December 8, 2014 | ,

Tunnels Underfoot

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MORPHOLOGY: the Wooly Shagruth resembles a bipedal American
bison. In place of hooves, it has rough, conical talons it uses to kill prey
and drill into mountainsides where it constructs its nests.

Annie is underground with her Secret Lover. They are in their meeting place, a cavern roughly the size of her parents’ living room. It’s illuminated only by her Secret Lover’s headlamp resting on the ground, tilted toward dirt sky. Tonight, they are making frozen blueberry mojitos, their blender powered by a makeshift generator: an apple soaked in ginger ale. Her Secret Lover plugs the blender into the mealy apple, then places the apple on a small plastic tray.

“It’s not going to work,” Annie says.

“I saw it on the internet,” he says.

“Oh, you get that down here?” Even in the dimness, she can tell what look he is giving her—that smoothie mix of annoyance and affection. He cracks open the can of ginger ale and pours it over the apple, into the tray. The blender spins for a moment then sputters and stops. He smiles at her the way he does when he doesn’t want to admit she’s right. His teeth are proud and straight. Annie is embarrassed that this is one of the first things she noticed about him. She doesn’t like to think that what she finds desirable could be dictated by her father’s work.

Her Secret Lover takes a pull from the bottle of rum. “Well,” he says, passing her the bottle and putting his hand on her knee. “Another time, then.” They drink and talk and touch, tentatively still, even though they’ve had sex plenty of times, even though no one can see them here. When her Secret Lover tells a joke, Annie hears her laugh echoing back to her through the tunnels. She listens hard, tries to see if she sounds happy.

After more than a few mojitos’ worth of rum, her Secret Lover stands and stumbles, catches himself against the wall. “Come here,” he says, holding out his hand. “I want to show you something.” She takes it.

She met her Secret Lover shortly after Mark left for the summer. She met him and she wanted him, as simple and impossible as that. Before he became her Secret Lover, he never tried to seduce her. He knew about Mark, and he never complained she was leading him on, though it was obvious he liked her: he’d go silent when she responded to text messages, give half-hearted chuckles when she told him about making chimpanzee noises during drunken sex.

On rare occasions that Mark’s cell found service and she had hushed phone sex with him, she caught herself coming to thoughts of her future Secret Lover instead. Finally, after weeks of wanting, she tunneled to his backyard, told him underground was a place they could be together.

The initial tunnel connected her house to his, a few blocks away. They went about their daily lives like normal, but at night they met beneath the earth. Together, they kept digging, they expanded and excavated until tunnels tendrilled throughout the town, until she associated everywhere she went above ground with the secret life humming beneath.

He leads her to a tunnel she hasn’t seen, one he must have built without her. They crouch to avoid hitting their heads. Above them, the ground shudders. It makes her nervous. He’s been spending more and more time in the tunnels without her, even though she asked him to slow down, to wait for her. She doesn’t want him sleeping down here, but he says he likes the air, the weight of its dampness. “It feels like being held,” he’d said.

“Where are we going?” she asks.

“You’ll see.”

They take a turn and, up ahead, Annie sees a pillar of moonlight reaching into the tunnel.

“I made us a skylight,” her Secret Lover says.

He lies down under it, flicks off his headlamp. She lies beside him. She looks at him looking up at the night sky. His smile catches the moon, almost glowing. Why did she meet this man, this boy, right when Mark was newly absent from her life, when all Mark’s affection and love was a distant star, pretty and bright but not close enough to provide warmth? No one person can give you everything you need, she reasons. It’s easy to forget that. It’s easy to forget what you love about a person when you’re squinting in the dark, hoping to see someone else. What Mark gives her and what her Secret Lover gives her are different. Even if she can’t articulate it, she feels it in her body.

She wonders where the skylight opens up, if there’s any chance someone might find it, find them. She feels suddenly angry.

