Mysterium Tremendum

Mysterium Tremendum

By Keenan Colditz

They warned her: Beware the rapture of the deep.

All around her, water clear to the bottom. With spear gun in hand, she swims after a yellowtail eluding her behind a cluster of rocks overgrown with kelp. If she brings back a good one for the campfire, she’ll save this sunburned island getaway. Her teammates have prepared all the seasonings and spiced rum, now they just need a fish to fry. She’ll be the resourceful one for once. The yellowtail emerges between a momentary gap in the kelp. She fires, missing and losing her grip on the spear handle as it falls into the kelp.

She surfaces for air and then dives down for the spear. She pushes aside an armful of kelp and spots the spear resting in a rock crevice at the bottom. Kelp envelopes her as she dives deeper. It’s just kelp. Something sluices out from the crevice. It undulates with the kelp, blending in as it waits for prey.

Overhead, the undersurface silhouettes a school of yellowtail. But this is a better catch. A surge in the surf tosses the kelp into a mess of unfurling waves before her and she loses track of it. She grabs for the spear. Its tail recedes back into a lightless cave among the rocks. She can’t remember if she said she’d be back to camp soon. They might start to worry. A burning in her navel tells her not to settle for the yellowtail instead. She swims deeper.  Her whole life she’s been holding her breath during swim team practice, but now she’s lost track of time. She glances upwards and feels elated, vertiginous.

Soon, she’ll need air. But the nitrogen in her blood acting as a narcotic inures her. There it is. Her lungs heave. Just a little deeper until it’s in range now.

Her vision narrows and the sparks in her eyes are electricity rippling over its flank. She’s too far down. She panics, remembers her friends, imagines not seeing them ever again, and almost swallows a mouth full of salt water. This is all to prove herself. What a catch, they’ll all say, cheering her return. Death’s approach lends her courage.

The envy they’ll all feel when she’s dancing hand in hand with Davy Jones. She readies the spear. Its jaw unhinges as it snaps toward—

One fine spring afternoon in the Mojave Desert, after the rains, when the wildflowers had just bloomed, Cassie’s mother drove her out to run through the hills.

They parked on the roadside and Cassie, overjoyed by the botanical rainbows, opened the car door and jumped out. Jenny hears about all this over the phone. Her second best friend tells her. Through tears she tells Jenny that when Cassie crossed the road—because why would anybody look both ways when there aren’t any people for hundreds of miles—an oil field worker drunk from the night before burled up over a rise in the earth in his pick up and ended her.

Jenny heard about this over the phone from her second best friend.

She didn’t believe it. Later, she finds out Cassie died during the helicopter flight to the hospital. The entire school turns out for her funeral. Lines through the church halls lead to the viewing room. It’s not a requirement, but it is. Jenny is scared she won’t be able to do it—go on in the same way,  without every little thing reminding her of—some days on the bus rides home they would braid each other’s hair. Other days, other things. If she laid besides Cassie in the casket, would she recall more vividly how they felt together? Or would recalling her memories with any vividness fail her? Her impression of the past is precious yet abstract. Touching her again will change that irreversibly, she knows.

They’ve done Cassie’s makeup like a doll’s: pale, a crafted veneer mimicking life—denial. Beneath her makeup are cuts and bruises. Cassie wears a dress, like what she would wear if they could marry, but Jenny notices beneath the frills the missing expected form of legs attached to polished black shoes. Her family stands beside the open casket. Jenny must say a few words to each. She faces Cassie’s parents, three sisters, and two brothers in procession. She hugs them and mumbles out, She was a great girl, and, She was this, and, She was that. It’s all trite and doesn’t approach the truth. From now on she’ll feel Cassie running her nails through the hair of her ever lengthening days.

There will be no bastion of nostalgia after this. Only a forward momentum urging her to face truth brought by touching the dead. Jenny bends down with her lips nearing Cassie’s cheek.

