Eye of the Beholder
by Aaron Karmin
In the skull, the place we called our home for all those years, lie the eye sockets. We mark the spot where my dead twin brother and I used to live. We eyes are the gateway to the soul. We are organs that fill the facial structure and function to promote human survival.
I had a twin, who was just like me. We were both made of spherical liquid and solid balls, which sit in the skull and protrude through cupped sockets. We are sensory organs for sight that are both exposed and protected by bone. Inside the skull, we are cradled and cushioned by fat on all sides. There are flaps of tissue, where the flesh thins to a clear membrane that covers us like a light blanket. We exist in a sac of salt water that keeps us moist and feeds us like a small child in a high chair.
We have something called a cornea, a transparent, curved structure, which faces the world and seeks stimulation. Our white flesh is called the sclera, which is made of collagen and protein. Our color comes from the iris, which is made of muscles that open or close the pupil. Our pupil allows light to enter us and stimulates our whole being with ticklish delight.
We each have one lens that thins to focus on objects in the distance and thickens for the up-close details. It bends and focuses rays of light by continually changing shape to perceive the world all around us.
Our retina contains nerve cells, known as rods and cones. The cones perceive color, but the rods are colorblind and are used to respond to dim light or movement. The retina connects to the optic nerves that send electrical signals to the body’s brain where the visual cortex makes sense of it all. This is what is called vision.
But when I stare at the gray landscape in the black of night, all becomes shaded and shadowed. I adapt in moments of blue darkness like the infinity above. I stare at an open book beneath the full moon above and at first glance, the page seems bright enough. Yet when I try to make out the words, they cannot be deciphered and begin to fade away.
Moonlight is diffuse and pushes my rods to their limits. The color vision of my cones is not as sensitive as the contrast vision of my rods, which is why flowers lose color in moonlight.
I think that flowers also have a significant fluorescent component in their pigments. Since moonlight is reflected light, it can only be detected with the peripheral vision of my rods, which require proper lighting. So, the colors just disappear when I look right at them. This was the first time I knew what blindness was and the fear was immediate.
The body where my twin and I reside was born with bad plumbing and poor drainage. This body that we inhabit was born with a defect, something called glaucoma, a condition where the fluid around the eye builds up due to clogged or broken pipes.
The result was that at six years old the pressure from all this fluid built up and caused my twin’s death. Like a drowning or choking, he suffocated and permanently ceased functioning. This meant that my twin brother had lost his ability to offer sight. My twin no longer served any functional purpose for the body or perceived the world around him. Yet he sat there sitting in his socket vacant, blank and empty. There was no pupil in his iris.
He rested like a dead fish along the riverbanks, floating in this fluid, which had previously given him life. See all that excessive fluid caused pressure to build and cave in all around him. As the fluid around my twin grew stronger, it snapped his optic nerves apart like a string. It was like he was being pushed on from all sides until he popped.
I remember seeing a boy at a fair that won a fish and was carrying it in tiny bag filled with water. As the small boy ran in excitement to show his prize to Mom, he tripped, cut his hand and fell on his small treasure. The bag burst and the fish with all of its life-giving water spilled out onto the cold gray concrete.
The boy frozen with a fearful grief began to cry. He sat there in a puddle of tears and tap water. My brother just floated in the fluid that filled his home, hurt and broken.
People would often call attention to my brother due to his redness and sagging shape, which resulted from the excessive fluid build-up.
As an eye, I am all about appearances. I focus and perceive the world around me on a very superficial and concrete basis. I have never seen truth or hope, but I have witnessed a cornucopia of movements, shapes, colors, sizes, and shadows. I seek impressions and patterns. I strive for recognition.
I can recognize a fake eye because mom and dad had one each. The eyes I looked into as a small child were prosthetic eyes. Dad lost his left eye due to glaucoma, just like me. Mom lost her eye because she was born premature and given too much oxygen, which blew out her optic nerves.
I have looked at the genetics that are shaping me with mutations and birth defects. My brother and I had a fifty-fifty chance, but we both lost. For me, my non-seeing brother had always been a sore spot. Truth be told, my twin and I were never identical. Sure, we were both a lovely deep-sea blue color and appear distinct in our large size. So large in fact, that when we were kids, classmates would call us fish eyes.
I went along in life with my dead neighboring twin floating next to me for the next two decades. Taking four eye drops, three times a day, while going to constant checkups and examinations to make sure my brother’s condition did not deteriorate.
It was near the end of the summer, a few months before we were going to turn 30, when he became seriously infected. I knew something was wrong when the sclera had become a hot coal of cinnamon red capillaries. His iris had turned a cloudy albino white. All I could perceive of the situation was that something strange was happening in this body where we lived. His cornea was detaching. The cornea offers protection against anything that tries to get into the eye.
You must understand that we eyes are autonomous organs in the body. The rest of this machine’s immune system does not respond to us. We have our own efficient ways to recovery and healing. Yet my twin’s cornea became loose and prepared to detach, like a skydiver waiting to jump from a plane.
There was a traumatic vision of the future that caused me to widen and move quicker, as if I were being chased by a bear and fighting for my survival, I looked for escape. This previously unknown immune response of the body was revealed to my brother and me through his exposure. The result was that the body was planning an attack on my brother, as if he were a foreign bacterium.
The onslaught would not end there. Once the body has come to recognize one eye, then it will soon realize that there is another would-be invader. The body’s immune system seeks to destroy these perceived new structures in the body. I would be next. This revolt, from the very body I inhabit would not end until I was paralyzed as well.
I enjoy the sentiment and have a fondness for tradition and natural beauty. I had known my brother was not well, but had hoped to continue this journey with him by my side. We were born together and should leave together, even if he really was not all there in the first place. Alas, that did not appear to be my destiny. It was three months before my 30th birthday when my brother was forever removed from my sight.
