By Saadia Faruqi
They say that the eyes are mirrors to the soul. Before meeting The Man with the Angry Eyes, Aliya hadn’t really understood the meaning of that saying. She used to think it was one of those pithy sentences that someone had made up to flatter a potential lover. She wasn’t one for sustained eye contact with others, but she had never found anything remotely spiritual about the eyes. Her father used to have dead eyes like a fish, but his character was the most uplifting and exciting she had ever known.
What was a soul anyway? She would never admit it to her family and most especially not to the Imam at the mosque where she sometimes went to pray on a quiet afternoon, but she wasn’t exactly sure what a soul was. Was it the part of her that loved and hated so passionately? Or was it the part that made her think before acting, sometimes think too much? Or if that saying was true, was the soul the almost feral emotion she saw in The Man’s eyes whenever they chanced to exchange looks?
She supposed one had to catch a glimpse of someone’s soul before the saying would make sense. In fact, it was only after she had first met The Man that she had finally understood what it meant. His eyes certainly seemed to say a lot with just one fleeting look. She would have avoided him if she could have, but The Man was difficult to avoid, since he lived right next door. Hence Aliya frequently found herself transfixed like a deer in the pathway of those twin daggers.
She told herself she wasn’t scared of him, but her heart knew the truth. His eyes were the most unfriendly she had ever looked into, and once she had recognized this fact, she kept her head down when she entered or left her house, so as to never look into them again. She certainly never wanted to glance into his soul, even accidentally.
No need to ask why his soul was so angry; the neighbors whispered that he had just come back from Iraq without either of his legs. She had moved into her house a year and a half ago, when the house next door had been empty, its dark shadow looming over her own house as if trying to intimidate it. Even his house seemed to hate her house; it was as if there was some cosmic hatred between them, with no explanations that she could see.
The Man had arrived abruptly one evening last month, just in time for thanksgiving. She wondered if he had anything to be thankful for, with prosthetic legs and a daily physical therapist who was ugly and therefore probably quite efficient. His tour of duty was only a rumor, and Aliya didn’t want to make her neighbors wonder by asking too many questions. Still, where there’s smoke there’s usually fire, another saying that someone had probably made up a couple of centuries ago to look smart.
Aliya had met lots of smart people, and many others who portrayed themselves as smart but really weren’t. She worked at the local community college as a counselor for international students, and she met all kinds of people in her job. Sometimes she suspected she had been hired to be the token Muslim on staff, as if her religion could make her a suitable representative for the milieu of faiths, languages, cultures and colors that walked through the college doors every day. Still, a job was welcome in this economy, and so she tried to be that epitome of middle-ground, that hyphenated being who could live with one foot on each side of an ever-expanding chasm: the American-Muslim.
Most days, it was easy. Her adopted neighborhood was friendly and the neighbors helpful even though she was the only brown in a sea of white. Except The Man, whose eyes seemed to be roving around a mile a minute even though he was leg-less. She usually came home from work in the evening to find him sitting on an old fashioned rocking chair on the front porch with a beer in his hand and eyes shooting hate.
Tonight was no exception. Dependable as the daylight, he was sitting silently in the dark staring out towards her when she guided her car into the driveway. As she climbed the steps to her front door, she tugged on the grey scarf covering her head as if it could alone protect her from the fire of his angry eyes burning through the cotton cloth. What was his problem? Did he look at everyone like this or had she somehow done something to annoy or offend him without knowing?
Showering and changing into more comfortable clothes, she decided to forego dinner until she had sorted out this mystery. She started her laptop and signed on to Google. Her search of “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” turned up thousands of hits, and soon she was lost in a pile of information that was somewhat worrying, definitely startling and very saddening. She usually tried to keep out of the political discussions that seemed inevitable on a college campus, so hadn’t really formed an opinion about the war or what happened to soldiers who came back broken inside and outside. Or, for that matter, what happened to those they went to fight, who were also brave soldiers, brave sons and husbands. Tonight was an education in itself.
Still reeling from the latest stare session from her neighbor, and probably as a result of hunger, Aliya began to wonder what would happen if The Man lost control and his PTSD took over. Would he remain silent or would his stress spill over to those around him, especially her? Did she remind him of his time in Iraq, of the brown skinned men and the fully covered women? Was she his enemy in proxy, even though they had never exchanged a single word?
She glanced out of the kitchen window. The fence between their two houses was as straight and uncompromising as the border between two countries hostile to each other. It was still light enough outside to make out the grass in the no man’s land. Should she venture outside? Should she lock her doors and buy a gun? Things were not as black and white as they once used to be.
A loud clanging outside the window shook her to the core. Her heart began to pound a mile a minute. Surely that was The Man, finally gone berserk and come to find the sole Muslim nearby. Surely he wanted revenge for losing a pair of perfectly good legs. She gripped the sink with both hands, paralyzed with fear. Breathe! She told herself sternly. He can’t get inside… can he? Did I even lock my door?
As if on cue there was a loud banging on the back door. Aliya shakily walked across the kitchen and lifted the blinds on the glass. It was The Man, staring grimly at her, as if she had conjured him from her thoughts alone. She was at a loss for words, until she realized he was saying something. Wait a minute, his eyes were different tonight. She hastened to unlock the door. He was holding up a dead raccoon in one hand, smiling with satisfaction. How can a smile change the soul, she wondered?
“I found this guy eating your garbage.” His voice was husky, masculine, low. Did he expect a thanks? Probably. She could only nod, still half-fearful. Maybe he has a gun hidden somewhere.
“You okay?” He sounded like one of those sitcom actors who she found sexy in a nerdy kind of way. How weird to be thinking of a war vet as nerdy… as sexy? What was wrong with her?
“Yes, I’m fine.” Was she stammering? “I thought you were going to hurt me…” Did she actually say that out loud?
It was his turn to stare. “Why would I hurt you?”
“I don’t know, you give me these really ugly looks all the time.” What the hell, she thought, it was about time to bring it up anyways. PTSD or not, they could have an adult conversation, couldn’t they, even if there was a dead raccoon between them?
He smiled again. Really, it should be the mouth that mirrors the soul, thought Aliya in a moment of lightheadedness. He was talking again. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t even realize I was staring at you all this time.” He hesitated. “You remind me of someone.”
There was a long silence. Should she even ask? Somewhere in the course of a minute or two, her fear had disappeared, and curiosity had completely taken over. She couldn’t believe she was talking so normally with a potential killer. “Who? Someone in Iraq?”
“Someone who hurt you?” She was sure he hated everything that reminded her of his terrible tour of duty.
The Man seemed taken aback. “No! She was amazing, beautiful. She helped me after a roadside bomb almost destroyed my Humvee. If it hadn’t been for her, I would have died. She was a nurse, and I stayed in her parents’ hut for two weeks while I got my strength back.” He was talking fast, and his eyes were fixed on her as if he would devour her.
Well! The mystery was solved. His eyes had been saying something all those days, but it wasn’t “I detest you” at all. Aliya felt more than a little foolish. Trust her to mix up signals, especially those coming from someone’s soul.
She motioned him inside shyly. He must be getting tired of standing there propped up against the door frame. She wanted to know more about Iraq, about its people. She wanted to know about the girl who saved him, The Man with the Smiling Eyes.
* * *
Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American writer living in Houston, TX. She writes both fiction and nonfiction works, focusing on the Muslim/Pakistani/immigrant experience in her writings. She is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a new literary journal, and editor of the Interfaith Houston blog. Her short story collection “Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan” will be published in the summer.