We were friendly with the dark.
I had come to terms with it a long time ago. There was little light that filtered into the labyrinth, but even those small rays of sun were fleeting. Our eyes had become so used to seeing in the dark but there were things I missed. I missed the colour blue and a particular shade of purple. I missed wide open spaces and the feeling of freedom.
It was a very quiet life. We had to be, lest we wake the minotaur. We would hear it roaring in the distance and could feel the ground rumble when it walked. When it did so, we all knew to remain silent and not move. It could sense our movement and hear our voices. We were raised to enjoy the quiet and learn to speak through signing and hand motions and whispers that sounded like the wind. Some days, I forgot the sound of my own voice.
I was born inside the walls of the labyrinth. I had never been outside of its walls, so I knew its pathways well. I have lived here all of my seventeen years and was as familiar with it’s walls as I was with the dark. I knew how to find the market, which steps to take to see the oracle and the best hiding spots to run to if we were hiding from the minotaur.
Often, my friends and I would go looking for the spots deep in the labyrinth where the light came through the cracks, where we could smell the air of the outside world. We would take guesses as to what was outside the walls, each guess getting bigger and grander than the last. One of my treasured possessions was a carnelian stone that the oracle gave me. I liked to pretend that it gave off a soft orange light that reminded me of the sun. I would take the stone to those places where the sun shone in and let it sit in the rays for a bit so that I could recharge its warmth.
The darkness offered many places to hide things. For instance, it was not possible to know what another person was thinking by looking at their face; you had to get really good at listening to what people were saying or at how they moved their hands when signing to really know how the person felt. You had to trust you gut in the darkness. The oracle always said that intuition was a gift. We had to use it if we wanted it to grow.
There were things that you could not do in the dark. We couldn’t grow a lot of foods in the shadows. Potatoes grew really well as did a variety of root vegetables and a variety of different greens. Mushrooms and rhubarb grew in abundance and didn’t need light. Rhubarb made the most wonderful pies, though they were bitter without sugar. Beansprouts and chicory grew well without sunlight. Sometimes we were able to grow carrots in some of the spots that received direct sunlight. There were small streams and tiny little lakes to be found in certain areas of the labyrinth, so we were always able to find some water for our gardens. There were sometimes fish and crustaceans that we could eat. They would find their way down from wherever the water came from.
You learned a lot about yourself by spending so much time in the darkness. I learned to confront my fears a long time ago. I’m still afraid, but I’ve acknowledged. I know who they are now and where they came from. It doesn’t mean that they’ve gone away, only that I’ve shed light on the darker parts of myself and can see my fears for what they are.
Today, I am afraid of death.
My mother has made sure that I’m wearing my best coat. I know that it’s supposed to be a deep red colour, but in the darkness, it looks like a deep black velvet. The fabric has stitches in it that make it look as if the coat is covered in stars. I only wear this coat for important occasions. I know why mother has pulled the coat out today and part of me is glad that she is trying to make me feel good, even if it has the opposite effect.
We are going to a mourning. They were a celebration of life. I know that death is a part of life and that people are born to die, but when the life is taken from you too soon, it seems unfair to celebrate your life when you hardly had a chance to live it. We are going to mourn Persephone, the daughter of Ms. and Mr. Carmichael. Persephone was only six years old and had never been very strong. She had had a difficult childhood that was plagued with sickness. It is hard to thrive in darkness. Though people were sad about her passing, I was glad for her. It meant that she was no longer in pain. She had not been made for the dark.
My mother whispered to me. “Cheer up, poppet. It’s not as bad as all that.”
I let out a small breath, a release of pressure. “Why do we have to celebrate her life when she hardly lived one?” I whispered back.
“Because that is what is done, Roanne. She must be celebrated and remembered.” My mother said.
I have forgotten what my mothers voice really sounds like. I think I remember bits of soft song when I was younger and if I concentrate hard enough, I can hear the ghost of that voice, but it has been so long since I have heard what it sounds like that I don’t know if I’m making up the timbre of her voice in my head or not.
We didn’t often gather together as one group but reserved those times for weddings and funerals. Part of me liked the balance of it, that we gathered to celebrate life and honour death, but part of me wondered if there was ever a time when you gathered for no reason at all. There were often quite a few people in the market, but not the whole town, not all at once.
It was difficult when we all got together like this. We had to be careful to be extra quiet and move slowly so as not to make any noise. We didn’t want to attract the attention of the minotaur. This happened once when we were having a celebration and the children had been playing a little too loudly, despite their parents attempts to quiet them down. That was a day that ended in blood. I can still remember the sounds the children made that day.
Each of the villagers have claimed a spot for themselves within the labyrinth, a spot to call their own and to give us privacy. It gives us the semblance of having a home even though none of us really do. Mother lucked out and we have a large section of nearly three hundred square feet. Some of the walls within this section have fallen down over time and we’ve used these as shelves cubbyholes in which to keep our belongings, few as they are.
Each area that belongs to a family is marked with a symbol on the walls closest to where they sleep. Ours is marked with the symbol of a phoenix. Mother says that they are mythical birds that used to burn themselves up and then would be reborn from their ashes. She often says that we will be reborn one day and that we will be able to move out of the dark and into the light. I don’t have the heart to tell her that this will never happen. I was born here. The labyrinth is all that I have ever known.
