The Man from the Tunnel

A story of confession and death

I was just coming out of that awful pipe–a cement cylinder less than two feet in diameter that I’d been foolhardy enough to crawl through to get across the road–when I met him. I was about seven years old. That may well explain why I had decided to wriggle along a narrow sewer rather than crossing the road like a normal person. There was no good reason for putting myself through that horrible, curving nightmare. Absolutely none at all.

Slithering along with great difficulty, every inch of my skin stinking of rotten surface scum, I’d gotten halfway. At that point in my sheer, unadulterated folly, several things happened, one of which was entirely subjective: it suddenly occurred to me that something horrible like a snake or a spider might appear at any moment, and I’d be stuck, unable to turn around. I was picturing having to crawl backwards as the monster came towards me. Then, just as the claustrophobia set in, things started to look up. Firstly, the mouth of the tunnel seemed so close I could taste it, and secondly, I saw a man’s feet. Judging by the angle of the boots, he was sitting on the grass.

Of course, it never occurred to me that I was making this happen of my own accord; I thought it was because I wanted it so much. (I’d never entrusted myself to God, not even in the jargon people cling to in extreme situations, or merely as a precaution.) So, aided solely by a bright circle and a pair of unfamiliar feet, I got to the end of the sewer pipe and, like an air-paddling frog, I stuck my head out.

The man wearing thick-soled, hobnailed boots was indeed sitting. But on a stone rather than the grass. He was dressed in dark clothing and had a droopy mustache, like something out of an old painting. He was holding a little green shoot.

He didn’t seem surprised to see me come out of the hole. Even though as I crawled out gasping, covered in filth from the sewer, I must have looked like a manure worm trying out the fresh air that other creatures seemed to enjoy. He asked no questions, nothing doing with those hellos, what’s your names, or how old are yous that elders inflict on children, the kind of thing that one so often has to answer by showing their rear end. If he reacted at all it was to smile. A smile overflowing with honey. A smile born of his solitude, his own tunnel maybe, a virgin sweetness unmarred by human contact.

I finally extricated my entire body and stood up to face him. Once again he bathed me in his full approval, a kind of complicity in madness that cut right to my young bones.

No one had ever smiled at me like that before, I must have thought, not just all for me like a penny sweet, but also as though he had erected a private rainbow in an empty world. And I almost repaid him in kind. But then I remembered that I was a cautious child. This was a strange man. The police arrested bums. Never. Be careful. They were just casual, everyday phrases I heard every now and again but they were fixed in my brain and its sensors were forever on the lookout for danger. So I quickly swallowed my incipient greeting and ran off as fast as my trembling legs could carry me.

The tale, which I stammered out feverishly, stupidly, was repeated again and again. And so, without anyone realizing it, I was informed of the existence in this world of something called rape. It must have been something terrible to judge by the faces of disgust that people made, like they were confronted with rubbish-munching flies. But remembering what had actually happened, I couldn’t believe that such a thing might be associated with the man who had smiled at me from the stone. Rape, nice man. The kind of dirty thing they were talking about must certainly be around. But it had nothing to do with what had happened to me: it was divisible only by one, or itself, like those anarchic numbers in elemental mathematics that won’t allow any of the other numbers to interfere with them. I thought that raping a girl must be like taking her to a bed of clouds, far above the doubting earth, in an enormous light blue barn with no walls or ceiling. And then you got ready for whatever happened next.

And so the novel memory of the man remained entirely discrete, unpolluted, and ignorant of the commotion it had caused. Several vagrants were arrested but nothing happened to them. None of their rags, fleas, long hair, or yellow teeth matched my description. And then one day I decided to stop talking about it. I realized that the people I was talking to were unrelenting idiots: sad, dull-witted yokels unworthy of the grace of the angel who had helped me out of a pipe. And so everything calmed down. But it turned out to be just the prelude. He reappeared several times, about seven I think, enough to make him a tangible presence in my life. And this is where the story really begins. The man from the pavement opposite. The only one to witness my death. The final revelation of the void.

