Eyes, eyes, eyes. So many eyes on my long arms.
If someone gave me these eyes to punish me, they made a huge mistake.
I could peep into people’s baskets and sacks, while my face was turned completely away, looking innocent. Still, rumors were like a collective eye, that there was always a woman with long arms when there were a lot of pickpocket incidents. So I travelled a lot.
It was okay. Honestly.
Because of course, I didn’t even know what it was that shook inside me like a tiny bell that shook and made my eyes wobbly and uneasy. Later, when I learnt the word lonely, I thought perhaps that was it, but I was never sure because there was no one to ask.
Even when I met him, while I was with him, I never asked.
He let me use his hunting hut as my flat and our meeting place. He didn’t question me when I didn’t take my robe off completely, only pulling the collars apart, never revealing my arms. He said it was okay. He said everybody had a secret.
Later I finally let him inspect my arms, my eyes, and even then, he didn’t cower away. He looked into each eye for a few seconds at a time, which made me shiver, which made the eyes under his stare flutter in uneasy blinks. “Did you know they are all different shades of brown?” he asked.
And that’d make me forget how to steal, just a little.
When I was a child, people often made fun of my long arms.
I don’t even remember the first time I picked someone’s pocket. At first it was small things like a marble, a doll, things people would dismiss as being lost, rather than stolen.
When people started to realize purses and money sacks were missing, I left my home. Everywhere there were a certain number of people who weren’t wary enough, and always, my long arms helped. Stolen coins were enough for me alone to get by. I never learnt to work. To cooperate. I was always alone.
And one day, it just happened.
I woke up in the middle of the night feeling itches all over my arms. At first I didn’t pay much attention, but then, when I scratched, something wet and soft touched my finger. I jumped awake, crawled out of the makeshift cot of grasses and leaves, out into the moonlight, to inspect myself.
There, on my lower arm, something black gaped back at me.
Was I dreaming?
At a closer look I could see many more swellings on my arms. They looked like bug bites, but then, one by one, a slit opened on each swelling.
Eyes. Eyes, eyes.
I wanted to scream, but how could I? That would draw bandits and other evil people, and attract stray dogs. I muffled my voice as well as I could, but couldn’t stop myself from vomiting.
Sometimes illusions were just too comfortable, like a lukewarm dream brought by mild drink. A shallow dream, which was bound to end soon.
I thought perhaps I’d stay here, at his hunting hut, by his side. Perhaps I’d change. But no, oh no, I was a monster, a thieving monster. How could I forget that?
“I finally got it,” he said one day, as soon as he opened the door to the hut.
From his sleeve, he produced thin incense sticks wrapped in wax paper. Even through the paper, I could feel its pungent, unpleasant perfume. “What is this thing?” I asked.
“I bought these from a travelling merchant,” he said. “The smoke of this incense will make one of your eyes come off its socket.”
“One stick’s worth of smoke will make one eye come off—”
Make an eye come off? “Oh, but.” I placed a hand on his shoulder and leant in, my heart thudding at the prospect. “There are only . . . one, two . . . five sticks? I have too many eyes for that—”
“No, just one is enough. My son only hurt one.”
I froze too long a moment to pretend anything, before I said: “Your son?”
For the first time, he didn’t meet any of my eyes, even the ones on my face. For the first time, he started sobbing. “Sorry,” he said. “Please. His eye will go blind soon if we don’t do something. To be a man of rank as my oldest son, he mustn’t have any bodily defect. Sorry.”
“I didn’t even know you were married.”
“Sorry,” he said again.
I let out a laugh. Of course. How could I expect this man to truly care for me? Always, ever since he’d seen the eyes on my arms, he was waiting for this moment. Or perhaps he’d even approached me knowing I was a hundred-eye monster. I chuckled on for some time, and then heaved a theatrical sigh. “Well. Why don’t you start now, then?”
It didn’t hurt. All my eyes went watery from the smoke, but the one which got wateriest wobbled and floated in its socket, and in no time at all, dropped off my arm, into his hand.
That eye left a dark, unfillable hollow on my arm. The man gave me the expensive incense sticks, bowed to me again and again and ran off, to replace his son’s eye.
It didn’t hurt.
Later that night, I sneaked into the man’s house. I touched the hollow on my arm and set to work.
With my long arms I opened far doors and high drawers. I peered in a room, around a corner, with the eyes on my arms. Soon I found the chest where they hid their fortunes.
I took what looked like half of their year’s worth of earning.
For me alone, it would last forever.
