The dead never stayed buried for long. Asra regards the three-fingered hand reaching out from the cairn. There’s no tissue left, nothing to hug the discolored bones except for algae. Most bodies are swept away before they begin to smell. She hunches down to pick up a couple of wayward stones, holding them against her chest. Many years ago, as a newlywed, she held her breasts to keep them from bouncing when Harris chased her naked down to the river. Her breasts don’t bounce anymore.
“Swinging,” she says, “like great pendulums of flesh. And still you’d nag me to let them hang loose.”
Asra sets a foot against the skeletal hand and pushes down, hard. The ring finger snaps, but she keeps at it, slowly forcing the hand back inside. Satisfied, she covers up the hole, breathing heavily from the effort.
“If you expect me to feel bad about that finger, you’ll be disappointed.”
Asra unwraps her headscarf and uses it to dab at her brow and neck. In the valley below, the river has risen above the gorge, and is now expanding across lawns, streets and playgrounds – its advance that of an iron, breathing steam as it moves over cool ground. But images of green grass and red swings belong to memory, same as the people who used to enjoy such things. With every tide, the sea breaks down and consumes anything worth having, and what little comes out the other end is a digested and regurgitated version of whatever it was before.
“I’ll be glad when it takes me. The dead could give a damn about the stink up their nose, or the salt in their eyes.” She ties the scarf back into place. “Or bones long abandoned.”
The onus of the living. Asra imagines sitting down next to the cairn, waiting for the water to make its slow climb up the mountain. And then. . .
A cold settles in her abdomen.
“They can’t have me, Harris. I’ll climb the highest peak and slit my throat before I let that happen.”
She picks up the broom shaft she uses as a walking stick and sets off along the trail that will take her up to the house.
Asra turns on the radio, catching the last few notes of David Bowie’s Quicksand.
“You’re listening to Roof of the World, brought to you straight from the city of Altitude. Roof of the World, keeping your head above water: all day, every day.”
She’s mainly interested in the newscast. The Kangding evacuation is still under way, and the radio host quotes an Altitude official assuring that the city’s 300 000 inhabitants will be relocated to a newly established camp, Refuge 112.
Asra snorts. Such camps were built back when lowland cities started going under, but she can guess the reason they stopped naming them after their location. The residents of Kangding are the latest batch of well-loved pets, sent off to live out their lives on a country farm. Meanwhile, the walls of Altitude grow higher.
The weather report features an interview with a prominent geoengineer, addressing recent rumors concerning a global decline in water temperatures. She confirms that such a trend has been observed, but that the progression of the phenomena is slow, detectable only by the most sophisticated weather stations. Moreover, she is confident that contact with the Iris satellite will be reestablished long before climate reversal becomes an imminent threat.
“For the past few weeks,” she says, “our team has been running preliminary tests on a new transmission model, and so far results have been very promising. Once we regain operational control of the satellite, water levels will be restored to pre-Iris levels within a matter of months.”
“And if you are successful in reversing the flow of water back to inner earth,” the reporter says, “will the hostiles follow?”
“I’m not qualified to answer that question.”
The newscast ends with a hazard report.
“Due to hard weather, the air bridge between Altitude and New Chamonix will close over the weekend. Commuters from asset colonies are advised that the gates of New Chamonix will remain closed for the duration. Water levels for the Himalaya region are expected to rise dramatically over the next few days, and the coast guard reports a high level of hostile activity centered to the southern and eastern territories. Be careful out there.”
Asra’s hand hovers by the switch for a few seconds before she turns it off. One day, she will start rationing her batteries on music instead of news.
Her son had built the house. Much later, there were those who cited its location as proof of premeditation on his part. A precaution for what was to come. In truth, he had built on the mountainside because it was where – growing up – he had spent countless cold nights gazing at the stars.
The first floor has been flooded every night for the past two months. Asra had tried to keep it dry, waterproofing the rooms with silicone from the inside and tarpaulin on the outside, but the battle was lost once water levels reached past the windowsills.
She retreats upstairs before the tide reaches the front porch, makes herself a cup of tea and settles down by the vaulted window overlooking the valley. The sea always brings silence with it, and the swelling water – thick and black like oil under the night sky – seeps into her house without a sound. It’s the heat, traveling though the walls and ceilings to Asra’s feet, that gives it away.
Her tea finished, Asra moves to the master bedroom and lays down on top of the covers. She dozes off, dreams about being snatched from the bed and dragged out to sea, wakes up in cold sweat, listens. There’s a sound like a slab of meat being dragged along a rough surface. She holds her breath until the pain in her lungs becomes greater than her fear. Nothing. She pulls a blanket around her and curls up as tight as her joints will allow.
“You may have come a long way,” she whispers, “but you can’t come here. Not tonight.”
