It is a bright summer day in 1947. My father, a fat, funny man with beautiful eyes and a subversive wit, is trying to decide which of his eight children he will take with him to the county fair. My mother, of course, will not go. She is knocked out from getting most of us ready: I hold my neck stiff against the pressure of her knuckles as she hastily completes the braiding and the ribboning of my hair.
My father is the driver for the rich old white lady up the road. Her name is Miss Mey. She owns all the land for miles around, as well as the house in which we live. All I remember about her is that she once offered to pay my mother thirty-five cents for cleaning her house, raking up piles of her magnolia leaves, and washing her family’s clothes, and that my mother–she of no money, eight children, and a chronic earache– refused it. But I do not think of this in 1947. I am two-and-a-half years old. I want to go everywhere my daddy goes. I am excited at the prospect of riding in a car. Someone has told me fairs are fun. That there is room in the car for only three of us doesn’t faze me at all. Whirling happily in my starchy frock, showing off my biscuit- polished patent-leather shoes and lavender socks, tossing my head in a way that makes my ribbons bounce, I stand, hands on hips, before my father. “Take me, Daddy,” l say with assurance; “I’m the prettiest!”
Later, it does not surprise me to find myself in Miss Mey’s shiny black car, sharing the back seat with the other lucky ones. Does not surprise me that I thoroughly enjoy the fair. At home that night I tell the unlucky ones all I can remember about the merry-go-round, the man who eats live chickens, and the teddy bears, until they say: that’s enough, baby Alice. Shut up now, and go to sleep.
It is Easter Sunday, 1950. I am dressed in a green, flocked, scallopedhem dress (handmade by my adoring sister, Ruth) that has its own smooth satin petticoat and tiny hot-pink roses tucked into each scallop. My shoes, new T-strap patent leather, again highly biscuit-polished. I am six years old and have learned one of the longest Easter speeches to be heard that day, totally unlike the speech I said when I was two: “Easter lilies / pure and white / blossom in / the morning light.” When I rise to give my speech I do so on a great wave of love and pride and expectation. People in the church stop rustling their new crinolines. They seem to hold their breath. I can tell they admire my dress, but it is my spirit, bordering on sassiness (womanishness), they secretly applaud.
“That girl’s a little mess,” they whisper to each other, pleased.
Naturally I say my speech without stammer or pause, unlike those who stutter, stammer, or, worst of all, forget. This is before the word “beautiful” exists in people’s vocabulary, but “Oh, isn’t she the cutest thing!” frequently floats my way. “And got so much sense!” they gratefully add . . . for which thoughtful addition I thank them to this day.
It was great fun being cute. But then, one day, it ended.
I am eight years old and a tomboy. I have a cowboy hat, cowboy hoots, checkered shirt and pants, all red. My playmates are my brothers, two and four years older than I. Their colors are black and green, the only difference in the way we are dressed. On Saturday nights we all go to the picture show, even my mother; Westerns are her favorite kind of movie. Back home, “on the ranch,” we pretend we are Tom Mix, HopalongCassidy, Lash LaRue (we’ve even named one of our dogs Lash LaRue); we chase each other for hours rustling cattle, being outlaws, delivering damsels from distress. Then my parents decide to buy my brothers guns. These are not “real” guns. They shoot BBs, copper pellets my brothers say will kill birds. Because I am a girl, I do not get a gun. Instantly I am relegated to the position of Indian. Now there appears a great distance between us. They shoot and shoot at everything with their new guns. I try to keep up with my bow and arrows.
One day while I am standing on top of our makeshift “garage” –pieces of tin nailed across some poles– holding my bow and arrow and looking out toward the fields, I feel an incredible blow in my right eye. I look down just in time to see my brother lower his gun.
Both brothers rush to my side. My eye stings, and I cover it with my hand. “If you tell,” they say, “we will get a whipping. You don’t want that to happen, do you?” I do not. “Here is a piece of wire,” says the older brother, picking it up from the roof; “say you stepped on one end of it and the other flew up and hit you.” The pain is beginning to start. “Yes,” I say. “Yes, I will say that is what happened.” If I do not say this is what happened, I know my brothers will find ways to make me wish I had. But now I will say anything that gets me to my mother.
Confronted by our parents we stick to the lie agreed upon. They place me on a bench on the porch and I close my left eye while they examine the right. There is a tree growing from underneath the porch that climbs past the railing to the roof. It is the last thing my right eye sees. I watch as its trunk, its branches, and then its leaves are blotted out by the rising blood.
