The Old Man and the Cave
by Joseph Williams
The cave was dark and suffocating. The old man was curled up into a ball, his head between his knees and his back sloping away from the wet surface around him, pretending it was hot lava. His long gray beard hung, tangled and dripping, down at his ankles, and he wondered how bad it would be for him to wring the water out of it for a drink. His beard wasn’t so dirty. And he was very thirsty.
Every so often, a gush of water would shower him from above and wash away much of the horrible cave acid that burned his skin, but it wasn’t necessarily a blessing. The water wasn’t good for drinking and it collected at the bottom of the cave until his toes, feet, ankles, and shins, were covered. Air was sparse as it was, and the water seemed to be stealing every last bit of it the higher it rose.
“I’ll be under soon,” he said. The cave did not reply.
So much water had come down into the cave over the preceding two days and two nights that he thought he’d have to change position pretty soon or his nose and mouth would be completely submerged.
“That might not be so bad. My back is aching terribly and my neck is sore from bending away from the ceiling.”
The cave moaned back to him this time, perhaps irritated at the sound of his deep voice, but he was still only talking to himself. It made him feel better.
It had been a very dark, very rainy night when he’d fallen into the cave, which he supposed made it more of a hole than anything else. It was a long fall, but he still couldn’t believe that he’d ever made it down so deep. The passage had been wide at first — wide enough for him to fall through, at least — but it had gotten forbiddingly tight farther on. His body seemed to be parting the walls as he went, cracking ancient structures that the old man was sure no other human had ever seen because no one could have fit between them.
He might have made his way back, but the water kept rushing down in violent rapids that forced him farther and farther into darkness with its sweeping arms.
For the best, really. I couldn’t have pushed my way up to the top backwards.
For the brief while that he could still sense the stalactites and stalagmites at the entrance to the cave-hole before he’d first lost consciousness, his arms had been pressed so tightly to his body that he couldn’t even turn around to take one last, desperate look at freedom. Since then, he’d lost all hope of survival.
After the first day of squeezing down a thick entanglement of vines and tunnels, he’d come to a spot where the water wasn’t rushing as violently, and where he could at least resist the constant downward pull of the bottom of the cave. But it was only a resting place. Only a short delay.
Soon enough, he’d be swallowed whole by the forces of gravity; swallowed into a dark nothingness that dissolved his bones. He was starving, thirsty, and sleep-deprived, but he thought the cave acid would be the death of him. His skin seemed to glow from its erasure burn.
He tried not to touch the burning walls, but it was difficult given how confined and utterly dark it was in that part of the cave. And he could never be sure how close his back was to the wall. There had been times at the beginning where he thought he caught a faint glimpse of light, but that had long passed. Now, the cave seemed to grow darker with every breath.
Now, he was only waiting for the end.
“It won’t be long,” he croaked.
He could feel his lungs snatching the last bits of air out from his damp coffin and decided those were to be his last words. He couldn’t spare any more oxygen. And though he’d suffered enough already to welcome death with open arms, maybe even enough to speed it on its way, he didn’t want to go blabbering into the afterlife like a drunken fool.
Leave that for the atheists.
He couldn’t stifle the grin that rose to his lips in spite of his pain.
His body was shaking and the hunger was awful.
I won’t be awake much longer.
The thought made his tongue slap against his teeth and his toes curl. Up until that moment, he’d believed he’d lost both functions at least a day earlier.
He groaned and turned his head to the side. Some grotesque form of caterpillar oozed by his shoulder and regarded him for a moment before retreating into the cave bowels. He watched in fascination as it slimed a path over the already slime-ridden cave wall, then disappeared. The old man had seen only black for days, but this creature glowed and he couldn’t turn away from it until it was gone. The darkness that devoured it was awful to feel.
You, my friend. But not me. I’m not going down there. Not yet. It’s not quite the end.
Not quite the end.
He was sure of it. He didn’t know what it meant for the cave or what he was supposed to do to get out of it, but the sight of the slug creature and its path into absolute darkness had made a believer out of him.
I don’t want to go down there. I don’t want to see the bottom.
His mind filled with the image of one million glowing, mutant caterpillars gnawing the flesh from his bones, and his stomach turned.
