It is behind me again. I can feel it the way you feel light on closed eyelids, the heavy presence of heat on my back. What is it that they will not let me look at?
Sometimes I see my mother, standing in front of me. Sometimes I see a tall woman in a white coat, her chin too high. They keep their eyes on me, as though they do not see the thing behind me. It’s a test, I remind myself. A meditation against the dark. Keep your eyes in front of you, on the light, and you will succeed.
Is it a cave or a lab? I cannot remember. Or perhaps it is a school at midday, and I am sitting with my face forward, focused on my lunch, as though I do not know it is there, as though I cannot hear it.
The woman makes a note, and I keep my eyes fixed before me. I try to smile and she nods, as though I have done something right.
Is it still behind me? But I cannot ask, because I should know. Perhaps there is nothing at all behind me. But it is a test, remember. Does it matter, then, whether or not there really is something there in the dark?
The sound of breathing. I wish I had a mirror. But that would be cheating, wouldn’t it?
Only a few hours now. I can hear it pacing sometimes, but I keep my eyes forward. Did it touch me, or was that the whisper of a breeze?
I whisper the chants we sang in sunlight, but they mean nothing here, are of another language than the darkness.
They told me a story once, of a girl who looked back. They said that it devoured her alive, that it wasn’t really real until she saw it, as though she created it by looking. And I never told anyone, but once when we were at Christmas together I thought I saw her pass by the window of the house, her eyes flicking towards the tree. No one else saw her, but I glimpsed her again in the morning, her face white against the window of the train. Perhaps I imagined it, but there was a letter, too, one Mother wouldn’t show me… and why would I imagine her with a scar?
Is there anything behind me, or am I imagining it? Sometimes I imagine things, it wouldn’t be the first time.
Does it really matter if there is anything behind me?
What if they don’t come back? If they leave me here, waiting in the darkness below. The woman has gone out. There are no cameras, if I turn they would not know…
The inching of the head. Dawn’s light near the front of the cavern. Perhaps the sun has risen, and now I can look?
A quarter turned. My shoulders haven’t pivoted, it hardly counts. That is the light of the sun, isn’t it?
Footsteps, up above. They are coming now, coming to get me. I have passed the test, haven’t I? The woman and the lab, all a dream. I can look now.
Halfway turned, the head, the darkness deeper behind me, thicker and richer than the darkness of nighttime, unquiet. It would be a sin, if I finished, if I…
They are lowering the rope now, and I dare not look behind me. I wish, again, I had a mirror. What are they hiding? Why is it so important?
I walk forward. Snap the carabiner around the loop in my belt. I am facing forward now, facing the light. You can’t look back, not if you want to live in this world; that’s what they say.
Slowly rising. The sky the same blue, brighter than I remembered. Could the cave and the sky exist in the same world?
The rope twists, a few feet from the edge of the cavern, and for a moment my eyes settle on that far edge, that darkness once behind me, the abyss that leads back I know not where. Not a creature after all, but something white, a still, contorted shape, not unlike…
My feet against the earth. My mother holds me in her arms. So glad you made it, so glad you survived, you passed the…
Back in the world again, we do not speak of what we saw, or did not see below. That, too, is part of the test. A necessity of remaining.
I can still remember the girl’s new address, written in that delicate, shaking hand.
“Take me home,” I say, and she drags me forward, away, further into the sunlight.
I will not remember what I dreamed I saw, the night before, deep in that darkness. When I look back the hole that was the cave seems shallower, a simple dip in the ground.
Perhaps there is no cave at all.