The Caves

 by April Jo Murphy

Through the trees the soft whisper of the river called us, promising an escape from the heat of the day. It was Wednesday, a mundane observation made exciting because, at this moment, all six of us were supposed to be in school.

I was following them up an alternately muddy and rocky trail towards the Caves. Every squishy step was satisfying, not only because when my flip-flops disappeared into the mud they emerged with a satisfying swoosh-sucking sound, and not only because I’d never been to the Caves before, but only because among the group of people that had invited me to join them in this blatant act of rebellion and revelry were the most popular and attractive boys at school: Mark Buffet and Tim Guardian. How I’d managed to get an invitation from them was a mystery. It was true that the lot of us had known each other for the last twelve years and had been in a majority of the same classes together for the last four. Occasionally I’d run into them on the weekends at a party, and we’d made small talk over wine coolers and watery beer. But it had never gone further than that until now.

When I arrived at the trail with the rest of our company, my thighs had stuck to the leather car seats, glued by nervous sweat and the humidity of the early spring air. As everybody piled out of the cars, I stood with my back towards the forest, hiding the bright pink seat marks I knew would be on my legs. A group of people tumbled out of Courtney’s Volkswagen. There was Mary O’Leary and her freckly friend Cory Deacon, all smiles and coconut sunblock. Mark and Tim spilled out next, nearly glowing in the noon sun. Tim was tall, lean, and muscular with a long-toothed mouth that stretched his lips thinly across his face. His nose sat between his eyes like a bulbous lump of clay. I weighed each of these factors, checking boxes on mental lists I’d acquired from magazines and health class, and decided he was probably handsome.

Mark, I knew, was attractive. Mark’s light brown hair curled around his ears like a crown of laurels. His skin, marble white and flawless, made his dark eyes impenetrably fierce. There was a measure of effortlessness about his good looks, a certain shabbiness that worked in his favor and accentuated the innateness of his beauty. Like he didn’t have to try, and you knew it too.

Tim and Mark were wearing T-shirts with the sleeves shorn off, exposing their muscular arms. They shuffled around to the car, cranking open the trunk so they could grab the cooler.

“Is that already loaded?” Cory asked.

Mark nodded, flinging open the cooler’s lid. It was stuffed with ice and silver cans of low-grade beer.

“That looks heavy,” Mary said. “Should we put some cans in our backpacks to spread the load?”

Mark laughed, and then lifted the cooler out of the trunk, arms bulging, then setting it on the ground in front of him before the ice inside had finished crashing against itself. He flexed his arms.

“Woo-wee, my hero!” Tim laughed, wolf-whistling at Mark.

Mark grinned and kissed his biceps, then he turned, and blew kisses at us. Tim walked over, and they lugged the cooler up between them, walking back towards us. Mark winked at me, and I forced myself to smile in return. Courtney laughed as they passed, clapping Tim on the shoulder.

“Hey April,” Courtney called, the knot that tied her bikini peeked out of her T-shirt, neon green against brown, strings hanging over her shoulders like leafless ivy. “Glad to see you could make it.” She pulled a pair of sunglasses out of her backpack and pushed them onto her freckled nose, smiling. My stomach lurched, and I felt my face get hot. Courtney’s teeth shone in the sun.

She and I had started hanging out a few months before, first at musical rehearsals and then later spending weekends at each other’s houses. I slept on the top bunk, and she slept on the bottom. Lately, we’d started sharing. Sometimes we’d wake up, and my arms would be around her, our faces nearly touching. In these moments, there was a tightness in my stomach. It was a fear, as much as it was anything else, a fear that there was a boundary I was coming dangerously close to crossing.

We said nothing about any of this. The guys, cooler hanging effortlessly between them, led us into the woods.

The way to the Caves, like other off-the-tourist-track trails in the Adirondacks, was neither wide nor smooth. There were downed trees and boulders that obstructed our path. We climbed over these in our sandals and flip-flops.

At first, the trail was relatively flat, leading into the forest until it reached the riverbank. There, it took a sharp turn to the left and climbed upwards. The going became more difficult; our eyes scanned the earth as we stepped, searching for an unexpectedly wobbly stone, or places where the mud gave way to a deep, milk-chocolate-colored puddle.

The whole riverbank smelled damp. As we made our way deeper into the forest, the texture of the air changed slightly, attaining a somehow oily, alien feel. A strange smell began to enter the air, inky and heavy. I was long since sweaty and sticky, but now, beneath the clinging of my clothes, I held a strange awareness of my movements. I imagined myself moving fluidly, like swimming underwater.

The ground’s texture changed, shallow and gravelly. Larger rocks on the riverbed felt rougher than the wet earth and leaves. The gravelly mixture stirred beneath my feet, the mud emitting the strange odor that hung low over the riverbed.

The line of muscled, ambling, attractive bodies in front of me glistened a little with perspiration. Neither Tim nor Mark had slowed or seemed to notice anything amiss. Courtney followed them with unwavering and graceful steps, her lithe body flowing up the mountainside. They’d all come to the caves before, and I hadn’t. I shrugged. Maybe the smell was something you got used to.

