once enough time had passed that he could no longer avoid looking, or, rather, a little after that because it took some time to recover from what he saw—some time after that, he’d often wonder how he’d seen it—the long curved incisions, smiling like mouths with lips stitched—with what eyes? he’d wonder, with what eyes had he seen what had been done to his eyes?
If it was me he was asking, and it often was, I’d maybe tell him that just as a person has other people it can dream it is in order to better observe itself, each part of a person —“an eye, even,” I would say—has other parts—“other eyes,” I’d add—it can dream it is in order to better understand what has been done to it.
“Oh,” he would say, and though he might mean to ask me next if that meant he’d been dreaming, because it hadn’t seemed to him, at the time, like he’d been dreaming when he saw what he saw—even if he meant to ask this, he generally wouldn’t.
“How come?” I’d say. “You can ask me anything you want,” and he’d tell me that he didn’t ask it because it hurt to speak.
“Why does it hurt to speak?” he’d sometimes ask.
“Because you aren’t actually speaking,” I’d say. “If you were,” I’d add, “it wouldn’t.”
“Oh,” he’d start to say. “That makes sense,” but it would hurt him to say so, so he’d stop. He’d feel a lot better then, so much better, in fact, he might go for a little walk. Yes, he’d go for a little walk, his eyeballs weighing heavily in their sockets in the sunlight.
“Sunlight?” he’d ask me.
“Well, technically batshit,” I’d tell him, and I’d remind him that, seeing as we were trapped in this cave—“Cave?” he’d say, and I’d say, “Yeah, the cave we’re recovering from eye surgery in,” and he’d say, “Oh right”—and that seeing as we’d be thus—“pardon the expression,” I’d say—interred for at least as long as it took to recover, that the cave would be, for all intents and purposes, what we’d have to mean, from here on out, by the word world; and thus bats, who were the only creatures still flitting in and out of the cave’s narrow apertures and thereby participating in the larger ecosystem and importing to an otherwise inhospitable environment the most basic elements needed to sustain life, their excretions would need to be, for the foreseeable future, what we’d have to mean when we’d say sun.
Did this make us vegetables? he’d ask, and if so did that make the spiders—“Spiders?” I’d say, and he’d say, “The ones whose webs catch a little more of us each time we move, don’t you feel them,” he’d say, “the webs?” and I’d say, “Ah, right” and that I did—did us being vegetables, he’d ask, make the spiders us?
“Us?” I’d ask.
“Vegetarians,” he’d say, and I’d say, “Oh. Yeah. Yes. Probably.”
“But how come you can hear me?” he’d say. “If, as you say, I’m not really speaking, how come you can hear me?” and I’d maybe say that I couldn’t, that I was doing my best to infer what he’d say if he could speak and then responding accordingly.
“You’re doing the same, in turn, to me,” I’d say, and he’d say, “That makes sense,” even though it wouldn’t actually, at least not usually.
It wouldn’t, generally, make sense, he’d tell me, at least not to him.
But actually it did.
“Did what?” he’d say, and I’d say, “Make sense,” and he’d say, “What makes sense?” and I’d say again whatever it was I’d said that he’d said didn’t, and he’d say, “That makes sense?” and I’d answer that it did, that this was what sense was now and this was how one made it.
“You want this to work,” I’d ask him, “don’t you?”
“Yes,” he’d say, “very much,” although he never was completely sure what exactly I was referring to by this.
Was I, he sometimes wondered, ever entirely either though?
And then he’d ask me who I was again. “You are Ishmael, right?” he might, for instance, ask, and sometimes I’d tell him that I sure was.
“Oh good,” he’d say, because he’d have something, usually, he’d been meaning to ask me.
Such as: “Where’s Sludge?”
“Sludge?” I said on this occasion.
“The acned boy with barbed wire for hair you did the eye surgery with,” he said.
“Oh, Sludge,” I said, and told him that Sludge was right there with us, and he said, “Oh,” into the darkness, “sorry, Sludge. Didn’t see you there,” and I told him that Sludge said hello and asked how he was feeling.
