I. The Patient
Dr. Dmitri Armaninov turned a stainless steel handle, opened a thick wooden door, and walked into a small white room. The room contained several things: another steel-handled wooden door, leading to a bathroom; a wheeled cart bearing food, water, needles, syringes, and several instruments of medical examination; a large bed with a white mattress and leathern wrist and ankle straps but no sheets; a harsh overhead light fixture flush with the ceiling; a white-garbed nurse with curly light brown hair; and, finally, a young woman who sat rigid on the bed.
The defining feature of this young woman was her complete lack of hair. Her bald head was amply bandaged, burning red welts of skin showing at the edges of the gauze. Her neck was wrapped in ribbons of protective material, and her thin hospital gown, white with blue polka dots, bulged where further bandages wound around her arms and legs. She wore large, puffy white mittens, and her feet and the lower fourths of her legs were housed in mitten-like boots with voluminous outer padding. Her eyes, their eyelashes gone, were wet and swollen, and bloodstained strips covered the absence of her eyebrows. The swell of bandages around and between her thighs confirmed the painful extent of her condition.
When Dr. Armaninov entered, the nurse was feeding the patient oatmeal with a plastic spoon. The patient’s injured eyes were cast down and her expression was sullen. When she heard and then saw the room’s new occupant, she flinched, swallowed, and refused the next spoonful. The nurse looked at the bowl, which was still half-full, then back at the patient.
“You should eat, Miss Lancet,” said the nurse. “Your body needs energy to heal.”
Miss Lancet shook her head in evident distress.
Dr. Armaninov gave the nurse a small sign with his hand and said: “Leave the water with us, Katerina.”
Katerina nodded, replaced the spoon in the half-empty bowl, put the water bottle on the bed near the young woman, and pushed the cart out of the room. Dr. Armaninov carefully closed the door and turned back to his latest patient.
“Hello, Miss Lancet,” he said. “My name is Dr. Armaninov. Katerina will bring a chair in just a moment, and then I can ask you some questions.”
Miss Lancet just stared, her eyes betraying that mixture of hatred and fear with which Dr. Armaninov had become so familiar during his long years of psychiatric practise. The doctor chose to remain silent until Katerina had brought the chair, re-exited the room, and, knowing that her superior would be listening, closed the door with a gentleness comparable to his own.
“So,” he said as he sat. “Miss Lancet. Is there anything you’d like to start with?”
She shook her head.
“Okay,” the doctor continued. “I like to be straightforward with my patients, so I’ll ask you this: why did you pull out all of your hair?”
A ferocious shiver gripped the young woman’s body, and she hugged herself with her mittened hands.
The doctor had to suppress a tiny shiver of his own. He recalled a time five years ago when he had been running late to a dinner party and had managed to tangle a comb in his graying hair. The knot had been so hopeless, and his hurry so great, that he had simply mustered all his strength and yanked the implement out. The pain had bothered him for the rest of the night. Whatever the nature of this woman’s insanity, she did not have a weak will.
This train of thought gave him an idea. “It must have been very hard to do,” he told the woman, consciously furrowing his brow in sympathy.
“It was easy,” she blurted.
Dr. Armaninov remained silent. He sensed that she would go on.
“It was really easy,” she said, speaking quickly, rocking back and forth. “Every time I pulled out more it was like I got farther away from that… that… you have to take it out. Take it all out when it grows back. Wax it. Give me chemo or something, I don’t care. I’ll kill myself if you don’t. I never want to feel it again.”
The doctor leaned forward, clasping his hands. “Why do you want us to do that?”
“I don’t want… hair.” She shuddered. “Fucking hair! I had no idea it could…”
She trailed off and rubbed the mittens against her eyes as if trying to dislodge a persistent image from her visual cortex.
“Do you think you could tell me why not?”
She shook her head, hard. “You’ll never understand. No one will ever understand. Nobody.”
Dr. Armaninov smiled. “Then maybe you tell me, and I don’t understand. Would that really be so bad?”
“I’ll have to look at your stupid face asking stupid questions like I’m some kind of fucking hallucinator!”
“But,” the doctor pointed out, “you’ll be able to tell someone about what you’ve experienced, and that might help you to feel better. It’s not the same as telling yourself.”
