Peter Rose: Witness

The Banshee of Gorgas Lane

The tunnel vented into a forested park abutting the city, a small pool of foul-looking water marking its terminus. It was in one of those ill-defined landscapes positioned at the edge of awareness, marking the place where a certain atavism flourished. The concrete supports for a highway arched high above and the whole setting had an almost forlorn aspect. I had a little time on my hands on an afternoon on the autumnal equinox and I thought I would go in with a flashlight, a hard hat, and a pair of boots and try to see where it led.

The sky was clear and dry and the sun was clean. There was little likelihood of rain or excess runoff, the neighborhood seemed quiet enough, and so I left the house with my equippage and walked into the park.

The rectangular opening seemed to date from the early 20th century. It was made of brick, and was high enough to permit me to walk in without stooping. I hesitated for a moment, not sure of my ability to accurately sense what was before me, and then entered.

I could hear the distant echo of my steps as I advanced, walking uphill beside a small rivulet of water. The sound suggested an immeasurably deep space and I was quite excited by the prospect of an adventure.

I sensed the entrance depart behind me in a gradual diminution of ambient light, and I soon found myself in a complete darkness, navigating only by virtue of the light from my lamp.

I inched forward, slowly, for what seemed like about half an hour. The floor was occasionally slippery and I could hear a dull roar from somewhere up ahead. I heard my own splashing noises and the sounds of proximate dripping and other, less identifiable aqueous rumblings.

A series of steps now lay before me, large enough to be called terraces. They ascended through a rectangular shaftway, but at the summit the opening became circular and I found myself walking into a smaller tunnel which now required me to stoop. This passage continued on for what seemed like miles. I lost all track of time and could only measure duration by the gradual accumulation of my fear and apprehension. I imagined coming to some significant nexus, cresting the hill and descending all the way down to the river; or, more forbodingly, I might enter the main artery of the city and wander endlessly and become lost in the unmappable labyrinth that lay below the city streets.

Time began to dilate, opening into an endlessness that was oddly coincident with my vision, which had now swollen to accommodate both the visible and invisible worlds around me. My breath tensed as I felt the shape of the space with an alert, catastrophic attentiveness. I began to sense how deep within the earth I might now be, and how far I would have to go before I might breathe easily again. I felt the weight of the earth amassed above me and the image of my irretrievably crushed body assembled itself out of the subluminous flashes my eyes were now producing. The roar of the chamber was now in an ominous register and I felt a threatening, humid change in the temperature of the air around me.

At long intervals, I heard the momentary impact of cars against manhole covers. My passage would occasionally intersect with wells which led, via hand-over-hand rungs in stone, to the surface far above. Smaller tunnels sometimes joined and I had to resist the impulse to conduct a more complex exploration. The sounds of my boots on the tunnel walls ricocheted and sometimes I thought I heard someone else walking towards me. The water sounded like whispering.

My autonomous nervous system had by now learned to work on its own, without any conscious intervention. I navigated through an embodied fear, steeling myself to be patient enough for some destination to finally announce itself.

I came to a second set of steps. Once again the tunnel changed shape and I found myself in a rectangular passageway that led up to yet another circular doorway. I entered and my flashlight began to play strange tricks on my eyes. My shadows gained a non-Euclidean presence, occupying some new space between the physical world and my projective sight. I was walking into a dimensional distortion whereby outside and inside were exchanging roles. Thatís when I noticed that the tunnel was curving. It was changing direction, moving southward, I thought, but I could form no map that would explain this change in orientation.

And then I came to a break. There was a small waterfall linking the disconnected sections of the pipe I was in and I realized that I had come to the terminus of this particular journey. This was enough. I would need an extra flashlight, waterproof clothing, an accomplice, a compass, and a map if I was go further. It was time to turn around.

And now I feel the vast depth of space that I have to traverse before I can exit. I am entombed in an endless, dark tunnel that snakes below the surface of a perfectly ordinary suburban neighborhood, and there is only one way out.

I begin to walk back. The distance seems immense and I feel a claustrophobic attack in the offing. I start to believe, somewhat hysterically, that it might be a good idea to sing. Singing centers. Singing connects the inner with the outer space. Iíll be able to feel the physical contours of the tunnel if I sing and my decelerating breath will likely calm me down. So I begin to belt it out- Middle Eastern polytonic wails, cries, lamentations; Tibetan overtonal yodels; vocalic utterances that become religious proclamations in an unknown language. I begin to play emotional registers, opening myself up to the myriad ways in which I might resonate with this chamber. I find the vowels that bespeak it, as if I am projected my voice into the infinite volume before me and it is speaking. I sing my fear, my anger, my grief, and my exhultation and I stride through the tunnels, down the majestic, terraced steps, singing my heart out along the darkened canals of water and back out into the equinoctial afternoon.

I head away from the opening and hang out on a ledge of rock from which I can observe the passing horse riders, the bikers, the park police, the passing traffic. I am thinking it is about time to go home and I begin walking up the trail past the mouth of the tunnel when I hear noises.

I come upon two policemen. They are standing, with flashlights, peering into the darkness at the mouth of the tunnel. I note, with some satisfaction, that they appear hesitant to go any further, and for an brief moment I consider sauntering by and asking them what they are looking for. But I quickly realize that my hard hat, boots, and flashlight might very well lead them to ask some incriminating questions and that I am probably precisely what they are looking for. Squadrons of police cars have been sent out to canvas the neighborhood in an attempt to identify the source of a disturbance. I have missed them only by minutes.

The tunnel, I later learn, runs beneath an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center. From its vents and underground apertures, that day, mysterious phantom howlings, cries, glossolalic gurglings, depredations and laments more terrible and curdling than had ever been previously imagined had issued forth, an oracular pronouncement in an unknown language. One could only imagine the rehabilitative setbacks produced by this phenomenon, the exacerbated manias, the hallucinatory certainties. It has gone down in local folklore as the day the banshee wailed on Gorgas Lane, and to the everlasting amazement of the few souls who were privileged to hear it, it has never been satisfactorily explained.

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