IN THE FOREST OF MANY VOICES
• • •
A little ways north of my house there is an old cemetery. It is the size of a city block. It is heavily forested and surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence. There are four entrances, one on each side, and they are never locked. As many times as I have been there, always at night, I have never seen a sign that indicated to me that I was trespassing. Near as I can tell, the city of Portland doesn’t care what time you feel like escaping the land of the living to go hang out in the land of the dead.
Sometimes, in the deep dark, when I’m feeling rotten or bored or lonely—or all three, a real strange brew—I’ll walk there and find a place beneath an old tree to sit and listen for a while. I’ll hear crickets, and sometimes little frogs. Though the cemetery is surrounded in every direction by houses and businesses, it is perfectly still and black in the center. And it is there I stay, within the darkest point, so as to be as far away as possible from cars and pedestrians, and drunks and other idiots, and human life in general. I figure I have at least that much in common with the people sleeping beneath my feet.
Last night I put on my jacket and grabbed a half-drunk bottle of terrible wine and got to walking. I had nowhere in particular to be, so I thought I would poke around the cemetery until the sun came up. I entered through the 26th Street gate and quietly walked down the asphalt drive until I came upon a sort of small gathering taking place on one of the larger tombstones there. People were laughing and drinking and smoking. I didn’t say anything to them and they didn’t say anything to me. I was dressed in black and, silent as I was, and drunk as they were, I figured my existence hadn’t even registered with them.
I kept walking until I found a cluster of black tombstones engraved with Bible verses written in Russian. I felt compelled to sit down next to the biggest tombstone. It was huge and ominous. Dimly I saw that there was a long coffin-shaped rectangle of dark soil stretching out from the tombstone. The other graves were covered in grass, had been covered in grass for many years. The soil here was loose and soft. Moonlight cut through the trees and shone on the tombstone, and so I inspected it, seeing an epitaph written in Russian, and the likeness of an old woman’s head haloed ghostlike above it. It appeared to be some sort of drawing. The woman was wearing a shawl around her head. She looked tired. She had been born in 1923, and had died in 1999. I wondered for a moment what it meant that a woman dead for almost twenty years had a freshly-dug grave. It didn’t scare me. I decided I wasn’t the least bit afraid of dead people. I was much more afraid of the ones who were still alive.
And then somewhere in the western corner of the cemetery I did hear the living: a woman cackled menacingly, and then several men did as well. I squinted my eyes and saw their shadowy outlines gathered near a tree. They were smoking cigarettes.
I was amazed that I could see them so clearly. For weeks I had thought I was going blind in my left eye, and never went out after dark anymore because my night vision had gotten so bad. Everything was a big swirling mass of neon colors. I got real depressed thinking that I was losing my vision. I love being outside at night, because everyone is gone and you can be alone in a quiet place that is not your bedroom. There is less psychic noise, and you can feel calm and think about things . . . or better yet, think about nothing at all. Had I gone walking after midnight in the weeks before, I would have been lost in the dark, and all I would have thought about was how my retinas were being fried from the inside out, and how I would never be able to drive a car again, and how I would have to get shots or take pills forever—and maybe even longer than that. . . .
But I was in the cemetery now and feeling all right, knowing that my vision was perfectly fine, and that I had other problems I could focus on feeling depressed about. Most of my problems seemed spectral and dreamlike now, like I could ignore them if I wanted, even though I probably wouldn’t.
I drank some wine. It wasn’t good. It was bitter and spicy. It didn’t bother me. I had cost me all of five dollars, and would do the trick. I thought, hell, that’s all I really need to know about anything anymore.
• • •
A week before, at a retina clinic in Northwest Portland, I sat in a black leather chair in a dim examination room while an ophthalmologist shoved a quarter-shaped magnifying glass into my left eyeball. He was making these sort of arcane observations while his nurse typed them into my medical file. Having no knowledge of how eyeballs work, his words sounded grim as hell.
