#16 – The Passage

I’ve never told this story before and I sure ain’t gonna tell it again, so listen up.

Your dad always used to ask me what happened to his Uncle Abraham, my brother. I can remember the first time so clearly. We were surrounded by family at one of our reunions out at the old red farmhouse where I grew up. My other brother, your great-uncle Tanner, had bought the place from my pa some fifteen years or so before. My pa was dead by this point and Tanner was working the farm across the road and the sound of the cows lowing from the barn during these reunions always told me that he’d done a pretty damn good job.

Me, I didn’t want any of that. I just wanted to live a life, find a wife, and be comfortable. Pain always comes from people wanting more than what they need. Maybe that’s the moral of this story, if there is one. Not every story needs a moral, I suppose.

I remember when your pa first found out about Abe. We were out on the back lawn which stretched from the house to the cornrows a hundred yards beyond. Tanner was frying up some burgs on the barbecue and the corn was high and thick in the August heat and your pa came sprinting out of the house, holding something in his hand. I remember I frowned when I saw it. Your grandmother, rest her soul, was next to me when this happened. I realized then what your pa had in his hands and I told her to go and see if she could help Tanner with the meat. I feel like I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t need her help, but that wasn’t true, I just didn’t want her to ask about Abe neither.

You might have figured this out already, but your pa had an old family photo in his hands. Might have been taken in the early fifties. I knew it couldn’t have been right after the war because your great-aunt Betty was in the photo and she’d been born around fifty-one or fifty-two, I forget. He held it out to me when he got close,his face all excited, and I remember kneeling down so I was at eye level with him, ‘cause he was just a boy then, and I told him in no uncertain terms not to poke around where he didn’t belong. 

I still remember the way his face fell. I felt like a right bastard for saying it the way I did but in truth I was just scared. If he asked about Abe I’d feel obliged to answer, because I knew nobody else would. Get Betty and Tanner to talk about something like that? They wouldn’t. They couldn’t. They weren’t there and I was and despite knowing this to be true I still couldn’t accept that it was my burden to bear. 

Your father didn’t take this for much of an answer, and I think he resented me after that. Most people think it takes a lot to turn a boy against his father, but I don’t think that’s true. I think all it takes is one really clear memory, and your father had his. Sure, he mighta nodded and run off to play with one of Betty’s girls, but that don’t mean that he didn’t remember. I think he did. Even up until his last days, I always had the feeling like he wanted to ask me something. Talking to him was like talking to a person who’d just entered the room and couldn’t remember what they were looking for.

I was still a coward in the end, I guess. I was working up to tell him and then I ran out of time. Getting old ain’t fair. Getting old without your kids ever getting the chance is worse. Now I got nobody left to tell except you.

So please, listen up. 

Back in the day, those Scout programs used to be a lot more adventurous. There weren’t so many lawsuits back then and kids could be trusted with all sorts of things, from matches to knives to rifles. Yup, even those. We didn’t have rifles on this trip but we did lots of shooting back home. Now don’t mistake me; I’m not saying this was a good thing. Maybe things woulda been different had they treated us like kids instead of short and stupid adults. 

The trip was up on the shores of Lake Superior. Now I don’t know if your pa or somebody else ever got the chance to take you, but Lake Superior is different than all the other Great Lakes. It don’t even feel like it’s in the same country. You don’t get the cottages the rich folks build along the shore like private dollhouses nor do you get the sandy beaches where you can dip your toes and old ladies can sit and sun in. Lake Superior is all rock, cold and deep and dark and when you slip into it the sound is like nothing because you’re nothing against all that cold deep dark water. 

Our trip had taken us a few days west of Thunder Bay, far enough away from civilization that the sky at night seemed solid, as if there was a woolen blanket held up to the brightest light you’d ever known and the stars were the holes in the fibers where the light peeked through. We were truly roughing it. Our Scout Leader had a tent big enough for eight that he carried with us in case of an emergency but the point of the trip is that we’d have to rough it, either making shelter from a few pine boughs or sleeping out on the cold rocks by the lakeside. 

One night we were camped out on the shoreline, down where the water was high and the reeds were thick. We had spotted a heron earlier in the day, this massive thing with wings like kites. It had flown off somewhere to the south, and we wondered if we could find its nest.

Let me be clear: I know this was stupid. Herons are big birds, but they’re light. I don’t think they really pose that much of a threat to humans, but the danger wasn’t really from the bird anyway. Three kids, ‘cause our friend Arthur was coming along, wandering off into the dark in the middle of nowhere. Of course we didn’t think of it that way, but I also don’t think anybody on this green Earth remembers a childhood free from stupidity. 

We waited until everyone had gone to bed. We had stayed up late, roasting marshmallows and eating some of the rehydrated food. I remember it tasted like piss with all of the flavour sucked out. Arthur had loudly proclaimed that he was going off to bed early and it was me and Abe and the Scout leader, whose name I forget. He was working something in his hands with a knife by the fire, which was growing cold and quiet. 

“Whatcha doing?” I asked.

“Whittling,” he replied, not much for words.

“What are you whittling?” asked Abe.

“Whistle,” he said, holding it up. I saw that he had carved a little hole into a tube of wood. It had been narrowed towards the end so that it would be easier to blow on.

“Neat!” said Abe. He loved things like that; little crafts that make the world feel a little more solid.

“Keep it,” said the Scout Leader, tossing it toward him. It bounced off Abe’s palm, but I caught it with my left hand before it hit the dirt. The fire murmured red and I struggled to make out his face. I passed it to Abe. I could still see well enough to see the smile. “I’m making one for everyone,” said our leader. “Between you kids and me, it’s a bit nuts that they only sent one guy on this trip. You’re good kids, but you don’t want to just be one guy if something goes wrong.”

I remember feeling awfully guilty about this, so I replied only that I thought we’d be okay. Until then, I didn’t know how wrong a person could be.

We had slipped off to bed shortly after that. We found a spot out on the smooth rock just above the water. Arthur had laid out his mat already there and could be seen in shadow on its blue face. The moon was low over the water, dyeing the lake white where the water reflected it. We saw the Scout leader rise and make his bed in the pines closer to the fire. The branches were low and the ground beneath was soft and loamy with the dead needles for a bed. Abe and I laid down our mats by Arthur and waited in total silence for the light from the fire to recede and for the Scout leader’s noises to stop. We watched one another, each laughing and gesturing for the other to be quiet. 

When at last we were sure it was time, we shuffled out of our sleeping bags and shook Arthur awake. He woke in the dark with bleary eyes and at first he didn’t want to go, but we told him he had agreed and had to now, so he pulled himself out of the sleeping bag and dressed there on the rock and by the time we were all three down by the lakeshore and the water, the moon was high and heavy.

We wandered off then south in the reeds. I had a flashlight in my pocket but didn’t want to use it unless we strayed from the lakeside. The sound of crickets following us to the left and the echoes of frogs to our right. Our eyes were beginning to adjust to the dark and I saw in that dim light a cord around Abe’s neck. I squinted and realized that he had tied the whistle on a piece of leather shoelace and hung it where it might be reached more easily. That stupid whistle filled me then with a wave of guilt so overwhelming I almost immediately called for us to return; the only thing which pressed me on then was the fact the other two were already awake and walking.

“Do you think heron eggs taste any good?” whispered Arthur. We were far from camp and there was no real point in whispering anymore, but something about hiking in the moonlight seemed to demand it.

“I mean, they’re big, right? We could probably find just a couple and bring it back to camp. Mike would probably be really razzed.”

Mike. Right, that was his name. Funny how the mind works to remember these things.

“‘Dunno,” I said. I hadn’t really considered what we’d do if we found the nest. Maybe I just assumed that we wouldn’t, or that we’d be stopped somehow. “I don’t know if it’s a good idea to bring proof back of the trip to Mike. He might be real ticked.”

“Agreed,” said Abe. I knew I could count on him. “This is a look and don’t touch kinda trip, right Arthur?”

“Sure thing,” said Arthur. “Whatever you guys say.”

We were quiet then for a while. The feeling which held on to us then was that strange feeling that happens when young boys fight; we were old enough to feel more than one emotion at a time, but not so old that we knew how to talk about it. If we were younger, we might have just had a fight. Instead, we sulked, climbing over rocks and under branches which sprang out just over the lake. The rocks began to part from the shoreline and rose in short cliffs to our left. We followed the cliffs along the pebbly shoreline, the lakewater sucking at our feet.

“Holy crap!” said Abe, breaking the silence. “Will ya look at that? There’s a cave!” He gestured for us to gather around his discovery. 

I had missed it when I walked by, but he was right; there was a cave, a cleft really, carved into the rock. The opening was narrow, a jagged vertical line torn out of the cliffside. I shone my flashlight into it and saw only dark. I heard a slow dripping sound.

“We should explore it,” said Abe.

“That’s a bad idea,” said Arthur. “We don’t know what’s in there.”

Sometimes I think about what I said next. Had I said something different, maybe things woulda been different. As time passes, you’ll forget your first kiss, your first car, your first job. You may even forget the face of your father. But the brain has a knack for holding on to the worst mistakes you ever make. 

“It’s just a cave, Arthur. You’ll find bat shit and maybe some weird mushrooms. There’s nothing to worry about in there.”

“Let’s just come back tomorrow with Mike and the group.”

“You think Mike’s gonna want to come this way? We walked for like an hour. He’s not going to want to take us off the planned trail. Plus how would we even tell him? ‘Oh hey, Mike, yeah, hope you aren’t grumpy but we want to explore this cave we found when we snuck away from camp last night.’” I shook my head. “We’d get in trouble and we wouldn’t get to see what’s in here.”

“Were there ever pirates on Lake Superior?” wondered Abe aloud. “I wonder if there’s treasure in here.”

“Let’s find out,” I said. I raised my eyebrows to Arthur, though I doubt he was able to see them in the dark. “Coming?”

“I’ll wait out here,” said Arthur. “It’s already dark enough. I’ll yell if a bear comes home or something.”

“You do that.”

So we left Arthur then at the mouth of the cave. I was bigger than Abe and so I pulled myself inside first. Though the opening was fairly wide, it narrowed as it went and I had to turn sideways to pull myself in. I felt stone on my chest and on my back, just tight enough to conjure an image of the wall pushing itself in, holding me fast. My left hand held the flashlight and it carved arcs of light as I shimmied inward, revealing trails of moss and stone along the floor. I felt a draft then against the back of my hand, so I knew that there was a chamber beyond. I passed the flashlight to my right hand, catching a glimpse of Abe’s face in the lightbeam. He was smiling. I’m glad for that memory. I used my now-free hand to grip the edge of the opening and pull myself through. My chest and back scraped against the stone before I finally popped free.

“All clear!” I shouted through the hole. I heard a scratching sound as Abe began to pull himself through. While I waited, I passed the flashlight around the chamber. Rocky icicles dangled heavy from the ceiling, revealing the source of the dripping sound I had heard. I saw a pool of water below where another was beginning to grow. I was gripped then with the sudden feeling that this was a place outside of time, where no person had ever been. It was still and quiet and dead and there was beauty and terror in this knowledge. 

“What do you see?” asked Abe from behind me.

“Rocks, mostly,” I replied.

“So no treasure, then.” I wasn’t sure why Abe had latched onto this idea of freshwater pirates so much, but then I was the boy who wanted to find a heron’s nest, so I can’t say that I was making much sense neither. 

“Not yet.”

“What about through there?” Abe’s finger entered the beam of the flashlight and pointed toward a darker part of the cave-floor. I frowned and stepped closer.

The light revealed another passage, but this one was different; where the opening to the cave had been a slash of stone carved out of the rock, this was a thin line, almost completely unbroken. It looked like a set of slightly-parted lips. I crouched down and shone the light into the hole. It showed me a smooth corridor, narrower even than the entrance to the cave. A strange heat emanated from that place, vaguely warm and wet. As I kneeled there with the flashlight pointed down the hole, I became suddenly aware of the darkness around us, scratching on the back of my neck and inside my skull. The silence was almost unbearable, though it was soon broken by Abe kicking a stone down the hole. I heard a few ricocheting bounces before a final plunk! that suggested water beyond.

“I bet that’s where they hid the treasure,” said Abe.

“Don’t be stupid,” I said. “There’s no treasure. They wouldn’t even be able to fit down there.”

“Maybe they didn’t have to. Maybe the lake used to be lower and there was another opening and they just sailed their boats in.”

“Or maybe there’s nothing down there at all.”

“Feel that heat?” he asked. “There’s gotta be something. That place is special, I can tell.”

“Well, I can’t fit down there.”

“Who said you had to?”

“No.” I shook my head. It wasn’t happening. He couldn’t go down there. Not without me. We fought like any two brothers did, but I felt a fierce protectiveness toward him and could not imagine him going down into the dark alone.

“Wasn’t asking,” said Abe. “Just hang on to my belt and let me take a look with the light.” 

“Alright. But just don’t drop it.”

Abe got down to his hands and knees and crawled forward toward the tear in the floor. He used his hands to pull himself to its lip. I shifted over and sat with my legs braced across the hol, my hand gripping his belt firmly.

“Ready?” asked Abe. The flashlight in his hand pierced the dark below us. 

I grunted out a ‘yes’, and he slipped over and into the passage. The only light now was whatever escaped past Abe. The black had gathered around me, blinding me more than any night I’d ever known. Below me in the pit, Abe scrambled forward. I heard his clothes scratching on the rocks as he pushed deeper. 

“How’s it going?” I called. 

“What?” 

“How’s it going?” I repeated, a little louder this time. I hadn’t considered that he might have a hard time hearing me with the cave walls around him to absorbt the noise. 

“It’s getting pretty tight,” he said, his voicing rebounding on the way up, becoming muddled. “But I think it widens up ahead. I’m going to push on.”

“Don’t be stupid,” I warned. “Don’t try something that won’t work.”

“You guys alright in there?” Arthur’s voice, from outside the cave. I turned back and yelled that we were. My voice drowned out Arthur’s echoing in that tiny chamber.  

“What was that?” called Abe from below.

“Not talking to you! Talking to Arthur!”

“What?”

And then it happened. Abe must’ve tried to turn or something to hear me better, because I heard a sharp crack as the rock gave way, and the sound of him slipping deeper. A brief twisting turn of the light told me about the loss of the flashlight. I peered into the passage and saw nothing; not even a silhouette of my brother.

“Abe! Abe! Are you there?”

The longest moment of my life stretched out ahead of me. Then there was a groan of pain, and an answer: “I’m here. I think I’m stuck.”

“What?”

“I can’t move. The rock’s pressing really tight against my legs and chest and I can’t turn around to climb out.”

“Can you see the light?”

A pause. “I see where it fell, but I can’t reach it. The tunnel kind of curves, I don’t know if you can see it.”

“I’m gonna come down to get you.”

“No! You’ll just get stuck, too.”

I felt my heart beginning to race. Had the cave always been this hot, or were we simply running out of air? I knew that was impossible, that there was an entrance, but none of this seemed real. I had the sense that this was all happening to someone else, and I was far away, home in my bed. “I’m gonna get Arthur,” I finally said. “I’ll send him back to camp, he can get help.” I pushed away the part of my brain that told me we were still days out from any equipment that could help my brother. I had to believe there was a chance. “I’ll be right back,” I cried, running into the black, toward the entrance of the cave; it was the only place where there was any speck of light, even if it was the blue of the late night. I crawled back through the entrance far enough to poke my head out. The night air was impossibly fresh after the stillness of the cave, but it only reminded me that Abe was still inside. 

I spotted Arthur sitting against the rock, biting his nails. “Arthur!” I cried, startling him. He clambered to his feet.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Abe’s stuck. You gotta go get help!”

“We’re gonna get in trouble,” he whined.

“It don’t matter now. We have to help my brother. Please, go as quickly as you can!”

To his credit, Arthur didn’t argue any further. He raced off into the night, heading northwards along the lakeshore. I took one last breath of the fresh air, then disappeared back into the cave. It was blacker now, my eyes having re-adjusted to the moonlit night. I felt along the cave floor with my hands and crawled to the edge of the pit.

“Abe?” I cried. “Abe? You there?”

His voice came up to me in a whisper. “You have to be quiet,” he said, voice trembling.

“What? Why?”

“Because there’s someone else down here.”

It took me a moment for the words to settle in. My mind wrapped itself around them, trying to figure out some possibility where that combination of ideas made sense. “That’s impossible,” I said.

“I saw his face,” whispered Abe. “I saw his face and I think he saw me too.”

“You’re just scared,” I said. “Imagining things.” I wasn’t sure whether I was telling him or telling myself. 

“I hear him, even now. Footsteps. You gotta help me get out of here. See if you can fit in or grab my belt again or something.”

“I’ll see what I can–” I began, but then I heard it. The soft sound of feet slapping against stone, coming from below. Something inside of me grew very cold. 

“It’s getting hot down here,” Abe whispered. “Hotter and hotter and my head is getting heavy. Please, you have to hurry. Please, help me!” His voice was above a whisper now. The footsteps stopped. Then they picked up again, quicker, slapping against the stone. Abe was now fully shouting. “I see him! He’s coming back! Oh god where are his EYES–”

I didn’t hear the rest. I tore out of there, pulling myself through the exit and out into the night air. The sky was beginning to lighten past the trees to the east. I raced away from the cave entrance, running several hundred metres north. I finally stopped by a crop of reeds, my chest rising and falling as I laid back against the rock. Some kind of fir tree soared over my head. In its highest branches, I saw a nest.

There’s nothing else left to tell after that. Arthur returned a couple of hours later with Mike and the rest of the group. Mike went into the cave, and soon returned, saying that Abe wasn’t talking, but that he had blown his whistle, so he must be okay. Clearly relieved, Mike said he was going to call for help and so he climbed a tree, braver than I had ever been.  He was able to get a signal and local authorities promised to come to us as quickly as they could. Mike went back in the cave after that, but never heard anything else.

They came a day-and-a-half later on horseback, with water, food, and ropes. It didn’t matter. With no answer from Abe, it was clear he was gone. A heart attack from the inverted position was mostly likely, they said. The body ain’t meant to be upside-down for that long. Later, a crew took explosives to the cave and sealed the entire entrance.

In a twisted way, I hope they’re right about what happened to Abe. See, I was an even bigger coward than I let on; I never even told them about the face that Abe said he saw. I wanted them to close it off. I wanted them to make sure that whoever was down there with him never got out. I tell myself it’s what Abe would have wanted, but I don’t think it is. He would have wanted to be alive, to live a life full of adventure and happiness.

But then again, this story was never about him getting what he wanted. 

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