In Madeira a real place meets a nightmare as we enter the levada tunnel single file. A dead toddler was found inside by hikers. No explanation. A ghost story enhanced by the scent of mossy moisture . It becomes the smell of pressing darkness and begins to encroach on the rational. I try to outline the passage with my flashlight. When I can only extend both arms if I stand dead center, I stop looking.
Walking in the middle could be slippery and close to the water trough. I follow the body in front and hug the wall. Occasionally, my arm is scratched by jagged rock. My head tilts instinctively left. I concentrate the light there, worrying more about the thin skin on my face than about my feet. I trust them more than my mind.
By now, it is later, but how much later? The trickle or drip of water has turned into a timepiece. Tunnel time. It is passing time splattering on rock, the only clue to the measuring of a kilometer. How many drops does it take? At what I assume is midway through, my knees begin to shake. I want to see a halfway mark like the state divide line in the Holland Tunnel. Then, I’ll know where I am even though I’m inside and underneath. I want to see an “emergency exit” sign and push open a door to outside. My fear is triggering an avalanche of thoughts. They are trapped in the tunnel and ricocheting off the ceiling and walls, falling on my head.
Whenever my life seems stuck, I dream about living in tight, dingy quarters, about nearly getting buried alive, about being lost in a maze of stairwells, dark corridors, and endless doors. Whether claustrophobia provokes such dreams, or vice versa, I feel tight places as a weight on my skin: hail showers, hot sand, excessive pressure. They are always too heavy. They hurt.
If a hiker reaches a tunnel without a flashlight, one guidebook offered the following solution: Find a branch of appropriate length. Walk through the tunnel in the dark with the branch touching the wall. Never! A cat will never enter a space narrower than its whiskers. I’m like a whiskerless cat, who otherwise wouldn’t waste one of her lives this way. So how did I end up in here?
I divert myself as my father would, marvel at the engineering skill that built the levada system. Not just this stretch near Rabaçal that required blasting. No, I admire the whole irrigation system that redistributes water for agriculture. Levada is a noun form of the Portuguese verb levar, to carry. It refers to both the irrigation ditch and the path alongside used by workers who control the flow and do repair work. Nowadays, hikers follow the paths.
I try, but ghosts keep intruding: The dead child whose story I keep imagining to fill in the gaps. The first builders who hung off ropes from sheer rock and worked with simple chisels. Hikers who got mesmerized by stunning sea-and-valley views and stepped into air while looking through video cameras. Vertigo on one of the more treacherous stretches would be preferable to listening to another dark drop of water.
That there was a boulder-and-brush shrine at the entrance should have been enough warning. It resembled the roadside accident-marking shrines in the Peloponnese. Once, I stuck my fingers in an oil jar there. It was warm from sunlight and candles. Touching it felt like a child’s probing of a cut with a finger. The bruise hurt more, but poking distributed the pain and made it personal history. .
I begin to wonder if light will hurt my eyes, so I know the end is near. The air gets less oppressive. A draft carries the promise of greater space. A patch of lighter gray appears in the blackness. The body in front disappears into another element. I follow it. We are already outside, stepping into fluffiness- fog. It bandages, swaddles, and heals. Having passed through a mountain, we crossed one of Madeira’s climatic divides.
The tunnel left a residual memory. It was a wound in the mountain. I stepped into it and became a vicarious child, lost in the darkness, touching a wound accepted as one’s own. The spot is a souvenir carried within me- one of the wombs of pain where a dream place meets a real place.