(published 20th August 2018)
He noticed the jagged pieces of metal in the dirt before she did. They looked like shark fins, poking up from the tilled field and gleaming in the sunlight.
“What are they?” she asked.
“Armaments from World War One,” he said, “shell casing, shrapnel.”
Her long dark hair lay across her shoulders and sometimes a gust of wind pushed a strand across her face. He always wanted to stroke it away but never asked if he could. On the far side of the field a rabbit lolled in the heat.
“You’re joking,” she said, laughing, “the war ended a hundred years ago.”
As she spoke she tightened her grip on his hand a little, to let him know she was teasing. At the same time, she lifted her other hand to rest on her stomach.
“It’s true,” he insisted. “They call it the iron harvest. Farmers around here are always ploughing up bombs. Sometimes they go off and people are hurt, even killed.”
A smile played at the corner of her mouth.
“I think you’re wrong,” she said. “I think it’s something else.”
He knew he was being toyed with but took the bait. There was always possibility in her flights of invention.
“I think it’s the army of the inner earth,” she said.
“The what…?” he said.
“We all know,” she continued, “the earth is hollow.”
“It’s not…” he began, but she placed one finger on his lips then kissed him.
“Quiet,” she said, after a while.
He wanted to slip his arms around her waist, pull her to him and lay her down in grass but he refrained. There was time for that later.
A blue butterfly floated past them on the warm breeze. It was hard to imagine this landscape ravaged by war.
“As I was saying,” she said, “we all know the inside of the earth is hollow. But it isn’t empty. Below us live the armies of the inner earth. Sad, pallid creatures that yearn for the sun. Tall and slender, emaciated, they are rusted metal with eyes the size of your outstretched hands.”
As she said this she reached up and placed her hand on his face. It felt cool against his skin but he could imagine a warm pulse beating through her, full of love and life.
“Don’t smile,” she chided, “this is serious.”
“They cannot speak,” she said. “They can communicate only by touching each other in the dark and can say just one thing, want, want, want.”
“You see, they want what we have. They want to see the sun, to feel it on their decaying skin. Without the sun there will never be any change for them, any hope.”
“Why?” he asked. As he spoke the rabbit to their right pricked up its ears and twisted its head from side to side.
“Because they need the sun to create new life,” she said, “like us, they need it to quicken and swell.”
As she said this she slipped her hand out of his and skipped ahead of him across grass turning brown in the glare of high summer. The butterfly that had passed them earlier now floated around her head, as if the two of them were dancing.
She spun on her heels in front of him, arms spread out.
“Catch me,” she shouted and fell back. He did, just before she hit the floor.
“Well done,” she said, “I hope you’ll always be here to do that.”
“I will,” he said, laying her on the ground and then lying down next to her.
They both looked upwards into the clear sky. He knew they were in the Belgian countryside, but they could have been at home, near their small village, near their little house, the new home they had been preparing.
He reached out next to him and found her hand once more. Their fingers linked. The only sound was the breeze running atop hedgerows, making branches clicker-clack and leaves sigh. He could smell flowers and opened earth and time.
“How do they get to us?” he said.
Because he was not watching, the sound of her voice arose from thin air.
“They must tear themselves asunder,” she said, “break themselves into a million tiny pieces and fling themselves into the earth above, heading towards our world. Over a thousand years each piece must work its way upwards, always seeking the sun’s warmth. Each movement they make is painful, but they persist, they must to have the chance to make new life.”
“Each jagged edge we pass today is a part of one of those creatures, soon they will all break through and reassemble. When they do they will come for us, come to destroy us for denying them so long what we have.”
“Can’t we fight them?” he asked, worried, taken, as so often, by her fantasy, “Can I protect you?”
She sprang to her feet suddenly and leaned over him, her hair hanging down like a tapestry. She giggled and in that moment looked so childlike his heart almost broke with anticipation.
“No!” she said, “but I can protect you.”
She turned and sprinted into the field they were passing, causing the rabbit to run away in fright and the butterfly to launch itself once more into the sky.
“No!” he screamed. But it was too late. She was gone. There was only blood.
Joseph Surtees lives in London and writes mostly about memory. He’s previously been published in a few places, including Fictive Dream and Unsung Stories.