A Swim and a Crawl
A hundred yards out, the longshore current caught him. He stopped swimming and let himself be carried. Looking back, he no longer saw the deserted lifeguard tower. The steep green ridge above the beach grew black in the evening light, a shaggy silhouette that marked the end of the road. He spun slowly in the current, rounding the point. The clouds, clumped on the horizon like lint caught under a door, faded quickly from burnished copper to dull grey, and the small waves that bore him along kept pace with their transition.
Overhead, Venus still had the evening to itself. When he looked down, he was surprised to see his limbs appearing luminous against the depths. To anything gazing up from below, he would resemble bait. Darkness filled the ocean as surely as it filled the sky. He was caught between them, but on balance he belonged to the sea.
The current carried him steadily westward. He hardly had to paddle at all except for the minimal effort required to tread water. He wasn’t yet sure how long he would bother. He was in no great hurry after rushing all day to enter the waves precisely at sunset. He had somehow fooled himself into thinking that keeping his appointment was the last thing he would ever have to do; that once the current took hold, all decisions would be forever behind him. Now he realized that hard choices still lay ahead. If he failed to make them, they would be made for him. Maybe that was for the best. For now, he watched the coastline sailing past to the south, a black wall climbing to meet the night. The sloping point that marked the edge of the bay, his last familiar landmark, merged with eastern gloom.
The first current fed him to a stronger, colder one. He found the change invigorating. The outer edges of his hands took the brunt of the chill, pinkies and thumbs beginning to tingle. It was a normal numbness that left his mind clear and sharp. He had taken every step of this path without drugs, in order to hold onto this clarity, this deliberation, and his dignity. Pushing through the waves, he had struggled briefly for breath, his heart pounding; but now his pulse was calm, his breathing steady.
One great, jaw-straining yawn ended in a full-body shiver, a foretremor of the next stage. The cold, it occurred to him, could become an ally if he wished it. To delay the possibility of seizing up, he stretched out, arms reaching, legs trailing, and pulled himself through small waves barely ruffled by the night breeze. With a bit of work he could easily swim faster than the current, indulging the feeling of speed. Face in the water, he opened his eyes and stared down into darkness. Did the shore cliffs shear straight into the sea, cleaving the edge of an abyss that opened below him? Or did they slope gently north for miles, so that he swam unknowing in shallows? He filled his lungs and dived, fingers outstretched in case he might touch sand or coral, but encountering nothing, he kicked back to the surface.
Venus had set but the sky was still starless, the surrounding veil of clouds cinched shut to the zenith. The vaporous heavens appeared grey by contrast to the solid black substance of the silhouetted cliffs. He would have been only faintly surprised to see stars come out against the solid rock. The jagged ridges continued to climb, featureless on their faces but sharply honed at their peaks, slicing into cloud cover like the edges of obsidian blades.
Another stroke. Another shiver, this one just on the verge of being painful. The current tugged him away from the shore, and in its chill he felt the first pang of terror, inseparable from the thought that he would soon lose sight of those solid, anchoring cliffs. If he allowed himself to drift out farther, he would soon be alone with the formless grey, the sky and the sea would merge, and in that void without edges he would lose himself.
He clung to the sight of the cliffs, the stolid companionship of shadow, an absence of light that signaled a massive presence. Without conscious intent, he took a stroke, and then another, cutting sidelong through the current, paddling back toward the cliffs. He had no plan, no purpose, beyond keeping his relative position. He was not, like a swimmer caught in a rip, angling back to shore. And yet as he found himself warming to the exercise, he noticed that the rocks were rising higher, imposing on ever more of the sky, and in this he found comfort. Why should a vast expanse of blackness be more welcome than a sullen starless grey? No reason. Yet it was inarguable that the closer he came to the wall, the less he felt the rising tide of panic. This was not really a decision he was making, was it? Nothing had changed. Whatever was to happen, let it happen to him closer to the wall.
