June 30, 2011
HILOBROW is proud to present the fifth 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: Our heroine Linda, a retired math teacher from Tennessee who somehow got stuck in this story, has been wandering the globe (not the planet, but a special separate kind of game world) with her companion dog-Linda. In the last installment, Linda received an invasive transmission of images of the hollow earth, and lay helpless while a lady from what seemed like another dimension planted a metal object in her mouth. Linda was upset, so we made her a protection dance, and left the instructions on how to do it.
Linda wakes on the floor of the globe. Dog-Linda is lying pressed against her, stretched long and narrow, almost the shape of a human. Linda looks at the trees at the light refracted through the faint mist. Dog-Linda lifts her head up and looks at Linda’s face, and when Linda shifts, dog-Linda moves instantly to her feet. Linda takes off her shoes, generic black 5-hole lace-up shoes with spent gel inserts, and wonders if they make her look like she works in a prison, and wonders how she would have done as a guard in a women’s prison and if one needs any more compassion to work in a jail than in a high school math classroom. She takes off her brown argyle socks, and lays them in the shoes. Sitting, she picks up her left foot and then her right, using her hands to slowly circle her toes, pressing each foot open and closed, rubbing her ankles. Dog-Linda licks each foot when she is done with it. She replaces her socks and shoes and they go walking.
Linda and dog-Linda walk all day, following paths made by unseen animals before them. All morning they pass Red Pin Oaks, Sweetgum and Green Ash trees, Ginkgos, Hickory and Elm. The canopy is full and apple green in the light. There is a chill especially in the dampness that clouds around fallen trunks, whose roots splay skyward, reminding Linda of arteries and capillaries. Underfoot the globe is soft. When the path becomes more defined, almost a footpath, the light changes slowly, extracting green warmth and leaving a grayish purple brightness.
They pass into a coppice of Tilia trees, with their heart shaped leaves and pea-fruit extending in small stiff ribbons. They listen to their own feet against the ground. As they continue the trees begin to form regular patterns, concentric arcs with easy avenues between them. Linda and dog-Linda walk side by side now, uneasy in the strange regularity, passing rings of trees until the rings become small, and give at last onto a wide interior clearing with a single tree at the center, a silver Linden from another story, straight-stemmed and round-topped and so light-barked it seems almost to be floating.
From the opening in the canopy a sourceless luminosity flows in, and as Linda and dog-Linda stand watching the tree, its shadow takes a slow course across the ground, as if a sun were pacing around in a circle. But there is no sun; there never has been one in the globe, which tends to fill with a light of perfect consistency, more like a painting than a place. The shadow, though, is definitely moving, and as they wait, watching, they see it turn from an oval cast of the tree’s round top to the long line of its very straight trunk. This line extends and extends, locating Linda and reaching methodically footwise, and as the shadow line falls across her shoes, she notices a bright spot reflected in their shine. Looking up, past the tree, she sees a brilliance approaching, and hears perhaps wheels in the leaves. Dog-Linda is not alarmed, only sits with ears pressed just the slightest bit down, looking straight forward, and this calms Linda. The light, like an enormous flashlight or maybe a searchlight, comes nearer and nearer, until if forces Linda and the dog to shut their eyes against its brightness.
When the brightness suddenly stops, they look out, and in front of the tree discover a refrigerator powered by a small, attached motor. Inside the refrigerator they find cold meat and bread and mustard, and honey and grapes and jam, and soft white cheese and a bottle of some kind of wine and there are also squashes and berries and smoked fish and a jar of salt, a bag of crackers, olives and figs, loose green tea and a packet of coarse salt. There is a glass bottle of milk with a foil cap and some cooked pasta in a brown ceramic bowl and a small flour cake and next to the cake is a folded-up note which Linda reads, and which asks her not to forget the watercress. Linda reaches for the bottle, peels the cap off, and drinks. The cold milk rams a sharp prodding sensation directly between her second and third molars where the object is lodged, and a sharp pain reaches down from the center of her tooth almost to her ear almost as if it is groping for something in her body.
