I watched K’eel fly away, toward a distant, thick stand of trees. The sun was high in the sky, shining slightly into the cave opening where I stood. My toes were directly in the sun, but the rest of me was in shadow from the cave opening. Yet, when I turned to look back, all was white behind me.
I leaned carefully out of the cave opening. The cliff was brilliant white stone, reflecting the sun hotly onto the grassy meadow below. The ground looked parched, with bare patches of dirt here and there. Further away from the cliff, grass grew thick and tall. From the base of the cliff, I saw a river issue forth. Perhaps it was a spring, but there was something uncomfortably exact about it.
My eyes fell back on the stone of the cliff. I reached out and touched it. It was cool and smooth. On closer look, I could see individual crystals within it. Would this be a marble cliff? I slid my fingers from the edge of the cave back toward where I had come from. About a foot within the cave, the wall changed from cool, crystalline stone, to mushy white softness. I looked back again, and the eerie whiteness remained. What was this place?
The landscape offered no help. I had been waiting for K’eel’s return for more than half an hour, and finally decided to sit down. I was a little nervous about potentially getting trapped in the white mush again, but it didn’t seem to be gripping me tightly. I hung my feet over the edge of the cave opening and examined the scenery. There was a light, pleasant breeze that I was glad for. The sun was beating down as it moved lower in the sky. I could feel it burning my hands and arms as they sat in my lap. The jeans I was wearing were getting uncomfortably hot.
It occurred to me that there were no bugs. Had I been sitting in such a place at home, I’d be positively swarmed by black flies and mosquitoes. Where were they? In fact, there were no obvious animals anywhere. The grass moved in the breeze, and I could hear the wind in some nearby trees, but there was not a single sound that was clearly from an animal. There was no birdsong. No frogs peeping. No cicadas buzzing. Where were all the animals? Where were the bugs?
There was a rumble from afar. I scanned the sky for thunder clouds, but there was nothing but perfect white puffy clouds. The rumble came again. I looked up. Still nothing but perfect blue sky. The scent of ozone drifted to my nose. Surely there was a thunderstorm on the way.
Abruptly, the sun dimmed and shadows disappeared. The sky turned grey. The rumble came again and the sky darkened further. There was a flash, followed immediately by a loud clap of thunder. I yelped and drew myself back into the cave, where it was still uniformly white. Rain poured from the sky.
It rained solidly for fifteen minutes, then stopped as if someone turned off a valve. I peeked out of the cave carefully. A mist settled over the land. The breeze returned. The sky lightened and the sun returned, now slightly lower in the sky. The ground below was damp, but otherwise it was as if the storm had never happened. Only an increased humidity remained. The sky was once again brilliantly blue and full of perfect puffy clouds. The mist clung near the rivers for a few more minutes, then dissipated.
I hung my feet out of the cave again and wondered if I could survive the jump. No. That would kill me. The whiteness behind me was just as uninviting. I was trapped. I hoped K’eel would come back.
Motion in the distance caught my eye. I saw birds circling above the stand of trees where I had seen K’eel go earlier. A group of 15 or so birds approached. As they got closer, a pair of arms hanging below their wings became obvious. They were carrying things. I stood up and waited.
One passed by the cave. “Hello again!” he shouted.
“Hi,” I said.
They landed and gathered below. They all looked so similar. Which one was K’eel? There was one with black feathers about his head. He wasn’t K’eel. The rest were all just brown. Panic hit me. Maybe I should go back. I glanced uneasily into the whiteness of the cave.
“We will make you a ladder!” shouted K’eel from below. Or at least I assumed it was K’eel. “If you can climb down,” he added.
“Yeah. Probably,” I replied.
Another of the bird-men leapt into flight, drawing himself up to flap in front of me. His eyes were more orange than K’eel’s, but otherwise he looked identical. How would I ever tell them apart? This one said nothing. He merely hovered there, with obvious difficulty, scrutinizing me.
“Hi. I’m Nate,” I muttered.
“Laak,” he replied. “You will help us?”
The bird-man grunted and whistled something down to the others, then dove back to the ground. They worked quickly to build the ladder, tearing notches into longer logs and lashing smaller branches into place as steps. Several made trips back and forth to nearby stands of trees to collect more lumber as it was needed. Their discussions were all whistles and clicks. It was like listening to mockingbirds talk. I was astounded at the complexity of what they were saying. I wished I could understand.
To put the ladder into place took some doing, with several of the bird-men on the ground pulling and pushing, and others in the air, hoisting and dragging. There it was in front of me now, leaning on the lip of the cave.
“Come!” cried K’eel. “Please. You cannot stay there.”
I peered over the edge. They were gathered below. Several waved me to come down. Three had stationed themselves at the base of the ladder, holding it securely. I gripped the ladder and gave it a gentle shake. This adventure would end quickly if I fell. I took a breath and carefully put my weight on the first rung. It held. I made my way down as the bird-men whistled and cheered me on.
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