When we find the old fruit seller sprawled on his back, face a livid gray, I’m all for following the proper rituals. But Ituani wants to eat his eyes.
“That’s disgusting,” I say. Ituani has been my best friend since forever; her grandmother half-raised me while working for my father. But sometimes she says things that embarrass me, things she should know better than to say.
“It’s not,” Ituani says. “It’s honoring the dead.”
I sigh. Ituani’s people believe strange things—about the gods, wind, even flesh. Some are things you don’t talk about in polite company. Others are banned outright.
Eating a dead man’s eyes is definitely one of the latter.
“He died poor and alone, Jaeya,” Ituani says. “I told you, people treated him like dirt.”
“At least we didn’t.” I study the shelves lining the tiny shop. “Do you think there’s any mangasa left?” Mangasa is why we come every week, even though other places sell it for less. Just one bite of that exotic fruit, with its honey-caramel juices, is worth the trip.
Ituani doesn’t let up. “What will become of his memories? How will they live on if we let him rot?” She lifts a knife from the counter. “I’m going to do it.”
“Ituani!” I hiss. “Stop pretending to be an eye-eater.”
“I’m not pretending,” Ituani says. “My people have done it for centuries. Grandmother said it’s how we learn about our ancestors. About ourselves.”
The mention of her dead grandmother makes me bite my lip. I loved that woman, but though my father is a tolerant man, he’d never have allowed an employee to practice eye-eating. Not knowingly.
“There are no eye-eaters in Saryoza,” I say. “It’s forbidden.”
“Just because some king drew lines on a piece of paper doesn’t mean we all follow the same map.” She kneels over the dead man. “I’d want it done if it were me.”
And before I can say anything, she slides her knife into his eye-socket.
* * *
“We’ll see everything he saw,” Ituani explains. “Every memory. That way he’ll live on. But be careful—grandmother said it can be intense.”
“Will it work for me, though?” I point to my plain brown Saryozan eyes that no one would ever eat.
“Of course,” Ituani says. “An eye is an eye. A soul is a soul. It’ll work.”
“If people find out, we’ll get in so much trouble,” I moan.
“We won’t. Yto protects us.”
Maybe you. Yto is her god, not mine. I’m Saryozan. I look anew at Ituani: at her flat nose, bronzed skin, and flecks of purple in her eyes. It’s a face not unlike the fruit seller’s. A face that suddenly seems foreign.
“Grandmother told me to never let Saryozans make me hide who I am,” Ituani says. “I’m not hiding anymore.”
“No one’s trying—”
“You are,” she says. “Right now.”
“Gods,” I snap. “This is why girls in our tier don’t like you. You don’t listen.”
“And you don’t see.” Ituani gently lifts the fruit seller’s eyes. The sight makes my stomach roil. “Please, Jaeya. Yto gave us two eyes for a reason.”
“I won’t! It’s… indecent!”
Ituani’s eyes narrow into slits.
“Grandmother wanted you to have one of hers,” she says. “She said you were different. You didn’t hate yet. But they took her body away before I…”
Silence. I don’t know what to say.
“Would you have hated her?” Ituani finally asks. “If you knew?”
I stare. “You know I wouldn’t.”
“Do I?” she whispers.
I don’t know why I take the eye. Maybe to prove something. Maybe because she’s my best friend.
Maybe because of the look on her face, a look I’ve seen her flash at other Saryozan girls… but never, I thought, at me.
With a shuddering breath, I thrust the eye into my mouth and swallow.
* * *
At first, I don’t know what I see. Just colors and shapes, so fast and fierce they make me dizzy.
people, so many people—
distrust on their faces, contempt in their eyes, none of them purple—
Filth, their lips snarl, eye-eater—
the Saryozan Watch—their heads turning, following—
Troublemaker, their faces say, interloper—
Stop, I think.
Saryozan boys, looting, hollering—to which the fruit seller dares not raise a hand—
a woman with purple-flecked eyes—
a squalling baby boy—
the woman smiling, until—
the catchfire pox, spreading, worsening, from man, to woman, to child—
“Ituani—” I hear myself say.
the Watch, rooting through every box and basket, tossing mangasa on the floor—
dragging the bodies away as he begs to keep their eyes—
Stop, I beg. It’s too much. I reach out for Ituani’s hand. She grasps mine tight.
the shop, empty now, silent—
new shops, sprouting like mushrooms after rain—owned by men with no purple in their eyes—
mangasa, their signs read. Saryozan mangasa—
a girl, two girls, me—
I gasp. I see me.
Just a glimpse in a swirl of images. Plunking down a pitiful few coins yet leaving with as much fruit as I can carry. Already eating before I’m out the door.
Other shops sell mangasa for less, I see myself reason. We only come here because Ituani insists.
Ituani, lingering behind to apologize—to pay a few more coins—
to flash me a look—
That same look. Eyes narrowed into slits.
More memories, some including me. But I can’t watch anymore.
All I see is that look.
* * *
We walk home in silence. I should be thinking about the eyeless body we’ve left behind. When they find him, there will be questions. But all I can think about is Ituani.
About that look.
I’m sorry, I want to say. I didn’t know—
But I did.
She turns. Regards me with purple-flecked eyes. Eyes she’ll want cut out some day.
It’s how we learn about ourselves, she’d said.
She looks at me, and for the first time in my life, I’m afraid of what she sees.
© 2019 Matthew Bailey