Ah, Kathryn, how can you doubt me! Why would I make up such a thing? This isn't some old legend. It's true. Factual. It really happened to me.
Okay, then I'll go on.
I think I must have been around eleven or twelve at the time. Old enough that I was shouldering a fair amount of household responsibility in my father's absences. I was tall for my age - and strong. And my mother and sisters relied on me for many of the things Kolopak would have done, had he been home.
So, time alone, leisure time, was often scarce and always savored. I liked nothing better than to take my dog, Chel-Te, and roam around in the hills and mesas not far from our home.
Dorvan V as you know, is a semiarid planet. I suppose its very dryness is one reason it remained uninhabited so long. But my people, who had centuries ago migrated to the North American Southwest, loved the desert, learned to live in it, appreciated its stark and brittle beauty. And we had long since mastered techniques to tease crops and minerals out of the land, to find riches in what looked to be only dust. So it was only natural that we should find Dorvan V altogether suitable for our habitation.
Like the terran southwest, the plateaus and limestone cliffs on our new homeworld were riddled with caves. These were underground marvels, where skin-scraping passages suddenly vaulted into rock-ribbed cathedrals. Where stone fell impossibly into translucent folds from the ceilings, rippling with alternating bands of scarlet, ochre, and brown.
There were magical trees, aragonite really, whose crystal-laden branches spiked into delicate, iridescent fingers, ever smaller and smaller.
The caves held precious waters, too: small pools and deep lakes - one I remember had a calcite column in the middle, where a stalactite and a stalagmite had finally met and married after centuries of yearning toward each other.
Ironically, some of these very caves were also rich in dilithium. But we did not mine them, then or ever. Despite all of our technical sophistication—the same as other of our Federation peers--we would not defile these hallowed caves.
The cave is sacred to my people. And my father instructed me in traditional reverence by the very way he entered and traversed these hidden byways and caverns.
He explained that the cave was a cosmic center, the holy nexus between the divine and the earth. And while a casual observer may have thought the dust and the limestone dead, Kolopak approached it as something vital.
These chambers, he told me, were "populated" by irascible spirits, who guarded the entrances. My father typically made a token offering before we went in - purest corn flour, or a small libation of scarce water.
We were expected to enter the caverns just as we would enter a trance - with a profound sense of wonder and spiritual questing. And, we were to preserve the cave just as we found it - take nothing; leave nothing, lest we anger the spirits.
Did I believe all this lore, you ask? Yes and no. Myth can embody truth, as you know, without actually being factual. . .
My people had long since given up performing ancient initiation rites of any kind in caves, yet they maintained that sense of the sacred, the supernal in approaching these subterranean rooms. The cave was a womb in the living rock. It was a birthplace of knowledge. These very places that had never seen the sun were considered centers of enlightenment, vision. My father, always honor-bound to keep the old traditions, was, however, also a pragmatist and a modern man. So, while we entered the caves with a sense of awe, we never entered them without practical tools and fastidious preparation.
We always took several light sources with us, including the customary miner's hardhats and lights and photon lamps. We took ropes and carabiners and pitons. My father tried to rig his equipment around naturally occuring knobs and outcroppings. He was ever reluctant to hammer anything into the evolving rock.
Our trips were usually short - no more than a day. We took some food and water, a medicine bundle, and the akoonah. We would often sit in the cavernous silence of a stalactite-studded chamber and meditate by candlelight. Or more precisely, he would meditate. I was already chafing against the quiet ways of our traditions, finding the sitting still burdensome.
As I said, my father had taught me the legends and customs of our people, their reverence for caves, these sacrosanct places. But he was not blind to the physical risks that mortal cavers encountered. He also instructed me in the correct use of all the equipment. He cautioned me never to go caving alone, or to branch off into unexplored passageways. He told me over and over, "Chakotay, the most important piece of equipment you take into a cave is your head!" In other words, my brain, my ability to think clearly and make wise decisions in case of, and in the face of, danger.
And he was right, of course. As I would unfortunately find out.
On one particular day, my dog and I had been hiking the hills. The sun had started its slide down the afternoon sky. Suddenly Chel-Te took off as if his tail were on fire. I'm not sure if he saw some small animal - the equivalent of a ground squirrel. And it doesn't really matter now, of course. He let out like one possessed, yelping and leaping higher and higher up the steep hillside.
Of course I followed him as best I could, calling his name. I scrambled and slipped, cut myself on the scraggly brush growing there. But still, that hound went on, howling and scrabbling up the mountainside as fast as he could.
