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The Land Beneath Her

In the afternoon they went out for a ride. When they were young they used to ride for entire days, til they were sore and starving, stunned by the tawny and ochre hills,  by the strength of their own bond and attraction. Right then, it was almost okay again: the cottonwood and vine maple gone the colors of bonfire, grass fading into rust and gold, the sky opened up vast and cloudless overhead.

It was pleasant enough, by virtue of memory, that the gnarl of tension had gone from Mel’s shoulders. She’d found Alan in the back barn with yet another dead engine, this one an old motorbike with the aesthetics of a vending machine. She’d gone out to remind him of their date; he’d forgotten, lost in his tinkering. Behind him were more corpses, on shelves or under sheets: string trimmer, chainsaws, lawnmower, his dad’s ancient tractor. Mel wouldn’t have predicted this new fascination, before they’d moved out here. The land had changed both of them.

Back when they’d met and his family’s land came up, Alan had said, it’s almost mine, it’s a matter of time, a heartbeat away, the man’s a tumor waiting to happen. It was a blood clot, in the end, and a decade of heartbeats past the few years he’d forecasted. But now that the land was finally theirs, Mel felt gutshot by it daily—she lived here, her horses, her husband, her furniture in the living room, cooking bacon in the inherited cast-iron skillet while looking out the window at acres and acres of grass that she owned.

“I was thinking about cutting some trails up there,” Alan said, gesturing to the hills behind them. “For the dirt bike.”

“You’re going to ride that thing?”

“If I can get it running.”

She imagined more forgotten plans, more dinnertimes overshot by an hour. The knot was coming back. “We’ll have to look at it, if you tear up that hillside.”

Alan scoffed. “It’s just one trail, Mel. You won’t even notice.”

She would. She’d constantly notice, since she didn’t want it there. They rode in silence, Mel imagining muddy scars across those beautiful hills.

They were coming down off the ridge north of the creek that divided the property when Alan reined Dutch in and scowled into the trees. “You hear that?”

Zen stopped on his own, bumping his forehead affectionately against Dutch’s rump. Mel lifted her eyes, squinting, concentrating, but all she heard was wind in the cottonwoods. “What was it?”

“I thought maybe a lamb.” Lambing season was half a year away. “Something, though.”

Mel nudged her horse forward so she could look over Alan’s shoulder. “A bird?”

Alan grunted, still staring into the fringe of trees. He turned Dutch across the water, hunting the noise. Zen followed without Mel’s prompting.

Past the thatch of willow and Oregon grape growing alongside the creek, the ground sloped into pastureland. Alan slid out of the saddle to pick his way down a sharp cleft in the earth.

“There’s something down here. A cave or something.”

Mel dismounted, tied the horses and scrabbled down the incline. Pebbles ran away beneath her boots. The bottom of the little rift was gravel and sand, opening out into the hillside. At the far end was a square mouth into the earth, framed in timber. Splintered boards lay around its base; one hung from a nail. Alan was half inside it already.

“What is that?” The dark throat made Mel want to climb out of the decline and back onto Zen’s wide, warm back. A moment ago they were riding in the sun.

“An old mine shaft?” Alan scratched under his cap. He looked around, as if the land he knew might have snuck off somewhere.

“You didn’t say there was a mine,” Mel said. “How did you not tell me?”

He shook his head. “No. There’s not, I mean. My dad would’ve said, or my cousins.”

Mel shrugged: there it was, ten feet away.

Alan stooped into the opening, and Mel stopped herself from calling to him. He hesitated in the vestibule of light from the afternoon outside, and then his body left the sunlight in slow motion, the mine swallowing him face-first, his boot heel the last to go, Mel fighting all the while her sudden desperation to stay close and the cold aversion that held her back. Anger helped her forward: didn’t he know by now that if he went in there, she would have to go, too? That wasn’t something she could say to change his mind, though. So she ducked in after him.

