I almost didn’t post this today, despite having written it two days prior. I had overextended myself with stuff (volunteer turn at the theater). Furthermore, I had to read over it at least once. I decided to do it, anyway, even staying up well past my bedtime. It would be a shame to delay my 12th story–nearly half of my goal. I’m glad I read it, anyway, because I managed to shave off about 15% of the content. It’s a major step for me, as the biggest comment I keep getting at my Writer’s Workshop sessions is that I am too wordy. This is something that I, of course, already know. And you probably do, too.
In any event, this was also inspired by a recent trip to Colorado. I admit to feeling the same pull my unnamed protagonist felt when I stood at the base of the Rockies. I, however, am far more sensible, and opted not to be drawn in.
Perhaps that was for the best.
At their base, the pull of the mountains was strong, and instead of fighting it, he gave in. With little preparation or thought, he left his life, such that it was, and walked from the foothills of the Rockies into the haze of their valleys and peaks. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful view on that chilly fall day that drew him in. There was something in the air. A drumbeat that tugged at his subconscious. He wouldn’t be missed; his job was replaceable, his friends nonexistent, and no family to speak of. If anyone cared enough to file a missing person’s report, it would be because they felt some sort of duty to do so. It would be filed, and it would languish. He would receive one, maybe two more paychecks before anyone thought to terminate his employment. His apartment would stay in his name for months before the missed payments turned into an eviction.
The first day was a wonder of discovery, with every crested elevation revealing another portrait of green and gray. The mountains were more than he’d expected them to be. That he couldn’t see for miles with unobstructed views was better, like there were secrets still to reveal. That day, and the day after, he still saw enough hikers to not lose himself in the remoteness. He avoided them, of course, when he could. As he trekked further in, off of the worn hiking trails with their signs guiding wanderers back to civilization, the frequency of those encounters diminished.
On day three, he realized that hunger and thirst were two things he should have considered. He had a water bottle with him, and because of the mist and available moisture everywhere, he could slake his thirst, but his hunger was a different story. He hadn’t had even a granola bar to tide him over. He decided that, before he found himself starving, he needed to learn to find food before he was too weak to do so.
It was easier than he’d thought, to find rabbits and other rodents. This close to the trailhead, the rabbits and squirrels were still conditioned to, if not trust humans, not stay out of sight then they came close.
The cooking of his catch almost killed him. But he survived, even as he pushed farther into the mountains. Even as the cold got more bitter, the elevation higher, and the food more skittish. He managed to find food here and there; almost as if it were being provided. In fact, in once instance, he found two skinned rabbits already hanging from a tree with no apparent owner. Later, an old camp abandoned with still edible jerky and granola, both of which he devoured hungrily.
When he found the rift I the land and the stairs leading down, his clothes were ragged, his frame lean, and his general hygiene “filthy,” for lack (or need) of a better word.
The pull that he’d felt from the foothills was strong here, and it was clear that this was its source. Hesitating now made little sense, given how far he’d already come. There was a difference, here; at the foothills, the majesty of the mountains hinted at wonders and beauty to find. This, on the other hand, cause him to pause. While it wasn’t clear what kind of darkness awaited him, he was scared in ways he hadn’t felt when faced with more “banal” questions of survival.
He decided that to not walk into that ravine was to betray what brought him there in the first place. And so, he descended the roughhewn stairs into oblivion.
* * * *
He walked for what seemed like hours, but because the already fading light of the afternoon sky had also been consumed by the darkness of the ravine, it was difficult to see the mine’s entrance, but it was there. There was enough ambient light to see the roughly square opening in the cliff wall as his feet settled on the rock floor at the bottom of the stairs. It seemed impractical to have a mine entrance this far down a narrow ravine with a steep staircase. Maybe, he thought, this was an exit, and the entrance was somewhere else. Somewhere practical. Maybe the miners had carved the stairs up the ravine. It didn’t feel right to him, though.
