By Ervin Brown
The old man with a graying beard and blotchy skin wandered to the cavern’s end. It was the only cavern he had ever stumbled upon. He bowed before the living mouth, which sported ridged lips and teeth of kaolin clay. The mouth opened and closed twice daily, once in the morning and once at night. He slept on the tongue when its teeth unfastened. When the mouth opened for a second time, it squirmed until it threw him naked to the freezing rock. He would bring back the food he collected, lay some of it on the tongue, and the mouth would give him security another night and nothing more. This was the life he had always known.
The tunnel-like walls had cracked blemishes leading him to the mouth. How long the mouth existed, he did not know. The old man crawled inside and planted his hand firmly on the tongue. He rested his temple gently on its outer edge and shut his eyes. When they next opened, it was morning.
Winter beckoned its welcome. The old man saw the glimmer of a new day at the cavern’s entrance. He strolled from his place to that light, the coos of the doves greeting his ears. Dressed in a wolfskin hide, he took steps into the frosted grass of the meadow. The sun shone brightly upon him as the air turned bitter. He picked a peach from the ground and held it to his chin. Rotten all season. The old man looked at the other peaches whose shapes had wasted away. He smashed his foot on that peach and crushed it, attracting flies.
The old man crossed the meadow to the river bank. No fruit. He shivered as he traveled beside the stream for miles through the afternoon. It was not until near the river’s source that he discovered fresh berries growing patiently on the vines. They were on the margin of the stream, filled with thorns, laid out on a steep incline. The river roared past him as he trudged down, waist-deep in the icy waterway. He looked up at the berries, licked his gums, and planted his feet squarely in the mud. His nostrils flared heated breath.
He crept his hand toward the vines, pain hammering in his wrist up his forearm. The thorns peeled his flesh back in his skin. The old man stepped nervously on an upward mount to get closer, agony building within him. His foot landed on a frail twig that snapped. The undertow, wasting not a moment, swept his weight below him toward the thorns. He screamed as the spikes impaled him from cheek to ankle, his hand swimming in the berries he still could not taste. Blood drained into the river, tainting its hue with scarlet. He fainted in a swirl and lay unmoving.
The old man awoke later to the sun dawning in a lavender sky. His garment kept him warm in the chilling wind. He limped back, shin revealing trench-like scars. He clutched the berries he managed to keep in the palms of his hands. Tracks from wounds not yet healed followed him on the flat stone into darkness, covering all the ones from before. In the cavern, he felt at home, the harsh outside now escaping him, the light fading behind him. He collapsed to the ground, releasing the berries and letting them roll away from him.
Lying on the ground, the old man waited for his heart to slow and his nerves to calm. He could hear a sound. But it was not the mouth; it was insects. The insects emitted high-pitched clicks. He craned his neck over his shoulder to peek. A speckle of light appeared from across the dense tunnel, then another, and another. He rushed against the wall. There were hundreds of them. They soared like particles rebounding on a fluorescent court, illuminating the air with their golden light.
He could see the cavern unveiled for the first time. There was something on the walls. Paintings. He thought them only blemishes in the tough rock, but no, they were images. He saw figures with bodies mirroring his shadow. Figures with gripped hands and kicking legs. They were dancing in a circle. Some figures had long or short hair, and some had no hair. The parts between the figures’ legs did not always match either.
He pointed at the figures on the walls with outstretched arms and an eagerness decorated on his mangled face. He looked to the mouth for a visual response of the same demeanor but saw none. The old man laughed, choking on the blood that turned to concrete dust in his lungs. A smile crept from the corners of his mouth, and his pupils dilated.
The mouth was a peculiarly-shaped bedrock of stone with movable overhanging arches and contours that looked like lips. The tongue was a pebbled sheet blanketing the bedrock’s contour, enveloped in slime from the nocturnal creatures. He had not expected the mouth to look like this–just a part of the cavern. He ignored this. The insects’ presentation met an end. He collected the berries from where he spilled them and left some on the mouth’s tongue. The old man lifted the mouth open, crawled inside, and closed his eyes.
He will return to his resting place of one, taken by the shooting stars and planets lacking twinkle, and renew his strength until the sun has passed back to the start. He will meet no other human. The old man lay peacefully like a log on the unraveled tongue, waiting for the next day to come.
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Ervin Brown is a fiction writer. His other works can be read in Art Block Zine, Willows Wept Review, twice in The Dillydoun Review, The Closed Eye Open, Beyond Words Literary Magazine, and Drunk Monkeys, among other places. He is a fiction MFA student at the University of New Hampshire.