I blinked in the darkness, lying on my back, unsure of what had happened. My body ached, and my head felt foggy as I tried to get back up onto my feet and gather my thoughts. What was I doing? I had been searching for our dog Ein, who’d run away through the back door that Mitch left open after dragging out the Christmas tree. (Weeks after Dad and I would have normally done it). I touched the back of my head as I stood up, feeling something warm and sticky with my fingertips. I had walked towards the cave because Ein used to go this way when he ran off. I’d tried to cross the wooden grate that covered the dry well. And of course the wood gave out, and I fell in. Stupid. That wood had neither been weatherized nor replaced for at least six years. In the darkness, I slapped the slick earthy wall; its sound echoed through the cavern ahead of me. For a moment, I thought I heard something rustling, as if I had awakened some creature from a deep slumber. I patted the ground to see if the rope that I used to leave down here as a child was tucked behind a rock or lying out in the open. No luck. Just splintered pieces of wood with rusted nails. Probably reeled the rope aboveground when Mom and I, with our best try, gated the top. Though obviously we—I—did not do a good job.
I could always use the tunnel. It was narrow but large enough to crawl though, a perfect escape route from the well bottom. Although I guessed its original purpose was to strike a new source of ground water after the well dried out, not to serve as an alternative exit for a kid playing games underground. (Whoever had dug it must have felt an evolution of emotion from disappoint to despair when he or she discovered a gaping cave at the end of the passage and not another source of vital water). But that would have been a long time ago, well before I was born and well before Mom and Dad bought this plot of land. Back then, it was just a hole in the ground.
But to me it was another world. I spent a lot of my time here as a kid. Trapped in an isolated part of the country with the nearest people living miles away, the acres of woods and this cave were my stomping grounds. But crawling through now was an unexpected burden as I had to cram my body into the stooping channel. My shoulders squeezed against the wall and my head knocked against the ceiling as dirt stuck to the blood of my wound and scratched my eyes.
“You don’t fit like you used to,” said the boy named bat from the darkness ahead.
“No, you are right,” I said. “I don’t fit like I used to.”
“Because you haven’t been here for a long time,” said the boy named bat, his voice still sounding eleven years old, as if, here in the cavernous darkness, no time had passed.
“Because I haven’t been here a long time,” I repeated.
“Why are you here now?” asked the boy named bat. Something rustled in the distance near the cave entrance, a flapping or a scratching.
“Mitch left the door open. Ein ran away.”
“Mitch,” said the boy named bat, dropping the question mark, or perhaps losing it in the dark.
“Step-dad,” repeated the boy named bat, tasting the words and spitting them out again as the darkness swallowed them.
The passage seemed to narrow even more, forcing me to drop into an army crawl. (I don’t know how Dad managed to crawl through here time after time to rescue Ein. He didn’t even want a dog.)
“Is Ein here?”
“Yes,” said the boy named bat. “Ein likes it here, like you like it here.”
“Because you found the body here.”
“Because I found the body here,” I repeated.
“That’s why you boarded the entrance.”
“That’s why I boarded the entrance.”
Feeling the musty air pinch my lungs, weighing my body down, I couldn’t imagine what it must have felt like to be encased in the earth alone; sinking into the darkness of the earth, slipping away into the void. A dry emptiness that withers and wastes away. Like searching for water and finding only another pit of silent darkness.
“So why are you here now?”
“Because I won’t be here soon,” I said.
“Because you are going off to college,” replied the boy named bat.
“Because I am going off to college,” I said.
“And you need something to remain at home.”
I’m not sure why this thought entered my mind, but as I squeezed myself through the tunnel I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for mothers, particularly my mother, as they endured the birthing process. (My mother liked to remind me that I was the reason she missed her weekly nail appointment for the first time.) What would it be like this time? When her, my, half, step, whatever you called it, would be born? Would it be painful? Would it be easier? Would she miss another nail appointment? Would they remember to lock the doors when they left so Ein wouldn’t run away? Would anyone even care?
“So why are you here now?”
“Because I needed to think.”
“To think,” repeated the boy named bat.
“You used to think a lot down here,” said the boy named bat. “It’s a good place, like a batcave.”
“I wanted to be like Batman.”
“Because he was an orphan,” said the boy named bat.
“Because he was an orphan,” I repeated, feeling the words slip out of my mouth, wishing I could suck them back in.
But I couldn’t think here as clearly as I used to. My thoughts seemed to come and go, never sticking or impregnating, but flowing gently in a stream that carried them off into the abyss. (Maybe that’s because my head still felt cloudy and sticky from the wound.) I felt more and more restricted as I clawed the walls and ground, removing clumps of dirt, shedding its lining. Feeling something wet on my hands and fearing I had opened the blood flow of another wound, I held them up to my face. But it wasn’t blood. It was water. I clawed at the dirt again, feeling the moist layer beneath. There must have been a vein not too far below. (What would the person who dug this channel feel now, if they had only known that their efforts were just a few inches from success?) I closed my eyes. All I would have to do was scoop out a little more earth, a couple feet, maybe even inches, and the water would come gushing out, carrying me through the channel, spilling me out into the cave. And as the cave filled up, I could just float there until it went still, lying in its nurturing embrace for as long as I wanted, maybe even forever.
“But you cannot survive down here,” said the boy named bat in his eleven-year-old’s voice.
“I cannot survive down here,” I repeated.
Something welled up inside of me, and after a moment it felt as if the boy named bat had flown off ahead of me, leaving behind something like a distorted echo that reverberated against the uncontracting walls. And as if carried by a current, I felt my body slide out of the tunnel and into the cave below. Lost in a haze of darkness, the sound of barking snatched my attention.
My cry was absorbed by the swarm of bats that were suddenly flapping above me, circling like a mobile above a crib, as Ein ran up to me and into my arms. The bats continued to circle even after we climbed out of the cave and into the harsh daylight, and when I looked back down through the open well, I could hear the steady beat of their wings in the darkness. I wondered if they would continue to circle endlessly with the boy named bat even after I sealed it off once again.
But even if they did, I wouldn’t know it. Because this time, I would use stone.
[Refer: This story put the editors in mind of Danny Judge’s story “Exit and Bleach.”]
Image by USFWS Pacific Region
Brandon T. Madden has been published in various graduate, and professional journals including “S/tick”, “The River and South Review”, “Flyover Country Review”, “The Write Time at the Write Place”, “Gravel Literary Magazine”, “Empty Sink Publishing”, “Sediments Literary Arts Journal”, “Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal” “Arlington Literary Journal”, “Torrid Literature Journal”, “Balloons Literature Journal”, and “Gone Lawn”. His political theory piece “Do Americans Still Believe in the Principles of the Declaration of Independence” was published by the international journal: The Transnational in 2015. In 2011, he published his first novel, “V.S.A.” He hopes to one day become a competent writer. For more of his works please visit: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/brandon-t-madden/6b/489/595.