In a heavy British accent he said something about “yellowing near the optical cord” followed by a series of numbers that meant absolutely nothing to me. I hoped the numbers were good, but I figured they probably weren’t. I gripped the armrests and my heart beat loudly against my chest. I squirmed as he shoved the magnifying glass deeper and deeper into my eyeball, shining a white-hot bulb into the dark depths of my skull. I prepared myself as best I could, thinking I had about thirty seconds before the doctor laid some heavy news on me.
He switched to my right eye and repeated the same procedure. He listed off more numbers. I couldn’t remember the previous numbers, had no idea if these new numbers were any different. And then he said something to the nurse that made me feel sick: “Mmm. Freckling around the retina, right side.”
The good doctor spent a long time poking around my peepers. Then he leaned back and sighed, saying: “I see absolutely nothing remarkable in your eyes.”
I said, “Sheesh, Doctor. That’s one way of putting it.”
“What I mean is, there’s nothing wrong with them. I’m still going to have you do a series of tests, just in case there’s something I may have missed.”
“So I’m not going blind?”
“You are not going blind.”
He eyed me up and down. It made me feel uncomfortable. The guy had no bedside manner. He was cold and suspicious of me. It seemed as though he regarded me as some sort of burnt-out loser.
“Do you inject drugs?”
He handed me a piece of paper. “What do you see?”
“I see a piece of paper.”
“Is it blurry?”
“It seems blurry, yeah. But I don’t know. Maybe it isn’t.”
“But—can you perceive words on the page? Do you see a sheet of white paper with black text written on it?”
“Well, yes, of course.”
He twisted his mouth and scanned me again. “There really is nothing wrong with you. I can’t think of what this could possibly be. A passing rash, or an infection that has recently cleared up. Whatever it was, it is there no longer.”
I thanked the doctor. I stood up and shook his hand. He lead me to the waiting room, which was filled with sleepy octogenarians. I was the youngest person there by at least fifty years. It made me feel weird.
“Someone will come for you shortly,” he said. “We have to take a lot of pictures, and you’ll do some vision and color tests as well.” He gave me a phony smile and walked the other way. I sat down next to an old man who was leaning on his cane. Slowly he turned and met my eyes. His eyes were cloudy with cataracts. I wondered if he could see me. He smiled. It was a real smile.
• • •
An hour later, a technician called my name and lead me to a lab room in the back. There were strange white instruments hanging from the ceiling, and more bolted to the floor. The technician said she was going to take about a hundred pictures of my eyes, and then switch over to a more advanced camera that uses radio waves to take about a hundred more.
“It won’t seem like I’m taking that many pictures though,” she said. “I’ll take them so quickly you won’t even notice.”
Another technician examined my skull from across the room. “Looks like it’s gonna be tough!” he said. “This guy’s got deep-set eyes.” He laughed. “You got a low brow, dude.”
“Oh, yeah. I guess I do.”
The first technician gently touched my chin and had me turn my head left to right. “Hm. You really do have a low brow-line. Well, we’ll figure it out. What other choice do we got?”
“Does that really affect anything? I mean, surely this happens sometimes?”
“Yeah, it happens. Just, one of the cameras is kind of finicky because of how precise you have to be with it. This’ll make it just a little tougher—but that’s OK, man.”
Inside my head I thought: Hell, who knew?
“We gotta dye your veins,” said the other technician.
He produced a syringe filled with a crayon-red liquid. “For the pictures. It’ll make your veins show up better.”
“Oh. Like a radiotracer?”
“Kinda, yeah. Are you afraid of needles?”
“I am not afraid of needles. I did a lot of clinical trials in college.”
“Thank God!” he said. “Can’t have ya passing out on us, ya know? We work with a lot of elderly people, and boy, lemme tell ya, they do not like needles.”
The first technician was swabbing my vein with alcohol. “Your vision is going to look strange for a few minutes. You might see colors, and the room might turn red, among other things . . . but it’ll clear up quickly.”
“And your urine is going to look like Mountain Dew for a day or two,” said the other technician.
“Like engine coolant?” I said.
“It’s going to look nuclear, man.”
“I’m going to dilate your eyes now,” he said, and he handed the first technician the syringe. He held up a little plastic dropper. “I’m tellin’ ya right now, these drops are hardcore. Your eyes are going to be dilated for probably five whole days. Hope ya got some sunglasses, dude!”
