Astonishing that blackness could be so iridescent; swallowing light while still reflecting it in a myriad of colors. The ridges stacked upon one another, disappearing into the dark.
This was not an inviting place, although a steady stream of visitors entered and exited the tunnel without incident almost every day. Amateurs attempted quick selfies in the inadequate light, bemoaning the results with mock disappointment before moving on. Only one person stood to the side, just outside its mouth. She fidgeted nervously with her hands, trying to stay away from the bulk of the crowd. She pretended to focus her camera on interesting rock features, plants and insects, which were plentiful; especially the mosquitoes. The midday heat mixed with the aroma of wild ginger settled over the area like a layer of sweetly sticky cream.
After what seemed like an hour, but was actually only half the time, the flow of chattering people petered out and she found herself almost alone. The lull in movement encouraged her to step closer to the tunnel, but she succeeded only in toeing the invisible line between light and dark; even that was disappearing with the sun’s path westward.
Can you help me? The question came from behind her; it was slightly muffled. She turned around.
There, just near a fringe of low-growing ferns, was a child. The most pathetic of looks held its features hostage. Smudged tear-tracks painted cheeks; an embarrassing trail of clear mucus from nostril to upper lip.
I’ve lost my family. The child looked slightly guilty, as if it had done something wrong, as if separation from its family unit was its fault or some-such nonsense. She felt a sudden, unusual urge to reach out and hug the child and comfort it. But clearly, this child was just on this side of being too old for strange adult to comfort it without awkwardness.
Well, I can definitely try to help you find them, she replied, or we can find a park ranger to take you back to the welcome station. She started to pack her camera into her backpack.
I think they’re just on the other side of the lava tunnel, the child replied, sniffing back tears and swallowing courage from the humid air. Its shoulders squared as it approached her, pointing into the dark.
Hmm, she said nervously, maybe if we yell they’ll hear you and come back?
Not a chance, the child replied, voice stronger. I got separated from them ten minutes ago. They walk much faster than I do. There’s six of us, and they often forget about me. They’re probably at the end of the trail by now. She didn’t think that was possible; the park map showed that the trail end was over two kilometers from the tunnel and there were several possible options. Of course the child would eventually reunite with its family, but that could take an hour at this point.
You know, she said to the child, we could go back the way we came, to the welcome station. Someone there could call the patrolling ranger and they could find your parents. The child looked reluctantly backward.
That means I won’t get to see the lava tube, though. Turning toward the entrance, the child began to walk. She could choose not to follow, to instead call the emergency number posted throughout the park, but this wasn’t a life or death emergency. So she called after the departing figure: Wait!
She was apprehensive. There was a reason why she hadn’t entered the lava tube. She came to this spot once a week, actually, courting the idea of taking that step inside with all the other visitors. Company would make the nausea and fear easier to bear. She remembered the visit made those many years ago, the first and last time she walked through. She was much younger–perhaps the age of this child separated from its family. It was only in the days and weeks after that school trip to the park that she started to develop symptoms. Before that she had never been afraid of dark, enclosed spaces, places where light only flirted with entry. Where it looked like the sun moved so quickly one could only see it exit the other end, it got lost in the belly of the tube. But no matter how many times she came, she could never bring herself to enter. What had transpired there in the dark would stay there as long as she did not go inside. Still, she wondered how her life would be different if she let it out.
Now the child looked at her with building exasperation. Come on, please? It begged her now. I think if we hurry, we could find them. I don’t wanna go alone into the tunnel. They’ll never come back this way to let me see it if we go to the welcome station. I read about this in a guidebook. It’s supposed to be amazing. Please?
She took another step. The child came back to grab her hand. It was a boy, she confirmed, now that he was closer. It’s okay, I’m scared, too, he said, knowingly. If we go together, if we use my flashlight, it’ll be okay. He pulled a small headlamp from his pocket and strapped it above his eyebrows. With a twist, it made a small beam of light that shone into her eyes. He smiled tentatively at her squinting eyes and wrinkled forehead. Let’s go.
