So Hungry, So Deep
by Daniel Powell
The man from the county was supposed to arrive by nine o’clock.
Joe stood at the window at ten minutes past nine. He brushed the drapes aside and found the gravel drive empty. Out on the highway, a tanker rumbled by, but other than that, life was what it always was: still and silent.
“No common courtesy these days,” he grumbled, heading into the kitchen to warm up his coffee. “Guess time’s not worth as much out here in the country.”
The young man eventually showed up, some 50 minutes after their scheduled appointment.
Joe met him at the front door.
“I am so sorry, sir,” the young man gushed, his round cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “I had some paperwork that I had to pick up, and I had no idea that your place was this far out here. I’m Billy Claridge, by the way; it’s nice to meet you Mr. …,” he rifled through his paperwork, “DeSmet?”
“That’s right,” the man replied, the contempt clear in his tone. “Joseph Lewis DeSmet. You came to see the pool, right?”
“Yes, sir. There’s been a question of … sanitation.”
“Sanitation? How on God’s green earth did your office get a complaint about that?”
“Just folks talking back in town,” Claridge replied, avoiding eye contact. “You know how word gets around. The county has an interest in making sure that water features are up to code.”
DeSmet smirked. “Criminy, kid! ‘Water features,’ are they, now?” He paused. “Say, didn’t your office just have somebody out here?”
“Let me check,” Claridge replied, thankful for the chance to reassert his authority. He traced his finger down a form. “It’s been, uh … holy cow! It’s been 11 years, Mr. DeSmet. Geez, that’s a pretty long time. How’s the pool? Still in decent shape?”
“Decent?” DeSmet replied, dumping the dregs of his coffee in the sink. “No, son, she’s pristine. She’s just as clean as they day the great ones dug her, I reckon. C’mon, Mr. Claridge, let’s have us a look. There’s bottled water in the fridge.”
DeSmet grinned. “They didn’t tell you, did they? We’ve got a little bit of a hike ahead of us.”
After 40 minutes, Claridge begged for a break. His loafers were coated with dust, and sweat pooled beneath his arms. Panting, he turned his gaze to the distant bluffs, where vultures drifted in lazy circles above the parched soil. “How hot do you suppose it is?” he panted, checking his watch. Could it really only be 10:45?
“Oh, it gets mighty warm out here in the dog days,” DeSmet said. “It’ll be more than 100 degrees by the time I make it back to the house.”
“Damn,” Claridge muttered. The young man sucked at his water bottle, now half empty. He was overweight, and his cheeks were flushed yet again, this time from exertion. “It’s like a furnace.”
“Now, you can’t tell me that it doesn’t get this hot back in Canyon City,” DeSmet replied, grinning. Aside from a few trickles of sweat at his temples, he seemed utterly unfazed by the heat.
“Well,” Claridge grunted as he hoisted himself up, “I mainly work inside an air conditioned building, Mr. DeSmet. You, uh … you still swim in this pool?”
“Every day. Been swimming in it ever since I was a young man.”
“Well, you’ve stayed in shape; that’s for sure.” Claridge said. He drew a deep breath and started back down the trail. “Thanks for the rest, Mr. DeSmet.”
“It’s the water,” DeSmet said absently, following him down the trail.
His birth certificate claimed that he was 81. He weighed 161 pounds, and his tanned skin remained tight over cords of muscle. Even his long gray hair, which he secured with a simple leather strap, still had streaks of sandy brown in it.
“The water?” Claridge replied, eyebrows raised.
“I grab a dip every day. Folks have been looking for it for centuries, I reckon. Ponce de Leon. Ol’ Chris Columbus. Hell, some historians even believe that Lewis and Clark were sent to this part of the country simply to investigate some … interesting rumors.”
“Oh, yeah? Wait, are you talking about the Fountain of Youth?”
“That’s one name for it, son, that’s one name for it. It’s not too much further,” he said. “You reckon you want to dip a toe in, Mr. Claridge? Might do you some good.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I still have two more appointments before the end of the day, and I didn’t bring a towel or anyth—”
“Who else you going to see?” DeSmet interrupted. “I mean, we’re a long ways out here, ain’t we? Where else are you expected?”
“Well, there’s a septic system that I was going to look at on the way back through Mt. Vernon. And then, if there was still enough time, I was going to drop by the city pool in John Day. We got a call about some mold accumulation in the men’s showers.”
“Mold?” DeSmet shook his head. “You won’t find any of that out here. C’mon, it’s just around this bluff.”
The trail swung out around the side of an enormous sandstone berm. On the other side, there was a stunning pool of shimmering blue water.
“What in the …?” Claridge said. He stopped in his tracks and stared at DeSmet. “How is this possible?”
The old man already had his shirt off. He placed it over a juniper rack that he’d bolted into the sandstone. There was a sign—crimson paint on a gnarl of aged pine—above the rack: “O’-koke la boos Il’-la-hie.”
DeSmet toed the edge of the water, a wry grin on his face. “Pretty slick, eh? Told you that I kept the place up.” He pumped his arms and executed a perfect dive.
Claridge laughed at DeSmet’s agility, waiting with a smile on his face for the old man to surface. Ten seconds passed, then twenty. After a minute, he hustled over to the edge.
“Mr. DeSmet? Hey, Mr. DeSmet!”
Where had he gone? The pool was big—deceptively so—and standing this close to the edge, Claridge felt a sudden and irrational pang of fear. He backed away.
Why had it scared him? That made no sense. The water was cool and clean, and the pool couldn’t have been a more perfect circle if it had been laid out by a team of stonemasons.
Still, it seemed incredibly deep. He crept back to the edge and peered down into it, but there was no bottom in sight. The deeper it went, the darker the water became.
Claridge turned on his heel and scrambled over to the rack, where he dropped his clipboard and hastily undressed. When he was down to his boxers, the thought occurred to him that he should call someone—that he had to call someone.
But what would he say?
“Uh, sorry to bother you, but I just saw an octogenarian vanish into a natural spring out here in the middle of the desert. Where? Oh, I don’t know, somewhere between Dayville and Monument, I guess.”
Boy, he’d hear about that back at the office. No, the only thing to do was to follow him. Maybe the old man had hit his head.
He considered testing the water, but it was probably best to just bite the bullet. With arms pinwheeling, he leaped.
The frigid water forcing the air from his lungs. This was cold on a level he’d never experienced before, an icy chill so complete that his molars throbbed.
He surfaced and gulped air while he gathered his bearings. Still no sign of the man.
Claridge filled his lungs and dived, gliding through the water with surprising grace, for whatever ease of movement he lacked on land, he had an equal amount of elegance in the water. He’d been on the swim team in high school and had spent much of his youth at the city pool in Pendleton before leaving for Boise State.
He pushed down into the water, stunned by the inherent beauty of the gleaming layers of volcanic basalt. It shone like buffed onyx. Things barely glimpsed—shadowy slivers of sinew and scale—darted here and there.
What kind of creatures could possibly survive out here?
He dived until his ears felt like they might burst, until the chill was so great that he actually feared for his heart, and that was when DeSmet appeared, still grinning. The codger ducked out of a hole in the basalt and angled hard and fast toward the surface.
Claridge followed, breaking the surface with a gasp. The warm air was a blessing; it invigorated him. He swam to the edge and stared at the old man with disbelief.
“What the hell happened? Where did you go?”
“Caves,” DeSmet replied. He hoisted himself out of the water and sat on the edge, his feet dangling in the clear water. “There are air pockets all throughout the basalt, young man. Like I said, I’ve been swimming in this pool for decades. I know where all her secrets are hidden.”
Claridge drew a deep breath and let it go with obvious relief. “Jesus, Mr. DeSmet! I thought you’d hit your head or something. You nearly gave me a heart attack. This water, it’s …”
DeSmet grinned. “It’s what, Billy?”
A cloud covered the sun and the day grew momentarily dark. Billy studied DeSmet and suddenly felt fear like he’d never experienced it before.
The man was different. Younger. His face was unlined, his teeth, white and straight. His hair was as black as the night sky, and his shoulders were strong and square.
The cloud passed, the sun beating down once again like a torch, and DeSmet was the same again, —same old man, same lined face.
Claridge spun his head, unsure of himself. What was he doing, reclining in that pool of deep, ancient water?
“It’s what, Billy?” DeSmet prodded.
“It’s, uh … it’s different. Different than what I’m used to analyzing. I’m not sure that I can run tests on this, Mr. DeSmet. I’m not sure—”
“Not sure of what you’ll find, am I right? Of what the water can do? Take a look at yourself, son. Take a good, close look.”
Claridge’s eyes traced down into the water, where his belly was flat.
Ridges of muscle, the very same ridges he’d had all those years before when swimming and soccer had been his daily routine, had appeared there.