The walls were squared, cut into stone, braced with old wood every few feet. It looked solid enough. Alan moved ahead of her, pale circle of light from his phone gliding over buff rock. She reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, half to slow him, half to keep up.

“What sort of mining did they do around here?” Mel’s voice sounded out of place in the dark, too close, speaking into her own ear. It made her want to talk more, louder, to tame the darkness.

Alan pulled away from her hand to duck under sagging cobwebs. “No clue. I told you, I didn’t know this was here.”

The timber bracings ended abruptly, though the tunnel continued. Mel stopped, toeing the edge of the last beam like it was some sort of threshold. “We should go back.”

Alan looked back over his shoulder, his profile glowing softly from the makeshift flashlight. “Why?”

She gestured vaguely. “I mean.” She laughed. It sounded wrong.

“We won’t do anything stupid.” He continued down the tunnel, taking his light with him. They weren’t far from the entrance, not even twenty feet, and Mel could easily find her way out, but the small light moving away woke a franticness in her, like Alan was one end of an elastic band and she was the other. She followed.

The shaft wasn’t square now; taller, the walls were uneven and mirrored each other, like they walked between two halves of a seam. After another dozen feet, they had to turn sideways past a narrow point. Beyond, the tunnel was pierced by an overhanging ledge of stone. It kept going, though only knee-high.

Alan crouched down and fed his hand into that hole, the phone’s light tinting the walls with green, then going dark again as he reached in up to his shoulder. The thought of extending her hand into nothing like that filled Mel with revulsion.

“It opens up again past here,” Alan said. And before she could respond he’d dropped to his hands and knees and was squeezing under the ledge.

“Alan,” she called. He wasn’t even out of sight yet.

She was alone in the dark, the tunnel’s entrance a distant, invisible window. The darkness paralyzed her, as though moving at all from where she’d been left might find her lost down some pit, wandering endless hallways, blind. She could see Alan’s light moving in the distance, and then even that disappeared. Mel’s arms twitched. She took a deep breath, held it. Quiet shuffling of her husband’s feet; nothing else. She let the breath out. She suppressed the urge to call to him again.

Did she want to follow? She almost found herself kneeling down, a magnet dragged across a tabletop. Even though she could see nothing, she couldn’t look away from that empty socket.

Abruptly, the light was in her eyes and Alan was squeezing back through the gap. “Nothing back there,” he said. “The tunnel just ends.”

“Good thing you checked,” she said, though she was smart enough to regret it.

The day’s spell was ruined.

“Maybe they didn’t tell you about the cave because you were a teenaged boy and they didn’t want you doing the obvious, stupid thing.”

He heeled Dutch into an unnecessary trot. “My family’s not like that. If they’d known about it, I would’ve too. We don’t keep secrets.”

Because you never talk, she might have said, but didn’t. She knew she was being peevish, unkind, but the mine’s existence irritated her. It bothered her further that Alan dismissed it so easily. Like the mystery of the thing didn’t matter, like they’d found an old fire ring in the woods and not an abandoned mine.

At home she put Zen up and went straight to her laptop. There wasn’t much to find; mining in the area seemed minimal, more quarries than anything else, and cave systems weren’t particularly common. When she suggested he ask his only living uncle, or call the old neighbors at their assisted living facility, Alan shrugged. Not a no, just more ambivalence. His lack of interest made as much sense as that hole in the earth.

Late the next morning she took the ATV out with stuff to board up the mine. As she slid down the gravel slope on her heels, the black hole in the hillside sucked greedily at her confidence.

“Why bother?” Alan had asked. “It’s been there this long, hasn’t been a problem.” But she had to. It had circled her like a vulture the day before. She’d feared it would encroach on her dreams; instead, it crept around her bed through the night, waiting for her in the moments she’d surface from the void of sleep, watching as she sank helplessly back beneath those dark waves. She needed to muzzle those jaws, if she couldn’t forget.

