Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2008
Fiction: Stone Eggs by Adriana Campoy and James P. Blaylock
His Uncle Jonathan had been gone only a couple of days when Max tried on a pair of the old man’s trousers. The strange idea came into his mind when he was petting the cat, and he didn’t question it. The trousers fit him well, as did the khaki work shirt and suspenders that had been hanging in the closet next to them. They were old fashioned, but they suited the house, in which everything hearkened back to a lost age. A suitable suit, Max thought, smiling at his own joke and feeling somehow more at home now, like a hermit crab in a new shell. Elmer, his uncle’s ancient, tailless cat, regarded him from the doorway with an air of approval, as if borrowing the clothing had been the cat’s idea all along.
The invitation to housesit had come in the form of a letter, posted, apparently, when the old man was already leaving, because Max had found the house empty, with a note on the kitchen counter that read, “Make yourself at home.” The invitation had been as vague about the date of his uncle’s return as it had been about his destination. That also suited Max well enough, since his lease had run out on the flat he had been renting above Watson’s Drug Store in the Plaza, and he was temporarily homeless. Most of his own stuff was in a closet-sized storage unit that cost him forty dollars a month, a sad comment on the state of his worldly goods. It occurred to him impulsively that he would quit paying the storage bill and simply let the stuff go. If he was going to make himself at home, he might as well do a thorough job of it.
God bless the generosity of uncles, Max muttered, reaching for the pull-cord to the ceiling lamp, waving his hand around before looking up and discovering that there was no pull-cord, which confounded him for a moment, because he had the absolute idea in his mind that there should be, and that he had reached for a pull cord a thousand times over the years. The certainty faded into curiosity. He had never, after all, lived in a house old enough to have such an item as a pull cord for a ceiling lamp.
He shut off the wall switch and went out into the living room, where he found Elmer holding an immense dead lizard. If it was a fresh kill, it had been a quick one, given that Elmer had just minutes ago been just been lounging in the bedroom doorway. “That’ll make you skinny,” Max warned him. “There’s nothing nourishing in a reptile.” In the dim light Elmer could easily be mistaken for a bobcat, and he pretty much had to cram himself through the cat door when he came and went. How he had hauled the saurian back in through the door was a mystery. The battle must have resembled a scene in a Godzilla movie. Dragging the lizard, Elmer walked along the edge of the room toward the kitchen where he vanished into the shadows at the edge of a bookcase, glancing back momentarily, his eyes glowing green.
Max gave the interior of the house an appraising look. The day he moved in he had fallen into the habits of a stay-at-home eccentric, whiling away the hours in study, poring over the collections in the glass and wood cabinets that lined the living room—the seashells and geodes and beetles and antique bric-a-brac. He found himself opening and closing small wooden cupboards in which were hidden trilobite fossils and gizzard stones and petrified dinosaur eggs, reading through old volumes of natural history late into the night, most of it seriously out of date, with imaginative illustrations drawn during a time when science had no real argument with Jules Verne. There was something in the air of the house that lent Max’s brain a retentive quality that surprised him, and he found that the arcane information in his uncle’s library wasn’t a mere collection of dead and disembodied facts, but seemed to call up dim memories, like glimpses of long-forgotten dreams. It was as if he already knew what he was reading, and had simply to be reminded of it.
The old house was of indeterminate age, built when there had been nothing but avocado and orange groves and empty fields in the area. Aside from the occasional coat of paint, it hadn’t suffered any changes over the years. His Uncle Jonathan had inherited the place in the 1940s from his own uncle, the house always having “been in the family.” There had apparently been other uncles. The bystreet outside was shaded by curb trees and had almost no traffic to break the afternoon silence. There was the distant sound of church bells in the morning and evening, nearly the only reminder of the passing of time if the blinds were drawn, which they were. Max had started locking the front door on his second day in the house, finding that he had lost any desire to venture out.
He had been pleasantly surprised to discover that there was enough food in the kitchen cupboards to last through a prolonged siege—jars of string beans and peaches, canned meat and canisters of oatmeal and cocoa, all of it looking as if it had been purchased at an antiques store. But there was apparently nothing wrong with any of it, and something downright pleasant in the thought that he could disappear from the world for months if he chose to, heating up his food on the old gas stove, which was a mint green object on stilt-like legs, built during an era that had an inventive sense of humor, or perhaps a humorous sense of invention. This morning there had been the sound of clinking glass out on the porch, and he had looked out to discover bottles of milk, a dozen eggs, cheese, and a loaf of bread. Happily, there was no bill, and the delivery person had already disappeared.
He got back to work now, pulling down a likely looking volume and losing himself in an account of stick insects of the genus Phasmidae, which the book referred to as “specters.” Max got up to take a look in the insect cabinets, where his uncle kept dozens of sticklike and leaf-like insects ranged alongside the sticks and leaves they were meant to mimic. He studied the creatures with a magnifying glass, marveling at the uncanny and sometimes minute likenesses to their relevant sticks and leaves.
He noticed by chance a small, hinged door in a bookcase above the insect drawers. Carved into the door were block letters spelling out “ILLUMINATION,” and his natural curiosity compelled him to open it. Inside was a fold-up satchel made of soft leather marked with the word “Candlefish,” and inside the satchel, rolled in oiled silk, were several dozen eels, nearly a foot long. Also in the niche lay a box of kitchen matches and a long spindle affixed to a block of solid copper, tarnished and blue with streaks of verdigris.
Hearing something, Max glanced up and saw the familiar green eyes in the shadows at the edge of the bookcase. Elmer emerged out of the darkness like black smoke, seeming to coalesce into the shape of a cat. He stood for a moment, his tail twitching, and then returned to the shadow, the glowing eyes staring back at Max for a moment out of the darkness. Then he vanished, although there was apparently no place for him to vanish into, no magician’s hat. It occurred to Max that the backward glance had been very much like a summons, an invitation to follow the cat down into the underworld.
He dismissed the idea uneasily, turning his attention back to the eels now, searching out books on ichthyology, browsing his way to a discussion of the candlefish of British Columbia, not a true eel, but a variety of very oily smelt, caught wholesale by local Indians in wickerwork baskets, dried out, and used as torches. The spindle in the niche suddenly made perfect sense to him, and he carefully removed one of the fish from the leather bag, slipped the specimen head-downward over the spindle, then struck a kitchen match and lit the tail, which flared up, throttled back down, and then burned steadily, with an orange glow that was somehow entirely in keeping with what had become the night’s work. He switched off the desk lamp and found that he could still read well enough in his little pool of light.
Highly satisfied, Max lost himself in Montrose’s Fishes of the Upper Nile and Its Tributaries—an account of an ichthyologic expedition that had successfully brought back specimens of a leaf-mimicking climbing perch, undoubtedly related to a similar South American species, giving rise to compelling theories that the two continents were connected by a chain of islands in the Late Mesozoic, one of which might or might not have been Atlantis. Realizing that he didn’t know half enough about the Mesozoic, or about Atlantis, for that matter, he pulled down a heavy book on paleontology, evidently well-read by generations of uncles, because it was full of dog-eared pages, margin notes, and slipped-in pieces of paper containing further notes that were peppered with exclamation marks, musings, and admonitions such as “Needs independent confirmation. Maracot?” Or “Plesiosaur? See Osborne, ‘77 and City of Baltimore, ‘79. Graphic.”
Puzzled, Max set out to do as he was told with this last one, which was a particularly enticing reference, especially the idea that Baltimore had perhaps been visited by a plesiosaur a century and a quarter ago. But after a half hour of searching, he still couldn’t find the name “Osborne” on the spines of any of the volumes on the shelves, and he was at a loss to apply the word “Graphic” to anything at all under the circumstances. “‘77” and “‘79” were clearly dates. But dates of what? Publication?
He found himself in the study now without quite knowing how he had gotten there, just as he had found himself a couple of hours ago trying on clothing from his uncle’s closet. He saw that Elmer was curled up atop one of a dozen wooden filing cabinets, not asleep, but regarding him again as Max studied the contents of the file drawers. Small brass frames on the drawer fronts held labels that were at first of little use to him, being brief and cryptic. Then he discovered one marked “Sea Creatures, Allegedly Extinct.” Inside was a file marked “Plesiosaurs” containing, among other things, yellowed clippings from the Graphic, an illustrated London newspaper published in the 1800s.
Of course, Max thought, the name ringing a bell in his memory, although he couldn’t place the origin of the memory, whether it was from the distant past, or from half an hour ago when he had first read the notation in the margin of the old book. He took the file back out to the living room and looked through the contents in the light of the burning fish, discovering that the City of Baltimore was a steamship, and that the Captain and crew had reported sighting a sea monster in the Gulf of Aden, which, from the many descriptions of witnesses, was almost certainly a plesiosaur. The H.M.S. Osborne had reported the same phenomenon, near Sicily, and so had the sloop Pauline, off the coast of Scotland. There were dozens of other sightings, hundreds of witnesses, zoologists weighing in with lengthy explanations involving subterranean rivers, sunken islands, worlds beneath the sea, strange things drawn up from the depths on fishhooks. One thing leading to another until Max had read his way through the curiosities of the marine coelacanth and the Australian lungfish, and found himself immersed in an account of a toothy looking freshwater ganoid fish thought to have been extinct since the cretaceous period, but rediscovered in a little backwater of Lake Tanganyika. Carefully written into the margin were the words “For live specimens, Benson’s Catalogue, Terre Haute.”
