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2 Comments | Nov 09, 2018

Those Who Speak, Ch. 1 – The Cave

June 20, 1955


502666-iStock-4784940861955 was barely half over and already it had been a year of auspicious beginnings and hopeful changes. President Eisenhower had, in February, sent the first handful of advisors to an obscure country in Southeast Asia called Vietnam, assuring Americans that it was strictly a training assignment and that the men would be home before year’s end. In March a dashing young guy with jet-black hair and a pretty good singing voice had made his first television appearance—guy named Elvis something or other. And up in Illinois an ambitious and entrepreneurial businessman named Ray Kroc had opened a little hamburger stand known as McDonald’s, bragging that he was offering something new he called “fast food,” like anybody would want that.

Russell Freeley was vaguely aware of the Vietnam thing, though, like nearly all of America, he had no idea where it was. He recalled having heard something about it on the evening news while eating supper with his wife and eight-year-old son one night a few months back. The velvety-voiced singer and the fast new hamburger stand were developments he would have become aware of had he managed to still be around in a few years time. But his primary focus today—two of them actually—was much closer to home: his long-awaited promotion at work and the fact that today, in about four hours time, there was going to be a total solar eclipse, the first in decades and almost totally viewable right here in southern New England. In honor of the promotion, and because Russell was a pretty serious astronomy hobbyist, he had treated himself to a day off from work. Edgar was off school for the summer and Susan was in the kitchen engrossed in packing up for the big family outing. What his son and wife did not know was that there was one additional adventurous aspect to the trip that he had yet to reveal.

“Lift it real careful,” Russell said, guiding Edgar in helping to move the small tripod-mounted telescope from the front office of the house, out the front door, and toward the opened back hatch of the family station wagon. “Now turn it and slide it in across the blanket.” Russell was perfectly capable of moving the telescope by himself, but he took every opportunity to engage his son in his hobby, hoping, like so many parents, to pass on his interests to the next generation.

“Eddie!” came a call from inside the house.

“Thanks,” Russell said with a pat on his son’s shoulder, “better hop to and see what your mom wants.”

“Egg salad, baloney, or PBJ?” Susan Freeley asked as her son came running into the kitchen.

“Baloney,” he replied without hesitation, “with cheese!” He turned to head back outside, but was stopped by his mother’s voice once more, a bit more stern.

“With cheese what?”

“Baloney with cheese, please,” he replied sheepishly.

“Thank you, Eddie. Now you can go back and help your dad.”

Forty-five minutes later, the sandwiches all made, the car packed with telescope, blankets, three sets of cardboard eclipse viewing glasses, and one small duffel bag that Russell had packed himself and made sure to close tightly before loading it into the back, the three were in the car and backing out of the driveway.

“Are we going to the park?” Eddie piped up from the back seat.

“Oh no, sir, we are not going to the park,” Russell replied. “We are going someplace special indeed, and it will take us about half an hour to get there, so get comfy.”

Susan turned and offered an uncertain look. “Why so far? Wouldn’t the eclipse look pretty much the same wherever we are?”

“Yes it would, but there is one more little surprise about this trip that I have not yet shared with you.”

Susan made a face like she wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about surprises, but said nothing in reply.

“Do we get a hint what it is?” Eddie said.

“No easy hints,” Russell replied, “but tell you what. You can ask me whatever yes or no questions you want about it, and I will answer truthfully.”

Which they did for the next thirty-five minutes, with Eddie only managing to discern that they were headed for some sort of outdoor adventure that, in fact, had nothing to do with the eclipse, but which involved some form of exploration. Once off the main road, getting to the final destination required driving a mile or so down a dirt road, so seldom used that the center strip was grown up with weeds that brushed against the bottom of the car as they slowly made their way.

“Good Heavens, Russell, where on earth are you taking us?” were the only words Susan had uttered in the last fifteen minutes of the trip. Eddie, though, was utterly unconcerned with the remoteness of their destination and exuded enthusiasm for whatever awaited.

It was just past noon when the car finally drew to a stop in a clearing adjacent to an immense meadow. Along one side of the meadow stood a large formation of rock that extended as far as they could see and which defined the beginning of a row of small hills to the west. With the car’s engine off and faintly ticking as it began to cool, the Freeley family flung open the doors of the station wagon, climbed out, and stretched their legs.

“Should we unpack the telescope?” Eddie asked enthusiastically.

“Oh not yet,” Russell replied. “The eclipse isn’t for another couple of hours. And besides, we have our other little adventure to attend to first.”

Both mother and son looked out across the vast open field, its grass knee-high and waving gracefully in the light breeze. They regarded the adjacent rock formation to their right with quizzical expressions. Nothing they could see looked too terribly adventurous. Russell opened the back door of the wagon and lifted out the duffel bag.

“We’re going to need a little equipment for this adventure and I have come prepared.”

More curious looks from Susan and barely contained excitement from Eddie as Russell led them across the meadow and toward the edge of the rock formation.

“So, a couple of guys from the office stumbled on this last month and I’ve been dying to check it out ever since. Just need to get my bearings.” He paused for a second, tuned back to glance at the now distant car, then back toward the rocks. “Just to the right of the biggest oak tree …” He took off again with renewed conviction, and his wife and son followed, still with no idea what was actually happening.

Fifteen minutes later they were at the base of a sprawling oak tree, its leaves the tender green of early summer. Five more minutes and they were standing at the base of the rock formation, gazing up at an imposing collection of granite slabs and boulders, stacked with wild abandon one atop another.

“Russell,” Susan said uncertainly, “please do not tell me you expect us to climb this thing.”

“Oh heavens no,” he replied, “nothing so daring as that.” He led them a few steps farther forward until they were between two large boulders and facing a thin vertical opening. “We are going under it.” Russell thrust out his right hand dramatically in the direction of the dark narrow gap and smiled a broad smile. “Who even knew there were caves in Connecticut, right?”

“But,” he said, dropping the duffel bag to the ground and kneeling to unzip it, “safety first.” He lifted out three thin plastic helmets, a length of rope, and a large kerosene lantern. “I’ve not been inside yet, but my friends tell me it’s pretty flat, so no real climbing required. He rose, but then remembered one last detail and knelt again. Reaching inside he felt around in one end of the bag and finally extracted a large piece of chalk. “We don’t want to get lost, right?” he said, thrusting the piece into his pocket.

“Gosh,” Eddie said, struggling to strap on his helmet, “what do you think’s in there, Dad?”

Russell reached under his son’s neck and fastened the awkward fitting. “That, my boy, is precisely what we have come to find out! And as far as I know, we are the very first Freeleys ever to set foot in a cave.”

Susan was standing with her helmet still in her hand and she was not conveying nearly the same level of enthusiasm as Eddie or his father. “I don’t know, dear. Do you think it’s safe?”

“We’ll be fine, Susan. And we’re not going to go very far inside—no Tom Sawyer adventures for us. Just a quick look around and then we’ll come back, have lunch, and watch the sun disappear.” He reached out and took the helmet in his hand, placing it gently on his wife’s head. “Just in case there are any low spots—wouldn’t want to knock your head.”

“Oops,” Russell said, bending once more to the duffel bag, “almost forgot the most important thing.” He pulled out a small camera, gesturing for Susan and Eddie to move so that they were standing together in front of the cave entrance. He gestured them closer, then took a few quick shots. Handing the camera to Susan, he took her place next to Eddie. Throwing his arm around his son and smiling broadly, she snapped a few more photos and handed the camera back. Russell drew the lanyard around his neck. “I suppose we can leave the bag here,” he said, “no one around for miles.”

Lifting the lantern, he withdrew a matchbox from his pocket, struck one, and got the wick lit. “All right, campers. Let’s see what there is to see.”