The climb became increasingly steep. But Chel-Te showed no signs of stopping. I looked down and knew that I should stop, sit on my rear and slide back down. But the dog's frenzy impelled me upward too, and I found myself using whatever handholds and footholds I could create out of brush and boulders to go higher and higher.
At once, the dog's barking ceased. Dead stop. And now, my curiosity mingled with dread. What if he had been chasing some sort of mountain lion? What if he had fallen? What if he were dead! I frantically clambered the little way to the top like a man on a mission. And as I stood to go over the rise to the small plateau, I at once saw my dog--and then, in that self-same instant, lost sight of the dog and the whole, regular, daylight world.
I fell down a steep curving incline, into the sudden dark, dislodging sharp rocks and dirt along the way. My cries must have echoed throughout this strange passage, until I landed with a thump. Then, I could not breathe. My lungs constricted as if they had suddenly shrunk; and the blackness suffocated me. I knew I was dead.
Then, little by little, I was able to force air into my body - small sips at first, then huge gulping mouthfuls. And I realized that I was not dead, but that the wind had been knocked out of me. Gradually, as my breathing evened out, I began to check my body, to make sure that all the major limbs were still in place. I could tell that I was bleeding from scratches on my arms and face, could taste the salt and iron of my own life fluid.
I lay there for some time, disoriented, terrified.
You cannot imagine the darkness of it, Kathryn. The absolute absence of light. As if the night sky were a huge skin that had suddenly been turned inside out, with the stars and moon on the other side, and all the air sucked out of the world. The blackness was tangible, had a depth and dimension to it as it pressed in on me, shrouding my body, and the place I lay.
They say that portions of space are "empty," which we know is not quite true. But the real meaning of "empty" is the cloying absence of illumination. That viscous, dark infinity. Totally disoriented, I knew illimitable terror for the first time in my young life.
The metaphorical "womb" would become my "tomb." There would be no ritual coming forth as a "new" man, a reborn individual, an enlightened one. I would shrivel up and die in here, a mummy on a gypsum floor, and no one would every find me. Or at least my fevered imagination so dictated at first.
Then, miraculously, I remembered the matches in my back pocket. I always carried them, old-fashioned as they are, when I roamed the hills. I know, I know! I may be the only Indian in the universe who cannot start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, Kathryn, but I'm a regular pyrotechnical wizard when it comes to striking matches!
With some effort (my head was on a downward incline, I discovered), I moved my sore limbs and finally got my hands to do what my brain insisted: light some matches.
I was in some sort of grotto. Despite the low ceiling, I sat up on the scree which my fall had created. I crawled carefully, crablike, until my several matches gave out. Then, I lit another few, trying to determine from the three or four rock-strewn passages at the near end of this chamber which one had so unceremoniously swallowed me up and dumped me into the underworld. As I carefully edged toward one opening, I saw that the floor abruptly disappeared, and a deep hole, nothing short of a subterranean wormhole, opened into the maw. Needless to say, I backed up. Another couple of matches, and I discovered a seep nearby, beneath an overhang. I was relieved that at least I could drink if I had to.
I was unprepared for the din that suddenly descended on me next. Without warning, fine dust and small rocks pelted down echoing the slide my initial disturbance of the cave opening and walls must have created. The tiny lights I held winked out, and I felt myself glide helplessly like a dead weight on rock ball bearings.
I did not slide far this time. And to my great relief, I found myself still on firm ground. At least I had not plummeted down the proverbial rabbit hole! But, the worst of it was the realization that I had lost the matches. And now I was absolutely paralyzed with fear. One move in the wrong direction, I could plunge to my death. A move in another could lead me into a blind passageway. I had no idea where I was or how to get out.
I think I cried. For the first time in several years. At the sheer terror of my situation. At the indomitable forces of nature that I was powerless to negotiate. And, of course, at my own mortality.
I have no idea how long I lay in a heap, cursing this cave, cursing all caves, cursing Chel-Te, cursing myself.
Exhaustion finally overtook me. Which was an unanticipated blessing, in retrospect. I at first figured I would just up and die. Decided I might as well do it with a little melodrama; so I spread out on the rubble like a sacrificial offering.
But what actually happened was the loosening of limb and linear thinking. I began to relax, to succumb, to give over, to let go. I started to hear my own heartbeat, the comforting predictability of its rhythm. For the very first time, I experienced - albeit unintentionally--what my father had so long tried to teach me - the first steps of meditation, the prelude to the "vision."
Recognizing this happy accident of spirit for what it was, I now made an intentional effort to take the next step. I continued to relax, to pace the steady syncopation of my heart, to breathe in even cadence, just as I had seen my father do in other caves.
At first, all I heard was the sound of my own humanity: my breath, my heart. And then, they faded, slowly. And I became aware of other noises, sounds I would never have believed existed in these tomblike confines.
Water, first. I had to strain to hear it. Droplets. Slow and even came the widely spaced "plink" of water dripping. Perhaps the noise came from the seeps. Or maybe a stalactite was announcing its own wet birth, one bead at a time.
I didn't really care what the source. The sound, any sound, echoed joyfully through my head. My head!
My best piece of equipment, Kolopak had always said. "Use your head, Chakotay."
The tears dried on my face, even as I began to discern the direction of the water.
And then, I heard another sound. Had it been there all along? Or had my obsession with hearing the usual, the expected the ordinary, blocked out the new, the extraordinary. At first, I tensed up a little, which made it harder to listen, of course, because then all I could hear was my own blood pulsing through my ears.
As I let go once more, I was able to let the new noise in again. It came as soughing, almost as if someone were breathing softly not far from my face. Spirits? I was aware, of course, of cave spirits. My father had left them offerings. He had told me that they were angered when the caves were disturbed or used for profane purposes.
I shuddered a little at these eldritch airs. But I also understood that cave spirits were the figurative guardians - a sort of "cave conscience" if you will.
The gentle exhalations were, in fact, cave winds. Kolopak had told me stories of other caves with roaring apertures, where a man could get knocked down just by the force of the air.
This current was gentle. But it told me that other entrances, openings, must somewhere exist above or below in this system.
Air. I had plenty of air. But air and water in a pitch-dark cave would not sustain life for long. I edged toward panic again - till the quiet breathings eventually lulled me. I soon found myself matching my own respiration to that of the cave. And even my heart rate joined in with an odd but compatible counterpoint.
Did I ever get rescued? Well, no.
Hey, I'm not trying to be smart! I wish I could tell you, Kathryn, dog-lover that you are, that the brave and heroic Chel-Te led a search party back to the cave and saved my life. However, Chel-Te, loyal hound though he was, somehow did not seem predisposed to returning to that awful spot nor duplicating the arduous climb once he got down. It was actually another mammal that gave me the out, but not the four-legged kind.
I have no idea how long I lay on my bed of rocks. I know that I was drifting toward sleep - welcome anodyne to my aching body and anxious mind.
It was then that I heard yet another noise, just above the soft rush of air. Small, at first, a whisper really. It skirted my consciousness, unidentifiable. And then it began gaining momentum. Like the soft rustle of many gowns across a ballroom floor. A gathering crescendo.
And I suddenly knew! Wings! Hundreds and hundreds of wings. Of course! It could be evening by now, and the cave bats would relinquish their toeholds and their slumber and take flight. I had seen them come out of other desert caves, flights and flights of them, smudging the royal purple and pink dusk with their dark crescent wings.
But, I had never heard them before. Some instinct, however, some primal part of my relaxed brain, recognized the sound without the sight. And their departure meant one thing: an opening; an exit.
I began a very cautious crawl toward the wonderful sound, checking each inch of the way for precipitous drops or obstacles. My fingers became my eyes, my vision, my second sight.
I'm not really sure, in retrospect, just how I finally made it out safely. I know I wound around and up an incline, formed by the scree that finally became my ladder to the outside. I think I emerged just about the same time as the last few bat stragglers, into the most beautiful twilight of my life.
The sky had reached the deepest of purples, just before that fluid instant when it suddenly turns to navy black. Stars pierced the clear dry night. And oh, the air, the air. I sat back on the ground just to breathe in all that wondrous air. To look up at the lambent night lights, the stars and moons, and the infinitude of space--all that vastness with no walls, no limits.
And as quirky as it may sound, I really felt like a new creature myself. Newly emerged. Reborn. Second chance. I even raised a hand in salute to the last few bats as their silhouettes disappeared in the darkling sky.
I slid down the steep hillside on my butt, too weak from the earlier fall and now from relief to crawl or walk. I ran home on shaky legs, certain that my frantic mother would have organized a search party for me by now.
But when I rushed in the door, it was apparent that no one had detected anything amiss. This had been my day "off," so to speak. And though I was late, I heard no reproach. "Chakotay," my mother said softy, "wash up and sit for some for supper. Spirits, boy, you do somehow acquire more dirt than any desert dust devil could ever kick up."
Did I tell her?
Well, not right then. I was, after all, eleven or twelve and starving to death at the moment. But I'll tell you one thing, my Kathryn, my Captain, I never made fun of my father's "visions" again, even if I did continue to rebel. . .
And, I discovered, however unwittingly, that there is almost always more than one way to see your way through the darkness.
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