“Without death, there is no life.” Repeating this like a mantra, I steady my nerves as I creep into the cavern leading to the underworld. Without warning, the sandy earth gives way beneath my feet, plunging me into a pit. In the demi-darkness the outline of a stone staircase beckons, tunneling down to the first gate.
My heart beats faster as a troll guarding the gate shambles to his feet, stretching out his hand. “No one enters without paying first.” His mouth widens into a cavernous grin sans teeth.
I give him a five dollar bill. He sniffs it, twists it into a spiral, sticks it up his nose. I step back when he tries to hand it back to me. “No, keep it.”
The troll snarls. “It’s no good to me.”
“You said I had to pay.”
He squints at me with red, beady eyes. “Not with money. You see anything around here to buy?”
I peer past him at shadows twisted like the webs of giant spiders. We stare at each other for a moment then I plead, “I need to see Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld.”
“So pay up.” Troll extends short, grubby fingers tipped with dirty nails.
“But you won’t take money —”
“I like your cap.”
My hands fly up to my head. My grandmother crocheted this and it’s my favorite cap. I only wore it because it’s cold in the underworld. Twenty percent of your body heat escapes through a bare head.
I’m not willing to surrender my cap, so I dig five more dollars out of my jeans pocket. Troll folds his arms. Drool shakes out of his mouth as he wobbles his grizzled head. “Cap or nothing.”
“Fine.” Begrudgingly I hand it over and am secretly pleased when it doesn’t fit. He lops it over one huge, cauliflower ear and steps aside.
Rushing past Troll, I hold my nose against the reek of garlic and onions. Now a wind billows out of the bowels of the earth, pushing me down a dark corridor. The shoving wind dislodges a memory that lumps in my throat. The day Grandmother gave me the cap she also bought me a package of spongy yellow snack cakes that she thought were my favorite. I never told her otherwise.
“Youch!” I smack into a hidden door at the end of the tunnel. A tiny window set at shoulder height creaks open then another set of beady eyes peeks out.
“Who goes there?” The voice is rough as sandpaper.
“I seek Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld.”
“Doesn’t everybody?” The Gatekeeper slams his window shut. A latch snaps into place.
Knotting my fist, I pound on the door. “Let me through!”
“What’s in it for me?”
The window flies open. Weasel eyes blink, scrutinize me up and down. “I’ll take your earrings.”
“No way.” These earrings are my first attempt at beadwork. It took hours to fashion them into teardrops.
“Earrings or nothing.”
Indignation flames my face. I hammer on the door until a splinter digs in the heel of my hand.
“I can’t hear you!” Gatekeeper snorts with laughter.
The splinter hurts like hell until I squeeze it out. “Alright, you can have the damn earrings.”
A gnarled hand with curved, yellow nails shoots through the window. Fighting my revulsion, I dangle my earrings above the hairy palm then drop them.
With a rusty creak, the door swings open. Gatekeeper leers at me. “Just follow the arrows.” He points to streaks of ochre painted on the rocky ground. They shoot toward a wall then curve sharply when they reach a corner.
I round the corner then run into another door.
Hoarse laughter wheezes over my shoulder as Gatekeeper lopes up, his hairy paw extended. Tuna fish breath nearly bowls me over as he leans close, baring coffee-stained fangs. “I’ll take your necklace now.”
“Son of a bitch!” I take a swing at him and smack my fist against a metal breast plate hidden under his burlap tunic. Howling, I cradle my hand.
Gatekeeper’s barrel chest shakes with uproarious laughter. “You gotta pay either way, going or coming.”
“You effin …” My gut twists. Why did I wear my pearl necklace instead of a cheap trinket? Because I wanted to impress Ereshkigal, a ruler with veins of gold ore at her disposal.
Furious, I fling my necklace at the gatekeeper who catches it in mid-air and pockets it. Shuffling to the door, he punches a code into a computerized lock then kicks it open.
The door groans like an arthritic old man. The instant I walk through, it slams shut behind me. Only then do I realize it has no window. Apparently no one comes back.
Another staircase worms a narrow spiral into the ground. Down, down, down …
I gasp, reel back abruptly when it drops into an abyss. A narrow extension bridge constructed of twine and thin boards swings precariously before me.
Time freezes, languishes into eternity before I can force myself forward, one step at a time … Reaching the rope bridge I fall to my knees, crawl back hurriedly. Clambering to my feet, I race up the staircase. Panting for breath I pound on the windowless door until my hands are raw and bleeding.
Gatekeeper doesn’t answer, so he must have everything he wants. Pressing my shoulder against the door, I dig in my heels and shove. It shudders but doesn’t budge.
No use. I have to cross the bridge. After trudging down the worn, stone steps, I gulp as I stare across the dizzying expanse, studying the narrow planks set at two foot intervals tied with fraying rope.
Scarcely daring to breathe, I place a trembling foot on the first plank. The bridge sways crazily as I balance myself, then position my other foot.
Rough twine scratches, bites into my sweating palms as I creep forward, inching along as cautiously as a tight rope walker on a wire strung between two skyscrapers. With every step the bridge swings wildly, nearly toppling me into the fathomless void. My knees quake and my hands burn on the rope. A plank breaks loose, tumbles down. It never reaches bottom.
