Novello-in-Progresso

These chapters are drafts from a novel I am writing, which may be published before I end my journey. Stay tuned.

Chapter One

She walked into my office as I finished breakfast—three fingers of rye and a boiled egg for protein. She was pretty, lots of auburn hair brushed straight.

“Mr. Conover?” Her voice was a vulgar alto.

I stood and extended my hand, something I rarely do. “Call me Sam. My father was Mr. Conover.” Her rough, calloused hand surprised me.

“I’m Adele Gaylord.”

“Have a seat.”

She wore a brown skirt, which came just above her ankles, and a whitish shirtwaist blouse. Her shoes were loamy, farmers’ clodhoppers.

“What can I do for you?”

She sat on the edge of the chair and studied me. “I need your detective services. My husband is missing.”

“Okay, what do you mean, missing? That’s a pretty vague word.”

“I’ll explain.” She gave a short sigh. “We live on a small farm outside Elliston. We moved there two years ago to get away from the stress of Chicago. Leon, my husband—I call him Lee—is an electrical engineer. He worked for the city, and I was an applications support specialist at the Board of Trade.”

“Wow. You’re a problem solver.” Beautiful, sexy, and no doubt brilliant, I thought. “Where’d you go to college?”

“Pardon me, but that’s not important. My missing husband is.” I saw a flash of irritation spurt from her dark eyes.

“Sorry. I often poke my nose where it doesn’t belong. Go on, please.”

She stared at me for a moment, frowning, and then continued. “We moved here for a new beginning, to create a simpler life, and to start a family. We consider our little acre to be as independent as possible. We process the food we raise and buy only what we can’t produce, like salt and pepper.

“Anyway, the day before yesterday while I sorted onion sets, Lee said he needed to check on some broody hens. He left and that’s the last time I saw him.”

I pondered a moment and decided maybe she’d overreacted. “Perhaps he ran an errand.”

“For two days? Without calling me or telling me he was leaving? Mr. Conover—I mean Sam—that’s ridiculous. Lee would not just run off without telling me. We have a good marriage, ten years now, and we’re devoted to each other. Besides, all our vehicles are still there.”

“Okay. Did you call the police?”

“Yes, and they said to wait twenty-four hours and file a report. But since Lee’s an adult, they said there isn’t much they can do. That’s why I came to you. I read your ad in the phone book. It sounded a little quirky but interesting.” She grinned. “I like quirky.”

“You mean my motto: No finders keepers? You lose ‘em, I find ‘em, and give ‘em back.” 

“Yeah. Funny.”

“No way, but thanks anyway. Okay, how about I come to your place and have a look around. Maybe you can help me get to know your husband by showing me some of his stuff. How does that sound?”

She became serious again. “That’s all right, but when?”

“Let me see.” I flipped through my desk calendar as if it were full. “Tomorrow morning?”

“We’re hard to find. How about today?” She stood and stared at me.

I stared back and observed that Adele Gaylord was not just pretty, but gorgeous. She had a ruddy complexion. Light freckles dusted the bridge of her nose. Her red hair shimmered.

But, her eyes, the color of mahogany, pulled me in. I could hardly look away.

“Okay,” I said, “we’ll go today. I’ll have to be back at noon, though, for an appointment.”

It was Friday, and I did not want to work. Lulu and I had a lunch date, and a dinner date, and an all night date.

She glanced at her watch. “It’s ten o’clock, Sam. It takes almost an hour to get there. You’re going to be late for your appointment.”

“Let me make a call.” I took out my cell and punched in Lulu’s number. “Excuse me,” I said as the phone buzzed in my ear.

“Sure.” She moved into the hallway and closed the door.

I told Lulu I couldn’t make it for lunch, but the evening and night were still on.

She laughed. “Just like you, Sherlock. You always like dinner instead of lunch.”

“You’re wrong there. I like you for dinner.”

Lulu laughed again and said to take care. She’d see me around seven. I got my cap and stepped into the hall.

“All set, Adele.”

Looking around the Wigmore, she said, “This quite a nice place. I’ve never been in here. I’ve been to the market, of course. Even set up a stall one summer to sell some of our tomatoes and zucchini that overwhelmed us. But, I never had occasion to come in here.”

We walked to the stairs and started down.

“Yeah, it’s a historic place. Built around 1921 and renovated 12 years ago in 2002. I like it because it’s not expensive, less that ten grand a year.”

“I love the skylights.”

“Yeah. They brighten my office. Save electricity.”

We came to the ground floor and stepped into the market, which bustled as usual on a Fridays. I asked her where she parked.

“I got a place on Campbell, across from Center in the Square.”

“Let me follow you, okay? That way you’ll not have to drive me back. I’m in the parking garage on the corner.”

“Great. I’m the red Toyota truck.”

“I see it. Let me come out and swing in your direction. You can take over from there.”

Ten minutes later I was behind her, heading for Elliston.

Chapter Two

The drive on I-81S to Elliston was uneventful until she turned off onto North Fork Road, a two-lane as kinky as a cheap garden hose. We drove about eight miles until she turned right at a corner where stood a small dusty Primitive Baptist Church. A mile or so later, we made a left onto a rutted dirt road that snaked between neat rows of small rocks until we pulled up to a house and stopped.

“This is our little acre.”

We got out of our vehicles.

“Actually, almost two acres, but a lot of trees, which we love.”

I looked around. The house was a small Cape Cod with beige siding and a wrap-around front porch painted green. A few yards in back of the house was what appeared to be a stable.

“You have horses?”

“No, that was here when we bought the place. We keep our gardening tools in it.”

Between the house and the stables was a greenhouse.

“Nice greenhouse. And large.”

“Thanks. We raise our own plants, including the flowers we use. Let me show you.”

