Living in the light of laughter

On Blindness and two Marshmallow Fish  

I was born in South Africa and grew up in a dusty hamlet 30 miles west of Johannesburg. When I was a toddler my parents took numerous pictures of me with their Brownie box camera. My mother dressed me up, tied ribbons in my long blond hair and posed me by the rose bushes, on my tricycle, in the chicken coop, and with the dogs or cats.

 “Smile and look at the camera,” they’d insist.

 “Here, here, look here!”

  I would look here there and everywhere except at the camera. Something was wrong with my vision.  I didn’t know what it was like to see like other children.

 “She fell over the stool that was right in front of her… she walked into the door… bumped the table … knocked over the milk… did you see the bruises  on her shins?… Her knees are always scabby it’s just not normal … I don’t see her playmates fall as often as she does… Do you think we’ll have to see a doctor, or do you think she’s just clumsy for her age?”

 They whispered when they thought I wasn’t listening.  

 Slowly and silently the rods and the cones in my retina died. Died like the purple morning glories in the relentless South African sun. Others noted my impaired vision but I didn’t understand that I was supposed to be able to see ants or individual leaves on trees – things were blobs or smears. Unless it was under my nose nothing was defined or articulated. .

My parents went on a quest to find help for my failing eyesight all over the country and took me from one optometrist to another. One by one the specialists shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders.

 “Something is wrong in the back of her eyes in the retina. We don’t know what the exact diagnosis is. Let’s just say she has…sick eyes.”

 They prescribed eyeglasses which didn’t help much. Disappointed with the unsatisfactory diagnosis, my parents chose other healers. They took me from soothsayers to faith healers, from homeopaths to herbalists, from acupuncturists to witch doctors. I took preposterous remedies.

 I ate several pounds of carrots every day and my skin turned bright yellow, I drank port wine steeped over beet root every night before bedtime and slept like a baby. I held Epsom salts under my tongue while sipping dissolved bicarbonate of soda on an empty stomach, and never suffered from constipation. I lay down in a darkened bedroom with half of a raw potato over each eye supposedly extracting the eye disease and, at the next new moon, I buried the potatoes in our backyard, supposedly transplanting the eye disease. Someone swore that eating seven lice on a slice of bread would stop the deterioration of my vision. Alas, none of these remedies had any influence on my sight what so ever.  

 I often heard the word, blind, but I didn’t know what it meant. The word was said with reverence as if it was a holy word. A boy who lived down the road had this thing called blind. I associated it with poverty and an alcoholic father.  I knew it had something to do with eyes and knew if you had it, they’ll send you far away to the Cape and you’d only get to come home during vacations.    

A fear wormed into my heart.  I tried to dispel it by never admitting to anyone, least of all to myself, that I didn’t see things and that I was eaten up with fear.    I feared crossing the street, riding my bicycle, playing with a ball.  I grew frightened of the dark, of bright light and of people.

I had to strain to recognize faces and when my parents had guests over I hid in the smelly chicken coop, too afraid to come out and embarrass myself.  When I heard the guests leave I would come out, pretending I didn’t hear them call me or know that we’d had company. I learned quickly to pretend to see so as not to alarm those around me.

I was sharp and memorized everything, including my reading lessons.

“Come and read for Aunt Nora,” said my mother one evening when her friend was visiting. When I finished reading to Aunt Nora I overheard her telling my mother, “Kate, she didn’t read what was on the page, she recited a totally different reading lesson.”

On the other hand, my parents were proud of my precocity and good memory. After all, most children pretend to read in their early years.

Pretending to see, made seeing real, cancelling the overarching debilitating fear that cloaked my six-year-old life in suffocating blackness. The fear that woke me screaming in the night that made me wet my bed, that made me throw up my food was the fear that I would become like Peeti the boy down the road. 

My parents owned a general store with an adjacent butcher shop on the main street.  Two ladies worked with my mother in the shop, Mrs. Rose and Mrs. Van Buren. My father was assisted by Mrs. Green in the butcher shop. After school and during vacation I dawdled from store to butchery, doing minor errands and listening to town gossip.

“He is mad you know,” I heard Mrs. Rose say one day when Peeti Cracker came zigzagging up the dirt road. I knew he was that thing called blind, but mad? Now I also equated blindness with madness, poverty and an alcoholic father. I reasoned that if I was going blind I must be going mad as well, and that my father would start drinking and the welfare woman would have to give us money and they’ll send me away.   I became hysterically afraid of Peeti.  When I heard Peeti was coming I ran and hid.  Peeti went to the school for the blind near the Cape. When he was home during school vacations he came to buy candy at our store. The dirt road which was mostly used by donkies and donkey cart drivers was safe enough for Peeti and that was the way he took to get to our store.    When he walked he cocked his head to one side, squinted with one eye at the road and zigzagged along.   Children made fun of him and grownups patronized him.

One day while I was rearranging the shoes on the shelves Peeti entered our store without me being warned.

“Go see what Peeti would like,” said my mother.

On hearing his name it felt as if someone had poured a bucket of water over me. I felt ice cold and paralyzed with fear. I looked around; he was near enough for me to see. He was standing in front of the candy counter.   The brim of his khaki hat turned backwards away from his forehead as he pushed his face against the candy case, attempting to look at the candy behind the glass.  I felt too lame to move.

“Go on Estelle, go help him,” urged my mother.

I wondered, if I hadn’t already caught my blindness from Peeti and  wouldn’t I now also catch his madness and the other things? It seemed that my mother didn’t care that I might catch his impairments. Why would she want me to go near him?  Peeti stood still with his head cocked to one side, trying to see the candy with the good part of his one eye.  

“I’m busy here, go see what he wants,” said my mother again.

“Mother…” I finally whispered.

“Estelle go on.”

 My legs started to move without me, I approached him in slow motion.

“What?” I asked.

“One.” He clicked his penny against the glass in front of the pink and white marshmallow fish.

 I saw his eyes close-up for the first time. One eye was completely shut, the other eye was open, and this eye was brown and rolled uncontrollably in its socket. The color of the roving eye was a soft shiny brown. That one brown unruly eye which tried so hard to see broke my heart. Suddenly I felt unspeakably sorry for him. I wanted to do something for him, help him. 

“One,” he repeated softly.

As if I had shrugged off a heavy coat I moved freely behind the counter and pulled out two marshmallow fish. I wrapped them in white paper, went around the counter and pushed the package into one of Peeti’s dirty hands. With his other hand he held the penny out in my direction.

“For another time,” I said as I took the penny from him and shoved it into his pant pocket.

He mumbled something and scuffled uncertainly towards the door. Since I had gained courage to be with Peeti, I guided him in the correct angle for the door. My heart thudded in my ears as he disappeared out of my sight. 

In my childish way I believed I bought myself a period of partial vision, my sanity, a sober father and prosperity for my parents  with two marshmallow fish, one pink and the other one white.

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