Saturday, February 24, 2018

022418c


WHAT UNCLE HOWARD DID

Uncle Howard didn’t even bother to hide the door in the cellar. I mean, how many visitors could he have had way up there in the hills, surrounded by No Trespassing signs? We sure as hell never went up there. In fact, I only saw him twice. He showed up at Grand-dad’s funeral, dressed in a threadbare black suit that was so wrinkled he probably hadn’t worn it for a decade. I’ll never forget his face: wrinkled like a relief map of the Caucasus, and his secret smile, like he was hiding more than moonshine. The second time was at his own funeral. He had a new suit; my mom had bought it. He was smiling that time, too, but it was more like a grin of satisfaction.

I was 40 when Mom died, and in all that time I’d never laid eyes on Uncle Howard’s property. I probably never would have visited the land I’d inherited, but my newly acquired step-daughter wanted to go camping. When she heard Cheryl and me talking about the land, nothing would shut Lindsey up until I agreed we’d mount an expedition to see the place. As long as I’ve known her, she’s been on fire about science and nature, the wilder the better, and I didn’t want to discourage her. I have to admit, I was a little curious about it myself.

Now, you know my uncle probably never had running water, and the house itself probably isn’t even standing any more. A couple of decades of neglect can do a lot in a southern climate.”

I know, Rob,” she said, bouncing onto the couch. “We’ll camp outside, the house is just a cool extra.”

Don’t you go in there,” Cheryl warned, “I’m sure it isn’t safe.”

I think we all knew that Lindsey and I would be going into the house if it was still standing. When we packed our clothes, Lindsey and I included a couple of powerful flashlights. We didn’t mention them to her mom. She gets amazingly excited about stuff like that.

* * *

We drove up Highway 47 to where the Esso Station used to be. There’s almost nothing left of it; I only recognized the place because it was two miles past the intersection with County Road 14, and that was still there. Of course, now it’s called County Road 326; why they keep changing the names of the roads I’ll never understand. Just past the weedy field that was once the only source of gasoline in the county, where kids used to buy smoke bombs and bottle rockets for a nickel, a dirt track turned off to the right. We took it, winding between fields of brown or black cows, long low chicken houses, and white-painted farmhouses, placid and uninteresting. The road started climbing pretty soon after we left the hamlet of Owl Creek, which is nothing more than two abandoned farms and a couple of fallen-down sheds. Cheryl started getting nervous, but the Cherokee didn’t have any trouble, even when the grade jumped to more than five percent for the last half mile or so, turning into a deeply rutted track strewn with orange boulders of weathered diabase. Finally, the path just sort of petered out in a patch of oak woods choked with underbrush. There at the end were two wormy posts, which I gradually realized framed the entrance to Uncle Howard’s yard. I jumped out and scouted on foot. To my relief the yard was full of chest-high grass and not much else: we were able to drive right up in front of the house.

Contra my pessimistic predictions, the house was still standing. It was a small log cabin with a broad front porch, two glassless windows flanking the front door, and a rough stone chimney standing up at the back. A storm must have knocked some bricks from the top of the chimney; maybe that was how the window glass had been busted out. We walked all around and found five more windows and a back door. Peering in through the empty panes we saw three rooms illumined by the setting sun, clouds of dust motes dancing in the air. The only furniture was a couple of plain wood chairs and what might have been a dust-coated chest of drawers.

It was really too late to go inside anyway, I reminded Lindsey, heading off her protests with a wink that forestalled any forbidding pronouncements from Cheryl, who was setting up the tent in the middle of the front yard. She’d trodden down the tall grass and discovered an ancient ring of stones where she intended to cook dinner.

Later, we sat around the old fire ring on folding chairs roasting hot dogs (mine were veggie because of my heart) and listening to the whip-poor-wills. “You know,” I said, “legend has it that the whip-poor-wills call for the souls of those doomed to die.”

Really?” Lindsey asked, “Cool! How far south would we have to be to hear chuck-will’s-widows instead?”

I don’t know. Georgia? Let’s look it up.” But we hadn’t brought the bird book. The insect chorus got louder and louder, the whip-poor-wills fell silent, and we stared up at the stars.

This is a peaceful place,” Cheryl said, “I can see why your uncle liked it. We should take a hike tomorrow. I bet there are beautiful wildflowers in the hills.” I was grateful that she seemed to be more positive about the place, but I didn’t share her improved attitude. A feeling had been growing on me, a feeling of being watched. By the time we turned in, with the shrill roar of the insects and my skittish mood, I was sure I’d never get to sleep.

* * *

I opened my eyes. What had awakened me? The night was still. I could hear an owl hooting far away. The insects were silent. A hand touched my arm.

I started, and Cheryl mumbled and moved in her sleep. It was time for the Grand Adventure.

Let’s go around to the back,” I whispered as soon as we were away from the tent. “It’ll be quieter.”

I put my hand on the corroded metal door knob and felt something like an electric shock. My hand jerked back and I felt the hair on my head stir. The owl called. I grasped the knob again, turned and pulled, and the door jerked open a few inches. Another yank and the knob came off in my hand. I heard a clunk inside.

Come on!” Lindsey hissed, and pushed past me to yank on the door’s edge. It sprang open about a foot, quivering, and she slipped inside. I sucked in my gut and sidled after her. Her flashlight beam was playing over the walls and I knew she was disappointed. There was nothing here.

I guess somebody burglarized the place after he died,” I said, “but maybe there’s something. Keep your light low so you don’t wake your mom.” It didn’t take long to ascertain that the room contained nothing but the furniture we’d seen through the windows, and a door that was built into a sort of pillar that separated the rooms from one another.

Lindsey pulled and the door opened easily. Steps led into inky blackness. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about,” she muttered, and stepped down.

“Those steps . . .” I began, and there was a soft creaking. She paused, left foot on the top step. It held. I sighed, and she cautiously descended. I waited till she reached the bottom and followed. I tested each step with one foot.

I bumped into her when I reached the floor. She was staring at the door. It was a good ten feet high (nearly the height of the ceiling) and made of huge, rough-hewn beams. It was bound in metal, and across the door a log rested on large wooden pegs sticking out of the earthen walls.

That is some door!” Lindsey whispered.

I tore my eyes away and looked around. No wonder the house was empty; Uncle Howard had lived down here. Bookcases lined two walls; a large leather-bound book lay open on a small writing desk. A stub of candle on a cracked china saucer stood beside the book. The floor was carpeted with threadbare rugs of all kinds: rag rugs, scraps of carpet, even an old Persian rug that had some kind of lion or lizard motif. A lectern stood off to our right, and beside it a butcher block table, much used. A stained bronze dish stood on that, and some bones and unidentifiable debris lay nearby on the floor.

I shone my flashlight on the open book, which appeared to be hand-written in Latin. I gently turned some of the pages. There were many woodcuts, and the artistry was fine, but I was troubled by the subject matter. I quickly closed the book. I did not want Lindsey seeing the woodcuts.

It’s cracked.” Lindsey said. I turned around. She was touching the door with her fingers, running them along the chest-height beam. “What could have done that?”

I came to look. “Maybe the ground settled,” I said, after examining the crack, which ran nearly the whole width of the door. “Or maybe it was cut green.”

Help me with this,” she demanded, pushing up on the log that was barring the door.

I don’t know, sweetie . . .”

What? Some weird monster is caged back there, just waiting to unleash its fury upon the world? Let’s open it!” I let that kid watch way too many B-movies.

So we opened the door. The log was heavy. We dropped it on the floor and tugged the door open. It swung on silent hinges, and a draft of warm, moist air flowed into the room. The tunnel thus revealed was floored with packed earth, the walls were timbered, and it stretched straight ahead into darkness, farther than our flashlight beams penetrated.

Lindsey trotted eagerly down the passage, shining her beam alternately to right and left. Disappointingly, the walls were bare except for some horizontal grooves scored into the wood at about head height. Judging from the color of the wood, the damage was quite old. I caught up to Lindsey and we covered about a thousand feet before she stopped.

How far do you think it goes?” she wondered.

Turn off your light.” As soon as the flashlight beams died, utter darkness enveloped us. We might as well have been sealed in a tomb.

I see something,” she said. I looked down the tunnel, shifting my gaze to prevent a blind spot from forming. I saw something, too. A faint gray patch. A light at the end of the tunnel.

A train!” I said. “Run!”

We both laughed, then walked silently hand in hand towards the small dim speck. Could the tunnel debouch into a cave open to the night sky? I tried to remember if the moon had been visible. As we walked, the patch of lesser darkness brightened, its growing radiance revealing that the tunnel opened into a wide area lit by some unknown source. We did not turn on our flashlights, and so our eyes adjusted to what must in reality have been the faintest of glows. We could not see what lay beyond the doorway.

Finally, we stood on the brink of a subterranean world, a spectral cavern whose floor fell away before us like a cataract. The ceiling far above glowed – it was apparently encrusted with a phosphorescent fungus, as we could see from examples growing on the walls near at hand. We could see no farther wall, though I have since examined topographic maps and ascertained that the abyss, unless the elevation of its roof declined considerably beyond our sight, could be no wider than about 20 miles. Still, that was large enough. The floor was carpeted with growths whose aquamarine and emerald hues somewhat simulated grass, but the verdure consisted of several species of stiff, upright fungi. Here and there tall red-and-white toadstools uncannily resembled flowers, and a field of poppies appeared to blossom nearly a half mile below us, where the toadstools were abnormally thickly clustered. In the center of the cluster some larger reddish object rose above its surroundings, but at this distance I could not see what it was.

Flying things danced above the fungous fields, chiefly moths, but several pallid varieties of insectivorous birds and bats plied their trade in the hazy air. It was quite humid in the cavern, which, no doubt, contributed to the luxuriant fungal growth.

Lindsey broke the silence. “Awesome,” she breathed. “It’s a hidden world. Do you suppose Uncle Howard visited this place?”

He had to have known about it,” I said. Without volition I began walking away from the wall, heading towards the rust-colored mound, which was the only thing breaking the homogeneity of the subterranean landscape. I stopped when I realized that I was following a path, one that bore, here and there, the unmistakable traces of human feet. Lindsey noticed the trail about the same time I did, and we fell to speculating on its nature. It must have been made by Uncle Harold, we decided, or at least used by him. We didn’t know what the reddish protrusion was, and so had little idea of scale, but it towered over the surrounding carpet of faux grass like a toad among tadpoles. I don’t know why it took me so long to recognize the significance of its peculiar shape, though its orientation played a role.

As usual, Lindsey was quicker on the uptake. “It’s a statue,” she whispered, and I suddenly recognized the semblance of a squatting man, somehow fashioned from the red fungus that elsewhere simulated fields of flowers. I thought I even knew who had been thus immortalized. For once I beat Lindsey to it, because she had never seen him in life. “It’s Uncle Howard,” I gasped, breaking into a trot. I wanted to see the face. I ran around to the front of my uncle’s effigy. It was him, all right. He had been portrayed as if resting a moment, eyes shut, before resuming some arduous task. It was even more humid out here than it had been at the tunnel mouth. I took out my handkerchief and mopped my brow.

Incredibly lifelike, Rob,” Lindsey said, coming up beside me, “hairs, moles, the creases around his eyes, everything.”

This is unbelievable. We’ve got to get your mother down here. Too bad we didn’t bring the camera.”

But I did!” she exclaimed. “Thanks for reminding me.” Lindsey took out the digital camera and focused on Uncle Howard’s face. She pressed the button. The flash nearly blinded me, showing me just how dim the ambient light really was. When my vision returned, the hairs literally stood upright on the back of my neck. The thing’s eyes were open. For a moment I wondered if I just hadn’t noticed this before. Then its mouth opened, and a sort of rusty bass gurgle emerged. It took me a while to realize that it had actually spoken. It tried again:

Welcome, nephew,” it rasped, “to my humble abode. I’m surprised to see you visit in death what elicited no interest from you in life.”

