Blast | October 07, 2022

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. The beauty and hazards of nature are the subject of Colten Dom’s alluring story “People Falling,” in which a parks-agency staffer is sent to scout out a purportedly very dangerous cave with the help of a hard-drinking ranger.


People Falling

Colten Dom


I went around the parks agency office hungover. For weeks I waited, knowing something would come down. Even the pub-going coworkers finished smiling at my antics—deskside dreaming with a mud-stained windbreaker over my eyes, the snoring of half-remembered poetry. But I waited, knowing that sooner or later I’d be spilled back into the bush.

Our supervisor didn’t smile, her face sharp under the halogens and the merciless gaze of the stuffed hawks sheltering in the windowless office, somehow surviving generations of vegetarians. Sitting in the absence of birdsong, the woman whittled away the days chewing mint leaves at her plastic desk. And, as far as I could tell, she liked it.

“Bored?” she sighed at me. “Want out of the office?”

I played with my belt loops. “Very much, yes.”

“The travel purse is tight.” She glared at the stuffed animals.

“Yeah?” I made my eyes sleepy, fingering the tie as it closed around my neck.

“But we’ve got the near-biggest cave in the country under our nose. Too ‘dangerous,’ they said in the ’60s.” Her knuckles rapped the desk. “This is now. I want the Khatru spelunked and graded again. I want water from that cup.”

“Me?” I asked.



I flew out the next afternoon, riding a little red prop plane off Vancouver Island and over the strait and into the Omineca, landing at a two-taxi podunk, one of which drove me to the gates of the park. Arriving after midnight, I slept outside under a stand of balsam poplar on a mattress of lover’s moss, wedged between the dog-ribbed fence and the road. I didn’t want anyone to smell the city on me.

For two days and nights I hung about the park lodge, staging ground for hikers and overnighters, waiting for my guide. Two days spent drunk, sniffing the yeasty carpet of the empty café; two nights stumbling up to my room, sleeping fully clothed on the bare cot, watching my stubble grow in the mirror.

I called my old man. He described his latest injury with pride, lurching outside the old house bleeding, a fat gash along his breast from a shattered grinder disc. I took off my clothes and necktie and angled my body around the mirror, counted each and every scar I had. The river yelled itself hoarse, echoing off the sides of the valley, calling up from the cave. I wandered around outside in the dark, rubbing my knuckles against the fir trees.

On the third day, a man stumbled out of the bush. Water dripped from his tattered ranger fittings, his uncuffed shirt and jeans shined down to threads. I pulled him over to the café patio. He drank three beers and told me he’d been out ranging on the far side of the famous geyser for a week or so, scouting fucked-up terrain outside the boundaries of the park. Claimed he’d seen bathers, hippies leaping between the boulders like mountain goats, his radio in his hand, waiting for them to fall. But they never did. He halved the trip back by swimming the river, popping out through the trees between my feet.

“You’ll be wanting to see the geyser,” he said. “It’s a wet trip.”

I finished my drink. “It’s dangerous?”

“The rocks up there don’t grow moss. I mean,” he winked, “we’re over hollow earth. Broken limbs, people falling. The land loves it.”

He would find out sooner or later, so I told him. “You’re guiding down the Khatru this time.”

“Fuck I am.”

“Okay.” I watched the table. “We’ll do that geyser, too.”

“Why go there if we’re doing the Khatru?”

“I just want to.”

“The fuck we are,” he grunted.

“They’re thinking about opening it up to tourists.”

“There’s nicer ways to hurt people.”

“Let’s go, then,” I said. “To the office.”

He stood up and pushed my head between my knees with the flat of his hand. I kicked the table at him, and we wrestled across the patio. He picked himself up with a laugh.

Nobody stood too close to the ranger—I knew I’d run into a hero of sorts—and he didn’t even stink of alcohol yet. We walked over to the park’s office, and I grabbed my pack as the ranger delivered his report to the park warden. When we left, climbing harnesses, liquor, and cigarettes tucked between our packs, the old woman leaned down and kissed his forehead.


We walked along the well-trod dirt of the park’s main trail. Upon reaching the river, I realized the ranger was still drunk. While I had grabbed my pack, he had learned more about my mission from the warden, and he didn’t like it. “The Khatru’s a real sinkhole,” he kept saying. “You can fall right to the bottom.”

“That rough?”

He played a leaf between his hands. “No tourist would go.”

Crossing the well-worn bridge, I looked upriver. The park shone, the estuary brilliant with streams and runoff, water chanting through everything, pockets of juniper threading the dusty cattails. A cedar stand stood far away, under the hill and its famous geyser. The ranger went on, spitting over one side, then the other. I didn’t look downriver, down to where the Khatru waited. I liked the idea of walking backward through the park only to turn around and find the cavern overtop of me, a surprise.

