Spiel: I’ve always admired the under-achievers who were small men, supposedly sour at life’s humble start with a small stature, but who bust their way out of the harsh beginning.
The midget Galabicus had one problem at spelunking; his crawling and narrow aperture insertions always caused a huge erection, for a man his size a vivid and sometimes embarrassing erection. He never knew if it was caused by excitement or abrasion, but it came about every time a desperate or dangerous situation occurred and he was situated in the bowels of Earth.
As for me, I’m afraid of caves and all such mucked-up underworld. I have been since near being buried in a hillside bunker in a war zone; darkness scared the hell out of me. And just imagine… this thing with Galabicus was always a bit notorious for a little guy, people always grabbing the early edge to push down on somebody. His plight here up front, of course, is confessed as fictional, but I am privy to some real inside information that throws such a stand entirely on its ear. To boot, my old pal Tremont Consul nursed a weighty sense for justice, and thus for the midget Galabicus, a small man who had reached heroic proportions on a number of dangerous escapades, and other events, with that previously-spoken, oddly relevant phenomenon.
Galabicus, as I’ve said, was a midget of the first order, and was perceived by many people as a mere afterthought. Some men said he was the little devil from darkness, with a wee bit of concern in the wink of their eyes, in the tilt of their head, and a kind of mock disdain setting on their lips. It appeared initially he didn’t count much in the matters of men. Or of ladies for that matter: Small feet, runt thing, the ladies might have said behind cupped hands in the ladies room late in the night, or at the edge of picnics where tales were swapped… the tittering, the giggles, the gross assumptions of reality. He was child-small, but not badly distorted in his framework.
Some ladies knew it all, as they’ve said in one degree or another. Some of them, it developed, called him names other than Galabicus. One fashionable cave lover said he was the perfect trade-off. She had carried on, saying, as if it was an announcement to one and all, “Whatever the guys call him, he’s definitely not the runt of the litter.” There was not a trace of redness on her face.
But this day of which I am speaking, as it proved, would turn inevitably, and completely, on Galabicus’s size, his courage and his true manhood, even though he was cheated of many things at the outset of life.
Considering just the sound, the first rock that came down, nearly atop the group of cave explorers, was the real kick-off for the day. Tremont Consul, cave veteran, wiry but thin as a shingle, leading the group, had the worst feeling ever in all his visits to the innards of German Vettum’s Cave, smack in the middle of Chawtenauga’s Valley of Holes. Now, at that site for about the hundredth time, he was making deep inroads with a new gang of spelunkers, raw amateurs through their ranks, mere potatoes in another ordinary stew. But they paid their way for the exercise.
The first minor slide ahead of them, Tremont noted, was followed by a silence eerily disturbing him. “Oh,” he said lightly, breathing the word in, becoming aware of a sparse tingling at his feet, a barefoot tingling as though he, bootless, had made entry here. The noisy gabbers in the group were instantly mute, some with their mouths agape, caught in the middle of address or redress. Tremont, noting their stiffness, dreaded the possibilities emanating with the tingle at his feet. And the rock, without doubt, was a runaway, the kind that carries omens or leaves such notice in its wake. He’d been caught in Earth-shifts before, where the core of the planet was disturbed by deep and multiple penetrations; as if asleep, the whole planet had been rudely awakened.
The ensuing silence was part of the warning.
In a first thought of emergency measures, he wondered why he had not roused wee Galabicus earlier in morning. Instantly he recalled, in a series of quick vignettes, the little man pursuing Marta Vergensa through a night of possible true bliss for him and, as much as it could, setting a benchmark for all the little men of the world… little mark but big score.
Running one hand down his long frame frame, Tremont checked the presence of the cellular phone holstered at his belt, the way a sheriff assures he’s armed for uncertainty, for any desperado’s sudden appearance.
Tremont and the amateur group had entered German Vettum’s Cave at the stroke of dawn, just as the sun came up with a slam over a mid-point saddle of Mount Hebron, the way it does at Stonehenge, and mysteriously marked the face of the cave. Tremont, as always, was stabbed by the significance of sunrise at the burst of day, and its quick punctuation. Daylight, as a tool, was important to him and his entourage as it carried a known attention about them on the outside while they were in darkness.
And far behind them, back at the Spelunker’s Grand Lodge, the last of them, the last of the true professional spelunkers in the whole area, wee Galabicus, the erogenic midget, was still sleeping in the small garret room, probably dreaming again of hustling the bustling, dark-eyed Marta Vergensa, for sure twice his size and then some.
Often, in deep hours of self content, Galabicus thought it grand that he might someday be grabbed for ransom, and tortured to the very end of his manhood! Oh, Nirvana! There had been times, he realized, that the embarrassment got the best of Tremont the boss man, a stickler of sorts when it came to his touring charges, especially the women, the gigglers, the touchers, the curious groundhogs of spelunking. Dark caves, it appeared, moved them into odder dreams quicker than a subtle pass of hand or eye. Tremont and Galabicus had seen it time and again… foreign territory, new touches, the expansion of dreams, the dark underworld filled with all its possibilities. Sex under cover of another sort.
For a long time, Tremont had thought personal abrasion was a specialty just for women. Cave women, he’d come to believe, carried a long history of manipulation, of conquest. Times there were he was aware of a Cro-Magnon smile lurking in a shadow, behind a stone blind, an essence almost bubbling from darkness, a saber-toothed tiger smiling at prey. The genes carried the smile, and the next step. And then along had come wee Galabicus, nee Giant, in his own riotous way righting all the wrongs found in spelunking.
But Tremont this morning, his mind now at movement in all directions, came back to that disturbing rock… hearing the silence again, knocking him fully upright with thought and imagination. It was a runaway, the big and singular rock that had come loose from forever, the harbinger’s lot.
A message from Mother, he professed.
And the soles of his feet, without doubt, talked to him again.
Immediately he recalled a stone he toed once in cold Maine, Maine as cold as it could be, with the ocean running away from him at Hermit Island, tossing itself down the sandy way, leaving him alone with the universe and the ocean touching at his feet, at his bare toes. That day, the reverberations, the echoes, the last cries from the world’s circled wagon train, came at him. He swore he could feel the temperature of Hermit Island’s sea water. Hell, he thought, Maine was always cold, except in the haymows of barns, near witness of the Golden Fleece, at moisture’s interception, when all Earth was younger by thirty or more years.
Yet, in a remote confine of German Vettum’s Cave, the one most recently opened up to torches and eyesight and still the least explored cave in all of the Chawtenauga’s Valley of Holes, a small shift of earthly proportions had first come to Tremont as an earache. Then it went real, pushing air down odd shafts, along tunnels, coming long serpentine ways, and a full minute later crossing his face, its sound flagging like a semaphore.
“Oh shit,” he said, feeling the cool edge of air, knowing the shift of air was pushed by turmoil of all Earth itself.
Sexy, high-chested, ebullient Paula Abreau, rolling right and left by touches in life, had consistently filed right behind Tremont in the cave journey, bumping against him anytime she could, at times being answered back by his lingering hand. She felt the quick sheet of air breathe at her eyes, at her lashes, and then heard Tremont’s small curse.
Ever raw and hungry with her black hair and dark smoky eyes, Paula pulled back her dangling hand. She had loved the cover of near darkness; now, she knew, it might grab her. Yet it all could not be over for her love life; there were hands and mouths and tongues she had not known. Even here, in the dark deposit of this cave, there had been, up till the last moment or so, fulfillments she had only dreamed about. Tremont was on the top of that list. She had remembered, early this morning, the command he exercised in instructing the tour on what the day would be like. She liked his mouth, how he formed words, used subtle inflection rather than a distinct change of voice or tone. He wore his blond hair in a boyish mop, making him a tease of the first order with the brilliant lagoon blue eyes of innocence. When he stood at the head of the group the day before, briefing them on the morrow’s escapade, laying out the law for them, she could taste him. He wielded significant messages that positively came only to her, and were therefore meant only for her. She had taken the message to bed with her. Under cover. Under cover. All hers. And now there came her sister, Earth, wrapped around them both, the grip perhaps tighter than any encounter.
She heard a distant grating, the soft muffle of another sound. And the earth shook anew, like a flag raised, or a trumpet sounded on some high concourse. She heard Tremont again say, “Oh, shit.” He was, she knew, smarter than she would ever be. It made her stop thinking about sex, darkness no longer being the carrier of lone, sweet correspondence.
