Sher stands newly captained on the deck of the ship that will be hers. Grim air, gray sea, roiling from horizon to shore with a sickly oil sheen.
What kind of fish do you catch in this, she asks the man cleaning the nets.
Crab, he says, and says nothing more, not even when they dock and she says she looks forward to working with him and his crew, says good hunting, says goodbye.
In the next few days, something happens. Sher packs up all her apartment. Sells off all her things. Buys a one-way seat on a ferry to the place all the ads are saying has good work, to the edge of the southern marsh, to the Tree of Right. Tells nobody—leaves without notice to her landlord or to the fishing company, without goodbye to her mother, whom she envisions constantly during the four-day trip: which acquaintance in town will find out first and deliver the news to her mother’s sickbed, which faces her mother will make in response, whether she will register what exactly Sher has done, if in fact she will be so enraged that she will rise, will regain the mobility and speech she lost to the stroke. Sher drinks bad vodka to mute her imagination.
In the recruiter’s shabby shack, she signs her papers, says she is happy for the position of surveyor, a very quick learner, says yes, she’ll stick around to meet her lead, due back soon from his last survey, just passing the torch, expecting him any minute really.
Still more hours pass in the office. Sher pores over and over the floor plan of her apartment. Memorizes the brochures for basic caving safety, for televisor installation packages basic through deluxe.
Her lead greets her as he breezes through the door, calls her name, seems to know she’s assigned to him on sight—was she signed on the moment she bought the ride?—his face is filthy, he is big and blustery and young. His eyes are wide and though this enhances the impression of gallantry, Sher detects a lingering unease; he seems shy of the hand she extends. “Looking forward to working with you,” he says.
And though Sher replies that she’ll be glad for his guidance, she feels immediately she is in charge. Gives his hand one shake, firm.
Sher dropped to her hands in the dark. The cavern reverberating around her, echoing the break, maybe breaking again, the floor breaking again, what should have been bottom tumbling down and down into black. The air thin and trembling with fine crystalline dust.
She turned her headlamp up bright, called out over the edge. “Birg?”
Like fragments of marbles, the sound of rocks scattering deep below.
She held herself flat, motionless, her weight carefully distributed. Certain facts felt far from her—that she must stay quiet, that she must not advance; any of it could crumble. But the body did what it had practiced, the body felt each fracture in the ground, held itself taut, made itself weightless.
A crackle of static through the radio at her hip.
She wiggled the radio free of her belt, cupped a hand to keep herself from echoing. “You there?” she said.
Through the radio, a wheeze and groan: “Here.”
Find more light. Shine into that pit. Sher fumbled in her pack for the emergency lantern. Set it directly in front of her face, so close her nose could find it. Closed her eyes, flipped the switch. Flipped the switch, flipped it back.
Sighed. Fished her arm back again, feeling for the backup battery. Snatched first at energy bar, oxygen meter; freed the battery, scratched her wrist on the spiral ring of her notebook, huffed. Sher was not impatient, was not a person who rushed. Was resilient and calm and disaster tested and now she fumbled with the lantern and out popped the old battery onto the cave floor, in she pushed the new one, flipped the switch on, flipped it back. Hissed angry through her teeth, expelled the battery and turned it the correct direction, jammed it back in its socket, flipped the switch without closing her eyes and now she was blind, white blind, blinking into the ground, spots floating before her vision like fireworks.
“I see that.” Huffing, quiet through the radio. “Sher? Can it get any brighter?”
Sher lifted the lantern and swung it far in front. Blinked until the spots finally dissipated. Pulled her head up, surveyed what lay in front of her.
Where the crystal crater had been there was now a hole like the mouth of a shark, the edges splintered and glittering even brighter than before, trailing dust that sparkled like snowfall in the beam. No one would ever see again the spectacle same as she and Birg had seen it. Would see a strange, fiercer beauty. Sher saw it only as menacing.
Within the mouth a narrowing throat, an angling shaft whose path Sher coud not trace from her position. Her layer seemed separate from what had broken and solid as ever; an infuriating, isolating lookout post that Sher did not see how to safely leave. She could not see Birg. She crept forward on her belly till the tips of her fingers met air, clasped the edge. Bent her head over far as she dared.
“Can you climb?” she radioed. “There’s a pitch. You dropped right down through the middle.”
“Keep away from it,” Birg said, but he did not sound stern. Did not sound anything.
“Are you hurt?”
“I’m not near the hole,” she said. “This layer I’m on is firm. It didn’t break with the rest.”
From below, the squeal of bootsoles slick on rock.
