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Hell Kettle

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Water is always at work. We don’t even know that it’s eating the very ground from under us.

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Torey Thornton, Hell. A reflection, 2014. Acrylic on paper, 44 x 55.625 in., 111.8 x 141.3 cm. © Torey Thornton. Courtesy the artist and Moran Bondaroff, Los Angeles.

Spindar went to the edge. Hands to hips, eyebrows tightened to crosshairs. Karl thought he looked like one of the loggers from back when, those somber, overalled men standing on gulches, bidding their cut trees downriver. Karl stayed back. No way would he veer closer for fear of more subsidence, with the two of them toppling over and in. Still, it wasn’t such a terrible proposition, a journey to the center of the earth with Spindar.

The garden shed was gone and the car was allowed to get overgrown. The swing set stood on a mossy harelip. The swings listed back to the open earth, as if they wanted nothing more than to fall in too. Karl had bought the thing for Spindar’s grandchildren. Two small stout girls, they lived three hours away in a sleek, Trondheim apartment. Spindar and Karl last visited on a birthday. Spindar kept meticulous track of important dates. That birthday, he said, now that birthday he wanted to attend, five was an important age. There was no further explanation.

They were gently endured at the bouncing castle and the face-painting table. Spindar said it was time they all came his direction. For goodness sake, it was high time. His son Jens said these were busy days at work. Spindar suggested Marja drive out to the forest with the girls. His voice had that bright, elevated note that Karl knew for defiance and frustration. Jens turned away to the line of kids waiting for whiskers on their cheeks. The swing set was bought and assembled into idleness.

Sometimes Karl went out there on a clear high night and swung and smoked to the train bells that perforated the dense birch. He would hate to see the swing set teeter back and fall out of sight. He remembered the newspaper story about the bride who tripped backward on her train, over the edge of a waterfall. The ground had simply given way under her. It was more and more frequent, they said. Erosion was on the rise, and in the unlikeliest of places. Nobody guessed that the car dealership in Oslo was built on a limestone platform, until a crater opened its mouth and ate two dozen cars. The story returned to the bride with a photograph taken not long before the accident. She and her new husband stood stiff as mannequins under a fake arbor. Karl bet they argued just before the tragedy. He summoned Spindar to read the story. Spindar said the Weekly Mail was not a newspaper and he would not read a word defecated by it.

It was Karl’s allotment of relaxation, five minutes of Weekly Mail dreadfulness in the morning and again in the afternoon. His job was tedium to the very bones of his back. He had pressure bruises from sitting so long in the chair. But the job allowed him to live out here in the forest with Spindar. The draining days of long drives to one another had ended ten years ago when he got the position. Online banking specialist. Now nobody need ever approach a counter. There were no good days and thank yous. People were coldly butchered into transaction and encryption. Karl needed salacious stories of crude life to keep things in balance. The Weekly Mail had calamities and fuck-ups in abundance, and he felt something sharp and fleeting for everyone whose life he shuddered at.

Something crazy, he called it, they were in the middle of something crazy. He could see the top of the shed, he said. There was no sign of the car.

Now Spindar shouted back over his shoulder. Something crazy, he called it, they were in the middle of something crazy. He could see the top of the shed, he said. There was no sign of the car, it must be lower down still. Karl had not wanted the blue car sold in the first place. Succumbing to the garden, it became more its private self. It peeped coyly from between fronds and the sight of it moved Karl to tears.

Spindar was right, of course, to want to sell it. The truck was what they needed. Its seats were firm leather buckets and each had a cup holder. It got good mileage. It had space for two tool chests. Sometimes Spindar slept in the narrow second row of seats when they turned for home after an appointment. He snored off the chemical frenzy inside him. Karl sat in front and played composer Arvo Pärt. The piano keys stroked him like rain. When Pärt was done with him, Karl felt picked clean. Spindar woke after two hours. Then they drove home.

