AS OLD AS TIME (6 pgs)
My neighbor and I were standing up at his place and watching the activity below.
“A gold shovel, huh?” he remarked with awe. “ You going to dig with it? The site name engraved on it might get scratched.” he stated, with a wink and slight grin.
Dig. Well, of course, I wouldn’t be scratching up my new golden shovel by digging in the dirt with it. But, hung on my wall, I knew that would always serve as a reminder. Huh! But, shovel or no, how could a person ever forget something like this?
I often find myself digging a hole. Usually, it’s in the hopes of catching the soil soft end damp enough that a hole can be dug to plant a tree or shrub. Our soil sets up like concrete once it dries during the months of summer. I had learned long ago that any serious digging must be done in the chill of very early spring even if nothing was to be planted until after last frost. Waiting would necessitate the use of a pick ax and considerable soaking of the soil.
My mind went back to only five weeks before, yet a time that seemed like years. The experience had turned into something I hadn’t even dreamed of.
My yard is partially fenced in, while I let the remainder beyond the fence mostly grow to weeds and wild flowers. During this past winter, I had found myself often glancing out beyond the rear part of the fence at the steep bank back there. It seemed a couple of nice trees would look good part way up that slope and maybe serve to bring the outside area more inside. Any actual landscaping of the area was out of the question, since I had enough on my hands within the area that was fenced.
Deer ranged that area mornings and evenings, so I had researched and found a couple of varieties of trees I could later buy and plant there. Trees the deer wouldn’t bother except maybe to lay down in their shade after they matured a few years.
Anyway, I had donned some rubber boots to protect my shoes against the mud out there, grabbed up a shovel and headed out through the back gate with the intention of creating a couple of nice sized holes while the soil was saturated and relatively easy to dig. Within a month or so, we’d have seen the last of freezing at night and I would visit the local nursery to order the trees I’d sink into the new holes back there.
As was fairly normal, my first poking around resulted in dinging the shovel blade off rocks right beneath the surface. Whatever tractor they had used to form a pad for construction of my house and shape this slope must have been a strong muscled brute because there seems to be far more rock everywhere on my one acre parcel than soil.
I finally forced my shovel between a couple of rocks, tore loose some soil and got down alongside each rock to the point where I could use a pry bar to bring the rocks to the surface. Even though neither rock was much bigger than my head, they were firmly stuck within the muck and mud and I really had to put my back into bringing the first one loose. As it tumbled slowly down the embankment below where I stood, I again set the block I used to pry against and slipped the bar beneath the lower part of the other rock.
As it came free with a sucking sound, I reached down with my gloved hands to pull it the rest of the way out so I would be free at last to begin removing earth. I wanted one of my trees right there and it was looking promising.
With my nose right down there at the rock, I couldn’t help but catch a whiff of the smell that escaped from beneath where it lay. A strange odor. Slightly like the stink of old and rotted grass or roots, yet nearly like the smell of some long dead animal.
I waved my hand across my face, wondering a little and continued lifting the rock away. After moving my bar out of the way, I grabbed the shovel again, but with the next stab out beyond the partial hole I had started, I again encountered rock. Digging around this one, I found it to be a considerably larger rock than the first two. As I went to work removing the soil to get to this new one, I told myself that, once all the rocks were gone, I wouldn’t even have enough soil to backfill around the new tree. Nothing new, however. Like I said, this land seems composed more of rock than soil.
It must have been a good half hour later when I finally had enough dirt removed that I considered there to be hope of prying this rock out. Stabbing the shovel into dirt nearby, I again set my block and grabbed up the pry bar. This had turned into a lot more work than expected, so I was glad I’d picked a cool day for the project. Hopefully, the other hole I wanted to dig would go more easily.
The rock shifted, then stopped and hung up due to the muck glued to its’ sides. A better bite and a little more muscle, then it slowly came loose and rolled over into the recess formed by having removed the first two rocks.
It was when this larger one settled into place that I first realized what I had exposed. Beneath where it had lain I now found myself staring down into a dark hole. Not dark mud as I’d expected, but a dark void, a hole into an emptiness.
