Anthony R. Cardno
I was fourteen years old the only time I went into the caves on Canopus Island.
We didn't live on the big lake back then, in 1980, and we didn't own any kind of speedboat or pontoon boat at any of the marinas. We didn't even own a rowboat or canoe for the little lake we did live on. And if you didn't own property around or berth a boat on the big lake, opportunities to explore the three islands were scarce.
I've never been on Petra Island. It's always been privately owned. These days it has a home based on Frank Lloyd Wright designs sitting on the edge of it, perched out over the water, quite the sight as you circle past it in a boat. Back then, it had a small stone bungalow, but you still couldn't get near it. If you tried to walk to it during the winter or if you boated too close during the rest of the year, two growling, drooling, almost stereotypical Dobermans and an equally mean German Shepherd would bound out of the tree line to the shore; they'd even run out on the ice or swim after boats if the mood took them. The owner came close to getting sued once or twice, until one of the dogs somehow drowned during a spring storm and he started keeping them in the house. But that was years later.
I've been on Farie Island once. The parents of a summer camp friend of a friend of mine had a home on Farie and we were invited there for a party one weekend. All of the houses on Farie belonged to people with a fair amount of money, New York City lawyers and doctors and at least one big-time book editor. Adam's house was rich without being ostentatious. We got there early, my friend and me, and he showed off his weight bench and speedbag for me while our mutual friend helped his mother set out soda and chips. I think that's when I developed my fatal weakness for redheads. But that, too, was years later, spring of my senior year, and another story completely.
Like I said, I was fourteen when I set foot on Canopus. It was Delaney's idea.
If not for boy scouts, I don't think Delaney and I would ever have been friends. We went to different elementary schools and were in different Cub Scout packs. We met when we were Webelos and despite having lots of different interests (he was into hunting and stock car racing; I was more interested in bowling and television), we found some things to bond over: bike riding and comic books, for instance, and the fact that neither of us was any good at basketball. Not many of my old Cub Scout den made it past the first full year of scouts, I certainly didn't. Delaney stuck with it, made Eagle and became a scoutmaster for a short time.
I think it was during Webelos and middle school that our den started to drift apart. Except for Delaney we were all still neighbors and mostly rode the same school bus, but our interests were changing. Being somewhat less than athletic and a fair-to-middling academic student, I started to become the odd man out. I wasn't good enough for the track team like Charlie or Eddie and I wasn't enough of a bad-ass to hang out with Howie in the smoking area.
Delaney and I started spending more time together, since he already outside the group anyway. We started hanging out more in school, having some of the same classes and a lunch period together. We slept over each other's houses a few times.
It was one of those times when Delaney decided we needed to explore Canopus.
“Come on, you know all of the stories about the caves. Don't you want to see them?” He was sitting on the edge of his bed, hands gripping the bed sheets; it was the closest he ever came to really
bouncing up and down with excitement.
I was sitting on the floor of his room, lightly tossing a baseball up and down. It might have been a vague attempt at juggling, but I don't think I was convincing either of us that I was coordinated enough to move on to two balls. We'd eaten a late dinner a little while before and all I really wanted to do was sit in his room and listen to him tell hunting stories while STYX played on the stereo. Instead, I shrugged, tossed the ball again, and said,
“Well, yeah, I mean, who in our troop doesn't want to see them?” The ball came back down and I managed to bobble it. It hit his hardwood floor and bounced a couple of times before rolling into the hall. If you really used your imagination, it sounded like a drumbeat.
“Klutz.” Delaney smiled and ruffled my hair as he walked past to get the ball.
“Everything alright?” I heard his Mom call from the living room.
“Yeah,” he answered. “We're a bit beat, gonna shut the light and just tell scary stories til we fall asleep, okay?”
“All right. Good night, boys. Love you.”
“Love you too, Ma.”
He came back in the room with the ball, shutting the door and rolling his eyes. It was part of our ritual; he pretended to be embarrassed whenever he told his mother he loved her, and I pretended to believe him.
“Okay, check the desk drawer. I have extra D-cell batteries in there, and another flashlight.” He started pulling his hunting rucksack (which was also his scouting pack) down from his closet shelf.
“Whu--?” I stammered for a second, then realized what the plan was. He'd decided we were sneaking out and going to Canopus.
It was early February, so getting to the island wouldn't be difficult. The winter had been a bitter cold one, and the big lake had enough ice on it to support a fire truck. There was a little sliver of a moon, just enough to see by without being so bright that people from shore would be able to see us. Delaney at that time lived about a ten minute walk to the big lake, up the top of a hill my mother absolutely hated driving up. Our only problem would be getting on the ice, if there were still ice fishermen at either of the marinas.
We dressed in layers, as we'd been taught, but nothing too bulky. I left my heavy coat in his room, tucked into the sleeping bag on the floor in case his mom checked in on us. We figured the walking would keep us warm on the way, and once we were there the temperature in the caves would be warmer than the winter air. We snuck out his bedroom window, practically tip-toed down the driveway, and once we made the road started to walk normally and talk a little bit. I started to warm to the idea of doing something a little dangerous; a definite change in character for me in those days.
We tried the little marina first, and sure enough, the last of the cars in the lot was pulling out and going down the road away from us. If he's seen us walking down the shoulder of the road, he'd still have had no idea we were going to cut into the marina.
Cut into the marina we did. We stayed as far away from the office as we could – which was not very far when you consider it was maybe 50 feet from the guardrail by the road to the shore of the lake. Of course there were no boats tied to the wooden docs. Delaney tested the ice around the docks by sitting on the edge of the wood and pushing down with his legs. The ice was thin where it touched the shore, but even the ice around the dock pylons was thick.
“You remember what to do if the ice starts to crack?” He glanced back at me.
“Watch you sink and then run like hell for help?” I offered.
“Dork.” He slid his ass off the edge of the dock and put his full weight on the ice. No sound. He jumped up and down a few times, and we could hear “whale song” burble under the ice across the
lake but no cracking. “C'mon. We don't have all night.”
I followed him onto the ice in the same fashion, and we started toward the dark shape of the island. We stayed a good five or six feet apart, so that if one of us hit a thin spot (the lake is partially spring-fed and we'd heard all the winter horror stories) the other would have time to go flat and toss him the other end of a length of rope we were both carrying (that shouldn't surprise you ... we were Scouts, remember). I kept sucking on the water bottle I'd brought, and I could see Delaney in front of me doing the same (again, Scouts ...) I almost lost my balance a few times. We kept our flashlights off to avoid attracting attention from any of the still-lit houses on the shore. The crossing seemed to take forever in the dark. But we finally made the shore of Canopus.
Keep in mind, none of these islands were exactly huge. We called it the Big Lake because at a couple of miles in each direction, it was the biggest in our sprawling hamlet. The lake I lived on, by comparison, was barely a mile long and a quarter-mile wide at the widest. Still, it was big enough to support motor boats and such, and Canopus just looked that much bigger rearing up slightly off-center. And of course, the legends made it seem bigger.
That there were caves on Canopus there was no doubt. They were on the surveyors' maps and there was a ferry (decades ago, before it sank) that took hotel patrons (decades ago, before they went out of business) to the island for a look at the caves. But no-one in our age range had gone into the caves themselves. Every grade in our school had a handful of students who somehow made it onto the island to party, and that always generated a few stories, but when pressed for details the storytellers would usually admit they'd been too drunk or stoned to bother with the caves.
The stories Delaney was talking about back in his bedroom were more historical. I've tried looking for corroboration in the various histories written of our county, but haven't ever found anything to back them up. Perhaps they're just small-town legend; perhaps there is some truth. The short
version is that once colonial settlements started showing up around the lake, there were occasional disagreements with the natives. The constabulary tried their best to mediate, but one fine spring night some of the farmers and townsfolk coerced a group of natives out to Canopus and down into the tightest, darkest, dampest parts of the caves and then built a roaring fire in the cave entrance that sucked all of the oxygen out. A few natives tried to make a run through the flames but didn't make it; the stories vary as to whether shots were fired to help the flames do their work.
Delaney loved to tell the stories at scout camp-outs and on sleep-overs. I loved to listen to them. A scary story still has power over me all these years later, and there's no better way to spend a chilled autumn evening or a hot summer night. But that night, stepping onto Canopus and trying to get our bearings as to where one of the cave entrances might be, I for one did not want to hear the colonist vs. natives story ever again.
“This way.” Delaney motioned inland and to our right. We left the shore and immediately were in snow up to our knees. No evergreens on Canopus to keep the snow up. I followed him silently; I was pretty sure he was wrong and figured questioning him would make him change direction and accidentally stumble on a cave entrance. I was hoping after a few minutes of stumbling up the slight incline in the deeper snow, he'd give up and we'd head back to the shore.
“What's that?” He stopped and pointed to our left, farther inland. There was a bit of rockface showing between the trees. It didn't look too far away, and it looked a little too flat and perfect from this distance to actually be a cave entrance, so suggested checking it out.
