She tripped and fell; her swollen belly hit the ground. She hadn’t seen the rock. The rabbit carcass tumbled over the snow, spattering it with crimson specks. The young woman dragged herself to the cave. Something had broken inside her and was coming out between her legs. She howled her pain: the bats came streaming out over her head.
She had begun to swell up several moons after a feast to which the men of another clan had been invited. She didn’t know who had got her pregnant, nor did she care. What she cared about was being a smart hunter and a fast runner, and everyone knew that females with a burden were slower and sure to get left behind, so they had to stay at the settlement until it was time to give birth.
The pain threw her onto her back. She tried to remember what women did in this situation. In her mind’s eye she could see her mother crouched over, squeezing thin, bluish babies out onto the ground. They always died a few days later. Only she and her sister, who were strong and skilled at clinging to life, had managed to survive. She rolled up to a squat and immediately felt the urge to push. She shouldn’t have left the settlement swollen up like that, but it was boring to stay back with the old women while the young ones were out in a band, on the trail of bison. So she had slipped out and gone to check a trap that she had made with pine branches a while back: she found the rabbit trembling, caught between the branches, and felt an innocent joy as she slit its throat.
Pleased with herself, she had failed to see the rock, and because of that stupid carelessness, she was shedding her lump ahead of time and without any help. Luckily it was already sliding out between her legs: a damp salamander. She was groping for it when a spasm of pain bent her double. Another lump . . . ! The second baby dropped out beside the first. She fell forward onto her elbows, exhausted, and used her knife to sever the purple entrails connecting her to the newborn creatures.
She raised their sticky bodies, one in each hand: a male and a female, their little arms reaching out to her, streaked with delicate, branching veins. Numb with cold but flushed from the effort, confused in her exhaustion, she gazed at them, intrigued. Something terrible had just happened to her, something the old women discussed in whispers around the fire: she had given birth to double children. This was an unmistakable sign of her wrongdoing. The tiny, identical, hungry mouths attached themselves to her nipples, and the sucking—pleasurable and painful at once—relieved her engorged breasts.
A coyote sang in the distance: night was coming at a gallop. She had survived the lump, as she had previously survived gomphotheres, cold, hunger, and fever. The instinct for life stirred within her again, alert and sharp. Gusts of snow blew in between the icicles, reminding her that there was no time to waste. She removed the babies from her nipples and took them into the light to contemplate them once again: they were almost translucid and covered with the finest down.
She carried them to the back of the cave and, moved by curiosity or playfulness, pressed the four little soles of those bloody feet on the wall and, beside them, the palms of her own dirty hands. The symmetry of the prints on the rock gave her a sense of achievement. Then, with the same clean stroke that she had applied to the rabbit, she slit the throats of the double children. Before the darkness covered them, they let out a soft mewing.
She stepped out of the cave, no lump now, and ran off across the snowy steppe.
One night a twenty-two-year-old food worker by the name of Xóchitl Salazar got lost in a thunderstorm on the way back to her village after working at a tamale stand in Guelaguetza. Disoriented in the darkness and terrified by the lightning bolts zigzagging across the sky like varicose veins, she ended up in the cave. From there she tried to call her boyfriend, who hadn’t wanted her to work at that fiesta. There was no signal on her cell phone, but the blue glow of the flashlight app dispersed the hungry shadows.
What she saw imprinted itself on her retina: the wall at the back was covered with rudimentary paintings, composing a complicated prehistoric fresco. The images were superimposed; it was clear that they had been added by different artists over centuries. They scared her: the set of figures revealed a forbidden order, a heresy. The animals were out of proportion with the humans. Some were as big as a hippopotamus or an elephant, although no one had ever seen a hippopotamus or an elephant in Oaxaca. And the postures of the human figures suggested scenes of—she crossed herself twice—group sex. She placed her hand on the print that another hand had left on the rock: the shape of her palm exactly matched the outline.
It was almost dawn by the time the rain stopped and Xóchitl Salazar was able to make her way home across the fields in her wet, muddy dress with the news of her discovery. But she didn’t get the chance to say a word. Her boyfriend, sick with jealousy, was waiting behind the door with a baseball bat. She hardly felt the blow. She fell to the ground face up, with her forehead caved in, and the image of those strange animals fixed in her pupils.
The light rose out of the depths of the night unseen by any living creature. A silvery flame the size of a ring, sprung from nothing. It stopped in the middle of the cave, floated there, and suddenly expanded to several times its original size. Within it there appeared the outline of a chrysalis composed of water or some other quivering substance. The chrysalis spun on its axis, unhurriedly at first, then at great speed, until the cave became a capsule of vibrating light. A toad croaked; from the village came the sound of songs in honor of the Thunder God.
Lowering itself out of the flame, the chrysalis descended to the cave floor. The light began to fold in on itself, shrinking to a speck; the toad leaped up and swallowed it. On the ground now, the chrysalis convulsed. Its lips opened like the mouth of a dying fish; with every spasm it belched a shower of particles into the night air. And when it had emptied itself, it fell apart.
