BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
by Su Falcon
As he eased out with a final breath, Harrus looked down at his body in dismay. Too soon, he thought, too soon. My work is not yet finished.##
The corpse was draped across a table, skin drawn from age and pallid in death. The hood of a coarse-spun robe had fallen back, showing an ill-kept monk’s tonsure -- the bristly dome of the abandoned shave fringed with unruly white hair.
Almost close enough to singe the hair, the flame from a solitary candle mounted on a pewter holder continued to burn low; the flame sputtered, then snuffed out. But even in the pitch of darkness, Harrus’ bodiless perspective did not dim.
Harrus had expired from a fatigued heart. The irregular palpitations and shooting pains up his left arm had provided ample forewarning, and for the last week he’d spent tedious hours wearing down the nibs on his finely-sharpened quills, hoping to finish his life’s work before he was summoned.
By day, he’d written with his rough table drawn close to the open window, the warmth of the sun a reassuring comfort for his weary flesh. As the sunlight faded, he would pull the shutter against the dark, light a lonely candle and continue working while the other monks slept their brief respite, his intense concentration aiding his disregard for the chill of night.
The uncompleted parchment that sat beneath his now-lifeless hands lacked the beauty and perfection of his earlier writings. In his haste, he’d discarded the usual conventions of illustrated borders and meticulous calligraphy. Looking now at the careless script, he doubted that his predecessors would be impressed enough to read it, much less preserve it. His urgency had destroyed any chance of his legacy surviving him.
But it was just as well, for freed from corporeal bonds, suppressed memories began to ricochet around him like light from the shards of a shattered mirror.
In life, Harrus had seen the body only as a vessel for the soul. Now he recognized the fallacy of that thinking. The body was not a container, but rather a constraining collar that held him in check, preventing him from realizing the full nature of his spiritual existence.
Yet even as he experienced this freedom he felt an inexplicable restraint, for behind his thoughts, skimming the surface of his awareness, he could perceive the ripple of a whisper. “Time to return... must go back....” It felt like his own voice, but the intent was not his.
He required more time to remember, time to understand. Still, the voice was compelling. For a brief moment, he contemplated that perhaps he should follow the command... and in that instant the room around him dissolved.
Where he next found himself was at once frightening and familiar. He had reached the undiscovered country, and the light was so intense that it burned away to darkness.
When Harold was twelve, his father declared that he was done with schooling and ready to shoulder a man’s load, so the boy began to work beside his father in the fields. But in those early years, he would slip away whenever possible from his father’s stern hand and watchful eye and go down to the creek. Splashing water on his face, he would cool the sweat from his sun-reddened brow while he ruminated on the thoughts that constantly crowded his mind. The movement of the water as it ran over and around the smooth stones cooled his spirit as well, inspiring a sense of continuity, instilling the feeling that the circle of life was truly eternal.
Once, he’d asked his father, “Pa, what happens to somebody when they die? Don’t some part of them linger on somehow?” Harold was thinking of his mother, grasping at vague memories snipped out of soft, good smells, a warm breast against his cheek, the faded pattern of an old apron.
His father, exhausted from a day of tilling fields and worried that the rains wouldn’t come soon enough to save the parched acres of corn that threatened stillborn crops, turned his frustrations on his only son. “Don’t waste your time frettin’ over the afterlife when you still got chores to do in this one,” he told the boy. “Now git!” And when Harold didn’t move fast enough, he felt the power of his father’s words reinforced by the heavy leather strap that hung on a hook beside the kitchen door. It was not the first time he’d felt it, or the last.
Harold was sixteen when his father died, leaving him alone on the farm. His first act was to throw away the strap. His second was to make a silent vow that he’d never turn his own children away from exploring the mysteries of life. His third was to walk down the lonely road to the next farm over and ask for the hand of Kate, a young girl with a gentle face and strong back who was only a few months older than himself.
He and Kate married on the first day of the new century, and while their early years together were difficult, they survived well in silent harmony, each doing what was needed to keep the small farm going.
When Kate was carrying their first child, Harold found her standing one day in the middle of the chicken yard, surrounded by hungry hens, the bucket of feed resting undistributed beside her feet. Tears streamed down her dusty face, leaving glistening trails on her cheeks.
He approached her slowly, almost cautiously, as though not to startle her. Instead of asking why she grieved, he laid a gentle hand upon her swollen belly. “Such a miracle,” he said to her, “that you can create a new life.”
“That we can create it,” she corrected softly, then smiled. He didn’t see her cry again for almost forty years, even in the pains of labor.
A farmer’s existence is not easy, but his understanding that the cows depended on him to relieve the pressure in their udders gave him a reason to rise each morning. As he planted the seeds and tended the long furrows, he relished the order he contributed to nature’s gifts, proud of the green shoots that reached toward heaven from the rich earth. Such labors provided Harold’s motivation from day to day, season to season. And the responsibility of knowing that his wife and children depended on him to keep food on the table, clothes on their backs and a dry roof over their heads consumed him so thoroughly that the years flew by faster than a blue jay sweeping down on an unsuspecting barn cat.
He now had three strong and loyal sons to work the farm for him. They loved the life that he willingly turned over to them, and the farm flourished and prospered under their care in a manner that amazed him. Despite the Depression that seemed to ravage the rest of the country, their land promised easy support for generations to come as they reinvested each year’s profits in buying up the smaller failing farms that surrounded them.
But when Harold tried to turn family conversation over supper to matters less mundane and more spiritual, the boys gently directed the subject back to the weather, the condition of the new seed, or the hopes of replacing the horse-drawn plow with a tractor by spring. It dismayed him that his children remained, as his father had been, preoccupied with the ordinary.
The questions that possessed Harold were vague, and his apprehension grew with each passing year. He’d never been much of a reader, or he would have realized that he was not the first to ponder those things he pondered.
As the boys found brides, they completely took over the farm. Harold sat for longer and longer spells in his rocker on the shady porch, watching the grandchildren who seemed to sit still less than the sparrows that flitted around the hen house trying to steal the chickens’ grain.
He wasn’t a church-going soul like his wife Kate. Kate never talked religion, but every night for as long as they’d been married, she would bend her knees before getting into bed and mumble a quiet prayer of thanks for all God had given them.
One day Harold wandered into town on some vague pretext, and found himself knocking at the rectory door. Over weak coffee laced with strong brandy, he’d poured his troubled thoughts onto a kind and listening ear.
“You’re a good man, Harold,” the preacher tried to reassure. “I don’t truck with the idea that the way to get to Heaven is to show up at worship Sunday morning regardless what you did the night before. And I’ve seen over the years that every time a neighbor got himself into trouble, every time a friend was down on his luck, you were the first in line with a helping hand.”
“Maybe I ain’t askin’ right,” Harold said, “but don’t it make more sense that folks’d get a chance to come back agin and make up for anything unfinished they mighta left behind?”
The preacher was an educated man, and had read of heathens in other parts of the world whose views were more in keeping with Harold’s strange speculations than he could admit to comfortably. He was torn between loyalties to his church and his desire to answer the uneducated farmer’s questions as honestly as he could.
“Heaven,” he told Harold, “is where men of good will and loving spirit are taken into the bosom of God, and their sins forgiven. Where our souls are filled with an everlasting joy and holy bliss.”
Harold stood, hat in hand. “No disrespect meant, sir, but your heaven sounds boring as all get out to a simple man like me.” As he walked out the rectory door, the nagging dread moved in a little closer to the periphery of his vision, a chimerical beast waiting to pounce.
His body grew stiff from age and disuse, and restful sleep became a much-sought but elusive friend. On nights where he met his slumber before the dawn, his dreams were filled with visions of bare stone walls that enclosed spartan rooms, and endless rows of dancing feathers that patterned incomprehensible words in flaming shapes through the air, burning out with a lingering glow akin to the random flight of a firefly on a summer night.
After such dreams, he would open his eyes slowly and look around his modest but comfortable bedroom with a strange wonder.
He died on the day he finally started to remember things outside of his dreams, and when a voice told him it was time to return, he ignored it.
Pondering his options, he watched from above as Kate leaned over his body, realizing that he was gone. And he felt a deep sorrow when he saw unfamiliar tears well from her saddened eyes.
He wanted to comfort her, to tell her not to worry. The heart stops pumping, the muscles go flaccid before stiffening in a final pose. That which once gave animation to the used-up, worn-out shell by which she’d known him was still aware but he lacked a mouth to form the sentiments he’d rarely uttered in life. So he could only watch, helpless, as she told the children and grandchildren of his death, then contacted the undertaker to prepare the body for interment.
It was time to move on.
He began to recollect wonders he’d never learned in school, and his view of the planet shifted. He was over China, contemplating from a bird’s eye view what looked like a long snake weaving its way through the hilly terrain. Curious, he approached it, and discovered a great wall that twisted off into the horizon.
Activity within a small town nearby caught his attention and he drifted toward the motion. It was early morning, and the sun had just started to warm the roughly cobbled street below. The way was narrow, but already milling with black-haired people in drab clothing. A sparkle of bright color passed, and he followed an old man pushing a cart piled high with a red-to-yellow spectrum of peaches. Harold moved closer, intrigued by the network of tiny lines that textured the man’s face.
They passed an open doorway, and a stillness within drew him. A woman sat calmly in the corner, efficiently placing tiny stitches on a delicate silk garment. Her eyes shifted from her work to the doorway, then her almond eyes grew round, her upper lip pulled back, and she hissed at him, her venomous expression a tangible, almost physical force that shocked him to his depths.
Instantly he was drifting, far from civilization. Below him spread a plain as wide as it was long, its tall grasses still in the noon heat. Moving closer, he found an area where the grass had been beaten down by a herd of antelope. One creature wandered away from the herd, looking for fresher foliage, and the mindless grace with which the beast stood chewing the leaves of a short bush enchanted him. The grass near the antelope rustled slightly, and he watched as a pack of spotted hyenas spurred the antelope to flight, then continued to watch as they gave chase and eventually brought the creature down.
But there was still an urge, a pressure that came from outside himself. He felt a definite need to resist the pressure, to avoid this nameless influence, this obscure force that tugged at him relentlessly.
Then he was under water, deep under, near a cave at the bottom of a submarine cliff. They'll never find me here, he thought, then immediately wondered who they were.
He didn't wonder long. As he moved to the front of a cave inhabited by an oversized lobster, a thought echoed in his mind. "It's no use, Harold. We know you're there."
The lobster scurried to the back of the cave and the voice continued. "It's time for you to come in."
And then he was blinded by the light.
Darkness and silence.
He still thought of himself as Harold, but it was a struggle to hold on to the fading identity. He became aware of a dim sound, a low, hypnotic, mechanical hum that threatened to wash away the final vestiges of his quickly-fading memories.
He tried to move, and was hampered by a heaviness that arrested all motion. The more he struggled, the more tightly he was bound.
He began to relax, to flow with the force instead of against it, and gradually his perception expanded; the darkness began to retreat.
Cognizance of the immediate environment came slowly, almost painfully. He welcomed the pain in his desire to understand its source.
The center of his awareness was a slender silver pole from which vibrations emanated -- a sound that both soothed and terrified. The pole, he determined, radiated an electronic field that bound his essence, and if he could move his attention from the pole, he might gain some freedom.
He focused his complete attention on the pole, then pulled back lightly, touched it, then retreated. With each try, he seemed to regress a little further from the pole, its magnetism retreating with the distance.
Finally, he was far enough away from the pole that he could turn his attention outward.
He was contained within what seemed to be a large glass-like dome, transparent in every direction except the floor to which the vibrating pole was firmly attached. Continuing to ease back from the center, he reached the smooth surface, and could go no further.
When he first tried to perceive beyond the transparent boundary, the suffused light from his prison faded into indeterminate shadows that seemed endless. For some reason, he thought of fishing, and one of the few times in his childhood that he and his father had shared a peaceful moment.
They’d been sitting together on the riverbank with simply-constructed fishing poles. His father had stuck crude hooks through the wiggling worms he’d dug from the bank, then showed him how to cast the line into the dark recesses of the river.
“Tease the fish,” he’d told Harold. “Put the bait out for ‘em to look at, then pull it back slow-like. If you let it sit, they don’t pay no mind. But if you take it away from ‘em, they go after it.”
He began to tease the shadows, putting his attention out, then drawing it back in on himself, over and over. And a curious thing happened. As he looked outward, then inward, outward, then inward, the fog began to lift from his memories.
He recalled more details of his life as Harold the farmer. He remembered the sorrow that filled the old farm house tangibly for weeks after his mother died, and his surprise that his father’s death brought only relief. He remembered his own death, and the lightness he’d felt at first. He imagined the preacher presiding over his funeral, with his talk of heaven and the bosom of God, and realized with a start that where he now existed was neither heaven or hell.
Then he began to recall other lives in other times and cultures. He briefly remembered a temple stacked like a pyramid reaching toward the heavens, with dancing priests decked in colorful feathers that exaggerated their movements.
He glimpsed for a moment the reflection of a dark, round face as it looked into a too-placid sea, trying vainly to coax a good catch from the gods.
From his memories, he knew the heat of the sun sneaking through his burnoose as he spurred his horse swiftly across the desert sands. The memories, the years, the lifetimes stretched back endlessly, as varied and uncountable as the grains of sand over which his spirited Arabian had charged. And like the long-passed stallion, he flew through these retrospections, kicking up random thoughts and images as he went.
Now he could see the space around him. It was a large room -- large, but not infinite. Other glass cages perched at regular intervals, their lights pulsing and ebbing in independent rhythms, giving the impression of breath synthesized into light. Each luminescent cadence, he somehow knew, represented another awareness, trapped in the same manner as himself.
Finally he understood. He was in a way-station for spirits caught between corporal lives, and something happened here that erased all memories of the past before channeling old souls back into new bodies.
But why, he wondered, did this happen? And as he wondered, he remembered more. The mental pictures were vague, the thoughts often confused and incoherent. Each time he became overwhelmed by the jumbled messages that tilted crazily through his awareness, he returned his attention outward back to his immediate environment until he felt stable enough to look inward again.
Once there had been a plan. Behind the plan was a desire to instill social regulation, a sense of right and wrong. But the plan had gone awry, and the makers had become victims of their own work, lost in obscurity to an undiscriminating machine.
The machine was not perfect, though, and if he could hold on to one bit of memory, one piece of magic from the past, he might return with a door cracked open on the past.
Just one memory... .
Hugh and Monica Wilson loved their daughter, but Harriet had a unfathomable deepness that sometimes almost frightened them.
When she was four, Harriet found a book in the library -- a treatment of African wildlife with multiple color plates. She was fascinated by the pictures, so Monica checked the book out and brought it home.
Day after day, Harriet carried the book everywhere with her -- during meals, she sat with the book balanced on her lap. When mom took her to the park, she carried the book under her arm, the way some children tow along a favorite doll or a comforting blanket. At night, she wouldn’t fall asleep unless the book was safely secured under her pillow.
When two weeks had passed, Monica tried to return the book to the library, but Harriet, kicking and screaming, refused to relinquish it until Monica, with great effort, took her into a used bookstore, hunted dusty shelves, and finally found another copy to purchase.
Eventually the book became buried with others on the shelves of Harriet’s tiny bedroom, but it was never far away.
When Harriet started school at the age of six, she remained a quiet child. Pensive, Hugh said when he noticed she was more interested in the white, finely-bound encyclopedias that filled an entire shelf in the living room than in playing with the other children on the block.
Reserved, Monica added when the third grade teacher said that she never raised her hand to volunteer although she always knew the right answer when called upon.
When she was ten, Hugh took Harriet to an insect museum. She enjoyed the beautiful colors of butterfly wings glued down into large glass tables. She could have spent hours watching the tiny movements in the ant farm display that covered one wall as the ants slowly burrowed new tunnels between their glass walls.
But when they reached an exhibit where giant, iridescent beetles were balanced on narrow pins under bell jars, she turned pale and began to shake.
“What’s the matter, honey?” her father asked.
Tears filled the child’s large, dark eyes as she turned them reluctantly away from the insects and toward her father. “What if it was you in there? Or me?”
Hugh picked the girl up and carried her back to the car, wondering if the hot dog she’d had at lunch had been rancid, wondering if she were coming down with something contagious.
She went to bed with a mild fever, and slept for fourteen hours straight, a restless sleep filled with moans and mutterings that kept Hugh and Monica taking turns by her bed for much of the night, discussing in hushed whispers each time they changed shifts whether they should call the doctor then or in the morning.
As the sun rose the next day, however, Harriet opened her eyes and looked at her mother asleep in a chair next to the bed. Monica, feeling the child’s eyes on her, immediately woke.
“I’m hungry, mom. What’s for breakfast?” In their relief, Hugh and Monica never discussed with Harriet what had happened in the museum.
A few weeks later, Monica checked in on her daughter at bedtime, and found her stretched out belly down on top of the covers, a book open in front of her. “Homework?” she asked.
“Nope. Just reading.”
Then Monica recognized the book -- the precious volume on African animals. “It’s been a long time since you’ve looked at that book. Do you remember when you got it?”
“Mom, sometimes I remember too much.”
Monica sat next to her on the bed, and stroked her hair. “What was it about this book?”
Harriet flipped pages until the book rested open on a particularly dog-eared page. The edges were grimy from handling, but the colors were still vibrant. It was a full-page photograph of an antelope leaping through the air, its head angled toward the camera in surprise.
On her fourteenth birthday, Harriet sat with her parents at the kitchen table as they lit the candles on the cake and watched her blow them out. She had only one wish, but it was a wish she’d voiced many times during the past year.
When her father handed her a beautifully wrapped package, roughly two feet by two feet, and not more than eight inches high, she knew her wish was coming true. She ripped eagerly at the paper and found a smooth brown case -- larger than a briefcase, with a carrying handle that folded in on itself. She popped the latches. “A portable typewriter! Thank you!” She hugged them both before she ran off to find paper to put through the roller and test it out.
After that, all of her free time was spent at the typewriter, her fingers picking up speed as they grew familiar with every key, every curve. Many nights, her parents would hear the steady clack-clack-clack going in her room long after they’d retired to their own bed. When Monica complained to Harriet about staying up too late, Harriet said, “My grades are good, I don’t fall asleep in school. What’s the problem?”
And Harriet’s grades were better than good. She was a straight-A student and graduated with honors when she was fifteen.
Her parents broached the subject of college, but Harriet was adamant. “I’ve had enough of school,” she told them. “I know what I want to do with my life, and I don’t need college to do it.”
For three years, she sat in her room, typing. Manuscripts went out in the mail, and letters came back. When she sold her first story, she told her parents so they could help her open a checking account. After that, she kept her successes to herself.
She was eighteen when she told her parents, “I’m going to Africa.”
There was a long silence. “How do you plan to finance this trip?” Hugh finally asked, thinking of the college fund he’d set up a decade earlier, still collecting interest.
“I’ve sold enough stories to cover the trip.”
“Why Africa?” Monica asked.
“Because,” she told them, “I want to see an antelope galloping gracefully on an open plain.”
At thirty-three, Harriet was an international best-selling historical romance writer in seventeen languages and eighty-three countries. Both the critics and her loyal readers adored her work because she wrote, as one critic described it, “as though she were there with her characters, watching them live and breathe.”
But she was tired of writing fiction. She realized that, no matter how well she entertained, her novels were ultimately meaningless.
When Harriet bought a small cottage in New England she wrote a check out for the full amount and the realtor turned over the keys.
“Sure you don’t want me to drive out with you to inspect the place?” he asked.
“No,” she answered. “I know it’s perfect.”
The road that twisted up along the rugged cliffs brought home the complete isolation of her cottage. Her nearest neighbor was several miles distant, and as she rounded the final curve that brought the cottage into view, she stopped the car to watch a pair of gulls circle level with the house before they dived in unison into the waves below.
The key slid in easily and the door swung inward, and she left it standing wide open to replace the musty smell inside with the salty aroma of sea. The cottage was modestly furnished, the kitchen stocked, and she was pleased to find that the room she’d elected as her office contained her computer, with its fax/modem line already connected. She loved the view from the office, where large windows opened over the waves crashing against sharp rocks.
Alone in the small house, her only physical contact with others was the grocery boy who delivered food once a week and the mailman who occasionally showed up at her door with bags stuffed with fan letters because she didn’t bother to drive into town to clear her post office box.
When her agent called about renegotiating her contract, she told him to drop it.
“But I can get you the biggest advance any writer’s ever gotten!” he pleaded.
“I don’t need the money,” she answered.
“I need the commission.”
“So go sell film rights to Hollywood. Just leave me alone.”
Eventually she refused to answer the phone at all.
She was finished with fiction, but she did have another book in mind. She would write an autobiography -- one that spanned a multitude of lifetimes and the times between lives.
She mentally sketched her outline while digging at her rose bushes in the garden during long summer afternoons, while turning logs in the fireplace on chill winter evenings. The past sometimes became more real to her than the present, and she painfully relived many of her deaths again and again until the agony of dying held no more mystery for her, no more terror.
But there were, she discovered, things more dreadful than death. Certain moments remained obscure, elusive, where she could contact only the surface of the incident without depleting the emotions involved.
Such memory encounters left her physically debilitated. Once, when she was washing the dishes after a meager meal, a soapy glass slipped from her hand and shattered in the sink. The light above her seemed to reflect wickedly from one shard, and as she picked it up, the edge razored across her palm, drawing a crimson path along the edge of her hand that dripped in a bright splatter against the white porcelain. Something about the moment instilled a senseless horror. She fought her panic, wrapping the hand in a wet paper towel, but the blood trickled through. All she could think was how life threatened to cut her down in the midst of her accomplishing, and a sense of failure seeped into her as the blood seeped out. She flashed on a vision of dark walls flickeringly illuminated by candlelight, and piles of hand-pressed papers with bold black letters scattered across cold stone floors.
She spent the next two days in bed, succumbing to a numbing headache that left her alternately vomiting and shivering.
When she finally recovered, the blood on the sink had dried to a brown crust. As she scraped it away, she knew she had to start writing immediately, but could not shake the feeling that she was doomed even before starting.
Her kitchen clean, she sat down to the computer. She gazed out the window at dark clouds beginning to mass on the horizon over a rough ocean, and she knew a storm was coming up. I must remember to save frequently, she thought inanely, in case the electricity goes out. Turning the machine on, she opened a new document and poised her fingers over the keys, ready to begin.
It was then that she felt a strange sensation, almost electrical, pulsing in her head. Not now!
She gasped when the pain intensified. Biting her lower lip, she typed a few words. “It can’t be done alone,” she wrote. “The mistake was to think that I could overcome the past alone. It’s too overwhelming a thing, too--”
The pain was unbearable as she reached for the phone and dialed 9-1-1. She managed to gasp her name and address, then the aneurism burst and her world turned scarlet, fading swiftly to black.
By the time the ambulance arrived, the storm had broken, and she was dead.
A mother labored, sweating and screaming as the baby crowned then popped its tiny head out of the stretched opening that could no longer contain its momentum. The doctor caught the infant as it ejected with a final push.
“You have a healthy baby boy,” the nurse announced as she wrapped him in a soft, warm blanket.
“Let me see my baby,” the mother gasped, the pain of just a moment before already forgotten in her joy.
The lights were too bright as the nurse handed the baby to his mother, and as the newborn squeezed his eyes closed against the painful illumination, he let out a wail.
“Good set of lungs,” the doctor joked.
The mother cradled her child in her arms, but he continued to cry. “There, there, my sweet, it’s over now, and you’re going to have a wonderful life.”
But he wasn’t crying from the pain of birth, or the too-bright lights. He cried because he knew it wasn’t over. He cried because the memory of another light still blinded him, and he could not bear to fail again.
He cried for what he couldn’t remember.