That was the sort of person Mr Lewis was, a man who seemed happy to leave the hotel just as the sun was going down and walk into the hills with insufficient supplies and the wrong shoes. Probably a product of his desperate need to compensate for a sedentary youth with belated adventure.
The men at the tables made conversation over their beer as they watched him leave. He had already mentioned his interest in exploring the entire length of Gut Road. A good excuse for dark comments.
“He’ll soon be back.”
“No, we’ll never see him again.”
“You’re both wrong. He won’t come back but maybe somebody else will...”
The path was steep and narrow and soon he was alone in the dark but he knew another hour of hard walking would take him to the beginning of the ledge. Down in the valley there was always some light, the glimmer of the river and maybe a distant village or two. His fear was still smaller than his resolve.
All the same, he guessed his pace was slowing as he neared the broken fence and NO ENTRY sign. Two tourists had fallen to their deaths the previous year and the authorities had made token efforts to comply with official safety regulations. But of course this was a country where the people ignored authority.
Gut Road came as a big surprise. He had expected a concrete walkway bolted to the side of the mountain, an artificial ledge winding its way around the edges of the gorge as far as the reservoir, but instead he was confronted by the mouth of a tunnel. He groped at his belt for his powerful flashlight. He almost regretted it was there. He had no excuse to turn back.
He switched it on and stood on the threshold. Even before he looked to see what the beam revealed he had already called out: “Anyone there?”
Then he sniggered quietly. Anything truly hostile lurking in the tunnel would be unlikely to give him a reasonable reply. As he walked forward he imagined possible answers, all of them absurd by the nature of whatever spoke them.
“Yes, I’m here. A ghost.”
“I’m here as well, a demon of sorts.”
“Don’t forget me, a nameless cosmic horror. From the gulfs between the stars. But what are you doing here? It’s not appropriate.”
Mr Lewis nodded. Not appropriate and not clever, but all he encountered was dust thickly spread on the floor. It cushioned his feet and there were no other footprints in it yet. Nor tracks of any kind.
Back at the hotel the men still drank beer and infrequently toasted the faded portraits on the wall above the hearth. Already the landlord was preparing a new picture, huddled over a small desk in a cool corner, dipping his pen into a jar of crusty ink. The scratching of his nib on the rough yellow paper was the only significant sound in the room, a furtive but obtrusive noise like the mirth of a prehistoric rodent. He worked quickly and finished early and rose to glue his latest creation among his growing collection of ink faces.
Mr Lewis had entered a region of stalagmites and stalactites which chewed at his clothes as he ducked and stretched around them, his weary body moving up and down in the precise rhythm needed to dislodge the sweat on his neck and roll it down his spine. He puffed and shivered at the same time and itched under his own salt.
These spikes of rock turned the tunnel into a maze and the idea of retreating began to seem more tempting but he still craved a sense of achievement and could not quite bring himself to give up yet. He compromised by resting for a minute in a clear space, squatting in the thick dust and taking a long drink from his bottle.
He also found a loose cigarette in his pack and inserted it between his lips. But he had nothing to light it with. With a jolt of malign inspiration he unscrewed the lens of his flashlight and held the naked bulb against the tip of the tobacco cylinder. It charred slightly but did not blossom into flame. No matter. He should not risk damaging his single source of illumination.
He groped again in his pack for a match and his fingers closed on his mobile phone. This was a relief but he doubted a signal would be available from his present location. He left it where it was and cast away his cigarette. As he rose and continued his journey he wondered who had constructed Gut Road and for what purpose. Had it really been designed in the shape of a gigantic intestine?
Eventually his own digestive tract started to occupy his immediate attention and he found a secluded spot between the side of the tunnel and a thick column made from three or four fused stalagmites. He chuckled at his own shyness as he pulled down his trousers. There was an awful symmetry in conducting this process here.
Still no signs of other life, no relics of habitation or previous exploration, but he knew many others had preceded him, his guide book had told him so. How could tourists fall to their deaths inside here? Perhaps he was supposed to walk on the roof of the tunnel rather than push his way through it. A simple mistake.
