My stomach was bubbling the second I woke up (or maybe it was the roiling in my gut that woke me up in the first place?) Regardless, I ripped open the tent zipper and flung myself into the fresh air because I thought I was going to throw up and I didn’t want to ruin my new tent.
The air was cold and eased my stomach back from the point of no return. Swallowing deep lungfuls of air I looked around at my first Algonquin Park morning. The first one not spent under a rock that is.
It wasn’t quite full dark anymore and the dim light at this hour gave the world the look of an old black and white movie. When I had my stomach under control, pushing all thoughts about the deep crevice from my mind, I knelt and reached back into the tent for my camera.
Rod was still snoring on his side of the tent, my pack lay in the middle. I zipped shut the tent and headed for the crack in the earth. Ignoring my worry and fear. When I stood before it, my stomach bubbling once again, I flicked on the camera and showed the audience what I was up against.
“It’s down there somewhere,” I said. In the morning light the outcroppings of rock, jagged limbs of dead branches, and drifts of leaves coagulating in the cliff’s cracks were visible. The slice in the earth seemed to grin at me, beckon me inside. I could see myself falling into it and as I stared at the ground far below, light finding its way into the bottom from the crack in the cliff’s face, it seemed to rise up toward me as if I really were falling. I took a step back as a wave of dizziness washed over me.
“It’s down there,” I repeated through gritted teeth. “And today we’re going to find it.” I flicked off the camera and let my hand fall limply to my side. “I fucking hope,” I added. A twig snapped behind me and I whirled, fearing Rod would be there and he’d heard me.
No Rod though, only a squirrel who quickly vanished after my sudden movement. Listening carefully I could still hear the soft hushing of Rod’s snores. Somewhere in the distance a bird released a series of echoing calls.
Taking a final glance at the crack, standing out against the morning dim like a dagger of darkness refusing to fade away.
“I’m going down there,” I said. It didn’t work to motivate me though, if anything, the weak tones of my words made me feel worse. Making my way back to camp my stomach continued to protest the nerves I was dumping into it. I focused on deep breaths in attempt to ease it. Coming back into the clearing my eyes drifted up to the bag containing our food. It was suspended high off the ground over a branch in a tree away from the tent.
“In case any furry friends get a little curious,” Rod had said. I admired the way he first knotted the rope around a fist-sized rock, then to the base of the tree after he had it looped around a high enough branch.
My stomach gurgled again and I realized eating anything for breakfast was out of the question. This was probably for the best as I didn’t think I would be able to get the bag down even if I wanted to. Instead, I reopened the tent and, dragging it like a limp body, pulled my pack from the tent. Rod stirred and was still.
On the cliff’s edge, without the tree cover it was bright enough for me to start organizing what I would need when I went down into the earth. The horizon was a grey line against the ever brightening sky. I wondered how much longer I had until daybreak then further wondered if Rod had any tricks for calculating that. I made a mental note to ask him when he got up.
It didn’t take me long to get out the things I would be needing. I had placed it all in a small bag inside my larger pack. I laid them out on the rock in front of me as I pulled them out.
There was a small flashlight, which I would put in my pocket as a backup. A pair of gloves with rubberized palms, I figured they would help to grip the rock as I climbed down. The same went for the Vibram five-fingers, like gloves for your feet. I figured they would be the best for the descent. Finally, there was a headlamp, which would be my main source of light. I planned to strap it along the side of my head as my GoPro would b-
The thought cut off as I realized I was without a GoPro camera. I took in a deep breath to scream out my frustration, but hauled it back in. The morning silence felt too fragile to shatter so violently. Instead, I pounded my fist into my thigh repeatedly.
When I’d done it enough times to make it soar I stopped, breathing harshly. How the hell was I going to film? I couldn’t very well go climbing into the cave with one hand clutching a camera.
People have done stupider things, I thought.
“Got everything you need kid?” I turned to find him standing outside the tent. The flap hanging open behind him as he buttoned up a plaid shirt over the white shirt he’d slept in. His graying hair hung low over his shoulders. He looks like a 70s band roadie. I sighed and turned back to my gear.
“I think so,” I said. My words were quiet and I could barely even hear them myself. Rod’s hearing was sharp though and he seemed to have no trouble hearing.
“I don’t think you do,” he said. I nodded.