The mine breathed at him, stagnant air washing over his body. It was, the noticed, remarkably square and even with its construction. Too perfect, it seemed. Any extra light from the outside world that might have filtered down from the opening high above him did not extend past its threshold.
And yet, like he did at the foot-hills days (weeks? Months?) ago, he walked in, determined to follow the pull to its source.
* * * *
He stumbled around blindly, feeling the wall for direction and shuffling his feet to avoid sudden drops. He waited for his eyes to adjust, but at this depth they never would. He pressed on, drawn ever forward toward something, certain that he would not take a wrong turn. Minutes became hours became days became an unknowable amount of time. His hunger faded, or he stopped caring. He drank water that dripped from the ceiling, pooled on the ground, or ran down the walls. It had a distinctly chalky taste, no doubt the minerals shaping the cave’s invisible features it carried.
From time to time, he thought he heard sounds. He should have been scared, but the ever-present drive forward made him feel that his journey had a purpose, and that nothing would interfere. Forces were in play that would protect him, he knew.
In time, he noticed a soft, blue-green glow. He didn’t know how long it had been there or how slowly it had brightened enough to merit observation. It resolved itself, slowly, into lines, like capillaries, running through the cave walls, floor, and ceiling. Thin at first, but thickening as he pushed on, the glow—some sort of phosphorescent to bioluminescent phenomenon—intensified, adding a myriad of colors. They ran like deep veins in the rock, leading him; lights showing him the way forward just as he’d come to believe he would forever wander in darkness. It warmed him, seeming to imbue his body with energy that it had long since spent. He laughed out loud, a sound of unrestrained joy. As it echoed down the tunnels, the lights pulsed and change in response. Encouraged, he laughed again, changing his pitch and volume, and the lights danced. He let this last one die out, watching the waves of changing color flow down the tunnels with the sound.
As quiet returned, the colors stabilized. And then, from the tunnels ahead, he saw the colors changing, drawing nearer. His smile faded as the changing colors caught up to him and brought with them what he knew they had to bring. Another laugh, but not his. The colors raced past him with the alien laughter, back the way he had come. For the first time in his journey, he considered turning around. He would never find his way back, he knew. Someone, or something, awaited him ahead.
* * * *
When he saw a figure approaching, his heart trembled in his chest, and he stopped, as did the approaching shadow. When he stepped forward again, it did as well. Each step and halting pause of his was perfectly mirrored. As he drew close to the apparition, he made out its features in the glow. He gasped as he recognized himself, as it gasped, and shifting violets and oranges raced toward each other, melded in a spectacular display of colors, and passed on. He put his hand out, and the figure did the same. It was a mirror… it had to be.
It was not the case. He had raised his right hand and the reflection had done the same; it had not raised what would have been its left hand. This was no mirror image. He walked forward, and it continued to do so. As he got closer and pressed to the right wall, his “reflection” did, as well. The two copies of the same man passed each other that way, in the tunnel, each afraid of the other. Once past, they stared at each other. He understood now. It would be him, back in the world he left behind. It would take his place and live out the rest of his uninteresting life. No one ever would come looking for him, now. Even if it was an imperfect, empty image, it would do. When he turned his head, the reflection did as well.
* * * *
The tunnel narrowed, and he knew his journey in the dark was coming to an end. The glowing veins of dancing colors had gotten narrower and dimmer, but there was a new light ahead of him that was unmistakably daylight. Weak, but it was the sun. The walls closed in on him. He had to turn to his side to continue on as the light grew stronger, resolving into a vertical slit. The ceiling lowered until he had to drop to the ground, crawling on his side and wiggling to move inches. Panic rose, the walls crushing him. Moving forward was now impossible, but so was retreating. He would die here, so close to the exit.
