Haunted Passages: “The Tunnels,” a short story by Jordan Dilley

The Tunnels

They say the tunnels were built between two wars, but no one knows for sure. To know for sure someone would have to spend time going over their construction, testing the age of the plaster, but no one spends more time there than they must. The tunnels are for hiding things, not for exploring. Everyone in the village knows where to go if they need to get rid of something. Like a child learning to speak, the purpose of the tunnels gradually seeps into them. They babble and coo, learn the tunnel’s own vibrations and, when the need arises, respond in kind.

Ana’s family had always lived on the outskirts, not far from the tunnels. Land was cheap there, and her grandfather, a councilman, had bought a plot and had a house built when her father married her mother, a farmer’s daughter who could turn milk into the creamiest cheeses. Ana had been born years after their marriage with no other children following.

After Grandfather died, their tenuous connection to the town dried up. Before, the town had tolerated their family’s proximity to the tunnels. Grandfather’s seat on the town council and the threat of higher taxes had kept their baser instincts in check. Afterwards, no one came to buy cheeses, or to have Ana’s father build their cabinets and dinner tables. Ana’s teacher suggested they keep Ana home when the other children threw rocks and bits of dung at her. The children were unaware of all the times their own parents had crept past Ana’s house on their way to the tunnels.

With nothing to build, father rarely left bed. Ana’s mother dug potatoes too early from the garden and made the long trek to the next village to trade her cheeses for bits of meat, and occasionally a length of cheap cloth to replace Ana’s meagre wardrobe as she grew. Father wasted away, bit by bit. When he died, Ana and her mother had little trouble lifting him from the bed and carrying him past the garden to the hole they’d dug. All Ana’s mother said as they lowered his body was how lucky they were that he’d died in the summer when the ground was warm and pliant.

“If it had been winter …” her mother said, looking toward the tunnels.

Ana had shivered despite the sweat making her dress stick to her back and small breasts.

Two years later, her mother was also dead. One day she returned from selling cheese and the next morning, she lay still on the bed, eyes open and staring up at the ceiling. Ana buried her on top of her father, the late autumn ground hard, but not frozen. She stamped down the mound as best she could, but it left a noticeable bulge. She just hoped the wild dogs and foxes would leave them alone.

Ana spent the proceeding days cutting curds and draining whey. But no one lined up to buy her cheeses; her cart was still full when she returned home, her feet sore and hands callused. She stacked the unsold cheeses in the larder where there was little else. Ana tried to ignore the emptiness of her stomach, finally giving in to hunger and devouring some of the unsold cheese. She laid in her parents’ bed that night with their quilt wrapped tight around her to stave off the cold.

In the morning, she loaded her cheeses again. She would try her own village this time. Though she knew the chances of selling cheese to the people who had once thrown dung at her in the schoolyard were small, she had to try, had to know exactly how desperate her situation was.

Villagers loaded with their own goods to sell, passed her on the road, their conversations floating back on the wind. Talk of who had been seen kissing who behind the church last Sunday, whether their goods would sell today, and the preparations for the harvest festival, vied for attention with the pain in her hands. When she finally succumbed and parked the cart at the side of the road, two women carrying large baskets of bread walked by.

“He needs to understand that once you leave something in the tunnels, that’s it. It’s gone!”

The second woman shifted the basket to her other hip and clucked sympathetically. “Young men, always so foolhardy. Why did he rush off to the tunnels in the first place? And then he hurt his leg, so it’s one of us he’ll ask to fetch it. I tell you right now, I won’t be the one!”

“Shhh!” The first woman hissed, pointing at Ana who had removed her stockings and was rubbing her feet.

At the end of the day, only a few dirty coins lined the pockets of Ana’s apron. People she didn’t recognize, accents different from the clipped tones of Ana’s village, bought a few of her cheapest cheeses. Just as she was wondering if it was worth the trek to try again at the Saturday market, Ana caught sight of the women from the road. Their bread baskets were empty, and they were laughing, cheeks red and ample bosoms swaying underneath their shawls.

