We had lights on our helmets and a flashlight each, but our progress was really because of Billy’s familiarity with the path. Three turns and one crawl-through and we came out into a chamber. At one end water dripped and trickled, seeming to bleed right out of the stone and filled a small basin. At the other end, the basin emptied into a silent steam that disappeared into a fissure the size of my fist. In between was a flat space on which we sat. Billy pointed out shapes and features in the walls and ceiling.
“Are there bats?” I asked.
“Not all caves have bats,” he answered without laughing or making me feel bad for asking. “But this one has something better. Something special.”
He slipped down to his knees and put his face low. For a second I thought he was going to put his head under the pool of water. Instead, he shined his flashlight around until he found what he wanted.
“Come look at this.” His voice had become a whisper.
I joined him staring into the light beam within the water. What, at first, I thought were reflections, moved away from the light. Fish. They were tiny, like minnows, but the color of bleached bone. Their eyes were small and dead looking. It was as if I was looking into a ghost world.
“Down here.” Billy pointed with the flashlight then poked a finger into the beam.
There, along the line of his finger was a white rock.
“A pebble?” I asked.
The rock moved and the strange shape resolved into what appeared to be a tiny lobster.
“Crayfish,” I said excited. It was so colorless it was practically transparent at the edges. “So pale.”
“They don’t need color in the darkness. They don’t need eyes either.”
I sat up, stunned and elated by the place I was in. “Thank you,” I said looking around. “For sharing this with me.”
“This isn’t what I wanted to share,” Billy said.
He reached to the lamp on my hard hat and killed the light. After a moment, he turned off my flashlight. Again he waited a few seconds to turn off his flashlight. Finally, after a longer pause, he turned off his own headlamp.
We were in the kind of complete darkness I don’t think I’d ever experienced. It was thrilling and jarring at the same time. I reached and took his hand without even thinking. The black we were in was like distance and I wanted to be close.
“Why?” I asked.
“Look around,” he answered, softly.
“It’s dark,” I said. “Nothing but black.”
“There’s no light. But absence isn’t exactly black.”
“I don’t understand.” I shook my head then wondered why.
“Some of the guys I know . . .” Billy said then stopped.
I knew he was talking about something different then, but still the same. A change in subject not in meaning. I waited, like waiting for a suspect. He had to be the one to fill the silence.
“Veterans,” he continued. “Guys who were over there. We talk sometimes. They talk a lot about the things they see when they close their eyes. It’s always personal. No one ever has the same experience or the same . . . vision on events. Look around. Do you still see nothing?”
I did as he asked and noticed for the first time that blackness wasn’t exactly, only blackness. There were patterns of light, vague shimmers, not entirely seen, but not simply imagined, I was sure.
“Something . . .” I admitted.
“Our eyes don’t like complete darkness. When there’s no light to be seen, the optic nerves still fire, populating the void with specters. The thing is, your eyes won’t see what mine do and I won’t see what you experience. Darkness is singular. What you see, is your particular darkness, no one else’s. No matter how well you describe it, no one will see it the way you do.”
“You’re not talking about darkness.” I actually thought I heard fear in my voice.
“You’re holding my hand.”
“Yes,” I answered, squeezing.
“Is it real?”
“What do you mean?”
“My hand. Me. Am I real”
“Of course,” I said. “Why would you not be?”
“That’s what I tell the other guys. We all have our own darkness within us and sometimes it gets out, it shadows our lives, the entire world we see. Those times we get so wrapped up in seeing our own thing, our own darkness, we forget the real out there beyond it.”
He let go of my hand and I was suddenly untethered. I was adrift in my own darkness. It was a familiar feeling. In a way, comforting. The same way what is familiar and expected is always somehow a comfort. But I didn’t want the darkness anymore. I realized I wanted his hand.
“Billy . . .”
He touched my face. Then the touch became a hold as he placed his hands to each side with his fingers in my hair. His thumb rested on the scar that framed my eye and I didn’t mind.
“I don’t want to live in the dark anymore,” I confessed.
Then Billy Blevins kissed me.
When we walked out of the crevasse and entered the cave’s mouth, the world was a circle of light to be walked into. It spread and opened as we approached. When I stepped through, I understood what Billy had said about breathing sunshine.