I now have dancing cobwebs in my eye. In the left one, to be precise. They are more like floating wisps of brownish smoke that dart to one side or the other as I shift my eyes, but cobweb seems a more appropriate word. Smoke rises and clears once its source of energy is extinguished; cobwebs accumulate precisely because its maker is now absent. And they don’t leave on their own. Like ghosts.
They appeared last Friday afternoon just as I was finishing work and were preceded by a 20-minute episode of flashing zigzags of bright light. These streaks of lightning–like Zorro etching his monogram in laser light–in turn had been preceded and indeed been precipitated two days earlier by a blow to the ridge of bone immediately above my eye. It had hurt but not for very long, and my only concern that afternoon was that it might leave a bruise that would complicate my going out later that evening. In the end, as my ophthalmologist told me on Friday, the blow had left a far more insidious mark in the form of a small vitreous hemorrhage and a shaking loose of debris in the gel that fills the eye.
The debris manifests itself in my field of vision as two ever-present clumps of darkish suspended threads called, I learned, floaters or mouches volantes. A perfect term, I think. They are indeed the visual equivalent of a pesky fly that buzzes in and out, managing to escape me just as I move to seize it. As I focus on one or the other mouche and try to follow her, she springs up and sails to the side of my eye. It is only if I fix my gaze on one single point that I no longer see them, but of course as soon as my eye moves just a bit, they return, swishing through my field of vision like the tufts of dandelion seeds I would blow as a child before making a wish.
I make a wish. I wish I hadn’t gone to the pool that evening or dropped my goggles on the floor or bent down so quickly to pick them up. I wish I had seen the edge of the glass table before it met the ridge of my eye. Most of all, I wish there was a way I could get rid of these floating ghostly cobwebs.
But there is no therapy for the mouches, no drug or drops that will rid me of this curtain of brown filaments. I have no regimen to follow to lift this curtain, except—and this because of the hemorrhage and not the floaters—not to exert myself for the time being, no swimming, no heavy lifting, and no aspirin. I am helpless.
I think of Sylvia Plath’s poem, “The Eye Mote”, the one that begins with the narrator’s eye being struck by a splinter as she’s riding in the countryside.
Neither tears nor the easing flush
Of eyebaths can unseat the speck:
It sticks, and it has stuck a week.
My doctor tells me that it will be months before these floaters finally settle to the rim of my eye, if they do at all. She used that word, settle. It made me think of lees suspended in a viscous liquid, making their imperceptible slow descent to the base of a fishbowl. I am also told that before they settle—again, if they settle—the brain is likely to have compensated to some extent and started to learn to see through them, as if they weren’t there.
I find this preposterous at the moment. How could my brain learn to ignore anything so conspicuous? For the moment I am the captive of these flitting sprites, these twirling arabesques. They beguile me as much as they frustrate me. I keep checking for evidence of their dissipation. Yes, that would encourage me, having some indication that they were slowly getting thinner or fainter. But they don’t change shape or width or length. And the more I follow them, the less likely I will become accustomed to them, I suppose. I must learn to stop following them around all the time. But they keep waving at me, taunting me.
It is a test of patience, and I am not a very patient man. But I know others have much more awful burdens to bear and so I don’t complain. I am restless. “What I want back is what I was/Before…” Plath writes in the last stanza of the poem. But however much I wish for the same, however much I pray to a God I no longer believe in, let me awake without this curtain of gloom, I know there is no way back.
Ironically I once wrote about another case of hemorrhage in the eye, this time of the artist Edvard Munch (his was much more serious). In the autumn of 1930 Munch executed a series of very unusual drawings and watercolors that documented the damage to his eye from an intraocular hemorrhage he had suffered earlier in the summer.
All these paintings featured a stain. In some, it is a ring of brightly colored concentric circles or a treelike fleck, but in many instances it takes the form of a large dark bird: “[I see] the bird move before me,” Munch wrote. “It gives off illuminating rays of blue, which turn into green and then into a brilliant golden ring, and as it changes position, anything it touches with its colors begins to move—thick snakes in the most extraordinary colors begin to slither about on the chaise longue and coil up together.”
In one work, the bird appears in the midst of a green globe, in another it has occupied the torso of a seated nude. It is everywhere to be seen. Yet it is, in fact, nowhere, an optical illusion created within the very substance of the eye itself.
My flies, in contrast, are drab in color and thankfully much fainter, more ghosts than snakes. They are not the stuff of fable or painting. It was only because of the pressing need to talk about my new condition that I wrote about it at all. They are not the stuff of art but horrible irksome guests who I wish would leave but won’t. They, too, are everywhere I look. I need to find a way to ignore their company until I can forget that they are there at all.