3:6: “The Senses Pentaptych”, by E. L. Chen

3:6: “The Senses Pentaptych”, by E. L. Chen

1. In the Land of the Blind

The one-eyed man is crazy. His countrymen all have two eyes, but he can tell by touching them with his one eye that they do not touch the things he touches. His countrymen’s eyes sit slack and still, uninterested in exploring the world around them. When the one-eyed man touches his face — the normal way, with his hands — he can feel his one eye swiveling within its socket, and he can feel the empty pucker where the second eye should be.

The sun is a cylinder lying on its side, too far for his hands to reach. Its heat burns so intensely that he cannot feel it with his eye for too long. And for a little while afterward, when he blinks and turns away, the sun still flickers under his eye, although it is as faint and unreliable as an echo.

When he closes his eye he touches night, touches coldness and nothing else, although he does not actually feel cold. He is surprised at first that no one else feels the night when he closes his one eye.

“The sun does not go away at night,” he says. “Sometimes it returns to the air, warm and round. Sometimes it changes shape, like an apple with a bite taken out of it.”

“Warm?” his countrymen ask. “How can the sun at night be warm, when we cannot feel its heat on our skin?”

“I don’t know,” the one-eyed man says. He only knows that when he touches the sun at night, it burns his eye, although not as harshly as it does during the day.

“Round?” the two-eyes ask. “How do you know the sun is round? Have you reached out your hand and pulled the sun from the air? Have you touched it?”

“No,” the one-eyed man says. “Yes. I’ve touched it with my eye.”

The one-eyed man is crazy. Everyone knows that hands have a better sense of touch than eyes do. The lids and lashes are sensitive, yes, but they cannot describe objects the way fingertips can.

“I may be wrong,” the one-eyed man admits. “I may be mistaking the night sun for a second sun, one that radiates coldness instead of heat.”

His countrymen laugh at him; they do not believe his claims of a night sun. Meanwhile, they bumble into each other in the streets, clutching at markstones and guideposts like clumsy children who have not yet learned to trust their hands, calling out friends’ names like infants wailing for their mothers. He, however, is gifted with the power to weave silently through the streets — a grace likely inherited from his great-grandmother — because he touches obstacles with his eyes long before he touches them with his hands or feet.

With this heightened sense of touch that borders on precognition, he wonders why the two-eyes do not make him their leader.

His great-grandmother was renowned for her expert sense of touch, although no one ever thought she was crazy. She recognized objects faster than a young man in the prime of life, even though her hands were gnarled and callused with age. He remembers a withered, hunchbacked old woman whose fingers flew with bird-like grace over the hands and faces of her family. Her hearing was poor, so she had been forced to experience the world through touch only.

The one-eyed man believes that, like his great-grandmother, he has a heightened sense of touch because of the loss of another organ.

He only has one eye, after all, not two.

He begins to wonder — what other powers would he have if he had no eyes at all?

———•———

Today his countrymen will discover who is truly king in this land of ignorant two-eyes.

The day sun burns the one-eyed man’s eye with its round flame. He fingers the coldness of the knife in his pocket. His countrymen jostle and argue for the chance to stand at the front of the crowd, in the hope of hearing the king pass by. The one-eyed man pushes through the bystanders and into the path of the bobbing sedan chair. Deafened by the crowd, the guards do not hear him approach.

“Stop!” the one-eyed man yells.

The guards shout. A woman screams. A baby cries. Questions buzz through the crowd: What was that? Who said that? What is happening?

The king pulls back the heavy curtain of his litter to better hear the commotion. As his face tilts toward the noise, his single darting eye meets the eye of the one-eyed man.

As the king’s eye widens, the one-eyed man knows that the king can touch things with his eye too, and he is the only citizen who knows it. The one-eyed man laughs with contempt and triumph. The king has not discovered the secret of their one eye, of the power it will reveal.

The one-eyed man is crazy.

“Behold!” the one-eyed man says, brandishing the knife. “Behold the one more powerful than the king!”

He thrusts the blade into his own eye. The world becomes cold.

———•———

2. The Tongue’s Betrayal

He leans against the bar and fishes a breath mint from his pocket. The club is packed with a Saturday night crowd, the air redolent with gingerbread, cut grass, sliced watermelon, and cigarette smoke. A curvaceous blonde struts by, reeking of new car. A gaggle of admiring men follow her to the bar, eager to buy her a drink.

He bites down on the candy. A sun-warmed meadow of wildflowers fills his nostrils; rotten eggs fill his mouth. He sucks for a few seconds, grimacing as the pastille fragments slide over his tongue, and then spits the remains out into a cocktail napkin. He just needs enough to interest the cute redhead who just ordered a drink.

They make eye contact. She does not walk away when the bartender hands over her cocktail. He leans toward her. Her perfume smells like barbecued ribs, hot off the grill. He feels dizzy.

“I can smell things with my tongue,” he says with his sunshine and wildflower breath, his lips brushing the pink outer shell of her ear.

“That’s original,” she says, reaching into a bowl of soy nuts. She smiles as she enjoys their crunch and scent. He winces. Although the soy nuts are seasoned to smell like hot buttered corn-on-the-cob, to his mouth they smell like burnt rubber.

“So what do I smell like?” she says.

He picks up her hand, brings it to his lips, and licks the inside of her wrist. She squeals and giggles. He runs the tip of his tongue along the back of his front teeth, and thinks.

“Salty, and musty,” he says, “like dried shiitake mushrooms that have been soaking in hot water too long and have gone a bit off.”

She pulls her hand back. “Smooth talker, aren’t you,” she says. “Excuse me.”

“No, wait! I meant flowers. You smell like, um, roses. And chocolate. And freshly baked bread.”

He grabs for her arm and accidentally grazes her breast. She spins around. “Creep,” she hisses, sloshing her drink in his face. The alcohol has been scented to evoke the morning after a rainstorm on a tropical beach. He opens his mouth and touches his tongue to his dripping lips. The acrid sting is as harsh as rejection.

———•———

3. The Man Who Could Talk to Cats

— I think the cat is talking to me, he says.

— Marian just left it with you this morning, she says. It can’t be driving you crazy already. How are you going to survive the week?

— I’m serious. The cat is talking to me.

— Don’t be silly, she says. Cats can’t talk. Look.

She approaches the windowsill on which Ginger is curled.

— Hello, Ginger! she says, flicking her hands exaggeratedly as if she were addressing a child.

The cat ignores her. She turns back.

— See? They don’t have fingers. How can they talk?

Her hands flick dismissively, as if she were sweeping crumbs under a rug. He says:

— Maybe we just don’t know how to see them.

He is silent for a moment, his hands folded in his lap. His thumbs creep between his pressed-together thighs, betraying hesitation. Finally, he says:

— I see things that aren’t there, or will be there, or have been there.

His fingers jerk as he forms each word, unable to keep up with the urgency of his confession.

— What are you talking about? she asks.

— It’s as if everyone in the world were color-blind, he says, and I’m the only person who isn’t. I can see an extra — extra qualifier.

— Like what?

— When you walked up to my door, I could see your shoes stepping on the driveway, but I could also see something else that wasn’t there, and yet it described you walking up my driveway. If I had closed my eyes, I would’ve still been able to see you walking. A ghost-image. An invisible image that I see with my ears, not my eyes.

Her hands and shoulders shake with laughter.

— Now I know you’re crazy, she says. Seeing with your ears. Come on. Everyone knows that ears are as useful as an appendix. Maybe they once had some purpose, but now…. Anyway, if a cat could talk, what would it say?

Her hands flit carelessly, indulgently, but he pauses to think.

— I don’t know, he says. That’s what scares me.

