I had forgotten to switch on my lamp.
When I did, I found myself in a rough tunnel with muddy walls which sloped sharply downward. I understood why Ed had given us kneepads: I was crawling over sharp small broken rocks, which pricked my legs and tore at my gloved hands. My shoulders jostled unseen protrusions, my neck soon became stiff with the tension of keeping my headlamp trained on the passage ahead of me. I was too busy thinking about where my knees would land to feel claustrophobic, but, as the tunnel steepened and the entrance receded behind me, I began to wonder how far we had to go, and what I would do if the passage never widened, if I had to keep on my hands and knees, diving, almost, like a kid at the top of the world’s least pleasant waterslide. I regretted my sedentary life, the puny things I used my arms for. What was more, the cave was cold: after the hot July air outside it was pleasant at first, but then, as the damp rock soaked the legs of my coveralls, it became uncomfortable. My ragged breath made white wisps in the beam of my headlamp.
Just when I was beginning to wonder how much farther I could go, the tunnel widened and leveled off. The other members of the grotto were waiting for us; I scrambled to join them, and nearly dove headfirst into a stream which filled the lower quarter of what turned out to be a new, bigger passage.
Ed laughed. “Caver’s baptism,” he said.
I stood up. I was knee-deep in the stream, but at least there was air above me, and room to swing my stiff arms. A moment later Lucas crawled—carefully—out of the entrance tunnel.
“What do you think?” he asked.
I didn’t know what to say. The cave was, for lack of a better term, incredibly cave-like. Being in McFail’s Cave was like meeting an actor whose movies you’ve seen (something that’s only happened to me once, in Montreal, with Suzanne: another story). When you see the movies, you think it’s all just fantasy, but when you meet the actor, you remember that even fantasy comes from something. It has its roots in a world that’s as real as rock. And in fact, when I began to read seriously about caves, later on, I learned that the game Adventure had been inspired by a real cave in Kentucky. The game’s author was a cave explorer, and although he’d made many things up, the starting point for his fantasy world (and so, in a subterranean way, for my fantasy world) was a passage not unlike the one in which I was now standing, turning my head from side to side like a tourist gawking at the Sistine Ceiling, even though my headlamp revealed only a seemingly endless retreat of smooth gray-brown rock.
“It’s neat,” I said.
We headed down the new passage’s left-hand branch, our headlamps strung out in the darkness like the blue-white lights that line airport runways.
“This is living cave,” Lucas said. “That means, water is still running through it.” I wondered why he thought he needed to point this out. “In ten thousand years, this passage will be completely different. This is what’s called a solution cave, most caves in the Northeast are solution caves, formed by water. Watch out!”
The ceiling of the passage dropped abruptly, and if Lucas hadn't warned me about it I would have hit my head. I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled under the protrustion, which, Lucas said, was in fact called the Duck-Under. My chest got wet. We went on.
Lucas pointed out striations on the sides of the passage, narrow ridges like thousands of unevenly stacked sheets of cardboard. They were a sign that the tunnel flooded periodically, he said. And in fact, Lucas went on, just about everything in the cave told a story about water. If you knew how to read the signs, he said, you could know what the water was doing, not just now but in the Pliocine or even the Miocine Eras. Scalloped indentations on the wall were a sign of turbulence; bell-shaped depressions in the ceiling spoke of still water and wet air. Flutes and rills had tales to tell about the days when the Catskills were as sharp as the Alps and New York as glacial as Switerland… We threaded our way down the jagged passage, and Lucas kept talking, but I was on a journey of my own, towards an interior no less strange than the one Jules Verne describes in Journey to the Center of the Earth, or the hollow earth posited by John Cleves Symmes, but completely invisible, an interior made up of memories and sensations and intuitions—or revelations, as I thought of them at the time. I thought about water flowing underground; I imagined it sinking deeper and deeper into the earth, although in fact, as I would learn later on, the water that flowed through McFail’s Cave resurfaced just a few miles to the east of us and ran into the Hudson. At the same time, I felt myself sinking deeper and deeper into the ground of my thought. Where had I come from, where was I going? I thought of my mothers in Thebes, of the blank spot on my map which Richard Ente would always be, his traits unknown to me but extant in me, his genes which had hollowed me out like a long-vanished stream. And before Richard Ente there had been a line of Entes and others, all of them flowing, so it seemed, towards me, all of their blood emptying into the delta of my veins, this is what I was thinking, and I had the feeling, there in the darkness, that my eyes were finally opening, that I was able to see things which had previously been hidden, among them this obvious fact that my body was traversed by history just as the passage down which I walked was traversed by water, and with that fact came the intriguing possibility that in order to understand history, my history first and foremost but then also history in general, maybe all I had to do was know my body, the clammy shell in which my consciousness trembled. Just as geologists could tell from the indentations on the wall which way the water had flowed, how fast it had run, for how long, so, I thought, by examining with minute attention my weak knees, my bad back and bad eyes and bulging gut, I might find, as it were, the traces of my ancestors, the shadow-cone cast backward into time by the point of my being.
