June 9, 2011
HILOBROW is proud to present the second installment of Karinne Keithley Syers’s novella and song cycle LINDA, a hollow-earth retirement adventure with illustrations by Rascal Jace Smith. New installments appear every Thursday.
The story so far: In episode 1 we went to a hostel in Knoxville and met Linda, an unsuspecting retired math teacher from Tennessee poached without her knowledge for this imagined Linda, in a bad-alternate hostel accompanied only by a dog named dog-Linda and let out occasionally into a globe, for reasons yet unknown.
Linda wakes in a dim room to the low oscillations of refrigerator hum. Orange light comes through high windows that seem to have been covered from the outside. Occasionally Linda hears the sound of whipping fabric, and so believes the kitchen is covered by a tent, and that the tent is pummeled by wind, and that the kitchen is not in the hostel at all, but in a simulated hostel somewhere in remote America, not in Tennessee, or in any state she’s been to.
Today the dog is not lying near. Linda is in the kitchen alone, propped against the fridge in her usual way on a pillow made of dish towels and paper towels and the stock of plastic bags under the sink. Next to the refrigerator is a computer that doesn’t work, and next to that is the door. The square window in the door is permanently fogged, but she can faintly distinguish the shape of the freeway just beyond the hostel, elevated on massive concrete legs and curving toward downtown. Under the freeway the passing cars sound like amplified bats, clicking and echoing, or at least she remembers it that way. The noise outside is thickened and suppressed, as if the fogged window obscures sound too. When the kitchen door opens, Linda first walks out on the poured concrete path that leads across the back lawn to the street, and she can briefly see the elevated freeway in the broad and ordinary daylight, and hear the dull thunks as the cars pass over the joints between the massive concrete slabs. But as soon as she steps across the threshold from the yard to the street, where her foot should land on sidewalk it lands on forest floor, and she is in the globe.
In the vision no one opens the door. Linda doesn’t even hear it open, she just feels the light and air shift and when she looks, there it is, open, so she walks through it and down the path, sees the freeway and extends her foot and lands softly in the globe. Today when she steps onto the forest floor, dog-Linda is immediately beside her in the faint mist and diffuse light, body pointed away but head turned back, looking right at her as if asking permission to run. Linda motions softly yes, and starts to walk, and dog-Linda bolts away.
There is nothing nice about the kitchen, but being in the globe is good. Linda likes walking. It’s not something she ever did before, really, take walks, especially by herself, and never in a forest, never alone. I do imagine she at least went walking in Nashville to see the massive statue of Athena in the duplicated Parthenon in Centennial Park. I imagine her there the afternoon I was there with my mother in 1996, on our way to Graceland on a mother–daughter road trip we meant to write about. There is no statue of Athena in the forest but sometimes she comes across trees so impressively large that she thinks of them as Athena, and those trees convince Linda that the globe can reconfigure itself at will, though the will of a globe she is not quite sure about. The trees are not always there. She is only slowly learning her way around the globe, but she does think that the Athena trees are not always there, that they move, at night, that they don’t always show themselves, which it is in their power to do.
Today, dog-Linda is circling away and trotting back to Linda, tugging her on through the forest. The air has a soft wet to it, feels exceptionally clean. Linda recognizes tree kinds as she walks: Pin Oak, Black Haw, Black Gum. Several of the gums are hollowed out, one occupied by a beehive. “Beegum,” she tells the dog, and points at it. A few bees fly out, circle her head and fly off. As she passes near the hollow she gets a sense squabble in the hive mind; she can almost decipher the pitched disagreement. There has been rain recently enough that she turns up the smell of the underbrush as she walks, and sometimes the leaves give way to a mucky pool as she steps onto them. Dog-Linda circles back to her, underside beaded with mud. Linda stops and takes some crackers out of her pocket, gives one to the dog and eats one herself. She leans against a tree, feeling its dampness on her sweater. Above them something runs across the branches, which drop beads of water on their heads. Dog-Linda shakes, and starts off again.
Linda allows the dog to lead her along forest tracks until the trees thin and they reach a field. For a moment, as they emerge onto the field in the middle of the forest, Linda believes there are other people, also led there by dogs, but as her eyes focus she realizes she does not see people but piles of colored rocks, spindly and tall and somehow figurative, as if the cairns that mark hiking trails had all gathered in a meadow at the summit to assume their secret destiny as snowmen. She approaches, dog-Linda at her side, stands among the cairn-people, waiting there with them and listening. At the foot of one of the cairn-people is an ice statue of a fox in the exact posture of dog-Linda before, pointed away but turned back, looking directly at Linda. Dog-Linda, who has gone off, suddenly barks, causing Linda to turn. She can’t see the dog but hears her running through the brush, breaking twigs in the trees on the far side of the field. She hears the sound of some creature shrieking, a flutter of wings and the dog howling. When the sound stops, Linda turns back to the ice fox but it has melted completely into a pool of bright silvery liquid, bubbling in tiny shooting lines. Her stomach juices shoot a strange noise and she has a momentary sense of fidelity to the puddle. Linda walks to the puddle with a sudden premonition that the field is a tensile surface draped across a vast hollow something, sod over wire mesh over hollow earth. Didn’t she just hear someone shouting from below? Her vision fogs, her throat swells and closes, and everything turns blue then grey and she wakes up in the kitchen, draped against the fridge.
