A Little Delta of Filth
by Jon Padgett
to the memory of Conrad Aiken
It could make her invisible. Untouchable.
The thought came back years later like the distant melody of church bells, familiar and comforting. The moment she found the thing, she knew it was indescribable. Remote from parents, lovers and friends alike. It was her own, held close from other eyes, from other fingers.
The impossible thing tied itself into pleasing, intricate knots within her as she sat in the conference workshop hall. She was attending a seminar on disaster response. The speaker, a Mr. Cardin, twirled his laser pointer in lazy circles upon the chandeliered ceiling. The synthetic crystals twinkled with red, refracted light above the crowd. The question and answer part of the presentation had begun. Mr. Cardin explained why hosting servers should have the capacity and power to be used by dozens if not hundreds of simultaneous users. A man with a bright green shirt and a thicket of white hair raised a hand like a small shovel. He argued that a simple disaster-related directory sufficed in a mid-scale emergency.
Mr. Cardin shook his head, salt and pepper curls dancing, and his sparkling eyes squinted as if in pain.
“They are a nightmare to maintain as the crisis continues, despite their creators’ best efforts. So no, no. I’m sorry. Bad idea.”
The green shirted man’s neck turned crimson. An unconscious, collective wince rippled throughout the audience.
She did not notice, though. She was thinking of the labyrinthine, concrete ditch that ran next to her childhood home. It wound around and underneath the entire neighborhood and beyond. Mr. Cardin brought up a raging, desert wildfire that sent millions of residents fleeing their homes.
But she only half listened to him, absorbed in the memory of her secret as if easing into a hot spring. Now Mr. Cardin brought up terrible floods in the heartland. There was flooding that spring long ago too. The ditch that ran beside her parents’ white, brick ranch-style roared with rushing water.
She listened, closing her eyes, huddled in the mildewed carport with the cats and the spiders. Afterwards, for days, the ditch ran with brown, clogged water. She spent the following overcast afternoons walking up and down above the length of the ditch, watching the manmade river recede, soaking by degrees into the unknown, subterranean spaces below.
The next Saturday–yes, it was a Saturday, she recalled–the ditch-way was dry once again. But the recent flooding had transformed it. The light gray concrete was stained a scintillating copper as if sprinkled with glitter. A magical, high-walled highway opened to her as she slid down into it on her bare feet.
(Mr. Cardin said, “Surviving the chaos of disaster related Information and Referral.” The back of the green shirted, shovel-handed man’s thicket of white hair bobbed up and down like a boat on choppy waters.)
It was noon when she found it. She was resting from her ditch-exploration in front of the round O of a drainage pipe. Her father had warned those pipes might contain dangerous bugs, toxic chemicals, practically anything. She closed her eyes, breathing in the tunnel’s dankness. The cooler air trickled out to spill upon her warm face and bare legs. Then she decided to play a game with herself: exploring the nearby ditch floor with her eyes still closed. She would determine–by touch alone—what her hands found there. Almost immediately, she encountered a small triangle of muck on the ditch floor.
The thing, she imagined in her mind’s eye, was small and black and red. It felt like dozens of wet, tiny rocks or shattered beads or bones–perhaps multi-colored pieces of the ditch itself. The condensed leftovers of the recent flooding. After a moment’s hesitation, she pushed her right index finger down into the muck. It slid into cold ground below it.
(Mr. Cardin said, “…able to input information received from local authorities into the product.”)
It wasn’t just a mound of trash and rocks on the ditch floor–it was a crack within the floor of the ditch itself! Who knew how deep the crack might reach? She giggled and pushed her finger down further, leaning over the filth. She experimented with inserting additional fingers. Then her whole hand. Then her forearm all the way down to her elbow. Her eyes clenched closed with a delicious horror as she realized she couldn’t feel her submerged limb at all. She imagined the little delta of filth and the hungry soil below it stretching out her skin, her bones, her bloody parts, drawing them into itself. To be consumed by the ditch–by the ditch beneath the ditch. But when, with a spasm of fear and delight, her eyes opened, she found that the numb limb was whole, resting against her now upright body. The triangle of muck itself was nowhere at all–the copper-colored, concrete slabs of ditch in front of her warm and solid to the touch. Had she dreamed it? Impossible. Her hand and arm up to the elbow was numb. It was as if she had fallen asleep upon it and woke up with a useless appendage, but–no–she could still move her arm. She wagged fingers in front of her astonished face. There was no panic, no worry of any kind. This was a decidedly pleasant lack of feeling. It was almost as if her arm was still submerged below the surface of the ditch floor. Like it was nothing at all.
