Editor's note: Congratulations to Peter Rose, winner of the Jinx SuperSuicideBomber Essay Challenge 2001. On February 7, 2001 Mr. Rose read before the Jinx Athenaeum Society and received his prize, a Spyzone.com Night Vision Monocular.
The tunnel vented into a forested park abutting the city. I had a little afternoon time on my hands on an autumn equinox and I thought I would go in with a flashlight, a hard hat, and a pair of boots and see where it led.
The sky was clear and dry. There was little likelihood of rain or excess runoff. I left my house and walked into the park.
The rectangular opening was made of brick and was high enough to permit me to walk in without stooping. I could hear the distant echo of my steps as I walked uphill beside a small rivulet of water and I sensed the entrance depart behind me in a gradual diminution of ambient light. Soon I was in complete darkness, able to navigate only by virtue of the light from my lamp. The floor was occasionally slippery and I could hear a dull roar from somewhere up ahead.
I moved forward. My sense of time began to dilate, opening into an endlessness that was oddly coincident with my vision, which had swollen now to accommodate both visible and invisible worlds around me.
I inched forward at a monotonous pace, my breath slightly tensed as I started to feel an inkling of fear. I began to sense how long I had been walking, how deep within the earth I might now be, and how far I would have to go before I might breathe easily again. I felt the weight of the earth amassed above me and the image of my irretrievably crushed body assembled itself out of the subluminous flashes my eyes were now producing. The roar of the chamber was now in an ominous register and I felt a threatening, humid change in the temperature of the air around me. A series of steps now lay before me, large enough to be called terraces. They ascended through a rectangular shaftway, but at the summit the opening became circular and I found myself walking into a smaller tunnel which barely permitted me to stoop. This passage continued on for what seemed like miles. I lost track of time and could only measure duration by the gradual accumulation of my fear and apprehension. Certainly I might come to some significant nexus, crest the hill and descend all the way down to the river; or, more forbodingly, I might enter the main artery of the city and wander endlessly, become lost in the unmappable labyrinth that lay below the city streets.
At long intervals, I heard the momentary impact of cars against manhole covers. My passage would occasionally intersect with wells which led, via hand-over-hand rungs in stone, to the surface far above. Smaller tunnels sometimes joined and I had to resist the impulse to conduct a more complex exploration. The sounds of my boots on the tunnel walls ricocheted and sometimes I thought I heard someone else walking towards me. The water sounded like whispering.
My autonomous nervous system had by now learned to work on its own, without my conscious intervention. I navigated through various forms of fear, trying to be patient enough for some destination to announce itself.
I came to a second set of steps. Once again the tunnel changed shape and I found myself in a rectangular passageway that led up to yet another circular doorway. I entered and my flashlight began to play strange tricks on my eyes. My shadows gained a non-Euclidean presence, occupying some new space between the physical world and my projective sight. I was walking into a dimensional distortion whereby outside and inside were exchanging roles. That's when I noticed that the tunnel was curving. It was changing direction, moving southward, I thought, but I could form no map that would explain this change in orientation. I came to a break. There was a small waterfall linking the disconnected sections of the pipe I was in and I realized that I had come to the terminus of this particular journey. This was enough. I would need an extra flashlight, waterproof clothing, an accomplice, a compass, and a map if I was to do it safely the next time. It was time to turn around.
And now I feel the immense depth of space that I have to traverse to exit. I am entombed in an endless, dark tunnel that snakes below the surface of a perfectly ordinary suburban neighborhood, and there is only one way out.
I begin to walk back. The distance seems immense and I feel a claustrophobic attack in the offing. I start to find it helpful to believe, however hysterically, that it might be good to sing. Singing centers. Singing connects the inner with the outer space. I'll be able to feel the physical contours of the tunnel if I sing and my decelerating breath will likely calm me down. So I begin to belt it out- Middle Eastern polytonic wails, cries, lamentations; Tibetan overtonal yodels; vocalic utterances that become religious proclamations in an unknown language. I begin to play emotional registers, opening myself up to the myriad ways in which I might resonate with this space. I find the vowels that bespeak the space I am in, as if I am projected my voice into the infinite space before me and it is speaking. I sing my fear, my anger, my grief, and my exhultation and I stride through the tunnels, down the majestic, terraced steps, singing my heart out along the darkened canals of water and back out into the equinoctial afternoon.
I head away from the opening and hang out on a ledge of rock from which I can observe the passing horse riders, the bikers, the park police, the passing traffic. I am thinking it is about time to go home and I begin walking down to the trail by the mouth of the tunnel when I hear noises.
I suddenly come upon two policemen. They are standing, with flashlights, peering into the darkness at the mouth of the tunnel. For an idle moment I think I'll saunter by and ask what they are looking for, but I realize that my hard hat, boots, and flashlight might lead them to ask some difficult questions and that I am precisely what they are looking for. Squadrons of police cars had been sent out to canvas the neighborhood in a vain attempt to identify the source of the disturbance and I have missed them only by minutes.
The tunnel, I later learn, runs beneath an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center. From its vents and underground apertures, that day, mysterious phantom howlings, cries, glossolalic gurglings, depredations and laments more terrible and curdling than had ever been previously imagined had issued forth, an oracular pronouncement in an unknown language. One could only imagine the rehabilitative setbacks produced by this phenomenon, the exacerbated manias, the hallucinatory certainties. It has gone down in local folklore as the day the banshee wailed on Gorgas Lane, and to the everlasting amazement of the few souls who were privileged to hear it, it has never been satisfactorily explained.