Without considering the consequences, without even formulating what she’d say, Ana approached the women. They regarded her with apprehension, eyes traveling from her worn boots to the too-large threadbare coat that had been her father’s. The more she grew, the more she had to resort to her father’s old things. Her mother had been a slight woman, no unnecessary muscle or flesh to spare.

“We’ve no more bread. We sold out.” They said almost at the same time.

“I don’t want bread,” Ana said even though she very much would’ve liked some. Toasted, with butter spread extra thick. Her stomach growled and she pressed her hands against her middle. The women looked away; guilt written on their faces.

“I heard you on the road this morning. Someone you know needs to retrieve something from the tunnels. I will get it … for a price.”

The women regarded Ana before whispering rapidly in each other’s ears. “You could tell no one,” the one who had spoken first on the road said. She brushed a strand of black hair out of her face. The wind picked up and their skirts blew in between their legs like trousers.

“Never,” the other woman said.

“Never,” Ana agreed, beating down the excitement she felt. Plenty of food, a new coat, and a roaring fire—she began to make a list of everything she would do with her fee.

“Well, come with us then. We’ll take you to him,” the woman with the black hair said.

Ana pulled her cart to a small house near an imposing gray church. The women did not stop at the doorstep, or knock, but opened the door and walked through. Ana followed, leaving her cart outside, underneath the window.

“Felix!” The woman with the black hair shouted into the gloom. There was no fire in the grate, and the kitchen and front room needed a good cleaning.

“Probably in his workshop,” the other woman said, beckoning Ana forward.

Ana tip-toed around buckets of tile, bags of plaster, even a cat who was napping near the back door. They found Felix at his workbench, his injured leg propped up on an embroidered cushion. When he saw the three of them, he tried to rise, but the two women forced him back down again.

“It will never heal, if you don’t rest,” the black-haired woman said.

“I don’t have that luxury lately,” he said, turning on his stool to study Ana. She could see his eyes rove over her worn clothes, her pinched face.

“Natalia is still visiting her parents?”

Felix gave a noncommittal shrug. “She says they need help processing the harvest.”

“Well, we have a surprise for you.” The black-haired woman pointed at Ana. “This young lady has offered to retrieve what you hid in the tunnels.”

Felix frowned. “Are you serious? You’re willing to go into the tunnels? Why?”

Ana hesitated, unsure of how much to tell him. If he knew how desperate she was, he might haggle, insist on a smaller fee. But if he didn’t think her serious enough, she might starve or freeze to death in the coming winter. When her stomach ached again, and the two women left, Ana decided a smaller fee was better than none at all.

“My parents are dead, and no one will buy my cheeses. When grandfather was still alive the village tolerated us, they feared his power on the council—”

Felix’s head jerked up from a half-finished tile. The outline of a flower and a vine curling around the edges decorated its otherwise dull surface. “You’re Peter’s granddaughter,” he said more to himself than Ana.

“Yes.”

He pointed toward a towering brick edifice. “When my mother and father moved to this village it was your grandfather who convinced the council to let father build his kiln here. They were worried about the smoke,” he explained.

Felix scratched the stubble around his chin. Ana hadn’t noticed until now his unwashed hair, the smudges on his shirt, and the several days’ worth of wiry hair covering his cheeks and around his mouth.

“I take it you’ve never been to the tunnels?” he finally asked.

Ana shook her head.

“Funny. Your family chose to live so close to them and yet you know nothing about them.”

Ana wanted to protest, to say she knew what the villagers use the tunnels for, but Felix cut her off by raising a dusty hand. “No, I’m sure you know why people go there. The same way a virgin knows childbearing will hurt. But if you’ve never been there, if you’ve never seen … You have to understand, places like the tunnels, they hold the worst, the darkest memories of this village. Shame … jealousy … hate, every terrible feeling you can imagine is represented there in some way. When I went there, the things I saw weren’t horrible, at first. But the farther you walk into the tunnels …” The color drained from Felix’s face and his hands trembled as he brushed the tile with the flower and vine aside.

