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Sinead McCabe
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tunnelvision.jpg
Art by Noelle Richardson © 2012

Tunnel Vision

 

Sinéad McCabe

 

It starts to go wrong when we drive into the cloud on the mountain. It is the day after Hallowe’en. All Souls' Day we call it in England, but I’m not quite sure what they call it here; my Italian is still rubbish after two years in Sicily. I’m on the mountain with a good friend and a friend of hers who I have just slept with, a guy with a young Russian girlfriend and an insatiable dick. I’m half-dreaming in the back seat of the car, queasy from the winding mountain roads and the uneasy sense of shouldn’t-have-done-that mingled with the warm satisfied glad-I-did. The other two are in the front, chatting in rapid Italian I can’t be bothered to try and follow. Her name, if you want to know it, was Sabrina. His name was Pietro. And my name is Sorcha Jones.

We’re driving down from Castelmola, a tiny village spotlit on a crag in the sky, where we've spent the evening drinking in a bar. The bar was warm and golden and completely filled with rampant dicks. The chairs were carved with them, the napkins printed with them, the walls painted with them. I went to the bathroom and the tap was a drooping golden phallus, which must be stroked until it yielded a stream of silver water.

We drank chocolate and almond wine, laughed and joked and chatted, but when we fought the fierce wind to open the balcony doors and went out to smoke cigarettes, the gale thrashed in the trees and howled around the little stone houses. The little palms in the square were a lashing black haze. Little tendrils of fog curled around our feet, the balcony door banged in the frenzied wind. I am awed to silence. When we left Catania in the afternoon, the weather was warm and soft, the breeze caressing. To me, Sicily is still a land of sapphire sky and full silver moons; I’ve never seen her in this blind and raging mood.

The cloud falls on us with silent snake-speed as we drive down, yellow and cold and though the wind blows harder and harder, shaking the sides of the car as it winds down the ribbon of road on the precipice, the cloud stays thick and dense as the dark itself. A hideous, superstitious sense of vertigo falls on me, a sense of blindness and helplessness. I strain my eyes into the dark and see only the yellow void. And the gulf of nationality opens in the car, for while the British girl trembles, quakes and holds her breath in the back, the two Italians continue their light chatter in the front, Pietro driving with two fingers on the wheel, looking as often at Sabrina and into the back seat as at the twisting road. That’s when I first think: oh God, get me out of here.

Pietro, like the Sicilian that he is, isn’t slowing down to accommodate the blind cloud, and part of me is admiring the recklessness, though most of me is furious with it. We dip lower, lower down the mountain and still there is no world to see. Dark turrets of stone, fingers of foliage, flashes of flowers, lights of hotels are all out there, lurking invisible.  We whizz through a tunnel, one of the many which honeycomb the mountain, and there are no lights in there, only the reflectors on the dirty white walls throwing the headlights so they dazzle the eyes. We hit open road again and I wonder what you’re supposed to do if your headlights aren’t working?

I’m tired. I close my eyes. “Can you not hear that?” asks Sabrina from the front seat. No, I don’t hear anything, only the dreadful caterwauling of a romantic ballad on the radio. “The engine is making a weird noise,” she shouts. Pietro says in Italian that it isn’t, and they bicker for a while until we are swallowed by the black throat of the next tunnel, the longest one, a good couple of kilometres at least. I remember it from the way up. Knock, knock, knock, says the engine, and louder, knock judder knock knock, and Pietro curses, there is a sudden swerve as the wheel gets out of his control – two hands now – and the car is screeching to a shuddering halt, engine coughing and dying, in the sudden utter silence and dark of the long tunnel.

"Cazzo," says Pietro. "Fuck," says Roberta. I don't say anything.

They are opening the doors and Pietro is diving under the bonnet, Sabrina is going into the boot, I guess for a torch. There's a sound of dripping water, and I can see a great arch of dank green stones receding in the headlights. I take a great breath, and open the door. Pietro spares me a kindly glance and a squeeze of the neck. "Non ti preoccupare," he says - don't worry - "because another car will be here soon..." he burns his fingers on a metal cylinder and curses again, sucking at them. I don't think he has any idea what he's doing under that bonnet. The slurping sounds he's making over his fingers are horrible, mingling with the plink plink of the dripping water. Then he pulls his fingers out of his mouth but the slurping sounds continue, very faint in the dark

"Ok, got the flashlight baby, jesus what a fucking mess, can you believe this?" Sabrina's laughing as she crunches around to the bonnet. "Shh," I say, putting my hand on her arm. "What?" she falls silent and listens too. There it is again. It's almost hesitant, a soft and whispering kind of slurp. And it's coming closer. My throat is closing, my spine is tensing, and beside me I can feel Sabrina moving closer, whispering, "Madonna, what is it?" while Pietro is oblivious under the bonnet.

"Switch the torch on," I whisper. "No," she replies, and I can't really blame her but I take it from her and switch it on myself, swinging the soft yellow beam around the tunnel slowly and with hitching breath. Nothing. Only the tarmac and lines of the road, the wet green stone, and then there is a flash of white and red and a tiny head with Medusa hair that glares at me from mad blue eyes. I scream at the top of my voice and Sabrina joins in with gusto. Pietro flies around to see what it is, then flies around again to glare at us. "It's a doll, you fucking idiota!" he yells. I look again and oh yes, so it is. A discarded Barbie in a red swimsuit. Sabrina and I exchange glances. "You know, whichever kid threw this out of the car, I hate them and I wish they had died," she says. I'm with her on this. A doll is the last thing you want to see when broken down in a mountain tunnel. A doll is a freaky thing and I don't care who says otherwise.

I don't know how long we wait for Pietro to admit that he can't do anything with the car, but it's a long time, huddled against the car, not wanting to touch the walls, not daring to walk about, swinging the beam of the torch up and down the road even though he snaps at us to turn it off and save the batteries, because at intervals we continue to hear the soft whispering sucking slurp. "It's an echo," says Pietro firmly, and "I will fix this."

By now, I don't like him. I hate his stubborn mouth, which looked so tempting last night, and his incompetent hands, which I have to admit did seem fairly competent last night. I'm thinking that his girlfriend can have him back. We shiver with cold and our chattering teeth add further to the myriad of strange little noises which echo in the freezing dark and scrape warning fingers across my frayed nerves. Swinging the torch only shows the black holes, looming and silent, at either end of our vision. It's late. Not a single car has passed.

Eventually Sabrina announces that we have to walk. She's going to walk. She and Pietro argue about leaving the car at the tops, of course, of their voices. I stay silent. I'm scared to make a sound. The echoes batter around the dank walls. A few reflectors gleam feebly in the light of the headlights, and they look like a path. I begin to walk, because I know if I do, they will follow me. Sicilians like everyone to stick together. Besides, I've got the torch. The light from the headlights fades, leaving only the golden beam of the torch. I'm tired, I'm drunk and I'm furious. Sabrina catches up to me and catches my hand, reassuring and searching for reassurance. I squeeze back, listening to Pietro running to catch up, hearing the slurping whispers again. I don’t know why but I wish wish wish with all my heart that I’d slept alone last night.

It's so cold. How can not a single car have passed? We’re all stumbling on the uneven road, trying to glue ourselves to the wall without touching it, terrified of another car coming, terrified of oh, anything you care to name. Pietro takes the torch as he is walking on the outside, and trains it fixedly on the surface of the road, because the great low arch of the tunnel is nothing you want to look at now, not now we are in the sheer black and light is so far. The road is a harsh moonscape, pebbles rearing tiny alien heads and staring at our stumbling progress with curious disapproval.

Pietro takes my hand and I jerk away in horror, shocked at how the touch of warm flesh repulses and scares me. Sabrina almost falls, and cries out, “Jesus, something touched me, someone touched me!” and I whip around so I don’t have to see, in that moment I could kill her. “Oo touched you?” shouts Pietro, shining the torch into her face, shiny white and stretched, her eyes icy huge. “I don’t know, you fucking idiot!” she screams. The echoes of the screaming are terrible in the long dark. “It felt like – it felt dirty,” she half-sobs. “Jesus, I don’t know, I wanna get out of here!” We speed up.

I still can’t speak. I wish they wouldn’t speak. I wish we could be quiet, and – and good, and then we could be safe. Oh God, there’s the noise again, the murmuring sloppy noise. It sounds somehow slimy. Pietro whips around with the torch, but there’s nothing on the road but the cold and watchful dark. “Sembra un pompino,” whispers Pietro, his voice rough with disgust. It sounds like a blowjob. Oh great, thanks Pietro. From being ill with cold, I now feel nauseous with heat. I have an almost unbearable need to remove some of the clothes that are now sticking to me with sweat, rough and clinging fibres choking my skin, but the skin of my back and my neck is prickling with vulnerability and telling me that would be an awfully bad idea. There’s a buzzing in my ears, an awful somnolent low drone, which I think is only in my head until Pietro begins to bat wildly at his own head with the hand holding the torch, uttering little retching yips and setting the black and yellow shades swinging with wild panic around us, a hundred different arches leaping toward me and back again in seconds. Sabrina is hitting him and screaming for him to stop, and the echoes jump hand-in-hand with the shadows in a dreadful contrapuntal rhythm.

When I prise my shaking hands from before my eyes, the shadows and echoes have retreated behind us, and I glimpse something on the wall. I take the torch from Pietro’s shaking hand, trying not to touch his hand for reasons I don’t understand, leaving him babbling to Sabrina about clouds of flies that sing, and slide the light of the torch up the wall. There is writing there, big and uncertain, shaky  and faded, the colour yellow.

Qui nel buio attenti alla carne” it says. The written word is easier for me to understand. “Here in the dark,” it says, “beware the flesh.” There is also a picture, a yellow picture, and I don’t understand the form it depicts, but it lets a hundred icy insects loose on my skin, it’s perverse beyond belief. It depicts the flesh. I don’t know if the others should see this, but when I turn it’s clear they have read it and seen the frightful image. They are standing loose and pallid, standing apart. Not touching. The sucking sounds return. To me, they sound like awful lips slobbering over a nipple. Invisible fleshy couplings.

My hand moves the torch and the light climbs the wall to the writing again, but this time, in the faint yellow rings at the edge of the beam, at the highest point of my sight, I catch sight of a sudden quivering movement and realise that there is something on the arch above us. Something on the ceiling. Something white and gelid, something slimy. It’s very big, bigger than a man, and there are many tiny limbs, all trembling, some clutching, some scenting the air. It glistens. It stinks. My breath flutters and heaves in the tunnel of my throat. Above us, a rank and silent white thing that glimmers at the edge of the dark. Ahead of us, only the fluttering heaving dark throat of the tunnel.

I try to whisper a warning to the others, who are frozen beyond the beam, only their frantic eyes moving and glittering, upturned in the hot dark. My voice has gone, my limbs are dead. The white creature does not move. It sits and trembles, humid heat baking from its slippery sides, and it watches us with eyes as frantic as our own. Slowly, soundlessly, a mouth of sorts creaks open, a vast ragged maw as black as the mouth of the tunnel, toothless and raw and stinking, its breath a low rank odour, heavy and rich. It stretches this orifice towards us, silent long, soundless yearning. A straining, reaching out, a hunger that is quite familiar. A green drop of cool water slides from the roof, over one of its shuddering limbs, and falls onto Pietro’s upturned face, landing on his lips. Pietro leaps in the air with a sudden shriek of revulsion, and bolts still screaming, back into the tunnel away from us. The wet white creature scuttles about with impossible speed, lashing its limbs in a rapid blur, and tears upside down over the ceiling, all purpose now, locked on the moving body like a missile, flying over the crumbled green roof, and reaching its target, drops like a stone onto Pietro’s defenceless back.

The torch is still shining at the wall and we cannot see what happens to Pietro, though we can hear unspeakably tender sucking, slow strong slurpings, gentle but absolute enveloping, and Pietro’s miserable howls and pleadings. He calls my name. “Sorcha!” he screams. “God, help me! Please help me!” I would like to say that I run to his rescue, and in my head I do, but in the tunnel I am silent, moveless, cold as the granite of the merciless walls. Shortly, there is a dragging sound, which mingles with the slurping sound of the creature’s movements, away into the distance, away from us. A slow trickle of some awful milky fluid, glimmering like phosphorescence, streaked pink with Pietro’s unwilling blood, eventually snakes to our feet.

I lower the torch from the wall, away from the trail of milky slime which the creature left behind, staring into the dark holding my breath, still washed with sweat, but now beginning to shiver with cold. Sabrina is already tiptoeing backwards on the tarmac, eyes wide and dreamy, turning together like dancers, but not reaching for each other, oh no, no desire to touch. Trying to move without sound, on our ballerina’s toes, shuddering breath and wheeling arms, stopping both and turning to each other to mirror identical masks of despair as a humming begins at our backs, an increasing roar, a sunrise of terrifying light, a now-present chaos, and it’s a car, screeching by us, then stopping ahead, a gaping face out of the window, “Ragazze, che cazzo?” a man’s voice is shouting.

For a while we cannot move, we suspect the car of harbouring strange beasts, but somehow the moustachioed stranger gets us into the back, huffing and tutting with annoyance; we are speechless simple puppets in inexpert hands. The car moves off and in some amount of time that I cannot measure, the tunnel yawns and spits us out without resistance, satisfied and satiated now. It is like rebirth to see the moon-glimmer over the cliffs, but at the sight of the milky shimmer on the wet surface of the sea we give the good Samaritan cause to regret his kind act as we simultaneously vomit on his good car seats.

He drops us at the police station, where we report that after the car broke down, Pietro stayed with the car and we walked for help. His whereabouts, we insist in the days that follow, are as much a mystery to us as to the police.

Well, to be fair to us, they are.

 

 

Sinéad McCabe is British and lives in Italy. For a living, she tries to persuade Italians that learning to speak English is a good idea. This is her second published story. The first, entitled “Possibilities”, appeared in Title Goes Here magazine.

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