Friday, September 2, 2011
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Waking and sleeping became somewhat hard to tell apart for Tal inside his cocoon. Every thought pretended to be a dream and every dream wore a mask of reality. After a while, he could not make himself feel the inside of the cocoon anymore. His body went so numb it ceased to be real. Which coincidentally meant that he no longer felt the claustrophobia of the confined space. His mind told him space was limitless but his arms and legs could no longer confirm it. Time became something he could not measure. It was not a comfortable place for all that, though he could not focus enough to say why and yet he would never have chosen to leave it. The word he may have chosen, if he had known it and chosen to choose one, would have been ‘invulnerable.’
That too turned out to be a dream. A dream shattered by the first audible sound he heard after the closing of the cocoon: a dull, insistent thump. Followed by another. Followed soon by the first crack. The crack, as it happened, was near his feet but he could tell from the warm air wafting past his legs that his cocoon had been breached. Something without was now able to get inside. He tried to pull his feet up. There wasn’t enough room to bend his knees. Another thump, another crack. Something cold touched his heel. Something cold and wiggly. It was inside.
“HellooOOooo!” hailed a young girl’s voice. “Wake up!” Tal’s panic was momentarily forgotten in the echo of the greeting. But when wiggly fingers retreated and the banging renewed with more calls to wake up, he tried harder to pull his legs away from the attack. He tried so hard that he actually had some success. It felt like he was able to pull them right up into his body. In fact, as the cocoon was systematically shredded under the assault and he had more freedom of movement, he rolled his body into a ball and was both amazed and relieved to find that he felt stiff, plate-like flanges running from his head to his rump.
A new voice interrupted the violence, “What are you yelling about in here, Soto? Oh no! Soto, stop that! You mustn’t… oh, stinkbugs! Of all the devils I’ve spawned, you are the most devilish! Of that I swear.” The thumping against his back stopped and Tal felt more gentle hands pulling the ruined remains of the cocoon away. He was still too scared to open up his defensive ball though. “I do hope you haven’t hurt it. If it wasn’t done forming… hmm. Why, it looks like a small armogila!”
“Like daddy!” exclaimed the first voice, the one that must be Soto.
“Yes, very much like daddy but this one is new, his shell is still soft and see how incomplete his ball is? Why I can reach in and tickle him still…like …this.” Tal felt a feathery touch on his side and his reaction was as instantaneous as it was involuntary. He wanted to explode in giggles, grinding his teeth to fight it but only partially winning. His crouch came apart as his body jerked and convulsed to escape the tickling. “But look at that, it only has two arms and two legs. How sad.”
“Daddy has hundreds,” Soto seemed to shout everything.
“Yes, if only he would use some of them around here,” the gentle voice groused. “Hello little armogila. It’s alright; we’re not going to hurt you.” The bruises on Tal’s back belied that statement but the silky voice sounded sincere. He opened his eyes and was surprised to see only darkness. Why can’t I see anymore? He wondered. Had something happened to his eyes? He remembered that it seemed as if things were getting dimmer even before he had cocooned himself. Like a light was dying. He looked at himself, his own body did not seem to glow any longer. He had never really noticed that it did before until now that the light was out. He wondered if it would come back?
“Nope, probably not,” said the other voice, the one that he had heard back in the wood. For even though he could not see, he could tell from the feel of the floor and the smell of the air that he was no longer in the wood. He had been moved while he was cocooned, he supposed. But the voice was still with him. Who are you? He asked. Whether it answered or not, he couldn’t tell because the silky voice was talking again.
“So, do you have a name little armogila? Or should we just call you little armogila?”
“I wanna name him!” Soto shouted.
“We must find out if he has a name first, it’s very rude to give people new names they don’t want. So, little one, do you have a name?”
