My visitor gazes at our family bookshelves.
I perceive right away that this is less the helpless bibliophile’s habit of scanning the titles of any shelf encountered in the wild, than an exercise in measuring me, of finding the best means of approach.
We are in the family living room, a welcoming space with, among other things, three double bookcases. It is not an extraordinary book collection to find in the home of people who read, only a few hundred volumes without counting those in the bedrooms and attic; but they have in the past been more than enough to impress visitors of the sort who are stunned that anybody would have so many.
Who’s the reader in your family? You?
More than one, I say. My wife and I. It’s too early to tell with the kids.
(I have already told him that my son is three, my daughter one.)
He says, most kids don’t pick up the habit these days.
I say, nope.
Regardless, you still want every advantage for them.
The stipend we offer.
What follows is a moment of silence. I haven’t been keeping up my end of the conversation, really. It’s hard to keep up my half, when I’m so distracted by the object he has placed on the coffee table.
He follows my gaze to the object and then looks back up at me, smiling.
It is a friendly smile.
As a reader, he says, you will understand this. If you read fiction in particular, you will forever encounter sentences where the author bypasses the necessity of demonstrating character through behavior and instead applies adjectives to eyes. One man has angry eyes. Another has eyes that speak of a great personal tragedy. The eyes of a third are wells of bottomless grief. People have cruel eyes, kind eyes, dull eyes, bright eyes, cautious eyes, laughing eyes, deadly-serious eyes. It never ends. Honestly, this is ridiculous. if you got all your understanding of the human face from prose, you would think that the eyes were the wellspring of human expression: and yet none of this is even remotely true. Aside from the effect passions of various kinds have on the current size of the pupils, the eyes betray no emotions at all; they are an unchanging element provided different context by the facial features around them. The angle of the eyebrows. The narrowing of the eyelids. The changing architecture of the cheeks and of the mouth. These all provide the punctuation that gives meaning to the eyes, which are only wet apertures. Don’t you think?
I tell him I don’t know.
He says, then test the premise. What can you tell of the eye on the table between us?
This is a ridiculous hour. The view through the windows is of absolute darkness, undisturbed even by streetlights. The house has an unnatural stillness, absent the sense of life that fills a home even when everyone is sleeping. I am aware that my wife and my kids are upstairs, asleep. But I also know that she will not wake, and that they will not wake, even if this negotiation grows heated. She is not meant to wake. I know this with certainty even if I have not questioned it. Whatever this is about, it is only for me.
My visitor is not a demon bargaining for my soul. He appears to be just a man, a polite and professionally charming man, like a time share salesman. But we all negotiate with the devil from time to time. We all make deals. I will take this job I hate, instead of the one I want, in order to get the benefits. I will borrow these five hundred dollars, with heavy interest I can’t afford, just to fund my expenses until payday. I will agree to wear this uniform and carry this weapon in a war I don’t understand, because it’s the one way I know to get a college education. The devil exists, and he is everywhere even if he is not a devil, for the true definition of a devil is that he never offers you a bad deal. He always offers something you want.
Nothing about him is obnoxious, not even his request that we meet at this hour of the night, which once struck me as cruel imposition but which, in the atmosphere he’s ushered in, seems perfect for frank discussion centering on matters of gravity.
Now the eye sits on the table between us. It is a perfect little shiny orb, with a bright green iris and a minimal tracing of hairline blood vessels, trailed by a nerve bundle. It is a perfectly healthy human eye, not gory at all, and certainly not dead, because even though it is wholly encased in a clear transparent block of some material like glass or crystal, it has nevertheless been twitching back and forth to register our movements. It lives, and the only thing about it that is out of the ordinary is that it is not in anyone’s head.
It’s a tough question, isn’t it? Well, let me demonstrate my point. Looking at this eye, can you tell me anything about the person it came from?
I reply, so you are saying it did come from a person.
