R J Cooper
"Where are you heading for?"
"Oh, up there somewhere." Indicating a wide sweep of the mountains on the right.
"Well, good luck mon vieux. Give my regards to the devil if you run into him."
The young man caught the rucksack and stood watching the truck plough up over the col and disappear towards Spain in the bright morning light. He started the long scramble up over the springy turf and rocks.
He was panting when he sat down and look into the shadow of the huge circular depression on the edge of the flat mountain crest, out of sight of the road and away from the tinkling animal bells. There was a patch of snow in the bottom with a dark hole to one side.
"La marmite du diable" the old shepherd had called it, two months before.
"Has anyone been down it?"
"Mais qu'est que tu veux? Of course not. Only the ravens and a few sheep perhaps. That is a bad place. It smells of death, monsieur." The superstitious old man was too serious for Jean-Pierre to laugh.
Jean-Pierre was a loner. He belonged down to a club, but used it mostly for equipment. The others said he was crazy and called him "le petit Casteret", but they were often impressed by his new finds.
He scrambled down to the edge of the hole. It was about ten metres wide. He threw in a small stone and listened for it to strike. He heard it bounce once and them was startled by the raven which flew up past his face and wheeled into the sky. He shivered suddenly as a strangely nauseous smell seemed to rise from the pothole
He soon dismissed the impression and compared to go down. "Gouffre Jean-Pierre, la marmite du diable, Gouffre Jean-Pierre...." he hummed to the tune of Frère Jacques, as he put on the musty boilersuit and checked his old miners' lamp. It took three lengths of wire ladder before he was satisfied that it was touching a solid rock ledge or floor.
"Not bad, thirty metres the first pitch, but hardly a bottomless pit," and he thought of the old shepherd and laughed, the sound echoing loudly. He hid the rucksack behind a boulder.
"Fait être toujours méfiant, quoi?" he clipped two more coils of ladder and belays to his waist and gave the ladder a tug to check the piton. It seemed all right, although it had not sounded that good when he had hammered it in.
He clambered down carefully into the dankness of the pothole, blinking to get used to the dim light. Another raven rushed up past him with a warning cry and again he caught by miasma of rottenness it his nostrils.
He shrugged it off and carried on. He approached the first join in the ladder and immediately found himself hanging free for the first time. The pothole had opened out like the neck of a bottle and he could now move faster. He soon found himself on a wide ledge. He rested for a moment and then clipped the other two ladders to the test. He hesitated before continuing. It would be a very hard climb back up, but after all he would be able to rest half way and he had once climbed a 50 metre pitch solo before.
The smell was now unmistakable. Jean-Pierre began to feel sick as he hurried down the last two metres of the ladder. He looked down.
In the yellow light of his lamp he could see an enormous heap of bones, sloping steeply away in to the darkness below. On top were the bodies of two more recent victims, one loathsome and liquidly oozing while the other was a swollen wollen bag, moving gently as the maggots sethed inside it.
Jean-Pierre clung to the ladder with his arms beginning to ache. The rungs felt slippery in his hands. He could not see the far side of the cavern and the light from the entrance was blocked by the ledge above him. He peered into the blackness beneath him again. He was transfixed by two luminous red eyes. Which moved. The stench was overpowering.
Jean-Pierre gave a cry. The reverberations sounded like mocking laughter. He started scrambling up the ladder. It swung violently. And came furling down after him as he fell.
The shepherd paused as he skirted round the punch-bowl. He crossed himself, walking the two ravens circling in the sunlight. He remembered the young man from Toulouse and wondered when he would be coming for the fortnight's holiday he had mentioned.