Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2014
What There Was to See by Maria Dahvana Headley
“I am touched by the emotions of the unfortunate patients who sought me out for help, and had to leave without consolation; they had lost their sight because of disease or destruction of the cornea…Never can those half-blind find consoling peace, when their eyes involuntarily seek out light, and the alternating sensation of light and darkness awakens their recollection of the painful loss of vision, and motivates their desire for help, which still remains unpromising. How unpleasant it is for the physician, and how depressing for the patient…” – Franz Reisinger, 1824
Outside the windows, the scenery was a bristling green flecked with gold. The group had taken the train from Frankfurt, a long day of vistas no one appreciated, the curtains open, cases piled behind them, all three passengers in the car weary and gilded with pollen.
When at last they reached the town where the doctor had his surgery, Professor Abendroth turned to look his wife, and Johanna startled him with a tired smile. He caught himself wondering what their lives would have been had there been no child. Fritz felt forced by philosophy into an attitude of benevolence; Johanna was his wife, after all. It had been a good match, he a student, she a professor’s daughter. He’d come up in the world by wedding her, and she’d stayed where she began. He didn’t love her. She didn’t love him either, he was sure. Her eyes were prone to filling of late. She would not insult him by openly weeping.
Johanna Abendroth stiffened back into her petticoats, considering her husband. She was wearing her brave face, and had been for years. There was a saint-seeing sister on his side, and a great aunt as well, both of them institutionalized. They’d scarcely met before they were married, Johanna in sprigged lace, her arm laced in Fritz’s, her life ruined within months. No, not ruined. It hadn’t been truly ruined until the daughter, and the fever. She must be generous. Even if Fritz did have flaws. His ears were growing fur, and his belly was large enough to enclose a child.
Fritz scowled. Beate was her mother’s daughter: Johanna was nearsighted. She used a magnifying glass. Fritz’s sister, yes, was in hospital, but she’d never been near the girl. And he’d not known his great aunt. He’d had in his mind a different trajectory for himself, a philosophical library, a desk with rolled documents, sheaf after sheaf of paper, and nothing moving anywhere but for his pen. This marriage and daughter had eaten away at silence, filling quiet with high voices, clamorous and pining. He had an office at the university, but he was rarely there. His wife would look at him in the mornings, her eyes full, and so he’d hasten home in the evenings to make sure the daughter did not die of domestic disaster. She had to be watched. She set things on fire. She flung herself down the staircase and leapt into the cellar. She tripped from the front door in an ecstasy of wandering, and all of this almost without sight. When she was small, soon after the fever, Beate had escaped the attic and climbed onto the roof, her dress ballooned out upon the splintering shingles, the cat beside her, yowling.
She’d claimed she was following someone. That had been the beginning of the real trouble. Fritz shuddered. Beate’s eyes had returned again and again to the figure she indicated, consternation spreading across her face as she looked more or less in her father’s direction, following his furious voice, then back again with great precision at someone who was not there.
“There, father,” Beate said, and pointed into the air just off the roof. “She’s falling now. She’ll fall again in a moment.”
There was nothing, no one. A bird flitting upward, leaves dropping from the big tree.
“She’s dying,” said his daughter. And then, “Now she’ll die again. Her back will break, and her neck.”
The cat yowled and Beate nodded as whatever she watched tripped from the shingles and fell to the street below. The chill had never left Fritz, though he did not believe in ghosts.
Together, the Abendroth’s bore the burden of their daughter. In public they were gracious sufferers of their misfortune, but at night, they’d silently lie awake, and blame each other. Their daughter was seventeen, but her mind was younger. She was pursued by imagined friends and enemies, never silent, always gabbling. Her parents dreaded her. Even in her sleep she spoke to the invisible, and in daylight she swore she saw them watching her. She couldn’t read. She couldn’t write. From interrogating her, Fritz gathered that Beate could see only blurred insinuations of the real world, but alongside them were her own notions. To find her a teacher would have meant trotting her into public. This journey, to a village outside Giessen, was difficult enough. They could not quite bring themselves to institutionalize her. People would find out.
This was a last resort. Perhaps, with this procedure, something could be salvaged. If she could see what she should see, it might quiet the other ravings, and who knew? – perhaps even some young man… She was a beautiful girl, the mother and father agreed, a plausible pride and joy, her skin flawless, her long blonde locks curling into smooth spirals, and perhaps her eyes might be fixed.
Beate Abendroth sat between her parents, uncaring of their concerns. They looked at her. She did not look back. A caul over each cornea. She focused, as ever, on the things only she could see.
“Perhaps,” Fräu Abendroth said in the brave voice she reserved for such pronouncements, “this will be a true cure at last.”
“It will be,” said Professor Abendroth, and nodded for emphasis. His daughter was gazing out the window, for all the world as though she could see the scenery. Before the fever she’d been playful and quick-witted. Now she muttered all night and daylong. The servants never stayed. Everything was dirty. He had a sticky splot of jam on his vest. He touched it, and now his glove was spoilt.
Fräu Abendroth sneezed into her handkerchief – her husband shuddered – and brushed dust from her daughter’s cheekbone. She twisted a lock of her daughter’s hair about her own finger.
“Mother,” Beate said, adjusting her eyeshades, tugging her hair away, seeming to peer out the window. “Stop.”
There was something visible, hanging in the trees, or at least, Beate assumed the unseen things from which the thing dangled were trees. From the way it moved, hanging by its neck from an unseen rope, they might be passing an old gallows. She slid across the leather to get closer to the window, and stretched out a hand to hold herself in place, but it was gone.
“Nearly there, and a time we’ve had,” huffed Johanna. There was a piece of boning stabbing her, just below the left breast, and there was no way to get at it. Instead, she fussed with her daughter’s hair. Fräulein could not be made to care about such things.
Beate was calm. The train wasn’t the worst place. The things she saw were nearly invisible at that speed, most of the time, and they rarely noticed her. Early in the journey, she’d seen a bad one, but it had eventually left her alone, drifting back to the front of the train where it belonged. Beate wasn’t sure if it was male or female. Once it had leapt before the train, and now it was part of it. She could only make out its mouth, and that spoke ceaselessly, a maddened murmur. She could hear it now, though it had returned to its place beside the conductor, watching the snub-nose of the train, opening its mouth from time to time to taste pipe smoke.
The things Beate saw in substitute for what other people saw were much more than just light and dark. She was familiar with faces that had disappeared from flesh a thousand years prior to her birth. Her closest companions had lived in her bedroom since she was seven. The house had been built atop a plague burial. They’d moved house several times because of her affliction. There was no place where the dead were not. Every building, every room, every small garden plot. Everything had something buried beneath it, and if you thought things were green and gold, you were wrong.
The ghost she’d seen first on this journey had curled into her lap in order to whisper. She couldn’t see her own skirts but she could see the stains its blood had left on them. Sometimes the space around her body was defined only by the presence and spoor of ghosts.
Another ghost was sitting beside her mother, looking expectant. She shook her head at it, but it looked at her hungrily anyway.
Johanna had brought cold chicken and insisted Beate eat it. Beate opened her mouth to take a little bite. She did not like meat. It reminded her of her own fingers. Vegetables were like organs. Wine and water were unknowns, but she had a feeling they were all living things, or recently deceased, the wine blood, the water tears. Nothing tasted like food to Beate. She wasn’t sure what food was meant to taste like, though she listened to her parents eating, the way they clattered folks and knives and moaned with pleasure, the way the cooks - they always quit, terrified of the things Beate saw in the kitchen – spoke of seasonings and vinegars, roasted meats and basted things. Fat cherries marinated in kirch. Shaved chocolate. All of it tasted like ghosts to her, and sad flesh. She swallowed the chicken. Dry as bark, but pulsating somehow, a sweet filth to it. She gagged. Her mother clucked. She stopped gagging.
The ghost beside her mother looked at the darkness where the chicken had been and hissed. Sometimes the dead didn’t like other dead things. Beate swallowed again, this time without chewing.
“I’m not at all hungry,” she said, but her mother forced three more bites into her mouth before she was done. The ghost watched her closely, its eyes glowing, chewing in time with her.
“I’d give it you if I could,” she told it, “if you’re starving. Are you starving? Did you starve?”
Her mother pinched her thigh. She wasn’t supposed to talk to them in public. Sometimes it couldn’t be helped.
Hope should have been trampled by now. Twelve years of blindness and along with the blindness, the Other Thing, as her parents called it. Beate herself was happy enough to wear dark glasses, though had she been allowed, she’d have left her eyes bare. Her mother wouldn’t allow her to show them. She’d threatened corneal tattoos, India ink pricked in to change the pale to black, but no one would perform them, because Beate still had a little sight. If items were held very close to her eyes, she could see the blurry edges of objects from the real world, a watchface, a fingertip, an earring. Her own world was a lamplight shadow show full of spirits, and sometimes, she was lonely there. Sometimes things she saw made her fearful, but most of the time, she simply observed the ghosts, and went about her own tasks. Today, she was not lonely, and mostly not afraid, though she was less than delighted to be traveling to the country.
The country was always full of murdered dead. Cities had fewer. People noticed ghosts in cities, and dealt with them. Beate assumed that others must do better helping them than she could. Some ghosts could be satisfied, it seemed, or the world would have been all ghosts, twenty dead for every living person. In cities, the dead blended together into a blurring mist, people walking and riding horses that were not there, everyone endlessly on the way to somewhere else. Beate’s life was small enough that she knew the problematic ghosts on her daily path, and avoided them. The rest, she didn’t mind. They were just ghosts, about their ghost business.
In the country, the dead wandered for years, uncared for, unnoticed, and when Beate passed them, they clamored and crowded her, until she could see only them, pressing, touching, all around her, sorting blades of grass and biting hay, clawing tree branches, hissing and rattling. Sad ghosts and regretful ghosts, but none of them had much knowledge of the world. Ghosts lacked ambition. They revealed no secrets, gave her no joys. They were like a thousand hungry dogs, all crowded and yapping, all wanting and wanting, but their wants were nothing anyone could provide. When Beate slept, they pried up her eyelids to be seen, and when seen, they reveled. For some of them, her gaze on them was as good as food.
“She saw me!” they shrieked in triumph, whenever she acknowledged them.
She swallowed again, feeling the chicken in her throat, and the hungry ghost looked at her and clicked its tongue.
“Go away,” Beate said. “I’m not allowed to talk to you.”
Her mother grabbed her thigh, pinching.
“You mustn’t,” said Johanna. “You mustn’t speak like this before the doctor. He can only use you if you’re a good girl. You have to show you know how to behave. They have to trust you can withstand the surgery, not damage your eyes again, nor hurt yourself.”
“This isn’t a privilege everyone receives,” her father said, holding Beate’s shoulder tightly between his thumb and forefinger. “It’s because you’re precious that we’re taking you to see the surgeon. You are precious,” he repeated carefully.
Beate was not made of metal. She was not made of gemstones, nor paper. She was not a manuscript. She was a blind girl who wasn’t blind enough.
She touched her fingertips together, and closed her eyes. When she shut her eyes, nothing was there at all, no live world, no gone world. Sometimes she did that, in moments of frustration. The darkness was only for emergency. No one in the dark needed her to behave. When she opened her eyes, her father was a blank place surrounded by two ghosts, each of them pressed against his ears, so that she could see the shape of his head. The ghosts were soldier dead, and stabbed. The train must be passing over a battlefield. One looked at her, the corner of his mouth sagging.
