"Eyes and Ears"

Every couple inhabit a private world of their own, and share an intimate language of words, silence, and gestures that only they understand. Such is a love story between a deaf husband and a blind wife.

Figures Eyes and Ears

 

 

 

Icame home to a dark, quiet flat and immediately knew something was wrong. There were unwashed dishes and feeding bottles in the washing sink, soaking in a metal gray bath of oily water. I switched on the kitchen lights and sat at the dining table, watching the ants crawl back and forth in long patrolling lines, from a greasy plate of barely eaten omelette to a tiny crack in the wall. I sat for a long time, trying to sense my wife's presence in the flat. I fingered the rim of a drinking glass and saw the translucent mark of her lips on its edge, a reminder of a forgotten kiss. I could imagine her sitting where I sat now, holding the weight of the news in her head, thinking about how to break it to me. 

I didn't dare to move yet, to seek her out and offer my words, my hands of comfort. I needed this brief period of time to compose myself, to get into the right frame of mind. I had encouraged her to see a doctor when she discovered the lump under her right breast. She had been worried, but wanted to ignore the symptom for as long as she could. It was nothing, she had said. I persisted, and so she went. In the silence of the kitchen, I could see her peering into a new darkness that went beyond the blindness of her eyes, a new fear taking on a real, physical shape, bringing new pain. 

I wondered how she had reacted to the news when she heard it. Was she here in the kitchen when she received the call from the hospital? I clenched the ghost-kissed glass, suddenly angry with myself for assuming the worst, for my lack of faith. I got up to wash the glass under a burst of running water and put it on the drying rack. 

My wife was born blind but had a set of beautiful eyes, with light, clear irises, cut deep into her peach-shaped face. I enjoyed looking into them, into the inviting calmness of her eyes, like the lure of a deep pool. When we were courting, I'd stare at her all the time; she'd tilt her head, looking at me without taking me in. When I wrote down how I felt on her palm, her mouth would break into a wide grin, the corners of her eyes lifted up, and I'd imagine the hearty laugh she was emitting, though I couldn't hear a single note. I'd write more words, and she would withdraw her hands, shy, her cheeks blushed. Then she'd speak again, and I'd read the shapes of her lips, taking in every word she formed. 

Like every clear and unique sound, there was always a color that accompanied an object, an animal, or a person; life made up of different sounds and colors coming together, swirling into being, into infinite forms."

When we finally kissed on our wedding night, the words on her lips became mine as I savored the desire of each kiss, her words coursing through me like blood and water and spirit, a lover's liturgy. 
I knew my wife back when we were attending classes at the school for the blind and deaf. I'd see her walking in the corridors of the school hall, carrying a walking cane. Because she couldn't see me, I'd follow closely behind her, making sure she got to her classroom without any trouble. She told me later that she could always sense my presence, even though she couldn't tell who it was, and would pretend that she didn't know someone was following her. This went on for half a year before I screwed up my courage and asked her out for a date. She agreed, barely lifting her eyes to my face, as I read her lips. 

With me around, my wife didn't have to use the walking cane anymore. I'd hold her hands and guide her wherever we went, keeping her close to me. We would take long walks through the park in our neighborhood and along the beach. When she felt the need to talk, she would look up at me and mouth her words, and when I wanted to say something, I'd write it down on her palm. I'd tell her the color of something she had touched—a tiny pinch to describe the fieriness of the red, a small rub for the warm brightness of the yellow—and she would describe to me how the cries of babies sounded like the pitiable growls of hungry cats, seeking attention. And sometimes we would remain silent, sitting with our shoulders pressed together, unburdened by the urgency or need to talk. 

I found my wife in the nursery, her dark body crouching beside the baby cot, the shadows surrounding her. Our daughter, Emily, two years old, was lying in my wife's arms. With her back turned to me, I couldn't tell whether my wife was singing to her, or just watching her quietly. I didn't step into the room, but waited outside, behind the door. 

My wife's parents were apprehensive and cautious when I asked for her hand in marriage. They were in their mid-fifties and still felt the need to take care of their only daughter, to protect her. They were concerned about how we would live as a couple; it would be tough, they said. But in the end, after much persuasion, they gave in and gave us their blessings. 

We had wanted a child, right from the start of our marriage, though we had our fears. We heard stories of blind or deaf children born to close friends from our old school, and didn't want our child to suffer from these infirmities. We hesitated and delayed before finally deciding to take a chance, to risk our known fears for a greater, unknown happiness. 

The night Emily was born, I held my wife's hands in the delivery ward, and when the baby was brought to me, her face contorted in flushed exertions, I could feel my wife clenching me tight, mouthing the words: "She's crying; she's crying so hard." I touched Emily's lips, and felt the tiny tremors of her cries on the skin of my fingers, full of life and energy. 

I lost my hearing after a high fever when I was eight. I was burning with a temperature, and because my parents thought it was the usual type of fever that ran through young children, they fed me some Panadols and warm water, hoping it would go away in time. The fever lasted two full days, and when they realized I wasn't recovering, they rushed me to the nearest clinic. I couldn't remember much from this incident except for the vague memories of being wrapped in a thick, coarse blanket, with a damp towel on my forehead, sweating and waiting for the fever to break, watching the dance of light and shadows on the walls of my room; and in my head, strange and inanimate shapes were moving in and out of my vision. 

No matter how hard we hide the truth, it's almost impossible to lie with our bodies, she told me, writing on my palm."

The doctor at the clinic couldn't do much by then, but immersed me in a cold tub of water, monitored my temperature, prescribed some medicine, and sent me home. My mother told me all this, much later, after she and my father picked up sign language. It was tough for them to pick up a new way of communication, but because they saw the need for it, they put their hearts into learning it. 

