Bria McCarthy 2022
Water swelled blue-black around her knees, the candle light floating a little way ahead, in the unmoving air of the underground. She’d been here many times before, stuck the melting bases of candles to nearby rocks to light up the entire chamber. Across the room, beyond the dark, there was a notch in a large stone that formed a perfect chair. Jen would often recline there, listening to droplets of water as they slid across the walls of the cave, then fell down to add traces of minerals to a growing stalagmite underneath; traces of voices, she must have imagined, would moan through the walls when she was falling asleep.
She waded across the underground river, each step she knew better than the last, towards the nook across the way. She found the first candle, struck the match, and brought luminosity to the dark innards of the mountain. Dangerous in the dark, but in the light it was beautiful, calming. Then she found her four other candles, one stuck to a loose rock, another to the pebbled ground of the river bank, others tucked tight amongst stalagmites to shine through the teeth-like openings.
This visit to the river was different to her usual retreats alone. Jen was leading her two new friends through kilometres of passages and chambers that ran like a maze through the Blue Mountains. To those it trusted, the mountains parted their eucalyptus veils to reveal cave openings, excellent places for exploring . Amongst many paths she knew, there was one that led Jen and her friends to the underground river.
Kyle stood, brow beaded with sweat, looking out to the twinkling reflections of candle light on the black river. ‘How is this even real?’ He asked. ‘I’ve never heard of underground rivers in Australia. Pools maybe, that makes sense, but this water is flowing and fast!’
‘Yeah,’ Jen answered. ‘The water bores down through the caves from a few different points, and creates these channels where it rushes through. It comes out at the other side of the mountain, and a bit further down there’s a park there. But before it gets there the water travels this way. This is the one room you can swim in, but mostly the channels are too tight for us to fit through.’
‘We can swim?!’ Kyle beamed, dropping his cumbersome pack immediately. Jen nodded and watched him stumble down into the water, jumping at the first touch of the cold. Connie was slower to enter the chamber. She had been straggling behind, carefully peering into crevasses, quiet, spellbound by the formations of quartz and limestone. When Connie arrived at the beach nestled in the mountain, she stopped and looked, eyes glittering with awe, face softened by the effort of the journey.
It had been hours since they left the daylight behind, though the caves felt timeless. The journey took almost double the time it’d take Jen alone, with explaining the way to go through, coaching Connie to be brave, or scorning Kyle for touching what he shouldn’t. ‘That stalactite you’re holding took ten thousand years to form. Break it in an instant and I’ll leave you here with it,’ she said. Then she heard the coldness of her voice, smiled and played it off like a joke.
She taught each of them to abseil the short falls between caves, to shimmy through sharp-edged cracks in the walls, even to slide along their bellies through tiny shelves of broken stone. She had learned that the tighter the way through, the bigger the opening will be, at least in some cases. Squeezing too far into unknown breaks in the caves could mean getting stuck, never coming out. In a family of cave explorers, she had known of too many people who died in these expeditions. But the trait that ran through her genes was a yearning for adventure, a need to be close with the most secret parts of the world. As an only child too, she yearned to share her joy. Jen had bad luck with friends, so when she met Kyle and Connie at her new study group, she thought to woo them by bringing them to see her secret beach.
Connie dropped her pack too and slinked into the river. Water splashed up into the air and caught light to look like shooting stars on a black water sky. Jen had never seen the place so alive. Never heard it with so many voices. The cave seemed to dampen and echo the sound at once, like it didn’t know what to do with it. Jen looked up to the pink glowing ribbons of hanging crystal and asked the hollow mountain, ‘Is this okay?’
She couldn’t explain to the others how she thought of the caves as an alive, very sacred place. She risked a lot by bringing two inexperienced civilians down into the depths, where the world was not built for the comfort of human bodies. The risks were great too if they damaged the cave, and the responsibility for any of this would be taken as her own. All Jen wanted after 16 years of loneliness was a friend or two that might stay around. The caves, she thought, might be the most interesting thing about her, so even though opening them up to strangers felt like opening her own chest to reveal her organs, she thought it would be worth it in the end; when she might turn 18 and have a party where people show up.
Jen swam too for a while, then crawled to sit on a ledge hanging over the river. She opened a metal tin of biscuits and shared them with Kyle and Connie. Connie asked her question after question about the caves.