A volcano erupted somewhere inside of him. He fought it back with all of his might, but the very act of fighting made him writhe in agony. When he fought, the lava spilled into his veins rather than out of his mouth, and that alone made him slam his body against the burning cave walls. One burst of pain was enough for him to give in and try to vomit, but there was nothing inside of him to purge and he fell to dry-heaving instead.
His back rose and fell in violent, wrenching arcs until tears bled from his eyes and he thought he might cough out all of his organs, and then he collapsed neck-deep into the water. The old man sought to scream in agony, but the burning in his throat was so wretched that he feared his vocal chords would explode if he so much as whispered. Instead, he panted and clenched his fists so tightly that blood geysered into the water and two of his fingernails snapped off. He no longer cared to conserve the last bits of air in the cave.
His beard floated on the surface of the water and little clumps of seaweed braided into it while he tried to recover.
This is Hell.
I don’t want to die I don’t want to die please God make this stop!
He felt something slither against his thigh and snapped his eyes shut.
A snake? An eel? Some kind of ray?
Please, God, help me!
He remembered the stalactites and stalagmites at the cave’s mouth and realized how much they had looked like prison bars, banishing him from the Earth and into the slimy, acid-lined depths of Hell.
His throat was throbbing so hard he thought he could hear it making waves around his neck.
I’m going to die...
Black circles farther darkened the pitch-black cave and he knew he was losing consciousness again.
Please, God, help me! Save me!
The cave did not answer. There was only black.
The life drained from his body. He fought against it with all of his might. “GOD HELP ME!”
The world went away.
His dreams were very bright.
* * *
He woke on the third night and knew even before he opened his eyes that the floor was different. There was a constant thundering that was painful to hear after the silence and solitude of the cave. There was light on the other side of his eyelids, but he didn’t dare open them. Not yet.
How am I still alive?
He thought of crying out to give voice to his despair, but then remembered the condition of his throat and thought better of it.
Where am I?
His skin burned as though he had slept in flames, and a terrible thought entered his mind: I’ve gone all the way down. I’m with the caterpillars now, and they’re glowing. I’ll open my eyes and see them all around me.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all. Maybe it’s time...
He reached out his hand slowly, expecting to feel some slimy, hairy skin... or sharp, clenching teeth.
But he felt only air. Just cool, rushing air. His lungs sucked it in like the very grace of God, and he felt too empty to cry.
Thank you, God! Thank you, GOD!
The old man opened his eyes and saw the cliffs overhanging the beach, and what was more, water was leaping over one of them into the sea.
Fresh water. And where there was water, there might be fish.
He tried to rise and found that he couldn’t; his body was too weak.
His bloodshot eyes would have welled with tears if there were any liquid left in them. He pushed away the urge, regardless.
No. Not after all of this. Not when I’m this close.
The old man watched the water for a while, estimating as best he could how much fight there was left in him and whether it was worth the effort.
But I don’t have a choice, do I? Isn’t that what this is all about?
He bit his lip, propped himself up on his right elbow, and dragged himself a few inches farther down the beach, then looked up to mark his progress.
But the waterfall wasn’t too far away. It wouldn’t have to take much longer... if he kept going...
He groaned, raised his left elbow — a little steadier than his right — and dug into the sand until he was another foot or so up the beach toward the waterfall.
His skin screamed with each inch and he saw that much of it had been burned away by the cave acid, leaving only festering wounds that invited sand into his bloodstream like Sirens beckoning a ship into treacherous waters.
Not much farther...
He lowered his head, cried out, and crawled another full foot down the beach.
Not much farther...
And again, he raised his elbow and dug into the earth.
Not much farther...
Not much farther!
And again. And again. And again.
Once his fingers found liquid, he let his head drop to the river.
He lapped up the water until he vomited it all back out, and then drank some more. He didn’t notice any of the fish that had washed ashore at first; not until it was too late to wonder whether the water had gone bad or it was just his good fortune to find a bounty of food on the banks of the river. It wouldn’t have mattered to him by then, anyway.
With a full mouth and a full belly he screamed “Thank you!” up at the night sky.
Once he’d filled himself with water and eaten enough of the fish that he could stand up without falling, Jonah set out for Nineveh.
Copyright © 2010 by Joseph Williams