In absolute darkness you feel dizzy from the lack of light. You want to put your hands out to steady yourself. The wall against your back feels slimy, hard, smooth. Your feet are unstable, your torso shaky. You hold your hand in front of your eyes but nothing is there, as if the blackness has voided everything. This isn’t what death is like. This is the worst of the world.
The momentary excitement at first, especially if you are with your lover, dissolves with the light. You reach for his hand, but fingers flail wildly. Your heart makes its way up to your mouth and a few seconds later you understand why animals went crazy down here. According to your guide, it only took a few days for an unfamiliar and unwelcome wildness to set it. An accidental fall and no way back up. And the dark, a ghost in itself, full and round defined by the space it inhabits for once and not the world it left behind.
Sonia, only in Texas for one weekend, wanted to visit the cave. As a child I had gone, followed flashlights and looked for shapes I could understand in natural formations that glowed like clear water. One looked like an ice-cream cone, another a bear on its back haunches. All of them too white, always wanting to be touched. Your body pulled to them, but it was not allowed. Things under the earth being too breakable. Even a voice, softly calling to a friend could break millenniums of ceiling structure, shattered rock falling into a creek from which it will never escape, water unable to find ocean. Like the dark, a beautiful nightmare.
And so when he told me, our guide, I was amazed. He was sixteen, maybe, and shyly flirting with Sonia and me. His hair dark, his nose called to mind his Mexican ancestry he may or may not have known in full. A cast eyed look to us, a nervous anecdote—he was worried what we would think. He would walk sideways, afraid to show us his whole face.
In 1995, floods hit Austin. Heavy rains fell against cactus and sloped white rock, filling the cave with uninvited water. Too much of it, overcoming and invasive. A bucket someone had used to clean the path of sneaker prints and dirt from the outside was left on the floor and washed to an outcrop in a two hundred foot high ceiling. Still there 6 years later, a map someone had lost, balanced on an edge, wanting to be a reminder.
And the biggest room, the chapel it was called, filled up too. A light had been left on. The cave, an eerie womb, etopic and beautiful, was in danger. The heat from the lamp or its eerie light was somehow ruinous. It was necessary; it had to be done. Someone had to swim down, past darkness, unimaginable contortions of natural shape, edges like worn razors, and into the small opening that housed the one switch to turn the light off. Serendipitous actually, the room with the switch was one of the few with an opening to the world, but it was small. Like a cat asleep in a corner. And so our guide, a small boy in 1995 who’s nose was undoubtedly always running, who liked soccer and refused to eat anything but crumbling pork tightly wrapped in his mother’s grainy tortillas, was picked for the job. His aunt was a scientist at the cave so he had hung around. Followed tours, watched excavations, unintentionally learning the intricate dance of exploration. The only person small enough, he was to crawl through the opening, a reverse birth, and swim with his past the depth of the cave, like falling (had it been real time), to turn off the lights.
He told us this modestly proud. Embarrassed at his accomplishment. He was slipped through the small hole, everything unknowably black, alone with the buried bones of animals that had lost their bearings 50,000 years before. There, with the long fanged ghosts of saber-toothed tigers, an eleven-year-old boy swam to the bottom of time to grace the underworld again with darkness.
I try to imagine the people above him, that temporary space in judgment, the world quite suddenly immortal, agreeable, full of the possibility of success. Whether they saw him as an agile sign of the future or as a small boy, dressed in some adult’s scuba gear, monstrous and slick, I don’t know. He could have died, easily lost his way. Gotten cut or trapped by one of the uncountable sharp edges of rock and limestone. But they, those grown-ups, trusted in our sense of familiarity. The brotherhood of it, the fingers, memory connecting so simply with what was known. He loved the cave and for this love was rewarded with an experience I imagine no one else has.
Sonia watched the boy tell us this story. Her face not expressionless, but hard to read. The small girl with us on the tour checked the edges of her sneakers for scorpions and her mother tugged at her arm ruthlessly, for no discernable reason. I thought of the dark, my fear of it. At that time, almost 24, I still slept with the light on more nights than I would have cared to say. The world outside betrays you, I thought, the room lit by yellow, my naked body beneath the covers. Any awful thing is possible with your door open and the lamps turned off. I envied that boy for loving so much, for loving some thing so wholly as to forget that it has killed and maimed and driven animals mad. And those animals were so lasting, so ancient and grounded that we only guess now at their form derived from bones hidden beneath sand. To love and forget enough to fall. My envy could fill his cave and wash the bones to shore.