(Rainfall.)


 

When you come to Eskew - and you will, I no longer have any doubt of that - you shouldn’t bother buying a map.

 

The tourist fold-out atlases purchased at stalls and handed over from the counters of hotels are cheaply-made and drawn in a hurry from older designs, little more than guessing games, offering a crude approximation of the city’s main highways and bewildering sketches of the lesser streets..

 

Open one up, and you may find yourself entirely lost.

 

Staring in wonder at roads and squares that do not exist, and bear no relation to the signs and crossings before you.

 

Follow their instructions and you may never quite return to an Eskew that you recognise.

 

The one thing all of the maps can actually agree on is the suburbs that stretch out for miles to every side beyond the old town and the business district.

 

These are sometimes marked, half-jokingly, as ‘nothing to see here’ or  simply ‘Void.’ Endless terraced apartment blocks, separated by grey churning canals, cutting the land into square territories.

 

I have known acquaintances to set out in their cars for the countryside, only to turn back in confusion hours later, insisting that they must have been somehow travelling in circles, because the suburbs had gone on and on, repeating themselves, spewing out the same fallen tree or neon sign three or four times in quick succession.

 

Most of the locals live out here, taking a train into the heart of the city every morning and retreating back out just after dusk.

 

It fascinates me to imagine a jackdaw or crow circling high above it all, gazing down upon that same incredible sight every dawn. Dozens of packed commuter trains converging on Eskew from every angle, all at once.

 

Like a mouth closing.

 

My name is David Ward. And I am in Eskew.

 

***

 

Eskew didn’t make me like this, in case you’re wondering.

 

I was always a nervous child. Always on the very brink of paranoia or psychosis, as my mother once told my father on the phone when she thought I wasn’t listening.

 

Always prone to see the very worst in the harmless bounds and shifts in the world around me.

 

Take doorways, for example.

 

Doorways have always been a equal source of both reassurance and dread to me.

 

Because after all, if walls establish the universal rules and the certainty of the grotesque urban labyrinth which we’re forced to walk every day, then doors provide a personal experience; a single agreed-upon loophole; a recognition of your individuality. Here you may enter. Here others may not.

 

On the other hand…

 

...on the other hand, how often have I stumbled out of bed in the haze of drab darkness that comes before the real day begins, and stood there, hunched and naked and vulnerable with my fingers on the knob of the tightly shut bedroom door…

 

...wondering to myself, ‘What if today something is waiting for me behind it? What if today I open the door and something hideous and inescapable is standing there grinning at me, and I was the one who made it happen?’

 

Eskew, as a general rule, seems to believe in walls and doorways just as firmly as I do.

 

Take the example of the three feral children, who’ve begun following me home after work in perfect simultaneous step, distending their mouths into unnatural Os and hooting at me like a chorus of malevolent doves…

 

...but who never venture further than the base of the iron stairwell that leads up to my apartment on the curve of the hill, retreating back into the shadows just as soon as I threaten to close the door on them.

 

Or the immense and satanic orange-red cloud that is clearly visible through my peephole, rolling and spreading up over the river and Crenellation Park, just on the verge of overtaking us all…

 

...which is somehow no longer in view, just as soon as I open the door and step out into the rain to begin another workday in Eskew.

 

Doorways are where this city begins and ends its visitations, and transformations, and disappearances.

 

***

 

It’s through my doorway that I first catch sight of the representative from the Orion Building Concern, smiling and holding up a small laminated badge which could signify anything, really, and telling me it’s all right, because he’s not trying to sell me anything.

 

‘I just wanted to forewarn you,’ he says, in a voice which slows down and over-articulates ever so slightly once he’s established that I’m a foreigner. ‘We’re beginning some excavation work just down the hill from here. So there’s likely to be some disturbance and noise.’

 

I squint suspiciously at the badge, for no real reason other than to give the impression that my opinion of him is yet to be determined.

 

‘Excavation?’ I ask. ‘I thought you lot were all about construction.’

 

‘Excavation comes before construction, sir,’ the Orion Building Concern representative says with a warm and sympathetic smile. ‘You dig, then you build, then you demolish. It’s all part of the same cycle.’

 

I ask him how long the digging is likely to take.

