The night they found themselves at the entrance of a cave was the night that changed everything. Not her penchant for chocolate, not his need for glasses, but everything intangible that made them who they are. If they hadn’t gone, time would have proceeded with the kind of comfortable familiarity that made it easy to stay in one place, watch sunsets from the porch, and turn the seasons with apple cider and fireworks again and again and again until wrinkles replaced suntans and bifocals replaced aviator shades. Instead, that night, that wondrous, heart-aching night, uprooted them, rendering the world that once contented them small and simple, dull and unsatisfying. At the foot of the cave, they didn’t realize that they should have turned around, walked back home, helped with supper, and settled into a quiet evening followed by a quiet sleep. At the foot of the cave, they laughed and said, “What’s this?” and one looked at the other who looked back at the other, and soon enough they had convinced each other that the course of action was to step forward, into the cave, just to see what might be there.
The cave itself was behind the high-school football field, tucked among the briers, hidden by a thick woods that few people really cared exploring. Other woods, green and friendly, with paths and squirrels, berries and streams, were frequented by picnickers, hikers, and curious excavators. These woods, the ones behind the high school, were old, grey, and tired. A hollow echo followed the children as they crunched the dry leaves beneath their feet, tossing a purple ball back and forth.
“One-hundred teen!” he let out, catching the ball behind his back. The bubble of laughter burst rich from their little voices then died quickly as the woods swallowed it whole. “Let’s go over there.”
Without a word, she skipped after his running start, and soon they were in a tag-you’re-it game, zipping and flying in and off of the long-worn path that snaked through the woods.
When she tripped which made him stop, he saw it: “What’s that?” Within a moment, they were standing at the foot of a cave, a moss-covered, grey cave, that bent steeply, so they couldn’t see where it went. They went in. Then they went deeper. He took out his boy-scout flashlight, shook it twice, then lit the ground before them. When the cold took her feet and then took her cheeks and her neck, she grabbed his hand. Yet they kept walking. It was now pitch black, save for the streak of the flashlight. The darkness was so thick and heavy, it changed even the most familiar objects. When the light hit their feet, they looked strange and foreign, as though not belonging to them.
It was then that they saw a faint light in the distance. If it had just been the light, they may have been aware of the strangeness of such a find so deep within a cave, they may have turned and crept away, quietly, quickly. But a warmth eminated from the light source, a much welcomed respite from the chill that had taken over their limbs and their faces. They walked towards the warmth. They walked and walked, and the light became brighter, warmer. A humming noise, serene and holy, began to rise from the cavern walls. They walked and walked, and the cave walls narrowed and narrowed. They scrunched their bodies small and squeezed on, ducking and crouching.
At the turn of a corner, the walls fell away. A strange man, skinny in stature and with a long beard of gold stood in the center of a great cavern. The ceiling 100 feet tall, the walls glowing in orange and gold, a circle of mini horses running and running around him. The children fell back in awe and shock, unable to move and unable to look away. The strange man, in robes of deep velvet, looked up and said, “I’ve been waiting for you.” He said so kindly, but not without regret. He held out his hand and a wave of swirling bubbles and crystal sequins danced towards the children, wrapping their waists and warping quietly into silver chairs that they suddenly found themselves sitting in, floating, rising up and down and dancing their way towards the strange man. The strange man was now in a chair of his own, and they floated together and then were upside down, looking up, at the ground. The ground was now shiny glass, crystal clear, showing everything possible. He let them look, deeply. He watched them look at all that they could become. A small tear slide down his forehead as the children suddenly knew what many things they could not be. Each choice would haunt them, a loss, a possibility never to be realized. The knowing would be their undoing.
A long time ago, I was on a hike in a swamp exploring the terrain, and more accurately, myself. It was a mysterious place filled with a diverse array of fauna and flora, many of which I had never seen before. I was traveling with my short speech-impaired colleague for what seemed like days; always walking, running, and swinging from vines for what seemed like no reason at all.
After traveling for quite some time, I suddenly felt cold. I felt… death all around me, but originating from a very specific spot. This was quite disturbing to me, so I began to investigate the area. From this search, I found a small cave set into the ground before me, leading off into who knows what. It was dark, quiet, and unseen as to what lay ahead. Snakes could be seen slithering on branches around me, and a cold breeze was moving out from the opening. I turned to my companion and asked “What’s in there?”. He stopped, considered the question for a few moments, and replied “Only what you take with you”. Instinctively, I knew this to be a stupid response. I could clearly see that creepy animals and plants were down in the cave, so there must be other life down there. My companion obviously didn’t understand what I was asking, as I clearly didn’t care about anything philosophical or deep-thinking. Preparing myself for the worst, I grabbed my utility belt and began to secure my weapons in case things got bad down there. My height-challenged friend looked at me and calmly stated “Your weapons, you will not need them”. I wanted to reply with “You’re an idiot”, but, trying to remain calm and mature, I simply finished strapping everything in place and made my way to the cave opening.
