Falling from a starless sky, heavy snowflakes flutter down, swallowing sound and muting the world. They blanket the forest, bury fledgling pines, and cling to rocky shelves in growing piles before spilling over. In the silence of it all, alone and afraid, Clarence stands. His fragile body trembles with cold under the growing storm. Small wisps of breath leak from his mouth while snow builds on his shoulders and fur cap. But the darkness and silence and cold are all distant to one consuming fear. His declining health seems worlds away, as if interwoven into a strange nightmare fading in and out of memory. Instead, one thought dominates his mind, and his eyes fix onto its place of residence. He stares into a terrible gash in the cliffside, a black slit against a backdrop of white. Before him, the cave awaits.
And inside, his wife hides.
Steel yourself, Clarence thinks. Find your courage. She relies on you to survive. Don’t bend to these childish fears. You know the woman you serve.
It isn’t her, his frayed mind prattles back. Isn’t her, isn’t her.
Tis, his mind squeaks. Which is why we must go inside.
He adjusts the rope slung over his shoulder. Its weight, made heavy by two plump rabbits, digs into his thinning frame. Though the rabbits are large and promise to be a feast, he finds no expectant grumble in his belly or saliva lining his mouth. He grinds his teeth as his mind grinds under the weight of unthinkable thoughts.
You’ve still a chance, foolish man. Still a chance. Go now! Return to Nil and seek help proper for your love. Demand it! Hers is a sickness beyond your ability. You’ve done all you can. Force yourself no longer into this abyss.
But they’ll not hear me, his thoughts retort. They’ve closed their minds to my tale and driven me out. My plight does not find their hearts. “Of the deviling!” they say, “Of the deviling!” and threaten to put her body over fire.
Not all closed their hearts to your troubles. Help was offered. The voice of Daniels was sincere. Superstition did not cause him to turn his back on your plight.
Tis true. Daniels is a good man. He heard my words and saw the pain in my eyes.
Go then! Return and seek Daniels! You know you must! The cold stone of that cave is no place for your love and the supposed son she carries for you.
Thoughts of a son twist Clarence’s face into torturous knots. A violent shutter convulses his body, and he takes a deep breath to steel his nerves. Moving forward, his feet do not stray in their direction, nor does his waist turn. With slumped shoulders and weary legs, he marches toward the cave, toward that awful gash in the mountainside. Lifeless rabbits bump against his back with each step. Veiled by the night and falling snow, he moves like a ghost through the world. The hollowness in his stomach is a distant bother. Numb toes go unnoticed. All he feels is agony raging through his mind. As falling snow mounts, so do torturous thoughts.
How has all gone so wrong? Poor Mar. Sweet, loving and kind. Tis a fate she never deserved. Should be me with the sickness. Should be me fallen so ill. And how she endures it so. Even now, as strong as this sickness is, she musters kind words for me. Her patience knows no end.
He trudges forward. Each breath is a weary sigh, each footfall a step filled with misery.
Her words are lies, his thoughts reply.
Heartache twists his face. His eyes, red and withered from sorrow, well up, but the tears refuse to flow. For too long his tears have fallen in this horrible nightmare. And too loose his grip on reality has grown.
But it’s her voice! his mind cries, begging for sanity. Her voice and her words. It must be my love.
The whispers and pleas may be from her tongue, but not from her mind nor her loving heart. She is gone, Clarence. You must see.
“No,” he says aloud to himself. “She isn’t gone. I see her clear as day. I know my love.”
Then why not see her again? Prove your fears wrong and shine on her with the lantern.
The light brings her eyes terrible pain! The sickness makes it impossible. This you know!
Tis a lie, Clarence! Only a lie told by a deviling in hiding!
“It’s not a lie!” he shouts into the night. “Not a lie. She carries my child! Our first to be!” His words fly into the world but are denied by the falling snow, stolen from the air around him. Even the echo from the small canyon is muted.
Then bring her to Nil. Save her from this vile place, this darkness and cold and isolation. If the person inside is still Marissa true, bid her to come along and travel to Nil.
But she cannot. The pregnancy is already too great of a strain.
And too fast! Her belly swells unnaturally!
No, it could be… it could have been some time in the making.
From a flat stomach to round with pregnancy in four weeks!? Fool! You harbor a deviling!
