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Online Feature: “Cyclops” by Teresa Milbrodt

 

Usually cyclops babies don’t live very long.  This is why you never hear about them, why the cyclops woman is the only one to have reached thirty.  Two people besides her parents know she has just one eye—the family ophthalmologist and the midwife who delivered her in her parents’ bedroom.  Her mother wanted to keep the process as natural as possible, worried about strange things drugs were supposed to do to newborn babies.

The cyclops woman’s father makes her wear a shade, a crescent-shaped sunglasses lens that fits around her head, so the world looks a little dark to her.  Her father’s world is also getting darker.  His glaucoma is worsening and the ophthalmologist says he’ll be blind in a matter of months.  He won’t stop working, though.  At the counter of Drogo’s, the family coffee shop, he explains to customers that his daughter wears the shade because she has a condition that makes her extremely sensitive to light.

I think it’s very becoming, says Cynthia Liss, one of the regulars.  She says the eyes are the most intimate part of the body and the shade lends an air of mystery like Japanese women with their fans.

The cyclops woman thinks the shade makes her look like a washed-up Hollywood starlet that happens to be working at the family coffee shop.

Her father boasts that Drogo’s is the only coffee shop in the world with a reliquary.  Drogo is the patron saint of coffee house keepers and unattractive people.  His finger and six eyelashes rest across from the counter in a tiny glass coffin etched with gold curlicues.  The coffin is attached to the wall and surrounded by a big gilded frame.  The finger looks like a piece of beef jerky, and the eyelashes could be anybody’s, but some of the regular customers make a habit of touching the coffin every time they enter.  Cynthia Liss leaves small offerings–dime store rings, single fingers cut from gloves, and red nail polish because she says red is the most Catholic color.  On Drogo’s feast day, April 16th, the cyclops woman’s father has her festoon the frame with ribbon.

He brought the finger and eyelashes back from a trip to Belgium three months before he opened the coffee shop.  At least once a month he stands behind the counter and tells the story of how he found them in a little apothecary shop in Brussels.  He says, The apothecary whispered to me that Drogo’s finger had been taken from St. Martin’s in Sebourg, where Drogo died and where the rest of his relics are kept.  That old man said Drogo’s finger had worked miracles for others who had come into his shop.  It had made an old woman’s gnarled hands straight, a little boy’s deaf ear hear, a dog’s lame foot strong.

When her father finishes the story, he nods and smiles at the cyclops woman.  She smiles back, knows he bought the finger hoping it would manifest a miracle, give her a second eye.  When that didn’t work it became an attraction.  Sometimes she wonders exactly how her father looked when he walked into the apothecary shop, if the way he squinted at objects suggested he had the loose wallet of a desperate man.  Other times she figures that if she is a cyclops woman with brethren who taunted Odysseus, surely the finger could have belonged to a saint.

There are little cards with Drogo’s picture and biography next to the gilded frame, and customers can buy them for a dollar.  The picture is a painting really, a man with a huge nose, uneven lips, and eyes looking in different directions, a man Dali would have loved.  The cyclops woman reads Drogo’s biography every night even though she’s memorized it, how he was the son of a Flemish nobleman whose mother died when he was born.  When he grew older, he became obsessed with the idea that he’d killed her, so he sold everything he owned and became a shepherd and a hermit and made nine pilgrimages to Rome.  Later he contracted an odd disease that made him very ugly, and he spent the rest of his life living on barley bread and warm water.  People said he was able to bilocate, be in two places at once, tending sheep and attending Mass.  The cyclops woman wonders if that is true of his remains as well, if he actually has twenty fingers, twenty toes, four eyes, and two noses roaming the world.  She cleans the fingerprints off Drogo’s finger’s glass coffin every night.  The cyclops woman knows the finger well, all its joints and creases, and likes it in the way that people like something because it is familiar.

At night the cyclops woman’s mother frets over the books, how the small shop is barely keeping afloat even with the reliquary.  Her father claims Drogo is why they’re still in business.  The cyclops woman has been watching his latest ritual, how he stands in front of the finger before the shop opens and after it closes.  She wonders how fast the glaucoma is progressing.  The family ophthalmologist says she has the same disease, but he doesn’t know how long it will be before she is blind.  It could be a year, five years, ten.  She worries what will happen to her family when neither she nor her father can see.  The shop isn’t making enough to hire extra help.  Her father wants to keep working in the store, despite his impairment.

