“I’ll keep watch, make sure no bears go in.”
“Oh, thank you so much. You are so kind to save me from angry bears,” Katelyn teased. “Seriously, I might be a while.”
“I don’t mind. You’re doing the work.” Darren flung his arm around her shoulders and drew her to him. “You’re sure it’s safe?”
“Yes, it’s just an old, stone storage area, an old wine cellar.”
“Okay, have fun,” he said, squeezing her gently before going over to sit on the rock they’d used as a picnic table.
“You, too, love,” she said as she started up the incline. She looked back and smiled fondly at his dangling legs. The rest of him was lying on the blanket they’d used as a table cloth. Turning in a circle, Katelyn took in the pines, burning blue sky and hawks above and the mosses, dead pine needles, and tiny white wildflowers at her feet. She stepped carefully as dry needles can be treacherously slick.
When she got to the steps, she stopped, took in a deep breath and let it out slowly to clear the way for the new experience. She’d read somewhere this is what you’re supposed to do, and do three times, as she remembered. So, she breathed deeply again and then once more before beginning her descent into the old wine cellar. The steps were carved out of the rock. They were well proportioned and flat, but there was no handrail; however, the right side butted against the rock face. She kept her hand on it for balance. As she descended, she thought of Darren and his way of keeping watch and smiled again at the vision of his legs. She was pretty sure he had fallen asleep by now. He was in a shady spot, but the air was warm and gentle, enough to soothe anyone—man, beast or bird—into a restful nap. The vision of him relaxed and dreaming gave her the courage to descend farther. She wasn’t sure why she was anxious. Maybe it was his comment about bears. She knew there were no bears, but there might be spiders. Her shoulders gave an involuntary shiver. No, she had to be honest. It was what she’d read about the cellar that had both prompted her to come and made her a bit anxious.
As she continued her descent, the air became cooler but not clammy as she had thought it might be. Her sweater was tied around her waist just in case. She wanted to make this visit count and not be so uncomfortable that she couldn’t concentrate on what she wanted to accomplish. She suddenly felt for the flashlight. She didn’t remember putting it on her belt. There it was, but the cellar had enough light not just to see where she was stepping but to see some of the details in the rock face, also. She stopped and looked up for the source but could not tell where the light might be coming from. Probably a fissure hidden from sight by a ledge or jutting stone. It was comforting to have, nonetheless, and she started to relax.
Just as her anxiety receded, the steps came to an abrupt end. She lurched and caught herself as the foot that expected to descend stayed on flat ground. She gave Darren a call, but it went to voice mail. At least she knew their phones worked. A tunnel, obviously natural, led ahead and a bit to the left. To the right was empty space. She wondered what used to be kept here. The room seemed to be an antechamber for something else. Maybe servants used the area to gather what was to be taken to the main house, or the lord of the manor hosted tastings here or whatever people used to do at parties. She hated the thought of ladies in long dresses trying to navigate those steps. But of course that was silly. When this was built, only the men would have been allowed to participate. She looked around at the bare rock walls and bare floor. A lot of tapestries, benches, rugs, and sconces would have had to have been lugged down here to make it hospitable. Even then, she couldn’t imagine it as festive. No, this was never a party room. It was here to lead to something else through that tunnel. So, the tunnel it is, she thought.
“You want to go where?” Darren had asked when Katelyn suggested a picnic at Helmsley. “That’s at least an hour away.”
“It has a really cool, ancient cellar, supposedly a wine cellar the original owner built for storing wine and perishables when he was going to have parties.”
“And you want to go in it? Don’t you have to ask permission from somebody?”
“Yes, I want to see it, and, no, you don’t have to ask for permission. It’s just sitting there in the countryside. Nobody pays the least bit of attention to it.”
“Sounds like work,” said Darren.
“You don’t have to go in. You can play on your phone or whatever, and we can take kielbasa.”
“Okay, I’m in” he said. And, so on this Saturday morning, they packed the car for a picnic and drove the hour to the country, and after a few wrong turns, found the picnic rock and the cellar. And the fall.
Katelyn started through the tunnel. It was wide and high enough to walk comfortably, no crawling or wriggling through tight spaces, and no spiders, thank goodness. She hadn’t told Darren why she wanted to come to Helmsley, not really. Everything she did tell him was true, but she hadn’t mentioned the article that talked about the ley lines and energy at Helmsley and how if you actually went down into the cellar, the vibrations were stronger, and sometimes you could feel the entire universe. She didn’t know if she really bought all that stuff, but she wanted to see for herself. The article had only described stone steps and a chamber. It had not said anything about a tunnel. As she reached the end, she stepped into a, well, the article certainly hadn’t described anything like this. She wasn’t even sure what “this” was.
The tunnel opened to what Katelyn assumed was a cavern. She tried to look around, but the air seemed to be alive with a soft-white, gauzy light that hid everything beyond what was directly in front of her. The floor seemed firm under her feet, but she could not find an end to the space, but it had to be a cavern, didn’t it? She was underground. The article’s author described something about a feeling of being both within space and outside it, feelings of vibrations and a sensing of energies, but it all fell far short of what she was experiencing, or, maybe, she just didn’t have the knowledge to appreciate what the article had tried to tell her. Or now what her senses were telling her. “Well, let’s see what I can learn from this,” she said softly to herself. “I can see white” and there she stopped. “White what?” she thought. “White ice-crystal air.” But her face didn’t feel cold. She lifted a hand and felt the air in front of her. It wasn’t at all what she’d expected—cold, sharp, sleety. No, it was warm and soft and reminded her of a museum exhibit she’d seen where panels of thin material had been hung throughout a large room. The lights, hidden in the high ceiling, were dim, and music with wind chimes and wood flutes played quietly, and you simply wandered slowly through the panels however you wanted. She had gone back to the museum three times just to walk through those panels. And to see a painting of a man in a mask. She didn’t want to spend her time thinking of all that right now, maybe later. She turned her mind back to the shimmery air.
She heard a small splash ahead of her and stepped carefully towards it. A small pond, not more than 10 or 20 feet across, shone a clear green and blue. As she was looking for what might have splashed—spiders do not splash, she reminded herself—she saw a tiny green and gold frog leap into the water. Katelyn sat down on a rock and hoped there would be others. How did they get here? she wondered. How do they thrive here? She’d barely heard the second splash. How did she hear the first when she’d been farther away? Maybe the air augmented sound like it does when it’s about to rain. That must be it, she thought. She suddenly realized that though the air was still gauzy, she could see clearly—pond, cavern walls and floor, rocks, but not the cavern’s dome. It was still shrouded in the gauze. She felt it was a dome but had no way—well, no way yet, she told herself—of verifying that. She heard a few more, tiny splashes and tossed a pebble into the pool to make her own splash. Yes, it splashed, too. For all of the cave’s other worldliness, her splash convinced her of its reality. She breathed in deeply and in letting it out realized she wasn’t nervous anymore. Things seemed both odd and acceptable, which, of course, was odd but also somehow comforting. As if she was being, not watched, but watched over by whoever made this. You just thought “who made this.” Who makes caverns, anyway? And a tiny gold and green frog-thought splashed into her mind. Oh! That’s Who makes caverns. The thought may have splashed and even rippled, but the ripples diminished, and Katelyn brought herself back to her purpose.
So, that’s sight and sound … and touch, she added as she remembered reaching out to feel the warm, ice-crystal air. She shook her head in disbelief. But she was here. And she’d seen and felt the air herself. Moreover, she seemed to be opening to the possibility of its reality, not just the air, not just the cave, but what the article described. She could feel something though she couldn’t hold it yet. She made a mental note to write to the author of the article and tell him about the cavern and the tunnel.
She hadn’t considered smell or taste and did so now. There didn’t seem to be any smells except the smell of clean water, and that’s not really much of a smell, Katelyn. Try harder. There was, she noticed, an almost imperceptible scent of something sweet. It was familiar like when you go to someone’s house and eat their cooking and say, “What’s in this? It’s familiar, and I like it, but I can’t put my finger on it.” Oh, oranges, that was it. Ice-crystal light that’s warm, frogs, and the scent of oranges, and maybe… She stopped, not quite ready to go there yet. She set that thought aside, but gently. But then quickly retrieved it before it could be lost again. The article had not come close to describing the experiences to be had down here. She remembered that it did say such energies exist but that people mostly don’t notice there is more to the universe than earth and space and stars. Katelyn was beginning to step closer to the possibility of an Infinite, one that she could experience. She’d made a small splash, after all, and after her splash, it had rippled in response. Maybe she could be a part of it. Maybe it actually cared for her; maybe just a little bit, but maybe it did. Say it, Katelyn. “Maybe there is a God,” she said aloud and added, but only in her thoughts, and maybe He cares about me if even it’s just a little. Her heart finally quit pounding, and the air moved around her like a mother gathering a scared child to her welcoming body and protective arms. She shook her head slowly. She guessed she’d been moving towards this for a while. Why else was she here?
Taste was left, and Katelyn, glad of a respite from simultaneously comforting and uncomfortable thoughts, gave her attention to it. She wasn’t sure how to explore it. She didn’t want to lick a rock or drink from the pond. So, she pulled her knees up and hugged them to herself and just sat. As she relaxed more deeply into the experience, the air turned the palest of blues. It felt like fingers gently massaging her bare arms and the back of her neck. A panorama, like a shadow dance, moved across the cavern walls. Deer, bears, buffalo, burros, wild horses, osprey and eagles roamed the plains, forest edge and sky. Their colors were muted and took on the hues of the rock on which they were projected. Time and space traveled by in slow, methodical motion. Surely, she’d only been underground less than an hour, but eons of time paraded past until only stars were left, first twinkling, then snuffing out in pairs or singly. The heavens must be quite crowded, thought Katelyn, then wondered why she thought it. Are we there, too? Are we stardust? Of course we are. She looked around.
Nothing was in the cavern but rocks, a pond, and at least one frog, but it seemed like everything in existence—Everything that ever had been or ever would be—was here. She didn’t see or hear this. She just knew it. And she was here, too. And now she knew why the author of the article had not written anything about the cavern or even the tunnel. Maybe, especially the tunnel. A person had to be willing to enter the tunnel on his or her own. She watched as the gauzy air seemed to turn into tiny flower petals of pastel hues: periwinkle, apricot, rose; lavender, ivory, saffron. She stood. It seemed the thing to do. The air flower petals were the size of the seed part of dandelion fluff. Smaller, really, as she looked more closely at them. She thought of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock lyrics, “and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Is this where she was? Is this what had happened? She’d gone on a vision quest though she didn’t know it? Had she in some unconscious way asked to go on one when she decided to come to Helmsley after reading the article? No; she had asked much earlier than that. It just had taken a little time to get herself to come. To consider. And, finally, she realized, to accept.
The flower petals floated until moved by unseen currents. Katelyn lifted one hand and passed her fingers through them. A few stuck. Unlike the air and rocks, they were neither warm nor cool. As she touched them, their colors absorbed into her skin. One landed on her finger, and she was able to observe it before it melted. It was the size of a drop of fine mist or spray from a fountain. She could taste it through her skin: lime and cherry and a bit spicy like chai. What an odd but wondrous sensation. She’d heard of synesthesia, but never thought she’d experience it. She wondered again what this cavern was.
For all the strangeness of where she was and all the strangeness of what was happening, it all felt so right. She couldn’t explain it but, as earlier, she simply knew. The feeling came from deep within her bones, from the core of her being. She wanted to keep it, this feeling of being part of Everything, of belonging, of having a rightful place. As she thought this, the cavern seemed to shrink until she could physically feel the rock walls around her. She was thinking she should be terrified, but she was comforted. Just as she knew all the other things, she knew she would not be trapped here. The sensation was momentary. Just as quickly as it shrank, the cavern expanded again. This time she didn’t think, how odd; she thought, of course it did. This is what caverns do if we only noticed. It had hugged her. And she was grateful.
She was starting to get chilled and put on her sweater. The rock was cold as real underground rock is. She looked around to memorize everything. But the air was now air, the rocks just seemingly rocks, the pond was still a pond, and that was still a bit odd in an otherwise dry cave. She couldn’t see the frog or frogs. She wondered again how many were there. She no longer wondered if they really were there. She was sure. She looked up hoping to see what was above. No longer completely shrouded, it was, in fact, a dome. She even thought she could make out millions of tiny stars. She hoped she was one of them and stood searching for one that might be her. Finally, she sighed and decided to start back. As she reached the entrance to the tunnel, she heard tiny bells tinkling softly. “Goodbye,” she said to them, “I wish I could stay. I hope I get to come back,” and she walked through the tunnel, through the empty cellar, and up the steps. She would not be contacting the article’s author, but she did wonder what his experience had been and the experiences of others who had noticed the tunnel and ventured through it into the cavern, and then back to the chamber and the steps and to a very different world, a different self: one that now believed. She was grateful; so very, very grateful.
Woodstock by Joni Mitchell, singer/song writer