It was the years of driving in the blue car that Karl minded. He could not let those years go. They had taken it up to the Barents Sea and back down the spine of Sweden. They had missed it greatly on a trip to Ireland when they took buses and trains and one strange springy horse-drawn cart in Kerry. In the stuffy guesthouse bedroom in Galway, where every move was a creak, Karl pined for the confidentiality of the blue car. He and Spindar had been afraid to turn over or even talk much. Jesus reproached them, pointing to his open heart like an admonitory message on a t-shirt. Orange light sizzled through the curtains. They flipped through a book about a jeweler in the Bronze Age. When it was time to sleep they settled on a gentle kiss and squeezed hands.

In the blue car, they could fit their sounds and movements. Seats got folded down, feet stretched to the back window. Karl’s favorite times were by the sea late at night. Sometimes, if the world around them was indubitably empty, Spindar would open the trunk. He would climb back in beside Karl, then shimmy down until his mouth was positioned just so. Karl knew how severe it was on Spindar, half in and out of the car, his knees on the back bumper. He knocked himself against the hitch, too, and came up in bruises the colors of Saturn.

Karl worried that Spindar was the more giving. The selfless one. He said it one time at the hospital. Spindar was having a chalazion removed. That was back when a word like “chalazion” was delightful, medieval, and heraldic, according to Spindar, back when trouble was nothing more than a minor, obstructive lump on the eyelid. Spindar sank into a long thought. Then he raised his head and pronounced that he, Spindar, was the most selfish devil who had ever sucked another man. Had he not taken Karl from a wife, from the old family home in Tromsø where he had come to restore the marquetry in a long hallway? That beautiful floor, those inlaid roses, and Spindar the only man around with the knowledge to prise out and set back in. Had he not gotten Karl cut off from his family? Had he not imprisoned Karl inside birches and briers like Sleeping Beauty, brought him rock fishing from dangerous promontories? Yes, he Spindar was a monster of self-interest. But Karl knew Spindar adored every charge of selfishness he pressed against himself. He cosseted his stone-cold wickedness because it had the vigor to bring them together in the first place.

When it came to the truck, they learned to let its capaciousness shape their greed. You send me, Karl shouted one night, you send me. It’s a song! Spindar wanted to know where, and Karl said he didn’t remember a destination being named in the song. It was just about being sent. Oh my love, Spindar said on another trip in the truck, my only love. He had never said the word before. They had caught wolf fish and cooked them over the blackened tin bucket. Spindar had tweezed out the bones for Karl, grumbling that bones so small were inconsequential. They were exhausted from tussling with the sea all evening. They fell asleep as chaste as Abelard and Heloise on the tomb cover they saw in Paris. Sometime in the night, Spindar spoke his words into Karl’s ear. Karl stayed stone-still. He knew that Spindar only said what he said because Karl was asleep.

How could they not have noticed that the far end of their garden was sinking away to nothing?

Oh my love. Karl moved closer to Spindar, who was now on hands and knees, the better to see over the chasm. His backside was puny in new dark jeans. He had bought them a size down but still they needed cinching with a belt. He liked the buckle Karl brought back from Texas when he went there on a banking trip. Texas To The Bone, a long-horned steer with a ring in its nose. Spindar’s arms were pale skeins of muscle. Karl dropped to the ground and moved forward on his elbows, a soldier passing under danger. It must be rain, he suggested, all that rain we’ve had. Since Christmas, really. It’s been raining that long. How could they not have noticed that the far end of their garden was sinking away to nothing?

My only love ever. Spindar had stood up from the finished floor and swept his arm around it. Ladies and gentlemen, he said, I give you the floor of all floors. The marquetry was gorgeous and disorienting. For now the restored and reset roses looked like they were growing there. Their maple and walnut leaves were big and blowsy, cabbage-sized. Karl wondered how such detail could have been there all along, under the grime and scuff of shoes, the decades of neglect. Now he cared desperately about it. He would polish and buff. He might even cordon it off like a museum reconstruction. People would stop and look and move along. Much later, Spindar told him that the roses hadn’t been all that big. It was an optical illusion caused by standing in the doorway. If you had stood beside me, he said, you would have seen their true size. If I had stood beside you, Karl thought, I would have oozed atom by atom into you. Wherever you were going I would have gone.

