The January Tunnel

Excerpt from The Beast of Gévaudan, a novel
         It suddenly started raining and the only place the Archivist could find to park his car was on the other side of campus. Rain hadn’t been predicted; the sky was clear when he left his apartment, the late spring constellations clustering brightly overhead. He couldn’t see them until he came out from under the trees, though. The Archivist’s street was lined with hawthorns, a fact he would remain ignorant of for the rest of his life, being uninterested for the most part in the living world. Like the stars, the hawthorns’ white flowers were in clusters. Everything was clear and bright, the air so sweet it made him sneeze. Where on earth was the moon? Behind something else. He was trying to locate it when the heavens opened.
         The parking spaces were divided into color-coded areas and came with stickers to match. The red stickers were the most expensive, allowing the operator of a vehicle to park close to the most important buildings; next came the green stickers, followed by the blue, and finally the yellow. The Archivist had never bothered to pay for a parking sticker. He usually walked to work, his apartment being a little less than a mile away from campus. Tonight was a special occasion, though. A local poet who had gone on to achieve greatness had donated her papers to the university, and she was to give a reading in the rare books room, followed by a reception with the Chancellor.
         The Archivist knew the Poet. He had little admiration for her work, and it irked him that he’d been asked to participate in the event, having been charged with providing an introduction for the Chancellor, who would in turn introduce the guest of honor. The Lonely Thoroughfares, the Poet’s first book, had appeared at a particularly difficult time in the Archivist’s life, and he felt like she showed an astounding lack of sympathy for her subject. “Little thing little sniveling thing…” Reading his personally inscribed copy, the Archivist had thought it was almost as if she wanted to make fun of the lonely, of the sorry spectacle they presented, traversing the vast empty thoroughfares of their loneliness. Often in these poems tracks of some kind could be discerned leading into the distance; there would be a leafless tree, an indistinct sound, a choked cry. “Little vagrant…”
         Only one of the critics had remarked on the theft from Hadrian, otherwise Fortuna spit out accolades. As a girl the Poet hadn’t been what you’d call pretty, but at some point that had changed. If the most recent author photo was to be believed, even now, with age making inroads—especially around the eyes and mouth—she remained quite attractive. The photographer had posed her in a straight-backed chair, which seemed appropriate, given her unyielding nature.
         Clearly the evening’s event was going to be unusually well attended. By the time the rain began to fall, those places where a sticker was no longer necessary after five o’clock were already full. The rain was coming down with a force and persistence that made a mockery of windshield wipers. Though the Archivist had put them on their highest setting, he could barely see; every time a car came toward him his windshield turned to a sheet of golden, rippling scales, like a sudden eruption of galaxies or the heaving flank of a giant fish—it would have been beautiful to look at if he didn’t have to drive. Twice he got honked at, once he almost hit a woman he thought he recognized from the political science department. She darted out in front of him in a white, ankle-length raincoat, only to be pulled back at the last minute by her husband, who shook his fist at the retreating car.
         “I’m sorry,” the Archivist said, but of course they couldn’t hear him. As one of the introducers, he had given himself more than ample time to get to campus and park; by now time was running short. The energetic level of conversation that preceded one of these events would have begun its decrescendo into muted speech and, finally, silence. The Chancellor would be scanning the room, pointedly checking his watch, looking for the Archivist. The Poet would be seated in the front row, her head bent over her manuscript, the white stalk of her neck just begging to be slipped in a noose or kissed. XOXO. What kind of an inscription was that, after all those years? “We’ll give him a few minutes,” the Chancellor would be saying, his small mouth pursed with fury. Meanwhile the first weed whacker of the season would have begun tidying the edges of the flowerbeds outside. Like the undead, the university groundskeepers never slept.
         The space the Archivist finally found was at the edge of the blue section, so far removed from the center of campus as to be practically yellow, near Fraternity House Row, a fanciful assortment of structures off to his left whose high gothic style married uneasily with the immense gas grills and piles of athletic equipment filling their courtyards. The Archivist maneuvered his car into the space between two sport utility vehicles. Though it seemed impossible, the rain was coming down harder than ever, its rhythm weirdly syncopated, as if it were being hurled at the body of his car in fistfuls and not falling uniformly from the sky. When he finally opened the door, the Archivist could hear a young man communicating with another young man at the top of his lungs, a string of insults perfectly audible above the sound of the rain. It would be so wonderful to be one of those young men, the Archivist thought, with nowhere to go and no need to make a good impression. He could be drunk and obnoxious and it wouldn’t matter. He could pass out in the driving rain atop a pile of shoulder pads and the world would keep spinning.
         Naturally he hadn’t brought an umbrella—he was going to get drenched. He was going to look pathetic, not unlike Hadrian’s soul. “Little thing, sniveling thing, O where can we put you, dripping and alone?” Immediately ahead and to the right was the apse-shaped back end of January Hall, an immense Romanesque edifice housing several obsolete departments. Once during a snowstorm the Archivist recalled hearing one of his student interns telling another intern that there was a tunnel connecting the basement level of the library with this building. The January Tunnel, the intern explained, pointing down the staircase leading to the stacks, and the Archivist found himself picturing a horsedrawn sleigh flying through a narrow passageway, the occupants wrapped in furs, the tips of the women’s noses bright red. The door at the other end brings you out behind January Hall, the intern had said, near the blue parking lot.
         A curtain of rainwater fell from the eaves of the building; if there was a door there the Archivist certainly couldn’t see one. The Chancellor was no doubt preparing to begin his introduction. The only solution was to take a chance and make a run for it—though if the intern had been lying, by the time the Archivist got to the other side of campus he’d be wet through, the light wool suit he’d bought for the occasion clinging unbecomingly to his sticklike figure. “He looks like you,” the Poet had told him merrily, the first time she got him to play a game of Hangman. She hadn’t been the Poet then—she had just been a standoffish child waiting her turn at the water fountain outside Saint Roch Elementary. When she lowered her lips to drink, he could hear her braces hit the bubbler.
         The Archivist took a breath and dove into the downpour. He couldn’t really tell where he was going; when a door marked “January Tunnel” suddenly appeared in front of him it came as a surprise, as did the fact that he had no trouble getting it open. Once inside, he paused to shake the water from his hair and to wipe his glasses dry on the hem of his dress shirt. The tunnel was well lit, at least at this end—it extended ahead of him a great distance where its brightness devolved into dimness. There was the sound of machinery, a routine thrumming coming from either side as well as overhead, and while there were no machines in view the Archivist wasn’t troubled by the noise. He knew it took an enormous amount of energy to keep a university running smoothly.
         For some reason he couldn’t put his finger on he was feeling happy. Naturally it had been a relief to come in out of the rain—though this particular brand of happiness seemed unrelated to anything as simple as relief. No, there was something about being in the tunnel that was making him feel very happy, almost ecstatically so. Against the wall just inside the door someone had arranged cleaning implements—several brooms, a bucket with a mop in it, a pile of rags—but other than that the tunnel was empty. The walls at this end had been painted with the green, glossy paint beloved of institutions the world over, the paint having been applied in what seemed like a spirit of gay abandon. The smooth concrete floor was splashed with it, and it depended in hardened drips from a series of thin pipes running lengthwise along the ceiling.
         The Archivist’s glasses were steaming up—luckily he hadn’t bothered to tuck his shirt back in. Ever since her cataract surgery the Poet no longer needed corrective lenses of any kind, and at night her gray eyes were said to refract light like an animal’s. The Poet was known for her beautiful eyes, eyes that had been made to appear small and beady throughout her girlhood, due to the unusual thickness of her glasses. For a period she’d worn plaid frames, the plaid of the rims not matching that of the stems. She had been one of the unpopular girls, a condition that hadn’t seemed to bother her, the way being one of the unpopular boys had bothered the Archivist.
         Gradually, as he commenced walking, the Archivist realized he was beginning to hear a second sound insinuating itself under the thrumming sound of the machinery—a fainter sound, more personal, really, in that it seemed meant for his ears alone and not merely a function of the university’s routine operations. Faint and precise, a lightly repeated thwap thwap thwap punctuated with tiny clicks, it suggested the presence of a nearby creature with soft footpads and delicate claws, either running away from him or coaxing him on, though as far as he could tell there was nothing there. Ahead on the left he could see a break in the otherwise unbroken wall that turned out to be a short dark hallway ending with a door that no doubt led to one of the windowless basement-level offices generally bestowed upon adjuncts and teaching assistants. How long had it taken him to crawl his way up from just such an office to the one he had now, with its two large windows facing the graceful, pillared arcade that was one of the university’s celebrated architectural features? Longer than it should have, and the journey had been, frankly, arduous—sacrifices had needed to be made, some of them painful, though in the end all of them had proved worth it.
