Melanie Kramarchuk ’22 was awarded a NJCTE Bronze Medal for Fiction for her short story “FALLING.” The piece was created in response to a challenge from her English teacher Mr. Lou Scerra to write something inspired by author Ted Chiang’s style in which form matches content. Melanie was honored at a NJCTE Award Reception on April 11, 2019 in Scotch Plains. Excerpts from winning work were performed by the Union Catholic High School Forensics Club. Congratulations, Melanie!
The tunnels threaded through the earth, spanning the entirety of the planet’s inner layers. Their size and quantity were such that, were the earth to be cut in half, it would be seen that there was little material between the tunnels, separating one from another. This was inevitable, for so much of the earth had been dug up to the surface for the sake of creating these tunnels that very little had remained below the crust. And so the earth no longer hid dirt and gravel and rock beneath its face, but rather an endless maze of tunnels leading into the depths of the planet. The material that had once filled these tunnels now formed mountains on the earth’s surface so that one could not help but think that the earth was being turned inside out.
It was said that when the universe first emerged from oblivion, divine beings had walked the earth. Each was granted governance of a realm: the sea, the sky, the desert, the forest, and so on. They coexisted in peace, however it was strained, for each believed that they were more powerful, and therefore more deserving than the next. And so the gods of the earthen realms soon commenced conspiring against the goddess of the sky, for envy had driven them all mad. Together, they converged on her kingdom in the sky, knocking her from her throne. She fell to earth, and where she fell, her blood was spilt, staining the ground. The other gods, realizing what they had done, turned on each other in rage. The clash of sword blades echoed to the ends of the universe, and where the gods’ blood fell to the earth, it wound and wrapped around the planet like a coil of string. The battle continued until they could no longer remember why it had started at all, and so they retreated back into their realms quietly. Over time, the blood that had soaked the earth hardened into a metallic material resembling gold or silver, serving as a reminder of the slaughter than had occurred. As years passed, it was concealed by the processes of earth and covered by new layers of dirt and soil and gravel. And so by the time humans came to walk the earth in the place of gods, the slaughter had been forgotten, for its reminder lived buried under layers of earth.
All his life, Gabriel had heard stories of the tunnels below the earth. He had learned of the tunnels, so large that they could house the population of earth with room to spare. He had listened to the tales, telling of tunnels of great length and quantity, which intertwined with one another in such a way that those who entered on their own never again saw the light of day. Indeed, there had been many instances where individuals had wandered into the tunnels, never to be seen again, left to perish in solitude in the depths of the earth, while their family mourned them miles above under a blue sky. Such a fate was one desired by no man, for there was something cruel about losing one’s life in such a setting, surrounded on all sides by earth, dying not due to lack of will or the process of time or even battle, but simply because there was nothing left to do. This knowledge detained many from entertaining the idea of entering the tunnels, but there were still those who did so from sheer desperation. For many of the poor, it was a last resort, a final chance at life, for it created at the very least the illusion of hope, however irrational, when there was very little left to be seen in the hard, cold reality.
When mankind first began digging, their objective had been to dig to the very core of the planet, to unearth the secrets hidden in the ground beneath their feet. It was not long, however, before they encountered a strange metal, which was brought up to the surface to be examined. It was with the discovery of this material that the ancient legend was uncovered, and so the mysterious metal was determined to not be metal at all, but rather the blood of the gods that had once traversed planet earth. The original desire of reaching the center of the earth was forsaken, and humanity contented themselves with mining for hardened blood, which soon came to be worth more than the most precious of metals. Gabriel’s father had been fortunate, for he had been one of the few men commissioned to work in the tunnels, a job of the utmost honor and prestige. And so, Gabriel had only ever known known a life in which everything he should ever need or want was supplied to him upon his command. He had only ever known a life in which he need not spare a second thought to his basic needs or safety, for that burden had been placed in the hands of his many servants and staff. He had only ever known a life sheltered by wealth and fortune, for the cushion of money was, indeed, a favorable cushion to lay upon.
