"I don't know who broke our butterfly," Brandy tells us, "but when they find him, just hand him over to me, and I'll break his legs."
We're 150 feet underground. The air is damp, 85 degrees. The light is artificial. Brandy's cheeks are warm and flushed.
Sometimes, you need to go down to go up. I'd visited the Caverns of Sonora when I was twelve, but hardly remembered them. As a college student hitchhiking to California, my husband, standing here in the warm, wet light beside me, had once gotten as far as the cavern entrance, but didn't have enough money to go in. In those days, the cave was a small, family-run affair; it's still a family affair, and the same family still owns the place, but now there is a gleaming Visitors Center, and a campground with RV hookups, and a parking lot big enough to attract tour buses.
Yet on this deep, dead-of-winter day, we are the only ones in line.
Before we can go in and down, our guide Brandy has to take a call from her daughter's elementary school.
"Sorry," she blushes (she's blond and small and doesn't look much more than a kid herself). "Your child starts coughing, and right away they want to send her home with swine flu. I really feel bad you had to wait. But once we're down in the cave, we're completely cut off from everything." She smiles, her long lashes like wings.
She seals the air-tight door behind us, and we begin heading down toward the two miles of open cavern network. In less than a minute we're in another world. We've stepped and slipped into a plane of jewels. The Caverns of Sonora, Texas make Carlsbad look like an abandoned strip mine. Here, everything is so close, and so beautiful, it takes all you have not to touch it to make sure it, and you, are real.
Brandy is teaching us the names of the formations we're seeing as we go along: popcorn stone, flowstone, cave coral, cave drapery, columns, dogtooth spar, quartzes, soda straws, stalactites, stalagmites, helactites. Geodes "bake" like crystal-packed muffins on the walls.
"Now, all of this grows at a rate of one centimeter per 10,000 years," she tells us as we pass a huge column growing out of the floor, close to touching its twin descending from the ceiling. Called the "Kissing Column," the two formations are--yes--a mere centimeter apart.
My husband, who loves to talk to people and ask questions:
"So . . . do you like doing this for your job, Brandy?"
"I LOVE it! I love both things I do. I guide in the morning, and then I go to nursing sch00l in San Angelo at night. And then I practice my anatomy down here." She points to metacarpals of flowstone, brachial tubes of coral, helactites in the shape of mandibles. She also directs our attention to formations that look like bacon and pork chops. She savors the work.
My husband, ever interested in the consequences of actions over time, asks: "But if you like it so much, what will you do when you're all done with nursing school?"
"I don't know," Brandy grimaces, and switches off the lights. All through the cave, she's been turning the lights on and off as we go, so that what lies in front of us always remains in darkness, and what lies behind us is in darkness, and the only place illuminated is the place where we stand. "I don't want to think about that right now. Ask me later."
We pass signs of damage, places where tourists, unable to keep from reaching, have blackened the calcium walls with human oil. We pass through chambers of pure, undamaged white to reach Horseshoe Pond, an emerald lake surrounded by a halo of pearls. The water is so clear it hurts to look at it.
"This is my favorite room," Brandy says.
"Mine too," my husband nods.
At the deepest point in the cavern, Brandy turns off all the lights so we can appreciate the total blackness of its natural state. She informs us that if we stayed down like this for two weeks, we would start to go blind. "The retina starts to decay," she says matter-of-factly. Then she puts the lights on again. "Okay, so now I'm going to take you to see the butterfly--sad as that is."
The butterfly was once the glory, the pride and the emblem of the Caverns of Sonora. I remembered seeing it when I was twelve, so small and amber-colored and perfect, a marvel of accident. But a vandal had since broken off one of its translucent wings, probably while trying to steal it. It was a two-man operation: during a tour of more than thirty people, a "plant" at the head of the tour had distracted the guide, while a man at the back hopped the railing, attacked, and stuck the piece in his pocket. The damage wasn't discovered until the next tour came through.
"And then we cried." Brandy lowers her eyes. "All of us who work here cried and cried and cried and cried. It was horrible. They did end up figuring out who it was. From his credit card. He has a history. The Texas Rangers are still after him. But so far no luck. Anyway we don't do big tours anymore. No more."
The mood turns somber--but no sooner has Brandy turned the lights around us off and on again than she beats her long lashes and goes back to smiling and guiding. There is so much to SEE down here, after all, she says. Maybe we would discover something else just as beautiful. Maybe SHE would. There were seven miles of cave, total. She was always looking, among the thousands of formations, for the next butterfly.
As we begin to emerge from the depths, my husband asks Brandy what kind of nurse she would like to be.