Aphelion Issue 293, Volume 28
September 2023
 
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The Heart Beneath the Soil and the Water

by JM Cyrus




The first time she felt the heartbeat was a shock.

She'd been pulling up ruby potatoes in Adytum's kitchen garden, humming to herself and meandering through memories. Whilst squatting on her heels to extract a few difficult tubers by hand, she'd felt a distinct ba-thump .

The surprise made her sit with an abrupt thud.

She frowned, pushing herself back onto her haunches. Taking a breath, she removed her gloves. She reached into the hole again, warm fingers amongst the cool soil powder and hairy roots, and there it was. She flattened her hand against the hole's base and felt steady heartbeats. One, two, three. Slow, slightly slower than an adult and definitely slower than her own.

Thalia knew she wasn't going mad. Since arriving at Adytum two months ago, she'd felt more like her real self with each passing day. Her restarted life had given her back to herself, reviving and renewing her. She'd been born anew in Adytum’s rains and sunshine, and she'd found the adrift pieces of herself in the soil and the people. This felt like her home, and she no longer cried every day.

But though she felt connected to the place; this heartbeat was more than a mere connection.

She couldn't see any of her colleagues nearby, they were likely in the fields or orchards. She would have to go to the top for answers.

She finished her task, piled the muddy red roots into a basket, and took them to the root cellar.

After washing the grime from her hands and face, changing out of her gardening clothing, and giving her hair a good brush, she was more presentable and ready to face others.

The sun shone hard on the land and houses of the complex of Adytum, draping onto Thalia's shoulders and the top of her head. The sweat on her neck steamed away in the breeze.

She entered a raised building like all the others, but this one held the offices of Hess, Adytum’s head woman.

Solomon was with Hess when Thalia arrived, going through rebuilding plans for a few of the guest cabins by the lake. Thalia saw the drawings on the expansive paper, covered in the handwriting of several different people.

Hess, as always, stood when Thalia entered and came around the table with her arms wide to give her a gigantic hug.

"Thank you," whispered Thalia into the woman’s lemon-scented shoulder, "These hugs of restoration are always so nice."

Hess smiled as she pulled back, wrinkles appearing on her deceptively youthful face. She flipped her waist-length silver hair back over her shoulder and laughed.

"Well, you came here so broken, you needed pulling back together."

Thalia laughed morbidly and waved at Solomon. He stood, always surprisingly tall, and engulfed Thalia in one of his own embraces. She closed her eyes for a moment and enjoyed his friendship and his scent.

"What can I do for you today, Thalia?" Hess said, rearranging her neutral linen clothing as she sat. "You don't usually come to see me until later."

Thalia smiled and sat on a chair beside Solomon. His large black eyes watched her, naked and good-humoured.

"Well. Um. I don't quite know how to put this. So I'm just going to go ahead and say it." Thalia took a deep breath, and her next words came out in a rush. "I felt a heartbeat in the potato patch."

"Finally!" Solomon laughed, grabbing her hand.

Hess raised her hands to the sky in salutation. "Thanks to the sky and the earth!"

Thalia looked from one friend to the other. "Please explain what’s going on?"

Solomon looked at Hess, and they shared a conspiratorial smile.

"You mean you haven't worked it out?" said Hess.

"No, I haven't," said Thalia, frowning.

Thalia turned to Solomon, he was her closest confidante, surely he would explain. He merely smiled at her, eyes twinkling with joy and secrets.

"For goodness sake, put me out of my misery!" Thalia threw her hands down.

"You remember when you first came to Adytum?" asked Hess.

Thalia winced and nodded. The first few days were a sore memory.

"Do you remember how I said we hoped Adytum would be a healing space for you, and if you let her in, it would be so?"

Thalia nodded again, waiting.

"Well, it seems you and Adytum have finally connected."

Thalia looked to Solomon, who sighed and raised his eyebrows at Hess.

"Hess, you're being deliberately opaque. Thalia," he turned to Thalia, and took her hands in his own. "Adytum is more than a place. It's more than just this collection of buildings and fields and a forest and a lake, more than the ethos of self-sufficiency we live by.

