An excerpt from “Empire of Glass” (Ig Publishing, 2017)
They say in the dark a twenty-year-old’s eye receives sixteen times more light than an eighty-year-old’s. They say an eye’s lens yellows with age, like skin or a well-worn undershirt. They say by the time you realize this, by the time you know you should have worn hats, shielded your eyes from the sun, it’s too late. They say all this because they know nothing about sight. Know nothing about looking directly into the light of the sun. To be blinded by all that seeing.1
After the interrogation, after a night stumbling Andong’s crowded streets, the investigators climbing into and out of lousy, mildewed mattresses with too-tall women while Hawk Eye sat on icy stoops smoking an entire pack of filter-less Russian cigarettes, the battalion’s leadership ran their usual battery of tests on the troops: Deng first, then Fat Wang, then Hawk Eye. The boys sat on metal chairs outside the barrack’s infirmary, warped, crooked legs wobbling beneath them. The leadership wanted to know how the air raid, all the questioning that followed, affected their bodies; the investigators cared little about the boys’ minds, hearts. They made them sprint up and down the hallways, listened with stethoscopes to the click-click beating within their chests. They peered down their throats, into their noses, up their assholes. With pinpricks of light, they examined their eyes. Retinas. They wanted to know if the boys were still good for the fight against the Americans, those wide-eyed imperialists. If they were still worthy of being counted as one of the comrades.
At the end of the tests, Hawk Eye was the last to stand in front of an eye chart hanging from a frayed string above the doctor’s desk. He stood, as instructed by Nurse Kang, a young woman who smelled of another man’s tobacco, and read the letters as he saw them. Letters that pulled their foreign sounds awkwardly across his tongue, reminding him of his primary school teacher, Feng Laoshi, and her insistence he was too stubborn and righteous to speak English’s more nuanced tones—he wasn’t. He was just loath to let his tongue slip, to spout words that held no meaning. Nurse Kang nudged him, much like Feng Laoshi would. He sighed, then read:
B Z F E D
O F C L T D
T E P …
But the ‘O’ following that demanding ‘P’ was not a letter. It was a mouth, wide and gaping, waiting for him to kiss it.
He squeezed his lips together, incapable of making a sound. He dug his fingernails into his thighs. O. O. Ohhhhhhh…. Oh, there was the letter ‘O.’ A child’s gaping mouth looking up from a riverbed, that muskrat body too tanned to be a rich boy now. Oh, how was he supposed to follow this O to its inevitable conclusion? Thump. There he was on the bottom, trying to say the letter that was always his downfall, a reminder he knew everything and nothing at all. O was a circle. O had a beginning and an end. O was a mother’s hair beneath the river’s surface. O was the wife he didn’t yet know, circling the Zhongnanhai moat awaiting a trout’s absent nip.2
Branches raked the window. Ice melted, drips collecting in buckets outside the barracks; buckets full of last month’s melted snow were everywhere, saved for the leaders’ nightly baths. The rest showered in the bathhouses every other Wednesday, where the steam wasn’t enough to mask their flaccid privates from the view of their comrades. Heat was a luxury. They huddled together at night near the communal fires, rubbing their forearms and crowding closer.
Hawk Eye shook his head as Nurse Kang pinched his back.
“Keep reading,” she said. Her breath: garlic shrouded in floral overtones of jasmine tea. Something ugly; something beautiful. Her fingers were stronger than he’d expected. She pinched him again and he winced, waiting for that O to transform into another letter altogether.
“What’s wrong, Hawk Eye?” Deng stood in the doorway. Deng: leaning like a dead tree, a sullen trunk of a man, a brown cigarette sappily dripping from his lips. He hadn’t yet left the camps for his new Western provinces post—a soldier’s reassignment was a slow, bureaucratic task filled with stamps and paperwork. “Can’t see, Hawk Eye?”
