by Josh Sidlowski
He saw it as he crested the ridge.
It was massive, much larger than he expected it to be. Hearing stories in the village, people talked about it with such a casual air, as if it were as constant as the glacial rocks from which it sprung. It had always been there, they said, a corroded relic of the Industrial Revolution. It's all that's left of some ancient, decrepit quarry, said the old man on Wasachee Lake. No no, it's from when the South Hadley steam ferry exploded in 1830, said old Missus Casey; blew the monstrous thing right to the top of the mountain. Most never said much at all and never thought to talk about it, especially when it came to the scrawny Massachusetts college boy asking bizarre questions of old folks.
Yet there were some, many more than one might expect, who claimed the cog was as old as the mountain itself. That it was thrust from the earth by some long-forgotten quake, now jutting imperiously from the craggy face of Mount Abel. It was roped in an assortment of roots and vines, weaving and twisting through it as if Mother Nature herself were trying to reclaim the raw metals of the gargantuan gear and drag it into back into breast.
It loomed over the skyline as he passed up the ridge, easily twenty feet tall and wedged into the earth like a monument. Its monstrous teeth were weighted with centuries of dust and rock; magnificent to behold, a bizarre and mysterious relic of an unearthly grandeur. It was a deep bronze color, frosted by a layer of green oxidization and flecked with bird droppings.
As he moved toward it with barely-contained excitement he speculated about its origins. The man had heard about the cog by chance, overhearing a hushed conversation between two drifters in Cambridge: vague murmurs of strange machinery high in the mountains, bandied with caution as they rode the Red Line to Kendall Square. They were young and on the run — from parents, school, and responsibility — and from his eavesdropping he gathered that they had walked and hitched the long way from this mountain hamlet of West Godfrey, New Hampshire. It took him weeks to find West Godfrey, a speck of a town deep in the White Mountains. Born of an old granite-mining settlement as ancient as the first white footprints in the New World, the village was the spitting image of a Norman Rockwell painting: tree-lined boulevards, mom and pop shops, and little boys playing baseball in the cool autumn breeze. Once there it didn't take him long to learn of the mountain cog, yet it took hours before he was able to weasel out its exact location and its numerous obscured back-stories. He stayed the night at a local motel, a surprisingly clean establishment pulled right out of the 1960s, and set off toward the mountain at dawn. He had always had an odd love for the old and mysterious, and whispered tales of forgotten machinery were enough to plan his spring break.
He caressed the gritty surface of the gear, his arm tingling with the icy cold circuiting through it. Slowly he began his search, scanning across its massive hulk for any clues to the origins of the mechanism. There was evidence of previous excavation attempts, likely by bored local children but there was some older activity possibly dating back decades. Yet after an hour of searching he could find nothing besides the stark monolith of the cog, no evidence as to its origins or meaning. In frustration he plopped down on an outcropping a few yards away, planning to rest for a time and begin his search anew. He tossed several stones up the ridge face, venting his frustration on the mountain that so cruelly hid its mysteries.
A fist-sized rock thrown at a nondescript mound caused the miniature rockslide, and it was a second stone that struck the iron hatch with a ringing thud. With glee, he leapt from his perch and rushed toward the uncovered wonder, skinning both knees as he stumbled. He placed his calloused hands on the cold metal, barely believing his dumb luck as he eyed the clouded, cracked glass that once passed for a window and the smooth iron wheel beckoning to be turned. Like a surgeon he ran his hands around the wheel, hoping to God that it would give under his weight. He braced himself against the freckled granite as he heaved with all his might, straining his muscles to the point of bursting. It shifted, and he gave a whoop of joy as the antediluvian mechanism began to turn with increasing ease.
He rotated it one last time, and the rushing burst of stale air surged over him like a river, knocking him back to the edge of the ridge. He stood panting, gazing into the black maw he had created. As he peered into the mountain his thoughts whirled around him.
This is what I've waited for, he thought, this is what I've come all this way to find. So why won't my legs move?
He inched his way forward, toward the yawning darkness of the tunnel, his boots crunching on the brittle New Hampshire shale. A latticework of brass steps snaked diagonally into the darkness, and they reverberated with a forgotten tone as he lighted cautiously on the top stair. The atmosphere was surprisingly damp, filled with a dank mist that seemed to coat the inside of his lungs. He fumbled through his pack for a flashlight, carving into the darkness only as far as a few meters.
"By God, this is extraordinary," he muttered to himself, inching downward step by step, clutching walls lined with rows of corroded metal pipes, "This is either going to be the most astounding discovery of the century, or I'm going to die in the next ten minutes."
He left footprints as he descended, carved into the layer of thick, grimy dust coating the metal rungs. The sharply sloping tunnel continued for an eternity before finally exiting into a small chamber lined with an incredible assortment of pipes and gears. He stood in shock to see steam rocketing out of several dark corners, filling the room with a fiery haze. From further within he could here the sound of pistons and pumps, the clack of gears and the rush of prehistoric air. For the first time, true fear gripped him: a long abandoned construction was one thing, but ancient machines still belching steam and oil...
He strode from room to room, each separated by an ornate bronze arch, marveling at the intricacy of the mechanisms that surrounded him. He was in the bowels of a gargantuan machine, he realized, a monstrous construction forgotten by mankind, build by a long forgotten people. He was traveling further and further into the lost bowels of the earth, and after what seemed like a lifetime of machines and steam it came to an end.
The passage emerged into oblivion; a chamber so large that he could perceive nothing in any direction. The floor stretched out over an endless abyss, arching outward into the black. By the beam of his flashlight, he traced the path toward an enormous iron pod hanging in the void, encrusted with gears and pierced with a vast array of pipes rocketing out of sight in every direction, like some kind of weird industrial pincushion. Fear gripped him as he hovered in the portal, uncertain of how to proceed. His mind could not make sense of this bizarre place, this forgotten cellar in the center of a mountain: where was he? How had this come to be here, this archaic tomb of machines and blackness? Where was this dread path leading him?
Willing his body to move forward, he stepped gingerly into the encompassing blackness, carefully navigating the treacherous platform that stood between him and the iron cocoon. As he approached the suspended chamber he could make out the shape of a hatch in its side, similar to one far up above. With unbelievable resolve he grasped the handle and turned with all his might, thrusting the door open and stepping into the silky red glow within.
The heavy iron hatch swung open like a tomb, emitting a low squeal that echoed across the unseen vastness. Inside, the air was thick and sweet, the fragrance of spoiled wine suffused with small jets of white steam. Hulking panels spun around the room in an endless ring, impaled by levers and pipes humming with caged energy. The ceiling was lined with strange misty lights, burning not with electric fire but with a cold, vibrant liquid, like the glow of a sunlit sea, casting a shifting monochromatic hue throughout the small chamber. At the center sat an inconceivably old man in a red velvet chair, glancing up casually as the young man entered. Levers, instruments, and shelves of mummified books surrounded the old man in an endless halo, encasing him in paper and outmoded machinery. The young man's mind gave up, and he unsteadily took a place on the floor near the odd arrangement of cranks and pulleys on the left side of the cocoon.
"What?...." is all he could manage, his lungs collapsing in frustration.
The old man had the appearance of a skeleton draped in tissue paper, a long, green-tinged beard spiraling down his frail body as if attempting to support him. He wore a brown woolen sheet, draped around him like a toga, and emitted a tortured cackle from his mummified vocal cords.
"Ahh," he wheezed, his withered throat crackling like papyrus as the air escaped, "Replacement..."
The old man's bones cracked like twigs as he launched himself from the velvet-padded chair in which he had sat. He grasped for his shriveled walking stick and slowly made his ancient way over to the young explorer slumped against the wall in bewilderment. He reached out his twisted hand, and with surprising strength pulled the young man to his feet.
"Been waiting...long enough..." the man rasped, guiding the young man toward the velvet chair and unceremoniously thrusting him down, "Instructions... on the shelf... tea's in the... tool chest."
As the old man hobbled toward the portal, he gave a rusty smile, "Don't worry, it's... all very... simple." The door swung shut behind him.
The man sat at the multitude of controls for the vast machine, his mind racing with impossible thoughts. After sitting in silence for close to an hour, he went to the steel shelf in the far corner, took down the largest leather-bound manual, and began to read.
An hour later he made a cup of Earl Grey.
Creative Writing, Spring '08