A typical southern breakfast of eggs, ham, fried potatoes, biscuits and sausage gravy had the poet from up North, Bayard Taylor, groaning pleasantly, lazing with other guests on the wide porch of the Mammoth Cave Hotel.
They were all going underground together. It created an instant camaraderie, as did their willingness to be served by men and women who were forcibly bound to the hotel and surrounding land.
"Is this your first visit here?" asked a tall, blond man.
Unsuccessful mutton chop whiskers, inching over the sides of his face, like bleached caterpillars, the poet silently observed.
"I've traveled throughout the southland," he answered, "but this is my maiden visit here, my first foray into the Mammoth."
The blond man squinted his eyes and frowned slightly at the lyricism of the smaller man's words, wondering just how different he was. He wasn't terribly comfortable with people who weren't like him.
A young redhead approached the group. "Ladies and gentlemen," he began, "I'm your tour guide, Marcus Ward. If you will follow me, please, I will show you some of the terrain of our park."
This is the tour guide? Taylor thought in unhappy surprise, descending the steps from the porch to gather with his group around the young man. He wore the same white smock coat as the workers in the hotel. Who would do that in the dirty, cold environs of a cave?
A pristine swan in a pit of tar, he added under his breath.
Taylor, himself, was wearing an older, dark suit that he had gotten in England, the year he'd toured Europe on just one hundred pounds, a journey documented in the New York Tribune and Saturday Evening Post. Glancing at the other people in his group, he noticed that none of them, though they were most likely wealthy, were wearing what he would assume would be their best. Still, he followed Marcus along the forest trails, listening to his explanation of why there was such a unique convergence of species at Mammoth Cave. Because of its centralized location and varied habitats, the guide said, the area around the cave hosted trees and plants that couldn't grow any further south, as well as those that were unable to survive colder climates.
An arborial conclave—the poet made a mental note of the phrase, and continued composing in his mind, observing the divergent plains, forests and valleys of this special area of western Kentucky, as the local expert droned on.
Thick, green-black canopies of leaves that the sun's rays failed to penetrate.
Profusion of black-eyed susans, goldenrod, aster and sunflowers compete with tall prairie grasses for prominence.
Bald limestone ridges leading to the (karst, an excellent word,) he added, catching the guide's explanation that Mammoth was the longest karst, or cave system, in the world.
The opening of the great grotto like the maw of a serpentine monst—
Taylor suddenly stopped his silent monologue as his group reached the cave entrance and he spotted a man standing in front of it, a very handsome mulatto of about thirty-five years of age...
"This is Stephen," the redhead said in introduction. "He will lead you through the cave."
"How do," Stephen said in a voice trained to resonate, despite his small stature. "If you'll all take a lantern here, we can begin."
He and Marcus began handing out the lanterns filled with cooking grease from the hotel kitchen. Taylor reached out for the wire handle of the light that Stephen offered him. "Thank you," he said automatically, earning gasping looks from some in his group, who knew better than the Pennsylvanian to not express gratitude to a slave.
Stephen gave a small nod in response and, with the lights distributed, turned into the dark mouth of the cave.
Taylor followed eagerly, his hunched shoulders registering the chill from the sudden drop in temperature, as he and his group were absorbed in the caverns' vast dankness.
The lanterns created a glow around the spelunkers, like a communal aura. In the shadows over the rocky walls, there was no distinction of color for them and the man who would lead them through the abyss.
The murmurings among them had a hollow quality, not an echo, Bayard mused, because there was no no whispering repeat. But sound seemed to be absorbed in the black dirt floor and slimy walls, as though the cave will hold our secrets, our deepest-buried thoughts. He lifted his eyes from the narrow path to the nimble, confident tour leader.
He is the model of a guide, Bayard mentally continued, as he trailed Stephen through such areas as the rotunda-like Mammoth Dome and the cramped alley of Fat Man's Misery, quick, daring, enthusiastic...
"Watch your step," Stephen admonished the group. Bayard noticed that the farther they penetrated the tunnels, the more confidence Stephen showed, with less condescension to the white tourists.
"That's right," he told them, "eyeless fish. I've seen 'em, swimmin' in the streams where the cave is darkest and coldest and there's not as much air. It's like they've made themselves over to fit in and they don't need eyes anyways, nor color. You know all the colors you see in the skin of most fish? Not these. No color and no eyes."
He suddenly burst into a cheery tenor, singing a ditty, (which Taylor assumed he'd composed himself) about fish without eyes and birds without ears.
Taylor shook his head and silently chuckled, enjoying with his group, their charming and knowledgeable guide. A lively appreciation of the wonders he shows.
The exploration continued, with Bayard and the others stooping under an arch or climbing over a rock and marveling at the oddities of the underground.