I didn’t really want to kneel down in the mud and mess up my pants, but then again, I really wanted a closer look. Nothing was visible within, just darkness. It was at this point where I decided to give myself a chance to rethink what was happening. I tossed the bar aside, pulled off my gloves as I turned, then walked through the gate and across the yard to the back door. My wife needed to see this. It wasn’t that I was afraid of a hole or any such thing. But, to find what I had right out there in that bank where a tractor had years ago shaved the dirt away wasn’t quite the norm, either. In fact, I wondered now at why the tractor hadn’t caved the spot in if it was, indeed, a hole of any size.
Right! I’m sure you’re saying I should have just kept digging. Tossed aside a few more shovelfuls of dirt and gone for it, looked inside. I never even thought not to. But, I did decide my wife deserved to see this as I progressed. This was way out of the norm. Our lives as retirees were usually pretty predictable, so I figured I’d share this with her. She might have some good ideas. She might even have a clue of what could cause a hole of any size to be there. Just there hidden beneath those few rocks I had taken away. She reads a lot and she is also clever that way. Crossword puzzles and all that might have provided her with something that would help prepare us for whatever lay below.
When I first tried to tell her what I’d found, she didn’t see much significance. So, I had found a hole, Good, it would be easier to make a place to plant a tree. No, I went on to explain. This hole appeared to be deep, maybe very deep. And, I hadn’t dug it!
Finally, she slipped on some boots and followed me across the yard and out to where I’d been working. Once there, she looked at the hole. “Wow! It really is a hole. Did you slip your arm down in there to see what you could feel?” she asked. I admitted I had thought of doing that, but decided against it when I realized most anything might be inside. Snakes, maybe. I needed a light first.
I explained that I’d been trying not to get all muddied up, so what she saw is all I’d seen so far. With that, I again attacked the area with my shovel. It proved difficult to get the dirt out as I pried it loose rather than have it just fall down inside the hole. But, I managed with a little care and, before long, I had an opening that was about the size into which a human body could slip. The trouble was, I still was trying not to get mud all over my clothes. But, now I could at least look down into it a lot better. I could see that, rather than merely a void or odd cavity, this hole went on for as far as the errant rays of sunlight allowed me to see.
I stood back, leaning on my shovel and looked to where my wife stood. Her gaze was fixed on the hole and her eyes were a long way away, filled with awe and wonder. I glanced up toward where our rear property line was outlined by a small wire fence. Could this cavity possibly extend all the way up there, I wondered.
There was only one way to find out, I finally admitted to myself. I would have to climb down inside. She offered to go back inside for a flashlight, so while she was on that errand, I continued to enlarge the opening. By the time she returned, I had knelt down at the rim of the hole and shoved my head inside for a better look, hoping that by blocking out some of the light, I would be able to see the inside better. Nothing met my eyes but the absorbing blackness.
Once I shined the light inside, I was then able to see the walls of the cavern on both sides of my hole. Nothing beyond, as the light seemed sucked away into the darkness. Below me, it was only a couple of feet to drop onto the bottom. However, that bottom slanted down and away gradually and seemed to go on forever off into the darkness. Shining the light to left and right brought about the same results. Once a person got the three feet or so in, the walls disappeared left, right and ahead with, seemingly, no end in sight. Now, this was more than a little spooky.
I finally went to my shop and returned with a coil of yellow nylon rope. Slipping back down the bank, I firmly tied one end of the rope around a strong fence post. Then, while making my way back up the bank to the opening, I tied the other end around my waist and tugged to make sure the knot wouldn’t slip apart.
Finally, flashlight in hand, rope for a tether in case I fell or became lost, I slowly lowered myself down through the opening and into the void beyond. Once I realized the slope was gradual and easy to walk down, I called back out to my wife and told her what I’d found so far. I still could not see a side wall, nor a far wall. Nothing more than whatever the light showed at my feet, then the light seemed to be sucked up and of no value to see farther.
Deciding the side walls might and should come up sooner than the back, I turned to my right and slowly made my way along the slight slope. No steps nor any other sign of human touch, this place felt more like something that nature had somehow created. A washed out or blown out cavity. Nothing below my feet but dry dirt. A total lack of the rocks found everywhere topside. At the count of twenty small steps, I finally made out something in the beam of light. A wall? The end of the hole? A few more steps brought me to within arms reach and it was then when I realized my light was shining on shelving about a foot deep. Fairly level, these were ledges. One beneath the other and about two feet apart, these ledges had been scraped or dug into the sloping dirt wall. A couple more steps and I suddenly realized these shelves were not vacant.
