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By Erin Stocks
I rearranged the mask on my face, crinkling my nose from the stench swirling up from the gully. Jorges slung his arm around my waist and tried to kiss me, but I twisted away, unwilling to relent upon my earlier threat to leave him, should the Grotto not impress.
“I promised, did I not, Aster?” he said, low into my ear. Behind us, Braisia whined something about wanting a bath of green pearls, but we both ignored her, as we typically did. “Give me until the main exhibit before you dismiss me.”
He had promised a ticket to the Grotto would be exactly what I needed – a relief from the tediousness of my daily life, which included weariness of his company and the month of partnership we had shared. When this had happened in the past, I simply found a new partner or moved to a different ambrosial city, filling my days with the trends and luxuries so easily available. But what meaning could be found in those, anymore?
“I want to know what happens inside the Grotto.” Braisia lifted her mask and Jorges brought his hand down on her arm, hard enough to leave a rosy smart on her powdered skin.
“Don’t take it off. Secrecy, remember? If we appear to know each other, they won’t let us in.”
Braisia pouted, her petal lips dimpling the folds of her mask. She looked like a wild animal, black hair ratted up over the white pearl bands that held the mask on, the wind twisting her robe about her thin body.
The path lifted up and out of the wet streets, winding up the side of a hill to the entrance of the Grotto, an aperture covered with moss and blooming silver-grief bushes. The scent of the foliage barely covered the stench rising up from the gully below. A single golden railing was strung across the cliff edge and I risked a glance over it. Even from this height, the scurrying movements of bottom-dwellers were visible. Houses flimsy as playing cards trembled in the wind and rotting water streamed from tarnished drains, carrying garbage down the unfinished streets. A foul wind carried up the stench and whine of dirt-stained infants, and I gathered my scarf over my mouth – the bottom-dwellers even reproduced their own offspring, like common animals. I doubted any of them had even been inside the ambrosial cities.
“Why did they build this place so close to that?” Braisia said, looking down into the gully.
I rolled my eyes at her. Obviously, the creators of the Grotto were trying to make a statement with regards to culture and wealth, although I had no wish to be demonstrated to in such a fashion. The fewer bottom-dwellers around me, the better.
“Now, now.” Jorges stroked my arm, reading my irritation without my having to say a word. He had always been good about that, but it simply wasn’t enough, anymore. “This way.”
He drew us over to a small, striped ticket stand covered with strips of parchment, with advertisements for the same vials I drank of every day, the expeditions I had gone on so often I couldn’t bear them anymore, the shows that were no longer dewy-fresh. Surely, I had experienced all there was to see and touch and desire, even at my young age.
Jorges ducked his hooded head until his soft breath caressed my mask, inhaling sharp orange peel vapors and newly woven silk. “Do you remember what I told you, Aster?”
I pressed the mask to my face, inhaling sharp citrus vapors. While he claimed to have been bound to secrecy after his initial trip to the Grotto, his renewed appeal in what I considered the monotony of daily life had intrigued me enough to consider a visit.
“I remember,” I said, although I kept a clear warning in my voice. Should he be wrong, I would never speak to him again.
“This is all so twee,” Braisia scoffed, for she considered herself the most resplendent and flush of us all. But she removed her sandals and stepped up behind us in line.
An androgynous ticketer moved Jorges’ hand under a scintillating light, which tarnished Jorges’ entire hand ink-black to the wrist. He winced then exhaled as pink tones flooded his hand.
An androgynous ticketer moved Jorges’ hand under a scintillating light, which tarnished Jorges’ entire hand ink-black to the wrist. He winced then exhaled as pink tones flooded his hand.
“See? Easy enough,” he said, but there was blood on his teeth from where he’d bitten his tongue. He tucked his shaking hands into the pockets of his robe. His lips peeled over his teeth in a fox-smirk. “Who’s next? Last chance to back out.”
I offered the vellum ticket and my right hand to the androgynous ticketer. Under the dim light of the stand, the skin of the ticketer appeared to be a mask itself, a mold of poured-cream silk with glassy topaz eyes that blinked under my inspection.
