Cool air flows down upon us. There is light where the wind eases in. Perhaps we can reach it today.
The way is narrow and close. It is like sliding through a snake’s burrow, under rock and leaf mould. The walls smell of damp wood and loam, but warm, as if the sun washes them. Except there is no sun here. Not this far down.
Women’s voices, low and calm, float down from above. I cannot make out the words, only the soft music of it. Terra shrugs, unconcerned. We must keep climbing.
In the corners, between the echoes, shadows of memory seep in.
“Have we done this before?” I ask Terra, but she only looks at me slantedly over her shoulder. It makes no difference if we have done this. Now is all.
My arms ache against the pull of my weight. The soil between the stones and beams spills out under my digging fingers.
Above me I see the dim shape of Terra’s bare, dirty feet gripping any toehold to be found. She hisses when splinters break off in her skin. I hiss, too. The sharp pain is always expected, and always a surprise. When we reach the clean air at the top of this pile we will help each other dig the splinters out.
But now, we climb. Sweet voices above us spur us on. They spur me on. I cannot truly speak for Terra. Her breathing is harder than mine, the distance between my head and the soles of her feet shorter than it was when we started. She was firstborn, and always stronger. I feel the ripple of her weariness sink around me.
My cloaked shoulders itch against the shaft’s rough walls. I hope the splinters and spurs do not tear my passing skin.
Terra stops. I hear her breath ease out in a long sigh. I reach up and cradle her foot in my hand, letting her push against me, giving her my strength beneath her. She climbs a few more feet before she stops again. My strength is not enough. She will exhaust us both.
I look up into the shadows of her long wrappings. I see clear light around her, picked out in fragments around her small body. Fresh air cuts through the warm earthy scent of the walls. We are so close. If Terra would only climb I am sure the women above would reach down to help her through the opening, into the sun.
“Terra,” I say. “Can you see them?”
Her face tilts toward me around her raised arm, and I think she gives me that sidelong look again. But her eyes are white. Her mouth is slack. There is no more breath in her.
The voices above grow quicker in their cadence, urging me to keep climbing. I still cannot make out their words.
I reach up and grasp Terra’s thin calf, pulling her down. It is the only way. She slips against me, tight within the walls. She is so dry. Her wrappings tear. I wriggle upward, against her, until I cannot move further. She is in my arms. Her face is already shriveled. I am stranded here between roots and sky with lost Terra. I press my mouth into her neck and bite deeply. Her dry skin crumbles like dead leaves beneath my teeth. I swallow. I consume. She will still travel with me.
Her bones fall past me as I strip away the flesh that binds them. At last her head tumbles free, rolling down between my full belly and the warm wall. I listen for its landing, but no sound rises.
Sound only falls. The women sing to me, calling me, waiting for me to climb up. I cannot see them against the blinding ring of sunlight. Nourished, I will pull my own weight up the last few yards to meet them. They will reach down for me. They will lift me free. They will help me dig the splinters from my fingers and feet.
I have done this before. I remember. When I reach the top I will spread my wrinkled wings in the cool wind to dry. And then I will soar.
Erica Ruppert writes speculative fiction and poetry from her home in northern New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Nonbinary Review, Eternal Haunted Summer, and Weirdbook, among others. She is, very slowly, working on her first novel.