The Secret of the Mud Cave
By Jeffrey Bishop
Tell Time: 10 minutes 30 seconds
Scare Rating: 3/5 Ghosts
It was the last day of summer camp, and it was hot. The boys had been especially obedient in packing out the campsite, and even Bear, the grizzled old camp steward, couldn’t find a thing to grouse about on final inspection.
Maybe the boys had become a well-oiled machine after spending all week working and playing together. Or maybe it was because Trent, their camp guide, had promised them a trip into the camp’s fabled Mud Caves if they did a good job clearing their campsite. Whatever the reason, the boys had earned the adventure.
“Fill you canteens and make sure you’re wearing sturdy shoes — it’s time to hit the trail!” Trent shouted.
The boys fell in line and Trent led them through the wooded hills on a narrow trail that seemed to be little more than a deer path in most places. Scotty was on the lookout for signs of life, and would point out to the boys around him owl pellets on the ground, a woodpecker in the canopy or the tracks of a raccoon crossing theirs. But despite his attempts at educational diversions, all the other boys had just one thing on their minds: the mud cave.
“How far do you think it is to get there?” asked one.
“Do you really think there is a mud cave, or is this a trick to get us to complete a hike for the hiking achievement?” shouted another in his excitement.
“I hope there aren’t any bats in the cave!”
“I hear there’s a secret at the end of the mud cave!”
“Why do they call it the mud cave, anyway?”
After more than a half hour of walking and wondering, the group finally arrived at the mouth of the cave. The entrance had a wide, but low foyer, with a trickle of a stream cutting through the soft clay dirt floor. Trent set them down to cool off. And the boys finally got answers to some of their questions.
“Obviously, the mud caves have been here for thousands of years,” said Trent. “But we’ve known about them for only about 50 years. The old farmer who used to own the land this campsite is on discovered the cave while hunting. They say that his dogs tracked some game here, but that they wouldn’t go past the mouth of the cave. Dogs can be pretty superstitious! But some of that jibes with legend; there’s a lot of local lore that talks about strange happenings in the caves in this part of the country.
“This cave hasn’t been fully spelunked — that’s what we call cave exploring — but for the past couple of summers that I’ve been a camp guide here, some of us have explored at least a half mile into the cave. That’s where we found the mud room. That’s where I’m taking you today. That’s where you’ll learn first-hand the secret of the mud cave.”
The hook was set; Trent now had the boys’ full attention — which made it easy for him to give an obligatory, if basic, safety briefing.
“Boys, kick off your shoes — you won’t need them, because this spring stream will be a small creek up to your knees for most of the way in,” Trent instructed. “Number off so we can check attendance along the way — there are 11 of you — and if you can holler to the guy behind you when there’s a step or a drop, I’m sure he’d appreciate it. Lights on, and let’s go in!”
The boys quickly got into single file and started a new hike deep into the Earth. The water was chilly — if they hadn’t just hiked a mile in to get to the cave, it might have been uncomfortable. Under their feet, sticky mud gave way to their weight and squished out from between their toes. The light from the mouth of the cave stayed with them for a ways — not enough so that they didn’t need their head lamps, but just enough to give some comfort against the anxiety of entering the dark unknown.
While most of the boys were simply trying to stay with the group and keep their footing, Scotty, who was at the front of the formation, was on the lookout for signs of life.
“There should be guano and bats! Lizards or a raccoon’s nest. Why aren’t we seeing any of that?” he asked Trent.
“We thought the same thing,” replied Trent. “We even came here at dusk to see if any bats from deeper in the caves would stream out. They never did. Unless things have changed, there isn’t any significant forms of life in here. That might be one of the secrets of the Mud Cave worth exploring.”
Soon, the relatively straight, smooth and wide path changed. All natural sources of light were gone, and the narrow and sometimes low cave walls seemed to press ominously close. As they reached out around them — partly for balance and partly to navigate by touch — many of them noticed that the once-hard rock walls were now covered by smooth, sticky mud. They weren’t solid mud; if you pressed into the mud flesh, it would slide away, revealing the hard bone of the stone walls beneath.
The boys chatted with each other a lot more now, to use their sense of hearing to navigate, and to bring some cheer against the anxiety-raising surprises that the now-ceaseless turns, steps and drops caused. For a moment, Trent thought that he might want to say something to reassure them, but decided against it; the nerves would heighten the thrill of the surprise that lay ahead. Besides, they were almost there.
Trudging along, the ever-observant Scotty was the first to notice a change.
“Guys, our voices are echoing, and it’s a lot cooler; I think the cave has opened up!”
Indeed it had. Trent had stopped ahead of the group, and as the boys trudged behind him, their collective lights filled a large, open room. A half-dozen large stalagmites — vertical formations of sediment — emerged from the water at their knees. Strange to Scotty was the fact that there was no corresponding stalactite from the ceiling above. He also noticed that they were made from mud; in fact everything that was in the room was mud.
The boys, who were chatty before, were as abuzz as a hive of bees now, clawing mud off the walls to mold in their hands, shouting to hear their voices echo, and clammering with questions for their leader about the room they were in. This bode well for Trent, who was just as excited to share what he knew with the boys as they were to hear it.
“Boys!” he said, with a snappiness that completely silenced the room save for the single word’s multiple echoes. With their full attention once again, he continued, but now in a deep, ceremonious voice.
“I’m now able to share with you the secret of the mud cave. It’s not something that I can tell you about, it’s something that I must show you. To see it, it must be completely dark in here. Each of you must turn off your headlamp, and leave it off.”
“But,” started one of the more fearful boys, but Trent was ready.
“Your eyes have become blind by too much sight,” he continued, but quickly realized that his explanations sounded somewhat mystical — and corny. “Here’s the deal, guys,” he amended, “you don’t have night vision because you’ve been using your headlamps. If you shut them off, then in a few minutes you’ll get your night vision back enough to see what I want you to see.”
With that explanation, the last couple of lights that remained on were vanquished.
“Now while we wait for our eyes to adjust, I’ll tell you everything that I know about this room,” the leader continued. “This is the mud room. I think most of you have figured out why we call it the mud room, and that’s really why this is called the mud cave; it gets less muddy as you get toward the surface, but down here, it’s all mud.
“This is the deepest any of us have ever been, and it might be as deep as we can go. But we know that it goes deeper still. And we know that it has secrets to tell. So remain quiet, hold still and listen for one of them!”
Saying that, Trent stopped talking. In the silence, the boys could hear things that they hadn’t heard when they were yammering to one another and sloshing along through the cave’s stream. They heard natural sounds, of water running deep and fast in the caves, of winds streaming through deep earthen valleys all around them like the deep snores of a giant.
“Some say that there’s a hidden waterfall within these caves, hiding treasures or a colony of elves,” Trent continued. “Some think it’s more pedestrian; that this cave simply links to another cave; indeed, there is a rumor that this cave connects to another one that starts out in the Lady Scouts campsite on the other side of the hill that we’re in.” That idea got the boys murmuring again; it had been a long week away from television, game systems and girls. But Trent didn’t lose his grasp on the boys’ imagination for long.
“There are other mythologies about the secrets of this cave,” he quickly added, “but they are too terrible to share with you in here. While I was not too afraid to come in here, and to bring you here, too, I have a little bit in common with the farmer’s dogs, and I guess I’m a tad superstitious myself.” This elicited groans from the boys, along with a fair amount of begging to hear the darker secrets of the cave. Trent had one final card in his hand with which he again was able to maintain control of the situation.
“I am prepared to share with you the one secret of the mud cave that I am certain of,” he said, to a room that quickly settled itself again. “I can say with certainty that each of you has your eyes closed. Is this true?” Not one boy answered, but each nodded. Trent didn’t bother to confirm their answer. “I know this because when I’ve been here, I have not been able to keep my eyes open in the dark. It is too unnerving. That’s how it was when I was in here the first time and dropped my headlamp into the stream and ruined it; I closed my eyes against the dark. But at some point while in here, as I searched for the exit, I dared to open them, and when I did … OPEN YOUR EYES!” Trent commanded.
Each boy snapped his eyes open, and was astounded at the vision before him. No longer were the boys in the mud cave, but they were in the heavens, surrounded by constellations, galaxies, comets and other heavenly orbs. The “oohs” and “ahhs!” one might have expected were suppressed by the raw sense of awe in each boy.
“These aren’t the heavens,” said Trent of the bluish lights speckling the walls and ceilings of the cave room. He was again using his deep, monotonous and dramatic voice. “We think that they must be some sort of phosphorescent life form. They might come from a mold or a moss. But they have power. You can sense their power!”
As the boys continued to look upon the lights, the intensity with which they glowed increased, to the point where the light, incredibly, was blindingly bright, and each boy was frozen in place, staring in wonder at the vision all around them.
The search party quickly found the cave entrance; the dogs easily tracked the scent of the group along the trail to where a pile of shoes and socks and a couple of digital cameras and other precious electronics were left behind to avoid the risk of being dropped in the cave’s stream. Strangely, however, those same dogs would not go any farther into the caves than its mouth.
Nevertheless, the detectives on the case, aided by worried camp staff and parents, followed the stream as far into the caves as they could. They brought into its darkness as much light as possible to try to find the lost boys. All they discovered at the cave’s terminal point was a large, open room with 18 lonely stalagmites scattered across its wet floor.
What do you think is the true secret of the mud cave? What do you think the blue lights are? How are they connected to the lost mythologies that Trent was too afraid to share in the cave? Was Trent the perpetrator, or another victim, in this story? How do stories like this “survive” when the people to whom they happen do not?