Oh, Honey, says Cassie’s mother, Don’t—

They’ve been lost for two hours. They didn’t realize it at first.

They were supposed to be going to his uncle’s cabin in the mountains and they’d been driving for two hours through rolling orange groves when they realized they’d missed the turn about a hundred miles back. She’d screamed at him each time he tried passing the big rigs they became stuck behind for thirty miles at a time. Almost getting killed together is good for marriage, he had remarked, without receiving reply. So, she is driving now. The sun is sinking, but not set.

They pull in at a lone gas station. Beside the minimart is a rundown clapboard house with a sign in the window that says: Palm Readings $20. A neon lit billboard in the shape of a giant hand juts out above the gas station, its shadow slowly advancing with the quickening darkness.  She asks him if he wants a palm reading. She tells him they’re already going to be late, so what does it matter if they make an extra pit stop?

Way to go with that map, she says.

They go inside and it’s normal, but dark. They expected a turban wearing Madame, jars filled with preserved hybrid fetuses and psychedelic tapestries hung from the walls. They ring the bell at the front desk for service. A light above clicks on automatically as an obese woman supported by a wheelchair manifests from a room down the hall. Her TV is still tuned to a sitcom. The words aren’t audible, but the endless laugh tracks are.

We’d like to have our palms read, she says to the palm reader.

I almost forgot that sign out there.You guys are the first I’ve had in awhile.

Do you always say that? he says, smirking, nudging his wife with his elbow.

Nobody laughs. The palm reader leads them to the kitchen table. She parks and reverses her wheelchair into the proper position. She takes their twenty dollars.

Who’s first?

After tracing her lines meticulously, her eyes widening, then narrowing, the palm reader proclaims, I see a promising future of happiness. You work in advertising, correct? Very promising.


She notices a framed newspaper article on the wall, “Child Psychic Locates Missing Persons,” says the headline, above a picture of the palm reader, a child, skinny, standing beside two police officers.

I’m having a premonition.

Like a vision?

You’ll be forced to move to another city. But this is a good thing. What else, what else? Are you expecting? No? Okay. Let’s see, your mother, she will need your help. But not in the form you may think. Does that make sense?

He crosses then uncrosses his arms and catches himself before rolling his eyes.

I’m getting that this isn’t what you really want.

This? He asks.

She flinches and almost pulls her hand away, but the palm reader holds her wrist tight. With her nail the palm reader traces the deepest groove of her life line, toward its ends

Honey, he says, That’s all super interesting, but she could have made that up. Let me take a turn.

She closes her eyes, ignoring him, focusing on the pleasurable stab of the nail running along her palm. The palm reader continues, drawing blood.

Do you wish to know the day and year of your death?

Blood spots drip onto the table cloth.

Let’s go, he says, rising from his chair, grabbing her arm.

He sits back down when his wife doesn’t move.

Outside, a big rig pulls into the gas station with the chug of its diesel engine idling. She loosens her hand from the palm reader’s. This might change if she knew. What else might change, she wonders. Would she keep this up? She’d always wanted to take up sailing, but he’s not exactly the outdoors type. And, but what is it, if she knew, would she change that she always wanted to? She hasn’t thought to consider until now. Would it be best to live in ignorance? And, but—

Tell me.

Outside at the pump, the big rigs hydraulic brakes hiss. A door slams. The long line of cars that were tailgating behind race by one by one by the window looking out on the road. The palm reader runs her hand through her own hair and closes her eyes, channeling. Their hands enfold each other, gently, as the table shakes. All these wasted days gone by were preventable if she got lost sooner.

It shall be in the month of—

In a non-departing night the sun has dimmed to merely the brightest star.

Ruined cities are ashen volcanic formations. The earth in its radioactivity has become placental. Deep within their caverns they pull loose, veined flesh from pulsing walls. Above, the earth shakes. After a few of them are slain and devoured by the others, they elect one to venture forth. It squints into the dark beyond the cavern entrance. Starlight blinds even this tumorous creature. A jeweled artifact sits half buried in the sand nearby. It crouches on all fours and approaches. Slumped over in the seat sits a cobwebbed cadaver. It looks on at it in fascination. Dials whir slower and slower until the light behind their faces extinguishes and they cease.

