Deeper, deeper we descended into the abyss. Before exiting topside, I stood on top of the mound of red clay and sand that accumulated from weeks of digging and watched the last of the sun drip into the horizon. It was foolish of me to hope the last of the day’s light found its way into this cavern.
My lantern swung wildly on the steep walk down in the empty space and made the clay appear as flames around me. My partner instructed me to lower it closer to my side so it would steady. He was right. He was always right, that’s why I am the assistant. It’s a role I take seriously and with pride – and admittedly a little fear when we go on expeditions such as these. I observed with a knot in my throat as hired hands cleared piles of earthen flesh for little money at a very specific geographical location. I found myself with the desire to sit, my gut pulling into my spine as if God himself was trying to remove me from the dig site. My partner remained silent for most of those weeks, sipping coffee from an old metal thermos and occasionally directing the unofficial foreman of the angle required to reach the cavern.
“This will make everything better for me,” he said the night before our descent.
I nodded and drank some of the bourbon he shared, but I didn’t ask him to specify what exactly would be better. Everything is a lot. Of course I speculated to myself in the twilight hours, as sand patted down my tent, what was in the cavern. What – or who, maybe – has patiently or impatiently sat in the deep, deep darkness waiting for a rescue party to rediscover it. Or him. Or her. Any average man may have suggested oil or gold, but I knew my partner. Quiet, yes – a businessman, no. My partner was a collector of artifacts – mostly religious paraphernalia. And it didn’t matter the religion, as long as it was held by someone with great faith in their god.
“The energy exists within the item,” he’d say, turning whatever it was at the time over and over in his palms. Sometimes he would hold his hands close to the fireplace as if to soften the barrier of flesh before squeezing the item, like he wanted to absorb them. Of course I found it bizarre but I never asked questions. I’m an assistant. I’m only paid to assist.
The air in the cavern was thick and hung like the velvet drapes in my father’s old bedroom, although the space smelled like our family crypt. It resembled slow organic decay and sweetly rotting flesh, encased in porous, chilled stone. My partner turned back and saw me flare my nostrils and exhale hard from my nose to banish the smell. He laughed and it echoed in our theater.
“Smells like a graveyard.”
“Quite so,” I said.
“Come now, not much further.”
I obediently followed, my lantern at hip height behind my partner. He walked with no light of his own, guided only by the whispering glow of mine. I thought he must have spectacular eyesight – and it made sense the longer I thought – because his estate was often dimly lit. Something that I chalked up to saving on electrical expenses. My partner was extremely wealthy, though. His worth – I’m not sure of the exact amount – could have covered the lighting of a hundred estates such as his. After further deliberation in my mind, I settled on the theory that my partner simply had very sensitive eyes.
We walked for what felt like hours, and I noticed my lantern light was low. Still, I continued behind my partner who marched dutifully forward with no light – and no map. He must have memorized an old, found parchment prior to our exhibition, I concluded. My inner dialogues ended when my partner began to speak.
“You have always been a wonderful assistant.”
I felt a bead of sweat produce at my hairline and trickle down my cheek.
“Thank you, sir.”
“No, truly. Thank you. You’ve never questioned my hobbies, methods, or exhibitions. You do exactly what is asked of you, and I never felt I’d find such an exceptional help in this very long lifetime.”
“Well, sir, I’m humbled,” I panted. The air thinned in some way. What a horrible time to begin a conversation, I thought.
“Oftentimes, my previous assistants either questioned – or were offended by – my wide collection of various religious artifacts. As if there was only one answer to their higher good. I never understood that – the judgment.” He turned back. “You don’t judge me.”
“Who am I to judge what brings another man joy?”
“My point exactly! Who is man to judge what brings another joy? See? There is still some good in this world.”
I was always told, only God can judge us.” I blinked hard and slowed my descent on the rocky steps in an attempt to catch my breath. I felt hot around my neck and back. My partner, fading from my lantern, strolled ahead. He carried no pack, no water – just himself. He turned to see me struggling and waited for me to catch up.
“Out of breath, old boy?”
“The air feels thinner. Forgive me. And it feels warm. I feel so warm.”
“I know, isn’t it great?” He hugged himself. I couldn’t understand his resilience. I envied him in that moment.
In the final throes of my conscious wobbling into the hot, unforgiving void, I noted my hunger and thirst rise as my flame grew smaller. We didn’t pack water. We had no food. My partner kept pace with me, although he was entirely unaffected by our surroundings, and I lumbered onward, heaving my legs one in front of the other.
“To continue,” he said, “almost everyone who believes seems to be under the impression that their interpretation of the highest being – God, if you will – is the best version, and all others are wrong.”
“At least there’s only one Devil.”
My partner grinned in the dying glow of my lantern. He helped me up with ease and steadied me to my feet. We were finally on some sort of flat surface, and just in front of me, I could make out an impossibly large wall. I tried to raise my lantern, but was too weak; All I could see was a thick, vertical crack in the stone.
“Yes my boy, there is only one Devil, and to some believers, the Devil is their God.”
“What are you saying?” My vision blotted in and out in the already dark, oven-like space.
“I’m saying, you have been an excellent assistant. But I need to go home for a while. Thank you again, for believing in me – for following.”
The crack in the cavern wall began to glow and I was overcome with a white-hot light. My skin felt as if it would melt from my bones. Whatever air I had left in me escaped with a final bloody scream as I was engulfed in fire, my partner holding me, laughing.
I woke up on the dirt mound. Red clay and sand stuck to the sweat on the back of my neck and behind my knees. Slowly, I sat up from what felt like a horrible, horrible dream only to notice my partner was gone. I placed my hand on my chest to make sure my heart was beating, when I felt something solid in the inner pocket of my vest. In it was a thick envelope, and in that envelope was the deed to my partner’s estate and a will. Both written over to me. I stood carefully and looked over to see an apparition of yellow raise up over the horizon. My partner seemed to have gone home, so I used my hands and began filling in the hole.