Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Places You Never Notice

I may have mentioned (or may not have) that I walk to work every day. It is only a mile or so on relatively level ground, so I don't consider it any sort of exceptional feat, but I mention it to set the scene.

I have been walking the same route for about a year now (I used to bike in, but got sick of fixing the old bicycle sometime back in January or February), the same time every day and like to think I have made account for everything on the route. I even know where the interesting debris piles up. Last week there was a plastic mesh basket just lying there in the roadway as if it had fallen out of a window, though it was larger than a typical car window, so I have no idea how it got there. Before that there was the shiniest hubcap I have ever seen. I took that one home with me because I make bad life choices and am probably a budding hoarder. But I digress, the point is that I feel like I know everything on that route like the back of my hand, which should be all the foreshadowing you should need to know where this story is going.

I was walking home today, fiddling with my "I Voted" sticker slowly detaching from my shirt. This section of the walk had a sidewalk, an affair of tan and reddish pebbles embedded in concrete, a well-to-do subsection to my right, the road to my left. Beyond the road is a fairly deep drainage ditch overgrown with the trees and plant life that fill so many of the marginal spaces of Austin. It is deep enough that a fully grown deer can conceal himself, even with large horns, at the bottom of the ditch.

Anyway, a squirrel ran across the road, so I paused to watch it because yay squirrels. If I hadn't been watching it, I would not have even noticed the gigantic antler network shaking just above the cusp of the drainage ditch. Some huge buck lifted it's head as the squirrel came rushing through the underbrush and looked right across the road; not directly at me but still forward enough that I could see antlers longer than the spread of my arms and each taller than my forearm. The light must have changed at the intersection uproad, because a cluster of cars sped by. The huge deer turned back down the ditch and ran off.

Now, deer are hardly an uncommon sight in this part of Austin (or really any part of Austin) but I don't think I have ever seen any live animal this large in my life (zoos don't count). So when the stream of vehicles subsided, I jogged across the street into the ditch to see if I could get a picture.

Once across the road and down the slope a ways I crouched down and tried to walk real softly so as not to spook any wildlife. I did a piss poor job of that and probably made more noise than if I had walked normally. Ninja assassin I am not. But still I persisted, going down the four meter slope.

The bottom of the ditch was dry (well, slightly damp)-- we haven't had rain in a little while-- and I could not see any deer up or down the ditch. I figured he was long gone by then, so I briefly considered climbing back up the ditch and returning to my usual course.

But then I thought to myself that I knew the course of the ditch and it ran parallel to the road for a good while, so I continued down the slightly damp creek bed, just because I could.

It is always a bit weird to walk a slightly different path. Being used to the normal path makes the distances shrink a bit in my mind, and the unfamiliarity of the ditch, as well as the absence of external landmarks made it stretch out far longer than I assume it really was. Because of that, I cannot honestly tell you where I found the tunnel jutting into the of the ditch.

The tunnel was perhaps a meter and a half tall and half that width and ran under the road to my right. It was pitch dark, and even the opening was obscured a bit by the shadows of the plant life and the setting sun (damn you, daylight savings time!). But the weird thing was the archway. Not a pipe, since there are plenty of drainage ditches with concrete pipes sticking out, this was an archway. The arch was cleanly constructed, with almost no space between the stones for mortar. I noticed almost immediately that it was a very yellow striped sandstone, whereas the local rocks are almost all a very chalky white limestone. The archway became a long, smooth sandstone wall, curved perfectly along the top with no visible cracks and no corners of any sort along the way.

I thought this was pretty neat and almost went in, but was stopped by the thought of my poor kittens, waiting patiently by the door for dinner. I almost went on, but simply couldn't. The archway, I decided, was more interesting than my sweet kittens (I hope they aren't reading this).

I hunched down a few inches to get under the low curved roof and walked in slowly, waiting for my eyes to adjust. I could see faint bits of nothing and after a few meters of walking, far enough to envelop me in darkness and probably to have crossed under the road, I ran smack into a wall. It hurt a bunch and bent my glasses a bit and it was dark and damp and not fun at all and made even worse by the fact that I am a huge pussy. I turned around, half facing the window of light, eyebrows furrowed in butthurt (or rather, face hurt) and anxiety, and stood passively, with depressive self-pity sapping my will to move in either direction.

Finally I gave a huff and probably pouted out my lips as a made a frustrated raspberry (I don't do well with adversity of any sort). I put my hand to the wall just to feel what it was before going back.

My hand landed on a metal latch. This was surprising because my face had run into some sort of brick or stone, so I was expecting  a solid wall. I turned back towards the darkness, hand clasped firmly on the metal latch, and as my nascent whiny tantrum subsided I tugged on the flat mechanism. It gave a satisfying snap and creaked as it turned on its hinges.

I gave a little push, but the door held fast. Perhaps there was another latch, so I felt around what was definitely a large stone slab. I found no more latches so I tried pushing again harder, but without success. I stood for a moment while tiny points of light reflecting off the corners of my glasses and put my hand back where the latch was. An accidental tug on the metal flap pulled the stone door outwards, revealing a room lit from above by two tiny, grassy slits in the roof.

