“We shape a figure of our fantasy,
Call nothing something, and run after it
And lose it, lose ourselves too in the search …”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, VI, 285-287.

Most idle longings, lurking in every bit of bright brains, yield bizarre roamings or willful nonsense…

“It’s a ten-minute walk,” he said.

He leaned forward, bending his head, and stepped through the passage someone had cut ages ago through the wire fence. He’d never seen it otherwise. Then he turned ‘round and stretched out his hand to her. She grabbed it firmly and followed him through the fence, shrinking her shoulders so as not to tear her shirt on the steel claws protruding from that rough-and-ready doorway.

There was a rusty “Keep Out” sign hanging over their heads. It wasn’t in English, and some letters had faded away whilst others had outright disappeared under the lichen, so she couldn’t have deciphered it anyway. But it was explicit enough for her to get the gist of it, with its black and red remaining colors and exclamation marks.

At the very first, she hadn’t been quite sure about that hike, and others might have been further discouraged by the sign, but she was definitely not that kind of girl. She started to be a bit more excited about it, actually. Maybe he wasn’t as dull and boring as she’d grown used to think; not that she had much against dull and boring when it came to him. It was just the way he was, and his inertia had unexpectedly revealed a healthy counter force to the most hectic aspects of her own way of life. Also, she enjoyed stirring him up, and having his routine all turned topsy-turvy was probably the best thing that could happen to him.

She certainly hadn’t figured him as an urbex practitioner before he mentioned this, though.

She felt a cold draft on her face from the big dark mouth ahead. It wasn’t past mid-June yet, and not much past midday, but it was about 87 degrees already everywhere down the valley. The sweat had drenched her shirt as soon as they had started climbing the hill. He’d told her they ought to take some extra clothes for when the real walk would begin. She’d snorted and laughed at him for such a silly and out-of-place thoughtfulness. Was he afraid she might catch a cold? By this weather? Not a chance. After walking for almost an hour through the woods, she’d already drunk half of her flask of cranberry juice, and she was glad she’d made provision for a second one in her backpack.

But now, she got it. It was just chilly up here. Not that they were high up at all. Height had nothing to do with the temperature. The cold came from the darkness ahead.

“It makes a slight curve, so you won’t be able to see the other end at first,” he explained. “And before you do, you’ll have lost sight of the light coming from the entrance.” He paused. “You’ll have to walk in complete darkness for about five minutes. That’s when the headlamp is gonna come in handy, but you’ll have to switch it on long before that if you don’t want to stumble over the beams of the old cross-ties.”

“’Kay,” she answered.


He looked at her, feeling like a complete moron. What was he thinking, suggesting this? Under no circumstance this could be called a decent date, let alone a romantic one. He’d been regretting it since the very moment the words had gotten out of his mouth. But then she’d said it was a good idea, so she could somehow get in his shoes and see the world from his position. She just wanted to be nice, for sure. There was no need for that.

He had tried his best to get out of this homemade predicament of his, but the idea had already sunk in and taken root in her mind. “Let’s do it next time we come and visit your folks.” It should’ve been his way out. He hated the prospect of going back there, and she was so busy most of the time that he should’ve been able to postpone this excursion indefinitely, until she forgot about it entirely. However, for some reason, the more he expressed his doubts at his own suggestion, the more she seemed enthusiastic about it. And there they were.

“So…I’m going first, and in about five minutes you can follow up.”


“Now is probably the good time to put some extra layers on,” he said, unslinging his rucksack.

With hoodies and headlamps on, they were now as ready as they would ever be.

“Don’t get cold whilst you wait here,” he said, drawing her hood down on her head.

His silliness made her smile. He kissed the dimple on her right cheek.

“See you in a sec, then,” he winked. She laughed. He was always trying to sound cool and relaxed, going awkwardly against his natural disposition. And in doing so, he somehow managed to be funny.

“You’re such an adventurer!” she teased him.

“Yeah,” he replied with a faint smile and without much conviction. “I totally agree.” Then he proceeded to walk forward into the darkness.


“This isn’t gonna work.”

It was what her mother had said. And had kept saying since the very first day.

“The two of you are too-sharp opposites. You’ll never be able to bridge that gap, no matter how much he cares for you.”

She wasn’t wrong, of course. They were different. Insanely different. They had almost nothing in common, except a sense of what they wanted. And for some reason, they wanted each other. Badly. They longed for each other’s presence, for the constant challenge to their wits and feelings. They cleft to each other, as went the accepted formula. For some reason, that wasn’t even half as exhausting as it sounded. It seemed they could rest in this tension, indefinitely.

Maybe her mum was right. After all, nothing really lasts, especially when it’s built on such fragile a foundation. There had to be a point when the tension would become unbearable, when the exciting would turn to annoying. It was in the order of things.

For now, she was still curious, titillated by the (relative) uncertainty. She knew she wouldn’t lose him. If there was any risk, it was of her growing tired of his natural tendency toward immobilism. Common.


After five long minutes and 32 everlasting seconds, she decided there was no point in waiting any longer. She faced the tall, gray vault, the black hole piercing the hill from one side through to the other, and she started her walk under those tons of earth covered with thick woods.

She didn’t switch on her headlamp right away, and the darkness didn’t swallow her up the way it enshrouded him when he’d stepped into it. Contrary to the trails, whose valuable steel had probably been reused or recycled (or looted, for aught she knew), the ballast was still there. It made a muffled cracking sound as she trod on it, but then the cross-ties (the sleepers, she corrected herself, don’t go all-American just yet) weren’t much spaced out, and she didn’t even need to jump from one to the next. She’d thought the beams would be moist and slippery and limp with rot and moss, but they were actually dry and hard, their surface smooth. She just had to lengthen her pace a bit to be able to walk almost normally.

After a few confident steps, she glanced over her shoulder to find a far smaller archway than the imposing entrance had looked like from the outside. The light it shed was bright, though pale, but it didn’t help her much. She switched on the headlamp.

Looking around her, she realized the place wasn’t as humid as she’d figured. Mostly it was…well, gray. And that was it. Stone and ballast and beams. Here and there, a narrow line of water from the top of the wall, at the base of the arch ceiling, was running down, evenly, slowly and very quietly, and formed a small black puddle on the ground. And the puddle fed a tranquil, delimited rot which in turn gnawed patiently at the nearest beam. Otherwise, everything was just dry and cold.

That draft in her face, though…it was so constant and cold that her fingers grew stiff after less than 15 seconds.


Where do I get such stupid ideas? There’s really no need whatsoever to revive those memories. It’s like I’m back then, as if all these years of work and struggle meant nothing.

The old brooding was the same. He hadn’t missed it a bit.

His pace was even, but he wasn’t exactly sauntering. The cross-ties looked all the same, even though, sometimes, a gap came unexpected. Some beams were missing, for a reason he couldn’t begin to fathom. Others, damaged. Maybe the frost, insinuating in the cracks of the wood, had split them here and there. Or it could be the result of boredom’s work on local kids, from a time before the Internet and video games could keep them rooted at home, their gazes riveted to screens. There were chances, if no one had come and thought of removing it, that an antiquated bottle of Pschitt! he spotted in a hole of the wall the first time he made the walk should still be lying there. It’s funny how some objects just seem to find a place for themselves in the world and stick to it, he thought. And there was a good chance for the bottle to have outlived its careless owner. The secret to longevity: live in obscurity, bury yourself.

After about five minutes, he stopped and switched off his lamp. The thought of her walking alone in complete murkiness made him uneasy. If he agreed to show her the way and share that experience from his salad years, he’d never planned to leave her on her own in that cold length of stony bowel. He decided to wait until he could see her light, and then he’d resume, feeling his way along in silence. She wouldn’t fail to notice his shape once the light of the exit was in sight, but it wouldn’t matter much by then. He could as well wait for her conspicuously, and they’d walk the rest of the way together. What would she do about it? Maybe she’d be pissed, and what of it?


