Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Maze

Of all the horrors above the earth, in the earth, and under the earth, the most terrible are those of our own making.

-- Anasazi Indian proverb

* * *

The first thing I was aware of was the deep, blood-red.

It is strange to me that years after those singular events occurred--years after I lost my sight permanently--one of my strongest visual memories is the vivid crimson color, swimming across my field of vision.  The blood-red effervescence so totally consumed my attention that I was left temporarily dazzled.

As the strange sensation built in intensity, my mind emerged from a dark fog into a throbbing, pulsing clarity.  It felt as if I had climbed out of a murky, mental crevasse, emerging suddenly on the far side of an impenetrable gap in my memory.

I don't believe that before or after that day I have ever awakened to sudden consciousness while my eyes were still closed.  It is not a sensation which most are familiar with.  But there, as I lay on my back in the sand and mud at the bottom of the canyon, the afternoon sun crested the canyon wall and spilled over my eyelids, simultaneously rousing me and bathing my optic nerves in the earthy, shimmering red that meant I had never been more alive.  Called back from the dead--from wherever I had been.

As I strained my eyelids against the scarlet backdrop, they remained momentarily caked shut by sand and grime.  When they finally popped open, I found myself completely, utterly lost.

I was not unfamiliar with the canyon country, having spent most of my life in a small town west of Canyonlands National Park in central Utah.  I had explored the local creeks and dry washes, wandered through the gulches and gorges, climbed the mesas and table mountains many times.  I had grown to love the austere beauty of the land long before canyoneering became a mainstream sport and the masses began to converge like locusts on the fragile desert.

I was familiar enough with the local area to know that I had never before been here--wherever here was.  As I mentioned, I was laying on my back, a grapefruit-sized rock jabbing me in the ribs, looking up into the blinding sun that must have emerged beyond the shadow of the cliff only moments before.  Shielding my eyes from the intense brightness, I sat up and retched.  My head pounded at the exertion.  Staggering to my feet, I took inventory of my surroundings.

I was in a room of sorts, in a deep, narrow canyon.  It was about 30 feet wide, from wall to wall, and perhaps 80 feet long.  On the upstream end, the walls narrowed to about four feet across before the canyon twisted out of sight.  On the downstream side, a large boulder pile obstructed the view beyond. The left side of the rock pile was dominated by a large boulder ten feet across and twelve feet high or so.  This boulder sat beneath a scar high on the rock face that looked newer than the rest of the cliff, and looked to be about the right shape and size; thus I surmised that the boulder had been a recent fall (relatively speaking of course--when dealing with erosion, "recent" could mean several hundred years).  

Perhaps the rock pile was the unburied remains of a large natural bridge that used to span the canyon here.  Such a wonder would not have surprised me: in canyon country Nature is a tireless artist, ever chiseling away, but never satisfied; always tinkering, never pausing to rest.  Her obsession with change always leads to the same inevitable outcome: the proudest cliffs crumble to dust under her mallet and chisel, until their sandy souls are swept by the wind into the flat plains of sagebrush and cactus that dominate the lowlands.

The rockfall formed a natural dam where a fairly large pool of greenish-brown water had collected, extending up to where I had lain.  I was wet to the tops of my shins.  Various sticks and other plant detritus littered the edge of the pool.  Moss and lichens grew on the opposite edge where the water met the rock wall, indicating a fairly stable water level.  However, looking towards the rock fall I could see a high-water mark on the wall, nearly level with the top of the dam, revealing that the size and depth of the pool occasionally varied greatly.  I couldn't see the murky bottom of the pool, but it may have been several feet deep in the center.  In front of the dam several large pieces of waterlogged timber barely broke the surface of the water, their dark brown bulk lurking underneath like lazy crocodiles waiting in ambush.

Running near me, approximately down the center of the chamber, a sandy bank rose abruptly, with flat, grassy growth on top, about six feet or so above the level of the pool.  It looked like a lot of sediment had collected in this place over the years, undoubtedly aided by the boulder jam.  The grassy plain extended all the way to the far wall, where a few desert shrubs and summer flowers grew. Erosion had exposed roots along the edge of the bank.  It had evidently been quite some time since the last major flood had deposited fresh sand here.  The high ground was slowly shrinking.

About ten feet upstream from where I stood, the remnants of a lone, large tree clung tenuously to the edge of the crumbling bank.  The main trunk of the tree and all of the bark had long since broken off, leaving behind about ten feet of jagged, sun-bleached stump jutting upwards with a few feet each of two broken limbs still attached, like outstretched arms.  The roots seemed to grasp the earth like a great hand, the sand having been washed away around them until there was several feet of open air underneath the center of the trunk.  The exposed root system fanned out perhaps eight feet in diameter before disappearing into the sand.  It was hard to tell how deep the it penetrated into the canyon floor, but the austere old giant had obviously weathered many storms to have held on this long, even if it was only a shadow of its former self.

The vertical walls towered 60 feet or so, without much of a break in the sheer rock faces on either side.  Who knows what was above that; often desert canyons erode through multiple layers of strata, alternating between flat floors and tall cliffs, until at last shrinking down to the bottom-level slot where active erosion was taking place at a humanly-imperceptible, but geologically-hyperactive pace.

The walls were almost exclusively the deep rust color common to canyon country, accented by black stains of desert varnish that bled down from the layer above.  The cliff on the dry side of the room was exceptionally sheer, a nearly perfect perpendicular angle from the floor, with surprisingly minimal evidence of water weathering.  Perhaps some of the rock dam at the downstream end of the room came from bounders sheared off cleanly from this wall, a result not of flowing water, but of geologic forces at work over millennia.

As I describe this place you may think it strange that I recall it in such vivid clarity, all these years later.  This place became dreadful to me.  The details of that awful scene have burned into my memory like the mark of a searing iron.

Though I could remember nothing about how I got there, my body stench, the chemical quality of my breath, and the throbbing in my skull betrayed the unsurprising fact that I had been very drunk again, and had eventually collapsed into unconsciousness.  Who knows what series of events had transpired between abandoning myself to drink and awaking so far from home.  I strained my memory until I felt the acute ache of my pulse in my temples, but could recall nothing.

Through the lingering mental haze, I suddenly became aware of a Presence behind me.  You know the feeling when you realize you are being watched: your senses are suddenly heightened.  The hairs on the back of your neck prick up and an icy chill races down your spine and through your arms and legs.  I turned about to see who was there.

On the cliff directly above the center of the pool was a large pictograph panel featuring a single, enormous figure.  I do not know how I missed it while first surveying my surroundings--perhaps it was not there.  It was a faded off-white color that stood out in brilliant contrast to the crimson wall it was painted on.  The head of the thing was skull-shaped and bald.  Two gaping, black eyes stared down at me.  The mouth had a leering, grimacing quality.  There was no nose.

The body of the thing was strange; instead of an inverted triangle with two legs, as is common with many pictographs in the area, this figure was a tall, fairly broad rectangle, slightly tapered towards the shoulders.  Perhaps this unusual geometry is what gave the figure the distinct impression of being female, despite being supernaturally large.  The head looked slightly undersized for the body.  The figure held one arm straight out, ending with a hand that seemed too large and detailed for the rest of the depiction.  Individual fingers extended, all pointing straight out, part of a dramatic, wide-armed gesture.

It was perhaps twelve feet tall, the bottom reaching down to the high-water mark on the wall.  A few inches above the top of the head a small, horizontal shelf extended along the length of the sandstone wall to the boulder jam, framing the space.  

As I took this ancient artwork in, instead of the usual, almost reverent fascination that such a discovery would normally hold, I was seized with a vague sense of dread that I could not rationally account for.  The thing, though painted on the wall, was nonetheless staring at me with those empty, soulless eyes.  A small spark of understanding flared in the recesses of my subconscious mind.  I was trespassing in her territory.  I was not welcome here.  I became aware of a sudden chill in the early September air as a breeze arose from somewhere beyond the upstream bend and swept through the canyon with a soft hiss.  I shuddered lightly and turned the other way.

It was then that I noticed Algernon, standing in a depression in the grassy plain above the bank, near the far wall.  He must have been quietly munching the tall, dry grass when I first came to, but now had his head erect and was staring at me.  His bridle was attached, reins dangling down, but there was no saddle.  Now I knew how I had gotten there, since staggering into a remote canyon in a drunken stupor alone seemed pretty far-fetched.

Relieved to see my friend of nearly two decades, I scrambled up the bank.  "Ho, Algernon," I called as I approached.  "Good to see someone at last that I recognize."  He replied with a light, approving whinny.

A stable blanket lay crumpled beside him, the corner tied to a small knapsack.  I picked it up, eager to see what supplies I might have at my disposal.  I was disappointed to find only a length of rope about fifteen feet long, an empty water bottle, and some old newspapers.  Nothing to eat.  But, I wasn't sure I could hold anything down anyway.

Algernon looked over my shoulder at the wall with the figure.  He gave a slight, nervous snort.  Overhead, the electric-blue, September sky gave way to occasional large, puffy clouds that sent dark shadows racing across the canyon floor.

"C'mon, boy, let's see where we are.  Come with me to the tree.  I'll tie you up, just long enough for me to see what's on the other side of that rockfall."  Thunderstorms were common this time of year in the Utah desert, and even though there was no sign of impending rain yet, and the monsoon season was nearly over, visibility was limited here in the bottom of this deep hole.  There had been thunderstorms off and on for the last several weeks, mostly in the afternoons.  Who knew when an unexpected thunderclap might rock the silence?  Now that I had Algernon, I didn't want to risk him startling and running off in either direction without me.

I led Algernon to the old tree skeleton and tied his bridle to one of the larger roots with the rope from the knapsack.  Then, feeling my legs fully back again, I ventured over to the rockfall.  As I passed the pool, I studiously avoided looking up at the painted woman.  I felt her gaze boring down on me as I hurried by.

Several of the rocks were loose, but the majority were cemented in place with a mixture of sand, bark, and driftwood that made the dam quite waterproof.  The left side of the big boulder looked less stable, with various smaller rocks wedged between the boulder and the canyon wall.  It was easy to scale the six-feet or so to the top of the right side.  I ascended rapidly without anticipating the narrowness of the top, so that pulling myself up over the crest and standing in almost a single motion left me swooning dangerously over a thirty-foot dry fall.  My pounding heart throbbed in my forehead.

Regaining my balance, I turned around and caught the white figure staring at me with emotionless eyes. I noticed that the pale, red sandstone color bleeding through the white paint gave the impression that her garments might have been translucent, as if there was a hidden light or energy emanating from the heart of the canyon wall that exposed a more detailed human form behind the crude, blocky shape of the body.  The effect was one of pent-up energy, straining to burst from the rock face into some type of new sentience.  But despite the figure's overall impression of warmth, no light shone from those impossibly black eyes.

I almost answered her fixed gaze aloud, but the words suddenly caught in my throat, as if the act of uttering them would have somehow transformed her into a hearing, breathing thing.  At once I became aware of how very dry my mouth was.  You were waiting to see me fall right over the edge, I accused her in my mind.  But I caught myself.  I always catch myself.  The unconvincing words had the air of falsehood.

Regaining my mental composure, I realized that I had let my emotions get the better of me, and was attempting telepathic communication with a painted figure on a stone wall!  That's all it was--ancient artwork and cold, inanimate earth.  I reminded myself that there was no one else here--nothing but me and my horse and the empty canyon.  I perceived my emotionally-charged state as the ridiculous thing that it was, and willing my constricted chest to relax, I forced out a light chuckle. 

Turning away from her, I surveyed the downstream canyon.  It took an abrupt turn to the left at the dry fall, and narrowed back down to perhaps ten feet across.  A slightly damp, sandy depression stretched from the base of the fall for about thirty feet or so down the canyon floor.  Cracked, red mud lay in geometric patterns in the deepest part, directly beneath where I stood.  Several large boulders lay scattered about in the depression.  A few pieces of driftwood lay in the dry sand on its far perimeter.  The dry fall extended the entire width of the canyon.  By flattening myself to the boulder pile and inching forward until my head could see over the edge, I observed that the top center of the dry fall was an overhang.  I was perched on a debris pile that extended from edge to edge of an unscalable cliff.  Descending those falls would be a one-way trip.  And I certainly had not come from that direction with my horse.  We must have come from upstream.

Algernon snorted softly from over by the old tree.  "It's okay, boy," I called to him.  I jumped down from the rock dam and sprinted the distance to where he stood.  Folding the stable blanket and draping it over his back, I untied him, coiled the rope, and placed it back in the knapsack.  Holding the reins, I took the empty water bottle to the edge of the pool and filled it up.  The water looked much clearer in the container, with only a few specks of visible green material swirling in it.  Probably not desirable drinking, but hard experience had taught me that a little water of any kind could be a lifesaver in the desert.  I had once wandered carelessly into the high back-country in mid-July, when the temperatures soared well over 100 degrees.  Though I took a large water supply, the heat sapped my strength and bodily fluids and I ran out of water miles from my car.  I survived because I refilled my bottles from a slimy, natural water tank I happened across in a crack in the sandstone bedrock, and poured the contents over my clothes, providing essential cooling that my sweat glands had stopped providing.  That day I gained a new dimension of respect for the desert and the essential life-blood that water provides.

A sudden, heavy shadow fell over the canyon, interrupting my reverie.  Looking up, I saw cumulus clouds in greater numbers racing overhead with surprising speed, swirling in multiple directions at once, as if they were a camp of soldiers being mustered into formation.  The canyon floor strobed a few more times between sunlight and shadow, before settling permanently into a more somber, melancholy mood as the clouds packed more tightly together.  From upstream I thought I could hear a new, faint sighing of canyon wind.  This was not the pleasant dance of dry air seeping through the cliffs to playfully tickle my skin, but the dull, constant sound of something much more determined; a likely sign that the dry weather I had enjoyed up to that point was going to change.

I was quite happy to oblige the messages I was receiving from the clouds, the wind, and the white woman painted on the canyon wall.  "C'mon, Algernon.  I know which way to go now.  Let's head for home before it gets any darker.  I don't want to spend another night in this place.  Not while I'm sober." 

* * *

I entered the narrow slot canyon with Algernon, leaving the red chamber behind.  I was surprised to notice that after traveling a hundred yards or so, I had not seen any sign of hoof marks or footprints.  There were, of course, long stretches of smooth, rounded rocks, typically ranging from golf ball to cantaloupe size, where no footprints would be seen.  But even in the sandy portions, the canyon floor looked like it had been meticulously swept by the wind, covering any signs of intrusion and leaving only miniature sand dunes behind.  A stiff breeze had been almost constant since entering the narrows.  I felt its presence when I stood at the entrance, looking down the gloomy passage.  I wasn't sure whether that was the exact moment the breeze started, or whether wind would always blow through here.  Maybe this canyon was a sort of wind funnel, or perhaps it was was intensified by the growing storm overhead.

The canyon walls were a phantasmal array of sculpted hollows and clefts, encompassing almost the whole rainbow in color.  Sections of deep blues, purples, pinks, oranges, and light yellows complemented the deep reds that seemed to entirely dominate that chamber with the painted woman.  Various patterns of desert varnish streaked down from above.

Looking up periodically, as the canyon twisted and turned through the bowels of the bedrock, I was surprised to see occasional logs spanning the chasm high above, some perhaps fifty feet up.  Most likely these were swept into the crevasse from the flat lands above, but the thought also occurred to me that these could have also floated into place.  As narrow as this canyon was at this point, severe flash floods would simply push the water level higher and higher, until eventually spilling into the wider chamber where I had awakened, like a waterfall.  That would be quite a spectacle to see.

I wondered how much area this canyon provided drainage for.  Some canyons grow by capitalizing on cracks in the bedrock, and weather slowly over long periods of time, as much by forces of wind and ice as by running water.  These tend to have smooth, uniform walls with sheer cliffs, appear and disappear on the landscape suddenly, and carry very little runoff, even in large storms.  This canyon did not have those characteristics.  It was a wildly sculpted affair, ground smooth by the multitude of sediment and boulders that must have been regularly swept through its depths.  Most likely this slot drained a large area of highlands.  Other similar-looking slot canyons in the Colorado Plateau drain hundreds of square miles of high bluffs and desert valleys.  These are the type of canyons that claim lives when it rains.

Based on what I knew of the local geography, and from the shadows the sun cast before being swallowed by the gathering storm clouds, I guessed I was heading in a generally northeastern direction .  Thus, when I encountered a fork in the canyon with roughly equal-sized passages, my instincts were to keep to the left.  I had probably entered the canyon from the west.

It had been close to an hour since leaving the chamber, and the section of narrows I had just traversed was nearly unbroken, with only a few instances of high banks with any vegetation.  And these were mostly grasses--I had not seen a tree or even a substantial shrub since leaving the chamber.  All this contributed to a sense of foreboding in the deepening gray atmosphere.  I hoped that this western fork of the canyon would widen out into an area with high ground, should the rain come.  However, this canyon too remained tall and narrow.  Thankfully, I had not yet encountered any significant obstacle that would have precluded riding a horse through this passage.  I felt confident that I had chosen the correct escape route.

The wind picked up, occasionally gusting and blasting my face with flying sand.  From somewhere in the distance, I heard what sounded like the roar of a jet overhead--not an uncommon sound in the stillness of the desert wilderness.  But this sound, audible above the scraping sounds of the windblown sand against the canyon walls, was too loud, and stopped too abruptly.  It was thunder.

I tugged Algernon's reins.  "C'mon, boy, we better hurry," I encouraged him.  He accordingly moved faster, setting a new pace.  A second, soft thundering rumbled overhead.  After several more minutes we came to another fork in the canyon.  This time the choice was easy.  I could plainly see that the right fork narrowed into a dark crack that I would probably not squeeze through, much less my horse.  The only way through that canyon would be to chimney high up the walls and advance over the narrow crack, body pressed against both walls, until the canyon widened out again.

We took the left fork as another thunderclap boomed, this one closer and sharper.  Algernon neighed nervously as I tugged on the reins and tried to soothe him with calming words.  "We're almost there, buddy.  Keep going.  Keep going."  I dismounted, not wanting to be bucked from his back if a thunderclap really startled him.  I took off at a jog, leading him behind me.  Despite the cool air rushing by, the exertion of dodging among the boulders littering the canyon floor caused me to start to sweat.  Algernon was clearly not happy, but kept up.  We continued another five minutes or so when we rounded a corner in the canyon and stopped dead in our tracks.

Directly ahead of us was a fifteen-foot dry fall.  At the bottom of the fall was a pool of water stretching the full ten-foot width of the canyon.  We were stuck.  We had taken the wrong way out.

For the first time since awakening, my mind began to despair, to allow for the unthinkable possibility that with the storm and the approaching nightfall, we might not make it out.  We were lost.  With the dark clouds overhead it was hard to judge the time of day, but based on my recollection of the shadows when I was first exploring the red chamber, it must have been getting late in the evening.  Since heading upstream, I had not seen any bona fide high ground where I could confidently weather a serious flash flood.  There was always the chance that this was the typical late-summer, evening thunderstorm in the Utah desert, producing a lot of noise but little precipitation.  But something in my gut told me this was wishful thinking.  Some strange, raw, animal fear had awakened deep inside of me and taken hold of my emotions, and was clinging there, its cutting claws sunk deep into my psyche, despite my best efforts to will it away.  And I dreaded the thought of returning and spending the night in the room--that dreadful place--with the painted lady.  I needed to find high ground, or find my way out. 

I suddenly became aware of how dry my mouth had become in my hasty journey upstream.  Gathering my wits about me, I got the water bottle out of the knapsack and poured its contents into the sand.  Grateful for something practical to do--something that would temporarily push aside the rising panic in my chest--I stooped down to fill the bottle up from the much fresher, much cleaner-looking pool at the base of the dry fall.  I greedily drank from the bottle and filled it again.  I emptied it several more times, relishing the sweet water on my tongue and its coolness as it sank down my throat.  I drank until my stomach felt quite full and the acute ache of hunger that had been gnawing away at me since the nausea had subsided had been muted, to the point where I could ignore it again.

It was as I had stooped down to fill it one last time, to take a full bottle with me while I made my escape attempt from the other fork of canyon, that the late-evening sun suddenly sank below the thick blanket of storm clouds and shone directly into the place where I stood.  The latest twist of the canyon was apparently at just the right angle, and this straightaway stretch just long enough, for the low sun to penetrate the canyon from its position near the horizon, barely clearing the top and illuminating the back wall of the dry fall.  Looking up, the sunlight looked like fire on the bottom edges of the swirling, black clouds above.  The tenuous beam of orange-red light extended all the way to the brink of the pool of water at my feet.

The light on the water cast reflective, dancing shapes that lit up the side walls of the canyon.  I stared, awestruck, at the shimmering, abstract forms, dissolving into each other, only to re-emerge even brighter.  They seemed to dance in every direction, like spirits or sprites in a wild, chaotic revelry.  The red sunlight, reflected on the salmon walls, gave the whole scene the distinct impression of being on fire.  It was as if I were standing in the midst of an inferno.  That's when I saw her.

You will think I am mad, or a liar, but I swear that I tell only the truth of what I have seen with my own eyes.  I saw, in the midst of those dancing spirit shapes, the distinct form of a woman begin to take shape on the wall.  I blinked in disbelief at what I beheld.  The shape of the figure was one with which I was very familiar.  Again, you will doubt my sanity, but I tell you that the visage of my grandmother appeared before me in the dancing fire-shapes, as sure as I know anything.  I could make out the very details of her face, from her heavily-lidded eyes to her mottled, aged skin.  She looked at me, with an expression so loving and sincere that, in the taxed emotional state I had come to in that awful, solitary place, I could not hold back tears.  I melted, my shoulders rising and falling in great, heaving sobs that echoed down the canyon like the thunder overhead.  As the sun's last rays began to fade from the canyon floor, I blinked the tear-flood away from my eyes and reached out my hand to her image on the wall, and then she was gone.

* * *

She had only been buried for a week or so, and already my grandmother had come to watch over me in my time of need.  The thought kindled a desperately needed spark of hope within my chest.

I had been placed with her as a child, shortly after my mother disappeared, and had grown up with her as she grew old.  The small, rural town where we lived was a pleasant place for a childhood.  It was the kind of place where grand, old cottonwood trees lined the streets in front of red brick houses with white picket fences.  It was a place where everyone knew everyone else, where your barber grew up with your uncle and would tell you funny stories of childhood exploits while he cut your hair.  It was one of those few places left where people left the keys in their car ignitions, and their doors unlocked at night.

Due to the latter, my childhood friends and I used to sometimes sneak into the mortuary at night and play "sardines," a kind of reverse hide-and-seek.  One person hides and each member of the party, when finding him, silently joins him.  It was always unenviable to be the last person looking for the hiding place in the quiet darkness, wandering alone in the moonlight shadows of the backroom among the caskets (typically one or more being occupied), with no one answering your calls.  When at last this solitary, unfortunate victim would find our group, we would jump out, teeth bared and snarling, eliciting an audible cry of terror that broke up the party and sent us all scattering out into the darkness, the carefree echo of youthful laughter chasing our footsteps.  The effect was always very satisfactory in that setting.

It was in this quiet town that I fell in love with the Utah desert.  My grandmother had purchased Algernon from the rancher down the road shortly after I arrived--one of her few successful attempts to comfort me after the trauma of losing my mother.  When times were hard I often found solace in riding him through the dusty trails that wound through sage brush and badlands in the hills behind Grandmother's home.

My faithful equine companion and I had been together for the better part of two decades, and had grown to trust each other.  As I reminisced, I mounted him in the swiftly gathering darkness and gave him a light kick and a "let's go, boy."  He started back down the canyon towards the junction of the two forks. In the fading light I trusted his footing much more than my own.

During our frequent rides over the years I came to love the smells of the sand and sage, the sweet, bitter fragrance of junipers and the subtle aroma of the pinyon pines.  To me, these were the smells of peace and solitude and escape.  I smelled none of that tonight--only the scent of stagnant water and moldy decay that always seems ubiquitous in the deeper slots, mixed with the unsettling, but strangely refreshing smell of distant rain, blown into the canyon from somewhere up higher.

The wind at our backs was not nearly so grating as it had been in our faces, but the screeching, howling sound it made as it funneled through the dark crevasse we were traversing only seemed to intensify as it darkened, ebbing and flowing in pitch and intensity.  It reminded me of the mournful wail of the fabled Irish banshee, heralding a coming doom.  Such are the fanciful thoughts that invade an otherwise rational mind when faced with the terror of unwanted solitude in an unwelcoming, alien landscape.  I patted Algernon's mane gratefully, glad to not be utterly alone.

My thoughts returned to the night my grandmother died, about two weeks ago.  It had been a peaceful passing, I suppose.  I had been to the tavern and stayed too late, returning after midnight to collapse on the living room sofa.  I was awakened in the night by a sharp moan, followed by a deep sigh.  I jumped to my feet and stumbled through the darkness to my grandmother's bedroom, where the door was ajar.  She lay on her bed, her hands clutched over her heart, her eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling.  It was over that fast.

The coroner ruled the cause of death as myocardial infarction, the common heart attack.  She shouldn't have suffered much.  Her body was taken to the mortuary where I had played as a child, where she lay in peaceful solitude for several days while I answered phone calls and entertained visitors and tried to make sense out of my life.  The whole town rallied around me in this time, with many describing the painful loss felt by all, as one of the "pillars of the community" had been taken home.  A funeral was planned for Saturday.  I didn't have to speak.  Flowers were being arranged.  And old Hank, the owner of the mortuary and the adjacent cemetery, came to the house and sold me a grave plot "with a beautiful view of the bluffs," sight unseen.  I wrote out the check from Grandmother's account, not knowing whether it would clear or not.

Though everyone meant well, and I desperately needed the help, the ordeal left me utterly exhausted.  I escaped on the evening of the fourth day after her passing to the tavern, where I drowned my grief and confusion into temporary oblivion.  I awoke the next morning face-down on the front grass of our home.  Algernon stood close by, tethered to the old cottonwood tree.  No matter how I tried, I could not recall a single thing that happened between when I ordered my first few drinks the night before, and when I awoke.  It was my first experience with the haunting sensation of complete memory loss from drinking too much—and alas, should have been my last!  I stood up, my head reeling, and tried to smooth out my shirt and brush off the grass.

