SONG BENEATH THE CITY
BY MICAH DEAN HICKS
For decades, the four plumbers had answered the call of old widows who’d dropped jewelry down their drains. Sometimes, the plumbers unscrewed the U-shaped trap under the sink, knocked out its splat of tobacco-colored crud, and fished out a golden ring. But other times, there was no reclaiming the lost diamonds and gold. They tumbled blind through the maze of pipes below the city, never to see the sun again.
Whenever the plumbers left a house, the widows would ask, “Do you hear it too? The singing that comes rattling up from the pipes?”
The question made them uncomfortable. They knew pipes, their rust and fittings, their wet metal smell and black oozings. But in all their years, they had never heard a pipe sing, only gurgle or wetly retch.
The plumbers kept an index of everything that had been lost down the drain: coins, diamonds, earrings, rings by the hundreds, bullets promised for enemies, the occasional tooth. By the plumbers’ tally, millions of dollars had made their way through the pipes, slowly tumbling down through the earth to the lowest reaches of the city. They planned for years, looking at maps of the city sewer system, touring its waste treatment systems, making secret forays into subterranean construction sites. The city had been burned down and rebuilt in layers, and centuries of pipe were linked together beneath. Who could say how deep the water fell? They decided to find out.
The plumbers attired themselves like astronauts. They wore headlamps, breathing masks, rubber boots and gloves. They brought compasses, Chinese dictionaries, football pads. One of the plumbers, not knowing how long they would be gone, brought a winter coat.
“It will be like another planet,” one said. “There will be dangers. Curtains of black mold that colonize the lungs. Pockets of burning gas. Fields of shit writhing with rats. Snotty orbs of fungus. To fall will be to die.”
“And what of the creatures?” said another. “The blind scum gators? The drain snakes? The metal-mouthed centipedes?”
“And the people,” said another. “Every sad, angry, abandoned person, carried down here by the rain while no one noticed.”
“We can’t even imagine what it will be,” said the fourth and youngest plumber. “It will defy our every expectation.”
They followed the subway rails, snapped open a locked tunnel with bolt cutters, and ventured into the dark. The sounds of the city—honking and shouting, laugh of water tumbling from faucets, roar of thousands of flushing toilets—faded until they could hear only their alternating heartbeats. They listened to their four hearts, and their hearts said, want, want, want, hope.
The older three chuckled at the fourth’s naive, hopeful heart.
Beneath an ancient and abandoned wastewater treatment plant, they found huge sewage tunnels that ran through the city like bones. The plumbers broke open a rusty access door and climbed inside, the black water flowing hot and thick around their legs. The smell made them choke, and the darkness here was thicker than any they had ever seen. They dropped into it, following the tunnels down, down, down, to the very bottom where every heavy thing came to rest.
The pipe opened into a natural cavern. There was light here, and their eyes stung. Not the murky yellow of city lights, or the sharp blade of office lights, but sunlight, warm and red as blood. How it got there, under miles of earth and pipe and water, the plumbers did not know, but they imagined it too had tumbled down the drains in small golden pieces, until it piled here.
Out of the light and dense black soil, trees grew, pressing against the high roof of the cavern and curling along its rounded celling. Leaves and flowers fell into a clear pool in the middle of the cave. The plumbers heard a low, sad singing echoing over the water. This was the song the widows had told them about, and the plumbers realized it had always been with them, faint under the ringing of their hammers and the scrape of their pliers.
In the pool, four mermaids with silver scales swam and sang. They were laden with gold and silver. Had rings on every finger, bracelets up their arms, their ears pierced sixteen times. Their long, black hair was heavy, plaited with diamonds and gold. The plumbers’ four hearts pounded, want, want, want, hope.
“How did you get here?” one of the plumbers asked.
“There was once a channel that flowed under the city from the sea,” a mermaid said. “We swam here looking for treasure when we were young. But the people above drilled and poured concrete, and the tunnel closed behind us.”
“Can you take us back to the sea?” one of the mermaids asked. “We miss the open water.”
“Of course,” said one of the plumbers, promising too quickly and smiling at the others. “Of course we will.”
Each of the men hoisted a gold-heavy mermaid from the water, careful not to bruise her tail, and carried her out of the cavern.
“I told you,” the youngest plumber said. “It defied our every expectation.”
“We expected treasure,” said one of the others, “and treasure is what we found.”
As they climbed through the earth, the noises of the city became louder. Honking cars, crying children, the lip-tripping speed of advertisements, and the patter of lie upon lie falling.
“That doesn’t sound like the ocean,” said one of the mermaids, her hair rattling with gold. “It’s very close,” said one of the plumbers. “I can almost hear it.”
They carried the mermaids into the gray city above. There was no water here, only dry brick and concrete, heat rising from the asphalt. The plumbers each took a mermaid back to his apartment, ten stories above the ground, and put her in his bathtub.
“Where are my sisters? Where is the sea?”
The plumbers brought them telephones to call their sisters and cans of chopped tuna. They opened their windows so the mermaids could see the city far below, and then the plumbers sat down on their toilets to stare at the mermaids’ naked, captive beauty.
“When will we go to the ocean?” asked each of the mermaids, every day, as days turned into weeks.
“Tomorrow. If the weather is good,” said each of the plumbers, every day, as months turned into years.
* * *
The plumbers sold the mermaids’ jewelry, quitting their jobs and shutting themselves away in their bathrooms. They were mesmerized by silver scales, seaweed-dark hair, luminescent yellow eyes like lamps burning under the water. The three older plumbers climbed into the bath and sat behind the mermaids, plaiting their hair and massaging their slick skin with rough, hairy hands. The mermaids’ long tails hung out of the tub, their fins growing brittle in the air. The plumbers kissed their necks and ran their hands over their scales, and the mermaids sang their sad song.
When three of the mermaids gave birth to daughters—babies with slim legs, webbed fingers and toes, the same dark hair and glowing eyes—the plumbers asked, “Do you love me yet?”
The mermaids answered, “If I said yes, would you let me go?”
The youngest plumber did not touch the mermaid he had brought home. Rarely did he speak with her. He would go into the bathroom to pee, and turning to her, he would ask, “Do you need anything?”
“Let me and my sisters go,” she would say.
The young plumber explained that he was trying, but the older plumbers didn’t want to give the mermaids up, no matter what he said. “What can I do?” he asked.
“Go away,” she told him. “That would be the very least.”
For years, he cleaned himself with a washcloth at the kitchen sink. At night, he lay in his bed and listened to the mermaid, on the phone with her sisters all night, singing in the small bathroom, her voice rising in one long sob.
* * *
There was a storm. Rain and ocean surge covered the streets with water, and the radio told people to stay inside. The old widows called the plumbers, complaining that water was backing up into their sinks, filling their basements, flooding their lawns. The plumbers said, “We’re out of the business. Call someone else.”
The four mermaids hauled themselves up to the small window and watched the city fill with water until asphalt vanished and the buildings rose like spars of island or reef. The mermaids wept and called one another. “Can you see it?” they asked. “The sea has come.”
Their daughters peered down at the water through their mothers’ thick hair. It was like the sky had come down to meet the earth, everything open and wide. They felt their mothers’ longing for space.
“If you jumped, you would die,” the three older plumbers said, their arms like chains around the mermaids’ waists.
In his apartment, the youngest plumber could see that the mermaid was preparing to jump, to throw her body down ten stories into a few inches of water. She would die and become only a memory, like the sea in her mind.
“It isn’t deep enough,” he told her. “Not yet.”
She looked at him for a long time, and the plumber felt small and ugly under her eyes. Finally, she said, “There is something you can do for me.”
The plumber took the elevator down, fought the wind and water in the parking lot to get to his truck, and found a rusted pipe wrench and hammer. He drove through the flooded streets in his tall truck, breaking fire hydrants open one by one all the way from the ocean to the apartment building. The hydrants opened their red mouths and spewed free the city’s water.
