At first it was crude blinders, but these only made them more alert and skittish, like some intelligent horses. Then it was fitted blindfolds, but these were easily removed or adjusted, sometimes with our complicity. Years passed without the safeguard we sought. We still incited them. Then, the stitching, still practiced in the bush, but impermanent and undependable because stitches can be torn out, and were. Not often, and only with great difficulty because the tender skin of the eyelid and cheek grafts almost seamlessly over time, leaving no more than a rude facsimile of a lid; the remaining shreds are a nasty job to sew back together, as I learned long ago. We have seen the confusion unto madness that can ensue after vision is delivered to a creature who has never seen, and even to those to whom vision, such as it is, is restored after charlatan slicing and tearing. Blindness is welcome after this. So, now it is a sacrament, our modest solution, our insight. No longer the burka or the scarves, no longer the harem or the mechitzah. No longer the disposition of an entire world along lines of sight. No more pitiful problems with self-control, not theirs anyway. No longer the inordinate weight of responsibility upon an unruly wisp of hair or the suggestion of a bottomly shape or the hinting motion of that shape through the parting air. No wisps, no shapes, no undulation to detect. Simple. Is this not the freedom they desired? The morning’s amber road. Motions of the dipping birds.
It began with a holy man or two, ascetic, but never ascetic enough. It would purify them, maybe make them superior, more powerful, at least garner them more disciples, or only the most faithful and most disciplined. It did not take many to light a way. Not a way that throngs would follow immediately, but a way that pointed toward a possibility. At that time, the land was weary of the wars and the threats. Mothers pretended to be proud of their sons; perhaps some of them actually were. But most were afraid of sending them to be soldiers, afraid they would not return, afraid of their mutilation on battlefields, if crevasses and canyons and alleys and sidewalks can be called battlefields. In those days the cities were full of mutilated young soldiers. The absence of organs and limbs filled the air. Some of the young men, with the encouragement of their mothers, and even their wives and paramours, came to seek one kind of mutilation to avoid another. And with it, they gained reverence and a new calling. They would give their lives to prayer, for the rest of us. This would be their sacrifice, elevating themselves and all of us. Their submission allowed them to live what they professed, and furnished us with freedom—and safety from their instincts and incitements. They had long been given to some devotion, but many had looked outward, making mischief with their machinations in our country and beyond; they were imperiling adventurers, indistinguishable from their enemies. Gradually they turned, and we turned them, inward, until they concerned themselves only as far as they can reach and touch. Mind you, there were not many at first, but these were like a smoldering fire. Their Illuminations prepared the way. It is the farsighted way forward, the only way. The angle of a landscape.
Over the hard days and years, as they did battle with each other and with the world outside, the business of the land fell into our hands. At first we held on to it, and then we seized it, more hungrily than we or anyone had anticipated. We exalted them as they submitted, and they seemed grateful and did not see what was coming. After a time, resistance was rare and futile. As more gave themselves to Illumination, it became more peaceful, here and in the world. Occasional resistors could no longer muster unIlluminated allies and were easily overwhelmed, and over time it was done, to all of them. They are remarkably resourceful, but fatally weak and overmatched in daylight. To some, abroad, it seemed cruel. Another mutilation, not a blessing. But were outsiders going to make a war over it? No, there had never been a war against the insults upon our invisibilities. Against our mutilations. And there was that peace. Anyway, the men accepted it. Many said they were weary of being at the mercy of their eyes. They grew accustomed to the dark. It gave them a sort of honor and purity and respect, even as it solved their problems and ours. A bough of apples held slanting in the sky.
This will be my last Illumination. I was practically a child for my first one, newly apprenticed to the Illuminator. I was more fascinated than fearful. Women are pearls, men said, and so must remain infinitely perfect. It turns out that eyes are like pearls with swirls of blue and brown and black. Some had advocated for castration, but better sense prevailed and left it a last resort, rarely necessary. No country of eunuchs, ours. Enucleation, like castration, entailed the cutting out of two round things, and also supplied docility, while leaving us in control of reproduction and satisfaction. Even then, in the cities, it was accomplished the modern way: anesthetizing sleep and analgesics. Ether and clean sharp blades are the tools of the trade. Now as then, in the ritual of Illumination, the last thing they ever see is their mother’s face, then a holy book fanned open above them. They close their eyes, sleep, and wake to utter blackness. A rocking yellow moon that holds a white star in its horn.
My first Illumination was an older man, newly converted and tamed, with the conviction of the convert, but also with fear. I felt a little sorry for him, despite my own fresh fervor. It was in the days when they had not all been done yet, and we were busy all day with the blades. For a long time, after all the older ones were done, the age of Illumination was nine. It was thought better to give them years to learn the holy books by heart, to orient themselves to their world and find their way in it, to carry with them memories of sight. But it was hard, it must be said, on the mothers, and it was gradually discovered that, with dedication, it is possible to memorize the holy books and learn what one must even by six, so the year of Illumination receded over decades. Eventually, we saw that even a child illuminated in his first year could perform feats of adaptation and learn the books by heart through listening and reciting, not even reading. Now we have only the infants, at the time of circumcision. Early enucleation, we see, is preferable in many regards for creating total devotion to their tasks and for heightening other perceptions. As to learning their way about, there seem few impediments, really. We order their world with precision to fit their needs, in their own places and in those where we wish to welcome them. They move easily in their allotted spheres and require our guidance outside them. They are obedient, concerned mostly with loftier things than can be seen. They are content. And why shouldn’t they be? We provide for their needs. We concur with the speculation of philosophers and the observations of scientists over centuries: their other senses grow more penetrating—the earlier their Illumination, the sharper and more graceful. They smell us and each other and their domain to an astonishing radius. Their skin is attuned to atmospheric changes with the barest wafting of air on their faces. They hear and remember everything. Some make music; some retain and tell tales, where there is room beside the holy books. Their voices are profound with resonance and nuance; their tongues discriminate cunningly. Their palms balance and weigh as accurately as the most delicate scales. The seat of their souls is at their fingers’ ends, as the philosopher of the Enlightenment says. Their touch detects every feature within reach. They evolve; their arms grow longer. They also serve; they are useful lovers. Their exquisitely sensitive hands and digits discern and respond, just so. And their other organs work at our summons. They are become like cows who provide us with milk; we stroke them for pleasure or procreation, as we wish. It is not that we do not love them. We do. It is better, for everyone. A fence of maize, stretching to the end of the world.
Now, it spreads. We venture abroad freely, to study, to sightsee, to teach. We wear what we wish abroad and at home, where modesty is moot. When I did my studies for many years in another country, I learned that I liked being looked over, at first. I wanted to be noticed, and also to feel safe. Perhaps we are an incitement, everywhere, as the holy men of my country preach, because, in fact, I did not really feel safe, outside of the most intimate settings with men I had vetted. They often were not lovers equal to the men at home, but I was fond of them. A doe-eyed one advised me that even in his country we would be stunned to know how little we saw, how blind we were to what might lurk behind the most casual and benign of their glances or gazes, at almost any moment. We look, too, of course, but with less risk to others. Most of us return home, well-travelled, well-mannered, well-educated. These days, I voyage only on invitation, to disseminate our accumulating wisdom: incite, insight, unsight, my own little verses. More often, others come to us to look. It diffuses quickly to other nations. The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind. Let them be. It starts with the volunteer faithful, as it began with us. It is an odd confederacy, some outsiders say, this alliance between feminism and fundamentalism. Perhaps we are strange bedfellows. But isn’t every congress of bedfellows odd in its own way, each party writhing for comforts and striving to achieve its own satisfactory outcomes? Regardless, Illumination disperses to even the most unlikely lands, where devotion takes a different shape and posture, but with ardor and vexations that are universal, and with a universal solution to ensure that they practice what they preach: the salafi, the haredim, celibate priests and prelates, and even now the evangelical. The evening like an angel in golden armor marching down the steeps.
But, my final Illumination. I am asked to confess, and I do confess, of my own free will. Last night, the Grand Illuminator herself, she whom I am—or was—to succeed, came to tell me it had been discovered and it must be done and I must do it. Her face, almost seraphic, was careworn, as are faces long weighted by oversight and responsibility for so many. She spoke kindly and firmly, one mother to another, about me and my son, the surprising son of my age, my fawn-eyed son who brought me laughter like Sarah’s, and whom I have sheltered furtively and with anxiety. Apparently, I did not teach caution enough. Or perhaps their drives, or our incitements, as they like to believe, overcome all caution and compunction. They are easily propelled helplessly and recklessly, and so, despite some genuine virtues, are ultimately dangerous to the commonweal. As perhaps I have been. My son was unruly, unable to resist what he had seen all his life, even he who had lived hidden in plain sight, with girls, in the raiment of girls, knowing what he should show and not show and when and where. It was too much to ask of him. It was my own weakness and my wish that he take in the whole world as I see it, and as his father sees it in another country, in a city of spires. I am not the first. Every mother feels it once a child is in her arms. A few smuggle infant sons through mountain passes and over desolate frontiers, or try to. I thought to take him to his father, but I could not make myself part with him soon enough. Some who give birth abroad remain there to raise their sons. It seldom works. Those sons have been known to put their own eyes out when they reach a certain age. It surprises many strangers how readily our mothers and sons return. We are, for the most part, true to our convictions. It is better than giving them to war, as in the old days not so long ago. Better than the hazards to ourselves and to all our children from their undisciplined nature. Better for us, better for the world, better for them, as they learn. Wind in violets.
His father said living is easy with eyes closed. He said this with a wink, as we bantered. And it is easy, or, at least, far easier. We all know this. We have proven it, as our son will now see. His father half-teased that he would recruit me to incite revolution. In his fantasy, I would be a mole planted to carry out opposition. He asked me why I pored over the poems of a lonely spinster; he urged me to put down those mysterious poems and to ponder, instead, the stories of utopias and their distortion. To no avail. This is not a tale of insurrection, no anti-utopian revolt in the desert. I flinched. No more. My own little mother’s rebellion, I suppose, but I do not desire greater sedition for myself or for others. Ours is a story of tranquility in a country where things are better. Not yet impeccable or consummate, but we are steadily smoothing toward something round and infinitely perfect, like a pearl. Little workmanships in crayon, or in wool.
She offered to send him away. Half breed. Father abroad. Really, though, because she is a mother. But he told her he wished to remain and to be entirely himself at last, a man among men. I read my sentence—steadily—reviewed it with my eyes, to see that I made no mistake in its extremest clause—the date and manner. And there, the matter ends.
The glint of what my son saw will live in my heart, but I adhere to my belief. He will remember what I have shown him. Whether that will be blessing or curse, I cannot foresee. The last thing he will see is my face and the waving pages of the holy books to which he will give his keening ears. I will wield the tools, decisively as any surgeon. It will be done. He will wake to darkness and illumination. Stintless stars.
Terry Eicher is the author of the chapbook Uses of the Baobab (2015), a long poem that won the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Competition. His poetry and prose have appeared in Kenyon Review, Narrative (first prize in the Story Contest), Southwest Review (winner of the Marr Poetry Prize), Subtropics, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. Eicher’s translation of Léopold Senghor’s seminal essay on the poetics of Negritude appears in the latest issue of New England Review. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut. (updated 6/2022)