By: Linus Mumford
Cover art by: Juan kurtzman-gonzalez
I plunge deeper into a slouch in the booth’s cushion, slip on a pair of shades, then fold my arms together. I watch the passing scenery while Khloe periodically takes generous sips from her iced coffee, without breaking her focus on the pages in front of her. Now where did she pick that one up? Oh, just around. My mind wanders. I let it. Several years ago, our family spent spring break at our vacation house in Arizona. We stayed up late one night gathered around a fire pit eating s’mores. I took a swallow from the mezcal. What could we call a chihuahua bought on a impulse from a Native American man earlier that day. Khloe sat on the ground playing with the dog, until he snatched one of her golden brown marshmallows off the stick while it was roasting. He kept jumping around the fire and barking at the shadows on the rocks. We pass out in our chairs around two or so.
Later that morning, my father wakes me up for an early hike. Just the two of us. Says he wants to show me something. Now? Yes? We’re somewhere in the Sonora Desert—that much is certain. The canyon is doused in a navy blue tint, enshrining the tumbleweeds and both of the canyon’s walls in shadow. Bats screech into the night, as they swoop through the bushes. I dawdle back, pausing, then pulling back instantly each time I test the sharpness of different cacti. My father isn’t following any pre-existing trail, but simply letting his little Maglite guide the way. He trailblazes, as he pulls back several scrawny, thorn-ridden bushes. Sometimes he holds the way for me, and sometimes he merely shines the narrow beam of light my way to make a constellation of thorns and brambles. We traverse vertically into the depths of the canyon, there’s one last dip, and then we snake upwards for a while. The outing probably totals a good four or five miles altogether. He calls for me to hurry up as I stumble into an extra stubborn mesh of thorns. When I emerge, I see by squinting at my skin that my forearms and legs are completely covered in coarse scratches. He’s led me to an open area where we can see a large portion of the canyon and now he says, we’ve arrived. Three converging trunks at the bottom open up to a large canopied tree. We’ve strayed considerably from the small riverbed. Hands on my hips, I lean out of this opening in the trees, and I see now the cliff is tapered only slightly by some bushes growing out of the side of it. From here we can just make out the top of our vacation house—seemingly unlit—peeking over a small hill at the far end of the canyon. Khloe and your mom are still sound asleep, he says. If only they knew what they were missin’. He chuckles sleepily as his eyes catch the moon for a second. Isn’t that a Juniper tree? He can barely contain himself, his eyes lively and intense. I always called it an alligator tree, he murmurs, absently stroking the bark, which is green with sharp edges. Read it on a plaque somewhere by the trailhead. Which begs the question, what trailhead? But I keep it to myself.
Boy, I could tell you a lot about this tree, my dad says, rubbing an eye while he tries to make out the top of it. Me and my friends, we’d chill out here all the time when I was young, while the grown-ups were all busy playing gin rummy. Get up to all types of crazy shit, being young and stupid, as you do. It would be Jax, me, Skyler, Blake, and sometimes his girlfriend Lucia if she wasn’t catching snakes in the depths of the canyon. We’d pass around a bottle of red, from California usually. I recall one time we shared something called “Cloud Break.” We always got them from the vault back at the house. The tree was almost as big as it is now, ‘cept we cleared all the branches out of the middle part here in ‘71.
What I’ll say is it’s pretty much intact since last time I saw it, far as I can tell. That’s, uh, musta been 1983, he exclaims, heightening his tone, again looking for the top of the tree blended into the sky. He clears his throat.
He tells the story about the underground city called Krimora while we lean back on adjacent tree trunks. I crane my neck to the east for the first surreptitious signs of sun.
So, I’m in the middle of the Australian Outback, in a desert, not really like this one, but possibly similar in terrain, he says, and there’s this huge stretch of white sand dunes. A dune juts outward to form a corner, and with some dusting off, traces of a weathered wooden door are revealed, locked shut by a buildup of sand. If you want to believe that nothing of importance lies inside—I mean, how could it, after all—then you would go back to your journey across the blank, homogenous white landscape, and you’d continue on to your intended destination, so to speak. But if you find yourself on this particular journey already, then let’s just say there could never be any sort of intended destination; the entire desert is just a waiting place, a directionless threshold, if you will. But if you’re the curious type, then you want to know what’s behind that door. So you heave the door just a fraction of the way open, after multiple tries, and you squeeze through. You end up at the foot of a kind of tunnel, with sconces lining each side.
Dad, I snap at him. C’mon, the sun’s out now. Tell me what this is all about, now.
