I am currently nurturing the fledgling beginnings of my second novel, Below Ground, which falls into the category of young adult fiction. It is about a group of people living underground and is told from the point of view of one of the inhabitants, a teenaged girl called Ruth. I am going to reveal the story one chapter at a time – here is the first!
Ruth opened her eyes and stared into a darkness that was absolute. There was not a pinprick of light, not a shadow that was a shade paler than the rest. The black was impenetrable.
As she always did when she woke, Ruth used her other senses to orientate herself. She lay very still and listened to the sounds that came to her – the deep, unhurried breathing of slumbering bodies nearby, the unintelligible murmur of someone mumbling in her sleep, the faint movement of bedclothes as another person shifted position.
Ruth inhaled, but not too deeply. After a long night shared by five sleeping women in close quarters, the air was stale and unpleasant. It would be mid-morning before it became breathable again, when crushed mint leaves would be placed in little alcoves around the walls, spreading their sweet aroma and making the air fresh once more.
Gingerly, she stretched out her arms; with her body fully extended, her toes and fingertips could touch the opposite walls of the cave. The hard-packed earth felt cool and familiar. Moving a hand to her left, she brushed against one of the wooden pillars that were set at regular intervals around the cave for structural support. She used the tip of her index finger to slowly trace the uneven grooves in the wood, taking care not to make any sudden movement that would disturb her mother sleeping beside her.
They were lying on a narrow, rather lumpy mattress and a thin blanket covered their bodies. Ruth could feel the rough material of her nightdress rubbing against her skin beneath the blanket. It made her stomach itch and she cautiously reached down to scratch it. Her mother stirred but did not wake.
Withdrawing her hand again, Ruth raised it to her face and wiped the sleep out of her eyes. She had never seen them herself, for there were no mirrors below ground, but she had been told that they were the palest shade of blue and, of course, she had been able to view perfect replicas of them in her own mother’s eyes. Her hair, which she had seen firsthand because it hung all the way to her waist, was light brown and thinned into straggly wisps towards the ends. It was quite greasy to the touch because washing it was an inconvenient and awkward process that she was reluctant to undergo very often.
She was just thinking that it must be nearly time to rise when a distant clanging reached her ears. It became louder and louder and she knew that one of the guardians, probably Ezra, was marching through the colony, ringing the bell that signalled sunrise in the world above and summoned everyone to morning prayer.
The other women in the cave roused themselves immediately. There was the strike of a match and the flicker of a flame as a candle was lit, illuminating the face of the woman who held it. At fifty-two, Delilah was the most senior person present and therefore the only one with the authority to utilise the match and candle, both precious and finite resources.
Nobody spoke as the women rose from their thin mattresses and began to dress by the weak light of the guttering candle. They made no attempt to hide themselves, stripping off their nightdresses without shyness before slipping on plain, ankle-length skirts and high-necked blouses. Ruth, too, bared her body without shame, though it was easier for her not to be self-conscious in present company – the nearest to her in age was her own mother, Judith, at thirty-five years. Ruth would be turning sixteen in two days’ time and had the youthful, slender shape to prove it.
When they were all dressed, they exited their sleeping cave through the gap in the wall that served as a doorway and walked barefoot up a long, narrow passageway, following Delilah’s shaky candlelight. They emerged at the top of the passage into a cave that was much larger than the one they had just vacated. It was supported by many wooden beams around its walls and long rafters across its ceiling and it was capable of holding all thirty-seven of the colony’s denizens quite comfortably. This was the gathering cave.
Men were filing in silently from another passageway to the left and behind Ruth came more women, as well as some sleepy-eyed children. In the centre of the cave stood a number of shadowy figures who beckoned to Delilah and a couple of others who also bore candles. They stepped forward to tilt their candles toward the shadows and three oil lamps flickered into life, lighting up the guardians who held them and banishing the darkness to the edges of the cave.
The most impressive feature of the room was now visible: a huge slab of wood erected at the far end. It had been sanded down until its surface was completely flat and across its face were scratches and markings that represented a comprehensive record of the colony’s entire existence underground. There was a stroke for every single day that had passed, from Year 1 to the current year, Year 35, and various initials to mark births, marriages and, sadly, more than a few deaths. The slab was maintained by Master Ezekiel, who educated the children, and he was very precious about it; people were allowed to look but not touch.
