It was cold, loud and bright when Lewis entered the world. But he was not born into a warm home, or into the hands of an anxious and proud father, but into the arms of his mother alone, lying on rags set upon a cold rock floor.
As Lewis’ vision adapted to the bright environment, he found it to be an enormous expanse, riddled with curiosities and possibilities alien to him. The light, which hurt his eyes, shone from a high up place, a distance immeasurable to his dizzy and bewildered senses. However, the reality of the world that Lewis had been born into was far more tragic than he could understand.
The expanse of light Lewis perceived with his young eyes was no larger than a standard living room; floored with stone and walled with sheer, black rock. The light Lewis observed was very high up. It came from a tiny port at the top of a long shaft, void of color or pigment.
Lewis and his mother were at the bottom of this shaft, like two trapped at the bottom of a huge well. But it was not a well, it was a dungeon.
Yes, Lewis was born into a dungeon, and he would not only call this dungeon his home, but also his whole world. At first, it did not feel like a small world. It was a veritable cosmos, surrounded by a solid void, only filled by the imagination.
From the moment Lewis was born at the bottom of this dungeon, he gazed up at that tiny port in the distant ceiling. Though it was small, he could glimpse past the blinding light and blurry colors, a blue sky contrasted by the occasional white wisp of a cloud. But this was all he was afforded to see. An incomprehensibly small glimpse into a greater world beyond the dungeon.
Over the years, Lewis came to know the face of his mother extremely well. Her face appeared not what one would expect from a woman in her situation. No desperate, crazed, or abandon expression disgraced that lovely face. There was always hope in her eyes. She was not lost but was walking a long road, in hopes that one day it would lead her home.
Her face often appeared haggard and weary, but there was joy in her life. Her greatest joy was in her dear Lewis. With all the gladness and excitement a mother could show her child, she taught Lewis to walk and talk. She lead him through childhood, all on the same cold floor of their stone world.
Despite the dreadfulness of their circumstance, Lewis’ mother was granted one item of her own belonging which had always given her peace. She had been allowed to keep a small sketch pad, along with several pencils.
Lewis’s mother, who was called Catherine, was an artist. It is no mystery or wonder that artists tend to try to capture what is real and true in their work. Catherine was no exception. She would spend her days in the small world of their prison sketching pictures of the outside world; of trees, lakes, flowers, mountains, houses, people, and clouds.
When Catherine believed Lewis was old enough to comprehend the drawings and her explanations of them, she showed one to him. It was a wonderful moment as Catherine produced her sketchbook. That peculiar white pad had appeared to Lewis as an alien device to be worked only by the wise hands of his mother, never for his own young and crude eyes to behold. Now his curiosity would be satisfied in what was, to Lewis, a life defining moment.
Catherine flipped through the pages thoughtfully, wondering which of her sketches could best display the untold and unseen wonders of the outside.
As Lewis scanned his mother’s face, glancing over countless sketches, her expression suddenly changed. She had found the right one. Catherine adjusted the page and turned it to face Lewis.
It was a moment of revelation; a sight he could have never even imagined. The scene was odd and frightening at first, the same way a spiritual encounter is for a man of the earth. He saw rising and falling humps, alive with a soft, hair-like carpeting. The grassy hills stretched out until they met a backdrop of wispy pencil shading. Part of this sky was not shaded, as to represent sunlight with white paper. Strange spires of curving lines rose from the ground in little groves, and seemed to be the home of tiny winged creatures.
The prospect of all these thing was dazzling and almost terrifying. Lewis could not tell if it was beautiful or absurd. But as Lewis contemplated the sketch drawing, his mother proceeded to explain each part of it to him. She first showed him the sky, which he could partially see out of the port in the ceiling of their prison. Catherine told Lewis how the sky appears to come down and touch the horizon, and how it never really does touch the horizon, it just looks that way. This, Lewis could not quite understand, so Catherine continued onto the trees.
She explained how trees are not stone, but are made out of wood, much like the pencils she used, and that they grew out of the ground as living things. This too, Lewis could not quite understand, but he was transfixed by these strange and enormous concepts. He did not question any more, he just tried to imagine this world from the sketches and his mother’s otherworldly explanations.