Tremont said, the tone now more menacing than his words, “Nobody move. Stay close together. We might have a problem developing here.” Damn right, they did. He’d never been wrong about the deep touches of Mother Earth, how she’d announce all her decisions with a subtle piece of advice, of warning. He remembered a whole tunnel being suddenly obliterated in France many years earlier, when he was studying the Pre-Adamites, and how Mother Earth had spoken to him, as if directly, as if she had said, “So, Big Man, you had to see all this crap for yourself!
Tremont Consul squared his shoulders. In utter darkness trust made its own demands. He’d mouthed Mother Earth in his normal voice, the way he inflected humor in any other than humorous situation; his hand being steady as a rock, the usual rock of significance, not the kind old Mother nudged into prominence or sudden being. If something came here, he decided, it was Mother Earth announcing to him that she was unhappy with some long-standing arrangement of her dark parts.
It was said in all sections of the valley that he had courage, ingenuity, perseverance. He could be relied upon to keep his cool in front of the others in the face of trouble. He hoped there’d be no fools in their midst. Once, down in Kentucky, on the calmest of mornings in the deepest of caves, another spelunker had thoughtlessly dropped a small boulder over a precipitous edge, to satisfy her woman’s curiosity… and started an internal landslide that had shaken everybody in the tour to the bottoms of their souls. A lesson had been learned and Tremont hoped there’d be no such learning this day.
Earlier, in the approach to the entrance, he had spoken to the small group. “It’s been quiet here in German Vettum’s Cave, probably since the finish of the last Ice Age, which certainly made its way through the region and did, in fact, give us German Vettum’s Cave. German came here over a hundred years ago, finding the opening behind a huge piece of ledge that had been sheared off the cliff by an awesome power. I doubt that anything has ever happened since he came here, but we must always be on our toes. I’ve made this same tour more than a hundred times, and I find something new and interesting each time. But Mother Nature’s always at our elbows and at our feet. So, keep your cool all the time.” He paused and then added, “Don’t ever treat this as a Sunday walk in the park. It sure isn’t that.”
Tremont, after the slide, then held his breath, wary yet, and stood still, the light in his hand aiming into the bowels of the cave and he watched the steady ray of light as it played on a far surface of stone; behind him, Paula Abreau breathed a little more evenly and inhaled a scent of the man standing so near; ten other spelunkers stood in a suspenseful ignorance of the sudden void about them.
Then, as if in one breath without another warning of any sort, Mother Earth collapsed a tunnel, dropped a hundred tons of stone, broke down a wall, filled a wide cave end with stone and dust, sent that near abrasive dust careening for escape in the air rushing past the dozens of them.
Someone cried. Someone screamed. The echoes rang short notes, the way a wall cuts them almost in half. Tumultuous Earth moved abruptly, spasmodically, but with an awesome energy. Paula, suddenly thrown into the air, had come down with a thud on her back. A presence was in her face. It was not Tremont. It was not a man. It had no manly odor. No sense of being. It was, she finally acknowledged, pure stone. It menaced her. Tremont’s fears had come alive. She could hear the awful echo of his words from a moment earlier. The hand that had been so close to danger then was now endangered and a pressure was pushing down on it. She tried to move one finger and could not.
Huge boulders and slabs and slices of rock menaced all of them, and at them came the mouth-filling sense of ferric dust as if an old colliery had been opened anew. Tremont felt the pain in his ankles first, and knew he could not move, but was glad he was alive. With one hand he touched his chin, felt his face, and breathed against that hand. At least he could function in some manner. Paula Abreau, whom he had sensed so close to him a second earlier, with a whole night coming compromised in that sensation, had been tossed onto a slab of granite that had settled atop other slabs close to him. Her moans called at him. Other cries came from behind her, back the way of the tunnel. Escaping air, almost filled with iron dust it seemed, rushed past them toward an obvious escape, compressed by the fall of stone ahead of them.
Tremont valued that knowledge, that sufficient air was available to them, yet feeling a magnet would steal much of its content. “Be still,” he said, with as much confidence as he could arrange. “If you can, tend to someone near you. Don’t scream. Ask for help. Tell each other what has happened to you. My ankles are caught by stone. I can’t get loose. Use your flash to look behind you, to see if the way back is open. I can feel the air escaping. There must be a way back that’s open.”
