by W.S. Beasley
I hope I’m writing down this story in time. The police station shrugged me off but if I can get this message to be believed somewhere, maybe there’s hope, maybe there’s a chance to— well. Here it is.
Antony and I woke up at four in the morning to venture forth on the final leg of our trek. The New Mexico sun made it tricky to hike after eleven in the morning, and there were many miles yet of shadowless desert to traverse. It would have been in our best interest to actually set out at four, but waking up then would have to do. We had been on the trail for three arduous days after hitchhiking along a gravel desert road—and getting more than a few warnings from the flannelled and weathered cowboy driving—before getting dropped with our packs at the trailhead.
It was known by the locals as Viper’s Whisper, and it didn’t exist on any tourist map: a sort of meandering and deadly path that crisscrossed the delicate invisible demarcation between a protected state desert and American Indian reservation lands. At journey’s end was rumored to be another invisible border, one of a less geographical nature. I hadn’t heard those rumors, but tales of another kind.
"My great grandmother spoke of the trail in whispers when my mother wasn't in the room."
I was first told of the treasure when I was a very young girl. My great grandmother Isabel, after whom I’m named, spoke of the trail in whispers when my mother wasn’t in the room. She would lean forward in her rocking chair to tell me, stopping whenever a nurse’s heels came clicking down the hall of the institution. Once my mother caught her telling the story, and she rushed me back to the car. After that we didn’t visit the old woman again for almost a year.
That didn’t stop me from asking again and again about the trail’s folklore the next time I saw her. According to her story, there was a cave at the end that concealed riches beyond imagining; when she was sixteen she herself had even tried to get there, but failed along the route. Well, she said she failed. Now I will never know. Isabel died when I was nine, and from that point onward the fantasy existed in me, a living desire to reach whatever lay at the end of the Viper’s Whisper, to carry the torch of my namesake. It took no convincing to sell my boyfriend Tony on the adventure. He was immediately onboard.
—What stopped her? he asked yet again.
—She never told me.
We boiled water for coffee in the pre-dawn darkness and silence. A moth that flew too near to the low blue flickering propane light was cremated in an instantaneous and tiny golden spark.
We set out. It was just after five thirty when the sky began to pale, the bats flittered overhead—going the same direction as we were, back to their faraway rock caves—and we turned off our headlamps. I wondered if any of those bats were headed to the very same cave as we were. By the time the bright tip of day touched the landscape, we had covered nearly eight miles. It became clear that the trail was inclining toward a low cluster of black mountains in front of us in the west, the tips of which were alight with dawn. With the first ray of sun the heat pricked the backs of our necks, and Antony resumed the complaining he had been doing the last three days.
By nine we reached the base of the mountains, and the trail began to wind up into the rocks. We stopped for water. Antony finished his first bottle and began the second. Watching him drink, I wondered why I brought him. Why did he want to come? I saw his eyes when I told him about treasure, but I couldn’t criticize. After all, I myself was there for treasure, too. The sloppy way he drank from his liter bottle irritated me. I had grown a recent fear that Antony might propose to me. These were irregular thoughts. Tony and I got along great, always. I felt off though, and I wasn’t sure why. Instead of trusting my gut, I pushed the worry out of my head.
Up ahead was the mountain, sublime and present and serene and looming.
There was nothing significant about the cave. It wasn’t even hidden, the path led straight on into it. Perhaps the long traverse of desert was concealment enough. Our pre-dawn headlamps were switched back on, batteries checked. We walked in. Squeaks and echoes around us and soft guano underfoot alerted us to the bats, and we kept our lights shining ahead to avoid disturbing the tiny roosting creatures. Eventually the echoes subsided; the ground grew hard. The bats didn’t roost as deeply here as they would have in another cave. I wish I had noticed that as we went in. I was too excited, drawn in like a moth.
I led the way, and for bearing I kept my fingertips brushing along the northern cave wall to our right. As the cave widened, the southern wall to our left receded into the darkness, and I prodded my headlamp into the dark across, and then above. The beam did not reach the ceiling, and the southern wall looked to be almost fifty yards away. A huge chamber of indeterminate size surrounded us in invisible shadow.
"Something became visible. It was two points of bobbing light. We froze; the lights grew still."
Antony and I looked at each other. I could see the same ratio of fear and excitement in his eyes that I felt in myself. With a nod, we continued onward. After circling the rim of the cavern, the walls began to narrow again, creating a passage on the east side, opposite from where we had entered on the west. The walls got tight on either side; in some places so narrow that we had to shuffle sideways in the dark. But the ceiling never reappeared, giving me the feeling of being wedged at the bottom of some deep crack in the earth. We had been in the dark for only an hour when, about thirty feet ahead, something became visible. It was two points of bobbing light. We froze; the lights grew still. It took a moment to realize that somewhere out in front of us was a smooth surface. It was reflecting the light from our headlamps back to us.
We pressed on. I wish we hadn’t. I wish I knew then what I know now; what my great grandmother Isabel had known all along.
The passageway had come to a head, and the wall at its end was a polished stone surface. We stepped right up to it, and I’ll admit I was mesmerized. I didn’t think. I leaned forward and put my palm on the shiny cool surface, and I saw myself mirrored in the stone. A perfect match. It was almost as if there were another Isabel with her palm just on the other side, touching mine. The material was jade, maybe, something diaphanous and deep green, with tiny gold flecks within. A vertical pond of frozen stone.
Antony was much more cautious than I was, my hand still pressed to the surface.
—This is weirdin’ me out.
—Touch it, it’s so cool.
—Isabel I don’t like it.
I turned and walked to him, took his hand, gently, and led him to the stone. I led him to it. I placed his hand flat on the rock. He looked at himself reflected within the wall, through the demarcation of this world and the reflected world. I remember thinking that it really did seem like those gold flecks were floating, almost in a jelly of—
"With a gasp and in shock, my knees buckled and I fell to the floor."
Then it happened. It happened so fast. In the space of a blink, Antony was through, sucked to the other side. He occupied his own reflection. He pounded on the inside of the stone, yelling, silent. With a gasp and in shock, my knees buckled and I fell to the floor. My ears rang. In a blur I recovered myself and stumbled up quickly. I think I was screaming, and I slammed my fist again and again on the cold, immoveable stone, the reverberations of my cries scattered around the cavern, echoing.
He was pounding on the other side too, but then. Then he— something about Tony changed. He stepped back and closed his eyes for a moment, and then when he opened them he looked at me. The panic was gone from his pupils.
He was different. He was trying to calm me now, putting his hands flat against the inside of the surface: an invitation to do the same thing, I think. It felt wrong somehow. I took a step backward instead. I thought I was going to vomit.
And then, calm Antony took one decisive step forward, clean out of the jade, returning to this world. Cooly. Evenly. Not himself.
A few steps into my sprint I looked back over my shoulder. Antony stood facing the stone again, and from deep within, the gold flecks looked out, in pairs, moving forward. That’s the last thing I saw.
I was in the desert for two days before I made it here.
I hope it’s not too late.