In the Tunnels
—for Helen Lock
We do not understand beauty. We understand only work. Work without ceasing. In the earth. It makes us feel alive, to work.
We do not understand love or god, or the orange grove that sleeps by the river at night. We do not sleep well and are uncertain of night—what it is. We resent sleep and there is no night here, or day, or oranges. We resent the orange grove although we have never seen it, only heard of it from those who came down to us long ago. We never go up. Never leave the tunnels, the tunnels through which we move without stopping, unless it is to sleep. Never sleep without dreaming of work and the tunnels, which we love, in our way.
In our mouths is the earth and it is good to taste.
In our eyes is nothing but darkness. We have heard of light although it puzzles us. Inside the earth is no light. Inside the belly of the earth is blackness and everything we need. Sustenance and the work which delights us and the endless tunnels. We do not need eyes where there is nothing to see.
We think the thoughts of our kind.
It was not always so.
Once, before any of us were born, before the tunnels wound their way through the place where all that is known dwells, there was sky. We do not know sky. There was rain, which we do not know either. We say sky and rain, light and darkness, river and orange grove as we go forward, endlessly onward. We say them to ourselves or, sometimes, to each other, whispering these words which were said once by those who came down into the dark. Though they mean nothing, we whisper them because they are strange and, hearing them, we tremble. We stop on our way a moment and wonder.
Those words of then—of long before the tunneling.
But soon they fade, their echoes die, and we shake off the strangeness of them and the feeling they leave in our bodies—shake them off—and return to the work that is always there and which we would miss sorely were it not.
For work is our life and the meaning of our life. Without it we would come to a stop in the tunnels, come to a standstill not knowing what to do next, not knowing where to go, not knowing who we are. And time would come into the tunnels and into the chambers where we sleep badly, and turn us to stone. To earth. To stone. To death. Time waits on the other side like a root that strangles. Time which we fear more than anything else we know.
Sky, rain, stars, light—we shake them off soon as faded because to stand still is to die.
The earth falls, from time to time, falls into the tunnel, blocking it. We carry it away, bit by bit, into a chamber where it is spread on the ground to be trampled underfoot. The earth falls, the chambers fill one by one until new tunnels are made, new chambers finished.
This is our work, our beloved work. Not to work is unthinkable.
We feel our way.
A mournful noise. The earth has fallen on one of us. We lift our voices, we make a mournful noise which trembles in the tunnels, lifting our voices in a single voice of mourning for the one who is buried.
We say that when one of us is buried all are. We are. Because we are one and the same. This is our strength.
To be buried in the earth is to be blessed, we say, for the earth is the source of all good. We come from it and return to it. In it we find all we need, our sustenance. To die at our work is also good. Though we fear death we understand it.
We leave the one who is buried where he lies. To uncover him would be wrong, we know. In our bones we know that the earth that covers him, which will cover each of us, is his, ours, always. It opens to receive us. It opens and lets time into the tunnels. It covers us with its body. Though we do not understand love, we believe that the earth loves us just as we love the tunnels we make in it.
Love, we think, is the embrace of earth. We feel it all life long and, we imagine, at the moment of our death. This is all we know about it.
We know nothing of what comes after.
We leave the one who is buried where he lies and tunnel around him. But before we go on with our work, we pause to wonder what comes after the moment of our death. But only for a moment. The work waits and we are eager to continue it. We eat a little of the earth that has fallen in honor of him who is buried and go on.
Only in death are we alone.
It is true we dream. One is of the roots we encounter in our digging. We fear them. When we encounter them we shudder. We say they are unclean. They are clammy to the touch and have a sickly smell.
We say that they smell of death.
We do not know where they come from, only that they come from the other side of the wall where time and death and all that is not known dwell. It is the unknown always that makes us shudder.
In the dream of roots they hang down from the ceiling of the tunnels and the chambers like fingers. Like hair. Like fingers poking through the earth to get at us. If they touch us we die. If they touch us we fall down dead with no earth to cover us. In the dream we lie on the ground, unblessed, and become ourselves unclean things with no one to put a little dirt in his mouth for our sake.
To dream of roots is considered a bad omen. We say that to be touched by roots in our dreams is to be fingered by death. We sleep badly.
Worms, too, are unclean.
We have encountered something in our digging that puzzles us. Not roots or rock or the water that sometimes bursts through the wall of a tunnel so that it is necessary—to our horror—to seal it up with some of us left inside to drown. To our horror. It is hard, like rock, but smooth and very large. None of us has ever encountered its like before. We have been digging for some time, we have closed our eyes and opened them many times already, but we have not come to the end of it. We are troubled because the tunneling cannot go forward until we come to the end of this thing blocking the way.
