Iris in the World
They seemed to be smiling at me with a protective mildness, and words of admiration started flowing from their lips, while I was standing up, raising my arms and dressing myself. My naked body did not seem to be real. Probably I was only a child.
The two women looked away and I had the sudden impression that they were making plans about my future.
“You are very intelligent, girl”, said one of them to me, shaking hands with me in a kind of shy and embarrassed introduction. “Of course, you are, and you mustn’t worry, for we believe in you. You are extremely gifted at music and languages, and whatever you study, you learn very efficiently; whatever subject you start with, you will never leave unfinished. Indeed, I think you were born precisely for that, to study. You read and read... I always see you going about with books.”
“Certainly. And you have such a splendid memory,” the other woman agreed encouragingly. “You always know by heart the names of painters, writers, scientists... you know the geography of every country, its main mountains and rivers, the history of philosophy and so on. I wonder how you can remember so many things.”
The first woman said nervously:
“You take our praise with indifference, you don’t seem to be impressed. Poor girl! Can you hear us?”
“Yes, I can. Thanks.”
“Probably many people have told you the same before, so for you it is only natural, isn’t it?”
I smiled, too, then. Their reference to what I found or didn’t find natural meant some sort of concern with my wellbeing, but it was not exactly friendship. I found there was something stupid, biased and wrong in their admiration for me.
Yes, surely I was a child. My body was pure and innocent, I thought again. I had just been busy playing with toys. But why then did they imagine me mentally so mature? They seemed to imply that I had been going to school for many years now. Why did they behave as if the idea of a classroom existence were quite old and familiar to me? Well, it wasn’t... It just had come for the first time in a quick second of realisation, the idea filled me and absorbed me completely, precisely because of its being so new.
“Is it true then that I have been studying for many years?”
The second woman explained warningly:
“Yes, it has been going on for some time already. But you must still go on studying further. One could say that we are in the middle of the path, and if you stopped now, it would all have been of no use what you have done so far. You will still have to study much more...”
She traced big circles with her hands, an ocean of repetitions, time and learning... Both the women showed contented and peaceful faces, as if they were happy with my patient and resigned attitude towards my commitments.
I gave a little shout of recognition and agreement myself.
“Yes. Now I remember the names of painters... the dates of the battles in our country, the main rivers... the German word for “life”, Le-ben, with a capital letter at the beginning, and the word for “dress”... many, many books...”
I was angry with books on the one hand: silent places, loneliness. But again I recovered my pride on them, on the field of my intellectual achievements. Suddenly I remembered the high and hot tension inside me, the challenge, the stimulus and strain of having been a trainee, a pupil, and I asked:
“Are you my teachers maybe?”
My question made them look flattered and excited, almost hysterical, as restless as I myself was.
“No, no, far from it! How could we be that in our situation? Nonsense.”
It had been a mistake on my part. I felt confused, troubled and very clumsy. But why did they speak so much about learning, if they didn’t have anything to do with it?
Now I was already quite dressed. Yet I felt something was missing and I occupied myself in looking for it through the room, with a busy air, halb knowing and halb doubting what it was. It was my wristwatch. The women seemed to follow my gestures of enquiry and moaned pitifully:
“Of course, dear, we will help you find it. Yes, don’t move, don’t worry. We already see it. There, under one of your books. We will give it to you. Don’t hurt yourself with the edge of the table. Be careful!”
I stretched out my hand in their direction and thanked them for the watch.
“There you are, take it,” said the younger of the two, withdrawing her wet and cold hand from mine very quickly.
It had been a very strange performance all that helping me in the subtle and yet elementary search of an object, while saying over and again very respectfully and compassionately to me, how intelligent I was. However, I found it unsurprising, as if I had already grown used to it through many preceding experiences.
