By Lisa Lepovetsky
“They’ve been called ‘Chrysalis Caverns’ for the past fifty years,” drawled the bored teenage guide—Pansy or Bambi—around a mouthful of bubble gum. “They were given that name because entomologist—that means insect specialist—Elmer Bowes, who first discovered the caves in eighteen seventy-three, was searching for the chrysalis—the cocoon—of a luna moth. He never found the cocoon, but he spent the next twenty-five years excavating these caves.”
She stepped through the doorway of the little entry booth, and we seven gladly followed her from the stuffiness inside into the crisp sunshine of a late-autumn afternoon. Her hips swayed just a little too much in the tight jeans, and while two pairs of male eyes tried unsuccessfully to avoid watching her, Jeanie Dodd and I pretended not to notice. And since Jeanie actually bore a strong resemblance to the little piece of French pastry leading us into Chrysalis Caverns, I suspected she wasn't pretending.
Pansy/Bambi stood next to the “Enter at your own risk” sign and continued in her sing-song voice: “Of course, we like to add another dimension to the name.” I wondered whether she even knew what the word ‘dimension’ meant. “We say that anyone who enters these caves has a metamorphosis from the experience, just like the caterpillar changes into the luna moth Elmer Bowes searched for—and like Elmer himself changed from an entomologist to a spelunker, or cave explorer.” She pointed to another hand-painted sign beneath the warning. It read: “Be prepared to be changed forever.”
A nice sentiment, I thought, even if it was a bit of an exaggeration. All she’d have to do was put a little emotion into it, or just look at us instead of glancing at her watch. We’d already been told we were the last group of the day to go through the caves. I was really in no mood to be ‘changed forever,’ after the weekend I’d just spent in the wilds of West Virginia with Blake and his survivalist buddies. I just wanted to get home and stand under a hot shower for an hour or so.
“It’ll be fun, babe,” he’d said when I suggested he’d have a better time without me there. “It’s like a family thing this time. You and the other wives can sit around and talk about shopping or hair or kids or whatever, while we’re out practicing.”
“Practicing” was Blake’s word for the tactical maneuvers and war games he and the other weekend mountaineers played at once a month. Usually it was just a guy thing, and he came back exhausted and filthy, and smelling of cigars and beer and wood smoke and who knows what else. I was surprised that they’d even considered inviting women this time, and even more surprised that any other wives had agreed to tag along. Jeanie and I were the only women who’d joined them. I couldn't understand why any other woman in her right mind—one without an ulterior motive—would want to spend a weekend “with the boys.” Or why those “boys” would want women along in the first place.
Of course, I understood a lot more when I saw the way Blake and Jeanie exchanged little private glances when they thought nobody was watching. And when I noticed how they both disappeared for five or ten minutes at fairly regular intervals throughout the weekend. Blake’s never been the most subtle guy around, and Jeanie wasn’t his first fling—though I was determined it would be his last. Jeanie’s husband Rob seemed oblivious to Blake’s attentions toward his wife. He was more interested in drinking beer and shooting at squirrels. And the other two guys obviously couldn’t have cared less one way or the other.
So I found myself pretty well ignored for most of the weekend, which was fine with me. Except for putting a dead snake in my sleeping bag—one of his famous practical jokes—even Blake left me alone. I like exploring the woods, and other than Blake’s interest in Jeanie, I wouldn’t have paid any attention to the others at all. I’d just come along because of my curiosity about why Blake was so insistent that I be there. I quickly realized it was so that Rob would bring Jeanie.
It had been Jeanie’s idea that we stop at the caverns on the way home. She’d never been inside them, and thought it would be a “hoot.” Nobody argued with her. I was anxious to enjoy my hot shower and soft bed, and I really didn’t relish wandering around in a bunch of little stone passageways. But I didn’t want to be the lone dissenter in the group, and the four of us were riding together, so I stayed quiet.
We followed our perky little tour guide down a path to the mouth of the cavern as she regaled us with oh-so-fascinating statistics about the size and depth of the caves, and the composition of the stone. I stopped listening halfway down, and concentrated on watching Jeanie and Blake. As we headed toward the arched stone entrance and Pansy/Bambi cautioned us to watch our step on the slick walkway, Blake put his hand against Jeanie’s lower back to help her along. She turned and smiled at him gratefully. Not a big deal, I thought, but still I found myself grinding my teeth.
Pansy/Bambi stopped and gestured with her long flashlight at the opening. “When Elmer Bowes discovered these caves, the opening was barely large enough for him to crawl through on his hands and knees,” she said. “It’s been enlarged since then, to accommodate visitors like yourselves.” I tried to imagine crawling through a tiny passageway, not knowing whether you’d have room to even turn around. My palms grew sweaty just thinking about it.
As we descended the rough-hewn stairs, the ceiling lowered and the men had to duck their heads to continue. The walls narrowed until I could stretch out my arms and touch them on both sides at once. I could feel my claustrophobia kicking in, but I’d be damned if I’d let perfect Jeanie know, so I fought my natural inclination to retreat. I wished I could take Blake’s hand, but he was up by Jeanie, and I was at the rear, just after Rob. Then we rounded a bend and a large cavern opened in front of us. I could breathe again.
“This is known as the Throne Room,” Pansy/Bambi said, snapping a large pink bubble as she spoke. “You can see the stalactites from the ceiling meet the stalagmites rising from the floor to form columns in front of the large raised bed of stone on the far side of the room. You can imagine that the smaller stalagmites scattered around could be kneeling supplicants.”
“Supplicants”—another big word from the little girl. I couldn’t imagine anything of the kind, but I followed her into the room nonetheless.
“Throne room,” Blake snickered. “That’s what I call the john at home.” Rob laughed and Jeanie giggled, but I just rolled my eyes. Typical Blake – toilet humor. I wondered whether he entertained all his floozies this way, and whether they all found it as hilarious as Jeanie seemed to. There was a time I found Blake’s little jokes charming, but that time was long past.
As we passed from the Throne Room into another crooked passageway, the air grew cooler, and the constant sound of dripping seemed to grow louder. Lights hung from wires attached to the ceiling. The sun no longer shone inside Chrysalis Caverns, and I shivered, despite the flannel shirt I wore.
“Please watch your step along here.” The little voice chirping from the front of our group seemed hollow among the stones. “And proceed single file. The path gets pretty steep for a while.” I noticed a flimsy rope guardrail on the left was all that kept us from plummeting into darkness. I hugged the damp stone wall on my right. I wasn’t afraid of heights, but there was no sense taking chances.
As Jeanie went ahead, Blake put his hands on her hips and pretended to give her a shove. “Bombs away,” he laughed. She gave a little shriek and grabbed onto him.
“Quit horsing around, Blake,” I said, anxious for him to take his paws off Jeanie. “That could be dangerous.”
“Lighten up, Eve,” he sighed. “Don’t be such a killjoy.”
Pansy/Bambi picked up a small rock and said. “I can give you an idea of how deep this crevice is. Notice how long it takes for this chunk of limestone to hit bottom.” She held it over the edge of the precipice and dropped it. A few seconds later, we heard a crack as the stone landed.
“That’s a hundred feet down,” she said. “You can’t see very well in this light, but up ahead, we’ll be able to see better what that looks like.” She walked on, and I moved up closer to Blake. I tried to hold his hand, but he shifted away toward Jeanie. Rob was behind me, and apparently didn’t notice what was going on. Or didn’t care.
It wasn’t long before the path opened up into a large chamber where we stood on a table of rock that jutted into a nearly vertical chasm. The narrow plateau was surrounded by another low rope guardrail.
“We call this room Echo Cavern,” Pansy/Bambi said, and I could immediately tell why. The tinny sound of her voice reverberated along the wet walls and seemed to come from all around us. “If you approach the edge, you’ll see just how deep the chasm is.”
Blake and Rob stepped toward the rope fence to look down, and Jeanie and I followed them at a slight distance. I moved ahead of Jeanie so that I would be between her and Blake. When I reached out and gripped his elbow, he tried to move away, but I held fast. I knew if it were Jeanie holding him, he’d have no problem. She edged between Blake and Rob, and I could feel Blake leaning toward her.
At that moment, Pansy/Bambi spoke again. “Now I’ll show you how dark it gets in Chrysalis Caverns. I’m going to turn off the lights for a minute, so don’t move.”
I watched her hand move toward a wall switch that I hadn’t noticed before, and suddenly we were plunged into complete, suffocating darkness. I felt Blake shift toward Jeanie, and she giggled. I reacted without thinking.
I shouted, “Stop fooling around, Blake.” And, still gripping his elbow, I shoved him hard against the flimsy rope barrier. I felt him teeter for a moment, as the cord seemed to decide whether or not to keep him from falling. Small pebbles ground under his shoes and pattered against the sides of the chasm. I pushed again. Then he was over the edge with a scream, just as the lights came back on. His scream echoed around us in the sudden brightness.
In the couple of seconds it took him to hit bottom, nobody said a word. I think it took them a moment to realize what had happened. Then Jeanie shrieked and buried her face in Rob’s shoulder, and Pansy/Bambi hurried over.
“Nothing like this has ever happened,” she said, her voice breaking. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” She looked at me pleadingly.
I was genuinely trembling, and forced some tears. “We’ll have to go back and get some help to bring him up.” I panted as I tried to catch my breath. I had to get out of there; the walls were closing in on me. I started to run up the path along the chasm and through the Throne Room. When I reached the entryway, I leaned against the wall for a moment, trying to pull myself together. I noticed my shaking hand resting on the sign reading “Be prepared to be changed forever” and I thought about Blake, at the bottom of Chrysalis Caverns.
Yes, I thought, it was true; we were changed forever. At least, Blake was.
Lisa Lepovetsky has been published frequently in anthologies and magazines, including EQMM. She holds an MFA in writing from Penn State University. She writes and hosts mystery theaters under the name “It’s A Mystery!” and has published a novel, SHADOWS ON THE BAYOU. She also has a new volume of dark poetry, Voices from Empty Rooms, available from Alban Lake Publishing and Amazon.
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