Monday, July 7, 2008

Chataqua Pt. 2

After catching my breath and eating the greater portion of my food. I sat and watched as the morning sun intensified on the rocks. The patches of grass that sprung from fissures in the limestone appeared to murmur and palpitate behind the heat waves. It was like looking through a rippled-glass window. I approached the sheer wall of rock and began tugging on the bushes and brush surrounding the base. I found the entrance to the cave a little further down the wall than I remembered it being before, it also looked a lot smaller than last time. Maybe it was just that I was smaller before. I opened my backpack and fished around for my headlamp and flashlight. I grabbed two shrink-wrapped summer sausages and stuffed them in my pockets. I then stuffed my jacket in my trusty pack with the remnants of my lunch and tossed it under the bushes to the left of the hole and got ready to enter the darkness. I always hesitate at the entrance of dark damp places, more with cellars and basements than rocky crevices, and so after assuring myself that there were not a million creepy crawlers I got on my belly and began to scoot in. I started with the headlamp on and the lime-green Eveready flashlight tucked in my back pocket as a reserve. The buzz of insects and the sting of heat waves faded with each forward thrust into the darkness. I was soon 15 feet from the entrance and breathing the musty, stagnant air of the caves wet floor. There was a gentle, constant flow of air coming from deep within the cave that felt like air conditioning as it passed over my head and chilled the sweat on my back. 30 feet into the cave and a glance behind me showed that I was now completely in the dark... the entrance was no longer visible around the slight bend of the natural stone corridor. A slight pang of panic struck me, a jolt of anxiety shot down my spine and down to my fingertips. I imagined that the ceiling of the crawlspace of the millions of pounds of limestone above me was going to drop suddenly and pinch me flat as easily as if I were a gnat. The urge to back out was so strong I could not bring myself to move for what seemed like an eternity. The thought that I would have to back out, since the walls were to narrow to turn around, gave me a shortness of breath and a stubborn urge to stretch out and press against the walls in an attempt to give myself more space. My heart rate quickened. I felt nothing but impending death.

My rapid breathing was heating my face and only added to the illusion of my perceived tight surroundings. I imagined that the walls were going to tighten in around me like a gerbil in a toddlers clutches. I couldn't back up, my legs were so shaky that I could scarcely control them. I laid my head across a forearm and my nose touched the moist ground. I took a deep breath of the earthy air, and focused on overcoming my anxiety. Several controlled deep breaths, and the unyielding stone surrounding me seemed to miraculously retract. I took a few more moments to allow my heart rate to subside and regulate. When I was again ready, I continued down the long, low aperture. After another 3o feet the ceiling began to slant upwards and the walls widened. I was now in a low room with a dusty floor. I perched up on my feet and up with my head remaining low. I crawled forward to the center of the room and stood up fully. There was a low, faint howl of wind coming from the hole through which I had entered. The black in the wall across the room was to be my next route. slightly smaller than the opening through which I had just come, this one was also a lot longer. I was in no rush, I sat in the middle of the room on a short, round stalagmite formation. I began meditating. The episode of claustrophobia I had just had was a result of suppressing my better judgment to mentally prepare in favor of action and adventure. Well, I had gotten my adventure. Now I shut off my headlamp and sat in the darkness, eyes wide open. I couldn't see a thing, even after my eyes had dilated. I listened to the ebb and flow of the wind in the tunnels and imagined myself within the one I had yet to enter. I imagined the walls were just around me, then ever so slowly I reached my hands out from my torso and into the dark void. I closed my eyes and imagined that the walls were being spread apart. I brought my hands in and laid them in my lap, I opened my eyes and imagined that the tunnel was only millimeters from my skin, all around me.

I sat this way for about 3 or 4 minutes, concentrating on nothing but the image of the tunnel I was about to enter. I turned on my headlamp as I stood up, doing my best not to stretch, and approached the hole. Face down on the floor, I shut off my headlamp after a glance into the tunnel, I wanted to trust my mind, not my vision. I began scooting in through the opening. I felt calm and relaxed as I drug my body over the damp floor, and the feeling lasted over the next 15 minutes. When at last I reached ahead of me into the darkness and felt a change in the texture of the ground I raised my head and looked above me. I was in the day and night room.

