The Trembling Harp String
By Carew S. Bartley
If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.
–– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power
The dank air tasted of burnt bacon. Nausea twisted Clark’s gut and he heaved. He opened his eyes, then closed and opened them hard. The darkness squeezing him was absolute. With every beat of his heart, his brain engorged, testing the limits of his skull. His mind conjured an image from an arcade cabinet of his youth: a begoggled creature deep underground, inflated by a spelunker’s harpooning air pump until it exploded in tatters.
Icy fingers gripped his ankle. Clark gasped and jerked his leg away, scrambling back across the gritty floor. The sharp bang of stone against stone echoed through the space and a flash pierced Clark’s nerves. His eyes darted around the now-visible room, black dread further twisting his stomach. He was in the mouth of some cavernous, carnivorous beast; great fangs dripping with saliva jutted from the floor and the ceiling. The odor of scorched meat was stronger than ever. He felt sure he would soon be rent apart and swallowed by this slavering Saturn.
But as Clark’s eyes adjusted and the light grew stronger, he saw the cavern was not flesh and enamel, but limestone. Light flickered off many-faceted stalactites and stalagmites; their sharp shadows jittered on the cave walls. A fused column obscured the source of the light. Clark crawled through coarse sand toward the column and peeked around it.
A stocky, nearly obese creature sat with his back to the cave wall. He studied Clark from under a prominent, furrowed brow. He had jug ears, a bulbous nose, and long, scraggly hair tufting from his head, face, and chest. He motioned to Clark and grunted. Seeing something human rather than a beast cooled his panic, but he was unlike any man Clark had ever seen. His arms were too short. His shoulders were too wide. And his eyes, from which Clark could not turn his own, were covered by a translucent, membranous film crisscrossed with cobwebs of spider veins. The firelight passed right through the thin membranes, turning them vermilion.
Again he motioned for Clark to come closer and patted a sandy spot to his right, grunting and harumphing. A humble mound of refuse burned on the ground before him. Not wanting to upset the creature, Clark approached him, hands extended in a warding gesture, and sat down. Satisfied, the creature pulled some pale, thin-stalked mushrooms from the damp cave wall and tossed them onto the burning refuse pile. The glowing embers singed the mushrooms’ delicate caps, releasing an earthy, organic smell. The creature then scooped some of the refuse into a large stony shell, unfazed by the blistering heat. He picked up a bone like a turkey drumstick and began to grind the refuse into a paste. No, not just a paste, Clark thought, a poultice. A poultice in an abalone shell.
The creature scooped some paste from the shell and massaged it into Clark's ankle, the warmth soothing his throbbing joint. Clark sighed; this time he didn’t pull away. The creature then held out the poultice and another shell full of glistening water. Clark took them and drained the water first, rivulets streaming down his chin and neck. Then he shoveled the oily, fishy paste into his mouth. Mushroom risotto, Clark thought, and laughed through the mush. The creature grinned and hooted, showing large, blocky teeth. They sat like that for a while, Clark eating and drinking, the creature applying more poultice to his swollen ankle, until the last of the paste had been consumed and the embers faded into darkness.
Last night at their apartment over a re-warmed dinner, Sarah had asked, “Would you want to do something tomorrow? I have the day off work.”
“Like what?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” She chewed a bite of lukewarm pasta. “With the weather, maybe something inside? Maybe the natural history museum? We’ve been wanting to check it out since we moved down here. Or maybe you should study?”
Sarah didn’t get many Saturdays off anymore. Having recently started her third year of medical school, she worked at the hospital six days a week, not getting home until eight or nine o’clock at night.
Clark’s schedule was more flexible. After his parents vetoed his PhD plans, he had applied to medical school with Sarah, but a mediocre MCAT score, lackluster grades in his Anthropology program, and a dearth of research or extracurriculars meant his applications were either rejected outright or consigned to the bottom of the waitlist, only to be dredged in the event of a population crash.
When August came, he had followed her to school and found work as a bartender while studying to retake the MCAT. That was two years ago. When the bar had closed, he told Sarah it was an opportunity to study full-time. In the last few months, he had only cracked his MCAT books when Sarah was due home.
