I found the cave this morning, cut into the chert at the base of the cliff and curtained by a heavy fall of wild thyme. Seven years, searching every summer, and here it was the whole time. I know I've passed this way before. Maybe the stones have shifted, maybe the thyme was thicker. I can still smell it on my hands from pushing it aside, hooking it on a knob of rock so that some sunlight penetrated down the shaft. It smells like 'Lissa's shampoo.
The crack in the pog where she fell has sealed over long since, with the strong, scrubby bushes that flourish in the high rocky soil and, together with the hardy mosses, make the sharp edges seem so soft at a distance. I knew my best chance was to find the cave they couldn't find then.
Inside, the sunlight dapples the darkness, and the sound of my breath echoes. I smell thyme and dry rock. It's cold and it smells cold, an ancient cold that the horse and antelope ran through thousands of years ago, where 'Lissa's gone.
Never explore a cave alone like I just did. Here at the entrance, the roof domes high in the weak light, but at the back you'll see it starts to narrow. I just went half a mile in.
I found a crack in the back, wide enough to squeeze through if I turn sideways and hold my breath. I stood at the maw and waited for a while, listening, waiting for my breathing to quiet. At last I turned the flashlight off.
And in the dark I heard it, faintly, far back there. The chanting. It fades in and out though the passages inside the mountain. Because they are on the move; they are always on the move.
I've found them. I've found her.
• • •
It was my idea to go hiking in Languedoc seven years ago. We'd been too poor for more honeymoon than a drive up the coast and two nights in a Motel 6. Two years later we still couldn't afford Paris, but a week in a guesthouse in the South was still reasonable those days, with two week's vacation and a Christmas bonus.
When we hit turbulence on the descent into Toulouse 'Lissa told me she was pregnant.
What, I said, wondering if she was joking, did you go pee on a stick in the toilet in back? And she said no, she knew a few days before we left, but she didn't want any excuse to cancel the trip. And I was a little angry she hadn't told me, but mostly glad, and she was only two months along, anyway. Nothing was going to happen to her. It was just a shame, she laughed, that she couldn't drink the wine.
Madame Dumont was waiting for us at the pensione, with a fire in the parlor and strong coffee on the table. She gave me a look that said she'd seen too many disappointing men, and then she turned to 'Lissa and her face softened. Everyone loved Melissa, with her chopped, curly hair and enthusiastic, deplorable French. They couldn't help it; the girl was made of love.
• • •
This morning at the breakfast-table, Madame Dumont put the sliced bread on the table and turned her deep-crevassed face to me. Suddenly it was seven years ago, and I was back from the mountains, weary and hopeless. I stood in the same room, numb, and she turned to me like that, from the table, and she said in a voice that trembled: is it the little Madame?
Madame Dumont doesn't want me here, but the room is always ready, the sheets clean and smelling of rosemary, a worn quilt folded at the foot of the brass bed. The afternoon light dapples through the old, watery glass of the window and makes everything golden.
This morning, I waited for her to say it again — is it the little Madame? But she said nothing, retreating into the kitchen with the smell of frying ham. She thinks I'm morbid, returning every year. She thinks I'm looking for what remains of 'Lissa in the mountains. Like the would-be adventurers who come to search for the lost treasure of the Cathars, smuggled out of the nearby fortress of Montségur during the crusades. Gold or jewels, ancient codices or the Holy Grail, they've got a better chance of finding it than I have of finding my wife's bones in the wilderness, my child's bones curled between her hips like a snail.
Perhaps you are a treasure hunter yourself. Good luck to you, I say. I wish from the bottom of my heart that you find it and that it's the Sangrael or a chest of gold or the lost Gospel of Christ and His Lineage or everything you were looking for.
• • •
After a week of cheese and bread and cassoulets, and giggling sex between Madame's linens, and trying to read, with much hilarity, a tattered, yellow-backed French novel someone had left in the dresser drawer, we wanted to stretch our legs in the jagged hills. Madame, when consulted, looked dubious, but I ventured to the village and a local agent de voyage who found us, without fuss, two places in a hiking group — just meet at the trailhead at 8 AM sharp.
The guide, Jean, spoke excellent English. His name might have been Jean-Robert. He was about my age. There was an older English couple, red-faced, fit and clipped of speech. I still think of them as Lord and Lady Haversham. 'Lissa would have laughed at that. A French student, a Spanish tourist, interchangeably male and female in my memory. When I try to recall, I see fragments — a stubbled cheek, or the curve of someone's shoulder. Everyone spoke at least some English, the language of science and arrogance. Everyone wore khakis and sturdy boots and carried haversacks with first aid kits and energy bars and water. We were all very sensible. Nothing should have gone wrong.