Lighter in body and mind he walked reluctantly and was absolutely on the verge of turning back when his flashlight caught a sign nailed to a pole planted in the dust. NEXT HOTEL 20 LOOPS. Everything was safe again. Travelling down Gut Road was acceptable and possible after all.
The beer was almost exhausted and the next delivery was an hour after dawn but nobody moved. The portrait of Mr Lewis gleamed down at them, fading slowly, fitting in with the rest of the collection.
“Funny this constant exchange of residents.”
“But good for local culture. The valleys are so isolated. That must be the reason it exists.”
“Some people still think it’s a sculpture.”
“Are there other Gut Roads?”
“No, there was only ever one giant. A freak of nature millions of years ago, never to be repeated.”
“Not everyone makes it right through the body.”
The landlord glanced up and made his eyes wise. “Some are digested by their own incompetence.”
He had miscalculated very badly. The loops were further apart than he had assumed and the obstacle course created by the stone teeth was becoming more hazardous. He decided not to think about the consequences.
Although the tunnel had not forked at any point, he felt thoroughly lost, an illusion which excited his curiosity as much as his fear. He realised he was bleeding from a gash below his left knee. At least there would be a trail of blood to follow back this way. But in fact the dust drank it all and his own footprints seemed abnormally shallow. His adventure did not want to let go of him.
The flashlight was losing power. The bulb was dying. Too late to return now but if the going became easier he might still make it to the far end. He limped faster.
Less than one hour later he came across another sign. He snorted with pleasure but his beam revealed a blank square of wood. Nothing had ever been written on it. For an instant he gritted his teeth, furious at the worker who had erected it, but then his expression cleared. He walked past and studied it from the other side. That was the sort of person he still was.
In the timid flicker he made out the words. They were intended for a traveller coming in the opposite direction. NEXT HOTEL 20 LOOPS. He clutched the post for support.
Time to summon help, if he could. He pulled out his mobile phone and thumbed the number of his hotel, already rehearsing the apology he would offer but unconvinced that a connection could be made through the mineral walls. He was astonished to hear the dialling tone. Even before an unseen hand picked up the receiver he was already calling out:
The landlord listened carefully, frowned and then replaced the telephone. The standard answers were no longer amusing. Ghost, demon of sorts, nameless cosmic horror. Not now. Old worn out jokes, completely pointless.
The others began to drift off to bed.
“Are there portraits of us in that other hotel, I wonder?”
“Do they actually look like us?”
“Will they fade with dignity?”
“That was the agreement,” confirmed the landlord.
The stairs did not creak but the carpet made an unwholesome sound rather like indigestion under the weight of tired feet and mildly bewildered souls.
“What I don’t understand is who did that to the giant? Pulled out his bowels and just left him to petrify. Who? Why? And how?”
“It was a long time ago,” said the landlord.
Mr Lewis was resigned to his fate or perhaps it was resigned to him. Either way it was best to abandon the struggle and rest his misplaced being. The bulb was almost dead. It gave off a deep red glow that turned his environment into a hideous kind of photographic darkroom. He selected a place and lowered his pack to the ground.
The only thing that might develop here would be a very sharp panic. But not yet. He sat in the dust and rummaged for the paper bag he had concealed at the bottom. It was still there, slick with leaked grease.
He planted his flashlight in the dust and settled back but the effect was too eerie, the weak beam casting formless bloody shadows on the irregular roof, so he reversed its direction and suspended it from a stalactite like a lantern. He used his belt to secure it in place. No need to keep his trousers up, not here, not now.
He returned to his paper bag. A meal at last. Nothing very palatable but that was an expected consequence of undertaking an expedition with insufficient supplies. Black pudding, an ironic choice. He tried not to breathe through his nose as he bit into it, to avoid the smell and lessen the taste.
Dust to dust, shit to shit.
And guts within guts.