The entrance was initially quite narrow but plenty high. Each of them—even Eddie—had to turn at least slightly sideways to fit through. Once inside, the cave widened out enough for them to walk comfortably, though the floor was uneven and they took care not to twist an ankle. With just the one lantern, Russell took the lead and Susan and Eddie followed close behind.

“Watch your step,” Russell said, glancing back over his shoulder. “My friends said they spent a couple hours in here and it goes on forever.” He turned and looked forward once more. The light from the lantern disappeared thirty or so feet in front of them and beyond that only blackness. “Eddie, is this cool or what?” His words and their footfalls echoed from off the stone walls.

The light from the wick was extremely white and it cast crisp shadows on the cave walls and ceiling. The air was a good deal cooler than outside and quite damp. And there was a smell, hard to pin down, but definitely the smell of something—something organic and possibly very very old. Who knew what sorts of animals had spent time in here? But all they saw was stone and their own jerky shadows as they made their way. It was difficult to sense direction with the floor, walls, and ceiling all of the same irregular granite, but after fifty yards or so, they began to get the sense that their path was bending slightly downward and to the left. But even that might have been an illusion with no real frame of reference.

The first branch came after another twenty yards or so. The ceiling dipped low enough now so that they were forced to get down on hands and knees for a few feet before standing once more. Back on their feet, there were presented with two openings—a choice, left or right. In the far distance they could hear for the first time what was almost certainly the sound of moving water.

“Which way, sport?” Russell said, his voice echoing ominously off the stone walls. The boy thought for a moment and pointed to his left. Russell paused, drew the chalk from his pocket and drew an arrow on the wall pointing in the direction they had come. The three then squeezed through another narrow passage that opened up into a space large enough to almost qualify as a room.

“I think we need a couple of action shots,” Russell declared, his voice reverberating off the high ceiling. He pulled from his jacket pocket a square flashcube and inserted it into the top of the camera. “Would you do the first honors, love?” holding the camera in Susan’s direction. They each took a photo of the other two, and then proceeded on with their exploration. There was still the distant sound of running water, but the three talked hardly at all, instead taking in the strange rock formations and occasional bits of wildlife—an insect here, a salamander there—that inhabited this normally lightless environment, scurrying away at the lantern’s brilliance. They had been walking for perhaps twenty-five minutes, in what felt like the same gradually downward and leftward direction, when they heard the first odd and unexpected sound. Except it wasn’t really a sound, was it? It might have even been just a variation on the rushing water they’d been hearing since shortly after entering, like the sound something might make if it were walking through the moving water.

Russell heard it; at least he thought he did. But he wasn’t sure if the others did and he saw no merit in bringing it to the attention of the others, particularly as Susan had demonstrated nothing but anxiety since they’d entered the cave. He glanced down at his watch—an hour and a half left before the start of the eclipse.

“We’d probably ought to head back, huh?” he said. “That’s enough exploring for one day. We still need to set up the telescope and get the filters put on.”

And then the noise—the one that sounded like something moving through water—came again, noticeably louder, noticeably enough so there was no question they all heard it. Susan glanced at Russell and offered a slight tilt of the head, but no one said anything. He stepped between the two of them and began the trek back the way they had come. Getting to this farthest point in their trek had involved six branches along the way and Russell had marked each clearly with the chalk from his pocket. It was a virtually foolproof system for remembering your way back, a system with only a single flaw. Light was required in order to see the marks on the walls, a flaw that occurred to Russell only in the seconds immediately after he carelessly set his foot into a crack in the floor, twisted his ankle, and fell, cursing loudly and dashing the lantern against the floor, extinguishing it. To further exacerbate Russell’s pain and frustration, in clutching at the ground to right himself in the darkness, he placed his hand squarely onto a fragment of the lantern’s broken glass, which was both sharp and still blisteringly hot. This mistake elicited another round of profanity, in response to which Eddie said simply, “Dad, can you turn the light back on? It’s kinda scary.”

