By Katrina Carruth
I mention the canyon loud enough for prying ears to hear, and the diner goes silent. The man pouring my coffee stops and scours the room for whoever told an outsider about their little secret. He coughs nervously, says going into that part of the desert is only worthwhile if I don’t plan on coming back out. He makes no indication he’s joking, but adds something about pretty little ladies such as myself. A frazzled looking woman at the end of the bar bounds toward me, rambling about a child that came from the canyon, a child born of the canyon.
I don’t tell her I am that child.
The woman is silenced and urgently ushered away by someone who was clearly prepared and had done this before. I politely turn my attention away, though I can still hear her mumbling.
The burger I ordered to eat at the bar is handed to me in a lifeless paper bag, and I take the hint. Ignoring the glares and silent protests about my potential intentions, I head to my truck.
I drive slowly down the road and stop where I can see the mouth of the canyon and everyone in the diner can still see me. They think they’re so clever, set up like duck hunters all camouflaged under the cover of a greasy spoon. It’s sad there’s nothing else to do besides intimidate anyone who’s not from around here.
I don’t know what they’re so worried about. The canyon is almost impossible to see from either side. It’s as if the walls around it move to keep it just out of view, like those paintings with eyes that seem to follow no matter which way you walk past it. You’ve got to either be really lucky or know exactly when and where to look in order to see it.
Besides that, they don’t even know what they’re protecting. Every generation hears the same story and follows with blind obedience. Told to follow, to listen, to maintain the natural order of what was established here long before they arrived. And they do it, without question, living their whole lives believing that the mere act of questioning is a fatal sin.
This is The Place. This is The Way. Anything else is wrong, and wrong means you’ve gone astray, and those who’ve gone astray are likely lost forever…
Or something like that.
Through agitated chomps of beef grease and pickle chips, I stare at the canyon’s mouth. Fitting name, I think. Mouths have teeth. Mouths chew and consume and devour and mangle whatever ends up inside. Mouths gulp and slurp and taste, savor and suckle and spit and starve. Breathe in, out, salivate and crave.
I hear a vehicle pull up behind mine, then a door slam. “Holy shit!” someone shouts behind me.
I don’t say anything, don’t offer the voice a glimpse in their direction.
“Yoohoo,” he whistles.
I take another bite. A big one. A stringy piece of lettuce slips out and slaps against my chin, leaving a blob of mayo in its wake.
The man’s stalky figure paces out of my periphery in the opposite direction, then shuffles past me, and I catch a whiff of his memories. He reeks of violence, too many incidences to clearly make each one out. And he’s proud, likely often fantasizes about what he’ll do next time. Because when the first and second and so on times were so easy, there is sure to be a next time.
“I’ll be damned,” he huffs.
He will be. Sooner rather than later, if I have my way.
He continues as if I’ve given him my undivided attention, the way most men proceed when they can’t comprehend anyone not being interested in what they have to say. “Dunno what it is about these tiny towns being so secretive. The desert is already an inhospitable place, and these folks make it even more so. For what? Somethin’s in there. Somethin’ they don’t want us to check out.”
He pauses, plants his hands on his hips that are unsuccessfully clinging to his filthy, oversized jeans.
I break my silence to tell him he cannot go into that canyon.
“Heh, I’m not easy to boss around, honey,” he snorts.
I chew some more, swallow, take another bite, savor the semi-charred bits of meat as they grind obediently to the rhythm of my teeth.
“Fuck ‘em. If you’re going, I’m going,” he says, making a move in his blame game.
I love how predictable he is, the kind of guy who takes strict instruction and only sees temptation, blames his irresponsible behaviors on “urges.” Who blatantly chooses to hear “go” when it’s a clear “no.”
That’s fine, I say, and add that he’ll likely regret it.
He laughs the kind of laugh he likely offers an unsuspecting female at a bar when he’s just slipped something in her drink. But he won’t be able to slip anything past me.
I stare at him for several awkward seconds before I laugh back. Over-excitedly, so that his laugh gets louder, more annoying. My teeth are on full display, and I make no effort to remove chunks of hamburger bun and whatever else might have caught in the crooked pattern of my smile. His guffaw trembles a bit at my intentionally unflattering appearance.
Something he’s obviously not accustomed to.
I toss the remnants of my meal and its bag to the side of the road and wave to the diners still gawking our direction.
Disrespectful. Irreverent. Blasphemous to litter in this holy place. I hope I’ve made at least a few of them choke.
I hop into my truck, tell the bloke, Chad? Chip? Chuck? to follow. He does so like a pathetic dog, eager and loyal, clueless about the swift kick it’s about to get, and I can’t wait to deliver the blow.
I steer him down the same path, the one I’ve always followed, back to the canyon. It’s strange how much a place can change while staying the same. There are a few newer homes, new roads, but nothing’s really different. Even the faces seem to stay the same.
