From Issue 15: The Caver

Elizabeth Youle

After the long passage underground, over dark puddles and under low mineral formations, Judith and her small cadre at last found the entrance. She paused for a moment to watch. The portable gas stoves heating up Thanksgiving dinner made the scientists’ long shadows dance on the walls of the cave just like ancient torchlight would have done. The assembled group was settling in, draping blankets on a large flat portion of the ground and repurposing stalagmites to hang up their parkas and carabiners.

Two tenured professors, Mary Claire and Sean, took plastic containers and tin foil bundles out of backpacks and set them out them near the cluster of stoves. A wiry older man scraped their contents into a collection of unmatched metal cookware, which he then placed gingerly on the wire frames of the stoves, pot by pot. A few more people were still making their way through the narrow passage down into this large grotto, the belly of the cave, and Judith could hear their laughter echoing dimly in the damp and misty dark.

She adjusted some flyaway hairs caught beneath her headlamp and filled her titanium mug with red wine from a box that had been wedged into a lumpy pillar extending from the ground to the roof of the cave. Two of her students chattered to each other, their headlamps pointing directly into one another’s faces, and they unclipped their mugs to follow her.

A hand clapped her on the shoulder as she bent down, squeezing her through her puffer jacket. It was Mitch, she knew.

“Sure feels good to be back stateside,” he said, turning her around to face him. His broad shoulder almost met her brow as he leaned to whisper in her ear.

“When we were on Sulawesi dreaming of home, did you think you’d get to spend the holidays back in a cave?”

“I didn’t dare,” she said, smiling. “How was Brussels?”

“Fantastisch.”

“And your talk?”

“Best yet,” he said.

He embraced her and the familiar longing begin to swell, a soft and frantic chorus. It was the same longing that accompanied the uranium-series dating research they’d undertaken last fall, through their conference PowerPoints, and even, especially, in the dark and drowsy tropical bars in Indonesia they traipsed through with her students.

He shrugged.

“It was okay, I mean,” he said. “When we have the new paper ready, that’ll blow them away.”

He smiled at a small group gathered near the food, behind Judith, and the smell of burbling turkey gravy filled the dark enclosure.

“Hear ye, hear ye! This session of the American Speleologist Club is hereby called to order, holiday edition!” Sean, the president, called to the group. A popular lecturer, he was in his late forties with a small potbelly, his greying hair partially covered by a fleece beanie. He gestured towards the food with hands full of plastic cutlery.

“The Thanksgiving dishes you all have so lovingly prepared have been warmed up and are now ready for your enjoyment, so feel free to dig in, people. They’re only going to get colder.”

“There’s wine by the mouth of the cavern,” Mary Claire called, “don’t forget!”

“That’s my cue,” Judith said, tapping Mitch’s chest as she turned to join the line. Mitch stooped to follow her. A rangy, loping man, his physique didn’t especially incline him to cave exploration. He’d started free climbing as a teenager in Colorado; long arms and wiry musculature made him a natural. Needing a college major, he’d picked geology and begun a slow descent into the lifelong study of caves. He spent years contorting himself into ever smaller avenues, spelunking into the deep with the same fervor he ascended cliffs when he was young.

Though they’d been collaborators for almost two years with a close, teasing rapport, Judith came to the field very differently. A shy child, she felt her first flush of acclaim winning science prizes in school. She’d always loved these dark places, nestled deep in the earth. She knew they contained secrets, even beyond any troglodyte bones or paintings that might be discovered in them. The caves themselves told the mysteries of the earth in their dripping, infinitesimally growing way. Global temperatures of the ancient world, long-forgotten ecological disasters, the composition of the air itself— it was all inscribed meticulously into the mineral layers of the cave, if only you knew how to read them. She was petite enough to stand at full height in most explored caves, with wide hips and thick glasses and her dark hair perpetually drawn into a ponytail.

Mitch was her research partner and frequent coauthor but he was not, like her, widely respected in the field. An adjunct lecturer, his students fell in love with him and eagerly signed up for the extracurricular treks he organized. He’d slept with a handful of them in Constantine Caverns, their bodies illuminated by the glow of spotlights trained on magnificent stalactite formations. He kept that part of his life secret from Judith, but she knew anyway, the way one always does in a small community.

He ducked behind her in line and rested both of his hands on her shoulders and she leaned back ever so slightly into his hold.

An elfin doctoral student passed out paper plates, nodding to each attendee.