Have you seen this picture of Linda lying on the ground, a dry field with low amber grass? Her clothes are all off and she has them rolled up as a pillow under her head and though she faces us she doesn’t look right at us, but off to our right. Her body is marble-white almost, and in the picture she is quite young, very soft and beautiful. Her hair is swept into a round shape on top of her head and her lips are just a little glossy. Her arm rests modestly on the ground in front of her and her legs are just a little crossed and so although her clothes are all off she is still covered to our view. In the distance behind her is a castle. It looks medieval and maybe Scottish, with its round, undecorated buildings and some of the walls in ruins. Her belly hangs just slightly down on the grass, not a paunch but more like an undisturbed, unpanicked roundness that shows the picture to predate our own time of shame. Her eyes look straight ahead in that way you look when you’re thinking hard on something, focusing a few feet in front of you as if the problem is hovering right there in the air. Her mouth is closed; a question is open.
From our angle, the castle appears to be quite empty but if you were to walk around to the back of it you’d find a small crowd of women in an open kitchen, chopping onions and vegetables while another kills and prepares a chicken in a courtyard just off to the right. Your eye would be drawn by the strong triangular composition, from the raised arm of the woman beating a carpet on the rear upper balcony of the castle building, to the ax-blade above the chicken, and finally to the hand of the woman chopping onions which is stopped in mid air, the bones curving gently as if she’s feeling for the aura of the onion.
This woman now turns to a child of about 8 and appears to be directing her to fetch something. If you follow the child out the gates of the castle, in the other direction from where Linda is lying, you’ll see her cross over a few fields until she finds one that is cut by a small furrowed stream. The stream, which divides the castle land from the land of the neighbor, an absentee lord who passes his time in the music and lady-filled salons of foreign cities, is thick with watercress, and the child gathers this watercress into her pockets as apparently instructed. When she returns she takes care to walk on the high crest of the mud in the plough lines of the field, imprinting the shape of her shoe again and again, and counting two hundred and seven steps before she reaches the stile and climbs into the next field. This field is unploughed but half-full of cows, and as she makes her way carefully between the cow patties, stopping here and there to pull chamomile, she talks to the cows as if they were her business partners in a great venture to market chamomile tea and watercress soup to the aborigines of a newly discovered planet just behind the moon. It will help them very much in space, you see.
If you were to leave the girl and return to the front of the castle you would pass by rows of grape vines strung across a pitch of wooden stakes where the first leaves of the year are just appearing. You would pass a small tub decorated with the insignia of some bygone layard, now filled with a green sludge covering rotten stalks of herbs, and next to that spot a tin can filled with cigarette ends. When you rounded the corner and finally saw Linda she would have put her clothes on again, and would be sitting on a blanket speaking to a passing farmer about the terrible news from Japan. He would take out his notebook and carefully write down something she told him to tell his wife. (He is forgetful of phrases.) Then replacing the twig in his mouth he would walk on. You would see Linda stare after him until well after he has passed from view, and see her then lie down on the blanket in the grass covering her eyes against the bright sun, which grows warmer. Someone approaches from the castle, you cannot tell if it is a man or a woman, and kneels down by Linda, who reaches up and pulls this person to her, and you turn aside then, out of discretion, and pass back through the vine plantings, asking a cigarette of the young man who has returned to the area and now sits on an overturned bucket smoking and looking at the vines. His hand is long and graceful and you watch the bones of his fingers articulate as he passes the cigarette to his mouth and back down to his side. When he is done you ask him if he would mind taking a photograph of you in front of the castle.
Later that night you dream that you are marrying in the midst of a general chaos involving unwashed dishes and late showers, taking place in a version of the kitchen from your childhood home. Through the doorway, which in the dream is situated in the back of the house instead of the front, a tall man enters in a yellow-cream-tan suit (the flooding backlight obscures the color), takes hat in hand and congratulates you on your marriage, and gives you a long embrace that while it lasts seems to measure the years and years of entanglements and unknottings and random fortuities of your life, and your mother and all your family are there, fussing about the dishes that haven’t been done and you feel supremely happy if a little rushed and awestruck by the plain fact of unanticipatable variety.