The trail left the riverbank, carving into the forest. Around us, the forest inhabitants called to each other in chirps and whoops, the leaves sighed, and the cracking of twigs and branches breaking wove in and out of the constant river din. Eventually, Courtney’s gait slowed until she was walking beside me. The boys were lost in the trees ahead of us.

She paused to draw a deep gulp of water that ran down her chin and pooled in her collarbone. I suddenly realized that underneath her flimsy t-shirt, there was only her bikini. Two thin triangles, loosely tied over her body. Courtney had begun to sweat on the trail. Her skin was shimmery; her shirt clung to it, the fabric cresting over curves I’d felt but never allowed myself to notice. I looked away.

I could hear Tim yelling farther up the trail. I forced myself to think about him instead of Courtney. Tim was a star athlete, in all of our AP courses, and he spent his weekends building canoes with his father. When I saw him walk by the first time a friend had whispered to me, “Think of the babies you could have with that boy.” If Tim or Mark tried to kiss me, would I let it happen? Could I stop it from happening? Even worse, I was afraid that Courtney wouldn’t resist them. Or, perhaps, I was afraid that she would.

Finally someone called back and said we were almost there. The roar of the river was growing louder, and the trail was evening out. My aching steps became quicker, and my heart, though already beating wildly with the exertion of the hike, thumped loudly against my chest. With each step, I was drawing closer to the river. The smell was returning, spreading its noxious, wispy fingertips through the trees. It grazed my skin and entered me. It oozed in my nose and mouth, dribbled down my throat, and pooled on my vocal cords. It stained the words as they escaped me, “What is that?”

“Probably a dead fish,” Mary said.

“Smells like your mom,” Cory replied.

The trees thinned, opening to a treeless ledge of rock that spread in front of us. The rock was level, tan, with little swirls in it that looked like the rings inside of trees. I could feel the rock’s heat radiating through my flip flops and warming my mud-caked feet. I could hear the soft roar of water running somewhere below.

The river seemed to roar on two levels, like two piano keys mashed next to each other, discordant and jarring. The water was almost buzzing. Or was it my nerves? My body was tired from the hike, and when I, dizzy, laid my bundle of clothes down on the rocks, little black dots speckled the corners of my sight.

A few moments later, when the little black dots were still there, my stomach sank. In the air, in thick smoke-like curtains, were flies. The tiny bodies hung in the air, drifting black veils, an unnerving visualization of the pestilent odor that surrounded us.

Tim and Mark put down the beer and with a forceful movement, tore open the box and fished out cans that they tossed at us. The beer cans seem to float towards us, before crashing at our feet. I started at them, stupidly, unable to comprehend their sudden arrival.

“How can you guys drink?” Courtney asked with words flat and muffled through her towel, “Doesn’t that smell make you sick?”

Tim and Mark shrugged and opened their beers with loud clicking noises.

Feeling bold, I walked over to the edge of the cliff and looked about twenty-five feet down. The smell, remarkable in its power, paralyzed me. I could see a deep black pool of water, with bits of bark floating on top of it. Mary and Courtney dug their towels out of their backpacks and buried their faces in them, eyes glazing and wide. My eyes watered, drawn into the gulf below me as if the pool were a magnet and the odor its charge. Then, I saw the smell’s source.

Lying on the beach of the pool was a pile of flesh and fur. Bones, glaring white in the sun, poked out of swollen flesh and strands of browning sinew and grime were strewn about the rocks. Its head, still intact, showed that the mass had once been a large male deer. Small antlers, bones with fuzz still heavy at the base reached upward. The head lay with its mouth open, nose beneath the surface of the water. Where its eyes had been were now deep red holes filled with maggots. The water glistened with a light film.

What I thought were bits of bark on the water’s surface was really pieces of deer meat, spreading out from the carcass. They floated away from the deer, leaving the pool in the roaring overflow to sully the river downstream.

I gagged and ran back toward the edge of the forest where Courtney stood. “It’s a dead deer,” I said, swallowing hard.

“Fuck,” Tim said, walking over to the ledge and looking down.

“That’s disgusting,” Mary said.

We had all been raised in the mountains. A dead deer was not cause for alarm. We’d had their livers and hearts in our sinks, hung their carcasses from our garage roofs and drained their blood. But their deaths were purposeful; their bodies neatly compacted red and white lines. Contained.

Mark walked up to the ledge and looked down. He said, “That’ll be there all summer unless we move it.” He paced the cliff side, hands on his hips. “We could probably force it downstream with some sticks.” Tim and Mark sipped their beer. They looked at the deer for a few minutes, talking to each other in muted tones. Mark’s eyes and mouth were stretched into grim lines. Tim shook his head, then nodded.  Silhouetted against the grey wisp of flies, I studied the two of them. I tried to see them the way they appeared to Courtney. How strong, how solid, how normal and safe compared to whatever she may have felt about me. They tossed their empty beer cans in our direction and disappeared, jumping straight down to a lower ledge.

