“And for those of you with children – please keep them close, okay?” He glanced towards Ann. “Believe me, you don’t want to lose her down there.”
“No,” I said, “of course not.”
“That’s what I hoped to hear!” The guide winked.
On the way down Ann held my hand tightly. Except for the one light bulb right above our heads the world seemed to be made of metal bars and the dark stone of the shaft.
Not five minutes later we stood at the entrance to a vast cave that seemed to be a world of its own; heaps of stones appeared like small hills, in between them reflections revealed ponds of different sizes.
“Imagine what this kid must have felt like, when he crawled in here to discover all this?” The guide waved his hands around while he spoke. “There’s a rumor that he was fleeing from his abusive father or something of the kind, but probably he was just fooling around like children do. He must have come in somewhere near the top of the cave and then falls down right into the middle of this planet!”
He pointed to two points near the far end of the chamber.
“I personally think it must have been over there, there’s a few small tunnels that look natural.”
“We’ll go in there?” asked someone from the group.
“No,” the guide said. “Far too dangerous. We’ll take the old galleries, but we won’t be far from there.”
We started walking along a well-cleared path; the stone was smooth from thousands of feet walking over it throughout the years.
“Where does all the light come from?” I asked.
The guide shrugged. “We’re not really sure. Some of it is lamps we built in for these tours, but even if we turn them off you’re still able to see inside the cave. If you want I can switch ours off on the way out and you can see for yourself just before the monsters crawl out into the darkness.”
Ann pressed my hand more tightly.
“Please don’t let them papa,” she whispered. “I’m scared.”
We had to duck to enter the first tunnel; a side gallery that the miners had dug when the main tunnel got blocked by falling stones.
“You have to take a moment and let this sink in,” said the guide. “If you look closely you can see that this tunnel was dug from both sides.”
He grinned and pointed towards a protrusion on the wall.
“Around here they must have met; just imagine that, you are down in the mine, hear a rumble, and when you turn back your only way out has collapsed. All you got are a few oil lamps and your pick axe and you have to shovel and hack your way out before your own light flickers off. And you just have to hope that your buddies on the other side are also digging in the right direction and that you’ll meet in the middle.”
“But they knew the others were digging? That there were people coming to save them?”
“We can’t say for sure.” The guide waved us onwards, but Ann stopped to touch the protrusion and I waited with her; her hand in mine. “But these walls are very porous. I suppose that’s also how the light comes in here, but you sometimes can hear sounds through these walls, even if they are a few meters thick you might lean against them and hear a voice on the other side.”
Ann shivered at his words and we picked up the pace to get back to the group.
“There’s lots of stories about this place.” The guide nodded at his own words, waving his flashlight forward. “My favorite one is that you never know whether the voice you hear is another man’s or the spirits of this place, trying to lure you further in.”
A mild echo seemed to follow everything the man said.
We walked onwards; the tall ones among us occasionally had to duck to avoid low ceilings. The walls of the gallery were broken by holes and gaps, each one of which made you wonder whether it was just a small corner use to store materials or sit and rest, or whether it was the entrance to another tunnel on its own.
The guide stopped occasionally to wait for the group and point out details – stalactites here, a piece of ore there and the occasional spooky tale about the mine’s dark 200 years. Still, mostly he just talked only to the two young guys walking at the front right behind him. Often he stopped for a short second, pointed inside a hole, mumbled a few words, and when those at the front had looked he would nod and walk on.
Ann wanted more. She was in her playful mode, touching every one of the stones of different shapes and sizes and colors. She liked to feel the smooth ones, which seemed to have split naturally, and she also liked the rough ones when I pointed the marks of human labor out to her. Occasionally we fell behind and I had to pull Ann forward to make sure we would catch up with the group.
We stopped again at a large cave.
“This looks a bit like the first one, but I promise you it’s another cave.” The guide smiled. “Or if you don’t believe me, try to keep track of which direction we’re walking.”