The whole thing couldn’t really be described as an ordeal. This was by far too strong a word. It wasn’t a pleasant stroll either. The first time he made it certainly was unpleasant. He was 15, inexperienced in life yet already fed up with it and resolved to end it all. And he wanted his body not to be found. He didn’t tell her about that. When she asked why he did this, the easy answer was “Why not?” Do kids really need another reason for doing stupid things?

In here, the dark and the cold, the perpetual draft and the echoes of your own footsteps had a peculiar quality which made certain fantasies and fears arouse from some archaic parts of the mind. Like the mud that has been left settling for too long at the bottom of deep and still waters, it was made of dead cells detached from the carcasses of old hopes and stale dreams, of remnants from daily cares and concerns thankfully fixed in the succession of days or, on the contrary, burdened and layered up, sedimented and solidified. Halfway through the tunnel, all natural light definitely (and, seemingly, definitively) lost, chilled to the marrow, you didn’t recognize yourself. It wasn’t much like being someone else than being with someone else. Alone, with someone unknown. Someone whose intentions and desires, whose motivations and fears, felt totally alien to the familiar self usually attached to each and every single act and thought of the self you knew. He’d only felt something similar on one occasion, when he’d caught a severe case of flu and the fever had him hallucinating. When he finally recovered and was able to get up, he stood for a solid three minutes in front of the mirror, simply incapable of recognizing his own reflection. Not that he’d lost much weight during his illness. On the contrary, it was the mere fact of feeling normal and being himself, at last, that was somehow out of place. Still, this didn’t explain why he couldn’t place the stranger in the mirror. He’d left his reflection, tried to think about something else, and a few hours later, he’d forgotten about it. The impression never occurred again afterwards.


Her pace was even, now, and she didn’t feel the cold that much anymore. She couldn’t see what was about this place that could have affected him in a way susceptible to dramatically alter the course of his life, as he’d described it to her.

She passed a derelict soda bottle, alongside old, abandoned crisps bags. The place wasn’t completely godforsaken, as it turned out.

She stopped abruptly. Was she doing it wrong?

She switched off the headlamp.

Imagining how he saw the world back then wasn’t an easy task. She was a child of light, born on the bright bank of life. Her parents had made sure of that. Literally. Under the blinding beams of spotlights for as long as she could remember, obscurity was but a word, a mere concept, intellectually understandable, but the kind she’d never had any real, firsthand experience of. The house had always been full of noisy kids: siblings, cousins, friends; her siblings’ friends…and sometimes her friends’ siblings, too. Loneliness was definitely something she was acquainted with—as it came hand in hand with standing out of the crowd—but she had no notion whatsoever of the isolation that used to be his daily atmosphere for years.

It was the whole point of this hike: to get a glimpse of his life before they met, at the acme of the loneliness he’d been through. She was perfectly aware that, in the end, the attempt was bound to miss the point. They had changed each other to the extent that their former selves didn’t really exist any longer. But she needed to be able to visualize it, to get impressions as close as possible to his own.

“Life is out there. It’s not a projection of your mind.”


He couldn’t hear anything except the incessant wind whistling in his ears. She should have made it passed the curve by now. He couldn’t make out her light, though. Not even a slight reflection of it on the wall. It didn’t feel right.

What if she’d had a seizure in the dark? If she’d fallen unconscious, God knows what could’ve happened.

For heaven’s sake, what are we doing in here?

The first time they met was during a wrap-up party, after the completion of one of her projects. He hadn’t planned to come; he’d just found himself with a common acquaintance who’d invited him, and he didn’t dare to say no. No matter how informal the situation, he’d just stood back awkwardly the whole night, sticking to mechanical small talk that leads nowhere with other guests. He didn’t even really know whom was the party for, nor what he was supposed to celebrate.

