Thirteen Steps in the Underworld
Stories about mortals travelling into hell have been omnipresent in our literary canon for almost as long as we’ve had one, but young writer Su-Yee Lin has still managed to find modern resonance and new territory to explore in this lyrical and evocative vision of a trip to a place that is never quite what we expect it to be.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Liz Gorinsky.
Step One: Entering the Underworld
Take a step. Every time you take a step in the dark, you are opening a door, creating a space that wasn’t there before. What you don’t see doesn’t exist. In the dark, nothing exists unless you force it to. Especially in the Underworld.
You thought it would be easy, didn’t you?
“What you don’t see doesn’t exist,” you repeat to yourself over and over as you walk down those steps, eyes tightly shut against the whispering voices, the cold brushing of ghosts. You feel the hot breath of the three-headed guard dog. At the river Styx, you open your eyes, pay the ferryman with your wedding ring. Will the ride be worth it?
You land on the other side, minus one wedding ring.
You’ve reached the Underworld.
Step Two: Lost and Found
You found a discarded pen on your way into the Underworld. You didn’t know what you’d need it for, but you always tried to be prepared. You make a list on the back of your hand of things you have learned and questions you cannot answer:
1. The Underworld is a big place.
2. The Underworld is full of cities of the dead.
3. Are you really underground?
4. What happens if you die in the Underworld?
5. Did you water your plants?
You know there must be more, but that’s all that fits on your hand, even in your smallest writing.
You are here to find your wife. That is the one thing you are sure of.
The first city you come to is like a dream. There are Islamic mosques, British castles, Scottish ruins. There is a golden pagoda with stone lions guarding the entrance and a gleaming Roman temple, pillars supporting the statues that adorn its roof. There are cathedrals piercing the sky and huge domes that make you think of Buckminster Fuller. More precisely, they make you think of Buckminsterfullerene. They make you think of chemistry.
You never thought you’d have to travel to the Underworld. You were a staid, respectable high school chemistry teacher. Chemistry was so much easier: stoichiometry, alkanes, alkenes, alkines, the periodic table of elements. Burets, titration, balanced equations, 10-molar hydrochloric acid. Traveling has never been your strong point. Even long train rides have you reaching for chemistry, the ability to quell nausea and calm anxiety through medication. You wish for the clarity of chemistry.
Instead, nothing here seems to have a scientific basis. You see a man sitting on a barrel by the side of the street, one eye covered by a patch. Behind him is a giant hall made of what looks like gold, but tarnished and dusty. He looks strong—his muscles bulge beneath his clothing—but it’s obvious that he’s old. Two ravens perch nearby, croaking like their voices are about to give out.
“Nice ravens.” you say. That’s the first thing that comes into your head. You’re no politician, after all. And it’s obvious that the ravens are with him.
All he says is, “This is no Valhalla.”
You nod and leave. He doesn’t seem like the talkative type. But the next person you run into is even stranger: a boy dressed in brown leaves. He’s crouched on top of a building that looks like a ship, crowing.
“Do you need help getting down?” you ask.
He looks down at you, squinting. Then he launches himself off the roof.
You hold your breath.
He lands with a soft rustle of leaves. “Who are you?”
You open your mouth. It’s there, right on the tip of your tongue; and then it’s not. Who are you? You’re no longer sure. He sees your confusion and sticks his tongue out at you. Then he’s gone, vanished down one of the long alleyways.
Step Three: Identity
Who are you? More accurately, who were you?
When you think about it, only a few things come to mind.
A) a husband
B) allergic to cats
C) a chemistry teacher
D) all of the above
The list reminds you of those multiple choice tests that you used to give, back when you were a teacher trying to get your students to pass the Regents. You wonder which one is the right answer. You’re tempted to pick A. But you keep thinking about chemistry, so maybe C is the answer you want. You don’t think you like cats, making B a possibility as well.
What has you boggled is the fact that you cannot remember your name.
