By Anchalee Vivathanachai, the 1990 SEA Write Award Winner
Of the million words known to me, the most mysterious of all was when I heard someone cry, with great delight radiating from that voice: “Look! Look at that colour .” I always wondered how to conceive the body of colour from its sound, shape and texture as I did with other things. But it was to no avail; my ears and fingertips were useless for tracing its existence.
They told me the only way to comprehend colour was to see it through your own eyes, not the other way around. To see through your own eyes … I was at a loss. They tried to unfold one mystery to me by bringing up another. I could tell the world I had a flawless childhood, as happy and normal as any other child. Why did life need more, since I did not think I was missing out on any treasures?
I enjoyed dolls and stuffed animals, especially ones with fluffy hair so soft and comforting to the touch. And on a hot summer’s day nothing tasted more pleasant than a cool ice cream bar melting on the tip of the tongue. I might not have been the best at playing hide-and-seek with children my age. But when we switched to jump rope, as long as I listened to the rope swinging steadily against the ground, I could jump over and under it for good lengths of time and in synchrony with each swing, beating other light-footed kids with little effort.
But all that fun could not compare to the miracle of rain. How I cherished the days when rainfall, God-sent from heaven, blanketed the world with its sounds and rhythms. Not only did rain strengthen my awareness, it heightened my sense of wonder ten-fold…
As sheets of rain from thousands of droplets swept the ground, they created acoustic echoes to map the shapes of the landscape around the house, which had before seemed vague and unknown to me.
As heavy rain fell, the surrounding existence disclosed itself to me. My world was open and alive. I knew clearly where our roof was from listening to the echoes of tiny droplets pattering. I became aware of where the wall stood from the tinkle of each drop drip-drip dripping down the wall and joining rivulets soaking the ground. Near the wall, I could point to where small puddles formed and began to spread out, from the raindrops splash-splash-splashing into them. Farther out, I could point to the outline of grass on the front lawn, where rain sounded softer and deeper as water seeped through dense blades of grass. And during a real downpour, I could even tell where the curve of the street in front of the house was from the heavy drops of rain noisily striking its concrete surface.
Beyond the edge of our fence on the other side of the street, the liveliness of the rain grew dull and faint and the landscape more obscure to me. I only heard the rain murmur indistinctly from afar. Far away, where rain only murmured and whispered, all things under its tone remained a mystery. Out there all vanished from my awareness as if it simply ceased to exist.
When I was much younger, I truly believed that behind that border must be where our world came to an end, void of all presences. But my elder sister assured me no one disappeared; presences were always there all the time.
Catching the confidence in her voice, I asked how she knew there were things beyond the reach of sound. Was she fooling me? But she never gave me an answer.
Sometimes while at leisure, chit-chatting as sisters often did, something senseless slipped from her mouth, too bizarre for me to figure out, as if she secretly understood what I did not and took my tongue-tied response as triumph over me. However, it happened only when our parents were not around.
Oh, how I wished to know what lay beyond that border where the varied notes of rainfall diminished to an inaudible whisper…
Once, I found myself in a strange dream as I made my way into an abandoned house I had never set foot in before. With no signs of life, the silence grew more intense with every step. As I tried to find a solid wall to guide my way, I toppled over something, tripped over something else and stumbled onto the floor. The hollow echoes bouncing from the crash hinted that I had strayed into a vast room, so vast that finding the wall would be an effort. My panic grew as I realized I was lost. No one knew I had intruded into this place and was now trapped here alone.
That was when I felt swift movements at my feet, what seemed like bodies of small creatures scraping my legs. They squeaked. They hissed. They scratched. They gnawed and made rustling noises as they scurried here and there across the enormous floor. Their sounds sent shivers down my spine.
They were rats. Dozens or hundreds of them were swarming around me, now sniffing boldly at my feet. And soon more might show up to join their large group.
As panic and fear swept over me, a miracle occurred. I felt dripping from overhead hit my face, drenching my
body with numerous needle-like droplets of cool liquid.
I listened with disbelief to the arrival of the familiar deafening rush. It rained . It was pouring right in the heart of the room. I didn’t know how this could happen. But it did.
The pouring rain made the creepy vermin scurry away. I hurried in the direction the thuds came from. I knew the sound; it was rain hitting a wall with full force. I inched my way along the wall while the rain warned me through different sound patterns where crates and boxes lay sprawled along the floor.
The merciful rain led me out to safety. When the rain could not help widen my range of awareness, I looked for its counterpart, the wind, to find the presence of things beyond the reach of rain.
I could tell from the wind that some distance from my house was a grove up a gentle slope with rows of tall trees. And I was surprised when my sister asked me how I knew, for we had never been up there.
On any windy day, I thought she must feel the strong wind blowing from that direction. She must hear the wind swirling and tossing the treetops along the slope before sweeping like a rolling wave across a patch of field to where our house stood. And as the wind found her, would she not be aware of its gift of fresh, scented wildflowers and its playful caress over her body?
She sounded displeased in her response, accusing me of the nonsense I conjured.
I always thought everyone was just like me. I had spent years with my siblings. I laughed my head off; I cried my heart out, sharing, fighting and playing with them day and night. And yet no one slipped a word to let me know.
So little was I aware that I lacked something until my family began to reveal, as I was about to start school, that I was different from the rest of the family due to the fact I was blind. Whereas most people had eyesight, they said, I did not and never would because I had been born with defective optic nerves that had permanently damaged my sight.
I had never felt more stunned than by this announcement. My parents did not immediately expect me to grasp the meaning of this strange word: blind . So many questions popped up. What did blindness, or in their words, the condition of being unable to see, really mean? And most of all, why did I need to see? It did not make sense to me to see, not in the least.
