Emerald’s Cave was not a cave, but a half mile long series of connected water culverts, eight feet high in diameter that collected the remnants of a brook that ran from the foot of the parkway near the town’s dog pound to the foot of School No. 11, a half block west of Lakeview Avenue.
We knew about the brook long before we ever discovered the cave, even though Dave and I for a time went to school together at Number 11.
We frequently hung around the park, preferring the brook side to the squeaky rusted swings or the basketball court generally occupied by kids who did not want us around, despite how tall Dave was. We had an old rope tied to a tree near where the brook divided the park from the Department Public Works and in summer, we swung back and forth over it, leaping from its end with the hope we landed on dry ground instead of in the water which from time to time we sometimes did. When the rope broke, we wandered down stream looking for something else to occupy ourselves with.
The name of the cave comes from one of the local high school gangs who call themselves The Emeralds, part of the cluster of Irish families that still live a few blocks up
on Seventh and Eighth Streets, near the Irish Pub and the funeral home. The
Emeralds took possession of the brook where it went into the tunnel near the
school, writing their name in green over it, the way some high school kids
wrote “Hell’s Gate” over a similar tunnel near Weasel Brook on the other side
It was meant to scare of us off, and did.
Our first time there, we found the gang hanging around the front of it, like a flock of geese, bored, tossing stones into the water, waiting for something even they didn’t know.
So I tell Dave to wait. We have time. Sooner or later, I tell Dave, the gang will get too bored to keep guard over the mouth of the cave and when they go, we can take a peek inside.
And then they go away, climbing out of the gully in which brook runs into the mouth of the cave; we wait for the roar of the engines, and see the puff of smoke that rise from in front of the school where they park their cars.
Then, we scurry down to the water, and along it to where the brook bubbles and spreads out as it charges over the last pebbles before reaching the concrete, the echo of the moving water coming out from the darkness of the tunnel, filled with haunting voices that make us stop.
Dave doesn’t want to go in; I’m not so sure I want to either; I won’t let Dave know that and so step from the moist stones to the dry side of the tunnel, where there is nothing flat, just constant curving, with the water running down the center, orange marks along both sides indicating just how high the water runs after a rain storm, too high for anyone to stay dry, or even walk.
Dennis, who suddenly thinks this might be even more fun than swinging on a rope, comes in behind me, his sneakers squeaking, wet still from his earlier plunge. He slips again; I grab his arm to keep him from falling.
We stand in the semi-dark, Dave behind us, a silhouette against the wide opening of the cave, uncertain, his gaze shifting from us inside to the top of the gully, he thinking the gang might suddenly reappear, though we hear no roar of engines, no drunken laughter, just the slightly distant sound of giggling from the park and the steady hum of cars traveling along Lakeview Avenue.
“Are you coming in or what?” I ask, my voice filling the darkness, and echoing down into the depths of the place, stirring up something I think that ought not to be stirred up.
“What if they …?” Dave says and tilts his head up towards the place where the gang disappeared.
“If they come back, we’ll here them,” I say.
The echoes hide my lack of confidence. Dennis moves deeper into the cave, where the tunnel turns and heads in the direction of river, a point where real darkness starts.
“We should have a flashlight,” Dave says.
“I got matches,” Dennis says.
“Where did you get those?” Dave says, peering down at the fist full of red and white tipped wooden matches.
“Momma had them in the kitchen drawer.”
“And what have you been doing with them? Starting fires again?”
“Not big fires.”
“Didn’t momma warn you about that?”
“She said I shouldn’t set the landlord’s trash on fire. She didn’t say anything about small fires.”
“Give them here,” Dave demands; striding forward, entering the dimness of the cave even without being aware of doing so, halting when he realizes what he’s done.
“We all should have some,” I tell Dave. “Just in case.”
Then, our worst fear happened. Gravel fell down into the gully behind us just near where the gang went. Their voices hide our voices. One is complaining to someone else about nobody buying gas.
“Quick,” I whisper made too loud in the echoes around me. “Deeper in.”
“No way,” Dave says.
“You want to get beat up again?” I say.
