After the Blinding
P. D. Bekendam
Without vision, a people perish—
Samuel Legan listened as his son scrambled up the branches of the apple tree.
“I see some big ones, Dad. I just gotta get a little higher.” Timmy’s voice filtered down from what sounded like a mile high.
“Take your time, Timmy. No use breaking your leg over dinner.”
“You know I won’t fall, Dad. I was made for this.”
“You sure there aren't any lower down?”
“Nah, they’re all too small. The big juicy ones are up high.”
Samuel shook his head. He leaned against the trunk, feeling its rough bark against the palm of his hand. Something scrambled over his knuckles and up his forearm, probably an ant judging by its size and speed. He craned his neck back and tried to catch a glimpse of his ten-year-old monkey high above, but he could only see the familiar grey blob, this time rimmed with bright green and patches of blue. He scanned left to right and finally caught a brief silhouette of a skinny boy dangling from a branch in the far periphery of his field of gaze, but only for an instant.
“Wow, Dad! You wouldn't believe how far I can see from up here!”
The rustling of branches silenced. Fourteen years had passed since Samuel could see what Timmy now soaked in, but that didn’t stop Samuel from visualizing it. The old apple orchard was nestled in a valley in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains—a little hideaway known to tourists as Oak Glen back when tourists existed. At an elevation of two thousand feet, the small valley sloped toward a vast basin located east of Los Angeles. This basin was called the Inland Empire by the ten million people who once lived among the sprawling urban patchwork of neighboring cities that spread and filled every available acre until blocked by mountains, desert, or ocean. From his perch, Timmy would be able to see down into the outskirts of the city at the furthest eastern edge of this urban sprawl. And if the air was clear he might be able to follow his gaze past the charred skeletons of the former neighborhoods of what used to be the city of Yucaipa and he might notice the concrete ribbons that once upon a time allowed people to travel at speeds Timmy hadn’t even dreamed of. And if the wind conditions were perfect enough to push the haze out of the basin without stirring up more dust and ash, Timmy might catch a sliver of blue on the horizon far to the west. That deep blue might mean nothing to the boy who had never seen the Pacific Ocean, but it meant everything to Samuel. It meant freedom.
“Hey, Dad, I see something moving way down in the great valley.”
“What is it?”
“It looks like a group of men on horses.”
“Which direction are they heading?”
“It looks like they’re heading straight for us.”
“How far away?”
“I don’t know. They’re so small they look like little beetles.”
“Do they have dogs?”
“No. I don’t see any.”
Samuel let out a sigh of relief.
“Actually, wait—I think they do have dogs. Yes, a whole pack of them.”
“Get on down from there.”
“But what about the apples? You promised roasted apples for dinner tonight.”
“I need you to listen close, son. We have to get moving. Come on down quick and careful. We can’t afford a sprained ankle. We have to leave this place. We have to leave now.”
They covered the three mile hike back to the cabin in less than thirty minutes—a remarkable feat considering the trail was mostly uphill and several portions consisted of steep rocky terrain. Along the way Timmy peppered Samuel with question after question. “Wow, Dad, I can’t believe there are real live men out there on horseback! How come we had to leave so quick? How come we can’t go meet them? I thought you said there weren’t any other people around for hundreds of miles. This could be our chance to hear news. Don’t you wanna hear news? Don’t you wonder what’s going on out there? This is our chance!”
“Timmy, I know you have a lot of questions. There’s so much I need to explain to you. But not right now. You just have to trust your old man. Those men out there—they’re not good. We can’t let them find us. We have to leave.”
“Leave? But where will we go?”
“You know the bags I keep in the shed next to Sally’s stall?”
“Yeah. The go bags.”
“That’s right, the go bags. When we get home, your job is to saddle Sally up. Grab every quilt and blanket you can find. Tie the go bags on either side of the saddle. Roll up the blankets and tie them on as well. And be quick about it. After you finish with that, I want you to gather all the plastic gallon jugs we have. We should have nearly twenty. Fill them with water from the creek. Rope the handles together in groups of five. Make sure you balance the load on Sally. Understand?”
“Got it, Dad. What if Sally tries to bite me again?”
“Yank some carrots from the garden first.”
Sally was nearing thirty-five years old and was probably blinder than Samuel. Hopefully the old mule had enough left in her for one last journey.
Nine years had passed since he had encountered any evidence of another living soul, but he had always known it was only a matter of time until the region would be searched again. After so many years with no sign of trackers, he had almost allowed himself to believe that he could raise his son free from fear—that he could carve out some sort of protected existence in the midst of so much chaos and pain. But as long as stragglers like Samuel and Timmy remained at large, hiding in the wilderness desperately clinging to life and freedom, the trackers would keep coming. Relentless in their pursuit, they would not stop until every last survivor had been exterminated or captured. Samuel, they would most certainly kill on the spot. In the case of Timmy there was no telling what they might do if they discovered he had sight. Most likely they would bring him in for testing. They would need to solve the mystery of how a boy, not one of their own, had full use of his vision.
