The plague that ravaged our fair land and led to my own meeting with the maker of eyes was eventually traced to a gnat infestation in a single barrel of common spices, in the hold of one unremarkable ship, which happened to dock at Shien-La on one otherwise typical day.
Three out of four who showed the first symptoms died within hours, but the disease saved its worst torments for those who fought their way back from the brink of death. Strong men were reduced to emaciated invalids and beautiful women became scarred and pitted hags; all were aged decades by the blistering of their cheeks and the loss of their teeth. Bright and inquisitive children became puzzled imbeciles, unable to understand even the simplest words spoken to them. A second plague took its shape in the suicides of those who could not endure whatever little the scourge had left them.
As for me, I writhed for a day and a night and a day and a night, screeching in agony as my eyes shriveled like plums abandoned in the broiling afternoon sun. I begged for death, but my lovely young bride Li-Fan whispered sweet assurances in my ears, telling me that the divine who rule all things would not shatter our life together before we had the chance to live it. I cursed her and lashed out at her in the manner of all driven mad by suffering. But even as she felt the first itch of the fever herself, she caressed me and kissed me and changed my soiled linens and dabbed my burning forehead with soft compresses, determined to defy the conflagration with no power but her love.
Bless the divine, we were more fortunate than most. We lived. We held on to our home and our fortune. I resolved to be thankful for my new life as a healthy blind man. Li-Fan, who had once possessed a dancer’s grace, survived with some weakening on her right side and a gait slower than any she had known. We accommodated her infirmity and my darkness. I learned to read and write the alphabet of those whose vision has failed. She learned the patience of one who now took twice as long to cross a room. The cold fact of the matter was that in some ways the catastrophe rebounded to our personal gain. Most of my competitors in trade had died. Entire communities found themselves in need that my family enterprises could fulfill. Our holdings grew. The petitioners at our gates began to include the princes and princesses of the realm. Because we both believed that too much profit in the face of our nation’s suffering would be not only unseemly but shameful, we donated fortunes to the rebuilding of the nation, and we came to be revered as incarnations of the divine light.
Li-Fan and I often asked each other how we could regard any of the improvements in our circumstances as blessings when so many not as favored by random chance still cried out in misery; surely, profiting too much, too soon, meant inviting curses yet to come. And yet, almost without our willing it, the arc of our good fortunes continued to curve upward.
This was true even of our marital bed. Ours had been an arranged union, as per the tradition of our people; our honeymoon as terrified strangers mollifying each other with cautious smiles had been a fleeting one, but it was soon replaced by joy as we realized that the sometimes-disastrous lottery of random-boy matched to random-girl had in this case surpassed any union we might have arranged by ourselves. The plague came before that routine could have degenerated into rote boredom, and we soon discovered that its ravages had only made a great thing better. Now I was blind and a creature who explored his world by touch, by scent, by smell, and taste; a creature who had no trouble making his lover his entire universe, because so much of what he sensed during the act was encompassed only by his own reach. She was weakened, subject to fluctuating limitations of response and movement and thus more given to wonder, every time, at the pleasures she could still give and receive; in a way, she now experienced her body’s capabilities each time as if for the first.
We became a world of two.
Then one day Li-Fan returned from the local market with the maker of eyes.
I found Jin-Kwon’s speech polite but calculating, in the manner of a man who knew how words could be used to inspire trust but had found the skill only after painstaking practice. His overly formal accent testified that he had mastered the language of the Imperium late in life, learning to speak with great precision but missing the vernacular. From the gravel coarsening those tones I detected a lifetime of moderate drink and arduous travel in cold places.
He knew enough to obey the established custom of our land, which dictates a decent interval engaged in respectful conversation before the introduction of base concerns. So the three of us knelt at the same low table sipping warm blossom tea as he complimented our home and blessed our hospitality and expressed the great honor we had bestowed upon him by welcoming his visit. As I responded with all appropriate humility and grace, inquiring after the sights he had encountered on his journey, I had ample time to ponder just why my beloved wife had brought him to me. Despite the physical distance between us, I could sense the anticipation that fluttered in her breast. As Jin turned from polite conversation toward the autobiographical, explaining at length how as a youth he had lived on the border between our country and the golden lands and traveled back and forth at will, my wife’s excitement grew. He went on to relate that he had apprenticed at two trades, the mundane glass-blowing artistry of his ancestors—and the elementary sorcery he had picked up from a tribe a few leagues to the west.