At the time I lived in a loft. I’d chosen it so as not to have anything above me or on either side, a kind of subconscious rejection of the tunnel, if one were going to psychoanalyze it. One day after a long illness, I opened a window to water some plants and saw him. Yes, it was him, the same man. Many years had passed but he looked the same age, and appeared to be wearing the same outfit. It was certainly the same mustache. He was standing next to a column and although I know that no one will believe this, he was holding the same green shoot from ten or twelve years before. So I thought: this time, he’s all for me. Only now his image wouldn’t be profaned, he wouldn’t end up in the dirty annals of street crime, unless I hand him in myself . . . Just as I was thinking that thought, he lifted his head. Of course he recognized me and his face broke into the same smile he’d worn at the mouth of the tunnel (God, don’t let me lose him again, I said, this time indulging wholeheartedly in the jargon. In a few years, it won’t be the same. Just give me enough time to get down to tell him that I didn’t accuse him of anything. And not just that but everything else, the lovely stories that the presumption of rape had inspired in me later on, in the solitude that You let fall under the sky when the time is right and the grapes are summer-ripe . . .)

I picked up the telephone and dialed the shop next to where he’d reappeared.

“Excuse me,” I said, repressing my habitual shyness, “it’s the student who lives on the top floor opposite . . .”

“Yes . . . what can I do for you?”

“Well, this will sound strange. I’d just like for you to go out and tell the man dressed in black holding a green shoot standing next to the column that the girl watering the plants is the same girl from the tunnel. And that she’s just going down to meet him, she doesn’t want to miss him because of the five floors she has to go down to get to him. Quick, please!”

“Just that, huh?” said the guy.

“Just go,” I ordered in a voice I’d never heard come out of me before. “I’ll wait here. It can’t happen again after all these years. Time is never the same once it’s gone!”

My incoherent babbling, the insanity nibbling away in his ear, drove him out onto the street. I watched him look precisely where I’d told him to and then shake his head before expanding his field of vision. A few seconds later, while I could still clearly see the stranger standing in the same place, he came back with his inane report:

“Listen, why don’t you go play your pranks somewhere else? There isn’t anyone standing by the column, or anywhere near it. Unless it’s the Invisible Man we’re talking about, damn it.”

“The prank’s on you,” I shouted hysterically. “He’s still there, I can see him!”

“Maybe he ran off when he saw that we’d caught him trying to steal my bicycle.”

“Shut up, you idiot!”

“Or maybe he’s just crossed the street,” he added, growing in confidence, “and now he’s running up the stairs to get you in your attic. I’ve often thought about how you sleep alone when there are plenty who’d gladly give you some company . . .”

I cut off the flow of obscenities, it was threatening to flood the world. All kinds of secret connections with other people were being revealed, just when I thought I’d been shedding them over the years, and all those faces along with them. For a few retrograde minutes the air around me gusted with their breaths, some of which were like the emanations of flowers, others more like those same flowers once they’d rotted. I was almost ready to bribe Death himself to take them away again.

That was when I realized that I should never try to give anyone else my message again. It was liable to be corrupted as it crossed the bridge they tended for it. And I vaguely came to sense that not even I was immune from their inventions; I needed to free the man from my fantasies too, they were just as crude as those of anyone else.

Now that this form of communication had been cut off, while he stood with the same pose, not even noticing the owner of the bicycle take it away from where it was leaning on the column and back into his shop, I went out to the stairs in a daze.

I was going down, maybe talking to myself, or going faster than was generally considered proper, or both at once, when a colorless woman came gasping up the other way carrying a full shopping bag. She blocked my path. Even before she’d presumed to get in the way, she’d made her presence known with a wet-mop smell that filled the entire stairwell. I was already imagining her swaying on one leg, dangling from one of her dirty threads in the darkness, when she reaffirmed her determination to occupy the entire passage. We struggled over the critical space without saying a word, instinctively trying to claim what was most valuable to us: her in her role as obstructionist washerwoman and me back at the mouth of the tunnel trying to get to something that belonged to me. I had no choice but to push. Yes: push, what else could I do? When you’re treading the tightrope of destiny, watched by all the bobbing heads below, you can’t let anyone get in the way, not again. Of course, she got there before me. When I saw her on the final landing, staring straight ahead glassy-eyed with her shopping spread out all around her, it was too late. The man had disappeared. I can’t say forever. He reappeared at regular intervals, for my rape and my first crime and then on other occasions when he was the principle witness to several other nefarious deeds. They were always other people’s fault, right throughout my sorry life. One spends years worrying about what might be taken away from them, and it grows even more valuable with time, like vintage wine. So, many years later, when I’d exchanged stairs for a lift and nobody in the building knew where the new arrival had come from, I almost said hello to the woman in the hallway mirror who looked very much like me as she tossed back her hair. My God, I almost said, an echo of a previous occasion when I’d been in trouble. But then I remembered my worst and best deed, when I’d stolen a man from an unknown stranger. I decided that my now lifeless hair wasn’t worth knocking the door to self-pity over.

Then one rainy afternoon, I don’t know how long later, the man from the tunnel reappeared on the new pavement opposite, like a manic bloodhound that spends its whole life on the scent. Now that I’d been given another chance at a definitive encounter, I decided that nothing in the world was going to stop me. There I was, with nothing at all to get in my way, pressing the call button when I saw the emergency staircase next to it.

“There it is, same as ever,” I snorted. “The unavoidable allure of the pipe, even though the normal path is now this contraption that goes vertically up and down with unquestionable efficiency.”

Suddenly, while the doors to the lift opened of their own accord like an experienced vulva, the greasy banister of the staircase called to me as suggestively as a woodland faun. And then the door closed again. I was lost in my memories, riding on banisters as though someone had invented them just to teach you about orgasms, spreading heat through your maturing insides until by menopause they’re shriveled up like charred rags.

“Yes!” I screamed, completely free now of all my burdens, especially the one imposed on me by others, who have plenty enough of their own.

The one about dangling over the abyss, meaning nothing more than its loss, lingered on for a few moments spinning in the air of the box along with other, smaller, indiscretions that had gushed out of the body. They accompanied me to the door. Then I crossed the street subject to the same dizziness as I’d felt riding the banister, completely oblivious to the intentions of the wheels coming at me as though everyone were steering their cars in a grand hunt for my guts. I was deaf and blind to everything that wasn’t my objective, the consensual embrace of the man with the green shoot still standing there ageless, having apparently been excused from the crazy chase after time. That was when I caught a glimpse of the rapist of children, the thief, the murderer, the man who covets what doesn’t belong to him and everything else that one might potentially become after their birth, opening his arms towards me. But an offer of succor is worthless if the wheels get to you first. I saw so much and so little that it’s impossible to describe. It was a landscape seen through the windows of an express train, whose details one never gets to know but that still cosset the skin. Or make it stand on end.

“Thank you for inventing the seven falls,” I managed to get out as my tongue flopped onto the pavement like a one-petal flower.

And so I was back in the tunnel. A black hole cut savagely into an infinite expanse of rock. And its innumerable exits which always have a stone set somewhere close to the mouth. But now the man was gone. The consecration of the desperate, absolute void.

Bios

Armonía Somers

Armonía Somers (1914-1994), the pen name of Armonía Liropeya Etchepare Locino, was a Uruguayan feminist, pedagogue, novelist, and short story writer. Kit Maude’s translation of her first novel, The Naked Woman, was published by Feminist Press in 2018. Her masterpiece, Only Elephants Find Mandrake, is forthcoming in translation in 2021.

Kit Maude

Kit Maude is a translator based in Buenos Aires. He has translated dozens of Latin American writers for a wide array of publications and writes reviews for ÑOtra Parte, and the Times Literary Supplement.

Copyright (c) Armonía Somers, 1979. English translation copyright (c) Kit Maude, 2019.