Linda, however, is having bad dreams and giving off a steady stream of curses in the night fuck you fuck you fucker shit. Dog-Linda pulls closer to her and Linda rolls over still asleep and curls around the dog and becomes quiet and the globe turns to lapis and the sky freezes and nothing moves except the air coming into and out of the lungs of Linda and dog-Linda, feathering into vapor plumes that push out into the lapis blue stillness and gently move aside to permit new air in. Nothing moves in this air but a small shiny saw peeking out from the hollow inside of the Linden tree in the clearing, cutting as quietly as possible a removable panel into the furrowed bark. When the panel is cut, a thin wire extrudes from it, reaching up to brush the lowest leaves, and causing them to fall, the silvery undersides that give the tree its name dropping onto Linda and dog-Linda like a blanket. Linda’s curses stop. No other accumulation.
When Linda wakes for the second time on the floor of the globe, she discovers across her the shadow of the refrigerator. She sits up and shakes off the leaves that are covering her. She takes some meat out of the fridge and calls dog-Linda, who comes running out of the concentric rows of trees.
Just as before, they walk all day, following directions left by other creatures, trace suggestions of ways to move through the globe. The trees this morning are of the higher altitudes: Quaking Aspens and very tall Firs, but the air is not thin or crisp; it’s soft and the sky all around them is a light amethyst free of weather. The bark of the Aspen, silver-grey, shimmers, making the horizon an obscure, hovering and glittering line that reminds Linda of a sequin-front dress her friend Janet wore to the Knoxville High prom in 1965, when Linda wore peach chiffon with V’s in the back and the front, the back one cut herself in an effort to solve an insufficient rib allowance that got in the way of dancing. They walk, moving lulled and unquestioningly toward the shimmering which calls to them with a small hum of invitation.
Morning passes into afternoon and moves toward evening, but the sky remains amethyst while the horizonal shimmer increases uniformly. At last the rows and rows of now very high trees break and Linda and dog-Linda find they have come to a steeply sloping meadow, a field cut at such an angle they stop short and peer down it, as it curves sharply down, its end obscured. The slope is vertiginous despite its being made of softest meadow, and sense that if they were to lose their balance they might roll off the end of the world. So at the boundary between the forest and this sloping field they stop, sit, and unwrap the food Linda brought. Linda can hear voices in a harmony so bare it’s almost dissonant, floating up from somewhere below or maybe behind them.
As they eat she watches a lone shrub that curls up out of the meadow that seems to her like a cipher or a decoy. She picks up a rock and hurls it at the shrub, and a huge flock of small birds — are they starlings? sparrows? — is released screaming into the sky. The shrub tips over, literally just tips over like Pisa or something or like a submarine hatch, and out of what looks like an ordinary sewer manhole crawls a man, causing Linda to admire the great clarity of the word “manhole.” He stands up, and against the still purple sky Linda can see that he’s not well. She calls to him and dog-Linda barks and he turns slowly, focusing his eyes on Linda and the dog and the line of trees behind them. He calls down the hole and another man crawls out of it carrying a burlap sack and walks straight to Linda. She starts to introduce herself when she is abruptly sacked like unruly livestock or so many potatoes. She feels herself heaved up and she starts to throw up, or panic, or fight back, or maybe none of those things. Maybe she just rests, takes pleasure in being carried, curling her knees in closer to her head and whistling to dog-Linda to come along. Meanwhile I have become distracted by a sudden recollection of the way the French toast looked on the plate when my whole family was in Philadelphia visiting my grandmother just before she turned irremediably fragile, and we went to breakfast at an upscale diner, with fresh flowers and retrofit turquoise vinyl booths. And so I don’t see exactly what happens to Linda or the dog, or how they get underground.
And now, listen to the next song in the Linda song cycle, Picture:
NEXT WEEK: Linda meets her kidnappers; the radio works; there are no eggshells. 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.
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