01 Feb The other side of the grave
I’ll be blunt: I went to India to kill myself. In a way, I got my wish.
Life had become a bleak and grey thing that looked to be a prison woven out of countless invisible strands. Money. Cubicle. Bad food. Bad sleep. I was two years out of college and seeing the rest of my years flowing straight ahead with no deviation and no freedom. Raised on video games and television, I was now expected to suddenly fit into a drone-like routine: wake up far earlier than I’d ever had to before, sit at work going crazy from boredom for nine hours, then drive home to eat, sleep, and do it all over again. Was this really life?
I held out for another year before I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t be a cog in a machine.
But our world is not kind to young men who refuse the system. Every day on the way to work I saw homeless people and how they were treated. I wouldn’t go out like that. No, that was just a slow suicide all its own. I’d always been fascinated by television shows about other countries, so I chose my favorite, and I spent the remainder of my bank account on a ticket to India. Once I was there, once I had seen all the wonderful sights and experienced another culture, well—there was nothing after that. No plans. Once you’re out of money, you’re as good as dead anyway.
Turned out India wasn’t much different than home. Coffee shops, crowded streets, jobs. The same bitter meal, just with a slightly different scent and flavor. It shouldn’t have been like that. It was supposed to be different. Another continent, same prison!
I begged for change until I got enough to buy a bottle of sleeping pills. They weren’t even that expensive, but the experience of asking strangers for money for two days straight was enough to convince me I was doing the right thing. I found a corner and ate them all a handful at a time.
I don’t even remember falling asleep. It was as if I’d been thrust a thousand feet deep under the ocean and I was rising. For a time, I thought I was free from my body and soaring up to heaven, but instead I burst up out of the waters of Lethe and banged my head into wood.
A bunk bed? No. My arms were sore and tingly from disuse, but they still listened; my half-numb fingers found a rough surface about two inches above my face.
It was dark. Why was it dark?
And why was it hard to breathe?
I began trying to flex my legs, but they didn’t want to move. I managed to curl my toes after some effort, and then the pain in my thighs and ankles seared into my awareness. My legs were bent and must have had poor blood flow for quite some time. I clenched my fists against the pain and just remained like that until the pain finally passed.
After that, I tried to stretch, and the truth hit me: I was curled up in a small wooden box.
But why? And where?
I pressed against the sides of the box but felt absolutely no give. It was poor quality wood with very little strength, which meant something had to be blocking it on the other side. And that meant—oh God!
The bottle of sleeping pills must have nearly killed me, but not completely. They must have thought I was dead.
They’d buried me alive!
I was lucky to even have this box, really. As a foreigner, as someone with no money—had someone put me inside it as an act of kindness? If they’d just thrown me in a pit and buried me, I’d have been dead already.
That logic didn’t help keep the panic back for more than a few seconds. I began screaming and beating at the thin wood with all my strength.
Bits of dirt sifted down from above, but I kept attacking the wood until it began pouring down like the grains in an hourglass. The air was stale and I was suffocating, but I had no better plan. I would either die now or find—yes.
They hadn’t buried me deep at all. Maybe a few inches. Sunlight! I could see sunlight! And air! Air flowed in, oh God, the sweetest breath despite the choking dirt in the air—I screamed for help.
There was no reply.
Was I in some sort of graveyard? Of course, I had to be. My shout had to be in reality a small whimper. Nobody would ever hear it.
I didn’t hear anyone.
Every so often, I shouted as loud as I could.
The light outside dimmed, went dark, and then reappeared over the course of a cold night.
That morning, it began to rain. A little bit of water trickled down, and I drank as much as I possibly could.
The box creaked as the dirt above grew heavier, and I was forced to roll onto my back and prop up my weak roof with my knees. I wasn’t strong enough to bash my way up, but it could certainly fall in on me and crush me.
How do I convey what it’s like to be buried alive? Every story I’ve read or movie I’ve seen focuses on the initial terror of waking up underneath the earth forgotten. That passed quickly. The era after that was an endless one of waiting, thinking, and guessing. Do I shout now? Do I wait? Do I conserve my strength and try to break up through the surface when the dirt dries out? I hope it doesn’t rain so the earth will dry, but I hope it does rain so I won’t die of thirst—but I also hope it doesn’t rain too hard, or I’ll drown.