He finally concluded, “I make eyes.”
“Ah,” I said.
“You are not surprised?”
“Most visitors who come to this office are polite about the way I look, and Li-Fan has assured me that my altered appearance is of no consequence to her, but I remain aware that these sunken hollows must be unpleasant. If she has seen your work, then I trust her judgment, and what remains is a mere matter of—”
“Please forgive my failure of clarity, good sir. Your wife has indeed seen my work. But I do not make inanimate glass prostheses. I make eyes that see.”
The room became silent, his words reverberating in the air.
“That is not possible,” I whispered.
“And yet,” Jin-Kwon said, “are there not men in this land who stand on legs made of wood, or chew with teeth constructed of ivory, or adorn themselves with hair spun from silk?”
I said, “Do not treat me like a fool. A wooden leg is not a leg.”
“True. By all standards that define life, a wooden leg is inanimate. But it can still support a man’s weight and, with his remaining leg, transport him where he needs to walk. Similarly, the eyes I propose to fashion for you will never be perfect replacements for those you have lost. You will never again see in the precise fashion you remember, never again behold life in all its myriad aspects. But my limited gifts are capable of creating orbs sensitive to one of life’s facets, orbs that will bless you with perfect sight as long as that facet is present for you to see.”
I heard him place a heavy object on the table before us, and I perceived from the creak of a hinge that it was a chest, opened now to display whatever he had carried within it.
“Your honored wife can confirm that what I show you now is a selection of glass eyes, hand-colored to reflect the most common and a few highly uncommon shades of iris. She will confirm that as artifacts alone, they have been constructed with the greatest beauty. None of these shall be yours, because any I produce for you will of course need to be custom-fitted.”
“They are beautiful,” Li-Fan reported for my benefit. “There are many that would be pleasing, on your face.”
“And you claim that they see?”
“What I provide now is not the vision I promise, just the proof that I can deliver what I say. May I approach?”
“With the understanding that when this proves to be a fraud I shall have the servants eject you by force.”
I heard him stand, sensed in the air a motion in my direction and felt his breath inches away, followed by the pressure of cold glass against one of the sunken pits that had once been my windows to the world.
And I saw.
Granted, it was just the stained-glass image of a butterfly with wings of purest green and gold, illuminated from behind by sunlight, but how rich the image, how gorgeous the stippling between segments of color! How immediate the sense of dust floating in the air between that painted masterpiece and myself! I had in my eagerness to recover from my great loss repressed how satisfying even the most mundane sight could be. I had willed myself to forget. But this sight, that I might have passed over when my life offered a parade of other sights like it, robbed the strength from my limbs.
Then the darkness returned, and I was blind again.
I heard Li at my side then, kissing my forehead and whispering that it was a blessing that my sight could be restored.
A thousand leagues away, Jin-Kwon said, “That is just one image. It is a heartbeat out of time. I can give you more than an image: I can give you one entire facet of this jewel we know as life. You need only choose the facet.”
“Any you can name, good sir. In the golden lands, where this technique was perfected, tradesmen used to willingly carve out one of their own eyes, to replace it with one that could better serve their respective professions. Healers implanted eyes that could diagnose illness. Portrait painters implanted eyes with flawless understanding of shading and pigment. Investors implanted eyes that could spot opportunities for profit. Soldiers implanted eyes that could discern the weakest points of their enemy. Courtesans implanted eyes that could spot the hidden desires of the men who sought their company. Mothers implanted eyes that could never overlook the needs of their children. The options are limited only to the imagination of the buyer. You name the facet, and I shall provide you with an eye capable of seeing it. It would be my honor, good sir.”
My re-acquaintance with darkness made the light Ji-Kwon offered seem beyond price. I knew that I would not be able to maintain my composure for long, and so I took advantage of the impassiveness that can be an eyeless man’s greatest compensation and said nothing, aware that my wife could see through me and that it was likely the maker of eyes could, too.
“I will need time to reflect.”
Choosing a facet for myself was not something I could accomplish in a single languid afternoon. I invited the maker of eyes to enjoy our hospitality as we considered the matter. Two of our house servants moved his meager belongings into the guest cottage down by our lake, while Li-Fan and I went on with our evening, talking about anything but the controversy at hand.