It wasn't quite as flat and perfect as it looked. The slope was getting steeper, leading up to what was in fact a bare spot on the hillside about ten feet wide and seven feet tall. It was the kind of thing you see where a mudslide has taken the soil layer off of the underlying rock. We had to get within a foot or two of it to realize that the center of it, a space about 6 feet wide and 6 feet tall roughly speaking, was actually a cave. A small cave, but a cave.
Delaney gave out a silent “whoop” and walked up to it to make sure we weren't seeing things. I held back just slightly. He checked it out for a moment, then clumped back through the snow to me.
“Come on, it goes in a little ways at least. Can't see how far without the flashlights. We'll turn them on when we get in there.”
I just looked at him, not sure what to say. Whatever bravado I'd been feeling had fallen away now that we'd stumbled on an entrance and Delaney wanted to continue. He put his arm around my shoulder.
“Look, there's nothing in there to hurt us ... they're just stories. We won't even go in that far. Just far enough to say that we were actually in there.”
And with that, we were moving towards the cave entrance.
“Wait.” We were right up to it, about to step in.
“What?” I was hoping he'd changed his mind.
“I've gotta piss. Let's mark our territory.” His free hand was already tugging down his zipper. “You've gotta be full, too ... you drank as much as I did on the walk over.”
“Fine.” I used my free hand to pull my zipper down as well, and we went about our business.
“Watch out for splash-back!'” He grinned and aimed his stream to cross mine, aiming for my boots.
“You're nuts, Delaney.” We zipped back up.
“Well, here goes nothing.” He took a first step into the cave, and I followed. “First guys of the class of 84 into the Canopus caves.” He might have pumped his fist in triumph – I couldn't see it but heard the rustle of his jacket. Then his flashlight went on, aimed at the floor in front of us. I turned mine on too. The cave floor was hardened mud, the cold winter air going still around us. It didn't seem
any warmer. The floor sloped slightly down in front of us.
We didn't get very far, maybe 50 feet, when we pretty much hit a dead end. The wall in front of us was rock, solid to the touch, and we couldn't feel any air moving. I very silently mouthed “thank you” as I rolled my eyes upward. Delaney played his flashlight across the cave wall.
“There.” He pointed to a fissure running from ceiling to floor, about a foot-and-a-half wide. Definitely tall and wide enough for us to continue. “... for nothing,” I silently added, rolling my eyes upward again.
Delaney squeezed into the fissure sideways, which seemed to give some extra room. I mimicked him and tried not to think about how much rock and earth were on top of and around us. It felt to me like the fissure was narrowing as we moved forward, but Delaney kept going. When I felt rock scrape the top of my head, I knew it was getting shorter at least. After a few minutes, Delaney stopped.
“Cool,” he muttered.
“What now? Another dead end? Ancient runes?”
“Just follow me.” He squatted down and sort of duck-walked sideways. I played my light where his head had been a second before, and saw tan wavy rock that looked a little wet. I angled the light down, and saw an opening and Delaney's hand motioning for me to follow. I squatted, and duck walked sideways after him.
We were in a larger room. The ceiling was probably ten or twelve feet high, and our flashlights couldn't hit the far wall of the room. There was water dripping. Delaney took a step forward, and I went to follow him.
I hit a slick spot on the floor, my feet went forward and my torso back. I landed hard and the air went out of me in a rush. Somehow, I didn't hit my head, but my shoulder started throbbing immediately. My flashlight rapped against the rock and sputtered down to a weak thin glow that barely reached my feet. I could feel the wetness of the cave floor seeping through my jeans even though they were winter-lined, and the sting of dirty water into the cuts from my hands hitting the hard rock.
“You alright?” Delaney was squatting next to me.
“Yeah. Think so. I think I should just sit here a minute. I broke the flashlight.”
“Yeah, catch your breath and stay right here, so we don't forget where that little door is.” He stood up. “I just wanna see how far the room goes.”
“Two minutes, I promise. You'll be able to see my light, and I won't go any farther than where I can see yours.”
He started slowly walking away, being careful of slick spots that might land him on his ass like me. After about thirty seconds I let my eyes wander away from him. With his light blocked by his body and moving away, my eyes started to adjust to the darkness of the cave. I tried not to imagine being in here without any light at all. I was definitely starting to feel a little claustrophobic. I thought I could feel air moving around my face. I thought the air was so still you could choke on it. It was almost deathly silent, and the water dripping somewhere nearby was hypnotic. My eyes played tricks on me in the dimmed glow from my light. I thought I could sort of make out the wall closest to me, although not in any detail. Something seemed off about it. A slight indent, a different coloration. I blinked a few times, to try and reset my eyes. It still looked odd. I wondered if I had actually hit my head and had a concussion. I'd never had one before, but I was pretty sure they made you see and hear things.