Ruth approached it eagerly. The master was there with his knife, already updating the record for today, noting the one hundred and ninety-third day of the thirty-fifth year below ground. He glanced at her with suspicious eyes but she ignored him. Only two more days until her birthday and then a whole new world was going to open up to her. She felt her stomach leap with anticipation.
The cave was filling up around her as the last few men and women entered. She looked over her shoulder and her stomach jumped once more; Benjamin was gazing straight at her. Soft, grey eyes, curly, brown hair and a gentle smile – he was the reason why she was so full of excitement for her sixteenth birthday.
They exchanged secret smiles and then both took their appointed places in the gathering cave, she in the middle with the other women, he at the back with the rest of the men. There were six children who were ushered by their mothers to the front of the group to face the enormous wooden slab. One little boy started to say something in a high, baby voice but he was quickly shushed by his older sister.
Ruth glanced about while they waited. She saw Lesser Guardian Ezra come back into the cave with the bell in his hands, holding the clapper carefully so that it no longer rang. She had guessed correctly that he had been the one wielding the bell. Ezra was the newest recruit to the guardianship, barely in the position one month, and had so far been rather overzealous in his duties – the clanging of the bell had been quite vigorous.
Ezra joined his fellow guardians who were lined up against one wall, holding the oil lamps aloft and sternly watching over them all. Altogether there were nine guardians in active service to the colony but only seven stood here – there were always two stationed above ground, day and night, in order to forewarn of any danger. Ruth spotted her father, Guardian Jonah, among the seven but he did not make eye contact with her. Morning prayer was a matter of solemnity and not the time for father-daughter communication.
At the top of the line stood Guardian Solomon, the captain of the guardians. He had bushy, black hair, a beard streaked with grey and crooked, yellow teeth and he always smelled bad whenever Ruth passed him, which she tried to avoid as much as she could. She was more than a little scared of Solomon and found it unsettling to look into his black eyes which were disturbingly blank and emotionless. Right now, he was staring impassively over the heads of the men, women and children congregated before him as though he could not even see them. Ruth did not let her gaze linger on him for long.
She had just turned her head back to the slab when she heard the unmistakeable sound of a door opening and closing. There were very few solid doors underground but the entrance into their leader’s private caves was one of them. An even deeper hush fell over the people in the gathering cave. Muffled footsteps came nearer and nearer and then a man emerged from a passageway that was almost completely concealed behind the massive slab of wood.
Leader Isaac, the oldest person in the colony, was seventy-seven years old but he looked closer to sixty. He had a strong build with broad shoulders and a straight back, and his skin was remarkably unblemished and unlined for a man of his age. His hair and beard were neatly trimmed and fully grey and he had kind, blue eyes. He alone of all the people was permitted to wear any kind of adornment but he bore just one thing: a long chain around his neck which carried a gold cross as large as a man’s hand with a tiny red jewel at its centre.
Isaac raised his arms and looked around benevolently at them all.
“Let us pray,” he said.
Every man, woman and child dropped to their knees before him.
“We give thanks,” said Isaac. His voice was quiet but it nevertheless reached every ear clearly. “We thank our good Lord that we live and breathe today. We thank him that we are healthy, free from the pestilence that has afflicted the world above. We thank him that we are virtuous, free from the depravity that has perverted the world above. We thank him that we are hard-working, free from the greed that has corrupted the world above. We give thanks.”
“We give thanks,” the inhabitants of the colony intoned.
“Thirty-five years ago, our good Lord gave me the wisdom and grace to lead you below ground, to escape the rotten cesspool that our world had become. I delivered you from a scorched desert of war, a barren wasteland of disease. There is nothing left above but ruin and despair. Below there is redemption, there is refuge, there is freedom to lead honest, conscientious lives. Here lies salvation.”
“Here lies salvation,” everybody repeated.
Leader Isaac looked around gravely. “We live in hope. We pray that the good Lord will wash away the sins of the world above, expunge the evil-doers and restore the earth to its former beauty and wonder so that we, the faithful, may return in glory to our rightful home. But that day is not today.”
“That day is not today,” chorused the men, women and children. Briefly, Ruth wondered how Leader Isaac knew that today was not the day when he had not actually gone above ground to check.
“We pray to God to grant us the patience and strength to live as he has always desired his people to live – with unflinching toil, wholesome thoughts and humble ways. Each of us must now make a solemn vow to fulfil his wish.”
It was time for everyone present to speak up individually, from Ruth’s seventy-three-year-old grandmother, Tabitha, who had made her solemn vow every day for thirty-five years, right down to the youngest child, four-year-old Simeon, who had no real understanding of what he was saying.