Laid side by side in neat arrangement were small pots. Grasping one in my hand, I shined the light on it enough to realize the top opening had been sealed. Something yellowish that resembled solidified fat filled the opening, sealing within whatever contents the pot might hold. Shining the light close to another showed me it had similarly been sealed. Although there were clear markings on the pot sides, I had no idea what they represented. A magnifying glass and a stronger light might help.
Sidling along to my left and on down the continuing slope, it could be seen that the shelves continued. In fact, soon I found the beginning of another shelf. Quite methodically, someone had carved out a shelf that was again easily within reach. It now became the lowest shelf as I descended further into the cavern. A firm tug around my chest told me I had come to the end of my rope tether. Shaking my head in wonder, I slowly made my way back to where the sun shone into the opening I had climbed through.
As I climbed out, my wife was about to burst with curiosity. What had I found? Was I okay? I scraped off some loose mud and got to my feet. I opened my hand and displayed the one small pot I had taken from the shelf. When I carefully handed it to her, she seemed awestruck. “From down in there?, she whispered.
“What I found is still a mystery.” I explained. “I need a brighter light and a longer rope before I can see enough to get some idea just what it’s all about.”
“You mean that rope wasn’t long enough to let you reach all the cave parts?” she asked. It had never occurred to either of us this hole might be so large inside.
After borrowing a good rope from my neighbor and firing up a strong lantern, I struggled my way into the opening once more. I hadn’t mentioned to him what I needed the rope for. Also I had carefully looked back toward the hole from his place to see if he might be able to see the area where I had begun my hole. Nothing. Too far down the slope, so where I had worked was hidden from his view. If it seemed right, I could tell him what I’d found later. For now, I remained the sole explorer beneath the surface.
Tied off, strong light in hand, once again inside, I now turned to check out the left side. It was considerably farther this time before I found a wall. In fact, I had about decided that, incredible as it would seem, maybe this went on forever. Funny how your mind can work under such circumstances.
The left side did finally arrive. This side, too, was made up of a sloped wall. This side, similarly, had been shaped with shelving or ledges. Not the same, though, when it came to the contents. Once I stepped up close to this wall, there was no mystery at all about what I was seeing. Ledge after ledge, left to right, every square inch of surface had been used for the storage of something entirely different. Skulls! I jumped back a step involuntarily before I could stop myself. This was eerie! A graveyard? As I continued down the slope and the ledges continued along the wall, they continued to contain nothing but — skulls. Hundreds, maybe thousands of dried, clean, flesh free bone faces looked back at me as though they were watching my progress.
I can truly say I’m not superstitious, but that had little to do with the feeling between my shoulder blades down in that blackness. This was not a place I should be.
No doubt there was a far wall if I had continued, but instead, I turned and made my cautious way toward the light of day, the weakened beams of sunlight that shone from outside this chamber. For this trip, I had had more than enough and, as I climbed out through the hole, I also realized I now had far more questions than I was likely to find answers for. This was for the experts, we had already agreed.
I spoke of the skulls and the eerie feeling that had overcome me, but I had touched none, nor taken a sample.
Right then, I decide to make some phone calls before going down again.
Right then is when the truth began to be revealed.
Officials called officials and they brought in the experts. Beyond my back yard fence soon became a circus. Neighbors drifted by, called there by curiosity. The area was soon cordoned off, the opening considerably enlarged and a long rubber mat placed within the opening. I was told this was to walk on and help preserve whatever might lie beneath until excavation could be started. A portable generator hummed in the air and brilliant lighting shone forth from the opening accompanied by the voices of those exploring within. After some measuring, they informed me that the back wall they had finally found appeared to be about thirty feet beneath the fence that marked our rear property line. Deep and huge!
Geologists, archeologists, seismologists, you name it. They all came to see and to claim they knew the answers. National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institute sent their people. Flashes from photographers deep within erupted like mini-lightening from the opening. Then, the final enlargement of the access hole began.
