PodCastle 684: In the Dim Below

Show Notes

Rated PG-13.

In the Dim Below

by Teresa Milbrodt

This had been the routine since I was born, bombs coming every few years, or every few months, whenever there was another reason for everyone on one side of the river to get mad at everyone on other other side of the river, or vice versa. The sirens blew and we had to go inside, or down below, until the blasts stopped, the smoke mostly cleared, and we could come up and see what was left of the world.

It was bad when you were a kid. Bombs had no eyes to make decisions, couldn’t tell soldiers from children. Each of us had seen at least one friend’s body carried from a pile of stone that had once been a house. Our parents told us not to worry because they were shooting bombs back across the river to keep us safe. We didn’t know how that was supposed to stop the other bombs, or why faceless enemies imagined us as soldiers instead of friends. Didn’t they have kids on the other side of the river, kids who looked something like us? But we couldn’t ask questions, we just had to find a tiny space where bombs could not find us.

That’s what we were trying to do on the day a hole appeared in Amina’s front yard. It was not smoking. It was not smelly. It was five feet wide and a perfect circle, with grass growing down, down, down into the dark. It didn’t make sense, how the grass could be so lush in a hole so deep. We took turns poking our heads inside, sitting in the hole like it was a huge slide we were afraid to go down. What could be waiting at the end? A burrow of bunnies, or rabid badgers, or something else entirely? No one wanted to guess.

The next round of bombs came before dinner and everyone went to their basements again, ready for the world to rumble and break off in pieces. We were ready for more children wrapped in white cloth, ready for parades through the streets with bodies borne on tears. We were not ready for the wail of Amina’s mother. Where had her daughter gone?

But we found her ten minutes after the bombing, standing in her yard. She had crawled into the hole, slid to a space where there was no rumbling, where the world was dark and safe.

Amina’s mother hugged her. She didn’t notice what I saw, how a small thing was missing, the index finger on Amina’s left hand. Amina only showed us, her friends, when her mother had gone back inside and I grabbed her arm.

“I’ll be fine,” Amina told us with a strange calm. “I lost my finger in the hole, but I don’t remember how… It didn’t hurt.” There was no blood, no nub, just three fingers, smooth skin, and a thumb.

“How do you know you’ll be okay?” I asked.

“I just do,” she said with a shrug.

The next time bombs came Amina was not in the basement, she was in her house. The blast blew a hole through her concrete living room wall, but we found Amina sitting in the clearing smoke cloud without a scratch. She wasn’t even coughing.

“My miracle girl,” her mother wailed, hugging Amina close. “Never do that again! You must have been protected by angels.”

Amina smiled at us from her mother’s embrace, wriggling the four digits on her left hand.

What would you give up to be safe?

That was a game we played, wagering favorite toys and even our homes, never pets or parents or siblings, even if a bratty brother or sister came to mind. There was a lot we would give up for that nod from the angels, a promise to shield us from shrapnel.

That’s why we started to think about the hole in Amina’s front yard.

Her mother and our parents and the rest of the adult world figured it was a bomb blast, but they were busy with adult lives, didn’t think to look at it more closely.

Four days after the bomb hit Amina’s house, Ravvi bit his lower lip and nodded.

“I’ll try it,” he said. We sat around the hole as he slid down. I held my breath, fingers crossed, picking blades of grass one by one and weaving them into rings. Three minutes. Six minutes. Nine minutes later, Ravvi crawled out on his elbows, blinking into the sun, without an index finger on his left hand. He winced a little when we touched the absence.

“That’s normal,” said Amina who was now our expert on the hole. “My hand hurt for a little bit and then it went away. Once you figure out how to do things with three fingers and a thumb, it’s fine.”

The next bombing was that afternoon. We scurried to basements. Amina and Ravvi were playing in her yard when a missile hit next door, and they didn’t stop the game of catch just because of smoke and flying glass. When we heard Amina’s mother scream we thought something awful had happened, but it was the opposite.

“You can’t depend on miracles,” she yelled, bending over her daughter and ready to slap her, but Amina gave her a sweet dream gaze that stopped her mother’s hand.

“Remember the angels,” Amina said, though I knew it wasn’t angels but something else. After that, more of our friends were willing to slide down the grass. They told the same story when they came up–after they couldn’t see light from above, everything became hazy and unclear. They felt a shove from behind, found themselves turned around and climbing out of the hole on grass-stained knees, back into the light. They couldn’t remember losing the finger, and smiled peacefully.

“It’s like I know the bombs won’t be able to touch me,” said my friend Hanna. “Like everything will be fine.”

