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by Steve Toase

3865 words

The sensation of damp gravel against his hand is exactly as Dave remembered, sharp and nauseating at the same time. He stands and brushes down his jeans, then looks at the tiny precise stones stuck to his palms by moisture and imprint.

The staircase rises above him like a concrete cascade frozen in a singular moment. His life still feels stuck around such a moment. He looks down at the path again, and is hit by the scent of pennies, but does not know if it is spilt blood or spilt money he is remembering.

The caves have changed since he was a child. Now many colors of bulbs highlight the stone wonders on either side of the walkway, where before there was only darkness and a fading torch. He touches the hardhat loaned to him by the attraction, and finds a safety sticker peeling away from the rim. He plays with the edge as he sits again on the damp floor.

His Father had been a few steps in front of him, letting Dave take the steep descent at his own pace, so he never saw what caused his Father to lose his footing. Didn’t see why he fell so far and broke so certainly. The stairs are now lit with industrial-looking lamps laced with safety cages. He reaches out to one and flinches at the heat.

A family pushes past him on their way to the main caves, sparing him a look of hesitancy. He stands aside as another group passes and desperately wants to follow them deeper into the attraction, but he cannot manage to leave this spot. Same as it ever was.

The staff must have seen him on the CCTV and one of them descends to check on him. There were no cameras the last time he visited. He closes his eyes and listens to the footsteps echo off the raw stone walls. The woman introduces herself as Anna.

“Are you OK?”

“I want to go on further, but…”

“We often get visitors who underestimate how steep the steps are, or underestimate their claustrophobia. It’s fine.”

“I’m not scared. I just can’t get past this point.”

“I can accompany you, if you want.”

She is in her fifties, and he wonders if she worked at the caves at the time of the accident. If she was the assistant who sat with him when they eventually realized what had happened. Who wrapped a blanket around his shoulders, as the emergency team shuffled by with ropes and carabiners. Her radio crackles and she inclines her head away from Dave. He knows what they are saying about him.

“Would you like to sit down?” she asks, and he shakes his head to stop himself saying that of course he doesn’t want to spend a single fucking minute more there, even as he can’t move.

“Our director is on her way down.” She bows her head, hands clasped around the radio as if in prayer or mourning.

They do not speak and the silence is only broken by further footsteps down the concrete.

The director is a similar age to Anna.

“I’m Sue Clairbould. I’m led to believe that you are David Stavehand?”

Dave nods. The copper smell is back, though he does not know if it is a memory or some mineral in the water slicking the walls. Maybe his Father’s blood is still in the dirt beneath his feet.

“If you’d let us know you were visiting we’d have been happy to accommodate you.”

He doesn’t know how they could have accommodated him.

“I just want to get past this point,” he says and points to the ground.

Both Sue and Anna look uncertain what to say for a moment.

“I want to see the well,” he says. “I just want to see the well.”

• • •

All the way to the caves, his Father hadn’t shut up about the well, sharing again in detail the old story how Mother had taken him on their first date. He described the Victorian lace trimmed bonnets barely recognizable near the top of the stone face, as well as bird nests with fragile eggs still within, all coated in thin smears of rock.

As he sat by his father’s body, Dave had wondered if he’d regretted not seeing the well once more. After all these years he still wants to see it for him. Keep a promise he made in the dark.

“We can arrange for someone to go with you,” Sue says. She looks at Anna for a moment as if expecting her to speak and when she doesn’t, Sue continues “We’re a bit short-staffed today. It would be better if you could visit again tomorrow. Free admission, obviously.”

“I’m staying in a guesthouse nearby,” he says.

“Come just before we open,” Sue says. “Then you don’t have to deal with any of the school parties.”

He nods and starts to follow Anna up the stairs, Sue behind him. His safety helmet catches on the roof and he flinches.

“You’re a bit taller than when you were last here,” Anna says, and he doesn’t know how to respond.

“Your Mum came from around here,” Sue says, changing the subject.

“She grew up in the next Dale over,” Dave says. “By the time I came along my parents had moved to the city.” He feels the pressure of all the land around him. So close and so dense and so heavy with abandoned family expectations. When they reach the top and step out into the gift shop he walks past the large basket of safety helmets, shakes his head, and returns to remove the one on his head. The room is filled with displays of keychains, ornaments, T-shirts and hoodies, nylon witch hats, LED wands, postcards, tea mugs, slim binding books by local writers, and more.

“Tomorrow then,” he says.

“Come to my office first thing.” Sue takes the helmet from him and drops it into the wicker basket with the others. “If I’m not there, I won’t be long.”

Back in his hotel room, he sits on the bed with mementos spread around him; the ticket stubs and brochure from that day, and the program of service from his Father’s funeral. He folds them together, and slides them into his jacket pocket, preparing for tomorrow and hiding them from himself. The grief is more than paper. Grief is shattered bone stretching bloodstained denim, and the coughing gulps of breath through rib punctured lungs. The ebb with no flow.

• • •

At 8 a.m. he arrives at the visitor center, and makes his way between the pine shelves with local interest books stood cover out. A place too bright and quiet for the memories he carries. The office is to one side of the cash desk. He steps around a basket of cuddly stuffed sheep and knocks on the door.

“Come in,” Sue shouts, and he goes inside. The office is small, the floor stacked with boxes of publicity leaflets. Sue sits behind the desk, the monitor’s glow reflected in her glasses turning her eyes pale.

“Ah, morning Mr. Stavehand.”

“Dave, please,” he says with a rehearsed informality.

“Morning, Dave,” she says, smiling as if his permission has lifted some huge weight from her shoulders. “If you can just give me a moment to finish up here. Payroll. Has to be done or there will be a mutiny,” she says by way of explanation. “Please, take a seat.”

He spots the only other chair in the room piled with books. Without asking, he lifts them and sits down. Because this place owes him something, perhaps because he cannot speak.

For ten minutes he sits in silence, amid the click of keyboard and an occasional sigh from Sue Clairbould as she pauses then deletes.

When he was a child, the room had been a small kitchen, he recalled now, and how he sat in silence as they lifted his Father up the stairs and into the quiet dark ambulance with no hope of resuscitation. He remembers the sound of the paramedics slipping, the body escaping them to fall again. He still doesn’t know if his Father was dead by then, or the contact with the tile floor had ended his life.

He picks up a leaflet and unfolds it on his lap. Between colorful professional photos of the caverns the text tells folklore of the place, how women who fell pregnant out of wedlock would be pressured to leave their offspring near the cave entrance to placate the witches who dwelled below ground. Even when he was a boy he hadn’t believe such stories, it was just gruesome old fashioned infanticide.

“Right!” Sue says with a finality that is too close to his own memories. She stands and extends a hand, not to shake but for him to go first through the door. He does, and holds it open until she follows then lets her take the lead to the cave entrance.

“If you wouldn’t mind putting on a safety helmet. Even outside hours, safety first.” She smiles and hands him a blue helmet. It is not the same as the one he wore the day before, and the foam band within smells of someone else’s sweat. Sue glances down at his feet.

“Sturdy boots. No need to lend you some wellies.”

His boots are stained with cave water from yesterday. He remembers the loaned rubber boots bulging from one of his father’s many fractures, blood from torn skin seeping from the top, soaked up by the gravel. He can smell pennies again and shakes his head.

Sue puts a hand on his arm and looks directly into his eyes. Dave finds it disconcerting the way he can see his reflection in her glasses.

“If it gets too much and you need a break, just let me know and we can stop.” He nods, and begins to speak, but she continues. “You can always return another a time if you become overwhelmed.”

Dave shakes his head and smiles. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

She walks in front of him, steadying herself on the iron railing that curves down into the earth. Her hand reaches out and flicks a switch bringing light to the underworld. He wonders if the staff ever enter the caves alone. If they ever venture in after hours. If they ever smell pennies in the air.

She ducks under the concrete lintel and he follows close behind. With the angle of the stairs, her head is level with his sturdy boots, and the thought forms in his mind. He considers overwriting his Father’s death with another. To tumble this woman who is little more than a symbol of the place. Her death means nothing to him, and so he hesitates and does not murder. Does not add more pennies to the air.

Halfway down the flight of stairs she pauses and turns to check on him.

“And your Mum is Jackie Keld?”

“Yes,” Dave says, steadying himself, though his imbalance is all the memories weighing him down.

“We went to the same school, but I was a couple of years above her. Saw her growing up. Quiet thing.”

Dave lets the conversation die. He does not want to talk about his Mother. Doesn’t want to remember her grief on top of his own. How she always blamed herself for that first date. They continue into the earth.

When they reach the spot where he stopped yesterday, he halts again, trapped again by one hundred steps above him and one hundred steps below. He stands on the pivot step and closes his eyes for a moment. Still the air is coppery and sharp.