“Not too bad,” he said. “I’m feeling a lot better now,” but then he whispered, “Hey, Ishmael. Can I ask you something? How come I can’t hear Sludge myself?”
“You can,” I told him. “First you heard Sludge say, ‘Hello,’ and then you heard him say, ‘How are you holding up?’”
“Oh yeah,” he said and he could really remember this now. He’d told me so, I told him, and also that he’d replied, “I’m holding up quite well, Sludge. Thank you for asking. And most of all, thank you for performing the eye surgery with Ishmael. I’m feeling much better now.”
And often he really was. And when he was he’d go for a little walk.
A walk was an exercise prescribed by his surgeons. To go for a little walk was to repeat the words I went for a little walk over and over in his head while picturing his legs moving and his body navigating the coiling tunnels and yawning vaults he might’ve imagined the cave looked like. I went for a little walk, he’d say and say and say in his head and before long he really would be going for a little walk. For this was all that a walk was now. What a walk, for him, had become.
So he’d go for a little walk and then he’d have a little rest—“a break,” he’d say, or maybe “a breather”—and then he’d walk some more. Eventually he’d get back, and I’d ask him what he’d seen, and he’d usually answer that he hadn’t seen a thing—“on account,” he’d tell me, “of the eyes.”
“Of course,” I’d say.
He had, however, been able to hear and also sort of feel his way about with his hands, running his fingertips along the damp, rough rock of the walls, the stalagmites that rose up from the floor—“or are those stalactites?” he’d ask, he’d always forget which was which—as he’d feel with his foot where the ground gave way to subterranean pools, pits, ledges, etcetera. He would walk and walk and walk and in this way, he’d eventually acquire what we’d come to call a real sense of the place as well as a familiarity with some of its other inhabitants.
“Other inhabitants?” he asked me once.
“Well you don’t think that we’re the only two people in the entire world do you?” I said, and he said, no, no, no, that he didn’t think that. Not even close. There was, at the very least, the eye surgeon, he said, for example—“what was his name again?” he asked—the fellow who’d done the eye surgery, the man who he’d met on a recent walk?—“ah, right!” he said. “Ishmael!”
“I thought you thought I was Ishmael,” I said on this occasion, but other times—depending on how I felt myself—other times that he said Ishmael, I maybe said, “Interesting. He sounds like a real character. Remind me how you met him?” and sometimes—more often than never, but not, I’d say, more often than not—he would.
He told me once, for example, that he’d stopped to take a breather, was leaning up against a stalagmite, minding his own business, soaking in the sunlight, when he heard a stranger’s voice beside him say something like, “You alright there, pal? You look a little lost.”
“I am a little lost,” he told me that he answered, “though probably not in the sense that you meant. I have an excellent sense of direction,” he said. Which was true, he told me. He often said so. “I do have a question though,” he said, “and though I’ve asked it more than probably a hundred thousand times, I’ve yet to receive a satisfying answer. So in this sense,” he said, “I suppose you could say that I am, perhaps, a little lost,” and then he asked the stranger about the eye thing: about how it was he’d been able to see what he saw—the long, curved incisions smiling like mouths—about how it was he’d seen that—with lips stitched—given the state, he said, of his eyes.
“The state,” the stranger asked him, “of your eyes?”
“Whereupon I was obliged,” he told me, “to tell the stranger about what you and Sludge had done to me.”
“Me and Sludge?” I said, and he replied, “You are Ishmael, aren’t you?” and I said, “No, Ishmael was the one you were telling me about, the stranger you met on your walk, the amateur eye surgeon. I’m the one you’re talking to now. It’s Ismael,” I said, “with no h,” and he said, “Oh. Nice to meet you.”
And so the eye surgeon—for that’s who it turned out he’d had the good fortune to be speaking to, and also, incidentally, leaning against—agreed to take a little look-see.
“A look-see?” I said.
“Yes,” he replied, “a little look-see.”
“Sit here,” said the eye surgeon.
“Here?” he asked, pointing into the fathomless darkness.
“Exactly,” said the doctor, adding, once he’d sat, to lie down, and so he did and the doctor said, “Good boy,” and he whispered, “Good boy?” back because he wasn’t sure he’d heard this right.
