It was the opening to a tunnel; it was where the fresh air, and the gurgling, came from. Why hadn’t he noticed the tunnel before? It was stuffed with cables and Kurt must have taken it for part of the manhole wall. Nothing unusual: the tunnel led to the next manhole. It provided access for a steel line in case the cables needed fixing. The problem with Kurt’s theory was that the tunnel wasn’t stuffed with cables. If it was filled with anything it was fresh air, carrying a spring-like scent of fresh grass and blossoming flowers. There was birdsong; soft light hovered at the entrance to the tunnel like an airy creature. He could not have overlooked that. It had simply not been there when he had descended into the manhole. The feather must have opened the tunnel. Astounding! And just as astounding was the fact that the tunnel entrance was level. Really level: no step, no matter how small, no threshold; nothing preventing a smooth ride. That the entrance was also wide enough for a wheelchair, providing a width of thirty inches, made Kurt feel lucky—luckier than he felt in front of the many entrances in the aboveground world that still stubbornly refused him access.
Slowly, carefully testing the ground with his small front wheels, he rolled into the tunnel. It was solid rock, Manhattan schist. The walls on both sides consisted of hardened dirt alternating with stretches of rock. The ceiling was low, but high enough for someone in a chair or as small as J. Hugo Oltman. The wind kept blowing fresh air through the tunnel, and was picking up strength. Scanning the walls, Kurt hoped to find something that would confirm that he actually was under the park. A faded hair-dye bottle or a porcelain piece of a child’s doll would have been a sign of the bourgeoisie that had lived around Washington Square, and still did. A buckle from a uniform that would have suggested the long-gone presence of soldiers using the field for military exercise or a single bone from the many victims of yellow fever that were buried here when the site had been a potter’s field. But there were only worms and beetles and roots. Kurt was moving through unspoiled, pure earth.
The tunnel broadened, and the walls receded. There was an open field and a narrow trail winding through it. The fresh smell of spring—now the aroma of strawberries mingled with that of eucalyptus and everything else—grew stronger, and there was the sound of moving water. Kurt understood: he was on the Sapokanikan Trail, the Lenape’s ancient hunting path, where they’d also waged war and conducted trade. The gurgling grew louder, and for the first time, he also heard a hissing. It was the fierce gurgling of an untamed river. Kurt’s heart beat faster: Finally he would see the fabled Minetta Creek with his own eyes, Sam’s monster banished for all times underground, except for the splash in a Plexiglas tube in the lobby of a building on Lower Fifth Avenue!
“There you are,” Tara said with a broad smile.
from River-Madness or The Miracle of Tara. An American Dreaming