Matter of Certain Gravity
||It's a tough thing, remembering
to breathe. Breathing is something so commonplace, so natural, that
you only remember it exists when it is taken away from you. An asthma
attack, being trapped in a burning house, drowning, being buried alive.
These are the times when we realize and appreciate the simple act
of breathing: In… out… in… out… ad infinitum.
So you can imagine my disconcertion when I woke up and realized that
I had forgotten how to breathe. Not woken up – because that
would indicate that I had fallen asleep – but rather regained
consciousness. And although I had no idea of not only who I was, but
also where I was, and why I was there, and how I had gotten there,
and how long I had been there, I knew I hadn't consciously chosen
to fall asleep – but I'm getting ahead of myself.
I had come to at the bottom of a ravine. Why I was there and how I
had gotten there, as I mentioned, was a mystery to me. I simply opened
my eyes, and saw a green button-up shirt, a pair of denim-clad legs,
and high-top leather hiking boots. My legs, my feet, these things
were vaguely familiar to me; I knew that they were mine and I knew
what they did, but as for their past… that was a mystery. I
had no recollection of owning much less buying the articles of clothing
that I was wearing. But I knew they were mine, and that they were
covering legs belonging to me. The places these legs had carried me,
on the other hand, was a complete mystery. And until I reached down
to my groin with a cupped hand on a tentative exploratory mission,
I wasn't even sure what gender I was. I mean I had an inkling that
I was a man, but without any context… as it turned out, I was.
When I had finally gathered up enough sense (which was quite a challenge
under the circumstances) to sit up and access my situation, I discovered
that I had apparently fallen down a ravine. More importantly, I realized
that although I knew where I was, the whys and hows and whens of everything
prior to my regaining consciousness was a complete and utter mystery.
There was a sticky mass, I could tell, underneath my baseball cap
(which sported a logo of a grinning Viking that meant nothing to me,)
a sticky mass that had somewhat adhered the cap to my head. I pulled
my cap off and reached up and touched the back of my head, gingerly,
not certain of which I was more afraid: the pain of the touch, or
what I would find leaking out. After a few cautious moments, I brought
my hand down, and sure enough, a crimson, coagulated smear was on
my fingertips. Blood, but nothing resembling gray matter, as far as
I could tell.
This was the most puzzling part. I seemed to have been reborn into
the world with fairly accurate and complete operating instructions,
but no recollection of practical use and application. In other words,
well educated, but not experienced. As far as I could tell, the tumble
that I had taken had scrambled my brain somehow and caused it to block
access to select portions of my mind. My first deduction was that
some primitive, hard-wired contingency plan had shut down, in the
face of mortal danger, all of the superfluous functions of my brain,
allowing for only the most vital of survival instincts. This would
explain why I had the skills to survive, but my past, my vast knowledge
of names, places, baseball scores, whatever, had been cast off like
so much dead epidermis. For instance I could tell you what baseball
was, and how to play it, but as for who had won the World Series last
year, forget it.
That's when I discovered that I needed to remember to breathe –
wait, back up. That's when I discovered I wasn’t breathing.
I gasped as though I had been freshly plucked from my mother's womb,
and although I didn’t cry out in a piercing scream, Lord knows
I would’ve liked to. I just started breathing normally, but
soon forgot about it, because frankly it's not something your mind
really thinks about, at least not in a conscious manner, and especially
not during circumstances such as mine. So I would breathe, forget,
start gasping for air all of a sudden, realize I was not breathing,
start breathing, and repeat the whole process again. Needless to say,
it was disturbing. Not a desirable set of circumstances by any means,
but at least I didn't have to tell my heart to continue beating –
it was doing a fine job of that all by itself – as I would have
no idea how to go about that. So although my mental capabilities had
been reduced to strictly vital operations, the part of my brain that
supplied one of the major unconscious physical functions seemed to
have taken too much abuse in the fall. It must have been quite a tumble.
After a short period I remembered to breathe. It's really something
you pick up on quickly, take my word for it, and I had gathered my
wits enough to get up, dust myself off, and look in my backpack to
see if I could glean any useful information about myself. The only
thing in the pack was a notebook. The notebook, discouragingly, told
me nothing about myself, refreshed not one memory, for all it had
in it were sketches of various plants and flowers, with their apparent
names underneath. Was this my job? Was I some sort of… naturalist?
Most likely a hobby, I concluded, when no significant memory or sense
of familiarity was stirred. ‘Rhododen'dron macropnyllum,’
said one sketch. Didn’t ring a bell.
So I knew my name, still breathing, and I knew that I needed to climb
up out of the ravine, and find my way back to civilization, and hopefully
the nearest hospital, where if nothing else, they could connect me
to some sort of apparatus that would do the breathing for me. I shuddered
when I thought about the fact that if I didn’t make it out of
the woods within a reasonable amount of time that I would have to
sleep at some point – or rather the fact that sleep was not
an option. How long had I been unconscious? Long enough for my not
breathing to wake me up? Or had my brain had a delayed reaction and
cut off the breathing mechanism well after the fact? Pondering this,
I realized I had stopped breathing. Or rather, my lungs reminded me
to start breathing again.