“Are you OK?” Sue Clairbould has stopped and regards him. He does not know which step his Father fell from, whether it was step one-hundred-one, or step forty-three, or step ninety-two. All of them contributed to the breaking of him. Sue takes her hand off the rail and that thought is there again. He lets it pass.

“I’m fine. I mean, I’m not—but I can cope.”

She nods as if the matter is settled.

He continues following her down, the odor of blood intensifying as if he is still wearing the clothes of that day.

“We were all surprised when your Mum left to be honest, but everyone who goes has their reasons.”

“They wanted something new, I think.”

“Did they find the new?”

“They had me,” he says for want of another answer. He is an outsider in the countryside, almost as much as his Father had been when he met his Mother in the nearby cycling cafĂ©. His Father had an outsider’s love for the land. His Mother had roots in the peat and veins running with tarn water.

They reach a level length of cave floor and Dave stumbles, trying not to stand on the spot where his Father died and he himself was changed. His hand reaches out to the cave wall to steady himself and comes away slick with cold water filtered through sky and earth. His descent is filtered between memories and loss, and he pauses to collect himself.

“Are you ready to go on, or do you need a moment?” Sue says. She tips her head back so he can see her concerned look beneath her hardhat. There is something else there too. Pleasure at his discomfort? He suspects she likes to see people in distress so she can help them and linger in the warm feeling of generosity it creates within.

Dave takes a deep breath and glances at the gritted path beneath his feet to mark how far he has come. “I’m ready,” he says. He lifts his foot and places it beyond his Father’s death and his world takes a new shape.

They walk in silence down the first tunnel. The walls are closer now. He feels their weight again.

“I’ve loved this place for a long time,” Sue says, though he suspects she does not love the quiet. “They first brought us down here when we were young. About the age you were the first time. Your Mother too.”

“With school,” he says, remembering the times his Mother got drunk and told him fragments of a life from before he was born.

“Something like that. We all fell in love with the magic of the place. Your parents told you about the caves?”

The lights have changed. No longer are they industrial lamps but multicolored bulbs suspended in nooks, highlighting the river-smooth stone, textures rounded and formed slowly over time. Tiny Perspex plaques give the formations names nature never did.

“You know the stories. They told us as kids to scare us. They said before the caves were rediscovered, they were supposed to be the haunt of witches. Also that business about leaving unwanted babies.”

“Indeed, oh indeed. And the well? What did they tell you about that?”

Pennies again, corroding in shallow water. Soaking into the gravel floor. He shakes his head to clear the stench.

“That people suspended objects in the well to turn them to stone. A tourist attraction.”

“One of the first, but a long time before that they were called the Medusa caves. People would leave objects at the entrance with curses then return to find them turned to stone. They’d bury them in their garden of their enemies in the hope that the curses would work.”

“And did they?”

“Did they what?” Sue ducks through a natural archway and pauses to consider.

“Did the curses work?” He steps past her.

“The stories say so, but maybe the only magic was the magic of geology.”

They duck under another low ceiling. This reduced height continues, and Dave hunches, his borrowed hardhat clatters against the stone above. With each rattle, he feels an echo of his Father death.

Stepping into the main chamber, Dave gasps.

The petrifying well occupies one full side of the cavern. The noise of trickling water echoes off the stone. He wasn’t sure what to expect. Maybe torrents of water sweeping over the objects suspended from the rockface. There is no such urgency. Each drip seems to take an age, lingering as it impacts on attached surfaces.

Objects hang on steel hooks from a slack rope beneath the already petrified face. He wonders how much stone has accumulated since that day his Father fell. His grief is marked in stone.

He walks forward. Sue does not join him. He can smell the water in the air, the minerals as they coat velvet and metal alike. It does not remind him of pennies, but the sea as if the ocean waits above him to burst into this empty chamber below the earth.

He looks up the face of the well, seeing embedded toys and garden tools coated in stone. They poke out of the stone as if trying to remind the world of their fading existence. Not yet willing to give up on the world, and hoping the world does not give up on them. He runs a hand over a nearby doll, her features smoothed away by the constant drip of water catching in her nylon eyelashes.

“Later,” Sue says, coming to stand beside him. “People would write messages to the dead and embed them here. They thought that as their words became trapped, the trapped spirits would be able to read the words. During the Great War the well was like a sorting office for the deceased.”

Above him, the cavern rises into darkness, undulating stone out of sight never touched by human skin. He returns his attention to the well and watches a single, mineral laden drop find its way down the smooth stone, halt for a second on the brim of an encased bowler hat, then slide down the string holding a cuddly elephant before bonding with the animal’s staring plastic eye. He wonders how many other eyes are embedded within the wall, hidden and blinded.