The science of cosmetic surgery has come along way since the glass eyes of old. My new neighbor’s role was clear, with the single purpose of looking good. But, there was the constant sting from my own vain sense of concern over how I would look with a fake, unnatural partner by my side.
Our first 72 hours together were full of slowed reactions, excessive fatigue, swollen tissues, and painful movements. I remember looking around and realizing how much can change in a single day. Change happens in such a small span of time, yet it is the adjustment part that seems to endure over the weeks and months.
The cheek and forehead all around my new neighbor was blue-black and plum-purple. I had to strain to stare in the mirror while my brother’s replacement was covered with a tin eye patch that stretched from the brow to the nose. This strange metallic patch had a circular patter of tiny holes like a strainer to let the air flow and was encircled with cream blue elastic around the edges. Then it was cushioned with cotton gauze and held in place with white cloth tape.
The fake that has replaced my twin brother is made of porous plastic that is painted and then covered with porcelain. He is actually a one-of-a-kind piece of handmade art. The painted pupil of black oil, the iris is a big sky blue on a chalky sclera of white. It is an exact duplication, replica, clone, spitting image of me. He never blurs no matter how much he is scratched or rubbed. He is indestructible and unnatural.
Now and again, when kids stare at my fake’s limited movement with fear and wonder, I become aware of what I had forgotten. See, when my brother was around I always was looking after him. Stopping in front of a mirror and taking eye drops to reduce his flamboyant red dress. I was constantly attending to how this invisible condition is being seen by all. Now I do know and even realize my twin brother is gone when I look in the mirror. My new neighbor was made just to look like me.
I definitely have to do more work than my neighbor, who just gets to sit there and look pretty. Yet he does not do anything. I am the one who stares at the visions of loving relationships and the sight of despair of death. This thing of plastic is a false expression, a mask that covers this body’s blindness.
I look at our reflection and remember that nothing will endure, not our health or his sparkle. This cosmetic enhancement has no flesh, no blood. He is a placeholder that fills emptiness by giving substance where there is absence. He is a ghost that haunts me from within. He is not my brother. There is no man-made object that can replace what I have lost. The grief and mourning continue every day, every time I miss something, every time this body bumps, trips or drops something, when I need to blink or the head turns away from the action.
I remember you and your potential. I know now its up to me and that you are never coming back. The new neighbor of mine is part of a shrine to you, my lost twin brother. A shrine that lies in the body, keeping your spirit alive. He fills the void that my dead and buried brother once filled. This mannequin, this prosthetic, the mask that covers the vacant space remaining from a once occupied socket. This is not a replacement. It’s a shrine to an organ that had always been sickly.
With time, the new occupant of the neighboring socket and I have learned to live together. He has not been a troublesome or demanding neighbor, like my brother. He has integrated himself to his surroundings and has conformed to the body, while the body has adapted to him.
Sure, he gets dry every now and again. He gets dehydrated because the bag of saltwater that the eye normally sits in has been punctured. But really, he is a low-maintenance housemate. And for the first time in 22 years, my right and left sides appear identical. I have learned that his presence has given me confidence to look out at the world and let it in. I have seen this body push and challenge what I thought were its limits.
It is hard to watch part of yourself struggle and struggle to find solutions. The movement, contrast, and shadow of life are always in flux. Yet, it is amazing what the body is capable of. I have experienced the effects of illness and the changes it can bring. I know of the limitations that being alone and having to see everything for yourself can bring.
This body is missing an eye. I am missing a brother, a twin, and a neighbor who has valuable information to share. It is all gone, never to return. How long can one survive alone? How much can one body handle? I am sure there will be more illness and injury.
I remember being a child and when the body would fall, picking up bruises and scrapes; the wound would heal in a day or two. Now the aches and bruises last longer and the time to bounce back becomes longer. I have seen it in animals, its called survival instinct. So despite the discomfort, all things scab over and what can be seen is a mark on my flesh to remind me of the tumble I had taken.
It’s truly an amazing machine, this body of mine, with all of its organs and specialized equipment. The machinery and magic that run beyond my sight but keeps me moving, growing, and healing, this symbiotic machine that is as much part of me as I am of it.
Yet is it all just a container and am I just the ghost inside? There are things I cannot envision or point to such as love, beauty, truth, justice, or honesty. I am left on my own as unique and insignificant as the leaves on the trees, to figure it out for myself.
I am the ultimate observer, who watches the world’s shapes and colors. They are as varied and diverse as the leaves fading to golden shades of orange and yellow on the tree’s limb, underneath the sky filled with clouds shaped like balls of cotton. Their ivory curls hover overhead and cast shadows over the city streets. The hordes of commuters, cabbies, and criminals rush to find their way before the cream-blue sky fades to plum. No one knows he is gone. What they all see is an identical eye, an indistinguishable twin. I alone know otherwise.
Why are our eyes called the windows to our souls? Why do we speak of the way that we “see” the world? Why do we say, “I see” in order to communicate that we understand? What is the understanding? What is the relationship between our vision, our eyesight, and our way of Being?
I choose to focus on what I have, not what is missing. I lookup with delight at the moonlight shining like a lamp, glowing down over the homes full of sleeping strangers all dreaming in different ways, flowing with fantasies about tomorrow that will be forgotten in an instant.
As the rhythm of the world erupts, with the samba sound soothing my soul and bringing the comforting morning light. My rods and cones sense the sun sneaking into my room through the blinds, touching my cheek, bridging my dreams, which will soon fall away from sight. I cannot see the past unless it was in a dream. I am able to look out upon the vision of today. Letting this body breathe in the light and blow out the color.
Copyright © 2007 by Aaron Karmin