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Tunnel Vision

by Nancy Antle



Jack was walking down the twisty two-lane in the foothills of the Ozarks, against the traffic like he was supposed to, even though very few cars travelled that particular stretch of highway. He was trying to make his way into town to get himself some beer. He’d downed the last one in his ice chest about an hour ago and he didn’t think he could make it the rest of the long, sweltering day without something to fortify him. His daughter, who he lived with, had refused to take him to town. He could still hear her shrill voice, so much like her mother’s, lecturing him about how irresponsible he was and how she wasn’t going to help him kill himself.

When he heard the car coming towards him, he was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. He didn’t have time to look up and find it with what vision he had left before it whooshed by him blaring the horn. The smart thing might have been to bail into the ravine next to the road but he hadn’t really had time to react. Probably a good thing. Sure as shit he’d have broken something or impaled himself on a sapling.

His old dog, Tate, a terrier, yipped a belated warning bark, as the car’s tires screeched around the bend. Not long after, Jack heard the hum of an engine coming down the road behind him on the other side. He kept on walking, but hoped maybe the car held someone he knew who would give him a lift. The car slowed to his pace and a woman’s voice called to him from across the road.

“Hey! You know I nearly hit you?” she said.

“Just trying to get to town get some beer,” Jack said. “But, thank you for turning around to tell me I’m in the way.”

“Town’s nearly five miles. Maybe you should figure out a way to get there without walking in the road. You’re gonna get yourself killed.”

He squinted trying to see the face behind her voice. There was something familiar about it. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. It had been over thirty years for God’s sake.

“How about you give me a ride to town?” he said. “Seeing as how you’re so worried about me’n all.”

“Are you a serial killer?” she said.

He chuckled. “I’m not, but I suppose that’s what they all say.”

“Can’t you just walk through the woods or something?”

“Lady, I can barely see well enough to follow the road.”

“Well, shit…” she said, more to herself than him, it seemed.

He squinted uselessly again. He still couldn’t see her face. “Beverly?” he said.

She was silent for a moment. All he could hear was the idling car and the call of a crow in the trees.

“Do I know you?” she asked.

He crossed the road hoping she wouldn’t speed off. “It’s Jack,” he said.

She gasped. “Oh, my God!”

“Kind of ironic, huh?” he said. Ironic that she’d almost killed him twice, now.

“I can’t believe it,” she said

He could see her more clearly once he was close-up. She was looking at him, smiling – something he’d imagined for a long time. He smiled back.

“Get your butt in here,” she said. “Before you get us both run over.”

Jack felt his way along the hood of the car to the passenger side door and opened it. Tate jumped in without being invited and Jack followed.

“I cannot believe this,” she said again.

He couldn’t either. She had been his future. The woman he planned to marry even though he never told her. He’d often thought if he hadn’t been such a chicken shit he would have asked her and life would have been better. He’d hoped for this kind of meeting one day but in his imagination, it was better than this.  He was cleaned up, wearing nice clothes, his good boots. This was not the way he wanted her to see him.

He fastened his seat belt while she peeled out, heading back to town – back to where she’d just come from. He turned to look at her through the narrow hole of his vision. He couldn’t get over how much she looked the same and he told her so. She tried to return the compliment but he knew she was just being nice seeing as how he’d gained fifty pounds and his hair was gray. At least she didn’t seem fazed by his scruffy state.

He was surprised how quickly they fell into a long-ago pattern; how natural their conversation was as if they’d been out of touch only a day or so. There was the old familiar rush of lapping up each other’s words as if they were thirsty – asking questions, interrupting for more details.

Jack told her about his two failed marriages and his three grown kids; his retirement from the military on account of his retinitis pigmentosa.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Tunnel vision. At least that’s what they called it when my daddy had it.”

“Sounds serious.”

“It is – your vision kind of closes up – slowly over time.”

“That’s awful.”

Talking about his disease always made him uncomfortable but, luckily, she was in a hurry to tell him about her life so he didn’t have to figure out how to change the subject.  Beverly’d recently gotten a divorce, thank God there were no kids; been working as a librarian in a middle school in LA for twenty years; was in Tulsa for a conference and drove out to see her old hometown; a trip down memory lane.

“Why the hell would you want to remember this God-awful place?” Jack hoped maybe she was looking for him. But he was also thinking about the paper mill that had shut down leaving behind an empty shell; the boarded-up businesses on Main; and of course, all the people out of work, trying to get by anyway they could. All changes that had happened after she was years gone.

“It wasn’t so God-awful when we were young was it?” she asked.

He sighed. “Hard to remember.” He cleared his throat in the long pause, then hurried to ask her more about her life in California. What was her commute like? Was the smog still bad? Did she miss the seasons? He’d been close to where she lived when he was in the service so at least he had a clue what questions to ask.

As she answered, her voice faded, and Jack quit listening, feeling himself pressed into the car seat, pulled into it by the weight of the past calling him back. There was the time they took the dune buggy his father helped him build all over the back roads, up and down, until they got lost in the boonies, far away from anyone they knew. There was the time they went to the horror movie and couldn’t quit talking about how terrified they were for months after. There was the time they swam in Blue Hole in March, teeth chattering as they ran back to his car, wrapping up in threadbare beach towels, blasting the heater. And, always, always there were the hours spent sitting on the hood of her car, staring at the stars, talking, never once considering how small and insignificant they were to the universe.

Jack felt the silence wrap around them like the suffocating heat outside. He knew she was looking at him, that he’d missed a question.

“Sorry,” he said. “I must’ve spaced out.” He adjusted the shoulder harness on the seatbelt that was choking him then patted Tate’s head.