She led me to the greenhouse, opened the door, and we went inside.

“Whoa. This is a humid place.”

I took my handkerchief and mopped my face.

“That’s what a greenhouse does. It’s an outdoor-indoor space that traps moisture and is heated by the sun.”

I looked at several flats of plants that had only two leaves.

“What are these?”

“Cole plants: cabbage, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower.”

“Okay. And these?”

“French and African marigolds. We plant them to keep certain flying bugs away and to discourage roundworms and such from eating the roots of our vegetables.”

She smiled and touched the seedlings gently, obviously loving the plants and enjoying talking about them.

“So, Adele, how come city slickers like you moved to rural Virginia?”

“As I said, we got fed up with Chicago, the traffic, the crowds, the crime, and our jobs. All we did was work and fight traffic congestion. We were making wonderful money, but we were very unhappy. We wanted to be where we could … well, just be ourselves, find out more about who we are, grow our own food, farm the land, although neither of us is a farmer. I grew up in Chicago and Lee’s from Newark. The first shovel we ever saw was when we bought one. In the two years, we’ve been here, by studying and going to tutoring sessions at the Extension Office and annoying other gardeners with our questions, we’ve done pretty well. We preserve food in glass jars, freeze and dry it—we do whatever is necessary to produce and conserve what we eat.”

Something tapped on my shoe. I looked down to see a ring of black and white speckled hens milling around my feet as if attempting to identify who or what I was.

“What about meat besides your chickens. I don’t see other animals.”

She stared at me and frowned. “We don’t eat our chickens. We’re vegetarians. They give us eggs and a lot of laughs. They’re pets. They follow us around like dogs.”

I smiled. “Sounds fabulous. I’d starve to death, but it sounds wonderful for you.”

I moved to a small room in the rear of the greenhouse.

“Is this where you and your husband were working when he disappeared?”

“Yes. That’s our sorting room. See the seedlings all over the table? I just left them when I missed Lee.”

The room was small. Various kinds of plants covered a long rough wood table in the center of the room, along with bags of fertilizer stacked against one wall. Opposite the fertilizer stood a cabinet of bins filled with seeds. Piled on shelves attached to the rest of the wall space was a myriad of round, concave, black disks that resembled huge Frisbees. I glanced at Adele.

“What are these?”

“Holes,” she said.

“Holes?”

“Holes in the ground or wherever you want a hole.”

She was not smiling but I caught a glimmer of amusement in her eyes.

“Okay, I’ll bite. Holes in the ground, as is in…the ground?”

“That’s right. In the ground or wherever you need a hole. I see you’ve never heard of Lee’s Holes.”

I pursed my lips and frowned at her, my eyes half shut; a stupid, dumb face I create when I’m totally flummoxed.

“Well, you’re absolutely right. I’ve never heard of Lee’s Holes. Sounds sort of kinky.”

“Don’t be crude. My husband Lee invented portable holes.”

“Now you’re laughing at me. There’s no such thing as a portable hole.”

“Yeah, there is. Let me show you.”

She pulled one of the black disks off a shelf and headed outside. I followed, and when we got a few feet from the entrance of the greenhouse, she dropped it on the ground.

“There.” she looked at me and smiled.

“There what?” I looked at it on the ground and continued my stupid, dumb face. “It’s a disk. About two feet across.”

She picked up a rock and tossed it in the center of the disk. The rock disappeared.

“Nice trick. What’s the second act look like?”

She leaned down and stuck her hand into the center of the disk. Her hand disappeared, as had the rock. She stood, crossed her arms in front of her, stared at me, and grinned.

“Try it.”

I smiled and shook my head. “It’s some kind of a trick.”

I leaned down and stuck my hand in.

“Shit and two’s eight!” I screamed and jerked my hand out. “There’s a hole there.”

“Yeah. That’s what I said. It’s no trick, no slight of hand. Pun intended.”

“It is not possible.”

I leaned down again and stuck my hand in. “How the hell…?” I jerked my hand out as if it were on fire.

“I can’t tell you. Lee can, but, believe me, unless you’re an advanced quantum physicist and understand string theory, you’ll know as much as you do now after he explains.”

I stared at her until I was ashamed. “Adele, what…how…I mean…for Christ’s sake! You said portable? Can you pick this up?”

“Sure.”

She took it by the edge and lifted it up. It was a flat, concave black disk again. She held it against her chest while I felt the solid ground where the disk had lain. There was no hole.

“Here.” She handed it to me. “Drop it on the ground anywhere.”

I walked about a yard away and dropped it. Immediately I felt a hole. Dragging my hand around the edge of the disk, it felt like rubber, crepe rubber. I put on my flummoxed face again and stared at Adele.

“You implied he has a business.”

“Yes. Lee’s Holes. He sells them to businesses that dig a lot of holes, such as municipalities. In Chicago, the city bought thousands of them to use in street repairs so they didn’t have to dig. They’re reusable, so the city saves tons of money. I’m so surprised you never heard of them. Write-ups appeared in all of the scientific journals, such as Science, including a huge piece published on their website, too.  Roanoke City and Roanoke County buy them all the time. Have you noticed the dearth of digging machines around roadwork? Portable holes. Golf courses buy them by the tens of thousands.”

“I need a drink.” I reached in my back pocket for my flask.

“Come on in the house. I’ve got some real good stuff.”

I returned my flask and followed her. My head felt dizzy and my legs seemed as rubbery as those disks or portable holes.

The house was simple but elegant, especially a small kitchen laid out with a chef in mind: an island butcher block of hard maple; a Garland six-burner gas stove/grill; two double sinks surrounded by decorative concrete counters, and a wall of stainless steel cooking tools and copper utensils.

