The Small Cramped Dark
Bast and Miriam have a secret.
"You mustn't ever tell," Mama says. Her dark hair brushes against Bast's cheek, and she swings up and away, leaving the smell of flour and sunshine in her wake.
But secrets are heavy. They fill you up like swallowed sand, weighting you down inside.
Secrets are restless. They want to be free, beating their wings against your ribs like birds trying to escape a cage.
Bast is afraid if she opens her mouth the secret will come tumbling out, faster than she can snatch it back.
It is Miriam's idea to tell the secret to the seashells down on the beach.
It's cold. A sharp breeze blows Bast's pinafore up and her hair into her face. She has to keep pushing it out of her eyes with her paws.
The sea is lonely and its loneliness makes it angry; it roars and slaps the beach, trying to reach them. Mama says the sea wants to go back to Meridell, where it came from. Mama says Meridell is full of sunshine and flowers. Bast feels sorry for the ocean.
When Bast whispers her secret to a spiral shell the wind tries to steal it, whipping around Bast's face, roaring in defeated rage. The secret bursts out like a bird taking flight, the sand draining out of Bast's insides.
They climb the bluffs and throw the shells far out, as far as they can fling them, hoping the waves won't bring them back to the sand. Far below them the sea rushes in and out, plumes of white breakers cresting each swell.
"Wouldn't matter anyway," Miriam says wisely. "The ocean has our secret, now."
Then they run back home, slip-sliding on the sandy ground, the wind tugging them back, lifting the hems of their dresses and their hair. They run shrieking across the bluffs, shoes dangling from their hands.
Mama is standing at the door when they get back; they can see her in the doorway, a tall Kyrii figure in a white dress with her black hair streaming in the wind.
"Look, Mama is in the doorway like Mrs Prenderghast," Bast says.
"Mama is Mrs Prenderghast," Miriam whispers, and then she runs past Bast, easily outdistancing her with her longer legs. It is beginning to rain and Bast runs toward Mama, whose mouth is open, calling.
In the spring the fields above the house are full of wildflowers. They grow in determined clumps, clinging to the poor soil, nodding their brilliant heads.
Bast and Miriam pick fistfuls. Miriam puts them in Bast's hair. They are luminous against the darkness.
Miriam braids hers into a necklace and a bracelet and a crown, which she gives to Bast.
"Pretend you are lost princess. Princess Anastasia. Your people have been looking for you for years. You were supposed to rule but you were stolen as a baby so now there's a war."
"What are they fighting about?" Bast asks.
"They're fighting over the throne. A poor Kyrii woman found you and raised you, but she didn't know you were a princess."
Bast sits down on the grass, crushing orange wildflowers beneath her. "Who are you, then?"
Miriam tucks a daisy behind her ear. Bast and Miriam are both Darigan Kyrii but Miriam's hair is lighter than Bast's; it is almost red in the sun, which is shining down on them in a rare fit of fancy. It is not often sunny on the Citadel. It is right in the thick of the clouds, right in the thick of the darkness.
"Pretend I'm the brave girl who set out to find you. Oh, princess." Miriam falls to her knees in front of Bast. The way her pinafore billows around her as she sinks to the ground makes Bast think of when Mama makes meringue, the way the whipped egg whites melt.
"I'm not a princess! I'm just a poor girl."
Miriam looks up through her eyelashes. "Your people miss you. They are starving."
"They only have acorns to eat."
"You must come home and take the throne."
"I cannot," Bast says.
Miriam's eyes widen suddenly. She freezes, head tilted as if she is hearing something.
"We have to hide," she breathes. "They're coming." She grabs Bast's wrist; her fingers dig deep into the flesh. It hurts. Bast stumbles alongside her as they run down the hill, slip-sliding on the grass. Wildflowers are crushed beneath Bast's boots and the wind whips tears into her eyes.
She realizes they are running toward the ruined entrance to the Catacombs, set into the sloping hill, jagged edges of wall marking a passageway that leads into the darkness beneath the town.
