At first little Hugh thought it was rats. Rats in the wall by his head, down low on the floor where his mattress lay. He had seen them often enough, darting down the hall to the kitchen, coming upon their nests in the narrow crawlspace where he sometimes went for privacy. He imagined their curved teeth gnawing away, almost the same stained yellow color as the crumbly plaster they chewed.
His sister had always feared they would come in at night and eat them, but she did not wake to see if her dream would come true. Hugh alone watched and watched the spot where the sound was coming from. He watched until the wall began to tremble, and a piece of it bent sideways and opened like a little door, hinged on the wallpaper.
Out came not a rat, but a little brown man. Very little, very brown. His head barely reached the lower ledge of the windowsill.
“Is this your house?” the little brown man said. “You live here?”
Hugh twisted and looked over his shoulder to make sure his sister was still sleeping. She was. The rest of the house was quiet as well; his parents often fell into a stupor long before Hugh could find his way to sleep. Some nights he never even closed his eyes, but lay awake with his head so empty that the darkness inside him and the darkness outside were exactly the same. That was very restful. But now, except for Hugh and this little intruder, everyone was asleep.
“Who are you?” Hugh whispered.
“I asked you a question.”
“I’m sleeping in it, aren’t I?”
“Right,” said the little man, and turned to peer back at the hole he’d made. “You won’t fit through this.”
“Why would I want to?”
“We need to get you out of here, under the house. Right away.”
“Keep your voice down,” Hugh said, “you’ll wake my sister. And I’m not going anywhere with you. Not…not unless you tell me who you are.”
“No names until we trust you.”
“You trust me? Why should I trust you?”
“Do you know Mbe’lmbe?”
“Umbaylumbay? Who’s he?”
“Foo. But it is not your fault you are such an ignorant child. If you knew the name, you would know that you can trust me. We have had secrecy forced upon us for so long, the world has forgotten us. Answer me this, boy. Is there another way under your house?”
“You get there how?”
“There’s a piece of screen under the porch. I peel it back.”
“Very well. Put on your shoes and go there. I will meet you and then we proceed.”
“I’m not that crazy.”
“You can wear your pajamas–it’s warm enough where we’re headed. But shoes you may need. Now hurry.”
Hugh plucked at the flannel pajamas that had been his solitary Christmas present, his solace on these bitter nights in the drafty little house. When he looked up again the flap of wallboard was swinging back into place. The little brown man was gone.
Hugh’s dilemma. For the moment, he was free to do as he chose. Surely such a little man couldn’t force him to do anything he didn’t want to do. It was up to Hugh himself whether he crawled into the cobwebby dark beneath the porch, or fell back into his pillow and tried to sleep.
A moment later, the pillow was cooling and the sheets lay thrown back. The bed was empty, Hugh’s decision made.
“Well done, little man,” the little man greeted him from darkness as he scraped through the wire mesh. Hugh kept a candle stub and book of matches in his crawlspace nest. As the light flared, the man’s pupils glared briefly golden like a cat’s. “Now make haste with me. Our time is short.”
In the middle of the crawlspace floor, the raw dirt had been pushed up in a gaping crater, a mole mound dug up from beneath. Into this, now, the little man lowered himself. One hand thrust up and beckoned back to Hugh. “It’s narrow here, but soon widens.”
It was also dark. Putting his face above the opening, he felt a breeze coming up, strong enough to make the flame flutter. He expected the subterranean wind to carry a tomb smell, something as musty as the suffocating damp beneath the house. Instead, the breeze was redolent of unexpected sweetness. Cinnamon. Mint. The rich, dark, intoxicating scents of coffee, vanilla, and above all else, chocolate. The passage was crudely hewn by pick and shovel, hardly fit for a grave-tunneling ghoul, but the smell disarmed him. He dropped down easily, rock shards digging into his knees and palms. The candle went out during the descent.
“This way,” said the voice in the dark, calling from the direction of the smells. “You won’t need the light. There is no false turn you can make. And soon you will see well enough.”
