Hey there, hypothetical reader. I know it’s been a while since my last post, but I’ve been busy with boring real-life stuff recently, and haven’t had too much time for writing. Also I’ve been realizing how hard it is to come up with original content, even on a semi-regular basis!
Anyway, as promised, here’s the full version of The Cave, which is based on a trip I took to Tennessee with my family recently. This is the first time I’ve posted a first draft on this website, so comments and suggestions would be extremely appreciated, and I’ll take them into consideration when I do my editing. Thanks!
Luke: I won’t fail you. I’m not afraid.
Yoda: You will be. You… will… be.
– Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back
“I will keep you safe,” Ian said, his watery blue eyes fixing us each in turn. “I’ll keep you far away from anything dangerous, I promise.” My limbs still felt like they were full of ice, but as the twenty-five-ish guide looked at me, I couldn’t help but grin.
We stood on a crumbling promontory; our boots crusted with the dirt and leaf mold carpeting the path. In front of us was a rock wall, fifty feet tall at least, its cracked grey face framed in lichen and Virginia creeper. A river chuckled its way downstream from its base, cloudy with sediment and limestone. I saw none of it; I had eyes only for the mouth of the cave to the left of that rock wall, grinning up at us.
The cave. The last time I was in a cave, I was six years old, clutching my Aunt’s hand and wailing at the weight pressing in all around me and the darkness lurking beyond the reach of electric spotlights. She tried to keep me calm, but I would have none of it. I had been bundled outside to wait for the rest of our family to finish their tour.
“Okay,” said Ian, “everyone ready?”
When there was a little too long of a pause, Noah, the other guide, chuckled. “I guess not, but we should probably get going anyway,” he quipped.
We picked our way down another steep slope and I found myself in the mouth of the cave. Light drifted down here in lazy motes, filtered by the canopy of trees overhead, and illuminated dimly; a jagged edge of a rocky slab here, a swathe of pebbled ground there. I glanced toward the back of the chamber. There, nestled coyly amid the tumble of half-seen rocks, was a glaring oval of dark. I felt my stomach clench, then roil.
“Hey guys, take a look at this,” said Ian, and I tore my eyes away from the back of the cave’s foyer. I tried to focus on what our guide was saying.
“Can you see the arch of red rock on the wall here?” he said, “any guesses what it is? Here’s a hint, this cave was once an Indian tribe’s home.”
“Is it, uhm, paint or something?” I hazarded, letting the question distract me.
Ian shook his head. “No, that mark took thousands of years to get there. Any other guesses?”
“Was one of their houses there?” Kate asked.
“Close, but not quite. A fire made that mark. The Indians built it here because the smoke would drift out of the entrance to the cave and not fill up their home with smoke. The red color is actually the iron in the rock, which was brought out over many generations where a really hot fire burned in this spot.
People used to live here. For hundreds or thousands of years. Nobody really had much to say about that.
“Ready to move on?” Ian asked.
And so we flicked on our headlamps and turned towards the darkness. We followed the tunnel deeper into the ground, our boots making vast, echoing clatters as we stumbled over rocks. Eventually, we reached a rusting iron gate, its rough red bars twice as thick as my bicep. Ian muscled this gate open, and it creaked with weight and age. One by one, we followed him into the dark. Noah closed the door behind us.
I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.
– Thomas Paine
Inside the cave, the only light was from the headlamps we all wore on our helmets. In the bluish reflected light from the LEDs, the walls and ceiling were covered with tiny droplets of moisture, painting the world with glints of blue and red and gold. The cave floor was infinitely varied. One moment we would be sliding down a channel carved by thousands of other visitors into the slick clay, the next we would be clambering across rocks with deep gulfs stretching into black oblivion on either side.
We passed from wonder to wonder, each more intricate and ethereal than the last. There were columns of rock that looked like precisely dribbled candles, tiny stalagmites with hollow insides that dripped water onto the clay below, and great flanging curls of rock that adorned the walls like stone curtains.
Ian gave us their names as we passed each one.
“This one’s the mountaineer,” he said, as we passed a looming tower of rock with a grim face glowering out behind a stony beard.
“That’s the ice cream machine.” A stalagmite hung from the ceiling, dripping onto a glistening lump of clay that looked eerily like a scoop of chocolate ice cream.
“R2-D2 and C3P-O,”
And so on. What I had not reckoned on was just how physically difficult caving would be. We climbed up slick banks of clay, shuffled along in a sitting position when the ceiling became too low, splashed through icy pools of shallow water, and always kept at least three points of contact with the ground or what we were clambering across. The air was cool, but incredibly moist, and soon my hands, boots, and butt were spackled with sweat, clay, and cave water. My panting breath swirled the dusty air, sending it into half-seen whorls in the beam of my headlamp.
Those lights bathed forests of frozen stone in blue circles, while all around us was nothing but blackness and the chuckle and plop of dripping water. Eventually the walls and celling flared out around us as we walked, and we emerged into a vast echoing chamber with sloping floors that intersected the ceiling. Noah called the room the Amphitheater.
Ian told us a little about the chamber and told us to go explore. He scrambled up the sloping cave floor like a spider monkey, sat down, and watched the rest of us fumble our way around the room. We clambered around for a few minutes, sliding on the amphitheater’s slick clay floors.
“Hey,” my sister, Kate, called from across the room. “Come check this out!” Her voice echoed past me and on into the dark. Slowly, I picked my way across from where I had been fruitlessly trying to climb up a clay embankment, and looked down into a chute of rock, perhaps as wide around as the grill on my mom’s front porch.
“Oh yeah, that’s a little crawl,” Ian said from behind me. “It pops out over there, under that ledge. It’s really cool, you should do it, Kate.”
My sister looked skeptical. “How narrow does it get?” she asked.
“The entrance right there is the tightest bit. Any takers, guys?”
Kate drew in a half breath, and then said “Sure. I got this.”
Mom was next: “I’ll give it a try.”
Ian glanced at me.
It felt like the whole earth was pressing in around the feeble beams of our headlamps. The darkness felt heavy, wet, oppressive. Hungry. I kept thinking of 127 Hours, or a story I had heard on NPR where they played the dying moments of a trapped caver. I could hear his voice now, as his brain swelled and he hallucinated that he was in his girlfriend’s living room…
I drew in a breath and let it out.
“Nahhhhh. Fuck that.”
My boots made clicking squelches as I shuffled them through the tacky clay on the ground. My sister went down into the hole first, whacking her helmet on the rim of the hole before she got herself oriented right. Then she was gone, but I could hear her muffled deadpan;
“Wearing a rain jacket was optimistic.”
My mom went next.
“The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/ or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance.”…”This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he pains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.”
– Yamamoto Tsunetomo.
After we left the Amphitheater, we picked our way through more dank, dripping tunnels full of meandering and treacherous strips of rock called rimstone. We splashed our way across an underground stream, and entered another big chamber that Ian called the chapel, because a couple had gotten married there in the 70’s. The walls were huge flanging curtains of rock that adorned the walls like curtains. In the middle of this room was a raised stone dais, where we took a rest, and Ian decided to do a lights-out exercise. We all sat down in a circle, and one by one, we clicked our headlamps off. For a few heartbeats, I could see a greenish ghost of my flashlight dancing in my vision. And then – nothing.
“Wave your hand in front of your face,” said Ian. For a moment, I thought I could see movement, but it was just my eyes responding to what they should have been seeing. The darkness was absolute. Almost instantly, my ears pricked up (boom, phrasing). I could hear everything, the dripping of water, the chuckling of the underground river, the distant echoes of laughter from a boy scout troupe we had passed earlier.
“The only place on earth that are as dark as caves are deep ocean trenches,” Ian said, “If you spent a week in here, you’d go blind, but you’d start hallucinating long before that.”
Some kind of bedside manner you’ve got there, Ian.
I focused on my breathing, taking big lungfuls of cool, moist air in through my nose, and letting my body relax as exhaled. Something clicked, as I huddled in the inky black, knees drawn up to my chest. I felt focused, collected, despite our guide’s less than reassuring . For the first time since I had entered the cave, I thought, really thought, about where I was and what I was doing. I was almost a thousand feet underneath some redneck’s farm in Tennessee, inside of the earth. Pretty cool. And I wasn’t hurt or dying at the moment, so why worry about it so much? I found that part of my brain that had been yammering at me to lose my cool for the past hour, and told it to shut the hell up. It did.
We stayed that way, in silence, listening to the dark all around us, for another few moments. Then, Ian switched on his headlamp.
“Who wants to go see something, like, really cool?” he asked.
Fear is excitement without breath.
– Robert Heller
Ian was scrambling over rocks like a mountain goat, chattering all the while, while the rest of us, even Noah, struggled to keep up with him in his sudden exuberance.