“Doesn’t it bother you I have a boyfriend?” she says. Her Secret Lover doesn’t respond. She wants him to be mad at her, to end the affair so she doesn’t have to make a choice. She doesn’t know how long she can inhabit this world, pretending there’s not one above it. She hasn’t told her Secret Lover that Mark was coming to see her at the end of the week.

Later, when Annie surfaces in her parent’s backyard, still a little drunk, the night is as dark as a tunnel. She brushes dirt from her elbows and knees, camouflages the hole beneath the red maple with netting made to look like fallen leaves. She walks softly across the lawn and into the house. Before going up to her room, she tiptoes to her father’s aviary. Her father built this small, soundproofed addition onto the house so the incessant birdcalls wouldn’t annoy the neighbors. Her father is a dentist. He collects birds because, with them, he doesn’t have to worry about teeth.

She walks among the rows of stacked cages, dragging her fingers along the thin bars. If it were daylight, the braver birds might nip gently at her hand. But they are sleeping. They might not even be there, Annie thinks. Maybe if she lifted the coverings from the cages, she’d find them empty, the birds disappeared.

Her father has all kinds of birds, parakeets and doves and cockatoos, but her favorites are the canaries. They make her think of her lover underground. When she was a girl, her father told her how miners brought canaries down into the mines because if they stopped singing, the men would know the air was unsafe to breathe. She looks at the cage of a blue canary named Alto and imagines the bird underneath its cloth night.

Only the owls remain uncovered. Their big eyes light up like beacons, watch her every move. She imagines they can see through her skin, into everything she is. Leaving the aviary, she listens for some small canary song, a sign everything will work out, but hears only the owls beginning their nightly call for confessions.

ODOR: the Wooly Shagruth releases a pungent stench that causes
smaller mammals to imprint upon it. The effect is comparable to that of
known hallucinogens and appears to be addictive. Processions of skunks,
weasels, and foxes have been observed following paths allegedly made by
Shagruths.

Annie wasn’t even supposed to be home this summer. She was supposed to be with Mark. They’d saved up to rent a beach house, waste afternoons in bed and nights out on gray sand, but then Mark got talking with a team of cryptozoologists he met in a gelato shop. They told him about the Wooly Shagruth, how they planned to find and capture a live specimen. Mark, always willing to believe, wanted to be a part of it. The week before break, he told her he couldn’t go to the beach because he had to find the Wooly Shagruth. The beach would always be there, he said, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It irritated Annie that he thought she’d always be there, too.

Mark’s unpredictability was one of the hazards that came with dating him, but also one of the greatest pleasures. He was spontaneous. He’d show up at her dorm unannounced, take her camping on a whim, or drag her to strange tourist traps. He wanted to take her with him to hunt for the Wooly Shagruth, but the researchers insisted there was only room for him on the expedition.

“You’ll need to wear a gas mask,” Annie said when Mark first told her about the Wooly Shagruth’s odor, which was said to attract skunks and stinkbugs, knock grown men unconscious. She and Mark were in bed. It was a Sunday afternoon. All obligations felt worth putting off if it meant not putting on clothes for another hour.

“Not after I’ve been around you,” Mark said. He buried his nose in her neck and inhaled, pretending to gag. “I’ve got a high tolerance for smelliness.”

She hit him with a pillow. “If you think I smell, then you must be the Wooly Shagruth himself, wooing me with your pungent odor.” Mark detested routine and often forgot to take showers, too distracted by the world.

“Can you imagine if we found it?” He was serious again. “It’d be a breakthrough.”

“If it exists,” Annie said. Mark nodded, but didn’t say anything. Annie thinks back to this moment frequently, wishes she hadn’t expressed her doubt. She thinks if only she had said something different, if she had believed as wholly as Mark did in a thing so impossible-seeming, maybe she wouldn’t have fallen in love with someone else.

One theory about the Wooly Shagruth’s origins gave her shivers. Some experts believed every Wooly Shagruth had once been a person, but some tragedy, some overwhelming grief, brought out feelings wild and animalistic. Only becoming entirely inhuman could stop such human pain.