“Guess you didn’t really want to hear all that,” she said.

“No, I do. Really. My mind wanders. Sorry.”

She laughed. “It’s okay. My mind wanders all over creation sometimes.”

She flipped on the radio. A twangy country song that Jack was not familiar with filled the space. She turned it off again.

“So, tell me more about your retini…your tunnel vision. There’s nothing the doctor’s can do?”

“Not a thing. It’s genetic.” He didn’t want to talk about it. Didn’t want to dwell on what the future held for him. That was part of Beverly he’d forgotten; how her curiosity made her cold – oblivious to any pain she might be causing with her questions.

“How much can you see right now?” she pressed on.

“I don’t know.” He sighed. “I guess about the size of dime.”

“And it will get worse?”

He nodded.

“What are you going to do?”

He snorted. “I’m just gonna keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope I don’t get run over by something I don’t see coming.”

“Haha,” she said.

They reached the intersection and the four way stop sign.

“Where do you want me to take you?” she asked.

“The Qwik Trip on Main is fine. They always have Coors.”

She drove slowly to the end of the street and parked the car in front of the store.

“Thanks for the lift,” Jack said. “I appreciate it.”

“I’m going in too,” Beverly said. “I need a bag of chips or something. I’m starved.  I can drive you back?”

“Sure,” Jack said, fighting to keep his voice even. “I’d appreciate that.” He climbed out with Tate in his arms. His hands shook as he tied him to the bench in front with the leash he pulled from his pocket.

The ice, cold air inside made Jack shudder. He threaded his way through the maze of aisles until he stood in front of the refrigerator case searching for the beer he wanted.

“Let me.” Beverly’s voice was suddenly beside him again. One of the glass doors sucked open. “Coors, right? I’ll take it up for you.”

He grabbed another box and followed her to the register where they clunked the boxes of cans onto the counter next to her chips and Coke.

“Is this all together?” the clerk asked.

“No. Separate,” Beverly said, pushing her stuff to one side.

Jack blinked back the sting in his eyes and sweat slipped down the middle of his back. The cash register dinged and he fumbled with his billfold, passing the guy a couple of twenties. The clerk put his change into his upturned palm and he stuffed it into his pocket.

“Crap,” Beverly said.  “I forgot to get some Advil. Here’s my keys if you want to put your beer in the car. I’ll be out in a minute.”

He nodded and went back into the heat of the day shocked again by the change in temperature. He put his beer on the rear floor of the car then returned for his dog. In a few minutes, Beverly emerged with a blast of cold air while he was still beside Tate, fumbling with his leash. She crouched next to him and he smelled her perfume – some kind of flowers and spice. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed before. Her fingers touched his where he held the knot and he pulled his hand back.

“Got it,” she said, standing. “C’mon, I’ll take you home.”

They drove back the way they’d come, Jack navigating. Even though he couldn’t see much of anything, he remembered how to get where he needed to be. He directed her to a side road and then another one that ran along a creek under the dogwoods.

“You can let me out right here,” he said. “Anywhere.”

“You sure?” She put her foot on the brake and the car came to a soft stop. “I don’t mind taking you all the way to your house.”

“That’s okay. My daughter’s place is way back there. Not much more than a cow path the rest of the way. It could do a number on your car. Besides I’m not going all the way home with the beer.”


“Can’t listen to my daughter lecture me.” He cleared his throat. “I have an ice chest in the woods where I keep it. I’ll go there and have a few, then head home.”

“That sounds lonely…” Her words hung between them.

He remembered these kinds of conversations – the hints – never asking for something outright – saying what she really meant. He didn’t take the bait. Didn’t even bother to answer her. He took no pleasure in not inviting her – but what would be the point of having a beer together? Just get his hopes up before she disappeared again and left him with a different incarnation of her lodged in his head for another decade until dementia saved him.

God, he’d thought about her so often over the years. Some weeks, months, he’d thought of little else. Now here she was in the flesh, so much like she used to be, and yet, different. He knew it would be stupid to ask her to stay.

“Well, I hope your daughter won’t be too pissed at you,” she said.

“I’m used to it.”

“And, I’m glad I ran into you – so to speak.” She laughed.


Jack undid his seatbelt, opened the car door and Tate hopped out. As Jack turned to get out himself, Beverly put a cool hand on his arm. He stared at her long white fingers on his tanned skin and felt an ache in his chest. She didn’t say anything else and what he could see of her blurred as he slid out. He waved, a brief flap of his hand, like the wing of a bird, and tried to smile but felt maybe he failed. Then he and Tate walked into the woods.

It wasn’t until he was all the way to his ice chest that he realized he’d forgotten the beer. He stopped, cocked his head toward the highway, straining, hoping to hear her coming back to him. Water gurgled in the creek and grasshoppers chirred in the underbrush and after a time she was there too.




Nancy Antle received her MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction from Southern CT State University in 2013. Prior to that she wrote books, stories and poems for children and young adults for thirty years and was published by Dial, Viking and Cricket Magazine. She is mostly writing for an older audience now and her short stories have been published by Noctua Revew, CT Review, The Los Angeles Review of LA and Drunk Monkeys. She was a volunteer writing mentor for seven years with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project via online workshops. She has also taught fiction writing at SCSU, The Mark Twain House Museum and online for the Gotham Writer’s Workshop.







    FALL 2021

    On the Ground, Looking Up
    Tori Bissonette

    Marcia Bradley 
    Concerto de Aranjuez, Transcribed for the Ukulele
    Paul Garson
      New Mexico or Arizona
    Ethan Klein
    Tom Turkey
    Justin Meckes
    A Miraculous Takeover
    Austin McLellan
      Sleight of Hand
    Sarah Terez Rosenblum

    Whatever Happened to Mr. Saguaro?
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    SUMMER 2021
    Annual Rites
    L. Shapley Bassen
    An Artist’s Whore
    Grace Ford 
    The Two Missing Words
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      The Langauge of Flowers
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    Hollywood, Guido Orlando, The Pope and The Mother
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      Matters That Concern Me
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    LarcenySandra Yauch Bendetto

    A Weed in
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    Susan E. Lloy

    Sainte Chapelle
    Joanna Milstein


    He Left Early
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    A Hasid in the Park
    Akiva Rube

    Sixty Days in the Hole
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    Fall Fiction 2020

    The Marginalia Game – Adam Anders

    Great Spirits – Arun A.K.

    Cabbage Night – T.B. Grennan

    The Sins of Father Rickman – Catherine J. Link

    The Snow Queen – Jennifer Lorene Ritenour

    The Woman Left Behind is Still Behind Him – Shea McCollum

    Death Rattle – Kristen Roedel

    Savior – Katy Van Sant

    Summer Fiction 2020

    A Damsel in Bedlam
    Kat Devitt
    Three New Names
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    The Woman in the Window
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      The Affair of the Bird
    Harli James
    Fishbowl Frenzy
    Susie Potter
    Pretty Boy
    Nina Shevzov-Zebrun
      The New Reality
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    The Poet Ray Brown
    John Yohe

    Spring Fiction 2020

    Nine new stories from nine talented writers.

    Words May Set You Free – Marco Etheridge
    Five Questions for Thomas Pynchon – Nathaniel Heely
    Separated by Glass – Kailyn Kausen
    The Walker – Martin Keaveney
    The UMAMI Museum Field Trip – Cecilia Kennedy
    Reflections – Regan Kilkenny
    Smitten to Spitten – Madeline McEwen
    The New Girl in Our Office – Deepti Nalavade Mahule
    Assumptions – James Mulhern


    Summer Fiction 2019

    Eight new stories from eight talented writers.

    A Clean Break – Vincent Barry

    Georgey-Dear – Tetman Callis

    Offing Buck – Victoria Forester

    Sore Throat – Carolyn Geduld

    The Two Potters – Norbert Kovacs

    Everyone Smile – Douglas Ogurek

    Recovery – Paul Rosenblatt

    Thick Skin, Locked Jaw, Yes Ma’am – Rina Sclove



    Spring Fiction 2019

    Seven new stories from some very talented writers.

    Annie Blake – The River Kent

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    Lily Tierney – Gail



    Winter Fiction 2018-19

    Eight stories from eight writers of great talent.

    Scott Bassis – The Ultra Injustice

    William Cass – Surprise

    Lindsey Godfrey Eccles – Suit Yourself

    Annette Freeman – José María Writes a Story

    Phil Gallos – Snit’s Wife

    Margaret Karmazin – Meetings

    Susan Lloy – Nothing Comes Back

    Stephanie Mataya – The Harmacy


    Fall Fiction 2018

    Six great stories from six great writers.

    Linda Boroff – Let That Be a Lesson

    Laura Fletcher – I Know

    Zachary Ginsburg – Disposal

    John Mandelberg – The Plagiarist

    Evelyn Somers – Mr. Whiskey, the Greatest of All

    Kobina Wright – Invitations


    Summer Fiction 2o18

    New Writing. New Writers. New Stories.

    The Exorcism of Ecphora by Annie Blake

    Lightning by Cleo Egnal

    Invasions by Robert Douglas Friedman

    Defenestration by Martin Kleinman

    Countercurrent Me by Mike Li

    Deus Ex Marina by Megan Mooney

    Baby Fever by Pascale Potvin

    Unconscious Authorship Inc. by Cal Urycki

    Spring Fiction 2o18

    New Work. New Talent. New Visions.

    KETCHUP SANDWICH by Shamar English

    A MARVELOUS PEACE by Joe Fortunato

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    THE CAROUSEL by Maggie Herlocker

    THE TABLE by Robert Klose

    PINK LEMONADE by Michael McCormick

    THE SWAMP WITCH by Megan Parker

    THE BRIDGE by Trish Perrault

    Winter Fiction 2o17-18

    Seven new works of fiction for the cool, dark season.

    HAPPY HOME by Jessica Bonder

    THE WINE SNIFFER by Alexander Carver

    FINDING JESUS by J L Higgs

    SOUNDS OF THE ALLEYWAY by Patrick Legay

    FREE AS THE OCEAN by Rae Monroe

    THE MINISTRY OF BROOMS by Patrick Moser

    HOW NOT TO COME UNDONE by Richard Thomas

    Fall Fiction 2o17

    Amazing new work for the many colors of the season.

    TUNNEL VISION by Nancy Antle

    YOU KILL ME by Emily Johnson

    BLINDFOLDED by James Mulhern

    GLUE by Briana Morgan

    LEFTOVER MUD PIE by Mona Leigh Rose

    ALIEN HONOR by Richard Rutherford

    HAIL MARY by Erin Smith


    Summer Fiction 2o17

    Great new work for the warmest of seasons.

    EXIADON by Jesse Downing

    EVIDENCE ROOM by Megan Fahey

    RESTORATION by Mary Grimm

    ICE by Susan Kleinman

    THAT NIGHT by Abbey McLaughlin

    THIS, IN WRITING, TO YOU by Etan Nechin

    THE DEAD DOLL by Sola Saar



    Spring Fiction 2017

    Nine pieces of fiction for the fresh new season.

    SUPER JOHN by Mark Budman



    THE ART OF LETTING GO by Joshua Dull

    FLINT AND SHANNON by Beth Goldner

    THE END OF IDYLLIC DAYS by Anthony Ilacqua


    MAN IN BLACK by Leah Holbrook Sackett

    MEDITATE AND WAIT by Katie Strine

    Winter Fiction 2016-17

    Spectacular new fiction for the season.

    THE ASTRONAUT by Christopher Branson

    JAGUAR SMILES by Emma Fuhs

    CAR CRASH by Joe Giordano


    THE CROSSING by Mona Leigh Rose


    SIX by Katie Schwartz


    Fall Fiction 2016

    Here are our new fiction writers for fall.
    Please read every one of these unique stories by a talented group of writers.

    SLUSH by Jacqueline Berkman


    FLASH FICTION by Martin Keaveney

    WARNER by M. F. McAuliffe

    MOTHER by Jac Smith

    COGITO(E) by Jennifer Vanderheyden

    PIKKAKE PEAKS by Victoria-Elizabeth Panks

    THE SPOILED CHILD by Tessa Yang

    Summer Fiction 2016

    Here is our new selection of short stories for the summer issue.
    Please take the time to read every one of these talented writers.

    Very Good English – Robert Boucheron

    Art | Climate Change – Mitchell Grabois

    Straw – Stephanie Renae Johnson

    The Adults – Paisley Kauffmann

    Furniture Store – Tom Miller

    A Pretty Smile – Bethany Pope

    Obligatory Silence – Claire Tollefsrud

    i, Clouded – T.E. Winningham

    Spring Fiction 2016

    Here is our new selection of short stories for the spring issue of The Writing Disorder.
    This is a very talented group of writers. Please read each and every one.

    Pushing Michaelmas – Patrick Burr

    Bad Soldiers – Larry Fronk

    Monica in Georgetown – Taylor García

    Drowning Time – Jill Jepson

    Indiana – Bryce Johle

    The Bridge – Matt McGowan

    The Oracle – P.M. Neist

    Ground Control – Janice Rodriguez

    Words in Red – Billy Sauls

    WINTER FICTION 2015-16

    Excellent 8. There are eight new fiction writers in our winter edition of The Writing Disorder.
    The talent level in this group is exceptional. Please read on—and enjoy each and every story.

    Eric Brittingham – Gin Fizz

    Tera Joy Cole – Coyotes Don’t Litter

    Thomas Elson – Midnight Mass

    Vincent Mannings – Not Always Easy

    Jennifer Porter – Army Mom

    Jude Roy – Last of the Cowboys

    Mary Taugher – Crow on the Cradle

    Chris Vanjonack – After You


    Nine new writers and new stories in our fall edition of The Writing Disorder.
    We admire the range and talent of this particular group, and look forward to reading more in the future.
    So read on and enjoy the work — hopefully as much as we did.

    Jacqueline Bridges – J is for Jammy

    Robert Cesaretti – Hyena Salvation

    Dan Darling – I found a Heart

    Tommy Dean – My Grandfather is a Pilot

    Pat Hart – The Vigil

    Franklin Klavon – Darling Weapons

    Susan Lloy – Dylan’s Roost

    Charles Lowe – Dear Mrs. Wei Wei

    Sara Regezi – Space Ex


    Here are nine new stories from a talented group of writers—some published here for the first time.
    We admire each and every writer and look forward to reading more of their work in the future.
    Hope you enjoy reading the work as much as we did.

    Dawn-Michellle Baude – Tell Me About Yourself

    Tim Boiteau – Fugue

    Michael Davis – Cruel Stars

    Joseph De Quattro – Rubric for Getting Up in the Morning

    David Haight – Everyone’s a Fool for Somebody

    Virginia Luck – The Bag

    Daniel Mueller – The Embers

    Richard Thomas – Little Red Wagon

    Ron Yates – Syncretism


    Here are eleven impressive new stories from a very talented group of writers—
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    Anna Boorstin – Platform of Truth

    Carmen Firan – The Boiler Man

    James Gallant – Andrew the Vihuela-Player

    Mitchell Grabois – Transparency, Angels, Rubber Crumbs

    J Hudson – Ctrl + A

    Evelyn Levine – Adult Jeans

    Veronica O’Halloran – Van Hulse

    Jon Fried – A Little Bit Closer to Water

    John Tavares – Skinny Sister

    Walter B. Thompson – The Roofer

    Aaron Weiss – In the House

    WINTER FICTION 2014-15

    Here are ten exciting new stories from a group of very talented writers,
    with some being published for the first time. We love discovering new writers
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    Jacqueline Berkman – Amino Algorithm

    Charlie Brown – Venus Awaits

    Lou Gaglia – The Waiting Game

    John Oliver Hodges – Ethel’s Mountain

    Clarissa Nemeth – The Claiborne Refuge Workbook

    Robert O’Rourke – Date Night

    Ninon Schubert – Day Three is the Hardest

    Samantha Eliot Stier – Plugs

    Suzanne Ushie – We Don’t Sweep at Night

    Norman Waksler – The Tale of Mrs. Yetzik and Mr. Burt


    Featuring twelve great new stories from some very talented writers—
    some published for the first time. We love to discover new writers
    and help spread the word. Hope you enjoy the work as much as we did.