Boarding it up wasn’t straightforward. The support beams looked solid enough, but every screw she drilled in came loose with a tug. Leaning into that darkness, even to cover it, made her feel exposed. The shaft gave off a clammy breath, like standing before an open refrigerator. She did the best she could, but it wouldn’t hold; she’d need something besides a few scrap two-by-fours.

Alan might have an idea, but she didn’t want to ask him. She kept thinking of him saying “we don’t keep secrets,” like it was an accusation. Even though he couldn’t know.

After her second miscarriage she’d almost brought it up, but it wasn’t worth starting that fight if she didn’t know for sure. Her OBGYN had left a message earlier in the week, and now Mel did know for sure. That didn’t make telling any easier.

When they were still kids, during the turbulent first years of their relationship, she’d gotten pregnant. They were in college, and they’d been broken up at the time, and there was no chance either of them wanted to keep it—they’d even talked about the possibility, though in the abstract. So she’d had an abortion, somewhat late but not egregiously so, and she hadn’t told him because she was furious at him. Later she didn’t tell him because she didn’t want him to feel bad, and then later because it seemed like it had been too long. And now, after fourteen years together and a year and a half of trying to get pregnant, Mel knew she wouldn’t be able to carry a pregnancy to term, and Alan had no idea. She wasn’t sure if their marriage would survive the fallout.

If it wasn’t for the land, she could have done it, whatever the consequences. She’d loved this ranch since she was nineteen, waited almost half her life for it to come into her hands.

Did the mine change how she felt about it? She’d never been afraid out here; grizzlies, coyotes, rattlesnakes were just part of the landscape. But the bears and snakes had always been here; they were a quantifiable sort of thing. If the land could hide something like this, what other unaccountable mysteries might it hold?

The screw she’d been driving ran up to its head and then spun in place. Mel scoffed in disgust as it came out, stuck to the magnet in the drill bit. This wouldn’t work.

She rose from a crouch and tossed the drill into the bucket of tools she’d brought. Was she going to go in there again? She hadn’t planned to, but now it seemed inevitable. Standing, staring into the mineshaft, her fear felt absurd. It was just an old hole in the ground. There was a penlight in the bucket. She clicked it on and, bracing herself, stepped into the passage.

Once she pushed herself past the entrance she thought it would get easier, but she fought for each step, like she was climbing uphill. The dark cloaked her, brushing against her neck and rustling at her knees. Past where the bracings stopped, past the place where the walls closed in and you had to turn sideways. Mel made it as far as the crawl, where Alan had gone in and come out and said there was nothing beyond. She could not imagine dipping her hand into that darkness, not knowing what it might touch. She held her breath, tried to quiet her own heartbeat. Clicked off the penlight and stood still, imagining Alan was just beyond that low ledge of rock, moving confidently into the unknown.

Breath, resonating in her nose and throat. The soft sounds of her jaw and neck joints moving, more felt than heard. But Mel heard nothing else, though she waited there a long time, listening in the dark.

She shouldn’t have told him while they were drunk. They’d finished a bottle of wine with dinner, and then Alan had poured them both a couple fingers of scotch to drink in front of the fire, and the smoke loosened her shoulders. They’d been—not really arguing, more like a discussion, but an unpleasant one—about how hard it seemed for her to keep Alan’s attention; how he used to pick her flowers, sometimes, and how many years had it been?

“Is that all? I can pick you flowers.”

But that wasn’t the point, and she knew he wouldn’t do it anyway. It was hard to explain that, though, and so instead she decided to just say what she needed to say. She was tired of resenting him for things he didn’t even know about. If she told him, at least he might see how dramatically he’d failed her, not being there for her. Though even through the haze of scotch, she knew that was absurd.

Alan stared, expressionless and open-mouthed, until she’d finished. Then she waited for him to say something, until she couldn’t. “It’s a freak accident that the scarring even happened,” she said. “It’s not something anyone could’ve predicted. And . . . and if I’d told you, it wouldn’t have changed anything.”

He shook his head. “So we can never have kids.”

Mel didn’t respond. Her neck and ears burned.