I was so absorbed by this descent from one metaphor to another that I completely forgot where I was, and it was with something like shock that I realized that we had stopped. Before us a pool spread the cave like—I couldn’t help thinking—the cleft of a vagina. The wet rock glistened with our lights. At the pool’s far point the water lapped the rock with a pop, pop, like someone clucking their tongue softly. The wide passage floor was slick with gray clay and strewn with big rocks. It was like an ocean beach, in a strange way: a monochrome beach stuck under a hard dark sky.
“Have a seat,” Ed said.
We found rocks to sit on; I ended up next to Jen.
Ed stood with his back to the pool, his face obscured by the beam of his headlamp. Apparently I wasn’t the only one in whom the cave had inspired deep thoughts: Ed told us that McFail’s Cave had been used by Native Americans, tens of thousands of years ago. According to him, the Native Americans had come at least this far into the cave, they had sat in the chamber where we were now sitting, you could see the smudge-marks of their reed torches on the ceiling. What they did here was not clear. Ed said something about cave bears, something about initiating the boys of the tribe into manhood. He said something about hallucinogens and laughed in an unfunny way. I felt like I could see him when he was twenty, twenty-five, crawling into a cave, maybe this cave, with a tab of LSD in his backpack, and a copy of the Bardo Thodol which he planned to read by flashlight.
“We have a ceremony too,” Ed said. He had walked away from the pool, now he was standing just a few feet from me. “For new members of the grotto. Don’t worry, we’re not going to ask you to wrestle a cave bear. Cave bears have been extinct for thousands of years. We’re just going to turn out our lights and enjoy the total darkness of the cave for a moment. Drugs are optional, ha ha.”
“Ha ha,” said Jen.
“The only thing you really have to remember is not to move around until we turn on our lights again. I don’t want anybody to slip or get hurt.”
We turned out our headlamps. The darkness was, as expected, total. I sat there, watching phosphenes dawdle across my field of vision, and listening to the water crash into the basin which it was slowly hollowing out of the rock. I tried to return to my insight, or revelation, or whatever, about the streams of blood and history, but it was behind me now, I could no more return to it than I could return to a dream from which I’d been awakened, even if it was, optically, still the middle of absolute night. I wanted to keep thinking, because I was in a place where thinking came as easily as dreams come to the sleeper; so I speculated about the reasons that had brought the members of the grotto to this pitch-black point. For Jason, I thought, it was the athletic thrill of going to a difficult place and probably also the chance to flirt with Beth. For Ed I guessed that the cave was the echo of a 1960s trip, during which he’d stepped over the border between straight and freak, a step which at the time had seemed irreversible, but somehow hadn’t been, so that now, thirty-five years later, Ed still held a passport from the land of the straight. And for Don I imagined the cave brought back memories of the not-so-long-ago time when he had been as wiry as Jason. He didn’t want to explore virgin cave so much as he wanted to be a virgin again himself, to possess an untrafficked body. For Beth the cave was one segment of a prolonged, asexual, outdoorsy girlhood, and a way to keep her distressingly interesting body hidden under a loose-fitting jumpsuit. I saw her snuggled up in bed with a stuffed horse, Anne of Green Gables playing on the VCR. I didn’t know what the appeal of the cave was for Jen. Passivity maybe, going along with Don to keep him happy or out of trouble. Boredom. The scarcity of perceived other options. And that was just the first layer of their motives: going deeper, I saw Jason’s life as a dazzle of outdoor jobs, days spent riding spackle-covered in the back of a laden pickup, and I imagined that his body must want