I wish to escape my home in the caves.
Dressed in a ceremonial vest made from Cannabar skin, I stand back as Nanuq’s family surrounds Prince Ataneq, who prepares for the ceremony of ancestors. Although no water bubbles from the floor of this place, such as it did in other rooms closer to the hot springs, the air is still uncomfortably warm. I ignore the bracelets chafing against my wrists. How sweat weighs down my long dark hair pulled back from my forehead, and how the steam from the eska tea threatens to lull me into a deathlike slumber. The ceremonial spear, the blade carved from the tooth of a Cannabar, feels strange in my hand.
One would think that Nanuq’s family would be organized, but there’s a distinct sense of chaos in the air, though no one dares acknowledge it. The family heads arrive late. It takes too long to brew the tea, and Ataneq had forgotten to braid his hair.
A prayer chant begins, Ataneq’s young voice reverberates in the cave as he prays to our ancestors, to the gods above, for strength. He lifts a teacup to his lips and drinks. Just watching him drink the simmering liquid in this heat makes me sweat even more.
Ataneq nearly collapses onto his mother, the small teacup slipping out of his hand and breaking in two as it hits the ground. Kettle steam rises into the ever-growing heat, the eska leaves giving the tea a clear, yellow tinge. Ripples disturb the liquid as men rush to help her, scooping her son into their arms, and almost knock the kettle over in their haste.
I ignore my impulse to dart forward and keep my post, watching over the ceremony as instructed.
“Thank you.” Ataneq nods at one of the men, his words slurring. “Let us continue.”
His hand paws at the air, struggling to perform the ceremony under the eska tea’s sweet, suffocating fog. Sweat rolls down his forehead, leaving streaks of bare, dark skin on his cheeks as his yellow facepaint succumbs to the heat. It looks like he’s been crying, with his exposed skin, eyes bloodshot and unfocused. A man not in control of himself.
“Today I ascend to the gods.” He gestures towards the roof of the cavern. “To understand our creation…our place in this world.”
He pauses, his lips moving, though I hear nothing. After a moment, he closes his mouth, his eyes drooping shut. We crowd around the young prince, whose chest raises and falls in the slow, steady pattern of one in deep sleep. Watching. Waiting. My eyes drift upward, unable to look away from the looming, immense Cradle of Creation hanging above us.
A tear-shaped pod suspends from the darkness, reminiscent of the eska seed pods that dangle, and cause the plant to tip over under the weight of its spawn. Though the same color as the rocky walls around it, its smoother surface sometimes makes me believe my ancestors carved it from stone. But how could we have carved such a thing? How could anyone except the gods themselves? Although I know it is empty, I cannot help but feel as though it is watching me. Judging all of us. Taunting us of the world above and of secrets that only it has seen.
“It’s time.” Ataneq’s father, Nanuq, our chief, gestures to the man next to him.
Our holy man lifts a gourd, fashioned into an instrument, to his lips. I’ve never seen this ritual take place, but I’ve been here before to see the Cradle of Creation. The holy man blows, a pure, high note, and the transformation occurs.
Color spreads across the Cradle, from a dull, clayish red to the vibrant hues of the outside world. A dazzling array of blue and white swirls on its surface as the Cradle descends. Up near the top, where the pod hangs by thickly-corded filaments, the color changes to a powerful green. Torchlight brightens the colors as it descends, the side facing me dissolving into a great, gaping hole. The pod stops swaying, frozen, before shuddering a few feet above the ground.
I blink. The Cradle seems much smaller among men. Unlike its smooth exterior, the edges of its now yawning maw are ragged, like the crags of rock around us. My eyes travel to my free hand, and back to the Cradle. Was our creation so calm as we were taught? Or did we claw our way to freedom?
We move towards it, carrying the young prince with us. He is heavy, despite his size, as if he were dead.
The Cradle sways slightly as we lift Ataneq into it. A nest of soft leaves waits for him, and we tuck him in like a small child. I steady the Cradle, grabbing hold of the lip of the opening. It’s rough, like calloused hands, and etched with the history of our tribe. Over the years artists carved swirling clouds of snow, Cannabars tunneling with their meaty claws, our ancestors emerging from the Cradle itself. Ataneq curls inside the pod, finally succumbing to sleep. We step back.
The large cavern is the only chamber untouched in this network of underground hollows. As our ancestors explored the caverns they carved them out, smoothing out the walls and leveling the floors, but not here. Everything was left as it was in the beginning. The air tastes stale, hot and heavy with incense. The rocks emit heat captured from the hot springs. There are no cracks in the walls, or the ceiling leading to the white world outside.
I watch the young prince disappear as the Cradle transforms, new growth bridging the open gap, until Ataneq is encased.
I see the prince’s form, a vague, nearly shapeless thing, illuminated by the torchlight behind the Cradle. I wonder how two people can fit into such a tight space. Our ancestors must have been very small.
Nanuq stands beside the Cradle. His face too is streaked with yellow, which highlights his high, sharp cheekbones and receding hairline. What little is left of his dark hair is bound in a braid. He looks over all of us, the men and women who act as their head of the family, and considers us for a moment. Then he slaps his hands over his chest and lets out a sharp cry that echoes in the cavern. Several more voices join the fugue as we exclaim out in prayer, and for a moment I feel as if our cries would loosen the rocks above us. When the last of our voices fade away Nanuq begins a familiar tale.
“Long ago we did not exist underground. One day the Cradle descended from the darkness…a seed of life from the gods above. It came to this cavern attracted to the warmth from the bubbling hot springs and seeking a new life from the harsh snow blanketing the outside world.”
How many are listening? I’ve heard it so often that it seems a waste of time to say it again, but I listen. Perhaps I’ll glean something new.
“Once the gods determined this place worthy of life the first man and woman emerged from the Cradle and awakened in the darkness. Our ancestors were born out of their union. Now, every new leader must go into the Cradle, having drunk the liquid of the gods, to understand the history of our people.” Nanuq pauses, as though he has forgotten the children’s tale. “Ataneq will converse with the gods, just as I have done. Learn of the outside world beyond the snow, how fortunate we are to be here, and give thanks for our creation.”
The elders spoke of Nanuq’s vision. Water as far as the eye can see, with ice as big as mountains floating by like islands. No shelter at all from the howling winds or warmth from fire in the sky. Down here we were not reliant upon the sun for warmth.
“Now we wait,” Nanuq says. “Ataneq must have the vision on his own.”
He nods to me. He’s impassive, his jaw set and his eyes locked on the Cradle trapping his son. Some men wish to be him, to lead our people and be privy to the gods, but why would they? Who would wish to see their child disappear into the pod, barely in control of their senses, to speak with the gods who placed us underground? And who may never return, should the gods wish it?
Those thoughts imbue me as I speak to Nanuq. In all the years I’ve known him I know better than to congratulate. Not yet. Not now. Not until Ataneq returns. People begin to murmur to one another, restless now that the ceremony has ended.
“Truly, Nanuq,” I say, “it is an honor to protect your son.”
“Thank you.” Nanuq’s voice is even. “For watching over him. Protect him as you would your own.”
Protect against whom? Stories told of warring gods long before we arrived. Only our tribe occupied these halls. Cannabars are gentle slow-moving creatures easily killed. There was no need for violence in the caves, not when it meant death for all, so this weapon is useless.
Ancient chiefs said the gods could come back. They had hidden us away from the wars above, and if their enemies find the sleeping prince before he awakens, then the history of our tribe would be lost forever. Once Ataneq awakens, having spoken with the gods through the Cradle, then he would know if these caverns were still safe.
Ataneq’s mother kneels, gathering several thin eska stalks, bereft of their oval leaves and bulbous milky buds, in a wide basket. We weren’t certain how much was needed for the ceremony. So much left over. Such a waste. She takes the kettle away, murmurs a low prayer of thanks. The tribe pays their respects to the Cradle of Creation, and departs, leaving me to guard the sleeping prince with a spear dulled by time.
I linger and peer into the darkness above me. Attempts to climb to the top of the cave had failed. Climbers either fell to their deaths or disappeared entirely. Now it is forbidden to attempt the climb. Besides, we all assumed that it leads to the gods, and it would be best not to disturb them.
I place my hand on the Cradle, now pulsating with warmth. It reminds me of touching my wife’s belly when she was heavy with our firstborn. Will the prince kick in his sleep? I take a step back and look up again, marveling at the tenacity of the filaments keeping it suspended. Although ancient, it can still support the weight of two human beings.
Not once since we arrived in these caves has anyone dared face the harsh winter above. The animal skins are too thin to protect us from the cold. The edible roots that grow along the bubbling hot springs too perishable. Our waterskins freeze into ice. Our eyes unused to the sea of white.
But, according to the chiefs, there is nothing for us in the outside world. All our needs are provided for here, and venturing in the cold brings only death. The snow is constant, relentless, and kills crops when it seeps through the cracks of our tunnels.
The extra eska leaves burn a hole in my mind. Of its waste despite how we knew the proper dosage. An adolescent must have picked them, ignorant of the excess. The hot springs provide us warmth, life, but it’s not enough. Caverns have collapsed upon themselves, crushing what little crops we’re able to grow. The survivors are eaten by the Cannabars or overwatered into rot when the springs swell with melting snow trickling through the cracks.
Denial infects our people like the limp, brown crops drowned in excess moisture. Someday the quakes will crush us. The hot springs will rise and flood the caverns.
Our only escape is back to the gods.
I crane my neck upwards to peer in the darkness. My torch cannot penetrate the darkness, and I wonder what secrets are hidden above us. This may be my only chance to find out. Once Ataneq has his vision the Cradle will shudder once more and rescind into the gloom. By the time I climb back down the prince may be awake, fresh from his vision, and our duties complete. The Cradle of Creation left forgotten until Ataneq’s child ascends, and the ritual begins anew.
I set my ceremonial spear down and test my weight against the Cradle. It does not move, even when I gently push against it. I hoist myself up. It holds. After taking one last look at the cavern, and my prince, I begin my ascent into the darkness.
Once, as a child encased by the caverns, a thought occurred to me. Soon the rocks would capture too much heat and would cook us alive, and our home would become an oven, just like the ones constructed from mud and rocks my wife builds. With each generation, our tribe grows just a little more. Soon there would be too many of us, and the gods would no longer be able to provide.
Nanuq refuses to believe it, as does his son. Blessed with godly knowledge as they are, I know it’s foolish to argue. The gods only answered to their bloodline, and spoke with them alone to discuss the future of all. Best not to anger the gods, who so graciously provide us with all we need to survive.
But it is not enough. Not enough to linger under the earth. Not enough to wait and wonder if the next quake will crush my family. If I clamber to the gods I can plead with them. Convince them of our growing needs, instead of placating them with a drugged prince.
As I climb up, the dark presses in all around me. I cannot not see my hands, and grope for the cord. I clench my legs around the filament as my hands slip. Sweat oozes everywhere — my brow, the small of my back, the creases between my fingers. Although I move away from the warm earth, the heat seems to be rising with me.
The light from the torches dwindles into a tiny dot before disappearing altogether. A sense of wild freedom shoots through me, and I climb faster. What if the gods were hiding something from us? What if they were wrong, and we could survive someplace other than the caverns?
Rocks bite into my back, and I almost lose my grip. I pause. I still can’t see above me. If I hit my head there is no surviving the fall. I pull myself up, grip the filament tightly, and allow my feet to rest on the rocks. With my weight supported by the protrusions, I reach out and feel above me.
A slow throbbing envelops my head. Thirst itches my throat and makes my head spin. A deep ache burns my arms as I pull myself up and up. It’s hard enough heaving my own bulk — no wonder the gods lowered our plump bodies down instead of lifting us up.
Time drags. I inch my way up, feeling for the rocks, avoiding them when I can, although it becomes difficult to squeeze my way through. The passage narrows, and eventually I test the rock formations, using them to support my weight as I continue my ascension.
An unpleasant crunching noise echoes in the tunnel as my hand crushes a cadre of insects taking shelter in the crevasses. Their fellows launch into the air, their long, fleshy bodies igniting as they flew. Their stuttering flights flit all around me, bumping against my face, their luminescence leaving behind streaks of light in my vision. I shut my eyes and wipe my hand on my vest.
They are insects, pale from the darkness, that lay their eggs on the undersides of inedible plants in small, hard pouches. When they hatch the small, curled larvae descend on thin sticky strands to the soft earth, where they tunnel in and stay, emerging as luminous adults in the warmer months.
Our children pluck these egg masses, these oothecas, and gather them in large baskets. We fry them over hot coals, sizzling the oothecas until their sides pop with heat. When we squeeze them small larvae come out, and we feast upon them.
Once I looked inside an ootheca. Though the white bodies were soft, there were strict ridges inside the ootheca where they formed, unmoving until we plucked them from their own Cradle of Creation. Nestled inside like we were.
I could not help but wonder if the gods were waiting for us to ripen in our caverns, before they too decided to feast upon us.
A faint light emerges above me, brightening as I continue. Rock formations jut out to greet me. The passage doesn’t look like it narrows anymore, so I increase my speed, desperate to rest at the top.
Finally. I hoist myself over the edge, scraping myself on the rough surface as my tired muscles give out. I collapse on the floor, gasp for breath, and blink in the sudden, bright light.
The floor of the cavern is smooth, as are the rounded green walls, which glow with a faded light. Translucent, like seeing firelight when I close my eyes. My breath comes out in staggered, misty puffs, and the sweat on my brow cools in the unexpected chill. A hardness effuses my joints, unused to the cold.
The filament attached to my prince continues upward. I crane my neck and see that it is connected to the top of the cavern, which has a pattern of dark green squares. Hundreds of similar strings hang from the ceiling. There are other holes in the floor, where I could fall and knock a pod to the ground. Several broken pods, the exact shape, size and color of our own, are scattered throughout the immense cavern. I approach one and look inside.
Bones lay inside, frozen, locked into the dried fluids that solidified in the cold. Not hollowed out like ours is. They look like the bones of two people, their hands entwined, their skulls facing one another. Bits of sharp rock bite into the soles of my feet as I recoil. What kind of secret is my young prince learning within the Cradle?
My knees shake. I’ve never seen so much openness. These holes are too orderly to be natural. Each hole looks like the same as the last. Hundreds of them, all clustered together, too clean and neatly ordered to be anything but designed. I walk between them, counting the spaces, as I do when I plant seeds. They could not be clustered too closely together, or else the roots would crowd together and smoother one another.
We’re like the insects we eat. Undeveloped. Unable to crawl forth from the dark caverns that carried us like a babe. We would emerge, a writhing mass, and spill out into this place. Crawling over one another, pushing against one another in our haste, only to meet others.
I scramble back into a hole, never minding the rocks scraping against my legs. There is no time to explore. I have a family to protect. As I clamber back down I listen for something, for anything, and wonder if there are others hidden within the darkness and stones.
I slip against the rocks, and tumble. My hands lash out to grip the walls, but my fingernails scrape against smooth stone. Cold air whips around me as I fall, the tunnel leveling out instead of dropping downward. I fling my arms over my head as my body slides down, bumping and scraping against the rock walls. As I gain speed I fear of dashing my head against the stone, leaving my bleeding body to slide the rest of the way.
A light appears at the end of the tunnel, and my speed slows. I roll to a stop, my body aching with bruises and abrasions. The chill is greater here.
Shadows hover over me. I blink in the brightness, and see faces above me, surrounded by a halo of fur. They wear thick clothes on every inch of their body except for their faces. Snow drifts in through the opening to the tunnel, and I begin to shiver. The others look at me once before speaking to each other in an unfamiliar language.
I think of the larvae tunneling into the earth. Not all of them survive until their final transformation. I’ve seen them in their immobile state, hardened as they transform into shiny beetles. I feel like I’ve been dug from the warm soil and exposed to the elements before my time.
These people, in their coats and snow-hardened bodies, have transformed. No longer larvae trapped in the womb of creation, but emerged fully as adults burrowing out of the soil for the summer, and ready to face the winter. I cannot help but wonder if this is what my people will look like, if we ever find a way out of the caves without freezing to death.
One of them puts a coat around me and wraps my feet in a blanket. Together we walk out into the white abyss, and into the unknown.