By Stephen Taylor
Photo by Jonas Jaeken on Unsplash
It’s raining up top. The drip drip dripping down the walls is making pools on the stone and concrete floor. Somewhere up there it’s daylight, but beneath the clouds and beneath the ground we live.
Some were born in this pit, scraping for survival from their very first day. And some have fallen far, so very very far, to be here now.
We rarely fight down here. We often weep. Huddle together for warmth around a single fire on cold days like this. Sharing our scraps and our firewood and what’s left of our souls. The caverns we call home were built aeons ago by great architects. I can appreciate the gothic design with its arches and carvings on my more lucid days, it becomes overwhelming and dark on most others. These people barely even recognize the structures around them, they are weighed down with rags and burdens of the desperate: eyes on the ground looking for scraps or vermin. But I, I still catch myself looking up, occasionally even through the grates at surface level to see the sky again. But today the upper world is filled with rain that seeps into our holy ground. The sacred place of our survival. The poorest of the poor. The most wretched of the wretched. Cast out of sight even from those who live just above. No-one wants to remember us. I know I don’t.
I join the group assembling by the fire lit in the barrel. Around twenty of us clutching at our rags and standing shoulder to shoulder staring at the flames. How the colours are able to dance when surrounded by such misery and darkness is a blessing and a miracle. The sound of wood burning beats like music for the flames above them. We all listen and watch.
One man looks to me and asks for a story. Sometimes I like to tell tales and help our people feel better, but this time he’s asking for something different. He points to the roof, though he does not look lest his eyes lie to him; he wants a story from up there to warm our imaginations. I warn him those stories are different, and the endings not always happy. He persists with pleading eyes and so I nod and close mine, enduring the pain of memory to bring light to this darkest place.
Above the ground and above the clouds, above the mountains and above the soaring eagles, where the stars sleep in Heaven there was a beautiful child. Her name was Elizabeth, and she was an angel from birth.
Blonde hair and bright blue eyes filled with the wonder of life itself. An angel given to mankind from the gods. A playful and delightful soul that would dance in fields of soft grass by ocean cliffs, laughing and twirling with her doting father in the sea breeze. He adored her and showered her with love and affection, giving everything in his power to give. Beautiful dresses and fine jewellery that would make the most glorious of beings envious of their craftsmanship. He fancied himself the wind she loved to dance in, as he would watch her laugh and play in its affectionate freedom. She lived in a peaceful and beautiful place surrounded by love, and her heart filled with innocent joy.
The colours of such a world, oh! If you could only experience the vibrancy of light that would fill your eyes and ignite your soul! A joyous world of greens and blues, pinks and reds and violets and flowers of such scents as to bring life to the most burdened heart! But this world was not one without its secrets, or its darkness. As the father came to know.
The Lords of that land heard of the daughter’s beauty. They had sought her father’s help before, as he was a genius with technologies. He had refused, knowing they wanted him to create a weapon of great destructive power, but now they came to him with threats.
They took his daughter and imprisoned her. They threatened to harm her unless he did as they wished and create the weapon they demanded from him. To save Elizabeth’s life, he had no choice but to acquiesce.
And so he laboured for his daughter’s freedom under the watchful eye of his slave-drivers. They kept her in a stone cell with no windows or bed, chained to the wall by her ankle, unable to move but a few yards. They fed her vermin and scraps of bread, just enough to keep her alive and motivate her father to work for them.
It took the father five years to finish the work, and the Lords congratulated themselves as they released his daughter to him. She carried vacant eyes in her malnourished body, too weak to stand on her own and unable to speak. Her father wept and carried his sweet child home.
Spending the next months feeding her and nurturing her back to health, the father had hope she would return to him, but Elizabeth was lost to the cell she had been caged in. She had seen the bitterness and brutality of the world and it crushed her. Vacant eyes now stared into the distance, and she would not speak nor utter a sound. As soon as she gained the strength to walk he took her to the fields where they used to dance, but she stood motionless in her finery: unable to see the world around her for the horrors that played out in her mind. The father took her to the ocean’s edge and pointed out to her from the cliffs the beauty of the horizon. The light reflected upon her crystal gaze and seemed to imbue her spirit with life. As the gentle ocean breeze pushed against her dress her eyes widened and her mouth opened. Elizabeth shook herself from her father’s arm and sprinted forward, leaping over the edge with arms spread wide as if to soar on the wind blowing beneath her. The father could only watch his beloved daughter disappear from sight. He ran to the cliff’s edge to see her body on the distant rocks below.
Broken with sorrow and rage the father returned to the Lords with fury, but they cast him from their presence with mockery and insults. He went to the streets to cry out his misfortune and suffering for all who would hear. The Lords brought him back in, as they did not wish to be tarnished by his testimony. They cast off his refinement and honours, they took his home and belongings, they wanted to kill him, but he fled far from their sight. Without his angel to lift him he fell to the deepest parts of the earth, and when he finally landed he saw only suffering.
Now when the father remembers his dear Elizabeth, she dances and sings in the wind, looking at him with loving eyes. She dances in the darkness. She dances in the flames. She dances in his heart. She laughs and spins and twirls in the heavens, a gift to the stars from whence she came. He longs to see her again. If only the wind had lifted her as it once promised.
I look back to my companions around the fire who stare vacantly, confused with my telling. I am not surprised. They have known only this place. How could they grasp the story they have been told? To know beauty and have it torn from your grasp is a much worse fate than having never known it. They are innocent of pleasure and ignorant of hope, therefore they are protected from such sorrow.
I close my eyes and re-centre myself. Enough of that. Who wants to hear a fun story? Yes? Well, let me tell you the tale of the mouse who crawled through the ceiling grate one night…