The half-naked youth squatted at the edge of the precipice watching the light dim from behind the scraggle of black hair that hung in tatters around his face. Below his dirty feet the precipice fell into darkness many thousands of feet, resolving into a nebulous black fog of dust and mist and viscous odors. His shiny black eyes followed the faraway outlines of the vapors to where they breached against the cliffs of the Otherside, which rose in barren rocky walls to end in the unbearably bright line of the cliff top. Unbearable, and forbidden.
Tahn was up early, as habit had made him. Behind him the family made the rough snorings and gurglings of people in deep sleep. All about him, everywhere he looked, was the silence of his world in slumber. The world was quiet, the people not so angry. Tahn felt as peaceful as the meagerness of his dark world would let him.
Tahn look up again. He could bear to look up into the light that stared so mercilessly down into the reaches of his cavernous home. Silently he kneeled down onto the rough rocky platform and lifted his arms, drinking in the last rays of the waning sun. The dark increased. Tahn slide back quietly back against the rough, fibrous casing that separated the interior of his home from the yawning chasm of the Well and slipped inside it. No one has been disturbed. No one had seen his early departure, his empty mat. That was good. He carefully slid into his sleeping cloths and pulled the casing back against the rocky ledge. It was as it should be. He was alone.
Father stirred first. He always did. All in the house were awake long before him, yet no one moved or made a sound. Father had guessed this and it gave him satisfaction to be reminded in yet another way of his power over this microcosm of a dominion. He rolled over in a stupor and pushed aside his wife, a wrinkled sack of flesh nearing thirty, who cried out and staggered onto her feet. She quickly moved out of the sleeping room and opened a cupboard, where she filled a cracked stone bowl with raw potatoes and grog. She gathered a few nuts out of an almost empty sack and brought the whole to Father, who accepted it without comment and began eating. His dark eyes snapped over the recumbent forms of the rest of his family, still wrapped in their tattered fiber blankets, watching for movement. The morning had begun like any other.
Suddenly Father stopped chewing in the midst of a particularly moist potato and listened intently. A voice could be heard--singing! He carefully put the half empty bowl down and crawled over the rough tumble of gathered blankets, moving toward the sound.
He paused. Mother stood by the entrance to the sleeping room, a hand to her mouth. Tahn stiffened and lay trembling, waiting for the expected blow. Father's hand raised above the covers. His face grew taught.
Like a cobra he struck. The aimless melody ended in a frightened shriek. The covers jerked away from the form beneath and Father's bony, strong fists pulled a huddled, terrified bundle out of the mess. Father stopped, the figure held at arm's length, mo more than a bundle of ragged cloth and two wide, frightened eyes. The bundle trembled as Father's fist clenched and unclenched, poised to strike. Then the fists relaxed, the grip grew loose. The frightened eyes relaxed. Father lowered the bundle to the floor and turned away. He finished the bowl of potatoes and mash and left the room. The bundle on the floor began the humming singing again.
Tahn could relax now. Beatings by the all-powerful Father had reduced him to a heap of pain and blood on more than one morning. The few hours that Father was home were a stress and a pain, but he was their only link with the outside world.
Tahn stood up, throwing the covers into a corner. Mother would take care of them later. He looked at the pitiful figure of his sister still wrapped in the blankets where Father had left her, humming to herself. Mother moved past him, careful not to touch him, and went to her.
Father moved out of the waste area and confronted Tahn. Tahn was the only member of the family strong enough to guard the house while Father was away. During the hours between the long grey twilight of the evening and the dim light of the morning when the portal to the shaft was shut and locked securely Tahn held the security of the house in his young hands. Father didn't like this; he felt hat most often Father hated him, but Father had to a place to come back to, and Tahn was the one to guard it. Father confronted Tahn. His manner was grim. The experience with his sister had left him cold and angry.
"I'm leaving", he grunted. Tahn stood unmoving, silent. "The house is yours. I have to trust you. You'll die if you get broken into; I'll kill you later if you survive. You will leave soon on your own. You must be strong."
Tahn's tense posture increased. That Father was never verbose. When he was most silent Tahn was most safe. He had received many beatings in the house, some he deserved most, he did not. He was not prepared for another today.
"Come," Father said, and gestured to the hallway door. Of the two entrances to the house only one was accessible to humans, and that was the one Tahn was to guard. Silently he helped Father undo the heavy straps that held the barrier in place and moved the stone. The heavy woven barricade was moved aside so Father could access the outside. Looking carefully outside, surveying the darkness before moving into it, Father moved outside. Tahn began to move the door back into place, but at a hiss from his Father he froze. Was there trouble outside?
Tahn's usually impassive face was swept by alternating waves of surprise and fear as Father reached in from the outside and pulled at Tahn's wrist. Father's voice hissed low and urgently into the home. "Outside," came the voice. "Hurry."
Tahn had never left the confines of the home since his birth. No one moved beyond the barrier that marked the limits of their home and ventured the world of dank and close blackness that formed the myriad of nameless and identical tunnels that formed the world beyond. Father did that, and in drunken stories had revealed that only other fathers did the same. To venture beyond the realm of his home was to move into and unknown world of terror and blackness, to leave your soul behind. He hesitated at the door longer.
"Tahn!" came his father's voice, urgent now and strong. Tahn felt the fingers close on his wrist and the pull increase. He backed up, shaking his head and trembling. It was not his time yet.
Tahn felt the grip tighten even more and gasped with pain as Father wrenched with all his might and sent Tahn smashing against the door and tumbling against the damp black rock beyond. In the dim light that peered out from the inside of the barrier Tahn could see the angry silhouette of his blindly angry Father, the rough-hewn outlines of the rocky corridor that disappeared into the black beyond the circle of dim light and the outlines of his own terrified body flattened against the farthest part of the wall. With a stifled cry of instinctual terror Tahn lunged toward the doorway, even beyond the harsh figure of his Father. A sharp blow to his side sent him sprawling back against the wall against which he huddled, whimpering. Father raised his fist again and the boy silenced. The terror of his father overcame the terror of his being in this dark and unknown black.
"Now, you little rat. You are in the corridor. You've never been here before. I think I'll leave you here, alone with the corridor rats and the bats and the roaches and the packs. You would love it!" Tahn scrabbled against the wall with his bony fingers, his eyes wild, staring. A strangled sound rose up in his throat, quiet and terrified. The discipline of the house kept him silent against the roving bands of thieves that stormed along the corridors testing the strength of doorways and forcing themselves in against the homes of undefended old people. People died in their homes against the terrible background of intense quiet, no voice being raised in terror, no one to hear, no one to come. Terrible deeds were done in the dark and the silence. The uncomprehending scream that Tahn wanted to rip out of his lungs was forever stilled by the silence of the dark.
"You are alone, oldest one. You will go out on your own, soon. The thought is not there now but it will soon be. You will want to leave and be a free man, like I thought when I was your age. I hated my father, as you hate me." Tahn shook his head in agitation. He desperately wanted to be free from this horror of a father, this horror of a dark.
"Yes you will, rodent. You must. I am giving you the opportunity to leave me now. See this dark? It is here fo you to enjoy. Your friends the other boys? The beckon to you, they want you to join them in the dark. Don't you want to go to them?" Father bent down and furiously picked up the ragged bundle of flesh and shook him. Tahn stiffened uncomprehendingly against the expected blow. It came, and against the pain his teeth clenched and his breath hissed, but there was no sound. Father grew angrier still of a sudden and threw the boy against the wall. In agony, Tahn instinctively reached back toward the light and the impossible hope of shelter next to his Mother. He felt coppery blood swell in his mouth.
Father raised his foot to stab against the young boy but stopped in mid attack, a faint sound of feet scrabbling down the hall in the dark. As they listened, holding their steaming breath, the sound of many soft-shod feet grew near. Paralyzed by pain and confusion, Tahn lay still, holding his side and listening. With a silent oath Father stooped and hurled the young boy into the lighted home and pulled the barrier shut. "Secure the door!" he hissed. Tahn, hissing in pain, crawled to the door and pulled himself painfully against it. Framed nit he narrow opening left in the door was the frantic face of his father. Together they heaved the door shut. His face twisted in effort, Tahn secured the straps. The stones were just being laid next to the door when Tahn heard a sudden shout of movement beyond and the rush of many heavy bodies running past. The door heaved as something heavy slammed against it, then all was quiet. Tahn set the last rock in place against the barrier and sank down with his back against it. He wiped his haggard eyes and looked up. There, across the room, huddled together int he farthest corner, were his mother and sister. Sister's eyes were dark and round and staring. Mother's eyes were closed.
