© 1995, 1996, 1998

       Sometimes I still think of that other world. I often wonder what the people are doing up there. Then I think about why I am still here. I let myself cry on occasion, as I do now. My tears spill from my almost-sightless eyes, trickling in rivulets down my face and falling into the still, clean waters of my subterranean ocean. They futilely make ripples on the surface that I do not see. I can hear my teardrops merging with the water, but I can never quite see in this chamber, because of the darkness. I cry tears of loneliness and joy into the crisp, sympathetic water, giving parts of my life to it the way it, long ago, restored me.

        Slowly, I sit down on the bank. I lower myself into the silky, spicy water, causing the almost-freezing liquid to numb my limbs with cold and exhilaration as I become completely submerged. The water and my own tears surround me on all sides, chilling me a bit. I begin to swim to create the warmth my body is longing for. I propel myself with ease from one side of the water’s expanse to the other like one who was born there. During these cool, dark moments, a memory of that other world haunts the chambers of my mind that used to hold only simple wonder and pleasure at this time in the past; I think of other people instead of only myself, and I remember again why I am still here.

       Though I love the underwater world, my lungs crave the air, and I break the surface with an echoing splash. There in the middle of my dark pool, I spin and let the water slip through my fingers as I press it down. Waves return to greet me after being reflected from the stone walls. They dance with me in playful licks of almost human friendship. After the water and I have had our fun, I slink back toward the bank, moving slowly as the water goes to sleep around me. Then, with a quick thrust of my arm muscles, I heave myself onto the bank and lie there on the cold stone surface, dripping a wet puddle of sticky water all around me. Though it is cold, my contented thoughts warm me as I contemplate the almost-visible ceiling of my cavern. I cannot exactly see the ceiling, but I feel it; I sense exactly where it is in space. I think now about how I miss the people I spent a piece of my life with, back when I was in the place with no ceilings. I feel a bit lonely and long for their company, but I know that I would never go back to them. I am happy here.

       I sit up, my heart pumping hard and my breath chasing itself in and out of my mouth after the exertions of swimming, and I lean back on my hands, extending my foot to play with the water, comforting it with my touch.

       After my body has calmed down a bit, I let my mind wander back over formless time, back to when I was a small girl, and somewhere in my dreamlike memories I recall the song my mother used to sing to me; how it used to flow mellifluously through the slumber-laden air and echo back to my thirsty ears . . . I try to sing, too, letting the song’s amorphous tones find their way out of my memory and splash onto the unforgiving stone walls. The notes come back to me in time, greeting my ears like old friends as they echo around the chamber. This song surrounds me and cloaks me when it returns. It creates a picture of now as well as of the past. Somehow today and yesterday do not seem very different, once I acknowledge that they are similar because time enfolds everything in existence and joins it all together.

       Many a time has passed when I have comforted myself by singing the song of my mother. It is all I remember of her. I have always known this place and this song, but I cannot recall a face to match her voice, and when I try to dredge up some inkling of her likeness, nothing but a ghost returns. Mama used to sing the song to me and my little brother, Clay. He was only a baby when he died. I sometimes wonder why he died so young and Mama grew to be a lady before she died, and I wonder if I will grow to be a lady before I die, or if I will ever die. I do not think it possible that my life will ever end. I have always lived. How could I ever cease to be? I used to wonder if I was a lady yet, but after my excursion to the other life, I know I am not.

       I lie down on my stomach and extend my hand to break the tight skin of the water. I slide my hand down and let it lie motionless, palm up, to wait. This is a technique I invented to catch little fish that sometimes swim by. I wait, and the silence presses against me so insistently that I am afraid to break it by breathing. Every so often I do hear a drip pierce the water; it is a small sound, but thunder all the same. I begin to think about the sounds I know. I think of a girl from the other place who became so close to me that we were like sisters. Her name, the word-label for her, was a journey of sounds unlike any that exist here. I ponder her name: Claudia. Claudia. Beginning with a percussive noise, lengthening into a monotone song, and falling silent too soon. A musical name. Claudia; I think of her often when I am waiting or when I am silent. Her swift movements always made me dizzy, and her incessant speech made my eardrums spin; she never stayed in one place or remained quiet for long, and I was always exactly the opposite, so we often had difficulty understanding one another.

       The wet slapping of the small fish on the bank startles me. I realize my own reflex has been triggered without my noticing this time. I stabilize my thoughts and follow the sounds of the fish until my fingers can wrap around it. It becomes still in my hands.

