On the day I fell underground I had been out all morning searching for pink flowers. My mother had a fondness for this lonely hue and in illness color had become her only comfort. Soon the earth would take her back. Each hour her skin grew darker like an apple’s bruise when the skin peels away, rotting from the inside out. The deep, rattling of my mother’s breath sounded like a trapped animal in her chest. I didn’t want to leave her, but I did to search for the right shade of fleeting pink. These are the things we do for the ones we love.
The heavy spring rains had carried new layers of dirt to the familiar paths, reshaped them with deposits of winter’s decay and created obstacles. Fallen trees. Rock slides. I had to find a different route. I climbed over exposed tree roots, stuck out as if attempting to make an escape to better ground. I came to a new, unknown place. Here I edged close to a cliff’s steep drop, navigated over slippery rocks and endured the bloody scrape of a thorn bush across my legs. It felt strangely good, this danger. Finally, on a small hill, I found a cluster of the laurel flowers, pink-tinged brown, almost slipped beyond their peak. Soon, the petals would fall to the ground for the ants and leaf hoppers to carry away on their backs.
After filling my basket with blooms, I grew tired and found a tree that I knew should only grow on the highest parts of the mountain. Here it was out of place and alone, red berries fat and waiting for the birds who would pass this way. I lay down. It felt good to stop and hear the wind rustling and the birds singing when they believed no human listening. I felt so fatigued. Click, click, caw. The bird called to its own god and rooted around for the insect that would sate its hunger. I tried to mimic the call myself, maybe that god would listen: I would do anything. I would do anything. Save my mother. In reply, the sound of water like a phantom river beneath me. I fell asleep for a very long time.
When I woke, I had been under the earth for so long flesh had fallen away from my bones. “Where am I?” I called out and my voice echoed back to me in the limestone chambers of the caverns.
“This used to be the bottom of the ocean,” one of the fossilized creatures informed me.
“But that was ages ago,” the darkness replied.
“How did I get here?” I asked, stricken with fear because I couldn’t remember my old life at all. I did not know my mother, my father, my family or even my name. All those details about myself as an individual hovered, unformed, out of reach. I could hardly conjure any original words to speak.
“You’ve always been in darkness,” the darkness said.
“Time works strangely here, long,” a fossil advised.
“Don’t start,” the darkness said. “How many times do I have to tell you? We don’t need the light to tell the time. It passes the same whether in darkness or light.”
“We’re not sure that’s true,” the collective Nautiloid chorus whispered.
As I drifted back to sleep, trying to capture a memory of myself, I thought I heard the darkness sigh.
Later, much later, a man arrived in the chasm. A crackling fire came with him. The sound of the man’s fear was a wave beating against the rock walls. He called out, “Hello?” but none of us could answer.
Once the silence and stillness of the cavern had been breached, a trickle of people grew into a steady flood. The voices, always full of astonishment, echoed in this underworld. From all these people I learned a new way of speaking, a new language. A reporter from New York arrived. He described my bones: it was a ghastly and revolting object, which I consider the least interesting of the numerous wonders to be found in the caverns and will only be visited by those actuated by a morbid curiosity.
He still took a portion of my thigh with him as a souvenir. Other people were likewise “actuated by a morbid curiosity” and stole my teeth, fingers, ribs, a shin-bone, and pelvis. Piece by piece I was scattered out into the world. My knowledge expanded with my far-flung bones. I lived peripherally in the darkness of strange sounding lands: Bloomington, San Francisco, New Orleans, Paris, Baltimore, Sussex, Cleveland. A priestess regularly pulled my finger bones out of an ornately carved wooden box, rubbed them tenderly, and chanted my power to her causes. The whisper of her words sung to all the scattered bits of me, even my heart could feel it though it had rotted to nothing, only a memory still rooted in the gorge.
Through these people I learned all the different stories of myself. The reporter said I had been buried here because I was a revered Native healer. In a novel I became a member of the lost tribe of Israel. A woman wrote a poem describing my origins as a young Native man who fell in love with a white woman: “Thou shalt perish, Messinetto / Far away from name and race,/ Where the smile of the Great Spirit/ Will not touch thy burial place.”
