Bewildering Stories

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The Long, Dark Tunnel

by Rick Combs

For as long as I could remember I’d been enjoying the sunlight in a place I called home. But gradually I became aware that a long, dark passage was stretching out in front of me. Strange thoughts kept recurring in my head seeing this passage, this tunnel. I finally put words to those thoughts: “What’s in front of me? What exists here that I’m unaware of? Will I be okay?”

I finally enter the tunnel and start meandering down its narrow path. I notice side passages branching off to the left and right, their destinations unknown. All of the side paths appear the same as the main tunnel: murky and foreboding, as endless in their black expanse as the main passage. Their openings seemingly invite me to deviate from my present path, to take a sojourn within their confines. So, what’s to tempt me to stray from the main tunnel and explore one of the many branches? Will I be able to find my way back to the main tunnel? I’ll never know unless I decide to chance my luck, skill and desire against them. With the number of side tunnels I’ve passed so far, I figure I’ll have plenty of time to wander down one or more, later.

Glancing behind me, the tunnel appears to end just a few steps away. How can this be? Is there some force pushing me forward down this forlorn tunnel? I take a few steps further down the tunnel and turn quickly to see if the tunnel’s back wall has moved. I don’t see any sort of movement but the end of the tunnel is still there, just behind me. A sense of panic begins to well up within me. With a tremendous force of will, I quell the panic. There’s nothing that can be done about what’s behind me, I need to concentrate on what’s ahead. The shot of panic helps, it forces me to pay more attention to everything before me. Since I can’t return, I need to make sure of my path ahead.

A side passage looms just ahead, looking easier to travel than the others. Nothing stands out about this tunnel to differentiate it from the rest, but something, maybe instinct, tells me it could be. Looking into the darkness of the new path ahead of me, I can’t tell if it ends in a pit that would take me straight to Hell, or if it just comes to a dead-end further down. It’s my decision to make and a tough one. Should I change course or stay with the main tunnel? I can follow or not, the choice is mine. Or, I can choose to not decide and just continue to trust with lots of blind, dumb luck. What should I do?

Hitching up my courage (the one attribute I seem to have in abundance), I take that first step into an uncharted area. With each succeeding step, my confidence increases. Yes, I think I’ve made the right choice, although there’s nothing here to justify that feeling. The further I get from the main tunnel, the more this passage begins to take on the qualities of that tunnel: dark, lonely and forbidding. The tunnel’s wall continues to stay close behind me, always just a few steps from where I’ve just been. I notice this tunnel also has side passages and crossing tunnels. Some appear to lead back towards the original tunnel; others lead off in unknown directions. Again, the choice is mine. Do I maintain my current course, or strike out in an alternate direction? And what criteria should I use to help me make that decision?

As I pass by the numerous side passages, I begin to hear sounds, not words, but more of a feeling. It’s like the hint of a summer storm when there’s not a cloud in the sky. Almost like a shiver that suddenly runs down your back. With trepidation, I sense a possible danger, yet at the same time, relief. The sense of danger comes from the unknown ahead of me, while the relief comes from an inner sense that I’m not really alone. The further down the tunnel I walk, the more distinct the sound becomes. A low voice whispers from the dark, caressing my body like a breeze within this airless realm. I strain to make out the words but there’s nothing more to hear.

Reaching the opening of another branch, I hear a distant whisper, like the sound of a leaf falling from a tree, calling to me from the dark depths of the side tunnel. The whisper sighs, “Try me! My path is so much easier for you to walk. You can’t get lost on my path.” Shaking my head, I try desperately to clear my mind of the insistent whisper. Stepping to the side, the sound fades back to nothing. Curious, I step back in front of the tunnel and the whisper returns to torment me, to taunt and goad me forward. I decide to bypass this specific passage. Why would I want to take the easiest path? What would make that interesting in a place of so much dark sameness?

Ahead at another cross path, the whisper changes. Its voice takes on the haunting tones of a defeated man. “Follow me,” it murmurs. “My path is not the easiest, nor is it the smoothest. But if you will step upon my path, you will know deep within your soul that it is the only choice.” I ponder the message of the ghostly whisper. What would make this path so much better if it’s not the smoothest or easiest to travel?

Spiking up my courage, I shout down the tunnel at the whisper, “Why should I listen to you? What gives you the right to tease me with your riddles?” No sound is returned to my ears, not even an echo, just the lingering words of the whisper. I stand and try to peer past the darkness trying to discern the truth.

“Why would this be the choice of my soul?” I wonder aloud. “What is this voice trying to tell me?”

“Should your choice be based upon the ease of the path ahead,” the whisper seems to reply, “or what you can learn from the path?”

“And what can I learn from this path over any other path?” I ask.

“Truth, perhaps, or maybe the measure of yourself,” the whisper sighs.

I ponder the meaning of the whisper’s words. What is my measure? It’s true that so far the tunnels have been easy for me with a smooth floor and guiding walls. Is that all that I want, an easy path before me?

I take a hesitant step down the path. Nothing happens. I take a few more steps down this new tunnel and trip over a rock on the floor. Picking myself up, I brush off my hands and knees. My palms feel like they’ve been scraped to the bone. I can barely see the blood flowing from my hands but I know it’s there. I can feel the ache of the bruises on my knees. Disliking this path because of the pain it’s caused me so shortly after the choosing, I turn to retreat but my way is blocked. The tunnel walls have closed behind me so quickly that I don’t have a chance to reverse my decision. There’s nothing to do but continue down this new tunnel. The realization finally hits me that once a path has been chosen, there’s no turning back. At least I know to be more careful now.

As I stand there thinking about this new decision, this new tunnel, I notice the back wall of the tunnel slowly inching towards me. I don’t have any choice now; I have to continue down this path. I know deep inside that to remain in this spot would be fruitless. Sooner or later, whether by my own steps or the push of the tunnel wall, I have to continue to the end; at least until another cross path appears.

Gathering what remains of my courage, skills and desire, I start down the tunnel. I try to carefully place my feet on a floor that I can barely see but still, every now and then, I fall. Each time I fall, I pick myself up and continue on, my body inflicted with a new pain or bruise. Soon, I feel like a massive walking sore. The flow of blood down my fingers never seems to stop. I can feel each and every drop as it drips off my fingertips and onto the floor. But each fall seems to hurt a little less, although the shock of falling constantly tries to steal the breath from my lungs. Oh, how much further do I have to go? How many more choices do I have to make — or not make?

As I walk down the tunnel, the whispers from the side passages hint at the ease of their paths. I rest beside one of the cross tunnels and hear its whisper coaxing me with words of ease and comfort. I’m sorely tempted to change direction and take the path that offers less torment. But I think to myself, “Is this my measure? To give up and quit when the path gets a little rough?” Pulling myself up from my resting spot, I turn my back to the mesmerizing whisper and continue down the path I’ve followed so faithfully.

The further down this tunnel I travel, the easier it is for me to walk. Maybe it’s that I’m getting used to the rough path. Perhaps my eyes are more accustomed to the darkness. It does seem as though I can see more detail ahead of me. Glancing back, I see the tunnel’s end is still keeping pace with me.

No, it really is getting easier to see! I can see further and further ahead. The rocks and cracks on the floor can be seen slightly ahead of my feet, enough that I don’t fall as often. I can make out more detail down the side tunnels. The whispers are still with me every time I pass a different tunnel, “Follow me! I’m better for you! I’m the right path!” I ignore the whispering and stay my course. Although the whispers promise all sorts of benefits from following them, I know its better to stay on course with this tunnel since I can actually see where I’m headed. Even if I don’t know the final destination, the ability to see my steps in front of me is a welcome relief.

Slowly, like a new dawn, a soft light sets the end of the tunnel aglow. At first, I think I’m seeing things, that my eyes are playing tricks with my mind. But the glow remains and slowly, ever so slowly, the glow intensifies. This is so different from my other experiences thus far in this maze of tunnels that I stop and think, “What’s at the end of the tunnel? What’s that light mean? Should I try to find another tunnel or should I continue on to the end?” The warmth of the soft glow feels so good within the coldness of the black that still surrounds me. Remembering that for each step I take forward, the tunnel wall behind me will swallow up where I’ve been, I start taking hesitant steps towards the light, still unsure as to what the light is or represents.