The couple had paused before a diorama depicting Papuans huddled about a paper mache fire. Behind the group crouched their hut, wooden walls topped by a conical reed roof.
“They were too lazy to cover the top of the dome, Clark, look.”
Clark turned his head, not really looking. The placard had gone on to explain that domed huts often had an oculus, a circular hole cut out of the top to light the hut and allow smoke to escape. Clark imagined lying on his back in the hut looking through the oculus out into the stars. He thought he might feel insignificant, a speck of dust in the cosmic ether, but it had been so long since he had looked at the stars he couldn’t be sure. In the apartment he shared with Sarah, the yellow haze of urban night hid the sky from view.
“Can we go yet? My feet hurt.”
Clark sighed. “I want to check out the rest of the exhibit first,” he said.
“Fine, but don’t take too long.” She left.
Clark turned from the diorama. His attention was drawn to a rough-hewn stone plinth at the far end of the corridor. Atop the plinth a small sign announced: “Homo Neanderthalensis – Restoration Underway.”
“Damn,” he muttered. He had only agreed to come to the museum after learning the exhibition featured a real neanderthal, mummified in a salinic cave in south-eastern New Guinea. A breeze cooled his skin. It carried a cellar smell: undisturbed, inviting. Seeing no open windows, Clark stepped behind the plinth. A metal door stood ajar. The room inside was like a silo, cylindrical and smooth. A metal spiral staircase hugging the wall led down into obscurity. A paper taped to the banister read: “Researcher Work Area – Do Not Enter.” He hesitated, but an object on the landing caught his eye.
It was the skull of a fish, picked clean save for a few bits of gristle clinging to the bone. Clark was no fisherman — his protestations of boredom had stymied his father’s early attempts to bond over angling — but he saw immediately that the skull was unusual. Thin bone fragments had grown and fused across both eye sockets, eclipsing the openings to mere slits. He lifted the skull, rotating it gingerly, and noticed a more subtle curiosity. The skull curved slightly to the left.
Clark peered down the spiral staircase. If he snuck down there, he might see the escaped neanderthal spearing mutant fish in a subterranean gutter, tasting his first bite of flesh in twenty millennia. A less pleasant thought butt in: unamused guards escorting him back up from an ordinary, off-limits basement, past a mortified Sarah in the café, and booting him into the pouring rain.
He had started to turn away when he heard a faint splash emanate from the well of the staircase. He leaned over the rail, trying to get a glimpse of the bottom, but the stairs corkscrewed down into oblivion. The last thing he remembered was blind panic as his foot slipped on the humidity-slickened landing.
A raspy croak awakened Clark. He had fallen asleep in the sand next to his fat caretaker, who was snoring beside him. Looking up, Clark grimaced and recoiled. The creature standing astride called to mind photographs Clark had seen of liberated concentration camp prisoners. He was all bones; elbows and knees threatened to tear the thin albino skin at too sharp a bend. In his bony hand he clutched a tall, burning candle. Veiny membranes covered his sunken eye sockets like cheap canvas stretched across too much frame.
The creature stilted to his caretaker and shook his meaty shoulder with ghoulish fingers, croaking at him again. This time he stirred and, evidently recognizing the creature, leapt to his feet with joy. The pair turned, looking as if they made to leave the cave.
“Wait, wait!” Clark called from the ground. “If you’re leaving, take me with you!” He pointed at himself, then at the direction they seemed to be heading. “Please!”
His caretaker grinned and turned back to him, but the thin albino croaked, glancing at Clark and then the direction they had turned. The two palavered in grunts and creaks and whines until the the thin albino relented, flapping his arms and shaking his head.
Clark's caretaker hooted and hoisted Clark to his feet, half-carrying him toward the far end of the cavern. They passed through a narrow opening, the reverberations of their scuffling feet disappearing. The albino’s candlelight was too dim to reach the walls of the new chamber. The trio took an uphill tack along a worn path, a pinprick of light crisscrossing the dark slope. Ascension had to be good, Clark thought, even if his ankle wasn’t healed enough to search for an exit. Perhaps they were even heading above ground.
