Dark skies had begun their march overhead around noon, and by nightfall they began to shed their excess weight. The water always gave the graveyard an unwelcome air of life. The graveyard surrounded a tall square rock of a building. It was a mausoleum. It wouldn’t have stuck out if it hadn’t been on top of a hill; Massive upturned stones stood all around, covered in trees and greenery. Gargoyles alone lined the mausoleum’s roof; some of which had long since fallen to rubble; others still seemed alive, bearing weapons and sneers. Once upon a time, great kings and men of letters lived nearby. Now only their graves remain.
The gentle rain was the only sound heard as a young girl approached. The mud grabbed her bare feet, trying to bring her down to her ancestors. She wound her way between giant slabs of stone and fallen trees. The water made patches of dirt that flowed freely, but she was steady and did her best to avoid anything dangerous.
She came to a stop at a tree that grew right next to the marble walls. Tombstones lay mangled underneath its roots. She crouched in the tree’s shadow and checked the names etched in the tombstones. It was so worn she couldn’t see a name. That meant the stone was cheap or far too old for her to waste her time digging. She continued on, creeping around the wall, keeping as dry as she could, and found her way inside. As she entered, she noticed a plaque above the doorway that read “Mortui Vivos Docent.” She didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded nice. The walls were lined with shiny plaques and the ceilings were twice as high as her head. It was all lit by simple lights set into the ceilings. She wondered what powered them. The plaques bore names and vocations. Each plaque was the same size, shape, and material. “No… no… no… Show Mara a nice one…”
Finally, she came across a plaque that read “Bartimaeus Samarkhand, jeweler and reveler. He asks only for life to be lived, and remain unchanged in its amorphous nature.”
Mara struck with her folding shovel between the “and” and the “for,” sending shards of stone flying. She soon pulled the coffin out and met the inhabitant. Her manners clearly lacking, she only smiled as she pulled out several rings and necklaces. The gold stood out against her olive skin, gems gleaming red and blue. She continued her way through the crypt, finding jewels, medals, anything that could survive aging hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Then she came to the catacombs.
A dark stairwell led down into the earth. Dripping sounds echoed up to her. In the wall words were etched in: “Here you will find our greatest minds laid low, and our lowest citizens made unto gods.” The words soundedfamiliar.
“Ooohhhh-ho-ho-ho, jackpot….” Mara was interrupted by her bag, which had begun to buzz loudly. She scrambled with it till she found a little ball and twisted it to turn it off. The annoying sound echoed briefly, and she snapped out of her trance and realized how loud she’d been in her quest across the mausoleum, and that she would need to return to the city quickly to sell her findings and do her shopping.
She made her way out of the building, following her path of destruction, or what she thought was her path. The walls were undamaged, the floor completely clean. She recognized the names that she had, just an hour before, reduced to dust. Not even muddy footprints met her when she found the entrance. She stopped at the archway and turned to face the empty hallway. She heard only her racing heart-beat.
She returned to the city – the ruins – by mid-day. The muddy paths and wilds had made her passage difficult. Concrete needles could be seen from miles away, punctuating the city’s various materials and marking the center of what was once a shining capital. The city was slowly growing back to its original splendor, but it was a race against the quickly growing vines and trees. People were still far and few between, and the massive grey buildings stood empty.
“Hey Mar, whatcha got for me? Pickpocket anymore visiting re-explorers?” The short and round pawnbroker stood in front of what was once a bank. His rifle was taller than he was. His beard covered most of his face, and his hair was drawn back in simple pony-tail. His clothes were dark brown, matching his hair. The only color on him that wasn’t brown was his bright red cheeks.
“Nope, I’m finding honest pay now.” She walked to his table and laid her bounty of jewels on his desk.
He eyeballed the stones and metals, running his fingers over them, then looked up at her. “Yeah, right, honest.” He clicked his tongue and shook his head. “But that’s none of my business. I’ll give you twenty each, thirty for the necklaces.”
He clutched his chest. “No haggling? Who are you and what have you done with my friend?” He dramatically put one hand to his forehead, while he counted out the money with his other.
“We’re not friends,” was her only reply, as she grabbed the money and walked out.
She walked along old brick streets, red dust flowing along the dark cracks that once made up the zigzag pattern the bricks formed. Here and there, tall trees grew over iron gates and concrete patches. She found her way home through the red and the green.
“Mama? I’m home! Sorry I’m late!” The sun was now setting behind her.
The house was cluttered, but not outright falling apart like the rest of the neighborhood. They had been one of the first families to stake a claim to the territory. The floor was swept clean, revealing tile floors; the walls were covered in murals that had been painted and painted over again and again. She found her mother in the dining room, paint in hand, her wild grey hair straining against a ribbon that bound it back. The wall was covered in rows of colorful lines, each one a little different. They went up and down, each column of color starting from a horizontal line of black.