The whispers from the side tunnels intensify, trying to coerce me into their side paths. The insistence of the whispering grows and grows the closer I get to the light. Some of the whispers begin to threaten, others to cajole and yet others to plead and whine. The sound of the whispers becomes a cacophony of noise surrounding me. But I’m so close to a possible ending of these tunnels, I won’t deviate from my chosen path. Forward I go, dismissing them from my mind. The light has taken on a life of its own in my mind, drawing me closer and closer.

Now I can see that there is a bend in the tunnel ahead and the glowing light looks like it’s right around the corner. Taking a deep breath, I step around the bend, expecting to come face to face with the source of the light. Instead, I see the tunnel continues on, the light a guiding beacon ahead of me. I can see a multitude of side passages between this light and myself. I know that the whispers are going to reach an intensity that’s going to be hard to ignore. I briefly consider running the rest of the way to the light, but I see the numerous rocks and fissures that cover the floor and know I can’t run without hurting myself even more. I’m going to have to walk the tunnel carefully and do my best to disregard the dark whisperings of the side passages. I’ve got to finish to prove to myself that I can.

The whispers from the side passages seem to take on ethereal bodies and a vocal strength I’d not encountered thus far. I can almost feel the cold, clammy grasp of wispy fingers grabbing at my clothes and arms as I pass each opening. The whispers want to pull me down their separate paths. I’m frightened now because the whispers have an edge to their words, a hysteria that drives them to promise me anything and everything. “Just walk down this tunnel and be free of your pain!” This tunnel promises a softer floor to walk on and a light to guide me, while another begs me to stop and rest within its comforting walls, “It’s all right to rest, you’ve come so far!”

I quickly glance down these beckoning tunnels as I pass by. Somehow, I know that their truth is different from their claim; that to escape I must ignore their entreaties. I doggedly wrap my arms about my chest and, lowering my head to concentrate on the path ahead, trudge forward to the light. I can feel the growing warmth and comfort offered by the light on my skin and clothes. Ignoring the rocks and cracks as much as possible, I hasten my steps; I’m ready for this journey to reach an end.

Stumbling on a final rock, I pitch forward into a huge, cavernous room. The light is in the center of the room, suspended in the air above the floor. The ceiling is so high; it’s hidden from view by a darkness and distance that the light can’t seem to penetrate. Looking around the room, I see hundreds, thousands, of tunnels opening into the room and realize that I could have, perhaps, taken a different path to reach this destination.

As I look at the multitude of openings, I begin to see other travelers emerging from the tunnels. Some of them race towards the light as though they’re being chased by some mad demon and seemingly disappear into its center. Others, like me, look around in wonder and awe at the numerous tunnel openings and the massive room containing them. Some of these travelers grin at the sight of the openings and then calmly walk towards the light. Others cry out in anger, beating their hands on the ground and screaming into the air. Their cries rise and fall in a confusing concerto of pain and anger. Some of them eventually get up from the floor and, wandering aimlessly about the room, disappear down tunnels different from the ones they had originally traveled.

I glance at my hands and notice that the blood no longer falls from my fingers. In fact, the wounds and pains from my passage are gone! I feel refreshed, renewed. Close to me, a traveler lies on the ground crying and beating his fists against the hard floor. I walk over to him and ask, “What’s wrong? Why are you beating the floor with your hands?”

The sad traveler looks up at me and sobs, “’Cause now I’m faced with choosing another tunnel to walk, and I don’t know which one to choose. They all seem the same: featureless walls and floors that never seem to end. I’m so tired of walking. I’m tired, I’m cold, and this perpetual gloom seems to be never ending.”

“But what about the light?” I ask.

“What light? Are you nuts? Did the whispers in your tunnel drive you as mad as I think I’m becoming?”

I glance at the source of light in the center of the room and smile.

Copyright © 2003 by Rick Combs

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