The path has tracked the river for miles. Straight and unwavering, without deviation. No detour made around an immovable geographical feature, no alternative route trampled by foraging animals, no hastily carved track to bypass a crumbling riverbank.
I had stopped paying attention. I no longer noticed the pull of the mud at my boots, the aggressive clacking of the raven high in the tree, the bright bursts of lichen caught upon the spindly branches, nor the liquid white noise of the river as it made its way through the valley.
There was no reason for me to leave the path when I did. Absolutely no reason to force myself through the thick clawing undergrowth at that particular moment. To be scratched and feel my skin tear. To trip, fall and be flooded by the pain of bone on rock. To get up and still carry on.
When I finally break free from the foliage, it is there in front of me. The tunnel entrance is around ten metres high, twenty metres wide and filled with darkness.
I knew then that I needed to head back to the path and to the river. To all that I had known. Yet inexplicably I was already taking steps forward and into the tunnel. I couldn’t stop my feet from advancing one step at a time, further into darkness.
Twenty steps in and the light from the entrance struggles to show me anything more than the oozing slabs of stone that curve up to form the tunnel wall.
Fifty steps and it is black. I cannot see my hand in front of my face. I cannot see where I place my feet and if there is even ground there to take them. I have no torch, no matches, no lighter.
I feel like I am drowning in this blackness. My chest tightens and I gulp at the stale air. No matter how hard I try, I cannot fill my lungs. Shorter, sharper pulls. Twisting my head from left to right but still I can’t seem to find oxygen. I don’t turn back though. It is not an option. Something compels me on.
The ground beneath me is uneven but it is flat. Although the blackness seems to deepen the further in I go, I am not descending. I tell myself again – I am in a tunnel, I am not descending.
I need to sit down and stick my head between my knees and stay in this position until my lungs re-inflate. But I know that I will not – I have to keep moving.
I close my eyes for a second to see if the blackness behind them is any different to that which presses in on me. There is no blackness. Only red-tinted images of everything awful that I have ever seen or imagined. I open them straightaway.
I am not descending. I am in a tunnel.
I have to believe that this is a tunnel because tunnels have ends. And there is always light at the end. This is what I must believe.
I am not descending. I am in a tunnel.
There. I see something. Up ahead. There, something different to the blackness. It isn’t light though. What is that?
Two eyes stare at me. I can see them clearly now. They are fixed on me, unblinking. I am no longer moving. I want to turn and run from the eyes, but my feet have stopped and I cannot make them move forward or back.
It is the first time that I have stopped since entering the tunnel and I feel now that it is cold. The coldness seems to rush at me, push against me. I look down, blink, and look up. The two eyes are still there, glowing in the black.
I clap my hands. Twice. In quick succession. I want to hear the echo. I want my brain to hear the echo and recognise that it is as it should be. I want my brain to have its sense of space confirmed, the distance between the walls and me to correlate to the sound it processes. I need my brain to say – I predicted the sound would do that. I am a rational instrument, those are not two eyes, but something completely different. Something entirely harmless.
There is no clap though from my clammy palms hitting together. There is no snapped response from the walls. The sound is instantly dampened, swallowed by the black. My brain has nothing to offer me.
My feet are starting to move again. Not back towards the entrance, but pressing on towards the two eyes. Into the rushing cold, I walk. I am no longer worried about falling down unseen pits, breaking bones – my only concern is the eyes. More precisely that the eyes don’t disappear and then reappear closer or so close it is too late altogether.
I can hear dripping water now. I can see it too. Plump droplets falling slowly from above, catching the light just for an instant. Yes, there is light now. Flecks of white, falling and disappearing, blinking. Closer and closer. I know now that this is the end.