We're tortured by The Thing from below our foredeck.
Like a malevolent toad, squatting on deck, it stares at us in the cockpit.
In rare moments of lucidity, my partner's gibbering includes claims it rose from the chain locker, smelling of charnel horrors, and cold as the forgotten tomb. Black as unending space, it hunkers on our foredeck, calculating, watching, waiting.
It has seen the blackest, foulest, mud-filled depths at the bottom of the sea. We've thrown it overboard, and hauled it, unbidden from the cold waters against its will, struggling and cursing it, but still, pulling it closer and closer.
It holds us — my partner and I — like a vise, clamped against a single point in the trackless oceans. We can no more escape its grasp that it can free itself from the Red Ranger, its overlord and cruel mistress. Can we free ourselves from it? Or are we bound to it forever?
Gazing in awestruck fear at this monstrosity, we wonder at its life. How was it created? What brought us together? Are there clues to breaking the links that bind us?
My partner replies in the affirmative: there are clues. They claim we can free ourselves from it. I was unconvinced.
The date I first beheld The Thing is etched on my brain like a scar that will never heal. The memory reawakens me from the deepest slumber. I bolt from the bed, running to check. To check what? My apartment is small, and land-locked, far from the sea.
The old man by the wharf where our boat was moored when we took ownership may not have been what he appeared. He looked, if not normal, at least conventional. Indeed, he wore a kind of smile that seemed distant from a rictus or a grimace. He told stories of boats and the sea with a practiced ease. We can't label his words as deceptive when we were willing dupes, eager to see the world from the decks of a boat.
Did he mention the Thing? My partner says, "No."
I'm not so sure.
I know a thing or two of the necronomic arts. A thing or two I should not know. A thing or two that should have been forbidden mortal men. But I come from a line of librarians: my mother, her mother before her, and so on. We have access to — let's call them resources — that are not commonly available. These are not the kinds of books one finds in a tobacco-stained bookstore on the cobbled streets of Providence. There are not the kinds of books found by eager booksellers who have basements filled with shadows and books not available to the general public.
Passing sailors told us what to do. Whispered conversations away from prying eyes. A few quiet words in the darkness at the end of a pier, water lapping at the pilings. The smell of rot and filth all around us.
"Galvanize it," were the words. "Galvanize it with acid, or die." Sometimes a gesture to ward off evil. Sometimes a word in a foreign tongue. A tongue not bound to land or country.
And the sailor would move on, departing on another boat. Leaving us behind to wonder what we had done to ourselves.
You do see how it works, don't you?
Each step is a choice. A choice we make. Evil and death are on both sides of the path. We take steps that totter helplessly between unknowable horrors. One false step and we are lost forever, wandering, hopeless until we come to a reckoning with the earth's foundations, and wash up on the rocky shores, dead, or nearly so. Indeed, death is perhaps the better alternative.
My partner claims to have a plan. Some avenue that will free us from The Thing. I am not certain such an avenue can even exist.
In the early days, we were filled with optimism, high hopes, and bright hearts. We looked with magnanimity on the world. We tried to avoid talking about The Thing. We had clever euphemisms that aged like a dead squid, rotting and smelling until the words filled us with revulsion and fear. We tried to avoid talking about it, but for years — many, many years — our lives depended on The Thing.
I want to say "life is a maelstrom," but this sounds too melodramatic. Let me, instead, say "life is punctuated by maelstroms." We have hours of lassitude, boredom, ennui, punctuated by moments of pure horror. Those moments of terror are where we see the empty abyss opening before us. It is that very opening — the yawning depths of endless wandering in space — too vast to imagine — where The Thing prevents us from being consumed by the void.
Are we grateful? The Thing is beyond mere human sentimentalities like gratitude or grace or forbearance. Like a mountain of solid iron, the thing exists wether we are happy or despondent or tortured by nightmaric visions of what could have happened.
"There is a bitter end," my partner reminds me.
"All endings are bitter," I reply.
I cannot fathom the distances my partner is considering. They're vast. Vast and dark, filled with the stench of death, and the cold at the bottom of the sea.
I have seen nights of fear and days of unending toil. I have looked across the trackless vastness of the sea. I have rocked in the menacing claws of the storm. My parter, too, has pulled me, insensate, from the deck of the boat, calling my name above the howl of the wind, thinking me dead.
"We can't live with the Thing," my partner declared.
I didn't know what to make of this at first. We have come to depend on the Thing. Not in a positive way, not the way a plant depends on the light of the sun to grow. The Thing is a weighty, horrid presence. We don't depend on it, but rather we tolerate it and come to expect it. With a horrid fascination, we anticipate its attendance, we treat it as an eidolon we cannot be rid of.
"We can't live without the Thing," I replied. My soul, filled with darkness, did not cry out for freedom. I did not see any light; the hulking darkness of the Thing had begun to blot out my vision of any world outside the cold, dark, death-filled depths in which The Thing seems to thrive.
"The Thing can live without us," my partner replied.
I had not been prepared for this. It was like a torrent of autumnal rain: cold, unforgiving, piercing to one's heart. The Thing could abandon us was a dark thought, rending my personal darkness with an inky black void of The Thing's more profound darkness.
If The Thing leaves us, unprepared, the consequences are disaster. Nothing less. If, on the other hand, we have taken the necessary precursor steps, the disaster could be mitigated. This was my partner's plan. There could be a life without The Thing lurking, watching, calculating.
We have formed a kind of pact between us. An uneasy truce. My partner will try to focus on things that truly are — tangible things — things visible to others. A retreat from the spiritual world. I will try to shed the darkness that envelops my every thought, and try to look to the light. Together, as partners, we can perhaps rid ourselves of The Thing.
I've been asking around. Few will speak to me in any useful way. Either they don't know, or — like my partner — fear makes them incoherent. The hollow-eyed sailors, people who've seen to much, and endured for too long, also speak of the bitter end. It's there. It takes a kind of patient malice of one's own, a brooding, muttering, plodding kind of work to seek the bitter end without being consumed in it.
It takes foresight.
The knife must be ready at all times. The Thing is not part of us. It is associated with us, casually. We are ships passing: there is a hail, a brief exchange of signals, and we part. We must watch for the Thing's foreshadowed ending. We must be vigilant and ready to strike the ties that bind us. Once we're parted, the Thing must be shunted away, exiled.
We can separate ourselves from The Thing. But we cannot end the torture. This is the human condition: we suffer in fear of being cast adrift, of wandering. We seek permanence, a firm mooring, a foothold. These are not granted to us, but must be sought. The Thing offers a sense of place, but it is fleeting, and corrupt. The Thing cannot be trusted.
If out partnership is strong, we can free ourselves from The Thing from Below the Foredeck