They could be taken for mother and daughter, one not less than fifty and the other about thirty. They looked almost alike and there seemed to be a touch of blood connections and shared habits between them. They were slim, tall, with brown hair. They could be very rude and unpleasant, at least on that particular moment when they had been staring at me so screamingly and emotionally. They were two boastful and grotesque figures, unable to hide what they felt or what they had heard others felt for me. They had a persevering air of wasting energy all the time and yet never regretting it, never experiencing any fatigue. I guess, they combed their hair once every hour and then undid the work they had done quite happily; they combed their hair again with renewed strength.
Their acute and yet dull awareness of me was hard to describe. Was my intellect really of some value to them? If they had been related with the world of knowledge and study, it might have been, but what meaning could it have for them, being neither teachers nor students? Maybe it had a sad, remote meaning that alerted them and awoke anxiety, fear, even superstition in them; but intellect could only be an ineffectual fire that could never burn an object for them; they never would see a sheet of paper be burned by it; they threw logs, photographs and pens into the harmless fire, and they spent all their lives wondering obsessively about its power, why other people said that the force of knowledge was magnificently transcendent.
Good... I care little about the relationship between them. But I reaffirm myself in my belief that they have shared many habits. They wear almost the same kind of clothes; the shape of the noses is almost identical and the sound of their voices is too. I am not so sure now that they are mother and daughter though; they could be a boss and an employee as well or a criminal and her victim.
The younger woman said brightly:
“How brave and full of courage you are! We admire you so much!”
“Why? What have I done that is so special? Many people in the world study nowadays, the number of people increases everywhere and the level of education is getting higher and higher.”
“But love, studying in your condition... you know... It makes your accomplishments still more relevant and worthy of praise. All people say the same about you.”
“In my condition?” I repeated slowly and with sudden alarm, as if beginning to discover something I hadn’t thought of before. “What do you mean?”
“We are ignorant, working women,” said the older woman smiling again. “We can’t teach you anything. We have just come to take care of you and the house. If you lose one of your books, all you have to do is to call us immediately. I am your neighbour Emily, and this is your neighbour Agatha. Your name is Iris, isn’t it?”
My own name struck me as being ridiculous, disconnected from myself and from their own names too. But I accepted this gradual clearness in their statements, I accepted it playfully and dreamily, unable as yet to perceive the abyss I was going to fall into, the eternal and numberless pressure units of society against both my body and my mind.
“Your teachers will call you Iris,” Emily continued. “And so do we, the ignorant people. Oh, Iris! Many people say the same when they see you: “The poor girl! At least she has the consolation of learning things!”
“Are you suggesting that I read and follow courses all the time just to escape from some terrible reality of my life?”
Agatha came closer to me and whispered:
“Of course there is always “your misfortune” against you. But don’t be unhappy, dear. God will provide for you, he won’t forsake you. You must always believe in a good God, who knows better what’s best for each human being.”
God... Was he to decide about me then? I didn’t quite understand what he was, as little as I understood all that story about “in your condition”, “your misfortune”.
Emily began to cry, took a handkerchief out of her pocket and said with a sigh:
“We think that it is amazing what you do. You have a power of concentration that none of us could ever dream of having. And then... it is a kind of therapy. Your studies help you pass your time more easily. So at least you have something to do.”
“Do you mean that all my learning is not to be taken seriously, that it is merely a pastime? There are many other ways to get pleasure, probably. Other people dance, think as little as possible, take a holiday, sleep.”
“Well, in your case... I am afraid many other amusements are not at your reach, poor girl,” said Agatha. “That’s your only source of satisfaction, just books.”
“But I surely could dance, sleep 18 hours per day... take trips or have a love affair... just like everybody else? Who can deprive me of such rights. You speak as though a hell of limits, restrictions and barriers had been imposed upon me. I am like everybody else.”
The fact of their not treating me like an equal somehow upset me, but it was at the same time exciting, challenging and mysterious, and I laughed self-confidently, because I knew how stupid they were.
They didn’t seem to hear me, so I became silent and reserved.