"Adytum is a being. The land we stand on, the food we eat, the space we savour here, is all thanks to her. I mean, we call her a her but she is much more than anything we can define.

"We live and work with her, serve her the best we can, and in return she nourishes, revives and replenishes us. You've been welcomed, and now that you can feel her, you'll be able to enjoy more of her."

Thalia blinked at him. Several ungenerous thoughts rushed through her head. She heard the word cult a few times, and is Charlie making moonshine again? Or are there hallucinogenic mushrooms growing in the grain store? Maybe there's something in the water?

But she said nothing, and looked between two people she trusted wholeheartedly, and saw only truth.

"Pardon?" she managed.

"Adytum is a being we all live in synchronicity with," Hess answered. "She lives within everything, the soil, the plants, the water. She's accepted you and your residence here, and now you've felt her. You have a choice. You can become even more part of the family with her. Or not."

Thalia looked at their hopeful, cheerful faces and asked herself, based on everything she had been through recently, whether becoming more intimately involved with the place would be a bad thing.

She'd arrived a broken woman. Her and her husband had parted ways in a divorce that had only not been messy for the sake of their children. Their mutual love and respect had long since evaporated into nothing but feelings of bitterness and resentment. The family court had ruled equal division of parenting, and her husband had taken their three young sons (Ruben, Dorian and Samson, 8, 6 and 4) for the first six months.

Solomon was one of her oldest friends. He'd moved to Adytum 3 years before, and when she told him about her divorce, he'd invited her to join him.

The place was a self-sufficient village and guesthouse with a long waiting list and select guestlist. The people who lived here were all ages and from all walks of life. A small school and other amenities meant her boys would be able to continue their lives when it was her turn.

She'd accepted Solomon's invitation, and been healed by the companionship of the residents, been nourished by the food, found satisfaction in the work, and felt accepted by the place, its weather and its atmosphere of love.

She was grateful to it for returning her to a vaguely whole shape. Though she missed her boys, it was only four months until she would see them again. And this was a glorious place to be until then.

"So what happens now?" she asked.

Solomon indicated at Hess, raising his eyebrows in a serious warning look.

"You explain. Clearly, Hess," he laughed.

Hess chuckled. "Now, we can either welcome you in with a proper ceremony, or you can choose to live how you wish."

"What would be the benefit?"

"Greater knowledge of the land. Enhanced opportunity for enjoyment. Kinship. A fresh start. Rejuvenation and revival. One more step towards the resurrection of all of Adytum's kind."

Thalia felt that gave her more questions than it answered.

She looked from Hess's kind face to Solomon's friendly one. She was filled with tender affection for Adytum the place, and knew she wished to be a greater part of it.

"What would the ceremony involve?"

"A small ritual by the lake," Hess replied.

Solomon took her hand, his face hopeful, his skin smooth and dark. Thalia watched the hypnotic interplay of his black fingers in her pale ones and appreciated the feel of his soft flesh beneath the calluses.

"You only need to do this if you're ready. You can let Hess know later," he said.

Thalia took a breath. She'd rushed to Adytum initially on impulse in her bereavement and shock and had thrown herself into the work. She loved it here. Did she really need to think about it?

She listened to the sounds beyond the wooden walls, the bird song, the carrying voices of other residents, the sounds of life.

Her feet pulsed with an echo of the heartbeat beneath the ground.

"I'll do it," she said.

Hess smiled and came round the desk again to embrace her. Solomon's grin was the widest Thalia had seen in a long time.

******

The preparations were minimal. Hess had told Thalia to wear something she loved and would not mind getting wet whilst wearing. She opted for a yellow cotton dress; the colour reminiscent of summer sunrises.

Everyone else from Adytum (there were no guests at the moment) had been notified and as the day had worn on, Thalia had been interrupted with congratulations as she went about her chores.

Throughout the afternoon she periodically stopped to press her hand upon the grass or dirt, checking for the heartbeat. It hadn't been as clear as earlier, and her own racing heart was tangible in her skin, but she felt it.

******

The setting sun was reflected in the lake. Thalia stood on the lakeshore, holding Solomon's hand for luck and bravery, and listened to Hess.