“I make my solemn vow,” said Ruth when her chance came. Isaac smiled kindly at her before his eyes slid on to the next in line.
When the last person had spoken, Leader Isaac addressed them all once more. “And now is the moment when we recall all those who are unable to make their solemn vow with us today. We remember our children, Sarah, Susannah, Amos and Daniel, whom God saw fit to take into his kingdom when they were at their purest.”
Ruth looked around and saw a few of the women bow their heads. Those children had been the very earliest deaths in the colony but, three decades later, their loss was still felt strongly. Three had been stillborns and Amos had barely survived a few days outside his mother’s womb. It had been after the fourth child had died that a new law had been made allowing women more open air access during pregnancy. There had been no more stillborn babies since then.
“We remember our children, Nathaniel and Noah, whom God mercifully relieved from their sicknesses and called to join the angels in heaven.”
It was Ruth’s turn to lower her eyes. Noah had been her own brother and a toddler of only three when a mysterious illness had wasted his body away to nothing but a gaunt husk. He had suffered terrible pain before he had died but God had been merciful – eventually.
“We remember our brother, Joseph, who gave his life in the service of this colony. We know that he is now full of joy and peace in his final, true home.”
Abigail, a woman with wild, white hair and wrinkled skin, crossed herself three times. The wife of Joseph, who had laboured to expand the underground sprawl of the colony until a cave had collapsed in on him, she had also been the mother of Amos.
“Lastly, we remember our brother, Tobiah, who was taken from us just six weeks ago. A devoted follower, he now sits at God’s right hand.”
At this, the entire congregation made the sign of the cross. Wifeless and childless, Tobiah had nevertheless been a father to them all. He had been one of the original five guardians who had taken up their important positions in Year 1 but ill-health had ultimately forced him to retire. Persecuted by respiratory difficulties, he had constantly struggled to catch his breath and his wheezy coughs could often be heard through the passageways of the colony in the black of night. Now the nights were quieter but gentle, old Tobiah was sorely missed.
Looking morose, Leader Isaac led them in several more prayers and then offered them a minute of silence to make their own personal supplications to God. Ruth knew that she ought to piously request that the Lord fill her with his goodness but she prayed for her birthday to come more quickly.
After a final blessing, Leader Isaac bid them go forth in God’s name and they all rose stiffly to their feet. The leader retreated down his passageway behind the wooden slab, closely followed by the remaining four original guardians who had all retired in recent years, leaving the captaincy to Guardian Solomon. They withdrew to Isaac’s private caves every morning for further prayer.
The rest of the colony’s inhabitants dispersed to their morning tasks – no one would break their fast until midday. As she was still under sixteen, Ruth would be taking lessons with Master Ezekiel for most of the day, but before that she was scheduled to go above ground for her daily dose of fresh air. Ordinarily, she disliked it when her turn in the weekly rotation fell on morning exposure – the day always felt much longer when the best part of it was over so quickly – but she did not mind this particular week because Benjamin just so happened to be in the same group as her.
She sidled over to him and he smiled as she approached. He was wearing a loose shirt and trousers, like all the other men, and the beginning of his first beard was growing on his jaw. As it was not long since he had turned sixteen himself, the growth of hair was rather patchy and it would probably be a while before it became substantial and uniform.
“Hello,” said Ruth shyly.
“Hello,” Benjamin replied, equally bashful.
They stared at each other in the dimness of the cave, both mute and blushing.
“Hurry up,” said an impatient voice nearby. It was Lesser Guardian Ezra. “You two should already be on your way to the surface. Stop your dawdling.”
Ezra was clearly enjoying the power that came with his new position, Ruth thought dryly but she just nodded meekly and exited the gathering cave with Benjamin.
Without candlelight to guide them, they had to navigate the passageway by touch alone. Taking slow, careful steps, Ruth ran the fingers of her right hand along the wall and was surprised and delighted to suddenly feel Benjamin’s hand clutch her left. For one wild moment, she thought that he might kiss her in the pitch darkness with nobody around to see but he was too proper for that – kissing before marriage was not permissible. He just led her tenderly by the hand all the way down the long passage, past the sleeping caves and further on. Very gradually, the gloom gave way to brightness until they reached the end of the passageway which was flooded with light.