“Happy Thanksgiving, happy Thanksgiving, happy Thanksgiving,” he repeated down the line. Mary Claire served sweet potatoes covered in a layer of marshmallow and stuffing with rehydrated mushrooms.

“And for you,” Sean said when they reached the turkey, “I saved a leg, sir.”

Mitch bowed.

After the meal was underway some people lit candles and placed them on every available flat surface, secured with Paleo-paste, and the scientists sat cross-legged or perched on the sloping rock where the ground met the walls of the cavern.

Judith sat with her old advisor, a pale man who wore a sweatshirt with a bat on it and his wife, an anthropologist. She looked across the cave at Mitch. A lock of brown hair covered his eye as he smiled faintly at something a pretty grad student was saying.

“In Indonesia…” she heard him reply.

In Indonesia he’d come in and slept in her tent after his was ruined by a pack of boars that had caught the scent of an energy bar. He held her that night, cradling her head and stroking her hair.

“We’ve got it this time, Judy. Our paper will be in Nature.”

She laughed and murmured assent, too nervous to turn and face him. Instead of the seduction she’d imagined for so long her heart beat over-quick and unsteadily. Her breath became ragged just as he spread out and fell asleep.

She listened to his low breathing, felt his broad solidity through the layers of sleeping bags, and stopped herself making the slightest motion for fear he would shift away from her. She was giddy, near delirious, but she must have slept eventually because the next day he was out of the tent before she woke up.

When she emerged he was stretching by the water, his t-shirt tied up around his forehead shading his face. His chest was tan and hairless but for a few fine dark curls. One of the postdoctoral students along for the trip was with him by the shore smoking a cigarette and chatting with their Indonesian guide.

“You ready to get going?” he called, gesturing to the boat they paddled in each day to the cave’s mouth.

“Give me 10, she’d said, reaching for her toiletry bag. She needed to brush her teeth, get rid of the taste in her mouth before another day gathering stalagmite specimens. She was crestfallen that nothing had happened in the tent but told herself that nothing wasn’t evidence of anything; she couldn’t draw conclusions about nothing. By the time their boat knocked into the craggy shore downriver, she had so thoroughly stifled her disappointment that she felt only an edgy impatience that she nursed all day.

“I am endlessly grateful for my brilliant coauthor!” Mitch said to the group, his wine held up above his head.

“Here’s to our adventures, and many more to come. I owe all my best treks to you.”

“Hear, hear,” Mary Claire called. Everyone raised their camping cups.

Judith blushed, pleased. Many more, she said inwardly.

“Right back at you,” she said, meeting his gaze. His eyes crinkled winningly until he turned back to the student, responding softly to something she said as she reached up to touch his arm.

After several others in the group made toasts and offered thanks, the cave reverberated with increasing chatter. The scientists were drunk, their red faces discernible even in the softly flickering light. Judith went back to the box of wine. When she turned around, Mitch, again, was there.

“Have you ever been to the cathedral room?” he whispered loudly.

“No.”

“You’ve got to see this drapery, seriously.” He clasped her hand and led her down a dark narrow path deeper into the cave and away from the festivities.

The path ended at a two-foot ledge of smooth rock. Mitch stepped up onto the stone and held out his hand for her.

“Turn off your headlamp,” he ordered, and he shut off his electric lantern for effect.

They stood close together on the narrow platform overlooking this smaller chamber of the cave, which extended before them, deepest black. A low ping of dripping water sounded in its recesses.

“Now,” Mitch said and clicked on his lantern, holding it up high over his head to cast light above them. Long drapes of rock shimmered with calcite, their layers rippling like silk curtains pinned to the ceiling and frozen there. The curves and folds were white, translucent, and glittering.

Now, she thought.

“Right?” Mitch said.

“Mitch, I have to tell you something.” Her voice was strange to her, odd and high-pitched. He hooked his thumb through the carabiner on his belt loop and pointed to their feet, inches apart.

“There’s a little condensation on the ledge here. Probably slippery,” he said.

“Ask you something, I mean,” she continued. “Have you ever thought about us–”

She tried to sound casual but instead sounded faintly – British? – “thought perhaps we could be…?”

Mitch’s shoulders rose sharply and he started shaking his head slightly from side to side.

“We work together, Judy. We’re partners.”

“I know.” She looked down to the mug in her hands, now empty.

“I just feel like we’re beyond that, you know, we’re better than that.”

He lowered his lantern and it shone under his face, illuminating his brow and nasal cavities. He was feebly trying to find words and resorted to the same ones he used on backpacking Aussies and graduate students.

