Authors: Lucy Taylor
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In spite of its dark history, the entrance to the Brotterling Cave complex, eleven miles south of Kremming, Kentucky, appears bucolic, even invitingâa rocky, green arch, swathed in bulblet ferns, Virginia creepers, and sumacs meandering in lazy zigzags along the slope of the hill. In summer, a sumptuous veil of ironweed and lobelia spills over the lava-dark basalt, and cavers, from novice to expert, grind up the mudhole-pocked logging road in their four-wheel-drives, leave their rides in the turn-around, and trek inside like ants marching into the maw of a sleeping triceratops.
Most of the time, they come back just fine.
I've caved in the Brotterling a few times myself, but never before alone and always in thoroughly mapped parts of the cave system. And even though I'd heard all the stories, I was never afraid.
Now I'm terrified.
Just before sunrise, a little over seven hours ago, I crept through the woods alongside the dirt road and slipped inside the leafy green mouth of the cave. Only Boone knew what I wanted to do, and he didn't approve it, of courseâhow could he, when he's captain of Bluegrass Search and Rescue? In the heat of our argument about how to find and extract the four cavers who are currently missing, he called me “reckless and goddamn delusional” and accused me of thinking I was invulnerable because “you've got that synthetic thing going on.”
I bit back a laugh that would've embarrassed us both and told him the word was synesthesia and mine is a rare form in which sounds are “heard” through the skin as vibrations. I explained to him again how my ability could help in a situation where noises inside the cave appeared to be causing a neurological event in the brains of those exposed to them. I said I would go into the cave wearing the in-ear waterproof headphones I use on occasion to get relief from life's general babble, which can prove overwhelming for someone with my sound sensitivities. He just shook his head and looked at me like I was contesting the curve of the earth. But this morning, no one was posted at the cave entrance to stop me, so I took that as his tacit blessing.
Or maybe he was so desperate to get Pree and the others back that losing me is an acceptable risk, albeit one he won't sign off on.
As any caver around here will tell you, even minus the uncanny noises, the Brotterling can kill you in any number of ways. One is by tricking you into thinking it's not a damn dangerous cave. The first two hundred feet or so are deceptively easy: after you've slithered and squeaked past a row of huge boulders crowded together like a mouthful of grey, diseased teeth, the cave opens up like a belly. A bit farther on, you stroll down a broad, pebbly incline while the natural light gradually dims. The vertical slit of the opening shrinks to the size of a peach pit. Suddenly, you find yourself in a constricted, mausoleum-black oubliette. You switch on your headlamp and commence the descent, scuttling through barely shoulder-width tunnels, snaking up vertical cracks, traversing a series of amber-blue lakes, some of which you can ford without getting your knees wet, others deepening into treacherous sumps where you'll drown if you don't have a rebreather or a damn good set of lungs.
Piece of cake
was my grandiose appraisal the first time Pree Yazzie guided me through the Brotterling, but I was twenty then, brand-new to caving, recently graduated from the University of Louisville with an altogether useless BA in English lit, and just out of a closet I had not fully realized I even was in. I was also in love with her and thought it was mutual, a conclusion based on nothing more solid than a couple of nights of hot sex. I didn't realize then that the only thing Pree ever lusted for was adventure, which she found in equal measure in caves, beds, and underground rivers. She came, she saw, etc. We'd met at a meeting of Search and Rescue, where Boone gave a presentation on abseiling techniques. I paid scant attention; Boone Pike was just another fortysomething, hardcore cave rat with a granite-gray ponytail, a smile like a crack in an anchor bolt, and big, spade-shaped hands that looked like they'd been crushed and pinned back together a time or two. I kept sneaking glances at Pree, the only other woman in a room full of men who, as the bumper stickers boast, “do it in tight places.'
A line that would make me chuckle right now, if I could expand my squeezed lungs enough to get a full breath of air. Tight places, indeed.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
During that day when Pree and I explored the Brotterling, she filled me in on the cave's not-so-savory pastâhow every few decades, a caver fails to resurface or, worse, crawls back out physically whole but with a maimed mind and homicidal intent.
Not quite what I wanted to hear a quarter mile under the earth, but I loved the sound of her voice when she explained the cave's frightening history.
The first incident was Dr. Reginald Moore, a caver and Presbyterian minister who spent four days lost in the Brotterling in 1935. Lacking modern caving equipment and (perhaps a greater hindrance) a suitably arachnid-like frame, he was thwarted by narrow tunnels and unswimmable sumps, but eventually found his way to the surface and described the “eerie and infernal yodeling” of demons who tormented him by chanting the Psalms backward in fiendish, fist-thumping cadences.
