my aching knuckles and forearms. The rope burns hotter and hotter as I feed it through the belay device, impossibly hot, so hot the need to release it and the fear of doing so grow in equal pace during my descent. I spring off the wall with the gentlest pressure of my toes, feeling the cool dark air around me rush past as I free more rope and drop into the gloom. Far above I can see the shrinking circle of light through which the rope climbs, but I angle my headlamp downward and drop, drop, drop.
To rest my forearms, engorged with the blood of effort, I rest my feet against the rough rock face, at chin level, then lean back and grip the loose rope with one hand at a time while I shake out the other. With the belay braked I traverse the rounded wall, scanning vertically with the lamp for signs of my escape: I find crude, awkward gouges in the stone wall, abused edges where a hand had gripped a ledge, and in the center of a broad smooth face a desperate, makeshift piton hammered in the rock.
I shudder, and to force my mind to stay in the present, take three long, deep breaths. Then, focusing my beam of light downward, I release the brake and step down the wall until suddenly, with panic I realize the rope has run out – I’m pinching its tail just outside the mouth of the be lay. My heart racing, I scramble for purchase in the rock and reach up with my free arm to clutch at the line, while with my other hand I try pulling the rope’s tail from the jaws of the belay, burning now, its hot metal teeth seeming to close about my whole body.
I’m crawling upward now, laboring for breath as I pull the rope back, millimeter by millimeter, when I hear from the gloom below a familiar voice: “It’s okay.” The two words carry a mixture of humor, compassion, and something else in my frantic state I can’t quite recognize. “It’s all right down here, Andy. Just relax.” He really does sound relaxed, like it’s okay.
“Yeah, but…” my brain struggles to reconcile message and appearance, grasping for reality. “Where…”
“Anywhere is fine, Andy,” he replies, and I can tell he’s got one palm cupped to his mouth. “There are no crocodiles, no crooked metal spikes, no stalagmites. Now, hold on a second. Is that right? I always…”
“Oh, would you shut up!” I try to yell, but the tremors of exertion and panic have taken over and it’s all I can do to hold on.
“Just pull up a speck,” he whispers, stringing out the words as slowly as he can without my losing their meaning, “loose the bight, and let go. It’s only a couple feet, buddy.”
I stand on the wall, looking up, chest heaving, not daring to look down.
“Trust me, Andy. Come on down. This is what you came for, isn’t it?”
I don’t allow myself to agree or disagree; his question originates from somewhere out of time, place, and meaning. With a terrific effort I haul myself up a few inches of rope, unclip the carabiner, and release the belay from my harness. I hang for eternity over the dark maw of the earth, headlamp pressed flat against my own bicep, and in this groundless moment my fear is so great I know that I can haul myself hand over hand to the circle of light above.
There’s something inside me.
My body is telling me to pull, to get my feet on the wall and push myself upwards. To get out.
Something is inside of me.
I feel tears welling up in my eyes, great heavenly tears from some vast, empty space.
There is something deep inside of me.
The sobs wrack my body and I feel a great awe enveloping my body. A great fear. This primordial cavern opens inside of me and I realize I do not know who I am.
I take a deep breath, release it, and let go of the rope.
I land in a confused heap on the floor. My light goes out, plunging me into darkness as I feel oxygen rushing involuntarily, violently, into my lungs. I gasp for air and scramble onto all fours, feeling rough dirt and rock beneath my knees and fingernails. It’s pitch black so I start crawling forward, one arm out, searching for the wall.
Suddenly I feel a hand on my shoulder and I jump. My outstretched hand meets another and in a strong grip it pulls me to my feet. In a fresh panic I flick on my lamp and in the flood of light I recognize a face before it’s shielded by a palm from the glare.
“Sorry, JD,” I cough, straightening. “I’m really sorry. I already forgot you were here. Somehow I…”
“It’s all right, sport. Don’t twist yourself up about it,” James chuckles. He’s still got his hand up because the light is pretty bright, so I adjust it to its lowest setting and angle it to the floor. James lowers his hand and looks up at it. “Always got to bring something with us, don’t we?“ He winks, then rummages through the pockets of his slacks. Frowning, he reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket, then produces a small white packet. He waves a dismissive hand at me and turns his back. “Don’t worry. I’ve got a light this time.” When he turns back around, there’s a glowing cigarette illuminating his face, an eerie orange in the subterranean twilight. He’s got dark olive-colored trousers on over dust-covered boots, and a light flannel shirt under a faded denim jacket. He’s smiling, as usual, and his eyes twinkling at me, as usual, but it’s not the same old smile. I meet his gaze and I suddenly recognize the third ingredient in his voice.
“You okay?” he asks, brushing the dust off my shoulders. “You haven’t broken your pelvis, have you?” His mouth is twisted around the cigarette as he tries not to laugh, but I hear the sadness, covered though it is by a thin veil. “Well anyhow, you made it.”
“Yeah, I made it.” I’ve made it. The significance of that is still sinking in and my heart is only now slowing its furious tattoo. I’m watching James’ eyes and although his eyes won’t leave my face, they’re not locked on mine. In fact, he seems incapable of meeting my gaze. “Well, now that I’m here, I might as well take a look around.”
James shrugs and spreads his palms in welcome, exhaling a silent spiral as he watches the words leave my lips. “It’s all down here. Most of it, at least,” he adds, almost apologetically.
I nod slowly and JD’s shadow grows into the shape of a giant on the wall behind him. My chest is now quiet and though I am afraid, I have embodied fear itself. I am now in the vast cavern inside of myself. And though it is not completely empty, the spaces between things, the crevices, the mortar gaps, the handholds are so far apart from each other that they have all lost their significance. All the things holding everything together. The rope hangs idly, lazily out of reach above my head. I turn, now, to face the impossible task of describing what this place means to me when