The four mermaids watched the water rising and whispered to each other on their phones. Their children ran over the bathroom tile, slender and quick as fish, begging to go play in the storm.
“No one is going outside,” the plumbers said. “Without you, what would we be? Only plumbers.”
When the fourth plumber came back up, the mermaid said into the phone receiver, “Now.”
They turned to the plumbers, opened their arms, and said, “I’m afraid.”
The four plumbers rushed into their arms, their slippery soft skin, the damp hair lying over their shoulders. The youngest plumber cried into his mermaid’s hair, telling her that he was sorry. Their hearts throbbed, want, want, want, hope.
The four mermaids flicked their muscular tails and flung themselves from their windows, carrying the plumbers with them. They fell through the open sky, spreading their arms and straightening their spines like they hadn’t in years. This was what swimming in the sea felt like. The water rushed up to meet them, and they turned their faces to it.
The eight of them crashed into the water, the plumbers clinging to the mermaids. Three of the plumbers pulled the mermaids’ hair and climbed their shoulders, fighting to get up for air. The mermaids rolled in the water, pressing the plumbers’ hairy faces to the wet road, holding them beneath the water until they were filled with it.
The mermaids’ daughters dropped down from the sky, knifing through the water with their tiny bodies and grinning at the lightning flashing across their faces. The current swept them down the street, and they linked hands so that they wouldn’t lose one another.
The youngest plumber fell with his mermaid and went limp with sorrow. She held him close under the water, looking at him with her lantern eyes and bringing him just to the edge of drowning. His heart sent its message through the water, and she heard it for the first time. Angry and sad at all the years he’d taken from her, the mermaid shoved him away. With dolphin leaps, she flew down the street to join her sisters, rushing into the arms of the ocean.
The youngest plumber was swept against a tree, the wind battering him. He shouted through the storm for the mermaid to come back, but she was gone, and his voice was small against rain and wind. Looking for her silver tail, her river of hair, he saw instead the mermaids’ daughters clasping their webbed hands struggling in the current. Before he could reach them, the girls were swept into a storm drain, vanishing through the pipes and falling toward the bottom of the city.
The last plumber turned away from the chortling thunder. He let the current push him into the sewers with every other lost thing. He went deep into the dark, pushing through mud and shit and rats, calling out for the lost girls. But the city was big, the pipes roared loud, and he didn’t know any of their names.
* * *
For years, a group of old widows had listened to singing echo up through their pipes. They held phone receivers to their sink drains, asking each other, “Do you hear it?” And when the widows dialed up their hearing aids, they could.
They’d called plumbers, hoping to understand, but the plumbers told them that there was no song beneath the city. Unable to stand the mystery any longer, they raided their closets for flashlight and batteries, worn hiking boots, their dead husbands’ walking canes. They put on their strongest prescription eyeglasses and went into the sewers, blushing at No Trespassing signs and pressing forward.
After a long time, they reached the bottom of the city. Here, they found a grove of trees in a sunlit cavern. It was fall, and the trees had turned a bloody orange, their leaves covering a deep pool. In the pool, three young girls swam and splashed, kicking their finned legs. On the bank, a bearded and filth-covered man slept near them.
“Is it you?” a widow said. “Singing the sad song that echoes through our pipes?”
The girls shook their heads. “Sorry. We don’t sing. But the plumber does. Every night, the same sad song.”
The widows nodded and sat on the grass. “That’s too bad. We had hoped it was our husbands’ ghosts, singing their love for us.”
They watched the sunlight in the cavern dim. The girls grew quiet, and the plumber stirred, rising on the bank and blinking his rheumy eyes. The widows turned up their hearing aids and listened, waiting to have their hearts broken again.
Micah Dean Hicks is a Calvino Prize-winning author of fabulist fiction. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Kenyon Review, EPOCH, and Witness, among others. His story collection Electricity and Other Dreams is available from New American Press and his novel Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones is forthcoming from John Joseph Adams Books. He teaches at the University of Central Florida.
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