Authors: Jennifer Bradbury
“You solid there?” Stephen hollered up.
“Yeah,” Elias said, breathless.
“Get ahold of the little rope!”
Elias inched forward a little more and found that the chamber widened. He gathered his knees under his chest and crouched, jiggling the rope at his waist.
“We going to send you a light,” Stephen said.
Elias felt the rope dance in his hand, then heard Stephen call, “Haul it up. Slowly!”
The light came clanking along the rock behind him, tipping sideways as Elias pulled it into the passage. It nearly went out, but somehow the flame held. He inched it along, the tin shrieking against the stone until he could grab the handle.
He brought it in front of him, ready to see the wonders of the cave, and at first he thought he did. A smoothed wall surrounded him, solid floor beneath his knees. But then he saw that it ended a few feet away, a narrow shaft no wider than a sapling shooting into the rock above him.
A dead end.
“Nothing here,” he called back to Stephen. “Just a chamber and then a hole in the ceiling.”
“How big a hole?” Mat asked.
“Four or five inches!” Elias shouted back.
Elias heard Mat swear. Stephen groaned. “You sure?” Mat asked. “You check the whole space? Sometimes the path dips down. No way under the walls?”
Elias crawled to the edges of the little dome. They were uneven, deeper in some spots than others, but solid enough. He hated the feeling of having let them down, but there was nothing for it. “Nah,” he said. “You want me to come on back?”
“Hold on,” Stephen called up.
Elias began to feel the closeness of the space press in on him. He strained to make out the conversation below, but after a minute got tired of waiting and became itchy with the nearness of the walls. He was beginning to crawl out when Stephen shouted up, “Can you write your name?”
Elias screwed up his face. Write his name? “â'Course!”
Then Elias heard the three of them arguing in earnest.
“He's no visitor!” Stephen snapped.
“He ain't one of us, neither!” Mat hissed. “Don't you let him.”
“Not like anyone gonna see it in there, anyhow,” Elias heard Nick mumble, but he couldn't tell from his tone whose side he was arguing for. Still, it seemed to win the day.
“Never mind,” Stephen called to Elias, “come on back out.”
Elias sent the light back first, then reversed himself through the passage. His feet dangled out in the air until he felt hands on his ankles, guiding them onto secure spots on the wall.
“You all right?” Stephen untied the knot at Elias's waist. Elias was breathing a little fast, and there was a scrape near his spine that stung like a yellow jacket, but he was fine. Better than fine. He was excited.
“Need me to go someplace else?” he asked, forcing his breathing to slow down. But still only a hint of a wheeze, and not even the ghost of a cough. Maybe it was the goose fat in the poultice, he thought. Granny always used bacon grease. “I mean, you got any other tight spots you need a runt like me to squeeze into?” Nick laughed softly and started coiling the rope. Mat groaned.
“We got a couple of places,” Stephen said, “where we could use a body with a smaller frame.”
Elias grinned. “Let's go!”
Stephen shook his head. “Not tonight. We got business elsewhere.”
“Can I come?”
“I've got to get home,” Mat said. “Soon, I reckon, if we've been here as long I expect we have.”
“And I best get some sleep before I have to get the breakfast on,” Nick added. Until that moment, Elias had almost forgotten that squeezing through crannies and exploring was only part of their work in the cave. They were, he reluctantly reminded himself, slaves, after all. So he shrugged and tried not to let on how badly he didn't want to return to his hut.
Nick passed Elias a waterskin with a stopper tied to the neck. “Drink up,” he said. Elias did exactly that, thirsty from the hustle down there and from shimmying himself through the hole. The water was cool and slid down his throat like chipped ice, leaving a hint of a taste in his mouth that reminded him of sucking on a penny.
He took another drink and offered the bag back to Nick. “Tastes funny,” he said.
Mat shot Nick a look. “Nick?”
Nick spat. “Maybe the bag needs rinsed.”
“Bishop?” Mat was anxious.
“It's all right, Mat,” Stephen said, though he was watching Elias with interest as well. “It won't hurt anything.”
Stephen squatted and opened his pack. Elias saw another coil of rope, another jar of water, the drill he'd shown him that day at the pit, and an extra little phial of fuel for the lantern.
But under all those things were books.
Three that Elias could see. Three tattered primers, like ones he might have read when he first started learning how.
It didn't figure to Elias. Stephen could read. He'd even heard him talking with Nedra about the Lancelot poem, and it sounded like he understood it better than Elias did by a country mile. For Nick or Mat maybe? But why haul them all the way down into the cave? Why weigh down a pack? It didn't figure at all.
Elias started to ask about it, but Stephen drew out that notebook Elias saw him with the other night. He flipped to the middle, where a map covered both pages. “You said it ends just inside?”
“About six feet across on the floor”âElias gestured with his handsâ“like a little dugout.”
Stephen moved his finger expertly across a route that resembled a stream branching off the main path that Elias guessed marked the passageway where his hut sat. Stephen traced the tip of his pencil down the line to a mark so small, it looked like a mistake on the page, a stray stroke that wasn't meant to be there at all. He wrote a tiny number
next to the spot.
“What's the number for?” Elias asked. Stephen thumbed ahead in the book, and Elias saw all the pages were numbered. Seventy-seven was blank. “Reference,” Stephen said, holding the notebook up, where Elias saw a likeness of the wall he'd just climbed represented in considerable detail. The cleft he'd shimmied through was a black hole of hash marks. Stephen wrote in careful letters:
passage ends six feet from opening. Dome.
He flipped back to the map in the center of the book and studied it for a few seconds, tracing his finger south along the path they were on.
Elias found it more and more like staring at the charts his daddy used to figure out which routes to send his loads of cargo. On those, the lanes would bend around shoals or islands, wide berths to keep the ships from grounding themselves on the shallows. Elias noticed that this map had something like that too. A space near the southeast corner where the routes seemed to bend around something impassable.
“What's that?” he asked, pointing at the spot on the map.
Stephen looked up at him sharply. “What?”
“That spot,” Elias said, “where nothing goes through. Is that the pit?”
Stephen smiled, but it wasn't a friendly smile this time. “Just a piece we haven't been in much yet.” He moved his hand along the map to the north. “Pit's right here.”
Elias scratched his head. “Why ain't you been in there?” He wondered if maybe they'd paint sea monsters and leviathans on there, like the old sailors used to on places they hadn't been.
Nick and Mat exchanged looks over Stephen's head. “You want me to take him back now when I go?” Mat said, his voice louder than necessary.
“I want to stay. I ain't tired, I swear. Been lying around that hut all day. And I'm not even wheezing muchâ”
Nick sucked on his teeth. “I got to git,” he said.
“I have the tour tomorrow and something to do before then,” Stephen said.
“C'mon, just show me someâ” Elias began, desperate not to go back to the quiet of his hut.
“No,” Stephen said firmly. “Now go on back with Mat, and don't bother me about it or we won't bring you out again.”
Elias started to argue. How dare they talk to him like that! But the threat of not getting out with them tomorrow was enough to make him hold his tongue.
ou need anything?” Lillian asked.
Elias shook his head and tapped the paper with a pencil.
“I'll be back before too long,” she said. “Just going over to Hannah's to fetch some soap.” Lillian had just changed the turban she wore, two braids thick as cables trailing down her shoulders.
“I'll stay put,” Elias promised.
“If Miss Nedra need somethingâ”
“I'll run over,” Elias said.
Lillian hesitated. “You sure you won't wander off?”
Elias held up the paper. “This'll keep me anchored.”
Satisfied, Lillian went, leaving Elias to his letter.
