Down Where the Dead Play Their Lutes
By Matt Mills · Estimated Reading Time: 20 Minutes
When Hop was little, her Uncle Crumble would play the lute and sing a lot of nonsense about the ocean.
Uncle Crumble was a lazy man, always sleeping until noon, always complaining about the backbreaking work down in the rice paddies. But when he played the lute, it was like a transformation came over him. A spark would spring up in his eyes, and he’d dance around the fire, singing about a wide, crystal sea that was nothing like their canyon of stone and mud. His prancing shape would make shadows on the cave walls, and she and her brother would laugh and laugh. Her uncle loved his silly songs, and boy, did he love his lute.
It was still laying next to his pillow when the flash flood drowned him.
Hop and her family lived in a place called the Narrows. It was a slot canyon, which meant that a long time ago a river had carved out a thin pathway through the middle of a mountain. Her father had explained this to her once. In some places the canyon was so narrow that she could straddle the two walls, one foot on either side, while eating a hardboiled egg. She’d crack the shell and watch the pieces flutter down to the sticky marsh far below.
Hop wasn’t scared of heights. But she was scared of the marsh.
Down in the marsh was where the rice paddies were. Her brother Tug worked there, along with most of the other villagers. It was all that remained of the once-mighty river.
But on rare occasions, every few decades, the river returned.
And it always took someone with it.
Some nights, as she lay under her ibex-skin blanket on the stone floor of the cave where her family lived, high up in the wall of the western cliff, Hop would think about the river. She imagined she could hear the distant roar, feel the shaking ground, see the wall of water come surging through. She would imagine her Uncle Crumble, down in the marsh, and wonder where those rushing waters had taken him.
“Papa,” she asked one day, “when the river comes, where does it go?”
Her father was standing on the rock where he stood every morning, on the very top of the eastern cliffside, watching the swallows. There were hundreds of them, all darting in and out of the canyon. Her father watched them, holding a spear that was tied to a rope looped around his waist.
“What do you mean, Hop?”
Hop looked down the canyon. Far in the distance, it bent to the east, and she could see nothing beyond it. “I mean, where does it go? What’s down there?”
Her father grunted. “Nothing.”
“There’s nothing down there. It goes through the canyon, and then it stops. That’s it.”
Then he threw the spear and it pierced a swallow through the heart.
The next day, Hop tried her mother.
“Mama,” she asked, “when the river comes, where does it go?”
They were working their way along the sheer cliffside, foot over foot like the ibex. Hop was holding a basket while her mother went up to a swallows’ nest, picking out a single egg and leaving the rest.
“What do you mean, dear?”
“I mean, when the water comes in and goes rushing out again, where does it go? What’s at the end of the canyon?”
Her mother gave her a strange look. “How should I know?”
“Hasn’t anyone ever checked?”
“Why, Hop! Who’d ever want to leave the canyon?”
She put another egg in Hop’s basket, and Hop frowned. “But what about the people that get washed away by the flash floods? Where do they go?”
Her mother looked at her. “Are you having nightmares again?”
“No. I’m just wondering.”
“They die, child.”
“I know that. But then what?”
A wistful look came into her mother’s eyes. “My nana always said that when we die we come back as a swallow. That way you can live right here in the canyon, watching over the people you love most.”
“But…but we eat the swallows!”
“Oh, heavens! I’d never thought of that.”
Then she put another egg in the basket and kept going. Hop shimmied along after her, thinking about Uncle Crumble and his silly songs.
“If I was a swallow,” she said, “I wouldn’t stay here. I’d fly to the ocean.”
“I’m sure you would, dear,” said her mother. “Now stop jostling the basket, you’ll drop the eggs.”
The next day, Hop tried her brother. He was working down in the rice paddies, and it took a while for Hop to gather up the courage to climb all the way down. As she came off the canyon wall and stepped into the marsh, she looked northwards, half expecting to see a wall of water rushing toward her. She shuddered.
“What’re you doing down here, pipsqueak?”
Tug was working near the canyon wall. The season for planting would begin soon, and he was tilling the marsh with a long hoe.
“I’ve got a question,” she said.
“Go ask dad.”
“I already asked him. I asked mom, too.”
“Yeah? Then what’re you asking me for?”
She stuck out her tongue at him.
“Well,” he said, and kept working, “what is it?”
“When the river comes, where does it go?”
He stopped and looked up in surprise. “You thinking about Uncle Crumble?”
“I dunno. Maybe. Do you remember the songs he used to sing?”
“I guess I was just wondering what happened to him, after the waters came.”
Tug thought for a moment. Then he put the blade of his hoe in the water and leaned on the handle.
“Can you keep a secret?”
He glanced over his shoulder and lowered his voice. “He’s in the marsh.”
Hop stared at him. “What?”
“Uncle Crumble. He’s in the marsh.” He lowered his voice even further. “There are dead people in the water.”
Hop looked down in alarm at the water lapping around her toes. “Nuh-uh…”
“It’s true,” said Tug. “When people die they smell awful bad, so we’ve got to put them somewhere. There’s deep places in the marsh, you know, little holes and caverns where the water goes way down and the rice won’t take.”
Hop was wide-eyed. “They put dead people in them?”
Tug nodded. “And when the river comes back it pushes people down there, down deep under the mud. People say you can still talk to them. Sometimes the old grannies, the ones who can’t climb out on the walls anymore, they send down little trinkets, and we put them down the holes and ask a question, and then we bring back the answers.”
“You do not!”
“Do to! I just don’t talk about it ‘cause dad doesn’t like it. He says it’s nonsense. But I’ve heard ‘em, Hop. And you know what else? People say that, at night when the moon is out, you can see hands sticking up out of holes, except they don’t got any skin on ‘em, just bones growing like stalks out of the marsh, waiting to grab anyone that might walk by.”
“What do they do if they get somebody?”
“Why, they pull ‘em under, stupid. Down with the dead.”
Hop swallowed. Then she looked down toward the south, where the canyon went a long ways before the walls bent.
“But what about the river?” she asked. “Where does it go?”
Tug followed her gaze. Then he shrugged. “I dunno. Ask Uncle Crumble.”
That night, while the rest of her family slept, Hop crawled to the mouth of the cave. Overhead, the thin strip of sky was speckled with stars, and far below the canyon floor was black. Hop held her brother’s hoe in one hand, and for a long time she hesitated. Then, taking a deep breath, she began the long climb down.
At the bottom, the water was still. She poked at it with the hoe, half expecting a skeletal hand to burst out of the water and snatch it away. But nothing happened.
“Stupid Tug,” she muttered to herself. Then she got into the water.
She went carefully, walking the shallow strips between the rice paddies, feeling about with the hoe as she went. The mud sloshed under her toes, sticky and warm. Every once in a while, in the darkness, she thought she heard a splash, but whenever she turned to look, there was nothing.
Then, suddenly, she put her hoe in the water and it didn’t hit the ground. Frowning, she felt around with it. There was a hole. Cautious, she pushed the handle of the hoe down as far as it would go, but it just kept going until her hand was level with the water. It still hadn’t touched the bottom. She pulled it out. It was a very deep hole.
“Hello?” Hop whispered into the water. “Uncle Crumble?”
There was no answer. Hop looked back at the canyon wall. Overhead, the stars were smothered by clouds. She dipped her foot into the hole, just for a moment. It made ripples on the surface. But nothing else happened.
“Stupid Tug,” Hop said again.
She was just about to turn around when a hand flashed out of the water, grabbed her by the ankle, and pulled her in.
Hop was dragged down beneath the water with alarming speed. For a moment, all was black and cold and sticky, and she couldn’t breathe. Then she burst through a filmy substance, like the squishy part of a raw egg, and tumbled onto a stone floor, coughing and gasping.
“Nice grab, Crumble! What’d you get, eh? Let’s take a look!”
Still coughing and wiping mud from her eyes, Hop looked up. She was in what appeared to be a giant stone cave, though she couldn’t see the walls. There were little fires dotting the darkness, and shapes huddled around the fires, but between the little circles of flame and beyond them she could see nothing, as if each campfire was an island adrift in a pool of ink.
“Why, bless me! It’s a girl!”
There were three figures bending over Hop, looking at her with curiosity. The first had the face and torso of an old woman, but below her tattered old coat there were no legs holding her up: she just floated in midair. The second was a man, probably: it was missing most of its face, and its body was nothing but bones. It wore a hat and a pair of boots.
