Monday, February 12, 2018


Of the Earth

Harrison had almost forgotten the boy who fell off the world. He wondered why the memory had returned now, recalling the wind rushing from the endless void, the lonely calls of gulls, and the tang of Remember-me-always, the deep red flower that blooms and blooms along the Edge. Lost children was the common thread, he guessed. Another child had vanished the night before, and the village grew more unsettled, parents more frantic, with every disappearance.

The bell tinkled. An old man shuffled into the shop, letting the weighted door slam behind him. He picked up a painted wooden horse, examined it a moment, and set it down again. He wandered through the store, not touching any of the other merchandise, and Harrison kept an eye on him. He might be a thief, or worse. Any stranger was a suspect now, a potential monster. The oldster clearly did not want to buy, so why was he here? The man wore a brown robe, frayed and patched, tied with a dingy rope. His face had been pared down by years of hard times. Hard times and fear. He glanced at Harrison, then looked hastily away. There was something familiar about him, familiar but terribly wrong.

Harrison couldn't stand it anymore. “Old man! This isn't a museum!"

"Clearly. I can find higher quality goods under my bed."

"If you're not going to buy anything, please leave this establishment.”

The old fellow shuffled over, looked Harrison right in the eye. “Don't you know me?”

Harrison mentally erased the lines in the old man's face, imagined him as a young man. “Charles?” It was Charles!

More tea?” Charles shook his head. They sat in Harrison's small apartment above the shop. The scents of bergamot, curry, and decaying paper infused the air.

So you lived. You lived! How? It's been so many years! What did you do? What did you see?”

Charles looked uncomfortable, as though asked to face memories he'd prefer not to recall. Which was odd. He'd brought the memories back by walking in the door. At length he began to speak.

I fell, not expecting rescue, or to strike anything. I expected to fall forever, to see at least the topmost of the great turtles before the end. Instead I plunged into a net of roots. Thousands and thousands of roots. Many broke as they slowed my fall, but with each impact my progress slowed. Soon I was caught. It was a simple matter then of climbing up the stouter roots, ever mindful of the void beneath me, until I reached the good brown earth. I found openings in the world's venter, the termini of smooth-walled tunnels at whose origin I greatly wondered. Some were large enough for me to squeeze myself into, and one of these I entered. Though from the beginning I misdoubted their character.”

Harrison poured himself more tea. Again, Charles refused. “I don't drink much now. Outgrew the need for it, living so long in the shadow of scarcity.”

What dug those tunnels Charles? What worms are those whose girth exceeds that of a man? What lives down there on the bottom of things?”

At this the visitor grew pale and trembled. He drew back, putting his hands on the arms of his chair as if to rise. “Don't ask me that,” he whispered. “Don't ever ask me that. Some things are not to be spoken. Would that they could be not thought!” He covered his face with his hands, fingers white with the pressure, trembling. A few minutes later, he resumed his tale.

Those damnable tunnels. The walls are encrusted with phosphorescent fungi and also with glowing slime, revealing in a jaundiced, fitful light that which were better hid from human sight. Twisting tunnels, branching, intersecting at every angle. There are dead ends in those tunnels, each a swollen place like a spider's brood sack. Many are empty, thank all the gods that be, but some are not. What I found in those would send you shrieking, desperately seeking light and clean air and any thing outside those fetid burrows. Those nearer the surface and the Sun's good light contained the desiccated, partially devoured, but still living remains of creatures well familiar, including man. I spoke with one, a hollow thing that begged me to end his life. I did so, swiftly, and all those I later met. I could in no other fashion aid them. Brood sacks many miles below Earth's face contained other remains, also still living, discernible in the flickering radiance of the mutant fungi. These I hope never to meet hale and hearty either above or below ground."

"Ask me not what I dined on during my sojourn beneath the surface. I sucked water from roots that dangled from tunnel ceilings. This water, never present in any great quantity, faintly bitter and with a nauseating aftertaste, suffused with the essences of all through which it had passed, was the most wholesome thing I ingested while I was within the earth."


"I never tarried in my quest to escape from those subterranean passageways, save for brief periods of nightmare-filled slumber. I know not how long it took. I could not measure the passage of time down there. I slept when exhausted. I ate when starving. I fled when pursued. It felt like years, and maybe it was."

"When I emerged the world resounded with a cacophony of howls, barks, shrieks, and clangs, or so it seemed. I had grown used to quiet, underground, where the only sounds were intermittent moans and the too-infrequent drip of water."

