_________Kaibab National Forest, Arizona
Down, down past the trap rock, we scramble the slag. Switch on our headlamps, avoid the iced outcrops, tunnel and scutter, over crushed andesite, briquettes of basalt, toppling blocks. Then we duck through a bottleneck, grope a pinched causeway, and the ceiling expands: thirty feet high, a great hollow intestine. A world without cloud-scrim, divested of sun. Our eyes adjust to chthonic boneyards and boxwork, scallops and scrum; we ragpick our way by the blue glow of our beams. Deep into the compact, this place is no place, all speleothems, prehistory, analog, womb—the underworld’s echoing hall. Onward, the chamber crimps like a tube of used toothpaste, contracts like a heart. Guano and mineral stains, trench and crevasse; we stutter-step the uneven flowstones and spars on the floor. Clefts and tripping plates, archways, tipping stones. A scrawl on the cave wall declares PIGBEAR WAS HERE. Crawling on further, crooked and chilled, the cave walls vault up again. You say click off the flashlight, and I do. Through absolute dark, we stare into skull. Listen to phantoms worry a hangnail. Deep in some amnion, a birth of the auricle. Hammer and anvil, stirrup and drum. The sound of my swallowing. The sound of your sighing. Rumbling, stammering. Rumors antsy with hiccups. A murmurous vacancy: echoing hoofbeats, tinkling rockslides. Pebbles and feldspar, galloping, galloping. I give you a nudge. Your light snaps back on. A bright circle of runes. An ossuary everywhere: nothing left to deceive us. Grayscale and fissures, scumble and dust. Narrowing, narrowing, we come to the end. A warped rondure of stone. Omphalos. A divot and nub. We turn around then, tilt through the warren, the scrimmaging limits, gaining a handhold, crossing cracked shingles and in-folding bulwarks, debris of old rockslides, ramparts and filling. Like gravediggers, like miners, we’ve stalked through the wormholes a longstanding fire’s burnt under the hills, our bodies like myths we disinterred from our dreams. And now bouldering up to the light, to a soft curtain of rain, your shadow ascends, clambers a passage, and climbs out of the mouth.