Secret Grotto

An Urban Fantasy Short Story by Bo Bandy

Secret Grotto

by Bo Bandy

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For most people, the quality of their eyesight diminishes as they grow older. It’s just an unfortunate effect of old age. This decline normally occurs in a gradual, subtle way which isn’t obvious to the person. Sadly that wasn’t to be the case for me. In my mid twenties, I developed a degenerative eye condition which rendered me almost legally blind in a very short period. I had no time to come to terms with the loss. Frankly, it was devastating.

I can still see colors and vivid light but cannot distinguish what I’m looking at. Even the thickest ‘Coke bottle’ glasses aren’t of much help. Everything is just an intense blur. Corrective surgery is also out of the question so I resigned myself to the depressing life of a ‘vision impaired’ lady.

While I felt deeply sorry for myself, I did have an advantage over those who’d been blind since birth. At least I had normal vision for twenty four years. Also, I still have strong visual memories of my regular surroundings from before everything faded. I’ve never liked the term ‘disabled’ and tried for a long time to prove I could get by like ‘normal’ sighted people. Determination and stubbornness can be a real asset to a person facing challenges, in small doses. Giving up doesn’t really help anyone but having a healthy sense of reality is equally important. Realistically there needs to be a balance in those areas.

I was still between the bargaining and denial stages when I decided to go and explore the forest behind my grandparents house. Having to give up driving was a crushing blow to my independence but even I knew I had no business behind the wheel. Walking the woods however, was different to me. I knew them like the back of my hand. I was certain the terrain hadn’t changed significantly in the ten years since I had mapped out the deer paths and creek beds. I saw a personal expedition to explore those trails as a chance to regain some of my independence back.

My sister Becky drove me over there but was dead-set against the woods excursion. Everyone was. They knew how stubborn I could be; and that was a recipe for disaster in their minds. They made it abundantly clear where they stood on the idea. Grandma even said; “A person in denial will take dangerous risks they are overconfident about.” She was too polite to come right out and ask me not to. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I was determined to go. I pretended to listen to their sincere concerns and then put on my hiking boots. Nothing was going to deter me.

I was barely past the back yard when I heard Becky unsuccessfully shadowing me. I turned around and said; “Look. I have my cell phone in my pocket. If I have trouble, I’ll call you, ok? I know these woods. You know that I know them. We must have walked them a hundred times as kids. I’m going to the ‘secret’ grotto. Please let me do this, for me.”

Once she realized I could hear her noisily trampling the brush behind me, she dropped the pretense and gave up. I guess I finally got through to her. She didn’t even bother trying to talk me out of it anymore after that. She just turned around and let me be. At last, I was on my own.

I must admit, I had a few missteps and stumbles along the way. There are natural landmarks I intended to use as a guide but my navigation skills were mostly based on line-of-sight. Something I couldn’t count on anymore with a foggy two-foot visual range. My concept of space between those landmarks was skewed a bit too. After a few unintentional detours, I made it to my coveted destination: a hidden spot back in the hills which Becky and I referred to as ‘the grotto’.

The place was so secluded that we only discovered it ourselves by trial and error. The two of us spent many happy times there playing as kids. I had such great memories of it that I thought making the trek one last time would help relive the nostalgia. It was grown up a bit from what I could tell since our last teenage jaunt. Of course Becky and I kept the foliage trampled down when we frequented it. Now it was covered with vines, saplings, and overgrown bushes. I still managed to feel my way into the familiar opening.

From memory I made my way over against one of the sides of the cave. As kids, we rarely went in very far because we didn’t have a flashlight. For the same general reason, I kept to the first 20 feet or so on this visit. At all times I could still ‘see’ the entrance because rays of sunlight were much brighter than the deep blackness of the inner chamber. My mind filled in the visual details from past memory. As I sat there drinking in the accomplishment of feeling my way to our hidden childhood haunt, I heard the distinctive sounds of something large approaching.

At first I assumed it was my sister coming to check on me. I wasn’t aggravated about that. She let me find my own way and was probably coming to join in the fun. Then I realized the sounds of crunching twigs and brush being pushed aside indicated more than one person! I started to panic. I couldn’t very well get up and flee away from them, nor could I safely retreat back into the cave. Whoever it was, they had me at a considerable disadvantage. I hoped they were benevolent.

Hello?”; I spoke nervously. I hoped that by speaking first, It wouldn’t startle them. After all, I was the one hiding inside the edge of darkness. I heard three individuals stop mid-step from my abrupt announcement.

I used to come here and play with my sister as a child.”; I continued. “After losing my eyesight recently, I wanted to see if I could find this peaceful spot again, by feel alone.”; I hoped that by volunteering more information about myself, it would put ‘them’ at ease. An agonizing amount of time passed before one of them spoke.

Hello.”; A distinctively female voice replied. “We were just exploring the woods ourselves. Myself and my two children. We’ll leave you be. Enjoy.”

No. No. Please join me!” I was so relieved it was a woman and kids. I felt instantly much safer knowing I wasn’t trapped in the hidden cave with three burly hunters. I could sense a certain hesitancy but in the end, the three of them accepted my invitation to join me. I told them how Becky and I spent summer vacation at grandmother’s house when we were off from school. My new companion introduced herself as Malena. Her fraternal twins were named Rufus and Mari.

Malena was a single mother raising her kids and trying to teach them to be independent. I felt bad for her. It couldn’t be easy raising two children alone but she dismissed the notion that it was a big deal. Their father was a deadbeat who did nothing to help rear them and was abusive at times. They were better off without him around, I assured her. I could tell Mari and Rufus were the ‘apples of her eyes’. The kids mostly played around the mouth of the cave while Malena and I chatted.

I shared personal details about myself and my family. Probably too personal. We had some belly laughs. Her kids ran back and forth with the energy of a couple of wild animals. I talked about my hopes and dreams for the future; and I also unburdened myself about how devastating it was to lose my eyesight so suddenly. It was very cathartic and I was glad I made the trip. In those short couple of hours I felt like she and I became good friends. She was a very warm, caring soul but I sensed something was amiss in her life. I didn’t want to pry too much but I suspected they were homeless; and living off the land.

By that time, all ambient rays of the sun seemed to have faded away. I couldn’t detect any glow outside the cave mouth. The idea of going back to Grandmas house in the dark didn’t bother me at all though. With my extreme visual impairment, it was basically the same all the time except for a bright gleam during the day. In my condition it made little difference but I knew that my sister would be searching for me. I didn’t want her to have to deal with the handicap of darkness. “Has night fallen?”; I asked Malena.

Yes, the sun has gone down.”; She confessed. I seemed to be more worried about that than she did.

Don’t you and the twins need to be getting ‘home’?” It was a loaded question and we both knew it. She didn’t answer and I realized what her silence meant. “You and the children live in the woods, don’t you? Don’t be embarrassed. I know you are doing the best that you can for them. Taking them away from an abusive father is a brave first step but this cave doesn’t offer enough shelter from the elements. We’ve got to get you and them into a warm bed. They need nutritious food too. If you’ll follow me to my grandma’s house, I know she’ll put the three of you up, until you can…”

Malena interrupted. “I appreciate your offer but you don’t understand. We can’t do that.”

Why not?”; I inquired with sincere worry for their well being. “He can’t find you at her house.”; I tried to reassure her. “Even if he could, you need to take out a restraining order for your protection. The police can help.”

She didn’t say anything. I assumed she was mulling it over but was too proud to accept my charity. Just as I made the offer, I heard something in the distance. It was too faint at first but grew steadily louder as the source approached. It was Becky. She was yelling for me. I shouted back that I was in the grotto and perfectly fine. A bright beam of light cut through the darkness of the cave. Then there was a cold, disjointed silence.

Becky, I’d like you to meet Malena and her two children, Rufus and Mari. I ran into them here at the cave and we’ve become fast friends in the past couple hours. I’m going to invite them to stay with Grandma for a little while until Malena gets back on her feet.”

Neither my sister nor Malena spoke. It was incredibly awkward. “Becky? Is that you? This is…” Instead of responding, I just heard heavy, uneven breathing echoing around the cave.

Tracy. Please come toward my voice… slowly, ok?”; Becky prompted.

I was about to chew her out for being rude to my new friend but there was an urgency in her voice which caused me to let it slide. I rose up and wobbled unsteadily toward her flashlight beam. A fierce, animal growl behind me broke the silence. Obviously she could see something troubling which I could not. I was worried that some wild animal had crept up behind all of us in the cave. Worrying for the safety of her kids, I suggested for Malena to gather up the twins to get them away from the source of the inhuman snarl, also.

Becky hissed impatiently at me: “Tracy, who are you talking to? There are no other people here but us! There’s a large mama bear and two cubs directly behind you. They have piercing red eyes and look very hungry. We need to exit the den and hope they don’t attack us. I held out my hand and fanned the air until she grabbed it. We slowly backed out of the grotto and crept away as fast as we could. The two of us didn’t breath a sigh of relief until we bolted the barrel lock on Grandma’s front door.

I’m not sure Becky believes me about the intimate, supernatural conversation I had with Malena and her cubs. Why would anyone? It sounds like the ranting of a lunatic but I swear it actually happened. Honestly I feel like they wouldn’t have harmed either of us but I guess we’ll never know the truth for sure. Regardless, I hope they remain safe in the grotto. If there’s a silver lining to this terrible blindness, it’s that it’s given me surreal experiences and different perspectives I wouldn’t ordinarily have.

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