I needed to check in with Hank to discuss some options for the viewing.  I opted to ride Algernon again to the mortuary on the far side of town, rather than drive my grandmother's Oldsmobile.  It was too soon to claim that portion of my inheritance.  Just outside the front door of the mortuary, I overheard Hank and Sheriff Windsor talking in hushed, but excited voices inside:

"I am just as surprised as you are, Sheriff.  The old woman hasn't weathered well.  I think it might be disturbing for the folks to see."

"So it is to be a closed casket, then?"

"It's the right thing.  Not a pretty sight.  Warranties must have all long been expired."

"Spoken with the sensitivity of a gentleman of your distinguished profession, Hank.  Let me see."

"NO!  I mean, you've seen enough of what's ugly in this town.  You don't need to see--"

I heard the sound of the casket lid being raised.

"Oh my... Oh my."

There was a pregnant silence between them.

"I think I see what you mean."

"You do?  You mean..."

"Hank," as the casket lid shut with a muffled thump, "It's a closed casket funeral, and that's all anyone needs to--"

I opened the door and entered, the two startled men suddenly looking up at me.

"So it's a closed casket.  That's that," I said.  They looked at each other, a little guiltily.  "It's alright.  I've seen her every day for the last eighteen years.  I can let her go.  I can..."

My voice cracked and caught in my throat.

"I'm real sorry about your grandmother," Sheriff Windsor consoled me.  "She was a fine woman.  No woman ever finer.  She's done a great service to you, bringing you up as her own.  Speaking of which, since she ain't here to talk to you any more, I feel like I need to--"

"Don't," Hank warned.

"It's okay," I said.  "I know what you're going to say.  You've seen me over at the Dead Goat.  I've had too much to drink lately, several times over.  I had too much last night—don’t remember a darn thing.  Grandma would've given me a stern talking to.  You're right to remind me.  I should be whipped."

The sheriff seemed appeased and dropped the subject.

But my drinking didn't end there.  If anything, it intensified, and what had once been occasional overdoses turned into my regular pattern.  I'm amazed the barkeeper at the Dead Goat Saloon still has his license, with the way he seems only too eager to take as much money as I was willing to plunk down, regardless of my obviously inebriated state during each of my visits the past fortnight.  I started into an every-other day habit of binging, followed by a day recovering from a massive hangover, and the next day resolving not to do it again, before my raw emotions would send me back to the tavern that night.

I believe it was the third episode of this new pattern after Grandma's passing that I began seeking solitude in the hills at night.  I would ride Algernon to the tavern and rely on him to carry my sorry carcass back to the house when my binge was over.  But this time, rather than stopping at the front door, I just kept on riding, up to the end of the pavement and onto the dirt road that wound up the broad canyon, eventually leading into the forested hills where the men of the town would go to chop firewood or hunt.

Several miles from where the pavement ended, Algernon departed the road and seemed to instinctively follow a narrow path that wound up to the top of a bluff.  My mind in a drunken fog, I neither questioned his sense of direction, nor recognized the area, though now I remember having been there years before on one of our wandering treks.  On the flat top of the bluff, adjoining one of the mountain foothills, was an abandoned cabin.  I vaguely remember the way it looked in the moonlight, a single-room structure with a broad, covered porch out front and a dilapidated outhouse fifty yards off, near a copse of quaking aspen trees.  There must have been a spring by the cabin, because there was a large patch of long, soft grass off to one side, swaying gently in the night breeze.  The whole scene had a dreamlike quality about it.

Though the walls looked slightly crooked and numerous patches of warped, gray shingles were missing from the roof, the structural integrity of the cabin seemed sound.  As I approached, the shadowy details of the porch revealed an old, wooden chair in front of the cracked and broken front window, and a mattress that had been left in front of the door.  I remember nearly falling off Algernon and stumbling up onto the porch, where I collapsed on the mattress and immediately fell into a deep, consuming sleep.

* * *

By the time we reached the junction of the two forks of the canyon, probably only twenty minutes after leaving the pool by the dry fall, the darkness was thick and it was difficult to see the stones and other obstacles strewn along the canyon floor.  I reluctantly made the only sensible choice, though I dreaded its outcome--to head back to the red chamber with the white lady and the only substantial high ground I had seen thus far.  But oh, how I dreaded already--and it had only been a few hours that we had been acquainted--to see that woman with her inexplicably black eyes!

Algernon seemed surefooted in the darkness, and I was grateful for his competence as we trudged our way slowly down the narrows.  The wind had increased to a steady roar, like the perpetual sound of a subway train approaching, and leaves and sand were constantly swirling in the air around us.  During strong gusts Algernon whinnied anxiously, and I gently encouraged him forward.  I was grateful that going this way, the wind was at our backs, and not sand-blasting our faces.  I could feel the grit building up on the back of my scalp.  When I scratched my head it would stain my fingernails with the deep red of the sandstone.

Occasional bolts of lightning streaked overhead, illuminating the canyon.  Our eyes being well adjusted by now to the dim bottom of the crevasse, we were temporarily blinded by the sudden flashes.  These were accompanied by terrible explosions of thunder.  At first, there was a delay between the two, but with each successive event, the gap seemed to close.  The ever-increasing frequency of the explosions and the shrinking pause between the brilliant light and shaking booms crept upon my nerves with an advancing dreadfulness--of something awful; something huge, and powerful, and utterly devoid of human feeling or compassion.  Worse than cruelty or malice, it was simply a vast Indifference to our existence; a great, dark flying thing descending upon us, helpless victims trapped in the bottom of the canyon.  

There is a lurking smallness of a lone man in the world, which is magnified in a terrifying manner when forces of nature choose to showcase their fury, and is amplified an hundredfold when that man is lost in an unfamiliar landscape.  There is a dreadful, unspeakable sense that perhaps man does not hold any significance after all; that man, puffed up in vanity, having harnessed the wind and waves to his advantage, bested the elements with his cleverness, and even captured and controlled the power of lightning to do his bidding, is just a temporary disturbance in the cosmic time-clock of the universe, springing up inexplicably out of the very darkness to which he will very shortly disappear forever.  He is nothing but a great aberration, an anomaly, an unnaturalness.

This vastly superior force, while continuing its course oblivious to our presence, nevertheless pushed relentlessly to drive us onward, ever more swiftly, back to the chamber of the white lady.

Just as the thunderstorm reached a feverish pitch, it suddenly paused to take a deep breath.  The disorienting flashes ceased, and only the screaming wind could be heard. Amid the relative calm, Algernon and I both seemed to recover to some degree. We were able to slow our breathing some and relax our bodies that had been tensed like coiled springs.  

This respite was shattered with a simultaneous flash and explosive thunderclap that left my ears ringing.  Algernon reared up and kicked at the air in front of him, nearly throwing me from his back.  The storm asserted itself with a redoubled fury.  Due to the frequency of these hypnotizing electrical discharges, he soon became relatively accustomed to the strobing light and deafening booms that echoed up and down the canyon.  I was grateful for his composure--my nerves were utterly rattled by this point.  I suppose it is not too different from a soldier's reliance on a good war horse that has learned to tolerate the unpredictable chaos of battle, providing a steady servant.  Even when the fighting goes sour and the specter of death stares the man in the face, rocking him to the core, his faithful steed remains steadfast and obedient.

So the center of the storm had finally reached us; but so far, there was only a lot of wind and noise, and no rain.  But oh, even without the danger of flood upon us, how awful was the howling of that wind, and how relentless the pelting of the flying sand!  Was this the worst the black heavens would throw at us, or were we just teetering on the edge--was the monster just playing cat-and-mouse with us before moving in for the kill?

There was nothing to do but push on towards the high ground of the white lady's chamber, so on we went.  In the near perfect dark, repeatedly blinded by the intense flashes of light, riding on the stable blanket spread out on the back of my competent guide, my highly excited mind bounced between our current journey and life at home the last two weeks.

After my next trip to the tavern I repeated the journey to the abandoned cabin, again finding blissful sleep on the front porch mattress.  The following morning as I awoke to the sunlight shining on my face, I sat up and yawned.  I turned about to face the front window, and with a sudden start, fell right off the mattress and porch, onto the dirt below.  There was a person inside the cabin, sitting by the window.

I only briefly glimpsed her sitting with her back to the window, presumably on a chair or sofa inside, facing into the cabin’s single room.  It looked like a young woman with long, straight, slightly disheveled red hair.  I was so overcome by this revelation and a sudden, horrible feeling of having been an unwitting intruder on her silent world, that I sprinted to where Algernon was feeding on the green grass, mounted him, and promptly rode away.

Two nights later I returned to the cabin for refuge in my inebriated state again.  It was thundering something terrible and Algernon was none too happy to be out wandering in it, but I spurred him onward.  I had developed a sort of strange affinity for that front porch—somehow it appealed more to me at the time than my grandmother’s dreadfully empty house.  

As I approached, a flash of lightning illuminated the cabin, and I saw clearly the outline of the young woman with long, red hair, sitting inside by the window, as before.  I was so stunned to see her still there—I had assumed she was a runaway or transient who had only briefly stopped at this decrepit shack on the way to some faraway destination—that I turned around and headed home.  With the storm outside and her inside, I was not going to be spending the night there.

I returned the next afternoon, sober this time, with a small bag of food—a loaf of bread, some hard-boiled eggs I had prepared, and a few apples.  If the poor thing was desperate enough to seek refuge in this old shack for even a few days, she surely could use a little help.  I could see her silhouette by the window as I rode up.  I knocked on the door, but no one answered.  I knocked again, a little louder.  Still no response.  Shrugging, I left the bag on the mattress in front of the door and returned home with Algernon.  The poor young thing must be really out of sorts.

A sharp, simultaneous thunder clap and flash of lightning revealed that at last, we had almost reached the canyon chamber where we started our journey earlier that afternoon.  I could see the deep crimson walls of the far side, just beyond the narrow corridor we were in.  The storm had intensified into gale-force winds, and the screaming, howling sounds all about us were possessed of a terrifying, otherworldly quality that sounded more like voices than any natural sound belonging to the raging elements.  Perhaps I underestimated the personality of the elements--the wind, sand, clouds overhead and the bedrock of the canyon itself.  Could it be that they were not as indifferent to my presence as I thought? Were they, in fact, also aware of my trespassing in this dreadful place?  Was there some orchestrated, maleficent design in driving me here, as if by a whip?

Peering through the gap into the great red room, I was stunned by what I saw, illuminated by the frequent flashes of lighting: the entire chamber looked like a whirlwind.  Great, sweeping gusts had caught up sand, tree bark, dry leaves from the shrubs by the far wall, and other detritus, and were swirling it in a tornado-like funnel that spanned the entire room and stretched up into the sky.  There was something both unnatural and fascinating about the spectacle.  I dismounted Algernon and stumbled out into the wider space, my whole body blasted with the swirling kaleidoscope of matter. 

Staggering in circles in the near-complete darkness, one prolonged series of flashes allowed my eyes to partially adjust to the blinding light, and I unwittingly found myself staring directly at the lady in white.  I was stunned to see how brilliantly her painted dress stood out against the dark walls.  Her hand remained outstretched, pointing at me, her hollow, black eyes looking through me.  I was hit with a sudden realization that it was she that had somehow orchestrated all this.  Yes, she had summoned the whole thing—this phantom spectacle of screaming wind and pelting sand and blinding light and deafening thunder—through some power of sorcery unknown to the modern, civilized world.  This was more than a mere painting—it was a kind of primitive creature, imbued with a life force of immense power that sprang from some ancient craft known only to the inhabitants of this country.  They had set her loose here—or perhaps contained her here—to haunt this corridor for reasons unknown and unfathomable.    

I stared, awestruck and blinded as blackness again consumed my vision--except that I could still see her outline.  Was it a trick of the optic nerve, some remnant of an image that lingered in the complete vacuum of visual stimulus?  Or could I really still see the faint traces of that white form against the utter blackness of the sandstone?  Those terrible eyes were still visible, even blacker than the rest, boring ever into me.

My spine was racked with a sudden rush of icy coldness that caused me to shudder to my core, and I shrank from the sight, staggering backwards until I stumbled over the roots of the old tree on the bank, and fell to the ground.  Another flash of light illuminated the stable blanket, just a few feet away, where it had fallen when I dismounted.  I crawled to it on hands and knees, and scurried into the hollow space in the sand bank between the roots and the tree trunk, clutching the blanket tightly around myself.  I didn’t bother to tie up Algernon, who stamped the earth and cried pitifully just a few feet away.  I lay curled up there, facing away from the dreadful white lady and shuddering under the tree, its roots and the sandy bank providing some degree of shelter from the hurricane winds.  I held my eyes tightly shut and tried to let the sounds of screaming wind and pelting sand lull me into an uneasy slumber.  After a long while, I partially succeeded.  

All night long, she watched me relentlessly.  Continuously, whether conscious or unconscious, I could feel her black eyes boring into me as I shuddered the hours away in the hollow of the old tree.

* * *

At some point in the night I finally drifted into a deep sleep, for I woke with a start the next day from complete oblivion.  I could not tell what time it was; the clouds were a deep, charcoal gray above me and the atmosphere in every direction was suffused with a uniform, dim light, and extreme heaviness.  

But something was different.  There was no thunder, no lightning.  And there was no wind!

The serene stillness was somehow eerie--I found myself tensed, ready to jump at the next deafening boom from the sky, but never finding needed release.  The anticipation was exhausting.

All footsteps and hoof prints had been completely erased, like we had never ventured upstream at all the previous day.  It was if we had been dropped from the sky.  The canyon was trying to purge us from its memory.

I conscientiously avoided turning to face the horrible white woman who watched me relentlessly.  I could feel her gaze at my back with an icy coldness.  Thankfully, Algernon stood faithfully by, not ten feet from where I lay.  As soon as I could gather the strength to stand again--I felt quite weak by this point with no food for a day and a half--I crawled out from under the old tree's roots, threw the blanket on Algernon's back and, exerting myself, jumped up to ride him away.  I still had the bottle of water I had collected at the pool where my grandmother had visited us the previous evening, but I didn't pause to drink until we were safe in the shelter of the narrows, the deep crimson hall fading away behind us.  I left that dreadful place without looking back.

There was only one way to go today: we would take the right fork.  We must have arrived here somehow--for here we were--and so far no other road would support a horse and rider.

The journey upstream was different this time; instead of wind and sand grating against us, there seemed to be no opposition--just an uncanny stillness that allowed the slight echo of Algernon's hoofs on the sand and stones below to bounce along the walls.  I felt very conspicuous.  We left prints in the sand that no wind erased.

After taking the right fork, the canyon seemed to narrow even more.  The average width of the canyon varied between perhaps three and five feet, and there began to be bigger obstacles along the floor.  Rather than continuing our flat course, it seemed as if we were ascending to the next level up in the strata.  It was a subtle ascent, with both ups and downs over sections of spanning bedrock and larger, but manageable boulders; but the overall progress felt like it was definitely up.  Yes, progress!  It felt as if we were finally getting somewhere, approaching our escape.  

We encountered no water along this route, and I found myself craving moisture and cursing myself for not drinking the water bottle back at the red chamber and filling up in the murky pool under the painted lady.  Even with her watching, I should have had enough sense to do that much.  At least the air was cool--cold, actually--under this oppressive blanket of heavy clouds; I would lose no water through perspiration.

For a long time--the better part of two hours, by my estimate--we passed no other side canyons; the channel simply twisted and turned like an artery through the immense mass of solid rock.  At last, coming around a gray bend in the stream bed, the canyon abruptly took on a new shape: the canyon floor seemed to narrow, gradually converging at the bottom from parallel walls to a sharp V shape, until farther ahead I could see that there was no way a horse could fit through.  It took on the shape of a "Mae West" canyon, the kind that could only be traversed by chimneying upwards and advancing laterally with your body pressed against both walls.

I stopped dead and stared.  Nothing stirred.  No wind.  Even the clouds above us seemed frozen in time.  This was not the way we had come.  Once again, we were trapped.

Cold panic rose up my spine until it threatened to consume me.  I stared and stared at that canyon, dumbfounded.  Algernon shifted his weight beneath me, impatiently.  I could see no way out.  He nudged me forward.  Numbly, I consented.

Then I saw it.

About fifteen feet farther upstream, on the left wall, there was an opening.  It must have only been a little over two feet wide, so that the sides of Algernon's rump lightly scraped the sandstone walls as we passed through.  But the character of the walls was different here; instead of being wildly sculpted like the canyon narrows, these were strangely smooth and uniform, perfectly sheer and vertical.  They also seemed shorter than the walls of most of the canyon--perhaps only forty feet tall.  This passage extended in a straight line ahead of us for about a hundred feet or so, where it looked like it abruptly ended.  

When we reached that point, I was surprised to see that we were at a T junction.  Another uniform, straight passage extended both left and the right of where we stood, at nearly perfect right angles to the first passage.  The one on the right appeared to be slightly wider, and looked like it went farther, so I nudged Algernon in that direction.  After another fifty feet or so, we came to another junction.  This time, I could either continue forward, go left, or go right.  Not wanting to go in circles, I picked the left passage, which was a little wider still.  This channel remained straight for about fifty feet or so, and then took a slight turn to the left.

