I was nine years old the first and last time I saw the heart in the cave. It began one cool autumn morning, when my father spread a brochure across the breakfast table and grinned.
"It's called Howe Caverns," he said. "It's in the Catskill Mountains, and it's over six million years old."
My mother raised one eyebrow. "Fascinating," she said.
"Here, Emily. Look at these pictures." He handed me the brochure and I took it, examining the pages while my cereal turned soggy in the bowl. Despite the faded photos, I imagined the spectacular sight that would greet us when we arrived—a black hole yawning wide, echoes of underground rivers rising from its depths, a secret place full of mysteries that could be revealed only to a certain fated third-grader.
"Fascinating," I said, echoing my mother, except I actually meant it. I passed the brochure to her; she returned it to my father without even glancing at it. Despite the tension at the table, I felt a small thrill roll across my spine. Caverns, I thought. Mountains.
Before this trip, I had left Long Island only three times in my short life. First, to attend my great-grandmother's funeral in White Plains, where I reached into the casket and tried to poke her awake. Second, for a Yankees game, where I ate three hotdogs before the first pitch and threw up during the seventh inning stretch. Third, on the way to see the Radio City Rockettes' Christmas Spectacular, where I let go of my mother's hand as we were boarding the subway and ended up alone on the platform, crying beside a police officer until my mother and father could loop around on the next train and rescue me. Though they never said anything after that, my parents had clearly decided it was safer to stay home.
So the trip to the cavern was risky on many levels, and not just because it was, quite clearly, my father's last-ditch effort to salvage his marriage and save his family. And while I knew most families vacationed at the beach or visited amusement parks, and did not drive five hours to walk through a cave hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth, I was still young enough to hope that his plan would work.
Most of what I know about my parents I learned from a scrapbook full of photos and newspaper clippings. I kept it tucked safely between my mattress and box spring, only pulling it out at night, after their murmured arguments in the living room had faded to heavy silence.
Here are the things the scrapbook told me about my mother: as a young girl she loved horses and had a stallion named Oh Henry, which she rode from the age of ten to the age of fifteen. She danced—ballet and tap, mostly, but in performances she was relegated to the chorus. She went to school for art history and worked briefly in a gallery before meeting my father. She was once thin and beautiful. She once smiled.
Here are the things the scrapbook told me about my father: at the age of eight, he held the record for the largest bass caught in the Long Island Sound. He dropped out of high school and found work repairing swimming pools, which he later grew into a successful business. He had no parents of his own—at least none that were pictured or ever mentioned. He was once burly and confident. He once laughed.
The photos made me uneasy. It was as if the faces smiling up from the page were strangers who just happened to look like my parents. I wondered when the happy couple in those photos had been stolen away and replaced by the people now fighting and sleeping in a room down the hall. I wondered if this was just the way life worked—sooner or later, we were all traded in.
After a long car ride and an uncomfortable night in a motel room, we finally arrived at Howe Caverns. I jumped out of the car, eager to finally glimpse the majestic cave I had heard so much about. What I saw instead was a nondescript door, embedded in a wall of dirt and stone. I turned to my father, confused.
"Well," he said, rubbing his hands together. "Let's see what this cave can do, eh?" Just then, the door opened and a man wearing a blue jacket stepped out. He was tall and thin, with a mop of brown hair that hung just past the edge of his wire-rimmed glasses.
"Don't look too excited now!" the man said.
"We're very excited," my mother replied, stifling a yawn. "Thrilled, even."
"Then you're in for a treat. My name is Brian and I'll be your guide into the depths of Howe Caverns."
"Where are the other people?" I asked. Other than our small family, the grassy knoll next to the door was empty.
"It's just us today." Brian smiled a toothy grin. "Off-season." "It's cheaper to travel during the off-season, Emily," my mother explained, perhaps a bit too loudly. "That's why your Daddy waited this long to take us on a vacation."
"Dear," my father said, the word barbed.
"All right, then," Brian said. "Let's begin the tour, shall we?" He pushed open the small door, and one by one we filed through. A few feet farther we were greeted by another door that led to a rickety elevator.
"Don't worry," Brian said. "This elevator has been around for decades and it hasn't dropped anyone yet."
"Decades?" my mother said. "Somehow that doesn't reassure me."
"I assure you," Brian said. "Even if the elevator doesn't." He laughed at his own joke but we did not join in, so he pretended to clear his throat. "Tough crowd," he said. Against our better judgment, we stepped through the door. I grabbed my mother's leg as the elevator creaked and she put a hand on my shoulder, holding me just as tightly.
My stomach flipped as the machine began its descent, and Brian took the opportunity to inform us that we were, at that moment, traveling 156 feet down into the belly of the cave. The elevator finally ground to a halt and the doors opened, revealing a shallow room. To our left, a lantern on the wall cast a pale yellow light over the stone surfaces and just ahead, smaller lights dotted their way down a tunnel, growing fainter and fainter as they stretched into the darkness.
"Welcome to the foyer," Brian said, an edge of excitement in his voice. "This is the first part of the cave that Lester Howe discovered, when his cows led him to the opening of the cavern."
"His cows?" my father said.
"Yes, sir. He noticed that the herd would gather in one particular area on hot days, where it was a bit cooler for no apparent reason—or so it seemed." Brian lowered his voice just slightly, perhaps for dramatic effect. "Lester did some digging around and found the entrance to the cave. It was much smaller back then—barely big enough for a grown man to slip through—but Lester knew enough to recognize that he'd found something big."
"You mean the cows," my mother said.
"The cows found something big," she repeated. "Not Lester."
"I guess you could say that." Brian was beginning to sound annoyed but managed to smile as he handed us yellow hardhats, each adorned with a headlight. Mine was a few sizes too big and shifted whenever I moved, causing the dull beam of light to zigzag wildly across the stone floor.
"Now we're ready," Brian said. "Let's explore!" He made his way down the hallway and we followed. For once, even my mother cooperated. The lights on the walls were spaced every few feet, and I watched the ground as we walked, stepping over the dark spaces between each yellow circle.
"See those pointy ledges and rocks?" Brian had stopped walking and I realized his question was directed at me.
"Yes, sir," I said, carefully examining the stones that rose up around us.
"Those are called stalagmites. They rise up from the floor of limestone caves. Those other outcrops, the ones coming down from the ceiling? They're called stalactites. Eventually, they meet in the middle, forming a column. It can take hundreds of years for this to happen, but they never give up."
My father snorted.
"Do you have something to add?" Brian asked.
"No," my father said. He ran a hand through his hair and winked at me.
"Are you sure?" Brian said. "I'm here to answer your questions."
"It's just—don't you think that's a little romantic?" My father shrugged. "I mean, they're rocks. It's not like they're actually thinking about what they're doing. It's like giving a fish a prize for swimming."
"That's one way to look at it," Brian said. "But I like to think the cave has a spirit. That it knows things we don't know." I was hanging on Brian's every word, imagining the spirit of the cave walking through me, just as I was walking through it.
"Okay, now you're losing me," my mother said, breaking the spell. "I was willing to get on board with the stalagmites reaching for each other, but a cave that knows things? Next you'll be trying to sell us pet rocks."
My father laughed again and my mother smiled. Brian looked pale and tired.
"Why don't we continue the tour?"
"Lead the way," my father said. We walked on.
Here is a true thing about my parents' marriage: they were going to get divorced, but instead they had me. I know this because once, before my great-grandmother was lying in a casket in White Plains, she was sitting across from me at our kitchen table, chain-smoking cigarettes while my parents were at work.
"They thought having you would solve all their problems," she said. A plume of smoke flowed from her nostrils. I ate crackers with peanut butter, flicking away the ash that had fallen on the plate. "Just goes to show." She coughed and bent over the kitchen table. I chewed slowly, wondering what I had done to sabotage their plan.
Here is a true thing about me: when we went to the city to see the Rockettes, and the subway doors opened, and everyone on the platform rushed forward, I let go of my mother's hand on purpose. I watched her turn as the doors shut, saw her grab my father's arm with a wild look in her eyes. I knew they would find me eventually, and I hoped that their fear for my safety would provide the healing that their love for me had not.
"How could you lose her like that?" my father hissed on the train ride home, after an hour in the police station, filling out a police report instead of watching the Christmas Spectacular.
"Why is it automatically my fault?" My mother sat with arms crossed over her chest, her face stony. "She has two parents, you know." I stared out the window, watched the landscape turn from gray buildings to the lush green of eastern Long Island, and imagined the perfectly synchronized legs of the Rockettes swinging forward and kicking me far away from both of them.
"You're in for a real treat," Brian said. He stopped walking again and stood a little straighter, adjusting his nametag as if he knew that this was his last chance to impress us with the wonder of the cave. "A real treat. We call this section the Bridal Altar."
We were standing in a shallow alcove. In front of us were three stone steps that led to a small stage. It took me a moment to notice the heart, and when I did I gasped. It was right in front of us, embedded in the smooth stone surface of the floor, pale pink and faintly glowing. I took a step forward and my mother grabbed my arm.
"It's okay," Brian said. My mother let go and as Brian continued his speech I inched closer, until I was toeing the edge of the heart's gentle curve. "Over six hundred weddings have taken place here. The first was in 1854 when Lester Howe's daughter, Elgiva, married a man named Hiram Dewey." He paused for dramatic effect and we gazed at the altar.
When I look at photos of the cave today, or see advertisements for the cavern in travel magazines, the pink heart looks tacky, man-made in the worst way. But that afternoon, in the cave's dim light, I was mesmerized. As I stared at the heart, I thought of all those promises made in the dark. The heart didn't know if those promises were broken above ground, in the sun's bright gaze. The heart didn't care. The heart lived here, at the bottom of a cavern, safe from the world outside.
I glanced at my mother. The pink halo of the heart lit up her face and for a moment she looked like the happy stranger in the scrapbook, hidden under my bed. My father, standing beside her, seemed to recognize this transformation. I know this because suddenly, somehow, he took her hand in his and held it. I remember the sound of a heart beating in my ears, and not knowing if it belonged to me or to the cave.
After our visit to the Bridal Altar, we walked another twenty feet to the edge of a river where a small canoe was waiting for us. For once no one protested or argued. We simply climbed into the boat and allowed Brian to steer us across the dark water.
"This is the Lake of Venus," he said. He spoke quietly. "Beyond this point there are over 640 more miles of the cave, but they aren't developed and it's too dangerous to travel any farther." We heard him, but we weren't listening. We felt like we were in a different boat, drifting down another river. Brian, excellent guide that he was, didn't stand a chance.
Less than a year after our trip to the cave, my parents separated. The divorce was easy enough, and even though I was temporarily devastated, I realized that it was for the best.
After that, I went on two vacations a year. My mother took me to the beach, where we spread out blankets, slathered ourselves in sunscreen, and read for hours in the shade of an umbrella. My father took me to amusement parks, and we rode the tallest roller coasters, ate too much cotton candy, and knocked down milk bottles to win giant stuffed animals. The trips were fun, but they lacked the magic of that first vacation. In the cave, I had felt the possibility of change, the lure of love. It would be years before I felt the shadow of those things again, and never in quite the same way.
Only one photo exists from our trip to Howe Caverns. When we got home I went to my room, reached into the space between the mattress and the box spring, and pulled out the scrapbook. I remember flipping to the back, where there were plenty of empty pages, and triumphantly pasting the photo in place.
In the picture, I am standing between my mother and my father. My father has a hand on my head and my mother is standing slightly behind me, arms at her side. Behind us is the door to the cave, simple and small, but leading the way to unimaginable depths.
I remember thinking the cave had changed us, that we emerged from the darkness better than when we entered. Looking at the photo now, I can't tell if we posed for it before we went into the cave or after we came out. I was certain I'd be able to know just from looking, but I was wrong.
Title graphic: "Protrusion" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2013.