       My teeth begin to add to the noise by clicking together as I shiver, and my hunger is a wordless command that is impossible to ignore, so I sip a biting cold mouthful of water and stand up, carefully carrying the tiny fish in my numb fingers. The sounds of my wet feet echo off the walls as I pad across the cavernous room that houses the lake. As I enter the smaller chamber of my domain where the walls approach each other, I yawn, feeling inexplicably tired. My shoulders go up and down in a shrug as I decide it does not matter why I am so tired. The shrugging is a gesture I picked up in what seems like another lifetime, when I lived in that other world.

       I enter a place I think of as my favorite room, which is shaped like a somewhat ungainly triangle. It is very large, yet just the right size to consider cozy.

       There is a hole in the ceiling which travels up to the place I now know to be the surface. The hole’s path winds quite a bit and is very long, because my home is very far underground, but I can still feel the draft when it is windy outside, like today. I light my fire underneath this passage to the open air, and the smoke from the flames drifts upward and is forcibly sucked into the narrow vent, going to that vast surface world that was totally untouched by my thoughts for so long.

       I know now that I would have choked on the smoke had this all-important passage never existed, but before, I never gave it a second thought. I had always built my fire here because my mother had originally done so before she had gone. I was so innocent of everything in those long-gone days, but it seems like yesterday. Day is another concept that, like the night, was unknown to me before.

       The passage above me is very thin, but when the weather aboveground is rough, pieces of that world often come to meet me. Sticks, leaves, water, and mud find their way down to my haven and spread themselves across this part of my chamber. I often pick through the gifts of the wind and search for interesting things, and it was in this manner that I found the particularly pointed stick that I use when I cook fish. I use the sharp end to peel off the fish’s skin, and I prepare it for eating by gutting it appropriately, then skewering it on a stick long enough to cook it without burning it. I prop the stick up between three large, water-sculptured rocks and center the fish over the flames. The aboveground people offered me a skewer and a knife for this purpose, but I refused, knowing my sticks did the job.

       While the fish cooks, I decide it is time to execute my ritual. It is the same thing I do every time I am about to eat my last meal before I sleep.

       One “point” of my triangular chamber is walled off by a large boulder, behind which there are a multitude of rocks, small pebbles, and gravel. My mother and brother are buried under these rocks, and I visit them every day. I kneel down and remember my past, remembering Clay; remembering when he got sick and then the last day he ever cried in life, then when Mama and I put him under the gravel. I remember promising that I would watch over him and keep him company so he would not be lonely wherever he was, and I keep that promise. When I was small I would go and stand where he was buried and cry, talk to him and cry because the coldness in my heart hurt, and I had horrible dreams that one day Mama would put me under those rocks, too. Instead I had put her there. One day I had woken up and she was cold and motionless, and when I figured out that she was not going to wake up, I gave her what I thought of as a decent burial. Then I sat and waited to die, too. But all that happened was that I got cold and hungry, and so to stop my constant misery I had gone to the pond and jumped in, not knowing how to swim, and sank to the bottom. I tried to let my breath go and allow my life to dissolve into the cold water, to let the darkness swallow me. Instead, the water embraced me on all sides and offered serenity and peace instead of oblivion. I opened my eyes and saw for the first time the dark, crystalline beauty of the underwater world. I could see under the water, in a way I’d never thought possible, since there was no light. It was beautiful. I fell in love instantly. If it were not for this, I would have no reason to live now.

       My underground empire is very large, and as a child it was a dark, scary maze to me. However, the lack of anything else to occupy myself was an impetus to explore my home, and before long I knew every inch of it; where to duck, where there were uneven patches in the floor, which rooms contained bats and/or rats and mice to eat or avoid, and so on. And the pond where I swim is connected all the way through every tunnel by small rivers and creeks. Some toward the far side move rapidly, ensuring that no body of water in my world ever becomes stagnant. However, the water enters through a small tunnel and its ending is over a steep, small pit, so I never see where it comes from or how it comes to be. Claudia thought it was odd that I never wondered what the water’s source was, but I always took it for granted. It was a constant, a part of life, and it had never not been there. Why should I worry about it?

       I sit thinking about my early childhood as I stare at the two mounds of gravel. I had never forgotten my Mama or little Clay; however, the pain of losing them faded amazingly quickly. This is mostly because I know I have not actually lost them. Their spirits are still here, as much as their bodies are. I can sense Mama smiling on me sometimes, admiring me and touching my hair, singing with me whenever I sing her song. I can hear her harmonies often within my own voice, deep and comforting. Clay touches me more often than Mama. He is always with me, and even though he was a baby when he died, he can think and feel as clearly as I can. I can feel him in my bed, or hear him splashing in my pool, sometimes even see him in my mind’s eye. I can never see him by firelight, though. My eyes do not know him; only my soul does.