‘It’s crazy to think that it’s dark here all the time. Always dark. Until you come in with your little candles and light it up. Why don’t you use a torch?’ she asked.
‘It just looks nicer. I don’t mind the hassle. I think fire is more comfortable here, because it’s as ancient as the stone.’ The candle flickered in agreeance, popped and flared for a moment from its stoney nest.
‘Good thought!’ Connie jumped up. She lowered herself back into the water and swam against the current to the river bed, where she picked up her bag and rummaged through to find a tightly wound package inside. Then she entered the stream again, walked back the way she came while holding the package in the air, stretching to keep her head above water until she clambered up to the ledge. Connie was of a small, ghostly kind of build. The journey was a strain for her most of all. Little streams of water poured from Connie onto the stone. Jen thought of how moving water had formed the passages of the caves in a similar way. If Connie could drag a million years’ worth of water in that direction, she may create a whole new branch of the river. Jen would name it ‘Connie’s stream’ and watch it flow over time from that one place on the ledge into unfathomable depths of earth.
Connie unwrapped the black fabric of the package, and it rolled out onto the stone to reveal pencils, brushes, little trays of paint tucked neatly into folded pockets. She found paper, took up her pencil, and began working on a page that was angled so Jen couldn’t see. She sunk into drawing, scratching, dipping a dry brush into the paint and gently introducing colour. ‘It’s so cold?’ said Connie.
‘It’s always the same temperature down here, year round. In the winter, fifteen degrees. In the summer, beautiful, fifteen degrees… We’re deep beyond the regular movements of time I like to think. Like when we’re above, we rapidly move from the heat of the day to the cold of night. Things here take much longer to change. But they change all the time. See how the roof is wet? Hanging from the shawls of rock there? That water is helping the limestone grow. Tomorrow there will be another bead, then another the day after that. In a thousand years we might see it an inch or two longer so… What was your question? Sorry.’ Jen recoiled, looking cautiously into Connie’s eyes, fearing she had said too much. Then Connie smiled.
‘I don’t remember. Keep going. Tell me everything! It’s so cool!’ The word ‘cool’ flew through the cavern.
‘Cool!!’ Jen called too. They laughed together at the sound. Then Jen became very excited- laughing with a friend! The two called out ‘Coo! Coo! Coo!’ until the cave was all alive with a concert of teenage voices.
As the sound died out, the giggling subsided, Jen listened to the quiet that dribbled back into its place. But underneath the remaining echoes she heard a distant racket that made her stand up in alarm. ‘Where’s Kyle!?’
Connie looked up from her page.‘Uh. I don’t… I don’t know?’
Jen cursed. Jumped from the ledge, letting her feet slap onto the cold stones under the river, then rushed across to the shore. Kyle’s bag, Kyle’s shoes, all strewn where he left them. But where was Kyle?
The sound came again, from a cleft in the wall of stone, a hidden passageway reverberating the sound of Kyle’s voice. ‘JEENNN!’ it called, ‘Help!’
Jen cursed again, a few times. Stomped in a rush to find her pack and headlamp. She turned on the light, the first beam of electric torchlight since they came to the beach (Playful candle light would be no help). Connie had swum back across too, and looked cautiously over Jen’s shoulder. Jen signalled her to stay put, then embarked into the dark passageway.
‘How have I never seen this?’ she asked herself, testing the strength of the ground and the roof as she went through slowly. She called out to Kyle. He resounded back, a little fear in his voice. It was bodiless like a ghost. Then Jen saw what she had hoped she wouldn’t. The floor dropped right away. A hole, perfectly Kyle sized, appeared before her feet, going vertically down into a new chamber.
‘It’s freakin dark, man!’ Kyle’s voice exclaimed.
Jen shone her headlamp down into the hole, but could see no sign of Kyle. ‘Are you hurt?’
‘Well yeah!’ he said. ‘My leg got all scratched up!’
‘Can you walk?’ Jen asked.
‘Yeah.’ Kyle sulked.
Jen sighed with relief, the bubble of fear sliding back down her throat. ‘Alright. Stay put, I’m coming.’
‘Righto.’ Kyle said, punctuating his response with a whistle.
Jen stomped out to the light of the beach again, breath hefty in her chest, irritable. She had warned the others of exactly a situation like this, that if they would fall and break a limb, it’d be nearly impossible for a rescue team to get them. Each tight squeeze they made through the caves would be impassable by an adult body, let alone a stretcher or ambulance. But she reminded herself, he was okay, miraculously. Kyle would not end up like uncle Kip, Amber or her dad’s friend Simmo. She just needed to get him back up from the hole.