“To be honest,” he told me, “it’s often difficult for me to tell exactly what someone is saying and what I’m simply remembering someone once having said,” and he told me that, in whichever case, he then told the doctor that he’d had the same problem back when he was talking to Ismael, another recovering involuntarily self-inflected eye surgery patient he’d met on a walk recently.
“That’s you,” he said to me, in case I didn’t recognize myself. “I hope you don’t mind my telling the doctor about us?” he added, and I said that I could forgive him in this case, but that in the future I’d maybe prefer that he leave me out, and he said, “Understood,” and that he’d maybe prefer it if I left him out too.
“Out of what?” I said, and he said, “The … um …” and I said, “Never mind.”
Then the doctor said, “Well you might want to close your eyes for this part,” and, though he wondered if they weren’t closed already, he did as told.
“This might smart a little,” said the eye surgeon, and so he prepared himself for another tussle with the unwithstandable. There followed, however, a brief spell of uncomfortable tugging, uncomfortable, but somehow, he said, distant, rather like it was happening to something only extrinsically attached to him, slightly farther away from him than his skin—“Almost clothes,” he said.
“What was that?” said the doctor, and he said, “I said, ‘Almost clothes,’ but I’ve forgotten why.”
“Oopsy-daisy,” the doctor said a little later. “I’ve spurted some of your blood across your face.”
“That’s fine,” he replied. “Truth be told it smarted less than I’d anticipated.”
“Good sport,” said the doctor. “You’re quite a trooper.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I was one once actually.”
“One what?” said the eye surgeon, and he said, “A trooper. I was in the army. During the uprising.”
“You don’t say,” said the doctor. “What side?”
“Good question,” he said.
He was fairly certain he’d been on the right side, but what right meant—what right meant even before the cave—much less what right meant now—the details escaped him.
“Details often do,” said the doctor.
“I suppose,” he said, “it depends on which uprising we’re talking about,” for there’d been—he now remembered—more than one. “If I had to guess,” he said, “I’d say I was on whichever side was doing the uprising, as opposed to, say, the one’s trying to quash it. Yes,” he said. “That sounds much more like the sort of person I think I was, or at least was pretending to be—an upriser as opposed to a quasher. Though truth be told, even at the time,” he said, “it was one of those words—uprising,” he said, “—whose meaning depended on who you asked. Even my landlord,” he said, “might say he was organizing an uprising against my quashing of his not fixing my broken bathroom door, which I could never, for the life of me, figure out how to open.”
“Well, what were you trying to do?” said the doctor.
“Get out of the bathroom,” he said.
“No, no, I meant in the uprising,” said the doctor.
But he simply couldn’t say. Perhaps he never found out, never made it high enough in the organization to be privy to such intel. Or maybe he knew once, but had forgotten. Maybe it wasn’t even an army so much as a corporation whose CEO was fond of using military jargon. “The last thing I remember,” he said, “was that I was searching for something. I was on a very important mission, upon which a great deal depended. Odd, I remember thinking, that they should assign it to me, given who I was, or who, at least, I thought I was at the time. But there I was,” he said, “either looking for something—or perhaps protecting something from those who were. The details escape me,” he said again. “Details often do,” he laughed. “But I remember having to ask pretty much everyone I met if I could ask them a quick question.”
“Ask away,” said the eye surgeon, as he dabbed the blood off his patient’s face with what felt like a crumpled-up piece of paper. “Oh, and you can open your eyes now,” said the doctor, and so he did.
He opened his eyes and saw the yawning dome of the cave—“only, oddly, it was entirely dark,” he told me—unilluminated, for whatever reason, by even a single glowing speck of human chaff.
“Did you say chaff?” I asked him, and he said he did, that glowing chaff was what got called stars here, those bits of people’s bodies—bone and sinew, mostly—that the spiders couldn’t finish off entirely, indigestible remnants that drifted about the dome of the cave, catching, like dust motes, what shafts of light endeavored to enter the—“pardon the expression,” he said—tomb.
