Finalist of the 2022 Fourth Genre Multimedia Essay Prize
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Can you remember your first underground tunnel? The bulkhead steps that were covered in spiderwebs? Your great uncle’s wine cellar? The New York subway system? Mine was a concrete pipe that the local creek ran through. At the other end of the creek, my friend Jackson and I spent afternoons leading toy army men in amphibious assaults along its banks. Bazookas fired, machine guns rattled, an infantry corporal called in for air support. But at the other end from where we played, the creek fed into an imposing tunnel which seemed to have its own private night going throughout all hours of the day. Emily, Jackson’s older sister, always stole the hair off my Playmobil figures to annoy me. She had the idea of walking through the tunnel. More scary than the tunnel was being the only one too afraid to go into the tunnel. The creek ran through the bottom of it so you had to spread your legs out to either side to avoid it. It was tame as tunnels go. It had no twists, no turns, no trap doors or criminals hiding from the law. I remember the experience as a palindrome: the brightness of the day faded into the dimness of the tunnel’s entrance and the tunnel’s entranced faded into the darkness of the tunnel’s middle and then the darkness of the tunnel’s middle gave way to the dimness of the tunnel’s exit, and then I was back in the brightness of the day again, appreciating it more now that I had left it and returned. Even now, whenever I hear the term “light at the end of the tunnel,” that is the tunnel I remember; that is the light I see.
A lot of my other earliest underground experiences happened in my imagination. On long car rides, I would imagine that every part of the passing scenery was just the tip of a gargantuan monster that lay asleep just below the surface of the Earth. Lampposts were the periscopes of enormous robots, trees were the up-pointed noses of slumbering trolls, walls were the long dorsal fins of dinosaurs sleeping with their backs to the sky. Watching out the window, I would imagine these dormant behemoths finally waking up. Cracks in the ground would open up around them as they emerged, limb by limb. Here a robotic hand would emerge, its rivets caked with dirt. There pedestrians would shriek as they saw a troll’s head rise from beneath a pine tree. Here a Godzilla-esque lizard would shake cars off his back the way a wet dog shakes off water. I never got far enough to see the creatures do anything with their size. No building stamped on, no battles fought, no armies held at bay. But in the germ of this fantastical game was the underlying sense that right beneath our feet undiscovered mysteries lie hidden.
The spelunking expert Will Hunt writes, “Natural selection has designed us—in every way imaginable, from our metabolic needs, to the lattice-like anatomy of our eyes, to the deep, jellied structures of our brain—to stay on the surface, to not go underground.” And yet we go anyway. The allure of the underground is the chance to go exploring not at the distant edges of the map, but while staying right where you are. The chance to visit a place so utterly different from your own that they would have nothing in common if they didn’t just so happen to be the same place. After being underground, I feel that I have an inside joke with the city itself that those who’ve remained on the surface aren’t in on.
On a tour of Luray caverns in Northern Virginia, our tour guide told us, “I am about to turn off the light so that you can experience total cave darkness.” There was something mischievous about her smile as she said it. It felt like total cave darkness was an eccentric aunt who she wanted to introduce us to. I was eager to meet her. To go your whole life without “seeing” total cave darkness would be like never visiting the ocean. When she turned off the light the cave turned on its darkness. No one spoke in the same way no one speaks during prayers in a church. I blinked and registered no change. Eyes opened or closed, I saw the same thing. While the flashlight had been on, I had the feeling of being in a group. There were at least fifteen or twenty of us on the tour. But when the light went out, it took the other people with it. While I felt apart from other people, the moment gave me a rare chance to connect with any number of people I couldn’t see. Total cave darkness is one of the few human experiences that millenia have done nothing to alter. The darkness I saw in that cave is the same darkness the mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras saw when he descended a cave to discover Hades. The same darkness that Mayan peoples offered sacrifices of precious pottery to. The same darkness that indigenous Australian have been visiting for hundreds of years to mine sacred ochre from. Where our vision no longer serves us, our minds start to take over. All day we have our vision feeding reality to us, overshadowing our other senses—what happens to us when you remove it? You end up submerged in your own mind. You’re given the chance to consider that the deepest vision you can find might be no vision; the most powerful experience of sight might be not to see.
Daniel Olivieri is a software developer living in Philadelphia. He enjoys eating plantains, carving wood, and picking locks. Places his work has appeared include The Forge Literary Magazine, The Eastern Iowa Review, and Litro. Find more of his work at www.epigraphing.com
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