Without a word, Courtney and I crept up to the edge of the cliff. Looking over, we could see Tim and Mark, slowly inching downward toward the pool. The stench, powerful as ever, made me dizzy. I felt like it was pulling me, like gravity, closer to the edge.

From the bottom of the pool, I could feel the hollow eyes of the deer looking at me. Its mouth, open with its tongue spilling to the side, grinned with the whiteness of teeth. The jawbone peeked through skin. The nakedness of the bones startled me. Their whiteness seemed exaggerated, pointed. I placed my hand on Courtney’s arm without feeling it.

Tim and Mark had reached the bottom now. They, pulling their T-shirts to rest on their noses, approached the heap of deer. They walked around it a few times, pointing at various locations. The spine. The head. The tail. They swatted at their arms, trying to keep flies away.

There weren’t any trees on the bottom of the cliff, but a mass of branches had washed up onshore. Tim and Mark walked over to them, balancing on stones, and each selected a piece of wood about four feet long. They danced back across the stones and approached the deer.

Tim took his stick and poked it, once, on its back.

The deer’s hide had grown soft in the water and the top of the stick entered its back with only the slightest resistance. Tim grimaced. He turned from the deer, coughing. If he made a sound, it was lost beneath the buzzing of the flies and the ceaseless din of the water.

Mark, with a grace terrible and horribly out of place, stepped in front of Tim and pushed his stick, at an angle, underneath the corpse. Then, his face still, he pushed. The deer pile slumped over, caving in, and breaking finally against the force of the wood. Bits of deer exploded onto the rocks and a few landed on Mark’s foot, like grotesque explanation points on his pale tombstone-smooth skin.

Courtney and I stood still, watching. My body was motionless, but inside my organs were screaming, wiggling, trying to get me to listen to my instincts, which all told me that this was a bad place to be. My brain, which should have been telling my feet to move, was instead acutely aware.

Tim had stepped away from the deer, returning to the bottom of the cliff. His voice, heavy, yelled, “Mark, let’s just leave it. It’s too far gone to move. It’s falling apart. Let’s get out of here.”

Mark didn’t hear him. He was trying to move the deer again, placing his stick beneath the neck of the animal. When he applied his strength, as had happened before, the stick passed through the deer. The head, with its gaping eyes, disconnected in the movement, and sank grinning into the black water.

“Mark!” Tim yelled.

Mark, angelic and terrible, drew his stick again and beat the deer.  Sticky echoes of the branch meeting flesh and bone rang up the cliff and into our faces.

“Mark!” Tim yelled again, “What the fuck are you doing?”

Mark hit it again. He walked away, then turned back and hit it harder. He laid blow after blow onto the deer. His face remained still as gobs of rotting deer meat clung to his hands, legs, and chest.

Courtney shuddered under my hand; I could feel the skin on her arm raise. “Is he crying?” She asked in a whisper.

Beneath us, Mark yelled. His cries echoed off the rock, loud and primal. Again and again he attacked the deer with his stick. Its broken body shrank into a smaller heap with each blow, as the bones snapped and the tissues scattered as he yelled, “You weren’t supposed to be here! You ruined everything!”

I listened and realized that out of the six of us only four were single: Tim and Mark, and Courtney and me. I swallowed, hard. I knew what plans had been ruined.

Mark, sobbing and wordless, finally put his stick down and sat. His spine curved inward, his head sunk to his chest, and he raised his hands on top of his head. His fingers, painted with brownish-red goo, clung to patches of his shiny, mahogany curls. Lost in the tangles of his hair and highlighted by the sun, Mark’s hands seemed to glow. The flies buzzed on. With a few cautious steps, Tim approached his friend and placed his hand on his shoulder.

Up on the cliff, without speaking, Courtney and I drew back until we were standing at the edge of the forest. The smell still hung over us like an echoing church bell, but we were beyond the point of being sick. We sat on scattered boulders and waited for Tim and Mark to join us. We didn’t let our eyes meet.

I studied Courtney’s bikini strings. I searched my memory for every shade of green I could remember and tried to define their color. They were somewhere between fresh steamed broccoli and day glow. Against them, the brownness of her freckles, little tan periods scattered across her skin. I stared, thankful and ashamed for it, that the deer had kept her mine.

The seconds drew out their shadows in the afternoon sun, elongating themselves and aging us. The river bellowed and the flies droned on.  Courtney’s bikini strings stirred in the wind.

About April Jo Murphy

April Jo Murphy is a doctoral candidate in creative writing at the University of North Texas. She currently serves as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor for American Literary Review. Her writing has been published in or is forthcoming from Hippocampus Magazine, Mason’s Road, and The Irish American Post. April is currently working on her first book Shrouded: Women Who Work With the Dead. She lives in Denton, TX with her dog, Roan.