I went on feeling an increasing belief in myself instead, maybe as a kind of defence against the others, a secret and intense joy at touching my own body, where nothing seemed to be wrong. I touched my face, my fingernails; I even made an effort to draw my right hand to my back, and then I bent down and touched my ankles. My body had been made of the same substance like all the other bodies of the universe, neither better nor worse, I didn’t perceive any difference. I was indignant at the suggestion that my studies could be called a mere “therapy”, a pastime. Surely my mental growth would make me tremendously useful and productive; this is what life is about: creating, producing. If I were always to stay unused, ineffectual, imprisoned in this room, then what would be the good of so much reading and thinking?
Emily spoke again. She complained over her straining tasks, she had been washing and ironing all day long in her own flat and now she still had to do many things to help me. She felt tired, she had to clean the place for me now and put everything in order.
“But why? I can do it myself.”
“No, you can’t. We have just come to visit you and help you a little. Oh, we scarcely know what to say! We would spend a very long time speechless, just looking at you in surprise.”
I nodded uncomfortably. They were getting on my nerves.
“Why do you feel this surprise and this urge to be staring at me in silence?”
“Well, your accomplishments thrill us, we find it almost unbelievable, incredible. Your parents are proud of you and say that you can learn so quickly. We have been told the same in the institution you have been to: they taught you to read and write, to move, to speak, to breathe... but not as we do it, your writing we don’t understand. It is not easy for us to believe how you can... in your situation...”
“Nonsense.” I muttered. “Surely I can read and write and speak... as you do. Isn’t that inborn in each human being? Must it be learned too?”
“Yes, it must be learned too, like the names of painters and writers or of the months of the year.”
I reflected on this with a sudden awareness of doubt and I admitted that I had been mistaken on this point. Indeed, indeed, everything had to be disclosed and learned gradually, with the exception of breathing and movement perhaps. Therefore, the skills of reading and writing were not possessed automatically from birth, as I had assumed, being as I was so familiar with books. There had been a time when I couldn’t write nor speak.
Cautiously I asked my two neighbours for more information on the matter:
“Are you suggesting that there is a special writing, only made for myself and a special school for me to learn it? There must be other people like me then... who use the same writing, don’t they?”
“Certainly. The people, the poor people who are in your very same circumstances use the same system that you have been taught there. In our eyes you remain exceptional, because we don’t know anybody like you, but in fact there is quite a number of you in the world. God bless and help you all in your grief.”
After her statement Emily paused and then made an effort to sound more optimistic in her next remark which she addressed to Agatha:
“Who knows? Perhaps there is not so much pain in it, in having lost what she has... Perhaps she is happier than we are.”
“Yes. Just this morning I have seen one like her, a young man who was eating a piece of cake and was looking very peaceful and satisfied. I think, they have a purer existence than ours is, more quiet and less dirty. They can imagine a world of their own and don’t have to face the awful scenes of reality.”
“Wait, wait a moment,” I shouted eagerly, revolting instinctively against this special image they were creating of myself. “It is not quite clear to me yet what you are saying. Because of some event that I can’t remember, that I can’t feel myself, you describe me as being like other people, who are like me in their turn. Obviously, you feel the same sort of pity and admiration for them as for myself.”
“Well, yes, we do.”
“Then all this flow of feeling on your part is not directed to myself personally, only to my circumstances, is it? But why am I like them and different from you?”
Agatha started scrubbing the room noisily, which made me feel very uncomfortable. It was a persistent noise, produced by her pulling along the bucket of water with a sudden energy and her drawing aside all the chairs to the left corner of the room. Emily explained monotonously and with a very loud voice in the middle of the noise:
“We are full of sympathy for your “handicap”, dear, and all the people who are like you deserve our compassion as well. Your handicap fills us with respect, horror and amazement.”
I couldn’t take them away from that topic. Feeling a kind of growing despair, I let my forehead drop on my powerless hands. But then I started to reassure myself, for after all there wasn’t anything so extraordinary and startling about myself. They hadn’t analysed my identity, they didn’t know anything about my personality with all its intimate and unique features. The centre of their attention was not me, only that sort of “loss” which seemed to place me among other people of a certain character I couldn’t identify yet, that young man eating a piece of cake with a satisfied air; what was it that made us alike in the eyes of these ignorant people?
