I was standing with my father in the pitch-black dark—the blackest dark I’d ever seen in the few short years of my young life—and the blackest dark that I’ve seen since, which is a considerably longer span.
The surrounding air was dank with flecks from falling water.
A disembodied voice rose up from the mist, then swooped back down to submerge in it. First amplified then muffled, the sounds changed places, each taking its turn at prominence. The drone of the voice, the roar of the falls, and the clammy damp came at me from all directions— from the sides, from above and below—to seal me in a viscous coating and stick me to my spot. The waterfall could have been anywhere. Next to me? Yards away?
I dared not move a muscle.
The woman’s words transfixed me with a tale of scuba divers. Fearless swimmers who, over the years, had plumbed the depths of a fathomless pool. In wet suits and tanks, in masks and flippers, down they had plunged into icy water, in an effort to find its bottom.
No search had been successful.
The roiling cascade dropped into a lake that continued, it seemed, to the center of the earth. To China. To horrible depths my imagination was fully engaged in conjuring.
Cold drops of perspiration ran down my face, my arms, and the back of my neck. I was concentrating hard—trying to locate the source of her voice, trying to pinpoint the crash of the falls, trying not to move and tumble in, and trying most heartily not to be afraid—when my father let go of my hand.
That was it, really—that was all he did. He loosened his hand from my grip. And he disappeared, never to be seen again, while the tour guide never stopped talking.
July the 12th, 1968. The last day I saw my father.
James Emerson Russell was Sonny to most—from the son in Emerson, I imagine. Or maybe from his position in his family of origin. I don’t really know. He was just Daddy to me, what a little girl calls her father.
He was handsome, that Sonny. It is not just my memory. It is what people still say when they don’t stop themselves from talking about him. And, they say it just like that. “He was handsome, that Sonny, I’ll grant him that.” As though his visage were something they grudgingly bestowed on him. Then they change the subject on seeing me.
He was long and lanky—six feet even—impossibly tall to me then. A slight stoop to his walk, crinkly blue eyes, and a halfway receding hairline. His taste in attire ran to western and that was how he was dressed that last day. Jeans and a checkered shirt. Madras, my mother had called it. Snaps down the front and a turned-up collar. Cuffed sleeves rolled up to reveal strong forearms, all covered in downy blond fuzz. He wore cowboy boots and he carried a hat. In a nod to convention, he would not have worn it indoors. Men did not do that then. Then again, men did not tend to walk out on their children in the middle of tourist attractions, either, but that hadn’t served to stop him. I guess my daddy picked his proprieties from a smorgasbord of options.
He wore a watch and his wedding ring, too, and a belt with a silver buckle. He had surprisingly soft hands for a man. I had held his hand for the longest time, twirling his ring, until the darkness commandeered my attention when the lights were abruptly switched off. Then I just stood still, clutching that hand and willing him to protect me. Those large, soft hands that belonged to a man who would use them to wrest himself free of his daughter.
But how, you might ask, could a full-grown man vanish from the middle of a clump of tourists visiting Ruby Falls in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, on a sweltering summer day? More precisely, how could a man disappear from a cave under Lookout Mountain—when that very act would require accessing the elevator (through the lightless cave), traversing the entrance lobby, crossing the parking lot, starting his car, and driving away—leaving his own flesh and blood child standing frozen under the earth beneath him?
In the end, nobody remembered seeing him do any of those things. And his car, a 1962 Cadillac de Ville, in a vibrant shade of turquoise, remained where he—we—had left it in the parking lot.
It is an unsolved mystery. And it turns out that people who experience an unsolved mystery in their lives become inordinately keen on unsolved mysteries as a topic in general. I am one of those people. My father disappeared from Ruby Falls in the summer of 1968, when I was six and a half years old. He left me alone and mute, unable to move, even once they put the lights back on and herded the crowd past the stalactites and stalagmites and the Godforsaken falls toward the elevators, en route to the streaming sun above.
The tour guides had to pick me up, when it became evident that I was not ambulatory. They groused the whole way up to the surface that I was stiff as a corpse, which, as they made clear to each other and to me, added to the overall creepiness of my father’s de-materialization. Had they been superstitious people (and who, really, isn’t?) they might have thought some sort of black magic was being performed by us.
Lest I forget to mention—my name is Ruby. Not believable, you say? Well, it is true. My name is Ruby (not Falls, if my name were Ruby Falls, that would be unbelievable). My name is Ruby—Eleanor Ruby Russell—but called Ruby from birth, in the way that Southerners do, being extremely fond of middle names.
Thus, I became famous for a while at the age of six and the press had a field day with my name.
Little Ruby Left in Ruby Falls!
Did Ruby’s Father Fall in Ruby Falls? Ruby Took the Fall in Ruby Falls!