Friday
Jan202017

Ghostwritten

David Hollander


 

At the jungle's mouth the two explorers—Nott and Murphy—take stock of their provisions. Each has food, water, dry socks, a small nylon tent, a length of rope, a steel machete, a loaded camera, a loaded rifle. Nott has a 2 x 4" photograph of his fiancée (Colleen) in a tiny leather frame that dangles from his pack. Murphy has a small and priceless Egyptian abacus that reminds him, in dark moments and wild places, of the deep and sturdy roots of civilization. At their back the rising sun sets a long and rolling plain of razorgrass alight, the tips of these multitudinous blades glowing ruby-red and waving slightly in the breeze, a strange fiber-optic sea. They reload their packs, throw them onto strong shoulders, and stare into the thick maze of trees. There seem to be patterns everywhere: hieroglyphs etched into the bark of ancient redwoods, Morse in the call and response of bright and enormous birds that flash neon semaphore from the high canopy. Nott swallows, tries to look determined. "Twenty-four hours?" he asks. Murphy hops up and down as if warming up before a soccer game. He pulls a compass from his army-green fatigues and tap-tap-taps the glass with a fingernail. "Twenty-four hours," he says. "Good luck Nott." He steps into the woods and angles right, uncertain whether the pounding he hears is the stuff of distant drumming, or merely the private percussion of blood and adrenaline.

 

"Good luck Murphy," Nott whispers, once he is sure Murphy cannot hear him. He enters the wood and angles left. The fallen foliage is deep and spongy and brown and it harbors, he knows, an exotic striped centipede whose bite is said to cause instant paralysis. The least of his worries. He thinks of Colleen, perhaps right now at the window of their urban high rise, staring out across a cityscape whose manifesto is composed in architectural braille. For some reason he finds himself remembering a morning several weeks past, when Colleen woke to find him staring at her and asked in a sleepy-bear voice: "Like what you see, sailor?" Vigilance, Nott, vigilance. As if he had any chance of finding the thing. As if his failure were not predetermined. As if Murphy had not beaten him to every discovery, every prize, every ruin and every artifact. He feels creatures watching him from the dark morning woods and he raises his head to find a bright green python dangling its alien face inches from his own, its long and sinuous body disappearing into the branches above. The snake's tiny black eyes assess the interloper. Nott touches the machete strapped to his belt but the python has little interest in the strange biped marching—by any reasonable estimation—to its own death. Its tongue paints the air crimson and Nott sidesteps past. Like what you see, sailor?

 

Murphy has thought of everything: potassium to prevent cramping in the heat of the jungle; nitric oxide to slow the effects of venom; a small vial of lye that, when poured over the umbrellas of edible mushrooms, stains bright yellow. He steps now through thick mulch and toward the sound of (yes indeed) distant drumming, considering the descriptions of the Blue Ennedi—the last monster of its kind, according to both Conservation Society surveyors and local tribal leaders—with what amounts to a profound lack of fear. Or maybe it's more that fear, for Murphy, has always been a clarifying agent, aligning the world's manifold stimuli into a willing phalanx of data. He glides atop the mulch with his head swiveling. He smiles at a goliath tarantula whose painted thorax protrudes from a burrow of earth and evergreen needles. Why Nott has chosen to go westward is beyond Murphy's grasp. All previous sightings of the Blue Ennedi had been within a day's hike of a small village embedded—like a watermark—within these woods several miles east of their entry point. Nott was going the wrong way in every possible sense. He was a good man, Murphy knew, and he'd done some interesting work. The confirmation of the green-tailed orphan bird's continuing habitation of the Yellow Forest, for instance—that was pretty cool. But Nott was less an Explorer than a Careerist. He was soft, basically—a housewife in safari clothes. Wait, what's that? Murphy stops in his tracks. A whiff of . . . urine! He pauses and peers intently into the distance, where he can make out a line of trees whose bark has been skewered smooth as high as fifteen feet from the root-base. But that's impossible. His heart rate increases by two beats per minute, dramatic change for the indurated Murphy. He steps lightly and the jungle makes way for his advance into its dark and fecund interior.

