Fiction · 11/28/2018

A Coronation

“And so they’re up there, and you’re down here.”

The girl reclines on a long rock, set in the mouth of the cave like a lolling tongue. Her words drift over the in-and-out breath of the waves and the rumbling roll of pebbles in the surf. They’ve been talking for hours now, ever since she found them sitting by themself in the cliff’s deep shadow.

“Doesn’t make much sense to me, is all,” she says. She stares up, not at stone or sky, but somewhere else. “Even the devils and angels managed to patch things up.” She looks back at them. “They’re all back in Heaven, you know. Hell’s empty, these days.”

The girl motions to the depths of the cave with a tilt of her head, a lock of rust-orange hair straying across her forehead, as if to suggest Hell itself were in a cave on the beach. But when they laugh, she says it’s true, and adds, “You can go look if you want.”

She takes a long drag from a cigarette and lets it whistle out between her teeth, tilting her head back, and for just a moment she looks like a dragon about to breathe fire. That’s how they remember it, anyhow. This was years ago.

Their feet are cold on the floor of the cave, a welcome contrast to the sand outside, still hot from the afternoon sun. Sixteen years of schools and city life and video games haven’t given them much in the way of calluses. Their calves and ankles are an indoor alabaster save for the dull pink of the Band-Aid where they’d nicked themself with the razor that morning.

The smoke mingles with the cloying coconut of sunscreen and that universal seaweed smell of the beach — the miasma of sun-warmed kelp that hangs in the air, thick like the smell of butter at the movies. Looking into the depths of the cave, they imagine it packed with goblins and gremlins wielding pitchforks and hooks, a perpetual riot; to the eye it just looks dark.

The girl flicks the butt of her cigarette away and stands, her ill-fitting tank top askew as she stretches. She tilts her head to one side and squints at them. “I’ll come too, if you’re scared.”

They’re not scared, and they say as much. Not of an empty cave, or even devils or Hell. But the girl’s hair looks like it was cut with old scissors and washed in the sea. Her shorts, knee-length and almost painted onto her pencil-thin legs, have a fraying hole where a splash of color draws their eyes — before they remember themself and look back to her face. They spin around and stare into the darkness, cheeks flushed, and say they would like her to come, since she’s offering.

The floor of the cave is worn smooth like the stone steps of a cathedral they’d once gone to see. There had been grooves in the old slate ground down by the passage of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims’ feet. They suppose the sea could have done the work here, but only at some great historical remove; it’s high tide now and the cave is still dry.

Fifty feet in, a hundred: the cave goes further back than they’d thought. They find themself cursing the teacher who’d said everyone would “have more fun at the beach” without their phones. There wouldn’t be signal back here, of course, but at least they would have a light. The mouth of the cave has shrunk to the size of a quarter held at arm’s length; any moment now they’ll reach the back, they’re sure. It can’t go on forever.

There’s a click in the blackness and a sparking flash, then a whoosh as a flame leaps into life and chases the darkness back a dozen feet on all sides. There she stands, improbable as life, the torch’s fire making shadows dance about her like an inverse halo. They don’t ask her where she got it, they just watch as she slides the sleek metal lighter back into a pocket stretched tight over bony hips. Maybe they should have asked about it, about what ancient tomb or movie set they’d stolen it from, but instead they ask her name.

“Mara,” she says.

The floor has begun to slope, just a little. The light of the world outside is a pinhole of white in the distance. When they look back, she asks their name in return.

It was an old surname, resurrected as their first — a sacrifice to the gods of family pride and history. It doesn’t suit anyone. They tell her all this and, because she leans in a little closer, they tell her about the things they name themself, in online games and fantasy campaigns and on messaging boards for talking with strangers. They tell her how they choose the names, and why, and what they mean.

She looks back at them, her eyes bright in the flame-lit dark, her smile quiet. A sudden vision comes to them of looking across a campfire in a great red desert painted blue by night, weary travelers crowding around the only light for a hundred miles.

And then the cave ends. They’ve read that the biggest tunnel-boring machines can’t move backwards. That the machines that chew their way through whole mountains can make a tunnel but can’t use it after. That when they’re done, they get left behind, entombed in the rock so that others can make use of the paths opened up. But there’s no trace of a machine here where the floor angles up and the roof angles down until both meet too deep in the dark to see. Maybe the cave widens out again on the other side, travels another thousand feet beneath parking lots and school buses, under the fairgrounds and the carney games and the Ferris wheel you have to ride in pairs.

Mara slips into a crevasse they hadn’t seen, the shadows congealing on either side as the light follows her, until they stand alone in a single sliver of flickering orange, a bridge across the shadows in the dark. For just a moment they wonder what they’re doing, but she stops and looks back over a small freckled shoulder, orange hair dancing in the torchlight, and they follow.

