The cave remembers. More than remembers, the cave sees far past the surface under which she sleeps. Her tributaries of tunnels, like hollow fingers, spread underground for hundreds of miles. They touch acre after acre, town after town, and county after county. As if she is a single, enormous mass of substance, top indistinguishable from bottom, her fingers are also her eyes. Each vein of tunnel that yawns open to the world above is an eye, and her thousands of eyes keep watch on the families who grow and the dynasties that die off above her.
The cave remembers the moments we have experienced before and sees the moments we will inevitably return to again in a hundred or maybe five hundred years. People change on the surface but always come back around. As the surface changes, the cave does not. She remains solid, her caverns hollow but permanent, ancient. She keeps watch for the people who need her and remembers for the people who don’t. They will always need her, she believes. She spreads her arms, her tunnels, to those who seek refuge in the dark.
She is there even when they leave her for those dirtier, manmade caves whose essence clogs the lungs of the people she has worked so hard to protect.
Fear clenches her. How could they leave? She holds her breath, her veins winding and unwinding beneath the earth as she waits, determined to be here when they realize their mistake. Her caverns will be open for them, always welcoming. When her people inevitably return, her ever-expanding tunnels will reach out and encircle them as they once again find their roots in the darkness. These arms will envelop them whole, the world will resume spinning, and the cave will finally let loose that breath and sigh.
Dixie propped her hip against the rotting wood bannister of their porch’s railing and watched Boone disappear through the front door only to emerge again with yet another bag.
“Good Lord, you’re not going to war,” she said when he bounded across the porch again, the screen door clattering shut behind him. The late August air was still hanging on to summer’s mugginess, and Dixie could feel a bead of sweat collecting in her cupid’s bow.
Boone shot her a smile as he dropped a large brown paper sack—full of cornbread for the road, courtesy of Nan—into the growing pile of stuff on the gravel drive. His waves of black hair stuck to his forehead in the heat. “I won’t see you until Thanksgiving, girl,” he called up to her. “And who knows what kind of food they’ve got around those camps. Probably tastes like piss—”
“Watch your mouth,” Nan spat, appearing in the doorway, an apron over her overalls.
Dixie eyed her mother, who was always referred to as “Nan,” even though her name was not any variation of the kind. Boone had cursed profusely in front of Dixie since they were newly teenagers, and Dixie didn’t pay it any mind. What Dixie didn’t like was the way Boone called those towns “camps.” Camps sounded … involuntary. They were more mining towns. There would be general stores, and Boone would be living with his friend Rhett, who had graduated with him this past spring. He would be a few hours’ drive away, but he would be living just fine.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Boone said, taking the porch steps two at a time. At eighteen, Boone was only a little more than a year older than Dixie. He leaned over and gave their mother a kiss on the cheek. Well, Dixie’s mother. His own mother had been gone since childbirth, and when his father died in Vietnam in sixty-five, Boone had only been thirteen. Glasgow, Kentucky was a tiny town where people shared food, gossip, and prayers. In a town that small, they also shared children. There was no question that the poor, orphaned boy would be taken in by a neighboring family. The only question was who. Her own husband taken by the war, Nan had the dinner table set for three before she had even asked Boone if he wanted to stay.
And stay he did. From twelve years old, Dixie had grown up with Boone, the boy constantly hovering between a kind of brother to her or simply an extended guest. They looked nothing alike, which was, of course, the first thing new and nosey neighbors liked to point out before they heard the full story of how Boone came to live with her and Nan. Dixie had Nan’s fair hair and floury skin, while Boone’s dark hair and eyes swam against warm skin.
Regardless of how Boone fit into Dixie’s family, he fit all the same. This made it hard to let him leave now.
Dixie crossed her arms as Boone and Nan watched the single-lane road at the bottom of the hill where their farm’s property ended. Rhett would be here any minute. Boone’s own ride sat in the grass on the side of the drive, newly washed but only an afterthought. He had purchased the used ’66 Chevrolet Chevelle the summer he was sixteen, after having saved up cash from working at the auto shop in downtown Glasgow. The boys had decided to take Rhett’s beat-up pickup; coal-infused air couldn’t hurt the junky thing, and since they’d be living in a town that was in the stack shadow of the mines, it would do them no good to bring something with them that was any kind of nice.
