We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep, a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story from author Andrew Kelly Stewart—arriving March 9th from Tordotcom Publishing.
Remy is a Chorister, rescued from the surface world and raised to sing in a choir of young boys. Remy is part of a strange crew who control the Leviathan, an aging nuclear submarine, that bears a sacred mission: to trigger the Second Coming when the time is right.
But Remy has a secret too—she’s the submarine’s only girl. Gifted with the missile’s launch key by the Leviathan’s dying caplain, she swears to keep it safe. Safety, however, is not the priority of the new caplain, who has his own ideas about the mission. When a surface-dweller is captured during a raid, Remy’s faith becomes completely overturned. Now, her last judgement may transform the fate of everything.
The peal resounds through the boat, through the frame of my bunk. I feel it in my jaw, my teeth. Reverberation.
Brother Silas, knocking the rusty-headed mallet against the hull.
The boat is a bell.
Three deep, resonating tolls. Thong. Thong and thong. Waver and fade.
Call to Matins. The Night Office.
The compartment pitches downward. Weight shifts. Cold toes tingle, alive. The deepest dive of the day. One hundred fathoms.
Bodies turn, roused from first sleep. Old metal springs plink. Sleepy shapes roll languidly from their bunks. I know them all, even in the dimness. Lazlo, lean and short, but strong. Caleb, mousy and frail. St. John with his large knobby head, and tall, soft-padding Ephraim. Stifled coughs. No talking. Silence is observed. Must be.
I follow, though my belly aches to move. More than hunger, I worry, for I know those pangs as I know my hands. Something else. A two-day malady thus far. But I move, climb down from my bunk, stacked third highest. My toes know their purchase. Salt-corroded frames. Grit-grated deck. We don our gunny-sack robes in this perennial dusk. One sculpin-oil lamp hangs at a tilt from the forward berthing bulkhead. Fatgummed glass. Sputter and fishy reek. In a line, we work our way aft, up the main corridor at a slant.
No speaking. But we will sing, yes.
I commence warming up our voices. My ear tells my throat how to find the key. I always find it. This is one of the reasons why I’m the Cantor. The anchoring line. With pitch rooted, the other voices meet it. Step up, step down. Two steps up, two steps down, and back to the middle.
Our collective hum joins the unending chorus of loud pinging, knocking, clanging.
These sounds aren’t coming from Brother Silas’s hammer, nor the submarine’s many machines, which sing their own unending chorus as they work to keep us alive, keep the boat moving.
This is pressure. The weight of the dark sea squeezing the old welds and joints and seals, against valves and piping.
Our vessel, the Leviathan.
Its crew, the last of the penitent men on this wicked, ruined earth.
We scale aft through the mess, through the galley. No victuals. Not until later. Hunger reminds us. Of where we came from, that poisoned, wicked world above. Of our salvation.
Up, past missile control and the radio room, we join the exodus of brothers leaving their stations, follow them through the hatchway, ducking, descending corroded ladders until, at last, we gather in the missile compartment.
The largest single space on the Leviathan. We file down to the lower deck, between the bases of the great red columns. Sixteen of them. Eight spaced parallel on either side. Each is forty feet tall, reaching from the lowest recesses of the boat to the top deck. Each is wide. Like the pillars I’ve imagined, reading the Book of Judges, of Samson, and how, though his hair was shorn from his head by the betrayer, and though he was powerless and blinded, he still toppled the temple of Dagon.
They once held His fire, these pillars. Each one. And, when He spoke, Caplain listened. Unleashed each. Those first days of tribulation.
The Last Judgment.
The chamber, the whole vessel, levels. A litany of bright, high rings toll from the brass bell hanging on the main level above. We are at depth. One hundred fathoms.
Almost all attend the office. We Choristers, our fellow brothers, the eight elders. The crew of the Leviathan. Those manning the helm, the watch, the radar are exempt. Otherwise, when the bell tolls, you abandon your duties, whatever they may be, and there are many: working the bilge pumps, harvesting the mushrooms from the evaporators, mending the nets, pulling in the nets and culling the haul, sick fish from the good fish—less good fish these days—rendering the fats for unguent and fuel, cleaning the battery terminals, draining away the corrosive acid, monitoring the oxygen generator, the CO2 levels, and, of course, tending the heart of this beast, the reactor, which always requires a watchful eye, pressure and heat contained in mere piping, poison behind it all. God’s light.
Those who tend the reactor—the Forgotten—do not come forward for prayers or song either. They are not seen again once they are sent back through the tunnel. They serve their purpose, those forsaken.
