The ashtray on her grandfather's desk would require emptying in an hour, at which time Kitka would return to clear away breakfast and serve a second press of coffee. Yesterday she forgot, and one of dede's fresh cigarettes rested too long on the lip of the ashtray and set the mound aflame. She'd entered the attic study as it happened. Dede didn't notice. His head was down in his papers, scribbling. Kitka poured a cup of cream over the fire, and a glass of water for good measure. The only damage worth noting, save for a little singed hair, was a soggy composition notebook.
“Thankfully it was empty,” dede smiled. He kissed her cheek and returned to work. These were the only words he said to her that day.
Such was the excitement of the expedition. After lunch in the garden, dede and Kitka would journey into the hollow center of the Earth.
How did Kitka put it as a child?
The planet is empty inside like a chocolate Easter bunny.
Well, not quite. Accessing the planet's first subterranean layer will require navigation through the crust, lithosphere, and athenosphere, a process that only sounded complicated, dede assured. In place of the mantle will be a series of alternating hollows, as if plummeting through a skyscrapyer floor by floor until one reaches the foundation. Beyond that, space.
In the hollow of the earth, irregular chunks of igneous rock will float freely, and collisions will result in cloud-like fusion and marble-like diffusion. All formations will orbit a miniature sun whose undulating tendrils of delicate flame give it the appearance of an enormous dandelion. As Kitka pilots the diving bell through the ring of the bathosun, dede will behold an elegant system: rocks subsumed and melted by the intense heat, the magma drifting up and out of out pore-like ducts on the bathosun and bound for channels in the ceiling of the hollow earth, dispersed to the surface through volcanoes to reify the crust.
It is through one of these ducts that the diving bell will descend deeper into the hyposphere, the hull carefully shielded to withstand these forces.
From dede's attic window near the desk, one can peer out over the backyard. To the left of the garden is a large ditch of approximate size. Before the ditch is dede's garden trowel for the christening gouge—he'd tapped the ground first like the crust on crème brûlée. Beside the trowel is Kitka's shovel for the actual digging, and to the left of those tools the excavator necessary to move the bulk of the earth; it would need to be returned to the rental service some time next week.
At the far end of the ditch, the diving bell, and behind it the shed in which Kitka welded it together from spare parts; there is also the industrial crane to dip the waiting vessel into the hole in the ground. The crane would also need to be returned to the rental service next week, though on a different day than the excavator.
As a child, Kitka would sit in dede's lap in his attic as he held a parchment map of the hollow earth to the light of the window. The afternoon sun revealed an interlace of loops and whorls in the center, which when examined with a magnifying glass suggested secondary and tertiary submaps. Her finger followed the path of the southbound arrows, then pressed the tangle in the center.
“Hollow earths inside of the hollow earth,” he whispered into her ear.
“How?” she asked.
From one of the desk drawers he produced a matryoshka doll, each nested matron revealing an additional woman within, and at the center of the women a baby carved from ivory that had turned piano-key yellow from age. She saw a similar color during show-and-tell when she hammered a jawbreaker in half to explain her dede's hyposphere theory to class. Mrs. Pinmentel was not amused, and neither was Principal Ruggles.
Through the ducts of the bathosun one is granted access to the planet's mechanical undertackle, first theorized in the folios of Bucephalus Balsamo, a 17th century watchmaker and alchemist. The diving bell will fall through large gears whose teeth are tasked with crushing the debris that drops through the ducts (processed to melting stations by a network of conveyor belts) while simultaneously turning a vast row of smaller gears beneath. The machinery's constant motion keeps the bathosun alive through a process of kinetic energy transfer that Balsamo never fully worked out but that dede believes firsthand observation can reveal.
The lower levels of submachina will be comprised of softer alloys, a detail apparent from the imperfect cogs and teeth, with slivers of damaged metal falling lower to be processed, filtered out, and recycled. Kitka as a teenager likened this portion of the undertackle to pinball but as an adult she now thinks of it in terms of pachinko.
The diving bell will continue its journey to the very center, which is much further below, protected in transit by these metal shavings as well as Kitka's engineering prowess and her preternatural instincts as a pilot. The slivers of submachina will be ground to a coarse grain, then finer and finer like the sand in hourglasses, trickling at the bottom to a drain where the diving bell will break through the meshwork catch.
Kitka volunteered to look after dede until her cousins could determine a more ideal arrangement now that tati was gone. She got along better with dede than they did. As for the hyposphere expedition, she only helped because it made dede smile. Without his smile, there was just toil at the desk and pained conversation about Balsamo, Kircher, Trismegistus I-IV, and the mysteries of the hollow earth.
Just two weeks in the country home, she figured.
That was three months ago.
Tati kept her cigars in a Danish cookie tin. Dede disliked but tolerated them; their daughter, also named Kitka, thought they looked like cat turds. Tati would smoke with dede in the attic in the evenings. When the smoke bothered him on dry and cold nights, tati would simply smell an unlit cigar and drink table wine from a tumbler as she corrected his spelling and arithmetic.
“That one looks like sea anemones,” tati said about a map from Athanasius Kircher's Mundus Subterraneus. “And this like a slot machine.”
“Kitka says a cuckoo clock,” dede replied.
Dede kept the last of tati's cigars in the top drawer of his writing desk beside a photo of their daughter. She was young and pregnant, awash in a satiny amber caused by a chemical mishap in the developing room.
He sometimes opens the drawer and put his face inside. He wishes he'd bought a humidor. He regrets misplacing the negatives.
She toed open the door to the attic. Dede fussed with the knot of his tie in one hand while clutching tati's birding binoculars in the other.
“Why the tie?” she asked.
He just nodded. Why indeed?
All morning he felt ridiculous, but looking at Kitka made the feeling fade. So much like her mother; her face is her face, her name is her name.
Together they walked downstairs and then out to the garden and the ditch. Above them, as if it could never go out, the afternoon sun.
Through the drain of the undertackle they will arrive in the sublantic, the portion of the hyposphere comprised of liquids. Each layer of the sublantean world serves as its own discrete strata of undersea, or so wrote Vermesh Trismegistus IV, the last in a family of mariners whose works were lost to antiquity save for treatises on the ocean within the world.
"The surface is a fine oil," read a translation of one such disquisition, "clear but with a whisper of malachite." (This oil obviously used to lubricate the machines of the undertackle.) "Within the oil are semi-translucent creatures, each phenoplankter shaped like a gimbal, and each gimbal glimmering like airborne dust by a window."
The diving bell will sink through the underseas—layers of less rarefied oil, striations of alcohol, murky fluids of questionable potability, viscous substances the consistency of albumen. The lower one goes, the larger the phenocreatures, all of them semi-transluscent even as the liquids turn darker shades of green. Great shoals will pass by the diving bell as Kitka pours coffee with one hand and steers with the other; dede will peer out the window with his binoculars taking notes.
Near the substygian bottom, phenokrakens will lumber as if cutting through snow. These leviathans will feast on the organisms above by breaching. Dede will see their bellies through their skin, all that helpless life digesting, the liquid swallowed beginning to separate and stratify by density and hue in accordance with the laws of the sublantean realm.
In the lowest undersea bed they will find the dim remains of these great creatures decomposing. Hunks of blubber will dislodge from the corpses, which will loosen and disperse into the liquid of the upper underseas, which will clarify in the act of ascent, which will rise and become the green-tinged oil that the diving bell first sank through.
Kitka didn't believe any of it. Not even dede's maps with transparencies could convince her. These were fictions from an aging man assembled from the pseduo-science of the dead.
Yet she sensed dede was not losing his mind. He'd simply submitted to his capacity to dream, elaborately and in a manner that expressed the deepening wants of his interior life. Pursuit of the hollow world had distracted dede from the grief of losing his daughter when she gave birth to her only child, and it was all that sustained him when tati had died. A curiosity turned hobby turned defense mechanism turned rite. Where else to find meaning but in filling those empty spaces in life with something beautiful?
Later today they would sit in a hole in a vessel made from a Volkswagen Beetle and office chairs, and she would wait until dede was overcome with disappointment. At least he wouldn't be alone.
Kitka gave the hull of the diving bell a solid kick. Such useless beauty.
In recent weeks, dede had doubts about the expedition, particularly as the plan came closer to fruition. Ultimately his faith prevailed. There had to be something somehow somewhere below, because otherwise what then? He'd read a line once: “Beneath this labyrinth of earth may rest transcendent meaning or perhaps just soil.”
He might have that wrong. Was it from Balsamo or the Auerbach letters or Trismegistus IV (or perhaps Trismegistus III)? Tati would have known what it was and who it came from.
If there was a possibility of something below, it was as minute as the motes of pollen stuck to the south side of the diving bell where the trees and wildflowers had started to bloom. It was something.
Dede knocked on the double-paned portal windows. How sturdy our dreams.
It will take time to negotiate the undersea bed, which is why Kitka will have packed dinner and something for breakfast. Once through the bottom, the most dangerous leg of the journey will begin.
The diving bell will drop into the vast nephosphere, a hollow portion of the earth comprised of gases, wind, and dormant djinn. Out the windows they'll see only eddies of dust in the dark. The vessel will go into a swan dive.
It's important that they buckle up.
Apocryphal writings attributed to Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi suggest that the endofluvia of the nephosphere obey the laws of density in reverse. Upon entering, dede and Kitka will be subsumed in a blanket of sulfur hexafluoride and their voices will thunder like fairy tale giants. As they access the helium-rich depths further below, their voices will peep like baby canaries.