“Will you help me?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I can’t.”
Beate’s mother huffed beside her, and Beate turned to look at the place she judged her mother to be. She didn’t remember what the woman looked like. Johanna had a nature like a pincushion beneath a heel, an embroidery hoop with linen stretched too-tight. Her mother was still accompanied by the ghost. It was caressing the chicken and lapping at the air.
Then gone, the soldier ghosts, and with a surge, the train rattled onto a bridge. It filled halfway across with new ghosts, luggage in their hands, hats askew, dresses torn. They pitched and rolled and flew out the windows on one side, wailing, their belongings floating around them, their faces agonized, their hands outstretched to hang onto a train that no longer existed. There’d been a derailment here. In a moment it was gone, all the ghosts thrown into whatever water they were crossing, Beate breathing deeply in her seat trying to recover.
The train pulled eventually to a halt. Trains always wanted to continue. Beate smiled. She liked train ghosts, apart from the terrible ones. Trains weren’t alive, but all the souls that had ever ridden, all those who’d built the tracks? Those souls craved motion. Some were still riding, their faces in the wind.
Go go go whispered the peaceful dead of the train, Beate’s preferred dead.
“Go, go, go,” whispered Beate.
“Stop smiling and stop whispering,” said Beate’s mother. “The surgeon is meeting us at the station.”
The ghosts leaned urgently forward, wishing that the train would continue. She stood. Her skin felt rumpled. She was thirsty, and the air smelled of something pleasant, some perfume. She adjusted her glasses again, snatching one last glimpse at the ghost passengers, their comfort and peace, their trust that the train would take them where they belonged. “Shall we go, then?” Beate said. “Go, go, go.”
Fritz Abendroth looked into the woods surrounding the raised platform. Something glinted in the trees. His daughter turned her head as well. He wanted, for a moment, to ask her if she saw something there. The sun dropped below the treeline.
The doctor was waiting. He tossed the family’s trunks easily into his carriage himself, though he was in his middle forties, nearly the same age as Fritz, bearded and long-limbed, imbued with an elegant vigor. Fritz looked at him in envy. His own belly seemed full of down, a pillow plumped to bursting. Something needed to be done, an abstinence.
“Doctor Arthur von Hippel,” the surgeon said. “I am offering you my hand, Fraulein Abendroth: it is directly in front of your own.” She did not take it until her mother nudged her. He’d said his first name. No one did that. Beate did it herself, as he’d set the example.
“My name is Beate Abendroth,” said Beate. “I’m blind, but not mad.”
“No one told me you were,” said the doctor, but Fritz saw, to his concern, that he was curious. The doctor tilted his head to examine Beate. “To the house,” he said. “There are comfortable rooms readied for your stay, and other guests to supper tonight as well. The dust of the road must be on you.”
He raised his hand to brush pollen from Beate’s brow, and she flinched.
“Stop it,” Johanna said. “That’s the doctor. She doesn’t like being touched around her eyes,” she said apologetically. “She can see a little, and it changes the light.”
“Quite all right,” said von Hippel. “No one does. It’s a reflex. She’s not wrong, is she? No, she is not. Her eyes are not wrong. She has lovely eyes.”
He peered into them, seeming pleased with his announcement. Her parents both frowned. Her eyes were wrong. Her corneas looked like cocoons, and what might hatch from them? Johanna’s own eyes were the color of gentian, and she’d been complimented on them many times. Johanna and Fritz glanced at each other. They walked their daughter to the carriage.
The house was large, white with columns, only slightly in disrepair. A classical design, with a gracious front porch, and a long drive lined in dark, pointed trees, the same species as the ones that made up the woods at the edge of the property.
“Will supper be formal?” Fritz made himself ask. The trees seemed to be stretching up from their roots and trying to dart at the sky. He felt the urge to laugh, but held it in check. He felt a desire to run at those trees and make certain he went with them when they ascended.
“Not formal, no,” said the doctor. “We’re away from the city, and we may as well enjoy it.” He rolled his sleeves up. His arms were powerful, and his fingers startlingly delicate, narrow-tipped manicured nails without callouses. Fritz had none himself, of course. He was a man of books, and so too was Arthur, a surgeon. He wanted to trust him, this man who’d invented a clockwork trephine for removing corneas. Fritz imagined it for a moment, the way it would slice into the cornea, like a soft-cooked egg being topped.
He spasmed and folded head-down in the hedge, dry-heaving. Von Hippel gave a cry of sympathy. Something about the chicken, Fritz tried to mumble, something about the train.
“Perhaps a dinner in your rooms,” the doctor said, leaning over him. “You’re not well.”
“No, no,” said Fritz. “We’ll dine with the group. A small weakness, and it’s passed.” Perhaps the coffee. The cream had been thick and yellow.
The daughter was drifting over the groomed lawn, and Johanna was doing nothing about it, despite the way Beate had hitched up her skirts. It was warm, but that was no excuse. “Beate!” he cried. “Beate! Come in!”
At least she wasn’t speaking to anyone. She seemed only to be walking, across the grass, very slowly, her hands out before her. She seemed bewildered, and Fritz wondered why. Perhaps it was the country air. If she tripped and fell, at least, it would be no horror. They were safe enough here in the country, at the surgery, and the doctor seemed to approve of the girl. He was tramping across the lawn to fetch her, and as Fritz and Johanna watched, the doctor took their daughter by the arm. She seemed docile, even grateful. It was unlike her. Normally, she would have lashed out, or gone limp.
Johanna took Fritz’s arm in her own as well, and they watched their daughter walk slowly in, supported by von Hippel. Fritz compared the edge of the doctor’s hairline to his own.
“He’s a doctor,” said Johanna. “A surgeon.”
“He is,” said Fritz, and together, the parents allowed themselves a moment of hope for their own futures.
Beside the house there was a pen full of rabbits, small and white, brown-dappled, black. All sniffing and twitching, in heaps of multi-colored fur. Johanna wondered if they were to be supper. She’d never enjoyed rabbit, though cooked with wine it might be palatable. It was, she thought, too warm for a stew. She sniffed the air, smelling the country, hay rotting somewhere, and trees rotting too, the sweetish scent of termites.
She bent toward the pen to pat them, and Fritz snatched her back. The rabbits were altered. Some were bandaged about the head, the bandages surgical, but stained. Their eyes had all been removed.
Beate could hardly breathe. Her eyes darted in all directions, but beyond the haze of dark and light she could see nothing, truly nothing, the nothing her parents insisted was all she should ever have seen. There were no spirits here. This place, these grounds, this house, were ghostless. She put her hand to her mouth, feeling for her own face. Years surrounded and now, none. Where could they be? What was happening?
For the first time in twelve years, her vision was wholly dark. Was she cured? The train had been filled with ghosts, and nothing had changed, not until they arrived here, on this land. In the grass outside the house, she’d stumbled in the black, touching nothing, feeling nothing, seeing nothing, until the doctor had come to find her, to bring her back in. The touch of his hand had been a relief, stranded as she was, alone. Had this been her parents plan all along? Was it all a lie, this story of some new technique? Was her outer blindness to be matched by an inner, had that always been their notion? This von Hippel, was he some ocular exorcist, no kind of surgeon at all? But no – that made no sense. There had been no secret techniques performed upon her, she was sure of it. She had only traveled, and now she was here.
Alone in this room. It had been years since she’d been alone, anywhere. She felt for the curtains and drew them open for the morning, the golden glow. Without ghosts, there would be no boundaries for the universe. The bed was narrow, with carved boards at head and foot, and both sides. It had a scratchy wool blanket, which she rolled back. She unlaced her boots, and stretched her toes, craving touch of any kind. She peeled off her stockings. It was hot. She’d been directed to sleep, but how could she sleep?
“Where are they?” she’d managed to ask the doctor on the lawn.
The doctor had laughed. “Who?”
“They,” she said. “Them.”
She had felt his fingertips on her eyelids again, and this time she let him, without flinching.
“What do you see?” he asked.
She started to tell him, and then remembered what her mother had said. No talk of ghosts to him, or he would not take her as a patient. She found that she wanted to stay, wanted this doctor to work on her in this ghostless place. What would he do?
“Light, a little,” she said, the appropriate answer. She’d used it many times. There were doctors in her history, but none who’d been able to help her, though her eyes had been pricked and stabbed, held open by hooks, stared into, barked over. “I see morning and evening. I see small objects, if you hold them close to me. Sometimes I see other things, made of my mind playing in the dark, the other doctors say. But not all I see is lovely.”
“You’ve learned to make do, and I can only imagine with what you have populated the darkness around you.”
“Don’t be startled, Beate – I see what you have done. There is no shame in it. You are not the first blind child to have invented companions, and you will not be the last. And if I can cure you – whatever accompanies your sightlessness will likely go. You wish to see, and I can help you. But are you sure you’re ready to stop seeing the things only you can? There’s no shame here. I might tell your parents I can’t help you. There’s a language for you, night writing, dots to feel with your fingertips. You could read. This surgery will stop you seeing things in the dark. If all goes well, you’ll see my face, in the light, in three weeks time.”
She discovered that she did want to see this man’s face, and desperately. What was he, that the dead avoided him? Was it him they avoided?
“I want the surgery,” Beate had said, and so he’d taken her arm and walked her back to the house, and her parents, through the strange quiet, and the dark, through no ghosts. She looked around, scanning the nothing.
For a moment, in the direction of the trees, she thought she saw something running, a white motion, a leaping terror. She turned toward it, but it was gone.
“There will be pain,” he said. “But not so much. The cocaine will numb your eyes, and I’ll be there to keep you still. Then a fortnight bandaged. It’s a calm enough recovery. When we remove the bandages, you’ll begin to see.”
She remembered things she’d seen, hands gone and faces, arms torn and heads removed. One of her three companions in the city house wandered miserable and choke-throated, coughing and strangling his last moments, a frenzy of bloodied handkerchiefs and large-eyed pleading. The woman on the roof killed herself nightly. For a time, when she was small, Beate had thought the woman could fly, but then it became clear that she was only dying.
“I’m not frightened of pain,” Beate told the doctor, and then, boasting a little, “nothing frightens me.”
“You can give me your trust,” the doctor said. “This trephine is my own invention. I won’t hurt you.”
“I’m already hurt,” Beate surprised herself by saying. “That’s why I’m here.” The doctor made a startled sound at that statement, and held her arm more tightly.
There was another bit of whiteness in the direction of the trees, something running away, not toward her. Then it was gone again.
“What’s over there?” she asked.
“A wood,” said the doctor said. “An old one. A part of it was cut down to build these buildings. Some people say they don’t like it, but I think the forest is a lovely one. The trees are tall, and the creatures there are glad ones. In Giessen, you’ll see it one day, there is an academic garden full of medicinal plants, and an academic forest as well, planted with trees from every forest in Germany, but I prefer this one. This one came here naturally.”
