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What We Expect To See

What We Expect To See

MICHELLE ROSS

We’re organizing the plush fanged bats in the cave gift shop by size and color, and Sheila is telling me about total cave darkness. She says people hallucinate. She says it’s kind of like doing mushrooms.

No customers in almost two hours, on account of the monsoon. Driving to work this morning, I couldn’t see more than a few yards ahead. The edges of things smudged and dissolved. I drove with my face pressed into the windshield. 

The cave is the end of a road. Nothing beyond but saguaros and cholla and other prickly things. It’s not a place you wander upon by accident. It’s not a place you pass by on your way to someplace else.

It’s not a place you wander upon by accident. It’s not a place you pass by on your way to someplace else.

When I told Sheila that I graduated from college this past spring, she said, “How’d you end up here?” I shrugged. College had been like a cave I got turned around in. Everyone else went in one end and came out the other. Like my friend, Heather, who’s living in New York City, working as a stagehand on Broadway while attending auditions. But me, I somehow came out the same way I went in, only instead of the hardware store, there’s the cave gift shop; and instead of Steve, the pothead with the pregnant girlfriend, there’s Bob, married and with three kids. 

I’ve never actually been inside the cave, but I’ve heard plenty of stories from Sheila, like that a couple of bandits hid in there nearly a century earlier after a heist. Sheila believes the stolen gold is lost in there with their bones. 

Even now, long after the Civilian Conservation Corps put in flooring and lights, it’s easy to get lost in the cave, Sheila says. 

But it’s what she says about total darkness that gets me. 

“The brain can’t resist filling in that void, making a map. You see what you expect to see. The problem is, you can be very wrong about what’s there,” Sheila says. There are seventy-foot drop-offs in the cave, she says. If you expect that floor lies beneath you where it does not, down you will go.

The brain can’t resist filling in that void, making a map. You see what you expect to see. 

I think I would like to be mistaken about what’s there. I mean I want to experience what presumably comes after, when light lifts that veil and you see that your surroundings are not as you had thought. Like the plays Heather performed in: The lights dimmed and when they came on again, the stage was transformed into something new. 

According to Sheila, Felix is the best cave guide there is. 

She says, “Never mind that weird glove he wears. He’s like a subterranean rodent the way he can find his way out from deep underground without a pinch of light.”

The glove in question is white and fuzzy, like a miniature sweater. It ends at the knobby tip of his ulna bone, where it connects to the cobbled carpal bones of his wrist. Concealed by the glove, the tip of his ulna looks like a blindfolded eye. Perhaps an eye that is hyper-sensitive to sunlight, the way eyes get when they’ve been in total cave darkness for several days, their pupils dilated for hours on end. 

People say that after three days in total darkness, you become blind, but Sheila says that’s bullshit. Felix has spent days in there at a time, she says. There are monks who do it for years.

People say that after three days in total darkness, you become blind, but Sheila says that’s bullshit.

“How do they eat? Where do they shit?” I ask her.

Sheila shrugs. 

When my shift ends, there is one tour remaining, and Felix is leading it. He stands before the entrance of the cave, a hole in the limestone the shape of a person wrapped in a bedsheet. The only other people signed up are two nuns, one short and one tall, both wearing full habits. 

The cave is brighter than I expected. Lightbulbs are hidden beneath rock fixtures to illuminate the drop-offs Sheila spoke of. Like passing exit door after exit door. 

When sitting in the exit rows of planes, I’ve sometimes felt the urge to turn the handle and push, to take everyone else down with me.

When sitting in the exit rows of planes, I’ve sometimes felt the urge to turn the handle and push, to take everyone else down with me.

After snaking one-by-one through narrow passages, we come to what Felix calls a room. We’re sixty feet below Earth’s surface, and he says that this is it. When he turns out the lights, we will experience pure darkness. But first, we must sit, he says, so that we don’t wander and plummet to our deaths. “I mean it. Keep still. You’d be surprised by how convincing hallucinations can be.”  

In the dark, the nuns talk excitedly about waving their hands in front of their faces and seeing a milky glimmer of motion, like the scattered specks of color when a hummingbird beats its wings.

What I experience is the clamminess of the cave air and the darkness that feels like a heavy lead blanket worn during X-rays. 

I see nothing. My brain offers no map. 

I am calm, though. I think that the darkness is a prelude. 

But when Felix turns the lights on, everything looks the same as before. Nothing is transformed.

The nuns stand. They thank Felix and tell him they look forward to doing it again sometime. 

I think about how there’s so much people can’t see that they nonetheless believe is there. Like God, like the bones shrouded by their flesh. Perhaps other people’s brains offer maps where mine just stares dumbly at the void.

Or: Maybe my whole life I’ve been navigating by a false map conjured by my brain. 

I pound now at the rock beneath me until my knuckles hurt. I’m afraid to stand, afraid to take a step. How do I know that anything I see is real? 

When Felix offers me his gloved hand and says, “It’s okay, I’m right here,” I want badly to believe his hand is real. I want badly to believe he can lead me out.


Michelle Ross’s debut story collection, There's So Much They Haven't Told You, won the 2016 Moon City Press Fiction Award and is forthcoming in February 2017. She serves as fiction editor for Atticus Review. Her work can be read online at michellenross.com.

Illustrated by Meghan Irwin.

from Songs for Dead Girls

from Songs for Dead Girls

Understanding the Family Language

Understanding the Family Language

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