"What is it, what is it," Bast gasps, but she can't get enough air to make Miriam hear her, or maybe Miriam just ignores it.
As they slide into the darkness, Miriam pulling Bast in behind her, rocks and dirt scrape Bast's paws and knees, and she hears it: the thump of a marching army, thrumming through the dirt beneath her.
Or maybe it is only her heart, pounding in the darkness inside of her, an army in her ears.
In the summer they play in the Catacombs, the labyrinth of passages that twine beneath the town. They aren't allowed to go far, because you can get lost in the Catacombs. Everything looks the same, and it's dark. You have to leave trails and markers, string and stones.
Last summer there were other children to play with. Bast remembers blurry, featureless faces, the sound of laughter. But they are alone now.
Miriam says it's better this way. "I like to play with you best," she says.
Bast misses them, though.
They build forts with loose stones among the cairns.
"Pretend," Miriam says, "this is our castle." Her voice echoes in the chambers, bouncing off the walls that someone built long ago.
The breeze is sharp despite the season. It comes in through the passages like a ghost; blows their hair into tangles and chaps their hands and cheeks and lips. Bast's eyes are always full of tears.
When the angry red sun sinks toward the rim of the Citadel it gets colder, though the summer nights are usually mild. Mosquitoes whine in Bast's ears. She and Miriam sit on the edge of the ruined walls where they poke up through the dirt, and watch the sun slip past the rim of the world. For some people, the world is round, a globe which you are stuck securely to. Bast's world is flat, a plate off of which you can fall if you are not careful.
When it gets real-dark, the sky bruising, the first early stars sparkling, their movements are covert, their breathing hushed, bodies tense as they wait for Mama to call them in. The Catacombs are always dark but they are darker still at night, breathless and full of shadows.
It's this sense of waiting that Bast hates. Sure of the fact that it will happen but uncertain of the time, the knowledge is impending doom; a syrup in her bones, a looming dark behind her.
Miriam's face is all shadows in the dark; Bast can no longer read her expressions. There are smudges where her eyes and mouth used to be.
When Mama calls them they run, streaking up the hill, aware now of how dark it is, aware that the weak sun is gone. She makes them take baths by candlelight.
They eat supper in the darkness. Papa is gone for long stretches and on those nights, it is just Bast and Miriam and Mama. They are quiet. But Papa is home now and they are much louder, telling him about their games, about the Catacombs.
Bast tugs on Papa's arm. Papa's eyes are large and dark and full of laughter, usually. Today they are sad. "Are you being good, Kitty?" Papa asks.
"Yes," Bast says.
Miriam says, "Were there people living in the Catacombs once?"
"Where did they go?"
"Who says they went anywhere?"
"Conrad!" Mama says. "Girls, don't listen to your father. It's time for bed."
At night Mama and Papa argue, their voices rising and falling, leaking in under Bast and Miriam's door like light.
"... should leave. Think about the girls," Mama says softly.
"... safe. Nothing's going to happen..."
"... not anymore, everyone else is gone... Curse..."
"... can't. You and the girls... go."
"We can't go without you!" Mama's voice rises. It has tears in it.
Bast lies still in her bed under the covers, breathing evenly, tracing shapes on the ceiling with her eyes. Miriam lies beside her, unmoving, but when Bast turns her head Miriam's eyes shine with reflected moonlight.
They don't say anything. They don't move. Bast looks at Miriam, and Miriam looks at Bast. Then Miriam slowly rolls onto her side, and puts her arm around Bast.
In the morning they go down to the beach again, and collect shells. Miriam puts them to her ear to hear the sea, but Mama says it's actually just your own blood that you hear. Bast thinks it's funny that you need a shell to hear what's going on inside your own body.
Bast has a new secret. It's heavier than the last, maybe because it is unshared. It's hers alone, and it feels like stones stacked inside her.
