PseudoPod 638: ARTEMIS RISING 5: A Strange Heart, Set in Feldspar

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“A Strange Heart, Set In Feldspar” was first published in the anthology Abandoned Places (Shohola Press), published in March 2018

“I go back to visit Sweden pretty much every summer, staying in my parents’ summer house in the northern part of the country. Mining, and specifically mining for gold and copper, really shaped the economy in that part of the country, and this story was partly inspired by an old abandoned mine site we visited one year. It’s also inspired by the way the land in Sweden rises by about 8 mm every year, and has done ever since the ice melted after the last ice age. It’s a phenomenon called “post-glacial rebound” that causes visible changes in the landscape over time, and means that the coastline was in a very different position centuries and millennia ago. Ultimately though, this story was inspired by motherhood, by the way it binds you to your kids in ways that can be difficult to understand and express.”


Please consider supporting this Kickstarter for a new collection of short stories by Tim Pratt.

Revisit his stories here on PseudoPod:

597: Fools Fire

205: Gulls

172: The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft (with Nick Mamatas)

123: Bone Sigh

…plus oodles more on our sister podcasts.

A Strange Heart, Set in Feldspar

by Maria Haskins


Beneath

Alice is kneeling in the darkness, breathing hard, heart thumping behind her ribs.

The kids are gone. She feels it in her cold flesh and aching bones, as surely as she felt them being pulled out of her body at the hospital when she gave birth to each of them all those years ago.

She calls their names anyway: “Anne! Lisa! Eric!”, but they don’t answer.

The guide is nowhere to be found either, but she doesn’t really want to think of him anyway, that smile turned to lips and teeth, the way he shook his head when she asked for help before he sunk into the darkness without a trace.

The tunnels of the old mine seem to throb and twist and shift around her, like the intestine of some strange, gigantic animal; she has to reach out and touch the rough walls on either side to steady herself and stop the world from lurching.

What now?

She can keep going deeper into the mine, without the guide, without the light. Or, she can turn around. She knows the way out, just follow this tunnel back about forty steps, then turn left and right, and she’ll be standing at the ladder, below the open sky. Climb up and out, call the police, wait for rescue. Wait for someone else to tell her the kids are gone.

In the silence, in the darkness, she turns the choice over, the rough and the smooth of it.

They don’t want me to find them. That thought is barely a whisper, small and cold and slippery, like a worm wriggling in a festering wound. I told them to stay with me but they never ever listen.

A breath shudders through her lungs.

They would have listened to Bill. They always listened to him.

But Bill’s dead. He’s been dead for two years. He should have seen that truck coming at the intersection, but he didn’t. Instead, he left her alone with the mortgage and the bills and the kids and this goddamn life to live. Two teens and an eleven-year-old. How the hell is she supposed to deal with that? She never signed up for this single-parent bullshit, and now she’s failed the kids again. Maybe for the last time.

She gets up, knees still shaking but getting steadier.

I’ll bring back help, she thinks and begins to retrace her steps, knowing full well there is no help to give or receive anymore.

She’s almost at the second turn when she hears the first scream.


Above

“Mom, this can’t be the place.”

It was Anne who said it out loud – what they’d all been thinking for the last half hour while she drove deeper into the woods along the winding gravel road. The kids had already hopped out of the van and were staring at her through the window, shivering in jeans and fleece sweaters in the early Swedish sunlight, pale faces miserable and accusing. They reminded her of birds, crows or some other kind of scavengers – watching, waiting for her to fail them again.

For a moment she just sat there, staring back at them, hands on the wheel, engine running. She was so tired. Of being here in Sweden. Of this so-called holiday. Of herself. Of them. Of the fractious, needy, collapsing us that was her family.

Looking at the kids, she considered locking the doors, turning the van around, stepping on the gas, and leaving them standing there. Only for an hour or so, of course. They weren’t babies anymore, they could handle it. To teach them a lesson. To get a moment’s peace from the whining and the arguing. It would be so easy. Just drive fast and don’t look back.

As soon as the thought took shape, guilt flooded her. Of course she couldn’t do that. She was their mom. The mom who had gotten them out of bed early, harassing and cajoling. She had even skipped her own morning coffee for this.

