Monday, May 25, 2020

The Spiral Tunnel by Harrison Kim

A five year old boy dreams of leaving his body and faces up to his mortality; by Harrison Kim.

When I was five years old I lived at Genoa Bay Farm. Its fields spread down to a cedar bordered cove way out beyond Tzouhalem Mountain on Vancouver Island. My mom and dad worked the farm for owner Tommy Lines. I was the only kid there. I slept in my bed with a stuffed bear. I held him tight and carried him everywhere during the day. I could count on Bear. The world seemed so big around me, but he remained small.

One afternoon, I threw Bear over the wood fence separating the farm driveway from a drainage ditch. He lay on the grass on the other side. I reached under and retrieved him. "Sorry," I said. "I didn't mean it." Then I threw him over the fence again.

He went further this time. I crawled under the railing and searched around. It took me longer to find him. "I'm sorry," I said again, when I discovered him, lying upside down in some thistles.

Back under the fence, I contemplated Bear. "Let's try it once more," I said. My arms felt strong. I lifted up Bear and hurled him as far as I could. I crawled back under the railing again to find him. This time, I couldn't. I searched all up and down the grass by the side of the ditch. Sorriness turned to sadness. "I want my Bear," I repeated over and over. Tears ran down my face, but I did not cry. It was my fault he was gone.

That night, I dreamed I flew all over the field, trying to find him. I could see every thistle tip, every bit of dew hanging off the grass. I heard a bird calling in the trees and a Kingfisher swooped down, over the fields towards the sea. I sensed a presence and turned around to see, in place of the moon, a narrow tunnel opening to the sky. It spiralled and grew and moved towards me. I knew if I went into it, I would not return.

I thought of my mom and dad, and my bed in the spare blue-painted room at the top of the farmhouse stairs. I felt myself moving back over the oak trees. I looked at the tunnel, its mouth widening till it filled half the sky. I saw the old farmhouse with my room's lone upstairs window. I willed myself to move towards the house and tumbled through the open window. My body lay on its side on the bed. I stared down at it, the tiny hands, the rise and fall of breath.

The child seemed so small and pale. Mom and Dad were its guardians and providers. Where would it go in its life? What would it become? Would it be wise to return?

Then I felt a jolt, like a powerful electric shock, and awakened in my child self, my heart pounding, my senses alive.

I wondered then if Bear had gone into the tunnel. My dad told me they found him soaked through in the drainage ditch. "We had to throw him out, I'm sorry," he said. Again, my tears fell. Still, I did not make a sound.

From then on at night I dreamed of flying in my spirit body. It became easier and easier. I thought of a destination, then I would sail out with a roaring sound through my forehead. That roaring released me as I floated down the stairs of the old Genoa Bay farmhouse. If I didn't stray too far, the tunnel remained small, in the distance. I could sense it, a light at its end, shining where the moon rose. I moved my spirit cautiously. I stopped at the living room at first. I became bolder, and moved out through the farmhouse door, over to Old Val's one room cabin. Old Val was a former prospector and wilderness guide. Farm owner Tommy Lines took him in as a boarder. He did whatever farm work he could for payback. Every breakfast he reminded everyone that he stood at the other end of life, his spirit ready to fly. "My body is sturdy enough today, but my time is near," he'd grin. "Things can change in a second," he'd say. Then he'd look at me and in a radio-style voice announce, "For you, time has just begun." Everyone round the table smiled. I wanted to be near him, to understand more.

As my spirit floated into his cabin, I watched Val reach around his chipped wooden desk, contemplating photographs from albums of his younger days. I saw a shimmer, a blue and purple halo surround him. He reached for a large leather-bound book. I watched him open the book and pull out money from between its pages. He added more bills, counted them again, and placed everything back in the book, which I saw was called "The Bible."

He read the book and I followed along over his shoulder. Reading was one thing I was already good at. My skills measured in at several years above my age level. Reading moved me into vivid and interesting worlds, like releasing myself from my body at night. I couldn't stop. Mom and Dad said I spent too much time inside. "Bookworm boy, go out," Dad commanded. "Or you'll burn up your brain."

That didn't matter. I liked stoking the dream fires. Often, they were more vivid than waking awareness.

I read the bible and other books over Val's shoulder. When he closed the books and went to bed, so did I, floating back to my physical body, in my room on the top floor of the farmhouse.

One day, Val wasn't at breakfast drinking coffee. "He'd never miss is morning brew," the farmhands said. "We better check on him."

Tommy Lines, the farm owner, ran over to see what was wrong. He found Val on his back, passed out on the floor. They tried artificial respiration, they called the ambulance.

"His heart stopped," my mom told me later. "He's in the spirit world now."

"How do you get out of the spirit world?" I asked her.

"You don't," she said. "You're in heaven then. You don't want to come back."

"What's the matter?" my dad said.

"I want to see Old Val again," I cried. "I don't want to die."

"Well, you're going to live a long long time." He kneeled down as I sat weeping. I stopped then, and asked. "How long?" My dad rubbed his hand over his chin. "Very," he said. "Very long."

I spirit dreamed to Val's cabin again that night. He was supposed to be in heaven, but I saw him sitting at his tiny wooden table with a small glass and a bottle of whiskey, his profile shadow outlined through the cabin dark. He turned my way, and smiled, "It's not so bad, Tanner."

"You can see me!" I said, very surprised.

"You shouldn't be here." His face faded, then focussed in sharply again.

"Are you going to dream with me?" I asked.

"This is no place for children to dream," he said. "It's time for you to wake up, Tanner."

The sound of my body's name sent me back. In a moment I found myself in my bed shivering, blankets around me in the dark, the rising sun shining in through the window, and the call of a kingfisher coming from outside. I sat awake until my mom unlocked my room.

After breakfast, I pushed open Val's cabin door and found the money bible exactly where I saw him place it, in a drawer at the bottom of his desk. I opened the book and some bills drifted out. I held the book against my own chest and walked towards the crescent beach that lay at the centre of the cove, making sure nothing else fell away.

Val spent his last years working on this beach, just beyond the cedar trees. Every day, he spent hours cutting up driftwood on the beach for the farmhouse stove and furnace. He worked with an impressive crosscut saw. His woolly white hair billowed up and down as his veiny hands pulled and pushed the six foot long cutter.

The old man often took me down to the beach. He gave me rides in his canoe and let me read my books on the sand while he worked. "I want my ashes scattered here," he told my mom.

I carried Val's bible down to that beach and placed it by his crosscut saw, in between some driftwood. I believed that his spirit would pick the book up, take the money out, and spend it in the next world. He would take the saw too, up through the spiral tunnel, and cut driftwood in heaven. The big tool stood shining silver grey against a cedar tree. I sat on the beach for a while, then placed the bible on a log by the saw, and put some pebbles and rocks on top, so it wouldn't blow away.

A few weeks before he died, I told Val about my dream travelling. He laughed. Then he looked me in the eye and said, "Well, if you're ever floating around, come to this cabin, and tell me what you see."

"I will do that," I said, looking way up at him, for he was over five ten, even with his back so bent.

The next day, down at the beach, I told him, "I saw you sharpening your saw last night."

He stopped his work and looked up. "How do you know?"
"I floated there, like you said. I watched you read the bible. You cleaned the saw afterwards, with oil."

"What else?" Val leaned forward. "What else did you see?"

"The saw slipped," I said. "You cut your knee."

"You didn't just wander over?"

"No, Mom doesn't let me out of my room at night. She locks the door, because I sleepwalk."

Val stood up. "I don't mean to scare you," he said. He started to laugh. "I'll have to remember I'm not alone at night." He picked up a stone and tossed it out towards the sea. "That's a very odd story, Tanner." He looked out at the water and rubbed his hand across his face. Then he asked, "What do you think? Is there life after death?"

I looked up. "What is death?" I said.

He sighed. "You're only a child. Full of strange dreams."

I thought of the spiral tunnel. What if on my night travels, I couldn't find my way back to the farmhouse and my mom and dad?

"Maybe you can do it too," I said. "You could dream travel with me."

"Only when my time comes, Tanner," Val said. He sat on the log beside me. "You should stay here, live your life. That's what we're meant to do."

He looked at me differently after that. He didn't ask questions, but he talked with my mom and dad.

"We're going to bring in some playmates for you," said Mom. "Val says you tell him you're lonely."

"I don't need any playmates," I said.

A few days later my parents introduced me to Jaimie Lines, the farm owner's nephew, a slightly older boy who tore up and down the driveway on his brand new bicycle. I practiced filling a small wagon with rocks, then taking them out again. Next to me lay the Farm's Great Dane, Daniel.

Old Val came by. "You're paying more attention to Daniel than Jaimie."

"Jaimie goes too fast," I said.

A couple of days after Val died, Jaimie came over again. He said, "Let's have a race." I ran. He sped his bicycle down the driveway hill, whooping and shouting. He headed straight for Daniel, who jumped out of the way. An eagle high up in a fir tree distracted me. He seemed to be following us with his eyes. Jaimie beat me easily.

"You're slow!" Jaimie laughed. "You can't run."

I sat at the side of the road, holding a long stick.

Jaimie walked by me, pushing his bike. "You're slow!" he said again. He rode down the hill a second time and I shoved my long stick forward right into his bicycle spokes. The wheel broke the stick, the bicycle skidded sideways, and Jaimie tumbled off into the grass, landing on his face and scraping his knee. He lay there for a moment, then got up screaming, and ran into the farmhouse.

My mom came out of the house, pulled me up the stairs by one arm, and locked me in my room. "You're a nasty boy!" she yelled. "How could you hurt Jaimie? He's trying to be your friend."

I sat on my bed, staring out of the window. Then I started rocking back and forth. After a while, I lay on the bed and thought about the spiral tunnel. My dad visited me after his farmhand work and told me I'd stay in my room without any supper. "You could have hurt Jaimie really bad," he said.

"Think about what you did." He locked the door again.

I sat and watched oak and poplar branches move outside, rocked back and forth to the sound of their rustling leaves until the sun set over the ocean beyond. Then I lay back in my bed, thinking of Bear and of Val and of where they might be. After a time, I drifted away in my mind, awakening to the sound of my spirit leaving my body again, that familiar roaring that separated me from this world.

I stared down at that small self. The tiny fingers, how did they form so perfectly? The thoughts, how did they come? Already, though, moments of damage. Jaimie tumbling to the ground because of my anger, then rising slowly and wailing with the knowledge of pain.

I perceived a blue aura all around me, between my spirit and my body.

"Where is the tunnel?" I wondered. I looked out the window and in the distance, where the moon used to be, I saw it spiralling in my direction.

"It's the door," I said to myself, because I couldn't get out of mine. As I waited, spirit hovering in the room, the tunnel appeared larger and larger, until it blocked out the sea and the oak trees and it stopped, swirling outside my window.

I looked inside it, to its silver light. So bright, but it only swirled at the window, it did not come further. Then I looked down at my body, and I fell like a weight inside it again, with the roaring echoing behind me. I looked up. Old Val stood beside the bed, a shimmering silver aura around him. He didn't say anything, but gestured towards the tunnel. I nodded, and looked inside. I saw the trajectory of Val's life.

He was born on a farm and he worked hard. Even at my age he picked corn and brought in firewood. At 18 he travelled north to the Klondike Gold rush for a new start away from the poverty of his early life. He made a stake, and found gold, sold the claim to a mining company for 20 thousand dollars and spent it all in two months in San Francisco. Then he came north and worked as a guide and a logger. I saw him leading pack-horses through the mountains, camping by lakes, and cutting timber with his crosscut saw. "The land became my spirit," I heard his voice intone. As a child, I didn't understand it all, but something else within me did. Some part of me that always existed. An awareness, a soul, or consciousness. I took the memories of another's life with me forever. I watched a whole life spiral in silver light from the farmhouse window. As the images faded into the tunnel, his ghost looked at me, smiled, and stepped into the spiral. "Stay here," came his voice. "You will live a long time."

Then I saw him caught up in the tunnel, disappearing, the spiral's silver light twisting back beyond the oak trees, until the face of the tunnel became the full moon shining over the ocean.

The next day, after a long Dad lecture about not putting sticks in bicycle spokes, Mom asked if I'd like to visit Val, one last time. "Yes," I said, curious as to where he was. Did Mom and Dad have a key to the tunnel? We drove to a church in town. In the church rested a long box with Canadian flags over it. "That's where Val is," said Mom. "Let us pray for him now."

"No, Val's not there," I said.

"Well, his body is," she replied.

"Oh," I said. "Can we open it and take a look?"

She smiled. "No."

I felt a bit disappointed, but I knew where Val really was anyway.

When we came home, Dad showed us something he picked up down at the beach. "I bought back Val's crosscut saw and this," he said. He held up the bible. "It's full of money," he told us. "I found it under some rocks." He flipped through it. "It's really old."

I kept quiet. After last night's dream, I knew that where Val travelled, money was not necessary. In this living world, it was part of what filled up our time and life. If I said I took Val's bible from his room I'd be in trouble. I had been in enough trouble already.

"Maybe you can buy a new car with the money," I said.

"It's not ours," Dad told me. "But if we can't find the owner..."

That evening, I lay on my bed, my eyes looking out the window, my mind thinking about Val in the tunnel, and his body in the box. Someone knocked on the door. It opened, no one behind it. The light was on though, shining through to my dark room. I looked towards this light.

At the side of the door, a head appeared, a stuffed bear head. Then it vanished. It appeared again, further down the wall.

I looked closer. The head disappeared. I leaped up and ran to the light, to find out who was the puppet master. My dad stood behind the door holding a stuffed bear. He'd been moving it up and down the wall. He showed me how he did it. "We bought this for you," he grinned playfully. "Did I surprise you?"

"It's not the same Bear!" I said. But it didn't matter. I took the stuffed toy to bed. I was in a child's body. Val said life was just beginning. I didn't want my spirit flying into a tunnel anytime soon. I needed something to protect me from those bad dreams.

I called the bear "Val." The next day I threw it from the window a few times, to see if it would float away. It always dropped. Then I'd run down the stairs to the outside and pick it up.

I stopped dreaming about spirit travelling. Val and Bear were gone. The image of the tunnel frightened me the more I thought about it. I didn't want to be in a box. When I heard a roaring in my ears and found myself floating out of my body I willed myself to wake up. Afterwards, I lay there in the night, holding Val the bear until my heart stopped pounding.

My parents did buy themselves a car. They gave me a bicycle, and I practiced balance until I learned to ride. I beat Jaimie in a race. I don't think he tried that hard, though. He could've been scared of me.

After a while, I remembered the tunnel only as a dream that came as light cast out from the moon. My life passed by and my body grew and changed and I never thought of leaving it. A few years ago I reminisced with my mom about Genoa Bay Farm. "I always felt bad we locked you in at night," she said. "You were a sleepwalker."

"When you look down at your hands like that," I asked. "What are you thinking?"

She lifted her head. Lines ran embedded deep down her face. The cords of her neck quivered, her voice a whisper. "Sometimes I think that I'm asleep, above myself in a dream and looking down at those hands. I think that one morning I'll wake up and be back on the farm again."

"Remember the poplar leaves rustling in the wind?" I said.

"Yes, I do," she said. "There's some moving outside here right now."

I didn't hear anything. "Life is very long," I said.

"Yes it is," said my mom. "Do you remember Val, and his bible full of money?"

"You knew it was his?" I asked.

"He willed it to us," she said. "He wanted to give something to a couple starting out in the world."

"I thought I carried it to the beach, and Dad found it there."

"I don't remember that," Mom said. She seemed to catch her breath.

I heard a faint roaring sound, and my mother's face faded for a second. Then the noise stopped. Mom again seemed solid and real in front of me. That night I rocked back and forth in my bed, knowing Mom would not live forever, and that I too faded within my body, the living strength of the years like a wave rising and falling. When I stopped, I trembled. I started the rhythm again, to keep the tunnel away and my body real.

In the morning, I ate breakfast, went to work, came home and did a little gardening. I forgot that I was alive until a kingfisher flew down from an oak tree, across the wide field, then curved up into the sky and disappeared.

10 comments:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Great job of mood and tone, something difficult to do with a first person narrative. There is a lot of mystery about the dream travel and I loved the fact that Tanner's mother had the skill also.
    At the beginning, Tanner is a typical five year old child (the repeated throwing of the bear over the fence was great) but he matures and changes through the tale...not just with age but with experience and understanding. He even reaches the point where he loses his childhood ability (or at least ignores it). Don't we all.

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    1. Thanks James R. Indeed, the child's mind changes with experience and the knowledge of the time that lies between his life and his eventual death.

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  2. Reminds me a bit of the Aborigine's dream time, where entire villages try to enter into the same dreams.

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    1. Thanks Patrick R. I am fascinated by the dream time concept.

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  3. Simple and evocative. Couldn't help but think that a lot of it is drawn from the author's own experiences. Or maybe it's just that I had a dream like that once, though only once. "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth." - Picasso. Nice work. Beautiful ending, too.

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    1. Thanks Chris M. Yes you are correct re: the experiences that help show the meaning and purpose of the main character's story journey. And all journeys must end.

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  4. Very enjoyable. The style and material mesh well, flows along in a sort of dream-like trance and produces the occasional chill as you read. I enjoyed the kingfisher that seemed to be watching over everything, and found it interesting that Tanner was a physical sleepwalker to start with...like his special skill was starting to emerge but he didn't yet know quite how to pull it off.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Ron S. I sometimes imagine perhaps this life is a trance from which we will some day awaken, or if there are minor awakenings through life that we later dismiss as dreams, but which are breakouts from our routine of illusions.

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  5. A coming-of-age story of a different kind. The brisk pace held my attention, and the writing seemed effortless, which I know it wasn’t.

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    1. Thanks David H. Indeed, this story had been in my mind for years.

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