He remembers his Father’s hand. His own hand, small and young, within his Father’s grasp. Now his hand is large and empty. All he has is the memory of holding his Father’s palm, blood sliding from shattered limbs, a barrier between them, thin and wet and warm, growing cold.

Sue stands beside him, looking into the well. “We have another cave below this, not open to the public. I think you’ve earned the right.”

For the first time, he notices her perfume, reminding him of the smoke from burning heather reaching the city. The scent seems to intensify as she speaks.

He nearly declines, celebrating what he has achieved already, and hoping that this fulfills the compact he made when sat beside his Father all those hours in the near dark until help came, him speaking and his Father cleaving words from a broken throat.

“Show me,” he says, and Sue smiles with all her teeth.

“Through here.” She gestures to a patch of darkness in the wall. He goes first, ducking low under the stone, entering into the pitch black beyond. He worries for a moment that the flow of water might speed up, piling minerals so fast the earth will scab over the route back.

He glances back and sees only the silhouette of Sue behind him. The tunnel slowly descends, walls either side rough and untamed. He lets his palm drag against the land’s raw wounds and follows the path as it curves and drops.

“He was really devoted to your Mother,” she says. Her voice sounds different in the echo of the passage. “Would do anything for her.”

The walls contract and Dave turns sideways to proceed. “He always said she was the pivot around which his life revolved.” He can smell the stone now, the creation and erosion on every side of him. The pressure of change like being in the womb of god.

“That’s a good way of phrasing it,” Sue says. “To throw himself down those stairs, to give his life in such a painful and visceral way at her request. That takes devotion.”

The words slowly make sense, and by the time they do there is no room to turn. Dave tries, but his shoulders wedge against the walls on either side, and he cannot resist as the needle slides into his neck pressing sleep through his skin. He feels the individual beads of liquid enter his vein, and a cold darkness solidify within him.

• • •

The drops are not singular, and no matter how hard he twists they still hit, the moisture collecting in his hair and dripping down his face. He pivots as far as he can on the rope, pain in his stomach and groin stopping him. He looks down at his torso. Thin medical tubing runs away from his skin to the darker parts of the room.

The man next to him is older. In various places the weight of stone collecting has torn patches of skin away from his face. He too has pipes connecting him to machines in hidden parts of the room.

“My son,” a voice says. Sue steps into view, but Dave struggles to see her as the water drops collect in his eyelashes. “He’s been here a while now, but won’t last much longer. That’s why it’s your time.”

The man groans. Something has gnawed a hole in his jaw, or it might be an infected wound.

“In the older days we didn’t have these medical options to keep the boys alive,” Sue continues, runs a chewed fingernail across Dave’s face. “We had to keep chiseling the accumulation from their mouths to feed them. Collect the piss and shit in buckets. Used to stink in here. Not so long ago, really.”

He looks at the stone walls stretching high over them. In the thin artificial light he sees the outlines of people beneath the surface of the flowstone, most so vague they are barely contours. Some faces are pressed into the mineral as if they sought to dive further, cross to another place.

“Why did he have to die?” His voice sounds muffled in the tiny cavern.

Sue shrugs. “Sacrifices take many forms. Your Mother is very devout and wanted to demonstrate that commitment in the most complete way possible. It’s true that children were left at the entrance of the cave by cruel families, but they didn’t die. The girls became witches, and the boys became invocations and geology and the living earth. They became the source of the magic—they still do.” She strokes his cheek. “You, Dave Stavehand, are part of a lasting tradition.”

He feels a single button of moisture settle in place, gripping the stubble of his beard. Shaking his head, he tries to dislodge it. The water and minerals within refuse to move. In his mind he pictures the thousands of rivulets that will tumble from the stone above to encase him in the wall like the silent figure to his side.

“Don’t worry,” Sue adjusts a dial and he feels warmth trickle into his stomach. “We’ll keep you healthy. You have a long life ahead of you.”

Steve Toase was born in North Yorkshire, England, and now lives in Munich, Germany. His fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shadows & Tall Trees 8, Analog, Three Lobed Burning Eye, and Shimmer amongst others. Five of his stories have been selected for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series, and one for Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror Volume 3. His debut short story collection To Drown in Dark Water is now out from Undertow Publications. He also likes old motorbikes and vintage cocktails.

Issue 36

July 2022

3LBE 36

Front & Back cover art by Rew X

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