But no fairy tale was immune to the test of time and fate and reality, and so each, in turn, took its toll on this one as they had on countless others. Gabriel’s father had contracted the flu, forcing his mother into depression and the rest of the family into a state of somber prayer. The memories of that time, Gabriel knew, he would never escape– the vile stench of sickness hanging in the stuffy air of the corridors, the whispers he had overheard from the kitchen as the doctor explained the situation in strange terms Gabriel knew not of. He had stood outside his father’s door, wondering why the world had forsaken him, why it had left his father to die and his mother without a reason to live. When Gabriel’s father passed away the following day, Gabriel knew what was to be– he would be forced into the tunnels to take his father’s place.
And so, from then on, each day Gabriel entered the tunnels where his father had once worked, which he found so strikingly similar to the hallways of his own home in his father’s final days– the stale air that made it difficult to draw breath into one’s lungs, the stifling sense of foreboding, and most of all, the feeling that this place had been infiltrated by something unnatural, unwelcome.
For who had granted humanity permission to defile what was not theirs– something so ancient that it had witnessed the clash of the gods and, furthermore, housed the battle’s reminder in its layers? Were the sun and the sky not sufficient to satisfy these people? Could they not appreciate the beauty the earth had gifted them– the rays of early morning sunshine filtering through a canopy of leaves high above, the steady lapping of a stream chipping away at the sides of a narrow ravine, or the feeling of the wind whistling against one’s face, bringing with it scents of foreign, unexplored lands and the prospect of something new and different? For by digging into the earth, Gabriel realized, was humanity not violating the laws of the universe– of life and structure and order? These thoughts were those Gabriel battled against with the dawning of every day, yet within the walls of his home another battle was being fought.
“Please.” Gabriel whispered as he knelt before his mother, sitting hunched in a rocking chair. Her eyes were unfocused, her hair matted, her face gaunt and sallow. She had the undeniable appearance of one whose will to live had abandoned her long ago– of one for whom life was no longer a cherished gift, but a torture from which she wished to be released. “Please mother, please.” Gabriel pleaded, his voice cracking with raw desperation, stripped down to the flesh and bone. “Don’t you know who I am? I’m your son, mother. I’m Gabriel. Don’t you remember?” She seemed to respond to the words. Her lips parted and began to form shapes, as if practicing– trying to remember how to create words. But when sound eventually escaped from her throat, the words were like a shard of glass in Gabriel’s heart. “Where is Samuel? Where is my husband?” The shard was plunged deep, for this was Gabriel’s father, whose soul and body no longer existed as one, considering the latter was buried in one of the countless tunnels winding through the earth, while the other resided in heaven.
This heartbreaking procedure of reminding one of a forgotten tragedy was perhaps the hardest of all things to do, yet for Gabriel it became a daily routine. And in his mother’s deteriorating state, he knew he had no choice but to continue his work in the tunnels. The passing of time blurred the monotony of everyday into a carousel, spinning round and round on repeat with no end, for each day resembled the last, as well as the day that had come two weeks before, or two months before, or that would come in two months’ time. But a day soon came when, upon entering the tunnels, he felt a presence he had not before felt. Yet, obedient to his human ignorance, he ventured further. As he commenced his work, however– shovel connecting with earth– he felt a snap echo and resonate from the very core of the planet. He felt the earth vibrate around him, as if a large rubber band had suddenly broken from excessive strain. Within seconds, it began to rain, but not the soft patter of water droplets against a bed of grass. This was the rain not of the sky, but of the earth. Gabriel began to run, but his path was soon no longer visible, for in every direction he looked, the earth was pouring down. It poured and poured until he was immobilized and could no longer see or move or breathe.
Gabriel felt the earth shudder with the weight of all it held– humanity, along with its greed and hunger. It was as if he could hear the thundering heartbeat of the earth. And then it cracked. It was a splintering noise, the noise of something so grand, so massive that it had lived for billions of years. And so it was only fair that its end should be as grand as its beginning. For a moment everything seemed to stand still. And then chaos erupted and Gabriel was falling, just as the goddess of the sky had fallen when knocked from her throne in the sky. But there was nowhere to fall to, and so he fell until all he knew was the sensation of falling and the guilt of having destroyed a being so powerful. And so it was this he was left to ponder until the end of time, for the universe had no mercy, and eternity no end.