Down the hole the two sisters practiced climbing. Older shoved her toes into the dirt until they blistered. Younger clawed up the walls, hoisted onto jutting rock, tasted light, fell backward, got up, climbed again. They took turns boosting each other. They took turns catching each other. When the hole high above darkened at the close of day, their moon eclipsed, the sisters crawled to the edge of the tight black cave, bodies bruised, silt in their hair, and wept.
Then came the cold fish. Every few nights the fish would drop, dead. Large fat trout with jelly lips. Older split them open, emptying the contents for them to gorge. Before dawn the sisters shoved viscera down their throats. The stuff tasted like ammonia. It was enough, and they went to sleep.
In Older’s dream the underground was filled with water and she swam up, emptying herself into the Great River Connecticut, which never ended. This river was the vein of a fish in her stomach. She searched for her sister’s face in the black blood.
Morning showed up again, uncharismatic. The sisters woke and brushed themselves off. Not that it mattered. They climbed.
They did not speak of the hole. Silently they had agreed that to utter a word about it would only hammer it into existence. They knew that it was real but they did not quite believe in it. Somehow, all those days ago—or years—the hole had been beneath them, within control, and then around them. Like a switch had been flipped. The shovels suddenly small in their hands. Their hands smooth, unready.
If they talked it was about the fish. Where they came from, or who sent them. Why. The two of them knew now to curl themselves away when their stomachs knotted, when their bones became heavier than their bodies. Cover face, hide. Trout leave bruises. Always it was in these moments, when their hunger dug so deep it could be love, that the fish rained upon them.
One day Younger’s face grew taut, ballooned, filled with heat. She twisted her head to the dirt wall. Can’t. I can’t. She cried out to her godless pint-sized world.
What’s wrong, asked Older. She knew it was a dumb question. Her sister doubled over in pain.
Night came and so did the fish. With rock Older carved out a sheet of skin to place on Younger’s forehead. Feels nice, said Younger. She ate nothing. The fish spilt open onto the earth. Ant and worm leaned closer. Younger slept for three minutes and then woke up again, lurched forward.
You must eat, she said, gripping Older’s arm. You must climb.
I will not and I cannot, said the other, indignant.
But you must, she said. The ants had begun to nibble on the guts. Far above two rats had smelled their meal and jumped down, hit the surface, killing themselves instantly.
Older looked at her sister. The girl’s cheeks were flushed and her left eye sealed shut. Nails caked with dried blood. She would not live for very long.
You must, said Younger. Older reached in and flicked away what dirt and bug she could and ate. She ate with her back turned to her sister, and she wept.
Then when the morning showed up she kissed her little sister and bid her goodbye. I will find you help, she said. I must. She clawed away, jumped for better footing, fell, got up. She climbed. She climbed. Her moon grew bigger and the light stung her face. From her fingernail, a thread of blood snaked down her arm and dripped off her elbow into the darkness that once held her.
Good riddance, said the blue coats, badges glinting. Your sister’s in a hole, you say? And you’re positively dirty. Climbed out? You? (Look at her, Jim, she’s thin as my pinky.) I’m not sure if I believe you, kid. How’d you get there in the first place? For how long? Where did the fish come from? Jesus, alright. (We’ll go along with this, Jim.) A mile away. Alright, lead the way. We’ve got nothing better to do.
They got to the place where she knew the hole to be, not much farther from the Connecticut River and the road chasing it, which had come as a great shock to her during those first moments free. She had not remembered that her hole existed only a heartbeat away from civilization. Within it, even, like a cavity rotting away a tooth.
She bit her tongue. The hole was gone. In its place grew a bed of bellflowers. She searched the nearby woods, thinking herself dazed—perhaps it was a little farther on—dragged the blue coats behind her, who rolled their eyes, trampled the flowers, sucked on their cigars.
The smoke off their lips enrobed her. One by one they vanished down the old dirt road until she was left alone.
Life went on and she took on a name that the men and women of Burlington deemed approachable, a name like Ms. Prudence, and she moved to the heart of the quaint college town to teach small children the things they could afford to learn, like colors and shapes and basic math.
