The Sand Timer

The Sand Timer

I was once at the bottom of a well and it was on day 464 that I decided to climb out.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get out before, but it was then that I transmuted my thoughts into actions. A pathway somehow solidified in reality as if it were illuminated strongly by a ray of fuming light from the sun, the way out.

The water at the bottom of the well had evaporated long ago and the earthy walls showed little sign of dampness. Only the lingering smell divulged the walls past occupation with a grape skin mustiness that only grew stronger once the dry crust of soil was flaked away. Under the surface the ruddy brown mud had the consistency of crank clay, with small stones and shards of sharp sand distributed homogeneously throughout it. Occasionally on digging, one would find pea sized pieces of a soft stone that would crumble under the pressure of thumb and finger. Rarely one could find within the substrate small pieces of a much harder metamorphic and almost glassy rock. While exploring my confine, and peeling off the veneer of the mud walls I found one of these pieces about the size of an almond just below the surface. The angle and placement of the stone caught the light in the manner of a large jewel slung above the chest of Duchess illuminated by the most effervescent of chandeliers. And in this effulgent suspension it seemed to me to have been left just below the surface by some mortal hand. With this glistening pebble, wet with enthusiasm I begin digging my way out of the hole.

The first few weeks down there seem now to have dissolved into the distant past and emulsified with memories, only my scratches on the walls tie those echos with the present. I remember being preoccupied with escape, and of spending countless hours scraping the walls with my hands and crying up to the as yet indifferent stars. I remember the beautiful terracotta of the brown mud as it mixed with my blood, and I remember the pain that came with it as my flesh eroded away. I remember the exposed bone that started to protrude from my fingertips. I remember ignoring the pain and pushing on in a waterfall of torment. Most clearly of all however is that I remember stopping.

I remember the defeat of it all.

How small I felt.

The nothingness.

The Void.

A terrible and most consuming vacuum of being.

I sat motionless for several days. There were no screams, I didn’t cry, I didn’t ask anything of the world. The emotions were there, flying as a caged bird, but their connection to me, a vessel to the outside world had been severed, mentally blown apart.

And as I sat, I took in my situation.

Usually one can surmise and rationalise the position that they find themselves in; I am on a chair, I am having a bath, I am in a patisserie eating a croissant. By best estimations it took me three days to fully comprehend where I was, then another three to experience again. The transmogrification occurred slowly, at first my skin started to feel cold, to actually feel. Then the quickening wind on my face, barely noticeable, let me know that I was at least alive. I lost count of the days that were required to wholly regain consciousness, those days of rationalising my existence, creating lies to ensure the actuality of the situation didn’t destroy me. Although I was now able to see I was still grey and empty, hope had departed, and it was during that moment of clarity of mind that I began questioning who I was.

What horrendous person had put me in this well? Why me? What malign force had decided that I in particular deserved this punishment. I became enraged and beat my bleeding hands against the wall of the well. Soft impressions were left in the mud amongst the previous scratches. I continued to pound the same spot deeper and deeper into the clay until I struck the wall so hard that the blunt force split my skin. I brought my hand up to my mouth to suck the wound clean and embedded in that contusion there was glassy grit.

I stared In awe at the concave patch of wall where I had released my anger and protruding out of it not more than a three millimetres was a sharp glassy point of the almond shaped stone, this time somehow slightly bigger and the point of which I now realised was the perpetrator of my punctured hand. I started to pick at the compacted mud that surrounded it with my two working fingers, frantically scurrying around the firmly rooted pebble. After considerable time and effort the obsidian black stone popped out of its muddy socket and landed glittering on the dusty floor of the well. In that stone I felt the universe condense, collapsing into its shimmering darkness. All my future hopes, all the dreams of things yet to come, all the people and places that I was yet to see, and all my untold stories crystallising inside that scintillating pit.

I lived on the happiness that the find gave me for long enough for my hands to heal and during that time I spent countless hours spiralling around in my mind plotting the escape. At first I used the sharp stone to dig horizontally, it was slow progress as although sharp and the well walls soft, after prolonged use my hands would fatigue. After what I believe was a week I had excavated a tunnel long enough to lie my whole body inside. It was at this distance that the mud changed density, its smooth claylike consistency gave way to something a lot harder. The cutting face almost stone in consistency and reduced my boring to a mere crawl and after another week at this reduced rate, I had only progressed another arms length. Time dripped by, the metronome of my arm and stone on stone conducted the chaos in my mind. Whipping up the foam as frothy waves crashed upon my thinning sanity. I only kept track of the days by knowing how much my nails grew and by using this method I calculated that after another four weeks chipping away at the unyielding soil I reached softer ground once again. My psyche seemed to expand in this new and supple place. In this more pliable material I was able to cut in a day what previously took a week and as time progressed and even though my stone was almost worn to a nub I covered more and more ground per day. The material became fantastically loose and grainy and two weeks after reaching the sand, the tunnel was so long and so distant from the bottom of the well that I had taken to sleeping in it as to not have to backtrack on my hands and knees at the end of each day. Progress went incredibly smoothly and the soil which I cut and moved with my hands became drier and drier, a sign that I could only attribute to being closer to the surface and further from that dry although once watery grave that I once occupied. The exhaustion and relief I felt on that night knowing that I would soon be free opened the doors to one of the most peaceful nights sleep I have ever experienced.

