From the Faith issue, an excerpt from Michael Helm’s forthcoming novel After James, out from Tin House Books in September 2016.
Since the summer Celia turned twelve her father had taken her on expeditions. He led teams of interchangeable members, opening plague pits in London, coring ice in Siberia, hose-blasting permafrost in the far north to find perfectly intact, extinct creatures, while some grad student who’d pulled the duty to look after her demonstrated the care involved in brushing and screening soil for the tiny bones of long-gone lizards and birds. Three Junes ago they revived the practice for the first time since she left for university. Now he was summering in France, living alone in the Cévennes. A team had come and gone. Once a week he visited friends in a lab ninety minutes away in Montpellier, but most days he spent in the mountains, on foot.
She’d been fifteen hours in transit from Vancouver, had slept maybe two. In final approach she looked down at morning in Paris, bright city, oddly flat. The Eiffel Tower, so small in person, like a male movie star. The high-rises of La Défense seemed like just the beginning of a vision, dream interrupted, sketched out and half realized at a safe distance to the west of the old realities, the beautiful districts, proportioned, ornate, storied in the richer sense.
On the TGV she fell asleep at three hundred kilometers an hour. He met her at the train station in Montpellier. The smile, a little bow, the avid blue eyes. He was lit with a kind of chemiluminescence. Something just below the skin held differently. “You look good, Dad. Great pigmentation.” He said he had something exciting to tell her. They drove through a landscape of hard plains, rock outcroppings, sudden sheer faces. His hands cupped the steering wheel, left wrist curled at eleven o’clock, right at three, then to the stick shift and back. As he spoke he glanced at her repeatedly. His long jaw worked the lines. He said he had a map of the unexplored cliffs and he’d been investigating as he could. The hikes were physically hard—was she in shape?—but his joints liked the climate. He could still balance on a foothold, still scramble on loose ground. Several days ago for three hours he’d cut a path across the least accessible of the promising rock faces and emerged above a tree line. After a minute along a barely navigable ledge, he came to a deep, uncrossable crevice, and there on the other side, a cave mouth.
“There seems to be no research on this cave. And it’s perfectly protected. If it opens up, if it doesn’t just run to a full stop in the dark, there could be thousands of years of artifacts inside. Tens of thousands. Neanderthals and humans lived around here at the same time. I’ve been waiting for you. Tomorrow we’ll climb with a ladder.”
He looked at her and the car drifted to the shoulder, corrected.
“Okay, sure. Exciting.”
Her body thought it was still in Vancouver. She used to trust her body, its distant early warnings and blunt reminders, but lately it had struck its own secret agenda and lost its sense of humor. It would arrive properly rested in a day or two. Until then she’d have to float around on her own, a hovering face, talking and smiling, waiting to close its eyes.
“They died off very suddenly, the Neanderthals. Twenty-five thousand years ago, in Gibraltar, staring at the sea. They weren’t crossers of oceans. Leaps of faith didn’t occur to them. Whereas Homo sapiens, well, here we are.”
Here they were. She’d imagined her arrival, an embrace, an almost wordless greeting, and a slow gathering of the moment. Now she was here and there’d been no arrival. He might have waited to tell her about the cave. Maybe he was afraid of recognizing her, or of failing to—she was aging, changing, about to enter important years for a childless single woman with a career—and so he’d put something between them that they’d have to pass back and forth. Now she’d wait a day before getting around to life updates, a brief romance come and gone, a health scare come and gone. She supposed she wouldn’t tell him about an unwanted pregnancy come and gone. Or at least a surprise pregnancy, and given the precautions a bit of a mystery one. It seemed to have come and gone on its own, as if it had nothing to do with her, or as if she had failed a test of grace. Not that she believed in grace or even really understood what it pretended to be.
