I’ve probably been inside more than 500 tunnels, caves, souterrains, or underground passages in my entire life. My first home was a kind of cave, an organic one that was inside my mother. Ever since I came out of it, I’ve been trying to recreate whatever feeling I felt when I lived there.
I feel more comfortable being underground than overground. Looking at the sky makes me feel a kind of reverse claustrophobia; it’s such a vast and abstract thing to have hovering over you all the time. It encloses the world in a blue or grey bubble, separating it from the rest of the universe. But unlike a bubble, it has no definable point of separation. When there aren’t any clouds and all you can see is blue, I feel like the sky is humouring us, because our eyes can only see so much, so it just becomes this placid, inoffensive blue. That’s why I prefer it when the sky is overcast, when it looks like an illuminated light box that preserves our dignity by fulfilling the human eye’s limited depth perception.
Being underground feels safe. When you’re underground, you can’t be surveyed by things like drones or helicopters. When I was a kid, a helicopter surveyed me as I was walking home once, which is perhaps where my fear of the sky comes from. I was around 10 years old. When I tried to go into the woods near my house, a man in a military uniform appeared and told me that I wasn’t allowed to enter, without saying why. He had a large black dog with him whose tongue was like a dangling piece of thick, wet ham. He gave me an intense stare, enough to put me off wanting to make eye contact with people forever. Then, he took out a walkie-talkie, and said: “It’s just a kid. Better have a chopper follow him back home, just in case.” And sure enough, as I was walking the short distance back to my house, a helicopter appeared above me. When I got home, I went to my room, got into bed, and pulled the blankets over my head.
Researchers have found that when you walk through a doorway, you forget. I don’t know if this is an actual thing or not, but there definitely seems to me to be a kind of forcefield in between rooms that makes me wonder when I arrive in a room in my house what it is I went in there for. This made me think. I thought that, if I were to stand in a doorway for long enough, I could forget myself. Why do I want to forget myself? I don’t know, maybe I forgot, but I feel like I’m always trying to forget myself. I feel as if I am a kind of hologram. I want to forget that I’m a hologram. If I forget myself, I’ll find myself, I think. So I tried standing in the doorway between the bathroom and the hallway. I felt hidden, as if the universe didn’t know where I was. I wasn’t in the bathroom and I wasn’t in the hallway. I was split in two. Each room (if you can call a hallway a room, it’s more of a room between rooms, a kind of purgatory) was pulling me into it with equal strength. I remained completely still, with one leg in one room and one in the other. The temptation to move either side was strong, but I knew that as soon as I moved one step to the left or right, I’d feel like I was somewhere in the universe again, so I focused all my energy on standing completely still. After around 5 minutes, I began to sweat and feel uncomfortable, so I went downstairs.
I think that being in a souterrain, tunnel, cave, or underground labyrinth also has the ability to make you forget. One day I’d like to find a souterrain and explore it endlessly. Perhaps I could find a way to live there, in a constant state of forgetting. I would take enough food to survive for a year, and only come out once a year to go the supermarket and get more food. For money, I would write about what it’s like to live underground, or rent rooms out to people that are afraid of an impending nuclear war. For company, I would get some kind of low-maintenance pet, like a fish, and talk to it.
There are people that live out in the open all the time: American Indians, Tibetans, Mongolians, living in wigwams, tents, and yurts. The walls that separate them from the sky are very thin. I wonder if the lack of doorways in their domiciles means they forget less. Perhaps they never forget anything. My dad once bought a wigwam. I used to have sleepovers in it. There was no real door, just a flap. I remember the ease with which you could go from inside to outside. When your were inside it it felt like you were still outside. In Tibetan culture, when people die, they’re given Sky Burials. They are buried overground, exposed to the elements, in order to be united with the sacred realm of the sky. Once consciousness is lost, the body is seen as food for scavenging animals. Whereas people in the west are buried underground, which could be seen as selfish, as they contribute nothing further to the overground world, and is a method of burial based not on spiritual beliefs but on practicality, implying a sense of ownership of the body after death, instead of thinking of the body as something you rent for a certain amount of time before having to give it back to the world that allowed it to exist. I think of my body the same way I think of material things that you can enter and inhabit, such as cars and houses, things that once owned and assimilated to become an extension of the self in the same way the soul assimilates to the body. If someone bumps into your car, your more likely to say “they hit me,” rather than “they hit my car,” but the car isn’t you, it’s just something you’re in control of. Whereas a consciousness or soul cannot be replicated nor inhabited by any other thing, it can only be put into things like bodies, houses, cars, or the internet.
I think I would prefer to have a Sky Burial, to have a giant or a dragon or a flying whale carry me up into the sky. I wouldn’t want to go as far as heaven because I think it would be boring and existentially puzzling, kind of like being in this world. I’d rather stop just short of heaven, about where clouds are, to exist as a cloud, to exist and not exist as I pleased, traveling the world, slowly and patiently changing form, observing but without eyes, a mind, the ability to analyse, form opinions, or remember things.
Sometimes I feel as if I’m underground even when I’m not, as if my own body is a kind of cave.
A cave is like a room that doesn’t have a doorway, or that has a doorway that keeps on going. I like wearing helmets because they are like miniature, portable caves that you can wear. I wanted to combine the two to see what would happen. So I borrowed one of my dad’s old motorcycle helmets, went to a beach where there were caves, and with the helmet on, ears squished against the side of my head, I walked as far into a cave as I could. I stayed in there for around 45 minutes. It was dark and I felt calm.