Tal did have a name but he no longer had any desire to talk to voices he couldn’t see. He was scared and wanted to go home. He thought of the warm fire in Copper and Ub’s cave and of Copper holding him in her fever-hot, furry lap. He saw in his mind the colors of her pelt, the oranges and golds and reds and the single streak of silver running down her spine like a stream of molten metal from a lava vent that blazed and glowed in the firelight. He felt tears welling up but pulled himself tight again and choked them off.
“Aww, we’re scaring him, I think. We’ll have to wait, Soto, until he’s ready to talk to us. Where are your sisters, dear?”
“How true. Let’s go make some lunch and see who shows up.”
Tal thought he was alone now, though Soto’s exclamation that her sisters were everywhere caused him no small amount of doubt and unease. He cautiously uncurled again and looked around or tried to. It was still too dark to see though he thought he caught little wisps of weak lights blinking in and out. It was hard to tell what was in his imagination and what was real anymore. He reached around to his back and felt the hard, callous-like plates of his spine. He wasn’t sure he liked them. In fact, his whole skin felt different. The soft, smooth feel had been replaced by a stiff, scalyness. Even the hands he touched with felt odd. He didn’t think there was the right amount of fingers anymore. This he confirmed by touch, where once he had five pudgy little digits, he now had only three, thick, pointed ones. What had he become?
“Ub and Copper and Kurt probably won’t even recognize you now,” Other Voice whispered. Tal thought about that, it could be true but he didn’t want to believe it. It was like a real place, a room even darker than the one he was in and he didn’t want to enter it. He went back to his image of Copper-eye’s lap. He saw her toothy smile and metallic eye, soft and laughing. As he pictured it, the darkness in him seemed to retreat a little and he felt a little warmer. Other Voice became harder to hear and Tal’s belly seemed to uncurl too. In his mind he saw himself, still soft, smooth and scale-free crawl into her open arms and snuggle up. More tired than he realized, he drifted off to sleep as the room began to fill with the most horrible odor that he had ever smelled.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
To Kurt’s left, unseen except for her swaying yellow lantern, Copper-eye made a yowling screech. Ub, somewhere on Kurt’s opposite shoulder, his pale-green lantern flickering in and out of the columns of the wood, answered her, “Better two that are late than three with no reason to leave, thought I.” From this Kurt assumed Copper had asked why they hadn’t taken Tal with them to the gathering. From what he could figure out, she had thought Tal was with them, while they knew they had left him at home. Where he actually went was anyone’s guess. She answered with a bark that faded into a growl.
“And what? Thou slumberest through truth, shall I wake thee for a duty plain?” Kurt thought this had something to do with the fact that Copper didn’t go to the gatherings with them anymore. He secretly wished Ub would stop waking him up for them too and wondered how Copper-eye got out of going? She hissed a retort. “Aye,” Ub’s voice was thick with sarcasm, “next time I’ll bind the lad neck to nethers and hang ‘im from the beams.” Kurt hoped that was a joke. She snarled in response. He said, “I should be so fortunate.” Then it was on. Her scathing bark coming a mile a minute and shriller by the second. When she paused for breath, he roared anger that shook the stones. Kurt, knowing what each of them was capable of, began to hang back so as not to be in the way of the spines, hammer and venom when it started flying. Instead, Ub made an exasperated snort and his light lifted off the cave floor and sailed into the air.
How the…? “How is he doing that?” he asked Copper-eye. She made a questioning, short-tempered noise. “That!” He pointed, forgetting that she probably couldn’t see his arm. Her scratchy growling became more impatient and he gave up. He probably wouldn’t understand the answer anyway. He just watched then in amazement as the sickly green lantern flared a little brighter and bobbed along to and fro above them. Was he climbing the smooth but knobbly stones? Was he hanging by some kind of spidery thread, Kurt had seen kids do that. Was he flying? If so, how? Kurt had never wished so hard for more light than he did right then. Which coincidentally, would also help them find Tal. How easily he forgot the reason they were stumbling along through the pitch-black wood. An image of Tal, alone and crying, appeared clearly in Kurt’s mind and his heart ached, tears came suddenly to his eyes. He wiped them away and tried to soldier on but it was as if he could hear his brother’s cries in his ears now, pitiful and scared. How stupid for them to be fighting when Tal was out there somewhere lost and afraid. Why did monsters have to be so stupid? Who cares whose fault it was? They needed to find Tal! They needed to find him before something else did.