Eventually the incline tapered off onto a rocky plateau. Flickering flames dazzled Clark’s eyes. Dozens of skeletal albinos slouched around a waist-high slab, most of them gripping stumpy white candles. Black smoke trails streamed from the flames into the void above. Behind the slab stretched an illuminated cave wall, too large to be fully captured by the candlelight.
Clark had once read an article in Smithsonian Magazine about modern restoration efforts in the caves of Lascaux, France. Discovered in 1940 by curious village boys, the Lascaux caves were covered in paleolithic paintings depicting hundreds of animals. What had driven them to record animals on the cave walls? Clark was skeptical of archaeologists who assigned religious significance to every piss pot they dug up. Most interesting of all was what the paintings did not depict: the species which had painted them. The closest some avant-garde had come was to paint a crude stick figure with a bird’s head.
The cave wall before him now was a kaleidoscopic mural of fauna. The colors – orange, black, yellow, white – roughly matched those in Lascaux, but the composition was altogether different, more organized. A thick black horizontal line with a circle in the middle divided the wall into upper and lower halves. In the lower half floated fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. Some, like one lobster Clark noticed, had stunted eye stalks. Others, like a nearby fish, had only empty sockets.
The upper half of the wall was more difficult to decipher. Shadowy forms stood atop the dividing line. Most had two or four legs, but a few had six or eight or even more. All of them faced the black circle in the middle of the line.
A series of obese gingerbread men ascended a thinner black line zigzagging from the bottom of the mural to the central circle. They reminded Clark of the ants he had seen in the natural history museum: marching through labyrinthine tunnels and tubes without individual purpose.
The slab beneath the painted wall was laden with a king’s banquet, including many of the aquatic species depicted in the mural, as well as mushrooms, lichen, and more. His caretaker had already fallen upon the bounty like a hyena, his mouth stuffed and running over with oils and juices, jaw pistoning, both hands fumbling for more.
Despite his stomach’s exhortations, Clark held back. The albinos had not joined his caretaker’s repast. A few slunk toward the slab but cowered when a wizened albino emerged onto the plateau, squawking and gesticulating at their candles. One albino made a feeble reply but the elder albino only squawked louder and began pinching their burning wicks, extinguishing the flames and dimming the plateau. When he had snuffed most of the candles, he climbed onto the slab and hectored the group in a tenor bark, occasionally jabbing a finger toward the indiscernible roof of the cave. A necklace of bone rounds, too thick for any fish spine, clunked around his neck.
Wheezing from his tirade, the elder albino turned to Clark and curled his bony finger. Suspicious of the food but wary of further upsetting the volatile creature or his obsequients, Clark crept forward. The elder proffered a roasted fish. Delicate bones crisscrossed the eye socket, almost obscuring it entirely. The eyeball remained intact beneath the lattice, although clouded from the roasting. Accepting the fish and turning it over in his hands, Clark was not surprised to see the fish’s head turned left of center.
By this time, his caretaker had eaten his fill and slumped against a nearby boulder, his full attention turned to digestion. Still hungry himself, Clark began to pick out and consume the fish’s sweet white meat. Glancing at the elder from under their brows, the rest of the albinos shuffled forward to take modest portions of food from the slab then retreated into the darkness. Clark noticed the elder himself ate nothing.
That evening, in a blissful, digestive slumber, Clark dreamed of abalone, slurped fresh from their briny shells. In a favorite book of his childhood, abalone had been a staple for a marooned native. Many of her loved ones, including the animals she befriended, died over the course of the story (perhaps explaining why the book had garnered so many children’s book awards) but Karana never lost hope.
Time passed. Poultices and rest had healed his broken ankle. The feasts at the slab had continued every week or so, although Clark noticed the already dim candlelight at the first had dimmed further at each subsequent eating.
Sarah was undoubtedly frantic at his disappearance, but he still had no idea how to escape the cave, much less return home. The cave was too dark for him to explore without a candle, but the elder albino coveted them, chastising the others for using too many and hiding them when not in use.
