At first it was scary, walking away from our well-lit rooms and the reassuring noise of the other children.  The torch in my hand did little to diminish the echoing darkness, and indeed seemed to give the shadows substance and menacing speed as they fled away, only to close in behind me greedily once I’d passed.  It was the silence that got to me, though.  After I’d traveled the charted paths far enough to reach the outer edges of the known, I’d notice it for the first time.  No longer occupied by navigating the halls by my map, my footfalls and heartbeat hiding it along the way, I’d stand at the black threshold of a new room and discover there an eerie, resounding quiet so oppressive that I’d fight a wave of panic telling me that either I was about to die or that I should wish I had, just to escape this crushing sense of fear.  Neither being an option, I’d step into the room.

That’s how it was before I began reading the stories.  Once I realized that the swirling patterns carved into the walls, ceilings, floors even in some areas, chronicled peoples’ lives, everything changed.  What had been oppressive silence before became welcome peace.  The dark void beyond my torchlight merely highlighted that which I could see, and the shadows cast lent depth to the figures depicted.  I began to follow them, though it took a while to learn how properly.  Each story was depicted in swirls and spirals and streams of scenes that flowed in and around each other, mingling with the journeys of other peoples’ storylines from time to time.  Once I got the hang of it I could see that there were commonalities between the streams, and when I followed the patterns long enough, I discovered eventually how to locate the spiral that indicated the beginning of the hero or heroine’s life.

By then, Karen had either grown overwhelmed with looking after so many of us or had simply forgotten about the mappers, because she didn’t once complain about my slow progress.  There were days when I came back without adding a single new room to my maps but she didn’t notice.  Before, she’d have sent someone else with me, or more likely, come along herself to teach me the way to do it correctly, muttering one of the many phrases she’d learned from her well-quoted mother that each boiled down to, “if you want something done right, you do it yourself.”

That was Karen, usually.  Of late, though, quite a few things were slipping.  I caught several of the children who were supposed to be guarding an entrance playing marbles in a nearby room instead, and they didn’t even look concerned about getting caught.  Personally, I suspected that it had something to do with the recent return of a scouting team she’d sent into the lower levels of the catacombs.  There were whispers that something else was living in these tunnels with us, but a lot of things were whispered around the main hall.  I learned early on not to believe most of what I heard in there, and my skepticism was rewarded when I caught Karen rolling her eyes at the suggestion.

“As my mother says,” she said, “don’t believe everything you hear.”

Still, every once in a while I couldn’t fight the sense that something was watching me from the darkness and the rumors would flood back into my mind.  What if there was something else down here?  And it could see me right now…

Worse were the moments when I thought I heard something.  A creak, a scuff… the sounds never repeated themselves and after a while I’d have to let reason take over.  Why would something that barely made any sound watch me as I gazed at carvings?

Why, indeed.

I found in those moments that myir aren’t the only purveyors of fear in this world of ours.  Sure, get scared enough and you’d end up attracting one of the beastly, nightmarish creatures to pester you until you managed to get rid of it, but there’s another enemy to peace that dwells far closer than fleeting and fickle myir.  Residing in the shadowed side of a person’s mind, there is a voice that sounds an awful lot like that part of you that speaks up when a tree limb is tumbling toward you and “jump!” could save your life.  I call it the shadow voice; the one that says, “there’s someone behind you,” or, “what was that?”

To get rid of myir they say you have to show the myir how silly and small it is, and it will shrink out of existence.  I tried doing the same with my shadow voice, but all of my arguments felt like they were the ones shrinking in the face of the overwhelming shadows and occasional echoing knock that could have come from deep below, far above, or right behind you.  Nothing I tried worked and the shadow voice grew stronger.

“Is that the sound of breathing?” it would say.  “If you turn around right now, there will be a monster behind you, ready to swallow you whole.”

I knew that if I kept it up, a real myir would appear and I’d be in no end of trouble from Karen over it.  She worked diligently to keep the location of the catacombs secret to the growing numbers of myir roaming the forest.  I began telling the stories I found to the monster that my shadow voice was so convinced lurked just behind me.  It was a better solution than turning around every other minute or pounding up the passages screaming in terror.

For three days I told tales to the darkness, and its imaginary monster, and I found that it helped quite a lot.  I told myself that the monster, no longer lurking, was listening, and I tried to make the stories sound bigger and more magnificent.  I gave names to the characters and their counterparts and challenged myself to give their winding tales as much life as I could manage.  As I made to leave, I turned at the doorway and considered the large black room.

“Goodnight monster,” I smiled.

“Goodnight,” replied a wispy voice from somewhere nearby.

I nearly shouted aloud.  It sounded as if the voice had come from the other end of the large room, and somewhere above.  I hadn’t managed to make out a ceiling with the light of my torch, so for all I knew, this room could go all the way up to the surface.  It was possible that this room opened to tunnels at other levels of this underground complex, and that one of the other kids had decided to play a joke on me.

“Hello?” I called.  “Is there somebody up there?”

I heard obvious sounds of movement approaching and took a cautious step toward the doorway.

“This isn’t funny!” I added.

“Do not be alarmed,” the voice said, closer now, and on my level.

“Show yourself,” I commanded, holding up my torch.  It did no good.  This room was enormous.

“I will,” said the voice, “though not today.  Today I merely wished to thank you.”

“For what?”

“Why, for telling these stories,” replied the voice.  “Those who carved them did so in the hopes that these lives and the adventures in them would not be lost to the world after their subject had passed from it.  It is the greatest joy to the historian when the person whose life they’ve recorded is retold.”

“Who are you?” I asked, uncomfortably aware that I was not speaking with one of the other children.

“Call me Tuktatuk,” answered the voice.  “And you are?”

“Call me W,” I said warily.

“That is an odd name among your kind, no?” asked Tuktatuk.

“Tuktatuk is kind of weird, too,” I said.

“I suppose it is,” Tuktatuk agreed.  “I’ve enjoyed your stories, W,” said Tuktatuk.  “I wonder if you wouldn’t return tomorrow, now that you know I’m listening, and tell more of them?  I can help you with the names so the stories are retold properly.”

I considered this carefully.  Karen would probably council me to stay far away and never return when I told her what had happened down here.  Knowing Karen, she’d probably move us out of the catacombs altogether and once again we’d be running, seeking out safety under leaves and nurse logs.  The forests above were getting more dangerous, though; that much I believed from the evening gossip in the main hall, because everyone was saying it.  Myir sightings increased daily, scouts from the city said that no one was left, and wolf packs roamed hungrily through the streets we’d played on not half a year before.  I sighed.  If this Tuktatuk meant me harm, he probably would have attacked already, anyway.  And it wasn’t like he was asking me to bring along friends to increase the size of his snack.

“How do you know the names?” I asked.

“I can read this language,” he answered.

“Then why don’t you read them to me?”

“I may, if you like,” said Tuktatuk, “and I can teach you to read the names for yourself, but I enjoy hearing you tell them.  You have a sense of the world above that I do not.  The colors and smells that those like me hear mentioned, but do not know.”

“Have you never been above ground?” I asked, trying to imagine such a life.

Tuktatuk didn’t answer right away.  “That is a story I may tell you someday, but not today,” he answered.  “Will you come tomorrow?”

I bit my lip.  Why not?

“Okay,” I agreed.

On my way back I resolved to keep this new friend to myself.  I also realized that the shadow voice in my head had just had a very bad day, and was scheduled to have many more.  I almost laughed as I considered it.  If I could make a friend with a voice in the shadows, in a room tunneled unknown depths under the surface of the forest, how much could my shadow voice bother me again?  It was just like shrinking a myir after all.

“Silly myir,” I scolded the myir in my head.  “Silly, silly myir.  I’m not afraid of the dark.  I have a friend who lives there.  His name is Tuktatuk, and he’s a fellow storyteller.  Together, we’re going to tell the stories of everyone down here, and this world will know them again.”

I returned to Karen and the others preparing supper in the main hall, the place where tales were told and gossip shared, and I enjoyed my meal that evening, taking them all in with a secret in my heart that closed my lips and opened my ears.  I wondered, as I listened, how I would choose to carve the tales I heard.  What images would I use?  What expression on the face of my hero would depict a scene in full?  I decided I’d start a journal to record as many stories as I could, so I could continue to share them with the world even after we left this place.  My story was just beginning; I had a sense of that even then, though it wasn’t the time to tell it just yet.  Someday I would.  Someday.

“But not today,” I said, and when the boy sitting across from me asked me to repeat myself, I shook my head and smiled.

Written by W. C. McClure  This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure.  Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure.  Thanks!

from the far side of dreams