The Burial Cave

By Wailana Kalama

You ask me what I lived on. What kind of food I ate that night I was stuck in the cave. 

A granola bar, my sister’s because I had already eaten mine on the climb up into the cliffs.

You ask me how I did it, survived in the dark, alone. Wasn’t I terrified?

I wasn’t alone.

I was with my sister.

My sister, her face one big grin, jumping into the darkness as a joke. A real lolo, the aunties called her.

My sister, who said, with a wild swing of her flashlight, we should go hunting for ghosts.

Who once tricked me into believing that Zelda and Link existed. That the sasquatches and aliens we’d read about in our library books were as real as the stones beneath our feet. My ears red and raw because she told me if I pinched them enough, they’d stay slanted, like an elf’s.

They say nobody could’ve survived that fall, and she didn’t. But I did.

Because we used to pretend we were Thor and Loki. And she was always Loki and I was always Thor, a bit slower, a bit stronger. And Loki was the clever trickster whose fate after all his pranks was to be strapped to a rock, quaking the earth with his torments until the end of time. I’d remind her of how he ended up in the stories but she waved it off, like it was easy as pie to shake off your doom.

So when she said she wanted to look for ghosts in the pockmarked cliffs of our valley, I slid into my boots without a thought. There were tales about those cliffs, of bones, half-legends our aunties whispered about. Bones of chiefs, wrapped in cloth stripped from the wauke tree, sun-bleached or turmeric-stained, tucked away into caves for all time like brittle secrets. 

Where there’s bones, there’s ghosts, my sister always said.

In the dark where ghosts live, even when your flashlight’s gone to hell, you can still feel things. Your sister’s gummy hair, the grit on her skin, moments after her head’s been crushed in, on stone, on impact. What you can do is press her body against yours, and if only you can absorb enough of her life that’s oozing out quicker than you could imagine, if only you hold her tight enough, if only you hadn’t ripped up her favorite book when you were angry at her last summer, or tapped four times on the cave mouth instead of five, if only you squeeze enough of your life force into the tiny valley in her skull, trying to make it smooth again. 

But I wasn’t enough. 

And the groove was still there, just the same. 

You become a ghost quicker than you become just bones. Bones is weeks, months, years if the oxygen’s just right. It takes just an instant to become a ghost. 

They asked me how could this happen. Didn’t she see the ledge that dropped off into the cavern below? That’d make sense. There’s only so much a flashlight can do.

Sure, she saw it. She leaped off that ledge like it was her most impressive prank yet, a laugh curling up her face, at my eyes big as moons. She spun around on the edge of the cliff like the trickster god she was. The way her flashlight bounced off the crevices and clefs gave the illusion that the drop was shallower than it must’ve been. She had that mischievous look in her eye, a magician who knows they’ve got the audience spellbound. And I couldn’t move a muscle, as my sister flew out into the dark like a bat, then disappeared and my body was at the edge before I knew it, crying out, my flashlight slipping from my hand and spinning after her with more glee than I thought a light could have.

And because she was my Loki, I jumped in after her. 

But I went feet first and hit something soft and hard, just enough to brace me from the impact. My leg throbbed and I screamed her name and was she alright. My fingers groped for her, but instead of my sister, I found a heavy mass. That’s the word for when the ghost’s left a body. A heavy, anchored mass, the weight a big Fuck You to the life that was there once.

But even though I burned her name in front of me like a torch a thousand times, there was no answer. As a ghost, you can’t see or speak. She was somewhere in the dark, in the damp, cavernous air, as blind and mute as a fetus.

Not deaf, though. Me talking to her all night was proof of that.

Half the time I don’t know what I said to her, only that I said it. Anything I could. Until the fire in my throat dwindled, and shouts turned to little more than idle scratchings on her arm. I think I was still trying to wake her up.

When the panic settles in, and you’re stuck in a blind-as-a-womb cave and hope’s weeping out of you like blood—that’s when it’s most intense, the panic starts pawing at your stomach like a hungry cat, your chest a shivering mouse. You can’t breathe—or actually, it’s the breathing too much, rapid and shallow, so it goes nowhere, fast. And all you can do is curl up against your sister’s chest, pretending she’s not wet like she is. Like you’re small again, huddled in her twin bed under the blanket, she reading ghost stories out loud, doing voices and all.

She kept me company all through the night. And she was quiet when the wet red in my vision cooled to a solid wall of black. 

