Sam Martone


Beneath the Ground in an Unknown Corner of the World 

Open your eyes: now that everything has begun, it cannot go on without you. When you open your eyes, you will see you are in a cave, but not the cave where your father died, where you can still see your father dying, where his voice clings to some audible precipice, echoing loud in your ears. This cave is a cave of ruins, too, but it also contains the opposite of ruins, things being built, boulders rolled into piles, tunnels tunneled. You are about to learn that these beginnings, these unruinings, are not always a good thing. Ten years have passed, though you remember none of them. Ten years you have spent as a prisoner, forced to work for an unknown evil, and you are no longer a boy. Talk to everyone. They will tell you everything you need to know about what has happened, about what is happening. If you miss what they say, talk to them again: they will repeat it all, word for word for word. If you miss your father, do not let anyone know. No one can help you here, they are thinking of their own losses, dying of thirst, circling through their own labyrinthine stories, their past ten years here beneath the ground, where you are being forced to build something, the stone feet of a statue are just taking shape. No one can help you, not even the kidnapped prince, who is no longer a boy, who you know to be your closest friend. You are not sure if, in the ten years forgotten, you found the courage, somewhere, to forgive him. He tells you of all the escape plans you made over the past ten years, all the escape plans that failed: a tunnel leading outside the compound that collapsed, a wall on the surface that couldn't be scaled, disguises that fooled none of your captors. You sit with him in the small cemetery, all these old grave markers made from the few possessions of those buried, broken mandolin necks crossed into crosses. There hasn't been anyone buried here in a while. All the earth is dry and cracked. You wonder what they do with the dead now. There are rumors that your captors destroyed an ancient temple that once stood here. There are rumors that when this temple is complete, you and the rest of the captives will be murdered, even though your captors promise you will be set free, made new disciples of their order. There is still a tapping tangled in your hair, and you search the stalactite-scattered ceiling for something nocturnal, glowing eyes looking down on you from above. Maybe it's God. Maybe it's fate. Maybe it's your father, sending a Morse code message to you from some other world, some far-off dream. In the middle of the night, someone opens your cell door. It's one of the guards, ushering you out. You were dreaming about a dance club with an open rooftop, a sky that clouded and began raining wetly down, the swirling colorful lights refracted through the wetly dropping drops. You are worried this is the end of the story, that you will find some gruesome sentence awaiting you, your head severed from your shoulders, your body pulled apart by horses. But no—it's too soon for all of this to end. The guard returns to you your weapons, your armor. He asks you and the kidnapped prince to help his sister escape her own captivity. You follow him to a cave-pool, which narrows to a stream, a black tunnel, an outflow. His sister is waiting there, dipping her feet into the water. There are barrels beside her, and the guard instructs each of you to climb into one. This is how your captors have been getting rid of the dead: floating them out to sea. You climb into one and pretend you are dead. The guard pushes your barrel into the pool, and then the barrels concealing the prince and the guard's sister splash in in turn, tied to your own. The guard pushes you into the water's current. You bob up and down for a long time, drifting. You think of all the barrels you have broken in search of hidden objects, all the barrels that have reappeared repaired, and you imagine someone breaking this barrel, finding you inside. In your dreams, you are floating on an inflated inner tube in a saltwater river with people you have just met, your ankles sunburned. In your dreams, you are standing up in the shallow water, worried your feet might slip between the smooth rocks spotting the bottom, your bones so easily broken by the river's running. It is very dark and cold for a while, but soon the echoing of cave water ceases and the world opens up. You can hear the rush of sea foam splashing all around you. You can feel the sun heating your vessel, you think you can hear gulls overhead. This voyage, it could take a long time, it could take forever, but you remember from your travels the way the world has of shrinking when you move steadily through it, when you know you cannot stop. You remember waking up on a ship, your earliest memory. Now, you are sunken treasure. You are a note rolled up in a bottle. You tap against the wooden ribs, sounding out letters, sending a message in a language only you can understand.

Heaven's Above Abbey

There is a church in every town. You know this. There is a church in every town, so when you hear the bells ringing, the clang clanging around the barrel that you are floating in on some unknown ocean, you are sure you are approaching a shore, a town. There is a church in every town, where you go to confess, to tell the priest of your journey. Often, after recording your confession, there are strange gaps in your memory, days seem to pass where nothing happens, dreams needle their way into your thoughts. You open your eyes, seconds later, and find you are still standing in front of the priest, who has cured you of poison, broken the curse afflicting your spear, or shone some heavenly light on you, brought you back from a distant darkness. You feel as though something has been saved, remembered. When the sea spits you out onto the sand, break out of your barrel. Help the prince and the guard's sister break out of their barrels. Look. You have not arrived at a town with a church. You have arrived at an abbey. Before you collapse from dehydration, you will see the blurry image of women in blue, heading toward you. You will hear the bellow of the bells turning to white noise in your ears. In your dreams, you are a little boy again, going with your parents to church, although they are not the parents you know to be yours. You listen to the songs sung in unfamiliar tongues. The priest will swing a censer as he walks down the aisle, burning resin over charcoal. You fidget in your button-up shirt, too tight around the collar. You are not sure what you believe in, what your parents want you to believe. The wine is bitter on your teeth. The smell of incense clouds your mind. When you wake up, your clothes are dry. You are wound around blankets in a bed in the abbey, unsure how long you've been out. The abbey is a sprawling structure, with nuns bustling around, reading from old leather-bound books, praying in the pews. The guard's sister, the one you helped escape, is about to be baptized, bathed in a ruby-colored liquid, welcomed into the arms of the goddess. She will be sister to all these sisters now. You have a memory, though it may only be the faint outline of a dream, of your infancy, of being submerged under the water in a basin, being held by men and women who are now gone, who you have no way of reaching, not even in front of a priest, not even when you close your eyes. Before you leave, you are given a crude image of the goddess, or maybe it's a nun, or maybe your mother—if you could remember her face you would know. You and the prince depart together, for a city to the north. Ten years have passed since you last traversed the world, but on the map that hovers above your head, the regions you remember are still bright and detailed. There are so many places left to visit, to search for your mother, for some memory of your father, for something that explains all these dreams you've been having. So many places in the world, and you do not know where to call home. There is a church in every town, a place to buy weapons and armor and items, an inn to rest your head, but still there is something missing. You worry it will remain unfound, even after all the world has been lit up by your steps.