Friday, November 10, 2006

The Tunnel

The road leading up the mountain twisted and turned back on itself so many times I had begun to think we would end up where we started. There were few houses and these perched precariously on steep hills. One tremor would surely send them tumbling down. It was a surprise the cows didn't topple over.

Driveways appeared suddenly around curves but were quickly swallowed up in the trees, brief indicators that someone passed here regularly. The nearest town was miles away, although there were small roadside stores. Most of them probably served the needs of the locals and the tourists.

Oaks, pines, maples, hickory, dogwood, and rhododendron covered the mountain. Their leaves were just beginning their change from green to flaming shades of orange, yellow and crimson. Sunlight filtering through the leaves made the day blaze around us. A small stream ran down a steep rocky slope, chuckling and skipping over sharp, jagged boulders and whispering across smooth, glossy stone sheets.

It was there, set into the mountain, a black mouth, frozen in a huge, toothless yawn where the heart had been. A set of tracks lay abandoned a short distance away, a testimony of the plans that fell short. An ornamental metal sign said the tunnel was carved during the Civil War with the help of slaves.

"There's an abandoned town a couple of miles on the other side of the mountain. To reach it you have to climb that 50-foot cliff near the stream and hike a path for a couple of miles. No one goes there much. Workers who had helped carve out the heart of the mountain had lived there," a tall dark man said.

"Germans," someone else said.

A man wearing a gray Stetson trimmed in gold braid spoke up, "If they had finished this the war might have been different."

I studied the entrance and wondered. Longer, maybe? More blood, more death. How much more would the nation have suffered? How much deeper would the nation have gone into depravity? The sound of screams and smell of gunpowder drifted across my imagination. I shook my head to push away the images of headless bodies on fields of blood.

The park charged no admission, had no guards. There was just this gaping black hole with people going in or coming out. This day there were dozens. The flashlights they carried were no match for the darkness that surrounded them. Standing in the opening, one could see the tiny points of light bobbing in the darkness. There was no beam or reflection, just white dots, like glowing balls. Darkness swallowed everything else.

Jim and I walked in the slightly raised center of the path. It sloped on each side and water stood in the trough-like areas between us and the walls. We could hear the steady drip, drip, drip as the water seeped from the walls and ran into the standing water.

“Strange how that water sounds,” I said.

If you held the light just right, you could see where the water ran down, leaving shining streaks on the face of walls of tortured granite, chipped and carved by man. “Reminds me of tears. Maybe the walls are crying."

Voices echoed in the tunnel. The visitors laughed and chattered and children squealed in delight at the darkness. Over all of this, quietness lay, as if a blanket were draped across the sounds.

I heard singing and surely, that was the ringing of steel-on-steel. The gravel beneath my feet sounded like leather rubbing against stone. I looked back at the mouth, now etched against the day. How bright it seemed in here, where the darkness lived, in the heart of this mountain. You could not tell where the tunnel ended.

I said,  "I heard that they once stored cheese here because the temperature is a constant 55°. Surely they had some kind of lights."

Out of the darkness, a light bobbed toward us. A man penetrated the blackness ahead. He wore white shorts and a tee-shirt. A little girl rode his shoulders. They appeared, slow and subtle as if coming into focus rather than entering a field of light.

We stopped and peered into the depths of that blackness. There was nothing to see. People walked around us, toward the dark, and faded from view, while others reappeared, slowly coming back into focus. A cold breeze seemed to wrap around us, tugging at our clothes and skin, pulling us toward the dark end of the tunnel. Negative pressure, I thought. I could still hear those other voices. The ring of tools still resounded in my ears. The sound of clothing as it brushed stone was clear.

"I don't want to go any further," I said, "Our lights aren't strong enough."

"Oh, just a little further, Liza," said my husband.

