Her Eyes is a short story in a set of short stories I’m writing as a “First Draft Collection.” I’m writing them merely for the satisfying act of finishing something. There are a handful of short stories I’ve started over the years, and I am forcing myself to just complete them: beginning, middle, end. All of these stories need heavy rewrites and editing if I am ever to make them actually good. But the “First Draft Collection” is not about being good. It’s about being DONE.
Naami entered the world with her eyes wide open, silent and gazing. They were hard to physically describe because they often changed in color. They changed between a myriad of colors: crystal blue, sea foam green, charcoal black. Though interesting, there never seemed to be a reason for the transitions in color. What was really amazing about her eyes were the feelings contained within them. It was as if they could burrow into the furthest recesses of someone’s mind and understand the true core of their character.
Now, many in their tight-knit community were wary of this talent of hers, as most people have secrets they want to keep well hidden. But her eyes never judged. They were always compassion and love; they tore through fears and engendered peaceful feelings. But her eyes also confronted you – not in an intrusive or fearful manner – but rather in a way that made a person open up their insides like a locked chest, taking each artefact of their lives out for her examination. What’s more, the longer you gazed into her captivating eyes, the more you truly wanted to reveal to her. For some, it was mystifying and wondrous. For others, it felt like being cornered. However, as Naami grew up, reaching adulthood, the people in her small community accepted her with less tension, though some did maintain a pointed distance.
Their inadvertent rejections never seemed to bother her though. She wasn’t much of a talker anyway. In fact, she barely spoke at all. No one really knew if she could. Naami simply existed peaceably, rarely leaving her home, save for the occasional solo, contemplative excursion through the woods surrounding their town. Sometimes, she’d go out and work quietly in the communal spaces. If someone happened to be around, she would turn and smile warmly, eyes emoting love, and resume her work. If she did communicate, it was mainly through touch. A squeeze of the hand, a gentle stroke, a hug. Her parents were her whole world in their village, the only two people who had ever heard her speak, the only people who never recoiled from her presence, and Naami was content with that.
Their small community hummed demurely, deep in the woods, existing in harmony with the natural world surrounding it. Despite the isolation, they were an open people, welcoming any stranger that happened upon it in their travels.
One day, a young man traveling alone entered the peaceful town. Clothes tattered, feet covered in mud and dust, he trudged slowly from home to home, desperately looking at each unopened door, hoping for someone to come. Every person behind each door stopped short of welcoming him in. There was a sense about him, an animosity, that they couldn’t quite shake. And so all doors remained closed until he got to Naami’s home.
Her parents had quite the same reaction. They stalled, hesitated, contemplating whether or not they should allow the stranger standing outside to come into their home. He seemed innocent enough: he was road-worn, burdened, hungry. But the longer they looked at him, the more they felt the same ominous something underneath. It was a disturbing hunger which likened itself to something more, something deeper than the need for a warm meal. In that moment of realization, Naami’s mother, Haima, stood behind her husband, apprehension building. Her father, Jasu, was immobile, still contemplating the choice he would make. The stranger waited.
As Naami neared the front door, she could feel her parents fear, saw her mother’s head hiding just behind her father’s shoulder. She noted his shaking hand, extending and retracting towards the door handle. Naami looked out of the window and caught a quick glimpse of the stranger on the small road just off the path to their home. He was staring, calculating, hoping.
Calmly, Naami walked towards her parents and gently reached out to hold her mother’s hand. Haima jumped slightly at the unexpected touch, but when she looked behind her and saw Naami’s wide, peaceful eyes, she was overcome with instant relief. The tension floated from her body like steam from a hot bath. Her body, relaxing, she lovingly stroked Naami’s face with her free hand and gave her a quiet kiss on the forehead before gently pulling her into a warm embrace. Jasu turned in that moment to see mother and daughter wrapped in each other’s arms. He smiled. At that moment, Naami looked unwaveringly into his eyes. With a smile and gentle nod, he turned around and opened the door to let the waiting stranger into their home.
The man took a few steps nearer to the only door that had opened to him. He twitched at his unexpected turn in luck, but when he finally believed that the invitation was real, he was so weary that he could not manage more than a slow trudge, as if wading through thick, waist deep mud, towards the only family to welcome him. He stopped, sagging almost to nothing, and with only one more step to take to enter into compassion and care, he hesitated, looking down at his dirty feet.
“Please, come in,” Jasu said.
“We have enough to share,” Haima added.
