We soak the dried mushrooms in oil and salt, then eat them with our hands and stumble mute and reverent into the woods. Following the shimmering trail, we circle the spike of the last mountain until our heads crack the ceiling of the clouds. Now we stand at the summit of the world, wheezing in the thin air. Squinting in the whirling wind. Studying the sphere of basalt resting on the shelf of stone before us.
The sphere is black. Its surface is as smooth as glass. It glitters in the sun like a gemstone.
Turning to Kyoko, I nod. She nods back. Her face glows the color of a ruby. Her pupils quiver like two huge droplets of ink.
We rest our hands on the giant sphere and push. As it rolls off its pedestal of stone, we close our eyes and listen for mayhem, destruction, rapture. We listen for the rumble of sliding earth, the crunch of splintering trees. We listen for the cacophony of a new beginning. We hold our breath and listen. We listen and listen and listen.
We’ve been inside for seven years, huddled in the tiny room beneath the staircase, sick with isolation and fear, listening to our strange house rot around us. There we find a pouch of dried mushrooms, a flask of gold oil, a box of pink sea salt, and a sheet of wrinkled paper. Each morning, after a sharp needle of light pricks us from sleep, we press our bodies together and drink the warmth of each other’s skin. We breathe the oils of our hair and taste the musk of our sweat. We cradle the yellowed paper and try to decipher its message:
1. follow the shining trail through the clouds.
2. roll the black sphere to remake the world.
There’s a crevasse at the mountain’s summit where the sphere of basalt used to sit. Inside the crevasse is a shaft. Inside the shaft is a ladder. Here, a pillar of white steam climbs to the moon.
Sliding to my hands and knees, I place my ear beside the shaft and listen. I hear singing, moaning, screaming. I hear a gaggle of women conversing in Italian. I hear a master musician playing a complex fugue on a grand piano.
Overhead, the sky is an ocean of milk.
Overhead, fat flakes of snow begin to fall.
Overhead, the sun is a blurred thumbprint of gold.
Stepping into the pillar of steam, I grip the top rung of the ladder and begin climbing down.
The rungs glide slick and frozen beneath my palms. My body trembles violently in the arctic air. But I continue climbing down. I climb down, down, down. Kyoko follows. What else is there to do? We have nowhere left to go.
As we descend, the air begins to warm. The shroud of steam thickens. The voices below grow louder, the moans more impassioned. The screaming more frantic. The conversation more contentious. But the fugue remains unchanged. The shimmering arpeggios rise and fall. The slicing intervals dart and weave.
An hour passes and my feet touch the warm stones of the ground. Here I stop and wait for Kyoko. When she arrives, we huddle together and squint through the steam. We rub the sweat from our eyes. We gulp the humid air.
We can’t see anything. It’s exceedingly hot down here. Itchy pellets of sweat slide down my arms and drip from the ends of my fingers.
Suddenly, the jumble of noise grows louder. Closer in proximity. The moans, the screaming, the conversation . . . these sounds swirl around us like banshees.
Beneath this jarring cacophony, we hear the rise and fall of the fugue. But when we swivel our heads in search of its source, we find nothing. The glittering music seems to originate from everywhere and nowhere at once. So we interlock our fingers and creep into the labyrinth of steam. Now we grope through the thick air and listen. We breathe very softly and listen. We listen and listen and listen.
is the author of the short story collection, A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair
(LEFTOVER Books ’22), and the novel, Skyscraper
(West Vine Press ’23). His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, Barren Magazine, New World Writing
and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. He tweets @GergleySteve
. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/