He moves as if in a dream, sleep deprived and his body acting on its own. Shallow breaths escape his mouth as his feet bring him to the entrance of the cave. Sunken eyes stare into the darkness with disillusionment. Clarence leans his rifle against stone and reaches for his lantern waiting on a nearby ledge.
A lantern that isn’t there.
Clutching emptiness, the change in routine forces Clarence’s dead eyes to regain focus. He looks again, but the small, stone shelf remains empty. Turning slowing, he scours the entrance of the cave. His searching eyes half-expect to see the lantern fallen on its side, tin body dented and glass windows shattered. Seeing nothing, he looks to the ledge again with confusion.
Still, the lantern is not there.
“Where is the lantern?” he asks himself.
Never, he thinks immediately. She shrieks with horror at the sight of it.
Stepping into the cave, Clarence turns and looks back upon the motionless world of white. Already, his fresh tracks show signs of filling in. Older steps from days prior are buried entirely. Squinting in the scant light, he stares at the tracks leading to the cave’s mouth. Inside, small clumps of snow trail in.
Has someone come?
“Daniels,” he whispers.
He said he would. He heard your tale and believed your words when the others took you for a lunatic. His voice was alone in support. And before they ran you off as a curse, he pulled you aside and spoke. “Five days, Clarence. If in five days you’ve not brought Marissa back, I shall come to you.”
“No…” he mumbles while scratching his cheek. “Can’t be. But how long has it been?” He tries to recount the days and nights that have slipped by, but time feels more like a spiral than a line. “Can’t be,” he says again. Rope slips through his gloves as he unshoulders the rabbits and lays them in the snow. Pulling a match from a box in his pocket, he strikes light. The match flares and sputters. Burning sulfur stings his nose. Pinching the stick, he haunches down to examine faint tracks of snow entering the cave. Are these from me? From before? The match dwindles, dulling flame rolling toward his fingers. When did I last return?
He can’t remember.
Could it be Daniels? Or has Marissa finally gone and snatched the lantern from me?
Still hunkered down, Clarence squints into the absolute darkness of the cave. The entrance seems to hang with the sound of death despite the peaceful world of falling snow behind him. He fumbles with his matchbox, rattling the remaining matches inside, and steps further in. Gravel crunches. Pebbles scrape and squeak beneath his boots. He runs a hand along the stone wall, letting his palm glide over coarse surfaces and sharp edges. With deliberate steps, he makes his way inside. As he rounds the first bend, the dull light from outside vanishes.
Clarence is swallowed by blackness.
He strikes a match and sweeps the infant light across the floor in search of tracks. Loose clumps of snow lead further in. Frozen granite sparkles. His breath clouds his face like a phantom.
Someone’s come, he thinks. Tis Daniels. Maybe others?
Fool. She’s learned of your trick, where you hide the lantern. She’s waited until you’ve gone hunting to take the thing and wrest final control from you. You cannot challenge her now, not in this darkness. She’s stolen the light from your hand.
I may have misplaced it. Maybe I forgot to—
Two weeks you’ve placed that lantern on the same stone shelf! Day in and day out! There, your hand, or nowhere else. Tis stolen, not misplaced.
As the match dies, flooding the cave with darkness once more, a subtle sound forces Clarence to pause. His body prickles with anticipation while fear weaves into his senses. He envisions terrible hands reaching to grab, shrill voices waiting to scream. Nerves shake his body, and loose matches rattle within the box in his hand. He waits for the moment to break from fearful dream into terrible nightmare, but the cave falls silent. The horrors in his mind postpone their attack on reality.
Hearing nothing, he strikes another match and continues forward.
Her eyes can’t tolerate the light is all. The sickness causes it. Even if she’s come and taken the lantern, she’s in her right. She’s so afflicted, she hides in the depths of the cave to escape the light. It’s a horror to the poor woman.
You lie to yourself better than the creature using her mouth.
Her heart breaks from the torment! She’s told me so!
She has! You’ve heard her words, her gentle sobbing. The poor woman is so fearful of this sickness she keeps herself even from me. She cries with loneliness, with terrible sorrow. I hear her tears from further within the cave.
And what of the growling?
Only congestion. And the cave playing tricks on her snores.
Or the beast within her cannot play its tricks when sleeping.