I am in shock. First there is intense fever, which my father tries to break using lily leaves bound around my head. Then there are chills: my mother tries to get me to eat soup. Eventually, I do not know how, my parents learn what has happened. A week after the “accident” they take me to see a doctor. “Why did you wait so long to come?” he asks, looking into my eye and shaking his head. “Eyes are sympathetic,” he says. “If one is blind, the other will likely become blind too.”
This comment of the doctor’s terrifies me. But it is really how I look that bothers me most. Where the BB pellet struck there is a glob of whitish scar tissue, a hideous cataract, on my eye. Now when I stare at people- -a favorite pastime, up to now–they will stare back. Not at the “cute” little girl, but at her scar. For six years I do not stare at anyone, because I do not raise my head.
Years later, in the throes of a mid-life crisis, I ask my mother and sister whether I changed after the “accident.” “No,” they say, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
What do I mean?
I am eight, and, for the first time, doing poorly in school, where I have been something of a whiz since I was four. We have just moved to the place where the “accident” occurred. We do not know any of the people around us because this is a different county. The only time I see the friends I knew is when we go back to our old church. The new school is the former state penitentiary. It is a large stone building, cold and drafty, crammed to overflowing with boisterous, ill-disciplined children. On the third floor there is a huge circular imprint of some partition that has been torn out.
“What used to be here?” I ask a sullen girl next to me on our way past it to lunch.
“The electric chair,” says she.
At night I have nightmares about the electric chair, and about all the people reputedly “fried” in it. I am afraid of the school, where all the students seem to be budding criminals.
“What’s the matter with your eye?” they ask, critically.
When I don’t answer (I cannot decide whether it was an “accident” or not), they shove me, insist on a fight.My brother, the one who created the story about the wire, comes to my rescue. But then brags so much about “protecting” me, I become sick.
After months of torture at the school, my parents decide to send me back to our old community, to my old school. I live with my grandparents and the teacher they board. But there is no room for Phoebe, my cat. By the time my grandparents decide there is room, and I ask for my cat, she cannot be found. Miss Yarborough, the boarding teacher, takes me under her wing, and begins to teach me to play the piano. But soon she marries an African–a “prince,” she says–and is whisked away to his continent.
At my old school there is at least one teacher who loves me. She is the teacher who “knew me before I was born” and bought my first baby clothes. It is she who makes life bearable. It is her presence that finally helps me turn on the one child at the school who continually calls me “one-eyed bitch.” One day I simply grab him by his coat and beat him until I am satisfied. It is my teacher who tells me my mother is ill.
My mother is lying in bed in the middle of the day, something I have never seen. She is in too much pain to speak. She has an abscess in her ear. I stand looking down on her, knowing that if she dies, I cannot live. She is being treated with warm oils and hot bricks held against her cheek. Finally a doctor comes. But I must go back to my grandparents’ house. The weeks pass but I am hardly aware of it. All I know is that my mother might die, my father is not so jolly, my brothers still have their guns, and I am the one sent away from home.
“You did not change,” they say.
Did I imagine the anguish of never looking up?
I am twelve. When relatives come to visit I hide in my room. My cousin Brenda, just my age, whose father works in the post office and whose mother is a nurse, comes to find me. “Hello,” she says. And then she asks, looking at my recent school picture, which I did not want taken, and on which the “glob,” as I think of it, is clearly visible, “You still can’t see out of that eye ? “
“No,” I say, and flop back on the bed over my book.
That night, as I do almost every night, I abuse my eye. I rant and rave at it, in front of the mirror. I plead with it to clear up before morning. I tell it I hate and despise it. I do not pray for sight. I pray for beauty.
“You did not change,” they say.
I am fourteen and baby-sitting for my brother Bill, who lives in Boston. He is my favorite brother and there is a strong bond between us. Understanding my feelings of shame and ugliness he and his wife take me to a local hospital, where the “glob” is removed by a doctor named 0. Henry. There is still a small bluish crater where the scar tissue was, but the ugly white stuff is gone. Almost immediately I become a different person from the girl who does not raise her head. Or so I think. Now that I’ve raised my head I win the boyfriend of my dreams. Now that I’ve raised my head I have plenty of friends. Now that I’ve raised my head classwork comes from my lips as faultlessly as Easter speeches did, and I leave high school as valedictorian, most popular student, and queen, hardly believing my luck. Ironically, the girl who was voted most beautiful in our class (and was) was later shot twice through the chest by a male companion, using a “real” gun, while she was pregnant. But that’s another story in itself. Or is it?
