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I lie dreaming
This is truly a wild land I am lost in. The mist knits its milky web, strands coiled around fiddleheads and dew-dropping from ferns; sleeping in ethereal veils over moss and foxgloves, fawns and fairy children. My bare feet sink moist into the green earth and starry spider webs trail across my cheeks like kisses. Branches vein the heavy sky, so unlike the blue emptiness that stretched taught above the russet-thatched hills of my homeland. The sepia sun there has chiseled my skin into a stony smoothness that masks my years. I farmed those hills that roll into the bleached horizon even before the first bones started emerging. Back then it was the biggest news since the motorized plow when a slab of earth cracked off like skin, to reveal a backbone, a rib, and hand larger than a house. I remember, in the summer of my seventeenth year, when they found the first eye. It stood tall as I, mostly petrified like old wood, but sometimes you could see it twitch, just a little, or sometimes even blink.
Now the hills have all rolled over and stretched out their arms, so I am here for answers. The ancient folk tales told me of the cave that lies in these wet woods. Its hollow chambers resonate with the answer to every question ever asked. If I listened keenly enough, the stories said, I might hear my answer.
My feet crush flowers and startle snakes in the vibrant grass. They hiss of like streams with scales and teeth, and I look up to see the dark mouth. I know it is the cave I was looking for—it seems to float in the fog, softly gray in this perpetual dewy twilight. When I step inside it is cool and the stone floor is rough. The only sound is the tinkle of falling water, echoing on and on, and so I must go deeper.
I walk through honeycomb corridors that whisper and then sing. I light my golden candle and it paints fluttering shadows across the mossy walls. “Yes,” the cave murmurs. “No, it will never happen. She loves you. He wants you dead. The crops will die with the locusts. 39. It is right behind you. No, they never knew you were their son.” The answers are meaningless to me without questions, though surely many would kill for them. As I descend further it begins to grow cold. The voices become fewer, become deeper. “There never was a meaning. You have 47 days. All you have left to do now is sleep.”
At last I come to an underground lake. It is vast and chill and black, the surface as the water still as a blade of ice. Here is the coldest voice and it says, “They are old. They are old. They are old, and He left long ago. Here is the last safe place.” It is my answer. There were others here before us. It was their eyes for whom the heavens were built. I sigh and a dimple mars the surface of the lake. It becomes a ripple, molten glass rising into the void, and then a huge white whale breaches the lake’s surface, tearing its skin into a thousand delicate slices. Its eyes are blind films of gray. Its mouth yawns open wide, wide into peroxide darkness. The whale-worm has no teeth. I turn to run on melting limbs and feel its dank jaws envelop me and close.
In the suffocating chill I feel wet layers of flesh pressing down on me. I scream and scratch in claustrophobic darkness, slipping down the wet chute of throat into a damp brown stomach. I sit still and breathe and know I am underwater. I can sense the cold glass black salt water extending around me for miles, miles with nothing in them. I strike my match and light my golden candle. Lying neatly stacked as kindling are four toddlers, their corpse-faces shriveled, eyes drawn into themselves, lips freckled slits. Their cheekbones jut like knives.
Heartbeat slowing, I sit against the stomach wall. It moves slightly, gently, with the whale’s breathing. A great exhaustion washes over me. I fall asleep in the sinking candlelight and wake in warmth and color.
The whale’s sides are glowing red. The children are less dead. Already their skin is plumping up, their veins sinking back into contour, their lips opening like blossoms. There are mosquitoes living in their hair.
Time passes in silence. I discover that if I crawl up the whale’s throat, beneath its brain, I can look through its empty films of eyes. We are drifting through a deserted land of crumbling castles where pallid mermaids float limp as kelp. Pillars and statues of angels have fallen at strange angles and grown beards of seaweed. Crabs scuttle across the seats of crumbling thrones. I wonder what people lived here, in these beautiful marble dwellings; I wonder who walked the hallways now patrolled only by hammerhead sharks.
The children grow brighter every day—though that word, ‘day’, has no meaning here. I sleep and wake, eating stale bread from my hemp knapsack. Soon it will run out. The toddlers are the picture of health—fluttering violet lids, lips like rosebuds, cheeks like apples. Their skin is so soft that I cannot but touch it. I would want to cradle them in my carven arms were it not for the mosquitoes in their thistledown hair. We sleep side by side in the belly of the whale, our earth the mottled flesh below us, our sky the stippled skin above.
