Hundreds of crickets watched us from the darkened ceiling as we moved through the cave led by a guide with only a flashlight and a thousand facts about the cave. The guide was an older woman with wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and sandy blonde hair tucked behind her ears. She had 30 years of experience leading groups through protected areas of national parks and caves. The pay wasn’t great and the days were long, but she somehow still found pleasure in the work.
It beats getting stuck in a cubicle farm, she would have explained if anyone asked about her longevity as a ranger. Not that she wasn’t looking forward to retirement because she was, very much, looking forward to spending her golden years between the mangroves and beaches of Florida, which she would have added if anyone would have asked.
She stopped at an open area in the cave and waited for the slowest members of the group to catch up. It was a limited mobility tour and between the older adults and toddlers with their caretakers, everyone was slow. In spite of the weight of the baby bump, I am proud that we were able to hold our own and were not the very last stragglers of the gang.
“Kids, come up here. I want to show you all something.”
She had a secret smirk on her face as she watched parents trustingly bring their children towards her.
“There’s room right around here. Come on, squeeze together everyone,” the guide said.
Herding the tiny humans forward, the kids moved into a tight semi-circle around the guide and in front of the adults. Everyone stood with wide eyes, limited by the unfamiliarity of the cave and the darkness. The air was dry and cool, giving away nothing with a breeze that didn’t exist.
“I bet you think we’re alone in here, right?” she asked.
The kids shouted different answers, not as easily prompted as she expected.
“Oh, I guess we’re holding hands now.”
She looked down in surprise, twin brothers stood on either side of the guide. They had each grabbed one of her hands and stared absently off into the dark space beyond the beam of her flashlight.
The guide quickly regrouped and shook free of one of the boys.
“Sorry, I need this hand,” she whispered to him.
“Follow the light,” she said in her full voice to the audience.
Swinging the light directly overhead, she illuminated a writhing mass of large crickets clinging to the ceiling with their skinny legs and testing the air with their antenna. She panned the ceiling with the light revealing a city of crickets temporarily on hold. They watched us calmly and waited for us to leave as we gasped and squirmed in their presence.
We were never alone in the cave. In fact, above or below ground, we are never alone. Sometimes, we just don’t know where to look to find a single pair of eyes when there are actually hundreds waiting and watching to see what we will do next.