Zipping up her jacket, she stepped out of the rental van and looked around at the tall, skinny northern pines, the dense underbrush between them – plush moss and glossy lingonberry leaves studded with pale-pink flowers. The June morning was sunny, but the air was cold enough to make her shiver.

“Come on!” she said, trying to sound bright and chipper. “It’s got to be around here somewhere, right?”

Eric ambled off, his voice a hushed grumble, but the girls barely moved.

“Let’s go back to Skellefteå,” Anne said, swatting at the mosquitoes.

“Yeah,” Lisa joined in. “Seriously. Let’s get back to town. There’s no adventure park or whatever that guy promised here.”

“There’s not even a pit toilet,” Eric whined.

“You’re a guy,” Lisa scoffed. “How hard is it to pee in the woods?”

“That’s barbaric!”

“Not as barbaric as a pit toilet,” Anne mumbled, making a retching noise to underscore her point.

“I didn’t even want to come,” Lisa fumed. “I knew it was going to be like this.”

“You never want to go anywhere,” Alice heard herself say, regretting her tone and the words as soon as they were spoken.

“Not with you. Or with these two losers.”

“Grow up, baby-face!” Anne growled, and then the girls were fighting again. Third blow-up this morning, or maybe it had just been one continuous, never-ending argument since they woke up.

Alice didn’t even try to stop them, knowing they’d only turn on her instead. She looked at the GPS coordinates. They matched the numbers on the flyer she got from the man who had approached her at the gas station yesterday. “Want to do something fun with your kids?” he’d asked while the children were yapping at each other by the ice cream counter. Something about his voice, the way he spoke English with that pleasant, soft lilt, had caught and held her attention. “Come hang out at the old mine. Caves and tunnels underground, that kind of stuff. Really old. All sorts of stuff to learn. I’m a guide there.”

“What is it?” she’d asked. “Like, an adventure park?”

He’d smiled and handed her a colourful, tri-fold flyer.

“Yeah, like an adventure park. Great for kids and adults.” At the top of the flyer it said, “Explore the Abandoned Mine!” in letters dripping with gold and scarlet. “Be there at eight o’clock. I promise it’ll be worth it.”

It was eight o’clock, but there was nothing here. No guide, no buildings, no parking lot, not even a sign. What had she been thinking? Dragging the kids into the woods like this. Dragging them from Canada to Sweden at all. A holiday to connect with their family’s roots had sounded nice in theory, but the kids had moaned for most of it as she hauled them through the houses of distant relatives, and through old buildings and museums where nothing, ever, seemed to interest them. Today was just another disappointment. Another shitty day that was all her fault.

“Mom, is this it?”

Lisa held up a hand-painted, arrow-shaped wooden sign that had fallen over in the tall grass and daisies by the roadside. “Abandoned Mine” the sign spelled out in gold and scarlet, and walking over, Alice saw that it marked the start of a narrow, almost invisible trail.

They headed into the woods, and when Alice turned around after a few minutes, she couldn’t see the van or the road anymore. There were only the trees, only the trail, only their own voices mingling with the breathing wind.


Beneath

It has to be Anne. The pitch and volume and sheer endurance of the scream tells her as much. Even as a newborn, Anne could scream loud enough to wake the neighbours.

For a moment, that scream burns away all fear and indecision, and she runs back into the belly of the mine, towards the sound, away from the coveted safety of the entrance and the glimpse of daylight beckoning ahead. She stumbles, falls, scrapes her hands and knees, but keeps running, one hand trailing along the wall so she won’t lose her way in the dark, keeping track of steps and turns as carefully as she can with the panic cutting through her. Anne sounds so close but the scream is always out of reach, and eventually it fades and disappears.

“Anne!”

Nothing. Barely even an echo of her own voice in spite of all the stone.

Alice stops. She knows she’s deeper into the mine than before, knows she cannot run heedless into the dark. Desperate, she grabs her phone, but like before, the screen is dead. “Something to do with the properties of the rock,” the guide told them when they entered the mine, and for some reason she didn’t question him further, even though it’s clearly a bullshit explanation.

Tucking the phone back into her pocket, she bangs the fickle flashlight against her palm, and to her surprise, it glimmers to life, faintly illuminating the rock around her. The pale glow wavers over the rough, damp surfaces, making amorphous shapes and shadows scurry away into the dark.