“I don’t understand. How is this possible?” he said, keenly aware of the tightness of his flesh. He was muscled and fit; the thirty or so pounds he’d picked up in college had melted away.
“My old man once traveled a great distance with a fellow named Hohastillpip. You might have heard about him back in school, but more likely not. Folks don’t seem so keen on understanding their history these days. Anyway, you’d have known him as Red Grizzly Bear. That name ring a bell?”
It did. Claridge knew he’d heard it somewhere. He studied DeSmet closely, things falling into place a bit more.
“Your old man? You mean …?”
“That’s right, son. Meriwether Lewis. He came out to these parts—or near enough, I suppose, for government work—with the infamous Corps of Discovery.”
“But how? I mean, are you saying …?”
DeSmet turned his eyes to the sky, lost in memory. “Back then, they called me Turkey Head. I had a family of my own. A community of brothers and sisters living out on the plains. Then, I heard about some maps, maps drawn by ol’ Red Grizzly Bear himself. I heard about one very special map in particular.”
Claridge ran his fingers over his chest. How long had it been since his ribs had been so defined? He felt invigorated, his wind returned to him. He drew a great gust of air and let it go with obvious pleasure, suddenly confident that he could run a marathon. There was no getting around it: he was a new man. More accurately, he was a younger man.
“So I came out here, poked around a bit, and found ol’ Grizzly. This was back in 1832. I was 27 years old, mind you, and just stuffed full of piss and vinegar!”
Claridge laughed out loud at the old man’s claim.
“Oh, yeah,” DeSmet conceded, still smiling himself, “it’s a curious thing, this pool. She’s sustained me all these years. And I’ve seen it all, son: the highs, the lows, and everything in between.”
“This is … it’s the most amazing discovery in human history, Mr. DeSmet! How have you managed to keep it secret all this time! I mean, there should be scientists out here! The government should be running tests!”
“Tests!” DeSmet cried, slapping his knee. “Isn’t that what you came out here to do, Billy? Run tests? Just like the fellow they sent before you. What was his name?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see it on the report,” he stammered, once again unsure of himself. He couldn’t stop touching the line of his jaw, his stomach, and his biceps. But a part of him was dead scared.
He peered down in the depths and noticed more of the scaly creatures flitting about. Bigger ones.
“This place is old, boy. It was here before all of us and it’ll be here when we’re dust. Red Grizzly Bear knew it. I do, too. Now, I’m just a caretaker. A custodian.”
“What does that mean?” Claridge said. “You keep it clean?”
He felt scales against his calf muscle and he yelped in surprise. He wanted to scramble out of the water, but the way he felt—the energy! He was scared it might dissipate if he left the pool.
“No, I don’t keep it clean, son. I have to keep it fed. Notice that?” he said, pointing to the sign.
“What is it?” Claridge said, his voice verging on a scream. Things were happening in the water. He shivered against the pull of scales against his inner thigh. A sinewy tail flicked against his ribs. The creatures were schooling all around him. “What does it say?”
“It says ‘Mouth of the Earth,’ Billy. And that’s just what it is.”
Claridge felt something close around his foot with a firm tug. He scrambled to gain purchase on the side of the pool, even managing to hoist his torso out of the water.
“I’m so sorry, son,” DeSmet said, kneeling near the boy, for that was surely what Claridge had become. He appeared to be about 15—muscular, thin, and utterly inexperienced in the ways of the world, except for his eyes, which expressed a horrified understanding of what was happening and what was yet to come. “She needs to eat, just like the rest of us. She doesn’t take from us like we take from her, but her hunger is no different. No different at all.”
The sun disappeared behind an enormous bank of clouds just as a scaled appendage closed around his chest. The day grew darker, the ground shaking as the vultures circled low, now mere yards above the pool.
DeSmet turned and walked toward the bluff, muttering words that had been old when the great volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest were born. The morning was nearly as dark as dusk now.
“Help!” Claridge shrieked. Another appendage encircled his arm, gently pulling him into the center of the pool. “Help me, DeSmet! He—”
And with that he was gone, vanished beneath the surface.
DeSmet spared no fleeting glance. He merely braced himself against the berm. As the basalt lurched and pitched, coming together for an instant in a feeding ritual as regular as the tides, DeSmet closed his eyes and offered a prayer for Claridge’s soul.
He prayed for all those who had been lost during his two centuries on the Earth, and for those who remained and couldn’t possibly understand that there were still so many sacrifices yet to make.
Copyright © 2014 Daniel Powell