A radio is on, reporting news from northern England. “Council reeling from £35m cuts… north-east region faces an overall cut of 6.64% while some local authorities in the south will largely escape the pain. Sunderland faces cut of 8.8% compared with an actual rise in funding to somewhat less problem-beset Dorset, whose county council budget will increase by 0.25%.” This is strange because she doesn’t think the British news should broadcast in Tennessee. But she does remember Sunderland, because I remember Sunderland: first-bombed town in the war, where nothing ever works and nothing ever lasts except the long lighthouse jetty out to North Sea, all flat and grey.
Something in Linda’s stomach turns, and a burp makes it half way up her throat before resolving into a growl, without escaping into the air. When she stands, the sound of the news from Northern England fades away, and Linda feels distinctly that the radio is somehow connected to her belly. The news of Northern England is replaced by music from a ballet by Prokofiev she knows well, because one year she chose the VHS of this ballet as her pledge gift from the local PBS station, and since then she watched it until the tape thinned on her favorite scenes. Linda rubs her belly. If she would close her eyes, she could see the cairn people again, so I ask her to close her eyes, but she protests: it will make her dizzy, and so the image of that field fades from her mind, like any dream, and now it’s gone from her, and only you and I left holding it.
These are the ways I imagine the catastrophe.
One day the sky turns dark with dust. Lightlessness causes a terrible panic. Slowly everything is consumed in the manner of a post-apocalyptic movie, including roving bands of cannibalistic humans for whom the triumph of survival is built on a loss of all empathy. The surface gets colder as the dust comes closer. Fireballs appear in the sky, owing to a distressing variety of causes ranging from meteorites to chemical plant terrorism to Marines on night parasailing drills gliding over lake cities of the almost-desert holding flares as they fall, alarming young and elderly alike.
Or there is a global corn blight, but an insidious one that doesn’t kill the crop but mutates its sugar into a slow-acting poison. Everything that feeds on corn or is made from it is infected, and poisoned beef and corn syrup go across the world putting a slow stop to all digestion. More and more of what goes down people’s throats returns up the same pathway, until dehydration, starvation and toxic shock wipe out all consumers of industrial food. Mass cremation spreads blight ash, circulating virulently in the global airstream, alternately moistened and dried until it comes floating down like pollen onto the porous skin and the porous soil of the little life remaining. The only ones who survive tunnel underground, with massive canned food reserves that will one day run out.
Or the economy collapses and all of America takes on the look of those photo essays of Detroit 2010, weeds overgrowing derelict but magisterial halls, the halls of our very recent ancestors, who cleaned the now decaying movie theaters and maybe even if they were lucky got to sing a song one night on the live radio broadcast to the good people of Chicago or Grand Rapids, but then they moved to California and opened modest delicatessens and got married and multiply that times a million and eventually there are too many of us with too-high standards of living and too much trash and it collapses, it comes sheeting down. Those of us that learn to sew and grow vegetables do better for a while, but the ones who need the glowing screens and the shops go insane, and the rest of us have to escape to open, difficult lands, like Montana near Canada but even that is useless. We are defenseless. The Union dissolves. The state governments, which went bankrupt long ago, are overtaken by the ones who stashed weapons — they seem so prescient now — and all the biotech engineers and creative class types are rounded up and made to come up with new forms of ammunition that can be made from the paltry sand and grass available. We finally start to use wind power even though the energy grids no longer function. Seed savers come out from hiding and become powerful and the giants are left with nothing.
Or piracy, which has been coming steadily back into the sea life of the 20th and 21st centuries now expands and swells and the ranks of the lawless outnumber the will of the lawful. Celebrity reality shows have divested the many publics of all belief in the goodness of culture. 80 years or more of mounting terror slowly reduce the confidence of the global economy. People disavow all trade. Without sponsorship athletes stop wearing their worn out sneakers and train barefoot, moonlighting as drug runners. Small fleets of fisherman form vigilante groups and the others begin to tunnel underground. In the hills, in the hollows, the tender hearted ones gather to sing. The pirates become the merchants and the merchants become monks.
Or nothing happens. Nothing at all. Linda just wakes up in a kitchen we know not whither.
now give a listen to the second song in the LINDA song cycle, Go Walking
NEXT WEEK: Alone you emit something terrible but together the waves cancel, increase, transform-oceanic, making the metallic voice of a penitent Hydra. Stay tuned!
Karinne and HiLobrow thank this project’s Kickstarter backers.
READ our previous serialized novel, James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox.
READ MORE original fiction published by HiLobrow.