The winding dirt road takes us as far as it can before the threatening fence—electric now, fancy!—stops us from going any farther.
After a few violent bare-handed yanks on the buzzing wire and a handful of gasps from my shocked companion—a disappointing sign he completely underestimates me—we walk unscathed to the other side.
He starts making fun of the old woman in the diner, the one who claimed a child came from the canyon. He says he’s heard of people dumping pets, sounds like a good idea to dump kids. Leave ‘em in the desert for the locals to take in, stir up tall tales of magic, anything to keep them believing they’re some kind of special.
He drops some little quip about how everyone needs to feel special once in a while, blah blah, I’m sure he’s staring at my ass hoping I intend to make him feel a little special.
I need him to shut up, so I confess that I’m from around here.
“No shit,” he shouts.
I ask if he wants to hear a story, a local legend, and he nods excitedly, trying and failing to avoid staring at my cleavage.
I tell him about a child birthed from the heart of the world. From a mother so warped and twisted and demanding. One that only offered love if the child did exactly what she wanted, became exactly what she wanted. When the child misbehaved, was led astray by the world, the child was summoned back home. Every time this happened, the mother told the child it will have to start over, try harder next time, and the child climbed back into its mother’s belly to be reborn.
Mother convinced the child this was a kindness.
I tell him she was an unwavering mother, the kind who paints your room with illusionary free will but leaves space for disappointment and guilt to seep through the cracks. The child never wanted to be the savior of the world. Didn’t want people to abstain from that which would bring them true peace and pleasure and wholeness. Didn’t think it was necessary to show people a path to follow regardless of what they wanted for themselves. But this made Mother angry, and the child was miserable when Mother was angry.
I tell him all this in a singsong way, like a terrifying lullaby that’s supposed to exhaust rather than relax a child to sleep.
“You’re off your fucking rocker,” he laughs, but follows up with, “but you should be a writer, that was a damn fine story.”
I agree and giggle with all the flattery I can muster, mostly because it’s obvious he doesn’t read much.
He asks, “I don’t understand why the child doesn’t just do what it’s told. Sounds like it’d be easier, don’tcha think?”
Probably true, I say. But I tell him obedience often becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. That we are not all meant to carry the fears of another. That it took the child centuries to figure out it should try and sprint from the cage when the door opens.
Enjoying this little game of arguing over what he thinks is a fictional and very hypothetical scenario, he asks, “Well if the kid is learnin’ so much and doesn’t want to be reborn, why does it go back? You said the child is summoned but nobody’s makin’ him answer.”
I tell him that Mother makes life unbearable if the child makes her unhappy, and it’s easy to make Mother unhappy. I tell him that leaving home changes a person but going home does the same. That the thing that creates you can also destroy you. Sometimes running from home isn’t enough. Sometimes it’s necessary to return to burn it down.
I say he should know this, being on the run himself.
His head shoots up faster than a rattlesnake springs for a bite. I don’t look away, keep my eyes locked on his. I can tell he’s uncomfortable, and he brushes the comment off with what sounds like it’s supposed to be a joke. “I guess if you consider camping trips to be runnin’ away from home then, yeah, I suppose I am.”
Walking ahead of him, I carry on in silence and allow him to do the same. I can hear his heavy breaths behind me, likely more from the anxiety I’ve induced than his lack of regular cardio.
We approach the base of the canyon, and my lungs tighten in my chest. I know what needs to be done, but my confidence fades now that I’m home. The air is quiet, the noise from the highway now nonexistent as if behind some unseen barrier. It smells the way I remember, a comforting mix of warm sand and sagebrush. The red rock towers above us, looming, declaring an unflinching stance. It’s welcoming me home while also reminding me it is Mother’s home, and entering means I’m once again under her roof.
“So, you’re from around here but you’ve never been in the canyon? Never busted in as a teenager? Or were you one of them good kids?” he asks.
Definitely not one of the good kids, I say.
He drops his bag and the air that wafts my direction is unbearable.
“I’m just gonna get my sunscreen—” he starts, but I cut him off.
I tell him he can get his sunscreen, but he is not invited inside.
He thinks I’m joking, so I repeat myself. He tries to argue, tries to walk past me, but I push him back so hard he falls on his ass with humiliating ease. I lay out a list of instructions as his eyes bat at me with wild confusion:
You will not follow me inside. If you do, you will not come out. You will not leave until someone exits the canyon, no matter how long it takes. If it is a child that exits the canyon, you are to kill it immediately.
To this, he shouts, “You’ve got to be fuckin’ kidding.”
I tell him I know he can do it. I know he’s done it before.
He tries to interject, but I point to his bag and tell him I know he’s the sentimental type, hasn’t done away with what he used last time. I add that this one is a dream, one nobody will ever find out about. A child with no record of their existence. A child that can disappear with no trace, no one to look for it, no one that’ll care.
