What the eyes see depends on the beholder.
approximately 2480 words.
The Eyes of the Beholder
So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD delivered them into his hands.
Those eyes, they will haunt my sleep forever more. The memory of those eyes, aglow with yearning and with triumph, that memory fills my soul with dread and despair even now. It defines my childhood just as a singular volcanic peak arising from the sea defines the waves. My other boyhood memories are a homespun miasma of childish dreams and disappointments. Those pleasant memories abide in happiness rather than in sorrow. They bring comfort rather than pain. But the memories of that day and those eyes are a scar seared into my soul.
Memories have an affinity for our senses. Today, when the young woman brushed by me on the subway, I caught a whiff of lilac and rose petals. She laughed at something her cell phone whispered in her ear while her eyes glowed at her invisible companion. The scent of her perfume, the sound of her laughter, and especially the shimmer of her eyes, these stroked my soul. Memories arose like smoke, summoning a spring day long past when innocence still embraced my spirit.
I remember that day began filled with excitement and anticipation. I woke with the first slant of sun through my bedroom window. The cheery notes of robins singing to the babies in their nests lilted in the trees. Downstairs, the dishes clinked and pots banged as Momma and my sister Mitzi fixed breakfast. The homey odor of coffee, pancakes and sausages wafted up through the floor registers to my room. Today was the day! Today was Mayfair!
I slipped into my robe and rushed downstairs. Poppa was there, reading headlines in the morning newspaper. My older brother Jeff was there too, reading the sports pages. Momma stood over the griddle flipping pancakes. A strand of iron-gray hair had escaped from her tight bun and trickled across her brow.
"There's my bestest boyfriend!" My sister, Mitzi, lifted me up and spun me about, and plopped me into my place at the table. I giggled and squirmed while she ruffled at my hair and pretended to tickle me.
"Now, now, settle down there." Poppa didn't look up from his paper. Giggling and squirming were uncalled for.
Mitzi settled into her seat next to mine and winked at me. "Yes, Poppa." She pulled her robe tighter about her bosom and poured a glass of cold milk for me. Her auburn hair corkscrewed in a happy ponytail down her back.
Momma swept the last of the pancakes off the griddle and placed them before Poppa, next to the platter of sausages and the pitcher of syrup. She tucked her stray hairs behind her ear and settled into her place, opposite Poppa. "It's time, Poppa."
At last Poppa put down his paper and glared around the table. A golden echo of the sun shone through sparse strands of hair on his brow, hairs that strove to mask his baldness. He straightened his disciplined and weathered body and then he reached out. We all held hands and lowered our eyes.
"Holy Father." He paused, his voice deeper now and more like it was on Sundays in church. "Holy Father, we thank thee for the peace of the night and for the labor of the day. We thank thee for the bounty of this table and for the refuge of this home. Holy Father, we thank thee for this family and pray that Thou grant us the strength to be faithful to Thy will." Poppa's voice paused. I sneaked a peek and saw his lips purse and his forehead crease. Mitzi was peeking too and her eyes' sparkled at me, and then we both looked down once more. "Holy Father, on this day grant our son Jeff the swiftness of Thy breath and grant our daughter Mitzi the grace of Thy heart." He paused again. "Grant our son Timmie the wisdom of Thy spirit so that he will hold this holy day forever more in his soul." I felt Mitzi squeeze my hand and I passed it on to Momma. "Amen." The circle of our hands broke and we all looked up.
"Pass me those pancakes! I'm starved!" The muscles in Jeff's jaw jumped and his broad shoulders twisted as he reached for the plate.
Momma swatted at him. "Now just you wait for your Father, young man!"
Poppa smiled and shoveled pancakes onto Jeff's plate. "Now, now, Momma. You know that he's gotta be strong for the races today." Poppa took a couple of pancakes for himself and passed the plate to Mitzi. She squinted as the sunlight glinted off his knife and, for an instant, flashed across her face. Oblivious, Poppa continued, "He's the Giants' best hope in the hundred meter race today." Jeff was the star of the Gilead high school track team. He was also the star of the football team in the fall and the wrestling squad in the winter. Jeff was everything our Father wished him to be and everything I would never be.
