He talks about cave formations the way he makes love: earnestly, with no sense of play.
He ignores the tour guide as she leads us around them. He whispers, “They rise from the floor of a cave because they once were demons summoned from the depths of hell. Before they could harm anyone, they were frozen there by a watchful angel. Only God can break them open.”
Who summoned them? I wonder, but I’d stopped asking back when I first suspected he was losing himself.
“Those are the angels the demons froze. They still have power; the rocks drip with it.”
The tour guide tells us to duck to avoid hitting our heads and he glares at her. “Angels won’t hurt us,” he says, a bit louder this time.
“Is it a stalemate?” I say, meaning between good and evil.
This time his fury is directed at me. “Of course not. She won’t stop us.” He stretches his arm and cups his hand around the bottom of the nearest spike. He comes away with a few drops of water which he laps up with the speed of a dog eating a stolen treat. “Power is salty.”
I long to put my own hand out, touch something beyond myself. Something that might save us.
“Flowstones are sheets of calcite deposits formed where water flows down the walls or along the floors of a cave,” the tour guide says, her voice a practiced excitement.
His “They didn’t tell us there would be ice; I would have brought my skates,” is full of wonder. I have to stop him from stepping off the path onto the uneven cave floor. For once, he complies.“Satan’s in there,” he says, and I try to remember if he has ever mentioned reading Danté.
When had he become my child instead of my husband?
✓ Soda straws
He remembers these, the years of standing in front of a lecture hall coming back to him.
I see the man I knew for a brief second, clarity showing on his face, then, “God uses these straws to drink from the ocean.”
I remember when we used to go to the ocean, how his skin, pale from fluorescent lights and too many vacations spent underground, would always turn pink. The ocean trips were for me. I needed to feel the sun on my hair, squint at the light before I went blind from the darkness he loved.
The most fragile of the cave sculptures, helictites angle and curve into unimaginable shapes. “They appear to have been grown in zero gravity,” the tour guide says, “free from all constraints of the natural world.”
His favorite formation. He adds, “If you touch them, they crumble.”
I reach out my hand to touch his, but at the last second, I draw back, afraid what’s left of him might disintegrate before my eyes.
Elizabeth Burton lives in Western Kentucky and holds an MFA from Spalding University. Her fiction has appeared in Roanoke Review, Chautauqua, The Louisville Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Ellipsis Zine’s Three, and The MacGuffin, among others. Check out her website at www.elizabethburtonwriter.com or find her on Twitter @eburton_writes.