I was four years old when I first dreamed of the Leviathans.
The details grow fuzzy, now, as all memories that old do. I was dreaming of something else at the time, something unrelated but just as strange. They were flickering dreams, switching and shifting, dreams that would have terrified me if my brain had been cruel enough to remember them. Dreams of worlds gone dark, of eerie landscapes under alien skies, of small places in the plains and forests that were not what they seemed at all. And through it all, something watching me, tall and green, like a hybrid of bat and cicada. Sometimes it was close, sometimes it was far away. I even think I remember it speaking to me once, though I do not remember what it said. But I remember that it was, in some way, connected to the dream that came next. The dream that was more than a dream. The dream that was a memory, a memory that has stayed with me clear as a glass bauble ever since.
I was older – perhaps in my teens. Water pressed mercilessly down on my body, and though I could breathe through a tube in my mouth, I knew that I had only minutes to live. But right then, I didn’t care about that. All I cared about was the vast darkness of my surroundings – an impossible, crushing dark, so thick that I couldn’t see my body or the ground I stood upon. That darkness stretched up into the sky, forming a perfect, unbroken dome.
Or perhaps, not quite unbroken.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that there was a glow before me. It was faint, so faint as to almost be imperceptible, but it was undeniably there, turning the water there to an impossibly dark midnight blue instead of black. But that was not what made me gasp in awe, or what made me remember that moment to this day. It was the fact that before that glow, shapes moved.
They were colossal, ancient things, towering miles above the seafloor, so huge that I couldn’t have seen their shapes if they hadn’t been so far away. There was something in them of whales, the vast blue or fin whales, but they were not those creatures, as much as I have tried to tell myself they were. Nor were they giant squids, or deep-sea shrimp, or rotting mats of vegetation, though they resembled all these things as well in their own way. But they were alive, I know that. Their limbs moved, though impossibly slowly. Their tails beat up and down in strokes that took minutes to complete. Tiny lights like distant stars flickered from their sides and those structures that were not their heads. Once, one of them opened its mouth, and the motion it made to do so sickens me to this day.
They were not whales. They were my Leviathans.
I don’t know how many there were. Half a dozen, at least – a pod of impossible things, slowly moving along. Perhaps there were more around me, invisible in the darkness. Perhaps they stretched on forever into that crushing, suffocating shadow. I do not know, and I never will. For it was then that I woke.
At the time, of course, I brushed the experience off as a strange dream. I had told my parents, in my disjointed, childish way, and they had smiled indulgingly, stroking my head and letting me finish my breakfast. Even I expected to forget it by the end of the day, after time spent in the waking world playing with toys and preschool friends.
But I didn’t forget.
A week later, I dreamed the dream again. The other dreams were not there – I was dreaming simply of time spent on the playground, of the small, innocent things a child dreams of. But I turned around, and there they were again. My Leviathans, moving slowly along, vast things in the crushing dark. Perhaps they had some purpose, moving there through the water. Perhaps they communicated, in some way I had no method of perceiving. Or perhaps, my brain idly thought, they were not even alive at all.
I could never tell when they would return. It wasn’t always a dream. Sometimes it would be a daydream, or a sudden, powerful flashback. I found myself doodling them – those huge shapes, looming across the page, trying to pick out their exact details. Anything else I would have been unable to draw from memory, but this was almost like a movie playing in my head, that I could go back to and replay at any time – and slowly, over dozens of iterations, they finally became clear.
My mom found those drawings, scattered over my room while I was at school. I always feared she would suspect something was wrong with me – after all, why else would I keep drawing the same, entirely imaginary thing? But when I asked, she sat down at the table, with one of the drawings in her hand, looking at me.
“Why would anything be wrong?”
“Because I’ve just drawn them, over and over and over…”
“What’s wrong with that? Sometimes it takes artists a long time, to portray what’s in their imaginations. And the important thing is, you’re practicing. And you’re getting better every time.”
“But shouldn’t I be learning to draw other things?”
“Do you want to?”
I thought about that, for several minutes. And then I smiled, and shook my head. “No.”
She smiled too, and handed me back the drawing.
Through my middle and high school years, I had two loves: art and marine biology. I was obsessed with the ocean, with the strange things that moved within it and the mysteries that lurked unsolvable in its depth, but my true gift proved to be with a pencil or a paintbrush. I put that gift to good use, drawing flowers and figures and landscapes as the teachers requested. I even had a private art tutor while I was in high school, and though we may not have parted on the best of terms, I credit so many of my current abilities to him – both artistic and otherwise. I only knew him for four years, but the impact he had on my life is indescribable.