“Was I the warrior Messinetto?” I asked the darkness.
“Do you not remember any of your old self?” the fossilized creatures inquired.
“You were a young girl who fell through our sky,” the darkness replied. “Before that, I do not know what life you lived above.” A girl. A young girl. Yet, this sparked no memory. This was when I understood the only way to reclaim my real story was to travel back to the world above. But how?
Once the Grand Illumination of the cavern took place, it was easier to appreciate the beauty I had only understood in darkness. Over time, I absorbed the tour, learning the strange names given to the speleothems. The naming held a kind of power. They only called me “Skeleton” not bothering to know or ponder how the sound of my name must have once held music, or how I missed knowledge of my family like I missed my own bones. A pure white feature they named “Pluto’s Ghost” and cascading columns of the “Empress” could be found inside “The Giant’s Hall.” Water is powerful. Water made all this beauty. The guides all repeated variations of these words. They explained how slowly over time, water transformed this space with clay and mud and minerals, calcite collecting into lime and forming spectacular stalactites, stalagmites, columns. Art is born of darkness. Color, it turns out, is only a corruption, impurity. Pure calcium carbonate is white. Iron, manganese, and copper bring hues of something sharp and contrasting. Growth is slow, only an inch every 100 years. But years roll by quickly below. It is always fifty-four degrees, never cloudy, never summer. The weather above irrelevant. In the cities I witnessed the weather and slowly began to remember my experiences with it, flashes of moments: blankets of snow, howling winds that could strip a whole tree of its crimson and pumpkin colored leaves, a sun so bright it blinded, the power of a swollen moon.
The mirror-like surface of Dream Lake gave the illusion of depth, the blue-green hue of the Wishing Well made anything seem possible. These were my favorite places. Here desires poured off people like a kind of mineral heat: love glows blue, the longing and swollen hurt of loss a deep yellow, dreams of wealth pure white, revenge always black. The visitors tossed coins in the water and whispered wishes sometimes aloud, sometimes in their head. I could hear them all. The depth here in this pool was also an illusion, the all powerful water was so much deeper than it seemed.
One day a boy arrived with his father. “It’s my birthday!” he sang to us, and we all stirred like slumbering animals awakened briefly and then rolling over to settle back down. He went running, as boys do, but too hard and too fast until his feet tangled and he fell. His head struck one of the stalagmites. Bone to rock. It was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. Or so I thought at the time. This is the type of confusion that happens when you are lost to yourself. The tiny piece of me embedded where no one could find it surfaced from the dream-like sleep I’d been in, absorbing the voices all the time, summoned to the present by the sound of the boy’s skull ringing like a bell in conversation with the rocks. He called out for his father. His tears fell like an unnatural underground rain… did they wet my absent face? Bring me new life?
All I know is that sound, the ringing, the cry changed everything. I could feel it vibrating out, to all the bones across the distance that separated myself. I felt love swell. It pierced so sharp and hard that my breast-bone molding away in an attic trunk in Bloomington, cracked in half. My fingers in the box of the priestess’s home rattled so loud that later in the deep night she buried that part of me in the earth. My bones knocked around in the dark metal locker of the museum basement.
The boy’s father rushed to him and offered comfort. The father had a voice melodious and fine. Beneath his wavy dark hair, the sound had sparked an idea — the music of the rocks. He understood that he must build a device to give a voice to the earth.
“I hear her weeping in her sleep,” I overheard the fossilized creatures say.
“Yes, I hear it too. Her sleep song is filled with sadness,” the darkness replied.
“We should return her to the above world,” one of the fossils offered.
“I did not bring her here,” the darkness said, defensively.
“We know, we know. But she doesn’t belong in darkness forever. We could help her. You could help her.”
The darkness did not reply.
