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Chapter 3

Amizade perdida. Friendship lost. You won’t know a friend until you left him. Or killed him. Or let him die in a spell of ultimate cowardice. He felt deeply disappointed with himself, like a tutor who lost all confidence in a pupil, reluctant to go on trying. He sat down by a stinking, muddy river, its water as opaque as his mind, yet trying to reflect the gloominess of the trees, and make them shine.

He looked through his eyes, attempted to look back into himself, but saw only a face with no eyes, and nothing behind them, except for skulking sadness deep inside the skull. He endured it for only forty seconds, and fled this desperate spot for another, lying under a tree, staring at the branches, trying to sleep. But he couldn’t, because of the morning chill, and a banging headache. He tried his usual sedative, a self-aroused moment of ecstasy, but it didn’t help. It was after all a bit unbecoming so soon after a friend’s death and burial, but Ladethe was now so far gone from what he had ever ideally wanted himself to be, that it didn’t make the least difference.

Suddenly, amid an ever stronger and paralysing death-wish, reason shoved aside all emotion. No sorrow, no shame, no despair, merely practical matters circled through his mind, such as where to find food, and where to stay the night. He stood up and walked, to where chances were best, the city. He further ousted any feelings, pleasant or otherwise, by thinking about mathematical and linguistic issues. For instance, would there be many words that were in fact prime numbers, when one took their letters for digits in a base twenty-six number system; and how many less would there be that were also prime when one took the last letter, not the first, as most significant? Could one calculate the approximate number of such words by applying statistics instead of testing every word from a dictionary?

He stopped before the entry of the tunnel. It was partly covered with big-leafed plants, but still clearly visible. Rationally, there was no apparent reason to get into the tunnel, but Ladethe felt that the route over the surface, albeit easier, would miss the essence of his journey.

This was the rocky tunnel, with sharp, stinging ridges, and very dark. At first, he saw nothing, later, with eyes adapted to the darkness, some shadows, then nothing again. The rocks were wet and slippery, and he wasn’t sure whether it was blood or water or a mixture dripping down his knees. Soon he began to think he must be near the end, but every time he thought that he also remembered the previous time, and the memories seemed longer and longer ago. The ever lower ceiling made it undoable to walk, and creeping was all that remained.

At times he was overwhelmed with self-pity, because he had to creep, while others were certainly walking in the bright light. But then he sought consolation in that it was pleasantly cool in the tunnel, he still felt no hunger or thirst, he had no worries about money, as there was nothing to spend it on here anyhow, and that his life was not in danger. The only thing was he had to find a way out. To turn back seemed risky, and it only vaguely occurred to him, too vague to ever influence the constant mechanic motion of muscles.

He sometimes paused to spare his powers, and to look for a smarter way out, he thought if he understood about the tunnel, about its origin or creation, whether it was natural or had been dug or drilled, and by whom, and funded by whom, he might not have to creep all the way out. But there were no possibilities to prove or falsify any theory, so it all seemed pretty useless, and more so because he argued that even if you fully understand a complex mechanism, it doesn’t mean you can change it. Some nearly understood mechanisms cannot even be predicted reliably, let alone controlled.

It was fairly ridiculous to sit here doing nothing, thinking about esoteric issues, when all there was to be done was to get out of this bloody cave as soon as possible. So creep until he could no more, and if there wasn’t an exit, then face that and die in dignity. But dignity meant little to him, this man was shy and lazy, he needed excuses for most of what he ever did, so he looked and found another excuse: this was a place unique in its intimacy, as there was nobody here, there couldn’t be anyone simply for lack of space, and anyway it was too dark for someone to see him. So this was the utter moment of aloneness, splendidly suited for a lonely, but unforgettably beautiful orgasm.

He was transported with delight. The throbbing of his heart transported the bliss to even the remotest vein, and he underwent this rapture in total relaxation, surrendered to it, resigned, blown out, nirvana.

When he came to, he could see. There was light, not sure where it came from, enough to distinguish vaguely the shapes of the rocks. He looked up, it was lightest there, though that couldn’t convince him that the source of the light was up there. He was in doubt whether the shapes he saw could be branches and leaves, which would imply he was really out of the tunnel, but when he looked again they were clearly rocks.

He decided to stop looking, and cheer himself up by taking this to be a wood, not a cave, no matter what it really was. He began to walk blithely through his self-acclaimed wood, enjoying bird-song he did not yet hear, but he believed would soon sound, bird-songs of unprecedented composition and structure, so they would not remind him of sadness, sharpened by natural beauty, which he could not enjoy, due to their contrast.

So he went for a walk, a nice, easy Sunday walk. He engulfed, he engorged the warm, fresh air, to evict all weariness, dullness, sorrow, worry, needless but persistent torment. And he wasn’t even alone any more, many others had got the same idea, they all friendly greeted him, some faces familiar, though not in fact acquainted, not going to get acquainted to them now, a brief encounter was quite enough, and riskless.

One face he did remember, that of Zhusah, who merely by coincidence was walking here too. She deserved and got his special smile, for her nothing would be good enough, but he did not expect her to expect more than a smile, they were close enough for just two seconds, and quite customarily they both walked on to maybe not see each other for a long while.

But that proved an erroneous assumption on his part, only seventeen minutes later they met again, and naturally joined, as if they did this every week.

They strolled hand in hand, like teenagers in love, fooling themselves into thinking it was still only friendship; but romantic friendship, creating that tickling, juvenile tenderness, ternura. And it shouldn’t be more, because after all, she was a married woman, or at least something to that effect. They didn’t see the clouds, or most of the time they didn’t, and when they did they only stimulated the warmth through their greyness. They kept believing it was a wonderful park or a wood they were walking in, until, maybe due to stumbling while afloat, the truth became too obvious to ignore: they were trapped again. This was the muddy tunnel. There were no grounds for despair, all through the night morning would break in just over a minute, and already a glint could be seen high up above. The draught, the bats flying in and out, and the fluctuations in the light, they all betrayed a real exit. But it was clearly too narrow for human escapers, or one had to climb a steep, skiddy, slithery slope first, and probably several attempts would be needed to finally gain success in this, and he wasn’t too sure if that was all worth his while. Zhusah, like she often did, chose this unsuitable moment to try to soothe him, by upgrading their friendship, heating it until it seethed. She was often willing, or wanting rather, and so was Ladethe, but even after these scarce hours they had spent together in their lives it had become clear that the longing often did not coincide. And right now the mere thought was to Ladethe very, very inappropriate. He found no way to conceal his repulsion, did not look for one, while she could not hide feeling insulted by it. There was no other choice than to cope, because they were in this together.

Now why make this a problem? It all varies as you vary your demand. If you can’t go out, it only bothers you if you want to, and if you can, you won’t. You have one thing you want, but then very intensely, you can do without all of the others, except for the very basic needs, but being trapped, you don’t need a roof anymore, and maybe they could digest mould, like worms do. If only you had that one very splendid thing, even could choose which one, like music or love. Music requires effort, and love does not, or if it’s growing or it’s fading it does. So then skip even love, if he had to, put it all on music, and if that fails, nothing remains, nothing remains. Ultimate despair. Put it all on one card, and fail.