Everyday, Catherine would draw a new sketch for Lewis to see. She explained to him what mountains were, how big they were and how they sometimes touched the clouds. Yet from Lewis’ point of view, if he were to stand above the port at the top of the dungeon, it appeared as though he could touch the clouds as well. They looked so close. Catherine also attempted to teach Lewis about oceans, and how they were immeasurably large, and made out of water. This was too much for Lewis’ mind to even comprehend.
The fact remained, he could never truly understand the outside without going there. But for now, he could not leave. So he reveled in the sketches. There was an incredibly pleasant feel around knowing he was made for the outside world and would one day see it. But hope is never enough to sustain a soul made for sunlight.
One day, as Lewis played with some loose stones and Catherine drew her sketches in what light she could get, there came a sudden flow of sunlight from the port high above. Lewis lifted his head from what he was doing to be faced with a bizarre and rapturous sight. A very peculiar object descended from the portal. It did not fall like a stone nor float like a piece of paper, but seemed to maneuver through the air.
Lewis was transfixed, though his mother hadn’t noticed it. She was too busy drawing. Lewis was entirely mesmerized by the creature’s movements. He did not know what to compare it to, it was more lovely and more terrifying than anything he had ever seen. It was like a little man, moving around, leaping from here to there in frantic movements. It’s little feathered head moved about, taking in the scene with little interest.
Though the creature was small, it filled Lewis with a tremendous sense of awe. Looking at it, he felt suddenly free. It was a sensation he had never known, except maybe on some nights, when the moon would pass over the portal and would cast stark, white beams into the dungeon.
Looking at this glorious creature, Lewis remembered all those unexplainable moments, coming face-to-face with a greater reality than the one he saw in his mother’s sketches. Delightful and horrifying moments, where he could almost see the fields and trees of that distant world. He could almost feel, what his mother called, wind and know the touch of grass between his fingers and under his toes.
Lewis watched the bird’s every movement, as a starving man savors every bite of the poorest meal. He did not want the moment to end, he wanted to stay there, to watch the bird for eternity. It was as though he was in a world of darkness, and found one ember, a single dying spark of some unreachable, blazing fire. His only wish was to take that ember, nurture it and bring it back to life in his hands, to see that fire blaze for himself.
But then, with ironic and cruel haste, the little bird spread its wings and in a blink had flown up and out of the dungeon.
Lewis stood there for, what seemed like hours, staring at the port high above him, as a mass of cloud blotted out the sun and the blue sky. Only grey remained above. He watched closely, hoping the bird would come back, but it was gone. Lewis closed his eyes hard, trying to preserve the memory of the bird. But as he shut his eyes, he noticed tears began to flow. The same way an injured man does not realize the pain of his wound at first, Lewis was unaware of his grief, until it stuck him in that moment of silence.
He did not want to lose that image, that moment. What did life mean if he could not even be granted something real? All he had was a mind full of sketches and stone walls.
Soon, the memory of the bird became like legend to Lewis, and its meaning was lost. But the residue of a feeling remained. It was like the feeling he got from those hallowed sketches, but at the same time, it was so much more real. It made the sketches appear insipid.
The experience with the bird became a part of him. Because of this, the hard black lines contrasted by that stark white paper could never appear ‘real’ to him.
But, Catherine continued to draw and show Lewis the ‘real world’. Lewis’ mind was not opaque to Catherine. During this time she could discern his growing frustration with the sketches; how he would have to suspend his disbelief to even consider they were something real. Her concerns never got the better of her though, because Catherine hoped in her son as much as she worried about the sincerity of his belief. For the time being, it was enough to know that Lewis confessed to hope in a better world, and always seemed ready to learn more.
Indeed, Lewis would take in the drawings dutifully, longing to believe this outer world was greater, though what he saw before him was mere pencil scratches. He struggled to reconcile the image of the bird with the images of penciled landscapes and oceans.
At times he would come close to belief, but then he would slip back into a shallow discontent. There was a hollow discord to the conception of a pencil-sketch world, even if it was far larger than the dungeon he had always known. Perhaps he could live for such encounters as the bird, without having to worry about the pencil sketch world. The more he thought about it, the more it frightened him. Wouldn’t stepping into this world destroy his very nature, destroy such encounters as the bird and the moonlight through the portal?
