By Tammy Ho Lai-ming
This morning, we eat cow eyes in the dark. They are stewed, served on plates, and have a strong ginger flavour. Last week we had chicken eyes in steamed rice rolls. They looked like oversized sesame seeds. When she feeds us, Mama reminds us that she was blind too, once, when she was young. But after eating a regular diet of animal eyes, her blindness disappeared. She often assures us that the same will happen to us.
I see better than other kids, because I have one good eye. My right eye has a dark brown pupil and the white is white like a showered rabbit. But my left eye is a lake of confused mist. At least that is what Mama says. It can only see very bright lights and swift-moving objects. But otherwise it is useless – it cannot even wink.
The rest of them do not see at all. Put a rock in front of them and they will trip on it. As I am older and can see with one eye, I have much authority in the bathing hall and the courtyard. I give directions to other kids: where to get the water buckets, how to pick corn. When Mama quits the house for chores, sometimes for days, I am the one in charge.
Mama is not our real mother. How could she give birth to so many kids? But she makes us call her Mama so that we will be loyal to her. Also there is her nurse friend who visits us every week. We call her Auntie Flower. She turns our heads, waves her hands before us, and presses her palm on our hearts to see if they are beating well.
Three days ago, we got another litter. There was nothing special about this. During my ten years' stay, I have seen hundreds of kids come and go. Most of them cry in the first few days. It is always worst in the evening when their cries mix with the sounds of the night: leaves rustling, wind whispering, furniture stretching its muscles. The weaker ones don't last long. They are led, or even dragged, out of the gate by Auntie Flower in a week or so. Wherever they go, it is not home.
The day before I came here, I was collecting firewood outside our house. I saw this woman, dressed in colours I had never seen before in our village, knocking on the neighbours' doors. She did not have much luck with them, and so I was surprised that my Mom admitted her into our house. Excited, I ran back home, eager to see who she was. I handed the tree branches to Grandma, who would burn them in the stove to make us mung-bean congee for breakfast.
The woman smiled at me, and I smiled back. Grandma wanted me to help her in the kitchen. Although reluctant, I obeyed. I sat on the kitchen floor, arranging the firewood into piles of varying sizes, while eavesdropping on the conversation in the next room. I used to remember much of that conversation, but now I can only remember one word: blind.
The woman came to our house again the following day. This time it was to take me away. There was not even time for me to pack my few things. I would have liked to take the rose pin my Mom gave me on my previous birthday, or the comb which I shared with my Grandma; it had black and white hair in its teeth. From the expressions on my Mom's and Grandma's faces, I knew they didn't rejoice at my departure. They didn't cry, but I could see that Grandma's eyes were misty.
The woman told me to call her Mama. We walked on the rugged path for about twenty minutes before we were picked up by a small van driven by Auntie Flower. There were already a few other kids sitting at the back when I got on the car. I only had a glimpse of them and the door was shut. It was so dark inside the car with the curtains drawn that I can only see silhouettes. Nobody spoke. Finally, the car stopped and we were released to the courtyard of a big wooden house. I was shocked to see the other kids there. Some of them crawled on the floor like wild animals. Some sat still like statues, facing one another without knowing it. Some had deep scratch marks on their faces, trails showing previous explorations of their skin. I was five then, and I didn't know there were people who were blinder than I was. I had never been so happy.
One day a week we play games. They are many and various. Mama tells us we need to play them to help us improve our senses of touch and hearing. But those of us who have been here long enough know the truth – that losers share the same fate with the weaker kids: they too will be led out the gate by Auntie Flower. Mama told me long ago that I do not need to participate if I don't want to. But I often play. It is fun when you never lose.
After breakfast, we play hide and seek. Mama gives the other kids five minutes to hide in the house before she will start hunting. Today, I am allowed to stand at the door and say "Go". I enjoy watching the kids try to rush through the door into the house. There is a lot pushing and yelling, and some kids even trip over others as they run towards their hiding spots. Of course, the older kids know all the good places and move confidently towards them, counting their steps along the way. Others feel desperately for space between pieces of furniture, judging whether it is big and deep enough to squeeze into. Those few that have sharp hearing and have been through many games, don't hide far from the door. Instead they will wait for Mama's footsteps and then creep away when they approach. As always I find it quite funny to watch the clueless kids. Many are trying to hide under the dining table, their arms and legs exposed, or behind the curtains hoping to blend in with the wrinkled fabric. Every now and then one kid stands next to the lamp, hardens the body, acts inanimate.
Today, something else catches my good eye. One small girl from the new litter seems to move with ease through the house. She avoids obstacles—the wooden chairs, the table, the broom, the big plastic dolls on the floor—like a champion. Her skill and the fact that she appears to be having fun bother me.
Mama walks slowly, in no hurry to find the kids. The new arrivals and some of the younger kids are giggling in their little corners, amused by the dramatic suspense. Others hold their breath, careful not to betray their location. But I have no heart to watch them. I only want to know where the new girl is hiding. I tiptoe around the house, checking all the best hiding spots. But I do not see her.
By the time I have checked everywhere, Mama has already caught three kids to end the game. Two of them are crying, clearly frightened. The third is new and has no idea what his future has in store.
For the rest of the day, I cannot contain my curiosity and I search endlessly for the new girl. When I finally spot her walking into the toilet, I follow. She turns her head and smiles at me, showing her big rodent teeth. I know then with absolute certainty that she can see too. The question is, how well? I wait for her to finish and confront her. I look down into her eyes. Her left eye blinks once, twice, but the right one is chaotic, a splash of ink.
Three weeks have passed and I am still not used to having another one-eyed girl in the house. I hate it when she smiles every time our good eyes meet, as if we share a special bond.
Today is game day, and I am excited when Mama announces that we will play the marble game after lunch. This is my all-time-favourite. We play it in the open courtyard, and I am normally in charge of moving the bamboo baskets and the large potted plants to make room. Then Mama selects ten to fifteen kids and makes them sit at the far end of the courtyard, spread out like the Chinese character 'one'. Then from the other end, she rolls marbles, some quickly, some more slowly, in the kids' direction. To win, a kid must listen carefully and catch one of the marbles as they roll pass. Of course, Mama always throws fewer marbles than the number of participants, which leaves a couple of them empty-handed at the end of the game.
I quickly finish my lunch, a fish eye omelette with fried rice, and start moving the baskets and pots in the courtyard. But Mama stops me, saying that today we are playing a different version of the game. An hour later she takes us all down to the empty and windowless basement, a place I rarely go because it is always pitch black. I almost jump when Mama speaks softly into my ear. Her voice, so familiar yet so strange, chills me. She says today I should play.
A moment later, Mama is no longer standing next to me. I hear she announces something from some distance away. Then I can hear great commotions around me, but I cannot see a thing. I feel a hand forcefully pressing my head, and I am sitting on the cold floor, facing more darkness. Some more mumbling at the other end, and there is a huge splashing sound – I know the marbles have just been poured onto the floor. And I am to grab one of them.
I straighten my ears, but the others are too fast.
It is not the silence that I dread, but the ultimate disclosure of truth. I have wondered, many times before, where do all those kids go? But I never cared to look. It was someone else's fate. Now, in this butcher's shop, I can see the truth. Somewhere, tonight, a rich woman will eat human eyes in the dark.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 2 Apr 2009