Short story: The glow of his eyes, the depth of his gaze
“I told you I’d come back alive,” he said, gazing at me so deeply that, for a moment, nothing else existed in the world.
Danny came home different. He climbed down from a prison truck, dressed in a clean uniform like he’d never left me standing on the airfield tarmac a year and a half ago, never gone off to war and left me alone. He stood in the middle of the driveway and looked around as if the farm was unknown territory, eyes glistening, hair so short I could see the scalp beneath. I watched from the porch, wanting to run down and take him there on the paving, half afraid to move lest the spell be broken and he fade away into just another dream. Then he noticed me, and spoke my name, and suddenly we were holding each other, and the soldiers who stood either side of him like prison guards were as substantial as mist.
“I told you I’d come back alive,” he said, gazing at me so deeply that, for a moment, nothing else existed in the world. And I stared into his eyes, glowing alien and silver in the late afternoon light so that, at first, I didn’t understand what else was wrong. It was only when he turned away, and wandered around the front yard, stopping to touch every little thing with a child-like expression, that I frowned past him to the MP Sergeant who shadowed him. He saluted and handed me a sealed letter.
“Three days, ma’am,” he said. “We’ll return for him after the weekend.”
“Return?” I glanced from him to Danny, crouching to run his finger through the rosemary bushes that lined the driveway. “I thought—“
“I’m being discharged,” Danny spoke in a distracted tone. “They just need to take me back for a day or two first.”
“What for?” He didn’t answer, so I aimed my mounting anger at the Sergeant. “What for?”
The soldier kept his eyes focussed a half an inch over my shoulder, regulation height for avoiding contact. “Corporal Hemmings is in possession of some specialised equipment, ma’am. It needs…” He faltered, glanced at me. “We have to remove them.”
I stared at him, then wheeled upon Danny. “Remove… Danny? Danny?” I knelt beside him, took his face in my hands and slowly turned him towards me. “Oh, Danny. What did they do to you?”
He laid his hands over mine, and smiled like some sort of beatific saint. “Come with me.” He stood, tugging me after him, and ran round the corner of the house. I followed in his wake. He ran across the lawn, skipping when I stumbled to keep up, laughing as he spied the chicken run in the far corner of the yard. He steered me over to it, dropped my hand, and leaned over the wire, scooping the nearest bantam up and nestling her against his chest as he drew me down to sit on the grass.
“Chickens,” he said, stroking the feathers along her back. I felt a sudden twinge of jealousy: they never let me touch them like that, scurrying away any time I tried to approach. Danny has always been softer than me, gentler. He patted the bird for long moments, head bent in contemplation of her plumage. “Do you realise how incredible they are?”
“Danny, what is this?” I put my hand on his. He barely seemed to notice, so lost was he in his inner vision. When he finally glanced at me I didn’t recognise the light in his eye. There was something amiss within his gaze, something far away and alien. For a moment I held my breath. Then he spoke, and the real world, with his uniform and the MPs on the driveway and the khaki green truck, came crashing down around us.
“Their retinas,” he said, holding the chicken up so it glared at me, its sharp little head peck-pecking as if daring me to match stares. “It’s all in their retinas.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t understand you.” I squeezed his hand. “Danny, what is this about?”
The soldier kept his eyes focussed a half an inch over my shoulder, regulation height for avoiding contact.
He continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “It’s called disordered hyper-uniformity,” he said. “The way the light receptors in their retinas organise themselves. It lets them…” He paused, turned his head to take in the garden around us. “They see things so much more clearly than us, Kim. Their eyes are tiny, compared to ours, but they’re flexible. They alter so quickly, so much more quickly than ours...”
“What?” I shook my head, pinched his wrist until he turned his silvery gaze upon me. “What’s that got to do with…?” I waved at his face, at the invisible soldiers around the corner of the house. “With all this?”
He pointed to his eyes. They shone in the afternoon sun, a shimmer that hid the brown of his irises. “The military made lenses,” he said. “They developed a material, a hybrid between metal and plastic...” He coughed, made that little chuckling noise I recognised whenever he didn’t quite understand what was being said to him. “They explained it to me at one point. This polymer, it focusses the light coming into the eye, the same way the light cones in a chicken’s eye does. They grafted the lens onto my cornea. My muscles control the way the light receptors re-order themselves across the surface of the lens…” He snickered, ran his hand through his hair in quiet frustration, and plucked a feather from the chicken’s back, holding it up between us. “I can see, Kim. Not just the exterior, but everything. The material, the lenses… I can see beneath, see through opaque exteriors to what’s below...”
