Friday, April 19, 2013

In a Deep Dark Hole



“I hear your breathing.  You awake?  Maybe not.  Maybe you are and you can’t speak.  Break your teeth?  Lose your tongue, friend?  Aye, I say friend.  If I’m not alone in this darkness, then anyone here’s got to be a friend.  You can call me friend too, if you ever find your voice.  People stuck in these dark places, especially the brave, we got to stick together.  Was that a sigh?  I’ll take it as an oath of friendship and I’ll swear the same on this reeking pit.  So longer we’re down here, alive, I’ll call you friend.
“Now if I might confide in you, friend, if we’re to die, I’d like to tell what happened to me.  I swear, I’d never have gone down that hole if I knew.  That thing—she wants us in this darkness.  You don’t have to tell me differently.  I know you aren’t down here seeking buried treasure.  She dwells in the darkness.  She put me here.  I doubt you just fell down some farmer’s well and found your way to me.
“But let me tell mine first.  It was three nights ago that Merry Mary burst into the tavern and spoiled a good evening.  Are you local, friend?  If not, I’ll tell you, Merry Mary has been whoring these parts since before I was born.  Half of us got half-brothers from her, I hear.  Some time ago, all that whoring bred a madness in her, so when she bursts in and says her husband-to-be came crawling out of a hole in the ground and dragged some cow into the dark, we all laughed.  Can you blame me?  Any of us?  James O’Creery, he says, who does she think would wed her this week, and we laughed again.
“You’re wondering how she spoiled it, giving us all something to laugh over.  I’ll tell you.  First she starts telling us this old tale about a lass and a lad who were about to be wed when a fire took the house where the men were teaching this lad to be a man.  She lost father, brothers, betrothed.  House.  Home.  Had to turn to whoring.  Yes, it was Merry Mary, and if you know women, friend, then you don’t need me to say that this little story put the tavern lasses out of the mood for dancing and anything else akin to joy.
“So James says to Mary, how would you recognize that lad after all these years and all these men, and Mary tells him that the lad’s not aged a day.  James laughs again.  That was the last laugh the woman could stomach, I’d say, because the next moment her nails are dug into James’s face, and the rest of us, we’re pulling her off.  Mess of blood and skin and shrieking.  A fine night pissed away.  They locked up Merry Mary for the night.  They wouldn’t keep her any longer.  Bad for business to lock up your whores.
“And to top it off, she was telling the truth.
“Next night, we’re helping Saltwater Dan clean up the place.  If you’re no local, I’ll tell you, he runs that tavern and knows everyone’s business.  He tells me that morning a man came in begging for water.  When he gets it and swallows a mouthful, he says to Dan that he’d just seen the devil crawl up from a hole in the earth and drag a mare into the dark.  So Dan asks the man what sins the horse committed that the devil had to come up himself to collect it, and I’m sure he asked that with a laugh.  The man looks Dan in the eye, sober as any man can be, and says the devil was after the rider, who barely got away.  He’d known since his last war that his soul belonged to the devil, but never thought he’d see that villain coming.
“I was about to ask Dan what happened to the man when Old Jacob staggers in, his arms scratched to hell, his clothes in tatters.  He’s a regular, seen Merry Mary come in the night before.  I asked him if he’d tried having a go at her in her state, but he starts weeping.  Keeps saying bear, bear, bear.  When we finally got him calmed down and put some liquid courage in his belly, he tells us what happened.  That was the moment it came real, that we knew some wrong thing was happening in our village.
“Old Jacob had been driving a wagon of two oxen, his daughter sitting beside him, when a bear came out of a hole and snatched the girl away.  If you’re not a local, I’ll tell you, Old Jacob’s got this fear of bears.  Not like you’re staring one down and you think you might hear the angels soon.  No, just the thought of them freezes him up like spit on a winter night, ever since he was lost in the woods as a lad and one little bear didn’t take kindly to his presence.  The man didn’t go near the woods again.  Always thought that bear would be waiting for him.
