The Cave

Issue 33 by Ellis Shuman

The Cave

They say the cave offers a passage to the underworld. In ancient Greek mythology, a musician, poet, and prophet named Orpheus, son of the god Apollo, descended through the cave into the subterranean kingdom of Hades in search of his beloved, Eurydice. There are many versions of this legend and none of them have happy endings.

They say that an outcrop of rock deep inside the cave’s interior resembles the face of the devil. This oddly shaped formation gives the cave its name. Devil’s Throat Cave. I don’t see the resemblance and I go into the cave six times a day, every day of the week. Except for the occasional Sunday.

It’s not all fun and games, this summer job of mine. My initial enthusiasm for working in nature and guiding tours of the cave has faded. The work is not hard, physically, but repeating the same talk over and over is tiring. Sometimes I wonder if anyone in my tours appreciates what they’re seeing. And sometimes I just can’t wait until the last person exits the cave so that I can lock the door soundly behind me.

Today is a regular workday and this is my third shift. A group awaits at the cave’s entrance. Seven people. Three couples and a tall man, standing off by himself. I can tell they are tourists because they have backpacks and water bottles and cameras and mobile phones that serve as cameras. One of the couples is Italian and the other two identify themselves as being from France. They are wearing light jackets on a particularly warm day and that’s a good thing. It can be quite cold inside the cave, if you’re not used to it.

The single man, though, is outfitted strangely. Billowy white pants. A long-sleeved white shirt. A thin rope belt around his waist, Biblical leather sandals on his narrow feet. His hair is long and wild, hiding half of his forehead, and he sports a short beard. The man’s eyes are beady and their piercing gaze makes me uncomfortable. I look away.

While the three couples appear to be in their mid-thirties, or maybe slightly older, the single man is of an undeterminable age. In my eyes, he is neither old nor young. He keeps his distance from the others, demonstrating that he has no connection to the Italian and French tourists. I look over at the parking lot and wonder which car is his. The red Fiat? The white Renault? I don’t have a clue where this oddly dressed man is from as he has yet to utter a word. I turn to the other members of the group.

“Hello, my name is Rado and I will be your guide,” I say in my passable English, forcing a smile. I inform the tourists, in a short personal introduction, that I recently graduated from university and that I have plans to travel after summer ends. I welcome the visitors, all seven of them, to my country.

“Very few people come to Bulgaria at this time of year. And to visit the Rhodope Mountains in the south, not far from the Greek border, is even more unusual. In the winter, the ski resorts in the area are quite popular and they attract skiers from all over Europe, but hardly anyone comes to see the cave.”

I hope this small group will enjoy its visit, I think to myself. The cave really is magnificent. Otherworldly. And I’ve seen it nearly a thousand times.

“Let’s go inside,” I encourage them.

I approach the large wooden door at the entrance, holding the key that will unlock the secrets of the underground. I hesitate. For a moment I enjoy my power, my control over what awaits the group, what they will learn. I feel as if I am master of all that lies below the surface of the earth. Only I can reveal the cave’s wonders and explain its mysteries. This feeling, of knowing what wonders lie behind the door, almost makes up for the fact that I’d rather not be doing this at all. That sometimes I’d prefer not to be the one leading people into the cave, as spectacular as it might be. I turn and face the seven tourists.

“This cave is the most famous in Bulgaria, the most famous in all the Balkans. I will tell you about its legends and I will explain how the cave got its name. One thing I request is to stick together as a group. The passageways are slippery from the moisture, and also, I don’t want anyone to lose their way in the uncharted sections. Are there any questions before we start?”

The single man raises his hand and I indicate that he can speak. His voice is raspy and he coughs, suggesting that he is a heavy smoker. He speaks with an accent, but I can’t place it. European, for sure, but not Slavic. His words give no clue as to his origins.

“I understand there is some argument regarding where Orpheus was born, whether it was here in Bulgaria or in Greece,” he says.

I acknowledge his statement and explain it to the others. I begin to relate the ancient legend and to speak of the mythical prophet. “In Bulgaria, we believe Orpheus was born in the village of Gela, not far from here. But, yes, there are those who say he was actually born in Greece.”

“Does this ancient legend, the one of which you speak, say Eurydice actually died in the cave?” the man asks, interrupting me. His voice is louder now and the roughness in his voice is gone. “Perhaps she died by snakebite, at some other time?”

“I will relate the tale of Orpheus in its entirety,” I promise. “But I will tell this story once we’re inside the cave.”

The man seems posed to ask another question, but the others are impatient to start the tour. After all, that’s why they’ve come here. And I need to work according to the time schedule. There will be another group in less than an hour.

I unlock the door and step aside, allowing the tourists to pass by. The three couples hurry ahead but the single man hesitates, his eyes narrowing as if he’s considering whether he should actually enter the cave. I motion for him to join us and finally he marches past me. I pull the handle and the door slams shut behind us. We are in the cave.

The quick drop in temperature in the entry passage makes one of the French women zip up her jacket. The Italian woman whispers to her husband. I lead the way to an open area with a high ceiling and damp rocky walls and motion for everyone to stop. The couples huddle together, husbands and wives clinging to each other possibly to make sure no one gets lost in the dark. The white-clad man stands to the side, staring into the depths of a spotlighted cavern ahead on the path. I launch into my well-rehearsed monologue.

“The river flowing into the cave is the Trigrad. It falls down a steep chasm that we call a 'throat.’ This is one of the reasons the cave got its name. You hear that noise in the background? It is an underground waterfall. Forty-two meters high. We call that point, where the river waters crash down the throat, the Hall of Thunder. This cave is the largest in Bulgaria and the underground waterfall is the highest in the Balkans.”

I’ve given this talk so many times that it is committed to memory. I could probably give the tour blindfolded, which is nearly what we are doing in these pitch-black surroundings. I am about to continue when the single man interrupts me. “Is it true that Orpheus desired to rescue his beloved not only from Hades’ underworld, but also from death itself?” he asks.

I find this question a bit disturbing, but it doesn’t appear to bother the others. In fact, they ignore the man’s comments and talk among themselves. I don’t want to delay our journey by discussing the fine points of Greek folklore. I voice a quick reply and urge the group to follow.

The dimly lit passageway becomes narrower. Damper. The roar of the underground river as its water crashes against the rocks far below us is almost deafening, making it impossible to make myself heard. The Italian woman slows down, visibly nervous at our passage through the dark. I wonder if she’s claustrophobic. I have encountered tourists like that before. Also, tourists who feared bats and even those who were afraid of coming down with some type of cave fever. This cave is perfectly safe. I told this to the group when we started our tour. The woman’s husband wraps his arm around her and whispers something in her ear. We forge ahead into the depths of the cave.

Suddenly there is a flash of light, and then another. One of the French men is snapping pictures with his camera. The cavern lights up for the briefest of seconds, temporarily blinding us before pitching us again into total darkness. We pause at the side of the slippery pathway, and the Italian woman clings tightly to a guardrail. I raise my voice to compete with the thundering river.

“Many attempts have been made to discover where the Trigrad River emerges from the cave,” I tell them, raising my voice. “Pieces of wood have been thrown in, never to be seen again. Colorful dyes have been used as well. The colored water did eventually emerge from the cave, but it took more than an hour, suggesting there is a labyrinth of water below the surface. We may never know the full extent of this underground water system.”

“Has the entire cave been explored?” one of the Frenchmen asks.

“I can tell you one thing,” I reply, eager to demonstrate how vast the cave is, how difficult it is to navigate through the tunnels. “In 1970, two scuba divers attempted to follow the path of the water. They died but their bodies were never found.”

While the tourists take in this fact, the single man steps forward with a question.

“Eurydice was the wife of Orpheus, was she not?”

The question catches me off guard and I am momentarily unable to reply.

“Did Orpheus play his lyre to her on the night of their wedding?” the man continues. “Wasn't that the day she stepped on a snake and was bitten? And that snakebite is what caused her death? Then how could it be possible that she disappeared in the underground?”

“I will explain everything,” I promise.

“You are not answering my question. Perhaps Eurydice never came into the cave at all,” he argues.

I hesitate, uncertain how to respond. The man’s questions have led me off-track, away from my oft-repeated speech. On the tours I guide, I relate how long the cave’s tunnels are, how deep they go underground, but I am no expert on Greek legends.

“I think we should hurry up,” the Italian woman suggests. The other two women are also anxious to move on. Their husbands hold them tight.

The single man steps forward to confront me, totally ignoring the others. “Didn't Plato consider Orpheus to be a coward? Did Orpheus really mock the gods by going into the cave to confront Hades? Maybe he was incapable of undertaking this mission and instead stayed above ground, simply playing his lyre and never journeying to the underworld at all.”

“Eurydice and Orpheus both entered the cave!” I state emphatically, suddenly recalling parts of the legend I rarely mention in the tours. "Hades told Orpheus he could take Eurydice out from the cave under one condition. And the condition was that Orpheus could not look back at Eurydice as she followed him. Otherwise he would lose her forever! And then, as the two emerged, Orpheus did his best not to look back. He was sure his beloved was there. He knew that if he did not look back, he would regain Eurydice's love forever. But at the last minute, Orpheus lost his faith and turned around. He saw Eurydice as a shadow, and then she totally disappeared. She was trapped in the underworld with Hades. Forever.”

“Rado, enough with these Greek legends,” the Italian man says. “Can we continue with the tour? The women want to go up, to see daylight.”

“Of course,” I say with a sharp glance at the man in white. I beckon the group to follow me farther into the enormous expanses of the cave. I lead the way through the network of subterranean passages and tunnels, moving ahead quickly. The tourists trail behind at a slower pace, visibly perturbed by the ghostly shadows flickering on protrusions of rock in the side caverns. It is hard for them to breathe this far underground. I understand this and slow down. At last we reach a large hall. This hall is so vast that the stunning Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia could easily fit inside. With room to spare. Here I stop, casting my flashlight’s beam at the far side of the enormous chamber.

“We have reached the halfway point,” I announce to the awestruck tourists, clearing my throat. “If you prefer to go back and leave the cave where we entered, you can. The gate can be opened from inside.”

The Italian woman turns around but her husband reaches out to comfort her, and she reluctantly agrees to continue with us. But before we set off, I add another piece of vital information.

“We will need to climb a set of 301 steep steps to exit the cave. The steps will be slippery but there is a handrail. Again, if you want, you can leave from the cave’s entrance.”

No one takes up the offer of turning back. I point my flashlight at an outcrop of rock high over our heads. “Do you see it?” I ask the group. When no one responds, I give a clue as to what I am showing them. “This is the reason the cave got its name.”

“The devil?” one of the tourists offers, although he doesn’t appear totally convinced his suggestion is a valid one.

“Yes, the profile of the devil,” I confirm. “Along with the ‘throat’ of water falling into the depths of the cavern, the devil’s profile here is what makes this cave unique. Devil’s Throat Cave. The most famous in Bulgaria.”

“I don’t see it,” one of the French women remarks. The other French woman says that she, too, cannot see any resemblance to the devil in the rock.

“It’s only a legend,” someone says. “Just like the legend of that Greek god.”

“Not a god!” the single man bellows. His voice echoes in the rocky chamber, competing with the thundering underground river. “The opposite is true! Orpheus was punished by the gods! His love for Eurydice was incomplete because he was unwilling to die for her. He was incapable of rescuing her and that is why he was punished. Orpheus was certainly not a god! He was a mortal man, punished by being killed, himself, by women.”

“Enough!” I warn the man. I can’t see his face in the darkness, but if I could I would match his piercing eyes with my own fierce gaze.

“Orpheus was from Greece!” he continues. “His legend has been adopted by the Bulgarians for their own political purposes! Do not believe any of this fiction we are hearing!”

“Stop it!” I shout, losing my patience at last. Who is this obnoxious foreigner to harass me repeatedly with meaningless questions and baseless statements? Who is he to dispute the story, to challenge the legend of the cave, to contradict everything I’m saying? What’s with this man and his devilish obsession on the ancient myth? This is our cave, with all of its wonders, with all its stories from long ago. This is our legend, a matter of national pride for all Bulgarians! He has ruined the tour for everyone!

“Stop it!” I shout again.

My outburst frightens the three couples. The nervous Italian woman backs away, almost in tears. This has never happened to me before. In all the time I’ve been doing this job, my visitors have been polite, thankful for being guided through the underground passages. And none of them has cared all that much for the ancient legends that surround the cave’s history.

I shift uneasily on my feet, trying desperately to regain my equilibrium. The single man eases away until he is standing behind the others. I take a deep breath, pulling in as much oxygen as possible in the stuffy cavern.

“I’m sorry,” I apologize to the group. “Sorry to speak so much of the story of Orpheus. Sorry to lose my temper.”

The tourists are impatient to leave. We hurry ahead on the narrow path. It is pointless to give further explanations. The couples don’t speak among themselves. One of the women, the nervous one, is holding onto her husband as if for dear life. The single man seems to have lagged behind.

After several moments, we reach the foot of the steps. The group begins to climb. I let the three couples start their ascent and then I follow. Take care, I remind them. Hold on to the handrail. Slowly. That’s it.

The beginning steps are made in near total darkness but as we continue upwards, a faint light appears high above, striking the rocks at our side, bringing them into brilliant relief. Spotlighting the crevices, the fissures in the rock. There are shadows too. But as we continue upwards, towards the top, there is more light, less shadow.

The steps are steep. One of the women breathes deeply. She pauses and her husband waits with her. The Frenchman pulls out his camera and tries to get the best shots of the contrast between light and darkness. Of the sharp rocks to our side and the sun’s rays promising daylight above.

“How many is that?” one of the women asks.

“We must be halfway.”

Far above us there is blue, the blue of the comforting summer sky. Seeing that we are near the end of our ascent motivates the tourists and they pick up their pace. I continue upward with them. A final staircase, made of metal, and then we emerge into brilliant daylight. Outside the cave a stunning gorge awaits us. It is the roaring Trigrad River, its waters crashing against the rocks as they stream into the cave’s diabolical mouth. Pouring down the steep chasms and into the bottomless abyss. Down the throat to the depths of hell, to the devil that lurks within the labyrinth.

The tourists catch their breath, enjoy the fresh air and the impressive flora of the canyon. Further up the path is a table set with glass jars of homemade jams and honey, offered for sale by two elderly residents of a nearby village. I know this couple as they always await the visitors emerging from the cave. As the tourists admire the items for sale, I turn to look for the last member of our group.

“What are we waiting for?” one of the Frenchmen asks me.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” the Italian woman says, slightly embarrassed.

“Can we return to the parking lot?” her husband asks.

“I am waiting for the last person in our group,” I tell them.

“Who? We are all here.”

“The tall man, the one dressed in white. The one who asked all those questions.”

“What man?” the husband asks. “What questions? We were only six people. There was no one else.”

“There were seven of you...” Surely, the three couples have been disturbed by him as much as me?

“No, just six.” The others nod their heads in agreement.

I spin around and gaze at the darkened exit of the cave. There was another man. The unpleasant, offensive, strange man. He had dared to follow me into the care and belittle its significance, trivialize its wonders. No one should do that to this cave! Not to Devil’s Throat Cave! Not to my cave!

“Can we go ahead? I know the way to the cars.”

The small group leaves me, heading up the canyon path, away from the stand with jams and honey. I stand back, my mouth open wide. Was there not another person in our group? Had he gotten lost somewhere in the cave? Somewhere in the underworld? Or, had I imagined the strangely dressed tourist? Had my mind been playing tricks with me? Had I created my own myth, a legend as mysterious as that of the mythical Orpheus?

I glance one last time at the exit and then hurry to follow the tourists up the path.

About the Author

Ellis Shuman

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Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Oslo Times, and The Huffington Post. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair. Ellis lives with his wife, children, and grandchildren on Moshav Neve Ilan, outside Jerusalem.