Divorce and Death-by-Crushing

Public Domain  [Image description: A cave formation known as boxwork with a series of thin blades that cross at angles and resemble a box]

Public Domain

[Image description: A cave formation known as boxwork with a series of thin blades that cross at angles and resemble a box]

There is a hole in the ground just outside Hot Springs, South Dakota. It’s small, unassuming, and hardly portends the wonder that lies beneath. The rocky hedge yawns just above the dirt, a most humble gateway to one of the longest caves in the world. One hundred and forty-three miles of surveyed passageway twist unseen to a depth of 654 feet below the surface of Wind Cave National Park. And was it not for a gentle whistling sound created by air moving through the opening, we may never have discovered the curiosities underlying.

The Lakota people have known about the mysterious hole for centuries. They call it Makoce Ohloka, which means “breathing earth.” The whistling cavern similarly arrested cowboys Jesse and Tom Bingham in 1881, the first men to document the opening. They were charmed. One day, air from the hole might blow the hat right off a man’s head; on another day, the cave might suck that very same hat down the hole into the unknown.

When I arrived some 135 years later, the hole was protected from human contact, a small ribbon secured ahead of the opening to indicate whether the barometric pressure was pulling air into the hole or pushing it out. My two young daughters and I peered into the darkness. We’d left our Denver home before sunrise, pointing north in search of solid things--rocks and trees, hard ground and uninterrupted sky. We sought the comfort of whole things that day, the comfort of very old things. I wanted to point to something real and say: Look! Cowparsnip. Buffalobur. Look! Blue Bells. Aren’t they lovely? To say, See those hills? Some things are older than we can stretch our minds to imagine. See that rock? Some things will last so long that forever does doesn’t really capture it.

I had taught my children many of the words they knew. Now, another: divorce. It was a word I was certain I already understood. Divorce was loud arguments, heated courtroom battles, despised new lovers. It was lawyers and papers and bloodshot eyes. It was bathrobes and bourbon slugs, knotted tissues and pints of ice cream. It was loud. It was Kramer vs. Kramer. It was The War of the Roses.

But it wasn’t. Divorce was quiet, cunning. Divorce was an empty space where a chair once sat. It was a voice gone from a home, changing forever its ecology of sound. It was kissing the forehead of a sleeping child, her heartbreak whispered in a single somnolent word… daddy. Divorce was a sucker punch. It always hit when you were looking the other direction. It was a trickster. Never the kind of thing I could point to and say, See? Divorce.

When my grandmother died, I visited my childhood home for the last time. On the wall of my old room, there was a shadow box containing small trinkets collected across my girlhood and early adolescence. Some items housed in the partitioned display were fragile--a ceramic mouse holding a strawberry, a glass ballerina on pointe. Others earned a place in the box not because they were delicate, but because they were coveted--a tiny rubber bear, a scented eraser. When I turned these objects in my palm, I remembered them, remembered loving them deeply and achingly. But now there was a space between us, a hole. I could feel their weight in my hand, but could not call up the longing in my chest. I knew them, but not in the same way anymore. That’s divorce.

There is an emergence story told by the Oglala Lakota tribe that centers on the hole in the ground at Wind Cave. It involves two spirits: a trickster named Iktomi and a double-faced woman named Anog-Ite. In a telling by Sina Bear Eagle, she describes Anog-Ite as having a beautiful face on one side and a terrible face, “twisted and gnarled” on the other. Once the wife of wind god, Tate, Anog-Ite traded her humble human existence to become a spirit. As punishment for letting pride dictate her choices, Anog-Ite was split from her husband, banished from Wind Cave, and cursed with the repulsive second face. To hide her shame, she concealed the ugly side with a shawl. At Wind Cave that day, I understood Anog-Ite. Always nearby my projection of resilience lurked the deformity, the shame: the other face. Like Anog-Ite, I too was hiding.

Along with a hand full of fellow tourists, the girls and I journeyed twelve stories beneath the grassy Wyoming hills into the heart of Wind Cave. The space was unnerving in its otherworldliness. It was quiet and the air was still, but for a slight vacuum--as if oxygen was being sucked from my lungs and drawn into the depths. The cave interior was patterned with bizarre and beautiful formations called box work, bacon, and popcorn. Sound didn’t bounce off the walls; rather, it seemed to gather itself nearby and then disappear into the darkness. The air was a brisk 53º.

We walked deeper into the cave, and our guide spoke with passion about the cave’s history, rarity, and magic. All the while, I could feel the weight of the rocks above my head and the unsettling distance between my body and its usual resting place on the Earth’s surface. Blood pressure spiking, I wanted to run or climb or scream. My throat was tight, palms sticky in little-girl hands. I choked on the pernicious fear that stems from human arrogance: the thought that today--this one day in 300 million years of Wind Cave’s existence--it might collapse and end us. In the abject terror and perhaps perverse hope that the world might, in fact, revolve around me, I thought, Of course that’s how this story ends: death-by-crushing.

In the dark of the cave, I hesitated for a moment and listened to my children. They were alive and spinning. For them, every shelf was a playroom, a hideout, a kitchen--a possibility. This one is my room. That one is your room. We can sleep over here and put our toys over there. They imagined, with delight, the lives they would make for themselves under the ceiling of rock. They were intrepid, wide-eyed, and whole.

No doubt those who first spelunked, surveyed, and charted the caves felt a similar zeal. A quick glance at a map of the caves reveals spaces with names like Blue Grotto, Castle Gardens, Council Chamber, Elks Room, and the Post Office. Others before us imagined these spaces populated and full of life: The Assembly Room, the Garden of Eden. In the Oglala emergence story, it’s told that the portal to the spirit lodge is hidden in one of the caves, that humans used these passageways to exit the lodge and make their way to the surface when it was ready for them. The story warns of how Anog-Ite and her trickster companion Iktomi lured a group of humans to the Earth’s surface before their time. Ill prepared for life outside the cave, the humans starved and died outside the Wind Cave entrance, desperate and unable to regain entry during the cold winter. As punishment, the Creator transformed them into bison. Later, when the other humans emerged from the spirit lodge, they were rewarded for waiting with the life-giving bison, which could be used for food, shelter, and clothing. Their patience had made all the difference.

On the day of our visit, the cave was breathing out. Underneath all of the rock in the strange soundless dark, for what felt like the first time in a long while, I exhaled. And inhaled. A calm settled over my head and shoulders: a desire to stay, to be still, to breathe. The shawl and its crushing weight shifted in the breeze, if only slightly. The wind was in me then, and I began to whistle.

Heather N. Martin is a writer and professor at the University of Denver. Her work has been anthologized in The Best of Electric Velocipede and appears in regional and national publications including Cobalt Review, Barnstorm, and Baltimore Review. She is active in her local community, and her most cherished activity is traveling to new places with her daughters.