Ana’s stomach lurched and for the first time in days she knew it wasn’t from hunger. “What you hid, it’s deep inside the tunnel, isn’t it?”

Felix nodded. “I tried not to look around while I searched for a spot to hide it. But still I saw …” Felix swallowed hard. “Since then, I’ve had nothing but nightmares when I sleep. I feel as if there is someone, maybe something always looking over my shoulder, dodging all my steps.”

Ana hitched her cart and began the long walk home. The two women from the market were nowhere to be seen and for that she was grateful. She didn’t think she could bear their questions, their sideways glances. As the sky darkened, and her toes grew numb in her thin stockings, Ana reviewed her conversation with Felix. She organized her thoughts to the thump … thump of her cart as it rolled over the packed earth, rivulets the last rain carved into its surface shaking the cheeses loose from the rows she organized them into that morning.

Like cutting curds, Ana dissected their conversation, discarding Felix’s pauses, his exclamations, and his nervous trembling. What he hid, approximately where he hid it, and his description of the object, were catalogued before she crossed the threshold of her cold and dark home. She lit a fire, fueled tonight by a half-finished cabinet her father was making when he took to his bed, and rested her stocking feet against the grate. Slowly, feeling tingled its way up her ankles and into her calves. Ana got up, filled a sack with cheese, candles, matches, some water, and a blanket to wrap the thing in. She would go to the tunnels tomorrow, before she lost her nerve.

That night wan shadows stalked her dreams. In the market, in the fields behind her house, and through the kitchen, Ana ran, never quite sure what chased her, but the gripping threat was clear. The next morning Ana woke out of breath, shivering in the early morning air, her warm breath fogging the windows in the kitchen. She dressed in two pairs of her father’s trousers and slung the sack of supplies over her shoulder. She forced down a stale piece of bread with soft cheese spread across its center.

The walk to the tunnels was short, the only thing Ana would be grateful for that day. She followed the path as it descended into a copse of trees, branches thin with desiccated brown leaves. The closer she got to the tunnels, the quieter it became. Fewer birds chirped, the squirrels and rabbits disappeared—even the wind had died down. The air was closer, and yet colder. Ana wanted to rip off the extra pair of trousers, and simultaneously wrap herself in fur.

The mouth of the tunnel appeared suddenly, after a sharp turn in the path, and Ana’s breath caught in her throat. The entrance was a large circle of black, a void in the landscape that sucked in all light around it. She couldn’t see ten feet into it and worried that the candles she brought wouldn’t be powerful enough to illuminate her path. Each footstep echoed painfully as she approached.

In the beginning, the tunnel was empty. For some reason she had imagined the tunnels bursting at the seams with grisly detritus. How far would she have to walk before she stumbled over abandoned objects? She lit both candles and retrieved her father’s pocket watch from the sack. Felix had said he’d walked for at least a quarter of an hour down the tunnel’s main branch.

The darkness was dense. It tugged at the column of flame from each candle, trying to separate it from the wick. The ground was empty, bare of anything save the packed dirt that was soft in spots where moisture had accumulated. Ana wondered why Felix was so afraid of the tunnels when a blast of cold air wrapped around her ankles. She lost her footing and landed on her hands and knees, the candles sputtering out so close to her face she could smell melted wax. Hands still stinging, Ana rummaged in her sack for the matches.

When both candles were lit again, a rag doll with a painted face and a faded dress smiled up at her. At first, Ana was reminded of the dolls her mother used to make for her, stuffed with wool and clothed in flour-sack dresses. But when Ana looked closer, she saw the doll’s eyes, nose, and lips were crude smears, all a suspicious rust color. A frayed length of twine was coiled around the doll’s neck and there were burn marks on the doll’s fingerless hands. Ana’s head spun and she fought a wave of nausea.