“You got enough food?” Nan asked, her words clipped. If she was at all affected by Boone’s leaving, she would throw her emotions into work around the farm or cooking. The kitchen became a warzone when Nan was determined to put her mind off something. She had not supported Boone’s decision to work in the mines from the beginning.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Boon repeated.
Nan nodded, patted his cheek, and went back into the house. Dixie could hear the rich clanging of a cast iron skillet through the mesh of the screen door.
Boone edged up closer to Dixie, his movements tentative, as if trying to feel her out. “You still mad?” he asked.
Dixie pursed her lips. “You could’ve stayed here. Worked in Glasgow.”
“The mines pay better.”
“’Cause people die in those caves.”
“Nan can’t hold onto the farm much longer, you know this. Now c’mon, you’re too intelligent to sulk.”
Her lips quirked at this. He was always a flatterer. It had to be because his dark hair made him look like Elvis. That gave him all the confidence in the world. “You’re going to miss my birthday next week,” she said, a last effort to sway him.
Boone saw right through her. “When I get back, I want to read your college essays. You hear? I want to see progress.”
“As if you can spell for shit.” They both cracked up at this, just as Rhett’s pickup pulled into the drive. Dixie could hear the King playing on the radio all the way from the porch. As Rhett pulled up, Boone dug in his jeans pocket and pulled out the keys to his Chevy.
“Here,” he said, tucking them into Dixie’s own front pocket while her arms remained crossed. “Take care of my car, yeah? No joy rides.” Before she could protest, he leaned in, his eyes glancing toward the kitchen window. “Sell it if you need to.”
Overcome with the sudden responsibility, Dixie could only nod, her tongue numb.
“Now don’t miss me too much,” he said, grinning.
“I’m not going to miss you,” she finally managed. “Don’t let the caves swallow you up.”
This only made his smile grow. “I swear you sprout a freckle every time you lie, Dixie Cup.” His smile disappeared then and he leaned forward. His lips found her cheek and stayed there a long second that made her stomach flip. When he pulled back, something had changed in his expression but she didn’t get the chance to hunt it out before he bounded down the front steps, leaving her alone on the porch.
The cave’s oldest children were the indigenous peoples. They found her thousands of years ago, and even back then, she was already ancient. But this was the first time she saw light.
They carried their cane plant torches and filled her meandering tunnels with heat and life. Their bare feet padded against the rough stone of her insides, gripping the jagged paths with calloused soles. They only touched the first layer of her skin, only explored dozens of miles even though she had hundreds more to show them. Nevertheless, this was the moment she ceased to be alone under the earth. Finally, other heartbeats thrummed against the backdrop of her own.
They came for her minerals. Perhaps for medicine, the cave didn’t really care. She was just happy to provide something after millennia of silence. They took her gypsum, her mirabilite, and her epsomite. She had plenty, and wanted to share with these people her history and all she had seen and all she had remembered. Finally, here were ears her winds and underground rivers could whisper to.
She was their protector, and kept them neither cold nor hot with her temperate air. The copper flames of their torchlights illuminated her walls better than the harsh, white lights that would come later in those other, manmade caves of soot and death. It was as if these Native peoples understood her and had struck a deal: in turn for her protection against the harsh weather above, they would be kind to her and listen to her stories. She kept the artifacts they left behind, preserved these objects just as these peoples had taken care to preserve her.
She felt herself grow proud with purpose when they used her cool temperatures for burial preparation. These ceremonies of mortality left her feeling determined to preserve these bodies as she had preserved their objects. So she opened her long tunnels of arms, the veins of her being, and enveloped these peoples. When they hopped between the surface and the underground, still she kept her arms open. And when these people returned to her for the last time, their bodies stiff and cold and ready for the earth, she welcomed them as she always had, and took them into her embrace and sighed.
