THE AFFLICTION - Li San Xing
When news got around that there was a three-headed sea serpent headed for the shore, the townsfolk returned to their mid-afternoon work with a renewed gusto, proud of having once again resisted the bluster of local tittle-tattle. The controversy of the last serpent ‘sighting’ was still fresh in people’s minds, and it seemed the blacksmith would never live down the disgrace of summoning everyone to the beach to witness the town crier’s mid-morning swim. So when this latest behemoth drifted close enough to the shore to be identified as three strangers in a rowboat, I, being the only resident who had succumbed to the thrill of conviction, was unable to recognise the momentous occasion for what it was, so blinded was I by the terrible certainty of inheriting the blacksmith’s indignity redoubled.
Nonetheless, I mustered all my nervous apparatus to help the strangers haul their weary vessel onto the beach. Despite the dilapidation of their sackcloth robes and the storm-beaten shambles of their flaxen braids, their strength was embarrassingly superior to mine. Their faces were so kind and young and in such stark contrast to the thickly wrinkled age of their trembling old men’s hands that I couldn’t decide whether they were children cursed with prematurely old hands or old men blessed with divinely young faces; as a result I didn’t know whether to affect an air of condescension or respect. Safe on dry land with their battered craft, each took my hand and heaped copious gratitude upon me. Never in their two years sailing the seas, they told me, had they dared dream of such a warm welcome. Their names – Harald, Kristoffer and Jorgen – seemed to suit their peppery, melodic voices.
It was only then that I realised that their eyes were glazed over, as though coated with a thick film of eggwhite. Noting my fascination, Jorgen explained that many in their homeland had become afflicted by a steady and incurable deterioration of the eye, and that, as their own eyes were at that time still in the early stages of decline, they had been sent on a mission to find a cure.
‘Thus we appeal to the superior expertise of your doctors of the eye’, he repeated in his address to the town later that day, ‘to succeed where our own doctors, themselves afflicted, could not.’
It was not until the Mayor called this meeting in the town hall that I realised the full magnitude of my association with the seafaring strangers. There had not been a stranger washed up on shore for nearly 70 years, and even then the visit had only lasted long enough for the bloated corpse to be pronounced dead by the doctor and dispatched back to the anonymity of the ocean. So when Jorgen had taken the lectern to sensational applause I had been unable to resist a little smile at the congregation from my prestigious seat between Harald and Kristoffer, as though I not only already knew what the visitor had to say, but had in fact composed the much-anticipated speech myself.
Jorgen concluded his address with a proposal. They were carpenters, he said, principally skilled in gluing and assembling, and we should consider them at our disposal day and night in return for the medical care they so sorely needed. At these words the optician promptly rose from his seat and savagely declared that he would work his hands to the bone searching for a cure; a pledge echoed – a little tardily, some noted, and somewhat diluted by a repeated clearing of the throat – by his colleague the optometrist.
Relieving Jorgen of the lectern, the Mayor honoured the three visitors with an invitation to stay as long as they could endure our humble coastal community, and supplemented the offer with the arguably premature gift of a key to the border gates. Finally, asking me to stand, he spoke in tribute to the ‘local hero’ who had ‘overcome the peril of public shame’ to bless the community with the visitors’ presence, words which resonated grimly in the heart of the poor blacksmith, from whose ignominious shadow I had by now fully extricated myself.
The visitors were entrusted to the care of their rescuer, a great honour and even greater burden, as our modest goat farm was barely adequate for my wife and I. But they were more than happy to sleep in the cramped barn, and after only a few hours’ rest we found them in the kitchen, washed and dressed and polishing their carpentry tools with the aid of thick spectacles, which were nothing more than a thick slab of glass strapped to the head with an equally thick leather belt.
‘But it’s after dark’, I insisted. ‘The work will still be there tomorrow.’
‘Yes’, smiled Jorgen, unbuckling his spectacles. ‘A whole day older.’
Each morning the optician arrived at his surgery to find the visitors already waiting outside, their youthful faces gleaming with a purpose and expectation that would sustain them throughout the lethargy of the morning eye tests and long into their evening carpentry. Never in all their years of practice had the optician or optometrist seen a condition quite like theirs. Blind to every visual field and light response test, they were nevertheless able to describe to the minutest detail a cow grazing on a hill some 200 feet away, or a curse on the lips of a distant shepherd. Curiously, the more their eyesight deteriorated, the further into the distance they could see.
‘Human telescopes’, the optometrist told me. ‘I daresay if we left their condition to worsen they’d be capable of seeing all the way around the Earth to their own backsides.’