On the other side of the river, clay-colored yurts dotted a yellow meadow. In the center loomed a massive hut made of canvas and bamboo, aloof and apart like a general’s tent. Marching through the muddy trails between the dwellings, we stepped around heads and feet poked idly through rolled-up doorways—hippie tourists lounging, the air crisp with pot. We entered the large hut for a breather, helloing at the dozing park attendant. Fanning ourselves beneath the canvas, we lay together, had another beer, and minced with the supplicants. When the hippies asked what we were there to do, we lied.


The trail to the geyser rode easy, the valley creaking under our feet. We called out to the squirrels as we wandered the rises, stopping to listen to a bear thrashing away in the distance. As evening swooped in, we topped the rise and stared at the green hill. An angry cut down the cliff marked the geyser, dark and chasm-like, against the surrounding rock. At its base, cedar trees cast shadows across the pool. We set our bags amidst the pebbled ruck of the shore, stripped naked, and the ranger warned me not to drink the water.

When I dipped into the freezing tarn, it clicked across my skin like a swarm of tiny insects. The ranger had a hard, lean body despite the drinking and smoking. Sitting my frozen ass ashore, pebbles insisting against my buttocks, I watched him stroke the water. I couldn’t see if the ranger’s hide carried any scars—when he curled back toward the pool’s center, I drank the water out of spite.

The pool vibrated and, after a long choke, the geyser exploded through the cut, crashing out over the cliff. Gasp after gasp fountained across the shore, drenching me again. The ranger stood in the pool, eyes closed, a grin parting his beard.


We raced back through the dark, falling down the ladder of the land, coasting over the green surf towards the glow of the yurts. When we reached the large hut, we zipped our sleeping bags together before joining the tourists and hippies around the campfire. Jugs of rank beer moved in a circle; the night moseyed over my upturned head, the sky sodden with stars. The ranger started telling park stories. The hippies listened; I pretended to doze.

“I saw a woman up there once. Beauty, twenty-something with big black eyes, hair like undeveloped film. She was naked, right beside the geyser, playing a ukulele. I’m thinking she’s from the yurts, but she’s singing something I don’t know. Beautiful, beautiful, but I don’t care about that.

“She’s weaving this thing with her voice. It’s her song I’m watching—like I heard heaven. Maybe that’s what she was singing about, heaven. But the song ends and then the geyser, like it’s been holding its breath, just throws it.

“The whole pond bounced. I jumped, but I kept watching the girl, and, damnedest thing, she sort of reaches up and pulls the water over herself like a coat. When it falls away, she’s gone.

“When I go to the yurts, she ain’t there. Never did make a thing of it in all this time.”


We crawled into the sleeping bag and rolled around to get warm. The tarp tickled my head, a big blue blanket. I felt like a kid again as memories of hiding under the sheets in the old house slowly returned. I’d been given a printout of Earle Birney in class that day, and we were to dream up something in response. A simile, metaphor, or image. The smell of beer and smoke and rye preceded him, as did my own name, which I flinched at, and then the covers were pulled back and the lights went out and there was the tiny sound of my old man’s tie being loosened from around his neck, the tie that smelled like leather, like sweat or horse lather, I’m not sure, because all my life since, I’ve never smelled a necktie quite like that one.


As we folded our sleeping bags, the ranger thumbed through his pack. After only one day of ranging, the ranger was low on smokes and alcohol. We hiked off in sunshine as weak as an eyelash.

Flies buzzooned, the water flashing like bullion as we left the yurts and followed the river south. The trail here was hesitant, uncertain; where gravel appeared, I kicked it at the ranger’s boots. The brush grew thicker as we mounted the dales, mule deer feces and salmonberries spilling underfoot like marbles. The ranger slapped his thigh, whistled. “Always a parks man?” he asked.

“No.” A raindrop tapped my nose.

“Get into the field lots?” He spat a tarry clump. “With the sun and moon and everything else?”

“Yeah.” I lit a cigarette. “They let me out sometimes.”

“But not as a ranger.”

The tie hung around my neck. “No.” Another raindrop. I didn’t dare look at him.

“You like the life?”

“No worse than anything else.” I glared through the trees at the far mountain ridge, at the gaps of the moraines and the seracs fat from winter. “How would a person know?”


We reached the end of the river that evening, soaked to the skin, outside the gawping maw of the Khatru. Water dripped over my face, curled my beard. The river disappeared into the cliffside cave as if it were being sucked through the cheeks of some dark god. There was room enough to camp inside the mouth of the cavern, just past the dripline. We set up our bags, wrung out our shirts, pants, and underwear.

I couldn’t restrain myself and grabbed a flashlight, leaving the ranger to finicking together some dinner. He shouted at me not to go on. The cave huffed wet and icy breaths—then the hall opened, and I was peering out over splashing grey terraces at curtains of slate and roofs of crusty marble, listening to the whistle that echoed up from still deeper caverns.


In my sleeping bag that night, I thought again of the old house and the tree in the front. When my legs and arms got long enough, I’d climbed it, the old man watching from the porch in grout-covered boots and a sour-smelling suit. I fell once, a fair height, bouncing on the untamed lawn. I went inside crying, but the old man, after finding neither scrapes nor bruises, sent me back out. He made me climb the tree again, staring up into the branches as the sun fell.


In the Khatru, everything grew in curves. Time itself passed strangely, the river shouting for it to go on, go on. But we, the ranger and I, were finally in my place, in the den of my knowledge beneath the blanket of the land, between bedrock springs and mattresses of thin air.

I took my time, dragging out my grading of the cave. Abseiling the calcite, I found it crunched like chalk, crumbling beneath the tips of my fingers, under the buckles of my clothes. We wasted no fuel, no battery, sitting in the dark half the time to save light. The ranger asked how long it would take to measure the ceiling, tap the walls, check the decade-old anchors for rust. I lied, and he lay down groaning—we’d been without liquor for two days. I threw my cigarettes into the river when he begged for one, having smoked the last of his. The pack sailed over the terrace and into the ice.

“No fire,” I told him. “Who knows what kinds of gases there are down here?”


One day, or night, or morning in the black, I woke to find the ranger thrashing through my bags by the light of my lighter. He turned out my clothes, my underwear. I watched his brittle face sniffing at the empty flask. Bursting off the ground, I seized the flame from his shaking fist, told him to fuck off. He wandered over to his corner of dark whimpering; I winked out the flame, walked into the black, and thrashed him, not letting him know I was coming.

Then I slipped on an abseil, carabiner popping from my waist like the pin from a grenade, and I tumbled a good twenty feet. I lay on my back in the wet dark, the river thundering beside me, my headlamp turned up. The roof was filled with avens, dead-end shafts staring down like eyes.

The ranger called out, his voice strange, using my name, though I’d never asked him to. I shifted my limbs, ruled out paralysis. Numbness departed, and the hurt washed in. I’d broken nothing but the climbing belt. I retched into one of the plateau’s calcite pools, then licked the dew from the edges of the bowl. The busted carabiner dug against my skin.

Dragging onto my knees, I barked, and he shut up. Drops from the crashing river peppered my forehead, the sickness fading under the anointing spray. I ran my hand through the pool, crushing timeless mineral formations with mere fingers. Flicking off the headlamp, I heard the river turn to music. In front of me stood the girl. Twenty-something with black eyes. She shone brightly in the dark. I didn’t see a ukulele—it was the river. She was beautiful; she smiled at me. I switched the lamp on, and she left.

I washed my face in the crystal pool. Inspecting my body, seeing deep cuts and welts and piercings, satisfaction roared through me. I had survived even this.

When I climbed back up to the camp, I threw the carabiner in the ranger’s face.


There was no question after the fall, the river no longer muttering of war but of victory. I grew tired of the shaking, stammering ranger with his red eyes and loose hands and bruised face. I grew tired of my own animal smell, the deep sweat and musk in my boots, in my shirt and pants, even in the fibers of my necktie. We’d been without for many days, but my hands were steadied by the drink of the river, and in the crease of my palms, the ringing in my head, I carried the world.

I told the ranger we were finished.


“Let’s swim,” he said. In the surprising afternoon sun of the riverbank, the ranger shivered, lean and feral. I watched his eyes flicker over mine, his face bubbling out of his beard. “Let’s swim back. It’ll be faster.”

I looked around the paradise of the park. “We’ve been under for days—I’d rather walk.”

A coyote’s yelp tore his throat. He limped away, down to the water.

I hiked along the long limbs of the hills, watched the light coming down through the confetti birch. It was the end of some weekend; the hippies were gone, and I alone felt the park’s poetry. Smaller mammals nodded from the bushes, recognized me with their rustles, scampered away to tell others.


The ranger lay on the café patio in a puddle of river water and puke. I kicked over his empty pints and dragged him to the office, shouting for the old warden lady to come on out. I passed him on to her, let him slobber into her uniform.

I went inside the office and called my supervisor. I told her what I knew I would from the start—that the cave was safe, or safe enough. The Khatru, with its crystal pools and cliffs and drops and pits, could be opened to any and all. She said that that was good, and that she would get whoever was sitting at my desk out of it. I hung up and went outside and watched the sun set into the pines.


I never returned to the park. After the cave opened, there were a couple broken legs, and then there were many, and then some people died. But by then I was almost retired, my cubicle filled with the entrails of sporadic adventures, the desk’s dark insides filled with sheaves of poetry never published, never read. I had a good wife and a good son and still, every night, I couldn’t dream, always waking with the blankets twisted around my neck.



Colten Dom prefers to write about joy and the environment. His essays and articles have appeared both online and in print at The Georgia Strait and with The New Twenties as its former editor-in-chief. His short stories have appeared in This Side of West and filling Station.