Now, in her room, alone, Beate listened to the insects trilling outside, to the wind blowing through the trees, to the sounds of something howling far off, a fox she thought, but she didn’t know whether she was listening to the living or to the dead. She covered her eyes with her hands, and imagined a language of dots on her lids. She stretched her bare limbs on the linens, feeling the weave of the fabric on her skin pretending, for a few pleasant moments, that she was something other than human. A spider, eight legs, skittering up a wall or ceiling, a swift arachnid escapist.
She woke abruptly, her face being washed with a warm cloth.
“Don’t worry,” a woman’s kind voice said. “I’m the nurse.”
“The doctor is here. He wishes to look at your eyes, for only a moment, before supper,” the woman said, and another set of hands touched Beate’s face, holding her head and tilting it up, moving her skull. There was light in the room, from a lamp perhaps. She went limp, feeling the doctor opening her lids. The quiet was strange. To be surrounded only by the living. To be touched only by the living. Was this what it was to be a good daughter? Was this what they meant? Was this what the living normally did?
The press of fingers on her jaw. Beate felt dizzy. With the dead gone, she could hear breathing for the first time in years. She could feel hearts beating as they examined her eyes, and she saw shadows of real things, the doctor’s fingertips, his own eye, very close to hers, an instrument, a bright light intervening at the edges of her universe.
“She’s a perfect candidate,” the doctor said, his voice more formal than it had been. It had an edge of anticipation in it, excitement just below the surface. “We’ll go to Heidelberg. I’ll show you at the convention. This will be a cure for blindness. You won’t feel pain. You won’t be made ill by chloroform. The coca, I’ve tried it myself, is a peaceful thing, a quieter of motion in the eye, and when it’s used, I can prick my own eye with a needle and feel nothing. Would you like that? To feel nothing?”
Ghosts might be numbed. Their pain would be lessened. She wondered if there was a way to medicate the dead.
“I’d like to feel nothing,” she said, testing the words. Perhaps she would.
“Things are different than they were, Beate, even a year ago. You’ll be the perfect patient, and you’ll be famous. Would you like that?”
She didn’t know what she’d like. The doctor was certain, and so Beate began to be certain too. She had ancient memories of faces and places, the pumpkin-colored checked silk of her dress when she was five, the sky, the stars, the leaves on the trees. Her vision had been so full of spirits for so long that she’d almost forgotten what it might be to see figures in a field of vision that wasn’t simply darkness. She might see tables and gardens, the faces of the people who spoke to her. The doctor, she might see, and the nurse. She might read. She’d touched books, but they were nothing to her. Sometimes she heard her father reading from the newspaper, or her mother reading aloud from a letter. She didn’t care about books, she decided.
She let the nurse dress her, lacing and pulling the corset tightly, twisting her travel-crushed hair back into a coronet. She imagined a visible world as she was dressed. Ghosts, replaced by the living. She imagined herself at a ball, dancing with someone, her dress crinkling as she spun, and she would dance through ghosts, of course, she knew that. They were everywhere except here, but she wouldn’t know their natures any longer. The ghosts would be gone from her sight.
One day, someday, she’d go into that wood. She’d wait until her eyes were perfect, and then she’d walk into the trees, all alone, and see what there was to see.
“The patient, B.A. is a young girl, seventeen years of age, thin, delicate, and of average height. Both eyes failed at the age of five, after an episode of high fever reported by her parents as nearly fatal. The fever – or some aspect of its treatment – produced corneal ulcers. She has, in both eyes, a four millimetre corneal leucoma, which opacity obscures the entirety of the pupil. While the patient is capable of distinguishing light from darkness, and counting fingers at a distance of two metres, she has been rendered effectually blind, with a side element. She reports spirit forms and indistinct figures, an oddity no doubt caused by the effects of sunlight without context.”
At supper, the doctor introduced another ophthalmologist, elderly and visiting from Dublin, Doctor Samuel Bigger, who rumbled benignly over his pre-dinner cup. The Irish doctor’s wife was not so calm. She bent close to Beate’s face – Beate had not worn her glasses - and talked into it, too loudly.
“This is the keratoplasty?” said the wife, and then, addressing both doctor and parents, “She looks too young, and her corneas should be conical, not flat. She shows signs of globe collapse.”
“This is my patient, Mrs. Bigger, and her name is Fraulein Abendroth,” said Doctor von Hippel, firmly. “She’s seventeen, and her eyes are perfect for my process. What you see is merely scar. Kindly leave off examining her. We’re eating supper.”
“Perfect,” Beate repeated, hearing only that word and the way it echoed in a room of no ghosts. Ghosts would like that word. “Perfect, go, go, go,” they would say. No ghost would like this, a dinner in a room with closed windows and no breeze, motionless. Ghosts longed for wind.
The old woman touched Beate’s left eyelid, and Beate jerked back, nearly spilling her glass. “She’s not quite right, is she?”
“Now, now,” said the elderly ophthalmologist, his accent liltingly Irish. “Now. Perfection varies, does it not, Róisín? Think of the gazelles. They were not perfect, nor was it necessary that they be, that day in the desert, the sand blowing, and I with no practical knowledge of such things, making a blind gazelle see.”
Róisín made a sound. “The gazelles were fifty years ago, Samuel,” she said. “A gazelle can’t speak and tell you what it sees after surgery.”
“I was young, that’s true,” said Samuel. “But I think of that surgery fondly.”
“As do I,” said von Hippel to Fritz. “I read of Doctor Bigger’s success in a monograph, and it inspired me to this place, these techniques.”
“Is that so?” said Fritz, the first thing he’d said in hours. Even now, he was looking out toward the trees, though it was full dark.
“I was kidnapped by a tribe of nomads,” said Doctor Bigger. Beate felt the traditional dread of the blind, converted by fate into listeners. She was sitting beside the Irish doctor, and he leaned closer. “Twelve or fourteen days from Grand Cairo. Kidnapped and forced to bargain for my life with the all the canny I possessed.”
Beate could smell dishes traveling from the kitchen, and cringed slightly. Johanna cringed too. A stew was being ladled. Meat stuffed with cabbage, cooked with carrots and red wine.
“Is this a rabbit stew?” Johanna asked, politely. “Is it, by chance, made of the rabbits from outside the house?” Beneath the table, her husband kicked her. “The medical rabbits?”
“It is,” Doctor von Hippel said, clearly proud. “Some do not survive the enucleation. They die of fright. We don’t waste them here. The meat is tender, is it not? Rabbits, not to speak indelicately, are prolific creatures. Those in excess of our needs, we use in the kitchens.”
“And those surgeries,” Johanna said. “We saw the others in their pen. Can they really make the blind see? That is our purpose, Doctor von Hippel. She must see. Do you assure us that she will?”
“They will see,” the doctor said. “The blind will see.”
“And the dead will walk,” said Fritz, startling himself. He laughed. “Beate?”
His wife pinched him. He didn’t know why he’d said that either.
“The dead are not my business,” said Doctor von Hippel, “I’m in the business of providing light to the blind.”
Beate was the only one listening to Doctor Bigger, in an effort to keep from eating her food. He leaned in.
“The Bedouin chieftain, Beate, had a pet gazelle, a dear animal, and it was blind, one eye missing, the other injured. I did not ask what had befallen it, but someone told me it had met a lion, and someone else told me it’d met a poker. They told me they’d kill me, for I had no purse, no hope of anyone to pay my ransom, and I said I’d pay my way out by making the chieftain’s pet see again. There was another gazelle in the camp, and I took its eye and brought it to the pet, cutting away the injured cornea with my own knife, and stitching the new one into position with two sutures. We bound its eyes with silk, and it went about the camp, stumbling. It was a miraculous cure. After two weeks, the pet gazelle opened its eyes, and could see movement and detail, and recognize its owner. It pranced about, Beate, it did so, for all the world as though it had never been injured, seeing new things for the first time, and old things resurrected in its sight. I would I could see anew, with such joy, Beate, but not the present day. I’m nearing my own time of dying, and I wish I could see a few of the loved ones of my history. I would like to see them before I die, for what is after this? What will we see when the dark comes down on us? We must see what we can see before we are gone from this bright world, Beate.”
The doctor clucked happily to himself, and then returned to his meal, his wine, his rabbit.
“And the other gazelle,” asked Beate finally. “The one that gave the eye? What happened to it?”
“We killed it,” Bigger said. “Of course.”
Beate sat in nervous silence. She wasn’t sure what a gazelle was. She had an image of two young girls, one a wife, the other a slave. The wife blind, the slave girl sighted, but less valuable. She thought of all the ghosts she’d met, and knew that something like this could happen anywhere, on any piece of land. That any sort of person could be killed for something someone else wanted.
She imagined a pen filled with eyeless girls, their faces bandaged, and here, in the comfortable rooms, the warm woolen blanket, the soft cloth and the kind doctor, ministering to girls like her, who were precious to someone. Or, if not precious, at least girls for whom surgical costs had been paid.
“My new eyes,” Beate said, her words too fast. “Where will they come from? Is there another girl here, waiting to give me her sight? Are you taking eyes from other girls? Are you killing them? Where are they? Where are the ghosts?”
Conversation stopped. She was shouting, and it was strange, because she’d never cared about other girls. She had never cared about the living at all.
“Beate!” her father cried. “Hush!”
“What can you be thinking?” her mother said, and then turning to the others at the table, “She’s not herself. The journey. She’d never say something like this otherwise. She’ll certainly not speak so before the conference in Heidelberg. Beate’s a good girl.”
“It’s quite all right,” von Hippel said. “You’ll receive the corneas of one of our rabbits, Beate, nothing from another human. The sole successful grafts have been porcine and lapine, and none of those have persevered beyond the point of clouded healing. This one, though, will be different. We’ve advanced in our techniques, as I said. Things are improved.”
“I took an eye from a wolf once, long ago,” said Doctor Bigger, thoughtfully. “A wolf trapped by hunters. I placed the wolf’s cornea in the eye of a pointer dog, but the dog ran into the woods, and tore off its bandages. I was certain the eye would be ruined, but when the dog returned, some weeks later, the wolf eye was the brighter, and the clearer, and through the wolf’s eye, the dog could see more and other than it had ever seen through its own sight.”
“Hush,” said his wife, kinder than she’d been. “The girl is frightened, and no one could blame her. You telling tales of gazelles and wolves, and she naught but a child.”
Beate was no longer frightened. The notion of her eyes becoming animal appealed to her. Perhaps she’d see something wonderful in the wood. She opened her mouth and took a spoonful of rabbit stew. It was delicious, the meat dissolving on her tongue, sweet and tender. She was eating something blind. She was eating the visions of a thousand rabbits.
Later, seated on the divans before the fire, Beate curled in a laprobe, imagining herself seeing through a wolf’s eye, the trees before her. Through wolf eyes she might see prey.
Fritz looked out the windows as well, tilting the spirits in the bottom of his glass. He held a burning mouthful. Outside the windows, in the dark, something ran, and ran, and ran.
Shortly after the sun rose, Johanna wandered the house in search of her husband, tremendously annoyed. The night had been too late, and the morning too early, and Johanna’s head ached. She’d gotten half through her toilette before she’d realized Fritz was unaccounted for. She’d assumed he was with von Hippel, but von Hippel and his nurse were preparing Beate for surgery, and Fritz was still not in evidence.
