Fiction

Tale From the Underground

She longed for something, anything to happen.

The cellar led into another, smaller one which ended at a brick wall that looked newer than the stone around it. Maybe people had been walled up here, she thought, walled up while they were alive, beating their fists against the bricks until they starved to death. She knocked all over the wall, but it was as solid and unyielding as time. Frustrated, she slumped back against it. Her impromptu adventure had come to an abrupt end. She idly shone the flashlight around the cellar, focusing the beam on the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the tiny rusted grating sunk into one corner of the damp stone…she jerked the flashlight back to focus on the grill. Yes! she thought. She laughed at her own excitement—this is what her life had become, childish adventures in a cellar just to break up her interminable boredom. Syd would have loved this, though, she thought as she gripped the grating with both hands and pulled. Syd would have loved it and written a song about it and played it for me. The iron had been mostly eaten away by rust, and the bars clattered to the floor after a few tugs. The opening they revealed was low and narrow, but Rin could squeeze through. She got on her hands and knees and crawled in.

The passage just about accommodated her if she took care to not bump her head against the roof. She half-crawled, half crouched and shuffled through the tunnel as it twisted and turned. After a while, the stone walls gave way to earth supported by rotted wooden beams; suddenly Rin was terrified that the entire structure would give way and collapse on her. She crouched as low as she could so she wouldn’t accidentally touch the ceiling of this alcove and willed herself forward. As she crawled she sometimes caught her arms or her knees on pieces of half-buried stone; she ignored the gashes and bleeding in order to keep going. Only the beating of her heart and the soft scrape of her boots against the ground gave any indication that life existed in this long-forgotten place. She felt dizzy and nauseous. The air can’t be too great down here, she thought. It felt as though she had been crawling through this passage forever. She knew that if she stopped for even a second she would never move forward again. She groped her way forward, her knees scraped and burning, every inch a gargantuan effort. Suddenly the floor gave way to nothingness. Rin fell, and everything went black.

She came to, not knowing how long she’d been unconscious. Her flashlight had rolled a few feet away, still shining its feeble light. At least it’s still working, she thought, relieved that she wouldn’t have to face the darkness. She sat up, the fog clearing from her brain. She was in a cavern with the same wood-and-earth roof as the tunnel. She picked up the flashlight and looked around…and a face looked back. A thin, beatific face gazing at her with pity and infinite sadness. Rin screamed and dropped the flashlight, which skittered away to a corner and illuminated an altar. Oh god, it’s just a statue, it’s a statue of Jesus on the cross, she realized. A wave of relief washed over her. She was in a secret underground chapel, buried and hidden from prying eyes, where people could worship in peace. She vaguely remembered something about Catholic persecution in the Tudor age from history lessons at school, but she hadn’t been paying attention. Rin had never been very interested in history. The altar was covered in candle stubs, ancient wax from centuries past, and cut into the walls were niches and hollows, presumably for statues and figures of saints. They were all empty now, sad and empty and blind. She went over all of them systematically, shining the flashlight into every corner, hoping to find something that might have been left behind. In the fifth space, a small cloth bundle caught her eye. She gingerly picked it up, taking care to not damage it, but as she touched the fine lace and thin cotton, it disintegrated in her hands, revealing a miniature human skull. Rin screamed and jerked her hands back; the bundle hit the ground and scattered into a hundred tiny bones at her feet. The flashlight dimmed and wavered at the sudden impact of the drop, and in the dancing light, the bones seemed to move. It hadn’t even teethed yet was her last thought as she turned and ran, the horror suddenly hitting her in waves. The chapel narrowed into another passage, wider and higher than the one she scrambled through before and as Rin stumbled into it, she thought she saw the thousand candles on the altar lighting up behind her.

As she ran she felt fragile things cracking and snapping under her boots. Bones, they are bones, she thought. She felt as if her lungs and head would burst—she couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t breathe. She fell to her knees, clawing at her throat for air. I’m going to die here, this is the end, Rin thought, lightheaded and hysterical. Coughing and gasping, she dragged herself on, fearful of fainting and being buried underground. When she saw faint daylight ahead of her it barely registered as a way out.

In a manic burst of energy, she hauled herself to and then up through the opening, onto the springy heather, where she collapsed, crying and taking in great lungfuls of the clean, fresh air. She never thought she’d be so happy to see the empty, featureless landscape again.

She lay on her back, her chest rising and falling. The world was blue and purple, scented with sweet heather, and Rin was the only living soul in it. “Lying on an eiderdown…” she murmured, “yippee you can’t see me, but I can you…” She closed her eyes, letting the last of a long summer day wash over her. The horror of dead baby things and darkness were behind her; all that was left was the cool blue evening and the summer air. The beauty of the open world suddenly made sense to her—this is where she wanted to be. The long walk back could wait. ♦

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