The cave plunged into the earth as if an enormous rodent had burrowed into the rock in a frantic effort to escape the light. Camouflaged on the edge of a scree of granite that appeared as a river of boulders stopped mid-flow and frozen in time, the mouth of the cave was a smidgen too small to admit a full-sized man. But we weren’t full-sized men, not yet, and were willing to risk our lives for the promise of magic whispered to grow within the cave’s depths.
The sky blustered dark-bellied clouds as gusts of mid-summer wind swept through boughs of lodge pole pine. Green leaves of aspens quaked on the steep mountainsides. Daypack stocked with spare flashlights and batteries, a hammer and chisel, a length of rope, I stood at the rim of the abyss looking down.
“If it rains,” I speculated, “it might flood.”
“Maybe we should wait,” responded Mike.
“Can’t,” I said. “Her birthday’s tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” said Mike. “There’s that.”
I squatted. “Maybe you can stay up here. I’ll tie the rope to my belt. You can yank if it starts to rain.”
“Naw,” said Mike. He surveyed the side of the mountain as it rose sharply into the darkening sky. “It ain’t long enough.”
I told my parents we were taking a weekend backpacking trip into the Bighorn Mountains near the town of Buffalo, Wyoming. In actuality we were holed up in a dilapidated log cabin on Casper Mountain. The cabin was owned by a lawyer, the father a friend who owed me a favor. I don’t know why I lied.
I said, “I guess we better get on with it.”
“Yep,” said Mike. “Guess so.”
Cain, the first human being born of woman, was also the first city builder and sire to the fathers of nomads, musicians, and metalsmiths. He is remembered primarily, however, and rightly so, as the first human to commit murder. Only after this defining act, did he build a city. Did the blood of his brother Abel, then, fertilize the ground from which Western civilization emerged? Like Judas, whose betrayal allowed Jesus to fulfill his destiny, was Cain a necessary evil, and, in being so, thereby transformed into one of the great martyrs of the Old Testament? Should he be dubbed St. Cain?
Or is civilization, in particular Western civilization, as contemporary writers such as Derrick Jensen would have it, evil, the bloody earth from which it came cursed by none other than the Lord?
A third option would be, of course, is that civilization is neither good nor evil, and the Book of Genesis an antiquated fable irrelevant in an age where God is dead and humans strive to breach the wall of immortality through technology. Hubris? Wait and see.
Or is it, “None of the above, so feel free to choose another or make up your own”?
Too many choices combined with a heaping helping of uncertainty leaves us in an uneasy place. Where is it? It is here, here and now.
In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, prisoners are chained by leg and neck so they cannot move and can only see what is in front of them. They have been prisoners in the belly of the cave since childhood. Behind them a fire burns and between the fire and the prisoners is a track with a parapet built along it, like a screen at a puppet show, which hides performers as they move puppets over the top. The prisoners see nothing but shadows of the puppets and, because they know no better, take them for real.
Unlike Plato’s depiction, our cave held no fire, no shadows dithering on walls of stone. Home to a steadfast darkness, the fissure, I hoped, guarded an elemental secret. I was questing for first things, things forgotten and searching for memory. Because my imagination had not yet fully acquiesced to the machinations of modern society, I believed I might find what I was looking for hidden in the womb of the earth. Rumor had it that, in the cave’s deep, quartz crystals ripened on rock walls. I hankered for these gems as Arthur must have yearned for the Holy Grail. I told Mike I wanted them for a birthday present to my mother.
At fifteen, I was two years younger than Mike, who had quit high school on the first day of his sophomore year. He lived with his parents and worked six days a week (there was an oil boom at the time and the only people without jobs were those who didn’t want them) as a welder’s helper for a drilling outfit on the east side of the city of Casper. Beset by hemorrhoids from sitting on cold concrete floors day after day, his youthful fancy was succumbing to the toil of manual labor. The two of us had run together for a couple of years, hunting, fishing, and fixing up junk heaps while drinking beer pilfered from Mike’s alcoholic father.
All it took to convince Mike to accompany me on the quest for crystals was claiming, “It’s her birthday. I want something special. Something earned, not bought.”
“What’d you have in mind?” asked Mike.
“Crystals. At the bottom of a cave.”
Mike took a drink from a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and looked up from the disassembled carburetor spread out on a sheet of newspaper unfolded over the metal workbench in his old man’s garage.
“Next week. You could take Saturday off work for once.”
“There’s a cabin,” I added. “A fire pit. It’ll be fun.”
Taking the diaphragm spring from the newspaper, Mike sprayed it with carburetor cleaner. “Sounds good. That fuckin’ job’s killin’ me.”
Why did Cain, cursed to toil through life, murder his brother? It’s easy to conclude that he committed the act out of jealousy, and the probabilities suggest as much. Still, we cannot be certain. Who, exactly, was Cain so very angry with when he cast his face downward after his offering of fruit from the ground was snubbed by the Lord? Was he upset with Abel? Himself? God?
The Lord spoke to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why are you looking so sad? Do what is right. Then you will be accepted. If you don’t do what is right, sin is waiting at your door to grab you. It longs to have you. But you must rule over it.”
How was Cain to interpret “right” and “sin”?
The Lord had given Adam and Eve explicit instructions: “You must not eat the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden. Do not even touch it. If you do, you will die.” No need for clarification.
Cain, however, was left to puzzle over the meaning of the Lord’s command. At this early juncture of the human drama, was knowledge conflated with understanding, or, perhaps, had Cain been cast in the role of the first human required to develop a hermeneutic?
To put it another way: standing under the excruciating glare of the Lord’s scrutiny, how could Cain, at least for a time, fail to be confused? Thrust from his mother’s womb into the light of the knowledge of good and evil, might not have Cain, befuddled by freedom of choice, decided that the Lord required a sacrifice of the highest magnitude, that of human flesh? After all, his offering of the fruits from the earth, a farmer’s humble fare, was scoffed at in favor of Abel’s blood sacrifice of a firstling of his flock. Might not a human sacrifice trump that of a lamb in the eyes of the Lord? Might Cain have been angry with himself for failing to interpret the signs correctly? Maybe. And maybe, standing over his brother’s corpse, the sun pulsating like the wrathful eye of a cyclopean deity, flies buzzing as the dust-dry dirt slurped the blood of the first human sacrifice, Cain, tears of sweat or sorrow or anger or all three blurring his vision, turned his gaze to the horizon and understood, for the first time, his own mortality. And then, maybe, he fell to his knees and wept.
The cave cut into the root of the mountain. The entry shaft, edges etched by an intermittent flow of water over massive amounts of time, beckoned. Mike, after wrapping his mind around the notion that our descent was inevitable, slipped into the dark. He clenched the half-inch barrel of a Mini Mag flashlight in his teeth. Neither one of us had thought to bring headlamps to strap to our foreheads.
I knelt at the edge of the cave. Sunshine, muted by the squall of clouds above, splashed over the gray scree. Wind shushed through the pines.
Peering into the hole, I beheld the nothingness that lurks within utter darkness. “Mike?” The name skittered in my throat. I tried again, louder, “Mike?”
A blossom of light appeared in the black.
“You okay?” I called out.
“Yeah,” groaned Mike. “I think so.”
The wind hissed like a rushing river.
“Be careful,” warned Mike. There’s a doozy of a step about ten feet down. Move to your right.”
I imagined the bedrock beginning to budge, waking up slow from some stony sleep to lurch down the mountainside and bury us forever.
“Come on,” called Mike. “I’ll shine my light on the wall.”
Pulling a flashlight from the side pocket of my pack, I turned it on and stuck the barrel in my mouth.
And thus began my down-going.
When faced with the question concerning how to please the Lord, Cain is akin to Plato’s prisoner. Both were hostages of ignorance set free, the prisoner from the cave and Cain from his mother’s womb. Plato fails to mention who, exactly, or why, the prisoner was unbound. We do know, however, who was answerable for Cain’s freedom: Adam and Eve. Having eaten of the Apple, they freed themselves from ignorance concerning good and evil. And, in Lamarckian fashion, this freedom was passed to their offspring, and, through the ages, down to our own.
Cain was forced to take a stand; he didn’t have a choice but to make a choice. The little evidence he had to work with—the Lord’s favorable reaction to the blood sacrifice of Abel and His displeasure with Cain’s offering of fruit from the earth—demanded his judgment, and his alone.
In Plato’s allegory, the prisoner is forced by his liberators to look into the fire, that primal creator of the shades that have made up his life experience. The light makes his eyes ache, and he attempts to turn back to the shadows, convinced that they, because he can discern them, are more real than the brightness which obliterates. Next he is drug out of the cave into the day where he is vexed and tormented by the bedazzling sun. He cannot see the things that his emancipators insist are real. He is blind.
