Near where I grew up there’s an abandoned quarry. For over a century bluestone was mined there. A deep open pit cut into the earth; steep walls of dark basalt criss-crossed by fine veins of quartz, caverns and sink holes and shelves of hard rock. Forty years ago the quarry stopped being profitable, so the mine owners turned off the pumps, removed the equipment that still worked, and let the ground water rise. Within a few months the quarry had turned into a lake. The rising tide submerged the void, and what was left behind was forgotten and drowned beneath the surface. The mining company planted some trees, put up a few picnic tables and walked away. Because of the height of the quarry walls on one side, the lake stood sheltered from the wind that whipped over the land, the skin of the water still and inviting, a dark blue pearl in an amphitheatre of stone.
Of course every young person who lived nearby swam at the quarry. If you were brave enough you could creep over the back of the slope, gently scramble your way down to the edge of a cliff that overlooked the blue, and jump. I did it twice. After the first time I should have had sense enough not to jump again.
Feet curled over the edge of the stones, the overhang just shallow enough for me to think that I could strike the sheer wall on the way down. My friends on the shore below, small in the distance, their taunts carrying just far enough for me to hear them. The empty feeling in my chest, followed by all the tightness I could summon, and then the free fall, the cobalt blue rush, the impact. A hard hit, the compression, then deep into the water, no breath in my body. The sun above, clean streams of light through the water and a trail of bubbles, arching up from where I’d struck the surface. And a strange lassitude, a sense that it wouldn’t really matter if I kicked out my legs and pumped my arms and pushed my way up. With the water a dark shadow beneath me, a lazy feeling of weight and depth, like there was some kind of voice below, speaking words that I couldn’t recognise but somehow understand. Then coming to, pushing up to breach the surface, and swimming to the shore and my friends who punched me on the shoulder and called me a dickhead by way of congratulations.
The summer when I was fourteen a brother and sister drowned in the quarry. They had been visiting family from interstate at the end of the school holidays, and had gone down to the pit on their own one morning. They had been swimming for the week they had visited, and because they were aged ten and twelve no one thought much of it, until they didn’t return. Their bodies were found floating face down on the far side of the lake, bumping up against the high hard walls.
No one I knew swam in the quarry for the rest of the summer. Late afternoon before school started I rode my bike past the stone lake. The water sat still and undisturbed, the rock face mirrored in its surface, the thinning light making the water seem almost luminescent. I tried not to think of the drowned children. The cliffs looked on impassively. I turned my bike and returned home.
School started for the year, the seasons turned, the year passed.
The country that I live in is sold to tourists as being bright and colourful, with pure white beaches and red sandy deserts. I grew up in a city on the southern-most tip, where the Pacific and Southern Oceans met. The proximity to the Antarctic made my town a fairly miserable place nine months of the year, and then summer would burst in full fury, the desert winds of the interior replacing wintry squalls. When the city was first built the available material for construction was bluestone. It has been argued by some social researchers that the dark character of bluestone has in some way affected the personality of the city itself. Bluestone is a hard, dark, blue-grey basalt. It doesn’t reflect the light. It gives little back, apart from its apparent hardness. The characteristics of these stones seemed to match the city’s murky winters. My city has pretensions of being European, even if it is the antipodes to the Old World. My father once said that if it hadn’t already been built no one would live there. The rest of the country is big, brash and colonial, but where I grew up was the opposite. It had its stones, and its secrets.
On the first hot day of the next summer I found myself ankle deep in quarry water. School was almost done for the year, with little left but junk time after exams. It was a scorching afternoon, the long absent desert air finally returning after its winter hiatus. The countryside was still green from spring, but it would only take a few hot days for it to brown out.
I was alone. My friends had picked up after school work or had other responsibilities. Like most days, I was free to entertain myself until the sun was low on the horizon. I hadn’t meant to go to the quarry, and had set out on my bike to find something to do, but the weather, the lack of company that might have suggested a better idea, and the magnetic circles of past patterns led me to the great stone pit.
Looking out across the expanse, I was sure that someone must have swum in the lake since the death of the children. There had been some warm spring days, and a hot period had passed last autumn where it was inevitable that the relief the quarry offered would overcome any sense of wrongness or reluctance that swimming might bring.
My shirt and shoes lay discarded next to my bike. I looked down at my body, pale and far removed from the colour that I earned via multiple sunburns last summer. That winter I had started growing hairs on my chest, and they stood out, black against the whiteness of my skin. I remember thinking that a tan would make them appear less obvious.
The lake seemed perfectly still, the arid air that heralded the start of summer hanging silently over the water. The walls of the quarry reared above the great rock pool, seen double in reflection. The dark echoes of stones on the surface, concealing those underneath.
I stooped down to water and picked out a few clinkers, bent my arm back, and skimmed them across the lake. They bounced for a few repeats before running out of speed and disappearing under the water. The ripples of each stone would ping across the watery skin, spreading out for a few meters before settling back into the stillness.
