While stationed in Iraq during operation Desert Storm, my brother, Gerald, was lost for two weeks. Officially, it was claimed he was captured by the Republican Guard and tortured before managing to escape. The condition of his body when he was found helped lend credence to the explanation. Lacerations, broken bones, and all sorts of other physical damage covered him from head to toe.
He never recovered from the experience. He was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps after six months in a military hospital. When he was sent home, he began to display signs of Gulf War Syndrome. Years passed and his wife, Leah, cared for him as he weakened. His cognition, memory, and communication skills evaporated. Before he died last year, the brother I loved had been reduced to a gibbering husk. In his final moments, as Leah and I looked on, we were ready for his suffering end.
Then something happened, causing me to jump and Leah to gasp.
For the first time in eight years, Gerald expressed clear, articulate words:
“I fell in a hole.”
He went on, his voice clear and strong, as Leah and I listened, spellbound.
Gerald had been patrolling the outskirts of a village when the ground beneath him gave way. He fell for a very long time. He landed at an angle, his right leg plunging into soft moss and dirt while his left struck a rock, shattering the femur. He couldn’t believe he wasn’t dead. The pain, he told us, while indescribable, took a backseat to what he saw.
He’d fallen into what he assumed was a cavern. As deep as he was, he expected to be in pitch darkness, but the cavern was anything but. Bioluminescent vines and lichen and fungi covered the walls and stalactite-studded ceiling far above. He heard water flowing somewhere nearby.
Gerald did his best to extricate himself from the moss while trying to avoid losing consciousness from the pain of his broken leg. Some of the glowing vines which adorned the walls were very long and within his reach. He pulled himself up and out, then crawled on his belly down the small hill where he’d landed, onto the main floor of the cavern.
The floor was covered in feathers. Silvery-white and iridescent; they left streaks of dust on everything they touched, like the wings of moths. Gerald was surprised by their scent. It wasn’t unpleasant. Not at all, in fact. It was warm and spicy; entirely uncharacteristic of what one would think of when hundreds, or even thousands, of feet underground.
The dust, despite its enjoyable odor, grew thick and choking as he crawled in the direction of the rushing water. He came across an ancient-looking branch, which he used to haul himself onto his healthy leg. Using the wood as a crutch, he continued to move.
The bioluminescence intensified as the cavern narrowed. The pinkish light was coming from all directions. Gerald realized its source was some kind of mold that blanketed nearly everything in the cavern. The closer he got to the water, the more mold there was.
After walking for a few minutes, small patches of mold began falling from the ceiling like glowing snowflakes. The surreality of the cavern, the mold, and the feathers instilled a feeling of awe in Gerald, which clashed uncomfortably with the overwhelming pain in his leg and the fear that he’d never find his way out.
Not long after, he reached the river. It was slow and shallow but quite wide, stretching easily a quarter-mile across. Mold flakes floated in thick clumps on its surface. No feathers, though. Whatever the river’s source was, the feathers were from elsewhere.
He followed the river for a while. Despite the coolness of the water nearby, the cavern grew warmer. Narrower, too. The wide, tranquil river narrowed into frothing pink rapids. Gerald worried the bank would give way and he’d be plunged into the rushing water.
For countless minutes, Gerald was carried by the current and tossed into rocks, further damaging his leg and carving lacerations all over his body. As he struggled, he glimpsed tunnels on either side of him, some too narrow for a man to crawl through, some wide enough to fit a parade of elephants. Many of the wider ones were choked with feathers, which joined him and the glowing mold clots in the turbid water.
A roar filled the air, echoing off the stone walls and ceiling and drowning out the sound of the river. Before he knew what was happening, Gerald was airborne. As he tumbled through the air, he saw the waterfall he’d fallen from. He slammed into the water below and lost consciousness.
Gerald regained his senses some time later on the bank of a wide lake. He was on his back with his broken leg twisted underneath him. Screaming in agony, he didn’t notice the movement nearby. Not until it was on top of him.
Something wrapped around his ankle and hauled him into the air. The lake below him shrank as he was pulled ever higher, over a ledge, and stuffed upside down into a crevice in the ceiling.
At this point, as he told the story, Gerald began to cry. Leah held his head against her chest and did her best to console him, but his sobs were unrelenting. Gasping for breath and leaking tears, he continued to choke out words.
The view below him was no longer one of water and feathers and bioluminescent mold. The view was now one of horror and depravity.
Piles of mutilated bodies lay in writhing heaps on the floor. Some were dead, but most appeared alive. Their open mouths produced no screams, but agony was obvious in their expressions. Their wounds gaped and wept. The majority of the damage was to their backs, but many chests and bellies had been flayed and left to leak their contents onto the flailing victims trapped underneath them.
Gerald did his best to take it all in and think rationally. Craning his head and neck to look over his shoulder, he saw something massive in the distance. Something alive and moving in strange, circular patterns around a stationary central point. There was less light in this part of the cavern than where he’d initially fallen. There was no bioluminescent mold covering the walls and ceiling. Even if there was, it would have been coated with blood and gore. No, the only light around him was from fire.
Innumerable torches stood inside holes bored into the stone floors and walls and ceilings. Flames gouted and flowed within their osseous confines, illuminating the killing floor of violence and torment which stretched all the way to the leviathan far behind him.