She spent the rest of that day marveling at her phantom hand. The fingers that glided back and forth in front of her face looked no different than the fingers on her left hand. But — and this was the most amusing, almost absurd aspect of the experience — the movements of her phantom arm and fingers seemed disconnected from the rest of her body, so much so that they could almost belong to any stranger… or any ghost. And when she experimented with touching her left hand and then her own face with her phantom hand, her amusement and sense of awe redoubled. The clammy fingers on her arm, on her face did not feel at all like her own. But they were hers to control at will, like a remote-control robot’s appendage. She dared herself to close her eyes again and see if she could rediscover the little delta of filth. But no–she decided to extend the game further. In the meanwhile, she would savor the magic of the day, the ditch, the crack leading to unknown depths. Tomorrow she would return.
The numbness fell into a tingling sensation by nightfall. By the next morning her arm and fingers felt normal again. But the experience in the ditch was so deliciously odd. Of course, she returned the next day to the same spot in the ditch, which had deepened in color to a kind of burnt orange. Her breath catching with anticipation, she closed her eyes and reached down to the numbing spot in which she knew the crack in the ditch, in the world, would open. But she couldn’t find it. She tried again, closer to the drainage pipe this time, but had no luck. Hours passed filled with frustration, pain and–finally–panic. How wretched is the terror of misplacing something precious. A worn stuffed animal, a note from a secretly adored classmate. She left the ditch that evening, palms and knees scratched and bruised from an afternoon of crawling on concrete, eyes tightly shut. She had searched, unseeing, all along the surface of the ditch. Her gasps and sobs of frustration echoed within the concrete depths of the drainage pipes.
(Mr. Cardin described how a river levee was breached and one hundred downtown city blocks were submerged. The green shirted man again held up his shovel of a hand, which had, she noticed, one too many fingers.)
As the years ticked by following her remarkable ditch discovery, the details faded. They grew tinier and tinier in her memory until she dismissed them altogether as a waking daydream, a mere fancy of the girl she had been before terrestrial experience and time extracted stillness from all her days to come.
But then the National Disaster Network selected her small, childhood city as their annual conference spot. The morning after her late-night flight, she drove a rental car to her old street, to her old house… to the ditch behind it. And she found the thing again. No, she rediscovered it there. And more.
Afterwards, she had returned to the conference hotel in a muffled daze. She viewed the world around her as if from underwater. Ripples of sparkling glass now appeared between herself and the escalators and suitcase pushers, the social workers and dull-eyed administrators. Later, in her box of a room, she closed her eyes and heard distant bells. Bells from deep beneath the earth, perhaps under the water. The miracle she had experienced as a child again spoke through those bells.
The chiming resolved all at once into the ringing of her cell phone.
“Deirdre,” her boss said when she finally answered, “where have you been? You know you missed the disaster committee meeting, right?”
How could she explain what she had seen earlier that day and how she felt, to her boss or–for that matter–anyone?
She couldn’t. She wouldn’t try. The thing was hers to keep.
Deirdre apologized, feigning illness. It was a perfunctory excuse, one she was sure her boss didn’t buy, but Deirdre didn’t care. She smiled as small, cool fingers caressed her face.
Her hands, her arms couldn’t feel a thing.
Earlier that day, before Mr. Cardin’s presentation, Deirdre drove to her childhood home. She noticed the greater foliage up and down the streets. Many of the parking lots in front of shabby shops were empty. She observed a light brown building, shuttered, with a “Shield of Faith” marquee near the street. So many more building fronts appeared dotting the roadway with no signs at all. And many buildings she recalled were gone now–replaced with messy flora. It was as if her hometown had devolved, as if the landscape to which it belonged was drawing the mill town back into itself. That old bar, Bronco Billy’s, passed by, one of the few establishments she recognized. It was closer to Municipal Park than she remembered it.
