They had already caught all the blood they could with an awkward, horrific handling of Stephen’s corpse, twisting it this way and that, upending him bodily by the legs as though he were a vessel to be poured out to the last drop. And in a way, his body was just exactly that. There was more volume than they had anticipated and some of it ran over the lip of the last Kleen Kanteen, slicking the aluminum canister with the liquid. It rivulted down the sides and into Martin’s sleeve, a pitch-black stain.
It was warm and salty and revolting. But it had been the end of the fifth day after the water was gone and they drank it with less fanfare than they had drank their own urine, which had consisted of a morbid kind of toast, down the hatch and such. That had been on the second day after they conceded their last, shared sip of canteened water. They had begrudgingly begun to catch the small output of urine each of them was producing. Not much but enough to survive another day and then one more but that was it.
Martin, with his Ph.D. in philosophy rather than archeology implied that it would not be lost on historians that they had made a deliberate human sacrifice beneath the vigilant eyes of bison painted on the cave wall by ancestors so ancient they could have been aliens. Frank mumbled something about the state of nature they had found themselves in and perhaps they should be more concerned about the vigilant eyes of the law, but he quickly quieted himself. He had been consciously fighting a tendency towards hysteria.
The very reason they were in the predicament they were in was the cave paintings. An exploration that had been weeks in the planning. The descent into the earth, Grigore leading them further and further away from the surface. Phillipe had quoted Dante as they departed the excited base group who were keeping out of the misty rain by herding beneath the EZ-Ups. They had looked back, beneath helmets and headlamps, and packs of camera equipment. It was meant to be a quick descent.
Time had become tangled, knotted and unraveling, but Phillipe tallied the days in his field book.
Somewhere around the ninth day, Martin had posited the idea of fate, the whims of the gods. The statistical improbability of entering the cavern that had stood open and inviting if hidden for tens of hundreds of centuries, only to have tectonic plates gnash their teeth during those hours and trap the group.
They ignored him, all pretense of politeness gone. Grigore might have even growled.
They each had packed a small emergency provision, space blanket, two energy bars, antibiotic cream, aspirin, and an extra long-life battery for the headlamp.
Hypothermia was their third concern, after hydration and calories. But perhaps their first encumbrance, before the most basic of human needs, water, food, warmth, was the damned radio. The crackling voice far above them, on the surface, where the mouth of the cave had once swallowed them whole. The disembodied voice from above that informed them of the failed rescue attempts, the medical advice, the somber agreement that they would not survive, before they bashed Stephen’s head in while he slept.
They hadn’t drawn straws or rolled dice or even asked him if he was willing, they simply decided with silences and strange long looks shared in the LED beams. Stephen’s left leg had been crushed when a portion of the cave ceiling fell upon him. Boulders the size of cars raining down, shook loose by the thunderous earthquake.
Grigore and Frank insisted on reassuring them that Stephan had not felt a thing. In and out of consciousness, the restless, moaning sleep. The labored breathing and the pleading. Grigore even suggested they had done a brother a favor.
In a dream I felt the universe open at my back. Expanding endlessly behind me. I hesitated there on the edge of falling backwards, arms spread wide, the cosmic trust catch.
Asleep on the floor of the cave, pulverized granite a sandy, uncomfortable bed, asleep beneath my blanket of pain; the world opening through the broken hole in my skull the size of a rock in a man’s fist.