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Breath & Shadow

Summer 2020 - Vol. 17, Issue 2

"A Guiding Light"

written by

T. Jeremy Smith

I reach up to feel blood seeping into my mustache. I can smell the scent of iron on my fingers.

“Jesus Christ. I’m lost.”

No one was alarmed when I left the house. No sirens or flashing lights kicked on, no warnings of pending danger. It’s something I did every time I visited, weather permitting. No one was going to come looking for me, at least not before sunset. I rarely knew myself how drastically things had changed from one month, one year to the next.

Degenerative conditions did not provide a regular statement quantifying what was stolen from you that month. The James Dean of diseases, they did whatever they wanted, no questions asked. How could I expect my family to know what I was capable of? I didn’t know myself, and I wasn’t about to tell them I was another step closer to total blindness. As I had done so many times in my forty-two years, I walked directly into a mess, gleefully, practically skipping along the way. Now I’d have to feel my own way back.

​As I cross the open field and approach the ten acres of woods behind my childhood home, a hawk screams from forty or fifty feet overhead.

I freeze to listen and quickly recognize that things have gotten worse. In the couple of months since I visited last, edges have vanished. Even in light that would normally be advantageous, lines blur. There is no separation between objects, and all the world becomes a single grey mass. I can touch, taste, and smell it, but I cannot see it. I cannot locate my usual entry point. Low hanging branches smack the top of my head as the hawk circles, one pass along the tree line then another. I’m no biologist, but I assume those savage cries are meant to startle prey, to shake a rabbit or ground squirrel from their position of hidden safety and stir them to a run. This is when the hawk will strike and some furry little creature becomes a victim, nothing more than food. ​I push ahead, forcing my way through tall grass and rotting stumps.

The brier catches me right below the nose, perfectly centered, the exact same spot where that hornet stung me when I was a teenager and nearly killed me.

I’m reminded of my teenage self, staggering in the tobacco patch, too woozy to reach above my shoulders and pluck the bloom from a plant that towered over me. My stalwart elementary school buddy Gary drove me home. I laid on the couch, vomited, and passed out, the left side of my face swelling to twice its normal size. No one was home, and I thought I might be a corpse by the time I was found. Half an hour later, I woke up, back to normal.

But I’m not a boy anymore, and a little blood wouldn’t send me fleeing homeward. ​I enter the woods looking for that moment of serenity I have always sought in nature. I want to wander among the trees, dig my fingers into the rich, black soil. I long to sit in the humof flowing water, but with no clear path, no markers to indicate my progress, I get lost fast. I turn 45 degrees in search of the stream. 90 degrees back the other way. Dips in the terrain, a couple of obstacles to avoid, and I’m completely turned around, lost in a place I know as well as the body I inhabit.

Hoping I can reorient myself, I keep walking in the direction I believe to be my exit, the direction where I can perceive more light. Believing this to indicate the open field that lies between the woods and my parents’ house, I lead with two curved sticks I’ve plucked from the ground, breaking them to an appropriate length to serve as my “woods cane.”

They are far from optimal, and I can imagine the frown on my Mobility and Orientation teachers face if she could see my poor technique, stabbing at the ground in front of me. My “woods cane” finds trees and slight variations in the topography. I have yet to fall into the creek, though I’m not certain the brief length of flowing water I discovered was actually the creek. It just as easily could have been one of the many short branches; little more than a muddy ditch water finds and occupies temporarily after a big rain. I kick ahead, stamping down the briers as they catch my jeans and grab hold of the orange vest I wear. It’s deer season and random shots sound from neighboring

properties. Getting shot in the woods behind my childhood home would ruin the Thanksgiving holiday for more than just me.

These woods have been my playground since I was a boy. As a twelve-year-old, my friends and I climbed downed trees to their outermost limbs, branches sagging earthward under our weight, only inches from the ground. At Seventeen, chainsaws

were used to cut a dozen fallen trees off the barbed-wire fence after an ice storm, my dad, my brother and I stopping periodically to look up, to see if thick ice was there,

looming twenty feet overhead, poised to bring us down too. I’ve seen these woods in the height of summer, in brilliant green, and covered in snow, but I love them best this time of year.

The scent of decaying leaves and moisture fills my nostrils and I stop my wanderings long enough to sit on a fallen tree. Propped up by its remaining limbs, the tree sinks an inch or three with my weight as I sit and listen. I hear the breeze and the sound of leaves skating across the ground, as graceful as a figure skater in my mind. I reach up to my nose. Blood dries and begins to form a scab.

I continue walking. The boots I wear belonged to my grandfather. He’s been dead fifteen years. My soles sink into the swampy earth and I wager a guess as to where I might be. A dark line to my right implies a thick grove of cedar trees. But these are ghosts, that bizarre intersection of what my eyes see and what my mind generates to fill in the gaps.

“There aren’t any cedar trees back here.”

I develop my own technique using the “woods canes.” With my left hand parallel to the ground, I wave one curved stick at shoulder level, hoping to avoid any further bloodshed. The other stick continues to stab at the earth, finding down trees and the obstacles that would spill me onto the ground. My only triumph is not falling face first into the mud.

I look left, then right, and take a moment to laugh. My very nature is to move, to progress, to ramble and discover. Yet, movement is my greatest challenge. I stumble. I fall. I bang into all manner of obstacles, collect myself, and trudge ahead. I think back to the hawk and wonder how long I would last, a visually impaired field mouse. A week? A day? The world is not kind to my kind.

At long last, I reach tall grass. I kick out again with granddaddy’s boot and stomp my way into a clearing. The open stretch of sky above and the shadows I can perceive on either side tell me where I am. I listen to the sound of a combine in the distance and make an educated guess about which direction to turn. I shift ninety degrees to the right and begin swinging the cane in my left hand to the side.

“I know there’s a fence here somewhere.”

I find a deep rut, filled to the brim with muddy water. My nephew’s tracks on the four wheeler no doubt. I put one foot in front of the other and use the rut as my guide. Continuing to swipe at my left, my “woods cane” finally strikes metal and I can almost hear the rust fall from the fence my dad, brother and I installed when I was a teenager. Step after step, wood meets metal and I find my shoulders relaxing.

The darkness to my right, the guiding lack of light subsides and I know exactly where I am for the first time in an hour or so. The canes have served me well to this point, so I continue whacking at the fence line until I reach the perpendicular fence that separates cattle pasture from back yard.

I drop the sticks, give thanks, and squeeze myself between two strands of high tensile wire.


T. Jeremy Smith is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and Nationally Certified Counselor with his own practice in Lexington, Kentucky. Diagnosed at age ten with a degenerative retinal disease, Jeremy has learned to experiment and challenge himself in order to find meaning and a place in the world. His memoir, due for completion in 2020, describes his thirty year journey of sight loss, travel, rock n roll, and finally getting healthy by helping others do the same. 

Jeremy presents his unique circumstances with humor and humanity as he investigates life, love, and what might be gained while facing the loss of one’s eyesight.

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