By: Brighid Meredith
His torch hit the stalagmite and thousands of iridescent specks reflected the light, splashing rainbow hues across the cavern walls. But the rainbow soon died. His eyes were set on the passage ahead. His hand traced the stone besides the entrance. Hundreds of marks had been carved, each a tally. He unslung his bag and got out his chisel. Another mark joined the rest.
Down, down he descended. A footpath had been worn into the cavern. He passed side passages, each with an “X” chiseled besides the opening, each “X” marking an eventual dead-end. He walked for hours. His stomach rumbled, but was ignored. His watch beeped, and only then did he stop for a break. He rummaged through his bag, past nylon ropes, carbines, shovels—there, his hand landed on plastic: styrofoam stroganoff.
A fifteen minute timer, another beep, and he continued his descent.
He arrived at a cliff, a precipitous drop. He peered over the edge and shined his torch, but there was only darkness. Forward was downward, and so he hammered a piling in, threw down his rope, and he descended.
The stench of rotten eggs worsened. He rappelled downward, for seemingly hours. The cave echoed each step, each breath. His timer went off, break time, but the bottom was nowhere in sight. So he drove in another piling, attached another rope. Down he rappelled.
Light headed. He activated his respirator. Fumes rose from the depths. He reached the bottom—but he couldn’t get down—no—for the ground wasn’t ground at all, but a steaming yellow pool. Even through the filters, he could still smell the sulfur. The pool filled the floor of the cave.
He glanced left—nothing. He glanced right—noth—wait—there was a shadow—a small passage, no wider than a man’s shoulders. Was it a dead end? There was no “X”, but dozens of tallies carved into the stone. Because the passage was narrow, for him to fit, he had to take off his bag. He put one leg in, then the other. When in to his waist, he unclipped from the rope. Holding his rope in one hand, his bag in the other, he scooted in, his shoulders creaked. When in to his chest, he found a problem—How to keep the rope in place, so that he could climb back up when he returned?
He held the rope in the nook of his arm and dug through his pack, grabbed another piling—hammered it in—Fuck! His pack slipped, fell—splash. Hot acid rained upward, followed by fumes. He ducked back and held his breath. Minutes passed. The stone dripped and his bag was gone, already bubbling, dissolving, in the pool below. But he still had a job to do, so he tied his rope to a stone, tested it, found that the rope held, and he crawled deeper into the bowels of the cave.
His watch beeped—he didn’t stop. His back and neck cramped, sending sharp hot pains along his spine. He crawled for hours, and finally, the passage widened enough to stand. On the wall—only five tally-marks. But Without his chisel, he couldn’t add his own. His nostrils flared. No matter. He had to continue.
He climbed over broken rocks strewn across the cavern. He jumped across fissures that cracked the floor of the cavern. And he circumnavigated wide pools of bubbling sulfur. The heavy fumes clogged his respirator. His head hurt. His spare breather had been—no matter. He was getting close.
The tally marks disappeared. No more water. No food. Choking vapors. Dizzy. So close. Was he? What did he seek? Worth it? It must be… His stomach growled. His watch beeped. Why? He rested against a warm stone. He had to go back. He pushed off and left a greasy handprint to mark his achievement. He turned back.
He retraced his path around the sulfur vents. He jumped back over the same fissures. He clambered across the broken stones still strewn across the cavern floor. The cavern narrowed, forcing him to crouch down. He crawled on his hands and knees, into the same narrow passage from which he came. The passage narrowed further, and he crawled along his belly, scraping his knees as he wedged himself further in.
He reached the opening, below him was a drop to the acidic pools, where his pack had fallen. He looked for his rope, but saw no rope, his rope was gone. And then he spied it. A piece hung down from the opening, dangling above the pool. He grabbed the rope, filled with hope. But as he pulled up the rope, his stomach sank. The rope ended in a frayed and blistered end. Who had cut it? No—not cut—but frayed, blistered…The acid? He remembered that the sulfur had splashed upward. His torch shined across the cliff face. There, he found the rest of his rope, hanging from the stone, dangling, only four meters away, but well out of reach, a lifetime away…
A rainbow filled the atrium. Flickering, seeming alive. He kept his torch on the stalactite. His stomach rumbled. He checked his watch—his next break was still hours away. He opened his bag, got out his lunch. He took a bite—and almost spat out the over salted plastic noodles. How many more bites, how many more meals would he suffer, until he finished? He set his styrofoam stroganoff down, stretched and walked around. In the stone, he found the hundreds of tallies, guarding entrance.