“I know, but I smashed the GoPro on that damn rock as I was freezing to death, remember?” Rod shook his head and folded his arms across his chest. Behind him Algonquin stretched out for miles in an endless blanket of green trees.
“I’m not talking about your damn camera,” he said.
“When then?” He studied me for a moment then turned and glanced at our food bag. He moved to untie it.
“Confidence,” he said. His fingers easily worked out the knot in the thick rope as he eased the bag down from the tree. “Everything you do should be with confidence. If you’re not confident in something you probably shouldn’t attempt to do it.”
“Well aren’t you just a regular advice guru,” I said, thinking of the day before. I found myself rubbing my neck. My fingers found no tender spots though.
“When you make as many stupid decisions as I did you get a lot of people trying to give you advice,” Rod said moving and sitting on a rock across from me. He opened the food bag and handed it to me. “And some of it sticks,” he added.
I was starting to feel a little better and pulled a granola bar from the bag. Rod put it down beside me and returned to the tent. He came back with his own battered shoulder bag and pulled a tortured looking apple from inside.
“Jeeze man you’re not going to eat that are you?” Rod nodded.
“Waste not want not,” he said.
We ate our small breakfast in silence, Rod staring out over the cliff and me at the gear sitting on the ground in front of me. With that finished I gathered up my stuff and my will, and stood up.
“So what’s the plan?” Rod asked, taking a bite of his apple and looking up at me from his seat on the small rock.
“I’m just going to do it,” I said.
“That’s the spirit,” he said.
My stomach started its roiling again. I picked up my camera from where it was resting on the ground and turned it on. I gave a brief shot of Rod sitting framed by the vista of Algonquin Park behind him. The sun was mostly up now, save for a small section of trees below that were close to the cliff’s face. I turned the camera on myself.
“It’s the moment you’ve all be waiting for,” I said. My voice had none of the bravado or strength I imagined it would have at this moment. “I’m going to retrieve the case. “ I glanced over at Rod, expecting to find him staring at me with a sarcastic eyebrow raised, but he was paying no attention to me. Instead he was staring off in the direction of the crevice. A dark expression was on his face.
“You okay, Rod?” I asked turning the camera to face him. He blinked and twitched like somebody poked him.
“What’s that kid?”
“I asked if you were okay?” I repeated.
“Oh, yeah, I’m good kid, don’t worry. You going to find that case or what?”
“Hell yeah,” I said. He nodded then returned his gaze to the trees and the dark expression returned with it. I ignored him and went about placing the things I’d pulled from my pack into my pockets or on my belt. I had put the camera down on a rock to catch myself getting ready. I picked it up and without another word, headed out of the clearing.
“You coming?” I asked. He hadn’t moved from the rock, but when I spoke he stood up and lobbed his apple core over the cliff’s edge and walked toward me. I watched the apple first drift out into space, then drop down out of sight. My stomach went right along with it. I tried to swallow, but it felt like I had a ball of cotton in my throat.
The camera was clenched in my fist and pointing straight up into my face. Turning it away I moved and followed Rod who had made his way to the crevice. He turned back to me as I approached.
“You’re not taking that thing with you are you?” he asked, pointing at me. I immediately knew he meant the camera.
“Of course I’m taking it down with me,” I replied. “I didn’t come all the way out here not to film the most exciting part.”
“How the hell are you going to climb with only one hand.” He glanced back and down into the crack.
“I can use my shoulders and forearms mostly,” I said. “It’s going to be a tight squeeze as it is.” I said. I knew this was true for the top portion of the crack which seemed just wide enough for me to shimmy down into. I couldn’t speak for the parts further down. For all I knew the crack could widen drastically and I would be forced to turn back. I would deal with that bridge when I got there. My stomach was revolting and I stood up from bending over the crack for fear I was going to vomit into it.
“I still think that’s a terrible idea.” I shrugged trying to push away the fear circling around my brain like a hungry dog.
“You’re lucky it’s not you then eh?” I said. He studied my face a moment longer, the sun starting to creep through the trees and the tall shadows of the trees starting to rise around us like an army awakening. He shrugged.
“Just be careful.” I nodded and placing my camera in my left hand I braced myself against the ground with my right and swung my legs over the edge.
“Kid, it’s going to be so dark down there, that camera won’t be able to see anything.”