Boone returned the night before Thanksgiving. He snuck in like a ghost. Dixie was already in bed, but she awoke from her drowsiness the moment she heard his voice as he greeted Nan, who apparently knew he was coming and had waited up for him.
Any bitterness she felt at having not been told he was coming back so soon disappeared under a healthy flow of excitement. Boone was back! Things would be normal, if only for the few days he had off for the holiday. She hoped he would have Christmas off, too. When they were younger and she was still holding onto the idea of Santa Claus, Boone would sneak out onto the front porch at midnight on Christmas Eve. Softly, just enough for Dixie to hear if her bedroom door was cracked, he would whistle Jingle Bells. It only took her one more Christmas to realize what he was doing, but she didn’t tell him when she figured it out. Even when he knew that she knew, he didn’t stop. It had become one of their rituals.
The moment she heard his voice, she realized how much she had missed the ritual of him, the presence his movements took up in the house. They each had their own small bedroom, attached to each other by a two-sink bathroom. When she finally heard Boone’s tall body drop onto his mattress, she crept into their shared bathroom and knocked softly on his bedroom door.
This was another one of their rituals. When he was still home, she would knock on his door shortly after they had both gone to bed. He would leave the door unlocked and she would slip into his room to find him waiting for her. She would hop onto his single bed and curl against his ribs. Then he would tell her a ghost story before she crawled back into her own bed. Boone’s stories were filled with the spooks he claimed wandered the forests and farms around them, or those that haunted the passages of Mammoth Cave only a few miles to the West.
But this time, the door was locked. Heat crept into her cheeks. She had never felt awkward slipping into his room before, but it was as if a sheet had been pulled from her body in a cold room. Something was different. She went to bed without knocking again.
The next morning, Dixie dropped her stack of college essays on the small round kitchen table before Boone. As he read, she read him.
He was thinner. Nan would have none of that, and already had a big bird in the oven. His deep eyes and black hair were darker, like he had absorbed the coal he worked to mine. It looked as if shadows had attached themselves to his skin, but Dixie could see it was just coal dust that had stuck to the angles and swells of his face. She’d heard him washing in the bathroom that morning, but he’d barely managed to scrape a single layer of soot from his surface.
His appearance didn’t bother her as much, though. Something else had shifted. In the two months since she had seem him, something in him seemed to have given way, and he stared at her college essays as if he wasn’t seeing anything at all.
“Don’t just stare at him like that, Augusta May,” Nan called across the room. “Come help me make this bread.”
Dixie flinched at her Christian name. In the way that Nan was called Nan, Dixie was called Dixie. There was no particular sense to it, it was simply the way things were and the way things would always be. She joined her mother at the counter where a fresh bowl of sticky cornbread batter sat waiting. Nan opened the cabinet by her feet and hauled out the cast iron skillet, a beast of a thing and black as coal, passed down to her from her mother and her mother before that.
Nan motioned for Dixie to come closer. “First, we’ll coat the skillet with oil and get it hot in the oven,” she explained as she tilted the pan this way and that so the oil ran up onto the raised sides. With her accent, oil came out as all. “After it’s set in there a minute, we’ll take it back out and pour the batter in. That way the hot oil makes the surface of the bread good and crispy.”
At Nan’s instruction, Dixie hoisted the skillet off the counter as Nan opened the oven door. The joints in Dixie’s wrists shrieked at the weight. How in the world did Nan haul the thing in and out of the cabinets all day long? Then she noticed the rough texture of the inside of the skillet and she stopped, bracing the weight against her chest.
“Nan, this is dirty. There’s bits of stuff still stuck to it.”
“Of course, girl,” Nan said, surprise on her face. “You don’t really clean it. Not with soap. Just run some water on it when you’re through.”
“You mean you don’t scrape all this shi—all this stuff off?”
“Good Lord, no. The leftover flavors go into the next meal, and the next. It’s the texture of the grit that gives the bread a good crust.”
