The man Sher meets at the new client intake office says to wait just a moment, please, and hands her a stack of brochures to read about the place she has come to work. Sher doesn’t know why, really—she can see the Tree of Right from here, looking out the window. And more, she would recognize it anywhere—that tumorous trunk squatting over the land, legion arms stretching skyward, shrouded near-permanently in wispy leaves the color of fog. It is a landmark every sailor learns to sail by. Navigators from Sher’s country gave it its name (though she is ruffled by what has been done to it in translation—“right” is not a direction for a boat to go, but she isn’t one to argue). Little children know about the tree. It figures heavily in their storybooks and consequently, nightmares.
Sher was never a reader. But as there is nothing to do but wait and wait, she reads the brochures through three times.
They want her to stop believing a lot of things she already doesn’t believe. It is a misconception, they say, that the land the tree inhabits is “cursed,” unlivable; people live on the continent, and there are places of great beauty and historical import to be in and to visit—all within a journey of only a day or so. The tree, too, is alive, is habitable, despite its gnarled appearance from the coast. It is giant, sturdy, and true; it will not snap or bend. It furnishes a fine home (and Sher lingers on the pictures of the apartments: their white, airy simplicity, their balcony doors thrown open to show the bowing branches, so close you could reach out and pick a fruit, if the tree bore fruit; the sheer curtains billowing behind).
They are insistent, especially, that she not buy into rumors that the tree was the source of the disaster. Sher is not sure she has heard any such rumor. She would not believe it if she had—she doesn’t pretend to understand the disaster, or why it hit so hard and so many, but she is familiar with the abilities of the sea, and she is not stupid.
The intake officer calls her in at last and proceeds to repeat everything Sher has just read, a torrent of ad copy that she cannot interrupt. He gets, then, to the point. Beneath the tree, underground, there is another marvel: a complicated network of caves that spreads for acres, unexplored. Sher is trained as a boat captain, studied maps and direction and depths before the disaster, before the ocean slicked over and the fishing trade froze. If she becomes a member (and Sher doesn’t know why he says “If”; no one would come out to this no-man’s land if they didn’t intend to accept), she will receive a standard stipend, eligible for increase if her maps lead somewhere important. (“Important”: Valuable. In the company’s interest. Sher suspects this non-answer means mining.)
Sher sees the salary written on the page. It is, she is told, nonnegotiable. She pretends to think it over before she signs. No longer paid per catch, at the sea’s whim. It is the promise her mother dreamed of but never found: Steady pay. And, secondarily, what she herself has dreamed: Something unique in all the world. Something she can be among the first to do.
Sher receives, for signing, enough money to rent an apartment in the tree’s canopy. Rides a glass elevator down the trunk and back up when work is done. Never again must look over the bow of a boat at the ghastly gray of land and sea; sees instead a sea of leaves shimmering pearl-pink, silver-veined, in the balcony lights of the apartments at night, branching silhouettes that breathe outside her blinds each morning. From her apartment, from inside, the tree is beautiful as a holy city, hidden from the ugly lowland, secret and glittering as a temple.
Two years later
Sher let out her rope an inch at a time. Her wrists strong from gripping rock, her form firm, her knees elastic. From the bottom of the pit, a sound like a drop in a long, long bucket. Down in its belly, a diamond flash—the scattered light from Birg’s lantern glass. This was signal enough between them by now: he was down, had found the bottom, and all was clear to join him.
Today’s tunnel, like most Birg and Sher took on, was freshly scouted, cleared for entry but not yet explored. They were given 20 hours for an initial exploration. If within the 20 hours the path plunged, if the walls opened up, if Sher applied her science and said some drop or tunnel looked promising, and if Birg, her lead, agreed, they would petition the yellowcoats, who assessed the value of their findings and decided whether to authorize an extended expedition. Sher and Birg had followed this route for 12 hours, had been working at the descent for 6 more, and Sher was developing the telltale headache, the indicative chill; this was a good route, opening in the right places and dropping in the right ways. Soon, she felt, they would come to something worth telling the coats about. Also soon, protocol would kick in; Birg would decide they’d skirted close enough to the limit, would enforce the rules and turn them around, back to the surface. She felt this also, certain as the lurch in her stomach as she dropped the final feet of the descent.
Birg arced his pickaxe in greeting. A dim glint forward and back like waking bat eyes. “Last time I saw you, you were this small,” he said. This was, seemingly, his very favorite joke.
“I’ll catch up, you know,” she said, dusting off. “You can go without me.”
“Too scared,” he said, twirling his pickaxe. He ushered her in front with the lantern, into the tunnel.
Sher could tell it already. Beyond the reach of her headlamp, the walls receded, the arc of the ceiling expanded. They emerged into an emptied-out chamber, a wide floor and a high ceiling echoing their steps back to them, the way she imagined a ballroom would do. She pulled out her notebook, plotted a quick line for horizon, an x for zenith. In the corner of the page, in small block letters no one would be able to read, she wrote “The Ballroom.”
Birg edged past her at the mouth of the cavern. He angled the lantern to approximate for her the height and depth, spinning lazy circles. “Not seeing an exit,” he said.
“It’s not a dead end,” Sher said. She charted the rise and run, sketched the basic angles by eye, though this introduced error, weakened their case to the coats. Constantly she apologized to Birg for the time she was costing them, for having to ask how the minutes were ticking on the surface, though he never seemed in the least concerned, though he never told her the actual time—only approximations like “Sometime north of noon” or meaninglessness like “Closer to home.”
Or, like now, “How about a break, Sher?”
Which meant that their time was up. Sher sat down without stopping, cleaning up her drawing.
Birg unpacked a meal, many items in separate wrappings. Sher had packed energy bars, had not planned to eat anything real till they returned. Birg held a sandwich out to her until she put the notebook away.
“I was too slow,” she said.
“You were just right,” he said. “You took the time it takes.”
There was no point in arguing. She took a bite of sandwich.
“You’re still bright-eyed.” He took off his helmet and rifled sweat out of his hair till it stood up, wet and sharp. “It’s good. I had that for about a month, then all of a sudden I’m old and a grump.”
“I’m older than you,” she said.
“It’s an old feeling,” he said. “I don’t know how much more I’ve got in me before I have to quit. Another year, maybe.”
“You say that,” said Sher, “but I don’t know where else you’d live.”
“Inns,” teased Birg. “Hostels. The city. Hut in the desert. Tent pitched in the woods. A car. A boat.” He brushed crumbs from his beard. “Out in the country. A farm.”
“I meant live like this,” Sher said. Birg lived in the apartment one limb beneath her. Neither she nor Birg had shared much about their former lives, but there were certain tics of personality that made it clear he’d never had money that would contend with they got for caving. Sher doubted contenders existed. Even in the more prosperous parts of the world, very little of what there was to get money for was good.
“I’d take care of myself,” Birg said. “I’d build something. A hotel in someplace tourists still go. You could come too.”
“And work scullery?” she said. “I like this job.”
“There’s no places an explorer can’t go,” Birg said, jostling her elbow.
Sher liked Birg, but she disliked how he’d profess childish things just to keep his arguments alive.
“Ugh,” spat Birg. “Grit in everything.” And he rubbed at his tongue with a handkerchief. Sher just kept going, nibbling to minimize crumbs, to prolong flavor, until Birg was done and she was done, and he said she had to nap. Then woke when he called her, and kept watch while Birg closed his eyes, peering through the dark at her slapdash map, erasing, filling in gaps where the low light of the lamp was enough.
Images courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology.