by Brianna Cunliffe
There are cathedrals buried in the hillside. He swears it on his life, on the sea rushing in, on the stars and all their planets shining. Not so far beneath the swaying ferns and paper birches, behind a thin veil of rich soil, there is another world. But when he reaches out to touch it, it crumbles into untransfigured earth every time.
Hugo Brevard has been Kent Island’s caretaker for four years. He knows how to fix the creaky anemometer in the low southern fields, knows how the spruces tangle into the island’s cresting heart, how the tide sucks the basin dry and the seals sing on the rocky isle they call the moustache.
But it’s his first summer checking on the little burrowing birds in the glen. It’s a favor to Chuck, a scientist who’s been studying Kent for years. The details of the study he’s running fly over Hugo’s head, but it necessitates tagging the birds’ burrows in early summer. Storm petrels, they’re called. Small sea-faring birds that nest underground, traveling as far as Cape Cod to forage. He’s always heard them chuckling to one another come evening as they flew in from the open ocean, but he’d never seen one up close. Crossing the crooked bridge across the marsh, Chuck had rhapsodized about how they lived to be 38, how they could fly four days without a rest, about their fidelity to the island and to one another.
They’d drawn near to a small hole in the side of a hill, no wider than Hugo’s palm. Chuck had reached in, light-fingered, Hugo’s eyes widening as his arm vanished up to the shoulder, ear to the moss, fingers straining invisibly until—Chuck had smiled down into the dirt. “Hello, my friend.”
He’d slowly pulled. Out came a chuckling grey head, indignant and grand, grey wings pinned by the bird-bander’s gentle hands. Its webbed feet were positively prehistoric, but as Chuck passed the bird into Hugo’s careful hands, its heartbeat was as frantic and tender as a newborn’s.
“Male or female?” he’d asked, looking at its accusing, bright eye.
“Don’t know,” Chuck had said, regarding them both with a soft smile, the big gentle hand around the tiny bird. “They look just the same. You’d need a blood test to know for sure.”
He’d let the bird dart back into its burrow, vanishing with just a shake of its white tail, leaving Chuck’s whole right arm filthy. “Grubbing,” he’d said, shaking the soil free with a grin. “Best dirty work there is.”
Hugo’s job isn’t grubbing, just periodic checks for burrows. Chuck will be back in July to feel for eggs. But something about the little birds has pulled Hugo in. He spends more time than he needs to in the low green of the rolling little hills, thinking of the tiny little things, only their webbed feet and beaks to dig all the way into the hillside. He imagines the birds curled around each other in the snug little hollow when the sky howls with rain.
On a return trip from a resupply in St. John, he watches them dance on the water, fitful and sweet, dipping their white tails in the cold blue waves. Dancing on the sea, flying hundreds of miles, burrowing in the earth. All the elements but fire, they’ve mastered. As he holds the warmth of a bird whose heart beats stronger than its tiny breast should allow, he thinks, maybe even fire.
June hums through the blueberries first, then buttercups, hawkweed, stitchwort, tickseed and yarrow chasing at its heels. Field sorrel paints swaths of the island a lazy, sloping red. The apple trees and mountain ash sprawl, showering blossoms like snow. He crosses the bridge at trickling low tide on a foggy morning, whistling into the echoing white. The dock is a faint suggestion, neighboring islands fading childhood dreams. Hugo Brevard winds his way through the gullies where marsh-grass sucks, over the outcrops where gulls cry, to the little rolling hillside sheltered by ferns.
Old burrows whisper at him from the south corner, revealed by the birds’ returns, the shifting-away of accumulated leaves. He marks them on the little map he’s made, whistle never pausing, until, from near his left knee, he hears it. The three-note squeaking little chuckle that makes him think some human trickster is about, when he knows full well he’s the only human soul for miles around.
He caps his whistle and brushes aside a paper-birch sapling, and sure enough, there’s a burrow he’s missed. He marks it down, pausing when another chuckle sounds.
“What are you laughing at in there?” he asks, and again, like a fairy imp in some Shakespearean tale, it only chuckles. Hugo Brevard smiles despite the fog and despite himself.
“Well, let’s see about that.” He kneels in the cool, wet earth, tucking his map between fern fronds and setting his pack down in the moss. Kneeling, he’s nearly eye-level with the burrow. It’s small enough that he knows his hand will scrape the edges, not like Chuck’s thin fingers, and besides, he doesn’t want to break something. So he just puts an eye up to the burrow. But his big frame blocks the sun, and it’s impossible to see.
“What, no hall light?”
The petrel chuckles in reply, and he groans, shifting his weight one way, then the other, until both his gaze and a beam of faint, foggy sunlight can enter in. The entrance is littered with scattered bits of pinecones, fern fronds, lichens.
“Ought to sweep up,” he mutters.
And then the burrow curves, ducking under the roots of a nearby mountain ash, and around the corner—Hugo blinks, and blinks again.
Around the corner, there is a door.
“What the hell—”
A door, unmistakable. A door with wrought-workings curling over its frames, a knocker right at its center, but this is no brass and iron. The door is the self-same wet, rich soil, the workings weaving across its expanse the sea-dark limestone of the basin’s rim, and the gleaming knocker is pure, sweet amber.
Hugo pulls back, stumbling over onto his haunches, breath quick, and swears again. “What the hell—”
He clambers back and there it is, the door no bigger than his palm, and this time, perched in front of it, a small grey bird that turns its bright eye back to him and chuckles.
It hops forward, lifting the knocker with its tubed beak, and lets it fall, the sound high and bell-like in the earthen chamber.
“Wait—” The word comes, half-considered, from his mouth.
It looks back at him, once, and gives one last laugh, as the door swings open, and with a flash of its white tail, it slips through the crack, tugging the door closed behind it with an unmistakable click.
“Wait,” Hugo says again, but not even laughter remains.
He settles back, rubbing his eyes in the gathering fog. Impossible. Kid stuff, fantasy. He’s been alone on this island too long. He reaches a cautious hand into the burrow’s entrance, feeling for the lichen, the roots, and then, where the door ought to be—
Nothing but cool, wet earth, in an indistinct dead end, a bug scuttling under his thumb.
He pulls away, dirty-nailed, abashed at his own credulousness. Of course not.
One more look, to make sure.
He puts his eye up to the burrow. Fog tumbles around him as he curses again.
In defiance of dirty-handed evidence, in spite of every shred of reason he has, the door still gleams, right there in the hillside, stately as a king’s castle
He draws back and reaches again—only wet earth. Again and again the experiment, with the same inconceivable result.
Hugo sits down, hard, driving the heels of his hands into his eyes. The wind makes the paper birches sing, fog rolling like a lullaby in the glen. He knows what he’s seen. And he knows it shouldn’t, can’t be. But somehow, all the rest of the day, as he walks by the high bluffs where gulls nest, fields of wildflowers, ancient spruces, something in the island hushes every objection, every law of man and nature that ought to overrule his eyes.
Storm petrels. Their chuckle weaves into his dreams. He will return to the glen. He’s not sure of anything but that, any more.
The anemometer breaks. Something goes wrong like clockwork every time there’s a fog like this. The parts slip and clack in the wet blanket of evening, the weather stealing the hands off the clock, bending hours and minutes into absurdist nonsense. When the thing at last rattles back to function, Hugo returns to the Warden’s cabin, firing up the woodstove. The same white light suffuses everything. The outhouse is invisible until he’s a few feet away.
Hugo knows that only a few miles away there’s the mainland, but it’s the same way he knows that what he’s seen is impossible—obligatory, memorized knowing without heart behind it. A hurried assumption unseated by the bone-strong feeling of what’s before his eyes.
The moan of the foghorn is his dreams’ metronome, punctuated everywhere by petrel laughter. Burrow-holes appear in his cabin, in the cliff face, in the sky, and always he reaches for the door and always he is too clumsy, too late.
He wakes to an unabated fog, boils water for coffee, and sets off down the road unfurling like a ribbon through the haze. The light is fainter, this morning. The marsh nearly steals his boots, and the dirt soaks through his pants. His hands are shaky as he pulls aside the fern guarding the impossible opening that has tugged him into this strangest dream.
There is no bird, when he finally manages to get the light right. But there is that carven door with its amber knocker, plain and solid as the rattling weather-vane.
He reaches in, knowing just what his fingers will find—wet, crumpled earth. He feels every inch of the tunnel—nothing. He looks—the door. Sitting back, dumbstruck, through the fog he hears a faint chuckle.
The mist teems with strange and unutterable exclamations. Hugo curses. The other burrows. Checking them hadn’t even crossed his mind.
He peels back the branches of a mountain ash sapling. Another burrow, roots hanging down into the entrance. He feels first, this time, the walls hard, wet earth, the floor half-carpeted with lichen, and then—
The soft wing of a bird nearly topples him, every molecule of his being thrumming in his trembling fingers. Withdrawing, he scrambles to see and there—not far into the burrow, a small grey bird looks down its nose at him, chuckling once.
It turns back to the gate. Like a university gate, wrought—not iron, he realized. Dried rockweed, kelp gone black and stiff, woven into a stern and lovely gate with latch and –
Key. He breathes as the bird places its tube-nosed beak into the keyhole and slowly turns its head. Click. The gate swings open, with a gravitas befitting a cemetery of kings. And once again, the bird looks back, chuckles, and is gone.
Hugo rocks back onto his heels. Gate and lock and the very beak a key, a sophistication, an intricacy so far beyond—
But it wasn’t possible, says some stubborn remnant of the real world’s voice. The island fog seems to laugh. They can fly hundreds of miles, four straight days without resting, he thinks. They mate with fidelity and live to nearly 40. Sea and sky and earth.
Clumsy, he bends and blocks the light and starts to adjust, and then loses his breath.
Because, like in a castle or cathedral, bracketed to the walls, are lights. Lights, torches, winding past the gate around the burrow’s bend, disappearing deep into the hill.
He blocks the whole entrance with his hands. The sure and steady fires burn. Fire. Sea and sky and earth and fire.
Not fire, exactly, he realizes, letting a little fog-light filter in. It doesn’t waver like a torch, it’s a green-golden sort of light. There’s a tangle where it joins the wall, a sort of root at the heart, cradling a sphere of light.
Some kind of fungus, a mushroom, a stationary firefly? He has no idea. But that strand of them leading on and on as the burrow bent—
They meant that both tunnel and bird were bound for somewhere deeper in the hill.
Hugo rises to his feet in a white blur of revelation. He bats away a fern and bends to a different hole, sees a fortified door of deep red. At the burrow right next door, a door leaved in what seems like gold, a great knocker at its center.
He is half-crawling over the hillside. Airy gates like to royal gardens, doors painted in a riot of shades, etched or plain, foreboding or sweet. And for each one he can see beyond, there are the torches shining deeper and deeper until its bending course tucks the burrow out of sight.
Hugo stands, breath heavy, pulse painful in his throat in the all-luminous glade. On this hill alone, he thinks, there must be a hundred burrows. On the whole island? Thousands.
“A hundred doors,” he says aloud, and the fog murmurs. “Where do they all go?”
And from a burrow right by his shoulder, a petrel chuckles once and then is gone.
The fog burns off slowly. He sits at the base of the hill where the burrows seem to sing out like irresistible sirens, strange inverse moons dappling the earth.
He leaves when afternoon comes, mind still humming with wishes he doesn’t know how to put to words. He crosses the marsh into the bee-loud fields, does what needs doing around the island, then sits in the library tucked behind the pantry and spreads out the maps he’s made of the burrows. Hugo Brevard has never claimed to be a scientist or a detective or anything of the kind, but from dusk until the small hours of the morning, he swims in Latin names and clues, in questions of phototaxis and geometry. Might be Mycena chloropho, a kind of bioluminescent mushroom, though these torches seem never to fade, while the mushrooms’ glow is finite at best.
But he sees at least one thing he can do: on the maps he’s made of the burrows, he can draw their curves the path they chart into the hillside. And where they converge—
One thing at a time, he thinks. One impossible thing at a time.
The journey to the glen is a silent prayer. Never a religious man, nevertheless, Hugo Brevard picks his way across the stream with a wordless reverence usually reserved for craggy summits or destroying angels. But it’s only the birch-shaded hillside, a mound of earth only a little higher at its peak than he is tall, ferns and starflower waving lazily.
The strangest stretch of dirt he’s ever known, where a seed has been planted that will not let go. He remembers some Sunday-school picture book: a dove, after the flood, olive branch clasped in its beak, bound over endless ocean. In his mind, instead, it is a petrel, an undying light, and instead of meek blessing there is laughter, wild and unmastered and achingly human. Good news of great joy.
The fog is a far-off dream as the sun soaks the glen, turning fern huddles into billowing lanterns, shining down through the thin birch to warm and dry the hillside. Hugo breathes in.
He begins at the beginning. One impossible thing at a time. The first burrow is so low Hugo has to army-crawl to see into it. A cheery cottage door greets his eyes, with curling shapes on the front that looked almost like letters, like the script of some language whose true words come only when spoken in the sky.
He withdraws and makes careful notes, the length of the burrow before the door, its orientation. No glimpse yet of the torches or where it bends beyond.
He lays fern fronds like columns across the holes’ entrance, light enough that the bird could merely nudge them aside, so that he’d know when they came or went. With a tiny bottle of black paint, he paints a pebble, 1, setting it by the door. One impossible thing at a time.
The next nestles beside a toppled spruce. Hugo peers again. Bending sharply in towards the hill, the burrow’s barred by gates as gold as at Versailles, tender-woven grasses gleaming as if polished, arcing, feather-light in their opulent tangle. And bending further, the tunnel and torches continue out of sight.
Hugo guesses at the inward curve as best he can, his line dotted with triangles signaling where torches shine. Again, the green lattice of stripped ferns, a pebble, numbered 2, open.
Why some are gates and others doors, he can’t say. They ricochet from ordinariness to wealth with no discernible patterns or neighborhoods, though the loveliest and grandest crown the hill, entrances moss-soft, fern-gated.
Twenty-five doors, he finds that first morning, until the noon sun is shining hot. Hugo Brevard had long since stripped off his jacket, bending to his work in overalls and an old T-shirt from the Kentucky derby. Elsewhere, the island turns on, gulls screaming, tide sucking at the moored skiffs. Trails need clearing, the half-built lumber shed by the dock needs finishing.
As he brushes the earth from his knees, gathering his half-begun maps, he hears a single chuckle. He stops in his tracks. The unseen bird laughs again, but there’s no mockery in his mind, only the dove with olive branch, the small grey bird with its beating heart, its torch-lit path to unknown shores. Word of a place and time to come. Good news of great joy.
Hugo Brevard hums to himself as he sets about the day. Sends off the receipts and the weather readings, turns the soil, clears the blowdown on North trail, until finally, he can sit by his woodstove and read. Of birdsong dialects, chips and calls acting like passwords unlocking desire, secreted nests stores of food, of wayfinding by bioluminescent mushrooms, about trails of glowing algae tracing currents back to their roots at seafloor vents, magma-warmed, where primordial beasts pitch and roll in the star-flecked dark.
But nothing the like of what he’s seen, nothing even close. He reads too late into the night, the stars and the milky way humming, woodstove burning down to coals, and wakes with the morning sun beating down, counting the minutes until he’s back in the glen. A chuckle greets him as he crosses the bridge. “Good morning!”
More, fainter laughter. He’s tempted to feel foolish in the blazing blue morning, but there they are, a deep emerald sheet with a great obsidian knob at the center. A curling, humble brass gate. Morning after morning, Hugo comes like a pilgrim to the glen and roves the hillside with his pail of pebbles, his map and pen
Sometimes he returns to find his lattices fallen, nosed aside by a bird returning from a forage, but he peers inside to a door shut just the same as ever. Once all his stones were switched, flipped, stacked precariously high. The chuckling had sounded like multitudes and Hugo had shaken his head at the contradiction of the mischief and grandeur, secrecy and welcome. The hill’s curve like a smile with a finger pressed to its lips, hush, hush.
With each door he cannot not open, each gate whose arc he traces with careful guesswork by torchlight, the doubt dies another death. He grows surer that he is being allowed to witness this great something, that no one else has ever seen. Why him, to what ends, he can’t begin to guess. But he feels his intoxication with the strangeness of it turn to something steadier.
Hugo Brevard stores up miracles, building his own new creed from the ground up. Despite the weathervane always breaking and the fog and the sleepless nights, despite his aching bones, the caretaker feels something new growing in his chest.
Hugo Brevard maps every burrow on that hillside in the mornings of the month of June, 136 of them, all told. Each with a little green lattice and a numbered stone, a dotted guesswork trail. By firelight, with shaking fingers, he extends the arc of his dotted lines. And mark by mark, twist by turn, the tunnels all converge.
Their lines twine together at the center of the hill, reaching outward, like the branches of a mountain ash, like tributaries from the headwaters of the sea, but—
What waits at the center? Where does all this twisted light lead?
The hill is surely hollow. But how deep it goes—he sketches a faint outline, focusing on one burrow near the hillside’s top that arcs sharply downwards, and a level of burrows just below it, with gilded doors, richer and nearer than most to the entrances. There, perhaps. There, if anywhere, he could see into the center. But he’d have to wait for a door to open.
Hugo Brevard falls asleep, head slumped over his maps, dreaming of a hollow-boned hill, an olive branch in a flood. Laughter circles him in dabbling flight, drops of quicksilver ocean flying, snatches of dominion all converging in a torchlit tangle, where it waits at the center.
The next morning he returns, the near-July air sweet and thick with sparrow calls. Tiny green lattices, painted stone. Near the crest of the hill, five possible burrows glint, and he settles at the first. Its gate is latched as securely as any swiss bank vault. He waits nearly half an hour with no change, no hint of motion, not even a mocking chuckle.
The hours stretch on, fruitless. He changes tactic, darting from door to door, but each tiny gilded fortress remains as airtight as the day he’d first seen it, impossible—Hugo stops, remembering: they return from foraging at nightfall. When dark falls, when they fly bound from home across the sea, then a door would have to open.
The day passes in blurred necessity. As the sun slowly sets, Hugo gathers supplies—an old oil lantern, some charcoal and paper. Though no artist, he wants to draw what he sees. Really, he only wants it to exist some place other than in his mind, some anchor against the way that the miracle crumples into untransfigured earth whenever his hand reaches out to touch.
Hugo Brevard crosses the basin at high tide, boots strapped tight against the lapping lantern-lit marsh. The moon is a sliver beside the ever-bright island stars, milky way a dusty cradle about the blue night.
When he reaches the glen, he dampens the light to a trickle, feeling his way through the soft, familiar little valley to the base of the hill. He waits for the burrowing birds of the island. He waits for them to cross the wide water and return home.
They announce their advent with laughter. Hugo, half-dozing amongst the ferns, feels his heart shoot upwards at that fierce and fey chuckling, once so rare, now echoing all around him. The laughter arrives first, the beating of small grey wings following after, all around him, white tails flashing from trees, hopping, scrambling under ferns into burrows.
Hugo kneels, waiting with bent head and hitched breath. The birds are a flurry all around him, paying him no mind, as if he’s the very hillside, an oddly-shaped mountain, a part of that wild laughter, a root curving in the sheltering glen, natural and free.
By his left shoulder, he hears a soft chuckle. A bird alights on the birch sapling’s thin branch, looking him right in the eye, and with a flash of its white tail and one beat of its grey wings, hops to a the burrow right before him. It pauses at the entrance as if waiting, then turns, tunneling inwards, Hugo following like a massive clumsy shadow, and—
In the dark he can see nothing, nothing at all, though he knows the gilded door is there, though he can feel the warmth of the bird, beating, but all is darkness, until the soft click of the beak turns in the keyhole, and a sliver of golden light appears.
As it widens, the bird’s form comes clear into view, the earthen walls of the burrow, the amber-gold arc of the door, and the light grows and grows as the door swings slowly open.
Blinded, Hugo Brevard sees into the center, where beyond the door nearly obscured by earth, a cathedral rises, painted in undying light.
It stretches and arches, turrets and eaves, all the same earth-stone, gilded with all the island’s stored riches, stained glass berry-red and bay-blue, sweet music ringing as the torch-light suffuses all things with its glow. Studding the earth around the cathedral, he sees the passages from other burrows, sees the birds emerging, shaking moss and lichen from their wings and laughing, glad, flying to their loved ones waiting there in the wet, sweet dome, where all is laughter and light and the beating of wings.
The cathedral carved from the hillside rings with strange, sweet music, and the bird in Hugo’s burrow bends its head, listening. It looks at him once, silent, and seems to charge him with its gaze, seems to ask him—
Hugo, throat thick with wonder, adrift and in love, shakes his head. “I swear.”
