By: Erin Russell
I found the book in 1928, bound in tattered silk and covered in the scent of a time long past. It was resting deep beneath the surface of northern Italy, along the wall of a tunnel I found while backpacking through the mountains. Hundreds of papers stuck out along the edges of the book, the cover dyed as if by the roots of roasted beets. I brushed away the dirt, the words foreign to my tongue: Labyrinthos de Gimal.¹
Entranced, I watched the flecks of dust emanate from the pages and float around me, the tunnels cool and dark beyond the beams of my lamp. Roots from plants and trees lined the ceiling of the tunnel, twisting above my head and all around. Behind me, sunlight seeped in from the entrance. I was alone. It was summer in Italy, and in that brief moment, somewhere far ahead, deeper into the tunnels, I thought I heard the laughter of children.
As an archeologist and historian, I considered myself an expert on a few matters, one of them my intense and diligent study of empires dating all the way back to 480 B.C.E. Before Gimal, I discovered lost sites of civilizations across the globe, helped uncover countless burial sites, artifacts and tombs, and had given voice to civilizations lost to the ages. But never, in all my years, had I ever heard of Gimal.²
I took the book out of the tunnels in which it had rested and began my research on the ancient city. While flipping through it one night, the sun deep on the other side of the earth and my cup of tea long cold, I discovered notes scribbled along the margins of the text, the ink blotched and faded from time: labyrinth, children, sign of home. Some of the notes referred to pages that had been ripped out, the remnants left in shreds clinging to its binding. Others traveled the margins and between the spaces of text, the language soft and rolling as one would say croon or plum. I let the words touch my lips, felt them roll off my tongue, whispering the words in the darkness of my hut. I followed their course, traveling through the meandering paths, sometimes only looking up to find that I had lost track of time, my candle nothing more than melted wax puddled on the table.
Sometimes, whole pages of the book unfolded into delicate maps drawn in fine ink, of temples and towers with rooftop baths, while other pages held dried flowers and herbs in cloth pockets. There, between thick kozo paper, they remained elusive to time, trapped from sunlight and decay. And near the back in smeared ink, someone had drawn the figures of people in various forms of occupation: a child dipping her hand into a fountain, an elderly man sitting on a chair in a ray of sunshine, a woman combing back her hair. I studied the strokes of ink that painted these shades of people long turned to dust. Sometimes the pictures came with words that seemed to be their names. I would whisper them, whisper the words that trailed around the pages, follow them from cover to cover. Even when sleep beckoned me, I pursued the language of the book, taunting me with its familiarity.³
I spent many years decoding the book on Gimal. Between the shelves of European libraries, I lost and found myself deep in the catacombs of books, only to reappear to the world after several days of relentless study, hands full of notes, references and more questions to be answered. Was it real?
Clues of Gimal were everywhere. With each question I managed to answer, I discovered that two more had leapt into its place, leading me to the four winds. Sometimes, I found myself waking at night remembering the life I had before my encounter with the book of Gimal—of the sounds of people talking over dinner at cafes, of coffee brewing in the morning back home, how clouds reflected in windows of houses back in the states. Those days were gone, my life now enveloped in the consumption of foreign words: words scrawled in ink, words typed in the back of post cards that whispered of Gimal, words that whispered of hidden tombs with nameless bodies across Europe and the Mediterranean Sea.
The city of Gimal was walled entirely from the outside world— a hidden gem that shut out barbarians, warring clans, and neighboring empires looking to expand their borders and capture the lush mountain valleys of Gimal. The Dolomite Mountains surrounded the city for hundreds of miles, the nearest civilization about three hundred miles to the south. Although no gateways led into the city, merchants and traders came and went on multiple pulley systems surrounding the walls, their mules and carts of goods pulled up by the turning of a giant wheel.
