The Cavern Traveler

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“Is there such a thing as hallucinogenic moss?”

Seyyal raised her brows as she asked the question, and watched her cousin’s fork freeze in mid-air.  They were having their usual monthly brunch and catching up with each other.  And Seyyal had already somewhat updated Yalanda about the subject that had been occupying her mind since she’d gotten back from vacation, her left foot.

Yalanda set her fork down and leaned forward.  “Okay, am I about to get the real story about your vacation?”

Seyyal sighed.  “I’m still trying to figure out this thing with my foot.”

“What’s to figure out?  I thought you said the doctor told you nothing was wrong.”

“Did you get the picture I sent you?”

“Yeah, why did you do that?  I had to stop eating my breakfast.  Warn me next time.”

“Can I just tell you the whole story?  The doc only had so much time.  And every time I added a detail, she just blinked at me.  I need to give another person every detail I can remember about what happened in the cave.  Someone who isn’t afraid to come up with or at least entertain some absurd ideas.”

Yalanda smirked.  “Like hallucinogenic moss?”

Seyyal sat back and stared at her cousin until Yalanda raised her hands and said, “I’m listening.”

***

Two days before the end of her first overseas vacation in over ten years, Seyyal went on a guided tour of a cave system just outside of the town she was staying in.  She’d never heard of it before, but it was supposedly a quite popular tourist destination in that area.

Yalanda swiped through Seyyal’s pictures of the cave system.  Seyyal had never been inside a real cave before and was surprised by how bright, airy, and beautiful this particular one was.  Part of the reason it was so bright and airy were the ample openings overhead.  That also meant that some overnight rains had drenched the floor of the cavern, making it muddy and slick.  Seyyal lost her footing at one point, and her left foot stepped into a puddle of mud to her ankle.  The tour guide assured her that the mud was not dangerous if she wanted to keep going, since they were almost done with the tour, and she could quickly clean up outside the caves.  So she did, stopping only to take her sock off, and making jokes with other tourists about hoping there were no parasites laying eggs between her toes.

Just outside the cave, she was able to clean off her foot, and get a pair of cheap flip-flops to see her through the rest of the day.  The next day, she visited a couple of museums and mostly forgot about the incident in the cave.  She had a relatively uneventful flight home the day after that.  And her only source of dread upon arriving home was the thought of going back to work that following Monday.

“That Saturday, I woke up to a swollen left foot,” Seyyal said.  She shifted in her chair and winced a bit as she felt the itch in her left foot sharpen in response.   “I kept an eye on it, and when it stayed swollen and started feeling itchy, I took a look. The veins were beginning to look darker, like that one time a nurse took my blood and it left a bruise.  I went to urgent care.  And I took pictures—those are the ones I sent you.  Aside from the worst itching I’ve ever felt in my life, there was no other feeling.  No pain.  No throbbing.  I didn’t have any rashes. And just in case, I actually did check between my toes.”

Yalanda, who had started another attempt at continuing her meal, pressed her lips together, and dropped her fork into her plate.   She wiped her mouth with a napkin, tossed the napkin onto the plate, and looked at Seyyal.  “And then?”

“While I was waiting, I searched online for any reports of illnesses or injuries associated with the cave system, especially parasites or bacterial infections, maybe some kind of fungus.  I didn’t have any cuts on my foot or anything that I could see, but maybe I missed something.  By the time they saw me, when I took my sock off—I was wearing socks so I wouldn’t gross out anyone in the waiting area—“

“How considerate of you.”

“—my foot looked completely normal.  The doctor examined it and told me she didn’t see anything.  They took some blood.   That Monday I made a follow-up appointment with my regular doctor.  I was hoping it was some bad but quick allergic reaction after all.  But just in case it affected some other part of my body now, or in the future, I figured I’d stay on top of it for a while.”

“They asked you if you’d been out of the country?”

Seyyal nodded.  “I told them all about my trip and the caves.  And I showed them the pictures.  The doctor suggested a few other things, like maybe a temporary reaction to travel, or being bitten by something, maybe even something at home that happened to bite the same foot that stepped in that mud.  I felt better that I was doing something about it, even if I didn’t know anything yet, especially since my foot looked and felt normal.  So I went home.”

Yalanda crossed her arms and sat back.  “It didn’t stay normal, did it?”

“That same day, by evening, my foot was acting up again, itching, feeling numb.  And when I took off my socks, the whole foot looked badly bruised even though I still felt no pain.”

“Maybe it’s the socks.”

“I haven’t told you about the dreams,” Seyyal said.  “That was the first night I had one.  I was walking barefoot in what felt like the same cavern I visited, only it looked different.  Yali, it was beautiful, and there was this moss that grew all over the place, covering every inch of rock.  It felt soft and bouncy under my feet.  And it smelled mossy too.  And the moss was this lavender color, and it was glowing.  And it was…singing.  Or there was some soft music or humming, maybe it was a dream soundtrack.  And even after I woke up, I could still see the glowing moss and still hear that singing.”

Yalanda’s eyes widened slightly.  “I understand your question now.”

“The next morning, my foot looked normal again.  A few days later, it started acting up again. This time, it just felt heavy.  And it would feel that way not all the time, but periodically.  I’d just be walking along and suddenly—have you ever suddenly gotten a foot cramp?”

“Sure.”

“So it was like that, except instead of cramping, my left foot would just go heavy, real heavy, and I’d trip over myself.”  Seyyal’s right knee was bobbing up and down, the way it did when she was feeling impatient or nervous.  “I thought maybe I did have some infection or parasite after all and maybe it partially paralyzed my foot.”

“Did you tell your doctor?  What about the bloodwork?”

“Bloodwork was normal.  And when I went to see my doctor, my foot looked normal again.  It’s almost as if it knows when I’m going to get it checked out.”

“Or maybe there’s some pattern to it.  It seems to be cycling through looking infected, then being heavy, then being normal.  Maybe you happened to go in to have it seen during the normal part of the cycle.”

“Maybe…but a new thing has started up over the past week.”

“A new symptom?”

“Yeah, I guess.  A new feeling, sensation I mean.  So it starts in my left foot, and it feels a little bit like that tingling that happens when blood is returning to a part of the body where the circulation had been cut off.  So it would start in my left foot, and then slowly spread upward.  The first time it happened, I was sleeping and it woke me up.   And it’s happened at work a few times.  My coworkers must think I still have vacation brain because I’ve been taking several breaks to go outside and try to walk it off.”

“And does that work?”

Seyyal shook her head.

Yalanda dropped her gaze.  “Was there any glowing moss around that area you visited?”

Seyyal frowned.  “Like in real life?”

“Yeah, it sounds like bioluminescence.”  Yalanda explained.  “Some plants and even animals can do that.  Throw off their own light.  I think it’s from some protein in their systems.”

Seyyal’s mouth dropped open.  “I thought it was just a weird dream thing.”

“No, that’s real.”

“So what does that mean?”

Yalanda shook her head.  “I don’t know.”

They were both silent for a moment.

Seyyal cleared her throat.  “This morning I looked into whether or not I could legally ask a doctor to amputate my foot, even if they don’t think it’s medically necessary.”

“What!”

Yalanda sat forward again and leaned toward her cousin.  “Okay, let’s just back up a little.”

“I’m really worried.  It’s been a month.”

“I know, but you’re telling me all this so that we can try to fix it, right?  And the best case scenario is to do that without chopping off any limbs, agreed?”

Seyyal gulped.  “Agreed.”

***

Yalanda asked if Seyyal had contacted the people who managed the cavern tours, or maybe some local professor or research group who’d been studying the caves, to ask them if they knew of other people who experienced similar issues.  Seyyal couldn’t possibly have been the only one to step in a puddle in that cave system.  Surely lots of other people must have stepped in that same puddle.