The nurse turned on the florescent bulb dangling from the ceiling and the O disappeared, all the letters melting into a mass of shapes, triangles and circles, squares and rectangles. An uneasy geometry on Feng Laoshi’s chalkboard. Hawk Eye couldn’t see them any more than he could see Deng’s smile rising, taunting him from his slanted stance in the darkened hallway. Where had that language gone? How could words so quickly be rendered futile?
“Read again, Hawk Eye,” Nurse Kang said, assuming his nickname like an old friend.
“I can’t,” he said. The truth: where there was once an eye chart now hung a mass of black and white etchings, none visible nor discernible to him. His pulse drummed behind his eye sockets and he mimicked the rhythm with the tap of a foot. How good to hear the beating of his own heart. Nurse Kang wasn’t impressed—her job was to test men’s bodies for continued military service. She was a woman who followed orders impeccably; although she smelled light as a freshly-steamed baozi, her personality was as dense as Hawk Eye’s brother’s. His brother: He hadn’t spoken with the elder Wang since the night he left Shanghai and he preferred it that way. Here, he was Hawk Eye. There, his brother called him by his milk name or ‘Xiao Di’—Little Brother—and thus, he was always pegged to a perpetual youth. Here, he could be whatever he wanted. Or so it seemed until this moment. He blinked again. The world crowded inward, the old frame of his vision reduced to near nothing.
“Maybe if I close my eyes for a bit,” Hawk Eye said. “I think they’re tired.”
“Suit yourself,” Deng snuffed, then sucked on his cigarette. Since the investigation, he’d been hanging about the barracks with the air of a man recently returned from battle, only his wounds were superficial, courage untested. The boys wondered when Deng would be dismissed from Andong and sent to that western post where he’d one day meet a local goat farmer’s daughter, marry her, and start a roost of twelve children—all boys. Funny the way the first words at the beginning of a story can so quickly become the drone of pages, Hawk Eye thought of Deng’s inevitable life to come. Down the hall, nurses in training walked in from the cold, stamping wet snow off their boots. Deng turned to watch their slow undressing—each coat, hat, scarf, glove—eager to witness slender female shapes taking form from beneath puffy winter layers.
Nurse Kang called for the doctor who was patrolling the hallways chatting up the nurses as they returned from their rounds at the front lines. The doctor, a lump of a man, stomped into the room without recognizing the obtuse slapping of his thick-soled shoes, tilting his head forward such that his eyeglasses nearly careened off the tip of his nose.
“What’s the problem?” he asked.
“Watch this,” Nurse Kang said. She asked Hawk Eye to repeat his reading of the letters tacked to the far wall.
Hawk Eye blinked open his eyes, staring at the letters still sliding into one another. At the ‘O,’ everything stopped, as if life itself began and ended with that ‘O,’ only he hadn’t yet realized how much emptiness one circle could contain. Nurse Kang pinched him, asking him to repeat what he saw. The doctor perused Hawk Eye’s records, which included his first eye exam from the party headquarters in Shanghai the day he left the city.
“How odd,” the doctor noted. “This soldier’s near-sightedness is still perfect—in fact, it’s better than perfect.” He scribbled something on Hawk Eye’s chart. “But his far-sightedness,” the doctor remarked with slight agitation, “it’s as if he’s been involved in a blast, that an accident marred his view of anything farther from him than the length of a gun’s barrel.” The doctor penned additional notes in the record.
Together, Nurse Kang and the doctor fitted a series of lenses on Hawk Eye’s face to correct the malfunction, the glass smelling like his childhood—all those Cen Cang Yan backs slouched over grinders sparking white-gold in the midnight black. He couldn’t return home now. What good was he without his eyesight? Hawk Eye. He shook his head as the nurse and doctor spoke in technical terms about his condition. They nodded to one another then walked down the hall to find a pair of lenses they’d loaned to the microscopy department. This pair, they told him, would save his vision.