A small group of people was gathered there beside a wooden ladder and above them was a narrow hole leading to the surface, which the colony’s citizens commonly referred to as the vent. By the daylight that poured down through the vent, Ruth could see that they were to be escorted above by two guardians: Lesser Guardian Gabriel, a twin of Nathaniel who had died in infancy, and – she suppressed a shudder – Guardian Solomon.
Solomon grunted, possibly in reproach for their lateness, but said nothing else. Gabriel acknowledged Ruth and Benjamin’s arrival with a curt nod and then turned to climb the ladder. It was an absolute rule that a guardian had to be the first one up and the last one up. Ruth hurried into the line to make sure that she was not second last – she preferred not to think of her skirt being the only thing in Guardian Solomon’s line of sight as he climbed up after everyone else.
She found herself next to Benjamin’s brother, Levi. He was standing slightly apart from the others, staring absent-mindedly at the earthen wall of the passage. Two years older than Benjamin, he was at the age of eligibility for guardianship but Levi would never be a guardian. His face was oddly misshapen, with a slack mouth that drooped on one side, and he had only a stump where his left arm should be, but his physical deformities were slight compared to his mental defects. Levi knew his own name and not much more – his brain capacity was less than that of a fly, leaving his speech a mere jumble of slurred vowels. Master Ezekiel had given up on him a very long time ago. He was not exactly shunned by the colony – Leader Isaac preached tolerance as often as hard work – but neither was he particularly welcomed. Benjamin was fiercely protective of Levi, because even their own mother and father were unwilling to endure his vacant expression and inarticulate mumbling for any great length of time. Levi was a disappointment to them for he was utterly unable to contribute to the betterment of the colony and thus could not fulfil God’s work here under the earth. For Benjamin’s sake, Ruth always made an effort with Levi and found him to be quite an affectionate boy once she got past his pitiable lack of communication skills.
She watched him struggle one-armed up the ladder and then ascended after him, with Benjamin directly behind her. They emerged from the vent blinking into summer sunlight which illuminated the only part of the world’s surface that they had ever seen.
They were in a forest clearing roughly the size of the gathering cave below them. The surrounding pine trees pressed in closely at the edges of the clearing, thick and dark, and no one in the colony was permitted to step beyond them, save for a few brave guardians who were tasked with hunting for fresh meat among the forest’s wildlife population. That particular law was easily enforced for not one of the colony’s inhabitants harboured any desire to venture into the dense thicket; that way led to a world that was plagued with war and disease, a place of danger from which they had thankfully escaped.
Gazing upwards, they could see from the small square of visible sky that the day had dawned sunny and cloudless. There had not yet been enough time for the air to heat up but droves of midges already swarmed about.
The clearing itself was just an expanse of grass and fallen foliage except for one corner of overturned soil that contained rows of sown vegetables and planted herbs. There was also the blackened remains of a fire used to cook yesterday’s evening meal (squirrel and parsnip stew). The oldest women in the colony were charged with tending the vegetable patch and preparing the daily meals. It was a privileged position for they had more access to the open air even than pregnant women and children. Ruth aspired to one day be one of those lucky women, just as Benjamin yearned to someday become a guardian; the benefits were obvious and enviable.
On the other side of the vent, there was a slightly thinner line of trees behind which the newest waste trough had recently been dug. Levi ambled in that direction to relieve himself and Benjamin hurried after to keep an eye on him; his brother was the one member of the colony who would not think twice about wandering off into the trees. Ruth saw Lesser Guardian Gabriel watching them like a hawk. His eyes would not leave the stand of trees until both of them had returned to the clearing.
There were already two guardians above ground, looking bleary-eyed after standing sentry all night. One of them handed Guardian Solomon a cloth bag that had been slung over his shoulder – only the guardians knew exactly what was inside this mysterious bag but the regular citizens speculated that it probably contained some kind of apparatus essential for protecting the colony. As the two now-off-duty guardians slipped down the ladder to pray and sleep, Solomon took up his watch in their place and Ruth promptly moved away from the spot.
She walked across the open space to the far side of the clearing, her bare feet treading on coarse grass and brown pine needles. Batting midges out of her face, she took several deep breaths and released them slowly as she had been taught to do when she was a very young child. Cavities in the earth allowed air to filter down to the caves so breathing below ground was not an issue, but it was not particularly fresh, especially in the smaller caves. Now Ruth inhaled the clean air above ground with relish, feeling it sting her nostrils and fill her lungs.