 He continued on and, after a moment's hesitation, I followed with reluctance. The sounds were growing stronger. I could still hear someone singing and it sounded familiar. I strained my ears to catch the words but they froze in the air, never really reaching my eardrums. A muffled oath followed a dull, bruising sound. I gasped, drawing the cool air into my lungs. Swing low, sweet chariot, yes, the song was an old spiritual. I looked around, my eyes straining to pierce the blackness. Surely, surely only a black man could be singing. The voice was rich, mellow and deep and the words drawn out with that soul wrenching melody that only black singers seem able to summon. But where was he? The darkness had grown thicker and the light at the entrance was now dim and no bigger than the beams of the flashlights had been when we entered.

 I reached for Jim’s hand but he was too far ahead. Then, he disappeared into the blackness ahead of me and as I looked frantically around, the light at the entrance disappeared as if someone had blown out a candle. I cried out and rushed ahead to where Jim had disappeared. The darkness pressed in on me and seemed to envelop me like a heavy cloak. The cold seeped into my bones and made my back hurt. Then, just as quickly the darkness lifted and I broke through into growing light.

 All around me, glowing, yellow lights flickered and the walls glimmered with wetness. The sounds of singing, laughing and swearing were loud but they had to be to be heard above the clanging, clamoring, ringing of steel on stone. Great pools of light with smaller areas of darkness filled the tunnel. Men moved up and down ladders and around great boulders. Some carried smaller stones toward what appeared to be another entrance. I saw wheelbarrows and wheeled carts loaded with stone and debris. Leather scrubbed against stone as one of the workers moved around a large boulder.

 I turned toward a dull, bruising sound and watched as a man dropped the hammer he held, grabbed his hand and swore. Blood, dark in the lantern light, dripped from his broken fingers. Several men rushed to help him and in the yellow glow, I saw they were all black, their skin shining with sweat, in spite of the cold. I followed them toward the light at the end of the tunnel.

 Light rushed at me and surrounded me in a warm embrace as I stepped from the mouth of the tunnel. Men were everywhere, running, walking, squatting, sitting, standing, eating, drinking. Several dozen men worked a short distance away, laying track. Wagons loaded with supplies stood in a clearing beyond. Someone shouted for help and a man hurried over with a bucket of water from the nearby stream. I stared at that stream.

 I walked over to the edge of the rushing water. For the length of time it took an orange leaf to be swept away on the surface of the stream, time seemed to jolt to a halt and then with increasing speed, rush backward. The world felt tilted, off-center.

 The stream was a little larger, the water a little clearer, and there was less debris but it was just the same, chuckling over stones, whispering over glossy stone sheets. Turning slowly, I surveyed the area. No fathers rode laughing daughters on their shoulders. There was no ornamental plaque, no laughing children, no mothers tugging reluctant toddlers into the gaping mouth. I saw no picnic tables, only men, rushing as madly as ants with their tools. Gradually, I realized there were white men present. They stood as sentinels, with rifles slung over their arms or across their laps. They smoked with eyes narrowed, scanning everything. Other white men poured over rolls of paper and sketched in the air or moved around, directing workers.

 My heart felt heavy, my mouth tasted dry as the dead leaves that blew along the ground at my feet, and I was so very cold. I reached out and placed a trembling hand against a huge oak. The bark felt rough against my palm. Every nerve in my body jerked at the exploding sound in the distance. I felt the ground tremble beneath my feet but no one else seemed to notice.

 A man stumbled and fell beneath a load of rock he carried in a sack on his back. No one moved to help him and he groaned as he struggled to rise. For several minutes he lay there until finally, one of the guards motioned to another black man. The second man removed the sack of stone and gently helped his fellow to his feet. He led him over to a boulder and seated him there.

 Again the ground trembled at the thunderous sound in the distance. Again, no one noticed. I moved up to one of the guards and stood in front of him.

 “Excuse me. Can you tell me what is going on here? My husband and I went in the tunnel and got separated. I didn’t know there would be a program going on. No one told us,” I laughed, “in fact, we didn’t know the tunnel had a back door.”

 The guard looked right through me, at least, if felt as if he did. He continued to scan the moving, miserable mass behind me, blowing smoke right in my face. Blue smoke, with a sharp pungent smell, drifted around my head. I reached out and touched the hand that lay across the barrel of the rifle. It was warm. He jumped, jerking his hand back as if he had been burned. He looked around, his eyes shocked and filled with fear. He took several steps backward and turned in a slow circle.