"First you'll need to remove your shoes and stand at the edge of the lake. Keep calm and mindful and try to relax. Then wait for Adytum. She'll tell you what to do next. We'll be here, but you'll need to ignore us."

Hess had asked Thalia earlier if she wanted more than just her, as head of Adytum, there. Instinctively Thalia had reached for Solomon, his calming presence had been such a balm already.

Thalia nodded, and untied her laces and removed her socks. The damp earth was bracing on her humid toes.

She descended the dimly lit slope and paused at the water's edge. Her toes were in the cool mud, and the breeze brushed her bare arms, raising goosebumps. She looked at the gently rustling trees and the few scraggly clouds in the purple sunset, and she listened.

She could hear cicadas and other insects emerging for the night. Some frogs croaked in the shallows. The occasional splash of an animal at the water's edge. The edges of music on the breeze from the buildings further up the path.

She closed her eyes and focused her attention into her own body. She felt her heart rate slow, and her finger joints loosen as she tried to relax, the slight pressure of the dress at her waist and how it flapped about her knees. The mud beneath her feet warmed to her body heat.

And she felt it.

The unmistakable heartbeat through the soles of her feet.

She tried to keep calm and her breathing even and deep, synching her heart to that of the ground.

Sensations shifted. The breeze changed to gentle fingers caressing her skin, the little noises around her becoming the edges of words. When she opened her eyes to the landscape the ghosts of body parts haunted the shapes within shadows and silhouettes. A hello in the croak of a frog. An eye in the glimpse of sky between branches.

The silhouettes reflected in the lake's water coalesced into three dimensions. A woman stood in the water with hair longer than her body, floating away from her on the water's surface. She had her arms wide as she stood knee-deep in the lake.

Thalia felt a tug of rationality. This lake isn't knee deep, people swam and boated in it .

But the woman beckoned, features indistinct but her beauty larger than herself.

Thalia stepped into the lake and felt the ground change for her.

As she walked, something in the bottom of the lake was always there to elevate her, handy stones or fallen tree trunks or earthy bumps to keep her feet in shallows.

The woman emerged from the dark as she drew closer, her features reverse dissolving. She was beautiful and had her arms out for Thalia.

When Thalia reached her, she took Thalia into a deep embrace, and Thalia was overwhelmed by emotional and physical sensation.

Her heart had slowed, but a part of her knew it should be thumping fast and hard, and her body thrummed as if it were. She felt the coolness of the woman's skin on her own, as well as the cool fingers in the breeze. The woman's breath was warm on her neck. Thalia felt relief, safety, elation, and sadness.

The women parted, and Thalia realised how tall the other woman was. Thalia had to crane her neck to look her in the face.

And what a face.

There were tears in the woman's eyes. The beautiful eyes shifted between the blue of the sky after rain, the green of new leaves, and the brown of freshly turned soil. Her skin was all tones, tanned and pale and sunburnt, shifting between them in the evening light. Her hair shone in shadow black, the brown of old leaves, a sun-drenched gold, and flower red.

Thalia couldn't look away from the hypnotic presence before her.

"Welcome Thalia," she said. In her voice Thalia could hear the breeze's whisper through foliage, the sounds of the animals on the land and the voices of all the people who lived here.

"Adytum?" Thalia said. Her voice was croaking and uncertain.

"It's me!" she laughed in relief, "It's so good to finally meet you."

She took Thalia's warm hands, with their chipped nails, calluses and blisters from garden work and chores, in her soft, smooth, cool ones.

"Would you like to be mine? And I yours?" Adytum whispered as she leaned in, forehead to forehead.

Thalia took a deep breath through her nose. She smelled the lake, the earth, crops and flowers all emanating from the woman.

Thalia wanted nothing more than to stay.

"Yes," she answered.

Adytum sobbed with a smile and embraced Thalia again. They hugged for minutes or moments. Thalia listened to the heartbeat of the seven foot woman and felt the water's movement by her ankles sync with it.

After parting, Adytum looked down at Thalia, a look full of potential and love. She bent her head and gave Thalia a gentle kiss, her lips soft, tasting like honeysuckle, spring water and pine oil. Thalia relaxed into the woman's skin.