The third was Uncle Crumble.
She recognized him at once. True, his hands and arms had no skin left on them, and his head was wispy and translucent, like he was only half there. But it was him all the same.
“Uncle Crumble!” she said.
Her uncle blinked. Then a big smile broke out on his gray face. “Why, it’s Hop! Sweet little Hop! Goodness gracious, girl, are you dead?”
“I…I don’t think so.”
“That’s a relief. Can you imagine? Your dad would never let me hear the end of it, what with me going and pulling you down here by the ankle. Look here, Mrs. Lob, Mr. Wriggle, this is my niece!”
The old lady ghost and the half-man skeleton waved. “Hullo.”
Hop waved back. “Hullo.”
“Say,” said Uncle Crumble, “what are you doing out in the marsh at this time of night anyway? Don’t you know it’s dangerous?”
“I was looking for you,” said Hop. Remembering her question, she wasn’t afraid anymore. She leaned forward eagerly. “Uncle Crumble, where does the river go?”
“Eh? What’s that?”
“You used to sing about it, in your songs.”
The wraith looked at her. Then he threw back his head and cackled. “My songs! Did you hear that, Mrs. Lob, Mr. Wriggle? I’d almost forgotten.”
The pair were still looking at Hop, somewhat forlorn.
“Too bad it’s just a little girl,” said Mrs. Lob. “Last week old lady Hem got ahold of a wicker basket.”
“I was hoping for a fish,” said Mr. Wriggle.
“In your songs,” said Hop, not to be deterred, “you used to sing about an ocean. Is it true, Uncle Crumble? Is there an ocean?”
“That nonsense?” said Uncle Crumble, still chuckling. “That was just for kicks and giggles, you know. Ah, bless me!”
Hop frowned. These dead people certainly were not as helpful as she had hoped. She stood up and brushed herself off. Now that her eyes were becoming accustomed to the dim light, she saw that the ceiling was actually very low, a roof of dirt and tangled roots just over her head. Directly above her was the hole she’d been pulled into, and shimmering at the top she could see the rippling surface of the water. Yet the water did not spill into the cave: it was held in place by a filmy substance. She reached up to poke at it.
“What’s this?” said Uncle Crumble in alarm. “Leaving so soon?”
Hop was surprised. “I can leave?”
“Well, of course! You’re not dead like us, are you? If you want to go back, just grab those roots and pull yourself up. But I really do wish you’d stay awhile, I’m dying to catch up!” He winked. “Get that one, Hop? ‘Dying?’”
Hop looked up at the hole and back down again. “Why do you do it anyway, Uncle Crumble? Why do you try to grab us?”
“Why, it’s not you we’re after, little one! We’re just after…well, anything!”
“Why?” he threw back his head and guffawed again, just like he used to do when he was alive. “Because there’s absolutely nothing better to do down here!”
“And I do so want a wicker basket…” said Mrs. Lob.
Hop frowned again, deeper this time. She turned, facing south. It was the direction of the canyon, the way the river went when it swept through. Far, far away, beyond the inky black, she thought she could see a light.
“Uncle Crumble,” she asked, pointing, “what’s down that way?”
“Down there? Why?”
“That’s the way the river goes.”
The three dead people traded glances. “Better not talk about it.”
Hop narrowed her eyes. “Why not?”
“Look, Hop, we’ve got a lot going on here. We only have a few more hours that we can spend grabbing stuff from the marsh before the workers come back, and then we’ve gotta be ready when they bring us trinkets and ask us questions so we can holler back. It’s awful hard to shout up to the living world, you know, we gotta yell till we’re hoarse and even then sometimes it doesn’t get through.”
“And the things they send down,” said Mrs. Lob in disgust. “Always these useless little knickknacks. I’d kill for a new coat, but what do they give us in return for wisdom from beyond the grave? Little stone carvings of ibex.”
“Or swallow feathers.”
“Or painted eggshells.”
Hop stamped her foot. “But what about the songs? What about the river? Is there an ocean or not?”
They just stared at her.
Then, all of a sudden, a light came into Uncle Crumble’s eyes. “Say, Hop, you’re really not dead?”
“And you can go back up there, up to the land of the living, and then come back here again?”
“Listen, Hop, I’ll make you a deal.” He knelt down. “You remember that old lute of mine?”
