2002 Graduate Nonfiction Winner

Katie Sallitt Fallon

Cave Darkness


“This is how we get in,” he told me. Jesse (my then-boyfriend) and I stood halfway up a small rocky mountain in central Pennsylvania. Snowflakes dotted the clay-colored rocks as I stared at a drainage pipe coming out of the mountain. It was black and looked slippery and the diameter of its opening could not have been more than two feet.


Appalled, I refused.


“I’ll never fit,” I said.


“I fit.”


“My hips are too wide,” I assured him.


“Andy fits and he weighs two hundred pounds.”


“Impossible. Let’s go home.” I turned away from Jesse and began down the thin trail.


“Oh, come on,” he said, and grabbed my sleeve. “Please . . .”


I’ve always had considerable trouble refusing a request from Jesse, especially when he begs. I turned back to face the tiny pipe and sighed. Why had I agreed to come out here with him? As he excitedly adjusted his headlamp and began instructing me on how to enter the cave, I realized how much it meant to him that I was out here, in early December, in cargo pants from the Army and Navy store and one of his stained “painting” sweatshirts, preparing to go with him into some hole in a mountain.


“You start with your hands out in front of you, then you squirm your body in, and then you inch along until you feel the other end of the pipe with your hands. Then you just pull yourself out. Easy,” he said. “The pipe’s only about six feet long.”


“And then what?”


“Then you’re in. I’ll be right behind you.”


“Will you push my feet to help me?” I asked weakly.


“Of course,” he said. “Just be careful when you come out of the pipe. There’s a good four-foot drop to the cave floor.”


Great, I thought, and turned on the headlamp. I did as he showed me, and, arms out in front of me, I began to shimmy on my belly through the horizontal pipe. I had the distinct suspicion this was not meant for people.


After what seemed like much more than a six-foot crawl, my fingertips curled around the other lip of the pipe and I pulled myself to the edge. The light from my headlamp filled the closet-sized cavity, illuminating the rich red-orange sandstone walls that glistened with moisture. I could devise no other option than to stretch my hands to the floor of the cave and squirm the rest of my body gently down. The plan worked, except for the “gently” part, but besides a bruise or two, I emerged from the pipe unscathed.


As I rose to my feet and wiped my muddy hands on my pants, Jesse slipped effortlessly from the pipe. The two of us were cramped in the small cavity, and neither of us could stand up straight.


“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked, his voice sounding very loud.


I grunted and looked back through the pipe. The flurries seemed to be falling faster now, and I immediately envisioned us returning here after our adventure to find the pipe blocked by snow. Then I imagined the flurries turning to drizzle and freezing over the mouth of the pipe. What if the man whose property we were trespassing on decided to come out this evening and seal the pipe?


“Ok, let’s go home now,” I suggested. Jesse ignored me and was already making his way to a narrow crevice between rocks.


“We go through here,” he said, pointing. “We call this the ‘Birth Canal.’ You might have to crawl a little bit. Just follow me.” He entered the crevice sideways and bent over. Sighing again, I reluctantly peered into the crack after him. I could hear his jeans scraping between the rocks and saw him in a position resembling a person making a snow angel, though Jesse was standing up and his face was turned sideways to fit. I inched along behind him, the cool rock walls touching all of my body at once. I couldn’t draw a deep breath, and the terror of suffocating filled my throat.


Jesse stopped moving in front of me and squirmed around to face the direction we were heading. “Watch how I do this part,” he said. “It’s a little tricky.” He bent at the waist over a smooth rock that partially blocked the passage and reached ahead of himself with his hands. He pushed off the floor and slid through the hole. I heard shuffling and then the beam of his headlamp shone back through to me. “Come on,” he urged, “Soft of dive through like I did.”


“I can’t breathe,” I said.


“This is the worst part.”


I didn’t believe him, but I bent over the rock and reached through the hole. Jesse grabbed my wrists and pulled me through.


Beyond the Birth Canal, the ceiling was just high enough to stand up normally and footprints in the mud showed a distinct path. There was even a “guest book,” rolled up and sealed in a waterproof container, chained to a wall. “I told you,” he said, pointing to his friend Andy’s signature on a muddy page. I scribbled my name on the last line with the short pencil from the container. Jesse signed on the same line.


The winding path led us past impressive rock formations, including “Goliath,” a green and orange glistening pillar formed when a stalactite and stalagmite met. Jesse described another formation as “an old man pissing against the wall,” and I admit, at first glance it did resemble a figure urinating.


I was not exactly sure—we had been progressing forward through the cave or had been circling around, but the next obstacle we encountered was called the “high-way step-across.” As I reached for handholds and kicked for footholds climbing up vertical, slippery sandstone, I wondered if there was a “low-way” we had conveniently missed. Once on top of the rock (and claustrophobically close to the ceiling of the cave), I realized that the formation was actually two huge rocks with an apparently bottomless ravine between them.


“Don’t fall down there,” Jesse warned me. We had to sit on one side of the ravine and extend our feet across to the other side and scoot ourselves along sideways on our butts. I envisioned my body slipping into the pit, cracking off sharp rocks and finally thudding onto more sharp rocks hundreds of feet below. Certainly a rescue team couldn’t get a stretcher through the Birth Canal. It did, however, give me some confidence to know that this muddy hole we were crawling, squeezing and scraping through had been mapped and remapped and was used frequently (with permission) by the local university’s Grotto Club.


After the step-across, Jesse pointed to a crack between rocks called “Jane’s Frustration,” which I deemed impassable and refused to entertain the idea of attempting to squeeze through. (Again, he tried to convince me that his two hundred pound friend had been able to wiggle through it, but I didn’t believe him, and still don’t.) Then we came to the “Boy Scout Hole,” a space between rocks where, legend has it, a boy scout fell through and injured himself severely, or maybe even died (Jesse couldn’t remember which).


After a short squirm through another tight space, we reached a place called the “Wedding Cake Room,” so named because of its unusual stalagmite formations. In this room we sat and turned off our headlamps for a few minutes. “There’s no darkness like cave darkness,” Jesse said, and I think he was right. I have never felt so cut off from the rest of the world; besides being totally black, the cave was completely silent. My senses seemed to stop working, except for the smell of damp mud and the cold air on my face. I turned my head from side to side and blinked rapidly, waiting in vain for my eyes to adjust to the dark. The weight of the mountain above us settled over my shoulders and I thought instantly of a grave. Buried, forgotten, underground. Invisible. Even though my body hadn’t moved, I became disoriented and panicked and fumbled for Jesse. Of course, he sat only inches from me, and we huddled together for a few moments before I flicked my light back on.


Next came more crawling and climbing, and Jesse said we were approaching the “Dome Room.” “We usually use a rope for this part,” he said, but we continued on anyway, groping along the side of the cave throughout the descent. After sliding down the steep and muddy incline, the cave opened up to a room with a ceiling as high as a cathedral. The walls narrowed near the top, as if someone had begun carving a church and then abandoned the project. We couldn’t spend much time here because of the slippery footing.


Finally, it was time to make our way out of the cave, which did not seem nearly as demanding as getting in. I scooted the step-across with ease and stopped to admire more rock formations. I noticed two or three things, resembling crumpled brown tissues, stuck to the red walls. “Jesse,” I asked, “those aren’t bats, are they?”


He replied, “This is the first time you’ve noticed them? Haven’t you felt them flying past you?”


I recalled the wind I’d felt on my face during “cave darkness” in the Wedding Cake Room and my knees weakened. “Let’s go,” I whispered, and squirmed through the Birth Canal, troubled by visions of rabid bats attacking my face.


As we approached the pipe and freedom, I became aware someone was on the other end of it, outside. The property owner, I thought. An escaped mental patient. What could we do? We were trapped. I remembered Jesse’s father telling us how he killed groundhogs on his farm by shooting his gun into their burrows.


“Hello,” Jesse called through the pipe.


“No!” I gasped, tugging his sleeve and shaking my head.


“Come on out,” a raspy voice answered. Jesse motioned for me to climb into the pipe.


“You go first,” I whispered. “I’ll be right behind you.”


Jesse shrugged and scrambled in. When he was through, I followed. I didn’t hear any sounds of struggle or murder, so I figured it was all right.


Jesse and the other person helped me out so I didn’t go tumbling down the mountainside. I straightened and looked at the stranger. He was an elderly man, about five feet tall, dressed in old-time gear. His headlamp was a curved mirror around a gas flame. The fuel was in a flask on his utility belt, next to various ropes and tools. Jesse shook his hand and introduced himself and I did the same.


“Are you two with the Grotto Club?” the man asked cheerfully.


“I’m thinking about joining,” Jesse answered. “But this is her first time caving.”

“Wonderful!” he said. “Did you have a good time?”


“Oh, yes,” I enthusiastically lied.


Jesse and the old man laughed. “You’re lucky,” he said to Jesse, nodding at me, “I could never get my wife to go in a cave with me. When I was a boy, this was a limestone mine.” He pulled a pair of heavy leather gloves from his belt. “You two should join the Grotto Club. I give lectures for them sometimes. Nice meeting you both,” he continued, and slipped into the pipe.


Walking back down the thin trail that night, covered in bruises and mud and slightly disturbed by being mistaken for Jesse’s wife, I silently vowed never to go caving again. But now, years later, my memories of being inside that mountain are somewhat exciting, even nostalgic. Perhaps it was the prospect of danger that was so thrilling, even though Jesse assured me over and over that J-4 (as the cave is known) was not that dangerous (as far as caves go).


A confined black space that could possibly “cave—in and trap me is terrifying, so is having only one escape route that could potentially be blocked. But, together we were willing to huddle on the floor of a bat-filled room, so silent and dark and cool that slipping unknowingly into death seemed possible. I wonder if Jesse (my now-husband) was trying to suggest something by taking me to a place with so many marriage motifs, from the “guest book” to the “church” and the “wedding cake.” The “Birth Canal” and “Frustration” could also be construed to fit this metaphor. Perhaps even the old man was staged, coached by Jesse to make mention of me as his wife.


Of course, I’m reaching here. I’m sure Jesse’s intentions were merely to spend time alone with me, and to help me through something he enjoyed. In a place where I couldn’t run away.


About the Prize Winner:

Katie Sallitt Fallon is the winner of the 2002 Touchstone Graduate Contest for Creative Non­fiction. She is currently working on her M.F.A. at the University of West Virginia.

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