This morning I woke up to mechanised birdsong.
It’s the same every morning. It is nice, I agree – but after a while it gets repetitive. But we all know we’ll never get any real singing, so it’s best to stick with what we’ve got.
So. Get up, climb out of my bed, pace over three steps to the window. Throw back the right curtain, then the left. Step forward once more. Look outside.
At the trees. At the grass. At the sky. All beautiful, as it is every morning.
Our mechanised view.
None of it’s real. They pretend it is, of course – our council. They never told us it was, but then again they didn’t try to tell us the truth. We found it out for ourselves.
This place looks like a moor, or a field. There’s grass near the front, and an irregular line of trees; most of them short, stubby things, with thick foliage; and beyond that there’s some more, but they’re taller out there, and we can still see them, even in the distance. That’s what it all looks like: but in reality, it’s a disused quarry, with potholes and slopes and deep pits and no grass or green anywhere. Just rock – bare rock, as far as the eye can see.
What we see from the window is a mirage. It’s a pretend thing, an illusion that the Council set up in order to keep us happy. We’ve never actually seen what the quarry looks like, but some people have monitored the ground in places near us and reckon that’s what it is. We don’t know how to turn the projection machine off, so we just wake up to this every morning.
A perfect landscape.
A made-up landscape.
When we were little, all the neighbours and I used to play chicken around the edge of the mirage. We’d meet up outside our back doors, at the line of safety grass that was at the edge, and we’d see who could go out furthest. There’d always be some who’d put one foot onto the projected lawn, and then they’d be bettered by a braver kid who’d run out a metre or so out. There are some who would even try to go out and touch those forbidden trees about 25 metres away, but few would, because nobody wanted to go out that far. Some would announce they were going to do it, but then they’d chicken out about 5 metres from it, and nobody would blame them. That was too much for anyone.
I was the first one to make it.
Everybody else was fussing over the boy who’d gone ahead of me. They’d crowded around him, because he’d managed to get a metre away. And everyone was saying how brave he was and how amazing it was that he’d gone that far, and I stood apart from them all, just watching. And I thought: how pointless is that? You go out that far, you get a few feet away, and then you just refuse to go all the way. Everyone still thinks you’re the most courageous kid that’s ever been, but you still didn’t reach it. You didn’t reach it, because you were scared of what would happen if you did. That’s not bravery. That’s cowardice.
I took a step out onto the grass; tentatively, in case I should fall through. I didn’t, so I took another step out – and another, and another, my pace quickening and becoming more firm and determined. Others stopped fawning over the boy and saw what I was doing – some ran to the edge and yelled at me to come back. But I didn’t. I knew that I couldn’t. I wasn’t even checking where I was going, as you were supposed to – I kept on walking. In all my life, I have never felt as strong as I did at that point. Which is what made what happened next so shattering.
I had got to where the boy had stopped by now. I didn’t even pause – didn’t flinch. Everyone was watching me now, equal parts horrified and excited, calling my name. I smiled – I had gone further than anyone had before. I was going to be the first to touch a Tree.
I wondered what a tree felt like. Was it all smooth, like it seemed from a distance? Would it be all rough and bumpy, with lines engraved upon it, miniscule and invisible to the eye? Would it be strong or would it break away at the first touch?
I was there now. In front of the tree. It was so much bigger up close, so much taller than it seemed before. Its branches reached over by head, shielding me from the sun. A green sort of light filtered down on me through the leaves. Behind me, all was quiet; everyone waiting for me to make a move. This was history, about to be made. I loved it. I loved every second.
I reached out a hand. It all looked so real, even if it wasn’t. I could almost believe that this was nature, right here in front of me, for the very first time. Something living that wasn’t one of my neighbours; something that was alive, more alive than anything I had ever seen before. I stood like a statue, like stone in front of wood, no more than a few centimetres from life.
This was it.
I reached out a finger. I saw it connect with the trunk, with that surface that seemed so smooth from a distance, that surface that was actually textured up close, so many lines and bumps and scratches; I saw myself touch it, and I watched as my hand went straight through.
I waited, confused for a moment, before trying again. Another swipe.
Nothing. I could feel nothing.
I was angry now. I stepped closer, reached out my arms; wrapped them around the trunk, in an effort to feel it, to touch it; for some proof that this was real, that it wasn’t all some dream, some lie. But I couldn’t touch it. I passed straight through.
It was a mirage.
How can there be any words to describe how I felt just then, at that moment? Stopped there, in front of a dream, having gone further than anybody had before. And then there was nothing. No reward. No hope for me to cling on to. I would never touch a tree. There were no trees that were real.
One tear made a slow, lonely path down my cheek. Then another.
That was when I learnt that everything was like that. That whole garden, out there, was just a pretty picture. We could see this image, out there through our window, but it wasn’t actually there. What was there was something else; as we found out, it was a large quarry pit. That was what we could stand on, and what we could feel.
Which led to problems. What we were seeing wasn’t necessarily what was there. If, in reality, we were stood on solid ground, we were fine. But if we saw, for example, the manicured lawn that stretched up to the trees, and there was a deep pit there in reality, then we would have no warning of there being no ground until we started falling into oblivion. What looked like solid ground could actually be a small hole, a steep slope, or, more likely, a bottomless pit.
And this was their plan. There were people who denied it, of course, not least the Council themselves, but that mirage wasn’t just there to give us a nice view in the morning. It was a security system – a way of making sure that we didn’t try to escape from this place. After all, how can you try to run away if you’re not sure if your next footstep is going to land on earth or thin air? Either go very, very slowly, which isn’t ideal for not getting caught, or leg it and hope for the best, which is even less advisable. It’s security disguised as our welfare, and an ideal way to ensure total compliance.