The bird inclines its head. The music of laughter sounds from the door, where another bird has alighted, its sweet sound a question and a call. Hugo’s guide hops close and replies, and they press their heads together with such tenderness that Hugo feels as though his heart will crack. With one backwards glance, one low, soft chuckle, the bird follows its nest-mate into the hallowed dome of earth, and the door closes behind them.
In the star-dark glen, Hugo Brevard sits in the quiet. He sketches nothing, says nothing, sits without moving for a long while. Time passes. Four falling stars and the moon arcing a quarter-way across the sky. The cathedral rises from the earth again and again in his mind.
At last, when the wind in the birches blows wet and cold, clouds fumbling in from the mainland, Hugo Brevard says again, “I swear,” and stands.
If he had come to the glen like a pilgrim, he leaves it a disciple, a scion of something once he had never even bothered to see. And he takes his pebbles and lattices from the hillside the next morning, scattering the green fronds, pebbles returning to the pail, until the hillside once again is untouched earth.
Hugo Brevard is the caretaker of Kent Island. He runs the boats, repairs the weather station, fixes leaks, clears trails. He keeps the secret.
Summer passes. The South field blooms in a riot of blackberry and the muskrats amble. And at nightfall, Hugo leaves his work and goes to the glen, again, again, filling his eyes with this impossible thing, thankful just to witness to the tenderness of the burrowing birds, heads pressed together, in the cathedral they have carved from the earth.
Caretaker and guardian. There is nothing to explain. For whatever reason, this miracle has been revealed to him. And he does not intend on letting it down.
Chuck returns in early July to check the nests for eggs. But as ever, reaching hands find only earth. Earth, and—Hugo’s fingers brush a warm egg. He kneels to look, and the bird chuckles reproachfully at him, cradles the egg as she knocks at the opening door.
The cathedral is transfigured by joy. Flags strung from ramparts, flowers woven into the earthen stone, a wild and joyful music echoing. Across the dome, a newborn chick calls, encircled by adults bending their heads in blessing, its fellow young murmuring, awaiting their own baptism, the crowning of their dominions, earth and fire and sea and sky, torchlight, voyage, good news of great joy—
Hugo startles at Chuck’s voice. “Hugo, what are you doing? You can’t see anything, can you? It’s just a hole in the ground.”
“Nope,” he says, watching the cathedral anointed by the season of birth vanish as his guide tugs the door shut. “Can’t see a thing.”
They leave the glen together with two truths: Chuck’s notebook full of dates and numbers, and a cathedral in Hugo’s mind.
“Amazing little birds, aren’t they?” Chuck says.
Hugo thinks of mischief, pebble-switching, of solemn covenants, of thousand-mile flights over cold ocean, burrows dug, cathedrals built, with two webbed feet and a tubenose beak, of birds that live as long as his father had, birds older than he was now. Of their young, crowned with torchlight, dominions of sea and earth and fire and sky.
And every word on his tongue seems a disservice, especially ‘magic’. So he just nods, and Chuck seems to know what he means.
The caretaker of Kent Island keeps his covenant. The cathedral stays buried, doors crumbling to untransfigured earth each time a human hand reaches. Still, under Hugo’s watchful eye, scientists pull their own miracles: fragile eggs, silver-banded parents, questions of migration, forage, hatch success, socialization, studies whose details fill scientific journals.
Beneath, the city in the hollow hills shines on.
The petrels have no fear of him any more. He has held the beating birds, newborn, in his big hands. He has seen their ceremonies and wakes, the cathedral in joy and in mourning, and always in the star-dark night he rests back on the earth in wonder.
There is no truer good, Hugo thinks, than news borne by a bird across the water. So he will come again and again like a pilgrim to the fern-soft glen on that small northern island, where storm petrels laugh in the fog, and with fidelity each night, arc their sure and joyful way home.
About the Author:
Brianna Cunliffe is an environmental justice activist and writer from North Carolina, currently studying at Bowdoin College. She served as the 2019 artist-in-residence at the Kent Island Scientific Station in the Bay of Fundy, working at the intersection of ecological research and the poetics of place. She specializes in speculative fiction and poetry with a socially relevant edge.