I decided to swim. It was hot. I was alive. The year had passed. I needed no other reason. And I decided that I was going to begin my summer by jumping off the edge and into the depths. It wouldn’t matter if there was no one there to see it. What mattered was that I would be able to swim in the quarry again. It was sad that those children had drowned, but another boring year of school had passed and I was almost free again.
Standing on the edge of the precipice felt just like it had the summer before. The azure sky and was reflected by the darker blue of the lake below. Echoes of horse tail clouds stood still on the surface, cloning those hanging in the sky. The water almost looked opaque, the unplumbed depths a mystery. I scanned the edges of the shoreline in the hope of seeing someone, already feeling foolish for my decision, but committed enough that I couldn’t back down. My bike and clothes stood sentinel, discarded on the ground. I looked at the water, hooked my toes over the edge, bunched the muscles in my legs and drew all the air I could into my lungs. The universe seemed to hold its breath with me. And then I was falling, pinwheeling, all the way down.
I struck the water like a spear, punching through the thinly heated surface into the depths below. Unlike last summer, when the lake had been heated by months of hot sun, this time the water beneath was spring-time cold, the one day old warm skin a deception. The cold immediately clamped down upon me, pressing my lungs shut.
As before, deep in the bluestone water I felt my mind let go and relax. The bitter cold numbed more than my body. I spread my arms wide, and watched as the concussive circles of splash in the surface smoothed over, and sank slowly to the bottom. The few remaining bubbles attached to my skin and the inside of my chest gently bobbled upwards to the light, the illumination dimming as I descended.
Eventually I felt my back touch the quarry floor. The stone beneath me was smooth and hard. I felt calm, and the cold numb sensation dissipated, replaced by what I can only now describe as a sensual pressure. The water seemed to cradle and caress my body. When I was older, and discovering sex with my first lover, there was the first time she first lay on top of me; the pressure of her hip bones and joints on mine, her breasts flattened into my chest, her pubic bone wedged against me. Under the quarry water I felt that same sensation. So much so, that when I first felt a lover pressed upon me I was so viscerally reminded of being under the lake water that I leapt from the bed, my skin suddenly cold and lumped by goose flesh.
But back then, in the dark, I lay like the dead, drawn down to the bluestone, my mind empty, my body pinned.
And then, in the cold of this dim hidden world, I saw the bodies of the dead brother and sister floating above me. Their skin washed and deathly white, eyelids drawn, drifting in the stillness, their swimming costumes rippling loosely in the water. Their bodies were both substantial and translucent. I could see the surface light behind them, but their shapes were real and distinguishable. The girl slowly glided above me, her face no more than a hand span from mine. And then her eyes opened. Her iris was the dark, dark colour of bluestone, the sclera so pale as to be transparent. Her black hair swirled, even though the water was static. And then the gentle pressure that had pinned me was gone, and I wanted to breathe. A terrible dread fear squeezed me, my heart felt like a cold fist in my chest, and I pushed my hands and heels into the stone and propelled myself as best I could to the light. To put the cold and dark behind me, to leave the boy and girl somewhere in the depths, leave them floating forever down.
The sun and air greeted me. The light was so bright that every object carried a negative image. My lungs worked and I took a first breath, the air of the first hot day of summer expelling the cold. I made it to the shore, and coughed until I vomited, and then kept coughing. With each convulsion I felt more of the quarry leave me, until I lay exhausted by my bike, the air drying my skin and hair.
I never swam at the quarry again, never rode my bike past it. When I got my driver’s license, I never parked my car in front of it. I never took a date there, never got drunk there with my mates, and never did all the things that people in my neighbourhood would do at the quarry. I left that city as soon as I could, and put those stone walls behind me.
There’s something under the skin of that water. Something I felt the two times I went deep down. And there’s the drowned children, drifting in the dark. I still wonder what was promised to them in the water. The girl has eyes the colour of bluestone.
Banner Image – Pixabay.com
5 thoughts on “Bluestone by Martin Toman”
Beautiful descriptive prose that actually goes somewhere is a rare thing. Such has happened in this story.
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Efficiently creepy and filled with foreboding. Could fit well in a much longer piece..
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Geez, I’d get out of there too. Stay away from that bluestone. “it gives little back, except for its hardness,” cool line. In the Mayan part of Mexico there are extraordinarily deep pools called cinotes where the Mayans practiced human sacrifice, a virgin would be thrown into the pool along with various precious items to appease Chac the rain god. I swam in cinotes without knowing they could be full of ghosts. This piece kind of reminds me of that, esp. with the brother and sister still floating down below.
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I think you capture the hypnotic quality of any body of water. I always thought it pulled you in like Kaa’s stare but maybe all water promises something.
This is an excellent piece of story-telling.
All the very best my friend.
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Martin, you beautifully balance a tone of nostalgia with the present. You capture how a fleeting moment can dictate the rest of your future with such relatability and tenderness, thank you.