Dixie looked to Boone for support, but he was engrossed in her essays—or still far off, she couldn’t tell—so she lugged the oiled skillet into the oven. Sometimes Nan made no sense to her. That skillet would just get dirtier and dirtier until it couldn’t hold any residue any longer and it crumbled under its own weight.
That night, Dixie lay awake in her bed. Nan had gone to bed hours ago, and Boone had eventually settled in as well. She didn’t dare try the door to his room tonight. She didn’t know why, exactly, but she had a feeling that if she found the door locked to her a second time, she might crumble right onto the nipple pink tile floor of the bathroom.
Not long after midnight, she heard the bathroom sink running. Boone would be leaving tomorrow and then she would not see him again until Christmas. She made up her mind quick and hopped out of bed. She found him hunched over one of the sinks, scrubbing his veiny hands raw. They looked fine to her, but he was so focused on his task, he didn’t notice she was there until she came up to him and took the bar of soap from his hands.
“I didn’t mean to wake you, girl,” he said softly. She could see now he had missed some crud in the cracks around his thumbnails. “I just … sometimes I think I see the dirt when it’s not there. It’s like it doesn’t come off in my head. I can smell them. The tunnels. It’s like I can’t stop breathing it, like it follows me. I taste it in everything, too.”
“Then don’t go back, idiot,” Dixie whispered.
Boone shook his head and that was that. “I’m sorry I locked the door last night,” he added. “I just wanted to be alone for a stretch. I didn’t have a good story for you, anyhow.” He tried to grin as he said the last part, but it didn’t fill his face the way his smiles usually did.
Dixie didn’t need any type of explanation, and replaced the bar of soap in her hand with a nail file she pulled from a drawer. She grabbed his hand and began carving the dirt out from underneath his nails. He watched her work, inching closer to her every time she gave a tug on one of his fingers.
“Well, tell me a different story,” she eventually said. Her accent came out just like Nan’s when she was nervous or felt small. Well sounded like wool. “Tell me what it’s like down there.”
Boone inhaled a steadying breath and began to tell her about the Eastern Kentucky Coalfields, about his mine, which they called the Hurricane Creek Mine. As he talked, Dixie cleaned his nails and listened, thinking all the while she much preferred the older ghost stories.
In the middle of the 19th century, the cave became sick. She was not prepared for these people and the contagion they promised. But who was she to cast someone out? So she welcomed them, her caverns tall and her tunnels numerous, and shared in their disease.
She remembered when the doctor brought his patients beneath the earth. They thought her air would save them all. Not just save them—cure them. She watched as the doctors and builders scrambled to construct a makeshift stone hospital within her to house their sick. As they built, and as the patients trickled in on unsteady legs or stretchers, the cave could feel the desperation cling to her air the way humidity never had.
The patients could never walk and explore the tunnels she offered them or had the energy to appreciate the rock formations she herself had been building for thousands of years. The patients’ sweat and coughed-up blood and phlegm coated her floors, and for the first time, the cave felt truly helpless. There was nothing she could do except remain consistent. Her constancy was why the patients were here in the first place.
But she failed them. Her air did not work. She could feel each moment a patient slipped away and would not come back. Within months, most were dead and those who were not fled to die on the surface in the sunlight. Perhaps she was not the safe haven she had promised to be, but surely she was better than those other caves that injected their peoples with disease the moment they stepped into the darkness. At least she offered her patients quiet while those others only grabbed onto their humans’ lungs and refused to let go.
Alone again, the cave realized she could not save everyone. But she hoped the people would come back to her, that they had not been scared away by the empty promises of her massive caverns. She would wait, and in the meantime, she stifled a lonely sob with a powerful, wind-filled sigh.
The crumbs on the cast iron peeled off layer by sticky layer under the running faucet as Dixie dragged the flat edge of a spatula across the skillet. She huffed, careful to not scrape off the deeper layers Nan had instructed her to leave. It didn’t quite fit in the kitchen sink on account of its size, so Dixie had to rotate the entire thing every few seconds.
The Christmas dinner she and Nan had prepared waited on the table for them, but the mines had made Boone work today, so Dixie did not see why she had to wrestle the cast iron when the person who enjoyed cornbread the most wouldn’t even be here.
She gave up and shut off the noisy faucet. That’s when she heard it: a soft song hovering on the dense December air. The whistling was coming from the front porch, and it almost sounded like … Jingle Bells. She raced out onto the front porch only to find it empty. Is this what Boone meant in his stories when he claimed Mammoth Cave used its winds to whisper to people and lure them in?
Then hands grabbed her from behind, and she squealed like a newborn piglet as Boone’s fingers mercilessly tickled the soft flesh under her ribs. He only let up when she was out of breath and sprawled across the wood beams of the porch. He grinned down at her, his smile still not as powerful as it used to be before he left for the mines.
“Miss me, Dixie Cup?” he crooned.
“Ass,” she breathed, holding her ribs.
“Language, Augusta May,” Nan said from the doorway. She had come running at the noise. Giving Boone a one-armed hug, her other arm cradling jars of apple butter, Nan ushered them inside. “We were just about to sit down to dinner, so go clean up. And leave your boots on the porch. Don’t be tracking anything into my house.” She said all of this with a chuckle, unable to hide her excitement that Boone had made it home in time. She turned to Dixie. “Get off the ground. It’s Christmas. Act Decent.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Dixie and Boone chorused, exchanging a wry look as Nan disappeared into the house. Just as Boone reached down to pull Dixie to her feet, a rough cough tore through him. He doubled over and stepped away to cough into the soot-covered sleeve of his jacket. Dixie just watched him, unsure what to do. This was not a cough a glass of water or a shot of Jim Beam would fix.
When Boone turned back to her, the hollowness she had seen on his face over Thanksgiving had returned. “Don’t tell Nan,” was all he said.
Hours later, after the cornbread and ham and jam cake were gone, Dixie and Boone sat on the carpet around their small Christmas tree. Wrapping paper debris lay scattered around their legs. They watched the tiny fireplace as they sat, sipping on bourbon. Boone had poured her a miniscule inch from Nan’s liquor cabinet after Nan had retired for a nap. Every so often, Dixie knocked her outstretched foot against Boone’s, and he would knock back.
“When do you have to go back?” she asked quietly.
“Day after tomorrow. Rhett’ll pick me up.”
Two days, Dixie thought. Two nights. Two ghost stories if she was lucky. That was barely any time at all. She didn’t respond, hiding her disappointment in the pressure of her fingers against her glass.
Boone sat up with a sudden jerk. “I’ve got one last present for you,” he said, digging under the torn wrapping paper. He handed her a small paper package, but as she reached for it he pulled it back. “Wait,” he said. “You been good? Did you get all your applications in?”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course I did.”
He gave her the gift. She tore through the paper, trying to ignore the black fingerprints that smudged its surface. Popping the lid off the small box inside, she huffed. It was a literal, sooty, jagged piece of coal.
Boone laughed, an honest to God light in his eyes. Maybe the coal was worth it, Dixie thought, if it made him laugh like that. “For your naughty heart,” he chuckled.
Again, she rolled her eyes.
“Look under it,” he said then. The humor in his look vanished. Dixie set the coal to the side and dug through its tissue paper nest. She pulled out a simple silver chain, and dangling from that chain was a round, bright green stone the size of a peppercorn.
“Peridot,” she whispered. Her birthstone.
“I wanted to get it for you for your birthday, but I was gonna miss it anyway and I didn’t have the cash saved up yet. So Merry Christmas,” Boone said, his breath short, almost like he was nervous but maybe it was just his cough.
Dixie felt her cheeks warm as she twisted on her butt so Boone could drape the necklace around her throat. This gift was not the same as the kind of gifts they had given each other before. The hot blush at her temples only confirmed her body could feel the difference, too. When she turned back around, she found he looked equally caught off guard.
“Where did you get the money for this, Boone?” she asked.
He shook his head and put a finger to his lips.
Dixie scrambled for anything to say. “I made the cornbread this year,” she blurted out. “All by myself.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I would’ve bragged on you all through dinner.”
She shrugged. “I guess in case it tasted like shit.”
The laughter that erupted from Boone had him gasping for air seconds later, his coughs echoing around the silent house.
Later that night, as midnight crept closer, Dixie found herself in the bathroom at Boone’s door. She had listened to him cough for twenty minutes through the walls. She knocked before she tried the knob. The door was unlocked and swung open. Boone sat against the headboard of his bed outside his blankets, clad only in old pajama pants that were now too short on his growing frame. When he noticed her, he scooted over to make space. She padded across the dark room and joined him.
This time, she didn’t curl up against him like she had before. When he was home for Thanksgiving, they had talked in the bathroom before retreating to separate rooms. She had not been next to him on his bed since he left for the mines and now she felt distinctly out of place. But before she knew it, Boone had moved closer to her so his left side was pressed against the entire length of her right.
He began to tell her another ghost story. She fingered her new necklace as she tried to listen, but she could only focus on the heat of his body, the way his hand eventually found hers in the dark and held on. Finally he stopped in the middle of the story and looked right at her.
“I’ve been making more money than I let on,” he said in a low murmur like he was confessing something. “I haven’t been sending everything back to you and Nan. I’ve been saving some of it.”
She could hear his breathing strain in the silence. “For us. I’ll work in the mines while you finish your senior year, and then as soon as you graduate, we’ll take my car and go wherever you end up for school. Then I’ll sell it in the nearest city and we’ll have plenty to live on for a while. I’ll find a job and you can study and … and we’ll just get out of this place before we suffocate down here.”
This was not what she had expected at all. She didn’t even know this rash boy was capable of planning like this. “Where could we go?” she asked.
“Anywhere,” he said, urged on by the eagerness in her eyes. “Louisville, maybe. I’ll take you to that hotel that was in The Great Gatsby.”
“What about Nan?”
“You know Nan wouldn’t leave here.”
Dixie did know. But despite that, her chest tightened with excitement at the thought of starting new someplace. With Boone. “Why?” she asked after a hum of silence.
His confidence faded and his fingers worried her own where their hands were clasped. “Because I want to know where I’m headed,” he said, his voice hoarse. “The lights they give us down there, they don’t show us more than three feet in front of us. I never know what’s around the next corner.”
Even in the haze of the dim room, she knew he was staring right at her, knew what he was about to do, what with the way he was looking at her like he had finally found a diamond after crawling through endless tunnel after tunnel. She beat him to it, and pressed her lips to his.
Four days later, Boone was gone. He had been away at the mines for a couple days already. Tomorrow was the last day of the year. Dixie remembered the date, only because it was on the radio. She was in the kitchen, bent at the waist to haul the cast iron from its slumber. Nan still cooked furiously like she always did in the days after Boone left, but she had relegated the cast iron to Dixie lately. Dixie reckoned that’s why it eventually got passed down; only the young women of the family had the strength to carry its weight after a while.
The war was on the television, the sound turned way low. She had stopped listening anyway when they started up about the draft. President Nixon flashed onto the screen occasionally. Dixie preferred the radio, which was the only way she found out about local happenings.
She did not register the information at first when the alarmed voice came over the radio. She only started to pay attention when she heard the words Hurricane Creek Mine. An incessant humming filled her ears as she stood up and strained to catch the news report.
Hyden, Kentucky. Connected mines Fifteen and Sixteen, together known as Hurricane Creek Mine. Thirty-nine men caught in a coal dust explosion underground. Thirty-eight dead, one man taken to the hospital. The lone survivor was near the portal in the belt entry …
The cast iron slipped from her sweaty palms and hit the floor, shattering the fragile wooden floorboard at her feet.
The wars came next. It was like nothing the cave had ever seen.
