S H O R T S T O R Y
THE JOURNEY OF THE EYEBALL
b y k a t h e r i n e v a z ~ t h e a z o r e s
NOTE TO READERS: This story is in two parts.
If you wish to print the whole story, remember
to print both parts. The link to the second part
is near the bottom of this page.
IT WAS the dry season, and the pine needles, when they showered down, were golden. José often came to this thicket at the edge of the clearing. Two thick roots streamed from the base of his favorite tree and offered themselves to him, with a soft thatch of needles at the fork. He liked to rest his head there, because this twin flow out of the tree, rigid as muscle, was Ana. He would lower his head onto the sponge sprouting on the muscle and breathe her name: Ana. Ana. In answer the hair on the bark would stand. When he reminded himself that the earth constantly moves, he could sense the roots tensing upward to rock him back and forth, speaking happy nonsense. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons -- those were all Ana, too. Hours outside those were endurable as long as he imagined that before him soared a T for Tuesday and a T for Thursday, and he would swing like an aerial artist from the ledge of the first T to the ledge of the second. Then, very bravely, he would grip the end of Thursday and flip backward, high and timed just so, to land painlessly at the beginning of Tuesday. He did this well enough to make it seem that no weeks passed and he was growing no older. Sometimes he persuaded her, on one of their Tuesdays or Thursdays, that her husband would not find them if they spent their time together making love near this tree. Naked she left her rose scent here, and it stayed as a pink veil in the air that he stretched over them to stop her from worrying about privacy, or to shield himself when he was alone, lying like this whenever he could. From dwelling for so long in patience, patience had ripened into faith, a faith that he was bound for reward. It was a point of pride that he never suffered nightmares. Some day he would persuade Ana to spend a whole night with him, because this composure of his dreams was rare among men, and it was one decent real gift he could give her.
One day when he returned to lie in the fork of his tree, large tents filled the clearing to block his way. He had forgotten! Today was the annual day of contests, a tradition in the valley; the day had lost its name since no one remembered anymore what was being commemorated. Every year the day simply materialized. José felt a surge of heroism. Ana would be here. On a day that was not one of their days. Cows were being driven in from a far point toward the northeast, where the clearing widened and stretched to the mountains. Near the northwest edge, alongside the thicket with the tree he loved, dishes were being set on the tops of poles, for people to keep constantly spinning. Women were grinding acorns in mortars to make the special acorn cakes for the festival, though why this remained a tradition no one could say.
"A dollar! A dollar! Acorn cakes!" shouted a woman whose hair was going everywhere with static.
"Win me that stuffed bear! Darling!" women were yelling, pointing at the tests of aim and strength.
"Hurry! Hurry!" everyone was calling out.
Clowns with enormous flat red sausages painted over their mouths milled in the crowd, pouring gin into thin paper cups and drinking it and scaring the children.
"Who's the strongest? You, sir? You?" the barker at the strong-man tent taunted the men walking past.
Strips of meat on skewers waited in piles next to the grills.
José bought an acorn cake and made one of the acorn women laugh by pretending that it was a discus he was going to throw. That cheerful sound -- female -- was also Ana. He made Ana laugh like no one else. She was always telling him that.
"What's this year's prize?" he asked, biting into the cake.
She was still giggling. "A keg of dynamite, I hope, and maybe the winner will be smart enough to blow this town up."
That was how people talked when they knew they would never leave, and it was more about loving what was theirs than about hate. It was a language that José had learned in the Azores, on the island of Graciosa, before his parents brought him to California, when he heard the people talk with a violent affection about where they were from. But this town had Ana and the thicket and the tree of her and the veil; everything; it had that park whose green lap went right up to Ana's door, which he had never been through but had often faced from the distance, a door in a white façade.
"Whatever it is, it's mine," he told the acorn woman. He raced from one tent to the next, finding out what the events would be, and what he would have to do for each one. He planned to enter everything.
Cows with paper streamers attached with dabs of tar to their hides wandered around, and the udder of one was so swollen from the heat and pungency of the tar that she was spraying milk. People were darting away from her and squealing, but José went to her and said, "There, there," his eyes roaming as he looked for Ana.
The gold-panning competition was already underway. Onlookers cheered as contestants dipped tin cups into a trough of mud set waist high. José attached wings to his ankles and joined them, his fingers tamping frantically through the mud, as he searched for the yellow pellets that everyone would pretend were gold. He cast his eyes where he could, trying to find her, as he collected enough to stitch the equivalent of the gold braid on a sea captain's hat -- what his fisherman father had said were called scrambled eggs. That was worth second place, which was good. If he came in second consistently, he would have sufficient overall points to earn the prize, and this idea of victory after winning nothing outright appealed to him.