 

He puts away his badge - and somehow the movement allows his shoulders to dip, his smile to contract into something cynical and off-duty, like a journalist switching off a tape recorder - and he tells me, with a shrug,

 

‘Couldn’t tell you. Depends what they find down there, really.’

 

***

 

The following morning, I leave my apartment and set off down the hill with a feeling of curious light-headedness, even elation.

 

I have, quite unconsciously, come to the conclusion that the Orion Building Concern’s excavation project - presumably a new sewer pipe or an extension of the Eskew Underground network - will first require the demolition of whatever is standing on top. And I find myself gazing admiringly at the towering apartment structures and lovely basement shops lined with flower baskets, wondering just where the wrecking ball and bulldozer and plastic explosive will land.

 

In the happy morning light, this future act of demolition seems to me like a thrilling act of sabotage, an expression of humanity, against a neighbourhood I have come to detest and a city which I will not venture any opinions upon.

 

I’m disappointed.

 

Because soon enough I come to an empty square of scrubland halfway down the hill, ringed by a feeble wire-and-post fence, the dirt and scant tufts of dead grass half-buried in decades’ worth of garbage bags and broken bottles and plastic sheets.

 

I have the odd thought - as we so often do when we encounter unexpected open spaces in amongst the debris of an urban zone - that this place is somehow both wilder and greater than it appears. It could almost be a field out in the grey countryside beyond Eskew, a growing place for rubbish and ruin.

 

In amongst the junk, figures are digging. Stooped and bleary-eyed and hacking out great phlegm-dripping coughs, tearing at the soil with their bare hands.

 

I stop to watch them work.

 

None of them are wearing the hats of construction workers, or high-visibility jackets in neon green or orange. In fact, they’re dressed in motley; ragged coats and torn cocktail dresses, as if the Orion Building Concern had simply rounded them up off the street and ordered them to dig.

 

‘Hey,’ I call out to the nearest of the figures. ‘Hey- I want to talk to you.’

 

He must hear me, as his ears twitch noticeably and he pauses for less than a second on the climb of his repeated digging motion - but then he lowers his head, keeps his eyes fixed on the ground, and continues to work.

 

‘You’re very industrious,’ I tell him, ‘but this will only take a second.’

 

He hesitates again, holding two clumps of combined soil and garbage in his hands, and then, as if with a seismic effort, raises his eyes to look at me.

 

His face is oddly pale, his eyes milky-white.

 

‘There’s some that have to dig,’ he says, sourly, ‘and there’s some that can stand and talk from behind their fences.’

 

I don’t let this sting me, although I have wandered in through my offices, late and in a state of absolute confusion, every day for the past week and nobody has so much as looked up from their screens.

 

‘From what I can see,’ I tell him, ‘you shouldn’t be doing any more digging until you’ve squared some things with your bosses. Where are your hard hats, your machines? Shouldn’t you have shovels, at least? Let me talk to your union rep.’

 

He sneers with laughter, shakes his head, and goes back to digging.

 

There’s a sudden presence beside me.

 

I glance around to see a middle-aged man in a grey suit and tie - possibly a banker or accountant - standing at the fence.

 

‘Idiots,’ he mutters underneath his breath. ‘They’ll never get it finished that way.’

 

It’s pleasing and reassuring to find someone who shares your sane opinions upon insane events, and so I turn to him gladly and propose that, together, we might go to the foreman’s office and put a stop to this.

 

The middle-aged man isn’t listening to me.

 

He drops his briefcase with a clatter, seizes the nearest fencepost in both hands, and with a few stiff kicks dislodges the rotten wood from the earth.

 

Hopping over the fence away from me, he strides out into the centre of the excavation site, finds a place for himself, and using the dislodged post as his own crude spade, the man begins to dig.

 

***

 

On the second day, there are more figures in the field of rotting garbage.

 

I don’t recognise the accountant amongst them, although there are a few in uniform - a policeman, a couple of tired-looking women in blue scrubs.

 

Some have found crude implements amongst the trash. Most dig with their hands.

 

They don’t look up, even though quite a crowd has gathered along the fence to watch them.


 

***

 

On the third day, I elect not to walk, and instead catch a tram down the hill from the intersection of Swelts and Surrows.

 

The trams of Eskew are painted red, invariably strewn with graffiti, and they rattle up and down the hills at terrifying speed no matter which sour-faced driver is sitting at the controls.

 

The aisle of the carriage is packed with commuters, but I squeeze my way forward to a place near the doors, and stand there, and wait.

 

I’m there for some time, staring out of the windows at the vague and distorted world beyond the pelting rain, a world so blurred in its details that it could be any city of my pleasing that isn’t Eskew…

 

...when I realise there’s been a sound in the back of my head for quite some time.

 

A dull, aching, persistent scraping sound.

 

Shrrr. Shrrrrr. Shrrrr.

 

Most of us aren’t looking up from our phones or newspapers. A few of us glance vaguely about in either direction.

 

Shrr. Shrrrr. Shrrrrr.

 

It seems to be coming from somewhere beneath us, somewhere in the bowels of the tram, and I’m almost beginning to panic that the internal mechanisms are failing and we’re about to tumble to the bottom of the hill in a gruesome fireball - when I spot the woman, sat on the floor of the carriage, digging with both hands.

 

She’s quite composed, her legs crossed, working at the checker-plated aluminium floor with patient force.

 

She must have been digging for some time, because her nails are no longer there and the stubs of her fingers are thick and red and shapeless.

 

There are scattered pieces of her skin, like pencil shavings, in the thick fluid around her feet.

 

And that sound.

 

Shrr. Shrrr. Shrrrr.

 

I think it must be bone.

 

We watch her in silence. Nobody intervenes. I’m not sure I’d know what to say to someone so obviously possessed of a guiding purpose.

 

Her face is curiously pale, her hair stringy and thinning, her eyes milky white.

 

After a while, some of the other commuters begin to glance back and forth between the woman and their phones, as if they know it would seem callous to turn away from her, but after all the noise is monotonous and she’s going nowhere fast, so would it really be such a bad thing to catch up on the latest headlines?

 

And the screeching grows louder, and the woman’s hands shake and the flesh of her finger-stubs splinters as she drives harder and harder at that implacable aluminium floor, making her frown and curse beneath her breath in frustration - making it quite the relief when I reach my stop and can push my way out through the tram doors and into the rain of Eskew.

 

This will be the first day that the newspapers report on the phenomenon described as the digging sickness.

 

***

 

There are rules, of course. Or perhaps it’s better to describe them as patterns, since ‘rules’ suggests a guiding intelligence which there is no evidence actually exists.

 

All of those who fall sick are of working age. Children, as far as I can tell, have no predisposition to this kind of lunacy.

 

Often, but not always, it happens late at night.

 

As if the victim had simply dreamt something so startling and persuasive that they felt compelled to wake up the following morning, abandon all thoughts of their previous career and life, and begin to dig.

 

Some of the men and women most intensely affected by the digging sickness fall to their knees and begin scrabbling intently and in absolute silence at whatever happens to be beneath them at the moment the urge overtakes them: floorboards, topsoil, tarmac. The biting metal springs of their own bed.

 

Most, however, simply get up and stroll down through the hills of Eskew, dodging traffic and baffled family members in pursuit, heading towards the square field of black soil and garbage that rests just a short distance from my house.

 

There are hundreds of them now. Some partially-clothed or naked, having woken in a hurry. Some in ragged coats or well-dressed in ermine trim or dinner jackets, apparently civic figures of some importance, followed by helpless attendants who stand at the fence and shriek, please, sir, come home, sir, the guests are waiting.

 

The sickness has changed them; is changing them.

 

Their skin is white, their eyes are ghostly pale, their hair is tumbling out in great dry clumps that float down the empty streets towards me like tumbleweed.

 

All of them are digging.

 

The authorities have apparently given up on trying to restrain or herd away the victims of the sickness - or perhaps, like me, they’re curious enough to see where this is all headed.

 

On about the fifth or sixth day, I observe an interesting event which may explain why the massed crowd has now apparently stabilised in its numbers - and why they’ve failed to make much genuine progress in their excavation efforts.

 

An older man - perhaps in his fifties, wearing a tatty purple bathrobe and very little else - staggers in the morning light, his eyes sore and bleary from a lack of sleep, his raw finger-stumps clenched into claws - and topples forward onto the dry ground.

 

Two or three more shift forward to occupy the standing space over his head, lean downwards, and begin to dig through him.

