From the clifftop they could see the island of Ponza: sailboats and cruiseboats waving up from the harbour, and the countless stone arches.
“Can I keep one?” said Robin.
Tim saw the bird´s eggs before Robin´s small feet as he looked up from the chocolate bar picnic laid out on the cliff top.
“They´re protected. It´s illegal,” said Tim, with a sigh. “Think what mum will say.”
Without fail Robin spoiled everything. Tim couldn´t take his eyes off him for all the dangers. The cliff side was a wall of jagged teeth. Even the salty breeze seemed brittle.
Not to mention the real reason for the trip so high up there – exploration and all of King Solomon´s mines. The red eye in the cliff had been so tempting when he had seen it through his binoculars but now that they had taken the sheer cliff path he didn´t want to go near it, let alone enter it. The tunnel was as big as his arms outstretched, and tangled roots poked out from its crumbling walls. And it was red, blood red.
“Look, treasure,” said his brother.
“Careful,” said Tim.
Moments later, the bird´s egg broke oozily in Robin´s hand. Tim´s biology teacher, Mr.Barnes, had told his class not to disturb nature. It would all be Tim´s fault. No-one ever blamed Robin.
“You´ve gone and killed a baby bird,” said Tim.
“I did not,” said his brother, his face screwed up as it did before he started crying but that didn´t bother Tim because he was in his stride.
“That´s baby juice, in your hand,” said Tim. “Dead bird juice. It´ll stain you forever.”
His brother looked at Tim. His lip began to tremble, and his eyelid began to flutter.
“I´m sorry, Timmy,” he said. Tears poured down his cheek. “I didn´t … mean to.”
He wanted to laugh when he saw his brother´s skin cherried in the noon sun like a little tomato.
“I´m sorry,” said Tim. “If you come over here, I´ll wipe it off.”
Robin crept forward, his little hands shaking.
The tissues were at the very bottom of the bag. The egg white came off with a few judicious swipes, but the yolk clung to the ridged cuff of Robin´s sweater. Afterwards, it gave off an eggy stink. Still, Robin remained a little cautious.
“Tim,” he said. “I´m not really a bird killer, am I?”
“No, Robin,” said Tim. “You´re just a pain.”
They made the decision to enter the cave after packing away the picnic rubbish. Being the eldest Tim approached the entrance first, wind-up flashlight in hand, and Robin came behind, carrying both the rucksacks.
“Promise me you´ll stay near,” said Tim, steadying his hand against the tunnel´s edge. “There could be animals or who knows what?”
“Promise,” said Robin. His eyes gleamed mischievously like they did before he ran off in the supermarket.
“Tim,” said Robin. “If we find treasure, Can I keep it to show at class?”
“If you get off my back,” said Tim. “Yeah, sure.”
And then Tim went in. The start of the journey was easy but soon he was bending to get under tree roots that had pushed into the passage.
The wind-up provided a stuttering light. The frantic whir of its mechanism aumented the dread as much when it peaked as when it fell silent due to aching wrists. With the sun´s absence came a loss of time. The dry heat of the cave stifled like the thin air. Everywhere, he saw the barbed and the fanged.
Soon they came to a low chamber and the rucksacks were left behind.
The sides drew in agressively, and the roof dropped to waist-height forcing the boys onto their knees. They clambered past stalagmite fingers, freeing fabric when it became hooked in the tinder-dry rock. And they brushed themselves down though the dust was all around. When Tim looked at his hands they were unrecognisable to him.
Their voices echoing onwards took on strange cadences, and the air itself stank. Above, the torn paper borders of shattered rock adorned the ceiling. They went past boulders that balanced on pebbles so precarious it appeared the slightest movement would cause the weight to come crashing down. Robin remained quietly mindful of the danger around them. Maybe there was more to his little brother, thought Tim, than he had given him credit for.
The effort of travelling through the tunnels was great. The boys´ breath became ragged like the wind that came in fits and bursts.
Tim couldn´t believe the change in Robin. Before, he had been the quiet boy in the Pokemon t-shirt then six months ago he had gone up before the principal. Tim knew because he had heard his mum and dad fighting over it. He had heard the words hairline and fracture. Robin said that the other boys in the junior year picked on him because he had grown up faster than them. Robin said that he only got in trouble because he was´t afraid to push back. Tim thought his brother was full of it but when he mentioned the trouble to his mum, she told him to ask his father who would in turn refer Tim back to her. Eventually, Tim gave up asking.
“This is so cool,” came Robin´s voice. “It´s like we´re explorers and everything.”
Tim felt tired and his body heavy. They had been walking for what felt like minutes but his watch told him that three hours had passed. He knew people would start to get worried which only meant trouble – trouble for him.
“Robin,” said Tim. “Stop.”
The whirring of the wind-up torch concealed his weak voice.
Robin ran out of the circle of light, the glow lights of his trainers winking on and off in the dark.
Tim´s throat was hoarse and he hadn´t even begun to shout. As Tim followed in pursuit he fell sending the flashlight out of his hands with a smash. Then came an uncomfortable darkness.