 

Their village is in fact two villages. In the first, there are the predictable bamboo huts draped with animal skins, the fire pits strewn with earthenware, the totems of bone at which their sacrifices are lain, the thatched lean-tos beneath which crude coverlets are left to dry. But below all of this, in caverns hollowed out (according to tribal lore) at time's beginning, the second and more authentic village thrives in secrecy. Through a dozen or more camouflaged hatches villagers disappear in shifts, descending into their subterranean tableau for hours or days at a time, according to a schedule settled for each at birth. Right now, Oē—a young member of the Stitching Caste—works at casing the latest Simulacrum in the soft, opalescent skins of the ocelot-like felines that infest these woods, nuisance predators that feed primarily on scraps. The skins seem to reanimate, to rise and fall with breath. Pleased with his work, the thin young tribesman returns to the next section and works the needle with practiced grace, the halogen lamps buzzing in the dank cavern, illuminating other workers strewn throughout this section of the undervillage, many of them perching and kneeling before other macabre forms, building sublime monsters from the raw materials of God's inscrutable plan.

 

Not to mention that Nott, if pushed, would admit to having no real interest in encountering, alone, a creature whose fabled size and ferocity were of such an unlikely order that taxonomists refused its inclusion in their cladograms. No one even knew what to call it. "Blue Ennedi" was merely its latest cognomen. The Sekhmet, the Beast of Bodmin, McCarthy's Gollum . . . these labels likely adhered to the selfsame monster, to a single destroyer that had stalked the human imagination from its very beginnings. Nott progresses westward with cruciform wedges of sunlight dancing on the forest floor. The spine of each tall tree seems to conduct the sunlight downward into eerily glowing root systems, the forest-world a gigantic power grid and Nott automated, trolley-like, by surface contact with its ions. The drumming he'd heard earlier has all but disappeared, reduced to a slow-dissipating echo within the dark of his ear canals. He stops and holds his breath, listening. The sudden cry of a spider monkey cleaves the air and reverberates. He smells the thick musk of the forest floor, a smell like rust and anger. What should he have done? Once the Conservation Society's report came out, once Murphy started making all his Murphy Noise, what should he have done? Murphy: "This is the greatest opportunity this generation of explorers will ever know." After much negotiation with the Conservation Society, the tribal leaders presiding over this land agreed to a twenty-four-hour intrusion, nothing more. The Society was more generous; it was offering one million American dollars to whoever could find, photograph, and document the Ennedi beyond any reasonable skepticism. I'd like to take Nott Rellis, Murphy had said in the early interviews. Make it a contest, double our chances. Competition drives discovery after all. All accompanied by the famous Murphy Smile, half challenge, half self-congratulation. How could Nott have refused? He pauses again, stamps his boots, checks the ground for centipedes, scorpions, for a certain tarantula said to grow as wide across as a man's face. His heart crashes like an elephant in a cage as Nott steps gingerly into his own future.

 

Colleen is not, in fact, staring out across the braille relief-patterns of the city she calls home. She has rather descended into that city and is sipping coffee at a well-known coffee-chain that has recently established an outpost in the half-underground "sunken lobby" of her urban high-rise. The interior of the café is decorated in cool greens and browns and the overhead, cone-shaped fixtures empty whiskey-colored light onto Colleen's pale hands as they caress the pages of her latest manuscript, if any of the manuscripts can be properly called "hers." The life of a ghostwriter is very strange. The café is quiet but for a faint drumming piped through unseen speakers, punctuated by the canned sounds of a tropical forest. Bird calls, whispering foliage, the occasional chest-thumps of a gorilla—that sort of thing. She's on deadline for this book but it's going slowly, she can't figure out how to end it, and the ostensible "author" has very little to contribute outside of sales-figure expectations. Her mind keeps wandering to a place she visited as a little girl, a children's museum whose main attraction was an interactive jungle-space replete with the phantasmagoria of some marketer's imagined adventure: plastic tunnels arranged on an Astroturf floor, simulated vines descending from simulated tree trunks. She doesn't know if it's the piped-in forest medley that incites these memories or if she's simply pining for Nott; her longing seems to be moving in reverse and she misses him more every month. She stands up, shakes out her long arms, brushes her wispy amber hair away from her face. She moves toward the restroom, intending to throw some cold water on her face, shake off the cobwebs. She passes through a draft of cool air and into the café's dimlit interior to arrive at the restroom's polished black door. It's locked. She puts her back against the wall just beside the egress and taps her foot, waiting.

