Read by David Mildon
The world stopped turning a long time ago, and no-one knows why. Whatever force, or impetus, that drives us suddenly disappeared. Whatever cosmic hand that spins the planet withdrew. It’s difficult to understand. There’s plenty about it in the ancient books, of course, but nobody reads those any more. Nobody reads much of anything any more. We barely have enough fuel to light the hospitals and the council chambers – there’s not enough to go around. We have one lamp in the house, and we only light it for one hour a day, at dinner time. There’s no light for reading. There’s no light for anything.
I wonder if it has to be this way. It seems as though we’ve forgotten so much. Across the land lie factories, hulking and abandoned, with their unknowable machinery sitting there in the dark, unused. Every now and again the councils launch some kind of project, or initiative, in an attempt to get them running again, but they always run out of steam before too long. No-one has any enthusiasm for it. It’s something to do with the darkness – the lack of light and the lack of hope. I am twenty three years old and I have never seen a sunrise. Our people don’t understand the concept of a new dawn.
Sometimes I dream about the sun. I dream of lying in an enormous field, so big I can’t see where it ends. It is light, impossibly light, and it is warm. Not like the warmth of the fire, which dwindles as soon as you step away from it, but a warmth that fills the air, and as I stretch my arms and legs I can feel it, pressing gently on my bare skin. It is so bright I have to close my eyes, and still I can see the red on the inside of my eyelids. Nothing else happens in the dream, and that’s fine. It’s enough just to lie there in that summer paradise. And then I wake, beneath my rough, heavy covers, and feel the cold on my face, and my heart is heavy with a sense of loss.
I must travel east. People are always talking about it, but no-one ever does. It’s a long way to go. There are vehicles everywhere, strange and alien vessels with wheels and wings and rusting fuel tanks, but nobody knows how to make them work. Nobody can remember the last time they moved anywhere. So I must walk, and if what little geography I have learned is correct, then there are thousands of miles to cover. But I don’t care if it takes me the rest of my life. To see that glimpse of light in the sky – not like the stars, which hang limp and drab in the firmament – but a light that stays, and grows, and spreads as you walk towards it. To see the sun – the very words seem impossible – that would be the most perfect thing of all. That would be worth a lifetime.
And yet, even as I say these words, I know the truth. Such a voyage cannot be made. I have no light, and there are seas and mountains and deserts to cross. I have a compass, a very old compass, that was left to me by my grandfather, but it won’t be enough, even if I can read it by the starlight. I would have to build a boat, and I don’t know how. I would have to catch my own food. The animals are not so plentiful these days as they were in the olden times, and so many of them are underground. It is such a long way in the dark.
There is a girl I know. I say ‘know’. I mean ‘love’. There is a girl I love. She is eighteen years old and she lives in a house down the road. She is an orphan and she stays with her grandmother. And though she is young, there is something about her, something in the way she speaks, that makes her seem old. She seems very old. Older than the oldest person I know. Her voice is low and soft, like the wind, and though I have never seen her face in the light, I know she is beautiful.
Some evenings we sit on her porch, swaddled in blankets, and she lets me lie my head on her lap. She puts her warm hand on my forehead, and she talks to me. She tells me that she remembers what it was like before, when the world turned, and the sun rose, and everything was all right.
“Do you mean you dream about it,” I say, “because sometimes I – “
“No.” She cuts me off. “I remember it.”
I know this can’t be true. Nobody remembers those days. Nobody is old enough. And yet, when she strokes my hair, and speaks to me in that voice, I can almost believe it.
“Tell me about it,” I say.
And she talks, for hours, about the world as it was, the world as it still is, on the other side of the planet. She talks of huge cities, of towering glass buildings that reflect the sun and flash like beacons. About cars and aeroplanes – not the rusting hulks that litter our landscape – but brightly coloured machines that stream through the sky and zip down the long black roads that flow endlessly out into the countryside. She talks of parks and fields and enormous trees that crane their branches towards the light, and of birds – tiny, winged creatures that swoop and glide through the air. There are no birds here any more. Everything lives underground, where it is warm.
She points up at the sky, and tells me that the stars, those hateful, sickly stars, are all suns. Each one is a sun like our own, only many millions of miles away. I don’t know how she knows this. She tells me that one day we may be able to travel there, in vast ships, and find a new world, a world that spins. I imagine being there with her, sitting on a porch like this, and watching our first star rise, but I don’t tell her this. I don’t want her to laugh at me. I don’t want her to know that I love her.
“Tell me about the path,” I say.
She says that there is a path, that starts not so very far from here. It leads to the East. It was built very long ago, by our ancestors, the ones who could still remember the sun. Before we started to forget everything. The path is long, and winds through the mountains and the deserts, but it is lit, with lamps that never burn out. Once you reach a lamp, you have to squint your eyes, and right out in the distance you will be able to see the next one. So you follow the lamps, and after many years you reach the other side of the world.
“Just imagine,” she says, “seeing that light for the first time. Just a faint glimmer on the horizon to begin with. Days of walking, and still only the faintest hint of sun. But then, after weeks, after months, the glimmer grows, and starts to fill the sky. It gets warm. We take off our hats and our overcoats, because we don’t need them any more. The sky is blue. Just imagine that! A blue sky, from east to west.”
I just listen, as she talks on. I know that soon she will ask me to come with her, to find the path. It’s what she always asks. Only ten miles outside the village, she says. Usually I nod and murmur general agreement, but I know that ten miles is a long way. I have never been more than a few hundred feet outside the village. There is danger out there in the darkness.
Tonight is different, though. I feel as though something inside me has suddenly awoken. I feel like a light has come on. I sit here, on my bed, waiting for a knock on the window. I have packed a bag. She will be here within the hour, and together we will set off, in search of daylight. I don’t know what we will eat. I don’t know what we will do for shelter, out there in the wilderness. And I know, deep down, that there is no path. There are no magical lamps. We are going to our deaths, and we will die one night, in the cold and the black, huddled together and dreaming an impossible dream. We will never see the sun.
It’s something to do with the darkness – the lack of light and the lack of hope.
I twitch back the curtain and stare into the sky. The stars are there, as always. They are the nearest I will ever get to sunlight. A million, million miles.
I see her coming across the field, her white dress just visible in the night. I want to draw her into my room, and to hold her, and make her forget this whole thing. To keep her safe. To keep us both safe. But I know I won’t. I will follow her, like the sunflowers in her stories follow the sun. She is the brightest thing in the sky, and all I know is that I want to be near her.
I open the window and hold out my hand, and she takes it with both of hers.
“Are you ready?” she says, in that low, soft voice.
And I’m not, I’m really not. But I lever myself up on to the window ledge, and I swing my legs over. The ground is cold and hard and the air is freezing. It clasps itself around me. I look at her, and she moves her face close to mine.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “We’re going to make it.”
I can see her eyes in the starlight. I wonder what I would give to see them in the daylight. Away from the two or three scattered lights in the village, the world looks a dark and awful place.
“I know,” I say, and together we begin to walk.
Let There Be Light by James Smyth was read by David Mildon at the Liars’ League East & West event on Tuesday August 9th, 2011 at The Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London.
James Smyth currently works in the City, doing a job so shamefully unBohemian it hardly seems appropriate to mention it here. He’s been writing for years, specialising mainly in unfinished short fiction and barely begun novels. His previous stories for Liars' League include Listening to Reason, The Honourable Thing and Dial A For Action – all available on the LL website.