Arcis, 319 E.V., Cent. 15 - Five years earlier
The twitch beneath his eye is incessant. He is scared too. The moment the milky haze appeared in my eyes, he was honest with me about what could happen when the physicians discovered it. Father is always honest with me, and sometimes that honesty leaves pricking splinters of pain. He does not mean to hurt me. I suppose lying to me would do me more harm than good.
“I should have taken that post,” he breathes as he watches out the front window. His regret fogs the glass.
“You would be miserable,” I say.
“You would not be.”
“I would be miserable because you would be miserable,” I say, standing from the couch. He extends his hand and pulls me to his side as soon as my fingers meet his.
A white car pulls around our corner; the vehicle is made of rounded edges, and as it pulls closer to our house, iridescent patterns glint against the stark white side-panels. It reminds me of a soap bubble, or perhaps two bubbles conjoined, as soap bubbles are wont to do.
“They let mining children stay with their parents,” Father says, clasping my shoulder.
“I do not think that is true,” I breathe. My hands throb as my heart beat thunders in my veins. The bubble car stops in front of our walk and my blood roars.
Father pulls me away from the window. “Zafirah, go to your room and wait.”
“Good fortune. Go, now,” he says. He turns me and gives me a gentle push towards the direction of my bedroom. A knock on the front door. I run to my room and close the door behind me.
Muffled male voices travel down the hall, but their conversation is too soft for me to hear, even with my ear pressed to the door. I wish I could hear Father’s voice at least, telling them that I am healthy and that they do not need to bother checking for themselves. I hope that is what he says.
Several weeks ago, he had the opportunity to leave Arcis on a new mining expedition, but he turned it down, despite the fact that it might have ensured the longevity of my secret. I am not sure why. When I asked, he said that he is not the sort of person who runs. I do not know what he would be running from. It is hard to imagine how life would have been different if we had left. I might be blind by now, but I would be with him.
“Zafirah?” Father knocks twice on my door and then opens it. He steps inside and folds his hands.
“Are they gone?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “They have asked to see you in the front room. Doctor Skah is going to give you an exam and ask you a few questions, like we practiced.”
“He will find out,” I say.
Father fishes for something in his pocket. He withdraws his hand. His eyes are red.
“If someone tries to hurt you, use this.” He hands me a little silver disk. “Press the center of it if you are in trouble.”
I grasp the disk. “This is a strange birthday present,” I say.
“It is not a present, it is a weapon. It will not kill, but it could afford you a head start.”
“Thank you,” I breathe. I do not know what more to say to him about it. Father is desperate; he will not let me hold a sharp knife, normally, let alone give me one to keep in my pocket for protection.
“Adrau!” A gruff male voice calls.
Father bolts for my door but glances at me as he leaves. A tear escapes and splashes on his cheek. “Wait!” I whisper.
He stops and glances back at me from the doorway. I go to him and lift my hand to his cheek to wipe the tear. He stops my hand. “Let them see,” he whispers. Father kisses my palm and releases it.
The front room is saturated with a dull, grey light, which radiates from a man with hollow eyes. He wears a grey long-coat—a physician’s raiment—and it is ill-fitting on his slim frame, as if he has no muscles at all. Likewise his trousers pool at his ankles. Though he is taller than Father, this man is not as tall as his trousers. Even his shoes swallow him up. This uniform is not his. The only garment that belongs to him is the long shadow that reaches for me. This must be Doctor Skah.
Behind the fake physician, an officer looks right at me; though his gaze is detached, he is not severe. I would trust my life in his hands more readily than the man he guards.
“Zafirah, your father tells me you’re quite healthy,” the skinny man says.
“I am never ill,” I say, mustering every ounce of stubborn will that Father berated me for in the past. This man does not deserve my civility.
“You have light eyes,” he says.
“That may be true, but I’d like to examine them,” he says. “Come here, Zafirah.”
I do not want to walk into his shadow. This man has stolen his uniform. What might he steal from me?
“Adrau?” Doctor Skah says. Father gasps my shoulder and pushes me toward the man. As soon as I am within his reach, the skinny man wraps a hand around my wrist. I look down at his grey shoes. The laces are tied so tightly that the grommets are pulling out of the holes. The tongue of the shoe is squished and forced upwards, trapping the hem of his trousers underneath.
“Let me inspect you,” he says, touching my chin.
I jerk from him and he grabs my chin. “Relax,” he says, fingers tightening.
“I am fine,” I say.
