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The Heart Below

Long tunnel going underground

Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

I’ve always had a thing for places “off limits”. You know, “off limits”, like areas us regular civilians are advised to stay clear of. Growing up, there was this patch of land, just outside the tree line to my favorite park. It was empty and no one lived there but it was surrounded by a tall fence and at least a half dozen signs that screamed in bold lettering, “NO TRESPASSING”.  

As a kid, I never really got the point of all that. Like, what’s so important about an empty lot of dirt? Were they afraid someone was going to steal their muddy grass? It was as though they were saying this private patch of nothing was too good for me. Well, I’d prove them wrong. 

I felt pride as I climbed that fence, like I was a rebel, leading a revolution. When I landed my feet on the other side, it was like I landed a ship onto a new continent. I wasn’t a trespasser, I was an explorer

It started with that dirt lot. Then it was a former junkyard, then a vacant motel, and then an abandoned hospital. The more I crossed that forbidden line the easier it got. But then there always had to be a challenge. A “what’s next”, you know? 

I guess that’s how I got into caves. 

I never really questioned it. It seemed like the next logical leap. What other place is locked away from society, hidden from view, than a literal hole into darkness? I guess describing it that way makes it sound terrifying, but I wasn’t terrified at all. In fact, I was rather excited. 

I started spelunking (or cave diving) when I was sixteen. My first go around wasn’t anything serious. The “cave” was more or less a hole in the ground with a few passageways. I am as I was then, a novice when it comes to cave exploration, so forgive me if the way I describe these things is a bit plain. 

Despite my inexperience I was gung-ho to squeeze my way into any natural crevice I could find. Claustrophobia was never a problem for me, and I guess the thrill of discovery always outweighed the fear of being physically entombed. That said, I wasn’t an idiot. I brought along all the necessary supplies: lights, helmet, rope, and extra food and water if needed. I may not have been as equipped as your expert cave diver, but I wasn’t traversing the most complicated cave systems either. Remember, I was only interested in “off limits” not “abandon all hope ye who enter here”. 

So, I guess you’re wondering, why am I telling you all this? Well, it was this newfound hobby into caves which led me… somewhere no one should ever go. And listen, I’m sorry, but I’m going to be vague and use some fake names. As much as I would like someone to vet my story, I don’t want anyone else going down that hell hole. 

This was recent. So, it’s not like I’m misremembering things. I’m in my mid-twenties now so I at least have had some experience with caves to know the difference between what’s normal and what’s totally screwed up. And this cave… well you can guess which one it was. 

Let’s call it “The Gold Mine”. It was a mine, after all. I heard about The Gold Mine online.  People said it was a one-stop-shop for all cave divers looking for a true “off-the-beaten-track”  experience. The only caveat? It was technically “off limits” to the public. Sounds like a double win for me, right?

Well, I did some research on the Gold Mine. I won’t tell you where it was but let’s just say it was far away from my hometown. So, I wanted to make sure I was read up on my history before I made the full voyage. 

The Gold Mine, as I said, was a mining site. Built in the early 1890’s, the miners first came to the area with plans to carve out the entire landscape. However, they were met with fierce resistance from the indigenous people. The locals adamantly proclaimed the miners were consuming “The Heart of The Land”. In true human indifference, the miners ignored the locals and carried on with their work. However, three years later, the miners suddenly packed up and left. Some sources claimed they left after stripping the mine clean of its valuable resources. Others say they fled after a series of supernatural occurrences. Regardless of how you try to spin it, the story is, it’s an old, abandoned mine. 

I gathered from a few people that the Gold Mine was fairly easy to traverse on the upper levels. It was once you reached the first cave-in that things became “rocky”. Literally. If you wanted to go any further than that you would have to be very comfortable with tight spaces. Which was no problem for me. 

I packed my bags, saddled up, and made the trek to a town nearby. Once I was set up in a bed and breakfast, I waited till it was dark before making the final hike towards the mine. I went at night because I was worried someone might catch me if I went during the day. 

The entrance to the Gold Mine was placed along the incline of a hill. Even with pictures and google maps to guide me, it was a solid half an hour before I found anything resembling the infamous mine. But, buried behind a mountain of underbrush, my flashlight caught the reflection of dull metal. I pulled away at the bush that had consumed a rusty sign. Though most of the paint was peeled off, I could fill in the words “DO NOT ENTER” atop a large “X” symbol.

Flashing my light around, I searched for the nearby entrance. Sure enough, there, hidden around a pair of fallen trees, was a boarded-up wall. Most of the boards were gone while the rest were rotted thin and falling apart. The only functioning barrier was another dangling sign that read 

“STAY OUT”. 