“What’s that got to do with chickens? And taking you away again?” The Sergeant had appeared at the corner of the house. Worried, perhaps, at the length of his prisoner’s absence. Danny glanced at him, saw something I couldn’t, and grinned. “It’s the way the light receptors, the cones, are arranged.” He pointed at the Sergeant. “I can alter my focus for miles, Kim. Absolute miles. And I see everything.” He switched his gaze to me. “Your skin. Below it, to the subdermal level. Kim, I can see inside you. And you’re beautiful.”
I drew back. “What do you mean, inside?”
He laughed, made a playful grab at my hair, and when I evaded him, held his hand up to me as if I could stare through it to his eye. “I mean through,” he said. “Under the surface. Kim, it’s exquisite. The world is so...” He paused, and when he spoke again his voice was soaked in so much wonder it made my heart sting. “Translucent.”
I had forgotten about the Sergeant, so intent was I on Danny. When he spoke, it was all I could do not to scream.
“Corporal Hemmings,” he said, ignoring my shocked squeak, “is to be transferred to the military hospital at Kapooka at oh-eight-hundred tomorrow morning. There will be a procedure to remove the lenses. He will then be discharged.” He flicked his gaze down to me for the merest moment, then returned it to my husband. “Dishonourably.”
“What happened?” I whispered, and when he did not answer, shouted it. “What happened?”
“I cannot say, ma’am.” He nodded towards Danny. “He’ll tell you,” he said softly, before his voiced snapped back into military neutrality. “The Corporal has been given leave until oh-six-hundred tomorrow morning. We will return for him then.” He marched back to his vehicle, ignoring my demands for more information, for some clue, any clue, as to what was going on. Then the truck was gone, and the soldiers with it, and I was alone with Danny.
Then he spoke, and the real world, with his uniform and the MPs on the driveway and the khaki green truck, came crashing down around us.
I coaxed him into the house, trying not to watch as he examined every component of my welcome home dinner as if he were in the presence of miracles. He seemed more human once we had eaten, more himself. We drank wine, and laughed, and after he caressed my hair and buried his face into my shoulder I let his hands and lips and whispered words persuade me, and we sacrificed dessert to the sudden, overwhelming need to take ourselves to bed. Only afterwards, lying side by side in the lowering darkness, with the soft touch of his skin against my side, and his fingers rolling and unrolling my hair around themselves, did he lose himself in the warmth of the night, and tell me what had happened.
“Lavender,” he said, half to himself, then snorted gently, a sound of self-deprecation. “It’s been so long since I’ve smelled lavender.”
I waited, listening. I could see the faint glow of his eyes, like a cat in the dark. His breath quickened, then slowed. His voice, when he spoke, was a distant monotone.
“We were in Uruzgan,” he muttered. “Up in the mountains, with the Kush on one side and some broken-up range without any sort of name on the other. Nothing but shattered cliffs, and ravines, and miles and miles of sky.” He stopped, lost in visions I could not share. “They’d come at us out of the rocks. Just small arms fire mainly, but it was incessant. Pop, pop, pop.” His arm jerked against my side as he pulled an imaginary trigger. “All the time. Friends one day, cracking away at us the next, friends again by the end of the week. There are no rules out there, no way to tell who you’re shooting at, whether you’re hitting anyone. We’d go on patrol. Ha. Patrol. Rock-climbing and camping out, not knowing who was watching, who was waiting to put a bullet in you and you’d never, ever know where it had come from.” He shivered. “GPS doesn’t work, radar doesn’t work. All you have is line of sight - and there are no lines.” He snorted again. “You can’t see through mountains.”
I lay still, trying to picture the world he was describing. I couldn’t comprehend it, couldn’t feel the atmosphere that tightened the voice in his throat.
“That’s when they called for volunteers,” he continued. “They’d developed these.” He moved. I knew he was pointing towards his eyes. “Some sort of polymer lens, they said. We’d be able to see for miles, find things we’d never been able to pin down before. They said it could ... that we could stare straight through the rocks, locate the rebels before they even knew we were looking. All it needed was a human brain to focus it, to make the adjustments …” He laughed, a sad, strangled thing. “They’d experimented with chicken eyes, worked out how they controlled all the receptors to catch light, and bend it, and still maintain balance and everything. You couldn’t just put it in a telescope. You needed a mind ...”
I waited, listening. I could see the faint glow of his eyes, like a cat in the dark.
