Afterwards Casey always lies on her bed and drifts, the air of the ceiling a new frontier, further away than ever. It hurts her, more each time. The heaviness in her head the remembrance of her answers, even though this is the kind of test one can hardly get wrong. Drops in her eyes, bright lights, and tests, tests, tests. And, at the end, the revelation: just how blind am I now?
“Oh, your eyes are perfectly healthy,” says her optician, every time. Mister Ray bounces on his heels and hands her back her old glasses, having now taken her through his entire barrage of tests. He is beaming, as usual at the end of a consultation, now imagining the many gigabytes of new data he will be able to run his hands through once she’s gone. Pictures of her retina, of her cornea, of the shape of her eyes in three dimensions, of ratios and averages: he searches them for red alerts and pauses for thought, adding each datum to the increasingly fat file he keeps on her. Casey has been coming to him since she was nine years old and that is a lot of answers to the question ‘which is clearer: red, or green?’
But the signs are always good and the ratios within the right ranges; there is never anything to worry about. Except for the fact that her vision keeps getting worse.
“We can correct you back to twenty-twenty,” Mister Ray says. “You don’t have any serious warning signs. You’re very lucky.”
He has explained myopia (short sight; Casey’s is of a high degree) and astigmatism (an ill-shaped eyeball) and the risk of retinal detachment (for her, greater than average). And he has explained that the floaters which colonise her eyes, dancing constantly in her vision, chasing around like a bunch of microbes playing a game of Pacman in a Petri dish, are only deposits in her vitreous humour. More common with high-degree short sightedness, like yours.
Back at home, pain in her eyes, the floaters become manic. Resistant to her trying to pin them to one place in her field of vision, they switch and dodge. Like children in a playground they careen and collide, all clumsy feet, knocking into each other, and she can almost hear the screeches they make, which might pass for laughter.
She has taken off the old glasses that, having now been pronounced the usual dioptre out of true, seem inadequate as they did not before. She thinks she sees flickers; she thinks she cannot read that number plate; she thinks her vision, perfectly normal this morning, now, in the afternoon, is noticeably worse. And besides, the tests have dilated her pupils so much that even the dim light through the uncurtained window is filling her eyes with tears. Better to take them off, close your eyes.
They have discussed other options, if briefly. Contact lenses were tried but failed: her hands and her ability to put them so close to her eyeball too shaky. And she had hated the way her face looked – like a thing naked and shaken, woken from a sleep of a thousand years. Surgery, Mister Ray had said, I would not recommend, not yet. Though the various procedures had become well established the data was … two-sided.
The first part of the process is the examination, the second the fitting. She returns to the surgery about two weeks later, and has replaced a piece of herself that was, until that day, indispensable. The old glasses go in the new ones’ case; the new ones go on her face, where they are tweaked to the particular height of her ears and the weak slope of her nose. They feel heavy and strange and make the letters on the mirror dance in uncomfortable ways. This is it – this time I have failed the test, she thinks.
“Give it a minute,” Mister Ray says, “Let your vision settle down.”
Always, like a miracle, it has done. It’s taking its time at the moment.
Mister Ray disappears into the other room to fetch the paperwork; Casey sits and wonders.
It had been at a residents’ meeting for her building that she had first heard people talking about it in real life. The situation. The growing tensions. The incoming calamity. The possibility of the end of the world.
Their building is not a grand one; her neighbours are nurses, artists, the occasional student, maybe a barrister, but there is a lot of pride in the place and the quarterly meetings are well attended, if only because it gives an opportunity to bitch directly at the management group. Casey usually goes, out of nosiness as much as anything.
At the last one, they seemed to be worrying about things beside the front lobby lifts being seemingly always out of order, or the hairline cracks in a few people’s windows, or the endless discussion of parking.
At the tea table, two people.
“Well, where are you thinking to go?” says a man in a flat cap, stirring his tea.
“Anywhere. Scotland, I thought. Maybe,” says a woman beside him, trying to choose a biscuit.
“Oh aye. I’m sure the bombs won’t get you in Edinburgh.”
“Oh shurrup, Charlie. You’re always doom-mongering. I was thinking one of the islands, anyway.”
“Just trying to be realistic,” says Charlie, with a shrug. “I’m stopping here anyway, but I don’t reckon there are many places you could go, realistically. So why bother? At least we’re high up here, on’t hill, I mean. We’ll see it coming.”
