My cell phone started ringing again at 3 in the morning. Which is not all that unusual given my schedule lately: I’ve been going to sleep somewhere around 3 or 4 in the morning. But I didn’t answer. I reached down, switched the phone to mute, and kept on reading, even though the lines and the words were swimming in front of me. My eyes have been feeling really tired, I’ve been suffering from excessive eyestrain. Which is not all that surprising seeing how as I’ve been using them to see things with for 25 years of my life. And I’m not counting those first few years, because that’s when you’re learning to see everything around you, to focus your eyes, to really look at stuff. But I don’t get why those doctors are always telling you, you have to rest your eyes but how the hell can I? What with reading, and watching TV, and working on my laptop, not to mention that I’m always staring at people in the streets, people stuck in traffic, or on buses or whatever. There’s so damn much to look at. For sure, in previous generations, you know who I’m talking about, when people didn’t have much life expectancy, they were already elderly at 40. And when they died, their eyes were in great shape, they never suffered a day of eyestrain in their entire lives. How could their eyes get tired when the only things they ever looked at were the leaves of trees, the earth, the moon (not the sun, obviously), the stars, fire, firewood, or rats, or moths, or the swollen udders of the cows they were milking, or the pork kidneys they were cooking up with mushrooms and onions…? Who was that scientist, the one who went nearly blind after trying to study the Sun through the telescope he’d just built? Galileo, wasn’t it? Talk about eyestrain…! There’s only a small handful of people in his class, the demented geniuses, the intense obsessive researchers who went blind or lost their sight through absent-mindedness or just because of pure and simple exhaustion. And what about the scribes. Or the truly dedicated readers. The pirates. The warriors. The abused mothers or daughters. Special cases, all of them. Who all suffered from…from special kinds of eyestrain. But not ordinary people, not the rest of us. Unless –
Unless maybe there was a rare disease – a virus of some kind, or one of those parasites that slowly suck the life-force from inside you and implacably consume every one of your internal organs, always saving the brain for last. The brain and the eyes. (Are brains really tastier? George Romero thought so in ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and so has every other zombie-obsessed filmmaker or writer ever since but…are they, really? Or could some other body part be that truly gourmet delicacy which obsessed cannibalistic foodies will spend years searching for?) Unless –
Unless the disease was more widespread, an epidemic, in all those houses with no soap and no personal hygiene, all those beds that never get cleaned, the sheets never ironed. Breeding grounds for weird mutant alien viruses. And think of all that dirt, the unwashed hands of poor working men and women, the unclean hands of slaves or indentured servants. With those conditions it’s no wonder that the plague – this unstoppable lethal pestilence – starts literally eating away at your very flesh, little by little, consuming every part of you and finally reaching the muscles and tendons of your eyes, and the surrounding layers of flesh and sinew. Leaving you not just with unimaginably horrible eyestrain, but literally with no eyes at all…unless –
Unless you were abandoned, alone, in the middle of the night, smack dab in the middle of the largest wooded area of the entire region, a place where a band of crows – no, not a band, not a tribe, what’s the word? Yes…a “murder”! A Murder of Crows! are congregating – and they swoop down, attacking you in savage avian waves, like the remake of that Hitchcock film, and they literally pluck and rip your eyes from their sockets. Or unless –
Unless you happened to be downtown, leaving a bar or whatever, and you stumble across some violent drunk, in the middle of a dark, abandoned street or alley (and weren’t they all dark and abandoned back then?), and he just slides the tip of his razor-sharp knife into your eye by mistake (it’s always a mistake), it was an accident, I swear to God, an honest accident! Or unless –
Unless you run across an angry and misunderstood artist, a Caravaggio, fleeing down the main thoroughfares, running hell-for-leather to escape from his vengeful pursuers, you don’t see him coming till it’s too late and he shoves you out of his way and you stumble and fall head-first and face-first and eyes-first directly into a small mound of hardened brittle straw whose needle-sharp points pierce your cheeks, your lips and your eyes, blinding you.
That’s what I would call eyestrain. And –
My cell phone starts ringing again, distracting me from these all-too-vivid and too visual images in my mind’s eye (or maybe they’re not in my mind’s eye…but in my eye’s mind? do eyes have their own minds? do they operate independently from the rest of us? is that why I can’t control the scary images which sometimes come to me, at 4 in the morning, after drinking too much Absinthe? Or too much of that new, cheap brand of mezcal, the only one I can afford, ‘Los 400 Ciegos’, the Four Hundred Blind men? No, Adriana, I tell myself, don’t let yourself go there) –
The phone is still ringing.
I grab for it but I miss it. I can’t seem to see where it is … I can’t seem to see much of anything right now, but somehow my blind, fumbling fingers find the small vibrating mass of metal and plastic and electronics (vibrating the same way those microscopic worms do, the ones which eat your eyes in the final phase of the ocular virus) –
I answer it: ‘Hello! Who’s there?’
There’s no answer. I blink my eyes rapidly, fighting tears, trying to see the world around me again, the world I’ve always taken for granted, my office, the pile of dirty clothes, the half-filled ashtray, the empty bottle of 400 Ciegos, the last drops in the glass next to my laptop – the world I would literally give my right arm, right now, to see, just to glimpse, once more.
‘Who is this? Don’t play games with me! Or I swear, I’ll–
The stranger’s voice is cold and gravelly as –
‘Don’t get cute with us, babe. We’ll be there in an hour for the money you owe us. And you better have all of it or…’ (and you can almost hear the evil smile in his voice) ‘…we’ll cut your eyes out.’
I’m frozen. The blood in my veins has turned to ice water. I’m not breathing, I’m an eskimo, a zombie, I can barely form my lips and mouth into the words –
The goddamn faceless stranger on the other end of the line is laughing at me. And this time, when he speaks, I recognize his voice, his unmistakeable accent—
‘Hahahahaha, I’m joking, Adri. Don’t have a fucking heart attack.’
My heart is beating again, and something else is happening, little by little, the impossible thing I wanted more than anything else: objects are coming into focus…the world is reappearing around me.
‘Miguel Angel? Is that you?’
He’s still laughing. My room is coming into sharp relief. I can see everything now. The stack of unpaid bills. The half-empty containers from Hara-Kiri, my favorite Japanese takeout. The tightly rolled dollar bill….which I sometimes use as a telescope for watching ants through. The old clock, which I inherited from my crazy aunt, the one which supposedly stopped on the day she died. And last but definitely not least, my unfinished glass of 400 Ciegos.
‘Of course it’s me. I’m calling cause we’re having a little emergency. The guy who was writing the front page story, Vincent, he’s in the hospital…’
I need a drink. I lift the glass, raise it to my lips. And freeze. Something small and round is bobbing in the clear liquid…something that looks suspiciously like…. No. It can’t be….
Miguel Angel continues, totally clueless, like most of the editors I’ve worked for: ‘Vincent got attacked outside of a bar, some drunk with a knife who cut out his – hey are you still there?’
‘I’m still here’, I tell him. The tiny eyeball stares up at me.
‘So, we need another story. And we need it now.’
I raise the glass to my lips and chug it all down in one swallow, mezcal, 400 Ciegos, eyeball and all. I bite down on that small round globe. It tastes exactly like one of those olives, stuffed with gorgonzola. I’m smiling.
‘Okay, Michelangelo,’ I tell him. ‘Any particular theme?’
A long beat. The silence is broken by…a sound I’ve never heard before. It’s my aunt’s clock. It’s ticking again. Tick. Tick. Tick.
‘Can you write me a story which starts with a phone call at 3 in the morning?’
Texto de Adriana Degetau
Traducción de Miguel Tejada-Flores