With little time to waste, I put my backpack on and started scrambling
up the rocky embankment to the top of the ravine. I discovered that
the work of climbing out of the ravine actually made it easier to
breathe, the physical exertion a helpful reminder. It was quite steep;
really a jumble of rocks that seemed to stretch as far above me as
I could see, a sort of rockslide that had broken free from somewhere
far above. Which meant that at least I could climb it, as it was impossible
for the rocks to be stacked too steeply without crumbling down upon
themselves. This also meant that occasionally I would grasp onto a
rock only to find it was loose, and have just enough time to jump
out of the way as it tumbled a good fifty yards or so to it’s
new resting place.
Eventually I reached not the top, thankfully, but rather a trail that
had been cut across the slide; the origin of the slide itself was
still a great distance above me. The sky was cloudless, which under
the circumstances was about the worst I could hope for. Aside from
the blinding light, which only exacerbated the pounding on the back
of my brain, I was thirsty and in no possession of water.
Once I had caught my breath – actually it returned to a normal
pace which of course caused me to stop breathing until I caught myself
– I began to ponder which way on the trail to go. I had no idea
if one way was right and one wrong, or if a bad decision would just
lead me farther away from civilization. And was anybody else out here,
friends, enemies, strangers? All of a sudden an almost crushing sense
of despair pored over me, a near-blinding feeling that I was completely
helpless and lost beyond all hope; I had been stripped of any and
all lessons that could help me, and worse yet, I had no idea of where
to go and what to do. At once the tips of my fingers began to tingle,
and I found myself trying too hard to maintain proper breathing.
‘I'm hyperventilating’, I thought. I forced myself
to slow down my breathing, and knelt down with my forehead resting
on the packed dirt of the trail, waiting for the episode to pass.
Fortunately, after an inordinately long couple of minutes, it did.
Once I had recovered, I discovered that I felt much better, in fact
better than I had before. Some instinctual device from within my brain
had tripped and come to restore (near) natural order to my body.
In this revitalized state, I began to formulate a method of self-preservation.
I stepped soundly onto the trail, leaving an impressive footprint
that I could study the pattern from. By combing the immediate area
in both directions of the trail (breathe), walking near the edges,
I found my footprints – or at least matching boot prints –
and discerned from which direction I had originally came. I also discovered
that there weren’t any other footprints on the trail, curious
in that I had assumed that someone had been behind my tumble, and
also because there should have been somebody else who had recently
tread on this trail. The second point caused me to shudder, because
more than likely this meant that I was quite some distance from civilization.
With no time to waste, and no basis of judgment, I made the logical
decision to retrace my own steps. I threw my pack on and began striding
purposefully in the direction it appeared I had come from.
Watching the trail carefully for any other signs of footprints, I
moved in this aggressive manner for quite some time. I found that
I still had a sense of the passage of time, and as I had no wristwatch
this was somewhat helpful – although keeping track of the sun
was a bigger concern. It was, I could tell, starting its slow and
inevitable descent, and I took this to mean that I had probably started
out from my place of origin the morning of the same day. Whether or
not I would be able to return to civilization before the darkness
engulfed me completely, I had no idea.
At what I gauged to be about an hour into my hike, I began to get
a bizarre sensation: an impending sense of doom. Twice I stopped and
looked carefully around, as if I expected a sixth sense had come into
play, and there was a large animal stalking me, about to attack; or
perhaps a falling tree silently preying down upon me. But there was
nothing, just the woods. No matter how often I stopped and quickly
turned around, I couldn’t shake the feeling, and I began to
wonder if some other portion of my brain – perhaps the fight
or flight mechanism – was beginning to short circuit and turn
me against myself. It was the same sense of despair and lack of control
that I had felt just after climbing the hill earlier, although this
time without the attendant physical symptoms. I was breathing normally,
and although I was tense, there was no tingling sensation.
I also began to notice a sense of disassociation with my surroundings.
I could see the trees, ferns, other plants, and the rocks on the trail,
but they just didn't seem real to me. It may as well have been a photograph,
or film footage – no, even those would seem more defined and
tangible (breathe) than what I was feeling now. Noticing this momentarily
took away the sense of doom I was feeling, but then I began to wonder
if they weren't connected somehow. As if a succession of malfunctions
weren’t compounding throughout the different parts of my brain,
until I got to the point where my comprehension of my surroundings
were completely absent. Thinking about this I forgot to breathe, caught
myself, and took ten deep breaths. After the breaths, I felt urgency
more than ever to get back to the world and the attendant help.
"You’re going to make it," I said aloud, and
strode off with a renewed sense of purpose