My sister, Sarah, and I were twins. We had the same blue eyes.
There was no sound in the night, only the scrabbling of his fingertips across the threshold.
“Get up Joseph,” she said. “We have to run.”
We knew everything in the woods. Sometimes men came out of the fire and we led them to the stream in the hollow. Sometimes, though, they came from the forest itself. On nights like these we had to go underground.
There was a cave made of mud, carved out of a round hillside that sat in a clearing. The moonlight bathed everything in silver. Our skin was glowing. I thought that if we got hurt, our blood would come out slippery and sparkling, like diamonds. My mother had a diamond that she kept hidden in a hollow stump next to the well. I wondered sometimes if the men weren’t looking for it.
We reached the opening of the cave after padding expertly and silently across the wet leaves and fallen branches. Sarah stopped and cupped a hand to her ear, waiting for the scratching and tapping that meant we were being followed. The night wasn’t quiet, but we were alone, for now.
“Get inside,” she said.
I ducked under the overhang of earth and pressed my body into the muddy opening. It led to a tunnel made of soil that got narrower the further you crawled. My knees were sinking three inches deep into the soil.
“I can’t find it,” I said. “I can’t find the opening.” I reached a place where only three fingers of my hand could squirm inside.
“Pull apart the earth,” Sarah said. “He’s coming.”
I dug at the mud and pebbles with my hands, pulling away clumps of the tunnel walls. I saw colored lights in the air in the absolute and all-consuming darkness.
“Faster, Joseph,” she begged. “Pull at the roots!”
I gripped a thick root and heaved my body backwards. I placed my feet against the cool earth and struggled to rip it free, to make an opening for us. My sister wrapped her warm arms around my body and leaned backward, pulling me by my shoulders. We milked a few drops of water from the root, and then the barricade started giving way. Great mounds of slick wet mud fell around our feet. I was stuck.
“He’s here,” she whispered. “Go! Go now! He’s here!”
I threw myself onto my stomach in time to hear a hideous clicking and hissing making its way towards us. Pulling myself forward with my arms, I slid like a snake through the impossible darkness. Sarah and I, we squeezed our bodies through impossible spaces. The mud moved for us. I plunged my face into the watery slickness; my nose and mouth were stopped up, and heaved my tired body forward. The earth opened up and closed around us. We were worms and it had been raining for weeks.
Eventually, the colored lights went away. I saw a sparkling in the distance. “Sister,” I said. “I see the diamonds!”
“Keep going,” she said, her voice obstructed by gobs of mud. It sounded as though she was speaking underwater.
Suddenly there was a great pressure in my head accompanied by a feeling of coldness, and I emerged from the mud and slipped onto the sand, gasping and sticky, like the calf that was born and died in our barn last winter. We had reached the shore of the black lake.
The water of the lake was opaque and roiling, its surface alive with waves made of oil and ink. Creatures lived here. You could see them cresting and squirming beneath the surface. They wound their bodies around one another. Sometimes you could make out a gaping mouth or a terrible, wet eye in the writhing mass.
Sarah and I built a bridge here. We carried rotting planks of wood that we salvaged from a shipwrecked rowboat with a mess of pink blankets inside. The skeleton of a ripped, lacy parasol stuck obscenely from the stern.
There weren’t enough boards to finish the job. We lay them across the surface of the black lake and tied them with strands of coarse hair from the water creatures. It was green and beautiful like seaweed. Bunches of it washed onto the shore and sparkled under the giant, bare moon.
“Hold my hand and help me to balance,” Sarah said as we stepped onto the grey, floating planks. Something sighed in the darkness. I thought I heard the mud moving. “Take your time, but quickly, please,” she said.
“Sarah,” I said. “I love you. You are good and wise and you never let anything hurt me.”
“Keep going, Joe,” she said. “I love you, too. Keep moving.”
A blubbery mass of sparkling flesh emerged next to us in the water. Two water snakes with rows of blood red scales running down their bodies twisted and writhed around one another. I saw that one of them was blind. In the place where its eyes should be, there were open, oozing gashes. Its mouth was forced open and it was gripping the body of the other snake with its teeth. I watched the mechanics of its jaw as it bit into the black flesh, deeper and deeper.
I almost missed the end of the bridge. I took a step, and suddenly my shoe was ripped from my foot. A creature held it by the shoestrings and took it into the blackness. It skimmed across the oily surface of the lake, creating a neat little line of waves on either side before disappearing.
“We’re here,” I said.
“Listen,” she gasped.
Scratching on the weathered boards, he was coming for us, still. It was worse for Sarah; she could understand his language. When the men spoke to me, I only heard a sharp and unintelligible whispering, like the wind coming through the gaps around our windows in a blizzard.
“Take a breath and be sure it is deep,” Sarah said.
We’d never had to go this far, before.
“Wait,” I said. “How will I find you?”
“It will be light on the other side,” she said, staring into the blackness ahead of us.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“I’ve dreamed about it,” she said.
She gingerly raised one of her slippered feet and only barely touched the tip of her toe into the water before she was whisked away and pulled down into the lake. For a moment, I saw the glowing shape of her, sinking and sinking, until a thousand glittering shells were illuminated on the bottom of the lake. Then she was gone. I shivered, alone.
A violent, poisonous voice was in my ear, suddenly. I didn’t need to be able to make out the words to know that hesitating for even a moment meant death. I felt the pressure of a dry, clacking tongue stinging my earlobe. I took the deepest breath I could manage and stepped into the water.
photo by charles knowles
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, The Drama Mama challenged me with "Do whatever it takes," and I challenged Hannah with "Everything was burning".