A few people have tried it of course. Sometimes when we were playing someone would fall a little way, into a pothole that wasn’t there. It was slightly shocking, of course, but you never fell further than about a foot. But then there were the people who tried to go a bit further, maybe even further than the trees. The thing with quarries is that they’re more often than not a giant pit, and those pitfalls get deeper and more dangerous as you venture further. There have been people who have disappeared, sometimes overnight, and nobody knows where they’ve gone. Most people agree this is the best place to be – better to stay in relative comfort, albeit with limited freedom, than to risk your life and try and go beyond.
Normally, I’d agree. But this evening, I’m not so sure.
I’ve opened my window. It’s something that I never do, not normally. But tonight’s different. I feel strange.
I stick my head out of the window. The wind tugs at my hair, pulls it and tangles it gently. I wonder if it is wind from here or from the other place, from reality.
How will I know?
I look out, once again, like I always do. I see the same trees, the same grass, the same sky; orange and gold, fading in to a deep blue. And it’s beautiful – it really is. I know. But it isn’t real. It never will be.
Even I – am I real? All of our lives we stay in this place, looking out over the same view, every day, every night. We grow up, but we don’t change. I’ve always lived here – I don’t know anywhere else. And I’ll probably die here, too. Am I a part of this place, too? Am I a fake, just as this is?
I rest my head against the pane of glass – it’s cool, and it calms me. I don’t even know my name. Oh, we all had one, at some point: they gave one to us. But now there’s about fifty of us, and we know each other so well that the need for names just vanished. Some people can remember their own, and other peoples’, too. I think that I wrote mine down somewhere, on a piece of paper, so that I wouldn’t forget. But even that managed to get lost. And now it’s gone.
It’s gone. I can’t remember. I don’t know.
I open my eyes. The sunset strikes my face.
I don’t know.
Maybe it’s the memory of what happened before. Maybe it all just suddenly clicked. Maybe it is my curiosity, my longing to find what is real, what I can hold. Perhaps my curiosity is all I have anymore.
But that’s it. Before I even know what I’m doing, I’m moving: opening the window wide, sliding myself out, dropping down to the ground below. I land in a crouch with the impact, but I don’t feel anything except that unspoken voice, telling me what I need to do.
I move forward, just like I did before. One foot forward, than another. No hesitation this time.
I start moving out onto the grass, towards where it is unknown and dangerous, away from the safety and loneliness of home. My steady steps break into a jog, and then a run – I’m moving forwards, faster than I ever have before. I can’t remember the last time that I ran. But this is something I don’t need to remember – it’s there, inside of me. As natural and real as my own skin.
The wind whips past my face. My eyes are fixed straight ahead, focused on the point ahead, the row of illusion trees. Before they always seemed impassable, like a wall in front of me. But not today. Today, I’m going to run right through them.
A sense of joy washes over me as I approach my destination. I’m not going to stop – I’m going to keep going. If only there were words to describe how free I feel, and how I could keep going on like this, forever, without having to worry about suddenly disappearing beneath the ground that isn’t there. My eyes are wide open, headed towards the sun.
It’s strange, but there’s a phrase in our language that nobody understands, and that phrase is ‘falling down the rabbit hole’. The truth is that nobody knows why it’s survived. There are no rabbits anymore, just like there is no grass, no trees, and no birdsong. Nobody even knows what a rabbit hole is – do rabbits even make holes? I’ve never seen one, so I don’t know. People used to try and make sense of it, but it’s just as much a mystery as ever.
But now, I think I’ve finally understood. Going down the rabbit hole isn’t literally walking down a hole a rabbit’s made, or a hole made of rabbits, or a hole that leads to a rabbit – it’s metaphorical. The rabbit hole is the entrance to the unknown. It’s entering something that is strange and unreal, something that doesn’t make any sense. That’s what I’m doing right now. Going into something that I don’t understand. For the first time, that seems like a good thing.
I’m almost there now – almost at the trees. I’m going forward. I don’t care what’s up ahead; be it pits or chasms or holes, I don’t mind. It’ll be different from here. That’s all that matters.
I just need to run.
Run. Run. Run. Run. Run.
I’m at the trees. I pass through them, and it feels to me like a silk curtain sliding over my shoulders. For the first time, I see what’s past the barrier. It’s grass, but not lawn; a wild grass, untamed and unkempt, all rough and uneven, with mounds and dunes. There are fewer trees here, and those that are stay in the distance, taller and prouder than any I’ve passed. With any step I could be heading into oblivion, landing on nothing and falling through the true air. I could stop now, but I won’t. I keep going. Keep running.
The ground is golden in the light. But it’s not this grass I want to see. I want to find the truth.
The shout cuts through the air like a whetted knife. I look back, and there’s a girl; my neighbour, waving her arms frantically. The word jolts about in my head, sparking forgotten memories, and suddenly I remember.
A name. My name.
I open my mouth to shout, but before I can, a flash of white catches my eye. It shoots by my feet, but not like a leaf or a plant – like an animal. My eyes follow it as it races past me, further ahead, and then –
Too late I realise what has happened. Before I can stop myself, my foot passes through space, and suddenly I’m tumbling through the air, flying without wings. I panic for a moment – I wasn’t careful enough. I’ve gone through.
Everything passes me in a blur – a mixture of black and white, colours and greys. I close my eyes, trying to block out my surroundings, trying to retain a sense of calm. As I plummet through space, I realise – this is what I wanted. To escape the monotony of life before. To break those restraints.
I smile to myself, and everything seems to slow down. As long as I remember that, I know I won’t get hurt. This might be falling, but this is the best type of falling there could be. Escaping into the unknown. Falling down the rabbit hole.
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