Dave’s already pale face seems to fade into white. I grab some matches from Dennis and thrust some of these into Dave’s shaking hand.
“Don’t use them until we have to,” I tell him in a whisper even lower than before.
We creep deeper in, around the curve, but not so deep that we can’t see each other, or peer back at the round moon-like circle of the cave’s mouth where we see the shapes of the gang members sliding down.
Dennis moves, his sneakers squeak. Dave looks like he’s ready to faint. One of the gang lights a cigarette – which as the scent of smoke reaches us – turns out not to be a cigarette.
We wait. And watch. The echoes of their ongoing argument over who should have bought gas whirl around us, taking into the midst, as if some political rally in which we are being asked to take a side.
Even that fades away, and eventually, someone shouts, and they call climb out of the gully again.
We don’t move.
We sit in the semi-darkness until real darkness begins outside, and the cave around us seems cold and dank and full of danger, and Dave, scared to come or go, starts walking towards the last of the light at the opening of the tunnel, and we follow him, Dennis’ sneakers squeaking the whole way.
We came back the next day because we couldn’t help ourselves -- but better prepared, carrying boxes of stick matches, and even a flashlight, and a small bag of ash cans we got from the basement stash Dave’s mom bought in
Pennsylvania for the Fourth of
Dave doesn’t like the fact that Little Dave comes with us this time, telling me that this isn’t something for kids as small as him, but Little Dave insisted, he and Dennis leaping down the embankment into the gully before we can stop them, without looking even to see if any of the older kids are around, and they’re not, and so plunge into the darkness of the tunnel, their voice chirping in echoes as Dave and I climb down more cautiously, listening always for the sound of cars we know means the Emerald gang is back. I can smell the sweet scent floating over towards us from the German bakery on Lakeview, and it stir up hunger and memories of coming down from Crooks to collect bread my grandmother ordered, and how I hugged the loaves the whole way home, feeling the warmth against my chest.
Dave wants to know what the matter is because I’ve stopped half way down, day dreaming or wishing for something I can never get, something I’m not sure I want, or even know what it is I want.
I shrug and tell Dave nothing’s wrong and come down to where he is standing near the water, the echoes of its flowing almost as loud as the giggles of the two younger kids inside. Dave hisses at them to keep quiet, but they can’t hear him at first, and we both have to go inside to get them to stop, and then they just giggle, Little Davy asking me how far the tunnel goes, and whether we are going to go all the way through, and I tell him don’t be stupid, nobody goes through here – although I’ve heard some people say they have, just the way they say they’ve been through Hell Gate, which goes from behind the supermarket near Weasel Brook all the way down to Clifton Pool.
Emerald’s Cave is different, haunted by something nobody talks about a lot, only in whispers, and hints, having heard the sounds from inside that sound like voices, just not voices of anything human.
Dave tells me to shut up, I’m scaring the kids; they aren’t scared; Dave is, and he looks back at the opening, half expecting to get trapped here again the way we were the other day. No sound comes from outside.
Little Davy says he wants to go farther inside; Big Dave says no.
Dennis complains saying, “then why did we bring the matches and flashlight if we’re just going to hang around here.”
So off Dennis and Little Davy go, jumping from side to side over the water, since nothing is flat here, just constant curves with the water down the middle, and at times, we come upon pieces of debris, old tree branches washed in during heavy rains.
Dennis lights a match, and we are in a bubble of light, showing bits of glass in the water, and leaves, and bottles, and such, and in the darkness something like eyes reflect back the light, Dave shouts for Dennis to put it out. Dave wants to turn back, saying its getting late, and he and Dennis need to do chores.
Dennis and Little Davy beg to go a little farther, and so we all light matches so we don’t slip on the slick and titled sides of the tunnel, at this point, Dennis gives a yelp and rushes ahead, we losing him for a moment in the darkness, only his match showing, and when we catch up, he is standing beside a shopping cart covered with wet grass that looks like sea weed.
“How do you think it got here?” he asks.
“It didn’t come in with the water,” I say, realizing for the first time that people have come deep into this place, the way they have at Hell’s Gate, exploring the interior in ways that make me want to explore it, too, and I tell Dave as much, but Dave tells me we have to turn back or he and Dennis won’t get home in time to have super ready for their mother.