That night, we made love with an urgency that we had not known since before the scourge. I grasped Li with the desperation of a drowning man seeking solid purchase in storm-tossed seas; she clutched me with the hunger of a starving woman permitted to join a traveling feast. There was a sense that we had wandered into a strange country marked by pitfalls capable of destroying us.
Afterwards, she rested the side of her face against my breast, stroked my chest with her finger, and said, “Do you forgive me?”
“Bringing this man to you.”
“You imagine it requires forgiveness?”
“I almost resisted. I feared what he promised. But then I saw what he did in the marketplace, for another man blinded by the scourge. That man wanted only to carve wood again and in a minute he was back to his own trade, chortling in delight at the return of the gifts the scourge had taken from him. I could not deny you such a blessing. But...”
“Since the plague, you have never seen yourself as less than whole. You have never bemoaned the dying of your light. You have never been less than a man as complete as other men. All I have done is poison your contentment by introducing you to this stranger who says you should want more.”
I said, “Come here.”
She shifted her weight to face me; I could not see her beautiful eyes, but I could feel her soft breath and from that was able to reconstruct a full portrait of her on my mind’s canvas. The painting even included the way the light of the bedside candles shimmered on her sleek black hair. There was no way any eyes, capable of seeing either a single facet or the entire jewel, could have improved on it.
I told her, “If I were to remember no moment but this one, and I knew that the next heartbeat would be my last, then I would cross the final veil content that my life on Earth has provided me with more than any man could ask.”
“You flatter me.”
“Not at all. But tell me what is really bothering you.”
“You said that you would consider his offer overnight, but I know you and I suspect that you would elect to see Beauty.”
“And this bothers you?”
“I am no crone, my love. But since the scourge touched us I am less than what I once was. I am drawn, pale; almost withered, frailer in aspect than you likely remember me. I know that time is a second scourge and that it will inevitably take what I have left, day by day, and though I would never ask you to give up Beauty, I fear becoming more and more invisible to your new sight.”
I felt tears on her cheek and understood how heavily this had been weighing on her. I ached to assure her that whatever vision I had would always deem her the most beautiful woman I had ever known; but I also remembered my uncle, a philandering man who had fallen out of love with my aunt almost as soon as the first bloom of youth vanished from her cheeks. She had become in effect, if not in name, a household servant, cleaning his clothes and warming his bed while he chased the harlots at the House of the Scarlet Moon. She had become invisible to him. My father had been a more faithful man than his brother, but it was also impossible to observe the way he looked at my mother and not know that whatever passionate fires had once driven him had cooled to spent coals.
That night I contemplated the purchase of eyes capable of perceiving Beauty. I yearned for the reflection of the sky on a crystal-clear mountain lake. I ached for the plumage of the peacock, the rich green of the forests of my youth, the glow of dear Li-Fan’s eyes as we gazed upon one another in the manner only known to lovers. I could not believe that any eye set in my skull would ever be able to behold her and not see beauty. But perhaps she was correct. Perhaps Jin-Kwon’s miraculous eye would dispel illusions I needed.
And with that I gave up so many things, so many golden sunrises and so many lingering sunsets. I kissed my wife and said, “Do not fear. I already see Beauty.”
That left me with my second choice.
In the morning I rose early and made my way down past the garden to the pond I had once treasured for the placidity of its waters, which daily reflected the snow-capped peaks on the horizon. The sight had long struck me as a blessing that doubled the joys of the day, and in memory it still provided me that, along with pleasures that my blindness now brought out in sharp relief, like the tang of the moss that hugged the rocks on the far shore and the velvet cool of the waters caressing my skin as I waded to shoulder-depth.
As the ripples smoothed I heard motion in the water and stirred with the fear known to any man who finds himself trapped and without defense, in absolute darkness. “Hello! Who’s there? Identify yourself!”
Jin answered from the water, so close that I jumped at the sound. “Forgive me, good sir. I did not intend to startle you. I was just paddling over to wish you the blessings of the day.”
I relaxed, though I retained enough of my prior fear to fuel annoyance. “Did you not see me coming? Did you not consider that a blind man might appreciate warning that he does not enter his bath alone?”