When I went on family holidays as a kid I would hold my breath whenever we entered a tunnel. My mum said that if I thought of a wish and could hold my breath until we got to the other side, it would come true. My wish was always that no one in my entire family would ever die, that they would all live forever. Whenever I managed to hold my breath through a tunnel, I thought my wish would come true, and we would all be safe, at least for a while, until the next tunnel. When my 19-year-old cousin died in a car crash, I lost all faith in tunnels, wishes, prayers, and God.
I once went to Taiwan to see a real life version of a cartoon tunnel, from the Oscar-nominated animated movie ‘Spirited Away.’ I read on the internet that the director, Hayao Miyazaki (whose house you can find on google maps, and that you can sit outside of like an astral projection and wait to see if he’ll come out), was inspired to make the movie after visiting a small market town in the mountains about an hour away from Taipei, called Jiufen. There is a tunnel at the beginning of the movie that a little girl goes through that transports her to another world, and this tunnel actually existed, so I decided to go to Taiwan if only to see and enter this tunnel. What would it be like to actually be in that movie, to somehow subvert reality and enter it, I wondered, to take a bath in the giant multi-storey bathhouse, or fly through the sky as a piece of paper in the shape of a human. I thought that if I went through the tunnel, I would forget myself and be transported to another place, just like what happens to the little girl in the movie.
When I travel, I usually do so alone, and aimlessly, which sometimes means I get lost, but sometimes people talk to me and try to help me, which is what happened when I emerged from a subway station near Jiufen. There were taxi drivers with signs written in English and Mandarin with ‘Jiufen’ on them. One of them came towards me and started saying “Jiufen! Jiufen!” and I said “Yes! yes!” I decided to follow this man, this stranger, relying on my view of Taiwanese people as being friendly, which, having not really talked to any of them in depth, was unfounded. This man didn’t seem particularly friendly, but he didn’t seem to be unfriendly either. I’m never sure what to think of such people, whether to be friendly towards them or not. The man said “Wait! Wait!” and I started waiting. There were two women sitting on a bench inside a doorless café with an aura of ‘waiting’ surrounding them, and as someone that was exuding waiting and confusion, they noticed me, and I moved towards them. I asked them if they spoke English and they said yes. I asked them if they were going to Jiufen and they said yes. I said I would follow them and they laughed while seeming slightly unsettled. Their names were Sue and Ann, which are the first two names of my mother, so I thought it was a good omen. They were like angels that had appeared to help guide me to the tunnel. In my mind I called them my ‘Jiufen Tunnel Sisters,’ or ‘JTS.’
The taxi driver had corralled another couple of passengers, a man and a woman, and we all piled into his taxi, which looked like it doubled as an office, then tripled as a bedroom. There was assorted stationary on the seats, a box of tissues on the dashboard, scraps of paper, food wrappers, and empty bottles of green tea all over the floor. I sat in the front because I was foreign and tall. Sometimes the other passengers spoke Mandarin to each other, but mostly we were silent. We were six strangers that had been forced into a confined space together for a short period of time.
We climbed the mountain and the scenery became incrementally more inspirational. Or perhaps it would have if it hadn’t been for the mist that was obscuring the scenery. But that mist also seemed inspirational, somehow.
When we got to the market town we walked through the narrow alleyways that had shops on either side. The predominant colour of the market town was red, which is also the predominant colour in ‘Spirited Away.’ There were lots of people. It was raining, so everyone had umbrellas, and because Taiwanese people are mostly short and I’m tall, I was afraid they would poke me in the eye, which distracted me from feeling inspirational about where I was. People forget about the backs of umbrellas when they use them, only focusing on the front, which is dangerous, especially in a confined space.
Once we’d walked through the town, we tried to find the tunnel. We saw a sign that pointed in a certain direction and said that the tunnel was there. We walked away from the town into its inconspicuous surrounds. At one point we thought we’d found the tunnel, but it looked more like a sewer. There was a group of male workers sitting on the back of a van eating lunch in the rain near the sewer. We tentatively approached them. The workers looked at us suspiciously. JTS asked them if this was the famous ‘Spirited Away’ tunnel, and they laughed and said it wasn’t. They pointed further down the road in near-perfect synchronisation.
We kept walking and eventually found the tunnel. The outside of the tunnel was covered in moss that seemed to be glowing, and the mist and the rain made it atmospheric. The tunnel was dark, damp and cold. Water dripped down onto our heads and onto the ground, going blop! While we walked through the tunnel, a motorbike drove through it, illuminating it as a floating headlight shrouded in mist, the sound of its engine hoarse and amplified. Further along, there were people, whose echoing giggles we’d heard from the other end. We passed each other silently, as silhouettes.
The tunnel was short, but we’d walked slowly, so that when we came out the other side, it seemed like a lot of time had passed. I wanted to feel like I was in ‘Spirited Away,’ like I’d forgotten myself and become a cartoon. In the light, I looked at my arms: still human. I was still in reality. I remembered everything. But still, I couldn’t help feeling vaguely different, as I always do whenever I go underground, or through a tunnel, or pull blankets over my head; even if that feeling is barely perceptible, I always emerge feeling like a slightly different person. I’m sure that something happens to you, that you change in some indefinable way whenever you cut yourself off from the sky.
The comedian Andy Kaufman once said the following about performing stand-up comedy: “You’re on a railroad train, you go through a tunnel. The tunnel is dark, but you’re still going forward. Just remember that. But if you’re not gonna get up onstage for one night, because you’re discouraged or something, then the train’s gonna stop. You’re still in the tunnel but the train’s gonna stop. So you have to keep going. It’s gonna take a lot of times on stage before you come out of the tunnel and things get bright again. But you keep going onstage—going forward!”
Edd Rose is 30 years old and lives in Cornwall, England. He has been writing for 6 years, his focus throughout being on becoming as simultaneously bizarre and coherent as possible.