Dialogue in the Dark
Vang Vien, Laos
We ascend at the edge of the second cathedral before reaching the third, climbing over stalagmites and stalactites that had fallen from the ceiling. I’m walking in front because I have magic shoes. I run up the huge fallen boulders like a goat. Erim is behind me shining the torch by our feet. He’s an IT guy from San Francisco. I met him on a slow boat down the Mekong River into Laos from Thailand and we became friends.
It’s pitch black and the light is getting weak. I stop myself.
“What’s that?” I peer cautiously forward into nothing.
“What’s what?” Erim pulls up next to me.
“What’s ahead?” Erim is busy shining his light on the ceiling taking in the dome. It’s hundreds of feet high. The stalactites pointing down at us reflect the light wet and crystalline.
“Point the light down, please,” I tell him and he does. Another foot and there is a sheer dropoff, so deep you cannot see the bottom. It must be hundreds of feet. I imagine the size of the stalagmites waiting to skewer me at the bottom.
We step back and I have to sit down. Erim turns off the light to conserve the batteries.
“That’s death. That was close,” I cannot believe it.
“What are we going to do?” Erim asks and I hear him breathing hard as he sits down.
“We need to find the light. When was the last time you saw light?” I’m trying to think logically.
“It was straight ahead, I think,” he replies.
“Me too, so we have to go forward then we’ll see the light and get out of here.” It makes sense to me.
A snapshot in a green glow as Erim checks his watch, “Half hour, forty-five minutes till sundown. What do we do when the sun goes down?”
How could we survive a night here on the cold hard rocks? What else would be sleeping here? I think of cobras and tigers and say, “Let’s move forward. We’ll try and find the light and along the way we’ll look for a place to sleep and maybe find a stick to burn. It’ll get cold soon.”
We stand up and look into the abyss. Around it is a small ledge and on the other side an angled wall that goes up to another ledge and another even steeper wall to the right.
“Look at the top of that wall,” Erim shines the light, “Now turn off the light.” He does. There is the faintest glow. “See that? That’s where we need to go.”
He shines the light back into the abyss. “Don’t waste the battery on that. Shine it here. The suns going down we need to get to the light.” I walk to the left edge of the abyss and across the ledge to the far wall of rock.
“I don’t think I can do it, man,” Erim says as he shines the light on the wall above him, illuminating perfect handholds and footholds for the toe grip of my magic shoes. “I’ll shine the light for you, once you’re up there you’ll be in the light of the first cavern and you’ll be able to see fine.”
I interrupt him, “We’ll do it together,” I say. “Do you feel more comfortable throwing or catching?”
“I’m going to climb to the first ledge then you’re going to toss me the flashlight and climb up.”
There is no time to argue. One of us has to get out. I find a toe hold for my magic right shoe, then one for my left a baby step up. I focus on what is in front of me, reaching up with my hands searching for the next cold, smooth rock that will be my temporary anchor.