 

Their hands tearing industriously into his skin, ripping off shards and chunks and tossing them to one side, collaborating on the harder work of prising open his ribcage and through to the other side, until they’re digging once again into soil, and blood and flesh, and soil.

 

He does at this point begin to scream, but if I were to guess I’d say that it’s less an expression of pain than of frustration at no longer being able to maintain the work of digging.

 

Because even after he’s stopped screaming, his upraised hands continue to claw at the air, keeping up the motion before at last his arms collapse to either side and are discarded.

 

***

 

I don’t worry for my own health, necessarily. I have never had an especially pronounced inclination towards work, let alone manual labour. If the sickness takes anyone, it’s unlikely to be me.

 

But like many others in the city, I do begin to take precautions during the night.

 

An extra mattress beneath me.

 

An obstacle course of upended chairs and trip hazards from my bed all of the way down to the front door, which has been secured with a second lock and chain.

 

I have no idea if any of this will make a difference.

 

Many of my neighbours swear that the best method of sickness-prevention is to get blind drunk right before bed, so drunk that you have no physical possibility of waking up and feeling the sudden, inexorable urge to dig.

 

One married couple are found dead from alcohol poisoning, and I can only salute their sacrifice in the name of medical progress.

 

The digging, meanwhile, continues, and eventually has something tangible to show for it; the dead field of garbage has developed a circular lip, tipping downwards into a hole, the sediment and human remains piling high around it on every side.

 

If the participants are pleased with their progress, they don’t show it. In fact, it gradually occurs to me that very soon the surrounding heaps of rubbish will grow so high that it will cut off all visibility for those of us watching at the fence, and the only way of seeing what’s actually happening down there will be to climb the hill of refuse, and peer into the shadows of the hole, and clamber down to join those who are digging.

 

On the sixth or seventh day, my editor comes to find me, and complains that I haven’t been coming into work.

 

I’m rather touched that he’s noticed, but he fails to accept my reasonable explanation that I’ve been carrying out a series of human-interest interviews down here at the digging-place.

 

‘What you fail to understand,’ he snaps at me, ‘is that nobody wants to know why they’re digging. What if their reasons are sound - have you considered that? What if their reasons are sound, and we all decide we want to dig as well? What becomes of us then?’

 

I shrug.

 

‘If you want to achieve something for the city,’ he hisses, jabbing his index finger into my sternum, ‘then why don’t you find out how this all started, hey? You bloody whelp.’


 

***

 

And so on the eighth or ninth morning of the sickness, I find myself walking into the murky steel-and-glass district offices of the Orion Building Concern.

 

Their involvement in this matter seems beyond doubt; either their stated excavation enterprise upon my hill caused this phenomenon, or it was an excuse meant to explain it away to me.

 

My recollection of a nameless man who came to my door and showed me a badge, however, is becoming to see less and less like concrete evidence, however.

 

And so I simply stride forward to the receptionist’s desk, announce my press credentials, and demand to see the Chief Planning Officer, a title which appears several times in search engines and which sounds like it ought to be relevant.

 

‘She isn’t at her desk,’ the receptionist says, cheerily.

 

I ask when she’s likely to be back.

 

He tells me he doesn’t know.

 

I take out my phone and hold it up to the receptionist’s face, explaining that I am filming his clear obstruction of an ongoing investigation into corporate involvement in...and so on.

 

Truthfully, I can’t even remember how to record video.

 

The receptionist says,

‘No, you don’t understand. She really isn’t at her desk. She’s six floors beneath it, and descending fast.’

 

I raise my eyebrows. Apparently he’s quite serious.

 

‘We tried holding her back,’ he says calmly, ‘but she almost tore out poor Mr Stokes’ eye. So we figured it was better to just give her a hammer and let her get on with it. At least this way she can’t injure her hands trying to claw through the carpet. Of course, we’re really only buying time,’ he adds, ‘until she reaches the power grid in the lower basement. Then things will begin to get a lot more complicated.’

 

I lean forward, curiously.

 

‘Did she say anything to anyone?’ I ask. ‘Did she explain why she was digging?’

 

He nods.

 

‘When we were holding her back,’ he says, ‘she kept yelling something. She said she felt like she was floating upwards. Floating up, and unable to stop.’