But light isn’t the only way to see things. The dark has its own way of twisting what you see, making your eyes work for it. And it’s the memories that caught me first, playing like a home cinema in the dark. Cutscenes of us dashing down a neighbor’s hill in our rollerblades, of us buying coke at vending machines for a dollar, of her handing over a manga she’d stolen from me, as big sisters do. Her kolohe face blooming with that special smile that always split me in a dozen different ways.

It wasn’t until I woke up to the sound of someone laughing–or maybe it was another trick of hers–that I tried to grope around in the dark, feel my way out. Because I was Thor the strong, Thor the brave.

I touched stone walls, layered like pahoehoe lava. Slippery and smooth. Heard the wind whistling faint, from the cave entrance high above, where I couldn’t reach. Where we’d jumped. My fingertips raked the wall but there was nothing to hold onto. No grip, no ledge, no rope. So I sank deeper into the cave, trembling and dripping with sweat.

Too far. 

I skulked around for another impossible way out. By the echoes I’d made, I guessed the chamber wasn’t too big. Maybe thirty feet across. I made it all the way to the other end, my fingers gliding out like tendrils.

They found the carving first, a tiki made from koa wood, by the smoothness. A mouth wide and distended, rows of shark teeth that sang out hollow as I grazed their tips. A crown of feathers and eyes of pearl shells. A god, though which one I couldn’t tell. I traced three fingers over the base and closed around cold metal.

My flashlight. Or hers. I kept far from the switch that would illuminate just about everything.

That’s why I tripped over the bundle next to the tiki. A bundle of cloth, strung up in coconut fibers and smelling faintly of–detergent? But lighter than I’d expected. Old bones were light, but heavier than this, right?

“We found them,” I told her. Because I wanted her to feel like it’d been worth it.

But when I unwrapped it–careful, because I expected the bones to clatter out with a vengeance–I found nothing like that. No boiled hip bones. No bare skulls with loose teeth. No eye hollows to sink my grip into. Just the sweet stink of pork starting to rot but that didn’t come from the bundle.

There was something, though. Soft, springing back from my clutch like a pillow. Two hands, two legs. Two long, tapered ears. A doll. I pressed its fur against my face and inhaled deep.

A prank can smell like just about anything. It can smell like a hot midnight wind, brushing against your bare shoulders as you sneak out together for a skinny dip. Like the heady fumes of a permanent marker, waking up to Loser on your forehead. It can smell like your favorite gremlin doll, which you pretended you were too old to care about anyway, until one day it disappeared and your sister claimed she didn’t know where it’d gone, it was probably lost, don’t blame her. 

I knew she’d been lying.

And my hands kept crumpling up the sheet, making fists like they had to. Hugging the doll to my face like it was sucking me dry. My mouth opened and I sucked it back, sucked its stiff cotton ears until they were heavy with saliva. Like I always used to when I was small. Because to do anything else would’ve been missing the point of why we were here in the first place. 

Because where there’s bones, there’s ghosts.

I sucked and sucked and when I was done, I flipped the flashlight on and over to where the wind was howling, where we’d come, and scanned it over the face of the wall. And I kept the light high, because if I looked down to that sticky mass that was once the best part of me, I knew I’d never look up again. And there in the far corner where the walls met the ledge, like I knew it would be, was the rope and the way out. 

With a few twists of the coconut fiber, I strapped the gremlin that was almost an apology onto my back, then climbed up, fist over fist like Indiana Jones. The rope bit into my scraped palms like it didn’t want me to go. But I reached the edge, in nearly no time at all. And staggered my boots toward the mouth of the cave, shaking them like I was a marionette come back to life and the aches in my shoulders and shins made quiet promises never to heal.

The best pranks you get a whiff of just before they hit you full force. A whiff of something sour, tipping you off as you realize you’d almost been had. And what the stink was telling me, what I only realized as I stepped out into the glare of a sunrise that looked so much the same yet so so different, was how quick I’d climbed up the ledge. 

Not so high up after all. Twenty feet, at most. At the right angle, you’d walk away with a few broken bones.

I stood frozen as the sun speared something bright and wild right into me.

I’d come so close. So close to believing she’d crushed her head on impact. 

She’d almost had me.

What I knew then, what I should’ve always known, was that injuries from a fall are different from those from a crush. And it hadn’t been her skull hitting stone that’d done it. It’d been something else, something crushing her under its weight as it jumped out into the dark with all the violence of thunder.

The laugh that crawled out of me came from somewhere deep and splintered, as brittle as bone.

Sis, that was your most impressive trick yet.

You almost had me.


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