“Who’s the chef?”

“We both are, although Lee’s the gourmet chef. The kitchen was tiny and very country and crowded when we bought the house, so we ripped it to the studs and built this.”

“Incredible kitchen.” I looked in one of the sinks. “Garbage disposals? Use a portable hole to put that in?”

She laughed. “No. One was already here so we just attached another to the plumbing.”

Reaching into one of the cabinets, solid cherry wood from the looks of it, she produced a bottle of A. H. Hirsch Reserve.

“My God, Adele. That’s…that’s expensive stuff. About $200 a bottle. Have you something more common, Jack Daniels, maybe? That’ll be lost on me. Really.”

I’d never seen a bottle of A. H. Hirsch in my life but had read that only kings and the super rich drink it, not hick town private detectives.

“Oh, come on, Sam. Live a little.”

She grabbed a clear tumbler from the counter and poured it about half full.

“Ice? Neat?”

“Neat, for God’s sake. Do not insult it with water, please.”

I took the glass she handed me and sipped.

“Yuk! This is awful.” I made a face.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. Let me taste again.”

I took another swig and it tasted better. A third swig was even better. The fourth was delicious.

“I apologize, Adele, but my taste buds are used to rot-gut, and at first this didn’t taste right.” I sipped gain. “Thanks a lot, Adele. Rot-gut will probably make me puke, now.”

She giggled. “Sorry.”

“Please, don’t be. I may move in.”

She poured herself two fingers and put the bottle back in the cabinet.

After another sip, I said, “Care if I look around your property?”

“Not at all. May I come with you?”

“Wish you would.” I looked at my tumbler of Hirsch. “I’m taking this with me whether you say I can or not.”

She laughed again. “By all means.”

That portable holes boggled my mind was an understatement tantamount to saying the Hiroshima bomb was a firecracker, but it gave me an idea.

“Adele, how deep are the holes?”

“We don’t know. We’ve never plumbed them. Perhaps someone has, but we’ve never heard. Lee makes a few custom holes with depths built in, like golf holes and holes used by municipalities. But just generic holes, no.”

“So, no one has ever gone down one?”

“Oh, yeah. Workers and such, but not down the non-specific ones to my knowledge.”

That got me thinking that maybe Lee fell into a hole, or decided to examine one without consulting Adele. But, to be honest, I was curious; I wanted to delve into a Lee’s Portable Hole.

We walked out to the garden plot behind the stables, a large tilled area, maybe 75 to 80 feet long and at least 20 feet across, ready for planting.

“Large garden. Looks ready.”

“We raise a lot of vegetables. Yeah, it’s ready. We plant our coles around this time in March.”

“What about frost?”

“Coles are cold-hardy. They laugh at frost. In fact, we plant another crop in September for fall and winter harvest. Brussels sprouts we usually harvest in the snow.”

I clumped onto the garden and felt the soft earth snug around my shoes. And then, I saw it. Almost dead center of the field was a large black spot, round, and about the size of a manhole.

“Look there. I’ll bet that’s a hole and Lee went down it.”

She ran over to where it was and knelt down.

“I looked out here but didn’t see this. Oh, Jesus, Sam, do you think he went down there, or maybe fell in?”

“Only one way to find out. Have you a very long rope?

“Yeah. Over a hundred feet long, it’s in one of the stables.

“Let’s get it. I’m going down.”

She stood up and faced me.

“Correction: we are going down.”

I smiled. “Yeah, I sort of figured that out. Come on.”

Chapter Three

The rope, made of braided hemp, was stout. I used a bowline to tie it to a tree near the hole.

“We used this rope to pull stumps out of the ground.”

I took the rope and draped is across my shoulder.

“It should hold us. I’ll go first, and when I get down

“It should hold us. I’ll go first, and when I get down a ways, I’ll call up and you can start down.”

Adele looked at me intently. “You know, we’re not dressed for this. Let’s go back to the house. Lee’s work clothes should fit you, and some boots.”

We went to the house, and she handed me a pair of jeans, a denim shirt, a pair of heavy boots, and thick wool socks.

“These aren’t leather boots, are they?”

“Hemp. Same stuff as the rope. Told you we were vegans. No leather or fur around here.”

I changed in their downstairs bathroom while she went in their bedroom. When she came out, she looked like a farmer—red plaid shirt, jeans, and boots.

“Here.” She tossed me a ball cap. “Should we wear hard hats? I have two.”

“I hate those things.” I slipped the cap on, which was too big, and as I adjusted it I explained: “Wore a hard hat when I worked in a steel mill once. Always fell off, and it was an oven on my head. I think we’ll be all right.”

“Okay. Let’s go.”

She pulled on her cap and off we went, to where we had no idea.

_________________________

“Adele, have you done much rope-climbing?”

“None except in high school to pass PE.”

“Okay, I’ve done some climbing, so we’re going to use what Marines call brake and squat, only with a few modifications which you don’t have to understand. Here, let me show you.”

I ran the rope down the side of my right leg and brought it under the instep of my right foot.

“Notice I’m stepping on the rope with my right foot. Now, I drape it over my left foot thus.” I flipped the rope over my foot. “As you descend your left foot is held tightly. You can actually stand up on the rope without sliding. Here, watch me.”

I dropped over the edge of the hole and stood on the rope.

“See? Now, I hold the rope with both hands high above my head and very slowly left myself slide down. Like this.” I slid a few feet, stopped, and then looked up at her. “Think you can do that?”

“I think so. I’ll just take it very slowly.”

“Good. Let me go down first, and I’ll yell up to you when to start Okay?”

“Okay.”

I began descending. Adele had supplied both of us with powerful flashlights. With mine, I surveyed the walls of the hole and saw they were smooth and lacking in niches with which anchor a foot. The walls were also too far away to rappel, so the brake-and-squat method was apropos. As I got lower, the walls moved farther away as if we were in a huge upturned cone. I stopped and yelled up to Adele.

“Okay, start down.”

The echo smacked my ears as if two hands had clapped the sides of my head. When it stopped battering my eardrums, I called again but not as loudly. I figured the bounce of the sound would go up better if subdued.

“Adele, can you hear me?”

“Yes. Very well.”

“Okay, start down. Just concentrate on descending, nothing else. Got that?”

“I do. Here I come.”

I watched her ease over the edge and slide down, a dark inchworm. I watched to make sure she is all right, then continued down but glancing up at her often as I did. She was doing fine.

Further down I saw a hazy green light as if glowing through fog or mist. I couldn’t tell, but the presence of fog or mist alarmed me because I didn’t know if it was toxic.

I stopped and watched Adele for a moment. I smiled.

Still a madcap idiot, right Sam? I thought. Impulsiveness is fine when grabbing a cheap gossip magazine as you wait to check out at Kroger, but jumping off into an unknown hole, a portable hole at that, is in the column marked stupid.

“We’ll be all right,” I muttered, but it didn’t sound convincing.

“What did you say,” Adele called down.

“Nothing. Just wondering what that green haze is down there.”

“Oh, my God. I just saw it.”

She stopped and observed the green haze.

“Maybe we should go back,” she said.

“Hey, we’ve come this far. Let’s see it through. Besides, climbing up is harder and we’re burnt from the climb down. Let’s at least look around, hey.”

She looked up at the opening that now looked about as wide and a golf hole. “Oh, shit. What have we done?”

“Let’s just keep going.”

I started lowering myself again. Adele followed.

About ten feet later I felt my boots touch ground, but the green cloud messed with my breathing as if I were contending with murkiness spewing from a cheap fog machine. I choked, and I coughed several times. When I slumped to the floor, Adele slid to my side.

“Jesus, what is this?” She disentangled from the rope. “I can’t breathe.”

“Relax. Breathe slowly and try not to gulp air. It’ll pass.”

Coughing spasms hit me again, and Adele joined me. We sounded as if we were in an intensive care unit of a TB clinic.

Our coughs diminished, and we looked around. We saw dark shapes in the mist but couldn’t identify them. Ahead of us, the green cloud that surrounded us made piles of something blurry. To our left fuzzy looking trees or bushes moved in a breeze that we did not feel, and on our right, we saw assorted rocks scattered about. The rope moved to and fro, and the walls seemed closer. We were in a space that reminded me of a teepee in which I spent three days and nights on one of my trips to Colorado. I guessed the diameter to be around 30 feet and the perimeter maybe 100 feet. Directly in front of us was an opening, a portal revealing a murky green path leading away to somewhere.

“I’m scared, Sam, and a tad claustrophobic. What if Lee isn’t here? What do we do then?”

Adele moved closer to me. I put my arm around her and held her tightly. Green fleece appeared to cover her face, as I’m sure mine did, as well.

“I don’t know. I’m scared, too, but we’re here, and we need to do some scouting. Let’s follow that path out there and see where is leads.”

“Follow the yellow brick . . .”

“Please don’t say it,” I said as I took her hand and started to walk. “Besides, it’s a green road.”

“Green doesn’t rhyme very well.” She looked at me and smiled, but her eyes showed fear.

They were trees growing in tall grassland that rippled in the unfelt breeze that eddied across them. When we stepped into the intense grassy green, it reminded me of stories I’d read about the great fields of prairie grass that once grew in our country before we destroyed it to create farmland. I read it was higher than a man’s head, higher even than the covered wagons that rolled through it on paths flattened by buffalo, deer, elk, and other wandering herds animals. Like the prairie grass, whatever we were in was over our heads, and we didn’t find any animal trails. We crept very cautiously because we could see nothing ahead of us.

Adele sniffed the air. “What’s that smell? It makes me want to hurl.”

“I don’t know, but hurl away. I may join you. God, what a stink.”

We continued. After what seemed like hours and a hundred miles, we came to a clearing. The grass was pressed down to the ground, and although the fog was still dense, the clearing was a brighter green that glowed from the roots of the grass. We stopped at the edge and knelt down.

“Weird,” I said. “This whole place is weird. Notice how humid it’s getting. I feel like taking off my shirt.”

“Don’t. You don’t know what it will do to your skin. Just sweat it out.”

The clearing shone brighter. Opposite us, on the other edge of the clearing, we saw something that looked like a heap of dark refuse.  It was in the shadows, but it was not a part of the clearing, such as the grass was.

Adele knelt down and studied the heap. “Rags maybe?”

I squatted next to her. “Walk around the edge. Don’t move across the clearing because we won’t have cover if something is out there that can attack us.”

“Something from that grass jungle can attack us anyway.”

“Right, but I’d feel better if we had a chance at cover.”

We eased left around the perimeter of the clearing to the pile of whatever. As we got closer, Adele screamed and ran over to it.

“Lee,” she screamed. “It’s Lee.”

I ran behind her, and we both slid to our knees as we got to him.

“Oh, my God. Lee.” She lifted his head and placed it in her lap. “Lee, honey, can you hear me?”

A large laceration on his forehead bled profusely. I felt for his carotid and detected a faint pulse. “He’s alive. Here, take my kerchief. It’s soaked with sweat, but it’s moisture.”

She took it and bathed his face. As she did, he moaned and opened his eyes. “Adele,” he said, his voice a croak. “Where…” He fainted again.

“Lee, stay with me,” she shouted. “Listen to me. I’m here. You’re going to be all right.”