 

Not only the Blue Ennedi. The sabretooth, the Sasquatch, the Carson dragon, the tigon—these they build in toto from endemic materials, from the hides of silver elk and the docile capybara, from the bark of the giant ewe which comes away in great fleshy strips, from the leaves of the catalpa that grow as wide across as a bear's chest. The explorers themselves present greater formal problems, and require the expertise and craftsmanship of elders. "That which they seek most desperately is a truer version of their own kind." So says Boktō, mentor to the current generation of Stitchers. They use only the finest parts of the dead—vitrified in sacrificial fire—to fashion these hominids, which are painstakingly assembled and sewn in the deepest part of the undervillage before being animated and released upon the surface. Oē works the needle, awaits his turn to ascend and perform his other daily task, in which he travels through the redwoods armed with the rake-claw and the urine bucket. Sometimes he even embeds a bit of thick chitin derived from centipede jaws within the fresh grooves, a flourish he enjoys despite Boktō's insistence that it is unnecessary. "Whoever discovers your work will be predisposed toward belief." But then doesn't Boktō also say: "Everything you do is unimportant, but it is very important that you do it"?

 

Murphy has never seen anything like this. Using a simple formula by which he multiplies the width of the gashes by their distance from the ground he imagines a predator no less than . . . eighteen feet from nose to hindquarters. And judging by the discoloration of the gouges the marks are fresh indeed. He clings to the tree simian-like, straddling the great trunk. He lifts his nose to the air and sniffs. He drops back to the earth and lands silently in the mulch, only the rattle of the beads on his abacus indicating—to whatever is out there—his ongoing presence. He pulls off his pack, aware of a toucan's call from high in the canopy and the scurry of ground rodents within the thorny brush. He's safe for now; bird-sound indicates the absence of predators. He unclasps his pack's main compartment. The sunlight litters the forest floor like shards of brightly colored glass. Does he want the .45 or the Nikon? He fingers the rifle's cobalt barrel. He raises it to his face and runs his tongue along the cool steel, an old ritual of his. But it's the camera he ultimately withdraws. The greatest moment of your career, Murphy. Go easy. He listens hard, hears the drumming. The tribe has no idea how close it is to its own destroyer. Murphy sets his jaw, locates the inevitable tracks. He withdraws his machete and pursues the monster into the undergrowth.

 

His strong hand holding hers as they walked silently through the park, wispy clouds fanning across the blue like radio waves. Or riding the train upstate together, playing word games as a gray river rushed by like an endless factory-flood of mercury. Or sledding like two children down Cemetery Hill, at whose zenith sat the Methodist church whose whiteness seemed dingy in the context of pristine falling snow, Nott behind her, steering badly, and Colleen overcome with the feeling that her life existed within a snow globe just like the one that occupied her bedside bookshelf and that she would later that day peer into, searching for herself. Or lying in bed together on a lazy Sunday as he read aloud from a book on the titans of Antarctic exploration (Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott), his eyes wide with joy and with anticipation and with a love that neither of them dared express for fear of dispelling its power. All of those words are stored up in her now and she doesn't know what to do with them. Or rather, she would like to explore them, to live inside of the words as if they were the lushest and most complex kind of jungle. But alas, there are deadlines. There are the vicissitudes of commerce. There is the so-called "real world," and it will not wait for her sentimentality to shake itself dry.

 

"Good luck Murphy." Nott is unaware that he is whispering these words on a repeating loop. The forest has grown quiet. It sounds like snow, somehow—an odd analogy here in the rising humidity of a late-morning junglescape. There's something out here with him but it's not the Blue Ennedi. He sees it now in the middle distance, through an intricate barcode of branch and vine. A hominid of some sort, standing with its arms raised high above its head, long dun-white fur covering a body easily nine feet in height. Nott ducks and weaves silently through the trees (he is no amateur, after all), assembling a composite image that should not be possible. The name of the creature bounces through his skull-box as he pauses, pulls his pack forward, and silently withdraws the camera, whispering the magical word aloud: Sasquatch. He raises the viewfinder to his twitching eye, seeking clarity. The creature's arms are raised but unmoving. It seems frozen in time. And standing just beside it is another monster, also immobile, an enormous predator with a lion's head and the great silvery wings of an eagle. He moves the viewfinder several degrees and locates a third anomaly: a black-furred sheepdog of enormous scale with the head and face of a rhesus monkey. Nott knows the menagerie cannot be real, but that does little to mitigate his terror. He does not snap a picture but instead steps openly toward the scene, his heart a furnace heating his blood. The branches of the redwoods seem to part, like the bayonets of captors, to permit his passage.

 

There had been suggestions in the anthropological record that the Blue Ennedi alone among the earth's alpha predators slept standing up. Murphy can now confirm that hypothesis. He's within forty yards and the monster is completely still, and completely awesome. Easily twenty-five feet from nose to tail. A single drop of sweat breaks on Murphy's temple and runs like a marble over the cliff of his cheekbone. A mosquito buzzes in his ear. An enormous striped dragonfly soars through his periphery. The jungle plies its distractions. Murphy raises the Nikon with practiced sangfroid. He turns the cylinder, focuses, zooms, fights back the voices that would lift him from the unfurling present, voices that would speak of fame, fortune, legacy. There will be time enough for that. The camera clicks and clicks and the Ennedi remains motionless, as if it too were prepared to bow to Murphy's craft, the superiority of his vision.

 

The life of a ghostwriter is very strange. It was as if you were swimming a long, grueling race, and just before making the victory-touch your body was lifted from the pool, replaced by a fresh-faced and unexhausted swimmer who would adjourn to the medal platform and take a perfect picture. Meanwhile you dried off in a dark and lonely cave. Of course, the money was good. But the confidentiality agreements barred her from sharing her work even with those closest to her. She had several lies in her pocket for anyone asking her the hoary old question: What are you working on? She was working on an all-sauerkraut cookbook. She was working on a manifesto regarding the enslavement of dogs. She was working on a book about the corrupting influence of books. The café's canned jungle soundtrack is barely audible over the sound of running water in the restroom. She has lost so much, hasn't she? She taps her foot on the brown tile. A chill raises goosebumps on her arms and chest. What would Nott have done, faced with these same demons? Explore them, naturally.

 

Oē, with the urine bucket. Oē, with the rake claw. He pauses to note the forest's sudden silence. A deep Nothing that resonates in his bone-hollows. As if he, too, were the silence. At his feet a patch of wildflower sprouts from a mossy outcropping of stone. He bends, lowers the bucket and the rake, then gets on his knees to examine one of these flowers. Lavender petals emerge from a deep violet center, where hundreds of soft, cilia-like filaments tremble and fade to a deep ocher-orange where they are rooted within the ovary. It looks . . . it looks real. For all Oē knows, it is. He resists the urge to fondle, fights the urge to weep. As the elders would surely say, such sentiment is above his pay grade.

