Lauren Bell: Burrowing Blind

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We follow wherever our hands take us which is kind of silly when you think about it, putting your trust in your extremities when most of the time it’s best not to think about those sort of things. But we are all in the same boat, bound with the same rope, in the same place, facing the same task. And we’ve all ended up here having pursued the same path.

Another thing you should know is that we are blind; a legion of us cast into perpetual darkness like stones tossed into a bottomless pit, each one living in the other’s shadow. Not that we are able to distinguish light from dark, day from night, dusk from dawn.

You see, everything happened so quickly; one minute I was living in the normal realm, basking in the sunshine, my name was something associated with light, Aurora (I think, or perhaps it was Luna, no, something much less fancy); the next I was banished into No Man’s Land where now I am merely a number – 4589.

I have no idea what this number means, or whether it means anything at all.

That’s how we are referred to down here. Sometimes it takes me back to my bingo-playing days. Two fat ladies. Legs eleven. Kelly’s eye. Except the thrill has gone and been replaced with the impending feeling of dread. Numbers have replaced names, which in turn have erased identities.

Losing my sight wasn’t as painful as it sounds. It was a relatively simple process meticulously planned to teach us a lesson. Some said it was cruel, a form of bullying which wouldn’t go amiss in a school playground. Secretly I agreed, but was too afraid to speak out. Numbers 4519, 3786 and 3147 had all spoken out. Now their numbers are swear words, obsolete and confined to the hollowed recesses of our minds. You utter them at your own peril.

The rope frays from the multiple hands passing along its length, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. Monotony soon sets in, and I picture our lives as pencil sketches, monochrome watercolours where mauves, yellows and greens are hues from another world, a different age where life had a distinct meaning.

Here, everything is indistinct, vague, ambiguous. Concrete doesn’t exist, yet ironically purpose does. Our purpose is to continue pulling the ropes, passing along them like trapeze artists. One slip that’s all it takes. Game over. And no-one wants to make a mistake, otherwise you’ll find yourself suspended in mid-air, no floor, no ceiling, nothing. Just endless space. In-fin-ity. I never want to find myself in that position. Ever. So I stick to what I know, what I’m good at (so they say). No questions asked.

In the beginning my hands would smart from friction burns, great calluses deforming each palm so that it took me twice as long to pass from one rope to another. The ropes come in various thicknesses; some are traditional big sturdy ropes, smooth to touch; others are thin and resemble twine. These are the ones you have to be especially careful with otherwise you end up with severe gashes in each palm, the unfamiliar wetness flooding your hands.

I have no idea what we are searching for, or whether there is an end to this rope maze. Number 2129 is still in front, leading the way. I’ve heard numerous voices call 2129 teacher’s pet, but I doubt he is anyone’s pet, not with that booming voice. Somehow, I’ve a funny feeling that sight is top on 2129’s wish list, as it is on mine and everyone else’s, except 5131 who embraces her recent blindness.

The only voices around me are men’s, brusque and gravelly, reminding me of grit. Sometimes if they are particularly vexed, their words will catch in the back of their throats and they will practically cough up their lungs to voice their opinions. Me? Well, I only voice my opinion when the time is right and reckon that’s how I got my nickname – Bo Peep. You see, the others are my sheep, although 2129 is so far up ahead he rarely comes into contact with anyone.

We’re on to a different rope now, no longer frayed and scrawny but plump and soft. I hear fifty other relieved sighs as successive hands are soothed by the manufactured smoothness.

I grin.

The guys around me fall silent.

Suddenly the blaring wail of a distant siren sounds, alerting the others to this exact spot. A hand grabs my wrist accompanied by ‘quick quick, we haven’t any time to lose’, and I recognise number 1418’s voice; the only person who took me under his wing, and literally showed me the ropes.

Losing one sense does have its advantages; it means that the remaining four acquire a superhuman sensitivity. I have come to rely on my hearing, my sense of smell and touch in order to survive, although not everyone down here is blind and their job is to keep us in line.

Questions pass through the various tunnels as we plough onwards, our feet pummelling the wooden duckboards, my breath escaping in gasps, my heart pounding fit to burst. I want to ask 1418 where are we going, who and what are we running from and why is this happening? But they remain unasked questions, clogging up my thoughts. We have run through countless tunnels, climbed up random ladders and slid down various poles.

‘Hurry now, let’s not dawdle.’

Dawdle? I’m running flat out, my legs accelerating at full speed and apparently I’m dawdling.

‘I’m…trying…my…hardest,’ I say.

1418 laughs. ‘Well, try harder.’

I think about Bo Peep abandoning her sheep and a wave of disgust washes over me.

‘I shouldn’t be doing this,’ I say.

Again 1418 laughs.  ‘You don’t have a choice…Bo.’

The siren has faded now, swallowed by the giant tunnels. I take comfort in the fact that there are other blind folk equally stranded within this abyss. We can only guess what rotten detritus falls from the walls, littering our way, or the unsightly creatures that scritch scratch and chitter through the night.

1418 hasn’t loosened his grip since he took hold of my wrist. His palm is surprisingly smooth and I find myself wondering if he has a secret stash of hand cream somewhere. No doubt my sheep back home would be grateful for the pilfered luxury item, especially 2579 who always complains about the mounting number of calluses erupting on his palms. I’d give anything to put an end to his whinging.

Just as I’m about to ask 1418 for some of his creamy bounty, we enter a narrow passage which is a lot colder than expected and do all that I can to prevent myself from shivering.

‘Hang in there, Bo.’

‘That’s just my nickname,’ I say, feeling stupid at the pathetic whine of my voice.

‘Tell me your real name then.’

I swallow hard; my mouth dry as parchment. What was my real name? Truth told, I couldn’t remember.

‘I can’t remember,’ I say, shrinking away from 1418’s body heat.

‘No shit. You don’t even know your own name? Not many people can say that.’

‘You mean to say that you remember your  name?’

‘Sure I do. It’s…’

I wait, my ears straining for the name I long to hear; that little spark of magic which would surely lift me out of the shadows and deliver me into the light.

His grasp loosens as he searches the recesses of his mind.

‘Don’t give up. Please try to remember.’

He sighs.

‘Please 1418. Bo needs you.’

His chuckle is like music to me, and I reach up feeling the tension in his smooth muscular throat and my body grows numb. He doesn’t move. Not even a flinch. But I can tell he’s remembering. My fingers pass over his fleshy lips and suddenly random flashes of light penetrate the darkness like mini fireworks, forking letters across my sight. The first letter is L; I see it as clearly as I used to see the world.

‘Goddamn it,’ he cries. ‘I nearly had it.’

‘Shhh. Just focus. Concentrate.’

The tunnel grows warmer, the bond of togetherness and hope seemingly melting the steel core of the unseen authoritative force. 1418 must have felt it too, since he laughs manically, wild cackles erupting throughout the caverns.

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Everything’s becoming clearer. I see an L…U…C – ‘

‘Keep going.’

‘An…A and an…S.’

‘Lucas! Your name is Lucas.’

Lucas (formerly 1418) finds my face, his hands searching my cheeks, my nose, chin, and finally my eyes.

‘Wait! There’s more. Other letters.’

I cling to him, not knowing whether this is some cruel prank created by an evil mind in charge or whether it is the truth – spelt out in angelic white. I desperately scan the darkness trying to make sense out of the tangle of letters before me, when Lucas suddenly brings his face so very close to mine; our breaths mingle creating a jet stream and instantly I see what Lucas sees – four blinding white letters scarring our retinas, bleaching our sight – D A W N.

Lucas’s voice rings deep in my ears. And the more I think about it, the more it sounds familiar and makes sense.

‘You did it,’ I cry.

We did it.’

And then he picks me up, lifting me out of the shadows and presents me to the waking day. The air is cool and refreshing, gradually sweeping my sight into soft focus. The unfamiliar brightness stings my eyes and I shriek, squinting like a blind mole at the world as my pupils suddenly dilate on first impact. Everything is a blurred smudge before the outlines of buildings, streetlights and traffic bleed their way into my newly-restored sight. I recognise trees, public parks, pedestrians swarming the landscape before me, teaching me what reality is, what it has always been and what it continues to be.

This is life, I think. My heart swells beneath this luxury, and I peer down to see Lucas blazing in all his glory and grinning from ear to ear.

‘You ready for this Bo? Sorry, Dawn,’ he says, flushing deeply.

‘You bet.’

‘Welcome home,’ he says and throws me up into the air, his voice carrying me out of No Man’s Land and into the waiting world beyond.

black tree

Photo by Tomek Dzido.

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