    Jessie Aufiery – Diabolo Menthe

    Bruno Barbosa – The Almond Trees

    Aurora Brackett – The Room

    Richard Hartshorn – Excavation of a Breathing Fossil

    David Hicks – The Romantic Traveler™ presents Your Customized Guide to Narcissa

    Suzanne Hyman – Ginger in the Soup

    Anna Isaacson – The Transition Plan

    Cheryl Diane Kidder – Objects in Limbo

    Amita Murray – Marmite and Mango Chutney

    Ellen Mulholland – Clothed in Flames, novel excerpt

    Scott Stambach – Mr. Bertrand Avery, Owner of Todos Tempos

    Joshua Sidley – Finished




    Writing Bunch 9Featuring nine great new stories from a diverse group of writers—
    some being published for the first time—
    and others with a long resume of excellent work.
    We hope you spend time with each and every one.

    David J Ballenger – Life in the Black Cloud
    (bottom, left)

    RV Branham – The Tiniest of Television Sets
    (bottom, right)

    Beth Castrodale – Con Artist

    Ruth Deming – Suite 1003
    (top, middle)

    Cassie Kellogg – Dirty Feet, Squashed Tomatoes
    (middle, right)

    Sarah Kruel – Coat Tales
    (bottom, middle)

    Joshua Michael Johnson – Lovely Things
    (top, right)

    Pamela Langley – The Politics of Lonely
    (middle, left)

    Jake Teeny – Recalling the Cold
    (top, left)


    By Marylee MacDonald

    If you lose a friend in his youth, the years after such a loss become a kind of afterlife, an unreality, as if you, yourself, are fixed in that time when death lies far in the future. At first, you miss them, and all the questions of whether there is a heaven immediately stand in your path. The person you love like a brother is gone, shimmering in the stream of memory, and that is the picture you carry forward, taking it out now and then and pondering how the miraculous and the tragic can coexist.

    Back in April 1968 when Tito led us down into the cavern, we had no fear of death nor suspicion that what we were about to find would splash our names across the Spanish newspapers, and indeed, the newspapers of the world. With the promise of a few pesetas, two local boys — mascots, of sorts — agreed to guide us. The boys said that our destination, the Well of Ramu, had no bottom, that their grandmothers claimed evil spirits lived inside the bluff. Shepherds, standing on its top and looking out toward the Atlantic, had many a time been startled by the eerie-sounding moans of disembodied suffering. The moans came from a pothole called the Well of Ramu, but, perhaps I should explain for the benefit of those urban dwellers who will watch your documentary that this “pothole” was not the kind of pothole one finds in cities, where the asphalt washes away and a street crew must be summoned to throw in a couple of shovelfuls of macadam. This was a geological pothole, a hole in the tabletop of a bluff into which a stray sheep or goat might fall to its death.

    Neither Jesús nor Aurelio believed the tales, but they thought it well to warn us. They wanted to show us a different cave. Some crawling, but big grottoes and excellent formations. Most certainly worth the effort and “much easier for the girls,” Jesús said from beneath the first traces of a mustache.

    “Don’t worry about the girls,” Tito said, championing the three of us. “We go all together, or not at all.”

    Tito sprang over the stone fence that encircled the pothole and dropped to his knees. “The main thing is to determine how much rope we need.”

    Then, flattening himself on the ground and with a handful of rocks, he slid his shoulders over the abyss.

    Potholes were new to our caving group. In fact, I had never heard of a pothole until Tito proposed this expedition. The guides were country boys and had never rappelled down into one either. Aurelio, the older of the two, warned us not to get too close to the edge in case our weight made the ground collapse; but curiosity got the better of them, and they, too, flattened themselves around the perimeter, cocking their ears and listening to see how long it took for Tito’s stones to hit bottom.

    Your cameraman asks why we spelunkers didn’t lower a lantern. A lantern only works if the floor of the cave is near the surface. Otherwise, darkness swallows the light. We could only determine the depth by feel, so when Tito couldn’t hear the stones strike bottom, he lowered a lead fishing weight, the hefty kind fishermen in Ribadesella once used to sink their nets in the ocean. I suppose they must still use them, come to think of it. As to where he’d found one, I don’t recall precisely, but Tito was very careful about bringing whatever we might need for the caves he wanted to explore, and I think he had borrowed the weight from a cousin. By the time we were finished with our preparations, we had five climbing ropes of eighty meters each tied together.

    The plan, Tito said, gathering us around, was for him to descend first, assess the situation, and then send down one of the guides.

    Instead of saying “of course,” the guides looked at one another.

    Aurelio, maybe fourteen, said that when the boys explored caves, they slithered along with flashlights until the batteries dimmed, at which point they backed out.

    “Do you want to go down or not?” Tito said.

    “I’m scared,” Jesús, about thirteen, said, “but, yes. I’ll try.”

    “One of you must stay behind.”

    “Can’t we both go?” Aurelio said.

    “It’s better to draw straws,” Tito said. “If we get injured down there, the one up here can run for help.”

    “Where should we go?” Aurelio said.

    “The mayor’s house,” Tito said, nodding his head in the direction of the town across the river. “Or the Guardia Civil. And, if the one who draws the longest straw is still scared to jump into a dark hole, one of the women can show you how it’s done.”

    The boys smirked at us girls.

    The younger, Jesús, drew the short straw. “So, am I just supposed to wait here, or what?”

    “Yes, wait,” Tito said. “Once we’re down, you’re the only way we can communicate with the outside world.”

    Tito secured the rope around a boulder and attached carabiners to his climbing harness. Saluting, he slid over the lip.

