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๐˜ฃ๐˜บ ๐˜™๐˜ฐ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ต ๐˜—๐˜ฐ๐˜ฑ๐˜ฆ



As a nation, perhaps as human beings, we put off dealing with serious potential problems until a crisis arises. Iโ€™ve got so much to deal with in my normal life, Iโ€™ll put off whatever I can until I have to face it, which is neither wise nor prudent. We have to multi-task. Iโ€™m not talking about global warming or the threat of nuclear war, but we need to put those issues on the calendar as well. Maybe it doesnโ€™t seem important to the rest of the country what we here in our little patch of the woods know about the threat from the dragons of Tennessee, but the threat is real and will one day come to fruition with a vengeance, if not fire and brimstone. Itโ€™ll be too hard waiting for Jesus to come back when the sky is full of mad, hungry predators whose size and power puts us all at grave risk of being torn limb from limb as a casual snack.


I came to full understanding of the problem the night I got my mother to tell me what had happened to my father a few months before my birth. My father, Oskar Lindgren, at thirty-five a writer of mystery novels with an adventurous slant, had earned enough from Cold Cabin to buy a piece of land in a barely southern state at below market value. The old fellow, Kurt Turner, who sold the place, had lost his wife to cancer. Both kids had grown up and had absolutely no interest in returning though Kurt believed they would miss the place as time went by. When they saw the little stream running through the chartreuse spring undergrowth, and the little cave surrounded on one side by a stand of old trees, the enchantment took hold of both of them.


Oskar asked Kurt why he had blocked the cave with half a dozen sawhorses, now gray with weather and age, which he put up when his kids were small. His daughter graduated from UT and now lived and worked in Iceland. His son did something with computers in Jackson, Mississippi. Kurt never thought of removing the sawhorses, but they could if they wanted and didnโ€™t plan on kids anytime soon. He had initially blocked the cave because of unstable earth, though in point of fact he had heard a rumor of something living deep inside, but he didnโ€™t give that much credence.


Lifelong Northerners, Oskar and Bette Lindgren fell in love with the place sufficiently to override their fears. Oskar, Swedish by heritage and conservative with their finances, had a fear his good fortune would not hold. Bette feared the Southlandโ€™s tradition of racial violence, as she came of an Indian tribe not formally recognized by the federal government, mixed as they were with European blood. Kurt told them about coming across black bears in the woods, which made her nervous because of a previous experience at cold cabin, when Oskar tried to scare one off by firing a twenty-two bullet past the bearโ€™s ear.


Bette had seen a piece fly from the ear, though Oskar swore he hadnโ€™t hit it. The wound made the bear angry, so it turned on the nearest person, Bette. When Oskar shot the bear in the head, one round went right in the eye while Bette was looking. She had not had time to be scared yet, and she wondered what happened to his eye. She paid no attention to the two other shots she heard fired. This turned into a dramatic bear attack in his novel, but the dead bear left a mark on Bette. She had dreams in which she searched the snow for a missing piece of ear. When she told Kurt, he assured her that the bears in their vicinity generally minded their own business. He did recommend against shooting them, as they would naturally react badly.


As it turned out, their new home excited them so much they made love with marvelous frequency without a thought for birth control. Thus, the sperm carrying the identity of Oskar Jr. arrived at the gates of the egg and was welcomed without fanfare. He needed to set the next book in his new home and defeat the writerโ€™s block that set in after the success of Cold Cabin, which scared him as much as it pleased him.


It took him a few months to get used to living in this forested neighborhood during which time Bette got busy building their son in her womb. Oskar worked with desperation, refining the basic idea, relocating it here in his new home rather than the world of Vermont. He wrestled with it, hoping to throw it to the mat and pin it for the full count. He had the idea that this novel would include a hint of primordial history of the place with a suggestion of the spirits of indigenous but prehistoric creatures haunting the region before spreading to the country as a whole.


In one scene, he tried to establish a reason there would be the literal ghosts of primordial beasts on the property. He needed to locate the source of these weird specters in a specific place on the property and chose the unexplored cave as embodying the theme of buried danger, with copious notes on subjects which would interest no one but the deceased writer.


