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Authors: Jennifer Bradbury

River Runs Deep

BOOK: River Runs Deep
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TO THE EXPLORERS, GUIDES, AND STORYTELLERS OF MAMMOTH CAVE—PAST AND PRESENT

—J. B.

From the history of the patient Elias Jefferson Harrigan, age twelve years

December 30, 1842

H
ave agreed to admit my youngest patient yet. Though I resisted his mother's first three appeals to send him to me, like the widow in scripture she persisted, and I relented. His age is most concerning. How a lad from the open spaces of the Virginia coastline will tolerate the rigor of confinement underground . . . I cannot tell. Nonetheless, we have a hut that has recently been vacated, and an empty bed is a great drain on the spirits of my other charges. Further, if I am to find a cure for the blasted disease, I must have as many patients as possible to help me discover the right course of treatment. But perhaps his arrival will lift spirits all around. And perhaps his youth will prove a boon to his recovery.

Perhaps.

January 10, 1843

The boy arrived yesterday. He is frightfully small for his age, and had he not come so far—a week's journey all told down rivers and by stagecoach from Norfolk to our doorstep—I might have sent him home immediately. I suspected his mother had deceived me regarding his age, but inspection of his teeth and the eruption of his large molars convinced me otherwise. How his stature might bear out on his treatment remains to be seen. I suppose the phthisis has already taken its toll, slowing or even reversing his growth.

His size is not my only concern. My man Stephen Bishop has remarked on the boy's low spirits. Upon arrival, my other patients seemed to forget briefly why they came. The first glimpse of the gaping entrance of Mammoth Cave seems to crowd out the worry—the worry of carrying so virulent a disease, the worry of subjecting oneself to so dark and alien an environment. But Stephen reported that the boy remained stony-faced, steadfast in his gloom despite my best guide's attempts to impress him with the grand peculiarity of our extraordinary cave.

This report worries me even more. If the boy is so resigned as to be unmoved by the beauty and mystery of this place, is he beyond the reach of my science?

January 15, 1843

Elias has no trouble resting, though it may be that he is still recovering from his journey. He has little appetite, though whether a symptom of the disease or a response to his prescribed diet, I cannot yet determine. Hope to see slight improvements in his respirations and coloring within a week. Am less hopeful regarding his temperament. He endures his treatments so listlessly. The nurses report he spends most all his days lying abed, fiddling with ropes, reading the same books over and over, or writing letters home. He has made minimal effort to befriend Nedra or Mr. Pennyrile in the huts nearest his.

I fear I have made a grave error. The cave vapors can restore the flesh, but the boy's spirit remains weak. The spirit is ever the battleground.

Chapter One
MONKEY'S FIST

T
he fire popped behind the grate of the little stove, startling Elias awake. He reached over to scratch Charger's neck, but of course, not finding the dog there, opened his eyes and remembered where he was. The room was similar enough to his own back in Norfolk. There was a bed topped with a faded patchwork quilt. A braided rag rug covered most of the floor. A table and chair sat tucked into another corner, Elias's writing paper stacked on top, edges curling in the damp air. On the opposite wall hung a set of rough shelves holding a framed portrait of his family, his extra clothes and boots, as well as the razor and strap he'd brought along but would never need.

Above his bed was the window, just like his room at home. In Virginia the sun would stream in each morning with the call of shorebirds to tell Elias the day had begun.

But not here.

The sun never shone through this window.

How could it, when it was underground?

He sat up, tried to clear his throat, but fell to coughing instead. The spell was a short one, but all the same he was almost tired enough by the end that he was tempted to lie back down. Instead, he forced a swallow from the cup of water by his bed and grabbed the pencil off the table. He turned to the flat section of the wall above his bed and counted the hash marks there before adding one more. Nineteen. Had it been only nineteen days? He couldn't be certain without the rhythms of a day to confirm it.

Still, nearly three weeks he'd been inside the cave. Three weeks of nothing but rest and waiting and reading and thinking inside this little hut, with its walls made of puzzled-together stone, its curtain hung across the doorway for privacy, the roof open to the ceiling of the cave, vaulting another twenty feet up.

