Sunday, July 31, 2005

Cave of Whispers

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“Ophelia!” Although he was across the field from me, the sharp alarm in Stanton’s voice carried to me. He waved and started running toward me. Wiping wet sand from my olive drab khakis, I made my way toward the dark, shadowy entrance of a cave partially obscured by a small, leafy redbud tree and an outcropping of yellowish cream limestone. I had spied the entrance after climbing over the top of the bank to Three Horses River.

“Ophelia! Stop!” The urgency in Stanton’s voice gave me pause.

I rubbed at my muddy pants, my wet dark green t-shirt. I didn’t want him to guess what I had just been through. But, how was I to know that the rope bridge over Three Horses River would snap shortly after making my way down it? If the bridge had simply flung me onto the cut bank, that would have been one thing. Having to scramble up the steep bluff consisting of sand, clay, and limestone was what made me such a mess. I was glad I had chosen dark colors, I reflected. Stanton would not be amused when he saw me. Or, perhaps he would – it depended on how he viewed my sense of adventure. At least the bridge didn’t snap while I was half-way across the river.

“There’s a cave. Don’t go in!” He approached me just as I had arrived at the cave’s opening and had pulled back a leafy branch. The heart-shaped redbud leaves had collected droplets of water which splashed into my face. I heard a few mosquitoes whine around my head.

“Why not?” I asked. “Snakes?” Stanton seemed to have snapped out of the mood that he had been an hour earlier. His eyes were no longer taciturn and glowering. Instead, they were dark, fairly glittering with concern.

He bounded across the tall grass and over a small prickly pear cactus to arrive with a jolt at my side. Gripping my arm, he pulled me to him.

“I’m so glad I got here in time. That cave is very dangerous,” he said, panting. I looked at him, his black jeans gripping his full, muscular thighs, the thick linen and cotton blend shirt, soft having been woven in the same breathable way that gauze was woven in fabrics from India or Pakistan.

“It doesn’t look dangerous,” I said. I thought of the nature center at the Chickasaw National Forest, and the snake displays. “Is it a rattlesnake den?”

“Worse.” Not releasing my arm, he pulled me back from the entrance.

“Mom told us not to, but Dev and I would sneak into the cave – you know how boys are.”

I nodded.

“When you first enter, you think that the limestone you’re standing on is firm, and that you can follow it. It opens up, and there is a small room. What you don’t know is that there is a crevasse.”

“A crevasse? In a cave?” I asked. I was no expert in karst topography, but a crevasse did not make a lot of sense. Crevasses were cracks or fissures in ice or snow fields, usually caused because of the movement between sheets of ice. Caves and drop-off points in limestone usually occurred because of the slow dissolution of calcium carbonate by water, particularly water with a slightly acidic pH due to salt or iron pyrite, which would result in the creation of dilute hydrochloric acid as the chloride ions reacted with the water molecules.

“Not a crevasse, per se. It’s a large hole in the floor where the limestone caved in, and fell down into an underground river far below. We used to go in with flashlights, and we could see that there was water at the bottom of the drop. You could hear it, too.”

“An underground river?” I asked. I stepped back from the cave entrance and looked sharply at Stanton. This was an insane playground for two young boys, and it was nothing short of a miracle that neither he nor his brother, Devlin, had suffered serious injury.

“Yes. And, if someone fell in, they would drown and their body would never be recovered.” Stanton paused thoughtfully. “Well, perhaps it would. But it would be downstream somewhere – probably in Three Horses River where the underground river connects with it.”

“Or eaten by catfish,” I said. A ghoulish thought had entered my mind, accompanied by images of the big, fat bottom-feeders stripping the flesh from corpses, and then swimming in and out of the ribcages and other bones.

“I haven’t been here since I was a kid, but my guess is that the hole is even bigger than it used to be,” said Stanton. “I didn’t want you to fall in.”

“Makes sense to me,” I said. “Let’s go in.”

Stanton looked at me in amazement.

“But I just told you how dangerous it was,” he said.

“Did it ever occur to you that it would make a perfect hiding place?” I asked. “After all, it has its own built-in booby trap. It reminds me of what one would hear about the pyramids.”

Stanton looked at me closely for the first time.

“How did you get so wet?” he asked. “You are covered with mud, too. Did you already go in? It doesn’t look like the entrance has been disturbed, though.”

“I ended up climbing around the bank and the edge of Three Horses River.” I paused and tried to rub out a clump of clay that was drying on my pant leg. “It must have been interesting to live here as a child.”

“There were quite a few caves. Some were too small to go into. Others were on private land, and there were gates across them. The big one down the road was called Two Horse Cavern.”

“Not Three Horses?” I asked.

“No. Two Horse Cavern because one could drive two horses, along with a small buggy or wagon, into it. This cave was called ‘Cave of Whispers’ or just “Whisper Cave.’ No gate, no fence, nothing -- which seemed crazy to me, given how dangerous it was.”

“Of course, it was rumored to be haunted, so I suspect that kept some people away. The story was that the Indians who built the mounds over near Spiro used this area in religious rites. There is some evidence that they practiced human sacrifice,” he said.

“Horrible, but not unusual,” I said. “I mean, what ancient culture did not practice human sacrifice? Or, at least, it is what leading anthropologists and archeologists would have you believe.”

“You’ve been reading National Geographic again,” said Stanton. His voice was severe, but his eyes were smiling..

“Wasn’t it on your relatives’ land?” I asked.

“Yes. This was all stuff that Dad inherited, and which he would always come back to, no matter where he was stationed. He would make a trip to Yahweh Springs, to “the place” as he called it – on the edge of Three Horses River.” Stanton looked thoughtful.

“He said it was his past and his future. He said it all the time and I never knew what he meant.”

“Can’t we just look in the entrance? We don’t have to go far. Just far enough to see if the big drop is still as big as it was.” The smell of mud and sweet flowers floated by. The sound of the water rushing by made a soothing backdrop. I took a few steps toward toward the cave, pulled back the branches again and looked in, warily.

“I hear it,” I said softly.

“What?” asked Stanton.

“Whispering. It’s like the sounds of flowing water, and whispering combined. In fact, it almost sounds like breathing – or heavy sighing.”

The sounds gave me chills. I thought better of going into the cave, particularly after I saw a large spider web with a black spider sporting long, shiny legs. A red hourglass shape was on its belly.

“Nice black widow spider,” I said, jumping back.

“I told you it was dangerous, said Stanton.

“I still say we should go in. Just clear out the web… scare off the spider,” I said. I grabbed a stick and moved the web around. The spider ran up the stick. I threw the stick toward the river.

“Now. That’s better. Let’s go inside,” I said. Stanton snorted.

“You are incorrigible,” he said. “Well. Be careful. I’ll lead the way.”