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The fiction of S. M. Wheeler
Re: Fingers, Toes and the Music of Innocence (Reply)
Re: Fingers, Toes and the Music of Innocence
2014-01-09 08:28 pm (UTC)
(Thank you! I hope you see this very belated response.)
Colby Winters used to tell this bedtime story to his kids, which Colby’s cousin overheard and told his granddaughter; it’s from her that I have it.
Long after the happy ones died and their many children dispersed, the magician Elly Muer purchased three hundred ever-burning torches. A king would have financed a quest like hers, once, but now she bought them on credit. The government might have said:
well, it’s close enough to science
. Might. She was too proud to fill out the forms. Prouder, too, than one who could suffer to be a sound-bite on the radio about misspent funding and the people’s right to vote on allotment of resources.
The enchanter intimidated that this was a great number of torches. He pointed out that each one was a fire hazard, and something like nuclear waste—they had a half-life, and “ever” was an overstatement but not by much. Once they were lit, disposal options were limited, and the two mountains with magma guts capable of digesting them had been declared a nature reserve on one hand and had a waitlist six months long on the other. It took a great deal of effort for him to be so conscientious; he sold four, maybe five of these a year, the only reason he kept them on his inventory list being their great cheapness to make and high price at sale.
They don’t make those torches at all, nowadays. People make good money dredging them out of the ocean, where a lot got dumped. They smoke awfully after the sea water soaks in.
At that time, Elly Muer looked at the enchanter with great pity, her disgust at his business’s interior—possessed, as it was, with a golf shop’s air—at last overcome. She signed a document absolving him of responsibility for damages done by his product. He reminded her a last time that they were dangerous. She gave him an owl’s look and wrote down a number for him to call when he had the torches ready.
Here’s why she wanted them: in the Dakota woodland, a coal mine operation turned open a vertical tunnel that led deep down into the dark. It belched cold so that it snowed for a week despite it being high summer. A local boy tried to lower himself down with a rope, but it burned through. Next a rescue worker went with a nylon harness, but that broke. A chain rusted through in a couple minutes—that’s how the boy’s father joined the others. For some time people sent down supplies, hearing them fall heavily to a stone floor out of sight, and the pitiful voices of the three lost came back, desperate but incomprehensible.
Flashlights wouldn’t work, and not candles either. The voices stopped echoing up around the two month mark. Instead, the hole drove people off with the smell of the supplies rotting. They put a memorial up—it’s still there; the names are scratched off, some say by Elly Muer. Maybe for reasons of magic, maybe to erase the immediate proof of the tunnel’s danger. As if the smoke that rolls out of it now wouldn’t leave the hardiest adventurer dizzy as a bee in a hive, certainly unable to climb.
Climbing down is all you can do, all you could do. Elly Muer lowered the first pallet of a hundred torches, careful as she let out rope ’til it broke and fell out of sight. Then she found cracks in the tunnel walls with gloved hands and booted feet. Crept down, scared so badly the first time that she near shivered herself free from the wall. Colby Winters knew because she hired him to watch over her supplies while she went to drag the pallet out of the way, then shouted up—he couldn’t understand what, but he got a new rope attached to their pulley and lowered the second pallet, then the third when she shouted again, and finally a fourth with her supplies on it.
Colby Winters sat on the monument then, heel tapping against the names of his neighbors. He waited, and lit a cigarette, and waited more. A few hours later Elly Muer appeared again in the tunnel mouth, the way she climbed up like—
He never told his kids what like. We can imagine. Elly Muer’s fingers tenderly probed the ridges and curves of rock and loose dirt knocked into it by the crush of the mining operation. Her hands moved very like a man’s learning for the first time what it felt like to touch a woman’s living flesh. Frightened, gentle. She learned things, in the place led to by the tunnel. Colby Winters, having avoided this description, went on to say: once she stood on the ground again he asked if she could bring up the dead bodies, but she shook her head. He asked if she would pay him, which she did, and then she gave him her shoes too and went toe and finger into the dark.
From the edge, you could see a hot light moving fluidly against smooth walls, but it illuminated nothing.
The world is like this: the best adventures take place where the problem is already lit, and though we never think much of it, someone has to buy the means of it. Humans aren’t meant for the earth except that challenges nest in it, and those are what we feed on. We need our Elly Muers to set the table. She went down to place her torches in a line leading to the prize, doing her magician’s job. Unfortunately for the enchanter, it isn’t compensated work, and making timely payments on credited purchases isn’t a magician’s problem. In any case she never reemerged.
When you lean over the tunnel—wear goggles—listen; there is the sound of footsteps, and a voice hums along to the melody of fire crackling. We speculate about the story’s end. Elly Muer waits upon a time when a hero will descend and go by the light of the ever-burning torches to find the meaning of the tunnel in the Dakotas. Ash will grey their skin. Yes: if she lives, she waits there still.
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