He fell silent again. The darkness pressed in upon us, pushing us apart. I wanted to reach out and touch him, to re-establish some sort of contact. But he shifted on to his side, and I knew he was staring at me. Into me. I let my hand fall to the warm sheet, and tried not to flinch.
“All I had to do was find a spot and settle in,” he said. “Stay for a day or two. Sit and scan the valleys through the rock walls and along the tracks. Didn’t matter how they twisted and turned, whether the Taliban dug in or dispersed. I could see past all that. I could track them, no matter what they tried. Stay for a day or two, just me and my ration packs and a short-burst radio. Then move on to the next drop point, and again and again until I found something. One squirt back to Uruzgan and they’d drop shells onto the position without even leaving the yard. Clean and easy. Nobody coming down and popping rounds at us and disappearing. We’d wipe them out before they even got a chance to form up.”
“What happened?” Something had happened. Something changed everything. Danny turned away from me again, on to his back, staring a million miles above the ceiling.
“I found them,” he said, after the longest time. I waited, saying nothing, letting the story come to me. “They were children.”
“Children, women, none of them combat troops. Not even old men or teens.” He convulsed, bringing his hands up to his face. “The Taliban armed them, and sent them up into the hills to harass us so they could save their troops for the cities and fighting the ground war. Nobody cared if they died, or were blown up, or took out a hundred soldiers or nobody. They were just tools, just pieces to be moved …” He took a shuddering breath. “I could see them, like ghost outlines through the rocks. Children that looked seven, eight, maybe. Couldn’t tell if they were boys or girls. Carrying AKs around, lugging bandoliers, getting ready to come down out of the hills and start shooting … shooting at professional soldiers. Children. Jesus …” He shook again, his body reacting to memories I had no hope of reaching.
“What did you do?”
“I called it in,” he said, as if I was a fool for asking. “I told them what I’d found, who I’d found.”
“Base didn’t care, either. They didn’t care that it was kids, that they were going to bomb kids and women. They were going to do it anyway, going to take their guns out of the equation and blow them all away.” He barked, short and bitter, a sound I’d never heard before but could almost persuade myself was a laugh. “They wouldn’t even see it happen. Someone in an F-18 would come in on a fly-by and press a button. Nobody would see it. Except me. Even if they took me out of there. I’d see it.”
“And …” I didn’t want to know what had happened. But I had to. “What did they do?”
“Nothing.” Another pause. “I refused to tell them where they were. With these in ...” His arm moved against me. Pointing to his shining eyes. “I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles ...” An old Who song, half-crooned, half-spoken. “Without me, they only knew whereabouts, not where. I disobeyed. Disobeyed a direct order.” He fell silent again, then, eventually, in the smallest of voices, “And here we are.”
GPS doesn’t work, radar doesn’t work. All you have is line of sight – and there are no lines.
There we were. Nothing more to say, nothing I could give him to bridge the gap that had grown between us. We lay side by side, our skin inches apart. Later, we made love, soft and slow. His hands on me were perfect, touching me in all the right places, finding trills of response I had never before experienced. Danny was a more confident lover than he had ever been; knew me better, in those moments, than he ever had.
“I can see your nerve clusters,” he murmured, running his fingers underneath my breast and making my breath catch. I wanted to close my eyes, to lose myself in the smell and the taste and the sound of him, but I could feel him watching me, recording the secret map under my skin. The sex was everything I had held on to for 18 months of separation. And yet, when it was over, there was a core of hollowness to it, like I had been with a new Danny, who was everything my old husband had been but carried some new, secret, component within his mind that I could not access. I was no longer lover, wife, partner. I was a subject, under observation. I was a text, to be read.
Later, I felt him leave the bed, and watched him watching the dawn as arrive through the window. By the time the MPs returned with their truck we were dressed and standing on the front porch, waiting.
Danny didn’t look back as he climbed into the truck. It rumbled off, and I returned to the role I had perfected: the waiting wife, dutiful and patient, determined not to fear for my husband and what it might mean should he never return. In the end, it was three days. The massive dun bulk of the truck once again blocked the driveway, and Danny was deposited before me.
He came home different. He was dressed in civilian clothes, and carried a duffel which he carelessly dropped as he turned a full circle, staring at our front yard as if it were some foreign field that vaguely reminded him of home. I called his name, and he swung towards me. His face brightened for one tiny moment, then, as I watched, fell into a look of such despair that my steps toward him died. I stood six feet from him, hands by my side in mute impersonation of his still, unreceptive frame. An aura of bereavement radiated from him like a warning to keep away, that there was danger in any attempt to approach. I opened my mouth to speak his name, then looked at him more closely, and saw his eyes.
