Stonestz is a city of tunnels and chambers carved in the face of a massive scarp and deep inside the living rock. Stonestz is a vertical catacomb, a high-rise cave, with apertures and entrances on multiple levels, like the carved Buddhist shrines of Afghanistan, the troglodyte villages of Cappadocia, or the cliff dwellings of the arid southwestern United States.

Dating back millennia, continuously occupied, and seldom given a thorough cleaning, the city undoubtedly harbors debris and interesting items from the distant past and covered by layers of subsequent habitation. No one knows how extensive the lowest and deepest parts may be, or what lies buried under floors of terracotta and beaten clay. Religious scruples prohibit scientific excavation, as Stonestz is holy, and the living rock is inviolable—with certain exceptions.

According to hypothesis, the earliest builders of Stonestz enlarged a series of natural hollows and voids, limestone caverns that eroded over eons. They connected galleries, added partitions, brought in sunlight by means of apertures, and improved ventilation while they were at it. They rationalized a tortuous chaos to create a pleasant warren, a cozy environment.

Along the way, they tapped underground springs to obtain fresh water. An interior pool called the Sacred Lake may be natural, or it may be the product of a prehistoric accident. Later builders dug channels, hung pipes, and installed an infrastructure of supply lines, shafts, and sanitary drains. More recently, they added electrical and communication cables.

While dwelling in the ground might appear to have drawbacks, Stonestzis note a sense of security. And the earth has a constant temperature, twelve degrees Celsius. It is not at all like sleeping in your coffin, as a sect of early Christian monks once did, or going underground like a fugitive from justice, or cowering in a cellar in a city under attack. A home in Stonestz is dry and snug, like a rodent’s burrow or a cliff swallow’s nest. In former times, people climbed ropes and spindly ladders to the mouths of their dens, then pulled the means of ascent up after them. Today, they use lifts and trams.

Back then, they farmed the valley below, kept herds and flocks, and engaged in trade of domestic articles like pottery, baskets, leather goods, woolen rugs, and oddly fashioned dolls. Designs were utilitarian, and decoration was geometrical. The products they make and sell today as handicrafts are identical with those made centuries ago. No progress can be seen.

Modern economic pursuits include long-term storage, personal protection, forensic geology, and internal investigation. Society is stable. People seldom emigrate or even go on vacation. They call their gadabout neighbors superficial—those who dwell on the surface. Stonestzis are fiercely committed to their homes, which they never sell but pass on by complex rules of inheritance.

For all the updates of the physical city, the cultural ethos is deeply conservative. Government follows a primitive model of strong man or despot, with a council of elders drawn from tribes. People preserve elaborate ceremonies for the birth of a son, less so for a daughter, as boys take precedence in school, awards, jobs, and pay. Stonestz mourns the dead in extravagant funerals that end in cremation. The ashes are scattered in the wind that always blows atop the cliff. The city contain no burials, bones, memorials, or urns, only live bodies.

The belief system is a core of animism—the worship of certain beasts and objects—overlaid by a host of angels, demons, and inexplicable customs. Unlike most people around the world who talk of “mother earth,” Stonestzis say that the earth is male, a father deity. It is fixed in place, while the sun and stars revolve in erratic, feminine ways. Stonestzi men own and carry weapons, no matter how deadly, as a religious obligation and sacred right. Until the secret was revealed and outside pressure forced a change, they sacrificed unwanted babies to a red-eyed, bloodthirsty, infernal god.

Much of this practice strikes the impartial observer as cruel and backward, a culture of sin and shame. Stonestzis punish girls for the simple fact of growing up, of reaching sexual maturity. They force boys to fight hand-to-hand in teams, clad in armor and uniform, in mock battles that result in concussion and broken bones. They mock the poor for their misery, for falling through the cracks. If you suffer, they say, you did something to deserve it. Wealth is proof of divine favor, the visible sign of an upright life. Flaunt it or hoard it, money is good.

These people are proud of their heritage, racially pure, and deeply suspicious of those who ask questions and take too many photographs. A casual daytrip is all very well, but an overnight stay in the city of caves would be asking for trouble.

 

Robert Boucheron

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction, and other magazines.

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