 Another guard approached, a puzzled look on his face. He touched the other’s shoulder. “Blue?” he said.

 The man, Blue, jumped again and whirled around. “Good God, Jim. You scared the daylights out of me.”

 “What’s the matter with you? You look like you seen a ghost,” Jim said.

 Blue continued to look around him, his face white, his eyes bulging. “I didn’t see nothing but I swear someone touched me. It was icy cold.”

 Jim laughed. “You been on duty too long, boy. You need to get in out of the sun for a spell. The only spooks around here is us.” 

 Blue didn’t laugh.

 I watched the entire episode standing less than three feet from the two men. Not once did they look at me. Blue had looked through me several times but his eyes never caught mine. I turned and looked again at the dozens of men hurrying to-and-fro. I was the only woman among them but not one man there looked at me.

 I looked down the road that ran along the track they were laying. What lay beyond this place? If I took that road would I catch up with Jim and my own time? Or would I find fields of dead and dying soldiers in uniforms of blue and gray? Would I hear the squeals of modern day children or the screams of wounded men, calling for their mothers? I moved toward the road. No, this was 1990. If I continued along this road I would pass the toilet facilities provided by the federal government in this and all national parks.

 A scream echoed behind me from the gaping mouth of the tunnel and I turned. A half dozen men hurried into the light, carrying a man in their arms. He screamed in pain. They gently lay him on the ground and someone placed a rolled up coat beneath his head. Two guards bent over him, questioning the others.

 “Boss,” one of the blacks spoke, “he’s wukin’ on dat ladder and of a sudden like, a great piece o’ that mountain jump out and knock him down. He fall hard and dat stone rat on top o’ him.”

 The guard shook his head and moved away. “He‘s done boys. Get him back to town. Try and keep him comfortable.”

 “We cain’t move him rat now,” another black man spoke up, anger in his eyes. “He’s hurtin’ bad.”

 “Well, boy, we cain’t hep him here,” the guard replied.

 I moved toward where the group of men knelt and stood around the groaning man. Several men moved away and went back toward the tunnel. I knelt beside him and looked into the black face, shining with sweat. Blood ran from the corner of his mouth and his nose. He was young, certainly not more than twenty. He opened his eyes and for a moment, they were glazed in pain. Then, he looked at me. His eyes widened and fear pushed the pain from them. He groaned something and one of those who remained nearby knelt on his other side and took his hand.

 “I heah Gabe. I gone stay rat heah wit you.” He looked up at the guard, questioning, and at the guard’s nod he relaxed. “The boss done say it be all right. I gone take you home, Gabe.”

 Gabe continued to stare at me and I knew he saw me. Whatever reason the others could not did not apply to Gabe. He saw me.

 And he heard me. I spoke soothingly, “It’s all right. I won’t hurt you. Everything will be all right.” I gently stroked his forehead and then took his hand. It was as cold as mine and rough as the stone he worked.

 I stayed there and watched as he relaxed and the fear left his eyes, replaced with something else I couldn’t understand. He tried to talk but the only sound he made was the horrible rattling of blood and breath. He must have been crushed all to pieces inside. Finally, just before the light faded from his eyes, he looked at me and smiled. Then he was gone.

 They lifted him, placed him in a wagon, and covered him with a tarpaulin. Only then did I realize I was weeping. I watched the wagon disappear down the road and the ache to follow was nearly unbearable. The sun was going down and I knew that I had to go back, back to the tunnel, through that smothering darkness. I didn’t want to see the battlefields or hear the screams of death.  

 I turned and moved quickly to the entrance and hesitated, remembering the cold and the dark. I looked to where Blue was still standing, gun still resting across his arm. Nothing had changed for him. He probably didn’t even remember his brush with the ghost. I waited until his eyes drifted toward where I waited. I lifted my hand, waved and gave him a sad smile. His eyes widened and he went fish-belly white, then he fell over in a dead faint.

 I moved into the tunnel and walked carefully toward the darkness. All around me, glowing, yellow lights flickered and the walls glimmered with wetness. The sounds of singing, laughing and swearing were loud but they had to be in order to be heard above the clanging, clamoring, ringing of steel on stone. Great pools of light surrounded by smaller areas of darkness filled the tunnel. Men moved up and down ladders and around great boulders. I continued on until I felt that cold, heavy blackness surrounding me. I looked back for one brief moment and watched as the tunnel entrance disappeared as if someone had blown out a candle.

 I hurried forward. Or was I going backward? Somewhere I had crossed a line but I was no longer sure if I had come from the future or from the past. That was the most frightening thing of all. Where was I headed? Where were we all headed?

 “Liza, Liza!” Jim shouted. “Liza, what is wrong with you? Answer me!”

 Jim was there, in front of me, holding, no gripping me by my arms. I could feel the warmth of his palms through my thin cotton blouse. I could feel his heart beating beneath my hands, pressed against his chest.

 “Jim? Oh Jim,” I sobbed. What to say? “Jim, did you see them? Did you see?”

 He looked at me with his lips clamped tightly shut.

 “Jim, please tell me what happened.”

 “Liza, we’re leaving. You scared me to death. I thought something happened to you. When I turned around and you weren’t there I went nuts. The place is black as Hades anyway and I didn’t think I would find you. My God, the darkness is absolutely physical the farther in you go. I finally turned back and found you leaning against a wet slimy wall, sobbing.”

 “Jim, what year is it?”

 He looked at me but not as I expected him to look. He said very carefully, “1990.”

 “Take me home.”

 We turned eagerly back toward the light. I glanced behind me to see more lights disappear. Our feet made scrunching sounds on the gravel as we neared the entrance.

 Light rushed at us and surrounded us in a warm embrace as we stepped from the mouth of the tunnel. The stream sang and called to us. I breathed deep of the fall air and felt a breeze tug playfully at my hair. I never realized how heavy darkness was until now.

 As I looked back into the dark entrance, I thought I heard singing. The voice was rich, mellow and deep and the words drawn out with the soul-wrenching melody that only black singers seem able to summon. “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” I looked around and saw a black man seated at a picnic table, his skin was shiny with sweat and his clothes tattered and dirty. For a one brief moment we looked at each other and then, he smiled and waved. I shuddered. I followed Jim to the car. I refused to look back.

History of “The Tunnel”

  During the late 1980’s we lived in a small town in South Carolina. We often took our small sons on day trips to the foothills in the western part of the state, particularly, Highland, S.C. It was during one of these day trips that we ran across a national park area where a tunnel was carved out of the mountain. It was the fall of the year and the area is as described. It was used for a variety of purposes through the years, storage for cheese being one.

 The story, told by a man in a gray hat with gold braid and seated on a rock near the creek, was that the tunnel had been intended to open the supply lines for the Confederate Army. Lee’s surrender changed everything and it was never finished. The quote in The Tunnel is what we were told that day -- “if the tunnel had been completed, the war might have gone differently.”

 I have no evidence that slaves were used in the construction of the tunnel. In fact, my information while visiting the tunnel was that Germans were the builders. The village mentioned was a bit of a walk away and to visit that location we would have had to climb a 50-foot cliff. We were younger then and would have been game but we had two small boys with us. We did start into the tunnel but I became uncomfortable about halfway in and, despite numerous people coming and going, I elected not to complete the journey. Imagination is a very powerful instrument.

 This story arose from my very vivid imagination and the comments from a very loyal southerner who, for some reason, still felt the insult of a war long over. I, too, am a loyal southerner, and therefore, with perhaps a greater understanding of his point of view which has nothing to do with slavery. The poor white majority of the south did not own slaves and were not helped by its continuation or its demise. However, his comment struck me. It began a process of thought and was probably the final catalyst that started me toward a B. A. in history. It was the cost of human suffering and the potential to continue that suffering that the tunnel represented to me, and it was this which played on my vivid imagination and resulted is “The Tunnel”.

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