A collaboration with Craig Sernotti
Pubished 'Dread' 1999
"I didn't catch your name earlier," I said.
"Old Robert E. Lee was a merry old soul...."
"Robert E. Lee."
We were swaddled in strips of waxy material intended to protect us from coal mites—wound tight enough to tone up the muscles, without constricting movement. Even our faces had the stuff smeared on, leaving pathetic gaps for the eyes and only perforations for the mouth. However, I could see that Lee's hair was 'brylcreemed' in the old fashion and glistened ... while my storm-lamp created shafting beams around the surrounding craggy blackness. We painstakingly progressed among the flash-camera ghosts: sufficiently spooked to believe in the actual possibility of a ghost's existence. But any thoughts in this godforsaken hole were better than none.
I laughed. "Robert E. Lee!" I shouted out the name, appealing to him—a complete stranger until a few hours ago—to join in with my own secret joke about ghosts. If he were a mind-reader, here was his chance to prove it. As for myself, I wasn't a mind-reader at all nor did I know how Rubberteely spelled his ridiculous name.
"Yes?" His voice echoed more than mine. He was, after all, further into the tunnel than myself by at least a body's length, the mealy-mouthed torch in his helmet actually increasing the darkness.
"What exactly is it we are supposed to be looking for?" I asked.
"Signs of habitation, that sort of thing, you know what."
Yes, I did know what. Creatures of the dark, perhaps. But Slaver was nearer the right word. In truth, the target was an undercover agent who also happened to be a black marketeer involved in false history making. I had wondered why someone like myself had been entrusted with being an agent of a deeper level of undercover than the one we were investigating. Common sense told me, however, that there must be an even deeper level below Rubberteely and myself. Still, how could any one person evaluate his own common sense in a vacuum?
The ring in Rubberteely's ear-lobe glinted as he turned round towards me, a smile on his face, or so I guessed, the helmet torch blinding me as he did. "What was your name, anyway? It wasn't mentioned at the briefing."
I knew the name I was meant to give him, but a moment of sheer devilment made me concoct a new one. "Getty Bird." Or at least that's how I visualised it being spelt with letters that would have been more suitable spelling something else, perhaps. His torch nodded as if that was what he expected my name to be and he then proceeded along the tunnel—sloping downwards. Among talk of ancient miners, these workings were rumoured to lead to Hell, such legends only being believeable with the eventual authority of expended time—and fifty years was a drop in the ocean. The ocean itself was a drop in another one. Abraham Lincoln simply existed because, otherwise, too many people had pictures of him in their minds for him not to have existed. Sidney Sumter, too. Furthermore, ghosts like smoke often reached the surface from the fire burning eternally at the core of the Earth. After all, zombies made the best slaves.
Idle thoughts wandered fancy free through my more immediate concerns as we plumbed further into the heartlands of the mine, with both of us appearing to be ancient mummies in retributive search of the mindless creatures who had originally carried out the embalming of such mummies. Being an undercover agent took on a whole new meaning. My revery was interrupted by Rubberteely again turning to face me. I felt my teeth clench, rather than probe the perforations again.
"The ghosts. They are all around us. Can you hear them? Can't you feel them? They are everywhere. In the wind, under our nails, twisted in our hair. They hide in rocks and in children. They talk to you at night, when the moon is full and even when it is not. They are the crickets that chirp, the dogs who yelp, the paper that short stories are written on. They do not sleep, Getty Bird, they simply close their eyes and pretend to live."
His ramblings were rather disquieting. I nodded, agreed with him in silence, and searched the tunnels I travelled. Our storm-lamps did very little to illuminate our surroundings. The walls appeared to be moving in on us—slowly, slowly—as we descended further into the Earth. Faces screamed at us from the walls of the tunnels, complete with empty eye sockets and widely leering mouths. Whether the faces I saw were real or figments of a paranoid and slightly frightened mind I did not know. If they were real, maybe an insane artist went down these tunnels one day and never came out. He spent the rest of his life carving tormented faces every few feet (on both sides of the tunnel and even a few on the ceiling). If the faces were real, then the artist's skeleton was somewhere, somewhere close or somewhere in a different tunnel. But, if what I saw were only shadows and nothing more, then I needed to finish my job and get away from this horrible place. Fast!
Rubberteely was doing the same as I, walking and shining his light on to the walls, but he was talking, talking in his annoying and disturbing way. "Did you know I fought on you, at you, in you, for you, once, a long time ago?"
"Excuse me?" I pointed my lamp at the back of his head.
"It was 1863," he continued. "I commanded seven point five million troops. We didn't have so many at first. We knew the enemy would destroy us if we did not increase our numbers; they had so many! We had to cut every soldier in half, and attached each half to a half of a wolf. Our new animal men were eager for battle, bloodthirsty. They fought gallantly, and we almost won. But the enemy surprised us with barb wire and atomic bullets. Many died, and many more were captured. Less than fourteen thousand went home to their families. We had no choice but to surrender. It was a sad, bad day. It was Old King Cole who betrayed us..."
"Old King Coal?"
"Yes—the man we're after."
His light nodded in an exasperated fashion, then disappeared as if he had turned a corner in the tunnel. I could hear his boots crunching somewhere vaguely ahead. Finally silence: a silence more complete than any silence could possibly be when above ground—even more than that numbing soundlessness between the darkest part of the night and the first signs of dawn. Indeed, my own bloodbeat and consequent surge of the labyrinthine ear had ceased.
I was mystified, but such obliquity was an occupational hazard, true, but never quite like this before in my whole undercover career. I visualised a single huge pitchy black shape in 'civil war' with itself—oozing half-hardened decompositions of vegetable, flesh and bone from its sump of a belly as weapons against itself.
Abruptly, my storm-lamp was doused with the ear-splitting sound of a camera shutter. I had inadvertently allowed the fail-safe cut-out to activate by releasing my finger from the handle's built-in jump-switch. This device was intended to guard against unknown gases in such parahistoric mine-workings and had the potentiality of working automatically as well as manually. I sniffed the air—clean as a whistle, there being no sign of even the heady mustiness of the other civil wars (Russian? English? Bosnian?) which I had experienced nor was there the dizzying redolence of clandestine wine-cellars (except for the slightest sensation of prickly heat within the nostrils). Indeed, the temperature had been relatively non-descript so far, hardly worth recording. Now, a fear of something I couldn't quite explain took sway over any routine thoughts—fear quickly turning to fright at the margins of terror. Fictional creations were, after all, not the most obedient of slaves, often turning against even the most omniscient, omnipotent of masters...
Such self-indulgence did not preoccupy me for long. My training had been designed to counteract the strongest emotions as well as the most trivial. Undercover agents were taught to eschew compassion, even for the self. My own fail-safe mechanism of the mind flipped down, casting all negative thoughts into a shadow of numbness as far back into my brain as consciousness could barely reach, but, fundamentally, I was still aware of fear's draining presence. Nibbling. Hinting. Inferring. Spelling-out. Snowballing. Unravelling. Bleeding. Giving and taking with the rest of my mind. Reminding me of dark places where millions had been gassed because nobody knew what they were or what they could be.
I fumbled with the latch of the storm-lamp hoping to re-ignite it. Trust me to bring a faulty one down here. I was now conscious of my own breathing. The canary in the cage started squawking as if it were pretending to be a large outlandish parrot creature. Yet the canary had completely slipped my mind until now, a creature the health and safety committee had insisted on accompanying all undercover work because canaries were more quickly prone to gas-poisoning and thus more alert to such encroachments. Sidney Sumter was the name I called my dear canary. I knew that was not its real name, but even an author has to compromise...
Until that moment, Sidney's presence had been academic. But, then, I heard a swoop of wings above my head in the darkness, each thought cannoning into the next. The wings were terrifying: wide-sounding and bony-ribbed.
"Robert E Lee!"
My training was showing through again, my tone being urgent, but officious—no sign of fear in its register, merely the awareness that fear was all around me and I needed to compare notes with my accomplice. But colleague would have been a better word. Accomplice implied that we were alike—friendly even—working towards an underhand objective, of which we two only understood. No—none of that applied. Complicity was a luxury that neither of us could afford. Hindsight, too. Wars had no hinterland. They were as immediate as death.
There was no response to my call. Simply the onset of renewed silence, broken only by the audible pain in my chest. I peered into unutterable darkness, not exactly knowing what I sought. I had surrendered any hope of Rubberteely. Even if I stumbled across him, I could no longer trust him. And that was fatal. Not only did I not trust him as a person, but also I had begun to lose faith in his existence as a separate phenomenon. With the black bandages woven around us both, like Satanic maypole garb, we could not be recognised one from the other, except perhaps for the lights we wielded without exchanging. Thought piled upon thought, causing the tunnel's darkness to shine out by comparison.
Indeed, this darkness mapped itself out like crazy-paving in front of me. Slightly darker margins marked where one piece of the pitchy puzzle ended and the other began. Shifting shapes of black, like huge boulders of psychic coal. I heard the grating and groaning of craggy surfaces slipping uneasily over each other—like the fly-wheels in a hellish clockwork contraption tangling and meshing. Or like the splintering roar of an earthquake's incipient migraine. Or like the birth pangs of a huge modern sculpture in Caeserean section. History in traction.