So he had devised a plan. After the next feast, when the others were sleeping off the food, he would bludgeon the albino that arrived to escort him back to his chamber, steal the candle, and strike out. It was a brutish plan, one Clark wasn’t sure he could carry out, but days of agonizing had produced no viable alternatives. He braced himself with fantasies of stealing fire from the gods, but he dreamt of being chained to the slab and de-livered by starving albinos.
The company soon assembled for another feast. The elder was holding a lone candle, stubbier than ever. Albinos crowded around him, moths to his flame. Once one of the albinos reached out to grasp the candle, but the elder’s reproachful glance drove him back. With so few candles left, this was the last chance to make his escape.
Suddenly a slanting beam caught the company in a blinding spotlight. The albinos shrieked in pain and delight. They shielded their eyes and prostrated themselves before the light, their elongated shadows writhing on the cave wall behind them.
Clark had always thought the winding climb up to the plateau must be placing them near the surface. Now he saw the truth. The plateau was really a peninsula, jutting from the cave wall like the prow of a great ship, suspended high over a sea of darkness. The cavern must have towered five or six hundred feet from the bottom, high enough to accommodate a New York skyscraper.
Throughout his weeks in this dark place, he had felt moments of intense claustrophobia and dreamed of being blinded by the sun, of its invigorating warmth on his skin. But now that light had arrived, he imagined how they must appear from where the light emanated: shrunken figures in a great void, huddled around an unsteady pinprick of light. How long had the albinos been trapped down here? Months, years, generations? Clark appreciated the albinos’ plight as he never had before: he already dreaded the light’s cessation. But he couldn’t worry about them now. He needed to find a candle while they were distracted, while the light lasted.
The elder albino was with the others, wailing loudest and prostrating flattest. Clark went to the painted cave wall and began walking alongside it, trailing his hand over the bumpy limestone and its aquatic denizens. He came to the precipice of the cliff and prepared to turn back when he saw a faint glow from an alcove in the thrust of the peninsula below. In the dark no burglar could have reached it, but with the light from the ceiling, Clark could make out a thin ledge four or five feet below which ran toward it. It had to be the elder’s burrow: no other albino would dare burn a candle without his supervision. Clark wasn’t sure of the consequences if he were caught trespassing there; the cantankerous elder, like the other albinos, had thus far treated him only with reverence, but that goodwill seemed unlikely to survive an obvious attempt to raid his storehouse for its most precious commodity. He considered retreating back to the slab, perhaps looking for a way out while the light still shone.
He thought of Sarah as he had many times before, but this time was different. Before the cave, he had often cherished the moments they were apart. But when his underground isolation began, he had wanted to return to end her pining. He thought that was how one person missed another. Now, though, when the possibility of escape seemed within reach for the first time, he realized he wanted to get back to her because, selfishly, he wanted her. The unexpected depth of his longing squeezed his throat.
He banished the thought of retreat. Exploring without a candle would be foolishness. Like a kid forced into the deep end of a pool, he sat down, legs dangling into the void, then scooted off the ledge, twisting as his feet slipped and scrabbled down the cliff wall until he reached the ledge. It was just wide enough to sidle along until he reached the glowing portal and peered inside.
A single candle lit a long, low chamber. Clark crept inside, stooping to avoid scraping the ceiling. Arrayed around the candle were stone cookware, a few food scraps, and a wicked black knife. The blade was flaked and shiny, some kind of volcanic glass with dark red stains. He tested it with his thumb: razor sharp. He had never considered how the food at the banquets was prepared; this violent blade seemed like overkill for filleting fish, but perhaps more delicate knives were beyond the albinos’ skill to manufacture. He held onto it, along with the candle, although his stomach squelched at the thought of the damage this serrated blade would cause.
He walked toward the tip of the peninsula. As the walls and ceiling narrowed, he thought of the Chilean miners trapped by that cave-in, some wedged into rubble crevices for days or weeks. He swept his hands before him, feeling sand and pebbles and — something smooth and cylindrical which gave way to a digging thumbnail. He snatched it up, overjoyed, and kept crawling to the end of the alcove collecting more fresh candles, five in total. Not as many as he had hoped; five would have to be enough. As he returned to the lit candle in the center of the alcove, he was tempted to light them all at once, to bathe in light.