 

***

 

I don’t ever learn what becomes of the planning director. Her photo is quietly removed from the Concern’s website. A discreet press release announces that she’s been placed on sabbatical.

 

Her condition can probably be guessed at.

 

All of the signs, in fact, indicate a progression or worsening of the sickness. Its victims no longer respond to external stimuli at all.

 

Their eyes are glazed and blind, their skin ashen-grey, their hair washed away from their empty scalps. Their facial features seem to merge imperceptibly, their noses sliding forwards into their upper lips, their eyes drawing back, forming a soft and fleshy beak.

 

They crawl, rather than walk, in their efforts to reach the hole. Scrambling over car bonnets, startling me as they leap in devoted silence across alley roofs.

 

The hole has deepened, by this time.

 

I should probably describe it not as a hole at all - but as a pit, its depths increasingly steep and obscure and, from our perspective on the surface, limitless.

 

Something is happening down there, although it’s no longer possible to see what, exactly.

 

Every hour, freshly-infected burrowers complete their pilgrimage through the city to the garbage field, reach the edge of the pit, and topple forwards into the blackness without ceremony. Without looking back.

 

Even several streets away, you might start to think you can still hear them, scrabbling somewhere underneath your feet.



 

***

 

On the tenth or eleventh day, things begin to get out of hand.

 

A nun from the monastery of St Mary’s pens a newspaper editorial, denouncing the excavation process, speculating that the victims are being compelled to dig by some force that is unnatural and - yes - satanic in nature, driving the entire city towards the unearthing of something gigantic and sentient beneath us that, once awakened, will sow misery across Eskew.

 

She gives her name as Sister Agnes.

 

She calls the victims of the digging sickness ‘earthworms’- a pejorative I’ve never heard before, but which catches on quickly, and which seems like a suitable reference to their pallor, their rounded snouts, their blind and milky eyes. It’s as if they’re being prepared for something, actively devolving in readiness for a life somewhere beneath our feet.

 

Yes, there is something grubby and vile and intelligent in the nature of this madness, people begin muttering to me in the Queen and Crown, apropos of nothing. Perhaps we should all be watchful.

 

The editorial of Sister Agnes ends by asking why the civic authorities have not erected barricades to prevent the tide of infected creatures from reaching the pit.

 

Has order been abandoned in Eskew? Must we let our society be literally undermined by our enemies, so long as they do not dare to attack us directly?

 

The sentiment is heard by some kind of power.

 

Because the very next morning, barbed wire fences are erected all through the streets surrounding my neighbourhood, and coaches are chartered to bus in weeping relatives on demand, pleading and arguing with sufferers of the digging sickness, begging them to turn back.

 

None of it does any good. The earthworms tear their hands and wrists open clambering over the barbed wire to get to the pit, and crawl or roll downhill once they’ve reached the other side, haemorrhaging as they go. The relatives are ignored.

 

Sister Agnes is unapologetic. In her second interview, she makes a passionate argument for a new approach.

 

If the people of Eskew are so desperate for a sense of purpose that their bodies can be overtaken by the spirit of the pit, then let them be offered a new collective project.

 

A great tower, assembled by the citizenry, at the tallest point of the city.

 

The editorial meets with general approval, although there is some distress concerning the exact location of the tower, since the tallest point of the city is the Square of St Jacoby, where the cathedral stands and where nobody is willing to go, let alone attempt to erect a rival structure in front of that terrible devouring dome.

 

After much discussion, Sister Agnes states that the tower will be built on the Cemetery Hill, on the city’s north side. It’s a compromise that’s quickly accepted.

 

Mobs begin to gather in the drinking-houses of the Lower Town, slapping each other on the shoulder and shouting that they’re going to break into the construction sites and steal the cranes and scaffolds for themselves.

 

A few of them talk about walking up to the ground zero neighbourhood - my neighbourhood - and massacring the earthworms, dumping eighteen tons of earth onto their heads and putting an end to it all, once and for all.

 

***

 

On the thirteenth or fourteenth day, a new spire is rising up amongst the churches and temples on Cemetery Hill.

 

Three monstrous cranes have been stolen or requisitioned to help move the construction work along, and they stand over the beginnings of the makeshift tower with their heads bowed, like watchers over a cradle.