Johanna left the house, and walked out onto the great lawn. Perhaps he’d gone for a walk in the woods, caring nothing for his responsibilities as a father and husband. She brought her magnifying glass out from the bosom of her dress, small and discrete, she was not terribly nearsighted, no, whatever Fritz insisted, and peered into the forest. Nothing to be seen there. No Herr Abendroth. But somehow, she did not wish to walk closer to the line of brush and leaves.
“Fritz,” she called. No one would hear her. She was out far enough from the house. “Fritz? Beate is already in the surgery! Come out, if you’re in the wood!”
But nothing in the wood moved.
There was something white in the center of the great lawn. She walked toward it, slowly. A chicken, possibly, caught by a fox. Or one of those rabbits.
She picked up her husband’s pajama trousers before she knew what they were, and found dirt on them, their edge partially dug into a divot in the grass. Then his shirt. She found, not thinking, no, not thinking, a ragged tear in it. She looked around, turning slowly in a circle. There was nothing else. No one. No Fritz. Here were his slippers, his pajamas, his robe.
Johanna turned to run back to the house, to tell someone. What would she tell them? That he’d shed his clothes and run into the forest? She paused, stepping over the place the pajamas had been.
There was something watching. She felt it. She looked around frantically, dread rising in her, her throat clenching, her fists closing. Something was all around her. And a horrible smell, dense woods, rotting meat.
As she stood, paralyzed, shaking, something tore a slash in her wrapper, long and jagged, and she felt a searing pain in her rib, the flesh opened by something sharp as a knife.
Beate looked into the nothing, her eyes hooked open. The cocaine solution was dropped in, two drops at a time, and she felt her eye becoming something other than her own, a piece of stranger’s skin.
“Do you feel this?” the doctor asked, and she did, a slight pulling, a tug, but it was not painful. It was as though a strand of her hair was caught in a brush, not tangled, but stretched.
The doctor adjusted the trephine, a bronze device shaped a little like a telescope, and wound its gears with a key. He employed it to cutting the entire opaque cicatrix of Beate’s left eye, a four-millimeter diameter, a delicate, delicate operation, the blade slithering through her flesh like a serpent through flooded land. He lowered the instrument carefully. He felt the tiniest instant of resistance, and then release: the blade had cut her eye. Any tremble, any slip, and he’d damage the lens. His instrument sliced perfectly in a circle, at consistent depth. The doctor only needed to hold it steady as it cut. He excised the scarred cornea down to the membrane of Descemet, and– this was the primitive part – removed it with knife and forceps. The nurse brought iced mercuric chloride to control the hemorrhaging, but a small trickle of blood made its way down the girl’s cheek.
Beate stretched her toes. She was shoeless, still, and enjoying it. The tug on her eye was still not unpleasant. There were no ghosts in the room. All she could hear was the living. Her wrists were restrained, though she felt no desire to claw at her eyes. There was a heavy blanket holding her body to the pallet, and no one tried to confess their sins. No one asked her to see their faces or their deaths. No one wished to go, go, go.
The doctor bent to the rabbit: calm, its eyeballs glazed, the cocaine solution liberally applied there as well. Its ears quivered only slightly. The surgeon felt the usual pinch of suspicion, the fear that the rabbit eye would be unusable somehow, but he brought the trephine into position, and cut. He remembered his initial experiments, a failure with a dog’s cornea, globe collapsed, vitreous humors overflowing, and the man he’d ministered to blinder than when he’d begun. Removing a cornea was like removing a cork from a bottle of precious wine. Wine could spill. Fifty years of attempts, this procedure. Reisinger had begun with the rabbits in the 1820’s, then Bigger, and Kissel, each of them with their near-successes, their pigs, wolves, dogs and gazelles.
Carefully, precisely, von Hippel brought the rabbit’s cornea into position, and placed it into the lamellar bed as though centering a wooden peg in a children’s toy. Another bloody tear rolled down the girl’s cheek as the nurse irrigated the site, dusted iodoform over the eye, and closed both eyes with a bandage. He’d only work on one eye at a time, to show the contrast, and, as well, there’d been an incident with rabbit corneas once before. He’d never perform surgery on both eyes simultaneously now.
He’d partaken of the coca himself. It improved his precision, though it made his heart switch like the tail of an aggrieved jungle cat.
Beate’s mouth moved into an expression not entirely a smile. She was beautiful, von Hippel thought, or she would be one day. He imagined the girl seeing herself for the first time, her expression when she discovered her own face. It was a strange woman who’d never seen herself in a glass. He would have the privilege of introducing her to vanity. He’d take her to Heidelberg. All the other surgeons would be agog. His paper was already half-written in his head, to be sent to every journal after the public presentation.
Beate Abendroth would be his miracle. She was young enough to be a daughter, though he had no daughters. Only a son, nineteen now, and at university. He thought of how his would be the first face she’d see in twelve years.
The nurse wrung the rabbit’s neck and saved it for soup. As she carried it across the room, he heard, from somewhere on the grounds, the sound of someone shrieking over and over again. He thought of fire, the house burning and swiftly bundled Beate. His nurse was already up the stairs, and running too, and by the time they were all outside, on the great lawn, panting and spinning for smoke it was clear to him that something was very wrong. There was no fire. There was only Johanna, in the center of the lawn, screaming.
“What is the matter with my mother?” murmured Beate, dazed with anesthetic and sedative.
“She seems to have experienced something unpleasant in the grass,” said the doctor, minimizing it.
He did not wish to tell the girl anything about what her mother was doing. Doctor Bigger was there with the women, his arm about the mother’s shoulders. She was clearly hysterical, and on her white wrapper, there were splashes of blood, a wound on her ribcage.
Bigger looked toward the house, and recited a poem of his own devising.
“Sin stalk’d about apostate man
Driv’n from happiness under ban,
And prescient now of Death;
Marking his future victims well,
Prizes of sorrow, sin, and hell,
From first, to latest breath!”
The Irishman crossed himself. The girl’s mother wailed again, and Bigger worked at her ribcage, binding something up. A wound, von Hippel saw now.
“What has happened to my mother?” The girl felt heavy as an animal in his arms.
“I don’t know,” said the doctor.
“Something took him!” Johanna shrieked. “Something took him, and now he’s gone! Something happened here! Something happened to my husband! His clothes! It’s still here! Can you not feel it?”
Von Hippel looked down, at Beate in his arms, bandaged and drugged, nearly unconscious. She lolled, groggily, as her mother screamed.
“Something took him!” Johanna shouted again, and Beate whispered something. The doctor lowered his ear to her mouth.
“Go,” she whispered again. “Go, go, go.”
Beate slept a long time, was bandaged and swooning, so long that she missed Johanna’s collapse, and her gibbering insistence that the house and grounds contained something terrible. The nurse wrapped Johanna in sheets. They were not equipped. Johanna calmed somewhat, though not enough. They stitched her wound, which was, it was true, strange. Deep and jagged, as though she’d fallen on a piece of metal.
That night, and every night after the day she’d found the pajamas, Johanna felt things all around her. The house shuddered with them, and the grounds too. She smelled carrion. She felt wind that wasn’t there. The house was dark and the forest was darker.
She felt herself getting old, her daughter still blind, the two of them, she imagined in a house together, in misery, shuffling about, living on smaller and smaller rations. Her family was dead, and her husband was gone. She’d chosen badly. The memory of Fritz’s pajamas haunted her, and the memory of the wound. The house itself felt wrong. Surfaces that should have felt hard felt soft, and the pen where the medical rabbits lived was too loud. Everything screamed, all night, the woods, the rabbits.
There was no announcement of Fritz’s disappearance. The constable came, examined the pajamas, the grass, and determined that Fritz was not dead, but fled. He’d left his family, the man said, not kindly. She imagined Fritz, for a moment, back at the University, in his office, surrounded by papers. It was not true.
“But something touched me,” Johanna managed, and the constable looked at her blankly. “Something touched me, there, where I found them.”
She sat before the constable, her teacup in her hand, shaking so hard the liquid splashed out. Here in the woods, without her life. Here with only a bandaged half-blind daughter and a case of summer dresses. Johanna fingered the stitches in her ribcage. A ragdoll, sewn up after an encounter with a lapdog, put out to be played with again.
She sniffed the air, revolted, and the doctor and constable looked at her.
Johanna withstood it as long as she could, and then, one night, she dressed herself, and walked until she crossed the train tracks, and then onward, to Giessen. She stood on the platform, and considered her future. It was still night. No one was yet waiting for the train, no one looking at her. Gentian eyes. Compliments from men. She had been beautiful. Now she was old, and there was a jagged scar from her breast to her navel. She’d wasted her youth. There would be no money to pay the bills without Fritz. There would be no summers, no cook, no housekeeper. A future alone in Frankfurt. Widowed but not widowed. What would she do? She had no family. She had no money. Everyone was dead.
She looked behind her, once, at something that didn’t pursue her past the boundary of the forest, but waited there on the edge, watching. She could not see it. She could smell it.
She stepped forward until she was balanced on a tread, and there, swaying, she waited for the train.
When she woke, Beate Abendroth had no parents, but she did not know it. The doctor and the nurse gently unwrapped the bandages. They’d ministered to her for weeks using lamplight only. The eye was healing nicely, the cornea no longer blurred and weeping but nearly crystalline, vessels transiting to the rest of the eye.
“Are you prepared?” asked the doctor. Beate nodded, ready for the pain of opening into light, if, indeed, there would be pain.
At first there was startlement more than anything. The nurse stripped the last bandage away, and swabbed her eyelid with cotton pledgets. The doctor touched her lids with his fingertips, and whispered to her.
“Now,” he said.
She opened her eyes. A flash of rose and orange in the left one, the new one. Two blurry forms moved there, human, but not.
“Tell us what you see,” the doctor said.
All around the discomfort were the possibilities of a room, draperies blowing, a vague rectangle, a window, a bureau. There was a lamp. She hadn’t seen any part of herself in so long, and now she saw her hands. They splayed, pale fingers spread. A leg moved, and she knew it for her own, but it was a woman’s leg, a woman’s skirts. Everything was haloed with white, agonizing light. She shut her eyes.
“Please,” Beate said. “Dark.”
She felt the doctor’s arm around her shoulders. She opened her eyes again, a little, and saw the curtains move. The doctor waved his hand.
“How many fingers do you see?” he asked. “Look at me. Look into the light, and tell me what you see.”
The doctor bent closer to look into her eye, and through a wash of tears, blinking rapidly, she saw him too, a beard and skin. She had not thought in faces before, but in voices, and the doctor’s voice, bright and merry, was not his looks. He looked like a man getting old, his hair long and curling around his ears, his beard and mustache streaked with silver, though his body was still that of a young man, slender and wiry. The nurse was freckles and comforting roundness. Beate stared at the shapes on her bodice, triangles and squares. She touched them with her fingertip, and found them pleated, pressed. She could see them, and feel them at once, and this was what woke her into vision.
She could see.
She jolted. Something had moved in the room, something other than the people in it. No, the curtains.
“How many fingers?” asked the doctor again.
“Two fingers,” she said, looking up at the kindly face of the living man before her, at the nurse, at the wallpaper, a pale yellow twisting motif. “Two. I can see them. I can see you. But what is that?”
She pointed at the window, at the curtains. They shifted, gusted, surged, as though something brushed against them.