He breasted a new and swifter current, warm as a memory of sunlight retained against the night. Was it imagination or some form of perception that convinced him of the sheer mass of the cliff sweeping past? Nowhere near close enough to touch the rock, he slowed his strokes and tried to center himself in the warmth, waiting to see if sensation returned to his limbs. He lay back as if soaking in a tub. Closing his eyes brought about only a minor alteration of what he saw.
All he had to do now, he thought, was nothing.
Drift off to sleep.
Drift with the current, at least while the current kept him close to shore.
And there was the fear again, the thrill of panic that made it impossible to quiet his mind.
He righted himself and looked down. He appeared bodiless. Above, he could still make out the black imposing presence of the shore making up fully half the heavens. The other half was that grey which resisted focus. The things he could feel–the ocean, the current–were invisible. He raised a hand before his eyes, held it up against the sky, spun himself around to face the wall. It was as if he had no hand, nothing to obscure cloud or cliff. He was beginning to merge with the sea, no longer luminous, no longer separate, not merely a mote in the current but current itself.
This, he reminded himself, was what he wanted, what he had sought. But the reality of becoming intangible…he could not abide it! Especially not when a solid wall was almost close enough to touch. The defining edge, the shoreline, the last barrier. He had left it behind but now he wanted nothing more than to regain it. There was nothing for him to the north, nothing but ocean, and nothing in the west toward which he was being relentlessly swept. The only thing that mattered was the black face into which he could read any expression, any flicker of judgment.
The stars were never coming. The clouds would never disperse. The sun would never rise in the east for the current would always outrun it. Nothing but dissolution awaited him in the open sea. All plans and intentions were meaningless, for he was mere current. Could water breathe water and drown?
Swimming became a struggle to move closer to shore. The formless grey above began to war with the solid black. He couldn’t imagine the height of the cliffs, but it didn’t matter. If he was to save himself, he must swim with all his fading strength to reach the wall.
Old prohibitions against fighting the current came back to him. Saving his strength, he adjusted his course by degrees. It was a matter of balance: without ever stopping completely, he must be careful not to exhaust himself. It wouldn’t matter how far he was carried along the shoreline, for even the gentlest approach would bring him to it eventually. His eyes strained the dark for the faintest strand of pale color that might mark the passing of a beach. Stray sparks burst against his retinas but just as quickly faded. The wall was so black that it swallowed all light and devoured every thought. Oblivious to his desperation, it became a source of reassurance. The cliff was never going anywhere.
The closer he came to the shore, the faster the current carried him. He heard no crash or slop of individual waves; instead there was a torrent of sound, like rapids rushing against rock. Without visual detail or any sense of parallax, he could only imagine the wall moving past at incredible speed. If he were to reach out and brush it with his fingers, the tips would be erased.
His muscles grew cramped. All bodily warmth retreated to his chest, leaving little for his extremities. This made it easier to selectively ignore his situation. His consciousness narrowed to a single intense beam entirely fixed on that black wall; his body drove straight on toward it through the dark.
His hand touched something cold and solid, something that was instantly torn away. The shock brought him back to physical awareness. Caught in chop, unable to pretend he had a choice in his direction anymore, he groped rather than swam. Desperately, he threw himself forward, feeling like a creature made entirely of sinew and bone, lacking meat, muscle or blood. He had strength enough to seize the next solid object he brushed, wedge his hand into a crevice, and hold fast.
The current, a constant reminder of what he now fought to escape, never let up for an instant. He hauled himself close to the rock, as close as it would let him come. He dragged his torso from the waves, and then his legs. He curled up on a small craggy ledge, enclosed in the solidity of the rock, and huddled there shivering, waiting for the night to end until he told himself it never would. Having reached the shore, he must now make the most of it.
