Swallowed Whole

April 23

We file into the cave of La Pileta through a hole no larger than a hobbit’s front door. Then the guide swings the iron gate shut, slides home the bolt, and locks us in. The entry cavern is smooth and echoing as the inside of a giant’s skull. At the hollow of his temples, our lantern light runs out. Light shapes the darkness, polishing its edges to make the stone glow like bone.

Stone pendulums hang from the arched ceiling of the tunnel, and as we pass beneath them, it is as if we are sliding past the tonsils and down the giant’s throat. The walls of the cave are pocketed with folds so organic they could be skin. What strange organs pump here, folded into the mountain’s cavernous belly?

The path winds between the giant’s ribs: the stooping columns of calcite that stretch from ceiling to floor. The giant is still growing. Every drop of water that trickles down these speleothems deposits another grain of calcite on the budding column. A spine of bony stalactites glistens along the ceiling. In the next chamber, the cave wall is a waterfall of stalactites, some as thick as tibia, others fine as finger bones. A whisper of color tints the cascading speleothems: rumors of iron oxide and copper leave the stalactites blushing in hushed shades of ochre and periwinkle.

The alcoves are heaped with bones and pottery shards. Against the black and cinnamon earthenware, the bones glow. Some of the ghosts here are 32,000 years old. A single human vertebra catches my eye. It looks like a lost ring, waiting for an accidental thief to pad by and tuck it in his inner pocket.

In the caverns, the air is cool and dewy as midsummer mornings. The cave has no smell, yet there is a thickening of the air, as if we walk through damp gossamer or a melancholy ether.

The first cave paintings look like juvenile graffiti. With handfuls of animal fat emulsified in iron oxide or charcoal, the audacious artist smeared her signature in vermillion and plum. The lines are too broken to hold meaning. Sense sifts through the cracks, emptying the painting.

However, just a few meters and a few millennia away, a painted horse canters from an alcove. The length of a rider’s whip, she has a carmine coat and proportions as perfect as a Da Vinci. Her lines are graceful as the running wind, almost as if she were blown here by a wild gale.

In the horse’s cavern, the wall is a filigree of stalactites. In indigo and violet, they could be a tracery of live veins. In the neighboring cavern, a saffron horse wafts across the wall, lithe as her scarlet sister. The ceiling of her cave is hung with chandeliers of bony stalactites. A bat flirts through the spindly chandeliers. The bat shrieks, keening like unoiled hinges. Then she whips away past walls smooth as skin. The walls are stained lavender and amber, as if bruised to the bone.

The cave has swallowed a whole carnival of animals. Bearded billy goats, lumbering bulls, gaping fish, a seal, and even a lynx have washed up on the walls of the cave. A hunter crouches under an overhang, his bow drawn. The paintings litter the alcoves like so much flotsam, kindling vermillion in the light of our lanterns.

A shallow pool clear as dew fills the basin of a deep cavern. As our lanterns swing by, rippling reflections splash across the walls in dizzying rings. Under the shower of hypnotic ripples, the wall’s stripes of iron and copper flex like the skin of some primeval wildcat waking from the longest nap.

Where our ancestors huddled round their fires for light and stories, the walls are steeped black with soot. As the pack of lanterns bobs away, I hold my mother back and ask her to raise her lamp. There. The stone wall is a galaxy of crystals, pinpricks of starlight embroidering the darkness.

‘Iron pyrite,’ my mother whispers.

From the ceiling hang long folds of stone, like a collection of scalps drying by the dozen. They come in every human color: alabaster, amber, copper, saffron, bronze, mahogany, and sable. The cave is a living organism. Where a hand once brushed the stone, decalcification has spread across the wall like a cancer, stunting the speleothems and chewing up the paintings. I have been the architect of many caves, constructing chambers for my fiction, but my fictional caverns were lifeless scaffolds of calcite. The caves of La Pileta are flesh and bone. They are protagonists with cool breath and stories all their own.

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