I had nothing to say. I couldn’t even move.

The thing uttered a basso profundo cough that shook the ground. The top of its head stood at least eight feet above the ground.

Welcome, I say. Better late than never. Do you like my new body? Vastly superior in many ways to the original, I think. Though I haven’t quite got the hang of walking.” It coughed again, emitting a cloud of yellow vapor.

I finally regained the use of my muscles and took a step back to avoid the dust.

How did you . . .?”

I’m glad you asked, nephew. It’s been lonely down here, because I forgot to unbar the door before I made the transfer. I couldn’t open it.” Here a thought obviously struck the giant, and I had the same thought myself.

Run!” I shouted, and sprinted around the creature, which I somehow could not think of as my uncle. Lindsey was right behind me. An inarticulate bellow emanated from the animate fungus and the ground shook. I risked a glance behind and saw Uncle Howard struggling to his feet.

Come back!” he shouted. I put my head down and ran. Soon I was panting. Although I jog a couple of times a week, I haven’t kept in shape like I should. Lindsey passed me, legs pumping. The anthropomorphic fungus’s shouts diminished behind us, so I knew we were still gaining on the thing, but I also knew that if it ever got its immense legs working right it would catch us in no time. A glance over my shoulder showed it stumbling awkwardly, still not far from where we had found it. Lindsey and I were half way to the wall.

Uncle Howard’s ever fainter shouts had gone from demands, to pleas, to imprecations, to unintelligible howls. The grass fungi quivered with every step of the gigantic creature, almost as though they were sympathetic to it. Suddenly the monster seemed to have found its rhythm, because I could see the quivers settle into a steady beat. A slow beat, but one increasing in tempo with each step.

Run,” I wheezed, and put on a burst of speed that I didn’t know myself capable of. The chase went on, Lindsey pulling farther ahead, and Uncle Howard drawing nearer with each of my tortured breaths.

Suddenly, the pursuing steps ceased. I was so surprised that I stopped to look, hands on knees, trying to catch my breath. Sweat was pouring down my face and soaking my shirt. Uncle Howard was standing stock-still, gazing back the way we had come. At first I could not see what had drawn his attention, but then I noticed a tiny spot in the air. The spot expanded appallingly—it was some sort of huge bird, flying towards us at great speed. No, it wasn’t a bird, I realized, it looked more like some kind of flying lizard. Its cylindrical body flashed with iridescent scales, and its wings resembled those of a bat. The hind limbs were folded up along its torso and I couldn’t see them well, but I was sure they terminated in gigantic claws. It was a dragon, or near enough for my taste. I thought I knew now why the huge door had been barred, and I started running again. Lindsey had never stopped, and had nearly reached the tunnel. I hoped the dragon would lose enough time dealing with Uncle Howard to permit me to make it to the tunnel. No, I had to make it all the way back to the heavy wooden door. Shit!

Behind me I heard a cacophony of screams, roars, and a thunderous cawing that might have come from the dragon. The din rose to an ear-shattering crescendo, followed by silence. I didn’t look back. I didn’t know what had happened to Uncle Howard, but I knew the dragon had won, because as I entered the dark passage I could hear it flapping behind me like a gigantic bat. I turned on the flashlight, blinking against the glare and desperately trying to keep to the center of the passageway. I could see Lindsey’s light ahead of me, and I could hear the beast cawing behind me. It sounded like it was reluctant to enter the tunnel, but I was sure it could fit, and would be after me soon enough. My vision blurred and I reeled on, counting the steps in my mind. Now I could see the end of the tunnel. Lindsey was closing the door! No! Then I saw her leave it open just a bit. Good girl, I called silently, get that bar ready. I hoped we could lift it up onto the pegs. I heard scratching noises behind me, as clawed wingtips scraped along the passage walls. Finally I stumbled into the basement, dropped my flashlight, kicked the door shut, and grabbed one end of the log. I guess there’s some truth to the notion of hysterical strength, because we practically threw that log onto the pegs. Something slammed into the other side of the door, and I heard a creak from the wood, but it held. Dust jumped out of every crack.

We dragged all the furniture over in front of the door. I could hear the monster puffing and snorting, which meant it probably wasn’t backing up for another run . . . yet.

We’re getting out of here.” Up the steps, out the front door. “Get in the car,” I shouted, and dove into the tent. I jerked Cheryl to her feet and hustled her out and into the Cherokee. She shuffled along, blinking, but not really protesting as I stuffed her into the front passenger seat.

The tent,” she said.

Forget it.” I jumped in, started the engine, spun around in a tight half circle, and roared out of the yard just as a muffled shriek came from beneath the house. Maybe the bar had held a second time, but I wasn’t waiting to find out.

I don’t ever want to even see anybody drive the way I went down the mountain that morning. I couldn’t see where I was going, but I felt some branches hit the car, and some huge stones that I’d seen in the road coming up the mountain the day before just about shook my teeth out of my head. The Cherokee needed $3,600 worth of body work alone after that ride, and it’s a miracle that we survived.

When Cheryl finished waking up, I had some explaining to do. She didn’t believe a word of it, of course, and she got pretty angry, screaming (quite rightly) about how I had nearly killed all three of us and she was sorry she’d married me. Finally we got her to look at the camera. Lindsey had taken a bunch of pictures—not just the one frontal view of Uncle Howard, but several more over her shoulder while running, and a couple from the tunnel mouth, showing me running from Uncle Howard and the dragon. In the end I think Cheryl decided to obliterate the entire incident from memory, and she has never spoken of it since.

* * *

I guess the door in the basement held. At the very least, I haven’t seen any tabloid accounts of a flying dragon in Appalachia, nor any reports of people and livestock being carried off or devoured. I think I’ll go back up there soon with a truck load of cinder blocks and some ready-mix cement. I want to reinforce the door because it won’t last forever.

I’m more worried about Uncle Howard than I am about the dragon, though I’m not absolutely certain he’s hostile. He was kind of crazy even before he arranged to be reincarnated as a giant mushroom, and I don’t think I want him running around loose. At first I figured that the dragon had torn him apart and that was that. But then Lindsey pointed out the significance of the dust he’d been coughing out.

Spores, Rob, that’s what that stuff was,” she said, “and spores aren’t released until they’re mature. He was, um, procreating while we were listening to him.” There might be millions of small Uncle Howards growing down there now. I remember the numerous red “flowers” that clustered most thickly around Uncle Howard, and I wish I had taken the time to examine them more closely while we were in the cavern. It’s bad enough if they all have his memories, but if they grow up wild, there’s no telling what they’ll be like.

And there’s more. When I finally pulled the Cherokee over at a Shell station after our wild ride down out of the hills, Cheryl brushed off my shoulder and asked me how I had gotten pollen on my shirt in the middle of the night. I didn’t think anything about it then, but now I wonder. What did I carry with me, all unknowing, down from the mountain? It rained pretty hard last Wednesday, and yesterday I noticed a big crop of red toadstools in the yard. Some of them had mighty peculiar shapes, and one almost seemed to have a familiar face on it. I broke them all up with a hoe before the spores matured, but the mycelia are in the ground, now. The toadstools could come up whenever the weather’s wet enough, and what if I’m not home to smash them? I could drench the front yard with herbicide, but I really don't see the point. We probably shed spores all the way back from Uncle Howard’s place. He could be growing out there now, all across the state. And he might not be in the best of moods.

022418b


pull the books
up to your chin
crack open one more

922418


testing the new drive

we emerge in a vast sea
of unfamiliar stars

back in the home system
the sun a cinder
circled by frozen rocks



Friday, February 23, 2018

022318d


the house
is surrounded
butter yellow guards

022318c


I salute the children
Marching for their lives
And ours
Guns meant only for murder
Have no place
In civil society

022318b


sun breaks thru

flowers and we
turn to face the heat

roots grow long
flowers burst
cells run wild

022318


drawing breath
waiting for the rattle
that doesn't come