h1

Echoes of Light

It’s like a visitation in opaque, he thinks. One that slowly but definitely clouds out the clarity of the world. Inside this new prism, colours are captured and fade into a multicoloured but muted kaleidoscope of shifting grains and hues, which mix and shuffle in ever-duller tones while he sits at the centre, powerless now to change or improve.

It wasn’t always like this. Once he’d blazed in a shower of glory towards the stars, flown high and free on wings of fire, dared the gods and won. But now there were no great games of football, no deals being cut, no living the fine life on the back of raw talent, learnt discipline and a lucky draw of fortunate circumstance. Blessed, he must have been then. Like so many are, he added to himself in thought. Jogging, striding, or ambling past him with prams, the lucky ones take in the air along these tree-lined paths, their own concerns filling in the gap before them, drawing or pushing them along in the early morning grey. Whether nattering like birds or silent as the stream, all these people are known only by the murmuring against the walls of life they make as they pass along, he feels; dreaming themselves into existence.

His ears are sharpening as the eyes dim. Magpies calling spoke a language that he almost understood, in a way. Just as Braille begins to sing as your fingers go from stumbling across the typeface to flying with meaning, so the heralds of illumination woke him with their songs to the day. It wasn’t meaning in any conventional sense – he didn’t ‘know what they were saying’ to each other. Their cawing just brought a kind of clarity to the fact of his existence, deepened his awareness of being alive.

Hearing that call in that moment seemed to him like a whetting of consciousness against the undeniable but ever-passing stone of life. What cruel irony, he mused, that my yearning for life should be so sharpened as my grip on it is weakened. But Lear was not right: the gods are not cruel, they do not swat us like flies for sport. This affliction is also a gift, as blindness approaches with the unstoppable inevitability of destiny, enveloping me in its arms with consolation as well as loss. (Now he felt like the magpie, singing his own song in the early morning dimness, perched on a wire outside of doors, calling to the world without expecting or needing a response, carving the story of himself out of his body and his place, knowing it would pass soon and few would recall it for long, another unknown star burning in the infinite reaches of the universe, snuffing out through lack of fuel after millions of years of light in an ocean of darkness.) The magpie’s cadence lolled over the rises and falls of life, ringing heartily not merely with acceptance of challenge but in active embrace of whatever may come. Its song was like the bells of fate, he thought. Drawing me back here, to what is happening right now, without remorse but without denial either.

Many animals know what it is to not see, he realised. They must learn to feel their way along, to hear like I’m hearing now, with all the fat cut off and just the bare thing left – a different kind of staring in the face. They crawl or burrow, slither or swim or soar, in worlds of soil and ocean, air and tree. How must every sense sing to them through claw or paw, in their guts or fins or under their wings, as the breeze picks the bird up from a flat soar in an exhilarating rush, to shift the aspect of their glide, as they catch it pushing against their feathers and instantly incorporate the new path cut out and opened through the sky as it happens… do even the lords of the sky always need to be looking as they soar?

It’s the feeling of what happens that matters most, he decided. Imagine crawling against the earth – he asks himself to do exactly this and is instantly transported to a new space, free of the old demands of work and even play, sporting in this novel way, almost cavorting in that distinctive stretch of time available to the frail and the dying – so that your belly is in full and intimate contact with the ground, identifying your whole sense of self all the time with the physical. No hands to manoeuvre things with, not even an appendage that would help you to change the way things are, to move stuff or yourself into a better position, to make it into something easier, more palatable or even just more aesthetically pleasing. The earth must sing to your tummy! He smiled at this thought, unconsciously lifting a hand towards his midriff, well covered in the cool of Melbourne’s late autumn, especially outside at this early time of day.

His granddaughter, a gracious but quiet girl just becoming a young woman, sitting beside him on the park bench, sensed the movement and saw the smile, but waited to see if he wanted to speak first before interjecting. She wondered how many of these mornings he had left. She already possessed a maturity he’d only now begun to accept for himself in these late stages of life; a way of being both full of acceptance and ready for anything, warm and secure in her love of life and strong enough to stick by him as he faded from it. He kept his silence, so she went back to her meditation, letting the stream flow by in the creek, being the water, letting the water go, being the banks of clay and shale that hold it, then letting the earth be itself, while she sat still and watched it…

By now he’d developed claws and was dragging himself along, still alive to the ground beneath his belly and the scraping of the twigs and leaves beneath him, alert to the fresh feeling of a grassy patch, so soothing, then reaching out each paw and scraping away at the earth, sniffing the new darkness for the dampness of enclosure, until he sensed it gather around him with the closeness of home, creating a burrow that he could feel safe inside. He snuggled his face up against the coldness and registered the thrumming of the earth, a kind of slow electric pulse conducted by the metals in the sand and soil and clay as if they were the solidified ether of some great message as old as the stars, some pulse that radiated out from the beginning of the universe and carried with it everywhere the same song of life, crackling on the airwaves and glowing in these caves, a different kind of luminescence not dependent on the eye for its transmission, a message that need not be heard for its memory to be decoded. He sat in this knowledge, which is no real knowledge at all – which doesn’t build things or improve health and safety or inspire initiative or make any difference – and felt the sand against his body as he breathed in the close, cold air, loving and feeling loved by this majestic yet intimate universe.