 

At night, I can look out from my bathroom window and see their red beacons glowing high over the pitch blackness of Eskew.

 

I hear reports that Sister Agnes is on-site herself from dawn until dusk, going over the plans with the foreman, urging her workers on to new literal heights, praying for the soul of the city.

 

Even before the short and ultimately one-sided war begins, there’s a shift in mood amongst us all, a kind of storm-bearing humid heat in the air. A sense of two opposing forces resolving themselves into being.

 

The gangs of the Lower Town, who are usually ahead of the curve on such matters, begin to abandon the worship of their old gods, and speak openly of fealty to ‘the spirit of the pit’ or ‘the spirit of the tower.’

 

More than once I come across an earthworm, its kneecaps shattered by an attacker, dragging itself painfully up the hill by its fingernails, crawling on its belly.


 

***

 

The tower grows.

 

Soon the three hellish cranes are ducking their heads far beneath the rising spine of something iron, and monstrous, and new.

 

There are hundreds of volunteer builders - most of them amateurs - clambering up the steel skeleton of the structure every day.

 

And every day, they stay for longer. Rumours are being spread about, that a twelve-hour shift or longer upon the tower is a surefire protection against the digging sickness, and Sister Agnes’ workers toil and sweat with a frightened, ever-increasing fervour.

 

Some brand their shoulders with a single thick vertical line - the mark of the Tower - and claim it as a ward.

 

Already some hopeful souls begin to ask what purpose the finished building should serve - it would be fitting, perhaps, if the floors were filled in with hospital rooms to treat the infected, or apartments for the poor.

 

Sister Agnes sends them away. The floors are not to be filled in, the walls are not to be bricked up between the great steel girders.

 

The tower is to remain an empty skeleton; a building whose only purpose is the collective effort and sacred duty of construction. A monument to industry, a triumph over sickness and compulsion.

 

The tower is growing, yes.

 

But it isn’t growing fast enough.

 

***

 

On the eighteenth day, Sister Agnes calls an emergency press conference. Quivering with age and fury atop an old white transit van that serves as a podium, she calls down the fury of the heavens upon the earthworms, who continue to lure so many young and healthy souls to the pit; she denounces the city for its failure to officially declare these repulsive creatures enemies and non-citizens.

 

‘Those that shun the sky,’ she cries, ‘are not worthy of being considered human.’

 

There are cheers. There’s applause.

 

***

 

After the speech, press-gangs of burly men begin to stalk the streets looking for healthy workers to help on the tower, turning up with tire irons and bats at office blocks and gyms and bars.

 

Those who do not consent to joining the construction crews for a day of work are beaten, taunted, kicked.

 

Since newcomers are invariably sent up to precarious crow’s perches high above the city on one of the three teetering iron cranes, this might be a preferable option.

 

More than one worker falls.

 

Myself, I avoid this new crisis very simply by no longer showing up for work, or seeing people, or going outside.

 

Which proves to be an intelligent choice from a historical perspective, since barricaded in my unlit apartment and chewing on a mouthful of beans, I’m standing at my window and able to watch exactly what happens at dusk on the twenty-third day.

 

This is the night when the branded men come for the earthworms.

 

Afterwards, it’s called the Battle of Soil and Sky.

 

It isn’t much of a battle.

 

Dozens of drunkards, on scooters and on foot, running through the cobbled streets, howling and shrieking, battering the few straggling earthworms down wherever they find them, until thin, translucent fluid that could no longer be described as blood is running amongst the stones and into the gutters.

 

When they reach the rim of the pit, they light their Molotov cocktails and begin to toss them down, cheering as each blazing torch lights up the darkness for just one instant.

 

You can hear the flames crackle, far below. If the earthworms are burning, they do it in silence.

 

Afterwards, the branded men piss.

 

***

 

On the morning of the twenty-fourth day, we are surprised to find that we’ve been left behind. There are no longer earthworms roaming the streets of Eskew.

 

The pit stands alone, deserted in its empty field, surrounded by a high rim of garbage and soil.

 

Perhaps they all burnt to death down there, we speculate. Perhaps the disease has worn itself out.

 

At a little past eleven, we have our answer.

 

No matter where you were in the city, whether you were lost in the black firs of Outer Heath or stood beneath the neon clock in the Counter’s Lane, you’d have heard it, and felt it.