He or she lifted my hand under the light. Searing pain latched hold of my fingers, scalding them inside out until I was certain they were reduced to ash-covered bone. I clutched the counter with my other hand, yet felt a flicker of something else make my knees quake and send a thrill through my veins. Was this excitement?
“Thank you,” I said to the ticketer, who nodded.
As Braisia stepped up, I whispered to Jorges, “What did that do?”
Through his mask, I could see his pupils had gone very small in his eyes. “A special mark,” he said, “given at random to a select person entering the Grotto. You will understand by the time we reach the bottom.”
Before I could question him further, another hooded, cloaked figure appeared under the overhanging rock and beckoned us inside without any welcome or instruction.
Sparsely lit with light-globes along the main path, the narrow aperture opened into a massive cavern winding around and around until it reached the very center and bottom of the Grotto, which, I suspected, was as deep as the gully. Even from such heights, I could see exhibits nestled into small clefts of glossy rock all the way down – shadowy figures like statues, some speckled with lights, some hidden in darkness, all supposedly meant to kindle some thrill.
Enclosed by a railing and moat containing several large fish, the first exhibit was of a mother and child, both of whom appeared to be bottom-dwellers, based on the rags that clothed them, the dirt upon their flesh, and the accompanying smell. Behind them stood a shack built of shoddy timber and nails with one open wall revealing shiny and useless bits of clutter like a bird’s nest: strips of metal, bent pieces of silver, glittering buttons, and otherwise unremarkable pieces of junk.
“Must we see this?” Braisia asked, at which I almost suggested we depart the Grotto altogether, for what sort of unusual could this be? If we wanted to see bottom-dwellers, we would have walked through the gully on our way to the Grotto.
“Wait,” Jorges said, and so, we waited.
The bottom-dweller shifted and stood up, her rags falling away to reveal a tail instead of legs, with translucent, oscillating scales that caught the light and discarded it again. The seams around her waist were bloody and raw, corded stitches merging together her thick torso and sloping breasts with the horror of some creature I had never seen nor imagined before. She opened a mouth full of teeth too splinter-thin and needle-sharp to be human, and Braisia cried out, clutching at Jorges’ arm.
I stepped closer to the railing, half-expecting the creature to gnaw on the child in her arms. Instead, she tossed it into the water, which it took to like a fish, its limbs curving together into an effective tail alongside the other swimmers there, which I saw were also unnatural child-creatures.
Braisia shouted a lewd phrase. The bottom-dweller hissed and lunged towards us, stopped only by the railing, which put off some sort of shock that flung it back into the rock. It whimpered and lay still. Blood trickled from the bulging pockets of corded skin about its waist, which, in some places had turned entirely black. The creature’s tail fin flapped once against the rock and then it crawled back to the water, scraping its bleeding torso along the rock. It jabbed its arms into the dirty water, once, twice, and the third time caught one of the fish infants, which it cradled in its arms and tried to make drink at its drooping breast.
“Well?” Jorges leered at me, but the orange-silk mask hid my indifference. Why should I care that someone had performed some vile experiments upon bottom-dwellers? I was about to reply as much when Braisia flounced past with a glint in her eye; it took more to please her than the torture of some pathetic creature, as it did myself.
“That was nothing,” she said, in her customary aloof tone. “Aster? Can you pull yourself away, or do you want to stay here?”
Jorges checked the slim band around his left wrist. “With haste, my ladies. Ten minutes and the real show begins.”
Braisia, lifting her robes about her dainty ankles, continued down the path, and Jorges and I followed. We passed by the next exhibit, a crystal blue-green pool framed by large stalactites of salt, but a glimmer of light caught my eye and I stopped. A strange creature lay behind the pool, sunbathing under the globe set into the rock above. The creature’s lower half bore shapely legs and thick labia flecked with fur but, above that, glassy scales layered atop each other like elaborate mosaics upon the waterway on the Crowne Jewel Promenade. The creature’s torso and shoulders were slender and delicate, its upper frame no wider than my own and shaped just like a human’s, but its head made me gasp aloud.