Where did you come from, he asked Spindar on their departure from Tromsø. They had scheduled and planned over the course of months. They had set one another at ease about the massive, the operatic upheaval they were causing. Where did you come from? They left with Karl’s few things. One small bag on wheels, a box of books and photos. Karl’s wife was away in Reykjavik, as she said she would be, and for two weeks. But no hot mineral spring, from the core of the earth itself, would cleanse and soothe her, Karl assured Spindar. Terrible disgust had claimed her and would not give her up.

Spindar showed up in the blue car that day. They drove with no place in mind. They found a lodge by a green lake and booked in for a week. Karl already had an apartment secured, near his bank. He would set up there monastically, and he would, he asserted loudly, be happier than he had ever been. Spindar said he could make him happier still in the week they had by the lake. And he did. And it was a revelation to Karl. It was an appalling familiarity, sordid as the smell of his own socks, and he could not get enough of it. He cried when Spindar left for a job on the coast. They saw each other within a fortnight.

Spindar’s people came from Kristiansand, he told Karl during a breakfast picnic by the lake. He lived there until he was fourteen. Thereafter he never lived anywhere for more than a year. He did time in the merchant navy. He worked on oil rigs on and off for a decade. Every detail was devoured by Karl. He was thick-throated, with questions for the man who had followed him to the attic of his house, his wife’s house, and pressed into him until his back was against an old wardrobe. They had stood nose to nose in anger and hot tense need until someone had to give way.

Spindar could see sandwiched strata of earth and rock, messily down and down and down the hole. He said all the exposed roots looked like knitting the cat had been at. The thing was deeper than he’d first thought. And wait a second, wait, yes, Christ, there was the top of the car. They would have to get someone to examine the situation. Make sure the house wasn’t next. Spindar had built the house and he would be damned if a hole was going to open up underneath it. Karl loved the house too, but differently. He sweated among its beams and eaves and magnificent vaulted ceiling. He hadn’t had to compensate a worker for the loss of half a thumb. Instead, he had vanished straight into its ready-made corners and warm resinous light like someone, he told Spindar, who could get used to such fineness.

They set about research before telephoning someone in the local authorities. In England, there’s something called hell kettles, Spindar shouted from the laptop, bottomless holes in the ground. Sinkholes, swallow holes. Water is always at work, he mused. We don’t even know that it’s eating the very ground from under us. Karl sat by him and they read about giant holes in Papua New Guinea and blue holes in the Bahamas. Sometimes divers traveled into them and they came back out on aquifers. Madness, Karl called it. Spindar said he could guess at the thrill of it. Not knowing for sure if you had an exit.

Karl had gone close to something stupid, once. There was a young man, an apprentice, who traveled with Spindar to the big jobs. They lodged together at the employer’s home or in the truck. Karl could not bear the close quarters. Even less so the way Spindar spoke of Alvard. He began in anger at the young man’s combination of clumsiness and arrogance. When Alvard got nearer to the skills, Spindar grudged some praise. Eventually, there was outright admiration for Alvard’s handling of the various saws. He was also compelling in what he taught Spindar about laser-cutting techniques. If you want to go big, he said, you have to consider such developments. But it was when things shifted back to exasperation and then scarcely a mention of Alvard that Karl panicked. He didn’t like how Spindar didn’t know too much about Alvard anymore. He was sickened by how it all seemed hostile and unspeakable.

The pain of casting Spindar in love with the young man, poor Spindar cut into little pieces of silence, was too much for Karl. He would take all the ibuprofen and drink all the whiskey. He would plan to leave enough life to be revived by Spindar. Gathered like a bundle of fire sticks, brought to the darkened bedroom to recover. When Spindar telephoned to say he had fired Alvard for stealing materials for the smaller specialized work, fucking little shit, mother-of-pearl and pewter, Karl celebrated with a tumbler of whiskey. He never got as rashly close to the edge again.

Spindar wanted to climb down. See it for himself, he said, before the students set about it. After getting nowhere with the local authorities, Karl had contacted the geological survey people. They promised to send people from the university. Not professors, the woman on the phone told him sternly, as though he had made a demand, you won’t get a professor to visit on a weekend. Spindar went to change into his overalls. He told Karl to look for the rock climbing ropes.