I pulled myself into the room and rolled over onto my back. The "stars" above me were every bit as grand as I remembered. I gazed at them, and past them, into infinity. I emptied my pockets and nestled into the cool earth underneath me. I laid my head on my open palms and let my feet fall outward. I thought of all the immense amounts of energy surrounding me and, without being conscious of it, I fell asleep.

I awoke to the unpleasant sound of breaking plastic. I had rolled over onto my headlamp and crushed it into the ground, breaking the lens and light bulb. I no longer saw the stars over my head. I reached for my flashlight and used it to gather my things. I stood up and dusted myself off. I picked up the pieces of the headlamp and tucked them into a natural shelf in the wall. I wondered if it would ever be found by someone else, or if I might find it here, exactly as I left it, several years from now.

I hadn't meant to fall asleep, and now the day had passed by entirely I had no idea what time it was, only that it was now after dark. I must have been asleep for several hours. I hadn't planned on a midnight decent of the mountain. I shined the light around the room and found the tunnel, I felt rested enough that I could start my exit immediately. I shined the light in and, to my surprise, I saw two different veins. more to my confusion, I couldn't see any indication of either one having been used. I looked intently for some sign of my entry but I could see none. I again looked around the room, to be sure there were no other tunnels. None. I sat and pondered, to try and recall how I had entered the room. It had been in complete darkness, and I was totally unaware of the fact that there were two veins leading to this one opening. I shut off the flashlight and sat against the wall to think. I racked my brain over and over, certain that I would remember some sensation, from which I could deduce through which tunnel I had come.
I poked my head into the tunnel and listened to the low drone of the wind, but it seemed as if it hushed itself as soon as I turned an ear to it. Complete silence from both routes. I felt anxiety wash over me, and then from deep within the darkness came a low laugh.

I have always tried to make it a point to stay positive in the face of hopelessness. But, over the years I have developed what feels like an alternate personality that voices all its pessimisms, and laughs at the bleak optimism of my rationale. To explain it to someone else seems like I have created a devil for my left shoulder, because in my head, there is a gargoyle with a singular face, and a unique voice, and a very real laugh. He emerges from the dark void in my reasoning, that corner that I can't account for when the rest of me tries to imagine the good things that may exist beyond my perception and understanding. My angel on my right shoulder tries to tell me what great things lie beyond my view, in that dark void. But inevitably, there emerges that twisted, hideous face, preluded by a cackle that mocks the well-meaning words of my angel.
His laugh is all he needs. That laugh has haunted me since my childhood. I remember, I sat on the banks of the shiftless creek that meandered through the woods by the house. The wind rustling the trees and shaking dead leaves into the water below, creating little boats that would spin and sink in the eddies and miniature waterfalls, I would spend hours at a time cornering crawdads and minnows, or herding swarms of little black "water bugs" and "water skeeters". And if the urge to be industrious struck me, I would build a dam.

On this day I was diligently undertaking the task of damming a section of the creek, I had spent about 2 hours constricting the flow of the creek from the banks inward, to the middle. As I set about filling in the middle, the dammed water rising to my calves, I gathered leaves from the bank and sank them in the pool, where the currents dragged them into the crevices in the sticks and stones that comprised the structure of the dam. I then took silt from the deepest part of the pool, whitish clay meshed together with the skeletons of dead leaves. I put this over the outside of the leaves to hold them in, and further restrict the flow of water. I stood back to admire my work. The water was pouring over the top of the dam. The creek below the dam was now very shallow, as the water behind the dam climbed the banks. In this moment of satisfaction I remember hearing the gritty crunch of the creek bed stones as they shifted. A vibration, like skidding a chair across a linoleum floor. And then the dam gave way. rocks and sticks were washed with considerable force, downstream to where I stood. It happened too fast for me to react, and the sticks struck my shins, shots of pain jumped through me like electricity. As I waded out of the water and observed the wreck that had been my greatest childhood accomplishment, I heard that laugh. It seemed to start has a chuckle, barely perceptible over the thrash of the water, but as the creek returned to its normal pace the cackle now became a throaty laugh. I spun around looking for the source of this evil sadistic laugh--who was taking pleasure in my failure, my torment? The laughter seemed to grow stronger with my confusion, a hack and wheeze, and then more laughter. I felt chills. This laughter seemed to be coming from the creek itself, a demon, a lunatic. I desperately shouted, "What?!" but the laughter continued. I plugged my ears, gritting my teeth. The laugh continued. I ran along the banks of the creek, driven by fear and anger. I snatched a rock from the ground and sent it into the creek with a feeble "kerplunk". Not even a minute had gone by, but my mind was in a state of sheer desperation, and it seemed to have been eons. Then I found the demon.