The image burnt in my eyes, so hot that it woke me in the middle of the night. Because every eye, except for the ones on my face, had seen the boy with his two eyes, one of them a shade too brown. The father who was always careful not to get me pregnant. The mother who chose not to ask where her husband had got the eye.
The boy who smiled from inside the hollow on my arm.
Before, I’d always looked for abandoned houses which were rumored among local people to be haunted, because people avoided them. I’d never understood the feeling, of being haunted, and every one of these houses felt comfortable enough for me. But now my shaky hands, my floppy stomach, told me I was scared, was confused, was panicking.
That couldn’t change the way of life for me though, right? I was haunted, yes, but I was a haunted thief. I travelled more after I was haunted, not stopping in one place more than a week, because stopping long enough to know a certain child, their name, their favorite play, was unbearable for me now. But that was the only change I made. I travelled. Stole. That was it.
When hauntedness was too sharp, too cold in my slim body alone, I’d go up a mountain, and imagine those feelings dissipate into the thin mountain air. Didn’t work too well most of the time, but it was one of those nights, that I found a strange tree.
Under the moon, at first I thought it was just an ordinary tree, with huge flowers all over its boughs and branches. Flowers? Oh no, they were the fruit . . . . Then again I realized no, they weren’t the fruit, they were faces. Human faces, like children.
Face-tree monster, then.
It was the first time I’d come across one of those, so I got curious. I went closer to a face, which was the lowest and nearest to me. Out of sheer curiosity, I poked it with my finger. “Hey.”
Just as I’d heard——the face started giggling voicelessly. As though just seeing me could make it happy to no end.
And suddenly I was horrified of what would happen next.
The face like a child’s giggled and giggled, and then, as if invisible scissors had cut its stem, fell off the branch, onto the ground. “Oh no,” I said and crouched down. “I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”
I scooped up the face, no longer giggling, half-crushed from the fall. One eye was crumpled and gone. “Sorry,” I said again, rubbing at its forehead. “It’s my fault.”
Then with almost no thinking at all, I took the wax-paper bundle out of my pack and pulled one incense stick out of it. I lit the incense, and brought the stick near an eye on my lower arm, just beside the hollow for the man’s son. And the eye popped off.
“Here,” I offered it to the face. “Take it.”
With my thumb I pushed a hole into its soft skin, on the other side of the remaining eye. After a while the eye seemed to settle in the makeshift socket, but I couldn’t be sure. I found a grassy patch under a tree, where I could sit comfortably and also have something to lean on.
There, I lit another stick, hoping the smoke would help. I named the face Nin, because it came off from the nin-men tree. I sang, “Nin, sweet little Nin, go to sleep,” all the while the incense gave off its pungent smoke around us, and then, I fell asleep with the face cradled in my arms.
When I woke Nin had a little body. So the incense had worked, more than I had hoped for.
It smiled when it saw I was awake. I smiled back and it giggled. I was afraid the face might come off its small body, but it didn’t.
I started travelling with Nin.
It didn’t speak, but I could tell what it was thinking. It ate just about anything that I gave to it, but decidedly avoided apples, and those were the rare occasions where it cried angrily. Probably they looked too much like itself.
Despite its healthy eating, its little body never got taller or plumper. I wondered if it was lacking certain sort of nutrient that nin-men trees needed, or if it was never meant to grow in the first place. The incense sticks might do something, I suspected, but I decided to save them for now, until I knew exactly what the perfume could do.
I looked into my purse. There was still enough, but with Nin under my care, more money wouldn’t hurt at all. And it’d be nice if I had saved enough when I’d ever have a chance to purchase more of the incense. I’d been avoiding stealing these days because I didn’t know where I should put Nin while I worked. But these days I suspected it could understand what I was saying— perhaps I could make it wait in the woods.
So I let it sit under a bush behind a fallen tree trunk. “Nin, listen,” I said. “I’m going to work. You stay here. Understand? You. Stay. Here.” I punctuated each of the last three words with a pat on its shoulder. “I will come back soon. Soon, okay? Don’t worry. Soon.”
It nodded without smiling. I rubbed its smooth forehead and left it there.
I’d almost forgot how easy it was to pick pockets and baskets. And the thrill that it gave me. By the time I had stolen from three people, I was feeling high. Oh, just one more. Just one more wallet and I’d quit for the day.
I sneaked in the crowd formed in front of a travelling performer. There was a wealthy-looking man, and I shuffled quietly towards him. With the eyes on my face I watched the performer, while I examined with my arm-eyes the man’s sleeve for a lump that indicated his wallet there.