“Got to keep moving.” My legs are rubber as I shift my weight, lifting my right foot, stepping cautiously, moving my left foot …
Finally! I reach the other side and fall to my knees, kiss the ground. Dust smears my face as I lay panting in the dirt, taking deep breaths to ease the fluttering in my heart. Several minutes pass before I heave myself to my feet then follow a narrow path that dead ends at the edge of a cliff. The path continues below me, eight feet down a sheer rock wall.
Sinking to my knees, I wail my frustration. I’ve come this far only to die in the dank and gloom. Leaning against a rock jutting alongside the path, I calculate my chances of jumping off the wall without breaking a bone.
A rock bites into my arm. It’s a meter tall and smooth like a shark’s tooth or a hitching post.
Hitching post … Pulling off the long sweater that compliments my designer jeans, I knot one arm around the rock, dangle it over the edge. If I use it as a rope, I can rappel down the rock wall far enough to drop down to the path below. The chilly damp of the Underworld penetrates my bare skin and I won’t be able to retrieve my sweater afterwards. But there’s no other way.
Shivering, I climb down the cliff as far as the sweater stretches. For a moment I swing above the path like a pendulum, then let go—
Cold stones slap my hands, my feet. Standing up, I dust myself off and follow the smooth, black rock, slowing my pace when it delves into muddier shadows. The darkness constricts into a cave that swallows up the path. Ducking my head, I grope through the cave’s entrance, sliding a foot cautiously forward—
My toes plunge into ice water. Trembling, I draw back, squinting at the black pool lapping at my feet. On the far side of the cave a peephole of light beckons, but there’s no way to cross the water.
My cuff clings wet and clammy to my ankle. Peeling off my jeans, I spread them on the rocks to dry.
If I had a life jacket I could paddle across this subterranean lake, but all I have left are these jeans and a pair of boots. Underwear doesn’t count.
Wrapping my arms around my shoulders, I break out in goosebumps. Did my Grandfather feel this way when he was a sailor in the navy? What did he tell me? If their ship was torpedoed, he was to tie the legs of his pants legs together, fling them overhead to fill them with air and make a flotation device.
After several tries I fashion my jeans into a doughnut. Wedging my head inside, I ease into the ice water, cringing when my limbs go numb with cold. Soon the weight of water drags me down. Resting my head on my air-packed jeans, I paddle, flounder … Water leeches into the jeans, sinking them slowly into the depths.
Fear electrifies my legs. Frantic, I paddle through the freezing water. After a long, terrifying moment the soft light at the other end of the cavern grows steadily larger.
A sharp rock cuts against my arm. Too frozen to appreciate pain, I grasp the outcrop with frozen hands, drag myself up to a ledge. When my legs collapse I slip back into the watery morass. Kicking aside my saturated jeans, I struggle free, muster the last of my strength, nudge myself up: first a thigh, then a knee, then a foot encased in a waterlogged boot …
Wet leather squeaks as I crawl forward.
Light sears my eyes after so much darkness. When I creep toward the opening, a low rumble drones in my ears.
A brown bear is sprawled at the mouth of the cave. Its lips flutter, revealing sharp fangs as he snores. Terrified, I pull off my noisy boots in slow motion. Now my toes dig into raw earth, press the ball of my foot without releasing the heel. I tiptoe around the slumbering bear. One step, then another. I’m almost past the monster …
Bear shifts his bulk, wrinkles up his nose. One eye pops open, fixes me in a dark glare.
I throw my shoes and run, fully expecting him to attack. Only after I scramble up a rocky incline and pull myself onto the ridge of a hogback do I look back. Bear is hunkered down at the entrance of his cave, gnawing on my boots.
My heart palpitates as I back into prickly briars that scratch my naked skin, drawing blood. Tottering through the brambles, I pick my way along the narrow ledge that falls away sharply on either side. When I lose my balance, I topple headlong down a precipice. Bile spills over my chin as I thump into a bed of dessicated roots, the remains of decapitated trees.
High above me the sun peeks down through a hole in the earth like a sapphire shining on a satin pillow. Lifting my arms, I let a balm of soft light wash over me.
“Welcome.” A woman’s shadow blots out the sun. Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, appears in front of me. Even, white teeth gleam in a perpetual smile on her skeleton face. Her eyes are dark sockets of mystery. Fleshless fingers gesture to the twisted roots. “I see you’ve found my garden.”
Stammering, I try to explain why I am only wearing a black lace teddy tattered from snagging rocks and soaked with murky water.
Queen Ereshkigal clinks the jade bracelets entwining her wrists. Jade covers her skeletal body like a suit of armor. Jade is immutable, eternal. Her smile is unchanging. “Clothes decay here among the worms.” When she generously offers me her breastplate, white ribs dangle between her multiple necklaces and jointed jade leggings.
Her black eyes soften. “Why have you come?”
“To understand the past, reconcile the present, know my future.”
“Past, present and future are all one here. Consider your journey an answer in itself.” Ereshkigal spreads her skeletal fingers tipped with long, curved nails. “You arrived devoid of yourself, divested of anger, guilt, disappointment, jealousy and entitlement. What more do you want?”
The jade breastplate weighs heavily on my shoulders. I shift uneasily.
Her clavicle grinds as she gestures. “You can leave anytime you want.”
My heart beats like a frightened bird. “I can’t make it past the bear, the lake, the abyss, the trolls …”
“There’s an elevator.” Ereshkigal waves a white-boned hand at a metal door embedded in a cliff.
I push the only button. ‘Up.’
Published in Stories