At the End of the Tunnel
In the mines, I am alone.
In the old days, before I was born, men would carry canaries in cages under the ground with them. But I’m not a man, and I don’t have a canary, and I wouldn’t want one anyway, because a canary would drown out the sounds of the tunnels.
A tunnel sounds like the beginning of a yawn.
A tunnel sounds like a ghost in the cupboard.
I go into the mines on rainy days, on snowy days, on days when fog blankets my valley town. Days when the wet smell of the forest seeps through the cracks in the house where I live by myself, and I get this feeling like I want to burrow. In the mines, I wear a headlamp and carry a backpack filled with matches, a canteen of water, apples, a ball of yarn, and five little glass jars to hold the treasures I find: a bat skull, a rusted belt buckle, an empty snail shell. I can spend an entire day there and never feel lonely or afraid.
In the old days, men descended into the mines and picked at the walls for copper, for iron, for knuckle-sized nuggets of coal. They dug so deep that the air grew heavy and warm and then they dug deeper, following the veins of ore. But eventually, the walls stopped glittering. The ore ran out. They abandoned their mines, leaving behind wooden minecarts on steel rails to rot, lanterns with panes of glass that crack like ice under my feet, lunch pails with initials scratched on the bottom. Little clues for me to piece together what the mines held before they held me.
In my regular life, I work at a grocery store. When my coworkers ask why I come in on Monday with scabbed over knuckles or red dirt on my shoes, I tell them I’m a recreational rock climber. But then they want to know where I climb. They want to know what equipment I use. Why do people always have so many questions? Sometimes I think they’re just asking to be polite, sometimes I think they sense I have a secret life and they’re trying to uncover it. I challenge myself to see how long I can go without speaking. I make sure the shelves have enough cartons of eggs, sacks of flower, white mushroom caps. I move the ripe avocados to the top of the pile. I build towers of Granny Smiths. I answer questions in smiles and gestures. I don’t say a word.
Every couple of weeks, after work, I get dinner with a group of women I’ve known since we were children. They’re all married with babies at home. We always meet at the same restaurant, a diner where you can order both pancakes and whiskey at any time of the day. Around them, I never have to talk about myself. Their lives seem fraught with drama. Their husbands make unwise investments and have one-time affairs with coworkers. Their children set fires in their backyards and go skinny dipping in the neighbors’ pools.
When their attention does land on me, it’s to ask when I’ll marry. They don’t actually expect an answer. It’s clear that I’m just a placeholder in their fantasies. They turn to each other before I can take a breath, say how perfect it would be if I could find a nice farmer, or a woodsman. A man with strong hands and a collection of bearskins to keep me warm when the snow comes. If they waited long enough, I know what I’d say. I’d tell my friends I’m too busy to date, because that’d be easier than explaining that I prefer mines to men.
I did date a few times, years ago. I dated, because, like moving out of my parents’ house, like finding a job, it seemed like the thing I was supposed to do at that point in my life. I dated all sorts of people. A man who practiced falconry. A man who could dance his fingers along the neck of a fiddle so quickly I swore he was made of flickering flames instead of flesh and bone. I dated a woman who could sing dragonflies into her palm. I dated another who could shoot a squirrel out of a tree from a hundred yards away. But they never excited me like walking into the woods did, or like exploring the cave eventually did. My dates placed their hands on the small of my back, and I felt bored. They reached for my hand, and I felt my chest constricting. As soon as I met them, I was waiting for them to leave again.
Once, one of my dates asked me why I never talked about myself. “What are you so afraid of me knowing?” she asked teasingly, leaning forward over the table that separated us, candlelight splashing new contours onto her face. “What’s the harm in telling me what you’re thinking right now?”
No one had ever asked me that question before, and the answer felt so obvious that I was surprised she hadn’t already figured it out on her own. The harm in telling her about myself was that if I opened up a little, she would want more and more. Ever since I was a girl, I’d sensed my desires and needs were different from other people’s. I didn’t know how to use words to make myself understandable to others. I didn’t want to have to.
She never asked to see me again, and I never asked to see her. It was only a few months later that I found the mines. Barely three miles from my home, in the thick woods behind my house. Concealed behind a blackberry bush. An empty doorway propped up by metal beams. I stepped cautiously through the entrance. Dead leaves carpeted the ground. A snake skin brushed against my ankle. I walked, chin tucked against my chest to avoid hitting my head on the low ceiling, until there was no more light to guide me. Then, I sat. The earth was cool and damp beneath my thighs. I breathed in the smell of the warm, damp air. Let it fill me up. Let my consciousness stretch away from my own body, into the corners of the tunnel, to the slow, steady drip of moisture.