“The wind,” the doctor said, and laughed in delight. “You can see. You can see!”
“It’s moving,” said Beate. “Everything shines.”
The doctor took her in his arms and held her tightly. Beate stiffened for a long moment. She could not remember having been held before. There were tears in her hair, the doctor weeping, in pride.
“My parents?” she asked. “Where are they? Why are they not here?”
“I’ve cured you,” the doctor said. “No one’s ever done it before.”
Beate looked with her left eye over his shoulder at the room, its glowing edges, the nurse, her glowing face, the way the bedcurtains and the window curtains still shifted, the way the carpet seemed to crush beneath something heavy.
“I can see,” she whispered. This was what the world looked like. This was what this room, and these people looked like.
The doctor brought her a mirror and held it before her, so that she could see herself.
Strands of blonde hair, a gown, and later, in the floor-length mirror, a blurry-edged shining girl. She saw for the first time the silvery cornea in the un-changed eye, the ugly right eye her mother had objected to, but it wasn’t ugly. The doctor stood behind her, watching her watch herself and grinning.
“You’re beautiful, Beate,” he told her.
“Am I?” she asked. She found herself bewildering. She didn’t know what beauty would be, what it would mean, nor what it even consisted of. Here were her mouth and her eye, still red. Here was her hair braided and golden. Here was the strangeness of everything around her, the world.
“Perfect,” said the doctor. “You’re perfect.”
But the part of her that was truly perfect was the silver eye. She knew it.
“Where are my parents?” she asked again.
The doctor hesitated, she thought.
“In Frankfurt,” he said. “Your healing took long enough that your father was called back to the city, to work. Your mother went with him.” He showed her a piece of paper, an envelope, but she couldn’t read it. He knew that.
“We’ve had a letter from her,” the doctor said, looking at Beate. “All is well.”
She could not read his expression, but then he smiled, and repeated himself. “All is well, Beate. You are to be cared for here for as long as you need to stay.”
The doctor and nurse took her outside, and she looked around, at the grass, at the trees. There were no ghosts here, she’d known that already, but it was different to see with one eye, to see people where ghosts had been. Her eye saw the world in glinting movement, birds flinging themselves up toward the light, shocking flashes. She was overwhelmed by it, and excited at once. She did not want to sleep again. She felt like crying, or laughing, not simply for joy but for loss too. She stood between the doctor and nurse, seeing the sky, wondering what would happen when she went away from this piece of land.
“Will they come back for me?” she asked the doctor, and some part of her referred to both her parents and the ghosts.
Her parents had never liked her. She was not stupid. They’d sought release from their burden. She thought of her father, in his office, surrounded by his books. Without Beate, Johanna might do as she pleased, and Beate knew she’d longed for afternoon concerts, for flower gardens unmarred by a daughter who saw only blackness and death, an unmarriageable daughter.
She slept that night in a knot of coverlets, sweating, springing up over and over again to look into the dark and wonder if she was blind again, if this had all been a dream. Every time she woke, she lit the lamp, and every time she lit the lamp, she marveled at it, the way the heat of the oil transformed into light, the way seeing depended on it. Her knowledge of the world had never depended on light before.
She looked into the dark, hunting for something. She was looking for the dead, she realized, things her mind was used to seeing, but there were none here. She allowed herself to think a moment about what it would be if the ghosts were no longer visible anywhere, if she herself had shifted. There would be no more of the woman leaping from the roof edge, no more plague victims following her through the house. There would be no more battlefield ghosts, no more derailment victims dropping toward the water. She would be free of all of them, and of their hopes for her acknowledgement. She would be more alone than she’d ever been before, for all her childhood raised in an echoing house, without a governess. She’d always – until this house - traveled with an invisible entourage. It would be a test, leaving. Then she’d know. Back in Frankfurt, with her parents, she’d know if the ghosts were gone. Here, who could say?
She got out of bed, tied herself into the wrapper – striped in pink and silver, she now saw – the names for the colors coming back to her from her childhood. She took the oil lamp and tiptoed out into the house itself. She ran her fingertips along a wall, guiding herself to the stairs.
She felt something in that wall, in that wallpaper, a scoring just beneath the surface. Something had clawed the paper back. She brought the oil lamp up to show the spot, but there was nothing. She shut her eyes, and touched it again. Yes. Marks, widely spaced, and deep. She could feel the plaster crumbles around each one, and the paper too, that unpleasant yellow-figured paper. She thought that she heard someone else awake in the house, or a dog perhaps, a huffing, raw breath, something snuffling in the dark just ahead of her.
Beate ran a hand over something she thought was bark, a branch, but it was only a banister. She closed her left eye, and saw nothing with the right. She closed the right eye, and again, the banister looked like a tree. The walls looked like forest. She squinted. No, it was only the wallpaper. She touched it again, to be sure.
In the early morning, Beate sat in the kitchen with the cook, drinking a cup of scalding tea, and looking out over the green grass and golden leaves – and yes, they were green and gold, and now she understood those colors - toward the woods. There were birds on the lawn, pecking and plucking at worms, and occasionally, Beate saw things hopping and dancing, little motes of white. Rabbits, she thought, and went out to look at the pen.
There they were, all in a clump, their many-colored bodies twisted together, nuzzling and prodding themselves closer into one another. Their ears twitched frantically, but they couldn’t see her. There was disparity between the rabbits she saw before her and the notion she’d had of rabbits until this moment. Rabbits were precise, and these eyeless ones even more so. There were hollow sockets. What sort of rabbit had it been that had given her this sight? Did all rabbits see the world the same way? She imagined her head twitching up to see the sky, for fear of an owl or eagle. She thought of what a rabbit might see from the side of its vision, a fox, a wolf, a big cat. Or a surgeon, kneeling to trap.
She stood beside the rabbit pen, looking back and forth, her new left eye still uncertain. If something were to swoop upon her from above, she would not see it coming. If something were creeping up from behind, she would not know.
It was cold on the lawn, and she felt an urge to drop to her knees and dig in the dirt, to burrow in. She saw the house, the way it loomed up over the grass, the sun rising behind it, a dark building full of gleaming windows, each one cased in triangular panes like honeycombs, or the wings of a kitchen fly like the one she’d caught this morning and examined.
In the dew, she saw her own footprints, a trail from the front door, the sunrise showing her path across the grass in a perfect negative. There was another set of tracks beside hers, as though she had not walked out from the house alone. Even as she wondered, the sun broke the roofline, and the dew shifted into droplets, steaming away with the day.
Mist and sunlight playing tricks. The sun was out, and she could see Doctor von Hippel standing on the porch, calling her in for breakfast.
She glanced toward the woods, but there was nothing there. Then she turned, and ran to the house, laughing at her speed, her certainty.
Beate looked at Arthur von Hippel, at his hair newly cut, at his shirt newly starched. He’d dressed for dinner, and so had she. He’d brought her a gown in shot silk the color of the trees outside. She looked like a changing leaf, though her throat was covered in ivory lace, nothing like the dark stems appended to the true leaves outside. Her hair had been done into a series of poufs, and for the first time, she understood a hairstyle as something to be seen rather than touched. The house still moved before Beate’s left eye, the curtains shifting, the carpets crushing, but she’d ceased to care. These aftereffects of the surgery were common, the doctor told her, memories of things her mind had created to fill the vacuii.
They were celebrating her complete healing, the streaks of red gone from her cornea, the rabbit’s eye fully integrated into Beate’s own.
“Some people create starry skies inside blindness,” Doctor von Hippel told her, refilling her wine from the decanter. “Others create universes of animals, people, memories of the time before they were blinded. Houses made of rooms they saw when they were infants. Still other blind people never think in visuals at all, but only in sounds and smells. You saw what your mind wished you to see,” the doctor said. “And now you see with your eyes.”
She felt the grain of the table with her fingers. Her left eye thought it saw the pale marks of claws. It didn’t. Her mind had made them.
“Has something spilt?” he said.
“Might I have another portion of nut cake?” she asked. She had a sweet tooth now she could see sweets.
“Of course, liebling,” he said. She looked up at him, startled.
“I apologize,” said the doctor, and flushed. “You must know I’ve become fond of you. My wife died long ago, and it’s been some time since there was a young woman about.”
In the dark at the corner of the dining room, she thought she caught sight of something moving, but then, no. Nothing was there. The doctor fed her a bite of walnut cake, the glaze orange-flavored, sweet and crystallized, and she sucked it, holding it in her mouth until it dissolved. The nights were getting cooler. He wrapped a shawl about her shoulders.
In her bedchamber, she looked at herself for a moment in the mirror, admiring her hairstyle. She turned, blinking, rubbing her eyes and stretched, facing the bed.
As she moved her hand from over her left eye, something rose up from the carpet.
There was a bear.
It filled the room. A bear made of dark.
She stayed silent, her hand clapped to her mouth, and frantically closed first one eye, then the other. The bear blinked in and out of existence. The great jaw, the glittering eyes, the tremendous paws, each one the size of her face, each one with too many claws. It had too many legs. It had too many heads. It wasn’t what it was meant to be, but it lurched forward, shambling, humping across the carpet, crushing it beneath its weight. It grunted and snuffled the carpet pile, the bedclothes, the edge of her nightgown.
She couldn’t see it through the blind eye, the human eye. This was the rabbit eye.
The bear was a ghost.
It passed through her in a rush of brambles and cave, of oak leaves and berries and rotting meat, and she gasped, holding her heart. It used no words, but it growled, and the vibration of the growl shook her skeleton.
“Help,” she whispered, too frightened to scream, but there was no one to hear.
A wrong bear, as though drawn by a child. A bear that had never seen another bear. It moved through the room, hunting. It had mangy clots of bedclothes half-hidden in its darkness, and its jaw was rowed with fangs. It growled. A gaping wound in its shoulder bled light. It was not right, it was not quite a bear. It was something more. What did she know of bears? A picture book from her childhood, before she was blind, nothing like this.
The bear rose up on its hind legs, opened its mouth, and roared into her face, its jaw dripping with ghost gore, its breath pouring across her skin, and into her own voice. Then it stormed through her and down the stairs, leaving her shaking, nearly vomiting.
She’d exchanged one kind of ghost for another.
When she looked out the window with her left eye open, she could see more ghosts, a stampede of eyeless rabbits, escaping the house, the bear stalking them, running, its haunches gathered, bounding over the grass. It stopped in the center of the lawn and sniffed, tearing up ghost grass with ghost claws, and the ghosts of a thousand rabbits ran from it.
For the first time in weeks, with a shock that went right through her, she saw motion with her right eye. She closed it, and looked at the same place, only with the left. Nothing but animal ghosts. Slowly, as slowly as she could, shaking as she was, she covered her left eye with her palm, and opened her right.
She saw at last what the bear was chasing.
She watched the man stumble and turn. She opened both eyes. With her left she saw the bear ghost, and the rabbits, and with the right she saw the human. With both eyes, she watched the ghost bear tear into a man she recognized from her early childhood, before the blindness. Her father, in his pajamas.
Now she screamed, at last, and the doctor rushed in, tying up his robe. He took her in his arms and held her, but she could not stop screaming. Her father was being torn apart on the lawn. The room was full of rabbit ghosts, silken silver and white, furred things, flashing things, moving quickly, emerging from the walls again.
