When greeting people she hasn’t met before, Aaron immediately sorts them into a category. Those whose voices instantly resonate with pity. The silent ones, who are scared of doing something wrong. The insecure ones, who talk too quietly or too loudly. The idiots (“My eyesight isn’t too good either”). The peeved, the superior, the nosy, the schoolmasterly. There are also some who act as though she had nothing more than a sprained ankle.
The guest who joins them for dinner is flippant, which she likes. “Hello, I’m Thomas. It’s a good thing you can’t see me, I’ve got a real shiner. I wanted to repair the garden fence, but the hammer had a different plan.”
Warm tone. Medium height, the sound tells her. “Typical scientist, zero motor skills,” Lissek teases.
She stretches out her hand and realizes that Thomas has been waiting for her to do it, thereby saving her the embarrassment of having to search for his.
Does he know any blind people?
The others eat gurnard, Aaron has a steak because she doesn’t like eating anything with scales on. She likes Thomas. Relaxed guy, British humor. She doesn’t normally speculate about what people look like. She guesses him to be in his fifties, but still a bit of a college boy; perhaps he’s wearing a dotted bow tie with his tweed jacket.
They chat about anything and everything. It’s a lovely evening, almost carefree, until Lissek tells them that his boat is being given an overhaul next week, and Thomas asks how big it is.
Lissek quickly skims over it. But for her it’s enough.
“So where exactly is your house?” she asks.
“At the top, by the dunes,” Conny preempts their guest. “Oh, so you have a view over the sound,” says Aaron. “Yes, that’s right.”
She slams down her glass. “The dunes are on the other side of the island. Who are you?”
Silence creeps into her bones like cold damp.
Thomas clears his throat. “Mr. Lissek asked me to come and take a look at you.”
“Call a dating hotline,” she snaps.
“Professor Reimer runs an institute for treating the blind,” Lissek explains. “He’s one of the world’s leading specialists. We discussed it for a long time. Conny and I think that you should talk to someone who’s an expert. Sticking your head in the sand is no solution.”
Aaron stands up abruptly. “You think so, do you? Without asking me.”
“How much longer do you want to torment yourself?” Conny asks miserably. “He’s taken the trouble to come here.”
“And that’s my fault, is it?” She walks to the door. She’s so incensed that she miscounts her steps and bumps into the sideboard.
“There’s toxic hope and there’s toxic fear,” Reimer says calmly. “The former is the desperate belief in a cure, although the patient fundamentally knows that it’s hopeless. The latter is the refusal to face a diagnosis, so as not to be crushed by it. That will gradually destroy you. Is that what you want?”
Aaron stops. She turns. Her soul bared.
“You won’t get a diagnosis from me. That would require tests. I just have a few questions to ask.”
Where will you hide now?
Get it over with. And then you can go and blub until you feel better.
“Shall we leave you alone?” Lissek asks.
“No.” She sits back down, lights a cigarette and resists the urge to pull on it greedily.
Conny pushes a saucer in front of her. “How old are you?”
“You’re a policewoman?” “Yes.”
“And you’ve been blind for five years?” “Yes.”
“How did it happen?”“I took a shot to the head while driving through a tunnel at two hundred and sixty kilometers per hour.”
“I took a shot to the head while driving through a tunnel at two hundred and sixty kilometers per hour.”
Aaron expects some kind of comment, but he skates over it as though it’s the kind of thing he hears all the time. “Where exactly did the bullet hit you?”
“Behind the left ear; it went straight through.”
“What did they tell you about the damage that was done in your cortex?”
“That there were no bone splinters in the bullet channel and that the surrounding tissue was largely undamaged.”
“Yet you’re completely blind?” “Not anymore.”
“I had a light-dark perception.” “When?”
“Four weeks ago.” “Describe the moment.”
“Contrary to general advice, I drove a car. I had a colleague lying next to me with a belly wound. We survived it. I saw blurred lights, headlights.”