Cain, too, is forced from the quiet comfort of the womb into the cacophonous light of the knowledge of good and evil. He too is blinded and, as such, unable to distinguish what is righteous from what is sin. Needing time to adjust, he takes it on faith that, if he goes through the motions, works hard and offers to the Lord the fruit of his labors, then the Lord will be pleased. He is wrong. The God of the Old Testament is fond of blood sacrifice and will later ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as proof of faith. Obedient to the Lord, Abraham, subservience supplanting knowledge of good and evil, takes his son to the mountain and lifts the knife to work out salvation in fear and trembling.
Abraham, at least, received a direct command from the Lord, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” No interpretation required.
Cain, on the other hand, was delivered a puzzle: which is “righteous” and which is “sin”? The assumption that the “sin” lying in wait is none other than fratricide is just that: a supposition. Who is to say that Cain’s urge is not to kill his brother, and, that to rule over it, he opts for murder?
Whereas Abraham was awarded reprieve for following the Lord’s orders, Isaac’s life traded for that of a ram, Cain, branded by the mark of God, was consigned to wander the Land of Nod. By marking Cain, the Lord so chooses him and defends him from the rage of those who would punish him for his crimes. And, just as Abraham lived with the fact that he lifted the blade to spill the blood of his beloved son, Cain wandered into Nod, east of Eden, bearing in his mind the memory of his brother’s blood leaking into the thirsty earth. In the end, no matter which way it is parsed, Cain and Abraham are related. They are God’s chosen.
Clutching at the edges of the cave’s mouth, I lowered myself into the dark. The gray light of the impending storm lit up the moons of my fingernails. The temperature dropped by several degrees the moment my head fell beneath the rim of the opening. The light emitting from the flashlight clenched between my teeth was feeble. Caressing the wall of the cave, I searched for handholds. The rock was cold and rough against my palms. Within seconds, it seemed, I could no longer feel my thumbs.
A swath of light lit up the wall from below.
“To the right,” called Mike. “Follow the light.”
Crimping onto a small ledge with my right hand, I swung along the wall, the entire weight of my body concentrated in my fingertips. My right foot landed on a berm of rock misshapen by an environmental shift that had occurred in a time so remote as to be bereft of meaning.
“That’s where I biffed it,” said Mike. “You made it. Gravy from there.”
“Yep,” I said, confidence rising.
Mike said, “I just hope we can get back out.”
I lost my grip on the flashlight. It tumbled from my mouth to the chamber floor and went dark. I jumped from the ledge, landing near Mike.
Mike trained his light on my face. “You look like you been got by Old Lady Sheperdson.”
Old Lady Sheperdson lived in a tarpaper shack on the dirt road I walked schooldays to get to the bus stop. Every now and then she’d open the front door and turn her black and white mongrels loose to harangue me (and Mike before he dropped out of school). I ran for my life every time. Standing on the porch of the shack, she would, seconds before the beasts caught up to me, call them off with a single blast from a metal whistle. Then she’d laugh and yell out, “What ya runnin’ for boy? Ya run every time somethin’ scares ya?”
Mike said, “Wonder what it’d be like without no light.”
Before I could pull the pack from my shoulders to fetch a fresh flashlight, the cave went black. The darkness was so complete that, for a moment, it absorbed everything: sight and sound, memory and thought. It absorbed me. And Mike. Everything.
It was the sound of water that brought me back. Close upon its heels galloped a fear so pungent that it seared the inside of my nostrils as I sucked air. Fight or flight. But there was nothing to fight and nowhere to run.
In the next instant, from that same nowhere, peace descended like a familiar blanket on a cold winter night. Smiling into the outer dark, I unzipped my pack.
Mike turned on his light and aimed it at a wall of the cave.
I said, “It’s raining.”
Mike looked at me, and, for the first time, I noticed a rivulet of blood trailing from his forehead. He must have knocked his skull on the wall as he fell into the cave. I wondered if that was what I heard in the dark: the sound of streaming blood.
“I know,” whispered Mike. “We gotta go.”
“Not yet,” I said. “We’re close.”
The dribble of water, feint as a subtle perfume, grew louder.
“How do you know?” asked Mike. “We ain’t never been down here.”
Clicking on the flashlight fished from my pack, I shined it on a tunnel leading deeper into the mountain. “I just know.” I shifted the light to Mike’s face. He paled in the glow.
“Listen,” I said, “you wait here. If it starts coming down too hard, you yell.” I swung my light back to the tunnel. “I’ll come back. Okay?”
Mike stared at me.
“Okay?” I repeated. “You just call.”
“Okay. Okay. Hurry the fuck up.”
I never told Mike about what happened from there. Maybe it’s because I don’t remember much. Maybe the tunnel slithered into the mountain, the passage narrowing. Maybe I remember the damp earth under my belly as I crawled through the darkness, the flashlight clenched between my teeth. Maybe several of the crystals shattered as I removed them from the wall with the hammer and chisel. And maybe, just maybe, the glow from the flashlight enlivened one of the freed crystals resting in my palm in such a way that the thought of dying inside that mountain was soothing as the purr of a cat.
“Come on back!” yelled Mike. “It’s startin’ to come down.”
Maybe, just for a moment, I didn’t want to go back, so beautiful was the crystal refracting light.
“You hear me!? We gotta go! Now!”
Maybe the mountain whispered,
But it passes,
Full of dark light,
To me the fragrant cup
that I may rest.
It would be sweet
To sleep among the shadows.
“Yeah,” I whispered. I had never heard those words before that day, and was oblivious to the poet Hölderlin. But I heard those words. Maybe. Unless my memory deludes.
“You in there?” screamed Mike. “You hear me?”
“I hear you.”
I should have told him. But I didn’t. He never would have believed me. Do you?
The Allegory of the Cave ends with Socrates explaining to Glaucon that, if the prisoner opted to go back down to take his former seat in the cave, blinded by darkness, he would be mocked by his fellow prisoners. Socrates, the ugly old man who would later commit suicide for his vision of civilization, then tells Glaucon that the prisoners in the cave, if they were unchained and thus able to do so, would promptly kill the prisoner rather than follow him up into the light.
Best the prisoner stays above ground and abandon his fellows to their fate.
As for Cain, he wandered into Nod, had a son and built a city. Nourished by the revealing light of day, he and his family flourished. In the dark of night, however, huddled alone near the warmth of a fire, might Cain have looked into the sky searching for, longing for, the face of his brother in the configuration of stars?
I presented the crystals, wrapped in a blue bandana, to my mother on her birthday. She unfolded the cloth and, for a moment, studied the stones. She then looked at me. I was a strange kid, but she already knew that, so the puzzlement of her expression, her curious gaze, confused. I don’t remember if she smiled or said thank you. She covered the crystals with the cloth and walked from the kitchen to her bedroom. I followed. Pulling a silver chain over her head, she unlocked the lid of the cedar hope chest at the foot of her bed. She tucked the bandana, along with the crystals, inside the chest. She then closed the lid, locked the chest, and looped the chain over her head.
The next day, Mike got fired from his welder’s helper job because his boss didn’t buy that he was too sick to call in. He landed a mechanic’s helper position the next week at an underground bentonite mine near the town of Rock Springs. I didn’t see him much after that. And, when I did, it was never the same.
About a week after Mike moved away, when Old Lady Sheperdson set her dogs after me, I didn’t run. I stood my ground and the dogs stopped in their tracks and wagged their tails. Old Lady Sheperdson stood at the door of her tarpaper shack laughing so hard I thought she might collapse. I patted the dogs on their heads.
Decades have passed since then, one after another, and I have never asked my mother whether the crystals remain in the dark interior of the hope chest. I don’t imagine I ever will.
And I don’t believe I will ever find my way back to the cave where the crystals grow. I do believe, however, that, in taking the crystals from the wall, I somehow jinxed my friendship with Mike. If I would have told him that the crystals were alive and the mountain spoke to me that afternoon, would he have mocked me? I’ll never know. I never told anybody about the experience until now. Or maybe I am merely telling myself, speaking it out loud, so to speak, to bear witness.
About the Author: John M. Gist's creative nonfiction and short stories have appeared in publications such as the Dr. T.J Eckleburg Review, Superstition Review, Stoneboat, Pif, Galway Review, Gravel, Pithead Chapel, Prick of the Spindle, Academic Questions, New Mexico Magazine and many others. He was recently awarded runner-up in South Loop Review's 2014 National Essay Contest judged by David Shields and had been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He recently was named finalist in the 2015 Tucson Book Festival Literary Awards. With an M.F.A from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he teaches creative writing at sunny Western New Mexico University.