There were no stars when he opened his eyes, so he figured it must have been day. Day was what occurred at night here, he explained, day being an absence of stars, which only appeared when the sun in the—“pardon this expression as well,” he said—real world was shining beams of light into the cave.
“Gosh, it’s so dark,” he said to the doctor. “How can you see what you’re doing?”
“Oh, I can’t,” the doctor replied. “Don’t worry, though. My eyes don’t work either. I couldn’t see even it wasn’t!”
“Wasn’t what?” he asked.
“Day,” said the doctor. “But that’s why my personal assistant is directing me. His eyes don’t require light to see,” he explained. “That’s the other voice you hear, the one telling me where to aim with the knife and how hard to saw.”
“Hm,” he said. He couldn’t hear the assistant’s voice for some reason.
“Oh, actually you can,” said the doctor. “You just can’t remember having heard it, because my assistant speaks in a language you don’t understand. Memory is basically what we, in the profession, call a book,” he said. “What doesn’t get written in the book,” he said, “—what, in other words, you haven’t the means—because of, for instance, a language barrier—to so-to-speak write down in your dream journal,” he said, “such things are as though they never happened.”
“That makes sense,” he said.
“Thanks,” said the doctor. “And yeah, if you knew the language that my assistant speaks, then your book might have included the fact, for example, that I said something like, ‘This is my assistant Sludget,’ and that you then said, ‘Sludge? I think I’ve met him before…’ and that I said, ‘No, not Sludge, but Sludget, with a t at the end. The t is silent because he’s French,’ and that then Sludget said, ‘Qu’est-ce qui s’est passé avec ses yeux—c’est degoutant!’ and that then you said, ‘Enchanté.’”
“Hm,” he said, but he decided to keep to himself the fact that he was pretty certain that he spoke a little French, or at least used to. Then again, the doctor’s pronunciation was so bad, that he wasn’t entirely sure that it was in fact French the doctor’s assistant spoke.
“But you were going to ask him something,” I said.
“I was?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “About the thing you were looking for,” and he said, “Oh right. But remind me again what that was?” and told him I was pretty sure it was a book.
“You mean like a memory?” he said, and I said, “No”—no, that I was pretty sure it was an actual book.
“That sounds unlikely,” he said. “I’m not much of a reader,” and I said, “This was no ordinary book,” and he asked what was so unusual about it.
“You tell me,” I said. “You were the one asking pretty much everyone you ever met if they’d, by any chance, ever heard of it.”
“Heard of what?” he said the doctor replied, and he said, “The book I mentioned,” but the doctor said it didn’t ring any bells.
“But then again,” he said, “it’s been a little difficult lately to tell whether bells are actually not ringing or whether they’ve been ringing so consistently for so long that it only seems like they’re not. Have you ever noticed,” he said, “how few of the thoughts circulating in your head are spoken in your own voice? Oh, and by the way,” he then said, more cheerfully now, “you might want to close your eyes again. I think this is the part that’s actually going to smart.”
“The book of webs… the book of webs… the book of webs,” the doctor muttered as he worked. “Let’s see. You know, now that you mention it, there was a strange book I came across recently. Where was that though? Arrête de me chatouiller!” he screamed suddenly, to his assistant apparently. “Ah! I remember, now. It was a dream,” he said. “Would you like to hear it?”
“No, that’s okay,” he replied, but the doctor either didn’t hear his patient or his patient was too polite to actually voice the words in his head, and so the doctor began to recount this strange dream he once had, or maybe even had more than once—“it can be difficult to tell,” he laughed, “can’t it?—to tell what is actually a recurring dream and what is a dream in which something or another happens as though it’s a recurrence?”—a dream it felt like he often had, in fact, a dream which always ended the same way: with him holding a book in his hands—“a book,” he said, “bound in bark.”