Probably the loss isn’t a big one, for I don’t experience any urgent longing to recover anything; I am sure, it must be some shallow detail they are after; it is not important, since I can live without it. Again, I feel myself whole, uncut... with all the necessary attributes of beauty, radiance and humanity. My traits and lines are fine parts of nature. If it had been some element of my inward life, they wouldn’t be able to notice it at first sight. So I suppose, it can be seen by everybody and it requires no artistic gift to be detected. What can it be that they have found out about me?
Emily had begun dusting off different pieces of furniture and in the other part of the room (was it my bedroom or my studio?) Agatha had begun vacuum-cleaning, which seemed even worse than scrubbing, because of the intensified noise. I felt exiled, dispossessed, as if this were not my own place.
I said angrily:
“Stop it! Do it later, do it tomorrow, please.”
They were reluctant to stop.
“It is a mess. We are paid for to keep your room decent. Your parents would complain about us.”
But in the end they stopped.
Most likely they will be coming tomorrow.
I walked through the room, looked at the women and at my face in the mirror. Nothing wrong with my ears: I heard all the words and sounds in the world, or at least those that weren’t too far from me. Of course, I could read and write, and speak... and move... as they did. It had been a mere fantasy to say that I could not. Why did they make such a big fuss over the idea that I used different materials from theirs in my writing? After all, if ever I had, what did it matter? Didn’t all ways lead to the basic object of getting it done, regardless of the means? I wished to hold a common and every day pen in my hand, together with a collective and inexhausting piece of paper for all of us to write on; I wished to show them that I, too, could take notes, draw landscapes, leave the story of my birth and my name on paper, paper bones, paper lungs. Then I would take the sheet of paper threateningly always closer and closer to their eyes, wanting to make sure that they saw what I had put there.
But the ignorant people refused to see my message. They just went on talking obstinately about my “misfortune”. And the further they talked about it, the more selfish, realistic, resentful and hardened up against people I seemed to become.
They didn’t pay any notice to my development. I remembered now that this had already alarmed me at the beginning, because they gave no signs of being aware of how very intensely I lived, how I saw and heard everything. The movements I made were not reciprocated by them, didn’t make them recede or advance; I had only managed to stop them from cleaning for a while. My gaze didn’t make them stare back; the steps I heard outside they didn’t acknowledge.
“Well,” I said at last. “I seem to attract you for some circumstance I can’t guess at yet. This is not in myself, not inside me I mean, but it must exist and be of some significance for if not, you wouldn’t insist on it. It is not my gift for music or languages what attracts you. Perhaps at the bottom I am silly, clumsy and unintelligent. How can I trust your assessment any longer? What do you know about my learning? You are ready to flatter anybody who is like me and just out of pity. You are insincere, you are deceiving us or yourself with that pretence that we are “astonishing and very pure creatures”. I don’t want to be deceived. You think, you have to console me for something, but it is wrong, I need no consolation at all.”
Agatha was offended and said bitterly:
“It is true that our opinion is of little consequence to you. What could we do for you apart from washing and cleaning. What we say is of no use to you, and maybe because of this reason we say it still more often and more readily, because we are not responsible for you any way. Your intelligence is not for us to judge, and maybe because of that we may issue admiring comments without any risk or compromise. We are not teachers, so we can’t test you or give you any certificate as a reward for your hard work on the examinations. We can’t possibly measure your brain.”
“Right, my brain is none of your business. My so-called “disadvantage” is your business. Then tell me what it is. Is it some obstacle connected with time... or place? Has it something to do with being in this house? Or is it because I am too old already? Or does it have anything to do with poverty? Or with my not having any relatives in the world? And whom do you call “the people like me”? The ones who live in this house too? The ones who have no money? The ones who are my age? I know that I will succeed in the end. But sure, it could mean a very frustrating delay of success in my life.”
