The Magic Cave
There once was a village. In the village everything was the same. Nothing had ever changed for as long as anyone could remember.
The village was not particularly remarkable. Not that large, not that famous. Not too hot, nor too cold. It was as steady and unchanging as the snow-sprinkled mountains that framed the smoky chimneys of the villagers’ houses. The mountains that peaked their head out from behind the thatched roofs of the fifty or so unremarkable houses that made up the village. The mountains that no one ever climbed.
Through the village ran an icy stream of lime-green water. Ever flowing, never drying up, nor forming a torrent. Enough to provide the villagers with ample drinking water; and a place for the youngsters to swim in the hot summer afternoons. There was just enough power in the stream to turn the single mill that sat at the top of the village and provided the villagers with flour for their morning bread.
Aside from the creaking old mill there was only one other building of any note in the village: a circular building with mud-baked walls and a thatched roof with a hole in its centre.
In this unremarkable village everything was as it always had been.
The villagers of Nambombok, some kilometres down the valley, were champion spear throwers, those of Chimwatee, on the other side of the mountains, were the best swimmers in the land, the villagers’ great rivals, the Rahehe, were great jumpers, they could clear a seven foot high branch from a stand still and land cleanly on their feet. The inhabitants of the little unremarkable village with the mill, the circular building with the hole in its roof and the lime-green stream, however, prided themselves, above all else as being the best in the land at arguing.
Every evening, once the crops were gathered, the livestock fed, supper eaten and the younger children tucked up in bed, the adults, and the older children, would gather in the circular building in the centre of the village, light a fire and begin to talk excitedly.
Above the faint crackles of the fire they would start a discussion and chew over whatever was on their minds. Always rambunctious, never pulling punches, the discussion would sometimes get heated, but the villagers would always manage, just about, to stay on the correct side of civilised. Although emotions would often run high, the people of the village would always take care not to make their attacks personal.
Treat your opponent with respect, but his fallacious arguments with disdain, was almost an unspoken rule of the villagers' discussions.
Usually the elder men would suggest a discussion for the evening. Posing such contentious propositions as "sunsets are more beautiful than sunrises”', or "too many mangoes make you infertile". At other times, once the children had gone to bed, they might venture into a more salacious topic of discussions, such as debating which sexual position was most likely to lead to conception, or whether twins were more likely to be begot at full moon, when making love under the naked stars.
One particularly controversial evening they discussed one of the elder’s theories, namely that baby boys come from the left testicles, and girls from the right. The villagers were bemused by such a foolish suggestion, even though the proposition came from one of the most respected elders in the village. They knew the idea was nonsense; clearly it was, as everyone knew, the other way around. As all school children were taught; the right testicle hangs lower than the left with the additional weight of the males to be.
In a last ditch attempt to salvage the argument, and his dwindling credibility, the elder man pulled up his cloak to reveal his sagging hairy balls, proving once and for all that not all men have a lower hanging testicle on the right. Some of the young unmarried women, who were doubtless seeing naked testicles for the first time in their thus far short lives, fainted in shock.
The old man had won the argument, but he had lost his dignity, and his standing in the village. A fair trade, one might say, such was the importance put on the art of arguing. Nonetheless, the man shrank from prominence and began to show his wrinkled face, never mind his balls, less and less frequently.
However the night went, the next day the squables were always put to one side. The villagers knew that their survival depended upon working together to gather the crops, to operate the mill, or to shoo away the pesky hyenas that sometimes ventured into the village late at night.
When Kiera turned fourteen she was able to join the discussions, as was the custom of the village. She greeted her fourteenth birthday with excitement and trepidations, as she entered the smoky circular building in the centre of the village for the very first time.
"What shall we discuss today", grumbled a wizened old man with a long grey beard and half shut eyes that looked like raisins.
"The earth revolves around the sun", said one handsome looking man with only a few whips of hair on his immature chin.
"Be reasonable, Farooe", said the old man. "We pride ourselves on being open minded," he continued with self-righteous condescension, "but there are limits."
The room descended into an abrupt hush, and Farooe's smooth skin turned a little red. "You'll see one day, old man", just loud enough to be heard, but quiet enough to be ignored.