The woman shot him a venomous glare. “What makes you think I’ve experienced anything? Maybe I’m just like this.”
“I have a good eye for these things,” said the doctor. “That’s why I work here.”
“Okay, if your eye is so fucking good, then you tell me what’s wrong with me.”
The doctor made a show of thinking for a moment, then said: “It looks like you endured something very bad, and you dealt with it by removing your hair.”
“That’s really genius,” Miss Lancet hissed. “Why don’t you leave me alone and go pick up your Nobel Prize?”
She was now scrabbling at her face with the mittens. Dr. Armaninov kept watch to ensure she did not begin to dislodge the bandages above her eyes.
“I’m not really in the line of work where you can win one of those,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “And I’d like to help you.”
“You look like you’re in a lot of pain,” he said. “It’s my job to reduce it as best I can.”
She rubbed the back of one mitten against her chin.
“Why is it you think no one will understand you?” he asked.
“I saw something!” she shrieked. “People don’t see things like that! People don’t… oh, god!”
She started to squeeze her face between both mittens, pulping it, turning it red.
Dr. Armaninov chose a less direct approach. “When did you see it?”
“Fuck me if I know,” she mumbled. “When did I come in?”
“You came in yesterday, Sunday,” he said. “Today is Monday.” He supplied the date in case she needed further recentreing.
“Saturday, then. Worst day of my fucking life, not that that’ll last much longer.” She moved the squeezing actions to her neck. Dr. Armaninov flinched.
“Can you tell me where you saw it?” he ventured.
“You can’t go see it,” she told him. “If you ever go there you have to light it on fire, or bomb it to hell or something, and even then I’ll never go anywhere near it, I’ll live on the other side of the world with no hair. It’s a free country, I can get all my hair yanked out, you can’t stop me.”
Why does it matter whether this is a free country when you’ll be on the other side of the world? his mind said, but his mouth spoke: “Why is it safer to be far away?”
“You know,” she said, “they say if you took all the neurons in the brain and laid them end to end it’d stretch around the world a dozen times, or some bullshit, so I’ll probably never be safe. It’d probably get me if I went to space. And if it’s out there, how many other things…”
She rubbed at her collarbone with savage concentration.
The doctor changed tacks again. “What is it about your hair that you don’t like?”
“It’s not my hair, it’s all hair!” she said. “I hate that piece of shit on your head, and that scruff on your neck, but I can stand it as long as I don’t have to… to, um…”
She gulped, her hands froze protectively in front of her throat. Dr. Armaninov glanced up at his now almost entirely gray hairdo, a little thinner over the top than he would have liked.
“As long as you don’t have to touch it?”
She responded with furious nods.
“How long have you had this compulsion?”
She rolled her eyes. “Since Saturday. Why the fuck would I have had it before?”
“On Saturday, did it develop gradually, or suddenly?”
“Really, really fucking suddenly,” she said. She started to rock back and forth again. “Why the fuck did I go down there, god damn it, I could’ve just been a normal person and watched Netflix instead of trying to commune with nature or explore the world or whatever, and I just… I didn’t…”
Once more she was reduced to silent disgust and terror in reaction to an unseen tormentor.
Dr. Armaninov frowned. His stock of workaround questions was nearing depletion. “What would happen if someone else were to go… down there?”
The patient laughed, high and shrill. “Probably what happened to me. Or…”
Again she found herself unable to approach the centre of what she had been about to say.
“Why?” the doctor asked.
She gave him a blank look. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“Not to me.”
She laughed again. “You don’t want it to be obvious. You should be glad I’m protecting you. You probably think, oh, I’m a shrink, I work with crazies, I’ve seen everything. You haven’t seen anything.”
A pause stretched while Dr. Armaninov tried to work out how to reply. Miss Lancet tugged at her gown.
“Oh, god,” she moaned, “why won’t you let me take it out? I can feel it growing back! It’s coming back! It’s coming back! No! No!”
In another moment she was reduced to a screaming thrash of limbs on the floor. The doctor pressed a button on his pager and knelt down beside her, trying to steady her movements while he waited for the orderlies to arrive.
The next day Miss Lancet got two-thirds of the way through her bowl of oatmeal. Her eyes were still puffy, her gaze still sullen, and she said nothing as Dr. Armaninov set himself up in the sterile little room. After Katerina left, the doctor surveyed his patient with a thoughtful expression.