The group let out a weak laughter.
“We’ll now take one of the smaller drifts back. Many of those weren’t made by adults and are not really up to size, so I hope none of you will get stuck, right?”
He looked around the group and again a somewhat more confident laughter followed.
“Actually,” he said. “It’s a bit of a bitter joke. Most of the smaller tunnels were really dug by kids.”
He turned to Ann. “How old are you?”
Ann moved closer to me. “Eight,” she said.
“Ah, okay, you have another year then.” He smiled. “Most of the kids they sent down her were around 9 or 10, and by the time they were 15 they already didn’t fit the small tunnels anymore so they had to change from digging to being part of the team that transported the materials back to the shaft.”
Ann held onto me again, but the guide began to describe the logistics of the mine and she lost interest. She wandered to the side, freeing herself from my grip to pick up a few stones.
“Quite a lot of people died down here,” the guide was leaning against the wall. “Most often when a tunnel broke in or something like that, but sometimes also because a kid would climb too far into one of the smaller tunnels and then just not be able to climb back -”
A loud click and in an instant the world turned pitch black. Some people screamed. I felt for Ann’s hand but couldn’t find her.
“- out.” Said the guide. Then he laughed.
Another click followed and one after the other the lights sprung back on. The guide took a step away from the wall to reveal a switch. The group laughed, relieved, and I relaxed when I saw Ann a few steps away with tears in her eyes. I went to hug her.
“Sorry,” I whispered. “I didn’t know it would be like that.”
“Alright,” said the guide. “As you see it’s only the main cave that is lit by itself. But now that you’re all awake let’s head back out. Just remember this is what it was like for most of the miners down here – often they were alone for an hour or two or three and the only thing they had to keep them company was their light – and if that went out and they didn’t manage to rekindle it, then they’d have to find their way back to the next person that still had it burning.”
We were walking through even narrower tunnels with branches going off in a near-infinite number of directions to each of the sides, sometimes even straight up or what seemed to be straight downwards. This time Ann kept close, and so did the rest of the group.
Our narrow tunnel, not even big enough for two people to easily pass and only lit by the dim electric light the tour company had installed, slowly brightened up; finally, after a long curve in the tunnel, the brightness of a cave came back in sight.
“We’re now getting back to the first cave,” said the guide. “When we get in there I’ll turn the light off for five minutes or so, just that you can admire how bright it is even without the electricity, okay?”
He stopped and squeezed himself against the wall to allow the group to pass, smiling a bright smile at each one of us.
“Don’t be scared,” he said to Ann, who was right behind me. “You’ll really like it, believe me!”
We were still a few steps away from the cave when the lights went out.
“Fuck,” said a voice somewhere behind us.
We walked further to the entrance of the cave; blinded by how bright it was compared to the darkness of the tunnel we were in.
The light turned back on.
“Sorry,” the guide shouted. “That wasn’t me. I’ll turn it off now.”
A loud click followed and only in the darkness I noticed that my hand was empty.
“Let’s go into the cave,” I said.
I took a few steps and heard more footsteps behind me, walking forward. Turning back I could only see black; no shapes, no blurry shadows, nothing.
“Ann, come please.”
I took a few steps back to feel for where she must have been, my arms stretched out to feel her in the darkness.
A warm body.
“Hey!” said a woman.
The woman squeezed by.
“Ann?” I said again, louder. “Ann, where are you? Say something.”
But she didn’t say a word.
Not when I said her name louder; screamed it.
Not when the light went back on.
Not when a dozen people were shouting her name and looking into every hole and gap and tunnel entry.
Not when I crawled into the nearest side tunnel until I could not move forward, then back and in the next.
Not when the search crews came with bright lamps.
Not when they brought search dogs that seemed to only run in circles.
Not, for every one of those days that we climbed back in there and squeezed through every possible hole and crack to find just more and more tunnels. Not while the search dogs seemed to get only more confused by the day, so that they barked towards the walls or shallow ponds or openings high in the cave wall that we rushed towards – to find again just new tunnels and caves.