After they left, Deng said, “I have an idea.” He shuffled from the doorway to Hawk Eye’s side and placed his hand on his soldier’s shoulder like an older brother. Deng smelled like winter, having spent so much time in recent weeks standing under a cold, ambivalent sun. Both the smell and gesture made Hawk Eye’s eyesight grow in focus temporarily. He wanted, more than anything, to impress his elder “brother”—he had no idea why aside from the fact there are certain people in this world who impress us despite how much we loathe them. He’d never felt like this around his own brother, or any of his other elder cousins. Something about Deng demanded greatness. Maybe that’s what killing a man gave you—the ability to believe in the necessity of life, the immortality of young men.
“I know the danwei leader of a factory in Beijing,” Deng continued. “A factory that makes lenses just like this one.” He picked the latest lens from off the doctor’s desk. In the dying afternoon light, the object sprayed muted flashes across the floor, all the way to the window where a descending sun pulled skeletal shadows through the river’s rowed pines. The world was only light and shadow. Shadow and light. Or so it seemed from here.
“I can arrange a transfer for you to the city,” Deng said. “They’d need someone like you there. A man with strong hands, an understanding of telescopes.”
The word ‘man’ still ringing in his ears, Hawk Eye said, “Beijing. Okay.” He inhaled the nurse’s smoke-rose smell still lingering in the room despite her departure. Funny: whenever he’d think of Nurse Kang from this point onward, however distant his vision of her face may be, the shape of her slanting nose, the rise of her thin black eyebrows, he’d only remember her smell, matched as it was to this particular afternoon, the tea-scented oils she rubbed behind her ears upon waking that left such a deep impression upon him, even after so many years. She’d age, as we all do, but his memory of her would remain fixed to a perpetual youth. She’d given him this inadvertent yet indispensable gift that conquered time.3
Beijing. The word still rung as in a glittering temple bowl. The capital was always a distant locale, an unlikely destination: if Shanghai was the rooster-shaped nation’s beating heart and pulse, Beijing was its colder, less civilized head. Hawk Eye was not befitting of the Capital. He was a man of emotion, action—not pensive thought and cooler minds prevailing. He shook his head.
“No,” he said. Bu. The strength of the word rattled a row of lenses stacked on the doctor’s desk and a few toppled like fragile dominoes.
Deng dug his fists into his thighs. “No? You’re really going to turn down a good job? You won’t be of any use here along the river without those hawk eyes of yours. You’ll end up in the western provinces slugging wheat over your shoulders the rest of your life.”
Footsteps: the doctor and Nurse Kang descending the dark hall to them, to the eye chart hanging limply on the wall with its faded black letters, symbols and shapes Hawk Eye couldn’t make a language of. Reading was only seeing, after all.
Deng met them in the doorway. “I’ll take that,” he said, pointing to Hawk Eye’s health report. “They’ll want it in Beijing.” Hawk Eye thought he saw Deng wink, his signature slyness. What happens to a man who has killed other men? What edges of his being have been irreparably notched?
“Beijing?” Nurse Kang pulled on the second syllable as she fit the perfect lenses over Hawk Eye’s eyes. “The nation’s capital!” This was how country people spoke of cities. How Hawk Eye’s mother referred to Shanghai those early years in the fields of Zhejiang. But he didn’t feel any camaraderie with the nurse’s country folk fascination with everything shiny and new. Instead, he pitied her naiveté.
“Beijing,” he said, standing confidently, hands on hips. “Yes, I’m going to Beijing.” Little did he know that from the outside, from where we stand now, he merely looked like a mouse fighting a cat. No matter how wide he puffed his chest, how tautly he pursed his lips, he was small and the world around him was much larger. Unconquerable. Impossible.
Deng adjusted the lenses on Hawk Eye’s eyes. “He’ll be a fat cat in Beijing,” Deng asserted.