Karl remembered the wide webbed ropes after his mother was lowered. They snapped back up with the vicious speed of a measuring tape.

The rope was snake-smooth and cool in Karl’s hands. He uncoiled as much as Spindar said he needed. He harnessed him, and brought it together with the carabiners. He belayed the rope twice around the waist of an old birch. He stood stalwart as Spindar backed over the edge and slowly descended. His weight on the rope was piteous. In bed, Karl was gentle. Excessively so, causing Spindar to snarl that he wanted to be fucked or Karl to get out. He arched up his withered haunches and ordered Karl to go harder. He wasn’t a cripple, he said, he wasn’t a corpse.

Spindar shouted up how strange it was, how truly bizarre. Any minute and he would be standing on the roof of the shed. He told Karl to drop him a little faster. Karl remembered the wide webbed ropes after his mother was lowered. They snapped back up with the vicious speed of a measuring tape. He was back some distance, under a cypress, smoking and crying like a wretch. To complete the picture, it was raining. Even he could see the comical misery of his situation. After the funeral he had a beer across the street and watched a dark meandering of people he knew. Out the gates they went, left and right and away from death.

Spindar was for cremation. Then a natural burial in a biodegradable coffin. Then back to cremation. After that it turned away from matters of interment and to whether Karl would pull the plug if things became intolerable. You know what I mean, said Spindar. The animal shit. More pain than body. Karl said he didn’t know if there was a plug to pull these days. Alright then, the syringe, countered Spindar. Filled and stuck in and refilled and again. He said he wanted Karl to be the scary sexy doctor, the one who flicked the glass with a fingernail to get rid of bubbles. That’s the last face I would like to see, he said, serious Karl, attentive and purposeful, sending me into oblivion. It’s not going to get to that, Karl said. He didn’t know what he meant, but at the time it sounded resolute.

Karl couldn’t say when the rope stopped moving through his hands. His mind on the foreseeable future and stage four, his eyes boiling with tears, he had guided Spindar so far down that he no longer heard his voice. He hitched the rope and went to the edge. He lay down gingerly and spread-eagled his weight. The rope cut a taut furrow in the earth beside him. The air had a peaty, assaultive stink. He looked over. Nothing, and then Spindar, turned up to the sky. His arms were thrown wide. He looked like he was floating suspended. Then Karl saw the blue car. Spindar was lying on the roof, smiling delightedly. He waved at Karl. Then he waved Karl away, an elegant royal dismissal. Karl thought, why not, why not give him some peace. He looked easy down there in the strangeness. There was no intimation of rain. Karl checked the hitch and went back to the house.

If the woman on the phone was to be believed, a subsidence of this nature could be followed by another more potent one. The earth likes to suck things deeper, she had told Karl during the phone call. She would schedule the geology students as soon as she could. Karl got caught on the way she said “suck.” She meant it, that final breath ticking over in echo of the word. He had left the phone call wondering about her audacity instead of when the students might turn up.

He made tea, he switched on the soccer league. Later he watched night draw up along the garden and come to chill the windows. In the bath he studied bergs of foam splitting away, melting to reveal his thighs in the gelatinous water, his penis beached like jetsam. In the middle of the night he heard a curdling animal whine. It was probably the swing set giving up the ghost, or it was Spindar in agonized delight. Karl harked to their earliest nights together. He bunched the pillow up around his ears, as he used to do in Tromsø to shut out the boorish cackle of fulmars diving and swooping. In the morning the garden’s silence was as implausible as an emptied sea.

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Author Image

Mary O’Donoghue’s stories have appeared in Georgia Review, Kenyon Review/ KROnline, Irish Times, Sunday Times UK, Stinging Fly, Visual Verse, and elsewhere. New work is forthcoming in The Dublin Review, Banshee, and Short Fiction. She is a two-time recipient of Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowships. In 2015 her work was longlisted for the Sunday Times / EFG Short Story Award. She teaches in the arts and humanities at Babson College, Massachusetts, and she lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She is fiction editor (with William Giraldi) at AGNI.

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