Leader Isaac had told the colony that they were very fortunate to have been able to create their underground home in a place of such seclusion untouched by human pollution. According to him, by the time he led the first people below ground, most of the earth’s forests had already been obliterated due to mankind’s insatiable greed and deplorable disregard for the environment, and much of the air had been tainted by toxic fumes which made breathing difficult. This forest was a haven for which they must never cease to be thankful. Ruth thought they were even more fortunate that the forest remained unharmed after all this time, thus continuing to leave the colony undetected. Their fear of discovery was very great for Isaac had warned them that the people who savaged the world were godless and cruel and would have no compunction in destroying the colony if they came upon it. But their luck still held out and their forest survived, hiding their existence from those who would harm them.
Still taking steady breaths, Ruth glanced around the clearing at the other members of the early morning group. Apart from the guardians, three people had climbed out of the vent along with Ruth, Benjamin and Levi. One of them was a thin-faced woman named Hannah, aunt to Benjamin and Levi and mother to Ezra. She was bending over the vegetable patch and examining it closely. She would return to the surface later in the morning to help prepare the midday meal for she had just recently gained the status of secondary cook for the colony. Hannah was in her early forties; Ruth had a very long wait ahead of her.
The others were two men called Moses and Omar. Strong boys in their late teens when they first went underground, they had been as invaluable as Joseph in building new caves for the growing colony to occupy. Now they were getting old and had no flesh-and-blood sons to whom they could pass on their skills. It was an unfortunate problem in the colony that there was a distinct shortage of females. Every woman over the age of sixteen had married and borne children but many men were left alone without partners. Ruth was the next girl to come of age and she was happily already spoken for. The closest girl in age to her was eight-year-old Naomi which meant that the unmarried men of the colony would have to be extremely patient.
Ruth felt sorry for Moses and Omar as she watched them do some stretching exercises in the middle of the clearing. They had been deprived of the opportunity to make their own families and Ruth could not think of a harsher fate. She believed that the very best part of life was being able to marry and have children. It was all she longed for in the world and that was why her sixteenth birthday held so much promise for her.
Just then, she saw Benjamin and Levi returning to the clearing and, smiling, started to take a step in their direction, but all of a sudden she heard something that paralysed her to the spot. It was not a sound that she could ever remember hearing in her life – it was an unearthly whine that grew louder and louder with every passing second. She did not know what sort of creature could make this noise but it frightened her more than anything had ever frightened her, even that time when she had been very small and had received a terrifying reprimand from Leader Isaac for lighting a candle without permission.
The atmosphere in the clearing changed palpably. The mild, sunny morning was abruptly darkened by tension and alarm. Guardian Solomon and Lesser Guardian Gabriel acted swiftly and began shepherding everyone to the vent at once; clearly it was of the utmost importance that they all get out of sight immediately. Solomon shoved Levi to make him move more quickly, almost pushing him down the hole. Levi gave a fretful cry of pain as he disappeared. Benjamin called to Ruth to hurry and then he too vanished through the vent.
Ruth was still frozen where she stood. She knew she ought to be running for the vent but she simply could not make her feet move. The whining sound filled her ears, deafening her, and blind fear coursed through her. What on earth was it? Had they been discovered at last? Were the godless people coming to destroy them?
Her gaze locked with Guardian Solomon’s and she saw hot fury on his face where she had only ever seen coldness before. He was the last one still above ground apart from Ruth but he was already half in the hole, clinging to the ladder. He gesticulated angrily and mouthed something at her but it was impossible to hear what he was saying; the eerie wail resounded in the clearing, rising in volume and pitch and drowning out the guardian’s words completely.
His meaning was still clear though. He wanted Ruth to get over to the vent right this instant. She wondered why he did not just come over and drag her back to the hole but then she saw him glance anxiously upwards and realised that he was afraid of being seen – from the sky?
This made no sense to her at all but it was so astonishing that she felt her body wake up and respond to her again. Her overriding instinct was to hide but in her panic the vent seemed a hundred miles away from her so she chose the nearest form of cover to her, the pine trees right behind her. She dashed in among them and crouched down between two closely-growing trunks. Looking back out into the clearing, she saw Solomon glaring in her direction with wide-eyed horror. Then, with a vehement shake of his head, he lowered himself into the vent, pulling a net of camouflaged material across the opening to conceal it, and all Ruth could see was an unbroken expanse of forest floor.
She was consumed with terror. She had been abandoned above ground and something unknown was approaching, its voice screeching with menace. She could think of nothing else to do but cover her head with her hands and pray that she would be spared.
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