We are 30 feet underground in a lava tube named “Catacombs” in the county of Siskiyou. For hours, my husband and I carefully walked and crawled on rivers of solidified lava, exploring the depths. I am cold and tired, and suggest we trace our steps back to the entrance. He disagrees. He reminds me that he is a map man, one who is directionally gifted. My husband leaves to find a short route back to the surface, to the high desert wilderness of junipers and sage.
To conserve batteries, I turn off my headlamp, and with a simple click the cave disappears into darkness. The absence of light is so profound that my eyes do not adjust. I wave my gloved hand in front of my face and see nothing, but in the process my wrist hits the side of the ragged cave wall. Unlike many caves, those in Lava Beds National Monument are covered with ridges of sharp stone.
For a moment, I feel amorphous, disembodied, and a prehistoric fear fills me. I listen for goblins and hear only my beating heart. I breathe in the darkness and feel the cool skin on my forearms. Not a big deal, I tell myself. He will return soon. And there, in the depths, I realize that a part of me wants to be free and alone, to disappear into this darkness — to retract like the lava in these tubes, leaving only a memory.
I imagine that for days, my name will bounce off these walls, called out frantically by my husband and would-be rescuers. “She was right here,” he will say, “I think she was here.”
Then he will stammer with less certainty, “I’m pretty sure I saw her that day.” And then, always the victim, “She was a flicker you know. A shape-shifter, a chameleon. Really, just a ghost of a woman. Sometimes I saw her, other times not so much.”
“Actually,” he’ll finally admit, “I haven’t seen her in months. But that’s normal, right?”
I close my eyes and re-open. Still nothing but darkness. I could meld with these curtains of basalt right now. I cross my arms to soothe myself, and my cool flesh and bent elbows remind me that I am corporal. I am still here. I am still here. I am still here.
Danielle Collins originally hails from Virginia, but has lived in Northern California since 1994. (Little of her Southern accent remains but every now and then she will gleefully say “y’all.”) Previously, she practiced Africanized beekeeping in Paraguay. She also earned an MA in Communication Studies from the University of Michigan, and enjoyed a past career as a fundraiser for nonprofits. Today, she is pursuing her writing and photography, and lives with her fiancé, Pete, and her wild dog, Boo.
Read an interview with Danielle here.