Rapture of the Deep

As she stood at the mouth of the cave, Helena Torres de Costa handed a lit torch to her seven-year-old daughter. The next words she spoke would be the last Regina would hear from her mother until after her fourteenth birthday, so they needed to be chosen very, very carefully.

“Count the days,” Helena told her. “Count every single day.”

Regina nodded and took her first steps toward her future. No one would tell her what awaited her below, save that it would transform her into a real woman and a real witch.

After an immeasurably long descent down through a tunnel, she emerged suddenly into a small, dry grotto. It quickly became apparent that this was only a small nook in a cavern so expansive it may as well have been infinite. She set forward to explore, but had to stop when she discovered her little grotto was set off from the rest of the cavern by a chasm of indeterminate depth. Without looking, she guessed that the tunnel that had brought her here had probably vanished.

A gust of wind extinguished the torch, but the darkness didn’t last. A bluish light without any discernable source melted away the shadows, gently illuminating her and her surroundings. While investigating the slick, irregular walls, she came upon a blanket and pillow, an empty grimoire, a fountain pen, and a pair of thick books that taught philosophy and physics via a combination of primary sources and annotations–subjects that can be easily be absorbed into the elasticity of a young mind.

The light faded, but again, the darkness didn’t last. It was replaced this time by a red glow that seeped out of the chasm, pulsing in time with the breaths she took. It reminded her of how her journey and the excitement of discovery had utterly exhausted her. She crawled inside the blanket and rested comfortably, waking up to blue light, and a tray of cheese, bread, and fruit.

After breakfast, she sat down with the books and began to read, but not before using the pen and grimoire to note, “Day One.”

Years ago, Rafaela Torres, child of Nestor Torres and Sofia Barros, hadn’t thought to count the days. She’d simply tried to study with the blue light and sleep with the red glow, but usually failed at both. Meals came three times per day; lunch and dinner were always proceeded by the light dimming, and breakfast–along with the occasional change of clothes–waited when red faded to blue. One day, she’d opened her eyes early to witness an arm slinking out of the thick shadows bearing a tray. She’d slept even worse after that.

Twice a day, between meals, the blue light tightened into a ball and revealed a crevice in the wall, just perfect for climbing. The ball would float upward, beckoning, almost playfully, for the girl to follow. It led her to a tunnel large enough to stand and stretch in, and would then retreat at a brisk pace–about the speed of a light jog for a child. After a certain number of kilometers the tunnel opened up into the alcove from which she came.

The light’s speed held constant, regardless of the speed of the girl who followed. If she couldn’t keep up, she ran the risk of drowning in pitch-blackness. If she stopped altogether, she would hear the sound of heavy footsteps behind her and feel hot, moist breath on the back of her neck.

Regina let this happen once. After that, she paced or outran the ball, even as it quickened over time to match the growth of her legs.

Rafaela had let this happen often. At first, the footsteps had inspired her to move faster. Later, though, she’d held back on purpose, craving the humidity and fear the footsteps brought, taking in the solace and the company.

One day, she’d choked back her pounding heart and turned to say hello, and she never felt its presence again. That was the last time in the cave she ever spoke aloud.

Over time, philosophy and physics gave way to more nuanced subjects like biology, chemistry, natural symbolism, folk zoology, and quantum mechanics–to name but a few. Meals and clothing came with props and equipment to perform experiments based on the written word.

Regina never failed to impress herself with her physical and mental fitness, but she wondered where these self-guided lessons were going. And, as her notations approached “Day Four Hundred,” it became evident that no other human being would come along to explain it to her.

However, before the frustration of this could take hold, she woke to an envelope addressed to:

The School in the Cave
Attn: Regina

Inside was a short letter from Uncle Nestor’s daughter, Rafaela. She’d never met her cousin, but the note congratulated her on a year at the school, filled her in on the comings and goings of their family, and encouraged her to write back. Beside the breakfast tray was a sheet of paper for just that purpose. She introduced herself with a quick note and left it with the dishes to be taken away.

Every ten days, fresh mail from her cousin arrived, describing the world outside. Sometimes there were even pictures. The gossip among Rafaela’s friends and details about technology and fashion filled Regina’s head while she chased the ball of light down the tunnel and would occasionally distract her from her studies. Eventually the letters took longer and longer to arrive, before stopping completely. This was upsetting at first, but she still enjoyed rereading and rereading the old ones until she’d memorized them.

More days passed, followed by even more. Regina read and wrote; she climbed and ran; she became a woman with as much dignity as one could muster while all by herself. She’d long ago accepted her life as it was now.

Years before, Rafaela read and read over countless cycles of blues and reds, until the words melted, and she tore the pages out of the books and threw them into the chasm. She would crush her eyes shut through every long night so she wouldn’t have to see again the thing that brought the food she hardly touched and the clothing she never bothered to wear anymore. When she’d first arrived, announced her name to the entire world and giggled when the cavern repeated it back to her, but she could no longer remember the last time she’d done that.

She hated herself for not eating or sleeping. She hated herself for fearing the thing that brought the food. She hated herself for banishing the footsteps in the tunnel. She hated herself for failing at being a Torres. She hated herself for ever coming here.

Her own body had started to betray her, and because of her education, she anticipated and dreaded the hair and the swelling and the bleeding coming soon. And nothing in any of those books would tell her why she tingled so uncomfortably at the memory of hot breath on her neck.

And so, finally, one night, she stood at the edge of the chasm for minutes that could have been hours. She inhaled, flooding the room with the brightest of reds; exhaled, drowning it in the darkest of shadows; and stepped into it.

She tumbled out of a rock outcropping and rolled, naked and confused, into a mountainous forest. After adjusting her eyes to moonlight she hadn’t seen in so long, she relied on her education in basic geography and meteorology to guide her to a stream, which guided her to a road, which guided her to a small Spanish village, which guided her to a phone.

She awoke in a bed to a vision of her mother and father holding her hands, smiling, and just a little older. She accepted that they were real, although she had no reason to.

“We’re so happy to see you again,” Nestor Torres sniffed with joy and relief. “We’ve missed you.”

“We’re so very, very proud of you,” whispered Sofia Barros Torres.

Years later, on Day Two Thousand, Five Hundred Fifty-seven, Regina closed her eyes, pleased with her accomplishments, as she had been for nearly every day as long as she could remember.

She awoke in a bed to a vision of her mother and father holding her hands, smiling, and just a little older. She accepted that they were real, although she had no reason to.

“We’re so happy to see you again,” Lucio Marcos de Costa sniffed with joy and relief. “We’ve missed you.”

“We’re so very, very proud of you,” whispered Helena Torres de Costa.

That morning, Regina’s mother–as had Rafaela’s daughter years before–mourned the girl she’d sent into that cave so long ago.

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