The Cave Where Your Father Dies
by Sam Martone
This is not the cave where you find the man trapped, where you move the boulder off his leg to save him. This is not the cave where magma molts from the walls, scorches your feet if you make a wrong step. This is not the cave where, hidden behind a waterfall, you find a suit of armor that smells of sulfur, that will protect your heart. This is the cave where a man holds a scythe at your throat. This is the cave where two men attack your father. This is the cave where your father will die. This is the cave where your father died. This is the cave where your father dies, the cave where your father is dying, where you can do nothing to save him, where he is in a state of almost-death, always. In your dreams, your father is safe at home with your mother, who you’ve always known. In your dreams, your father is writing you a postcard, a photograph of ruins on the front. These ruins. Crumbling pillars crumbling. Cracked pedestals cracking. Your father faltering, falling to his knees in this, the cave where he will die, where he has died, where he is dying as you watch, unable to move. Maybe you thought there would be a choice you could make. Maybe you thought if you rushed past every treasure chest, ran from every fight, you would make it out in time. Or maybe you thought if you found every hidden artifact, cut open the chest of every slain beast, you would find an object that would save him, an item you could use now, now, now. Or maybe you remembered the way all the other beginnings began and considered yourself lucky: for having someone, for not being alone, not just yet, though you must have known the day would come, that this cave would come, these ruins, a postcard with last words scrawled across the back. There is a scythe at your throat. There are men striking your father in the face, in the gut. There is nothing he can do but endure until he can’t. Do not think about how your being here is the cause of his undoing. It will not change anything. Memorize the faces of your father’s murderers, though know that as you grow older, they will transform, your mind will mutate them into horrific masks: a horse’s sneering muzzle, a hog’s gnarled tusks, the tongue and skin of something cold-blooded and reptilian. There is nothing you can do to stop this: a fierce fire will turn your father into smoke. A golden orb will be shattered. A purple fog will surround you, transport you away from here, this place, these ruins, this cave where your father dies. But before all this, your father will tell you what he has been searching for, in all the caves and castles and rivers of the world. Not an indestructible sword, not a necklace too heavy for the wearer to remove, not a collection of miniature medals to deliver to a manic medal-collecting king. He has been searching for the woman he loves. He has been searching for your mother. In your dreams, you are in a castle. In your dreams, you remember being born. In your dreams, you are a crying newborn bundle in her motionless arms. But in other dreams, your mother and father are together. In these dreams, they have never been apart. In these dreams, if your dream-self dreams up a world more like this one, a world where they have been separated, where something has placed them on indeterminate coordinates on a map, every region mysterious, silhouetted, unknown, your dream-self begins to cry. Here, certain you are awake, certain your father is about to die, you promise yourself you will find her, even if her presence in the world is a lie he’s telling to give you hope, a lie he’s told himself so many times he’s come to believe it. The man with the scythe at your throat hisses in your ear. He calls forth a mighty flame. He crushes the sphere into dust in his hand. The men and the prince and you are engulfed in purple fog. You close your eyes. You wish to be someplace else. You step outside your apartment and get sand in your mouth. The sky has gone a pale yellow. A dust storm is on the horizon. You miss the monsoon season. You check your mailbox and find today’s postcard, just delivered. You place it on the shelf above your kitchen counter alongside all the others and dread a future where you’ll find the mailbox empty of words, of whereabouts, of pictures depicting all the picturesque places he has been.
When I moved to Arizona, it was the middle of July. Daily highs were reaching an impossible 118 degrees. I could only be outside for minutes at a time—I swore I could feel the water evaporating from my body. So I stayed inside, safe in the air conditioning in this city where I knew no one, a city that was to be my home.
I spent a lot of time playing Dragon Quest V, a video game where you follow your character through his entire life: from birth through childhood and adolescence and beyond, to marriage and fatherhood. My father and I had driven across the country together to get to Tempe, a few suitcases and the remnants of my dorm furniture in tow, before he flew back home, leaving me with my car and a mostly empty apartment. And here, in my game, was another boy traveling with his father, searching for something.
Phoenix was hot. It was lonely. I was in love with a woman on the other side of the country. My closest friends were several time zones removed—there was no one awake to answer my calls in the middle of the night. So I played Dragon Quest V, and watched as this boy on the screen lost his father, fell in love with a childhood friend, saved the world. I watched him go through all the stages of his life and waited for this new stage of my own to begin. And while I watched and waited, I wrote.
Sam Martone lives in Tempe, Arizona, where he spends his evenings attempting to defeat the final boss of Dragon Quest V.