The magpies had moved away and their sounds were replaced by the steady hum of traffic. Dull grey had become dissolved by the day and even he, upon opening his eyes, could see the smeared outlines of the scene before them, the black ribbon of tarmac cutting a flat path across the land, the creek ahead with its little footbridge off to the left, with a park bench sitting among the trees a couple of hundred metres away from any roads, where an old man and his beautiful granddaughter sat quietly, runners and walkers passing by every now and then, while the trickle of commuters striding towards their trains became more regular as the morning proper began.

A gang of parrots shoots past, raucous on their way to or from some tree full of over-ripened fruit, flashing colours outrageously in the morning sky, discussing the day. He’s not ready to move yet, although the stiffness will settle in soon and he’ll have to begin the slow shuffle home before it sets in place and the creakiness seizes him up. Strangely, the deeper he sinks into his body, the further he seems to be able to imagine himself out of it, as if the attempt to savour every last moment of life puts him more in touch with the physical and the imaginative worlds at once. Or maybe it is just that impending death, with its scout sent ahead in encroaching blindness, inspires this twin awareness, of the body that would soon pass and the mind that resides both within and beyond it.

So, even as he sits more awake than ever to the blood flowing through his veins and arteries, breath rising and falling in his chest and abdomen, muscles and viscera and sphincters tightening and relaxing with every subtle movement of his body, his mind also dwells in these other places, with the birds in the air and the animals on the ground and the creatures of the water. It is into these watery depths that he now descends, feeling the pressure increase on his skin, the atmosphere thicken so that it matches his blurry vision, a haze of clear soup darkening to aquamarine blue as the shafts of light fade out and are swallowed up by the gaping maw of the deep. Past the playful, surface-dwelling creatures, the darting shoals of fish and fluid motions of the seals and dolphins, beneath those more recognisable oceanic beings, he sinks to visit the anonymous denizens of the unfathomable seabed. Shapeless creatures dwell at this abyss, mere presences in the darkness, powerful and fearsome but unknown, even unknowable beasts. Everything we think about is meaningless here, he realises. Our sense of identity is so reliant on things we see, that others see about us or on us or around us, things we build and make, whether physical or intellectual, stuff and qualities that have exchange value, agreed upon at some unspoken but conscious level. None of it matters here. Not a thing we think or feel finds any consolation where no light reaches and no life recognises another except as passing phenomena, prey or hunter, shifting shapes in a world where density carries more weight than vision. Yet the feeling of what happens still forms the basic rule of this universe; the creatures here still arrange themselves in response to their environment, to the other things that fill and mark it, to the movements of the currents so slow and resolute against the resistance of water that acts more like a block than a flow of life. The silt is so soft at this depth, you almost sink into it even when you appear as weightless as consciousness, so soft and accommodating, you almost…

Granddad, she breaks in, gently nudging his shoulder. Should we start walking? She knows the signs, by now. Of when he sinks too deep and comes out stiff as a board, so that he struggles to stand up because of the rigidity in his joints, bones hard like flat boards, body going brittle, until it is pressed up with a stick and forced to walk away and back home against the desire to sink, sink into the welcoming depths of morass. As she helps him stand he notices that the grey clouds stretching across the horizon now contain flashes of lightning – one of the last discernible things he can make out, without doubt in his failing haze of near sightlessness. The storm must be a very long way off, though, because he can’t even hear the thunder that must accompany it. All he knows is the refracted radiance of the incandescent flashes, which are now ricocheting off the bottoms of the clouds, reflected back up from the earth like echoes of light approaching from over the horizon, unannounced and silent, even to his sensitive ears. One of his last visions, a strange portent of nothing at all, reminding him of the depths to which his sense of self was welcome, the anonymous density that forced the breath from his lungs so that he sucks it back in up here at ground level, looking at the world and his granddaughter, grown now and living in the fullness of time, time that passed so impersonally but embraced so many countless moments of warmth and awareness and life and death. As he bends himself to a walk – her hand on his elbow, a smile for her from their shared meditation, her smile back a timeless acknowledgement of familial love – a lone magpie returns and calls to the day, not needing to know whether it is heard or not.

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