Widely mocked by the press, Moore later hung himself after setting fire to his house with his wife, father-in-law, and two young sons tied up inside.
Twenty-seven years later, Garth Tidwell, a teenager who entered the Brotterling on a dare, killed himself, his parents, and a neighbor hours after exiting the cave, writing in his suicide note about singing that sounded like “a wild hallelujah of wind chimes and fornicating bobcats.”
The lurid description was dismissed as psychotic rambling, probably exacerbated by the terror of being alone and disoriented. If Tidwell had heard anything at all, it was explained away as wind hissing through passageways or water burbling up from an underground stream.
But now we come to the Hargrave brothersâMathew and Lionelâexperienced cavers who entered the Brotterling this past Sunday. Lionel, an Iraqi War Vet whose hearing was lost to a roadside IED in Mosel, is totally deaf. A few hours after the two men entered the cave, he emerged alone, battered and bloody. He described how, half a mile below the surface, Mathew had signed to him that he could hear music “coming from distant and delicate singers” and insisted they search for the source of the sound. For a while, Lionel obliged him, but when the way proved too difficult, he suggested they turn back. In response, Mathew became enraged, bludgeoned his brother with a rock, and left him unconscious and bleeding.
When Lionel finally found his way to the surface and summoned help, three senior members of Bluegrass Search and Rescue were dispatchedâobsessive, spearmint-gum-chewing Bruce Starkeweather, extreme ectomorph Issa Mamoudi, and the ever elusive Pree Yazzie.
Boone's Dream Team.
That's when things started getting weird.
At nine that night, Starkeweather contacted Boone via cave phone to report high-pitched humming or chanting. Boone told him to return to the surface. The final transmission, a few hours later, came from a distraught, incoherent Mamoudi-mangled syntax and a garble of English, French, and Farsi that degenerated into choking and wails.
No one's heard from any of them since.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Which is how I come to be half a mile under the earth, worming my way through a twist in the moist, black, and aptly named Intestinal Bypass, a wretched, rib-crushing, claustrophobia-inducing belly crawl. Nearing the end, just a minute ago, I came to a plug in the tunnel about ten feet ahead. I can see the bottoms of dirt-packed, lug-soled boots, a damp, filthy oversuit, and, if I crane my neck almost out of joint, I can make out the white dome of a mud-splattered helmet. It's not Pree, who's waif-thin and wears size six boots, but one of the men, Hargrave, Mamoudi, or Starkeweather.
I crawl closer, scraping along on my elbows and toes, but get no reaction to the light flaring out from my headlamp. My initial thought is that the caver's become wedged in the last few feet of the Bypass, where the tunnel cinches like a cruelly corseted waist. The first time I came through here with Pree, I tore a rotator cuff trying to shove myself through the passage. Now, four years later and at least fifteen pounds thinner, it's still a brutal squeeze.
My second thought, after I grab a leg and begin shaking it, is that while he may or may not be stuck, this guy's stone-cold dead.
Which means if I can't push him out, I'm fucked.
Shit. Panic pinballs around my ribs. My lungs rasp, and all the air's vanished.
Forget whatever's inside the cave. Forget Pree and the chance of finding survivors. I want out of hereâNOW!
Then a soothing, calm voice that I've trained for just such situations begins speaking inside my head:
Breathe, Karyn. Just breathe. You're okay. We'll figure this out.
It's my own voice, the voice I've heard in other bad situations above and below ground, and I heed it. I must if I want to live. Gradually, I coax a full breath past the terror constricting my throat. I'm not going to die down here. Not yet, anyway. A numb resolve settles in: I can do this.
Trying to eject a dead guy out the end of a tomb-black tunnel while you're flat on your belly feels like a sadist's idea of a stunt on some nightmarish survival TV show. I push until my biceps blaze, but it's impossible to get any traction. I might as well be trying to strongarm Atlas's Dick, a colossal stalagmite cavers use as a waypoint in one of the Brotterling's upper chambers.
I strain and curse and hyperventilate. Drink tears and cold, musky sweat. The white noise churning through the headphones under my helmet provides an incongruous soundtrack to my struggle: monster breakers shattering on a raw, rocky coastline of black sand and a harsh sun (at least, this is the image I get of it). The sound's meant to protect me from the singing, but right nowâpinched like a thumb in a pair of Chinese handcuffsâthe buffering noise only intensifies the terror of being stuck in a limestone tube with a corpse.