by Jeff Chapman -
Elihu poked the oval shadow with his spear, but unlike the other shadows, which had been indentions or shallow fissures, this one swallowed his spear head and all the shaft he fed it. The cave entrance rose from the crevice floor to his waist. Maybe it ballooned farther in or tapered to a crack. He couldn’t tell without crawling inside. Much too small for a mammothbug, but he had once seen a black spider with orange splotches dotting its abdomen lunge from one of these holes to snatch a powderbug that he had been stalking.
The pastor-turned-hunter swallowed hard, jabbed his spear into the hole twice and then jumped back to a crouch, holding his breath, listening, his spear poised to skewer anything that emerged. Nothing came. Only the soughing wind overhead and the settling ash pecking against the dried lavabushes disturbed the quiet. No skittering legs or clicking pincers against rock.
He broke three of the thickest branches from a lavabush and then stripped the lower branches until he could hold the three together like a bouquet. Taking a lighter from the inside pocket of his coat, he clicked the trigger, igniting a mixture of burnweed and fish oil that flamed yellow and blue. Burnweed grew in the ocean shallows and, in bulbs that studded the long olive-colored leaves, held an oil that was toxic to eat but highly flammable. Strange, he reflected, that sources of fire came from the sea.
The dried bush caught and crackled, bathing his face with heat and yellow light. The smoke scent and flames reminded him of drinking tea with Sarah after supper. She would nurse the baby and he would talk and when he stopped to sip his tea he would ponder his child’s future. Sarah would worry, but he had been gone overnight before. He thrust the torch into the cave. Bugs feared fire.
He expected smooth walls fading to blackness or a pair of eyes the size of his head retreating from the flames that glittered and repeated across purple and yellow compound eyes. A bristle blanket, or something like it, hung across the tunnel no more than two meters in. Could be spider silk, he thought, some sort of trapdoor or cocoon. He lit another torch, laid it on the tunnel floor and prodded the flaming bush into the tube with his spear, following behind on his hands and knees. The weave in the cloth stood out, a beacon of friendship or at least common species. He sighed, letting go the tension. “Thank you, Lord,” he muttered. “Thank you.”
“Hello?” The flames collapsed to orange embers. “Anybody in there?” He listened. Nothing. “This is Elihu Simmons, pastor at Tube Hill. Just need some shelter for a bit, from the storm. Hello?”
He crawled backwards out of the tunnel. The gloaming weighed on him with its uncompromising edict, the doom of darkness when the biscorpiabugs woke and unfurled their bifurcated tail and stingers, and all the other bugs he couldn’t see pushed out of their holes. The ash-gray sky had faded to charcoal overhead and black along the eastern horizon. This tunnel had to be the one, he told himself. Might still be a spider or bug inside--only the cautious survived in this world--but already he was thinking how this ordeal might complement a Bible story. David found refuge in caves.
He entered the tube with a larger torch clutched in his left hand and in his right gripped his spear together with two more unlit torches. Heat singed his face and smoke stung his eyes in the cramped tunnel He poked the blanket with his spear tip and lifted the edge. Minerals glittered in the rock wall opposite the entrance. A cavern. He might be able to stand up. He thrust the torch past the threshold into the chamber, following close behind.
A domed ceiling sparkled with flecks of minerals embedded in black rock, stars in a night sky, as the Milky Way galaxy would shine down on Eclectia if the curtains of ash fell aside. The lava here held riches of minerals the likes of which he had never seen. Elihu shook his head to clear his thoughts.
The stars dimmed as the flaming bush starved for fuel. He stuck the other torches into the embers of the first and they roared orange and red. To his left a lone table fashioned from fist-sized chunks of dolerite and a slab of stone held a lamp and a hodgepodge of bowls and to his right a pile of blankets covered the floor and a niche in the wall appeared to serve as a hearth.
Liquid sloshed inside the lamp when he picked it up and held his torch over the wick, which caught and burned at the center of an orange halo, the same halo that lit his wife’s face when she checked on the baby long after dark. Her face would be creased with worry tonight. Hunting was no job for a family man and no work for a pastor.
He stuffed what remained of the torches inside the hearth. A crack the width of two fingers snaked up the wall from the hearth and disappeared into the ceiling. He gathered more bushes from outside. The woody stems at the base of the plants, some as thick as Elihu’s wrist, burned slowly, and in the light from the lamp and hearth fire, he plucked seeds from the lavabush branches, dropping the kernels into a blackened carapace bowl for roasting. A hymn of thanksgiving thrummed at the back of his throat and the repetitive picking and hulling lulled his mind.
A groan snapped his senses awake.