As I descended into the cave, the air around me grew cold and quiet. My danger-sense began to rise and an intense feeling of paranoia rose inside of me. I couldn’t see anything in front of me to actually cause concern… but I could feel it. I walked and walked for what seemed like hours. The ground was damp and slick with water, the rock slippery and dangerous to traverse. A light fog rose up around me and obscured my vision to the point where I could only see several feet out in front of me. Up ahead of me, the cave began to curve off to the left and it was hard to see what exactly was around the corner.
As I approached the corner, a tall, dark figure emerged from the fog and moved straight for me at a steady, terrifying pace. The figure was clad in what appeared to be dark black armor, his head protected in a helmet with a breathing apparatus installed within. It sounded like he kept saying “Cooper”, which was odd as my name is Tim. I was about to ask him why he kept calling me Cooper when a long, approximately 3 foot red beam emerged from his hand. A lightsaber! How was this man in this cave in the first place, and more importantly, how was he also wielding the same weapon as I? Thankfully, I didn’t listen to my friend and reached for my similar, yet blue in color, lightsaber. I instantly depressed the activation stud on the handle and deployed the blade of pure energy. Not waiting for him to attack me, I went instantly on the offensive and moved in to take him down.
The opponent was obviously well trained with a lightsaber, as he quickly and easily parried my first assault and turned his action around into an attack of his own. Being only a novice myself, I was rapidly growing concerned about how this battle may fare for me. I was obviously outmatched against this man and my life expectancy was decreasing as the seconds continued. My swings became more defensive and more desperate with each passing moment. I felt cornered and pressured to keep fighting as he calmly and effortlessly continued to berate me with his swordplay. In a moment of combined skill, timing, and perhaps, pure luck, an opening appeared in his offensive strategy and I saw a window of opportunity to strike in between my defensive motions. Starting low with my blade pointed by my ankles, I quickly brought the blade upward in a quick motion aimed at my opponent’s face. Against all odds, my attack passed by his defensive parrying and found home on his mask. As the blade penetrated the plastic/metal composite helmet armor, his head popped off cleanly, and almost, too easily for what I expected. As I’ve never decapitated somebody before, this was bringing about a sense of terror, joy, and victory in me all at once. The helmeted head fell to the ground and landed at my feet.
As I looked down at the head rolling several revolutions towards my feet, the head stopped face-up. Immediately, a small explosion obliterated the front of the mask and sent a shower of sparks at my feet. As the smoke from the explosion began to waft off and disperse in the foggy, cool air of the cave, I could see what lay inside the mask of the helmet. Unsure of what I was actually looking at, I reach down towards the ground for the helmet, picked it up, reached inside, and pulled out… a box of Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies!
What luck! There were no Girl Scouts anywhere to be seen in this swamp, let alone this dark cave, so how they made it here, I have no clue. But seriously, Thin Mints? This was awesome. I took the box opened them carefully, and opened up the first of the plastic sleeves. Savoring the first bite of those delicious mint and chocolatey goodness, I happily worked my way back out of the cave to find my friend staring sadly at me. I approached him, looked down at him, and swiftly kicked him out of the way. You think that I was going to share my new-found cookies with him? He didn’t want me to take my weapons in the first place because he wanted the cookies all to himself. The nerve!
I grew up in Kentucky about fifteen minutes from the Red River Gorge, a network of canyons and geographical curiosities of enticing perplexity. While many of my friends spent their summers playing Atari and Nintendo, I preferred exploring the Gorge with my closest friend Ernie. My mother didn’t mind too much, as long as we went together and were back before dinner.
It wasn’t uncommon for us to stumble upon caves amidst the rocks. And as children with few concerns of danger or mortality, we readily climbed inside armed with nothing more than flashlights and sticks; sticks which sometimes acted as magical wands and other times machine guns depending on that day’s adventure.
It was a summer day in mid August when we found one such cave, it was nestled deep in a crevice that would have certainly gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for Ernie’s unnerving interest in searching for snakes. The entrance was smooth but narrow, too narrow for anyone but a child. We squeezed through, our chests and shoulders tight to the walls of rock, our heads turned so our ears pressed against the earth below and rock above. It was a four-foot squeeze before the cavern opened up, first to crawling and ultimately walking height.
