The Cave

 

 

A short story.

Inspired by Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown

 

In hindsight, I blame Pandora. For it was because of her that the dark woods beckoned to me, tugged at my curiosity. Or perhaps I should blame my school teachers, for the homework that I was currently working on in no way absorbed my attention, at least, not as much as the setting sun balanced quietly on the forest, sending shoots of yellow sunlight across the treetops and soon to cast the whole forest into shadow. There was a kind of danger there, but it was just on the threshold, and thus one could argue either way — it wasn’t in darkness yet, so it was safe; but it was soon to be in darkness, so it was exciting.

I was out the door almost instantly. The temperature was quickly plunging with the sun, but I had a coat and adrenaline, ground under my feet, trust in the well-worn footpath that I had taken so many times. In the daylight. This was night, though, or nearly night; my initial energy quickly subsided, whether for wonder at the strange aspect the woods seemed to hold or for trepidation at the journey I was undertaking. My parents had already gone to bed; and I felt alone in this world, alone and on an adventure.

Perhaps it was for some foolish quest for independence in a way, or perhaps that darn Pandora once again affecting me, or perhaps simply a mistake; but I soon found my legs brushing up against bushes and twigs, not the clear, open, sandy feel of the footpath. The sun was just hovering, as though waiting, in the disapproving manner of a parent, for me to finish my business in the dark woods — a place people have no power. And it was here that the first chill crawled over my skin.

My heart rate pounded — where had the path gone? Turning around didn’t help at all. In fact, I realized, I had just gotten more lost. Where had I been facing before?

I could still make out the sun pushing small spears of sunlight through the tangled branches, fighting a losing battle against the night. I had been going towards the sun, I turned my back on it and pushed into the encroaching gloom.

There were strange sounds now, and I wasn’t sure why I’d come in the first place. My footsteps slowed, but I kept moving. What else was there to do?

Suddenly, the path cleared, my legs no longer tangled in thorny bushes at every step. Had I found the path again? In the gloom, it was difficult to tell. I felt my way with my foot, figuring out which direction the path seemed to lead. At this point, I couldn’t really decide if it was the right direction or not. I was lost.

I felt around myself, looking for something to give me a little more confidence. My hand landed on something — perhaps it was a stick. I gripped it eagerly. It twitched violently, jerking out of my hand, and I shrieked. Soft scales shifted through my fingers and a low hiss receded as it slithered slowly through the shifting undergrowth. Shaking my hand to rid it of the sensation, I was on my feet and running down the path in an instant.

And that was when I came upon the cave, a place where even the last of the sunlight abandoned me. Despite being night, this was a whole new level of gloom, the kind of impenetrable darkness that gives everything else a strange glow by comparison. It was as though it were pure shadow rather than an absence of light. There had never been light in there, I was sure of it. Huge stalactites and stalagmites protruded from the top and bottom of the gaping maw, like pointy teeth. It seemed a terrible thing to behold, and I shuddered — and shudder still — to think why the path leading here was so well worn. How many poor souls had wandered here, and why was I one of them?

From within, there was a low groaning, an immense laugh, nay, a chuckle; and hot air rose up in a blast from within. Screaming again, I turned and fled; nevermind the snake.

Somehow I must have made it home, though I don’t remember the journey. Waking up in my bed the next morning, chills still wracking my body, I walked downstairs only to see my parents smiling at me as they prepared breakfast. They’d had an uninterrupted night, and assured me it was a dream.

I did not walk in that forest again.

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