You think that it might’ve been Donald. Or Albert. Or Paul. You’re not quite sure. All of those names sound familiar when you say them to yourself. Your wife was the one who always knew your name. She had perfect memory. You think.
Step Four: Wash, Rinse, Repeat
The Underworld isn’t what you expected at all. You don’t quite know what you expected, but it isn't this. It’s not just a place for the dead; it’s also a place for the forgotten and abandoned—especially this city. You realize this when you run into a lady with a serpent’s tail. She hisses at you angrily, her beautiful face scrunched up. She does not speak to you. You’re not really up on your mythology, but you do remember one story with a serpent lady . . . Melusine, perhaps? Then you think, what kind of place is this, anyway?
Here are the facts:
There’s dirt under your feet, and in front of you, a road leading out of the city.
There are huge, magnificent buildings surrounding you.
Those huge, magnificent buildings seem rather old and musty.
You know this because you walked into one and then immediately walked out.
Your wife was not there. Only spiders.
You are afraid of spiders.
If you weren’t afraid of spiders, maybe your wife would not have gone to the Underworld. You think about this. Was this why she died? A spider bite?
No. You shake your head. You’re pretty sure it had nothing to do with spiders. But then you think about it some more. How did she die, anyway?
Step Five: Reasons for Entering the Underworld
1. Spider bite
2. Heart attack
3. Being struck by lightning
4. Old age
5. Looking for your dead wife
You look at the list that you’ve scratched in the dirt, but none of them seem quite right. If your wife were here, she would tell you. It would be a simple matter. Then you realize that she is here. Just not the same here where you are.
Step Six: Moving On
You leave the city through elaborate golden gates at odds with the dirt surrounding them. There’s a vast area of empty space ahead. You’re a little surprised. Do the dead only congregate in cities? You always pictured them just drifting aimlessly through the landscape, especially in large, empty areas. But then, you never really cared to think about the afterlife. You don’t even know what you think Heaven would look like. When you think of Heaven, random images of clouds and cherubs with wings and harps come to mind. And the sound of a choir in the background. Nothing like the Underworld.
In the distance, you can see the shadowy silhouette of another city against the dim horizon of the Underworld. It will take a little while to walk there but when you’ve come this far, there’s no turning back.
Step Seven: What She Said
Silverware crashing to the floor. A trickle of wine spreading onto the carpet. The sight of your wife standing, her eyes angry, her mouth open. She’s shouting at you and you don’t know why. Actually, you do know why, but you don’t understand. Why this moment, why the tears, why the anger? She sees that you don’t understand, and she shudders in her anger, her shoulders and hands shaking. You don’t even remember what the argument was about, just the image of her in front of you, so angry and upset, as if someone had broken her heart.
You wish you remembered what she had said, what you had said, but there’s nothing—only her shaking hands, her tears forming in her eyes, her voice with no words. Memory is selective like that. You think: if you could take that moment away, you would. But then you realize that that’s a lie. Because this is the last image you have of her in your memory. This is the only clue as to why she left you for the Underworld.
Of course, there are other memories. There are memories of her leaning over the stove, the light from the window haloing her hair, turning it a gold-tinged brown. There are memories of her, young and bright with joy, dancing around on a soccer field at midnight, her feet bare, her skirt flying. There are memories of your first kiss, on the roof of a college dorm, the fear of getting caught mixed with exhilaration, her hair tickling your cheek. There are memories of fights, of romantic dinners, of vacations to Alaska and Venice. But they are all memories from the distant past.
In this last memory, wrinkles have started to form by her eyes. A few spider veins crawl up her legs, and her cheeks are more hollow than they once were. But she’s still beautiful, angry and beautiful like a goddess in the old myths. For some reason, you can’t remember her age. How old would she be now if she were alive? You count the days in your head, the days of her death and your journey, and you come up with three hundred and sixty-six. A year and a day. You shake your head. It can’t be. It feels like both yesterday and forever ago. There is still this pain in your head when you think of her, still the empty spaces where you think she should be.
You know you’ve been traveling for a long time. A long time without her, though, is no time at all.
Step Eight: Step Into My City, Darling
The next city you reach is made of lights. Neon signs adorning buildings, street lamps along each road, tiny Christmas lights sprinkled across buildings. It is a city of bright lights and utter dark. Where the individual lights pool out and fade into inky blackness.
In this city, you sleep when you are tired. Some people are never tired, and therefore never sleep. In this city, those people who do not sleep dance around the streets at night, their eyes bloodshot, their limbs flailing. Every so often they collide with you—a slight resistance, then the invasion of memories not your own.
—sometimes, we call them spirits. Sometimes, we call them ourselves. We are the night, the city, the lights, the emotions running high.
We come home in drunken rows, arms linked but askew. Our high heels on our heads, our sweaters on your rails, our hearts on our sleeves. We sing to you with the percussion of broken bottles and laughter, the clickety-clack of stilettos on the pavement.
The next morning, we sleep in. We huddle under our feather comforters, next to our brick walls. We awake to foreign bodies beside us, their hair on our pillows, their breaths displacing our air. When we wake . . .
And it’s gone.
When we wake, what? You can’t help but wonder. It’s disconcerting, this meshing of the dead and the living. Is it just as strange for the dead? Do they hear your thoughts, see your memories? There are no answers, because they do not speak to you; they rush through you, on their way to a party, a concert, a show. These ghosts are in a hurry, perpetually late. They don’t mind the dark, but they love the light, so you find yourself colliding with one every time you enter the pools of light spilling out from lamps or neon signs. The brief whiff of memory, there and then gone.
You welcome it, because every time you think: this time, it might be her. This time and this time and this time. But it never is. And finally, after wandering the streets for what you think might be days—if there were days in the Underworld—you realize that this is not the place for her. She was never the type for big parties, for rushing from one appointment to the next. She always preferred small, intimate gatherings. She liked the bustle of big cities, but only for a short while—not to live in. She had grown up in a suburb of Manhattan, a suburb known for its close vicinity to the beach and its large number of chain restaurants, a place where the most exciting thing to do on a weekend was to get drunk and smoke pot at a friend’s basement party. As a child, she had spent summers in rural Maine, walking to Stonewall Kitchen, dabbling her feet in the nearby duck pond. This is not the city for her.
From light to shadow to light, you wander until you find the road that leads out, flanked by wooden gates. The gates are battered, scratched, and falling apart, gates that no one would want to go through if they had to choose between the city and the road out. You, though, have no choice. You step through the gates and onto a dimly lit path, not the bright-dark-bright-dark of the city. There’s an empty expanse in front of you, but you know there must be another city after that. Just keep on going. Eventually, you must find what your heart seeks.
Step Nine: Third Time’s the Charm, They Say
“Third time’s the charm,” you tell yourself. You’re starting to get tired. Your feet are dirty, your nails cracked, your skin dry. There isn’t much moisture down here in the Underworld. You’ve lost your shoes; they disappeared during your trek through the last city, in one of those interminable darknesses. You wish it would rain sometime, although you know that would make no logical sense. You wish you could take a shower. What if your wife doesn’t recognize you when she sees you? Perhaps the next city will have a fountain. You wouldn’t dare hope for a bathroom. After all, ghosts don’t have bodily functions. But you never know. There are still many things you don’t understand about the Underworld.
You look at the list on your hand, expecting a map of some sort to appear. Instead, all you see is dirt. You can’t even remember what you wrote before. There is this hazy spot where memory was, a spot your mind shies away from. You’ve forgotten the color of her eyes.