If she told Mark about the tunnels, about her Secret Lover, would he understand? Or would he look at her in pained disbelief, transform into an apocryphal monster? Nobody wants to believe she could be the kind of person who has a Secret Lover. Nobody wants to believe she could be the kind of person who fucks in underground tunnels while her significant other if off elsewhere in the world, possibly in peril. Nobody wants to believe her love for a person could be anything but singular, that another love could coexist alongside that joyous swollen earth-shaking love, but sometimes it is, and sometimes it does, and those sometime sometimes are why people spend years scouring the universe for things that shouldn’t be but really, truly are.

MOVEMENT: The Wooly Shagruth has been known to stand completely
motionless for weeks at a time. Its large nostrils increase oxygen intake,
allowing it to reach speeds of forty-five miles per hour when running. Due
to its agility and compound eyes, it is able to capture hummingbirds in mid-
flight. Shagruths migrate north for summer.

The next night, after her parents go to bed, Annie grabs her flashlight and sneaks down to the aviary. She picks up Alto’s cage. She knows her father will notice it missing soon, but she worries about radon, about carbon monoxide, about mysterious gases she can’t name suffocating her Secret Lover while he sleeps. At least with Alto, he’ll have a warning. Short of bringing her Secret Lover aboveground to her bed, it is all she can think to do to protect him.

In the cavern, she sees his headlamp spotlighting a root-tentacled wall, illuminating the glint and swing of a hammer onto a chisel.

“Hey, you,” she calls.

He turns toward her, and his headlamp gives him a bright, brilliant Cyclops eye. He puts down his tools, comes to her, takes her in his arms. She worries he’s leaving dirty handprints on her shirt, and she feels sad this is her first thought.

“What’s this?” he says, seeing the birdcage.

“I’m sorry I was a brat last night,” Annie says.

“I thought it was cute.”

She sighs. “I brought you a canary.”

“You don’t need to worry,” he says. He knocks his fist against the wall a couple times. “It’s very stable. There’s good ventilation.” Annie kicks at the ground. She is trying to figure out how to say what she needs to say.

“It just seems like it’s become more about the place than us,” she says.

Annie can’t see her Secret Lover’s face past the headlamp, but she can tell his mind is whirring. He is calculating, cautious. He never says anything if unsure of the consequences.

He sits down in the dirt, shuts off his headlamp.

“I wanted to take you out to dinner,” he says. “I wanted to go bowling. Sing karaoke.”

She knows this. He wants a world where they can see each other, but she is too afraid of running into old friends from high school, her father’s nosy patients who recognize her from photos on the examination room wall. She sits beside him.

“I just figure if this is all we have, we should make it comfortable,” he says, “like a home.”

“I know,” she says. “I’m sorry.” She kisses him, slips her fingers into the waistband of his jeans. Her Secret Lover is not Mark. He is not spontaneous, he will not make animal noises during sex, he does not skip his daily shower—when he first began digging with her, he told her it was the muddiest he’d ever gotten. He is reliable and dedicated, even in lust. She knows just how to touch him. It’s obvious she is placating him. She wants him to notice, to call her on it.

“You’re great,” he says, kissing her ear. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”

But she knows she does. Sometimes, when Mark talks about her, when her Secret Lover talks about her, Annie feels like a character in a story. The love they narrate makes her lightheaded. Sometimes, she imagines finding a secret secret lover, someone willing to tell her she isn’t always wonderful, that occasionally she can be a real dick, but Mark, her Secret Lover, they stop just short of calling her perfect. The person they describe doesn’t sound like her to her at all.

She turns her flashlight off. The darkness gulps them down. She lies back on the ground, pulls him on top of her. He wraps his arms around her, touches the notches of her spine, sending her voice like sonar into the cool passageways of tightly packed earth. She imagines a seismograph mistaking their orgasms for earthquakes.

