Harold of the Rocks
On Wednesday, June 14th, 1994, I accompanied Roy, Sandra, and Harold Medaugh on a trip to one of their big resort properties, this one onPotashLake inNorthern Ontario. I was there in my capacity as nurse to Harold, the oldest Medaugh brother, who was schizophrenic and could not be left unattended. About fifty miles East of the complex, our Cessna developed engine problems and plunged into theWabakimiForest. Harold and I, some tinned food, and not much else came out of the flaming wreck, and even I came out damaged, having sprained an ankle and broken two fingers.
After several days tramping the bush, splinted and bandaged, I was in far worse shape than my charge. My leg was throbbing and red and I was running a fever. Consistently though, I refused the shoulder that Harold offered me. I was his nurse, and felt that, as much as possible, the office needed to keep its mystique. Also, I didn’t like Harold much; he was a geriatric Dennis the Menace, always running away and getting into scrapes.
Abruptly, Harold, who was breaking trail for the two of us, came to a stop. I pulled up behind him. Before us was a ground-down remnant of theLaurentian Mountains, a non-descript lump of rock several hundred feet high, dotted here and there with scraggly trees, like patches of hair on an elderly man.
“I know where we are,” Harold said. “Do you know where we are?”
“Sorry, no. Getting close to your family’s property, I hope.”
“So there’s something that I know that you don’t know?”
Harold was mocking me in my weakness. I felt like cuffing him across the head. “Are we close, Harold?”
“This is Echo Mountain. The lake is on the other side of it, and the castle is on the lake. The outer gate is about a mile from here.”
“Can we go around?”
“That’s three times the distance. Even worse for your leg.”
“My leg is fine either way. But we’ll go over, if you like.” I wasn’t going to give Harold any satisfaction. And indeed if he was correct we were less than an hour from a satellite phone, drinkable water, first aid gear. I knew I could tough it out for that. I hadn’t visited this particular Medaugh property before, but the family was extremely wealthy and if Harold was calling it a “castle”, then it probably was about that size.
As we ascended the sound of our footsteps began to resonate weirdly through Echo Mountain. It was as though we had become an army of shuffling wounded.
“Echo Mountain is hollow,” Harold explained. “The stone we’re walking on is paper thin, and it covers a hole in the ground so deep that nobody has ever found the bottom. Footsteps, voices, all set up vibrations, and the hollow space inside acts like a big amplifier.”
“The local Indians say that the mountain covers an entrance to the Underworld. Thousands of years ago they punched a couple of holes near the top of it. They lowered torches down through these holes on ropes, so that they might get a look at the Underworld. But there wasn’t enough rope in the universe to reach all that way down.”
“Is that true?” I asked. Harold’s imagination was rich and perverse.
“The Medaughs came fromThunder Bay, Melissa. I grew up around here. I know all of these mountains and all the stories pertaining to them.”
And soon we came upon a real, honest-to-goodness puncture in the stone, about the size of a rabbit hole and surrounded by chiselled petroglyphs. Harold knelt before it. “They say that if you whisper, the mountain sings, and if you shout, it howls.” He pressed his cupped hands to the gap. “Hallooo! Hallooo!” he shouted down through it.
Harold’s voice disappeared into a roar as big as the ocean. If this sound had not been so utterly, brain-numbingly loud, it would have been a sweet musical tone. But in fact it was like a great horn that signals the End. The world shook madly, and several old pines on the mountain’s flanks surrendered and fell.
I too was thrown to the ground, landing at Harold’s feet. He burst out laughing.
“Don’t do that again, Harold!”
“The Province declared Echo Mountain “off limits” years ago. They were worried the whole thing might pop like a light bulb. But the Indians won’t let them fill up these holes, either. This is sacred ground to them.”
Harold and I continued our trudge to the top of the mountain. “There’s the lake,” he said, pointing. Indeed, I could see a finger of blue between the pine trees. “If you look closely, you can see the castle.”
I stepped in front of Harold. Yes, there did seem to be a flash of stucco-white that signalled a human habitation… My heart gave a flutter. We were delivered!
And then, in delayed reaction to Harold’s call, perhaps, the mountain shattered beneath me like a champagne glass at the high C.
I fell into the Earth.
I am Swallowed
I fell for hours, deep, deep into the Earth, down an endless slope like the throat of a giant. But I was secure in this descent, for the chunk of mountain to which Harold and I clung rode intact upon an immense wave of tumbling rubble like a leaf on the crest of a Tsunami. Strangely enough, after my initial terror had faded, I became drowsy and slept. When I opened my eyes againEchoMountainwas a pile of rubble sitting quietly in the middle of an immense space glowing a shade of phosphorescent green.
