At the end of a road that no longer exists lurks a hole that no longer opens. Tracks, where the weight of trespassing tires had once beat down weeds, no longer lead to death. My childhood breathed its last innocent breath that long-ago day, that day that death followed laughter.
It started with crossing an invisible line — a demarcation of sun and dark, heat and dankness. By the end, I sank into a black abyss of lost faith. It had been my first time exploring caves that lined the Mississippi River bank — and my last.
The week previous to the great cave adventure I remember listening to pleas from my sister Marie as she begged our grandmother to arrange an exploration of the caves along the river. Within earshot, I heard her pray in soprano to the Virgin Mary for me, Tessie, to be left behind, stricken with illness or disease. Our grandmother gave in to my sister’s continual whine that dragged like claws drawing figure eights on slate. My grandmother said, “Fine. Okay. I’ll call somebody to take you: Anything to turn off that single-minded spigot you call a mouth.” I snickered from my hiding place behind a door. Then my grandmother added a few precious words. “If you go, Teresa goes. And don’t give me any of your lip young lady.” I had been just as triumphant in my own appeals to our grandmother. In Marie’s favor, she had added a postscript to her prayer that my ailment should be “Nothing too permanent.” This gave me hope that maybe she liked me a little after all.
Not giving her lip were our Grandmother’s last words on any subject from cleaning our plates, to saving the hungry of a third-world country or surrendering our allowance as the wicker basket passed by during mass—even if she did have to pry our selfish fingers open. I had known we ‘tried her patience’ during summers we spent with her and, truth be known, she ‘tried’ ours. But I couldn’t have loved her more than at the period of that sentence.
Our grandmother called her neighbor and asked if he would take us spelunking and bring his two teenaged boys along. The proximity of one, let alone two, teenage boys was reason enough for Marie’s prayer for my temporary illness. The neighbor said he would love to, but he had to work. He added that his brother was visiting from out of town and he might take all of us as well as his own boy, Timmy. And so it began and couldn’t be taken back.
Sandstone caves along the river had forever been entertainment. This would be my first experience with abrasive sand chafing my skin and ancient mushroom smells of cold grottos charged with moist bat dung.
When we arrived we flew out of the station wagon before it reached a full stop. The high-pitched squeals were swallowed by the disfigured hole. I was the last, even behind four-year-old Timmy. Marie had slammed the car door shut in my gleeful face as I neared the edge of the back seat. I had thought of suggesting to our mother that a few “Oh God, I am heartily sorry” chants be added to Marie’s growing list of contrition. But her mumbling inevitably came out as, “I am hardly sorry.” So, it would have been a waste of good contriteness.
I watched Timmy’s father snatch him in mid-flight. He had one foot successfully inside the shadowed opening. I felt a pang of pity for him—a short pang, but my Catholic guilt said that was better than none at all. “Timmy, you’re too young,” his father said. “Stay here and play. I’ll take you in after the other kids come out.” I heard a low whine from Timmy when his father sat him down alongside the entry next to an inviting mound of smooth cave sand. Timmy gave me a longing look as I passed him but the bouncing beams of flashlights and laughter pulled me inside faster than Rosary beads slip through my grandmother’s nimble religious fingers.
My body plunged from thick, summer humidity to icy, cutting drafts. Primitive shivers spread through me. I wrapped my arms around my young body and embraced the risk of the unknown. Today, as a mother, I watch my four-year old son play in our sandbox and sadly relive that day when I stepped beyond the passageway into a cathedral of sand.
I hadn’t needed to click my flashlight on in order to see the expanse of the cave. I felt its hollowness in my fear, heard its height echo off of the wings of bats and followed a whistling wind of current around corners and through crevices as if sound were fluid rushing through veins. Absent the affliction, I experienced the heightened senses of the blind.
Sandstone grit tickled around my bare ankles filling the sides of my tennis shoes. This is heaven, I thought. I was no more than ten feet beyond the tongueless mouth of the cave tucked along railroad tracks that ran parallel with the riverbank. My next thought was: If this is heaven, God lives here. Maybe this was His escape from relentless prayers begging for anything from a shiny red bike for Christmas to the raising of a loved-one from the dead. As I ventured forward I made a silent vow—this day I will do my part to give God a rest.