The rock in which Gerald’s leg was stuffed cracked. Gerald began to fall, headfirst, toward the pile of bodies a hundred feet below. He knew this was one fall he wouldn’t be able to survive. As he imagined his spine splintering as his head struck the head or face of someone below, his ankle was grabbed again. The force of the grab, combined with the velocity of his fall, snapped his pelvis. The pain was immediate and unendurable. Gerald saw dark stars blooming in his vision. His consciousness waned.
He traveled in a gray fog toward the colossus he’d glimpsed while trapped. Part of him was aware of the thing which held his ankle. It was thin and tentacular; a living vine or organic cord or serpentine whip. Something he couldn’t understand. He was dropped at the floor in front of the huge creature.
Whatever it was, it didn’t have his attention. The fog of his semi-consciousness was burnt away by the sight of incredibly-bright white light. It was light unlike anything he’d ever seen; the radiance should have been blinding, but it caused no pain at all. It didn’t etch auras into his retinas like when he’d glimpsed at the sun, despite being thousands of times brighter. It didn’t travel, either – it was confined to one particular area. It produced no blazing heat or discomfort whatsoever. Only calming warmth. He felt overwhelming serenity as he locked his eyes on the man-sized light source.
The serene calm was punctured as tens of the organic tendrils erupted from somewhere above and raped their way into the brilliance. Gerald experienced a sense of hideous, disembodied violation, as if he were watching the assault of a loved one while feeling every moment of their pain and indignity with his own body. He cringed and retched, tears filling his eyes, as he watched the tendrils pull a man from somewhere inside the light source.
The spicy, warm smell from earlier in the day filled Gerald’s nostrils. The man from the light struggled against the grasp of the tendrils, his nude, muscular body completely helpless against their strength. As the man was pulled into the room with Gerald and the tendrils, Gerald gasped.
The man’s back was home to a pair of enormous wings. They flapped and sent violent currents of wind across the floor, blowing dust in all directions. While the man struggled, more tendrils came down from the ceiling. With practiced meticulousness, they uprooted the appendages from the man’s back. The sound of heavy shrubbery being torn from the ground filled the air. The man’s face contorted into a shriek of abject, torturous agony, but he made no sound. The only noise was the nauseating tearing as the man was disfigured.
Feathers broke from the wings and floated to the ground. With one final tug, the wings were separated from his body. Their stumps leaked dark blood which puddled on the dirt floor, contrasting obscenely against the magnificence of the white light just feet away.
The man stopped struggling against the tendrils. He slumped, his muscles relaxed, and stared at the ground in front of him. A series of much thinner tendrils descended and plucked all the feathers from the wings and shuttled them away, leaving the bleeding amputations in the dirt. Another tendril whipped downward at a blinding speed, striking the man’s abdomen and splitting the flesh. His intestines bulged from the wound and the tendrils holding him pulled him through the air toward the countless other bodies I’d been perched above moments before.
Leah and I watched Gerald with horrified amazement as he recalled these events. We had no idea if he was telling the truth or if it was all just a manifestation of the illness which was about to take him from us.
The three of us wept while Gerald looked around, as if trying to determine whether or not we believed him. I felt like I needed to say something, so I asked, “what happened next? How did you get out?” Leah nodded, encouraging him to go on.
Gerald’s voice dropped to a whisper.
Disoriented and in immense pain, Gerald tried to look around. The room was too big. He couldn’t get a good idea of what he was seeing or where he was, but he knew he was right in front of the creature he’d seen. He tried to struggle to his feet, but the injury to his hip and leg was too great. The fractured bones ground against one another and he screamed so hard he felt his lungs might burst.
He was grabbed again. This time, by his shoulders. Two tendrils hauled him up and up and up. He saw the thing in front of him. The colossus. The leviathan. The serpent. The head of an impossibly large snake bulged at the apex of a body of thick trunks. Each trunk had bifurcated into a series of thinner trunks. Each thinner trunk had bifurcated into a series of tendrils. Each series of tendrils had bifurcated into more, thinner tendrils. And so on.
The thick, spicy odor filled the area again. He knew it meant more wings were being destroyed. The snake stared at him, it’s yellow eye full of hideous intelligence and unknowable age. They gazed at one another, and Gerald heard words in his head. Words that were not spoken to him, but thought at him:
“Tell everyone what you saw. Tell everyone what I am. Let them know I’ll be coming soon.”
The next thing Gerald knew, he was on his back, staring at the unforgiving sun of the Iraqi desert. He was found by locals hours later.
Gerald’s whispering tapered off and he closed his eyes. I was terrified he’d passed away. Leah shook him and said his name a few times, panic rising in her voice. Gerald’s eyes opened. His lips parted.
“The serpent,” Gerald whispered.” He coughed and stared at the ceiling, a tear trickling from the corner of his eye.
“…was wrapped around a tree. The tree was filled with apples. Millions upon millions of them.”
Leah clutched his hand and I held his shoulder.
“I watched as tiny snakes crawled into the ripest ones. Pieces of him. Then the apples disappeared. They went into a hole in the air. And I could see what was on the other side of the holes. Orchards. Trees all over the world. His apples are filling them.”
His eyes fluttered closed and he breathed the last words we’d ever hear him speak.
“We’ve been eating them for millennia. He’s inside us all.”