A psychology teacher once assigned my class to write a psychological fairy tale. If you have never written a fairy tale, you might be surprised how easily the style of language flows. This is what came out when I did the assignment, without much conscious contemplation, and I stumbled over it again the other day. I think I understand it better now than I did then.
The Girl in the Cave
Once upon a time, a young girl-child lived with her family in the Great Forest. This part of the forest was filled with dangerous beasts and ruthless outlaws, so the family only ventured forth from their hut at night, and even then they had to be careful of the treacherous earth that was the forest floor.
The little girl did not like living in that part of the forest. Their flimsy hut had no fire, and the wind and rain and snow howled and beat against the walls. “Why can we not leave here?” she would ask her mother. “Because out there, it is even worse,” her mother would always reply. So the girl tried to be cheerful, but she was always cold and afraid, and the peace of sleep seldom visited her.
One night while out walking, the girl stumbled and fell into a deep hole beside the trail. Sliding through dirt, she suddenly found herself in a small cave, and behold, in the center of the little cave was a pile of stones that glowed red and black with fire, and the air in the cave was warm, and the floor was covered with soft moss. And the girl lay down and slept deeply.
When she returned home she said nothing of her discovery, but in the following days and seasons she returned more and more often to her secret cave and its fire. And her cave was so comforting to her that one day she did not return to the shabby hut in the forest. She had everything she needed, and she most certainly did not miss the rain, or the wind, or the ice and snow.
Many and many seasons passed while the girl dwelt in the underground cave, and she nearly forgot what the Forest was like. But then, one night, she heard a great rumbling and roaring, and the ceiling of her cave began to shake, and then the stones tumbled down to reveal the black sky above. In wonder her eyes beheld the sky again, and then she felt strange and painful sensations, for cold blasts of air assailed her and water poured from above to make her skin wet and cold. Quickly she turned to put back the stones so that her fire could warm the cave again, but she saw that the stones had fallen upon the fire and it was extinguished. Then her heart despaired, and she cried out to the black and tumultuous storm for mercy.
And there appeared before her a Spirit, black and silver and clear like water, and the Spirit said, “Do not give up hope, for this storm cannot destroy you.” “Give me back my fire, O Spirit,” begged the girl, but the Spirit said: “You have cherished the fire alone, and its brothers and sisters have come to claim their rightful place.” “I cannot stand this,” cried the girl. “I will die of the cold, and I am afraid of the darkness!” “Listen well,” said the Spirit. “I will kindle a fire for you, but soon it will go out, and then you must walk abroad in the Forest to seek anew a fire that will in turn die.” So, when the Spirit had gone, the girl huddled over the fire, still shivering in the drafts from her patched ceiling, and when the fire sputtered and died she fearfully entered the Forest night.
For a long time the girl lived thus, traveling through the Forest each time her fire died, and whenever the Spirit appeared to her, she pleaded once again to have her enduring fire back. “When the wind blows,” she lamented, “I feel that I will fly away with it, and I am afraid. And when the rain comes, I feel as if I must weep with the clouds, and I do not like to weep.” But the Spirit would only smile tenderly and disappear.
Seasons went by, and each season she wept more, and seemingly flew into stranger realms with the blowing wind. And there came a time when it seemed natural to her to weep, or fly, or be frozen and melt. Her eyes saw more in the darkness of the Forest, and when she did fall, she was so accustomed to it that it no longer frightened her.
Finally, one night, the Spirit appeared to her. “You have done well,” said the Spirit. “I give you back your fire; it will burn forever, and here is a new cave to shelter you.” The girl thanked the Spirit and crawled into the cave, where she slept and dreamed and lay watching the flames. But as time passed she grew lonely and discontented, and though the fire was beautiful it seemed always the same, and she realized that she wanted to feel the rain and wind again, just for a little while. She walked to the entrance of the cave, but the Spirit appeared before her. “Where are you going?” inquired the Spirit. “Why would you hazard the storm, when you at last have what you wanted? “I cannot go on like this,” said the girl. “I am lonely, and thirsty, and tired of being warm all of the time without the pleasure of coming in from the cold. I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but it is not enough.” The Spirit looked at her solemnly. “Go, then,” said she, and the girl stepped out of the cave.
As darkness surrounded her, her feet sank deeply into mud that held her prisoner. There came a deafening clap of thunder, and great branches of lightning momentarily showed the thick sheets of icy water that soaked her. She heard the roar of tree branches lashing in the wind that buffeted and bruised her, until she fell and pressed her face into the icy mud, and screamed in terror though the wet earth got into her mouth, and knew no more.
An hour, a day, a season later, the girl awakened, feeling damp, spongy earth beneath her cheek. The forest was strangely quiet around her, and she opened her eyes, too drained to be afraid. At once she knew that she had fallen into a strange and fantastic dream, for no rain fell upon her, and the air was warm, and her astounded eyes beheld trees and flowers and sky of strange appearances that she would later name green and yellow and blue. And filtering through the branches onto her was a pulsing golden light, and it bathed her body in a warm glow like a soft and gentle fire.
Beyond doubt and beyond speech, the girl watched as the Spirit appeared, shimmering brightly with the new qualities that the girl would name colors. “It is done,” the Spirit said. “You gave away your last chance to remain in hiding, and the forces of the Forest have conquered and renewed you. Now you breathe the wind, and weep the rain, and there above you is the original fire that has joined with them to give life to the Forest.” But the Woman on the forest floor did not make any answer in words, for She was too busy breathing and growing and falling and shining, and it is well known to us that important work resists distraction.