Those Below + Audio Author Interview
by Jeremy C. Shipp
read by Paul Elard Cooley
Text removed at author’s request, but you may still listen here
by Jeremy C. Shipp
read by Kate Sherrod
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Finding a pyramid of sticky bluebursts and a bucket of water before your doorway doesn’t necessarily mean that the villagers of Sin Earth respect you, or even like you. The act may instead imply that no one really wants to see your face outside as they’re living what my mother would call their pathetic little lives, singing and dancing and eating and sometimes carving ancient faces from spirewood that they burn right after, because otherwise the Enforcers would beat the culprits senseless with sacred clubs.
One such club rots away under the table where I set my bluebursts. Enforcer Yor gave me this weapon the day of my mother’s funeral. “She was a good woman,” he told me. “Very reliable.” Then he handed me his club, which he described in almost the same way.
I pluck the top fruit off the pyramid, and chew. Juicy, delicious. But my mother still says, “You deserve better than this animal food.” She says, “Go to the barracks and ask for a descent meal. They’ll take care of you.”
I take another bite. “I’d rather stay in my hut today.”
“Well,” she says. “At least you’ll avoid the rabble.”
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t particularly enjoy staying cooped up in my room, my mother haunting me with wispy words, unable to let go. But usually, I’d rather stay in here, than go out there.
At least here I don’t feel a hundred eyes peeling off my flesh, draining my blood, staring at that festering blotch I can’t wash off or shit out.
Here, at least I can pretend.
A crow dives through my window and lands on my mother’s chair and nibbles at a string on his leg. I untie the note.
“What are you reading?” my mother says. She would examine the letter herself, of course, but I’m the only thing she can see anymore.
“It’s from the Thundershines,” I say.
“Those fools never wrote me any letters. What do they want?”
“They’re inviting me for tea.”
The crow nudges at one of the bluebursts with his beak.
“Go ahead,” I say.
So the crow pecks away.
“Go ahead what?” my mother says.
“I was talking to the crow.”
“Never mind the beast. You write a letter to Grandma Thundershine and thank her for the offer but tell her you’d much rather devour your own legs.” She chuckles.
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you talking to me or the bird?”
“How dare you speak to me that way? I’m not here for myself, you know, Gourd. I’ve given up a lot to stay and counsel you.”
“I know, mother. Thank you.”
“You won’t visit them, will you?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
But the truth is, I have.
I reach out to pet the crow, and he bites at my finger.
“Sorry,” I say to the bird.
“I’ll forgive you this time,” my mother says.
Maybe one day I’ll honor my mother and carve her festering blotch of a face into a spirewood log, but for now I feel like tea.
Stepping through the archway into the Thundershine longhouse is almost like stepping into one of my mother’s books. The men wear suits. The women wear dresses. The problem is that no one’s greeting me with a handshake or even a smile.
I follow the bird, and my bare feet smack against the intricate flowers and vines painted on the stone floor. I try to lighten my step without looking even more stupid. It doesn’t work.
As soon as I enter the dining room, the conversations that died when I first entered the house suddenly come back to life behind me.
“Close the door,” someone wheezes.
I do as I’m told.
“You’re going to regret this,” my mother says.
The crow hops onto the table, and the work of art, or what I assumed was a work of art, starts to move. On closer inspection, this skeletal sculpture is actually an old woman, not much more than skin and bones that cling together so tight there’s hardly a wrinkle anywhere. Her hand quakes all the way to the bird.
Then the crow speaks, in a soft feminine voice. It says, “Forgive me for not serving you, Gourd. I’m afraid I can’t stand.” The old woman’s lip lines move a little as the bird releases the words.
I pour some tea into a cup painted with elaborate blue flowers that match the old woman’s dress. I drink. Rich, warm.
Still my mother says, “She’s trying to poison you.”
The woman lifts a cup with her free hand, but the shaking causes most of the contents to spill out. A drop or two spatters on the bird. I expect him to fly away or at least flinch. He doesn’t.
I’m angry that no one but the bird is here to help this old woman.
“Can I hold your cup for you as you drink?” I say.
“It’s alright,” she says. “The tea wouldn’t do any good for me anyway.”
I set my cup down.
“What are they saying to you?” my mother says. “Don’t listen to their lies.”
“My name is Stone, though most everyone calls me Grandma,” she says. “I’m sure your mother spoke of me often.”
Hearing the word Grandma is enough to gnarl my innards.
As a child, I hated Grandma Thundershine with a blind intensity that only a child can perfect.
I hated her cruelty. I hated the toys and the cousins she kept away from me. Mostly, I hated my mother’s eyes every time she talked about this old woman.
And of course, part of me still does.
“I’ve invited you here because I’d like to give you a chance to prove yourself,” she says. “To prove that you belong with us.”
I smile at the enemy, because I want smiles and handshakes in return. I want to wear a suit.
“You’re talking to her, aren’t you?” my mother says. “She’ll ruin your life, Gourd. She’ll destroy you.”
Every wonderful part of life that was taken from my mother exists here, in this house.
“I’m sorry that you and your mother were punished for ideals that have been passed down generation to generation,” Grandma says. “It’s no one’s fault, really. Many hoped that we could finally rid these values from our family once and for all, by keeping you and your mother outside these walls. So that they would die with you.” Her hand slides off the crow and rests on the table for a while.
I sit in silence, waiting.
After a few moments, she manages to lift her arm again.
“I understand as much as anyone the benefits of sacrifice,” she says. “But I’d rather give you a choice. Luckily, my family feels so guilty about the sacrifices I myself make that they’ve agreed to honor my request.” She closes her eyes. “You should know that this is a dangerous situation, and I do have an alternative motive in asking you to be a part of it.” She opens her eyes again. “I’m not very attached to you, Gourd. If you died, I probably wouldn’t mourn much at all.”
“Better me than a loved one,” I say.
She nods. “It’s not that I couldn’t come to love you. I simply don’t know you.”
“I understand. I’ll do whatever you want.” I take a gulp of tea. Strong, cold, like I feel.
But my mother still says, “You can’t do this.” She sounds like she might start crying, but of course she won’t.
I expect a claustrophobic desk surrounded by colossal walls of portly books. I expect a clean cut man in glasses wearing a black suit, standing in front of a busy chalkboard. In other words, I expect the illustration on the cover of one of my favorite books growing up: The Fast Learner.
I don’t expect an underground burrow with a mound of dirt in the center. I don’t expect a very short man without a shirt on, sitting on that mound, encircled by candles.
And I don’t expect a hug.
“Sit with me,” he says.
So I join him inside the circle.
“You’re Antash?” I say.
“I’m one who goes by that name, yes. Hopefully you’re Gourd and not an Enforcer. Because if I just hugged an Enforcer, I’d need to bathe for a few days, and I don’t have time for that.”
“You’re a disgrace,” my mother says.
Then the crow hops in from the darkness of the stairway and flies onto a perch that I didn’t see before sticking out of the wall.
“It seems Avalanche likes you,” Antash says. “He goes where he pleases, and he’s come to help you.”
“Oh,” I say, and try to suppress my smile. He’s only a bird after all.
“Before we do anything else, you need to meet Miravel,” Antash says.
“Miravel?” I say.
“The Spirit of Life and Death. You haven’t heard of him?”
“Never mind that.” He holds my hands. “If he ends up not wanting to work with you, Gourd, don’t blame yourself. He’s a strange spirit. I’ve known him for years, and I still don’t see any rhyme or reason behind his decisions. The only advice I can really give you is to compliment him on his hair. Other than that, just talk to him.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“They want you dead,” my mother says.
“You’ll be fine.” Antash closes his eyes and buries his hands in the dirt.
When he opens his eyes again, all the candles burn out, and his pupils illuminate the room with crimson light.
I want my hut.
“You woke me from a very pleasant dream where I was beaching a whale,” Antash says. Miravel says.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Are you going to introduce yourself, or should I call you Dream Spoiler from now on?”
“Dream Spoiler is more interesting. What am I doing here, Dream Spoiler?”
