fiction

Sung Home: Chapter Seventeen. {fiction}

About two weeks later, the weather warmed unseasonably and the snow melted in earnest.

I knew winter wasn’t over, that this was just a break, and probably a short one, before it resumed its course. Winter wouldn’t retreat for real for many weeks yet.

I had only enough jerky for another few days if I was careful. I had eaten the last of the vegetables a week before. I took my gathering sack and shovel to dig some roots. I had ceased feeling much hunger, but felt instinctively driven to keep eating at least a mouthful once or twice a day. By then I was so thin that I had to cut another hole in my belt.

My jeans hung loosely on my hips and I could see my ribs in sharp relief against my shirt. My hair came out in clumps on the rare occasions I brushed and re-braided it.

I decided to search around the base of the butte upstream, opposite the direction I usually went, behind my cabin. I hadn’t looked that way until now because plant foods had been so abundant nearer the river during the summer and fall, but I had noticed some agaves clinging to the gently slanted base, surrounded by clusters of live oak.

I knew the Apaches had roasted the roots of the agave, though I had never tried it myself. Agave roots were also supposed to be very big too, so it gave me a mixed feeling of hope and dread that I might survive another couple of weeks.

I looked for one that was big enough to be worth the trouble, but not so big that it would be too hard to for me to dig up and carry back. I found a healthy specimen with a base about the size of a car tire. Thick, triangular, waxy leaves nested inside of each other, getting smaller towards the center, leaves opened upwards, like a giant overripe artichoke.

I set my sack down and started to dig, slowly, making my way around the plant a bit at a time, in circles, digging a little deeper with each round. I had just dug deeply enough around the tuber to see it start to loosen from the sandy soil when a muted flash caught my eye.

Something had reflected the rays of the descending sun. 

I scanned the side of the sandy butte, trying to spot what had briefly sent the sunlight my direction. I moved my head from side to side until I caught the flash again. Walking uphill to that spot, a few feet off the ground and partially concealed behind a small stand of live oak, I saw a flat piece of what used to be clear plastic, but was now obscured by dust.

I reached towards it through the tangle of thin, crooked branches of the oak, and touched a gritty, round, flat piece of plexiglass set vertically into the side of the butte.

This plexiglass, about 10 inches in diameter, was such a rare reminder of the so recently past era of humankind. I rubbed the surface first with my hand, then my handkerchief, until I had cleared most of the dust away. I tried to pry it loose, but it was set as if glued into place. There was something on the other side of the slab of plexiglass.

Donning my work gloves, I pressed apart the foliage enough to get my head and shoulders farther between the oak branches to have a closer look.

My face now just a few inches away, the object came into focus. A candle on a candle holder, sitting on a window sill. I felt slightly dizzy, confused by this thing that appeared to be something it couldn’t possibly be. Was the hunger making me delirious? Was I hallucinating? If so, I was in worse shape than I had realized. My hands trembled.

I looked again, sure that it was a mirage, or maybe a photo glued to the plexiglass. But it wasn’t. I could see the dimensionality of the candle and its holder. The curve of the candle, the flat base. There was no mistaking it. The candle and its holder were inside the butte. My breath came high and fast and I shut my eyes tightly in an effort to slow it down.

I opened my eyes again and saw past the candle-holder into a room.

A room.

How could that be? My head spun.

Panicked, I backed out of the oak as fast as I could. I shifted myself away from the window and plastered myself against the side of the butte so as not to be visible to whoever used that room. I slid down to the ground and sat shaking, arms clasped about my knees, gasping in shock and then fear, glancing wildly about, terrified of suddenly meeting that room’s inhabitant.

Whoever it was wouldn’t be happy to be found, for sure, and I had no way of guessing the temperament of such a person.

As my breathing slowed, my brain began to function again. I had never seen any tracks around here, and there certainly would be tracks if someone were staying there, at least anyone living. My stomach clenched at the thought of yet another dead body lying in yet another home. Shaking off my remaining trepidation, I finally stood, slowly.

A person couldn’t get in and out through that window. There must be a door somewhere.

I walked around the base of the butte, poking my gloved hands into stalwart stands of scrub oak, and brittle long-fingered ephedra, pushing them aside, searching for an entryway. I was about a quarter of the way around the butte when I found it. Hidden by two rows of mountain mahogany, each with barely enough room between them to get through without getting scraped up.

A small arched door, made from mountain mahogany branches, attached to flat boards on the inside. The perfect camouflage. I scraped away some plant debris and dirt that had collected at the base of the door. Holding my breath, I pulled the mahogany handle. I am not particularly tall, but I still had to stoop some to get through the doorway.

Once I was through the entryway, the ceiling rose and I could stand upright. A narrow staircase descended before me, with steps long enough for a man’s feet but not wide enough for anyone with a lot of extra weight. The sandstone steps were set with tile. For a moment, I feared the darkness ahead of me. What might I encounter here, I wondered? But then I realized it wasn’t dark, or not very dark.

As my eyes adjusted, an unseen source of light made it possible for me to see several feet in front of me. Slowly I traveled down the steps a story or so into the earth.

The walls were smooth, flowing sandstone. Someone had carved this stairway. Hearing no ominous sounds ahead, I was starting to enjoy the journey when a giant snake appeared before me, eyes glaring and mouth open, ready to strike.

I shrieked high and loud, and stumbled backwards as fast as I could, back up several steps. Then I realized that the snake had not struck after all, and indeed had made no sound and not moved. For the second time that afternoon, I fought to slow my breath. My hands shook with adrenaline and my legs turned watery beneath me. I sobbed briefly, so scared and angry I was with myself.

Mincingly I crept forward, one slow step at a time, until I came once again in view of the snake. It was enormous. Carved beautifully into the sandstone wall, the snake’s tail curled twice around what appeared to be a fireplace, the head coming down one side, engraved in deep relief and fine detail.

The scales had the slightest depth, the bared fangs fearfully sharp, the rattles on the tail each articulated exactly as they would on a living specimen of a diamondback, although, like everything else, much bigger. The topmost section of the snake’s body rose higher than my head. A large niche had been carved into the sandstone next to the snake, holding neatly cut pieces of firewood.

But that wasn’t all.

As I stepped further into the room, because it was a room, as large as our living room had been in Silver City, more light came in and I saw that this was not just a room with walls and windows and seats, though it had all of that.

This room was a work of art.

This is an ongoing series from a forthcoming fiction novel by Laura Ramnarace.
Tune in weekly for the next chapter in ‘Sung Home’.

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Laura Ramnarace, M.A. was driven to earn a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution while on her quest to find out why we can’t just all get along. She has published a book on inter-personal conflict, ‘Getting Along: The Wild, Wacky World of Human Relationship’, published a newspaper column also titled ‘Getting Along’, and submits regularly to Rebelle Society. Since 1999, she has provided training to a wide variety of groups on improving personal, working and inter-group relationships. ‘Sung Home’ is a work of eco-fiction set in southwestern New Mexico.

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