Without thinking, Hawk Eye reached up and placed his hand atop Deng’s. Deng left his there, the pair staring past the walls to something neither of them had witnessed together. Maybe Deng had seen Hawk Eye with American Nurse, maybe he knew of her whereabouts. Hawk Eye didn’t want to think she’d been one of the passengers injured in the transport. To him, she could only be as beautiful and perfect and naked as she was when she ran around the tent, buttocks wiggling, pearled skin gleaming in the early sun. He didn’t dare ask Deng what happened to her, what dream could be folded into a palm and blown off course into a brisk wind. He blinked wider as Nurse Kang and the doctor positioned a set of lenses atop the bridge of his nose. Deng’s hand slipped, but his own hand lingered there, feeling that remnant heat. From behind the lenses, sure, Hawk Eye saw clearly—the window shade drawn enough to view the riverbank, the boats and soldiers standing guard, trucks backing up so quickly their tires spat profanities of mud. He could see all this, and then, closer, Nurse Kang’s patient smile, a large mole on the doctor’s neck, a thin black hair spouting triumphantly. He could see shifting cloud shadows on the concrete floor, a fly buzzing at the window to get outside (a grand escape!), every letter on that hanging eye chart. But of course, when we see with such clarity, we see beyond these objects too, noticing something we can’t sketch with our pens nor speak with our words. Hawk Eye opened his mouth, wanting to say that, in actuality, he preferred to have his old vision back—the kind that blurred at the edges, couldn’t distinguish between a river boat and a floe of ice. There was something comforting, serene, in blindness.
But of course he didn’t speak. His mouth gaping, the doctor and Nurse Kang nodded to one another, pleased they’d found his vision’s perfect match.
“Good then?” the doctor nodded and that stray mole hair waved in response.
“I can see…” Hawk Eye waved his hands in front of his face. He opened his eyes widely then squinted, quickly rambling off the letters on the far wall’s eye chart, the English not so foreign anymore, his tongue succumbing. “Glasses,” he mused aloud, laughing giddily at the insanity of this scene—the boy who spent a childhood at his father’s grinder now able to view the world, to live a life for that matter, merely because of a lens’s shape.
The nurse and the doctor laughed too, proud of what they deemed a fitting diagnosis, not knowing what was so funny except that it was like watching a blind man coming back the dark. They wanted to believe they were capable of miracles and Hawk Eye, momentarily, wanted them to believe this too.
Three days later, he left at nightfall on the bed of a military truck along with a command returning to the capital for additional training. He closed his eyes, tilting his head to gulp the cool mountain air one last time. Beijing, they said, was full of dry, desert winds, the hot press of the Gobi bleeding in when March arrived. Here, there was the wetness of temperate rivers, winter’s ice melting into the blooming of Dandong’s famous springtime azaleas. Hawk Eye knew somewhere in the distance another pair of eyes looked westward just as he looked eastward. Another pair of eyes searched the horizon for a familiar sight, or maybe those eyes had long since closed, retired behind the screen of dreams. When Hawk Eye opened his eyes, all he saw was the black night. He removed his glasses. He didn’t want to view the world through lenses, this forced artificiality, how distant objects seemed close, and yet, when he reached to touch them, he’d find only air. Eyes bare, the stars blinked back at him, approving his decision. From several kilometers away, fresh troop transports grumbled toward his truck, headlights honed and glimmering like hand-plucked diamonds.
So Hawk Eye can see after all. He laughed along with the mindless laughter of the latest transport to Beijing, the laughter of forgetting the distance between what’s been left behind and the soul’s final destination. No one knew him here. No one knew his nicknames or why he was leaving the front.
“Can you believe it?” He shouted to the wind. His comrades paid him no attention—they’d seen much worse, the breaking of men so tall, so broad-chested, they’d forever believe the world is split into two types of people: those who’ve seen and those who haven’t. So they smoked their cigarettes between quivering, chilled fingers, watched as the forest closed in thicker around them, the mountains that once broke empires apart now sheltering them from the overwhelming blackness of what was surely a dark, unsympathetic sky.