Bast whispers her secret to a slim mussel shell, the inside swirled abalone. But this time it doesn't make her feel less full. The shell is not big enough to hold it. Bast is weighted down with her secret.
She throws the shell far out into the roaring ocean, the ocean that trickles down onto someone else's world, their round earth where you can never fall off.
They take off their shoes and leave them on the rocks, and then they make sandcastles farther up the beach, away from the lapping water. Miriam's is tall and elegant. It has windows and a kelp-flag and a moat that Miriam carries up pails of foamy seawater to fill. Bast's is squat and lopsided.
"Can I help with yours?"
"We need water." Miriam passes off the tin pail. Bast grabs it and runs toward the ocean. Her bare feet leave imprints that the wet sand sucks up in an instant, erasing them as if she's never been. She bends down at the edge of the water, presses the side of the pail flat to the sand, so that when a wave comes it rushes straight into the pail, trapped.
Bast brings the imprisoned wave back to Miriam, sprinting up the beach so fast the water slops over the side.
Bast mixes wet sand for Miriam to painstakingly paste into turrets and parapets.
"Is it Lord Darigan's castle?"
Miriam looks up at her. Her eyes are dark. The sun has made freckles on her nose. "Lord Kass's castle."
It can't be Lord Kass's castle. They are all Darigan, on the Citadel. Only Mama is yellow, the colour of the sun, a colour that comes from Meridell. Bast and Miriam and Papa, their spines and periwinkle fur have a name. They are named for Lord Darigan.
"Lord Kass's castle," Bast corrects herself.
"Yes," Miriam says, and she bends her head again.
Today Mama makes them play in the house.
Bast wants to go down to the beach. She wants to go outside. She feels trapped in the little house, weighted down by the secret inside her.
She lies down on the floor in front of the door and puts her paws over her ribcage, trying to hold the secret in.
Mama almost trips over her. Bast looks up at her, shimmering around the edges with the sun's white light. The sun seems to follow Mama, as if there is a little piece of Meridell still inside of her.
"Mama, you're a faerie."
"Get up, Bastet! You can't lie there. I'm going to trip and fall on you."
"But I'm bored."
"Go play with your sister."
Bast gets up obediently, trudges into her and Miriam's bedroom.
Miriam isn't there. Bast doesn't feel like looking for her. She is too tired, too heavy. She crawls under her and Miriam's bed.
It's dark under there. The bedcovers fall over the sides, so that only a little light comes in, filtered through the blankets. It smells like lint and dust and shadows.
Bast closes her eyes.
"Bast?" It's Miriam's voice, far away. Miriam is calling from the world above, but Bast is below now.
Bast thinks about answering. She knows she should answer. She opens her mouth, but the words are stuck somewhere beneath her chin, sharp like a chicken bone, refusing to come.
Her heart speeds up, banging against her ribs. Her palms prick, sweaty.
"Bast," Miriam calls again. Bast lies underneath the bed with her mouth open, breathing, not moving. "Bastet?"
Light floods into her face, blinding her. When she blinks, Miriam's face is in front of hers. She is so close Bast can see the freckles like little splatters of cinnamon dusting beneath her eyes; the myriad shades of blue in the fur on her cheeks. "Kitty?"
"Don't call me that."
"Are you hiding?" Miriam asks. Her breath is warm in Bast's face.
"Then why didn't you answer? I was calling you."
"Will you come out?" Miriam sticks out her paw. Bast takes it.
She slides out from under the bed like a fish out of the water, wriggling back into the daylight.
"What?" Bast brushes dust off her dress. It clings to her like it wants to be her.
"Why couldn't you answer?"
"Want to play paper dolls?"
"Have you ever had a secret?"
Miriam drops Bast's paw. "Like our secret?"
"No. A different one."
"Can you tell me?"
"Is it bad?"
"Then you have to keep it."
Miriam considers, tilting her head to one side. "For a hundred years, at least."