A voice replied. “The way is blocked. A pile of rock’s in the way. It’s up over my head.
I can’t move very far either, but I can breathe.”
“Anybody else near you?” Tremont wondered if somebody had been crushed. All Mother Earth had moved.
“Harry’s down in front of me. I know his arm’s broken. I can see it twisted awful. He’s not conscious. I can’t see anybody else.”
“Who are you?” Tremont said.
“Morton Chalice, here,” the voice said. “Morton Chalice. I was the last in line. I damn well didn’t want to come in here but my wife wanted me to. Said it would make me more interesting. So much for frigging interest.”
Another voice said, “Grady here, Morton. You get out of here and you can talk her ear off for the next forty years. It’ll serve her right.” His voice paused, a dry crackle in it. “What’s that damn taste in the air? I swear it’s gonna suffocate me, like it’s stealing my pile of air. Goddamn, Tremont. What is it?”
Tremont, without an instant answer, liked Grady immediately. Then five others spoke up, picked up by Grady’s sense of humor.
Once more, but in a more subtle manner, Mother Earth spoke. It was like a rustle in a nearby thicket, an animal in the brush. Tremont understood the subtleties of the old lady
and trained the beam of his light backwards. The stream of dust rushing for an opening
came to an abrupt halt and he knew that the latest noise had signaled the cutting off that escape of air and the dust that flew with it. A sense of panic rose as he contemplated how long a dozen people could last breathing air in a closed space. Some of the old campfire stories, out beyond the caves, tried to reassert themselves. He shut them off even as the taste of iron came heavy in his mouth.
He reached for his cell phone in its holster. By a miracle it was still in place, though the holster was torn. If he had but one call left because of possible damage or that single message getting through, it had to be short and specific. The beam of his light went back
the way he thought they had come. It found only rock face and boulders, and the pale face of Paula Abreau smiling her last hope at him. Time, though it had crawled around them all weekend, might now be sprinting away from them.
He called up the emergency frequency on the memory face, thinking of the shortest and most informative message he could send, and simply said, “Send Galabicus… with air.”
Three times he said the same message and the face of his phone went blank.
The hours passed. Minor repairs were made by some on others. Some of the party did not respond. Grady Parcell kept up his sense of humor, often going back to discuss Morton Chalice’s wife. Paula Abreau had not moved except to stare at the beam of light when it came off Tremont’s torch. Trying to be positive, she found it extremely difficult to bring up a smile for Tremont’s torch. Only Fate and Destiny could touch her now. She thought of slowly being squeezed to death by the flat slab of rock hanging above her. After a while she kept her eyes closed. Back to her came a moment in her fifteenth year in the rear seat of Lefty Weller’s Ford when she unhooked her bra for a clumsy Bobby Caithness. It was the only time she ever had to do that. It found a smile for her someplace.
Tremont calculated the taste of iron in his mouth. It had lessened, he assumed, as the dust had settled. But at the same moment he realized the air was staler than it had been. Once he believed he could taste an essence of Paula Abreau in its passage. He began to take smaller breaths, and instructed the others to do the same. “Don’t squirm around. Keep still. Don’t breathe too heavy. Someone will respond to my call. All we can do is wait. So, save all the air we can. Don’t breathe too heavy. Don’t moan or cry. Be as still as you can.” His pause announced a small touch of hope. “Keep listening. Someone will come.”
Galabicus, dreaming, still locked in Marta’s arms, nearly having the breath and life squeezed out of him, heard the pounding up the stairs. The door flew open. Mansard the deskman yelled at him, his voice bouncing off the walls. “Cave in, Galabicus! Cave in! They say Tremont called for you. And he called for air. What’s what mean?”
Galabicus rolled off his tiny bed. Like a fireman at call his little legs dipped into rolled pants and into his boots. Mansard thought he looked like an elf called in an emergency by Santa Claus. He almost smiled, and thought better of it. Tremont might punch his head off, he favored the little man so much. “Some of the team’s downstairs right now. They said to hurry.” Galabicus was on his way out the door, a short-handled thumping going down the stairs.
