~1800 words, approx 12 min
I watch calcite flowers sprout from my achilles. Petal by petal, the minerals blossom to the tune of dripping water. This is how I’m undone: as a translucent growth, as flesh vegetating into stone. I taste death, peaty and stale. Was it only hours ago that I was double checking the harness of my descender?
* * *
My headlamp picks out moist stalagmite fangs jutting from the floor. I inspect the cable a final time before lowering into the crevasse. My body swings above the pointed mounds as the pit widens. I inhale in an effort to relax, coughing the cavern’s dusty meteor-breath back out. “You are yoga flame, you are wild plum, you are possibilities,” I chant. It’s a mantra I’ve been reciting ever since the separation, to keep from drowning in fear.
I suppose one can view this expedition as a desire to retreat into the womb for solace, but that’s wrong. I confess I’m afraid of subterranean spaces. Also: heights, arthropods, needles, licorice, bridges. It’s astonishing I’ve survived this long. Chalk it up to my cautiousness, or rather, my luck, since we do not design our futures. Our totality is merely the scattering of relentless days, which we shape into omens. Call this, instead, my journey out of an interior labyrinth.
I land, unclipping from my tether. Shadows of stalactites, amorphous and jagged, dance beyond the reach of my headlamp as I walk. I stumble, clutch awkwardly at a tapering column. “There’re no monsters here,” I say out loud.
“Stalagmites are the bones of the forgotten,” Sahel had joked when we first came here. They weren’t wrong, for everything beneath us is a graveyard, the accumulated bodies of flora and fauna.
In the beam of my headlamp, a stalagmite throws a silhouette upon the wall that bears some resemblance to Sahel’s scythe-nose, tuft-chin profile. Suddenly, the past rushes towards me, a bogey unspooling souvenirs. I can hear them laugh, cynical as straw, “from ghosts and ghouls preserve us!” I shudder and quicken my step.
* * *
The calcite flowers have expanded into branches that reach my knees.
I close my eyes. The shifting colors behind my lids form into an image of Sahel. I think about them every three or four hours. It used to be more often, but the details are getting hazy. I chuckle at how memory performs tricks upon us. I used to crave withdrawal from their company…now, how frightening the solitude is!
“What’s in the past is past,” Sahel would say, after one of our spitfire quarrels. That’s a lie. History refuses to be static: erupts into our cadence, vomits significance out of our foolish secrets, evades our endeavors to pin it down. In this catacomb, the past engulfs me like a thunderhead. All the losses whorl, white massifs rolling upon one another: houses vacated, books mislaid, friends buried, a litany of disappearances.
I, too, am lost.
* * *
No matter how much I wiggle, my torso won’t pass through. Perspiration trickles from my hairline and lathers my back. I curse again and exhale slowly, my nose plastered to the ground. Why certain aromas contain potent powers, I don’t know. Sniffing the mildewy odor, I recall when I first maneuvered this portion with Sahel. How easily they’d slid through the tunnel, encouraging me from the other side. “C’mon luv, c’mon, ye can do it.”
I’d stretched to my fullest length, twisting sideways. “This is exactly why I didn’t want to come,” I had wailed, “I’ll never get out!”
“Not with that attitude. C’mon, I believe in ye. Push!”
My sweaty palms had scrabbled against the slick surface. I’d torn at the rock, ferocious. “I am pushing! Pull me out!”
Sahel had grabbed my wrists and grinned.
I had squirmed. I had shoved. I had hyperventilated. “Pull me out, pull me out, pull me out!”
“I told you I can’t. Not without breaking your wrists. If you really can’t do it, I’ll have to get help.”
“No! No don’t leave,” I had panted, my right eye leaking, “don’t leave.” I’d pressed my forehead against the fungus-scented sod, gagged, and instantly slithered out.
Crawling forward through the tunnel, now without Sahel, I scoff at how naive I’ve been to think that love was enough. Loving someone cannot show me their interior realms. No matter our social status, we’re all alone. We’ll abide apart to our death.
The art of cave exploration lies in adapting oneself to the environment. I’ve fought every nook and bore, unable to bow before stone. Each underground region we’ve probed, I’ve gotten stuck at some crevice — whining, sobbing, profaning — until exhausted, I relinquished command to the turf.
I got jammed inside a six-inch shaft in the western Belize foothills, once. Sahel had to pickaxe me out. I remember yearning to be free, the hatchet’s thwack unbearably sluggish as I huddled in the chamber. Eventually, as they chipped away, the unstable walls crumbled down upon me. I realize this might be my recurring story: unable to accommodate myself in the world, stupidly hacking away until the entirety collapses.
* * *
The calcite branches fractal in continuous motion, supported by the trunk of my lower body. I’m disoriented, an angry buzz in my inner ear. Pain and confusion prickle my skin. I grit my teeth as spasms rocket up my spine. Blackout is preferable to this agony.
