Illegible Signpost

by Susan Cornford

Josh punched off his phone and swore copiously. The itinerary had been screwed up again! A list of alternatives scrolled through his head till he hit bottom. Then—wait! Wasn’t there that Green Cavern site? It was fairly far off the ordinary route, but, hey, “any port in a storm.” Relief revived his usual sense of humor.

Later, he ushered a Whitman’s Sampler of tourists onto the bus bound for the geographical attractions and prehistoric rock art of the vicinity. As Ann, his partner in love and business, started the engine, Josh picked up the microphone and recalled the first rule of oration from his Speech and Drama degree: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them,” and then did so. As his spiel and the visits unrolled, he felt merely a flash of worry about the bus GPS-safety-transmitter not having been repaired and reinstalled yet, even though only he and Ann knew where they were going. Besides, they all had their phones.

They pulled up at Green Cavern entrance in mid-afternoon and Josh noticed that some vandal had knocked the Tourist Bureau sign flat onto the ground. “This,” he advised the now-flagging group, “was one of the best-kept, local secrets until recently. The petroglyphs, hidden deep inside—but now within easy access,” he added, smilingly, “are some of the finest examples known. But, please, come and judge that for yourselves.” Off they obediently trooped, led by Josh and followed by Ann, who’d managed to park in a shady overhang.

Deep in the cavern, the much cooler air clung to their skins and sounds echoed off hard surfaces. Sight was limited to the range of the guides’ two flashlights, aimed first at the path, then at the primitive artwork they’d come to see. There were murmurs of, “Oh” and “Ah,” and many camera flashes.

Suddenly the earth shook; a thunderous crashing of rocks came from the direction of the entrance. It was over very quickly and nothing seemed changed nearby when Josh and Ann shone around their flashlights. He tried unsuccessfully to prevent the stampede from charging back the way they’d come. All stopped short and, when the lights caught up, they showed a solid wall of debris brought down by the earthquake. Hands went to phones, fingers pushed buttons, tempers flared, and tears flowed. They were incommunicado.

Josh was besieged with questions. He knew he should lie to them to prevent panic but he’d been threatened with a lawsuit before and he wanted to avoid that by hiding nothing. They weren’t happy when he’d made it clear that no one knew where they were and had no way of finding out, except by a search of all possible venues. This venue, being remote, was surely the last place they would look. The bus, under an overhang, was unlikely to be seen from the air. It would probably be several days before ground searchers found them.

Next came the discussion about the cavern: was there another way out? Could air get in? Was there water? The answers to all three soon proved to be, “No.” The final issue was: how long could they last given the time it would take to find and dig them out? As they all looked at each other, Josh said he’d just put new, top-grade batteries into the flashlights so, whatever else, they wouldn’t be left in the dark.

Praying began in one corner and hysterical crying in another. Tissues were found and someone’s hip flask made the rounds of those who wanted it. Pages from a notebook and pens got passed around to leave messages or wills for loved ones the old-fashioned way.

Josh and Ann huddled together and were glad they’d had no children yet. He still couldn’t believe that no one had yelled accusations at him or beaten him up; he guessed they were just in shock.

Time passed, but time spent, trapped in Green Cavern, was in a different dimension from the everyday kind. Someone suggested singing and then they wondered if this would use up oxygen more quickly. It was decided by vote, for they had become a mini-community, that the morale-raising effects of singing were more important. A rousing rendition of “We Shall Overcome” met the rescuers when they broke through.

Despite everyone’s expectations, they’ve held a reunion every year since, and Josh and Ann have continued to run their tours. As for the Mountain God depicted in the petroglyphs, He liked their singing so much he’s vowed never to make another earthquake again.