“I don’t care,” I said staring at my legs dangling down in open space. “I want footage of this, and besides,” I flicked the button on the side of the camera and it’s small beady light shone down into the crack. “I’ve got a light.” Rod only shook his head.
I turned away from him and with one final breath, started to make my way down into the crack. I moved slow, not out of carefulness, but because I half expected Rod to speak out with another word of warning, another piece of advice for my time spent in the earth. However, by the time I’d gotten my body down into the crack up to shoulder height and he still hadn’t spoke out I knew I was on my own.
In the same manner the light slowly seeps out of a theatre when the movie is about to start, the light left my world until I was submerged in darkness. My shoulders were pressed into hard rock on either side, and my toes were splayed against rock below me. Below me I could see the ground far away and above the bright light of the sky, distorted a little by the canopy was starting to narrow on either side, like a closing eyelid. I took a deep breath and looked into the camera.
“I’m in the earth now,” I said, “keep your eyes pealed everyone.” I slowly rotated around and peered into the darkness. The apex of the curve was quite close and I could see that nothing, case sized or larger for that matter was lodged anywhere at the level I was at. I started to descend a little deeper. My heart was pounding in my chest, the sound thumping in my head like a drumbeat.
It was easy moving though. The crack was so tight that I didn’t need to exert much energy in keeping myself from falling. I was practically wedged in and turning my shoulders slightly to the side I was able to move downward using my legs, then rest by turning my shoulders back and bracing myself on either side again. It didn’t take long until I was drenched in sweat.
“How’s it going down there Mr. Mountain Goat?” Rod called down to me.
I looked back up, squinting against the light which was slowing becoming as thin as a pencil line. Rod’s head was a small black ball against the white. I aimed the camera at him for a second, but didn’t respond. Blinking sweat from my eyes I turned back and spotted the first collection of driftwood and leaves that had collected down here during many a rainstorm. It was slightly behind me and I started to make my way laterally back toward the thin part of the crack.
“Man, this was a lot easier than I thought,” I told the camera, my words coming staggered through my tired breaths. I started to smell something rotten as I neared the cluster of branches and leaves, and it grew thicker and more pungent as I neared it. It got so bad that I stopped a few feet away and couldn’t get any closer it was so bad.
“Rod!” I called, yelling back up into the crack. I hoped he had stuck around and hadn’t left to go back to the tent. Probably ran off with all your new gear, I thought. I realized I had never even considered this and my stomach dropped. I shook my head though, I didn’t think Rod was the type. It turned out my judgement was right, his head appeared in the light at the top only a few seconds after I called for him.
“What is it kid? You alright?”
“I’m good,” I yelled back, “but Rod, it stinks down here.” He was quiet for a few seconds then called back.
“Just give me a second,” I looked up in time to see his head disappear from the crack. I waited for him to return, pressing my rose and mouth into the curve of my arm, trying to block out the smell. It seemed to coat the inside of my mouth. I tilted my head down and spit. A beam of light appeared above me, stabbing the rock wall first above, then behind me, then fell on the bundle of sticks beside me.
Rod’s light first crept over the side I could see, across the top of the pile, the sticks appeared as white and bleached as bone under the light, then fell onto the other side. Rod immediately started to laugh.
“What! Rod, what is it?” I yelled. He continued to laugh and my mind flipped through the many possibilties of things that could be over there. I grasped to the idea that it was the case, and Rod was laughing so hard because he couldn’t believe it had been so easy. “Rod! Is it the case? Is it!” He only continued to laugh. I couldn’t see him, but his laughter drifted down into the crack no problem.
“Is it the case!” I called back. “Answer me!” His head returned to the space above me.
“No,” he said, smothering his laughter. “It’s not the case.” My stomach went cold. Of course it wasn’t the case, somebody definitely would have found it already if it had been that easy. “It just seems a little kitty lost his footing.” I stared into the pile of sticks, smelling the rotting stink and trying to imagine what the hell he was talking about.
“What is it?” I yelled at him. “Stop fucking around Rod.”
“It’s nothing that will hurt you kid,” he called back. “Just have a look for yourself.”
I could hear Rod continue to laugh even though I could no longer see him. The smell was enough to hell me that something dead lay on the other side of the clot of sticks, but just what exactly I had no idea.