Meanwhile, as this conflict grew in Lewis’ mind, Catherine was mostly unaware. She was proud of her boy to believe in the outer world, and thought he was taking in the drawings with interest. Then one day, the bulkhead of Lewis’s mind broke under the stress of his misconception. It started when his mother said, half dreamily, as she often did,
“Won’t it be wonderful when we are set free?”
Lewis, sitting broodingly in a corner muttered a response.
“Maybe.” This response gave his mother pause. She hesitated to respond.
Turning to look at him, worry stole over her hopeful face.
“What do you mean?” These words led them to a painful clarity of where their preconceptions of the outside differed.
“Well, I mean, what’s so great about the outside?” Lewis said, coming to his feet and beginning to pace in the gloom of the dungeon.
“What does that mean? It’s infinitely better!” Catherine responded, watching her son pace anxiously. He did not respond at first, but looked up to that portal in the high ceiling. Catherine chuckled,
“You can’t mean you’d prefer to live here your whole life!”
“That depends. It’s just, from what you’ve shown me, the outside doesn’t seem…for me.” Upon hearing this, Catherine rose to her feet and looked her son straight in the face. Her expression showed concern mingled with frustration.
“Of course it’s for you. We’re made for the outside!”
Lewis could tell they were not seeing eye-to-eye, so he walked across the floor and picked up his mother’s sketch pad. He flipped through it, until he found that first sketch, the first one Catherine had ever showed him.
A black and white landscape with wisps of trees and wavy grass and an attempt at a sketched sunset. All hard lines without resolute meaning. Lewis held it up to her and pointed at the sketched landscape.
“How could we ever feel at home, there?”
There was a moment of silence as Catherine looked back and forth between her sketch, and her son, whom she had raised on these sketches. Then it dawned on her where his misconception lay.
“You didn’t actually think the real world was made out of pencil lines, did you?” She said, half-humorously. But Lewis’ face remained grave. He did not understand. His expression immediately sobered Catherine, who proceeded to point to the pad in Lewis’ hands.
“No, the real world is…well it’s, like the sketch, but much more varied, and with color! There’s shadows and light and water…”
Lewis was not impressed. He thrust the sketch pad back into his mother’s arms.
“If the real world doesn’t have lines, then why have you been trying to confuse me all this time?” He said bitterly.
Catherine cradled the sketch pad in her arms.
“It was the only way I could show you what the outside looks like. Oh Lewis, it will all make sense once we get there, you’ll see.You’ll have to see it to understand.”
“Well, what if I don’t want to leave the dungeon. Everything makes sense down here. And if the, ‘real world’ doesn’t have lines for me to see, then how can it be more real?” Lewis brooded, turning his back to his mother.
“No, you don’t understand. The fact that there are no lines makes it more real!” Catherine tried to persuade, but Lewis was blind to reason now. What he saw were the facts, and facts don’t lie. The fact was, he knew the dungeon well, and the sketches had a set profile. If this profile was altered, to have no lines, then how could it be more real, or even visible? Lewis felt cheated by his only companion, his own mother, leading him astray.
The only meaning he could find in life now, had to be the experience. What he had to live for were those moments looking at the moon through the portal, or maybe, by some miracle, another bird would come flitting through the opening. Sometimes, he could even hear the birds’ songs, like the singing of angels. This is what he had to live for, to dwell in the dungeon forever, and find his own meaning.
However, at the time Lewis had come to cross-purposes with his mother, it was near the end of their sentence. Their time was coming to an end in the dungeon, and Lewis was determined to stay.
One day, early in the morning, just as the sun was shedding its light on the portal, there came a strange noise from above. A scraping and shuffling sound, followed by a small shower of dust from above. Lewis was laying on his back, looking up at the portal, when something very unexpected happened. A rope ladder was thrown down into the dungeon, spanning the distance between them and the surface. As the rope ladder struck the stone floor, the sound reverberated in the dungeon shaft. This awoke Catherine who turned her eyes upward, as a man’s voice echoed in the prison.
“Your time’s up, you’re free to come out.” These few words felt like golden sunlight on Catherine’s face, as the greatest joy Lewis had ever seen fell over it.