And we serve ours. We Choristers. The five of us who remain. Who have not succumbed to sickness. Whose voices have not broken. Whose voices still reach the highest, loftiest of ranges.
We sing. Lift the hearts of our brothers.
We find God. We call out to him from these depths, and he answers.
Spoonful of rancid oil. Choke it down. For our throats. These divine instruments.
Elders—most bent, mottled skin, toothless—stand forward, but the younger, broader-backed brothers space themselves along the walls, between and behind the pillars, against the machinery, against the electronic consoles that are dead and scavenged for parts long ago.
We Choristers, we the young, we, the ones cut in order to preserve pure voice, gather in the narrow cella. Before dais and altar and psalter.
Caplain Amita normally leads Matins—Caplain with his stooped frame, his round chin, his eyes that always seem to be closed, even when they are open—but he has been absent this past week. Ill. His skin was a yellow grey last I saw him—scant more illumination here, in the chapel. Skin thin as bible pages. Limbs turned inward. Stiff, like the already-dead.
Ex-Oh Marston officiates today, steps up to the dais.
Tall. Too tall for a submariner, some have said of him, which seems to be a truth. Has a hunch, for all the years of ducking through hatches. Of the original crew, decades ago. Head shorn, like all of us. Pate speckled like an egg. I’ve seen speckled eggs once. Blues and pinks and browns. Dented, his. Face gaunt, gaunt. Scared by some battle done or some ill deed done to him. Look of driftwood.
Merciless with the strop, Ex-Oh.
Especially when it comes to the Choristers.
We deserve it.
We come from wickedness, from Topside. Rescued. Given purpose. A chance to redeem our souls. We aren’t the only ones who have been saved—there are those brothers who were taken aboard as children who could not sing but were strong, able, and needed to serve on the crew.
Like us, they had to earn their place. Many have gone on to take the vows of the Brotherhood. Brother Silas. Brother Callum.
But many have not.
There cannot be any question of faith.
No faltering in our resolve.
We must be ready for the day. For it is coming. And coming soon. That is what Ex-Oh says. What Caplain says.
And, when the end has finally come, and He has deemed the days of tribulation done, we will launch His Last Judgment. And then we shall journey to the very bottom of the great abyss. To the lowest fathom. And we shall sing a song into that deep, on that last day, and the sea shall finally give up her dead. And we, with them, shall ascend into the light. As below, so above!
A raised, slender, yellow-nailed hand brings all to order.
“Deus, in adiutorium meum intende,” Ex-Oh intones, thin nose angled up to the deck. Flat. Reverent. Monotonous.
“Domine, ad adiumandun me fastina,” we respond in equal monotony.
This vessel, this Leviathan, often so hollow, is full now. Brimming with voice. Sound pressing against the hull, fighting against the darkness that presses in.
Doxology follows. This, sung in a mode that hugs one primary note and strays little from it: “Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.”
I know some of these words. Glory to the father, the son, the holy spirit. Caplain has taught me some Latin. An old language. The language of the Church. Has let me know them and keep them for myself. The others sing by memory. Words and notes, unpinned to page or history. I’ve told Lazlo I know some of these words. It seems wrong that we don’t understand the meaning of what we sing.
The psalter, big as a crouching boy, bound in shark hide, lay opened, hymn selected. “The Heart of the Leviathan.” One I need not squint to see by, penned in violet squid ink.
“Azure, bla-zing heart. O, keep us true. Your spark, in the bel-ly of the Le-vi-a-th-an.”
Melody, at last. Harmony.
As Cantor, as principal, I take the descant. My melody floats above the others. Flies.
Singing is the only time my heart does not feel burdened. When I feel God. I think it is not vanity to sing. To like the sound of my voice. Higher than the others. Like light, bouncing off every bulkhead, reaching out over every surface of the concave metal hull.
Some of us Choristers change, even after the cutting. Those with the broken voices, Demis—those who can no longer sing—are sent aft with the rest of those taken from Topside and deemed unworthy. Through the tunnel, forced to work in the engine room, the reactor chamber, with the blue poison and fume. They are beyond our sight. Beyond His grace. Not to be spoken of. Not to be prayed for. They came from the world above, like us—like me. But God did not spare them. They are the Forgotten.
I have heard of their fate. Grease smear and boils and steam burn and bloody hacking. And poison from the reactor. Lazlo has seen them. Has smelled them.
A smell like everything is wrong.
Scripture now, this in the common tongue, for all to comprehend.