Plaster casts were being taken of several fresh and clear footprints found inside, as plain to be seen as the long ago days when the imprints had been left in the soft earthen floor of the cave. They’d probably get some of my own from what little I had walked inside.
At last, a sort of hierarchy was decided upon and it was with those people who I dealt. My wife and I had discussed this finding. We now knew it to be amazing for many reasons. But, at the same time, we didn’t want to agree to a never-ending research in our back yard.
Once the basic footprint casts and photos were taken, we both ducked our heads and joined those wandering about in the depths. In a few places, we were forced to duck a bit, but for the most part, the area inside was more than head high and easily traversed.
The ceiling appeared to be nothing more than smooth, natural granite, one huge slab of the stuff. At the rear, it had been found that the wall was a natural, solid slab of granite. Barren of cracks or dirt, it appeared as though, surely, the surface of it had been shaped by man to the present smoothness that took up the entire surface except for the object carved in relief at its’ center. A giant idol!
Due to the granite slab size, this wall stood a good ten feet tall. From the feet at the floor to the stylized head at the wall’s top, there stood a very well detailed carving of a naked man. Attire had been limited to a headpiece of sorts. Perhaps meant to resemble a crown of feathers
We had agreed to touch nothing, but this somehow begged for one to reach out. The left hand was held palm open and forward as though reaching to take the hand of the viewer, the supplicant.
After we left the cave, we realized these people thought they would be allowed to dally over their finding for as long as they chose. Right there in our back yard. We couldn’t have that, no matter the significance of their finding. Offers had been made that would more than adequately cover our inconvenience, but still, this had to have an ending.
Finally, we set a time limit of six months. They could remove anything they wanted, dig into the floor, examine the ceiling, whatever. However, at the end of six months, we insisted this be completed and the hole sealed closed. We needed our lives to return to normal at some point.
Besides, with what they had offered us for the rights to explore the cavern, we could take a nice vacation once all the people had gone from our property. By then, we agreed, we would well deserve it.
The long and short of it was beyond anything I might have imagined. A couple of archeologists finally informed me that this cavern had probably been sealed for several, perhaps as long as thirteen or fourteen thousand years. How that came to happen would be studied eventually, but the age would guide them in their studies of the many contents they found. The place, they now told me, had been lived in or at the very least, used by prehistoric man. Nowhere on earth had there ever been any such find. A special museum exhibit would be created after the contents were studied.
How had this cavern come to be? Was it originally a natural formation? How had it managed to become sealed to completely? Had man way back then toppled rocks into whatever opening they had used for access to seal it from enemies? From predators? ? Had an ancient glacier scraped the soil and rocks across the original opening, thereby hiding it for all time until my efforts to plant a tree? No certain answers were readily available.
Then came the time for several truckloads of cement to be delivered. As agreed, this cavern was to be sealed once again, nevermore to see the light of day. Before this happened, though, I offered to act as guide and show all interested friends, neighbors and relatives the remains. As I pointed this way and that, verbally trying to describe what I had seen within this gloomy depth, I relived for the final time that feeling of the explorer. The idol, I explained, that was now before them on the rear wall, could not be relocated intact, so it would be left as found. After so many thousands of years with no company but the darkness, those stone eyes would once more, and for all time, return their gaze to the home it had so long known; a black void. At last, we stooped through the opening and left one by one. My wife and I had stepped to one side to simply listen to the chatter of voices and the supposition contained in their ideas as they drifted past us. Would anyone ever know the true history, the reason for, all we’d found?
Somehow, while grading to create and shape a place for our house and yard from the sloped lot, that tractor had failed to move quite enough earth. It had been left to me to uncover this mystery. I found all this to be more than a little remarkable. Especially since the cavern had lain dormant, sealed in our own back yard, never offering a clue regarding its existence. Even more remarkable was their suggestion that the eventual museum exhibit contain our name as founder/discoverer.
We’re famous, I told myself, as I stood there with my neighbor and leaned on the polished oak wood handle of my gift, my engraved, gold bladed shovel.
I also now admitted to myself that I wouldn’t be planting that tree where I had planned.
See more poems by The_Pip2
View this poem
Comment on this poem