We joked and shouted, enjoying the loud echoes bouncing off the walls. Our flashlights cast lanky shadows across the floor. Cool air rushed through the cavity, a release from the stiff humid air of the August day. Ernie and I clambered forward, too young to have any concerns. The cave floor and walls were mostly smooth. A more experience spelunker may have recognized this as a water passage, we simply marveled at the darkness of our secret discovery.
Onward we walked though the passage. It widened further until it was easily fifteen feet across. It was then that we came across a door.
For the first time in our adventure, Ernie and I exchanged nervous looks. Now it seemed that we weren’t exploring uncharted lands, it felt as if we were trespassing on someone else’s secret. Like walking in on another’s intimate conversation, Ernie and I paused not knowing if we should barge in or retreat.
After minutes that felt like hours, Ernie reached for the door handle. He turned and pulled. With a quiet creaking the door opened to darkness. Ernie let go of the handle and walked through the door – his flashlight reaching unanswered into the darkness. Where his hand had touched the cold metal door handle, ghostly fingerprints remained. Ernie faded from view.
“Ernie?” I said again. My flashlight searched the open door, revealing nothing but depth. I realized the cave was cold. Very cold. My arms shivered.
“Ernie!” my exclamation bounced around the cavern behind me.
As quick as his image had faded from view, Ernie reappeared, his face white. “let’s go.”
We raced to back towards the entrance
“What was in there? What was it?” I asked, the cave echo repeating back my pleading questions
“nothing okay! it was nothing.”
This time the cave swallowed his words. This time, there was no echo.
It was the strange lights that drew him from bed and into a jacket over his t-shirt and jeans half-zipped.
It felt too cliché to be real, running into the woods under the moonlight like some science fiction film
from his childhood. The grass was cold; he’d neglected cutting it to a reasonable length and could feel it
gathering between his toes through the front of his sandals.
It was this cold that stayed with him as he walked into the cave, a hole carved into the ground at
a shallow downward angle, just past the tree-line, that hadn’t been there a few days before. It came
over the entirety of his skin as he neared the lights, and intensified as he walked toward them. As he
stumbled nearer – why hadn’t he brought a flashlight? – the cold transformed, changed to a warmth.
The goosebumps remained on his arms but he felt comforted, safe. A subconscious familiarity was in it,
like recognizing a pleasant smell, forgotten since childhood.
The lights absorbed his chills as he walked into them, and he felt embraced by it as if he’d
jumped into a warm bath, and his eyes closed in a gentle relief that washed over him.
As his eyelids gently reopened, the view gradually came into focus – the movie moment wasn’t
lost on him even here, so predictable – the picture was warmly lit and speckled with soft colors. He
recognized it immediately, immediately losing all conscious thought of what had brought him here,
everything leading to this moment. He no longer registered his clothing or the hour, just the smile of his
mother, and her open arms across the field that was once his back yard in the country. He walked faster
now, the grass grinding between his toes to a paste. The woman, his mother, stepped once to her left, and
her arms parted – she continued to smile, and led his eyes with hers as he passed, following her gaze
next onto her outstretched right arm, his focus shifting past her fingers (even as they glowed in the
afternoon sun), onto the innocent face of a 7 year old Christopher. The small figure of his friend stood
there relaxed in a way that only kids can, hardly a care about him.
Chris stared back and smirked as young boys do, and wasted no time in jumping on his bike.
Running alongside him suddenly, his bike from the same age beckoned alongside his friend’s, and as if in
a dream he was riding it alongside – the transition seemed to happen faster than thought and
seamlessly, without question.
The feeling of jumping off a dirt mound was as exhilarating as anything a person could know, the
infancy of his hormones delighting every still innocent nerve, as they carved though the paths and found
new ways to excite each other and grin so hard it hurt, upon hearing the unbridled laughter that told
one of the other’s delight.
It was somewhere in this moment, as it dragged on for a time that he couldn’t ever estimate,
but hadn’t bothered to try, that he felt the warmth depart, the warm blanket of the moment slowly
sliding off of him as he lay paralyzed. The only thing he could recognize again was the grass – it was on
his hands now, and he could see lights again – the stars, staring back at him without emotion, stoic, and
fading… He was in his back yard, but just in his t-shirt and underwear, as if ripped from bed. As the
oxygen that had led him here, ambulatory, faded until he could no longer move his fingers between the
blades, he felt a smile, and could see his mother again – if only in the memory of his last thoughts on this
earth, a dream.