Finalist: Terrain.org 9th Annual Contest in Fiction
It was Kathleen’s idea to come to the caverns. She’d heard about them on a news segment for family friendly weekend activities. When she told Paula about them on the phone that morning, she pronounced the name slowly: “Tuck-uh-lee-chee.” Paula’s daughter, Megan, who’d once formed a team of neighborhood children with the aim of digging to the other side of the world, was enthralled by the idea of being taken underground.
The ladder into the Tuckaleechee Caverns is short and unintimidating, but still Kathleen steps carefully. She is unused to stepping blindly downward. Below her on the ladder is Megan, and below Megan is Paula, standing on the ground with her hands held out like a gymnastics spotter. When the entire group is in the cold of the caverns, the tour guide gives them a moment to adjust—to the temperature, to the humidity, to being underground.
The guide explains that the Native Americans were the first people to use these caverns, as a place to hide from man or nature. When the white men discovered the caverns, took them for their own, their white wives used the damp, cool limestone as a place to do their sewing, a place their children could nap away from the heat. As the caverns are in a constant state of erosion, there is nothing left that any of the original occupants have touched.
Kathleen worries about this every day. Not the Native Americans and their colonizers, though her activist mother often reminds her that she should. No, what Kathleen worries about is the idea that every mark she ever makes on this Earth can be washed away.
“Isn’t that depressing?” Kathleen says to her sister.
Paula holds tightly to her six-year-old daughter, Megan, and doesn’t look at Kathleen when she replies, “What’s depressing?”
“That other people used this space before it became our day trip, and there’s no sign that they were even here.” Kathleen looks around for a thin footprint in the limestone, a stray thread among the rocks. “We don’t even know who they are.”
“Were.” Paula tugs the sleeves of her sweater over her wrists. “I think it’s cleansing. Like getting a new skin.” Paula read somewhere that the body produces completely new skin every two to four weeks. Having found emails from another woman on her husband’s computer, she wonders if the body’s natural shedding will be the thing that saves her marriage. In two to four weeks, it will be like the woman from the emails never touched him. Paula won’t have to touch the skin the woman touched, won’t have to be touched by it. Paula also wonders how long it’s been since she and her husband have touched. Does the skin she currently has even know the weight of him?
Kathleen hates the idea of rejuvenation, of losing the history attached to what was. At work, she looks at old pictures of decayed buildings in their prime and creates a course of action for restoration. She allows the workmen to replace rusted nails and stripped screws, but she calls in a specialist to fix antique door knobs and broken window panes—refuses to let die the hands that opened these things before her.
“Only you would romanticize molting,” she says to her sister.
The tour guide stops them in the middle of the path and points at a cluster of spikes growing from both the floor and ceiling of the limestone caverns. They reach toward each other like hands with desperate anticipation.
“Now, remember, stalagmites grow tall and mighty,” the guide points to the ground then to the ceiling, “while stalactites hang on tightly.”
Megan repeats his words back to him. She will whisper these words to herself on the car ride home. She will tell her friends at school on Monday. For now, though, she leans against the railing and reaches her too-short arm toward the spikes, stretching her index finger as far as it will go. Before descending into the caverns, the guide warned the group to resist the temptation to touch the formations. The acidity of skin would permanently tarnish their natural gloss. Paula feels the tug on her hand and pulls Megan away from the bannister. She crouches to her height, scolding her privately, in her ear, the way parents do in public spaces.
Kathleen tucks her own hands into her pockets and ignores both her sister and the guide. She remembers the difference between stalagmites and stalactites. Remembers how they form from water reacting with carbon dioxide, remembers how they start as a drip and reach substantial size only over hundreds of years. Remembers that they are brittle. Kathleen is aware of the fragility of things. She sees buildings get torn down, sees books fall out of circulation, sees plaques on statues and signs and benches wear away until the metal-punched letters are unreadable. She sees all this and worries that she will leave the Earth and there will be no sign of her existence. When she thinks about this for too long, she breathes heavily and has to sit down. Her therapist told her to find something to ground herself with when she’s having a panic attack, so, at 22, Kathleen purchased a cemetery plot. She carries a map of the cemetery grounds in her wallet, and, on bad days, when she can’t stop worrying, can’t stop thinking about disappearing from this planet, she pulls out the map and finds the rectangle the saleswoman circled for her. This will be her headstone, she thinks to herself, her slightly raised mound of earth, her actual, physical, permanent space. Then she can breathe.