“Robin,” said Tim.
In the darkness, he crawled on his hands and knees searching for the broken torch – his only hope of escaping. Every surface scraped his skin, every sound made him pause. He pushed on. The wind was a hideous serpent ready to sink its fangs into his soft hands. On touching the cold plastic, he was near to tears. The object was strange without sight, rougher, alien. It was a pale light but it was enough to see the outline of the passage Robin had taken. He knew it wasn´t the entry route because it gave a view on a chamber filled with hands prints: four-fingered handprints.
Red hands like birds in flight. No one hand identical. Some had been pressed into the stone with greater force, others were blobs. The simple solution. Sacrifice. Fingers severed from stumps with stone knives. Tim bent double and was sick over his shoes. Every time he regained himself he would imagine bloodied hands pressed against the same wall and would crumple up again. Tim had seen pictures of Aztec sacrifice in children´s books but this was too much for him. He began to cry for all who had probably died here – a time before medicine – and he cried for his brother whom he missed. This last chamber had no other exit. His brother was missing. Robin was gone.
Tim´s rumbling stomach brought him back to the confined space. He was so hungry yet there was nothing left to eat. He had been so long cramped up he was unsure if he could. Parts of him were numb and his head felt swollen. Oh, why had they come to this awful place? He knew he needed to act. Unsteadily, his fingers sprang in and out as far as he could reach out. And although he wasn´t injured his body felt alien to him, strangely damaged. The satisfaction of stretching his legs to their full capacity gave him a pleasure beyond what he thought possible. Motion happened steadily, unevenly, like a cat in a rocking chair, and it was with a sense of unease that he made his way out of the chamber of hands. Were the splotched prints waving him off?. He would have to preserve the wind-up torch´s bulb for the worst of the jagged rocks and the drops. In the distance, he heard a scritch-scratching but whether it was human or animal he couldn´t say. Fear made him stop for a moment but he knew he had to continue. Hopes of finding his brother were mixed in with thoughts of meat pies and chips, and the long punishment his parents would inflict. He would have to continue onwards. He had no choice.
The return journey was just as difficult. Tim was out of breath and his temperature was high, sweat poured down his scalp. Robin could be around the next corner so he had to stay alert. For the past five minutes, all he had seen was walls. Every step threatened to snap twist his ankles in an unseen crevice. On pausing for breath he noticed how dishevelled he was. He stank. The journey had covered his arms and legs in dirt. He was doubtful now his brother would recognise the shadow he had become. Every corridor and turning looked so similar he didn´t know whether he was making his way out of the cliffside or only going deeper and deeper inside. His trainers were stained and damp from when he was sick on them but he couldn´t take them off. He didn´t have a spare pair.
“Robin,” he shouted out. He waited as his voice reverberated around the tunnels but there was nothing. The mobile phone he had left behind in the hotel room wouldn´t do any good now. There never was a signal when you needed one. And Robin was probably out of the caves. He was probably laughing about the whole thing. At least Tim hoped he was.
Tim didn´t know what bought his attention to the smashed bone fragments on the floor. The faded greying shards were so pathetic. They looked like chicken bones that had been crunched up by a hungry beast – mawed and broken up like a mechanical grinder had chewed them up with its metal teeth. What kind of living creature had done this he wouldn´t like to know. He only wanted to be outside and laughing with his brother. He imagined the bone cruncher. Maybe it killed rats, wild dogs, maybe bones, human bones. No, thought Tim, he was being stupid. There was probably a rational explanation for everything.
When he heard the hiss in the distance, he nearly screamed. The whirring of the torch became even louder this time as he tried to raise the light level as he scanned the passage but revealed nothing. Then the hissing came again and Tim was certain he felt a darting tongue flicker against the back of his neck, a wet, cold lashing tongue that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He didn´t look back. He sprinted his way out of there. Rationality be damned.
It was a clumsy journey clamber running in the dark his breath raking his throat but Tim kept on. He was pushing himself near to dropping. Hands and arms and legs motored him through crevices and cracks as he bellied for low ceilings, and negotiated handholds. Every second he gained distance. He had to escape. He wasn´t conscious of this need. He certainly wouldn´t have known what was behind nor in front of him which was exactly why he collided into his brother at speed. The impact sent both of them sprawling. On opening his eyes, Tim noted a warm liquid trickling down his arm. When he put his finger to it, he discovered it was blood. Stunned, he tried to gauge his surroundings all thoughts of the pursuit gone.
“Robin,” said Tim.
Across from him the body of his brother lay sprawled out like a ragdoll.
“Robin,” Tim repeated.”Robin.”
He didn´t have the energy to reach out. All had lost its firmness. Contours were overlaid to blurring in his vision. A hand multiplied to dozens and sound came distantly. The world under had stolen him and he feared reaching out lest it disappear leaving nothing.
Blood trickling into his mouth from his busted lip brought Tim to. The urge to gag seized him. He clutched his hand to his head which pounded with each movement. There was a soft whisper of pain in his arm too.
