Friday, November 25, 2005

In the Eyes of the Beholder

Once upon a time there was a princess. Like all princesses she was special but hers was not the specialty of beauty or intelligence or generosity. She was special because she was blind. She had not been born blind, of course. As a young girl (a fairly attractive one, with her black hair and straight nose and smiling lips) she had had many suitors. Her fancy though fell on a horse. A brown pony with liquid eyes and a sturdy body. She gave this pony all her time and all her love and did not notice that people had begun laughing at her or that her suitors were beginning to drift away. Then one day her mother, who was quite practical but fairly kind as queens go, pointed it out to the young girl that princesses do not fall in love with horses, however liquid their eyes and gentle their bearing.

Our princess of course knew all this but hearing it did not make it any easier for her. However she was not an unreasonable girl and knew that her duty lay in things beyond her special desires. In such things princesses are brought up differently from the rest of us. So one day she held the horse’s head in her hands and looked it in the face and told it that their time was over, that she had other things to do and that he should go. The horse, not having had the education of princesses, was not as tractable as she could have wished. He was finally led away, snorting and twisting back to look at her. But the princess was made of sterner stuff and walked away herself without turning once to look at the poor beast. She told herself that it was a fine and noble thing to have done and for everybody’s eventual good.

Then she went into the palace and into a party and began leading the life everybody thought a princess should lead. She spent her days at parties and balls, in gossip and shopping. If some mornings her eyes were duller than they should have been it was ascribed to her hectic schedule and not to sleepless nights.

She eventually gave a young Emperor of a far-off land the permission to approach her parents for her hand in marriage and the entire court rejoiced. She was eighteen and getting more beautiful with each passing day – and she was acting as a princess should. What she didn’t tell anybody was that it was getting more and more difficult for her to see well out of her left eye. She could make things out of course, but through a bit of a haze. However, her reputation as a modestly brought up young girl stood her in good stead, because she was not obliged to look important people in the eye (and indeed, would have been called brash if she had) and her fiancĂ© seemed to find nothing wrong with her walking into the occasional table.

After a while though the haze got into the other eye and the princess began living out a surreal dream. She was obliged to confess to the Emperor and beg his pardon for refusing to marry him after all. (He was saddened by the event and begged her to reconsider, because he truly loved her for her sunny smiles and the way she had of making him laugh but eventually he was made to understand that her decision was final. With a last bow, he walked away and into another story.) The princess stayed confined in her chambers now as great doctors fussed at her and put drops in her eyes and poultices on her face and made her swallow a great many evil-tasting medicines. In the end they all gave up, unable to locate a cause or its cure.

“It’s almost as though she doesn’t want to really see,” said one physician, “as though her body has ordered curtains to be drawn across her eyes – with her permission.” In that he was not far wrong, because the princess herself seemed unaffected by the fact that she could not see. She lay quietly in her bed and ate whatever was put before her and listened to whatever she was told. Sometimes she sang to herself but nobody understood the language of her songs. Her mother, in tears, begged her to stop because everybody believed she was going mad, so she did stop the singing. She must have been the most tractable of patients but perhaps that too was due to her excellent training. Princesses, after all, do not complain.

One of the doctors stayed behind when all the others left. He was interested in her case and besides, he had a kind heart too, and was much affected by the poor young girl lying patiently on her bed. He taught the Court not to move any furniture in the palace so that she may move without unease. He instructed the minstrels to play different songs at different hours so that she always knew what part of the day she was in. And he showed the princess that even the blind may move, that senses other than that of vision may be used with as much temerity. On her part the princess was grateful to him for his many kindnesses and tried to do her best to please him.

One day this doctor, having heard that she had been fond of riding, got her a gentle mare. The queen sighed from her window as she saw her sightless daughter mount by touch but she did not make any move to stop them because there was so little that the princess could really enjoy any more.

The princess rode far and wide on her mare. Most of all she loved riding out into the forest that lay a little beyond the palace. She loved letting the mare lapse into a walk so that she could touch the trees as she passed, feel their leaves caress her face. She was usually accompanied by the doctor or a groom but by and by she persuaded the groom that she would not go further than he could call, if only he would let her ride alone. I’m sorry to say she did not keep her promise but the groom knew she was an excellent young horsewoman and, as she always returned when she said she would, he stopped worrying about where she went.

One day, while she was out riding thus by herself, she heard a voice say from in front of her, “Princess, you would be happier in our land.”

She knew who had spoken, had indeed been waiting for months for the mare to find the courage to address her. In the same tongue, the one that no one had understood when she had sung in it, she replied, “I know I would but how would you ever get me there?”

“The same way I came, my lady. Your troubles have been reported in our land and our Prince sent me to find out if you would change your mind about him.”

“He remembers me then, still?” said the princess, a pensive note entering her voice.

“Yes, my lady, and he asked that I tell you his feelings have not changed. If you really wish it, I could take you there.”

“How would we travel? What is it that I would have to do?” asked the princess, with more hope in her voice than anybody had heard for a year or to be precise, since she had begun leading the life expected of her.

“A little beyond these trees there is a cliff my lady,” replied the mare, “That is where we have to leave your land. I’m afraid though that you will not be able to take this body with you. We shall have to leave it behind, as I must leave the one I have assumed. Will you be afraid?”

“Are you questioning my courage?’ said the princess with a touch of hauteur. She came from a long line of brave kings after all, was her valor to be questioned by any mare?

“I beg your pardon my lady,” whinnied the mare, “It is just that leaving one’s body is never easy or pleasant. However, if you are truly decided, should we leave now? I have missed my land and would get back to it as soon as your decision is made.”

The princess thought. Was she ready to leave her parents behind? Her friends in the court, her pampered life of luxury? The more she thought, the further they seemed. In one sense, she realized, what the eyes do not see the heart does not miss. Her mind made up, she patted the mare and said, “I am ready.”


When they found the bodies of the girl and the horse at the bottom of the cliff a few hours later, nobody could believe what had happened. The groom was held responsible for negligence and turned away and the doctor dismissed for indirectly leading the princess to her death, but nobody thought to ask themselves why a horse would deliberately go over a cliff. The feelings of all were summed up in what the queen said to comfort the heartbroken king, “At least she couldn’t see where she went. We must be thankful for that.”