At odd times of the night, when I got up to pee in years past, I saw him in his study trying to remember who he was and how a troop of pterodactyls survived in the depths of the earth. He needed this to work and expended pages on the subject, but he had been dead for as many years as I was old. The answer lay in those caves, and this he shared with Bette, like a man possessed. He called them Mutant Thunder Birds, but of course they were not birds at all but flying lizards in his drawings and diagrams. He designed his own dinosaur out of materials of his imagination, needing to connect fanciful stuff with a real place: caves from which they would emerge during an ongoing murder investigation in a head-spinning turn of events that has movie written all over it, with some dynamite potential for special effects, merging two genres in surprising interruption to a murder mystery in progress. In what he had of this book, old Kurt who sold him the place played victim; as villain, these ugly creatures with long, toothy beaks, reptilian bodies, and wings that reminded me of the underbelly of a dead opossum I once saw while walking through the woods. I actually thought, with a sonโ€™s bias, that my father had caught a new wave coming to arts in America before his abrupt demise.


There were these last remaining pterodactyls underground, deep within a cave on the property he had been warned was the haunt of spectral beings from a gone time, though not as gone as he imagined. With scales, slippery-looking lizard skin stretched over the wings, and great claws like thorny fingers, these creatures owed their imaginative lineage to dragons, but the kind of dragons that would make your skin crawl to look at them. This was my fatherโ€™s idea, and the publisher wanted to know more and asked for this introduction. The idea for this novel came from my father, and he died for it. Once she got started telling me what happened, Bette told me everything, as if she had fallen in a trance I had no interest in disturbing.


What she told me filled out the novel, making Cold Cavern the product of a committee that was comprised of myself as Chair, my dead Dad, dead Mom, dead Kurt Turner, dead black bear named Sam, and a pair of dead pterodactyls who performed like cartoon magpies. This committee met every morning before I started work on this book with more a sense of filial obligation than artistic inspiration. Iโ€™ve patched the thing together, but I believe it has survived in more compelling form than I could have imagined. Dad would be pleased. He can rest in peace, as they say.


Like Kurtโ€™s wife, Bette died of cancer almost a year ago, making me wonder if the place is indeed cursed or at least somehow polluted. Oskar, the originator of this project, gave it to me in a dream, where I received the fragments from his hand, or the hand of his imaginary body. He appeared an inch or two shorter than me, blonde as mother was brunette, his hair worn like the little Dutch boy on paint cans. He smoked a pipe with a curved stem and a face in the wooden bowl of a man with a precise little goatee like his own.


His features might have been called chiseled. In his photographs, he looks to me like he was drawn in with a pencil. He had a touch of the cowboy and had grown up with cows. He favored jeans and western shirt, never a jacket. An old zippered sweatshirt with a hood at most. A rugged dude, if Mom is objective, with herky-jerky movements that did scare her sometimes. Mostly she admired him. They met at college, as he was graduating, and she got swept up in his energy.


You cannot imagine how intense Oskar was, she told me, and in all things as exacting as a military man setting out for war. I admire that because I am the exact opposite of whatever he was, taking my motherโ€™s side. This novel is what I have in common with him. It was hard work mining fatherโ€™s papers. He had no computer files, as this occurred in an era before laptops and cellphones, an era into which I came into being. He used a manual typewriter, but I am thankful for his many drawings of characters and creatures. My present plan is to include the images in a website any reader may consult at their convenience.


He never said as much, but I think he intended the pterodactyls to suggest dragons. They adapted to life underground by becoming soft and slimy, pearl white to gray, so blind they emitted squeaks like bats as they flew, scooping what they found in their path to hungry maws. like whales or sharks at sea. But even that bear attack turned out just what the story needed. It was a daring step to move from bears to terror birds. Now, he needed this to pay off for him as well. He and Bette were set for another year, maybe more if luck held and sales didnโ€™t drop. He spent hours walking around their twenty acres into neighboring farms, getting to know people who had lived there for more generations than he could count back in blonde ancestors.


Nothing clicked to tie this together until that day he decided rather than waste time trying to write, he would get rid of those old sawhorses and have a look at this cave he had been writing about. His neighbors called it a nippy morning. Oskar went out in a pale blue shirt, short-sleeved, not button down. I am looking at a photo. Blue jeans, big belt buckle. He took the horses apart, half a dozen of them, brought them together between cave and trees, poured lighter fluid over them, and up they went in blue and yellow flame. So much better than a morning banging his head against the wall of words. He became overheated and thought he might stick his head in a cool cave to see what he actually had.