After that day, things began mysteriously disappearing from the village.
It started with Uncle Crumble’s lute. Hop’s mother had kept it in the back of the cave, along with her dead brother’s clothes and blankets. Sometimes she would take a candle and walk to the back of the cave to look at them and sigh. But, one day when she went to look, the lute was gone.
“Chisel!” she screamed for her husband. “Come quick! We’ve been robbed!”
The cry went all over the cliffside. Everyone who heard murmured in surprise: they remembered Uncle Crumble’s lute, of course, a beautiful instrument carved from the wood of one of the canyon’s only trees. It was a precious thing, and when they heard it was missing the villagers searched every inch of their caves. When this search failed, the women out on the ledges felt around the crevices where the swallows nested, and the men down in the rice paddies skimmed the water with their hoes. But the lute was nowhere to be found.
A few days later, it happened again. Old lady Prattle’s new ibex-fur coat went missing. It had been a gift from her four sons, who had spent weeks sewing it themselves. Once again, there was a village-wide search. Once again, nothing turned up.
Over the next few weeks, other things went missing. Some were valuable and some were ordinary. Eggs disappeared, and a pair of old boots. A pair of ibex-bone dice vanished, and a wooden ladle. Mr. Jab lost the bottle of rice-whiskey he’d been saving, and Miss Clasp lost her favorite wicker basket. All over the canyon, the villagers grew angrier and angrier.
But under the marsh, the dead were thrilled. Mrs. Lob wouldn’t stop showing off the new coat that draped her floating torso, and Mr. Wriggle munched ravenously on the eggs. The dead laughed and whooped while they played cards and dice, passing around the bottle of rice-whiskey.
Presiding over it all was Uncle Crumble. His wraithlike form danced and sang around their little fires, strumming his beautiful lute and causing quite an uproar.
As for Hop, she was growing desperate. She had only intended to bring Uncle Crumble his lute. But now, all the dead were clamoring for her. The more she brought them, the greedier they became.
“Uncle Crumble,” she begged on one of her visits. “This time, won’t you tell me?”
He was playing the lute and singing with a silly, stupid look on his face. “Eh? What’s that?”
Far away in the blackness, to the south, she could see still see the light. “Please, Uncle Crumble. Tell me what’s down there. Tell me where the river goes.”
Her uncle became uneasy, as he always did when she broached this subject. “Not yet, Hop. You’re still not ready.”
“But when?” she cried.
“Soon, I promise, Hop. Oh, that reminds me! Mr. Dig over there—you see him, the one with no jaw and only one eyeball—he was hoping to procure a new pair of pants…”
One night, Hop got up in secret. Outside, the moon was shining. She sighed. Then she reached under her pillow and pulled out a necklace of smooth river stones.
The necklace belonged to Mrs. Gargle two caves over. Hop had snatched it when she had been visiting with her mother the day before. Looking at it, she felt terribly guilty. She had been feeling more and more guilty with each passing day. But she was certain that only the dead knew the answer to the question that burned within her.
Hop got up and took the necklace to the mouth of the cave. Climbing down in the darkness had not ceased frightening her; she had not stopped imagining to sound of gathering water in the distance. She took a breath and took hold of the cliff wall to begin the descent.
“Hop,” came a voice.
She started. There, in the shadows, was her father.
“Hop,” he said again, “is that Mrs. Gargle’s necklace?”
A panicky sensation rose up in her, like all the swallows in the canyon were flying around in her stomach. In her hand, the necklace felt as heavy as a boulder.
“Papa,” she squeaked, “I can explain.”
“And old lady Prattle’s fur coat? And Miss Clasp’s wicker basket?” He narrowed his eyes. “Your uncle’s lute?”
She looked down, ashamed. “How long have you known?”
“I’ve suspected. But I could not believe it. Not until this night.”
She looked up, and an unexpected fire came into her. “I know it’s wrong to steal. But no one will answer my question. I’ve asked and asked and asked and nobody will tell me. So, I had to, Papa. I had to ask the dead.”
He blinked at her in surprise. Then he sighed. “What nonsense has Tug been filling your head with?”
For some reason, these words stung her the most. She lowered her eyes again. “Nuthin’, Papa.”
