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Silence is the color
in a blind man’s eyes

Leonard wondered if it was a contest, if it smacked of more than what it seemed. He had heard the poem a hundred times, Charnley always walking around with the book in his back pocket suddenly reading it to him, again and again, and Leonard, the Blind Man of North Saugus, let the words sink in and become part of him, part of his sightless brain. Just like Charnley had become part of him. Charnley’s face he could not picture, or eyes, or beard, or jut of chin, but settled on the imagination of Charnley’s hands and could only do so when he felt his own slim unworked hands, the thin fingers, the soft palms, the frail knuckles, how the fingers wanted to touch a piano but couldn’t, or a woman, but who wants a blind man?

Charnley, he noted early, walked with a heavy step, a plod on trod surface, so the framework of the old building vibrated and echoed. Charnley’s hands must be robust and huge, Leonard thought, because he’d been a farmer once, a tenant farmer, a milker of cows, a digger of land, a puller of weeds who happened to read poems. Just think about that, he said to himself, think about the farmer, think about the distance between two men, how wide it can be, what narrows that distance, sound or silence? What kind of providence can a poem bring?


Silence is the color

in a blind man’s eyes,

sounded again.


Leonard could not begin to visualize the poem on the page (not with the sensitivity or capture of Braille or the impressions of an old copper etching he’d known), perhaps never he thought, the way the verses were built, the white space supporting the sounds. Charnley often explained the structure, often testing Leonard’s patience to the limit, words building on a pad in his mind, a pad conjured up in an instant. At first they collected in a bunch he separated and sounded. What the hell, if he had anything he had time, a whole ton of time.

The words, in turn, assumed a hazy kind of identity and a place alongside another word or two. Sense came of some of them, and then one night, alone, a clarity, as if a shell of awed proportions had gone off in his head, exploded its sound and meaning in a dazzling display of whiteness. His brother Milward once tried to explain properties of white phosphorous shells to him, the heat and the dazzling light and the rush of energy traversing a mountain in Korea. The nearest thing to them Leonard had ever known, to both Milward’s description of white phosphorous and this final poem, was pain. He told Charnley his gall bladder attack was a poem that had struck him awake on several nights, fright leaping through his body, stabbing his guts, a poem of pain understood at its roots.

his red octaves screaming          
two shades of peace
in sanguine vibrato,

Charnley had said, “I’ll stop at the end of each verse, each line, so you can visualize how the poem is made.” As if a piece of punctuation or explanation, he added, “Don’t let my choice of words upset you. I’m not very selective, not schooled. I only mean what I’m trying to say.” At that moment Charnley’s voice was anvil-like, back-of-the-barn deep, not a classroom voice, not a poet’s voice. It was the no-nonsense voice of a farmer who knows the land is an enemy of wild proportions or the friend of a lifetime in swift reaping.

“But your voice changes when you read the poem,” Leonard said, “the sound changes, you get cryptic, and don’t tell me I’m getting short-tempered or I’ll kick you out! You think I can’t see you, don’t you? I know when you’re standing in the doorway or in front of one of the windows. One room, one door, seven windows, I could find you in a damn minute.” 

And for his own punctuation said, “And don’t shrug your shoulders like that. I know what you’re doing when you do it. Your voice changes then, too. I could call you an Octavarian.” He tittered, less than a guffaw it was, half full of respect, measuring, playful, reaching.  “Hell, man, sometimes I can see better than you.” His fingers tapped slowly on the tabletop, a radioman sending out his own code.

Charnley smiled, yet standing in the doorway on this visit so Leonard could find him in the shadows, the eclipse of the whole man. He’d been in the shadows his whole life; his dimensions raw and unknown.

a purple strike lamenting rivers
and roads lashed in his mind,

One day a year earlier a voice says, coming off the front walk of the one-room house that used to be the old North Saugus School, “I’m a new neighbor. I’m Charnley. I live with my daughter Marla in the old Corbett house. I have a poem here about a blind man I’d like to share. I like to read some poems. Not all poems, just some of them. I’ve watched you walk all the way to Lynn to see your brother Charlie and all the way up the Pike to see your brother Milward, some days your cane flashes like a saber. This poem reminds me of you and I wonder what you might have to say about it.”

Leonard’s words leaped from darkness. “You followed me?”

Charnley spoke as if he were plowing the land, making the furrow straight, the endeavor simple. “No, you were going my way, so I went along, some ways in the rear, but I went past both times, to see Ma Corbett in her nursing home and an old friend in Lynnfield, not far from Milward’s place.”

Charnley read him the poem for the first time.

like a crow's endless cawing
of blackness anticipates nothing.

“That’s a damn love poem,” Leonard shouted. “I don’t even have a girlfriend. What are you trying to do to me? What are you saying?” There was no way he could fathom Charnley’s face, a half smile or set of eyes, how his mouth was framed, the lips.

“Everything is love, Leonard, or no love. Everything. You don’t need a girlfriend to have love. I don’t have a girlfriend. My wife’s been dead two-three years now. I love this poem. You made me see what it’s like. I want to know what it does for you, if anything. I’m never sure of things like this. You sow a seed, take care of its bed, it grows. If it doesn’t, better find out why.”

“You’re like a busybody hen, popping in here, following me like I was a damn cripple or something, sticking this poem in my ear. I never had a poem in my ear.”

And now, for all my listening
it is your hand on my heart,

“I’m trying to be a friend, Leonard, to share something. I’m an old farmer who loves this poem.”

“Not outright pity?”

“None at all. I don’t give a damn if you never see another shadow, if that’s what you want to hear.” Leonard knew he was blocking one of the windows, the idea of sunlight failing around him, a personage of shadow.

the mute fingers letting out
the slack where your mouth

They had, with that declaration, become friends for one long year. Charnley would read the poem, always from the book, never memorizing it, saying he couldn’t do it. Leonard never said he’d memorized it, said it a thousand times a day for months, at first the words cluttered on the pad. There would be a pot of tea on the old kitchen range, converted to gas by his brother Milward, and the tea would hit the one room as if it had been sprayed with pekoe or oolong, hitting the sinuses, clearing them, drawing Leonard and his friend to the stove on cold days or the porch on warm days, the sun spilling at their feet, the poem following like a shadow comes with upright bodies.

Leonard said one day, the wind cold outside and rattling the windows, “Why don’t you read other poems?”

“It’d only dilute this one, Leonard, cut right through it. If I know one poem in my life, it’s worth it, and I know this poem because you know it. It’s real for me. It’s like my wife, my one woman forever. I’ll not dilute her. Not for one damn minute. Like having a best friend. There’s only one of those. Everyone else has to get in line.

reached, your moving away,
a pale green evening down
the memory of a pasture

One day, in the sock of winter, they said the poem, a duet, the words falling in place with unerring accuracy, rhythmic, shared, together, almost one voice, the room expanding around them, a spring pasture coming to them, silence coming at them, one word and then another word hanging in space like they were parsing each word in the midst of air, a letter at a time, a slight whoosh if need be, the rush of a consonant or its soft command on the lips, sibilant, syllabic. The blind man and the sighted man said silence as if they stood in the middle of a mausoleum, and the word hung there for them and died away and became itself. All around them the word become itself. When they said color, some long minutes later, Charnley had his eyes closed and Leonard had his wide open, and they knew they were twinned in this sound, this nothingness.

Leonard floated.

The next day the knock at the door was feather-like. Charnley’s daughter Marla said, “I have news about my father. I found him this morning in bed, the way he wanted to go, in the darkness. That’s what he said to me once, ‘Peacefully, in the darkness.’ He said when it comes on him you should have this book.” She gave Leonard the book. “He said you’d know what to do with it.”
She was a smaller shadow than her father standing in the open door, wind rustling behind her, death hanging back in the darkness of the day as if it were words ready to be spoken. The old schoolhouse had no echoes, no vibrations. Half the size of her father, Leonard thought, perhaps half the size.

Leonard motioned for her to close the door. “Shut the death out,” he said. His fingers found the poem, its path worn smooth. Listening for her moves, seeking minor vibrations, he offered the open page to her, hands touching. Electricity passed through them.

Her voice was soft, hesitant. It would take her time. He had plenty of time. Charnley had all of it. Against one window she posed a smaller shadow in a white aura. Leonard thought of the white phosphorous Milward had spoken about as Charnley’s daughter Marla sifted through the poem. He tried to picture her small hands holding the book. There was something delicate he almost reached, fragile, silken, but it was lost in the poem as she spoke it, her breath instead touching him, with cinnamon, perhaps maple syrup. Day and night came together:

Arrangement by Tones


Silence is the color

in a blind man's eye,


his red octaves screaming      

two shades of peace

in sanguine vibrato


a purple strike lamenting rivers

and roads lashed in his mind,


like a crow's endless cawing

of blackness anticipates nothing.


And now, for all my listening,

it is your hand on my heart,

the mute fingers letting out


the slack where your mouth

reached, your moving away,

a pale green evening down

the memory of a pasture.


It was indelible, discoverable, ascendant, and Leonard knew it was delicious on her tongue, at her lips, coming from her mouth, the poem her father had found for him.




Tom's books are Epic Cures and Brief Cases, Short Spans, Press 53, NC; A Collection of Friends and From the Quickening, Pocol Press, VA. His work appears in Home of the Brave, Stories in Uniform and Milspeak: Warriors, Veterans, Family and Friends Writing the Military Experience. He has 14 Pushcart nominations, Noted Stories for 2007 and 2008, Georges Simenon Fiction Award, and is included in Dzanc Best of the Web Anthology for 2009 and has been nominated for Best of the Web 2010. He has 142 cowboy short stories on Rope and Wire Magazine and hundreds of pieces/poems/essays on Internet sites or in print issues such as Rosebud, Ocean Magazine, Lady Jane Miscellany, etc. This piece appeared in Tom's collection of short stories, Epic Cures.
 




For years Blind Leonard was a fixture in my home town, walking everywhere, and once in a while I'd see a family member trailing well behind him, on a visit to his sister at least four miles away. Charnley was sparked as a result of Leonard's exploits on the road and the care that people bestowed on him. He, Leonard, has remained with me, always on the horizon, the way heroes hang on.

 






 





  


Copyright 2009