I peered inside and I could feel a cool, whispering breeze escaping the mine. The tunnel stretched down, further than my light could reach and curved like a snake’s throat. I scanned my  

surroundings for any witnesses before lifting the sign over my head and climbing inside. 

As I first stepped into the mine, it was like being submerged in water. An overbearing silence muffled the outside world but, from the inside, magnified even the slightest sound. My footsteps echoed along the walls and were carried by the silent breath of the tunnel. 

Graffiti plastered the walls like a high school yearbook. Spray painted everywhere were signatures, symbols, and phrases such as, “Go where the going takes you” and “F- Jerry, I F-ed his mom”. It was all very typical of a highway restroom. 

More of the same graffiti led further down the tunnel. 

The rocky ceiling was only seven feet tall and held up by a row of wooden pillars. Even though they were there as “support”, I was wary of the ancient logs. Their groaning was a constant reminder that a mountain of earth weighed above my head. 

But, that’s why you bring a helmet. I had a headlamp on mine, so navigating the dark wasn’t too hard, especially while the mine only kept to one direction. As the curving path went down, it turned at a slight angle, like the bend of a staircase. About this time, smaller, narrower passages popped up. I kept to the main tunnel, ignoring the offshoots which looked more fragile than a house of cards. 

After a while, the tunnel started to shrink like that scene from the old Willy Wonka movie,  the one where the hallway got smaller and smaller. While balancing myself on uneven ground, I had to duck my head from hitting some of the wooden supports. One of which, I bumped on accident, which caused the rocks above me to grumble. I had to hold down my heart just to keep it from jumping out of my chest. 

A little ways further and there was the first cave in. The ceiling had collapsed on one side, leaving only a narrow crevice on the other. Around here more of the graffiti read like a  cheesy horror novel. “YOUR GOING TO DIE” (with a misspelt “you’re”) was written on one wall alongside “GHOSTS ARE REAL”. On another wall, a huge message was scrawled in thick, black paint. It read, “THE HEART IS DEAD”. 

At the time, I was more interested in how to get through the wall than what was on it.  The crevice, I found out, was too narrow for me to squeeze through with my helmet on. Anyone with a bit of sense might have called it there and gone home but that wasn’t me. Instead, I took off my helmet and carried it by my side. 

I took a deep breath, sucking in my chest, and shimmied sideways into the hole. I don’t know how familiar you are with caves. Maybe when you think of “tight spaces” you picture crawling around in one of those playplaces with tubes and slides. But that’s nothing close to being underground. Having rocks pressed around you, it’s like being stuck between two mattresses. It’s this feeling that no matter where you move, gravity is always weighing on you from every side. Sometimes there’s not enough room to breathe. You try but your chest is too tight. It can’t expand. You just have to hold it out and fight your way through until finally… you make it out. 

I climbed out of the crevice. It was maybe only six feet long, but down where it’s dark and you’re alone, six feet can feel like a mile.  

The other side of the tunnel was in ruins. And it’s hard for me to describe just how bad it was but there’s this video on the internet of someone throwing a brick inside a washing machine. If you can picture that then you can get the gist of the damage. Most of the supports were shattered, buried under giant chunks of rock. 

Every step I took had to be planned. The way some rocks were leaning against each other, I was crawling under a leaning tower of stones. After probably a half hour of this, I  reached a dead end. The main tunnel was completely buried in dirt but there was one of the side passageways that led a bit further. 

I thought to myself, “What the hell. I came this far. Why not a little bit more?”  With some more shimmying I followed the new path off to the side. It didn’t go far but turned into an open space. Now, I’m no mining expert, but it looked like it might have been a  safe room or an area where extra supplies were stored. Here, most of the walls held firm and for once I could stand straight without my head bumping the ceiling.  

Heaps of junk were thrown about the room. There were old boards stacked against a  wall, a metal chain piled beside the other, and a couple of tin pails scattered around. Out of interest I searched through the pails, seeing if I might find a souvenir. While rummaging through,  I happened upon more graffiti. It was written above the wooden boards, in that same thick,  black paint as I’d seen before.  

This time, the message read, “DO NOT GO DOWN”… 

I stared at the words, looking dumb. Beside the path I came from, I didn’t see any other passageways. Except, then, I looked down. Under the heap of wood, I saw that some of the dirt was dug out. I moved the boards and found that, corner to the wall, there was a hole. 

It was hard to tell but it looked like it fell down into a room below me. I tried shining a  light and it looked like, if I tried, I could easily hoist myself down. I gave one look back at the message which seemed to taunt me and, in that moment, made the stupid decision to go down. 

