I emerged, crawling upward from the bowels of unending, the grime thick and the smoke spreading.
What lay there, I hardly recall. My thoughts were not my own then. They are barely my own now. I am not who I am, you see. I am all that remains.
Here is what I remember of that dark time. The memory of that caustic smoke, acrid tasting, stings my eyes still. The dim phosphorescence provided by the braziers stationed on the walls at various junctures left everything shrouded, so that I made my way through the boweled earth by feel as much as by sight. It mattered little for I trod the same path each day, the hours of my waking passing with a regularity that provided its own kind of timekeeping. I knew when to sleep. I knew when to eat. I knew what to do at every moment of every day.
My tasks I barely understood, only that they were ancient and immutable, part of a vast undertaking involving those thousands of us who lived below. I knew nothing of them and they nothing of me. Our existence was tied solely to what duty required of us. Hour after hour, day after day, we moved through those tunnels and byways, in service to those who had gone. Our chants and songs, incantations and prayers, filled the air, clouding it as much as the smoke, never falling silent, easing me to sleep when my time came.
What we did defined us and I remember so little of it now. Every step, every gesture of my hands, every intonation, all so precisely done, in spite of the obscurity we existed in. The meaning of it all escapes me. I am not who I was.
I emerged from the unseen, the blackness of tunnel and the shuddering entrails of labyrinth.
All of us existed as units of a single organism, with a single goal. To service those who had gone. The ones who had passed to the beyond, to the darkness darker than the one we submitted ourselves to. They held more power than we the living did. They could be angry and capricious, these ancient dead, and the caverns and chambers where we intoned our rites were alive with their power. Alive with them, in a way we could never be alive, for we had submitted our lives to them.
I knew nothing of the world beyond the corridors I traversed day after day. There were whispers of what lay above, of realms beyond imagining. They were spoken of in hushed, secretive tones, with glances over the shoulder. To do so was blasphemy. The world above was not ours. We were the dead, in service to them, awaiting our own glory in the beyond.
They held the power there, ancient and immutable. Unspeakable as the stones. We spoke for them, our chants ringing through the darkness, echoing as far as the world above. Or so I imagined.
Began to imagine, I should say. A whisper of a thought formed slowly, a seedling pushing up to the light in a desert, desperate for water and nourishment. It was someone else within me speaking, a ghost trying to breathe life into itself, wheezing on the noxious air it found.
Once a week, at the same junction, on my way to the same stone, deep in the catacombs, I would see the same man. I do not know when it began, but we started to smile at one another, the briefest flash of a grin, there and then gone. If one of us was late in arriving, the other would find an excuse to linger for a moment or two. After a time that smile was transformed to the briefest of touches, one hand to another.
The electricity of that touch, sparked in me my other self. The self that dreamed of the world above, the sky that I had never seen.
One day the man did not appear. Nor was he there the next week, and I began to understand what sorrow was and the futility of our incantations for those who had gone and those who remained.
I emerged, my face blurring, misshapen in form and somehow incomplete.
For the first time, I felt a heart beating in my chest, and the sweetness of the air filling my lungs. I yearned to be free of the rituals that bound me, the empty endless routines that clung to me like so much gathered dust. Such thoughts had never entered my mind before. I had no conception of how to effect an escape. Escape was a novel concept. These catacombs were all I knew. They were as much who I was as the blood that flowed in my veins.
One day I simply walked away, ignoring my duties, the rituals to those who had passed beyond. I could feel their anger at my abandonment, shaking the very stones I passed by. I had no sense of where to go, of what to do, I simply wandered, avoiding the gaze of anyone who looked my way, heading for where the smoke seemed to lessen. By and by I found my way, the bowels becoming less crowded, until I felt the first breeze, cool and crisp, touch my lips.
I emerged, a stumbling figure on a parched landscape. The sky was bright, the ground red, and the silence pervasive.
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