It was Spring—damp and glorious Spring. The sky was blue, the air was crisp and there were still patches of dirty not-yet-melted snow on top of the matted yellow grass where a little green was just beginning to emerge. The sun warmed the wind on the girl’s face and she closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying the sensation, then opened them suddenly as her wheels wobbled and her bike rattled across the space where the broken pavement ended and a muddy path began.

The girl was not afraid to ride into the wooded area to meet the man. Earlier that morning, when she arrived at her grandmother’s red brick bungalow in the woods, she had seen him creeping around the other side of the front porch trying to hide.

She pulled up on her bike and hopped off. “Hey you!” she called.  “I know you are there.  If you wait for me while I deliver these groceries to my grandmother, I will meet you in the woods.”

Grandmother was tucked into her bed, snoring softly.  The girl kissed her soft wrinkled cheek and tiptoed back into the kitchen, placing the contents of her basket on the kitchen table. She quietly closed the front door behind her and returned to the spot where she had leaned her bike against the porch.  She wheeled it down the front path and then, throwing her leg over the seat and stepping down on the pedal in one fluid motion, she pointed the bike towards the end of the lane where the path rose up steeply into the woods.

Up the hill she rode, standing up on the pedals, pressing her feet on one and then the other; her bike moving up the hill one strong push at a time. Up and up; keeping the momentum going so that she continued to climb forward and didn’t topple onto the muddy path.

The trees thickened, and the air became cooler as she pedaled up the steep hill, breathing in shorter gasps. She could see the man climbing ahead and she followed him until he came to a makeshift hut; in shambles. It was constructed of wooden crates, boards and old plywood skids. It was surrounded by a collection of large metal cans and wooden boxes almost totally covered by vines and creeping shrubs.

Of course its very appearance was off-putting and might make some turn and run away, but the girl could sense no malevolence, just the reality that Mother Nature was in the process of dealing with the man-made world. There were old cast-off tires, broken crates and rusty tin barrels but where the signs and labels were fading, tendrils and new blades of grass were also growing. Pale green shoots had grown up and around them in a possessive embrace where rust and wood rot met the fresh green of Spring.

She knew this was a portal. She knew it was a door. And the man stood at the entrance. He turned to look at her for a moment and then faded into the shack like a shadow.

The girl leaned her bike up against a tree and approached the hut.  She walked up to the door, trying to breath calmly to slow her pounding heart. And then, taking one more breath, she stepped into the shadow.

Inside, the air of the hut felt cool and dry. She could hear the man’s ragged breathing just ahead.  It was dark, and at first she was blinded, but her eyes adjusted and her surroundings slowly began to emerge, lit by rays of sunlight that filtered through the cracks in the plywood walls of the shack.  She had expected to enter the man’s home, but the place seemed more of a storage space; filled with wooden crates and other various and mysterious paraphernalia.

She paused, captivated for a moment by the tiny bits of dust that floated suspended in the light and were now stirred up by their movements. She could see the man standing just ahead, one side of his bearded face in shadow, the other lit by a piercing ray of sunlight that landed just above his eyebrow and filtered down across his nose.  He stood there, eyes fixed on her, and a wide grin expanded across his features. She realized he was much younger than she thought.

Who was this man to her?  Being there, with him, was her own choice and yet she was frightened of the draw she could feel from him. She moved forward slowly, and he stepped back, his grin stretching even further across his face. His gaze softened, and she allowed herself to relax a little. He extended his hand toward her and she began to feel a stirring that drew her forward and closer to him.  She reached out and placed her hand in his and he pulled her closer.  She inhaled the musty odor of his clothing as their bodies touched. She had no power to resist and no desire to.  All she felt was pure instinct and a force ignited deep within her as she sank closer and closer into him.

As they embraced, he stepped backwards, pulling her deeper into the hut.  He slid his hands down her arms and twisted her hands behind her back with a grip that subtly changed from desire to force. And at that moment, she knew that she had stepped in too far; and that her own need for adventure had brought her to a place where she might be undone.

She stiffened and began to pull back.  She wanted to change her mind; to turn around and run back into the light, down the hill and into the broken world that she knew.

But he sensed her mood shift and his grip tightened.  Holding her wrists behind her with one hand, he spun her around in front of him and pushed her forward roughly. As they moved deeper, she realized the walls of the hut had become cave walls and he was pushing her down into a stone tunnel and deeper into the hill.

The girl moved forward, down along the dark tunnel. Feeling his presence behind her, hearing his shuffling rubber-soled shoes dragging, his breathing laboured and yet deep with occasional muffled grunts and sighs. And his scent preceded him, drifting into her nostrils—musty, sweet and fermented from immeasurably long hours of undergrounding.

She moved along without knowing — without awareness of the wheres or the whens or the whys. Stumbling forward without purpose or an end. And as she moved along the tunnel, the damp stone walls rippled in and out beside her; as if they were breathing as she traveled, pressing in toward her, opening out and then pressing in on her again.

Her eyes struggled to find focus, something that might be a beacon to blunder toward and yet there was nothing but darkness and the sounds and the smells of the cool damp underground surroundings.  And so they went on. . . down and down . . . into the ground, blood, stone and bone. . . alone.

As they moved forward into the darkness, the air became even more damp and cool. He began to sing the words to a tune that she seemed to know from long ago. He was so close behind her that she could feel his breath on the back of her neck. She was electrified by the occasional touch of his hand on her shoulder and lower back.

Eventually the incline of the tunnel leveled, and she began to perceive the glimmer of a cool white light in the blackness ahead.

Slowly they approached the light, and as they drew closer, it flickered and sputtered on again off again several times and she realized that it was set in the wall above a dark wooden doorway.  The tunnel widened at this point and he moved past her, fumbling with a set of keys.  She could see that he was nervous and distracted and realized that perhaps this was the moment where she could make a run for it and dash back through the long tunnel into the sunlight above.

But she didn’t.

Eventually he found the key he needed, and the door creaked as it opened inward into the room.  He stepped into the darkness ahead of her and then turned to face her from within.  He grinned as she stood straight and still outside the door, his face etched by the harsh white light from above the doorway.

She knew that he was giving her a choice to follow him into the room and by doing so she would provide her tacit consent to enter his inner world.

She remained frozen.  Her brain screamed, “run!” and yet every muscle in her body quietly vibrated and she was drawn toward this murky muddy man.  He cocked his head like a dog, smiled and then turned his back to her, walking over to a long wooden table that ran along the length of the wall to the right of the entrance.  He struck a match, lit a dusty lantern and spoke again.

She was mesmerized.

“Whoa,” he muttered and sat down slowly on a worn wooden desk chair that swiveled as he turned. His gaze took in her entire body and he slowly licked his lips.

As he passed his tongue along his upper lip, she took several slow steps forward and entered the room.  To her left she could see rumpled sheets on a cot along the wall to her left.  She walked across and sat down on the edge of the thin mattress, facing him in the chair.  She raised her hand to clutch her blouse together at the neck as he gazed at her intently. Then he sighed and closed his eyes, shuffling his chair closer. His face was inches from hers.

He opened his eyes and as she gazed into their pale blue moonstone depths, she entered yet another hidden world. A world of the deepest, most raw and primal wisdom. A world where ancient words sang love and truths effortlessly. A world lit by sparks of knowledge; a world where being and breathing began and ended. She could see and feel the depths of his pain but she flew past it and found herself in a place where the earth began and she knew that he was capable of a love for her that would be the beginning and the end of all that was true and all that she knew.

His shoulders slumped, his head fell forward, and his long brown hair covered his face.  Then he lifted his head, shook his hair out of his face and opened his eyes again and looked directly into hers. Leaning forward, he dropped out of the chair, onto his knees in front of her and sobbed.

She reached forward, brushed his hair back from his face with both her hands and touched his lips with hers. And at that moment, she didn’t feel fear.  Just the sense that something terrible and wonderful was going to happen; a small thing that would indeed be the end of her and the beginning of something new.

Image credit: Chris Scalf https://www.artstation.com/artwork/QEbnZ