Saturday, March 19, 2016

Two Strangers Meet in the Woods, Stephanie Anderson

The Forest
By Stephanie Anderson

The bed of the forest under her feet alternated between soft moss and stabbing sticks. Tall trees towered around her, no specific path laid out to a destination. With hurried urgency, Annie made her way through the foreign land, weaving around the trunks of pines and deciduous, looking behind her periodically, certain they’d be upon her soon.

The tree-studded forest was foreign to her, yet here it had always been. For seemingly as long as time existed, the flora and fauna cohabitated peacefully, their symbiosis unspoken. The land needed the trees that needed the plants that needed the woodland creatures that needed the plants that needed the trees that needed the land. Living together in harmony, unaware or purposely ignorant of the oppression, lies and deceit happening just steps away in the populated cities along the coasts and stretching in between. 

It existed, unaffected by the untruths. Yet Annie had lived amongst the untruth, within it, captured by it her entire life.

Until now.

As the old man had promised, the Blindness had receded in the same manner it started: slowly, carefully, minutely. Before, the darkness started at the very edges, creeping ever so gradually toward the center of her vision. At first she hadn’t noticed: a room more dim than she remembered; having to turn her head further to the side to see. But the darkness became more voracious, ink dancing in swirls through her field of vision until the light no longer shined in. Until she became trapped within the void, seeing nothing.

The Blindness had overtaken her.

The condition affected people from time to time, usually due to a genetic mutations (“impurities,” as Government Services called them) or moral infractions. Since the Cleansing, Blindness was a way to keep the population pure, cohesive. It weeded out the disparities in the gene pool as well as wrong instincts for thinking and behaving. Impurities and Infractions were taken to labs or prisons, to be studied or punished, accordingly. The hope was that cures would be found for these lapses, although no progress had yet been made. Blindness gave our world order. With the Blindness, life made sense.

Until now. 

Annie had been, like all people, genetically tested and passed with nothing short of a perfect scan. She came from a Pure family, as had Malcolm. They were a healthy match, meant to have a healthy life and provide the world with healthy kids to further Purity. So confused was she during the Blind days. Never had Annie had even a violating thought. If not genetic mutations or infractions, why then had the world gone dark?

Her instinct had been to hide. And that instinct had been right. The man on the train had known. He had been blind, but now he could see. He warned her of strange and terrifying things, yet had given her hope. If she could just hold on, he’d told her, she would experience truth and beauty in ways she could not have known existed.

Oh, had he been right!

It was like film had been washed from her eyes, eyes that has never truly worked. As before, the inky swirls danced in her darkness, but she could perceive them. Grey on black, shadows on shadows, but there was depth to it that she could move her vision around. The contrasts became greater, and soon light gently embraced the shapes, from the center of her vision outward. But the light was new, unlike anything she’d seen before the Blindness. It scared her, until her vision was no longer fogged with darkness. Then, the light took her breath away.

Colors, shapes, refraction. Color! She thought she’d known color before. What she had known, though, was limited and two-dimensional. She had no names for the shades and tints and textures her eyes sensed now. But their beauty brought tears to her eyes and welled up in the middle of her chest with a heaviness that was not unpleasant. Uncomfortable, yes, but in a way that felt good way, yet also unfamiliar. The feeling simultaneously conjured thoughts of comfort: sitting on a beach, a summer sunset, Malcolm. Perhaps this was the word emotion she’d heard about only in school, taught as a means of warning.

The words spoken by the old man on the train had been truth. The world as she knew it crumbled, unfamiliar. If his words were truth, as she was beginning to think, her society, and that which governed her, was not what it seemed. The structures that had always kept her safe were now a threat to her existence. 

A new emotion rose in her at the thought of her life suddenly off-kilter. It took over the space where the warm beauty had been only moments before. This emotion was sharper and narrow, straight down the center of her body, a block of ice had taking up residence in her torso. Annie did not know this emotion, but she did not like it.

The old man was right, so how much of her life was a lie? She looked around at this new world, of birds chirping and earthy smells of soil, crisp leaves, and a sweetness that came from the growth of wildflowers in secret places. Even if she had visited here Before, she would have never seen, truly taken in, the glory of this place. With the sounds and chaos of the city behind her, she had to embrace this world as her home. 

For now, anyway.

Annie had no sense of where to go, so she decided to keep the city at her back and run toward the sun (had it always been blazing, churning mass of red, orange and yellow?). Each night, as the sun made its way to the horizon, she’d been fortunate enough to find shelter in hollowed out trees or under the large flowering Mountain Laurel bushes, whose branches spread out like a safe haven. 

