A yellow cat lay among flowers in a window box next door. A squirrel perched like a gargoyle on the peak of the house just beyond, its tail curled in an S over its back and up in a final flourish above its head. Three blue birds chased each other in an unvarying circuit. Chest-high flowers choked a yard. The sidewalk was burst by the roots of trees. Worn, roughened patches of road; a car ticked as it cooled. A stone wall that had caught the sun was now in shadow, shedding heat as Mick and Tracy passed. Light spilled from the clouds in slashes. The mountains were a ragged tear in the sky. To the north, strands of rain hung like a woman's hair. Two Oriental men wearing monk's robes posed for a picture with three men in suits, on a street corner, and Mick and Tracy waited for the shutter's click before walking in front. A bread truck rumbled past. The sidewalk was torn up and blocked off. They crossed the road. The noise of a band practicing came in spasms from a garage: three chords, a pause, then the same three chords, a longer silence, and the three chords again, followed by bass, drums, and a saxophone. The instruments wandered away from each other. The saxophone squawked. Silence.
The light changed to green and they crossed. They smelled juniper burning in a fireplace as they passed a restored orange and brown Victorian. The hill steepened. They walked four blocks and turned left, walked another block, and turned right. The sidewalk changed from rectangles to diamonds. A diseased tree leaned drunkenly over them, a paint mark labeling it for destruction. A woman with a bandana on her head knelt in her yard setting a fence post. Gingerbread houses, then a church with plastic windows over the stained glass, with one colored panel broken where Jesus's head would be crowned with thorns. Disciples around him, wearing gold disks. A bum sat on the steps, clothes gray with sun and dirt, hair like a bird's nest, face the color of cement. His red hand rested on a bedroll.
Beyond, a white picket fence and a house on a double lot. The hill dropped more steeply, leveled, and they emerged from the shade. A bicyclist intersected their path, his coasting wheels chattering as he crossed in front of them.
Tracy was equine: each step rolled up onto the toe, barely using the heel, as if she were prancing. She even dipped and raised her head occasionally, stirring the hair that spilled away from her head in thick heavy waves and folds, falling like a mane to the middle of her back. Mick was amazed there was room for it on her head; the hair lay so densely even on her shoulders, in ropes and strands and overlapping clumps, as to struggle for space.
She was like a child in her body, natural and unselfconscious. She was taut, resilient. Her butt was perfect: round and hard, and just big enough to look good in jeans; perfect for cupping in the hands. She went through the days like a pinball, all rebound and trajectories, and her body showed it. Mick dropped back to watch. The sides of her jeans tightened alternately, a wrinkle switching from left to right of the seam with each step.
She looked over he shoulder. "What are you doing back there?"
"Watching your ass," he said.
She walked the rest of the block backwards, facing him, until he gave up and walked next to her again.
She had grown younger as the year did the opposite. She frolicked. Strangers talked to her in restaurants and stores, attracted by the happiness she radiated. She was unpreoccupied; she lived outside herself, and they were eager to meet her there. Seeing it pained Mick, because he was the source of her happiness; he knew she expected something to happen with him with her, and he didn't think anything actually would. But he lacked the courage to turn her loose, and clung to her.
He wanted to lock her away somewhere safe. He wanted to protect her. His tenderness was like a wound, that made him turn from her, unwilling to touch her. She was baffled when he acted that way; she pleaded for him to explain what was wrong. "Nothing," he'd say, unable to simply admit that she touched him. He froze; he couldn't respond to her affection. She didn't understand. She wrote his behavior off to what she called his enigmatic qualities, a catchall for whatever she couldn't explain.
When they arrived at the park the cloud cover was breaking up; they ate their sandwiches while they sat on the grass, baking in patches of sun that came and went.
"What's your family like?" she asked, casually, opening the forbidden subject.
He lay down, his head propped on his rucksack, and looked at the Flatirons. He always noticed how much steeper they looked from below than they really were. "I don't know any more. I haven't seen them in eight years."
"Don't you even write?"
She was silent, trying to absorb the idea. "It's unbelievable."
"My dad. . . We didn't like each other."
"Do you look like him?"
"No. He was huge. Six-six. Two fifty. He could palm a deck of cards and you wouldn't even know they were there."