No matter how wide she opens her eyes, she cannot see him. She cannot see anything. She can only feel him, bright inside her, his hips pressing into her like the lightlessness all around them. At Annie’s insistence, they only ever make love in the dark. This way, she can make herself feel like someone else. She can make herself feel like it is not a betrayal.

TERRITORIALITY: To establish territories, the Wooly Shagruth rubs its
horns on trees, leaving a distinctive diamond shape in the bark. Each is
unique to the Shagruth that made it. Other large predators avoid areas where
these diamond shapes appear.

On Friday, Annie picks Mark up from the airport. He looks the same as when she last saw him: big eyes, strewn-twig hair, crooked teeth that make her shudder, not in an altogether unpleasant way, something exciting and taboo about them.

“No luck?” she asks after he’s thrown his backpack in the trunk.

“We think it caught our scent and left the area.”

He talks to her about the monster hunt: setting up traps, following foraging paths of skunks hoping they’d lead to the Shagruth’s lair. Listening to him, she gets the urge to tell all about her summer, every detail, everything about her Secret Lover right down to the noises he makes when he comes. How can Mark really love her, really know her, if he doesn’t know of the tunnels she builds? All of it, even her love for her Secret Lover, is a part of her. She wants him to know every part, and she wants to know the stories he doesn’t tell her, too.

At her house, they sit on opposite sides of the couch, legs entwined, watching action movies with her parents. For a moment, she looks out the window and thinks she sees a small circle of light in the backyard. She blinks and it’s gone—just the flickering reflection of TV explosions.

Mark is supposed to sleep on the pullout couch, but when her parents go to bed, she and Mark sneak up to her room. They make quiet, monstrous love. This is the first time in months she’s had sex in a soft bed instead of on cool soil. She can feel Mark coursing through all the tunnels of her veins.

Afterward, he picks at a clump of dirt on her pillowcase.

“I brought some of the woods here for you,” he says.

Here’s the moment, she thinks. She can tell him everything. She can explain the dirt is hers, that it was caked between her shoulder blades. Instead, she makes a joke about smelling like Wooly Shagruths in heat. Mark doesn’t laugh.

“Guess I kind of killed our summer, huh?” he says.

“No, no,” she says. “It’s okay. You shouldn’t pass on a chance like that.”

He smiles and rolls onto his side, away from her. On his back, she sees deep, ragged scratches, still in the tender process of healing.

“I thought you didn’t find anything out there,” she says.

“We didn’t,” he says. But she didn’t make those marks—she bites her nails to nothing.

“Did something find you?” she asks, but he is already snoring.

MOLTING: the Wooly Shagruth molts every three to four weeks. After it
has emerged, its shed skin remains standing upright. Whole fields of
Shagruth husks have been found, the beast itself long vanished.

Annie can’t sleep. She goes to the tunnel. A sour odor enters her nostrils as she steps into the cavern. Alto sings a terrified and angry song. She gasps when she snares her Secret Lover in her flashlight’s beam. His hair, impossibly, has grown several inches since the other day. It is stringy and tangled. It covers his eyes. She kneels beside him, puts a hand on his arm, where the skin is oily and rough, peeling like a sunburn. He is using not his tools but his fingernails, which are jagged and sharp, to sculpt something out of dirt. He smells of musk and urine. It looks like he hasn’t left the tunnels for days. It looks like he’s been down here for months.

“Oh, honey,” she says. “What are you doing to yourself?” But he doesn’t stop his work. She leans her head on his shoulder, holding her breath against the smell. He is molding a dirt sculpture of himself, of what he used to look like.

“Where have you been?” he asks, but it sounds more like a command. He shrugs her off him. She hesitates, then decides to tell the truth.

“Mark is back,” she says.

“Then why come here? You want to be with him, not me.”

“You’re the only one saying that.”

“It’s true.”

“I want to be with you,” she says. “I want to be with you, too.”

“Why do you have to add that?”

