In the Country of the Blind
The colors were the first to go, the day Ciela went blind—the hot yellows of Indian mallow, the reds of firewheel—until the world became as cool as the blues of Lago Cuerde, as cool as midnight at Mt. Elijah or the cheek of a sleeping child.

It was in the morning, mostly, that Ciela struggled to remember the last thing she had seen. The small girl, of course, straining in her yellow sundress as she scratched at the material like old skin. But rather than complaining to her mother, she separated from her and walked to the small shop next door to Ciela’s, one of a dozen makeshift stores at the market, where a small dark woman sold geckos housed in glass containers. The floors of the containers were lined with white sand and the glass backs covered with glossy preprinted desert scenes—a cactus or a boulder or a sunrise. The girl scratched at her shoulder with one hand as she pressed against the glass front with the other. The gecko stared at her spread fingers. Her mother coaxed her back to Ciela’s store, and the young girl, resigned to her impending portraiture, posed on the front edge of the seat beside the easel.

Ciela sketched in the girl’s thin arms, then the shoulders emerging from the yellow cotton straps, and the stitched ornamentation resting against her pink neck. The girl’s lips tensed, and her eyes darted from one mark on the wall to another. Then, with a surprising but tranquil composure, they followed Ciela’s hand and the pencil as it scratched across the paper. Ciela heard the vague and approving comments from the two women—“such a realistic expression,” said one, and “such accurate coloring,” said the other. “And the texture…the length of the hair,” they both agreed. In twenty minutes, the girl’s image was complete. But rather than giving her own approval of the portrait, the girl’s gaze drifted toward the storefront next door with the geckos and their glass-front containers and their cacti and boulders and sunrises.

Two days later, there was the father of the dead infantryman, whose portrait Ciela painted from the sole remaining photo of his son in civilian dress. It was a gift, the father explained, for his wife, his son’s mother, who had prayed for his return in time for his 19th birthday from the distant sands of the Middle East to the desert highlands of New Mexico.

“It’s cool in the north,” he told Ciela, as she molded the boy’s checks with her slender brush. His emerging half-grin, as well as the nearly mischievous eyes that peered from beneath a fallen twist of hair, made the boy seem younger. “Can you show him at home? In the coolness?” the man asked.

Disregarding the sweat on the boy’s checkered collar and the blaze of full sun across his shirt and neck and face, she accommodated the man’s request and placed his son standing amidst the cool green of the high desert, enshrouded by the fallacy of shade pines and grassland, his history erased. Home, Ciela thought, as his eye took shape.

The last season she had set up shop at the tourist market, most of her business came from capturing portraits, not of locals, but of roadway travelers for souvenirs, a remembrance of their time in the desert southwest, in the heat near the border and the sand of Sonora. For some patrons, the portraits were more than souvenirs—the reality of their travels, for posterity, but such requests were rare. The travelers who fooled themselves into believing posterity and reality were the same were more plentiful and easy to spot, for they had similar physical characteristics—white flesh tones and randomly scorched complexions. The children and wives and husbands, the sisters and brothers would comment on her skill in rendering their likenesses so perfectly, like the snap of a photograph. And they commented on the desertscapes—the vividness of the cacti and the mesas, the earth’s physical truth. Yet, for Ciela, they were stock images, stock memories, and a distant reality.

During the height of the tourist season, buses would arrive and line up along the asphalt like soldiers in drill. Passengers would chaotically disembark, and then quickly reassemble into the single file of the food court luncheon lines. They would fill their plates with tortillas kept warm and pliable in steam trays. They would fill the tortillas with oily beef and pinto beans, as if these southwestern delicacies were more remarkable than the food served at the drive-through taco stands in Los Angeles or the buffets in Las Vegas. In fact, the food, like the tourists had all been shaped and shipped there by the truckload, shifting in the trailers and cargo vans with hand painted logos and primitive images of half shucked ears of corn and farmers and field hands grinning broadly through their dark brown complexions—smiling over rows of deep red tomatoes, smiling through mounds of fleshly picked lettuce, smiling over grinding stones, sacks of corn meal, hot oil. And everything was fresh, even if it wasn’t.

Amid the commotion of off-loaded produce and off-loaded tourists, Ciela would compose her painting supplies: a small case of oils, acrylics, a blending palette, a walnut easel, a tray of pencils and pastels, a large drawing pad, a stack of small canvasses.

Ciela suspected that her blindness was her own doing, that her acquiescence to fictionalized desert art and family desires for happiness where none was capable of existing, and the need to coax smiles from these terse lips, the desire for cool flesh beneath the sun’s force, or delight from despair, trained her, urged her toward blindness.