“No,” said Birg, his breathing rough. “I just can’t really tell what’s going on. But I’ll figure out what to do, right?”
“Yes,” Sher said. “Right.”
“Talk to me. So I know you’re here.”
“Oh,” said Sher. She tucked the radio against her elbow, drew the lantern closer; everything she might want in the protective pen of her arms. “Birg, I don’t have to ask you dates and numbers, right? You remember who you are and all?”
“Just for safety’s sake, Birg. Walk back through what happened?”
“Easy. I was being an ass,” said Birg. “I’ll get myself out, okay, Sher? Talk to me.”
“I will.” Sher eased back from the edge, felt her body swelling back to size. Shoulders, chest expanding. No longer as small as she could be.
“Don’t leave. Sher?”
“I know, I know. So,” Sher said into her arms.
Sew buttons, replied Birg in her head.
“The crystal probably wasn’t much to talk about anyway,” said Sher. “It’s gypsum. Basic. The coats shut the place down if you find anything really interesting, anyway. That’s what that guy from two apartments down said, that they closed off his tunnel when he found plants growing in it. Little green lichens, nothing that great, but they never let him back down to see them. He had wanted to take some back to show everyone.
“He said he found living plants. I suppose he might have been making it up. I probably should have asked you if you’d heard anything about that. Did you?”
She gathered her breath a moment, wanting an answer from Birg instead of the quiet crumbling. “You hear me?” she said.
He’s busy, Sher thought at herself. He ought not answer me back.
“You know my program?” she said. “The one you make fun of. Well, it’s kind of in a rut. It used to be sad, the way no one notices the wind god, but now they mostly play it for laughs. I think it might get good again soon. There’s the girl he likes, you remember? He keeps getting a little closer to telling her. At this point she’s only barely not noticing. I think she’ll figure it out soon.
“Here’s what I think,” said Sher, “I think it’s actually that everyone does know, or they’ve noticed something out of this world is happening, but they’re scared of saying it. You’d think you’d say if something impossible turned up in front of you, but maybe that’s just the thing; maybe because you noticed it, you’d decide it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, because why would it be.
“And if something unreal did show itself to you, and you acknowledged it, before it acknowledged you, what good could that possibly bring.”
The air was cold, open, cleaner than before; the dust settling, no more breaking. The breaking done, the sound of it forgotten. The cave gave a shiver of settling as caves sometimes did.
“Maybe not. Maybe you’d say something, if it was you,” she said. Progress, she listened for progress.
Found only pebbles scattering into the pit, the gentle only-just-broken quiet, like the sound outside her apartment window of rain.
The liar. The prideful, irresponsible coward.
“You said it wasn’t,” said Sher, shifting up onto her elbows, “but I thought that program we watched last night was good. Most of it on the box isn’t good. You don’t know because you don’t have one. I only got the box because they made it look nice in the welcome packet. That thing. I read it one hundred times waiting for you in the recruitment office. I do not exaggerate. And then you barely got any words out once you finally showed up. You were more unimpressive that day than any person I ever met.
“I am not an exaggerator. Any person. I have ever met.”
Concussed, losing blood, crumpled in the bottom of the pit.
She shoved the radio to her mouth. “Birg,” she shouted, madder at him than she’d ever been.
Sher got her feet under her, pulled up to her hands and knees. It wasn’t as if she could help him herself. If she went down there, to the pit, she had nothing to use to get them both back up.
Don’t leave, Birg urged in her head, there has to be something. Something.
Sher knew the inventory of her pack blind. Still she put her hand in, pawed through. She was not a creative person. It wouldn’t matter if she was. Rescue was an exact job. She couldn’t cobble it from carabiners and webbing.
It wouldn’t be far. She would go back just enough to radio the surface. She would come back after, would not be away from him for long. She could talk to him as she went. He might not know she was gone.
Would wake up in the dark she left behind, no lantern, confused, clumsy, unable to climb. Would not remember how. Would not remember training, would not remember the job. Would not remember where he was or why. Would only know he was without help. Alone. Would go out of his mind. Like people did, left alone in the dark.
Out, out. Sher took her lantern and hurried back through the Crystal Corridor. Fumbled forward along the walls, shoved herself through the tight passes. Maybe bleeding. Maybe crushing, shattering the formations. Good, she thought. As she moved, in her ears, the crystal sang and did not stop singing. Sher thumbed the radio every few seconds, sending her signal out into nothing. Some part of her keeping time: How long before he woke? How long before the brain began its calculated killing off? Both intervals too short, the odds being eaten away.
Images courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology.