T’s Nov. 11 Travel issue is dedicated to a series of five fairy tales written exclusively for us — the kinds of stories that will inspire your own adventures, if not of the body, then at least of the mind. Read more in our letter from the editor.
Laura Van Den Berg
The twins lived on the top floor of a high-rise in Central Florida. They could not quite remember how they had ended up here, but they knew the laundry machines stole quarters and that their next-door neighbor was rumored to be keeping an exotic bird illegally in her apartment. No one had ever glimpsed the bird, but there was an audible squawking and a foul smell and occasionally someone discovered a gold feather by her door. The twins had collected three such feathers in the last year, which explained why they did not currently require a job.
The twins liked to watch the sun set from their narrow balcony, hip-length hair shimmering in the twilight. They would eat ice cubes and fan themselves with magazines. Something had gone wrong with the weather in recent years, and the whole state had entered into a kind of endless summer.
The balcony overlooked a parking lot bordered by a chain-link fence. Beyond the fence lay a retention pond, round and green. In the far distance: a city skyline. Sometimes a gator crawled from the pond and found its way around the fence. Whenever the twins spotted a gator basking on the hot asphalt, they would toss down an ice cube and see if they could make the creature flinch.
Read more: a guide to Miami, where part of this story is set.
One evening, their mouths full of ice, the twins watched the parking lot surface shiver, and then it looked as though the underlayers of the earth had taken a very deep breath.
That same week, sinkholes announced themselves at a car dealership, a resort, a cemetery. One appeared in a Publix, taking down the deli counter. The twins wondered if the sinkholes were related to the endless summer, though when they bumped into their neighbor in the elevator, she had other ideas.
“It’s the limestone,” she said. A tiny feather, a splinter of gold, was stuck to her shirt; the twins watched it flicker and felt their hearts swell with envy. “The whole state is built on it.”
On Saturdays, the twins went to the mall. They liked the A.C. and the crowds. They would window-shop, buy something cheap and sparkly from Claire’s. They were on the escalator when a sinkhole split the ground floor open, inhaling a sunglasses kiosk. The escalator jerked and then went still. The twins watched a security guard pull a woman in the unmistakably bland attire of a retail worker out by her armpits. They walked backward down the steps and joined the crowd gathering around the lip of the sinkhole, where people were using the flashlights on their key chains and phones to spotlight what lay below.
The sinkhole had stretched into a great yawn flanked by snapped tiles. Within, layers of concrete descended to rings of silt and limestone, then black abyss. Esperanza, the younger twin, thought it smelled of coconut and amaretto. But Alma thought it smelled like dreams, forgetfulness and Coppertone.
From the depths of the sinkhole, a roar erupted. Vapors shot up, catching the onlookers in a glittering black net before dissolving. In the distance, the Muzak rendition of “Margaritaville” was drowned out by a furious scratching and whirring from the sinkhole. The crowd gasped and stumbled backward as a creature scrabbled to the surface.
It was 20 feet or longer — its lower half hidden in the depths of the hole — as it rose, on black, articulated legs bristling with spikes. The creature was covered in gleaming black enamel that reminded Esperanza of the curving sweep of a Volkswagen Beetle. But then it shivered, and the cape split briefly into wings, causing another collective gasp and retreat. “Eurycotis floridana,” whispered Alma, the quicker of the two. “A bug!” cried Esperanza.
The twins, however, didn’t move. They were brave because they were twins and because they’d never learned to be afraid. Alma slipped her hand into Esperanza’s: She saw that the insect-creature wore a small luminous golden diadem on its head. Pointing, Esperanza smiled.
Beneath its crown, the creature’s head was covered by protuberant compound eyes above whiplike antennas, which extended in two S-curves alongside its body. It didn’t need to turn its head to look at the twins. Its mandibles trembled as it hissed:
“Which of you has broken my dreams?”
The mall shoppers turned to gape at the twins — as if they had indeed awakened the creature. A boy with neck tattoos pointed his phone at them. A walkie-talkie crackled in the distance and tweets chirped in the crowd.
Alma began to deny any involvement, but Esperanza squeezed her sister’s hand and blurted, “We want a wish!”
Again, there was a chirring crackle as the creature shifted its flattish head in their direction.
“Ignorant beings. Do you not know me? I am your queen.”
To Alma’s shock, Esperanza leaned forward and cried, “We want a mother!”
At this, the creature’s appendages stopped quivering and it extended one antenna almost tenderly toward the twins. “But this is the motherless land, children. Still …” It considered for a moment, as the crowd held its breath — save for one man in the back whispering into his phone to CNN. Finally, it said to the girls, “For your bravery — and your impertinence — I shall give you two gifts. First: One of you shall never grow older.”
“And — what is the other gift?” Alma finally managed.
“The other one shall.”
While Esperanza clapped and bounced, Alma cried out, “But we don’t want it!”
“It is always too late for regret,” the creature uttered before releasing a jasmine-scented sigh and descending in a cloud of sparks back to the underworld.
Outside, heat waves undulated over the parking lot, which seemed to stretch on for miles. All parking lots in this part of the world were interconnected; there was only one, reproducing like an invasive species across the landscape. A charter school operating out of what used to be the mall’s J.C. Penney was hosting a carnival in one region. Esperanza made a beeline toward a booth with a row of toy guns set up before targets.
“Wait, where are you going?” Alma cried. She hurried to catch up. “Now is no time for games, Esperanza! Didn’t you hear what the queen said? We’ve been cursed!”
“Uncle Duke!” yelled Esperanza.
The man operating the toy guns booth turned around and the girls recognized their long-lost uncle. It had been years since they’d seen him. They were small when their mother died, and he had been traveling around with the carnival ever since. He used to send them missives about the people he’d meet on the road: Disney princesses, fortunetellers, people selling religion door-to-door. After a while, his letters stopped coming.
He was covered in blue tattoos imitating snakeskin. On his shoulder rode a medium-size iguana. He wore an army fatigue vest with a golden feather pinned to the lapel. Alma and Esperanza looked at each other. They knew that feather.
“I knew I’d see you here!” he said. The canine teeth were missing from his smile.
They hugged him.
“Uncle Duke, we need your help,” said Alma. “We’ve been cursed.”
“No we haven’t,” said Esperanza.
“It’s unclear whether we’ve been blessed or cursed,” Alma said.
Duke looked from girl to girl, rubbing his jaw. The iguana imitated his movements. “I know what you need,” he said.
He exited the booth and led them into the carnival. It began to assume the appearance of a semipermanent community. People sat on folding chairs outside their booths, scratching lotto tickets. At the fish fry booth, someone handed them an alligator-tail sandwich. They passed an amputee juggling oranges, a man in a seersucker suit sweeping a metal detector over the asphalt and people the color of tanned leather wearing Renaissance Faire costumes.
“They look nice,” said Duke, “but don’t make any sudden movements. If you scare them, they’ll stand their ground.”
They reached a mobile home elevated on stilts. An adult tricycle was parked out front. Duke instructed them to wait outside and ducked through a beaded doorway. Esperanza killed time by riding the tricycle in a tight circle. He returned a few minutes later with a bottle in his hand.
“Take this to the Three Sisters Spring,” he told them.
They read the label. Centrum Silver.
“Swallow one and swim with the mermaids,” he said
By late afternoon, the twins had ditched their Chevy Impala by a dirt road, headed for the springs. A trail plunged through vines and a canopy of oaks. In the distance, a nuclear plant quivered in the heat like a dying sea anemone. Dark clouds loomed.
“Glad you trust Uncle Duke,” Alma said, flicking love bugs off her shoulder. Duke wasn’t really their uncle and wasn’t always sober.
“Got any better ideas?” Duke’s tip made as much sense as being cursed by a palmetto bug. And he’d had a map to the springs.
“Better ideas than tripping out on pills with some mermaids?” The pills inside the bottle were all different shapes and colors.
Esperanza ignored her.
They passed three rusted-out cars and a tree spotted with old doll heads, then a copse full of “Florida turduckens”: fire-ant mounds crowned with dead walking catfish and ringed with kudzu.
Nothing unusual. They’d grown up here, in the Florida backcountry, where all things seen out of the corner of the eye wound up in a news report.
“Somebody needs to do a history of the world told from the sinkhole’s point of view,” Esperanza said as they walked. “That’d make a lot of money.”
“That and a history of S.O.B.s,” Alma said, trying not to think of the palmetto bug.
“I think that’s been done before.”
They reached the arch of long-forgotten Mermaid World, beyond which lay the springs and a floating dock. A rusted mermaid with hollow eyes stared down at them. The sun was flimsy ghost-light now, a dull strip of spandex melting onto the trees.
“You know,” Alma said, “it happened to our grandma, too.”
“A big palmetto bug curse. Out in the Panhandle.”
Esperanza gave her a look. Alma was always making up stories when she got nervous. They’d never known their grandma.
Passing through the gateway felt strange, like crossing an invisible border while mosquitoes crash-landed on their eyeballs.
They walked onto the dock, once home to glass-bottom boats. Across the water, on the far shore, lay a shed with a light visible inside. An alligator with a pink bow around its neck wallowed outside.
Some mysteries in Florida were best ignored.
They peered over the railing, looking for mermaids through the sick green of agricultural runoff. Although Duke hadn’t meant real mermaids, but manatees.
They should have been gray, but they weren’t. Far below, seven manatees glowed like muffled oblong flares — white, blue and some the fizzy orange of a caution sign.
“Those are seriously messed up,” Alma said.
“So now what?” Esperanza asked. The color of the creatures seemed the least of their problems.
“Take the pills? Pray?”
But whatever Esperanza might’ve said next died in her throat like a slow possum on a fast road.
Above the water, the mother of all manatees had materialized in the gloom: a huge floating dreadnought of a beast. Approaching fast, throbbing with a green glow.
“I need a pill! I need those pills,” Esperanza said, trying to pull the bottle out of her pocket while Alma tried to stop her.
From across the water, a mossy voice mumbled their names.
Grandma?” Esperanza whispered, pushing her hands into her belly.
“Don’t be a dumbass,” came the dusty reply. The beast was hovering just before the sisters now, its breath like exhaust on a highway. “Your grandma was a goddang human.”
One of the girls sagged in disappointment, the other in relief. The pills were grit against their gums, tumbling under their tongues. Alma felt certain they were Tums.
“Well,” the manatee said, briskly, unkindly, but with an edge of something nurturing in it. Maternal, even.
The sisters looked in each other’s eyes, Alma finding the slightly enlarged tear duct, the diving board into Esperanza’s right eye, and Esperanza choosing to ignore a neon blob of sleep trapped in Alma’s lash. Their eyes were as familiar as the backs of their hands, as the concept of time. “O.K.,” said Esperanza, still looking warily at Alma. “Here goes.” Alma shrank into herself, waiting to hear the request again, the embarrassing plea for a mother.
But Esperanza slipped into the water, into the rippling shadow underneath the blubbery mermaid before them, her blood seeming to chant from within her. The water felt thickened, as though it was saliva. She thought of a kiss she’d shared the previous summer, the plump, dry lips, the slick tongue, a neighbor boy with enormous earlobes and bony fingers. The kiss had left a ring of wet around her mouth and a pounding in her panties and it had never happened again. Alma didn’t know. Did Alma know?
The dock was still shaking from Esperanza’s leap. Alma was stunned, her body throbbing as if poked with a cattle prod. Esperanza had been there, and then Alma was left to admire the symmetry of her sister’s bare feet before they disappeared under the dark water. The manatee heaved itself around, turning back toward the cluster of bright shapes. Alma threw herself in, her thoughts chasing each other, briny water filling her mouth. She was hollering, it turned out. Esperanza turned to her, put her finger up to her lips. Hush. Somehow, the sisters could see. The pills.
“You want something from me,” the beast sighed above them, warming the water. “And you shall have it.” It didn’t seem like good news. Both girls held a question in their minds, nestled like a child’s prized trinket, and swam.
An enormous angel with stubby wings flew above them, backlit by aloe green sun. Alma’s hands, parting the water, had begun to shimmer. Esperanza could hear the eelgrass singing to her in low, lisping tones. It was impossible to know if the pills were responsible for this or if they had simply underestimated the world’s hallucinatory depths.
Silently, Alma released her prayer into the water. Up it floated, twining with the prayer of Esperanza: Undo the queen’s curse. Let us grow old together.
The girls’ mother had abandoned them before their first birthday. Their father, and ostensible guardian, had been AWOL for some time now. But the twins had flourished in a pocket of neglect, as so many wild things do in Florida. They’d grown in lock step, uncannily synced to one another: They’d gotten their periods on the same day, made identical mistakes on their math tests.
How could it be a gift, to grow apart?
Together they broke the surface, gulping air.
“Espe,” Alma sputtered. “Please, don’t leave me.”
“I won’t. I’m not about to let some Jurassic bug in a Claire’s tiara separate us — ”
With a sublime gentleness, the mother of all manatees surfaced beside them. She rolled onto one side, swamping the dock with water. Delicately, Alma ran a hand along her back. She felt a line of deep scars — a maze of old pain. Boat propellers had cut them into the mother’s flesh.
Scars are always maps.
Under her palms, Alma discovered an archipelago she recognized: Key Largo. Islamorada. Vaca Key. Big Pine Key. Key West. The islands jumped into her mind. And then, just above the creature’s tail, Alma touched a scar she could not name.
A vision shot through her like a signal flare. She saw a cavernous space, midnight blue and impossibly vast.
Once upon a time, you two grew at the same speeds inside a single body. There is a womb under the world, to which you must return. Reset the clock. Retwin your lives.
Later, neither girl could remember how they’d gotten out of the river. They were lying on the dock, side by side, soaking wet. They left the mermaids floating in their gloomy radiance, camouflaged as whiskery, cud-chewing manatees. On their way to the car, Alma found a pink bow snagged on the saw palmetto. Esperanza checked the back seat twice before climbing into the Impala.
There is no more quintessentially Floridian sensation than sliding into a burning hot parked car.
While Espe cranked the A.C., Alma told her about the scar map.
“A ‘womb under the world’? For real?”
“That’s what she called it.”
There were not even any basements in the state, Espe noted.
“Why do these mythic beasts only speak to us in riddles?”
“To avoid lawsuits?” Alma suggested. For every sinkhole, Florida had an army of litigators.
“We have to drive down the peninsula, across the spine of the Seven Mile Bridge, to Key West. And then, I guess, beyond — ”
Espe reluctantly agreed. They had cousins in Miami. At least they could get a good café con leche before driving on to the underworld.
It was already dark when they crossed the MacArthur Causeway into Miami Beach, Esperanza behind the wheel, the moonlight reflecting off Biscayne Bay. As they drove farther east, heading toward Ocean Drive, Alma and Esperanza noticed that the ground seemed to be tilting slightly, the apartment buildings and streets sloping until they disappeared into — into what exactly?
Espe slowed down and Alma stuck her head out the window, trying to see what it was: a sinkhole, maybe, an emptiness, a nothing. All the other cars zooming past them, all of those other drivers going, going, going until they disappeared, too. It seemed, to Alma, that they were slipping off the edge of the world.
“We should stop,” she said, “pull over, maybe.” But when Alma looked over at her sister, Espe’s eyes were glazed over, hypnotized by the nothing, the sinkhole, whatever it was, and Alma knew that Espe would not stop, that she and her sister were about to drive off the edge.