Asra wakes close to noon with a pounding headache and joints as sour as her mood. Getting out of the bed is torment, and making it down the stairs is worse.
Once outside, she’s greeted by humid air that stinks of salt and rot. Harris’s cairn is sheltered between two loaf-shaped outcrops, about an hours walk downhill from the house.
Asra pauses behind the first outcrop, and the loose skin of her face draws in to a web of wrinkles around narrowed eyes. Looter.
Wildlife has been scarce since the valley flooded, but Asra feels certain that if one lousy fox remains, it will have found its way to the cairn, seeking a contaminated bone to chew on. For a moment, she is tempted to let it, purely out of spite. Instead, she hefts the broom stick and musters what little speed she has in her, hoping to catch a glimpse of the perpetrator before it bounces off. Maybe scaring a bone from its jaws while she’s at it.
But the grave-robber is not a fox. It stands on two mismatched limbs, hulking and round-backed, sculpted in grime and bound together by seaweed. Here and there, sticks and bones have pierced the soggy flesh like chthonic asphalt flowers. A row of teeth is visible through a gaping hole in the cheek, no tooth the same size or shape, as if they have been collected from different mouths. At its torso, the improvised skin has split, and inside the chest cavity organs hang in a net of seaweed, gleaming in the sun like pearls the color of bruises.
Asra opens her mouth to scream but slips on the wet rock underfoot. Her ankle snaps, and the scream becomes a yelp which is cut off as her sternum connects with the ground. Breathless, Asra starts clawing at rock and pebbles, kicking with her good foot. She’s in a nightmare, her limbs and lungs betraying her when she needs them the most, all her efforts yielding inches when what she needs is miles. Spotting the broom stick on her right, she snatches it up and swings it behind her, blindly. No impact.
The words are slow, deep and deflating.
Asra struggles onto her back, waving the stick wildly in front of her.
“You stay away from me!” she shrieks.
The grime creature is standing over the cairn, a bleached bone in one hand, and a round stone in the other.
“I see you!” Asra says, her voice hoarse. “You’re one of them.”
It bends down and sets the round stone on the top of the cairn.
In the valley below, water levels have reached the foot of the mountain.
The creature sighs, its lungs in their hammock of seaweed swelling and shrinking without rhythm. Asra feels faint, her adrenaline ebbing away and fresh pain thriving in its absence. The creature cradles Harris’s bone to its side.
A ghost of the sea, mimicking humanity.
“That’s a humerous bone,” Asra says, quietly. “You want one for the leg.”
It cocks its head, hesitating, then holds up the bone.
“Wrong,” it says, dropping it.
It bends down and reaches an arm inside the cairn, pulling out bones and stones and tossing them to the side.
“You wont find it there,” she says.
For the briefest of moments, Asra’s anxious about the mess it’s making. It will take her hours to set things right again, and the sea’s coming.
“Gone,” she says. “Went with the sea, months ago.”
The creature goes still, looking out over the valley. Asra can feel its longing, and hopes it will simply set off down the mountain and rejoin the sea.
Instead, it walks towards her, each slow step accompanied by a squelch from the dangling organ bag.
“Wrong one,” it says.
Asra holds the broomstick out in front of her like a spear. “No!”
It snatches the thin stick from Asra’s hands and tosses it to the side before grabbing her by the front of her shirt and pulling her upright.
“Wait!” she screams. “Wait.”
Much to Asra’s surprise, it waits.
“I’m too short!” This was no lie, even Harris’s bones would be an ill fit. “There’s another grave, just up the mountain. The man inside was tall, and strong. His bone would fit you.”
For a moment, it just looks at her. It’s got one blue eye and one that is smaller, milky and dull. She can feel it seeing her.
“You lie, you die,” it says, needing two exhalations to get the words out. “Take me.”
Asra nods and struggles to stand, but the creature reaches with one arm around her midsection and lifts her over a marshy shoulder.
It’s an uncomfortable ride. Asra keeps slipping, but is afraid to grab on to something. The sun is forcing the moisture out of the grime, and soon chunks are falling off. The creature seems unperturbed by its disintegration. It keeps along Asra’s trail, silent except for its labored breathing.
The sun is setting by the time they reach the house. The creature shrugs Asra off its back before reaching a small hand – a child’s hand – inside its chest cavity, tentatively rearranging the organs.
“And I thought I was falling apart,” Asra says, not bothering with getting to her feet.
“It’s the water, isn’t it?” she says. “Getting colder. Harris thought you wouldn’t like that. He was certain you all came from inner earth, poured out of there along with the water.”
A chunk of muck falls off the creature’s elbow. Bone is visible through the hole, and transparent tissue wraps around the joint like tendons of cellophane.
“And I believed him,” Asra says. “Made me wonder if Iris’s little rebellion set you free, or sealed your fate like it did ours.”
