The Alchemy of the Eye | Ian Goodale

He would never forget the woman with the glass eye. She sat near over him, leering with faux politeness splashed over her face made ragged and gray and spotted by age, peering with a singular intentness at the shy and retiring two-year-old riding the bus for the first time with his mother. Her hands were fidgeting, never still, hovering an omnipresent threat to the existential calm he had preserved up to that point in his short and idyllic life.

The woman’s face was nothing short of extraordinary; it looked as if magic had been baked into it in utero. Her lips seemed perpetually pressed together, as if they never split apart—she must always refuse to speak, he thought, even when asked—perhaps she demands to be fed via IV. Her eyes were like two suns on the cusp of burning out, hinting that they might at any moment commence with the million-year task of dying and imploding in a vast, seemingly infinite flare of light, slowly drying up into white dwarves. He studied every wrinkle, every crevice in her pockmarked cheeks; he squinted at her crows’ feet to get a better sense of their depth, their angles, the soul behind the time and anxiety they represented. He wanted to feel, too, the worries of sixty-odd years that had been condensed into miniscule pockets of skin. He almost felt as if he were falling in love with the woman, to the extent that a child could fall in love.

His mother, seated to his right, looked down at him with stoic affection, then resumed her work, checking away at boxes and typing errant emails on her phone. She was preoccupied with her own thoughts, mind full of the chores and errands preceding and following the few moments she was whiling away in transit. He recognized, even as a child, the absence of energy in her eyes. It was this energy, this vigor of life, that was so strongly present in the glass-eyed woman’s gaze: its reach seemingly omniscient, its breadth never-ending. It had a force that he could not quite place—it drove him to a point of maddening interest in this stranger with a face like a Halloween mask, her oddity and superficial unattractiveness transmuted into a stark beauty by the power of her vision.

She noticed him staring and, after glancing at him quickly with what seemed to be a knowing, winkish expression, began to rummage through her purse, as if she were looking for a gift she had reserved from him before their meeting, anticipating his interest in her and her strange appearance. Her liver-spotted hand—white save for the pebbles of brown imprinted onto its papery pearl—eventually emerged from the bag with the object that would define the remainder of his life. He would never be able to forget its strange character, to shake its perplexing hold on his being. He felt as if his soul had been seized hold of, gripped tight by the ivory fingers and wrung dry until he fell headlong into the grave, limp and defeated by the obsession inspired by this thing the woman had shown him. What strange alchemy was this, what devilish trick did she play? Its allure would stay him with him from that day forward, never truly relaxing its grip. On occasion he would think he had shaken its hold only to be drawn back into contemplation of the object just a few moments later, sucked into the vortex anew by his own betraying memory.

He was engrossed by her spell, lost in the entrancing power. He didn’t know what the object was and never saw anything close to resembling it again. It seemed at once to hold a great mystery and to be remarkably quotidian. It would haunt him until the day he died.

Throughout his childhood the object seemed always lurking behind some dark corner of his mind, around the bend of the conscious, so to speak, just past the event horizon of his waking thoughts. His teachers’ faces all reflected vague intimations of the thing; his parents’ praises and scoldings all bore alike the same dull imprint of the object, as if their apparent differences were purely aesthetic and their essences remained somehow firmly, cohesively bound to the object; his own reflection in the mirror, even, somehow reminded him of the thing, as if he were an ancient rune, indecipherable, whose meaning was linked to the object in some intransigent and unknown way. His adolescence was no different: his friends, his girlfriends, his enemies all wore their selves like masks over this collective link to the object, this incomprehensible binding to the thing inside the woman’s purse. He could not escape it even if he wanted to.

When he was twenty or so and middling his way through a college of average reputation, he went through a period of spending nearly every free moment he had—putting in especially long stretches on weekend afternoons—researching in the library to see if he could discern some hint as to what the object was. But his searches always proved fruitless. He would drown his sorrowful ignorance in diversions of every kind he could think of, but they never proved finally effective—his mind always returned to the captivating mystery.

When he was a bit older he had an experience that forever shifted his view of the object. He remained obsessed with the thing, terminally obsessed but, like the substance of the item whose identity he sought, he could not divine what precisely the change was. He simply felt it, deep in the rhythmically sloshing blood of his heart.

He was forty-three, recently married, forcing himself through the middle of a career as an accountant that he found neither spiritually nor intellectually rewarding, although it provided him with a tolerable amount of financial comfort. He and his wife were planning a trip to Colorado, to ski and to soak in the tourist-addled peaks of the nature that, despite the forceful efforts of hotels and chain restaurants and other bastions of civilization, refused to be domesticated. They had studied pictures of the area they would be staying in online; he had grown increasingly fascinated by the scenery to the point that he was having trouble sleeping at night, so full was his mind of pictures of the mountains covered in the dense, often snow-coated forest. He had dreams of himself walking through the thick woods, smelling the pine, holding out his hand to graze the trunks—miraculously strong, resisting the deathly cold that froze all else around them—as he walked through the labyrinths of pines, getting sap on his hands that quickly solidified into amber-colored icicles that hung from his fingers like claws. He became convinced that this was home, that he should not, perhaps could not, go on living in the city, stuck in the pit of gray and endless construction and recently paved roads and towers of glassy windows that reflected either nothing or, in an act of despairing irony, the sky that they could never hope to scrape. He resolved to move to the mountains of Colorado or, if this somehow proved impossible, to end his life with gun or rope.

So the gears of time were turned and a profound change was set in motion. He told his wife of his desire; she was unwilling to move, thought him unreasonable; in time they were divorced. He quit his job, sold most of his belongings, and set out to drive cross-country to the promised land of the white-capped mountains, although they were presently more brown than white, it being July. He arrived in his decrepit car, its engine shot from years of stop-and-go drudgery, and quickly sold it to a garage for a few thousand dollars. He bought a bike and used it to ride around the vacation town he and his ex-wife had discovered, scouting inexpensive houses that he might settle down in. In the meantime he slept in a small tent he had brought with him from the coast.

Soon he found a pleasantly isolated cabin with one bedroom, one bathroom, a small kitchen and an even smaller living room, located in the foothills of a peak famous for its skiing. He purchased it without hesitation, putting most of his savings into the down payment. He would do odd jobs around town to make money for food, he reasoned, and the mortgage payments could come from a combination of his savings and the dividends he received from the stock he owned in his former company. He didn’t need much, alone and newly unworldly as he was.

About a week after moving in, after he had gotten himself set up in the space and squared away with the routines of his new life, he set off to hike to the top of the mountain that loomed over his humble dwelling. He set out on the trail that connected to his backyard, assuming it would eventually lead him to the peak. Upwards he climbed, up and up for what seemed like hours, subsumed entirely by the dense trees of the forest and the cool shade they cast over everything in their reach. Eventually he made it above the tree line and saw that he was on the right path—the peak, with a crescent moon of white laying horizontally over its jagged gray, like a blanket of snow tucking in the high summit, called out to him, almost audibly, grabbing at his heart and lifting his soul into the echelons of an alpine pleroma. And so he continued to climb, headlong into the thin air of the world-effacing mountains that made him dizzy and weak in the knees.

He reached the summit just as night was beginning to fall. He looked out at the sun slowly swan diving into the pool of the earth, ripening into a deep plum color as it fell into the abyss of dirt and rock, and thought of the woman with the glass eye, of her strange and not unbeautiful face, of the object he had shown him from her purse. He knew that the object had inspired his obsession, had defined his life for reasons he could not and may never comprehend, had brought him to the point that he found himself then, alone on the peak of snow awash with the bruising light of the purpling heaven, the white snow dyed a deep paschal purple by the sky and the dying fire that swam beautifully from its star-speckled heights and collided in gracious explosion with the horizon below. He wanted to consider his life, to go over what had happened and why in light of the recent dramatic shift in his lifestyle and surroundings—but he could not. The earth and sky and sun subsumed him, and for the life of him he could not muster the strength even to remember his own name.

Ian Goodale’s work has appeared in Web Conjunctions, Drunken Boat, The Delinquent, and Gone Lawn. He lives with his wife and daughter in Austin, Texas, and his website can be found at