One of the slaves had left Elias's breakfast. Or maybe it was supper after all. There were no clues there, either. The doctor had put him on a strict diet straightaway.

“Eggs and tea,” Dr. Croghan had announced after Elias's first examination, explaining that simplifying the diet would allow the body to concentrate on fighting the disease. Eggs, according to Croghan, were the perfect food, and he boasted that the horehound-dill tea was his own special concoction. The doctor seemed so pleased about it that Elias hadn't the heart to tell him the tea tasted like sucking on a pickle boiled in honey.

It was harder to take than the eggs, but even those grew tiresome shortly. Still, he knew he should be glad. The treatments could be worse. They'd tried all kinds of remedies on his father back in Norfolk before the end. Elias had worried then that the treatments meant to cure his father's lungs might only kill him quicker.

So if Croghan's tea tasted foul and the eggs got old, at least he hadn't worried about the doctor's methods killing him. Yet.

No, the remedies he endured easily enough.

But the boredom he did not.

It was the stillness and the dark and the sameness of it all. Nothing to do but rest, no one to talk to but the slaves who tended him or the doctor who saw him every day. The doctor had encouraged him to visit with his nearest neighbors. The section of the cave where his hut sat was a good-size chamber, though not so big as some of the rooms he'd passed through on the way down. Two huts sat on the other side of a little courtyard, some forty yards away from his. Between them sat a sort of nurses' station—a large fire ring, kettles, boxes of supplies, and provisions arrayed around whatever slave was on duty at the moment.

At first Elias had been keen to know the pretty lady with the golden hair in one of the far huts. Nedra. But not anymore. He visited with her once in a while, but the way he might have with a shut-in back home, or an old relation he was obliged to call on but couldn't wait to leave as soon as he'd arrived.

And that made him feel even worse.

The hut next to hers was more of a mystery. Elias spent a fair amount of time watching Pennyrile's cabin. He'd glimpsed the man only rarely and never saw him clearly or for long, as Pennyrile shut the curtain quick if Elias looked his way. He kept silent in there, not speaking even to Dr. Croghan or the slaves. But there were noises from inside, noises that spooked Elias. Cooing and warbling and flapping. The sounds of pigeons.

Pigeons. Down in a cave of all places.

Elias's curiosity still hadn't gotten ahold of him enough to find out why Pennyrile kept birds, or why Pennyrile was so secretive.

He'd written two letters home, filled with the kinds of things he felt he ought to say—that he was obeying the doctor, that the cave was interesting, that he missed his mother, grandmother, and sister. He'd received three letters from Virginia that he'd read until the pages had worn thin.

But there had been no new letter for a week, and the silence made it easy to slip into a sort of gloom, the kind where he almost let himself believe Mama and Granny and Tillie had given up on him, had sent him away to get rid of him. That
that
was the reason he didn't hear from them more.

He'd felt it at home some, when his friends stopped coming. Before sending him to Kentucky, his mother laid him up on the sleeping porch where Gideon and Harold would stop by once in a while, lingering on the steps, biding a few minutes with him. But eventually they took to only waving as they passed the hedgerow, and not long after, they quit passing by the house at all.

Elias tried not to hate them for forgetting him before he'd even died. But it was hard.

Tying knots helped some; reading helped less. The book of poetry he'd borrowed from Nedra was a disappointment. The knights were barely in any of the poems, and there were no battles or magic, at least not in any he'd discovered yet. But he'd gone and swapped with her for his copy of
The Death of Arthur
, so it was all he had for now.

He reread a longish poem that Nedra had dog-eared. At least this one had Lancelot. None of the rest made much sense to him, though he liked the way the words felt when he whispered them to himself as he read, keeping time like bells on a horse's harness.

But in her web she still delights

To weave the mirror's magic sights,

For often thro' the silent nights

A funeral, with plumes and lights

And music, went to Camelot:

Or when the moon was overhead,

Came two young lovers lately wed;

“I am half-sick of shadows,” said

The Lady of Shalott.

That part—the bit about being sick of shadows—he understood fine. He was sick of weak candlelight, too. Not to mention eggs without bacon or a hunk of bread.

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