Monday, 17 June 2013

The inner cave

The smell of flowers lured me westwards.  Well, I thought it was westwards, based on where the sun was in the sky, but I’d long since learned that directions in the desert were never quite as easy as that.  I was sure I’d spent days walking in enormous circles, seeing the same rock formations in the distance over and over again, from a slightly different angle each time.  Every time I’d wonder, and then convince myself that it was my imagination and that I’d know if I was walking in circles.  I had to walk over my own footprints before I’d admit to myself that there was a problem.
But smells were different.  Mostly the desert smelled warm, slightly baked, except at night when the air chilled and I sat in my tent with the door zipped up and my sleeping bag pulled around me and all I really smelled then was my own humanity.  It was comforting in a way.  The flowers were a subtle, light scent, and at first I thought I was imagining it.  Then it came again, carried on a tiny current of air that stirred by hair (grown quite long by then) and tickled my nose.  I stopped, inhaled carefully, and there it was, a sweetness I’d almost forgotten I knew.  So I followed it.
This was the desert though, so I wasn’t incautious.  I stepped carefully, and I checked the sand underfoot for anything and everything; I scanned the horizon for early warnings, and I listened so hard I thought my eardrums might burst.  It took ten minutes, but then a rock formation appeared on the horizon, and the smell seemed to be coming from there.  It took an hour to walk there, but when I arrived I discovered that the rocks were about eight times my height and looked to go quite a long way down into the desert as well.  There were holes and clefts, lots of ways inside, into the caves.  I picked the cleft next to the one where the scent was strongest, and looked inside.
It was shadowy and went a long way back.  I paused here: I had an electric torch still at this point but I wasn’t sure I wanted to wear the battery out exploring a cave that happened to smell nice.  I had no idea when I’d find a way out of the desert, after all.  When I finally decided to get it out and spend just five minutes looking around, I quickly discovered a stash of rag-wrapped, oil-soaked torches in another small cleft at the side of the cave.  Lighting one was easy, and I put my electric torch away.
At the back of the cave where it was already beginning to feel cold, there was a tunnel that I could walk down if I crouched, so I ducked down and kind of duck-walked along.  The torch was much closer to my face now and I could see the slightly-greasy black smoke it gave off and smell the burning oil.  It smelled rancid, and obliterated the smell of the flowers.
At the end of the tunnel it actually got lower still, but I could see dim light ahead and thought that it must open out, so I got down on my stomach and wriggled along, the torch held out in front of me off the ground and my arm and shoulder aching horribly after just two minutes of wriggling.  It took nearly five minutes to reach the grey light, and thankfully the cave did open out, as otherwise I’d have had to drop the torch and wriggle backwards and pray that I’d not missed any side-turnings on my way in.
The cave was about the size of the interior of a small church with the ceiling reaching above my head far enough that I knew that I must have been travelling downhill through all my travelling.  Up at the ceiling there were holes in the rock that were letting in sunlight, but they were small, ragged gaps and the light attenuated as it fell through the still air.  Taking up most of the floor of the cave was a silvery pool of liquid that glistened and shimmered and looked more like mercury than water.
I took a single step towards it, intending just to look at it and see what it was.  I had no intention of touching it in case it was poisonous, and even the idea of drinking from it was ridiculous at that point.  It shimmered and rippled, and suddenly there were waves rushing across the surface of it.  They were small, white-capped waves, maybe a couple of inches high, and they broke on the edge of the pool and splashed just a little way over, but the sudden state change was enough to halt my feet, and I stood where I was, watching.  The smell of flowers rose up from the liquid and was suddenly so strong that I coughed and had trouble breathing for a moment.
When the waves didn’t change any more, I risked another step forward, and then a second when nothing happened from that.  Then I was stood at the edge of the pool, looking into it, and the waves died away as fast as they’d arisen.  The surface of the pool was perfectly flat, and should have been perfectly reflective.  Instead, when I looked into it I saw an image as though from high above, of myself standing on the edge of a cliff.  There was no sign of land below the cliff, just white fluffy clouds in a wide blue expanse.  I looked calm as I looked about, and to my relief I didn’t appear to be about to jump.
Nothing else happened; I didn’t move in the image, and the image didn’t change.  Finally I stepped back, and as I did so the image did move, just for a moment.  Something dazzlingly bright soared up, bursting through the white fluffy clouds and came to a halt in front of me, forming a vaguely humanoid shape.  And then my foot struck the ground behind me, and the surface creased into hundreds of tiny waves again.  I stepped forward, but the surface didn’t still, and the waves grew larger, and I took this to mean that I should leave.
But when I turned around, the low, cramped tunnel I’d entered this cave by was blocked by a rockfall that had either been silent or I’d been deaf while watching that vision.

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