       Even though I am content with my life, I still have nightmares. Most of the time, I am looking up and seeing a horrible emptiness above me, and then I feel my feet shift below me. I slip and begin to plummet, hearing a deep and solid yet hysterical voice call me by a name I do not remember as I fall. I fall through a floor of loose stones, with rock all around me and so close it seems like it might even be inside me, and my entire reality slips. In my nightmares, I feel incredible, sickening emptiness all around me. When I was a child, Mama used to comfort me after this dream, but when I awake today from these same nightmares, Mama and Clay are not there.

       Sitting on my knees on the cold cavern floor before my dead mother and brother, I whisper a prayer and a promise in the language of the other people. It is, somewhere in my heart, my language, yet still not natural to me. I speak it because it is specific, but the song I sing as I leave the chamber is much more eloquent and closer to my heart.

       I take the little fish off of the stick and make a meal of it. The feeling of my hunger dissipating seems to warm me more than the flames do. The burning leaves crackle angrily then. I laugh, thinking maybe the fire has heard my thoughts. Maybe it is enraged that I attribute my warmth to a feeling rather than to its solid, physical heat. As a peace offering, I put my hand as close to the blaze as I dare, almost stroking it like a pet, and I smile as I see forgotten images flit through the individual licks of fire.

       A leaf from above falls through the narrow passageway. It lands on my hair and entangles itself. Carefully I pick it out and study it. It is mostly green, I can see by the light of the fire. I study its complicated network of fine veins and its thick, rubbery stem, its shiny surface, its brown spots and orange tinges. I tear the leaf, releasing a smell I associate with the other world; it is clean and fresh, yet a bit syrupy. I look up and ponder that hole, feeling a slow breeze whisk its way down to touch me. I thank it with a smile and a nod.

       I suddenly feel inexplicable nostalgia for the upside world. My voice makes no sound, but my eye unexpectedly gives birth to a single tear, which falls and lands on the torn leaf. I place it in the flames, letting it crackle and give off a new scent. My mind conjures up my own image in that outside empire, and it does not fit, it feels wrong. I belong here, with Clay. Sometimes I imagine that those rare breezes are actually the kiss and touch of my lost baby brother. When I was gone, who could he caress? Was he lonely? I remember that the whole time I was outside, every time I felt soft, subtle breezes, I thought of Clay. I felt haunted.

       I realize that I am crying again, multiple tears this time, but I am tired and must go to bed. My bed is in the third corner of the triangle. It is not a bed at all; it is only a thick pile of spongy, short plants that grow elsewhere on those walls of my empire which occasionally get sun. I usually burrow deep into the soft, fuzzy, carpet-like plants if it is cold, but today is unusually warm for the season, so I just lie down on top. I fall asleep soon after closing my eyes.

       I awake not knowing how long I have slept, but I do not believe it is very long, because I am still tired upon awakening. I sit up anyway, gazing around in the blackness. I realize I have just had the nightmare about falling and being called by that unknown man. It reminds me of the night when I was first introduced to the outside world; the conditions are the same. The weather was hot and windy; the time was the same; the awakening after a nightmare . . . all these elements remind me of that first night. I sit thinking about it, my eyes focusing on the expressive void before me, and I realize I am unable to sleep any more tonight. I just sit in my bed of plants for a while, thinking of inconsequential events of the past, and then I push myself to a standing position, loping sleepily to the place where I keep my bag of alien items, and I place its strap over my shoulder. Then I walk slowly toward the exit to my world.

       On the way, I walk through ankle-deep rivers and kick at the thin water, and I drag my fingertips along the wall on one side, until I come to the relatively new but now-familiar shallow pool. I wade through that, holding the bag above my head so as not to get it wet, then I emerge on the other side, and I climb the rocky hill to a chamber drenched in moonlight.

       I set my bag down on the nearest big, flat stone and take a seat on the rocky floor, staring at the moon. The breeze, though welcome, is alien. It ruffles my hair curiously, lingering about me tenaciously as it makes me shiver. I think it is asking me who I am, because it does not know me. Now it is gone. I open the bag after a moment of hesitation. It holds objects from the other world that are only appropriately seen in light from that world; that is why I have chosen to bring them to this chamber instead of looking at them by firelight. The alien moonlight pours in and casts the scent of the other world upon me. It makes me uneasy but I must have these objects illuminated by the glow of their own realm.

       The bag was given to me by Claudia’s family, when they found out I was returning home. I like the bag, despite its offensive odor. It smells of something unidentifiable that makes me cough, and its texture is rough. But it has a butterfly and a bee stitched onto it, seeming to apologize for smelling bad and for being from another world. It is attempting to please me with its pleasant images, so I smile at it.