A strange fish. it looked like tarnished bronze. Its belly as white as a Water Lilly. It was a foot and a half in length. It lay on its side in the pebbles and mud of the bank, two feet from the water. Its eye was fixed on me with a vehement glare, so intent that it seemed to be divining my thoughts. And it was laughing at me.

I took a rock and crushed its head.

The laughter subsided, but a chill came over me as I contemplated what I had done.

The fish had been exploring its new territory, expanded by the dammed creek. And when the dam broke, it was left on dry ground, the water returning to it's previous volume. The laughter I had heard after the dam broke was the fish gasping, suffocating. Confused and terrified, just like me. At the same moment I was seeking for an explanation to the laughter at my failure, the fish was seeking an explanation for being thrown from its element, the new experience was nothing short of torture for it. The open air was like flames on flesh, the gravity it was accustomed to was now doubled, and never had it felt something so solid and unyielding as the jagged pebbles of the shore, some imperceptible force pressing it down onto them. And then I dealt it a deathblow.

This demon who had turned out to be a fish, again became a demon. the fish, whose life I had severed, now became immortalized. It lodged its spirit in my mind, deep in a dark corner. It would have its vengeance. It stayed with me from that day Some time later I learned that it had been a certain type of fish known to make a laughing sound, but by then the laugh was no longer associated with a fish. It had morphed into a grotesque It delighted in my fear, it always chuckled at my misfortune. It laughed each time I found myself confused and out of my own element--in over my head. It would now watch, and relish, as I found myself unable to find a solution to my predicament here in this cave. The laughter seemed to echo from every recess.

Images of the pages of a book in my childhood "Greek Myths" came into my mind. Theseus and the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Hansel and Gretel came to mind, I needed some bread crumbs. I took the pieces of my headlamp and stuffed them in my pockets. I was unsure if there were more branches of tunnels ahead of me and I intended to be prepared if there were. I took the tunnel on the right. hoping that it would soon become impassible, proving that I never could have entered that way before. However, soon it seemed as if this tunnel must definitely be the one through which I had come. There was no physical evidence, just a feeling. I began to sweat, this is exactly the impression that I didn't want. If I had taken the tunnel on the left I would have been just as certain that it was the correct one. Nevertheless, I continued on through the tunnel, forcedly slower now, for the rugged green flashlight I clutched in my left fist.

I expected to be able to find my correct route of exit by process of elimination. Finding the dead end tunnels and marking them with bits of my headlamp until I found the way I had come. I now followed the tunnel looking for any sign or imprint in the floor of the have that would indicate I had passed that way. While I saw none, I was not entirely convinced that I had not passed this way before. This was not the feeling I wanted. I wanted to know, one way or another, if I was in the correct tunnel. I pushed forward, if there are no signs of passage, a sign of impassibility would surely arise. A puddle, a gaping chasm, a dead-end... but there were none, so I continued. Finally, I came to a sharp incline, which I knew I hadn't come down. I pulled my knees to my chest and turned around the way I had come. As I left the passage I marked it with one of the AA batteries from the headlamp. I repeated the process half a dozen times, the only encouragement I felt at finding a dead end was that I was surely coming closer to finding the way out.