Specimens of what? Prehistoric fish? The very idea of it filled him with wonder and longing. Where would his uncle keep such catalogues…?
The desk shook suddenly, and the smelt’s head flared up and then winked out with a little swirl of smoke, although the air in the room continued to glow dimly, as if from residual light. Max was surprised to see Elmer standing on the desktop, staring at him. He saw his own reflection in the cat’s eyes and for a dizzying moment he didn’t know quite who he was. The room lurched suddenly into carousel motion roundabout him, and he gripped the arms of his chair, full of the absolute certainty that he was being swept backward through the years, although he had no sensation of movement. Subtle, instantaneous changes occurred in the room around him as it spun, objects appearing and disappearing, books sailing in and out of bookcases, cabinet doors opening and shutting against a backdrop of flickering light, the day and night giving way to each other beyond the windows as everything hurtled along through time. He heard strange music playing from somewhere beyond the confines of the house, as if it were leaking through cracks in the walls from beneath the world, and he perceived a trail of blurred movement—someone coming and going, in and out of the room—his uncle perhaps, his uncle’s uncle, maybe himself. There was the green glow of cat’s eyes hovering over the desktop, where the books and papers and pens and small objects blinked away and reappeared and blinked away again. And then, as abruptly as it had started, the room around him was still.
He heard the crickets start up out in the night, and there was a creaking of floorboards as if the house were settling down again after its wild antics. The glow in the room was fading, the night dark beyond the windows. Elmer was gone from the desktop, but he reappeared now near the shadowy corner of the bookcase again, standing stock-still. Max watched him, discerning behind the cat an even darker bit of shadow with a hard edge to it. He felt a breeze waft past him, as if a door was standing open.
The passage! he thought, wondering immediately why his mind had chosen to phrase itself in that definite way. But other, more pressing, curiosities crowded out this first reaction. He stood up and slipped a second candlefish over the spindle. Lighting it and holding it out before him he walked toward the cat’s eyes, which were far back in the darkness now, like twin stars in space. He pushed tentatively on the edge of the bookcase, which slid aside, revealing, as he had forecast, a passage leading downward into absolute night, the realm of Elmer and the lizards.
Wooden stairs, two flights of them, brought him to a deep cellar, where there was a feeling in the air of vast space, although he couldn’t see beyond the pool of candlefish light in which he stood. It was unnaturally warm, almost tropical, the air smelling like riverbank vegetation. He reached blindly for the pull cord to the ceiling lamp, knowing without actually seeing it that it hung there within easy reach. When the light blinked on, there was a quick draft of air and the candlefish went out. The cellar came to life around him. He heard the sound of bubbling and the sigh and whir of mechanical apparatus, as if the cellar itself was a vast clockwork mechanism. There were other rooms, perhaps many rooms, with illuminated terrariums and aquaria bubbling away, driftwood and waterweeds and darting fish, tropical plants moving and rustling. Wood framed glass incubators sat atop a nearby wooden bench under the glare of heat lamps, curious-looking eggs just visible in the sand, two or three of them already broken open.
He caught sight of scattered paperwork lying on the bench near the incubators, and he stepped across to have a look. A manila envelope lay there with the papers, already stamped and addressed. He didn’t recognize the postage, a three-penny stamp with a picture of a toad on it—surely not enough postage to move the envelope across the street, let alone to Terre Haute, which was the destination. The paperwork was a catalogue from a firm called Benson’s Living Wonders. His uncle had filled out an order for the prehistoric fish that Max had been reading about just a short time ago. He had ordered three trilobites, also, and a nautilus from the late Devonian period. There was a drawing in the catalogue of a squid-looking cephalopod in a narrow cone-like shell. “Guaranteed live delivery,” the catalogue read. “C.O.D.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw movement, a big lizard, if it was a lizard, lumbering back into the shadows of an adjacent room, and he realized that Elmer had reappeared. He looked strangely satisfied with himself, sitting near a door in the wall nearby, a door that might easily lead to farther rooms.
Max wondered, though. It was a heavy door, with a mail slot cut into it covered by a hammered copper flap, and with a cat door at the bottom. Elmer turned abruptly and bolted through the cat door, which swung back on its hinges, revealing a rectangle of daylight beyond, despite its being the middle of the night in the world upstairs.
There were no more rooms beyond the door, Max realized, and his uncle’s house was built on flat ground. He slipped the catalogue order form into the envelope with a shaking hand. This was obviously unfinished business of Uncle Jonathan’s, who was traveling, Max was now certain, somewhere below the horizon of the world, for want of a better way to put it. Now it had become Max’s business, trilobite business, three-cent stamp business. Feeling giddy with anticipation he put his hand on the knob and opened the door wide, stepping out into the bright sunlight, just in time to see a zeppelin, its tiny propellers whirling, disappear beyond the peak of a nearby, orchard-covered hill.