"What did he do?"
"He was a colonel in the Army."
"That's strange. You don't seem like an Army brat."
She poked at the ground with a stick. "Why did you leave?"
"He broke my jaw."
"I got lost in a cave for three days. He had a bad temper."
The morning his parents leave to visit his grandmother, Mick packs a rucksack with food and water, flashlights and a headlamp, plastic bags, an old, quilted jacket and wool cap, and a compass. He wears the watch his mother gave him for his birthday.
"We were in Missouri that year."
The day is hot and there is no traffic on the road. He has to walk the distance in heat so deep and tangible it is like another element in the landscape. All around, the air wavers. Even the dust smells different. It is May, but feels like August.
"I made a bet I could find a way from one cave to another."
The sinkhole is a hundred yards long, fifty wide, and twenty deep. Around the edge grow trees, some tilted in. At one end, at the bottom, is a slit, with a dead tree fallen across it.
The sinkhole's sides are steep, and Mick clutches branches as he descends, to slow himself. One, on a blackberry bush, sticks his hand.
Cool air comes out the cave mouth. Mick crouches when he starts down and then discovers that he doesn't need to; it is bigger than it looked. Something about the scale was deceptive. He looks at his watch. It reads two o'clock.
The slope continues at the same angle as the sides of the sinkhole, but now the clay is slick and muddy and the rocks jutting out of the floor are slick, too. The ceiling is one foot over his head; he pushes against it as he descends, for balance.
After two or three hundred feet the slope levels and he is in a large cavern. He takes off the rucksack, removes from it and puts on his jacket and cap, and puts on the headlamp. He turns his head and the light sweeps across the floor. The room is a rough hemisphere, about a hundred feet across. There is no sound except an occasional drip of water, irregularly timed. The air is cool and humid. Mick claps his hands; the sound dies. He expected an echo, not such dull acoustics. A few rusty cans and a bucket lacking its bottom litter the floor.
He begins at the north end of the room. He tries corridors and openings large and small, but they all lead to dead ends. In some he has to crawl in lying on his back, feet first, and then crawl back out the way he has come, feeling the small, sharp stones under him that have fallen out of the rock above his face; they dig into his shoulders and back and arms at every movement. In others he has to crawl in face first. The cord between the battery pack and the headlamp snags on rocks; when the jack pops loose he loses his light until he can plug it back together by touch. Once he hears the chattering of an animal and he lies still, listening for it. A minute later he hears it again, but these are the only times he hears any noises except his own, or an occasional drip of water.
He crawls sideways over a muddy hump, his fingernails filling with clay when he presses the floor. Above his head is a chimney, a tunnel going straight up. He rolls onto his back and grabs rock knobs to pull himself to a sitting position. He sits up in a jacknifed position and wiggles his hips and legs with his back against the far wall of the chimney until he is standing. The chimney continues overhead, but curves. He shoulders his way up until he turns the corner. The chimney is choked shut with blocks of rock. He retreats to the main cavern.
He gives up. There aren't any tunnels left to try.
It is midnight. At the mouth of the cave, in the moonlight, nearly hidden under the fallen tree, is a deeper darkness. He shines a light in it. Another opening, one he missed seeing when he first entered.
The tunnel slopes steeply down. It is too small for him to wear anything on his back; he must leave the rucksack. He takes out his extra batteries and bulbs and puts them in plastic bags in the pockets of his jacket. He squirms into the tunnel and slides down, bracing himself against the walls to control his speed on the steep, slick surface.
After twenty feet the tunnel levels, but takes a bend. The turn is clogged with mud. Mick pries a hand-sized piece of rock from the wall of the tunnel and digs at the floor, hacking at the clay and pushing the pieces under and behind himself. His breath is short, as if he is using up the oxygen in the tiny space. His elbows and hands bump the sides of the tunnel.
When he has a depression cut into the mud he squeezes through and then along the tunnel. He slithers on his stomach for so long that time ends, until he vaguely remember his watch and looks at it. The face is so badly scratched he can barely see through it. Eleven o'clock. His hands are as scratched as the face of the watch. He resumes crawling.