At length, tired, parched, hands and knees worn raw, maniacal laughter ringing in my head. I found the route which would surely lead me out of the cave. I scooted through with renewed vigor, anxious to meet the outside world again. I knew I must be only perhaps a football field from my goal. I needed no other reason, I ignored my bleeding palms, and my aching back. I pressed forward.

Suddenly I found myself in an opening, I looked up to see a myriad of little stars against a pitch black sky. I had made it! I jumped to my feet. In the same instant, complete darkness enshrouded me.

I awakened to the sound of dripping water, and an echo that cut through the silence of the cave. my flashlight lay on the ground beside me, the bulb glowing orange. As I lay there, I assessed my situation. My head throbbed in addition to my hands, knees and back. I closed my eyes for a moment. When I again opened them, the light coming from my flashlight had gained a more reddish glow. I raised my hand to my head, it stung. I felt a short gash in toward the back of my crown, caked with dirt from the cave floor. I confusion I looked up again to see if the stars were still out. Now, with a better view I realized that I was still in the cave. the stars I thought I had seen were not stars at all. Neither were they the simulated universe of the Day and Night room. They were Glow worms. Glow worms anchored to the ceiling of the cave, very dim lights emitting from their abdomens, and on each, a short string of mucus that resembled a strand of hot glue. Together their glowing abdomens and these strings of mucus form a trap. Unsuspecting insects are attracted to the light, unable to see the danging snares, and when they are caught, they are stuck. And the glow worm has only to "reel in" it's prey by reswollowing its thread.

I reached for my dying flash light and shined it in front of me, I dabbed my head again and looked for blood. I decided that the gash was beginning to clot and wouldn't be a major concern. suddenly a firefly flew across my line of sight. I spun to follow its flight path. It landed above me and glowed brightly for a moment. In confusion I turned my dim light on it.

I could not believe my eyes! a translucent form with a bluish tint--as if it were carved from ice-- it's wings reflected the beam from my flashlight as they fluttered at an incredible rate of speed. A Fairy! It let go from its perch and hovered, lighting its abdomen. Another flew into the light and also hovered there. I faltered, drawing the light away from them. They followed it. I moved it again, very slowly and they kept pace with seeming fascination. I bobbed the beam and swayed it back and forth and now more came to it, they were not glow worms at all! One by one they would light up brightly, come down from their perches and join the rest at the beam of the flashlight. They seemed as fragile as glass figurines, and moved their arms and legs slowly and with grace, further accentuating the hummingbird-speed of their wings. But there was no hum. They moved in complete silence. I sped up the motion of the flashlight, and their own lights fluttered on and off with delight. They quickly adapted to my predictable, if not repetitive motion, and were able to remain in the beam. The slowly ventured closer, the light creating a channel through which they seemed to swim. Now they hovered at arms length-for me- in the light. they had perfectly black eyes, that would light up with a glassy reflection when their glow was live. Their mouths seemed fixed in a permanent pucker, and likewise their cheeks seemed set in a grin. Their faces were amazingly human-like, but had a defining differences. while their mouths seemed very similar to puckered lips, their noses were much like that of a grasshopper. long and rounded. with no visible nostrils. Their hair was while, nearly trasparent, and it sat it ruffled tufts. Their wings were a little larger than those of a cicada, and from what I could see of them when they were landed they had the same membrane as those of a mayfly or mantis, but with none of the sounds like insects make.

I turned off the flashlight and they began to flurry around. signaling, they seemed to be looking for it. Then they came close to my hands, their own glow staying lit and casting light on the flashlight in my hands. They waited intently, hovering maybe 1o inches from my hands, I could feel a breeze from their wings. I turned the light back on and they began to chirp, and dance and twirl in it. Their chirps were ever so quiet, and had a metallic ting to them. when they all began at once it sounded as if a thousand tiny bells were ringing in the small room. I watched in silent fascination. I counted them. There were about 34 of them, including the 3 who remained perched on the ceiling as when I had taken them for glow worms.

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