I could stand straight in this room, though only just, and looked around in the rapidly fading light of dusk. It was fairly dark but I could see furniture and objects, so my first thought was homeless people. There was a feeling about the room, a certain weight or pressure which, combined with my overdeveloped sense of Mind Your Own Business, almost flung me out bodily. I backed up into a stone wall.

My hands went out behind me almost of their own accord and I stood up against the wall like a trapped criminal as I fondled the cool, smooth rock wall. I found no exit, so a few heavy breaths later I had my eyes open and looked around the room. A glint of metal caught my eye and I presently found myself holding a flashlight, the sort that could easily double as a club. I turned it on and realized that this was not a hideout for the homeless. My very first though was Satanists. Which is silly. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The furniture was all very old, warped wood that looked like it was cut from trees that were incapable of growing in straight lines. Two waist high cabinets stood against the back wall with the tattered and bug eaten remnants of a black cloth on top. A thick easel stood in the middle of the right wall, tilted a bit towards the cabinets in the back. The room itself was perhaps six meters in either direction, and with the aid of the flashlight, I could see the slightly ajar door. It was made of stone, as were the walls, all made as if out of one solid hunk of sandstone. That would be enough to qualify this as the strangest room I have been in all month, but there were also carvings(?) in the wall.

I put the (?) after carvings because they did not feel like carvings, even though they had internal shadows and all that. If anything, it was as if someone had carved the designs in and then filled them in with some sort of plastic, except it was a plastic that felt exactly- smoothness, hardness, temperature and everything- like the rock around it. Not even creases or cracks to mark the edge.

The carvings were in all sorts of baffling shapes. I consider myself to be well rounded and liberally educated, but nothing I know of any culture or artistic tradition matched up with these symbols. The were, to my untrained eye at least, the wholly unique product of a singular mind. They were also, despite their indecipherability, strangely off-putting. Like the feeling you get when an almost perfectly symmetrical scene is marred subtly, except there was no symmetry to be found in these runes. No symmetry, no straight lines, and no corners, even as countless figures intersected in a massive pattern which appeared to spread along all six planes of the room. The relatively tiny area illuminated by the flashlight looked like just a tiny piece of a greater scene which could not be divined no matter how comprehensively I swung the light. To make it worse, the moment I took the light off a feature, I would be unable to find it again on the wall. My lower mind insisted that this meant the design was shifting, but of course I am reasonable enough to admit that my memory is pretty terrible.

Either way it was a disturbing scene, adding to the unnatural pressure of the room. I felt positively light in comparison, and the two sensations together began to make me slightly ill. I wondered just who's room this was. That was when Satanists crossed my mind, and immediately crossed out the other side and was dismissed. I thought perhaps a crazy homeless person, but there was no debris of the sort that would suggest the room had ever been lived in. Then I thought to myself that maybe it could well be Satanists. I live in the middle of a fairly popular place for UT students, so much so that the UT shuttle comes by frequently. Considered in that light, it seemed eminently possible that a bunch of artistically minded students had come down to practice silly pagan rituals and perform crazy abstract art on the walls to a high degree of technical proficiency. The thought of students was a bit more pedestrian than Satanists, but still felt cool enough to suppress the unease that had begun to pool in my gut.

I pointed the light over at the easel, also covered in a tattered black cloth, and walked up to the palm sized stone ball balanced precariously on the edge of the stand. The ball was made of the same yellow sandstone as the walls, and when I picked it up turned out to have a flat base with a hole drilled through. The hole was pitch black and looked like it reached all the way through to the other end. If anything, there is some odd sort of optical effect that makes it look like the hole is drilled clear through the other side and continues out a ways, but when I put my eye to it I can not see through, though I have not figured out just how the illusion works.

I imagined that the ball was calling out to me, a peculiar fancy for sure but one that was terribly difficult to dispel. I rolled it around in my hands for a bit and the set it down on the easel, my explorations complete. I had noticed that mixed in with the feeling of adventure and accomplishment the unease had continued to grow and twist and the psychic costs of staying in the room were growing faster than the benefits. I put the stone ball back on the easel and went over to the cabinet where I had found the flashlight.

I took a brief detour to the door to push it back open, the natural light at the end of the tunnel now only the soft reddish ambiance of dusk and put the flashlight down. I found that the sphere was still in my hand so I put that on the cabinet as well.

I noticed the door closing on it's own so I took so quick steps across the room and caught it. I switched hands because the sphere was still in my right hand, set it down on the inside of the door, and walked out. I closed the door, snapped the latch back in place, and returned to the ditch.

I looked down at my hands and noticed the sphere was still there. I swear I had intended to leave it there, but the truth is that no one had been in that room for a long time, so it wasn't like stealing. I was just picking up abandoned stuff, like when I brought the shiny hubcap home that I found by the roadside.

Anyway, it just goes to show that sometimes you have to step off the beaten path and take a slightly different way home. There are little adventures all around in this world, places you never really notice, and I find that life is so much more fun when you learn to just appreciate the adventures just across the road from everyday life.

As a postscript, the kittens DO NOT like the ball, which amuses me to no end :) They get so funny about it, so I put it up on the table that I don't like them jumping on and they didn't even climb up when I was eating dinner, a constant battle at my apartment, so I think the ball is a keeper :).

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