His feet halt again as the match in his fingers burns down to a tiny teardrop of flame. He turns his head in frantic motions, searching, as his body crawls with the sensation of being watched. The air around him drips with it.
“Mar?” he asks in the faintest whimper. “Love? Are you there?”
Silence, full and black.
Tis only your frail mind playing into childish fears, stupid man. Look at yourself, quivering like a lost boy. Tis your love within this cave! The woman you married and cared for all your days! Would you not journey to the end of the world for her? Imagine how she feels being subjected to constant darkness such as this.
Choosing, his mind quips back. Choosing such darkness.
The match held by his trembling fingers dies.
Clarence draws a deep breath and forces his feet forward. His boots shuffle over jagged stone, the toes catching on edges and points. His free hand gropes in the darkness, clutching at air, feeling for a stone wall that isn’t there. Black smothers him, cold and thick like paint. He jiggles the matchbox in his hand, and the few remaining matches rattle within.
I mustn’t burn them all. Damn this darkness, but I mustn’t burn them all. Too few remain.
You could call out. If your love truly waits for you in this hideous depth, she’ll hear your voice and come.
The thought drives a violent tremble through his body.
Dainty steps work over unseen stone. Clutching fingers find only empty space. Wide eyed, Clarence sees nothing. A toe strikes a surface, and he stumbles. His heart leaps into his throat as the feeling of falling overwhelms him in such darkness. His mind spins with disorientation, and a pitiful yelp flies from his mouth. He reaches out and finds a surface before his body can fall. Stone punches his hand, and pain flashes through his fingers. Steadying himself, Clarence clings to the wall like a frightened cat and waits for the sensation of tumbling into eternal darkness to end.
Madness, he thinks. Utter madness. His heart hammers in his chest. Limbs tremble with weariness and fear. Doubt mocks him.
Call out to her if you’re so certain. She’ll come and find you, somehow, in this darkness she’s grown an affinity for.
Call to your love.
He shuffles his feet to the side and pats the unseen stone in front of him. I know this portion, he thinks. This ledge here. And next is an outcropping. Tis the second bend. He extends a toe. And lower here. Yes, this is certain. A corner to round here, the second bend. He creeps forward, and loose stones break free under his feet. Fingers grasp a large knob of granite. Clarence bumps his head as he rounds the corner.
Ahead, paltry light.
He can barely believe it. He blinks, waiting for the image to disappear from his tired eyes, some cruel mirage born on the edge of sanity. But as he stares, the sight remains true. He kneels, laying almost flat upon the cold ground, and sees the outline of the cave floor against the distant light.
Yes, but you did not leave it there.
A duality of boldness and fear blooms within Clarence as he moves forward. Each step draws him closer to the light, urging him on, yet terror mounts as he descends further into the cave. Drawing closer to the light only gives the surrounding darkness weight, and it presses onto his back and drills into his mind. Working through a narrow stretch of stone, shadows come to life and grow outward from the light. He pauses and stares in disbelief. Ahead, the lantern rests on flat stone, light spilling away in all directions. Stalagmites stand like jagged daggers while stalactites hang like fangs. Reaching shadows cling to them both.
But how? Who? Mar would never do such a thing, not with how the light hurts her so.
“Bloody fool Daniels,” he whispers.
A sudden fear leaps onto him from the shadows, and Clarence sprints toward the lantern. The handle, a joyous feeling in his hand, squeaks when he lifts it from the ground. Weary of the gloom stalking him, he whirls in all directions as if warding off the crawling darkness with the light. Shadows spin like a wheel. Twisting, flailing, his darting eyes land on a walking stick leaning against stone. Beside it rests a backpack and a pair of snowshoes. Beyond, the cave dives further, swallowed by darkness. Daniels, he thinks.
Daniels, his mind agrees.
Do I call to him?
Why wouldn’t you? So certain there’s nothing to fear…
The cave stands in deathly silence, as if waiting for Clarence to challenge. “Daniels?” he croaks with a fearful voice. No response is heard. He musters his final ounces of courage, clears his throat and calls again. “Daniels!”
The word spills into the cave and disappears.
From an unseen cavern comes the sound of something scurrying over loose gravel. Clarence shines the light. Reaching shadows stretch and crawl. There’s nothing to be seen.
“Douse,” a distant voice says further in the cave. “Douse the light, Clarence.”
His body tenses as if struck by the words. Eyes widen. “Marissa? Is that you? Love, you must tell me… what has happened?”
More shuffling over stone. Clarence catches a fleeting glimpse of motion in the chamber beyond, that of a body darting behind a faintly seen ledge.
“Please, Clarence,” Marissa says. “It hurts my eyes so. The sickness causes it. Please, douse the light.”
Do not douse the light, his mind commands. Death of man, end this farce here and now.
Clarence swallows. A cold hand of fear clutches his heart. “What has happened, love?” he asks with a voice quivering. “Where is Daniels? It was him that’s come, yes? He said he’d come.” He moves toward the chamber with careful steps, lantern trembling in his hand. “He wanted to help us, Mar. Don’t you understand?”
“The light, Clarence!” Marissa begs with a shrill voice. “Come no closer with it!”
It isn’t her, you fool. Begone from here!
“Mar, please. Let yourself be seen and tell me what’s been done. Where is Daniels?” As if lifting great weights, his feet struggle forward. His body limps along, and light spills into the neighboring chamber.
Gentle sobs come from the shadows. Marissa’s voice fumbles with weakness. “He said awful things, horrific things, Clarence. He meant to take me. He meant to steal your love and unborn son. He said only fire could cure such illness within me. He said there was no choice. The most awful words he used. Hideous things!”
Lies this creature feeds to you! Daniels is a good man. This you know is true.
Clarence takes another step forward, another boot lifted with the weight of his crumbling world. “Where is he?”
“No choice was given. He was mad beyond reason. Clarence!” she yells, her voice booming from within the empty chamber. “Come no closer with that light!”
Clarence stops, and his skin crawls as if layering with ice. “I must see,” he says. “I must see what’s been done. Allow me to put eyes on you, love. Allow me to help you.”
Hidden in the darkness, Marissa’s voice grows raspy with strain. Each inhale is a squeal, each exhale filled with hate. Mixed with the heavy breathing is the sound of her body scrambling over stone. “No, Clarence. No. It’s the sickness. The light burns my eyes so. Why won’t you listen? Why don’t you care for your love!?”
Monstrous! It cannot be denied! She died long ago, died when consumed by the evil lingering in those discovered bones!
But I must see, he thinks to himself. I must know for certain. I cannot turn my back on her if there exists even the faintest chance.
Clarence passes through a gap in the stone and steps into the next chamber. The sickly scent of drying blood finds his nostrils. He turns slowly, and shadows crawl around him like reaching fingers. Half way around, his eyes land upon his worst fear.
Lifeless legs protrude from behind a small rock cropping.
“Oh, Mar,” he weeps. “Mar, no. Why? Why?”
“Look away from it,” Marissa says, her voice filled with sadness again. “Do not look upon that evil man with pity. I hadn’t a choice. He shouted and tormented me so with the lantern. He cursed and threatened me with fire. He only meant to harm your love and destroy our son. Feel no sorrow for that monster.”
Only one monster lingers here.
Clarence feels faint, as if floating between reality and a dream, and his legs grow weak beneath him. The cave seems to turn with the start of a slow spin. Clarence clutches the lantern with a trembling hand while his rapid breath fogs in the light. Beyond the body of Daniels, shrouded by darkness, Marissa lurks. With each moment, he dare not turn yet he dare not stay.
“Do you doubt your love?” Marissa asks, her voice wheezing. “Do you think this my desire when I was given no choice? Douse the lantern, Clarence, I beg of you. Douse the light and come comfort your love. I’m so cold and so frightened. Let me feel the warmth of your arms.”
I must look, he realizes with heartbreak. I must see what’s been done.
Will seeing the truth finally free you from this foolishness?
He doesn’t know.
Clarence steps closer and raises the lantern. Peering over the rocks, he catches only a glimpse of what remains of Daniels, but the image stains his mind like a blight. Cloth is torn and stained crimson. Flesh is broken by brutal lacerations. The body, while still intact, is mutilated. Innards are torn out, and the stomach is nothing more than a hollow cavern. Small pools of blood lay frozen in the rock.
Stumbling back, Clarence feels the last bit of strength in his body flee like water from a tipped bucket. Behind him, Marissa hurries across the cave floor. The sound shoots a vigorous bolt of fear into Clarence’s spine and saves his reeling body from collapse. He spins and catches sight of a shadowy form darting behind a nearby cropping. Dirty fingers grip the stone before slipping out of sight.
“Clarence,” Marissa says. The begging in her voice is gone. Her pitched wheezing seethes with contempt. “Douse the light. You must. For the sake of your child, you must.”
All is lost.
Fear grips his feet, and they hurry without consent. The cave comes alive with circling shadows as Clarence turns and flees from the chamber. Pointed rocks clip his toes like hidden fingers attempting to pull him down. He stumbles in his haste, arms flailing and legs lunging. He reaches with an empty hand, expecting to collide with sharp rock, but his feet find him at the last moment and he lumbers forward with awkward strides.
“Clarence!” Marissa wails.
The fleeing man squeals with fear. “No!” His legs recover. Regaining his balance, staggering steps turn to a sprint. “Stay back! I beg of you!”
A loose stone falls and clacks in the darkness. Echoes spill over Clarence’s shoulders.
Run. I must run.
You’ll never make it. You’ve come too far.
I’ve no chance either way.
Shine the light! Drive here away!
Fool! What good did the light do for Daniels? Lies! All lies!
The thought of Daniels’ mutilated body vaporizes the final remnants of self-control. Clarence flees in unfettered terror.
“Clarence!” Marissa screams again, her voice fading behind his racing steps. Her call goes unanswered, and she releases a horrific scream. The sound pushes Clarence like a tidal wave throwing him ashore. His skin feels of pins and needles, as if it may leap from his bones in attempt to hasten the escape. Legs churn and lungs burn. His weary eyes blur with panic. Shadows dance from the swinging of the lantern. Terror throws his legs forward, and his feet kick stones in wild strides.
Behind, he hears steps gaining.
I welcome it, he thinks, sobbing while he races around a bend in the cave. Anything to be free of this wretched nightmare. Take this suffering and leave me be, foul creature. My love is gone and I’ve only this rotten self to blame for the mess that’s been made.
Another wailing scream. It pours into the darkness and crawls along the walls of the cave.
Clarence clears another bend, hurdling over stones and ledges with complete abandon. Stale air thins and is replaced by the smell of falling snow. His heart sinks under the weight of his impending death. Oh, to see that snow once more. To feel it kiss my cheeks and touch my tongue. What a shame to die on the brink of freedom. This must be how the rabbit feels when fleeing the fangs of a wolf.
Feet stamp across stone. The handle of the lantern squeaks under wild swings.
Drawing closer, wheezed wailing.
Clarence catches a glimpse of something just beyond the edge of his vision, a hidden refuge of light not yet swallowed by darkness. He pushes his weary legs as fast as they’ll go, but every muscle feels slow and useless, as though he were running through snows waist-deep. The hidden refuge of dull light grows brighter, coming into existence. He can taste the snow in the air. Depths of black shed from around him as natural light finds his eyes. Clarence smiles with both joy and sadness, rejoicing in the final glimpse of beauty yet heartbroken for seeing it the last time.
Without hope, he runs toward the cave’s opening. Behind him, only inches away, chases a mortal strike. He considers his life, his wrongdoings. He remembers the endearing love of his wife. His life flashes by.
And then he’s in the open, his legs churning through soft powder. Fleeing from the mouth of the cave, glinting metal reflects the lantern’s light. The rifle! his mind screams. He locks his legs, slides, and falls into the snow. Spinning, scrambling, he regains his feet and rushes for the rifle still leaning near the entrance. Looping the lantern over his wrist, he raises the weapon. “Stay away!” he shouts. Aiming into the mouth of cave, he fires a shot and shatters the peaceful night like glass. “I’ll shoot you! I swear it! Death of man, I will!”
Contempt silence oozes from the cave. Clarence watches with panicked eyes. Movement, slight or imaginary, draws his aim, and he fires again. The whine of ricochet echoes through the cave. Smoke wafts by the lantern like an observing ghost, mixing with his racing breath. Accumulating snow goes unnoticed.
At the mouth of the cave, a snake seems to slither. Clarence watches, confused by what he sees. Then the rope tightens, and the dead rabbits left behind are pulled into the darkness.
A voice nothing like Marissa’s, seething and guttural, speaks from the shadows. “Never return to this place.”
As the rabbits disappear, Clarence collapses into the snow and sobs.