|Crawling In Bat Caves
© Copyright 2003 by Shurna Robbins
This story is about Shurna's explorations of a hidden cave system in the Cayman mangroves.
“What would you do if your flashlight went out?”
“I would find the string and follow it out.”
“Turn off your torch.” Without a word, I switched it off. He turned his flashlight off too.
Darkness wrapped its arms around me. Vision cut off, my other senses rapidly became disoriented. He could only be a foot away but I did not sense his presence. If I dropped my flashlight now, I might not be able to find it again. I stood still and did not move. It was quiet but not noiseless. The dripping of the stalactites, water gurgling, and the shifting earth provided background noise. Still, I could not hear the usual sounds of the island, the birds, the leaves, the ocean, or the nearby traffic. In complete darkness, I felt vulnerable.
“We need backup lights.” His voice bellowed in the dark. Point taken, there was no misunderstanding between us in this situation. He flipped his light back on. That was when I noticed I was holding my breath. Allowing myself to breathe again, I knew we should turn back but he did not suggest it and I did not bring it up. We took our chances that we could make it through the cave system with two lights.
“You’re sure you’re not claustrophobic?”
"I told you I'm not. Don t you believe me?"
“It’s just that we are coming to a hole that we have to crawl through and it’s quite small for your boobies to squeeze through.” He spoke with that deep Scandinavian monotone that disguised any sense of humor an American can understand.
“But you did it, didn’t you? I hate to say this - but I think you are just a little bit bigger than me.” His bulky chest had to be at least 42 inches.
“Well, yes, but I thought you were larger.” He glanced at my clothing and said, “Don’t forget we will be crawling in bat shit soon so don’t expect to wear those clothes again.”
We reached the edge of the cavern where he knelt down to shine his light through the hole. The hole was a tunnel and, although he warned me, I was not prepared to crawl in a tunnel with no visual reference at the other end. Like a pinball, the thought rolled over and over in my mind that I could not see the other side of the tunnel. I could not see an exit sign. There was no exit sign. Furthermore, this tunnel was too small to crawl through on hands and knees. We would need to lay face down, flat on our bellies, to get through this passageway. If we got stuck it may be several days before anyone found us. Something is not right about this place - something unnatural.
An eerie feeling crept over me as I tried to place what it was that was wrong. “Since you’ve done this before, I think you should go first,” I said.
He reached into the tunnel entrance a few feet and carefully put his dry bag filled with camera gear ahead of him and then he crouched down and disappeared. I could hear the dragging of his clothing against the moist dirt floor and his ragged breathing. Within the scope of my light, I saw his boots and part of his legs as he moved further and deeper into the tunnel. The rubber of the dry bag crumpled as he picked it up a few inches to move it ahead of him.
He crawled about ten feet before I lowered myself into the tunnel behind him. Instinctively, I put my forearms a few inches ahead and dug my toes into the ground to simultaneously push and pull my body forward. In this way, I progressed five maybe six inches at a time. This was not so much crawling as it was dragging, using the core strength of my calf and arm muscles. I hesitated to wipe the excess sweat from my eyes since I did not want to smear dirt and irritate them further. My clothes became drenched in sweat and mud as I continued dragging myself along.
“This is the really narrow part I told you about.” His words interrupted my concentration and I pointed my flashlight ahead of me straight into the back of his boots. The sole of one boot drooped back revealing a muddy sock.
“You need to reach your arms through first or you won’t be able to get your shoulders through.” I assumed he did as he said since he continued moving ahead.
He rounded a corner and disappeared from sight. I raised my light from the narrow opening he just went through to the ceiling which was just a few inches above my head. Too low I realized. It was too low. As if caught in a sudden water surge, a self-preserving need to draw knees to my chest gripped me. I lifted my body a few inches and my shoulders hit the ceiling. This simple fetal position was physically impossible. Another, stronger urge, swelled up from within my bowels to raise myself on hands and knees and crawl out-of-here immediately. I was intimidated. I felt the stirrings of fear. When I inhaled, the oxygen tasted like mud. Panic.
I closed my eyes and forced myself to breathe deeply for a few seconds. I remembered that this was an excavated tunnel with a string. We could always find the string and guide ourselves out. I reminded myself that he had already done this tunnel and it was fine, just fine. Something is wrong, something is wrong.
What is it?
Panic is the enemy.
Slow down the breathing. I visualized the tunnel leading to a large room dripping with stalactites from the ceiling, reminiscent of ballroom chandeliers. I imagined their beauty and fear leading to it would be forgotten. I opened my eyes; I was determined to finish this tunnel.