At this point you may be questioning my story; after all, this kind of topography is highly unusual.  I found myself a little fascinated too, I admit.  But this was not altogether unfamiliar: I had explored an area much like this--though so far, considerably smaller--in the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park several years before.  A superb hiking trail descends into a long, straight crack in the bedrock that is interspersed at right angles by several other cracks, each of which leads to yet more cracks, so that the entire area is a kind of maze.  I found myself in a similar structure, but more immense.  The deepening of this canyon gorge had unearthed this singular section of bedrock that was apparently being shaped primarily by different forces of erosion than the occasional raging torrents that cut the narrow stream beds.   

After several more twists and turns--choosing our path sometimes because we could see the channels narrow too much in one direction, and sometimes just guessing--we came to a strange aberration from the normal pattern.  There was a space about six feet square, at a four-way junction, where there was a small bush or tree, which had green foliage.  This was the first living thing we had encountered in hours, and Algernon and I both seemed to take it as a good sign that we were advancing towards our goal of escaping this maze of bedrock and shadow.  

Beneath the tree there was also a small clump of green grass, and the walls in this spot seemed to only be twenty or thirty feet high.  Had the sky not been hung with the heavy cloud cover, it is likely that we would have seen sunlight here during a good part of the day.

I took a right and continued down the path until another choice presented itself.  Each time I chose, I tried to take the widest route, figuring that these were more likely to be the "main" channel, if such a thing existed.  I also knew that Algernon had to fit through.  I turned a corner and found myself looking at another bush, strikingly similar to the first.  Or was it the first?

As we approached it, I noticed that we were following a set of hoof prints.  We had somehow made a complete circuit!

At this point, I decided to tether Algernon to the bush and let him have a little snack of the grass growing underneath, so that I could feel free to explore some of the more narrow passages I had avoided thus far.  While I knew that there was a path that led out that was wide enough for his rump, it seemed prudent to explore all options.

Leaving him behind, I took the left passage.  After a few turns, I came to a junction where the intersecting path was quite narrow.  The left looked like it closed in on itself, so I went right, my shoulders scraping both walls as I advanced.  As I took a step, my shoulders jammed, so that I had to step back and turn sideways to fit.  After several yards of side-walking, I came to another junction.  This one was slightly wider at the bottom, so that I had to crawl through it on my hands and knees, then flatten myself to the ground.  It eventually opened up again into a space wide enough to walk through.

That is when the first thunder broke the silence and the rain began.

If you have ever experience the abrupt onslaught of a sudden, sustained downpour, you will appreciate how little time elapsed between the first drops falling and the sudden pouring of buckets into those narrow cracks in the sandstone.  I had been so intrigued with finding the passage through this maze of rock that I had almost forgotten about the oppressive blanket of black clouds above.  I realized now that the furious wind the night before was the moving in and settling of what was probably a massive storm front, which was now parked directly overhead.

I do not know how big each stone "block" in this maze was, but based on the typical passage length, probably tens of thousands of square feet of heavy precipitation was being funneled into each narrow corridor.  The water began to run, first only a couple of inches deep, but soon up to my knees.  It was a deep brownish-red hue, and completely opaque.  Rich foam gathered at intersections and lathered my legs as the torrent rushed past me.

From somewhere off in the distance, I heard Algernon uttering mournful cries that punctuated the sounds of the heavenly flood, between the occasional thunderclaps.  They sounded so terrified, so human, that my heart was rent with sorrow for the decision to leave my faithful friend alone.

I began to try to find my way back to him, but everything looked different in the downpour.  No footprints were visible--all was rushing, rushing water.  I broke into a run, splashing sloppily down identical corridors, barely pausing at each intersection.  Nothing looked familiar.  I had a sense that following the flow of the water would probably lead me back to him--and back towards the confines of the canyon--but even of this I could not be totally certain, so confusing had been the twists and turns through this rocky labyrinth.  

A deafening boom rocketed through the walls, followed by an absolutely dreadful cry of some pitiful creature.  It was nothing that sounded like a horse, or any other kind of beast, but the kind of primal cry of terror that defies description.  It resonated with a strangely human quality.  The piercing cry both shook me to the core, and engendered feelings of sympathy and pity.  It seemed to echo against the rock walls with a deep rumbling noise, first from above, the from multiple directions at once, and then from the corridor directly to my left.

I turned and instinctively headed towards the sound.  This cry might have been Algernon's--surely I had covered enough ground to be approaching the wide intersection where I had tied him.  He was terrified in the storm, and who could blame him?

I found myself heading down a long, dark corridor, against the current.  Through the curtain of pouring rain ahead, there was a black thing in the water, creeping towards me.  I froze and steadied myself against the the wall, resisting the rushing water.  The thing would advance several feet, then pause, as if stuck.  Then it would break free, coming closer yet, then pause again.  Each time it advanced, it seemed to rotate a bit, and move, so that I could tell that the thing was alive.

It was covered with foam, but otherwise looked black in the dark shadow of the corridor.  Or was it red?  Yes, a deep, crimson hue, close to black.  When it was about ten feet away, the thing stopped abruptly again, and out of the dark mass I saw two lighter spots--its eyes--suddenly appear, staring at me.

The thing let out another horrible shriek and all at once came rushing towards me.  When it was almost at me I could see that it was, in fact, nothing more than a mule deer.  But what a sight!  The hind leg I could see jutted out at an odd angle, and the abdomen was covered with a strangely-textured mass of intertwining, soft tissue, as if the thing had fallen some great distance and split itself open upon impact, before being washed into this great drain.

Then it collided with me squarely, and jammed into the opposing walls.  The eyes of the thing opened, and stared directly into mine, with a look of abject terror.  Oh, those eyes!  They were streaked through and through with blood.  Yes, it was bleeding out of its eyes!

An involuntary cry escaped my lips and I recoiled from the horrid thing, losing my grip on the wall and stumbling headlong into the churning foam.  I regained my feet and ran forward, as fast as my feet would go, great waves of muddy water drenching the walls on either side of me.  

I could barely see the way ahead, and paused, gasping for breath on the far side of an intersection, where the water was again flowing against me.  I turned around and saw the pitiful thing rushing towards me, closer, closer.  Then it entered the intersection, was caught by the opposing water, and washed away at a right angle.

I watched it for a few moments, and then ran after it.  Perhaps the thing would show me the way back to Algernon.  Surely that large space was an intersection along the main drainage of this labyrinth.  The water which I had so feared would, in the end, reveal all!

I followed the deer around several more twists and turns until I saw, through the downpour, the green of the small tree.  There, dangling from its narrow trunk, was the rope.  Algernon was gone.

I rushed to the intersection with tree, in time to see the deer washing away downstream.  The water was now up to my thigh.  I had another decision to make: do I continue an effort to find the escape route, or try to get back to the only high ground I knew of?  

Looking back, I let panic get the best of me.  For no rational reason at all, I decided to take my chances with the slot canyon, choosing the devil I knew over the devil I didn't.

I untied the rope and coiled it around my arm, then followed the flowing water, making my way down corridors in whatever direction the water pointed.  It proved to be a reliable guide.  Within ten minutes or so I found myself chest-deep in muddy water, traversing the final straight hallway that spilled out into the canyon proper, where the deluge seemed to pour forth from the narrow entrance to the maze, like water out of a pitcher.  

Between the echos of thunder in the canyon, and barely above the din of rain-splatter and the roar of rushing water all about me, I thought I heard the forlorn, far-away cry of a terrified horse.

* * *

The larger canyon's flow of water was only a foot deep or so at this point.  I followed the water downstream, running as fast as I dared, slowing only when stumbling over a hidden obstacle.  I fell frequently, twisted my ankles several times, and bruised and cut my shins to an extreme degree, but somehow avoided more serious injury.   

The water here was full of sticks, bark, pine cones, and other matter washed down from above.  I eventually found a good, sturdy walking stick that served as a third leg and helped me avoid further injury.  

It also provided a much-needed mental crutch, as my emotional state was on the brink of ruin.  I was utterly, hopelessly defeated.  I was trapped in a slot canyon with the heaviest rain pouring down on me I had ever seen in the Utah desert.  It was a deathtrap that was orchestrated somehow to drive me back to her!  There seemed to be no escape!  I could barely see as tears mixed with rain and the upward splash of my legs tromping down the stream bed.  

I will not chronicle my awful journey back downstream to the chamber of the white lady, save to tell that the rope came in handy at the point the water surged above my head.  I was able to secure my arms to a couple of short sections of large logs that I encountered, forming a sort of makeshift raft.  Once my feet could not feel the ground beneath me, I merely floated downstream--a piece of helpless, human flotsam in a dark torrent that wound through the heart of the rock, towards its inevitable journey over the falls at the end of the red chamber, and into whatever fate lay beyond.

* * *

But Fate seemed to favor a different outcome.  Similar to the way the water poured from the tight entry of the maze into the main canyon, the water of the main canyon narrows poured into the luxurious breadth of the red chamber.  I was spewed out of the narrow entrance with my meager log raft and resurfaced in the foaming pool beneath, which was now fully six feet deep on the upper end of the chamber.  I could see that the water level had reached the brink of the rock dam at the other end, where the swirling pool must have been much deeper, and was rushing over the ledge into the unknown turns of the canyon downstream. But there was still high ground!  The water flowed beneath the roots of the old tree, filling the space where I had slept the night before, but did not overflow the top of the bank yet.

I untied the makeshift raft that had seen me safely thus far, sending the pieces to join the rather large logjam that circulated around the pool beneath the painted lady.  With the last energy I could muster, I scrambled over the top of the slippery bank with the rope.  I collapsed into the mud and yellow grass and slept like the dead, while the storm continued to rage all around me.

She awoke me.  It was her staring that did it.  The downpour and thunder continued unabated, but it was no sound, nor cold, nor suffocating wetness that roused me from my exhaustion.  It was her horrible, black eyes!  Even through the curtain of rain that veiled her face from full visibility, I could see the supreme darkness, the utter void, of those gaping, terrible eyes.  What mystery lurked behind them?  What obscene power emanated from them so voraciously?  Why did they torment me so?

I suddenly had the realization--I just knew, for an absolute fact--that those eyes somehow held the key to the mystery of why and how I was here.  And I knew that obtaining that singular key would unlock the door just a crack, allowing a thin ray of light into the darkness that would illuminate my path to escaping this prison.  My mind, though in a frail and defeated state, yet retained a primal will to succeed, and began to connect dots behind the scenes that I could not put into words.  The human brain is a truly remarkable machine that often chooses to wait until we are teetering on the edge of utter ruin before revealing to our consciousness some vital truth that our subconscious already knows.  So it was with me.  And no matter how horrible the task, I knew exactly what I had to do.

The things had to be investigated, had to be studied.  Though I was battered, bruised, half-starved, and utterly exhausted, I had to summon the strength for this one last task that just might prove to be my salvation.  But she couldn't suspect what I was up to; it had to be a surprise attack.  I would try to catch her off guard.

So I slowly progressed along the bank, towards the deep end of the pool.  I was rather nonchalant, and studiously avoided eye contact with her.  Though she studied my every step, I do believe that she was confused when I backed down into the swirling pool of water, taking hold of a good, medium-sized log and letting the current carry me first upstream in the eddy closest to the bank, then back down along the very wall where she perched.  

And this was the key!  When I was directly underneath her, she could not see me!  I let go of the log and tried to flatten myself against the wall.  A small shelf helped in that regard, for the water in the center of the pool was well over my head.  Slowly, deliberately I crept along the wall, making sure that the noise of my movement was well covered by the continuous din of rain and rushing water, until I reached the corner of the room where the large boulder sat at the top of the falls.  

You will remember that when I had first explored the rockfall dam atop the falls, the left side of the large boulder, which was very close to the canyon wall and had various choke-stones wedged in the crack between the two, had seemed the less inviting route.  Not so this time!  Those small stones would provide a ladder that would enable me to climb to the top of the tall boulder while hugging the wall and staying out of her sight.

The way was treacherous; in the pouring rain, every move was slippery, and several times my efforts failed.  Once I thought I would fall the entire distance back into the pool of water, but at the last moment caught a small choke-stone with my hand, and was thus able to avoid giving myself away in such a clumsy manner.  

Slowly, deliberately I climbed, not making a move until I was quite sure my body had gathered enough strength for the next exertion.  Soon I stood with my feet atop the boulder, my hands resting on the wall, my body leaning over the vertical shaft I had just ascended.  I looked over the edge of the falls, into a churning whirlpool of violently foaming blackness thirty feet below, which circled maddeningly until it finally took flight and rushed away and out of sight around the next bend.  

My next task was perhaps the most risky yet.  On the edge of this dangerous precipice, I had to take a running leap up the wall until I could catch the narrow ledge about ten feet above me, with my hands.  This was crucial, for without obtaining this ledge, I could never perform the proper investigation; from my present vantage point, she was just as invisible to me as I was to her. 

I backed up and sprang forward, planting my foot on a small bump about three feet up, hoping the grip on my shoe would hold in spite of the constant downward flow of rainwater on the cliff face.  It did.  I got the necessary leverage and extended my arms.  I found myself dangling in the air by my fingertips.

Now began the longest test of my endurance and patience, as I inched sideways towards her along the ledge, one hand at a time.  The rock was slippery and the ledge often covered with sand that had piled up during the high winds.  I could see the crimson stain of the wet sand dripping from my fingertips and down past my wrists, onto my arms.  Each time I moved, I was able to find a handhold secure enough to keep advancing.  It must have taken the better part of an hour, with many false starts and near misses, to bridge the gap from the boulder to where she lay in wait, her black eyes darting back and forth in search of her prey which had so suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.  All this after her great efforts to keep me here!  The thought made me giddy.

I was so close, so close to my liberation!  The position of the ledge, extending across the cliff just above her head, was perfect to afford a surprise assault.  I would creep up to her, make a sudden lateral swing, and we would find ourselves face to face.  I would finally behold, and feel, and understand those cursed eyes--what forces combined to produce such a complete, gaping blackness.  Their mystery would at last be unmasked, all at once.  Then I would be free.

My pulse raced and my breathing accelerated as I anticipated the grand climax of my efforts.  It took incredible self restraint to maintain my stealthy inching along the cliff, until I was only a few feet from her white, painted face.  At any moment she would turn and see me here, and then who knows what would happen.  I had to act now!

I let go with my left hand, swinging my left arm wide, towards her.  It landed on the ledge, directly above her head, in a large deposit of wind-blown sand, soaking wet with the storm's deluge.  I groped about frantically for a solid hold, but found none.  After all my careful, calculated movements, I should have known better than to leave this last, great moment to chance!  I felt my right fingers slipping, slipping, unable to hold my entire weight alone.  I was so close to the truth, and was going to miss my chance! Desperately, I flailed my left arm across her face, desperate to feel, to touch those horrid eyes, even if just for a moment.  What I felt when I made contact with her right eye made my blood freeze in my veins.

I felt not the gritty, slick feel of wet sandstone, nor the smooth, cold sheen of thick paint, but a gaping, empty hole.  I faintly shrieked as my hand disappeared entirely inside the grotesque cavity!  Within, the socket seemed to enlarge, and I felt something soft and cool piled up in the blackness.

Utterly unnerved, my grip slipped from the ledge above and I found myself dropping and swinging wildly, my tenuous hold in the socket of her eye the only thing preventing me from plunging into the churning cauldron below.  I flung my right arm up and grasped the same eye, then stabilized my position by moving my left hand to the neighboring eye socket, which proved to be a similar shape and also afforded a strong handhold.

It was at this moment, in this singular situation, that a sudden flood of memories poured into my brain.  Memories I had struggled the last two days to resurrect.  Memories that would have been better left buried.  Memories of the night before I first awoke in this terrible place.  Memories that explained how I got here.  It was as if a great swirl of images emerged from the black of a bubbling cauldron and presented themselves, taking on definition and detail as they rose to my mind's eye, one at a time.

I had been to the tavern again that night--this much was obvious.  But this was a different night, a monsoon night.  The wind was already howling with occasional bursts of distant thunder when I climbed up on Algernon with a bottle "to go."  He was nervous, I remember, but steadfast.  As had become my pattern, we headed up the road out of town, departing to follow the path that led to the abandoned old cabin.  The further we rose, the wilder the weather grew.  By the time we crested the bluff where the cabin sat, wind was shrieking in great, swirling gusts, leaves were flying all about, and the sky had grown black.  The lightning was nearer, and frequently illuminated the scene in flashes of electric blue.  I thought I saw white shreds of a plastic bag--perhaps the food bag I had previously left on the porch--caught in the naked branches of a juniper tree.  The wind seemed to tear at the fluttering scraps, intent on scouring the mountain of foreign matter.

I jumped down off Algernon's back and stumbled onto the mattress on the porch, bottle in hand, my back to the front door.  For a long while I simply watched the furious storm, as lightning illuminated earth, shadow, and sky, casting its ghostly pall across the wide valley beneath.  The thunder was something terrible, and Algernon neighed pitifully.

I must have fallen asleep or passed out in this position, because a hole remains in my memory here, until being suddenly roused by a loud, close BOOM.  I startled so hard, leaning against the door, that my weight pushed it open and I stumbled backwards into the one-room dwelling.

The scene inside was so fantastically strange--like something out of a dream--that I froze on the floor, mesmerized.  Inside the window hung the shredded remains of long, white curtains, blowing furiously inward as the wind ripped at them through the cracks and holes in the broken window.  They had a ghastly appearance, flying as if alive, semi-transparent so that they cast strange shadows on each other when the lightning flashed.