Echoes of magnified giggles and hysterical squeals filled the space ahead of me. I recognized teenaged noises coming from my older sister, Marie. It was the way a fourteen-year old girl acted when a date took her to a scary movie. The blackness and mystery of this grotto were beyond any scary movie we had seen. She also had two of my grandmother’s neighbor boys along to dare and scare her by digging fingers in her tender flesh. Her shrieks were loud enough to pop through a soundproof barrier. Despite cries of protest and fear, she was the one in heaven.
My own light focused on quick glimpses of those brave explorers who had forged ahead of me. Bouncing beams revealed signs of thrills involving beer bottles, cigarette butts, charcoal logs and long balloons—party balloons, I remembered thinking. I squatted to investigate the remains. I sniffed the burned charcoal of a log like an Indian scout computing the space of time between the train robbers and me. Then, a whop whop whop murmured around my ears. I scrunched my body, arms over my head, and repeated Marie’s favorite exclamation of, “What the chicken snot was that?” I had visited our family farm often and knew to stay out of the bull’s pasture, that my hair smelled like rotten eggs if I washed it in the water pump and that chickens don’t have snot. But my sister Marie was an authority on all the good words. I secretly felt everything she said was worth memorizing, but some words had direct correlation to our mother’s punishment, so I mimicked them with caution.
I stood listening to Marie’s voice float all around. Indecipherable whispers bounced off of rock, bat wings, and curved ears of teenaged boys. Ralph was fifteen and her favorite. Marie had just turned fourteen, fourteen going on thirty as our mother said on her birthday. Even at eight and disgusted with the thought of kissing a boy, I recognized love in her milky-green eyes when Ralph was near. His brother, Roger, was thirteen, and I was sure he would be just as unwelcome as I would be anywhere near them in the cave. But he seemed even more ga-ga-eyed around Marie than Ralph. As far as I cared, they could play suck-face in the dark all they wanted — this was going to be my adventure alone, bats or no bats.
I focused my flashlight on the wall as I inched through the passageways. I kept my hand in close contact with something solid at all times, running fingers through moist granules of sandstone. Knowing my fingertips were leaving their mark, scarring my presence in time, gave me a feeling of self-importance, an importance that my sister claimed at home. I curled my knuckles to fill the few fingernails I hadn’t chewed to the nub. I wanted to bring the musty-sweet, dank smell home with me and stuff it in my pillowcase.
Traveling through a self-absorbed world, I stopped paying attention to sounds, smells and the breezes that bodies make in the dark. I heard only the sound of my own concentrated breaths and pounding heartbeats. I only smelled my own excitement escaping through sweaty pores and drifting up beyond the top button of my shirt. I had become accustomed to cool intermittent breezes each new passage brought. Then, I tripped and stumbled forward flat-faced in the grit. There was the unmistakable feel of two legs crossed opposite under my own forming a human tic-tac-toe pattern. I scrambled, turned and scooted; my underwear filled with sand. I pushed myself away until I could gather strength needed to stand and run. My flashlight flickered on the body that lay against the crumbling yellow wall. Its head slumped forward, eyes closed, blood snaked down from the corner of his gaping mouth. It was a dead body — Roger’s dead body. I screamed a high-pitched call that squeaked out as an attempt at my sister’s name.
My legs pumped up and down and my arms flailed wildly striping Roger’s form in waves of light. Sounds echoed, sounds of my own cry and of voices circling my ears. I spun and whirled around and around following the rants trying to decipher those that were taunting and those that were snickering. The beam of my flashlight jerked along with my hysteria. I screamed for God. Then the ranting noises fell below my knees and turned into sniggling, snorting amusement. I focused my spotlight on three faces distorted and grinding around on the sand floor, one after the other — Marie, Ralph and Roger.
“Real stinking funny, you creeps,” I said. The three of them launched into a convulsing heap of arms, legs, and cackling voices.
