FACING THE DEMON IN DEAD MAN'S CAVE!
It was a suffocating place, giving one the feeling that the gnarled and twisted branches of the trees were intent upon closing in, pressing the breath from your body. Vines hung from the trees, tangled with the branches, and sometimes you had to push them aside to walk along the hillocks of land to reach a fallen log where, once you had clambered aboard, there was some hope of staying dry.
Sis, Charlie and I visited the cave regularly. There was something hypnotic about it, the fact that at one moment one could be dazzled with sunshine and greenery fluttering in the breeze, and the next minute be in this dark mausoleum which stank of death and decay. We would hop along the hillocks of earth and balance ourselves over the murky water until we reached a pile of branches where we could sit and talk, watching the frogs, slapping mosquitoes, and playing silly, childish games.
Sometimes we sat in silence and were amazed at how quiet it was there in Dead Man's Cave. There was not a breath of air. Not a leaf moved on the surrounding trees. It was a place of complete stillness, the only sound the thump-swish-thump-swish-thump-swish of Charlie's heartbeat, which was easily discernible in the silence. None of us ever commented on Charlie's heartbeat. We knew his heart didn't work right. Heaven knows, his mother reminded us of that every time we went outside to play a game or take a walk.
"Be careful. Don't get too rowdy now. You know Junior's heart can't take it!"
The truth is, it did take it. Charlie ran, jumped, climbed and fought just as the rest of us did. Only when we were very quiet were we reminded of the burden that he had been born carrying...thump-swish-thump-swish!
"This is a spooky place," I told Charlie once, as we sat on the logs and pondered about life in general and how we could rake up the money to go to a movie in particular. "It's just plain spooky!"
"Aw, it's not spooky!" he countered. "You're just a girl. Girls are always afraid. Girls are afraid of their own shadows!"
This macho remark stayed with me so, on a clear summer day not long after that, I gathered up my courage and walked through the Orchard to contemplate entering the Cave alone. It took a while to calm my jitters and force myself to walk across Red River Valley toward the swamp. The memory of Charlie's remark encouraged each step and I finally reached the Cave, wove my way through the trees and entered the dark dampness.
It seemed especially dark and frightening on that day. Not a beam of sunlight filtered through the heavy canopy of branches and leaves that formed the roof of the Cave, not a bird sang, not a breath of air disturbed the shadowed tranquility. I kept thinking of snakes, imagining them weaving their slithery bodies around my feet. What would I do if a poisonous snake reached up and bit me? I would die in this terrible place and rot along with the piles of leaves that clustered around the trees and smelled of wet, clinging decay.
Determined to show my bravery to the world so that I could boast to Charlie that I had defied his accusation, I made my way gingerly along the tufts of grass and the weed-covered knolls to reach the pile of logs. Then I sat down on the logs and looked over the world I had intruded upon.
It was as though twilight had arrived in the Cave and was in a perpetual condition, never allowing total darkness, never allowing brilliant light, caught in an eternal dusk. Gloom had settled over the Cave and was a permanent resident. I could hear frogs and a rustle or two that made me swing around in startled fear, but the silence that had been noted before clung like an unwanted visitor to the area. I decided to stay another minute or two, then leave. Some courage is desirable. Too much courage might lead to disaster.
At just that moment, there was a loud, whomping sound and, with a bellow of rage, this apparition sprung with a loud splash up from the muddy bottom of the swamp to confront me. It was huge, dripping mud, bellowing at me angrily, its eyes glowing in the semi-darkness like twin coals straight from Hell. I screeched in fear, and as I rose quickly in fright to jump off the logs, the apparition lunged toward me, bellowing even louder, fury sending it forward as I scurried off the logs onto the nearest clump of weeds, fell in the water, clambered out, still screeching, and splashed my way as quickly as I could out of the Cave, running as though a fiery demon from the Netherworld, some evil being suddenly released from Hell, were determined to gobble me alive. I could hear the bellowing fade behind me as I left the Cave, running so fast my water-logged shoes flopped on and off my feet, and ran homeward, my scream so loud it could have awakened the angels sleeping on their Heavenly clouds, my heart pounding, my breath coming in rasping gasps, gulping for air, praying for help.
My brothers had been working in the barn. Herman, Bud and Hubert heard me screaming and came running up the Orchard trail, calling out to me. I ran to them, blubbering and screaming, trying to catch my breath, and motioned toward the direction I had come. They ran past me, without a clue as to what was wrong, but recognizing from my state of fright that something terrible had happened in or near the Orchard. I kept motioning them onward.
"Where?" Hubert called. "What happened? Where is it?"
I rasped. I sobbed. Finally, I found the words to blubber, "Dead Man's Cave!"
They looked at each other in puzzlement, but kept running. They had no idea where Dead Man's Cave was located. I kept motioning them onward. Then they heard the bellowing from the Cave and ran purposefully in that direction. I knew that I was safe. My brothers were tall, strong, brave. They would kill that monstrous demon and make my world safe again. They would slay the dragon!
Too frightened to enter the Cave, I hid behind the trees and peeped around them. I could see Hubert in the water, splashing around. My God, he was fighting the demon, pulling it around, his arms flailing, his face red. Bud was also in the water, pulling at the demon, while Herman was pushing at it from the rear. The demon was strong and it took the three of them to subdue it. Mud flew all over the swampland and the bellowing was so intense that it was like listening to a timpani of bagpipes, loud, heartrending, doleful. The demon was being defeated and was sounding his rage at losing his victims.
Soon, Hubert walked out of the swamp. "Did you kill it?" I asked, my heart skipping a beat. Perhaps they hadn't destroyed it, but had let it go. Then it would lurk, waiting for me, in the Cave, waiting to spring out at me when I least expected it.
"Kill it?" Hubert replied. "Why would we kill it? It's Bessie. She was mired in the mud!"
Behind him, Herman came out leading a mud-covered cow, which walked along peacefully behind him.
"But it tried to kill me!" I blurted. "It jumped at me!"
"Poor thing was scared half to death!" said Herman, patting Bessie's muddy flank.
Bud looked down at me, a serious expression on his face. "Listen, I don't think you kids should play in there any more," he said. "If you got into that mud, it's like quicksand. You could run into some trouble, maybe even drown."
I didn't tell him he probably didn't have to worry, that I would not visit Dead Man's Cave without a Marine battalion, a machine gun brigade and a host of bodyguards. Charlie was not sufficient to protect me from glowing-eyed demons that might spring up from that decadent ooze to drag me down into those dark and beckoning depths.
"Anyway," Hubert comforted me. "Look at it this way. You saved Bessie's life."
I looked dourly at Bessie, who was walking docilely behind Herman, mud still clinging to her hide. Silly creature, too stupid to stay out of the mud!
"It was a good thing you found her," said Bud. "That was a brave thing to do!"
I looked at him to see if he were being sarcastic, but he wasn't. I felt a little better then, knowing that I was considered courageous after all. I felt better enough to pat Bessie's fat stomach and walk a little taller, like the brave person I had proven to be.