Our noontime goal was what they call a pog here, a narrow podium of rock jutting high over the surrounding valleys. The ruins of Montségur loomed in the distance. We set forth, Lord and Lady Haversham efficient and determined, the French-or-Spanish boys-or-girls chatting. 'Lissa walked ahead of me, and as the distance took its toll on my desk-bound body, I concentrated on watching her legs flex back and forth beneath her small pack and her shoulders swinging in rhythm.
• • •
I said the girl was made of love because I loved her, but sometimes I've wondered, older and cynical, if we would've lasted this long. In seven years, so many dreary details mount, like an overdrawn account you finally can't ignore. Like milk that ripens until it spoils.
Seven years ago, I would've despised myself for thinking that. And last night, sleeping in the bed where we once slept together, I dreamed that 'Lissa stood in front of me. The sun dappled her face. My younger self leaned in the doorway, impatient to be off. The chanting began, and the beat of bones on tight rawhide. She looked at me, ripe with love and pity, before turning and following my foolish youth out the door. Now, as the cold stone of the cave wall bites into my back as I write this, I can hear the drum. I should have brought gifts. Arrowheads. Paint for our bodies. Rabbit pelts.
• • •
We'd almost reached the top of the pog when I felt dizzy. The world lurched left. I staggered and wondered what the others must think of the American doing a sprawling jig on top of the mountain.
But the stunted trees that clung to the rocks were shaking, and there was a deep rumble, like a freight train imprisoned deep beneath us, and the others were staggering too.
Later on, I learned that earthquakes are not uncommon here. I read about that quake. It did little damage. In a village two miles away a schoolhouse roof collapsed, but the children were outside. Some shelves fell over in a grocery, and the grocer's leg was broken.
If you're standing in the cave now, get out if you hear that rumble.
When the shaking stopped, we looked at one another, frozen in those ridiculous attitudes. Everything was silent — no birds — even the wind had stopped to listen to the earth growl. Slowly, we relaxed and straightened.
'Lissa turned to give me a worried smile, took one step, and was gone.
I threw myself at a split in the pog that hadn't been there ten seconds before. Two feet away her fingers, white with the effort, gripped the sides of the rock.
Small fingers with pale pink nails. She'd painted her nails the night before, sitting under the window. Once, she turned and laughed at something I said. I've never remembered what.
I pushed myself forward over sharp stones and brushed her warm fingers with mine. Then the world lurched sideways again, and there was the sound of rock grinding against rock, and the pale fingers were gone. One short scream, almost a squeak. The clatter of pebbles. Then, again, that waiting silence.
The slit in the stone didn't look like it could possibly swallow a human. I looked down into blackness, shouting Melissa, Melissa, over and over, like an automaton. I couldn't stop, even though I knew I wouldn't hear if she called back, as if I could summon her back through the sheer power of my voice.
Strong fingers dug into my shoulder and pulled me away: Jean, the guide. I looked at the others. All of them, shaken, mouths like little black holes. I'd forgotten that they were there. I stared at Jean, the olive complexion of his skin beneath the stubble, the faint reddish spot where a pimple was rising.
Shush, shush a moment, he said. We both leaned close in the preternatural silence over the void to listen. Far away down, a faint scrape of rocks clattering, and then her voice, distorted by echoes.
-Paul, she said. Paul. I'm hurt.
-Talk to her, and make her stay still, said Jean, and crawled backwards from the void.
-Melissa, I called. Jean is getting help. He says to stay still.
-I don't have a choice, she said. I think — ow!
-I think my leg is broken. Paul!
-Keep talking. It's dark here.
Like an idiot, I didn't know what to say. Flat on my belly with the dank air from the bowels of the Pyrenees drifting across my face, like a tick on a stony monster who has swallowed my wife, and I was mute.
She's hurt, I thought. She's in the dark. Say something.
-Can you see anything at all?
I pressed my chin against the lichens, grey-green splotches on the black rock.
-Some light, way up there.
-Can you see the break in the rock?
-No. More a glow. I think I turned a corner somehow. Falling.
That can't be good, I thought. It would make it harder to haul her out. Still, she could see some light. That was encouraging.
Warmth at my back — Lady Haversham was kneeling beside me, Lord Haversham standing at her side. He had a flashlight out, and shone it down the slit. I wanted to tell them to go away, that we'd fix it ourselves. As if it was something two people could fix.
-Melissa, I shouted, instead. Can you see the flashlight?
He started turning it on and off in a kind of stuttering Morse code.
-Can you see it flashing?
-No, she said after a while. Just the same as before.
Lord Haversham frowned.
-She said she thought she turned a corner, falling, I offered, lamely.
-That's going to make it difficult. They're going to have to remove rocks, and that's tricky, he said. Still, it probably broke her fall somewhat. She's a long way down there.
-Jean-Robert's called a rescue team. Went to the bottom of the pog because we're out of range this high. Around here they specialize in mountain and cave rescue. Sometimes they have to call in teams from the UK, or Spain. But they're very good.