I took the final step toward the cluster and reaching up with my free hand I gripped one of the thicker sticks jutting out from the mess. Bracing myself on one elbow and aiming the camera, I yanked on the stick to see if it would hold my weight.
Rod’s shadow fell over me, but he was quiet now. When I was sure enough the stick would hold me I took a deep breath and pulled myself up to be able to see over the blockage. I pushed off the rock with my feet as well, hoping to ease some of the burden on the dried, dead wood.
It snapped, and I released a surprised yell. I managed to lodge my feet back into crevices and slammed my elbow into the rock wall. It hurt like hell, but it saved me from toppling backward.
I was in a spot now that all I had to do was peak over the edge of the pile to see what Rod had seen. I looked over.
“Jesus,” I exclaimed. I immediately jumped back, dropping down out of view again, as if the dead cougar could somehow see I was there. I peaked again, using my free hand to pinch shut my nose and cover my mouth. The cougar looked like a pin cushion. Somehow, the animal had managed to fall down the crack and became impaled on several of the sticks that jutted up from the pile. Those that had gone through the cat were brown and a couple still sported clumps of fur. The cougar’s eyes were wide, glowing in the darkness like crystal balls and its mouth was twisted in a snarl as if the beast were growling.
The jumble of sticks I was using as my main support blocked out the light around the animal surrounding it in black where it hung impaled over the crevice below. I moved the camera to my better hand, pushed against the rock to support myself and aimed the camera at the animal.
“A dangerous place,” I said. I flicked on the camera’s light to allow the audience a better look, then froze.
I was looking down into the crevice now and beneath the animal was a disaster. A log jam of dead wood so large and so jumbled my eyes could barely take in it. Dead logs stuck out in every direction, carpeting the space beneath the animal. The year’s had created a collage of collected logs all jumbled and stuck together like a giant knot. The jam was so thick and so wide I couldn’t tell if it actually reached the ground below, or was another clot, suspended between the rock walls like the one I rested on.
“Fucking hell,” I gasped. I moved the light around to see if I could spot a thin place where I could see through, but there wasn’t one. It was impossible to tell how far down it went.
Somehow, I knew this is where I would find the case. I could practically see the case slipping from Sam’s fingers, toppling down, tipping over and over in the air as it fell, then landing here among the sticks with a crunch. Only to be covered by more fallen logs as the years went on.
How many logs were piled atop it though was another question.
“I think I’m on to something here, Rod,” I yelled back up. I didn’t take my gaze from the jam of logs though. I was already frantically scanning with my flashlight, hunting for any flash of light that would be a suitcases buckle or handle. There was none though.
“That would be too easy,” I said. I started to scan the clump of sticks I was perched on for a place to climb over. With one hand still clutched over my mouth, and another gripping the camera it made it quite difficult. Taking my hand away from my nose and mouth I immediately slammed it back. Being this close to the rotting animal was like being stuck in a small closet filled with rotting meat. I frantically looked around, trying to find somewhere to get over without having to pull myself up.
“Kid!” I glanced up, my hand still plastered over my face. Rod was holding something out over the edge of the cliff, and when I looked up, it let it go. The black clump fell out of the sunlight that was managing to crawl into the top of the crack and disappeared into the shadows. It reappeared briefly in the light from my camera and snagged up in the branches. Scanning with the camera, I found the bright red handkerchief he had dropped for me. A rock was tied inside to help it drop.
“Tie it around your face,” Rod yelled down, “it won’t block it all out, but it will help.”
Perching the camera atop a thick pile of sticks, I wrapped the kerchief around my face, and knotted it. It smelled of campfire smoke and my closet at home. My legs were starting to burn in protest to being used for such a lengthy period of time, and when I tried to bend my knees to help myself up, they both released a loud crack.
The clot of sticks seemed denser than it appeared, and barely any of the sticks shifted beneath my weight as I made my way over. I gave the dead animal the widest birth that I could. I immediately regretted choosing the side in which the animal was facing. As I edged past along a small outcropping of rock, my back pressed into the wall, the snarling beast’s teeth were but inches from my exposed belly.
When I made it to the other side I was able to rest my legs a moment. The rock outcropping here was large enough that I could sit down and hang my legs over the edge. Beneath me, the river of logs, sticks and other debris, cascaded down the crevice, how deep does it go? No one knows.
With the rag tied around my face I imagine I looked like a pirate. My greasy hair and dirt-smeared face probably reinforced the look.
“How do I look?” I asked the camera, holding it up before me. The light made me squint my eyes and I turned it away. The rock wall leading down to the river of wood was widest yet. I wouldn’t be able to straddle my way down as I had been doing so far. Looking down I could see that the rock, extending down from where I sat, created a thin lip most of the way. It looked wide enough for me to be able to shimmy my way down, if I pressed my back against the wall and kept my balance. However, scanning the rock about ten feet up from where the sticks had started to collect, I could see no footholds, barely a crack in the rock. It appeared as if it had been smoothed away by water.
Thankfully it’s not raining, I thought.
“Do you see anything?” Rod yelled down. His voice echoed off the walls around me. “Do you see the case?” I breathed deep.
“No, nothing yet,” I called back. Something was itching at the back of my mind. I didn’t know what it was. I stared into the river of logs below me, trying to reason it out. I had the distinct feeling that something was wrong, there was something I was forgetting, or something I was missing. It felt like one of those moments in math class, where you reason out the equation over 50 different lines, absolutely sure you’ve figured it out, and you have. However, the teacher comes over and shows you a way to do the same work in three lines.
I felt like I’d solved the equation, but in the wrong way. There was something I was missing. I glanced up at Rod, then back down into the logs.
“I guess I’ll find out,” I whispered. I reached over and grabbed the camera from where it lay on the rock a few feet away from me. I placed it there to get the best shot of my profile, then started to descend toward the logs. My heart was starting to beat heavy in my chest.
“Just be careful, kid!” Rod yelled down. “You’re doing great, find that baby!”
I nodded, not bothering to waste my breath with a response and started to shimmy down the side of the rock ledge. It curved down toward the logs in a sweeping downward arc; the lip thinning all the way down. The first few feet I was able to slide along on my butt, edging down until I felt the wall begin to push into my back like it were intent on seeing me tumble down onto the sharp logs below
Like the cougar, I thought.
I glanced down before I stood up, and the logs did indeed look sharp from this angle. Many of them angled straight up as if pointing accusatory fingers at me, and the more I looked, the more logs I began to see that faced up like giant spikes. As if upon word from the others, more were rising up to wait my fall. A wave of vertigo swept over me and I pushed myself back into the rock wall squeezing my eyes shut.
When I was sure the wave had passed, I pushed myself up and started to walk along. The ledge was just wide enough for the majority of my feet to stand on and only my toes dangled over the edge. Slowly, more and more of my feet started to creep over the edge until it was merely my heels and about an inch of the sole of my foot. I could feel them threatening to cramp up from the rock jutting into the sensitive area, and glanced around for what I was going to do next.
My hands were slick with sweat, the one clutching the camera felt greasy against the plastic and my other was leaving dark hand prints against the dusty brown of the rock. I looked around frantically, my feet starting to ache, I tried to go back, but the angle was too steep and I almost slipped.
“Fuck, fuck fuck,” I spat. I inhaled deep breaths, trying not to look down. It was only about ten feet down now, not very high, but the logs sticking up looked sharp and menacing. I craned my neck out as far as I could manage, looking to see if there was something below me I could drop down to.
My stomach was threatening revolt, and my feet were blocks of agony, but I spotted my next move. A thick ledge of rock, jutted out below me, if I was able to drop down I could probably land on it without trouble.
I lifted the camera and dropped it down into my shirt. With it tucked in the way it was it landed against my belly where it sat cradled. I would need both hands for this. Bending low at the knees, my feet threatening broken bones now, I got as low as I could. My breaths were coming in short gasps now, as it they were trying to mimic the frantic beating of my heart. I dropped down.
For a spit second I was in mid air, hanging above the sharp logs below. It was only second though. I twisted around fast, feeling the camera move against me, praying my shirt would remain tucked and keep it safe. Then I was gripping the ledge where my feet had been only seconds before.
I released a relieved breath, laughing at my own courage.
“Never knew I could do that,” I said aloud, hoping the camera down my shirt would be able to hear me.
I dropped down to the ledge a mere foot below. This one was wide enough that I could actually take a full stride from the edge to the wall.
I was only a foot above the river of logs.
“Let the searching begin,” I said.