“Nuclear piss and huge black pupils? Man, heck yeah. Bring it on. It’s not like I was going to get laid anytime soon, anyway.”
“Hey, you never know,” said the second technician. He tilted my head back, held my eyes open ‘Clockwork Orange’ style, and dilated my eyes with a clear liquid. It stung for half a second, and then instantly went away. Meanwhile the first technician inserted the butterfly needle into my left arm and let it stay there. I felt no pain at all.
I liked these people, I thought. I felt like I could say stupid stuff to them and they wouldn’t care. I also thought that they had a lot of weird chemicals at their disposal.
The first technician was typing some numbers into a computer. With her left hand she held the syringe, her thumb on the plunger. I examined the liquid inside again. I knew that soon it would be inside my blood, and later, my urine.
“OK,” she said. She turned to me. “I’m going to need you to lean into the device. First your left eye, and then your right. Have you done this before?”
“Oh, yes. My optometrist had me do this. That’s how I ended up here.”
Seemingly muttering to herself: “Optometrist, huh. I worked for an optometrist once.”
“She was really concerned by what she saw.”
“We’re the top of the food chain,” she said. “There’s a big difference between what we do and what they do. I mean, no offense to them.”
Holy lord, I thought. Who knew these two camps had it out for each other?
“Lean close,” she said. I leaned close. The machine made an error noise. “Son of a bitch.” She grabbed my shoulder and maneuvered my head around. “You really do have deep-set eyes.”
After what seemed like a great deal of adjusting things, my body included, the machine finally made an agreeable noise. “Hold it—hold it right there. Do not move.” She typed something into the computer.
“So, man, I need you to be monk-like here. Can you do that?” She was still clacking away.
“Yes.” I slowed my breathing. I tried to picture something nice and, failing to do so, pictured a void. I felt my heart rate begin to slow.
“Good. We got this. We’re doing this. Fred, can you—“
The other technician dimmed the lights further. The room was cavelike now. It was, in my opinion, lit the way all rooms fit for human habitation should be lit.
“Right there.” She squeezed my shoulder. “Riiiiight there.”
Inside the machine a solid blue dot came into focus. It hung there in the center of a big black nothing. I heard dozens of little ‘clicks’ as the software calibrated itself to my eyeball. A field of thin horizontal lines appeared, filling the blackness. The lines were blue as well, but fainter than the dot.
“Do you see the dot?” she said.
“I see the dot.”
“I want you to stare directly into that dot, and don’t look away. Do not blink, if you can help it, or else your eyelashes will end up in the pictures.”
“OK.” I focused on the dot. She kept typing. The thin blue lines wavered and shuffled around in patterns, and then they shuffled randomly. They grew dark and lighter, wavered here and there, sometimes disappeared.
“I’m going to inject the dye. When I do, we have only a small window to capture these images, or else we’ll have to dose you again.”
“I’m injecting the dye.”
I felt my vein surge with a foreign chemical. A hellish red splotch appeared in the center of my vision and quickly blossomed outward. Now inside the machine the dot and all the lines around it looked sinister. I strained to keep my eyes open. The technician was taking dozens and dozens of pictures. It was like a psychedelic light show—a real epileptic nightmare. I imagined I was being tortured in a futuristic gulag.
“These look good,” she said. “You can rest for a minute.”
I pulled away from the machine. My eyes pulsed. The whole room was red. I looked at both the technicians. They were red too. I waved my hand in front of my face. Every movement produced a surreal neon shadow, like an acid trail.
“Almost done. One more eye.”
We did the other eye.
• • •
I was lead back out into the waiting room. The nurse suggested I use the restroom, since I had a few more tests coming up, and those would be time-consuming. She pointed to a glass door on the other side of the room and smiled. I didn’t know what else to do, so I went through that glass door and was immediately swallowed up in a labyrinthine office building that hadn’t been updated since 1982. Blindly I stumbled through an art deco dreamworld to find a toilet. I found one, though it ended up being very far away from the office. And in my search I had discovered that the entire building was virtually empty. I found no other businesses other than the ophthalmologists’ office. I wondered why that was. I hadn’t slept the night before, and my body was loaded with chemicals, and my eyeballs ached, so I was prepared to believe anything.