“Frontal or peripheral?” “Frontal.”
“Has it stayed this way?”
“With interruptions,” she says after a brief hesitation. “Give me an example.”
“When I’m under a lot of stress it disappears.” “Are you stressed now?”
“Of course.” Something whisks by.
“Was that your hand?” she asks. “Yes. In which direction?” “From left to right.”
“And now?” “Right to left.” “Now?”
“Right to left again.”
“What kind of stress are we talking about?” “Adrenalin.”
“Skydiving, bungee jumping, free climbing?” “That kind of thing.”
“I know blind people who knit,” Reimer comments. “One doesn’t always have wool on hand.”
“You look tired out. Is your sleep disturbed?” “Sleep? What’s that?”
“Have you tried melatonin?” “I’ve moved on to stronger stuff.”
“Does it ever happen that you inexplicably act as though you can see?” “How do you mean?”
“You cross a room and take a sidestep without knowing why. The other person asks you whether you noticed the chair that stood in the way. That sort of thing.”
“Sometimes. At the airport in Visby a woman approached me after I had walked around her. She thought I was a fraud because of the white cane.”
“Yesterday, I was about to put a bottle of wine on the table,” Conny chips in, “and you took it out of my hand, just like that.”
“Really?” Aaron asks.
“I didn’t even think anything of it,” Conny continues. “Perhaps because you look us in the eye, and you move about almost like a sighted person.”
“We call that blindsight,” says Reimer. “Is that something good?”
“It means that your optic nerve is intact.”
“I know it is. One of the doctors explained to me that my eye is the camera and the optic nerve is the cable that leads to the image processor in the cerebral cortex. The camera is still sending the recorded images as always. But they can no longer be processed because the processor was destroyed by the bullet.”
“The visual cortex makes up fifty percent of our entire cortex. That’s an enormous processor. Do you think that you’ve lost fifty percent of your cerebral cortex?”
“Sometimes I think it’s a hundred percent.”
A smile shimmers through Reimer’s voice. “Although it’s so large, many doctors regard the visual cortex as no more than an appendage of the eyes. Strange, don’t you think? In truth we mainly see with the occipital lobe at the back of the head. That’s where the images are formed.”
“Nothing is getting there.”
“Our brain is a network. The cells communicate with each other via a hundred billion neural connections. In sighted people, the visual signals are transported on superhighways. The ancillary routes wither away and lead a shadowy existence; that’s where the data traffic would need to be diverted to. The crucial question is whether this can be done in your case. One thing is certain: at the airport and when you were drinking wine you perceived some- thing, even if the images didn’t make it through to your conscious mind.”
Conny reaches for Aaron’s hand.
“Do you recognize my face?” he asks. “No.”
“What color is my shirt?” “Black, I think.”
“The wall behind you is probably white. I can perceive the contrast.”
A pen scrapes across paper. Reimer takes a few notes with quick, jagged strokes.
Conny can’t bear it any longer. “Can you help her?” “Like I said, we would need to do some tests.”
“And if I pass?” Aaron persists.
“It’s not like being at university. However much you want it, you have to be ready for it.”
“In what way?”
“The visual capacity you can achieve is influenced by many fac- tors. Not least of all your psyche.”
“Are you some kind of homeopath?”
“You mean, do I practice energy healing, babble something, pre- scribe sugar syrup and invoke spirits? Sorry, no, I can’t help you there, even though there are one or two eye specialists who say pre- cisely that about me. I don’t want to bore you with my research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or boast about my Harvard diploma.”
“But you must have a professional opinion.”
“I’m not a doctor, I’m a psychologist and neurological researcher. The doctors have given up on you. To be honest, I don’t know whether I should admit you to my program.”
“Why?” she immediately asks.
“My therapy takes a holistic approach. The medical stuff is just one aspect of it.”
“What else comes into it?”
“Do you compare your current life to the one you had before?” “Doesn’t every blind person?”
“The less clever ones,” he replies. “You have a knack for compliments.”