And always, always, always, the box is present, like part of your body. No matter what position you choose, you can feel every single side of it. It’s right there with you like a shell; like a second skin. You come to know every knot and grain in the dark. You even repair it and prop it up with your own strength, even though it is a Damned Thing that you are trapped inside. The box is death, but the box is also life.
For two days, it didn’t rain.
Then, right about noon—judging by the initial brightness of my sole beam of light—a new darkness joined me in my box. I thought someone had walked over my grave and I began shouting, but no: it was a thunderstorm.
I prayed. You bet I prayed. I’d never been a religious guy before, but please, please I said, please keep that rain to a light drizzle. When an inch of water had built up around me in my box, I knew it was time to act. It was do or die.
I’d practiced a pose worthy of Cirque du Soleil, and I got into it now: bare feet planted solidly in that inch of water, knees out, arms curled under, back against the ceiling, all inside a box about two feet high.
The wood cut into my back, but I pressed with all the strength left in my legs.
There was a small give above, as if I was making a little bump in the dirt where some person might see it. I strained so hard, put so much of myself into that attempt, that I felt nothing else. I envisioned myself bursting free into the open air and rain. That’s all I had to do.
My body gave out first, and I rolled onto my back to rest for a second try. Something up there had moved. I knew I could do it, given time.
But the box betrayed me, and caved in on top of me. Dirt poured in as I fruitlessly fought the flow; I put my mouth to the narrow airhole in an attempt to avoid suffocation.
All that did was leave me completely trapped and totally unable to move while wet dirt squeezed in over my eyes and around my neck. I was entirely encased in dirt except for my mouth, which was open to the air—and the rain was intensifying.
I drank as much rainwater as I could. I even began eating the traces of mud it brought down with it. Anything I could to keep that narrow hole in the ground above clear. Eventually, though, the rain overtook me, and I was forced to close my mouth and hold my breath.
That was it, then. There were no more plays, no more tries. I’d come to India to die, even tried to kill myself with pills, and yet here I was fighting desperately down to the very last second just to cling to life one moment longer. I was immobile underground with a funnel of rainwater growing heavier on my closed mouth. How long could Olympic divers hold their breath? I’d seen a show once, while flipping through the channels. Was it three minutes? Was it four? God, the pressure on my chest—I hadn’t even gotten a full breath!
Sixty, sixty-one, sixty-two, sixty-three…
I knew I was nearing my limit. What did I want to spend the last minute or two of my life thinking about? Girls I’d dated? My favorite movies? It was all nothing, but it was everything. Every mundane little thing in the entire world was now a luxury I would never have again. I would stroke the fabric of my cubicle at my boring job if only to see again, to breathe one more time—!
Thunder struck overhead so loud that I could hear it even in my prison of mud. I wish I could say that at the last moment the hillside gave way under the fury of that monsoon and spilled me out onto a mudslide of corpses; that’s what local law enforcement and doctors insisted on when I tried to tell them the truth. To them, I was just a crazy foreigner that had been traumatized by being buried alive. They refused to listen.
Because I was not saved at the last second by the weather. In fact, I wasn’t saved at all. I counted to a hundred and forty before my awareness started to halo out into shimmering white. Keep my mouth closed; keep my mouth closed; keep my mouth closed; water, dirt, mud, pressure. Keep my mouth closed. That was all that remained. If you open your mouth, you die.
But if you don’t breathe, you also die. No choices.
Something was tugging at me just before I gave in. Something was pulling at me—not from above, but from below. Chill iciness wrapped around my limbs and began to pull me down. I remember the spray of released rainwater as it shot down from the hole where it’d built up. Then, I was dragged through the earth at a breakneck pace.
Keep my mouth shut. Keep my mouth shut. No longer. I let out dead air and gasped.
Somehow, I was alive.
I’d been deposited somewhere full of soft round lumps and hard straight lines. The air here was breathable, but horribly foul. For as much as I’d wanted to escape darkness, I let myself just be alive for a few minutes. I think I knew something was wrong, but it wouldn’t begin until I opened my eyes. Finally, I was fully conscious again.
Still dark. No light.
I began to crawl along the acrid piles. Long solid objects clacked hollowly against one another; big round soft lumps rolled as I pushed my way across. As I went, I began to suspect, but I didn’t truly know until my hand fell upon the unmistakable lay of a cold nose and mouth.
The human head rolled away down the pile of bones I was crawling over. I saw nothing, but I knew.
Had the graveyard somehow rotted underneath? Had rainwater deposited all the bodies down in some sort of cave? I was alive, at least for the moment, but this was somehow worse than the box. At least in the box I could shout and pray someone would hear me. If I was in a corpse-filled sinkhole, well, there was nothing to do but starve, a fate which would take years if new bodies were continually sliding down into my muddy prison every time it rained. God, what if I never died? What if enough water and human meat made it down here to keep me alive for decades? Could I really eat a corpse?
Funny. I hadn’t actually cried while in that box. In that box, everything was simple. Here, loneliness and starvation would turn me into a monster.
I crawled around that sinkhole for hours, testing each side of the massive pit. The sides were solid dirt packed hard by ancient geological processes. There was a small span of time where I considered building some sort of scaffolding out of bones; there were certainly enough, and tons of clothes and hair to tie them off with. It was a grim thought, but seemingly the only way out—until the door opened.
There was no light. I only heard it. In that sinkhole, there were only two sounds: the water draining away into a narrow crack between two hard plates of rock, and me. After at least two days down there, I knew the moment the door opened. It was nothing but a soft sigh of smooth metal and warm air, but I began moving toward it immediately.
There was also a fourth sound. Something moved among the piles of bodies, sending bones scattering and heads rolling. It was swift and mostly silent, and it dragged something back out. I chased after it and dove into the gap that hadn’t been there before; I got inside before it closed.
It was still pitch black, but I could feel smooth warm metal under my hands. Maintenance shaft, I guessed, but for what? Had some animal found a grate in the sewers and given me my escape? I felt behind me, but the door was solid metal. Not a grate, and covered with unfamiliar sleek patterns. Checking, I found that I could push it open if I wanted to. It opened only from the inside, and I had somehow missed it while feeling the sides of the sinkhole.
I could go back if I wanted to, but to hell with that. I turned and started crawling ahead.
There was really no way to tell how long the warm and smooth metal tunnel was. I’d been in darkness so long that I’d lost all sense of distance and time. I crawled until my hands and feet were too weak to move, and then I stumped along on my elbows and knees. This was going somewhere. This had to be going somewhere. I slept encased in warmth; when I put my head to a soft round hump of metal, I could hear a rising and falling humming, as if everything around me were alive, asleep, and breathing softly somewhere deep and distant.
How long had I been underground by then? A week? For the first time in a week, I found light. When I awoke and kept crawling again on sore hands, I finally emerged into an open chamber that held its own dim grey ambient glow.
As happy as I was to finally see again—and even then, only the barest un-darkness that any normal human eye would have seen as pitch black had they not spent a week underground craving light—I also knew I was not nearly home, nor safe. Here the sleek metal tubes of the tunnel expanded to form a sort of rectangular mortuary. There was no floor, only a maze of pipes overlapping one another; the pipes bulged upward in places in a series of table-like formations. On these knotted biers rested six corpses in various stages of decay. Two of the tables were empty.
From bad to worse.
But my time buried alive had beaten all the fear out of me. Death was no longer the worst possible outcome. I had to keep going.
The chamber had multiple ways out, and none of them looked official. I crawled up into a pipe-lined hole and hid there as I heard something sighing outside a larger gap. As I squeezed myself tighter and tighter into shadow, I watched an enormous organic-metallic hand on a thousand juxtaposed joints slide in without a sound and pick up the farthest corpse in the row. From the sound, I knew that this was what had entered my sinkhole; this was what had stolen a corpse; this had reached all the way down that interminable tunnel on its endless metal-jointed arm.
And now it was taking one of the bodies to another chamber.
Creeping by sourceless grey barely-light, I moved down the subtly pulsing tunnel beyond, following the arm as it receded into gloom. It was dangerous, and my heart threatened to pound through my ribcage, but I had nowhere else to go.
I only barely caught my breath as I came face-to-face with a human skull. I nearly screamed.
Set in the wall—no, part of the wall—it gaped with open eyes at nothing. Tubes of a dozen different varieties, all smooth chrome, had entered it through the ears and mouth and spinal cord area. The ends of those connections gleamed as spikes and fluid carriers. Had they once connected to something?
Moving on, I followed the curve of the wide metallic cave until I reached what looked like twin operating rooms. A steel bush of micro-arms hovered over a pipe-bulge bier within each room, picking and clawing at a corpse on each table.
No. Not picking at. I crept closer, wary of that greater arm that had deposited the left body and then departed somewhere. The body on the left table was long decayed, but tiny claws and surgical instruments on arms between six and ten feet long appeared to be dipping into a wide bath in the floor filled with random pieces of human flesh—and then carefully applying those pieces to the skull of the dead patient. I slipped and tumbled into the room, nearly sliding into the vat of flesh, but gripped warm metal at the last second.
Had I been caught?
No. The surgical arms never even so much as slowed. They didn’t care at all about me. I hugged the wall, knowing the same might not be true of that bigger arm.
As I watched, the arms reconstructed the face of a human being. They did not rebuild his hair or skin, only the muscles around his skull, and then two eyes were plucked from the vat and inserted with great care. For the first time since I’d been buried alive, I felt vaguely not alone, although the eyes just stared straight up. They had no eyelids, and, as yet, no muscles to move them. What were these machines doing?
The arms began filling the inner portions of the skull where I could not see; then, they flitted quickly down the table, piecing together a spine and the core of a nervous system. Between the ribs, the next things they fused together were two different lung sacs from the vat. A small arc of electricity shocked the heart placed in between.
The head, lungs, heart, and ribcage on the table began screaming. Loud echoes of terror and shock radiated out from our organic-metal surgery room.
I froze in absolute terror for an eternal moment—and then jumped forward. I hissed, “Shut up! It’ll hear you!”
The muscle-bound skull could not move, but the eyes sitting within did. Ever so slowly, those irises focused on me. Its wind pipe moved visibly between its skull and septum; its lungs contracted with the effort. It said something in Hindi.
I put a finger to my lips. “Shhh!”
The reanimated half-body said one more sentence in Hindi, then closed its jutting jaw to signal it would remain silent. Was it a man or a woman? What had it said? It watched me sidelong with terrified eyes as I climbed into the other operating room.
The same thing was happening there, but the process was not as far along. The machines here were pulling from a vat filled with bone fragments and rebuilding a spinal column below a cracked skull.
I must have rocked back and forth for a solid minute as the insanity of what I was seeing overwhelmed me. What the hell was this? I must have gone insane. I was still in that sinkhole.
No. Whenever I turned and looked over my shoulder, I could see those horrified muscle-ringed eyes watching me, hoping I would do something. The surgical arms continued their work, adding more nerves and pieces of the circulatory system.
The arms had seen fit to ignore me so far, but it was too dangerous to interfere with their work. To that man or woman on the table, I whispered, “I’ll come back for you.” I waited for a nod, listened to a third sentence in Hindi, then headed on. I repeated the foreign syllables in my mind, hoping to memorize them and translate them later if I ever saw civilization again. Who knew what terrible secrets that reanimated man or woman had seen?
The curve continued, taking me through a cathedral-like area where pools of black water stank under a ribcage of thick metal bones dripping ichor from ancient tubing. The light here was still barely perceptible and so thin that I had to move my head back and forth to make out shapes; but it was definitely shifting from grey to blue as I climbed across the vast valley. At no place and no junction where there ever signs, text, or floors to stand on. Nothing about this place was for humans. I wasn’t even sure I was on the bottom, per se, as there was no difference between the floor and the ceiling—or indeed, even the walls. The whole place could have been upside down or at an angle for all I knew; or there was no intended orientation at all, and it had all just grown haphazardly.
Because grown had to be the right word. The metal conduits were warm and alive, and I couldn’t find a single seam or welding mark. Perhaps a cave system had already existed here and a horrible seed of some sort had grown to fill it over centuries, or perhaps I was inside an enormous demon’s skull even now as it slept inside the earth and this was simply its body. The world was a farce, and this defied everything I’d ever known.