He followed the scrabbling sounds of toes and knees in earth. It was hard to breathe, with his head tucked low so that he wouldn’t bang his forehead on the ceiling. When he stopped to catch his breath, the vapors that filled his nose and lungs were intoxicating. An intense miasma of candyshop smells: Licorice and lemon, caramelized sugar, a marshmallowy sponginess to the air. It was growing more humid, rich with scents to drown out the raw smell of the earth they stirred up as they scrambled. At last he realized he could see the silhouette of the little man ahead of him. The light was very dim and sourceless, and it stayed that way for the longest time, like twilight in a dream where it is always twilight. Even when it brightened, it could hardly be called bright, being only barely lighter than the palest dusk. And in that subterrene glow, he realized the little man was standing upright now and urging him to do the same. With his hand on his head like a protective cap, Hugh raised himself to full height, and found that the ceiling was now higher than he could reach. Their journey through the narrow passage finished, he wondered what kind of place he’d come to.
“Where are we?” he asked. “Why have you brought me here?”
“We are home.”
“Are you not a lonely, lonely child?”
He sensed he was in some kind of sunken forest. As his eyes adjusted ever so slowly to the gloom, he saw looming shadows, blurred shapes like enormous trees that stirred not at all in the gentle sweet-scented wind. He reached out to touch a tall trunk, and his fingers sank into velvety softness until they reached something cold and hard as glass. He put his fingers to his nose, wondering if this was the source of sweetness, but the softness reeked of mildew, rot and mold, a trillion fetid spores disturbed by his questing fingers. He sneezed and stepped away. Was this the source of the velvety light that seemed to emanate from the very walls? Did mold blanket every surface? But what…what had lain beneath the mold before it grew? Why did the shapes cloaked in damp grey matter seem far too complex and convoluted to be explained away as the stalagmites and stalactites of even the most fantastical cavern?
Again, he asked, “What is this place?”
“Not yet, little man. Sad little mad little ignorant little man.”
He sighed, exasperated, ready to refuse to budge. But at that instant, something lurched from the grey folds of moldy dimness. A chuckling sound turned whining and insistent. Sudden puffs of upset spores, far off in the dark, came steaming closer, like the chuffing plume of a grey locomotive rushing at them. His guide let out a muffled shriek and seized his hand and first pulled, then rushed around behind and shoved him forward.
“Run!” the little man hissed. “Run, run, run, run, run!”
The thing behind them advanced almost soundlessly, but Hugh could hear a gathering of soft explosions like puffs from a huge mouth. A blast of mold dust robbed him of sight. He shut his stinging eyes and staggered forward, only to find himself falling. Thick tepid mud enveloped him, acrid and foul, and also riddled with mold. He came up gasping, as beside him his sputtering host insisted, “Swim and we’ll be safe! Push on! It has never yet dared to cross the great river!”
So he swam. Struggling through thickness, he came at last to a crusted slope where the mud had hardened into cracked plates, where he could fit his fingers into crevices and drag himself ashore. It was scarcely a relief when he heard, “We’re safe.”
In the grey distance behind them, that immense puffing came again and again, then settled down as if sobbing itself to sleep. He tried to imagine what could make such a sound: so soft and yet far-reaching; so full of disappointment and dismay.
Now he and the little brown man were exactly the same shade of muddy. The stuff was cold and sticky, as well as foul-flavored, obliterating whatever pleasure the sweet scented air might have brought him. His host, muttering something about making themselves presentable, pulled Hugh to his feet and dragged him on, casting worried glances back at the density of darkness behind them. He thought he heard something sigh, and gather itself. He felt his host’s urgency quicken.
Hugh had lost his shoes in the suction of the river. Now they trod a carpet of brittle grass that crunched and crumbled underfoot; he walked on splinters of broken crystal, but they did no damage, seeming to dissolve as his full weight came down upon them. Each step produced a range of icy tinkling notes.
“So this is your home,” he said, “but who are you?”
“I told you before, we are mbe’lmbe. The last of our kind, and I am our king, although such titles mean nothing in our slavery, for they mean nothing to him.”
“Him? Who is he?”
“The Successor. The Factor. Our Master. Now, in here, quickly.”
His host, the King, opened a door into a place that was slightly less grey and dim than the grim bank they had surmounted. Hugh stepped onto cold concrete and a shiver went through him. One yellow bulb burned blearily, far away down a corridor whose walls were spotted and stained with age and ooze and the salts of the earth, crusted and nitred and yet somehow still smelling sweetly. A corroded fan spun overhead, creaking in the sugary breeze. That sweetness poured from a vent near the corridor ceiling, and the vent was caked with dusty white grit like that which formed on the battery terminals of an old car.