    Adolfo, a bull whose callused hands came from years of scything his father’s hay, stood over the coil, the rope running around his leather-vested back and through his hands. Counterbalancing Tito’s weight, he lowered our leader down.

    There were twelve of us in the Torreblanca Speleological Society, mainly geology students at the university in Oviedo, plus Tito’s sister and one of her friends. The name “Torreblanca” came from the town where Tito grew up. I know “Speleological Society” makes it sound like we were some kind of learned group, sitting around and drinking port and discussing academic articles about rock strata, but we weren’t a “society” at all. Our youngest was fifteen and the oldest twenty-two. Eight were geology students — always out in the field, gathering rocks and carrying them back to the lab to hammer apart and examine. Tito, though still not finished with his baccalaureate, had already discovered his life’s passion. Tito was a real rock-hound, completely mad for rocks.

    In order to join the Torreblanca Speleological Society, as founder and self-appointed president, Tito insisted that we each buy the basics: a helmet, carbon lamp, and Levi’s from the store where workmen bought their clothes. For caving, he preferred rubber waders, but he let two of us get away with hiking boots — what he wore when he went out with his mountaineering friends. His kit of chocks, carabiners, and climbing ropes filled the trunk of his car.

    These days, when I think of Tito, I see him in that famous photograph: in his helmet and muddy, as we all were. Chin down, he is spooning cold beans from a can. We are all smiling and looking at him in wonder. His appetite had become a joke. Bony shoulders with a hunch that hinted at his shyness, all elbows and skinny legs, Tito was a study in angularity. A shock of hair hung over his forehead, and the camera caught him looking down into the can. If I have one regret, it is that Fernando, our unofficial Society photographer, having lined us up, did not say, “Tito, amigo, look at the camera.” I should so have liked to see the tiny windows of light in Tito’s coal-black eyes.

    We later learned that the Well of Ramu was actually four hundred meters deep, the length of four football fields, and because of its depth, the temperature remained a constant ten degrees Celsius, barely above freezing. The caves we had explored before this were not quite as cold and often high up, generally an opening on the face of a cliff. To reach them we had to climb, and afterwards, rappel down the rock face. To do that, we slid the rope under our behinds and then leaned back, letting the rope play out as we backed down or bounced down the vertical wall. In the case of the Well of Ramu, we had no wall with which to brace our feet and slow our descent. Our hands served as our only brakes, and when we dropped into the pothole, the rope slid through our gloveless hands.

    I was supposed to show Aurelio how to manage the rope, but as I lowered myself down, I found that even twining my legs around it did not slow my descent. By the time I reached bottom, my hands burned, and blisters were already forming. I pressed my palms together, wishing the pain would stop, and took a step back from the rope, my waders sinking in. Mud over-topped them.

    “Watch out!” I cried. “Quicksand!”

    Tito had been standing nearby and grabbed my arm. “I think we’ve landed in a riverbed.”

    “It’s the San Miguel,” said Aurelio, letting go of the rope and dropping freely the last three meters.

    And, indeed, the sound of water echoed through the chamber, a gurgle that made me think we might step into the channel and be washed downstream. The things I feared most in caves were being sucked by the force of a river that would be too powerful to resist or stepping out into space and dropping into a lower chamber. My armpits began to tingle and, despite the cold, sweat formed on my upper lip.

    Partly to overcome this aversion to confined spaces and partly because of Tito himself, I had joined his club, and now that he had accepted me, I dared not confess that in narrow passages, where I had neither room to turn around nor squirm and where I could see only the boots of the person crawling ahead, I feared the rock would shift and crush me.

    The two other girls followed next, and then studious Fernando, who had a crush on Tito’s sister, but was too shy to ask her out. Adolfo, whom Tito called “the human crane,” came next, and finally little Ruperto, the youngest member, age fifteen. A lighter snapped briefly, illuminating his profile, and a moment later, I made out the glowing tip of his cigarette. Trying to appear older, no doubt.

    We had all made it down safely.

    “Let’s see where we are,” Tito said. “Each of you turn a hundred and eighty degrees and take five steps.”

    We did and, in the faint illumination of our carbide lamps, saw that the mud, the murky grayish-brown of a tidal flat, extended beyond the reach of our beams. The cave smelled like no other cave we’d been in before, the air dank and humid, like an ice box exploding with rotting cheese and moldy bread. The river, hidden from view, sounded close, but to reach it and possibly follow it to where it emerged from the earth, we would have to cross the reeking, gray pudding of mud.

    The pothole, through which we had descended, and the rope, our only way out, stood behind us, and I was tempted to turn around and keep a hand on it. Were it not for the light falling from above, I could not have told up from down. It was discombobulating.

    “Now take five more steps,” Tito said, as if we were playing “Mother, May I?”

    When the group had spread out so that each person, leaving his companions, felt a chilling awareness of the cold, Tito said to stand completely still and tilt back our heads.

    I did.

    Looking up, I could not see the top of the cavern, only a barricade of stalactites as evenly spaced as the twisted, iron bars on a window.

    “Which way, do you think?” Tito asked the guide.

    “To the right,” Aurelio said, sounding assured for his age.

    “To the right it is,” Tito said.

    And, then, as if needing to justify himself further, the guide said, “The air is cooler in that direction, and the sound of the river louder. This way should take us to the cave I told you of.”

    “And?” Tito said.

    “From there we should be able to walk out.”

    “But you don’t know that for certain?”

    “I don’t know if the passage is open,” Aurelio said.

    “Let’s take a quick look,” Tito said.

    “What about us?” I asked on behalf of the female contingent.

    “All for one, and one for all.” Tito waved his hand inclusively, beckoning us to follow.