“We bury the dead down in the marsh, Hop,” he said. He was firmer about this than he had even been about the stealing. “That’s where we buried your uncle. When they die, their bodies decompose, and they feed the rice that feeds us. There’s no home for the dead hidden underneath the water. They’re gone.”
Hop looked at him. She could not see his eyes in the darkness, but she could see his jaw. “But you’re wrong, Papa,” she said. “The dead are down there. And they’re awfully bored.”
Her father did not tell anyone. But he forbade her from going down to the marsh again.
For a while, Hop obeyed. But in the mornings, she would straddle the canyon walls and eat her hardboiled egg, staring southward to where the canyon walls turned. The swallows were all around her, and her mind itched.
Finally, one night, she could bear it no longer. She waited until everyone else was asleep, then crept to the edge of the cave once again.
“Hop!” her Uncle Crumble cried when she tumbled into the cavern below the water. He was lying on the stone floor, plucking the strings of his lute. “Oh, thank goodness, I was worried sick!”
“Worried about what, uncle?” she said. “If I’d died, wouldn’t I have ended up here, anyway?”
“Er, yes…I suppose so.”
All around in the darkness, ghostly heads were looking up from around their fires. They began to murmur. Hop heard her name being whispered, and the specters stood, their eyes eager. She had seen baby swallows look at their mothers this way, gasping beaks open in their nests.
“Say, Hop,” said her uncle. “Now that you’re back, Miss Saunter was wondering if you’d found her niece’s necklace…”
Looking at them, with their ratty clothes and their dirty bones, their rotted flesh and their transparent skin, a wave of disgust washed over her. She crossed her arms and planted her feet. “Tell me now.”
“For weeks I’ve been bringing you things from the world of the living, things I stole for you! All because you promised to answer my question. Well, I’m not bringing you anything else. Not until you tell me.”
Her uncle shifted his feet. The dead were gathering around them. Hop saw that Mrs. Lob’s new coat was now streaked with mud, and Mr. Wriggle looked gaunter and hungrier than before. “Tell you what, Hop?”
Hop looked her uncle right in his gray face. Then she pointed south. “What’s down there, uncle? Where does the river go?”
All the dead glanced at each other, sharing the same uneasy look.
Then, to her surprise, they burst out laughing.
“What?” Hop demanded. “What’s so funny?”
“Listen, Hop,” said her Uncle Crumble with a weak smile. “The truth is…well, none of us have ever been down there.”
She stared at them. They stared back at her. “None of you?”
Uncle Crumble shook his head.
Hop trembled with fury. “But you promised! You promised to tell me!”
“Hop, what can I say? You’re asking a question no one knows the answer to. I’m sorry I lied, it’s just,” he shrugged, “I wanted my lute back. Is that so wrong?”
She glared at them, half-decayed specters looking ridiculous in their oversized coats and brand new pants, wearing stolen hats and playing with stolen dice.
“Maybe it is so wrong!” she said. “Why do you all just stay here, anyway? Why do you just sit around in this dingy cavern under this grimy marsh? Go away! Go find the sea!”
But they just laughed again, raspy, cackly laughs.
“Go away?” said Mr. Wriggle. “Where would we go, besides this canyon?”
“I don’t think there even is anyplace besides this canyon,” sniffed Mrs. Lob.
“But what if there is!” cried Hop. “What if there is someplace else, someplace beautiful? What if there is a place where you weren’t stuck between two stone walls, sleeping on a stone floor? What if there was a wide-open world, a place filled with sky and water and wind?”
The skeletal forms began to shift and grumble. “Who does this girl think she is,” said a fat ghost with no head, “coming down here and telling us what to do?”
“Even if there was such a place,” said a wispy old woman, “that’s no place I’d like to be, I’ll tell you that much.”
With pleading eyes, Hop turned to her uncle. “You see it, don’t you, Uncle Crumble? You understand? This can’t be it. This can’t be everything.”
Her uncle looked down at her for a long moment. Then he gave a half-hearted shrug and scratched the back of his head. “But Hop,” he said, “if we left the marsh, how would we grab the things that drop down into the water?”
She gaped at him, incredulous.
Then, trembling with rage, she snatched lute out of his hand.
“Hop!” said her uncle. “Don’t!”
