An excerpt from Trinidadian writer Sharon Millar's Spelunking, published in The Whale House and Other Stories (Peepal Tree Press, 2015).
by Sharon Millar
Photograhy by: Nadia Huggins
The people here are simple, hardworking farmers but there is little opportunity for the young men. They loiter on the outskirts and hiss at me when I walk by. The old man tells me the men from the village hunted until they found the wreckage and brought the remains of Cipriani and his companion out. He tells me this because there is a manhunt on now for a boy. He’s been disappeared. That’s the word the village uses. As if he were an item on a shelf to be picked up and thrown into a bag. The police swarm the small village each morning and comb the hills. The police inspector advises me to go back into Port of Spain. The boy they are looking for is well known to me.
They are superstitious about me in the village. My looks don’t match my accent. Here in this remote village in the northeastern tip of the island, I am an anomaly. Who leaves the city to come and live in a village? And a white woman at that. I might be excused if I was a foreigner but local whites are expected to know better.
“So where are you from?” It is asked collectively by the village; they asked it so many times that it sometimes seems the mountains shout it to me in the pre-dawn light.
“I’m from right here. Island born and bred.” I say this out of old habit.
“Hmmm.” They say, glancing at me out of the whites of their eyes like frightened horses. “Where is your family? What are you doing here?”
“I work with the university.”
“Where is your family from?”
“From Port of Spain.”
“Yes, but where are you really from?
“From here. Just like you.”
When the university sends foreign students to visit my station, the villagers are chatty and engaging with the Germans and the British. It is only with me that they are reserved, cautious. This changes with my pregnancy. When it is clear that I will stay and give birth in the village, the women mother me like one of their own. I tell them that the father is an old boyfriend and we have broken up. The old women cluck and fuss but the younger ones squeeze my hand.
I know the day I got pregnant. I’d been thinking of blind catfish. The boy who is missing is called Daniel, He is only seventeen and I am a full woman of twenty-three. A grown woman with all my bones fused into adulthood. In those early days, Daniel was the guide assigned to me by the university.
“Where do you want to go?” he said on that first morning.
“I want to go to the caves. First to Cumaca to see the blind catfish. And then to Tamana to see the bats.”
The road to the Cumaca Cave in the northern range of Trinidad is very overgrown now. The road is dusty and pitted. Whole chunks of the mountain dug out for aggregate and the beautiful blue stone that comes up out of the ground. The run off from these quarries pollutes the rivers as well but only at the entrances. If you persist and follow rivers like the Turure upstream, the peace lilies appear on the sides of the water and the water becomes clear again. The first time we visit Cumaca cave, I am reluctant to enter. The mouth is hooded with heavy greenery, the interior dark and hidden, curling in on itself. From outside the cave, we can hear the cries of the oilbird. The cave houses thousands of these beautiful clumsy birds and their fat babies. Inside, the cave opens into chambers, wide-open spaces with stalagmites and stalactites straining to touch each other around the squalling birds.
To enter, we’ve walked under the small plaque, green with moss. I’d come here to see this as well. In the early 60s, two young divers slipped under a crevice in the last chamber searching for the source of the water. Instead the cave swallowed them whole; the bubbles from the oxygen tanks dislodging tiny stones and bringing down an avalanche. All that noise deep in a hidden cavern while the support man squatted by the side of the crevice and reeled in the safety line, the weak spot dissolving under pressure. Daniel tells me his father spoke to the diver who’d come from San Fernando to try and retrieve the bodies.
“He could only get one out. The other was too tangled in the rocks.” He says this to me as we stand in the shallow pool, the blind catfish willowing around our legs. “He’s still in there.”
The cave breathes silently in the darkness, the birds shrieking above us.
It’s a strange thing. The cave is well known for its population of blind catfish, regular river catfish except they are blind and colorless, invisible glimmers of silver under a torch. In the 1920s and 30s, almost all the Cumaca catfish were blind. Now it is said that not so many are blind. Too many visitors to the caves have changed the ecosystem and now they are growing eyes. I am studying this phenomenon, catching what I can and recording weights. Shining a light into small faces.
I know the day I got pregnant. I’d been thinking of blind catfish. Carefully recording all the details of the cave, listing the physical things I was able to observe. Hundreds of oilbirds circling in the dark, the heavy presence of the long dead boys – these were not things that I could record but they were the things that occupied my mind when I remembered the brushes of silver against my bare legs. I am a small woman and I take care to do things like polish my toes and brush my hair one hundred times every night. My mother is proud of my hair. It is very blonde and thick and during the day I wear it in a thick braid. I’ve only had two boyfriends. Both of them sons of my mother’s friends, boys I’ve known all my life.