Betsy Finesilver Haberl
Layers of the Earth
- Penelope Campbell is a mother, wife, woman, and in that order she would say.
- Despite having quit her job a few years ago—she worked at a nonprofit in a mid-level job that was somewhat fulfilling—her days at home are full. There are a few things she enjoys, like reading and daydreaming while staring absentmindedly at the stained grout behind the stove, plus there are all the things she had to do for each day to run like clockwork: cooking, baking, cleaning, managing the children, always followed by screaming into pillows.
- The screaming into pillows is the most important part of the day.
- Often Penelope is shocked that this is her life. It's 2020, after all.
- This spring, she's picked up a new hobby: hurling ice cubes, one at a time, at the blue tiled wall in the shower. The ice clatters when it breaks apart in a satisfying way, then she stomps the remaining shards into cold dust with her bare heels. It's so fulfilling that she doesn't even mind the pain.
- She does this after her darling little children finally fall asleep around 8:00 p.m. It's her "me time," she tells her husband, who doesn't seem to get that she isn't just taking a shower.
- Afterwards, she returns to check on the children. There is a boy, a girl, a baby. Don't they look sweet?
- The children lay still in their beds, in the darkened room, lit with just a nightlight, as usual, but something seems off to Penelope. They are not quite like the children she had delivered from her body, as if hollow wax figures had slipped into their places. She reaches out to touch their cheeks but stops an inch above their skin.
- She is afraid that they will be cold to the touch.
- The children are always there, at home with her, on her lap, on her breast, wrapped around her torso, her leg, gnawing at her like a piece a tough meat, and their needy faces float on the backs of her eyelids while she is sleeping.
- There's a reason that smother rhymes with mother, she thought earlier that day as she tried to peel a child off her body.
- Penelope goes downstairs to the kitchen, stares out the patio door at the navy twilit sky descending over the backyard and the matching roofs of the neighborhood, and tries to remember what it is she usually does next.
- She's been very distracted lately, letting the strawberries rot for days in the fridge, forgetting to order more diapers for delivery, plus she knows there was something else this morning that she didn't do. Was it something with the children?
- Her thoughts are soft and fuzzy like the moldy skin of the strawberries.
- Penelope is also known as Mommy, Penny, or:
- "Hey, Pen-Pen," her husband calls from somewhere in the house. She grits her teeth at his pet name for her, which makes her feel like a pet. She files away this feeling for her next pillow screaming session.
- "What's up?" she calls back.
- "Do you want to watch something together, tonight?" he says from the doorway that separates the kitchen from the family room. He's holding the remote out to her like an offering.
- She doesn't answer him but turns back to the back door.
- "Are you okay?" he asks.
- "Of course," she says. "I'm always okay, aren't I?"
- "If you say so," he says. After a few moments, he retreats to the family room and clicks the TV on.
Penelope slides open the patio door and steps barefoot into the yard.
- It is white noise to her, a crackling that fills her head for a moment.
- Her husband has a name, but does it really matter what it is?
Her young son likes facts and chatters incessantly about all the things in his mind. Today he had talked and talked about the layers of the Earth which he'd read about on the school-issued iPad. She vaguely recalled being fascinated by this as a child as well.
- She wishes someone would walk by so she wouldn't feel so alone.
- The earth is damp, and the spring air is musty, like it might rain, or maybe it did already rain.
- She doesn't remember what happened today except what her children did.
- "The Earth is made up of three layers: the crust, the mantle, and the core," he read. "Well, I guess it's really four layers, because of the outer and inner core. But still, three layers."
Outside in the yard, Penelope thinks that there isn't anything that she has been the first to find out. She has discovered nothing in her life.
- Many things have layers, she thought at the time: pizza, skin, eggs, cakes, onions, my uterus. She continued emptying the dishwasher, stacking the plates in tidy layers on the cabinet shelf.
- "We live on top of the Earth's crust, the thinnest of the layers, made of the lightest materials," her son had continued reading, "rocks such as basalt and granite."
- "I want a rock from under us," her daughter had piped up.
- "Then go get one," her son had said back.
- "You get me one," her daughter said.
- "No," he said. "No way."
- "But what's it really like under us?" her daughter said.
- "Nobody knows what's it's really like in the deep, deep ground," her son whispered ominously. "You don't even want to know."
- Penelope said, "But someday someone will, because someone is always the first to find out."
She walks into the garage and picks out the best shovel, the one that didn't sit outside rusting all winter.
- Not the desperation she feels to get her kids to bed every night, her desire for a moment without thoughts swirling in her head, her disappointment in what her life has become, cycling through the list of all the things she's never done because whoever has the time? These are not new. Every woman has felt the same.
- It goes with the territory, her little piece of territory sitting here on top of the Earth's crust.
She admits to herself that it took longer than she thought it would. It's also hotter than she expected. She tears off the sleeves of her cotton dress, which are already smeared with dirt, knots the ends together, then ties it around her forehead to keep the sweat and grime from dripping into her eyes.
- Now this is a shovel you could dig a grave with, she thinks and laughs out loud into the quiet night.
