"A full-fledged hybrid of Germaine Greer and Álvaro Cunqueiro."
—The Frequent & Vigorous Quarterly
"The ultimate dystopian soap opera, fueled by gallons of menstrual blood."
—La Gaceta de 4ºB
"I'm not reading this shit."
"The possible use of limestone caves as shelters from the effects of nuclear weapons received considerable attention for a time. In 1962 a committee of the National Speleological Society completed a study of this possibility. It was concluded that without elaborate alteration caves would be unsuitable as shelters for large numbers of people. The chief reasons for this conclusions are: ( 1 ) few caves are near large population centers; ( 2 ) water supplies in caves are derived from the surface and are therefore subject to contamination by radioactive fallout; ( 3 ) the floor areas of caves are irregular and are commonly covered with large blocks of limestone that have fallen from the ceiling; and ( 4 ) some caves 'breathe', making it difficult to protect them from contaminated air, while others have poor ventilation, making them dangerous for prolongued occupancy by many people."
—Old speleology handbook
Er ist einer der bleibenden Boten,
der noch weit in die Türen der Toten
Schalen mit rühmlichen Früchten hält.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
WRITER IN THE DARK
Where we are introduced to the Storyteller and have a glimpse
at some of the numerous dangers of the Underplace.
At last, the watchwoman brought me paper and writing tools. I've been a steady client of the Chalk Mill since my arrival in the Netherbourg, for they are the only paper suppliers in the civilized underground. The workshop was founded by a molelike woman who suffered from a condition that's growingly common down here: her eyes were half-buried in her face, like tubers in soil, too weak to be of any real use except by intense torchlight. She was stout and colorless and delivered a grinding quality to everything she did —even raising her daughter. The child's earliest memories were of her own sore hands aching in the thick of a white dust cloud, her mother's raspy croaking at her shoulder. Truemmer (such was the kid's name) had been towed into this life to be employed as a late hour appendix, a convenient implement for a failed organism. I once heard her say her mother's womb was criss-crossed with nail marks.
Life was a resilience test for the two women. Every first waking hour they slipped into their felt boots, geared up with toolbelts and shoulder-baskets and left for the Chalk Domes, far up north of the city. They spent long stretches of time there, hacking away at the walls and cutting up the floor until their baskets were full to the brim. Then they loaded the stone harvest on their backs and tottered back to the workshop, where Truemmer toiled to split bricks and pebbles into powder while her mother cooked the trademark products of the Mill: big square detergent blocks, gut and liver panacea and folds of their precious chalk paper.
They lived like that for long while Truemmer grew stouter and more achromatic than the mother herself, tall and strong as few in the Netherbourg. Her arms got muscular as the ham of a grown Surface man and her fists like ground stones themselves. Despite her standout physique, however, she was so tame under her mother's yoke that many believed she had been born without a tongue inside her mouth.
And then the incident happened. Truemmer came back from her collecting stroll as usual, neither early nor late, her goggles opaque with stonepowder and a basketful of rubble at her back. These were her usual ways after the chalk-harvesting routine, but crossing the northern archway of the Passage of Artisans on her own was irregular. As soon as they noticed her mother's absence, some neighboring masters went to see if something was the matter and thus, for the very first time, found themselves addressing the young woman. She spoke with a voice unheard, a most unfitting tone for a giantess. They were heading back home, she said, when something had crawled out of a nihil and fetched her old woman back in, presumably to her death. Her voice sifted through like a rodent messing in their skulls. There was significant agitation as word flew across storehouses and workshops, and a griefless murmur rose in the Passage. Truemmer stood silent at her mother's Mill door, coated in white dust, stately and alien like an amputated limb.
No one demanded an inspection of the place because you don't ever, under any circumstances, go near nihils on purpose. You won't find people more superstitious than Netherbourgers. They are so terrified by the possibility of being snatched into darkness that nobody inquired what manner of something had monstered out of the hole, and most significantly nobody suggested that Truemmer's mother might have as well been murdered by her own daughter and her carcass thrown into the pit. In any case, investigations went no further: Truemmer inherited her mother's business and henceforth was endorsed by the Council to carry a gun in her expeditions to the Chalk Domes. In time, fear of that specific crawler-abductor got confused with fear of other somethings in the dark and darkness itself, but a bitter aversion towards Truemmer remained in the City like a telltale symptom. Her chalk paper is still crucial for my task, though. Now that I have a good supply in my cell, I can finally start to pen down my recollections of Ipe Pulvana's life, madness and death.
Where we meet the watchwoman and hear of Pulvana's demise
for the first time through one irreverent carol.
I clearly remember her godforsaken hairstyle among the ranks of armsfolk. It was impossible not to spot it at first sight, full of knots and old braids and plastic clips and pins made of fishbone, violently red with iron pigments and clay. Hair coloring is not a trivial matter in the Netherbourg and red is a controversial choice, usually favored by marginal individuals with scarce familial or social bonds. Judrun, that's the name of the watchwoman outside my cell, is slender and muscular, so compact she looks as if made of rubber. She wears riveted black skins and chainmail raiding clothes, and is equipped with one bulk of a gun, two handaxes and one ominously curved longish knife. She's also one of the heaviest rootling smokers I have ever seen.
When I first saw her outside after being locked in here, I thought Judrun was a keeper safe enough for a gang of wild oxes. I am not even one quarter of a calf myself, so I guessed she had to watch over me as some kind of martial punishment. In any case, having her stand guard at my door seemed an unforgivable waste of resources. I'm not sure what kind of behaviors armsfolk are punished for in the Netherbourg, for I was not particularly observant of this kind of thing during my days as Left Eye. I do recall, however, that soon after Ipe Pulvana's rise to power six soldiers were court-martialed. I had no part in the trial, but I know that four of them had been vocal against the abolition of Horizontality and the subsequent implantation of the new Rules. They were sentenced to ostracism. The fifth followed suit after refusing to lead them out of the city. The last one was reported for calling Ipe Pulvana a squalid, cootie-ridden bitch in private and was subsequently rid of his head by the exceptionally ugly procedure known as spineforking. His carcass was displayed in a hovering cage for a whole month. The whole case meant a considerable loss for a body of infantry by
all means too meager to be considered an army, but back then I could understand the pertinence of such displays of authority.
Judrun's discipline issues were immediately noticeable. She was not supposed to talk to prisoners, but the very first time she brought my daily portion she tossed it in front of me and said: 'Know that every time they send up this stew there's a big chunk of snake flesh in it. T'is safe having at shrooms and pondplant and cricket dumplings, though. They're quite clean.' In time she started sharing her lunch with me whenever I got stew or any other unfathomable dish, and not leaving my bowl on the floor but handing it to me. She used to offer me puffs of rootling, which I politely declined, and from time to time she wandered off the door to let me have some privacy. Her easy ways around me tempted me to risk the question. 'Surey. I'll do what's in mine hands', she said when I finally asked. Then I told her about Tagu Ferrasio and where he was to be found. This man, I told Judrun, would get a nice haul of paper from Truemmer, and permission from the new Three for me to write inside my cell.
I think some kind of bond has now settled between us, so I have finally asked Judrun why does such a fine armswoman have to spend her days watching over a weakling like me. This she answered: 'This one time I got mighty drunk down at the Furrow and invented mineself one merry tourdain that went The squalid, cootie-ridden bitch / got a scratch too big for the itch.' Judruns's singing voice was like a shotgun fired in the dungeon.
'Some weren't happy to hear me shout it from a tabletop', she said, 'but heya. That guy got all spineforkey not so long ago for whispering the very same words, dun't he?' We both laughed heartily at this.
Where we are informed of the aversion Netherbourgers have for certain kind of meat
and know of the Storyteller's past life on the Surface.
My recovered paperwork and the conversations with the watchwoman could easily distract me from the fact that I'm a prisoner, were it not for the consistently disgusting food. Ingredients are always served undercooked and tasting like batcave floor. I would gobble the stew down with relative gusto, as it is the only hot meal I get, but Judrun keeps warning me against it because consuming snake meat is serious taboo in the Netherbourg. It is believed to poison the humors, soften the brain and make bones easier to break. Eyes shrink and dry, genitals blacken and eventually drop off, and every hole in the body turns sore with crusty, hideous wounds. The ban on it is based on a vague foundational myth involving some primal slug that inhabited these caverns before humans arrived, so grossness is not a relevant factor in itself.
In spite of the severe social stigma attached to its consumption, there have always been natives with a taste for serpent. They eventually formed their own community halfway between the Netherbourg and the Surface, calling themselves the Ophiophagi. Netherbourgers are violently disgusted by them. I never touch the stew because I don't want to come out as a pervert in the eyes of my new friend, but I do not feel serpents are less edible than other creatures. I was born and raised in the Surface, far away from the stench of these caverns, and as a cook I have built a curiosity greater than any prejudice.
My family's auberge was set in a crossroads close to the City of Paris. We had a reputation for unparalleled boar cheeks with onion and black wine, chickpeas-and-cod casserole, succulent almond cake and the best warm peach cider, so our dining hall was almost permanently full. The roads converging before our door were busy and a neverending source of tired and hungry individuals: huntsmen, scavengers and merchants, mechanics and wandering savants. Some ungodly winter morning, a bearded man with smoky eyes and a sackcloth bag crashed into the auberge, calling for the son of the Lamia —me, that
is. He asked if I knew enough to arrange a decent serpent lunch. Being informed that my knives had never touched such meat did not seem to discourage him. He just produced a dead, fat four-feet snake from his bag and gave the following instructions: 'Cut it in fillets as if it were a lamprey or some other long fish. Keep the heart in a bottle of its blood, store the venom glands and the skeleton; throw the rest away. Cover the meat with salt, sugar and tarragon and bury it outside wrapped in a cloth. Frost and decay will do the cooking: let it ferment for five days and then I'll be back to consume it.' The bearded man left without caring for an answer and I proceeded to do as he had told me with great excitement. Those who had witnessed the scene were also thrilled and left their chairs to watch me doing it. A drunk falconer told me how to snip the venom glands out without ruining my hands.
Five days later, a few hours after I unearthed the piquant-smelling meat, the bearded man crashed again through the door. He ordered a jug of sour wine and a loaf of black bread, and told me to deep fry the skeleton in goose grease. While I proceeded, he began tearing away at his unheard-of lunch of cured snake. The regulars whooped and clapped, delighted with this man's savoir-faire and worldly customs. He munched on meat and bone fondly, meticulously, and when he finished he made me bring the venom glands in a plate and the heart of the snake in a cup, then fill it with a mixture of its blood and firewater. He emptied the glands in the cup, stirred the beverage with his knife and drank the thing down to the bottom. There was a gasp of many throats wrenching. The man put the empty cup away, left a generous amount of coins on the table and walked out without a word. Silence was so thick that everyone could clearly hear the thud outside when the bearded man's body hit the hard winter soil.
The arguments about whether death caught him by surprise lasted much longer than the snake blood left in the bottle.
RED FLUX OF existence
Where time in the absence of light and soil is briefly discussed,
and we pay our first visit to the House of Months.
I've been feeling permanently drowsy since I went down, no matter how many hours I rest. My sleep cycle derailed soon after I turned my back on the sun, and now I drop unconscious for about ten hours every twenty-four to thirty hours of waking time. This has never been a social problem, because Netherbourgers are foreign to timetables. Their general awareness of time is quite rough. There exist functioning clocks in the city, but their owners will only admit having one to the Needler. On the other hand, almost everyone keeps an hourglass or some analogue gadget always at hand. Thus you can boil an egg to perfection down here but there's no way to know when it's time for supper. There's no such thing as time for anything in this place. Time has been a matter of the past for generations.
Night is just a word attached to the recurring but variable period of time when sound and the quantity of active bodies around decrease. There doesn't exist a real break in city life and day is not even a word anymore. In these circumstances, some people have adopted long rest cycles and others favor a higher number of little unconsciousness breaks. I learned that struggling to adapt to the sleeping habits of each person you're involved with is a matter of etiquette. Impatience is frowned at, meaning social suicide in some cases. Yearly cycles are irrelevant. Months are key, but they parade endlessly without ever reaching any symbolic completion, which steals a sense of major purpose from any human endeavor. Every one of them is officially established in turn, and quite scientifically for this people's standards.
The House of Months sits near the axis of the Netherbourg. Its flamboyant, arrow-shaped gate leads through a strait, or Cervix, and into the main hall, or Haunt. At the back, two Branches sprawl out in a maze of aulae and sleeping quarters. I have never been allowed in there because of my birth-acquired status as a man. Although I haven't seen all that much of the Surface, I find underground arts and architecture rudimentary in concept
and execution. I shouldn't think otherwise, considering the narrow geohistorical scope of this people, but despite its shortcomings their work has an overcast intensity, almost a glow, that is present all over this place and makes it hard to forget. The continuum of the walls and ceiling in the Haunt is alive with high reliefs of massive human bodies, bent and entwined in the most unusual ways. Their shapes tilt and flicker above the lanterns, and every second you spend under these monsters you're expecting them to untangle and rise anytime, dismantling the vault and letting sunlight wash in.
Run by the nunlike doctricis and a Head, the House of Months is an all-female institution where young girls are introduced to numbers, alchemy, mechanics and every manner of knowledge that is functional for underground life under the precepts of Horizontality. Admission is free and its schedule and methods are loosely conceived, but its apparent lack of discipline and academic values is not surprising at all once one understands that the House was conceived as a social sieve driven by physiological criteria.
Once they reach maturity, alumnae of the House of Months are required to keep a detailed report of their bleeding cycles, which are statistically read and filed by a commission of doctricis. The healthier and most regular girls are chosen as Flags and their synchronized bleedings signal the start of a short lapse of time known as mensis. Being tagged as Flag is a life-changing privilege, even for lowborn or otherwise unnoticeable girls, for it means a warrant for food, housing and mating privileges after they leave the House, all by the genetic chance of a reliable womb. Every alumna who bleeds after the Flags trigger a new mensis must go to the Pot, a granite sink sat in the middle of the Haunt, and there drop a red pebble. When the sink is full, the stonehorns are blown from the Branches to declare the current month exhausted. Then the Head edicts a name for the period that has just expired, as in Month of Crackling or Month of Pulvana's Demise, which is the one standing right now.
Where the tale of Ipe Pulvana begins.
It all started with screaming, when the youngest lasses cracked up and began to cry their lungs out in the dorms. Apparently, someone had seen the Legless Dead Mule running amok through Haunt and Branches. When asked for the source of this fantasy, the lasses pointed one soot-haired, sharp-boned girl wrapped in a robe too big for her puny frame. The claustrum brought her up at once, but she didn't seem to understand what all the uproar was about. She said the mule was no fantasy, for she had seen it with the eyes in her face. 'A mule?', they asked. 'Aye, a dead one with no legs.' The doctricis didn't know what to make out of this. 'What's a mule?', someone was heard whisper. She was shushed. The Head grappled the child by the arm: 'Say the name of your mother', she boomed. The girl gave no reply. She had already acquired what would eventually become a lifelong habit of saying naught to questions she didn't know the answer to. The Head read violence in this refusal to identify herself and proceeded to give her the first of many bashings. Targeting the face was tradition in the House of Months —busted noses were appreciated for their excellent taming properties— but this child didn't seem to fear or even mind having parts broken. Feeling defeated and hissing, the Head washed the blood from her knuckles and gave strict orders to keep an eye on the foundling.
Too alien and unruly even for the precepts of the House, this child would sift through the place like a phantom. Trying to communicate with her left human language sounding strangely hollow. She wouldn't sleep in the dorms and often disappeared for long stretches of time, but nobody knew where she went. Several times she was followed out by a doctrix, but as soon as she went past the last houses of the Netherbourg she would slither through unexpected cracks, deep and away from the populated areas. But she always showed up again like those hogs that used to sniff around my mother's auberge, as if her instincts told her there were treasures for her to find in the outskirts of a world she didn't fully comprehend. The Head finally made a public call in the Bourg to identify her,
but nobody stepped onward and the House of Months had to take her in as a resident. This was a long time ago, in the Month of the Waif.
