by Dani Brown
Digging. Endless digging. Here’s some more digging. The hole is already so goddamn deep but still, the foreman won’t allow you to stop. Something big must be down here. Something important. If there isn’t, you can round up your fellow employees and impale him. Impalement is always an option down below.
Your fellow employees are letting the frustration show. The lyrics in their stupid chant changed, taking on something more dark and twisted in a subtle sort of way so the foreman wouldn’t be able to work out what they meant.
You don’t chant while you dig. You’re too cool for that bullshit or any other bullshit. You’re doing your time, paying your dues and then you’re out of here – onto great things, better things.
Fingernails are a thing of the past. You’re digging with the nail bed. They broke off long ago with the embedded dirt. Probably eaten by the foreman when you brought them to him with your bleeding fingers. The foreman was a dirty fucker. They always were. What this one was searching for, he never said. Just said to keep digging. Forever digging. It never stops.
At least you have ten hours off at night. You crawl beneath your blankets and don’t move until someone shoves luke warm gruel beneath your nose with dawn’s first light. You swallow that down before you even piss.
Thoughts of the outside world are long since gone. What comes to you in waking hours is like a weird hallucination. This is what has always been and always will be.
You dig some more silently cursing the chanters, hoping they’ll act on their chants with the even more sinister twist (“feed him his liver” – you like that). Your finger hits something solid. You bite your tongue to stop from crying out. It is your discovery. No one else’s. They can chant. They can go fuck themselves and murder the foreman beneath a pool of communal bodily fluids.
It is dark down in the hole. No one knows you are brushing aside dirt with your bare hands. You look up. They’re still digging. The foreman is at the top barking orders through a megaphone. He won’t even shine a spot light down here – something about being a waste of electricity and upsetting luminous albino spiders.
The spiders don’t bother you. If your tongue was longer (and not bleeding) you would lick them off the wall for a tasty snack – gotta be better than the gruel they feed you, but then again, anything is except dirt. Eating spiders earns a trip into blistering daylight though. Your eyes would melt out and you’ll never be able to see again.
The surface is only something you’ve read about in books. Dawn’s early light is only a bulb since the air on the surface is impossible to breathe without getting shards of strings of pollution formed together in a solid form dancing on the wind storms up there. Light, a replication of old photographs and descriptions read about in books by those who still knew how to read. Not many now.
Life had become endless digging down, looking for more space. It couldn’t be built up any more. The winds raping the surface were too strong. Building swayed in them.
One collapsed not so long ago, killing everyone and everything inside and letting in the surface pollutants into the comprised buildings next door – also killing everyone inside. Ghost buildings. The building’s planners, builders, engineers and architects were forced to handle the body removal and bring them to the surface with flimsy bio-haz suits. They died too.
The here and now. Brushing aside the moist soil. It is loose. You feel your neighbour’s body heat next to you. At a guess, you say three feet. Luminous white spiders dance on the walls of the hole.
Your behaviour is suspect but the chances of the foreman paying attention and shining a spotlight down here are slim to none. He’s one lazy bastard. How he made foreman is anyone’s guess. Your theory? He sucked and licked all the chain-gangs working his way up, out of the hole. The next layer of the planet where the bulbs change colour with the daylight outside.
The smoothness gives way in the dark. Light pours out and up. You shield your eyes. The chanting stops. Everyone has noticed. You hope it burns the foreman above. A pull. The gravity. It is intense. Punishment of yesteryear, endless falling. That’s all the old people’s holes were for. And to dump bodies. Skeletons. Partially decomposed. Mummified. You’ve dug up them all and discarded them with the rest of the rubbish from hole digging.
You try to move your heels away from the hole. They scrape against something solid. You wiped away all the dirt. There’s nothing to stop the hole sucking you into the light.
Your heels touch it first. It is warm and strange. Tingles work up your body from there. It is not unpleasant. Relaxing even after more of you is sucked through into the light.
You’re free-falling. You can feel the air rushing past your body even with the tingles. You hear the screams of your formerly chanting fellow employees (in the loosest sense of the word, digging is punishment for crimes unknown). You try to open your eyes and can’t. The wind speed is too much. You aren’t scared. The tingles feel good. You’ve never felt wind. Only heard about it through whispers in the dark.
You can understand why people have to be protected from the surface now. But something this good, can’t be evil, like the church-people claim. You slow down. You were expecting to shatter on the ground eventually. You open your eyes and look down. You can see it, coming slowly up to meet you (or more, you are slowly going down to meet it).
