It began deep within her chest and slowly quivered its way up towards her throat as she closed her eyes and desperately tried to stop it. It was happening frequently now, and she feared a moment was coming when once begun, the high pitched heaving would never stop, and she would die suffocated and contorted, a mad grin left on her face as an epitaph. There was a time when she never giggled outside of the occasional glass or two of white wine, but that was before; before the darkness, the damp flakes of grime smeared into every pore of her skin, the echoes of flutes and grinning rats, before she had taken the iron knife and sliced in two the thing that looked exactly like her baby.
She had awoken early one morning to damp streets outside her New Albion window, risen, walked to the crib to check on her child, and known instantly it was not her baby.
It was perfectly identical in appearance. It was quiet though, and wore no expression, just stared listlessly at her. But even this oddness was irrelevant. It was not her baby, and a single drop of absolute ice ran down the inside of her spine in syncopation with a trickle of dribbling moisture on the window beside the crib.
She appeared 15 minutes later at La Bruja’s tiny Tarot Reading storefront 2 blocks away. A wall had been erected inside separating the reading area, which contained all of two gaudy chairs and a small, round coffee table from the rest of the apartment where at least 7 other members of the latino fortune teller’s family were residing at any given time. After 3 minutes of frantic buzzing, the short, round middle-aged woman finally scurried out and unlocked the front door.
The old woman squinted one eye at mother and child as they walked in, motioned for them to sit, and bustled silently about for several minutes, collecting cards and moving trinkets about the room, with occasional glances towards her guests. She then sat, in front of mother and child, and shook her head slowly.
“Ai mami, very bad. Very bad.” She then ran her thumb across the baby’s forehead.
After yelling something in Spanish, a crib was quickly brought out from the back, set up in the corner, and the baby placed inside.
The bruja laid out a spread of cards, grunting as she did so, and when finished took the woman’s hand in both of hers.
“Mami, thees is no your baby. You know thees, yes?”
The woman stammered and finally just nodded.
“The Shee come. You make connection long ago. You know thees or no?”
“I…I don’t understand.”
“Hmm.” The bruja kept hold of the woman’s palm with her left hand and dipped her right hand into a shot glass filled with yellow alcohol and touched it to parts of her own face.
“Thees is no you baby. You baby is alive, but is taken to the other place. Very, very other place.”
The bruja brought out another deck of cards, placed them on the table, hit them forcefully with her fist, then picked up half the deck and showed the card the deck had cut to.
The card had two words printed on the bottom of it:
“Where…” began the woman, but the bruja held up a finger.
“Is in underworld. Journey is muy…” the old woman kept shaking her finger as her voice trailed off.
She rose and left the room, returning several minutes later with something in her hand.
“Here.” She put an iron dagger on the table.
“Thees you may need.”
Three hours of careful listening later, Lora left the bruja and returned home, carried the new baby and the bag of items she had been given. Once home she sliced the baby in two like a loaf of moldy bread, the insides a moist, uniform brown, packed a small backpack, cried, and left for Grand Central Station.
The Thursday afternoon crowds walking through the tunnel connecting the L train to the 4,5 and 6 flowed in waves, each train spewing forth another torrent that rushed hurriedly down the tunnel in 7-minute intervals. Lora waited through several ebbs and flows until she finally approached the man sitting midway through the tunnel, surrounded by about 50 sheets of crayon colored art on display around him, working studiously on another.
He was a bit grimy, but his beard was well trimmed and his demeanor approachable.
She stood beside him and said softly “Marco?”
“Esquanadolas,” he replied, smiling as he looked up. “If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake, hired a band, goodness sake,” he sang quietly to her. He lowered his head and gently shook off the melody, then looked back up with another.
“Come away with me tonight, to the badlands, hold on tight.” He collected his things carefully, packing his work and supplies into a beaten leather binder. When he was finished he turned to her again and sang, “I’ll stand in front of you, I’ll take the force of the blow, Protection…”
He stood and gestured with his head towards the tunnel of the L train. They began to walk.
“Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends. We’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside.”
They sauntered down the platform casually, and at the end, after glancing quickly around, they climbed down onto the tracks. They scurried along, hugging the wall to their right until only several hundred meters in, when another tunnel diverged off of the main track. They followed it.
There was very little light, but they made their way down with slow purposeful ease. The tracks shook, and seconds later a train roared by on the tunnel they had come, its light illuminating gigantic frescos of brightly colored graffiti on the walls around them.
Several minutes later they came to a red light illuminating an open manhole, with an iron ladder leading down.
At the bottom, bathed in a damp, echoing darkness, her guide softly sang “Hey now. All you sinners. Put your lights on.”
She brought out the flashlight the bruja had recommended she bring and switched it on.
They walked down long, empty subway tunnels, as periodically the walls around them rumbled and shook.
Occasionally she let her light linger on the graffiti around them. Each tag was enormous, and more and more surreally intricate. She was barely able to make sense of the heavily stylized alphabet to begin with, but some of them seemed to have disregarded letters entirely, using some new symbology in their place. It was in front of some of these particular ones that Marco would sometimes stop alongside her, look up, and softly scat a wordless melody.
In the darkness around them, rats scurried by; their high voices exchanging tics and squeaks.
In a tunnel of concrete she could see rooms in which the occasional person lay or sat by large bundles of scattered garbage that were their possessions. A lighter could be heard at times and a flicker of dim flame came and went accompanied by sharp intakes of breath, but Marco hurried them along. She could hear scufflin, scratching and the echoes of slow, slurred voices.
They came to a large wall made of rusted metal, notable for it’s absence of graffiti.
Marco carefully pulled it open a few feet. The metallic scrape of metal on concrete filled the air and made her cringe. They passed through and he closed the door behind them.
She didn’t need to see in order to feel the vastness of the room around them. The darkness swallowed even the sense of space, except for a flicker of firelight coming from the floor several meters in front of them.
“Oh sisters let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down” Marco sang, and they walked to the opening in the concrete floor and descended down the noisy iron ladder to the fire below.
In the cold, grey room at the bottom was an old, toothless, blind woman rocking back and forth in front of the fire, seated on and surrounded by stacks of phone books which obviously served as both furniture and kindling. She held a large iron pipe as a cane, and as they reached the floor, a long cackling moan poured out of her smiling mouth.
Next to her was a large, filthy dog, with enormous, pupil-less, yellow eyes the size of saucers, sitting silently, a half eaten human leg on the grey floor beneath him.
In the far right corner sat what seemed to be a deformed little girl, hunched over a solitary game of jacks. In a ragged, soiled dress, her skin was sickeningly pasty and scabbed, her thin hair only present in scattered tufts, her eyes grossly swollen and barely open, like an albino mole. Teeth lay strewn about before her, and she bounced what looked to be an eyeball, scooping up the teeth between bounces.
The old woman’s moan turned into a bitter laugh. “Darwin in action,” she cackled. She clanged her metal rod once onto the ground and cocked her head. “Marco Esquandolas.”
Marco nodded. “I’ve never seen you seen you looking as lovely as you look tonight, Lady in red…”
The blind, old hag cackled uproariously.
At last she calmed down and nodded vigorously. “Off with you then, Marco.” She cocked her head at Lora.
“And you. Sad parent of the next generation. Childless, universal mother, heading towards perpetual twilight.” She reached out her hand, waving it helplessly in the air.
The young woman gave her hand and the old woman kissed it and began crying. She began babbling, calling Lora by one of her long lost or perhaps even dead daughter’s names and becoming more and more unintelligible as her gravelly sobs grew hysterical.
Marco took the young woman by the waist, pried her from the wailing, blind grandmother, and rushed her out the doorway that lay opposite the ladder they had descended.
The passageway was long and narrow, and despite the various cacophony of noise she could hear emanating from the other end far down- drum beats, voices, laughter and cries- the number of rats that scampered noisily back and forth on the sides of the thin floor, squealing and tisking, made her stop in a sudden rush of fear. She was overcome with a heightened awareness of their fat little hairy bodies owning the space around her, and cringed at the thought of one of their wormlike tails brushing up against her, or a rat suddenly crawling right up her body and lodging itself into her mouth, squirming like a giant, obese, furry worm, biting her tongue and squealing into her throat.
She opened her mouth to scream, but suddenly Marco’s face was before her, and his gentle voice in a soothing rhythm intoned, “Would you like to swing on a star? Carry moon beams home in a jar…”
He took her hand and led her down the long passageway into the Sunless Fairgrounds of the Mole People.