A sharp cracking sound jolted me back into myself.
I got to my feet.
“Hello,” I called, and my voice echoed. My voice magnified, repeating itself in the dark.
My first thought that teenagers already occupied these mines, using the tunnels to smoke pot or drink out of sight of their parents. But when no one responded, my mind went to a story I hadn’t thought about in years. Miners used to believe they shared their tunnels with Knockers: little, humanoid creatures with long, white beards and wrinkly faces. When I was a girl, my father, whose own father had worked in coal mines in a different town many years before, told me bedtime stories about men wandering underground for days, disoriented, following the sound of footsteps they could never catch up to. The Knockers could be benevolent or devious. Sometimes they’d tap on the walls to warn miners that a tunnel was about to collapse. Other times they’d snatch the canaries from their cages, blow out the miners’ candles so they’d get lost in the dark.
I used to think they that the miners in my father’s tales were just superstitious. But underground, I find myself believing in things I normally don’t.
Underground, I believe in monsters that live deep, deep in the earth until someone wakes them up. I believe in ghosts.
The next week, I returned to the mines. And I kept coming back. In the mines, that tight feeling in my chest disappears. I can go hours without uttering a single word. Time disappears. I feel wiped free of anything that plagues me above ground.
Sometimes I get this feeling that it wasn’t men who built these mines, but me. Past versions of myself. I imagine that I must have been reincarnated dozens of times, each time finding my way to these tunnels. I find a footprint encased in long-dried mud and when I hover my own foot above the print, they’re the same size. Then, I find a rusty pickaxe with a grip that fits my hand perfectly. A few days later, I trip over a helmet, and when I try it on, it’s snug without being too tight. Like it was made for me. I start carrying the pickaxe and wearing the helmet every time I go underground.
One morning in the spring, almost a year after I first entered the mines, I find a tunnel that branches off from a route I’d walked many times before. The entrance to the new tunnel is narrow, set against an outcropping of rock, usually hidden in the shadow my headlamp casts against the walls. But on this day, the light hit the walls differently. I see the entrance where before I’d only seen darkness.
I can tell immediately that this tunnel is alive. I learned to tell the difference between a tunnel that was alive and one that was dead soon after I started exploring the mines. Most tunnels are dead. In dead tunnels, nothing changes other than the occasional rock breaking loose from the wall or a rat decomposing in a corner. Everything is perfectly preserved, the air dry and static. But living tunnels are connected to veins of water that kept them growing. Calcium salt drip from the ceilings. Drops of water hang, suspended, from the end of stalactites like jewels on the ears of a woman.
I enter, wondering how many times I’ve walked it in the past, thinking I knew my surroundings, thinking I understood the mines, not seeing what was right in front of me. The new tunnel is so narrow I have to walk sideways, leading with my shoulder. I stop to catch my breath. When I inhale, my chest presses against the wall, so I feel like I can’t take a full breath. I shine my light ahead, hoping that the tunnel widens, but I can’t see more than a few yards ahead before the path curves out of sight.
For the first time in the mines, I feel truly afraid.
I get that feeling I did when I was a child, playing hide and seek in my parents’ bedroom closet. Normally I wasn’t allowed in their closet. But they didn’t know I was here. I let my hands float over rows of fabric in the dark, finding clothing I’d never seen them wear. A wedding dress wrapped in plastic. Pointed, impossibly tall heels. A folder full of letters addressed with names I didn’t recognize. A locked box. I had the feeling that if I stayed, if I looked too hard, I’d find more than I wanted to know. I’d learn truths about my parents that I could never unlearn.
I stopped the game. I left.
I do the same now. I back up out of the tunnel quickly enough that I scrape my hand on the walls. I leave blood on the rocks.
I stride out of the mines and back to my home, where I lock the door. Where I try to figure out why I’m shaking, what it was at the end of that tunnel I was afraid to see.
That week, when I meet up with the women at the diner, I can’t even pretend to listen to their stories. My mind is underground, trying to see past the darkness in the narrow tunnel. When one of them says, “I know someone who you might like,” I answer, “Sure,” without fully hearing what she’s saying.
“Perfect,” she says. “I’ll arrange everything. Tomorrow night okay?”
I nod, deciding I’ll cancel last minute anyway. But when the next day comes, I feel like I need a place to go to distract myself from thinking about the mines. Plus, I don’t want to face the women’s questions if they realize I’ve backed out.
I meet the man at a tavern in town. I wear jeans and a T-shirt, refusing to make a special effort for a stranger. He wears work boots and a flannel shirt. He is a large man, with a coily, brown beard that reached to his chest and thick thighs and strong hands, the kind of man my friends married or wished they had married.
He buys a pitcher of ale and pours us each a glass.
“So, what do you do?” he asks me. “In your free time? What do you enjoy?”
I shrug. “I like being outside. I like walking.”
He nodded. “That’s good. Me too. So do I.”
He reaches across the table, and without giving me the chance to pull away, takes my hands in his, rubs his thumb along the scabs that have formed on my skin. Then he looks at me and chuckles, something in my expression apparently making him laugh.
“This makes you nervous, doesn’t it?” he says, smiling.
I don’t answer. The truth is, holding his hands feels no different than holding a sun-warmed stone, or a pitcher of water, or a pot of tea.
“It’s okay,” he says. “It’s cute. I don’t meet many shy girls anymore.”
I pull away, and he lets me, but he keeps his eyes stuck on mine. His expression gets serious. “Who hurt you, honey?”
The question startles me. “No one,” I say.
He smiled gently. “Everybody’s been hurt by somebody. But you can’t let yourself stay broken forever. Your friends told me how long it’s been since you’ve had love. No one stays alone for so long unless they’ve been wounded.”
I stand. I take a step backwards. “I’m gonna go. I—I feel like going now.”
“Don’t run away from this, hon,” he says, but I am already on my way out the door.
Back at home, I decide I’m not going to wait another day. Tomorrow I’ll return to the mines. I’d rather face whatever lies in that tunnel then lead the rest of my days with people who tell me I’m broken.
That next morning, I leave my house earlier than usual. I pull on my dusty boots, my jeans, and my helmet. I fill my backpack with scones and a thermos full of coffee to drink on the way. Then I step outside into my yard facing the woods. The valley is awash with fog, the world gray in the early light. Trees, boulders, bushes fade in and out of focus like passing ghosts.
It takes me less than an hour to reach the mines, and it’s a relief to enter their stillness. It only takes me fifteen more minutes to reach the narrow tunnel.
The air is heavy and moist, like I remember it. I can feel the moisture beading on my upper lip. The passage is narrow, and I’m forced into a crab-walk. When I feel my heart start to thump in my chest, I keep my breaths slow. I focus only on forward movement. I pay so much attention to not tripping over the small, twisted stalagmites that seem to burst from the ground like horns, that I don’t realize I’ve reached the end of the tunnel until I collide with it.
I gasp a little and take a few steps backwards.
In front of me is a door.
About five feet tall, three feet wide. Built out of dark wood. I trace my light along its frame, find metal hinges and a tarnished, bronze doorknob.
I put my ear to it. The wood is soft, gives a little as I press into it, like it’s rotten in the middle. I close my eyes and listen. I am painfully aware of the sounds of my own body. The air filling my chest cavity, then rushing out through my nostrils. My stomach growling as the muscles contract around the empty space. I hold my breath, close my eyes, try to still my body for a moment, just long enough to listen.
I hear a tap.
The tap is clear, staccato. I call it a tap, because I don’t want to call it a knock. A knock has a Knocker.
I open my eyes, step back, and drop to my knees. My breath is coming too quickly. I feel my heart pounding in my temples.
I want to disappear.
I reach up, switch off my headlamp. Become invisible.
If I turn back now, I know I’ll never come back to the mines. I’ll have to spend the rest of my life pretending to be something understandable, something able to be put into words.
I stand. Make myself big. Switch my headlamp back on.
I place my hand on the doorknob to steady myself. The metal is cool and sweaty in my palm.
I turn the knob.
And nothing happens. It’s locked. Or maybe it’s been rusted shut. Maybe over years of disuse, the cave has grown around it, like a tree trunk growing around a chain link fence.
I think about how as still as the earth may seem, it is always moving. Its movements measured in millennia instead of moments. Once upon a time, this tunnel might have had a different entrance, one that has closed up in the time since. Am I on the outside of the door, or am I inside?
I curl my fingers into a fist, and the scabs on my hands crack, maybe start to bleed. I knock twice on the door.
Then, something knocks back.
I know it’s a knock this time. Not a tap.
Two knocks, the sound of something alive.