“This one, it didn’t wait.  It reached onto the wagon and swept his little girl into its claws.  We all thought by the look of him that Jacob was damn lucky to get away after scraping with that beast.  But that wasn’t it.  You see, friend, the bear never touched him.  It couldn’t.  He wouldn’t let it.  He was so scared that he shrank back when it came at the wagon.  He let his daughter be taken.  All those scratches on his arms and rips in his clothes were his own doing as he sat outside that hole, trying to muster the courage to save his girl.  There was no doing.  Not by him.
“Us, on the other hand, well, we were rightly mustered.  You might think she was dead by the time Old Jacob got to us and you might be right, but you wouldn’t have said it then.  You don’t have to be local to know the way men get, the right and wrong battling inside them tips to the side of right, long enough for him to care.  By God, we were set to save Jacob’s girl from whatever lurked in that hole, be it bear or devil or old Merry Mary’s man.
“Now, I’d swear on my mother’s grave that I left the tavern with the others and walked to that damned crack in the ground, and I’d weep for my mother’s soul a moment later, because I was sitting there like I hadn’t moved.  Where was my rightness?  I’d say it was hiding and my wickedness had eyes for sweet and pretty Prim.  All the young red-blooded men wanted her, but all of them were gone now and I had her to myself that night, laughing and dancing and drinking.  You never saw so sweet a table dance as hers, all swirling hair and hands and legs a blur.  You’d know if you were local.
“I’d like to say it was the grandest night of my life, and it was until the next day came.  Then I learned what went on in that hole.
“They were one at a time, at first.  Men who couldn’t say where they’d been all night.  Men who couldn’t say anything.  Then the rest came in a crowd, and friend, I’ll never forget their eyes.  Dead eyes, fearful eyes, eyes that wouldn’t open.  These were men changed.  I couldn’t be happy for my night with Prim when they’d all seen such horrors.  None of them went to work that day and only Saltwater Dan was at the tavern that night.  I could’ve courted Prim again and no one would’ve got in my way.  Maybe I should have.  But, no.  I had to know.
“We spent a good hour chattering about nothing before we got to the meat of what I wanted to hear, and when we got there—that wasn’t the face of Saltwater Dan.  That was the face of a dying man.  Still, I got to know.  So I ask him what went on.  He tells me they climbed down the hole, into a tunnel, and it split a dozen ways.  They stuck together, those men, and made sure to memorize their way as they went farther and deeper.  Then Dan saw it.  The sea itself, leaking into the cave, filling its tunnels.  He told me it wasn’t the sea he sailed in his sailing days, no.  This was the dark sea, the sea beneath the sea, that held all the horrors of an old world.  He’d always feared it.  Always, he said.
“But that wasn’t the worst of it.  That old sea had him panicked, while other men were screaming over all kinds of things—serpents, spiders, flames, dead lovers, dead parents, the devil, angels, Death itself, cold earth.
“Dan leans close, like he doesn’t want no one else to hear, and says there’s no bear in that hole.  No devil.  Not Mary’s man.  It’s not anything it looks like.  It’s whatever stills your heart, you hear?  And he took my arm and said, not fear.  And I believed him, even when he started weeping.  Especially when he started weeping.  Dan’s never been a coward.  He’s been a man of iron since before I was born.  Fought the English once when we were at war and three more times when we weren’t.  I believed that something down there had slithered its way into his heart and broken his mettle.  I was right to believe that.
“That rightness that took the other men stuck with me this time.  That was just last night, but I can hardly remember what it feels like to be brave.  To have hope.  To be stupid enough to take a torch, a dagger, a sword, and a musket, and follow the other men’s tracks to that hole.  A hole—that’s a nice way to put it.  More like a stab in the earth, the kind of slit you got to crawl into.
“Well, friend, I crawled.  I slid in my weapons and I slid myself in after.  The tunnels were like Dan said, splitting themselves like my old nan’s hair, but I saw the men’s tracks by torchlight.  Saw them treading one way and scrabbling back, kicking over most of the first set.  I got the feeling it didn’t matter which path I took.  Whatever was down there owned its underworld and owned what it pulled down.  But it didn’t own me, I said then.  I followed the trail I had.