It wore the head of a horse, faded orange and speckled with brown spots along its neck, with sharp growths protruding along the spine. Its mouth was wide, thick lips stretching halfway up its muzzle, and its eyes dark stars on either side of its head. Unlike the previous creature, no stitches knit the two halves of this creature together; the scaled legs and lower torso melded seamlessly into the glossy orange of its arched chest and neck.
Impressed only a moment, I was about to turn away when the creature shuddered and twisted its legs around. Instead of arms, there were small nubs on either side of its upper torso. It struggled to sit up, its head unnaturally heavy, which thrust its small bulk forward until it fell headlong into the water, where it sank immediately and then tried to swim, twisting its buttocks and legs in a fin-like motion. But its head only moved it along the bottom of the pool, where it remained, trying in vain to twist its legs into a curving tail with which to propel it along.
I shook my hair down my back and hurried down the path, passing more grotesqueries along the way: a wolf and man who lay together in such a way that I could not tell if one was eating the other or if they were joined intimately, perhaps both simultaneously; a large tree growing hands and feet like fruits, which it then fed to two very small bottom-dwellers, who devoured them ravenously; a woman whose body – covered in oozing scabs and sores – would heal itself the moment she picked them away. All manners of distasteful sights such as these encircled the path down to the base of the Grotto. The more I saw, the more each began to look like the one before.
Braisia and Jorges were waiting for me down at the bottom.
“Ready?” Jorges asked. “It is nearly time.” He steered us into an enclosed tunnel leading to the inner sanctum. His hand upon my arm was cold and there was a tic in his eye. I resisted the urge to inform him that the Grotto had not impressed me just yet. After all, there was one supposedly unforgettable thrill yet to come.
Another ticket stand waited at the tunnel’s exit. Inside it stood the same androgynous figure but with a different color of hair. Jorges put his hand under the light. When I did the same, it pulsed, but caused me no pain. After Braisia did the same, we passed through swaths of heavy velvet into the inner sanctum.
It was a small room, with a single light-globe suspended in the center of the darkly draped ceiling and a ring of polished marble encircled by a golden railing, with scant room to stand around. There were others already waiting there, all robed and masked, and Jorges directed Braisia and myself to an open space.
I observed each person who entered, the slight lift of their mask over their lips, the silence in the room as thick as the drapes enclosing the room. Anticipation grew within me, a fretful ache inside my belly that what I had longed for would not come to fruition here. What if Jorges had been wrong? What if what we saw was simply another monstrosity made of some pieced-together bottom-dweller?
The drapes drew closed. The inside of the ring silently lowered deep into the ground, leaving a vast chasm of darkness. I took Jorges’ fingers, which were trembling in a distasteful manner. An erection jutted through his robe, but I knew that it had not been caused by my proximity. Whatever was about to happen had excited him and my cheeks flushed with hope that this would also fulfill me.
The ring reappeared, its rim aglow as if lit from within. In its center rested an object like a very large egg, with dark shadows swirling across its milky white surface. A strange smell reached my nostrils, both erotic and unknown, and I clenched my thighs together, hoping that I would find myself aroused in a similar fashion.
A strange heaviness took hold of my right hand, the one I had offered to the ticketer. Even in the dim light, I could see the dark shadows swirling across my fingers, much like those across the surface of the egg. The familiar searing pain again latched hold of my hand and lifted my arm up into the air as if pulled by my very fingernails. Beside me, Braisia whimpered as her hand lifted as well, and Jorges to my right, only he was smirking. He knew this would happen.
The pain left my hand and I let it fall to my side, as did Braisia her own. All around us the uplifted hands returned down, except for Jorges’, which remained in the air.
The smirk disappeared from his face. His right hand jabbed at the air and an inky black smear colored each of his fingernails, spreading down his hand until it appeared as if his entire hand was gloved in darkness.
“No,” he choked out, his voice muffled through the mask. “It’s not supposed to be me.” He grappled for my arm with his other hand, fingers curved like a claw. “Aster, don’t let it take me!”
But his hand appeared to have its own intentions. It pulled him away from us until the rest of his body could not help but follow, and led him through the onlookers and into the ring. It pressed its black flesh upon the white egg and Jorges collapsed, weeping in such a manner I had never seen before.