“You’ve been busy today, haven’t you?” Mara wandered around, looking at the walls and the table, touching here and there. She embraced her mother, Tara, who slowly turned and hugged back.
“I can’t remember what I was looking for. It looked like this… They’ll help me remember…” Mara’s mother had a soft voice, haunting like the ghosts she had told her daughter about long ago. The paintbrush in her hand was baby-blue, with a matching paint along the tip. “The color… it’s not right. I need…”
Mara held her hand out and caught the brush as her mother dropped it and hurried off. The old woman was out, and Mara heard her footsteps up the stairs and scurrying about while Mara cleaned up the mess left behind. Occasionally Mara frowned at the ceiling as it creaked under her mother’s weight. Mara carried the things to the kitchen and then began to make supper. Dozens of cans and jars of food, preserved for ages, lined the cupboards; she began to set the table as her mother came in.
“Hello Mara dear, how was your trip?” Tara sat at the table and poured water from a canteen into a pair of cups.
Mara smiled. “Fine. I got lost, and some weird stuff happened.” She turned and finished setting the table.
“That’s nice. I’m glad you’re back.” Her mother didn’t seem to be paying much attention
“I’m glad you’re back too.” Mara was resigned to her mother’s… ‘Quirks.’
After they finished their meal, Mara led her mother up into the bedroom. Tara was humming to herself until they reached the bed. Tara turned around and smiled at her daughter.
“Did I ever tell you about the history of the city? It’s wonderful, almost everyone died years ago, mostly the great minds, and the normal people who survived the disaster ran away. That’s why we came here when we did; everyone is going to come back soon…” She continued on and on, while Mara laid down on the floor. The stories came quickly from her mother, about the “Great Thunder” and the acidic rain that followed, about the old days when men made of stone helped build and keep watch of cities, hospitals, morgues, and more. Tara soon tired, but Mara stared at the ceiling, wishing these stories could be true.
Mara returned to the Mausoleum just a few nights later. The walls were once again unmarred, the floors clean. She soon found her way to the catacombs, and that sign that said “here you will find our greatest minds laid low, and our lowest citizens made unto gods.” She found a single torch to light her way through the darkness as she wound her way down through the stairwell, down into the depths of the earth. A few minutes later, the stairway opened up into a spacious circular cavern. It was lit in by a large chandelier in the high ceiling. The chandelier glowed an unearthly light blue. Mara stared up at the light, and looked around at the walls, eager to find more tombs, jewels, and gold. But there were only shelves.
Floor to ceiling, with stairs leading up all around, shelves filled with books. They looked like columns of color that rose from the black stone of the shelves. Stone Gargoyles stood all around, regularly placed, just like on the roof of the building. She walked about, disappointed and confused. The stone demons were as tall as she was, and when she stared one in the eyes, she thought the eyes gleamed strangely. The books she found were difficult to understand, but she found one that seemed newer than the rest. Handwritten. She tried to make out the writing, but it took her much too long to make out each word. She’d be here all night. She grabbed a few random books, hoping that one or two could be worth a fair amount.
Her bag began to buzz angrily as her timer went off. The sound bothered her, but she took her time as she flipped through a book of history. She reached in her bag and pulled out the little ball, and twisted it shut. But its sound was replaced with grinding, the sound of stone on stone. She turned around to see the gargoyles shuddering, shaking off their skins of dust and rubble. They shed years of dust off their hides, and their heads her as she ran towards the stairs.
Up and up she sprinted, chest heaving, eyes wide. The darkness only hindered her slightly as her hands followed the walls. She made it to the doorway and then began to slow. She didn’t hear anything following her. As she turned back her foot caught on the final step, and her bag went flying. Her shovel catapulted across the hall, scarring the wall with its blade. She slid across the smooth floor, breath knocked out of her.
She felt the wind blow across her face. Then she heard her bag move and felt the ground shake.
“Can I help you?” came a gravelly voice.
She opened her eyes to see hard features and harsh teeth, all across a wide and sneering mouth. Right above were eyes lit with a light blue. She screamed and passed out.
When she came to, her head throbbed, and the floor spun until she sat up. She was at the entrance, with her bag and belongings packed neatly away, including the book. The sun was shining through the doorway, and the birds were singing. It made her trek home pleasant, if she didn’t realize it in her daze.
When she finally reached the city, rather than head to the pawnbroker, with her package, she went straight home. She held the book out to her mother.
“Mama, could you tell me those stories again?”
[Originally published in the Ursinus College’s literary Journal, The Lantern.]