He was stuck in a crack, wedged tight between walls of rough basalt. His body blocked the only access or egress to the cave. Beyond the entrance crack, a squeeze passage burrowed further into the mountain. The passage was possible as a belly crawl, head turned sideways; a birthing canal carved from rock. Three body lengths along, it led to a dark chamber no bigger than a child’s blanket fort. This was the first of the cracks, crawls, and chambers that led to the bottom of the cave, deep inside the mountain.
A second man was hunched inside this rough anteroom. He sat hugging his knees, listening to the sounds of his companion working against the rock jaws of the trap. He could hear him, but he could not see him. A weak glimmer touched the floor of the passage; the last bit of morning light from the outside world, failing before it could reach the man’s feet. He had switched off his headlamp. No light needed if he wasn’t going anywhere. The man leaned down, threw his voice into the void.
How are you doing Tommy?
Stuck is how I’m doing, mostly.
You try going up?
Yeah, I did. Now my feet are dangling in the air. All of me fits except my belly.
Try to breathe out with your diaphragm, then inch forward a bit.
There was a grunt, then the sound of metal sliding against rock.
You okay there Tommy?
Hey Jake, which is rougher, basalt or andesite?
I’m guessing the andesite. Why are you asking?
Oh, no particular reason. I was just wanting an idea of what’s skinning my cheek raw.
Maybe it will take off some of that tobacco stain.
Naw, it’s the wrong side for that, but I am getting a mite tired of this. Here goes.
There was another grunt and clatter, then darkness. Tommy was pushing his way into the squeeze passage. The beam of his headlamp cast a bobbing glow against the faceted rock on the far side of the tiny space. He wormed into view, grinning like a monkey.
Tommy’s torso was curled around Jake’s feet, his legs still twisted up into the wormhole. He dimmed his headlamp, which made his smile glow even brighter.
Now ain’t this cozy? You want to have a bite before we start the hard stuff?
Tommy, you just had a full stack of pancakes.
Just? That was two hours ago and two thousand feet lower down this mountain.
Do what you want, but don’t blame me if you can’t get back out the crack.
You worry too much; you know that? Here we are, a beautiful summer morning high up in the Cascades and a cave all to ourselves. Hell, this is a fat-free zone. No fat man is getting past the crack. I’m only a part-time fat man and I barely made it. I’ll be worn thin again by the time we get to the bottom and back up.
Maybe so, but I’m going first when we come back. At least I can sit out in the sun while we wait for you to get thin enough to come unstuck.
Yeah, yeah, like Pooh Bear at Rabbit’s house. Like I was saying, you worry too much.
Tommy was a small man, almost a head shorter than Jake. He was strong and wiry, with a potbelly like he’d just swallowed a pumpkin. He smiled more than Jake and quicker. He teased Jake about being a serious old beanpole. The left corner of Tommy’s mouth always bore the trace stain of tobacco. They had been at a fancy wedding once; suit and ties, the whole deal. Even then, with a damn near perfect knot in his tie, Tommy still had that tobacco stain at the corner of his mouth.
Jake loved Tommy, loved to be around him. Even when they worked together, Jake never got tired of Tommy’s company. The best days started long before the sun rose. Tommy would show up before the dawn, ready to make the drive up into the Cascades. The first light of morning would find them climbing the rocky goat path behind Guye Peak.
Both of them years sober, Jake had never met anyone that could sort things faster than Tommy. If there was something he couldn’t change, he did more than accept it. Tommy discarded the unchangeable with a certainty that came close to devoutness. While Jake was weighing a thing out to the last balance, Tommy had already looked at it, made the decision, and moved on.
It wasn’t that Tommy never worried. He sweated the layoffs, just like everyone else. His youngest girl seemed determined to go through life without speaking, which troubled Tommy. It’s not that the little girl was mute. She could talk if she wanted to. She mostly seemed not to want to.
Tommy had an old bench seat bolted into the back of his pickup truck. The three kids liked to ride back there. A King County sheriff stopped them, told Tommy it was illegal because of the seatbelt laws. Tommy went home and cobbled up three seatbelts, one for each kid. He strapped them in tight the next time they went driving, the little girl snugged between her two brothers.
The last the daylight had been left far behind. The two men were deep into the cave now, starting down what they called the fault crack chamber. This was the most dangerous pitch of the route, a stretch that Jake was always relieved to be done with. The chamber was one huge crack, slanted to a forty-five; a place where two massive plates of igneous rock had decided to go their separate ways. Huge blocks of basalt hung from the top plate. There were corresponding blocks that had fallen to the lower plate. Traversing the fault meant clawing and belly crawling over, between, and under the blocks. Tommy was worming his way under a rough rectangle that was longer than he was.
You know, if a fella were to get squished by one of these rocks, some other spelunker might find him, years later. They’d lift up the rock somehow and find what was left, mashed flatter then a pancake.
Tommy, you think this is the best time to talk about this?