But she knew there was more to it than that. She knew that spirits appeared with the living, that voices arose with silence, and that colors merged with the gray of the Black Hills and the white of bones.

Lucero thought it was her imagination, her loss of sight, rather than a physical malady, but she had searched her paints and her palette thoroughly—the oils, the acrylics—and she could not distinguish the primaries from the pastels or the gold from the burnt umber. And his comments on her blindness, at times, bordered on patronizing, as he reassured her that she would persevere and move on and on, unscathed. Did he think she did not understand colors after all these years? Visions after all she had seen?

Her husband failed to grasp that it was not her sight that she had lost as much as her vision. Her eyes could still see the circle of sun that rose above the Canelo Hills each morning. Occasionally, even the details coalesced—the stripedtail setting up housekeeping in her moccasins (perhaps it was the scorpion who lacked clear eyesight, mistaking a moccasin for the desert floor). And the random path of Russian thistle outside of town and the chaotic sprouting of Canadian horseweed that endured the mid day temperatures at the scorching space between Nogales and Lochiel.

In truth, Lucero was not even her husband, although it made it easier for both of them to think of it as so. Once, it was easier for all concerned—before her mother’s death, and her father’s two years after—to apply his name, to speak of themselves as wife and husband. Her father’s acceptance particularly surprised her since he had only met Lucero briefly, years earlier. At the time, Lucero was a boy, and her father readily pointed out the foolishness of his boyhood and his innocence. “What do you know of…” he had once asked Lucero, but his voice faded before finishing the question. Her mother had kissed his cheek—an image she still remembered quite clearly—before their departure, before their joining together. How could she not see him as her husband?

In the midst of her blindness, she had given herself over to words. Before, she had never laid down to paper a single poem. She had not transcribed a single story, although she had heard many, and lived many, until the day she lost her sight. Clearly both poems and stories needed to be written down, perhaps concurrently—the story being the poem, the poem being the narrative, the tale being the song. Ciela found it hard to distinguish between them, now that she was blind. Who would insist that Mercado had no music or that Paz had no tale? Her mother could never resist the opportunity to sing her life, and her life became less a story than a poem, less a story than a song. Throughout her mother’s life, and near the end, she could not help but sing the first vision of her husband, the story of their encounter, and the recitative of their life.

Ciela wrote fragments:

In the desert
I step slowly
pausing long enough to fill
my own shadow, pour my body
into shelter. My hot blood persists.

She spoke the fragments to her husband in the mornings, but he was sighted and, she imagined, distracted by threads of clouds or spires in the distance, as she would have been distracted in her sighted life. Now it was only the hot breeze across her skin and the call of a wren. Lucero responded with a quizzical “umm,” to her words, and she was never certain if he understood her or even heard her.

As of late, Ciela drifted only briefly past the image of her mother and the desert, and the crossing of borders from south to north, from east to west. From the Sonora and Ajo of her childhood, and later from Papago to Phoenix. She remembered how her mother navigated them toward Ciela’s first home and how her mother bore her through will and faith, without a hospital, without a doctor or nurse, without a midwife or neighbor. She held Ciela, touched her, and wrapped her in cotton clothing after the birth along the vague and dusty shoulder of the road. After 30 years together, what had Ciela not told her husband of this life? What story, suddenly recalled, had she not spoken of? Her birth beside the highway. Her life traveling that same road. The border towns to the south and the industry to the north. Her mother’s grasp. Her caress. What stories did he need to know? What did he need to see?

“Have I ever touched your lips with my fingers before?” he had asked her in bed one night.

“I imagine,” she replied, although she could not say truthfully. “You’ve kissed them. Does that count?”

He dipped a finger into his water glass then drew it across her lips and lingered on the dry crease and then the moistness within the separation of her lips. He drew the water over the dryness.

“There. That’s one more thing I’ve done,” he said, and she recognized within his voice a pleasure that she resented. “How could I have missed that for so long?” he asked as he touched the corner of her mouth. Her lips tightened.

“Where does this sudden desire come from?” she asked.

“All these years I’ve never really been able to surprise you.”

“So you enjoy that I can’t see?”

She felt the air move across her face as he waved his hand in front of her, and she swatted at it.

“You shouldn’t try to take advantage of an old blind girl,” she told him.

“Yeah, well don’t read too much into it,” he said, but his reassurance seemed halfhearted.

During the night she felt his fingers move across her cheek and her hair. She felt his lips on hers. She did not move, which only gave credence to her suspicion that, with her blindness, came frailty. And her frailty increased in direct proportion to Lucero’s boldness. What seemed like newness to her husband only struck Ciela as loss.

A few summers earlier, during a visit with them in their apartment in Phoenix, her mother embraced Lucero. She recognized his kindness, she told him, a kindness that managed to endure through all things. “Cultivo. Acaricio,” she said. She held him tightly, her face against his. She kissed his lips firmly, with the kiss of a lover. She said, without compunction, that she thought of him as her lover, as the desert, as though his name were not Lucero, and Ciela realized it was not Lucero her mother kissed, but something else.

“Espacio,” she told Ciela as she stroked her husband’s face. “Antiguo. Silencioso.”

Unlike Lucero, Ciela had always been the desert—stormy and resilient and tormented. The path and the horizon. The near and the distant. The beginning and the end. Ciela had tried to reconcile, if not to reclaim her vision, or at least to reclaim her sanity when her sight had faded. As she tried to recall her final vision, she also tried to remember the tapering away of that vision. Although she could not pinpoint the exact moment of her blindness, she imagined it to be somehow justified, as if she had seen it all.

She knew what true blindness was. She had seen it. The woman leading the man. The wife and the husband. He wearing the broad brimmed hat, she the cotton scarf. He the denim jacket and she the beaded vest. He the dark glasses and she the tortoise shell spectacles.

The woman also wore a cane and hobbled through the entryway with the man close behind her. Her left foot leading the man’s foot, her wooden cane tapping before the man’s left leg, step by step, she guided him into the market. The man’s broad black glasses cast shade across his prominent nose and thick lips. Then he was all in shadow. He gripped the woman’s arm as she cautiously led him through the parted curtains of Ciela’s art enclave. The man followed her to the two chairs that divided the sitting area from the display of completed prints.

“Buenos dias,” Ciela said. “Can I help you?”

The woman twisted around in her chair and looked along the row of prints lining the side wall of the shop. She leaned into her cane and lifted herself from the chair. The man loosened his taught fingers from the woman’s arm, and she separated from his grasp. She traced the strokes of an oil—a scene from the foothills of Tucson, a lone girl kneeling on the shoulder of the path and gathering stones into the pockets of her blue dress. The late morning sun beat down on the path and the shoulders of the girl. In the background, a curtain of rain fell along a stretch of hills and washed into the valley before it. The sun in the foreground, the storm in the distance was a phenomenon Ciela had seen often in the low desert regions. The girl, however, she could not remember. The woman inched her fingers along the streaks of light and the streaks of rain.

“Paint us,” she finally said.

“Both of you?”

“Yes. Us,” she said, then turned and lowered herself into her chair. The man’s hand grazed the woman’s forearm, then rested it on his jean-clad thigh.

Life was hard, Ciela thought, for what seemed like the first time, although the idea had occurred to her many times in the past when reflecting on her mother, her father, even her own life. It was something she had always known. In this case, it was hard for both the man and the woman, but especially for the woman. She carried her stilted weight while leading the weight of the man. She carried the weight of her vision for herself and the man. She saw for the man. That had to be especially hard. Yes, she had always known life was hard, but now she knew it again, and as if for the first time.

When Ciela raised the question of backgrounds, the woman seemed suddenly confused, and her eyes squinted into the sputtering fluorescent tube on the ceiling just above the curtain to the entrance.

“What do you need to know?” the woman asked, and her cheeks relaxed and her eyes closed.

The misunderstanding was obvious, and at first Ciela raised her arm toward the portraits, her gesture sweeping the length of the side wall. As the woman with her eyes closed showed little interest in Ciela’s suggestion, she returned to the woman’s question. Yes. There was much Ciela needed to know: the dark glasses, the half dreary eyes, the hardwood cane, the details of struggle, the weight of responsibility, the weight of care, of love.

In completing the preliminary drawing of the woman and the man, the hands were the most difficult to capture, which surprised Ciela. She would have guessed the eyes. It had always been the eyes in the past—the depth of blue, the sadness or joy that emanated from the iris, from the center. Now, she captured the hue and tears of the woman’s eyes, the vastness, the ocean within the edges of her flesh, even when the woman’s eyes would drift closed, hiding the ocean and the sandlines.

But oh, the hands. The woman’s fingers slipped over a portion of the man’s exposed arm, the space revealed where the cuffs of his sleeves were drawn up and folded over, a sparse feathering of downy hair. The woman’s freshly scrubbed fingernails held the stubborn stain of earth that embellished the yellowing tips. And the man’s fingers, each bend as thick and cracked as a dry riverbed, cupped softly over the papery skin of the woman’s left hand.

When Ciela took her first sketch of the man and the woman home, and she showed Lucero the hands, the fingers, the eyes—drowsy, half-closed, and tearing to nearly overflowing, she told him of her apprehension in capturing the pair, blind or sighted, at rest or in love, content or enthralled.

“Why is it so important to choose?” he asked.

“It can’t be all those things,” she told him.