There’s light. It doesn’t hurt. It is soothing. Better than dawn’s early light. Those bulbs are cold and harsh, an endless winter below ground with nothing to eat except bone meal of the old people and gruel.
There’s something lush a green brushing past your cheek. It tickles. And smells divine. Plant life of times gone by, another myth whispered in the dark between the chants. Apparently only stuff with vines and eyes exists on the surface these days. The eyes came when greedy scientists went a bit too far and cross bred the flowers with the fish next to a nuclear reactor. They do nothing about the wind speed and poison pollution up above.
A drop of something wet hits the top of your head. Followed by another. It is cool and refreshing after years spent in the dark.
Your co-employees have stopped their screaming. You hope the foreman wasn’t sucked in. He doesn’t deserve to feel the light defused through the soft greenery, even if it ultimately leads to your death and the death of those you have so recently found yourself working with.
You land on your feet. Even the dirt has a different quality to it down here. You look up. You can’t see what you’ve fallen through. Trees block the way. Or, at least, you think they’re trees. You heard them spoken about in the dark.
Something brushes past your ankle. Something with many legs. You don’t scream. You look down. You can’t see it. An insect of some variety. In the light, they aren’t luminous. They blend in with their surroundings.
Noise in the distance. An animal calling its youth home. Animals would be something of myth too but you’ve dug up enough of their remains and left to be discarded with the trash to know they actually existed in the long ago when the old people were throwing their criminals into holes.
You wonder if you’re dreaming. Maybe your hallucinations became more vivid since your work took a more unpleasant turn down in the pits digging for seemingly no reason at all? Everything about life was pointless. You wondered why you carried on existing. Hallucinations kept you going. Was this the final one? Did you now drop dead out of a combination of sheer boredom and far too much manual and pointless labour?
Hallucination or not, life has new meaning. Another drop falls on your head. You look up. It is coming out of the sky. The light quality has changed. Something grey and mean is blocking it out. Clouds. You heard about them whispered as nursery rhymes to send you to sleep during childhood. Little rain clouds.
Behind the trees, the little bit of woodland you landed in, the light is bright. You look at your hand for the first time. You are clothed in layers of dirt from the years. The rain washes it away. Naked as the day you were born.
The ground shakes. You grab the nearest tree. You don’t want to fall into another hole. Hell was something the church-people blared on about. You didn’t believe in it until now.
There’s something else out there. You hear the mumblings of your co-employees (employment digging wasn’t a choice; it was something forced upon everyone who had to do it but you have no other name for it). People sound confused, not frightened.
Your hair is matted with dirt. You wonder if theirs is in a similar state. You walk towards the voices. Small creatures bounce by you on two legs. You have no idea what they are.
You wonder if people are down here too. People who have always lived in the light, even if it is only the light of your imagination. You see a co-worker. Naked apart from the dirt. They have no shame. Neither do you. Only foremen wear clothes.
You don’t know of people whose status is greater than foremen. You know they exist. Sometimes the foreman is in a bad mood because someone above him gave him new orders. They might wear clothes too. But down in the pits, clothes are forbidden. Even threadbare rags pillaged from the dead of yesteryear aren’t allowed. Clothes would be allowed in this place.
As would soap. Soap was a privilege granted only to the people ruthless enough to claw themselves out of the pits. You want soap. You want to be clean. You want to feel the soft brush of fabric against your bare skin.
Warm air breathes into the cracks in the dirt on your neck. You wait for a tap. Fear, for the first time since feeling the tingles engulf your body grips you. You can’t turn around.
You don’t want to seem rude. These people have lived all their lives in the light. You want their help. You want them to show you the way. This land is so pure and uncorrupted. Clean air to breathe. Light. Plants. The ferns are waist high and don’t have eyes. Fossilised ferns were another thing for the trash heap in the pits above.
But sometimes a particularly sadistic foreman with a spot of education would shove them in the throats of the pit workers endlessly digging. Stories of ancient plants were shoved in ears and brains in the same way the rocks were shoved into the mouths of hungry pit workers.
You want to run into the ferns and hide. The breath cracks open the dirt, pushing it away from your body right down your spine. Your body is frozen. This is how it ends.
The person (creature) behind you moves. You can feel it. Most of your life spent in the pits digging made your senses ultra-sensitive. To your left. Their breath is still on your neck. They’re about your height. They move slow.
