A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature. Over 15,000 daily subscribers. Over 6,000 archived posts.
Beauty didn’t interest me. Bats did. I was a budding nerd who’d already memorized everything I could find about the 17 species of bats nesting in Carlsbad Caverns and now my imagination was aroused by the possibility of seeing the nursery of the Brazilian free-tail where a colony of millions hung upside down nourishing their babies with milk, not insects, as I explained to my mother who gleamed with pride at her little chiropterologist. The bats flew out of the cave in a huge black cloud every evening to hunt insects and haunt the countryside, returning at dawn using echolocation, I explained to my mother. The nursery was off-limits to families on the tour of course but I had plans of sneaking away. * The park ranger herded us down the chained path sloping into the earth until we came to a cathedral where columns of rock caught the light and shimmered. If beauty had been my thing this was it but it wasn’t. I was impatient to see the flutter-mice I’d come for and nothing less. In a sonorous voice the ranger said to us, his congregation, Absolute darkness is rare. Even if you lock yourself in a closet at night during a blackout a small amount of light will seep into your eyes. He said he would turn off the lights for 30 seconds. Just 30 seconds, he said, but it will feel like a lifetime. Then the world, everything I knew went dark and I gasped for light as if it were air and breathed in nothing I knew. Confusion, panic, calm, exhilaration washed over me. I breathed the darkness into my lungs felt the darkness on my skin not an absence but a texture which now half a century later I might name the black fabric of my unconscious although at the age of 11 all I knew was a rising panic that dissolved into pure imperishable awe. * In that darkness the chronic angers of my family which had ruled my life receded, as did school which bored me, my supposed friends whom I suspected pitied me, and the whole shoddy apparatus of my life as an autistic kid who hadn’t learned to speak until he was five, an easy target for bullies and abusers a kid who had climbed into himself and found so little in the empty attic of a soul full of broken toys he’d accepted his role as the loneliest boy on the planet, a perpetual party of one, a specter on the spectrum. Having been silent almost half my life I hadn’t gotten the hang of being pleasant, so I relied on the illusion of intelligence – a tiresome authority on insects, a memorizer of maps and tables, a secret lover of Dean Martin, a singer of the music of scientific names -- this life, the only one I would know for decades -- faded away in the dark like a bad dream I could wake from simply by turning out the lights and the darkness inside me would merge with the darkness of the world and I would feel whole and if not happy at least at peace with this sorry lot I’d been given through no fault of my own. The world of darkness would be mine and like a comic book hero who’d fought the demons and won, I would have my own kingdom and with a gentle hand I’d rule the gentle dead who’d welcome me home. * And when the lights came back on and the cavern beckoned with its precarious paths, low ceilings and huge opera halls, stadiums of jeweled earth and the slight breeze coming from even deeper darknesses below, nothing in the tour of those magnificent caves and their tight squeezes that led to ballrooms and stadiums crowded with stone spectators who’d witnessed the slow accumulation of calcium ghosts in the galleries of ancient coral beds, not the Hall of Giants or the Crystal Spring Dome, not the stone elephants or the fine filigree of red minerals, or the stone draperies and lily pads suspended from the ceiling, or the cave pearls, the gypsum flowers, the chandelier ballroom of massive speleothems, or the water dripping from the ceiling for eons shaping the great cities uninhabited by the living, or the tempting mysteries of Lake Lebarge with its blind white fish who’d never seen daylight, nor even the 138 miles of the forbidden wilderness of the Lechuguilla Cave awakened my innocence and longing as this song, this beckoning from the underbelly of the world this darkness singing come home, come home little one we’ve been waiting for you * As we passed the sign showing the way to the bat nursery which was the ranger’s cue for a scripted joke about Batman, I ducked out of line and moved toward the narrow passage, but my mother gently reined me in and I stayed with her through the tour, discovering a group of sleeping bats is called a cauldron and in flight a cloud and that evening we returned to watch from the amphitheater the black cloud of bats leaving the rocky entrance and gaining speed like wind-blown smoke sweeping over the Chihuahuan desert with a horizontal speed of up to 100 mph, each soul catching and eating up to ½ of its ½ ounce weight in flies, crickets, maggots and I envied their nimble flight on quick fierce wings and I wanted to return not to the cave, but to the darkness, those 30 seconds flying through the stone passageways navigating by sound and instinct out of the cave and up to the reddening sky, the slender moon bright as a sword. * Yes, I knew I would return to this nothingness, this absence where I could blossom like a stone flower, a stalactite growing slowly, invisibly in the darkness that rose like a slight breeze from the chambers below where even my own breath seemed unbearably loud, this quick fierce movement like wings at the beginning of my feeling life, this moment when the past and future melded and time no longer flowed like water but flowed like rock and even now, here in this darkness I still contain I feel completely and blessedly empty and my own death begins to sing.
Michael Simms is the founder and editor of Vox Populi. His latest collection of poems is American Ash (Ragged Sky, 2020).
Copyright 2021 Michael Simms