The particles the chrysalis had flung into the air rose up, and adhered to the roof of the cave, where they were broken down by fungi or devoured by hibernating bats. Over the years, a mutation developed in the mouths and noses of those bats, which enhanced their capacity to capture soundwaves and thereby locate insects. The fields of the nearby village were freed of the plagues that had previously ravaged them, causing famine and fatal diseases.
From that point on, the harvests increased, and as time went by the village became the center of a small and flourishing empire: its textiles and earthenware, original in their form and design, came to be known among the farthest-flung communities. The villagers also began to try out a syllabic writing system based on glyphs, which they used to recount how humans were directly descended from trees.
This prosperity provoked the envy of the neighboring peoples. One night, while the villagers were sleeping it off after long and rowdy revelry to glorify the Thunder God, an enemy army laid siege to the village. The men were killed or sacrificed to other gods, the women taken into slavery, and the houses and temples burned down to their foundations. Within a few years nobody remembered the settlement or its inhabitants. All that survived of that fleeting civilization were the textiles, kept alive by the slave women and absorbed into the conquering culture.
The mutant bats survived for several hundred years, gathering into a bunch of little mouths and pointed ears at the vertex of that cave throughout the winter months. Over time they were able to displace other species of bats. At the end of the sixteenth century, however, they were wiped out suddenly by a virus that came from Europe in the nose of a Dominican friar sent to try a group of Zapoteco Indians for heresy. The man stopped to take a nap in the shade of the cave and never knew the consequences of the sudden sneeze that woke him up: in his dream he had been walking through the cool courtyards of his monastery in Caleruega as the sun set over the rose bushes.
Weeks later the floor of the cave was carpeted with hundreds of bat skeletons, delicate as pine needles. The unusually heavy July rains ended up washing them away.
The centuries of the mutant bats were prosperous for the cave as well. The bat guano, made up of insect exoskeletons, sustained life in the half light. Beetles laid their eggs in it, and their larvae—hungry, ancestral miniatures—found refuge in the shit. Sunk in that dark matter, they traversed the inky night of their metamorphosis to emerge in their definitive form. Diligent colonies of fungi and bacteria worked on the excrement, breaking it down, before being devoured by the coleoptera. Attracted in turn by the beetles, salamanders hid in the cracks of the rock.
This whole world collapsed with the sudden disappearance of the bats. As in Pickup Sticks, the removal of a single piece brought the whole edifice tumbling down. Quiet times followed, at least for eyes incapable of seeing the bustle of microscopic life. Until a pack of coyotes began to frequent the cave, and the cycle started over: it was like the previous time around but not—it never is—quite the same. The life cycle that turns on shit, on guano, on bountiful excrement: the unwitting gift of one living thing to another, enabling existence to go on. Shit as the link, the fundamental bond in the mosaic of organisms.
Discreet and persistent, clinging to its piece of rock on the very threshold of the light, the moss appeared to be one and the same over time. Hungry insects moved through its quilt, and spores that would later be scattered by the wind.
And there, in the farthest depths of the cave, blind and silent, lived the troglobites. A parallel world with no memory of sunlight. Those dwellers in underground tunnels and waters had grown accustomed to moving slowly and, after so long in the deep and the dark, had lost all coloring. Even when life on the surface changed, the troglobites remained unaffected. And later they vanished without ever having encountered the creatures that had seen the stars.
They arranged to meet in the cave because they came from enemy villages, always at war with one another. Nobody could remember how the enmity had begun, but it had existed for so long that neither village was prepared to give it up. The couple had thought about running away, but they were surrounded by dangerous places where they could be captured and sold as slaves. He had proposed hiding out in the mountains and living like hermits. She had asked him to give her a few days to sort out the turbulent rush of her thoughts. And there they were at last, lying in the darkness of the cave. The girl laid her head on the boy’s bare chest. The dripping of the stalactites echoed off the rock walls. The young couple could barely contain the feelings stampeding within them. There was something beautiful and poisonous in that suffering, she thought, as she caressed the boy’s square chin, where just a few bristles had sprouted. She loved him, she was certain of that, but she was not cut out for the life of a fugitive. She had come to say goodbye. She would get married to someone else and lead the life that her people expected her to lead. But imagining the days to come made her feel so wretched that her heart rebelled. What if they did run away? It was easy to say now, with a full stomach and the time of the frosts a long way off . . .
The thing that tortured her most of all was that nobody knew they loved each other. In a few years they would die, and there would come a time when none of those who knew them by name and now walked the earth would be alive, and it would be as if what had sprung up between them had never existed at all. And this thought made her attachment to the boy more daring and more desperate.
I’ll see you here in two weeks, she said defiantly, ready for whatever they had to face.
By the following week she was married to a man from her village.
Some years later, while out with her oldest daughter gathering herbs, she passed by the cave. She searched in her heart for a memory of the boy.
She was surprised to find that she could barely recall his features.
A stalactite is a series of drops in time. It forms as drop after drop of water seeps slowly from a crack in the roof of a cave. Each drop that hangs deposits a fine layer of calcite. Successive drops add one ring after another, and the water runs down inside the rings, gradually forming a tapered, pendent cylinder. Stalagmites grow upward from the floor of a cave where water drips from stalactites. When a stalactite meets a stalagmite—in a dance that lasts tens of thousands of years—a column is formed. Until recently the ages of mineral formations could be calculated only if they were less than five hundred thousand years old, but it is now possible to date formations as old as eighty million years. So we now know that many stalactites and stalagmites made their first timid appearances in the time of the dinosaurs.
Caves have other kinds of mineral formations: some are shaped like curtains, or pearls, or delicate limestone helices; others resemble the canine teeth of dogs. One of the most spectacular caves lies beneath the Naica mine in Chihuahua: gypsum has formed translucid beams there, whole underground nests of colossal crystals.
The mine has been operating since 1794, but it was only in 2000 that these crystals the size of buildings were discovered by a pair of brothers who were digging a new tunnel. The heat is so intense it can only be borne for ten minutes without personal protective equipment, and crystal thieves have roasted underground. Within the crystals are archaic microorganisms that were trapped in bubbles of liquid fifty thousand years ago and have managed to remain in a dormant state like microscopic zombies. In 2017 those bacteria were reanimated in a laboratory. The scientists concluded that they were not closely related to any known microorganism.
The portal limned itself in the air and Onyx Müller materialized in the cave. Disconcerted, they looked around: this didn’t seem to be the port where they were meant to disembark. They sent an urgent message to their fellow players, but the signal on their device was awash with static. Some interference had shunted them to an unindexed location in the deep web. Instead of a virtual replica of the Woodstock festival, 1969, the platform had delivered this dank scene. Onyx tried the back-to-base transmitters, but they were out of service. The recreation of the cave was pretty convincing, they had to admit. The sole of their left boot squashed an insect with long antennae. The bug went crunch and a viscous liquid like the goo in Bubbaloo gum spurted out.
Onyx Müller approached the mouth of the cave in search of a portal from which to reestablish contact. The light from outside was blinding: on crossing the threshold the scene would liquefy like melting plastic and the program would return them to their colleagues—or so they expected. Instead they found themself in a dense forest of conifers, where birds were warbling. The landscape looked like a copy of the 3D poster in the old Café California, where the best chocolate-iced donuts of their childhood had been served. Something disturbed the tops of the pines: the rugged neck of a dinosaur. When its shadow fell on Onyx Müller, they looked up for the storm of pixels, but the wings of the pterosaur stood out sharply against the sky overhead.
His family had decided to emigrate, but he wanted to stay. He couldn’t imagine living anywhere else; he was too old and, unlike his descendants, utterly incurious about interstellar travel.
Left on his own, he began to frequent the cave. He liked the golden moths that nested there and was also intrigued by the ancient paintings on the walls. No one really knew what sort of creatures had painted them or why they had disappeared, and no one apart from him had any desire to find out. It was a sign of decadence to look back at the past: his relatives were always founding new colonies, mutating, and adapting. To them, his obsession with things from bygone times was obscene, and they made a great effort to keep it secret. So his decision to remain behind had come as a relief to them all.
In his last days he enjoyed scratching around in the debris that had built up on the floor of the cave, cleaning the various objects and putting them in order. He found the shell of an armadillo, an animal that had long been extinct, and a woman’s fancy bracelet set with precious stones. His favorite thing was an intact Coca-Cola bottle, which he polished till it sparkled; when he blew on it through a tentacle, it made a music that reminded him of the wind demons in his birthplace.
Before dying he wanted to give birth one last time. He tucked some moth larvae into his abdominal fold and set off into the deepest passages of the cave to be devoured by the troglobites.
All that remained of the cave was a small hill, on which the violet bird alighted. The plain was covered with iridescent mushrooms puffing little clouds of spores up into the air. Moist, blue larvae wriggled in the earth. The bird dug out a big fat one with its long, speckled beak. It was hungry: with the rest of the flock, it had just returned from the warm lands. They had flown over meadows, volcanoes, petrified forests, mushroom plains, and ancient sunken cities, arriving just in time for the larval season. In a couple of days, the grubs would sprout wings and antennae, turn poisonous, and devour the mushrooms, but now was the ideal time to prey on them: they were in peak condition. The bird scratched at the ground and laid a golden egg. The caps of the mushrooms quivered in the breeze, which scattered the opalescent mist of spores. Soon a light shower fell over the plain.
Excerpted from You Glow in the Dark by Liliana Colanzi (translated by Chris Andrews). Copyright New Directions, 2024.