The drop down was easy enough. They were lucky that the hole was near a stone formation strong enough to anchor a simple pulley. Jen’s torchlight illuminated the space entirely, a small room, almost perfectly circular, arching high up overhead to the mouth of the hole. She opened her arm for Kyle to grab onto her. ‘Alright. We’ve got to hang on tight together and pull this rope… Come on… Kyle?’ Jen turned around to look at his face. He was frozen, features sunken in, eyes glued to the back wall. ‘Kyle? What’s wrong?’ Jen said. Kyle babbled, slack jawed, and pointed with a shaking finger. Then Jen saw it.
A stone sarcophagus, fallen out of place. It had cracked open onto its side, revealing a withered body, green arms folded across its chest. The torchlight glistened over its skin. The creature was sealed in a thin layer of stone. Jen knew that limestone could creep slowly to swallow an artefact if the conditions were right, over a very long time. The stone was just thin enough at this stage to see through, like a chrysalis.
She crept closer, treading shyly. The creature had arms like her own, fingernails long and curled. But its face was immediately recognisable as inhuman, features pointed up, snarling mouth with no top lip. Its open eyes were black, somewhat like a fish. Its ears, she couldn’t believe, were long and pointed, sticking out from the side of its frozen head. She couldn’t fight the image of elves and fairies from creeping into her mind. But she thought of more than that. It looked like a bat.
Then Kyle lurched forward and pointed closer to the thing, glaring his frightened eyes up to her headlamp. From behind the creature’s bony shoulder, a wing folded around its body, which was half buried in the sarcophagus. Its height looked twice Jen’s own, its wingspan even more than that. The wing was leathery and thick, long bones shining through the skin. Kyle gagged, then swallowed it down, then found his voice.
‘J… J… Jen? Hey?’
She turned her eyes to him.
‘What do we do?’
‘Connie!!’ Jen shouted, panic pushing her voice to echo way beyond the beach.
Connie’s head appeared looking down into the hole above them, stammering. She passed Jen the pack of supplies that she asked for, then shone her light upon the creature. ‘Are you for real? How old is this?’
‘I hadn’t thought about it…’
‘Well it’s gotta be really old right? Like a thousand years?’
‘At least.’ Jen replied.
Connie leaned in closer, hung her head down into the little cave.
‘What’s it got on its neck?’
There was a gold chain, an amulet of considerable size glimmering upon the creature’s chest. As they looked now Jen realised the body was quite adorned in jewellery: gold hung from its ears, its fingers, pierced through its bottom lip. She realised too that the creature resembled a woman, if such a thing as this had a sex. Connie pointed again, to the creature’s wrist, where another gold chain wrapped around like a bracelet, made in a style Jen had never seen before. The bracelet bore a plate too, that shone from the front of the creature’s wrist, and it was inscribed with a scratchy text. Jen, Connie and Kyle all gathered around to squint at the inscription, trying to make out what it said. Finally Jen pulled a loose rag from her pack, spat on it, and wiped the dust gently off the limestone shell. Even when they could see the text clearly, they could not read it, nor recognise any language that it could be in. Upwards scratches punctuated the plate, lines drawn horizontally through some words, diagonally through others. When Jen realised the immensity of the discovery they had made, she stepped back, batted her eyes.
‘This could be a whole new species…I… obvious signs of a whole society.’
She remembered to breathe. ‘Most scientists believe that only humans are able to achieve such complexity, to bury their dead like this, with ceremony, language. But this thing. They were forging gold? This could change everything… I…’ The sentence slipped away.
Kyle spoke ‘What are you saying?’
‘We call this period of history the Anthropocene. Have you heard that?’
Connie nodded, Kyle followed.
‘It means this geological epoch, period of time, that is made significant by human life. Before that was the Holocene, Pleistocene, Pliocene… All of those were made up with the knowledge we have about species, about the earth, about humans too. But this… if this is as old as I think it could be,it’d throw all of that out of whack. It’d throw everything out of whack. It’d be the biggest scientific discovery of the century. Easy.’
She drew her hands to her head. ‘So… We’re rich? Or famous? Will we be on the news?’
Connie jumped up. ‘Well hold on. How would we even get it out of here? Who would we tell? It’s like really stuck in the stone here and I don’t want to touch it.’