“That’s how it’s always been,” she says, standing up. She sees the blender is shattered, the rotting apple eaten to its core. “That was the point of all this. I thought you understood.”

“What do you want me to say?” He takes his headlamp off and runs his hands through his clumped hair, as though looking for a zipper down his skull. She hopes he doesn’t find that zipper. She hopes he doesn’t unzip himself and reveal a self she hadn’t expected, some hidden rage, some inhuman grief, some violent disappointment she can’t be in two places at once.

“I don’t know,” she says. Everything seemed so simple when Mark was away. She could talk with him on the phone, zoom in on satellite images of mountains with names like Haystack and Skylight, places he might be, and then she could come here to her other lover, have adventures of her own. But now she is losing control. Mark might have a secret lover of his own. Her Secret Lover is becoming something else.

As she leaves him to his work, she worries he will follow her to the surface, reveal their love. But what scares her more is that she might never see him again, that one day, she’ll try to return to him and find nothing but solid earth.

SIGHTINGS: the Wooly Shagruth avoids being seen. It hides in plain
sight. Eyewitness accounts indicate it may appear in different
forms to different people. Some claim it has white fur that is
curly and thick, making it resemble an unsheared ram. Others insist
its hair is matted and mangy, its body gaunt, like a dying tree.
Still others say its skin and fur are a pitch black, that only its
bulging eyes have a hint of color, that its mere presence swallows
up all light in the vicinity.

When Annie returns to her bedroom, Mark is standing at the window, looking out at the street in front of her house. Before she can say anything, he turns to her and spreads a grin across his face.

“Come here,” he says. “You’ve got to see this.”

At first, she doesn’t see anything, but then, in the dark, some streaks of black, of white. Skunks. There are skunks pacing circles in the street, sniffing at cracks in the pavement.

“It’s here,” he says. He runs past her out the room. She hears him bounding down the stairs. Slowly, she follows.

In the living room, Mark grabs his oversized hiking backpack and whips out the front door. Annie goes onto the porch, watches as Mark strides into the street, making the skunks scatter. He kneels to examine the cracks. Then he opens his backpack, pulls out a pickaxe.

“Mark, don’t be stupid,” Annie says, but her voice comes out like a whisper. Mark raises the pickaxe high above his head, swings it down upon the biggest fissure. The sound rings out into the night. She can’t bear to watch, so she goes back inside, into her father’s aviary. Annie sits on the floor between the cages. It is dark and silent until the owls glare at her, wonder, “Who?”

Something is crawling beneath Annie’s skin. She worries there is no one that can satisfy her. Maybe she will always be making secret tunnels, building them until they cave in under the weight of the real world.

Just then, the whole house shakes violently beneath her. The cages rattle and birds awaken, go into a squawking frenzy. She runs from the aviary, followed by the frightened songs escaping in flocks, surrounding her as she runs out the front door, soaring into her ears and the night. Lights come on in neighbors’ houses. Mark has opened a sinkhole in the middle of the street.

She walks to where Mark is at the edge of the pit, peering down. “Annie,” he says, reaching out. “Quick, your flashlight.”

Her flashlight is still sticking out of her pocket from sneaking to the tunnel. She turns it on, but doesn’t hand it to him. She wants to be the one to reveal everything if everything must be revealed. She shines it down into the impossible darkness, illuminating a cavern roughly the size of her parents’ living room, a muddy sculpture of a boy, a mangled and empty birdcage. The surfeit of skunks gathers around the rim of the sinkhole, peering down into it, chippering wildly. Her light flickers. Batteries running low, though she could swear she just replaced them. Something, somewhere in the immense network of tunnels, lets out a moon-piercing roar.

“Annie,” Mark says, looking at her. “Think of what we’re about to find.”

Sam Martone is the author of two chapbooks, Methodology and An Object You Cannot Lose. His work has recently appeared in Bad Pony, Big Muddy, Cartridge Lit, Juked, Mid-American Review, and The Pinch, among many others. He lives and writes in Tempe, Arizona.

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