Though I recovered from the fever, the damage to my hearing was already done, and nobody knew about it. The world that used to come to me in every new and predictable sound now shut down and left me out in the cold. One day, I could hear my parents whispering in my ears, their prayers for me to get well, and in the next, I woke up and everything was quiet in my head. It was all new, confusing, and frightening to me, to experience so much silence, to live with it. 

When my parents found out about this a few days later, when I didn't respond to them after they called for me, they were stunned, and subsequently devastated. I could tell they blamed themselves for what had happened to me, as I watched them fight, my mother throwing helpless punches on my father's chest and finally collapsing into him, distraught and exhausted, her face etched with a newfound sadness. My father held up much better, though sometimes I would catch him looking at me, before turning away, hiding his face from me. 

At first, my parents wanted to believe my loss of hearing was a temporary thing, something that would go away if it was treated early, and with full attention. They consulted several doctors and fed me bitter concoctions of herbal drinks and brews, and once even brought me to a Taoist temple, hoping to seek a cure from the spirit medium. I could see the worrisome look on their faces as I knelt before the altar in the temple, their hands moving in frantic, panicking gestures, attempting to explain my condition to the medium, who took sideway glances at me, with a pinched, doubting expression. Nothing worked, and my world of silence was sealed, an inevitable fact of our lives. 

It was a strange sensation at first, when I couldn't hear anything. The world in my head was a blank, like a room that used to be filled with so many things, and suddenly, they were gone, and it was stark and empty. I'd look at the things and people moving in front of me, and because they made no noise at all, I couldn't tell if they were just weightless objects floating across my field of view, impalpable and insubstantial. Sometimes I had to summon from memory the closest equivalent of a sound to accompany each thing that passed before me. And when I couldn't remember a particular sound, I'd try to form it in my head, piecing together different scraps of noise to make it up.

My wife told me I was lucky that I could at least hear and remember sounds before I became deaf. She always wanted to see and know what there was out there in the world, all those things that produce such a ruckus of sounds in her head. She wanted to know the color each item came in, and even though she couldn't see anything, she was able to tell me how each color felt in her hands: a pigeon feather was light and smooth, a rose petal waxy and fragile, the fur coat of a dog soft and sometimes stubbly. Like every clear and unique sound, there was always a color that accompanied an object, an animal, or a person; life made up of different sounds and colors coming together, swirling into being, into infinite forms. 

The long years we spent together had taught us to be each other's eyes and ears, the language we shared a quiet, patient kind. I'd imagine her voice and think of all the good things that I had heard in my life, to the very point before my loss, and conjure up the most beautiful sounds, full of brightness and whispers and laughter. When she spoke, I'd lean in, putting my ear near her lips, and feel the exhalation of her breaths on my skin, touching me with the silent, gentle words.

My wife always liked me to describe the surroundings to her, the things I could see, and she would remind me about the things I couldn't see, something that went deeper than just pure sight. She told me she could tell how the person was actually feeling if she could touch his face or hands, the way he would fill her own hands with his moods, the muscles underneath moving together in accordance to feeling. No matter how hard we hide the truth, it's almost impossible to lie with our bodies, she told me, writing on my palm.

Some nights I had dreams of my wife waking up one day with her eyes healed and vision restored. She'd take in all the sights of a new world like a newborn, gradually detaching herself from me. She wouldn't need me to hold her wherever we go, or wait for her every day after work, a job in a factory where she seals resanitized headphones in transparent bags for the local airline. She would be complete—a separate, independent being—no longer having any need for me. I'd wake from these dreams, lost and despairing. 

When I told my wife this, she took my hands in hers, her face brightened with a new tenderness, the smile lines deepened on her cheeks. She laughed at my silliness, at my dream, and touched my face with her hands and read the mood on it, and told me it's not possible, that she wouldn't have it any other way even if she had the choice. 

I pushed open the nursery room door and stepped in, walking up to my wife. My daughter looked in my direction, her eyes dark and liquid. She opened her mouth, and I imagined her calling out to me, maybe "Papa" or something close to it. My wife didn't react, though she shifted her body as a way of acknowledging my presence. 

I reached out for Emily, and my wife, sensing my intention, transferred her to me and stood up. I held my daughter against my chest and rocked her lightly, her warmth seeping into me. My wife looked at me, her composure still and stately; the outline of her body, with the backdrop of silvery moonlight behind her, seemed vague and immaterial, as if at any time she would disappear into the shadows. 

We stood like this for a long time, facing each other, hardly moving, waiting for the moment to pass, waiting for the dust of the news to settle between us. When Emily finally fell asleep, I put her back into the cot. When I turned around, I saw my wife on the floor, kneeling, her face in her hands. I knelt beside her, took her in my arms and felt her tears soaking the front of my shirt. 

She looked at me, searching for my eyes, and mouthed the words, "They called this afternoon." She didn't continue; her body trembled again. 

I didn't know what to say so I held her hands to my face. She caressed it, feeling all my facial features slowly, as if each was a sign, saying something important or comforting, and she didn't want to miss a single word. In her touch, I could feel her fear and her love, working through her body, into me, and I didn't flinch or look away.

Singapore

O Thiam Chin is the author of four collections of short stories: Free-Falling Man (2006), Never Been Better (2009), Under the Sun (2010), and The Rest of Your Life and Everything That Comes with It (2011). Never Been Better was long-listed for the 2010 Frank O'Connor Short Story Award. His short stories have been featured in Asia Literary Review, Kyoto Journal, the Jakarta Post, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, QLRS, Karavan, Asia Writes, and in several anthologies. O was an honorary fellow of the Iowa International Writing Program in 2010.

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