The flashlight flickers, and she tries to absorb all there is to see before it goes out.

A few steps ahead, something glistens on the ground. It is a vast, black puddle, a pool that fills the curved tunnel in front of her. The surface ripples slightly, shivering with light. Alice crouches down to touch it. It’s so cold it feels like ice, and when she withdraws her hand, there’s a tingling numbness spreading beneath her skin, as if the cold is seeping into her.

Standing up, she points her flashlight down the tunnel. Thirty metres away, maybe more, she glimpses another crouched form, almost a mirror image of herself, though this one seems to be holding a reddish, sputtering flame aloft, rather than a failing flashlight.

“Anne?”

The ruddy glow slips over the features of the shape beyond the pool, but before Alice is sure of what she’s seen, both lights go out.


Above

The kids were already whining about the long walk when the forest suddenly opened up into a wide clearing where the ground was littered with rocks of various sizes, from pebbles to boulders, rough and smooth, all in different hues of grey. Beyond the rocks was a small rise, and the narrow trail wound up the slope and disappeared over the top of it. All around, the forest loomed, the sky cupped like a dome of brilliant blue glass above the treetops.

“This place is cool,” Lisa said and stepped into the clearing, Eric and Anne following close behind.

Alice hung back, breathing in the scent of pine and sunlight, revelling in the stillness. Even though she knew they were only fifteen minutes walk from the road, this place felt impossibly far away from everything she’d ever known, and at the same time it was as familiar as a recurring dream.

Maybe grandma had mentioned it in one of her many stories about the Swedish woods, about lingonberries and midwinter snow, and faded folklore creatures snaring the unwary.

She was about to check their location on her phone when the smell of coffee wafted through the air.

“Hello?” Her voice sounded small and uncertain in the silence.

“Hej! Hello! Over here!”

The voice came from the trees near the ridge, and as they walked closer, the smell of coffee got stronger. On a log beside a small campfire sat the man from the gas-station, tending to a blackened coffee pot hanging over the flames.

“Welcome! Coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

He poured her coffee into a hand-carved wooden cup with a curved handle of polished reindeer antler. Small symbols were scratched into the handle, similar to ones she’d seen in photos of stone carvings at the local museum – sun, boat, fish, moose. The coffee was strong, made the way her grandparents used to make it: the coffee grounds scooped into boiling water, left to steep and settle.

“Good?” he asked.

“Good.”

While she drank her coffee, the kids scrambled over the rocks, their mood shifted same as her own. They were no longer fighting or whining, but laughing and playing. Alice couldn’t even remember the last time she’d seen them like this.

“They’re having fun already,” the man remarked. “How about you?”

“So far, so good,” she said guardedly, but she felt it too. Something good. Something that was almost contentment.

“That’s what we do here. Take people back to a simpler time.” He gestured vaguely at the sky and trees and rocks. “Help you find your way back to what really matters.”

She nodded but wasn’t really listening. He’d told her something similar when he gave her the flyer, some new-age bullshit about “finding your way” and “reconnecting”. She’d heard too many of those kinds of platitudes since Bill passed, but the coffee was good, and hearing the kids laugh was better. And there was something about the place that appealed to her, a peacefulness, maybe even that elusive sense of home and belonging she’d been searching for this whole trip.

“Where are all these rocks from?” Anne asked, climbing up a nearby boulder.

“Some were brought here by the ancient ice and seas, but a lot are from the mine. Gunnar, the guy who started mining here in the 1930s, carried many of them out, hoping they’d be worth something. This was a few years after they found gold in Fågelmyran not too far from here, so he was hoping to get rich.”

“Did he find gold?” Lisa asked, ambling over with a rock in her hands.

“Not here. He kept looking, though, digging and drilling deeper and deeper. People said he was a little odd, and no one thought it very strange when he eventually disappeared in the mine.”

“Disappeared?” Eric stopped mid-stride with a lichen-covered rock in either hand. “You mean there’s a dead guy in the mine? It’s haunted?”

“That’s not what he said!” Alice protested, but the man’s smile only widened.

“Maybe. Some people say they still see Gunnar here, sometimes, carrying rocks out of the mine.”