“Robin,” said Tim. The fallen body twitched. The limbs, revealed in the little light of the wind-up torch, moved sluggish, silently. The torso began to right itself in the half-shadow.
“Robin,” said Tim. His brother had got to his feet.
“Robin, please,” said Tim.
His brother didn´t turn.
Tim´s anxiety rose as he saw his brother move out of the cave in the direction of the bone cruncher. He didn´t want to speak further for what he saw chilled his blood. His brother carried a mirror that shone liquidly in his hands like a pet serpent and his face bore the grin of an ecstatic devotee. Tim slumped to the floor as he watched the glow lights of Robin´s trainers disappear into the darkness once again along with all trace of normality.
In pursuit, Tim veered left and right. Damage and fatigue weighted down his body. His head hung low and his arms swung wide, grazing the sides of the walls.
Would Robin be sawing off his finger when he found him, covering the walls with his arterial blood or floored already and the bone cruncher feasting on his face? Tim dared not think of the scene deep in the cliffs where time had stopped. He kept on moving,
When he reached the opening, the light of the torch had long extinguished but to his surprise he had no need of it. His eyes had accustomed. That, and a blue light came out of the chamber of hands, it flooded out of the mirror. His brother was bathed in its soft light. His features were indistinguishable.
Tim came forward and tried to grab the mirror. The two wrestled fiercely. There was a loud explosion, and Tim was thrown to the ground. When he looked up the body of his brother was gone. Darkness had returned.
“Tim,” said a voice. “Help.”
He tried to find the source of the voice but he could find nothing.
“Tim,” said the voice of his brother again but this time more urgently.
It was when Tim looked down and saw the panicked face of his brother burning brightly behind the vine painted glass in the mirror that he fainted.
Tim’s dreams were not normally so vivid as the images thrown on the wall of his mind while unconcious that day. He imagined himself back in the cave. The walls were stained with blood and a creature half-man, half-lizard stood before him. It´s skin was made up of platelets, fleshy pale white platelets. It had not an inch of hair. It´s arms were tiny, the fingers near invisible. It had the legs of a man and a tongue that flicked out at intervals like it was tasting the air. On the floor between its legs were fingers with wedding rings attached. Every so often it bent down and buried its snout in the meat pile and hissed. It´s teeth snapped and crunched. The scene disgusted Tim but he couldn´t turn away. The eyes of the beast fixed on him in his panic. Escape was impossible as it came closer and closer. He could smell the stink of its breath as it came towards him. It´s feet crunched against the rock floor. The eyes of the creature were human-like but they were completely round like a fleshy golf ball, protruding. As the jaw opened wide upon his hand, he lost conciousness.
This was one of the things he didn´t tell the nurse when he woke up in the hospital. His right hand was bandaged up so tight he couldn´t untie it. Everyone – the police included – was asking about the whereabouts of Robin but Tim said nothing. It was all a blur. He only calmed down when they left the mirror he had found on the hospital table by his bed.. He was surprised no-one showed any interest in it.
“If it keeps him calm, let him have it,” his mum had said after his panic attack. “Boys get attached to trash like that. He´ll grow tired of it and throw it away.”
The hospital had him on a drip and these pills that put him out for hours. He didn´t remember anything of these hours – not like the time in the cave. When he was alone he took out the mirror. He spoke to it but nothing happened.There was a pain in his right hand but none of the doctors or the nurses answered his questions. His family wouldn´t talk about it.
Every day his family came to tell him the news. There had been no sign of Robin for three days. The rescue attempt had had to negotiate fallen rocks to reach Tim. Robin, however, was believed to be lost within the labyrinths of smaller caves. His mum told him that experienced miners were working at getting Robin out. There was a wall of rock to be cleared away first. The police were checking the local surroundings in case he had escaped outside. Every time Tim mentioned Robin´s name his mother wept.
That evening, a nurse cleaning out his room knocked the mirror to the floor. The sound of her screams awoke Tim. She was taken out by one of the the other orderlies while Tim´s bed was surrounded by curtains. Through the gap in the curtains he saw janitors with mops. When Tim managed to pull himself up on his bed there were little to see. He got a glimpse of mop buckets being sent in, brought out. There was a steady stream of staff. When he thought that it was over, another mop bucket would appear. Not that he understood Italian well enough to interpret their words. All he remembered was the sight of one of the buckets. He remembered it because the water was red – blood red.
This was an area in Tim´s past that was lost to him. Nothing would ever make up for his brother´s loss nor explain his memory of the smashed mirror that spilled blood. Nor the failed rescue attempt. The family never returned to Ponza, never spoke of it again. He never dreamt of the bone cruncher again but he didn´t need to. When the bandages were removed, no consolation from his parents could make up for his loss. The bone-cruncher had come and taken everything. Sometimes when he went to sleep at night he would remember the two boys heading off into the cave, the screams of help froom his brother, and the face of the lizard man as it closed its maw upon the fingers of his right hand, and the scritch-scratching sound.