How to Bury Immortal Humans
“The Underside,” short fiction by Benjamin Schaefer
How to Bury Immortal Humans
Once upon a time we lived on the right side of the ground. Our village prospered and the crop yield was good. Fields of gold colored wheat and rows of silver corn. We bathed in the yellow light of the sun. But then one day our people stopped dying. There was talk of a great enemy beyond the bounds of our village. Over backyard fences, our parents whispered to their neighbors, The world is a scary place, you know. So they took to burying us down here. To keep us safe. Safe from what, we do not know. Some of us believe the crops were dying, that the reserve in our silo mills had begun to run out. The great enemy beyond the village, they say, was Hunger. There were too many mouths to feed and even the immortal get hungry. Either way, it’s true, we think. The Underside is a safe dry place, though sometimes a little rain gets in.
The first of us arrived here on the cusp of adulthood — just before a boy sprouted hair at his underarms, just before a girl first bled from between her legs. But soon the appropriate time for a child to descend became the subject of an endless and circular debate. When a baby begins teething? When a baby is born? Some of us indeed came here straight from the belly, swaddled and carried to the Saint Paul’s cemetery, in the arms of our own fathers or a midwife. In the beginning, the whole town gathered to witness the event. The men from our village would carve out a place in the curve of the earth with their shovels and their picks and their garden hoes. They’d brace and bracket the walls with wood beams. They did this to support the ceiling. Then the women would thatch a crosshatch with straw and sweet grass, and lay it down to close us in. The last of us, though, were deposited in the thick of the night, alone and unwitnessed. By then our parents reasoned it was best we not get used to the light. And so the cemetery became a city of the living dead, for it was no longer needed to hold bodies relieved of their breath. And each headstone now marks the place where a child went down. The villagers refer to them as homestones now.
Eventually, our people stopped having children altogether. Our departures left in them a pit so deep, a hunger so bitter, all the corn and wheat in the world would not touch it. When they buried us, they filled our holes with blankets and lanterns and candles and lamp oil, with matches and flint, batteries and steel wool, with pillows and photographs and first aid kits, and small toys with which we were to pass the time, and buckets and cloths that we use to wash with the water we bring back to our holes from the Underside’s well. With the older kids they buried small shovels, that we might burrow our way to the homes of the others. They provided us with extra beams and brackets and instructed us to begin the mouth of a tunnel from the top and work down, to be wary of places where the ground got soft. They told us never, ever attempt to tunnel up. With the little ones, they buried what food they felt they could spare: burlap sacks of carrots and beets, potatoes and other things that sprouted and spudded and grew away from the sun — an incentive for those little ones to be found. And at night, our parents dreamed of large underground rooms, enough space for an underground farm.
But of all the things they gifted to us, none is more treasured than the catalogs of our histories. Histories, we say, though you might call them stories. Still, we recognize ourselves in these pages, dressed up, for sure, fancified, perhaps. Many, in fact, have required a good deal of translating. Like the history of the girl and the wolf in the woods. What’s a woods? some of us ask. What’s a woods? What’s a wolf? Well, woods is easy. It is a place for a path, and a path is akin to the tunnels we’ve down here. And a wolf, what is that but the threat of another kind of hunger? See here, in the home of the little girl’s grandmother, the wolf opens his mouth and swallows the little girl up. She slides down his throat, which too is a tunnel, a path that ends in the pit of the wolf’s stomach. What’s a pit? A pit is another word for a hole. Oh, we all say. Hole is word we all know. And grandmother? Well, that is a word which we don’t — a very large mother? — so perhaps it is best if we choose to ignore it. But here, see here, at the end of the history, a man comes along with a knife and splits open the wolf’s belly? He pulls the girl right out of the pit. Out of the pit, we say. We repeat it. He pulls the girl right out of the pit.
If it is true what they say, and history too has a way of repeating, it is difficult not to find some comfort in these stories. We know, we know — this is how rumors get started. One day, your neighbors are simply chitchatting, and the next you’re all burying your children alive. But the history of the girl and the wolf in the woods is not the only one of its kind. There is another, it is one of our very favorites. It is written in a catalog complete with illustrations. It is the history of a childless toymaker and a beautiful blue fairy who brings the toymaker’s marionette to life. A marionette? Let us just call it a baby. And the baby, more than anything, wants to be a real boy. It is a sentiment with which we can sympathize acutely — it strikes at the taut strings of our Underside hearts. So the baby goes out into the world, goes out like the little girl goes out into the woods, like the place beyond the bounds of our village. The childless toymaker waits, wringing his hands, until the baby proves itself worthy of being remade whole. No, not hole, whole, another word for complete. And when the baby succeeds, the blue fairy bestows upon it the soul of a real boy, and he and the toymaker live happily thereafter. It is hard not to see the toymaker and the blue fairy for what we know them to be — a father and a mother — and harder yet not to believe that our own fathers and mothers are up there waiting. Waiting for us to turn into real boys and real girls.
Sadly, these are not our only histories. There is one we have read only once, but it is lodged in our memories. It is the one about a child who, like us, has been buried, but unlike us they do not bury the child to keep it safe, they bury the child because it is dead. But the child is stubborn, and one day from its grave an arm springs forth, and try as they may to push it back into the earth, the arm rises again, slapping the ground with the flat of its hand. Distraught, the child’s mother takes a switch from a nearby tree and beats the arm, and beats it, until it recoils to rest for all time at the child’s side. Weirdly, this history has infected our dreams, and in them our arms acquire a great elasticity. They stretch and stretch and worm their way through the crosshatch, through six feet of dirt, to the Upside, where the air is free of the earth, and emerge like tulips at the base of our homestones. Our fingers quiver in the breeze like white, ruddy-tipped petals, and in these dreams our parents, who hunger for our presence, who have all along been up there waiting, see these strange flowers flapping, see these strange flowers swaying, and not for a minute do they think to look for a switch. Instead, they take our hands and cover them with their own, sometimes two, sometimes four, and weep for their joy. They think they too must be dreaming. And our desire to embrace them is so strong that our arms become even more tensile, stretch even further — in these dreams our arms are made out of rubber — and we wrap them around our parents’ midsections once! thrice! so many times! that we squeeze the life right out of them.
About the Author
Benjamin Schaefer is a writer and editor from upstate New York. He studied literature and creative writing at Bard College and the MFA program at the University of Arizona. His fiction has appeared in Guernica, and he is the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Millay Colony for
the Arts, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He serves as the prose editor for Fairy Tale Review.
“The Underside” is published here by permission of the author, Benjamin Schaefer. Copyright © Benjamin Schaefer 2018. All rights reserved.