       I plunge my hand into the bag randomly and the first item I extract happens to be a small copper-colored circle, known to the surface people as a “penny.” I found it on the night when I discovered the exit to my world. I had just had my recurring nightmare, and as I woke up with the man’s voice heavy in my ears and memory, I realized that the shaking of the Earth from my dream was real. The ground was moving under my bed. A hoarse shout escaped my dry throat, and I put my head between my knees and covered myself with my hands, clenching my teeth and pressing my back against the wall. The ground trembled under me, that ground I had always known to be flat and still, and I heard a terrible cracking of rock as gravel and mud rained from the ceiling. Abruptly, the trembling ceased, and I lifted my head and looked around cautiously, flicking my eyes left to right as I blinked dust off my eyelashes. I relaxed a little, and began to pull pieces of the ceiling out of my hair. The ground shifted a little bit more, and I resumed my former position until I heard a distant, distinct splash of water and more sliding rocks. Then I blinked my eyes in the dark and rose to my feet, tentatively testing the fragile ground as I moved haltingly along it, holding the wall with one hand for extra balance, just in case.

       My world was significantly changed.

       The river was moving more rapidly downhill in one place, and there was a new deep rift in the ground. The walls were loose, and the ceiling almost constantly rained sand, clay, and small rocks. These minute differences were shocking to me, and I walked numbly as each slight alteration unbalanced me more than the last.

       I explored my home, looking for changes. My search suddenly became even more interesting when I came upon a wall that had been split into a wide crevasse. That wall had been solid before. It gaped before me, and my mouth gaped with it. My new curiosity flashed through me, causing my heart to beat faster and harder. The sudden sensation of wonder singing in my body and mind thrilled me. I felt daring. With little fear, I walked into the fissure.

       I was surprised to feel my feet touch a strange dampness in the ground as I walked in the pressing darkness. The water began to rush harder and higher as I went on. By the time the passage began to open up, the water was almost knee level and was trickling along at a steady rate as I splashed in it, breathing new, dust-filled air.

       It was lighter in this room. I had rarely seen anything in my realm without firelight, so this scared me a bit. The room I had entered was basically a water-filled ditch. This water was draining into the way I had come. I swam through the pond, and while I was underwater I touched the bottom briefly. Something small and flat moved as my finger bumped against it.

       I found the penny in this manner. I assume someone had dropped it through one of the several sparse holes in the ceiling of that room. I remember wondering what it was, and I had been driven on by my curiosity to know more about the source of the light.

       The way out was a sharp, rocky incline, and I had to use my hands to help me climb it. I came upon a room that was flooded with light. I saw through a gap in the wall of rocks an ominously suspended silver ball.

       Upon my first sighting of the moon, I remember shrieking in terror and hiding my face. Now, when I look at it, I see its indescribable alienness, but I am no longer afraid. Lots of things scared me that first night . . .

       I had looked at the moon and noticed it was not chasing me, or in fact moving at all. I decided it must be safe, even if I did not know what it was. I climbed toward it and all of a sudden the whole world opened up around me. I stood on the hill that was the ceiling and marveled at the breeze for a subjective eternity, and I remember spinning in ecstatic circles, shrieking uproariously at the plethora of new sensations. The room was endless, I couldn’t even see the walls. My mind began to ponder that maybe there were no walls here. In my dancing, I tripped over a rock and landed hard on the ground. When I rolled over and cast my gaze upward, I found out that there was also no ceiling.

       I dropped the penny on the ground when I fell and found it again upon my return, this time wise to what it was. The penny smells of coppery grime and cheapness.

       When I reach into the bag again, I pull out a dried flower. It is wrapped in a bag that is transparent, and I open the seal on the bag and hold the flower to my lips, rubbing its now-hard petals against my upper lip and chin. It smells bittersweet and moderately foul. I remember when I first picked it. Then it smelled only of love and the dewy hand of sunshine. Thinking of the flowers of the outside realm, my mind wanders back . . .

       I ran back inside the cave after I discovered there was a void above me, but I quickly overcame my agoraphobia and reveled in the open air’s glory, and I managed to sleep through the night on the grassy hill. I slept outside because I was afraid I would lose this realm if I went back inside to sleep, as if it were a dream that I had to stay inside of to hold onto.