You can see out of the corner of your eye now. But it is still green over there. Still raining. Light defused through the green trees. Everything is so green. After a life in the dark, it seemed so pleasant before. Now, you don’t want to see.
You’ve felt fear before. You’ve seen luminous insects. Eaten them when no one was looking. You’ve felt larger things lurking in the dark. Things with blackened teeth, still sharp – looking for a quick bite. But you knew that fear. You knew those things lurked in the dark.
Nursey rhymes became urban legend became the education of the pits. Down in the pits, those things mattered. Your body would freeze. You could go without breathing for two minutes. Longer if needed. Your body was built for it.
But the thing breathing on you now, it could see – as could you. Your mind never wanted to imagine the things lurking in the dark. It didn’t want to meet what was breathing on you now.
You close your eyes. You can’t see it but it can still see you. It can smell you too but the sense of smell in something that can see isn’t as strong as the creatures that lurk sightless in the dark.
You are perfectly still. You aren’t even breathing. The bottom of your feet itch but you’ve learnt to ignore that over the years.
The rain, moments ago so pleasant, falls like torture. Drip. Drop. Not falling with any speed. That would be like the showers you were told about. Something to aim for down in the pits where there’s only festering rags on sticks, ripe with imagined mould growths because it was always too dark to see anything even below dawn’s early light bulbs.
Mud falls off you in drips revealing your bare flesh. So liberating at first. Not so with fear coursing in your body. You can feel that move. You can smell it coming out of your pores.
The person (creature) moves in front of you. You can smell them and not you. The smell isn’t bad. You’re used to bad smells. Anything that isn’t enough to make non-pit creatures die is suspicious by nature.
The person (creature) sniffs and breathes in your face. You have to take a step back. You must exhale the air in your lungs. Your body is frozen. The person (creature) breathes and sniffs.
Your senses and your imagination don’t agree on what is standing in front of you. Your body tells you it doesn’t have skin but scales in green to match the ferns and trees. Your mind tells you another human, clothed and holding something sharp and pointy with teeth filed into points.
You can’t hold your breath any longer. Your lungs are hot and heavy. A few seconds more and maybe the person (creature) will lose interest.
But you’ve been seen. You aren’t in the dark any longer. Things down here in the light are strange.
You hold it in and clench your anus as if this can help you hold your breath.
The person (creature) blows hot breath on your closed eyelids. The request: to open them. You disobey. Little scraps of disobedience were common in the pits. It was the only way to survive. Down here, in the light you aren’t so sure. Blatant disobedience of this variety wasn’t tolerated up above.
It took the last of your mental strength to keep your eyes shut. Your lungs protest inside you. You needed air. The rapid beating of your heart was giving away your location anyways. What difference does it make? If your heart was to randomly stop, it wouldn’t matter. The person (creature) can see you. A battle raged inside you between old habits and new environment.
In the light, nothing is as bad. The pits were dark and dank with luminous albino spiders and terrible gas. You were brought up in a world where trust was a myth experienced by the people of old. They trusted too much and the world became the way it is.
You keep your lids shut. You’re dizzy, lightheaded. Lack of air. You need to breathe. Exhalation of the hot heavy air in your lungs before opening your eyes.
You stumble backwards and are caught by a big green tail. Creature, not person. Expression: curious. Not even the bits of ancient debris in the pits held any sort of explanation for what was sniffing you. Breathing. Eyes open. Heart rate normalising. You pass out.
Green light pokes into the slits of your eyes. You aren’t ready to open them. Sleep wraps her thick arms around you hugging you in a warm embrace.
The smell of something greasy but good travels on the air up to your nostrils. You crack open your eyelids. This time, you open them further. The waking world awaits. You are lying on your back, sunk into something soft. Nightmares of the pits are a distant memory.
The sizzling on the air. You don’t know what that is but it accompanies the smell. Movement around you. Your eyes try to focus but your mind isn’t ready. The sound of a light door moves and the smell becomes stronger. You see a blur. That is all. Eyes aren’t ready.
The smell makes you hungry. You don’t remember when your last bowl of gruel was. Time is a meaningless string to count how long you were in the pits. But you aren’t in the pits any longer. A vague thought of your co-employees dances across your mind but hunger chases them away.
A clicking and a jingle. Something creaks below you. Your mind goes into panic mood. The ground is giving way. What’s below this world may be unpleasant. You want to stay here. Sweat breaks out all over your body. The ground doesn’t move. But you are above it laying on something soft and warm.
The creaks, clicking and jingles get closer. The smell accompanies them getting stronger. So mouth-watering intense. There’s something bitter too, sitting next to something sweet. All those years in the dark and your senses are sharp. They haven’t even begun to dull. But you have no idea how long you’ve been here, or even where here is. Being sucked into the light seemed to have happened so long ago.
Heavy breathing and the ground moves some more near where the air changed. There’s sounds from that direction too. People talking? Maybe. Maybe not. You’re too dazed and hungry to contemplate it now.
With a thud and much clicking, the pleasant smell lands a foot away from your head. You turn towards it begging your eyes to focus. The first thing they hone in on is a flower sticking out of a ceramic vessel. You can see its aura of death. Plants are of such abundance they can just be cut up and put in a vessel here. The death of the flower seems to serve no purpose. Ancient graffiti left behind by the old people, viewed under the dim light of the bulbs hinted as much. Something for decoration only.
There’s a scratching from the ground next to the person. A different smell too. Your stomach rumbles. You cringe at the vibrations. They make you sound weak. A lifetime spent in the dark and you are weak. You don’t want to advertise it. Your vision isn’t as blurry. Tiny details stand out on the vessel containing the dying flower. Vines painted on. Down in the light, someone took the time to make that.
“Food,” a voice says.
You look up from your bed. You know what that word means. It means the same thing above and below.
You push yourself up. Everything is so new and daunting. The soft thing you are laying on wants to suck you in but not in a bad way.
The voice belongs to someone clean and kind-looking but the people above the pits would scrub themselves up and look nice. A kind appearance can be deceptive. You don’t think that is the case here.
Next to the person, is a green creature of some variety with a long neck and tail. Not as large as what you landed on when you fell over due to lack of oxygen. A baby? You think this one might be fully grown.
You succeed in pushing yourself to a sitting position. You didn’t bother to count how many attempts it took. It doesn’t matter. The plate of food is like something you’ve only seen the fossilised remains of. No gruel in sight. Bone meal isn’t there either. It smells so good.
A brown liquid resides in a cup with a handle made of thick ceramic. It doesn’t smell like shit passed through a blender. You avoided that stuff. The person speaks up, “coffee”. You try the word on your tongue, “coffee”. It brings the sound of joy. Steam rises from it.
Steam rises from all the food. In the pits, everything is luke warm and covered in dirt. Not here. That’s actual sunlight out there.
The creature puts its neck on your leg. You have no idea what it is. It seems friendly enough.
You take a sip of the coffee. It feels warm and pleasant going down chasing away the grogginess. Shit in a blender never did that the few times you tried it. It was meant to. That’s what the foremen above said. It was all lies though.
With the coffee in your hand, you reach the other one for the top of the creature’s head. It likes that. The person who brought the food smiles at you.
“I think you two are going to be great friends. Everyone here has one. A connection between a person and a genetically engineered micro-dinosaur is a sacred bond.”
With that the person left, leaving you to sample the offerings on the plate. You ate everything without knowing what it was called. The person returned a short while later. A lizard creature followed behind – another one of the micro-dinosaurs you later learned.
There were lots of different micro-dinosaurs here. They adopted people or people adopted them, depending on who you asked.
There were pits here too. The micro-dinosaur with the long neck who adopted you, took you to see them. They weren’t dark and dank like the ones above – slowly fading into memory and nightmares. They weren’t there for for no other reason than to keep the down-trodden occupied and build more space so there could be more down trodden made. They were places of great learning about the past of this place. DNA was extracted from lizard-creatures and they were born in labs, shrunken down from their big ancestors.
You found some of your co-employees down here. You would meet up for lunch sometimes. Three to four meals a day. This was the life. Your micro-dinosaur was large enough to ride.
You called him “Skippy”. He liked that. You called all the micro-dinosaurs he’s but some were clearly she’s. You rode Skippy to explore the uncharted land with a group of old co-employees.
Life here was easy and relaxed. There was time for leisure. It took a while to get used to.
The sky opened above you. People fell out. The pits above were getting too deep. The foremen too greedy. Skippy kicked into a canter. These people needed help. Down here life was good. You knew from experience they would be a bit dazed. A good life took some getting used to. There’s was plenty of everything for everyone. The labs had just hatched new micro-dinosaurs in anticipation of the sky opening again. Scientists would keep track of sky-quakes to have a general idea of when it would next happen. Being prepared was the key to living in harmony.
Dani Brown, April 2016