He opened his eyes again, breathing rapidly but not speaking. The cut was dripping and pooling in his eye. His face showed bruises, and his lips were white as plaster, cracked, and bleeding.

“Lee, stay awake. Don’t fall asleep.”

“Let’s set him up. He’ll breathe easier and not faint. We both took his shoulders and set him up with his leaning against Adele. “Talk to him.”

“Lee, it’s Adele. Stay awake, please.”

He opened his eyes to slits and smiled. “How’d you get here?”

“We climbed down your hole. I came with Sam here. He’s a private detective I hired to find you. We found your hole and used our hemp rope to climb down.”

He looked at me, his eyes open more. “Thanks, Sam.” He looked again at Adele. “We have to get outta here, honey. It’s dangerous. This is another world, another dimension. Gotta get out.”

“Is there a way out other than climbing out the way we got in?”

“I don’t know, Sam. We’ll have to look.” He sat up a little straighter.

“Lee, are you all right? You’re breathing like you’ve run a marathon.” Adele wiped his face again.

“In a way I have.You need to know what it’s like here. You need to know the danger we’re in. There’s a snake they call Mazapá, a python.”

“A python?”

“Yeah, and it’s huge. It can swallow a man whole. Not kidding. I saw it happen.”

“There are people down here?” Adele asked.

“No. Not people like us. Beings. Very different from us but also very similar. They call themselves Hitorigami, a Japanese name that comes from some religion. Shinto, I think.  They claim to be hiding because they achieved awareness. I do not understand that, but they say they are gods of creation, and they’re all male.” His breathing slowed.

“How’d you get the cut on your forehead?” Adele asked.

“I was running, and I fell. I hit a rock and blacked out.”

“What were you running from?”

“From that damned python. I cut through the grass hoping to lose it, and evidently, I did. I’m here and not being digested. I tripped when I cross the clearing and went splat on this rock.” He picked up a stone about the size of a loaf of bread and hefted it in his right hand.

“So, where’s the python?”

“I guess it went some other direction, Sam. I really don’t know.”

Standing up, I looked back the way Adele and I had come and stared for a moment at the grass forest across the clearing. Not even that slight breeze we first encountered blew, except that the grass rippled as if a soft wind blew over its top.

“Any water around here?” I asked Lee. “Food?”

“There’s a small lake through there.” He pointed over his shoulder away from the clearing. “I found it when I first got here. Water’s okay. I’m still alive. Food? Berries or something grows around the lake. They’re sweet and I guess edible because, as I said, I’m still alive.”

“So, this place is as far as you’ve gotten, right?” Adele asked.

“No. On the other side of the hills, you probably saw when you first landed down here is a village of the Hitorigami I told you about. Forty-one of them live there in huts woven from this grass. They also live in terror of Mazapá, which they consider a devil sent by other gods to punish them for hiding away. That’s where I was when the python struck. It ate one of them. Just gulped it down. It started for another, but I distracted it and got it to chase me. I don’t know why I did it, but I figured if it stayed there, I’d be its dinner eventually. So, I ran, it followed, and here I am.” He looked up at Adele. “In the arms of my woman.” She hugged his head and planted and kissed on top of it.

“Your hair smells like three nights in a landfill.”

“Speaking of smells, what’s that putrid aroma that hangs over us? It’s not as pungent as it was, because I’m used to it, but it still stinks pretty bad.”

“That’s snake shit. Mountains of it from Mazapá. It doesn’t go away.”

“I never knew snake shit smelled so bad.”

“Well, it does. Get used to it. Listen, help me to my feet. I think I can stand and get you to that lake.”

“Are you sure,” Adele said.

“No, but we can’t stay here much longer. Mazapá will return.”

We each curled an arm under his arms and lifted him. He was wobbly but managed to keep upright.

“Can you walk?” Adele asked.

“I think so. Steady me until I feel sure. This way.” He pointed to the lake with his head, and we took off in that direction.

The lake was small. Unlike the green mist that continued to shroud us, the water seemed clear although not sky-blue like water above. I scooped a handful and tasted it.

“It’s good. Normal tasting I’d say.” I looked around the lake at the bushes that grew heavy black clusters that dipped into the water. “Are those the berries?”

“Yup.” Lee sat down at the edge of the water, puffing from the walk of about two blocks.

“Adele, take care of his wound while I pick some of these.” She nodded her head and dipped my kerchief in the water and rinsed it.

I pulled off my cap, grabbed hers from her head, and started filling them with berries. I tasted a few. “They are sweet,” I yelled from a dense patch a few yards from where they sat. “And tart also, kind of raspberry flavored with overtones of wild strawberry.” I laughed at myself. “Listen to me. I sound like a sommelier.”

“How could you be?” Adele called back. “You don’t even know what good bourbon is.”

I laughed. “You’re right.”

I saw Adele wash Lee’s laceration while I picked. Intent on our tasks, we didn’t notice a shadow spreading over us until we heard a sound like the roar of an acetylene torch set ablaze. We all saw the head of a great serpent rise and glare down at us, its tongue probing and flitting, trying to catch our scent. Its head was the size of a boxcar, and it rose up as high as the Wells Fargo building in downtown Roanoke. As I stared at it I became lightheaded and felt unsteady. A bizarre kind of insanity must have set in because I started to laugh. Not just a chuckle, but a guffaw as if some crazy clown was frolicking in front of me. My mind went totally wacko and I thought: Am I in a B-film, some cheap pulp fiction from L. Ron Hubbard or Philip Dick? I have to be. This isn’t real. Can’t be. I’ll wake up screaming and scare the crap outta Lulu.