I’m perfectly fine, he says.  Not blind yet.  I can tell how much coffee is in the cup.

You’re getting steam burns from the espresso machine, says the cyclops woman.

I am not, says her father, but she watches him run his hands under cold water for a few minutes between customers, wincing.  She knows he is moving slow, trying not to bump into things.  He misses the counter when giving a customer her coffee.  The cup shatters on the floor, sloshes hot liquid behind the register.

It slipped out of my hand, he hisses to his daughter while she gets another cup of coffee and helps her mother pick up the ceramic shards.

At dinner he reaches for the salt and pepper shakers and knocks both over.

The cyclops woman’s mother bites her lip.

I don’t know what we’re going to do about the finances, she whispers.

What we’ve always done, says the cyclops woman’s father.  We’re going to sell coffee and get a business loan to tide us over.

I want to go on the road, says the cyclops woman.

Both her parents stare.

Talk shows, she says, book deals, maybe a movie.  People will pay to see me.

You will do no such thing, her father says, stabbing his meatloaf.  That is what we’ve worked to help you avoid.  Nothing good comes of that sort of fame.

But it would be easy, says the cyclops woman.  We’d be set forever.

I will not have my daughter prostituting herself, says her father.  I’d rather go on welfare.

I’m not stripping in front of people, says the cyclops woman.

You’re not taking off your shade, says her father.  You can’t know what would happen after that.

You can’t either, says the cyclops woman.

What if doctors got hold of you, says her father, and you spent the rest of your life with needles in your arms and a tube up your rear?

The cyclops woman’s mother doesn’t say anything, just puts her hand over her mouth.

The cyclops woman decides to let her father think he’s won for the time being.  They all keep chewing.  She knows she won’t let her family go on the public dole.

That night she lies in bed and dreams her usual dream about serving coffee at the counter when a customer snatches her shade away.  She stands there blinking her one eye.  Sometimes nobody notices and sometimes everyone does, but it is pleasant to feel the cool air on her eye, not to have it closed behind the stuffy sunglasses lens.

In the morning, the cyclops woman’s mother has a headache.  She has been complaining of headaches more often lately, and the cyclops woman knows it is because of stress.  The cyclops woman’s head hurts sometimes, too, and she finds herself squinting more, getting eyestrain.  She knows the vision loss, the blurriness, will only progress until the day there is nothing.  No black.  No white.  As if she’d never had an eye to begin with.  When she cleans the glass on Drogo’s coffin that night, she reads the information card for the five thousandth time and feels sorry for Drogo for the five thousandth time.  He endured so much pain, so much misery, so much sacrifice, and his mother was still dead.

The cyclops woman finds the key to the locked glass cabinet.  Her father thinks no one but him knows it is hidden behind the counter in a five-year-old box of Earl Grey tea.  She opens the glass case and touches the finger with her small hand.  It feels hard and leathery, like it sat in the sun for centuries.  She thinks she feels a slight warmth and a slight pain in her own fingers, stands there for a moment with that warm ache before locking the case again.  The cyclops woman sits against the wall and slips the shade off her head, stares at her hand.  It seems to be glowing slightly.

Because she knows her father would never agree to it, the cyclops woman and Drogo’s finger leave at three-thirty in the morning after she makes a few phone calls, packs a bag, and tells her mother her plan.  Her mother nods and takes a couple aspirin.

Everything will be fine after your father stops having a tantrum, she says.

At first the cyclops woman figures she’ll be gone for a couple of weeks, traveling to a few coffee shops several hours away, displaying Drogo and charging a small fee to touch him and buy an information card.  The coffee shops she called were a bit skeptical, but agreed when she said she wouldn’t charge them for the display and she’d work the counters if things got busy.

In Indianapolis the cyclops woman stands beside Drogo, her shade in place, reciting the story of his life until she is hoarse.  She is tired and her hands ache from the long drive, but Drogo’s finger looks content in its temporary new home, a clear glass jewelry box she bought for five dollars and lined with red velvet.  Coffee shop patrons gladly ante their dollars to touch the finger for ten seconds, pay an extra buck for a Polaroid snapshot beside the relic.  Some people mutter that it looks like a piece of beef jerky and they’re certain they can smell pickling spices.  Others say they feel a slight heat or ache or calmness after rubbing the first digit.  The cyclops woman smiles and adjusts her shade.  A young acne-stricken reporter from the local paper comes to do a story for the religion page.

There aren’t very many touring relics, she says.

I guess not, says the cyclops woman.

The reporter says, His mother died?

He never got over it, says the cyclops woman.  She thinks of her own mother at the cash register trying to ring up customers and keep her father calm as he rants about the missing finger and mistakenly pours scalding coffee over his hands instead of into a mug.

Those are neat sunglasses, says the reporter.

The Indiana coffee shop owners are an elderly couple, let the cyclops woman spend a few nights on their uncomfortable couch.  She wants to take the shade off when she goes to sleep but thinks the better of it.

I have a disease that makes me sensitive to light, she tells them at breakfast, her back still aching from the flat couch cushions.

That’s some finger, says the old man, spreading marmalade on his toast.

Once I thought I saw a vision of the Virgin in some sugar I spilled on the floor, says the old woman.

The cyclops woman does not like the endless black cord of road.  She does not like peeing in gas station bathrooms, eating peanut butter sandwiches two meals a day because she wants to live on the cheap, sleeping in her car when she can’t find anyone to loan her their couch for a night.  In the morning she neatens herself best she can in fast food restaurant restrooms, wets her comb and ties her hair back into a neat bun before driving to the next venue.  Many of them are tiny places like the ones her father owns, coffee shops where the owners are struggling and sympathetic, eager to try any new scheme as long as it’s free.  She stays three or four days at each, long enough for word of mouth to get out and for the crowd of skeptical and curious visitors to be exhausted.  Many people compliment her on her shade.  Half of them ask where they can get one before asking her to snap a photo of them standing beside Drogo.

The cyclops woman keeps her arm tense and ready at her side, wondering and worrying and almost hoping that someone will try to snatch off the shade.  Sometimes she puts her hand on the black half-moon lens, her fingers tugging gently, wanting both to greet and prevent revelation.  In the end she keeps it on because worrying over the consequences, the might-bes, gives her a headache.  She could be invited on all the talk shows, or doctors could cut her up and put parts of her in test tubes.

She calls home twice a week to tell her parents of her travels.

Her mother says the touring finger has made the local news and business has increased in the shop.  More people are visiting the six eyelashes still safe in the glass case across from the counter.  The cyclops woman’s travel-weary body aches less to hear of her successes.  Then her father gets on the phone.

You need to come home, he yells so loudly that she has to hold the receiver away from her ear.  How is Drogo?  Have you taken off your shade?

No, she says.  Dad, don’t worry.  This is going to save us.  I’m keeping the shade on and keeping close track of Drogo.

I just know someone is going to steal him, says her father.

We’ll both be home soon, she says, and things will get better.  Business will pick up.  This is just the sort of attention the shop needs.

People are wondering when the finger will be back, her father mutters.  Six eyelashes just don’t cut it.

In San Francisco, people start claiming to have visions after touching Drogo’s finger.  They imagine themselves in multiple, having divided like a cell.

I could knit a scarf from both ends, says one elderly woman.

I could play golf with myself, says a middle-aged man.

I could hold twice as many ice cream cones, says a pudgy kid.

The cyclops woman tilts her head.  No one ever had visions in her father’s coffee shop.  Maybe they just weren’t attracting the right crowd.  But her father never let anyone touch Drogo.  Every night the cyclops woman runs a slim finger over Drogo and notices his wrinkles are a little less deep.  Drogo is wearing away.  The cyclops woman bites her lip and tells herself that she is imagining the change.  But she thinks of her own bones, if they will exist like this after she is gone.  Even now, what would people see if they touched her?  What sorts of visions might erupt after they gazed into her single eye?  She wants to know.  She doesn’t want to know.

The cyclops woman holds her breath as patrons whisper prayers to the finger, asking for the wart to be removed from their big toe, the bald patch on their scalp to fill in, their right arm to grow an inch so it’s the same length as their left, their lips to get a little fuller, their hair to be straightened.  They peer in wall mirrors or tiny compacts dug from the bottom of purses, wrinkle their noses at their too-freckled, bushy-eyebrowed, eyes-too-close-together faces.  The cyclops woman squints at them, those who decree themselves unlovely, and knows that no one would look at them twice in a crowd.