“You seem slightly better today,” he announced. “Slightly calmer. Do you feel any better?”
The woman shook her head.
“Do you feel capable of telling me anything you were unable to tell me yesterday?”
She sighed. “Just…”
He waited, giving his watch a surreptitious glance.
“I don’t understand,” she finally said.
He waited again, and, when no elaboration came forth, said: “What is it you don’t understand?”
“How I saw it,” she said. “Maybe it was a dream, or maybe I did hallucinate. I probably belong here. I’ve probably completely lost it.”
“What makes you think that?” he asked.
“It’s so…” Her jaw worked as she attempted to continue, her mitten-clad hands flopping like fish. “It was a cave, okay? It was a cave. I went into the fucking…”
She trailed off and hid her face in her hands. When she withdrew them, tears streaked her cheeks.
“I’m not like this, you know? I love to explore. I saw a bear up close once, it’s a miracle I got out unhurt, my heart was pounding like mad after that, but it wasn’t… I wasn’t like this at all. I’m a biologist, for fuck’s sake. I’m a scientist. I’m interested in the natural world. I find it fascinating. I should have been interested in…”—her facial muscles fought themselves for a long time—“…it.”
She lifted the water bottle that lay on the bed with both mittens and sucked at the sip-friendly lid contraption.
“There is the obvious follow-up question,” said Dr. Armaninov, “but I feel you may not want me to ask it.”
She dropped the bottle on the floor and flailed her head back and forth. “Don’t. Please don’t. I can’t…”
The doctor stooped, picked up the water bottle, and placed it in its former position on the bed. There flashed through his head the image of a harried father retrieving a sippy cup knocked to the ground by an ill-tempered infant. Such frightful hypotheticals had long ago put him off the prospect of fatherhood.
“Could you tell me what happened before you went into the cave?” he suggested.
She shivered. “You can’t go there. Don’t tell anyone where it is.”
“I’m not much of an explorer,” he assured her. “Besides, I’m bound by doctor-patient confidentiality. Unless I think you present an imminent danger to yourself or others, I won’t share anything you tell me.”
Her head jerked up and down. “Right, right. Well…”
Another pause, another surreptitious watch-check. It was not that Dr. Armaninov was in a hurry to leave; rather, his eyes, when deprived of an immediate focus, gravitated towards moving objects, particularly those that exhibited mechanical regularity.
“It’s strange,” she said at last. “You wouldn’t expect a cave there. There are no previously discovered systems, as far as I know. It’s in the Autumn Lake Nature Preserve. I think I was the first one to find it, because it doesn’t show up in their maps and brochures, and there’s nothing about it online. I didn’t tell anyone about it because I wanted to be the first to explore it. This tiny little hole in a hollow beneath some old oaks, easy to miss if you’re not lucky enough to almost stick your foot in it. Lucky. Ha.”
She guzzled more water and took several deep, shaky breaths.
“I went there on Saturday, with, you know, all the usual stuff, food, water, flashlights, climbing equipment. I didn’t tell anyone I was caving, which I know is stupid, but I didn’t expect any… anything to go wrong. I didn’t think it would be that big. I’d gone a few feet down it before, it was pretty tight, and I half-expected it to just end after another twenty feet or so. I tied a rope around one of the oak trees, attached the other end to a winch at my waist, and started down. I lit my helmet and pushed my pack ahead of me. It really was just that grimy, dirty passage of narrow rock for about twenty feet. I suppose I could’ve stopped there and gone back. I had this niggling feeling in the back of my head, like something was going to… to reach out of the passage in front of me…”
Her breathing grew quick, and she had to stop for about half a minute to steady herself.
“I woke up at the cave mouth. Isn’t that weird? I don’t remember how I got there. The sun was setting. My p-pack was gone, and the… the rope was just…”
She made a slashing gesture with one mitten.
“Cut, at the winch. Frayed a little, like… but just cut. I don’t understand.” She shook her head. “I can’t understand.”
Dr. Armaninov scratched his chin. “Do you remember anything between descending the passage and waking up outside of the cave?”