“How do you keep a secret like that for fourteen years?”

“I only found out this week.“

“No, Mel, the whole thing. This is . . . ” He didn’t say what it was, but stared into the fire.

Her shame—and she hated that she was ashamed—was turning quickly into anger. He wasn’t the one who’d lived through it, not the one who’d grieved that unrepented loss. Mel had no regrets. He shouldn’t want her to.

It morphed into the argument they’d had on and off, forever. The same argument that had broken them up back then, when she hadn’t known she was pregnant and he never would.

“You keep secrets. How am I supposed to even feel like I know who you are? What the fuck else are you keeping from me?”

“Of course you know me,” Mel snapped. “You know me better than anyone. This is part of me. You like that I’m independent—“

“Lying for our whole relationship isn’t being independent, that’s—“

“I didn’t lie.”

“You close me out, Mel. You push me away, you don’t tell me what’s going on. You’re . . . ” He thought for a moment. “Unforgivably. Cold.”

Mel stood, almost knocking her scotch over. “Here I am, telling you what’s going on,” she shouted. “And it’s working out so fucking great.”

She wasn’t contrite, exactly, but after two days sleeping on a city friend’s couch Mel was at least ready to talk. The highway to her exit felt foreign, longer than usual. It wasn’t until she bumped over the cattle guard at their fence that she felt like her feet were anywhere near solid earth. “Missed you,” she whispered out the window to the dogwoods lining the drive.

Alan’s truck wasn’t out front, and the front door was shut—not locked, out here a locked door was almost pointless, but if Alan was home he left the porch door open, with just the screen to keep out flies. Mel parked in the garage, dropped her bag at the base of the stairs, and went out to saddle her horse. She could use a little time to clear her head.

She didn’t think about where she was going until Zen stopped to drink from the creek. A jay screamed overhead, took off, then screamed again from further down the creek. Mel slipped off her horse, buckled hobbles around his forelegs. Zen was already tearing grass from the bank before she’d picked her way across the water.

The mine entrance looked smaller, or it had grown in her imagination. She felt an irrational bitterness toward it. Resentment. As though its manifestation in this place that was supposed to be hers had somehow poisoned her marriage and body, as well as her home. She wondered where Alan was. Maybe belly-up at the sports bar in town, sulking over a beat-up James Michener thick as a cinder block and avoiding eye contact with the too-pretty bartender.

A sound rose out of the mine, a reedy keen that built into a bleating, mewling yelp and startled a laugh out of Mel. Silent again, she felt her pulse ticking too quick at the insides of her wrists.

“Hello?”

She waited, but it wasn’t a human kind of sound. She saw how Alan mistook it for a lamb, if he hadn’t heard the rising shriek. Maybe some kind of owl, though none whose call she recognized, and the voice felt delicate, vulnerable. Young. An owlet, then, or a fox kit?

She’d put a headlamp in her saddlebag in case this happened. Or maybe she’d known that she was destined to go into that maw in the side of the hill; maybe she’d prepared for that, knowing.

The light of the headlamp was weak and wavering, but once Mel was beyond the sunlight it seemed brighter. The stone walls felt familiar to her, having passed through them so many times in her mind. If she could understand this thing, why it was here, if she could make it make sense, then maybe it wouldn’t bother her so much and the land would go back to what it had been, before: home.

The low point was ahead, pupil of an eye. Mel stopped where she had before. Alan fit, and he was bigger than her, and no braver or more stubborn. Standing here wouldn’t change anything.

Mel pressed her lips into a knot, dropped to her knees, and slid into the hole.

It wasn’t any worse than scooting under a line of barbed wire, though the rock pushed against her back and she scraped a knee on a loose rock. She could already see the crawl opening up in front of her. Her breath caught, but after an eternal moment with the weight of the earth pressing down into her, she dragged her hips free. She stopped to catch her breath, congratulate herself. It wasn’t as awful as she’d expected.

