I think the hard, cold, unfamiliarity of the surface beneath me is what wakes me up. I blearily open my eyes and search around with my hands to try to find the edge of my bed. Not only do I not find an edge—because there is no bed—but I also find that opening my eyes does no good. The darkness around me is complete. I am in that strange dark empty space where you open your eyes, and you open them again, and you feel your face to make sure there’s nothing covering them, and your eyes stay opened wide, hoping that some light somewhere will become visible. After a while, my eyes may have closed—I don’t know, but they always felt open.

I search around some more with my hands. The air is damp and the ground around me is smooth and slick with condensation. I do some problem solving and feel my way around in an outward spiral until I find what must be a wall. I use the wall, my hands, and my useless eyes to aid my legs in standing up slowly. The wall is high, higher than my head. It is smooth in some places and craggy in others. It doesn’t crumble like a soft stone; it is hard and thick and trustworthy. I run my hands carefully along it surface, feeling the floor beneath my feet with every step, and begin what I can only assume will be a long, slow process of exploring.

I don’t know how long I do this, but I have begun making a map in my head of the curves and turns in the wall. I made mental notes about the sharp outcroppings that threatened the skin on my fingers, the sudden hills and valleys that tried to trip me up; I want to be prepared for them in case I have to turn back.

The wall is cold, like the floor, and a bit damp too. So when my hand slides up against something that is warm and dry and soft, I jump nearly out of my skin and land with a hard thump on the floor. I hold my hands out, ensuring that whatever foreign object or creature I have come across does not come upon me without warning. I feel its warmth before I feel its body: seconds before its hand touches mine, the air around me changes smell and temperature and I notice instantly.

But then the hand does touch mine. At least, I assume it’s a hand. But it isn’t a familiar shape. The skin around it feels different too. We hesitantly poke and prod one another, and I discover that the creature has two hand-like objects that work roughly the same as mine, and they are attached to arms that are similar to mine, and the creature is only a little bit taller than me.

Communication is limited. I try to talk, but it doesn’t seem to understand or even to hear at all. It also makes noise at me, but I can’t make sense of it. I can’t ask it if it has eyes that don’t work anymore. I can’t ask it if it feels around on the pads of its palms like I do. All I have to go on is what I can feel with my own hands. This is the first other living creature I’ve come across in this unknown expanse of time, and I want so desperately to be anything other than alone. My throat tightens with the effort of trying to connect, and tears begin to well up in my vestigial eyes.

Then, suddenly, the creature reaches out with one of its arms and touches its hand-like object to my shoulder. I feel a warmth, like a soft electric shock, and then I see an image in my mind. It is similar to the map I had been constructing of the wall and the floor and the tricky parts I came across, only, this image is of a different wall and different obstacles. I patch the images together like puzzle pieces fitting together, and they roughly match up; the point where they meet is the point where the creature and I found each other.

From the image, it is clear that the creature has been exploring for much longer than I have. Its map is nearly five times the size of mine, and the creature even made notes of different smells and textures with a richness of detail I hadn’t considered trying. I put my hand on where the creature’s shoulder should be, and I send my patched-together map to its mind. I can feel it nodding—the movement affects most of its body—and it takes my hand in its own and points us back in the direction where it had come from. It begins to pull me, to suggest that I should go with it in that direction, and without any other viable options, I acquiesce.

Slowly we make our way back through the area of our map the other creature has explored. I discover some places where I might have mapped it differently myself, and I mark these on my version, but don’t try to explain or even tell the creature. We walk on a long way, and then I begin to feel the air around me growing warmer, dryer, and though my eyes still can’t see even a glint of light, my emotions feel as though I’ve just entered a comfortable, well-lit room. There are more creatures here.

My Creature leads me into a group of others that seemed to have been waiting for me. My Creature motions for me to put my hand on one of its shoulders, and it does the same, and then we transmit our map images. I worry momentarily about the discrepancies between our two pictures, but the other creatures don’t seem to mind. They even seem to expect it somehow. The one whose shoulder I rested my hand on puts its hand on my shoulder and transmits its own map image to me, and I am shocked at how enormous it is. My little contribution is almost laughably small and very much less interesting than the rest.