Mitzi gave me pancakes, put one on her plate and passed the platter to Momma. "What does the sports page say, Poppa?" Poppa, of course, had read the newspaper first, before anyone else. Mitzi buttered my pancakes for me, poured syrup on them, and ruffled at my hair again.
"It says it'll be a tight race. That kid who runs for Anamosa is pretty fast."
"Faster'n me, Pop." Jeff's voice was muffled behind pancakes and sausages. He gulped at his milk.
"Jeff, don't talk with your mouth full." Momma was always very prim and proper about table manners.
Poppa's eyes glared at Momma before he smiled upon Jeff. "Not faster than the times you've run in the last couple of weeks. I think you're gonna surprise 'em, son." Poppa nodded and a broad smile creased his bronze features. "Yessiree, they're gonna be surprised all right!"
My memories of that day are in shards, shattered fragments of sounds and colors, broken segments of odors and conversations. At mid-morning I was building imaginary villages in my sandbox under the shelter of Momma's peonies. I remember the soft perfume of the bright flowers and gentle touch of the spring breezes.
"Hey Timmie! Wanna go to Mayfair with us?" I looked up and saw the dusky visage of my best friend, Aaron. His dark hair was cropped close to his skull above his tanned features. He was older than I, and bigger, and stronger.
"I'd like to." I hesitate. I feared Poppa would not want me to go by myself with these boys, even though we walked to school together every day.
"A bunch of us are all goin'. We'll ride the rides and play the games at the carnival. And then this afternoon we'll watch the races. Come on! Let's go!"
"I gotta ask Momma and Poppa."
Aaron's eyes shot disgust at me. "Don't be such a Momma's boy! Let's just go!"
"I gotta ask." Poppa will beat me if I don't ask, but I cannot tell Aaron that.
"So ask, then. If you decide to be a big boy, come on over to my house. But we're leavin' in one hour!" Aaron pointed at his wristwatch. "In one hour! You got that?"
"I'll ask. Wait for me!"
I don't remember what Momma said, but she must have given her assent, for my next memory is with the boys in Aaron's yard.
"We can't go yet. They don't open the gates for another hour." That was Mike, the same age as Aaron. I remember Mike having me feel his biceps, telling me how strong he was. Today Mike wore shorts but he was barefoot and had removed his shirt.
We were sitting in a circle in Aaron's back yard, in the dirt where we sometimes played marbles. Mike made a circle in the dust, and looked up, his eyes agleam. "I know! Let's do our own races! Just like the big kids will this afternoon! We can crown our own champion!"
The others chimed in with enthusiasm while my heart sank. I knew I would be humiliated in a game of strength and endurance, but what could I do? These were my friends, my only peers in a world of adult mysteries.
"We gotta take our shirts off, just like the big kids this afternoon!" Like Aaron, the others stripped off their shirts exposing their lean and tanned bodies. My fingers lingered on my shirt before I pulled mine off too, exposing of my pale and skeletal frame.
We lined up, kneeling in a racer's crouch. My legs trembled and my heart fluttered. "Ready, set, GO!" Mike snapped the command and raced ahead of the others. I ran as best I could, but I was barely halfway around the yard when the others finished. I panted my way to the finish line where Mike stood with arms upraised, rotating in triumph.
"Still the champ-een!" Mike shouted. Then his eyes lashed at mine. "Look at the girly-boy! Sheesh, she can't hardly even run one lap without fainting!" The others laughed and tears welled in my eyes. "Girly-boy's cryin' now! Nyah, nyah!" Mike pushed at me and I fell in the dust.
Memories are like the fragments of a broken mirror, reflecting in our imperfect vision that which our souls both revere and revile. In my next memory of that day I am at Mayfair, hidden underneath a picnic table where no one could see me. The shelter of the table, so like a cave, protected my lonely spirit from the molestations of these cruel strangers who formed my childish coterie.
"Where's my bestest boyfriend?" Mitzi's voice drifted down to me as she sat at my table. "I sure do miss him. I wish he'd give me a hug."
I said nothing.
Mitzi sighed and her skirts ruffled in the breeze. She wore layers of crinoline and white lace, the gown of the Gilead Mayfair Princess. Her fingers toyed with the necklace of flowers that hung about her shoulders. "I wonder where my Timmie is at?" The delicate scent of roses and lilies emboldened my soul.
