Lost Creek Cave
First, travel east seventy-plus miles from my home,
then wait for the telltale fog to rise from the banks
of the Caney Fork which snakes beneath I-40
six times in six miles. Turn south. Follow the Kill Calf tributary
to a town so small one year it’s called Star City—
Three Eagles’ Crossing the next.
Now travel ten years into the past. Track the coos
of mourning doves you once believed were owls
retired in the transom of the mulberry treetops.
Listen, hand cupped to ear, for the scamper of squirrels
up the pale-necked sycamores. Look east for the sun
as it releases its ballast to rise above the pines:
helix snails feelering from the underside of dawn
and the talons of nightstalkers clicking shut as field mice
and voles squabble for seed, the basin of the Star City Sink
dished like a crater in the dense landscape.
Shade your eyes and you’ll find us: John and my father,
best friends, and Peter and me, side by side
before the crooked black spiracle of the cave, a gold disc
of light strapped to my forehead as the dim blue vein
of Lost Creek cascades from the rim at our backs,
scoops from the Tennessee bedrock the swimming hole
we dogpaddled those summers despite the inward tug
of its waters—Lost Creek slipping those secret
causeways into the earth.
My father’s telling consults the map, one of many
he framed to the kitchen’s sheetrock with strips of trim
and a few tacking nails: Tennessee a parallelogram,
Mill Creek and the Little Harpeth and all the other
trout streams we anglered felt-tipped to wrinkled paper,
an X scrawled to note the highest peak of the Smokeys,
Lost Creek Cave a circle drawn in my father’s hand
to the dead center of White County, there beneath,
where water stands in pools so clear it seems suitable
only for the holy, there beneath where miles of rimpools
are sculpted by earthdrip and acres of onyx branch down
from low ceilings, our only light the quicksilver beams
of our halogens as we belly these opaline flows of stone—
hands and knees along these chines and sluices,
grooves in rock like whorls worked into wood.
This is a story we tell together, father and son,
most recently at my sister’s wedding where I watched
him walk her down the aisle we fashioned
from borrowed folding chairs in her backyard,
the two of us in her kitchen a little bit later and a little bit drunk
as my father conjured Lost Creek Cave before us,
Which curves beneath itself
like a ram’s horn,
he says, drawing the spiral of a corkscrew in mid-air,
the cave’s perfect center now balanced on my father’s fingertip
where a silver sheet of water spills from the stone firmament
like rain through a buckshot tin roof, and where John, Peter,
my father and I, one by one approached that dark waterfall,
our reflections fluttering like hummingbird wings in its waters—
Each of us seeking from that blackness another self?
Each of us a beacon?
Each of us a gold nimbus of fire?
Now it seems obvious to my father:
the cave bats tucked into the heights, driftwood the size of caskets
smoothed down to their alluvials, countless skulls
of wild boar and deer antlers scattered like offerings
on high shelves of stone.
But how we could have known three storms
met that afternoon above White County, I do not know.
There is something within us, I say,
Some other sense, my father adds,
when wriggling miles deep through a squeeze in the cave,
my headlamp blinked out and everything went quiet.
Fumbling with my lighter, it was as though I’d dropped
into the hollow skirt of a bell. The earth thumping its chest
like the first shovelfuls of soil on a grave, I was thrust into the sparklight
of steel and white gas, thumb singed by the spool of burning flint,
and I heard a sound like the sound of stone against stone,
a rush like diving off a lake dock in the middle of the night,
a sound like the sound of all the old laws flooding back,
the tablets drug by some mute creature across the cave bottom—
each chiseled syllable of God tapping out its code into stone as I,
scrambling backward through the crawlspace, felt along mica grooves
and instinct back through the squeeze through the dark
until, finally, I found them, John, Peter, and my father side
by side on a ledge overlooking the cave’s main passage: the crest
and curve of whitewater rapids blocking the way home.
But why would you do this? my uncle asks,
this the story of my father’s near-second death by water.
Why this life not a life without death’s clang
from time to time between the ears?
No one knows what holds the balances:
why our children don’t float too deep into their dreams,
why the Mississippi floods each spring to feed the farmlands,
why drawbridges don’t collapse more often on the bows of motherships.
Who is it out there
twirling the earth like a basketball on a fingertip?
This time there is no darkness.
