The thin, flattened grass beneath the girl’s feet smokes and sweats like hell’s comb-over but it’s only mildly warm. Something underground burns in a great lightless fire. It was kindled long ago where the coal hides and there it incubated until its poison escaped up through the roots and into the town’s fields and choked the clean country air with its hate.
The girl inhales. She is five months away from her sixteenth birthday but will not live to see it.
She came here a few days ago from somewhere east, maybe from Nesquehoning, out of the glow of the coast months before that, walking or hitching along Route 54 until the lights faded and the treelines went mad. No other possessions but her memories, curdling as they followed her. The nights here are as dark as she’s ever known and the only people she sees are those hidden within their cars, just eyeless silhouettes.
The last trucker that picked her up warned her about getting lost in the wild. He had teeth like heirloom corn and his jeans were dusty gray.
“Keep west,” he said. “Don’t turn up on sixty-one, whatever you do. Anywhere near Catawissa. Just make a u-ey if you see it. You listening, missy?”
She just looked at him.
“Fire burning there for fifty years, maybe longer, all of it underground. Can you believe that?” He chewed on something. “Monoxide’s gettin’ worse every day. You get up there at night you won’t see the morning.”
He let her sleep in the cab that night but sometime in the early dawn after he pulled over for a spell she slipped out. She had woken to him staring at her, leering in a hateful way with the light cast over one half of his face, giving it an ogreish shape. She had seen the look many times before, before she knew him even.
He walked off to relieve himself, still chewing. After a moment of listening she rushed out and headed down the shoulder a ways and then followed 61 as it snaked north. Right before the hill crested she turned and walked backwards, heels first, looking south to watch the candy red truck shrink and shrink until it looked like a tiny little apple fallen beneath all the green. The trucker in his gray jeans was looking for her, just a human speck. She flipped him two middle fingers and turned round again, marching proudly towards this supposed hell of his. She would go to death itself to defy him and any man like him, those who had been tasked with the keeping of the world but had instead resigned themselves to its ruin.
The pavement was cracked at some point just a half-mile beyond, right where the trees thinned out, the dirt and gnarled brush bursting out of its middle. There was a conceit about the rupture, she felt, pride in how it had so easily split the roadway and left wicked shapes in the passage of violence. She kept walking.
She’s been here two days now. The roads are silent and torn with huge swells and smoke comes up from the empty spaces like whatever’s beneath is furious she’d dare come here. Down inside the swells it's just black. On the main thoroughfare folks have written farewell messages in pastel chalk or sketches of twirling, engorged penises or other cartoonish smut. The grass is creeping over all of it aimlessly.
The sun came down slow on the first day. She slept in a gas station, eating adobo powder and canned pork roll and whitebread. She drank the last of the blue syrup out of the shake machine and watched the summer moon light the steam wafting up near the pumps. Sleep came and then dawn. Between the two she dreamt many dreams and forgot them all save one, wherein on the morning of a June sabbath when the world beyond the windows was still dark her father held her under a tub of scalding bathwater to purge the devil from her. Mother stood idly by, troubled, watching them convulse and hearing the low screams and wringing her hands together like pale washrags.
When the girl awoke she knew it was not a dream but a memory. She waited for the sunrise to break through the thick coat of brown film covering the glass but it couldn’t do it. Just a glow of dirty light. The second day passed much the same.
On the third morning she went out to feel the grass on her feet and that’s where she stands now, shoes in hand. The houses around her are all hunching shoeboxes desperately hoping against hope they won’t collapse into the overrun weeds and she walks for a mile or more before she sees any kind of fence or gate that hasn't been ripped away by the callousness of time. She inhales again. The air reeks of squealing tires and snuffed candles.
Past the downtown streets where the whole town seems broken in two she comes across a large hill that slopes gently upward into the trees beyond. She follows it through the smoking mud, her feet in the hot scree. The sun has lit the valley and from her new height she sees the various structures, the church and the auto shop and the small corner store and even the townhome rows, all white and slatted with bands of grime, poking up from the head of the smog like beacons on the sea. There is no sound but the vague murmur of air. She screams with her tiny voice and as it bullets into the ugly mist she swears she can see it, the wave of her voice, riding across. It feels like home, this burning Shangri-La, proud even as it blisters, cherishing its ruin with a survivor's pride. She feels a claim to it. Its devastation is her own.
She keeps walking. The hill flattens into higher ground knotted with tendrils of ryegrass and crooked wildflowers. In the open fields beyond there is a battlefield of derelict furniture leading out to an empty rail yard. She goes along, letting her hands touch the couches and armchairs and hutches and stools as they pass on either side of her. Some sad, abandoned yard sale. When she comes at last to the rails she sees that the tracks are grubby and rusted, sunk deep in the ballast. There is a deep wear on the ties and they are splintering away into brown-gray shards.
She follows the rail a ways as it turns out of the woods and cuts behind a tall yellow house, fake wrinkled flowers in its windows. Its narrow chimney plays the part of brick spine and the white shudders have gone colorless under the gradation of soot.
To the left of the rails set back a few yards an old man sits in a slanted rocking chair. She stops. She doesn’t know what to think of him or if he’s even alive until she sees him look up at the house. His face is the color of city snow and he’s waiting there like a mummified tsar lingering in the mist. As silent as his town.
She approaches him quietly and closer now she feels that he looks much like her father, twenty years on maybe, debased by a turmoil, by his imprisonment to some event that holds stubbornly in time even as it refuses to fade so that its hurt is as stark as the day it first occurred. There is a milk fading in his eyes and a clouded pink apnea mask pressed to his lips though it is disconnected on the hanging end. He rocks gently on the chair’s one good side.
“Someone there?” he says. He stops rocking.
She moves into his view finally and his eyes catch her, however weakly.
“Gave me a start, girl.” He swallows and his toothless lips smack. “You’re the first person I seent in three years.”
She watches his face as the shadows of smoke pass over it.
“There’s hell beneath us, ya know,” he says. “Coal seam fire. Lit up before the Great War. You wondering what it was?”
She shook her head no.
“Alright,” he says. His laugh sounds born from prehistory. “No one wanted to believe it and then no one wanted to stay.” He smacks his lips again. “Just me here. I’m the king of this place.” He lifts his arms up to his elbows and nods at the tall yellow house. “Help me in now, girl.”
As he waits she stares at him, feeling her resolve melt away. She does not usually trust anyone older than herself but there is something that compels her toward that very feeling now, a font of compassion that has been draining steadily over time and yet is still full enough for this one last man.
They cross the tracks shoulder to shoulder and go up the naked cement stairs and through the front door. The house is narrow inside, holding its breath. There are darkwood tables so dusty their color has changed from brown to gray and they hold strange little porcelain figurines depicting Irish tinkers, all sadly pining and cast in faded pastels. Throughout the long main hall the mist lays fetid and oily and makes the old woodwork look claymade. The ashen light from the back window strikes it all noxiously.
“The bed,” the old king says. His voice is muffled liquid through the mask. “Upstairs.”
They go up to the tiny corner bedroom. Its windows are shuttered but the sun peeks through the long gaps to show them the vapor as it smolders and curls. It is as fitful as a writhing demon, caught in some endless conjure. The girl waves a path through it with her free hand and lays the old man down on the bed. His breath toils. He smiles.
She spends the rest of the evening downstairs eating almond butter off her fingers and watching the sun die behind the stubborn brume. She can hear the sound of the insects so delighted by the void darkening out of the earth. A humid mass of stutters and clicks and pitchless shrieks. Ecstasy. When it is completely dark she goes upstairs again to check on the old king but his body is cold and his mask makes no sound. The smoke lays on him like a fur. She stares at him until it is early morning and she blinks herself awake. When she takes the apnea mask from his hand it comes gently, like a scepter passing to its heir. Now begins her reign.
Outside is the last dark before the sun, a starless fade of black with dim colors spread at its edge. She finds her way through the blindness to the chair. Far off to the east there is a glow that she thinks is daybreak but it is not. She waits as her eyes adjust. A sheet of red rippling light, furious as it writhes, molting and tidal and sacralized by the last of the night. It is rolling up the sky but just before it crests the moon it is cast back down along the shape of the hills and into the earth that first begat it, falling and whirling, bleeding out its poison in a spiral. Trees and brush are stripped and glowing like hot gunmetal and along the ridges of the horizon great gaping holes unhinge from the rock to belch their smelted flame and it is all rightly crowned with the fog of the coal.
The girl keeps watching. She feels the smoke burning in her eyes but there is no urge to blink it off for she fears it will break the reverie. Sunrise comes at last and the great fire pales before it. The flames are still screaming away but they are crippled, shattering into the colors of dawn, the bleached pink and yellow that hemorrhage. She puts the mask over her lips and lets its tube dangle over her arm. Her breathing sounds like a machine. The inside of the mask smells of rank dip and morning breath and old cloudy vinegar but she doesn’t care. She can still taste the fire through the smeared plastic. When the rain comes later in the day, flecking down on her in cold spits, she is too far gone to feel it.
Just a day or two later a lone engine car of a freight train comes hissing into town. It is a hulking diesel locomotive, the GE U28B, half-painted in Halloween colors. It chugs and clicks until finally grinding to a stop right where the railroad ties splinter off. A skinny engineer jumps off wearing a mask like an old phenate helmet and he heads north to the yellow house with his hands in his back pockets. The shadows of the contrails race over the green ground.
When he comes at last to the house he sees the girl straightaway. Her body is pale gray tallow, deflated-like, robbed of its fullness. Her face is at peace. His obscured eyes hold a kindness for her. He heads inside to see if there is anyone else but there is no one. No body, even. Just empty picture frames and a thick silent cloud and the facsimiles of the Irish tinker dolls, grimacing with the black dust in their eyes.
K.A. Liedel is an aspiring author based in Delaware. He is a former staff writer for Slant Magazine and, like Miniver Cheevy, believes he was born a hundred years too late.
"Tsarina" is K.A.'s first published story.