“Anne loves creepy shit like that,” Lisa said, watching her older sister flush.

“Does she now? Well, there are more dead people around here. Just a bit further into the woods are some old gravesites.”

They all turned as one, looking in the direction he pointed.

“Like, with real bones and stuff?” Anne asked.

“Yeah. It’s just a few simple cairns, and the archeologists took most of it away, but there were human bones, stone tools, some fish-hooks made of bone. Nothing fancy, but proof that people have lived around here for thousands of years. From back when this was the coastline.”

“There’s no sea here,” Lisa protested.

“Used to be. All of Sweden is rising slowly, has been, ever since the Ice Age when the land was pushed down by the weight of the ice. Even now, the land rises a little bit every year, and thousands of years ago you could push your boat out and go fishing right here.”

Alice looked at the glade. She could almost see it – water lapping the rocks; a simple wooden boat, cleaving the waves.

“Dad would have loved this place,” Lisa breathed, then yelped when Anne smacked her arm. They both glanced at Alice. She felt the burn of their gaze, the worry, the fear. They still thought she might break. As if she wasn’t already broken beyond repair.

The guide glanced over, then stood up, poured out the dregs of his coffee, and clapped his hands together.

“Let’s head into the mine!”


Beneath

The flashlight won’t come on again, so she stumbles back through the darkness, but even though she’s carefully counted her turns and steps, she cannot find her way back to the entrance. Every tunnel seems to have twisted out of place, and in the dark, her senses are playing tricks on her. She hears the children’s voices, her own voice, too; echoes of conversations and arguments and fights through the years. She hears her own thoughts whispering between the rock-walls, hears the children scream again and again, always out of reach.

At first, she screams, too – screams for help, screams the children’s names, but it only makes the silence worse afterward. It’s better to stay quiet, better to try to find her way.

Twice she comes back to the immense black pool, twice she turns around and tries to find another way.

An unexpected breeze tickles her face as she staggers into a wider space, and for a moment she thinks it’s the cave where they entered the mine, but there is no ladder, no hole showing the sky above. Instead, there’s a dim light, the smell of smoke, and a group of huddled shapes by the opposite wall, gathered around an object in their midst – a large rock with a dark and distant crystal heart glowing like embers beneath ash, set in pale feldspar. One of the shapes turns toward her and his face is the guide’s face, his smile a glint of wolfish teeth. Then the vision falters, and she’s alone again.


Between

The entrance to the mine was a manhole-sized fissure in the ground just beyond the crest of the rise, with a rope ladder attached to a log dangling into the dark. Handing them each a flashlight, the guide shone his own light into the hole, illuminating the floor six metres below.

“It’ll be a bit dark going down. Who’s going first?”

Anne grabbed the ladder, didn’t even hesitate. Then Eric, then Lisa.

“Mom! Mom! Come on!”

They called out to her from below, their upturned faces lit from above.

“Maybe I’ll just stay up here and drink some more coffee,” she called down, only half in jest. Part of her wanted to stay in the glade, in the sunshine beneath the translucent blue sky; wanted to just sit and dream of the ancient sea, and of grandma and grandpa who had left this place so long ago. Instead, she took a deep breath, tucked the flashlight into her jacket and climbed down the swaying ladder.

Once she stood on the floor of the mine, she lit her flashlight and swept it over a large, round cavern with several rough openings radiating out from the central chamber. Some tunnels looked big enough to walk through, others had collapsed or seemed too narrow or low to enter. A strange assortment of tools was on display around the walls, and the kids were already hefting various sledge-hammers and pickaxes.

“Is that safe?” she asked when the guide came down the ladder behind her, recalling the mayhem that usually ensued if the kids armed themselves even with something as simple as cardboard tubes.

Standing there, underground, it occurred to her that while she had mentioned to one of her many Swedish second-cousins that they were going on an excursion, she hadn’t given anyone an exact location, or a time when to expect them back. She grabbed her phone to text the details to a couple of those second cousins, just to ease her mind, but the phone didn’t turn on.

“Electronic devices don’t work down here,” the guide informed her, still smiling. “Something to do with the properties of the rock.”

His reassuring voice smoothed her worries, and she put away her phone, even though a sense of unease still prickled down her spine.

