— Beth Kephart
It's raining at the tree house by the swelling Shenandoah. It's been raining, and it will. Flood proportions, they're saying on the mini TV in the split-log room—the newscasters fighting for air beneath the downpour.
Sounds like somebody running out there, heeling it down on the timbered roof. Horses coming. A gang of wildly misplaced moose.
No one can see us; no one can hear us; we are two. The rain comes down. The Shenandoah rises. Tomorrow an entire nation of tree trunks will be drowned and the cows up the road will be up to their knee bones in muck and when I go out to take a walk in sloshy boots I will find a hive of wasps hanging like a Chinese lantern, three times the size of my head, but half as buzzy.
We prepare for the storm, abandoning the newscasters to their talk of rising rivers and evacuation routes. We open the tree house door. Clatter down the tree house stairs. Run for the car. Bill drives. Past the lonely, lovely farmhouses, along the Walmart strip, toward the Disney-sized parking lot for the big-name caverns that put Luray, Virginia, on the map.
Parking and running and running.
In the limestone cavity time is measured in drips and the temperature is a permanent fifty-four-degree suck and sometimes they turn out the lights. Pure calcite is pure white. The vast-seeming lake is just twenty inches deep. Stalactites grow into stalagmites, forming floor-to-ceiling plinths. There are mineral versions of eggs and skirts and fish and lace, a hall for giants and their giantesses. There are 1.25 miles of worn footpaths.
We smell the beer on the breath of a rain-soaked couple. Follow the echoes of a toddler in rain boots. Pay attention as Leland Sprinkle's Stalacpipe Organ plays—the rubber mallets eliciting song from thirty-seven frozen drips. I imagine earthquakes and collapse. I remember last summer’s cave, when we’d made our way to Poland and taken a hapless half-bus from Krakow to the national park of Ojcow and climbed a muddy hill and escaped a particularly dark black cloud by joining a tour of what at once (we couldn’t turn back) seemed like our own coffin.
We were in a crowd and thick with middle earth. The passages were only shoulder width when you turned ninety degrees and stooped. Suddenly our huddling through was stopped. Someone up ahead, it seemed, was trapped: burial terror. Between the crush of stone and strangers the air grew thin and the rain that we couldn’t hear was a fast white spit and I reverted to claustrophobic panic.
Bill was smashed against me. I could feel the buck of my heart upon his. He pulled out his phone and lit that place up. He cracked a joke in my ear.
There are only two places where the animal in us live, Bill will say, on another day. Deep in the earth, or up in the sky. Everything else is merely human.