In the bathroom I stood over the toilet and unzipped my pants. On account of my dilated eyes, any object less than ten feet away from me was an undefined smear. I looked down at the undefined smear that was my penis. “Huh,” I said, and began urinating. A thick arc of nuclear yellow liquid firehose-blasted from my body and into the toilet bowl. It did not look like any urine I had ever seen in my life. It looked like science fiction. It poured out of me like an exorcism, stained the inside of the toilet, and would not quit. I screamed.
I of course figured it out quickly: the dye from the syringe had made my urine look like an engine leak. Still, it was spooky stuff. I stood up on the counter to get a good look at it, since the distance between my face and the toilet was the only way I was going to be able to make it out. Yes, there it was: a pond of my own radioactive piss. It seemed to glow. God help me, I took a picture.
• • •
Over the next five hours I took what a nurse told me was “just about every eye test available to modern science.”
They gave me an eyepatch and put my head into a dimly lit white bubble to test my peripheral vision. I stared at a black eye with a yellow iris in the center of the bubble. Faint white dots appeared on every side of it, one at a time, and I was to push a button on a little clicker whenever I saw one. They tested both eyes. It took a long, long time, and it strained my eyes like hell.
The nurse went over the data on her computer. She said, “Your peripheral vision is excellent.”
Afterwards I had to complete a rainbow gradient test. They gave me twenty colored dots and had me line them up in a row in the correct order. One end was purple, and the other end was blue. In the center it was red and yellow and green. Outside of the obvious color boundaries, the similarly-colored dots were nearly indistinguishable. The difference between Purple 1 and Purple 3, for instance, was hardly any difference at all. I did the test twice, wearing an eyepatch on a different eye each time.
The nurse examined the results. She said I got it right with both eyes.
Downstairs, in the examination room, I met with the same ophthalmologist from before. Now he had a mountain of photographs and tests scores and data at his disposal. He went over the results with his nurse while I sat in that same black leather chair in that same dim little room.
The doctor had me cover my right eye and read from a letter chart reflected in a small square mirror in front of me. Then he had me do the left.
“You have twenty-twenty vision,” he said. “And your test results . . . and all these pictures. . . .“—he scrolled through them on a computer—“well, they indicate that absolutely nothing is wrong with you.”
He stood before me and crossed his arms.
“What’s your diet like?”
“I mostly eat cabbage and fruit.”
“Do you exercise?”
“I do a lot of pushups in my basement after my roommate goes to sleep. And sometimes I walk to the cemetery that’s by my house.”
“Are you taking anything? Any medications?”
“And you take this for. . . ?”
“Hm.” He looked down at his shoes. “It’s rough, isn’t it?”
“It’s a godawful nightmare is what it is, Doc.”
He regarded me suspiciously as he had before: “And nothing intravenously? Nothing recreational?”
“No. None of that.”
Days later, after getting a physical and an STD test and a series of vaccinations from a downtown clinic, a doctor would tell me that shooting up is a big problem in the Pacific Northwest, which I knew about, and that really did answer a lot of questions about someone’s health—if you could get them to admit as much. To me this at least partially explained the ophthalmologist’s repeated attempts to determine what sort of illicit substances I put inside my body. Or maybe I just looked tired and dirty, and maybe haunted and burnt-out too.
“Probably just stress, then. Or some sort of placebo effect. Or as I mentioned before, an infection or a rash that is quickly on its way out.”
He asked to look inside my eyeballs again, now that my pupils were black holes big enough for a jumbo jet to fly though. I said, “Yeah, all right.” He pulled down some sort of machine from the ceiling and placed it over my face. It illuminated my face and eyes. The doctor got in there real deep, looked around for a while, found nothing. His calmness made me calm.
“What about the, uh . . . well, I heard you mention something about freckling a while back.”
“You have freckles in your right eye.”