“I told you the ketchup would cinch it, Rog,” Ralph said. Marie’s cackles were the most obnoxious of all.
“Laugh now, Marie, cuz I’m telling Gram.” I stomped around them, backtracking. “And by the way, I know where you hide your diary — That Ralph has the stinkiest breath; he better not EVER try to kiss me.” I poured on my whiney voice as I imitated her yet-to-be discovered private thoughts. If my tearing through her room had ever uncovered her diary, I was sure there would have been more stinging confessions to jab at her.
I switched off my lantern and ran using senses of smell, sound and a newly-found intuition to find my way out. I heard Marie denying my words to Ralph and sounding revenge in my direction.
“Ah, com’on, Tessie. Don’t be a spoil sport,” Roger called.
I got a three beat summation of Marie’s feelings toward me as she yelled, “You…little…brat.”
Covered in cool, dank sweat, I stumbled out the opening. I stood with my face in the warm sun, mouth open with heaves of breath rushing in and out.
“Looks like you got your money’s worth,” a voice with a trace of a smile said. I looked to my right. It was Timmy’s dad. My grandmother had said his name was Henry. He leaned into the chrome grill of the wagon. A cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. His brown felt hat tipped forward over his left eye.
“You could say that, Henry,” I said. My legs were weak, each step calculated, as I struggled toward him through soft deep sand surrounding the cave’s exterior. I reached him and sat on the warm gleaming bumper. We rested in silence. Both of us stared at Timmy while he dug into a mound of granules next to the opening of the cave. Henry had found a small shovel for his son. Timmy’s rhythmic movements of scooping, pouring, patting and scooping again brought my breathing back to a calm, normal pattern. The sandstone was calling me but not from inside the cave.
I walked the twenty feet to where Timmy sat burping out mechanical noises — dump trucks, graters and motors without mufflers — boy things. I removed my new white tennis shoes and ground my bare toes into the fine dry earth, then dropped to my knees in front of him. A sudden breeze wrapped itself around Timmy’s wispy golden hair suspending it straight up like he had just rubbed a balloon on it. He looked like an angel as his shirtsleeves flapped. Sand circled in a small tornado around him and he blinked in irritation. I grabbed his gritty hand before it reached his sparkling eye, grinding the specks in further. The wind fizzled out as fast as it had begun.
“Let me see,” I said as I knee-walked closer. Squinting at first he gave his round innocent face to me willingly and opened his baby-blue eyes. I pulled a hanky out of my pant pocket and spit on it just like a good caretaker would do. I twisted it to a point and dabbed it against the errant pebble. Timmy blinked and it was gone. “There you go,” I said in my playtime, mother-to-doll, voice.
“Thank you, Tessie,” he said. I was flattered he remembered my name. The backs of my legs melted onto themselves as I relaxed into nature’s sandbox. Our lips flapped in unison as we imitated a vehicle in need of a muffler chug-chug-chugging up a hill. Eventually our lips broke down from lack of lubricant and our pretend trucks were tossed aside.
The sun had warmed the soft sand and we had to dig deep to find anything moist enough to mold, but together we were determined. We shaped forms, poked sticks in strategic places and named our creations. “What should we call this one?” Timmy asked.
“How about a duck without a quacker,” I said. Timmy laughed hard, like boys do. He triggered my giggles when he asked if we could make a fat pig with whiskers. I was having so much unexpected fun I had forgotten about the cave, Marie’s hormones and make-believe dead bodies. Henry watched Timmy and me until treble squeals rolled out of the opening.
“I think it’s time,” Henry said and pulled his flashlight out of the car. “I’m going to tell them to come out now.” I watched as the ink of his shadow blended with the blackness of the opening.
At first the noise sounded like the cave was clearing its throat. I looked around for signs of black clouds and saw the azure of a crisp Minnesota summer sky. I felt the movement under me before the rain of sandstone pelted my head.
