Tom Kirby was chicken and everybody knew it. Billy MacPherson had made sure of that.
From where he lay in the shade of the cherry tree, Tom could see Billy and the others strung out in a dusty line of bicycles on the road that bounded the orchard. Probably Billy had decided that the gang would head towards the conservation area for a swim.
Tom’s stomach seized up. He wanted to disappear, to sink deeply into the shorn grass of his family’s orchard before the boys got close enough to see him. But he was too proud to move.
Billy had almost passed by before he noticed Tom lying motionless in the shade of the small tree. Their eyes met for an instant, then Billy wheeled his bicycle around and stared with raised eyebrows.
“Well!” he said in mock surprise as the others pulled up around him. “Look who we have here!”
“Chicken Man!” Skinner drawled in his high, nasal voice.
Tom was used to this, but he winced inwardly when Chris, Joey and Mike chanted in much-practiced unison, “Buck-cluck-cluck!”
He stared into the distance with as little expression on his face as he could manage while they roared and snickered.
“Well, c’mon, Cobras,” Billy said with exaggerated contempt. “We have better things to do than cackle with Chicken Man.”
The others snickered again and rode off down the road shouting, “See ya, Chicky!” And “Look out for the Cobras!” behind them.
Tom lay unmoving until he was sure they were out of sight. Then he jumped up and threw down the grass stem he had been chewing. He stared in the direction they had gone and clenched his fists. For a moment he thought about how good it would feel to smash Billy MacPherson a good one right in his fat, leering face. But that wouldn’t help. The others would still yell “Chicken!” at him when they knew they were out of range.
Tom strode off towards the other side of the orchard. He yanked his bike out of the shed and set off down the lane and onto the gravel side road. He paused for a minute and thought of going to swim at the conservation area despite Billy, then decided against it. There was no point in asking for punishment.
They’d never jump him, of course. Billy was a bully, not a fool. They’d tried that once last fall, but Tom had just fought it out as best he could, landing a few good punches and taking about three dozen. But the next day he had waited until he could get Billy by himself and had blacked his eye and given him a nosebleed. For all his size and bullying, Billy was no fighter without the others to back him up.
As the tires of Tom’s bicycle scrunched over the gravel, the dry dust of the side road billowed around him. He pumped hard up the steep, curved hill that led into town. After the first fifteen meters, the hill was less steep, but it continued with a slight incline for about one and a half kilometers until it reached the town. Then there was a sharp curve and another steep section as the road snaked up the side of the Niagara Escarpment.
Tom was perspiring heavily and his face was streaked with dust by the time he reached town. He thought of riding to a fast food place for a coke, then changed his mind. He didn’t feel like seeing anyone this morning. With a sudden fierce need to get entirely away from people, he began the hard ride up the road leading to the top of the Escarpment. He managed to pedal about seventy-five meters up the steep road past town before he had to get off and walk. It gave him a sense of satisfaction.
At the top of the road, Tom stopped to rest at the gravel turn-off the government had built for sightseers. He loved the view more than any other in the area.
Leaning on his bicycle, he could survey almost every bit of the countryside he knew so well. There at his feet was the Escarpment, covered with brush and trees and patches of bare rock where the incline was too sharp for even the tough bushes to find a secure hold. In front lay the prairie-like flatness of – what? A valley maybe? But there were no hills on the other side, just the glittering, blue expanse of Lake Ontario stretching to the horizon.
Tom often wondered what had made the land so flat. He felt as though he could almost reach out and run his hand over the rich textures of the countryside, like some huge possessive giant: the patches of green orchards like mossy velvet, the vineyards like spikey grass terracing, the buildings like scattered building blocks, and the Queen Elizabeth Way, stretching south and east to Niagara Falls, like a ribbon of hard glue, sun-dried in a random pattern.
From where he stood he could see a familiar cluster of houses. His own home stood out, bright white and sprawling, with its pinkish, pointed and partly gabled roof. His parents had bought it because it was so old – almost a hundred and fifty years. Surrounding it were the two small orchards, one of cherries, the other of peaches. The big white shed that served as a garage and catch-all was actually an old carriage house from before the days of cars.
The other houses seemed more naked than his own because they were new structures, unscreened by trees, less belonging to the area. Just over a year ago Billy MacPherson’s parents had bought the big, showy one at the far end.
Tom’s teeth clenched as he thought of Billy again. If it hadn’t been for Billy, no one would ever have thought of the initiation and he would still be the one who decided things, instead of Billy. No one but Billy could have found Tom’s own private weakness, the one he’d never told anyone. Until Billy came along, it had just been a rough edge on the back of his mind, something that grated sometimes but was usually easy to avoid and forget.
Abruptly Tom turned his back on the view. He’d show them. He’d go finish the initiation now. There was no time limit. He’d do it right now.
With cold determination, he pushed off on his bicycle. As he pedalled, Tom made plans about how he would casually flaunt the pocket-knife he would retrieve. He wouldn’t come running up to Billy and the others the way Skinner had, shouting, “Look, I did it! I’m part of the gang now too, aren’t I?”
No, Skinner was two years younger, and that was the way a little kid would do it. Tom would carry the knife in his back pocket, with maybe a small piece of wood. The next time Billy and the Cobras started to call him Chicken Man, he’d casually take the knife out and start to whittle. It would be rusty now from lying in the water for almost ten months but the orange rust would just add to the effect.
Tom gloated over his image of Billy’s reaction. It would be worth all the humiliation of the past year to make a public fool out of Billy.
He forced his mind to dwell on the scene. If he allowed himself to think of what he had to do first, his stomach would seize up as it had so many other times, and the thought of the Black Tunnel would fill him with a terrible fear. No, he would just think of how he would make a fool of Billy.
I have to do it this time, he thought desperately. This time has to be different.
After a kilometer of furious pedalling, Tom was panting from the exertion. It was a long way. The trees had thinned, and for the rest of the way the road was exposed to the hot sun. The pavement ahead looked rippled, distorted by the rising heat waves.
Tom felt calmer now. At least if he didn’t make it this time no one would know the difference. He would pretend he thought the whole thing was kid stuff and that he had no intention of ever trying it. They didn’t have to know about all the Saturdays and vacations he had spent up here. Once he had even come in winter, though he had nearly killed himself climbing down the icy cliff.
If they didn’t know, then things couldn’t get any worse except in his own mind, Tom thought gloomily. Even his parents had started talking about his lack of confidence, his slipping grades and his anti-social behaviour. They didn’t know the truth, because it wasn’t the kind of thing that parents understand. They thought he didn’t want to hang around with the other kids, or play hockey, or anything. How could they know that the other kids would have nothing to do with him?
Tom continued slowly. Occasionally a car passed him, full of tourists taking the scenic route along the top of the Escarpment. This road was pretty but the one at the foot of the Escarpment was faster, so there weren’t too many cars to spoil the quiet isolation of the morning.
Finally, Tom came to the old mill and stopped. It was now a museum, managed by the man whose great-grandfather had built the mill. Mr. Piers couldn’t stand kids hanging around. Tom thought it was really funny how the old man would hover over the kids as though he were afraid they would break things. How could anyone break the insides of a mill made of wooden beams and iron? Or better still, how could anyone break a waterfall? Old Mr. Piers had even fenced that off.
Tom saw Mr. Piers poking around the grounds, pulling up the odd weed and nervously watching two boys who were innocently fishing in the widened river below the falls. He chuckled at the old man’s frantic worry about what they might do.
Mr. Piers knew everything about the river that had once run the mill. He even made it his business to know what the people at the nearby waterworks plant were doing, because the runoff from the reservoir that supplied the town of Orchard Falls with water was occasionally released through man-made tunnels into the river’s gorge.
There was a whole series of runoff tunnels in the Escarpment, Mr. Piers had once told Tom. They were interconnected, and some were several kilometers long, drilled through the solid, sweating limestone of the Escarpment. The Black Tunnel was one of these.
Tom got back on his bicycle and pedalled slowly down the road. When he was sure Mr. Piers wasn’t watching, he swiftly turned into the rutted lane that led down behind the mill, past an abandoned farmhouse, into an overgrown field, and to the path that would take him down into the gorge.
He hid his bike in the bushes and began the difficult climb. Unless you looked carefully, the first section seemed impossibly steep until the cliff finally jumbled itself into a half-overgrown hill that angled down to the river.
But if you knew where to look and how to climb, here and there you could find a bit of rock where you could wedge your feet or find a handhold. There was one two-meter drop with no handholds. But at the side of it, a wild grape vine had spilled over the top of the cliff and sent its roots and seedlings into little cracks and crevices in the face of the rock until vines coated half the cliff face. The main vine, if you groped for it among all the leaves and tendrils of its offshoots, was about half as thick as a man’s wrist. The boys had tested it three summers before and it had held the weight of five of them without budging.
Carefully Tom slid down on the seat of his jeans, until the cliff was too steep to go any farther that way. Then with a practiced movement he twisted over, hanging for support on a handy tree root that looped out of the rock. His feet scrabbled for a hold and finally found a thin outcropping. He wedged his other foot against a stone covered with sticky mud.
Carefully testing each foothold and handhold to see if it would bear his weight, Tom climbed down to where the cliff became too sheer to find any hold at all. Then he groped until he found the father vine. Once he had it grasped firmly in both hands, he pushed his feet free and with a Tarzan yell swung himself down the rest of the way. That was the best part of the climb. The scrapes and bruises were just the scars of a successful battle with the cliff.
Tom jumped and bounded the rest of the way down to the edge of the river. For a while he stood quietly in the complete isolation of the gorge. It was full of sounds – water sounds, bird sounds, wind sounds, even chipmunk, squirrel and other small animal sounds – but it seemed wonderfully still, because there were no people or machine noises. Down here, enclosed by the sheer sides of the gorge, even his cell phone couldn’t pick up a signal.
With a surge of his old confidence, Tom walked slowly along the riverbank towards the roar of the waterfall. He hopped over rivulets that trickled from the sweating cliff into the river and jumped onto the cushioning softness of logs that had lain moist and unmoving for years, slowly rotting back into the ground.
He always felt that this was his own place, made especially for him. Adults never came here. The beauty of the gorge and the stream, with its progressively smaller waterfalls, was not enough to bring them clambering down the rough cliff. The tunnels that fed into the gorge had been blasted and mined out almost seventy-five years earlier. Tom wasn’t sure if anyone besides him and Mr. Piers remembered they were there.
There were two tunnels opening into this part of the gorge. The smaller was high in the sheer cliff – a scar drilled into the rock of the Escarpment. It was impossible to climb to.
Farther up the gorge, the second tunnel was cut into the cliff beside the cool, bowl-shaped basin of the waterfall. A steep hill of loose rock and shale, refuse from when the tunnels had been drilled, spilled from the tunnel mouth, making it easy to reach.
There were few traces that the tunnels were not natural – only the rusted rails for the cars that had carried out the drilled rock, and the remains of a metal grille that had once been fastened over the entrance of the second tunnel to keep people and animals out of the drainage system. The grille had long ago been wrenched off, and now it lay with the rails in the water that covered the bottom of the tunnel.
Tom stared at the smaller tunnel. Directly in front of it was a semi-circular ledge about a meter wide, which narrowed down to nothing a couple of meters on either side of the tunnel. The spill-off of water had gouged a small pool in the ledge. Tom could see the rippling reflections of the water on the rock above the tunnel mouth. His pocket-knife was in that pool now, probably rusted and useless, a symbol of his own lack of courage.
To pass the initiation Tom had to retrieve the knife from the pool, and to do that he would have to enter the Black Tunnel. He’d have to stumble and grope his way through half a kilometer of cold, dripping darkness to the branching smaller tunnel, penetrating the very heart of the Escarpment. There was no other way to the pool.
Turning his back on the cliff, he strode angrily towards the waterfall. Well, he was going now to get that useless, rusted jack-knife. He would finish the initiation and overcome all his nightmare terrors.
He heard the roar of the waterfall as he clambered up the steep, gravelly hill. He didn’t look up because he knew the cold, black mocking mouth of the Tunnel would be there, silent and unmoving.
It would always be there, waiting for him. Like a great evil, crouching beast it would be waiting for him to walk into its yawning, sweating mouth. And he would walk into its mouth – into the stony darkness that in his fears went on for a crushing eternity.
He stood before the indifferent, gaping blackness. There was no change in it since the last time. There never would be a change. The icy draft of air issuing from the depths of the Escarpment; the scarred, sweating rocks; the old grille submerged in the cold water, bit by bit rusting away – it was all the same.
Steadily Tom faced the Tunnel, daring himself to walk into its blackness and retrieve the useless, rusty jack-knife.
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