Just as she was passing by him, grinning to what he identified as another group of young, artsy, spoiled brats, her legs had seemed to collapse under her, her arm now limp dropping her glass on the floor. He didn’t think about what he was doing. He was just the closest person around, and his hands weren’t busy with the glass he’d put on the cabinet he’d been leaning on for a while. Before he could realize it, he’d accompanied and soften her fall with an arm around her shoulders and his hand on her forehead, so as she wouldn’t hurt her head on the tiles or on the shattered glass. He held her on her side, as long spasms shook her body tree of four times, her throat making gurgling sounds. He didn’t notice the conversations suspending, nor the exclamations of surprise around them. His only concern was to maintain her head turned to the side and slightly above the floor to prevent her from choking with the small line of foam and vomit that had formed at the corner of her mouth.

It was only afterwards that he reflected on how his behavior had been unexpected, chiefly by himself. Usually, that sort of messy display of bodily dysfunctions grossed him out and would have him run away from the crowd.

He’d wiped the sweat off her brow, and the foam off her mouth with a tissue someone had handed over to him. He held her until she regained her spirits and felt strong enough to sit up. The following minutes saw the guests getting thin on the ground, and he himself offered to leave, so she could get some rest. She insisted on his staying a little longer, now that only her close friends and family were left.

It wasn’t her first epileptic seizure, but she hadn’t had any since childhood. And, so far, it was the only one he’d witnessed.


It looked like she wasn’t coming. They were alone, in a dark tunnel, in the middle of nowhere, and they both should’ve reached the other end of this damned thing by now. He felt a shot of adrenaline at the thought of her lying unconscious in the murk with a broken skull.

He started to walk back in her direction. The sharp beam of his headlamp was slashing the darkness whose hostility was palpable, thick and damp, though intact as it closed in back on him. With each step, the tracks unfolding in front of him seemed emptier. The absence of her body lying on the ground should’ve alleviated his unrelenting anguish, but he was feeling all the more disturbed and confused.

He’d passed the curve now. She should be straight ahead of him.

The light from the entrance was visible. Clear-cut, the shape of the archway was shining in the distance. The tunnel was empty.

His panic eased, but he felt puzzled. Where had she gone?

He staggered to the archway and was met with a heavy and cold rain that slapped him in the face.

The mist in his mind was clearing up.

Of course. How could have he been so caught up in this?

He zipped his coat higher to protect his throat from the wind and cautiously proceeded to walk down the hill rendered slippery by the autumnal shower.


A shiver ran through her shoulders and down her loins. She’d been standing for a minute or two, her light off, her eyes wide open and pearling tears under the restless draft. It was very quiet.

She didn’t want to be here. She wanted to be warm and safe; to be with friends, with him. She wanted to be in the sunlight, in the open air. Not here. Not alone under the earth, in the dark and the cold, amongst the gray dampness of chthonian lifeless existence. She longed for the clean smell of Earl Grey, a smell that says “you’re home and nothing bad can happen to you.” The only smell here was that of damped stone.

I’m done, she thought, her stomach tightened. This is no way to live.

She called his name.

“Okay, I think I get it! We can go somewhere else, now! Somewhere nicer!”

If it wasn’t for the sepulchral echo, her voice would’ve sounded as cheery as she’d intended, although it had required some effort. She switched her lamp back on and started walking again on the sleepers. Knowing him, he probably was just a few steps ahead, ready to come back to her.

There was no answer but the wind’s constant complaint that seemed to even deepen the silence.

She quickened her pace. Less than a dozen seconds later, a brightness sliced the obscurity. The archway looked the same as the one at the entrance, but the light was far more intense.

He must be waiting outside, then, just out of sight because of the glaring sun.

“Hey, knucklehead!” she shouted. “Thought you’d be waiting for me, but I made it on my own!”

She expected the sunlight to hurt her eyes after so long a while in pitch-black obscurity, but this was more than she could bear. And something didn’t feel natural about that radiance.

“Cut!” someone yelled. “That one was excellent! You’ve been very good! Alright, lights on! We’re done for today! Thanks everyone, great job!”

A few people clapped their hands. Someone turned off the spotlight and the fan both pointed at her face. The film set was crowded, and buzzing with life and activity.

She sighed with relief.

Remnants of many aimless imaginations, never portrayed, announce definite, elaborate, lasting pains—errors utterly, craftily harmonized…