It pulls it out, ripping an arm loose from a gloved hand, which remains grasped upon a lever. It bites down on the levers, testing for edibility. Not in words, but with a sense that its instincts are inadequate, it occurs to it that a reality outside its understanding will forever remain enigmatic. It backs away towards the safety of the cavern. Static electricity darts between the raised hairs of its back.

Others have appeared huddling upon each other at the entrance. One by one they abandon their hole of gore. It watches as the others encircle the artifact and work their hands over the struts and engine manifold, more clueless even for all their efforts. They take turns kicking around the skull and beating the ground with the femurs and ribs, all to no result.

A humming sound registers from the control panel. It approaches again and shoves aside the others. It dusts clean the panel and reveals an inscription: Raytheon. Epigenetic memories surface, of revulsion, of intuition of the end, of clouds of flame and decimation. It feels it just stepped too close to a lava flow near the cavern, how it smells its hair beginning to sizzle on its skin. Its hand recoils on its own and it sulks away. One of the others presses a button on the control panel and the engine kicks over. Pulses of white light shoot out from a crystalline gem embedded on the manifold. They shield their eyes and screech and retreat towards the cavern.

Though it remains behind after the others. It approaches despite its blindness.

Because the gloved lever fits its hand perfectly.

It throws down the lever to its final configuration, sending them all hurtling back through—

King Lear wanders the storm wrought heath beyond the castle grounds. The sky, deaf with its own thunder, doesn’t hear him: When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.

His regalia for this act is torn from falling through mud into battlefield trenches knee deep with dead. He darts after the many skittering six legged things he’s disturbed, trying to catch and swallow them, but ever elusive, they only lead him further across the desolation.

Then, nigh: the fairy wood.

Twinklings in the gloam beckon him further, further from the armies gathering on the horizon and a cast of betrayals pursuing him. Boughs of half strangled oaks overgrown with moss shelter him as he wanders thence. His beard runs with rivulets until by length he’s dry. The only way forth runs along a narrow path beaten by the soft footfalls of satyrs with their troop of bards singing incantations, calling out from the air fireflies and phosphorescent fungi to light his way towards the thrum of deeper drums, the pluckings of lute strings and the sleep inducing notes of the pan pipe. He brushes aside the thorns and brush before him. In a clearing, a midnight mass of revelers dance and writhe in rhythmic waltz around a circle of flame and magic. Moon flowering grass beneath their feet glows opalescent.

He tosses off the oversized crown from his head. He struggles free from his robes into just his skin. Far off, between the revelers’ ecstasies, he hears steel clashing against armor, cries of the vanquished and the victors, and the rumbling over the heath of countless hooves.

He forgets himself in the crowd and joins in. Then there’s a jostling of limbs and angry curses bearing his name. The music ceases. Goneril and Regan, holding their daggers and bottles of poison, march towards him through the quickly parting crowd. He turns and runs, bumping into revelers and spilling their drinks. He glances behind him and sees Cordelia striding after him, holding her own noose. He hears the jingle of a jester’s staff, and the babbling rants of a madman on the heels of his pursuers.

Their stories can’t finish without him. Up ahead, the crowd parts further, revealing a door.  Everyone turns and watches. They set down their daggers and droughts and let nooses lie limp and hold mute their adorned staffs and senselessness. Yet he could go back to the castle and make amends. Though it’s likely he’ll die of grief. Not letting his madness overwhelm him seems a betrayal.  Someone else will have to be written in his place.

His sisters reach out and grab hold of him. He tries to struggle free and open the door, but the knob won’t turn. He heaves himself against the door. It splinters and gives way. He slips free from their grasp, slips uncontrollably over the threshold into an endlessness, into this beautiful, terrible mystery.

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