It was a gorgeous summer’s evening when I met him. They always warned us about the river; how bad things happened there, how the man would find you and once he did there was no coming back – silly rumours. Under the lemon tree, you could not be harmed. Zico told me that.
He told me stories that carried me to different lands: of undying love and heartbreak, of war and sacrifice. In return, I was his eyes. I told him how the prickle of heat on the nape of his neck was red. How the spray of water from the river that formed droplets against his face, was blue. The feeling of freshly cut grass between the gaps in his fingers – that was green. Zico loved colours; but he never asked me about black – that was all he ever saw.
When I first met him under the lemon tree – I was cautious. Strange old man with a suspicious bag in a secluded area. All the lectures of stranger danger at school rang in my ears like a never-ending fire alarm, but I ignored them. He was sprawled on the ground, sleeping bag and cane flung into the bushes overlooking the river. A young couple nervously crept by him ; the man reached out his hand towards Zico and just as quickly drew it back, his girlfriend squeezing his arm and leading him away.
Back then I did not understand what was wrong with helping him. Why was it wrong to touch him? Now I know – the uniform that drapes his small frame, supposedly to show others how this brave soul was fighting for his country, does not have that effect. When you wear the clothes of a war-torn, bomb-ridden country, no one seems to admire you anymore. No one nods at you as you pass them in the street. Not one person will help you when you need it the most.
On that particular evening, I extended my hand to a man I had never met. They say even the smallest act of kindness can brighten someone’s day, and I for one had not been having the best of days.
I had decided that maybe by helping someone else, I too could be happy, even it was for a few seconds. I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and back, and gently pulled him up to his feet. I skipped down to the river bank and quickly retrieved his cane and sleeping bag from the brambles. As I turned back around to where I had left him, I nearly stumbled backwards into the river. The man was stooped before me, his hands pressed together in front of his head in an act of gratitude, softly mumbling incomprehensible words under his breath.
I shook my head and let out a small laugh – how ironic that he was thanking me, when it was I and everyone else that should be thanking him. I grabbed the sleeping bag, handed over his cane and slowly led him back to the bench under the lemon tree. He slumped forwards and put his head in his hands; his eyes widened as I impulsively pulled him into a hug.
That one hug was the start of everything.
Every day after my last class at the local community college, I take the long way home, alongside the river and wait under the lemon tree. I pull out a book and patiently read, the river softly burbling in the background. When I hear the quiet, metal clanging of his medals and the steady tapping of his cane against the ground, I know that Zico is here. We sit under the lemon tree and talk until the sky is painted with the first few streaks of pink and orange.
I tell him about my classes at college – how I want to be an artist with my paintings in museums all across the world. I tell him about my sister, Quinn, who was born blind like him, but was generously given a cornea transplant by an unknown donor. He loves it when I talk about Q; he thinks it is a beautiful thing to be given vision.
Today, I wait for him under the lemon tree, rays of sun painting the hills in the distance in a hazy, golden mist, the leaves whispering in the wind. I hear Zico first before I see him, and he slowly inches towards me, cane and sleeping bag in hand.
“It certainly is a beautiful day: I hear the birds chirping and feel the cool breeze through my hair. How are you my dear?”
“Well Zico, I don’t even know where to begin. I finally told my sister about you and I thought she would be fine with it. But she keeps asking all these questions about what you look like and stuff.”
“Yeah! I don’t know why she’s so interested but I just feel like there’s something she’s not telling me and you know I hate people who hide things.”
His cheeks flushed and he let out a shaky sigh.
“My dear – it is time I tell you something. Even if you do not forgive me for keeping this from you, let me explain.”
I nod, confused.
“When I first moved to England back in ’98, I had nobody. No friends, no family, no one to talk to. Books told me that I should join clubs or societies to try and meet some new people – and so I did. I tried painting, yoga, even dance, but I still ended up just as alone.
I had nearly given up hope, until I saw a flyer for Braille club on a lamppost. I thought to myself that Braille club would be my last chance; if nothing worked out after, I promised myself that I would go back home.”
“You went to Braille club? But so did –“
“That club changed my life. It sounds silly when I say it out loud, but it really did help me. Everyone there was so friendly, and sweet and no one seemed to care about where I was from.
I met a girl there. She caught my eye as soon as she walked through those doors. It was so refreshing to be around her and she certainly knew how to light up a room. During the time that I spent at the club, I slowly fell in love with her. I was infatuated – you could say- and to my utter disbelief, when I told her how I felt, she said the same thing!
We spent all summer together: at the club, in the park, we even sat under this very lemon tree. She was my first and only love; I knew that I would do anything for her in a heartbeat. We were young, but we knew we were meant for each other. But slowly after a few months, she began to lose her love for life – and for me.
I never stopped loving her and so when she finally told me what was holding her back, I knew what I had to do. She told me that she wanted to be able to see the world. To see her family – to see me. I took her to her surgery and when she came out, she was completely surprised to see that I was blind.”
“I don’t understand – you weren’t born blind?”
“No, I wasn’t and I apologise and would apologise a thousand times over for lying to you. I loved this girl so much, that I didn’t want her to suffer any longer. I had already seen the world for 20 years, and so… I gave her my eyes.”
My heart thuds violently against my chest, my throat so dry that I can barely say the next few words.
“I-it was her, wasn’t it? Q. You loved Quinn.”
He grips my hands in his.
“Yes, I did.
I loved her back then and I still do now. But I promise you that you and I meeting was purely by accident. I promise you that. When I found out who you were, I was dumbfounded. I felt like I was being given another chance.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I am ashamed to admit this now, but I was afraid. After meeting you, I feel like my life has some purpose now. I yearn for these moments every day, when we sit under this lemon tree and talk and talk. I felt that if I told you about Q, you would leave me, like I left her all those years ago.”
I did not what to say, what to think or even what to believe anymore. I take back my hands from his, fold them into my lap and shut my eyes.
I listen to the babbling of the stream and Zico’s shaky breaths. The leaves of the lemon tree, sing in the breeze, singing of the secrets that have been told under their branches.