I should have specified. Yes. It is not a stunning exercise in glass sculpture. It came from a person. A living person. Or I should say, a person who was living at the specific moment we obtained it. One who might still be alive and walking the streets, or, given the current hour, sleeping in bed. Or one who might have died in the time since. There’s no way of knowing. People are always falling to happenstance. But if so, my organization had nothing to do with it. The eye was not taken by force; its owner received full compensation for the organ’s removal. But yes, it came from a person. What can you discern by close examination?
I say that it must have come from someone poor.
Because they were desperate enough to sell you an eye.
A reasonable proposition.
Am I right?
I have no way of knowing. I don’t look at the bios. The donor might have been rich or poor, young or old, male or female. But I must tell you that the transaction did not necessarily involve cash. It could have involved something that could not be obtained in any other way. Whether that involved career opportunity, legal assistance, or opportunities for personal fulfillment that could only be only be obtained with this specific payment is immaterial; it varies from person to person. What else do you see?
Do you discern anything about its original owner’s character, just by looking at it? Do you perceive courage? Nobility? Capriciousness? Place this eye against its partner, allow them a matched gaze, and do you possess enough information to call them wise?
He watches me with undisguised amusement—yes, if I were writing an account of this conversation, I would call those eyes of his “merry.”
I tell him I don’t know.
He says, you now see the primary difference between the nature of an eye in real life, and its counterparts in prose. An eye possesses no character, really. What we are really seeing when I look at an eye that has been removed from its face, absent all other context, is a simple sphere filled with fluid, one that only seems to express emotion when provided context by the rest of the face. To the extent it has any expression at all, that expression is only an empty stare.
What would you say if I told you that this eye belonged to a dedicated scientist working on a cure for cancer?
We are in the realm of the hypothetical.
I could say that it belongs to a living saint. Somebody who has dedicated her life to helping orphaned children. Somebody who has fought to feed the underprivileged. Or just a person of more common decency, a good neighbor, a loyal friend: someone who exerts herself in the direction of kindness and understanding.
But you couldn’t tell. Or at least you couldn’t discern it by looking at the eye.
No, I guess not.
Nor could you tell if it belonged to a human monster. Somebody who kidnapped runaway teenagers and locked them up in his basement to serve his depraved needs, for decades at a time. Somebody who brought an automatic rifle into a classroom. Somebody who wrote and distributed white-supremacist propaganda.
The convenient assumption so common in popular fiction is wrong. Nothing about the human soul is visible in the eye. Even the whole face is not necessarily informative. Osama bin Laden looked like someone’s kindly uncle, Ted Bundy like a fellow who could be trusted when he asked strange women to help load unwieldy objects into his van. The eye is not kind, it is not wise, it is not cruel, it is not penetrating. It is just an eye. All right?
I get it.
Are you sure you do? Because this is important.
I get it.
Furthering the point, you cannot discern the donor’s gender. Their nationality. Their race, well, you can make an educated guess, but not all people with green eyes are white and my organization has catalogued a few, unusual to be sure, sub-populations that would not be among your first guess. It is key to the nature of this enterprise that the eye is alive and even possesses awareness, but its stare is neutral and cannot convey even the most general information.
I don’t even understand how it can be aware.
He shrugs. If we can keep a disembodied eye alive inside a clear transparent block, we can preserve enough consciousness in the nerve bundle to provide it with the sentience it needs to understand what it’s looking at and to retain some memory of its prior life. None of this is enough to render it a sparkling personality. But yes, it can see you. It can even generate its own opinions of any conduct it witnesses. It just can’t affect its environment in any substantive way. It will not dispense prophecies or report back to our headquarters. It is an eye, and it is only an eye. Are we clear on this?
I tell him we’re clear.
He asks for a refill on his water. I ask him if he also wants ice. He says, please. I rush to the kitchen, fill his glass from the dispenser on the refrigerator and return, whereupon he sips.
And then he says,
If we come to terms, you will need to decide whether you want this specific eye.
Once in your house, it will function as a kind of paperweight. Most visitors will not examine it long enough to establish that, within its clear prison, it still sees. But they will perceive it as a decorative object, and certainly as an interesting one. It won’t do to have it clash with the décor. You may, if it matters, choose another eye from my case. In addition to this emerald beauty, I have eyes in various shades of blue, hazel, brown, gray, and a shade so light that it disappears against the sclera. The only requirement is that you keep it in some prominent location around your home, some place where it can be seen by visitors, and where you will also encounter it regularly as you go about your day.
I tell him that green is fine. And it is. For all my life I have possessed an attraction to bright green eyes. Fate has given me a wife beautiful in her other features who nevertheless possesses eyes of the dullest possible gray; they do not spoil my attraction to her, but there is no reason to not indulge myself on this one tiny thing.
It’s not unfaithfulness, really.
It’s not like I’d be having sex with the eye.
Similarly, my visitor says, you will see to it that it has a clear line of sight. We have had squeamish clients, repelled by the eye in their possession, who put it at the bottom of a drawer, or beneath a concealing dustcover, or in some other location designed to hide it. They have positioned it on bookcases facing inward, so that all it saw, for all the time it stayed, it could only stare at the featureless back of a shelf. This is a moral issue, sir. We have no expectation of you going to extreme lengths to entertain your eye, but you should also not maliciously deprive it. If you do, it will die, and your monthly stipend will cease. Is this clear?
I tell him I understand.
And green is acceptable?
Yes. I admit to liking it.
Very well. Let me point out something else: this little depression at the rear of the case, just behind the nerve bundle. It is a button, sir. You can press it if you wish, but we advise not. Honestly, you should handle the eye as sparingly as possible, to avoid pushing the button even by accident. A light dusting of the case, once every couple of weeks, is more than sufficient.
And it goes without saying that it should be displayed somewhere well out of the reach of your children. The case is a life support system. Break it, and you kill the eye, a conscious living being. This is a moral issue.
I think we have a deal. Unless you have any questions?
I glance down at the eye, which flickers upward to match gazes with me. What the man has said is true; I honestly cannot tell anything about it, not whether it came from someone kind or cruel, not whether it came from someone smart or stupid. It is an eye, and though I have already assigned it the feminine gender and mentally constructed an Asian woman with long and glossy black hair, it might have just as easily come from some repulsive troll of a white guy, and it does not matter. The thought comes up, as it has multiple times in this short conversation. It is an eye.
I ask him: what’s the point?
And he shows his teeth and for the first time in our meeting I think that maybe I am wrong, that maybe he is the devil, after all.
He says, May I here return to your experience as a reader of books?
When you look for something to read, do you pick up a book, caring only that it’s a book? Or do you think of it as just the medium for the content that interests you? The genre you like, the author you’ve enjoyed before? You may care for the book itself as an object, if it’s a premium edition, but your main interest is in the meaning it communicates. Correct?
But you might also possess a volume in a language you don’t read, and may not learn; one you keep in your collection only because it is inherently beautiful.
I do indeed possess a couple of volumes like that, that my wife picked up in an antique shop in Spain. One of them is Cervantes, in Catalan. I cannot read it. Nor is Don Quixote one of the classics I have read. But the book is a beautiful object, and it does not matter to me that I cannot read it.
I say, yes.
Well, then, I advise you to treat the eye as an object of the same sort: an artifact that does absolutely possess its own meaning, where that meaning is still nothing you are obligated to explore.
That’s no answer.
You will be better off.
It’s not enough.
And here he sighs, as if the very necessity of proceeding any further depresses and ages him.
What my organization cares about, what we have labored so hard to preserve, is not the vitreous artifact, but the sights that these eyes have witnessed. We have preserved these treasures within the preserved tissue. It will forever witness, and forever replay, one sight chosen from among all the others that that have ever passed before its gaze, in all the years of its donor’s life. It will know no respite, not ever; whatever distraction you provide, just by living your own daily existence in its field of vision, will provide it the only consolation.
I don’t underst—
They are evil sights, sir.
(I am silent.)
You do not need to be disturbed, personally, by what your eye once saw, and now continues to see. It cannot share the imagery with you. But you can know its general character. Once upon a time, the individual who sold us this eye, like any other individual who ever sold us an eye, did something of almost unimaginable depravity. It is something different for each eye, but it could be that the donor stole things that belonged to others, that they inflicted pain out of deliberate meanness, that they raped or murdered, that they rampaged or slaughtered; that they ripped beauty from the world, or spent their days destroying what happiness they found in others. Our collection runs the gamut from verbal cruelty to genocide. What my organization has done is preserve these moments, as they looked to the people who perpetrated them, whether they beheld their own viciousness with shame or with joy; whether they suffered a moment of absolute madness or one of complete sociopathy. What is important, from your point of view, is that these sights cannot be accessed by you, and that you cannot entertain what would ordinarily be the almost unimaginable temptation to see. To you, it need only be a closed book. You may leave it at that.
I glance again at the eye, which of course glances back, and I of course cannot see the cruelty that may have been visible in the surrounding features, but there is a moment when I am willing myself to perceive fury or sadism, to hear screams in its past existence.
Unless, he says, you find that you can no longer bear the mystery, and press the button that I warned you about. In such a case you will see the evil act under discussion. The memories will play out, briefly, like a movie, in your own head. If you cannot live with this, then do not press the button. If you don’t wish to brave the temptation, there is no obligation to complete our arrangement. You may keep the incentive payment, and I will take the eye with me as I leave.
But of course, his organization has offered me enough money, in exchange for stewardship of the eye, that the prospect of giving it up is anathema. I cannot deprive my wife, or my children; or myself. I cannot forego the improvement in our circumstances that such an infusion of cash will make possible. The largesse is already spent, in my head.
I tell my visitor no, that I will keep the eye, that I will put it on a high shelf that will afford it a nice panoramic view of the home it has entered, but where it will go unnoticed most of the time, and where the prospect of seeing what it sees will not be a constant pull.
He produces forms. I read them. They are not a tangle of legalese. The terms are quite simple. I sign at the x and take possession. We make financial arrangements. I look forward to receiving the first check, in about ten days; substantial money.
He gets up and heads for the door, but just as he reaches the vestibule, I of course give in to a temptation just as toxic as the one he has warned me about, and ask the obvious question. What’s the point of all this, anyway? What do you get out of it?
He smiles, and the smile is not that of a devil, but of man: of a certain kind of man, of which there are far too many, wandering around in the world we all know. His teeth are white and for an instant I see the tip of his tongue flicker at the incisors.
Every time you see the eye, you will, for less than a heartbeat, wonder what it sees, you will contemplate the worst. You will picture horrors. Atrocities. You will imagine things that you never would have thought yourself capable of picturing. It will be a sting every time, and this will get worse and worse, until you can no longer bear the pressure of not knowing. The more you resist, the worse it will get. It might never grow terrible enough to consume you. But you will never be free of it, not for as long as the eye sits in plain sight. Some people make it less than a year; others last a lifetime. But none are ever free. Just by hinting at the terrible, the eye forever owns them. The organization I represent is made up of people who find this amusing. It’s a game to us. We take bets. Does that answer your question?
I tell him he’s wasting his time with me, that I’ll never push the button, that I’m made of stronger stuff than he can possibly imagine.
Quite possible, he says. If so, I congratulate you. Because that makes you a fortunate man.
But then he lingers for one last moment, at the doorway.
Because the sight this eye sees is one that a man like you could never stand.
Good luck resisting the temptation.
The door closes with a click. I feel the subtle shift of atmosphere that is the difference between a house under siege and one where the threat has left, but it is not as definitive a transformation as it needs to be. I can tell the shift is permanent, and I tell myself that it doesn’t matter—that I will still sleep well, and that my family will still thrive.
But I hesitate just a bit before I head for the stairs.