“Again, good sir, forgive me. I did see you making your way down the path. But I also observed that you wore a broad smile. I foolishly concluded that you had detected my presence here and were demonstrating good fellowship toward your humble guest. I similarly approached now with the same assumption in mind, intending only a friendly good morning. If the happy countenance I detected only reflected a soul at peace, I express regret at any damage I may have done to it.”
Sometimes we treated our anger as a polished jewel, too precious to be set aside. I retained mine for many long seconds before seeing it as a burden and letting it slip, unmourned, into the peace of the fine day. The last of it expressed itself with a grumpy, “For a man who makes eyes, you certainly have much to learn about the blind.”
“Forgive me. I have not often dealt with those fully blind. Almost all of my commissions in the golden country came from the sighted, who wished only to replace one eye with enhanced replacements of my manufacture.”
“Very well. Forgive me as well. These days I startle from the slightest rustle.”
“I can imagine,” he said, the water lapping about his chest as he made some kind of gesture in emphasis.
“Indeed, that is why I am now happy that I have encountered you. There are many dangers to fear in a place as peaceful as this one. The scourge was such a danger: unsuspected, unseen, merciless in the destruction it wrought, devastating in the suffering it caused. I do not suppose you can create an eye capable of seeing such a horror before it arrives.”
He chuckled. “Alas, sir, I cannot. If I could create an eye that could predict the whims of fate, I would place it in my own head, become a trader like yourself, and in months become the wealthiest man in all the kingdoms. But the caprices of the divine wind, whether good or ill, will always be beyond us. The facets captured by my manufactured eyes must exist, and the future is forever unborn.”
“A shame,” I said.
But he was not done: “The only horrors an eye of my manufacture could see are those that originate with Man.”
So my second choice was not to be either, but even as it was taken away another presented itself.
Somewhere nearby, water splashed as one of the small creatures who shared this blessed place dove in in search of its first morning meal. A firebird chirped the song its kind uses to greet the mid-morning sun. One of the servants stepped on gravel. The wind rustled and brought with it the not-unpleasant tang of the stables and their magnificent horses. Jin told a tale of his youth in the golden country, but my mind wandered elsewhere, to the tragedy of Hsan, a neighbor long dead.
Hsan had not been a wealthy man, but he had been a kindly one, by his very constitution more concerned with the well-being of others than with his own. Many a time he came upon someone destitute or starving and parted with his own meager savings or his last bowl of rice. He was considered by some to be a fool, but such a holy fool, in his way, that his neighbors saw to it that his coffers were replenished, his larder full. And yet Hsan had been taken advantage of often, robbed almost as much, and finally, one day, slain, his clothes stripped from his back, his coins stolen from his purse, his flesh rent with knife wounds.
Many were the other stories I knew of the trusting betrayed by the vile. I had always prided myself in my own ability to weigh the intentions of others, but I had become more vulnerable since the curtain of darkness had descended on me, and I knew I myself wasn’t immune to malice.
I must have remained silent long enough for the subject of my contemplation to grow obvious, because Jin coughed. “Good sir?”
I said, “Make me an eye capable of discerning the presence of evil.”
That night Li-Fan and I dined alone, once again leaving the maker of eyes to his own counsel; and following that we linked arms and strolled through the garden. Across the path we met two of our oldest servants, now off-duty and enjoying their own peaceful night under the stars. When they greeted us as their masters Li-Fan tittered and told them that as their work was done for the day, there was no need for such obsequiousness. She wished them a fine evening and they wished us the same. I said nothing.
We descended the dozen steps to a sunken grove that I had always regarded as a haven and there we sat, holding hands and enjoying the sound of mountain water as a pipe laid in our estate walls channeled onto a sculpture of polished stones.
After some time Li-Fan rested her head on my shoulder. “Something bothers you, my husband. It has been bothering you since we passed our retainers.”
I hated how petulant my next words sounded. “That... informality you showed with them. I am not certain it’s a wise idea.”
“They are not just servants to me, husband. They are friends. I do not possess the heart to speak to them any other way.”
I grumbled. “You are a kind-hearted woman.”
“I live in the way that gives me the most peace. If I lived as a suspicious, jealous witch, I would be wrapping myself in a cloak of unhappiness, and all the blessings of this life would be lost on me.”
But she was still disturbed. “Have they done anything to displease you?”