“As I walked down, and every step took me a little lower than the last, I got a sense of what I might see.  My old man would be down in that darkness, I knew.  He’d made me too scared to stay home, so I took off when I was still a lad.  Why do you think I kept the company of Merry Mary, Old Jacob, and Saltwater Dan?  Those are all old folk, friend, and you don’t need to be a local to figure that out.  All their great deeds and memories were done before I was a wink in my father’s eye.  I looked up to them, whores and farmers and sailors turned barmen, like new parents.  You could do a lot worse.  So it made sense to me that I’d see a lot worse when that thing in the hole wanted me gone.
“Only, it took a while.  I felt like I’d been walking half the night before the ground leveled out, and I’d long lost the tracks of my fellows.  I was led deep, and when I say led, I don’t mean it came out to show me.  I mean it didn’t come out, so I had to press on.  If I let go that sense of rightness then, I’d never get it back, and then maybe it wouldn’t drag no horse underground next.  Maybe it’d be Prim.  Or me.  So you see, friend, there really wasn’t much choice.
“Eventually, I did hear a sound, about two corner turns from where I was.  I made those turns and you wouldn’t believe what I saw.  I tell you now, it was as Dan said.  Stilled my heart.  Stilled everything.  I couldn’t move.
“I saw the tavern.  I saw Prim, a barefoot lass turning and dancing on the tavern table, her skirts whirling in the wind.  I heard stamping and clapping and a pipe player and a lute.  Prim had those eyes on me.  You must know the type.  The kind a man always wants to see from a woman he’s after.
“This was far worse than showing me my father.  It knew it, too.  It knew that as much as I feared that memory of the man, I’d strike it down.  This?  Prim?  I was frozen, like Mary had to be frozen.  What can we do against the people we love?  Dan had known this would happen.  He tried to tell me that it wasn’t just fear, but I wouldn’t understand.  Too full of drink and manliness and rightness.  I had to run so I didn’t have to see her.
“But then as I was turning around, I remembered those other men’s tracks in the dirt and how they all had turned around.  And I had one more thought—something so strong that it could pull a horse underground shouldn’t need glamours and tricks.  Something so strong should face me like a proper beast if it couldn’t be killed.  Unless, of course, it could be killed.  No other reason to pose as what we fear, or worse, what we love.
“I turned back and fixed an eye on the thing, dancing and smiling, batting her eyes.  Then up went my musket and I pulled the trigger.  The ball of lead shot out and sure as my voice is speaking to you now, it popped that thing’s chest open.  I swear it on my father’s grave, may he be damned.  Damned as I am.
“The moment this Prim-looking thing dropped off the table, the tavern came alive around me.  It was a glamour no more, but the real tavern, filled with men, women, serviced by Saltwater Dan.  And there was Prim, bleeding out on the floor, drowning in her own blood.  Not some thing that looked like Prim.  Real Prim.  My Prim.
“They thought I was mad or evil.  Both, most likely.  They stuffed me down here.  I thought, when I got into that cave, that I might get stuck down there if I didn’t turn and run.  That the thing underground would put me in some pit there, a deep hole within a hole, as full of old horrors as the sea beneath Dan’s sea.  Never saw this coming.  A dungeon.  It’s not fit place for a man, no offense intended.
“Now, friend, because you seem a good friend and not likely to think me evil, you’re probably wondering how such a mistake happened.  How’d I end up in that tavern from the underground?  Before I thought maybe I went with the men after all.  Maybe, while they were seeing snakes and spiders and wicked seas, I was seeing a night with Prim, a day of work, and a night when I pretended to be brave.  Maybe the thing that stilled my heart was murdering that sweet and pretty lass.
“But I don’t think that now.  No, that man who lost his horse had it right.  He was the only one who saw the hole for what it really was—the devil’s house, with the devil inside it.  And this devil’s a woman.  Only a woman knows to dance so bold as Prim and only the devil would tease a man that way.  And she made it so that when I thought I was shooting that she-devil, I was shooting my Prim instead.  And so like I said, she’s the same to put me down here as to put you down.  Whatever crime you committed is surely the devil’s work as well, whether she tricked you into it or gave nothing more than an encouraging word.
“So that’s my tale, the story of a stupid man and why he’ll never see the sun again.  That’s enough on my end.  I’ve heard enough of your breathing, friend.  If you got a tongue, use it.  Tell me, how’d the devil drag you down in the dark?”

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Delay

I apologize to everyone, but I've come down with some kind of illness, the kind that hates me and leaves me lying around coughing and aching, and apparently hates you too, because it's going to delay this week's story post.  "In a Deep Dark Hole" will not post Tuesday night or Wednesday.  I will try to get things settled by Thursday, but don't be surprised if the story isn't up until Friday.  Once again, I apologize.  You can always read my novel in the meantime if you haven't already and need something to read!  Or play around online.  Or go outside.

Whatever you do, just don't be sick like me.  It's not the cool thing to do.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Excused



Mom made peas with dinner.  Ian hated peas.  She also made a casserole, better known as a mad scientist’s experiment, or “yuck” according to Megan.  In this, Megan was right, but Ian had heard his father say “a broken clock is right two times a day,” and Ian felt that fit for his little sister.  Her foot kicked the side of his chair every three seconds.  He was supposed to “just ignore it.”
The bowl of peas was set on the table, reeking of pea-stink, and then the casserole joined it, also reeking of pea-stink.  There were peas in it, like a bowl of them wasn’t enough green dirt to feed the four of them.  Mom and Dad sat down and held hands to say grace.
Ian tried to focus on the words Dad said every night, tried to imagine God in a giant chef’s hat telling them, “Bon appetite” from outer space, but a dull throb filled his head, beating every three seconds.
He tried to eat.  Green dirt filled his mouth with pea-stink and he hurried for his glass of water between each bite.  Every three seconds, a kick.  The water in his glass trembled like it expected a Tyrannosaurus Rex to visit the house.  Ian would’ve preferred that to his sister.
His portion of casserole was almost eaten enough that he could smear the rest across his plate and be done with dinner, but he couldn’t ignore the kicking anymore.  He curled back one leg and rammed his foot against Megan’s chair.  It swiveled on its wooden legs, and slammed the side of the back into the table.  It didn’t teeter.  Megan didn’t get hurt.  But she started crying anyway, and not the high-pitched shrieking that Mom and Dad hated.  She sobbed quietly, like she didn’t want anyone to notice, even though she did.
“Leave your sister alone,” Dad said.
“She was kicking my chair,” Ian told them.
“Then ignore her,” Mom said.
You ignore her.  I’ve been ignoring the whole I was eating stinky peas and getting a headache.”
“Calm down,” Dad said.
Ian stamped his foot.  “May I be excused?”
“No,” Mom said.  “You’re going to sit here with the family.”
That he would not do.  Ian crossed his arms over his chest, folded his legs under him, and shut his eyes.
“Now what are you doing?” Mom asked, her voice growing faint.
“Excusing myself,” Ian said, and he could’ve imagined Mom and Dad rolling their eyes.
He didn’t.  That would’ve been a waste of good imagining.  Instead he imagined a great darkness, broken only by faint light in the distance.  He walked toward it.  The darkness had shapes and forms, but he brushed them aside, quickly approaching the light.  Soon there was less darkness, the light growing stronger.  He saw he was brushing aside tree limbs, fallen twigs, piles of orange and golden leaves higher than his head.  Then the darkness was gone and he was walking to the top of a grassy hill.  A great plain spread all around him.  The borders showed castles, forests, a tower made of chocolate, and other visions Ian’s mind hadn’t filled in yet.
Chocolate—now that was worth eating.  Maybe if he imagined eating chocolate hard enough, he could get rid of the pea-stink outside his head.  He started that way.