Rubbing the soft candles, he couldn’t help but consider what he was doing to the albinos, especially his caretaker. His martyrous fantasies had been self-serving delusions. In truth he was an Aprometheus, stealing fire from primitive, helpless creatures to ascend unto a heaven they couldn’t even imagine.
At the other end of the chamber, he was stopped by a wall blocking his path, the same wall that bore the mural above. This wall was also covered by a mural, the oranges and yellows replaced by deep red. Unlike the kaleidoscopic arrangement above, this mural comprised three scenes. On the left, kneeling black stick figures extended fish and other offerings to a rounder figure in their midst. A dozen or so red flames surrounded them. A taller figure wearing a loose necklace stood apart from the group, both arms raised, conducting the ceremony. Clark turned to the middle scene, and his blood ran cold.
An obese figure lay face up on a slab of rock. The other figures were gone, but the tall figure remained. He was standing above the slab, legs spread, arms high grasping a black blade. Bowls in front of the slab overflowed with congealing yellow fat.
Clark couldn’t pull his eyes from the point of that blade. Terrible cogs ground into place: the deference paid to his caretaker, the feasts, the candles, the smell, that burnt meaty smell of the noxious candle smoke. He looked down at the candle in his own hand, repulsed, and dropped it as if burned. But the flame sputtered on impact with the ground, contorting his shadow against the painted wall, threatening to strand him in the dark. Fear outweighing disgust, he retrieved it.
Ever since he had stumbled into the cave, all the time his caretaker was rubbing poultices into his broken ankle and carrying him to their feasts, the point of that knife had been hanging over him, suspended only by the ever-waning wax of the remaining candles.
Clark rushed from the chamber. In the unexamined third panel, a bright crescent beamed white rays down upon jubilant stick figures surrounded by a multitude of candles.
Harsh sunlight filled the great cavern. The chink in the ceiling had waxed to nearly a half circle. Debris trickled from the hole, falling in slow motion at this distance. A lazy river followed the curve of the peninsula, emerging from one crevasse and exiting into another. Overflow from the river filled a circular lagoon, into which much of the debris crashed and splashed. Whooping albinos crowded the rocky shores, coming close to being flattened by falling debris.
Clark clambered back up to the plateau and turned to the slab. There lay his caretaker, bound at the ankles. He wasn’t even struggling, Clark saw with dismay. His eyes sparkled in awe at the crescent of light, a cherubic smile on his face. The elder albino was busy binding his chunky wrists, his back to Clark.
Clark crouched, meaning to creep up to the elder, but his caretaker spotted him and let out an elated whine, pulling his hands away from the elder to point up at the crescent. The elder whirled, his eyes rolling in their filmed sockets. Clark kept his distance, praying the elder couldn’t make him out, and for a moment it seemed true. But the elder sensed his presence and his danger. He began to rub his eyes, gently at first, then scratching with his dirty nails, harder and faster, tearing the membranes into tatters. Thin rivulets of blood spilled over his gaunt cheekbones as he groaned in pain. His dilated black pupils engulfed the milky orbs now visible in his deep sockets. His eyes fixed on Clark, darting to the knife and the candles. He bared his teeth, screamed, and charged, bony limbs flailing. Feet rooted to the ground, Clark tried to swing the knife at his approach, but the albino twisted; the knife only grazed his arm, ripping the paper skin. Then the albino was on him, scrambling and scratching, pulling him to the ground. He grabbed the blade, blood streaming down the blade into Clark’s grip, and nearly managed to yank the knife away. Clark turned to call for his caretaker’s aid, but he was cowering behind the slab. The struggling pair had rolled close to the precipice of the peninsula, with a drop to the rocks hundreds of feet below. Now the elder was on top, his full weight pressing the knife toward Clark’s chest. Clark could feel his muscles being wrenched back. In desperation, praying the wick was still alight, Clark shoved the candle into the elder’s face. A brief flash of flame winked at Clark before sinking into the elder’s right eye with a scorching hiss. The elder screamed, releasing Clark to slap both hands to his mutilated face and, rolling in pain, toppled off the precipice. His screams trailed away, and after a long second, a sick crunch echoed up from the cavern floor, melding with the cacophony of the debris now cascading from the hole.
Shaken, Clark crossed the peninsula back to his whimpering caretaker who was rubbing his swollen wrists. He looked down at the black knife in Clark’s hand but held still as Clark sawed his ankle bindings. As soon as he was free, he embraced Clark, heaving deep sobs. Over his caretaker’s shoulder, he saw again the painting on the cave wall: the black line zigzagging up to the circle, the ascendant gingerbread men, the indistinct figures above.
The pair headed down to the lagoon where hooting albinos sorted through debris. Sunlight sparkled on fish near the surface, all swimming in the same direction, their pale bodies contorted to follow the leftward curve of the shore. Clark and his caretaker followed them until they reached a large crack in the cave wall on the far side of the lagoon. His caretaker took his hand and led him into the fissure and up a slope. Eroded holes in the cavern-side wall afforded them dim light and sweeping views of the cavern. Clark could see the albinos far below, some still foraging in the debris, others crowded beneath the edge of the peninsula where the elder had fallen.
The light was fading now. Clark fumbled for a candle and gave it to his caretaker, who lit it with one deft stroke of his flint against the wall. Soon, whatever had blocked the hole had eclipsed it once again, pitching the cavern into absolute darkness, except for a pinprick of candlelight high above the lake, occasionally visible through eroded crevices, zigzagging up through the dark.
Two figures crawled from a craggy fissure into a humid night, black outlines against the stars, and scrambled down to a rough clearing overlooking a rocky ocean shore. Groves of tall trees swayed, trunks smooth and branchless up to a leafy canopy. Short wooden stakes guarded the edge of the clearing at long intervals. The clean smell of woodsmoke mingled with their candle’s familiar burn, but the clearing was deserted. Clark and his caretaker picked their way through still-warm ash piles, shaved wood slats, gristly bones, and shiny black glass shards.
Abruptly his caretaker stopped, throwing a hand in front of Clark’s chest. Clark turned, but his caretaker was staring at the ground before them. Beneath a scant layer of dirt, a circle of broad leaves perhaps ten yards in diameter covered the jungle floor, a green bamboo lip outlining its circumference. More stakes ringed the circle, each topped by a small animal skull. Clark nudged the lip with his foot. The leaves shivered, the circle shifted.
Clark stepped back, glancing at his caretaker. Together they gripped the bamboo lip and pulled back the circle of leaves, uprooting the stakes and revealing a gaping maw, a black void. They sat, exhausted, and stared into it for a long time.
At last Clark stood and began poking through the scattered debris of the camp. His caretaker watched with curiosity until he returned with a large wooden slat and a handful of dark ash. Putting the slat between his knees, he licked his finger, dipped it into the ash, and began to draw. After a few minutes, he handed his caretaker the slat, wiping his finger on his dirty pants.
A thick line zigzagged from the bottom of the slat to a circle at the top. Crude stick men ascended the line, back and forth across the slat. The lead figure was an oval rather than a stick. His arm was raised, pointing up to the circle. Another stick figure sat cross-legged next to the circle. His caretaker examined the slat, great brow furrowed, hesitating. Then he reached over, ran his thumb through a fresh scrape on Clark’s knee, pressed it to the slat twice, and returned it to Clark.
Two red thumbprints blazed: one in the oval figure's outstretched arm, the other in the cross-legged figure’s lap. Clark grinned, and his caretaker grinned back. Clark handed him the last unlit candle from his waistband and the two embraced. Snuffling, the caretaker set off back in the direction of the cave. Clark leaned back against a boulder. A heavy yellow moon hung low over the ocean, glinting off a low shape riding the horizon. Clark looked up. A billion pinpricks of light, and he was one of them, his candle flickering with the salty breeze.
Carew S. Bartley is originally from eastern Kentucky. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from the University of Richmond and a J.D. from Georgetown, he returned to Richmond to work as an attorney. His fiction has been published with 365tomorrows, and his law-related articles with Reuters, JD Supra, and the Georgetown Legal Ethics Journal. He enjoys reading, playing chess, and watching Kentucky basketball. You can reach him through LinkedIn.