Issue 121, Winter 1991
Sister Binche began her duties in a serious manner, taking extra time to unbandage his eyes, which operation felt to him nothing like a turban, but more like someone slowly twirling his head, tapping little messages through the decreasing layer of muslin and tugging him gently this way and that in a horizontal Saint Vitus’s dance that did not end when she had finished; his head went on wobbling in the medium called air that you could never see, blind or not. What are you doing now, he would say, and she would always give him the same answer: all that is good for you, in her glaciated, slow English. He did not see the raised bed she made from lint soaked in antiseptic, setting first one eye and then the other in a little rectangle that allowed for the curvature of his upper cheek. From a tiny watering can she poured boracic solution against the puckered, bloody whites, almost cooing to him, and it all felt polar cool, the lint, the liquid, her hands, just the thing he had dreamed about in the heat and sludge of the craters and trenches. Each eye took five minutes and she called it irrigation, carefully directing the spout to all areas of the eye, sometimes pouring for a long time and making a flood, sometimes doing just a quick tip to soothe an area neglected. For the moment at peace, Harry felt he was being christened in an unusual way, though the lotion felt astringent, especially in his left eye, the worse hurt. Other days, she did not use the little pouring can at all, but encouraged him to use an eye cup himself, handing it to him full and then helping him to bring it into place with a sudden tip and plunge, always careful not to jam it hard against whatever was beneath it. Then he held the cup in place and tried to blink, finally removing it with a second tip followed by a groping thrust toward her voice. Sometimes he messed up, spilling boracic on his chest, but mostly he got his eye, grateful that the water used in the solution was tepid. At the moment, this sluicing was the thing he wanted most in life, and he got it every three hours. The hospital staff filled him with eggs and crusty bread, made him strong sweet tea that reminded him of the army, from which he considered himself well and truly severed, stroked his head, combed his hair, cleaned his ears and nostrils, and waited for changes. Strong lights came and went unnoticed as he tried to accustom himself to being a baby, much of the time in bed, but also walked in his wheel chair and escorted on short promenades by Sister Binche, whose protege he had fast become, partly because he reminded her of her brother, captured in the Somme, partly because she felt for the blind, the deaf, the dumb with a special vicarious gift that argued in her a tremendous capacity to discover how it felt to be somebody else. In Harry she discerned something copiously ascetic, perhaps mistaking the bareness of his early life for girding of the loins, self-denial, the beginning of the via dolorosa. She treasured him and taught him some words of French,and after a few weeks they were able to hold private rudimentary conversations about weather, food, the Vickers machine gun, bread dipped in bacon fat, book lovers in his home in Exington, no-man’s-land, and the man named Blood found on top of him, shattered and dry. For pain, of which he had a great deal, she gripped his fists and almost wrestled him, also letting him bite the heel of her somewhat roughened hand. Older than he, she saw him at the beginning of a career as one of life’s victims: not merely a mutilé de guerre, a phrase she had candidly taught him (which he said as matelot de gair), unless—she did not give him much chance of seeing again, and she would soon have to inform him of the need to learn Braille. But not yet. It was a month since he had been wounded, and not all the right surgeons had been to prod him yet, although he described himself to her as a goner, a useless blighter. There is still Woodbine, the American, she said, who will be here soon. Let him see. Harry wanted the issue final, so that he might evolve an absolute attitude and become one thing or another. Having already told Hilly to forget him, to find a stockbroker or an officer, he regarded that piece of business as transacted, and stopped writing, at least until Sister Binche rebuked him and told him not to be so sadistic (word he did not have). He still did not know her first name, and had not asked it, resolved in some reciprocal maneuver to deny himself things in much the same way as blindness denied him her face, though he had felt at its high cheekbones, the deep compassionate chin, the gray etiolated-looking eyes that sometimes in sunlight seemed not to be there at all, making her eligible for the term white-eyes gleaned from the American Indians. She was black haired, she told him, and therefore rather Irish looking, he thought, with that combination of light and dark, and therefore fair complected too with freckles along her arms but none on her chest. Ari, she called him, or Sergeant Ari, making him feel important and imposing. The double eye patch made him look like a man going out to a firing squad, and she tried to bandage his head down low, screening the eyes just enough, but giving them air, a touch of breeze or her own mouth gently blowing at him to get his attention. She had removed much of the crust from the roots of his lashes and increased with minor coaxing their natural flexure away from the surface of the eye. If this attention soothed him, he never said, accepting it as the due of a blinded man who wondered how terrible he looked.