Still no response. The man continued to look down at his feet, pondering and almost disbelieving his luck. He shuffled a little closer, nearly taking the invitation so freely given. As he hesitated, Naami approached the stranger, breaking through the space between her mother and father standing at the door, and, gently reaching her arm forward, she tentatively brushed his hand with her fingers. It had been a long time since anyone had come near this stranger, much less touched him. His eyes darted up in fear and longing, and when he saw her, when he took in the beautiful pools of calm water held within her look, he fell to his knees and broke down in tears.
Haima and Jasu quietly found each other’s hands and waited for the poor man to compose himself. They hadn’t noticed the deliberate step Naami had taken, instantly backing away from the stranger. Their hearts were focused and aching to give him the kindness he so desperately lacked. Naami was less moved. What her parents did not see, before this man fell to the ground, was a quick and pointed flash of something other than defeat and relief in his eyes. She saw greed.
Naami awoke to blackness. There was something, tied tightly around her eyes, impeding her sight. Her hands and legs were bound, and her mouth felt dry, like it was filled with dust and sand. She was draped over the stranger’s shoulders, being carried somewhere she didn’t know. Her mind slowly and groggily panicked. Where was she? What happened? The last memory she had was sitting around the dinner table with her parents and the stranger. Everything seemed fine. They were eating and chatting, everything seemingly warm and safe. Where were her parents? Were they okay?
Naami couldn’t scream. She just didn’t know how. Nothing had ever happened to her to require the skill. She took in heavy, staccatoed gasps of breath. In and out in quick succession, like she couldn’t get enough air in her lungs, like a fish out of water. Her hands began to shake. Her body quivered. Tears welled up and began saturating the cloth covering her eyes to the world around her.
“Good, you’re awake,” he said.
He gently placed her down in a sitting position on the cold ground and sat down next to her. He had been carrying her on and off all night, and needed some time to catch his breath again. Calmly, he untied the cloth around her eyes. When she could see clearly, she noted her surroundings. Woods, darkness slightly illuminated by the moon. She didn’t recognize anything. With that realization, the tears, now unimpeded by the blindfold, fell silently and slowly down her cheeks. She was far away from home, and she didn’t know if she’d ever make it back. The man tapped her shoulder.
“I will unbind your feet. If you try to run away, I will drug you again.”
She nodded. He took a small, sharp knife out of a small satchel – her father’s – and cut away the rope. Naami twisted her ankles around, relieved by the release of pressure. Carefully, facing her, the man helped her stand, keeping her hands tightly bound. As he did this, she looked deeply into his eyes and confirmed what she had initially feared. One look in his eyes, and she confirmed her parents were dead. She could feel it in his look, and she also knew she was never going to make it back home.
“Where?” she asked, her voice coming through like a ragged whisper.
The man, shocked at hearing her voice, simply said, “Away.”
Travelling was quicker now that Naami had proven to be submissive. There were no attempts to escape or to harm her captor. And so they walked in silence, stopping only when needed. After three days and two nights of moving ever forward, Naami and her captor reached his village. They arrived in the early hours of the morning, and so many homes were silent and devoid of conscious life. Naami walked down the long path leading to a large home situated in the center of the village. She could feel her captor tensing beside her as they got nearer and nearer to the large house. Reaching the door, the man sighed heavily and knocked on the door with two nervous taps.
Naami didn’t notice at first that the door had opened. A large, brawny figure of a man over six feet tall nearly blocked out the light emanating from inside the home. He was crouching slightly in order to see the unknown visitors. He didn’t smile or welcome them in; he merely turned on his heel when he recognized Naami’s captor, leaving the door open for them to follow behind. He led them into a large sitting room, and, with the chair he sat down on sagging underneath his weight, he nodded to Naami and her captor to sit down opposite him. As they did, another man entered the room. Though physically similar to the large man sitting in front of them, he appeared older and hardened. His long, steel gray hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail at the nape of his neck. He sat down in the chair next to his son.
“Well done, Yannas,” said the older man.
“Where are they, Jahan?”
“I just need to be certain.”
As he said this, Jahan got up from his chair and walked towards Naami. He knelt in front of her, placed his hands firmly on hers and looked deeply into her eyes. Very few people other than her parents had ever looked at her so certainly, so unwaveringly. She was startled. And as time stretched on, her shock transformed to total fear.
In quick flashes, Naami saw his passion for power burning so brightly it destroyed his village. People were running in all directions, trying to escape the flames engulfing their once happy homes. Children sat crying at the lifeless bodies of their mothers. Fathers fought in vain, only to be trampled down by Jahan’s powerful allies.
Naami bore Jahan’s grandchildren. She saw them clinging to her in fear, waiting for the moment their fates would be sealed: death or life? It all depended on what their eyes looked like, what they could do. If they were like their mother’s, they were spared. If they were like everyone else…
Naami saw all of the chaos, destruction and grief with her standing front and center, in the middle of it all, serving Jahan as he delivered what he deemed to be justice.