         Based on the sound of the footfalls it seemed like whatever it was he’d been following had ducked into that approaching, secondary hallway— but when the Archivist looked, the only thing he saw in it was a wadded up ball of paper on the floor near the door, a piece of university letterhead on which someone had drawn ten dashes, penciling in an O above the seventh dash, an X above the eighth. OXOXOXOXOX, the Poet had written in her sloppy mannish handwriting across the title page of his copy of her first book. “This says it all,” she had mumbled, and he knew she didn’t mean hugs and kisses but the design running around the base of the domed ceiling of the symphony hall where he’d taken her to celebrate her sixteenth birthday. “Hug, kiss, hug, kiss,” she’d said during intermission, looking up. She’d sounded exasperated. Though the concert had been atonal and difficult to listen to—not unlike the Poet herself—her exasperation seemed to spring from the fact that such things as hugs and kisses existed in the world. The Archivist smoothed the sheet of paper and tucked it in his breast pocket.
         The further he walked into the tunnel, the more muffled the sound of the machinery; short hallways continued to materialize off to the left, each one culminating in a door with a name card taped to the window. Professor This, Professor That, though clearly none of the occupants had even come close to making full professor. The Archivist recognized some of the names from his stint on CAPT (Committee on Appointments, Promotion and Tenure). Professor Bunting had been a noisy feminist. Professor Liu had been dead for years. All of these offices were dark and the tunnel itself seemed to be growing darker, the light fixtures stationed at greater and greater intervals. Occasionally a door had been left open, revealing a room that looked like it had been abandoned in a great hurry, as if under emergency evacuation orders.
         A period ensued during which the Archivist thought he’d merely imagined the sound of an animal padding along ahead of him; in its place all he could hear was the sound of his stomach. For as long as he could remember he had been prone to anxiety attacks—he hadn’t had a thing to eat since breakfast, nor had he slept well the night before. Ever since the Chancellor’s secretary contacted him about the introduction his appetite had suffered and he’d experienced worse than usual insomnia. “Where was I last Saturday night? Up in the ivy tree. False foxes under me…” How robustly had the Poet ridiculed Helen Vendler’s contention that her Pulitzer winning collection had at its heart a need to come to terms with her own anxiety! “Anxiety is to fear what a canned mushroom is to a truffle,” she had sneered, crumpling the review into a ball before pitching it at him. She had a good arm, the Poet; he’d seen stars more than once during recess games of dodge ball. “Any fool knows my subject is fear,” the Poet went on to say. “Fear stinks like skunk. Anxiety is slippery and odorless.” She told him he put too much faith in the written word, a weird statement coming from a poet, not to mention addressed to a man who’d spent the better part of his life among the archives.
         The tunnel floor was showing signs of increasingly poor drainage. The Archivist had to watch where he put his feet in order to protect his expensive Italian shoes and to keep from slipping—at first he could step over or around the puddles, though eventually there was no way to avoid stepping directly into foul pools of standing water. The quality of the light, too, seemed to be decaying, though ironically enough, the dimmer the tunnel got the further ahead in it he was able to see. At last he thought he could make out the shadowy shape of what certainly looked like an animal, low slung and with a tail that appeared surprisingly full, resplendent even. The animal was slinking along the left-hand side of the tunnel, disappearing from time to time into one or another of the secondary hallways, only to emerge once again further ahead. It was difficult to tell what color she was: sometimes her coat seemed spectral and gray, at other times russet, vulpine. Despite what his eyes told him, though, his sense of the creature—the image she created in his mind—was of pure whiteness.
         She would be upset that the Archivist wasn’t there to hear her. She planned to read from her latest collection, the title of which she’d refused to reveal to anyone, though her editor must have known it. The publication date was still a week off.
         She used to like it when the Archivist brushed her hair, which was surprisingly thick for being so straight, and which she wore long, though often wrenched back into a small, tight knob at the nape of her neck. That was the one aspect of their marriage that always went smoothly—the Poet liked to be groomed, though not for too long, and not with any sense of personal involvement on the part of the groomer. If the Archivist expelled breath, made it clear that the act of grooming her was arousing him, she would bat the brush from his hand. “How many letters?” she would ask, leaning close, her eyes sparkling. She would pick up a pad of paper and draw a gallows, underscored by a series of dashes. “How many letters in, oh, I don’t know, ‘dream on’?”
         The first bite, when it came, was more like a playful nip; the second tore through the light wool of his pant leg.
         The main axis of the campus, as the Archivist knew, ran east to west, in homage to the Trail of Tears. The January Tunnel, on the other hand—as the Archivist would only learn much later—ran south to north, in homage to the Suspension of Misrule, also known as Thule.