"But when I finally crawled out of that bewildering claustrophobic maze, the setting sun's ruddy light streamed across a landscape of red-tile roofs, the scattered farm houses and fields of complacent cattle concealing a horror of which their inhabitants must be blissfully ignorant."

"I stumbled to the nearest farm, a humble establishment consisting of a small red-roofed home, a fenced field and connected barn for livestock, and a modest vegetable garden. I meant to ask only for a cup of water and a place to rest, but the folk there spoke not the common tongue with which you and I are familiar. In the end they offered such good hospitality I felt obliged to chop firewood and do such other tasks as were needful."

"In this way I passed the next few months, stopping for a day or a week with some friendly farm family, helping where I could, and gradually putting behind me the horror of my sojourn in the underworld."

"There came a time when my host community clearly intended some sort of celebration. This information they conveyed by gestures. I had not yet reached those lands wherein our familiar tongue is spoken, and had failed to learn their intricate language well enough to communicate unambiguously. I followed my hosts and imitated their actions, beginning with the obviously ceremonial dip in the sacred bath, the wearing of robes decorated with beautiful red and gold embroidery in linear and curving patterns that I could not interpret, a meal lacking any real substance except the repeated call and response in which the congregation, if I may call it that, replied to the oratory of a tall cadaverous gentleman as he read from an ancient tome. At length, the moon stood high overhead and several children were brought to the front of the crowd. With mounting evidence of terror on their faces, the children were bound to upright wooden posts that had been erected in front of a steep declivity just beyond the priest's lectern. The multitude began to chant and stamp their feet. Soon the ground seemed to vibrate in time with the chanting. I had a vivid vision of myself once again beneath the earth. I looked around, but I stood right at the front. There was no way I could escape. The chanting and stamping, and now clapping, were louder, faster. The ground was shaking so much that pebbles jumped in the dirt. I was so close to the children bound to the poles that I could see the boy in the middle had wet himself; their mouths were opened wide in terror, but the noise was so great I couldn't hear their screams. Huge Things flowed up the hill out of the darkness. I couldn't get away. I had to stay and watch those gigantic worms tear the sacrifices off the poles with their cavernous tooth-studded mouths. The little girl on the right was tied so tightly they couldn't get her loose. They broke the pole off at ground level and carried it away."

"As soon as the ceremony ended I forced my way through the crowd and across fields to the wood that surrounded the inhabited area. I could not remain with that monstrous folk another night."

"After that I traveled at night, acquired my food and drink by theft, and slept in the wilderness, in places not inhabited by man. I had not dreamed the world so large, nor my self so distant from this, my childhood home! I traveled another year before I saw folk whose buildings and clothing reminded me of the land of my youth. Whose speech was in the common tongue. And still I traveled at night, kept my movements secret, and it was another long and weary time before I reached this place."

Harrison interrupted. "By all that's holy! You must have been within the earth for many a weary year. A decade has gone by since you fell from the world's rim. And what that time has done to you! I am one year the elder, yet by your appearance I had taken you for a man of 60 or more." Charles made no reply. A horror was creeping over Harrison as he thought about his friend's sojourn in the depths. He was appalled at the torment Charles had suffered, but even more alarmed by something not quite definable in his friend's demeanor. Harrison did not press him, but made shift to offer a light repast, as the light was now full gone and the hour late, and Charles did not refuse it.

"Charles," Harrison asked, as he began to clear away the remnants of their meal, "how long have you been home? How long before you gathered your courage to speak to me, your oldest friend?" Charles shook his head.

"I arrived early this morning, slept through most of the day, and came here." He kept his face averted and his hands were trembling as he spoke.

Harrison shook his head. "How did you find me? You must have spoken to someone. This shop is nowhere near the haunts of my youth." Charles looked away. "No, I think you have been here longer than a day. Folk have spoken of food missing from the cupboard, fowl missing from the yard, a shadow at the window in recent days. Children have disappeared. How long, Charles?"

Charles stood, paced from the table to the small stove and back. "I was alone. Alone when I fell. No one tried to stop me. No one tried to save me. I was alone so long under there. I forgot what I was. I became one of them. I had to, to survive. I moved as one of them, I thought as one of them, I ate as one of them. Do you understand what that means? How can you? And now? I cannot escape them. They know. They know wherever I am. I have to feed them. You understand that, don't you? One way or another, I feed them. It will never end." As Charles finished speaking, Harrison felt the floor begin to vibrate rhythmically. Dust motes danced and cracks ran up the wall. There was a sound. It was almost a voice.

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