 

Nott raises his hand to the massive Yeti's face. Its bald cheeks are black and spongy and warm. The beige fur covering chin and forehead captures the sunlight in its weft and glows eerily. Its eyes look through Nott with enormous indifference. He turns his attention to the manticore, its great paw extended as if frozen mid-strike. He touches one of the unsheathed claws and recoils, a spot of blood materializing on the pad of his index finger. "What the hell?" he whispers aloud. He is barely breathing and yet the sound of air pulling and pushing through his various tubes and sacs is shockingly loud in the deep, velvety silence that has befallen the forest. Nott feels it before he really feels it. The breath of something else, something very real, synched to his own. On his neck now, hot and wet. He turns slowly. He already knows. A tusk of drool dangles from the ancient jaws. The silver-blue mane ripples terribly. The Blue Ennedi roars once, a terrible, gear-on-gear sound that rattles the trunks of the trees, that rings the forest as if it were a gong. The slash of claws, the plunge of six-inch canines, the spectacular weight of oblivion; in an instant, the Nott we know is gone.

 

Murphy can hardly contain his joy. He swings his machete with practiced ease, working through thorny underbrush dotted with impossibly bright crimson berries whose pulp, Murphy knows, can be chewed into a fine adhesive paste useful for closing wounds. He is actually whistling, something he never does—at least not on expedition—as he moves toward the drumming that defines the location of the tribal village whose people will be the first to know of his success. In his camera, right now, his accomplishment resides, seared into the chemistry of real, two-dimensional, analog film. Through the thinning trees he can now see the village fires burning. He smells roasting meat and wood smoke. He accelerates toward the clearing and then pauses there at the selvage of the forest. Fifty yards ahead, surrounded by the various domiciles and lean-tos that form this little patch of pseudo-civilization, he sees a young native man—thin, loin-clothed, bright blond dreadlocks against cocoa-colored skin—place a bucket and some sort of long, pitchfork-like tool beneath a lean-to before moving deeper into the maze of thatched huts, hemp-ropes, drying skins, fire pits. On the stump of what must once have been a mighty redwood there is a meticulous burn-carving of the Blue Ennedi. He takes several steps forward, intending to hail the young man, when something stops him in his tracks. He sees a hatch in the ground, not previously visible, open upwards. And a human being—or some convincing facsimile—emerges from below.

 

Why must there be magic? Because magic is the conduit between what is known and what can never be known. This is something Colleen knows implicitly. The act of writing is an act of transfiguration. Language makes visible the eidolons of God's hoary dreams. How fitting, she thinks, waiting for the restroom to become available, that a ghost should render these other ghosts visible, touchable, explorable. But can the magic that runs the story also end the story? Or should the story's end be the failure of its magic? These intratextual questions seem so much bigger than the mundane world that contains them. That, too, is a function of her mourning.

 

He sees a hatch in the ground, not previously visible, open upward, as if the earth itself were built of spring-traps and levers, trap doors and hidden tunnels. From beneath the ground a tribal elder—identifiable as such by a gaudy headdress of bright plumage—emerges. He turns and extends a hand back into the hole, and he seems to effortlessly raise a second human from whatever space lies below. But wait . . . could it be? The second human is Nott! When both tribesman and explorer are firmly on terra firma Nott twists backward and lowers the hatch and kicks at the coarse dust so as, Murphy assumes, to conceal whatever outline might expose its existence to wayfarers like himself. But does this mean that Nott, too, has found the Ennedi? An icy lump of fat seems to close around Murphy's heart, or the place where his heart ought to be. Still, he's all smiles when Nott finally spies him there near the edge of the clearing, and steps toward him confidently, smiling back. Why, Murphy wonders, does it seem as if this has all happened before? He steps into the village proper, toward the smoldering remains of a fire which, he sees now, is a crematorium of sorts; within this pit of coals and embers the bones of something suspiciously human-looking glow coldly, as if dusted in luminescent ash . . . and also a Familiar Object, fire-blackened beads arranged on parallel steel rods. He pats his pack to double check. It rattles. Relief washes through him.