“What do you see?” the doctor asked her urgently, looking into her eyes, moving his hand from eye to eye, shining a light into them.
“Hundreds,” she said, but they were gone, burrowed, under roots and in the trees.
“How many fingers?”
“What fingers?” she asked. She’d spent years less than blind, and now she was more than sighted.
“You’re not well, liebling,” said the doctor. “You must try to calm yourself, or there will be morphia.”
“No,” Beate wailed. “I know I am not well. Am I your wife, Doctor von Hippel, that you call me darling? You should not wish to take me to wife. I see too much.”
“Hush,” said the doctor. “Call me Arthur, Beate. We are friends.”
“Are we?” she asked. “Where are my parents? You said they were in Frankfurt. My father is not in Frankfurt! He is not!”
She stumbled to the window, looking out with her blind eye and her rabbit eye at once. Her ghost father was there, dying in the grass, and the bear was there too, dragging him into the woods.
“He is in Frankfurt,” said the doctor firmly. “With your mother. You had a nightmare, Beate, but you’re safe with me, here. Everything is safe.”
Beate turned and looked at von Hippel, but he did not change his story.
She watched ghost rabbits circle her doctor, weave themselves in and out of his mouth and eyes and ears, clawing him, raking him. She watched rabbits throw themselves into his body like worms eating bones, and through his skin they jumped, blind and raging.
“Stay with me,” the doctor said. “I will be your husband.”
“Where else am I to go?” Beate wept. “My father is dead. My mother is gone. Where is she?”
The bear was in the room again, its maw covered in blood. How had it killed her father? It was a ghost. How had it touched him? Would it touch her too? She watched its darkness swell and shrink, and inside it curled the ghosts of thousands of dead.
“Safe in Frankfurt,” said the doctor, stroking her hair. She felt like a pet, orphaned and taken from its home.
The bear was as large as the whole house one moment, and small as a dog the next. It clawed the furniture. It tore at the grass, at the bedclothes, at the boundary of the property.
“All is well,” said the doctor.
Beate knew he was lying. Nightly, she saw the bear running from the house, gaining speed as it went, and the ghost of her father tumbling over in the grass. The surgery, she soon learned, was full of dead rabbits, all of them neck-wrung. The kitchen was full of skinned rabbits. Now that her eye was healed, she knew the whole place swarmed with the dead, and all the dead could do was try to hide from the monster that lived here, the great bear, gorging and expanding.
The ghost of her father looked up at the windows of her bedroom.
“Can you help me?” he asked. She could not.
She had not liked her father, and her father had not liked her, but he had not deserved to be eaten by something that didn’t exist. What was this land that it called for sight?
The rabbit cornea healed into increasing clarity over the next months, the flap of skin transparent, the vision improving, but the girl herself was not right. Von Hippel had planned to announce his victory at the Ophthalmological Society Meeting of 1886, a surprise to every surgeon there. His success would birth a new method, the clockwork trephine combined with cocaine anesthetic. He was nervous that this would be impossible, though he’d given himself a year to prepare.
At first, Beate jumped at every sound, and then spent hours at the windows, tears running down her cheeks. She patrolled the rabbit pens, and gazed into the woods. At night, she often screamed, but refused sedation. She left her lights burning.
Von Hippel worried. There was still no explanation for what her father had done, his midnight disappearance. The mother, he understood. The loss of her husband had placed the woman in a bleakness it’d been impossible to recover from.
He looked at Beate’s beautiful face, listened to her sweet voice. Surely she would recover completely. It simply needed time. Von Hippel made certain to dress her in the clothing of a respectable young woman, though she cared nothing for fashion. She didn’t know how to lace her corset, nor did she know how to bathe herself. She didn’t know how to read. She didn’t know how to write.
She only knew, it seemed, how to sit in the grass, surrounded by rabbits. Sometimes the doctor would look out the windows of his office, and see her sitting there, her skirts spread around her, even as fall came down and the cold began.
“The thing I saw is gone,” she informed him one evening. “It’s gone into the wood, or into a cave.”
“It is light,” he told her, impatient with her visions. “The thing you saw is light. If it is gone, Beate, it is a good sign. You’re healing well, and your mind is beginning to forget its old notions.”
“Hibernating, perhaps,” she said.
But after that, for a time, she was better, calmer, though it was clear she still saw things. Her eyes, both the sighted and the not, darted around when he spoke to her. Carefully, he ignored it, not asking what she thought she saw. It would only encourage her mind to invent more ferociously. He had the cook and a maidservant watching Beate, and he did too, when he could. Her mind had been trained by years of darkness, he concluded, and she saw spots of light and made them into spirits. That, or he’d left a speck of dust in her eye. He examined her frequently, fearful the graft would fail, but it did not. There were no signs of infection, of cloudiness.
She seemed well enough but for her visions, and so the doctor focused on teaching her how to behave as a woman should. She learned to use her knife and fork at table, and then how to dress herself prettily enough. Mostly she learned to discern which clothing was flattering, but one day he found Beate standing in the garden, in the center of heap of dead leaves. She was wearing her winter cloak, her hair loose and golden. On her head, there was a crown. He first thought it was only feathers, but then he saw that it was made of dead birds, their bodies stiff in the icy air. Von Hippel stood watching her for a time, and finally approached her, quietly. She turned to look at him, and smiled with a kind of triumph.
“They like it,” she said. “Their bodies used for something other than death.”
Later in the winter he found her stitching a cape of rabbit pelts. He allowed it. She could have her birds and her pelts, if he had her good behavior at dinner, and soon, in Heidelberg. She seemed quite sane now.
She wore her rabbit fur muffler, and her rabbit fur hat, and at dinner, she was lovely. At night, she wandered, mapping the dark, he imagined, though she knew the house now. He was interested in her research into her surroundings, and added it to his own, the way she gained confidence, the way she ran her fingers over the walls, kneeling to look at the baseboards, testing the strength of doors. She explored the rabbit pen, touched the wallpaper with her fingertips and asked the names of colors, nodding seriously, sometimes gay, sometimes melancholy, but steadily improving. She wandered the kitchen, asking questions of the cooks, and learning the history of the place, the land, the house itself.
Von Hippel walked into the room one afternoon to find Beate seated at the bench, all the kitchen girls around her. They were of an age.
“It stalks,” Beate was saying. “It’s lonesome.”
“Yes, and so it would be,” said one of the girls, the redhead. “My grandmother says that the last one was shot here, in these same woods, when she was a girl. She remembers seeing it carried off, tied to a log, five men to carry it. Back then, there was no house like there is now. There was only the wood, and little cabins. Killed three hunters, and they thought it was a monster, but then they hunted it down. My grandmother said it was tall as four men, with great red eyes and huge teeth-”
“What are you doing, Beate?” Arthur asked, his tone causing the kitchen girls to scatter.
“Learning about this house,” Beate informed him calmly. “Do you not wish me to study?”
He let the redheaded kitchen girl go. In the early spring, Beate informed him that the thing she’d been watching had returned, but that it was quiet. She said it only once, and he forgot it soon enough.
There was only one truly troubling moment for von Hippel, a day when Arthur and Beate took a walk out in the sun, passing one of the taller trees. She took a few steps away from him, running gaily, and Arthur reached out his hands to put them around her waist.
She turned, startled, when the doctor cried out, his hand to his face. Something had stung him. He brought his hand away and found blood on his fingers.
A jagged cut an inch long. It would have to be sutured. He had no notion of where it had come from. Beate looked at him darkly and shook her head.
Von Hippel felt a chill, and then realized, to his relief, that it could only have been a thorn from one of the branches. He had the trees trimmed the next morning, and then all was well again.
Beate stopped sleeping at night. She spent hours outside. The bear was shifting, and more dangerous. She’d begun to try to find another human ghost for it, something to quiet it. She was hunting a hunter to kill the bear, or another ghost bear to please it, but she found none. She walked into the woods, slowly, feeling the trees heavy all around her, and behind her the bear, shambled, dark and loud. There were still no human ghosts here, though, not that she could see. If there were any, the bear’s presence would force them out. Perhaps this ground was salted by the blood of those the bear had killed. Maybe ghosts knew to stay away.
The bear was hungry. It huffed beneath branches and fallen logs, unearthing ghosts of fox cubs frozen in a long ago winter.
Beate looked furiously into the dark, her human eye showing her nothing of use.
This bear was full of murders, an absorber of things that had been done badly in the wood and on the grounds. This ghost had been hunted.
She stumbled upon the bear one night under a full moon, a valley, a rill, and the bear shook and moaned, sounds she’d never heard it make before. The first shot hit it, and then she watched the bear stabbed. There were human ghosts here, suddenly. Three ghost hunters swarmed from the trees.
The bear had been killed by a pack of hunters. The bear killed them again with a swipe of a paw, even as the bear itself fell. She watched its fur stripped from its body. The ghost bear watched mournfully as it was skinned.
The death was like deaths she’d seen before, the deaths of human ghosts, and she realized that she was seeing its original death. It had died with no other bears around.
She watched a procession, the bear strapped to a log, carried by invisible bodies. The men who’d carried it were long dead, but not dead of the bear, so they were not here. Instead, there was just a log, moving through the forest without visible means of support, the skinned bear hanging from it. The next day, as though none of this had happened, the bear reappeared, its fur intact, beside her.
The hunters the bear had killed, she could not find again, though she searched, hoping those ghosts could help her make the bear rest. They did not appear, and the bear followed behind her, tremendous, hunting rabbits and birds, a hive of long dead bees surrounding the echo of honey.
She went back to the house, and to her bedchamber, the bear with her. On the lawn, her father died again.
September, and the Ophthalmological Society meeting was looming, every eye doctor in Germany traveling to Heidelberg. Beate would be exhibited. She’d known for months. This was the culmination of all their efforts. But she did not wish to leave the premises.
“What if,” she said to von Hippel, sounding hunted, “what if I see too much? I don’t know what I might see when we leave these grounds.”
“You’ll see what there is to see, of course,” the doctor said. “Your visions are much improved, are they not? Now you have control over them. You know the difference between a vision and a city. Heidelberg is a lovely place. There will be people to meet, and gardens to stroll in. There will be concerts.”
She looked frantically at him. For the first time in months, von Hippel dreaded what she might say at the convention. A little sedation, then, an injection of the morphia. In the carriage to the train station, Beate was limp on the seat across from him, her lips open slightly, the ruff around her throat loosened.
She screamed as they crossed the boundary of the property onto the road. She gestured out into the land, the trees and grasses on either side of the carriage.
“There,” she said. “Look at the forest. Look at how the rabbits all come out to see me go. And there! If you could see what I do, you would be frightened too. Someone was hanged for being a witch, just there.”
She turned her head to him again, and gasped, staring at the space just beside him.
“Oh,” Beate said, her voice miserable. “Oh, I thought it might stay here. But it travels with us.”
Her expression was weary, and frightened. It occurred to Arthur that she’d been so since the day in the trees, though he was now fully healed.
“Will you take the train with us, then?” she asked the space beside Arthur, her voice pinched. “I should not have thought you would. Or will you run alongside?”
She sighed, and looked at the doctor. “It can touch the living, as you know, if it tries. It hungers. It’s been on the land a long time, and there isn’t much there for it now.”
