‘I’m totally claustrophobic,’ the woman in front of her giggles.
‘No you’re not,’ her husband chides, slapping her on her bottom. The gesture almost jolts Virginia to a standstill, but there are people walking behind her and James the cave tour guide in his khaki uniform has instructed, ‘keep moving.’ It is one of such playful certainty, with a shared history of anniversaries and ablutions, children in there too, no doubt, more than two, though they seem to be unaccompanied this weekend. There must be grandparents somewhere, insisting they baby sit, to give them some ‘much-needed time-out.’ It is common knowledge parents need that. Space.
Virginia can’t say if she is claustrophobic herself. She’s never been this far inside a cave before. The little spelunking she did as a child along the coast of the Western Cape was hide-and-seek with bare-footed cousins, in sea-carved rocky alcoves. Nooks and crannies they made into ‘beds’ with towels and pretended they were fugitives. Places the daylight could reach. Not this deep penetration into the guts of the earth. Not this venturing so far from sunlight and oxygen and wind. In an organized group. With a tour-guide. Where is the adventure in this?
As soon as the heavy reinforced refrigerator-like door behind them shuts tight with a suctioning clunk, she reaches behind her for Dave’s hand, but he is holding the video camera to his eye, like some ghastly robotic ophthalmic extension. He is moving slowly from side to side to make sure he gets it all. ‘Capturing,’ he calls his documenting of their exploits, which, by the way, he takes very seriously. He has a daunting archive of movie clips – of their scuba-diving, rock-climbing, kayaking, camping. It is an extreme sport of its own. He is fastidious and vigilant about downloading them as if something might get inadvertently lost if he does not attend to this transfer. He chews hours away on this assignment. Their history of weekends-away eats steadily away at his computer memory, a mountain of memories. Some nights she finds him replaying them in the den, with a triple whiskey on ice. She can’t bear to watch them. They seem desperate. Utterly pointless. Once upon a time she would have been able to muster compassion for this obsession. Now she just observes it with the kind of pity she might wring forth for an anorexic or a drug addict.
From the door, she watches. He looks up at her. ‘See you in the morning,’ she murmurs.
He waves at her. ‘Don’t wait up for me.’
He used to say, ‘sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.’
But perhaps that began to sound too childish, too hopeful.
Alone in her hollow king-size bed, she dreams of things with wings. Angels maybe. They touch her with their petal-like hands, they flutter around her like butterflies.
* * *
Hands matter to her more than she’d ever imagined. By her estimation, thalidomide had wreaked a wretched legacy on generations of people and not just because they could never play tennis or swim. A person’s entire character, like their history, their future could be told in the hands. Who were you without your hands?
She had been standing in line at international departures, boarding for Katmandu. She needed to get away. It had been only six months since she and Patrick had broken up. He had his back to her, but she could see him holding his boarding pass and passport which he was using as a bookmark in a small paperback, which later she glimpsed was Plato’s Republic. She got stuck on them. His hands. The veins, sinew, the half moons of his cuticles. Okay, she admitted it, she was a phalange junkie. If she saw nothing more on a man, the hands would be enough.
She knew things from them. She could see the life in them, ingrained with silt. They were hands at ease in mud, not that they weren’t clean. He was a scrubber. He took care of his nails. But you can’t hide a history of dirt. She found herself imagining him – this stranger in the line in front of her, nameless and faceless – putting his fingers deep inside her. She blushed at the thought of it. She was one up on Erica Jong’s zipless fuck, this was a faceless fuck. Fingers and hands. What more did one need?
Science has given us all the answers. There’s nothing mysterious about it at all. The brain releases pheromones which in turn creates a chemical reaction. This is why he turned face her. And oh god he smiled. Could he read her thoughts?! Could he smell her imagining him fucking her with the generous width of his Peter Pointer and Tommy Thumb? Could he also see her arching, pushing down hard, climaxing around his fingers? She blushed brazenly. If his brain knew what his chemicals knew, he didn’t give it away. He would be good with secrets.
‘Have you read it?’ he asked, mistaking her fixated gaze on his hands for a fascination with Plato.
‘At university, it feels like a lifetime ago.’
‘I’m still trying to work out if I understand the allegory of the cave…’ he confessed.
‘That we’re all prisoners, facing away from the light, watching shadows cast on the wall…’
‘You seem to get it.’
‘I think I had to write an essay on it in philosophy.’
‘It’s kind of depressing, don’t you think?’
‘Not if it’s true… do you think it’s true?’
‘I haven’t made up my mind yet.’
‘I think you do get it,’ she smiled, grateful to be thinking of Plato and not being finger fucked by this strange man. With his … were those freckles? Sandy hair? No ear hair. Straight perfect teeth.
He was a landscape artist.
They exchanged details.
Twenty four hours later on a noisy bed in a hotel in Katmandu, sheets peeled back, she moaned as his fingers, as if they were slaves to her own private fantasies, pushed deep into her.
* * *
‘If you just give me a moment, I’m going to put the lights on,’ James’ perky rehearsed voice comes from somewhere in the dark ahead like the voice of God in the wilderness before light was on his agenda. How many times a day must he reiterate the genealogy of these caves? Virginia wonders if awe can be faked. He sounds genuinely fascinated by his own archaeological account on endless repeat.
A series of clicks engage the light system, and suddenly they are in the bejewelled belly of the rock. Despite her sweater, Virginia shivers. If it is beautiful it is also strangely terrifying.
About 10 000 years ago, the Khoisan used the entrance of the caves as shelter. They never wandered deeper into the caves because of their superstitious nature.
Of course not, Virginia thinks. It is primal, this antipathy to delve too deep. It feels like trespassing. Some places are not meant to be made open to the public. Or unearthed. Or climbed. Dave’s been talking about Kilimanjaro. As if people don’t die of altitude sickness on its slopes. ‘Why take the chance?’ she asks.
‘You can’t live life from your bed,’ he says.
Depends on your definition of ‘life,’ she supposes.
In her bed, she’s travelled to Middle Earth, the middle East, Afghanistan, Tuscany, the Maldives, one page at a time. Books grow in piles, like untamed weeds at her bedside, half-read, waiting, re-read. She stops in at the library every Wednesday. It isn’t sensible to buy books when you read them at the speed she does. It is wasteful, and they have already wasted enough money. If you find a book you simply desperately unremittingly need to have, well then, it could be purchased. But she’s tamed the desire. Once you’ve read a book, it is that book itself, not some untouched pristine version off the shelf you want to own. Humans are territorial that way. It is the touching that makes something yours, not the price you pay for it.
Dave doesn’t read anymore. Not since Plato.
She hates even thinking of it as a failing, because criticism is neither helpful nor fair in a relationship. It is misplaced. She must find the right place for the right things.
The past doesn’t lose its integrity. Not even in the face of the painful present. Those are her therapist’s words. And she is grateful to have them to grip between her fingers, on the edge of her tippy-toes, like handholds, footholds on a sheer cliff face.
It doesn’t matter how late she reads. By the time Dave comes to bed, she is always asleep, her reading glasses skew from the droop of her neck. He used to take them off for her.
‘I’m scared to wake you,’ he says when she asks him why he no longer does.
* * *
His hand in the small of her back was warm, possessive. His other hand was clasped over her eyes.
‘Not much further to go,’ he’d said.
She had giggled, inebriated with anticipation.
‘Ok, keep them closed, no cheating,’ he said, removing his hands from her eyes. She kept them shut tight.
She heard him fumble with a key.
She tried not to pre-empt. That was a form of presumptuousness, and life is capricious and full of surprises. It was joyless to always be in the know. But she couldn’t help telling her mother on the phone, ‘I think he’s going to do it this weekend.’ He wouldn’t tell her where they were going, just that she didn’t need pyjamas. I want you naked in my bed all weekend.’
He had driven her to a private Game farm. They had taken a land rover to get to their room. Now, they were standing at a private bungalow that overlooked a watering hole. She could smell the animals watching them.
‘No peeking,’ he admonished.
‘Okay, you can open them.’
The enormous bed was draped in a soft billow of gauze, held apart by large ties.
And the bed. Oh the bed. He must have collected those rose petals all year! The bed was covered, literally covered in a carpet of them. Pinks and splashes of red, and yellows and peach.
She’d stood frozen. She only realised in that moment that she had always trailed this moment. A bed made for love, for her.
The soft flesh of a million petals was cool on her bare back.
He gathered them up in handfuls and cascaded them onto her in a shower. He blew each one off with his hot breath.
When they emerged from their post coital sleep, the bed was a mass of bruised and browning leaves, fecund and lush.
‘I want you to share my bed for the rest of my life,’ he’d said, removing a small velvet box from a drawer.
* * *
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For thousands of years, we believe the caves were unknown except to animals. According to legend, the caves were discovered in 1780.
These are some of the oldest limestone caves to be open to the public in the world, and of course the San people were the first to discover them.
‘Where are the bushman paintings?’ someone’s voice trails up from somewhere.
‘They’ve been damaged over time,’ James says. ‘But there used to be a whole lot of them around the entrance.’
‘What a pity,’ someone says.
‘Yes, it’s a tricky balance between preserving what’s here and opening it to the public. Please don’t touch the walls,’ James laughs, but there is authority in his voice. ‘We damage these formations inadvertently- just with our presence – the skin that comes off our bodies, the oil and acid on our skin, the dirt we carry.’
‘It is so beautiful,’ the woman ahead of her sighs.
‘Not as beautiful as you,’ her husband chaffs.
Is it beautiful? Virginia isn’t sure. Stalactites and stalagmites, the more unusual helictites, uncertain of which direction to grow, all formed over millions of years. Was that an exaggeration – millions of years? Like millions of sperm in one ejaculation? It seemed improbable. But science confirms this to be the case. Millions.
She never used to mind it on the sheets.
But that was when its value was undiscovered, latent and lost in an idyllic ignorance. Before test tubes and pipettes and injections and harvesting. Before it lost its mystery and became a solution with varying degrees of potency, acidity, concentration.
The odds are so heavily weighted in favour of life. And yet. Bed became a laboratory.