       I awoke in my first glimpse of real daylight, the tall grasses dancing around me as I exposed my body to the openness of nature. The sky was a brilliant blue that hurt my eyes; it was a color I had never seen before. There were large, white masses floating high above me, light but looking heavy. They looked too distant to ever touch. I stood up and marveled at the beauty of the scene that surrounded me. I stood there for an eternity, letting the breeze toss my hair and kiss my body with soft, insubstantial lips. I relished this new sensation, but I remember feeling a longing for cold immersion in water, particularly my water. My skin was hot, like when I sat near my fire too long. I remember running into my cave once more and frolicking in the shallow puddle before running back outside, dripping with cave water. I remember pondering the smallness of my realm compared to the wide expanse of this new place. I also remember noticing for the first time my own scent. I wondered if I always had this odor or if it was a result of the recent exertions.

       After my brief dunk in my lake, I felt better as the wind dried me and tickled me with nimble fingers, the sensation feeling delicious to my starved skin. I ventured forth into the beautiful new world.

       I walked for ages. I discovered that the world really was infinite, just as I had speculated the night before on the hill. I was barely able to believe that there were no paths to dictate my course. The boundless space around me made me feel just a bit scared, but more thrilled and awed than anything. There was a striking sense of newness fluttering in my chest, making me tremble as I discovered all the wonders of this realm of light.

       There were tall, beautiful, lush plants growing all over, and I caressed their leaves with my happy fingers and danced in the breeze as the thin branches danced, too. I remember my first sight of trees; they were tall, branching columns of a hard, brittle substance ending in green plants. I remember climbing one and watching the grasses sway like they were made of water. There was a field of color, and as I approached it, I found the flowers. This is where I picked the one that was later dried by Mrs. Darby, Claudia’s mother.

       I smile as I remember the circumstances under which I encountered the flower. I remember my dismay when I found out that, in order to keep it forever, the flower’s beauty was sacrificed. I loved the flowers and I delighted in being surrounded by them, but I decided I would much rather leave them where they naturally grew so they could stay beautiful for their natural lifetimes instead of turning them into ugly zombies of the garden whose lives are stagnant forever.

       My hand holds a mysterious piece of paper when I withdraw it from the bag once again. At first I am puzzled as I study it, and then I grin in remembrance.

       On my first day in the new world, after I had been in the field of flowers for a time and had placed the aforementioned flower behind my ear for safekeeping, I became quite hungry and, upon encountering a pear tree, helped myself to the bottom-heavy fruits. I climbed into the tree and heard a disturbed rustle as miraculous animals that were not bats flew out of the tree, squawking indignantly. I remember mocking their raucous vocalizations laughably, and looking down to see a little girl approaching me. She was the first person I had seen since Mama died, and so I greeted her exuberantly.

       The girl was very young, and when she spoke to me, she asked me who I was and whether I was cold. My speech was rusty at best, but I remembered enough of it to respond to what she said. After all, I sometimes used these words to talk to Clay. I found that what I wanted to say to the girl did not seem to have words, and that frustrated me. I never had that problem with Clay, because if I was at a loss for words he still understood me. I wanted to cry for what could not be said.

        The little girl informed me that I was dressed inappropriately for the weather. I, of course, was wearing nothing at the time. She gave me her sweater, explaining that she did not like it anyway. The girl told me that her name was Kelly, and when asked for my name, I was unable to answer. I had remembered the word-labels for my mother and brother, but I needed no sound to identify myself. I always was me. It occurred to me that I’d never even realized I didn’t have a label and could not tell Kelly what to call me. So she named me. She was very excited about her new baby doll in its big plastic box; she had brought it out under this pear tree to open and play with it for the first time and had ended up encountering me. She opened the box and took the doll out; it was ugly and had a funny dimpled face and deformed hands. Nevertheless, it reminded me slightly of the way Clay used to look when he had a physical body. The breeze sideswiped my face just so, seeming to comment on this, and I went into a light daydream as I thought about him. Something about the breeze wasn’t right, though. I thought of it as Clay at first, but it seemed it wasn’t really him. This breeze was far too strong; Clay’s voice was soft. Still, I could taste tinges of his presence with my skin. I marveled, a little scared, at these confusing impressions. Kelly, the girl, brought me back to my senses by waving something in front of my face.

       Kelly explained that I needed a name, and she was going to name her doll something different than its assigned name, so she told me that I could have her “birth certificate.” So, from that day on, I was named Elizabeth Jean after Kelly’s ugly doll, and I took the last name Darby from Claudia’s family. But to myself I was still Me, I did not think of myself as Elizabeth Jean Darby. Kelly was in the process of teaching me to eat honeysuckle when her mother came and snatched her away, yelled at me for “trespassing” and shooed me off of the property, then left me alone to go my way.

       I still have the piece of paper that gave me the necessary label to live among those other people, but I cannot read it. I just remember it from the hideous cartoon faces copied onto the corners of the paper. I put the certificate aside and reach into the bag again.