The twenties had her on top of the world; there was nowhere to hide anymore. Explorers and entrepreneurs competed to explore her, to catalogue her, to guide dozens of people through her tunnels as they put her on full display during these so-called cave wars. Suddenly, they wanted to know everything, all of her secrets. How far did she go, what was her largest cavern, how old was she? Competing explorers tried to find others like her, but the men who owned her only laughed. There would never be another network like her hiding beneath the earth, just as there never had been in the history of time. She did not know why the people began to crave the darkness and the unknown during this time.
The forties toppled her from her place in the sky. She made her official debut as a landmark only a few months before the Japanese let loose their bombs and her country was pulled into war. No one needed her anymore, even though they had only mapped forty miles of her so far. There were other, more important caves to focus on, manmade ones to the East and West of her. Those caves were suddenly on top of the world, their coal thrusting them into the forefront. Oh, how she wanted to scream. Those weren’t caves, those were tombs! They could offer decades, maybe a century of support before they became unsustainable. She could offer millennia. She had been watching and protecting since the world began. This wartime boom didn’t promise a future, but no one seemed to want to listen to her, even as boys continued to succumb to the thick, black air that slowly built up on their lungs like a silent wound.
There was nothing the cave could do this time except wait. Wait, and sigh at the naïve and hungry world around her.
The fire boss for Hurricane Creek Mine had examined and green-lit mines Fifteen and Sixteen just that morning. Later, investigators discovered that the preshift examination for mine Fifteen was instead for mine Sixteen and had been recorded incorrectly. The man who actually examined mine Fifteen claimed to have recorded the details, but the record could not be located.
These facts would come later. Dixie knew none of this now as she and Nan waited on the front porch on New Year’s Day. A man from the mines was supposed to pay them a visit. For what, she didn’t know. To hand them Boone’s body? To bring them his belongings? Nobody had told them anything more than what had been on the radio the last couple days. She tried to keep her mind blank of all these questions. If she thought too hard about anything right now, she would crumble. If she crumbled, Nan would too. And if Nan went down, Dixie would just disintegrate all over again.
A black Ford pulled into their long drive. Its slick exterior instantly fell prey to a healthy coat of gravel dust. The car stopped at the porch steps. Dixie felt Nan shivering next to her, despite their thick barn coats. The passenger door opened and a man stepped out. Nan sunk to the bottom step, her head in her hands, and began to shake.
Boone shut the door behind him. His right arm was in a sling, a thick wad of gauze had been taped over his right ear, and cuts and scrapes littered his face. Relief struck Dixie, damn if it made her selfish. Her knees went weak but Boone was there, his good arm around her in a fierce hug, keeping her from totally sinking into the earth.
Over the next couple days, as more information about what had caused the explosion trickled in, they only left the house once. Boone had insisted he pay his respects at Rhett’s funeral. He had to step out of the service twice when coughing hit him. Dixie did not cry once despite the tears on Boone’s face; she clung to her selfishness like a small light in the darkness.
Boone was resting, asleep on the couch when the first letter was delivered to their house. Nan saw the front of the letter and immediately dissolve into sobs so strong, Boone startled awake. She abandoned the greens on the stove and fled to her bedroom.
“Open it for me, girl?” Boone asked Dixie, on account of his bad arm. She read it aloud to him. He was to report to the Louisville recruiting office in the next forty-eight hours.
He left for Louisville the next day, catching a ride with another boy who had also been called for immediate physicals. Nan would not come out of her room, so Dixie made eggs and saw him off. She helped him put on his best suit—she didn’t understand why he dressed up—and he even took off his sling for the trip. Standing on the porch, he promised her he would be back that night or in the morning. She draped her peridot necklace around his stiff collar.
“For style. Don’t lose it.”
As he pulled away with the other boy, still Dixie did not break under the weight of it all.
Hours later, maybe around midnight, she heard a car door slam. She was in bed but was miles from the depth of sleep. Her ears followed his movements through the house. Boone closed his bedroom door, struggled out of his suit, then took a quick shower. The Velcro of his sling was loud in the silence and then all was quiet. Dixie thought he had gone to bed.
A minute later, she heard a knock at her door and Boone stole into her room. He slipped under the blankets next to her, leaving his bandaged arm outside of the covers, and rested his head next to hers on the same pillow. With his body so close to hers, she could feel the beating of his heart slow as he calmed down. His cold bare feet wound around hers under the blankets.
Eventually, he whispered into the stillness. “I didn’t pass the physical.”
Again, that selfish relief warmed her veins. Although she was confused. Boone would turn nineteen at the beginning of summer; he was still a young man.
“Why?” she asked.
He took a deep, rough breath. “Asthma.” Soon, he drifted off next to her.
It was two in the morning—or three, she wasn’t sure—when Dixie snuck out of bed, Boone oblivious to her absence. All she knew was that it was still pitch black outside. She crept to the kitchen and hauled that cast iron skillet from its cabinet and slunk outside into the night, carrying the heavy thing with her. She didn’t bother to put on shoes, even with the grass crisp from frost.
She stumbled in the darkness for an hour, maybe longer, all the while dragging the weight of the skillet. How in the world did someone think it a good idea to make a daily item so damn heavy? Did they not think that perhaps it was only durable and would live through generations because it was too difficult to use? Even as splinters worked their way into the soft flesh of her arches, Dixie kept at it. She knew the woods around their farm, and the woods around those woods, like she knew the curls of Boone’s hair. This blackness did not scare her.
With only moonlight to guide her, she finally found what she was looking for: the mouth of an unremarkable cave that lay a mile or so off the main road through Glasgow. It was the forgotten entrance to a branch of Mammoth Cave’s extensive underground network, and it was exactly where Boone’s stories said it would be.
Dixie entered without hesitation. The grass under her feet quickly melted into rough, slippery rock. She didn’t make any turns, heeding the warnings in Boone’s stories, yet pushed onward into the cave until she was surrounded by impenetrable nothingness. The temperature rose and settled around sixty degrees, and when she could at last make out the whistling of a large, gaping cavity, she paused. Her nearly numb toes felt the path before her and touched on the edge of a precipice. She thought of Boone and his meager few feet of light in those dust-choked mines, which were nothing like this cave with its cool, moist walls around her now.
Asthma. If only she could pretend it was that benign.
With the fading strength in her muscles, Dixie heaved the cast iron over the edge. It screamed as it dropped, clanging against rock after rock as it fell into the abyss of a cavern below. Each resounding toll echoed ten-fold around the cave, and those echoes reverberated deep into the earth, loud enough to wake generations of the dead.
Just as the cave liked to give without asking, she accepted this gift without question.
Visitors so rarely graced her outer fingertips and there was still so much she had to show these people, so much left unexplored. Sure, there were those who were working to catalogue her veins, but what would be the point if those other, greedy caves and their explosive tunnels worked their way through the land toward her until they nipped at her heels?
She would not think too hard about that yet, though. Now, she would help the girl find her way safely out of the darkness. The cave could tell this was a girl who belonged on the surface of things, not because she couldn’t handle the depths, but rather because the depths might not be able to handle her. This was a girl of the cave’s own kin, one who could see and, more importantly, one who could remember the lessons that would allow her to see better as she neared the end of the tunnel. The cave would never steal this girl earlier than was necessary. That’s what she hoped set her apart from the others. She did not posses the unique greediness that belonged to those people and their caves who solely thought of the here and now.
When it came time for the girl to come home, to take her place next to the cave beneath the ground, the cave would be waiting with open arms to help the girl pass through into the next life—not with a tragic scream of grief or wail of loss, but with a final, peaceful sigh.
Ellen Goff graduated from The University of Chicago with a B.A. in English and Film and a concentration in Creative Writing. She has worked everywhere from The Metropolitan Museum of Art to The White House in the Office of Presidential Correspondence under the Obama Administration. Her writing can also be found in the Indiana Review. Currently, she works in publishing and lives in New York, where she runs a Young Adult writing critique group. She was born and raised in Kentucky, and is currently at work on a speculative southern gothic Young Adult novel.
Young Adult Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing