Authors: Lucy Taylor
Desperate, I decide to wiggle back out and look for another way to go on, but the tunnel twists and contorts at excruciating angles. It's impossible to slither out the way I came in. All I get for my efforts are bruised elbows, torn knees, and the mother of all wedgies.
Panic claws at my throat.
I'll never get out.
I'll die here, squished inside a stone straightjacket. But the voice in my head bullies and curses me onward, so I crawl back to the body. Since I'm not strong enough to rely on brute force, I devise a slow, minimalist series of tweaks that gradually loosens this obstinate flesh-cork in its stone bottleneck: nudge, twist, rock side to side, nudge again.
The poor son of a bitch must have died two to six hours ago, because rigor's setting in, which helps me extract him. He's plank-stiff and (I discover later) both arms are arrowed out in front of him like a cliff diver, the body so rigid by the time it finally pops free, he could double as a javelin or a maypole.
I wriggle out, shaking and sweat-slick, and aim my lamp down at the dead man, groaning when it illuminates the back of Mamoudi's seamed, bloodied neck and reveals the muddy helmet to be a porridge of gray matter and hair glommed around a split, trepanned skull. I picture Mamoudi frantically trying to birth himself out those last crushing inches of squeeze, the irony of a rockfall shattering his skull just as his head poked free. It's a reasonable theory, except that I don't see any fallen rocks or broken stalactites to back it up.
Looking around, I find myself in a wide, high-domed chamber forested floor to ceiling with dripstone. Farther back, overlapping ledges of white limestone crease and crinkle like bolts of brocade. The scene is enchanting and eerie, a grand Gothic hall carved out of calcite and ornamented with aragonite blooms. At one end glimmers a deceptively shallow-looking pond where eyeless albino salamanders laze on its mineral shores. I know from the survey map this is a sump, the entrance to a flooded tunnel leading into the next chamber, but whether it's swimmable without a rebreather, I won't know until I'm underwater.
Before I can ponder this or Mamoudi's demise any further, something more compelling than mere violent death snags my attention: a rapid-fire spitting of sound energy, like a mad tattoo artist bedeviling my nervous system with rhythm rather than ink.
The energy natters against my palms and wet-kisses the space between my breasts. I get a sense of its volume and pitch, the aural equivalent of a blind person reading Braille, and I'm lashed with fear and euphoria. Although I've come down here to find Pree and the others, I also want to locate the mysterious noise. Boone must have realized that too. It's why he didn't want me to go.
Displaced air caused by something big lunging out of a passageway makes me whirl around. A frenzy of shadows spills over the chamber as my lamp illuminates a surreal sight: Bruce Starkeweather, his naked torso smeared with geometric designs painted in cave dirt and gore, brandishing three feet of a blood-streaked stalactite.
His shell-shocked stare tells me all too clearly I'm nobody he's ever seen in his life, and my death is all he desires. As the sound energy from the faraway singing swells over me, he raises his club and charges.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“You should wear headphones to block out the sounds,” I'd told Boone and the others less than twenty-four hours earlier. We were in a small conference room in the Timber Hill Lodge outside Kremming. A map of the known parts of the cave system was tacked up on a board, the shaded areas indicating parts not yet surveyed. Mamoudi and Pree sat together, guzzling coffee and wolfing down bear claws, while Starkeweather, ascetic as ever, stripped foil off a stick of Wrigley's.
Boone, unshaven and haggard-looking, had just come from the hospital where Lionel Hargrave was recovering from a concussion. He told us Hargrave had described his brother's manic insistence on finding the source of the singing. In his deafness, of course, Lionel heard nothing and, probably for that reason (and because he evidently had a thick cranium), had survived to talk about it.
At my remark about the headphones, Pree laughed. Boone looked away, and Mamoudi got up to refill his and Pree's coffee mugs.
I couldn't entirely blame them. I was technically there as backup, but since I'm also the newest member of the team and never found time to get my cave diving certificate, my inclusion in the expedition was unlikely.
Pree, looking fetchingly peeved, said, “How do we communicate if we can't hear? What are we supposed to do? Use sign language? Text?”
Starkeweather mimed headbanging. “Maybe it's a death metal band down there making people go batshit. That used to drive my old man insane.”
Met with such thoughtful responses, what could I say? I wanted to point out that noise isn't always benign, that whatever's down there might be the aural equivalent of lobotomy picks jabbed into the brain via the ears. But it's only a feeling I have, and this group, Pree especially, is not into feelings.
Starkeweather asked a question about the survival kits, and while Boone was responding, I went outside and paced alongside a thin strip of forest next to the parking lot.
After a short time, Pree came up beside me and tried to slide her arm beneath mine. I swatted her off like you would a pesky mosquito. Only a few hours earlier, she'd stopped by my apartment to try to rekindle some romance. We'd smoked a joint, laughed about old times. Then she took everything off except Mamoudi's engagement ring and made love to me like I was the last woman on earth. And I let her. Figured I'd hate myself for it later.
had come sooner than I expected.
“Seriously, Karyn,” she was saying, “if anything goes wrong down there, if there's a problem, Issa and Bruce and I will deal with it. We know the Brotterling, and we know what we're doing. So, don't try anything heroic.” She should've stopped there, but she added, “I know it must be tempting, you with your superpowers and all.”
I glared and walked faster.
“Okay, sorry. It's just that hearing sounds through your skin, that's pretty bizarre.”
That's one word for it. It's also a gift, this intertwining of hearing and touch, where sounds can be physically felt as everything from a shy tap to a punishing blow. It's a door into something most people never experience. Pree's voice, for example, feels lemony, tart. It fizzes under my nails and buzzes up my spine like spikes of Kundalini flame. Intimacy enhances the effect. Pree's voice used to give me not just sensations but images, too: a fire crackling in the kiva of a house that must be from her childhood in Gallup, New Mexico, a young Pree popping figs into her mouth outside an adobe church, and a pale, bearded man who cooed to her while he lay over her body and pounded. My skin drank her life in through her voice. None of this, of course, I could tell her.
“Bizarre's not the word I'd have chosen,” I said. “But when you put it that way, I feel so special.”
“You are special, though, aren't you? You got written up in that magazine.”
She was talking about a story that ran in
(June 2008), in which I was tested along with a number of other more “traditional” synesthetes. Some heard colors; others tasted or smelled numbers and words. An anomaly even among anomalies, I was the only one who could pick up tactile sensations and images via sound waves, even when I didn't understand the language. “Aural imagism,” the writer of the article called it.
I sat with my eyes closed and listened to a woman recite the same passage in a foreign language over and over. Later, I learned it was Finnish. Her vocal tones prickled the soles of my feet; it felt like dancing on tiny ball bearings. The vibrations of her voice formed images like patterns in a turned kaleidoscope. I described a dark red cup, a yellow rose, a strange bird on the wing. The man doing the testing glanced at his notes and paled. The speaker had read a quatrain from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and I'd just described the primary imagery.
Pree laid a hand on my biceps, but I flinched, holding on to my indignation like it was a winning lottery ticket.
I said sullenly, “Boone's screwing up not to send me down with you. I'd be able to feel the singing before the rest of you even heard it.”
She sighed and fell into step with me.
“Look, Karyn, you've been inside plenty of caves. You know what the silence is like down there. Gigantic. A void you don't want to fall into. Then all of a sudden, you hear something so spooky and so unexpected, you just about crap in your pants. If you heard it topside, you'd know it was nothing, maybe the caver in front of you farted or dropped a carabiner, but underground, it's terrifying. Most cavers shrug that stuff off, but some people can't. They have panic attacks; they hallucinate. For all we know, what Hargrave heard was a colony of bats or maybe a few million cave cockroaches.”
When I didn't answer, she snapped, “Dammit, Karyn, are you even listening?”
(More intently than you can imagine.)
“Maybe Hargrave went crazy because the singing he heard was too beautiful,” I said.
“What are you talking about?”
“There's a line in the
by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. It's something to the effect that beauty is the beginning of terror we can just still stand. Maybe that's the deal with the singing. It triggers a level of terror humans aren't meant to endure. It's too beautiful.”