As much as I personally disliked Harold, a nurse is like a professional mother; I sensed that he was gone from my side, and leapt to my feet in a half-panic. Standing atop the rubble ofEchoMountainI scanned my surroundings. We had landed in the midst of a vast, featureless flatland that glowed acidic green. Above me was absolute darkness. There must have been an opening up there, the base of the hole down which we had fallen, but I could see nothing of it.
Harold was the only thing moving in the entire landscape. I watched as he picked his way meticulously down the rubble incline. And I knew what he was going to do; he was going to stride blithely out onto the glowing plain, just to see what it was.
“Harold!” I pitched a small piece of mountain at the old man. It flew over his head, landed with a thick “gloop”, and promptly disappeared. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
Harold remained in place as I scrambled down the rubble after him. He had officially misbehaved, wandering off like that without permission. When I reached him I abused his bald head with slap after slap.
Suddenly my hand froze in mid-blow. Harold and I were now very close to the base of the mountain, and I stepped past him to get a better look at where my stone had landed. Behind me Harold picked up and tossed another projectile. It hit with a “splat” and sank, the way a spoon sinks in thick porridge.
Clearly, the area before us was not solid land but a vast subterranean Ocean. And the substance of this liquid body, I discovered with horror, was Bile, Vomit, bubbling with its own heat
and glowing a poisonous green. Pieces of half-digested matter floated on its surface, from banal things like carrots and tomatoes to the half-melted bodies of freakish, unknown life forms.
Stunned, I pulled Harold from the shore and back to the mountaintop. I sat down with a plop. My mouth watered; I felt dizzy.
“Gonna be sick?” Harold asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I feel fine,” he noted. “Actually, I’m hungry.”
“Oh Lord, Harold….! Get away!”
With massive convulsions, I threw-up everything that was inside of me. The experience was extremely painful, and I don’t know how long it took. For awhile I thought I might die. But I didn’t of course and when I was finished I lay on my side and watched Harold through teary eyes. He was halfway down the rubble slope, pulling at something buried in the debris.
“What’re you up to, Harold?”
“Getting fire-wood. I’m hungry, I told you.”
Harold’s idea was quite clever. The trees growing on the sides of Echo Mountain had followed it into the Earth, and I still had some tinned food from the plane. We would not starve for awhile, at least. I made my way towards Harold and began pulling up wood myself. In an hour we had a campfire going. I found, to my surprise, that I was able to drink hot Lipton’s soup straight out of the can.
After dinner Harold and I did some exploring. The remnants of Echo Mountain had landed with a splash in the midst of a glowing sea of bile. It took about three hours for us to determine that if we walked two hundred yards down slope in any direction we came to the edge of this sea.
“Your leg is better,” Harold noted.
He was right, in a way; the swelling and redness were gone, and it no longer hurt me to walk. But I hadn’t really recovered; I felt tired in a way that was like pain generalized over every square inch of my body.
We ended up where we started, atop Echo Mountain. I made my bed among the broken stones, and let myself drift towards sleep.
“What do we do now?” I remember Harold asking me.
“I don’t know, Harold. Let me rest a bit. Things’ll look clearer in the morning.”
“My watch says it’s four p.m.”
“Shut up, please.”
When I awoke I discovered Harold down by the seashore, standing over a rectangular structure made of tree-trunks. He was cutting up a length of rope that we had salvaged from the Medaughs’ airplane with a small hand-axe that we had salvaged from the same place.
“Harold! What are you up to?” I picked my way towards him.
“There’s no other way to go but over,” Harold explained. “Before the food runs out.”
Harold was building us a raft from the gnarled trees that had once lined the flanks of Echo Mountain, and was doing a good job of it, too. Each of the logs was about the same diameter, and each had been trimmed to the same length, using nothing but that little axe.
“Harold, the sea could just go on forever. It could be that there is no other side. I wish you’d asked me about this, because you’ve cut up all that good rope now and…”
Suddenly I was crying. I turned away so Harold wouldn’t see me, and struggled to pull myself together. “Jesus!” I thought. I hadn’t cried in years. It was appalling!
While I was thus distracted Harold bound the logs together with our rope. He then brought me a wooden paddling pole fashioned from a young birch tree.
“Be careful,” Harold said. “The sea isn’t deep but it burns to the touch.”
Brushing away tears, I followed him aboard the vessel.
Without another word or any kind of ceremony, we launched our raft and began our voyage across the sea of bile. What else could I do? The choice had been made for me. But it was the right choice, and I would have made it myself, eventually.
