It seems that I have been wandering down these endless corridors for ages. In reality, it has only been twelve years. Time is funny down here in the dark. It has a tendency to stretch itself very thin or become as thick as mud. There’s rats too. They have feasted upon my flesh countless times. The shadows are friendly to them, cloaking their presence so that I will let my guard down. I do have to sleep some time, you know. That is when they nibble, nibble, nibble upon me.
I don’t want you to think that I always live in darkness. That would be a lie. The stone walls have intermittent lights paced at irregular intervals. Some are quite bright and flood the entire area with sweet golden warmth. I like to sleep in these spots. The rats cannot reach me. For a little while, I am at peace. Unfortunately, I cannot stay there forever. I must find my way out of this abysmal place. I have been down here for far too long. For the most part, the lights are dim. I still try to sleep in these places even though I can hear the rats scratching and clawing at the edges.
For twelve long years, I have drug the chains of guilt and shame behind me. They have become so heavy that they cut into the concrete floor, leaving deep grooves in my wake. I have lost count of how many times I have taken one of the conjoining tunnels thinking that it might offer a different way out only to find that I have gone in a huge circle when I come out the other side. There they are, laughing at me, my grooves made by past ventures. You would think that I would learn.
I have to keep hope alive that one day, I will have wandered long enough in my sorrow to finally break free of these chains that bind me. It has been increasingly difficult over the last couple of years. My chains have increased in number and weight. There have been days that I felt as if I could no longer go on. The rats have grown in numbers behind me. I can hear them night and day. Well, what I think of as night and day. Time is strange down here, remember.
Just when I thought about giving up for good, a series of extremely bright lights blinded me as I rounded a corner. After such a long trek in near darkness, I thought I had finally lost what was left of my mind. I took tentative steps in the beginning. Up until now, the floor had been very uneven and covered with slick moss. I had fallen so many times that I no longer surprised me. Now the floor was steady. The moss was gone. Was this the path home? Had I finally found the right tunnel?
After several months, I realized that I could no longer hear the rats. My chains were so light that I barely noticed them. I turned to find that they were not digging into the ground. This amazed me. I was on the right path at last. It was not perfect, but I was okay with that. I did not want perfection. I just wanted to find my home. Real hope bloomed in my heart. I could see a pure light of hope at the end of this tunnel. If I could just reach it, I would be free.
One day, the light went out. I stood dumbfounded. It was just there the day before. What did I do to extinguish it? Suddenly, the chains were back, heavier than ever. The rats were slower to come back for the lights in the tunnel were still bright. By the time I had reached the distant point that I had been chasing, all I found was a dead end, painted to look like home. I curled up into a ball and wept. I am not sure how long I stayed there. It was long enough for the rats to make a home in my chains of burden.
Accepting that my journey was not over, I pulled myself together and banished the rats back to the shadows. The once bright lights were now dim as I made my way back, away from my false home. I could hear the chains digging and scraping against the now broken concrete. I began to feel numb inside. Hope was vanishing. I knew that this was my punishment. I knew I had to endure every ounce of pain. I had brought this upon myself. Only when I had suffered enough, would I be granted my freedom.
This did nothing to raise my spirits. I wandered randomly among the many corridors. I did not try to chase away the rats but instead, accepted them as part of my growing burden. As hope fled, despair took its place. I started to not care. I let myself go. Instead of trying to sleep in the lighted places, I just dropped down whenever my feet would no longer carry me. Oh how the rats feasted! My shoes were gone. My clothes were in tatters. My hair had become a breeding nest. All hope was gone. I was never going to see my home again.
I decided to give up. It was time to let the rats have what they wanted of me. I was lying on the cold stinking floor when a candle appeared in the dark. I almost dismissed it. By then, I had been traveling in complete darkness for so long that I figured it was just a figment of my imagination. Another candle appeared next to the first one. I sat up, curious. Yet another candle appeared. Wearily, I got to my unsteady feet. I reached out for the candle in the darkness. It warmed my numb fingers. I cradled it cautiously to my chest, letting its warmth spread throughout me. Thankful tears coursed down my cheeks. I began to follow these gifts of kindness through my darkness. One always appeared when I needed it. They slowly guided me through the blackened tunnels.
One day, I stepped out of the tunnels for good. A cool, salty air greeted me. For a moment, I stood at the exit, unsure of what to do. Outside was a beach, completely unfamiliar to me. What if this is just another level of hell? Somewhere in the distance, a bird called out. The sound was so very sweet after all of those years with the rats as my only company. I took my first step out on the tunnels.
Candles lit my way away from the tunnels to a small life boat. I knew what they wanted me to do, but fear weighed heavy upon my heart. I am scared of the water. I do not know how to swim. What would I do if my boat sank? As if reading my thoughts, a beacon of light shone dimly upon me on the beach. It was only there for a second before turning away. It was all that I needed. Hope bloomed in my heart once again. I pushed the boat into the waves and climbed aboard. There was a single paddle inside. I paddled as if my life depended on it to break through the crashing waves and out to the open sea.
I floated along in a kind of daze, my only company was the sound of my clanking chains against the side of the life boat. It seems that time was funny out here as well for I do not know how long I was adrift before finding a small ship. I spent the better part of a day trying to climb aboard. I broke all of my nails off as my chains of burden pulled me back down the side ladder numerous times. At sunset, I finally managed to haul everything onto the deck. I stayed on my back for a long time, laughing. At that moment, all of my worries seemed trivial.
I finally went below deck. My first look into the mirror shocked me. It was as if some stranger was staring back at me. How could I have let myself go this far down the rabbit hole? Disgust filled me. I spent a very long time cleaning myself up. To my complete shock, I still did not recognize the person in the mirror. I had changed somehow. Lines were around my eyes that were not there before. Grey hairs mingled in my locks like the invaders that they are. When the hell did this happen? As I shook my head in dismay, my chains clinked again, reminding me how it happened. I knew it would continue unless I found home.
I taught myself to navigate the seas. It was slow work, but satisfying. I started seeing that beacon of light again. I figured out how to turn my own on and would shine it back. It was nice to know that I was not floating out here alone. Soon, other beacons shined my way. I returned the favor in hopes that they would find the same peace that I did upon seeing them. It turns out that I was right!
I began to meet others that were adrift on this lonely sea. They too, had their own chains to carry. Some were heavier than mine, others lighter. We would spend time with our ships tied together and share our burdens. When we parted, our loads seemed lighter. After all of these long years, I can tell you that there is no greater feeling. I began to hope that home was possible to find again. I just had to keep going towards the light.
One day, a beacon caught my eye. I navigated closer to it. To my surprise, it was not just a beacon, but a searchlight. It was my way home. Once it caught me in its light, it shined even brighter. Hope flourished, real hope. I set sail towards my salvation. Every single day, I was granted gifts by my angel in the darkness. I knew my small beacon did nothing to match its brilliance, but I shared it anyway. Months passed in this fashion. I could see the shore in the distance. Home. I had finally found it. My heart leapt with joy! Home.
To my dismay, the searchlight went out. I could faintly see it on the horizon. Another week or two and I would reach it. Standing in my way were perilous rocks. If I was not careful, I would crash upon them, never reaching my destination. My heart grew heavy with worry even though I would catch a spark of light from the searchlight. As I grew closer, I could see it was mounted in a light house. It had seen better days. Someone had neglected this once handsome structure. My heart sank. How could someone do this to such a beacon of hope? With new found determination, I pushed my ship faster than I should have. I forgot all about my own safety in my attempts to reach the light house, my home. My ship crashed upon the rocks and was turned into scrap wood. I was left to either sink or try to swim for the shore.
For days upon days, the waves threw me against the rocks. My chains tried to drag me down to the eternal blackness of the sea floor. I fought with every ounce of my fleeting strength. By the time I reached the shore, I was battered and bruised. I coughed up sea water until my throat ruptured and I tasted blood. I no longer had the strength to stand so I crawled on all fours towards my destiny. The way was slow. Several times I had to back pedal to unhook my chains that were growing in weight. Debris from the beach clung to them, adding to my burden. I wanted to give up. I wanted to let it all end. Was home really worth all of this pain?
As if to answer me, once again, a faint light flickered out of the search light. Crying, I began to crawl again. My heart lived inside that light house. It was my home. It needed me to be there, to remain strong. I had to reach it no matter the cost to myself. Home was all that mattered. Home, like I said, was where my heart resided. Once I reached it, the chains would finally fall off and I would be free.
Crawling, digging, fighting for every inch, I made my way to the first step. I saw the searchlight flicker as if cheering me on. Its light was fading. I could see it was growing more difficult for it to produce light for me. I had to hurry. With every bit of my fleeting strength, I pulled myself up that first step. I heard something snap. A scream erupted out of my mouth. A chain had let go. With it, it took part of me. I knew before I had made it to the top, a lot more of myself would have to be sacrificed. Somehow this was comforting. Nothing in life was worth having unless you fought for it.
Fought I did. By the time I reached the inside staircase, half of my chains had ripped free. I was bleeding heavily. This did not sway my determination. All that was left was the winding, spiral staircase. After how far I had come, I was not going to give up now. I was so very close. I started to climb the stairs on my hands and knees. The going was slow and incredibly painful. With each step, another chain broke free. I could no longer scream in agony. My voice was gone. All I could muster was a single tear gently rolling down my tired face. And still, I climbed.
Two long weeks later, I reached the top. I did not resemble the person who started this journey all those years ago. I was someone different. One last chain remained. It was the heaviest of them all. It would take everything that I had in me to break free. I looked at the searchlight. Its light was so weak now. The bulb was shorting out. I reached for the box of bulbs but found that I could not grab them. My last chain kept me too far away. I was stuck unable to do the one thing that needed to be done. The light flickered out pleading for help. Its call was answered by an angel of mercy.
While I lied, helpless on the floor, the angel swooped to the rescue and changed the dying bulb. The light was slow to burn brightly. It took a long time for it to reach its former warmth and glory. The angel was patient, providing nurturing guidance and love. I watched from my corner. It pained me greatly to see that after fighting so hard, I could not complete this final task. It was then that I realized something profound. I was not meant to complete it. I was there to witness this miracle. I was there to offer love and support, to cheer the angel on. With this revelation, the last chain broke free. Instead of pain, there was peaceful bliss. The angel smiled upon me. I had learned the last lesson. I could finally go home.
My journey has been a painful one but I have learned much. We all create a special kind of hell for ourselves. There are those that will shine a light upon us to guide us out of our self-made darkness. There are others that will provide false tunnels in hopes that you will smack your face upon the dead end. You must persevere. Yes, there are days that the chains that bind us will threaten to break us. If you fight long enough and hard enough, you will find your way home. Cradle those candles of hope to your chests. Let the warmth spread into your soul. Angels of mercy exist for a reason. Let them do what you cannot. Learn from their deeds. If you do all of this, you will find your way home, at last.