My heart is galloping. I could turn around now. I could close up this tunnel with a wall of rocks, I could leave the mines forever. I could turn away from this mystery. But I am not broken. There is nothing wounded about me. I built these mines. I dug deeper into the earth than anyone before me, and then I kept digging. I’ve died in these mines, was lost and starved, inhaled gas seeping silently from between the rocks, was crushed in a rockfall. But then I was reborn.
I take the pickaxe from my belt. The handle is warm under my fingers. So much warmer than the man’s hands in the tavern. I hold the pickaxe high over my head. I aim for the door. I swing.
The door splinters. It doesn’t give.
I raise the axe again.
This time it breaks through, puts a fist-sized hole in the wood.
I think about stopping. Peering through the split in the wood, shining my light on whatever lies on the other side from the safety of this side of the door. But now that I’ve started on this path, I can’t slow myself down. I let my pickaxe drop to my side. I raise my leg, knee bent, and I kick. Is this what it was like for my friends when they fell in love? Was it like fighting their way through a dark tunnel, their feet and hands moving them forward almost against their will? I kick and kick at the already weakened door until it collapses, soft and rotten, at my feet.
Ahead of me is more tunnel. I step through the now empty doorframe. I swing my light along the rocky walls. They’re damp, flesh-like, covered in waxy formations that look slimy to the touch. I feel like I’m crawling through the body of a giant beast.
I swing my light into the pitch blackness ahead of me, and the beam wraps around a figure. A humanoid.
I gasp and step backwards, but I keep my light trained on the being. Its back is to me. It’s wearing dusty brown overalls. I can’t tell how tall it is, because it is bent over, like it’s picking something up off the floor. A pickaxe like mine swings from its left hand.
I think now that the Knockers from the stories must be real. I try to remember if there was a way to gain the Knockers’ favor. If they can be won over by gold or bread or a good riddle. As the figure in front of me begins to stand and turn, I wish silently for a good Knocker. One of the Knockers that warns of cave-ins, that leads lost miners back to the light, that finds gems in the deep belly of the earth and shares its wealth with those it meets.
It’s facing me now, and I can’t understand what I’m looking at. The figure is as tall as I am. It doesn’t have a long, white beard. It doesn’t have a gnarled, wrinkly face.
It has my face.
She has my face.
Her hair is longer than mine, she’s much paler. But she has my long nose, my slightly droopy left eyelid, my downturned mouth.
She walks up to me. Slowly. Dragging the pickaxe behind her so that it draws a line in the dirt. When she’s only a few feet away, she drops the pickaxe at her feet and reaches out to me with her free hands. When we touch, I feel electrified. The hair on my arms stands up. She grips my forearms, her fingers pressing into the flesh, her skin as cool as the underside of a stone.
I realize I’m not afraid. I’m feeling something more complicated, something older than fear.
With one of her hands she reaches up, and before I can stop her, switches off my headlamp. I prepare to plunge into darkness. But the cave doesn’t go dark. Instead, everything around me glimmers silver, like a desert under a full moon.
I look at her, her with my face. In this strange cave-light, her eyes look purple. I know mine must be, too.
“Are you a Knocker?” I ask. Her lips twitch. I think it’s a smile. “Am I Knocker?” I ask.
I get the feeling I’m not asking the right questions. Her fingers stay wrapped around my arms, but it doesn’t feel like she’s trying to restrain me. The pressure of her fingers on my arms feels safe, safe like the hug of the tunnel around us, safe like the slow and steady growth of stalactites.
I dig my heels into the dusty ground. I think of a new question. “Can I stay?”
This time she smiles for real. Full teeth. Crooked in the same places mine are. She lets go of my arms and turns and I follow her. I follow her as the tunnel slopes down, and the tunnel widens. I feel like I’m on my way somewhere.
I don’t remember eating or sleeping, and yet I never feel hungry or tired. I sense that I have been here for a very, very long time.
Every now and then I catch a memory of my past. A little house by the woods. Parents scolding me for saying the wrong thing. I know these memories are real, but it’s like memories of a dream. They don’t matter.
There are more than two of us now. We all look like sisters, nearly identical. Small things make us different. The number of teeth in our mouths, the length of our hair. The pattern of moles on our arms. One of us looks like she might have been a queen. She wears her hair in a braid nested around the top of her head. Another looks like she was a fighter. A knight. Her biceps large and round enough to fill our palms. Her hair shaved close to her skull.
We travel through the earth in a line, occasionally tapping on the walls of the tunnels to remind each other we’re there.
When a tunnel ends, we pick up our pickaxes, and we form new tunnels.
We riddle the earth full of holes.
The earth creaking around us is a language I can understand.
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