“Eddie,” he said, finally righting himself, carefully so as to avoid striking his head, “hold on one second buddy. I need to figure out what’s what here.”

“Russell, are you okay?” Susan said, her voice now with a noticeable quiver to it.

He did not respond for a moment, fumbling for a moment in his pants pocket for the box of matches.

“Russell …” she said once more.

More rustling sounds, then a scratch, and the brilliant bloom of a match flame that settled into a dull orange glow. It lasted only ten or so seconds, but the faint illumination was long enough and bright enough for Susan to see the blood covering much of her husband’s hand, blood that illuminated black in the glow of the match.

“Ow … shit!” he said as the burning match reached his fingertips and he dropped it to the floor where it sputtered and went out.

“Sorry,” he said. “Sorry. Look, guys, here’s what we need to do. I’m gonna light another match and we all need to look around best we can and find the bottom piece of the lantern. It’s painted red and it’s got the kerosene tank and the wick. We need that. If you see it, say so, and get to it before the match goes out. Ready?”

Another long scratching sound, another bright flare, and all three quickly searched the cave floor as best they could in the faint glow.

“Dad!” Eddie shouted as the match flame neared Russell’s fingers once more. “Over there, on your left … maybe four feet.” Russell turned just as his fingertips got another burn from another extinguishing match, and in that instant the boy was right. There was a flash of red paint, the wick, and also shards of what remained of the glass housing around the perimeter of the fuel case.

“Good eyes, son,” Russell said, in darkness once more. The sense of relief in his voice was palpable. “Okay, hold on for a sec. I’m gonna get myself closer before I light another match.” Before stepping carefully in what he believed was the right direction from his brief glimpse, Russell realized he ought to determine what their match situation was and so he felt carefully around in the small box, taking care not to drop any. About half a box. That was a good thing—a good thing if all they had to do was get the lantern wick burning again, and if the fuel can was intact, and if the wick burned correctly without the benefit of the glass housing, which was not at all how it had been designed to work. If it turned out the wick wouldn’t burn and they needed to use matches to navigate a half-hour walk back out of the cave, half a box was not comforting at all. Not at all.

As it happened, Russell’s blind movement toward the lantern base was well calculated, particularly given the single fleeting second that he had laid eyes upon it. He had descended to hands and knees and crawled in what he supposed was the right direction, feeling ahead with outstretched hands. The happiest sound he had heard since his initial fall was the clank of the small steel can against the stone floor as his hand brushed against it.

“Okay,” he said, “but hold on a second longer. I need to clear away the broken glass if I can, so I don’t tear my hand up any more than it already is.”

He felt around on the cave floor and located a small stone, which he used to poke around the edge of the can, dislodging what remained of the shattered glass housing. He then carefully ran his fingers around all of the surfaces of the can and was relieved to find no cracks or openings. From the weight of the can and the sloshing of the liquid, he figured there was still at least two thirds of the fuel remaining inside. The only remaining question was whether the wick would function in the open air.

“Okay,” he said, “one second more. I’m gonna have a go at lighting this thing. I’m guessing it won’t be as bright as the lantern, but it should beat hell out of matches. Which it did, but not by much as it happened. With the scratch of another match, the wick took immediately. But even turned up all the way, the glow was only a fraction of what the lantern had put out when it was intact. The handle had gone when the glass housing had broken, so there was no way to handle the makeshift lantern now except by holding onto the bottom of the can. Russell did just this and aimed the low flame at his son and wife, neither of whom had said a thing during the relighting process.