The sea was without weather or life or movement but the movement of our raft. We poled for endless hours through its sterile green sameness, skidding along the sea surface at a brisk pace, as if riding on melted fat. Our meals came uncooked from the tin. A day passed, by Harold’s watch, and still we could see nothing of a further shore.
While I slept on and off, Harold worked relentlessly. I bandaged his hands to keep them from blistering, but he never once complained of pain or fatigue. And the travelling of the last hours had burned some of the fat from his face and neck. For the first time in years I could see his cheekbones. He looked healthier, almost a little bit handsome.
On the second day aboard I veered close to panic, for the substance of this liquid body was like weak stomach acid, and I could smell our raft starting to burn from it. Puffs of black smoke began spurting up through the cracks between the logs.
“What happens, Harold?” I asked, “if this thing breaks apart or catches fire? What if we end up standing in that muck? I slapped his bald head furtively, out of habit, like a nervous smoker reaching for a cigarette.
Harold Talks of Love
Harold did not cease working as I fretted. “Melissa,” he finally said, “As they burn, the parts of our vessel will become stronger. They’re joining their souls.”
I did not reply, and Harold sensed my scepticism. “When you drop a penny into acid it dissolves, right? And if you drop two pennies into acid they dissolve more slowly, even when they don’t touch, so when the acid is dead there might be something left….”
“…But if you drop the two pennies in the acid together, one on the other, when they burn they burn into one another. And when the acid has finished its work there will always be something left, but it will be one thing instead of two, like when people get married.”
“And so it is with us. The logs burn and become a raft. They fall in love and become one thing.”
I found Harold’s speech insane but oddly uplifting. And as time passed it became apparent that the deterioration of our little vessel had ceased. This surprised me, but more surprising was how clever and useful Harold had become. This place, this new world, seemed to have altered him, made him stronger and touched with poetry. Whereas it had only drained me. I was not sure how I felt about our change in roles.
It was during the morning of our third day at sea Harold that shook me awake and whispered “Land Ho!” into my ear.
I sat up. “Where?” I grabbed him by the shirt. “Show me.”
Harold was almost correct. Ahead of us, a range of volcanic mountains rose out of the Sea of Bile, their peaks sparking salmon like gigantic traffic flares. But we discovered as we poled closer that these mountains were sheer cliff. They offered no beach where we might land our raft.
So we could only push on, weaving our way among them. The passage became narrow in places, and misty, as orange dribbles of lava bled down the mountainsides and poured hissing into the sea around us.
Gradually, the substance of the liquid underneath our raft changed, turning from glowing lime to deep crimson. Harold dipped his hand beneath the surface.
“Well, it doesn’t burn anymore,” he said, and brought his hand towards his lips.
I whacked him across the rear with my paddling-pole. “No, you idiot! You don’t put it in your mouth! You don’t know what it is!”
Harold refrained, but he didn’t talk for awhile; he was sulking.
“Melissa?” he said, some time later.
He turned from his work to face me; there were dark red stains on his chin. “It tastes like blood,” he said.
I had been concerned about our food supply. We’d been eating jellied ham and soup straight out of the tin for three days, and were almost to the end of it. But now my worries disappeared, for
Harold and I began nourishing ourselves on blood. Harold started the practice, and I should have punished him, I suppose, but I was becoming indulgent—he had behaved so resourcefully. And then I succumbed myself: the salt smell of blood was everywhere, and tiny droplets were blown upon my lips by the warm drafts swirling around the base of the volcanoes. Their taste was so invigorating, so rich and full of iron, that I gave up, dipped a finger into the blood, and drank. I felt stronger instantly, so Harold and I continued on in this way, each pretending not to see the other sup from the thick red juice.
Though the meal strengthened me, it also filled me with powerful sexual urges, which I refused to direct towards Harold. My situation was most unpleasant, since there was no privacy aboard the raft and nothing I could do to relieve myself of these feelings. God knows what poor Harold must have gone through. Physically, the only change apparent in him was most unusual: his hair started to grow in, dark and wavy.
Gradually, the volcanic range thinned and a Sea of Blood opened out before us, this body only lightly speckled with the fiery peaks.
However, in their light we discovered that we had come upon a world full of Monsters.
The animal we spied first was huge almost beyond comprehension—a full mile in length, I swear.
Its shape was reptilian–thick and squat like a monitor lizard–and it boasted a spinal crest composed of interlocking triangular plates almost thirty stories high at the peak. Pole-ing around this animal, we watched it die; a terrible bite-wound had been inflected upon the neck, and blood spurted geyser-like from the exposed artery so that a pink mist formed in the air around it. The tail swept back and forth slowly, and the resultant waves lifted and plunged our little raft, though we kept as great a distance as we could.
