As the passageway dilated, my headlamp fell upon colors I had never seen before. Stalactites hung from above like chandeliers, adornments created only for eyes searching through the darkness far below the houses of the angularly constructed and bright suburban city. Down in the cave there were only rounded edges that festered and opened through millennia of shadow and absolute silence. The earth was digesting itself in one enormous network of caverns, intestines that both dripped and absorbed liquid like stomach lining. I felt like an invader, a voyeur even, penetrating such a place.
I had been advised to avoid contact with the damp walls, so I fingered slimy rock configurations solely with my eyes. Still, I wanted to feel the cold texture of the organ-like stalagmites that protruded from the ground around me like strange trees. When the others had traveled deeper into the cavern, coloring the natural silence with shouts, I slipped off one of my gloves and ran my fingertips along one of the structures. Grains of silt and fluorescent green moss coated my skin. Both the imposing power of the formation and the fragility of the sediment comprising it staggered the artist in me. I knew what my next project must be.
Nearly every weekend and some nights after work, I borrowed a friend’s jeep and snuck back to the cave, often just to photograph or sketch, but other times to crawl around and explore. I thought of the cave constantly. Whether I was sleeping next to my snoring husband, or helping a student finish a quilting project, my mind was filled with subterranean landscapes for the days and nights that followed my first cave exploration.
My husband didn’t mind me turning the basement into a home studio, and I began my project immediately. The first surfaces to be covered up and smoothed over were the ceiling corners. Yards of felt stuffed with cotton surrounded the edges of the room. Soon there would be no more right angles or sharp edges. I had the entire room mapped out -- where I would place the largest columns, the stalagmites, the smaller stalactites dangling from above, and an iridescent orange lake blanketed at the base of it all. While my husband worked diligently in his upstairs office, planning and calculating the plans for a new strip mall, I created a soft fabric world below, a place that felt natural to harbor a human body.
There was no window or clock in the basement to judge the time, and feeling drowsy and slow one night, I realized it had to be at least two or three in the morning. The idea of climbing back upstairs, however, into a hard square bed, alone for the night, was not a calming one. In the deepest passageway of the cavern, I fashioned myself a nest made of spare blankets. After turning off my headlamp, I looked up in the darkness above me and was soothed to sense a low-hanging, voluptuous ceiling as pliable to my eyes as the blankets were to my arms and legs. The embrace was maternal, a reminder of early childhood before my mother had left me. Sleep came more gently than it had in years.
More nights passed alone, as my husband was busier than ever before with work. On the evenings he did stay home, I would sometimes take him into the studio to show him the progress I had made. He was used to seeing me sewing blouses and backpacks, hemming pants, and creating new patterns. Now I had begun to see myself as a sculptor. I had never made an installation before, and he didn’t think much of contemporary art. It was difficult for me to explain my motivation because I often did not understand it myself. My girlfriends’ children loved it, though, and I let them scramble around in the cave for hours when their moms came to visit. They’d leave in their mothers’ arms and I’d always crawl back in.
My own play was constant. The room would never be truly finished. It only became denser, expanding inwardly to fill the room. I started embroidering the surfaces, sewing on small growths, attaching threads of moss that dangled from above and caressed the heads of passers-through. The room was entirely soft, safer than a psych-ward with white cushioned walls, soft enough to cushion my body as it slept more and more nights in its belly. I covered over the door in fabric cushioning so that when it was closed, one could never know it was there. The room would embrace me in a hug with no end, with arms that would not tire or let go.
In the morning when I crawled into the empty house, where the sunbeams sliced through the kitchen blinds, I always left the basement door open. The days and the nights began to reverse; were indistinguishable. What was once hard and characterized by darkness now embraced me, and carried me through all the varieties of light I encountered, like those of work and loneliness. The spherical surrounding darkness protected me with all of its mysterious gentle hands through right-angles and jagged edges, sheltering me from the fluorescent lights that often obscured rather than illuminated. I felt like a child again, in the years before my mom left me, when I felt like freedom itself could mold to my own form, like she could sense the rhythmic dripping that echoed loudly within me. Finally, the abandoned girl inside could sleep undisturbed, and heal the pulsing hurt she had ignored for years. Finally, in the belly of herself, she was mending.
Cover Image by Jodeci Zimmerman