YOU ALL BUT crawled out of the cave and into sky—space—expanse—countryside. Breathe. The stone cool under your feet. Your heart thumping hard. Muscles throbbed against skin. Mud clung to you, thick around your feet, and your jeans were soaked and slimy and heavy. You felt like you could sink into the earth.
You walked the winding road back to town. The wind sang against your skin as you clutched the ends of a shawl. The town center had been invaded. The Labor Day contingent had arrived, as feared, two bus-loads of tourists crawling all over the square. You remembered how it was, way back when, how there was no pavement but raw, red earth. I was thirteen, you shared during lunch yesterday. We went up here, my dad and I, my cousin, too. You poked your spoon into the thick clump of yogurt served before you and went on about how the street outside was nothing but dirt trail. You told your companion there were no inns. Just a handful of homes that rented out rooms to travelers, you recalled. You stayed at the seminary at the top of the hill, in a cabin, across from where a local actor was rumored to have been cooped up preparing for a role.
There were barely any bistros as well, you told your friend. You took your meals in the cafeteria and had coffee with your lunch. At noontime you wore sweaters, you said, digging into the cold yogurt, savoring its texture against the inside of your cheeks.
* * *
The room you rented on the third floor was small. It was bare of furnishings except for the necessities. There were two beds. Linen curtains hung over the two windows that looked out to the neighbor’s backyard. A crude cabinet housed your belongings, and the walls were bare wood.
It was the first option that had emerged in sigh. A yellow house. Homey, unlike the budget hotels that had sprung up. The owner was very forthcoming; his mother more so. She lived on the first floor. They had a TV set, and she told you, come down and watch TV, don’t be shy, she insisted, with her smile.
You arrived the day before, disfigured by the seven-hour bus ride across the mountain terrain, and unfolding your weak knees, your joints creaked under the weight of luggage bulging with cold weather attire. It was summer, but you were in the mountains and it was supposed to be cold, you had pouted, tying the long, thick sleeves of your jacket around your waist.
Up ahead, the town square. The sun poured heat and light on your surroundings almost as it did in the city. In this brightness you witnessed the changes: what used to be earth now buried under a concrete road; what used to be a broken line of compact, two-storey homes now a chain of restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops and inns. You spotted Internet cafes, the boys inside intent on killing things.
They’ll have a Starbucks the next time we visit, you quipped.
The place offered more of its charm in the evening. An hour before sunset. Already too dark for your camera, you put it safely in your pocket and took everything in unfiltered. You could see the sprawl of farmland just beyond the first row of houses, just around their pillars. Earth rippling with rice terraces, sloping from backyards to plunge down the mountainside and spill from where it ended, out into the open air; rock formations; pine needles whipping in wind, their dead on the soil: their smell.
There was something about all that space. The stretch of farmland, the sky. The cavities in the mountains drew you in, emptied you out.
* * *
The cave spread like a growing stain in your sight as step by step you lowered yourself into its maw. The guide was already at the foot of the crude cement steps, pumping the gas lamp until it flared. A network of about sixty caves, he said, puncture through this one mountain alone. The cave you were about to enter was the largest of the three that they had opened to the tourists.
It was slippery at first. The ground stabbed at the air with rugged protrusions. You made your way down, around larger outcrops of rock, your hands grasping their slick sharp edges, palms pressing against the moss and guano that the bats had graciously dropped down from the ceiling. They seemed oblivious to your intrusion. They rustled in unseen roosts overhead, hundreds of them.
Further in, the rocks turned into limestone. Your bare feet had more traction with this type. You left your sandals in a crevice in the floor and proceeded, the guide pointing to this rock formation, that rock formation; look at the pregnant lady on her back; this one is a turtle, a pawikan; that one, the king’s throne.
Your group continued to descend, limbs hauling torsos down steep hills of limestone, the whole body trying to find some semblance of balance on slick rock. You had to keep your eyes on the ground, though where there was none but space, or darkness between outcrops of rock, or pools of water glinting under the hard glow of the lamp, was where your gaze lingered, as if something in the inner earth was pulling you in.
You found yourself hanging from a wall, clutching a rope. There was no ground to tread on, only black, churning water, eager to lap you up. The lamplight throbbed against the limestone, and they burned a deep, hard gold.
* * *
The bus back to the city was boarding. It was noon, but cloudy. You tried to wrench the window down but it was stuck. Mountain air blew in, cold and brute against your cheeks. You felt your pores closing up, your lips turning blue.
The dawn journey from the city to the small town had been a cold trip too, but the sights had distracted you. Sunlight cast a soft misty glow to the mountains, clouds coiled and snail-inched their way across the slopes, flushed with light from behind.
On the trip back, the same clouds condensed into a solid wall of white. Everything disappeared. You looked out the window and saw only this for miles. Whole mountains missing. This behemoth thing looming up beyond the sheer drop-off to your right, feet from the patches of cabbage you passed by…
Heaven colliding with earth; or claiming the earth, you thought, for a moment.
You imagined falling. There was nothing there, it seemed; no mountainside to slam against your reckless falling mass. To fall would be simply to fall, space taking you in. The wind singing against your skin.
You closed your eyes as the bus hurtled down the steep mountain terrain.