So here is Chapter 4 of my current novel, Below Ground. As some time has passed since I uploaded Chapter 3, I am including a brief summary of what has happened in the story up to this point.
Sixteen-year-old Ruth was born in an underground colony, whose inhabitants hide from a war-torn, diseased world above. In a moment of blind panic on a brief excursion to the surface, Ruth inadvertently exposes the colony to danger and her resulting punishment is a forced betrothal to the captain of the guardians, Solomon, who will be able to control her completely once they are married. A sympathetic retired guardian called Saul tells Ruth, who is in love with a boy named Benjamin, that she does not have to accept this arrangement and admits that there is a truth about life on the surface that has been kept from her. Before he can say anything more, he is interrupted by Guardian Solomon but he promises to speak to Ruth at another time. However, tragedy strikes as, in the early hours of the following morning, the people of the colony are woken to learn that Retired Guardian Saul has died during the night…
The prayers were finally over. They had gone on for hours, verse after verse of mournful, meaningless words. Ruth had moved her lips automatically but had paid no attention to what she was saying, her mind concentrating instead on blocking out the incessant weeping of an inconsolable Delilah. Many of the other women had gathered around her in a sort of protective circle but Ruth knelt apart; she was afraid to look into Delilah’s eyes lest the woman read the truth about her husband’s death in Ruth’s guilty gaze.
After the prayers had ended, Leader Isaac morosely invited each person forward to say farewell to their beloved brother and guardian of the colony. Ruth felt faint as she approached Retired Guardian Saul’s inert form. Someone had closed his eyes and he looked as if he was simply asleep. As she bent down to clasp his cold, mottled hand, her eyes raked up and down his body, searching for any hint of what had brought about his untimely death. ‘His heart failed while he slept’ was what Isaac had told them but Ruth was looking for bruises or bloody marks, some sign of a struggle. And yet Saul’s skin appeared unblemished apart from the traces of old age. It had been skilfully done, which made Ruth wonder sickeningly whether this had even been the first time it had happened.
She looked up at Guardian Solomon again but he was staring out across the shadowy cave and would not meet her gaze. Instinct told her that he was culpable for this crime and his apparent lack of remorse caused a searing hatred to blaze within her. She hoped he could feel the heat of it as he avoided her accusatory eyes.
She pressed a brief kiss to Saul’s forehead and then rose to her feet to allow her grandmother to come forward. Tabitha was visibly distressed and her thin arms shook as she wrapped them around Saul’s body in a tight embrace. As Ruth returned to her place, she brushed away bitter tears. She wanted to shout out the truth to everyone in the cave but it would be a wasted endeavour. Who would believe her? She had absolutely no proof and Guardian Solomon knew as much.
Last to approach the body were Saul’s closest family members: his wife of thirty-three years, Delilah, their two surviving sons, Matthias and Gabriel, and their four grandchildren, born to Matthias and his wife, Sheba. Naomi seemed to understand what was happening and was crying as copiously as her grandmother but the younger twins, Dinah and Rebekah, and little Simeon just looked bewildered by the palpable grief that pervaded the gathering cave. When Simeon reached his grandfather, he tugged at his lifeless shoulder and exclaimed, “Wake up, Grandpa, they rang the bell ages ago!”
This made Delilah weep all the harder. Leader Isaac raised his voice to be heard above her sobs.
“Lord, we beseech you to comfort the loved ones whom our cherished brother has left behind. May they find solace in the knowledge that he has been joyfully recalled to your holy presence and reunited with his daughter Susannah and son Nathaniel who departed this life before him. May they know that he is now at peace.”
Ruth contemplated this statement so full of optimism and faith. How did they know for certain that this was the case? If a person’s life was taken from them by force, could that person ever really rest in peace? She imagined Saul’s ghost wandering the dark passageways of the colony in anguish and anger and suppressed a shudder.
“And now,” Isaac continued in a tone of deepest sorrow, “the guardians shall bear him away to his final resting place in the earth.” He made the sign of the cross over the body at his feet. “Your work here is done, dearest brother. Go with our gratitude and love into God’s glorious light.”
A great sheet of cloth was brought forward and wrapped around Saul. The shroud was a symbol of respect in the process of removing the corpse but it would not accompany Saul into his grave. The inhabitants of the colony never buried anything which could be used again and even the retired guardian’s clothes would be taken from him before he was interred in the ground. Ruth did not know where the graves of the colony’s deceased citizens were on the surface; only the guardians were privy to that knowledge. This meant that Delilah would never be able to visit her husband’s remains just as Ruth and her parents were never able to visit her little brother, Noah, after he died. The dead were consigned to an eternity of lonely anonymity, their families unable to even lay a flower on their mounds to mark another anniversary of their passing.
Delilah became quite hysterical at this point, clutching at the cloth that covered Saul and trying to pull it back off him. Her daughter, Jemima – who had been brought below ground initially as an illegitimate baby but to whom Saul had become a loving surrogate father – was obliged to restrain her mother while silent tears ran unchecked down her own cheeks. Six guardians stepped forward to lift the shrouded corpse; Guardian Solomon, Ruth noted, was not one of them. She was glad to see that his hypocrisy did not stretch quite so far as to bear his victim to his grave. Lesser Guardians Matthias and Gabriel positioned themselves at their father’s head while Reuben, Obadiah and Malachi, the only three remaining retired guardians, and Jemima’s husband, Guardian Ichabod, took their places at Saul’s hips and feet. In unison, the three pairs of guardians bent down, secured firm grips on the body and raised it to their shoulders.
The people shuffled aside to allow the guardians through, crossing themselves or whispering snatches of prayers as the body passed them. When it came near Ruth, she felt her throat constrict and momentarily found it difficult to breathe. It was more than just Saul that departed from the gathering cave; gone was her tiny glimmer of hope as well.
The guardians took slow, careful steps into the passageway that led to the vent. They were preceded by Ruth’s father, Jonah, who held an oil lamp to light their way, and were followed by Guardian Cain, the younger brother of Solomon, and Lesser Guardian Aaron, the older brother of Zachariah and Ezra, who both carried spades. A few more steps and the procession was out of sight, off to bury a kind, old man in cold, hard ground.
Ruth saw Leader Isaac place a consoling hand upon Delilah’s bowed head before he exited the cave towards his own quarters, accompanied by Guardian Solomon. Ruth narrowed her eyes at their retreating backs; what further plot could they be devising now? Jemima led Delilah away towards the women’s sleeping caves where they could continue to grieve in private. Everybody else milled around uncertainly until Master Ezekiel took it upon himself to take charge.
“All lessons are cancelled for the day,” he declared and the smallest children looked gleeful. “It must be close to midday. The women shall go and prepare the meal and then we shall spend the afternoon in sombre prayer. There will be no playtime on the surface today as it would not be appropriate on this mournful occasion.”
The children’s faces fell at once. Simeon began to complain loudly but Sheba silenced him with a sharp slap to his rump. He withdrew into a corner, sniffling, while the senior women of the colony left the gathering cave to organise the food.
Those who remained began to talk amongst themselves in sorrowful whispers. Ruth ignored the low-level hum. These people had missed the significance of Saul’s death, a significance of which only she was painfully aware. She retreated into the shadows furthest from the one remaining oil lamp, which Master Ezekiel had moved towards the wooden slab at the top of the cave so that he could belatedly mark the one hundred and ninety-fourth day of the thirty-fifth year below ground. The darkness felt like a protective cloak which could shield her from the wickedness that had just come to her unwilling attention.
She was not left alone for long. After barely a minute, Benjamin approached her, his face unreadable in the dimness. Was he still angry at her? Yesterday it had seemed as though he held her entirely to blame for the sequence of events which had ended their hopes for a joyful marriage together.
When he spoke her name, she knew he had forgiven her. That one word was filled with such tenderness and concern, untainted by any trace of recrimination, it was like a candle flame the way it warmed and strengthened her.
“Benjamin,” she murmured gratefully and reached out to slip her fingers through his. She trusted to the gloom and to the other people’s distraction that the illicit action would go unnoticed. Benjamin squeezed her hand tightly and joined her where she stood close to the earthen wall.
“It’s dreadful about Saul, isn’t it?” he said in a low voice.
“Oh, Benjamin,” she croaked, “it’s so much worse than you know.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, startled.
She glanced around. The only person nearby was Levi, who had trailed after his brother and was now staring aimlessly at the ceiling of the cave. It did not matter if Levi overheard; he would neither understand what he was hearing nor be capable of repeating it to anyone else.
She looked back at Benjamin. “I think Saul was murdered.”
His jaw dropped open in speechless shock.
She hurried on. “I know it sounds insane but just listen. Yesterday, Saul was going to tell me something he wasn’t supposed to but Solomon interrupted us before he could.” She described how Guardian Solomon had seemed to materialise out of the darkness, having come upon them with silent footsteps and without any light to forewarn of his approach. “I’m sure he heard everything we said. He knew that Saul was planning to reveal a forbidden secret so he took action to prevent him from doing so. He – he killed him.”
Benjamin stared. “How can you be so sure?” he whispered.
“It’s too convenient to be a coincidence,” Ruth responded in equally hushed tones. “Saul was about to break one of Leader Isaac’s most serious laws and then he suddenly dies? I don’t accept that his heart just ‘failed’. It was his back that always bothered him, never his heart. And he seemed perfectly healthy at prayers last night. No, I think he was purposefully silenced and I think Solomon was the one who did it.”
“Do you really believe he is capable of – of murder?”
“Look into his black eyes and you know he is capable of anything,” Ruth returned flatly. “He is willing to marry a girl almost thirty years younger than him just to gain control over her, remember?”
There was a beat of silence as Ruth’s impending marriage loomed between them.
“What do you think Saul was going to tell you?” Benjamin eventually asked, in an obvious effort to steer the conversation away from that unpleasant subject.
“I don’t know,” said Ruth and she heaved a sigh of frustration. “If only Solomon hadn’t turned up, Saul might have told me then and there.” She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall, trying to recall exactly what Saul had been saying before they had been disturbed. “He said … he said that the first people who went below ground knew what they were forsaking above. They kept the truth from us – from the ones born down here – but he said that if we knew the truth we might choose differently.”
“What do you suppose he meant by that?” said Benjamin in bewilderment.
“I tried to make sense of it in my head last night but I couldn’t. Of course, I had so many questions that I was going to ask him today. It was such an opportunity – the first adult willing to tell the truth about life on the surface! But that chance has been snatched away.”
Ruth recollected the image of Saul’s green eyes staring blankly into nothingness and Benjamin’s next words echoed her own thoughts.
“What is so dangerous about the world above that a man had to die for it to be kept secret?”
Ruth opened her eyes and looked at Benjamin’s dim outline. “I don’t know,” she said again. “But it makes me wonder… Saul basically said that if we knew what it was like on the surface then we might not choose to stay below ground. Does that mean there is actually something up there worth holding onto, something that we would not have been willing to give up if we had been able to make the decision for ourselves?”
“Maybe…” said Benjamin hesitantly. “But I can’t think what. They’ve told us how it is on the surface – who would want to remain in such a wasteland?”
“What if they were lying?” Ruth’s imagination started to race ahead. “What if all the forests are still there? What if the godless people haven’t destroyed everything? What if there are no godless people?”
“I think that is what you call wishful thinking.” Benjamin’s tone was gentle to take the sting out of his disagreement.
“Benjamin,” Ruth persisted and her voice was rising in her desperation to find meaning in Saul’s words. “He said that you and I didn’t have to accept my arranged marriage to Guardian Solomon. I don’t see how that could be so long as we stayed here – so what if he meant that we could refuse to accept it by leaving the colony? By going up to the surface?”
Before Benjamin could do anything more than gape at this radical suggestion, Ruth heard her name being called and saw her mother crossing the cave towards the place where they stood. She hastily slid her fingers out of Benjamin’s grasp and tried to act like there was nothing inappropriate about her skulking in the shadows with the boy she was no longer allowed to marry. Judith was clearly not convinced by the pretence and looked highly disapproving as she reached them.
“What are you doing, Ruth?” she demanded.
“Just talking,” Ruth answered mulishly. She was annoyed that her mother had disturbed them when their conversation was at such a critical point. “Is that all right or is there a law against talking now as well? Should I just become a mute altogether?”
Judith’s eyes widened. “Where in God’s name has this impertinence come from?”
Ruth was prevented from making another retort by a further interruption in the form of Levi. His attention had been caught by the presence of Judith and he had wandered over to her side; he was now rubbing her arm in an affectionate gesture. Judith looked uncomfortable and stepped sideways out of his reach but Levi followed and tried to envelop her in a one-armed hug.
“Get away, Levi,” Judith snapped and pushed his arm away.
Levi whined and stood there quite forlornly, not knowing what to do in the wake of her rebuff. Ruth saw Benjamin’s jaw tighten.
“Come on, Levi,” he said and took his brother’s hand. “I’ll talk to you later, Ruth,” he added pointedly, then guided Levi towards the other side of the cave where the women were just arriving with the food for the midday meal.
“You shouldn’t be talking to him,” Judith said sharply as soon as the two brothers were out of earshot.
“Why?” Ruth shot back. “Because I am betrothed to another man? Does that mean I can’t speak to Moses or Omar or Zachariah or – ”
“It’s different with Benjamin.” Judith’s voice was uneasy. “I know how you feel about him.”
“Do you? It would have been helpful if you had said as much yesterday in the reception cave when Leader Isaac told me I had to marry Guardian Solomon.”
Judith was aghast. “I cannot believe you are speaking to your mother like this. The bible teaches that you must respect your elders, Ruth. I will tolerate no more of this rudeness, do you understand?”
Ruth gritted her teeth and said grudgingly, “Yes.”
“Good. Will you come over for some food now?”
“I need to relieve myself first. May I go up to the waste trough? My day of revoked surface exposure is over.”
Judith shook her head. “Not while the guardians are above ground burying poor, dear Saul. No one may go up while that is happening. If it is urgent, you will have to use a bucket down here. Ask Master Ezekiel, he is the most senior person present.”
Ruth held back a sigh of irritation with great effort and approached her teacher. Master Ezekiel was sitting on the ground in front of his precious wooden slab, picking up pieces of chopped vegetables from the bowl in his hand and popping them into his mouth. He saw Ruth waiting to speak to him but took his time crunching noisily and swallowing before saying, “What is it, Ruth?”
“I need a bucket, Master Ezekiel.”
“Can you not wait until one of the guardians returns?”
“No, I really can’t.”
Ezekiel made a tutting noise with his tongue but Ruth could tell he was enjoying his little moment of power. She wondered whether he often regretted choosing thirty-five years ago to become the colony’s educator instead of a privileged guardian. It surely must irk him that he had given so much dedicated service to the colony and yet still had less authority than the obnoxious, eighteen-year-old Lesser Guardian Ezra.
The master savoured the occasion for a few seconds longer and then said, “Very well, if it is a pressing matter. You may go. You will find the waste bucket in the first storage cave.”
“I can fetch it myself?” said Ruth in surprise. It was usually a guardian’s responsibility to bring the bucket to the person in need, in the same way that the use of every other item belonging to the colony was scrupulously controlled.
“Yes,” said Master Ezekiel impatiently, tutting again. “I am not going to halt my meal to get it for you, if that was what you were expecting.”
“No, of course not,” Ruth replied, all politeness. “May I have a candle then to light my way?”
Ezekiel tutted for a third time but produced a candle and a box of matches from his pocket. He lit the candle and handed it to Ruth.
“First storage cave,” he reminded her and turned back to his bowl of vegetables.
Ruth made her way back across the gathering cave, holding the candle carefully in front of her. She ignored her mother as she passed her and headed straight for the passageway which led to the men’s sleeping caves and beyond to the storage caves. As she disappeared into the tunnel, a feeling of euphoria came over her. It was quite exhilarating to be allowed to bear a candle by herself; it was like a thin stick of power in her hands. She strode forwards, casting the light on the ground ahead, for once not having to shuffle at the speed of the person in front of her.
She passed the entrances to a number of sleeping caves and ducked her head boldly inside each one, immediately recognising the guardians’ sleeping quarters by the fact that they had more blankets, thicker mattresses and even – she gazed at them enviously – pillows. They certainly rewarded themselves well for the extra risks they assumed in the protection of the colony.
Ruth had never been permitted inside the storage caves before, but the first storage cave was unmistakeable when she approached it; it smelled like it was where the waste bucket was kept. When she entered, she saw that it was also the cave which housed the materials used by the men to excavate new caves. There were picks and spades and other tools, as well as a wooden platform which the builders stood on to give themselves additional height.
Her nose led her to the furthest corner of the cave where she found the foul waste bucket. A quick glance into it conveyed the information that it had been used during the night and had not been emptied yet today – all regular duties had of course been postponed due to the unexpected death of Retired Guardian Saul. Thinking that that was one guardian task which probably merited the luxury of a thicker mattress, Ruth balanced her candle carefully against the wall so that it would not topple over, pulled up her long skirt and went about her business.
It was while she was lowered over the bucket that it occurred to her what an intriguing opportunity lay before her, if she was daring enough to seize it. The second storage cave was right next to this one and it surely held all the other supplies that the colony possessed. How interesting it would be to catch a glimpse of those closely-guarded stores, to see exactly what was there and to perhaps even discover whether there was a shortage of any particular item. What if the guardians were keeping it a secret that there was actually only one roll of fabric left in the whole colony and that, once the clothes everyone was wearing wore out, the inhabitants would have to live naked under the earth?
Ruth felt a giggle bubble up in her throat but stifled it at once. Today was not a day for laughter, not when Saul was currently being stripped of his own clothing and placed in a hole where the soil would cling forever to his dead skin. Feeling suddenly sober, she recognised the recklessness of what she was about to do and resolved to do it anyway, in the memory of that man who had finally been prepared to break the rules and who had lost his life because of it.
She hastily used some leaves left next to the bucket to clean herself, then straightened up and let her skirt fall. Retrieving her candle, she returned to the passage, found it still deserted and walked on to the second storage cave. Nerves thrilling with apprehension, she entered.
It was disappointingly exactly how it should be. As she moved the candle about the cave, its flame flickered over neat stacks of boxes and crates, the top one of each pile open to display its contents. Ruth saw candles, boxes of matches, oil lamps, containers of oil, spare cups, bowls and spoons, blankets, cloths, spools of thread and, in one wide barrel against the back wall, roll after roll of fabric. There were also a few items which were only required in small numbers, such as the wicker baskets for the laundry and the cooking pots for the fire. There was nothing extraordinary here, nothing that Ruth had not laid eyes upon a hundred times before.
She did not know why she felt so let down. What had she been expecting, some hidden message from Saul about the world above? It was futile; Saul was gone and his secret had died with him. There was no one else below ground who would ever be willing to tell that truth.
Despondently, she was turning to leave when her gaze fell upon an uneven patch of ground in front of the barrel containing the rolls of fabric. She hurried over and bent down to look at it more closely. The candle flame illuminated a track of scuffed earth; it looked as though something heavy had been dragged over it. This seemed at odds with the rest of the hard-packed ground in the cave which was smooth and well-trodden. Ruth looked up and her eyes landed on the barrel of fabric – the width of the barrel’s base was precisely the same as the width of the scuffed tracks. All the signs seemed to indicate that the barrel had been pulled out and then shoved back into position. Could it be that there was something hidden behind it?
Excitement and fear mounting inside her in equal measures, Ruth stood quickly to examine the barrel. It did not appear to be flush against the back wall; there was a gap of about two hand spans’ width behind it. Ruth reached down to feel around but her hand passed through empty air – there did not seem to be anything concealed in the narrow space.
She was not prepared to give up yet, however. Squeezing in between the barrel and a stack of boxes containing candles, she stretched out her bare foot to explore the ground between the back of the barrel and the wall…
…and nearly lost her balance when her foot met no resistance. Where it ought to have connected with the earthen wall, it continued onward without hindrance. Ruth gripped the edge of the barrel to steady herself and took a breath to calm her nerves. Her foot was still outstretched and she could feel a faint flow of air across her toes – without any doubt, there was an opening down there.
With some difficulty, she crouched down to get a closer look. The corner of one of the candle boxes was digging painfully into her back but she disregarded it as the glow of her little flame fell on her startling discovery: a hole in the wall that looked for all the world like a low doorway. It was just high enough and wide enough for a man to crawl through, no more.
Ruth gaped at it. This may have nothing to do with Saul’s mysterious secret but it proved that there was certainly something being hidden from the citizens of the colony. There was no question of turning back now – she had to see what lay beyond.
Getting through was going to be tricky though. If she pulled out the barrel she would be able to access the opening with ease, but she did not want to disturb anything in the cave unnecessarily. She did not know about the other guardians, but her father had a meticulous eye for detail. It was best not to leave any trace of her presence if she could help it.
So she would have to make do with the space provided. Sucking in her breath and trying to make herself as small as possible, she squeezed behind the barrel, manoeuvring back and forth until she got her shoulders through. She was in as far as her waist when her candle, which she had neglected to keep angled upwards, dripped hot wax over her wrist. Swearing under her breath (and feeling deliciously rebellious as she did so), she righted the candle in her hand and continued to shimmy until her hips and finally her legs and feet were through.
She was now on her elbows and knees behind the barrel with most of her body already inside the little opening. The candle illuminated the way ahead and showed her that she was in quite a short tunnel which seemed to open out again barely five feet in front of her. Without hesitation, she crawled forward. If there was someone on the other side they would have already seen her light and heard her struggles, so there was no point in being cautious now.
She emerged out of the tiny passageway and straightened up, rubbing her wrist where the wax had burned her. Then she raised her candle and gazed around. She appeared to be in another storage cave – it was of a similar size to the one she had just vacated and it too was filled with countless boxes accumulated in little towers. The difference was that none of these boxes were open so she could not tell at a glance what was inside them.
She approached the pile nearest to her and scrutinised the top box. It did not seem to be sealed; if she prised the lid off, she would be able to look inside. With some trepidation, she slid her fingers under the edge of the lid and lifted it up.
Blank bewilderment. She did not know what she was looking at. The box contained several cylindrical objects packed together in neat rows but no word came to her mind to put a name on them. Tentatively, she picked one up and held the candle close to it. It was cold to the touch and black, with a wide, shiny circle at one end and a small, round spot at the other, like the button of a blouse. Ruth stared at it, turning it around to look at every inch of it, trying to fathom what a strange object like this could be doing in their underground colony.
Her thumb trailed over the button-like spot and she felt it give way under the pressure. Then she shrieked and dropped both the mysterious object and her candle. The candle flame snuffed out but it did not matter because the secret cave was filled with a blinding light so bright that she had to cover her eyes against the glare. She crouched down in terror, unable to comprehend what was happening, and for several minutes could not move a muscle.
When at length she deduced that she was unscathed and that no further alarming incident was going to occur, she parted her fingers wide enough to stare fearfully around. The extinguished candle lay on the ground at her feet, as did the black cylinder. And it was from the cylinder that the dazzling light seemed to be emanating. The beam fell across the floor and by its luminance Ruth could see into every corner of the cave as clearly as if she were in sunlight. It was baffling – not even with three oil lamps would she be able to see so much.
Hesitantly, she reached out to the black cylinder and touched it with the tip of her finger. It rolled a little and the light rolled with it, dancing around the cave. It also felt warmer, like the light was heating it up. It did not seem harmful, however, so after another faltering moment or two she bravely picked it up with both hands and inspected it curiously. The light had appeared when her thumb had brushed the button. What would happen if she pushed it again?
Taking a very deep breath, Ruth pressed down on the button. She heard the faintest click and was plunged into instantaneous darkness. However, the black did not scare her as the light had – the darkness was comforting and familiar. Then she touched the button again and the brightness returned, flooding the cave with brilliance once more.
She was full of amazement and fear. The purpose of the object was now clear but it raised many terrifying questions. How did something like this even exist? Where had it come from? Who knew about it? Why had nobody else been told? What was it used for?
As these questions ran through her mind unanswered, her previous emotions were all at once eradicated and replaced by a single, unwavering conviction. There was a great deal that she did not know but there was one thing that she knew beyond a certainty – this colony that had been her home for sixteen years was a nest of lies and secrets and her trust in everything she had ever been taught was totally shattered.
She had just decided to fling the lids off more boxes and discover what further mysteries were hidden beneath when she heard a sound that made her heart jump into her mouth – two distant voices, coming up the passageway outside the storage caves. Alarmed, she pressed the button on the black cylinder, immediately restoring her cave to inky blackness, and stood with bated breath.
The two voices grew louder still and she realised with a sinking feeling that the people, whoever they were, were entering the storage cave adjacent to the one she was not supposed to be in.
There was no way for her to leave the hidden cave except through the small tunnel she had come in by. She was trapped.
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