If you were to travel from New Orleans to the ocean, charter a boat, ride for about a day, drop anchor at a specific spot, and suddenly dive down to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, you’d eventually reach a dark void on the ocean floor known by scientists as the Midnight Zone. Within this death-trap void you’d encounter a bleak, murky place that would probably kill you. You would encounter, of all things, a lake under the sea. It would probably kill you but if you were very, very careful, it might not.
Scientists say that in the lake under the sea, salt brine is so dense that it sits on the bottom, forming a cauldron of toxic chemicals. Some say that when the water’s muddled, waves of ghostly brine roll to the lake’s phantom shores.
For living things that wander into this lake under the sea, it’s usually lethal. Yet within its danger lies a wonder. Tube worms as well as a special kind of shrimp can survive there. Giant mussels with symbiotic bacteria live there, too. It’s believed that these beings could resemble life on other planets in our solar system, or beyond.
They have a name for miraculous creatures that can dwell in these perilous shadow places of nature: they’re called “extremophiles.”
Often imperceptible to the human eye, extremophiles comprise 98 percent of the ocean’s biomass and are responsible for most of the biological activity that happens there. Yet safe upon land, we humans remain largely unaware of our legion of remote neighbors.
Extremophiles. These are the creatures that can adapt and survive, even within life’s most formidable places. They are the ones who can dance on the edge of a volcano or dally within a drop of rain; the ones who risk being dragged through the event horizon of a black hole; the ones who manage to survive in murk beneath a billion-ton weight of a black universe pressing on their heads.
Years ago I was an extremophile.
I dwelled in dark dreams; in the nightmare bioluminescence and mirage of clinical depression, somatoform disorder, and post-partum depression. For a time I mourned within my own shadow places, populated with phantoms trailing what I perceived as death.
What was conjured lived there and stared up at me from the depths. There was always something terrifying waiting; something always ready to charge at me with Devonian teeth and dead eyes. Something that lives without the sun.
It could overwhelm and drown you at any moment without warning.
I learned to live in two realms; in the realm of the air and in the realm of water. It’s a duel reality; one swims through the other; they’re portals into each other, superimposed.
When I was a new mother, there were mornings when I couldn’t get out of bed. I knew I must get up and make breakfast. I’d move my leaden legs and sludge through a wall of water to get there. It took all of my will, because there was no point. There was no future. I wept often, afraid I’d die any moment. Why pretend that life was good or normal, or that it would continue? I had to plan how I’d move my left arm under me to support my weight, how I’d sit up, how I’d stand and put a foot in front of the other to lean my weight through this odd ocean pushing against me.
I’d tried to breastfeed my baby in the hospital, but I was sick and exhausted. Labor had lasted 21 hours. I couldn’t sleep for very long. It was a time of great confusion. I wandered the fluorescent halls, not sure if I was actually awake. The natural bonding with my baby was supposed to take place. The nurse kept asking me to breastfeed; I was ill with something respiratory. Although she kept positioning the baby against me, he wouldn’t latch on. Secretly I wondered if they’d made a mistake and given me the wrong baby; some sort of changeling.
All of the other mothers in the group were nursing. They were all chatting together. I’d look at them and smile vaguely through the void. They were certainly polite to me, but so distant. I must have seemed so out of it, so weary, so far away. “Breast is best!” they’d say brightly, citing the anthem of many articles about nutrition and how important breast milk is for your child’s immune system. They’d say this often. Their mouths formed the words and the sound would travel through the water in slow motion and I’d finally hear it as it washed over me. And my son was too thin, too frail. He couldn’t latch on. I read the scrawled words “failure to thrive” on a clipboard. Yet even after he was given formula and started to gain weight, I felt my own failure to nurse; failure to mother. And I felt profound isolation: my husband didn’t visit me often; the circling green waves started to flood and rise up over my head. I don’t know why.
I only know that for several months after, I remained in this dark place of slow motion. I thought that perhaps when I left the hospital and came home, the sense of this ocean would go away like a bad dream, but it didn’t.
How can we explain that the life-altering event of new motherhood can also give birth to sadness? How can joy and sorrow be simultaneous worlds like air and water and mist that flow through each other?
I once read about an artist who creates beautiful underwater sculptures; figures of humans in a museum beneath the sea. He describes how light plays across them, and algae, corals and other sea creatures make them their home.