I looked at him blankly. The United Kingdom was so far away.
But this was Europe. People went to England for the weekend here. Countries are entwined together.
-I have some rope, said the French student in halting English.
Lady Haversham shook her head.
-We need to wait for rescue, she said, briskly. No good anyone else getting hurt.
Lord Haversham was still probing the slit with the beam of his flashlight.
-She can't see it, I said, irritable.
He nodded without looking at me.
-Can't hurt. Could hit an angle where she sees it, and then she knows she's not alone down there. Trapped in spaces like that, it's easy to get panicky, to think everyone's left you behind. We wouldn't want her thinking that.
I was childishly grateful.
-Melissa, I shouted, a rescue team will be here soon.
-Not my leg.
-My leg isn't broken. It's my ankle.
-Bones, she said.
-More bones are broken?
-No. Bones. I'm sitting on a pile of bones.
She shifted her weight, and I heard them, a clatter like a pile of broken porcelain.
-Can you reach your own flashlight? It's in your pack.
-Wait, she said, impatient.
Another clatter. Then the sound of canvas dragging. A long, pause, then the sound of Velcro. I almost laughed.
-I have it.
I could breathe again. At least she wasn't alone in the dark.
-What? Are you OK?
-Ow. Ow. I can't move. Wait.
-'Lissa, hold still. You don't know…
-Paul, there's paintings everywhere. Horses and other things. I don't know. Bison?
As first I didn't understand. I was thinking about paintings that hang on the wall, the Mona Lisa or the Dogs Playing Poker. Framed paintings hanging in a cave in the heart of the mountain didn't make any sense.
Then I got it. Cave paintings, like the caves at Lascaux. I'd gone there in my student days, to see the reproductions that somehow gain authenticity through proximity to the original. I heard the Lascaux paintings were covered by mold. Later, back in the States, I'd learned that there are prehistoric paintings in many of the caves that riddle the Pyrenees. I bought books, I read and read, like any treasure hunter worth his salt.
Someone was clattering up the path behind us. Jean, barking into a walkie-talkie, so gruff and fast I couldn't pick out the words. Seeing me, he shrugged and put it away.
-Still out of range up here, he said, speaking slowing and carefully, as if his English was deserting him. I made contact with the nearest authorities. A team is on its way.
-She says she sees paintings, I said, lamely.
-She might be hallucinating, said Lady Haversham. I gave her a look, and she looked straight back.
- Could be. She might have hit her head.
-Tell us about the paintings, Melissa, I shouted, looking at Jean, who bent close to the crack. And the bones. What kind of bones?
There was a long pause. Jean bent close to the slit.
-All kinds of bones, she said at last. Ribs, and leg bones. Animal bones. And they're clean. Clean and dry.
-Sometimes bones will wash into the caves, said Jean. And sometimes, you'll find…une cashette…a pile that has been left.
-A cache, murmured Lady Haversham.
-Yes… and together with the paintings...Madame!
-Melissa, I said to him.
Faintly, I heard her laugh and wondered if she'd forgotten there were others up here.
-Melissa, can you tell us more about the paintings?
Jean and I looked at each other.
-They're black and a sort of deep red. Orange. There's hundreds of them. All sorts of animals. More than I can see. They're beautiful. Like they're in motion.
There was a strange, out of place chopping sound. Over the ridge rose a helicopter, as out of place here as a spaceship. Jean stood up and waved.
It dipped and sank out of sight.
-Where are they going? I said, alarmed.
-They can't land here, Jean said. Not enough flat. He gestured with an outstretched hand. They'll land below, and climb.
-Melissa, I shouted. There's a helicopter here. People will be here soon — to get you out. Hang on.
-I don't know what some of these are.
-Did you hear? The rescue team is here. Almost here.
-I think — Paul, I think some of these are extinct. Deer with huge antlers. Something like a rhinoceros. Could it be a rhinoceros?
-I don't know.
-It could, said Lord Haversham, matter-of-factly. He never stopped turning the flashlight on and off, on and off, and pointing it here and there.
The world wobbled again, the rocks I clung to a thin sheet over earth suddenly liquid.
-Aftershocks, said Jean. Still unstable. Everyone — he pointed at the English, the French-Spanish — everyone back.
-I'm staying here, I said, although he hadn't pointed to me. Melissa, are you still there?
-Tell them not to do that again. Everything…shifted.
-Sorry about that, I said. It made sense then.
Her voice was definitely weaker. I wondered how bad she was injured, besides the ankle. She could have hit her head.
-I see him now.
-What? Thank God. The rescue team must have found another passageway in.
-On the walls, halfway up. I see him. He's dancing with the bison.
-Who? I heard many feet clattering the stones on the path behind us.
-He's got antlers on his head. Enormous eyes.
