Sometimes the world is stranger than you know. Stranger than you can know. What do you do when you emerge into a place you cannot explain and must fight to understand? When there are no answers, but only more questions? When everyone you have known is dead?
You keep walking.
This sounds a lot like the act of writing. You keep going and you find something new, which changes your path one way or another.
This story began in conversation with Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men, a haunting novel that Beth first told me about. I was both hooked and annoyed by the concepts within. It is grim, it is captivating, it is unexplainable. And I wondered how I might tackle something similar.
This story took a long time to find its feet. Its title came first; I was taking an art journal class, and the themes were all about roots, how they support and how they strangle; how they are hidden support, how they can rot and fall apart. I started drawing birds on my roots, and I wondered what the heck birds were doing underground. Of course, they weren’t entirely birds, were they? They were not.
The voice came slow. I wanted it to have an edge, but couldn’t find the edge. I tried many points of entry; how did one find an anchor in a character when there was only one character? Of course, there wasn’t just one character, was there? This world is a character as much as the woman who walks through it; this world has veins and arms and a slowly emerging heartbeat. So I considered the world and I drew a map. As I drew this map, another thing I love began to emerge: Magic the Gathering.
Oh, a card game, sure, but its lands started to do things in this story. The tundra, the mountains, the plains, the swamp, the island seas. What might a person find as they travelled through and toward each? What might the land say of a person’s struggle? What would the swamp steal from you, and what might it give you? What would a footprint in a wasteland mean? Was it even there?
The world is a haunted house.
This story has its anchors in two men, even as it tells a woman’s journey. The more I write, the more I find myself drawing from my friends, from my spoon-shaped muse. The good, the bad, the unexplainable. Sometimes these things don’t have answers; sometimes you never learn what it meant, only that it was a thing that happened.
I saw the shadow of a man — was it a man — was he there at all? I saw a beast rise from a muddy swamp to swallow me — or did it mean to push me out of the mire, and into the island seas, where the stars hang so bright?
Sometimes we cannot know.
“Migratory Patterns of Underground Birds” appears in the May 2014 issue of Clarkesworld Magazine. Some imagery that guided me along the way can be found on Pinterest — the small figure against the looming world. The vast and empty spaces where no one has tread. Until they do.