He was still a young man, but he had been a member for what seemed like a very long time. He had been brought there as a small child and could not remember a different kind of life. In this place there were few rules and little supervision. Most of the time one did what one liked.
Many of the members gathered each morning, in a building with high arches and pillars of stone, in order to sing together. They sang unaccompanied, and they did not understand many of the words of the songs that were taught to them by the older singers. But sometimes they sang for hours at a stretch.
Others labored in the gardens or out in the fields. Some worked as carpenters or mechanics. Still others worked in the library, classifying books, rebinding them, copying them, assembling manuscripts. It was said that work of this sort had been going on for centuries. After the young man had spent a number of years doing such things, over and over, he began to wonder if there were anything else he might do? There did not seem to be.
When he asked about leaving, it was suggested that he speak with a white-haired man known as the overseer, who sat at a wooden desk in an unadorned room. The room was made entirely of gray stone. There was nothing on the walls and nothing on the desk.
The overseer told him that in order to leave he must first undergo a trial. He must proceed through a large trough or receptacle located in one of the outbuildings at the edge of the grounds.
"It is one hundred meters long, and three or four meters deep," the overseer explained. "It has come down to us intact from ancient times. We believe it was the scene of martyrdoms and trials by combat, and possibly of executions. In the earliest days of this institution, if a member applied to leave, he was expected to cross this space on his own, as a way of proving himself fit for life in the outside world. This seems to have been an ancient custom, the beginnings of which we do not quite understand.
"Originally, the person undergoing the trial may have been lowered into a pit containing either wild animals or savages captured and brought here from one of the unknown lands. Or, it could have been a pit filled with hot coals, across which he was expected to walk, with his feet bare, as a way of demonstrating his seriousness and purpose of mind.
"In time, conditions changed. The pit became larger and longer, and was filled with water. Dangerous marine animals were introduced, and the candidate was made to swim among them, and to survive their attacks as he maneuvered his way to the opposite end. Gradually these customs changed in turn, and eventually the present receptacle came into being. It, too, was filled with water. The only requirement was that the candidate progress unaided through the water from one end to the other.
"Stories abound, of course, about those whose resolution was so strong they were able to walk across the water without so much as wetting the hems of their garments. There were even said to be those who levitated across, not touching the water at all. But the water remained, for a very long time, and when my predecessor's predecessor was a young man, it was still possible to obtain release from one's vows, and to go out into the larger world, simply by swimming across. No one in this institution swam regularly, or knew how to swim, but it was still possible to learn, or at least to try.
"There are rumors, too, that many died in the attempt. In any case, we do not hold to such strict requirements at the present time. However, for the sake of tradition, we would still ask you to cross over, from one side to the other, and under your own power."
The young man agreed. The next morning the overseer accompanied him along the grassy pathways to a large, windowless building at the very edge of the estate. Inside, only the faintest illumination came from skylights that had been boarded over, and the cracks stuffed with rags. The overseer played the beam of a pocket torch about the interior. The feeble light showed a gallery along one side and thin tubular platforms at one end. Dangling overhead were metal fixtures – dust-shrouded cones and rectangles – that had probably served as lighting devices.
The overseer handed him a second torch. "This is all I have to give you, to assist your way across. In the old days it would have been a lantern, and before that, an oil lamp, or the stump of a candle."
He pointed to a low, round-topped ladder attached to the edge of the walkway where they were standing. "You begin there. That is the way down. I shall be waiting at the other end. I should tell you that no one has succeeded in this undertaking during my tenure. When a typical candidate has been told of this requirement, he has simply run away in the night. You are the only one within memory who has agreed to undergo the trial by crossing, and thereby uphold the old traditions. For that, I am grateful.
"I should tell you, also, that the pit now contains a great many things that were discarded in past years – things that were not needed, or became outmoded, or now seem anathema to our present way of life. They were brought here by the outsiders and cast into the space you now see below you. Some were harmless, of course. Some proved quite dangerous, in their time. Some were weapons, some amusements, some labor-saving devices. Some were highly prized, others were given away, some were once as common as coins or eating utensils.
"All such artifacts became, in time, forgotten. There is a very large space below us. It has accepted a great deal. You will notice that there is no odor, no sound, no movement. Whatever has been deposited there has found a place for itself among all the other things. If you go down among these objects now, one can imagine that they will exert a certain attraction, not unlike that of gravitation itself.
"The objects waiting below are old. They have been here for hundreds of years. They will not wish you to leave, but to find a place alongside them – to be absorbed by them, and be taken into their openings and their orifices and interstices. At least that is what we have come to believe, those of us who know in our hearts that we will always remain here, and never undertake such a journey."
"May I look at them?" the young man asked, trying the torch, and flicking it on and off, as though he were impatient to get started.
"You may do whatever you like, and take as long as you like," the old man replied. "But I warn you. There are things down there that no man alive has seen, and that you could not possibly imagine or understand. You may become fascinated with what you encounter. But that fascination could be fatal.
"In the process of trying to cross you may forget your purpose. You may find yourself enchanted. You may wish only to remain there and investigate these artifacts and objects, and study them, and fantasize about what they were – how they worked, what sort of powers they might bestow on you, even now."
The young man slipped the torch into the single pocket of his habit, seized the top of the ladder, and prepared to descend.
"First, you must disrobe," the old man said. "You can take nothing down, and you can bring nothing out. I will now fasten a lanyard to the torch. You may you slip it around your neck, like this." He demonstrated. Then he handed the torch and lanyard back to the young man.
"The rules require that you convey nothing up from the abyss," he said, "only yourself. When and if you reach the other side, you must toss the torch up to me first, before ascending the ladder. Is that understood, and do you hereby agree?"
"I do," the young man said. He slipped out of his habit and handed it to the overseer. Then he looped the lanyard over his head.
Already, as his eyes had grown accustomed to the small amount of daylight entering the enormous room through cracks in the windows above, he had begun to make out the vague shapes and outlines of many strange objects crowded together in the space below.
First published in Bohème Magazine, December 2005.