But there were other ways out of the city. In a chapter titled Labyrinthos de Gimal, I found pictures of a cavernous pit that swallowed the center of the city, and in diagrams on later pages, I found hundreds of tunnels that encircled the city from beneath, and in all directions beyond. The finding made my palms sweat, and although I was in a library in Germany, searching for other ancient labyrinths, I remembered the tunnels from which the book had come, and knew I had been inside the labyrinth of Gimal.⁴
The outside world had lost its luster—the color of vintage wine, the flowers growing along a dirt road in rural France, the clean soapy smell behind the soft dip of a woman’s ear—all that was once considered beautiful, was gone. I only found pleasure in the words that painted Gimal. In them, I saw what made the world outside fade. And sometimes, I heard them. I heard the songs they sang during the festivals, heard the sounds of their markets in the streets, the chiming of bells hung in the towers of their citadel. The children as they ran in the streets. They breathed as I read, and sometimes, sucking the very air from my lungs.
The people of Gimal each had to travel the labyrinth twice in their lifetimes, to leave and return to the city as a rite of passage. Their religion, Gahaal, believed one had to journey the labyrinth in order to understand their own destiny and the fate of their souls in the time after death. It wasn’t them, the people who chose the path they took in life, and after, but the celestial stars, which the Gimalians believed to be the scribes of their fate. The labyrinth in all its twisting tunnels, was the temple to their stars and the judge of their souls.
Once a child reached the age of reasoning, they were sent into the labyrinth with only a candle to find where they belonged. Whether it was their beloved city, beyond the wall and sea, in the depths of the darkest of tunnels, or in lands only heard of in stories, the children’s destinies all depended on the labyrinth of Gimal. The only guide for the children was a series of symbols etched in rocks at cross roads, in the barks of trees, or painted on buildings, called the Sign of Home. For hundreds of years, the Gimalians upheld this tradition, and many children never returned.⁵
I had known for a long time that the book would lead me back to the tunnels from whence it came. Gimal, and the answers of its existence, could only be found there and not between the pages of books. I was in Petrograd during the winter of 1939, deep beneath one of the churches that lined the Russian capitol. An Orthodox priest had found a crypt entrance marked with a symbol, a door that opened to a solid wall of earth. Whispers of this found me when I was in Austria, and when I reached the church, the priest led me to this crypt, muttering prayers and crossing himself as he stood outside the room. I fell to my knees when I opened the thick wooden door at the bottom of the staircase, for there on the wall of earth, as if waiting for me after all these centuries to
pass, was a Gimalian Sign of Home.
In the nights before my journey back to where I had first discovered the book, I dreamt of the cool air that had sunk into my lungs, how the roots of trees above wove themselves into the walls and down beyond the beams of my lamp. In my dreams, I ran through the labyrinth, carrying nothing but a starved desire to see sunlight. Sometimes in those dreams, I would see figures ahead of me, small and thin and dashing into the darkness before I could reach them. And sometimes, in the early hours of the mornings when the darkness was still thick, I’d light a candle and sit in its light and wait for the sun to chase away the night.
It was 1941 when I returned to the tunnels. War ravaged Europe and the countryside of northern Italy echoed with the engines of planes that flew overhead, ripping the clouds and tranquility so shortly kept. But the land was untouched by war at this time, and I felt grateful for it. The locals were cautious when they saw a figure walking into the mountains, but I remained alone and unbothered. The entrance was nothing more than a small crevice on the side of one of the larger mountains of the Dolormite Mountain Range. I used to think that finding it was pure luck, I on a back-packing trip and seeking shelter for the night. But over the years, I found myself believing otherwise.
When I found the crevice, I immediately noticed that the coordinates which I had used to mark it in 1928 were off by several degrees. I ignored this, and felt the cool air rushing to greet me, the cloudless sky covered in everlasting blue. Had I known this was going to be the last patch of blue I would see for several weeks, I would have stood there in its glory for several minutes more. But with the book in my backpack and a lantern guiding my steps into the cool darkness that seemed to breathe me in, I entered the labyrinth of Gimal.⁶
The tunnels seemed to never end. To keep my mind busy, I counted the number of forks in the tunnels, etching each one with chalk to guide my way back. When I reached the fiftieth fork, my legs tired and my feet swollen and sore, I stopped and sat along the wall. Down there, night was eternal. To comfort myself in moments of panic, I would open the book of Gimal and read their stories to forget my own. I found solace from the darkness in the words scrawled across the pages, in the pictures delicately painted of those who once lived.
I lost count of the days I spent in the tunnels, telling myself I would surely find my own Sign of Home, or some peek of sunshine. The pictures in the book depicted the symbols the ancients carved along the pathways, some reminiscent of Celtic knots, winding loops encircling sunsets, while others were lost in the smudges of ink. I searched for them in the tunnels, and I found none. My body ached when I walked, and my breathing labored, but hope was what sustained me.
If a child did not return after one turn of the sun, as was custom, the child was deemed lost. Their belongings were burned and the ashes scattered over the walls of the city, and prayers were whispered between the bowed heads of their families. According to the traditions of Gahaal, it was encouraged for the parents to forget, move on and accept.⁷ ⁸
It was snowing when I found my Sign of Home. A breeze woke me from my sleep, my body huddled against the wall, cold and biting at the bare skin of my face. When I had fallen asleep moments or hours before, there had been no sign of light. I crawled to it, the book hugged to my chest with cracked and bleeding hands. I saw it, the silvery white light seeping down into the darkness. Snow covered the stairs leading to the surface, the opening small and hard to crawl through.
When I left the tunnels of Gimal, the sky was a brilliant and agonizing blue. I guessed that three weeks had gone by since I first entered it. Snow kissed my skin, its descent silent and indifferent to the haggard man standing in its wake. But in that moment, I wondered about the children, and what they thought of the world that had spread out before them, bright and terrifying. I wondered if some of the children decided to stay and abandon their families. And if they did, I wondered if they ever told the stories of Gimal, and its labyrinth. The mountains towered above, and miles below, a city twinkled in the fading light of day. A part of me thought that I would somehow leave the world I knew and find Gimal as it were in the book, shining and elusive in humankind’s memory. But these were the fantasies of a man starved of food and sunlight.
I left the book there on the top step of the tunnel. The book cried out to me, but when I turned my back and walked away, I knew it was long gone, somewhere where the stars needed it to be. The entrance had vanished, the labyrinth redirecting its course. I wondered if I was the last person to ever know of it.
I would like to say that I never again went looking for the lost city of Gimal, or returned to the tunnels in search of more answers, but in the moments after turning my back from the book, in the snow ahead were the footprints of children.⁹
- Labyrinth of Gimal
- Gimal (Ga-Mal): a) City of Shadows, b) Daughter of god Margulis, who ran away to love the mortal Hiya (Hee-ya), c) Protector of children.
- “We woke our children at midnight. Their eyes were dark from lack of sleep and their hands clung to our waists. Along cheek bones and eyelashes were traces of tears that had pooled along the curves of faces still soft after seven turns of the sun. In our houses across the city of Gimal, we held our children for the brief moment we could. We pressed to our memories the way it felt to hold them, the way their hair and kisses smelled of rain in sunshine.And when we left, the city streets were lit by the moon, wet and reflecting the clouds above, hiding the stories of the stars.The children asked us if we loved them, our hands holding theirs. We told them yes. We knew they knew about tonight, but we pretended to the end that we did not, even when they asked us if we would see them again. We told them we would.”
- “We watched the children as they stood before the mouth of the labyrinth, a hole that swallowed all light. Stairs spiraled down, lining the walls and disappearing somewhere beneath the darkness. We tried to forget those fallen children whose bones littered the stairs on the way to the bottom. Blinking back the memories, we watched our children’s naked knees shake in the wind that howled up from the pit, each hand clutching a candle. We stood, crowding the area as we strained to keep our eyes locked on them. The air hummed with our breaths, waiting for the moment we all knew was to come.That night, fifty children were chosen to travel the labyrinth and the high priests stood before them, murmuring words of blessings, and of the Sign of Home. The children dipped their fingers in bowls of oil that gleamed golden in the dark. They etched the Sign of Home over the back of their hands and bowed their heads as the priests chanted over them. We mouthed the words with them. May the stars above bring you back from the depths below.”
- “The children entered the labyrinth, candles lit as they passed the priests standing along the edge, their long dark robes dripping down the edges and into the pit. The slightest breeze threatened the small licks of flame. In the nights leading up to this moment, we told the children stories of the bard who sang songs to his fire, how he traveled the labyrinth one hundred times in his life, leaving treasures in tunnels along the way. We told them the story of the blind girl who returned after seven years, and of the tale of the golden bird that guided lost children to sunlight. We told them that the stories were true.Yet, tonight was a time for silence, and it was deafening. With our hearts beating in time with the footsteps of our children, we told each other in whispers that they will find the Sign of Home, just as we had when we traveled the labyrinth.”
- “When we returned to our empty homes, we tried to not imagine them, our children walking alone in the darkness. The priests urged us to move on and not wait. To go about our lives and pray to the stars and forget. If they are meant to be our children, the stars will have it written. They will come home. But some of us had children before, and had lost them to the stars. We could never forget them, so we followed them in our thoughts, through the hundreds of miles of paths and tunnels leading to gardens and morgues, temples and brothels thick with the scent of burning incense and red wine. We followed them along the hot sparkling shores of the Mediterranean Sea and through orchards of grapes and plums dripping from branches, sweet and ripe on the tongue. The outside world was cruelly beautiful, and we sometimes visited it in our memories—the gardens of lotus flowers and lilies with pools that reflected our once small faces, the mountains that reached beyond the clouds. We remembered where our feet once carried us and hoped and prayed to the distant stars that our children would follow our footsteps. We prayed despite not believing the stars would listen. We were to wait a year before the children were expected to arrive, so as the sun disappeared beyond the outer walls, we etched the passing of another day above our beds and counted the marks before we fell asleep each night.But it was the first night that always made our skin shiver and reach for one another in the darkness of our quiet houses. It was the terrible emptiness that could not be filled without the sounds of children waking up for a drink of water, or the sounds of their feet pattering like the rain as they ran.We knew that the candles our children carried would extinguish after the first night, the darkness becoming one with them. We knew that if they had not found their way out of the tunnels before the darkness swallowed them, they were lost forever.”
- “For it is not we who are the cartographers of our destiny, but rather those who make up the heavens above and beyond.”
- “It was spring when the bells of the labyrinth rang. We heard them from all the corners of the city, high and full of hope. It broke into the daily busyness we made for ourselves to distract our minds from the memories of our children, and our feet hardly touched the cobble stones as we ran to the center—our child had come back. We knew it deep in our bones.The child had grown and returned in pieces of the one who had left months ago. We recognized him, saw the change. He stood as if a shadow, his skin gray and hair dark from lack of sun. Yet, it was his eyes that had changed most. They stared at us, large and questioning; they had seen much beyond the labyrinth. But he only belonged to one of us, and his mother cried when his eyes turned to her, his body small yet grown. She fell to the ground as he drew near, the priests guiding him as they sang the song of blessing. The rest of us sank into ourselves, the crack and popping sounds of our hope breaking, leaving us to wonder why the stars ignored us. In the many days that followed, we listened for the sound of the labyrinth bells that would sing a child’s homecoming. We waited.Over time, the skies above Gimal turned gray with the smell of smoke and burning memories. We loved our children, but could not continue the hope that ate away at our days. Some children returned, but most remained gone after the first turn of the sun. In the end, we all stopped waiting and pretending they will come.”
- Some of the children who never made it home lived the remainder of their lives along the path of the labyrinth, along river beds covered in olive trees, rice fields within Asia Minor, or deep inside teeming cities with streets of cobbled stones.Sometimes they dreamt of the families they lost, faces blurred from time, but their voices still calling from above the edge of the pit. They remembered how rain fell on the night they descended the staircase littered with bones, and the smell of rotten air that sank in their lungs.Whether out of nostalgia or a resurgence of hope, those who had once given up their search for Gimal would sometimes walk the silent black corridors, their weathered hands gripping candles, ears pointed to the endless caverns, as if hoping to hear even the faintest of whispers of Gimal, or finally, after all the years that had passed, find their Sign of Home.