Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Available Light

More rain. The eye strains after light. f/2, f/1.8 -- the iris opens, the dilated pupil drinks at a paltry stream of photons. Impressions stir into being on multiple thirsty surfaces of silicon, silver, blood. The world and its image appear pale, attenuated, washed out. Gray.

The tired doctor listens to her patient. The woman is talking about her left eye.

"I saw white. Just white. Everything was white. I was afraid."

The doctor mounts a step stool. She is short, her patient is tall. She sometimes feels like a mountain goat clambering over the landscape of patients' bodies; other patients, small and frail, make her feel lumbering and monstrous. Like Alice in Wonderland. Sometimes big, sometimes small. Is she really there at all ? Really ?

She shines a light onto the errant left eye. The iris is light brown; two hard red blotches -- one long, one small and triangular, overlie it. She peers more closely at the eye. She squints. What could they be ? Something amiss ? A normal variant ? A type of freckle she's never seen before ?

She excuses herself. She'd retrieve her magnifying headset, her favorite toy, from her desk. She takes every opportunity to don her beautiful magnifiers -- sutures, rashes, pimples, blotches, spots. "I'll go get my magnifier," she says. Patients don't seem to mind. The staff giggles to see her headed down the hall in her bug-like goggles.

She warns the woman, as she does all her about-to-be-magnified patients, about the short focal length of the lenses. It is so short that she must hover inches above patient's surface: an intimate distance. She thinks of her childhood optometrist, Dr. L., and of the sound of his raspy, snorting breath as he examined her retina with the ophthalmoscope. She'd hated that. It was too close. Too hot. Too smelly. She has always tried to hold her breath when examining her own patients' eyes.

She settles the lenses on her nose, shines a light at the woman's face, and leans in. The eye swims into focus. She thinks of taking pictures, of photographing weeds in the field by the river. Of leaning in until the seed or stamen is crisp and clear in the viewfinder. What draws her to magnification, to close-up ? It's intimacy, she thinks, the eye's cool intimacy. It's not like the raspy face-to-face, breath-to-breath intimacy of human interaction. She and the weeds hold their breath. Suddenly there is nothing but weed image -- that marvelous nexus of light, plant, eye, brain. The voice-over stops. The film score is in grand pause. What is it ? Some marvelous union has occurred, and yet something, something remains behind the screen, elusive and obscure What is it ? Of course she can only hold her breath so long. She shoots, gulps in air, and returns to herself.

Her patient is breathing quietly. The doctor looks.

She looks first at the long, dark red streak. It begins at the iris' edge, right at the verge of the black abyss of the pupil. From there it extends and expands, plume-like, across the anterior chamber, and ends in a pale, round, foggy stain on the inside surface of the cornea. She stares. It is oddly beautiful; it quivers slightly; it is, probably, blood.

She's gone as far as she can go. She sighs. She would have to summon her colleague, the ophthalmologist, the man with the big lens. With his slit lamp microscope he could dive right into the beautiful red plume if he wanted to. In 3-D technicolor. He'd know exactly what it was. Plus, even more to the point, he'd know how to fix it.

She waits on hold at her desk and looks out at the parking lot. It's still gray, still raining. Patients are hurrying to and from their cars. The only spot of color is the bright yellow newspaper box on the sidewalk just outside her window. She frames it in her mind. At f/1.8 the background would become a shimmering soup. She hopes the sun will return by the week end. She wants to take pictures.

The on hold music noodles on. She looks at the photo taped to the wall just beyond her desk. The andromeda galaxy, a beautiful, round, white flower. Stars around it, like wind-blown pollen.

What is it all, anyway ?

Crushing absurdity ? Numinous mystery ?

Where does it all end ?

Will she fall into the luminous heart of the blazing sun ?

Will she plunge into into the rabbit hole of the sightless eye, fixed and dilated on eternity ?

She hangs, for the time being, perilously suspended between the two.

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