“Certainly. And for this reason, we are sorry, very sorry... We have already told your parents so, and we are sincere; we would have been happier and less shocked, if you had been born as a normal child.”
“What is wrong with me?” I asked, shaking slightly.
I hadn’t been able to prevent them from making my bed. It was a bed in the Spanish style with a lot of sheets and blankets, and it took them quite a long time. But now they stopped their work almost simultaneously.
Tired Emily sat down breathlessly to announce the bad news to me:
“Oh, dear, you are so innocent! You don’t feel it yet. But there it is: Imagine that for some irony of destiny you have been left with four senses instead of five. Unconsciously you have had to break with the usual order of senses trying to replace with your four the missing one. You have had to reverse the position of sound, colour and smell. You want to be normal, but you aren’t. Imagine that you are a blind girl. You write differently from us and you read with your hands afterwards. You are a monster of touch... Somebody has to lead you when you go to the streets, if not, you might lose your way or be hurt by cars and wicked people.”
“Unconsciously” And she says, she is ignorant. Do cleaners use these words?
Agatha finished the story more vaguely, but also more cruelly, sheltering in a more abstract plane of speculation:
“Or perhaps you are deaf and dumb or paralysed... So that it is clear that everything you do astonishes and impresses us, even if in the end it is irrelevant what you do, for you cannot do much really...”
“But that’s not true,” I screamed. “There must be a misunderstanding here. I can see you well. I already noticed that you didn’t seem to see that I did. There is nothing dead within me. All is alive. We can think very differently on many kinds of subjects, but we are in the same world. I can describe what I see at present in this room to you, if you want me to. Just try me and my abilities, give me a chance to show you that I can see everything.”
There was an expression of incredulity on their faces, but I went on passionately:
“I wish, I could go away from here and this nightmare. You don’t need to help me find my books, for I can find them myself; and you needn’t tell me that I must be careful with the edge of the table. Listen, I am in-de-pen-dent. There is no sinister shadow over me. What reason should there be for my having to bear this burden all my life? If at least my sacrifice were for the sake of some belief or to protect somebody! Surely there are no blind, nor paralysed, nor deaf people in the world... and this is only a tale of malevolent fiction you have devised.”
Agatha muttered slowly:
“Yes, please, describe what you see to us. We have been told that you, and the ones who are like you, have miraculous faculties, that you know what a person looks like simply by listening to his voice. Is that true?”
I didn’t try to convince them any longer, I only tried to reconstruct for myself what had happened, how our meeting had begun and its different meanings.
I was like a child. But then they told me I had already been living for many years and that I had been studying hard. This news left me strangely dissatisfied and depressed. It meant that my body had committed no sin, only my mind was sinful, for it seemed to be the only element that lived. My key sphere of influence, whether I liked it or not, was my mind. They didn’t refer to my appearance, if I looked beautiful or ugly. I had been raising and dressing... but dresses were not real, only intelligence and patience were real. I had accepted immediately the world I had fallen into. My original, animal carelessness turned into greatness and high aims. Why not? My thoughts at least would be understood, shared and loved. Blankets were not real, cigarettes were not smoked, windows were not opened... Maybe, maybe this is a world where only the essence matters, I reflected, and yet, I didn’t quite succeed in believing it.
I feel, it all fits into the pattern of beginning. You are the first scene of my life. I just didn’t know anything, I was unbiased towards myself and everybody, natural and unafraid even towards death. There is in you the forecast and summary of conflict and beginning. I feel as if I had exchanged a lovely, musical idea, streets and sensual muscles of my body, my own skin and lots of my hair even... just for a distressed and disjointed rhythm without attractions, for a dark and hypnotic speech of lifelessness.
It all had started with my having to begin a day and having to be born somewhere. Surely I’ll be born very soon and I’ll have to face what you have said to me.