       I pull out my only picture of Claudia and her family. It is a floppy, glossy piece of paper with all five of their smiling faces on it.

       Nancy Darby is Claudia’s mother. She smiles at me from above her eldest son’s curly mop of hair, her brown eyes crinkling at the edges and her hair graying at the hairline. She was always kind to me, even at first; when I had been brought to her house and fainted on her doorstep, she had taken me in and I had awoken in Claudia’s guest bed. She treated my severe sunburn and attended to my immediate health needs. But when I was fully recovered, she had tried to fit me into what she called “proper etiquette.” She made me wear clothes all the time, constantly, and she made comments correcting my eating habits and personal hygiene. I still to this day do not understand most of it.

       Ed Darby, Claudia’s dad, smiles gap-toothedly at me through faded blue eyes under shaggy brows. He was a kind-hearted older man, very obsessed with education. He had tried to enroll me in a public school; needless to say, it did not work out, and for a period of about what those people call a month, I had a private tutor. However, I was simply not practically oriented in any remote way. I could not grasp reading; I had a bit of a problem becoming as visually oriented as these people were, and the markings on the pages were colors and shapes, not words. Words had sound, and these pictures made none in my head. Ed gave up eventually on teaching me to read. He still tried to teach me concepts by talking to me about them, then telling my tutor to talk to me about them, but usually I was uninterested and would find the textured ceiling much more interesting than any words. Ed finally took me onto his farm with him, allowing me to earn my keep by helping him feed livestock and groom horses while offering what conversation I could.

       Bill Darby was the oldest brother, with curly blonde hair and kind brown eyes. He and his brother, Darrell, who had the same features but straighter hair, had seen me walking along the country road and had picked me up, after much coaxing and explaining, in their truck. I rode in the back, and Bill, who was the driver, called me “crazy” when I stood up into the wind. The strange thing about Bill and Darrell is that they were both very observant of the fact that I am female. I remember standing in the back of the truck, windblown and yearning for a dip in a lake. The rapid wind in my face had simulated being visited by my little brother, and I felt like he had just told me a story. My body was enthusiastically responding to the stimulus of the wind by craving a swim. Upon the halting of the truck, I spotted a muddy ditch filled with water. I yanked on the sweater I was wearing until it came off, then I dove into the dark pond. When I came back out of the water, I shook my long hair dry and retrieved my sweater from the dirty bank. I found out that I was incapable of fastening the buttons myself, so I asked Bill for help. He was fascinated with this task, somehow. I saw my reflection in Bill’s rearview side mirror and realized for the first time that my eyes had color. I saw my brownish-red hair that was the same color as the odd, clay-like ground beneath my feet, and my eyes were blue-green like a mixture of the sky and a tree leaf. I noticed then that the boys had eyes the color of the ground, and it struck me as odd that the organs I had used to see could also be seen.

       It disturbed me, however, to look into their eyes, after I noticed that there was more there than just a colored circle. I could see feelings and thoughts in their eyes, in a way I had never imagined. Something in both of the boys’ eyes showed me that they enjoyed looking at my body, for some reason. They held some kind of halfway-sleeping hunger that I could not comprehend; I could see it, but I could not understand it. Darrell had a friend that developed a similar fascination with me. He just liked to look at me and watch me. I supposed boys thought I was pretty, but the looks in their eyes went beyond just admiration of beauty. I was thoroughly distressed by this, so I tried to avoid boys of their age as much as possible.

       Then there is Claudia. Claudia is blonde and freckled, and she wears a big smile full of energy in the picture. It is just how I remember her. Claudia used to take me to places on a vehicle called a bus that I never knew existed. I simply followed her, looked at my surroundings, and marveled. She accessed an endless number of activities effortlessly, and she shared them with me happily.

       There were places with large screens that had images dancing across them; these were moving picture stories that I rarely understood but admired nonetheless. Claudia also enjoyed dizzy places where people rode on little wheels strapped to their feet. This was always done to the tune of loud booming sounds that she called music. I did not enjoy these loud rooms, but I did become fascinated with the pattern of the lights. They were almost eerie, they way they were synchronized with the pounding beats of the music. In addition, Claudia liked places with hundreds of hot, cold, sweet, or bitter foods. In these places, I could point at a picture that looked interesting or appetizing, and very soon someone would bring it to me. I did not know where the food came from, and I was not sure if Claudia did either. In any case, we had a number of adventures together.