The tunnel continued. It turned once, then turned back, and there was the end of the shaft, not at a wall but in a series of rocky folds and niches. No answer, just more of the same question.

Mel swallowed, worried suddenly about Zen, about night falling, though that should be hours away. If she disappeared, how long would it be before Alan came looking for her? Would he know where to look? Would he stay at the bar til it closed, til the pretty bartender was off work? Mel’s headlamp slid over rock and she wondered what she thought she’d find. Something Alan hadn’t, or couldn’t.

As she turned away from the dead end, that sound again: a rising shriek that warbled into a lamb’s bleat, a still-blind puppy’s cry, a miniature, frantic bark. It seemed farther away than before. She’d have wondered if it was coming from in there at all if it hadn’t sounded so directional. As she turned her head it came clearer to one ear, then the other, and led her back to the rocky dead end.

This time she leaned closer to the rock, peering into shadows. She tried to imagine the direction her ears had pointed. Her light fell on an outcrop hiding a blacker patch of darkness; when Mel shifted to look from another angle, it was an opening. A vertical crevasse, narrower than the last squeeze, but she made it through that one fine. The rock surrounding it looked solid, trustworthy.

She’d be able to tell Alan what she’d found. It would be something else to talk about besides their fight. Something to soften both of them before the hard negotiations began.

Mel took the headlamp off and slid it into the void, but the blackness beyond ate the light. Tried not to imagine a cold grip on her wrist, pulling, because if she thought that way she’d never go in. She’d take it slow, in case there was a cliff or a pit or something beyond, and if it seemed like she wouldn’t fit , she wouldn’t push it.

She could do it.

She crouched a little to enter to enter at the crevasse’s widest point. As soon as she’d fed her head and shoulders into the crack she scrabbled back. She blew out the breath she’d been holding. If she thought about it, she’d back out. She wouldn’t; didn’t want to. Her name was on the title next to Alan’s, and that wasn’t a mistake. This was her home as much as it was his. She’d waited for it. Dreamed it alongside him. Whatever was beyond this dark hole in the ground wasn’t allowed to take that from her. She would see it, make it part of her, the way the rest of the land was part of her.

Mel leaned forward and pushed into the squeeze.

Cold rock held a palm against her back, brushed against her breasts. She slithered in further, following the widest point, shuffling her feet. It got narrower, pressing like an embrace or a straightjacket. Her forehead bumped and then scraped against the wall, tugging the headlamp down to sit on the bridge of her nose, a weird third eye whose light reflected off stone and blinded her. But her arm was already waving in open space. She pushed, slid free, stopped from overbalancing with the hand still trailing along the cave wall.

She could tell the space was big even before she adjusted her headlamp, just from the openness of sound. Turning, her light faded with distance: it was at least the size of her house, four times as tall. Pale orange rock, glistening, smooth. Water ticked into a puddle nearby. Mel heard an eraser-squeak pass overhead, followed the shadow through her headlamp up to where a leathery mass of bodies slept in a crack directly overhead.

The ground was solid, smooth, sloping down. Mel picked her way down, hand hovering just above the wall. She stepped half into a puddle and she recoiled, then crouched to watch the dirt settle in the water. Not a puddle; a ridged bowl in the stone. There were more along the wall, drips tapping their surfaces. She stepped to the next and sank to her knees, wondering at a perfect nest of stone eggs beneath the water. Mel glanced around the void, then traced a finger across one of the orbs. More pearl than egg. The water was surprisingly warm.

Further along the chamber, the ceiling dropped closer and spindly, sharp-edged stalactites branched like crystal shrubs overhead. Her boots crunched a delicate geometric carpet. After the second crunch Mel stopped, unwilling to destroy more.

Then, again, the cry, its finial bark devolving to a whine—desperate, lonely or pained. It was closer than before.

The wall beneath her hand arced away, toward the sound. Mel turned into the side passage, which opened into a chamber with walls a cauliflower of white. The fingers of her trailing hand come away tacky with silver goo.

In the middle of the room there was a still, clouded pool. It was maybe eight feet across, almost perfectly round.

Mel crept toward it, hoping it might be full of pearls, hoping her light would illuminate stone corals and arabesques in fantastic colors below. The pool’s surface stayed opaque, milky white.

This room was a dead end. Mel imagined bringing Alan, returning as his guide, offering this place up as a concession, an apology, his astonishment at her and what she’d found freeing them both from their anger. She was about to turn on her heel, back to the creek and then the house, when a dark mass exploded away from the ceiling.

Mel yelped, swiped her hands at the shapes clattering around her. She caught the edge of her foot against a rock, caught that foot’s toe against her other ankle, and tumbled forward.

Her wrist smacked against rock, and then water crashed over her.

The water was warm as blood. Mel opened her eyes underwater, saw nothing in the milk except the glow of her own headlamp, mercifully tight against her forehead. Her eyes stung, then burned. She reached out, kicked her feet, grasping for anything. When she moved her left arm the pain in her wrist shot, electric, all the way to her shoulder. Her feet touched nothing.

She got her head above water, coughing. Her hand and arm were made of electricity, her eyes aching like they were full of soap. The water stunk, not sulfur but something like. She sank past her nose again, kicked, still found no bottom. There was no slant to the pool’s edge. It was a hole, a pit, a vent opening into the bowels of the earth. That made her suck more water. Sputtering, thrashing, she caught the edge of the pool with her good hand. Overhead, bats screeched, their wings rattling as they wheeled around the ceiling. Shit plopped around her. She spit, tried to pull herself out but couldn’t get enough leverage, tried again and again until she hauled her dripping, filthy body from the pool.

Mel wanted to run. She staggered to her feet, soaked, and retched foul water. Clutching her wrist against her chest, she sucked breath. It didn’t feel like she was breathing oxygen. Something heavier. Something her body had no use for. Her sore eyes throbbed with each crackle of pain from her wrist. She was sobbing, her chest squeezed as though the cave was pressed against her, and the only way she could tell bats were flying past her face was by the shrill stab of sound they trailed behind them.

She needed to get into the sunlight.

Mel scrambled up the slope toward the exit, bent so one hand could propel her. Bats were shooting through the crack, escaping alongside her. She jammed herself into the crack, her brain a static of fear and pain, and shoved with her feet. Almost instantly she was stuck.

Not really stuck, not truly. Even through the white noise of her terror she could feel how to rotate, push herself loose. But she had no subtlety left in her; she wrenched her shoulder against the wall, and one foot went out from under her, jamming the elbow of her injured arm into the rock. Mel screamed.

She heard something shift. She couldn’t move her back foot anymore. She pulled, twisted, felt rock against her ankle.

The taste of the nasty water had crept down her throat. She was hoarse already, her tongue dry despite the saliva dripping from the corner of her mouth from the sobbing. Rock pressed cold against her back and her chest. Mel wasn’t sure if she was shivering from that, or from lack of oxygen, because still she couldn’t make herself breathe.

Panic attack. Or heart attack. She would die here, of hypothermia, of starvation. She screamed again, in rage, terror, frustration.

Behind her, so distant she almost thought she’d imagined it, Mel heard a loud splash.

She felt air rustling her hair, and then the small bodies of bats began to pour past her, brushing against her in their haste, tiny voices rending the claustrophobic air. Mel could not turn her head to look back behind her. She didn’t want to look. She still felt a reflexive, intense physical need to try. Rock scraped her skull. She was pinned in place.

That call again: a squeal growing into a lamb’s bawl, a puppy’s yip, a baby’s scream. This time, the slosh of water was unmistakable, and something rose, sodden and crying out to her, from the pool inside the cave.

About the Author

Tegan Moore lives and frequently injures herself on twenty forested acres an hour outside of Seattle, Washington, where she wages war against the slugs for the souls of her brassicas. She has been published in magazines including Tor.com, Asimov’s, and Clarkesworld. You can find more of her stories at www.alarmhat.com.