“I’d like to work with you. Please.”
“I could grant your request.” His hand thrusts from the earth and clamps my neck. “Or I could kill you.”
“Please,” I try to say. I also try to pry off his small fingers, but fail at that as well.
“I told you,” my mother says.
Avalanche swoops down. He bites and claws at Antash’s neck. Miravel’s neck.
Miravel releases his grip on my neck, and replaces it with one on the bird’s.
Avalanche squirms, squawks, chaws.
“You’d let me strangle this bird after he saved you?” Miravel says.
“I don’t think I can stop you,” I say.
“You’re a fool,” he says. “I’m in a mortal body with mortal weaknesses.”
Still, I watch. I say, “You have nice hair.”
I hear a crack. Avalanche collapses, like every villager collapses after an Enforcer finishes the job. And Miravel smiles, the way my mother would smile when she had lips. When she forced me to watch the bloody scene outside the hut.
“Do you still want to work with me?” Miravel says.
“Yes,” I say.
I want a suit. I want to stay in this longhouse and never see another villager fall. They make me sick.
Miravel tosses the bird. In mid air, his wings burst with life and he soars to the perch.
“I’ll kill you another day, Dream Spoiler,” Miravel says, and unearths his hand. The light of his eyes fade.
We sit in the darkness.
I hear weeping.
“Antash?” I say. “Are you hurt?”
“Miravel sends me to my family when he inhabits my body,” Antash says. “I can’t take the memories back here with me. Only the feelings.” He lights a candle, and I can see his tears.
“You’re not a Thundershine?” I say.
“No,” he says. “But never mind that. We need cockroaches.”
Here she is, the key to my salvation: a middle-aged woman named Fireball the Immortal, who even I’ve heard of. She tosses her wooden sword on my table. Then she sits on my chair by my fire.
“So you’re him, huh?” she says.
“I’m him,” I say.
“Can you believe the rain out there?” She pulls back her hood, revealing her infamous red hair. It’s not as striking as I thought it would be. “This is why I hate coming home.” She pulls off her boots. “Do you have any food in here?”
“Can you get me some? I’m starving.”
“Okay.” I head for the door.
“On second thought, I’m too tired to eat. Which pile of fur is my bed?”
“Can you move it closer to the fire?”
After she’s cocooned herself in layers of fur blankets, she says, “How many Enforcers would you say live in those barracks?”
“Maybe twenty,” I say, though I know for a fact that there are twenty two. I also know all their names, and they know mine.
“That’s too much,” she says. “This is going to be horrible. I hope I never wake up.”
I worry about how to respond, until I hear her snoring.
“You can’t fight the State,” my mother says. “You’re going to fail. You have to end this now. Use the knife I gave you.”
Once again, the tiny legs twitch and quiver until they don’t twitch and quiver anymore, and Avalanche stares at the cockroach from across the room.
“Are you concentrating?” Antash says.
“Yes,” I say.
“Please stop. Consciously, all you need is intent. The rest comes from where your feelings live.”
“I can’t do this.”
“You can.” Antash places his hands on my shoulders, gentle, as if I deserve to be touched.
“You told me I’d be ready by now,” I say. “And I can’t even help a stupid bug.”
“They’re not stupid, and you will be ready soon. You’re simply blocked up inside.”
My mother says, “Stick with them, and you’re doomed to play with insects the rest of your life. They’ll never let you read in the study or dance in the ballroom. They won’t share their cologne. They’re going to betray you.”
Antash holds out his open palm, so I drop the insect on top, because any longer and it would be too late.
In an instant, the cockroach jolts and scuttles off his hand onto the mound of dirt.
In another instant, Avalanche swoops down and swallows the little life whole.
They’ve done something stupid again, like attempt to hide a shrine in their hut, or speak the name of a demon in front of a snooping Enforcer. I know this because I hear them crying, a man and a woman.
They never learn.
They make me sick.
Fireball ties open the front door flap and sits on my chair, staring outside. She clenches her wooden sword. And her teeth.
She says, “Bastards.”