Adytum pulled away and gave a wry smile.

She took Thalia's hands, squeezed them, and brushed her hands up Thalia's arms, humming her skin, to rest on Thalia's shoulders.

"Now, I'm sorry, Thalia, but this may be a little disorientating." She gave Thalia a destabilising shove on her collarbone.

Thalia lost her footing. She fell backwards into water that had returned to its usual depth and sunk beneath its surface. She was suspended in the twilight, splashing in disarray for a frozen moment.

Then she stood in the middle of a never-ending field of waist-high meadow flowers.

The sun was bright and hot. She shielded her eyes, confused and unsatisfied.

She turned and saw a tree a few dozen metres behind her. With no other indication what to do, she walked towards it.

Her clothes were wet, and her feet were bare.

Beneath the tree sat Adytum, absent-mindedly plaiting her hair that tumbled about her in loose wavy curls. She may even have been humming a tuneless song.

"Thalia!" she smiled and stood. She was tall, long limbed, muscular and lithe, and undressed. Thalia felt a blush rising.

Adytum took Thalia's hands in her own and brought Thalia into the tree's shade.

She sat Thalia on the ground and organised her own long limbs to sit beside her. She stared with her beautiful eyes into Thalia's own. Thalia looked back, felt self-conscious and turned away.

She examined the ground, covered in the remnants of leaves from seasons past, and grass and delicate flowers that thrive in the shade.

Thalia put her hands on the earth.

She felt the heartbeat. It was clear, comforting and indisputable.

"You feel it?" Adytum asked. Thalia nodded.

"Is it you?"

"It is. All of this is me." Adytum answered, smiling.

"Where are we?"

Adytum took a deep breath and looked around. "My sanctuary? My heart? My private space. A space for you."

Thalia's skin was caressed by the peaceful, powerful breeze, hidden strength within its kindness.

She had a flash of a foresight-like memory. She saw her three sons running through the meadow, laughing and chasing and pretending to be vehicles or birds or whatever their flavour of the moment.

She felt a pang of missing them, a painful jolt within her ribs of wishing they were with her. But they were not, their father had them for now.

She turned back to Adytum, who smiled with a faraway expression on her face.

"Are you missing your boys?" she asked.

"Yes," Thalia answered. "I suppose there's no point in asking you how you know?"

"I hear a lot of things that happen on my land. And I like to know about all of my family."

"Your family," Thalia muttered, considering the implications.

"Yes." Adytum took Thalia's hand in her own. "You'll now be part of mine. Are you happy?"

Thalia leaned into Adytum, resting foreheads. "I couldn't be happier than to be part of your family."

Adytum pulled back, met Thalia's gaze, and leaned in to kiss her.

This one was hungrier, almost urgent in its strength. Thalia's heart sped with emotion and desire, and her feelings rose to a crescendo.

For a moment, a single eternal perfect moment, she knew what everyone in the place of Adytum was doing right then. It was simultaneous, confusing and almost overwhelming; isolating any individual was effortless but slippery, she couldn't examine them for long.

She saw Solomon and Hess standing on the lakeside, their faces hopeful and beatific; she saw the polyamorous wives and husbands of the kitchen crew curled up in their gigantic bed; she saw Charlie pouring drinks by the campfire; and saw her other friends and colleagues on the staff building terrace, in their own beds, reading in their rooms, finishing late chores. She could see all the birds in the trees, the fish in the lake, the insects among the crops, and the wandering nocturnal foragers beginning their evening routine.

Echoes of laughter and the flapping of wings drifted in her ears as Adytum separated their kiss.

As Thalia sat there breathless and unsatisfied, bewildered and overflowing, she watched Adytum delicately gather freshly fallen leaves from the tree above them in her broad hands.

Adytum rolled and folded the leaves, threading them into each other. She formed loops, knots and spraying shapes, creating an elaborate chain.

She put the chain onto Thalia's right wrist as a bracelet. It felt warm, heavy and reassuring.

"Now what?" Thalia whispered.

"Now your life begins again," smiled Adytum, and hugged her. Thalia settled into the gesture, feeling the hardness of her muscles, the softness of her flesh, and savouring her smell.