I must have looked up. I must have seen it rain down. I know I grabbed for Timmy’s hand without waiting for the silent, desperate language of eye contact. I remembered thinking he had been reaching for me as our fingertips touched and hooked with the lightness of butterfly’s wings. His small warm fingers linked momentarily with mine, fingerprint to fingerprint, but were slippery with the dirt and sweat of play. I hadn’t wanted to remember beyond that but I had. The sandstone broke into pieces as it fell from high above. One large clump first broke our gentle grip knocking me aside but not unconscious. The largest rock fell straight down. Two-ton’s weight all together the newspaper said the next day.
There had been a scream in me and my mouth was fixed for it to come, but it couldn’t. My throat was coiled, cutting off the pain from my brain. God came out of the cave that day but not to save Timmy’s earthly body. I spun out of control in one direction while God wrapped Timmy in His arms.
There was crying and commotion and people, but I couldn’t say what was said, who said it or what they were doing. My pupils were dilated and fixed on the angel-boy’s body, my bleeding hand outstretched as if it could turn back time: I just had to will it. Over and over, somewhere within the span of a second and forever, I willed God, turn it back—just long enough to grip harder, stronger, worthier. But God’s will stood its ground.
I remembered Marie stepping into my line of vision and weaving her fingers in my hand that wasn’t broken as if taking Timmy’s place. She put her arm around my shoulder and her palm on my cheek in a sheltering way. She led me to the station wagon. We passed a large chunk of rock that exposed white laces and blood-red toes of my tennis shoe.
“My shoes, Marie” I said. “Mom’ll kill me.”
“I’ll buy you new ones, Tessie,” she said softly. “I’m so glad you’re alive.” Her tears soaked the top of my head.
The following days blurred together. Timmy’s family had been visiting from another town so there was no funeral to attend for those who had only known him a few playful hours. Everyone in my family prayed for him on Sunday and Saturday and Friday and every day his name was whispered or when someone looked at the cast on my arm or my frozen face. They wagged their heads and clucked out, “It was God’s will.”
Marie kept me close and only called me by my Christian name instead of tag, brat or snitch. She let me tag along everywhere she went and her big-sister secrets were safe in my care. Everyone stared at me like I had a large wart on my nose — as if they really wanted to say something — but, what? Can’t that ugly defect be removed so we’ll all feel better?
“Why don’t you cry, Tessie? God would want you to cry,” my mother finally said. So, I took the hanky with Timmy’s tear on it and held it under my eyes waiting for God’s will to come and my own tears to come: Nothing came. I went to confession. Not to confess, but to ask Father Miller to talk to God for me. I told father to ask God to forgive me for living and for not saving Timmy. “Most of all,” I said. “Ask him why it happened.”
“It is all God’s will, my child,” was his blanket response. I wanted to say, I’m not your child and ‘God’s will’ won’t do. But my tongue wouldn’t cooperate with my pain: It swelled with the fear and guilt of being Catholic. Before the wooden door to the hole between us clacked shut he told me to pray for Timmy’s soul—as if there could be doubt.
I had gone to the wrong person but hadn’t known whom else to ask for answers to impossible questions. What I had needed to hear was that it hadn’t been our laughter, our cries of joy or shrieks of excitement — that my joy hadn’t vibrated death loose that day from on top of the cave.
Years later I married and was blessed with a son. From his first kick in the womb there was never any doubt what his name would be. A sandbox in the backyard was the closest I would let him get to sand. We dug, molded and shaped — our special time together to connect.
One warm summer day, after I had stuck small twigs in a carved mound, I asked my four-year old son, “Timmy, what should we call this one?”
“A fat pig with whiskers,” he said. He laughed hard, like boys do. A gust of wind blew Timmy’s wispy blond hair straight up like he had rubbed a balloon on it. My breathing halted: The past was knocking the wind out of me. Instead of tears, it was laughter that irrupted out of me, free laughter. How long had it been since I had dared to laugh — really laugh out loud — without fear of shaking the earth loose? I let myself gaze into a clear azure expanse. The sky didn’t fall.
Janet Ross is dividing her time between riding her horse, Bella, and letting inspiration and creation flow as she walks her metal detector through the fields of Wisconsin. Her love of and need for reading weaves through every moment in her day.
© 2018, Janet Ross