The third city is a jumble. It is New York City and Providence. It is Lake Grove and Boston. It is Venice and York, Selden and New Orleans. There are gondolas floating down the river, piranhas in the lake. Skyscrapers cast a perpetual shadow over quaint Victorians. Bourbon Street adjacent to Hope, the Smith Haven Mall next to Long Sands Beach. There are alligators on the riverbank, skunks on the lawn. The third city is the city of your dreams, your memories jumbled together like detritus, bits and pieces snagged and blown into life. The third city is the city that you never want to leave. It is everything that you are.
When you step through the gates, you know your mantra was right. Third time’s the charm.
This is where all your memories lie, even the old and forgotten ones. You meander through the streets, feeling nostalgic, happy yet sad at the same time. What’s strange is that it’s only the feeling of familiarity, with no actual memories to accompany it. Here was where you . . . you grasp for it, you know it’s there, but . . . no, no, it’s gone, and you’re left reaching out to the air, inexplicable tears in your eyes.
You thought it’d be easy, didn’t you?
Step Ten: Everything Has Its Price
Every step you take is a step in the dark, because every step takes you away from what you know, who you are, what you want to be. Every step in the dark is the creation of something new. Every step takes a toll in memory.
You consider calling to your wife through the landscape of memory, shouting her name across the alleyways and parks, before you realize.
You’ve forgotten her name.
Step Eleven: Juxtapose/Interpose/Expose
In the high school where you used to teach, you stand at the blackboard, chalk in your hand. On the board: Is Hell exothermic or endothermic?
In the apartment you lived in in New York City, you stand by the refrigerator. What am I forgetting, you wonder, spatula in hand.
In the river, shadows of fish flicker beneath the water. You wait and wait and wait. What are you waiting for?
You look at your hands, your reflection in the water. There is nothing to remind you of what you should know. Your hands are clean now, the ink long gone. Your reflection shows a dark blur in the water, no distinguishable features. You are backlit, featureless, a silhouette. You are underexposed, and in the dim light, you look almost like a ghost.
Step Twelve: Ghost
You are not alone in your city. You see someone in the distance, on the roof of the building next to the one you’re in, on the balcony across the street, in the room down the hall. You hear doors shutting, lights switching on and off. You trace lines in the dust, and the next day, they’ve been wiped away. You’re not sure if the person was already there when you arrived, but you think there’s only one of them. When you think about meeting them, you feel fear washing through you. You aren’t sure why. After all, there is no one here for you. There is only yourself, the way it has always been.
Sometimes you try to think about what you are doing here in the Underworld, but your thoughts skitter away. Was there something you were searching for? Have you found it? You look around you, at this city that is yours, and you think: yes.
Step Thirteen: Avalanche
When you see her, it is like an avalanche. You are staggered, blown away, your heart beating furiously in your chest. When you see her, your memories come tumbling down, crushing you beneath their weight. When you see her, you remember all that you have lost and that again, you have lost.
You see her and you see the cancer eating away at her intestines, her hollow cheeks, her bloodshot eyes. You hear your arguments about money, about chemotherapy, about her family. You smell blood, and the antiseptic air of a hospital. You see her at age thirty-seven, her long chestnut hair windblown, her green eyes sad, her mouth open in an “o” of astonishment. There is no happiness in her face.
You see her and you cannot say a word.
You see her standing in front of you, reaching toward your face. Her hand is cold and her mouth opens and she says: Why are you here?
You see her, and a wave of memory comes crashing down. You realize that you’ve gone about it all wrong: you were never supposed to follow her; you had forgotten what you’d been searching for. It was never yours to find, anyway. You are no Orpheus and she is no Eurydice. She knows that, but you didn’t realize it until now. You see her and suddenly your mouth is dry but you can’t swallow, your eyes are tearing, your body is shaking, and you want to throw yourself at her feet and say I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.
I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry
You see her, and with shaking hands, you touch her hair and you say: Elaine.
“Thirteen Steps in the Underworld” copyright © 2013 by Su-Yee Lin
Art copyright © 2013 by Sam Wolfe Connelly