She could look at him no longer, and so she closed her eyes, sagging into her sorrow, tears streaming down her face. Yannas looked at her with shock, regret, resignation. Suddenly, she squeezed the old man’s hands and stared accusingly into his eyes. Shocked at feeling her rage flow through her hands to his body, he shot up as if electrocuted.
“Why?” she asked.
“Power is life,” he said.
Naami knew she was pregnant with her first child. Jahan, the old man, and Hunna, his son and her now husband, didn’t know yet. But in a few month’s time, they would be able to tell. Then the second wave of their horrific plan would begin. The villages immediately surrounding this one had already been conquered, after cleansing them of dissidents. Though Naami was forced through physical torture to cooperate, she couldn’t feel innocent of the terrible deaths she’d witnessed. She couldn’t shake the guilt of taking part in the atrocious acts, regardless of being coerced. At first, she tried to lie, to affirm people were loyal to Jahan’s family when they clearly weren’t, but they soon caught on to her deceit and killed those individuals she tried to save more slowly and painfully as punishment. They made her watch, forced her to look into the eyes of the victims until their eyes were glassy, seeing nothing, eternally immobile.
“I will deliver quick deaths when you tell the truth,” Jahan said, “Otherwise…” he gestured his hand towards the scene, littered with the dead. Naami was losing her grip on her existence, peace and solitude. It was enough torture watching innocent strangers die. If she bore a child devoid of her ability, how could she handle that death? Even worse, if that child was like her…
Naami woke drenched in sweat, her entire body on fire. Huge bands of agonizing pain coiled around her stomach like multitudes of wicked snakes. Painfully, she sat up and lifted the covers, fearing the worst. The white sheets were covered in blood. Slowly, she lifted herself out of bed. She needed help. Managing to open the bedroom door, the last of her will dissipated as her body fell to the floor. Then, darkness.
Naami woke to medicinal smells circling her in puffy, white clouds. Looking up, she saw a small figure gently moving around her, lifting bottles and tipping them into a large bowl, grinding its contents with a pestle and pouring in hot water that created a pleasant, hot steam, filling the room with its soothing aroma. The woman, sensing Naami’s consciousness, poured a bit of the concoction she was brewing into a small porcelain cup and turned to look at her. She had a kind, reassuring face. The woman knelt by the bed where Naami laid and gently stroked her fever soaked hair from her face.
“Hello, Naami,” said the kind stranger, “I’m Mina.”
Naami nodded and smiled weakly while Mina slowly lifted the cup towards her mouth. When she tried to take the cup in her own hands, Mina gently urged her to rest as she brought the cup to her lips. Naami took a quick sip, testing its potency. The taste it left on her tongue was sweet and warm and as the liquid went down, it left a trail of soothing calm that flowed through her veins and permeated her body. She drank more, this time readily, allowing the concoction to perform its healing purpose. Suddenly, there was a terse knock at the door. Naami and Mina, both tensed, turned their gaze to the door that was slowly opening.
Yannas walked quietly into the room and stopped abruptly when he realized Naami was awake. He looked nervous, shamed, downcast. Mina, visibly relaxing, stood up to greet him with a tender hug before taking his hand and turning back to Naami, lying in bed, with a wrinkle of confusion across her brow. Then Naami noticed the unmistakable roundness of life beautifully curved against Mina’s body. Instinctively, she reached for her own curve, noticing the distinct flatness, the nothingness. Yannas averted his eyes and hung his head low when Naami looked back up at the couple.
“I had no choice,” he said.
Fire, screams and wails raged in the distance as Naami ran through the dark forest. If she moved fast enough, she just might make it to safety. Her former captor had taken pity on her and, over the course of a few weeks during her recovery, he orchestrated her escape. It was supposed to be a quiet affair; she was technically supposed to be dead. As bad luck would have it, taking in the bellows of pain coming from the village she was leaving behind, Naami knew that Jahan had not been fooled.
As the distance grew between Naami and the village, her resolve disappeared like water spilling on a flat surface. She knew it would only be a matter of time before Mina and Yannas would be called to account for their deception, for their treason. Their little baby girl was just born, and Jahan was ruthless. None of them would be spared. Naami stopped running. She shrugged off the bag of supplies Yannas had given her, the bag he had taken from her dead father. And she listened. She could feel the heat of the flames on her body as if she were there; she could feel the pain of loss as if it were her own. When she heard the screams of small children, she knew what she had to do.