He hadn’t realized that he had stopped until he felt a warm arm around his shoulders. He started then, shocked and alarmed but calmed down when he looked up into the soft, damp face of Copper-eye. In the light of both their lanterns he could see that she was crying too. The fur of her scarred face was wet and one jewel of a drop hung from her whiskers, about to fall on him. He gave her a fierce hug, forgetting and almost knocking her over. Her iron leg thumped the ground as she caught herself. Kurt could see it through her embrace and he remembered the night she had come home, torn and broken from the attack. He remembered there were many monsters that did not eat bread and fruit from the factories. What if…? What if some carnivore found Tal first? What if it already had? Kurt’s crying was in danger of becoming sobs. Copper-eye, hugged him tighter and purred. With his eyes closed, his world was completely dark but it was warm, soft, furry and purring, her heartbeat thumped against his face and in his ears. It was a good dark, a safe dark and Kurt soon felt strong enough to relax, just a little, as if Copper had somehow given some of her strength to him by sharing his weakness. She shoved him back and meowed a little question.
“Yeah,” he said, “I think I’m okay now.” She huffed, pleased, her one, good eye softer than he had seen it in some time. He wondered if she hadn’t gained a little strength from him too? From just one little hug, one little moment, so much could be gained and given without either of them losing anything. It was as if something had come into the world that wasn’t there before. They continued on, hand in paw now and Kurt thought the darkness didn’t look as dark anymore.
Saturday, February 5, 2011
The worst part of being lost and alone in the dark is that there was no one to hear Tal’s whining. It didn’t stop him, to be sure, but he couldn’t help but feel the crushing futility of it and be even more miserable. He was sitting in as open an area as he could find, not to make himself more visible but to stay as far away from the fang-like structures of the cave that kept reminding him of being eaten. Even so, he could still make them out at the very edge of his body’s glow. They stood there, silent and stern, like they were waiting for him to come to them and they knew he would. A mouth full of silent teeth and each had a face and will and a hunger of it’s own.
He jumped and squealed as something touched his leg. Scrambling backwards on all fours, he bumped up against rock. He was most likely pressing his back into one of the “teeth” but he no longer cared about silent stone. It had returned to being a dead thing as his mind focused all its attention on the small black shape in the center of the clearing. He could just barely see it and wasn’t even sure it was the thing that had touched him but he hadn’t remembered seeing it before. As he stared at it, it would appear to swing around or hop but when he blinked it was still in the same place. Just as he was beginning to think he had imagined the whole thing and was freaking out over a rock, it really did move.
No doubting, no appearance of movement, it darted to his left and behind a twisted stalagmite-fang. He caught another glimpse of its furtive scurry between some close clusters of snarling rocks and then there were too many shadows to see it. He wasn’t sure but it didn’t appear to be coming right for him so he didn’t move. He just wished it would continue being out of sight and not touch his leg anymore. His back pressed to the cold stone, he waited, watched the hunching darkness and listened to the gulping of his breath as a cold prickle worked its way up his spine to the base of his neck.
“I may never get home.” He didn’t actually speak this out loud but the sentence formed in his mind so clearly it was like he heard it or heard himself say it. Which struck him as odd at first for he didn’t usually think in complete sentences. Then again, he’d never really thought about how he thought before. As soon as he thought it though, he knew it might be true. Except, “My family will find me.” Here he had never thought in complete sentences before and now he was carrying on a conversation in his head.
“Why haven’t they found me yet?” The other voice asked.
“I don’t know, maybe they will soon.”