I would almost have preferred not to be born. Do you hear me? Perhaps I am already here and I can’t help it, I am not sure. Perhaps it is in my blood to grow up under the circumstances you describe, to be called Iris and to have to meet you. Then you have spoken of God and of “my misfortune”, my being included in a group of people still remote to me and different from you. I have tried to remember all our collective knowledge, the exciting, exuberant party of learning, of questions and answers. But then you are referring again and again to a “very negative condition of my body, my handicap”. This is a world where intellect doesn’t matter, only windows, smoke, appearance, in a word, physical blindness. For you essence and thinking are only a pastime. What about my body then? You go on ignoring my physical development and you pretend that I have no eyes... or no lips and tongue... or no hands... How do you dare say that? This is a place where only strong and perfect bodies count. But don’t look sorry, even if it is true, what you are talking about. This will merely be a delay, a slowing down in my progress, I’ll go ahead and advance forward,
Agatha seemed to be expectant, as if waiting for a confirmation of her theory about my supernatural powers. Then she appeared to give it up, but she still persisted stubbornly by turning around me with tearful eyes and making violent gestures with an umbrella up and down and from right to left, so as to test if I really could see the position of her hands and the colour of her dress which she pointed at several times while she spoke.
“God gives you special powers to tell me what I am wearing and what I am doing with this umbrella. Can you guess what colour my eyes are?”
Emily finished conclusively:
“Isn’t it a miracle already the way how she can live and read and write! It is the fate of certain people to be like her. Well, we can do nothing about it, only pray and hope that science in time might find a solution for her, heal her.”
After two or three minutes of standing around and watching me, they said, they had to go and I didn’t do anything to make our interview last longer. I felt happy about their having other children and other houses to think of. It meant that I wasn’t theirs and they didn’t know me.
When they disappeared, aloneness struck me as being delightful and natural. This is the stage when man has an eternity, while he remains alone; it is precisely when somebody appears, that individuals become mortals and have to live through a limited number of hours or years.
However, what did I want an eternity for? It would be boring, now that I had already dreamed of being with people. The memory of the two women tickled me and caused a reluctant, unwanted laughter in me. What an absurd story! To say that I couldn’t see or hear or move... A flash of stormy conviction and belief told me that everything in my mind and my body responded to the leitmotifs of growth and change. Indeed, my self-awareness had grown so sharp that nothing seemed to escape me at that moment. My feet had contacted a huge amount of shoes and pavements in all possible variations, there was no doubt about that. I was proud of my movement ability. I had been running and running... and I didn’t remember having had any fear of stumbling over obstacles, hitting myself against unseen pieces of furniture or against people’s faces. I went about the room strong and self-assured. I wouldn’t fall down and I wouldn’t be shocked by the sudden presence of lions and tigers coming towards me.
I saw a pair of shoes in a corner and a bottle on a table. But this was more a habit of touch too, I reflected. For I had touched the table before knowing that it was there. Then I discovered that the table was full of books...
And it was in that very instant while taking one of them and reading its Braille characters, that I realised I was a blind girl indeed, as they had said.
The notion didn’t quite sadden me, it didn’t arise at once. There was in these dots and in the written language as a whole such a warmth... I became so involved with the process and enthusiastic about it, that I forgot myself, the stillness of the new day, when all had started for me.
After a while I rose, still thinking of the books that I had found more interesting. The books were wonderful. But my prospects were not good, I shouldn’t deceive myself.
“Perhaps I haven’t been born yet,” I thought anxiously. “This is a clear view of what I would be, if ever I were... And perhaps I am still in time to prevent it from happening, or maybe, it is too late already. My daily tasks, strivings and problems are already predetermined, programmed and rotating through endless space combinations. The point is that I do want to be born; I feel, I do.
A sort of earnest, challenging dream became steadier and steadier inside me: I do want to live, even if I have to be blind. Surely it won’t matter so much. Progress can’t be stopped. I would like to come to the world. But why say I want or I don’t? Most likely, I am already here and I can’t choose.