I don’t have to watch. My mother isn’t forcing me to this time.
Still, I watch as Enforcer Yor smashes a young woman across the head. She falls next to her husband or brother or whoever he is. Heavenly Law states that the beating must end as soon as the culprit loses consciousness. So obviously, the Enforcers avoid the head for as long as possible. It’s usually Enforcer Yor who carries out the final blow. He once described himself to my mother as, “The Hand of Mercy.”
A little boy with flower petals stuck to his hair clings to his mother’s leg. He’s been there the whole punishment, and so that leg remains unbloodied and untouched by clubs. The boy, however, drips with his mother’s blood, and some of his own. The Enforcers tried to avoid hitting the boy, but no one’s perfect.
Enforcer Yor pries the boy loose. He hands him over to an elderly villager and smiles, motioning to the sky. He’s saying something about Heaven’s plan, I’m sure. And I’m sure no one’s listening but himself.
The Enforcers drag the man and woman away, towards the barracks. The boy would follow the trails of blood they leave behind, if he wasn’t held down by three other villagers.
Fireball releases her sword. She cries.
Yes, the situation outside is a little sad, but it’s also normal. It’s life.
It’s The Way Things Are.
“I’m finishing this tomorrow night,” she says. “You better be ready.”
“I need more time,” I say.
She wipes her face with her sleeve. “Don’t talk like that. You’re making me nervous.”
“I really need more time.”
“No, time isn’t the secret to accomplishing great things. You just need to take a deep breath, and do what you need to do.”
“It’s not as simple as that.”
“Yes it is. Go do it. But bring me some water first. My mouth is dry.”
Antash holds me in his arms, and I wonder if he’s like this with all of his students, or if he somehow knows that I’m starving for contact.
It doesn’t really matter.
Here, amidst his warmth, I feel different. I cry.
Not for Fireball or Grandma Thundershine or Antash. I cry for myself.
My mother doesn’t need to say it. I know I’m going to fail.
Antash clutches my arms and looks me in the eyes. “You must feel very alone, Gourd. I haven’t lived your life, but I understand that kind of pain.” He takes my hands. “I’m a demon.”
That can’t be true.
My tears stop.
“Do you know the story of Sin Earth?” Antash says.
“Bits and pieces,” I say.
“Well. A long time ago, a demon clan lived on this land. My ancestors. They were very skilled in the demonic arts, but during the Cleansing, most were slaughtered by the Crusaders of Light.” He pauses, maybe waiting for me to respond.
“The villagers who eventually settled here believed, and still believe, that the blood of my ancestors spilt on this land blessed it with demonic power. A power, they say, that allows them to live the way they want to live. Therefore, the villagers won’t stop honoring my kin, no matter what the Enforcers do to them.”
The villagers and their resolve make me sick, but I don’t say so.
Instead I say, “If your people were slaughtered, how are you here?”
“A few survived,” Antash says. “They traveled to a place we call the Hidden Valley and flourished for a while. Then, years ago, we were discovered by the State, and imprisoned for worshipping demons.”
“But you are demons.”
“According to the Heavenly Texts, demons don’t exist. Not anymore. Me and my sister escaped, and she died before the Thundershines found me.”
“Thank you.” He hugs me again. “You may not feel ready for tonight, but you are. Trust me.”
Part of me almost does trust him, but most of me doesn’t.
Most of me feels uncomfortable that Antash is a demon. My mother told me the only good that came from demons is the power they discovered. She said they were simple primitives, like the villagers of Sin Earth, no better than animals. She said they were better off dead.
Most of me leaves the hollow and heads back to my hut. And part of me stays behind, in Antash’s arms, amidst his warmth. Feeling different.
Fireballs’ tears gush forth as she says, “I don’t want to do this. I hate this. I hate this!” She throws her wooden sword across the room and knocks over one of my mother’s books: Dancing Etiquette for Wedding Ceremonies.
I walk over to replace the book, but decide to leave it in the dirt instead.
Fireball curls up on her bed. She sobs even louder.