“To the roots of the mountains I sank down,” Ex-Oh reads from the book, voice like a hatch squealing on its rusty hinges. Feel the words in my spine. “The earth ’neath barred me in forever. But you, LORD my God, brought my life up from the pit.”
Book of Jonah.
“As below, so above!” Ex-Oh calls out.
And this congregation answers in refrain.
“Remy,” Lazlo whispers into my ear, once we have filed out, dispersed to our duties, once we are distanced from the ears of elders. He speaks differently than the rest. His words have a lilt to them. His skin, darker, despite being kept from the sun for so many years. Eight years.
“Your scar must be bleeding,” he says, pointing down.
I stop, lift my foot.
A drop of blood spots my big toe. Dusky red. Blackish.
Scars do still bleed. Even years later, they can reopen and weep.
But this wouldn’t be true for me.
Not a cut or scrape, either.
My heart crashes into my stomach.
The first meal of the day is always the same.
Broth of bladderwrack. Dried mushroom and algae cake. “Grey cake,” Lazlo calls it. We grow and harvest the mushrooms from atop the generators. Used to be a time we would have fish press as well, but now press comes at the meal following Vespers. If we’re lucky. With our slurry and drip.
These meals provide little lasting sustenance.
There has been no raid above for some time. No meal or flour or canned, sweet things. Not that I would have an appetite for such delicacies.
Lazlo is trying to speak with me, from across the table.
We are free to speak in the mess. In whispers, but it’s allowed. A low chatter amongst the four tables, like steam.
Today, I have few words.
Lazlo wonders why, I know. Muddied eyes, squinted. Little body hunched. Big, red cheeks. Scurvy efflorescence, Brother Karson calls it. From a lack of fresh victuals. We all suffer it. I taste blood at the back of my throat when I wake. Bleeding, raw gums.
Worst is when the old scars open again.
Lazlo asks again if I am in pain, that he can get me a poultice if needed. Poultices help with the swelling, with the bleeding. He’s close with Brother Ignacio, in the galley.
I tell him it’s nothing, though my throat is tight with unsaid truths.
Caleb, the youngest, and the one with the freshest scar, has endured the worst of the pain and the bleeding. So much that when we have steamed sargassum or kelp, I give him some of my portion—one of the few plants from the sea that can stave off the scurvy.
Today, he looks pale.
“You know, if you bleed too much before your twelfth birthday, you’re in greater danger of turning out a Demi,” St. John says, in that stiff way he says things. Speaks the same way he sits—straight, rigid. Face tight with superiority.
Caleb, already pale, goes fully white.
“And you know where Demis go…” St. John says, leaning in, a taunting smirk. He is not above plain meanness, St. John. A long nose. A bulbous head prone to shaving rash. We all must keep our hair shorn, of course. Honed shells do the work well enough. In skilled hands, anyway.
“Don’t scare him,” Ephraim, the eldest of us, chimes in, unamused. “That isn’t true, Caleb.”
Caleb takes in a bracing breath and returns to his meal; all the while, St. John continues to wear a prideful smirk.
If voices break after a cutting, it occurs by the age of twelve or thirteen. Caused by an unblessed blade, they say, but Brother Silas has told me privately that it sometimes just happens. There’s no accounting for it.
St. John has passed that age where the breaking of a voice happens. Fourteen years. He has been vicious and haughty ever since. The truth is that half of all those castrated have either died from their wounds or turned. Become Demis, and must be purified in other ways.
I know that St. John has been waiting for my voice to break, or Lazlo’s, so that he might ascend to our positions. I know I will never change. But Lazlo is still in that dangerous range where, at any day, his voice just might leave him.
Any Chorister’s greatest fear.
Like God’s wrath, the reactor must be appeased—must be tended, or it will consume us as well. Brother Calvert explained it better to me—that the heart of the Leviathan, when functioning properly, can provide energy for decades. Energy that powers the turbines which turn the screw, which powers the oxygen generators and water desalinators, and runs the fans and all the electrics—but like everything else, it is failing. The reactor is powerful, but its power is poisonous. Some invisible poison called radiation. And yet, people must go into the reactor room in order to moderate the power. To keep it from overheating.
This is the work that purifies the Forgotten.
“I only mean that Caleb would be right to worry,” St. John continues. “And Lazlo.”
I grasp Lazlo’s hand to keep him from responding.
I see Ephraim’s patience has thinned as well. He’s about to respond when the Ex-Oh enters the mess—ducks to clear the hatch. Choristers and brothers fall silent. A rare appearance. Normally, he and the other elders eat their meals in the officers’ wardroom. Mouth bent down. Thin eyebrows raised. Eyes squinting and small. The dimness has made most of the elders near blind. Grey and dead-looking, like the eyes of the odd fish we sometimes catch in our nets, the ones that come from the darkest depths of the sea. Always surveying, scouring us for impropriety. For sin.