       I look at the picture a little longer, admiring Claudia’s sweet young face. Then I take out the largest item in the bag: a tape recorder. Sitting there in the moonlight, I play the three tapes Claudia gave me, all quite familiar by now. I like the first one best; it is a tape of soft, melodious chords, something she referred to as “classical music.” The other tape of music is Claudia’s favorite. It is called “rock music” and she used to jump around and scream words to it; I did not understand how it was called “music,” since that was also the word-label for the classical music, but I learned to put up with it. The third tape is Claudia talking to me. It was recorded just so I could hear her voice.

       Claudia had also given me a musical instrument called a “recorder.” It makes music in different pitches depending on which holes on the instrument are covered as I blow into it. When I pull this item out of the bag, I remember Claudia commenting, “Well, what do you like?” when I expressed disapproval in regards to her music. The only music I knew at that time was the song of my mother, and I told Claudia about it. She begged me to sing it for her. At first I would not, but I eventually did. I did not understand how something as personal as music could be mass-produced and distributed, which was what had happened to her music. Claudia told me I had “real musical talent” when she heard me sing, and that was when she gave me the recorder. She asked me to sing my song onto a tape for her when she found out I was leaving, and I refused. I could not bear to know that my voice was on command so that someone could push a button and hear my song at any time and at any volume without my discretion. Even if it would only be Claudia hearing it, it was still far too personal and special to be at anyone’s fingertips. I have learned to play Claudia’s instrument, though, and I have created several new melodies.

       I do not know who gave me the flashlight, but I do not need it or want it. It is more of that “instant gratification” concept I hate so much; even light can be put in a container and turned on. I suppose I have it now because they rely so much on sight, and therefore on light, that they think I need it. There are also a pad of paper and a pencil in the bag, which I use to draw pictures now and then. I draw them by firelight, though, or occasionally moonlight, not by flashlight. I suppose Mr. Darby expected I would keep a journal. He always said I should keep a journal. I did not know how to write, though, so my journal would have to be in pictures if I ever did decide to commit my thoughts to paper. However, my images are just fine where they are: in my head.

       I have mixed feelings about the next object from the bag. It is a gaudily decorated container which, when I raise the lid, spews forth light, tinkery music. I do not like how the music is so easily controlled, but I adore the intricate figurines which dance inside: a boy and a girl of silver, twirling forever. I imagine that the two dancers are real people, loving each other for all eternity. I adore seeing them dance, but wonder if they become angry when I open the lid to intrude. I wonder if they only dance because I command them to. This disturbs me, yet I feel something light stirring in my chest when I watch them. The music box brings me delight, but it brings me disgust as well.

       I find another piece of paper in the bag. It is red and pink and covered with strange shapes. It is from Darrell Darby’s friend who liked to stare at me. Claudia explained that it was a declaration of love, then she laughed at it. But I was enraged. I never even knew Darrell’s friend’s name, how could he love me? It did not make sense, but Claudia dismissed it by saying that everyone gave each other cards like these on that certain day. I always wonder why anyone wanted to pick a day to pretend to love people you do not know; I still do not understand that custom.

       I reach into the bag and something pokes my finger. I pull out a hairbrush, undoubtedly included by Mrs. Darby. It has strands of my auburn hair tangled in its bristles from previous use. But I do not need it anymore.

       I find next a case of pear halves, and I laugh. I resolve at this moment never to eat these cans of fruit so that I can always remember how much these people ate! They always ate so much and so many different kinds of food; they were aghast when I ate three pear halves and then was not hungry for dinner. I could not imagine eating three pear halves and a meal like theirs all in the same day.

       I like my lighter. Despite the fact that it is “bottled fire,” I like it. It reminds me of the surface people’s ingenuity and inventiveness, which I always admired. It also reminds me of the time when I awoke in Claudia’s house for the first time. I was hungry, and I had not eaten for two days because I was sleeping. I found a mouse with its tail caught in some type of contraption and I held the mouse over the fireplace after I had killed, skinned, and gutted it accordingly. When Mrs. Darby came in and saw me doing that she almost became hysterical. That was before I realized that surface people do not eat foods unless they have been wrapped in something or put in a hard-to-open container. I never figured that out, either.

       As the tape of Claudia talking finally runs out, I remember the time when I showed her the way to enjoy the water. She was tired of hearing my complaints about her ideas of fun, and she asked me what mine was. I was ecstatic that she asked me. Claudia walked with me to one of the large, moonlit lakes of her land and I took off my surface people’s clothing, encouraging her to do the same. She exhibited some unfounded reluctance but assented, and she watched me float quietly on the water, move my fingers through it, swim under it, and do all the other lovely heart-warming activities I do in the water. I turned to Claudia, hoping to see her enlightened face ready to thank me, but instead her arms were clenched around her upper body and her teeth were chattering as she complained of the cold. I knew then that we were too different; I was too different, really. The water was too warm for my taste, but for Claudia, it was cold. It was the same body of water and two separate skins.

