Descent to the underworld

Last year, while taking a break from working on a philosophical book about activism, sovereignty, love and the gift economy (Alchemy of Revolution), I spontaneously decided to start writing a fictional memoir (Journeys Between). It’s in the form of a diary-like travel monologue that is both about literal trips and about a metaphorical journey from depression to becoming awakened – though for reasons that become clear as the narrative develops, either of those terms are accurate or fortunate. It begins with a trip to Romania, where childhood traumas emerge through flashbacks, and moves to Morocco, Russia, India and California, where my encounters with Sufism, shamanism, theosophy and yogic philosophy are dramatized as meetings with persons, rather than being described conceptually. I’ve been hesitant to share it because it seems too autobiographical, despite the fictional conventions, and too dark – especially the first two journeys, which are based on my journals from 2011-2012. After abandoning it for 6 months, I woke up with a strong desire to start working on it again, and decided to begin by reworking and posting the fragments I like the most. This is the third entry from the journey to Romania. On one level, it’s about a trip to an actual place (an underground salt mine in Slanic Prahova); on another, the entire first journey is an allegory of a descent to the underworld, which is a common theme in different mythologies.

*

We huddled into a rectangular crate of dark wood panels, with metal doors painted in cobalt blue. A makeshift conveyor for transporting human cargo into the icy bowels of the earth. Cold air blew in through small cracks in the wood. They lied. Hell is a cold and barren place, no flames of molten red burn there. The pulley groaned under the weight, like the wheels of time rolling backwards against an obstinate fate. Too many crowded mouths sucking up each other’s air… Red. Blood, flowing from a crown of thorns. A single rusty thorn… I gasp for air, I cannot breathe, my eyes grow dim. I grab the folds of his white shirt… White sheets, hospital beds covered in mountains of snow, sour smell of disinfectant. Be brave, only a few minutes more to close the stitches… I pressed myself into his body. The archaic elevator descended slowly, nearly half a kilometer, with abrupt spurts and stalls. The metal doors opened to reveal a city carved in salt, a winter palace with 60 meter-high ceilings, kiosks, food courts, playgrounds, and statues illuminated by hazy spotlights. A yellow glow floated over the space like a curtain of ghostly fog.

I held Lukas’ hand for warmth; he squeezed my fingers, pumping to agitate the blood. We walked past a children’s playground and a race-course with miniature cars. The atmosphere suddenly grew somber, the space mutating into a hospital room without walls. There were innumerable rows of metal beds with moth-eaten army blankets and stained pillows. Paravent screens separated the beds, offering a feeble lie of privacy. I lay down on one of the beds, with my coat and hood pulled tightly around me, to shelter me against the cold and the squalid blanket… It’s so cold. And the statues whisper evil things, like gargoyles in cemeteries. I want to go back up to the earth. It’s good for you, she says, in a soothing voice, just one more hour. Let’s play on the see-saw. I don’t believe her, that it can be good, the air smells like sickness. The cold hurts my hands with icy fever, I whisper. Let me blow on your fingers to warm them… I was lured here when I was 7 with the promise of visiting a fairy-tale, underground playground. I remember the resentment of feeling tricked, snared by guile and sweetness into an amphitheater of disease. The salt mine was a natural cure prescribed by doctors, with a strict regimen of breathing the cold, salt air six hours a day for a week. All the amusement park distractions were palliatives to ward off the boredom of a voluntary confinement.

We left the iron dormitory, walking past a salon with television screens blaring the indistinct static of news. Lukas complained about what a shame it was to be broadcasting television programs in such a space. My own voices began to stir. I found myself disagreeing without really hearing what he was saying, as if a little wheel suddenly clicked in my mind and produced a stream of unconscious sentences. Something about being colonized by shopping malls and American television, and how the Romanians learned to loose themselves by killing time with idle distractions and no longer knew how to think. I felt us slipping along a familiar precipice of agony. Tensed jaws, cold eyes darting like globes of darkness. Each ‘I am’ clinging with clenched teeth to its furious, half-articulated truths.

I lost myself in thoughts, which pounded my head with the violence of a ticking clock. They multiplied into a litany of accusations and grudges, imaginary lists of his reproaches, catalogues of all the times he contradicted me, of all the moments when we fell utterly out of sync, like empty husks taken over by aliens speaking in unknown tongues. The scenery around me faded in and out of awareness as my attention was seized by the drama of internal noise. In my sleepwalker’s trance, feet and hands began to move of their own accord. The right foot stumbled clumsily on an uneven surface and I came crashing down, face first, into the coarse salt floor. The pain wasn’t severe, but howls came out when I sobbed. It was as if my ribs were tearing to release a stockpiled downpour of anguish. Lukas bent down to pick me up… Flickering. Sounds of children shrieking. Burnt sugar. Smell of cotton candy. My father and I riding together in a miniature bumper car, my mother ramming into us from the front with another car. A jolt. My head lunging forward, the bone of my brow pierced by a rusty nail sticking out from the panel near the steering wheel. Blood. River of red trickling down my nose. A drop falling on my hand, in slow motion. Howling. I hear howling. It is me. My father is running with me in his arms, in a crazed frenzy toward the car. I gasp for air, I cannot breathe, my eyes grow dim. I grab the folds of his white shirt. I feel safe in his arms. I press my broken head against the white, the fabric soaking up red like a sponge… I was still crying as he held me. I felt distant, as if someone else was squatting the space inside me. He took me by the elbow and led me towards a table near the food kiosk, where he got water and napkins to clean my face. He smiled and tried to cheer me up, saying it didn’t look so bad, only a swollen lip and a scratched cheek. My lip pulsed and throbbed with each heartbeat, like a small winged creature growing on my face.

We took the elevator back up and I sat in the sun, with my eyes closed, feeling its warmth on my bruises. Lukas asked me if I wanted to see what my lip looked like, and took out his smart phone to snap a picture. I inspected the image but didn’t find myself. He joked that we’d have to explain the accident when we arrive at my parent’s house in a few days so they wouldn’t think I married a wife beater. Something in me recoiled. I…  I step backwards when she opens the door, dropping the books I carried home from class. Her lip swollen… Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools…  Her lip swollen reddish purple and blue, scar of dried blood above her left eyebrow. She looks very small, like she shrank from shame eating at her bones. She says quickly, to stop exaggerated thoughts from entering my brain, she says … I fell. Coming home with groceries. I couldn’t brace myself with the bags in both hands, and my face hit the sidewalk. Apologetic smile. It doesn’t hurt as bad as it looks. I wince. Not because I believe she’s making it up, though she’s used to lying to everyone, including herself. Because the massacre of souls that leaves behind no bruises is more painful to see than any visible wounds made against flesh… The sobbing stopped, but I was still crying inside.

I don’t remember how we got there, but we arrived at the salt lake, and were preparing to go for a swim. The lake looked different now than when I was here as a child. There used to be a cliff with a trampoline for jumping, but the area was fenced in. The remaining part of the lake was no longer wild, the ground was covered over by a tiled patio, so that it resembled a swimming pool. There was a new restaurant built into the hill overlooking the pool-lake. I continued to drift through the corridors of time, my surroundings fading in and out of focus. I swam out to the middle of the black lake. A gap opened in the curtain of reality, between me and the doll-like people I watched on the terrace of the restaurant. The sound of the world grew dim. When the sunlight pierced the thick clouds, scattered spots on the water reflected a yellow glare that floated up like steam, reminding me of eerie lakes from haunted castles that I’d seen in films. The coldness of the water numbed my body. Suddenly I was seized by a panic that my limbs would grow paralyzed by the cold and I’d sink into the yellowish-black nothingness. But the salty water was so buoyant, nothing could sink. I saw something move to my right, from the corner of my eye. Brown crocodiles creep like riddles through minds feverish with ice. I turned over and floated belly-up like a dead fish, staring at the hazy sun, whose intermittent rays danced in brief spasms across my trembling arms and legs. I closed my eyes, feeling the comfort of thoughts chasing themselves into oblivion.

I heard his voice in the distance, and I was in time again. Worried that I’d been in too long, he was coaxing me to come out. I swam back to the shore with awkward, jarring movements that didn’t seem like they belonged to me. As I showered and got dressed, I had an uncanny feeling of watching my gestures reflected in a mirror of absences. I. Me. Heap of bones covered in thin, epidermal cloth. I tried to pour me into myself again, but the edges didn’t coincide. We drove back to the tourist lodge in silence, houses, trees and hills floating past the window in blurred movements, like fragments of a half-forgotten dream.

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9 comments

    1. Thanks. I suppose the real journey is measured retroactively, from the distance of time – that of being able to write gorgeous words to describe what was once a dark experience.

  1. I wonder how many, any more, have the ability, time or focus to stay ’til the end with writings like yours. Now I’ve found you I only want to read and read. My eyes are heavy but I want more and more. You are so very inspiring and I will be following you from now on…

    1. I would like to thank you very much for all your wonderful replies, although I answer only on this one. There’s a sense in which, as writers, we write mainly for ourselves, to release something in us that wants to overflow. But it’s an amazing feeling to know that my words are inspiring to someone else. And that those words can communicate something profound about the experience, although the experience itself always remains ineffable.

      I appreciate especially what your say about reading. I think it is not only writing (hypnotically) but the ability to read and be captured in a trance by language … that is increasingly becoming a lost art. And I also greatly enjoyed being captured by your words, and resonate with the influences of Surrealism and Shamanism … so I am glad we stumbled upon each other.

      1. “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
        /Marcel Duchamp/
        And glad I am to meet you too and contribute…perhaps less of a ‘stumbled upon’ than a serendipitous confluence of dancers…well perhaps it’s all the same in the end…

  2. Congratulations once again on your eloquence. The staccato of the sentences works well in imparting a sense of immediacy. ‘Smart phone’ – that terminology jarred a bit in my mind; it feels likely to become passé before you publish.

    Hariod.

    1. Thank you, Hariod. The staccato sentences are used to mostly for the childhood flashbacks and I was trying to capture the sense that those flashbacks occur in a different kind of language or mental landscape than the present (or even than the later flashbacks of a teenager)…

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