Fiction 2018 / Spring 2018 / Volume 48

Below Where Gods Will Tread—Michael Crecco

CHARACTERS:

PETER MCHENDRY, a university professor who has been supervising ETHAN and LAURA’S research. He has been hearing whispers underneath the quiet of the night.

LAURA WHITE, an anthropology student who dreams of unlocking the lost mysteries of ancient civilizations.

ETHAN HARDY, a linguistics student who is the only one knowledgeable on the recently unearthed Sugui language. He hopes to one day teach it as a professor himself.

NINA ANDREWS, an aspiring photojournalist who accompanies the researchers as their documentarian.

THE GOD BELOW, lhagSGHUagnasgSUIansdfghgIwsna28972tQARsgho8g24n;

SETTING:

The majority of the play takes place either in an academic setting or a cave. The cave need not have any set pieces besides those listed in the altar scene. The academic settings only need tables and chairs, but the more dressed PETER’S office can be made, the better. The music playing need not be anything specific, but should invoke a subtle feeling of fear and dread.

Scene 1

Lights up. There is no scenery on stage, but eerie music plays in the background. A man, PETER MCHENDRY, moves across the stage right to left in a paranoid fashion, clutching papers to his chest. After exiting left, a shadow crosses the stage quickly behind him. The music vamps before softening. Lights down.

END SCENE 1

Scene 2

Lights up. An office at stage right. There is a desk covered with small, exotic trinkets and scattered notes. PETER sits in an ornate chair behind the desk, ETHAN and LAURA sit in smaller chairs in front. The eerie music from scene one plays softly as ambiance.

 

PETER. I’ve made a breakthrough on the Sugui cult conundrum.

LAURA. Wait, really?

ETHAN. That’s great!

Music increases.

PETER.(intensely:) But! I need your help. I found… Something. Something so far beyond the scope of minor deity worship. Bigger than you could possibly imagine.

LAURA. What do you mean?

PETER.(yelling:) I mean this is important!

    (Music stops. Beat.)

I’m sorry. This is just… I think that we’re close to finally understanding the magnitude of what was lost under the tsunami.

ETHAN.(worried:) Dr. McHendry, of course we want to help in whatever way we can. Just tell us what you need us to do.

PETER. Right, of course, of course. I want the two of you to accompany me to the dig site. I believe your areas of expertise can help me crack the codes I’m struggling with.

LAURA. Oh my god, Peter, thank you so much. It’s an honor–

PETER. And, of course, any publication generated from the discovery will list you two as co-authors.

ETHAN. You’re not serious.

PETER.(more jolly than before:) I’m dreadfully serious, Mr. Hardy. I would be terribly remiss if our leading expert on the dead Sugui language did not have the opportunity to share his findings with the university. Nor would I be able to sleep soundly without doing what I could to help Ms. White’s thesis on ancient technologies of prehistory earn the Smith Grant.

LAURA.(standing and shaking PETER’S hand:) Peter, you’re a godsend. When do we leave?

PETER. I would recommend as soon as we’re able. Pack your bags, it’s going to be a bit of a trip.

LAURA lifts ETHAN from his chair and begins to pull him towards stage right.

LAURA. We’ll be ready by tomorrow morning!

Lights dim on PETER’S office. LAURA and ETHAN cross quickly to stage right, then stop.

ETHAN. Hey, Laura?

LAURA.(not looking at ETHAN:) What’s up?

ETHAN. Did Peter seem… I don’t know, off to you?

LAURA. The yelling?

ETHAN. Mostly that, yes. But also–

LAURA. The insistence that you’re going to get your teaching position and I’m going to get my research grant. Yes, I also found it strange.

    (turning to face ETHAN)

But I also know that if we have a shot, I want to take it.

ETHAN. Hey, what’s gotten into you?

LAURA. You know how hard I worked on that thesis, Ethan. I don’t want to pass up what could– (Sighs) Sorry. I think that weird music he was playing just freaked me out. Come on, we’re celebrating tonight. I want to be unconscious for the plane ride.

    LAURA exits stage right.

ETHAN.

    (after a beat)

Music?

    Lights down.

END SCENE 2

Scene 3

Lights up stage right. ETHAN is sitting at a table talking on a cell phone. LAURA enters stage right, dressed for a dig.