‘I mean… I think I would at least know where to start. My parents would know who to call? What do we even say?’
‘My phone’s dead.’ Kyle said.
‘No reception.’ Said Connie.
‘Damn’ Jen signed. ‘Me either.’
‘Look! Can we just bloody get out of here? It’s so freaky! And my leg is bleeding you know?’ Kyle said, moving restlessly about the cavern.
“Oh! Right, sorry!’ Jen said. ‘Let me just tie you up here. Pull this rope and it’ll take you out.’
‘I’m literally going to call the news as soon as my phone is charged.’ Kyle beamed, as he began to lift himself off the ground, looking to the hole in the roof with relief. But before a second passed he fell back to the ground, frightened out of his skin by a new sound in the cave.
Jen and Connie jumped into one another, then Kyle jumped into the huddle too. They looked around with big eyes, as the cavern began to rumble. It began with a boom, then dwindled into a hiss. Then it sounded as if the very walls of the cave were breathing a big inhale. The black eyes of the creature glimmered, but all was still. Then a voice whispered from all around, from the depth of the earth itself.
‘Nensaga nonshila prorki seq furr.’ A wheezing breath in. ‘Ninne descreba ze morch. Hell orsshipuk heyven resk… I do not like how you smell.’
Jen, Connie and Kyle all held still for what felt like eternity, muscles trapped in a position of defence. Then Jen was the first to let out her breath, to relax for half a second.
The voice boomed. ‘A curse on treasure stolen! Ugly curses forever!’
With quaking legs, the three teenagers flew themselves back up out of the cave. Jen hoisted Connie up with the rope, Kyle grabbed the lip of the ledge and pulled himself up faster than the rope could have. One drop of his blood fell onto the tomb’s floor. Then they threw all their gear onto their backs, ran to the doorway leading back to the surface. Jen remembered, a few strides in, and turned to swim back across the water with hardly a breath in her chest. She extinguished all five of her candles, then swam back with shaking hands skimming the surface of the water.
The journey out was fast, even Connie was quickened by adrenaline. The torchlight let them see their way much further ahead, and none dared to stop and sightsee. When the white moonlight first appeared through a small opening in the stone, it sent all three of them stumbling back a step or two. ‘How long have we been in there?’ Jen thought to herself.
They came out to the fresh, warm air of the living world. The trees were brustling overhead with such lightweight freedom, stars floated at ease in the sky. The world above the ground seemed weightless, unknowingly youthful. They had never been so grateful.
Jen turned back to see the cave one last time, not sure she could ever come back. But quietly she heard, the moaning in the walls again, this time a whisper:
‘A blessing on those who leave treasure glimmering. Blessing and luck forever.’
A few days later, at study group, Connie slid a folded piece of paper across the desk to Jen. ‘I’m still working on it,’ she said.
Jen unfolded the page to reveal a painting, in watercolour and pencil, of the creature that they found. In the dark its skin was a decaying brown-green, but Connie had imagined it in the light. It was brighter, surrounded by rings of pink and blue light, against a background of amber stalactite formations. Its arms were crossed against its chest as Jen would never forget them, but Connie had drawn it with peace in its eyes, restfulness in its face. At the bottom of the page Connie had left empty space, drawn with black ink were quotation marks, but the words were missing. Kyle whispered across Jens desk ‘It said… A curse on treasure stolen… Blessing on those who leave treasure glimmering.’ He shivered with the words. ‘Right?’
‘Yes! Good memory… Freaky,’ Connie said, and filled in the blanks underneath the image. Then she lifted her head from the work, whispered under the sound of the teacher’s lesson.
‘You know, I kind of felt like the caves were alive in there. Not just the freaky ghoul thing but… I think I’d want to go back.’
‘I know what you mean!’ Kyle said. ‘Are we like… allowed to go back?’
‘Well… Maybe if we do it, you know, nicely? Respectfully. Leave no trace.’ said Connie.
‘Yeah,’ said Jen. ‘There’s actually heaps more caves I can show you… if you want?’
‘Yes! Please!’ Connie fluttered. Kyle said, ‘Yeah! Soon!’
Jen smiled a smile that couldn’t be contained, nodded shyly, and turned, pretending to pay attention to the class. From outside the window, the mountains could be seen brustling in the wind of the day, their wooded slopes golden and weightless in the sun.