“Alright. Let me give you the educational tour before I let you roam. This mine started out as just a cave back in the Stone Age. It might even have been used by those Neolithic inhabitants I told you about, the ones buried beneath the cairns. There are a lot of old tales around here, you might have heard some of them from your Swedish family, about trolls and vittra and other strange creatures living in this part of the woods, but for all intents and purposes, this cave was overlooked until the 1930s when local villager Gunnar Marklund started mining here, looking for gold, like I told you. Mostly, he found pegmatite, quartz, and feldspar instead.”

“So there really is no gold here?” Lisa said, sounding disappointed.

“No. But he still made a living from the mine. The quartz was sold to the local copper smelter, and the feldspar, which is a very common mineral, was sold and used to make china plates and porcelain. He also found a kind of rock that was previously unknown to geologists.”

Bending down, the guide picked up a large rock from the ground and held it out so it caught the sunlight from above. It looked heavy and jagged, about the size of a man’s head, and while the outer part of it was pale and matte, its dark, glassy center sparkled in the sunlight, reflecting and refracting it. Leaning closer, Alice could have sworn she saw something move inside the crystal – shadows flickering below the surface.

“Feel it,” the guide said and held it out to her.

As soon as Alice touched the glossy crystal surface, a shiver ran up her arm and down her spine, as if the rock had given her an electric shock.

“The light-coloured part is ordinary feldspar,” the guide continued and passed the stone around, giving each of the children a turn. “But the dark part, the heart of it, that’s something else. It’s a mineral that has not been found anywhere but here.”

Eric was the last to touch the rock, and when he was done, Alice reached for it one more time. It made her skin tingle again, and now there also seemed to be a buzz, a whisper, at the edge of her hearing, as if the rock was making either the air around her, or the bones inside her, vibrate.

“It’s beautiful,” Lisa whispered. “Can we keep it?”

The guide grinned, his smile all teeth.

“Sorry, but no. It’s one of a kind.” For a moment, his face turned utterly serious, almost menacing. “It can’t ever leave this mine.” Gingerly, he put the rock back on the ground, and when he looked up, he was smiling again. “Take a look around. Everything you see here, all the tools and the tunnels, is pretty much the way it was when Gunnar disappeared in the 1940s.”

“Where did he really go?” Eric asked. “He can’t just have disappeared.”

The guide shrugged.

“Who knows? While this mine has only one entrance, there are many different ways out of it, but every person has to find their own exit.”

“What the heck does that mean?” Alice asked, but he was already heading down one of the tunnels, the children ambling in his wake. “Stay close kids,” she called out, but of course they didn’t listen, too enthralled by seeing what lay ahead.

She followed them, only half listening as the guide spoke of old mining procedures. How one man held a hand-drill while another hit it with a sledge-hammer, how the drill had to be repositioned and turned after each stroke. She even thought she could hear it, thump thump thump, and wondered if they’d installed a sound system to make the tour more realistic.

While the children investigated an old wheelbarrow and its load of rocks, the guide turned to Alice.

“Didn’t you say your Swedish family came from around?”

“Yeah. My grandparents moved to Canada in the 1950s, but mormor, grandma, grew up in the village we passed on the way here.”

“What was her name?”

“Elsa. Elsa Viklund, before she married.”

The guide nodded.

“Elsa. Yes. I remember her. Such a good girl. Used to pick lingonberries around here every fall.”

Alice turned her flashlight on the guide’s youthful face. He could be no older than thirty, forty at the most.

“Excuse me? You remember her? How old are you?”

The guide’s grin bent and twisted into something sharper, and then all the flashlights went dark at the same time.


Beneath

After roaming through endless tunnels, the pool bars her way again.

This time, there’s a faint, silvery light coming from somewhere further down the tunnel, beyond the pool. In the eerie glow she sees footsteps in front of her, disappearing into the pool; sees three piles of clothes left discarded on the ground.

A sobbing, cold breath fills her lungs, but she’s still drowning.

She’d call their names if she thought it would help, but she understands now that words and names have no power here. The only thing that matters is what she wants to find: a way out, or the kids.

When she first realized they were gone, something stirred beneath her fear and panic, something small and cold, hidden in the deepest folds of her mind. She didn’t want to feel it, but it wriggled free anyway, a maggot gnawing its way out of rotting flesh.