Von Hippel had brought tea to lift her spirits, and a cake as well. He poured out the tea and swiftly mixed honey and valerian into it. She didn’t notice. She was too occupied with staring at the space beside him, and then out the window again, narrating.
“Someone there was run through by a boar, a long, long time ago. But no one knows what we travel with, Arthur. We have the last, lost bear in Germany.”
It was the first time she’d identified the thing she thought she saw. The doctor felt his skin clench, all over, every inch of flesh turned into something frozen and rolled in snow. He could not say whether it was that he didn’t believe her, or that he did.
“We do not have a bear in this carriage, Fraulein Abendroth,” he said. She startled, hearing her formal name. “It’s the drug that makes you see it.”
“It’s beside you,” she protested. “It’s all around you. It’s not exactly a bear, but what would you be if you’d never seen another like you? You’d forget what you were, would you not? It didn’t belong here. It must have come over the mountains.”
Von Hippel thought unhappily back to the conversation he’d overheard. Kitchen gossip. He wanted to argue with Beate. He wanted to slap her face and make her return to her senses. It would be his reputation on the line in Heidelberg, not hers.
“If I’d never seen another von Hippel, I’d still be myself, just as I am now,” he said, as calmly as he could, for what would it be if she did this at the meeting? The rest of the surgeons would blame his procedure, damaging her eyes so that she could not help but see things. The vision of the bear would be, to them, some misunderstood light, a flaw in the surgery. “I’d be Arthur von Hippel, just as you are Beate Abendroth.”
“Oh, but I’m not the same as I was,” she said. “I’ve seen too much to be Beate. I see everything now.”
The doctor looked at her eyes, one clear and gentian blue, only the faintest line of scar where the cornea had joined her own flesh, the other eye silvery and nearly blind. He should have performed both at once.
The doctor was unnerved enough by her steady gaze to glance at the empty seat beside him. She looked at him as he carried her onto the train. The drugs had taken effect now entirely.
“At least we shall not be plagued by the rabbits on this journey,” she said sleepily. “The bear frightens them all away. It should be frightening all the other ghosts away too, but it only looks at me.”
Not an hour later, though, she was speaking angrily to a vision of her mother.
“He told me you were in Frankfurt, mother, but I knew you weren’t. No, you are still here, I see. I see you. Hush. I see you.”
Beate looked at her mother, there, in her bloodied dress, on the train where she didn’t belong, part of the train now.
Go, go, go, whispered Johanna, but she looked at the end of the carriage, where the bear was curled, waiting, a darkness filled with ghosts, and she made a sound of horror. She hadn’t died of this bear. She didn’t stay long with her daughter, but returned to the nose of the train. She had nothing to give.
Beate sat, pressed against the seat, panting, wondering at her own emotions and looking at the doctor, who said nothing, though he’d lied to her over and over. Her mother was not in Frankfurt.
Her mother, she discovered, was dead. She felt more sorrow for her father, the way he fled the bear nightly.
The bear filled half the traincar with its invisible bulk. She could smell berries and rotting meat. There were blackflies coming in the window. The doctor was reading a paper and surreptitiously watching her. He saw nothing of what was really around him. No one did.
The bear stretched itself until it was nearly as large as the train, and then shrunk again, into a cub, or what passed for a cub. She couldn’t tell what it wanted, if it wanted. She only knew that it was hers now, that it followed her from room to room. And now into the train. Now it wanted to be seen, like all of them, having been seen by Beate, and it was hungry, like all of them, but this ghost was worse than any other.
She would give anything to quiet the bear. To end it.
The ghosts of everything and everyone surrounded her, a train full of forgotten things looking to be remembered. Out of the windows she saw ghost armies marching, and ghost rabbits springing alongside the tracks. The bear stood to look out, intrigued. Sometimes it exited the cars and rambled along the top of the train, hunting human ghosts. Some it caught and ate, and she watched that too, the bear consuming the already dead, its belly full of ghost light.
She could not spend the rest of her life followed by a creature only she could see. She looked at the bear. The bear looked back, glittering eyes, an ancient thing made of teeth. It hunkered down, folding its claws beneath it, and stared at her, anticipating the ghosts of Heidelberg. She feared it did not just anticipate ghosts.
In Heidelberg, Beate stood calmly on the stage beside von Hippel, and he spoke of her surgery, of the ways in which the cocaine anesthetic had impacted the treatment, of the way the clockwork trephine had ensured perfection, and she smiled pleasantly, nodding even as he opened her eye and demonstrated the proper placement of the trephine.
When other doctors questioned her, she said “I can see everything now. I thank the good doctor for restoring my sight.”
They held up pictures for her to describe, numbers for her to call out, and she did so, without hesitation, elegantly: he’d spent the last months teaching her to recognize them. Her parents had never thought it necessary that she read. She was a credit to the procedure.
Her rabbit eye was examined by a line of doctors, each one awed at the precision, the perfection of the healing. There had been centuries of failure before this, lenses made of glass rimmed with gold, lenses brought from all manner of creatures and mangled in their transit. She was a miracle, the first of her kind, a girl seeing through the eye of a rabbit.
Only once did she whisper to von Hippel that the room was full of ghosts, and then, looking around a few moments later, she told him that it wasn’t any longer. The bear had frightened them away.
He took her to the Philosopher’s Walk as a reward for her good behavior, and to see the Neckar River, and the old Roman building they called The Witch’s Tower.
“Too many dead,” she said. “The bear doesn’t like it.”
The bear was inside the tower. The Romans had kept bears. It snuffled around, growling and roaring, but there were no other bear ghosts in Heidelberg.
“There is no bear,” repeated von Hippel, patiently. “The bear is made of light.”
Still, though, he was the toast of the exhibition, and it put him in a merry mood, even though he’d managed to scratch himself somehow, his forearm wounded with an inchlong gash.
In all the society dinners and presentations she was initialed, B.A., or given no name at all, the lovely patient of the great doctor. He was surrounded by people who wished to examine his trephine, and also to examine her.
She wondered if the doctor would stop them, her eyes held open with hooks, but he did not, and so she was a model patient. She stood on stage, staring through colored filters, like some magician’s assistant. She thought of telling them what she really saw, the room full of plague-dead villagers, of child ghosts, of birds killed for hats, right eye, left eye, all of them pinned to the heads of doctor’s wives. She watched stags killed by arrows meander from seat to seat, passing through the flesh of surgeons. The bear would rise up behind her, roaring, and the room would empty abruptly of ghosts, but they always crept back. The bear was a wonder to them too, even the ghosts, and once they realized that it could not eat them all, they came to watch it kill what it could. They crowded up to the stage, gasping and murmuring, watching the bear eat, watching the ghost bodies swim into its belly, twisting pale and startled there.
Beate tried to ignore them, even as they called out periodically “She sees me!”
Doctor Bigger approached her on the second day from the back of the room, a white-bearded old man in a rumpled brown-black suit. He carried a cane carved into the shape of a gazelle, but there were no admirers flocking around him, no one asking him about his surgeries.
“Little Beate,” he said, and laughed. “He’s made you see, just as he said he would.” She knew him by his voice, his strange Irish accent atop the German.
“Hello,” she said. “He has.”
The doctor sat beside her, and patted her shoulder. “But you are not happy with your sight.”
“I see ghosts,” she said. “I always did. Now I see more than before. All the dead, animal and human. There’s a bear with us here, and it’s feasting.”
The doctor looked around, fascinated. She was stunned at his belief. “Is there, now?”
She pointed to where the bear lay on the edge of the stage. It was eating three child ghosts. It tore at them, expanding and shrinking, the little ghosts screaming, and ghostly blood everywhere, on every surface. Up at the top of the auditorium, there was a careening orbit of ghost birds, spinning at the skylights, and the bear watched them as it ate.
“A large bear,” she said. “A bear that is always hungry. It came with us from Giessen. Now it’s eating ghosts, but I don’t know what it may choose to do. It could do more.”
“How would one kill a bear such as this?” the doctor asked her, and she looked at him.
“Kill? It’s a ghost. It’s dead already.”
“How would one make such a bear depart, if the bear were a ghost? Religious men?”
The thought had not occurred to her. The bear was no demon, not to her mind. What demon would be so useless?
“One might,” Bigger said, “use a knife on such a bear, and slice it from the world. Might one not? Is not a ghost a kind of lost lens, a blurred vision? How do you see it? Does it seem living to you, or does it seem like a scar?”
“The bear is not a scar,” she said, insulted. “The bear is a bear, and now it is the ghost of a bear.”
“The bear is light,” he said. “Everything is light, reorganized into things both bewildering and beautiful. There is much to be seen in the dark. Look at me, now, Beate Abendroth.”
The bear was licking its chops like a dog, and inside its belly, the three ghost children were startled, unused to their new locations. The dead consumed by the dead. The bear was less bear than ever. It sprawled across the stage, its claws extended. It had fattened in her company on a buffet of the ghosts of Heidelberg.
Some of the doctors in the room, the living, had felt sudden pains, tiny bleeding wounds, but no one had died. The bear was sated. Beate was grateful for that.
She looked at the doctor and was startled. He had a knife in his hand. “I’m dying,” he said. “Not of this knife, but of living. You can only live so long.”
“What is it you want?”
“To fight your bear,” said the doctor, and grinned wildly. “To give it a good fight.”
Doctor von Hippel was demonstrating his trephine, twisting the gears, cutting air into thin slices. There was a box on the stage, and in it all the rabbits bounced like fools, little knowing that they were to be shown off, their eyes removed, their long ears bloodied. There were ghost rabbits too, meandering blindly about the back of the auditorium, dead of yesterday’s demonstrations. Behind the building there was a pile of rabbit corpses, and she’d seen a stray dog picking from them even that morning. Doctor von Hippel didn’t look at her, but he had never believed in the bear.
The bear stretched on its back, growling quietly. She tried to shoo all the other ghosts away: it was not sleeping.
“Winter will come,” said the doctor. “Bears hibernate. Find out where this bear sleeps.”
He patted her on the cheek, and walked away from her.
“This bear is dead,” she said to his back. “Dead things don’t sleep.”
But in November, the bear, still fat from Heidelberg, disappeared. The grounds filled back up with cautious ghosts, rabbits and foxes, deer and birds. She went out from the house prowling the perimeter of the land, searching in every hollow, but she didn’t find the bear.
She was married to Arthur Von Hippel by then, and pregnant with a baby she couldn’t imagine. She’d spent the previous months on trains, being shown to every surgeon, and now, throughout Germany and beyond, doctors were beginning to give light to the blind.
In December, the Irish doctor appeared at the door, with a trunk and without his wife. Doctor von Hippel inquired after her.
“Dead,” said Bigger, “Since the summer, and missed by myself and our household. It was only the two of us there.”
Bigger was frailer, to Beate’s gaze, than he’d been the last time she saw him, and his cane took more of his weight than it had. Still, he looked at her with his eyes gleaming.
“Have you found it?” he asked during dinner, and she was forced to tell him that she had not. She’d been occupied with the relief of the bear’s disappearance. The baby was not showing yet, and she wondered what sort of baby it would be. Ghosts looked closely at her, pressing their hands to her stomach, just as her own Doctor Von Hippel did. He’d known she was pregnant before it had occurred to her. It might never have. She didn’t know much about pregnancy, though she knew about death in childbirth. The ghosts had shown her terrible things since she was seven.