Legs. The next vast chamber held hundreds of pairs of human legs jutting from the walls. Not for me. That chamber was not for me. Too much. The mind cannot face some things.
I climbed upwards, ever upwards, deeper into blue light. At the apex, the most excruciating dark blue light somehow sharp and dull at the same time, I found an oval room hosting a dozen odd dark devices and a face set in the wall at the end. It was the face of a woman, and her eyes were closed. Tubes and conduits connected to her bulging head as I’d seen in that skull before, and my mind began to grasp something about the nature of the place; aging, growth, change. I couldn’t explain it in words, but the dark spirit behind those closed eyes—I knew that if she happened to wake and look my way, I would suffer a fate ten thousand times worse than death.
The next tube-surrounded ramp upwards lay beyond her. Moving as slowly and as quietly as I could, I stepped from one round pipe to the next, my gaze jumping from my bare feet to her closed eyes twice a second. When I saw her twitch, I moved.
Her lids opened slowly, and I saw her eyes move gently back and forth, sweeping the room. She did not see me. I was clinging to the wall below, staring directly up at her chin. Her mouth did not open, but I thought I heard a hum of suspicion; I counted out two hours after her lids had closed again before I crept along the base of the wall and up the ramp.
Blue shifted to violet as I ascended. I kept going up and up and up, climbing pipes, avoiding dripping black rivulets, and always staying quiet. There was a sleeping awareness about this whole place; a towering monstrous machination waiting for ages, running pieces of itself on automatic in the meantime, but ever wary of intruders.
And I found it there in the Violet Basilica. When the light became so painfully violet that I knew human eyes had never seen this place, I found a sleeping giant. It was mostly fetus; mostly brain. It was maybe ten or fifteen times as tall as me, and it was floating suspended in dark ichor inside a glass tube that ran from a biomechanical base right to the ceiling unfathomably high above.
As I stared in utmost horror and tried to comprehend it, as I watched its brain-stomach expand and contract slowly as it breathed from thick tubes, I saw that it was just one of a dozen. Like massive pillars in double colonnades, I stood at the center of a gigantic cathedral built to worship and house horrific sleeping beings. I stood in the center, in a circle of pipes, and, for the first time, I recognized the use of that space. If they had been awake, those twelve would have floated in their foul chambers and gazed down upon me in judgment. This was a court of some inhuman exotic law, and we had all been judged guilty.
I ran. I no longer cared about being quiet. My bare feet hammered along those uneven round conduits until I was through that Basilica and beyond into darkness, where I was sure light still glimmered, but past violet, beyond what human eyes could see. I just kept climbing, hour after hour, sometimes up, sometimes down.
And then I climbed up through a narrow tube barely big enough for me to squeeze through—and found myself back in the left operating chamber. Somehow, I’d gotten so turned around that I’d come full circle.
That, and I was on the ceiling.
Ports and biomechanical adaptations had been fitted to the ribcage on the operating table above, and skin had been grafted on and was being fused together by medical lasers. I could now see that it was a woman, and she was staring up at me both in confusion that I was on the ceiling and in hope that I had returned.
I’d been right about the lack of an orientation in this horrible place. Could it—?
Yes. I climbed up the wall and felt my sense of direction adapt as I went. The entire time, I could have been on the walls or ceilings without knowing it; I’d simply never tried to circle the chambers’ sides rather than climb along the bottom as I understood it. The question it left me with was simply: where the Hell was I?
And there was no escape, except back to the sinkhole from whence I’d come. I sat for a time with that Hindi woman, but we didn’t know each other’s language, so all we could do was wait and pray.
The larger claw soared by at regular intervals. I watched its arm twist and move as it worked farther on down the line, and I guessed that there were other operating rooms, and likely other graveyards being pilfered from below. This was Death. This was the afterlife, for all intents and purposes. We put our dead in the ground and this… place… took them and rebuilt them for its own ends…
There was nothing I could do. Although the table in the right chamber was rebuilding an entire skeleton, the Hindi woman near me only had her top half remade. Half biomechanical, half organic, she struggled as the large arm came to claim her. She screamed, but one of the surgical arms clamped and screwed a metal mask over her mouth, silencing her.