I continued laughing, a deep belly laugh. It was all so stupid. A green misty world, grass nine feet tall, a goddamn python named Mazapá, and beings who thought they were Japanese gods. I dropped the hatful of berries I’d picked and doubled over roaring my guts out.

Adele screamed as she and Lee ran into the grass. I followed, still laughing because I figured since it was my dream, apparently, I’d do what I wanted to do. We ran pell-mell, dove into the grass, and hunkered down.

“For some reason, it won’t come in here,” Lee said. I was still chuckling. “Why are you laughing?”

“No reason. Maybe because I’m scared shitless.”

Adele grabbed my hand. “Settle down. It’ll hear us.”

“Snakes are deaf,” Lee said.

About that time, we saw its head loom over the clearing. It moved to where we were hiding, but it never attempted to come into the grass. After a few minutes of hissing like a blowtorch and working its tongue to smell us out, it slithered away.

“Where does it go?” I said.

“I don’t know. It just pops up.”

“And it eats people?”

“I saw it gobble one of the Hitorigami like a noodle; just sucked him in.”

“Let’s get to the village,” I said. “Maybe they know what to do. By the way, do they speak English?”

“No. They speak an ancient form of Japanese, close to Ainu, spoken by maybe 25,000 people today. I speak modern Japanese. They can understand a bit and I can decipher a some of the Ainu. We get along.”

“Now, I know this is a nightmare,” I said and smiled at Lee. “Here we are, trapped by a gargantuan python in a grass jungle and I’m getting a lesson in the history of Japanese. When I wake up I’m going to write a book.”

“This is no dream, Sam. Believe me, I thought the same thing when I got here, but it’s real. No dream. You can die here. Mazapá can and will eat you.”

“Whatever you say, Lee.”

Adele let go of my hand. “Let’s try to get out of here. I’ve got to pee.”

Even Lee laughed a when she said that.

The rope, made of braided hemp, was stout. I used a bowline to tie it to a tree near the hole.

“We used this rope to pull stumps out of the ground.”

I took the rope and draped is across my shoulder.

“It should hold us. I’ll go first, and when I get down a ways, I’ll call up and you can start down.”

Adele looked at me intently. “You know, we’re not dressed for this. Let’s go back to the house. Lee’s work clothes should fit you, and some boots.”

We went to the house, and she handed me a pair of jeans, a denim shirt, a pair of heavy boots, and thick wool socks.

“These aren’t leather boots, are they?”

“Hemp. Same stuff as the rope. Told you we were vegans. No leather or fur around here.”

I changed in their downstairs bathroom while she went in their bedroom. When she came out, she looked like a farmer—red plaid shirt, jeans, and boots.

“Here.” She tossed me a ball cap. “Should we wear hard hats? I have two.”

“I hate those things.” I slipped the cap on, which was too big, and as I adjusted it I explained: “Wore a hard hat when I worked in a steel mill once. Always fell off, and it was an oven on my head. I think we’ll be all right.”

“Okay. Let’s go.”

She pulled on her cap and off we went, to where we had no idea.

_________________________

“Adele, have you done much rope-climbing?”

“None except in high school to pass PE.”

“Okay, I’ve done some climbing, so we’re going to use what Marines call brake and squat, only with a few modifications which you don’t have to understand. Here, let me show you.”

I ran the rope down the side of my right leg and brought it under the instep of my right foot.

“Notice I’m stepping on the rope with my right foot. Now, I drape it over my left foot thus.” I flipped the rope over my foot. “As you descend your left foot is held tightly. You can actually stand up on the rope without sliding. Here, watch me.”

I dropped over the edge of the hole and stood on the rope.

“See? Now, I hold the rope with both hands high above my head and very slowly left myself slide down. Like this.” I slid a few feet, stopped, and then looked up at her. “Think you can do that?”

“I think so. I’ll just take it very slowly.”

“Good. Let me go down first, and I’ll yell up to you when to start Okay?”

“Okay.”

I began descending. Adele had supplied both of us with powerful flashlights. With mine, I surveyed the walls of the hole and saw they were smooth and lacking in niches with which anchor a foot. The walls were also too far away to rappel, so the brake-and-squat method was apropos. As I got lower, the walls moved farther away as if we were in a huge upturned cone. I stopped and yelled up to Adele.

“Okay, start down.”

The echo smacked my ears as if two hands had clapped the sides of my head. When it stopped battering my eardrums, I called again but not as loudly. I figured the bounce of the sound would go up better if subdued.

“Adele, can you hear me?”

“Yes. Very well.”

“Okay, start down. Just concentrate on descending, nothing else. Got that?”

“I do. Here I come.”

I watched her ease over the edge and slide down, a dark inchworm. I watched to make sure she is all right, then continued down but glancing up at her often as I did. She was doing fine.

Further down I saw a hazy green light as if glowing through fog or mist. I couldn’t tell, but the presence of fog or mist alarmed me because I didn’t know if it was toxic.

I stopped and watched Adele for a moment. I smiled.

Still a madcap idiot, right Sam? I thought. Impulsiveness is fine when grabbing a cheap gossip magazine as you wait to check out at Kroger, but jumping off into an unknown hole, a portable hole at that, is in the column marked stupid.

“We’ll be all right,” I muttered, but it didn’t sound convincing.

“What did you say,” Adele called down.

“Nothing. Just wondering what that green haze is down there.”

“Oh, my God. I just saw it.”

She stopped and observed the green haze.

“Maybe we should go back,” she said.

“Hey, we’ve come this far. Let’s see it through. Besides, climbing up is harder and we’re burnt from the climb down. Let’s at least look around, hey.”

She looked up at the opening that now looked about as wide and a golf hole. “Oh, shit. What have we done?”

“Let’s just keep going.”

I started lowering myself again. Adele followed.

