Chapter 8: The Valley
part I, installment 1
by Tala Bar
There was no way of telling how long they crawled in the black tunnel. It was so dark Dar could not see anything in front of her, she advanced by way of touching and groping. The tunnel was narrow enough for them to sometimes touch it on both or either side. It did widen in one place, however, and they paused for rest in the faint light from one of the few packs left.
Before they moved on, Lilit held one of her painkilling sessions with Zik. The other three watched as she made him sit, his foot stretched out in front of him. She crouched beside him, her eyes closed, hovering her hands over the bandaged ankle. Dar, the word ‘witch doctor’ written all over her face, was glad of the darkness; then she recalled again the Ancient One of the jungle, and repented. Fascinated, she watched as Lilit rose and Zik breathed deeply, as if in relief. He opened his eyes in wonder and silently stared at the old woman. Saying nothing, Dar helped him rise.
Lilit then suggested they assumed a new order of advancing in the tunnel. She would go at the head of the file, because there might be some branching off of the main tunnel; she would be the only one who could to know which one of those to choose, using some mysterious intuitive sense. Nim, she said, should come after her, having by now settled nicely to her pregnancy and felt no harm. After her Zik, who could be helped by Dar behind him, if necessary, and Nune would make the rear as a general cover and helping hand.
They resumed their crawl on all fours, Zik doing it on three. Every now and then, as Dar advanced too quickly, her head would hit on his outstretched foot, and he would emit a cry of pain. She would then drop a little behind, bumping her butt on Nune’s head; he would then stretch a hand and push her gently a head from behind. But sometimes he would move too quickly ahead, his head then collide with her behind, and she would hear his “sorry” as an answer to her giggle. These occurrences dispelled some of the sense of loneliness prevailing in the absolute darkness that pervaded in that frightening place.
The air was very stale in the tunnel, and the darkness oppressive. Dar felt strongly the closeness of the walls and ceiling, which seemed to be threatening to fall on top of her any moment; although, when she happened to touch the shaft’s panels, she realized that they were very hard and smooth. The fear of them actually crushing her was only the result of her state of mind. The sense of slow suffocation from the lack of oxygen, though, was quite physical, concrete, making her wonder...
From time to time Dar heard Zik’s voice: “Halt,” warning her not to get too close to him as he was stopping to take a rest. She was happy for a break, even if it extended their stay under ground.
“Can you see anything? Can you see or feel Nim and Lilit?” she asked the young man once.
“That woman emits a sort of faint aura,” he told her, gasping for breath. “I can see Nim’s silhouette against it, but no more.”
“How’s your foot?”
“I admit that woman worked wonders, but it still hurts if I touch the ground with it, when I get tired keeping it raised all the time.” It was obvious he was trying to curb his complaint.
“Can I help you in any way?”
“I don’t think so. We are moving on now.” They did not talk any more.
* * *
The tunnel, which at the beginning was stretched on level ground, started after a little while to gradually slope downhill. It was sometimes necessary to lean against a wall, or take a strong grip on any protrusion in the hard ground, to prevent sliding forward. ‘I wonder if it’s going down all through the mountain’, Dar mused. ‘Are we really going to emerge on the other side?’ Again she thought of the simile to a birth canal, and she smiled to herself for being unusually fanciful.
As their crawl went on, Dar was losing more and more her sense of time. She had long stopped feeling hungry and gotten so thin she could not think of food at all. Thirst was another thing, but they had got plenty of water still, gathered from the snow on top of the range. At one point she even thought she heard a sound like flowing water; touching a wall, she felt it moist. The tunnel, she thought, must have been made by precipitation water boring through the mountain; could it be suddenly filled with a running stream? What were they going to do if it was?
The thought made her lose a grip on her pace, slipping forward and banging her head on Zik’s injured foot. His cry of pain and fright brought her back to her senses and she slowed down. Unfortunately, there was no way she could stop the file and consult the others about the subject; all she could do was go on and hope for the best. She felt Nune’s hand grasping her foot in a way of warning, helping her to resume her even pace.
Emptying her mind from what seemed like useless pondering, Dar suddenly hit her head on a wall right in front of her. Having lost her bearing for a moment, she soon regained her senses, realizing there was a turning in the tunnel through which Zik had gone. She had just missed the point he had vanished before her. Moving backward and groping along the wall to find her way, she was grabbed by Nune from behind.
For one moment he kept hold on her. “At least none of us is alone,” she snorted, emitting a short, hoarse laughter, derogating herself. Nune patted her behind as a kind of affectionate encouragement before releasing her, and she pushed on feeling a little better.
The turning in the tunnel had initiated a series of other sudden turnings, making going even more difficult than before, needing more attention in the darkness. ‘This is a strange sort of birth canal’, she reflected, ‘no baby could have gone through that experience and come out alive’.
Ages later, the tunnel straightened at last. It continued stretching on a level for some length of time, bringing a new kind of hope into Dar’s heart. It was a respite she had badly needed. Then she felt Zik stopping in front of her. This time she collided softly with his back instead of his foot, for he seemed to be sitting on the ground. She came up and sat beside him.
“Do you think we are getting near the end of it?” She asked, half-whispering.
He leaned heavily against her body. “I wish.”
“How’s the foot?” She asked after a pause.
Nune came up to them. “I can’t see Lilit and Nim. Have they gone on ahead?” he demanded.
Dar felt Zik shaking his head. He must have been too exhausted to talk, from the need to cope with his pain, and holding his foot off the ground, in addition to the effort of crawling through the tunnel. She looked ahead.
“I think I can see a glimmer.”
“That’s only the halo around Lilit’s head,” Zik replied, dejection sounding in his voice.
“No,” Nune answered, more confidently, “this light looks different.” All three of them gazed ahead, hopefully.
“Listen,” Dar said in her commanding voice.
“Is that Nim, you think?”
“It can’t be anybody else. Come on, Zik, it must be the end of your ordeal.”
He uttered a short, harsh laugh. ‘So unlike him’, Dar thought. ‘That injury must have done something to his personality, not only his body’. She touched him lightly on the shoulder, but he shrugged it off. Yes, she reflected, she would definitely have to take him in hand once they are out in the open.
* * *
It took them what felt like hours to reach the light. It seemed to delude them, flickering on and off, sometimes enlarging to look like a window into freedom, other times it shrank to a pinpoint. There were also short bursts of fresh air, suddenly encircling their bodies and filling their starved lungs, then dissipating in the general stale atmosphere of the tunnel, leaving them with even more yearning for the outside world.
The travellers tried to hurry up toward it, but they were impeded by Zik’s limitations. He himself tried to quicken his crawl, only to stop from time to time with a scream of pain when his foot accidentally touched the ground. Still, after what looked like eternity, they knew they were getting really close to the spot of light which was their beckoning hope, when they clearly heard Nim’s shouting voice.
“Oh, where are they, Lilit, why aren’t they coming. Zik! Dar! Nune! Come on out! See that wonderful world we’ve arrived at!” Her cries were repeated again and again, the sounds acting as injection of new energy in the stragglers, pulling them forward with a power no physical force could have done.
The light steadied at last, blinding their eyes. Dar just saw Zik’s body vanishing into it, mingling for a moment with the glowing brightness; she was half way through the opening when she was pulled out completely, made to sit down and lean on the cliff behind her. She kept her eyes closed for a long time.
“How are you, Dar?” She heard Nim’s voice, full of concern. “I worried so much about you! You didn’t have that help I got from Lilit; I don’t know what I’d have done without her. I would died, I’m sure!”
Dar had to laugh. She opened her eyes, gingerly. At first, she saw nothing but Nim standing in front of her in a pool of light. For a moment, the young woman (not a girl any more) turned the sideways toward Dar, and the physician had a vague impression of the aura surrounding her. After a minute she turned back to face her and, as Dar’s eyes had adjusted to the light, she could see the expression in the girl’s shiny green eyes, which was a mixture of worry and joy.
“How are you, child?” she said softly.
Nim laughed with pure joy. “Lilit says I’m as strong as an ox, whatever that means.”
“Where are we? Where have we come out at?” Dar wondered aloud, looking around her.
“You have to be careful, that’s why we made you sit down like that. Look!”
For the first time since she had come out of the tunnel Dar looked. ‘I was right, then, we’ve been born into a New World’, she marvelled.
Before the catastrophe, Dar had spent her whole life in the big city, which had spread on thousands of square miles around. The only stretch of Earth denuded of man-made structure she had ever seen was the lake, on the shore of which the City had been founded.
After the Catastrophe, she passed through the wooded hill, and her hallucinatory — as she understood it — primordial jungle, and rowed and sunk into the other lake. She had never seen what looked plainly like a virgin land in her life, (except on video films), as she thought the sight before her was. Sitting on the ledge halfway down the mountain slope, she could see below her, from the base of the range of mountains and as far as the eye could reach, a vast plain that to her judgment had never been touched by human hand. The first thing that had impressed Dar was the ruling green color in its variety of shades, all of them much brighter than the deep, dark green of the jungle. Spots of yellow and brown appeared here and there, breaking the green plain into an undulating ground; it was dotted with various shapes of vegetation — tall or short, wide or narrow, rounded or elongated — which she assumed were shrubs, trees and weeds, standing separately or in large or small clumps. And all these green-brown-yellow shapes were interspersed with colorful dots of flowers, reminding her the color-dotted globules in the lake.
Dar held her breath. “What is this place!” the cry escaped her mouth involuntarily.
“Would you believe it’s been like that for ever,” Nim said, slanting her eyes at the physician. “Lilit says no one has ever been here before, and I can easily believe her. She assures me this is our final goal.”
Dar was silent for a while. “But where is Lilit?” Dar remembered suddenly. “Where’s she gone to?”
“Did you notice the weather?” Nune’s voice interrupted her. Having just crawled out of the tunnel’s opening, he approached her still on all four, as if he had got too used to it to venture to stand up. Dar almost laughed at the sight of the usually straight-statured man so prostrated; he obviously needed time to stretch his limbs after the long crawl. Nune sat up beside her with an uncharacteristic sigh of relief, leaning at the cliff side. “I am too old for this kind of exercise,” he said gruffly.
Dar put a hand on his shoulder in a companionable way. “You still have some good years in you, Nune. But feast your eyes on the sight below us. And you’re right, it does look like spring here, when only yesterday we were knee-deep in snow... Either we’ve passed into a different geographical zone, or lived through more weeks than we were able to count.”
“Yesterday?” Nune looked at her, searchingly.
“Have you noticed Nim?”
“I’m hungry,” Nim interrupted them as she sat down on Dar’s other side. “Do you realize we haven’t eaten for ages?”
“Now you mention it!” Dar laughed.
Nune twisted his face, and she noticed how long his beard had grown from the short stubble he’d had on when they first met. “I suppose we still have to go down this mountain,” he commented, giving the slope a close look. “I don’t think it’s going to be very easy, especially for Zik. Where is that boy gone to?”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar