in the North Atlantic, southeast of Nantucket Island, where 40 meters down there exists a dense salt river beneath the ocean. The women will take giant strides off the boat. They’ll be able to speak to one another through military grade masks equipped with microphones and receivers. Scientists will have explained that this place is a phenomenon called a Cold Seep; the river that looks like water is actually a brine that is heavier than the sea.
Jody will like the way the word “seep” sounds, and she’ll repeat it while hovering above the mussel bed that acts as the bank of the river. She’ll sweep her hands through the colony of red tube worms that act as the flowering shrubbery and repeat seep, not in the staccato manner of a chickadee chirping, but in a manner in which to lull the tubeworms to creep out of their fragile shoots. Susan will think that “seep” is a good word to describe the feeling of this place. There is no sunlight here, and so she’ll imagine the cold and the dark seeping into her blood and her bones and her eyes. She is alert with her chilled blood. She feels precise with her frigid vision.
While Jody is tickling the tube worms that could be flowering and retreating buds, she’ll notice what may have been a tree; curvaceous, stony and gray. Above the sea, she would never think of straddling a tree branch over a river because the rivers are rushing and wide and deep; the branches large and rotten. But here, everything is dwarfed. The river is short and narrow, contained by a clumpy mussel shore on each side. The tree branch is springy in its turgor and comfortable between her thighs. She bounces on the branch. She dangles her feet above the brine river.
Susan will be sure not to graze any of the mussels. She’ll not wish to disturb the tube worms. She’ll tread. The river’s water is anoxic; devoid of oxygen.The scientists explained as much, in their own terms, when she asked if the brine was lethal to touch with her gloved hand. The salt squashed the oxygen out is how she’ll put it to herself. She’ll think of the day Jody phoned from the small town down south in which she had sequestered herself with her husband, and her two, soon to be three young children. She received the call as the dishwasher hummed, the furnace kicked on, the snow fell in bunched flakes outside her kitchen window. It wasn’t the strain or breathiness in Jody’s voice that squashed out the oxygen in her own lungs. It wasn’t an instantaneous squelching like a hastily rung out sponge or a chest compression. It was a slow, increasing pressure that occurred over the course of the conversation: the oldest, a girl, had taken to pacing hallways, clinging to the walls with her tiny chest and ear. The younger boy latched on just above her daughter’s pregnant belly when he had the chance, stroking and pulling at the hair at the base of her neck. Jody, herself, could not keep on weight, even though she was six months pregnant. It was all the fighting, the yelling. “They’re too afraid to hear, Mom.” He had committed the one act with which Jody could justify a divorce to the outside world. He slept with another woman, and she was coming home. Most of the oxygen left Susan’s lungs then, but more followed when she thought about her sewing room converted to a bedroom, the dirt on the hallway walls, the holiday decorations and souvenirs and fake potted trees she’d have to clear out of the basement. “We’ll have to paint after you leave, whenever that is,” she managed to say. She sat down on her cream colored recliner, breathless and afraid.
Jody will notice a dead white crab close to the brine river’s shore. She’s only known red crabs. She is unaware that all crabs in this little ecosystem are white, so she’ll assume the color has leeched out of its body over time through the tips of its pointed legs. She’ll wonder if the red floated up to the surface like ribbons, or if it left in singular grains. She had seen red leech before. She was eighteen years old, her first baby an infant in cloth diapers. She had put her to sleep for the night on the mattress they shared in an apartment with hollow doors and wax-stained carpet. The evening brought its usual visitors: kids who had just graduated high school with her, the older man who lived below her with his long, gray beard and sunburned forearms, and her best friend since junior high, Sheila–skinny and scarred and snide. She was a mother as well but to a toddler, and not two weeks prior the mothers searched through the shag carpet for missing doses of speed that spilled out of its reused prescription bottle so the toddler wouldn’t find it and eat it. The visitors did what they’d normally do: they took long swigs of beer during lulls in the conversation, and passed around a crumpled box of Marlboro Light 100’s and a gas station lighter that the boy Jody had her eye on would tip back and forth on the diagonal, moving the fluid from one chamber of the lighter to the other. Jody got drunk fast. She felt hollow and silly and light, and managed to get a few chuckles from the old man when she shimmied around the living room to “No Matter What.” She paraded down the hallway, and announced “I shall return,” as she opened the bedroom door to check on her baby. She saw that her diaper was red and soaked, but that she was still asleep. She stripped her, startled her awake, turned her over and again in her hands to locate from where she was bleeding. It wasn’t until she noticed her stained skin that she realized what had happened: she had peed, soaking her diaper, and the red dye from the sheets on which she had lain her had leeched into it. The blotches on her skin looked like a disease or welts. Jody puked on the mattress. She marched into the living room and kicked out every guest except Sheila who stood over her later that evening, berating her as she held her naked, stained daughter in one arm, and ate from a sleeve of Saltines gripped between her thighs. Looking at the white crab now, she’ll flick it farther into the brine with her toe.
Susan, from her elevated vantage point, will observe concentric lines drawn on the mussel bed as far as six feet inland. Six feet, and then at four feet, and then at two feet, giving the mussel bed the appearance of a topographical map. Is this evidence of how far the waves rolled over the shore? What could have caused such a disturbance as to splash the brine river up and over? She’ll think that maybe there was something outside the river, an especially strong storm up above that disturbed it. But perhaps the brine river floods itself from below, from a deep cavern with a narrow entrance that she, or any person, couldn’t squeeze into without being lacerated or mashed by volcanic stone. And then she’ll think of herself wedged into that entrance, knowing of the vast pool below and the river above, wishing for the pool to jerk and spout, to push her up and out, to relieve the ache from the rock digging into her arms and thighs, to relieve the waiting and the wondering and the worrying. But she’s not stuck in an imaginary entrance to an under-undersea cavern. She’s above the concentric lines, treading water with her body, arms spread, legs kicking. This will be a profound thought to her, and she’ll think she sees those lines lift away from the mussel bed and float up.
Jody will get bored. The mussels, the tube worms, the branch, the crab. She’ll decide there’s nothing else here. She’ll want to see what is beyond but she’ll know it’s not possible. She’s tethered to this place. She’ll invent a phenomenon to her liking; wisps of what look like glowing smoke or an elongated jelly fish, curling and bending in accordance with the slow, loping current without dissipating, just rolling and stretching until they are no longer visible to human or sea beast eyes. They are like a loosely tangled net, she’ll imagine, these wisps that could be organism or chemical, thatching across each other in loops and spirals across the whole of the Atlantic Ocean, sliding to and fro and over and under as a shark unknowingly barrels through them somewhere off the coast of Virginia, or perhaps they, the women did, plunking straight down to the sea floor just moments earlier.
Susan will feel the warmth behind her and won’t believe it, or more precisely, won’t believe it could just be. The hood of a car, a tanning reflector, a furnace vent; these images will flood her brain to explain what she feels. The warmth will sheath her from behind, like a shower curtain or a scrim, all at once, and though she is already floating in the cold water above the brine river, above the mussels, she can lie back in this warmth with even less effort. And it will look as though she’s splayed on a coffee table, or a sacrificial rock.
Jody will notice Susan’s change in posture. She’ll panic herself out of her daydream. “Hey. Hey,” she’ll say into her mask. “Hey,” she’ll yell as she flaps up to Susan. “It’s all right,” Susan will say. And Jody is enveloped in the warmth just the same, and now she’ll think of a blanket, her dog, warm sand. And Susan will say “It’s all right. Lie back. Hold my hand.” Jody will do as she’s told, and she too, finds that lying back is easy with this mass of warmth behind her. And they’ll stay that way, suspended, hands linked, for a subjective while, under the sea, above the brine river, at this clement point in space no one knows exists but the two of them, until Susan will say, “I’m ready to go somewhere else now,” and Jody will reply, “Yes. I am, too.”