“Maybe they’re lost too. Maybe I got my whole family lost and none of us will ever get home.” Tal couldn’t imagine Ub getting lost. Kurt, yes, Kurt could barely find his way to the bathroom if the lights were off, his body glowed so weakly but Ub always seemed to know where he was going, even though his body was as dim as the darkness. Copper might get lost, but she always rode the gecko when she went out. Her leg made it painful for her to walk far. Could the gecko get lost? “Ub won’t get lost,” he told his other voice, wanting it to be true.
“That doesn’t mean he’ll find me. Does Ub even like me?” Tal thought of all the disapproving stares he’d seen on Ub’s furry face. Granted, with his upper lip looking like it was being swallowed by his lower one all the time and his thick, black eyebrows shading his cold, blacker eyes, he always appeared to be scowling but… there was something in the way he just seemed vaguely disappointed by Tal. Like he didn’t measure up to something. Tal wasn’t as tall as Kurt or as talkative or as funny. Would Ub even care if he didn’t come home? The cold prickle on the back of his neck was spreading as if ice water was flowing through his blood from that point outward. He began to shiver.
“Kurt likes me, he’ll make Ub look for me.” Even as he said this, he knew it wouldn’t convince other voice.
Other voice’s laugh was mean. “Kurt couldn’t make Ub do anything. Face it, Ub doesn’t want me, Copper can’t look for me and Kurt is helpless. I. Am. Alone. I may die here, in the dark.” Tal looked all around him. He couldn’t really see the forest anymore. The stone fangs had faded into a deeper gloom. The shadow seemed to be creeping closer so that he could barely see his own feet in his footy pajamas. His hands felt wet.
When he wiped them on his jammies something stuck to them. He could barely see it but when he touched it with his fingers, it felt smooth and slightly sticky. His hands still felt wet and so he kept trying to get the damp stuff off but the more he did so, the more smooth, slightly sticky stuff stuck to him where he rubbed. He could work it with his fingers but the stuff clung to itself so fiercely that he had already glued his legs together at the knees. It occurred to him that this stuff might protect him from being eaten. Looking back later he would never know if he thought that or other voice suggested it. Either way, he felt desperate enough to try it and he kept working the smooth, slightly sticky stuff around his legs and feet. Then he worked it round his belly, sticking it to the rock at his back and wriggling and working. He worked quickly and hard but never seemed to get warmer. His shivering continued as he got his chest and arms inside and finally pulled the stuff over his head and sealed it all from the inside. He was protected now. Nothing could touch him but his fear did not go away. He cried, silent tears. His eyes burned, like touching ice. A false warmth but the only part of him that wasn’t shivering. He was completely encased, like being wrapped in a blanket too tightly but he was still cold and felt no protection. He couldn’t move, couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, he felt more vulnerable than ever and now he was helpless to boot. He closed his burning eyes to try and shut out the darkness and found that it was dark inside too.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
It was not Kurt’s first time traveling inside a bag. There was no use in struggling. Kurt knew that from long experience with Ub. The monster was just too strong. You could sometimes get a lick in, but it just meant the furry brute would clamp down harder once he got a hold of you. So Kurt lay in a ball inside his own shirt and bumped against the monster’s back as it ran. There was really nothing else to do.
After what seemed like a long while, but time takes its time when you’re traveling by sack, Kurt felt himself swung out and around and braced himself as best he could. He still couldn’t see anything but he felt the bag of his own shirt being opened and heard the beast’s snorty breath above him.
“Canst thou be civil?” Ub growled.
“Canst thou?” Kurt retorted. This was met by silence. Prolonged, dark, snorty silence. Finally Kurt relented, “yes.” Instantly he was set on his wobbly feet, the shirt was arranged on him properly if a bit stretched out and a rough paw took his hand and began leading him through an inky blackness no less complete than the inside of his shirt. Even with the guiding paw, Kurt found walking without seeing difficult and painful to his shins. The cavern was not particularly smooth in the neighborhoods around their house. The ground rolled and pitched and no one had really taken an interest in removing the boulders and rocks from the paths. “How can you see where you’re going?” he asked for he never heard Ub smack his shin on a rock.
“Thou assumeth much.”
“You mean you can’t see either? How do you know where you’re going then?”
“What’s that mean?”
“T’is means this be not my feet’s first venture to the Gathering. Nor thine. A proper inquiry shouldst be, not why of me but why not of thee?
Kurt puzzled out the riddle of Ub’s question. He always felt like he was talking to someone who spoke backwards when he talked to Ub and he had to translate everything in his head. Not for the first time did he wonder if it would help if he wrote it down and then held it to a mirror? “So you think, just because I’ve gone somewhere a couple of times, I should be able to find it in the dark?”
“Aye, t’is much to assume upon my part.”
“Wait, that would mean you could only go places you’ve already been.”
“Nay, with confidence doth I arrive to the familiar only. Novelty t’is found in the interim.”
“So you like traveling in the dark?”
“Apparently t’is be the Feast of Assumption. Thou wilt be full before breakfast.”
“So you don’t like traveling in the dark?”
“I travel. T’is dark.”
“Why don’t you use a lantern then?”
Ub didn’t answer right away. It took him a few moments to say, “I have no wish to offend my neighbors.” Kurt wanted to ask, “Who in the world would be offended by a little light?” And he almost did ask. Which probably wouldn’t have got him an answer so much as another accusation of not thinking hard enough. The problem wasn’t that he didn’t think enough, he thought plenty, probably too much. The problem was that his mouth was faster than his brain. Who would be offended by a little light? Nearly every inhabitant of Holetown, that’s who. They acted like it hurt them. There were only three places that Kurt could remember being that were lit nearly all the time: their house; the Lightship, as the name would imply and the Puparia, well, mostly. A lot of the tenders in the Puparia didn’t like lights either and didn’t bother to have any lit anymore.
They traveled on the rest of the way in silence and darkness until they came to the Dreatre where the Lightship was. Opening the door to the Dreatre was like opening the door to their stove at home. A waft of heat and fragrant smoke washed over them. And light! The meal was just starting, Kurt could hear singing around the table. And all the other family members’ candles lit up the flexible dome roof of the Lightship from inside. It was truly one of the most beautiful things Kurt ever got to see. Kurt didn’t like coming here that much, for all its beauty, it was staggeringly dull but the candles almost made it worth it. They were tiny little things that barely lasted the entire meal but to Kurt’s mind they were wonderful. And fun! When the talk at table got especially boring he could sit and play with the melted wax, letting it run all over his fingers and cool into a hard shell. Then pick it off. He could identify all the colors in the flame itself and watch how it reacted to his breath or his spit. He eagerly took one from the smiling monster at the hatch of the Lightship, a slippery serpentine looking lady that gave him the shivers and ran to the central fire to light it.
The central fire was in a big iron stove on the bottom deck, not unlike their stove at home, only with a lot more pipes and hoses and gauges coming out of it and a few more boxes and tanks behind it. Kurt ignored all of those in order to carefully reach his candle into the heat and watch the wick ignite. He liked to do it as slow as possible, only pushing the candle in far enough to make it smolder for a few seconds before it ‘popped’ to life a flame. They being late today, Ub wasn’t having it. He stood over Kurt and made an impatient noise through his snout and Kurt dropped the wick in to catch right away. Then they went up a deck and into the meal.
The upper deck of the Lightship was essentially a really long room that bowed upwards at each end with the patchwork quilt dome billowing slightly over it. The furnishings of the room were customized to suit the need. For the weekly gathering it was a table, bent to conform to the deck, as long as the ship itself and zigzag shaped to provide more space along its edges. There were simple candleholders at each place setting and everyone had a small plate and glass for the meal. Though to call it a meal was a cruel joke. There wasn’t enough food to feed a mouse. A little bread they called flesh that wasn’t made from mushrooms and a little juice, wine for the grownups. That was it. No meat. No lichens or moss. Just bread and juice and a whole lot of talking. Unlike some kids, Kurt actually did try to pay attention to the talk. He really wanted to know what the imago monsters thought. Try as he might though, it almost always put him to sleep and the little snippets he could remember never made much sense. All the monsters were one family. They had one Dad who lived somewhere else and one brother who used to live here in the caverns and mines but died or left or both and one ghost who apparently lived here and where ever their dad and brother were at the same time. That was the gist of it from what Kurt could gather.
