McFail's Cave, 3

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

We crawled up the final tube, and in what seemed like no time daylight was filtering down on us. The light was strangely dim, and I wondered if this was the effect of being in the underworld, if the underworld’s secret was that you could go into it but never really come out again, if even the heroes who had supposedly gone through it and returned were in fact able to come back only as shades. Then I hoisted myself through the open grate and stood up and saw that it was evening. We’d gone into the cave before noon, and I couldn’t believe that we’d explored for more than an hour or two, but in fact eight hours must have passed. We stood in the forest, listening to the evening birds, smelling the pines. All of us seemed to have been struck dumb by the experience of going underground, or maybe by the experience of coming back up. What had happened? The whole trip seemed like a dream; in a few hours or days, I thought, I would hardly remember that I had been in the cave at all. The pink light was fading to blue. Don was scraping mud from his boots. Jason was stretching his quads. Beth and Ed weren’t anywhere I could see. Jen was perched in the door of Ed’s minivan, her face tight with the strain of her own re-entry into the surface world. Had we really held hands? Had she told me about her son? I felt dizzy: that might have been the aftereffect of hitting my head on the rock. Then Jen saw me staring at her and blushed. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears. Her shame, and my shame at seeing her shame, were real. Later, I would understand that this painful moment proved everything that happened underground had been real, and that our thoughts, too, were real, and that they were still within us, buried, maybe, but there, just as McFail’s Cave lies beneath a wooded slab of upstate New York. This would turn out to be an enormous and important truth. Not only do I contain these odd breathy depths, but I can reach them; tunnels lead from the darkness of my thought to the surface world where I am still working at Infinite Copy and nothing has changed. I am, I discovered, or decided, a proper subject for spelunking. All of that came later. At the time, all I thought was, I have to do something. But I didn’t know what to do, and I was trying to think of what I could tell Jen to relieve us of our mutual embarrassment, to ease her pain and sorrow, and my pain and sorrow too, when Lucas came up and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

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