ETHAN. Yeah… I know… I miss you too… I will, I promise… Okay, just remember to feed Marsha, okay? I love you too… Talk soon.

LAURA. Was that Antonio? Is everything okay?

ETHAN.(sighing relief:) Everything’s fine. He just wanted to see how the flight went and am I doing okay and did I get air sick and when will I be home?

    (laughs)

He’s a worrier is all. Kind of comforting for me, knowing that the rest of the world is still turning with us here.

LAURA. I don’t understand.

ETHAN. Just a weird feeling, I guess. Everything here has been underwater for who knows how long. At least my stupid boyfriend is still pacing the floor above sea level.

LAURA.(slightly mockingly:) So when’s the wedding?

ETHAN. As soon as we get published and I get hired to teach.

LAURA. If I’m not your best man–best woman?–If I’m not, I swear I will never speak to you again.

ETHAN. Well right now, it’s between you and my seventeen-year-old cousin who’s on probation for shoplifting. I think your odds are pretty good.

    A photographer, NINA, enters stage right.

NINA. Laura, Ethan, Dr. McHendry needs you at the cave mouth. Something about an inscription on a sandstone plaque.

ETHAN.(standing:) I’ll be right there.

NINA nods and exits. ETHAN turns back to LAURA. I still don’t like the feel of this place. It’s like the air around here doesn’t even want us poking around.

LAURA. The air?

ETHAN. The last time I felt like this, I was breaking in to an abandoned meat packing factory in high school with my idiot friends on a dare. Every muscle in my body is saying to get as far away from here as I can, but I don’t know why.

Lights rise on stage left, PETER is inspecting a slab of rock with strange symbols carved into it.

PETER. Mr. Hardy, you’re here, marvelous. I need some help decoding this inscription.

ETHAN moves to the slab, staring intently at is as either ominous music or barely audible whispers play faintly in the background. After a moment, the music begins to vamp and ETHAN stiffens in the face of the carvings.

The next few lines should be spoken rapid-fire.

LAURA. Ethan, are you okay?

NINA. Is he always like this?

PETER. Come now, my boy, you can do it.

LAURA. Dr. McHendry, is he okay?

NINA. He’s not looking so–

PETER.(almost shouting:) Can’t you see it?!

The music stops abruptly as ETHAN places his hand on the slab and seems to gaze above at something invisible to the others. His next line echos strangely with what could be described as another voice underneath his.

ETHAN. The chasm of life is peaked with birth and death and must be crossed without even a lantern to light the way. I must bear witness.

LAURA

    (after a prolonged pause)

Ethan?

She places a hand on his shoulder and he screams, unechoed, and turns around panting. Ethan, oh my god.

ETHAN. Sorry… You startled me…

    (regaining his breath)

That’s all I could make of it Peter. Is that enough?

PETER.(stroking his beard/chin in thought:) I will have to do some more digging, but I daresay that could be rather important. Thank you, Mr. Hardy.

NINA. Doctor, is he alright?

ETHAN. Why wouldn’t I be?

LAURA. Are you kidding?

ETHAN. What are you talking about?

Either the eerie music just played or the music played earlier (if ETHAN only heard whispering) starts again as lights fade.

END SCENE 3

Scene 4

Lights up. ETHAN and LAURA are sitting at a table. NINA is standing slightly to the side.

ETHAN. Does he know how deep it runs yet?

NINA. No, not yet. It just looks deep.

LAURA. Did we bring any cave diving equipment?

NINA.(air quoting:) “Enough for some minor excavating.” But he says that if we risk going back to the university for more, then the waters might flush us out again. So it’s now or never.

ETHAN.

That’s completely out of the question. I’m not going down there without proper gear.

LAURA. Ethan, don’t be like that.

NINA. The doctor says it’s the only way we’re going to be able to see what’s down there.

ETHAN. And you’re just okay with that answer?

NINA. I’ve got one job to do here, Ethan, take pictures. I’m not exactly out here for the Nobel Prize in photojournalism, but I need this for my portfolio just as badly as you two need it for your theses. So yes, I’m going to be okay with that answer. We’re going underground in an hour. Join us or don’t.

    NINA exits stage left.

ETHAN. What a crock.

(mockingly) “I’ve got one job to do here.” Bitch.

LAURA. But she’s right, Ethan.

ETHAN. Are you serious?

LAURA. You’ve almost decoded a whole language already. Sure, there are some gaps, but you could still teach with that. If I don’t have something to show for my thesis, it’s going to be rejected and everything I’ve worked for will be gone. I need this Ethan, even if you don’t.

ETHAN.

    (after a very long pause)

I still don’t like this place.

LAURA. I don’t either. But I don’t have a choice.

    Lights fade down.

END OF SCENE 4

Scene 5

Lights up. The set indicates the inside of a cave. If possible, stalagmites and stalactites line the front and back of the stage. There should be the sound of dripping water echoing in the background. The characters are all wearing light spelunking gear and carrying flashlights.

LAURA. It just never ends, does it?

ETHAN. Are we sure that we haven’t been just walking in circles?

PETER. I’m sure that the cultists’ meeting ground was–is–down here somewhere. There must be something we’re missing.

NINA. Doctor, I think it might be time to turn back. We can start again tomorrow.

PETER.(with growing anger:) No! It’s down here. I can feel it. We just need to keep going.

LAURA.Peter, I don’t think–

PETER.(yelling wildly:) We are going forward! I’ve no time for someone who is not serious about this! Either be part of the discovery, or wait at camp for the ride home! Co-author indeed!

Without warning, the flashlights flicker and die. Lights go almost black. The eerie music plays faintly.

NINA. Shit!

ETHAN. Did we put in new batteries before this?

LAURA. I did it myself! What’s going on?

PETER.(with the same echoed voice under Ethan’s before:) No! I must keep going! I must bear witness!

    The following lines are spoken over one another.

NINA. Doctor, what are you–

ETHAN. Peter what’s going–

LAURA. What is that noise?!

Slowly, dilapidated blue-green lights cover the cave walls. Lights can raise to make the scene more visible, but they must match the color of the dilapidation.

NINA. What in the world..?

ETHAN. …”The chasm of birth and death must be crossed without even a lantern to light the way.” Is this–

LAURA. Of course! Bio-luminescent algae! This place has been waterlogged, it only makes sense that sea life would adapt to the surroundings. The cultists must have used it to navigate the tunnels.

NINA tries to take a picture of the algae, plunging the cave into darkness again.

PETER. Idiot child!

NINA. I’m sorry, I’m sorry!

LAURA. The algae is photosensitive, if you expose it to light, it stops.

    (the glow gradually returns)

See? No harm done. It just needs to be dark.

PETER. (calmer, but still intense and off:) Then we follow. We must be getting near.

    Characters exit stage left, lights fade.

END OF SCENE 5

Scene 6

Lights up. A circle of candles surrounds an empty altar. There are symbols filling the whole of the space, as well as climbing the altar itself. The overhead lighting is dim, but more visible than the cave tunnel.

PETER.(almost in tears:) It’s here… It’s really here…

NINA. Doctor, what exactly is this place?

LAURA. Some kind of ritual chamber?

ETHAN. Let me take a look at the inscriptions. Something seems… Wrong.

ETHAN retrieves a notebook from his pack and begins to read the symbols on the floor.

NINA. This is some horror movie stuff right here.

LAURA. There was a whole faith practiced here. It seemed to be a relatively secluded cult, but some sea fairing cultures from the Western Pacific had records of some kind of worship happening here. After the great flood period, it all got lost under the water. We’re the first people to set foot here in hundreds, maybe thousands of years.

NINA. Then who lit the candles?

    Music starts.

LAURA.(growing worry:) I– I don’t–

NINA.(pointing:) The candles. They were lit when we walked in. If this place was underwater, who lit the wicks?

    A heavy beat. The knowledge sets in.

ETHAN.(unaware of the previous conversation:) Laura, can you help me out here? I can’t read this.

LAURA. Ethan, I don’t think–

ETHAN. Relax, you’ve probably picked up enough of this just helping me research it.

NINA. No, Hardy, listen there’s something–

ETHAN. Nina, take some pictures of this for me, will ya?

The girls look at one another, then anxiously do what Ethan asks. PETER moves to the altar, placing his hands on them and facing down.

PETER.(crying:) I never thought that I would make it here. All our hard work, finally paying off.

LAURA. Peter, what’s wrong?

PETER. Do you hear? Do you hear the music?

NINA. What is he talking about?

PETER. It must be… The voices of angels…

ETHAN.(still reading:) Wait, voices of angels? That’s not what this says.

LAURA. Ethan, can you stop for one second and look at Peter?

PETER.(shouting at no one:) No, stop! Don’t take the music away!

ETHAN.(reading the sigils:) It’s not complete, but that’s not the word for angel.

PETER.(completely desperate:) I don’t want it to stop!

NINA. Then what does it say?

ETHAN. It says “God”.

PETER turns away from the audience and towards the other characters as a blue or green light washes over him. The echoing voice returns.

PETER.(calmly:) When the music stops, we will only be left with the sound of the world’s screams; when the screaming stops, only silence.

LAURA. Peter..?

PETER. When the screaming stops, only silence.

NINA. What is he saying?

PETER. Only silence.

ETHAN. Guys, I think we need to go.

    Beat.

PETER. When the screaming stops, only silence.

Lights cut to black. LAURA screams. Lights back up, PETER is gone. After a moment, lights fade back down.

END SCENE 6

Scene 7

Lights up. NINA, ETHAN, and LAURA creeping through the tunnels trying to escape. The stop to rest, tired from walking for what felt like hours. ETHAN is pouring over his notes.

NINA. There should only be one way out, right? If there was only one right way in, then there should only be one way out.

LAURA. I don’t understand, where could he have gone?

NINA.

One of the other tunnels? I don’t know, all I know is that I’m hopping the next boat home.

LAURA. Ethan, can you please help me talk some sense into her?

    (ETHAN ignores her.)

Ethan? Ethan!

ETHAN. It doesn’t add up.

NINA. The tunnels being twice as long going out as going in, or the disappearing professor muttering nonsense about silence and screaming?

ETHAN. I wrote down exactly how those characters appeared on the floor. They don’t make sense reading them around in circles, edge to center, center to edge… There is one phrase I can make out anyway I read it, “Forgiveness”. But the rest of it… It’s almost like they’re changing every time I look at them, but never make sense when I check. What’s being forgiven? Who is it?

LAURA.(yelling:) Put down the fucking notebook for a second and help us!

ETHAN.

    (after jumping)

Yeah, yeah, sorry. I just… I can’t stop thinking about it, ya know?

NINA. Can we start thinking about leaving?

ETHAN. I… I want to figure it out. I’m gonna turn around, I’ll catch up with you guys.

LAURA. Ethan, no.

NINA. Nice knowing ya, kid.

LAURA. Nina, stop it! Ethan, that’s crazy.

ETHAN.(frantically:) You were the one telling me that you needed to do whatever it took to get your grant. Well, I need to do this. Leave without me if you want to.

ETHAN turns and exits stage right. Nina begins to click through her pictures.

LAURA. Nina, what are you doing?

NINA. My pictures… It’s like… I don’t know, there’s some kind of film or something. I can’t quite…

LAURA. Is that really so important right now?

NINA. Just shut up! Go check on your boyfriend, if we’re gonna be stuck here I at least want to fix my camera.

LAURA opens her mouth as if to speak, but decides against it and exits stage right after ETHAN. NINA sits down as lights fade to black.

END SCENE 7

Scene 8

Lights up, ETHAN is standing at stage right, LAURA enters stage left. The pair stand far from one another. ETHAN is surrounded by scattered papers and there is a distant look on his face.

LAURA. What happened to your notebook?

ETHAN. I’m so close. I’m so close I can almost see it. It’s right there, just beyond my vision.

LAURA. Ethan, you’re scaring me. What’s going on?

ETHAN. It’s here. I need to keep trying. I keep thinking forward and back, but I have to go in and around. That’s how I’ll see it.

LAURA. Look, I know this has been… A lot. But we have to get home. It’s not safe here, and I should have listened to you when you told me that after we showed up in the first place. You can go home to Antonio and we can forget about everything.

ETHAN. Antonio never let me do my work. Always begging for attention. I needed to solve it, I needed to see what they saw when they wrote it down, but always the nagging in the back of my ear.

LAURA. You don’t mean that.

ETHAN. He doesn’t matter. None of you do. I just have to keep digging. Somewhere close. Somewhere very close. What is being forgiven?! What have we done?!

LAURA. Who is we? Who is forgiving us?

ETHAN.(shouting:) The we is the filth and the piss on the floating plots of dirt above the water! We are the ones who must beg for penance!

LAURA.(shaking:) From what?

ETHAN.(quiet but intense:) The God Below.

    Music plays at a barely audible level.

Ethan (cont’d). I know I can find it. I know that it’s here. I just…

    (stunned, then falls to his knees)

It’s here. Of course.

    (begins shuffling through his notes)

How could I have missed this before?

LAURA. What does it say?

ETHAN suddenly freezes and clutches his head in his hands. He begins to scream and the lights fade in and out over him. Finally, they raise, dimmer than before as he stands.

LAURA (cont’d).

Ethan, what does it say?

ETHAN.

(echoed by the deep voice, the voice of THE GOD BELOW) The evils men do will not be forgiven by any just God.

Stage hands (literally their hands) extend into the light from behind ETHAN, their bodies obscured in the darkness. The more the merrier, try to get at least 8-10 hands.

LAURA. Oh my god…

ETHAN. We are beyond forgiveness. Or perhaps, the justice of God has forgotten us altogether.

LAURA.(through tears:) Please… Let’s just go home… Antonio is waiting for you, remember?

ETHAN.(calmly, without echo:) Who is Antonio?

The hands grasp ETHAN and pull him offstage into the darkness.

LAURA. Ethan! Ethan!

LAURA runs to save him, but there is nothing left. Lights fade.

END SCENE 8

Scene 9

Lights up. NINA is sitting in the cave going through her photos with increasing desperation. After a moment of this, she throws the camera downstage.

NINA. Fuck!

THE GOD BELOW. [Unintelligible dialogue, warped audio sounds]

NINA picks her camera up again, looking through her pictures again.

NINA. Is there something in the frame?

THE GOD BELOW. [More unintelligible audio]

NINA places the camera back on the ground and holds herself, looking around the room.

THE GOD BELOW (cont’d). [Louder this time, possibly enough to scare the audience]

The music plays, soft, but still audible. There are static audio breaks as it plays.

NINA. Where are those two? If he’s lost it, Laura better haul ass back here so we can go home.

THE GOD BELOW. [A low, prolonged rumble that slightly overlapping NINA’S next line]

NINA. Why does it feel like– What the… No, no. Where did they all go? What?!

Music vamps. There are intercuts of THE GOD BELOW as NINA panics over her photographs.

NINA (cont’d).(almost in tears:) I’ve been taking pictures of everything, what?! What happened to it? God, this is just what I needed today.

NINA switches between panicking and scanning through her photos. After a moment of this, she stops on a photo.

THE GOD BELOW. [Low audio that increases gradually as NINA stares longer at the photo, audio cuts can happen to increase the effect]

Lights fade in and out, slowly at first, but increasing in speed. If possible, they should also change colors. After a moment, the light cuts and audio stop as NINA looks at one photo in particular.

NINA.

    (echoed by THE GOD BELOW as before, but not possessed as PETER and ETHAN were)

What are you?

THE GOD BELOW. [Loud audio vamp]

As THE GOD BELOW speaks, NINA slowly turns the camera on herself and takes a picture. She immediately collapses. The scene is still for a moment, then LAURA enters from stage right.

LAURA. Nina, we have to–

    (notices NINA’S body and falls to her knees)

LAURA weeps for a moment as the eerie music resumes, soft this time. After a moment, she stands and exits stage left, not looking at NINA’S body as she picks up the camera. Lights down.

END SCENE 9

Scene 10

Lights up. LAURA is sitting back at the campsite. She seems lost beyond recognition. A radio plays in the background, the voice should be played by THE GOD BELOW, but not echoing or ominous here. Music continues through next line.

THE GOD BELOW. And it’s looking like there are some he–bzzrt–coming over the Pacific. If you’re planning on going on the water–vrrp–lifeboat, cause these are not for surfing.

Audio cuts out, replaced by the sound of waves on the shore. They increase over time as lights fade out. When lights reach black, the sound of a massive wave hitting the land plays.

END SCENE 10

END

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