I walk over to kneel by her, to place a hand on her shoulder. But I cross my arms and stand there instead. I’m not Antash.
Avalanche steps off my mother’s chair and soars down beside Fireball. He pecks at her arm.
“Stop that, Avalanche,” she says.
“Stop it!” She stands and straightens her tunic. “You know, for a god, you’re really annoying.”
“What do you mean god?” I say.
“He’s a god,” she says. “He’s Miravel’s children. Miravel had four children, but they all sort of joined together into one being. It’s complicated.”
“Why are they stuck in that body?”
“They’re not.” She picks up her sword. “I’m ready to go now.” She ties her hair back with a string, then steps outside.
The villagers dance around two bonfires tonight, and somehow I know they’re honoring trees. Fireball walks out into the clearing between the two fires and waits.
The singing stops. The dancing stops. All eyes focus on Fireball.
I remain at the outside of the clearing, with Avalanche on a nearby blueburst branch.
Fireball points her sword at a couple of Enforcers standing outside the barracks. “Tell your commander I’m here,” she says.
They look at each other and go inside.
Fireball’s nothing like the bawling mess I witnessed only moments ago. She’s like a statue now. Solid, stable.
Still my mother says, “They’re going to destroy her.”
Enforcer Yor, and every other Enforcer in the village, exits the barracks and forms a line between Fireball and the building.
“Welcome to our little village, stranger,” Enforcer Yor says, and approaches Fireball. “If there’s anything the State can do to make your stay more comfortable, please let us know.”
“Leave here and never return,” Fireball says. In the light of these bonfires, her hair is more than striking.
Enforcer Yor grins. “How could we rid the world of demonic remnants if we left, my dear?”
“You couldn’t. You have no right to be here.”
“We have every right that matters.”
“I won’t let you have Sin Earth.”
“There’s nothing you can do, sweetheart. It will be ours.”
Heavenly Law states that land isn’t hereditary. Not anymore.
Property reverts to the State when the owner dies.
When Grandma Thundershine dies.
Fireball points her sword at Enforcer Yor’s face. The Enforcers immediately drop their clubs and draw their sacred blades.
“If you touch us in violence we have the right to use lethal force,” Enforcer Yor says.
“It won’t matter what you do to me,” she says. “I’m Fireball the Immortal.”
“No you’re not.” Enforcer Yor keeps his smile on, but his eyes look frightened.
According to the Heavenly Texts, there’s no such person as Fireball the Immortal. She’s a myth created by simple-minded villagers.
Fireball lifts her necklace from under her shirt and reveals a whistle. She blows.
A flurry of white fur rushes from the forest. I stand, shaking, as the enormous monkeys race past me to the middle of the clearing.
“The demon gods have come to fight for their people,” Fireball says.
“There are no demons,” Enforcer Yor says. “The Heavens cleansed them from the earth long ago.”
“Will you leave this place?”
Enforcer Yor’s smile fades. “No.”
There’s a short pause, and then the battle begins.
The Enforcers use their metal. Fireball and the monkeys use their wood.
The villagers watch because to fight would change them from the People of Sin Earth into something else.
And me, I close my eyes.
I hear screams and shouts and thuds and groans. I hear Avalanche’s squawking. I hear crying. I hear my mother’s bitter silence.
“Gourd!” Fireball says. “Help her! Hurry!”
I open my eyes and scream as a giant monkey charges right at me. He hurries past me, dragging a monkey behind him. He leaves the body behind a tree.
“Help her!” Fireball says.
I walk behind the tree and stare at the monkey. She’s bleeding from the neck.
I kneel. I place my hand on her bloodied fur.
After a while, it’s too late. I step out from behind the tree.
“Where is she?” Fireball says.
I stare at her. Her worst cut is on her nose. What’s left of her nose anyway.
“Gourd!” Fireball says.
“I couldn’t do it,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
Fireball growls and rejoins the battle.
I watch as Enforcer Yor runs up behind Fireball. I could shout out for her to look out, but I don’t. This is the way it has to be.
After Fireball falls, a monkey carries her into my hut, and I follow. I’m afraid one of those things would smash my head in if I didn’t.