Freed from the current, he discovered reserves of strength. Sensation returned to his fingers. He stretched out his legs and half-stood, hugging the wall. The water was only inches away, but he would never allow himself to dip so much as a single toe back into it. Never again would he succumb to the sea. He had reached land and he was meant for land and he gave himself to it gladly.
Braced against the wall, he leaned back slightly and looked up. The black face was half the world now, holding the other half, that meaningless grey sky, at bay. In a moment of vertigo, the world seemed to flip, and sky became wall, with the blackness a dark plain laid out at his feet. He need merely walk across it.
But in truth he must climb, which was a kind of crawling. Later he would walk, yes, he would stride and run. Plenty of time for that. Later.
Fingers found their own grip on the wall above his head. Toes dug into a narrow fissure that offered itself as a step. He pushed up, groped blindly for the next grip, ascended. In a moment, his toes dug into the crevice where his hands had been. He was climbing.
In the absolute dark, he believed he might be scaling the wall even more efficiently than he had swum the current. But the water had been relatively warm, while the wall grew colder as he climbed. In the sea, he had moved from warmth to chill and into warmth again, whereas the rock gave up no trace of the day’s heat. Climbing into a realm of capricious winds, he detected no promise of a warming gust.
Impossible not to imagine what would happen if he slipped. The fall itself would be painless, no matter how much terror he felt as it happened. Eventually he would hit the water. He might land well or poorly, but he would surely survive. And then he would simply swim back to the wall. There was no reason to think he couldn’t do it. A setback at worst, but not a failure. In every respect, he was making progress.
Then he heard a voice.
Against the background of the wind, somewhere in the distance, indistinct but unmistakably voices. He must have climbed higher than he realized, or else the cliffs were lower. He was near the brink. There were people up there. Soon he’d call out. They might help him up over the edge, or he might simply complete his self-rescue. He would take pride in that. He would stand on the ridge and survey the sea and the sky, having mastered them, then turn away inland and never look back. The promise of rejoining others quickened him. He scaled through ever colder winds, imagining the world wide and open above.
But his strength, quite apart from his will, had ebbed. His fingers grew numb. He was no longer sure he felt stone beneath his toes. He swept one arm across the wall, reaching out but hesitant to trust his weight to a grip he couldn’t feel.
Despite himself, he called for help. Wordless, just a cry, a plea to whoever was up there. In the wind, he didn’t know if they would hear him. Maybe he had misheard the cry of birds as human voices; or perhaps, if they were people, they had already moved far away from the edge, leaving him hanging there, abandoned mere inches from rescue, unable to scale the final ascent by himself.
But their silence was merely surprise, for now he heard them calling out with redoubled urgency. Their cries wordless, as his had been. Hoarse, rendered dumb by exhaustion, unable to form so much as his name, he called again and attempted an upward scramble.
Foolish. He had not made sure of a handhold first, had merely reached out in desperation. His open palm slapped the wall but there was nothing on which his fingers could close. In the same panicked instant, he had abandoned his secure foothold, and so found himself stretched out in full, flat against the rock. He had surrendered his hard-won perch, and with it his balance. He waited to fall away from the face and plunge down through the dark to the sea somewhere far below.
But did not fall.
Cautiously he tried to raise first a hand and then a foot, seeking better purchase.
He could not move at all.
Except for his head, which he had not yet lowered, his entire body lay prone against the rock. He was stuck to the wall, adhering to it.
As long as the current carried him, he had outraced the light. But now that he lingered in one place, it was catching up. With the coming light, he began to see his situation.
Groaning, he laid his cheek against the rock. After that, he could no longer raise his head. He was left with one eye free to look across his outstretched arm at a gleaming obsidian plain that reached as far as he could see. There were no edges. On that wall were countless climbers, infinite others equally snared, calling out wordlessly above the fitful wind, glued to the featureless blackness that was half the world.
The other half was sullen grey sky.
The sea was nowhere to be seen.
“A Swim and a Crawl” copyright 2018 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2018