“No!” she screamed. She swiped at the water bottle like a cat and sent it to the floor again, then bit down on the mitten covering her right hand. “Take them off, take them off! I’ll kill myself if you don’t take them off! I have to get it out!”
Dr. Armaninov pressed the button on his pager while he bent to retrieve the bottle once more. He attempted to restrain the poor woman while awaiting help, but his attempts were halfhearted, as he suspected she was stronger than he and could do a pretty bit of damage if pushed far enough. She had the mitten off and was biting at the back of her hand by the time the two orderlies barged into the room, held her down on the bed, and sedated her. After she had grown sufficiently calm, they bandaged her hand and discussed the possible merits of fitting her with a mouth guard. The doctor was against the idea; he believed they had made progress that day, and hoped that a show of trust on his part would encourage her to open up further.
As he left the room, a seed of curiosity began to germinate in his mind.
On Wednesday, the patient made it a full three-fourths of the way to the bottom of her bowl. Dr. Armaninov mentioned this at the beginning of their session in an attempt to pay her a lighthearted compliment.
“Tell you what,” she said. “If you bring me a different breakfast for once I’ll eat the whole fucking thing.”
A faint smile touched the doctor’s face. “I’ll see if I can arrange that.”
The doctor spread his hands. “My control over things here is not as complete as you might think.”
“It’s certainly more complete than mine.”
“Very true,” the doctor conceded. Then he was silent, waiting for Miss Lancet to choose a substantive topic of conversation. The fingers of his right hand made minute drumming motions just above his knee as the seconds stretched on.
“There was more that happened.” She said this very quickly.
The doctor gave her an inquiring glance.
“At the cave,” she breathed, fidgeting as best she could with her hands, now encased in doubly efficient protection. “There was… something… that happened after the narrow p-passage, and before I woke… before I woke up.”
She gulped and blinked hard. One tear still managed to escape.
“There were… at the end, there were stairs.”
That curious little shoot in Dr. Armaninov’s mind began to unfurl some of its leaves. This was a delusive experience, probably there had been no cave, he knew that, but this woman did know how to build a narrative. He leaned forward a few inches.
“The passage opened up, after about twenty feet. There were stairs, really old worn stone steps, heading down. I could stand up and shoulder my pack. I don’t remember exactly how far they went down, but it was a fair distance. Eventually they ended, and the passage joined this other tunnel. There was water flowing from that other tunnel, an underground creek, and…”
She took a small sip of water.
“Fuck, even the goddamn water reminds me of it. This tiny fucking room reminds me of it. And that light on the ceiling,”—she squinted up for a moment—“it’s like the light on my helmet. That’s another f-funny thing. My helmet was gone.”
She giggled, high and hysterical.
“When you woke up later?” Dr. Armaninov inquired.
“Yep. Woke up later. No pack, no helmet. It… it took them. Or it didn’t bother to give them back. Or maybe I just fainted outside the cave before I went in, and I never did go in, I just slept for hours and dreamt the whole thing, and some people came by and stole the pack and helmet and cut the rope while I slept.”
“Do you think that’s the case?” the doctor asked.
“Of course not,” she growled. “It was the most vivid experience of my life. I could have the best sex in the world, you know, and it wouldn’t come close to erasing the memory. It wouldn’t even overshadow it. It would be… it would pale in comparison. I could get married and have a kid—”
She broke off, a nauseated expression overspreading her face, and barged into the bathroom. Dr. Armaninov heard vomiting from within.
She staggered out a few minutes later, after two toilet flushes and much running water, and sat on the floor against the wall, knees up to her chest, face in her hands.
“I’m never going to forget it,” she cried. “I should just do heroin, and sleep until I die.”
“That sounds drastic,” said the doctor. “Do you feel any better after telling me about some of what happened?”
“Not enough,” she said. “Not enough.”
The doctor’s brow wrinkled in concern. “Is there anything you think we can do for you, within the realm of reason?”
She responded with a small, mordant laugh, then said: “Well, since you won’t wax me, or cauterise me, or chemo me, maybe you could hypnotise me and make me forget. Does that work, is it real?”
“It can work in some cases,” the doctor confirmed. “Generally, though, hypnotic suppression requires the patient to relive the memory in order to bury it. And memories suppressed in this way tend to resurface years or decades later, often with traumatic results.”
“Great,” Miss Lancet said. “I already relive it all the time. Every time I go to sleep I dream about it. I even think about it most of the time when I’m awake. Maybe you could give me some medicine to remove my sense of touch.”
“I’m not sure,” said the doctor, “that there exists a medicine like this that would not at the same time cause more drastic effects.”
The woman laughed again. “I can tell you something else you won’t be sure exists. There was light down there.”
“Light?” said Dr. Armaninov.
“The two tunnels, the one with the stairs and the one with the water, they joined into one. I followed it for a while, the creek was at the bottom, coming up to my ankles, and I came to this… place.”
She shut her mouth and massaged her temples with the mittens as best she could.
“Was this place where the light was?” asked the doctor.
She nodded. “It came from the middle, this… green light. It was high. The place, that is. High ceiling. And there were bones. Some looked really old, and some…”
Her voice had grown very weak at the end, and now the power of speech seemed to leave her entirely. Dr. Armaninov sensed that she had told him all she could for that day, but he made no move to leave, on the off chance she proved him wrong.
He was right, though. “Just go,” she whispered. “Sorry. I can’t say any more. I won’t kill myself or anything. I just don’t want to do anything.”
The doctor stood up. “That’s okay,” he said. “Thank you. I think we made some progress today.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Would you like more water?”
He picked up the bottle that lay on the bed. “Katerina will be by with lunch a little after noon. If you’d like to speak further, I will be available at 4:00. Just let her know.”
She said nothing. He looked at her for a few moments, then left the room. As he strolled down the hallway, he tried to figure out what could have triggered her psychosis. Perhaps the cave was not a delusion; perhaps she had become trapped down there, temporarily prey to the conviction she would never make it out. A rock collapse, maybe, one that had pinned her by her hair.
Miss Lancet made no request to see him later that day. On Thursday, Dr. Armaninov was not in the ward; this was the day he worked at an outpatient clinic in the city. On Friday, when Katerina woke her for breakfast, Miss Lancet suffered a full-scale breakdown, ripping her gown off with her padded hands and pummeling those spots where she thought her hair had begun to reappear. She was sedated for the entire day and the doctor had no chance to speak to her.
On Saturday, when Dr. Armaninov went into the room, he found Miss Lancet stretched out on the bed and a full bowl of oatmeal on Katerina’s tray.
“Are you not hungry?” he asked.
“No,” she mumbled.
Once they were alone, he apologised for not having been in to see her earlier.
“It’s no problem,” she sighed, her voice weak. “You’re not much help anyway.”
“How do you think I might be of more help?”
“You could believe me,” she said. “But I don’t blame you about that, either. No one will.”
“The only parts of your story that don’t sound fully plausible to me,” said the doctor, “are certain details of the cave. The stairs, the green light, the bones. But it is true that none of these things are impossible.”
“Bullshit,” she snarled. “You probably think there is no cave.”
When the doctor did not immediately reply, she threw him a triumphant glare.
“It is true,” he said, “that this was my hypothesis at first, but by now I’m uncertain.”
“You can see it for yourself,” she told him. “The group of oaks is visible from the trail. The one called Bluebird Trail. There’s a bright orange rope tied to one of them, my rope. You can’t go in, of course, but you can see I’m not lying about the cave at least.”
“Why can’t I go in?” he prodded.
She sat up and leaned towards him with big, fearful eyes. “You can’t go in. Pour gasoline down there if you want, and set it on fire, or throw a bomb in there, but you can’t go in! Unless”—here a little malice came into her expression—“you’re really skeptical, and really stupid, and you insist on ending up like me, or like those skeletons in the chamber.”
“Is there something down there you think will hurt me?”
“How can you possibly be dumb enough to ask that?” she screamed at him. “Haven’t I been clear?”
“Actually, you’ve been very vague.”
“I know, I know.” Miss Lancet covered her face with her mittens and rocked back and forth. “I just… can’t… I don’t want to relive it more than I already have to. I start to talk about it, and I can remember… I can feel, in my mouth…”
She almost gagged as she went silent.
Dr. Armaninov scratched his chin. “I can discuss the possibility of shaving with my colleagues, if you would like,” he offered. “I believe it can sometimes be beneficial to accommodate compulsive needs that don’t harm others, at least in early stages of treatment.”