At least that’s what he seemed to think it was. Though, he supposed, it really might’ve been any number of things. It was a thick block, a block on every side of which, even the sides where, were it an ordinary book, there would have been stacked pages, there’d been a flat plane of ponderosa pine bark, edges beveled so no seams showed. The sticky sugar-scent of ponderosa sap wafted so thickly off the bark it was almost too painful to behold, so uncommon had such beauty, so inaccessible had such pleasure, in the world wherein this dream took place, become. So he’d breathe—the doctor, in these dreams he had—he’d breathe through his mouth in an effort to shield his nostrils from the torment of some long-destroyed other world, an other nose, an other face, an other body that the odor conjured up in him, and still his mouth would flood with saliva, try as he might to keep the book at arm’s length as he struggled to figure out how to open it. For whichever way he pried at what seemed to be its front and back covers, the book stayed sealed—“it was like the spine of the book,” he said, “went all the way around it. I’d keep turning it over and over,” he said, “trying again and again to prize it open”—for he always had this feeling, in this dream, this belief—“sometimes even what felt like knowledge,” he laughed—that the book, if it could be opened, would unleash some tremendous power—“like it would have,” he said, but he had the hardest time putting this into words, “like it would have, I guess, undermined the border,” he said, “between the things the book recounted and the world wherein such a book might, if it could ever open, be read. That if the things it recounted were untrue,” he said, “they somehow wouldn’t be by the time the book was finished. So I kept trying,” he said. He said he couldn’t help it, impossible as it was, he couldn’t help but try—try until the dream ended, which it always did before he found a way to open it—to figure out a way to open it.
“Did you ever try speaking to it?” I asked him.
“What was that?” he said.
“Did you ever try speaking to it?” I said again, and he asked if I’d meant to say: “Did the eye surgeon ever try speaking to it,” and I said, “Yes. That’s what I said. Did the eye surgeon ever try speaking to it?” and he said, “To what?” and I said, “To the book,” and he said, “No. I don’t think he knew he was supposed to.”
“Well, that’s understandable,” I said. “Not everyone knows. But you know, right?” I said. “You know that you could have,” I said. “I mean, had it been you. You know you could have told it, for instance, that it was safe. That it was safe for the book to open,”
“No,” he said. “I never did,” he said. “I mean he never did,” and I told him that it was okay to say I if that’s what felt best. I told him that I wouldn’t forget that it was the doctor and not him who was doing the telling, and he said, “You mean the listening?” and I said, “The listening?” and he said that listening was what many of the people he met in the cave tended to call telling—“who knows,” he said, “why.”
But in any case, he told me, it never really occurred to him to say anything to the book.
“No,” he said, “I never thought to do anything like that, not in the dreams I’d have holding this book bound in bark.”
Rather, he’d just stand there holding it, he told me, turning it over and over in his hands, looking for a way—some secret aperture or slit in the bark—desperate for some way to get the thing open.
“I can imagine why,” he told me that he said, and I said, “Wait, who?” and he said, “Me. The one I was before I was the doctor. I said, ‘I can imagine why. Sounds like it would’ve been a pretty good book,’ as I—I mean the doctor now—sawed the blade nearer and nearer to where Sludget was telling me the eyeball was.
“Oui,” he told me he heard Sludget whisper—but the French, he said, was riddled with errors, and was therefore more likely something he was poorly remembering and not what the Frenchman actually said—“Oui,” he nevertheless, heard Sludget whisper, “là, entre le trou de l’oeil de la première masque et celui de la deuxième.”
“Not that I could understand him anyway,” he said.
“Forget about him then,” I said. “Focus,” I said, “on the book.”
“I kept turning it over and over and over again…” he repeated, but as he said this, he told me, as he was telling me about it, he was also becoming less and less confident that this had been a dream and not actually a memory after all—“Good,” I said—a memory of something that had actually happened to him, to him, he said and not to the doctor, that it was him, he remembered, turning a book bound in bark over and over in his hands, turning it over and over, he said, but finding no opening.
“Where were you?” I asked him.
“In a cave,” he said.
“No,” I said. “I mean when you found the book.”
“Standing,” he said, “in false grass.”
He said he could see it, the false grass, beyond the book bound in bark that he was turning over in his hands, the buzzing green of plastic blades, growing black as the sun set.
“The sun?” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “the sun,” and that through the dome of smoke there had still been a little light to be lost.