Kurt Turner hadnโ€™t thought it went back far, cautioning him to steer clear of it altogether, but Oskarโ€™s curiosity had been piqued. This cave might have a part as a detail in the next book, which hadnโ€™t yet gotten underway, lots of pages but no story. Atmosphere wonโ€™t do, there had to be a great whopper at the heart and that whopper must have a foundation in reality to take hold in the readerโ€™s mind. This from his journals. From a quick perusal, the cave went back further than expected. The passage took a downward turn, this description from Bette.


He wormed his way in until he couldnโ€™t see anything in front of him. He said hello several times, listening to an echo that gave him to understand the cave opened in a hollow cavern of enormous proportions, perhaps containing tunnels, secret passages into the hollow canyons in the earth replete with water streaming down from above. Here the last pterodactyls survived the centuries, only to emerge at the beckoning of an intrepid writer.


Come forth, you hideous beasties!


He must have experienced a tormenting cycle of butterflies fluttering through his body as he then decided to return with a strong light and tools rather than tackle this now. He saw a novel opening with the opening of the cave. When he came out, he noticed leaves had turned to red and yellow all around him. He had been so wrapped up in the novel he hadnโ€™t seen what came before his eyes. He needed a dog. He always loved springer spaniels. Wouldnโ€™t one look wonderful out here now. The fire had gone low by this time, the remains of the dry and ancient wood glowing as life went from it.


He sat on a rock smoking his pipe and watching the embers. He would come back with a strong light, a rope and a pick. A knife, a canteen of water. Dress warmly. It would be cold under the ground. He felt excitement boiling in him, like when they first entered the cabin that became the cold cabin of his novel on a bright winterโ€™s morning. Maybe call the book Cold Cavern, to pick up on the theme of the previous books. His first had been Cold in the Blood, a shortie that never quite caught on. The memory of that fizzle scared him, but he was training himself not to accept fear into his mind.


Fear, he told himself, would destroy him. He had written out a quote from Dune about fear being the mind killer, with an admonition to face fears that he took to heart, tacking it to the wall before his desk. My father was a brave man, I have no doubt, perhaps foolhardy, and when Bette saw him drive up and unload equipment from the Jeep, she wondered what he had in store for her. Being at the cold cabin had been fun, but there had been moments of real fear as Oskar got further into the planning and construction of his novel. The bear had been too much for her. If he hadnโ€™t taken a shot at it, it would never have turned on them. When she got over the initial shock, she reflected that this was what she deserved for letting him get her involved in his attempt to fashion a novel of materials of the real world. She would never let it happen again.


Oskar liked thinking of himself as a carpenter like his father but one who works with invisible materials, and therefore much harder to hold in the hand. They could only be held in the mind. Immaterial substance, not even light sculpture. Chunks of imaginary wood, bright shiny hinges and hooks. He spread things on the table. Bette saw he purchased two yellow helmets with lights affixed to the front and knew she would be involved in his process fairly soon.


She felt some curiosity about the airhorn. He wanted to hear how a loud sound resonated in his cavern. He had taken possession of it as imaginary property. Iโ€™m going down in my cavern. Those boots should fit you. The tread will keep you vertical. The belt has canteen, pick, hunting knife, entrenching tool. It made her laugh to have the canvas belt around her baby bump.


She knew she should not go with him but put on a heavy red and black plaid flannel shirt with a good lining, yellow gloves, wrapped a scarf over her head, covering her ears beneath the helmet, and off they went at five in the morning, along a stream in the dark, crossing rocks to the other side, through the trees, into the little clearing at the dark mouth of the cave as the sky took on a grey and silver cast. She felt strong and good, no sickness yet.


She had not started to show much, and though she watched it closely, evidently he had forgotten about it, at least for the moment, during which his obsession occupied his mind. She followed him inside where they turned on helmet lights and plunged as far as he had gone before. When he stopped in front of her, he gave a wolf whistle. What their headlamps illuminated made her gasp. Oskar said it aloud: โ€œWhen she looked into the cavern, she gasped.โ€


She laughed at the joke, though Oskar never noted he had made a joke. What it looked most like was an open mouth, looking into the darkness of the throat. Oskar trained his beam, with a sudden lowering of his head, on an outcropping around one side protruding from the wall a couple of feet before dropping off again. He set foot on it, bounced a couple of times, then his full weight. He followed it down ten or fifteen feet until Bette began to fear he would disappear into the darkness until she couldnโ€™t see him anymore. She was not certain she could get back the way they had come, though it hadnโ€™t been that difficult, had it?