“Shaving’s not enough!” she yelled. “It’s still in there! I can feel it in there!” She began to thrash and fell off the bed. The doctor lunged forward, catching her head before it could hit the floor. One of his legs made a painful popping sound. She knocked him backwards and rushed to the door, but found it locked.
“No!” she screeched, as the doctor, still sitting on the floor, activated his pager. She tugged on the handle with all her strength. “No! No! No…”
II. The Cave
Sunday was the doctor’s day off. The early afternoon would usually find him sitting at his desk, sipping green tea and reading some long, dense-prosed work of milquetoast centre-right literature. On this occasion, though, he tramped across the slowly decaying woodchips covering Autumn Lake Nature Preserve’s Bluebird Trail, clad in a thick sweater, faded jeans and what passed for hiking boots, peering left and right for a flash of orange. The air was brisk and cool, and early-spring birds tittered in the foliage. Even if he found nothing, he reflected, the long walk would be salutary, for both his mind and his body—not that, after decades in his chosen profession, he really believed in the distinction.
Something caught his eye.
He stopped and looked more closely.
There was indeed a bit of orange back there, by the trunks of some large trees.
Dr. Armaninov left the trail and stumbled through the brush until he had come to a small depression in the earth. This hollow was half-ringed by mossy, well-weathered boulders; behind the boulders stood the copse of trees, which, now that he was close enough to see their budding leaves, he could identify as oak. A rope of bright orange, almost neon, was lashed around one of the trunks. It snaked between two boulders, crossed part of the hollow, and disappeared into a small hole.
The doctor crouched down by the hole. The ground was soft, coated with dead leaves and new shoots; it had rained since Miss Lancet’s visit, and any signs of her presence other than the rope had probably been obliterated.
He peered in. Darkness and organic filth. Nothing particularly indicative of subterrene mystery. He could fit, he thought, but only just. Perhaps if he followed the rope—
That would be ill-advised, though. He was no longer a young man, and he could get in trouble down there. There was nothing all that strange about his patient’s insanity. She had undergone some experience in there that had convinced her, for a short period of time, that she wouldn’t make it out. Hair, probably hers, had probably played a role. The doctor liked his theory about a rock collapse pinning her hair. That would explain it quite nicely.
Stairs, green light, bones…
He pulled a small flashlight from his pocket, switched it on, clamped it between his teeth, got down on his hands and knees and began to wriggle into the hole. He would follow the rope as far as it went, or until the going got too tough. Then he would backtrack. If he felt things getting too tight, he would stop before he was unable to wriggle backwards. He had a nice two-story house and an MD. He would not die wedged in a muddy hole.
It was dark and earthy, the smell rich but not fœtid, and despite the flashlight in his mouth he could see almost nothing. He could feel the rope, though, and he propelled himself forward with wormlike movements of his legs and torso while he used the thick orange coil as his guide, going hand over hand. The decline was fairly steep, the earth turning hard and giving way to rock as he went further, but he felt fairly certain he could push himself upwards with his hands if he had to. He was in good shape for his age.
His right hand, reaching for the next bit of rope, brushed stone of unusual smoothness.
He reached out with both hands and felt a worn slab of rock before him. He flailed his arms about; the passage seemed to get wider here. He took the flashlight from its nearly useless position between his teeth and shone it downwards.
“Well,” Dr. Armaninov muttered to himself, “stairs, fine. Water, fine. But no light and no bones.”
He extracted himself from the narrow passage and found he could stand almost upright; he had to stoop a little to keep his head from hitting the rough stone roof of the staircase. He pointed the beam of his flashlight in various directions. The roof and walls looked natural, but the stairs, worn and irregular as they were, had definitely been constructed. Perhaps by ancient Indians, he told himself as he started down them. Carved into the underworld, forgotten in the tide of time. The rope still extended ahead of him into the dark, slack and occasionally bunched up against one side of the tunnel, leading him ever downwards.
After an interminable stretch of slow, nerve-jangling descent—the doctor had not seen anything odder than the stairs, but the claustrophobic environment and memories of Miss Lancet’s hysteria had begun to sink their tentacles into his mind—the doctor heard ahead of him the faint trickle of running water.