He levels his gaze upon me. I fight the urge to shrink.
My stomach twists into a reef knot.
“Come.” He ushers me with his yellow fingers. “Caplain wishes to have a word.”
Lazlo’s ash eyes flash downward. Fear of the Ex-Oh? Of what such a meeting might mean? It has been some time since I have been summoned to his quarters.
There is no mistaking St. John’s expression—a simmering jealousy.
The caplain’s quarters are forward, on the same deck as the control room, past dials and blinking panels and tables full of water-stained charts and periscope tubes and the helm and sonar room. We are only allowed to enter this area upon permission.
“Do not tax him needlessly,” Ex-Oh warns, leaning over me. “He is very ill.”
About his neck hangs a piece of metal, bent, chipped to look like a key.
We wear keys. Mine, dried kelp, shaped into eye and stem and teeth, held by a length of old electric wire.
“And you will report to me anything of import he might share with you, yes?”
I nod. He sees my hesitation, peers down at me a moment longer before taking his leave.
I rap once and hear, on the other side of the soft wooden door, a weak, raspy invitation to enter.
The caplain’s cabin is the largest of the personal quarters on board. Even so, this is no great space—most of it given over to desk and shelves of books—most of which I have read. The Confessions of St. Augustine. The Rule of St. Benedict. The Letters of Jerome. But more than just religious texts. Books on sea life, on sailing. Navigation. Ancient history. Music. Even a few novels. About castaways and adventures and His will.
Caplain is tucked into his bunk. Stepping forward, I cross a fetid threshold. Not just the rank oil fueling the three lamps that illuminate the chamber—but a deeper, darker odor that lingers in the room heavy as grease smoke. Eel bile and bilge.
Sunk, deflated. Caplain’s skin, a map of palm fruit–colored open sores. I hear his ragged breathing, even standing at two arms’ distance.
“Come into the light, Cantor,” he says, as though exhaling. The wheeze like the compressors make when kept running for too long.
A whalebone-and-thatch stool stands at the bedside. I sit. Close to him, very close.
His clouded eyes seek me out. They do not find me. His pale hand does. Fingers, long and pale and bony, like the legs of the white spiders that spin their webs in the corners of the balneary, folded together.
“I fished you out of the sea,” he says, part of him in the past.
“Yes,” I tell him. He has told me this before. I don’t remember it. Not really. Perhaps the taste of salt and blood on my cracked lips. The sun-scoured feeling of my skin. Angry, raw. But sun.
And an illustrated image. Of a palm tree set against blue sea, rooted in yellow sand. Some piece of wavering cloth, a banner.
But the whiteness. The warmth. That is what has always lingered most.
“My little Moses,” he says. A sound comes from him. Was it meant to be a laugh? A strangled one. “Plucked you from the ragged sea, from a sinking boat. From the wicked world. Couldn’t have been more than five or six. But smart. Even then, I knew you were special. That voice. That’s why… why I kept you. Despite it all. Why I have taught you.
“God told me. To keep you. And I did. I knew it was meant to be when I heard your voice. An angel’s voice. We have kept quite some confidence, haven’t we? You and I?” he asks, trying to muster energy for sitting up. He wears something like a grin. A gap-toothed, red-lipped smile. A black void of a maw.
How have we kept it secret so long?
Such tight quarters. Shared bunks and ablutions.
But we Choristers and brothers bathe in our linens. Thin, sopping cloth plastered to skin masks enough. And the darkness. In this darkness, one could hide almost anything.
“They’ll soon find out about me,” I blurt out, unable to keep it inside any longer, voice trembling. I don’t want for him to see my fear. He, who knows me better than even Lazlo.
“Ah, so the curse has come to you,” he says. His cold hand squeezes mine with a surprising strength. Quells the terror that has been twisting inside me since Matins.
We spoke some time ago about this eventuality. About how to handle it, if it happened.
“God will protect you, child. There was a time when I wondered,” Caplain says, “would He see fit to stop all these—female processes of yours—when He saw that you had found a home amongst us? Among the last of the righteous. But I’ve gone off that thinking—His will remains cryptic as ever. Even to us, the penitent. Though what remains clear, even to a man who has lost his sight, is that God allowed you to be saved for a purpose. To wit, I have summoned you today.” He winces, quite suddenly, a throe of pain or palsy. He, at last, breathes.