About ten feet later I felt my boots touch ground, but the green cloud messed with my breathing as if I were contending with murkiness spewing from a cheap fog machine. I choked, and I coughed several times. When I slumped to the floor, Adele slid to my side.

“Jesus, what is this?” She disentangled from the rope. “I can’t breathe.”

“Relax. Breathe slowly and try not to gulp air. It’ll pass.”

Coughing spasms hit me again, and Adele joined me. We sounded as if we were in an intensive care unit of a TB clinic.

Our coughs diminished, and we looked around. We saw dark shapes in the mist but couldn’t identify them. Ahead of us, the green cloud that surrounded us made piles of something blurry. To our left fuzzy looking trees or bushes moved in a breeze that we did not feel, and on our right, we saw assorted rocks scattered about. The rope moved to and fro, and the walls seemed closer. We were in a space that reminded me of a teepee in which I spent three days and nights on one of my trips to Colorado. I guessed the diameter to be around 30 feet and the perimeter maybe 100 feet. Directly in front of us was an opening, a portal revealing a murky green path leading away to somewhere.

“I’m scared, Sam, and a tad claustrophobic. What if Lee isn’t here? What do we do then?”

Adele moved closer to me. I put my arm around her and held her tightly. Green fleece appeared to cover her face, as I’m sure mine did, as well.

“I don’t know. I’m scared, too, but we’re here, and we need to do some scouting. Let’s follow that path out there and see where is leads.”

“Follow the yellow brick . . .”

“Please don’t say it,” I said as I took her hand and started to walk. “Besides, it’s a green road.”

“Green doesn’t rhyme very well.” She looked at me and smiled, but her eyes showed fear.

They were trees growing in tall grassland that rippled in the unfelt breeze that eddied across them. When we stepped into the intense grassy green, it reminded me of stories I’d read about the great fields of prairie grass that once grew in our country before we destroyed it to create farmland. I read it was higher than a man’s head, higher even than the covered wagons that rolled through it on paths flattened by buffalo, deer, elk, and other wandering herds animals. Like the prairie grass, whatever we were in was over our heads, and we didn’t find any animal trails. We crept very cautiously because we could see nothing ahead of us.

Adele sniffed the air. “What’s that smell? It makes me want to hurl.”

“I don’t know, but hurl away. I may join you. God, what a stink.”

We continued. After what seemed like hours and a hundred miles, we came to a clearing. The grass was pressed down to the ground, and although the fog was still dense, the clearing was a brighter green that glowed from the roots of the grass. We stopped at the edge and knelt down.

“Weird,” I said. “This whole place is weird. Notice how humid it’s getting. I feel like taking off my shirt.”

“Don’t. You don’t know what it will do to your skin. Just sweat it out.”

The clearing shone brighter. Opposite us, on the other edge of the clearing, we saw something that looked like a heap of dark refuse.  It was in the shadows, but it was not a part of the clearing, such as the grass was.

Adele knelt down and studied the heap. “Rags maybe?”

I squatted next to her. “Walk around the edge. Don’t move across the clearing because we won’t have cover if something is out there that can attack us.”

“Something from that grass jungle can attack us anyway.”

“Right, but I’d feel better if we had a chance at cover.”

We eased left around the perimeter of the clearing to the pile of whatever. As we got closer, Adele screamed and ran over to it.

“Lee,” she screamed. “It’s Lee.”

I ran behind her, and we both slid to our knees as we got to him.

“Oh, my God. Lee.” She lifted his head and placed it in her lap. “Lee, honey, can you hear me?”

A large laceration on his forehead bled profusely. I felt for his carotid and detected a faint pulse. “He’s alive. Here, take my kerchief. It’s soaked with sweat, but it’s moisture.”

She took it and bathed his face. As she did, he moaned and opened his eyes. “Adele,” he said, his voice a croak. “Where…” He fainted again.

“Lee, stay with me,” she shouted. “Listen to me. I’m here. You’re going to be all right.”

He opened his eyes again, breathing rapidly but not speaking. The cut was dripping and pooling in his eye. His face showed bruises, and his lips were white as plaster, cracked, and bleeding.

“Lee, stay awake. Don’t fall asleep.”

“Let’s set him up. He’ll breathe easier and not faint. We both took his shoulders and set him up with his leaning against Adele. “Talk to him.”

“Lee, it’s Adele. Stay awake, please.”

He opened his eyes to slits and smiled. “How’d you get here?”

“We climbed down your hole. I came with Sam here. He’s a private detective I hired to find you. We found your hole and used our hemp rope to climb down.”

He looked at me, his eyes open more. “Thanks, Sam.” He looked again at Adele. “We have to get outta here, honey. It’s dangerous. This is another world, another dimension. Gotta get out.”

“Is there a way out other than climbing out the way we got in?”

“I don’t know, Sam. We’ll have to look.” He sat up a little straighter.

“Lee, are you all right? You’re breathing like you’ve run a marathon.” Adele wiped his face again.

“In a way I have.You need to know what it’s like here. You need to know the danger we’re in. There’s a snake they call Mazapá, a python.”

“A python?”

“Yeah, and it’s huge. It can swallow a man whole. Not kidding. I saw it happen.”

“There are people down here?” Adele asked.

“No. Not people like us. Beings. Very different from us but also very similar. They call themselves Hitorigami, a Japanese name that comes from some religion. Shinto, I think.  They claim to be hiding because they achieved awareness. I do not understand that, but they say they are gods of creation, and they’re all male.” His breathing slowed.

“How’d you get the cut on your forehead?” Adele asked.

“I was running, and I fell. I hit a rock and blacked out.”

“What were you running from?”

