Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Scarlet Saves The Day

After my adventure with the Porpische, Scarlet and I spent several days enjoying the hospitality aboard The Oceanographer's science yacht. Such meals! Would that I could afford a world-class chef to accompany me on my journeys...

But duty calls. Three days ago we received word from a contact in India that something peculiar had been sighted in a newly discovered deep cave system. What a stroke of luck then that one of The Oceanographer's Indian interns was just about to return home! We said our goodbyes, boarded another helicopter, and a few hours later found ourselves on the tarmac in Calcutta.

My friend Himmat is an environmental activist. Contrary to what readers in the USA may be thinking, this has actually made him quite a popular man. He has spent the past 30 years going to mining communities -- often operated by foreign interests -- documenting the harm that has been done to the land and human health, organizing the workers to improve conditions. One of the miners he worked with ten years ago gave him the tip that set our adventure in motion.


The Miner is a foreman at the coal mine where he works, so he had no trouble smuggling us into the operation after-hours the next night. With Himmat, Scarlet, and myself close behind, he led us down through low black corridors, deep into the earth.

The Indian state of Meghalaya is famous for having a huge number of caves -- few of which have been adequately explored yet. A new side passage toward the bottom of the mine had accidentally broken into one of these caverns. Where (or even if) it opens up on the surface is as yet unknown.

Only The Miner had gone through to the other side, so far. What he'd seen there -- something fast and shiny -- had disappeared too quickly for him to get a good look. Whatever it was, though, it was unlike anything he'd ever seen before. He seemed tense, concerned about what threat an unknown animal down there might pose to his men.

Scarlet, on the other hand, seemed completely at ease. As ever, her jokes were relentless... Jokes about Santa Claus gathering coal for stockings. Jokes about canaries in coal mines. Singing: "girlfriend in a coal mine, I know, I know, it's seeeerious..." I was just about at wit's end.

Himmat gave up trying to translate her before we'd gotten even three levels down.


One-by-one we crawled through a small hole in the wall. Ten feet crawling on our bellies -- and then it opened into large, wet room the size of an opera house.

Despite having brought some powerful lamps with us, it was difficult to see how far the cave extended. We decided to forge onward and get a sense of the place.

Caves are not like human-made tunnels. There are massive stone hills to go over or around; there are chasms hundreds of feet deep to avoid; progress is slow and dangerous. Thus, we all felt a great deal of relief when, after perhaps two hours, we finally came to a smooth patch.

It was almost like a subterranean street. From what we could tell, we were walking a path carved out by a river thousands of years ago. Clearly it had been wide and powerful in the past -- but now, only a small stream remained. Spirits renewed, we quickened our pace.

Leaving the "opera house," we traveled through perhaps a mile of smooth, curving passages. Sometimes we had to duck down, when the ceiling was a mere four feet high -- at other times, we walked comfortably upright, the ceiling 20 feet above.

Then we reached the end of the line: a sheer cliff, dropping fifty feet down into a great underground lake. Our companion, the small stream, leapt from the ledge, and we could hear the distant impact of it joining the water below.

The lake room swallowed our light. There was no way to gauge how far back it went. So, with nothing else to do, we turned around and started back toward the entrance.


Scarlet was the first to sight the creature. She stopped and pointed to a shadow moving up ahead. We shined our lights on it...

Two feet tall, it looked like a sort of red jellyfish, standing upright on four tentacle legs. It had two small eyes on stalks -- which twitched from side to side, apparently irritated by the light. It stayed its ground -- and began growling furiously at us.

"It's so cute!" Scarlet exclaimed.

Then, a squirting sound. Dozens of these creatures are popping out of narrow cracks in the walls, heeding the warning cry of the one we've startled. Almost immediately we're surrounded.

Sixty-odd jellys are in the corridor encircling us. Every one of them growling. I'm thinking about what I know of poison jellyfish stings, and how many miles it must be to the closest hospital -- after getting past the boulders and chasms back in the "opera house."

Scarlet, on the other hand, is laughing her head off.


"Well arnchoo just the most vicious little squidlets?"

"Arnchoo! Arnchoo!"

The creatures go deathly quiet. They look just about ready to pounce...

And then Scarlet starts singing:

"You better run, you better hide
We gotta keep you out of sight
Be careful Sigmund.

The other monsters put you down
cause you're not mean
And now we've found
A friend in Sigmund.

Who ever heard of a friendly sea monster
Lovin' and laughin' his life away?"

It's unbelievable... But the beasts seem to like it! The first one that spotted us -- it's tapping its foot against the floor. And then the whole lot of them, they're -- there's no other word for it -- dancing!

The whole room full of "vicious squidlets" is dancing, spiraling around each other rhythmically. In fact, there's one pattern of moves I'd swear is the "Do-Si-Do"...


I point back down the tunnel, and Scarlet gets my drift. She continues singing the theme song from "Sigmund and the Sea Monsters" over and over again -- and begins edging toward the underground lake.

The creatures follow!

Just like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, she leads the whole crowd of creatures back to the lake -- even more of them joining us along the way. And then she just stands at the edge of the precipice, singing her lungs out... And the beasts happily throw themselves over the side, down into the water.

Keeping my wits about me, I captured the entire spectacle at the lake on film. The last of them goes in -- and with great relief, we head back for the entrance.


Himmat, Scarlet and I part ways with The Miner at the facility's gates.

Himmat drives us back to his house, two towns over, where we can discuss next actions and catch some much needed shut-eye... Although, we were all so excited from the night's events, it was several hours before any of us could let go of the conversation. A new species! Other scientists must be brought in!

Given her role in this matter, I think it's only fair that Scarlet gets to name the creatures. And I will stand by that decision... Even though I do wish that she could have chosen a more dignified, scientific-sounding name. "Grrrhearts?"

"Because they're all... GRRRRR!! But then you realize that they're just a bunch of sweethearts!"

This is her explanation.

Well, she and I are clearly not cut from the same cloth -- but all the same, I'm beginning to think she has it in her to become a fine Monster Hunter after all.


Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the three of us, The Miner had other plans. It seems he was much more shook up by the experience than we'd realized. His only concern had ever been for protecting his men... Even if the creatures could be successfully pacified, he figured, their existence must surely lead to the mine being shut down and jobs lost.

After we left, he went back down to the cavern entrance with explosives and collapsed the whole area.

It's likely that the Grrrhearts, which lived much farther down the passage, are unharmed... But it looks like we won't be able to get back to them any time soon.

1 comment:

gl. said...

all right, scarlet! that's a great story. i really admire her! someday you'll have to tell the story of how you two started working together, professor.