She crossed the half-bridge where the park’s lake fed into a small trio of anemic, man-made waterfalls. Deirdre wondered if the waterway fed into the labyrinth of ditches in her neighborhood. Were all such waterways and ditch systems in all townships part of the same intricate system? It hadn’t rained for some time.
The green arch of Municipal Park, smaller and shabbier than she remembered it, appeared to her left. She glanced at the thin, tall pines and the skeletal playground beyond it. Finally, she reached a landmark that was exactly as she recalled: the old black steam engine. It had red and white wheels and was enclosed in a wrought iron enclosure. The thing always looked less like a real train, though, than it did a toy somehow grown gargantuan. Rather hideous, she thought.
Deirdre was in no hurry despite the looming committee meeting at the convention hotel–less so as she continued along. She was lulled by the projection of the past laid upon her present road trip. She passed a church she remembered (the last of many, almost on every corner it seemed). It was gray with a red, rectangular awning. As she passed, she read a snippet of the church marquee: “IF YOU ARE NOT WHERE YOU ONCE WERE” something something “GUESS YOU MOVED?”
Now she was close–a suburban area of town, or what passed for it. She drove by tons of one story ranch-style houses. There were two story houses as well, which looked like small houses stacked on top of ranch-styles. Minor service roads ran parallel on either side of the main drag. Deirdre veered onto one of them, which was heavily wooded on each side. She had entered her old neighborhood, Alpine Hills. The streets appeared almost purple here–scored with lighter rock within the pavement. The large lawns were well mown, though dotted with brown bare patches. The houses themselves were faded, worn without the appearance of actual disrepair.
Deirdre made the turn onto her old street, feeling that the past was consuming the present by degrees. Here especially the neighborhood looked like an unaltered version of the one she remembered but for the expansive overgrowth. More pines, bigger oaks and magnolias but all with a threadbare look peculiar to hurricane ravaged trees. She noticed the unusual, short, concrete street name obelisk-signs were still present. FRIBOURG STREET.
And then there it was–her old house: the long, low brick ranch-style house, still painted white with dark blue shutters. She parked her rental in front of it and walked halfway down the driveway pavement, noting that there was no indication anyone was home. This stood to reason. It was a weekday–kids at school, adults working or out. Deirdre entered the backyard, noticing the open carport, still smelling of mildew after all this time. She was only interested in the ditch, though. And it was gone.
The realization was startling and dismaying. More than her old house, more than the worn, purple streets that she once haunted or the obelisk street signs, the ditch embodied her childhood. So many days exploring the neighborhood from behind and below it, gathering dewberries from the ditch walls with a friend or two. Spying on rival neighborhood kids playing in other backyards. Lurking, giggling, till one or two children spotted them in the ditch. She remembered when some kids began hurling red dirt clods at Deirdre and her companions. She and her friends ran away down the runny pavement of the ditch, laughing madly.
But it didn’t make sense. How and why did the city have the ditch filled in? She walked along the area in which her memory insisted the ditch lay. Everything covered with pine straw and dotted with overgrowth now, a wheelbarrow on its side near the terminal point in the back of the property. Everything gone.
A sense of loss, all out of proportion, welled in Deirdre, originating from a twisting in her stomach and rising into her gorge. She could feel it squeeze through her neck into the hollow of her head. The tears began, which she fiercely wiped away, clenching her eyes shut with a desire to dam the loss, or at least divert it elsewhere.
Immediately upon closing her eyes, though, Deirdre sensed a change in her surroundings. She opened her eyes again and looked around, seeing only shabby crabgrass and pine straw where the ditch once ran. She closed her eyes once more and immediately felt, and, what’s more, smelled it–the ditch that once was, specifically after a significant rainfall event.
Deirdre kept her eyes shut to maintain the illusion and tested it, walking towards one of the walls she felt sure was close. Astonished, she felt the rough, mineral-rich, slanting concrete with one and then both hands. Deirdre opened her eyes again to find her arms extended into blank space, an azalea bush in front of her. She sniffed her hand. Yes, it smelled like the ditch.