They circled down below for maybe fifteen minutes until they stood at the bottom of an enormous earthen bowl, headlamp beams spinning around as they inspected it. One of her hands rested on her stomach the whole way. She shivered at the cold. Her teeth rattled. Oskar shouted a few tentative lines, to hear them echo: โ€œThey stood at the bottom of the cavern, as if at the base of an enormous earthen bowl, looking back toward their only means of escape.โ€


She looked back the way they had come but could not quite see the opening from which they descended. He whispered: โ€œHe looked for the passage through which they had entered but could not quite see it.โ€


Bette shivered. โ€œCreepy,โ€ she said.


โ€œShe said it was creepy,โ€ he shouted, and it echoed eerily, โ€œcreepy, creepy, creepy.โ€


โ€œShh,โ€ she said, and she heard it whispered back to her.


They stood at the bottom of the bowl for ten or fifteen minutes, during which time she knew him to be communicating with his surroundings, taking in whatever story the walls had to tell. He spoke in a more normal voice, perhaps softer than usual.


โ€œWhat he now knew was that the last remaining pterodactyl lived in the depths of the earth, her thick skin gone soft and white, blind in her dark world. When she woke and gave her cry of grief at having been left, it echoed through the cavern likeโ€ฆโ€


โ€œLike what?โ€ she said.


โ€œI donโ€™t know. Thatโ€™s why I brought this.โ€ He took something off his back, which she saw in the light of their headlamps was the air horn. โ€œWhat I want you to do is stay here while I go back to the top, where we stood before and blow the airhorn. That way, you can tell me what it sounds like.โ€


โ€œYou have lost your mind,โ€ she said.


โ€œWhy would you say that?โ€


โ€œYou seem to forget I am three months pregnant with your child. I like to go along with your pranks as much as I can, but I have already come too far. If you think I will stay here at the bottom of this cavern while you climb back up where we came in so I can listen to the blast of the airhorn and tell you what it sounds like, you are crazy.โ€


He was silent a moment, and then he laughed softly. โ€œI like that nice, long sentence.โ€


โ€œThank you,โ€ she said. โ€œNevertheless, no.โ€


โ€œI thought you might say that. I will wait here while you make your way up and around the side, where we came in, and give me a blast, so I can hear it. Though please be careful. I hit a couple of slippery patches on my way down.โ€


โ€œYes,โ€ she said, โ€œas did I.โ€


She sighed as she picked her way back to the outcropping path and made her way around, one hand on the wall of the cavern, and in the other, the airhorn. She slipped a couple of times, but in twenty minutes stood at the top of the cavern once again. She saw a faint glimmer of gray light where they had entered. Relieved to know she would be out of this mudhole soon, she turned to face the dim cavern, which now gaped around her in the hollow hum of silence.


Somewhere down there stood Oskar, her husband. A revelation came flapping from the dark. She saw herself six months hence giving birth to a boy child who would take his fatherโ€™s name. She saw me bawling my head off and connected by an umbilical cord. She heard a distant barking, echoing in the cavern, Oskar barking to let her know it was time to blow the horn. She had to feel the base of the horn for a switch.


Once she flipped it, the blast took over her consciousness so that, for that moment and shortly thereafter, she herself had no separate identity from the blast. When it ended, it was not silence that followed, swallowing up sound, but the sound of shaking and trembling persisting for a couple of minutes. All around her creatures she could not see fled the cave, brushing past her hair, face, arms, pressing on her from all sides in their hurry to escape.


Needless to say, she screamed at the top of her lungs. Small at first, bats and underground dwellers of various sorts, crawling and flying and slithering in a desire to escape. But then came the deep sound from far below in the earth, deeper than the cavern floor on which she last stood by Oskar, a thrumming as of a mighty organ on which a nameless phantom played a discordant note. Screeches followed, whirring and humming, powerful wings unfolding in confined space. She saw them above her as they fled, on wings glowing an unearthly white-green light that shimmered across their underbellies, a phosphorescence having its source inside the earth on which mankind had lived for generations unaware of the beasts trapped below.