“We knew this mine was huge,” said the guide. “But there’s far more tunnels than I would ever have guessed.”
Not for days, a week, two weeks.
And all this time, wherever I was, running, crawling, climbing through these tunnels, I always had the feeling that she was near; that I heard her voice whispering to me through the walls. Sometimes I even thought she was laughing.
It was tuesday again. That made it three weeks.
My wife had already screamed at me, in anger and tears, that I would be the one tell our little one that her big sister would not come back. That she had told me not to take Ann down there. That it was all my fault.
I overheard the tour guides discuss, down there during the search, how they would sell it; whether that would keep tourists away or get more of them in.
And I could do nothing, except to go down there every day, with police or taxi drivers or tour guides, or whoever was willing to come, and shout her name and run down these corridors until I thought I heard her voice again and pressed my ear against the wall – to hear nothing except my own breathing.
The volunteers had long given up; now the police and guide too said it was hopeless; that she must have fallen in somewhere; that it would be impossible to keep looking.
Maybe it’s true that there’s nothing worse than hope; that it would have driven me insane.
And then I sat there, crying, just a few steps away from the entrance to the cave. The guide had said that they’d restart their tours the next day.
“The authorities are okay with it.” He nodded with what seemed like a smile. “I understand how that must feel, but there are not many jobs around here, you know?”
They were waiting for me to come back into the cave, so that they could trod home to their wives and dinners and children.
“We gotta turn the light off soon, okay?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes,” I shouted back towards the cave.
But I was far from okay.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I heard her voice again, whispering, giggling.
“Ann, I whispered”
Her voice again in my head, now sad. It sounded as if she said “I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too.”
“Don’t forget me,” she said. “I’ll try to come back.”
Then the light went off. Without a sound.
Someone in the front shouted towards me, whether I was okay.
And I cried.
Her voice was louder.
“Papa, where are you?”
I sat straight.
Something cold touched my face, then wrapped itself around my neck. An arm.
“Papa, is that you?”
I felt for her in the darkness; touched her shirt, her body.
I pulled her close; hugged her; held her.
“I missed you,” she said. “I’m sorry, I lost track of time.”
“Where were you?”
I slowly got up, not letting go, heaving her up.
“Don’t squeeze me so hard,” she said. “I was just playing with the others.”
I slowly walked backwards, towards the cave.
“The other children,” she said.
“Hey, you’re okay?” shouted someone from behind me.
A flashlight shone into the tunnel. Just for the fraction of a second it fell on an army of pale faces, standing right in front of us and at her side; the hand of a crouching child stretched towards Ann’s leg.
I screamed; the lights jumped back on; the tunnel was empty again, but I rushed backwards, tripped, fell.
Laying on the ground with a stinging pain in my head, I still felt her weight on me.
“Oh my god,” said a voice. “That’s the girl.”
When I woke up she was already standing there, with her hair done and a smile on her face. My wife was sitting at the side of the bed.
They found both of us unconscious. Me with a wound at the back of my head; her cold and stiff, but after a few hours in bed and an IV drip the doctor determined she was fine.
The local media named her ‘Miracle Girl’; they think the most likely theory is that she fell and that a magic kind of hibernation kept her alive. I must have found her, somehow, after all these weeks, and pulled her out. That explains why she doesn’t remember a thing of her three weeks down there. And they think it’s just my head trauma which keeps it all a mystery, else I would just point out the hole I found her in – and that would be the end of it.
Even my wife doesn’t believe my story and I don’t dare to tell it to Ann.
But the more I think about it, the more I believe it must be true; there is just no other explanation of how she survived or how we could have overlooked her in some hole or crack so many times.
And even if she remembers none of it.
Even if she says she is just curious what it all looks like in the mine.
I just can’t explain otherwise why she wants to go back down into the mine.
I think when Ann said she would try to come back – she wasn’t talking to me.