The optometrist and optician had their work cut out for them, but none was as put out as the carpenter when informed of his obligation to employ three blind men as his assistants. However, true to their word, the visitors’ proficiency in gluing and assembling was beyond compare, and when he saw how seamless their joins were, how extraordinary their ability to work with the most miniature of strips, the carpenter came to view his assistants not as his honourable duty to the town but as a great asset to his business. Asked how work of such intricacy and precision could be performed with corroded eyesight, Harald explained that their skill was entirely instinctive and borne of a determination to once again perceive the intricacy and precision of the world around them. But even this was not enough to keep certain details from disappearing into the fog of their affliction. When describing their homeland they would disagree fervidly over the colour of the trees in the national park, which one insisted were royal purple while the others maintained were green. While one regaled a congregation of locals with the description of a lake of crystal blue surrounding a solemn monastery, another would interrupt to paint the same lake around an extravagant castle. They were even known to quarrel over the colour of Jorgen’s wife’s hair. Despite operating as a single entity in almost every other matter, even their almighty congruence could not withstand the frailty of memory.
The town’s fascination with the visitors continued long after the pendulum of their daily customs had worn its own groove in the local tedium, and as their guardians, my wife and I found ourselves being viewed with a kind of reflected reverence. Morning and night our homes were besieged by townsfolk desperate to learn everything there was to know about our esteemed visitors – what they discussed over breakfast, how they took their coffee, whether or not they snored – our cupboards and drawers fit to bursting with tokens of gratitude. Groceries were free of charge, drinks were on the house, debts conveniently forgotten. I was even elected to the town council to head the newly-formed Department of Visitors. In fact our reputation inflated so dramatically that from dawn to dusk flocks of eagle-eyed townsfolk could be seen poised along the beach, desperate to scavenge their own boatful of visitors.
One day I received a message from the Mayor’s office informing me that another unidentified boat had been spotted heading for the coast. Cursing the opportunistic shoreloafers and their deliberate bypassing of the Department of Visitors to ensure full credit for this sighting, I hurriedly collected my hat and coat and made my way down to the beach. I arrived to find nearly half the town writhing on tiptoe to see over his neighbour, and blowing my Department of Visitors whistle – the purpose of which I was only now beginning to fathom, having been instructed to wear it around my neck at all times – I thrust my way to the front of the mob to make my indispensable professional assessment.
To this day there are those who insist that it didn’t take the head of the Department of Visitors to spot such a wretched hoax. Nevertheless, nothing can alter the fact that until the piercing of my distinguished whistle, that hopeless herd firmly believed they had justifiably abandoned their jobs and homes – and, in some controversial instances, inconsolable babies and furious invalids – for the same fame and prestige bestowed upon me and not, as was in fact the case, the blacksmith’s buffoon son, who had hijacked Jorgen’s rowboat for his malicious simulation of a new crop of visitors.
Not a soul in town disputed the sentence. Even the poor blacksmith, whose wounds of shame had been wrenched open and deepened by the irony of the hoax, condemned his son’s actions and deemed the fourteen- year incarceration sufficient time for him to think about what he’d done. So when the visitors called an emergency meeting in the town hall to discuss the ‘outrage’ of the verdict, everyone assumed that, incensed by the employment of their vessel in the crime, they were calling for the sentence to be extended.
‘Giving people hope’, began Jorgen’s vigorous speech, ‘no matter how false, is by no means a punishable crime. Your town, for instance, has given us hope for regaining our sight. Should you in turn be punished for this?’
From my seat onstage next to Jorgen’s colleagues – a position I now deeply regretted – I could hear the townsfolk’s grumbles of confusion, peppered with the occasional vitriolic mention of my name.
‘In our land’, Jorgen continued, ‘the perpetrator of such a hoax, buffoon or not, would be castigated appropriately. But ultimately he would be shown the light, not cast into darkness like a godless mole.’
They knew the pain of blindness, he said, of being damned to only partial perception of world around them, having committed no crime congruous to this punishment. By imprisoning an innocent man and condemning his perception of the world to the shadows and deception of four walls, the people of this town, he concluded, were no better than the curse of blindness from which he and his own people suffered so terribly.
Needless to say, Jorgen’s speech did not sit well with the townsfolk. After all the town had done for the strangers, taking them in, feeding them, sacrificing two of their finest doctors, giving them a fancy barn to sleep in, how dare they equate the hope of recovery offered by the optician and optometrist to the false hope given by the blacksmith’s buffoon son! And where did they get off comparing their generous benefactors to the blindness that afflicted them?