“Our partnership is so valuable to me and,” he paused just a moment, for sincerity, “I would hate to lose you.” A tendril of hair fell handsomely over one eye.

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” she said quickly. Her lie hung in the cave. Mitch clicked his carabiner open and closed and cocked his head to the side, peering down at her with a performed kindliness while his fingers twitched nervously.

“Just forget it. The wine,” she said.

Lithe and naturally beautiful, Mitch had done this before. His voice was penitent, weary; he was perhaps moments away from giving her a hug. The disdain she had always felt for the women he tossed aside arose once more, but now settled, horribly, on herself. She had believed that she was smarter than them and more deserving of his loyalty, which she received because she was a brilliant scientist and because his career depended on her.

A sheen of sweat appeared on her forehead. She trained her eyes down into the abyss pooling below them just as a curious roar took up in her ears. Mitch cleared his throat and checked his altimeter watch. The landscape of stalactites and stalagmites behind him suddenly looked like rows of teeth. Without thinking, she pushed him.

Mitch fell 6 feet on the other side of the ledge, landing with an awful pop into a shallow pool of water. His lamp went with him, clattered and shut off.

He moaned.

Judith peered over the edge into the darkness. She turned on her headlamp and found Mitch in its beam. He was gripping his ankle, dark blood mingling with several inches of cave water. His eyes had lost their sympathetic aspect; he looked up at her stonily. His lip curled in pain and derision.

“Bitch,” he whispered.

“Help, we need a doctor!” she called. Her shock moved quickly to terror but she couldn’t break his eye contact. “Mitch fell!”

He sneered, still caught in her spotlight, as a commotion swelled in the distant cavern.

“We’re not medical doctors,” Sean called, hurrying down the path.

The scientists appeared, out of breath.

“Mitch-man, we’ll get you,” Sean said.

“I’m alright,” he cupped his hands around his mouth to call up to them. “It’s my ankle.”

Half a dozen flashlights lit him now, moving over his long arms, his hair. He looked up at Judith for a moment then looked down at his ankle, which was twisted grotesquely to one side.

“I need a bandage, maybe a splint.”

They quickly made a hoist with nylon ropes rigged together to create a Mitch-sized basket. They pulled him up, four scientists to a side. He winced when they knocked his ankle into a protruding rock and he cried out when they pulled him over the ledge. A microfiber scarf was fashioned into a tourniquet; gel packs from a cooler were skillfully encased right into the folds.

The pretty grad student took off her thermal shirt and wet it with her water bottle, wiping beads of sweat from Mitch’s brow in her sports bra and unzipped parka.

“What were you doing down here?” she asked, but in the activity no one answered.

Sean clapped him on the shoulder.

“The ledge was wet,” Mitch said.

“I’ll call the ambulance,” Judith said, and Mitch didn’t protest. She ran back through the stone tunnel frantically, like a bat, to the exit. When she reached the cool evening outside, the deep blue sky, she dropped to her knees to root around in her cargo pants pocket for her cell phone. She found it and dialed 9-11 with shaking hands.

“Hello? Hello! I’m out here at Grover National Forest, in the big one, um, Sutton Cave. There’s been an accident. Yes, we need an ambulance. One of our hikers fell and hurt his ankle, badly. Yes, I’ll stand by, at the entrance. Thank you,” she said.

She stood and waited, panting from the run. He won’t tell them that I did it, she thought hopefully. He wouldn’t want anyone to know.

Tall wispy grasses trailed after the evening wind. Birds sang a bit from the dark, scattered clumps of trees. Twenty long minutes passed, and Judith felt her panic move to resolve with every ragged exhale until she heard the sound of sirens caterwauling from the interstate.

At the hospital, Mitch wouldn’t look at her. She spoke with all of his nurses and fussed over the surgery timeline. When his sister arrived, she shook her hand and gave her every detail about his care that she could rattle off, then receded. He’ll never be able to climb again, she thought very dolefully, but when she boarded the plane to Jakarta the next day a strange and lovely calm spread over her. She watched the plane ascend over the clouds and then gathered up the papers she needed to edit from her tote bag, including the most recent draft of her and Mitch’s new paper and several student theses.

During tea service her aisle-side neighbor, an old man with white hair and friendly eyes, turned to her.

“Do you ever get claustrophobic?” he asked, pointing to the array of caving titles on her tray table.

“Never,” Judith said, honestly.

Elizabeth Youle lives in California. Her writing has appeared in Deep Leap and Everyday Genius.