Encounter in the Cave

Cave entrances in red rock cliffs above some scraggly trees
“Encounter in the Cave”, 16in x 12in, acrylic on canvas

The warning was unmistakable, but came too late for us to turn back. “This doesn’t look good,” I said, slowing the car.

On the shoulder of the two-lane highway was one of those temporary signs the Department of Transportation puts up to caution passing motorists about road conditions, using a six-by-ten-foot array of lights that can spell out any message, as long as the message fits in three lines of eight letters each.

This one flashed:

Then after a few seconds it changed to:

We considered that for a moment as we drove past the sign.

“In the first place,” you said, “they misspelled ‘orc’.”

“Maybe it’s a local variant,” I suggested, “like how British and American words are slightly different. Or they’re using an old-style spelling, for that Gothic effect.”

“In the second place,” you continued, “orcs usually live in the hills, or in caves. Sometimes in hollow trees…”

“And we let one stay in our basement for a week that time his hole got flooded.”

“Right. But I’ve never heard of a road orc.”

“Well, bridge trolls live under bridges — that’s near roads. Maybe this orc sees a similar opportunity. We might have to pay him a toll to pass, which is why someone put up the sign — to warn drivers. Do we have any trinkets, or gold nuggets?”

You rummaged through your bag and shook your head. “Not even a souvenir spoon from Moqui Cave. Maybe he accepts cards.”

“Or maybe he’s just cleaning up a section of the road, participating in one of those Adopt-a-Highway things. He could be a civic-minded creature, picking up trash and stuff.”

“They don’t like to be called creatures.”

We discussed the entrepreneurial endeavors of orcs, trolls, and goblins, but couldn’t understand why anyone would set up shop on a poorly-traveled stretch of road like this. We hadn’t seen a single car, truck, or camper for miles. Hardly a profitable business location for someone who collects tolls for a living.

But we were especially worried about the elays, which are flying scavengers that follow orcs around and pick up the leavings after a hunt or battle. And if there’s a road orc about, we agreed, we should expect elays.

However, we didn’t see the road orc — ‘ork’ in the local spelling — just a lot of construction. The pavement in the opposite lane had been dug up and we drove slowly past a long line of orange reflective barrels that ran down the middle of the road.

“Perhaps we’re mistaken,” you said.

“No, look!” I hit the brakes and brought the car to a stop. 

In an excavated part of the road stood a damaged bulldozer, tipped at an awkward angle. Farther off, at the end of a freshly-made trench, lay a backhoe toppled on its side, as if it had been hurled with a mighty force that sent it plowing up the dirt until it came to rest thirty yards away. 

Nearby was a smaller piece of machinery, now just a mangled heap, one of those hand-held soil compactors that vibrate thousands of times a minute to tamp down dirt and pound material into the ground. Probably loud as hell with an engine that big, I thought. Other tools lay scattered near the road, apparently abandoned in haste.

There was not a soul about. An orange barrel rolled ominously across the pavement, like a tumbleweed in a Western movie, portending death in the desert.

I pulled onto the right shoulder and parked. We sat a moment in silence, then got out to have a look around.

“Someone had enough time to change that sign,” you said, “before…”

“Before the orc got him.”

“They’re usually not so violent. Unless he was upset by the construction.”

I pointed to the red rock cliffs rising above the hills about a mile from the road. “If he lives up there, I bet the noise disturbed him. They tend to sleep during the day.” He only did what a lot of us would like to do when heavy equipment is making a racket on our doorstep and we’re trying to nap.

I shrugged. “I’m sure the authorities will take care of—”

You spun to face me. “Do you think there’s anyone within a hundred miles that can talk to that orc? Besides us? You’d leave that poor cre— that gentle being in the hands of some yokels who’d try to arrest him?”

“They don’t like to be called yokels.”

“It’s Southern Utah,” you said. “And besides, there are small, struggling towns along here. If no one stops the orc, the road may have to be closed for good. Those communities will become ghost towns.”

It was my turn to act like a concerned, civic-minded creature. I walked over to where a worker’s yellow hard hat lay in the dirt and picked it up. A few other personal items were strewn in a trail that led toward the hills. “I guess we go this way,” I said. 

I put the hard hat on and adjusted it. You found a bright green safety vest, shook off the dust, and tried it on. We figured they made us look official so it wouldn’t hurt to wear them.

We headed across a grassy field, following a jumble of footprints left by the workers. We assumed they had been captured by the orc — dragged up to his cave as hostages or just to parley with. Not that they could understand his language, or vice versa.

Few humans know how to speak Rock, the primary language used by hill-dwelling citizens like orcs and trolls, and by those who live underground in close connection with the earth. You and I both had a fair grasp of Rock basics and could get along in situations that called for it, but I could never get the gravelly accent quite right, and it hurt my throat. 

“How do you say ‘peace’ in Rock?” I asked. “Is it this?” I uttered a sound like ho-ock.

“No. More like hah-och, I think.”

We reviewed some vocabulary and rehearsed a few things to say, like “Hello, friend” and “You have a lovely cave” and “Where can I park my horse and carriage?” That last one came from the least-useful phrasebook ever published.

We were making our way up a steep rise when we heard a piercing cry above. Three dark shapes swooped down on us.

“Elays!” you shouted. We ducked under a scraggly tree.

They had long scaly bodies with wide triangular wings that flapped and undulated like pectoral fins, flat and featherless. Their mouths were lined with sharp teeth. Deadly stingers on the tips of their snakelike tails whipped toward us as they flew in for the attack.

I broke off a dead branch and stood up to take a swing at an elay that came at me. I smacked it on its slick underbelly, making a squishy thwack. It tumbled briefly in the air, then regained its poise and hissed at me. All three of them backed away to hover a safe distance above, screeching to each other, probably planning their next assault.

That was our first encounter with the elays — or ‘eelays’ in an alternate spelling, since some people believe the name is a combination of eel and stingray. Linguistic scholars claim that’s just folk etymology, but now that we’ve seen the creatures — long writhing bodies with leathery, finlike wings and stinging tails — I think the folk are on to something.

“Well,” I said, crouching down next to you, “the sign warned us about them.”

“We must be getting close. The orc probably has a cave just up there.” You pointed to a ledge below the cliff face. “We’ll have to make a run for it.”

Sure. Sprint fifty yards up a steep, crumbly slope in the blazing sun while being attacked by flying killer beasts. I nodded. You armed yourself with a dry branch and a handful of stones. We stepped from under the tree and started our sprint, which lasted only seconds.

As soon as we were in the open, two elays darted at me and tried to bite my head, unable to tear through the plastic hard hat. I swung my branch at them and immediately lost my footing as my boots slipped on the scree and I slid back down several feet. You weren’t having it any easier. The third elay had clamped its jaw on your branch and nearly ripped it out of your hands before you shook it free.

We ran again, turned, and fought — swinging our weapons, beating the elays back for a moment — then we scrambled a little farther up the hill, until we had to stand our ground again to keep from getting bitten or stung from behind. 

“I thought they only feed on dead things,” I said during a pause, “like buzzards do.”

“Can’t believe everything you hear.”

“But I heard it from you.” 

You gave me a look of apology, then wheeled around to land a blow on an elay that was making a dive for your face. These things could take a lot of abuse and still come back for more.

In a series of skirmishes we made our way up the rest of the slope and reached the base of the rock cliff. We pulled ourselves up onto the ledge, which was several feet wide, and saw a cave entrance off to the right.

“There it is!” you said. We ran for it.

The elays anticipated our move and flew ahead of us, then banked around as if to protect the entrance. We met our attackers head on — flailing at them, prodding them, pushing them away — then we ducked under them and tumbled into the cave. 

We got to our feet, spun around, and raised our weapons. We expected the elays to follow, but they just settled on the ground and curled up outside the entrance, like dogs who aren’t allowed in the house but know to wait on the doorstep. Relieved, we set down our branches.

That’s when the orc grabbed us from behind.

He yelled something as he picked us up, one in each hand, and pinned us against the wall with a force that squeezed the breath out. My borrowed hard hat fell off and the orc kicked it away, then sneered at your bright green vest, muttering something in a scornful tone.

I couldn’t breathe, but whispered, “He thinks we’re construction workers.” Understandably, he had a bad attitude toward them.

“Got to talk to him.” You had no breath either. This would be tricky. It’s no use knowing someone’s language if he crushes the life out of you before you can get a word in.

But the orc released his grip and took a step back while we slumped against the wall and sucked air back into our lungs. He seemed ready to dismiss us as just a couple more unintelligible trespassers, when you managed to say a few words in Rock. I’m translating here.

“Friends,” you said. “We want to talk.”

That stopped him. He took a closer look at us, suspicious, then he offered a brief smile. “Yes. Friends. Maybe. Why are you here?” He pointed out the cave entrance in the direction of the road. “Why so much noise?” Then he pointed inside the cave. “Are you in their tribe?”

We looked into the shadows. Six construction workers huddled in a corner, watching us with looks of worry and hope. They didn’t seem to be tied up or bound in any way, yet they sat without moving. I suppose the orc was intimidating enough to keep someone where he put them, without the need for restraints.

“No, not with them,” you said, stripping off the vest. You rolled it up and tossed it toward the workers. I picked up the hard hat, then went over and handed it to one of them. “Here,” I said in standard English.

That made the orc feel kindlier toward us.

He formally invited us in and led the way. We had only been in the foyer, as evidenced by the coat rack and umbrella stand, which also held a mean-looking axe. You told the workers to stay put while we negotiated their release. They couldn’t get past the elay sentries anyway.

We followed our host through a low archway and into a larger part of the cave — a domed, high-ceilinged chamber, well-furnished with an assortment of chairs, tables, light fixtures, and shelves filled with glazed pottery and fluorescent minerals. It seemed to be the living room. To the right, down an arched hallway, was a second entrance that opened onto the ledge. The kitchen was straight ahead, and a tunnel off to the left led to the bedroom. A charming cliffside apartment.

“Sit,” he said, with a wave of his enormous arm. 

He was bulky and a bit taller than me, with reddish ocher skin and yellow eyes that gleamed when he smiled. His nose was rather flat, but he had no horns or protruding fangs, as some tales claim, and his brown hair was neatly trimmed, though a bit tousled. He wore leather breeches and a dark green shirt that laced up the front. His feet were bare and dusty, his hands tough and calloused, his fingernails mostly clean.

We sat on a bench while he pulled up a rustic-looking chair whose wood had been artfully twisted to form a solid structure, ornamented all over with delicate carvings. 

Our limited vocabulary made everyday pleasantries difficult. Still, we said how much we liked the cave and thanked him for his ‘house-welcome’ — the closest thing we could come up with for hospitality. He nodded and smiled at that.

I leaned over to you and whispered, “Do we ask his name, or tell him ours?” You whispered back, “He’d think we’re being too familiar.” Cave dwellers tend to like their privacy.

We got down to business. I’ll condense the conversation here, and make our Rock grammar sound better than it was.

You began. “We want peace between you and the road workers.”

He seemed to be waiting for more, so I said, “What bothered you? Why did you break the digging machines?”

He leaned back and presented his side of things.

“I go out at night, roam the hills, hunt for food, tend the trees. I sleep in the day to avoid the sun. It’s hard on the skin and eyes. But I cannot sleep with the noise they make,” he pointed toward the foyer where the workers sat. “That thumper-pounder is the worst. My bed shakes. I had to stop it.”

We could see how tired he was. He had been living with the construction noise for weeks before finally doing something about it. And he must be quite sensitive, being able to feel vibrations from the tamping equipment this far away.

He continued. “I don’t want to break their machines, just make them quiet.”

We sat a moment in contemplation and I heard a ticking sound. On the wall hung a clock correctly set to Mountain Daylight Time. I guess even orcs tell time by the local conventions. You pointed to it and asked, “What time do you wake up?”

“Five or six.” He meant in the afternoon.

“Is noise at night okay?” I asked. “After you wake up?” 

“Yes. Nighttime road-making does not bother me. And it scares away oyi-ochi, so I have better hunting.” I think he meant coyotes. My transcription of his word is a guess.

We made a plan and negotiated a compromise. We’d convince the construction crew to start work in the evening, and the orc would agree to leave them alone.

He thanked us for helping out, though never said he was sorry for slamming us against the wall earlier. Maybe that’s just the usual way of greeting strangers in his culture. I was glad we were friends now, though I worried that saying goodbye might involve a bone-crushing hug.

We went out to the foyer and addressed the crew. I told them, “You have a choice. You can set up some lights and work at night, make as much noise as you need to, and get your job done without interference. Or…”

I paused for dramatic effect. You took over and spelled out the alternative scenario.

Or you can keep working during the day, in which case the orc will keep breaking your equipment. You can try to stop him, call out the police or national guard, but then dozens more orcs will join him” — you were exaggerating — “and you’ll have a fight on your hands. The local Native American tribes will take the side of the orcs” — probably true — “and they’ll be joined by every environmentalist group around” — definitely true — “who will organize protests and roadblocks so you won’t get your work done anyway.”

It wasn’t a difficult choice. They decided to have the Department of Transportation change the schedule.

Everyone gathered on the doorstep and apologies were exchanged, with us translating between the workers and the orc. He even offered to pick up trash along the highway as penance for having damaged the equipment.

Speaking in Rock I told him, “Please make the elays stay here. They attacked us when we came up the hill.”

“Not an attack,” he replied, surprised. “They like to play.”

“That was playing?” I said, unconsciously switching to English. “The whole way up here?” I almost felt bad for having whacked them so hard, then realized they must think it’s part of the fun.

“Not a deadly sting then?” you asked.

“Not much. Hurts a little.” But he agreed to keep them from following us back down the hill. We in turn agreed to keep in touch, maybe visit sometime, and left in a group with the road crew. We were spared a goodbye hug.

At the car I asked, “Should we have told him the idea about collecting tolls?”

You gazed up toward the cliff, then squinted at the sun. “No. A day job would cramp his lifestyle.”