       I really liked Claudia as a person, but it was actually she who made me decide to go back to where I came from. She was very open-minded, but she did not understand. Despite being a good, interested person, I would always be Elizabeth Jean Darby to her, not Me. I would be the one who did not understand her world instead of her not understanding mine. So I decided to give up the surface world and return to where I belonged.

       When I told Claudia and her family about my decision, every one of them laughed and said I couldn’t possibly go off and live in a cave. I didn’t think of my home as a cave; it was more of a home than this square, artificial construct that they called home. Yet they didn’t understand, and Ed, Claudia’s father, even told me that I was not allowed to go off of the premises, as if he owned me like one of his horses. The thought that anyone believed they had me tethered to this synthetic atmosphere made me explosively angry, so I left the house that very night, climbing out of Claudia’s window. I remember glancing back to watch her sleep, wishing I could leave a note for her to tell her what I was feeling, and to tell her goodbye.

       Walking along the country road in the night, I tried to remember the way the truck had sped me away from everything I knew. I did not wander long, though, because Bill happened to be driving back home from somewhere, and saw me leaving. He had jumped out of the truck and took hold of my arm before I could stop him, and though I tried to get away, he had an incredible strength that made something inside me sing, impressed by his might even though it was conquering me. He pushed me into the front of his truck, took me home, and explained to Ed and Nancy what I had been trying to do.

       They attempted to reason with me, but I stood firm. I told them that I would try to run away every night if they attempted to keep me there. I was determined. When they finally understood this, they could do nothing but allow me to go, since otherwise they knew I would be miserable.

       “After all,” Ed had said, “she’s survived this long, hasn’t she?” I had done more than survive; I had led an enriched, enlightened life. But I guessed I shouldn’t expect them to understand that any more than Claudia could expect me to like her rock music. I suppose they gave me the bag of “gifts” so that I would remember them positively. They didn’t have to do anything to earn my love or my respect; they already had that no matter what they did. But the fact that they cared enough about me to give me such carefully selected items was extra proof of their love and concern. It made me feel wonderful to know that such nice people cared for me, but I longed for my own home, which was also rich in love.

       I also know that I could not have stayed forever in that other world. Clay kept calling me back in every strategically placed little breeze. It seemed he left my home only to call for me, crying in my dreams for me to come back. Claudia, with her modern world, was the reason I had to leave. But Clay was the reason I had to return. So I had Bill and Darrell drop me off as close as possible to the opening of my home. Claudia rode in the back with me, pleading with me at the last minute not to go. She just did not understand that my world was not a primitive one simply because of the absence of light and modern conveniences. Its peace, its serenity, induced an enlightened state of mind. It made me feel alive and awake, instead of feeling closed in, trapped in my clothes and within circumstance. I decided to attempt one last time to make her understand. I invited Claudia into my house. When I told her, she seemed honored. I was glad she understood what a wonderful thing I was sharing with her. While her brothers waited, I led her to the entrance. She swam through the pond with me, but halfway through, she exclaimed, “Stop! I can’t see anymore!” I looked back at her.

       “You don’t need to see,” I replied. But Claudia would not go any further.

       Claudia was cold, scared, and blinded by my beautiful empire. I, on the other hand, felt joy swirling around in me. I felt relief and elation at being back home, and the kiss of my much-missed baby brother. But she could not feel it. She could not feel any of it. I lived in a dark hole because her eyes only worked in sunlight.

        I walked her back out. She handed me the bag of “necessities” and ran back to the truck, crying. I knew I would miss her, but I did not feel sad at that moment. I watched them go. The dirty truck sped down the dusty road and out of sight. Clay whispered to me, the wind of his presence swirling around my feet, wanting me to come inside and play with him. I looked down and saw the penny, picked it up, rubbed it, and smiled. I took it back with me and kept it in the bag.

       So now I live the way I always have, except now, I remember. I sometimes feel wistful and wish circumstances could have been different, but then I go to the chamber that allows the moonlight in. I never go when the sun is up; I learned my lesson by having my skin cooked. The sun is too direct for me. But sometimes I like to sit and stare at the moon, letting its rays entertain me for a while. Only for a while. Then the sheer alienness of it envelops me; the breeze is too strong, my skin has too much color, the ceiling is infinitely high . . . and some of those breezes are not really Clay. They only pretend to be. I love the beauty of nature, and sometimes at night I still like to close my eyes and let myself be kissed by the grasses and the winds, but I will never leave again. I can experience the glory of sunlight as long as it reflects off the moon first, and I can enjoy the outside world from the journal in my memory.

See sketch of the main character