Samuel figured the trackers would likely set up camp at the edge of the foothills for the night and start their sweep of Oak Glen in the morning. That gave him at least twelve hours before the dogs picked up their trail, and possibly longer. There was no telling where the trackers were really headed, but he couldn’t take any chances. Even if their destination was a different area, it was only a matter of time until they made their way into Oak Glen. Unless a major storm came through and washed their trail away, his and Timmy’s scent would linger for days and perhaps even weeks. And since it hadn’t rained in over a month, it would take a miracle for a storm to suddenly appear tonight. And since God had clearly abandoned this world, Samuel wouldn’t waste time praying for miracles. The trackers would find them unless Samuel somehow managed to manufacture a miracle of his own. Fortunately the wind conditions appeared to be just right for what he had in mind.
Samuel had been through this scenario a thousand times in his mind. The go bags held most of the essentials. He only needed to add food, the two shotguns, their precious remaining ammunition, and the traps. The traps were old fashioned spring jaw traps—the type that would clamp down on a critter’s paw. Most were set within a mile radius of the cabin. Samuel always took it upon himself to set and monitor the traps, wanting to spare Timmy from the harsh reality of the origin of many of their meals. Now he had to collect them. Without the traps they wouldn't survive the winter in the mountains. Samuel set out to get them while Timmy went about completing his assigned tasks.
His walking staff in hand, Samuel started down the well-worn footpath through the woods. Whoever had built the small cabin had chosen an ideal location to optimize privacy. Sheltered from view and the elements by rock formations on one side, a steep mountain slope on another, and thick stands of dogwoods and pines on the other two, an individual had to stumble across it in order to find it. Samuel would miss the relative security the place offered. Most of all he would miss the intimate familiarity he had developed with every rock, tree, shrub, creek, and man-made structure in the surrounding area. He could navigate it better than any sighted person. And now he had to leave it behind for the unknown wilderness.
He shook off the looming feeling of dread and channeled his adrenaline toward completing the task at hand. The dry weeds crunched under foot as he veered from the path and approached the first trap, which he had set at the base of a large oak. The breeze began to intensify as the sun neared the end of its track toward the horizon. The homestead, as Samuel had taken to calling the fifteen acres surrounding the cabin, lay hidden in the uppermost and narrowest region of the Oak Glen valley, which gradually widened and curved as it sloped toward the great valley, creating a natural funnel for the wind. By nightfall the wind would be gusting and conditions would be ideal for their escape. Only an hour of daylight remained. Samuel needed to move more quickly.
He collected the first two traps without incident. As he approached the third, a rustling that did not belong to the wind reached his sharp ear. A trapped squirrel. Samuel ended the poor little rodent’s misery with a swift blow from the weighted end of his staff. He bent down and shook his head as he pried open the trap’s mechanism and freed the lifeless squirrel. He had chosen the most humane course of action. If anyone had witnessed the blow, they would have marveled at its precision and speed, considering Samuel’s nearly useless vision. If asked to explain how he had managed a seemingly impossible deed, he would probably answer with a question of his own. How does a bat manage to capture a moth in flight in a pitch black cave? Through a combination of finely-tuned senses that do not require light. A different kind of vision formed by the coalescence of sonic waves, odors, tactile sensations, and a sixth sense no one quite knows how to describe.
With his third empty trap in hand, Samuel turned back toward the trail. He left the dead squirrel behind, but the scent of fresh blood stayed with him. He wiped the weighted end of his staff in some weeds and the odor diminished.
Five feet in length, surface almost as smooth as glass, his staff had become a part of him. Over the years he had made modifications to augment its many functions. On the bottom end, iron bands added weight and strength, turning a device that could bruise into a weapon that could crack a large mammal’s skull. The top end hid a six inch bayonet under a removable hollowed out cap. The blade could be unsheathed in an instant, transforming the staff into a deadly spear. This was much more than a walking stick.
He made quick work of gathering the remaining traps. When he returned to the cabin he found Timmy ready as instructed. Samuel was not at all surprised. Timmy had always been resourceful. He was growing up too quickly. In just the past few weeks his voice had begun to crack. It was all happening too fast. But that’s what time does. It moves forward without regard to one’s wishes. In fact, it does the opposite of what you desire. If you long for it to speed up, it plods to almost a dead stop. But if you beg it to slow down, it races ahead. And it never allows you to go back. Unless you don’t want to. Then it repeats itself in your dreams, haunting you again and again.
“You’ve done all I asked, Timmy?”
“Of course you have. Now listen close. You’re going to take Sally along the North trail.”
“You mean the trail you told me to never take?”
“That’s right. You see those two highest peaks?” Samuel pointed in the direction he knew they lay. “The trail leads to a paved road. The paved road will take you up into the mountains towards those two peaks.”
“But where will you be? It’ll be too dark to see soon.”
“I’ll be close behind. You should reach the paved road before sundown. There will be a bright moon tonight. Whatever you do, keep moving, don’t stop. Don’t turn back. I’ll give you a head start, but you’ll need to move fast. Keep the wind in your face. As long as the wind is in your face you’ll be safe from the fire.”
“The one I’m going to start. The one that’s going to help us escape.”