Excitement pierced my stony ambivalence. The intrigue I felt, the uncertainty of what would transpire next, was more indulgent than the finest liquor and my skin prickled with anticipation.
The egg broke open. Two white hands pushed open the sides of a shell and a woman emerged. She was hairless, from the top of her head to her dainty feet, and her eyes appeared to be two diamonds set into her flawless skin, full of piercing light. She turned her brilliant eyes upon Jorges and he tried to scramble back, but his hand remained locked to the shell.
From the center of the woman’s white torso, a pointed silvery horn emerged into the light, glimmering as if wet. In one fluid motion, the woman pulled Jorges to her, impaling him upon that perfect horn. He went rigid, head flung back. The woman froze, her horn deep inside him. Blood spilled over their creamy flanks, joined together by the weapon of her flesh.
Then the woman’s horn withdrew and Jorges collapsed onto the ground. Drenched in scarlet, the horn slid back inside her torso. She stepped into the egg, which sealed back around her, leaving the only trace of her existence the bloody handprints on the egg’s side and the ugly gash in Jorges’ gut.
Braisia and I clutched at each other. Braisia made little whimpering sobs, but I hardly noticed, not entirely certain what had just happened. Jorges was clearly still alive, his legs shaking. Blood did not flow from the wound in his belly. Instead, the wound appeared to be changing him somehow – turning his creamy, flawless skin into something pock-marked and dark, as if stained by dirt.
A whining mechanical sound split the silence. Above Jorges, a multi-pronged hook descended, carrying a limp body, which it deposited next to him. Even from a distance, the odor of it was apparent – a bottom-dweller, a woman, perhaps taken from the nearby gully. Her hair was greasy and unwashed, her body clearly having never seen any silkening and smoothing creams. Perhaps she had once even carried a child of her own, as her breasts drooped unattractively low. Bruises colored her arms and legs, and her face folded with so many wrinkles it was impossible to guess her age.
She leaned over Jorges.
“No,” he murmured and a horn similar to the one he had been pierced with emerged from his belly. As if controlled by some instinct, he rolled over and pierced the bottom-dweller’s torso with the horn, much the same way he had been pierced, until she no longer moved.
Beside me, Braisia gasped. There was another cry from somewhere behind me and the three-pronged crane again began to descend from the ceiling. This time, it carried with it a large crate with four barred walls, which it placed over Jorges and the still body of the bottom-dweller. Jorges clutched at the bars locked around him, crying out like some animal, and then I understood. A sudden climax shook me, the heat of it spreading up into my belly and down my legs, and I grabbed for Braisia to keep from collapsing at its intensity.
So, this was what Jorges had spoken of: the knowledge of what might happen, the chance he had taken in returning. The Grotto had claimed him and turned him into something he despised. It could very well have happened to me, the unseen stamp on my fingers carrying me into the ring where I, instead of Jorges, might have been pierced by a horn that made me into a grotesquerie of helplessness, now caged into my very own exhibit.
The gentle lighting reappeared. An androgynous ticketer appeared at the edge of the drapes, beckoning us to move on, and we filed out with the rest of the onlookers, many of whom were weeping. Braisia’s mask was soaked beneath the thin fabric and she flung her arms around me, her body shaking as she sniveled over Jorges’ fate.
I pried her arms off me. Surely, she realized this was why Jorges had come: for the thrill, the chance of this happening to someone else, perhaps to her, perhaps to me. The risk of never leaving the Grotto. Yet, most of the onlookers showed similar signs of disarray. I knew they had missed the purpose of the Grotto and the invigoration it offered to those like myself. I was grateful for my mask, which covered my transcendent face, allowing me some modicum of privacy to revel in the experience and in the newfound zest with which I now viewed my own life.
As the ticketer directed us to a lift, which carried us to the top of the cliff, Braisia clinging to my hand, I knew it would only be a matter of time before I would again return to the Grotto of the Helpless, to experience the rejuvenation that came at such a high price.
Erin Stocks is a graduate of the 2011 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction can be found in Polluto, the Coeur de Lion anthology Anywhere but Earth, Flash Fiction Online, and upcoming in Kaleidotrope.