Her eyes closed again. Deirdre could feel the concrete wall. Now, blindly, she began walking down the drainage-way she once knew so well. The projection of the past onto the present felt stronger than it ever had been. Soon she stopped groping the side of the ditch altogether, memory giving her sight. Deirdre made the ninety degree turns when needed, feeling every invisible backyard as it came up on her left or right. And then she was there. The spot, about a block from her home near that drainage pipe. She could feel dank, cold air from it on her face. How long had it been since she felt real awe? Had she, in fact, ever felt it as she did in that moment? There was no doubt in her mind that she hadn’t.
The little delta of filth was there, and–eyes closed–she could see it vividly.
There was a desiccated black bean label by it, can missing. And the muck itself, she saw now, originated from the pipe in front of her–a kind of dark but glittering pile of refuse left over from the flooding the days before. A concentrated muck concealing a secret that had been waiting for her in this other-ditch for decades.
Deirdre fought the impulse to open her eyes, filled with that old, delicious mixture of dread and delight. She knelt before the delta, the smell rank but fertile. Sharp.
She pushed, gradually, even luxuriantly, one, two, and then all the fingers of her right hand into the cold, moist filth. And pushed. And pushed further. Eventually she worked her entire arm to the shoulder into it. A phantom arm within a phantom ditch. For, truly, she could no longer feel it.
Her eyes almost opened of their own accord then, but she fought to keep them closed. Deirdre removed her numb, right arm and inserted her left into the delta.
“Can I help you, ma’am? Are you hurt?”
Deirdre’s eyes finally opened, and she found herself in the back part of a yard she recognized. Mrs. Lee’s yard. She must be long dead now. A grinning, middle-aged man (her son?) with a sizable belly and a rake was peeking from behind a large pile of pine straw at her. Deirdre giggled. It looked like he was playing hide and seek, and she had spotted him.
“Ma’am?” The man’s voice and his dull blue eyes looked worried in spite of his grin. Then Deirdre realized he was of that rare breed of unfortunates who could not easily close their mouths. “Ma’am? What… what happened to your arms?”
The absurd combination of grinning fear and that genteel, familiar south Alabama drawl, made her laugh harder. The man’s face intensified into a mask of smiling horror.
She looked down at her numb arms, which were now a kind of burnt orange color and were perhaps thinner and shorter than they should be. Or maybe it was a trick of the light. She had had her eyes closed for so long. In any case, her arms, though senseless, seemed usable.
When she looked back towards the grinning man, he was gone as if he had never been there in the first place. Probably had run to call 911. Time to go.
Deirdre closed her eyes just once more. She couldn’t help herself. And soon she was grinning herself. The ditch was still there. And, she knew, so was the little delta of filth.
Time to leave. But she would return soon to finish what she had started.
Her arms had changed. There was no doubt about it. Reduced in every way. Driving had been something of a challenge, not only because her arms were shorter but also because they lacked any feeling at all. Deirdre, though, remained unconcerned. She floated in the midst of a delicious, continual reverie. The numbness of her arms contained the cool nothingness of subterranean spaces below the grass and pine straw, below the hidden ditch itself. Below it all.
Once in the hotel parking garage she draped her suit jacket over her shoulders, concealing her transformed limbs within them. She was only biding her time, though. Ensuring that any police investigating a possible trespass report was complete before she returned.
After Mr. Cardin’s workshop, Deirdre’s boss asked her to stay in the hall for a talk.
“You don’t look too bad off to me. What’s wrong?”
“It’s my head. I think I may have a fever.”
He sighed and put on his warning voice.
“You know how important tomorrow’s meeting is to the agency. The funders are watching every move we make, and we’re better positioned to impress them than ever. I need you to be present. You can’t flake out on me, Deirdre.”
How ridiculous. As if tomorrow’s meeting or Deirdre’s behavior or the agency itself were of any consequence at all to anyone.
She stared at the projector’s blank light against the presentation screen.
“Don’t let it bother you,” she said.
“Excuse me?” A sharper tone. “You know better than anyone what will happen to the agency if we don’t start… I need to know where your head is, Deirdre.”
“In the ditch.”
“What the hell?”
Deirdre looked at her boss–his thick, bald head and little round glasses shimmering–and smirked.
His face darkened.
“I don’t think you understand the seriousness of this matter, Deirdre. If you can’t hold it together, you might be looking for another job soon. You should be worried about your future. Consider this a wakeup call.”