Ah, yes, the sunrise. Not an image easily erased from the memory. You kids and your movies, can’t hardly wait for the end without a big man with foreign features and an uzi shooting up the place. Just hold your horses. Anyway, you’re in the tunnel, but only about a tenth of the sconces seem to be working. Like that’s going to scare you off. Oh, you find your way all right. The tunnel don’t stay straight for very long; it twists and turns and dips down at times. Then you climb down a ladder and watch the scenery change and there’s a rather sudden drop in temperature. Gradually you hear the faint commotion of people moving about, and then the relief washes over you. Boy, will it be nice to be around people after so much time in the desert. Plus, you’re still getting head rushes from looking at all that white sand. Now, when you complete the last turn in the passageway the end comes into view as a swirl of different shades of brown and orange. People pass back and forth with a rapidness that seems choreographed, like a performance. The people are mostly white men, faces caked in dust and aged past their years by hard labor, all yelling violently over their shoulders at one another, boasting various accents you can’t make out, spit flying from their mouths as they jerk along chained up hyenas. They could’ve been dingos, but they looked to me like hyenas, my dad assures me. As one passes, it bears its teeth at you then moves along. They pull along donkeys, too, that carry their food and valuables in precarious piles on their backs. The sweat oozes down the animals’ foreheads and torsos.
One man with ashy, soiled over hands turns to you and shows off a crooked, detached grin and a handful of gold, opal, silver, and diamonds. He follows your eyes to the merchandise, then flips them back into a knapsack under his many layers of clothing. He’s gone as quickly as he appeared. You become aware of the noise around you, through which you gather the depth and sheer magnitude of the place you’ve stumbled upon. There is dust everywhere, so you can’t make out any clear sign of a ceiling. What you hear, however, is a plethora of various different sounds. There must be a hundred different kinds of birds in this place, or so it seems. Try to comprehend for a second.
I know it’s hard, because it’s early and your head’s still reeling from last night, but bear with me. Close your eyes now, and listen.
Out of the corner of your eye you see a falcon perched stock-still on a man’s shoulder. He has a fedora pulled low over his eyes and he’s slumped on a stool at a storefront selling silk, with plastic covers to keep the dust off. He looks as a man passes by. It’s early in the day still, but he hopes to get many customers. What can we say about this picture now? Why are those talons clamped in so tight? They look like they’re digging into his collar bone and shoulders—six deep lines shooting out from certain points on his denim jacket.
My dad shows me the spot on his right shoulder and chest area.
It’s really a part of his body, okay. You ever see one of those trees that has grown around a chain link fence? His falcon’s kind of like that. You blink and see that the man has now slipped off his stool and tipped his fedora up on his forehead. Three guys stand next to the man with the fedora, all of whom are staring at you.
Four hands land on your shoulders, slamming you to the rock solid ground, face first, and everything clouds over in dust. Voices bark at one another towering above you, debating what to do with this blatant foreigner. They pull you onto your feet, a man with bloated jaws and aviators on looks you straight up and down, frowning just inches away from your face and pressing his stomach into your right arm. Then the team marches you forward, wedging a path through the crowd with surprising efficiency, and all the people stare at you with jaded yet zealous eyes. You’ve rounded a corner and they push you through a door, then down some well lit steps. A mouse scurries past you up the steps. In the midst of the commotion, you realize the whole container of the city has got to be fairly high, at least for a falcon to inhabit the place, because you know how they have to dive a long distance to seize their prey. One of the big… whatever you want to call—the lugs, shoves you into the room, barks at you, and points to a chair at a table. A single drop light hangs loosely from the ceiling above the table.
Half a minute goes by, static audible from a radio across the room, while some guy sits on a counter pounding on the remote, muttering curses. Then he chucks it away and goes to fiddle with the antenna, having partial success. Someone’s piercing laugh is heard through one of the walls, a melodic arc of a laugh—ha-ha-ha! There are two doorways in this room, besides the one through which you entered—one in the wall past the table, next to a wide, tall mirror; the other on the wall to your left. Each seem to go straight back into the building with dimly lit corridors and no visible connecting doors. You catch brief snippets of gold and silver quotes from the radio. Reception not so good down here? The question hangs in the air innocuously, lost, like a homeless person out in the big city. Lug Number One grins like a kid, then hums vaguely in lieu of a response. The second Lug makes his way across the room in strides, looking down and stopping briefly to listen to the radio and to fish out a packet of cigarettes. He sits down in the chair opposite you, first sitting sideways while he lights a cigarette, then turning to face you. This one’s an enormous fucker. He’s wearing a big white button-down shirt tucked into his waist with a black tie and a motorcycle jacket. A tempest of curly blond hair casts a shadow over half his face, really negating any need for the shades he’s got on.