Later, the glass fogs over and he can't see the time. He listens to it and hears the faint tick, the only sound he has heard in hours except his own breathing and grunting. The round glass and steady sound against his ear are comforting; they are all he has, except the light he carries.
In the beam of his headlamp the tunnel goes ahead, a level circular tube that stays the same diameter and fades into darkness. Maybe it is caved in somewhere ahead. The weights of the earth above crushes him, and he wants to turn back, but he is too tired: he can't crawl in reverse and blind all the way back and then push himself backwards up the initial slope with his arms. There is nothing to do but go on, since there is no space to turn around in.
He notices that the sides of the tunnel are coated with mud almost to the top. It is curious; he wonders about it as he crawls along. He comes to a dip in the floor where the mud is less solid, more liquid, and then he understands: the tunnel sometimes fills with water. It is a drainage channel. Why else would the walls be muddy? He remembers that the entrance was at the lowest point of the sinkhole. If there is a heavy rain outside he will drown. Maybe it is raining right now.
He can't breathe. He would gladly freeze in the mountains or burn in the desert or be lost on the ocean with nothing above or around but infinities of blue: anywhere else, anywhere he can see the sun, or even the moon, and hear a sound, and feel the blessed air, anywhere there is space, anywhere but this cloaca, this long, narrow, endless coffin of stone. He will die here.
He wipes the tears away with mud-caked hands. He wants to see his family just once, to exchange forgiveness. He wonders whether he will suffocate, trying to get air into his lungs like trying to suck a solid through a straw; or simply lie in the dark for weeks, waiting. His mind will go, and then it may not be too bad.
The walls are inches from his arms and back. He crawls. The tube goes on, monotonously uniform. If only there is a widening where he can turn around and crawl back the way he has come, he can escape.
Time passes. He is almost beyond caring whether he makes it out of the cave, as long as he can get out of this tiny tube. He begins talking to himself, to keep himself company. A little bit further, he says; then I can rest.
He counts the number of movements with his arms and legs and stops every hundred, to rest. His head, his elbows, his hands, his knees, his chest, his hips hurt from bumping against the walls and ceiling and floor.
He listens to his watch for comfort. It has stopped. He winds it, but it doesn't tick. Moisture and constant banging against the rock have ruined it. He is silent; cursing would be pointless.
He begins crying again, but he crawls faster, without resting. The elbows of his jacket and the knees of his pants are torn. The bare joints bleed.
This goes on for what must be hours, without pause except when he is too exhausted to move. The sameness, the monotony, wear him down until he passes out of his terror into a kind of hilarious boredom. He starts to sing. He sings songs from summer camp, folk songs, and rock and roll. His voice goes hoarse. He is short of breath.
After that it is work, plain and simple: nothing but the same thing over and over again: moving an elbow and a knee, raising the hip and pushing to straighten the leg, lying again, and repeating the motions with the other side of his body.
He doesn't notice the tube widening until he is right at the opening. At first he doesn't believe it; he has forgotten that he might get out, that there might be an end to this: the crawling has gone on long enough to become his existence, his way of life.
He creeps carefully out and he is on a ledge six feet above the floor of a cavern. He shines a light forward but can't see the far end of the cavern. He sits on the ledge and waits until he can believe he has come through. He feels nothing- neither relief, nor joy, nor elation, nor even confusion: he has passed beyond these into an impersonal state. He thinks only that the first step is behind him, and that another lies ahead: he is out of one cave, and now he has to find his way out of a second. His chances are uncertain.
He turns off his lights and lies down on the ledge to rest. In the darkness he could sleep with this eyes open. Phosphenes dance in his vision.
When he wakes his body is full of pain. He lowers himself to the floor of the cavern and shuffles along the wall looking for an opening. He finds several. The problem now is the opposite: not to get lost. In the tunnel there was no choice of where to go; now there are too many choices.
His actions become a haphazard collection of details: wandering down one corridor after another, or crawling through narrow passages, his jacket and shirt riding up on his back or stomach as he slides, so that he feels the mud against his skin. Lying under drips of water with his mouth open, waiting for them to fall, to ease his thirst. Changing the batteries in the headlamp and flashlight as they fade, and using only one light at a time after that. Numb boredom. Uncountable hours. Darkness. He is beyond hope that anyone will find him, or that he will find his way out. He is fatalistic as a Muslim; in the meantime, he keeps going.