Deirdre felt like sneering at the little man, so concerned with budgets and impressing the right people, so obsessed with his illusions of ego and control. What could he know about depth, true depth? The man was a cartoon character–no more. A distraction from the silent spaces below this hotel, the inner substance of this town, perhaps the whole world.
“But I’m not worried about my future… sir. Why should I be?”
This disconcerted her boss. He changed tactics.
“Deirdre, look. I didn’t mean that just now. But what’s wrong? You really haven’t been yourself today.”
“I already told you,” Deirdre said with a little jump in her chair. “I’m not well.” With that, she shrugged her suit jacket off her shoulders. It fell onto the floor.
Her boss took one look at Deidre’s arms and collapsed out of his chair.
“Dear god,” he said, scooting like a crab away from her.
Deirdre approached and stepped over the cringing man, not bothering to look over her shoulder at him on her way out of the workshop hall, not bothering to retrieve her suit jacket.
“No worries. If you need me, I’ll be under the ditch,” she said.
But her terrified boss only whimpered in response.
The trip back that night to her old neighborhood, to the ditch, was timeless. Deirdre had to drive slowly, chest close to the dashboard. Her senseless arms had grown even smaller, her tiny fingers barely capable of grasping the steering wheel. It felt like she was driving with her mind. A wondrous anticipation coupled with anxiety grew within her. Would Deirdre be able to find her way back to the little delta of filth in time? Or–even worse–would the treasure of the phantom ditch reject her as it had all those years ago?
But a delicious, dreadful sense of fate erased these worries by degrees as she came closer and closer to her neighborhood. She inched along the empty road towards the park and Alpine Hills beyond it. Deirdre almost pulled over on the half-bridge and jumped into the dam spillway in her eagerness. But she couldn’t be sure that the trickling trio of waterfalls and the drainage system to which it led were connected to her underworld ditch. Soon Deirdre had the impression of being driven rather than driving–her phantom limbs in control independently from her will. But, oh, she did choose this.
Her cell phone was ringing, ringing as she turned onto Fribourg Street, as she pulled up to Mrs. Lee’s house. Her arms by now were half their normal size but the fingers were starting to elongate, like crooked antennae. She had to kick off her sandals and open her car door with one foot.
It was late at night–quite late–and no lights were on in Mrs. Lee’s (now the grinning man’s) old ranch-style. She wondered vaguely if he was huddled up in his bedroom or living room, his grinning mouth and wide, terrified eyes pushed against a windowpane, waiting to see if the crazy lady with the little, orange arms had returned. The thought made Deirdre smile as she walked, barefoot, down his driveway and into the expansive backyard beyond it. The bells were ringing again, but not from her phone, which she had kicked with her car keys into the street sewer by the abandoned rental car. These were bells she could hear and feel, far beneath the shabby crabgrass, below the mounds of pine straw.
We will make you invisible. Untouchable, the bells said. We will make you so small–drawing you down into the cool, dank spaces below everything.
Deirdre closed her eyes and placed one and then two feet into the little delta of filth. And, gradually, deliciously… she began to sink.
About the Author
Jon Padgett is a professional–though lapsed–ventriloquist who lives in New Orleans with his spouse, their daughter, and a rescue dog and cat. He is the Editor-In-Chief of Vastarien: A Literary Journal, a source of critical study and creative response to the work of Thomas Ligotti as well as associated authors and ideas. Padgett’s first short story collection, The Secret of Ventriloquism, was named the Best Fiction Book of 2016 by Rue Morgue Magazine. He has work out or forthcoming in Weird Fiction Review, PseudoPod, Lovecraft eZine, Xnoybis, and the anthologies A Walk on the Weird Side, Wound of Wounds, Phantasm/Chimera, For Mortal Things Unsung, and Ashes and Entropy. H
About the Narrator
Dagny Paul is a lapsed English teacher, failed artist, and sometimes writer who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. She has an unhealthy (but entertaining) obsession with comic books and horror movies, which she consumes whenever her five-year-old son will let her (which isn’t often). Dagny was Assistant Editor of PseudoPod, and guest editor for Pseudopod’s Artemis Rising 3 event in 2017.
About the Artist
Christopher Walker lives surrounded by dark forests in Southwest Virginia with his wife, 2 cats, and 7-year-old son — who he’s pretty sure is a nexus of elemental chaos.