“Espe!” Alma reached over and grabbed her sister by the shoulders, but it did no good. Espe kept her foot pressed firmly on the gas pedal.
Another motorcycle whooshed past them, and then another and another, all of them vanishing at the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Fifth Street, and then, when Alma looked closer, when she really stared into the blankness, the city blurring like a watercolor painting, she realized that it was not a sinkhole at all. It was the ocean. Miami Beach was underwater, the rising tide extending all the way to Jefferson Avenue. The whole city was sinking.
And then it came to her, like a lightning bolt, striking. She saw those two little girls they had been, Alma and Esperanza, twins, that ineffable bond, the most perfect love. She saw the girls they were now, their Impala about to fall off the edge of the world. And she saw beyond anything she had known, the two of them echoing through time and space: the twins at 27, women, sipping sweet mojitos in a tiki bar in Islamorada; the twins at 33, taking a photograph on a cobblestone street in St. Augustine; the twins at 55, their waist-length hair graying, sweeping the steps of a house they’d share with 12 cats in Cassadaga.
And it was then, when Alma looked beyond the realms of this world she thought she knew, had always known, that she was able to see the truth: All this time, they had not been two girls, but one.
Alma closed her eyes and gripped at the bottom of her seat, preparing herself to feel their car in free fall.
It was either ironic or appropriate — Alma couldn’t decide which — that she had a lot of experience with this sensation because of her dreams. One of her most common nightmares involved trying to drive a car that she couldn’t control, then crashing. She always woke up before death. The torture of the dream came in the moments just before. The landslide drop beneath her stomach. Fear hollowing her core. Opening inside her like a sinkhole.
Odd thoughts came. She remembered the first time she’d stepped on a palmetto bug and crushed it. It had been a conscious act. A dare from Esperanza. But a strange thing had happened: When the crunch came, her brain didn’t attribute the sound to the bug. Instead, Alma thought she’d heard one of her own bones snapping. She’d cried out, hopped around, grabbed at her ankle. Every so often her mind returned to this mystery. What had occurred in that moment?
Her best guess was that she’d experienced karma.
Alma wondered if Esperanza was real. Was she about to open her eyes and find herself alone in the car, behind the wheel, seconds from death?
She wondered which of them was most deserving of life. Was it worse to follow bad advice or to give it?
And did she love being alive more than she loved her sister?
Alma wasn’t sure. She remembered an afternoon of playing alligator with Esperanza in a dirty pool, trying to open her eyes underwater, the ferocity of that sting. She’d always end up clenching her eyes shut, as tightly as they were shut now. “If we were gators,” Esperanza had told her that day, “my tail would be longer than yours. Because I’m taller.”
“Not by much,” Alma had argued. But she’d been inconsolably jealous.
The minute their car was in the water, the twins felt a bump, a gentle nudge beneath the chassis, and when they looked down, they saw a pod of dolphins pushing them across Biscayne Bay. The dolphins had recognized the twins from their childhood visits to Marineland, before it was closed (because of competition from SeaWorld), and now the animals nudged the floating Impala onto the on-ramp to I-95, a fate some might consider worse than drowning.
“Where do we go now?” cried Alma.
“There’s only one place left,” said Esperanza, as she looked down from the elevated freeway at the lake that was Miami. “The Florida Alps.”
“Don’t joke!” said Alma.
“I’m not,” said Esperanza.
“Remember when we went to the natural history museum in Gainesville in eighth grade and they showed us how Florida started out as this tiny little ridge that grew and grew? That’s still the highest part of the state. Thank God,” she added, turning a radiant face to her twin, “for a while back there, I thought we were Thelma and Louise!”
And so they raced up I-95, just west of the gurgling towns along A1A, then turned inland toward Bunnell onto Highway 100 and went to Keystone Heights, 141 feet above sea level — which in Florida is saying something — and then west to Ginnie Springs, at 66.