I reached the narrow part that he had warned me about. My flashlight showed the passageway smaller by several inches of ragged rock. Several inches were significant in this crawl space. Since I had shorts on, I would have to maneuver carefully so as not to scrape skin.
Later, I realized that I could hear him speaking but his voice was blurred. I did not remember if I responded but if I did it could not have been intelligible. Rather, I focused on remaining calm and getting through this point.
Panic is the enemy of self-rescue. In college psychology I remembered that talking to yourself could change a state of mind and, with no one else within earshot, I started counting steps to myself.
Step one; reach arms through the narrow opening and place the flashlight on the ground on the other side of the ridge.
Step two; place hands on either side of the opening. Okay … breathe … breathe again.
Step three; brace the hands and shoulders against the rock ledge. Good.
Step four; push torso through the opening. Careful, don’t scrape bare skin against rough edges. Yes. The hard part is done, now the easy part. I was counting more quickly now.
Five; push legs through. I must thank the man for these kneepads. Six; wiggle shoes free of the ragged edge and lay down again. Done.
Now, I was ready to face the rest of the tunnel, especially the part hidden behind the corner just ahead. He was gone and I could not hear him any longer which did not surprise me. I cannot keep his attention in the presence of fish, reptiles, or birds. He was probably in the next cavern contemplating bats, having forgotten me again.
I picked up my flashlight and continued toward the sharp turn in the passageway. If he had cleared it, I would be able to clear it. At the turn, I bent my body at the waist and wiggled around it. Flexibility was the key and I was glad for the hours of Yoga practice. Relieved that something came easily, I could now see the end of the tunnel just a few more feet ahead. I forgot how hot and sweaty I was as I dragged myself a little faster toward the entrance to the next cavern.
The cavern was disappointing. The ceiling was too low to stand in and there was nothing of special interest to differentiate it. No stalactites, no bats, no color. It was dark, vacant, and depressing. If this was all there was to see, it seemed pointless.
Disappointed and disgusted, I turned my head to the right and then I saw it, a room inspired. A grand room decorated with long elegant stalactites. Melting water shimmered in the beam of our lights. Ribbons of stalactites descended in uneven lengths toward the stalagmites forming Buddha-like statues on the floor. The cavern center was spacious enough for an old-fashioned waltz or a bar room brawl. Crevices lined the opposing wall, possibly hiding a mysterious treasure, a body, or snakes.
“Are you going to just lay there or are you going to come out?” he said.
Oh, right. I had forgotten that I was still on the ground, torso and head free while my legs still laid inside the tunnel. I pulled my body completely out and arched my torso in a catlike stretch. It felt sooo good to let my body expand and take up space again. On hands and knees, I crawled from the gloomy room to the spacious room. It was glorious.
He smoked a cigarette quietly. No matter where we were, he found the easiest places to sit and it was the only place that would accommodate my short legs. I sat down next to him uninvited and drank the last of my water. He did not notice and, by now, I did not expect him to. He stood up and took photos of the magnificent stalactites, stalagmites, and unusual cavern formations. The beauty of this room worked its magic on me and I was also inspired. Wouldn’t it be interesting to capture the man behind the camera in this haunting landscape? Wouldn’t it give an interesting visual perspective? He granted permission. He was in good humor.
I needed his good humor since he had to prompt me in the manual operation of his camera. F-stops, focus, and depth of field all had to be synchronized manually before taking the shot. There was little time for composition. Do not forget to advance the film between shots. My respect for photographers toting underwater Nikons expanded.
"Have you taken the shot yet?"
“It’s dark, I can’t see if your head is in the frame.” He brushed his flashlight over his head so I could frame his head properly but I still was not ready.
“I can’t see your feet. Can you shine the light on them?” He moved the light over his feet but he was too quick for me. “Can you do it again?” Through the camera’s viewfinder I could see him frowning. “Don’t look at the camera.” He looked the other direction. Perfect. If only I could keep the camera balanced I might get a nice shot. I held my breath to steady the camera as I pressed the shutter. Whew.
“Did the strobe light come on after firing?”
“Uh…I don’t know.” Sigh. He stood up, picked up his camera, and said, “Let’s go.” He walked into the darkness of the cavern leaving me to catch up.
I would have remembered if he had told me there were other tunnels. Apparently, there was more than one. Furthermore, I could not shake the feeling that something was definitely wrong. It hung in the air unfinished.
“This one is shorter but it’s narrower.”
The blood vessels pounded inside my head. Better not to look too close - if I gave my thoughts too much head start, I was not going to make it. I needed to minimize thinking to physical tasks and limit imagination.
He squeezed his body inside the tunnel and I crawled in right after him. I would have held onto his ankle if I could have gotten away with it. This passageway was narrower all right. I can do this. I can handle this, sure, I can.
He crawled through an opening with stalactites positioned on both sides. I was right behind him. The room we were in had sufficient space for two people. The ceiling was about four inches above our heads and we were laying in three inches of muddy water. This time I heard nothing. This time background noise was void.
I tried to repress the thought but it was irrepressible - What if we were workers trapped in a coal mine? How would we cope when we realized the wall of rubble was insurmountable? Any sense of equilibrium I had became agitated. He gazed at the low ceiling and walls surrounding us. His eyes reflected the glow from the flashlight.
It s spooky in here, he said. He was grinning which was curious since normally his face showed no emotion. He liked it here. “Turn off your flashlight.” Using my thumb, I clicked it off in one compulsive movement. Darkness descended on us like a sledgehammer.
“Can you find the string?”
This was a useless exercise. There was no way I was going to find a piece of string in this pool of mud.
“Alright, I get the point.” I already knew we needed back up lights. Was he trying to make me nervous?
“Actually, the string is broken somewhere around here.”
In other words, there was no string. If both our lights burned out we would have to find our way without the guide of string. A familiar feeling edged in. It was a dream that tormented me from childhood. A dream I would much rather forget.
I died. Actually, I was not really dead; I was asleep in a coma but they thought I was dead. My funeral was well attended by my parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, neighbors, and the minister, of course. Like Sleeping Beauty I was laid to rest… but unlike the fairy tale, I woke up to find myself trapped in a wooden box.
“Help. Help me….” Whispers instead of screams tumbled out of my throat. If there was someone nearby, they could not hear me through six feet of earth.
It took a long time to die from asphyxiation. How much time would pass before the bugs started eating my flesh? Bugs? Oh my god - bugs.
My mind latched onto that word. Where were the bugs? I did not see any bugs. In the tropics, bugs flourish. In the tropics, humans co-exist with bugs. I looked around this cramped space; there were no spiders, no ants, and no roaches. There were no snakes or bats either. I tried to recall how deep underground bugs could exist but could not. If the environment was too harsh for common insects, what were we doing here?
An orb burst into my vision, altering my blindness from dark to dazzling white, sucking the moisture from my eyes. My eyelids fluttered, creating moisture to soothe them. Squinting through the brightness of his flashlight, I could make out the outline of his bulky form. His proximity so close - comforted me, soothed me. I was neither trapped nor alone. I was in an underground cave with him, willingly. The horror within dissipated. There was no adequate reason for its disappearance. It was just...gone, no longer there, like bathwater down the drain.
“The next passageway is the smallest one so be careful not to bump your head,” he said. This time I took the lead and crawled through with the courage of a groundhog. The room it lead to was not quite as dark as the other rooms or were my eyes adjusting to the caves? Minutes later, he entered the room behind me. While I could stand, he needed to stoop.
“By the way, there’s the string.” The string was worthless at this point. “The outside is just out there.
What do you want to do?”
He was asking my opinion. It was a polite question, which I considered while I pushed my muddy hair behind my ears. It crept back over my face annoying me. Underneath the mud, the pride, and the bravado, what did I really want to do?
"I want to do it again.” I did. Absolutely no doubts, I really did.
His eyes narrowed a fraction. “Really? When?"
"Now. I want to do it again, now.” He chuckled. I did not see what was so amusing. I was serious.
“It’s getting late and the mosquitoes are going to eat me alive.”
“Then let’s go back the way we came.” As I spoke I could hear my voice downshift to five years -old. I willed my eyes to go dewy as I looked up at him. I did not want to wait. This time I was really ready to go caving. “Please?” But I meant Pretty Please.
“I need a fag.” I realized later that he did not say no, he just turned and left. I followed as usual.
We left the confines of the cave and walked outside where we found ourselves in a pit several feet deep. There was a large pile of rocks making climbing tenuous. A thick rope was draped over the side of the wall that we would use to climb out.
The sun was setting. Looking upward above the ledge, I expected to see bats as the moon was already coming out. I was breathing fresh air but the combination of oncoming dusk, the trees near by, and the pit we occupied continued to make me feel enclosed; it was a different feeling then inside the caves but it was similar too.
He found a spot near the top of the rubble, sat down, and lit a cigarette. I looked down at my hands and realized I still had his camera with a few more shots left. If I pointed the camera towards the moon, could I capture the bats flying by?
Minutes later, we were heading back toward the highway
and civilization. He was galloping through the field, slapping mosquitoes
along the way. I was navigating waist-high weeds at a slower pace. One
day, we might get caught trespassing but it looked like we were getting
away with it today.
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