“Am I a monster?” he asked, hoping never to hear the answer, the white lie.
“Only in your mind, Ari,” he heard. “Before you label someone a monster, you must consult his soul, and, if that is in good working order like a chiming clock, then you say the clock is wonderful, like a polar bear in bedroom slippers.” Sometimes she went off like that, clinching all with an image that crackled like a firework even while seeming to go off the point. She stroked his arms, his shoulders, tugged on his ears and his toes, and, one night when everyone else was asleep and he was groaning with tiny penetrant pain, she slid her hands beneath the sheets and opened his hospital pajama trousers, exposing him self to himself, hand-galloping the virgin he hardly knew he was, and the headache went away, as well as his memory of what he had considered the happiness of his previous life. “There,” she said, “now we’ve been introduced. You have a beautiful build. I am going to visit you again, Ari, and show you what to do.” He knew, but he had hardly had time. His seductions had been toward death, and only young men at that. His orgasms had been those of panic and terror, when the rear end puckered and retched. His only sadness afterward had been his distance from the animating premise of the war: why was it being fought? Fabienne, he said; it doesn’t sound like a woman’s name at all. At least (he told her), it won’t matter if I get any of it in my eye will it? Where it’s going, she reassured him in her slowest French, it won’t have any chance to get into an eye, mon trésor. He was not, he knew, being unfaithful to Hilly because none of this figured in his relationship with her, and probably never would. One day he would tell her about it, much as if confessing a trip to the dentist. Well, perhaps not quite that, but like gambling, shooting pigeons, letting a greased pig loose in a sedate club for foot soldiers. It seemed a great pity to him that this experience in the loins had come to him too late, now that he was a dead man; wouldn’t it have been better to have something to compare it with, such as making love with his eyes on the beloved instead of trying to make a difference between dark and dark, between bandage dark and sunshine dark, aghast that, there in the bed as he shoved and stabbed against her, his eyes had only the pawnbroked glory of two bullet holes or, as he invoked one of the oldest soldierly curses, two piss holes in the snow? Better they should bandage his penis to his leg and wait for it to wither, fall off, like the feet of Chinese children. It was no use going home a sexual success but a flop at seeing. Nor was it much use staying here, being felt sorry for by a woman he had never seen. I, he told himself, am only an invitation to blindness; living with me, or even bedding down in the ward in the small hours, is like asking someone else to be blind too. What he had entered was a newly opened wound that she thought was only her normal organ, whereas he had maimed it, set it in a different category altogether, among the sponges, the roots, the fungi, the cuckoo spits. She thought she was still herself, refusing to tell him how many men she had handled, how many had entered her, little knowing that the angel of death had lain with her and irrevocably joined her to the league of the helpless. He was wrong, but his powers of analysis did not take him to the point at which he might realize how she worked: by means of sentimental convection, which meant moving huge areas of feeling around within her, never losing them but frequently combining them in new ways, linking a newly discovered Patagonia (Harry, Ari) to a Latin America already within her possession. She lived by comparison, by agglutinating man to man, after a few years without ever thinking herself a nymphomaniac or even promiscuous, creating a piebald lover, a Joseph’s coat o( satisfactions. Her memory belonged to her much as, sometimes, she belonged to several men in the same phase, or even in the same evening if she could manage it. She was open, she decided, and she should be filled. One day, Ari would be sent to a hospital in London, to be put through further ordeals, and that would be that. If she had unhinged him somewhat, she had no idea of it, choosing rather o think of herself as the angel of satiety, as capable of kissing and licking blind men’s eye sockets as their genitals, once you became accustomed, she mused, to the local texture, the topography, the patchwork aromas and the rest. Having risen high in her profession, not least on account of an imperious contralto voice and a way of cowing doctors by raising herself to her full six feet in height, she had become accustomed to the often-vaunted embarrassments of having a body; the soul was a greater obstacle by far, and she wanted to settle herself in the flesh, as it were, to come to terms with all the organedness there was, presuming distantly that, when the Al mighty first formed the flesh. He did it out of boredom with abstract ideas. He made the dirty bits to drive his masterpieces crazy.