In Ginnie Springs, they used their last gold feathers to rent diving gear and then descended into a cavern whose transparent water had not yet been dimmed by the runoff of agricultural fertilizers, which exacerbated the red tide that closed beaches this summer. Esperanza was sure they’d find the womb beneath the world that the manatee told them they must visit to remove the curse. But Esperanza couldn’t decide as she swam through the crystal-clear water ahead of her sister if she wanted to grow old.
What was the point, given the way Florida — and the planet itself — was going? The moment she noticed the words “I love you” that a diver had scratched into a cave wall, before his oxygen ran out, she realized she might not have a choice. Her own supply was 30 seconds from extinction, but when she turned to ask Alma for help, her twin was nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, just ahead was an enormous cavern that had to be the womb beneath the world — only above the entrance a line of lights spelled out the words “The Walt Disney Company.”
Four hundred years later, this moment became the spooky climax of the singalong theme-park ride Alma and Esperanza’s Tragic Quest. The wooden train slowed and music swelled dramatically, lights flickered overhead and puppet Esperanza burst upward through the air hatch into Magic Kingdom, shouting “Alma!” while puppet Alma shed her scuba gear and was already drifting down to the dark bottom of the aquifer.
Of course, Disney of 400 years later would not be the Disney of the twins’ time. In the Revolution of 2020, American companies became property of the public trust, and Better-Disney rectified the toxic archetypes that had once poisoned generations of Americans: For example, Snow White became a parable for the way older women are sexy, powerful and go out of their way to help younger women; the Hall of Presidents was a wax-figure, 43-voice choral apology for the way systems upheld the idea that authority could only look peach colored and male (the 44th didn’t have to sing; the 45th was an empty hole). The theme park was now encompassed by a great bubble of blown air, as all of Florida was entirely underwater.
In fact, this was the moral of Alma and Esperanza’s Tragic Quest: that these two girls, bestowed with magical powers unprecedented in the history of humanity, decided to ignore the greater good and focused on their own solipsistic journey for completion. Their magic only worked together: Their long-lost mother had named them presciently, as souls can live without hope, but hope can’t live without a soul. The moment in the springs when Alma decided to split from her sister was the very last one in which they could have used their magic to reverse climate change. In their smallness of vision, they failed.
On the opening day of Alma and Esperanza’s Tragic Quest, it was the most popular ride in Better-Disney, but the ride was, frankly, a downer. Soon the train was rumbling around the tracks without anyone to ride it. The lights went out. The puppets grew crowns of dust.
But even in the dark, all the puppet animals that had tried so hard to make Alma and Esperanza listen — the golden bird, the giant palmetto bug, the manatee mermaids, the pod of dolphins, the gators with ice-cube contusions, all species now extinct, of course — lifted their voices and tinnily sang. Their song was good, even if there was nobody left who wanted to hear it.
Laura van den Berg, who was born in Orlando, is the author of “The Third Hotel”; Diana Abu-Jaber lives in Fort Lauderdale and is the author of “Birds of Paradise”; Sarah Gerard lives in St. Petersburg and is the author of “Sunshine State”; Jeff VanderMeer lives in Tallahassee and is the author of the Southern Reach trilogy; Lindsay Hunter, raised in Orlando, is the author of “Eat Only When You’re Hungry”; Karen Russell, who was born in Miami, is the author of “Swamplandia!”; Jaquira Díaz, raised in Miami Beach, is the author of the forthcoming “Ordinary Girls”; Alissa Nutting, raised in Valrico, is the author of “Made for Love”; Andrew Holleran lives in Keystone Heights and is the author of “Dancer From the Dance’’; Lauren Groff lives in Gainesville and is the author of “Florida.”
Costume design: Lars Nord. Production: Tony Floyd at Studio Ava. Models: Natalie and Amanda at BMG Orlando. Hair and Makeup: Chris Sherley. Locations: The Fun Spot and the Oakland Preserve
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