    His and Aurelio’s lamps bobbed toward the gurgle, less river than burbling creek, its sound magnified by the echo chamber of the cave. A drop of water landed on my cheek, but when I looked up, I still could see no more than I would have seen in my grandmother’s windowless root cellar.

    Walking away from the rope plunged me into darkness. As I rocked forward, mud sucked the wader from my heel. I tested each step and waited for the ground to render itself firm. The others cried out and cursed the sucking mud. It was impossible to move quickly, and I was breathing hard by the time I could see that rocks and boulders blocked our way. I placed my hand on one of the rocks for balance. I stopped. Had the stone dislodged from the ceiling, or had the river carried it in? Maybe Tito could tell. Meanwhile, the hiss of carbide, snaking up the tube on my back, reminded me of the hissing, slithering, eyeless albino salamanders we had seen in another cave. I hoped we wouldn’t come upon any creatures like that in this airless space.

    Tito told us to wait while they explored, and if this didn’t prove to be a passageway, we could search the cavern for another. So far I hadn’t felt the air movement Aurelio claimed would lead us to the other cave, and I began to think it would be better for us to stay in this large chamber where, at least, we could look back and see the shaft of light beaming down from the pothole.

    Tito squeezed sideways through pointed, egg-shaped rocks as gigantic as those the Arabic astronomer Ibn Yunus was said to have used as gnomons. Meanwhile, Aurelio ducked into a fissure that looked as though it led to another cavern, and I thought he might find another big room, but without the river running through it. Shivering and hugging ourselves, we heard his boots splash through water and Tito cautioning Aurelio to watch his footing. When they found themselves in the same passageway, Tito called back and said they could stand upright, but not see daylight. That meant the walk out could take a long time.

    At last, their lamps bobbed back in our direction.

    They had been gone half an hour, and I had no confidence that we could get out this way. What if we encountered more blockages? It might be better to follow the river in the other direction. I turned toward the sound of water. Above me, I saw a flash of red. It startled me.

    “What’s that?” I asked.

    “What’s what?” Tito said.



    Looking up and trying to relocate the color on an overhanging rock, I moved sideways from the boulder. Because I had taken my attention momentarily from the ground, my feet slipped, and I fell, scraping my blistered hands and letting out a yell.

    Then Tito had me by the elbow. His lamp blinded me, and my heart thrummed in my ears. Unlike the others, I was an art student, and the vividness of that red could only mean one thing: paint. I squinted, looking in vain as my headlamp’s faint beam moved across the undulating rock above my head.

    And then I saw it: the charcoal silhouette. A single horse’s head. The horse had ears, nostrils, and the same throat latch—that thickening on the bottom of its muzzle—as horses in the pastures of Ribadesella. What was different was its mane. The mane stood as stiff and upright as a zebra’s.

    “Look up there.” I pointed.

    “A horse,” Tito whispered in awe. He put his arm around me and drew me closer. He was trembling.

    I had never been as aware of my body as I was at that moment. The warmth of another human being, the sideways pressure of his hip, the squeeze of his fingers against my arm, the ripple of sensation from my forehead to my feet, made me feel as if we humans were designed, on a primitive level, to connect with one another not just with words, but with the intimacy of touch; that touch was essential for our well-being and the reason we have bodies, not just souls.

    The others joined us, and Tito released me. Once again our leader, he directed us to form a line and tilt our heads in unison. Tito’s sister, Eloisa, squeezed between us and put her arm around me.

    Hefty little Pilar, one of the most irreverent women I’ve ever met, had her arm around my hip. “What gives?”

    “Cave paintings,” I said.

    “Like at Altamira?”

    “Well, we’re not far from there.”

    Our lamps illuminated a swath of red.

    “Is that blood?” Pilar asked.

    “No. Ocher or iron oxide.”

    Honestly, at the time, I had no idea what kind of pigment paleolithic artists might have used. I only knew that blood would have darkened and chipped away.

    The artist had applied an orange-red wash to the cave wall just below the horse’s head. In the illumination of our combined head lamps, a herd of horses jumped from the darkness. Six that we could see immediately, although with better light, the archaeologists would later document more. The herd faced the opposite direction and appeared to move across a plain of red that might have been grasslands set afire.

    Of these figures, the best preserved was a mare in the fullness of pregnancy. Horizontal bands of black and white circled her legs, reminding me of the mimes who perform in traveling circuses. It gave her a comical aspect that drew a smile.

    Most remarkably, the artist had painted her body violet. Could it be that horses in prehistory were violet? In every other respect the horse was as realistic as if Goya himself had drawn it.

    We lingered, tracing the animals with our fingers and seeing if others agreed that, yes, that was a horse. Or perhaps a deer, for as we continued to examine the figures, we saw that some had antlers.

    Our watches told us that the day had advanced past one o’clock, and though we had filled our metal canisters with carbide pellets, we had a maximum of four total hours before the fuel ran out.

    We walked as a group around the cavern, unable to locate any other painted surface.

    The Torreblanca Speleological Society was not a democracy, but Tito asked our preference. Should he attempt to monkey-climb the four-hundred-meters of rope and prepare to pull us out, or should we follow the river, in which case, we should get going or have Jesús send down more carbide just in case. Like coal miners, cavers have always used carbide lamps because the lamps can be refilled and the fuel costs next to nothing. With the river below, we would have water, and could add it to the canisters when the gas pellets fizzled out. The main thing was not to get stuck down here in the dark.

    The group split evenly, six to six. We gathered around the rope and Tito called up to Jesús. Expecting to see his face looking down, I was stunned when he did not answer.