Going into that hole made them immune from something larger and darker, a logical wartime equation. Losing a finger was easier than losing a hand or foot or arm or leg or many other more precious things. But I was nervous to climb down it myself.

“It can’t be that bad,” Amina told me.

I nodded, still not convinced though no one screamed or yelped or made any kind of noise when they were in the hole. We listened closely, three or four of us sticking our heads inside. Before now we had always been scared, tensed to run to safe places that did not exist. But when their houses were destroyed, everyone who had crawled into that hole was safe, without a scratch, even if they had broken glass on their skin. The adults said it was angels and we were blessed children. We knew better.

My friends said I should do it to protect myself.

“We’ll worry about you if you don’t,” said Amina, but I tucked my hands behind my body, scared of whatever lion or snake would bite my finger off, even if it would fill me with magic venom.

But Amina told other kids, and soon ten of them had gone down into the hole. Our parents were too busy launching bombs over the river to notice missing fingers. There was too much else on their minds. Once the bombs were supposed to stop for four hours so people could go shopping, but the bombs came over the river anyway. Ravvi was at the market.

“It was awful,” he said with a shudder, but he and his brother who’d gone into the hole were fine. Soon we’d have a town composed only of kids missing a finger, kids who’d want to be soldiers and send more bombs over the river. If I went into the hole, maybe I’d be tempted to stay there forever, in the dark that no one remembered.

But then something stranger happened. When Beena came up she was missing two fingers from her left hand. She blinked and shrugged and said it was okay, she could still write. Her brother had been killed the previous week in the market. Two fingers was a fair trade. She had to stay alive for her parents, willing to pay for safety though the price had gone up.

But I was more afraid, drowning in worry and what if’s. What if someday a kid didn’t come back up? What if the creature in the hole upped the price to a foot or a hand? What was it doing with all those fingers, anyway?

Three days later, a bomb fell on my best friend Linna’s house and her leg was crushed by granite blocks. Doctors did what they could to help her, but the hospital had been hit three times. I knew she wouldn’t walk again. I took a deep breath, ready for the hole.

The grass was soft and warm, though I shivered a little. I was scared to go, but more scared not to go, barefoot as always because I ran around without sandals. My mother said the soles of my feet were hard as rock. Later I had waking dreams of what happened–spirits taking my hands and feet in their warm grasp, kissing my palms and breathing into them, light filling my body like blood, bright and sharp as a blade. I cried out, but was turned around and crawling out of the hole. When I emerged, blinking into the light, I found I had paid a greater price. I’d lost a finger from each hand, a baby toe from each foot, but even worse was what I had gained. Sadness like a weight in my mind, my heart.

Everyone else had been filled with peace, with ease, with joy, but all I wanted to do was cry on the couch. I was not hungry or thirsty. I was looking out the window and waiting for the next bomb, the next light trail. My parents couldn’t stop me when I tore out of their grasp, out of the house. I ran toward the bombs, picturing the rubble, the kids could I save, wondering who might be lying on the ground this time. I carried a lunchbox with alcohol wipes and band-aids and gauze, ready to hug other kids as they trembled, to whisper to them about the hole, to show them what I had sacrificed, to tell them it was worth it.

Broken glass didn’t cut my feet. Concrete didn’t scrape my arms. I might have felt pain sometimes, but I had to get to people under the rubble. My friends didn’t come with me at first, but then one day I was playing kickball with Ravvi and we heard a bomb streaking across the sky. I grabbed his hand and he ran with me without resisting. We waded into the smoke, cleared away stones, looked for people who had survived, cut and shaken but still breathing.

We were not scared.

“What are you doing?” adults yelled. “This is too dangerous for children! Go back home.” But our homes had turned to piles of stone. I gave the adults a hard stare. It was no place for them, either, but we all had to save who we could, because that was only thing to do.

I hoped there was another hole on the other side of the river. I hoped there were more kids losing small pieces of themselves so they could live through the bombs. Maybe someday there’d be a bridge across the river and we’d be older and could meet them, the kids-turned-adults who we’d know because they were like us, missing a finger or a toe, their eyes tired and relieved as we met in the middle, over the water, and embraced.

About the Author

Teresa Milbrodt

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Teresa Milbrodt is the author of three short story collections: Instances of Head-Switching, Bearded Women: Stories, and Work Opportunities. She has also published a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories. Her fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous literary magazines. Milbrodt teaches creative writing at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. She believes in coffee, long walks with her MP3 player, real-time conversation, and writing the occasional haiku.

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About the Narrator

Alexis Goble

Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.

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