What is your name, my friend? he says, after opening a large binder of files and flipping through various folders. I assume you have a name, don’t you? We try to keep a log of any new faces, to our little village here, down under. ‘S okay. He licks a finger, finds the right page and scribbles something down, then shuts the binder. Sometimes they slip through the cracks—yes, unfortunate but inevitable, he continues, the cigarette bobbing up and down to his somewhat slurred speech. But we try to keep a census. Good thing to have, wouldn’t you say? Just try to keep your head. You seem dazed, yeah? You must be thirsty, I’m sure. Could you bring us some water? he calls out to Lug Number One.
So, let me start by saying that this is a completely self-contained municipality. And who knows what your story might be, or how you found us. Frankly, it’s none of my business. That said, if you’re willing to earn your keep, then we might let you stay. If you turn on us—well, perhaps it’s better to just avoid that part for now, what do you think? It’s about a twelve hour shift, and judging from those rags you’ve basically got your uniform already, so cheers to that. And if you don’t like it, well you can fuck off, frankly speaking. That’s right. But let me be clear. You’re not leaving outta here the way you came in. Think about that. He involuntarily lands a fist on the table for extra emphasis.
The glass of water comes and you down it in four gulps. That’s right, drink up, he says. Hey, can he get a refill on the water? A shadow seizes the glass from the table and retreats with it.
The man looks down in his lap, silently mouthing words to himself, then peers over his shades and says to you, I know what it is. ‘S the money, isn’t it? Sure, you’ll get your fair share down here. But you’ll have to pay your dues just like everyone else. You come here unannounced—well, yeah. You gotta meet us halfway. ‘S just like that. He clicks and unclicks his pen five times and lets a cumulus cloud of tobacco smoke drift over your shoulder. There’s an intense pain in your head and in your ribcage from getting slammed to the ground in the street moments earlier. Your mind goes to some giant metropolis where you used to live at some point. But the nearest one of those is thousands of miles away, and even that’s just an arbitrary figure…
As he stands up he nudges the chair backward with his knees, then turns to face the mirror. He begins to mutter things under his breath, and you can see him gesturing with his hands. He turns on his heels so you can see his profile. He removes his glasses and squeezes the bridge of his nose, his mouth slightly open. He scales the room in two steps, then begins to brew a pot of coffee. He quietly exchanges some words with his associate, and every once in a while lets out an excited laugh. The chatter grows louder and the words bubble out spastically: well, yeah, the time constraints. We know about that, don’t we.
The associate nods vigorously.
The fat man squints at the associate, then swings his head toward you and scurries over to rest his elbow on the back of your chair.
He scrutinizes you from behind with widened, yellowish eyes. You have to be decisive, because we have rigid time constraints we adhere to. Things that extend way, way past the walls of this room.
He glances around the room warily. Is it the blossoming asbestos in the corners of the ceiling rubbing him the wrong way, or is it the stuffy air and implausibly low lighting? He searches your eyes for a second or two longer. His keep flickering brown to yellow, and back again. Then, once satisfied, he straightens his back (as much as it will allow) and turns, almost taking a slurp of coffee, but then you decide to open your mouth. When you do, you find that your words are rushed and hoarse, hardly recognizable as your own voice.
You know, I, I’m really not cut out for this type of work, sir. I actually just st-stumbled in here by accident. The last thing I ate was some, uh, ostrich jerky that I—(you swallow involuntarily)—I haven’t slept in a long time. Ahh. You mumble something incoherent.
And, you try to add, momentarily grasping a pseudo-useful thought, I thought there might be some—I didn’t realize!
Now well into mid-morning, patches of light pierce through the leaves and shower our hands and clothing. I look at my father. His face is at ease. He has stopped telling me about the dusty underground city and now focuses his eyes on something behind me. I whirl around in search for the object of interest. He must be looking at the tree trunk I’m sitting on, but I don’t see anything special about it. I look back at him. He gives me a look of irritation, holding an open palm out at me, and again peers around my body at that same spot on the tree trunk. I follow his gaze, half-expecting to find a person behind me. At that moment an owl swivels its head to look right at me, with two discus-sized eyes that seem to want to split open my skull with their sheer contact. Then the bird spreads its wings and sails off in silent, slow-moving flaps, which I feel as they reverberate through the air. It seems to have doubled in size since taking flight. It diminishes into the distance, through the folds of the bushes and trees.
I walk up and down the aisle, involuntarily kicking a soccer ball that rolled down from the next section. The train makes a curve and the landscape opens up to some marshes with tall reeds sticking out. The train attendant motions curtly for me to sit back down. Khloe tells me her book is too one-dimensional and sets it down emphatically. I notice there is a break in the clouds that looks oddly like an eye, which I try to point out to Khloe, thinking that it might soon dissipate. She raises her eyebrows impatiently and nods.