Then he lets go my hand. Has left something behind in my palm. A cold, thin object. In the oil light, a silvery key. Long, toothed.
“Caplain?” I ask, looking down at it.
“For the Last Judgment. It cannot be launched without it.”
“But what of yours,” I say, pointing. I see it lying there against pale skin, against a washboard rack of ribs.
“It was the old captain’s habit to wear a false key—before the war. Before we heard God’s word and took this submarine in His name. A secret he shared with me, our old captain.”
Such a strange variation on the word. A precursor to the holy position that all on board have come to know and revere.
“Such a small object that wields so much power must be protected. Hidden from even the most loyal. This key that I give to you—it is the real one. I have kept it hidden.” Caplain pauses to swab his lips with a purple tongue.
“But… but why? Why this deception?”
The old man closes his eyes. “I’ve waited these long years—have built this order, have put our prayers and praises and psalms into the depths—where God may hear us. I have also been listening, yes. Waiting for His word that the years of tribulation have finally come to an end. I expected it after some seven years. Seven years after I answered that first call. Launched the missiles. We unleashed all the fury of heaven upon that wicked world above. Yet one did not launch. Divine intervention, I thought. Saved for later. For purpose. To usher in that final terrible judgment. I have been listening, but I have heard nothing”—and his foggy eyes are staring at nothing. “I listened, I listened,” he breathes. “I have long promised that our final dive would… would come soon, that our long years of service would finally be rewarded. But I see now that my role in the grand plan shall soon be done. And I realize now that I have put my trust in an unfit heir to this Brotherhood.”
I draw in a hot breath.
Have I heard it correctly? Never—never—has the caplain shared such notions. He’s lost his mind, I think. I should stand. Should go. Remember him as I have always known him. Not this rambling man.
Caplain continues. “Ex-Oh Marston is a true disciple. A strict observer. Unfailing in his practice of devotion. A stern disciplinarian. But he will not hear the Word when the time comes. His own ego stands in the way of that. An artless soul. He will rely upon a flawed judgment as to when we should deliver the Last Judgment.”
“And you think I will hear the word? I’m from Topside. From the wicked world—”
“And given unto us by Grace,” Caplain interjects. “Purpose. As I said, you have purpose. We can’t know it yet.”
“What about Brother Silas, or Brother Ernesto… they are wise, they are good—”
“You, Cantor. It must be you.”
“But…” I tread carefully here, key still in my hand, weighing cold. Heavy as an anchor. “If Ex-Oh does try to launch, he’ll quickly discover the key is false.”
“You will remain silent; you will keep the key hidden if you have not heard the call from God.”
“He is a… fierce man,” I say, cannot help but whisper. What if Ex-Oh is at the door, listening at this very moment? I lean in, wall of astringent liniment mingled with rot. “Won’t he have guessed that you’ve given the real key to someone?”
“He will not expect it to be you,” Caplain says, words weary now. Weighted like ballast. “You, he will expect the least. And God will protect you.”
I think he might be near sleeping now, by the weakened draw of breath, the closed, swollen lids.
“But… what will that sound like?” I ask. “God’s voice?”
“I heard…” he begins. Far away, again. Lost in memory. Eyes shut, as though the lids are too heavy to open. “The leviathans. Their song. Behind their song. A voice from the deep. You listen, Sister Remy. I know you do. I have seen you listening. For one to sing as you do, they must first know how to listen.”
“And what if I listen and, as with you, I never hear His word?” I ask.
Caplain opens his bloody, blackened mouth, as though about to speak. But shakes his head. An idea, apparently, too worrisome. A thought that knits his grey, wispy brows. A specter of doubt? I know that shadow. Have felt it cross me. This, I have told no one. Not even Lazlo.
“You will know, Sister Remy,” a rattling whisper. “You will know.”
Head bowed, I feel a tear crawl its way hotly down my cheek, reach my dry lips. Salty burn. He will be gone soon, this man. Death has already ensnared his body, pulling him down into the darkness. This man who saved me, though I was a girl and should have been tossed into the sea. Who has taught me. Kept me hidden.
“As below, so above,” I say, waiting for his refrain.
But it doesn’t come. He has drifted off into some troubled reverie.
There is only the guttering of the oil flames. The incessant rattle-whir of a ventilation fan. Tinny smell. Sits on my tongue. The creaking of fathoms of water, pressing down upon us.
Ast ego te posthac oculisque animoque tenebo, aequor ubi in lucem funera rapta feret.
Excerpted from We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep, copyright © 2021 by Andrew Kelly Stewart.