Onchocerciasis

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Lauren Harsma

WHEN I WAS FIFTEEN, my father started going blind. Parasites from some African river dug into his skin and died there, their putrefaction turning his skin to alligator, wrapping paper, a brigade of purplish papules—mountain majesties. He swelled and his skin always itched; he grew his nails out so he could scratch. The sound was like scraping dry dirt off potatoes.

He didn’t mind much. His doctor gave him shots and pills; my mother gave him lotion and scolded him for his carelessness. My brothers declared they would never go to Africa, thinking that the only thing anyone ever got there was sick. I imagined more and more parasites, alive this time and chewing away at the tentacular bouquet of nerves behind his eyes. My father just smiled and started wearing oily-colored sunglasses.

Baba was never afraid of losing his sight for good. Every day he’d wake up, still blind, and say, “Not today, Allah?” very politely, as though asking about the arrival of a package he was expecting. He remembered where things were and I’d always find him humming as he raked through cabinets for tins of tea leaves, through drawers to find silverware without having to check for the tines of forks or the stegosaurus ribbing of butter knives. I wondered if he pictured things in his head when he moved, black and green like night vision; if people’s pupils glowed popped-corn white like they did in photos when the flash was too bright. He said no, that it was more like powdered sugar, the lilac-gray color of a spring shadow, coating everything. I’d scrunch my eyes up and try to see it, but there was nothing except black; in the sun, vermilion.

Trapped in that chewed-gum-gray world, he started to miss colors first. When he looked especially sad, sitting in his chair and running his thumb over the fabric of its arm, squeezing a caterpillar of paste onto his toothbrush, spreading chutney onto toasted naan, I pulled vibrant nouns from my pockets like flashcards: mum’s favorite sweater, fox fur, wet bricks. Sometimes I’d read from a Shakespeare play we were studying at school. He liked this even more. He’d breathe through his nose, a seagull sound, he’d smile and thank me.

Three months cured his skin; four months fixed his eyes. When his vision came back, he got sad. He’d thought so much about what purple and green and gold looked like that now the real things seemed wrong—bland, stark, different, like he’d returned home and found a new family moved in, all his furniture gone. He’d improved each color in his mind, perfected it like an inventor fiddling with a prototype, made them all extraterrestrial, ethereal, and was sure he’d never see them again.

I started going to thrift stores and buying scarves and hats and earrings in shocking shades from shocking places—India, Spain, Japan—hoping to bring him even one of the tinctures from his imagination, one of the effervescent aliens he’d created. My mother called my new clothes gaudy and loud; the headmistress of my school sent me home with letters condemning my scarves, my headbands, the socks that I wore. Baba smiled at these messages, like he knew how hard they were trying, then tore them in half. I’d smile too and clear away the pieces.

He bought a set of paints, which he laid out on the kitchen table and mixed together in pink styrofoam egg cartons. He filled canvas after canvas with fences of color, streak by streak. But it wasn’t working, so he let my brothers dip their fingers into the paint and do up their faces like big cats, warriors, bandits. They ran like little blurry messes around the house until the paint started to itch, drying in cracked circus deserts on their skin.

My mother got angry. She lost her temper with Baba, which was something that she’d always done, even before the problem with the colors, even before the blindness, even during it. To her, sympathy was like sand, running through fingers and getting in eyes; invasive, irritating, unnecessary. Father liked that about her, because he did not like pity, but I don’t think he liked her to be mean.

“For months you asked Allah for your eyes back!” she shouted one morning after breakfast. I was supposed to have left for school, but had come back for a book I’d forgotten, leaving my brothers playing thumb war on the sidewalk outside. The counter had two coffee-cup stains on it; my mother clutched a dishrag in her hand like it was the handle of a hatchet. “And now you haven’t even said thanks!”

“I never asked him for anything,” my father replied, eyes on the rag and fingers on the coffee ring, “except what day it was.” I found my book and left, silent as static.

That next weekend I took my allowance to the city center. It was an anthill, a colony—scuttering shoppers, arms like feelers, carrying jellybean-colored shopping bags from one store to the next, grainy cobblestone mud kicking bird’s egg speckles on the cuffs of their trousers or tights. Sometimes when there were sales things got competitive, people shouting over shoes and handbags they liked. I tried to avoid those days, advertised in the paper in lutescent shades of red and yellow and tangerine, with excited punctuation marks—exclamation point Saturdays—and go when everything was full price.

I shopped alone. Girls my age roamed in packs and bought according to some holy guide book but my eyes were programmed to see only color. The way I spent my money it looked like frivolity, but I felt a shade of superior knowing what I was spending it for—a gallant green, a humble suede, displaying proudly the livery of my father in opposition to his sufferance.

In spite of this self-righteousness it was hard to be hopeful. Baba was the optimist, and in the shadow of his sorrow, I’d started to believe that searching and finding were repellent to each other—not long-separated brothers but instead bitter enemies, pushing one another away, out of orbit. As I picked through baskets of scarves and played tingling racks of earrings and bracelets like chimes, my faith waned. I was a miner panning for gold in a stream bed run dry, puckered as an old woman’s lips.

I saw it when I was on my way out of the city. I was running for the bus, penguin feet slipping from my quacking boots, and saw a reflection of the sky in a shop window. Skidding, slogging, sluicing to a halt, I tilted my head to see if it would disappear, but it didn’t move and that’s how I knew it was real.

The sky was actually a bathrobe, strewn artfully over an antique chair in the window of a vintage shop. One arm hung limply over the back and it looked for all the world like there was a woman still inside of it—flat and thin as cardstock, legs stretched long before her, hair in curlers, the smoke from her cigarillo the same shade of periwinkle-gray as her robe. The same shade as my father’s blindness.

I bought it and took it home.

It came out of its bag like a ghost, but not the haunting kind—a welcome specter my father had been waiting for for months. As I pinched it by the shoulders it became a wraith in my hands, it became fog. It infiltrated the whites of my father’s eyes, swept across his irises in painted cataracts and put him in a trance.

And then he stood and held me to him and smiled, thanking me and then Allah and then me again, saying, “Now, albi; now you’ve seen my blindness.”

~

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About the Author

LAUREN HARSMA is a West Coast transplant from Syracuse, New York. She completed a 2013 internship at National Novel Writing Month in Berkeley, California, and is now working on a collection of short stories.

Harsma has a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from the State University of New York at Oswego and studied English Literature at the University of Leeds. Her short story “Fog” appeared in Canto Magazine.

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