The passage gives way to stairs, worn cathedral steps cut into the earth, at times spiraling, at times plunging forward, ever deeper into the ground. At first the air is chilly, but it begins to warm, the cool mist transmuting to steam with their descent.

Looking back, they don’t remember at what point they began to believe her story. Maybe they believed it from the moment she’d told it there in the shadow of the cave’s edge, wrapped in the salt smell of the sea. Maybe they only believed it when they were so deep down in the rock that sunlight seemed another world, when they’d left that world and traveled to one of torchlight and shadow and mystery that compelled them into the depths.

And there was yet another world to see.

“Don’t be afraid,” she says, and the light goes out.

The darkness rushes in and they take a breath, involuntarily, the way slipping into a cold lake on a hot summer day makes you gasp for air, even if you do it slowly. For a moment they doubt her, condemn themself a fool. Then she finds their hand with hers.

They’re seaside hands, coarse and dry, but small. This is how they remember those hands. Their lungs fill with the scents of sandalwood and smoke — her scents — as she leans in close to whisper. “Let your eyes adjust.” Then she lets go. When they reach out to hold her — another involuntary response — they grab only air.

But then they see it. Pale at first, then brighter as the memory of the orange torchlight fades. The city rises into a brilliant green hue, like nothing they’ve ever seen. Not a single green, but a thousand glittering greens, reflecting off the million crystal facets of a subterranean sky, their shifting fireworks shedding a twilight glow over a vast, cavernous underworld.

They say nothing to each other as they walk the streets, the city of blackened stone and volcanic glass rising up around them. Buildings and structures meant for living and working in, loving and hating and lamenting in — and others for things best left unimagined. Obsidian spires climb high, high up, to the very roof of the world below, then branch out into arches, spirals, forks. An architecture left abandoned where it froze. They don’t ask her how many times she’s been down here, what madness compelled her to her first exploration. Their fingertips are black from where they touched a wall.

“We’re here,” she says at last, still whispering in the dark, as though the silence needs protecting. She skips through a grand palatial arch, flitting between colonnades of stone, the framing of a grand, roofless ballroom. An ornate jade figurine, she curtseys with an invisible dress and extends a hand, as though requesting a dance; but before they can accept, she’s off with an invisible partner, wheeling about the room on her toes.

They skirt the dance floor, watching her spinning and bobbing to music they can’t hear, until their gaze is caught by the throne. It’s not a ballroom at all, but a royal court. The seat of honor sits as empty as its world.

“It’s small, isn’t it?” she says from behind them. They had been thinking the same thing. Built not for a demon — not for a grand, scaly serpent with arms like steel girders, an enormous bat-winged monster with talons and claws — but for something more diminutive.

For a fallen angel, maybe, or a human.

“Take a seat.” She turns and pushes them gently by the shoulders until they’re seated on the throne. She stares at them in silence, green eyes glittering in the dark like the emerald sky above. Thinking. Appraising.

“A crown,” she says, twisting her lips and fishing about in her pockets until she pulls out a string.

“Hold still,” she says, as she leans forward and ties it around their head. A thin string, a single thread.

Sandalwood and smoke. They reach out and grab her by the waist. She puts her hands on their cheeks.

“There,” she says.

Her lips aren’t like her hands, aren’t like the rest of her. They’re soft and warm. In their memories, the whole journey is in that kiss.

She takes the string from their head, puts it in their palm, and closes their hand around it. Her hands are firm as they hold theirs, cold in the depths of the earth. She leans forward until her eyes are all they can see, bottomless pools.

“May you rule for a thousand years.”

+

They hold her hand but say nothing as they climb the stairs by too-bright torchlight and leave the kingdom empty once again. At least, that’s how they remember it. If they say anything at all, it’s as they both wash the soot from their feet in the moonlit surf. Maybe they ask for her phone number and she doesn’t give it to them. Maybe they don’t even ask. They remember her lighting a cigarette and staring up at the cliff and the haze of the fairground lights above. They remember seeing the distant flashlights of the search party looking for a misfit high school student last seen hanging out with one of the carney girls and getting up to god knows what.

They say an inadequate goodbye, and then watch as she walks back up the beach to the cave. By the time the searchers arrive, all they can see is the faint orange ember of a cigarette, and the flash of a spark as it’s flicked away.

+++

Richard Ford Burley is a New England-based writer of speculative fiction. His first novel, Mouse, was published in 2017, and his next, Displacement, will be out in 2019. His current favourite color is purple, and he has precisely one cat.