionally, extracting one hand so as to rub at my eyes, for surely there must be something wrong with them. Surely, they must be deceivers. Surely, this cannot be.

For rising out of the emptiness, like the spike upon which turns the world, lo, is the Vigil Keep. Fully twice the height of the Washington Monument, I am told, and many times as broad. A pale obelisk, bereft of inscription, and capped by a golden angel.

How they built that thing I do not know; nor, for that matter, does anyone else. I asked many times, during my time below, and nobody had an answer for me. To hear the Deep folk tell it, the Keep may as well have appeared out of thin air one day, a shining testimony to the Mormon’s lordship and dominion.

At the foot of the keep is a sad little hamlet called Juett. Juett is scarce more than a cluster of huts nestled in amid the drifts of snow, and the people I saw there were rangy and had the looked of hunted game. I did not disembark there, but merely watched from the deck as they went about their lives here, at the edge of the world.

#

We were boarded and searched by young, affectless men who identified themselves as members of the Nauvoo Legion, the Mormon’s own little militia (not so little, as I now know). They were quick and thorough and, evidently, found nothing untoward, and to their credit stayed well away from myself and my effects for the duration. Perhaps, I think, this is on account of my journalistic position. Perhaps it was out of courtesy. I do not know, and did not ask; their faces were blank and hard and not conducive to the asking of questions.

When the Legionnaires had departed the ship, and returned I think to the Vigil Keep where they must surely make their home, we steamed forth unto the great, yawning gullet of the Avernian Way. The Way is not the strangest thing I have ever seen, for shortly thereafter I saw things even stranger, but at that time I was fascinated and aghast by this perversion of things.

It is this way: there is a cave by which the Deep is reached. Its mouth is vast, vast enough to permit the passage of two great steamers side by side. The waters of the bay flow into that maw, and then… they stop. The waters of the way are still as the grave, as long as they are undisturbed by the passage of ships or unusual winds. The waters of the Way exist at an angle of perhaps twenty degrees from the perpendicular, and are as still as the surface of a pond. The water does not rush into the Way, as it so clearly should; no cascading, torrential river this. No waterfall.

Here I stop. I stopped for some time, after that last period. I have not the words for what a sight the Way is, to those unaccustomed to it. To see the waters defy natural law… to stand at the fore of a ship as it crests the invisible edge between the Avernian Way and Hudson’s Bay, as that ship tilts forward, nose-first into the darkness. To look down, over the side, and see that eerie, still water, which refuses to flow downhill. It is enough to make a man sick to his stomach, though I cannot for the life of me tell you exactly why.

Down we went. The Mormons (or Saints, as they are more properly referred to in this, their adopted country) have set themselves many tasks in the years since their departure from America. One such is the widening of the Way; by chisel or dynamite (I do not know which), they have carved a sort of pathway into the wall of the Avernian Way. It is in two parts; a staircase, for foot traffic (of which there was none), and a funicular railway. A carriage of that railway we passed as we descended, and through its windows I could see more young, affectless faces, powering up the slope towards the surface, and the light.

The darkness within the Way is not absolute. Daylight filters down the passage from the surface, but it diminishes greatly with each foot which a ship descends. Soon we were enclosed in twilight, and sailors went about lighting lamps. By their light I could just make out the damp, rough ceiling of the Way, sliding slowly past above us. By the time we reached the bottom, we were entirely in darkness.

#

We arrived at the bottom. Here, I confess, my words fail me. How can I, a lowly scribbler of critique and the odd witticism, be expected to put words to such a thing as the Deep? I cannot. But I will try.

The Avernian Way terminates at the edge of the Deep. The tunnel falls away all at once and there is a bump and a jolt, as of a carriage wheel striking a rock, though multiplied many-fold. This is the ship righting itself, returning to a more earthly orientation than it enjoyed on the way down; these are the waters of the Mer Silencieuse, of the Silent Sea.

Silent indeed. No waves rock the black water, no gulls scream from above, no dune grass whispers in the wind. There is only the water, lapping quietly upon stone, and the echoes of distant things.

The walls of the Avernian Way fell abruptly into the sea, and into the vastness of the chasm which is the Deep. In the distance we could see the prow-mounted arc lamps which are a fixture of this place, reflecting off the inky Mer in scattered showers of winking starlight.

But I confess it was some time before I saw those boats. My attention was otherwise occupied. I do not know how long I stood at the prow of that ship, gawping like a child at his first circus elephant. I felt something of that child’s wonder and terror; I felt some sense of the world I had known to slip sideways and be reshaped by this, this thing with which I was confronted. I felt as if much which I had known for truth had, in light of this new thing, been proven to be wrong.

The city rises. It looms. The whole, great, sprawling assemblage of ancient, time-worn stones rises, tier upon tier, street upon street, building upon building, an insane, impossible tumble of architectures stacked one upon the other.

The city glows. The city is radiant with the weird, pale corpselight of the oil they burn here. Arclamps and cookfires and a strange, phosphorescent glimmering which is born on the wind all are caught up in fire smoke and wreath the doors and arches and spires and minarets in a strange light.

The glow is not welcoming, oh no. Not the blessed radiance of a candle left to burn by a window, this. Rather, the infernal light of other planes, this strange, mongrel luminance. Hell itself must surely be bathed in such a glow, I have no doubt. It chilled me. It stunned me.

How long I stood there gaping I do not know – never, in those first hours, did I have a moment to collect my wits and restore my composure. Every passing moment brought some new peculiarity to draw my attention, and I am sure I must have looked an extraordinary fool to the sailors, standing as I was, jaw hanging open, eyes like those of a man who has felt the icy hand of death closing about his throat.

Too much, and too many. Here: a pile of stones rising out of the sea, which must once have been a palazzo of some impossible, fantastic proportion, and now has crumbled all to ruin at the hand of uncounted centuries. There: a gargoyle, or something not unlike one, wrapped in it’s own wings and watching with a thousand eyes. In the distance, a pool of greater radiance – Mormontown, I would learn in due course, or Jordan as it is called by the Saints – illuminating even rows of stately, New England houses, made queer and strange by their proximity to all the rest. Nearer at hand, a narrow strip of land crowded all over with a thousand structures of impossible vintage, tumbling over themselves as if they’d been dropped in a shaker and left to fall where they willed.

A dock materialized in my awareness, and planks beneath my feet. A crowd, a mad, jostling, shouting, stinking crowd; bow-legged, black toothed, hollow-eyed beggars, wrapped in dark, tatty shawls and clutching tin cups and begging in the tongues of a hundred nations for succor. Merchant men of Portugal and Spain, Berbers, Bermudians. Cargo and freight, carried on backs and between longshoremen. Waifs with empty eyes and cut ears, gazing mournfully out from cracks and crannies.

I remember a whirlwind of commotion and fear, and the passage of ancient cobbles beneath my feet, and a strong hand taking hold of my arm and a voice shouting into my ear…

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9 thoughts on “A Voyage to the Deep, By Andrew Barclay – Part 1

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