The underside of the eyelid is not exactly black, nor is it precisely smooth. It is not dark like the midnight sky, nor empty like the hollow air of space. It is not black like the window pane at night, showing your own reflection back into the room, although I now see myself rather clearly in the darkness of my left eye. When an eye is healing after an operation, what is seen inside the closed lid becomes a world of texture, light and shade – mostly shade – out of which the mind makes landscapes of all kinds. I am compelled to travel through these places, sometimes slowly, sometimes with sickening speed, as I lie marooned, clinging to the raft of the narrow hospital bed.
My imagination has made many vast worlds of this canvas. It has created breathing forests, towering mountains, fantastic castles and underground caves. At times I have followed rivers as a bird (some great condor or eagle) sweeping slowly across wide skies and now closer and closer (like a sparrow), until landing on some branch above a great waterfall; but then I find myself slowly sinking below the roots of trees into the dark earth, crawling through caves and gaping at chasms and sculptures of an intense organic mould. These scenes curl in on themselves, and open out again, expanding, flowering and breathing a tide that matches my own breath.
Bewitching though this may be, it is also exhausting, and begins to wear away at the edges of my sanity. At times I find I can successfully manage to turn it all off and calm my mind, only to discover a faint field of trees take shape again, from which an endless forest begins to slide slowly sideways; roots coiling, branches stretching, leaves breathing and stones creeping up from beneath them.
Not allowed to get up. Nor to open either eye. Nor to roll onto either side or turn my head too far: I lie as still as a floating beam. The world to the left of the hospital bed (where quiet snow lies beyond wide windows) seems to fall away, as if sliding down into a forested pit. The world to the right is more stable, but still fades in and out of focus. I am shipwrecked in this bed. I listen. I am so lucky to have the means to keep my sanity by listening to stories: to words, words, words. These words in my own language clash with the Russian I hear around me as hospital staff and patients approach and retreat.
The hospital gown they have given me has the same print, although larger, as the dress of my summer uniform at primary school. (This suddenly seems like more than one lifetime ago.) When I notice this, I am immediately swept back, like a falling leaf, into the playground in an English autumn, making dens, finding beech nuts and nibbling into them, splitting the shell with my teeth. This memory is like an island in the flowing tide of Russian language around me: doctors ‘explaining’ procedures, consequences and results. I seem to be able to smell beech nuts and autumn earth as they speak.
My mother tongue comes to my rescue. I listen to radio, short stories, poetry, plays and novels. I listen to the Tempest and grasp the edges of my hospital raft tightly as the four-hundred-year-old-storm blows about me. I listen to Hamlet, and cannot help but descend with him and Horatio into Yorrick’s old grave, my inner eye drawing me, winding and curling, amongst tree roots, flashes of flint and clumps of clay.…; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!
Seen with my inner eye, matter is indeed so transmutable. I am no Ophelia, and this is as close as I want to get to seeing the inside of such a cold hole in the ground. My kicking heart steps in, and I find I can will myself to turn root, stone and clump into branch and trunk, and rush upwards again along silver birch limbs to fly up, up and out of a thick forest and back into the boundless sky.
“That” – I think to myself as Hamlet struggles blithely on – “was a bit too close”. But maybe it was also a powerful moment of decision and change. I hope I can still remember how to do this when I am out of here and back in my real life once more. Later I will have something made that will always remind me that it is possible to do this.
The second operation, performed by the excellent Elena Alexseyevna Privivkova from Moscow’s Russian Scientific-Research Institute of Eye Diseases, has successfully replaced the retina, and my eyes are healing.
Meanwhile, I also have an open Inner Eye. Three eyes, but only one can focus properly… so far!