A few more yards took him to the end of the stairs. The flat, pale moon projected by his flashlight danced on a swift-running rivulet no more than a few feet wide. The water came from a different tunnel, angled upwards and joining with his at the bottom of the staircase. Two into one, just as Miss Lancet had said.
The doctor splashed forwards, following the creek, the frigid water flowing over his boots. They were not completely protective, and he hoped an expanse of dry ground would reveal itself before long. At least he could straighten up fully now; the height of the passage had to be a good ten feet. Ghoulish white stalactites fed the stream with insipid drops. From time to time a large one appeared, and the doctor was obliged to duck.
As his flashlight played across the water, something caught his eye. He bent down and dipped a finger into the creek, cursing at the cold, then straightened up and squinted at his find.
It was a small clump of human hair.
A ghastly shiver ran through Dr. Armaninov’s body, and he flapped his hand, hard, sending his discovery back into the darkness.
“Just a bit of her hair,” he said. “Maybe she got stuck here and tore it out.”
He saw nothing on which she could have gotten stuck, no place in which she could have become trapped. But that was because she had freed herself, of course.
Although, if she had freed herself by ripping out that clump of hair, wouldn’t the rocks holding her have remained—
“Well, she got scared and ripped it out,” he told the cave. “Just an attack of nerves. A very bad one.”
He forced his leaden legs to move again and continued down the passage. The incline was almost nonexistent here, so it would be easy to turn around if he found anything… unsettling. Not that he expected this to occur.
He carefully avoided training his flashlight on the water as he continued.
The creek went on for some minutes without disclosing any new finds, and the doctor was starting to seriously ponder turning back when he noticed that it was slightly easier to see.
He stopped again, blinking hard, trying to convince himself this wasn’t the case.
He turned off the light.
Yes, there it was, a barely perceptible glow from ahead, showing the dim outlines of the otherwise pitch-black tunnel.
The doctor snorted. “I suppose there have to be bones now, don’t there. She probably went down here and rigged up some lights. It’s all a con.”
The first of these statements was the only one he believed.
He plodded forwards, holding one hand out to trace the rough side of the tunnel, straining his eyes to make out the source of the light. The outlines of the stalactites on the roof grew clearer as he neared what looked like an opening onto a larger space. It was brighter in there. Still dim, but brighter. He leaned to one side to avoid a stone icicle whose tip was level with his shoulders, walked a few more yards, and stuck his head through the opening to behold what lay beyond.
“I’ll be fucking damned,” he mumbled.
The rivulet flowed into a large, roughly hemispherical chamber. The floor was nearly flat, rising slightly towards the centre; the highest point of the ceiling, directly above the chamber’s middle, must have been thirty feet up. The entire space was about fifty feet across, and other tunnels, similar to the one via which the doctor had arrived, led off in different directions from the outer wall. The water, still gurgling over the doctor’s boots, flowed around the edge of the chamber like a moat and disappeared into a downward-angled passage. The stone of the floor was flat enough that it had to have been carved by sapient hands, while the half-sphere of the walls and ceiling looked half-manmade, half-natural. Stalactites hung from certain points; at the corresponding spots on the floor were either stalagmites or little furrows that led down to the moat.
Then there was the reason the doctor could see all this: the glowing crystalline sphere in the centre of the chamber, embedded up to its middle in the floor, illuminating the entire space with a sickly yellow-green light.
Oh, and there were the bones. Human bones, skulls, femurs, ribs, pelvii, tibiae, little solid remnants of fingers and toes and ears, scattered all around. Some gleaming white, some mottled and half-decayed, some still partially sheathed in meat. One skeleton was still mostly articulated; the bones below the neck were clean, but the skull remained encased in a rotting head. Teeth littered the floor like ill-shaped stars, and from time to time the doctor’s eyes lighted on a tuft of hair.
There were clothes, too, ripped to shreds, and there was a thick orange rope that emerged from the water at the doctor’s feet and continued nearly to the centre of the room before coming to a frayed end.
There was a backpack, lying near the end of the rope, its straps torn in two.
Next to the pack sat a caving helmet with a smashed bulb.
