On the Place Matters website, a commenter had recommended visiting the Indian caves on just such a summer’s day “to suck up the cool air that gets thrown out from the caves. It feels like instant air conditioning… free too! It’s a place that transports you to a time, a people and way of life far removed from ours.”
Though I’d been prepared for spelunking, almost immediately I spotted recesses and craggy overhangs in the rocks above the path. In fact, there was a makeshift trail that appeared to wend between them, and a campfire pit at the base, suggesting that the caves were frequented by Boy Scouts, s’mores-toasting tourists—or people in need of warmth and shelter.
The first cave was wide and shallow—more of a grotto—and emitted no cooling air, just a lazy swarm of flies. I continued up the hill.
The second cave I came to was deeper and narrower; a Sapporo can glinted in the back. As I ducked in, however, I was struck not by a refreshing rocky breath but by more flies, this time a buzzing horde, which bombarded my face and swarmed around my head. They all but drowned out the birdsong. I recoiled, swatting at my eyes in the sudden bright sunshine.
Peeking in again, I saw that the cave walls were indeed studded with flies—the beady, blue-tinged sort. This time I forced myself to linger in the entrance, and soon the swarm subsided. Only then could I appreciate the damp, stony coolness of the air; it felt like placing a clay mask over my face. It smelled thick and sharp. Frayed cobwebs caught the light. Flecks of mica flickered. I noticed candle wax dribbled on a rock by the entrance.
I continued up the hill to the few other caves, stopping to pluck a wineberry from a thorn bush and to perch on a rock in the leafy light, trying to detect an ancient presence.
The caves had transported me to a people and a way of life far removed from my own. But it wasn’t the one I was expecting. The air they gave off was less refreshing than spooky. It wasn’t just the flies. It wasn’t just the bread tags, toilet paper, dime bags, and discarded clothing I turned up among the leaf litter. The stories told in their buzzing, swarming, mineral breath were of stolen moments, illicit activities, homelessness, decay: the stories of desperation that lurk beneath so much of our city’s dappled light.