Naia’s father disappeared into the cave every morning. On most days, he would reemerge by dinner time, though sometimes it was not until after sundown.
The very first time that Naia followed her father into the cave, she was very scared. She hid in the shadows of the cliff face and waited until he was inside, sneaking in unnoticed behind him.
The entrance was small and the corridor that snaked into the earth beyond it was tunnel-like, small and long. It was dark, too. Her father always went in by torchlight, but Naia had not brought a light, for she did not want to be noticed. She slid along one side of the narrow passageway and tried not to make noise against the rocks with her feet. The cave wall felt grainy and cold against her back. The toes on her bare feet were growing numb with the increasing cold. She wondered why it was so much colder inside the cave than it had been outside.
She turned a corner after several minutes of blind shuffling and was met with a faint orange glow against one side of the tunnel. Her father was near. Taking a shaky breath, she continued forward.
The orange glow grew and warmed. The small corridor opened up to a wide room. Naia saw her father standing with his back to the entrance at the far end. There were tables and shelves lining the walls all the way around. Books, bottles, fabric, and rocks lay scattered in every free space on the shelves. On the walls behind the dancing shadows were an assortment of images, figures, creatures, and symbols ornamenting the stone in a sprawling, mysterious story.
“Don’t just stand in the doorway, Naia,” said her father.
Naia blinked, her eyes dry, and glanced to her father. He had not moved. There was a desk in front of him and he was fiddling with something there, though Naia could not see what.
She stepped uncertainly several paces over.
He turned halfway around and pointed toward a bookcase. “Do Popa a favor, my darling, and bring me one of the gray stones there.”
Naia looked to the shelves and saw gray stones there among many others. She nodded eagerly and hurried forward, holding her hands out over the rocks as she searched for the right one.
“Just one of the smoothest ones, heart. It doesn’t matter exactly which one.”
Naia heard the words, but didn’t believe them. She hesitated as she eyed two particular gray rocks. One was slightly smaller than the other, though they both appeared equally smooth. Her father said nothing as she fretted between the two for a moment, eventually choosing the smaller one.
“Thank you,” he said as she brought him the stone.
“What is it for, Popa?”
“Do you know how your brother has been very sick?”
“I am trying to make something that will help him heal.” As he spoke, he laid the stone on the desk before him. There was a flask of thick, red liquid near it, and several other shattered stones.
“How do the rocks help?” Naia asked.
Her father eyed the small fragments all around him and sighed. “Thus far, they haven’t helped in the least.”
“Moma said that Brother couldn’t get better.”
“I know,” her father replied.
The fire on the torch hanging over the desk flickered especially bright and jerked Naia’s attention from her father and up to the ceiling.
“What do the pictures mean, Popa?” she asked.
Her father glanced around, confused for a moment, before seeing the object of her gaze. He relaxed his hold on the gray stone and looked up to the paintings.
“I’m not sure, Naia. They were here long before I was.”
“Just like the stones,” Naia said.
“I suppose so,” he replied, dropping the stone to the table. He stared at it blankly for several empty seconds.
Naia wondered what was wrong, but she didn’t know what to say.
Then her father huffed and turned away. He grabbed a coat that was tossed over the back of a chair, and made for the exit.
“Grab the torch, Naia,” he said, not turning back. “We’re going home.”
Naia scrambled to take the torch down and follow her father out before she lost sight of him.