Dr. Armaninov was barely aware of the flashlight falling from his slackened hand and landing with a splash in the moat at his feet. He stumbled into the chamber, kicking bones aside as he went, not stopping until he had reached the glowing sphere. He fell on his knees before it, his head swaying, and of a sudden the dizziness sloshing through his mind changed to clear, painful focus. He saw etched on the lime-green surface in front of him—well, parts were lime-green, parts were more yellowish, other parts were darker, but he could never quite discern where the shades graded into each other—he saw intricate designs etched in that translucent surface. They looked like scales.
He saw something else, too, a dark, irregular line stretching across the surface of the sphere, no wider than a strand of hair.
He reached out with trembling fingers and touched it. It was not part of the surface; it was on the surface. It stuck to his thumb, and he brought his hand close to his face to get a better look.
It was a strand of hair. The doctor held it between thumb and forefinger and pulled, his brow crumpled in anxiety. It seemed very long. He stood up, swaying a little, and continued to reel it in, bunching it loosely in one hand.
It had to be at least six feet long. He couldn’t see where it went. What was—
The strand moved of its own accord, coiling around his hand.
The doctor screamed, leaped into the air, and crashed to the floor. Pain shot through his shoulder and hip. He crawled across the chamber, taking great gulping breaths through his mouth, but the thing tightened its grip and pulled the other way. With a sudden yank it turned him over, and he went sprawling on his back. The hair was hopelessly entangled in his fingers, and it was very tight now, excruciatingly so, and he felt it saw back and forth like razor wire—
A gout of blood. The doctor stared dumbly at the two freshly severed fingers that lay on the stone in front of him. Then the agony hit him, and he gave vent to a series of desperate yells as he grasped the trailing end of the strand and tried to tear it from his wrist. He could feel it biting into his palm now. It wouldn’t break. It was like steel, tougher than steel.
A dark mass moved in the corner of his vision.
He paused in his struggle with the bit of hair that held him, hardly resisting as its sawing motion resumed at the base of a third finger, his attention riveted by the awful spectacle at the edge of the chamber.
Clumps and strands and wads of hair were slithering out of the moat, wriggling towards him like nests of impossibly thin snakes, swaying and twitching as they moved over bones and scraps of clothing. They moved with a unified purpose, surrounding him, winding around his arms and legs, biting into his flesh with savage strength. Horrible, mind-shattering understanding broke in upon him, and he thrashed with all his strength, but he was weak compared to his assailant, this nightmare made—not flesh, but hair.
“What are you?” he screamed. “What are you?”
Groups of strands wound around his waist, his chest, his neck. The masses of hair were all around him now, their countless loops and ends ripping wads of hair from his own head, burrowing under his clothes, into his ears, into his navel, into other places below his hips. He saw long, shimmering ropes of the stuff coalescing on the ceiling, coiling around stalactites, hanging there as if watching him. The hair around his abdomen and neck was very tight now, and he could no longer draw in breath. Steel-sharp points entered his mouth, probed his nostrils, investigated the edges of his eyes. His thoughts had all but fled, and still he mouthed his dying mantra, his plea for knowledge, silent now—“What are you?”
Just before his brain went dark, he saw the ropes on the ceiling above him twisting as if in answer, and to his utter bafflement he beheld three ordinary letters from the Latin alphabet.
III. The Birth
Katerina pushed her cart down the hallway that led to Abigail Lancet’s room. She was slightly perturbed; Dr. Armaninov was not present in the ward, and it was uncharacteristic of him to fail to show up without notifying the hospital in advance. He was never one to slack off on Monday mornings.
She reached the door and held her keycard up to the small panel next to the frame. A click came from the lock, and, one hand still on her cart, she turned the handle and pushed the door open.
She froze in silent, mind-numbing terror at the sight before her.
Blood smeared the mattress. Miss Lancet lay on the floor, her arms splayed above her head, her eyes twitching under closed eyelids, faint spasms animating her mitten-clad hands, the rise and fall of her chest broken by irregular bodily jerks. Her legs were open wide, and the bandages between them had been ripped away. Her inner thighs were drenched in dark red, and an immense pool of blood reached almost to her knees. From this pool stretched a crimson trail, going past her feet and winding across the floor, coming nearly to the threshold at which Katerina stood.
At the end of the trail, soaked in blood, was a writhing, twitching mass of human hair.