While not disappearing entirely, the crowd of fanatics and well- wishers in our little kitchen grew perceptibly thinner. We received fewer and fewer gifts, and those we did receive appeared to be of deliberately poor quality. Some gifts, much to the anguish of my wife, were even reclaimed. Funding for the Department of Strangers – formerly the Department of Visitors – was significantly cut, the amputated resources reallocated to the Department of Sanitation. In time the remaining vestiges of local curiosity were replaced by increasingly ludicrous rumours. Upon the strangers’ arrival, in order to ensure fame and fortune, I had apparently not only promised a cure for their condition, a luxurious barn and a key to the town, but also free reign over the town’s virgins. Their boat had not been stolen by the blacksmith’s buffoon son, but had been lent in good faith and in full knowledge of the malicious hoax he intended to unleash. In time, people even began to doubt the veracity of the strangers’ condition. Just how blind could men be who strolled to and from surgeries and up to lecterns without the need of a cane, who glued and assembled so impeccably, and who so relentlessly and contemptuously compared their new surroundings with their obviously far superior homeland?
Much as I urged them to retract their criticisms and reiterated that all crimes committed in the town were punishable by the same 14-year sentence – this being the life expectancy of pinus catharticus, our national tree of forgiveness – my guests stood firm, heedless of their diminished favour within the community. Thus untreated, the disease of discontent spread as severely as their affliction of the eyes, advancing from the malignance of whispered grumblings to a firm, sneering pox of distaste. The innkeeper flagrantly diluted their porter and served them the worst cuts of meat. Their sackcloth robes and braids were openly mocked; their stories criticised for being directionless and dreary. The carpenter, previously delighted by their skill and dedication, began complaining that there was only so much gluing and assembling to be done, and admitted that he had been driven to dismantling furniture and toys just to give them something to do, and that what he really needed was for the sea to wash up strangers who were good at sawing. It was only a matter of time before the optometrist declared the strangers’ affliction too advanced for his modest capabilities, and when one day Jorgen informed me that even the optician had been pointlessly repeating the same futile eye tests, albeit with typical enthusiasm, I knew the strangers’ position in the community had reached the point of no return.
Where only three months earlier the whole town had turned out to welcome the strangers, the beach was significantly bare on the morning of their departure. Even the beach itself was nowhere to be seen, the high tide having quietly excused it from attending. The Mayor had entrusted the deportation and retrieval of the town key to the Department of Strangers, which the council was in the process of dissolving, and in preparation I had scrubbed the strangers’ piteous rowboat clean of all evidence of it ever having been used as a vengeful toilet and packed a fortnight’s supply of my wife’s goat stew and cornbread for their journey. Dragging the boat from the cave onto the beach was such an unprecedented struggle – four months at a desk having sapped the agricultural hardiness from my limbs – that when Jorgen handed me a small, hand-carved wooden trinket in the shape of a little rowboat, I was amazed at his foresight in preparing a gift of thanks so appropriate to the moment.
‘It’s not a rowboat’, he said. ‘It’s an eye. A gift for the blacksmith’s son. So that he may never forget the beauty that awaits him outside his blindness.’
As disappointed as I was, I promised to steal the ornament into the prison, and buried it in my satchel along with the key to the town. One by one the strangers embraced me, and I was so struck by the profound warmth of their goodbyes that I almost forgot my bitterness at not receiving a gift, and for the ruins of a prominence that had crumbled as unexpectedly as it had risen and left in its wake a shame greater than any goat farmer – even any blacksmith – could ever suffer.
When I asked if they were confident of safely navigating their way home, Jorgen smiled and shook his head.
‘Home is not our destination. When at sea, the only way we are able to judge the compassion of a foreign people and the quality of their eyesight is by how many souls are gathered along the coast to watch us approach land. In our long and treacherous voyage we spied many foreign lands, but in all that time, you, my friend’, he said, holding my shoulders in his wrinkled hands, ‘you were the only soul we ever saw looking back at us. Before that day we saw you gazing out to sea, waving and calling us ashore, we were ready to give up hope. If not for you, we would happily return home empty-handed. But you have showed us that our quest is not in vain, that there may be others like you waiting on other lands, and that we may yet triumph over our affliction before returning to the opal cliffs of our beloved homeland.’
I thought I could see Harald open his mouth to correct his friend’s description, but now was not the time. Now was also not the time, I thought, as I feebly helped the strangers cast off their rickety boat and watched them drift away to almost certain doom on the waves, to confess that the only reason this compassionate and observant soul had waved and called out from the shore that day was to attract the attentions of a three-headed sea serpent.