———•———

He’s going to be famous, he thinks. He will be The Man Who Talks to Cats. He only has to figure out what they’re saying, first.

He finds a pen and blank notebook and approaches the windowsill on which the cat is perched. Her eyes open slightly. He scratches her head. Her body rumbles, and there — so subtle that he would not have noticed it if he hadn’t been looking for it — is a shallow ear-shape, as tangible as a shadow on a black wall.

He pauses over the notebook, trying to describe the ear-shape on paper. It undulates, and has no sharp edges; all curves, like a sine wave.

He scrawls the pictogram for sine wave, then adds, Expression of contentment.

He rewards the cat by tickling under her chin.

“Sine wave,” Ginger says, leaning into his hand. “Sine wave.”

The cat tolerates a few more seconds of grooming, and then jumps off the windowsill. He follows her into the kitchen. She pads to her empty bowl and sits back on her haunches, staring at him unblinkingly.

The ear-shape that emerges from her mouth is thin at first, and then it spreads broadly. Like a fork.

“Fork,” Ginger says. “Fork. Fork!”

— What is it? What are you trying to tell me?

She noses the bowl. He opens one of the tins that Marian had left and spoons out the mush. The cat says, “Fork!” and starts to eat.

He writes: Fork = hungry?

She doesn’t say anything else after she finishes eating. He crosses out the question mark, feeling very pleased with himself.

His elation fades as night progresses, and the cat says nothing save for the occasional “sine wave” when groomed. Perhaps he is wrong, and they are simple creatures after all who have no need for language, and have no other desires than a square meal and a rub behind the ears.

He goes to bed dejected. The cat follows him upstairs and elects to prowl the hallway. He closes the door, and falls asleep.

———•———

Hours later he is woken by a piercing assault on his ears. He staggers out of bed and flings his door open. The piercing ear-shape grows larger. He flicks on the hall light, and squints at the sudden brightness.

The cat sits in the middle of the hallway, her mouth forming a wide, deep, distorted square, releasing an ear-shape that is similarly wide and deep.

“Square! Square-square-square!”

— What is it? he says.

His hands are slow and clumsy from sleep.

— What are you trying to tell me? What do you want?

“Square! Square! Square-square!”

— Are you hurt?

“Square!”

— But I just fed you!

“Square-square-square!”

He picks the cat up and shuts her in the bathroom. “Fork! Square! SQUARE!” Ginger says. “SQUARE!”

He returns to bed but tosses and turns, unable to sleep; he can still see the cat talking. He can also see her scratching at the bathroom door. Blindfold, he thinks. If only I had a blindfold for my ears.

He stumbles back out of bed and opens the bathroom door. The cat pounces out.

“Square!” she says.

— Stop it! he says. Why won’t you stop?

He finds a bag of cotton balls in the medicine cabinet. He stuffs one into each ear.

He can only see Ginger with his eyes now.

He goes back to sleep.

In the morning, he throws out the notebook and boards Ginger at a veterinary clinic.

———•———

4. Flyboy and Strawberry Girl

The first time Flyboy and Strawberry Girl meet, neither will notice the other’s presence. Strawberry Girl will brush past his table in a restaurant, and two minutes later Flyboy will savor the air with his nose and ask his date if she is drinking something fruit-flavored. (She will say no.)

Later, back at her place, Flyboy will taste wet dog and stale cigarette smoke on her skin and beat a hasty retreat with half-cocked excuses. He’s a cad, that Flyboy, but with good reason. He calls himself Flyboy because of his uncanny ability to taste things with his nose. The hairs inside his nostrils act like the hairs on a house fly; dark and wiry, they sample the world around him, forcing him to experience it in unique ways.

This doesn’t help his relationship with women.

Strawberry Girl will cross his path again. He’ll meet her at a party, at which they each arrive with other people. They won’t talk to each other at all. A week later, however, he will taste strawberries in the stale, humid air of a streetcar. He’ll reach through the crowd and touch her hand.