“Well,” Russell said, “it’s not the most elegant thing in the world, but I reckon it’ll get us home. Shall we?” And then came that noise once more, longer this time and louder than before. That sound that wasn’t even an especially frightening one, just oddly out of context in the depths of a dark cave. It lasted for maybe five seconds, but it was curiously difficult to get a sense of the direction, what with all the sound reverberation. And then silence once more, or nearly so—just the sound of three pairs of feet making their slow uncertain way out by the faint light of a flickering lantern wick. Having correctly navigated their way back past the last of the branch points, but only with a good deal of searching for Russell’s chalk mark by the faint light of the wick, they were in a section of the cave with a sufficiently high ceiling that the light did not reach the top. Susan was bringing up the rear, so as to ensconce the boy safely between his parents, and she did not at first react to the dripping of something onto her shoulder and then hair, something more viscous than water, something that finally caused her to reach a hand into her hair. With no prior experience in caves, Susan had no basis for understanding what sorts of substances might reasonably come to be on an explorer. And in that moment, as she was touching with her fingertips the strange substance in her hair, the strange liquid movement sound came once more, so loud now that it seemed to be directly on them, or, more accurately, above them. Which is, in fact, where it was, as Susan discovered when a single strong arm, or appendage of some sort, grasped her upraised hand from above and lifted her shrieking from the cave floor and toward the ceiling with a speed so complete that by the time Russell and Eddie heard the sound and turned, there was simply nothing—nothing but a new sound, a much more frightening sound, one of faint muffled cries mixed with a sound like twigs snapping. The two men were in too advanced a state of shock to even cry out in response to what had happened. They simply stood gazing upward into the blackness of the cave ceiling, Eddie standing, Russell on his knees behind, holding his hands over the boy’s ears. They did finally cry out though, when small bits of flesh and bone began to fall from the ceiling onto the cave floor. Eddie didn’t seem to understand, but Russell did and he gripped the boy’s hand as tightly as he knew how and turned to race away and toward the cave entrance, still more than twenty minutes away under the best of conditions.

Russell tried his best to run, but it was a dicey affair with his twisted ankle, needing to hang carefully onto the barely burning lantern base, and guide the boy all simultaneously. They made it far enough ahead so that the horrific sounds were now nearly faded into the distance. And they might just have made it out, except that at the next branch, Russell struggled to find his chalk mark in the faint light of the lantern wick. And as he and the boy searched, there came again that viscous liquid sound, eventually seeming to approach so close that the men gave up on the chalk and simply made a choice of which branch to take. And they chose wrong.

After perhaps five minutes of intermittent running, stumbling, and stopping to catch their breath, Russell realized they had erred when the tunnel they were in came to an abrupt dead end.

“Aw Jesus, Eddie,” he said, “looks like I messed up. We gotta go back.” And as they turned to retrace their steps, once more the liquid sound, faint, but slowly gaining in intensity and frequency. Russell stopped and knelt before the boy.

“Eddie, I need you to listen to me and listen very carefully. That branch back there, where we went the wrong way, if anything happens to me, you take this tank and the box of matches,” he slid the matchbox into Eddie’s pants pocket, “and you run like you’ve never run before. You find the chalk marks, and you get out.”

The boy looked back at his father in terror and confusion. “But aren’t we going back to get mom?” he asked. Russell stood and simply tugged on the boy’s hand, leading him out. Except this time they were moving toward the liquid sound rather than away. And as it drew closer, Russell finally realized why it had sounded so familiar that first time they’d heard it as a distant hiss nearly an hour earlier. It recalled a memory from his childhood, a childhood spent living in a small house on a mountainside where occasional heavy rains would cause mudslides to break loose and carry tons of mud and debris down the slope in a slow viscous flow. And while Russell’s childhood home had never been directly affected by these occasional mudslides, he had stood near them often enough, watching as tons of sludge and mud had crept along, moving inexorably over rocks and around trees, stopping for nothing and no one. And that was the sound in the cave, on a smaller scale but the same sound. Exactly the same.

They saw it from no more than fifteen feet away, attached partially to the cave ceiling and partially to one wall. The light from the wick was so poor that there was no way to be certain what they were looking at. But it was immense, the size of a small automobile, and it was all arms, too many to count, but all attached to a large central body of some sort, too nondescript to make out. All Russell could think, as he stared in horror, was that it looked for all the world like the biggest octopus he’d ever seen. At the moment, the thing was not advancing. It was simply hanging from the cave ceiling, the main body pulsing as though catching its breath, just as he and his son were doing. At least three of the immense legs dangled from the ceiling, each the diameter of his thigh where it met the body, tapering to a tip that appeared to split into multiple fingerlike appendages.

