Content warning: brief depiction of self-harm
It turned out that Phirine was right about at least one thing; Cana felt her nerves dissipate the longer she worked. Though no two encounters were alike, patterns began to emerge. Most were like the first man she had seen, weeping and gazing at something she would never see. These sometimes required coaxing so that they could find what to do with the bottle, though some were accustomed to the process.
Others seemed to overwhelm the tiny chamber with their rage. These were more difficult, because Cana was not well acquainted with anger. What had she ever had to be angry about, sheltered deep in the caverns? But she tried to remain unaffected as she offered them the bottle.
Some were so tormented that Cana feared for them to leave her sight after the work was finished. One woman dug into the meat of her arm so desperately that she opened up her skin before Cana could stop her.
“No! Not that way,” Cana broke the rule of silence to plead with the woman, grasping her wrists. “Please.”
“I have to get it out,” the woman said, her eyes unable to settle. “I have to–”
“Please.” Cana guided the woman’s head to the bottle and choked back tears of her own. Unsure if she could trust herself to speak more, she demonstrated how to use the bottle. After several months of work it was now filled nearly to the top with swirling colors, darting around like tadpoles. Finally, the woman drew enough breath to blow, expelling a blue so deep it could have been black.
Cana walked down the hallway dazed after this encounter, vaguely headed toward her living quarters. Her eyes wouldn’t seem to close, not even to blink. All she could see were the faces of the people she had met and supposedly helped. Their voices seemed to run together in her mind, asking things of her that she wasn’t equipped to give.
Startled, she looked up. She hadn’t even realized she was hanging her head, but now Cana became aware of the strain it took to hold it upright. The bottle could not be taken off; it was one of the stipulations of their work. She had never dreamed that it would one day become heavy enough to pull her down.
“Cana,” said Phirine again, more loudly. “What’s happened?”
For a moment Cana couldn’t speak. She tried with all her might to hold back the floods of tears that threatened to burst out.
“What we’re doing, it’s…it’s not enough,” she got out. “I’m not doing any good. I…I don’t know how much longer I–”
“It is time, I think.”
Sanari had emerged from a deep shadow. Neither Cana nor Phirine questioned how long she had been there.
“Tomorrow should be a clear day. We will go then.”
Cana woke early the next morning. She had fought sleep all night, like a toddler who had been too long without a nap. She hadn’t wanted the comfort of her familiar bed. It was little more than a pallet on the stone, but it had still felt too soft. So she had just lay awake, watching the orbs dim by degrees.
She had thought she’d be early to meet her companions, but Phirine and Sanari were already awaiting her in the corridor when Cana left her room. Phirine smiled at her. Though Cana couldn’t find the wherewithal to smile back, the expression did settle some of her nerves. They set off without a word, following Sanari down the corridor. She led them out of the sleeping quarters into the deserted roadway. It was bittersweet for Cana to walk along this road, that was permitted only for secret keepers. She was still used to teeming streets, villagers packed tightly between the stone walls that engulfed them. It was a quieter life she led now.
They all stopped when Sanari led them around the last corner. Before them was a dark, heavy-looking door; Cana had seen it before, but it had looked imposing enough that even she had never bothered to try and gain access to whatever lay beyond it. Sanari, however, was drawing a key from her shirt pocket, and before Cana knew it they were all three piling into a small lift. The journey upward made her stomach lurch. She shook her head a few times, trying to dislodge the painful fullness in her ears.
“Swallow hard a few times,” Phirine whispered knowingly. “It’ll help.”
They emerged in a cavernous room, the largest Cana had ever seen. She didn’t know where to look first, but eventually settled on the ceiling. It appeared as glass, an impossibly thick slab of glass that allowed them to see beyond the room. Through the glass she could see colors like none she had ever witnessed before; every variation on orange that she could imagine, with pale blue and pink bleeding in at the edges. At the center was a yellow that made her eyes burn to look at it too long. She wanted to stretch her arms out wide, revelling in all the space, but instead she settled for taking in deep lungfuls of breath as discreetly as she could.
Tearing her gaze away, though still peripherally aware of the spectacle above her, Cana turned to follow Phirine and Sanari. They were making their way to the center of the room, where a large, shallow basin took up much of the floor.
“When you can no longer raise your head without straining against the bottle,” Sanari said, “you will know it is time to visit this place.”
She drew her own bottle from beneath her shirt. Sanari’s bottle was the largest of all the secret keepers; it looked nearly as wide as her chest, and it was filled to the top with familiar squirming blobs. Countless secrets that she had extracted. She tilted her bottle ever so slightly to the right, rubbing the bottom with precise-looking motions, until the colors began to slip free of the glass container. Cana watched, fascinated, as they floated upward as if drawn to the light of the ceiling. They drifted slowly but methodically, straight upward until one by one they slipped through as if made of air, swirling up through the clear pane and disappearing.
Soon Phirine followed suit; Cana could hear her humming under her breath as she tipped her bottle, tilting it from one side to the next as though making it dance. Her method seemed more whimsical than Sanari’s had been. Cana supposed this made sense, if anything about what they were doing made any sense at all.
Cana withdrew her own bottle. The colors seemed to strain and twist. She was so used to seeing them there; would she feel bereft without them? What had it even felt like not to have this weight hanging around her neck? Cana couldn’t remember anymore. It had become part of her every waking moment without her realizing it.
She watched Phirine and Sanari some more, trying to replicate each of their movements exactly. She rubbed the sides of her bottle. Shook it a bit. Held it up to the light. After a while she even turned the bottle upside down and hit the glass with the heel of her hand. But the more she tried, the more stubbornly the colors seemed to cling to the inside of the bottle. They were practically vibrating with frantic energy. Cana could relate; she could feel herself shaking, suddenly overtaken with an urge to hurl the bottle down to the floor.
“How did you get them out?” Cana demanded, frustrated at seeing Sanari and Phirine freed of the heaviness around their necks. She had done exactly what they’d done. Why was she still wrong?
“They can’t be forced out,” said Sanari bluntly.
“It just takes a little coaxing sometimes,” soothed Phirine. “Don’t worry if it doesn’t happen right away. You’ll find your own way to release them.”
But you haven’t shown me how, Cana thought, but saying that out loud would just make her look childish. She tried again to dump the bottle, to no avail. Above them, the brilliant hues outside the window had dissipated into an impossibly bright light. Already Cana dreaded getting back into the lift, to descend back to shallow breaths and darkness.
“Tomorrow we can try again,” said Phirine encouragingly, her smile even brighter as they left. Cana turned to look behind her once more, at the beautiful ceiling that blinded her.