Paula stands from scolding and re-tucks the back of her shirt. The group moves along the path toward an area with moving water. Barely audible over the roar, Paula says, “I don’t even know what to say to him.”
“To whom?” Kathleen reaches up to smooth the frizz of her damp hair. “To Mark?”
“You tell him to pack his things. You tell him you’ll see him in court. You tell him,” Kathleen pulls Paula’s sleeve to bring her closer, “you tell him exactly where he can shove his pre-nup.”
Paula smiles weakly and smacks Kathleen on the arm.
“Seriously,” Kathleen persists, “adultery renders it null and void.”
Paula fiddles with the collar of her shirt, buttoning and unbuttoning the top button, as they move along the tour’s path. The slippery but solid limestone of the caverns makes her nervous. As worried mothers do, Paula sees her daughter with a cracked chin or skull, a limb bent in an unnatural direction, sees her husband holding hands with the other woman, sees the rotating lights of an ambulance. Since Paula found the emails, visions of her husband and the woman, fingers interlocked, pop between her thoughts like the burnt bits in every box of cereal. The ones that don’t float in the milk, that make it onto your spoon when you scrape the bottom and surprise you with their solidity. This morning, when she was reading a magazine with her coffee, she found herself stuck on a nail polish advertisement. The perfectly manicured hand reached out across the glossy page. Paula pulled at the corner of the page until it ripped from the binding, pulled until the advertisement ripped along the model’s appendages, leaving the fingertips detached and floating in the magazine. She crumpled the loose page and tossed it. The family cat caught the page in the air and chased it out of the room. Later, when Paula went to scoop the litter before leaving, she found the page in the cat’s water bowl, wilted.
Below and to the right of the concrete pathway, a torrent of water rushes through the cavern. The roar is loud, and the tour guide has to speak up. He tells them that when it rains, the water rises, sometimes harmlessly, sometimes filling the entire cavern.
“Water is what erodes the caverns,” he explains. “It makes them bigger and deeper.”
Megan asks if the erosion will ever reach the center of the Earth.
Paula wonders if her daughter will ever ask her about infidelity. When she’s older, when she has a boyfriend, when he cheats on her or thinks about cheating on her or she thinks about cheating on him. Will the young girl come to her and ask what she thinks? Will she tell the young girl that cheating is complicated and sometimes the symptom of a bigger sick? Or will she tell her that anyone who cheats on her isn’t worth her time? That cheating on someone is like finding something preserved in ice. In thawing it out, you get to see what it is, but you also expose it to the very elements that will put its decay in motion.
Kathleen wonders if she’ll ever do something that’s permanent enough. Lately, she’s been thinking about decomposition. Even with her cemetery plot, she worries about how quickly the earth will break her down. Research has assured her that a solid oak casket slows the process by decades. But Kathleen has yet to find a straight answer regarding the lasting properties of treated wood.
To answer Megan’s question, the tour guide says that erosion happens very slowly, that it would take millions of years for the caverns to go deep enough to reach the Earth’s molten core, which Megan takes as a yes.
The group leaves the rushing water behind them and comes into a space shaped like a roundabout with a cutout in the limestone of one wall that reveals another, larger cavern beyond where they’re allowed to be.
“This is the Rainbow Room,” the tour guide points to the opening in the rock. A northern lights strip of color ripples the back wall of the inaccessible part of the cavern. The group circles the raised center of the room, taking turns planting their feet firmly in front of the opening before leaning forward and through. They hold out cell phones and digital cameras. Their pictures won’t show the colors the same way their eyes see them, even if they up the brightness and the contrast, or use a filter. “There’s an opening in the cavern ceiling that lets the light in,” explains the tour guide. “You chose a good day to come. This only happens when it’s sunny.”
Paula holds Megan around the waist so they can see the rainbow. Megan leans as far forward as her mother’s grip will allow, and Paula rests her head on her daughter’s back. Kathleen leans next to them, one hand on Paula’s arm, ready to catch herself even before she falls. Before buying the cemetery plot, Kathleen had thought about having a child. She knew, as a mother, she’d leave a significant mark on any child she raised; they, in turn, could leave a mark on their children or the world. But seeing Paula raise Megan, seeing how unencumbered by the weight of life Megan is, Kathleen decided being her mark on this world would be too much burden for any one person to bear. After a few months of contemplation, she’d recycled the brochures for the sperm bank and stopped tracking her cycle, emptied the baby monitors and car seat from her Amazon cart.
Finished viewing the Rainbow Room, the tour group lines up near the guide, ready to be led. Here, the path is uphill and steep enough that it becomes concrete stairs, poured and formed over the limestone. Splattered on the ledges beyond this section, the guide points out, is bat poop.
“When they find a spot they like,” he shrugs, “they keep coming back.”
Megan looks over the railing to get a better look at the guano, but Kathleen looks ups. There are no bats above them. She imagines that, during the day, they find a deeper corner away from the voices and lights to tulip into their wings and rest. Megan, having already been scolded, knows better than to reach past the railing, but Paula sees her tiny fingers twitch with the desire to touch. Paula wonders if her husband’s hand twitched like this around her, or around the other woman. From what she can remember, his hands have always just taken hold.
The stairs open out onto a ledge that drops off sharply on the right into a deeper section of the cavern. The guide stands near the edge and directs the group to gather in front of him and face toward him. The bowl of cavern beneath the ledge is filled with rocks and stalagmites. Their shadows make it difficult to see the entirety of the space.
“This room,” the guide begins, “the Big Room, was only discovered 60 years ago. Looking at the space right now, I’m sure you’re thinking it’s impressive but doesn’t seem that,” he pauses, “big.” He walks over to a breaker panel on the right wall and takes hold of a switch. “In reality, this room alone could hold an entire football field.” The guide flicks a switch and washes the room with light. Suddenly, the back wall seems farther away, the stalagmites taller and more imposing. The group moves forward, closer to the edge, and peers into the room that defies their perception. The guide says the room’s dimensions—400 feet by 300 feet by 150 feet—but, without an object of comparison, the Big Room doesn’t look as big as it actually is. The 24-foot stalagmites seem no bigger than the rest of the stalagmites in the cavern. Down in the bowl, they don’t tower, they’re just there.
Paula holds the back of Megan’s jacket. Megan does not struggle to get closer, she’s too in awe. Last summer, she hit a growth spurt, shooting up three inches over her classmates’ heads. At this moment, she is the tallest she’s ever been, but also the smallest she’ll ever feel.
“Nothing,” Megan says, “is as big as this.”
Neither Kathleen nor Paula laugh. They only repeat her words back in agreement.
“Nothing,” they say, “nothing is as big.”
Paula and Kathleen move with Megan closer to the edge, off to the side, out of frame of any tourist’s shot. Megan stares out into the cavern. She connects her fingers to her thumb to form a circle and puts her hands up to her eyes like flesh-toned binoculars, as though this will help her mind perceive the enormity of the space. Suddenly, before anyone can stop her, she puts her hands down, leans her head back, and spits with as much force as she can out into the cavern. Paula is immediately crouched, scolding at a louder volume for the audience of on-lookers wondering whose child is a barbarian. Paula is in Megan’s face, asking her why she did that, why she thought that was a good idea, but Megan is staring past her. She watches her spit as the glob arches into the air and splatters dark and wet on a rock not far from the ledge. She is disappointed her spit didn’t go further, but grateful for some frame of reference as to this place’s size.
Seeing this, Kathleen is overcome suddenly with the urge to throw a rock. She sympathizes with the unnerving feeling of knowing something is bigger than you but wanting to know exactly how much bigger. She remembers how brittle the stalagmites are. The limestone would crack and crumble if hit with anything larger than a pebble. Kathleen tucks her hands into her pockets and grips the fabric to keep herself from tossing a rock just to see how far it would go, to see how far back into the vastness she could reach, to see how many formations she could fracture along the way.
“Kathleen,” Paula calls her from the top of the stairs. The rest of the group has moved on from the incident and is returning down the same path they came in on. In order to get to the waterfall on the end of the cavern, the group has to pass through what they’ve already seen. They descend past the guano, the rainbow, and the stalagmites and stalactites clustered like reeds in a pond. Kathleen slows down until she’s fallen behind Paula and Megan. The group rounds the bend, out of sight, and does not seem to see her linger near the railing. While she can still hear footsteps, Kathleen steps onto the middle rung of the railing. She grabs hold of the top rung with one hand to secure herself, then leans forward like Megan, her index finger and arm stretched as far as they could go. When Kathleen’s finger makes contact with a stalagmite, she holds her hand still, not pressing, just touching, and counts to ten. Her finger is wet when she pulls away, and the stalagmite looks the same, but, in time, its gloss and color will dim. The formation will grow differently, the surface tension of the chemical reaction broken. Suddenly, Kathleen realizes what she’s done, realizes that, in leaving her mark, she’s ruined something. Kathleen tucks her cold damp finger into her hand and her hand into her pocket. Later, when she is at home, Kathleen will pull the cemetery map from her wallet and leave it on her desk. She will lay in bed and think of all the things her hands have touched in this world, wonder how she touched them, wonder if they’re different now, if they’re better or worse.
When Paula and Megan come around the bend looking for Kathleen, Megan is focused behind them, listening for the echoes of their tour group. She is so anxious about missing what the guide is saying that she does not see her aunt retract an outstretched arm, does not see Kathleen step off the railing. But Paula does see. Paula sees and is struck by the carelessness with which her sister can touch what she isn’t supposed to. As Kathleen walks toward them, head down, not seeing that she’s been seen, Paula thinks about what it must be like to touch what you want to touch, to do what you feel you need to do, to spit into a cavern just to see how big it is and how small you are.
When Kathleen reaches them, she startles, says, “I didn’t know you guys were behind me.”
“We got worried.”
“I just wanted to look at something.”
Paula wants to say something, wants to ask Kathleen what it’s like to have reached out and changed something, but instead she asks, “Well, are you ready?”
Kathleen nods, and they hurry back around the bend.
Past the ladder that brought them into the cave is a long, low-ceilinged stretch. The walls are farther apart here, and the path slopes off into still water, like a shoreline made of solid rock. As the room narrows, the three hear the rush of moving water again and find a basin being filled by the liquid falling from the cavern’s ceiling. Gathered around the basin, the rest of the tour group listens to the guide tell them what they’re looking at.
“Silver Falls is two-tiered and 200-feet in total.” the guide shouts over the water. “We can only see the bottom half here, but, if you lean in, you can see the upper half up top.” Just standing in front of the waterfall, a fine mist reaches the group and coats their clothes in a dewy layer. The tourists take pictures from afar. Some hold brochures and jackets over their heads to try to protect themselves from the water when they lean in. With Paula’s arm wrapped around her chest, Megan sticks her head directly into the spray and looks up.
When she brings her head forward, her hair is damp and limp. She blinks.
“What did you see?” Kathleen asks.
Paula peels away the strands of hair that have stuck to Megan’s face.
Megan says, “Everything.”
When Paula gets home, she will have to carry Megan, limp with sleep, into the house. She will notice how Megan’s feet dangle, hit against her thighs lower than they used to. While Paula tucks her daughter in, Mark will stand in the doorway and listen to Paula talk about the caverns. Her face will turn red as she admits that she was both embarrassed and proud that their daughter was less concerned with having done something wrong and more concerned with how far into the 400-foot cavern she could spit. Through his laughter, Mark will promise to talk to Megan about the inappropriateness of spitting. When Paula brushes past him to leave the room, she will touch his arm and say thank you.
Kara Delemeester is a former high school teacher and current second-year MFA candidate at University of Central Florida. Though she sometimes visits caverns in Tennessee, she is a Florida native who spends most of her time writing above ground.
Header photo courtesy Shutterstock.com. Photo of Kara Delemeester by Ciera Horton McElroy.