What is it?
Some say one thing and some another, but no one is sure.
We have begun to feel a strange, new sensation which troubles us even more than the blockage. We are not, as before, one. We have not, as we have always had, one voice. Some say one thing, some another.
Better not think about it.
We work unceasingly. When sleep overtakes us, we stand where we are in the tunnels or in the chambers and sleep. We sleep badly. Sometimes we dream—of roots or worms or water flooding the tunnels. And now the blockage—we dream of it, what it means. In our dreams it continues without end. Some of us fear it.
We work unceasingly to go around, but for the first time we can make no headway. We have always gone forward. To go forward is what we do, why we work, that and to mend the walls, to hack at the roots, to struggle against the worms. Now we go along the blockage – the smooth, faceless wall confronting us—to the right, the left, trying to find a way forward. As is our way. As we have always done. As we must.
Go round! Go round!—is all we say now. The old words once said into the darkness to make us stand still in wonder until their last echoes faded are forgotten. Forgotten is the orange grove that sleeps by the river at night. Forgotten, rain and sky.
More than ever we resent sleep and see omens in our dreams. We shall die unblessed, with no clean earth to receive us, no one to be silent over us, no one to put a little earth in his mouth for our sake, if we cannot find a way forward onto untrampled paths. Our endless footsteps have turned the clean earth to dirt, where none is blessed.
There is great excitement in the tunnels! One of us has had a dream. At first we did not understand him, but he spilled a little water on the ground and, with the mud, made something he calls steps. In his dream, he says, they went on and on, up and up until they disappeared. He says the blockage is steps, the smooth and faceless wall confronting us, and in his dream we went up them.
But where? Where do they lead?
He does not know.
Most believe we should go on with the tunneling until a way forward is found. To go back is impossible. To go back is not in our nature. But some few want to climb the steps. They believe those who came down to us long ago must have come this way. They say the steps lead up into the light, the river and the orange grove. We begin to whisper the old words again, listen to them tremble in the tunnels.
But what are they? Are they worth leaving all that we know? Are they anything more than sounds we make to wonder at?
I do not know.
We are frightened—many of us are frightened. We do not know what to do.
To go up. We have always gone forward, but now to go up—is it possible?
The work has stopped. Unthinkable, but true.
We do not seem to have the will to continue. Earth has fallen into the tunnels but we do not mend the walls, we let the earth stay, blocking them. We think strange thoughts. Some have visions. No one is certain of what should be done. Most of us are tired. We sleep. Most of us seem drained of the will to go up. On or up—we are unable to move. We sleep without resenting it.
Soon we will be without sustenance.
While we are sunk in uncertainty and weariness, a worm comes through a tumbled-down place in the wall. Half asleep, we are unequal to the struggle. It threads its way among us where we lie and begins to eat. We are roused by screams and, for a moment, shake off our lethargy. But the worm slides back through the wall before we can kill it. We are horrified because, for our dead, there will be no clean place to lie. No blessing under earth. We raise our voices in mourning for those of us who were taken in the belly of the worm to the other side of the wall where all that is unknown dwells. We take a little earth in our mouths as is our custom, but spit it out as if unclean. As if dirt. As if tasting of worm.
Ashamed, we forget the dream of steps and remember our work. We mend the earthen walls and begin to tunnel as before, back and forth along the smooth and faceless wall. We are confident that a way round will be found and are once again indefatigable. Never again, we vow, relax our vigilance.
The work continues, we sleep little and badly. All goes on as before. But the work continues without progress. Still, we are in high hopes of making headway against the steps, if that is what they are, the steps leading up into light. Whatever light is.
The opposite of what we see, someone says.
We see nothing but earth, roots, water, worm.
The opposite of what is.
From time to time we remember the havoc wreaked by the worm and shudder. In disgust. For worms are the symbol for us of all that is unclean and unblessed. Worms and roots—together everything that sickens and makes us afraid. We are afraid of time and the moment after death and the water that sometimes floods the tunnels, but they do not sicken us. They do not disgust us. Only worms do, and roots. When we sleep badly it is because of them, turning in our brains.
Hungry, we send a cohort into a region we have already passed through in search of sustenance. We listen to the footsteps fade. We have never gone back but hunger drives us to it.
There is talk of the steps again.
I do not know what to think.
All very hungry. Nothing to do but wait.
They have not come back. We have closed our eyes and opened them many times and still they have not come back. Eaten by worms, drowned by water, overtaken by time—lost. We who are never lost. Perhaps they have lost themselves by going against nature, going back. We never see them again.
More talk of the steps. Many again think we should go up though they are uncertain what will be found there. Some fear the idea of light. They do not believe it possible to live in the opposite of what is. Much discussion of this, much difference of opinion.
The orange grove also worries us though we relish the words in our mouths. We rack our brains to remember everything that has come down to us from our ancestors, but we have not an inkling of what the words mean. They are nothing but sounds. If the orange grove is good, why did our ancestors not go up? Why did those who came down, come down? Many are swayed by this argument. But not all.
The answers lie in the remotest regions already passed through, where our ancestors lie blessed under earth. Where we who now live have never been. Impossible to go back as proved by those who tried and never returned.
Our great hunger may be the most convincing argument for climbing the stairs.
I wonder what I will do?
The one who first dreamed the meaning of the blockage has had another dream. In it he saw some of us climbing the steps while others stayed behind. Those who climbed seemed to do so interminably, but the steps came to an end at last. Those who stayed died. He saw their bodies in a heap at the foot of the steps.
Did he see in his dream what came after, at the end of climbing?
He did not see.
Did they come to grief?
He does not know.
What then does he know?
Only that the climbing stopped, those who did not climb died, and those who did raised their voices.
Raised them how?
In a shout. Of thanksgiving.
Because the work ended. There was no more tunneling.
Amazement! We know joy but only in work, in tunneling. None of us can imagine it in the absence of work. What joy or thanksgiving can there be then? There is much debate in the chambers where before only sleep and dreaming, much difference of opinion where once all united. That was our strength.
Can he tell us what is light?
The word is new to us.
A shining is—he cannot explain.
Try! we urge him.
It is—he raises his arms, then lets them fall helplessly. He cannot say. For it is what we do not know and cannot conceive.
Like what is on the other side of the tunnel?
No, that is more dark, more dark than here. That is where time is and death, worms and roots. Light is beautiful, but we do not understand beauty.
And while some do not believe, most do. I want to believe but do not entirely. I have known joy only in work, in tunneling. What else is there? But we must eat soon. If not, we will climb.
The dreamer of steps is dead. We do not know how. We found him in a chamber where he had done to await another dream. We stood a long time in the tunnels, silently waiting. We all desperately want to know. Know what to do. Whether to go up as many want or to remain where we have always been. I myself wonder if we have the strength to climb—have strength left for anything. Those who believe we are better off in the tunnels argue that it is only a matter of time before a way is found around the blockage. Surely it cannot go on forever, they say. Everything must come to an end. But there are those who take the opposite view. We have been advancing for as long as we have been. There has never been a time—not even in our common memory—when we were not. Behind us, they say, is without end. So, too, ahead. What lies ahead, the same—earth without end. That being so, may not the blockage go on forever?
There is a third view. The blockage is not steps but a wall, an endless wall beyond which is Nothing.
Is not Nothing that which is on the other side of the tunnels?
No. Worms and roots and time are there. Nothing is elsewhere.
The other side of the blockage.
But what is Nothing.
We do not know.
What? we shout in our agony of mind, our doubt and our perplexity.
The opposite of what is.
We do not know.
But light is above, according to the dream and according to what we were told long ago by those who came down from the orange grove.
Then not light.
We do not know.
Finally we grew tired of waiting and went into the chamber. The dreamer was dead. We do not know how. He lay on the chamber floor, unmarked by worm, by root or time.
He was killed by Nothing, some said. The Nothing, which is on the other side of the wall. It came into his sleep and killed him. Others say no, it was light. It was light and the orange grove—the thought of them. He was punished for holding them in his mind. For dreaming light.
We do not know what to do. He died without ever telling us his dream, what the dream said. We do not know.
Over the body of the dreamer, clean earth and a heap of stones. To mark the place.
Everywhere the smell of death. We die and are left uncovered. We fall and are forgotten. No one says the words. No one mourns. Each thinks his own thoughts. Waits.
Norman Lock’s collection of linked fictions, A History of the Imagination will be published in August 2004 by Fiction Collective 2. Joseph Cornell’s Operas and Émigrés, originally published by elimae books, were brought out by an Istanbul publisher in March 2004 as part of its New World Writing Series. A novella, Marco Knauff’s Universe, was published in 2003 by Ravenna Press. Recent fiction appears in 3rd Bed #9.
Lock's plays have been staged internationally. The Los Angeles Times voted The House of Correction among the best of 1988 and 1994, for its revival. It was called the best new play of the 1996 Edinburgh Theatre Festival. He is also the author of a film, The Body Shop, produced by The American Film Institute.
He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Helen. They have two children.