“Diddly evening, fellow,” said a soft voice.  “I wouldn’t go that way if I was you.”
Ian turned to the voice and smiled.  It came from the mouth of a tall, thin man, nearly skin and bones, who wore colorful drapes, scarves, towels, and a giant, wide-brimmed hat, all too big for him.  “Who are you?” Ian asked.
“The name’s Brimley, but I’m sure you already knew that.”
Ian felt he did.  He’d have to.  He had imagined this silly-looking man.
“Anyway, that tower is ruled by a wretched vampire lord whose names I’ll not utter in decent places, but you surely know him.”
Ian felt he had to.  He would figure out a name for it if he went that far before dinner ended.
“It’s not safe,” Brimley went on.  “I know a house with some chocolate made of furniture and where the walls’ marble is candy.  And there is no witch to anger for eating any of it.”
“I know there’s no witch to piss off,” Ian said.  In his head, he liked to curse the way Mom and Dad did.  “Fairy tales are for little kids, like Megan.”
“How wise you are.”  Brimley bowed and swayed his long arms toward the nearest patch of trees.  “Then you’ll come?  Fair folk tales may be for wee ones, but I promise that a vampire is far less picky.”
“I know that too.  I’ll come.”  Ian was having chocolate tonight, one way or another.  He decided Brimley wouldn’t know what a pea or pea-stink was.  The tall man would be happier that way.
They walked across the grass to Brimley’s forest, where the trees were barren and wore spooky faces on their trunks.  It was a Halloween kind of forest, crisp and cool and too scary for Megan.  At a clearing between the trees, Brimley led Ian to an ordinary-looking little house, with white walls and a red shingled roof.
Ian ran for it and licked a corner of the house.  Then he spit.  “The hell?  It’s not candy.”
“Of course not,” Brimley said.  “The house you want is on its way.  Come inside.  We can watch for it through the window.”
Ian decided it would come quickly.  He didn’t know how long dinner would last.
Brimley opened the front door, made of wood.  “It won’t be long.”
“I know,” Ian said, stepping inside.  The furniture wasn’t made of chocolate, but old wood, and the walls inside were as much candy as on the outside.  On a coffee table, Ian found something better—a bowl of white candies and bars of store bought chocolate.  He picked up one candy and popped it in his mouth to help get rid of the wall’s taste.  Then he spit it out.
The candy tasted like the wall.
“They’re rocks,” Ian said.
Brimley tipped his hat upward and peered out a wide window.  “Marble.  As promised.”
Ian dove for a Malts bar.  The wrapper peeled away from a corner of milk chocolate and Ian chomped down.  No more rocks.  No more peas.  Only sweet, soft … wood.  Ian spit a third time.
“Diddly, I thought that was rude where you come from,” Brimley said.
“What do you call this crap?” Ian asked, dropping the wooden Malts bar.  He grabbed a Hershey’s—wood.  Snickers—wood.
“Chocolate made of furniture,” Brimley said.  He picked up an unwrapped block of wood and unfolded legs from its underside, making a tiny table.  “As promised.”  His fingers lifted another bar and made a tiny chair.
“Where’s the real chocolate?” Ian asked.
“That house is almost here.”  Brimley unwrapped another bar.
Ian looked out the window.  A house on narrow legs ran through the forest, closer and closer, clumsily sliding around spooky trees.  “Why would I do this?” he muttered.
“What did you do?” Brimley asked.
“Did this to myself.  Dinner sucked and then I imagined eating rocks and wood.”
“Marble.”  Brimley finished unwrapping the wooden bars and assembling an array of tiny chairs and tables.  “Diddly, you didn’t imagine anything.  You tasted rocks and wood as sure as you tasted green beans or broccoli or peas.”
“How do you know about peas?” Ian asked.  “I didn’t want you to.”
“It wasn’t your decision.”
“Yeah, it is.  I made you up.  I made all of this.”
Brimley frowned.  “Where do you think you are?”