* * *
‘There are many different theories about how these caves formed – but we don’t know for sure,’ James says. ‘It is one of those mysteries Nature has chosen to keep to herself. At best, we can speculate, based on the evidence that has been left behind.’
There is movement in the Earth’s crust, which causes dykes to form. Then rainwater combines with acidic carbon dioxide from decomposing plant material and flows through the fracture zone. This in turn initiates a complex chemical reaction, resulting in various solutions which finally crystallize and evolve into the various formations we see here.
There had been seismic shifts. The cracks became crevices. Continents drifted away. They had looked at each other from afar.
She had felt herself slipping.
The earth gave way beneath her.
There was nothing to hold her. She fell. If he fell too, she couldn’t tell.
From the outside, she thinks, you would never know they existed. These Gothic cathedrals of moving stone, ‘flow stone,’ hollowed out, shaped like those sandcastles you make with drippy sand with little children. What if they had never been discovered? Would they become their own koan, like the tree falling in the forest which no-one sees?
Virginia wants someone to tell this to, to share like a playful slap, but Dave is swallowed into the lens of his new digital toy.
No insect life survives in here. There are no butterflies, no ants, no ladybirds. It’s an insectless world.
‘What a pleasure,’ the woman ahead of her says.
Virginia feels a barb of spite towards her, this cosy woman with her cosy life, and her antipathy for insects. No butterflies? You might as well as well extinguish spring. Blossoms. Rose petals. The stupid cow.
‘There are obviously no cobwebs, that’s because there are no spiders … all insects need light. And as you’ll see, it gets very dark in here.’
James warns people who are afraid of the dark to close their eyes before he switches the lights off. There is nervous giggling around her. The man who still touches his wife-who-doesn’t-care-for-insects’ bottom now has his arm around her shoulders. The click is dramatic, and echoes in the cavernous spaces. Virginia keeps her eyes open. For several blind moments she cannot see her hand though she holds her palm to her eyelashes. She feels extinguished in this entombing darkness. She sighs into it. You can almost imagine the world beginning over, so thick and solid is this blackness. A place before light intervened. Strange things happen in caves. She thinks of A Passage to India. What really happened in that cave? The point was to finish the book not knowing.
For a moment, she imagines the electricity failing, and them all being trapped in this rock, never to emerge again. It is not quite a wish, but it is a thought. To die in this icy terrestrial womb, stillborn. It would be easy. Heartbreak would soak into the stalactites, sorrow into the stalagmites, flesh and bone would fossilize into the granite of this disturbed earthly cellar that doesn’t care for humans and their dirt and the destruction they wreak with their presence. A final resting place, like Romeo and Juliet, mistaken, out of sync, but unshakable in the bedrock of their love.
Could you call it grief, to mourn the unconceived? It was enough of a personal flaw to fail at conception the natural way, but to fail at IVF too?
‘I’m sorry,’ the doctor had said.
‘It’s no-one’s fault,’ Dave said back.
But he didn’t know.
The bed in the surgery had been covered with a plastic sheet. Stirrups on either side. She was told to ‘breathe.’ She had clutched the nurse’s hand as she felt the cold speculum push inside her.
‘It isn’t mine,’ Patrick had said, as if it was a jumper he’d left behind in her apartment.
And in that, he disowned, not only what was taking root in the soil of her belly, but the countless tender, funny and joyous histories they had accumulated over the three years they had shared a bed.
She was not ready to be a single mother.
When the lights come back on she tries to catch Dave’s eye but he has it firmly attached to the camera lens. Look at me, she hopes. Her thoughts echo off the cold patient walls of this frozen breathing beast. If she speaks it, something might shatter, or perhaps like a blind bat, it will just reverberate, return to her, faithful as echolocation.
Maybe it is possible to save a relationship one vacation at a time – attraction after attraction. Perhaps sites and histories can fill the hollow spaces between people. If you use up enough computer memory, it is possible to fill the cave of emptiness, shore the heartbreak you never even knew you were holding until it was discovered by too many nights in bed, and too little action in the dark of the fallopian mystery.
* * *
By the time they tunnel back from the womb of the rock, she has it formed, word by word to deflect the stalactites of blame they have been growing towards one another. ‘Me. It’s my fault. I had an abortion when I was twenty-four … I didn’t know… maybe the scar tissue …’
But two things happen. Dave turns the video camera to her. He films her for a few moments and then something makes him stop. He lifts his eye off the camera and looks at her. Directly. Then he clicks it shut and from deep within the darkness he reaches out for her with his hands. His fingers close around her wrist. Then they reach for her cold fingers, and interlock with hers.
‘No butterflies…’ he murmurs. ‘I bet you hated that…’
And it falls from her. The unsaid thing she has been hollowing out inside herself.
Then she remembers, the first of these weekends away. The doctor’s words still ringing in her ears, ‘I’m sorry.’
He had lead her into the cloying humidity of a breeding enclosure where hundreds of butterflies touched her, a winged confetti, warm, flickering, breathing.
The opposite of falling petals.
His hand, warm and alive, holds her steady as they reach the light.
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