There. There it was—
—But then, just as I was about to reach out my small knife to open a slit in his sleeve, I felt someone’s eyes. I slowly looked around, and my eyes on my face met with those of a small boy.
His left hand was tightly clutching at his mother’s right hand, and his right was fidgeting with his own lips. His eyes were wide open, staring at me.
He was about the same size as Nin.
He probably wouldn’t understand if I took the man’s wallet in front of his eyes. He might not even remember anything once he looked back at the performance. But my hand refused to make a move. My eyes refused to look away.
Just then someone nearby breathed sharply. “Monster!” At first the word didn’t quite register. “She has eyes on her arm!”
I snapped awake. I had forgotten to tuck my sleeve back down over my lowest eyes. People looked at me, and started screaming. That child was crying.
After a moment of hesitation, I turned on my heels and started running. The crowd was roaring. I twisted my arm to peer back on the crowd; I couldn’t help it.
All the people’s eyes were turned to me, black and wide and glistening, some from fear, some from disgust. They pierced, stabbed, gnawed at my eyes, every one of them, sending a shiver like cold thread through my sockets. I ran and ran, unable to tuck my eyes in, while like always, my eyes on my face were looking only in the direction I was going.
I stumbled into the woods. Still panting and coughing, eyes cold and wobbly, I searched for the place I had left Nin. It wasn’t there.
No answer. Of course not, I’d never heard its voice. Without voice it wasn’t able to call for help when it needed it—
“Nin!” My voice came out a shriek that I had never heard myself utter. “Nin!”
After a moment of panic, though, I saw Nin trot out of a bush that wasn’t the one I had hid it in. It smiled its usual smile and tugged at my sleeve, pointing. I wanted to collapse onto my knees, sweep Nin off the ground, into my arms. But then the image horrified me. Me, a thief, this disgusting thief, embracing this beautiful little thing.
So I stopped myself and frowned with an effort, and said, “Anything you want to show me?”
Nin pulled me deeper into the woods. After a little walk we reached a cave, invisible at a casual glance, in the shadow of a huge cedar tree.
“Nice hiding place!” I said to Nin. “Good thing, you.”
Nin smiled again.
I carried my belongings that I had hidden with Nin into the cave, and struck a fire. I could see remains of some sort of shelf, probably something hunters had left long ago. Apart from that there was nothing in the cave, and I didn’t find any trace of dangerous animals.
So we decided to sleep the night in there. In the morning, we’d flee this region.
But in the morning I couldn’t get up.
First, sickness woke me. My head was on fire, my arm felt numb. With shaking hands I lit my lantern in the dim cave and examined my arms. When I inspected the eye closest to my right shoulder, I found something in the socket, something that wriggled.
I gasped, and then vomited. I couldn’t help but cry out as the bile rose. That woke Nin.
It came crawling to my side. What if this thing was contagious? I gestured to it to keep away from me, but it wouldn’t. It wiped my dirty face with its own sleeve and, just like I had done when we first encountered each other, rubbed at my creased forehead.
It stroked me, this miserable thief.
I cried, and held Nin tight with my left arm.
Eyes, eyes, eyes. Black eyes accusing me. All piercing my eyes on my arms. Voice, voice, voices. Ugly monster! Above me a huge sun glared down on me. Below me the snow tried to bury me alive. Where was I?
I opened my eyes on my face, my head drenched, cradled in our blanket. Nin was there staring down at me. It smiled weakly when I tried and failed to smile at it.
I slowly got up on my left arm. My right arm still hurt too much. Cautiously, I lifted the hurting arm and examined it in the lantern’s light. The eye closest to shoulder looked okay now. Just a little down, in the second eye’s socket, I found that wriggly thing and winced.
It had somehow moved on to another.
But there seemed to be just one worm, and that relieved me. If there was only one, it’d be easier to protect Nin from it. I took the tweezers out of my pouch, held them in the fire for a few moments, and then tried to pick the worm off the eye. But when the tips of the tweezers touched the black of the eye a sharp pain shot through me. I cried out, sending Nin into a fearful panic. When the pain subsided and I looked back at the eye, I could see the tail of the worm at the corner, that it had burrowed deeper in.
I slumped down, resigned. Swore a lot under my breaths.
Nin sat looking horrified beside me. “Hey, I’ll be okay,” I said, not sure of a single word I was saying. “I’m a grown up. I’ll soon be well.”
But not so soon. Because of course, I had so many eyes, so many of them for the worm to wriggle through. I’d never been this sick, not even when I transformed into this monster. Nin helped me, collecting twigs for fire, bringing in water and edible plants. It helped me a lot.
How did I deserve such sweetness? Just how?