The monkey grunts at me, then leaves.
I kneel beside Fireball.
I place my hand on her.
I can’t do this.
“Gourd,” a voice says behind me.
I turn around and smile.
He’s here to save me.
He smiles at me and drinks from a tiny cup. Then he falls to the ground.
“Antash!” I say.
I check his body. He’s dead.
I place my hands on his chest. His warmth is disappearing.
I’m a bawling mess. Shaky, broken.
Still my mother says, “You make me sick.”
I stand and face my mother’s chair, though I can’t see her there. “You make me sick, mother,” I say, breaking through my sobs.
“How dare you—”
“You could have left this village to start a new life. We could have been happy, but you stayed here to take your anger out on these people.” I reach under the table and retrieve the sacred club. “You spied on them. You lied about them. You got them beaten and imprisoned. You separated parents from their children. You make me sick!” I smash her chair, over and over. Then I throw the sacred club out the door.
“If you don’t apologize, I’m going to disown—”
“Shut up, mother!”
And finally, she’s gone.
I place my hands on Antash’s chest again and remember the first time my mother forced me to sit on her chair, and watch through the doorway as a villager was attacked. The villager’s name was Kyar.
Back then, I didn’t hold back my tears.
Back then, I wasn’t afraid to care.
My mother slapped me. “Don’t you dare cry for them, Gourd,” she said. “They’re the reason we’re stuck out here.”
But I didn’t feel stuck.
I liked when Kyar taught me how to dance, and Vyen taught me how to sing. I liked playing with Bayarg and Chirwa. I was only a little boy, but I liked my home. I liked my people.
My mother thought the Thundershines were wasting their powers on these simple primitives, no better than animals.
Thundershines, demons, spirits, villagers, animals. I’ll fight for the good of them all.
Anytime someone uses Miravel’s power, there’s a chance the spirit god will take the life of the caster.
Still, I take the chance.
Miravel’s power rushes through the ground into my feet, through my body, out my fingertips.
Gourd opens his eyes.
I spin around and place my hands on Fireball.
I’m afraid it’s too late, but I allow Miravel’s power to flow through me anyway.
I wait for death.
It doesn’t come, however, and Fireball opens her eyes and breathes.
“I hate dying,” she says. Then she hugs me. “Let’s finish this”
Me and Antash follow her outside.
She blows her whistle, and the gigantic monkeys retreat to the forest.
The still conscious Enforcers stare at Fireball the Immortal. She’s alive and unwounded.
She points her sword. “Leave here and never return.”
“I think we’ve done all we can here,” Enforcer Yor says. “We should return to the Capital.”
“Release your captives, then go.”
The Enforcers walk and limp into the barracks.
After a short time, dirty and emaciated villagers leave the building. Even in their weak state, they hurry toward the others.
Avalanche lands nearby, dotted with blood, and I feed him some spicenuts I kept in my pocket.
As I smile, a memory bursts in my mind. I remember a spirit I played with as a young child. My mother told me he was imaginary. She told me to forget about him, and eventually I did. He was a crow.
I look around for Fireball, but don’t see her. I have a feeling she’s behind a tree, crying over the body of an old friend.
“We should say goodbye to Grandma Thundershine before I release her,” Antash says.
“Release her?” I say.
“Her time to enter the spirit world was a long time ago, but she asked me to keep her alive. Her life was the only thing keeping the State from devastating this land. The villagers would have been driven out. The forest would have been annihilated. The earth itself would have died. But now we’re safe again.”
I’m afraid that the Enforcers will return, but I know Antash is right.
The Heavenly Texts state that there’s no such person as Fireball the Immortal. There are no demons anymore. No demonic powers. There are only simple worshippers with primitive minds, who need to be converted and civilized.
And so, when something contradicts the Heavenly Texts, the State destroys it. And when it can’t be destroyed, the State does its best to ignore it.
The Enforcers won’t come back.
“Antash,” I say.
My mother says nothing.
I’m not afraid to care anymore.
I take a deep breath, and do what I need to do.
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