The man came back to discuss his project with the owners of the caverns. He demonstrated the notes he could produce by striking the proper rocks with the rubber mallet. “This would be the only stalagpipe organ in the world,” he explained. The cavern owners were eager to add more wonders to their underground space and gave him permission for the special project. So the man returned to build, time and time again, always with his son. He hunted for the perfect formations for his purpose. He would strike the rocks and listen to the notes. Each time, I could feel the vibration come over me, call to me. Once the man found the right note, he put on goggles and used his purring devices, chisels and hammers to sand and shave and fashion the rock to be the perfect shape for his rubber hammers. His industry reminded me of my own father. My father! I remembered, finally, his face drifted out of the cloudy haze. There was something shrewd and wise and sharp in his features mirroring his mind, a man always on the brink of a solution, just like this man building the organ in the cave. The tinkering, the spark of slowly, step by step improving something. My father would spend weeks honing his weapons for the hunts so the instruments traveled through the air like swallows. He would build intricate trellising system for the garden, to hold the heavy bows of plants that would feed our family through the cold, dark winters. This man and my father were not the type of men to make idle wishes on coins and toss them into pools. They made their own fortunes.
When speaking to the boy, the man would crouch down, knees cracking to get to his son’s level. He listened the way that the darkness did, like I did, when the boy would sneak away to Skeleton Gorge and whisper his fears. I believed he could feel me there, listening, like the heartbeat of the cave.
I remembered more of my life, before. I could see all the faces of my family. I could see my own face as a child. I, too, had once gone like this boy and confessed myself to a crooked stream not far from my home. Sometimes at night I would slip away from my father’s regular snores and my baby sister’s suckling at my mother’s breast. Outside I listened for the gurgling call of the water pulling me forth, my limbs trembling at being so near to unseen dangers. I imagined I was alone in the world. Was this the moment that made my underground future manifest? So many monsters lurked in my mind, in the forest, in the darkness. It felt terrible and wonderful to challenge them, to run from them, barefoot with my heels making divots in the wet earth. I imagined a coyote, crouched down near me, listening to me say how I was scared of the darkness, scared of the bones of my ancestors. Did those ancestors come and pull on my fingers and toes while I slept? Was the faint sound of dried sticks on rock their bones rubbing together?
“Is this really your memory, daughter, or the memory they’ve given you?” the darkness asked me. I did not answer because I did not know. Could the memory, like the new language I had developed, be foreign to my true self?
The boy spoke of his favorite places besides the caverns. He loved going to oceans in the summer, feeling the waves beat on his legs. “I’m afraid of the dark waters,” he said.
“What beasts still live among the depths?” the Nautiloid fossils wondered, their voices rising up together in longing.
The darkness sighed.
This boy’s mother took him to the museums in the city. I wanted to ask him what she looked like, was her hair soft and silky and long? But I was still a mute force to the living. I could only listen. At the zoo he saw the most wondrous animals from all corners of the earth gathered together. Black and white striped zebras that galloped like horses, exotic birds with brightly colored feathers who could reproduce all types of sounds, even voices. Large, powerful cats that came from India and Africa, steely-eyed predators that lay in the sun and flicked their tail as they sized up how long you would stave off hunger. I was rapt, the fossilized creatures hung on the boy’s every word. Only the darkness responded with indifference.
Eventually the man found all the notes to make his musical scale, spread wide across the space. He fashioned metal implements to hold the rubber hammers, ran wires along the walls and the ceiling to carry the impulse from the organ to strike the right place to create the right sound. Understanding the inner workings of the thing did not diminish the effect of hearing it, all together in unison, the rocks began to sing and with them my desire swelled. One hundred sixty-four feet above us, the world waited. It was a new world full of marvels and oceans and zoos and museums with beautiful azure stones and delicately painted porcelain bowls and vases from China and Japan. I could find pink flowers to fill them. There was an Egyptian sarcophagus in the same museum where my bones lived in the basement. I could go there. I could find it.
“Why would you want to visit such a place?’ the darkness asked. “Don’t you understand they stole all those things, just like they stole pieces of you?”
“But the ocean,” the Nautiloids lamented, “what we wouldn’t give to hear and smell it once more.”