A middle aged woman with leathery skin and kind eyes spoke up "Women should be allowed to be elders", she said, her voice defiant, but cracking ever so slightly.
"Come now", said the old man. "We've discussed this before and came to the conclusion that it would not be practical. You are already allowed into the discussion room, what more do you want?"
The kind eyes of the woman narrowed to a mean narrow slit, but nothing more was said.
"Girls should not be allowed in the discussion room". A boy by the name of Joseph spoke up. Mischievous malice permeating a voice that had begun to break erratically into the deeper baritones of manhood. His nervous eyes shot almost imperceptibly in Kiera's direction, as if to gauge her reaction, then quickly back to the floor.
Kiera remembered playing with Joseph in the hot summers of their childhood. He was only a few months older than Kiera. They had challenged each other to spit as far as they could, a game which Kiera had often won. At other times they would plunge their feet into the icy melt waters of the nearby stream and bet on who could keep their feet there the longest. Joseph usually won this game.
Kiera liked him, but did not entirely trust him. There was something sinister in the way that he delighted in her pain, something a bit beyond playful in the jokes that he often made at her expense.
When Kiera's blood came, and her breasts began to grow, their childhood games lost their innocence. A barrier descended between them. They still sat together in the local school, learning to write on the dusty old blackboard; but socially they drifted apart. The intense but weary bond which they had shared as children was all but broken as they entered their fifteenth year of life.
"Joseph" said the old man, making his voice ever so slightly quieter, in a way that meant it demanded to be listened to. "Everything is up for discussion; except the discussion itself. Girls are welcome here if they follow the rules. They are as much a part of village life as you and me are. We will not countenance such a proposal. You have been warned". Some of the other elders grunted in agreement, although it must be said some less enthusiastically than others.
Joseph didn't know what the word countenance meant, but nonetheless, the intent of the message was clear. He was humiliated. A humiliation which he buried deep inside of himself, letting it sit uneasily somewhere between his vocal cords and his heart.
The discussion moved on to something else entirely, which seemed to Kiera to be of trifling importance. Something or other to do with the optimal moment to eat a banana, or was it a date? She neither remembered nor cared; her first visit to the discussion chamber, that she had so looked forward to, had been soured by the obnoxious comments of her erstwhile childhood friend. She felt a bile building in her stomach; she wanted to hit Joseph.
That night she wrote in her diary "Joseph is an ugly stupid boy, and he should not be allowed to talk in front of the village anymore."
The writing soothed her a little, but she was not able to get rid of the unpleasent acidic taste at the back of her throat whenever she thought about the stupid ugly boy: Joseph.
The months came and went, and the baking heat of the summer morphed slowly into the refreshing breeze of Autumn. Kiera kept attending the discussions, but she rarely mustered the courage to speak up. Joseph also kept attending the meetings, but never again dared to speak up in front of the village elders. Kiera would catch him glancing at her, malice in his eyes. When Kiera turned to meet his gaze he would immediately turn his beady eyes downwards towards the suddenly fascinating piece of baked mud two inches from the front of his sandals.
On the last sunny day of the year, late in October, Kiera was struck by a sudden flash of uncharacteristic confidence. When the elders asked for a topic of discussion she surprised even herself when she blurted out a question:
"Men and women are just the same," she said.
Some of the elders tutted; some of the younger boys could barely hide their sniggers, but the middle aged woman with kind eyes looked at her with her head ever so slightly turned to the side and nodded, just slightly.
The elders looked bemused, but decided to allow the discussion to go ahead anyway.
"Very well", said the eldest of all the elders, "let us discuss if men and women really are the same" , barely able to hide the contempt from his voice.
The discussion went ahead, but before long it took a turn that bewildered Kiera. The men of the village began to make silly comments such as "men have penises and women do not: that's one difference." Another said, "Women can breastfeed babies, and men cannot", and a third, grasping the thread of the discussion chimed in "men are stronger than women, and they can run faster."
Some of the women got angry and started shouting "We were, within living memory, not allowed to join the discussions of the village. Furthermore, we are still not allowed to become elders." Said one woman. Yet none of this was exactly what Kiera meant. None of what was being discussed was what she really wanted to discuss.
"That's not what I meant" Kiera tried to shout, but her voice cracked in uncertainty. "That's not really what I meant", even quieter this time. She could not make herself heard against the din of righteous indignation and flummoxed incomprehension. And yet although she knew that what was being discussed was not what she meant, she couldn't put into words what it was that she did mean. Instead she just let the words of the villagers wash over her. She had become despondent. She hated herself for even speaking up. She wished she could make them see. At the same time she wished she had never spoken up at all. She felt a cold numbness overcome her. After enduring all she could, she left the round room in the centre of the village and sought sanctuary in the nearby woods.
She walked alone. Fighting tears of shame and frustration. Deeper into the woods as the sun began to dip behind the pine trees at the foot of the mountains.
She walked deeper. Along the fading footpath that ran up the hill. At first in a straight line and then, giving into the now punishing gradient, snaking back and forth, gaining altitude only slowly as it twisted its way tortuously to the distant summit.
The tears began to thin. The footpath became progressively less pronounced; no one in the village had cause to come this far. The route required her to make use of her hands to scramble up the loose scree. She had come up here as a child, indeed often together with Joseph. She noticed a small rock, which she remembered from her childhood as an imposing boulder. This was as far as she had ever come as a child. She didn't pause, without ceremony, and perhaps without ever realising it, she took one more step up the scree; she was further away from the village than she had ever been before in her life; from the village that was so in love with its own opinion.
Everything behind her was familiar and old, everything in front of her was perplexing and new. Dangerous, unknown, yet exciting.
Of course the moment we have taken minutes to describe passed to Kiera in a blink. The metaphorical significance of treading on new ground was lost to the fourteen year old Kiera, who had, after all, only taken a single step forward.
As Kiera climbed into the rarified air the sun dipped below the horizon such that everything that was previously illuminated was cast into shadow. It was not yet pitch black; everything that was previously vivid was still visible, but the edges began to shade into one another. The colour was beginning to vanish from the world. Everything started to look black and white.
The magic hour, the time just before the lightness vanished, she had heard the old women in the village call this time of day.
As the sun dipped, the fireflies began their pale imitation of the sun, radiating rays of neon from their incandescent bottoms.
Kiera stopped for breath and noticed something. The fireflies were congregating around an opening in the nearby cliffs. The mouth of a cave! Kiera must have been within a few hundred meters of this cave a few hundred times, and yet never quite seen it. She felt weirdly excited. Something new, illuminated; or at least something newly illuminated, only fleetingly and partially, in a new light.
She could go and have a look, she thought. Her mother was down in the village, she would assume that Keira was still at the village discussion. She had thirty, perhaps forty, minutes before she would be missed.
She could go and have a look. In fact she could not not go and look, and so she looked.
In the total darkness of the cave Kiera could see almost nothing. She had no way of knowing how deep into the hillside the caves sank.
The caves bored deep into the hills, in a twisting branching labyrinth of pathways and dead-ends. Of fractal passageways, crisscrossed with stalactites and stalagmites, and icy subterranean streams full with unknown and undescribed creepy crawlies, who had never seen the sun and for whom the cave was their entire world. With some openings, yet undiscovered, big enough for an elephant to saunter inside, and others a tight fit for a mouse. No one alive yet knew how deep the cave was; indeed only Kiera, in the whole world, knew that the cave existed at all.
"Fuck you village"
And the cave shouted back:
"Fuck you village", as clear as the day that had just vanished, word for word in her own voice.
"Fuck you Joseph", Kiera elaborated.
""Fuck you Joseph", replied the cave, as if by magic.
"I am Kiera, and I am the greatest!" Bellowing from her now smiling lips.
And the cave replied.
Kiera tried one last variation:
"Fuck you all fuckers!"
And the cave shouted back; yet this time with a symphony of voices that were not quite her own. And this really was magic.
And Kiera felt better.
Winter came, as it always does. Kiera went as she always did, first to the meeting, and then, when she was sure that no one was paying her any attention, to the cave.
She could not shake the feeling that there was something naughty in what she was doing.
But still she went.
She could not not go.
Just as the discussion was getting going, as the attentions were firmly fixed on the matter in hand, on the men in the middle of the room, as opinions were bursting at the seams with a desperate need to be expressed, she would slip away; unseen into the now cold evenings and up the hill. Along the same route she took on that one fresh October evening.
To the cave.
To the cave, to the cave, to the cave. Every night was the same. Every night was different.
Kiera would shout her thoughts to the cave. When her thoughts were of a more intimate nature she would merely whisper them. It made no difference, as no one was around. And in each case the cave would repeat, just to her, whatever she had just said.
She felt heard.
Yet something strange soon began to happen. She didn't notice exactly when it changed, some time in November perhaps, or maybe early December, she could not be sure.
At some point the echo that she heard began to change. At first it would repeat her words, but in a different voice. At other times she would hear her own voice reflected back at her, but with one or two words changed.
As she ventured deeper into the cave the words she uttered would reflect back at her, but with additional harshness, more certainty; with greater gravity and a richer texture to them. If she ventured deeper still into the cave the voice of her own voice became more serious, less inflected with the playful humour that Kiera had never lost.
She would say "the villagers are idiots", and the cave would say back to her "the villagers don't deserve to live".
That was not what I said, she thought, but didn't say. She was just glad to hear that someone finally agreed with her. She no longer felt alone.
One night at the meeting Joseph once again caught the eye of Kiera. There was something changed in her eyes. There was an additional knowing wisdom in her eyes, that was not usually possessed by someone so young as Kiera, and yet she had become more withdrawn. It was as if her eyes were focusing backwards, into the inside of her own skull. The innocence that once flashed in those dark pupils was gone, and so was much of the self-doubt. There was a certainty and a self-assurance that had replaced her hesitance, but it was a self-assurance that did not need to be shared or asserted. It was content to look out into the world as it was and know that it was populated with fools.
The change in Kiera's eyes was not the only thing that Joseph had noticed.
He noticed that almost always, just as the argument was getting into full swing, Kiera would subtly sneak out of the round building in the middle of the village and vanish into the cold night.
Mischief flashed across the boyish face of Joseph. He decided to follow her. Just a little behind, so as not to be noticed. Up the path that led out of the village and into the forest. Up the path that went straight up the hill and then began to snake, past the line of the trees and into the steep field of loose scree on the upper slopes of the mountain. Always following, keeping Kiera in his eyes, but just far enough behind her to be unheard.He half wanted to be discovered, to confront Kiera and demand to know where she was going. But the pleasure of knowing something that she did not, knowing that he knew that she was not alone and she did not, was too great. He was not discovered. Kiera did not see him, as her eyes were fixed only forward, nervously anticipating her final destination. He followed her further. Past the boulder that marked the furthest point from the village that he and Kiera had ever been when they were children. Stepping beyond it, as Kiera had, without ceremony. And to the cave. The cave that lay hidden just beyond the boulder in which they had sat together as children. The mouth of the cave lay just illuminated by the myriad incandescent bottoms of the congregating fireflies. Kiera entered the cave. Joseph hung back. Unable to follow her without alerting her to his presence. Straining his ears to hear what she was doing. He hid just meters from the cave behind a prickly bush, crouching in an awkward squat. He could hear her talking. Calling to herself, and yet receiving a reply. Answered by a cacophony of voices. Repeating what Kiera said, almost, but not exactly. What they were talking about, Joseph could not say. The din of Kiera's own voice followed by an offset chorus of answers made the thread of conversation unintelligible to Joseph. From where he was standing it made no sense. Although he could not understand it, he was fascinated. Something new and unusual was going on, that much he knew. He waited. And waited. And waited. After his waiting came more waiting, which was followed by yet more waiting. It went from an unpleasant chill to an unbearable cold, which Joseph bore in his thin cloak and sandals. He bore it because needed to know what was in the cave. And then Kiera left the cave. From his hiding spot Joseph caught a glimpse of Kiera's face as she exited the cave, illuminated only by the light of the swarming fireflies. Her frowning brow casting a heavy shadow over her glazed eyes. That same look in her eyes that Joseph saw back in the village. Self assurance. The annihilation of self-doubt. Fanaticism there too, Joseph might have thought, had he known the word; Illuminated in Kiera's eyes, if only for a second. Joseph thought she might have seen him, crouching inelegantly in the bushes just meters away. But she did not. Her attention was too consumed. Consumed by the ecstasy of itching the itch that so desperately wanted to be itched. And yet her attention already began to turn itself to the yet deeper itch that would come from itching that itch. Kiera returned to the village. Joseph entered the cave.