The woman looked up at him then with horror on her face. Casey saw her eyes drift over his shoulder, to the big window behind Charlie, to the pink tide of the sunset, and the city beneath.
Charlie would tell her not to be so daft, no doubt. What can it matter, whether you can see without those things on your face? You’ll be dust in the wind, same as everyone, kid. But I might not be, she wants to say, there might be a chance – and I need to be prepared. I need to give myself that chance. I’m frightened, Charlie.
There had been a segment on Radio 4 about it, the night after the meeting. About what people were keeping in their ‘prep rooms’. Tinned food and first aid kits. A gun, one woman had said, I bought myself a gun last week and I’ve felt all the safer for it.
Not a gun, Casey thought, not yet. But I can’t be safe if I can’t see.
“But they’d not do it, would they Charlie?” the woman had asked that night.
“Oh, don’t you reckon? Just because they’ve promised they won’t?”
“But that was all … that was years back. What’s the point of starting it all up again now? I was just a kid when the treaty was signed.”
“And I was just a kid when the Berlin Wall came down,” said Charlie, a man with shave-roughened skin and gumdrop green eyes, maybe sixty years old. “Didn’t stop everything that came after, did it?”
Mister Ray bustles back into the consulting room. Before she has any real idea that she is going to do so Casey says, “Mister Ray, what are the options for corrective surgery?”
The place is dark when she arrives, despite the street around having sprouted the usual admixture of tourists, students, and little old ladies attempting to achieve a full shopping basket. Up a long driveway, set well back from the road, there is what appears to be a mediaeval cathedral door set into an entirely up-to-date protection wall. Behind the wall she cannot see, but it stretches back from the road at least as far again as the driveway, and is surrounded by clipped silver birches and hawthorn: the kind of greenery which cannot be climbed. Inset into the ancient door is a smaller one, with a terminal screen just below eye-level. This seems to be expecting her.
/ please insert your appointment card / it blinks at her, more politely than most machines.
Casey does as she is told. The small rectangle of card stock is white, with the name of the surgeon she is to see (Miss N Faulkner) embossed on the surface in both print and braille. It is eaten silently by the slot. The screen blanks out for a moment, then blinks again:
/ thank you, Miss Morgan. please enter. /
“I don’t refer many people,” Mister Ray had said, back in his office, his face as serious as she imagines it would be if he ever needs to tell her that she is going to become irrecoverably blind. “Not because it isn’t safe – the technology has moved on exponentially – but because not many people meet the criteria.”
“Oh,” she had said.
“Miss Faulkner’s criteria are very precise and rather strict. Not many people have the kind of myopia that would benefit from her particular surgery.”
“Oh,” she had said again.
“But those who do meet the criteria,” and here he had smiled at her, for the first time since she had asked the question, “And I think you would, Casey—those who do, see a really remarkable improvement.” And yet here he had stopped smiling, in the act of turning to the little drawer inset in his desk, the little drawer that, thirty years passed, had probably contained rack upon rack of lenses and now contains almost nothing at all, except, at the back, a little case, full of small cards.
“Casey,” he had said, “Are you sure this is what you want?”
She had wondered if he was concerned about losing her business at first, but his eyes had been worried, really quite worried about her, and kind, as though she was still the almost mute nine year old who had first sat in his chair.
“I think … I think with everything that’s happening now, even if it doesn’t come to anything … I think I would feel safer.”
I’d feel safer up on the hill. With eyes that can see what’s coming, whatever that turns out to be.
Mister Ray had nodded, rather sadly she thought. Out of the box in the drawer had come the little card. Casey thought that maybe ten were missing from a box which might hold two hundred. He handed it to her, smiling again, but with something else at the edges of the smile which she was unable to name, before it disappeared from his face.
“Don’t be too put off by the way they do things,” he adds, almost as an afterthought. “They really are the best I know of.”
The little door in the door in the wall opens, and, ducking her head, Casey enters.
Back in bed, she drifts.
Nothing about the place or the procedure had particularly worried her, but she wonders if that was just because Mister Ray had already warned her to expect strangeness, obfuscation, wilful eccentricity.
Behind the twelfth-century-looking door was first a white lintel, a little like an airport security gate, and then a dark expanse of room, unclear while the albeit grey light of the outside was still in her eyes. She felt a blast of air cover her as she walked through the gate, but as soon as she stepped ahead, her shoes clattering on what appeared to be a metal walkway, the atmosphere became perfectly temperature controlled and perfectly anodyne. She could no longer smell the outside or hear its presence.