But she wasn’t listening. Jumping up, she grabbed the roots hanging from the ceiling and began pulling herself up out of the marsh.
“Stop!” said Mr. Wriggle.
“Get her!” said Mrs. Lob.
The dead surged forward, but Hop was already up into the hole, passing through the filmy substance that separated the world of the dead from the world of the living. Gasping, she pulled herself out of the hole and into the rice paddies. Overhead, the moon was bright with alarm. Wiping mud out of her eyes, she began to run.
Skeleton fingers lurched out of the mud and grabbed her ankle.
“Stop it!” she said, kicking at it. “Let go, you stupid ghosts!”
But the hand closed tighter. She swung the lute at it. Bones splintered off, pieces of fingers scattering into the water. Without looking back, she turned and ran toward the wall.
More hands began popping out of the water, shooting up like plants sprouting all at once. The bones clicked and scrabbled. There were so many of them. One got her foot and pulled her down. Another took hold of her arm. Still another grabbed the neck of the lute, and another yanked her hair.
“Stop!” she cried. “Please!”
But the dead did not listen. Hungry, they began to pull her into the mud. The swamp water closed around her, and she couldn’t breathe.
Then, all of the sudden, she heard the canyon roar.
The hands let go. She sat up in the water, coughing and spitting out grime. She stumbled to her feet.
Then the roar came again, and she felt the earth shake.
When she looked up, she saw the wall of water.
There it was, just as she had imagined it in her nightmares, a frothing, rushing wave shining under the moon. It was far down the canyon to the north, but it was coming at her with a deadly speed.
Hop stood frozen.
Another hand grabbed her. This one did not come from below the earth. This time, she was pulled into the air, and all of a sudden she was being carried. She was hoisted up, up onto the canyon wall, and she was in the arms of her father.
Next to them, holding onto the wall with all his might, was Tug.
“See?” yelled Tug over the bellow of the waves. He was terrified, but he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to gloat. “I told you she’d be down here!”
“Yes,” said her father, holding her close. “You did.”
Together they watched the river go thundering past.
“Say,” said Tug, “isn’t that Uncle Crumble’s lute?”
The flash flood was the worst they’d ever had. When the water finally settled, the marsh had been all churned up, rice paddies ripped apart and boulders dislodged. One of the biggest boulders came to rest right over the hole that led to the realm of the dead. It settled into the hole like an old man into a comfortable chair and refused to budge.
In the wreckage of the marsh, to the surprise of the villagers, they found their lost items. There was old lady Prattle’s ibex-fur coat, torn up and lying in the mud. There was Miss Clasp’s wicker basket. They even found Mr. Jab’s bottle of rice-whiskey, now empty, perched upright on a rock.
For a long time, the villagers speculated at the cause of the mysterious disappearances, and even more at the mysterious reappearances. But no one ever got to the bottom of it.
Hop stayed in the village for many years after that. Day after day, she ventured out onto the cliffside with her mother, going foot over foot like the ibex, collecting swallow eggs. In the evening, she sat tuning and plucking the strings of the lute in the cave where her family lived, the fire throwing her shadows up on the wall. Tug eventually got married. Mr. Jab brewed the rice-whiskey for the wedding, held high on the very top of the cliffside with the guests all sitting in the mouths of their caves, legs dangling in the air. Hop played and sang and everyone cheered.
But at night, Hop often lay awake. She thought of the river and of the dead, huddled up around their little fires. And more and more she spent her time straddling the cliff walls, looking down toward where the canyon bent south.
Then, one day, when she was grown, she packed her satchel and took her walking stick. She kissed her mother’s forehead while she slept and ruffled Tug’s hair as he snored next to his wife. Then she slung her uncle’s lute over her back and left the cave.
Her father was already awake. He was sitting cross-legged with his spear across his lap, watching the swallows.
“You are going, then,” he said. He didn’t look at her.
“Yes, Papa,” she said.
He turned. Inside the lines of his face, she could see his eyes were wet. But his jaw was firm, and when he spoke his voice was rigid. “You will not find anything, Hop. There are only the hard, cold walls of the canyon, stretching out forever. And then, when it ends, there is nothing.”
“Maybe, Papa,” she said. “But maybe there is an ocean.”
Then she set out.
Story by Matt Mills · Photo by Timothy Dykes