 

Colleen hears the water running in the sink just beyond the black door. Maybe it's a story about grief, after all, about all the things she's lost. A flurry of images cascade like a thrown deck of cards: her mother pushing her on a swing at a tot park strewn with primary-colored plastics, pretending to launch her into space as Colleen screamed with laughter; her father tucking her into bed, Colleen in her monkey-themed pajamas, her father's whiskers tickling her cheek, his warm breath, Daddy will always take care of you; Professor Fried, her college mentor, telling her in his dim-lit office that her writing mattered; Nott pulling up to the steps of the library in his beat up Pontiac sedan which was a dingy gray except for the front passenger side door (which was a livid red). Then the "after" narrative: mother dead of a brain tumor that first stole her sanity, father killed by a brushfire cancer of the bones, Professor Fried found hanging from a noose in his garage. And Nott, apparently on an expedition without end. These losses intersect in her mind, fractals or waveforms suggestive of some universal pattern. The water stops running and the black door's latch clicks and the restroom's occupant emerges. A small, thin, handsome young man with short blond dreadlocks and skin the color of coffee-with-cream. "I'm sorry," the man says, presumably for monopolizing the rest room. "That's okay," Colleen says, smiling. She begins to push past him but he catches her attention with a glance in the direction of her table. "I saw you writing," he says. "May I ask you what you are working on?"

 

"So you found it?" Nott asks. "The ennedi?" They are sitting around an iron kettle situated atop the coals of a small fire just outside the tribal elders' communal living space, a dwelling of mud and thatch and vine. They are sipping a beverage made from the leaves of the kapok tree. Murphy is preoccupied by a spider—tarantula of some sort—that is crawling slowly across the sill of the aperture that serves as a window and that, he sees, can be "closed" by untying a scrolled-up length of muslin. One of the spider's hirsute legs is twitching in a way that strikes him as oddly mechanized. He snaps to. "Yes," he says. "And I've got the evidence right here." He pats at his pack, which contains his camera, his rifle, dry socks, food, water, an abacus that reminds him, in dark and lonely places, of the power and scope of civilization. Nott nods and grins. Murphy sips from the earthenware cup. As he lifts it to his lips he notices a pattern etched into its base that he knows from another idiom . . . it resembles the symbol of a major urban coffee chain. Murphy clears his throat. "Hey Nott," he begins. "That fire we passed out there in the clearing. On our way back here . . . whose bones were those?" Nott stares toward the ledge that the spider has made its home. The smell of smoke and eucalyptus is thick and sweet. "Raw materials," Nott says. "Recycled many times." The spider's legs spasm as if shot through with electrical current. Beyond it a yellow sun hauls itself toward its zenith, or else is hauled—as if on a winch—toward the same.

 

"I'm working on a story," Colleen lies, "about a mythical creature." They're sitting at her table now and she has her pale hand on the closed cover of her notebook. The light in here is the same light one might expect to find in an anthropologist's study, the kind of rich caramel light that pours down upon the object-records of the world's secret places. Her lithe and dreadlocked companion raises an eyebrow. "What," he asks, "is this creature's name?" Colleen remembers its name, from a long-ago lesson in some badly-lit classroom at the fringes of her education. "The Blue Ennedi," she says, stirring her now-cold coffee, staring into the resulting whirlpool as if for ingress to the world of her fictions. "Ahh . . ." the young man says. "But it is no myth. I assure you. I have seen it myself." Colleen feels very brave, suddenly. She feels like she would like to kiss this man. It is a novel feeling, one she hasn't experienced in years. Not since Nott's ill-fated trip into the equatorial forest that swallowed him up. She locks eyes with this stranger. His irises are a strange shade of brown that hews toward violet. A color that doesn't, or shouldn't, exist in nature. "Of course it's real," she hisses. "That doesn't mean it's not mythical." At the young man's feet stands a bucket that smells strangely of urine.