She stood up, and immediately took hold of the rope ladder. Then, her smile faded, and she looked down at Lewis, who remained on the floor, his face grim and set.
“Lewis, please don’t stay down here. Come with me, and see the world I’ve always talked to you about. You were made to live there.” Catherine pleaded, but Lewis would have nothing of it.
“You can have your world, if you want it so badly. It’s not for me, it’s not real,” Lewis merely retorted. With those biting words, Lewis turned his back to his mother and remained there, lying on the cold stone of his dim reality.
Catherine gasped a plagued breath, her eyes burdened with sorrow. Her heart grieved for her child, but there was nothing she could do. She had done the best to her abilities, and now it was over. She took hold of the rope ladder, and began to ascend. She rose higher and higher, until she disappeared into the blinding sunlight beyond the portal.
And then, Lewis was alone. The dungeon had never felt so empty and so quiet as it did in that moment. Lewis shut his eyes tight as he curled up in his stone corner. He had to cling to his reality, or nothing else would make sense. Without lines the outer world was nothing, just a spirit world, not made for a body born in stone.
Though Lewis shut his eyes tighter and tighter, the light in the chamber seemed to increase, until he had to open his eyes and see the what the dungeon looked like.
He turned over and looked over the stone dungeon. It was bathed in a bright, gold light, the likes of which he had never seen. He looked over the familiar dungeon, made empty by the lack of his mother.
Now it was truly empty, save for a small white thing in the corner. Lewis stood up and found it was his mother’s sketchbook. She had left it behind. Somehow, this struck Lewis with a pain of grief he had never known. To look upon those sketched landscapes had only ever made sense because they were his mother’s. But after what she had told him, of this lineless other world, he was not sure of what it all meant now.
Then, another dying ember of hope came to his mind, one he suddenly felt the urge to nurture. Perhaps, all this time, his mother had been speaking of a world which consisted of such experiences as the bird from the portal, and the moonlight on the stone floor. Maybe, the only way for the sketch drawings to make real sense, was to observe their archetype.
Lewis turned to face the portal again. The rope ladder was still there. In that moment, Lewis found himself face-to-face with a final choice. Would he choose to seek out the meaning behind the facts of the hard lines, or choose to find his own meaning in the songs of unreachable birds and intangible moonlight? A world he would be bound to never touch, a smile of something greater? This fantasy gnawed at his soul as he spent those final moments gazing at the blinding portal, and the waiting rope ladder.
But before he could make his final decision, a figure beyond the light began to pull up the rope ladder. His last chance was escaping!
Lewis stood there, agonized by his own indecision. In that one helpless moment, Lewis annexed himself from the flat, grey meaning of the dungeon, and threw himself toward the ladder in desperation. He was barely in time to wrap his fingers around the last rung, as the ladder was pulled upward, carrying Lewis with it. Lewis held on tight, unwilling ever to let go, as he was pulled higher and higher, into the light, and finally beyond the portal.Lewis shut his eyes tight as he was gripped by strong arms and placed on solid ground once again.
* * *
At first, all he could see was perfect blackness, then a slit of light pierced the
dark, and flooded his sensitive eyes.
It was warm, quiet and bright as Lewis entered into the world, born again. Lewis felt the wind in his hair for the first time, and the sun on his brow. Tall grass touched his legs and the sound of birds filled his ears.
As Lewis’ vision adapted to the bright environment, he found it to be an enormous expanse, riddled with curiosities and possibilities all alien to him. But this time, it truly was enormous, and it’s possibilities were entirely alien to him. He stood along side his mother, who gazed over the land with tears in her eyes. Lewis followed her gaze, and took in the landscape.
Now he saw what she had meant by the sketches, this view in particular.
Lewis fell on his knees as he beheld the very scene he had witnessed in that first sketch. A sweeping grassland, entirely green and dotted with little trees leading off into a bright horizon, brilliant in the sunrise.
Tears filled his eyes too as he realized—it was real. How could he have thought it to be anything different? Yes, Lewis had been born into a dungeon, but he knew now, it was never for a moment his real home. It was never for a moment the real world.
This was the real world. But he wouldn’t only call it that, Lewis would also call it home.