They were brown again. It took me by surprise, and I realised how easily I had grown accustomed to the silvery sheen of the lenses. With them he had resembled some divine visitor, a phantom shaped like my husband who visited my dreams to persuade me that the waking world could be as complete, as timeless as the fantasy in which we met. Now he was here, naked in the eyes: my Danny, just my Danny. Everything about him was perfect except that the brown of his irises looked out of place: an absence of colour instead of its return. Some part of him had been gouged out and replaced by these normal, ordinary eyes that looked upon me with something like judgement and something a little like disgust.
He said nothing, just examined me until I stepped back and he noticed the open door. Then he picked up his duffel and shuffled past me without speaking. The Sergeant was saying something about adjustment, and transitioning, and charges or not charges. I didn’t care. I couldn’t hear him over the blood thumping in my ears. I barely remembered to take the sheaf of documents he thrust upon me before running inside and slamming the door behind me. Anything to shut out the world, to leave me to grapple with my husband and his look and his silence.
The Taliban armed them, and sent them up into the hills to harass us so they could save their troops for the cities and fighting the ground war.
I found him in the living room. He had closed the curtains, so the room was sunk into an early gloom, and pulled the armchair deep into the darkest corner. Now he sat in it like some ruined king, his hands lifeless upon its arms, his face enfolded in shadow. I perched on the couch opposite, as far along it as possible, and tried to think of what to say.
“Danny?” No response. I tried again, softly, fearful of what he might say. He sighed, and tucked his chin further into his chest. “Please, what is it? What happened?”
“They took them back,” he said in a dead voice. “Now I’ve got my eyesight again.” He paused. “Just my eyesight.” As if that explained everything. As if I was an idiot not to understand. I’ve never been an idiot. I knew what he meant.
“You can only see ... ?”
“Only is the word.” He spat the words into the emptiness between us. “I’m blind again. All I see is the surface.” He slapped the chair arm. “That’s the real punishment. Not the discharge, not the loss of pay. That’s just the consequence.” He snorted. “The real punishment was giving me that time back here, before they ...” He held his hands in front of his face. “A whole day, to realise how you really look, so I could see all of you. Then they take me back, and leave me with this ...” He waved his fingers at me: dismissive; disdainful. “Forever.”
“I ...” I couldn’t think of what to say. My mind wouldn’t engage with his words, could not register the change in the man who was supposed to love me. All I could do was retreat from the room and leave him with his misery, and his hard-won blindness. He sat for an hour while I moved from room to room, gathering blankets and a pillow and scraping dinner into Tupperware boxes for the fridge. Finally I returned, and dumped the bedding next to the couch.
“I’ve waited 18 months for you to return,” I said to the shadows. “So that I could hold you, and talk to you, and see your smile, and hear your voice. I’ve never, in all that time, wondered if I would still find you attractive if you came back without a limb, or scarred, or burned, or in a wheelchair. Because you’re my husband and I married you. Not the way you look.” I kicked the blanket. “And I understand that you’ve experienced a trauma, and that they’ve given you a gift that was wonderful, and now they’ve taken it away and you think there’s nothing left for you. But I do not deserve to be talked to in that way, and I do not deserve to be looked at like that. So when you’re ready to look at your wife who waited 18 months for you to return to me, and treat me as the person you love, you can come to bed with me.”
I turned away, and took a dozen agonising steps towards our bedroom door. I was almost there when I heard him speak, low and desolate.
“I do love you,” he said out of the dark. “I just can’t bear to look at you.”
He sat in it like some ruined king, his hands lifeless upon its arms, his face enfolded in shadow.
I closed the door without another word and lay with my gaze fixed to the ceiling. I waited for the door to open, for Danny to slide into bed and fold his arms around me and tell me that everything would be all right, that he could live with the world as we all saw it, normal and opaque, just like it was before he left me to become a weapon he used to destroy himself. But he never came.
And when I re-entered the living room the next morning the blankets were where I had left them on the floor. Danny’s duffel lay next to the chair and Danny was gone, like some nightmare visitor who invaded my fantasy to persuade me that the world in which I woke would never be whole, that life would be timeless and empty, and I would only ever again see the man I loved in my dreams. I ran from room to room, growing frantic, searching for any sign of his passage, eventually bursting through the front door to search the yard, the driveway, and the street.
It wasn’t until I stumbled into the back yard that I found the chickens. He’d killed them all before he left.