The lab, for lab it seemed to be, was built on a hub-and-spokes pattern. She stood at the outer perimeter of a spoke, facing towards the hub. There was no way but forward, or back through the white lintel. None of the other spokes were reachable, as there was no join between them. Below, looking over the railing, Casey could see that the spokes continued, mirrors of themselves, down towards a basement, presumably, which was all but invisible. She leaned over the rail and saw light from other labs, offices, even a couple of windows that looked like they had drawn curtains, and exhausted scientists, sleeping behind them.
She muttered, “What the fuck, Mister Ray?”
She tried to pick out the bottom of the upended tunnel again, the last level of the circle, but even the suggestion of light was absent.
“But … we’re built on clay and limestone,” she said to herself, “How is this even possible?”
“Yes, it is quite impressive,” said a voice from beside her. “The circular structure increases the stability of the installation, you see. We did have to go down quite a long way.”
Once her heart rate had started to return to normal, Casey was able to take in the face of the woman who had spoken – an official-looking woman, in the likely obligatory lab coat, though with a suit underneath. Something about her face is peaked, bird-like, but a hunting bird. A white woman, with close-set eyes and pulled back hair. No glasses – well, she wouldn’t have, would she?
“Good evening, Miss Morgan. It is Miss Morgan, isn’t it?”
Casey had nodded, smiled; people-pleasing instincts ever to the fore. That’s me, ma’am, not here to make any trouble, just turning up to the place where I had an appointment. Can you tell me where to go?
“Excellent,” said Miss Faulkner.
Nothing hurt, and nothing was left unexplained. Casey was asleep when it happened and did not, as she had feared, have to hold the gaze of a laser glinting into her minus eleven dioptre eyes. The procedure is quite well-developed now, said Miss Faulkner, and although we have not had a large number of referral, we do have an almost one hundred per cent success rate.
Casey had been too far under at that point to ask: almost one hundred per cent?
Later, back at her own place after a taxi ride where she could barely see the road for slashing rain, she lies in her bed, trying to summon problems, cracks in the surface of her new vision. Afterwards, she had reached up to her nose, to push up the glasses she no longer needed. Miss Faulkner had smiled and said:
“Yes, might take a while for you to lose that one.”
Lying on her bed, in the now, she tries to drift, but it is harder now, with 20:20, with these new eyes, to unfocus. She can see the cracks in the paintwork and the corners of the ceiling decorated with dust.
It had been profoundly strange in that moment: to open her eyes and be able to see, sharp. The walls at the right angle, the floor not tilting, and Miss Faulkner’s inter-pupillary distance still on the short side. Nothing of the information from her old eyes had been usurped, and yet. This odd new world, which could not be taken off, was now her own.
Nothing was different, just clearer. Just the way the rain landed on the window of the taxi, just the way she could see the stick and spread of every droplet, just the way she could see the unruly hair on the back of the driver’s neck which his barber had missed last time, just the way the clouds got heavier and darker as they got closer to town, like a cloak about to open itself up over the cityscape, and swallow it.
She had closed her eyes the way she has them closed now.
One thing Miss Faulkner promised would no longer be a feature of her visual life was the floaters. Oh they’ll vanish, she said, just as if they’d never been. But if Casey opened her eyes now, she would see them: flocking wildly against the corners of the ceiling, making a break for the windows and battering themselves against the glass like wasps. Maybe it will come with time.
Sleep now, she says to herself. It has been a long, weird day. Sleep now.
The floaters get into her dreams, filling up her field of vision like the rain in the streets this afternoon. Casey dreams about her city, no longer made of buildings and roads and streetlights but of craters in which the floaters frolic and wrestle, screaming, laughing, throwing themselves up against what were once walls, making shadows there that she can see with awful clarity, even with her hands over her eyes.
The first time it happens isn’t the next morning, or the day after that, but the last day of her long weekend, which she had planned to spend on the settee with mindless television and a menu of comfort food. She had been up to make coffee, waiting for the kettle to boil, looking through her window, out over the city, the tail end of town and the beginning of the routes that lead out into the countryside, the hills pale with rape seed and flowering trees. Following the route of a clumsy pigeon across the sky, smiling, she sees the flash.
The hills are lit up as if from within, as though God has shone a torch through the roots and slate and clay and tin and brought out all their colours. As though he has done this purely to terrify, as a warning before the flood, Casey understands that she can see the bones of the hill, impossibly old, quiver under the weight of this light.
Casey holds her hands up against the flash and realises that she can see her own bones.
As the flash dissipates it flows upwards, over the hills, into the sky, leaching into the clouds, turning them gold and silver and bronze, and then black. From the clouds black rain, thick as pebbles, heavy and globous. She sees it fall on the bridge that crosses the road outside her building. The drops sink into the tarmac, leaving sinkholes in their wake. The cars passing under the bridge do not see the rain, nor fall into the holes. Though the skin of both cars and drivers is burning, no one loses sight of the road or crashes into the pedestrian crossing at the roundabout. The cars keep beetling their way down the roads, drifting off into town or out towards the countryside beyond. Fire follows them, obliterating them from Casey’s sight as it swallows the city.
The flash fades out of the sky like smoke. She blinks, and it is over.
The water in the kettle is cold by the time her hands have stopped shaking enough to pour it. Boiled again, poured again, she clutches the coffee to herself and thinks: well, that’s what a hallucination is like. Okay. Obviously connected to the surgery but necessarily an adverse event, just an agglomeration of all the weirdnesses of the past days, and months; thinking about things too hard, as usual. And anyway, what is she supposed to do? Call in sick tomorrow because she saw town catch on fire? No, it’s looking directly into the sun straight after eye surgery that’s done it. She can still see little pineapple-ring shaped flashes in her field of vision whenever she blinks, and everything has that odd blue cast to it that happens when you’ve been subjected to too much strong light. She’s just an idiot with a vivid imagination, that’s all.
No washing up, the rest of her book, then bed. There’s work in the morning, and the inevitable exclamations of “Oh, you look so different!” to endure.
She does finish her book. The words start swimming as soon as dusk settles on the room – floaters crawling onto the page from the corners of her eyes and the corners of the room. They slouch into the margins when she looks directly at them, taking some of the sense of the story with them.
The next morning, in the deceiving October sun, Casey walks to work feeling … happy? Her sight is clear this morning; floaters banished. She even feels lighter, as though some transgression has been forgiven, or some presence lost.
The rain comes from nowhere: the sky fogs up with clouds, and one by one the buildings begin to disappear from her horizon. Other pedestrians, waiters for public transport, the two homeless guys outside Sainsbury’s, the old men with their shopping bags, all duck for cover under the nearest available shop fronts and look out, as though from foxholes, exclaiming, like they’ve never seen a thunderstorm before.
Casey stops exactly where she is.
There are no buildings to run to: the rain has razed them, passing over each one and, seeing no blood on their lintels, turning them to rubble. She stands in the middle of the road and watches the cathedral collapse, and more than collapse – evaporate. The glass in the window of the little shop; slate is pouring down the roof; the roof has fallen to the forecourt. The row of banks on the other side of the street has disappeared and she can see now, what she shouldn’t be able to: over her shoulder, the place where her own block of flats would be, were there not too much dirt in the air to make it out. Though the miasma hides the place, she knows it isn’t there, that it is a decapitated place: only the steel skeleton raising its hands to the sky.
When she comes to it’s because a man is gently shaking her shoulder.
“Are you all right, love? You’re just standing in the middle of the road, see.” She looks at the man, who nods towards the shining bus bearing wetly down on her position. “He needs to get past.”
She’s so soaked when she actually reaches the office that it takes everyone until the coffee break to notice that she’s not wearing glasses and remember and say Oh, how did it go?
On the way home, thunder again as she turns the corner onto the main road. As she does so, she realises that the street is no longer there: where there have always been rundown pavements and a tricky junction, there is nothing – not even rubble, but only a fine dust of pulverised glass and brick, and the only markers of distance as she gazes out over the horizon the thin remnants of trees, stalking up a hill now laid bare of its architecture.
She finds a stump of concrete – once a streetlight? – and collapses against it. She closes her eyes, closes tight.
And, voices soon, and the slipstream of a bus passing her.
“Anyway, I said, it’s not exactly fair, is it? I couldn’t help coming down with the bloody flu two days before the deadline, could I?”
Casey opens her eyes. Two students, arm in arm, wearing padded jackets and backpacks, their make-up immaculate, coming towards her as if out of a fog. They are perfectly clean and blonde and unconcerned with anything but each other. Around them cars drift and the doors of shops open and close, their bells jingling.
“No, of course you couldn’t,” says the second one, nodding, looking outraged.
“I did let him know as soon as I could.”
“Of course you did,” says the other, stepping in a puddle as she passes Casey, splashing her a little.
Casey feels the wetness of the water soak through her jeans and stands, able now to reach out and find the streetlight that was, no longer just a broken lump. Her hand finds it intact and smooth, the concrete not even pitted. There are droplets of dirty water on her shoes as well as her jeans. She gazes at these, then up at the girls, now across the road and disappearing down the hill, still arm in arm.
She looks down at the water stains, then back up, following the road down the hill, and as she does the flash hits her.
Her eyes absorb the light that should blind her, that goes through her body with a warm tickle, no more. Her shadow is pasted to the wall behind her, but she steps away and leaves it there, unhurt, with the dust of the broken buildings on her hands.
Her ears are ringing, but she is aware that all sounds have been replaced with one sound: a roar with screams in it, screams like children in a playground, like birds overhead, like the wind that is the last thing left in the world.
But she can see, so very clear.
She watches the blast wave come up the hill towards her; pass by the buildings that had been restaurants, corner shops, churches; pass over the tarmac, melting it as it proceeds; then pass over her, over her water-stained shoes and through her skin, through her bones.
She looks around herself, still herself, and sees everything, and nothing, and the wreck of the world.
She passes her hands through air now thick with dust and the hysterical wind. Inside the wind, or beyond it, Casey can hear a sound that fizzes in her teeth. It beckons, or seems to, drawing her feet down the hill, down the familiar path, towards home.
The sound is almost like birds, singing, like blackbirds, that liquid song; but also unlike – this song is unsweet, a rusted song; knowing, calling. And all the desiccated rubble of the city contained in its call.
Down the hill, and down, stumbling, clumsy, but not in pain, she comes to a place where she can see a little. Coming to the valley now, nearly between her two hills. In the distance, a glow, a guzzling light, pulling all the world towards it like a child sucking on a straw. The call is louder there, coming from there?
The trees make route markers for her way – follow them, the shadows of the trees, keep walking through the wind, screaming still, call and response:
Where are you going? Where are you going? Where else can you go?
Down the last bit of road, cross the street, where once the street was. The bridge is gone now, so climb, clamber, fall down into the road – you’ll be safe—no cars left. And then above you, before you, the last hill; your hill—home.
Her flats in view now – their shell, their husk, the glass all gone and turned to a running river, flowing out like blood under a body, congealing in the leaden places.
Where are you going, tiny child?
The light, yes, the light is there. It is throwing out its arms to embrace the city, holding a bright cloak over its nakedness. It is coming from her place. Hollowed out in the centre, the light rises in a diffuse beacon, turning the sky black and purple. Casey stares. She thinks: I should be crying. She can’t cry. No tears, no flesh, no breath.
Ah, but you have a place, little one. Come, come closer.
And she does: caught by the song and by the light, she keeps going, crawling now, slow and burnt, but still crystal clear.
The building looms as she approaches, bends down over her like a mother. She feels the heat, even against all the heat, that scorching place; her hand on the concrete, sears.
Are you coming now, my child.
It isn’t a question. Casey climbs towards the centre and looks down into the crater and sees them, the birds.
Three of them, and like birds but unlike: huge cloak-like wings which shine in the half-light, amid the ashes, silver as moonlight. Their eyes are parched white – blind, their mouths beaks but beaks red and fleshy, moist in this burned place, and full of teeth and laughing. They glow here, in the crater, as though the dust and fire feeds them. And under their wings, if wings they are, are huge canopies of blackness. One raises its wing, exactly as a bird would, preening, re-feathering, tucking back into place. Casey sees a darkness there deeper than any she could imagine, a cavern which cannot be breached, cannot be lit.
Under their wings, they laugh, and beckon her. They search around for her, cocking their massive heads. But they cannot find her, blind by the bonfire.
Come close, child, says Three.
Yes, let us see you, says Two.
~ a laugh peals across the space ~
A jest. We cannot see, says Three.
But you can, says One.
Do you like the new kingdom? says Three.
Is it beautiful? asks Two.
Tell us, oh please tell us, says One.
And Casey falls and throws her hands up into the darkness and can give only wordless screams and at last, weeps.
No, says One, You wanted: We gave.
Yes, that was the bargain, says Two.
You have the Eyes, says Three.
Eyes to see, says One.
On the hill, says Two.
You are the Witness, says Three.
You are our Witness, says One.
Nothing to fear, says Three.
No pain, says Two.
No sleep, says One. So much to see.
Kit Edgar is a writer living in Sheffield, UK.