This is it, I thought. Of all the possible ways to die…but at least it’s over. I readily sucked the foul, soupy fluid into my lungs. Drowning is an unexpectedly painful way to die, but after what just happened it felt downright merciful.
Then I woke up. Still immersed, disoriented but somehow with all of my limbs restored. I swam desperately for the surface, and upon reaching it, gasped for air. Once I made it to the edge and pulled myself out, I sputtered in disbelief.
When you wake up after something like that, it’s either very good or very bad. In this place I could hardly imagine it meant anything good. I hurriedly examined the parts of my own body I’m able to see for any sign of injury. Nothing!
I spit out as much of the black goo as I could, then put two fingers down my throat. The rest of it came up shortly after that. The fellow from the other day laughed at me, still smug when I turned to glare at him. “What the fuck was that!?” I shouted. “…You know, don’t you.”
He urged me to keep my voice down, explaining that loud noises agitate the creatures. “Easy fella. It was jarring the first time it happened to me, too.” So it really happened? I demanded to know how I could be not just alive, but physically intact after those things gorged on my flesh.
“I told you how the slime works, didn’t I?” He gestured to my hand as I wiped more of the sticky black shit off my body with it. “They come after the sun goes down. They feast. The black pool revives us, regenerates us…so they can come and feast again the following night.”
I thought I already understood what my life would be, even if I didn’t want to accept it. But as he spoke, the rest of the grisly ‘big picture’ slowly unfolded before me. It can’t be. Can it? The evidence of my senses told me so, but my mind stubbornly rejected the unbearable implications.
They’re farming us. Has to be. Not exactly, but something close. There’s no need to breed us with one another, not when they’ve got this black pool to dump us into when they’re done feasting. We’ll just come out good as new, every time….almost, anyway.
I’ll never really get used to being eaten alive night after night, but after the first couple times I grew accustomed enough that I wasn’t afraid of it anymore. It became part of the rhythm by which I marked the passage of days.
As I carved another notch into the base of the broken stalagmite I was using as a calendar, my hand itched. But when I scratched at the itchy spot, the feeling only intensified, so I took a closer look. I found the beginnings of a fingernail sprouting from just beneath one of my knuckles.
I balked. But sure enough, that’s what it was. I had enough to worry about already, so I ignored it for the time being. On my way back to the sunlit pool, I tripped over something which I discovered, upon bringing it into the light with me, was my own bloody femur.
I gagged and dropped it in fright. It became real for me then. Completely, unreservedly. I’d just held my own remains, there was no longer room for doubt. That’s when I at last accepted that I was down here for the long haul, not just until some miraculous escape opportunity presented itself.
That’s a terrible habit to fall into. Thinking of yourself as the main character in a story, who can therefore never come to serious harm. “I don’t know how I’ll make it out of this” you might think, “but it’ll be okay.” Not because it necessarily will, but because the alternative is too distressing to contemplate.
I’m not going to be okay. I will never be okay again. My future, so far as I could tell, would be a possibly never-ending cycle of feasting and rejuvenation that I could imagine no escape from. So, I began at least trying to make myself as comfortable as possible.
No easy task, given how little I had to work with. But the bugs left scraps of my skin behind that I soon realized I could tan in the sunlight. I used my own urine in place of tannic acid as I once read you can make salmon leather that way. The only alternative was to make stiff rawhide which wouldn’t be much use.
It was a complete disaster the first few times I tried it. But that gave me time to strategize. If I pinned one of my arms or legs beneath a sizable rock just before they came to feast, more often than not it was still there after I pulled myself from the black pool.
That gave me much larger contiguous pieces of skin to work with. That, plus an increasingly refined tanning methodology, soon produced usable pieces of leather. I noticed in the process that two of the others, who never acknowledged me until now, were closely studying how I went about it.
I asked what they wanted, but got no response. So I just kept at it until I had enough for a blanket. It was promptly stolen from me. I made another in the same way, and another, until they had all the blankets they wanted. Only then was I left alone with mine.
Eventually I had enough for crude but serviceable garments. The others were routinely collecting their own remains by this point, copying the tactics they saw me use to trick the bugs into leaving whole limbs behind.
It didn’t do much to keep me warm, but having clothes to wear restored some meager feeling of control over my own life. Even though every night, I could do nothing else but disrobe and stack all of it beneath a nearby rock if I wanted it to still be there the following morning.
What a strange feeling, to wear your own skin. I suppose I always have…just not so indirectly. Indignity upon indignity, though of course that was far from the worst of it. The days blew by in this manner as I continued stockpiling my remains, this time in order to fashion weapons from the bones.
But at the same time, I noticed my body changing. Not at a linear rate either, but with accelerating severity. First it was the fingernail under my knuckle, which then sprouted into an entire additional finger. Then I found a new eyeball just above my right nipple which I could actually see out of.
The human brain isn’t wired properly for more than two eyes, so I kept it shut most of the time as otherwise it was nauseating. Just a bandage on a gaping wound, which only further widened by the minute. Teeth appeared on one of my shoulders, eventually forming into an eyeless set of jaws.
My hair started falling out. Slowly enough at first that I wondered if perhaps it might be down to the stress. But before long I was totally bald, and could feel that even my cranium was starting to change shape.
I fretted and wailed, realizing that not even the purity and self consistency of my body would be spared, but it made as little difference as ever. The bugs still came to feast every evening, and I still dragged my drenched body out of the black pool every morning like clockwork.
I estimate a month went by, give or take, before I changed so much that the bugs no longer recognized me as human. The others aren’t as far along and have shunned me due to my comparatively more grotesque form.
The fools. They don’t realize they’ll be like me soon. If I’d known on my first night what I knew now, I might’ve sought closeness with them. That ship has sailed, hardly the first I’ve watched indifferently from the shores even before I wound up here.
It didn’t stop the bugs from feasting on me. However, when I next strayed from the sunlit area surrounding the pool, they didn’t come to shoo me back towards it. It was the first significant change in their behavior I’d so far witnessed, so it stuck out in my mind.
It only took the next feasting cycle to convince me it was worth it to press further into the darkness. Whatever I might find out there, it had to be better than this. There’s not much I can think of, however foul, that doesn’t beat being torn apart and eaten by giant insects.
So, upon dragging myself out of the black pool the next morning and scrubbing my body as best I could, I set off into the shadows. Not hoping for escape, as by then I’d given up on it, but for change. Any change at all to the usual cycle.
I’ve changed enough now that I don’t fear the unknown anymore. I am the unknown. Maybe that’s how it happens for anyone. There’s not likely to be anything out there, hiding in the darkness, that’s worse than me. So I left the others behind.
Stay Tuned for Part 9!