As we are leaving our part of the labyrinth, my mother hands me a jar. “Roanne, come here.” She whispers. She reaches into a wooden box and pulls out another jar. That jar seems like it is full of light, but it is actually full of glow worms. They glow a soft but brilliant blue. My mother reaches into the jar with deft fingers and selects a worm and places it within the jar. It slides around the jar glowing happily. She takes another jar for herself and replaces the main one in the wooden box and puts it aside. We take the glow worms in their jars with us. Each person that lives within the labyrinth carries a jar. It’s easier to see where we are going this way and it’s supposed to symbolize the departed soul finding their way out of the labyrinth by following the light. I can’t help but think that’s some kind of cruel sentiment as we can never leave the labyrinth.
We make our way down the long twist and turns of the labyrinth walls and we’re soon joined by other families making their way to the centre of the maze where the rowan tree grew. My mother told me that it was planted back when she was a little girl, and it was supposed to symbolize the strength and fortitude of the people that lived within these walls. I think that’s a load of nonsense. While it does take a certain amount of strength to live within the walls, it would be better to have a tree that symbolizes fear because that is the force that primarily governs our lives.
I see a few friends amongst the growing crowd as we quietly move forward. There is Kyles with Riley, they are always together. They are like brothers. Riley was taken in by Kyles family when Riley’s parents were killed during the last rampage. Kyles has done something to his hair again for it sparkles softly in the softly lit dark. Riley gives me a goofy grin and puts his fist out and opens it so that all five fingers are spread wide while holding his jar with his other hand. It is our gesture to say hello. I return the gesture as does my mother.
Janice and Hugo walk by not making any motion to me, but Janice does spare me a glance. I see the pain in her eyes for an instant and then it is gone, replaced by the coolness that her and I now share towards each other. There are some things that the heart can’t forgive, it seems. Janice pulls on Hugo’s arm and clutches it, almost making him trip and fall. He stops himself just in time. His jar almost falls from his grasp, but Hugo rights it at the last second, the glow worms inside his jar flickering for a moment and then shining brightly again.
Everyone around them glares at them. We all know what would have happened if the jar had fallen and shattered. It would have brought havoc down upon us. One person makes a gesture that is still used today and is well known. The woman holds out her arm and raises a middle finger at them. A few other people repeat the gesture. Even without words, their displeasure is evident. Janice merely nods and casts her eyes down. She still holds on to Hugo, but not as tightly as before.
We all continue walking, our footsteps as silent as possible. All that can be heard is the occasional footstep and the sound of the wind passing through the maze. There is the occasional sound of a bird that has somehow found its way into the labyrinth but the birds don’t rouse the minotaur. Only we have that privilege.
Moving through the labyrinth, we all find our way quietly to the centre of the maze. Some people wear worried looks on their faces. These are the people that don’t like to congregate in case it draws too much attention. The other people wear looks of frank curiosity. They may not have ever seen the girl who is laid out on the altar before the rowan tree.
There is no way of knowing how many people live within these walls. Sure, someone tried to do a census once and tried to canvas the entire labyrinth, but it’s too vast. One would think that it goes on forever, but I know that there’s an ending to it. Our part of the maze is close to one of the outside walls. I know this because I can feel the wind through the wind when I am walking in the corridors that are nearby. There are sometimes when the air smells so sweet, it makes me think of what summer would smell like.
There are about one hundred and fifty people here, gathered closely together. I can see Suze and Ekral. They are standing with their youngest daughter Chayle who looks frightened, her eyes huge and haunted in the glowing light that now fills the air. I offer them a smile and they nod and offer me a smile. Suze points at me and Chayle looks, her face breaking out into a smile.
The oracle stands by Persephone’s body. She raises her hand in the air in a gesture that clearly says “Stop”. There is no chatter to quiet down as we are all terrified of making any noise, so there is little for us to stop. The oracle nods as if she has spoken. What happens now is a series of hand gestures that take the place of words. We watch the oracle as she signs, and it looks as if her hands are singing.
“We have lost one of our own. She was taken from us by the labyrinth too soon. Now we send her home, back to the sky from which she came.”
She puts both of her hands to the sky and we know that this is our cue. We all unscrew our lids of our jars. I watch as my glow worm thinks about it for a moment and then flies out of the jar, glowing a phosphorescent blue. Hundreds of glow worms fly toward the sky and then they move as one towards the tree. It looks as if the leaves themselves are glowing. This is supposed to symbolize Persephone’s journey into the sky. The glow worms are the representation of her spirit while her body remains here. I’ve always loved the symbolism behind this part of the ritual. It’s like poetry in motion.
We all say our own individual prayers to the deceased. I didn’t know Persephone well, but I did know her. She was a friend of a sort, someone that I would say hello to if I ran into her while I was at the market. I try to send her the sound of laughter so that she won’t be afraid on her journey, wherever it may take her. Though no one makes a sound, I can hear the internal sigh from all that are here. They are glad the service is over, they can go home.
Except as people start to move away, the air is split open with the most horrible sound. Even though I’ve lived in the labyrinth for seventeen years, that sound still sends a chill down my spine. It is the same for everyone else. I see fear in everyone’s gazes and those that were already sporting a look of worry are now wearing a look of terror. It sounds like metal teeth eating tin foil and screaming at the same time. When the ground begins to shake around us, I know that we only have a few moments. The minotaur has woken.
Soon, the carnage will begin.