My Descent into the Sewer

Illustrated by: Minji Reem
Illustrated by: Minji Reem

Seeking rats, snakes, lizards, and other creatures we despise without ever wondering why, I descended into the sewers for the first time.

The smell was exactly as expected: a strange mixture of the vapors of bodily waste and the waste of production.

Yet it was not dark. Light emanated from a source I did not see. It was unlike sunlight—not nearly as bright. It certainly was not electric light—too genuine. It reminded me slightly of Southern Norway’s early summer nights, when the sun just barely sinks behind the mountains, and the light simply hangs in the air.

I want to find the source; but how to find the source of that which is everywhere? I start to walk. There are no rats, no snakes, no lizards. I notice a doorway on my right. The light coming from it seems a little stronger than the light in my tunnel.

Through the doorway I go. I find myself in a large ballroom. I am not surprised, though. Elegant shapes dance there. I would say that I feel I am in the 18th century, except that I do not feel part of the ball. The shapes are not quite real to me. I would say they are ghosts, but that strange light surrounds them. That strange light from the tunnel. They don’t seem to see me.

I look at their faces carefully. Such expressions I have not seen for a long time. In truth, I have never seen such expressions. Is it the peace? The tranquility? The dignity? I cannot name that which I have never seen.

I walk around the room, carefully avoiding the dancers. Suddenly, there I see him. On a tall throne sits the King. There is neither more nor less light around him, neither more nor less grace about him. There is greater presence. When I see him, I do not see anyone else. If I see someone else, I cannot see him.

It all becomes too much! I came here for rats and vermin, not a King and his ball! I run away. I ram—there is no other word for it—I ram a pair of dancers as I flee. They fall, and for an instant there is no light about them. They rise and resume their steps, without noticing me.

I am in my own world again. Subways and cars, rude and anxious faces. Yet something has changed. I cannot move at their pace anymore. I notice things now. A familiar face sits across from me on the subway. A dreary little man. Where have I seen him before? A woman enters the train. The dreary man makes a slight gesture, almost invisible. It is as if he wanted to get up. A slight bit of light surrounds him for an instant. Defeated before he even separates from his seat, he looks even smaller and drearier than before.

It hits me. I saw him in the sewer. He was dancing there, dancing a graceful, perfect waltz. Would I even have recognized him now, if it hadn’t been for his unique eyebrows? Bushy but well tended to, they sit right above his eyes. It is the same man, I know it is, but I can hardly believe it. Did the woman even notice that he wanted to give up his seat? She wouldn’t have accepted it.

The cab driver makes a slight gesture, too. He wants to give me all my change back. A glimmer of light. But he does not, and claims his tip. He, too, had been dancing in the ballroom. He must be disgusted with himself as he puts the green crumpled bills in his pocket.

I cannot go back to my house. I wander the streets. Left I go, right I go. Suddenly, there is singing in the Sacred Tongue of my forefathers. A Star of David is in front of me. It’s shameful how much time has passed since I’ve been inside a synagogue. The rabbi picks up the silver hand and moves it along the Torah scroll as he reads from it. The sound of my childhood. That same, strange light. A familiar face framed by the beard, sidelocks, and hat. I cannot bear it, I flee.

Outside there is a homeless man. Wondering whether—no, hoping that—the light might surround me, I decide to offer him money, though he did not ask for it. The man turns around and looks me in the eye. The same presence—it is the King! He refuses my money, and turns away.

I flee into the sewer again. Where is the ballroom? There’s the door! There is a sign on it—had it been there before? Red paint on a white sign: “Do not try to be like us.” I stare.

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