In a large room in the middle of the cave, Stephen halted the group. "If you would like to take out a match," he said, drawing one from his own pocket, "we'll blow out our lanterns so you can see what dark really is."
With each exhalation from the group, the scant light in the chamber diminished until there was none. A darkness in which we are revealed, Bayard said under his breath, detecting from the group a stir of feelings—fear, curiosity, wariness and excitement.
Then the familiar scratch and smell of a match and the eerie glow of Stephen's face in the otherwise still black surroundings. The guide relit his lantern and Bayard had a slight whiff and recall of the fried chicken dinner he'd enjoyed in the hotel the night before. He lit his own lantern as others followed suit, then glanced around, re-acclimating themselves to the previous half-light.
"Ha," said one member of the party with a chortle, "that looks like a crocodile." Bayard looked over and saw the particular formation against the wall of the cave that resembled a reptile with an open mouth.
"And this," a woman whispered in near reverence. "It could be Madonna and child. I see the hand of the Lord in this place." Bayard followed her voice as she moved to stand next to two stalagmites, one taller than the other, that could have been loosely interpreted as a veiled woman watching over a little boy or girl.
He glanced at Stephen and saw the sly smile that crossed his dark face as he resumed their trek. The tourists' raving about the objects randomly formed from millions of years of seepage, or divine intervention, must have been something he had heard hundreds of times.
The poet blinked when they neared the other end of the cave and natural light again seemed possible.
"Glad to get out alive," said the tall, blond, mutton-chopped man behind him.
Bayard broke his concentration of Stephen's lean-muscled back to turn his head to the speaker.
"You're Bayard Taylor, the poet, aren't you?" the man asked, brushing limestone dust from the sleeves of his dark coat.
Bayard nodded, trying to keep sight of Stephen, as the group began to disperse.
The mutton-chopped man nodded, placing his arm around the small, sandy-haired woman at his side. "My wife said she recognized you. My name's Bridges. We wanted to invite you to lunch at the hotel. I don't know about you," he said, leaning closer, as if sharing a confidence, "but I can't wait to see darkies back in their proper place, servin' me, instead of actin' like they know more'n me."
Bayard somehow managed not to sneer or cringe in answer. "Thank you," he said with a bow to Mrs. Bridges, "but I think I'll stay out here a bit longer. I want to make some sketches."
Bridges shrugged in dismissal of the strange man. "Your choice. Maybe we'll see you for supper."
Bayard mumbled a maybe and headed away from them in the direction he'd seen Stephen walk. Would he talk to him, he wondered as he threaded his way through the sun-filtered part of the forest. Could he suggest...something more?
At thirty, Bayard was a young widower. His wife Mary had died five years earlier of tuberculosis, after less than a year of marriage. In his grief, Bayard had begun another tour of Europe, Egypt and the Far East, indulging in the exotic cultures, and occasionally consoling himself with a woman or man along the way.
The guide, Stephen, intrigued and stirred him. Slight and graceful, he resumed his mental composition, with perfectly chiseled features.
"Hello," Bayard began, coming upon him, sitting on a rock ledge in the sunlight, and eating a country ham sandwich. "I wished to tell you how much I enjoyed your tour."
Quickly swallowing to rise in response, Stephen nodded again at the tall, slender man before him, and silently wished that "they" would just leave him alone.
Sensing the other man's discomfort, if not annoyance, Bayard moistened his lips and continued carefully. "I would like to speak to you," he said, "about your life."
Stephen dropped his head in practiced humility, his curly black hair hiding his confusion at the rich man's statement.
Bayard pushed back a sweaty tendril from his thin, flushed face. "I want you to understand that you're under no obligation," he clarified, trying to catch Stephen's eye. "I'm making a request for your time, not issuing you an order."
Stephen slowly lifted his head to look at the other man. "What...did you...want to talk...to me about?" he asked, conscious of Taylor's elegant suit and speech.
Bayard let out the breath he'd been holding, waiting for a response, and sat down on the ledge. He indicated that Stephen should join him and pulled a pen and small notebook out of his coat's inside pocket. "I want to know what it's like here," he said. "How do you live?"
Stephen allowed himself a slight grin as he sat back down, looking first at the dense forest around him, then beyond, toward the roller coaster of the flat fields and steep valleys, and finally, the rippling Green River, cutting through the land like a patterned, serrated knife. "It's a pretty place," he said. "We're treated good, maybe us guides a little better than the other slaves here. We don't have to be separated from the white guides; we can be friends."
He moved his arms to make his points and Bayard noticed that his hands were strong and rough looking, no doubt caused by his cave exploration, climbing over rocks and crevices, precariously hanging on to any natural handle. His eyes darted down to the man's thin-soled shoes and he imagined Stephen's feet being the same, as tough and hard as the rocks themselves. The idea somehow excited him, causing his heart to lift and catch in his throat.
