McFail's Cave, 2

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

To go forward we had to wade deep into the pool and edge our way along a tunnel that was submerged nearly to the ceiling. We held our spare flashlights above our ears to keep them dry and tilted our heads back to breathe. The water was icy, maybe forty or fifty degrees. After a few seconds my bones hurt, then I began to go numb from the feet inward. By the time the passage rose out of the sump (actually only a partial sump, as Lucas would explain to me later), my chest was aching. I thought I could feel my heart slowing down to match the pop, pop of the water. Then we were in a big high cave, its mottled ceiling maybe thirty feet overhead.

I arranged to walk at the back of the group, next to Jen. When my teeth finally stopped chattering, I asked, “How did you and Don get involved with the grotto?”

“Ed is Don’s dentist. Don was having a root canal, and Ed brought up the grotto, and we just thought, why not? It sounded like an adventure.”

“I see.”

But I didn’t see, not yet. We continued down the broad passage, and suddenly Jen said, “We used to have a son.”

“Oh,” I said.

“He died when he was nine. He had Menkes disease, which means, his body couldn’t metabolize copper. It’s a treatable disease, but usually by the time you know what it is, it’s too late to treat.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“Do you believe in reincarnation?”


“I’ve been going to see a healer in Mystic. He says, Travis, that’s my son, was reincarnated in a higher form sixty days after his death. He says everyone is reincarnated thousands of times before we attain perfection.”

“Maybe so.” I wanted to tell Jen that remembering past lives was, like believing in ghosts, a natural reaction to bereavement, but she hadn’t done anything to deserve my cynicism.

“I wonder if I knew you in a past life,” said Jen. “I’ve been exploring my past lives.”

“That’s interesting.”

“So far they’re all crappy. I was, like, ten servant girls.”

“Better luck next time,” I said.

Jen laughed. “Don thinks it’s bullshit. But what does he know? Mortgages. Did you know that the word mortgage comes from the French word for death? It’s true. I read it in a book. A mortgage is, like, the wages of death, or something.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Don thinks I’m making it up. He doesn’t read books, except that one about baseball. Moneyball. The only book I’ve seen him read in fifteen years. He has no soul.”

“Doesn’t everyone have a soul?”

“My healer doesn’t think so. He says, the population of the world is growing, and there aren’t enough human souls to go around, so some people get the souls of, like, plants. That’s Don. He was probably a turnip in a past life. God, what did we do?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, to deserve being us?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you do?” Jen asked. “For a living, I mean.”

“I work in a copy shop.” The writing was going so badly, I didn’t think I could even mention it.

“Oh. I thought you looked like a professor or something.”


Jen gripped my upper arm, holding me back. “I want to have sex with a professor,” she said. “I want to make love to someone who knows something.”

I didn’t know what to say. In my experience, professors weren’t the best people to turn to if you wanted someone who knew something. “What about Lucas?” I said, finally.

“Lucas!” Jen laughed: a high sharp sound that echoed off the walls of the tunnel. The other members of the grotto, who had got far ahead of us, turned back to look. “I want someone young and hot,” Jen said. “A hot twenty-year-old. God, what am I saying? Just ignore me, ignore me.”

“It’s OK,” I said lamely.

The passage narrowed so that we could no longer walk side by side. I fell in behind Jen, and when the passage broadened again I didn’t pick up our conversation, and Jen didn’t seem to want to continue it either. In silence, as we splashed along, always downhill, the stream sometimes puddling at our feet and sometimes tugging at our knees, I thought about what Jen had told me, and what had happened by the pool. Had Travis’s death unleashed some weird sexual energy in her? Was what happened even sexual, for her? I had the strange feeling that I had been Travis, that she had been reaching out to her dead son in the dark. I felt cold. Maybe, I thought, in the cave we were allowed to experience our need not only for the living but also for the dead. Mythology was full of examples of people who had gone into the underworld to satisfy a carnal desire: there was no reason to think that Persephone’s marriage to Hades was unconsummated, or that Orpheus didn’t fantasize about fucking Eurydice as he led her out of Hell.

We went on for a long time—I don’t know how long. When I became aware of my surroundings again, the group had stopped. Ahead of us, the tunnel narrowed and the ceiling dipped so that the stream filled it completely. I asked if we had come to the fabled sump in the Northeast Passage, and Jason shook his head unhappily. Don and Ed and Lucas were standing by a horizontal fissure just above the level of the stream, which looked barely wide enough to admit a grown man’s leg.

“It’s going to sump,” said Lucas.

“I don’t think so,” said Don. “I remember it being pretty elevated.”

“The water’s too high,” Lucas said.

“It can’t hurt to try. It’s just a couple hundred feet.”

“OK,” Ed said. “We’ll go a little ways in.”

Jason was already wriggling into the crack when Ed explained to the rest of us what we had to do. “Work with your elbows and knees,” he said. “Try to keep your hands relaxed so they don’t cramp.”

“Are you going to be OK?” Lucas asked me.

I nodded, but I wasn’t at all confident that I would be OK.

“Go ahead,” he said, “I’ll follow you.”

I would have been happier going last, but I did as I was told, and stuck my head, then my trunk, into the crack. At first it seemed impossible that I would even fit, but I struggled forward, my hands gripping the stone desperately, as though I were clinging to the side of a cliff. If Lucas hadn’t been behind me I would surely have backed out, but as it was, the fear that Lucas would catch up to me, that I would not only be trapped between two layers of rock but also pressed up against another person was so awful that I kept moving. The passage wasn’t as high and dry as Don had said; a sheen of cold water coated the rock and it soaked into my pants and sleeves. Soon I was shivering again. My clenched arms ached; I tried not to bang my head against the rock when my neck spasmed. I thought bitterly that Don and Jen had found a way to rejoin their lost son: what we were doing was like being buried. I thought of Celeste, whose body would never be found. I thought of how lucky it was to be buried somewhere, to have a place of your own after you died, and I wondered what percentage of the world’s population enjoyed that kind of luck. Had private graves always been the norm or was the democratization of the private grave a facet of bourgeois life, like private beds? Did private graves precede private beds, were burial customs a predictor of domestic habits, did death instruct life? I tried to keep myself from screaming. When Celeste died I’d felt like I was falling into the suddenly hollow earth, and I felt like I was falling now, even though I had never been more immobile, more immobilized, in my life. I was in the hollow earth; this was the world within the world. I thought about the trip Marie and I had taken to Paris after Celeste died, and how, moved by a morbid impulse, we’d gone on a tour of the catacombs, and seen the old quarries heaped with bones, and the sign, THIS IS THE EMPIRE OF THE DEAD. I thought of all the people I knew who had died, and I thought of my own death, and how, when history and desire were done with me, all that would remain of the life which seemed to me, even in that moment, to have no borders, no boundaries, all that remained of the life through which I was trudging as if through an endless desert, would be some hard bones stuck in the dark. I had thought a lot about ghosts, I had read about ghosts and even written a few things about ghosts by that point, but there, wedged in a crack in the rock under a flat slab of northern New York State, the impossibility of ghosts impressed itself on me with the force of total truth. Nothing came after death, there was no survival, no reincarnation, never mind what Jen’s healer down in Mystic said, what was a healer doing in Mystic anyway, it was too fitting, like a bad joke, anyway, there was no soul to migrate into another body after death. Life was as physical as geology.

I was on the brink of losing it, banging my head against the rock, beating my hands, begging to be let out of the flat crack into which I should never have crawled, but even as panic spiraled out of my stomach and sang in the back of my ears, I remembered what Lucas had said about the water that flowed through the cave, the water dissolving the rock, and I thought about how, when you looked at it over a long enough period of time, it wasn’t just the water that was fluid, the rock was fluid also, it was constantly retreating from the water, constantly dissolving into the water and collapsing and reforming itself underground. And it occurred to me that everything is like that, nothing is solid, not the rock on which everything rests and not anything else, everything is fluid, everything is in motion, nothing holds its shape for long, least of all human beings, which are infinitely more destructible than water. This admittedly banal thought, that the human form is impermanent, joined itself to an awareness of the impermanence of every form, and no longer seemed as tragic or awful as it had just a moment before. Instead of humans vanishing from a fixed world it seemed to me that we were just one current in a confused flux, just one rhythm among many rhythms, some slower than us, some faster, all alternating between beat and silence. I was not trapped. Everything was flowing past me, everything was rushing away from me, even the stone protrusions I clutched in my death grip were rushing away, and if I was holding on so tightly, it was because I was trying, not to restrain my panic at being stuck in the narrow passage, but to keep everything just the way it was. I relaxed my fingers. For a moment nothing happened at all, except the imperceptible decay of our bodies and the even less perceptible dissolution of the rock. Then someone in front of me said, “Back up! Back up!”

I had gone barely six feet into the crack; soon I was back in the stream-filled passage, and the others, first Jen, then Ed, then Don, then Jason, were with me.

“Fuck me,” Don said, “it sumps.”

“The water table’s too high,” Lucas said. “I tried to warn you.”

“But it’s midsummer,” said Jason.

“Probably it rained,” said Ed.

“Thank god,” said Jen. “I thought I was going to die in there.”

We would not push the Northeast Passage—we wouldn’t even get to it. With sighs of disappointment and relief we retraced our steps upstream toward the pool. I wasn’t sorry to turn back, but I would have kept going too; at that point no decision could have troubled me. Just as Socrates imagined climbing a philosophical ladder to the stars, from the love of one boy to the love of all boys, from all boys to the beautiful, from the beautiful to the good, so, I felt, I had climbed down to the last rung of the ladder of insight, and found a place of complete equanimity. There was no such thing as being stuck; what I had imagined as being stuck was merely a pose, like pretending to sit in a chair when no chair existed. There was no such thing as failure, either. All my worries were illusion. As we climbed the long broad passage, I felt myself coming close to enlightenment, or rather endarkenment, and if only I could have had no further insights in McFail’s Cave, I would be a happier and more serene person now, and you would not be reading this. But in fact my mind kept racing forward, and as I slithered like a hatched turtle up the clay bank of the pool, it occurred to me that insight has no end, that you can keep on thinking of things indefinitely, and, therefore, that no insight is deeper or more true than any other insight, the journey of insight isn’t one that takes you to some kind of ultimate destination, it just goes on and on, like a subway line with no end, like a string of repeating decimals, and maybe that’s the difference between enlightenment and endarkenment, when you’re enlightened you stop thinking, but in the darkness you can’t help yourself, you just go on and on and on…

My mind was racing toward new revelations—time is fiction; space is radial, like a wheel—but I didn’t trust it any more. The truths it came up with were just ideas, and it occurred to me that the one real truth is that the mind is capable of stimulating itself endlessly, and that the feeling of having an insight is just a way for the mind to dress up this continual solitary activity, to make us feel like something is happening, like we’re getting in touch with reality, when in fact all we’re doing is flickering alone in the caves of our skulls. But at this point we came back to the Duck-Under, and I walked full-speed into the wall and cracked my head. I was wearing a helmet, but even so, I saw stars.

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