Their answer turned my world upside down. With my realization of that truth, I was reborn into a new world, a world of sight but without having sight myself to fit in.
First, they brought up the time I played hide-andseek with my siblings. Did I wonder why I was always the first in the group to be found and yet hardly caught anyone else while they hid? That was because the other children had an extra sense called sight that enabled them to spot the presence of things instantly, including my whereabouts, from where they stood, and did not need to move forward to touch me or strain their ears to catch my movements as long as their eyes were open.
And what was wrong with me? In place of vision, I had to wait for echoes of their footsteps and the rustle of dry twigs and leaves while they tiptoed behind bushes. Without sound, I was at a loss. Silence and stillness blindfolded me while not hindering children who were born with sight.
How shocked and terrified I was at this new discovery. Only in later years, by using comparisons, did I find a way to come closer to understanding the concept of blindness. The inability of the blind to see was in fact not far different from common people detecting things through the power of the mind in terms of a sixth sense. Its existence was as inconceivable to them as the existence of sight was to the blind. In short, ordinary people were as deprived by nature of that extraordinary sense as the blind were of sight.
However, it seemed not their concern whether or not they lacked this specific sense, let alone needed it in their lives. Similar to my case, perhaps, regarding eyesight.
And yet I could not accept the fact without feeling cut off from my family, not to mention the rest of the world. It would have been more merciful had they never told me what I was missing, and thus launching my new phase.
While my family had a good time in front of the TV, I now knew not only could they enjoy voices on the screen but they also perceived another phenomenon, vision – a total void for me to imagine. My world was as wide as the length of my arm, whereas their world was almost infinite through the magic of their eye lens.
After I learned of my blindness, they started to treat me as blind, to my advantage, they assured. My parents had let me nestle in my world my entire life and now they said I needed to emerge and adjust to reality. Patiently, they managed to describe what they believed I was missing in their world of sight.
To teach me how to “visualize”, they substituted the otherworldly sense of the visual with senses I was familiar with. For instance, if I was curious to understand what stars at night looked like, I could turn to the water sprinkler. The quick, quick, quick movements of numerous little points of sprinkling water that I felt pattering on my open palm should come close to the image of stars twinkling in immeasurable numbers.
If we went outside, my mother would hold my hand while we took a walk and I could never let go of her hand; the iron rule which I must never violate. She would watch my every step like a hen guarding her brood. My sister and brother would take turns sharing with me verbally what was going on around us in terms and concepts they believed a sightless person could follow.
And yet as soon as they turned to communicate with each other, they slipped into the private world they shared. It was a visual world of privileged language like “golden sunlight”, “your reflection in the mirror” or “deep shadow on the wall”. They shut their door to me and left me at their doorstep dying for a glimpse of the unreachable within.
They were probably not aware that their well intentioned overprotection stirred in me feelings of incompetence and worthlessness and, at times, envy towards the non-blind.
How could you think life was fair when you only knew a sky from its thunder, and a bird from the flutter of its wings, while the rest of their sublime beauty, the brilliant stars in the sky and the bird’s colourful feathers, were reward only for those who could see?
If not for one night, when I was left home with my young brother to keep me company…
My parents and sister had left the house earlier to join my young aunt’s wedding party downtown; my father had to drive and spend a few hours with other guests.
Though my brother was some years my junior he was assigned to “look after” me until they returned home.
Be the eyes for your sister. Don’t leave her alone. Those were my mother’s last words to him before she left. She could see anything in the world and yet apparently failed to see I already knew by heart every turn and corner in the house and knew where everything was kept.
We spent that evening on the couch in front of the TV. He watched and I listened, asking him at intervals when necessary. Then he excused himself to go to the bathroom upstairs. I heard his footsteps as he climbed the stairs. The floorboards creaked and then came the slam of the bathroom door.
The voices on TV stopped abruptly as my brother’s scream pierced the entire house, sending me into alarm.
In a flash, I darted towards the corner of the room and took the flight of stairs. I had no idea what was frightening him to death but I had to find him.
I burst in and found my brother still in the bathroom. His body was trembling as he squatted on the floor and I rushed to hold him.
What? Tell me what’s wrong?
I … don’t know. Suddenly all the lights in the house went out. It’s dark I can’t see. He cried out, stammering, his hands waving frantically to find mine.
I had no idea whether it was dark or light since I couldn’t tell the difference. But a short moment ago I remembered the voices on TV abruptly disappearing. An electrical power failure might have caused that.
Wait up here. I’ll get a flashlight for you quickly. I tried to calm him down. I know it’s kept in the kitchen cupboard.
No, no. Please bring me down with you. He begged me in a shaken, anguished voice. I’m afraid to be left alone in the dark. Don’t you know it’s so … spooky?
There was nothing I could do but comply. Can you hold my hand? he whispered. It’s so pitch dark I can’t walk. Then he blurted out, as if suddenly aware: How about you? Are you all right?
I pondered the question for a second. Um … I’m okay. I don’t need the light.
Oh … he uttered.
If the presence of light never helped me its absence never hurt me either. Not a bit.
I gave him my hand and led him out of the bathroom. My brother, clinging to my side, scrambled his way down the stairs, slowly, clumsily and helplessly, inch by inch. At one point he stumbled and would have tumbled down the staircase had I not grabbed him just in time. I sighed with relief before pulling him to safety.
If only it were raining in the room at this moment, I tried to imagine. But how would that help my brother?
When we made our way back to the living room, I headed for the kitchen, took a flashlight from the cupboard and handed it to him. He grabbed it.
Thank you – He stopped, then continued in a humble, softer voice:
Thanks for being my eyes … I’ll tell them you can see in the dark.
the dark. That was the most significant moment between us, before I heard him turn on the flashlight.