“In my head!” Ian snapped.  “Where else would I be?”
“You’d be here.”  Brimley pursed his lips and straightened his furniture.
“Where’s here?”
“Not in your head.”  The tall, thin man hadn’t changed his clothes, or shrunk or grown, but at that moment he stopped being a friend from Ian’s mind and became a stranger whose thoughts and intentions were just as strange.  Ian couldn’t trust him.  He couldn’t trust anything.  It was time to leave.  He tried opening his eyes, but they already felt open, as if he hadn’t imagined anything.  As if he was here.
The traveling house thudded to a stop outside and Ian rushed for the door.  As Brimley had promised, there were no witches sitting on the high chocolate chairs of that candy house.  There were little men, short as Ian’s knees, each with a bulging gut, a mouth full of needle teeth, and a curving steel fork clutched in his hands.  They saw Ian and began to shriek.  Ian thought they could have sounded like hungry chicks in a nest.  They didn’t seem interested in candy or chocolate.
“Wait, child!” Brimley cried, chasing Ian out the door.  “You haven’t had any chocolate!”
Ian took off into the woods and hoped he remembered the way.  The little men shrieked louder.
“Diddly, he’s leaving and he hasn’t had any chocolate!” Brimley shouted, and the men hooted and screeched.
Branches scratched Ian’s arms and face, and some of them howled like the little men, but their snagging arms didn’t stop him.  The forest seemed to stretch on forever and the little men’s shrieking chased him every step.  He ran for as long as he could ever remember running and then reached the grassy plain.  The way home was out there somewhere.  He took a moment to breathe, but the shrieking told him that was one moment too long.  The little men had mounted Brimley and he was like a snake through the trees, much faster and more agile than the candy and chocolate house.
Ian started running again, but his legs ached.  He saw the darkness where he’d come from in the distance, but he didn’t know where it would lead.  He hoped he could go home.  There was nowhere else to go.  Fantastic sites waited at the edges of the grass, but he couldn’t trust them.  They weren’t parts of his imagination.  They were something else.  They were strangers, like Brimley and his hungry little fat men.
The shrieking drew closer.  Out of the forest, there were no tree limbs to stall Brimley.  He strode as far as he could, his legs making three steps for every one of Ian’s.  They would catch him soon and make him eat chocolate, make him get fat.  He couldn’t imagine himself fat.
“It’s not real!” he shouted.  “It’s just what I thought up!”
Brimley and the little ones didn’t care.
Ian cut into the hills made of leaves and fallen twigs.  The sky blackened and the air grew shadowy around him.  Soon he was deep in the darkness, and when he looked back at the light, he found Brimley’s silhouette, his shoulders turned pointy by dozens of evil-looking forks.  Ian kept running.  He bumped into leaf piles and stumbled over sticks.  He couldn’t see Brimley anymore, but the shrieking was close.
The light had guided him out of the blackness, but there was no light telling him how to get back in.  He started sobbing.  He knew that would tell Brimley exactly where to find him, but he couldn’t stop it.  “I’m a baby,” he whispered.  “Just like Megan.  But I’m gonna die.  I don’t want chocolate anymore if I gotta die.”
The darkness shook.  A tremor slid past Ian’s feet, booming from one direction.  He ran that way.  Three seconds later came another.  He turned toward where it had come from.  Another three seconds and the quake was bigger, louder.  He leaped.  Leaves tumbled over his shoulders, pressing close to him.  Another tremor.  His skull rattled and he felt Brimley’s sleeves on his arm, spindly fingers on his neck.  The darkness shook again.  Ian jumped.  Ian screamed.
“Ian, for God’s sakes!”
The darkness snapped away and Ian was sitting at the kitchen table.  His sister kicked his chair again.  He wasn’t scratched.  He wasn’t poked open by forks.  Pea-stink clouded his head.  He took a big breath and sucked it in.
Mom closed her mouth and shook her head.
Dad scowled.  “Do you really need to be excused that bad?”
Ian uncurled his legs and sat still.  “No.  I’m okay.”