He moved on to the boat race, on the lake at the western edge of the clearing, and rowed until his hands were raw. Lying flat in the boat at the finish line, he listened for her voice but only heard the announcement that he was half a minute behind the leader. He had used up enough oxygen to be at a slight disadvantage during the fado singing match. He let the mournful Portuguese lyrics speak for themselves, and did not resort to supplicating arms, the way some of the contestants did. Who knew if fados were originally sung by the widows of the fishermen who did not return, or by the prostitutes of Lisbon? It seemed the appropriate blues singing for a holiday that had no name and a forgotten meaning. José was pleased to come in third, which did not much change his standing.
During the artichoke juggling, the thorns tore his hands. He came in second there also, and he did well in the mile run, the potato-sack race, the weight lifting, and the discus throw. Everyone applauded and laughed when his discus flew off course and struck a clown. José gave the audience an exaggerated bow, his eyes moving around to see if Ana could be found watching how well he was doing. At the lasso competition, he did a complicated dance in and out of the rope that he swirled in a loop.
On the way to the final event, the tower climbing, he leapt into the center of three young women playing catch, grabbed the ball, and pretended to be a seal by balancing it on his nose. He would not give it back until they said "please." He glanced around but there was no Ana laughing at his performance, and the women were annoyed when he somewhat sheepishly tossed them their ball.
By the time he reached the tower, he was tired, and the other men had a head start. But he was tall and that would help him edge some of them out to win the final points that he needed. Ropes hung over walls that were built of scaffolding and hammered together into a high octagon, with small wooden blocks nailed in at intervals as footholds. Twisting a rope around one of his legs, he began climbing hand over hand. At the first foothold, he was surprised at how his arms ached. He had pushed harder than was necessary in the boat race. By the second foothold, his eyes were swimming, and the crowds gawking below were hazy, like something he was attempting to remember. He tried to guess what he might win. The prize might be only a gold cup (pretend gold), but Ana could hide it under a floorboard in her house; she could stand where it radiated upward and feel it travel throughout her. From where he was, he could look past the clearing and plates spinning on poles to the tree in the thicket, and it reminded him that all he had to do was locate the pink veil in the mass of bodies below. He recognized the three women who had been playing catch, now watching solemnly, their necks stretched up like swans'. As his eyes swept again over everyone, he found the rose glimmer with Ana in its center, possessing the gravity she had from her substantial bones -- generous gravity. A short, stocky man was resting his hand against the back of her neck, where the tips of her blonde hair lay, always, neatly. She was laughing at something he was saying. Was it the laughing done by married people who did not love each other but wanted to reassure others that any fighting would be done at home, no need to fear an emotional scene? Because it could not, really it could not be the best kind of laughing, the sort that reveled only in the moment, the sort that was José's job. He glanced back at the tree to get his bearings and finish the race, but a spell of vertigo made him shut his eyes, and a pain shot through his side. His side was still splitting as they propped a ladder up to where he was and carried him down.
They had him fastened in the cucking stool before he knew it. A long wooden arm, with the stool at the end, extended over the take. His feet dangled over the water, and his arms were tied down to the arms of the stool. What was this? Punishment? For what? He heard the roars of laughter as the cucking stool plunged him into the lake with a force that drove water into his nostrils and up behind his eyelids. Dripping sheets of the lake covered his vision as he emerged gasping, "What did I do?"
"Did everything but still didn't win. This is the consolation prize," said one of the lever operators, very matter-of-factly, as if that explained anything. Again they let the arm fall, and his brown hair waved like the plants underwater as he blew his breath out slowly. They kept him without air until his nerves started to spasm, then hoisted him up. He told himself that he could survive even this, that in the old days they constructed cucking stools out of toilet seats to humiliate the victim further, and they had spared him that. When they were through with their fun, they would explain how he could enter every contest and achieve so much, all but the tower climbing, and how none of that counted. How so many second-place finishes did not add up. Down he fell again, into the water.
He rose again and twisted around, because it entered his head, with a fierce brightness, that Ana could prevent this. It was her chance to declare herself, to her husband and in public, by shouting that this absurd spectacle had to end. She would say that it had to stop at once, or else they should let her join him down in the water. He waited, listening, contorted as he looked behind himself. His eye did not catch hers, because her husband was leading her away. But one of her arms was extended out from her side. Had she been pointing and saying, I must go to him?