I suddenly felt that the bandages were intended to heal my humanity into something far healthier, on behalf of tunnel gods. Bones, as well as teeth, now tested the weave of my face bindings. I dropped the lamp and canary-cage to the ground so that I could press my palms to my ears to stop the deafeners getting in. I squeezed my eyes tight to enhance the new-found silence. I tentatively opened them again after only a few moments of self-consolidation.
Rubberteely had returned into view, his helmet trailing wispy glows and wormcasts of shudderingly visible air in the wake of its torch's motion. It was then I realised that I had been spooking myself. No amount of training could have prevented that.
The eyes in Rubberteely's slits shone luminous with the fear that lay behind them—as his meagre crown of twirling light picked me out against the tunnel's backdrop. I could see his mummified face was smudged with a darker sooty substance than blackness could ever possibly become. Tears streaked his woven cheeks in Satanic millstreams. I felt at my own stomach, only to find my hand delving into a grainy mulch that reminded me of the pulpy slag in my dear grandmother's old coal bunker, as cold as it was warm. She it was who had put my body underground rather than admit to my true value as vanquisher of death. But I had no thought for such reminiscences, as the dark plasma's birth burped from my body through the tatters.
Rubberteely bowed his head. I thought his hell-black tears indicated sadness for the canary, now flopped out on the seeds of its cage floor, staring up at its dangling mirror in the diffusions from his helmet's lowered light. Forthwith, I toppled permanently into a shadow of numbness and discovered undercover memories even Satan had forgotten.
"The worst fear of all is the fear that turns its victim into fear itself," I intoned parrot-fashion. But there were wads of winding-sheet lodged in my throat like the choke-chews I had once been taught to feed target agents during the course of my duties. And I ran. Ran and ran. I ran till I could neither see nor hear my own black soul. I flittered free.
Silence was three gutless fiddles. I was down here alone as ever—torchless, yet riddled with dreams of torches: Getty Bird, the Coal King, the Gas Gaunt. A splotch of hairy soot beneath the clogged nostrils. Jagged ebony fangs and a self-perpetuating lust for black blood. Embalmed within a consistency of ancient tortured darkness.
The only undead mummy alive.
"Rubberteely!" I cried.
Nothing. I waited and tried again. And again and again.
Finally: "Getty Bird! I found him! Come quick!"
I got my storm-lamp working. Its reassuring light showed me a path, one which I followed. Rubberteely's voice guided me to him. I was puffing and wheezing upon arrival. The distance travelled did not seem that long, but apparently it was.
He was shining his lamp on me, directly at my face. I squinted, put a hand up. My retinas felt like they were being stabbed malevolently by hot sewing needles. I gasped.
"Where is he? Old King Cole? The traitor you've been searching for? The dealer of false history? The reason we are down here in the first place?"
I couldn't make him out. The brightness from his storm-lamp was overwhelming. I stared at his feet. Or, one would think, the area where his feet were supposed to be. I say that because I couldn't see his feet. Did he have them? Of course he does, how else could he have moved? OK, if he has feet, where are they? I couldn't answer that one.
"Silly man, I'm Old King Cole. That is just one of my names. I'm the traitor, the dealer of false history, the reason we're down here in the first place." He laughed. "You see, nothing you know or think you know is reality. I am the reality you believe in. I am a writer, The Writer. Over one thousand stories publsihed worldwide. The recipient of several awards and other honours. One of the most well-known names in fiction. But this, everything that has happened now, this is my greatest achievement. My magnum opus. Nothing ever written can compare to this. Nothing any god has done or will do can compare to this. End of the world? I can delete that from the future with a mere tap of the keyboard..."
While he was talking (raving is more like it), I reached to my belt and unholstered my pistol. I tapped the load button. With a dull click the three prongs parted and out came the thin barrel. Once I aimed it I would pull the trigger, and a death-beam would hit the madman standing before me. He confessed to the wrongs I was hired to right, and training specifically taught me that punishment for crimes against humanity must be carried out immediately.
I pulled the trigger. My gun fired. The sound of the blast echoed all through the tunnel.
His light disappeared. My eyes slowly readjusted to the dark. Did I hit him? I found my storm-lamp and pointed it ahead of me. Rubberteely's body was nowhere to be found. I had missed. Was that possible? How—"
"Old Robert E. Lee was a merry old soul..."
"Each story is one more civil war the writer has to face." Rachel Mildeyes (from "FOOTNOTES TO FICTION")