Thalia felt relieved, revived, and sad.

"Will I see you again?" she whispered, more breath than words.

Adytum laughed.

"Of course! I will always be around you. We're family now."

Her face turned serious as she faced the breeze. "And now it's time for you to go home."

With another squeeze of Thalia's shoulders, she shoved her backwards.

Thalia didn't hit the leafy earth. She felt the air rush about her as she fell, and expected to meet hard ground, and put her hands out.

But she splashed into water. She felt the ground she sat on dissolve into liquid, and the bright sunlight diffused to moonlight seen through frothing, churning water.

She panicked, kicking and grasping.

She fought for her bearings and pulled herself to the surface.

She gasped a deep breath, wiped the wet hair from her face, and faced the shore.

She trod water, waiting for her shock to subside, adjusting to being alone once more.

But she was not alone.

She could sense the hundreds and thousands of lives about her. Right from the tiniest midge through to the majestic trees and the plethora of people. The breathing, vibrant life of all that lived in this land.

And beneath it, at the centre of this maelstrom of chaotic life, a steady, thumping, unignorable heartbeat. As she trod water, her face and arms above the lake's surface, she could feel fingers in the breeze and the water. And the air smelt like her, like Adytum.

Thalia realised she hadn't been alone since arriving two months before.

As Thalia paddled her way towards the shore, the cacophony of the living dissipated. By the time her feet could walk on the lakebed, the sensation of everyone about her had dissolved to a trembling awareness, trickling away like the vestiges of a dream.

For a few glorious seconds before the awareness dissipated, Thalia looked towards the smiling Hess and Solomon on the shore, spotlit by moon and starlight. She could sense their heartbeats; slow and steady. She smiled at them, and when her eyes met Solomon's, his heart beat a little faster.

They watched her as she left the water and climbed the muddy shore.

Hess produced a towel from her bag and handed it to Thalia. Thalia wrapped it over her sopping wet clothing, which clung to her but was not yet cold.

"Thank you," Thalia said.

"You met Adytum?" asked Hess, holding out her hand.

Thalia put her right hand into Hess's, showing the bracelet of leaves, "I did."

Hess smiled and kissed Thalia on the cheek.

"Oh, you still smell like her!" she sighed, wiping away a tear.

"Welcome to the family," said Solomon, hugging Thalia, kissing her wet head.

"She's quite a woman!" laughed Thalia.

"She’s whoever you need her to be," said Hess.

Thalia looked at them both, curious.

"How so?"

"We all see different variants of her, as far as I can gather. I met her as an old friend, as if she were someone I had missed for a very long time. Someone else saw her like an older sister or mentor she wished she'd had when she was younger."

"And I saw her like a foster mother, a mother by choice and design. Home personified," said Solomon.

"Who did you see?" asked Hess.

Thalia tried not to blush and was grateful for the dulling of colours in moonlight.

"I saw what I thought was her. A peer. A confidante. Someone close," said Thalia, hesitating only a touch. She wondered what it meant if she saw her as a lover.

Hess took Thalia's hand, and Solomon retrieved Thalia's shoes.

As Hess started walking, she said, "Right! I think it's time we take you back and clean off the lake water and have a late evening celebration, don't you? I think Charlie still has some moonshine left from the last batch, I personally think the damsons were an excellent choice. Let’s see if the kitchen crew left any snacks out!"

When they reached the top of the path, before heading round the trees towards the buildings, where the lake would disappear from view. Thalia turned back to look at the lake.

It shone in the moonlight, and she thought she saw a waving hand in the silhouetted reflections.

She walked with her friends, renewed, revitalised and ready to face forward to her future. She could still feel the heartbeat in the soil beneath her bare, rather dirty, feet. It was gentle and background, merging with her own.


THE END


2024 JM Cyrus

Bio: JM Cyrus is a speculative fiction writer living in London, England. She writes whenever there is a chance and reads even when there isn’t one. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in anthologies from Improbable Press and Speculation Publications, the magazines Utopia Science Fiction and All Worlds Wayfarer, and online on AntipodeanSF. A full list is available on her website.

E-mail: JM Cyrus

Website: JM Cyrus' Website

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