Seyyal had done a few desperate searches to find out if there was some disease or condition like hers associated with the caves or the nearby town or even that whole region.  But as obvious as it sounded when Yalanda suggested it, she hadn’t yet thought to try calling the tourist group.

Over the following week, with Yalanda’s help, she managed to track down and speak to three people.  Two of them worked with the company that managed the cave tours, and the third was a local scientist researching the cave system.  None of them had ever heard of any such thing like what was happening to her foot.  The researcher sounded irritated that Seyyal would suggest anything in the cave system made her that sick.

“I’m just looking into all possibilities so I can narrow things down, sir,” Seyyal explained.  “I’ve got a medical mystery on my hands, and it’s my own body, so I’m pretty scared about what it could be.  I’m worried it could spread and turn into something really serious.  I can’t just ignore it and hope it goes away.  I’ve got to keep asking questions, even if I ruffle some feathers.”  A silence followed on the line after she spoke, and Seyyal expected the man to hang up.

But then he apologized for being gruff and told her that he would look into it further and get back to her whether or not he found anything.

In the meantime, she continued having dreams of walking in a mossy cavern.  She was always barefoot, but always looking for her boots, which she thought she’d left at the mouth of the cave.  But she also wanted to keep moving forward into the cavern.  The moss was cool and soft, and it felt comfortable under her feet.  The periodic tingling in her foot persisted, but it no longer woke her in the middle of the night.  Her body must have gotten accustomed to the sensation.

Yalanda called every night that week to check in and compare notes.

“I think I should go back,” Seyyal said at the end of the week.  She was in her kitchen.  She rose to go grab herself a snack.

“To the doctor?”

“To the cave.”

Yalanda heaved a sigh.  “Wow…well, let me see what I can do.”

“Yali, no.  I don’t expect you to come with me.  That plane ticket is going to be expensive.”  Seyyal’s left foot grew heavier.  She caught herself at the edge of the kitchen counter.  She didn’t even feel that twinge of panic anymore.  She was getting used to it.

“I can’t let you go alone,” Yalanda said.

“I’m surprised you’re not trying to stop me.”

“I’ll go wherever I need to go with you on this.”

Seyyal gulped.  She smiled as she felt her heart swell, in the good kind of way.  “Maybe I should wait for that guy to call me back,” she said.  “At least a few days.”

***

Lo and behold, the researcher, who seemed he would be the least helpful, did indeed call her back two days after she first spoke to him.

“I didn’t find anything scientific or medical yet,” he said, “but you said any information would be helpful.  I’m still looking, but I did manage to find a single mention in a history of the cave systems of a legend once believed by ancient peoples who lived in this region.  In that legend, the cave was a path to the three other realms of reality aside from their own, the realm of the gods, the realm of dreams, and the realm of death.  It’s interesting, the legend says the path was paved with purple-colored moss.  There’s no such moss that I know of, especially growing in that cave system nowadays.  But in my research, I’ve found some evidence that there might have been a purple variety of a moss-like plant, say tens of thousands of years ago.”

Seyyal caught her breath.  She had never mentioned anything about her dreams to the man, and certainly not the detail about walking on glowing purple moss.

It had taken her a year to plan for her two-week vacation.  A year to save up, to pick where she would stay, where she would go, apply for her passport, figure out how she would pay for things, how she would stay safe, what medications she would need, and a hundred other tasks.

It only took her ten minutes after she hung up with researcher, ten minutes of pacing and pro-ing and con-ing, only ten minutes to decide she had to return.

Seyyal had an understanding boss.  She told him the truth, and he let her go.

Seyyal had a loving best friend and cousin.  She told Yalanda she was going, but lied about when.  Yali would worry less when she received a message from a safe and sound Seyyal after the plane landed.

Seyyal had a curious guide.  The researcher whom she’d spoken to over the phone was stunned (and seemed a bit alarmed at first) when she first arrived at his office.  But he had the credentials that would allow him to visit the cave system after tourism hours.

***

The researcher and a tour guide—the same one who’d given the initial tour Seyyal had gone on, though she didn’t recognize Seyyal—led the way into the cave system.

Seyyal wondered if her foot would somehow know the way.  She was great at finding her way in cities, where she could use buildings, monuments, and other landmarks as signposts.  And she’d started getting good at finding her way through woods and other open spaces.  But she would have been lost in those caves after a few minutes, if not for her guides.

They returned to the area where she had stepped in that puddle.  There was no puddle this time.  It had long since dried up, and there hadn’t been rain in recent days.  She’d expected that her foot would begin to react as she drew closer and closer to the spot where she’d stepped in that puddle.  But her foot had been completely normal up to that point.

Her two guides waited with her while she paced slowly around the area, waiting for something to happen.  She occasionally glanced down at her foot.  She occasionally glanced over at her guides.  The researcher was fine.  He was bent over collecting dirt samples or taking pictures of the cavern walls.  The tour guide smiled every time Seyyal caught her eye, but the smile was fading, and Seyyal caught the woman glancing at her watch once or twice.

Seyyal asked if she could be alone in that space for a bit and promised not to disturb or steal anything.  The tour guide sighed and smiled, but said she would give Seyyal fifteen minutes.  The researcher pointed to what seemed a random rock and commented that he was keeping an eye on it and would know if it was missing.  Seyyal blinked, trying to process whether he was joking or serious.

“What rock?” she said as she pretended to slip a nearby stone into her pocket.

The researcher chuckled as he walked away, but the tour guide narrowed her eyes and didn’t leave until Seyyal put the stone back where she found it and held up her hands to show they were empty.

She paced again, gazing down at the ground, trying to find that hollow of earth that had been her puddle.  She found it strange that the earth looked brown, yet the mud in that puddle had been tinged a dark purple.  She wondered if she had imagined it, and she began to sort through her pictures again.

As she swiped, she noticed the light around her growing brighter.  She lowered her phone and dropped her jaw.

The cavern was bathed in a purple luminescence and covered in moss.

She felt that tingling sensation climbing up from her left foot, past her knee, up her leg.  It spread to the rest of her body as she took deep measured breaths and focused her attention on the mossy cavern.

Her left foot felt heavy, as if there were an invisible ten-pound weight tied around it.  And then a twenty-pound weight.  She took a step forward with her right foot, dragging the left one along.  The light wasn’t just coming from the glowing moss.  The cavern mouth was visible from her position.  It should not have been.

She approached the cavern mouth.  It should have been dark outside, but the light of a bright midday poured through the cave opening.  She left the cavern and found that the entire area outside was covered in that lavender moss.  The sky above was blue, but tinged with a slight lime color.  She heard an echoing cry that sounded a bit like a peacock and watched as some kind of glittering red bird flew past overhead.  It gave another cry, a melodious call that sounded familiar.

The tingling sensation in her body faded, but her left foot remained heavy.  She thought she caught the aroma of food, something like gravy and butter.

Someone was approaching her.  She thought it might be one of her guides, but it wasn’t.

Seyyal stood where she was, bracing herself to run back into the cave, assuming her heavy foot would let her.  She didn’t sense any danger from the woman who was approaching.  But she did sense that something was off.

The approaching woman was wearing an unfamiliar uniform, a pair of silvery pants and a gray bomber jacket with lavender stripes over one shoulder.  The woman smiled and spoke some words that Seyyal didn’t understand.

Seyyal, encouraged by the sincerity and openness of the woman’s smile, apologized for not understanding and pointed to herself, shaking her head.

The woman cocked her head to one side and then straightened it again.  She nodded and said, “Greetings, traveler, and welcome.  Do you know where you are?”

Earth, I hope?  Seyyal wanted to say.

“Thank you for the greeting,” Seyyal said.  “I’m not sure where I am.  But I hope it’s not the realm of death.”

The woman laughed, startling Seyyal.

“It is not,” she said.  She looked past Seyyal to the caves.  “Do you know what that is?” she asked pointing to the cave mouth.

Seyyal remembered what the researcher told her.  “A path.”

The woman clasped her hands in front of herself.  “I am Tirsa.  And I sense you are not here by purpose, but by accident.”

Seyyal hesitated, not knowing how much she should say.

“You are correct,” the woman said.  “That cavern is a path.  Around here, we call it a nexus, and it connects several worlds, or realms as you call them.  This particular place where we are standing is not one of those worlds.  This is a waystation.  And I happen to be on duty at the moment, so it’s my job to greet and guide travelers.”

Seyyal blinked.  She blinked, on purpose, several times.  And she grasped some skin on her forearm and pinched it.  She must have been having a waking dream, a hallucination.  It would clear up soon enough and she would be standing in the middle of the cavern, perhaps with a perplexed pair of guides staring at her.

The woman’s brow furrowed with a look of concern.  She took a step forward.

By instinct, Seyyal stepped backward, but her heavy left foot anchored her in place.  She wheeled her arms by her sides to keep her balance.

The woman, Tirsa, dropped her gaze to Seyyal’s foot.  Then she looked up at Seyyal again.  “By accident indeed,” she said, her eyes wide.

“I stepped in a puddle in that cave,” Seyyal said.  “And days later my foot started growing itchy and heavy.  Do you know what’s wrong with it?  Is it an infection or a parasite…a parasite from another world maybe?”

The woman peered at Seyyal.  “Your foot is not diseased, traveler.  It’s just heavy.  It always has been.”

“What does that mean?”

“It is planted in two worlds.  And if it weren’t for the limitations of your consciousness, you may be able to stand in even more worlds.”

“But what does that mean?”

“It means what has happened to you is not medical—not physical or psychological.  It is…metaphysical—and before you ask me what that means, maybe we should go somewhere you feel more comfortable, back into the cavern perhaps?”

Seyyal nodded, realizing that she did feel exposed outside of the cave.  She let the woman walk past her.  “I’m Seyyal, by the way,” she said, realizing she hadn’t introduced herself in the confusion and anxiety of her arrival.

She dragged her foot and glanced behind her to check for other people as they walked back through the cave mouth.

The woman, Tirsa, already began to explain as they walked.

She explained that Seyyal had a particular set of associated gene sequences that gave her the latent ability to cross over into other dimensions given a specific set of environmental circumstances and metaphysical conditions.  The environmental circumstance was the nexus cavern.  And one of those metaphysical conditions was that her soul had to be open to a connection with the nexus.  That was why hundreds of people could walk around in that same cavern system and even step in that same goopy puddle that Seyyal did and not be affected the way Seyyal was affected.

“Open to a connection?  How?  I still don’t understand,” Seyyal asked as they settled down to sit on a moss-covered boulder.

“You have the soul of a traveler.  That is enough.”

“But I don’t.  I hadn’t traveled anywhere in over a decade—well nowhere far anyway.”

“You are still thinking of the physical, I think.  A traveler need not travel in body only.”

“Yeah, okay.  I do read a lot of books.”

“Exactly!” Tirsa said, grinning.

“Is this the realm of dreams?” Seyyal asked.  “Am I…is my body actually here?”

“No, and yes.  This time, you have traveled with your whole self, mind, body, heart, and…soul.”

“Will I be able to return home?”

“Of course.”

Seyyal nodded, but she crossed her arms skeptically.  “Where else can I go?”

“That depends on whether or not you are ready.”

“How will I know if I’m ready?”

Tirsa looked down at Seyyal’s feet.  “If your feet are willing to carry to you there, that is the first step.”  She grinned at Seyyal, and the Seyyal couldn’t help but to huff out a laugh and shake her head.

But then she gazed down at her left foot.  “Is it dangerous?  Has traveling here reduced my lifespan or taxed my system?”

“The answer to both questions is ‘yes.’  So you must decide whether or not it will be worth it to you personally to make this journey again in future.”

“I couldn’t know if it is worth it to me unless I know what awaits me in other realms.”

“And you couldn’t know what awaits you in those other realms until you visit them.”

Seyyal chewed her lip and frowned.

Tirsa raised a brow.  “Were you expecting me to tell you what to expect?”

“I was just hoping you—or someone—could tell me how to fix my foot.”

“You still don’t believe you’re really here, do you?” Tirsa asked.

“Well, it’s a lot to take in.  But if it’s a dream, it’s the most vivid dream I’ve ever had in my life.”

“Those times when you thought you were dreaming and walking in that cavern, you weren’t dreaming.  You were here.  We keep this place safe for that reason, for accidental travelers, or those who are just learning.  Any dangers here are ones you bring here yourself.”

Seyyal narrowed her eyes.  “So I didn’t have to fly halfway around the world to get to those caverns?”

“You found the doorway on your first visit to the caverns in your world.  It’s a metaphysical doorway.  Unlike a physical doorway, you can carry it with you, summon it by the effort of your will.”

“That would have been good to know before I spent all that money on a plane ticket.”

“But being in the cavern in your world does help to focus your effort and make the passage easier.”

Seyyal glanced around.  “Seems like a slow travel day.”

“Travelers typically don’t see each other.  Each of them has their own tunnel.”

Seyyal nodded slowly.  How convenient, she thought.

Tirsa smiled.  “You’re not the only person from your world to come through.”

“All I want is to know I don’t have some fatal disease creeping up from my foot.”

“You don’t.”

“If what you say is true, and my foot is heavy because it’s standing in two worlds, how do I get it to stand in just one, in just my world?”

“So far you’ve been responding to your foot, and fighting it, instead of directing it yourself, or letting it guide you.”

“How do I direct it?  Willpower?  What if I direct it and it doesn’t want to go where I point it?”

“Your foot is a part of you, Seyyal.  So that means a part of you wants to go in a different direction.”

“You’re saying a part of me wanted to come here.”

Tirsa inclined her head.

“Because I have the soul of a traveler.”

Tirsa gave a slight shrug.  Seyyal glanced to her right, to the cavern mouth.  She could see the hazy form of spires in the distance.  She hadn’t noted them when she was outside before.

“Why did you visit the caverns?” Tirsa asked.

Seyyal glanced away and down at her foot.  “Because I wanted to figure out what’s going on with my foot.”

“No, before that.  The first time you visited.”

“Oh, well.  I heard about them from other people.  It seemed like fun.  I had never been in a cavern before.  I was curious.  A little nervous, but they had tours available.  So I decided to go for it.”  Seyyal gazed down at her foot.  “Are you sure it’s not a parasite?  Because it was turning all kinds of weird colors.”

“And that frightened you into taking action?  And that action brought you here?”

Seyyal sighed.  “I take it you’re saying my left foot is sentient and it’s the boss now?  I have to go where it wants or else it’s going to anchor me in place?”

“I believe you’re experiencing physical manifestations of your subconscious will.  Your foot stepped directly into this place before the rest of you did.”

“So my left foot is smarter than me now.  The rest of me has to catch up.”

Tirsa smiled.  “It’s your foot, traveler.  Tell it where you want it to go.”

Seyyal stood up then.  She turned to her left, to the very spot where she’d been standing swiping through pictures on her phone as the rocky cavern around her became a mossy cavern.  And she turned to her right to the cavern mouth that led out into the nexus plains.

As she made the decision of where she wanted to go, she felt the heaviness in her foot lifting.

She took a breath, and then she took a step…

 

Copyright © 2019  Nila L. Patel

2 thoughts on “The Cavern Traveler

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