Issue 157, Winter 2000
It was the tunnel—its imminence—that all of them were contemplating that afternoon on the train, each in a different way; the tunnel, at nine miles the longest in the world, slicing under the gelid landscape of the St. Gotthard Pass. To Irene it was an object of dread. She feared enclosure in small spaces, had heard from Maisie Withers that during the crossing the carriage heated up to a boiling pitch. “I was as black as a nigger from the soot,” Maisie Withers said. “People have died.” “Never again,” Maisie Withers concluded, pouring lemonade in her sitting room in Hartford, and meaning never again the tunnel but also (Irene knew) never again Italy, never again Europe; for Maisie was a gullible woman, and during her tour her pocketbook had been stolen.
And it was not only Maisie Withers, Irene reflected now (watching, across the way, her son Grady, his nose flat against the glass), but also her own ancient terror of windowless rooms, of corners, that since their docking in Liverpool had brought the prospect of the tunnel looming before her, black as death itself (a being which, as she approached fifty, she was trying to muster the courage to meet eye to eye), until she found herself counting first the weeks, then the days, then the hours leading up to the inevitable reckoning: the train slipping into the dark, into the mountain. (It was half a mile deep, Grady kept reminding her, half a mile of solid rock separating earth from sky.) Irene remembered a ghost story she’d read as a girl—a man believed to be dead wakes in his coffin. Was it too late to hire a carriage, then, to go over the pass, as Toby had? But no. Winter had already started up there. Oh, if she’d had her way, they’d have taken a different route; only Grady would have been disappointed, and since his brother’s death she dared not disappoint Grady.
He longed for the tunnel as ardently as his mother dreaded it.