Here, the dawn seems to last for an age. It begins out in the unknown expanse beyond The Wall, a creeping pale grey gloom, which gradually intensifies, sometimes taking on warmer yellow hues, until – snap! The skies crack and in an instant we are bathed in the direct light of Sun Number 1. I love this time of the day; the ultraviolet rays of Number 1 shimmer in blue and pink tones on the rocks, imbuing the blues and greens of the vegetation with a vividness that is almost liquid. For a while I forget my circumstances, and gaze in wonder at the beauty of my surroundings. But it’s not long before Sun Number 2 appears, its fierce white light washing out the colour just enough to interrupt my reverie, and bring me back to my life’s purpose, survival.
It mightn’t be pretty, but the intense light of Number 2 is undoubtedly the reason for our lush and verdant landscape; for that I can forgive it its brashness. The plants are nutritious and supply us with most of what we need to stay healthy, and this diet is supplemented with the small protein-rich creatures that crowd into the gullies and ravines every few days from beyond The Wall. We quickly hunt them to extinction, safe in the knowledge that the next spike in population growth will deliver more; so far this plan has never failed, and we thank the Gods for it in our daily rituals. The hunt is a welcome distraction from the monotony of harvesting, one of the few pleasures we have in life. There is invariably a scramble for the food, and the younger and more nimble ones usually get more than the rest of us. But that’s just the way of things; it’s always been this way and it will never change. What’s the use of complaining?
There are other, more unwelcome distractions. The Gods continually make themselves known to us in some way or another. Not simply in the cycles of life – the blessed light of the suns and our ample food stocks, for which we are truly grateful – but in other, terrifying, ways. Most days, huge storms erupt on the other side of The Wall, characterised by massive dark shadows, which are often accompanied by booming, incoherent, thunderous noises. The clouds can quickly flit past us, but sometimes they hover, disturbingly, as if the Gods themselves were watching us. But the opacity of The Wall only offers shadows and filtered light, nothing concrete. On rare occasions the storms buffet The Wall itself, sending shockwaves through the world. From the safety of our caves, with closed eyes, we fervently pray to the Gods to spare our miserable lives, or deliver us quickly to paradise.
There is debate, of course. Not all amongst us are believers. The Heretics argue that we are at the mercy of a race of psychopathic aliens, beings that are every bit as real as we are, who keep us imprisoned for their own entertainment. For evidence, they point to the Great Terror, the time when we are arbitrarily separated from our family and friends and transported in a horrific tumult of bewildering light and noise to the Second World, or this place. Or other places. All of us here have been through the Great Terror at least twice, and some poor souls have been through it many more times. Why, the Heretics argue, would Gods be so capricious? Such hateful actions, they say, cannot be undertaken by Gods, only by material beings. In reply, the believers say that it is not for us to try the divine purposes of the Gods, and they invariably speak of The Punishment, when Sun Number 2 didn’t set for a week, and the land was laid waste. Only the Gods could prevent the setting of the Sun, they say, and the Heretics should pray in the hope that we don’t get punished again for their impudence. The Heretics, who are all too young to have experienced The Punishment, dismiss this story as a scare tactic to try and get them in line. But I remember it well; who could forget death and misery on such a scale? Half of our population died in those terrible endless days. When it comes up in conversation I always remind the Heretics that in my experience, even the most hardened sceptics find themselves praying during exceptional times such as transportation. And why wouldn’t they? Many don’t survive it. The sheer horror of the journey and the new environmental conditions often prove too much for those with a weaker constitution.
The Heretics also speak of a place they call Free World. In Second World, the place we are taken to after the first Great Terror, there were those who claimed that their relations had known real ‘Free Worlders’. They described a place without walls, where our people hunted every day as they wanted, and the aliens were seldom encountered. When this comes up, I usually make the obvious comparison with the Paradise of the believers – they seem rather the same to me – but both sides deny this possibility. The Heretics claim that our very flesh remembers; it has an atavistic memory of how hunting felt when we were free. And that, they remind us, is why we sometimes feel that almost imperceptible emptiness after the hunt. They say that all of us here were born in captivity, and yet at a basic level our bodies remember freedom. Of course, none of us – including the Heretics – have ever personally met a Free Worlder, and most regard this whole theory as nonsense. Like many others, I’m undecided on the whole thing, and hedge my bets by honouring the Gods anyway. If the Heretics are correct in their worldview, then our rituals will do no harm, so why not?
Despite this pragmatism, the existential question still lingers. Whether it is Gods or aliens that have transported us, the fact remains that we are here now, living our lives within the confines of The Wall, unsure of what lies beyond. Folk tales garnered from Second World talk of successful forays into the unknown, portraying a landscape of bizarre, inorganic structures, and a hostile, highly-toxic atmosphere, but nobody really believes them. Most are content to endure the vagaries of our existence, taking comfort, as I do, from the beauty of the landscape, and the distraction of the hunt. But there have been attempts to go further. In my lifetime, two Heretics have jumped over The Wall, in foolhardy – or heroic – attempts to find the way to Free World. They never returned, of course. We solemnly prayed for the souls of the young Heretics as we waited for the Gods to bring their replacements during the hours of darkness. We prayed for the new arrivals too; that they might make it through the Great Terror.
I am old. I’ve done well: survived the Great Terror three times, and The Punishment, to live out my days here. I make my observances, I don’t rock the boat. And yet, in this, the final chapter of my life, I find myself strangely unaccepting, unsettled, curious. It is almost all I have ever known, but this world is not enough for me; I’d like to experience the other side while I have enough strength in my body to do so. And I am sure that I’ll find Free World, the land of my ancestors from where we were once cruelly exiled, either on the material plane, or the spiritual. Like the majority of the population, all that’s keeping me back is fear.
No fuss. Without a word to the others, I summon all the energy I have and flip myself over the edge. In the blink of an eye I have crashed to the bottom. My landing is surprisingly soft, my body coming to rest amongst a springy mass of giant fibres, but even with this support the breath is still knocked from me. Gasping, I attempt to draw breath, but there is precious little oxygen here; it seems that the folk tales spoke the truth, after all. Gills pulsing desperately and uselessly, I flip my entangled body to search for signs of Free World, but there is no indication of where it might lie. In any case, there is no way I could get there in this thin, deadly atmosphere. I cannot move properly. This will be the end of my journey.
In my final moments, I look around. Way above me I can see the bright glow of our suns, but where I lie near to the foot of The Wall I am immersed in a murky half-light. This world is dull; almost monochrome in comparison to ours. To my left, strange structures consisting of flat planes supported by straight, square pillars, rise into the sky, reaching to over half the height of the wall. I have no idea what their purpose is, but they are familiar from the stories. As my eyes adjust to the dim light, I examine the towering edifice of The Wall itself. The discovery saps the last of my energy. On this side, the top part of The Wall is transparent, and I can make out the others swimming calmly as they intone prayers for me and my replacement.
About the Author
Jason O’Rourke is a writer and musician based in Belfast. His short stories and poetry have been published online and in print, as well as on his blog, ‘Vernacularisms.’ Jason has been nominated for a ‘Best of the Net’ award and won the Fiddler’s Elbow (Rome) short story competition. He has just released a new album, The Northern Concertina, which was funded by an Arts Council NI Artist Career Enhancement Scheme (ACES) award.
Belfast Notes http://vernacularisms.com