Slowly, I tried lowering myself over the ledge. I got about waist deep inside of the hole when, finally, karma struck.  

Suddenly, the whole floor cracked and crumbled. And all at once, I was falling down a  waterfall of stone. 

I thought I was dead, for a moment, until the dust and debris started to settle. By some fortune I was still okay even as pieces of the previous room laid on top of me. However, the headlamp on my helmet was crushed and my backpack, which I had been holding onto, was now completely buried under the rubble. Somehow, my phone was still functioning. It wasn’t like  I could call for help but I at least had a light source. 

After I dug myself out from the fall I looked around. At this point, I realized I had misjudged the depth of the hole with the floor above me well out of reach. As for the “room” I’d fallen into, I found it wasn’t a room at all. It appeared to be more of the mining tunnels except it lacked any of the wooden supports. I wondered if maybe, further ahead, the mine looped back to one of the side passages. Seeing it as my only option, I started to scout out the tunnel. On the upside, the lower tunnel was fairly spacious. But, down here, there was something to the dark that made me feel… constricted. It would be wrong to say the tunnel was  “devoid of light”. It was more like the tunnel was full of shadows. And listen, maybe I was just rattled due to the fall or maybe the weak glow of my phone was playing tricks on me, but I  couldn’t shake this idea that some of the walls looked… off

It was like the tunnel was covered in layers of plastic wrap, with the soil and rocks shrugging off my light in a murky sheen. I don’t know why but it left me feeling nauseous. I  quickly found it was easier to stare at nothing than focus on the slimy stone. 

On top of what I was seeing, there was this faint smell. Now, I know how a cave is supposed to smell- it’s a kind of musty, muddy scent. But this was different. It was almost like an empty, wet dumpster. The smell was coming from all around me, which had me worried I  was inhaling toxic fumes. I mean, that’s a big rule when it comes to caves. You do not want to be breathing bad air. But I didn’t have the luxury of turning around and “going back”. I could still breath and, other than the rancid taste it sometimes left on my tongue, the damp, spoiled smell was durable. 

The path stretched on, further and further. Oddly, other than the tunnel itself, I hadn’t found a single sign of previous exploration. No mining equipment, no beams or pillars, not even any graffiti. Though, something told me paint would just slide off the wet stone.

I considered the thought that maybe the mine was attached to a natural cave. It was hard to believe, though, since the tunnel was so uniform. Every so often, I came across a split in the path. Unlike the narrow passageways from before, these were about the same size as the main tunnel and branched off almost naturally, like a river bed. I was left mostly to guess which path to take but would stop to listen for clues. 

Every so often there was this sound that echoed. It was difficult to discern but whispered like a low wind. It gave me hope that there was an exit and led me through the winding tunnel with growing confidence. Following this noise, the path even started to tilt, ascending upwards at a steady angle. 

I don’t remember when but at some point I noticed the tunnel was hung with these small white stalactites. Their milky white bodies poked out from the black ceiling like pimples. As I  climbed, I carefully had to duck my head around them.  

While maneuvering around one cluster of these rocks, I was forced closer to the wall. I  had avoided the sleek stone since falling down but now that I was beside it, I tried grappling the wall for some balance.  

Except, when I touched it, the wall moved.  

I instantly jumped back and watched as the indentation left by my hand shrunk then disappeared. Even though its spongy surface quickly forgot my touch, I can still remember its fleshy texture

It was then that I painfully realized the faint dip in my step. Wherever I stood, the floor sank an inch. And it wasn’t like stepping in mud. This was more solid, more organic. I began to understand that the whole tunnel was like skin. This was about the same time when I caught a  whiff of that horrible, rotting stench. That stench which seemed to be all around me.  It was coming from the walls…  

More than ever now, I wanted to get out

Throwing caution to the wind, I moved quickly, avoiding the walls whenever I could. Yet, I  couldn’t escape the squishing, wet earth that stuck to my shoes. Moving faster, the floor slobbered under my weight like a sticky pool of blood. 

The sound was closer now, just ahead of me. I barely had time to question its infrequent buzzing when… I saw it… 

At the edge of my light, there was the outline of an odd, white shape. My mind raced to rationalize what I was seeing, this alien thing. In a matter of seconds, I thought it was a soccer ball, a drone, a pelican- hell, even its pale, porcelain body resembled something like a bathtub.  And I know that doesn’t make sense but when do our minds ever make sense when trying to recognize something new? But then it skittered up the wall, twitched its back, and buzzed its wings. I now saw its six spindly legs and finally my mind landed on the image of a fly.

Whether it was an actual fly, I have no idea. People talk about prehistoric insects and how massive they were- maybe it was one of those. Whatever it was, it was huge, the size of an eagle at least. 

I held my breath as it fluttered its wings. Suddenly, it spasmed and spun around. As I  held my light, I was sure it saw me, but it made no move. Seemingly unaware of me, the fly crawled around, probing the tunnel with its long proboscis. I realized then that it had no eyes. Its rigid skull was covered in curves and where a fly should possess bulbous globes, this “thing”  had but two smooth indents. 

illustration of large moth on a cave wall
Created by Danny Ingrassia

I watched as it blindly crawled in the dark, then paused. From its long mouth, a barbed tongue poked its tail then struck at the wall. The whiplash released a drooling, wet blow before sliding back into its mouth. It did this again and again, cutting deeper into the rotten surface, until the wall began to bleed a sickly, black pus. Then, the insect fully retracted its tongue and started to suck the ichor from the wound. 

It was distracted. 

I tried taking a step back, but the fleshy floor dribbled a wet noise. The bug raised its bulky head and flicked its tongue through the air. But that’s when I sprung up a plan. Holding still, I removed my helmet and waited for the bug to crawl closer. As it reared its head a second time, I threw it down the tunnel behind me. The rattling crash echoed through the tunnel and the bug flew off like a jet in its direction. 

Taking my shot, I bolted up the tunnel. Even if there wasn’t any wind, I knew my chances of escaping this mine were only worse going down. I had about a twenty second head start before a loud buzzing was gaining on me.  

The tunnel was turning steep but looking up I saw hope, a wooden abutment, like the ones in the mine. On all fours, I began climbing the slimy rock. I dug my hands into it, and it was like handling raw meat. Struggling to climb while holding my phone, I reached for one of the pale white stalactites. I grabbed it and as I did it squirmed. My weight pulled it from the ceiling like a  loose splinter and I lost control, stumbling down. In my hand, the stalactite still writhed.

It wasn’t a rock. It was a maggot. 

I flung it and scrambled for my only light source. No sooner did a helicopter sound slam into me. The pale fly latched onto my head, thrashing and pulling with its chaotic wings. Its face was so close to mine that I could see through its translucent skin down to its pusy-yellow organs. I tried throwing it off, but it wriggled free and around my torso. 

In a flash, its tongue shot into my shoulder, igniting a scorching pain across my chest. I  could barely hold onto the creature as it whipped the stinging javelin past my ear. All six of its legs wrestled for hold while wings gave it balance. I was outmatched in the darkness in every way except for size. That’s when an idea ran through my head, a last-ditch, desperate move. 

Using my whole body, I pitched my weight over the fly and dropped to the ground.

The fly exploded, popping like a water balloon full of putrid yellow sludge.

Wings rattled with severed nerves and its broken legs twitched but barely. I waited to make sure it was dead, until the reek of raw guts poisoned my nose. Gagging and pulling myself up, strings of gore clung to my chest like melted cheese. I had never wanted a shower more in my entire life. 

I grabbed my phone and, with my one good shoulder, slowly mounted the steep tunnel.

The rest isn’t worth much explaining. The tunnel led back to the mine, down one of the side paths, and finally to the entrance. I made it out.  

I escaped and I got healed up. The cut in my shoulder wasn’t too bad. Doctor said it would leave a scar but would heal after a week or two. I made up a story about falling down a cave onto some rocks. There was a hefty fine that came with entering the Gold Mine, so I didn’t have any intention in sharing the truth. Besides, who would believe me? 

I’ve had a few months to think about what I saw down there, but this is the first time I’m talking about it. And you know, I’ve tried to find some “normal” explanation, but you don’t get many search results for “fleshy mine filled with giant bugs”. And the most recent stuff I can find on the Gold Mine only goes back to the early 1900’s when a missing caver disappeared after reportedly going inside.  

But there was a lot that came before about the locals that lived there and their dispute with the miners. So many times, they referenced “Nature’s Lifeblood” or “The Heart of The  Land”. I thought about the lower tunnels, their fleshy walls and rotten smell, how they were almost formed like veins… And then I thought about the maggots and how flies are always drawn to dead things… 

“THE HEART IS DEAD,” that’s what someone wrote. 

I don’t know what those minors were looking for. But whatever was down there, I think it was alive. It was alive and they killed it. Now, all that’s left is rotting in the ground… Listen, I don’t care if you believe me or not. If I did, I would have told you my name. But please, if you ever find a mine with a sign that reads “STAY OUT” … 

Just do as it says…