And then, in the flickering orange light of the lantern wick, he saw the thing that made his final moments on earth moments of complete insanity. He saw the arm, cleanly severed at the elbow, still clutched in one of the thing’s tentacles, the arm and the dainty white-skinned hand, and in the glint of the flame the reflection of a gold wedding ring.

“Eddie,” he said, turning to the boy with wild eyes, pressing the lantern base into his son’s terrified hands and draping the camera around his sweating neck. “Remember what I told you. When you see your opening, you run right past, and you do not look back, just keep running. And when you get outside, you find somebody and you tell them what happened. Do you understand me? No one else must come down here. Not ever.”

The boy nodded faintly, his eyes wide.

“You need to come right behind me. Then you run past and you stay as low as you can.”

Then, without a moment’s further thought, Russell Freeley turned, screamed as loudly and defiantly as he had ever screamed in his life, his cries echoing from the cave walls, and he ran with every once of strength and speed he had, leaped, and threw himself into the body of the thing on the ceiling. He had no weapon but his body and his determination and his love of his son and wife, and those would never be enough, except maybe to provide enough of a distraction for the boy to get past. And with his last clear second of sight, he saw the boy make it, at least initially. Eddie darted beneath the thing and had very nearly made it past when one of the great arms—one of the several that wasn’t engaged in dismembering Russell limb from limb—lashed out at the boy, gripping his arm for a second, but then losing that grip in its frenzy over the father. And Eddie ran. He ran so fast that at one point he blew the flame out on the wick and was forced to stop and relight it from the matchbox. He made it back to the branch where the two had taken their fatally wrong turn. And by taking care to find all the chalk marks, and by remembering that the way out was uphill and turning mostly to the right, Eddie Freeley twenty-five minutes later emerged from the cave and into the midst of an unexpectedly dark midafternoon sky, the very peak of the 1955 solar eclipse. The boy stopped at the cave entrance for a moment and looked upward to the black disc overhead and its brilliant corona ring. Then he returned his gaze to the ground and walked away as the sky began to brighten once more.


Many hours later, eight-year-old Edgar Freeley would be discovered walking slowly, aimlessly along the road that led from Benton to Wellington. The state police trooper pulled over at the sight of the boy by himself, the hour nearing sundown. Eddie’s clothes were dirty and torn in places and he had a camera around his neck and a small red can in his hand that looked as though it had come from a camping lantern. He also had what appeared to be a nasty large burn mark on his left arm above the elbow.

“Son, what are you doing way out here all by yourself?” the trooper said, standing before the boy. “Do your folks know where you are?”

But Eddie only stared back at the man in his smartly creased tan uniform and wide-brimmed hat. Eddie did not look away. And he did not say a word in response to the officer’s questions.

“I’m happy to give you a lift to wherever you live, son,” the trooper tried once more to elicit a response.

Once more Eddie said nothing, made no expression, no attempt to turn away or run. And so the trooper opened the passenger door of his cruiser and placed the young boy inside, uncertain what to do with him. For now the best he could manage was take him to the state police barracks and leave it to one of the administrators there to try to locate his parents or relatives. All the way to the barracks seventeen miles away, the trooper tried to engage Eddie in conversation, but the boy never said so much as one word, nor made a sound of any kind. In fact, Eddie Freeley would never utter another word for the entire seventy-four years that remained of his life.




Steve Higgins 4:20 pm - 22nd November:

Pretty creepy – but I don’t think that flashcubes has been invented by 1955..

BKS 7:02 pm - 22nd November:

Good catch. You are correct. Flash cubes didn’t show up until mid 60′s. Ill fix that – guess they would have had individual flash bulbs, which were certainly around at that time.

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