This time we’re in my sister’s kitchen, the redolence
of coffee drifting by in dust motes. This time
our lives are certain— no echo, no water— just my father and me
surrounded by family and wedding guests: my sister
in her beaded gown, he in his fitted tux. This time
the late May sun slants through my sister’s kitchen windows
and splashes across us in glazed right angles of light,
and it’s just my father and me who link arms
and step out into the flooded cave passage
and are swept upward and back by the surge,
my father indicating the water’s height with the edge of his palm
at times as high as his chest, me leaning forward like a sprinter
sprung from the blocks— this a story
I dare not tell without my father, fearful
we’ll be sucked back into that earth and will slip back
into that place of black water, of siege and surge, of echo
echo echo— fearful that this time, disoriented,
we’ll allow that rare river to tow us back to the waterfall
which will part its curtains before us,
and before we have a chance to consider the shadows of trout
at rest in eaves of water cypress— silhouettes of hawks adrift
in thermal drafts of wind, samara seeds coptering down
from their limbs to gather overnight before the stoop—
before we have the chance to consider our wives,
before we have a chance to consider our first loves, our yet-
to-be-born, this time we’ll see our doubles, our dreamselves
just beyond: John, Peter, my father, and I gesturing Come,
Come as we march forward, linked at the arms like metal links of chain,
my father shuffling to keep his footing, and me crying out
Keep moving! Keep moving!
this the only sound above the rip of rapids
as we become lost forever in those dark wakes.
My father’s favorite part of the story is how,
when light finally broke around a bend in the cave,
he turned to look at me and saw me for the first time.
Sometimes I wonder if we’re not still there: John, Peter,
my father and me: waterlogged, exhausted, jubilant,
the flooded cave entrance a whisper at our backs.
Peter, my best friend who I met on the front steps
of kindergarten, Peter, my best man, nearly homeless
on his 23rd birthday. Peter who now has a child.
Jon, whose hair turned brown to silver by the age of 30.
Jon whose daughter leapt ten years ago from a building.
My father who plants a garden each spring: tomatoes,
a row of basil, greens, three for corn, green pole beans
planted at their feet to scale sunward the yellow-and-white
cobbed stalks. My father who edges closer to his last days.
And I who ask you to take my hand like the seeds I poured
from their paper pouch and tucked in rows into April’s
slowly warming matter. I who promise to protect you,
to bring you out if you will promise to enter, Lost Creek Cave
a serpentine of water streaming in from the North
like a string trailing after its balloon battered in the wind.
Put this poem down, I ask.
Let it float like an arc on sleeping waters.
Stand up. Close your eyes. Take a step forward.
Imagine you are walking through water.
You claim this is your earliest memory: the day
they brought me home, head matted with doll’s hair, eyes
puckered against the light of the new world— you,
my sister, and they, our mother and father,
baptized in the weeks following birth, touched,
they say, by mercy. Unforgiven, I tutored myself in the ways
of sacrament, slipping through neighbors’ windows,
curious which gods or devils would rise
from the basement foundations, or palming
from our father’s dresser the .22 rifle rounds
I claw-hammered open to powder the bomb that panged
the tree-frogged dark into silence. Perhaps
it was sleeplessness, perhaps it was the romance of streetlights:
folding my nightclothes neatly on the bed, I slinked alley
to alley, a pale specter just visible beyond the oak-line.
Now, just home for the holidays, when my breath mists
my bedroom window, a fog blossoms across the garden
wild with sumac and turkey claw grass— this the story
wild with sumac and turkey claw grass— this the story
of my beginning, that fabled heat radiating down
from the July sun, a snicker of sunlight between the bodies
of my makers— this the story of my conception
and I seeking some way to tell it. So why not
somewhere down in the garden by the alley we grew up on?
Why not our mother and father coupling
in a row of tasseled corn, the human fires
rising between them? When we talk about my first days,
you remember you refused to leave my side,
curled beneath my crib like a nautilus
sent singing from the waves to rock me in the arms
of my first earthly sleep. If only I could sing
the songs you sang to me then. If only I could sing
them here, twisting in the iridescent turns
of the Siamese fighting fish in its scummed fishbowl.
O sister of earth, O sister of night, let’s stay awhile,
roosted in this hereplace deep in the body of our makers.
O sister of vesper, O sister of shadow, I still believe
it was you who instructed me in the ways of waiting
to be born, you who told me Child, fear not, harsh truths
are first translated into whispers. You who said Child, call out
if ever you are lost and we will call back, so I dropped,
wailing as I came from the house of all souls.