What Kurt really wanted to know was why? It was the word that preceded nearly every thought he had. Why did some monsters go to the Lightship and have a meal every week and some didn’t? Many folk, including most of his tenders at the Puparia, didn’t believe there was anything outside the caves except more caves. They scoffed at talk of one dad and pointed to all the different kinds of life there were in the world. They said, some creatures just didn’t adjust well to life and so they invented stories to help them cope. Of the folk he talked to that did seem to believe there was a Dad outside the cave, most didn’t think about it all that much. Why was it important? If the Dad lived there, why did they live here? Did the Dad make them live here? How could they all have the same dad? Where was their mom? Did they all have the same mother? He never seemed to be able to find the answers to these kinds of questions. Talking to Ub about it just confused him more usually. Copper was one of those that never seemed to be that interested and had little patience for why questions anyway, usually deflecting them back onto Ub. It was like all life was as dark as Holetown and everyone only knew what they already knew. Without a light, he was never going to find out anything new to know.
Certainly the crew of the Lightship would be no help. Today’s talk was about how they should all try and seek the Dad. Seek for him and you would find, the captain of the lightship said. Kurt thought the obvious question was why did the Dad hide from them in the first place? If he was anything like Ub, he probably didn’t want to be bothered. Maybe the Dad lived far away because he found all of his kids annoying. This made Kurt laugh but Ub would surely cuff him for laughing at the table so he turned the snurky noise he made into a cough and hoped no one noticed. Ub turned one glittering black eye to him, you could only tell where he was looking by the reflections of light. He looked annoyed but didn’t seem inclined to smack him. No harm, no foul. Kurt’s mind wandered after that. It wandered out to wonder what was outside the caves? Anything? Or was that just a myth too or a theory, which as near as Kurt could tell, was a myth that science accepted. He tried to imagine leaving a cave but found he lacked the imagination. What would the roof be made of? Or the walls? He just couldn’t picture a world outside of the dark, familiar confines of Holetown. Maybe it was just a different kind of cave. That he could imagine. A cave made of crystal maybe. So that light bounced, reflected and refracted off of every surface. That would be cool.
The talk ended, the meal had been eaten. Everyone bowed his or her head, which was the signal that someone was talking directly to the Dad now. How could the Dad hear them if he lived somewhere else? Did he have super hearing? Or was it like the whisperworms? What one experienced, the whole species could feel. Then to end the meal, they sang a song together. Kurt didn’t like to sing; he didn’t like the sound of his voice but he loved music. This wasn’t great music in his opinion. The beat was too slow and there was a decided lack of energy to the song but it always interested him the way others experienced it. Looking around the table some appeared to be carried away, like they could close their eyes and see outside the cave. Others just seemed to be mouthing the words and still a few like him sat silent, waiting for the chance to be excused. The gathering was over for some, like Ub, who didn’t linger to chat often. He often seemed to be lost in his own thoughts at the end of a meeting. They went down the ladder, past the stove and out the door. Kurt had managed to keep his candle lit all through the service and down the ladder but as soon as they hit the door of the Dreatre the cold gust of air from outside blew it out.
Kurt’s questions forgotten, they walked home in silence and darkness as he pondered games he wanted to play once they finally got there. They were greeted at the door by Copper, a trash bag in one hand, her crutch in the other. She licked Kurt’s head with her rough tongue and nuzzled noses with Ub. She purred Ub a question. Kurt could tell it was a question from the tone but it just sounded like an extended mewling noise to him. Ub grunted something in response and they had a brief conversation of growls, purrs, clicks and grunts. Kurt couldn’t follow it but he could follow the emotions behind it and it sounded like greetings and small talk. Kurt went to his box and was pulling out his dominos when the conversation changed.