Those days underground receded in her mind as she grew into this honest and palpable world. Ms. Prudence was a proper woman. Her adoption and upbringing equipped her with such skills as cooking and playing the piano. In the years to follow she saw to it that her students met such standards of decency—that they were dressed in blues, read each day, ate unpiggishly, and respected one another during intelligent discussion.
One morning, the morning before a new school year, she opened her door to a loosely wrapped and unmarked package. It reeked so much she left it right there on the porch, cracked it open and watched it all pour out. The cold fish. She looked at their spotted flesh and she saw right through them, into their meat, and it all came back to her.
Two sisters caked with dirt. Gnawing eyes. The fins spread open like a butterfly.
Hunger clawed its way up her throat. She gulped. By eight o’clock the contents of her package lay under sloppy mounds that she had dug in her backyard. She arrived to school late, received her roster, named off her children one by one.
Amelia, Clark, Bailey, Sanjay, Harriet.
A dark-skinned girl caught her eye. Something about her chilled Ms. Prudence to the bone. Familiar. The fish flashed before her eyes. No, stupid. This girl’s name was Tara. Her sister’s name was—
Ms. Prudence realized that she was staring at the girl. How silly of me, she thought, then went back around to the storage room to fetch an apple wedge and a puzzle for her new student.
In the afternoon she read fairytales and quizzed them on beginnings, middles, and ends. She took them outside to find leaves for their crafts. They dipped the leaves in reds and golds, urged them onto paper plates and hung them around the hall. Amelia was line leader. Clark was goldfish feeder. Yet she could not ignore Tara, who she kept in the corner of her vision, never acknowledging her as she did her other kids, yet all too aware of her presence, as though she were something too bright or too ugly to fully meet with eyes.
Or too familiar. Ms. Prudence caught herself—paranoia, she muttered. First the trout on her doorstep and now this. She sat inside during recess and had the most unsettling thought: the fish she had planted growing into scaled and slimy tendrils. Or worse: the fish sinking through the pores of her civilized world, reaching the bottom of some vast underground, where other children sat in the dirt, waiting, waiting to gorge themselves.
Where had the fish come from? She looked down at her hands, uncurled them, rubbed at the pink crescents that her nails had chewed into her palms. The children came inside. She wrapped up their lessons and gave them morning’s crafts before sending them off to their parents.
At home she sat on the kitchen floor and flicked ants into the vent. Two sisters caked with dirt. She remembered. Two sisters digging, their backs turned to a world that didn’t want them. The hole grew around their bodies like a grave and soon they forgot what they had been digging away from. They dug until their limbs burned. Then came the cold fish.
In the morning she returned to school, took attendance. Amelia, Clark, Bailey, Sanjay, Harriet, Tara…
And the girl looked so much like her sister. As the day progressed, their crafts completed and hung to dry, their books read and lessons taught, she only grew in familiarity.
Ms. Prudence, asked Tara, why is there dirt in your fingernails?
The class goldfish flopped against the rug. Ms. Prudence held her breath. Raised her voice: who did this? It just jumped out, said Amelia. It just jumped out, said Clark. Tara picked it up to put it back in the water. It tumbled through her fingers. She held it harder in small fists, cracked it, lowered it belly-up into the water. The fish sank to the bottom. She looked down at her palms and asked Ms. Prudence: why is there paint on my hands?
Alone she plucked a cigar from her private reserves and puffed it on the patio. The smoke settled foglike over the backyard. Up above the sun receded past the foliage, throwing gold.
She thought about her sister, who she tried not to think about very often. Back in the hole where everything seemed half-tangible they had clung to each other. The memory of a life before this one was nearly gone now. Just the ghost feeling. The disapproving adult. The disapproved-of children. Girls better at being wolves than girls.
She waited until dark and then went over to the mounds of dirt that pockmarked her lawn; she knelt down, pushed into the earth, and dug. She went on for longer than she needed to. Could almost smell them. She imagined slicing one open with her fingernail and letting it gush around her knees.
But no—the fish were gone, not even their skeletons left behind.
The next day Ms. Prudence went to school dressed in her modest lace frock and took a seat at the desk overlooking the classroom. As the children streamed in she thought how silly of me. Tara looked nothing like her sister. Her features were in all the wrong places, spread too far apart. Her cheeks were fat and her nose was flat and her eyes were much too dark.
During snack time she taught her children about etiquette and cleanliness. Your food is for eating, not wearing, she told Harriet, who had spilled yogurt onto her skirt. What would your mother think if she saw you, she said. All dirty, improper.
After a few chaperones arrived they took the children down by the backwater to study wildlife. Ms. Prudence shouted after the children: stay out of the water, at the very least roll up your pants!
Children be children, said one mother, Amelia’s.
Ms. Prudence looked her up and down. Children and adults are the same, she said.
By the school day’s end, Bailey had a newt in his pocket and all the children wanted to go home. They went back to the school where their parents picked them up. Then it was just Ms. Prudence and Tara, whose mother had not yet arrived.
The girl began to whimper. What’s wrong, asked Ms. Prudence.
I’m afraid, said Tara.
I’m afraid my mommy won’t come.
There, there, said Ms. Prudence, patting her back. She’s gotten you before and she’ll get you again. Just running a little late. That’s all.
Tara folded her arms. Asked: how do you know?
Ms. Prudence stared at her. Outside a storm was brewing. The overcast had swallowed the sun away and the two of them sat there in gray, saying nothing, until she got up and flipped on the lights. I just have a feeling, she said. That’s all.
Tara broke down crying. Good lord, muttered Ms. Prudence. But then she thought of her sister, sitting down in that hole, still waiting for her to return with help, and she wanted more than anything to tape her student’s mouth shut.
She went into the storage room for a pack of apple juice. Expired two months ago—no matter. She wiped off the dust and emerged: Tara, I got you something!
Tara had taken a sheet of paper from Ms. Prudence’s desk and was drawing on it with blue crayon. I got you something too, Ms. Prudence, she said.
Ms. Prudence smiled and looked over Tara’s shoulder. A fish. A—a cold—
It began to rain. She snatched up the drawing and tucked it into the folds of her dress. We’re leaving, she said. Before Tara could open her mouth she picked her up and took her across the playground to where her car was parked. She ushered her into the back seat and started the engine.
Ms. Prudence drove. The two of them blasted out the town and kept going, through the littered streets, down the road that bent around the Connecticut, straight into the outskirts of the woods. They put the storm behind them. From here the blue sky greeted them and the sun bounced off the river, warm.
Are you going to take me home, asked Tara.
Ms. Prudence, where are we?
It was that place she had never forgotten. The bellflowers were gone. Where they had grown and died and grown again now the hole yawned out of the earth. Her hole—the one she must have spent days in, or years. She stumbled out of the car, leaving Tara in the back seat, watching her, still questioning.
Up close the hole was smaller than she had remembered it to be. She wanted to sit on the ground and dangle her legs into it. A part of her wanted to slip inside it. Just like that—poof, she would be gone. She thought about calling down to her sister, about driving back to the rundown edge of the town where blue coats smoked and fetching them to help her.
How long had it been? Would her sister be dead? Did time pass differently in the hole—perhaps down there it had only been a few minutes?
She stayed there for a long time and then she remembered the cold fish. She reached down and produced the drawing that Tara had given her. Real Tara, trapped and baking in the car, her mother probably worried sick looking for her. Her other world of eight to fours called to her. But she knew now that it was not an honest world. Her polished and painted hands still bore the dirt, the blood. Some holes were too deep to climb out of.
When the sun at last began to set, when the light diminished, silvering the paper, she knelt before the hole and released Tara’s gift. It was the only move left for her to make. Her fish floated for a few brief seconds, as though the hole had been filled with water, before plummeting into the darkness.
©2018 by Anjali Ravi
ANJALI RAVI has more questions than answers. Her work has been published by (b)OINK, Shotgun Honey, Menacing Hedge, and Pantheon Magazine. She is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland.