Mr. Bemis Casts His Eyes Backward
It really isn’t fair.
I feel the shards beneath my feet. I hear the silence of thousands of vaporized souls. The agony of the moment of impact rushes toward me in protest. Why weren’t you there? Why did you survive? Now there is no hope. How can I kill myself? With the shards of my broken glasses? With the gun I left at the bottom of the library steps? It might as well be hundreds of miles away—I will never find it in the blurry smear of my natural vision. There was all the time in the world to read these stacks of books… and now simply all the time in the world.
Time passes slowly. It has been days surely, and the only marker has been the horrible tolling of hunger pangs. Today I finally recovered the provisions, which I had laid aside before breaking my glasses. I feel as if my life up to now has been a dream, and now I am awake and regretful for every moment I neglected that wonderful fantasia. I felt my way along the ripped up roads until my hand grazed boxes of packages foods—cured meats, dehydrated vegetables, cans of beans.
With hunger behind me I could focus on interpreting the blurred structure of my environment. Certainly I can make out lightness and darkness—the sky above and the gray earth below—and I can see various tan outlines, which must be the remains of ruptured buildings. Nights are quite frightening; although the weather is balmy, I’m afraid there is an innate human need for shelter even beyond protection from one’s natural environs. Perhaps the fear stems rather from the unnatural—the quietness, of course. It is so very quiet. Everything out there is dead, it seems, and no one has come to claim carcasses.
In the dilapidated remains of what must have been a supermarket I collect intact bags and prepare my return to the library. For if not the library, then where? I could stay here, I suppose. But there seems to be a certain dwelling upon sorrow, which bids me to return to the books, and perhaps to venture further into the standing remains. I recall that there was a wing left intact. That is as good a shelter as any. So now I retrace my footsteps, arms heavy with canned goods. I proceed slowly, and if I may stumble across the revolver I will not hesitate to use it.
I was right about the library—it is partially intact. I could see as I climbed step after step a shaded area, an angular protrusion, which could only be the remnants of man-made edifice. I have found my shelter, and it is somewhat comfortable, at that. The carpet is patchy and thin, and the walls occasionally speak their unsteady protests at night, but I will not be moved by petty fears of death. Let the walls cave in, let me be crushed, if they so wish!
Still there are no sounds, no people. Sometimes when my world is pathetically illuminated by the unforgiving light of day I will wander about and pick up a book. I will feel the weight in my hand and the chill that runs through me at the recognition of this old friend. Which tome is at my fingertips? Is it Shakespeare? Or the immutable Melville? Perhaps the undying charm of Twain, or the Victorian trifles of Wilde? I cannot know, though I hold their titles close to my useless eyes. It is a scribble, reminding me of… something, I cannot remember. Some vague memory of obscured text. The dream of my former life is forgotten like any other.
One evening I went to sleep with a book under my head as a pillow—a poor substitute, surely, but perhaps this act expressed the unconscious desire to absorb the words within in my dreams. When I awoke I found that the book was gone, and I had a rather nasty crick in my neck. Where was the book? My first thought was that I was not alone; that some companion had snuck in during the night and played a trick, observing that I was in no visual state to catch any culprit. But no invader ever presented himself, and a bit later on I found the book, or at least one of similar weight and dimension, on the ground only a few feet away. Surely, I had flung it away during the restless night.
As for my loss of sight—it is truly staggering sometimes, even though many days have passed. The worst is to think about the stars, for even a bookish louse would occasionally glance out the window on a brisk evening and see the lonely array of points in a black sky. The feeling summoned by this sight—pity for a meager human race—will live on only in memory. Though now there is plenty to pity without stars.
An insuppressible surge of excitement! At first in the morning, once again I found books had moved in their nocturnal hours (although perhaps it was I who moved, I cannot know for sure). Then later the true moment of wonder. I must admit that I became taken with staring at pages of books, though there was no hope of reading them. In my defense, there was really nothing else to do. Waiting for the next can of sweaty vegetable pellets does nothing to pass to the time, and so I figured I might as well revisit my indecipherable old friends.
I picked up a book—perhaps one that I had perused before—and found that the shading of unreadable type seemed to form a letter the size of the full page. Yes, it was quite clear: the lines of minute text were inked unevenly, in a way that seemed to correspond to the letter “A”! Here I was, countless days from having stumbled over my priceless glasses, reading once again. With indescribable trepidation I turned the page, forcing myself to resist the urge to explain this spectral letter away.
A second miracle. The following page of text seemed to indicate an “R”. At first, it might have been a “P”, but as I took the page further from my flustered eyes I found an unmistakable “R”.
“A”! Then “R”! And then… then there were more letters! What sort of printing press produces ink so unevenly distributed? Perhaps the producers had this end in mind, to spell out a secret message with each page of the book, like some mockery of Kabbalism. I was reading again. I felt like Lazarus, returned from Hell.
A – R – T – H - U – R – H – A – D – L – E – Y - …
After this I found the pages quite indecipherable. The shading of ink was far too subtle to distinguish further letters. Well, a brutal disappointment, but one must be grateful of even the smallest spring of water in an endless desert.
ARTHURHADLEY. ARTHUR HADLEY. A name! By Jove, the book spelt out a first and last name! I had never heard it before, it seemed at first. I immediately began flipping through the remaining pages, searching for other letters, any explanation at all, and then I was struck, as if a dream had exploded forth from my subconscious and into reality like a mysterious, untraceable bolt of lightning.
Arthur Hadley was a boy I had attended school with. My God, I could see his face plain as day, though we’d perhaps only spoken once! I had just answered the professor’s question correctly, and turned to Arthur when a look of unrestrained scorn overtook his infantile face. I was belittling him for his incorrect answer, though no sense of self-righteousness returned with the memory. Why did I not recognize this look of utter disdain? His lips quivered in an upturned sneer. Surely, in that moment I was reviled.
Curious that the pages of this book should spell out the name of my childhood acquaintance, and that he should be so forgettable.
I should say a note here on sanity, I think, because you will think that I had gone insane. How can I prove that I wasn’t? I couldn’t ask anyone—that much was true. The best I can do is to insist that the occurrence with the book was no dream, and neither a hallucination, but as I can recall complete indistinct from the stream of everyday experiences. The letters were there unmistakably, and I verified this by pouring through pages of books strewn about, searching for meaning among the inky smears and finding only familiar gibberish. Yet returning to “Arthur Hadley” I found the letters indelibly distinguished! If it were a hallucination one must at least give credit for persistence.
I set myself to the discovery of further hidden messages, and within days my literary environment had changed dramatically: ‘Arthur’ had found various companions. In a disheveled book, a heavy blue tome with a woven blue cover (Moby Dick, if I were to guess), I found the delicate shadow of ‘Renee Aumont’.
My recognition of the words ‘Renee Aumont’ was much slower than with Hadley: only after several minutes of relaxed perusal did I see the letters. The gradient of shade distinction was subtler than ‘Arthur Hadley’, and correspondingly the memory came almost a day later. She was a friend of my great-grandmother, and I remembered instantly the smell of mothballs and rust as she bungled through our hallways. She never spoke to children, nor looked me or sister in the eye, and yet once I caught her gazing at me at the opposite end of a crowded dinner table. What was the meaning of that gaze? There was something mournful in it, like a ghost haunting the healed remains of his family. Who had exited her life, to make her gaze so mournfully?
Then it was gone. Her face was a blur, like everything in this God forsaken wasteland. It was as if my memory was succumbing to the weaknesses of the flesh—my terrible eyesight. I felt a hitherto unknown grip of fear as my mental world tightened.
As I said above, this was a period of sudden discoveries, and despite the fear of losing these remembered faces, there was very little to be done but follow on the curriculum laid before me. I found many more books with letters apparent in their first pages, and my thoughts exposed these harbingers. Leonard Alby, the boy across the street who I once saw in a compromised position of sexual ecstasy. Amelia Greenstreet, a girl in my older sister’s year who rather suspiciously fell from a window to her death in the heat of an argument with some boy. Lucas O’Hanrahan, the author who lived across the street, sheltered by wildlife entirely except from the my second story window I could see his grizzled face in the kitchen window, smoking cigars and one time pointing at me in livid accusation. Francis Linetti, who saw me crying outside the schoolhouse and was so embarrassed that she vomited. These faces focused in recollection, and then gave way to a heinous sequence of dreamy blurs. As if my memories were assimilating my fall from grace—the broken glasses.
You may notice that all aforementioned names (and please believe me, there were many, many more; this heavily edited version included only the most idiosyncratic) were very minor fixtures in my life. The matter changed when I began to read larger objects. This will be impossible for you to believe, and in fact, was impossible for me to believe, yet it appeared in my experience: larger objects began to visibly correspond with letters, and of course, they too spelled names. I recall the twitch of my face, the sneering contortion of ironic realization that dawned on me as I saw colored books on a vast wall of shelves reveal the name ‘Elizabeth Harris’—my first girlfriend. How ghastly! How profane! How dare this broken world, condemned to ambiguities, suddenly affront me with unmistakable, unthinkable messages. What was its design? Who was its designer? These were questions that plagued me, lest I remind you that there was nothing else to do. Should I have killed myself? Suicidal thoughts had ceased entirely since the matter with the names revealed itself.
Just as Elizabeth Harris’ ovular physiognomy was lost to blurry indistinction, so too were each of the following. Everett Thomas, an early friend. Hugo LaPlante, a godfather and magician. Geoffrey Malone, a stern but loveable English professor. Leo Stiles, a friend of my father who I heard from my room late at night as they drank and cavorted. There were many others hunted and extinguished from visual memory.
It was then that a particular notion occurred that perhaps my ability to read was somehow improving. I was better at reading objects. And so I exited, for the first time in what must have been months, my dark corner of library and from the perch atop the library stairs, where a maze of rubble unfolded before me. My field of vision transmuted to a two-dimensional canvas of ill-defined, stationary figures, like the strained foundation of an abandoned painting. This world had been left to fade away.
I was not surprised to see letters in the landscape before me. Of course, there were letters! Objects plagued me—why shouldn’t destroyed cities? It was the name of my wife. It brought tears to my eyes, although we never really got along. She was always so grounded; why, just today she played some horrible joke on me with an illegible book! Only that was not today, but a long time ago, when there were other people to talk to. It feels like, since my glasses broke, time itself has been one long, outrageous moment. It is unbearable to watch a moment stretch like that.
Emma. I needn’t read her last name. It was my Emma; that much I knew. For who was this disheveled landscape arranged, if not me? Whose sorrow, memories, dreams, illusions were brought to life by inanimate objects, if not mine? I suppose I loved Emma (if one can speak of love after an apocalypse), although the thing I remember most of her is the feeling one gets of being watched when trying to do something important. They were all so interested in me; I could not stand for it!
Now, no one can know this when they live amongst the living, but thoughts have a shape. I learned this slowly, wandering through light and darkness, yearning for communication that had long since ceased. But cycles of thought accompanied me. Velocity of thought, strange ruminations, endless self-analysis. Even the critical realization that thought itself has a shape. I had never felt it before, because I was too concerned with the words themselves.