The leaves gather beneath the holly bushes on which the first blush of winter berries has begun to gleam. I wrap myself in my usual ragtag selection of long scarves. I wind wool over chiffon and sweep the lot behind me as I descend the three steps of the porch, in the crisp air of the clear morning, with my usual cup of black courage clutched against my chest.
Last night, at another First Friday in Mission, a fine photographer and I joined forces to create a landscape for those gathered to view his works, and the works of the incomparable Katie Dallam, and the sweet paintings of a little girl with an eye for beauty. We arranged chairs, and put out food, and made lemonade. As we poured bottled spring water into the lemonade dispenser, I found myself thinking of other water, flowing from a spring, fed by an underground river, far south of here, in another lifetime.
In the mountains of Arkansas, a man with too much money built a house inside of a cave; not a hovel, nor a crude shelter, but a true house, with floors, and carpets, and a loft library, and bedrooms deep in the bowels of the old, craggy hillside, along a curved tiled hallway. The ceiling rose high, and the inner stairway ascended to a series of upper rooms, flanked by railings of carved wood tenderly made by craftsmen who knew their art.
The first time I drove the state highway to the cave house, we stopped beside the road to fill our thermos with water trickling from a pipe protruding out of the rough sweep of rock through which the road had been carved. I had never tasted water in its unsullied form. I had not known that water has a natural taste, and its own fragrance, and a unmistakable light, as it moves within the earth. The spring flowed with the unbridled force of its own energy, out of the small length of lead, unfettered, onto my hands, into my mouth as I bent over to drink. Not before or since has water given me what that water did: pure rejuvenation, as only things untainted by the processes we impose on them can give.
When we had consumed our fill, and capped our containers, we continued on, and after a few minutes' drive along the road, we came around a broad bend and saw the cave house: windows where no windows should be, above a clearing that did not exist before wealth insisted on its creation, beside which sat an abandoned Bobcat. We parked alongside a battered pick-up and a BMW that must have belonged to the owner, for its paint gleamed, and its tires bore none of the mountain mud that vehicles can never shed once they became country cars.
We entered the cave house through a large wooden door of gleaming oak polished to an unnatural gloss and outfitted with heavy brass fittings. Inside we paused, staring, mesmerized by our surroundings. I raised my eyes and gazed upward, to the ceiling at the front part of the cave, towering fifty feet or more above me. To my left stood the stairway to the loft; its railing had not yet been installed, but the risers spanned four feet wide; to my right, I saw the hallway which curved away from us along the perimeter of the cave.
As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that I stood on natural stone, which, I was told, would ultimately be finished with wide planks of native wood flooring. We hovered near the doorway. I pulled my jacket closer to my frame. The air beneath the mountain would need no air conditioning. After a few minutes, I became aware of a consistent, unfamiliar high-pitched sound. I asked, What is that noise? Came the reply from my companion: Water.
Water. My eyes finally adapted to the dimness of the interior, and I realized that in the great space that would someday be the grand foyer of the cave house, scores of buckets had been placed. Water dripped into those buckets, and onto the stone on which we walked with careful steps. The unbroken sound that it made as it fell signified that the mountain had not yet been tamed.
We toured the work-in-progress in silence, moving slowly, taking care on the slick, damp surface. We traversed the circular hallway, to the last point at which the workers had left their mark and then, with no backwards glance, slipped through a tall, narrow crevice into the bowels of the mountain. I held my companion's hand and sometimes reached for the cool wall to steady myself in the passageway. We had no light other than weak rays from high above us. The silence only yielded to the sounds of the ubiquitous water and our own ragged respiration.
A hundred yards beyond the first opening, we came to another, smaller crack, and without hesitation, we sidled through it. I closed my eyes and clutched my companion's hand more tightly, as we moved deeper and farther beyond any place that humans often entered. Don't worry, he said. I know where I'm going. My breathing grew more desperate, and I felt the panic of the truly claustrophobic rise within me. At that point, turning back posed just as much terror as going forward, and so I kept walking, staggering blindly on the dark path until, suddenly, unexpectedly, the narrow passage opened into a wide expanse, the height of which soared to a place I could not see.
We stopped, my companion and I, and leaned against the rock wall, feeling its eternal cold press into our backs. As my body calmed, and I grew quiet, I realized that we stood on the shores of an underground lake, on the surface of which shone a snippet of light from somewhere so far above us that I had to take the naturalness of its source on faith. We held ourselves still, beside that pool, and we breathed air that few had ever breathed, that few even knew existed to be breathed. We did not speak. My fingers opened, and I realized that I had been grasping my companion's hand so tightly that my own hand ached.
What is this place? I whispered. I could not see his face. It is the heart of the mountain, came his low reply. Neither of us said anything more. I had no use for my eyes in the moment, and so I closed them, and I attended to the touch of virgin air on my skin and the quiet throb of unbroken silence.
Gradually, the chill overtook us, and we joined hands once more. At the far edge of the water, we slipped through another crack, into the space formed by the shifting of two large segments of rock, long ago, when the earth shuddered and shook. The steady dripping of water along the walls on either side of us and over our heads grew louder as we journeyed. A hundred feet beyond the lake, the path began to rise, and my breathing grew labored from effort. My companion held onto me, wordlessly urging me forward as I struggled to climb. Finally, when I began to fear that I would have to surrender, and stay, living within the mountain like a troll, we broke through to the surface, and I gasped as I realized that once more we stood beside the spring at which we had so recently refreshed ourselves.
My companion led me to a flat rock, and I sank to its surface, eagerly lifting my face to the kiss of the summer sun. I could only silently nod as he told me that he would fetch the car. By the time he returned, I had fallen asleep, and I did not fully awaken as he guided me to the passenger's seat.
I visited the cave house many times after that, watching the workers press the trappings of civilization onto mountain's stark interior. Gleaming, man-made surfaces formed under the rough, steady hands of silent locals who barely hid the contempt they felt. Whether their contempt was for the man whose dreams fed their families or for themselves, I never did decide. When the last carpeting had been laid, and the last polished appliance fitted into the kitchen, and the last leather book slipped onto the walnut shelves installed in the loft, I came once more, to see what they had created.
I walked the length of the hallway, to the end, where we had gone that day. I stopped, stunned. But I should have known. The crevice had been closed, with brick, and mortar, and a heavy coat of something shiny -- sealant, I suppose, still emitting an acrid smell. I reached out, and ran my fingers along the smooth, hard wall. I closed my eyes and felt my body sway, just slightly, as I pressed my hand against that awful barrier.
I turned, finally, and left, and I have not gone back. I think about that lake from time to time, when the trees in my yard glisten with soft autumn rain, and I stand on my porch under its cathedral ceiling. I close my eyes, and I breathe the damp, cool air, and I am transported, just briefly, back to that inner sanctuary, to the shore of the quiet, old lake, under the ancient mountain. And I remember the delicate taste of spring water, and its soothing touch, as it fell into my hands from a pipe staked in a rock, in Newton County, when I was young.
In case you are interested: http://www.beckhamcavelodge.