An odd sensation comes over him, of having no direction, as if an inner compass has been taken away. He wanders in a maze of cul-de-sacs and tunnels on different levels that branch and link with each other until he is hopelessly confused at what he has and hasn't seen before. There is no structure or shape to the place. He comes to a large cavern and looks at the ceiling.
What he takes at first to be stalactites he soon realizes are hundreds of bats hanging head-down from the roof. The floor is spattered with their droppings.
The bats will show him the way. He remembers from biology class that in the evening they will leave the cave to catch the insects on which they live. He will wait for the bats to leave, and then he will follow them.
He sits down and turns off the flashlight. He falls asleep. A sound wakes him in his dreams, and when he opens his eyes he thinks he has gone blind because the darkness is unchanged. He feels for his bed and touches stone instead and remembers where he is.
He can't find the headlamp or the flashlight. Terrified, he gropes on the floor. He doesn't move, or he might end up farther from them. They must have rolled downhill. He lies prone, his feet where his butt had just been, and feels the floor. His hand touches the flash.
The noise of the bats is what woke him. The last of them are leaving the cavern. He runs after them. He manages to follow them only part of the way before they leave him behind. The way is not clear. He sits and waits for them to return. When they do, he walks against the direction of their movement, but it is more difficult than following them out. Once, he has to stoop to pass under an arch and there is an uncanny flutter of wings and small bodies near him as he moves uphill, one or two of them flying so close they brush his arms with the faint touch of tall grass in a field. Those unnatural bodies, as small and furry as mice with wings, but the wings large and leathery and out of all proportion to their delicate torsos, and the bones in the wings like the veins in the leaves of plants, and the big ears like jackals, and the fluttering, dodging, bobbing, and the unreal, high squeaking that fills the space as fully as the flickering mass of bodies in the beam of his light, the wings parting like capes to let him pass, unnerve him. He covers his face and waits.
They are gone and he still isn't out. He will have to follow them again. He turns off his light and lies down and sleeps again.
When he wakes he is sure his eyes are playing tricks on him. But the light is there after all, and he walks toward it and squeezes sideways through a narrow opening and knee-walks down a low tunnel. He comes to a narrow slit in a steep bank covered outside with brush and trees. Blinding, intricate light spills down through the leaves. He has to close his eyes. The air is hot. In the distance he hears the fading hum of an airplane. A breeze shuffles leaves and the trees whisper.
He opens his eyes a crack. The light comes through his lashes in trembling streaks of colored motes, in rainbow splashes. He opens his eyes wider and faces an area of heavy, cool green. Light tumbles and bounces off and around and through intricate jigsaw leaves and branches and vines, like water tumbling down rocks. The plants themselves meld and dissolve in a smooth flow from one to the next so that he can't say where they change, they are so tangled and overlapping. A fat black and yellow bumblebee drones into the rich uproar of shapes as if rolling slowly along the curve of some invisible field of force, half-circles, hangs suspended for a quiver of time, and then slowly settles with the unreality, the exotic astonishment, of a dream, onto a flower of startling pallor in a tiny patch of light. The bee disappears into the flower and the flower trembles. Mick watches, rapt, until the bee emerges and takes off on a rising diagonal.
He crawls out like an old animal and slides and tumbles down the bank, though brambles and bindweed, to fetch up on his side at the bottom, next to a dry stream where naked rocks sit in smooth swirls of mud. He stands and steps across the stream and through an opening in the branches.
He is at the edge of a meadow surrounded by trees and brush so thick they could be in the tropics: vines everywhere, draped over trees and bushes, vines as thick as his wrist, running straight into the air to branches fifteen feet up, where they leaf out heavily, so that the trees bend under their massive burden. Nets of vines. To one side, above everything else, stands a tall, dead, bone-white tree, riddled with holes, its top limbs broken off. A red-headed woodpecker clings to its side. The bird's hollow drumming is startling and sudden. A wind comes up and the leaves of the trees turn over, exposing their light undersides, as if a kaleidoscope has turned.
The meadow floor is scattered with blue and white flowers, bare dirt, an enormous blackberry bush, clumps of grass and weeds, a trail with horse dung. A dust devil dances and vanishes. Above is a hot sky, blessedly far away.
He has forgotten all this; now it is too raw, too strange. He wants to sit under a bush, in the cool shade, and stare through the leaves in a dull, fluid light where nothing is distinct, or lie high on a tree branch and look up at the empty sky while leaves fan him. He closes his eyes and sits.
In the cave he lost all consciousness of himself, all standing-outside-himself witnessing his own actions. Now as he sits he feels the sun and air and hears the leaves move, and the cries of birds, and the snaps and buzzes of insects, and feels the dry, friable dirt under his hand, not the thick smooth clay any longer, and knows that he is back. He is set apart again. He is in this place, in relation to each of these distinct things. A flood of substance pours through him. He is full to overflowing; he will burst. He hears every tiny sound. He smells every plant.
All the leaves shift slightly, as if a net, so fine it is visible only because it causes a diffraction, has moved fractionally. Then the wind comes up again, and the leaves slide back and forth across each other with a hectic sawing motion until the wind subsides with a sigh, and with a last few nods, so do the leaves. For a moment everything is locked in crystal. The light lies in definite, hard-edged shapes and in blurs that shade into darkness. The scene is an endless transformation from solids to spaces to solids: a confusion of forms and absences. The top of a branch is coated with a light like rime.
He looks up through the trees and the light comes through in an impossible tumble of tones and warmths, translucent greens splashed here and there with touches of yellow bleeding around their edges. In the dirt every fleck and fragment of stone reflects light as tangible as the stone itself back at him in hard silvers and whites. The meadow is bathed in light, profligate and endless, as if there is more than can possibly be spent and it has to be poured, drenched, thrown, or it will burst the sky like Armageddon. It swarms and clings, hypnotic and narcotic.
He throws away his coat. He drops the flashlight and headlamp and walks. His feet are unsteady: he is no longer accustomed to the level and upright. His clothes are filthy and torn, and so is he.
"It was a new entrance," Mick said. "The one I was supposed to come out was two hundred yards away."
"Going by yourself was dangerous."
He smiled. "Yeah."
"At least you won your bet."
"He never paid. He said I came out the wrong cave, so I owed him."
"What did you say?"
"Didn't say anything. I went back and connected that one with the one I came out of, so he'd see they were the same cave."
"And he still didn't pay?"
"He said I only got one try. So I let it go. I wasn't going to fight with a broken jaw."
"Oh, yes. You said your father. . ."
"He beat me up. What an asshole. Cost me the pole vaulting championship. They wouldn't let me compete with the injury. There wasn't anybody in the state who was even close to my jumps."
She was silent. The shadows of clouds rafted across the grass; the wind passed the field in waves.
"I got even. I waited until school was out and forged his name on a check. I got a thousand dollars and then I left."
"Shame on you."
They were picking up to leave when Tracy tapped him on the shoulder. "Look." She pointed to the top of the first Flatiron, near the right end, at a hang glider. The wind flipped the glider's nose up. A tiny figure struggled with the control bar and then the wind died and the glider was stable.
"Do you think he carried it up there by himself?" she asked.
"Probably not. He couldn't carry it up that steep part in back by himself."
The figure did something, twisted to face forward, paused for a moment, and then ran down the slab. Mick heard Tracy's sharp inbreath and she clutched his arm. The nose of the glider came up and it floated out into the air. Tracy let go of Mick's arm.
"The guy's crazy," Mick said.
"With wind like this? Even on a good day, you'd have to do everything just right. Not run too fast or slow. Not trip. Not hit that tree on your way. Hope for good air. You'd bounce all the way down if something went wrong. You'd die before you hit the ground, if you were lucky. If you weren't. . ." He shrugged.
Tracy watched the hang glider sweep spirals above the meadow. Mick picked up the rucksack and watched her.
"They look better from above," he said. "The lines are cleaner."
"How can you see them from above?"
He told her about waking up on the ledge on Half Dome, hearing the flapping noise and looking way down and across at one, at dawn.
"Have you ever tried it?" she asked.
"Hang gliding? No. The odds are bad. The death rate's too high."
"You promised to take me climbing."
"There are still good weekends sometimes."