The withering of patience seems to be the theme of this year. I go back to pounding on one flat stone with a dusty fist. This, here, first. I will knock till I get an answer.
Eventually the stone's outline darkens, and the stone is lifted from below by surly, sinewy hands: they cast the flag away, and wide, red-rimmed eyes glare at me. "Come down then! And don't bother with the door, it closes itself."
A dirty stair leading down to darkness: a smell of damp earth and radishes.
"What about light?" I ask
"What about it?" he spits, and without another glance, he drops away.
So I blow on my hands till a little glow appears, tickling my palms as it gathers itself, and then pulls away to drift over my head. It's enough light to follow down the steps.
"Saint Francis, is it?" he says, and begins a hacking, rhythmic cough which I eventually take to be a laugh. "That won't last long."
I can't stand upright on the stairs. The roof is too low. So I back down them. Twenty steps, thirty. The daylight vanishes. At the bottom, the doorkeeper has vanished too. Here I can stand, and I see three ways, all sloping down: left, right, and forwards.
Wait: there is carving on the lintels, stone figures: cup, star, mountain. The star is straight ahead. So go that way, though the irony is not lost on me. This way to stars? Hardly.
A long weary way, always down and darker. The tunnel was quested blindly like a worm, as though its makers had followed the softer earth wherever they had found it, whichever way it went. What fool starts a journey like this, without water, food, fuel or lamp? This kind, I supposed. But who ever started any other way?
I knew I couldn't hold the light forever. So I rested on a shelf of gravel, and let it go. The dark settled in against me, and the silence brought with it sounds, which I might have been imagining, and might not: the sound of flowing water, which made me thirsty; a tinkling as of the highest piano keys tried by a child; and a wavering tone like a mosquito by the ear. I lay a while, and might have slept. I don't know.
I was wakened by a soft caress, and cool damp dab against my wrist. My eyelids fluttered, but of course the dark stayed the same. I might have held still, or I might have been still in the grip of sleep: anyway, I didn't move. Fur stroked against me; the inquiring cool nose again; a quick inquisitive lick. My hand lifted and gently stroked back. It was a little thing, not full cat-size, and it quickly ducked a whiskery cheek against me and began a high-pitched, buzzing purr.
"Well, this is a happy meeting!" I murmured. "And where did you come from?"
"Oh, I make my rounds," it said.
I shifted uneasily in the dark. A knob of rock was under my hip, and my leg had gone to sleep.
"Human beings and dogs," it said. "They never take the time to make themselves comfortable. They think it's a virtue, but it's not: it's just busy carelessness. Their friends and neighbors end up paying for it."
"Still," it added, "you have good hands, and you could learn. You could learn."
"Tell me," I said. "Am I going the right way?"
It's not true that cats don't laugh, though maybe you need to be in the dark to hear it. "Well, my good sir, tell me, then, first: where are you going?"
"I don't know."
"Then yes, absolutely yes: this is the high way and the quick way."
"You're making fun of me."
It thrust its head against my side and curled up there, and we both fell asleep.
I awoke to a blue light wavering, on the roof and on the walls. My new friend was gone. My face was dusty: I rubbed it clean as best I could, tasting dust, and sat up.
The light was coming from a kinked side passage. I rose and went to the opening, and turned the corner cautiously. There was water beyond, a pool of restless water illuminated either from beneath or beyond. There had to be a current. I tasted it, and it was good. I drank a little from my cupped hands.
There was nothing beyond. Just a low vaulted chamber, barely high enough to stand upright. I had not much yen for more of the dark, but I was not sure about trusting myself to water running swiftly underground. I crouched there and thought a little. There were little golden fish in the water, glinting and gone. And the light had to come from somewhere.
The water was not too cold. I stripped off my shoes and shirt and jeans and tied them into bundle, with a sleeve hanging free, which I tied to my wrist. I didn't much like the idea of arriving -- wherever -- naked, but I didn't want to try to swim in an unknown place encumbered, either. If I got in trouble I could pull the bundle off my wrist and let it go.