“Don’t you long for anything?” I asked the darkness.
“I once did,” the darkness replied, “I once desired only darkness and wished for the light to disappear.”
“That’s so lonely,” I said.
“Things still live in darkness, even joy,” the darkness said.
It reminded me of how much I missed the joy of the birds. Down below we had none of their calls, warnings, glorification of the pink and purple dawn. We only had the bats, their strange squeaks and jerking flight pattern.
There is a special kind of lyric, the Nautiloid fossils informed me, that mixes the right notes and desires together and can bring flesh to bone.
“It can turn the invisible, visible, but you never needed this man’s ugly organ to accomplish it,” the darkness said.
“The rocks and fossils have always known the song. Are you ready?” they asked me
When the new stalagpipe organ debuted the man who built it, who’d spent all those hours fashioning the thing and finding the right notes, sat on the bench under the glow of a yellow light and closed his eyes. He whispered, “Man’s genius and the hand of God are in perfect harmony.” Only those of us in the darkness could hear him, but we knew him to be wrong. The boy stood beside the sleek wooden console, eyes bright and glowing. He’d grown taller in the last year, his face had morphed from its boyish roundness to the take on the contours of the man he would become. A man like his father. The first bars of a song drifted out over the crowd and everyone swayed, mesmerized with the singing rocks. Finally, their song had been unlocked, remembered. A wave of resonance pulled across the thirty-five formations scattered around the caves. You could not escape the chanting of the earth. The formations had been longing for the euphony, never knowing until struck that was their purpose all along.
The harmony animated. A keening pulse of rhythm. Daughter of the stars! Daughter of the earth! Daughter under the earth! Beautiful dreamer! I sang this tune, but it had different words at the heart. Older words.
That night, the chant of the rocks continued, ringing louder after the lights went out. They had been able to make the music all along, like the darkness said, but had forgotten their real power. All my fossil friends wished for the world above, to be reborn and feel the pulse of blood and nerves and flesh, so they gathered to fashion a spine for me. The secret stream that feeds the mirror lake of dreams provided the water. A body needs water. Tendrils of veins formed of copper and love snaked down my new frame, unfurled to make muscles and tendons grow. The darkness fashioned my heart. The bones hummed in time to the syncopation of the organ’s every strike, running along the wires embedded in the darkness, each note reverberated back to the familiar crevices and refrain in dripping places. Each song added more to the body. Across the world, my old bones joined in to sing and concord. We were all shaking to dust.
In what image would the music fashion me? From the longing of iron ore to the calcium carbonate of pure white teeth. Bite. Bite. Bite. Skin spun out from alabaster gypsum. Even the artificial illuminations contributed, lent a spark. Bulbs shattered and the glass cut into the soft flesh of my new feet. Lips bloomed. Ears like buds unfurled. Flesh filled across the face, the head bald and devoid of hair at first, but then manganese fashioned tresses dark and rich. My skin glowed, human and alive, obscuring my fossilized origins.
I walked on my new limbs, tottering at first then smooth and fast and running. I didn’t even mind the glass cutting into my feet. The blood was proof of something new, something born. My bloody footprints dried into tessellations of pink. I thought of my mother and her flowers. Could I find the place where her bones rested?
Tongue. Air. Breath. The earth provided me a new voice pitched to the range of human ears and understanding. I sang the song, the dreamer song, and it rose as a midnight aria. I called the bats, the camel crickets, the harvestmen to come for the bloody blooms my feet had left for them. My new fingers ran along the limestone wall for guidance, to find the place where all the desires were deposited. I reached into the wishing well and grabbed a coin of longing, swallowed it whole. I dove and dove and ate all the wishes I could find. My hunger could not be satisfied. The darkness wept as I walked to the exit. I pressed the glowing button and the box opened to take me back to the world. I stepped inside and readied myself, my new body, to ascend to the heavens, to the gift shop above with its postcards and coffee mugs and magnets. I knew the moon waited for me, high in the sky, the color of my old and new bones, ready to guide me home.