Don’t matter much Jake, not really. Rocks fall or they don’t. But just think about it. It would be like that poor Indian they found in Mammoth Cave, smashed flatter than flat. The Park Service guys, they built a glass case around him. I saw it when I was a kid. That old Indian never knew what hit him. One minute he was chipping up some flint or something, going to make him some tools. The next minute, well, there wasn’t any more minutes for him.
If it’s all the same to you, I’d just as soon get clear of this section without anymore talk of getting squashed.
Jake heard a chuckle behind him.
You take shit too seriously, Jake.
Tommy and Jake were sitting in a wide chamber deep under the mountain. They were settled comfortably on a small patch of smooth rock. One headlamp glowed on its lowest setting, the barest glimmer in the blackness. Below their perch was a sharp drop into a pit of tangled stone blocks: the end of the line. Water could go further, but they could not. Jake’s voice was quiet in the darkness.
What was it like living down there in Louisiana? You were way outside New Orleans. That’s gotta be the deep South for sure.
It was hot, mostly; hot and sweaty. We lived right on the edge of the bayou. Had us a little house trailer. It was like a coffin, stuffy as all hell. It was better out on the Gulf.
And you worked out on the oil rigs, what, a week on, a week off?
More like ten days on and two weeks off. It depended on the contract. But all of us hardhat divers had side gigs. Pipeline inspection, salvage diving; there was always some extra work to pick up. It was good money for those days. Annie was skinny as a rail back then, believe it or not. But we were burning through the money as fast as I made it. Drinking it up, staying high; you know how it was.
Sure, I know how it was. That’s how you imagined that giant catfish, or whatever it was.
No, I never put on the diving hat if I had a buzz going, not even during the worst of those days. I’m telling you, Jake, I didn’t imagine nothing. That damn fish, or whatever it was, it was real as death and taxes. Big too, a good bit longer than me. Longer than you even. There’s weird stuff living out there in them swamps, that’s for sure.
But you never got a good look at it, so how do you know?
That’s the thing, Jake, I don’t know. That bayou water, it’s full of tannic acid. All those trees and stuff decaying in the swamp, the water is like a dark brown soup. Twenty feet down and it’s about as black as midnight.
I was inspecting one of the pipelines. Those pipelines carry the crude oil; lots of them running right across the bottom of a bayou. Those double-walled pipes are big, three or four feet in diameter. When you do an inspection dive, you have to crawl along a section, checking the joints and valves and such. All a fella can see is the cone of light from his helmet lamp.
I’m maybe twenty feet deep, head down, checking the bolts on a valve. All of a sudden this huge shadow comes swimming out of nowhere. It scared the bejesus out of me, I tell you what. Before I can do anything, it gives a flick of its tail and sends me spinning off the pipe. By the time I untangle my airline and scramble back up onto the pipe, that thing was long gone. I must have been babbling some nonsense, because my tender is on the radio, asking me what the hell is going on. I just clung onto that pipe, heart beating like a jackhammer. Figured that thing was going to have another pass at me, but that’s the last I saw of it.
Maybe it was the same big fish that got that missing head.
You know that ain’t funny, Jake, and it ain’t fair. Besides, you’re confusing two very different things.
One giant catfish is about the same as another don’t you think?
I’m not talking about fish and you know it. Try not to be more of an asshole than you already are, how about that? I’m talking about the difference between happening and choice. A monster fish knocking me off that pipe, that just happened. Big damn fish and a diver meet up in a swamp. Bad luck. But that head, that’s a different thing altogether.
Well, why don’t you try to illustrate the difference for me.
It’s pretty simple if you listen. All of them oil rigs used at least one helicopter service. The bosses, big shots, they flew back and forth from the mainland. The rest of the crews, they usually made the trip in a crew boat; kidney pounders for sure. The choppers were mostly Bell Two-Twelves, a pretty standard bird. They could carry a dozen crew, more in a pinch. The point is, there were choppers everywhere.
I was onshore, waiting for any salvage diving that might come up. My boss called me, said we needed to go find some bodies. Looking for bodies in the water is not so unusual in the bayou country. Folks is all the time drowning themselves.
It turns out they had lost a chopper. The story was that the pilot and mechanic were doing some work on the bird. I don’t know what all they were doing, but somebody messed up. They took the thing up for a test flight. The pilot was doing a main rotor tracking phase, running at full tilt. Next thing you know it slams into a bayou lake. That bird was going over a hundred miles an hour. It killed them both, of course. Those helicopter folks never did find out exactly what happened. Hell, it might not of even been nobody’s fault. Maybe they hit a bird or something; it’s been known to happen.
The first shift of divers was already in the water when I got there. Them boys found both those bodies before their dive time was up. What they didn’t find was that mechanic’s head. Something sheared it off clean as clean, probably a hunk of one of the rotors. The family was notified. They were pretty particular about wanting to bury that old boy as a complete unit. So my boss said we needed to look for the head.
Tommy, are you going to tell me that there is some sort of diving procedure for finding a severed head?