Then he felt the walls shift and ripple. They pulsed, pushing him forward with each wave. The slit ahead of him grew closer and seemed to expand with each
movement, until finally he was pushed out of the cave and onto damp earth. He closed his eyes against the light and turned his face to the earth to block it out. He didn’t know how long he lay there like that, shrinking away from the sun. Finally, though, it was time to finally see.
Cautiously, he raised his head and opened his eyes.
The light in the sky was weaker than he’d thought and was a color that he was not immediately able to categorize. Something like a pink or coral, but not quite. The trees that towered above him were difficult to make out, though the slowly resolving blurriness of his vision was doing him no favors. He blinked a few times and rubbed at them. He saw the shapes of birds darting across the sky. The air was constricted, as he would expect from higher altitude. He must still be somewhere in the Rockies, though he wasn’t sure where he would expect to be. The indelible pull had gone; the very force that had summoned him here dropped away as if it never existed at all. Why would it lead him here to another point in the same chain of rocks, only to abandon him?
He rose, shakily, and looked back. There was a large rock face there, but try as he might, no amount of squinting revealed the crack he had crawled out of. As his eyesight finally cleared, he looked again to the sky when a flock of birds drew his attention.
Only, the things in the sky, silhouetted against the strange color, were not birds. These things flew without wings. They were more like long snakes, winding their way in the air. A star-shaped protrusion at the front wriggled small tentacles in the air, and occasionally, they shrieked at each other from far off, the noise piercing not just his ear drums, but into his psyche. They were also much further away than he had thought; not darting just above and among the trees, but flying high in the air, miles away at least. They were massive creatures.
Something landed on the ground next to him with a dull thud, snapping him out of his trance. A fruit of some kind lay at his feet. A pomegranate, he though, and he reached down to pick it up. While it vaguely resembled a pomegranate, however, its texture was more like a tumor. It wriggled in his hand, causing him to drop it. Small cilia burst from its surface—some that appeared to have small eyes and some gaping and hungry mouths. It rose on still others and scuttled away from him in to the forest.
Which showed him the truth of the trees. They were not covered in bark, but they were made of something slick and oily. Protrusions that he thought were branches swaying in a breeze were moving of their own accord. Sometimes, a “branch” would latch onto another “tree,” and it would sink wicked barbs into it, drawing out a black ichor as it greedily drank of the other’s essence.
He ran through the trees, careful not to touch any. He ducked at screeches from the flying things, imagining them diving down on him and carrying him away. More of the scurrying “fruits” of the trees ran beside him or climbed up the trunks of the strange forest sentinels. He ran up a hill, the soft ground giving spongily with each step, until he reached the crest.
He saw something titanic on the horizon. A behemoth, giant flesh trunks for legs and a bulbous, shifting body resting on top. Scores of whipping tentacles thrashed in the sky. It uprooted some of the strange trees and carried them up to parts of it that were (blissfully) obscured behind a cloudy haze. Flocks of the airborne creatures snaked toward it. They flew in and out of a great, honeycomb surface that appeared to be part of the leviathan’s very flesh. He dropped to his knees as it made a sound so deep and terrible, so primal and wrong.
He wept until hand rested on his shoulder. A woman’s hand. The woman it was a part of smiled sadly as he looked up to her. She was beautiful beyond comprehension; flawless skin on a perfectly symmetrical face. Her smile was comforting, and without thinking, he fell against her, wrapping his arms around her and burying his tear-lined face in her chest.
“Why?” he said, the first full word he uttered in ages. It would be his last.
She placed her hands on either side of his face and gently lifted it to hers. She didn’t respond, the perfect smile unchanged. He sniffled, and forgot, for a moment, the scene of alien terror all around him. He smiled weakly back. He knelt there before her for a time, a supplicant before his goddess.
He understood his place when her body split down the middle with the sickly tearing of wet meat, opening to reveal a great, gaping gullet lined with rows of needle-sharp teeth; when her tongue extended and wrapped itself around him and pulled him gently in to it, he did not scream.
He gave in.