It had been lying in wait, biding time, getting stronger. Half of the community had been feeding him in secret for years. I had felt the trembling underneath the streets, when the air turned sour, when my stomach hollowed out and gnawed, when we only knew what felt like an impending sense of doom. But then, it would lift. The sun would shine brightly and the shadow encroaching and pressing at my back would release its intentions on the atmosphere around me. My body would sometimes bleed, a few droplets at a time, but in the grand scheme of things, it was barely enough to note.
People started disappearing, but maybe they had simply moved away. Death is a constant, but it has always been that way. When we know everyone lies, how can we ever really know the truth?
My tribe is not the type to huddle for long. Sometimes, we’d go on adventures, the shadow seemed minimal then, dissipating into a mist. You could feel the edges of it when a stranger stared across the train for an uncomfortable amount of time or the down the lunch counter. It was minuscule enough that we could brush it off, move away from its pressure. Those days, you knew the places to avoid and to hell with anyone who lived there.
The festival day was coming soon, the day we chose to celebrate togetherness, our perfect union. The earthquakes had been rumbling for months and months, but our structures were sound, or so we thought. There were cracks here and there. Shattered glass of the high rises mingled with the shattered glass of celebration like confetti mixed with the spirits of happiness and jubilation. We pressed forward with the enthusiasm of the crowd. The roars and screams were for the unity of our community even if it disturbed the sleep of some. We were prepared for more celebration, more running through the streets, faces happy, smiles infectious, joy overflowing.
As the days led up to the festival, the cracks were starting to get bigger, but mostly through the sidewalks and streets in the neighborhoods of the poorest and disenfranchised. We said, “I don’t know what to do. I feel powerless to stop it.” In secret, we may have thought “It’s not my problem.” We lived in our bubbles, ones that added a protective layer on top of the other layers of clothing, our privilege, our wealth, our friends, our connections, our hobbies and jobs and self-interest. We wrapped ourselves in it for comfort, to feel like everything was going to be alright. But things came swiftly upon us.
There had been multiple sightings of the monster’s jaundiced eyes looking through the sewer grates, noxious gases escaping from its mouth, tantalizing some of our neighbors to venture underground. It was said to be “more real” down there; the walls that surrounded you, closing you in, protected you as well.
It was said that the monster warmed the air with its breath and it was nothing for those who could handle the heat in the meaning of its words. “If you can’t handle it, stay out of sewers, you pansy,” said its followers with indignation. “You’re just too sensitive to know the truth.”
Turns out that the earthquake trembles were only the monster stretching. As it grew, the sewer became more confining; the monster needed more room, more followers, some sun; it hungered for jubilation like never before. Streets bulged and sunk to accommodate the growth. Television stations told us that it was normal, that we had nothing to fear even though parts of the “good” side of the city felt the rumbling. The streets became more shadowed, only half of them felt the heat of the sun. Some chose to live in the shade, the sun could be blinding, menacing, crushing, oppressive.
The night came when the monster emerged from its subterranean sewer palace. It had grown to be gargantuan, a fiery centipede with an elongated, flattened body, millions of moving legs hoisting those who lived in the sewers with it, crushing unsuspecting people under it as it reared up showing it’s horrific trunk. On its trunk were its venomous legs that it would use to capture and kill prey. It’s prey was diverse and plentiful.
My tribe had been drinking, reveling in the shadows, laughing and hugging despite the sinking feeling that started to hollow out our stomachs; sloshing the poison we willingly imbibed. Our faces dropped as we began to feel the hopelessness set upon us as the news reports reached us. We retreated home to our private misery and to lick wounds that promised to be made.
As we re-emerged days later, my tribe found each other again through song, art, fellowship, tears, and anger. We were also diverse and plentiful, but refused to be seen as prey. We hatched plans to find the underbelly of the beast, to find its weaknesses, in hopes that its injuries would not be regenerative. And that is really where our story begins…