So we turn back, both younger kids squawking the whole time, so I can’t quite listen ahead to make sure the way is clear until we actually arrive, and find nobody at the mouth of the cave.
Each time we returned we challenged ourselves to see how far inside we could go before the rats and perhaps worse things forced us to turn back, the interior clear only for the first few yards before it turned, and once out of sight of the entrance, became a dark twilight world, and the deeper we went, the darker and more littered it became, not just with wood or branches, but old tires, pieces of car, and other things we could not recognize.
Since these things rarely shifted except during some heavy downpour that inflated the brook and flooded the tunnel, they became markers of our passage, instant recognizable symbols of our progress. A few kids claimed they had gone the whole way through to the other side where the tunnel emptied out into the river near Dundee Dam, but could not prove their right of passage and most of us remained skeptical since we all believe the worst part of the journey was the second half, a reason why most f us turned back at the halfway point where our courage withered.
For the most part, we hung out near the opening and the brightest part, fearing our getting caught inside the way we did the first time by the gang of kids, and though armed with stick matches we intended for use during our passage through the dark, we mostly threw these against the sides of the pipe to watch them ignite, leaving tiny streaks of black on the concrete.
While other kids made the pilgrimage with us at times, most often I went with Dave, Dennis and Little Davy, and were always on the hunt for more stick matches, the red ones with white tips that lit the best or the blue ones that didn’t light as well. Cheap as they were, we took care not to raise the suspicions of the local store keepers by purchasing too many too often at the same place, even at the supermarket on Second and Lakeview where all our families shopped and the owner, Mr. Weiss, often tattled on us, if he thought we were up to no good (which we often were). So we took turns buying them, and divided the proceeds before we went to the cave so that we all had enough to explore a little and snap them against the walls when we got bored.
This explains why Dave and I had full pockets of matches that one day when headed to the cave, and explains our impatience at wanted to light them, but whether it was Dave’s idea or mine (Or both I’m still uncertain) to stop half way across the Parkway Bridge on Lakeview Avenue to see what a lighted match might look like falling down into the three lanes of traffic below. At some point between the striking of the match and its falling, a cloud burst on us with a torrent of rain and a cop car pulled up to the cub, driver curling his forefinger at us to come over to him, Dave first, leaving me time to flee and as I fled, dumping matches out on to the ground until my pockets were empty, at which point Dave yelled at me, telling me the cop needed to talk to me, too, a skeptical cop who already knew my name, where I lived, and that the scheme to toss the match off the bridge was mine, Dave standing back, pretending to be innocent, pretending that he had just given me up to the cop, but since his pockets were still filled with matches, I feigned innocence of my own and tried to explain to the cop how the match lit itself, and pointing to the ground covered now with the wet remains of red tipped stick matches, I told him that we were simply strolling along and kicked at them, and ignited one, which just happened to fall off the bridge and down into traffic. I said this all with a straight face, even as the rain dripped off the tip of my nose and chin, a river of wet washing away the remains of my crime, matches that could not have lit themselves in their condition, even if the tale I told had been remotely true.
The cop, laughing through most of my outrageous tale, eventually let us go, struggling to sound stern with his warning about his not catching us pulling any of that crap again, reminding us that he knew where we both lived, and who my uncles were, although he did later repeat the tale to them, shaking his head at my audacity, while my uncles grew livid and later issued me the appropriate punishment.
Luck runs out eventually. You can’t keep testing fate before it betrays you. So a short time later we are hanging out at the mouth of the cave when the gang – in a roar of hotrods spewing exhaust shows up on the street above us.
Some of the other kids, led by a kid named Tim, give up right away, surrendering themselves to the beating required as punishment for violating Emerald’s turf, me, the two Daves and Dennis flee into the cave instead, taking refuge in the darkness just around the curve inside.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” some of the gang members yell, imitating the old hide and seek game we all played when we were younger, “Come out and take your lumps.”