- She finds the perfect spot, in the corner of the yard, where the grass never grew and she'd always meant to plant a vegetable garden, but never did.
- She begins to dig, sliding the tip of the shovel into the ground and flinging the dirt up and behind her. It falls like heavy rain.
- When the hole is deep enough, she slides into it and pauses to catch her breath. Well, this is good exercise, she thinks. She's read all sorts of articles online telling women to take better care of themselves.
- In the hole, the sounds of the neighborhood are dampened. No breeze rustling leaves, a car drives by but she can barely hear it.
- By her feet, an earthworm is wriggling its way deeper into the dark earth. That must feel nice, she thinks.
- She continues digging for hours, maybe even days, she really doesn't know. The dirt and sand become mixed with small rocks, then bigger stones, then boulders.
- She cannot see the moon, or maybe the sun would be up by now. Her eyes are accustomed to the dark at this point, like a mole's eyes.
- She tunnels her way around the largest of the boulders, into deeper and narrower spaces, sometimes crawling on her belly while jamming the shovel out in front of her, and then, finally, the shovel hits hard granite bedrock with a clang.
She perches on the edge of the bedrock on her hands and knees, looking through the opening she'd screamed into the mantle below. The melted rock there flows thickly, like a muddy river.
- Honestly, she feels satisfied with the work she's done so far.
- Would her dear husband be looking for her, finding instead a sink of dirty dishes?
- Would her darling little children be awake by now?
- She misses the smell of them in a primal way, but also thinks: isn't it nice to have an opportunity to miss them?
- Supposedly, according to her son, you need a large, powerful drill to get through all that rock, or at the very least a pickaxe.
- But she beats at the stone with her shovel until it begins to chip away, chip, chip, chip, the granite coming apart into chunks. The shovel bends at the tip, then finally cracks apart. She flings it behind her in the tunnel and claws at the stone like a desperate animal. Her fingernails split and then the tips of her fingers turn raw and bloody, like hamburger meat, but she still claws until the stone is like sand and she slides through it, clawing as she goes.
- She can feel the heat of the next layer on the other side of the bedrock she is crouching on and she screams so loud that it shatters.
She can tell when she reaches the outer core because the molten rock becomes runnier, easier to move through. It has the consistency of the fruit punch she buys for birthday parties.
- She tests the temperature by dipping in her toes, like she does at the public swimming pool. The skin on her toes immediately blisters and peels off, revealing the flesh underneath.
- That's fine, she thinks, and dives in as best she can from her perched position on the bedrock.
- And to think our whole life is floating on top of this, all this time. How strange, she thinks as she pushes downward by kicking her legs.
- And what will her husband feed the children for breakfast? God only knows. Probably the sugary cereal she reserves just for Saturdays, with the marshmallows and all those food dyes they say make kids so hyper.
- Ah, well. They deserve a treat while Mommy's away.
- Her body's layers begin disappearing, burning off and fusing with the mantle: her clothes, skin, then her muscles. She feels her hair, once chestnut brown but lately gray and frizzled, burn off with her scalp. She is skin and bones, without the skin, then her bones, too, become charred and break apart.
- She is just a collection of cells, separate from each other but somehow traveling loosely together like a school of minnows.
- She isn't worried about her new state of being. Honestly, it's easier to move around like this.
- What's her body even done for her lately? It's just been tired all the time.
- She guides her cells through the thousand or so miles of the mantle with increasing speed.
She's determined to find the center of the Earth, to be the first inside it.
- The intense, throbbing heat splits her cells split apart further. She is just a collection of particles now, protected from complete destruction by her sheer female will.
- The molten river of the outer core flows around the inner core, a dense metallic ball that pulls her particles close.
- Her particles cling to its exterior. It is dense and solid and smells like a nickel.
- The pressure on the pieces of her are intense, pressing her onto to the core with force that must be greater than what she felt while delivering her babies, but she hardly even remembers those feelings now.
- Pain comes and goes; there's no point in dwelling on it.
- She slides her particles through the tiny molecular gaps between the inner core's particles.
- Once inside, she is surprised to find an empty pocket, right in the center of the Earth, a space that's clean and silver and glowing and, she realizes with a shock, it's so quiet.
- She links her particles back together like a chain and reforms herself into a cohesive shape.
- It's not her old shape, with arms and legs and a head. Now she is oval, like an egg, filling the entire space that had been empty.
- There's no room for anything else in there, no space for breath or thoughts or memories.
- The weight of the Earth, all the layers of the Earth and all the lives of everyone and everything living on the top, all the buildings and trees, both living and dying, and the children, loved and unloved, and the potholed roads and lazy husbands and moldy strawberries in kitchens and dirty dishes and unmade beds, all of it pushes down on her from all sides.
- The core buzzes untiringly with the forces driving from all directions, so she vibrates unceasingly, yet the shell of the core protects her.
- She is unbreakable, it turns out.
- Well, this feels right, she thinks, settling in for a while.
- This is just right.
Betsy Finesilver Haberl's fiction has appeared in Bright Flash Literary Review, Jet Fuel Review, Barnstorm Journal and Hypertext Review. She's also a curator for Sunday Salon Chicago, one of the city's longest-running literary reading series.