Between them sat a solitary, dark form in an old armchair, as stoic as ever.  It was the young woman with the long, red hair.  Her hair, like the curtains, was whipped towards the center of the room.  I gaped at her, amazed that she was still here, sitting so serenely while the elements raged furiously about her.  Her figure seemed to sway and flow with the gusty wind, but her face remained ever shrouded by the curtains and her strikingly red hair.

Here there is another gap in my memory, but the next view I can see was from a different vantage point, as if I had crawled further into the cabin, to the far wall with the other window, opposite the figure on the chair.  I looked up at her, into her face for the first time as lightning behind me illuminated the scene.

She was not a young woman, but something as old and decrepit as this broken-down cabin!  Sickly, sallow skin covered her face, and her eyes stared blankly at me, as if I weren't even there.  She looked simply awful, shriveled and ready to collapse.  The unnaturally long, red hair was not hair at all, but plainly a wig, for I could see wisps of thin, white hair curling out from under it along her forehead.  In the darkness it created such a strange contrast to the pale figure dressed in a long, white gown, that I could not help but stare back at her.

And yet, something looked familiar.  "Grandma, is that you?" I whispered under my breath.  She made no stir of reply.  But no, it couldn't be.  It couldn't be.  It was wishful thinking, that's all.  She had been dead and buried for days.  I had watched them shovel the dirt on her coffin myself, against Hank's advice.

And then I noticed it.

Covering her shoulders and half obscured by the red wig was--yes, make no mistake about it--my grandmother's shawl.  I would recognize the pattern anywhere, having seen it every day for the last twenty years.  This thick shawl was one of her most beloved possessions, and it seemed to be always wrapped around her frail shoulders.  It was an extension of her.  I had been sure to instruct Hank that she was to be buried in this beloved shawl.  When he pressed me about traditional dress, and didn't I want to just have it folded at the bottom of the casket, I told him no, it needed to keep her warm, on her shoulders.  It was one of the only things I was certain about during this time of personal upheaval.  It's important, I told him.  I don't have strong opinions about much, but grandma's shawl must go to the grave on her shoulders.

Suddenly many things clicked into placed at once: the hushed conversation I overheard at the mortuary; the abrupt change to a closed casket; the guilty look shared between Hank and the sheriff.  So old Hank had carelessly left the door unlocked--as I knew he often did--and this miserable old transient had crept inside at night, and finding this shawl to her liking, had taken it!  Taken it right off a corpse!  My grandmother!  Hank knew it might make me come unhinged, and had hidden this terrible fact from me!  And Sheriff Windsor was an accomplice!  Outrageous!  Unbelievable!  To steal from the living was hideous enough, but what kind of monster would rob the dead?

"You!" I rose to my unsteady feet, an accusing finger pointing at the wretched creature.  "You stole that shawl!"  My slurred speech rose to a feverish pitch, the whiskey on my breath filling my nostrils.  "And now she's gone and buried and will never have it!  You monster!  You hag!"  I rushed at her, any tenuous hold on self-control blowing away with the wind.  Lightning flashed as my flailing arms fought down the curtains until I got my hands on her.  I grabbed the shawl, screaming and cursing something awful at the old woman.  I wrapped her face up in it and pressed my weight against her, holding the suffocating thing over her until I was quite sure she was dead.

I tore the shawl from her face and stepped back, chest heaving, to look at what I had done.  What had I done?

Her lifeless face stared back at me, her jaw askew and her terrified, yellow eyes boring into mine.

You've turned me into a murderer.  A murderer!

The horror of this realization--the return of this atrocious, unwanted memory--hit me like the blow of a sledgehammer.  I am a murderer!  I cried out in anguish; not just terror, but utter, soul-filled horror at the conscious realization of the thing I had become.  And she knew it; she knew it all along!  It was not I that had the upper hand here, not I that had caught her unaware; not I that had conducted the investigation.  She had lured me here; lured me to this chamber; lured me into climbing this wretched wall; lured me into plunging my blood-stained hands into her awful, awful eyes.

I wailed and cried, my body wracked with giant, heaving sobs, until my grip on the wall disintegrated and I plunged backwards into the churning pool below.

Swimming for my life as the current increased in the incessant rain, the memories of that night were momentarily pushed aside as I struggled to survive.

I reached the bank, and pulled myself up and into the mud.  The water level had now crested the top, and several inches of water flowed over the grassy edge.  There was only one place where I was sure to find refuge from this flood; only one fixed point in this whole cursed canyon that might stand unmoved.  I sloshed through the shallows to where the old tree still stood, its roots now completely covered by the deluge, its two broken branches extending like welcoming arms.

The rope, through some miracle, had not washed away, but lay submerged a few feet from the trunk.  I grabbed it, and bracing my back against the trunk of the tree, facing away from the monster painted on the wall, I wrapped the rope around and around myself and the trunk, until I was fastened securely from my torso to my knees.  My shoulders lay squarely between the tree's short limbs.  I knotted the rope thrice, pulling it taught with my remaining strength, and then, holding my eyes tightly shut, retreated back into my abyss of self-loathing and horror.

Lightning flashed overhead, and my body tensed and jerked with each explosion.  As it did, the old trunk began to groan, then twist.  I thought I imagined it at first, but I could feel the slow rotation and hear the roots cracking, until I was quite certain that I nearly faced the wall I had just fallen from.

She was not done with me or my memories.

The terrible conclusion of that night in the cabin rushed upon me like a flood.  Unable to process my own murderous actions, I screamed and cried at the corpse before me in the chair.  I tore at her face with my fingers until I pushed her eyes back into her skull.  My vision was consumed with the red of the blood on my hands.  I wiped them frantically on the curtains, staining them with great, dark streaks.  I fumbled for the lighter in my pocket and ignited them.  I lit the dirty rug on the floor.  I ran to the front porch and lit the mattress.  The wind fanned the flames into a spectacular inferno, illuminating the night from behind me as I galloped away on Algernon's back.

I opened my eyes to behold the chamber wall, where my fantasies of sublime terror were being actualized before me.  The sides of the white woman were draped in long streaks of red, cascading down from the crown of her head onto her pale robes; and those eyes--those terrible, black holes--were now issuing forth a sickly flow that coursed down her face and attire with an obscene, crimson stain.  There, before me, was she!  The woman in the cabin was here!  It had always been her, and now she was revealed!

I sobbed and shrieked and covered my eyes from the ghastly visage.  I could not escape!  I closed them tightly, but could not hold them shut.  She saw right through.  I pulled at my face, then dug, dug into my own eyes--anything to put an end to this horrible image that was destined to haunt me forever!

The old tree twisted again and lurched from the bank into the swirling, flooded pool.  The last thing I ever saw was my own red blood, spilling over my pupils, and then all was dark and I slumped into unconsciousness.

* * *

I will never know the details of how I made it over the falls and down the canyon, but just enough of the tree trunk broke off to carry my limp body to the resting place where two hikers found me the next day.  I was apparently only a half mile or so from the falls on the downstream side of the red chamber, at a spot where the canyon widened out.  Everyone was astonished that I had survived.  One in a million, they all said.

Sheriff Windsor took custody of me where he waited at the intersection of the dirt road and main highway.  He gave me a large bandanna to cover my eyes, and filled me in on other details--the stolen truck and horse trailer that had been found, stuck headlong in a ditch miles upstream from where I ended up.  Algernon was also found, safe and sound, at the same location.  I was relieved to hear that he was okay.

I tried to tell him everything I now understood--all about my drinking binges and memory loss, the day I overheard them talking at the mortuary, my visits to the cabin, and the old woman and the fire.  I sobbed like a child as I confessed it all.  When I was done, he was silent for a long time.  Then he simply stated, "They checked dental records on the corpse found at the scene of the fire.  Now with the stolen truck, and your story, everything begins to fit together."  Again, he paused, as if thinking deeply.  "I knew you was upset when she died, but I had no earthly idea.  More than one mystery was solved today."  I never understood exactly what he meant.

I expected to go to prison as a murderer, but the judge said I had "suffered enough, arson aside."  So they put me in an institution with decent food and a friendly staff.  

I like it here.  It's quiet and I have a lot of time to just sit and enjoy the dark.  For everything is dark now, and always will be.  I cannot distinguish day from night.

And she is here with me.  I do not fear her anymore, but strangely, find myself grateful for the company.  She is the only one who understands, who really knows.  She is a permanent part of my journey now.  I cannot see her, but the image of her haunted face is ever before my eyes.


  1. Creepy! We really enjoyed this, Matt. Very well written. You should publish it!

  2. Oooh! I like it. Very creepy. Really good. I liked how you used the storm and the quiet solitude to create eeriness.