I stood unmoving and clutching the walls until the large arm deposited another pile of bones and left the surgical table to its work. The arm didn’t care about me. Nothing here did.
A week must have passed while I wandered those ghastly halls. There was nothing to learn, nothing to see, nothing to figure out. No tools, no exits. I was beginning to starve, but I refused to do it. I refused. Even though there were whole vats of flesh just waiting to be eaten, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.
The black ichor was water. Stained water, darkened with something unidentifiable, but it kept me alive.
Unable to bear the afterlife any longer, I eventually found a new oval room and gave myself up. Among the black devices was a woman’s face, just like the other blue-lit control room, and I waited for her to open her eyes.
When she did, I recognized them. I knew those eyes.
She spoke. Her mouth was masked and unmoving, but her voice came from the walls somehow. The words began Hindi, but transformed into something unintelligible as the connections around her head bulged forcefully.
The claw was upon me in moments. Chill solid fingers wrapped around me, and I recognized the feeling; this claw had taken me down from my box and deposited me in the sinkhole. I was captured, and I expected to—what? Be torn apart? Killed? Become a cog integrated into the machine, exactly as I had always feared, even before I’d been buried alive?
The claw carried at me at unnerving speed through blue-, grey-, and even yellow-lit biomechanical tunnels until darkness shrouded me and a rising sensation gripped my stomach. Finally, we hit something hard, and I was thrown free in a slurry of mud and water in the grip of a tremendous storm.
She’d let me go. Somehow, that woman had used some shred of her human willpower to eject me from the afterlife. I couldn’t save her, but she’d saved me—at least for the moment.
I was free. The odyssey that had begun with my suicide attempt was over, and I was back in the world of the living.
I survived the storm, and even tried to tell the authorities about what was waiting under the earth and stealing their dead, but they just laughed me off. It was also then that I learned a bit about Hindu customs, and that most Hindus are cremated. Did they suspect? Did their ancestors somehow know what was under the world stealing the buried?
The graveyard I’d been buried alive in was for a mix of various peoples and tribes, those who couldn’t afford cremation, and unclaimed foreigners. It was possible the storm had wiped the entire thing away like I’d been told, but I suspected that the nightmare beneath had closed its sinkhole because my escape had compromised that particular location.
While trying to understand what I’d experienced, I translated the Hindi woman’s four sentences, and their meaning, to me, is worse than anything I witnessed.
She’d said first, when she’d been just a muscle-bound skull and lungs, “Thank you! Thank you!”
After I begged her to remain quiet, she’d said, “I’m just happy to be able to move again.”
When I told her I’d come back for her, she’d said, “Don’t interfere. I want this.”
And when I’d finally seen her as a part of that nightmare, as a face set in the wall and gagged for eternity speaking only through biomechanical means, she’d said, “When we die, we stay where we lie. Our bones, our dust, remain aware for all time. This place is trying to help us. They are trying to help us, though they do not understand us. We know them. They’re angels—”
But her words became some unknown language after that. I wrote down their phonetic syllables, but they’re meaningless as far as anyone, even experts, can tell.
And I am left with the horror of knowledge; the haunting paralysis born of what I’ve seen and heard. From the mouth of someone who’d died and been rebuilt: When we die, we stay where we lie. Our bones, our dust, remain aware for all time.
Suicide is now the last thing on my mind. We must survive for as long as we can no matter the cost, each and every single one of us, for death is not the end. No, death is just the start; the beginning of a lonely agony that will never, ever end no matter how badly you want it. I thought being trapped in a box for a few days was bad, but now I know that death is worse. Now I travel from graveyard to graveyard, looking, hoping, begging to find that underground nightmare once more. I beg to be a part of the machine, a part of Hell. I would make a deal with the devil, or worse, with those sleeping beings in the Violet Basilica. Take my flesh, if only so that I may live and breathe in some form.
For Death is without hope, and without peace. Death has no escape, no air holes, no cramped limbs, no shouting for rescue. Death is being buried alive with nothing but your thoughts—forever.