It's a Good Day for Worms.
Prized fishing lines, bioluminescent moss and treasures from the past.
They still tell stories about the time before, when we all lived Above. On top of the massive pieces of land that dot the face of our planet. The seven continents that are spread across the hemispheres of Earth. Some people still live up there, but most of us survive much closer to the core of our Earth. Down at the bottom of the oceans that have long since dried up to be little more than a system of salt-water rivers and lakes. The remnants of what was once an aquatic kingdom. Majesty to be beheld.
I live down here in the trenches of the world.
Live for as long as I’m able. Life isn’t long. Food is scarce and difficult to come by. Most of our sustenance comes from worms, eels and insects that live near the water’s edge, or moss and slimy plants that grow in the cool, dark caverns where we live. The lack of water and greenery mean the air is scorching hot in the day and freezing at night. We can only travel for a small window of time, three hours after the sun sets.
The caves are a reprieve.
I live in one with my younger sister, Dauphine, and my grandpa, Lio. My parents died five years ago, when I was only four years old. It wasn’t the lack of food that got them, but the glow.
The glow is a bioluminescent moss that grows in huge bunches along the slick cliff face. It can be mashed into a sticky substance that emits powerful fumes. When inhaled, it carries you off to a world that seems better than ours. Or at least that’s what I think happens, I’m not sure, I’ve never inhaled the glow. My parents sure seemed to think wherever it took them was better than here.
Maybe they could see Above when they breathed in the glow.
I wonder what’s up there. Grandpa Lio tells old tales about creatures that walked on legs. Not like ours, different. Four legs instead of two. I can’t imagine what that would look like. How could you walk on four legs? Plus, you wouldn’t be able to grab anything with four legs. And you wouldn’t be able to fish. That would be bad.
Fish are the most valuable thing in the trenches. Very hard to come by. Even harder than eels. They are so beautiful. I love the shiny scales that cover their body. Most fish are silver, but up close, they have every colour you could think of. Each tiny scale contains blue, and green, and red, and yellow, and purple, dancing together when flashed in the light.
I tried to keep a scale in my pocket once, but it went mushy and lost the magic colours.
Tonight, I’m out fishing. My fishing line is my prized possession. Luckily there are heaps of treasure that have been discarded from the before time. That’s where I get the materials to make my lines, but still, it can be hard to find the right pieces, and this last one I made is a good one.
I stick to the edge of the water. The moss the glow is made from casts enough soft light that I can see. I’m very good at seeing in the dark. Most of our time is spent in the dark since it’s too hot to leave the cave in the day.
I’m heading to a small lake to the East of our home cave. There are lots of worms there. Dauphine loves worms. It’s hard to get her to eat the kelp that grows in the back of our cave, so I try to catch as many worms as I can.
But the worms aren’t the only reason I like to go to this lake.
There’s a machine in this lake. A machine that connects to the above. A long, long pipe runs all the way up the face of the cliff. For as far as I can see. It makes a humming sound and softly vibrates when I touch it. I think there’s something moving through it. I think it must be water that goes up.
My small rowboat bumps the side of the pipe and I rest my hand on it to feel the familiar buzz. It’s like someone is talking to me. It makes me smile. I squint upwards trying to see the top of the cliff, but it just fades into darkness.
My fishing line makes a satisfying plunk sound as I drop it into the water, the other end of it is safely secured to my ankle. Next, I grab a scooper I found in the treasure pile. A thick pale green piece of plastic, in the shape of a bowl. I plunge the bowl into the dark lake water. It is icy, icy cold. I scoop a heaping spoonful of mud and silt that is caked on the rock of the cliff.
Score! I can see wriggling little tails sticking out from all angles of the mud-pile in my scooper. Dauphine is going to be so happy! The last time I brought home this many worms she sang a song about it every morning for three months.
I feel a tug at my leg and my heart flops in my chest.