He sits in the sand, frozen, digesting what I’ve said. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but it’s safe to assume he’s stupid and curious enough to see what might come of this insanity. He doesn’t want to show his excitement, but I can taste it.
Attempting to maintain his composure, he says, “And what if it’s you that I see come out of the canyon?”
I crouch down close enough for him to feel my breath on his face.
Run, I say.
He gulps but doesn’t move, doesn’t argue.
I hate that if I fail and come back as a child, I have to rely on this useless fuckface to end this vicious cycle. And I hate that he’ll enjoy every second.
I stand, turn on my heel, and leave him. He might lose his mind before it’s all over, might be met with an angry town mob, but that’s not my problem.
My problem is much bigger now.
Stepping into the shadows brings an overwhelming sense of shame, the kind one feels when they’ve come home well past curfew. When breaking the rules no longer feels worth it. When the heavy stare, the look, beats down harder than the heat of the summer sun.
The rock that protects my belongings sits where I left it, and I push it aside to reveal a small enclave of trinkets and old clothes, relics of my other selves that also let Mother down. I dump the contents of my bag: a long hunting knife, cell phone, wallet, a pair of well-worn Converse, and my favorite t-shirt, and shove them in with the other things.
I envy those who get to decide for themselves if they’re fucking up. Who get to climb out of the box they’ve been shoved into. Who get to leave home and choose if and when they return.
Every time I’ve left something in this small cave, the only space that’s every truly been mine, I did so hoping it would be the last time. This time is no different.
Mother makes her presence known before I finish ruminating, and a gradual trembling of the ground pulls me to the center of the canyon. My feet slip slightly into the soil’s crust, and I fall on all fours.
The earth swirls in front of me, twisting clockwise, consuming all layers of sand, clay, and whatever plants sit unfortunately close to the hole opening in the ground. Hot air rushes at me and kisses every inch of my face and arms. When the swirling stops, I stare into the dark, infinite pit, just as terrifying as I remember.
I say a polite but cautious hello and run my hands along the edge of her throat, feeling every bump and rough edge. She knows I’m wasting time; knows I’m keeping my eyes down as if my humility might spare me this recurring punishment.
And then I feel her. She’s ravenous, dying for me to surrender. Another blast of air smacks me like a hurricane, a most disappointed sigh, and I nearly fall forward.
Sitting in this all too familiar and gut-wrenching moment, I remember the shame I’m feeling is not for what I’ve done, but what I came here to do.
I settle into the ground, dig my fingers into the soil, let every cell in my body relax as if being snuggled to sleep. I let Mother into my mind, let her hear my rehearsed thoughts, excuses, apologies, and promises I’ll do better, BE better. I replay everything I’ve done in acknowledgement of all she believes I’ve done wrong, a showing of her favorite movie.
This makes her happy. Well, satisfied enough to continue.
With a harsh rumble, her core opens like that of a baby bird demanding its already chewed up food. My breath catches in my throat, and I choke back tears. She can’t know I am ready to put up a fight this time.
The ground quivers more violently now as a grumble from her gut beckons me to her belly. Her breath circles around me to begin my transformation. Within seconds, my flesh peels obediently away from my body, then my muscles, bones last, all breaking apart and turning into delicate grains of sand as they hit the ground. They tumble down into the cavern, and I feel each one smack against her sides, grinding against the rock like insignificant crumbs trapped between rows of sharp teeth.
The wild thumping of her heart grows louder as my surroundings get darker. Her stomach gurgles, signals it’s ready for churning, dismantling, digesting.
But I won’t make it that far, not if I can help it.
I push against the demanding gulps forcing me down, my consciousness begging every piece of me to form a solid lump she can’t swallow.
She coughs, inhales sharply, but I manage to hold my ground. I sense her confusion, and I don’t know if I can trust myself not to slip back into my perpetual need to make her happy.
But I frantically regather myself.
She asks what’s taking me so long and I tell her I won’t be doing this again. Not now. Not ever. She laughs and I feel myself breaking apart as pieces sneak from my grip and into her abyss. If I were whole, I’d be able to put up more of a fight. But I’m not. She always makes sure I’m not.
My consciousness scrambles and I feel her break into every thought I hoped she wouldn’t see, and she goes silent. The kind of silent that’s often fatal when coming from a mother.
She mocks my desire to continue the life I’ve created, mocks my hope that I am capable of making it better without her help.
I curse at her, tell her it’s not fair that she sends me out to experience things she has not. I learn things she’ll never understand. To exist in a world that expects me to evolve while she demands I stay the same. I flood my consciousness with memories of all my lives. I show her the moments I found, things that brought me joy and made me love whatever life I’d worked so hard to build for myself. I show her the devastating blows I felt each time she called me back. Each time I thought I’d become someone she could be proud of, only to be told I need to try again.