“No. This is just a blind man’s sullenness.”
But inwardly I was even more certain that I had given Jin the wisest possible instruction. It was wonderful to be married to such a trusting soul, so filled with kindness that she could not imagine any corruption existing in the hearts of others, but it was not hard to envision a moment when that quality would lead her to open our doors to thieves or murderers. Jin’s eye would make us safer.
Then she said, “Husband?”
She drew closer, and for one intense moment I could feel a tremble overtake her, communicated through her delicate hands to my bare skin.
“You would not have expressed such doubts of those honorable people before the arrival of the maker of eyes. I fear that you have decided to have yourself fitted with an eye that will eliminate uncertainty from matters of trust.”
I sighed. “I asked for one that could detect evil.”
It was a long time before she spoke again. “Would you then gaze upon me with that eye?”
Though I had not admitted it to myself, this shameful fantasy had been growing in me since first I learned that such an eye could be made.
She went on: “I know that you sometimes treat me like a paragon of virtue, less a real woman than your ideal image of one. But I am a creature of flesh of blood, as prone to weakness and corruption as any other. There were times during your fever when you were so hateful to me that I almost struck you down, to put us both out of your misery... And there are times when even my great love for you cannot dispel the anger I feel because of some trespass you commit without thinking. I have considered betraying you, in ways small and large, any number of times, and I have always decided that giving in to that impulse is not even close to being worth what I would have to lose. Would it make you any happier, to see that moment of passing weakness in the hearts of those who have then renewed their vows of loyalty to you? Would it make you feel any safer?”
I was forced to say, “No.”
“You are a kind and blessed man, and so I cannot blame you for not seeing the terrible danger in such a choice. But evil is around us at all times. It is in us at all times. Think of the worst impulses you have, all those momentary temptations toward callousness and cruelty that you entertain for a heartbeat before you banish them from your mind. They all come from inside you. Would you want me to be able to see them? Would you want to see them in me?”
Had I still been capable of tears, I might have wept. Instead I lowered my head and trembled, while she embraced me and wept in my stead, the two of us a closed room with an occupancy of one.
She whispered: “Will you tell him not to finish the eye?”
I shook my head. “No. There is another facet I would like to see.”
The morning was a time for going through my family’s accounts and balancing profits against losses. It was tedious and exacting work that a lesser man might have delegated to others, but a businessman who bleeds from a thousand tiny cuts will in time lose all treasuries. I had perceived a few places where our more distant enterprises might have been subject to embezzlement and a number where our charitable gifts threatened to become hemorrhages, when one of the servants entered to announce that Jin was at the door of the main house, requesting an audience.
I consented and the maker of eyes entered, cloth rustling softly as he crossed the room.
A blind man can tell much about the feelings of another even when that other lingers in wordless silence. Presently I sensed in Jin honorable respect for me, a commendable pride in his work, and the glow of recent accomplishment. He was not, I judged, a bad man. I could tell that with or without his eye.
At length I finished scratching in my ledger and addressed him: “You have completed your work?”
“Yes, good sir.”
“And you are prepared to set it in place?”
“Yes, good sir.”
“One question. What if I do not like it?”
“Then it may be removed, like any other prosthetic.”
“In that case, I very much look forward to gazing through it, if only for a few instants. But if you do not mind, I would prefer not to test it in this room. Will you accompany me to the tailor’s quarters?”
He gave his assent, and so we made our way to one of the estate’s smaller chambers, where in the days before the plague I had housed an artisan tasked with maintaining our formal wardrobe. His fitting room bore the estate’s only full-length mirror.
Realizing what I was up to, Jin positioned me at the correct angle before producing the orb I had commissioned. It fit into the abandoned socket with little ceremony, and when he stepped back I spent ten seconds gazing upon my own reflection.
I said, “Please remove it.”
“Is it not comfortable?”
My voice had acquired a strangled quality. “It is very painful. Remove it, now.”
He obliged, and blindness returned as a blessing.
On our way back to my chambers I moved like a man who had been punched in the stomach. Once we arrived, I drank half a bottle of rice wine before saying, “You do excellent work, my friend. When we are done here I shall see to it that you receive payment in full. You may dispose of the eye. I never wish to use it again.”
He said, “Was it faulty?”
“Not at all. In truth, I fear that I will not be able to shake the memory of what I saw for as long as I live.”
Jin said, “I have never experienced a dissatisfied customer before. Would you like me to produce another eye for you?”
“I considered that, my friend. But Li-Fan inspires trust and encourages wisdom, revealing the best heart of things. She is the only eye I need; a better eye, it turns out, than that which I deserve.”
Jin said, “Then perhaps another aspect?”
I leaned back. “I considered asking you to craft me an eye capable of seeing when I have acted like a fool, but again my wife sees this more clearly than any orb you could fashion.
“I also thought of asking you to craft an eye that could discern which of the things I want are things I should not have; but as it turns out, I can also rely on my wife for that perspective.
“Finally, I was tempted to ask you for eyes capable of seeing sunrises and sunsets, but I have already been blessed to see my share of those; and they, like most other things I would ever want to see, I can recall in all their infinite beauty from the days when I had sight.”
Jin’s voice became disbelieving. “Aren’t you even interested in painted prosthetics, for cosmetic purposes?”
“My dear Jin: to belabor the obvious, I am a man without eyes. Painted prosthetics would deny the truth of my condition and fool no one. I have no need for your wares. I can only express my sincere thanks to you for making the honorable attempt, and wish you the best of health and prosperity in your journey.”
Jin was silent for so long that I found myself wondering whether he had departed without my detecting it, but then the cloth of his garment rustled and I knew that he was still in the room with me, his kit still at his side, his miraculous craft unequal to the task of bridging the distance between us.
After that, all that remained was the settling of accounts.
Jin left our home twenty minutes later, and in all the years since, I have not heard any news of his further travels.
It has been two decades since the maker of eyes came to us, and life has proceeded with the calm of a boat idling on a tame river. Word reaches us of another outbreak of the scourge, perhaps the last embers of the old one, ravaging one of the empire’s most distant outposts to the north. We have sent generous alms to the region, to aid as best as we can. In the meantime our own enterprises continue to prosper, so much that the Emperor has bestowed upon us courtly titles.
I direct our accounts and accept our visitors and am generous to our servants and drift from our beautiful home to our well-tended garden and back, living a blessed life, wrapped in the happiness that makes small inconveniences of my wife’s fragility and my own darkness.
From time to time she still asks me what I saw when I used Jin’s eye to peer at myself in the mirror. I tell her I saw the small flickering flame of my soul, being simultaneously fanned by a smiling benevolent god and choked by a noxious baneful demon. I tell her I had asked to perceive the alchemical nature of reality, and that the vision of these two forces competing for my soul overwhelmed me. Knowing that if I peered at their swirling ghostly figures for even one more instant I’d become a lifelong slave to elixirs and talismans and magic herbs, a man obsessed with obeisance and invocations, I removed the eye at once, and now tell myself it was but a dream.
This is a lie.
What I had asked to see was the interconnectedness of all life. And the paradox of appreciating my insignificance in the cosmic scheme while also perceiving my incredible impact on the overall design nearly broke my spirit. We speak casually of the whims of fate, but we do not feel them inside our chest as I did for those terrifying moments. I have never been hungry. I have never been desperate. And I saw that these are not character achievements but merely accidents of cause and effect. Life has spun a comforting cocoon around me, creating deceptive beauty in much the same way that nature creates pearls from the irritant in the mouth of the oyster. Yet all might have been profoundly different but for the merest alteration in the beat of nature’s heart. The cocoon around me is as thin as a geometer’s imaginary line, as light as spider’s silk; it may unravel at any moment, revealing a vast gulf beyond.
At the same time, I have unwittingly helped nature weave countless other such cocoons around other souls, and simultaneously facilitated the fall of numberless others into the abyss. How can one small human mind encompass the vastness of such endless buoyant shifts and plummeting vicissitudes? How can one strand of spume in a wave’s froth grasp the entirety of the ocean?
I am as fortunate a man as any who lived. I spend my days with the woman I adore, and at night we repair to the bed that is the heart of our home, where we make sweet love with a passion that might seem surprising for two so damaged. She tells me she loves me and I respond that I love her. We shudder and we collapse together and we thank the gods for the blessings we have.
But I also know how fragile this all is, and so, for as long as I live, I shall always feel fortunate that a man without eyes has lost not just sight but the capacity to weep.