The crowd hooted at Zé as they sent him down for another dunking. The barrage of options began: She had held out her arms and called for him, and her husband, ashamed, was pulling her away. Or her husband had whispered, "Let's go home to bed," and she was running off with him, and that extended arm was meaningless, only a result of impetus. Or she had held out her arms in the kind of sympathy that any decent person should be professing. Or she ... he could not think. This was the story of their years together: some motion of her body, followed by him assigning a stream of interpretations to it. His brain grabbed the pictures out of his eyes and bit around their edges and slobbered on them, and the eyes wanted their art gallery, their pictures of Ana, for themselves, without warnings or meaning. As the cucking stool pulled upward, his eyes refused to go back up and see anything more. The brain could not be trusted to leave a sight of her alone, free of its miserable comments. The pressure inside his head expanded and pushed against his eyes. As his body was raised in the chair, the eyes saw a last bid for comfort and hurtled from their sockets. A fish ate one, but the other eye hid among some reeds and waited. It watched José leave the water, his shoes forming little islands on the surface of the water before they disappeared as well. The eye was cheerful. Now it could find Ana and say: The eyes have it! I only have eyes for you! The king and eye! That would have her laughing. He would say, Put me between your breasts, explain nothing, let us go into town together.
The eye trailed enough optic nerve to use as a propeller to reach the surface, swimming through splinters from the cucking stool. José's body, strange to the eye now, stumbled off, behind a dispersing crowd that did not seem to see him.
The eye was free to journey to Ana. Free to do it without the brain! It shivered in a breeze, enjoying how the wildflowers stood as big as exotic trees. Although the eye was nothing but sacs of fluid and membranes, and a photo album holding poses of Ana, it rolled on unafraid, scaring off the insects that got in its path by staring them down. Dragging the rigid nerve sticking out of it was difficult, and the cornea was getting scratched, but Ana could bathe the eye when it reached her house.
The town was more frightening, with the heavy, dirty soles rising and slamming down. The eye felt its humors, aqueous and vitreous, liquefying slightly under the heat of the sun. Making a game out of spinning within the grooves in the sidewalk did not work, and friction was wearing the optic nerve down to a stub. It was exhausting to keep rolling backward and looking upward to guess who was attached to the shoes and socks and stockings. Such a confusion of legs! A high heel struck within an inch of the eyeball. It called out to Ana, to tell her that it was not sure, on this level, how to find her house from here, and its pupil strained, with light entering and leaving through the black hole, but no sounds came out. The eye would have to speak to her by looking deeply at her, when its journey was over. A drop of fluid would glisten on its surface, and in the drop would be shimmering one of the pictures of her -- Ana standing by a sea that was like crushed-glass marbles behind her, or Ana standing outside his window once with her blouse undone -- and Ana would smile to show that she could see the picture that the eye was holding out to her on its convex screen. Taking the drop that contained the picture on her fingertip, she would put it onto her own eye, like a contact lens.
Another heel! The eye dodged it and got trapped inside a cuff with crumbs and dirt. After feeling its host carry it a block away, up some stairs, and into a smoke-filled room, the eye bounced out of the cuff to peer around. There was Luís, and some other philatelists who were members of the Luso-American societies, the U.P.E.C. or União Portuguesa do Estado da Califórnia, or the I.D.E.S., the lrmandade do Divino Espírito Santo. The eye recalled how José envied the comfort they took in groups, in their projects and festivals. Like them, José was an immigrant, but he felt too singularly like a transplant waiting for the body to belong to, like a living organ sitting on ice before implanting. The eye was getting confused. The philatelists met on Fridays. How could almost a week have passed since the festival? Surely it was still Saturday.
"Luís!" the eye shouted, then reminded itself it could not speak. Ashes on the floor made the eye tear up. A hand dropped down like a falling palm tree and grabbed the eyeball, which soon felt itself being pressed against one of the mint-flavored hinges that are moistened and attached to the back of a stamp to prepare it for an album. At first the mint was pleasant, and going from hand to hand was like spinning in a gallery that was the right size for an eye. Islands, singers, birds, orange antelopes, and foreign powers flashed into view while being readied for mounting. The eye was dazzled. It also caught fractured snapshots of someone's pipe, a broken vein, and the black glasses of a philatelist who pushed the eye so hard against a hinge that it had no more tears left to give.
"Hey, this thing is dried up!" shouted Luís, inspecting it.
"I'm not! I'm not!" said the eyeball. For the barest of flashes, it missed its mind.
"Another useless invention!" said a philatelist.
"Useless!" came the echo.
The eyeball was thrown out the open window and landed on summer-hard ground, barely missing a piece of glass. The breezes played through the tattered optic nerve, turning it into a wind instrument issuing a high, lone sound, but the eyeball was reasonably blissful. From the sun's height, it figured it to be midafternoon, the time on Tuesdays and Thursdays when Ana came to him. She would kiss the underside pounded into tenderness by the stamps. As the eye pitched forward, the sky tilted, then vanished, then reappeared again, in inverse rhythm to the ground rounding itself into a curve and then going flat. The eye could see the points of the firs or their solid trunks, but not both at once, and after a while it seemed as natural as drinking a glass of water to have the world so divided.
During one of these rotations, the eye failed to spot the foot that kicked it. It flew a long while before landing on a green lawn of fibrous tufts.
THIS IS THE END OF PART ONE
CLICK HERE TO LINK TO PART TWO
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