The sea was littered with these creatures, all at least as big as this nearest specimen. Each possessed the same stubby, reptilian shape, but they were infinitely varied in their details. Some wore great horns on the snout, others could exhale fire. And each seemed territorially bound to a volcano, either curled around it like a huge gargoyle, or lounging in the warm sea nearby.
As we moved on we witnessed one these beasts, with hedgehog spines 100 feet tall, slither through the blood and challenge another for the rights to a volcano. Its head bobbed up and down in a gesture of aggression, and the second animal, like a gigantic ironturtle, responded in kind. If you have ever seen an angry iguana, dewlap extended, then you will know this gesture. If not, imagine the toy dogs people keep on the back dashboard of their car. These two creatures would have looked ridiculous had they not been the size of aircraft carriers.
“Brace yourself, Harold” I said, though they were miles away.
Suddenly the two animals reared upon their hind-legs, closed, and slashed one another with claws and fangs. They death-clenched, each with its teeth in the others neck, arched, and fell into the volcano they were fighting over. The mountain shattered and sprayed magma over the two and into the blood sea around them, which exploded into smoky flames. The monsters writhed in the burning blood, apparently unaffected.
In time the two inflected mortal wounds upon one another and died intertwined, like spent lovers. Gouts of blood erupted from their wounds, and after awhile these discharges came down upon Harold and I in the form of a light rain.
“This is how the Sea is made,” Harold said
“The sea is made from their blood. If they ever stopped fighting, it would dry up, so they must fight all the time.”
In time we approached yet another range of mountains. These were quite dead, geologically speaking, but were intermittently lit from their distant side by flashes of silver light, as though they obscured a flickering candle that gave off moonbeams. And as we entered the narrow passages between these mountains, the nature of the liquid beneath us changed once again. We left behind the Sea of Blood.
And we found our way into a small lake of nothing but pure, sweet smelling water. I drank from it, and splashed it over myself to wash away the smell of blood and bile. When droplets falling from my lips struck the lake surface they made a sound like bells ringing, and the circular ripples they created flashed like platinum necklaces in the light of the moon. But there was no Moon to see. It was as though it lay beneath us somewhere, in the dark waters of the lake.
Eventually our poles could no longer touch bottom and we let the currents take us. We felt no alarm. Harold and I were both capable swimmers, and the shore was nearby in every direction. So we lay side-by-side on our raft. I splashed my hand in the water to make silver light, and we stared up at the featureless underworld sky, breathing quietly. “Like spent lovers,” I thought, giggled, and then slapped myself inside.
The lake was empty of life, but its waters must have been strangely rich and potent, like a soil awaiting a seed. And it appeared that our raft had become that seed, for the wood of it, burned and stained from the Sea of Bile and the Sea of Blood, quickly extended roots into the water,
and branches into the air. Harold and I discovered ourselves on a compact, floating stand of trees. There were pines, a silver maple, even a wild apple tree. Birds seemed to sing in the branches, though there were no birds to make such noises; it was the wood itself, telling us of its memories.
When our apple tree blossomed Harold and I rose and gorged ourselves on its fruit. We ate apples, laughed, and floated peaceably over the dream-lake. When we tossed away the cores, floating apple trees sprang up in our wake. And I noticed that the changes affecting Harold had become accelerated; he was turning into the handsome youth who had grown up wild on the Canadian Shield so many years ago.
I was, for this little time, happy, and when the current brought us to shore my first thought was to push off again and let the lake hold us forever. Childishly, I hid among the trees while Harold beached our vessel, but he waited patiently for me and after awhile I could delay no further.
With a sigh, I stepped onto solid ground for the first time in a week.
Our way forward was up a shallow dirt incline, and the further I traveled from the lake the more my spirits fell off, the heavier my steps became. Ever since landing in this underworld I had experienced a strange malaise, like a dull toothache of the soul. It had waxed and waned over the days, and vanished for a brief moment on the sleeping lake. Now it was back with a vengeance.
Harold waited for me at the crest of the slope.
“We should hurry up, Melissa,” he said as I approached. “I guess we still have more ground to cover.” I detected some emotion in his voice. It might have been pity.
Ahead of us was Nothing. Or rather, nothing but a flatland of bare gray stone, that stretched away for miles ahead. I had come all of this way to stand in a place as barren as the one I had started from.
I crumpled slowly, until I was sitting on my bum.
Harold lay his hand on my shoulder. “C’mon Melissa, let’s go.”
I shook him away. “Not now Harold. Just let me sit.”