"I was brought here when I was a teenager," Stephen said, his tour guide voice softening to a more intimate level. "If I hadn't been, I might have had to work in tobacco or cotton under some mean ole overseer." He chuckled with his first open-mouthed smile, revealing bright, white teeth and an unexpected twinkle in his obsidian-like eyes.
An expression that could light the cave, Bayard said to himself, swallowing the lump in his throat. He took a deep breath, on the verge of broaching that proposition for something more when Stephen added, "My wife, Charlotte, cooks for the hotel."
Bayard exhaled the deep breath and felt his heart return to its unhappy home, as Stephen continued, reveling in someone's actually being interested in what he had to say. "She's famous for some of her dishes," he boasted with a smile. "People like what we do here. We're..."
"...appreciated," Bayard supplied.
"Appreciated," Stephen repeated with a nod and moment of silence.
Though somewhat disappointed that there was no chance for a closer rendezvous, Bayard continued the interview, desire giving way to curiosity. Scribbling in his notebook, he said, "But you're still slaves."
"For now," Stephen responded, feeling comfortable enough in front of this white man that he returned to his lunch. "Some of the others here have been given their freedom. I expect we will too before long."
Bayard laid the notebook in his lap and studied his subject. "Is that what motivates your exploration?"
Stephen wiped his hands on his dungarees and with a sheepish half smile, asked. "Uhh, what does that mean, sir?"
Now Bayard dropped his eyes, embarrassed that he appeared to be trying to talk over the head of the involuntarily simple man. "I'm sorry. What I meant was...is that the reason that you explore the cave the way you do—the possible reward of freedom?"
"Ah," Stephen bobbed his head in understanding. "No, that's not what...motivates me."
He looked over his shoulder at the bush and flower covered mound that was a portion of the cave's exterior. "I can go in there all by myself, no one tellin' me what to do."
He seeks freedom in the nether world that he is denied above ground.
"I was the first man that anybody can remember to cross the Bottomless Pit. I found those fish without eyes in a place where the only light was my torch and the only sound was my breath. I know that cave better than anybody. I'm..."
"...its master," Bayard said in breathless insight.
Stephen grinned again. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't write that. We're treated good here, but other people...they wouldn't take kindly to hearin' about a slave thinkin' that way."
Bayard tucked the notebook back in his pocket. "It's just between us," he promised. He bit his lip in hesitation, then pushed forward with his next question. "The abolitionists in this area think that all of you would be happier if you went back to Africa. What do you think?"
Stephen snickered. "Back to Africa? Never been there in my life. What would we do there—me, Charlotte, our son? Would we be...appreciated there?" He laid his hand on the mound behind him. "Are there caves there like mine?"
A degree of intelligence unusual in one of his class...
Stephen stood. "I have to get back inside. I've got another tour. I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay here, Mister..."
"Taylor," Bayard said, holding out his hand.
Stephen looked down at it in surprise. With a small smile of understanding, Bayard put both hands behind his back. "Thank you for your time, Stephen."
"Yes, sir," Stephen said, lowering his head again as he backed away from Taylor, waiting for the free man to turn in the opposite direction.
Bayard Taylor opened the letter from his Kentucky correspondent, quickly scanning the report of mutual acquaintances and politics.
I am enclosing a printed drawing of someone of whom you spoke highly, the former slave tour guide, Stephen Bishop, his friend wrote.
The drawing, I believe, was done last year, on the occasion of his being granted his freedom. I'm sorry to tell you that he has recently died of unknown causes.
"Only one year free," Bayard said with a combination of disgust and sadness as he studied the picture—the eyes that still appeared to gleam in matte print, the high cheekbones that planed to a proud mouth and prominent chin, the man who wore his dignity as surely as the cravat wrapped around his neck.
He folded the drawing with the letter and opened a drawer of his oak desk to store them. His eyes fell on his notebook from his stay at Mammoth Cave and he pulled it out and flipped through the pages of sketches and random observations. The color in the window panes on the wall across from him was moving from a light grey to charcoal with the darkening sky, and he had a dinner engagement with his new bride for which he still needed to dress. He lit a candle to read the last line he'd written on that trip about the guide he had known only as Stephen—I think no one can travel under his guidance without being interested in the man and associating him in memory with the realm over which he is (was, he added somberly) its chief ruler.
"Dear," trilled his new wife, Maria, from downstairs, "are you ready yet?"
"In a moment," he answered. He picked up his pen and scrawled across the top of the page:
Epitaph for a Cave Master.
With a resigned sigh he returned the notebook to his desk, blew out the candle, and went to change for dinner.