Celine held her hand up to the horizontal slash in the mountain wall. A soft breeze tickled her palm, barely discernible but for its temperature: much cooler than the arid summer air that had made their week in the Ardèche so torturous.
“What do you think?” Dermot asked. He was standing below her, at the foot of a pile of rocks. The look of boyish expectancy on his face belied the twenty years between them.
Celine’s thudding heart felt like the only organ in her body. She wasn’t in control of the smile that broke out on her face. “I think we’re going to have to stay another week. There’s a cave.”
Most of their equipment was back at the camp. Their final, one-for-the-road walk had meant to be a gesture at best, an excuse to explore the mountains without lugging cumbersome backpacks and waterproofs.
All they had was a battery-powered torch and a helmet; still they began clearing away rocks from the opening.
Isn’t this how it always happens? In all the stories Dermot told in his lectures and in all the books she had read when writing her doctoral thesis, there was always something fortuitous, almost revelatory that preceded a big discovery. Less than a mile away from where they now worked, Jean-Marie Chauvet had literally stumbled across some of the world’s oldest cave paintings and changed the way in which the world related to ancient man.
She put her hands around Dermot’s neck, pulled him toward her and kissed his forehead. When she let go he pulled away looking slightly embarrassed. But she didn’t care. If this wasn’t the moment then there was no such moment.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m just excited.”
This is how it always happens.
Even with the boulders and rubble pulled clear, the black slash in the rock was no wider than the gap in a half-open car window. To Celine it looked even smaller.
“I think you can take this one,” Dermot said, as he patted a hand on his embryonic pot belly like a proud mother to-be.
The first section had been the worst part: a head-first skeleton bob. Just two metres into the tunnel, hands trapped at her sides, the channel narrowed even more and Celine angled her head to the side to try and squeeze through. For a panicked moment it seemed she was wedged, stone jaws clamped on her helmet. She took a deep breath and gently moved her neck until she found some give. The helmet came free and her body shot jerkily through the tight spot.
Her ear brushed against the rocks and she felt a sudden sharp pain.
It was her earring. She’d left her sodding earrings in.
When the tunnel widened enough such that she could turn around, Celine put her hand to her right ear and found blood but no jewelry. She scanned the tunnel floor with the torch but after a fruitless minute of searching she gave up and continued on her hands and knees. The tunnel began to slope downward. At the point it widened enough so that she could stand, the tunnel appeared to end. Celine surveyed the rock wall in front of her with the beam. There was only one way left to go: a five foot drop to the floor of a cave lay inches from the tip of her boot.
Three years of study. Another two years of barren expeditions. Not to mention all the energy expended fighting off the urge to corrupt Dermot.
They had done it.
Celine jumped down and her feet met the ground earlier than she expected. She stumbled forward and heard a metallic ting as something fell from her body onto the floor.
A cursory scan of the area revealed nothing but smooth black rock.
Smooth and black? That couldn’t be right. There wasn’t any slate in the Ardèche.
She bent down and touched the floor. It was warm and seemingly alive with static electricity. Pushing the torch as close to the floor as she could, she saw the rock wasn’t really black at all, but a very dark green. She stood up and whipped the beam around as fast as she could, against the walls and the ceiling, trying to build a complete picture in her mind, looking for anything that might help push down her rising disappointment.
No calcite deposits. No stalactites or stalagmites.
And it was too small. The ceiling was only a few feet above her head. The far wall was only three metres from the entrance. It was barely a cave at all.
“It’s nothing,” she said. She let the torch come to rest on the wall in front of her. No cave paintings. No preserved animal bones. No artefacts. “It’s nothing.”
As the words left her mouth she was overcome by a compelling sense of familiarity with this moment: the view of the crack in the wall in the torchlight; the childish tone in her voice; the feeling that she wanted to give up and go home and cash in her degree for an office job. She had done this before. She was absolutely certain.
But of course she hadn’t, and she explained it away quicker than the moment itself had lasted. It was her mind telling her get out before she started crying.