“Why?” he said, as he studied the black and gray lines.

“Choices need to be made,” she said.

“This,” he said, and followed the length of the woman’s hair.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“And his glasses?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t know the choices.”

He set the sketch on the table, where Ciela picked it up later to further consider the choices. The visionary and the tactile. The eyes and the lips. The color and the contrast. The skin and the hair. The composition. The commitment. The choices.

The woman’s eyes focused forward, then down under Ciela’s quick erasure, then back until she was not certain what they revealed—mere labor for the sake of the man’s blindness, or a translucent shroud, veiled and muted eyes. She followed the man’s hand to the woman’s arm. And as Ciela erased, the lines became less distinct, not in the sense of eliciting a blending of the two as much as an eradication of the two. The husband became less a man than a morning vapor, a mist, and the wife swept the page like a breeze, or swirls of sand until both figures blended into something unrecognizable, or nothing. Still, Ciela drew and erased, envisioned and reenvisioned the tenuous sweep of the man and the woman.

In the morning, sheets of paper lay strewn across the table, each revealing a version of lines and spaces and erasures, the table itself becoming an impression of real life. She felt Lucero’s hand rest upon her shoulder. She watched his shadow drift across the still life of table and paper, which made her images even harder to discern.

“It’s nothing,” she said. The predawn light slipped through the window. Lucero lifted the papers and laid them out edge to edge.

“It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing,” Lucero said.

One night, after she had gone blind, Ciela dreamed of the woman and the man. In her dream, the lame woman and the blind man drew open the curtain and entered her enclave. What seemed at first to be synchronicity between the woman’s cane and the man’s foot, was not synchronicity at all. The man appeared to lead her through the entryway. The man stepped not as follower at all, but in tandem with the woman’s step, the tilt of her shoulders and cane.

“I can help you,” Ciela said to the man in her dream. She touched his shoulder, but he turned away.

“I can help you,” Ciela repeated.

“How can you help me?”

“With my sight.”

“Do you think you can’t stumble in the bright light of day?” the man asked, and turned from Ciela.

When the man removed his dark glasses, the brightness of his eyes illuminated the chairs before them. Shade and shadow had dispersed. Along Ciela’s wall, beside portraits of desert frontiers and distant travelers, were shelves of bones, bleached white beneath the force of the yellow sun, and skulls and arms and legs; hips and shoulders. Ciela shut her eyes tightly to black out the brightness of the sun and the bone and the man’s eyes, but she continued, even in darkness, to envision the man and the woman, treading the sand of the desert, one moving with the other, one guiding and the other urging—and in this way the two approached the distance of the red hills and the horizon in one painting. The man held to the flesh of the woman’s arm, her hand upon his. Together, they traced their fingers over other paintings—the foothills of Tucson, the girl on the path, stumbling forward, with stones in her pockets. They touched her. They knew her as well as they knew the valley and the streaks of rain.

“Sueño, vuelvo,” the woman said.

The dream startled Ciela and woke her. She reached toward her sleeping husband and touched his cheek and damp hair. She recited to him a fragment:

“Vacia, vacia”

the scent of fire,

not the blaze,

not the blinding light

not the consequence,

or the human consumption.

She told him stories, but he was sleeping and did not hear.

She was beset by sadness, but it seemed not to be her sadness. Not the sadness of weakness or dependence. Not the sadness of distance or isolation. Nor the sadness of age or regret or death. Not the sadness of a woman at all, but the sadness of a child, the sadness of a girl, solemn, as if she had finally witnessed the desert at dawn. She stood and felt her way to the window. She reached out slowly and searched forward for the glass, and she pressed her fingers against the glass. Through the haze of a young girl's tears, she began to see the rising of yellow sun, the burgeoning of firewheel, and the swirling of red dust. She closed her eyes and began to tell her story and her mother’s story, which now seemed to only hold truth within a young girl’s solemnity.

“Acaricia,” she whispered and touched her face.

She told the story of her mother’s kindness and her father’s constancy.

“Cultivo. Humanidad,” she said.

“Lucero is the desert,” went the story.

“I am the desert,” went the story.

“As we all are the desert,” went the story.

They were more fragments than stories. The path and the horizon. The near and the distant. The beginning and the end.

JEFFREY IHLENFELDT received his MFA from Goddard College.  He has been a featured author at the Lancaster Book Festival and the Greater Reading Literary Festival.  His short stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Adirondack Review, Southern Humanities Review, Columbia Review, and Louisville Review. He has been a writer-in-residence at Ledig House International Writer’s Colony among others, and is currently Associate Professor in English at Harrisburg Area Community College, where he teaches writing and literature. 
Finalist for the 2012 Fulton Prize