With the passage of time, I’ve been able to perceive sculptures of myself down here in the ocean. I’ve moved closer to the shore to touch them; there’s visibility here. Slats of sunlight from the water’s surface stripe my primitive face. I see phantasmal statues of myself in different stages of life, altered depending on where I’ve been facing the tide.
In these statues, I’m posed in many ways. Some of the sunken figures are of my son. In one, he’s tiny and has just been diagnosed with autism. There’s another where he’s grown into a beautiful toddler, playing alone in watery half-light. He’s mesmerized by the spiral shells in his hand. Some sculptures are of a second baby (who I believe was a girl) lost in pregnancy at three months. Many statues are of this lost little daughter, the way she might look at ten, at sixteen or twenty. She has a mischievous expression. I miscarried her one afternoon, sitting in warm bath water; the blood bloom heralding death, soft wings of blood flowing from between my legs like undulating fans, and now, here in my dreams, flowing above her head like a descending vestment. Her memory lives down here, too.
You may find these thoughts morbid. I once heard someone say that on land we look at people every day who seem happy and we think we know them. We think everything is what we see at the surface, and we look past it to the obvious and pretty horizon.
But for years I was down here under the waves. And none of you saw me.
I did manage to smile up through the water sometimes. And I’m aware that there are those who dwell down here in a much darker void than I did; in overwhelming depths they perhaps can’t return from because the world at the surface is simply too big, too bright, too noisy, too much to fathom . . . there’s the beloved comedian; a rock star adored by family and fans; a woman who always made others happy; the adventurous chef for whom the world was a wild culinary playground.
Many of them used to smile, too.
But they were in a far different place than I was. And they must tell you their own stories.
I do know that when you’re unwell, if you’ve given birth; if you’re different from other people; in pain, if you feel old, or invisible, or if you must mourn, heal, or rest . . . sometimes you’ll dwell, if temporarily, in slow motion; in a cavern of echoes, in sea drift, wreck and ruin.
It’s here to this abyss that you’ll sink. And as you go about your normal day, your soul will live a half-life no one knows about.
But now, many years have passed. Like the artist’s sculptures, the statues of me have become part of the sea bed; largely unrecognizable. From my face and outstretched hands, reef creatures have dramatically altered my appearance. Balloon-like beings breathe water like air.
Purple vines snake round my face. Tunicates sprout from my medusan hair, and schools of spectral fish pass silently by, grey ghosts in the current. Life now teems about me and in me.
I reach out and touch my own stone effigy embedded in a gradient of sloping sand, in the slumbering marine light. Yes, there is life here.
Somehow, and I’m truly not sure how, I’ve managed to pull myself out of them, and out of that dark region below. I’m no longer in the Midnight Zone and the dead brine lake. I’ve moved onto a higher shelf; my mind is a living reef.
I no longer dwell in daily grief and hopelessness, although I can still see the old drop-off point in my memory, somewhere between the strange and the estrangement; between solitude and that first dim descent into sorrow.
But these days I’m standing in a different place, in a higher realm of light, of photosynthesis.
My face is painted, festive in white lines from fire worms. I’ve been baptized in the volcanic vents of the deepest ocean crevasses. Still, as I find myself in this new lighter reef of the mind, fine coral flowers are blooming in my eye sockets, and the surf is breaking joyfully in the distance over my head.
Celeste Schantz was a finalist in Fugue journal’s 2018 annual prose writing contest. “Lake Under the Sea” is her first essay. Celeste was also the runner-up for the 2018 Stephen Dunn Prize in Poetry, judged by Terrance Hayes. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Solstice, Stone Canoe, One Throne Magazine, Poetry International, and other publications, and in the anthologies Waves, featuring Maxine Hong Kingston (AROHO), and Alongside We Travel: Contemporary Poets on Autism, edited by Sean Thomas Dougherty (NYQ Books). Celeste lives with her teenage son in Upstate New York, where she supports his differently abled schooling and inclusion programs and champions autism rights. You can find out more about her at https://celesteschantz.com.
1 Specific information on The Midnight Zone and extremophiles comes from oceanographic maps, from articles on the websites Seeker, Science Alert, and Business Insider, and from reports by Erik Cordes, associate professor of biology at Temple University, in the journal Oceanography, Vol. 29, No. 1, Supplement, March 2016. The metaphoric description of the author's appearance as a submerged statue was informed by the sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, describing physical transformation in his underwater art installations which he discusses in his TED talk and its accompanying image gallery.