“Inside my eye? What does that mean?”
“It doesn’t really mean anything. The freckles are nonspecific, and benign. I’ve encountered them before. Probably other people in your family have them too.”
“Oh. Uh. OK then.”
The doctor sent me to the receptionist after that, told me to come back in eight weeks. He assured me once again that I had the eyes of a perfectly healthy twenty-eight-year-old man, and that my optometrist’s suggestion that I was perhaps suffering from some sort of systemic infection was “total nonsense.” He seemed to roll his eyes when he said this, as if the stupidity of this assessment was offensive to him.
I went to the front desk and checked out. I had been there for nearly seven hours. “You put in almost a full workday!” said the receptionist. She looked into my absolutely unremarkable eyes. “Is someone picking you up or did you drive here?”
“Whoa! Your pupils are huge. You’re gonna need sunglasses, man.”
“Yeah, I have some in the car.”
I could barely see her face. I could barely see anything at all. I wondered how I was going to drive through downtown Portland and across the Hawthorne Bridge to get back to my house on the other side of the river. It was rush hour. Everyone was heading home too. It was the worst time of the day to be blind and to also be operating a motor vehicle.
In a haze I somehow wormed my way out of the northwest hills and back into the downtown area. Before hitting the bridge, I stopped to get a sandwich. I was inside for all of five minutes. When I returned I saw that I had accidentally parked in a handicap zone. Frantically I searched the outside of the car, knowing that a ticket would ruin me financially for a long-ass time. But I could find no ticket—or at least I didn’t see one, which admittedly didn’t mean a whole lot just then.
I shrugged and got into the car. I drove east. Whenever I saw the amorphous shape of a pedestrian standing on the curb, staring at their phone, dumbly placing one foot into the street, I would mutter to myself: “Watch your step, baby, ‘cuz right now daddy’s fuckin’ blind.”
When I got home I decided to block out all sunsight—decided to switch my house into a sort of “dive mode,” like on a submarine. I went around the house shutting all the thick wooden blinds. In the dark I could finally see, though not much. Dante came into the kitchen and rubbed against my leg. I leaned down and pet the fluffy grey smear that was my cat.
“I’m good, dude,” I said to Dante. “I’m blind today, but I ain’t going blind.”
Dante blinked. He yawned and made a weird guttural noise.
• • •
Back in the cemetery, in the here and now, I stretched out on top of the coffin-shaped rectangle of dark soil. The ground was very soft. I put my hands behind my head and looked at outer space. I really did see a shooting star. And I wondered if it was rude that I was lying on top of someone else’s final resting place.
“Hell, I sure as shit wouldn’t care if someone took a nap on my grave,” I spoke to the human remains beneath me. “That being said, please do not haunt me. I have enough problems as it is.”
I shifted my body, got more comfortable on the grave. Elsewhere in the cemetery I heard people laughing and carrying on like a bunch of assholes.
“And anyway,” I said, “I don’t know you or anything”— I pointed in the direction of the noise— ”but I’d pick you over them cheese-eatin rat bastards any day of the week. Now that’s gotta mean something to ya, doesn’t it?”
I sat up and took a big gross gulp of my gas station wine. “Lord,” I said. I gagged. I was drunk. “You don’t want none of this, sister. Trust me.”
I twisted around and attempted to decipher the lettering on the huge black tombstone. “Man, I can’t read fuckin Russian. I don’t know what your name is, and I feel awful about it.”
Laying down again: “Whatever your name is . . . Surely you must be happier being dead. I mean, c’mon, it’s gotta be pretty nice. . . .”
Mumbling in the dark: “Did they take you out of the ground recently? And if they did . . . for God’s sake, did they put you back?”
Silence, then: “Hey. I’m going to close my eyes and pretend to be dead for a few minutes.” I closed my eyes. “They work, by the way—my eyes. I’m not going blind, just so you know.”
A firecracker exploded somewhere. A few seconds later, I heard someone burp.
“Me and you, sister,” I said to the dead Russian woman whose grave I was fond of. “Just a coupla creeps in the cemetery. Hell, why not.”