“This is where people used to get tombstones,” he said, gesturing to a spot where regular lines were scored in the cave wall. “They believed that the more effort you put into burying someone, the more important they were to you. Too bad this is all limestone and the tombstones probably wore away after five years.”
“You spend… a lot of time… in here… don’t you?” I panted, as we scrabbled our way up a clay embankment.
“Oh yeah,” our guide replied. “At new years I camped two nights in here and met this really cool hippie couple. Watch that stalactite. So we were drinking some of their homemade tequila, and this guy, the husband, was telling me about how he hikes up to mountaintops, with no food, and will just spend three or four days sitting up there naked. Far out, right?”
I glanced over at Kate and cocked an eyebrow. She grinned.
“Okay,” Ian eventually exclaimed. We had been clambering through a low corridor, but our guide had climbed over to the left side of the tunnel, where a shelf of rock opened up to reveal a narrow slice of darkness that sloped away downwards. “This is a little crawl that’ll spit us out by the surprise I want to show you. It’s also near the river, which we follow to get back to the exit. Here we go!”
With that, our guide turned to face the crevice, and slid forward, wriggling his torso. For a moment, his clay-caked Nikes kicked in the light of our headlamps, and then they were gone too. I knew I had to go next. I couldn’t let myself think too hard about what I was about to do.
“Who – Oh, you got it, Nick,” Noah said. I faced the crevice, letting my headlamp illuminate the descent, and hurled myself forward.
Inside, the crevice was much wider than I had thought, though I couldn’t raise my head too much without scraping my helmet against the stone above me. I didn’t even have to use my arms much to move forward, and just let my body weight carry me down the rock shelf, which was covered in slimy clay. The descent wasn’t as steep as it had looked from the top, and after six or seven feet, it widened and heightened again to reveal a chamber perhaps the same size of a car interior. Ian was waiting there, a grin plastered across his face.
“You made it, nice. Let’s wait for everyone.”
I sat up, looked down at my clay-drenched chest, and let out a shaky species of laughter that was one part release of nerves, one part excitement.
I say I am stronger than fear.
– Malala Yousafzai
With all five of us crammed into the tiny space, the chamber that had seemed refreshingly wide quickly became claustrophobically small. As Noah came squirming out of the tunnel, pushing his backpack in front of him, Ian turned to our family.
“Okay, here comes the hard part. Go slow, if there’s a tight spot, stay calm and work through it. I’ll be right in front of you and I’ll toss you the rope if you need a pull. Remember to breathe!” Then he was off again, easing headfirst into the passage that led onward. I was right on his heels, cracking my helmet on the tunnel mouth in my haste to follow.
Once again, my mind tried to start thinking the thoughts that would spiral into fear, or panic, if I let them. I drew in a deep lungful of air, feeling my beating heart in my throat, the tenseness in my neck muscles. Then I exhaled in a deep sigh, and turned off my brain for the next few minutes. I crawled forward, feeling like I was crawling under barbed wire in a boot camp montage. The ceiling dragged against the top of my helmet, grinding it against my scalp. My breath hissed between my teeth and swirled against the stone inches from my nose. My world narrowed, until the only thing that mattered was the next place to dig my forearm into, whether my next foothold would slip too much or not, and how to pull myself past the next burr in the rock.
The sound started as a whisper, a susurrating hiss that echoed up from somewhere in front of me, so soft that I thought it was my breathing echoing off the cave walls at first. As I clawed my way up the passage, dragging myself forward handhold by handhold, the sound grew and grew until it became first a chuckle, then resolved itself into the full throated laughter of water tumbling over rocks. As soon as I realized this, I could see the light from Ian’s headlamp peering back at me from the end of the passageway.
I emerged from the tunnel into yet another large room, illuminated by the thousands of glittering droplets of water that reflected our LEDs back at us. Half of this chamber’s floor was sandy, but towards the far end of the chamber there was a drop of three feet or so that led into the source of the river I had seen flowing out of the cave mouth so long ago. The spring bubbled up from under one of the cavern walls, which tapered into an arch above it where centuries of flowing water had worn away the rock. I could see something on the wall by this natural arch, something that looked like writing.
Ian gestured that way. “Go check it out,” he said, “I’m gonna make sure everyone makes it out.”
I walked over to the spring, my boots sinking deep into the fine sand on the riverbank. There, written on the wall in black greasepaint, were countless signatures. Some were the usual: EB + TY, inside a heart. Chris was here. But there were two or three of these signatures that stood out from the rest, separated by a reverent halo of bare rock. One read Saunders and Smith, 1821. The second read RJ, 1832.