The bioluminescent ribs arch high above, spanning the sky. Leathery skin behind them stretches taut and cuts off whatever view there might be. Twisting around the bones are vines of darkness, occasionally bridging the gaps between to link the only sources of light in my world.
In the early days, I had tried to use the vines to climb high enough to survey my environment, but they were as brittle as hope and as sharp as disappointment. I always fell, my hands crisscrossed with thin lines of blood. Now, I simply watch them growing, slowly strangling the skeleton I live within. The light that does filter through the canopy is tinged with blue and it gives the impression that I am standing at the bottom of the ocean, looking up towards the unbroken surface. It isn’t too far from the truth, I suppose.
Sounds are different in here. From the first day, words have echoed through the hollow, some from my own throat and some torn from my memories. Reminders of my avoidance and the consequences. My name: sometimes said commandingly, sometimes said pleadingly, but always in different voices. The soft plants near the narrow opening, which is encircled by baleen, absorb some of the sound. When the recriminations get too loud, I often lay in the lichen and let it muffle the screams.
My space is dominated by the skeletal architecture but around me, life flourishes. The tide brings algae as a gift to the shore, and ebbs and flows much like the sea outside. Whereas outside the water is vast, inside it is a pool — a lake at most — that I can traverse in no more than an hour.
The ground is firm enough to walk upon easily, yet is soft to the touch. There is no need to sleep here but I have curled up on many patches of bracken away from the deepest parts and have found it comfortable and warm.
Today is day forty-two, which I diligently observe by etching another tally on the widest rib. I’ve had to wade into the deepest part of the pool to get to it and the water, clear and cold, laps against my chest. I no longer fear the tickles of fins against my ankles or the graze of scales against my shins. What had spooked me in the beginning has been quelled by the simple fact that there is nothing in the universe that can frighten me more than what waits outside.
I run my fingers over the carved marks, gently inspecting my work. Time is difficult to judge in a world without sunlight, but the bones glow and dim at regular intervals and so I have decided that the brightening signals a new day. It is as good a system as any.
The tally marks are irregular. The first ten or so were jagged and hastily carved. My fear of the pool and of the thing that waits had been strong at the start, and the pain in my hands had made my etchings hasty.
The next fifteen were straight and clean. My organised, confident phase. In those weeks, I had tried to master myself and explored the belly of the beast as fully as possible. The strength of the last line in that group was down to a piece of flint, discovered at the furthest reaches. It had taken me nearly a full glow cycle to travel there and back. Travelling past the edge of the ribs, I’d watched the sky begin to sag with only the delicate central curve of the spine to sustain it. Each vertebrae was easily the size of my body but I only knew this because the column of them sloped down to meet the soft ground at my feet at the very end of the cave. Closer to the middle, they looked no bigger than my thumb nail. A matter of perspective, I supposed.
I had expected to find a closed end to the cave but the last bone -- merely the size of my head -- simply supported skin, much like the opening to a tent. Where I had anticipated tail was the black void of space, the cold of it leeching into my soul as I watched. As I’d stumbled backwards in horror, I’d fallen and found the fragment of flint. I’d stayed under the shelter of the ribs after that.
The remaining tallies were varied in depth, size and shape. Each was an attempt to record the feelings and progress of the day, conveyed through one carved line.
Today’s mark was a long one with a splintered curve at the end. Time had seemed to stretch, and, just when I was beginning to believe that the dimming of the osteal light show was permanent, there was a disturbance that made my head ache and my skin crawl. The fizz in the air was only for a moment, but it was enough for me to glimpse the thing that waits. I am not ready for the thing that waits.
The ribs were nearly at their brightest before I had been able to rouse myself and drag my body through the inky waters to my calendar. I had, in fact, taken comfort in the unseen teeth that probed my hips and scraped along the base of my spine. The sensation, right at the edge of pain, cemented me in the here, and I clung to this tactile reminder of my reality.
For the first time, I consider returning to where I’d found the flint. If the thing that waits still waits, perhaps the abyss is the logical next step. I’ve grown stronger here over the last forty-two days but I don’t know if I’ll ever be strong enough to face what must be faced.
I look in the direction of the void, though it is too far to see from the pool under the shelter of the ribcage. It must be my imagination but I can feel the cold fingers stretching towards me. I know with some certainty that a step into the black would mean my extinguishing. It is an inbuilt condition of this space: two exits, one final and one a continuation, but both a choice for me to make.
A nip at my ankle breaks the spell and I right myself, not having realised that I was leaning towards the endless fall. Stepping back towards the dry shore feels like growth, like sunlight. I came here to get ready and perhaps that step was the beginning. The void is not the option I choose.
It is thirteen days later when the tally marks vanish. I have made my way to the centre again, and am looking forward to drawing the mark for today. It was going to be short and clean, filled with determination and hope.
I have thought more about what is outside and what must be done. I have practised approaches and tactics and speeches. I have built myself a throne of confidence and I can taste sweet starlight on my tongue.
I decided last night that the thing that waits must wait no longer. I am ready to face it — have become strong enough on my diet of cyan sunlight and enforced solitude to make the decisions I need to make.
But the marks are gone. No record remains of the days in which I have healed or the hours I have spent processing my fears. A thrill runs through me - fear? Anticipation? I thought myself ready but ... what if? What if that was the hubris of a person gone mad from isolation? A bitter tang replaces the starlight and I breathe out slowly, displacing it from my lips.
My fingertips ghost over the place they were and instead meet a message etched into the softly glowing surface.
Your time in the chamber is at an end. Please proceed to the throat to reconnect your consciousness.
I am not surprised. It was inevitable. The responsibility and the consequences that I have been so frightened of. I know that time moves differently here — I will have been gone from my body for only an hour — but I take a moment to remember each jagged, curved or broken mark that I made here. The journey I have made.
I am grateful that I have had the time and space not possible in the real world, with all its distractions and its urgencies. A taken moment stretched to thousands of moments that have let me make the necessary progress.
I press my forehead to the rib, breathe deeply, and then turn towards the maw of the beast. I will return. I will emerge.
The thing that waits will wait no more.