-One of the paintings? Something brushed my cheek. I scrubbed at my face and my fingers were wet.
-He's not a painting. He's dancing.
-Sir. A voice in my ear, a hand on my shoulder. Sir, please move.
-Melissa, the team is here. I have to move, but I'm still up here.
Silence. Jean pulled me back, and the team — six or seven men, each carrying a pack of equipment, bustled around the slit like a surgical team around a patient.
-It is necessary to be patient, said Jean.
I looked at him blankly.
-They know what they're doing, he continued.
I believed him.
-Did you hear what she said? I asked him, but he shook his head.
For me the time crept, although the sun barely moved in the sky. They worked on enlarging the opening, stone by stone. Occasionally they shouted down to 'Lissa. I don't know if she called back. All this time Jean stood by me. At first he translated some of what the team was saying — they didn't want to use explosives with her underneath; they needed to get her water and glucose; they would look for another entrance, as this one was unstable. Eventually, he just watched them and forgot to explain.
-Can I talk to her again? I asked him. He spoke to the team, and frowning, the man in charge beckoned me over.
-A short time, said Jean.
The crack was a lot bigger now, although it was still pitch-black inside, and I could feel more cold air moving across my face.
-'Lissa, I called. They're looking for another cave at the base of the pog. One that opens into your chamber.
-Wait a moment, she said.
-Are you singing?
'Lissa never sang.
-I'm trying to hear the tune.
-Are they in the cave already?
-They're here. They're singing. Chanting. Paul?
-Come with us, Paul. I'll wait.
-I don't understand.
I heard it coming from a long way away, a rumble like a distant freight train. I grabbed the earth and prayed it would stop. But it struck with the inevitability of time and centuries, and when it hit, it was like being shaken by an angry child. Someone hauled me back violently. I saw the team working, attempting to shift the stone until the last possible moment, and then there was nothing to do but grab the ground and wait. It stopped as abruptly as it started.
After the roar of the mountain, a pure, clean silence, and then the harsh caw of a distant crow.
The rescue team kept on going, of course. It was their nature to keep on going after reasonable hope was gone. They kept looking for a way in. Sometimes that works. Not this time.
No one had to tell me the cave had collapsed, grinding everything beneath it — bones, paintings. Flashlight. Everything.
I sat to one side, frozen inside myself. My jeans were torn and blood clotted the frayed edge. Someone put a blanket round my shoulders. As dusk gathered, Lady Haversham took my arm gently and pulled me down the mountain.
I remember all this; I remember walking into the pensione. There was roast chicken on the clean linen tablecloth. Madame Dumont straightened and turned to me.
-Is it the little Madame?
With that, the mountain crashed on top of me, and I remembered nothing for a long time.
• • •
Seven years: I tried. I went back to work for a while: everyone was kind. They were kind when I quit. I let a friend set me up on a blind date. She was very kind. I was kind of an asshole. I wrote her an apology before I left, but I didn't know where to send it.
I'll tell you what I didn't tell anyone else.
Just before the earth rumbled and shut upon her, I heard it too. 'Lissa didn't sing, and it was strange to hear her chant. But stranger were the many voices behind her, singing something that wasn't English and wasn't French. Something older than that. It wasn't until I began to dream about 'Lissa that I understood how old. You don't know it with your brain. You know it in your belly against the rocks.
When I dream of 'Lissa, she's wrapped in furs, with the baby in the hood, following the bison with the rest of the tribe and bear grease in her hair. She smiles at me.
-Come, Paul. I'll wait.
Rib bones clicking as you beat them together, and the chant rises to stars that are different from those I saw last night. The priest-god's head is black in firelight and you know you must give yourself to him, and sometimes your mate and child will die in the snow, and sometimes you will die red on the ground, but it doesn't matter as you and the tribe go North, with furs and spears, following the mammoth and the bison. North where she calls you and you will always be part of the song.
• • •
Someone will find this, eventually. Maybe you'll find me, half a mile or a mile down the crack in the back of the cave, skeletal or mummified. Perhaps you won't find me at all. But don't go looking alone; it isn't safe.
I say you're a treasure hunter. And if you say you're not, I ask you: are you sure? Because there is a treasure. There should always be a treasure. It doesn't matter what it is.
I cashed out my bank account before I left. It's a lot of money. We had insurance, you see, and no one expects a woman in her twenties to die like that. The money's in the backpack with this note, just inside the entrance of the cave. It's yours. I should have changed it into American Eagles, or Krugerrands. Or got some gold coins from a shipwreck and confounded the archeologists. But coins are heavy, and greenbacks are light; you'll have to make do. Sorry there's no crown, or cup. But here's a clue: ET IN ARCADIA EGO. Even in paradise I am here: a man with antlers and enormous eyes.
Good luck, my friend; I mean it. Your heart's desire. Everything you were looking for.
Copyright © 2012 by Samantha Henderson