"I couldn't stop shaking," he said between gasps. "It was just the cold. The third time in that water got me. I thought sure I was going to fall."
"You were close," I told him. "But it's a pretty easy shot from here. Just try to keep moving. If you stop too long, you're liable to start shaking again."
Terry is the proudest, studdiest of the three, but also the youngest and smallest. Soon he was in as much trouble as Ky had been. He is the kind that, without much fuss or warning, would drop stoically, coming apart like the one hoss shay. He would never ask for help, so I climbed directly below him. "You're in the place now where Ky was. Stop there and you can hand me down your pack. I haven't got one now. I'll wait here for Sid." Anything you offer to somebody like Terry has to be done in a ritual way. Wordlessly, he handed down the pack. It was the first time I had seen him do such a thing. And it may well be the last.
Sid is an asthmatic and had suffered the most in the water. When we started back, I had thought he would be the weakest, but he was the strongest, climbing relatively easily. Perhaps, having made himself swim across the pool the second time, anything then seemed possible. By the time he and I caught up, Ky and Terry were at the first well, the one that had given us fits on the way in. Now we hardly paused there, belly flopping across as if it were a gymnasium exercise. From there the boys literally jogged down the last open passage. I lagged behind, moving slowly and feeling sentimental about the final moments of darkness.
"There it is!" I heard Terry yell. There is only one thing at this time that anybody yells about—the first glimpse of light. We had been underground only four hours, but, as always happens, everything outside looked wildly unreal, as home does when you have been far away for a long time. After only a few hours under a mountain, you get the notion that there is nothing else. It takes a while, blinking in the light, to understand that this is fantasy. It is like awakening from a dream, knowing you have been dreaming but still feeling the dream was reality, that the room and your bed are imaginary.
There is another common but peculiar thing about such an experience—a period of numbness, while body and mind become adjusted to the fact that they are free and can do other things besides hang desperately in the crack of a cave. Then you begin to think about what you have done from different intellectual, emotional and imaginative vantage points. You are overwhelmed by a kind of exhilaration. There is a time lag between doing the thing and feeling the high, as between a drink and a drunk. For a time the boys were silent, gradually growing more talkative until by the time we were home they were babbling, very high. That night the three of them went to a party, where I am sure they took full advantage of what they had done, of being sore, cut and higher than anybody else. As for me, I went to bed and briefly enjoyed my aches and fatigue, as you enjoy meeting an old friend you have not seen in years and never expected to meet again.
All of which is one justification for a day in Well Cave, or many caves. But it does not entirely explain why there seemed more to it than a foolish, nostalgic display of retarded machismo on my part, why it was worth the unnecessary risk to the boys.
We are all, in some respects, caves. Our interiors are dark, confused, ancient mazes, difficult and sometimes dangerous to penetrate, but often containing unexpected, spectacular scenery. In either labyrinth those who obediently stop where reason and instinct command them to never make it to the best and highest places. Inevitably they will be tormented by the existence of unexplored regions, doomed to a fate worse than risk, to the shame of knowing they are less than they might have been, lower than they could be. I think the three boys learned something of these things in Well Cave, at least that the passages are there, that they themselves are greater caverns than they previously supposed they were. That and some elementary but fundamental techniques for forcing the passages. In my case Well Cave was a reminder of things learned before, a useful warning that even facts as important as these can be forgotten if they are not reviewed, ignored if they are not retested.