For a hundred years. Bast imagines her secret living inside her for a hundred years. Maybe it will grow, like a seed, into a tree. Her secret will be a tree inside her. Maybe one day it will grow right out of her, stretching for the sun and the air.
They play paper dolls for the rest of the day, sitting on the floor of their room.
Miriam wants to play princess again. "Pretend you're the princess."
Bast doesn't want to play anything at all.
"Hello, I'm Anastasia," she makes the doll say. Her secret is there, at the bottom of her stomach, in the back of her throat, on her tongue. It tastes bitter-sour.
"Miriam, Bast," Mama calls them.
They've been playing down in the entrance to the Catacombs, but their game has faltered. Miriam is building miniature houses out of stones. Bast is stealing Miriam's stones and throwing them, watching them somersault through the air and bounce into the darkness of the Catacombs. She stops when she hears Mama's voice, and glances over at Miriam. Miriam puts a last stone on her house.
"Come on," Miriam says. She gets up and pulls Bast up.
Bast says, "Ow," because it hurts.
They walk back to the house slowly, and Bast twists around before they go inside, looking down toward the entrance to the Catacombs, outlined jagged against the sky. She wishes they'd played a different game today, something better.
"Come inside," Mama says. She shepherds them into the kitchen. Papa is at the table.
"Girls," Mama says, "I want you to listen carefully. Do you remember the secret?"
Bast and Miriam have a secret.
They climb down the passage quietly. Bast scrapes her knee going down the ladder, on the rough edges of the passage which Miriam says used to be a secret way that led into the Catacombs but no one remembers anymore. Bast's pinafore catches and rips when she tugs it free. The Catacombs go on for miles and miles, a whole secret city underneath the town, but this room is small and cramped. There are barrels of potatoes and carrots, large shapes like monsters. They take up all the room.
Bast can hear them; the dull throbbing in the earth, the rumbling. She lies down on the blanket that's spread on the floor and presses her ear to the ground. "Aren't they good?" she whispers to Miriam.
Miriam's busy arranging the blanket. She tugs the side that Bast isn't lying on. It's dark inside the little room; somebody has blocked up the door leading out, and only a little sliver of light comes in around the outline of the trapdoor in the ceiling, far above. If Bast squints she imagines she can see a little slice of sky.
"Aren't they good?" Bast repeats.
Miriam lies down beside Bast. Her knees bump into Bast's knees. Her face is right next to Bast's face. "It doesn't matter. Everybody's good, everybody's bad. Sometimes they don't mean to be, but they are anyway."
"Even Sir Jeran?"
"Even Sir Jeran."
The secret pulses against Bast's chest, begging to be let out. It's like a balloon expanding inside her, filling her until there's no more room to breathe.
There is, faraway, a heavy clink-chink. The room is too small. It's too dark.
But they can't leave. They're below now. Underneath.
It feels like hours, years, infinity. If Bast could stretch and stretch she would never reach the end of this time.
Bast feels trapped here, pinned to the ground with the weight of her secret. The secret that was too big for the seashells and too big for the whole entire ocean. Her terrible, awful secret that she must keep for a hundred years, at least, until it grows up like a tree inside her, searching for a way out.
There is a crash, somewhere far away. The ground shakes. Bast's bones shake, her teeth rattle inside her skull. There is a muffled roaring like the ocean is getting ready to rush up from the beach and wash them away but Bast thinks that is just her own blood, trapped in her ear by the ground against which it's pressed.
"Pretend," Miriam whispers in Bast's ear, "pretend you're a princess from a faraway kingdom and you're lost..."
Bast stares at Miriam. Miriam is very still, but Bast can see the orangey-yellow glow from above reflected in her wide-open eyes.
Bast opens her mouth, and the secret comes bursting out. It's a monster, clawing its way up from her stomach, dragging its heaviness, its weight disappearing, leaving Bast empty and light.
The secret escapes like a fleeing animal, exploding into the angry shadows and the faraway roaring of the ocean that is not an ocean of water anymore.
I am afraid.