Penance - Chap 3
I stared down into the dark.
It was night, I was exhausted and I had no idea what was down there. But I couldn’t leave it. Not now. My father could be down there.
I had to know.
I told myself, if I went down and didn’t find anything then fine. I could leave to get help with a clear conscience knowing I done everything I could.
I closed the trapdoor (didn’t feel comfortable leaving it open) and gathered the supplies I thought I might need. Some food and water, jacket and shoes, a torch from my fathers ample DIY supplies and some spare batteries.
5 minutes and I was ready. I opened the trapdoor again, flicked on the torch and peered down.
I certainly wasn’t expecting an answer, and the sound of my voice actually calmed me a little. The silence was becoming oppressive.
I could see the bottom. The torch wasn’t strong enough to illuminate it clearly, but I could make out the ground and what looked like bags or boxes.
I crouched down and listened. I thought I had heard something. Just the echo of my voice?
“Come on.” I whispered.
I held the torch in my teeth and started down the ladder. 20 steps. I can still remember that. There was a short drop after the last one. I grunted and the torch fell to the dusty stone floor as I landed. I was half expecting it to break seeing how the last few days had went, but it survived.
I snatched it up and shone it in a slow circle. I was in a rough hewn stone chamber, maybe 15 feet on each side, with a single tunnel exiting. There was no other source of light, only my torch and the faint glow from the room above. The items I had seen at the base of the ladder turned out to be my fathers. Spare food, water, clothes, tools and torches. There were markers pens and cardboard as well which seemed a little strange.
So, I thought, only one option. I put one of the torches in my own bag as a spare and headed towards the tunnel. There was no sound but my own movement. As I reached the entrance I saw coloured markings on the stone walls which, as I played the torch over the them, extended out across the entire room. They were badly faded. Were they pictures of some kind? Some seemed more like elaborate writing but I couldn’t tell. As odd as they were, it wasn’t of immediate help so I kept moving.
I had to crouch slightly to enter the passage, although it opened up a little after that. As I edged onward my mind was racing. If the rack had been put back over the door then surely my father had come out? Unless someone else had put it back. But why would he leave his equipment? And why didn’t he tell me about this? He certainly hadn’t excavated it himself so where did it come from?
I felt a warm breeze on my face and stopped. There was still a complete silence other than my own breathing. A complete dark other than the torch.
I tried to sound confident, more for my own benefit I think, but my voice died to a whisper.
I thought about going back. I don’t know if my actions qualify as brave or stupid. Or a bit of both.
I thought about turning back but I didn’t.
In another minute or so the tunnel opened up into a larger chamber. This one was maybe 40 feet on each side, with the same faded marking on the walls. This one, however, had three tunnels leading out of it.
I moved between the three, shining the torch down each in turn.
There was nothing to see but more tunnel. I remember wiping sweat from my forehead and palms. It was getting warm.
I was about to pick the leftmost when I spotted a square piece of card just inside it, pinned to the stone with a small nail. My fathers writing was on the card in marker pen.
“Tunnel un, rebords et sorties”
I checked the others and found they were also labelled.
“Tunnel deux, se termine au lac”
“Tunnel trois, la fosse”
Well, that made up my mind. If I wasn’t turning back there was only one choice.
I checked the batteries were secure in the torch, tightened the strap on my bag and moved down the third passage.
Time became difficult to track. With so little light, only stone around me, it could have been 30 minutes or 3 hours. Twice more the tunnels split. Twice more I found my father labels and continued to follow his directions.
At the third split I began to hear them.
Something cracked underfoot and I aimed the light at my feet to see what looked like broken pottery. When I reached down I heard it.
The scratching. The sound from the night before at the house, from the the afternoon in the forest.
A bead of sweat dropped from my forehead into the dust as I froze and held my breath.
It was different this time. It felt so close. The same sound but magnified and growing, slowly but surely.
I flashed the torch in every direction but I couldn’t see anything.
I tried to stay clam. It’s so easy to say, isn’t it? Just stay calm.
I kept moving forward, thinking I could get away from that noise, away from the rising heat. The stone was cool to the touch but I felt as if I was standing in front of a blazing fire.
I was going too fast. Panicking.
I thought the walls, heat and sound were closing in, sealing me in on every side.
I fell. Tripped on my own feet, most likely. The torch flickered and went out. The battery had charge and I hadn’t touched the switch but still it went out. I grabbed it up, frantically trying the switch as I got back to my feet. I think that’s when I dropped my bag too, I’m not sure.
I was staggering on in the pitch black now, hands out, trying to breath. Those sounds, louder than they had even been before, like scraping on stone, all around me. Everywhere. I was soaked in sweat, my legs in pain as if they were beginning to burn.
I feel sick even now just thinking about those moments.
Stumbling, terrified, the feeling of something or someone reaching toward me from the black. On all sides, pressing near, hands, eyes, just inches away.
Those scratching sounds, closer with every second. The heat like a fire around me, as if flames were licking up my skin.
Beyond the heat and scratching I thought I could hear voices, wild voices rising and turning to screams.
I staggered blind through it all, afraid to touch my own skin in case I felt it burnt off.
The pressure and pain and fear became unbearable, building to a crescendo. The terrible heat, the scratching and desperate screams now deafening.
Then it stopped.
The heat and sound all gone in an instant.
I was rooted to the spot, surrounded by an all consuming darkness. The only sound my breathing and the hammering of my heart.
The torch flickered back to life.
I was standing at the edge of a stone pit. At least 10 feet deep, but I couldn’t tell how wide. I looked down into it. There were dozens of bones on a bed of black dust. No, not dust. Ashes. I could make out at least 3 skulls, one large and two small.
The heat. The sound.
I could see it so clearly in my mind. These people in the pit, their fingers scratching, scratching at the stone sides as they tried to get out. To get away from the rising flames.
But there was no escape.
For the briefest of moments, I understood.
Then I felt it.
And something more.
Something watching me, from deeper in the mountain.
There was another tunnel ahead, leading down into the depths.
I could feel it’s eyes on me.
Something alive, and moving. Coming closer, out of the dark.
I could hear it now. Dragging across the stone. Climbing out of the shadows.
I cracked. Lost my mind.
There is really no better way to describe it. I was little more than a wild animal, sprinting blindly in the first direction I could. I even tossed the torch in my panic. Screaming, crying, running. I don’t know how long for. I was crazed. No idea where I was going, only that I had to get away, get out of there before it could reach me.
At some point I found myself in another tunnel, rising rapidly with faint light ahead.
I emerged into cloudless moonlight. The shock of the icy air seemed to bring me around, at least in part. I was on a higher part of the mountain, nearer the lake. I could see it in the distance, a cold expanse of dark glass in the night.
I stumbled on. The memories are almost dreamlike. Disjointed scenes, blurred around the edges.
I found myself in the centre of a ruined house. The roof and doors were gone, only shattered remnants of furniture remained inside the moss covered walls. I stopped, my breathing still ragged and desperate, alone in the shadows cast by moon and stars.
Ahead, drawing me on, I saw a single gravestone. Even through the undergrowth I could make out the blocky, badly carved words.
The names of a woman and two children.
“Audrey Irene Wilson, my wife”
I could picture these people coming here. Imagine their hope at a new life.
“John Wilson, my son”
But something was wrong with this place. Something in the mountain. They were not alone.
“Nathan Wilson, my son”
It takes people. Has done for hundreds of years. And it took the father.
“I burned them all in the pit.”
At my feet, in the mud and grass and last of the snow, were more bones. I could make out a femur, part of a ribcage. Above them was a shattered skull with a large part missing. A few feet away were the rotting and rusted remains of a shotgun.
“The devil made me do it.”
That’s the last thing I remember.
Hypothermia, frostbite on 3 toes, dozens of cuts and bruises, exhausted and delirious. That’s how the nurse described my state on arrival at the hospital. I don’t recall it myself. If the distance on the map is correct, I walked 30 miles before being found on the side of the road by a passer by. I don’t remember a thing, not a second of it. Sometimes I get little flashes of walking through snow at night, like the snatches of memory you get after being black out drunk. How, why, I don’t know.
When I had fully regained consciousness I told them about my father. I was in for a surprise, the nurse replied. My dad was in the next ward, had been for 2 days, with almost identical symptoms to myself. Except he had an angry and confused dog with him when he was found. I’m not ashamed to say I cried like a baby when I saw him. He was back on his feet, the tough old bastard, and he leaned over my bed and held me like a was a boy.
We talked for hours. He had found the trapdoor a few months after moving in. Become obsessed with exploring the tunnels until, eventually, he found the pit. But everything after that was a blur. He had no recollection of calling me or smashing his phone. Just images of walking, with Harley barking frantically beside him.
When he was found, he said it was like coming out of a terrible dream.
Did something call us there, like it had to people in the past? Call us to the fire then let us go? Or did it have us, then someone or something else helped us escape? I don’t know. Neither of us knew. There aren’t any answers, and the more time that passes, the harder it will ever be to know.
It was my fathers funeral this morning. Just me, the priest and the dog. The way he wanted it, I guess. That’s why I sat down to write this. He never returned to the mountain. When I came home to my city apartment he and Harley came with me. A squeeze, but we made it work. It was difficult for him, I could tell, leaving behind so much of his life up there. All his books, photographs, diaries. All his work. But neither of us could have made that climb again.
In the end, the inconvenience became a gift. I spent more time with my father than I ever had before, even as a child. I felt like I knew him for the first time, not just as a part of my life but as person. Sounds like pop psychology but it’s the truth.
He was a good man.
I’m sitting at my window, sipping whiskey, watching the grey sky pass. Harley is sleeping at my feet. There is nothing else to say.