“You did not change,” they say.
It is now thirty years since the “accident.” A beautiful journalist comes to visit and to interview me. She is going to write a cover story for her magazine that focuses on my latest book. “Decide how you want to look on the cover,” she says. “Glamorous, or whatever.”
Never mind “glamorous,” it is the “whatever” that I hear. Suddenly all I can think of is whether I will get enough sleep the night before the photography session: If I don’t, my eye will be tired and wander, as blind eyes will.At night in bed with my lover I think up reasons why I should not appear on the cover of a magazine. “My meanest critics will say I’ve sold out,” I say. “My family will now realize I write scandalous books.”
“But what’s the real reason you don’t want to do this?” he asks.
“Because in all probability,” I say in a rush, “my eye won’t be straight.”
“It will be straight enough,” he says. Then, “Besides, I thought you’d made your peace with that.”
And I suddenly remember that I have.
I am talking to my brother Jimmy, asking if he remembers anything unusual about the day I was shot. He does not know I consider that day the last time my father, with his sweet home remedy of cool lily leaves, chose me, and that I suffered and raged inside because of this. “Well,” ht says, “all I remember is standing by the side of the highway with Daddy, trying to flag down a car. A white man stopped, but when Daddy said he needed somebody to take his little girl to the doctor, he drove off.”
I am in the desert for the first time. I fall totally in love with it. I am so overwhelmed by its beauty, I confront for the first time, consciously, the meaning of the doctor’s words years ago: “Eyes are sympathetic. If one is blind, the other will likely become blind too.” I realize I have dashed about the world madly, looking at this, looking at that, storing up images against the fading of the light. But I might have missed seeing the desert! The shock of that possibility–and gratitude for over twenty five years of sight–sends me literally to my knees. Poem after poem comes–which is perhaps how poets pray.
I am so thankful I have seen The Desert And the creatures in the desert And the desert Itself.
The desert has its own moon Which I have seen With my own eye. There is no flag on it.
Trees of the desert have arms All of which are always up That is because the moon is up The sun is up Also the sky The Stars Clouds None with flags.
If there were flags, I doubt the trees would point. Would you?
But mostly, I remember this:
I am twenty-seven, and my baby daughter is almost three. Since the birth I have worried about her discovery that her mother’s eyes are different from other people’s. Will she be embarrassed? I think. What will she say? Every day she watches a television program called Big Blue Marble. It begins with a picture of the earth as it appears from the moon. It is bluish, a little battered-looking, but full of light, with whitish clouds swirlingaround it. Every time I see it I weep with love, as if it is a picture of Grandma’s house. One day when I am putting Rebecca down for her nap, she suddenly focuses on my eye. Something inside me cringes, gets ready to try to protect myself. All children are cruel about physical differences, I know from experience, and that they don’t always mean to be is another matter. I assume Rebecca will be the same.
But no-o-o-o. She studies my face intently as we stand, her inside and me outside her crib. She even holds my face maternally between her dimpled little hands. Then, looking every bit as serious and lawyerlike as her father, she says, as if it may just possibly have slipped my attention: Mommy, there’s a world in your eye.” (As in, “Don’t be alarmed, or do anything crazy.”) And then, gently, but with great interest: “Mommy, where did you get that world in your eye?”
For the most part, the pain left then. (So what, if my brothers grew up to buy even more powerful pellet guns for their sons and to carry real guns themselves. So what, if a young “Morehouse man” once nearly fell off the steps of Trevor Arnett Library because he thought my eyes were blue.) Crying and laughing I ran to the bathroom, while Rebecca mumbled and sang herself to sleep. Yes indeed, I realized, looking into the mirror. There was a world in my eye. And I saw that it was possible to love it: that in fact, for all it had taught me of shame and anger and inner vision, I did love it. Even to see it drifting out of orbit in boredom, or rolling up out of fatigue, not to mention floating back at attention in excitement (bearing witness, a friend has called it), deeply suitable to my personality, and even characteristic of me.
That night I dream I am dancing to Stevie Wonder’s song “Always” (the name of the song is really “As,” but I hear it as “Always”). As I dance, whirling and joyous, happier than I’ve ever been in my life, another bright- faced dancer joins me. We dance and kiss each other and hold each other through the night. The other dancer has obviously come through all right, as I have done. She is beautiful, whole, and free. And she is also me.