For a while, My Creature and I just stand in a small circle with these others, all the while welcoming returning and new members who share their maps with us, and we integrate them with our own. Everyone’s maps look slightly different; they all have generally the same parts, but some creatures choose to emphasize some parts while not emphasizing others. Some of them have even added smells and textures to the little piece that I had walked by myself. I don’t know if that’s because they went there themselves and added them, because all we can communicate with each other is our maps. I can’t ask them why they’ve changed theirs. I keep mine mostly the way I like it, the way I trust it to be, because I was there and I don’t remember those other smells or textures.

Our collective map is growing exponentially with every passing moment. It’s thrilling, almost. There is a section of the map where the walls come very close to each other, as if they could come together at any moment, and we will have travelled the entirety of our cave. The idea excites me, because now my new friends have taught me how to use the maps to travel without using the walls to guide me, and I think if I have a mental map, I could function, go about my life, without needing the light.

But then something terrible happens. Two new creatures enter our circle, and I can tell immediately that neither of them are returning members. One touches my shoulder, and the other touches My Creature’s shoulder, and they transmit a map to us.

And it looks nothing like ours.

The colors are all different. The walls are farther apart. There are jagged rocks where I don’t remember there being jagged rocks. My Creature and I try to integrate this new image with our own, but they have almost nothing in common. We approximate where they would match up and superimpose one over the other, but I immediately notice that the little section of the map I travelled myself looks completely different on their version. I don’t trust it. Their map is wrong.

Why would they try to transmit a false map? Are they trying to trick us? Do they want to confuse us? Is this even their real map, or is it a fake one they’re using to try to lure us into a trap?

My Creature tries to transmit to me the new, integrated map they made, and I inspect it. It looks much different than either of the two maps individually, and I don’t recognize parts of it, but I trust My Creature, so I accept it, and I pass it on to the next creature. That creature has the same reaction as I did. I turn back to the newcomers and transmit our new version of the map, and they don’t like it. Again they transmit their useless joke of an image, and again I transmit our new, better version. They’re stubborn. They can’t talk any more than the rest of us, but the way they move and the heat coming off of them suggests that they are angry, and they are adamant that their map is the right one. That there is nothing right about ours. Not even the little piece that I travelled on my own.

My Creature takes both my hands and leads me away from these new creatures, and transmits again our original map. It looks a little different than before, as if the strange new map left traces of itself all over it, but I am more comfortable with this version, so I accept it and get as far away from those new creatures as I can. I can sense the shockwaves of motion and emotion all around me that suggest those new creatures are still trying to transmit their maps to my friends. It’s not going well. No one in our group likes the new map, and they start to try to close the circle so that the new people can’t come in and try to share it anymore.

Over time, other new people try to enter the circle. Their maps are all so different from ours, and it’s confusing me. I don’t remember now which part of the map I walked by myself, and which part I trusted other people with.   I thought for a while about possibly just setting off on my own, alone, and exploring the whole cave on my own, but the map is nearly ten times the size it was when I first entered the circle. The part of the map where the walls looked like they were almost touching is gone now. There are weird colors and flavors I don’t recognize and can’t categorize. I don’t know if I could make my own map if I tried. I don’t know how long that would take, or if I’d ever be able to finish it enough to use it.

Some rogue maps try to get in every once in a while, but we keep them out. We don’t want a repeat of those first new people. As we start to get more and more maps that are different than our own, or make the cave look different than we want it to look, we stop accepting new people at all, and just stand together in our circle, making our map look better and better. I don’t know how long we’re standing there in that circle together, and I don’t know how many other circles there are in this cave, with maps of their own that don’t look like ours, but I’m comfortable here, and I feel safe, and the longer we work on our map together, the less threatening it seems, so I stay.

I don’t know if my eyes were open this whole time. It was so dark they felt useless. But they felt open.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

post calvin direct

Get new posts from Mary Margaret Healy delivered straight to your inbox.

the post calvin