One creature's cave is another's castle

Picture yourself in Africa, in Kenya. In a jungle that surrounds an extinct volcano. A jungle with large monkeys that have long black hair and tails like a skunk, only the monkeys are much, much larger than skunks. They have small, unhappy faces with cat-sharp teeth.

They see us, and then swing swiftly away, the tips of their long tails whooshing like wind.

The jungle is dark and wild. Elephant droppings as large as loaves of bread lie in the road. We keep going in our broken-down truck. We really wish to see elephants, but we don't. We only hear the windy sound of monkeys moving in the crowns of the trees, where they live. They never come down.

Up in the jungle are three caves. A scary rumor is associated with the largest one. We discuss this. Perhaps we should not go see the caves.

We go. Up through the jungle we hike.

The cave is like a mouth about to speak. It's like a grandfather's mouth, a little bit upside down. It is wide and narrow; it is not the way I pictured a cave's opening to be (round, like a big door). We duck inside.

And we blink. Ashy bat guano layers the cave floor, which extends farther than my eyes can see, like a hole with no end. Deep and dark.

We keep blinking. The long light of day lies sideways against the mouth of the cave that has swallowed us. We don't dare go too far inside. The floor is too stinky, too sink-y; the dark is blacker than the inside of a closed eye.

We blink and creep along near the light of the opening. Slowly the black above me forms into thousands upon thousands of bats, like oak leaves hanging in stacks, twittering in a language I've never heard, so at first I don't notice them.

The bats flutter, sensing us in their dreams. The sight of so many teeny, alien creatures makes me want to scream. Their numbers are both horrifying and amazing, like millions of ants discovered in your cupboard.

Black, oily pools bubble. Along their edges is a rotting mold, like bread gone bad.

What are we doing in a cave that is surely unhealthy? What if the bats, with their sharp little mouths, decide to swoop and tangle in my hair? Are hungry animals that we cannot see sniffing our meaty scent?

The cave is chilly. The light of the opening with the jungle vines hanging down seems far away. A smell burns my nose like bleach.

But we've come all this way. I gather up the explorer in me, a much tinier part of me than I thought, and creep along, looking nervously at the darkness of bats.

I creep, stop, and listen in this place of dark chill, rotten water, and critters that don't like me as much as I don't like them. I'm sure that hungry leopards are about to jump out.

As I step stiffly along in the dark, I find elephant dung here and there. Big gentle elephants were here.

I picture the huge elephants standing together, snoozing and nuzzling their babies in their wrinkled skins. I picture them pushing their wide circular feet into the comfortable softness of the floor. I picture them sipping the wild soda of the pools. I picture their eyes wisely watching day turn to dusk, so they can lumber out without being seen by any poachers.

I was walking on their path! This alien cave is their home!

A comfy, cool place. I look around the way an elephant might, and the pools I thought were so gross are actually rimmed with the most bizarre colors: brilliant lime and lemon, neon orange, and vivid fuchsias and blues.

What else and who else lives on this planet with me? With whom am I sharing my home - and who is sharing theirs with me?

I blink and stand, open not to the light beyond the mouth of the cave, but to the light of wanting to see, wanting to know, with the bats fluttering in a thousand dreams above me.

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