All the while, they will zip past sleeping djinn, which they will hopefully avoid stirring. An accidental spark from an awakened djinn will ignite the hydrogen layer of the nephosphere, creating another bathosun born far too early to replace the robust bathosun three hypospheric zones above.
Dede will refrain from smoking just in case.
Kitka and her girlfriend of five years split up a few weeks prior to her arrival at dede's home. Her affection for dede had grown deeper over the years, but there was also a fundamental need for distraction. No job, adrift, she washed up on the porch. She may not have stayed as long otherwise.
Her apartment ceilings seemed taller, and every sound took on a cavernous quality. Hints of rosemary-mint lotion lingered in the sheets. At the cafe sitting beside the door, Kitka gazed at strangers as they came and left, swearing each face might have been her girlfriend's, and that everyone in the city could have been a relative.
Out where dede lived, it was just space and quiet. When nervous, Kitka found it helpful to do something with her hands. Cat's cradle, doodling, smoking, woodwork, crochet, and for the last few weeks building a submersible vessel that was basically a glorified blanket fort.
They sat among the vegetables at the garden table. The diving bell had been lowered into the hole. In a distant copse of trees, woodpeckers drummed a conversation. Dede's eyes lingered on the carrots and potatoes. While pouring him water, Kitka thought dede might start crying.
“Did you pack any soup for the trip?”
“Of course, dede, and sandwiches. Egg salad and chicken.”
“And, before I forget—“
“A thermos for coffee and then later tea, one for each of us.”
They looked at the diving bell, which had become streaked in bird droppings since the morning. The guano met at the top and then trailed down in patterns that resembled the roots of a great tree.
The woodpeckers drummed again.
“I loved your tati very much. Your mother too.”
The nephosphere will give way eventually, and their lungs will fill with a substance far less dense than air, making their voices inaudibly high. This is how they will know they are at the center of the earth. This terrifying silence is common to the theories of Balsamo and al-Sufi, alluded to by the blank pages in the journals of each seafaring Trismegistus.
The nephosphere, the sublantic, the undertackle, the bathosun, the garden, the trees, the sky, all concentric circles extending outward from this impossible middle comprised of pure thought.
Dede will open the door of the diving bell and Kitka will hold his hand as he drifts out. Warmth will wash over him, a sensation like how he imagined clouds would be before he learned they were just vapor. He will recall a day in the summer when he and his wife taught their granddaughter to swim in the lake near their home, just as they did with their own daughter many years before.
As he reaches out into the ether, the sensation of fingers will lace into his fingers. He will loosen his ties to the diving bell and the world above while Kitka mouths goodbye and farewell.
The diving bell will ascend, a speck headed back to the world above. Distantly a voice like a mouse, like a child, will call out to dede. He'll notice a moment longer, and then his senses will dissolve.
The inside of the diving bell wasn't as stuffy as it looked. Dede fiddled with the buttons and switches on the console, but then grimaced and slowed. He adjusted his office chair. His doubt calcified.
Above the sparse control console, Kitka had taped a scribble from one of dede's journals: “Each interior hyposphere justifies the layer above it, making possible impossibilities impossibilities possible.” Blue ink over pencil. Tati had made the correction.
Dede took the slip of paper and put it in his jacket pocket, but then placed it back where it was, as if that was precisely where it belonged.
He nodded at Kitka without looking her in the eye. Only soil, he thought, and let the idea sink in.
She held him until he was ready to leave.
They split a pack of cigarettes in the ditch before returning to the house. It was early evening. Kitka washed the potatoes and onions they picked from the garden on their way in. They needed more soup to go with their uneaten sandwiches.
Dede climbed the stairs and crept down the hall to his daughter's room. He hesitated before unlocking the door and leaned against it with his forehead and hand.
The room has been empty all these years, yet he inspected the closet and stooped at the corners as if something might be different. Dust, faded paint, a long vacant mouse hole, but little else. He muttered to himself just to hear a sound against these walls other than the recursive cracks of a settling house.
Certain things rarely changed, he knew, and yet we still hope, and that's all we could do. The intellect and imagination were propelled equally by need.
Downstairs the skillet sounded like a brook. As he turned back to the door, he noticed the ticks along the jamb where he and tati had tracked their daughter's growth. How tall she'd become, how tiny she'd began; Kitka, just pencil marks in a quiet room. He would leave when his granddaughter called him, but until then he paced the room transfixed. For the first time in years he was unable to imagine anything.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Hubert Vigilla's fiction and essays have appeared in The Normal School, No Tokens, Mud Season Review, and The Destroyer. He lives in Brooklyn and is working on a musical.
Vallco Fashion Park
My first job was at a Suncoast Motion Picture Company at a local shopping mall in steady decline. The food court shuttered not long after I was hired, and most of the shops and kiosks closed throughout high school. Vallco is still open today, though it's classified as a dead mall since it's 90% vacant. Just imagine the largest and saddest dollar store possible, but with a movie theater and a bowling alley.