Part I: http://joehollenbach.blogspot.com/2010/05/following-are-excerpts-from-journal-of.html
Part II: http://joehollenbach.blogspot.com/2010/06/tall-tale-tuesday-william-and-winnie.html
We came the rotting wooden door of St. Michael’s undercroft atop Glastonbury Tor as the sun sank, a burning half circle on the western horizon being chased from view by the puce expanse of a twinkling sky. Dr. Owen stepped up to the door and produced a small black key from his trouser pocket , fitting it to the keyhole. He turned the lock. A sharp clacking noise rang out as the key rolled the tumblers. We each strode through the doorway.
Once inside the undercroft and down a steep flight of steps, Winston and the Doctors made their way to a cylindrical white pillar at the back of a dank room, behind which they found three very large rectangular blocks of limestone stacked vertically in the wall. “Alright, William,” said Winston to me, “make a way for us. Move the stones.” I don’t remember if I truly did scoff, but I very much felt like doing so. Nonetheless, I stepped toward the stones and gave the topmost of the three an earnest shove. It swung open on a hinge, just like a door. The two stones below folded out of the way in turn. Winston laughed, no doubt at the flustered expression on my face, and handed me a silver torch. “Lead on.” And so I did.
Beyond the door was a cavern of such depth and height I could not fathom. It was black in that high hall, dark as the nights conjured in one’s nightmares. The black was so intense and pure, it seemed thick, nigh impregnable. The torch could scarcely cut through it, as though it were shining into a treacle pudding. The blackness receded slightly with the lighting of Dr. Brand’s oil lantern, but visibility was limited. The others seemed at ease with the surroundings, but I was nettled by it all. It’s the pilot in me, I shouldn’t wonder. Visibility is the only ally of pioneers in foreign lands. We were without instruments.
We walked for what felt like hours, though without the shifting of scenery, I can’t be certain of time. The darkness in the heart of a cave looks very much like the darkness just past its mouth. This is a most disheartening and deflating truth, as one might walk for miles and days and not expect to find the hint of light or variation.
I hadn’t realized the immense and eerie quiet that hung in the air until some noise was in my ears. The clatter sounded like the distant thrumming of harsh strings, a harp or a lyre. The noise grew louder and louder with each footfall until the din was unmistakable: water. Rushing, spilling, lapping water.
“Let’s wash up right quick?” said Brand when we reached the banks of the underground river. He was asking Winston’s permission. The old man grunted his approval.
I approached the water’s edge, eager to invigorate my bones and muscles with the cool wash of the river. Cupping my hands, I splashed my neck and face. The water was warm. Not steaming or hot, but tepid. There is little one can do that is less refreshing than having a long draught and bath from lukewarm pool.
“We’ll bivouac here for a few hours,” said Winston. “Owen, you’re on the first watch.”
It was a most curious thing to fall asleep in such acute darkness. For one, it is never comfortable to sleep underground. The floor of the cave was like the floor of any cave, rocky and uneven. It gives a chap frightfully painful backaches when he wakes. Secondly, the sound of water as it rills past is a sound I’ve never been able to dismiss. It hangs in my mind, tormenting me. I shouldn’t doubt that had I been any less fatigued, I wouldn’t have caught a wink. All the same, I slept.
I stirred when Owen screamed. By the lamplight I saw his eyes wide, watery, and glinting brightly. When we rushed to help him we found his body belly down and face upturned toward us. How he howled. A slender and serrated stalactite was driven like a stake into the base of his neck. As best as I can reason, he fell asleep on watch and befell into some poor luck.
Brand tried to give Owen sips of water while Winston examined the wound. The old man's eyes met mine and he shook his head.
The screams rose into mad ululations before slipping into soft gurgles, his ruddy cheeks begrimed from writhing about facedown in the dampened muck. Soon, all noise ceased and Dr. Owen fell still forever.
Brand stood silent and made the sign of the cross with his right hand. Both he and I turned to face Winston.
“Frightful fit of foul fortune,” said Winston. “Well, shall we crack on?”
“Oi! Crack on?” said Brand. “Are you raving mad? Owen’s dead. I’m not going any farther into this mine.”
“You knew the risks when you signed on, as did Dr. Owen. Now, let’s soldier on,” said Winston with a smile.
“And you swore the strong defenses were rendered ineffectual and weak. Get tossed, you old crackpot. I’m done.” With that, Dr. Brand made an unseemly gesture, picked up a torch, and marched into the darkness.
“Well, Brand is a brick of a chap,” said Winston and I asked him how so. “Well, he's left us his lamp. Most chivalrous. Let’s forward on.”
I followed Winston, headlong into the madness or the misery without speaking so much as a word.