Naami made it back to the village just as the sun was setting in a bloody, red haze. Pillars of smoke rose from the ashes of fallen homes, dead bodies were strewn about haphazardly. Yannas’s and Mina’s home was, fortunately, still standing. However, there were signs that all was not well within. The door was ajar, and when Naami entered the home, she knew there had been a struggle, that a strong body had hit and thrown someone weaker around the room. She rushed out of the house, in search of the family that tried to save her life. She ran on instinct, knowing that Yannas had been forced to cede to Jahan, to reveal where his wife and child were hiding.
Luck was finally on her side. As Naami weaved her way through the trees and found the small clearing where Jahan was exacting his rage on Yannas, Mina and the baby. Yannas was on the ground, bleeding and helpless. She saw Mina crouched on the ground next to him, the crying baby behind her, one arm stretched up towards Jahan to stop his relentless blows. A knife appeared, and there was no time to think. Naami ran at full speed right into Jahan, pushing him away before he could let the blow of his knife fall on Mina. As he stumbled, Naami lost all compassion: she grabbed a large, thick branch and swung it at his body as hard as she could with no sign of stopping.
Jahan, tossing the knife to the side, grabbed the bloody branch with both hands and pulled when she aimed another blow at his head. Naami stumbled forward, falling to the ground, and Jahan was quickly back on his feet. He was about to deliver retaliation blows with Naami’s weapon when he noticed the silver glint of something against her neck. He dropped the bludgeon.
“No, don’t,” he protested.
Naami stood up slowly, the blade of the knife pressed tensely against her throat. She was bleeding just slightly, showing that she would not hesitate if he attempted anything more. Jahan’s future was falling apart in front of him. Burning down his village in his rage had been a mistake, and Naami’s death would be the end of everything for him. He raised his hands in submission and slowly walked towards her. She pushed the knife in harder, stopping him in his tracks.
“Let them go,” she said.
Jahan nodded at Mina, who, with her baby cradled in one arm, slowly helped Yannas back on to his feet. The family collected into a tight embrace, waiting to see if it was truly safe to turn their backs on the danger and run. Slowly, Naami lowered the knife and walked towards Jahan. When she reached him, he slowly raised his hand to take the knife, and, with his brief touch against her skin, Naami could feel the mania hidden beneath his seemingly calm exterior; she could see his evil clearly, magnified and illuminated with a scorching light.
Without thinking she pulled her hand back and drove the knife into Jahan’s stomach. He fell to his knees in shock and, looking into Naami’s eyes, fell prostrate at her feet. For a moment, she lost herself, and when he fell hard on his back before her, she plunged the knife into him over and over until the strength left her body. Dropping the knife, she stood and ran towards Yannas, Mina and the child. There was no need to make sure the danger was gone. Jahan would not be getting up again.
Mina knew a place they could go, a place that would separate them from the horrors they had lived for too long. It was where she grew up, a safe space where Jahan’s madness had not yet reached.
Naami had been unwell for days. She couldn’t assuage the guilt of ending a human life, no matter how much it was warranted. She had seen too much and had been too much a part of death and destruction. Like a flower exposed to harsh sunlight, she could feel her edges browning and burning, annihilating all color. It was only a matter of time before the transformation would be complete, leaving her dried up and devoid of the floral scents of life and mystery in her soul.
When they reached the outskirts of the village, they decided to stop for a rest by a beautiful cliff side towering over a vast plain below. The wind was blowing peacefully, and cheerful sounds of life surrounded them. While Yannas, Mina and the baby sat in the cool, soft grass eating the food they’d gathered along the way, Naami made her way to the cliff’s edge to look down at the fields and rivers stretched before her. She was filled with the warmth of the sun, the songs of the birds and the freedom of pain. She was home.
Yannas looked up at Naami enjoying this quiet peace and noticed her hands clenched into fists at her sides. Shouting unintelligibly, he stood and ran as fast as he could towards her, leaving Mina immobile, startled and bewildered as she watched him run towards the cliff’s edge. He reached Naami just in time, hugging her body in a tense embrace, pulling her back.
“No,” he said, “You can’t.”
Feeling Naami’s body relax, he let go of his hold on her. She turned to face him, eyes wide and streaming rivers of tears down her cheeks. She reached up, cupping his face in her hands, and looked deeply in his eyes. He saw enough to understand: the fear, the death, the rage that would come for them all. He dropped to his knees, lowered his face into his hands and wept.
“I have to,” she said. He didn’t look up.
Naami turned back towards the cliff and slowly, as if walking along the beach towards a sun setting on the distant horizon, she stepped off the cliff and out of sight. The birds stopped their song, and there was not a sound to be heard beyond Yannas’s quiet sobs and Mina’s grief-stricken shouts.