He found he didn't have the right words. He wanted to write about his adventures of a few nights back, scaling the wall, cramming himself into the hole. Or about Nick's kindness, how his tobacco smelled like Daddy's had, or even Mat's surliness. Most of all, he wanted to write about how unusual Stephen Bishop was, about his maps and his writing and reading, how Elias found him a bit too proud for his own good, but at the same time found the man had plenty to be proud of. He admired him. But Mother and Granny wouldn't have understood, may have even been alarmed at it. Maybe if he wrote and just didn't tell them Stephen was black, he thought? But to what end? And why did it matter to him?
He settled on telling them he'd taken on Bedivere as a pet, leaving out all but the most necessary details on how he came to have him.
An interesting fellow here keeps birds and gave me one to look after.
If it left a lot out, he reckoned it was for his family's own good. Even a pigeon alone might give Granny cause to complain. Then he filled a page with a description of the doctor's poultice, and added a paragraph regarding the news that Croghan was kin to William Clark. He was just beginning to assure them he was getting better, working up to suggesting that they might bring him home soon, when he felt himself being watched again.
“Hey,” he heard a voice whisper from the window.
Not a voice.
Elias glanced up. His heartbeat kicked into a canter, but he wouldn't be made a fool of again. Not this time. “I ain't talking to you.”
“Are so,” the voice came back. “You jes' did.”
Elias glared at the window, tried to make out the eyes, but couldn't see them there this time. “I mean, I'm done with you. Not gonna chase you or talk to you or think on you no more.”
“â'Cause you got me in trouble with Stephen is why. I don't know who you are, or how you go round the cave like that, but he didn't believe me I was following anybody. And they took me out not long ago and I aim to get a chance to go out again, but something tells me you'll muck that up if I let you. So, whoever you are, if I don't pay you any mind, you'll leave me alone.”
Just when it was quiet enough for Elias to wonder if the voice were gone, came this: “I brought you something.” A hand emerged from the darkness. Elias saw it for only a second as it dropped something through the window. But he saw enough to tell that whoever was on the other side was a Negro.
In spite of his promise to ignore the voice, Elias abandoned his letter and picked up the dropped something. Bedivere hopped over to inspect the offering.
Elias unwrapped a scrap of blue cloth to find a cube of salt pork, about two inches square. It was already cooked, the grease of it spotting the fabric, the edges crisped brown. Elias's mouth watered just at the sight of it. He lifted it to his nose, smelled the salty, fatty deliciousness of it, and his stomach flipped itself over in expectation. He couldn't remember the last time he'd truly felt hungry, truly wanted to eat something. Maybe it was because it wasn't what he'd been forcing himself to eat for weeks. Or maybe the hint of his appetite returning meant he was getting better.
“Thought you might be liking something besides eggs and tea,” the voice said.
Elias would have liked nothing better, but he forced himself to wrap the food back up and place it on the windowsill. “Can't eat it,” Elias said firmly, returning to his letter. “Doctor's orders.” Oh, how he wanted to gulp it down. In truth, it was only half out of fidelity to the doctor's remedy that he didn't. The other half couldn't let this voice, this pest, make amends just by giving Elias a treat and making him forget how he'd led him off in the dark and made him look a fool.
The gift disappeared back into the darkness. “How come you ain't tell the doctor about me?”
“Who says I didn't?” Elias scribbled in the margin of the letter.
“â'Cause you didn't.”
Elias wondered how often this person was listening at his window. “Look, if you want to sneak about and get yourself whipped for bothering me and snitching food, that's your hide. But I don't fink on nobody, no matter who they are.”
“That's big of you.”
Elias didn't care if it was or not. He concentrated on his letter.
I am stronger, the doctor thinks,
Maybe in a few more weeks I canâ
“Who you writin' at?”
Elias fumed but answered anyway. “My family.”
“Virginia,” Elias said. “Clear to the coast.”
The voice whistled softly. “Your folk sent you all the way over here? Just to eat some eggs and lie round and get some doctoring?”
“It weren't like that!” Elias hissed, but he was having a harder and harder time convincing himself that it wasn't. He pretended to be keen to come, keen to see some of the wilds of Kentucky, to see a cave so big and ancient it was named after the mammoths that died out long ago.