The next day after breakfast they tied an aluminum ladder to the roof of his Suzuki Swift and set off into the mountains. She followed their route on a map covered with his printed additions and notes as they drove on the edge of La Vallée du Terrieu. He’d marked the names of each peak—Montagne d’Hortus, Pic Saint-Loup—each perched chateau, but as they climbed on ever narrower roads the names fell off until finally the doubtful path disappeared from the map and became only a track through a field that ended in trees. Above them the forest climbed steeply to the base of an immense, white vertical rock face. He studied the approach routes. From the trunk he took their supplies, shrugged into a small backpack. He gave her a coil of rope. He untied the ladder, put it over his shoulder, and led the way into the trees. There was little underbrush but the climb was steep, improvised, awkward, and soon they were too spent to speak, though they had said very little that morning anyway, and before long Celia was sweating in her unbreathing layers. Four times at intervals of thirty or forty minutes they stopped to rest. At one point, bent over with her hands on her knees, she looked up to find him resting the ladder vertically, taking her in through the rungs.
Something in the elevation brought him to ask about her “career.” He viewed her work in the Lifestyle Drugs Division of a pharma giant as a misuse of her talents, if not an outright repudiation of his life in the pure sciences.
“Nothing to report.”
“Private companies. They feed on secrecy clauses and blood oaths.”
“Whatever moves the ball down the field, as one of my team leaders says. Apparently the ball is knowledge.”
“The ball is profit. It’s not even pigskin. It’s boner pills.”
In time they broke above the tree line and rested once more and ate their packed lunches while looking out at the valley and the distant Mediterranean, a seam on the horizon. By the set of his face he seemed fixed in some reverie. She let it run and in time he said he was trying to imagine the view of fifty thousand years ago. A colder climate. The trees would not be oak, as now, but pine and beech, species adapted to the cold. In the valley, deer and sanglier, and European megafauna, mammoths and giant elk. And humans and protohumans. Glaciers had pushed Neanderthals this far south, and Homo sapiens had migrated here from Africa. They overlapped for maybe forty thousand years.
“They must have recognized their difference from one another.” His voice was sure. He caught his breath faster than she did. “The genetic record says they interbred. We still have Neanderthal in us. The fossil record gives no evidence of war, though it does of murder. Bones showing evidence of tool scarring, as if they’d been de-fleshed.”
“News of the day.”
“We still behave this way, yes. But they were much closer to the originating moment, whatever that was. No amount of science will recover it. If we clone them—ancient humans—we’ll just be closer to the end moment. Ours, I mean.”
He was a genetic anthropologist, extinction branch. His comments tended to take certain turns.
Their path became a ledge that ran above a sharp drop. Navigating it required him to balance the ladder on a forearm held away from the rock face, so that from her position behind him the ladder seemed a floating incongruity, a surrealist object juxtaposed against the stone sublime. The face curved away from them for a time and then the ledge widened to a large table of rock. There was the cave mouth, across a wide cut. He extended the ladder and timbered it across the gap, and squatted to rest, letting his arms hang limp. The crevice meant business. There was no telling its depth but the noon light disappeared at about thirty feet. It was maybe fifteen feet across, too far for anyone to jump, with too short a run up and no safe place to land. Maybe the cave really was unexplored.
She held the ladder firm on one side as he walked across it rung to rung with steady, deliberate steps. If one of them fell, even if they survived the fall, there’d be no way out. What exactly would the other do?
“We’re being careless,” she said, after he’d crossed. “This is pretty stupid.”
“Don’t cross if you’re not committed. I’ll go and report back.”
She threw the rope coil to him and told him to hold the ladder and crossed over on her hands and knees, looking forward. He pulled the ladder clear and laid it by the side of the cave mouth. From his backpack he produced two flashlights and a truffle pick for digging out artifacts. There was no threat in the sky, unless it was behind the mountain. No one knew they were up here.
They approached the entrance, ducked under a pediment ledge, and stood in quiet light. Only a short distance ahead the rock ceiling above them curved down to form a back wall. The space was certain and empty. It led nowhere. He said nothing, kept still. She walked in, letting him have his moment of disappointment. Near the back wall she crouched lower, turned and sat on the cave floor and looked out at him silhouetted against the blue sky.
“It could still be your cave. Grotte du Dad.”
“I feel something. Do you feel it back there?”
In fact she did feel it, a draft. She shone her light into the corners and saw that the floor opened about twenty feet to her left. She scuttled over on her ass. The walls of the hole formed the first revolution of a kind of curved well that seemed to open into a space beneath them.
She had no time to speak before he was with her, shining his light into the hole.
“Holy Christ,” he said.
They were silent. She wanted to stop him from thinking but it was too late.
“I wonder if they named it, the first humans,” he said.
“Maybe they called it the hole in the floor.”
“It’s got a real come hither to it. I’m going down.”
“That’s too stupid even for you. It might just drop you half a mile inside the mountain.”
“That’s why we have the rope.”
“Oh, come on. A cave. We thought we’d walk in, walk out. Nobody said anything about going down holes.”
“We are definitely not prepared. We should have a team. With radio communication, helmets, gloves, water, first aid, harnesses, those mountain-climbing spiky things, and at least one person who knows what they’re doing.”
“Humans explore. It’s what we do.”
She saw how it set up in his mind. He tied the rope to a stone anchor, a kind of newel post at the top of the opening. The rope was just something he’d found along with the ladder in the storage room under the rented house. It was thick, but old and dry, and would fray easily. He tied the other end in a loop under his arms and braced his hands against the smooth wall of the hole mouth.
“Jesus, Dad. If I got hysterical would you stay?”
“You’re not the kind. Now, if I get in far enough you won’t be able to hear me through the rock. Give me thirty minutes. If I’m not back, then don’t—do not—come after me. There’s no cell reception so you’ll need to go down to the car and drive it to town.” He leaned to one side, extracted the car keys from his pocket, and tossed them to her. “Go back to the village, to the police. Take the map so you can tell them how to get here. I’ll be fine, likely just stuck with my head in a prehistoric honey jar. I’ll have a sleep while you lead them up.”
“Let me go instead. I’m lighter and thinner and my joints work better.”
“Nonsense. I won’t have it. Much too dangerous.” He suppressed a smile, clamped the flashlight in his mouth, and started down.
There’d been days like this in grad school, up before dawn getting ready for an outing. Back then they’d all loaded into a minivan too small for them and their four tents and propane grill and hiking boots and at least two secreted thesis chapters to be edited by lantern light, headed north for eleven hours, and there they gathered, around a fire, seven students and their mentor, Erik Bouma. The yearly weekend in bear country was unstated mandatory. Research money was siphoned off to fund it. Erik joked in all seriousness that it was “teamship-building,” getting the word wrong, but on the third trip Celia wanted the days for silence, or at least talklessness. Erik liked to induce in them a shared dream portending applications for their knowledge that no one could yet imagine, and then he tried to steer the dream and imagine for them. He told stories of disease therapies and reversals, of antiaging, memory enhancement. In their off time, he said, they could sell their genetic science expertise in every direction. Already he’d been offered huge sums to speak to Mounties and G-Men, play the expert at drug piracy trials, authenticate unsigned de Koonings. Not all of these jobs he’d said yes to. A captain of Japanese industry had set before him a briefcase full of money to entice him to clone the long-extinct, thirty-five-hundred-pound South American short-faced bear. The briefcase, the short-faced bear, half of the dreams and their contents were stolen from movies, though they were also real, or possible.
In the pause after Erik said, “The future is in front of us,” she said, “No shit,” and he added, “and so is the past.” He could take some ribbing, could Erik, but he wouldn’t stop with the pithy sayings. “We serve the living, the dead, and the unborn.” The unborn came up a lot. Celia found she couldn’t picture them except as newborns or futuristic adults of very pale skin wearing spaceship uniforms with stirruped pant legs. The real unborn, as they could be conceived of now, in their current state, were more like shapeless energies inside the living. If she followed the thought long enough they became, basically, the sexual impulse. Complicated, to be struggled with or surrendered to. Even when joyful, unstable.
Or so she had imagined then. Now the unborn was someone specific. His name was James. He would be seven months old.