“Do you see your blindness as a punishment?” “For what?”
“You tell me.”
“Why would I be thinking that?”
“Because you strike me as a woman who reads Kierkegaard from morning till night.”
“As an audio book. And for relaxing, Schopenhauer,” she quips. “Are you still the same person you used to be?”
“Of course not.”
“I don’t believe a single word you’re saying, Ms. Aaron. You imme- diately sized me up. You know that I’m a little shorter than you, weigh no more than seventy-five kilos and would be no kind of opponent for you. You count your steps, and I bet you use your high heels for echolocation. I’ve seen you walk with them. I wouldn’t want to meet you in a dark alley.”
It’s all true.
“Technically, you’ve been blind for five years. But fundamentally you haven’t realized it yet.”
“Well, whatever it takes: I am ready.” Reimer says nothing.
“I can endure hardship. I’ll face any truth.” Still he says nothing.
Only now does she realize: he has turned the tables and got her to take the initiative.
“You’re a damned manipulator,” she mutters. “And you have a knack for compliments.” “How long would the therapy take?”
“Difficult to say. Weeks, months, years. It’s different with each person.”
“But you think it’s possible that I might see again?”
“I’ve had patients with less serious injuries whom I haven’t been able to help.”
“You’ve come all this way just to palm me off with that?”
“I assume that you’re extremely disciplined, eager to learn, ambitious.”
“You’re in excellent physical condition.” “Yes.”
“Do you meditate?” “Yes.”
“These are good starting points.”
“So what does the therapy consist of?” she asks. “What was your hearing like before you went blind?” “Exceptional.”
“And yet, no comparison to now,” he suggests.
“You have two coins in your pocket. The left one, to be precise.
And outside, a bird is pecking at a feeder.”
“The reason for this is something we call neuroplasticity. Your hearing is hypersensitive because after you lost your sight, your auditory cortex hijacked more and more cells from your visual cen- ter; cells which were intact but no longer had a purpose. That’s also why your sense of taste, smell and touch are so well developed. The human brain is a hard drive that continuously defragments itself. Those few hundred grams are eager to be occupied with something. We could try to jump-start your image processor. For example with electrical stimulation.”
“And the result?”
“There are people who call me the man who lets blind people see again. That’s as flattering as it is wrong. It’s positional warfare, we have to fight for every pixel. Afterward, some people can read, even drive a car. Others are happy because they can recognize colors. And often it doesn’t help at all.”
“When do we start?”
“I’m flying to a congress in Taiwan tomorrow and I’ll be back the middle of next week. My institute is on Rügen. That’s where the ther- apy would take place. Make an appointment.”
He stands up.
“I’ll take you to the hotel,” says Lissek.
Reimer encloses the hand that Aaron extends toward him. His next question causes the ground to tremble beneath her.
“Do you have hallucinations?” “No,” she immediately responds. “Sure?”
“Why are you asking me that?”
“Why aren’t you being honest with me?” “I see a small boy,” she says quietly.
“A boy you knew?” “Yes.”
“What does he do?”
“Nothing. He just looks at me.”
“Some blind people who regain a certain level of perception have these visions. But they don’t talk about it, they’re ashamed, they think they’d be seen as crazy. In actual fact it’s a sign that the brain is looking for images. Because none are coming from outside, it fetches some from the memory. Your network wants to repair itself. You should help it.”
She finds herself in her inner chamber, far, far away from every- thing. The world is nothing more than white noise behind mountains of hope.
“Ms. Aaron,” Reimer’s voice eventually reaches her. “Yes?”
“You can let go of my hand now.”
The door closes. She is reeling. Conny pulls her close for a hug.
The hammering of their hearts could forge iron.
Aaron disengages and whispers: “I’d like to be alone. Is that OK?” “Of course.”
From A Shadow Falls, by Andreas Pflüger, Used with the permission of the publisher, Dover. Copyright © 2019 by DOVER: Andreas Pflüger.