The silence inside sandstone

The silence inside sandstone intrigues me. We have squeezed our way in, through a sideways split on the shore 10 or 12 feet back. It takes all of my inner-strength to persuade myself not to panic. It’s safe. It feels safe, in the sense that this cave has been here for hundreds if not thousands of years and is unlikely to change suddenly and trap us now. No loose rock, no ceiling to fall, just a narrow vertical opening large enough for a small adult to side-step through. It was likely a natural layer-break in heavily-tilted sandstone, though I don’t remember the outer landscape clearly now.

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I’m relieved when we enter a wider space and can stretch out our arms a little. I look down and in the torch light I’m glittering, covered in tiny sand crystals brushed from the cave walls. Time feels different in here. It could be day, night, winter, summer; these sand grains – laid down when Scotland was part of a vast semi-arid, mountainous landscape – were deposited in the bottom of a lake, Lake Orcadie, that extended periodically for kilometres across what is now Morayshire and Caithness, sometimes reaching as far north as Orkney and Shetland. Covered in sand-grains hundreds of millions of years old; grains that ancient fish shoals would have swum around in, hidden in, died in. And before that? How did their original crystal structures form? How far around the world had they travelled to land on my sleeve, here, now?

The torch illuminates a dark red, womb-like space before flickering and going out, and hush settles as we stop trying to examine our sensations in speech. The dark is soft, calming, all-consuming. Again, I get the feeling of extensions of time both within and around me. The only light is a glimmer at floor level, stemming from the entrance to the cave. The rock presses inwards, encasing me momentarily as though I’m to be fossilised. I wonder why I’m comforted rather than frightened by this thought.

I had been cautious outside, blue sky above and curlews calling, wondering why I would want to slip away into the rock’s interior. I was sure of claustrophobia; I could feel it taking shape around me, shadowing me even in sunshine. I didn’t really comprehend why I was now at peace, at home in the silence of sandstone.

I kneel, tilt my head to the sandy base of the cave to look out. It could be feasible that centuries have passed; I could step back out into the distant future or a past before human footfall. I forget you’re there with me and wander off in my mind, examining what these alternate future spaces might hold.

You break into my thoughts with a story of childhood, of hiding in the cave from your parents because you didn’t want to leave the bay to return home. As we move through millions of years’ worth of sand crystals to resurface into light and air, I consider doing the same. Returning to hide out, to remove myself from time entirely, to be encapsulated.

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