They warn us if we didn’t we will get much worse later when they catch us, and promise that they will wait all night if they have to until we come out.
Big Dave, used to the bullies at school, wants to go out right away, get it over with, less now than more later, he says. But Dennis only stares at his brother, looking disappointed, and angry, hating the idea of giving in, wanting to go out to, but not to take his lumps but to fight, an idea I said was insane since even one of those thugs could beat up the lot of his without breathing hard.
Little Davy says his father the doctor would worry if he doesn’t show up before dark, and will call the police, the last thing I need with so much punishment hanging over my head already, and this time, I figure the cops won’t be laughing about us. I suggest we go down the tunnel to the river, an idea the other three wholeheartedly oppose.
“We don’t have enough matches for that long a trip,” Dave says.
A quick count proves his right, though I point out if we only light one match, rather than one for each of us, we might stretch them out for the whole trip.
At this point, some of the more impatient members of the gang decide to push the issue and start into the mouth of the tunnel. We should see this as a hopeful sign, showing how some of them don’t want to waste all day waiting for us, and if we keep our heads and move a little farther into the tunnel, they might eventually give up and go away. But we panic, and flee headlong into the darkness, yelping each time we bang a shin or splash into some unexpected puddle or trip over a slimy log.
The panicked echoes only inspires the gang and has some of them coming even deeper into the tunnel, calling out, describing in detail what they will do to us when they finally get their hands on us. This inspires us and keeps us running long after the sound of pursuit ceases.
Dave refuses to believe they stopped, and is convinced they are waiting in silence for us to turn back.
So we keep going, passed the old pickup bumpers with faded stickers from when Nixon was vice president, passed the shopping cart, passed even the splintered remains of some shed most kids agree marks the half way point to the river.
By the time we finally stop, we know we are in uncharted territory. Ill luck also plays us another dirty trick. In our panicked run, we dropped most if not all the matches we started with – and this forces us to choose between pushing ahead towards the river with at least some light to guide us for some of the way, or to turn back, knowing we won’t have enough light to make it.
We push on.
Things scurry ahead of us in the dark, whether rats or some other things born of darkness, we cannot tell.
We have light while the matches last, illuminating spaces nobody our age had seen, exposing other as yet undiscovered icons we know will become part of our mythology: a refrigerator, a dresser, a row boat, even a car – a rusted antique my grandfather might recognize, slicked over with green streamers of still growing, wet grass or seaweed.
If there is a light at the end of this tunnel, we cannot see it.
Even as the matches expire, we push on, having no choice, feeling our way through the tunnel, sensing the pieces of things that have come here on the tide from the river to become permanent fixtures in this underworld.
If we are scared, we have to forgo it, too bent on what we might find next in the deepest of darkness, our eyes become like the eyes of fish too long in the depths of the sea. We begin to see what we could not if we still had light to guide us, perhaps even things not really there, things clinging to our peripheral vision, things we later tell no one else about, not even each other.
When we hear running water again, we know the river is near. The air changes, the stench of rotting giving way to the scent of living, and we stumble ahead, sniffing out our route until we come to a curve and then to an opening so much like the one we entered at the other end, we believe for a moment we have turned ourselves around in the dark and come back rather than forward. But the river lapping at our toes tells us differently, tells us we have made it through to the other side.
Big Dave and I come to this part of the river a lot, wandering its shores, crossing over the dam along its narrow ledge to reach Service Diner on the
But neither of us recognize the place at first, and even when we do, it seems
Later, Big Dave and I, armed with ash can and cherry bombs, go back to the inland opening of Emerald Cave, where we hide in the bushes and wait for the gang to come, watching them slide down to the embankment to where they gathered at the mouth, and where they smoke and joke and sometimes fight. When they are all down, we toss the first ash can into the water near them, on this side, so that when they jump, they jump towards the tunnel, not away, the second ash can forces them to go inside, and then we keep throwing them, one after another, driving them deeper and deeper into the tunnel the way fear of them drove us, the explosions echoing deep under ground, and then, when we run out of matches to light the fuse, we go home, knowing we have no need to return to this place. We have seen it all, perhaps too much, maybe even more than there is to see.