The first time I went to learn with him, I simply sat at a table, in his cozy studio. Paintings of strange things hung from the walls, things whose identity you could almost discern but not quite. His old, tatty Maine Coon slept in front of the crackling fireplace, and his soft, soothing voice pervaded the entire place like the mahogany finish that colored it. I simply sat there, pencil in hand, and he stood at an easel – not even watching me, simply adding yellow spirals to whatever strange, impossible image he was creating.
“What should I draw?” I asked him, staring blankly at the paper before me.
He shrugged, not even turning to look at me. “Whatever you want. The first thing that comes into your head. Felix, if you like.”
I looked at Felix the cat, upside-down on the hearth, feet in the air as he snored slightly. He was cute, in his way, but I didn’t want to draw him. I wanted to draw Leviathans.
And so, I did. My pencil picked out the familiar, curved lines, the strange stilts that were neither limbs nor tentacles, the eyeless faces, the finned tails. They marched, a whole pod of them, across the page, and before them grew a landscape. It was not in my memory, but it flowed out of me, a strange, beautiful panorama, accentuating their titan size. There were cities there, beneath the sea, and though I did not know what inhabited them, I knew it was not people. Mountains loomed, deep trenches disappeared into gaping maws of black shadow. Shapes that were not fish darted between rippling stems that were neither kelp nor eels. And far, far above, over the surface of the water…
“Yes?” I jumped at the sound of the tutor’s voice. “What is it?”
“Our time for today is up, I’m afraid…” His voice slowed and stopped, and he looked down at the drawing, pondering it until at last he spoke. “Two suns.”
“Two suns. One above the other, rising over the water.”
“Oh –” I said, astonished, and immediately starting to scribble away. Of course! How had he known exactly what it needed? I finished it, holding up my creation with a grin of triumph, and he smiled as well, watching me. “Now, I think, you should sign it.”
I thought about it, for a long time, staring down at that smudged, scribbled page. Then, after a moment, I bent down and, in the tiniest bottom corner, drew a little rose. My middle name.
He smiled knowingly, and winked at me. “Run along, now, Miss Clementine. Wouldn’t want to keep your mother waiting.”
I studied under him for four years. Four of the happiest years of my life. I lived for that hour a week when I went to draw with him, and learn what he had to teach me. We always did something different each time, never what I expected but always somehow what I needed. Sometimes he taught me fundamentals – I would draw a mug, or a flower, or Felix’s fluffy self, and he would teach me about perspective and shading and color. Sometimes he would encourage me to simply draw, to go wherever my imagination took me – and it took me to some very strange places. And then, just after I turned eighteen, he gave me a special assignment, something I’d never done before.
“Miranda?” he said, looking at me as I closed the door and set down my backpack. “I have something of an idea for today – something I don’t normally suggest.”
“What is it?” I sat down expectantly at the table, looking up at him – his assignments could be strange, but they were never boring.
“I would like to switch pieces.”
“What?” I stared at the half-finished painting he was working on – the first strokes of some huge, titan thing, looming against swirling clouds. “Sir, I’m not nearly that talented.”
“Oh, you’re not, are you?” He smiled at me in that way he did, indulgent and mischievous, as though if you weren’t in on the secret yet, you would be in a minute. “Are you saying I haven’t taught you well enough?”
“Well…no, sir. Of course not.”
“I have taught you everything I have. My knowledge rests in you, not to mention anything you’ve accumulated from elsewhere. There is no one else in the world I would trust to make that the piece of art it was truly meant to be.”
I opened and closed my mouth, looking up at the thing. A part of me wanted to keep protesting, even though I knew he was right, whether or not he was exaggerating. But there was a part of me, the artist’s heart, that looked at that shape and saw what it could be. That saw the way the lines would flow, the way the colors would blend and swirl together, the way the mass of the creature would loom in the half-light over whatever alien landscape looked up at it in awe. And almost without thinking, I nodded, and picked up the paintbrush.
He smiled, and leaned back in his chair.
Four hours it took me, to finish that painting. Four hours, to take the first slight lines and mold and build them into something vast, ancient, and strange. A city sprawled below it, a city that could never exist, for only a madman would build such a thing, and behind the clouds were sprinkled moons and alien stars. It was eerie. It was impossible.
It was beautiful.
I sat down in the chair, exhausted but proud of my work. My teacher stood, hands behind his back, and walked over to it, staring at my drying paint. His eyes ran across it, taking in its details, and I could almost see him making notes in his head. But when he turned back around, he was smiling, a genuine grin of pride that made my insides swell and burst in a warm, golden glow.
“Well done, Miranda. Well done. There is emotion here. That sense of scale, that you capture with such masterful ease, placed perfectly within a scene that hooks the viewer and tells them a story. Well done. What do you call it?”
“The painting?” I looked at it for a long moment, pondering, before the words came half-bidden to my mouth, “Lost Omundiyai.”
He turned, without an ounce of hesitation, and wrote my words in a delicate hand in the bottom left corner.
As he finished, I stood, walking around the table to see what had become of my piece. It had started its life as a butterfly, its wings spread across the page. But under my teacher’s hand, it had become something more – a spiraling, fractal thing, wings somehow shimmering with color despite the medium of charcoal. Whole worlds lurked in those wings, tiny strokes of the graphite telling tales I couldn’t begin to guess at and describing creatures that were alien even to me. My butterfly was a map of the cosmos, a field guide, a history book, a beautiful movie, a story long forgotten – and still, somehow, in its way, a butterfly.
My teacher grinned slightly, watching my reaction. “My apologies, Miranda. I didn’t quite get time to finish it.”
I had no words. I just looked at his creation – my creation, in some ways. And all I could think to say was a faint, awestruck “Wow…”
He came around the table, put his hand on my shoulder. “We have a gift, you and I. I do not think I am wrong in believing that you have seen more than some would consider your share.”
“What…do you mean?” I looked up at him, but his face swam and blurred, the remembered Leviathans so intense I struggled to see past them.
“Whales. You can draw so many things, Miranda, but you always come back to whales. But not real whales, no. At least, not real here.”
“Wait…What do you know about them?”
“The whales? Oh, my goodness, nothing at all. No more than what you’ve drawn. But I know about other things. I know about my Crawling Ones. My Star-Beasts. The things that call themselves Odokaths. I know what really happened in Atlanta. And do you know how I know all that?”
I shook my head, staring into his strange, dark eyes.
He smiled. “Neither do I.”
“But,” he said, raising a hand slightly, “we are not alone in our talent. Far from it. And if you would accompany me, Miranda, I would like to make you a proposal. A scholarship, if you will, to a very…specific university. Where talents like yours grow and blossom, and those who see into the void learn to understand what they behold. Think about it, Miranda. You could learn to truly share your Leviathans with the world.”
“I…Hold up.” I raised a hand, sitting down in the chair. “You talk about this stuff like you think it’s real.”
“Do you think it isn’t?”
“Well…of course…” I didn’t know whether I did or not, but it felt almost…jarring, to hear it from him.
“And what makes you think so, when whales walk in your dreams?”
I sat there for a long time, staring up at him. I wanted to believe him. I think I did believe him, somewhere deep down, and there were times in my life when I would have let that belief surface. But at that particular moment, a million reasons were flashing through my head as to why I shouldn’t. Was he testing me? Would he tell others? Was I really going to throw out my plans, my already accepted application, for a college and a life I had never even heard of?
“Sir…” I stood up, hesitantly, my mind awash with racing thoughts. Why was he saying these things? What was this “college” he was talking about? Who was he? Did I even know his name?
“Sir, I…I’m so sorry…I think I’ll have to decline.”
His face said everything it needed to. Sadness. Regret. Apology. A hint of betrayal. “I understand, Miranda. I wish you the best of luck, with whatever choice you make. You will bring great things to this world.” He smiled, ever so slightly. “I am sure of it.”
I have regretted that decision many times over the years. I regretted it when the college I did choose was almost laughably easy, when my art classmates would hold up depictions of furniture or friends or cats that always somehow reminded me of Felix, and my Leviathans got reactions of mixed awe and confusion. I regretted it when I delved deeper and deeper into my marine biology minor, when I explored the trees of life of the deep, shadowy ocean and learned with growing frustration that no creature, living or dead, had ever borne even the slightest resemblance to the creatures whose appearance only grew stronger in my mind. More than once, as I struggled through all-nighters and cram sessions, the question passed through my mind of what those at my tutor’s college would have said in answer to my ever-stranger and more desperate questions. And strangely enough, as I grew more and more lost and frightened of the mundanity of the world, the shell I had had at eighteen started to break down.
Slowly, seeping through my mind, came the idea that these creatures might not be so impossible after all.
It came to a head one morning, midway through my junior year. I spent hours making phone calls and doing Google searches, trying to find any trace of my tutor. My mother remembered him, of course, but at some point in the shuffle of life his contact information had been lost. The internet yielded nothing but a grainy photo of an art piece that might have been his, with nothing leading on from it but a dead link. And I could find nothing that sounded like his college at all…
But the idea had forced itself into my mind. I would draw my Leviathans again. Not from memory, this time – for I now believe it is memory, a memory that is not mine. I would draw them from life. Somehow, I had seen them once. I must have. And I swore to myself that I would see them again.
During my senior year, an opportunity came to my attention. My school participated in a project which organized research expeditions – including, to my great interest, one which involved exploring the Romanche Trench along the Midatlantic Ridge. Several students, along with two of the world’s most renowned marine biologists, Dr. Edwin Key and Dr. Angelin Heathers, would be making multiple dives into one of the deepest points in the Atlantic. At the time, my excitement was almost entirely academic – I knew there was nothing down there. Of course there wasn’t. Nothing could live that far down, nothing but bacteria and the occasional worm or crab. But the idea flickered nonetheless. The faint hope that somewhere, down there, my Leviathans would be waiting.
And somehow, despite the struggle and the hard work and the enormous amount of luck, I was one of the lucky few aboard that ship, sailing from Rio towards that hidden place in the rippling silence of the sea.
Those days on the Godfather are days I will never forget. She was a rickety old thing, and her crew were old salts whose English was broken but whose Portuguese was a rippling font of strange tales of the sea. Her engines ground and chugged, and her black smoke made another cloud against the sunset. I remember I spent that week sitting on the deck in the shade of the submersible, only occasionally interacting with the others, just watching the ocean – my ocean, I often felt – change color from dawn to dusk to moonlit night.
And then the call came, and the little ship came to a slow halt over the yawning abyss below us.
All through the morning before the first dive, there was a rippling excitement through the ship. Even the crew, who would be doing nothing but watching camera feeds and maintaining the ship, were excited, and the professors had excited grins of anticipation that never seemed to properly fade. Ana Ribeiro, the submersible pilot, was a blur of activity, supervising diagnostics and preparations as she got myself and Dr. Key ready for the dive. And then, almost before we had registered what was happening, we were sitting in that submersible, Ana and the captain talking almost incessantly to each other over the radio as the crane ground outward and lowered us down with a splash into the sea.
Down, down we went, through the blue-black abyss. We were all close enough together that we had to struggle to avoid bumping into each other, strapped tightly into the seats and lit by the flicker and hum of the dashboard. The only way to see outside was through tiny reinforced portholes, and though the exterior lights glowed in beams through the water, they did nothing but enhance the feeling of the blackness beyond them. There was nothing out here, in the open ocean – no shoals of fish, no floating plankton, nothing. Just endless blue water, so thick and dark we couldn’t tell if it was day or night.
We descended about two miles on that first day, deep enough that the submersible’s lights started to glide down the rough walls of the trench. Dr. Key and I talked excitedly back and forth, pointing out anything that looked interesting, and Ana managed somehow to steer us towards it through her chatter with the captain. We found a lot that day – several new species of worm, and a small, wriggling fish that neither of us could quite identify. And then, quite suddenly, Ana announced, “All right. We’re gonna start heading back up now.”
“Already?” I was almost shaken awake, my eyes having to tear themselves away from the sepia murk outside. “But we’ve barely seen anything.”
“It’s been almost six hours.”
“But there has to be more. There has to. This can’t be all of it…” I leaned towards the porthole, peering out into the darkness beyond, even as I felt Dr. Key’s confused eyes on my back.
“Miranda…?” he asked, hesitantly. “Miranda, we’ve done a lot today. We can go back up now. You’ll probably have a dissertation on that fish alone –”
“Fuck the dissertation!” I said, snapping around to face him as the seatbelts dug into me. “We can’t go back now! There’s so much more below us, Doctor…Water, going down and down and down, filled with ancient mysteries…You can’t feel it? You can’t feel it calling to you?”
“I…” He shook his head. “Ms. Ribeiro, just…just take us up.”
“Yes sir…” Her hands made delicate motions over the submersible’s controls, and slowly the needle of the little depth gauge started to crawl upwards, back towards the hollow, empty sanity of the world above.
I was quiet, then. I was quiet as the submersible bobbed up to the surface, water running in little waves down the portholes as the magnetic clamp of the crane sounded against the hull. I stayed quiet over the next week, as the others descended down into those dark, mysterious depths, like tiny crabs locked in a metal shell as they moved through that yawning vastness. But I was waiting. One of these days, it would be my turn again.
I took up drawing again, over that week. That place, the glittering water and the rickety boat floating like clouds over the deep, deep darkness, it awoke something in me, the same thing that had awoken in my tutor’s studio all those years ago. I drew the deep depths of the trench – not the mud and slime the submersible had clung to like a worried mouse, but the open water five miles below. Sometimes it would be no more than a gradient, an attempt to capture the way the light faded to deep, perfect blackness, but sometimes it would be other things. The huge creatures and lost civilizations I imagined deep down in its depths, on the true surface of the earth, far removed from the light, fluffy things above. And above them, as always, loomed my Leviathans, huge things moving on the distant horizon, always too far off to see.
And ever so slowly, as the submersible descended and rose to the surface again and again and again without me, I began to form a plan.
Down again. My second actual descent into the deeps, with fellow student Manuel Kimmel in the seat beside me. Another two hours of sitting there, idly chatting, as bright glittering blue changed ever so slowly into deep, impenetrable black, and my heart beat in my ears with anticipation. Was this a good idea? Of course not…How could it be? Perhaps I had made a mistake…perhaps I should simply let the dive go as planned…
But I didn’t want to do that. And whatever consequences would come of this, they would be worth it. I would make sure of that.
I spent an hour with Manuel, cataloguing worms and crustaceans and the occasional small fish, just the same as last time. An hour spent staring in awe at a blade of grass, when an untapped jungle loomed behind us.
And then I slid the knife from my pocket, ever so gently, and held it to Ana’s throat.
“Turn off the radio.”
“Miss Clementine?” Her voice trembled as she hesitantly obeyed and Manuel turned to look at me in horror. “Miss Clementine, what are you doing?”
“Take us out into the canyon. Into the open water. And then take us down. I want to see the bottom.”
I knew what she was going to say. It was too deep. The sub would be crushed. But I didn’t care, and I told her so as the canyon wall swung slowly away outside. Elation was rushing through my body. At that moment I felt in tune with everything – with the entirety of the submarine. I felt the rumbling engines, the searchlight eyes. I felt Ana’s sheer terror and Manuel’s gentler, somehow worse dread as I forced them to what they knew would be their deaths. I felt the trembling metal of the knife, balanced a second away from cutting Ana open. And even as I drank it all in, I knew it didn’t matter. This bubble was mine, but it was nothing but a bubble, when outside it was the sea.
And as the giddy sensations pumped through my body, I laughed and laughed, like a child again.
Down and down went the little sub, searchlights fading in the water around them. Down and down, that depth gauge creeping higher and higher, the only visible change in the tense silence. Three miles down. Three and a half. Four. Four glorious miles beneath the surface of the sea!
And then…then it went wrong.
I had been holding the knife to her neck for all that time – I knew that the instant I set it down she would go for the surface again. But it was an awkward position, and my arm was starting to tire. And Manuel saw it.
He lunged at me, with a strength I didn’t know his wiry body possessed. There was a snap and a whirr as his seatbelt unbuckled, and then his hand was around my wrist and his arm around my head, both squeezing until at last I cried out in pain.
“Manuel! Manuel, what are you doing?”
“Shut up. Just shut up.” He was breathing hard, his fingers leaving bruises around my wrist. “This has gone far enough. Just stay there, and don’t talk, and don’t move…”
Panic was flooding into my brain, as the submersible started to tilt upwards again. I couldn’t go back up there, I couldn’t, I couldn’t. I couldn’t go back to that fluffy, airy place, where mankind crawled like lice and squabbled over scraps, where I could never, ever be down here, in the beautiful black depths –
And then, quite suddenly, something happened.
I had squeezed my eyes shut, almost blinded by terror as I finally dropped the knife. And then the pressure was gone. And there was screaming.
Not human screaming, though terrified shrieks were faintly audible through it. The agonized scream of metal in pain, crumpling and buckling under impossible pressure.
My eyes snapped open. Manuel was on the floor – no – Manuel was in the floor, half of his body clipping through it like a bleeding glitch in reality. Ana was choking in horror, staring as the instruments went wrong, as the compass spun like a top and the depth gauge bottomed out hard enough to rattle against its casing. And around me the submersible was crumpling, folding in on itself like a crushed soda can, lights flickering out one by one as huge dents slammed in through the hull.
And in the sudden darkness, I had the foresight to look out the window.
Out there was blackness – that perfect, infinite black, that the puny eyes of surface creatures couldn’t hope to penetrate. But no. Not quite perfect. Not black. A velvet-dark shade of midnight blue.
There were only seconds to stare out that window. But those seconds were all I needed.
Death has come for me, and for the poor others I dragged along on this journey. Death in the impossible abyss, in an ocean far too deep to be anywhere on Earth. But I do not care. My life’s purpose is complete. My tutor is forgiven. My artwork is vindicated.
For out that window, looming far bigger than I had ever imagined on the horizon, were my Leviathans.
Written by StalkerShrike