The silence is absolute, as if time never began here and never will. How can I describe it? As if a wall of glass has been placed by the great hand of a God in the midst of the forest, and no living thing may pass. The trees crowd against their limit, aching to reach into the barren land, and their longing embitters them. They grow twisted, their bark black and limbs contorted.
The darkness beneath those trees is as thick as the ink of these notes. Climbing to my campsite I almost fell. Catching myself on a branch, I felt the sting of a splinter in my palm. I’ve tried everything, but can’t extract it.
I’m the only alive thing out here. Beyond the reach of those trees. Of course, The Institute sends me – having the dubious honour of being its only woman – to get me out of sight. And so out of mind. A no-man’s land. Yet the joke’s on them. They will see what a woman does with the table scraps they throw her.
Every day brings new discoveries. I peel back loose grey stone, plunge my hand into damp black silt, and come back with a shattered rainbow of quartz and opal. Beryl. Azurite and turquoise.
And gold. A tiny fortune gathers in the treads of my boots.
Deeper, the fossils begin. A stone book of the natural world. Creatures science does not know.
Only my hand is troublesome. Infection sets in. The veins turn black and the pain distracts me. But I can’t stop. The days until my leaving run like sand through my fingers.
And I know now, the reason no trees grow beyond that strange timberline.
So, when I make my report, they’ll come with their rigs and drill her out for all she’s worth. I only hope science has a chance before greed seizes its turn.
It was all him, Owen thought. The bone-deep rumble. Hydraulic grind of metal against rock. The scent of engine fuel and sweat salting the air. It was all him. And his. His drill design. His crew. His courage to follow the clue no one else believed.
She was fighting, chewing up drill bits and testing his blowout preventers. And the men were skittish in the shadow of that unnatural forest; lips moving in murmured prayers, thumbs brushing hidden charms for luck. Owen smiled, fist pressed to the leather notebook kept always in his inner jacket pocket. He enjoyed the fight. The thick black gush of pure money was down there. And he would win.
He watched his men swarm the site like carrion beetles, understanding for the first time how much life he’d brought to this dead place. How much blood and muscle had answered his order to break open its stillness. The power thrilled him, warmer to his guts than a shot of whiskey as he ran his eyes up the shaft of his drill. The one straight, upright thing to disturb rolling fields of stone above the timberline. He let its pulse and roar soak his bones, imagining the surge of diamond-tipped steel deeper into the earth.
It was man’s right, he thought, to reach into the world and change it.
“Depth,” the cry he longed for went up like a firework.
I can’t pass the timberline. I stand in the tree shadows and my hand burns. I retreat and the pain retreats also.
I turn desperate. I try to cut the splinter out. But the substance that rivers from beneath my pocketknife blade is not blood. Thick and gleaming in the morning light, it is black, reeking oil.
The quiet takes root in me. My own heartbeat seems hushed, as though I’ve no need of it here, and the silence has become music. It asks what I’m afraid of.
I’m afraid to return to a place where I have no power. Where I’m ignored.
The silence answers me. Tells me it has power to give. Tells me I’ve come home.
If they come looking. For me. For the story of what happened here. I begin to believe they will find nothing but this book.
Tell them I have no regrets.
Owen’s men were screaming.
Floodlights split the night, lighting something he didn’t understand.
A gorge of scuttling creatures vomited from the drill site. Lizards, and many-legged crustaceans. Skittering things under turtle-like shells, and rippling, skeletal starfish. All stone-fleshed things, shedding flakes of shale and dusty limestone as they poured themselves over Owen’s scattering men, leaving only bones.
Owen turned, toward the impossible sound of a woman’s laughter.
Oil streamed from her hair, cascading over her shoulders. Oil gathered at her fingertips and dripped down her thighs. Gold dust striped her body and smeared her lips. Ran like molten tears from her eyes. She grinned. Oil seeped black between her teeth to dribble down her chin and drip onto her chest.
A few men made it to the timberline. The trees reached out twisted limbs to catch them, before snapping back into place and ripping the captured men to pieces. Blood rained to mix with the oil on the ground.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the woman said.
And, in the shower of his men’s gore, she began to dance. Her hips swayed. Her fingers grazed her hair, her cheeks. Streaks of gold and oil followed the path of her fingertips. She caressed her lips.
She grasped both hands around her neck.
Men around Owen began gagging. Oil exploded from their mouths, rushing up their throats. They were drowning in it. Dying full of it.
He doubled over, hit by a hacking cough. Dust burst from his mouth, catching the floodlight. Glittering. Gold.
The woman moved toward him. Still smiling, oil beading her lips and pearls of blood clinging to her eyelashes.
Owen coughed, blood and gold spraying the air. He fell to his knees. His throat burning, eyes swelling with the pressure as he choked. Each snatched breath sucking gold dust back into his lungs brought another fit of coughing.
“This is what you wanted,” she said, “the wealth in my ground.” Owen retched up chunks of gold. They gleamed at him from the mud, bloody and shining. The woman took him by the chin. With her other hand, she reached into his jacket.
“This was mine,” she said, withdrawing the notebook, “and is mine again.” Owen ached to speak, his mind rising on a tide of questions. He could only try to breathe. Fail to breathe.
She released him, and he slumped to the ground. As he died, he felt himself listening for the machine song of his drill.
All he could hear was the silence.
Copyright 2022 Lauren Everdell
This story is an expansion on a piece originally written for competition. I was challenged to write horror, a genre I didn’t have much experience with at the time, and enjoyed it so much more than I expected that I’m now something of a convert to the horror genre, and body horror more specifically. Writing in competition has helped me a lot; both to find communities of other writers, and to expand my own horizons as a writer.