On this third day of Awareness, the light was trading it's space for nightfall, and Annie was eager to find a place to settle down for the night. This part of the forest was closer to the mountains, and large boulder walls forged up from the ground, as though an architect had designed them that way. Rounding a corner, Annie could make out a small fracture in the boulder face to her left. Approaching it for a closer look, she could see that it was large enough to enter, and there was space to go into. 

“A cave!” Annie breathed. This was more than she could have hoped for. True shelter for the night while she slept. Crouching low, she shuffled into the stone room. Inside was quiet, dry and surprisingly clean. The floor was earthen, but worn down over years of animal visitors. The space was somewhat circular, with no corners, and extended further into the rock face then the outside let on.

This will do, Annie thought. This will do just fine. 

Before calling it a day, Annie gathered nuts and berries from the bushes and trees surrounding the cave. Although the forest provided enough sustenance, it wasn’t the hearty meals she was used to having Before. She knew she needed protein, and would have to figure out a way to hunt or fish. Sighing, she resigned to look into this tomorrow. Perhaps she could even stay an extra day in this safehouse, giving her trackers the opportunity to lose her trail. It would also give her time to follow the cave further inside.

Her legs protested before breathing a sigh of relief as Annie finally took the day’s weight off of them, settling down with her back against the wall. She let the straps of her pack slip off her shoulder, unearthing the few possessions she managed to pack along with her for the journey. 

Journey to where? she wondered.

As she had each night since her Awakening, Annie took out her photo album. It was amazing to see the moments of her life with these new eyes. Who knew that Malcolm’s eyes were so crystalline, a color, whatever it was called, that matched the sky at midday? She had always thought of Malcolm as handsome, but this new perspective gave him depth. Another emotion spread through her, warm, almost electric, spreading from her center out toward her legs and arms. It tingled, like the static shock received from wearing socks on carpeted floors in winter. And it pushed a knowing smile on her face that was simultaneously delightful and thrilling.

She missed Malcolm most of all. 

He would have no idea where she was, but Annie hoped that her note, informative yet cryptic, was enough to implore reason. If he could believe her. If he could believe she was not impure or a violator, but rather, something other. If he could believe that, and still want to be matched with her, then perhaps he would try to find her.

Although.

Could he possibly understand? The Before life lacked so much: so much complexity, so much beauty, so much depth. It is the Befores that are blind, Annie realized. And although she wouldn’t hope the fear and isolation of Blindness on anyone, she found herself desperately wishing Malcolm could know the life of Awakening. For Malcolm to see her with Awakened eyes, to know the deep feelings and colors and light that came with it, and to be matched with her in a new way.

The sound of a crack, a branch breaking under the weight of a foot, put Annie on alert. Another crack, and then shuffling, and Annie felt  the icy, narrow feeling again. Someone was there, in the heart of the cave she had yet to explore. Looking to her pack, she quietly took out the only weapon-like thing she carried: an old folding knife of Malcolm’s that she swiped from his bedside table during her quick exit from home. It was small and thin but sharp. Hopefully sharp enough, Annie prayed.

The sound came more clearly in the form of a person walking, someone who hesitated before entering the rock vestibule.

“I have a knife,” Annie said, making her presence known, for better or worse. She stood, shaking, the waves of her thick, dark hair falling into her face. 

The sound stepped into the room, transforming from sound to being. He was tall, as tall as Malcolm, but his hair was not regulation length. Instead of being cropped close, it was long, lighter than Annie’s, falling below his ears in waves, something Annie had never before seen on a man. His body was sturdy, and his clothes were clearly made for rugged conditions. They showed only minimal wear, Annie noticed. He’d either not been in the forest for long, or he had been prepared to be out in the elements. Her eyes landed on his face, slightly dirty, with a thick, furrowed brow framing eyes the same color as the earthen floor. Something in Annie relaxed, but she was unsure why.

He put his arms up reflexively, a show that he was unarmed, Annie realized. And, to her surprise, he smiled. 

“Hi,” he started. “Maybe we could start this conversation not under guard?”

The knife, Annie recognized. This could be a trick. She had no idea what unregulated people were like. Unregulated people like me, she thought. I am unregulated now. But a quiet voice in the back of her mind told her it was okay.

She lowered the knife. “Sorry. I haven’t seen...I’ve been alone since I came here,” Annie explained.

He nodded. “We all are when we first come.” Extending his hand he added, “My name is Chris”

Chris’s hands were large and soft and warm, her hand looking thin and fragile in his. He sat down in the rock room, giving her enough space to feel comfortable and not threatened. Kind, Annie thought to herself. He’s kind. She didn’t know where the thought came from or why she thought it, but she was certain. She felt safe. 


And she hoped she is right.

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