...Kiera went to the cave Joseph went to the cave Kiera talked to the cave Joseph talked to the cave. The cave talked back. Each time in the voice of the speaker. Each time a little altered. Each time a little different. But always talking to them in their own language. Kiera went to the cave. The cave would talk to Kiera in her own voice. In a voice similar to her own. Telling her her own thoughts, but embellished and altered slightly. And so would Joseph. Kiera, unaware that Joseph had followed her that night. Joseph thinking that Kiera heard the same voices as he did.
Each unaware of what the other was really hearing.
Spring came, marked by the departing sparrows, and the trickling drip of melting snow swelling the flow of the little lime-green stream. The day was like any other, the sun rose, the birds sang, the early morning mist evaporated with the coming sun. The alligators yawned, the earth turned on its axis, and Kiera went to the cave.
...Today the cave was different. Different to how it had always been. The same voices that were always there were still there, as they always were. But there were a few other voices that Kiera didn't recognise. They were almost inaudible at first, yet they were unmistakably hostile. With a tinge of nastiness to them; toxic, you could almost say. At first Kiera thought she was imagining it, but the voices became progressively clearer. "Cunt", said one particularly vile voice. "Bitch" said another, no more pleasant one. Kiera could not believe it. It took her breath away. It filled her with an all consuming rage. With a suffocating anger. This was not how the cave talked to her. This was not OK. It should not be allowed. She could simply walk away, it was not too late to go back to her old simple, if boring, life, she thought. Yet even as she thought these thoughts she knew that they were thoughts that she would never follow. She had to be there. She could not not be there.
And so she shouted back at the voices, as loud as she could. She called them names and shut them down if they tried to speak. The other voices, the ones who agreed with her, joined in. They shouted back at the nasty voices. And the nasty voices shouted back.
And still Kiera went to the cave. Every time she could hear the nasty voices. At some point in the cave the voices were quieter, at some points they were louder, but they were always there.The glazed look of ecstasy that was once etched onto Kiera's hazel eyes was now tinted with fear. Fear and anger. Fear and anger and indignation. Yet she still went to the cave. This time would be different, she told herself. This time she would convince the voices, overcome the bullies. She would be heard over the cacophony of destructive descent. And of course Joseph kept visiting the cave. Kept feeding it with the nastiness that lived inside him. The natiness that he dared not to express in the village. A nastiness that had, in all fairness, been visited upon him, but had turned sourer, more primal and more simplistic as it festered unexpressed in his fragile heart. That was not the end. Kiera felt alone; which was the very reason she had sought the sanctuary in the cave. The cave had cured her loneliness, then made it worse. At this point it was clear to Kiera that Joseph had discovered the cave. She knew now that she was no longer the only living person alive who knew about the cave; so she brought some of her friends. And their voices multiplied. Joseph did the same. He was not a popular boy, but he was able to impress some of the younger boys into following him up the hill. The younger boys told their older brothers, who told their friends, and soon all the children in the village knew about the cave. The grownups were concerned. They began to talk about their children in hushed, worried tones. The older children even started to skip the meetings in the village and head straight for the cave. The din inside the cave had reached thunderous levels. The cacophony of voices had become almost unbearable. And when the adults, drawn ostensibly from concern over their children, started to make their way up the steep hill, and past the rock that marked the furthest point that Kiera and Joseph had ever been from the village as children, and made their way into the cave, the murmuring voices of the cave could be heard even in the village. Even in the circular building, with the mud backed walls, and the thatched roof with a hole in it that sat at the centre of the village, one could make out the faint murmurs of the voices over the crackling fire. But it didn't matter, because at that point there was no one in the circular building in the centre of the village, save for a few old men, hard of hearing enough to carry on oblivious. And when the river, that old dependable river that never ran dry, ran dry, no one even noticed. They were too busy itching the itch of their own opinion. And in the village everything was different.