Things like something a different color from the rest of the wall. Things like a drumbeat low
and far away.
The thing that was a different color suddenly looked like a body. If I squinted, I could make out a head, wrinkled skin, capped with long white hair. A wiry bare torso, one arm visible directly alongside it. I blinked, squinted again, thought I could make out hips, leg, feet. The drumbeat seemed a little closer, and quicker by just a touch. I put the palms of my hands over my ears, pushed to create pressure, and pulled them loose. The drumbeat didn't change.
I tried the old trick of moving your eyes left or right without moving your head, to focus someplace else and see if the image changes, like you do when you're staring at stars in the night sky and they seem to disappear.
The image changed. The head had turned to look at me. Eyes were open and staring.
My flashlight went out.
And I could still see the face, the whites of the eyes.
“Fuck.” I whispered. Or tried. Nothing came out when I opened my mouth. I tried to call for Delaney, but couldn't get my vocal chords to work. I was glad I'd emptied my bladder outside. I started to slide back on my ass towards where I knew that little opening was. The eyes were following me; as I moved backwards they maintained the same distance they'd had when my flashlight was still on.
Then everything went bright in front of me and my eyes started tearing. Something grabbed my shirt at the shoulder and started to haul me backwards.
“Come on, let's get out of here.” Delaney's voice, urgent, but I couldn't see him. His flashlight was in my face. “Turn around and go through the hole.”
“I can't ... The flashlight ...”
“Just fucking turn around and start moving. Forget the other flashlight.”
I turned, felt with my hands, found the hole and duck-crawled through. Delaney's hand stayed on my shoulder the whole time, slightly pushing me forward. I got through the hole and felt the narrow walls to stand up. Too quick, I cracked my head on the low ceiling and felt the sting of clay or dirt getting into a cut. Delaney's hand had slid down to my leg as I stood up, and the pressure he was putting on me to move was more than just a suggestion. I reached down and grabbed his shoulder as he came through and was glad to feel his coat and not bare skin. My head still stung and I reached up to feel the cut.
“Move,” he hissed in my ear. So I did. The narrow walls scratched at my hands as I felt along. He dropped his flashlight and put both hands on my shoulders to push me forward.
The cave entrance came up quick. Outside, he didn't say anything. His hands were still on my shoulders, and he steered me towards the nearest shore. I couldn't see his face but I was sure he kept glancing back at the cave entrance. I didn't need to look back myself. I was sure the face I'd seen would be there if I looked back.
The closer we got to the shore, the easier it was to see. Stepping onto the ice was almost a relief. Delaney didn't let me catch my breath – he broke into the closest thing to a jog we could manage on the ice, keeping his hands on me to keep me steady and ignoring the little noises I was making as my back and shoulders throbbed in protest.
We made it back to his house and back through the bedroom window. He latched the window and clicked on one small desk lamp.
“You're a mess,” he said. I thought to say the same about him: his face was pale and his eyes still looked startled and unsure of the shadows of his own room. We thought about concocting a story that would explain how I got bruised and cut up in his bedroom, but then realized nothing would make sense, so we figured we'd just fess up that we'd snuck out and were messing around down the road
when I got hurt.
Neither of us mentioned the cave. Not for the rest of that night, and not to anyone else afterwards.
Delaney and I stayed close until I quit Scouts a year later when our assistant scoutmaster died. Most of my old Cub Scout den quit at the same time. Even bad-ass Howie cried, howled really, at the wake. I sobbed against my father's shoulder at the casket; I think I grieved more publicly for that man, whose name I can now sadly not even remember, than I have for either of my parents.
After I quit Scouts and joined the drama club, Delaney and I talked in class but drifted a little bit socially. We didn't spend as much time together. He had hunting buddies and a job; I had theater after school and Rocky Horror on the weekends. We both graduated, and lost touch.
I never found out what he saw in the cave, and I never told him what I saw.
He died in our mid-twenties, while I was living at the other end of the state; he was showing off his guns for his fiancée and accidentally shot himself. I didn't find out until weeks later, and so didn't make it to the wake or the funeral. I regret that, but in a way I'm also relieved. Some parts of the past are better left there.