The sea, pink and purple in the fading light, has flooded the shelf where Harris’s cairn sits.
“I suppose this is where I invite you inside.”
The creature half-carries half-drags Asra through the house until they reach a study on the second floor. Concealed behind a heavy curtain is a code locked steel door, painted the same egg shell white as the walls.
Asra punches the code, then flicks a switch next to the handle.
Beyond the door, a dank corridor takes them into the mountain itself. To Asra, it feels like moving through the veins of a corpse. For her son to have made this his headquarters, it seemed about as natural as a mole building its nest in a tree. The corridor takes them to another steel door, this one opening to a large oblong room.
Asra claps her hands and the light flickers on. “The narthex.”
The walls on three sides, and the ceiling, are bare rock, weeping mineral tainted water onto the tiled floor. A stainless steel desk sits in one corner, and rigged around it are multiple screens in varying sizes. The length of the room is occupied by a long work bench, its surface cluttered with papers, microscopes, soda cans, tools, and many more things that Asra couldn’t name, let alone tell what they were for.
She hops on one foot to ease down into an office chair. The creature walks slowly around the room, now and again moving its hand over an object, but never touching anything.
“Nar-thex,” it says, and Asra’s certain there’s a slight upward inflection.
“Comes before salvation.” She snorts. “My son was full of good intentions, Icarian though they turned out to be.”
A one-way window runs the length of the far wall, interrupted only by a glass door lined with rubber. The creature taps the glass with its child hand, leaving smudge marks on the seemingly opaque surface.
“Church,” it says.
Its face is expressionless, but something flickers across its human eye. Asra swallows, and smiles. She feels nauseous, a sweat breaking out on her brow.
“Let me show you,” she says, and – kicking off with her good foot – rolls across the floor to a control panel mounted on the wall.
She fumbles with the controls for a while, trying to remember. After Harris died, she had taken over the role of assistant, operating the control panel while her son monitored the trials from behind his screens. That was years ago.
The lights go on.
Asra’s son hangs from a noose in the middle of the room. A white shirt is the only piece of clothing still covering his skeletal frame, the rest lies in a heap on the floor, along with an overturned chair. The room is much larger than the narthex, and clad entirely in glass. Pipes and ventilations run along the walls and ceiling, interrupted in places by oddly shaped appendages in stainless steel. More pipes can be seen through the sheer floor.
Asra punches another button and the door slides open. “There’s your bone.”
“Yes,” the creature says. “Bone.”
It walks inside but pauses before reaching the hanging man, its gaze moving slowly around the room.
“Frankenstein’s mesocosm, Harris called it,” Asra says.
Cold touches her feet. She looks down, surprised to see a thin film of water expanding across the floor. The creature continues around the room, sweeping with its hand as it did in the narthex.
“One day, my son brought me down here,” Asra says. “He showed me a code on his computer, just numbers really, be he told me it was the Holy Grail of weather modification technology. The final piece of the puzzle. The end of draughts and storms and hurricanes and floods.”
The creature turns. “Code?”
“Of course,” she says, “by the time he realized just how much his discovery would end, he came back here and hung himself. I found him the same night, but I couldn’t remember how to get the damn door to open. Might have been the shock, I suppose.”
The creature is lumbering towards the door.
“The code. Show me.”
“Sorry,” Asra says. “I believe a bone is what was promised.”
She hits the emergency stop button. Red lights pulse around the control panel, and the glass door closes. The creature reaches the window and starts pounding at it.
“It’s no use, I’m afraid,” Asra says, raising her voice so it can hear her through the glass.
The water is coming in faster now, carrying pieces of trash around the room on miniature currents. The creature keeps pounding the glass, bits of mud and bone flying from its fists and arms. Within minutes, there’s nothing left beneath the elbows but a dangling string of transparent tissue, decorated with bone shards and brown seaweed.
“Truly, I am sorry,” Asra says.
The creature ceases its onslaught, slumping forward until its forehead rests against the glass.
“In greek mythology,” Asra says, “Iris was the personification of the rainbow. The bringer of rain, and a messenger of the gods.“
She leans her head against the glass, takes a deep breath and feels the familiar sting of salt at the back of her throat.
“But one does not control the weather any more than one controls a goddess. The satellite was not the answer to our problems, and it will not be the answer to yours.”
She gets out of the chair and limps to the work bench. It takes her a while to find something even remotely sharp, but she eventually settles for a thin piece of scrap metal.
“I’m afraid this is as high as I’ll make it, Harris.”
All at once, the lights go out, and the only sound to rival the silence of the sea is the soft sigh of someone dying.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Linda Hallgren is a twenty-something year old mythology and arts enthusiast from Northern Sweden. She has previously been published at Shipwrights Review.