A sick expression of pleasure crosses his face. “Her mother’s eyes?” Skah asks Father.
“Yes,” Father says.
“How long have they been like this?”
“Less than a year,” Father says. “But she can still see.”
“So green,” Skah says appreciatively. “You have the wilds in you.”
His hand slips over my mouth and I bite him, hard. He shoves me away from him and Father catches me. “I’m amazed, Adrau,” the man says. “You kept the wilds alive in that girl. When did she turn?”
“She was born with her mother’s eyes,” Father says.
“Those eyes aren’t strong enough for Arcis, and you know that.”
I do not understand what he means. How could inheriting my mother’s eyes be bad? It is the only part of her I have left.
“May I have a word?” Skah asks Father, gesturing towards the kitchen. Father nods once and leads the doctor out of the room.
“When did the opacity develop?” the physician asks. I lean against the wall beside the door, hidden but able to listen intently.
“She has had a few problems with her vision her whole life,” Father says. “But the cloud has formed in the last year, as I said.”
“It does seem progressive,” the physician says. “It’s only a partial opacification at this point, but the lens of her eye will continue to denature and whiten if we don’t operate on it.”
“I do not want her to be operated on,” Father says. “She will be in pain.”
“She’ll go blind. You’d neglect your daughter, Dabir? After you turned down an assignment that could have saved her life?” the physician whispers.
“You insinuate that I do not care for my daughter’s needs,” Father says. “If she is with me, that is all she needs. I have been father and mother to that girl, trying to teach her and provide for her, and I have to live with the fact that she has an ailment I cannot soothe. Why would I also deliver her to pain?”
“She won’t be in pain,” the offensive man says, backtracking. “Many children in Arcis have cataracts; they’re easily treated. It’s a five minute procedure, nothing more.”
“Do they also have her wild eyes?” Father breathes. I lean around the doorway. Father’s dark eyes are rimmed with shadows, cast by a brow that might never unfurrow.
“What would you do to her?” Father asks, eyes circling the Arcis emblem on the physician’s boots.
“Replace her cloudy lens with an artificial one. It’ll remove the cloud, and the artificial disk won’t denature.”
Father glances at me. His face sags under the weight of the decision. He gestures for me to move out of the doorway, and his shoulders hunch forward as he chooses for me.
“I cannot pay,” Father says. He is a night repairman at the city roofing company, fixing the rubber, lightning-repellant shingles that protect each house in the city, which are otherwise too hot to repair in the daylight. The company provided my father with a house and ration plan when he was hired, but otherwise, we have nothing to offer the physician to fix the haze in my eyes, and nothing to bribe him to let me stay.
I back out of the doorway and sit against the wall in defeat.
“We’ll treat her without payment, if you’ll allow us to monitor her in our facility for a few weeks.” Skah’s tone betrays his delight. As they return to the front room, the man spots me on the floor. He reads all of my fear, my distrust—and it pleases him.
I will not be coming back here.
Father kneels beside me and holds out his arms. I fold myself in his embrace, face hidden from the fake doctor. “Obey Doctor Skah,” Father whispers. “And remember.” He pats my pocket, where the disk lays hidden.
“Do not let him take me,” I say.
“Stand up,” Father says. He releases me and helps me to stand.
Skah gestures to the officer. The man holds out a chemical mask. “To be safe,” the officer says to me.
The image of the chemical worker flashes in my mind. His green eyes and mine. His face, unmasked.
“No,” I say.
“Zafirah, it is for your safety,” Father says. I glance back at him and shake my head.
“I am not afraid,” I say.
“Your bravery is admirable, but it is still dangerous,” the officer says.
“It’s the wilds in her,” Doctor Skah says, clapping me on the shoulder. “Open the door, Tarq. The girl said No.”
Officer Tarq pulls his own chemical mask over his face, hiding whatever reaction he might have had to my refusal. Skah masks himself and pushes me towards the door. As it opens, I take a deep breath.
“Surely she might have a second to pack a bag,” Father says.
Skah turns back to him. “We’ll provide for her.”
OfficerTarq touches my shoulder and indicates the front walk. Skah falls into step beside me. I glance back at Father over my shoulder. He stands in the doorway, but from my perspective, it looks as if he is standing just beside my mother’s white gravestone. And he is so broken, fracturing more with every step I take from him. I feel so close to him, so determined to survive for him. We are bound by the tragedy of my departure, by the prospect of forever. If I die, will he put up a stone for me?