In a manner of speaking, there is, although it’s not limited to body parts. My tender put me over the spot where they found the body. That lake was about thirty feet deep, black as hell on the bottom. The idea is a simple grid search. You get down on your hands and knees and you start crawling in a circle. There’s a little cone of light in front of you from the diving helmet. You make the circle wider and wider, all the time feeling around for any loose heads that might happen to be laying there in the muck. Which brings us to the difference between happen and choice.
No, Tommy, no way; you’ve got to tell me if you found that head before we can go any further.
Jake, you are quite possibly the worst story listener on the planet, if that’s even a thing. I didn’t find that head because I didn’t look for that head. I sat down there in that nice soft muck until my dive time was up. Didn’t budge from that spot.
But what about your air bubbles? The air bubbles float up to the surface. The guy in the boat, he would know you weren’t moving.
The guy in the boat was named Marvin, and Marvin didn’t give a shit whether my air bubbles moved or not. He was getting paid by the hour and he didn’t care about seeing any severed head. Hell, he was probably listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and smoking him a blunt.
Truth is, I chose not to look for that head. The way I figured it, if the family of that headless mechanic wanted his noggin so bad, they could go look for it themselves. Anyway, there was four shifts of divers, all told, and no one found nothing. Not surprising when you think about it. Nice meaty head lying there on the bottom. That’s about a perfect snack for some big old bottom feeder. So, as it turned out, I made the right choice.
Jake shook his head, laughing into the darkness around them.
So the difference between happening and choice is that the catfish is a happening. Hunting for the head is a choice. Is that right?
Hey, Jake, good for you, you were listening after all. We better get to climbing out of here. We still have a long way to go. Plenty of opportunities to get squished by a big rock.
You are one morbid man, Tommy.
Naw, I’m just practical is all.
Hey Jake, how about here? This is a good spot for a break.
Really, do we need to do this again?
How about you humor your old buddy? Is that so hard for you?
Jake knew it wasn’t hard at all. He knew that there was no getting around the inevitable. The two men sat down side by side, leaning against the rough rock wall of the cave. Tommy reached for his helmet, clicked off his headlamp. The darkness increased by half. A moment later, Jake did the same. The blackness was absolute and total, without even the memory of light. It was as if there had never been a dawn in the history of the world.
Even at a whisper, the sound of Tommy’s voice was like thunder.
That’s dark ain’t it? Now, stick out your hand and feel around.
There’s nothing there but rock, Tommy, and my hands are roughed up enough as it is. I don’t need to feel around for anything. Why is it that you are compelled to do this every time we’re in a cave? What’s so damn intriguing about the darkness?
It’s not the darkness that’s intriguing. It’s the absence of light; the total absence. I think we can experience the one, but not the other. I mean, here we are in absolute darkness. This here is darker than space, darker than the blackest night, darker than the bottom of a bayou lake. At the same time, it’s comforting, you know? We can survive total darkness. I’m not sure we could survive the opposite. I don’t believe human beings are able to cope with total light; the absence of darkness.
Like Icarus or something? We fly too close to the sun and our wings melt?
No, not quite like that, but I love that story. His father warned him. Do you remember that part? But Icarus didn’t listen. He made a bad choice. No, I’m talking about something different. The dark is scary, sure, but we can deal with it. In the dark, we open our eyes wide, try to see, try to take in as much as we can. I’m thinking that total light would be the opposite of that. Nowhere to hide, no way to see anything, forced to shut our eyes against the brilliance of it all. A fella would need a piece of dark to carry around with him, just to make it bearable.
Hey Jake, I got it. Look a this.
Tommy, I can’t see a damn thing and you know it.
Just wait a sec. I’m going to turn on my headlamp, so be ready.
A sudden light pierced the blackness. Motes of rock dust floated in the beam. The rough walls of the cave were thrown into facets of shadow and light.
There, Jake, you see that? That light is choice. What we see in the light, that’s what happens. Do you get it now?
Jake reached to his own helmet, touching a switch on one of his headlamps. The light in the cave doubled.
Yeah, Tommy, I get it, or I guess I do. Come on, we should be getting a move on. Let’s see if that belly of yours is going to squeeze through that crack.
Sure thing, but if it does, you’re buying dinner when we get to the bottom.
Tommy rolled to his knees, his helmet scraping the ceiling rock. He duck-walked his way to a low opening in the far wall. Hunching forward into a crawl, he vanished into the rock. Jake waited until Tommy’s muddy boot soles disappeared, then followed his friend.
Muffled sounds fell back into the darkening chamber. The grunt of one of the men, the scuffing of worn leather on rock. The last bounced light of the headlamps flashed, faded with the sound, and was gone. Buried under the weight of an entire mountain, the cave went back to silence, and the absence of light.
Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. Marco’s short fiction has been featured or is forthcoming in the online journals Literally Stories, Dime Show Review, and Five on the Fifth. He is the author of The Best Dark Rain Series, and the stand-alone novel Blood Rust Chains. Marco’s third novel, a political satire thriller, is complete and awaiting publication.
You can find and follow Marco at:
You can read more of Marco’s writing below:
Clouds Before Rain
The Best Dark Rain
You can purchase both books from the Best Dark Rain Series here
Blood Rush Chains
Photo by Skitterphoto
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