 

The spider twitches. Nott laughs maniacally. Murphy reaches for his machete but then stops himself, horrified by the impulse. What is happening to me? He runs from the elders' hut and out into what seems to be the village's center. Twelve hours until the choppers descend and deliver him to his fame. Twelve hours until the return of cappuccinos and elevators, iPads and bullet trains, search engines and power tools. Sweat runs down his temples and from his armpits and his crotch. He stinks, that's the truth. Here in the village square the light seems synthetic, the air filtered through a heating coil. He notices a single domicile different from all the others. The thatched leaves and patchwork of mud and vines is peeling away to reveal strips of brown and green clapboard just beneath. He approaches cautiously, rounds its corner to find a window made of Real Glass. Through it he spies cone-shaped fixtures casting whiskey-colored light upon two humans seated at a table. The first is a tribesman, the one Murphy saw earlier with the bucket and the pitchfork. The other is a pale woman with red-blond hair. She is smiling. She pats the cover of a notebook and Murphy's bones rattle. Like what you see, sailor? She leans forward and kisses the young man.

 

Nott watches Murphy flee deeper into the village. He shakes his head, feels a looseness in his spine. Boktō told him there might be some adjustments necessary. It was not exactly science, after all. He rises, feels the current running through him. His legs twitch but he gathers himself and exits the thatched dwelling to glide toward the nearest access. Thoughts of a woman named Colleen run through his head. He remembers her getting in a car that he was driving. It had one red door. Funny how certain things remained behind. Funny how ghosts could occupy each other even after the party was over. Or no, it wasn't funny at all, was it? He imagined the slow dissipation of increasingly-distant experiences. The image that came to mind: fading ripples on a pond's sunlit surface.

 

Murphy draws his machete and pushes through the glass doors of the café. The sweat and dirt earned via intrepid exploration are instantly dried to cake by the sterile air-conditioned atmosphere of the building's interior. The woman and the tribesman see him coming and break their kiss. Again she taps her notebook and again something inside of Murphy trembles. His bones feel loose. The woman smiles at him. "It's not so easy to dispel this magic," she says. The tribesman, on the other hand, shudders with fear and cringes beneath Murphy's shadow. Murphy raises the machete high just as the café's soundtrack emits the recorded scream of a howler monkey. He brings the blade down hard toward the tribesman, cuts him in half as easily as if he were made of wax. Murphy stares, horrified. The woman laughs.

 

Nott seems to have found a different stairway, one that leads far deeper than the chamber where he was recently animated. Torches along the walls light both his descent and the colorful drawings on the walls depicting the Blue Ennedi in various tableaus: the Ennedi devouring a group of hunters; the Ennedi captured beneath a net; the Ennedi's illustrated roar blowing its would-be captors backward. Finally he arrives at the bottom to discover a cavern of indiscernible proportions lit only by the dim glow of lichen that clings in patches to the floor. Load-bearing pillars the size of redwoods, spaced at regular intervals, prop up the world above. He hears breathing. He checks his pocket and finds a Maglite (they thought of everything!) and he holds it aloft and begins weaving through the pillars, rotating his body in a slow 360 degree pirouette. Half-finished tribal figures—some faceless or eyeless or without limbs—seem to observe him despite their lack of finality. One appears to be an unfinished version of Oē, the tribesman who stitched him. He moves deeper into the cavern and another figure begins to materialize, out there in the gloom with its back to the stone terminus of this spooky underworld. It is a woman, sitting at a desk. He realizes, as he approaches, that what he mistook for breathing was actually the scribbling of her pen. Was she working here in total darkness? Should he use the camera or the rifle? He is about to call out to her when she looks up. "I'm a ghostwriter," she says. Nott swallows hard. He clears his throat. "What are you writing about?" he asks. She says: "A woman named Colleen, who is a ghostwriter." Something flashes through him: he remembers lying beside her, naked on white sheets, a thousand feet above a madcap city. Hasn't he been relieved of such things? Aren't they in the belly of the Blue Ennedi? He feels tears forming in eyes that ought to be incapable of such extravagances. "I've missed you so much," he whispers, choking back emotion. The woman scribbles away. "This isn't the final cavern," she says. "I recommend you go deeper." She punctuates her sentence with a full stop and the enormous pillars quake, the dust raining down. He can hear drumming in the distance.