 

A cataclysmic groaning. The sense of the ground itself, shifting beneath your feet, making plates rattle and cats weep.

 

The three enormous cranes, one after the other, swaying crazily back and forth, stumbling on suddenly uncertain footing, then toppling to either side as the ground beneath them collapsed, crashing down amongst the crypts and graves of Cemetery Hill in an upheaval of choking brown dust.

 

Hundreds of workers died, of course.

 

And we knew that the earthworms, although we never saw them again, must surely remain far beneath our feet - and that they were better off left alone.

 

***

 

I don’t remember how much I saw of the rest of it.

 

I feel as if my memories are more vivid, more individualistic than the same generic scenes I watched on television with everyone else.

 

And yet I don’t remember standing there, amongst the shaking heads, as Sister Agnes proclaimed in defiance of the actual evidence that the war was over, and the earthworms defeated, and the tower completed.

 

The crowd crying out for blessings and snapping away on their camera-phones, and Sister Agnes, strapping herself down into a leather stretcher, ordered the last of her closest disciples to carry her up the impossible height of the tower.

 

‘The peak,’ she said in a voice that was suddenly shaky and close to fearful, ‘will be composed of a martyr’s flesh.’

 

The giddy ascent was captured on camera, the courageous men and women clambering one-handed up the skeleton of a spire. Sister Agnes swaying beneath them on six stout bungee cords, passed from shoulder to shoulder.

 

Shrinking into the sunlight, until they were no more than black scrawls against the heights above us.

 

And then they must, surely, have reached the top, because hours passed and nobody was falling to meet us on the ground.

 

A throaty, exhausted cheer went up from us all. This felt like a victory, or at the very least, a completion. The tower had asserted itself. Industry had overcome compulsion, or, at the very least, forced a bloody stalemate.

 

Soon enough, when it became clear that nothing else was likely to happen, we dispersed. Back to our homes and, with reluctance, our jobs.


 

***


 

Nobody was willing to fill in the pit.

 

I think perhaps we were frightened by the thought that we might prove ourselves incapable of filling it in, that we might pour tonnes of liquid concrete or rubble into its endless depths and never hear it hit any kind of surface below.

 

That the burrowers might have achieved their goal - whatever it was.

 

Instead, the authorities erected a sign. ‘DANGER’, it simply said - hedging their bets.

 

I have stood there since, in the dead field on dark and tipsy nights, on top of a hilly rim of piled garbage and discarded corpses, gazing into the welcoming, pure-black mouth of the pit.

 

Sometimes I think I can hear water beneath my feet - or not even an audible sound, just the sensation of a great dark tide moving somewhere in the depths.

 

If I were to take a leap, swan-dive down, plummeting after the silent hordes, whether I found myself a new home amongst them in the darkness as something blind and ghostly and crawling, or even if I simply fell and continued to fall, without end…

 

...then at least I’d no longer be in Eskew.


 

***

 

That was weeks ago now, and the shops and pavements are beginning to swell with bodies once again.

 

Soon the wound will have healed; and the city will let us forget the sickness ever happened.

 

I’m not sure if you were expecting a moral. I’m not sure I have one for you.

 

If there is anything behind all of this, any greater intelligence behind the bizarre happenings and cruel transfigurations that Eskew forces upon us each and every day…

 

...then perhaps I should take it as a show of power. ‘Just look at you,’ the city says. ‘Look how far I can twist you all before you break.’

 

But perhaps that’s all vanity, and this world is filled with nightmares because it’s simply grown beyond our original, limited design, into something which is no longer communicating with us.

 

I’ve forgotten something. Sister Agnes and her short-lived crusade against the pit.

 

The tower still stands. We all assumed, since she and her disciples never returned to the ground, that they’d found a final resting place up there amongst the clouds. A martyr’s end, as she’d promised.

 

Presently, as the days grew warmer, we were proven right.

 

A sudden violent rain upon Cemetery Hill; of fingers, of stringy sinew, of rotten ears and noses sprouting with brilliant blue flowers and fungus.

 

There was no real way of telling any of them apart, although several enterprising scavengers snatched up the various heads to sell as relics of the blessed Sister Agnes.

 

The dogs took care of the rest.

 

That’s all from me. Be with you again soon.

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