THE UNDERGROUND JOURNEY CONTINUES
Illustration by Carlos Uribe
The passageway beyond was narrow and curved steeply downhill. The stone and clay surface was slippery, but free of obstacles. The walls were pale and smooth, with traces of black soot on the ceiling. Abby imagined a file of people carrying torches long ago. She looked for signs of recent activity, but only felt like an intruder into the deep well of history. After a long downhill stretch the tunnel leveled off into a smooth hallway free of obstructions. They covered a fair distance in little time. A cramped passage branched off in a hard left turn, but all signs pointed to keeping a straight course, and Abby led the way forward. Soon the hallway became another cavern, wide and high. Colors appeared like jewels in the dome of the ceiling. The red stick figures and pictures appeared once again on the walls. Abby hurried on.
At the end of the cavern two paths opened to the right and left. Following the model of the endlessly complex system of caves and tunnels in her mind, Abby knew that the passageway on the left was the designated route for the ancient procession, despite being the smaller of the two. But there was something intriguing about the right hand tunnel. It did not seem to be clearly defined in the model in her mind. And Abby became aware of faint noises, the sound of muttering far away. It was the same eerie sound she had heard before, and had the same dream-like feel to it, as if she were slipping into sleep. Her curiosity was aroused.
“That’s not for you today,” Wendy said. “Maybe… maybe someday, but definitely not today.”
“But what is it?”
“For now, just take my word for it. You’ve got a full plate. Don’t ruin it by adding more.”
Abby pulled herself away, and walked quickly through the narrow left hand opening. The very low ceiling forced her to duck at times, and the panic of claustrophobia returned. The tunnel slowly became smaller and smaller, until there was room for only one person ducking low. Suddenly the path seemed to drop off a cliff.
Abby stood near the edge, and held the mapstick forward to see. It looked as if the floor of the tunnel had collapsed, perhaps endless years ago. A strong cool breeze smelling of water rose up from the open space beyond. She knew their destination was down in that deep unknown. Wendy stood by her side without speaking. Abby held the mapstick further out over the void. The collapsed floor ran down a slope at an angle of perhaps 45 degrees. The stone was not sheer and vertical, but in smaller pieces, more like a landslide. Abby sat on the edge of the cliff and tested a first step. A voice inside told her to turn around, and descend facing the stones as a person would climb down a ladder. ‘But I won’t be able to see what’s below me!’ Abby argued.
‘You’ll be able to feel it,’ said the voice. ‘And by the way, you’ve still got that twine in your pocket.’
“Ah! Thank you!’ She proceeded to tie the mapstick across her back as she had done the day before. And so with a sigh and a prayer she slid over the edge on her stomach. Her feet caught the first ledge as she desperately leaned forward, keeping a grip on whatever stones she could hold. Above her Wendy was beginning her descent. ‘How can she do it?’ Abby wondered. ‘She’s old. Very old.’
Downward they went, losing track of time. The sound of rushing water surrounded them. The wind was chilly. Abby took another step… and found herself standing on a solid floor. A long and uneven passageway stretched out ahead. Exhausted, Abby and Wendy trudged onward. Despite a strange tendency to balloon outward and then come to a narrow bottleneck, the way was straight, smooth, and easy. The splashing noise of a white water stream increased until Abby expected the rapids to cross their path any minute. The wind at their backs increased and the temperature fell. Coming to a very narrow opening, the noise became a crashing din. They stepped carefully through a round hole with the wind whipping them from behind. Suddenly the nature of the way changed completely. The path became a wide ledge on the shore of a roaring stream that entered the tunnel from the left, pouring down swift and boiling rapids. The glow of the mapstick sparkled as if the water itself gave off a silver-blue light. Spray soaked the stone around them, and splashed onto their faces and clothes. They sprang forward and soon were walking easily along the stream. The water turned dark as the riverbed grew narrow and deep. Beads of moisture covered the rocks on the ceiling, reflecting a dazzling silver light.
‘Where is this going to end?’ Abby wondered. She hadn’t a clue.