I don’t need to be better, don’t need to do better. I just need to be.
I ask her to let me go.
She says she doesn’t want to talk about this anymore. She says that wanting to leave and never come back means I don’t love her, and that if I loved her, I would want to make her happy. That I wouldn’t ever dream of hurting her this way.
I know there’s no hope trying to explain how I’m feeling, no hope that she’ll truly see me. But perhaps she’ll grow tired of fighting and spit me back out. Hell, maybe she’ll even banish me. Tell me to leave and never come back.
I replay this thought over and over so she has to see it over and over.
Assembling what I have left of myself, I bunch up tighter this time and roll myself back up to a narrower spot, filling the empty space to try and block her airway. She’ll have to decide to spit me out or suffocate.
Screaming now, rumbling the ground, the cliffs around us shake violently. I can hardly hold my grip. In both the outside world and her world, I’m nothing but a fractured boulder seconds away from shattering.
I mirror her rage and lose control. I tell her it’s unfair the way she dismisses my love and constant devotion. That it’s unfair the way she expects me to drop who I am to return to her. That I’m sad that she refuses to see the part of me that’s also part of her: a creator desperate to find and hold my place in the world.
“I knew this day would come,” she says out loud, not in my head as she usually does. I hear the sound boom up and out against the canyon walls. I’ve never heard her speak this way, and I wonder what else I don’t know she’s capable of.
She continues, “You’re ready to be without me, so I’ll let you.”
Oh, great, another test. One I didn’t see coming. One I’ll likely fail. Before I can think of a response, the cavern around me relaxes. She whispers a condescending “Good luck” as a final gust of air rushes past me.
She’s gone, I can feel it. Her absence magnifies this void in the earth, and I can’t hold myself together. I scramble to the opening above, desperately begging every grain to follow. I get to the top and pray that I am made whole again, but nothing happens. She is not here to make me whole again.
I want to cry, scream, throw myself into the earth so hard I die, so I let myself fall. Pebbles tumble and scatter, and I trickle into every part that was her.
I have no choice but to settle into the earth. To stay here forever.
For the first time, I feel the earth’s pulse, its warmth, its life. I feel what she must have felt, the unbearable burden of everything that exists. The weight of all that is dark and careless and vile and worthless.
I’m already exhausted. And enraged.
An echo from above redirects my attention.
“Hello? Ma’am?” the annoying voice calls. I don’t let anyone call me ma’am, especially if they clearly refused to listen to my instructions. “Yoohoo! You didn’t tell me what to do if nobody came out.”
The smart ass has the audacity to laugh.
His stench intensifies as I feel him approach my mouth, and my belly lets out a desperate groan.
I’m starving, and I have an idea. If I can’t live for myself, I’ll do it through him.
Before he can get away, I shake as hard as I can, pulling the earth beneath his feet toward my teeth. He falls as easily as he did the first time, and within seconds he’s tumbling down my gullet. By the time he lands in my stomach he’s unconscious, and I waste no time getting to work. I start by pulverizing him, churning until he’s nothing but tiny specks. His mince rolls through me and I discard all that is revolting and despicable within him. I mold a kind face, a short stature, an unassuming figure. Nothing special.
When he’s finished, I spit him out onto the sand, now glistening under the stars and radiant moonlight. I marvel at my first born for a moment before blowing a new breath of life into him. He gasps, clutches his throat, gapes around him in horror as his mind races to recover what happened last.
I feel for him, but not enough to go easy on him. His road to redemption will be a long one. Knowing what he’s done, how he felt about it, I’m thrilled by the look of fear in his eyes.
I tell him exactly what I expect of him, and he nearly faints when he recognizes my voice. I tell him he will follow my instructions this time or pay dearly. First, he will leave the canyon. He will likely be found by someone in the town. They will say he’s special, and he’ll spend his whole life trying to prove it. I tell him the farther he drifts from my will, the quicker I’ll take back the gifts I’ll bestow, the ones that will make him magical. When that happens, he’ll be reduced to nothing but a fraud.
I tell him he will have no choice but to return when I summon, because no one else will trust him. No one else will want him.
He’s trembling the way I used to. I want to shout at him, want to tell him I can end him as easily as I created him, that he will mess up and I will make him start over. But I don’t.
Instead, I watch him shuffle away, and listen invasively as his thoughts spin into a hopeless void.
Mother would be proud.
Katrina Carruth (she/her) is a charming mother, wife, and writer of spooky things. She currently lives in Maine and obsesses over D&D, tarot cards, and cooking. She has short stories published in Aphotic Realm Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, and Nightmares When I’m Cold. In 2022, she self-published a sci-fi monster romance novella, Mistress in the Mirror. Find her on Twitter @katrinacarruth or her website: www.katrinacarruth.com