When they finally crossed the threshold, the boy turned his head back and forth, sweeping the cone of light across the tunnel. It was empty and silent except for their breathing, which was soft and quick.
She felt like her eyes were blindered, like cones prevented her from noticing the periphery. She decided to focus on the path ahead until the boy gasped with wonder. Check this out! He stopped and turned to face the ridged wall. High above, hardened lava drips hung from the ceiling, almost flap-like stalactites. They glowed almost red from the mineral content. She only remembered being shoved against the wall, her bag wrenched from her back by the three girls.
They had mocked her, laughing at her unfashionable clothes and cheap slippers, her thick frizzy hair. Those girls, barely teenagers, had found so many ways to make her feel the creep of nausea up the back of her throat, just by calling her name. But it had all come to a head in that tunnel, all those years ago.
The boy waved his hand in front of her eyes. Hey, he said, Isn’t that totally cool? He went on to monologue about the way the lava had flowed through this area, forming the tube and the stalactites. She barely heard him but managed to nod at what seemed like the appropriate moments. They had thrown her bag to the ground, had brought her to her knees. This was not the first time, or the fiftieth time, but it was an opportune moment of isolation from the group. They had pinched her stomach, underneath her shirt. A place they knew would not be readily seen. They slapped her back, hands smacking the most painful stretch of skin. Pulled her long braids, laughing and flipping their own silky straight ponytails. They had thrown her glasses to the ground, rendering her sightless in the close and dark tube. She had had no flashlight.
She remembered hearing the echoes of the coarse names they had called her, how they had told her to never come back to school. How she should eat shit and die. Their chanting was a perverse mantra that granted them power over her. In the moments after their echoes died out, she wondered should she just stay in the tube and never come out, fading into the walls like some Gollum-y creature in search for her own soul? After several minutes of feeling around in the dark, listening to the intermittent drip of moisture, her hands lit upon familiar plastic frames. Scratched lenses still allowed her to see enough to find the tunnel’s exit. It was only a few hundred meters long, after all.
But somehow in that hundred meters, something horrific had occurred. And instead of emerging broken and sobbing, she had been reborn in the light on the other side as silent and withdrawn, a thing without life. She said nothing of her absence and her teachers had not even noticed. Later, the girls had finally let her alone, had become too busy with growing up and learning how to cover up their own insecurities rather than superimpose them on someone else. She, too, had moved on, the symptoms of a kind of claustrophobia sneaking up on her when she least expected them. In darkened bathroom stalls, lonely locker rooms, her bedroom at night. And they were always accompanied by that mantra of hate, forcing her to question her own validity.
Hey. The boy grabbed her hand again, shaking her. Let’s keep going. It’s interesting but I still want to catch up with my family. He held on to her tightly, as if his momentary excitement had given away to the aforementioned fear of the dark. She squeezed his fingers slightly, realizing that her own palms were uncomfortably sticky. But the boy didn’t say anything. She kept breathing, lightly. She was surprised that she didn’t experience some dramatic phobic attack that rendered her immobile. She didn’t fall, catatonic, to the cool floor. The trauma was no less real, no less powerful, in spite of what everyone told her: Kids will be kids, they will be mean. Girls are insufferably unkind to each other. Sticks and stones. You are better than they, keep your chin up. None of that had helped to ease the pain.
We’re almost there, he sighed. Thank you for walking with me through the dark.
She smiled wanly at the boy, the white of her teeth glowing in the light of his headlamp.
And when they finally stepped out of the lava tube, the fading brightness of the sun glancing off the leaves, the boy turned to her with an incredulous look on his face. They came back for me, he breathed. They usually don’t.
She smiled again, this time resting her hand on his shoulder, before he ran off. She remembered her last exit from this lava tube, and how she knew that, even now, she still wasn’t completely healed. But she could feel a little spark there, inside. The place where she had disappeared into the dark. There in that place, she had finally found her flash light.
(written 18 march 2018)