The King tried closing the door behind them, but it was warped and Hugh could see that it was rarely used. Leaning against it with all his weight, the little King managed to slide the latch home, and left the crooked door straining against a darkness that seemed alive enough to ooze around its edges.
The King scurried down the passage, his bare feet slapping the stained cement. Tiles of white and black, chipped and broken, sometimes missing entirely, gave the sense of grander days—an immaculate past, when such things must have mattered to someone. They passed another vent, spilling forth such a richness that Hugh was caught short by it, and hung there gasping and gaping like a fish hooked on the wondrous vapors.
“What…what is that smell?” he asked. “Where is it coming from?”
“From the only part of this place that still functions as it should,” replied the King. “The Factor’s reactor.”
They had left the lone bulb far behind when another door, much smaller than the other, appeared on one side of the hall. The King opened it for Hugh and waved him through with some ceremony. For a moment, it was dark, and then a light sprang on.
This room was strangely prosaic, so ordinary that it struck him as completely out of place.
There was a bed pushed into one corner, a small bureau, and a porcelain sink with dripping taps. A few books sat piled on the bureau, all covered in dust, with gilded titles in Latin and French, some bound in leather, still others in yellowed horn. Above that was a mirror in which he saw himself, completely covered in the filth through which he’d swum.
The King pulled open the topmost drawer, and inside Hugh saw a plain white shirt, a pair of short pants, a rolled up pair of socks. A flattened cap sat neatly atop this pile. The King toed around beneath the bed and pulled out a pair of shoes that seemed as if they probably would fit.
“Whose room is this? Whose clothes?”
“All were his, at one time, but he has forgotten this place exists. Those clothes should fit you, since you are now his age when he came here. I will leave you alone to groom yourself, and then we must make haste.”
The King bowed and withdrew, leaving Hugh alone with the distinct impression that he had better not take a single moment to wonder what was happening to him.
He stripped out of his pajamas and ran water from both taps until they ran clear after twin bursts of rust. The soap was an antique yellow sliver, but he used it sparingly, and it almost lasted till the end. It was quite some time before he felt he was really clean. He sponged himself with a washcloth that hung from a rack by the sink, then dried with a towel hanging from a peg. A black plastic comb sat on the rim of the sink, and as he lifted it, he became transfixed by the sight of one golden hair tangled in its broken black teeth. He set it down, feeling that to run it through his hair would have been like brushing his teeth with a stranger’s toothbrush.
The clothes smelled of cinnamon and cloves, and were surprisingly soft, although ragged. As the King predicted, they all fit, though the pants were large in the waist. He used a coil of soft cotton rope, discovered in a drawer, to belt them. A jacket hung on the back of the door. Last of all, he settled the cap on his head to hide his bedraggled curls, and found that fit him too.
Curious about the room’s former occupant, he turned to the books on the bureau. Some were volumes of history, dictionaries, and medical tomes. The horn-bound books were written by hand, as if copied out by monks, yet appeared to be cookbooks of some sort. Flames and loaves of bread were represented there; minutely observed drawings of exotic herbs and berries. Other of the books proved to be journals. One of these sat by itself in the middle of the desk. He picked it up and opened it to a page marked with a slip of gold foil.
The penmanship was neat and disciplined, yet something about it told him it was a child’s handwriting.
—so much responsibility, thrust on me so fast, and I’m unsure I am worthy of it, tho He thinks I am. I mainly worry how I can continue once He’s gone, as He says He soon must be. He says I have much promise and will have many Helpers and will surely discover my own talent though it seems all hidden now. He says the hands and wisdom of all the Helpers are also mine to command, tho really that does not seem right. Why should anyone should have to do whatever I—
“Little Master, we must be off!”
The door stood open. The King waited expectantly. In the interim, he also had cleaned and groomed himself. Hugh, without a second thought, closed the small journal and slipped it into a pocket of his jacket, feeling as if it belonged there, as if the pocket were stretched in exactly that shape from constant carrying.
He was beginning to feel very odd indeed.