"Please, Papa, please let me out," she sobbed at the shadows of his feet, two pillars of condemnation against the thin strip of light beneath the door. "Don't leave me alone in the dark."
"You were conceived in darkness, child, and to eternal darkness you'll likely return." His voice was as loud and stern in their small parish home as it was from the pulpit. "Pray and ponder upon that."
The shadows of his feet disappeared, and Cecelia dropped to her knees, her fingertips reaching for the last of the light of his lantern as it faded away.
She curled up next to the door like a dog awaiting its master's return, her trembling cheek pressed to the dank floor as she searched beneath for the return of the light.
Conceived in darkness. What did that mean? And how was it her fault?
Cecelia called her prison the green room because the moss clinging to damp stone was the only color to be found in the cellar of the modest cottage. Some long-ago vicar with a family too large for the two-room house to adequately contain had partitioned a section of the subterranean space into an extra bedroom. Which was to say, a cot and trunk had been shoved into the corner.
In the summer, she would open the window and curl up in the anemic shafts of sun or moonlight, drinking in what she could. One day, the Reverend Teague's boots had appeared at the window and kicked dirt inside, showering her with soil.
She'd begged him not to lock the window from the outside. Not to take away the only light she knew.
"I won't escape," she vowed.
"I'm not afraid you'll escape," he blustered around a rare and colorless laugh. "It isn't as though you could fit through a window this small."
It was the first time Cecelia had hated her body. The size and shape of it. If only she were wraithlike and delicate, perhaps she could slither through the window and slip away into the night.
Not that she would...she was too afraid of the dark. And she'd nowhere to go.
Over the years, she'd faced the green room with more courage. The fiends and monsters her fanciful fears conjured never once attacked her. Spiders and other very real denizens of the dark scuffled and shuffled and spun their webs but had yet to hurt her.
The sounds of the mice and such eventually became a serenade, preferable to the awful silence.
It amazed her what she could adapt to. The gnawing of thirst and hunger. The putrid scent of a neglected chamber pot and her unwashed body in a poorly ventilated room.
She snuck a blanket from her own bed into a cupboard one day when her father had been out proselytizing. This, she wrapped around her in the night, pretending the feeble warmth she found within belonged to something—someone—else.
She'd lean against the wall, hugging the blanket to herself, and fancy that her arms clinging to her middle were the arms of another, holding her as no one had ever done. That the planes and curves of the cold stones at her back were really the carved strength of a man. Of a protector. Of someone who didn't leave her alone in the night.
To face the dark by herself.
Because even as her imagined childhood torments fell away with the advancement of each year, one never did.
In the absolute darkness beneath the earth, something more insidious than a ghost lurked in the green room. More unrelenting than hunger. More rotten than filth. More venomous than any spider.
An all-encompassing word, as correct as it was inadequate.
What began as boredom and isolation slowly became a void of silence inside of her, a yawning chasm of emptiness that no meal or interaction seemed to sate.
Because even when she was free, the room was always there, waiting for her next perceived slight, her next accidental sin.
The anticipation of being tossed into hell was almost as torturous as the endless hours she spent in her prison.
Cecelia prayed as her father bade her, but not the prayers she'd been forced to memorize. She would drop to her knees every night, prostrating herself before a cold and condemning God and imploring with the fervency of a pilgrim for one thing.
Someone to save her from this gray-and-green hell in which she lived.