Tahn was sixteen, as measured by the he passage of snow that drifted down the long dark tunnel of the shaft. Morning were still his, alone and staring, watching the change of light as it fell across the shaft from the staring white hole so far above. Father was not so strong, now, and the beatings that fell across his back were now much less severe. Tahn had developed the habit of staring at his Father as the aging man vented his wrath against his strong young flesh, a rage against all the wrong that was done to a man as he grew old. Never again had he been forced out into the darkness of that bitter hallway beyond the barrier, but oftentimes the thought of the coldness and emptiness and unknown dangers that lurked in that unknown expanse jerked unreasoning pictures of fancy across his stealthy sleep. Father has said that one day he would go, leave the security of the house attached to him and find his place in the darkness beyond. Tahn now dreamed of the day. Father was thinner, now, a man of shadow and stubble, his hair turning the color of his grey and wintery heart. Life in the home had been the same each day, with the turn of life, the cleaning, taking care of his sister, watching for her when she fell, keeping watch over the barrier. Mother was now an old woman of 36, tired and wrinkled and afraid, chewing her potato mash with toothless gums. Often, with the slow crawl of the hours, Tahn would fix his eyes on the barrier that covered the portal to the shaft and his hear would wander to the other hold that swarmed the entire length of it. Thousands and thousands of holes, all covered and unknown, all potentially lit with the possibility of other life.
In a weak voice Mother spoke of life in the rest of the shaft, life where people like themselves lived and ate and slept and made their lives. She said there were other youths like Tahn, tall and strong and alert (when she said these things Tahn would swell inside himself) and other girls, too. Tahn knew that when Mother spoke of "other girls" she spoke of people like herself when she was young, thinner and stronger and fair. Tahn could not imagine what another girl would look like, but he knew that they would not be like his sister. The staring, blank eyes, the soundlessly moving mouth, the jerking walk on spindly legs as she sometimes danced across the floor. No, Mother meant some other kind of girl, someone who was definitely not like herself. Tahn stored these things in his mind, although he did not know what it meant. Like those cures for snake bite that happened when an albino snake would slither down the tunnel and work its way into their sleeping room. Father had almost died of such a bite. And what to do when the white rats came flooding the passageway beyond the barrier, filling it with their flea-ridden bodies and the smell of their waste, leaving weak or trampled rats in their wake. These migrations happened yearly when their population grew too great, or so his mother said. She spoke of the various tunnels int eh shaft, how they ally were planned and interconnected long ago, and how people had grown out of the floors and the mists that swirled back then and inhabited the holes. she spoke of the highest chambers, but only briefly, because these people were foolish and dangerous and lived too close to the light that would drive the best of them mad. Tahn's household dwelt in the middle levels of the shaft, among th greatest number of his people. Below them dwelt the more fortunate ones, with more space and more luxuries and more of the best that their fortunate lives in the shaft had to offer. Tahn often wondered what these other people were like, whether they looked like him or like his father (he hoped not) and whether they had sisters that were like his own marred sister or like his mother when she was younger. (Tahn pictured a girl thin as his sister but with his mother's grey hair and toothless gums, with Sister's smooth skin but the Mother's shadowed eyes. That kind of girl Tahn knew he could do without.) Mother continued with her description of the rest of the tunnels, speaking of the revered and lucky homes at the bottom of the shaft, who did not make their homes in the dank and crumbling walls of the earth but in the warm and endless strength of the earth. These were the very richest and the most proud of them all. Mother admitted she knew little of these people, same as she knew little of those at the top. They were just too far away. Once they had all intermingled, but that was long ago, when Mother was just a girl and the halls were clean and bright. The lights had died long ago, in her youth, and she had never been beyond the close burrows of her own home since, and of course the burrows of this home.
These sessions of information were given of his mother as long a Tahn had memory. He had once had the temerity to ask questions of his mother when puzzled over some obscure reference, but his mother would retreat into her own silence, and silence was the one thing respected most in his home. Tahn was silent then, until one day he had saved a special question deep in his heart and resolved to ask his father of it. When his father had returned that night, not yet too drunk on potato wine and of course after the meal, young Tahn had moved up to him and in his most charming and respectful voice had put the question to him. He had simply asked about the possibility of going to see the ?dcuoseins? of his for the young girls or the people who looked like him who lived somewhere near the shaft. Father had risen from his place at the low table and beaten Tahn so badly that he could not get up to fashion the door shut as Father left. In a makeshift manner the doors had been sealed, and luckily there had come no bands or packs to try its strength. Tahn had never asked another question again.
Tahn sat now quietly in front of the door locked in a trance of concentration as his mother had taught him to keep the peace within himself, but this day the questions grew in him too thick and too fast. The air in the home seemed particularly thick and oppressive, and he had risen to clear them away. He moved to the back of the cave and found his mother, struggling to cleanse his sister, who hated to bathe in the thin trickle of water that never ceased, having been fashioned long before he or his father had lived and they believed it would never cease. From this source the family got all their nourishment. Sister was crying and was cold, and Mother was singing a song to her in the strange way she had of calming herself. Tahn stopped and watched until Mother saw him and stopped him. To watch another cleanse themselves was forbidden. Mother stopped and confronted him. She made the sign to him that he must go. and signed that if his obedience was not instant Father would be brought in. Tahn hesitated, then stepped closer. Mother stepped between him and his sister.
Tahn hesitated, then stepped back and confronted his mother. "Mother," he began, "I have a question."
"Yours is not the right to question," Mother returned and again motioned for him to go. Tahn was much too large for her to beat now. Tahn drew himself back into the next room and listened as Mother finished the bath with Sister. "Mother," he began again, raising his voice a bit. "I have a question."
Mother dame out of the waste area, trailing a bedraggled and crying Sister behind her, swaddled in drying cloths. She glared up at him with eyes that burned of resentment, but also with something a deep and buried fear. Sister moved off to play among the blankets. Tahn confronted her again.
Mother's reaction was instantaneous. Angry fists tor and dash against him, rage spewed out of the screaming square of her mouth. Her thin, bony arms railed against her in a torrent of tempestuous anger that boiled out in frustration, age and crusted terror. The aging whirlwind spattered against Tahn, driving him out of the room and against a wall. Together they fell in a heap against a rock wall and tangled onto the floor. Tahn rolled easily away from the threshing mass that was his mother and stood up, watching her. Gasping now from the effort, Mother threw a tangling blanket away from her and sat against the wall, breathing heavily. Her breath came in ragged gasps and her eyes were swollen, closed. She was crying.
"Mother," Tahn gasped, disbelief and concern on his face. "What is it? How can I help? Mother!" Tahn moved to her side, avoiding her weakly flailing fists and weaker protestations. He lifted her forward and bent her head down to aid her coarse breathing. Sister huddled among the sleeping blankets, uncomprehending terror on her face. She began to wail. After a few moments Mother's breathing eased. Tahn stood back and looked silently on.
Mother stared painfully at him. "You grow, don't you, little one? You will leave soon, yes you will. You dare to ask me questions, to push against the stone, to disobey me?" Rage spittled up inside her again and she could only rage in choked hissing until her breath returned. She leaned back weakly against the wall.
"Mother," Tahn said, moving closer to her. "Father said I would leave. You now say I will leave. I know nothing of this." Tahn bent close to he now and offered her the water he had just gotten from the waste room. "Please," he urged, "Tell me now."
Mother gurgled and sputtered against the water and rested for a minute, then pushed him away. She made as if the stand up and Tahn helped her. Together they staggered to one of the stools nearby.
"You will leave soon, yes, ragged one. Do you not know what your father was doing when he hurled you out that door? Do you not know? Do you think it is for not that your Father and i have spent os many years raising a rag such as yourself, for nothing, eh? No! It is for to guard our home, to have a son to keep us secure, to feed your Father and me as we grow old!"
"Look at our bodies! Are we not old? Our skin sags against our brittle bones, our teeth lay rotting out of our mouths. Your Father can no longer run with the packs or work and the diggings like he could before. We had hoped that you would be different, would not be an asker, not wonder what lay in the darkness beyond. But no, you are too like your cursed Father, to much like my own Father and my thrice-cursed brothers. Their bones will rot long before my old bones have given away!" At this Mother cackled a coughing laugh, until, holding her sides, she stopped for breath.
"Your father, like my father before him, left his home years ago. He was a youth, much like yourself, young and smooth skinned and asking questions. His father tried to silence him but the questions kept coming. Tried to silence his asking and dreaming by throwing him into the hallway like your Father did you, only your Father did not make in back inside like you. Another Pack had come and broken the door in before it could be secured. Your Father's older sister and himself were stolen away that night, their parents murdered before their eyes like they murdered mine. His Father tried--" Another fit of coughing shook her. Tahn filled the cracked stone cup from the stream again and sat beside her. "His Father tied to terrify him into staying with the house, show him the horror of the darkness beyond the safety of the house, but he failed. He tried to terrify your Father into staying away from the darkness and instead unleashed the bloody darkness against himself. Your Father tried the same thing against you, and almost succeeded. You make it back. Your Father almost did not. Don't you see, son," she said, leaning close. "We need you. Who will feed us in our old age?" After that Mother was silent for a long time, staring up at her only son, tears rimming her eyes, silence filling their empty house.
Son remained in the home for a long time after that. Father still beat him but was most often taken with spasms of weakness and unable to leave. Days passed at times where no food could be gotten except for the few rats and stray snakes that Tahn could trap by luck and craft. Father had hobbled out one day, old and grey and withered and failing, into the darkness that no longer seemed so empty and terrifying to Tahn. He did not come back for a long time, not till long after dinner had been taken.
Tahn squatted dutifully by the door