Copper screeched and started pelting anxious barks at them. Ub grabbed two lanterns from the shelf and called Kurt. “What’s going on?” Kurt asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Thy brother is missing!”
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Tal woke up from a dream where Kurt and the boy monster were fighting and then everything went terribly silent. He was afraid to open his eyes. Afraid of what he might see. Kurt was always making the monsters mad. It was like he couldn’t see what would happen. Tal saw and he was only five. Tal figured it was only a matter of time before one of them was pushed too far. It was just a question of which one would finally snap. Tal was actually betting it would be the girl monster, the one Kurt called Copper. She only seemed to have two moods: purring happiness and screeching fury and Kurt was always bringing out the screech. Though, to be fair, the boy monster, the one Kurt called Up or Ug or something, was more likely to lash out with a heavy paw than raise his voice. That made him more dangerous in Tal’s opinion. So it did not take a great leap of imagination to picture Kurt and Uz arguing and Uz, Um? Just reaching out and snapping Kurt’s neck. Ub! That was it. Ub would just be sitting there reading and Kurt’s body would be twitching, his head at a weird angle. Tal did not want to wake up to a scene like that. Nature would not let him lie in bed forever though and he eventually had to open his eyes.
The cave was empty. No signs of violence. Kurt wasn’t in bed, so maybe the monster had dragged him off somewhere. At least Tal didn’t have to see it and he didn’t waste another thought on it. Time alone in the small cave was precious. He grabbed a breakfast of mushroom bread and milk and pulled a small bundle from under his lumpy sleeping mat. Taking them both into a corner, he sat down with his back to the fire and opened the bundle. It contained a set of almost new carving tools that had been given to Kurt and a stone that Tal had picked out himself. He chose a file, popped some of the squishy, gray bread into his mouth and got to work on his rock.
At some point, he heard the scrape of claws on the iron ladder that meant Copper coming down from her sleeping chamber. She knocked around at the stove a bit, maybe added some more coal and then cleaned up the kitchen. He paid her no real mind. His attention was fully on the stone. It was coming together pretty good he thought. His skills were improving. It wasn’t ready to show to anyone yet but he was happy with how it was progressing. He bore down a bit harder on a rough patch that was taking too long to smooth out and it snapped.
He couldn’t believe it. He didn’t want to believe it. Looking down at the pieces in his hands made him wish he knew some curse words. He wanted to scream. He turned them over. It was a clean break. The snapped edges sharply defined but smooth to the touch. He should have seen it sooner too; the lines in the stone traveled the same direction as the crack. The stone must be weaker in that direction. There was nothing to do now but find another stone. Copper must have gone back up the hole for he didn’t see her anymore. He put his boots on over his feety-jammies and left the house.
As soon as the door was shut behind him it was pitch black. Not a light shone anywhere. He had to wait a minute for his eyes to readjust to the dark. Eventually the woods came into focus all around him, a forest of limestone pillars and stalagmites with a slightly greenish cast. Tal struck out to find his rock but he hadn’t gotten too deep into the woods before his nerve failed. The stalagmites were thin and sharp and always reminded him of teeth. It was as if he were trotting around in the mouth of some enormous, Tal-eating beast. A bug too stupid to know it had already been eaten. Once the idea of being eaten was in his mind, shadows took more ominous forms. They became creepy, crawling spider-wolves, with glowing eyes and hideous, drooling mouths full of stalagmite teeth and even smaller spider-wolves crawling inside their mouths. Fear upon fear upon fear. No matter how small he became, there was still something with teeth seeking his flesh. With shape and shadow both objects of terror to him he tried to stumble his way back home but he hadn’t paid much attention to which way he had been going. He couldn’t find the door back into their cave!