Another tug pulls the string tight against my ankle skin. Then there is a steady pull on the string and my whole foot shifts to the left. I grab the string and give it a firm yank as Grandpa Lio taught me. You need to start with a firm yank so you make sure they’re really hooked. Then I steadily wrap the string, fist over fist, pulling my line back up towards the boat.
My blood is thrumming in my limbs. The glow from the moss illuminates ripples on the water. The previously still surface disturbed by my commotion. With each sharp intake of my breath, the hook gets closer and closer to emerging, and with an explosion of salty water, there it is!
A silvery fish, at least two hands in length thrashes from the end of my fishing line. The delicate fins appear to be a deep green colour in the dim glow. The luminescent scales shine in magnificent glory. It is so beautiful.
For a moment I am frozen in awe, but it doesn’t take me long to return to the urgency of the situation. I act fast. Most of the fish can be used, the flesh is of course a delicacy which will be treasured by my family, the bones are turned into tools, or used for counting, the eyes can be added to healing salves, but the intestines make an excellent bait. If I am lucky, very lucky, I could catch an eel by putting the intestines on the hook. Or even another fish!
Eagerly I take a sharpened piece of plastic out of my pocket. I make a quick and careful incision on the belly of the fish near the tail and slice upwards along the body until I reach the gills. I pry the two halves of the fish’s body open to reveal the organs inside, heart, lungs, guts. I reach in and pinch my fingers around the guts to lift them out.
My fingers meet with something hard.
That’s not right. Why would it be hard? I hold the guts in my hand and lift them closer to the glowing moss. The stomach is lumpy and bulbous. I take my make-shift blade and push into the stomach wall. Already stretched thin around the hard object, the stomach easily splits open to reveal its contents.
A piece of metal sits in the middle of partially digested bits of kelp and gut slime. I dip it in the water and wash off the remnants of the fish’s last meal. Once it’s been cleaned off, I can see that it’s a large piece of metal hanging off of a chain.
I’ve never seen one like this before. The metal is worn, rusted and discoloured. It looks very, very old. The large piece of metal is shaped like a heart, and has a latch on the side. A heart-shaped locket. I try to open it but it seems to be rusted shut. I wonder if Grandpa Lio has something that can open it!
I can’t wait to show this to Dauphine and the rest of the settlement. My friend Kai is going to be so jealous. I bet Dauphine will sing for seven straight months this time. Yes, she will for sure, I know it. This is that good!
The light from the moss bounces off the water onto my face. It’s glowing brighter than ever. My face feels warm, illuminated by the glow. The pulsing green light is mesmerizing. My heart pounds in my chest seemingly in rhythm with the pulses from the light. I think on my amazing fortune tonight. The worms, a fish and a treasure from the past.
A breeze blows through the canyon and the moss sways in the wind. I think I pick up a faint scent on the breeze. I frown, worry darkening my mood. My fortune seems too good. There’s no way anyone would believe me if I didn’t have the proof, but I do, don’t I?
The fish lay motionless on my lap, and my fist is wrapped around the metal locket in my hand, the scooper of worms sits in the bottom of the boat, by my feet. The strange scent wafts by on the wind again.
The glow! No, no, it can’t be! It’s not possible to inhale fumes from the living plant… is it?
I paddle my boat closer to the cliff face and the shimmering moss. My eyes close and green shadows dance on the back of my lids. I imagine the light is from the sun. I imagine I am Above. I try to imagine creatures with four legs, and plants that grow taller than a person. How wonderful it would all be, how exciting!
I can’t. I can’t picture it. You know, I don’t really think any of it is true. No one I know has ever been up there.
But I do know that when I get home with my treasures, Dauphine’s face is going to glow brighter than this moss ever could. I put the fish in a bucket, and shove the locket in the metal canister where I keep my fishing line.
I set my boat for Home Cave and start paddling. Only another hour before the already freezing temperature reaches dangerously low levels. I better hurry if I don’t want to turn into an icicle!