I remember when the sky of my homeland started to split. It had been stretched too tight, too long, and one day a tear began—just a little one at the time—but everyone knew what was coming. Soon the tears began appearing everywhere. Clouds and birds sailed into them and vanished. There was a faint churning noise coming from the rips, everyone agreed, though we did not know what it meant until the tears began to widen. Behind the shredded canvas of sky were gears, turning and creaking, bulging metallic and monstrous. The clockmaker’s work was coming apart and He was too far away to care, entranced by some new creation, leaving our world to spiral out of control.
Birds began keeping to the ground, and I no longer envied them for their wings. By this time my husband had already fallen into his long illness and my children were grown and gone, married or else swept away in the strange winds. The towns were in fear and confusion. Stores were looted and burned, men murdered, women raped, and no one seemed to care. The tears in the sky grew ever larger until there was little blue left. It was all churning mechanics, their rusty rumble ever present, even in our dreams.
After my husband died of his long heart-sickness I left the land of rolling hills. The people were in turmoil and no one even noticed me leave. I wanted to find the answer for them, to bear it back like precious gold. I journeyed long miles over sand-swept plains riddled with the holes of the centipede-people, where the gears in the sky had stopped turning long ago. I poled a shallow dinghy through sticky swamps where hands grew like lily-pads, dead trees stuck up like backbones, and great black leaches shifted in the mud. I walked through the false forest of living electric trees, where the few other human forms I saw were skeletons cocooned in copper wiring, cradled high above the bronze forest floor. There was a blue-green moor where the sky was blank violet and unmarred, where the fifes and lutes of fey funerals crept through my toes and up towards the lidless moon. Those songs made your hair prickle and your lips numb with the terrible beauty and wildness, and though it made me want to curl up and hide, it was those nights when I thought the creation might be worth it, after all.
But I am safe here in the belly of my whale, safe from the destruction sweeping my land far above. By now, I am sure, the bone-giants are stirring; they are waking from their slumber and rising to their feet. They are tamping the flesh of the earth into their bones, their stone eyes are rolling and blinking in their ancient skulls, and they are picking up men like flies and crushing them between their ground-down teeth. Beneath the endlessly churning sky a mechanical army is thrusting back and forth, propelled by the gears above and below them. A wind-up man sticks a sword into the belly of another and is stabbed in return; the miracle, really, is how they continue to bleed.
Each day the children are growing stronger. I am glad I am not alone here, at the end of the world. Their silent presence comforts me. The two folded neatly in the middle remind me of my eldest son and daughter. The girl has the cinnamon freckles and spun-fire hair of Joanna; the boy the bow lips and arrow brows of my own Kelren. I remember when they were so little their chubby fingers would tug on my hands and that warm pull would be the essence of maternal love. But I most not forget that these are not my babies; they are ancients. How long have they lain shriveled in the belly of the whale? I wonder. Perhaps they are sacrifices from a time when the crumbling archways I can see from the blind eyes of the whale were new; perhaps they were lowered down as bait by a curious and heartless form of man, to see if anything lurked in the depths of darkness.
They are the final creation of the caves. When they awake they will have the answer to end all questions. Their little fingers twitch and their matted lashes flutter like the wings of moths. But I already know what they are going to say. We are but one of many creations. When I look upon the pale floating mermaids, malformed, missing tails or limbs or perhaps with too many, spasming in the heavy water or lying dead still, nothing behind their empty eyes, I know that this is true. Our God is an impatient one. He made many things, but finished few. Even this underwater cave is not the oldest. There were cities here once; what became of their people I shall never know. He built layer on top of layer, not bothering to see if what lay below the surface was entirely dead. Man was truly his finest hour. But now He has gone on to new and greater things, cities built of stars perhaps; or people crafted of metal. And the things that were buried and thought dead were only sleeping, and now that our world is ticking down they are rising in lonely fury, hating the One who brought them into life unfinished and abandoned them like broken toys. The voices in the cave spoke true: here is the only safe place left.
I have been here so long. My bread is gone. I have found that the pulsing red stomach walls are good to eat. They taste succulent and warm, and keep me from being hungry or thirsty. I scoop them out like the insides of a watermelon and they regrow in minutes. All this time as a cozy parasite, scratching down a history of the world in the russet ink of my homeland, I have not aged. Perhaps I am the last human; perhaps I am the mother of all truths.
But my children’s eyes are opening. They are smiling at me with cracked porcelain teeth, giggling and holding out chubby arms. Let the world come to wrack and ruin; let man destroy himself a thousand times over. I am home.