"I'm here," I whispered.
"You're here!" Her voice lilted with astonished joy. "Where oh where could my Timmie be?"
I giggled and crawled out from my cave. "I'm right here, silly!" Her eyes glowed in welcome and love and acceptance. I fell into her open arms and settled onto her lap. She was ever my anchor in an uncertain world.
The races were the next-to-last event of Mayfair. Everyone gathered in the stadium in the late afternoon to witness the competition. I remember the chatter of the elders about me; I remember the excitement of the race.
"Now you sit still, young man! No squirming, no whining. You hear me!" Momma pointed to the seat beside her. Her long skirts billowed in the wind. Her eyes searched the contestants below for her son. "There, there he is! See your brother!" She pointed and her eyes glowed with pride. I saw my brother, in his running shoes and brilliant green shorts, crowded with the others below us. I envied their masculine torsos and wondered what it felt like to be perfect.
"Where is Mitzi?" My eyes scanned the young women on the podium in the center of the track.
"She's there, next to Poppa. See?" Momma wasn't looking at Mtizi or at me; she had eyes only for the runners. She focused on Jeff, her strong and steady son.
"You must be very proud of your brother, Timmie." That was Mrs. Kellum, from Church. She was old and withered, with a prim mouth and sharp eyes. "The races are almost tied, see?" Her bony finger pointed at the scoreboard. "Anamosa is in the lead right now, but Gilead is second. It's so close! Gilead could be Mayfair Champions this year if your brother wins!"
I nodded at her from behind Momma's skirts.
"And your sister is Gilead's Princess of Mayfair, Timmie! Do you know what that means for her, if your brother wins?" Mrs. Kellum's eyes peered at me from the wrinkled depths of her skull. "If we're Mayfair Champions, then she will be the Maiden of Mayfair for the whole county." Her smile twisted her ancient face into a shriveled paroxysm of bliss.
"Quiet now! They're ready to run!" Momma stood to watch. I stood too, on my seat, but I couldn't see over the adults around me. I hugged Momma's skirt, but she shushed me away.
The bang of the starter's pistol snapped in my ears. "They're off!" The crowed hushed, then began to roar as each village cheered the local favorite. I knew the real race was between Gilead and Anamosa, between my brother and the enemy from afar. I prayed to God the Father that my brother Jeff would win.
Had I the wisdom of foreknowledge, my prayer would have been so very different.
I remember the frenzy as the runners crossed the finish line. I remember the loudspeakers blaring with my brother's name. I remember thinking that this was the triumph of God's will, that my brother and Gilead would be Mayfair Champions. I remember thinking my friends, Mike and Aaron and the others, would all be in awe of my brother. I remember my Mother's eyes brimming with tears of pride and joy at her son's victory. I remember Momma carrying me to the center of the racetrack, to the very front of the podium where Poppa and Mitzi now stood center stage.
I remember the band playing and voices singing hosannas. I remember the crimson glow as the sun touched the horizon in a glorious finale to the day's festivities.
I remember that the crowd hushed and everyone sat. My father stood on the podium and, as the Elder of Gilead, intoned the ancient prayer of rebirth. My sister Mitzi stood next to him, her eyes brimming with anticipation. On her head Mitzi now wore the garland of the Maiden of Mayfair, Jeff's victory having granted her this boon. All eyes riveted on my father, while his eyes rose heavenward.
Momma's eyes filled with tears of pride and joy. Poppa's eyes filled with worship and awe. Jeff's eyes filled with beams of happiness and triumph.
My eyes saw differently. My eyes saw the glint of the sun on the dagger in Father's hand. My eyes saw it descend to Mitzi's throat. My eyes, eyes that could neither weep, nor beam, nor worship, my eyes watched in horror as the Ritual of Rebirth climaxed with the sacrifice of the Maiden of Mayfair. Mitzi's eyes, though, Mitzi's eyes gazed upon mine in wonder, in acceptance, and in love.
Those eyes, they will haunt my sleep forever more.
If you enjoyed this, you might check out some of my other short stories in