She’d left them at the campfire and gone to pee and then walked farther into the woods until the voices were gone. She hadn’t brought a flashlight but the moon was bright. She sat on a fallen tree, felt the bark and guessed cedar, and closed her eyes and listened into the silence. In a centering practice she’d used in city parks, she pictured an ever deeper auditory penetration of the darkness. Smaller sounds could take form. Others might trail the end of a breeze. At first you had to let the sound be sound, and not try to assign it to animals, birds, jet planes, water. She found a state of nonthought and the silence took its place. It seemed she was there a long time, small wind, its empty wake. With nothing to hold on to she heard echoes from the day, mostly voices, Erik’s Swiss-German English, making great claims. At one of the highway stops he had looked over at her, standing slightly apart, and she saw a sympathy, or at least a sad acknowledgment of her. She was not the most talented or ambitious of his students, not the easiest to direct. She expanded discussions into strange territories, beset by a kind of speculative ethics. Not just, What are the dangers in bringing extinct viruses back to life? but What does it mean to play God or, as she’d always thought of God, Nature? He probably expected her to become a teacher at a minor university or a science journalist, maybe even an enemy of the cause. She was learning about herself through his view of her, as she imagined it.
She tried again to quiet the thoughts. The silence was a presence in itself. When the wind came up she heard something inside it, and let it be, one tree rubbing against another in the distance. The sound hadn’t been there before. The wind had changed. Now it was gone but something else was there, then wasn’t, then there it was again. On the edge of her perception, miles away, a wolf was howling. She tucked inside the furrowed note and it ran with her and died. Then the same note grew forth again and, in a higher register, a second howl joined the first. Soon there were many overlapping voices, calling and answering, it seemed. Asserting the only shared truth. Blood bone I am.
She stayed with the wolves for some duration, until at last she could no longer hear them. Then came the greater absence, and then even the absence attenuated to nothing. How lucky not to have been with the group. They’d have talked of wolf studies, certainly, the meaning of howls, of pitches and amplitudes, the human measures of animal territories. Maybe someone would have brought up Tchaikovsky or Red Riding Hood, or Lon Chaney versus every wolf man since. Whatever the subject, they would certainly have talked. Briefly she succeeded in banishing the thought of them and now, in the aftermath, came something low, in approach. The underbrush took animal weight. She tried to measure distance with sound. She listened for a kind of breath, the huff of a black bear or grizzly, but the thing in approach was gone and then no it was behind her and she turned and saw the flashlight beam. For a moment her voice wouldn’t come, and then she said, “I’m here.”
“Oh thank god.” It was Chandra. “Erik and Jeremy are out here somewhere looking for you, too.”
Chandra was the only other woman in the group, the new student, a hard pragmatism just starting to take up in her dark baby face. She was smart and ambitious. Presumably she understood what it meant that the future and the past were before her. She knew she was in a world of boys and their toys, and she had shared a joke or two with Celia. In the end, though, Celia understood, if it came to it, Chandra would always side with the boys.
“No bears. Just the wolves.”
Chandra hadn’t heard the wolves. When they returned to the fire, the group, Celia learned that no one had heard them. Erik asked her how far, what direction, how many distinct howls. He didn’t ask her to describe the feeling of hearing them, a question she wanted but wouldn’t have been able to answer. It intrigued the hapless Jeremy to suggest that she was probably just trying to scare them. He wanted to sleep with her but hadn’t puzzled out a method.
Erik was sitting across the fire from her. He turned his head this way and that to address the group, the sternocleidomastoids popping grotesquely in his neck.
“Celia’s not the type to cry wolf, Jeremy. It’s no game to her. She believes the wolves are out there. Even if they aren’t.” He looked into her face. The rest of them kept their eyes forward, into the fire. “We need a few Celias in any population. They imagine just enough to keep us honest.”
Her story had no defenders but she didn’t care—she’d graduate in months and Erik had already written her strong enough letters of support—and yet the pronouncement seemed to render the wolves imaginary, even for her. She found she couldn’t call them back to mind, and didn’t until the end of the weekend. In the years since, she had never doubted them. The wolves became more certain with time. She didn’t think of them as past or as hers alone. Their offspring were still out there somewhere. She tried to let them be nothing other than they were. She tried not to assign meaning to them, not to read portents or to assume they’d been sounding a warning. They were wolves, not harbingers. The harbingers were elsewhere, in numbers and graphs, infection and transmission rates. They had a different pull and cast, and they grew ever closer. Soon everyone would know them. A great wing would appear in the sky and the talking would stop all at once.
She’d been waiting twelve minutes. He’d been in voice contact for about eight. He’d barely disappeared when she heard his first exclamation. Right below her the ground leveled out and opened into a chamber. “I can stand up,” he said. After a few seconds he said, “No artifacts or remains but . . . hold on.” She stared into the hole. “There’s a shelf, sort of recessed in the stone. It’s full of seashells.” She saw flashes of light come out of the hole and remembered he had a camera in his vest. He said there was a narrow passage ahead. His voice was fainter now. “I’ll investigate.” She asked him to describe the space and he said, “It’s pretty small.” “How small?” There was no answer. Four minutes later the rope went slack.
What had he said about the cave on the way up? Nothing useful now. He said certain caves were places of deep solitude, that it wasn’t just fear or necessity that would make people gather out of the killing elements, but something inward that needed to be acknowledged to others around a fire. “These were the first stirrings of religion, the deepest parts of ourselves made social. A collective of souls, staving off fear, hunger, loneliness, if not doubt.”
She reasoned that he’d come to the end of his rope but not the end of his time. He’d untied himself and kept exploring. Near the thirty-minute mark she’d feel the tension back on the line. She’d hear him, he’d emerge. She tried to have faith in this idea and the faith or tending there opened a space inside her where the dim figure she made out was herself.
The rim of the hole was the only smooth surface, worn by thousands of years of hands and bodies. On the pocked wall above it she tried to detect the smallest movement of the stippled shadows. In its simplest form time was light, nothing more. Our sense of it changed from being with others. Others marked it, were marked by it, set it at variable speeds in the social flux. But isolated, removed from other presences, time was light and nonlight in perpetual bend and stretch. The shadows had notched along without detectable movement. The sun leaned on the mountain faces opposite, the distant fields and vineyards far below. From where she sat the superstitious mind would see the god in all things moving each day on the shadow line, left to right, up to down, changing its slant with the seasons. From such a prospect, at an earned altitude, in your very body you felt meanings were arrayed before you, you could look and know yourself. The trouble was in trying to say them, the things you came to know. She would say them only this way. Left to right and up to down.
It had been forty-two minutes. No sound for thirty-four. Something was wrong but she hadn’t yet moved, weighted in place against the whirl of her thoughts. If she left the cave he’d be alone up here inside the mountain for five or six hours, too long if he was injured or in danger. The rope lay slack against the wall. The first chamber was safe, the one he’d called from, with the shells. It would make sense to lower herself into it and call to him through the next opening. If she couldn’t hear him she’d have to keep calm and crawl out and start down the mountain. She had to bring help before dark or she wouldn’t know how to find her way back up. Assuming she could do so by day. She hadn’t paid attention on the climb, only following his lead in slight variation, as she’d done much of her life.
She imagined sitting with him on a patio somewhere, beginning the story of what they’d done wrong today. It had been a mistake not to tell anyone. Was it from vanity or cool, delicious hope that he wanted this for the two of them alone? Another error, not to have planned for emergency. Were there earlier mistakes? He should have told her of the cave before she left Canada. She would have researched what to bring, planned for contingencies. How far back could they go? What were their mistakes, through the years, and how had they contributed to this last miscalculation?
It wasn’t yet panic she felt, as if panic were a stable marker. She wasn’t hysterical. Her heartbeat was getting up there but she’d experienced nothing to cause real fear, only a duration of silence. She told herself that her father was simply late. He was often late, he lost track of the hour, though admittedly given the directions she expected him to know it had been forty-four minutes, fourteen overdue, or six if he was counting from the last voice contact. On the imagined patio she told him her calculations. A small delight held on his face. It would all have worked out, of course, so he was enjoying the story. She looked for the slightest sign that the enjoyment went only so far, but unless you knew him, by his face you’d think nothing much had ever happened to him. You’d guess he’d lived a safe and lucky life, that he felt fear only as mock fear, fright, a tingling on the skin, a shiver along the neck. Never as drops of blackness spreading in the blood, thickening the tongue, numbing the light. But he understood as she did that the world divided between those who knew and those who didn’t.
She would need both her hands, so how to carry the flashlight? If she put it in her mouth like on TV she’d gag. It was too thick to fit into a belt loop but she had a belt, pretty much decorative, so she took it off and cinched it around the base and then tied a knot and looped the flashlight around her neck so that it nodded and swayed, catching random shapes in the illuminations as she took the rope in hand and felt along the smooth rock wall and lowered herself into the hole. She found level ground almost immediately and stepped forward before taking hold of the light and looking around. She’d stopped herself all of six inches before a spur in the rock that would have brained her. Another mistake, a lucky break. She ducked and moved forward and stood again. The light now caught all of the small chamber. The ledge with the shells, about a dozen, was at eye level. At its highest point the ceiling was maybe eight feet. The rope ran straight across the floor and into a small opening in the opposite wall, five or six strides ahead. She could not see how anyone could fit through it.
She kneeled at the opening and listened, nothing. Even the light draft she’d felt above was absent. She shone the beam into the passage and up came a wall forty or more feet ahead, but she couldn’t tell the dimensions of the space. The rock was smooth, water worn. She called, “Dad. Can you hear me?” and her voice seemed to wreck in the passageway. The rope—how long was it?—ran true along the shadowed ground. Maybe he’d seen a safe way forward beyond the end of his tether. Even if there was no chamber, even if what she was seeing was forty feet of tunnel, there must be a curve or drop or else she’d be able to see him. All she saw now was a frayed rope lying along a rock shaft.
She checked the time. Forty-six minutes, no contact. He was just ahead somewhere. If he was hurt, in trouble, time was short. She did not want to enter the tunnel. She could not go down the mountain, go to the village and get help, come up again in the dark. Already she was sixteen minutes behind in whatever action she would take.
She said fuck it and sat and started in, feet first. With the flashlight resting on her chest, she pulled herself along with her hands. The top side of the passage was inches from her face and she felt her short breaths burst back upon her. Her knees could barely bend but little by little she went forward, telling herself that her father had made it through so there had to be room for her. After several seconds she opened her feet and looked down along the beam. A penumbra had formed around the light on the wall ahead and so she knew that the shaft widened, though by how much she couldn’t tell. She seemed to be moving on a slight downward grade. The thought to be suppressed was that she might not be able to reverse her direction. It made no difference to close her eyes so she closed them and kept moving and only when the air and the sound of her motion changed did she open them to see that she’d come out into a large chamber. She sat up, shone the beam around. The rope ran to its end midfloor. She checked her watch. Inching through the shaft had taken less than two minutes.
The chamber looked fifteen or twenty feet high. She stood, breathed. There was something very different about the space, the way it held her imagining. Against this deeper silence even her breath sounded different, muted. If she were here alone she’d panic but knowing her father was ahead somewhere allowed her to keep it together. She crossed the chamber and saw the passageway to her left. Up ahead, through another narrow space, she saw the moving beam.
As he must have seen hers. She could have wept with relief but instead felt a wave of unsteadiness, an inability to speak. She came forward. The opening to the next chamber was narrow but vertical. She crouched and stepped through.
But he hadn’t seen her light. Only now did he notice the concentration spot next to his own on the omphalos of rock that hung from the ceiling, huge, rose-colored. The rock was conical, rounded at the bottom, as if shaped by intention, and she saw, felt, immediately why he hadn’t been able to leave it. At some point—time was hard to reckon now—he registered the second beam and turned quickly and they trained their lights on each other. His face looked strange, as if she’d woken him from a sleepwalk.
“You didn’t come back,” she said. She dropped her light to his chest. He did the same. He said nothing. “Are you all right?”
He turned his light back on the hanging rock. It was smooth, vegetable, sparkling. She came forward and stood with him. He walked her around the perimeter. The rock seemed suspended, floating three or four feet from the floor. She felt something larger than fear, though it had the same intensity. It was awe, strickenness, a shiver of beholding, as on first seeing a vast canyon, maybe, or walking into a great cathedral. But here the measurelessness was directly before them, with dimensions perceived all at once. The rock’s hovering shape and coloring were hard to account for, but more so its proportions in relation to the rest of the chamber. It hung exactly midspace and though its curving surface was uneven, from anywhere on the cave floor, itself irregular, it seemed to face her.
She stopped walking. He continued. She shone her light up to the dome, then down, and clipped her eyes to him as he was about to round out of sight.
She came to him, held him at the elbow, shone the light on the back of his head. His hair was matted in blood that had run behind his left ear and down his neck, under his shirt collar.
“I don’t know. I got dizzy. Bumped my head when I fell. It’s all part of it.”
“Part of what? You fell?”
A short laugh escaped him. He held his hand up to ask her patience as he reached into his pocket and produced a packet of matches. He struck one. It flared and went out immediately. He did it again, there and gone.
“There’s not enough oxygen,” he said. “This is how they died.”
He turned the light into the recesses. He led her forward. At their feet she saw where he’d chipped away at the sediment. There were bones in the floor. Femur staves. Calcified splinters and broken osseous plates. Beyond, ribs breached the surface.
“Human,” he said. “Or protohuma—” He didn’t quite finish the word or she didn’t hear him.
She took him by the arm and drew him away and as they passed by the hanging rock he turned and shone his light and looked at it a last time. She watched him, gauged his movements, as they stooped into the next chamber and crossed it. He was lurching, unsteady. Should she go first or second? She couldn’t reason it through. She was breathing fast. If he went first and passed out she’d be unable to move him. She had him sit near the narrow opening. She looped the rope around his chest, under his arms, and he followed her hands vaguely with his eyes, as if drunk.
“You come in right after me,” she said. “Keep your head close to my feet.”
She rounded her shoulders and started in on her back, headfirst, with the rope running along her right side so she could tug it as a signal, if nothing else. As she’d feared, the inclined grade was harder to move along in the confined space. She used the heels of her hands and feet to get what traction she could. When her palm touched a smoothness she thought of water, rushing water, filling the passage. He followed well enough but midway he stopped and she said, “Keep coming” and her voice died inches from her face. She tugged the rope and he started again. It seemed to be taking longer than it should have, and then was certainly taking too long, and the despair was in realizing that somehow she’d taken them into the wrong opening. But no, the rope had run to this one, so on she went, her hands bleeding now, her knees banged up, and then the blackness stood higher and she knew they’d made it.
At the mouth of the first entrance they stood in pain, crouched over, breathing hard, and now she was weeping for the air, at the daylight visible above. He went first, climbing and pulling on the rope as she boosted him. Then he reached down and helped her up. They walked out of the cave and stood looking at La Vallée du Terrieu, miles of green and sunlight.
She examined his scalp, the short, deep gash, still bleeding. With a paring knife they’d used at lunch she cut away the sleeve of his shirt and wrapped it tightly around his head, under his jaw.
“Can’t open my mouth,” he tried to say.
“Perfect, then. Let’s go.”
They crossed the crevice and left the ladder and walked down, saying nothing.
The part she would never tell anyone, not even herself, she decided, was that the place they’d been didn’t exist, not in the way the rest of the world did. Or it existed in space but not time. You could see time from the entrance but the place inside the mountain was outside of time, as if it had absorbed tens of thousands of years of human wonderment and held it, imprisoned it, and to enter the chamber was to enter the imaginings of the dead. It was a trap they’d escaped that others had not, lured by promise, filled with disorienting visions, then weakening, suffocating. The self-deceiving mind could so easily imagine a design there to hold them. You couldn’t see the rock’s symmetry and color and not imagine it as the shaping of an engineer, a force, a god with aspirants among humans. Some inherited groove in the brain caused people to believe that all order is intended, that balanced wholes can’t form by chance and natural circumstance. They can’t see that none of the received names, the names cursed or called out in worship, could really attach to an ordering force. Over time, she would likely come to think of the cave visit as a misadventure, a lucky escape that had sparked thoughts of a Maker, thoughts she was already putting in their place. Yet on some future nights to come—how did she already know this?—the sparks would reappear.
And then, a last idea, one she couldn’t suppress. It was that she was still inside the cave. She had fallen out of time, even as she descended through the woods as present in the world as she always had been. In thought, memory, body, she was nearly exactly herself. The feeling began to fade, to seem fanciful, at lower altitude, as her blood became better oxygenated, but she understood that it would never entirely leave her. It was somehow familiar, the idea that she was two places at once, or one place in two overlapping times. She must have read it in a junk novel, seen it in movies, things that everyone consumed without really remembering and that she found it harder and harder even to pretend to believe.
She’d been trotting and was too far ahead now. She stopped and looked back, waiting for him to appear through the trees.
Michael Helm is the author of