Neither heuristics nor fabulous pseudo-science seemed to take root in this girl's tender brain. As she grew taller and more self-conscious, she developed a talent for exasperating doctricis with her millipede-quick responses and witticisms. Horizontality was the biggest subject of her puns. 'After the flunked apotheosis of the mammalian', she would say, 'we should all seek pride in the reptilian.' She was improbably verbose for a little brat and doctricis had a hard time understanding her statements. They found that ignoring her was the wisest choice, but when she insisted on being noticed they hit her face as hard as they could.
The other girls didn't appreciate her abrasive weirdness, either. They kept their distance in lessons and avoided her in the dorms. There was a red pebble permanently rolling on her tongue and she made a show of her lusty chewing on it. The miscreant role became an enjoyable game for her, a gala suit of heresy. She seemed to feed on the anger raised by her words and behavior. 'A stray rat', someone snarled. Others dismissed her as merely upsetting, another unavoidable excrescence in the darkness. The doctrix who tried to force algebra into her head eventually broke down and said that meeting her eyes was like bending over a nihil until losing your balance, never falling but unable to retreat. It was not possible to set loose from her stare without leaving something valuable behind, and the avulsion gave a physical aftermath similar to massive blood loss. Doctricis lived in distress and alumnae kept having nightmares with the Legless Dead Mule. Having only a vague idea of what a living one looked like only made the dreams more horrifying.
'Ipe Pulvana is just a cheeky punk. She'll be twisted into form or hammered into place', said the Head through her sharp lips. She was almost right.
Where the importance of watching your step
underground is conveniently stressed.
There's been a change of guard for the first time since I started these notes. I didn't notice until my eyes grew tired of struggling under waxlight and I turned to find the other watchman was at the door. He's not a soldier but just an old man gone out of his wits, coughing his lungs out as usual while puffing on one of the many rootling butts that littered the floor after Judrun's shift. I should say now that male smokers are considered effeminate in the Netherbourg, but the sense and implications of the word effeminate down here may need some adjustments for most of us Surface-born people. Hopefully, the subtleties will sink in by themselves as the story unravels: for the moment, understand that men who are undistinguished or just plain poor don't smoke, at least not in public. This is the reason I'm never eyed nor spoken to by the other watchman. He turns his back on me to smoke.
Two incidents involving nihils have been referred already, so this may be the right time to give some hints about underground cosmology. Cosmology should be too big a word applied to this relatively limited environment, but the dimension and depth of meaning of local folklore, as well as its neglecting of other forms of existence outside itself, never ceases to astonish me. We'll concede, then, that nihils are a cosmological phenomenon in these caves. It's easy to infer from context that they're holes in the ground, but there's a drastic difference between a nihil and, say, a chimney, or a chasm. Although a meaningful chunk of these caverns has been outlined by explorers, the canonical Atlas is still plagued by big hic sunt vermes areas. When a new nihil is spotted it's tagged and registered right away by the League of Perambulators, who also keep an updated network of maps and signs inside a reasonable perimeter with its center in the Netherbourg. From time to time, a pit that was thought to be a nihil for generations is found to end someplace safe. Such news always bring a gust of relief to this fearful people.
The rest of the time, Netherbourgers are trying to wall disaster off. They believe there exists what we may call a zero ground, a thick bedding which they call lectum. The stone foundation right under the city is the most relevant of such areas: people believe they stand on a mineral layer firm enough to sustain them and their physical reality, but they also believe below this layer is capital-D-Darkness, a Vacuum or Nothingness, from whence paradoxically comes every manner of evil, real or imagined. Whereas chimneys connect overlaying galleries and chasms usually have a bottom, nihils are vertical passages diving into this unending void and Netherbourgers are scared senseless of things penetrating them from any of their two ends. The Vacuum underneath is the nearest to the idea of Hell Netherbourgers go, but as they forgot Heaven a long time ago I don't think that's a good bargain at all.
Nihils are present in a number of underground legends. They have the Mourner, to name one of them, a ghostly entity that materializes besides a nihil in the form of an old man or a child, crying for something valuable lost in the hole. Compassion will draw the victim near as a charm until she's close enough for the Mourner to grab and toss her down the hole. As for things entering nihils from below, Truemmer's story is proof that nobody wants to give them much thought as long as they will not wander into the colonies, a calamity unheard of to this moment. The bottom line with nihils is simple: don't peek inside, don't drop anything down, don't even come near them. Keep away, pray nothing comes out. The lectum is the last safenet before an endless fall into blackness —be it personal or collective— and few dare to perturb it.
It's easy to imagine this people's reaction to a man crashing into the Bourg and pretending to do some tunneling downwards for the sake of vague anthropological theories. But it's soon for Caw yet.
THE MISSING DROP
Where Sol's chicanery
makes things turn for the worse.
As a game it was marginally fun at first, but the whole affair got out of hand due to the waif's stubborn clinging to infancy. For a time, some girls had been betting significant bulwarks on whether Ipe Pulvana would bleed during the current mensis, along with quartz combs, rootling stacks, gutterbrew rounds at the Furrow and, most prominently, one girl's family slave. Nobody was willing to raise the stakes anymore, though, except for the everbold daughter of Solla Treppe, who figuratively put her mother's mane on top of the pile and claimed she would do the shaving with her own hands if the waif didn't stain the blankets before the end of the mensis. But the sink was almost full of red pebbles and Ipe Pulvana hadn't reported yet. 'This bitch Coprolipe is juiceless as my grandfather's skull', spitted Sol. She grabbed an empty flask and headed southwards out of the City.
Wealthy Solla Treppe's firstborn, named after her mother and well-known as Sol in the House, was a filly with oily skin and mischievous teeth. Sol was a rara avis sub terris, for she was close to being pretty in a way that underground dwellers had almost forgotten. Old schoolmates remember believing life couldn't possibly turn sour for her, in any possible way: she crawled like a glowing spider up the smoothest, most slippery walls, always avoided shallows and spikes when doing blind headfirst dives in the blackest pools, and got involved in two or three fistfights every month —violent, skull-denting fistfights—, never getting even close to skinning her knee. No doctrix ever dared to touch the curve of her ear. Sol could afford not being quite sharp or not paying much attention because she was made of destiny's tissue. She had everything on her side: adults, chance, gravity. Like a fish in a clear pond, luck was like water to her and she swam in utter unawareness of it. She was loud and radiant and offensively invulnerable. Needless to say, she was a Flag. Everyone knew the loot of the bet had her name on it, one way or the other.
Before reaching the Outward Tunnel, near the dwellings of the ophiophagi, Sol ran into a man with a metal cane and a wriggling bag at his hip. His face looked like a meal long neglected in a plate. Sol told him she was looking for a creature with lots of blood in it to fill her flask. The man seemed to marvel for a moment at Sol's denture and said he would catch something for her, as long as he could keep the bloodlet carcass and have Sol's shoes as a payment. Solla Treppe's daughter was back in the Netherbourg soon, her bare soles uncut in spite of the long walk home. After she performed the subsequent deed in the dorms, the other gamblers understood the bet was over. Even those who had seen her crawl between slumbering Pulvana's rawboned legs chose to let things lie as they fell. Again, Sol was an eidolon of everything worthless resisting.
They say Pulvana became unusually tame after she reported her first blood. She was worn off, they thought, as a result of being ignored in the best of cases and beaten to her knees in the worst. Not even the Foundling was as vain or weird or numb to dismiss the advantages of inclusion and social adequacy. But then a new mensis was called out by the Flags, and the bowl was filled and then emptied, and the month was strangely named of Formicae, and the waif failed to turn up and drop a second red pebble. Her body's betrayal caused a colder, fiercer form to hatch out of Ipe Pulvana's new gentle self. Doctricis and schoolmates started scoffing at her again and soon she was back at chewing red pebbles as if she meant to pulverize them, ruining her teeth and everyone else's nerves in the process. Every time they crossed paths, Sol flashed Pulvana with her foxy, asymmetrical smile and saw a menacing set of sculpted fangs in return.
That was the first and last time Pulvana bled. Only one nameless ophiophagus knew what kind of animal supplied the juice.