Only the threat of starving or freezing to death this winter got Ana on her feet again and away from the doll. Though she kept her eyes straight ahead, Ana nonetheless observed the growing collection around her. Innocent things—books, bits of jewelry, a broken chair, commingled with the skeletal remains of various animals, a chalice with a black tarry substance around the rim, and handleless knives with rusted blades.

When fifteen minutes had passed, Ana began studying the piles and scattered debris more closely. With the toe of her boot, she upturned one heap after another, releasing clouds of moldy air, and the occasional maggot cluster. After ten minutes of solid effort, Ana was about to retrace her steps, afraid she might have traversed the tunnel faster than Felix. But then she spied a lump near the tunnel’s wall. The red blanket Felix had told her to look for was folded around something small. A skinny leg, half the length of her arm lay outside the blanket. The skin was blotchy red, the toes swollen, and a rat sniffed hopefully near the kneecap.

Stifling a groan, Ana tucked the blanket around the swollen thing and placed it in her sack. She ran toward the entrance of the tunnel, trying to ignore the bundle as it bumped against her back. She arrived at Felix’s house well before noon and found him in the same place as before. When she offered him the bundle, his hands trembled, and tears gathered at the corner of his eyes.

“Now she will come home,” he said, taking it. “She wanted a proper burial, with the priest and a small coffin. But I couldn’t bear to have the deformed thing in the house. I told her it was a sign, that it would be best if no one ever knew. What would they think of us? Making such a … monster. But things will be better now. We’re both still young, there will be other children.”

Felix looked up at Ana hopefully. Many others Ana wanted to say, but then she remembers the sight of the leg. The odd angle at which it lay, the bones almost twisted. Even if it had lived, the child would never have walked. Ana knew this doesn’t bode well for Felix’s hopes of a future family, though she said nothing. Instead, she held out her hand.

“Of course,” Felix said, walking into the house. He returned with a handful of small coins. Ana fought down a smile as he placed the cold metal in her hand. As soon as his back was turned, she counted them. She couldn’t afford any discrepancies, to let sympathy get in the way of survival.

Ana practically skipped down the street. She made two stops before returning home. One at the butcher where she purchased a small square of the cheapest meat, licking her lips as he wrapped it in paper, and one to market. She bought a small sack of potatoes, and a large loaf of bread from the two women. They gave each other self-satisfied smiles when Ana handed them two silver coins.

That night Ana felt like a queen. She rested in front of a roaring fire and a bubbling stew pot that filled the house with such a wholesome, savory smell she almost cried for joy. Ana hid the remaining coins in the potato sack behind her collection of cheeses in the larder. If she was careful, the small nest-egg would last through the winter. She couldn’t eat stew with meat and bread every day, but if she was frugal, she’d live to see spring.

And then what? she wondered, lifting the lid on the stew pot. She wracked her brain for other sources of income, regretting that her father hadn’t taught her to work with wood before he died, that she wasn’t as good at foraging for mushrooms and berries as her mother had been.

She shook her head. She would worry about the future tomorrow, tonight she intended to enjoy herself. When she finally went to bed, her belly was full, and her head spun a little from the brown liquor she found stashed behind a box of her father’s old tools. All night she dreamed of the twisted leg. She saw it wiggle out of the red blanket, severed from the deformed body. She could even feel it against her skin, brushing lightly, the skin smooth despite the shocking blotches.

In the morning, Ana blamed her troubled sleep on the liquor. She set her feet on the icy wooden floor, head swimming. A knock on the door sent her heart racing. No one had visited since well-before her father’s death. Ana wrapped herself in a blanket and tiptoed toward the door.

“Who is it?” She croaked.

“I’m from the village. My name is Nina. Felix sent me.”

Ana opened the door a crack. “Felix sent you?”

The woman, head wrapped in a scarf with flowers embroidered around the edges, nodded eagerly. “He said you can find things, things in the …” she pointed in the direction of the tunnels.  

The woman held out a small purse and jingled it in front of her face. “If that’s not enough, I might be able to get more,” she said anxiously, her eyebrows contracting.

Ana opened the door for the woman and shepherded her inside.

Over the next few weeks, this scene was repeated at least a dozen times. Someone would knock on Ana’s door, often in the morning, though sometimes at night after she’d finished eating dinner, and beg her to reclaim their possessions. Her collection of coins stashed in the larder had grown, though she also took payment in food—chickens, sacks of flour, and sometimes summer preserves. One cold night a woman came offering a thick wool blanket.

Several times a week, Ana made the short trek to the tunnels. Soon, all her dreams took place in those dark corridors. She was always searching, sometimes she knew what for, and other times aware only that it was further, further in. Even in her waking hours Ana could never shake the sense that something dodged her steps. Despite her new-found wealth, she began to lose weight. When she washed her hair over the kitchen sink, small handfuls fell out. She resorted to wrapping her head in a scarf like the older village women did.

Ana knew she couldn’t go on like this. As much as it frightened her, the idea of a new start in a village where they’d never heard of her, her family, or her new profession, became more appealing. She had enough money; she’d been careful. She could make a fresh start, go back to selling cheeses, maybe take in some sewing. She was too old to finish school, but she might be able to afford a tutor, then she could train for a profession.

Soon, she decided, pulling on her father’s coat. No more new requests. She’d finish the ones she’d promised, then pack up and leave. She stuffed a small piece of bread into her mouth, barely tasting its fresh nuttiness. She followed a path that a couple of months ago didn’t exist. Her boots made deep impressions in the dusting of snow they had received during the night. It was so cold the snow didn’t melt under her feet.

Without meaning to, Ana started to make plans. She would bribe one of the local farmers to take her in his wagon; there was no point in showing up exhausted and too weak to haggle over lodging. Perhaps a small house near the town center, close to the marketplace. She’d sell what she could of her parent’s and grandfather’s possessions before she left. Perhaps the villagers’ fear that she knew their deepest secrets would inspire them to buy the remnants of her home.

At the mouth of the tunnel, Ana had to stop and remind herself what she needed to find today. In her mind she saw the old woman with the blanket. How she begged Ana to find the lock of her husband’s hair she’d hidden so many years ago. She claimed he haunted her back then, for something she had done while he was still alive, though she didn’t say what. She had cleared their home of all his possessions. Now, lonely and in ill health, she wanted something to remind her of him. She wanted to hold those brown strands she had cut from his head the day he died. Ana would find it in the small lacquered box he used to keep his tobacco in. If in doubt, open it and sniff. When Ana asked her if she remembered where in the tunnels to look, the old woman had shrugged, probably not far, she’d said.

Ana couldn’t recall seeing a lacquered box anywhere before. She waved a torch back and forth in front of her, glad for its warmth on this frigid morning, hoping to see its light reflected in a polished surface, but nothing glinted back at her. Further and further, she walked until she was sure the woman wouldn’t have come so far. She had decided to turn back, retrace her steps, when she heard moaning coming from the blackness in front of her. With each beat of her heart the moan grew louder until it became an unmistakable cry of agony.

The torch trembled in her hand, and Ana’s first thought was to go home, never mind the black box, the old woman could have her blanket back. But Ana remembered Felix and the lengths the villagers would go to when they wanted to rid themselves of embarrassment and shame. Ana moved forward, toward the sound. She was so deep in the tunnel, the debris so scarce, she didn’t have to watch her footing. Her breath came out in large clouds and the feeling had gone from her fingertips. The cry grew louder until it echoed in Ana’s head. Any moment she expected to stumble upon whatever was making the sound. Just a little farther, she told herself. She was numb to the cold now, couldn’t feel her heartbeat, nor the hunger in her stomach. Her torch extinguished in a gust of wind, but Ana didn’t notice.

Jordan Dilley lives and writes in Washington. She has an MA in literature from the University of Utah. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Woven TaleBlue Lake ReviewCold Mountain Review, 45th ParallelJMWW, and Reunion: The Dallas Review.

Image: thoughtcatalog.com

Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.