And it wasn’t nothing. There was something unsettling about the pristine nature of the cave. Why wasn’t there any dust or debris? Why weren’t there any animal remains? She wanted to leave.
From the entrance she looked back into the cave for a final time, the torch pointed downward in her limp hand. Something glinted on the floor. Celine went over to it and got down on her knees.
Her earring was dangling over the precipice of a tiny crack in the rock. Had it been flung any further forward, it would have fallen down and never been found. She picked it up and placed it on her palm. Red marked both the tiny silver rose motif and the stud. Like the lyrics to that old Billie Holiday song: blood on the leaves, and blood at the root. She shivered, that sense of familiarity drifting through her.
Something else rested in the tiny crack, something that had stopped her earring falling out of sight. With some effort, Celine managed to free the object. She put it on her palm next to her earring.
It was another silver earring shaped like a rose. Blood on the leaves. And at the root.
She reached up to her left ear and touched the earring. It hadn’t fallen out. Now she really did have three.
Two miles from the cave and they hadn’t exchanged a word since Dermot looked at Celine’s face as she emerged from the cave and said: “Oh—never mind. There’s always next time.”
They were crossing a vineyard on the way to the car when Dermot leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees. “Can we stop a moment?” he said. His face was red and scrunched up so tight that she could see the origin of his every wrinkle. Celine liked them usually, especially when he smiled. But with all of them visible at once, he looked ancient.
She put a hand on his shoulder. “Do you want to sit down?”
Dermot winced. “No. It’s a bit of cramp. Just give me a sec’ to get my breath back.”
He’d put on weight since their last expedition to the region; since his divorce he’d been living alone and eating badly. More and more she’d seen takeaway food wrappers lying around his office during their academic supervisions. He was probably just out of shape. Still, it made her nervous.
At the campsite she cooked while he sat back in a camping chair. The colour had returned to his face. She handed him a plate of barbequed Merguez sausages with salad, cheese and a broken-off section of baguette. He ate it all. They drank red wine as the sun went down.
“Are you disappointed?” she said.
“With what? Today? Never.”
“We’ll come again next year. And the year after that.” He leaned forward. “The trouble with actually finding a cave is that we’d never need to go exploring again. And that’s the fun bit really, isn’t it? I mean what would I have to look forward to if I didn’t have you, and this, in my life?”
She wanted to touch his forehead, brush back the lock of hair away that always flopped down in front of his eyes. Before the trip she had devised a plan to seduce him. It had involved copious amounts of wine, spilling something in her tent, having to stay on his floor. Maybe in his sleeping bag. Only the plan was ludicrous and she abandoned it the first night. She wasn’t that person any more than Dermot was the sort of person to sleep with a student. And looking at his face now, in the light of the gas burner, all she felt was tenderness.
Celine felt a mosquito bite her arm. They were both falling asleep. It was already late and their flight was early.
Still, she wasn’t ready for it to end just yet. She wanted to tell Dermot about the earring. Sober, he would make any of its mystery vanish in a cold puff of logic. But now?
“Dermot, what do you think about déjà vu?”
“I think…” He paused. “I think it’s a memory of a past life.”
“I am. I’m being deadly serious. Why? What do you think it is?”
She could hear his smile. “I don’t have an opinion. If it’s anything it’s probably your brain misbehaving. That’s what you think, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I suspect you’re probably right. It’s odd though, you mentioning it. I had that very sensation while I was waiting for you earlier, when you were in the cave.”
“Seriously? I can’t tell if you’re winding me up now.”
“Seriously. I was looking down from the edge of the mountain at the horses in the fields and was trying to imagine the plains teeming with mammoths and mountain lions… Then there it was. The way the low sun hit the river, the way a particular tree was bending. I’d seen it before. Even the temperature of the wind on my face and the thoughts in my head. It was all as if I’d been in that exact moment before.”
“I had it when I was in the cave,” she said. “Twice actually.” She paused and felt the extra earring pressing her leg through the pocket of her jeans. “Dermot, I found—”
“I wonder what our cave-dwelling friends would have made of it? I bet they had a good myth or story about it. Don’t you think? Resurrection, reincarnation, eternal recurrence… Our culture’s littered with them, of course.”
“Eternal recurrence. No thanks. I couldn’t do all these expeditions again. Too much heartbreak.”
“But think of all the fun we had. All that anticipation and excitement. It wasn’t any less anticipatory and exciting just because the thing we wanted didn’t come to pass. Imagine the dismal world it would be if we had a map of all our future failings. The idea is, Celine, that you make your life so fantastic it wouldn’t be a chore to live it again.”
The gas lamp began to flicker. Celine thought they should pack up for the morning before it ran out. But Dermot wasn’t done. “If you want my honest, non-academic opinion, if I had to pick a silly belief to have about what happens after we die, eternal recurrence of some sort is probably the most credible.”
“What makes you say that?” she said.
“Well, we’re all just a collection of energy aren’t we? Big floppy bags of various sorts of energy, but energy nonetheless. When we die, the energy just gets reconstituted into a different form of energy. My flesh becomes dinner for lots of little worms and parasites et cetera. Yummy! Reincarnation of a sort… Or what about the big bang theory? And the big crunch! Some scientists think the universe will stop expanding at some point then come back in on itself. Some think it will then expand again and everything will be exactly as it was before. You, me, this campsite.”
“I like that thought.”
“It’s a good one isn’t it? Just make sure you have fun the first time!”
Celine touched the earring in her pocket. “Dermot—”
The gas lamp went out.
She woke sweating at 6am, the trapped heat inside the tent already unbearable in spite of the early hour. As noisily as she could Celine collected up the coffee-making equipment and then shouted out to Dermot. When the coffee was ready she pulled down the zipper to the porch area of his tent. His shoes were neatly set to one side, the socks balled up in the opening.
“I’m leaving you coffee, Derm. Okay?”
“Derm, we have to be gone in twenty minutes.”
Still nothing. She left the coffee for him and began to pack up her tent. When unpegged and flat, she rolled it up as small and compact as possible. “Dermot, please tell me you are up.”
He hadn’t been right last night, not even after he had eaten. All that talk about spirituality and reincarnation. What if something had happened to him?
After stuffing the tent into its impossibly small bag as quickly as she could, she went back to the entrance of his tent. The coffee remained untouched next to his boots.
“Just warning you, I’m coming in now. So if you’re naked you better cover up.”
Earplugs. Sometimes he wore earplugs.
She climbed into his tent. The shape in the sleeping bag lay still. She grabbed the mound of his foot and shook it. It felt too heavy. Like his boots were still on.
Celine crawled quickly to his side and grabbed his shoulders. When she shook him, all of him moved at once. But she could see his face now and so the weight and stiffness of his body came as no surprise to her. His eyes were open, a look of utter indifference set on his face.
“We’re going to miss the plane,” she said and started to cry.
Rudimentary French was enough to get her through the essentials. Did she want a lift? No, she had a car. Would she be okay? Yes, she would be fine. It was just a shock.
When the police and the ambulance left Celine tried to pay for an extra night at the campsite. The proprietor shook his head and defiantly squeezed his lips. At first she thought he wanted her to leave, but he was being kind.
“Mon avion… Demain,” she said as apologetically as she could.
“Stay until you need,” he replied. He hadn’t spoken English the whole week they had been there.
For a long time she sat outside Dermot’s tent, replaying their conversation about reincarnation and eternal recurrence.
What would he come back as? She hoped it was something intelligent, but without all the copious baggage of a human intellect. “I hope you come back as a dolphin,” she said.
Celine reached into her pocket to find a tissue. As she pulled out the tatty remains of a napkin from last night’s meal, the third earring fell onto the grass. She picked it up, held it up in front of the now early afternoon sun.
“So what about you then? Who do you belong to?” she asked. From her other pocket she brought out her two other earrings and compared the two stained with blood. The patterns were nearly identical. “You look like mine. I think you are mine. I think I dropped you once-upon-a-time but never found you. Big Bang. Big Crunch. And then this time around I did find you. This time it was different…”
The thought that came into her head then made her laugh out loud. It was a stupid thought, no, worse, it was an irrational thought. One Dermot would make mincemeat of.
This is how it always happens.
“Maybe,” she said. “Or maybe not.” Celine stood, picked up her backpack and set off in the direction of the mountain.
After she was done, she spent an hour disguising the crack in the mountain wall. Her idea rested on the cave never being found again. The rest of human history was a long time to plan for, she knew that. At some point she imagined she might come back here with dynamite and seal the thing for good.
For now she stuffed it with rocks and mud until the cold breeze she had felt just the day before was completely imperceptible. Then feeling something close to contentment, Celine went back to the campsite and thought about the future.
Celine held her hand up to the thin opening in the mountain wall. A column of air tickled her palm, so soft the tufts of grass that grew around the aperture barely—
“What do you think?” Dermot—
For a panicked moment it seemed as if she was wedged, stone jaws clamped down on her helmet—
The only way left to go was down; a five foot drop to the floor of a cave lay inches from the tip of her—
They had done it—
This is how it always happens.
She landed and stumbled forward. Something fell from her body with a metallic ting but Celine didn’t hear it. Her attention was completely taken up by the piles of notepads on the floor in front of her. It looked like they had been bought recently. The paper looked unaffected by the elements and not even a layer of dust was visible on the top of each page.
Someone had already been here.
Before disappointment could weaken her resolve, Celine kneeled down. The lined pads were in three stacks, each one bearing a different handwritten number on the cover. Resting on the very top notepad of the central pile were three silver earrings in the shape of a rose—two of them had blood on the stud.
A line from an old Billie Holiday song ran through her mind and she shivered. Déjà Vu.
She picked up the pad at the top of the left hand pile, the one marked 7, and began to flick through. Words jumped out at her: Dermot, Ambulance, Phone… The handwriting was hers.
The pad in her hand had been filled. Pads 8 and 9 were filled too.
The pad marked 1 was beneath the earrings. With a trembling hand, she moved the jewelry to one side and opened up the first pad. A folded square of paper fell onto her lap. She picked it up and held it under the torch.
CELINE: READ THIS FIRST
The cave never changes. But I don’t think we can change anything else because of that.
I left the cave, as you will soon, twenty years ago. I’ve thought about it every day since and come back here every time I thought I knew the answer.
We can’t save him. We’ve been quick. We’ve been slow. But I think if there was ever anything we could have done, it would have to have been done before the moment you are currently in. Before we got to the cave.
There are over 1000 different entries in these pads. I’ve read all of them. We tried everything to save him, but it always ends in the same way: you, in this cave, leaving another entry on one of these pads.
Sometimes we’ve shown him these pads. Whatever you do, please don’t do that. That is the worst thing we have done.
Kiss him. Go to bed with him. Hold him until the morning.
But don’t spend another minute trying and failing to fix it. Time and causation are forces, who knew? Like the crushing pressures at the deepest points of the ocean, they are immovable, and while this cave is a force in and of itself, it is not a force strong enough to stop what is already in motion.
Maybe if we stop trying to do something impossible, we won’t spend a different sort of eternity feeling guilty.
Big Bang, Big Crunch. The cave never changes. And for the most part, despite our best efforts, nothing else changes either. But maybe we can change? Good luck.
All my love,
Aged 47, March 21st 2032
S R Mastrantone does most of his writing in Oxford in the UK, even though he is originally from Birmingham. He writes blogs here, www.srmastrantone.com and tweets as @srmastrantone. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Fiction Desk (for which he won their Writer’s Award), Lamplight, Shock Totem, Press Start to Play, and of course, Stupefying Stories. His debut novel, THE KILLER YOU KNOW (Sphere/Little,Brown) is due in Spring 2018.