“It’s hidden itself,” she said, but as she said it, she realized that of course she knew where it was. There were still no ghosts visible in the house, neither human nor animal. It was sleeping, but it was here.
Doctor Von Hippel bent solicitously over her, pouring more wine, and touching her hair.
“I came to see it,” Doctor Bigger said. “Your bear.”
“You know, of course, Doctor Bigger, that there is no bear,” said von Hippel. “There is only an oddity of the light coming into her vision. A scar, or a tiny speck of dust put in with the rabbit’s cornea, the more fool me. It’s my fault. I made an error of some sort. Now she sees this thing and there is nothing to be done.”
Beate would not allow him to perform surgery on her other eye, and so she still looked at him through a partial darkness, but she was mostly reasonable, mostly sweet, despite her forays to the edge of the wood. She could behave in company, and if she sometimes knew things about strangers, the child they’d lost, the missing husband, the recently dead pet dog, it was no tremendous difficulty. He’d learned to distract people from his wife’s perception by talking about her eyes, the miracle of them, and people were intrigued, looking at her, this lovely young woman who’d been blind for so long.
“I do know that, of course, Doctor Von Hippel,” said Bigger. “But one is fascinated by the oddities in such a surgery. One is intrigued by bears and the rabbits, by wolves and gazelles. We all see things differently, do we not?”
Von Hippel looked at his old friend. Bigger was trembling over his meal. His face was too pale, and his skin too thin. He was 82. The train journey had been taxing, and he’d traveled from Dublin already. He had a feverish excitement, a brightness that seemed edged with fury. He’d never been a traditional doctor. His first work had been all hopeful accident, and now he seemed careless.
Beate gave a demonstration of her embroidery. Von Hippel discussed his son’s progress at university. Bigger told the story of the gazelle again, this time adding a postscript.
“Years later, long after I gave that gazelle the gift of sight, I visited Cairo again, and met the chief I’d assisted. We were, by then, old friends, the roles of kidnapper and kidnapped obliterated. We drank strong mint tea and spoke of his gazelle, and of the way I made her see her owner again.”
“What did he say?” asked Beate.
“He said that the gazelle upon seeing him, loved him less. That as a shadow owner, he’d been the source of the gazelle’s comfort, a universe contained in one person. When the gazelle saw him again, she could also see everything else, all the people surrounding him, the tents, the other pets. He said that she went to the place where we’d burned and eaten the other gazelle, the donor of the cornea, and kicked up the sands. She ran about in a frenzy, hopping high into the air, and butting the air with her horns. He said that seeing made the world too wide, that she saw too much, more than she should have. That seeing made the gazelle mad, and madness made the gazelle run off one night into the darkness and sand, where a lioness found her and killed her.”
Beate sat quietly, looking at both of them, her husband and the Irishman.
“Dark words,” said Von Hippel, and attempted a laugh. “Dark words for a dark night.” Neither Beate nor Doctor Bigger laughed.
That night Von Hippel worried about things he couldn’t define. He slept eventually, his hands dialing the measures of an imagined trephine, taking the eyes from creatures tinier and tinier, a cascading resurrection of sight, mice unblinded, and then up in size again. He unblinded a Cyclops, giving it the cornea of a whale, placing that cornea tenderly into the socket, and as he did, the Cyclops opened its new eye and tore into him. A dream of disemboweling.
Outside snow blanketed the roof, silenced the ghosts on the lawn, each of them leaving the faintest prints, the most delicate echoes of bodies which had once flung themselves into the earth and out again, warrens stopped with snow, streams iced over, birds freezing on branches, and then corpses falling, ghost birds rising up on ghost winds.
Inside the house, Beate covered herself in a woolen wrapper, and tiptoed to the Irish doctor’s bedchamber. She knocked, and he opened moments later, fully dressed in his coat and hat, his snow-going boots.
“You won’t need those,” she said. “We won’t be going outdoors.”
He followed the girl down the stairs. No ghosts in view for Beate, not her father, not her mother. Out there, in the snow, her father tumbled without the bear, falling down, looking up in horror. In Giessen, her mother tempted the train forever, world without end, as one day, Beate herself would no doubt die in perpetuity. In this house, the ghost hibernated.
“There,” she said. The corner of the cellar was darker than dark, and it breathed in and out, slowly, old habits of the living.
She looked at the doctor, who was peering into the nothing, polishing a knife on his coat. She could see the gleam of the blade, disappearing and then reappearing, clean and straight, a knife like the ones used before the trephine. Cutting sight away and then replacing it. The knives were small and sharp, and she watched the doctor, sympathizing with his desire to stab something.
“You can’t hurt it that way,” she said. “Not with a living knife.”
He nodded. “It won’t be a living knife.”
She took a step back from him.
“I’ll die with vigor and with vigor, I’ll go at this sleeper, this dead thing, and take it into myself.”
In the corner, the bear moved, rolling. Beate could see all the ghosts it had eaten before it slept, compacted into a slurry of the dead, its body made entirely of other bodies.
The doctor handed her his knife, and opened his shirt, pointing at the place the blade should be inserted. His chest coiled with white hair, his ribcage a delicate and caving thing, through which she could see his blood flowing, his breath passing, his own desire to enghost himself. Why should she not, she wondered? He’d given her the chance to change things, and life had never mattered more than death to her.
“What shall I do with your body?” she asked at last. “There will be a body when I’m done, and a ghost. To kill you is to separate the two, like a cornea from an eye. Your ghost is the lens and your body the useless rest.”
“I left a letter,” said Bigger, and smiled. “You’re no murderer, I know. This is a mercy. Do it, girl.”
She wanted to. The baby would be born, and it would be vulnerable. What if it could see the bear? What if the bear could see it? What if everything was too lonely to continue?
The doctor smiled at her. She smiled back at him, this old man with his knife, and he wrapped his hands around the hilt, and around her hand as well. She stepped forward and stabbed him in the heart.
She was still looking into his eyes when his ghost rose out of them, and, ghost knife in hand, smiled again at her. The doctor’s blood pooled on the floor, and on her hands, but the doctor himself was loose and free. He bowed to her, and then turned and walked into the corner, his ghost knife ready.
He threw himself upon the sleeping bear.
The bear rose up roaring, stood on its back legs and screamed. It roiled and fought, and tried to kill the newly dead again. The doctor clung to the bear’s chest, hanging with his fists, kicking the bear’s belly, and the bear moaned, looking around in confusion. This was a new ghost, none he’d killed nor met before. He clawed the walls, leaving long scars. The doctor pushed the knife in, almost gently, breaking the barrier of fur and skin, piecing the membrane that kept the dead dying.
“Die, bear,” said the doctor. “Die as you were meant to die.”
The bear looked at Beate, and she looked at the bear.
“Go,” she said. “Go, go, go.”
She watched as the bear was brought into the doctor’s body, as the ghost ate the ghost, blood from a knife. She walked away as the doctor sat on his heels, devouring the dead, his face lit with joy, and the ghost of the bear smiling too, his jaw open and glad, his eyes dimmed, his last sleep begun.
The ghosts came back to the house, and the land shone green and gold, bristling with bones. Beate had a baby, and her husband the doctor welcomed it, a boy. She wore dark glasses, and got older, and all her life, she spoke to the dead and the dead spoke back to her.
When it was time, she walked into the forest, where all the trees were hanging trees, to the place where the last wild bear in Germany had died for the first time, and she lay herself down in a dark hollow, surrounded by all the rabbits she’d known, the living and the dead.
She looked at them through her rabbit eye, and quietly, nameless in history, B.A. cured of blindness, mother of a surgeon, wife of a surgeon, went to sleep.
The ghost of Samuel Bigger came to greet her, and together, they hunted the things that the world would never understand again, the creatures too large to exist.
When Arthur Von Hippel died, the morning after his seventy-fifth birthday, in the spring of 1917, his obituaries lauded him as the man who’d made the blind see, mentioning in passing a seventeen-year-old girl whose life he had transformed. They mentioned, too, that his last years had been clouded by trouble of a domestic and personal nature.
They did not see fit to itemize the difficulties, but anyone who knew the household might have written that the doctor had become intrigued by spiritualists. He had himself experimented with transplantation, replacing his own left cornea with one taken from a man who had claimed to see ghosts. At last, in the end of his days, Arthur von Hippel began to see the ghost of his wife, an elderly woman in hunting garb.
They would have said that Von Hippel burnt his own house down in an effort to conquer his trouble, and burnt all the land around it too, the forest with all its ancient trees.
When the ground was black and charred, the old man had stood on the edge of the property and watched as every tunnel emptied. From them poured thousands of rabbits, thousands upon thousands, blind and seeing, living and dead, and the dark ground outside of Giessen was covered, then, with a million points of light.
The early history of corneal transplants and cures for blindness is nearly as strange as it is in this story. Efforts to implant rabbit corneas into other rabbits began in the 1820’s in Germany, with a medical student named Franz Reisinger. In 1886, with the introduction of cocaine anesthetic (helped into being by Sigmund Freud, incidentally) and his own invention of the clockwork trephine, Doctor Arthur von Hippel became a pioneer of ophthalmologic surgery. The story of his patient, the 17-year-old girl given the cornea of a rabbit, and subsequently displayed in Heidelberg as the first “successful” corneal transplant, is true, though mentioned only briefly in most texts. The girl herself, however, is largely unacknowledged by medical history. She is only briefly described as having suffered an injury to her corneas at an early age, and as being the recipient of the rabbit cornea, which, months after the transplant, is said to have remained clear.
Doctor Samuel Bigger’s story of gazelle-to-gazelle transplant is also factual (though likely apocryphal – it was his own account, complete with kidnapping, ransom, and the Sahara) – and the initial inspiration for this story came from a brief, casual mention of same in a book about the history of ophthalmology. “The first successful corneal transplant was in 1837, gazelle to gazelle.”
I have no notion whether or not Bigger and Von Hippel ever met – Bigger’s middle years are largely undocumented, though he did resurface as a poet. Late in life, he published The King of Terrors, a volume of apocalyptic poetry written from the point of view of Satan, from which I quote here.
Von Hippel’s obituary, printed in the British Journal of Ophthalmology in 1917 scarcely mentions his corneal breakthrough, but does mention the troubles in the last few years of his life, “both of a domestic and personal nature.” His son, Eugen von Hippel was also an ophthalmologist, and the co-discoverer of Von Hippel-Landau Disease, which predisposes its victims to benign and malignant tumors. Eugen’s son, Arthur Robert von Hippel, became a renowned scientist and physicist, and was a co-developer of radar during WWII. Needless to say, the character and actions of Arthur von Hippel are entirely my own invention, as is the marriage of Arthur and his patient.
The last wild bear in Germany was killed by Bavarian farmers in 1835. There is little information about it. However, in 2006, a second last wild bear (Bear JJ1) appeared in Germany, having come over the mountains from Italy. This one was shot by a hunter after the Bavarian Prime Minister authorized lethal force, referring to him as a Problembär. Bear JJ1 is now on display in the Museum of Man and Nature in Munich, in a diorama in which he is depicted greedily destroying a beehive. The museum also displays the remains of the first last wild bear in Germany, killed 170 years earlier.