After four months, two weeks, and five days on the road, the cyclops woman drives home from Orlando, twenty hours straight, because she just wants to get back.  She arrives at three in the morning, her body cramped and car-weary.  Her father appears at the front door.  He has always been a light sleeper, probably heard the car engine.  His face glows red in the streetlamp light.

I’m home, she calls from the driveway.

I’m sure you were discovered, he yells.  I’m sure someone knows about you now and they’ll come pounding on our door tomorrow.

The cyclops woman walks closer and sees how her father grips the doorframe too tight, how his legs waver, how his eyes focus somewhere over her head.

She takes off her shade.

It finally worked, she says.  I have two eyes now.  I don’t have to hide.

Really? he says.  For a moment she sees a glow in his vacant stare.  Then his eyes dull again.

Don’t lie to me, he says.

How do you know I’m lying, she says, you can’t see.

Of course I can see you, says her father.  I’m fine.

Fine, says the cyclops woman.

I don’t want you working at the shop anymore, he says.  It’s too much of a risk.

Don’t be silly, says the cyclops woman.

You shouldn’t have gone, he yells, his hand shaking against the doorframe.

We have more business, don’t we? says the cyclops woman.

Her father marches back inside.

The cyclops woman goes back to her car, grabs Drogo’s box from the passenger seat, stomps in after her father.

He wouldn’t let me tell you he was getting worse, her mother whispers later.  And he kept telling me he was fine, but then he’d miss the door and bump into a wall.

But I should have been home, says the cyclops woman, smacking her hand against the kitchen table.  He should have been able to see me just a little longer.

The tour was going so well, says her mother.  I didn’t want to tell you, didn’t want to upset you. There was nothing you could have done if you had come home.  We needed those articles in the papers.  We’re doing better now.

The cyclops woman grimaces as she watches her father walk down the hallway, his fingertips skimming the wall until they hit the doorframe and he turns into his bedroom.

In her dream the cyclops woman is beside her father in the coffee shop, removes her shade and has sprouted another eye.

It worked, she says.  Drogo worked.

No, he didn’t, says her father.

The cyclops woman holds her shade and knows in the end this miracle didn’t matter.  Her father can’t see both her eyes.  And now that she has two of them, they are both going blind.

Before the shop opens in the morning, the cyclops woman rests Drogo’s finger back in its glass case, the creases worn smooth.  Cynthia Liss and a few other regulars are standing at the front door, anxious for the shop to open.  There will be more customers for a while, but the cyclops woman wonders how long it will last.  Will people keep coming when her father is blind?  When she is blind?  Four months on the road was not enough.  But maybe there isn’t anything that would be enough.  She thinks of her father at home trying violently to see and knocking into the kitchen table.  There is more money in the family bank account and her mother bought her father a new white cane he is refusing to touch.  The cyclops woman knows he will use it in time, just as in time he will be less angry with her.  She locks Drogo’s glass case and imagines how Cynthia would beam if she knew the cyclops woman was a cyclops woman.  She imagines the gifts Cynthia would bring–single contacts, bottles of mascara, eye shadow in every color of the rainbow.

Outside the customers press their fingers against the glass, leave temporary smears the cyclops woman will have to wash off in the evening.  Her eye hurts as she squints at them through her shade.  The world is blurrier than it was before she left.  She will have to remove the black lens eventually.  It will not be a choice.  Now she is simply prolonging that moment, that revelation.  Maybe she will wait until she can no longer see faces.

*

This poem appeared in Indiana Review 31.1, Spring 2008

Anthony Correale (Fiction Editor): Beginning with the title, Milbrodt’s story occupies the half-light of magic, conscious of both myth and the carnivalesque. From that in-between space, the many juggled elements of “Cyclops” emerge both lightly absurd and haunting. That Milbrodt maintains this balance throughout, that, for example, the delight of seeing a cyclops tour with a reliquary through the coffee shops of the United States is not interrupted by the story’s more poignant movements, is the primary pleasure and accomplishment of “Cyclops.”

*

Teresa Milbrodt is the author of a short story collection, Bearded Women: Stories; a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People; and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories. Her fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous literary magazines. She is addicted to coffee, long walks with her MP3 player, frozen yogurt, and anything by Sherman Alexie or George Saunders. Read more of her work at: teresamilbrodt.com.

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