Then, a vision of blue-green grass eclipses my view of the cave. I dissolve into its undulating tentacles. I feel…unmoored, like a body buoyant in saltwater. A spectacle both inhabiting my corpse and outside it, infinitely connected to everything.
Is this what sadhus define as divine inspiration? I’ve never undergone any sort of disembodiment before. Never taken narcotics or stimulants. In fact, my routine has been circumspect, narrow, full of the shouldn’t and couldn’t which purport to keep my gender safe. I’ve long been jealous of Sahel: athletic, bold, impudent. Success allows them to navigate unhindered in so many capacities—but now I see that the threat of harm has wrecked me before I’ve ventured into risk.
I descend through aged compost until I am cocooned. I am soil. I am earth. Maybe, this is how all nonhumans experience existence.
If nothing matters, then why have I spent my energy fleeing death? The thought leaps from the shadow play of my flickering light. So many years steeling against grief, terrified of losing Sahel, of being unable to carry on, a maimed, half-souled creature. Our choices pinball us recklessly into unforeseen consequences.
Now, I surrender. In this tomb, I no longer have to question my destiny…nor be chained by guilt.
* * *
Then (And Now)
A stream gurgles somewhere miles beneath as I procure a slim purchase along the ravine. My cheeks scrape against the sandpaper ridge as I prod blindly for the nearest toe-hold. “Don’t rush, don’t rush,” I remind myself.
“Hurry! Hurry!” the brook below mocks, the echoes taken up by the surrounding cavity. I try to catch a glimpse of the chuckling water, but rivers are adept at concealment.
“Though, what is reality?” I muse, straining my right leg to reach the next overhang. I operate under the delusion there are numerous choices to be made, when so little is under our control. For six years I compromised and yielded and contributed, quite happily, convinced I was securing our marriage. None of it made any difference. Perhaps my mother is correct: everything has been pre-ordained by Indra; therefore, nothing matters.
My back foot slips out of its pocket. I scrabble for anchorage, but my hands meet emptiness. The stream’s chatter races as I somersault in the air. A jab against my elbow. A smash across my hips. I land on my side, left bicep, left pelvis, left ankle arresting the brunt of the fall. There is silence, by which I mean I can only attend to the deafening thump of my heart. There is quiet, by which I mean the darkness roars around me.
* * *
It will not be long, now. My skin feels cold and glitters like quartz in the darkness. And for some reason, this translucence brings me back to the beginning.
The first spelunking expedition with Sahel was at a Yucatan cenote. We entered another realm, crouching through limestone tunnels into a sunken peacock lake. We floated in the chilled pool, my sight adjusting to the dimness until I could discern above us a ceiling of crystals twinkling like stars while moss threaded down like rain. I understood then the origin of afterlife myths—from such antipodes sprang Patala, Elysium, Xibalba. With such wonder at our feet, we lust for the same beyond our physical subsistence. “Is this all there is?” we question, seduced by the prospect of aliens and multiverses.
Isn’t this enough? Unasked, we’ve been deposited into a marvelous cosmos composed of tigers, daffodils, and weevils from loam, water, and air. On this spinning globe we witness fog, lightning, volcanoes. Bud fluorescing, larvae expelling wings. Galaxies boiling, matter metamorphosing in every conceivable manner…and death will deliver me into this symphony.
The cauliflower florets on my arms have unfurled into saplings. I am not vanishing, but reintegrating. Step by step I stalagmite. My hide crystallizes, each pore a hexagonal deposit. My skeleton fuses to the cavern floor. A new batch of cauliflower florets sparkle from my head. I am both cocooned and cocoon.
All my life I’ve resisted my mother’s philosophy. As sleep gnaws my eyes, I succumb to her words: everything is that which it is. Restored to a childhood when nothing mattered and everything mattered, I hang, suspended between the stillness of now and eternity. My lungs swallow the dirt I shall become. The elusive stream burbles a melody.
All the panic which possessed me after my divorce ebbs out.
Ping, ping, ping. The ringing drifts from an unknown source. Joy suffuses me.
I am not alone.
I am enclosed in an animate barrow…I am in the womb.
The hollow is my friend.
I focus on the sound—ping, ping, ping. The notes are balm.
They welcome me home.
Atreyee Gupta is a chronicler at the intersection of geographies, identifies, and perspectives. Atreyee’s work has been published in numerous venues including Arc Poetry, Jaggery, Rigorous, Shanghai Literary Review, and Vagabond City. To discover more of Atreyee’s writing, check out Bespoke Traveler, a digital alcove for curious explorers.
Author of “Cocoon”
What inspired you to write this story?
A spelunking trip to Moaning Caverns in California in 2014 inspired this story. I was scared and fascinated at the same time with being so far inside the earth.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
I hope readers think about their connections to the world and realize that there can be so many new and different ways to tell fables/myths/origin stories about themselves.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
I don’t know if this will give anyone hope, but “Cocoon” has gone through six years of edits and twenty-seven submissions.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
I recently finished reading “Braiding Sweetgrass,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer and it is my favorite thing in the world. I highly recommend everyone read it!