They will both get off at the next stop.

He will write poems about her, his Strawberry Girl, poems so riddled with cliché that they will lie buried at the bottom of his desk drawer until he is a grizzled old bachelor. Then he will skim the yellowed pages as he watches TV and laugh and cry and guzzle a six-pack until he falls asleep in his armchair, dreaming of that one lost love, the one who tasted like strawberries.

(The spilled dregs of his last, half-empty beer can will smear the old ink and when he wakes up, he will have forgotten why there is a soggy wad of notebook paper draped over the remote control and toss the mess into the garbage.)

This is love, Flyboy tells himself, drunk on the Strawberry Girl’s sweet aura. This time it’ll be different.

He tells himself this every time he falls in love.

The day will come when she invites him back to her place and they fumble, laughing, into her bedroom. She’ll pull him down onto the rumpled sheets and he’ll think, yes, this time will be different.

It isn’t.

Like every other woman he’s been with, he will taste tang and salt on his tongue but oh, everything else he will taste: the oil of her unwashed scalp; the damp and mildewed bath towel with which she’d dried her face; the thick grease of the diner she’d eaten lunch in; the infected piercing at her navel; the sickly-sweet afterglow of alcohol on her breath; soap (five different kinds, for face, body, hands, laundry, and dishes); and the strange, moist, musky flavors nestled between her legs and under her arms.

He will break away and stumble into the bathroom, retching until bile sears his nose and mouth. When the Strawberry Girl asks him what’s wrong, he’ll make up some excuse and tell her that things just aren’t working out. She’ll cry, throw things, threaten to kill herself. He’ll leave.

He’ll sit at home, and after a beer or two he’ll wonder if he overreacted.

She’ll call but he won’t pick up the phone. After the tenth attempt, she won’t call again.

When Flyboy slinks back to her apartment to apologize two weeks later, the hairs in his nose will quiver and cringe. They will taste a rot so strong that he’ll feel its weight in his lungs. He will vomit in a potted tree while the Strawberry Girl’s neighbors brush past him on their way to the elevator, oblivious to the decay in the air.

He’ll knock on the Strawberry Girl’s door. Then he’ll pound. Then he’ll get the superintendent.

He won’t like what he’s going to find.

———•———

5. Sickness of Heart

There is something wrong with Stephen’s body but he doesn’t know what. The health and hygiene films in school teach that bodies can’t talk; one must keep oneself clean and healthy and watch for signs of illness. But Stephen has no bumps or spots or discolorations or strange growths — other than the acne on his cheeks and the hair sprouting under his arms and between his legs.

It’s as if his body is telling him things that it doesn’t know how to put into words. In class, even when he looks at the blackboard, he can see the angular ridges of his pencil and the sharpness of its point. He can see every fold and crease in his notebook paper. He can see his chair’s uncompromising flatness as it slides against the skin of his buttocks.

At night, alone on his sleeping platform, he skims his hands all over his body and the unyielding form of his headrest, marveling at the contrast. He can see the immovable valleys of the platform, even when his eyes are closed. He has discovered that although his entire body can see things, his hands have the best vision. And when his hands rest on his body, it is like two mirrors facing each other, each feeding and receiving information in an endless loop.

But the strongest sign that there is something wrong with his body is the sudden shortness of breath when he’s in the same room as Isabel, the girl who lives across the street.

———•———

Isabel has lived across the street from Stephen for as long as he can remember, but only now that they’ve both started high school does she have an effect on his body. He wonders if she has a disease and he has somehow caught it.

She looks healthy, though. She has all the normal features of a girl their age: the gently swelling chest, the hairs emerging under her arms and at her groin. She doesn’t have pimples on her face, but when she sits in front of him in chemistry class, he can see a smattering of freckles across her shoulder blades.

The teacher teaches them how to operate a Bunsen burner. He shows them that it is okay if skin passes briefly through the flame, but one should never expose oneself for long periods of time. Otherwise one’s skin could become discolored, and that — as everyone knows — is a sign of ill health. Stephen only half pays attention; he stares at Isabel’s freckles and wonders if they would look the same to his hands.

“This is cool,” his lab partner Tony says. “Look, it turns your skin pink.”

Tony holds his finger above the orange tongue of the flame. The other students ignore the teacher’s lecture and watch. Tony is the alpha male of the grade, and the others take their social cues from him.

“It’s your turn,” Tony says. “Go on, do it.”

Stephen doesn’t want to, but everyone is watching, including Isabel. He takes a deep breath and puts his finger in the flame. He bites down on his tongue. Tastes blood as the flame sears his skin. He cries out, spitting blood, and jerks back his hand. Cradles it to his chest, but it is as if it is still in the flame. Tears mingle with the blood.

Everyone laughs, except Tony, who says, “You’re weird, man.”

The laughter dies. Tony snorts and turns away. Stephen clutches his hand to his chest; he can still feel a ghostly flame licking his skin.

The teacher says, “Is there a problem, Stephen?”

Stephen whimpers, “No.”

Isabel looks sympathetically at him, but says nothing.

———•———

His index finger is still red by the end of the day, and touching it only intensifies the memory of flame. After school he lies in his room, smoothing his hands over his arms, his legs, marveling how the flame has affected his finger’s vision.

He hears the front doorbell ring and his mother scurrying downstairs to answer it. Her voice calls out a minute later. “Stephen,” she yells. “You have a visitor.”

Stephen hops off of the sleeping platform. A knock sounds on his door. He opens it, wondering who the visitor could be.

“Hi,” Isabel says, clutching her schoolbag.

“Hi,” Stephen says. His voice comes out as a squeak. The health films they’ve seen at school say that this is normal for a boy his age.

“I thought we could study for the chem test together.”

“Okay,” Stephen says. His voice squeaks again.

She says, “I’m sorry everyone laughed at you in class today. You didn’t deserve it.”

“It’s okay,” he says.

“No, it isn’t,” she says.

“Just forget about it.”

She shrugs. “Hey, do you have a partner yet for the midterm project? I thought we should work together on the experiment, since we live so close together.”

“No,” he says. “I — I mean, yes. I mean, no, I don’t have a partner, but yes, we should be partners.”

Isabel smiles and says, “Great.”

“Great,” he repeats. She pulls a textbook and binder from her schoolbag.

He says, “Can I…?” He can see his heart pounding in his chest. “Can I do a little experiment now? On you?”

Isabel giggles. “Sure,” she says.

“Okay,” he says. “Sit here, on the platform. Um, let’s see, can I…?” He puts his arm around her shoulders. Her flesh is both yielding yet unyielding. He is reminded of flame, but this time it is everywhere, not just his finger — in his stomach, his ears, his groin, his chest, the places where his skin is next to hers. He can barely breathe.

She giggles. “Tony’s right. You are weird.”

“Can I…?” He moves closer. Her body yields, reshapes itself to accommodate his. He can’t stop staring at her mouth; the lips are deep pink, plump. He knows they will yield. He can tell by looking at them that they will yield. And yet he has to reach out with his fingers to test them.

He makes a dent in her lower lip with his fingernail, but her teeth are immoveable.

“Stephen,” she says, nervously, “what are you doing?”

“Can I…?” He moves his fingers off of her mouth to her forehead, and draws them over her face, tracing every inch of the surface. His fingers are on fire.

“I don’t like this experiment,” she says, squirming out from under his hands.

“Just another minute?” he says, desperate to know if his hands see her body the same way his eyes do.

She springs to her feet and starts gathering up her books. “I should go. Tony was right. You are weird.” She does not giggle this time.

Stephen hears her run down the stairs. The front door opens and slams. Stephen wraps his arms around himself, around his stomach, stricken by a sudden sickness that he cannot name, a sickness of heart.

—THE END—



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