“From that damned python. I cut through the grass hoping to lose it, and evidently, I did. I’m here and not being digested. I tripped when I cross the clearing and went splat on this rock.” He picked up a stone about the size of a loaf of bread and hefted it in his right hand.

“So, where’s the python?”

“I guess it went some other direction, Sam. I really don’t know.”

Standing up, I looked back the way Adele and I had come and stared for a moment at the grass forest across the clearing. Not even that slight breeze we first encountered blew, except that the grass rippled as if a soft wind blew over its top.

“Any water around here?” I asked Lee. “Food?”

“There’s a small lake through there.” He pointed over his shoulder away from the clearing. “I found it when I first got here. Water’s okay. I’m still alive. Food? Berries or something grows around the lake. They’re sweet and I guess edible because, as I said, I’m still alive.”

“So, this place is as far as you’ve gotten, right?” Adele asked.

“No. On the other side of the hills, you probably saw when you first landed down here is a village of the Hitorigami I told you about. Forty-one of them live there in huts woven from this grass. They also live in terror of Mazapá, which they consider a devil sent by other gods to punish them for hiding away. That’s where I was when the python struck. It ate one of them. Just gulped it down. It started for another, but I distracted it and got it to chase me. I don’t know why I did it, but I figured if it stayed there, I’d be its dinner eventually. So, I ran, it followed, and here I am.” He looked up at Adele. “In the arms of my woman.” She hugged his head and planted and kissed on top of it.

“Your hair smells like three nights in a landfill.”

“Speaking of smells, what’s that putrid aroma that hangs over us? It’s not as pungent as it was, because I’m used to it, but it still stinks pretty bad.”

“That’s snake shit. Mountains of it from Mazapá. It doesn’t go away.”

“I never knew snake shit smelled so bad.”

“Well, it does. Get used to it. Listen, help me to my feet. I think I can stand and get you to that lake.”

“Are you sure,” Adele said.

“No, but we can’t stay here much longer. Mazapá will return.”

We each curled an arm under his arms and lifted him. He was wobbly but managed to keep upright.

“Can you walk?” Adele asked.

“I think so. Steady me until I feel sure. This way.” He pointed to the lake with his head, and we took off in that direction.

The lake was small. Unlike the green mist that continued to shroud us, the water seemed clear although not sky-blue like water above. I scooped a handful and tasted it.

“It’s good. Normal tasting I’d say.” I looked around the lake at the bushes that grew heavy black clusters that dipped into the water. “Are those the berries?”

“Yup.” Lee sat down at the edge of the water, puffing from the walk of about two blocks.

“Adele, take care of his wound while I pick some of these.” She nodded her head and dipped my kerchief in the water and rinsed it.

I pulled off my cap, grabbed hers from her head, and started filling them with berries. I tasted a few. “They are sweet,” I yelled from a dense patch a few yards from where they sat. “And tart also, kind of raspberry flavored with overtones of wild strawberry.” I laughed at myself. “Listen to me. I sound like a sommelier.”

“How could you be?” Adele called back. “You don’t even know what good bourbon is.”

I laughed. “You’re right.”

I saw Adele wash Lee’s laceration while I picked. Intent on our tasks, we didn’t notice a shadow spreading over us until we heard a sound like the roar of an acetylene torch set ablaze. We all saw the head of a great serpent rise and glare down at us, its tongue probing and flitting, trying to catch our scent. Its head was the size of a boxcar, and it rose up as high as the Wells Fargo building in downtown Roanoke. As I stared at it I became lightheaded and felt unsteady. A bizarre kind of insanity must have set in because I started to laugh. Not just a chuckle, but a guffaw as if some crazy clown was frolicking in front of me. My mind went totally wacko and I thought: Am I in a B-film, some cheap pulp fiction from L. Ron Hubbard or Philip Dick? I have to be. This isn’t real. Can’t be. I’ll wake up screaming and scare the crap outta Lulu.

I continued laughing, a deep belly laugh. It was all so stupid. A green misty world, grass nine feet tall, a goddamn python named Mazapá, and beings who thought they were Japanese gods. I dropped the hatful of berries I’d picked and doubled over roaring my guts out.

Adele screamed as she and Lee ran into the grass. I followed, still laughing because I figured since it was my dream, apparently, I’d do what I wanted to do. We ran pell-mell, dove into the grass, and hunkered down.

“For some reason, it won’t come in here,” Lee said. I was still chuckling. “Why are you laughing?”

“No reason. Maybe because I’m scared shitless.”

Adele grabbed my hand. “Settle down. It’ll hear us.”

“Snakes are deaf,” Lee said.

About that time, we saw its head loom over the clearing. It moved to where we were hiding, but it never attempted to come into the grass. After a few minutes of hissing like a blowtorch and working its tongue to smell us out, it slithered away.

“Where does it go?” I said.

“I don’t know. It just pops up.”

“And it eats people?”

“I saw it gobble one of the Hitorigami like a noodle; just sucked him in.”

“Let’s get to the village,” I said. “Maybe they know what to do. By the way, do they speak English?”

“No. They speak an ancient form of Japanese, close to Ainu, spoken by maybe 25,000 people today. I speak modern Japanese. They can understand a bit and I can decipher a some of the Ainu. We get along.”

“Now, I know this is a nightmare,” I said and smiled at Lee. “Here we are, trapped by a gargantuan python in a grass jungle and I’m getting a lesson in the history of Japanese. When I wake up I’m going to write a book.”

“This is no dream, Sam. Believe me, I thought the same thing when I got here, but it’s real. No dream. You can die here. Mazapá can and will eat you.”

“Whatever you say, Lee.”

Adele let go of my hand. “Let’s try to get out of here. I’ve got to pee.”

Even Lee laughed a when she said that.