Her mouth set in a pinched line. I thought she was going to slap me. “Nothing's
beautiful. That isn't possible.” Then before I could argue, she gave me a punch on the arm that was too hard to be play. “Don't worry, Karyn; it's gonna be fine.” She looked back toward the motel as though somebody there had just called her name, although nobody had. She said, “See you on the surface, babe,” and hurried away.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Right now, as the sound energy of the singing floods into me and Starkeweather charges, that surface Pree spoke of might as well be on one of Jupiter's moons.
Starkeweather halts just short of the sump. He spits out a lump of gum, bares his teeth in a cannibal grin, and takes a few warm-up swings with the club. I think he's going to pound me to mud, but to any real caver, what he does next is unimaginably worse: he starts attacking the cave itself, swinging viciously, destroying elaborate lacework and yards of dripstone that have grown at a rate of a half inch per century. Clusters of wedge-shaped helictites explode overhead; stalagmites as tall as a man shatter and crash into the sump. The destruction sickens and horrifies me.
Within seconds, something sublime and ethereal has been reduced to an empty mouth full of snaggled teeth. Starkeweather, surveying the rubble, cocks his head and does a bizarre little jig, like he's shaking off a swarm of cave spiders. He shimmies and scrapes at his face while his lips form the words
Shut up! Make it stop
When his eyes refocus, his red gaze finds me again. I switch off my headlamp, and the world floods away in a torrent of black. I drop to the ground and start inching along the cave floor. The headphones are a real hindrance now; they prevent me from hearing which way Starkeweather's moving. The only sound I can feel is the singing, and that has receded to a shivery caress, a centipede skittering over my eyelashes, a salamander disturbing the roots of my hair.
A hail of stones peppers my back and pings off my helmet. Suddenly, Starkeweather's big hands paw at my legs. I kick out blindly. My boot thuds meaty groin. Then he's on top of me, spearmint breath hot in my face, mud-slick fingers fumbling for my jugular. A blacker, thicker shade of night starts shutting down synapses, accompanied by a dazzle of sizzling white stars expiring behind my retinas.
Under my hand I clutch a slab of smashed dripstone and heave it in the general direction of his head. He releases my throat but then latches on to either side of my mouth and tries to unsocket my jaw. I bite down on a finger until my teeth close on a nugget of bone, then roll away as blood fills my mouth. Next thing I know, I'm underwater. The sump's frigid and inky, andâ
Starkeweather be damnedâI switch my headlamp back on. I'm inside a flooded tunnel where so much silt has been stirred up, it's like swimming through horse piss. I look for an air pocket overhead but can make out only jutting mineral walls and the segmented bodies of albino worms ghosting behind swirls of particled water.
My lungs bleed for air. The sump narrows into a long, jagged throat, where beyond, water splashes over a pale, fluted ledge. Between me and the air glitters a gauntlet of stone cudgels and knives. My cave pack rips off and my oversuit's torn. Dark red snakes squiggling too close alarm me until I realize I'm batting away my own blood. My head punches the surface, and I heave myself onto a milk-white dome of flowstone, then collapse across it, teeth wildly clattering.
Eventually, I rally enough to fill my hands with rocks and wait to see if Starkeweather follows me.
A short time later, he pops to the surface floating facedown. I let him stay like that for five minutes before I grab his belt and haul him up next to me. His neck and cheeks are grotesquely ballooned. When I turn him over, jagged pebbles and mineral chips mixed with shattered enamel gush out of his mouth in a torrent of red. I want to think Starkeweather was already dangerously unstable and would have acted out sooner or later, but I don't really believe it. I know the singing has unhinged him to the point of attacking the cave with his teethâthe same sounds Mamoudi and Hargrave must have heard, and that Pree, if she's still alive, is hearing right now.
It feels stronger and a helluva lot closer than it did before I passed through the sump. Those previously faint waves of energy are now sharp and urgent, a persistent scratching at various parts of my body, like a frantic child seeking entry to a house at one door and one window after another.