I was unconscious when it happened, at first a deep rumbling thunder woke me from my deep slumber then the sound of distant rain and finally dust filled the tunnel. It flowed through the air and settled with a menacing calmness. I didn’t comprehend the magnitude of the even that had just occurred as I struggled to breath in the cloying air. I crawled forwards towards where I thought the origin of the sound to lay. My hands started to be impeded by sand on the floor of the passage, then it became a wedging slope, shrinking smaller and smaller. It was then I realised the extent of the matter at hand. The loose earth which I had been shovelling most haphazardly had collapsed in front of me. I didn’t know if I was lucky or unlucky to survive the disintegration of the passage, as my mind was smashed and the almost physical pain was unbearable. The mental pain shot mechanically through my muscles and bones, and the torment that I suffered digging this tomb was nothing compared with the pain of the loss of it, of the destruction of the future and the inevitable futility of my attempted escape.

So much progress eradicated in a matter of seconds.

The air was viscous with the glassy shards from the collapsed passage, I felt them rip through my airways with every breath. I wore my tattered shirt as a mask but in reality it couldn’t have done much good to filter the sharpness of the air from breaching my lungs. In my haste to make forward progress the tunnel wasn’t wide enough to turn around in and was barely tall enough to crawl on knees within. The dust was choking me out of my very creation and I was being chased backwards as fast as I could scrabble. I had been going for a few minutes my heart reverberating and my ears filled with blood when my feet struck something, solid but forgiving. It was only when I noticed the metallic taste and mucid smell of freshly fallen earth that I comprehended the certainty of my fate. I was blocked in between two collapsed sections of tunnel dust rushing towards me from my front, and blocked in by fallen rocks to my aft. I had no way of knowing how much of what had once been my means of exit existed any longer, my escape route had now become my tomb. Buried alive and alone, a most tragic end.

The panic continued to fill my brain, swelling as the seconds, then minutes progressed. A harrowing number of possible future realities seemed to compress me as time continued to strike decisions from the now narrow list of future possibilities. The exact moment that the following happened, I find very difficult to pinpoint exactly, however I can remember both before and after that moment distinctly just as the innumerable grains of sand fall from the reservoir at the top of an hourglass into the pool at the bottom I felt squeezed through the focus, compressed and distorted until I was unrecognisable to myself. All the familiar textures of the tunnel blending into the fantasy that I was stuck within. A piercing pressure ruptured my spirit and drew out my breath. I was once again an empty shell, tired and broken washed up on the shores of isolation.

This intense compaction continued until I could no longer think, no longer scream, my breaths were snatched. My mind was constricted by an otherworldly force, a force of such incomprehensible magnitude that I was only as a mote of dust is to the star that consumes it. My mouth was dry, my lungs were drained and scarred from the fouled air. Without warning the tunnel, which by this time I was convinced would be where I drew my last breath filled with a colourful light; neon yellows, greens, reds, pinks, swirling, oscillating and flowing, pulsating and gripping the edge of tunnel with florescent filaments until finally a soft sky electric blue illuminated the passage before me. This technicolour meltdown gradually faded, and as it passed, I noticed that I could breathe once again. And with that reality settled back to normality.

With this newly quickened air and knowing how close my existence had come to being extinguished I found a new life and began feverishly problem solving. Desperately decoding the solution of my extrication. The analysis of the situation found me approximately 50 meters from a tunnel fall in front of me and wedged up against another behind my feet. Given that I had been digging for the best part of a month, and for about three weeks the going had been incredibly slow I estimated that I was no more than 50 metres from the tunnels entrance and probably, due to the nature of the rocky soil more likely 35 meters. Hope had somehow wandered back onto the path of my life and I found myself wondering how long was until we met face to face. With this excitement I started to shift the sandy earth from my feet along my side to beyond my head. It was as I shuffled the dirt as a worm does inside its self that my hands happened upon something unlike the pebbles and stones that I had become accustomed to. The object was almost warm to the touch and certainly not cold as the peas that were embedded in the soil. It was much larger and longer than the other scree I had found and almost shovel shaped with a thinner middle section and a large bulbous end.

I started to use this object to move the earth around me, and with the help from this new tool a much faster pace was realised. This wasn’t the only strangely shaped stone that I uncovered while backtracking through the collapsed section of the tunnel. In total there were 8 long sections, many curved and a plethora of oddly shaped ones. Most extraordinary of these finds was a bowl shaped stone that seemed to be the work of man rather than nature. It was with this wood like bowl that I was able to scoop vast quantities of material out of my path incredibly quickly. I used it to dig away the sides of the tunnel in order to create enough room to turn around in so I could finally face the direction of travel. I was moving at a great pace towards the well, now that I had an array of digging equipment with which to excavate, and it felt like the passage of time had for an instant stopped as I soon found myself back once again at the hard packed earth that first hampered my tunnelling effort. Luckily at this hard seam of rocky earth is where the tunnel’s collapse had ended. The first thing I sensed was the outside air rushing lovingly into the tunnel behind me blowing past my face and washing my mind of the past weeks of anguish. I crawled forwards, almost crying from exhaustion and the light of the world seemed to creep towards me as I towards it. At first it was dim but as I progressed forwards it stunned me, I felt almost repulsed as it etched a trail through my eyes and into the depths of my skull, violating me, and exposing within me all the things I had forgotten to hate. Only the desire to be free of my earthly confines which had cocooned me forced me against this impulse, and out from the hole. Dragging all of the digging implements with me I crawled forwards, until finally I was free, and stood up, out of the tunnel.

Once my eyes became adjusted to the light I took a deep breath and craned my head backwards. The same blue sky that had always been there beamed its liquid smile back at me. Never before had I been so happy to see such emptiness. Bubbling confidence filled me as I realised the relief of being out of small confines and back in the open space of the well, it felt at the time like the right place. It was then as I looked down at my makeshift shovels, the implements of my escape and the things to which I owed my meagre existence to. And it was then that I realised what they were. Although caked in mud, dust and sand, their familiar whiteness glistened under the bright blue light above; they were old, but not infirm and they were most unmistakably bones.

Bones of a fallen comrade? Bones of someone else like me who had been placed against their will into this well? A man, a woman? An artist or slave? My mind seemed to liquify into an icy stream and rush most viscously down my spine. Solidarity with this person whoever they were wrenched tears from my eyes and wrapped my heart in tight muslin, choking each beat. Why were they left unspared by the earth, why wasn’t I consumed? Why was it that I was allowed to live? I sat wit the bones in my lap and held the bowl shaped one at the top of the pile, the teeth jutting from the jaw brought reality into sharp focus. The hopes and dreams that were once within that hemisphere were now pulverised by a physical storm and cast adrift in time. The genetic link into the past stretching for millions of years uninterrupted, now ended in a cold trail at the bottom of the well. I can’t remember how long I stayed in this position hunched over the remains of another soul, drained of energy and filled with a vicious anger that tore chunks of flesh from my psyche. I treasured the bones and ran their forms through my fingers many times imagining the flesh that once sat around them. I whispered into the empty skull trying to fill the space once again with thoughts and memories. I listened but heard no reply. Darkness fell on me, a deathly blanket smothering for what felt like an eternity. But on day 464 I decided to climb out of the well.

I started by first gathering up the bones and embedding them into the muddy clay at the bottom of the well. I climbed up them like a staircase and when I had run out of ribs and only had the two largest bones in my hands I was about three body lengths off the ground. I then used the two femurs as an alpinist would a set of ice axes and jammed them into the soil above my head. Pulling up on then I levered my body and one by one dug them in again. My own legs scrabbled uselessly against the wall of the well during this process and at many times I thought of all the manifestations of catastrophe that could strike. After an hour, fatigue was consuming me but I was driven upwards by the smell of fresher air and the sweetness of the sunshine which started washing over me. The blue circle that filled my vision increased in size, a luscious planet floating in the blackish brown sky of the sides of the well. It swole as an autumn moon with every move I made upward until it filled my field of view. It was at this point that I felt I was close.

Sweat was beading on my brow and my muscles ached, their sinews working beyond normal plastic deformation and beginning to rupture under the prolonged strain. Only a few more meters to go. I dug in the stump of the femur but it hit one of the glassy rocks that I had used to dig the tunnel and I felt the end of the bone shatter. I was left hanging by one arm with the stump in the other. Too worn out to do anything, unable to hold on for much longer I knew I was sure to fall to my death. As my fingers started to disengage from the remaining bone I heard faintly as if from the distant past someone speaking to me. The skull was whispering to me from the bottom of the well. Hearing what it said I reached up with my free hand stepped up on what felt like nothingness and grasped over the top lip of the well, my nails digging in to the dusty soil.

The moment that my fingers made it over the top my body electrified and I burst with an unknown energy which allowed me to pull myself over. My skin bristled with the radiance of the golden sun that flowed upon me as rivulets of joy ran over my body, an incendiary happiness flooded my senses. My eyes welcomed the light which came this time without interrogation, and for the first time in many years I felt free. I stood up and started to walk away from the hole that I had been trapped within for such a long time, still wondering who it was that would do such a heinous thing to me. And as my eyes finally began to adjust to the brightness I saw a large object twenty paces away washing in and out of focus between my glistening tears. As I approached it, the form became more obvious and finally as I placed my gnarled palm against the form I realised that there was a soft interior curve to the slightly damp and muddy exterior.

I recoiled in desperation and wailed into the abyss.

As it was at then I realised that once again I was at the bottom of a well.

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