Hawk Eye threw his glasses into the forests blanketing the hills. Did it matter anymore what he could and couldn’t see? Now it was someone else’s party-assigned job to stare down the barrel of a telescope, to watch the world sharpening into focus: a moth, a bullet, an arm, an eye. It didn’t matter what one saw out there because objects could be replaced, refocused, renamed. He thought: all that mattered was the distance between your own eye and the observed, the lingering question plaguing your mind of whether or not that moth, that bullet, that eye, had been there at all, or if it was just light refracting off lenses, lenses warped by rain, time.
So that’s it then, he said to himself and settled into his seat on the open truck bed. He pulled the issued wool blanket over his shoulders, tucked it behind his back. He was heading to the capital. Beijing! His heart quickened like a bird’s. If only he could fly. Hawk Eye, they called him for his ability to see such distances, to perfect a lens’s shape. Now he was near blind without his lenses, or so they said. If he believed them, he would’ve been slave to those lenses the rest of his life. Instead, he fashioned himself a man of action, a man that could walk from the city streets of Shanghai to the mountains of Liaoning. A man who, when he got to Beijing, would be the director of one of the nation’s most esteemed lens factories. These are the thoughts of a man on the verge of the rest of his life. These are the thoughts that keep us company on long, dark journeys to unknown cities. He imagined the party banquets, the long tables covered with bowl upon bowl of chicken feet and trout heads bathed in spicy-sweet mala sauce. And then he saw her long, cold face at the end of the table: she winked at him, beckoned him closer with the curl of an outstretched finger, the scent of a jasmine bush passing, masquerading as perfume, as the first hint of a dream, the requiem, the recalcification of closed eyes.
The star of his own story opened his eyes so wide they stung with tears. He laughed into the quiet night, breath briefly fogging the cold air before disappearing, a locust’s blink, from view.
1 “I’d like a red bean baozi and two youtiao,” she instructed. “For my final breakfast. Tomorrow we’ll rise before dawn.” Her words made gasping sounds we learned to ignore. She lived in the apartment’s main room those days where we also ate our meals; she slept on the futon, wrapped in a cotton beizi. “Carry me downstairs to my wheelchair. Take me to Jishuitan and we’ll ride the subway to Tiananmen. Then we’ll walk to Coal Hill. Don’t forget a heavy rope, thick enough to guide me home.”
2 Oh, what was there to say about Li-Ming and Baba in her final months? They were a pair of carp encircling one another in a murky pond, her colorful tail faded gray and his whiskers catching the sun’s white.
3 “I think this is as good a spot as any for an ending,” Li-Ming said. She looked at a sky that hasn’t been that blue in Beijing for a long time. I didn’t understand: her ending or mine? A luck-filled sky, a magpie’s sky, the ringing bicycle bells not reaching us, a murmuring city awakening to its global era, distant hills still swathed purple, still hemming the valley’s heat. “I don’t think so,” I said. The courtyard was filled with pigeons, as if all of Beijing’s stock of mangy, claw-footed birds descended here to surround us in their filth. “This is an ugly place,” I said and instantly regretted my honesty. I should’ve protected her. I should’ve done whatever she asked—but I wasn’t ready yet. She had to indoctrinate me. She had to lead me to believe that in looping the final ring, in making that perfect O as the moon showed its face, I’d follow her somewhere beautiful. Was there enough to hold the two of us? Our weight: I’ll never know. That’s the thing about new friendships, infatuations spawned out of need, not love—we will sacrifice so much in walking to the water’s edge but when the boat drifts away… Ye might at least have done her so much grace, Fair lord, as would have helped her from her death. I stood on the shore, watching the boat drift aimlessly, Li-Ming’s wet hair draped over the side, long as in youth, purple as in moon, lost as in the sound of a coin dropping to a river’s bed, its shine muted by time.
Kaitlin Solimine has been published in National Geographic News, The Wall Street Journal, Guernica Magazine, and elsewhere. She is the co-founder of HIPPO Reads and recently left Singapore for San Francisco. “Empire of Glass” was recently short-listed for the Center of Fiction’s First Novel Prize.