Now, I was not only haunted by the man’s son, but by the eyes of the boy who had spotted me in the town, by those accusing eyes of the adults back there. And by the fact that I had coaxed Nin into life, to be in possession of this stupid thief.
“Sorry, Nin. Sorry.” I kept on muttering forever, in the darkness strewn with horrible eyes.
I had somehow got used to the fever when I saw the worm in the hollow in my arm, the second one counted from the wrist. The hollow that I had made for Nin.
“Heh,” I said, trying my best to grin at the worm. “No more eyes. The end of you. Eh?”
The worm wriggled around in the hollow for a few seconds, and then, disappeared.
I frowned and sat up to see the hollow better. I still felt weak, but I realized the fever was gone, just as the worm was. So I had won, I thought. It was all over.
I looked at Nin, surprised but hopeful. It came trotting towards me, its short arms spread, and then—
I screamed. I didn’t care what the scream might attract. I couldn’t. Its face had been smooth and pink the moment before, now it was so red like a fallen apple. “Nin! Nin!” I scooped it off the floor; it felt so hot.
I looked into its eye, the one I had given it.
Yes, it was there. The worm. With some kind of silly magic the worm had somehow moved into Nin’s eye. Or my eye, on Nin’s face.
I had got over the fever and sickness after all, though barely. I was a grown-up monster. But what would it do to Nin, who was so small, so fragile? If something, someone, whatever, wanted to punish me, why wouldn’t they be satisfied with hurting me? Or was this an entirely different sort of punishment, for my wanting to keep something so lovely? I shouldn’t have given Nin an eye in the first place. Then I’d have suffered just like I should, alone and helpless, knowing I’d survive and wake up whole, alone and helpless.
It was shivering. The eye it’d originally had was glistening with fear. Perhaps with disgust, too? I shook my head, trying to get rid of the image of the eyes of the people in the town. Without much thinking, I placed Nin on my lap, and took the incense stick and lit it. Nin wasn’t even strong enough to be scared of the smoke. I held its eyelids with two fingers and forced the eye to absorb the smoke. “Sorry, Nin.” How many times did I have to repeat this? “Sorry. Being one-eye is better than being nothing, right?”
Maybe I should let it go? Was I going to punish myself even further by keeping the thing I could lose again?
My eye on Nin’s face started to wobble in the fake socket I had made, and soon, the eye dropped off its face like an apple. I held the eye with my fingers, together with the worm, and put it back into the second hollow from my wrist, because an eye always needed a socket.
I collapsed, as Nin got up.
Another few days of fever was nothing, as long as Nin was healthy. It seemed more frightened, now that it knew what the fever and sickness felt like. It moved around looking upset, trying to find a way to comfort me. Once it brought back a fallen apple, something it wouldn’t have touched before, and its face creased with agony as it handed the fruit to me. I laughed and bit into it. It tasted foul, but I was grateful.
A few days later, the worm was gone. Through the hollow closest to the wrist.
I knew what was happening. Of course I did. Grimly I looked at the hollow as Nin climbed into my lap. The worm was gone. I had nothing to worry.
Yes, Nin now had only one eye. I took a closer look at its empty socket. Then I looked at that one remaining incense stick. I could use it to get one of my eyes out of my skin again, to give that eye to Nin again. Nin was just as pretty one-eyed, but with two eyes things would be much easier. People would more readily accept that it was my child, an ordinary child with two eyes, and let us get by.
My eyes went teary, the ones on my face. So much so that I feared they might go wobbly and pop off my face. They didn’t. Of course they didn’t.
Somewhere, a child would start suffering soon. As beautiful as Nin here, no matter what the adults surrounding him had done. Just like Nin was too precious and beautiful for me, the man’s son wasn’t responsible for what his father had done to me.
Only one stick left.
I rubbed at Nin’s smooth forehead. “Nin,” I said. “You don’t want your eye-brother to suffer, do you? You’re a sweet, sweet thing like a ripe apple, I know.”
Nin smiled its lopsided smile. Like I said, I could tell what it was thinking. “Yeah,” I said, choking a little on the word. “Well then, can you help me gather my things? We should get going soon. I’m not sure if I can remember the way back soon enough. ”Nin nodded and started throwing things onto my wrapping cloth. I carefully wrapped the wax paper with the incense in it with a garment, and placed that on top of everything, and tied the cloth to close the baggage. I was still a bit weak from the fever, but I was a monster, after all. I’d soon regain my sure footsteps. I’d soon recall where that place was, where I had thought I’d lost everything about love, but I hadn’t.
I started walking, with Nin by my side.