Harold crouched and spoke softly into my ear, like a man encouraging his favourite horse.
“Our future is here, Melissa. I know it. There’s a place for us down here if we can just find it.” He touched my shoulder again and then, stupidly, took my arm in his and hoisted me to my feet. “You can lean on me.”
I snapped. I caught Harold across the nose with my elbow and, when he released me, kicked him in the side. I rained slaps and kicks down on him until I was winded, and though Harold could have easily overpowered me, he bore the blows stoically.
“We do something when I say!” I snarled, “I’m your nurse, you old bastard!”
And I struck him again.
Later, when I had got hold of myself, I felt terrible. Harold had done nothing to deserve my tirade. In fact I had behaved poorly towards him our whole time down here, while he had been nothing but true and resourceful. I cast about for ways to make up, but my options were limited. In the end I could only open our last tin of jellied ham and offer him some.
“Eat up Harold,” I said. “You’re going to need your energy. We’re going to eat, then sleep, and then we’ll march off to look for whatever, just like you want.”
Harold did not reply. He sat down, wrapped his arms around his knees, and stared at the blank landscape ahead of us.
“This is the last tin and I can eat it all, you know?” But I did not, of course. I was too bitter and too weak to be hungry, and consumed my share without pleasure. When I was finished I lay upon my back and tried to will myself into unconsciousness, but hard feelings kept me awake for a long time; I stared at Harold through half-closed eyes.
Harold sat as motionless as a statue, gazing fixedly into the distance. But there was a tautness about him, like a hunting dog that has seen its prey and yet stands rigidly at attention, awaiting its Master’s command.
And when I awoke, he was gone, and this time I was unable to find him. For a while I was shocked, but the more deeply I considered the more sense it made. In the end I could feel no bitterness towards him.
“Harold is free now,” I thought. “Free of me.”
I am Delivered
I drifted aimlessly and hopelessly over that gray stone desert for so long that I began to starve.
As I starved there were times I thought that I was a ghost floating over the surface of the underworld, and experienced nothing but a pleasant dizziness. Other times I felt the acid burning in my stomach as my body ate itself, and knew that I was nothing more than a lost, dying girl.
The sound of my deliverance was a harsh music, metal clanging against metal, echoing through the underworld from somewhere to my right. Moving that way, I spied the figure of a man, dressed in silver armour and carrying a sword. He was sparring with a squat, hairy creature, that wore crude mail and clutched a shield much dented by past blows. The two swapped parries and thrusts and, when a particularly frantic exchange took place, the man would give a happy laugh.
It was the beast, which appeared to be some kind of gorilla, who noticed me first. It dropped its sword and pointed with a grunt. The man turned his back on the animal, like he trusted it.
“Hello!” said the man, sheathing his weapon and approaching me with even steps. The beast loped after him, until he turned and spoke to it. “Stay, Clare!”
The man bowed low before me. “Please don’t be afraid, Lady. Clare is a friendly animal, as am I.”
I made no reply to this.
“You’ve made a long journey, if you’ve come from theLakeof the Hidden Moon. Please accept our assistance. Clarissa is brave, loyal, and gentle, and she is as strong as any three men. If you will allow me, I will have her carry you to a place where we can feed and attend you.”
The man’s headpiece covered his eyes and nose. I could see only his mouth, his perfect teeth, and the dark, wavy hair that spilled out from under his helmet.
“Who are you?” I asked.
With a laugh and a flourish, the man removed his headpiece. He was beautiful–a glorious, shining youth. “I am the Prince of this Land,” he said, “I am Prince of all these Rocks. I have my own castle here.”
“What’s going on, Harold?” I asked.
“It’s true, Melissa, I swear! Over that way!” Harold pointed. I saw nothing, but my eyes had grown weak during my time in this dark place. “It’s for both of us.”
“And her?” I asked.
Harold gestured towards Clare, and she shuffled away until she could no longer be seen. “I wasn’t sure you would come,” he explained. “But now you have!”
Harold’s eyes glowed with a puppy’s eager love, yet I could give him nothing but a tired sigh. “I will not live in your dream, Harold.” I said. “Do you hear me? I will not live in your dream.”
And then I turned and tramped away into the stone desert. When Harold was well over the horizon I began looking for a place where I might lay down and die.
M.J. Murphy has published short fiction in a number of paper and on-line magazines, including On-Spec and RedZine. Some of these stories later appeared in anthologies, and “The Line I Walk” won the first Louis Laffin award back in 2000. In addition, he has published non-fiction in venues like The Mark News and Toronto Star, and maintain an influential blog on Canadian politics at: http://bigcitylib.blogspot.com.