Relief.

Relief that she could give up, that she could finally run away, and ask someone else for help.

Life’s been so hard for so long. Trying to be a good mother, trying to keep it together, trying to be everything the children need, trying to do the right thing, trying not to break and shatter, every second and minute of every day. Always failing. Always falling short. Always thinking they’d be better off without her, if only Bill had lived instead of her.

But it’s too late to run away and ask for help now. It is the fourth time she’s come back to this spot, and she understands now that no matter which way she chooses, no matter how she counts her steps, there’s only this place, in the end.

She found her way back to the entrance once, but she chose not to leave, chose to run back when she heard Anne scream.

“While this mine has only one entrance, there are many different ways out of it, but each person has to find their own exit.”

When the guide said it, she thought it was yet another empty, new-age metaphor, but she has come to the belated realization that nothing he said was metaphor. This is real, all of it: the fear and the pain, the voices and the screams, the darkness behind her and the light ahead.

I told them to stay with me, but they never ever listen.

But it’s too late for I told you so’s. Too late for everything. Too late to find another way.


Between

When the light went out, the children screamed. She reached for them and found Lisa and Eric right away, but not Anne.

“Anne!” Her voice splintered into echoes.

“Mom?” Anne. Right beside her.

“Just stay where you are, kids.”

She let go of them and tried to get her flashlight working, but it would not come on, and when she reached for the kids again, they weren’t there.

“They’re gone,” the guide said, appearing in front of her, his face dimly lit. She wondered where the light came from, until she saw that he was holding that rock again, that strange heart of crystal, set in feldspar. The shadows inside it moved faster now, a churning vortex, and its whispers were more insistent and urgent.

“Where are my kids?”

“I don’t know.”

“Please. Just tell me where they are.”

“I can’t. You’re their mom. You have to find them. If you want to find them.”

She trembled.

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean, Alice. Don’t you? Sometimes it’s so easy to guide people. As soon as I see them, I know they’re unhappy, and I understand right away where they need to go, what they want to find. Like Gunnar. He wanted to find gold. Others wanted to find other things, other places. Your kids, they were easy to guide because they knew where they wanted to go. But you…I’m still not sure. Do you want to find the kids, or a way out?”

She stared at him, her heart beating so hard she heard it echo through the tunnel.

“I don’t understand. Just help me find them.”

“No. You have to find your own way out. Everybody does”

And then he disappeared, too.


Beneath

Alice kneels in the darkness, by the cold water’s edge. She shivers in the pathetic human husk that is her body, the broken remnants of her soul rattling around inside it. Then, she sheds her fear and doubt and garments, leaving them on the floor next to the children’s clothes.

Eyes closed, head lowered, she inhales the darkness and feels it settle and harden inside her, sharp and heavy. There is a new heart beating behind her ribs now, slow and purposeful, dark and opaque, set in her otherwise unremarkable flesh.

Do you want to find your kids or a way out?

She didn’t know the answer then, but she knows it now.

Alice walks into the water. The pool is deep and cold. She wades until she has to swim. The liquid feels heavy, as if it resists the movement of her limbs.

When she reaches the other side, the tunnel narrows until she can barely fit through it. She has to lie down and wriggle and push and drag herself through it while the rock rakes her flesh and skin. But the light ahead is getting brighter, and she moves towards it, no longer sure if this is a dream or nightmare, a heaven or a hell, but it really doesn’t matter. She smells fire, earth and rot, damp and blood. Then, the tunnel widens slightly. The light turns into the moon, and the air on her face is cold and smells of pine and smoke as she crawls out of a crack in the ground into the forest by the shore.

She stands there in the moonlight on top of the ridge, her skin streaked and slick from the pool, bloodied and raw from her passage through the rock. Below, there’s a small fire near the water’s edge, a boat pulled up in the shallows, and three familiar shapes clad in skins and fur are huddled around the flames.

She looks down at the ground beneath her feet, searching for the crack she came through, but it isn’t there anymore.

One way in, many ways out.

The three below look up and call out to her, joyfully and loud, “Ma! Ma!”, they shriek, shaking bows and spears. She raises her arms in greeting, and walks down the slope until she’s home.

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