darkness; he was a puppet in the service of poisons which were activated by sunlight. I understood that for Ed the cave was at once a mystical experience and a technical problem. His hunger for transcendence was held in check by his vastly greater if less joyful desire to contain, to confine, to know for sure—I saw him sitting at his desk, doing a diagramless crossword puzzle, his tongue darting wetly from the corner of his mouth. Or drilling a tooth: why hadn’t I seen it before, the proximity of caves to cavities? Ed was fathoming the earth’s decay, dreaming with one half of his head of the Great Spirit and with the other half of dental amalgam. Don I saw on all fours, smelling the anus of the person ahead of him, Jason or Ed. Beth was secretly sexual: what was she doing with that plush pony? As for Jen, I saw her alone in the kitchen of a suburban house, looking out the window, waiting for someone she knew to come towards her from the empty street... Someone was holding my hand.
“Is that you?” Jen whispered in my ear.
“It’s me,” I said, although I had no idea which you she meant.
I understood then that beneath my varied visions there was a deeper reason for our presence in the cave, which had nothing to do with what we needed from the cave and everything to do with what we needed from each other. We, the members of the grotto, but then also people generally, were nodes in a network of need, I thought, we were held together and probably even constituted by our need to respect and be respected, to love and be loved, which we could not, even in 2006, entirely fulfill on the Internet, which was like the ghostly or ectoplasmic projection of our need for each other. Sitting on a cold rock, feeling the dry pulse of Jen’s hand in mine, I became certain that we needed each other physically and that physical isolation was a form of death. I was flooded with joy and gratitude at the fact that the realization of this need had coincided so perfectly with its fulfillment. I squeezed Jen’s hand. She squeezed my hand back. A moment later, she put her hand on my thigh.
“Is this OK?” she whispered.
Was I in Plato’s Cave, or Plato’s Retreat? I wondered if Jen knew whose thigh her handed rested on. Maybe she thought I was Don? Or was this part of the initiation ritual? I imagined her hand traveling upward to the zipper of my coverall. A tug, a tactical cough. Her cold fingers on my cock. I was getting hard, not as hard as the rock, the simile would have been absurd in the presence of so much actual karst, but as hard as I ever got. I imagined Jen tugging at my member in the dark, massaging it like a small animal in cardiac arrest. I imagined finding Jen’s breast, stroking her through the heavy fabric. We’d unzip, unclothe, fuck, unbeknownst to the others. I imagined them all doing the same thing, the wet cavern full of silent couplers crazed with the dark’s freedom, Jason was fucking Beth, Beth fucking Ed, Don beating off into the pool. (Lucas was the only one I couldn’t imagine having sex: even in McFail’s Cave my imagination had limits.) This is the human truth, I thought, the fucking human truth! We fuck, we’re fuckers, whatever there is to know about us can be inferred from our desire to fuck each other. Pop, pop, went the pool. And still no one turned on a light. How long had we been sitting there? I realized that I’d completely lost track of time. With the equanimity of a sleeper who, at the edge of waking, shifts from one dream to another, I wondered if that was why we came to the cave, because in total darkness time was erased and we were free to make new lives for ourselves, as strange in their form (and their relation to time) as the gypsum flowers which blossom on the walls of some caves—not McFail’s Cave, but other caves I’ve read about since then. Before I could go any farther with this new insight, however, Ed switched on his headlamp.
“Everyone OK?” he asked.
I blushed. Jason, I noticed, removed his hand from Beth’s knee—had I been right? How many of us had reached out to each other in the dark?
“Let’s go on,” Ed said, and we rose stiffly to our feet.