Prelude to a return

One hand on the wall. I can feel wet lichen against my palm and small streams of water between my fingers. Rough cold surfaces interrupted now and then by a finer, abrasive strip of mortar. For each tentative step the hand steals forward a foot or two. I never let the fingertips lose contact with the stone. The wall is my mooring. The rest is a pitch-black void, and my footfalls set off desolate rattling echoes as they push pebbles aside.

In my other hand: the yarn. Running across my loosely curved fingers I feed it through, inch by inch, between index and thumb. Afraid of stretching or yanking it lest the other end should come loose, I don't stop to roll it up, but let it fall in slack bows behind me. The yarn fibres feel warm, although maybe that’s just my imagination. Cold gusts of wind run down these dark tunnels and send shivers up my legs.

Each time the wall yaws away around a corner I halt, squat, and run my left hand along the thread ahead of me, with my right arm stretched back like an axis to where my fingers rest on the corner’s edge. If the yarn turns with the wall, I relax and follow. If it seems to continue straight ahead I have to let go of the stone and for a few terrifying steps travel through what seems like empty space, with my right hand fumbling blindly in front of me, until it once more makes contact with the wall on the other side of the opening. It is slow progress, but I know there’s nothing behind me now to take chase, so I take my time. For each corner I turn the darkness becomes slightly less impenetrable. I can see the dirt white yarn against my palm now.

I started out from the centre. That’s where I fought for my freedom to leave. Now these barren corridors will take me outward, away from the dead nave of this architectural folly. It’s light enough to see the ground now and I can make better headway. But I’m not letting go of my woven lifeline. The yarn twists and turns around the winding wall work. Sometimes I head deeper into the twilight again for stretches. In one of the passages not taken I glimpse a lifeless body curled up in a corner, and sometimes I step on bones in the cracks between paving stones.

The architecture is subtly changing with the light. The walls seem newer, the floor more even, yet also more spattered with debris, heralding the proximity of an exit. In a sandy patch I suddenly make out a footprint, which startles me. It’s mine of course. I have been here before. It’s not even that long ago that I made this journey in the other direction. Each yarn-threaded segment of corridor is familiar, yet strange. I walk with other expectations now; a different weariness is in my step; my eyes have aged. I imagine the maze filled up with liquid time and me wading back and forth in the winding current. I retreat. I retrace. But do I return?

It’ll be different once I’m outside. The woman who gave me the yarn will be there. She’ll be waiting for me to emerge, and once I do, this sojourn into the labyrinth will be bracketed as an aside in the true course of my life. It will be dawn again and again and again, like a thousand times before. I think I can see the sunlight now. I let go of the yarn for a second, but then think better of it and pick it back up. There might always be one more blind alley.