But that sound now, that ripping, as when enormous things rip other enormous things, the sound of Velcro coming apart, but huge. It grew so much in volume she thought the creatures of the dark would fall on her, but what came was an intense smell of dirt in her nostrils, clotting the air, and a thundering crash as what had been the roof of the cavern moved hastily to the floor with a whump that compared favorably to the ripping sound in volume and terror.


She lay at the mouth of the former cavern, spitting dirt from her mouth, clearing nose and eyes. As she opened her vision once again, a blinding light poured in her eyes. She saw nothing but pure white, and then, slowly, she knew she was looking up at the sky. What had happened to her she couldnโ€™t guess during a moment in which she emerged from near-entombment and fell to her knees in the clearing. Before her, what remained of the opening of a cave and several tons of earth atop her husband Oskar Lindgren. She had not a thought in her head.


She did have something in her hand. She could not have told you it was the airhorn. She did not know its purpose. She did not have time or presence of mind to think what might have happened had she remained below as he had asked of her, but I will tell you. It would have been her buried there forever, and me as well. By the time her eyes got used to light, she saw them in the air above her, cavorting in their newfound freedom. She thought they might be angels, but then she saw more accurately. She counted them. Seven dragons writhed and twisted high above, pale as worms discovered under rocks, experiencing exactly what I would a few months hence when I emerged from my own moist, earthy darkness, like them ripped untimely from the womb.


Seven winged beasts distracted by their freedom from the woman lying on her back and watching from the ground. That moment terrified my mother. I came out with pure white hair. She knew, the way I cried, that I knew my father would not be there to greet me. I used to go out and sit some days, rain or shine, on the grassy hummock where Dad died to think about all it meant and did not mean. It gave me comfort to know Dad was down there in the earth, listening to my lament and meditation. When we sang in school about a land where our fathers died, this is what I thought about.


At the bottom of a second bottle, Bette told me one more thing about what happened as she came to her senses. A black bear came from the woods, walking on all fours like a large dog, stopping before her. The rational world had broken in a million pieces, so when the bear looked up at her with knowing eyes, she neither trembled nor screamed.


โ€œFrom now on,โ€ he explained, โ€œI am your husband.โ€


I did not know previously how Sam had come to hang around our house those years. I read that bears only live a decade. This one was fifteen at least. Itโ€™s possible thereโ€™s been more than one, but he looks the same as when I was ten years old. Say hello to your stepfather, Bette would say in the morning, when we saw him out on the chaise lounge.


He liked hanging out back there. I think it made him feel a part of our lives. She left him scraps from dinner. She didnโ€™t want him feeling lonesome. Hi, Dad, I would say if I saw him in the woods. He glanced at me and went about his business, proving that old Kurt Turner knew what he was talking about. Bears in these parts mostly mind their own business, as long as you donโ€™t go shooting at them. She said the story was like that ancient mariner. Bette felt this would never have happened if Oskar had not shot that bear at cold cabin. But it's not bears that perplex me, itโ€™s the pterodactyls, surviving by hiding in the earth for so many years they forgot who they were.


How Dad knew about them, I donโ€™t know. They wanted out and found a way through Oskarโ€™s dreams into the skies. Once they filled their lungs, they dispersed into the world like a noble gas. Theyโ€™re hiding somewhere in Backwoods, Tennessee, until people have forgotten them. When the first child disappears, it will be too late. When they and their progeny dominate the skies, and our lives have become the fleeting thing of nightmares, we will flee the enemy above. The time is coming. Better I should say it never left. It hid in unknown recesses of earth, waiting to plunge us once again into an age of darkness and magic. Fearing unseen terrors in the night we search for signs, hoping for angels next time around. โœฆ



ย 

Robert Pope has published stories in many magazines and anthologies, and some of these have been gathered in two recent books from Dark Lane Books: Killers & Others (short stories) and Shutterbug (flash fiction). Several stories first published in Granfalloon were included in his 2022 book entitled, Not a Jot or a Tittle: Sixteen Stories by Robert Pope (Dark Lane Books). His latest offering, Disappearing Things was published in April.


Speculative fiction & POETRY ZINE
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