All the equipment had been carried into German Vettum’s cave as far as the blockage, a mass of boulders and rock slabs in a huge jumbled mess. Galabicus fixed his compass, accepted the air line, and began to seek his way through the maze of stone. He went slow and easy, dragging the air line through small ways, assuring its entry and passage between large obstacles. He knew it would be most difficult to go back, as he found no place where he could turn around. He thought more than once of being squeezed by Marta. It made him smile as he worked. Life will always go on no matter what it presents to us, he said to himself. He had known that forever. Even as a child he had known it. Knew it made him tick, now and then felt the abrasions coming back at him in life’s continuity. It’s endless, he accounted, and continued to slip and slide and grind his way through the mess Mother Earth had loosened from her grip.
Marta came back to him often, and then was just whisked away by some other measure. Once he recalled being part of a midget wrestling team in a late-night diner in black New Hampshire, trying to get the attention of the man behind the counter, to order five black coffees for his teammates. A robust, noisy customer at the bar finally said to the counterman, “Hey, Wally, I think Shorty here wants some coffee.” In three seconds, the noisy customer was off his seat and was flat on the floor as the team sat on him. They got their coffee and left big mouth on the floor. And did not pay for the coffee. Between two enormous stones, Galabicus laughed again. He had laughed a thousand times thinking about that night.
Tremont, too, came just as often and just as quickly into his thoughts as he scrambled, wiggled, and crawled through the smallest spaces. Nobody around here near German Vettum’s Cave can do what I am doing. Tremont knows that. He counts on me. Tonight, I will tell Marta all that I will have accomplished. He wriggled some more and the erection came back. He was in no way disturbed, not even with the mission being at hand. Life will always go on no matter what it presents to us.
Paula heard the sound, a stone moving, a rock losing its grip. It yanked at her attention. She held her breath, though she wanted to scream out at Tremont and the others. She didn’t know what to say: Someone’s coming, or watch it! It’s going to start again. Her mouth stayed wide open in indecision. The rock near her moved again. It slid on another rock a mere inch. Then it moved again. It was being manipulated, controlled. She heard breathing. She heard someone breathing. Perhaps the hissing of air. Joy leaped up in her as she felt the presence again of the slab hanging flat above her. She finally whispered, “Who’s there? Who is that? Is that you, Lisa? I hope it’s you, Lisa. I haven’t heard a sound from you. Are you all right?”
“Galabicus here,” came the answer. “Who are you? Where is Tremont? Is he okay?”
Paula could not see him, though the beam of his torch came directly at her. “I’m okay, but kind of locked up here. Tremont is ahead of me and he says he’s caught by his ankle.
He can’t move to get to any of us.”
“Can you breathe okay?” Galabicus said.
“Yes, right now I can, all of a sudden, though it’s been getting really stale lately. Thick. Rancid. Almost rotten.” She paused, felt exhilarated, added, “Boy, am I glad to see you, though I can’t see you.” Immediately she was grabbed by her choice of words. Boy seemed to echo along all the stone faces.
“Boy glad he’s here. Tarzan come later.” They both laughed, the humor bustling, hope realigned in the spheres. His hand touched her leg. The touch was delicate but manly. She leaped with joy and memory.
“Ho, Tremont,” Galabicus yelled, “your old pal here, making passage with the air line. I’m dragging it with me. I can’t turn around yet to push it forward. You okay? The team’s behind me. It may be a few hours; it may be a few days before they get here. The line leads them this way. It’s tight but they’ll open it up. They’ve sent for our pals at Kitty Mount. The Crawlers will be here in a matter of hours, the other little guys.”
Galabicus said to prostrate Paula Abreau, “I have to get this line through to the others. I’ll have to pass over you if I can find the room.”
The lady tittered in the darkness. “I’d be delighted,” she said, even as the stories came resurrected about the little man. All hope sprang eternal once again, and she was aware the world around her was still larger than she was, larger than her constriction.
Tremont, listening, nodded in darkness, the taste of iron still in his mouth, knowing that Galabicus had one more story in his heroic arsenal. He trained his light on Galabicus as the little man crawled over Paula Abreau, who had been so close to him such a short time ago. He saw the radiant smiles on both their faces.