    Tito turned abruptly toward Aurelio. “Did your friend run off?”

    Aurelio nervously cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted.

    Still no Jesús.

    “Maybe he got bored,” Aurelio said.

    If the passage proved to be a dead end, we’d have to come back here and wait for rescue. The ground was too muddy to sit.

    “We need more carbide,” I said.

    “I’ll get some.” Tito extinguished his lamp and took off his helmet. “Back in a second.”

    Hand over hand, he ascended the rope, twisting it between his muddy galoshes. When he made it to the first knot, he rested and looked down.

    “You can do it!” we shouted in unison. His face took on a look of determination. At the second knot he rested again, this time, calling up angrily, “Jesús, you lazy lout! Come over here.”

    Jesús did not appear.

    Halfway up the third section of rope, Tito began to slide. He tried to slow his descent at the second knot by clamping it between his insteps. That helped, but unlike when I had abseiled in, with the rope acting as a swing beneath my butt, Tito had no such control and landed beside us with a thud.

    Determined to try again, he prepared to remove his galoshes.

    “Let me try,” Aurelio said.

    He did not even make it past the first section. By now, mud had made the rope too slippery to hold.

    Tito put his helmet back on, and Ruperto took out his lighter and lit another cigarette.

    “So, it’s to be the river. Aurelio, what is your opinion?” Tito said. “Should we follow it downstream or up?”

    “My instinct tells me up.”

    “Mine, too,” Tito said. “Back to the passageway.”

    The prospect of discovering more paintings made us avid to stay underground, but not having the use of the rope made escape a necessity. Before we tore ourselves away from these paintings and began our trek to the exit, Aurelio ducked back into the fissure he’d explored. There he found a small chamber with deer incised on rock. Not painted deer. These were petroglyphs and finding them made him glad to have won the coin toss. Now, he could legitimately say he was the discoverer of the cave, or at least part of it.

    Expecting more discoveries, we picked our way along the rock-strewn passage, our feet slipping on the slimy stones and me fearing that we would reach a dead end or an underground channel that would force one of us to submerge and try to swim against the current.

    “Tito,” I called out, my voice swallowed in the dark. “What if our lamps go out?”

    “I have some extra carbide,” he said, “and a dozen candles, but I suggest we not think of that and sing to keep up our spirits.”

    “What shall we sing?” Maria Pia called.

    “How about ‘Puppet on a String?’” Tito suggested.

    Adolfo and Fernando began whistling, and the melody carried us along; however, we were concentrating so hard on where to put our feet that the lyrics simply drifted away.

    After three kilometers underground, we caught the scent of fresh air. Just as the first sign of daylight appeared, our lamps sputtered out.

    Ordinarily, when a cave is discovered, it’s a shepherd who stumbles in, usually unappreciative, which is why so few caves are recorded or mapped. But the Well of Ramu was different. No one knew it was there. We were the first.

    Since then the cave has changed. Despite the three air locks, the artificial tunnel introduces outside air, and the unforgettable smell is gone. No one can experience it as we did fifty years ago.

    It annoys me that I must pay an admission fee to bring my grandchildren, and it annoys me when people complain about the path being uneven and rocky and dimly lit. It is a cave. What did they expect? The last time I went there, a French-speaking woman was complaining to the guide, who happened to be Aurelio’s son, that she’d had to walk a long way back just to see a few paintings. She had expected more for her money.

    When I heard this, I felt a tremendous sense of abandonment and loss. “You have been privileged to see one of the treasures of the world,” I said, “and yet you disparage it. This is not the same experience as going to the cinema.”

    I wanted to tell her what a miracle it was to stand before those paintings for the first time, to wonder at the artists who painted them and held them sacred. To imagine the horses that must have been running wild. And I wanted to tell her about Tito, how vibrant and alive he had been as we probed these secret grottoes. How he dove into his can of cold beans right after we had made it back to the top of the bluff and startled Jesús, taking a siesta. How euphoric we were as we tore off our muddy clothes and had Aurelio direct us to the mayor’s house.

    Would you mind turning off the camera? Good. Now I will answer your question. Do I think Tito was a risk taker? Certainly, no more than any other young man his age, an age that predisposes the male of the species to believe he will live forever. Tito had his full share of the invincibility hormone. It surged through his veins, and it was what drew us to him. Tito was brave. A leader. He believed in living life to the fullest, squeezing every drop of joy possible from his time on earth. And, remember, this was 1968, seven years before Franco’s death. In a certain way, to live boldly was an act of political defiance.

    When Tito slipped in a mountaineering accident a few days later, his sister brought us the news. The Faculty in Oviedo called for a day of mourning. The train to Torreblanca filled with students, but we, who knew him best, drove. At the Mass, his father wept like a man who’d lost a part of his very soul. And because of Señor Bustillo’s intense grief, the authorities decided to name the cave in Tito’s honor. No longer the Well of Ramu, today it is the Cave of Tito Bustillo.

    Just this morning, I was thinking about Tito, how he stood next to me in that cave and how my body rippled with pleasure. Tito and I might have had a future. Instead, what he gave me was a single moment of ecstasy. Following his example, I have sought to live every moment as if it were my last.


    Marylee MacDonald is a former carpenter with a Master’s in Creative Writing. She’s the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE AND BLOOD, and THE RUG BAZAAR. Her forthcoming story collection, BODY LANGUAGE, is about people consumed by their infatuations, hungers, and fears. When she’s not at her desk, you can find her strolling in a redwood forest, hiking in the red rocks of Sedona, or exploring California’s Mendocino coast.