Toti O’Brien


Pearls of Darkness

I have bought her a bracelet. While I glanced at it in the window, my ten fingers suggested it might be appropriate. Three strands—two were threaded with pearls of different size, texture and color (one strand even comprehended a pendant, a small butterfly); the third one held an oval watch framed by small purple crystals. Some elaborate knots kept the thing together, allowing widening and tightening in order to put it on, take it off. I felt it might be interesting touch-wise. Bring some pleasure, perhaps.

I was sitting at her side when I announced my present, loosening the strings of its sheer silky bag. I described it while I helped her wear it. I then realized how hard maneuvering those knots was… I should demonstrate the mechanics on my own arm, to show the operation was feasible. I tried. It wasn’t easy. I should have better prepared my act, or given my choice further thought.

I decided to make the best of the present situation—after all the performance shouldn’t be impossible. I tried a few more times, describing my gestures out loud as efficiently as I could. Verbalizing helped my coordination. On my third attempt I was good, having in the meanwhile transuded nothing—I hoped—of my embarrassment. Now her turn.

She repeated the on-and-off routine for ten solid minutes—each time listing her gestures, accurately naming whatever she touched. My eyes glued on her fingers, I commented sparely, adding some detail here and there. Mostly encouraging, though she needed no extra bravery.

We pursued until she mastered the skill, then acquired velocity. Then relief came about, quite palpable. She liked the bracelet, she said. I commented about the butterfly pendant, matching an Irish cross she wore at her neck. Same size, same squared shape, I noticed. As I started talking, her fingers had already reached over, quickly switching between the two items while she nodded, satisfied.

Now about the watch… I had thought it might be fun, should anyone wonder what time it was, for her to lift her wrist, let them see. Maybe not the best idea, but it had charmed me for an instant. She didn’t comment about the gadget’s usefulness. She appreciated the shape, and the tiny, prickly studs framing the glass. Prickly. Pretty.

We like dappled things, do we? A variety of patterns break the monotony. Dotted cows, striped fishes… a poet sung them. This is why I chose the three-stranded bracelet with its labyrinthine morphology. A miniature landscape dangling against her skin.

Later on, I asked by phone if she was wearing it. Always, she answered. Always, and it made her think of me, as I wished it would.


I have trained for blindness since a tender age. Now don’t ask why. I only know I did it systematically, with great pleasure and no fear attached. I assumed I would go blind at some point—necessarily. No idea where my certainty came from. It implied no apprehension, no fear. Did I think all would lose their sight with age? Maybe not. No examples were among my relatives, and when I started my drilling I knew no one else. Going blind just seemed a likely occurrence, that wouldn’t find me unprepared.

I did everything with my eyes closed, possibly without adults witnessing. Supervising. I could profit from adult distraction as well: I don’t think anyone guessed my game, even when performed under their nose. What I most liked was blindly proceeding in the street, on the sidewalk… My plan was to dare crossing but I never realized it. Probably, while I worked my way to the goal I grew out of my irrational passion. I remember taking bets with myself about stopping dead at the curb’s edge. Out of my front door, a quick glance estimated the length of it. Then I shut my eyelids, relying on my rapid appreciation, and on lots of signals my body provided. I enjoyed a sense of inner balance, and the way the glimpsed-at space translated into rhythm and pulse. When I thought I had arrived I stopped, briskly, and I opened my eyes: pretty much on target each time. It is easier than it seems. And I smiled. When the moment would come I’d be fine.

In adult age the temptation returned, as a compulsive wish of closing my eyes at the wheel. I had to employ all of my common sense to win over my impulse. If ever gave in I shall not confess.

I was haunted by a dream. In my car, alone, I engaged on the ramp of a busy freeway, in mad traffic, vehicles dashing around me. And I went blind. Well, I can’t be sure—in the dream all blackened out, diving into obscurity. But a feeling of hope promptly succored me. I would make it. Driving in the dark would be possible. I would not die.

Waking up was doubtlessly a release. My nightmares ceased at some point.


She has asked to go for a walk. I have been glad to comply, soon realizing how approximate a guide I am, though I’m trying my best. Steading her is easy—she steadies herself. She knows how to use the forearm I let her grab as she likes. Steering her through narrow streets, crowded with people and encumbered with double-parked cars, motorbikes, other paraphernalia, demands all of my attention. It is feasible, though. I sweat it but I keep on task. Surprisingly, the hardest thing is to signal beginnings and ends of sidewalks. Either I miss to cue her or I’m off: too early, too late. I cause her to trip for the unexpected chasm, or instead lift her foot in a void. I can’t explain my incapacity if not by excess worry—I can’t handle the complexity of my accompanying role.

Yet we laugh about it. Good humor, tranquility, and trust, help me hone my skills as quickly as possible. En passant, she points at her need to know if the next step will be up or down. I had supposed it evidence. If we lowered from a curb for crossing, soon we will climb another curb. Not so linear indeed. Streets in an old town can be illogical. Saying ‘up’ and ‘down’ is necessary, she insists. I try. I’m astonished about how often I mismatch these two simple words.

She consoles me. She reminds her late mother, who has accompanied her daily for decades. In the end her mother would say ‘up’ five times in a row, she tells me. A joke? No. Her mom went on automatic pilot, too tired of the routine for even thinking. But she didn’t fret: mom wouldn’t let her fall.

A professional guide—a foreigner—used to say ‘over’ and ‘under’ instead than ‘up’ and ‘down’, causing her to go hysterical.  Though she bent over laughing, the accompanist never changed terms. I started over-and-undering on my turn, or I switched ‘up’ for ‘down’ with a giggle. She enjoyed the humor while keeping her balance. My apprehension faded out.


My mom isn’t too old and she doesn’t have signs of dementia, but anxiety can entirely erase her short-term memory, these days, with appalling results. For a whole morning I have taught her how to operate a boom box, to unable her listening of music. The required sequence of actions is elementary on this outdated machine, still she can’t retain it. Probably she doesn’t want to, enjoying both helplessness and some dramatization.

But to sit down, put a cd on, close her eyes, surrender to sound, is vital for her. She must be capable of it when alone. So we insist. I write down the steps with a large marker, on a sign I hang close to the machine. I number buttons, color-code them with tape, make sure to match them with my instructions. I also write on the boom box itself. All is made very clear and Mother is smart. Used to.

We practice for hours, till exhaustion: hers, for sure. Mine too. While her eyes switch from sign to machine anything mom has read is gone. She stares blankly at the buttons. Her expression, both ashamed and imploring, empty and tense, frightens me. She goes back and forth between the page and the appliance, her motion constellated—alas—with small pauses of stillness: whirlpools where information sinks. Those tiny hesitations, instants of discontinuity, might be the problem. I wish she’d put more enthusiasm in her doing, I wish she didn’t stop. But, then, what do I know.

I stay back, calmly repeating instructions. Suggestions. I know Mother can do it. She is smart. Used to be. She heroically manages once—the operation takes about half hour. We start over to confirm the lesson was learned. She stares blankly at the page, blankly at the machine. All has been swept away. She has retained nothing.


Our walk—she explains—has a purpose. We’ll go drink a cup of coffee in a bar. Good idea. Which bar? She has no preference. Her tiredness will decide. We will find a bar when she will be tired of walking.

She wants to sit outside: it is noisy and confused but lively. She would like a pastry as well… we are facing the display and I feel clumsy. I’m about to ask: “Which one do you want?” suddenly aware my question is off. But I have already pronounced it. “I don’t know”—there is laughter in her tone—“you choose. Something not too dry, please.”

Outside we manage our coffees, glasses of water, and the pastry, on an infinitesimal table—also crowded with napkins holders, large menus, ashtrays. Juggling is quite hard and it goes with generous spilling. She seems used to the mess. I keep sponging around while I monitor the state of her pastry—filling oscillating on edge, ready to tip over.

She eats most of it. She puts down the last quarter with a quiet “I am full”. Suddenly, the realization strikes me of the gift she just gave me. I know what anorexia is. I don’t know if blindness-caused, blindness-complicated anorexia is different from the regular one. I doubt it. I know this expedition to a bar, those sweet bites consumed in my presence, are the highest honor I could be presented with. The highest token of trust—undeserved, since I make such a piteous guide. But I have received it.

For an instant emotion overwhelms me. Enough for missing a texting lady, head down, armored with fur and a bulging purse. A collision—not too catastrophic—occurs. I apologize. “She was on her cellphone,” I unnecessarily add. I was not. “Do not worry,” she laughs, “it is normal. When they have eyes, they don’t see. When they have them, they can afford not to use them.”

While we cross yet another street, she tells me: “I stopped seeing the difference between night and day about a year ago. What a relief!” I had never known she perceived it… Now I am curious: “How was it?” “Just the slightest thing. A shade, indefinable. It is finally gone, thank god.” “Why?” “It was very disturbing. It was painful, can’t you figure?”

I can’t.

“It made it much harder to concentrate,” she says. Listen to music. To people. Focus on a conversation. Think it over. Remember. Understand. “Life is more linear, now. Clearer, calmer, more beautiful. Things are easier.”

“I am happier: sight can be so distracting… too distracting.”

I know.


Author’s Statement on Beauty

I wrote down my first reflections on beauty, long ago, while reviewing an installation by French artist Sophie Calle. She had asked a number of blind subjects what beauty meant to them, then placed their statements besides loosely related photographs. The exhibit so intrigued me I went back a number of times—reading, watching, reading again. All such pondering produced two conclusions. One—the concept of a beauty compounded, multi-sensorial, multi shaped. Sound of the wind, motion of the grass, smell of the sea, memories of childhood—interwoven, juxtaposed, polyphonic. Two—the irresistible need of capturing the epiphany of beauty. Keeping a reminder, a proof. A postcard. A picture, even invisible.

When I wrote “Beauty and the Blind”, Saint Thomas Aquinas’ definition came to mind. No idea how and when I had heard it—it popped up like a nursery rhyme. Thomas lists the components of beauty as integritas, proportio, claritas. I like the trio, though—being not much of a thinker—I’m sure I interpret each term in a most unorthodox manner.

To me Thomas’ proportio suggests beauty is made of parts. Bits and pieces, found objects, scraps, remains you lift from the floor, collect, dust off, repair. Then you mix them, delicately sew, glue, polish, repurpose. They can be anything. It doesn’t matter, since it all depends on how patiently—how curiously—you puzzle them up. You have to weave them until they become one.

They become integritas. This word evokes completion—the patience of finishing, which is the point of art. It means staying with the thing you are making until it detaches itself from the mold, ready to stand alone. Until it separates from you to live its own life.

Claritas, my favorite, translates as splendor. I’ve been asking myself what it truly means. What distinguishes splendor, for instance, from shine, brilliance, or brightness. I think it relates with contours. Not with borders or limitations, but with margins, edges, skin, surfaces. Take a step back. It’s about how the thing you have made detaches itself.

Splendor, if you look at something, is the infinitesimal halo separating it from the background. The invisible frame, soft, mobile, but perfectly traced. You don’t need to see it, of course. You can hear it, touch it, just sense it.

The beginning and end of experience. How a moment, a thought, a face, or a phrase, are appraised, understood, lived, remembered.

The opposite of chaos.

The work of attention.


Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Entropy, Bindweed, The Courtship of Winds, and Pilcrow & Dagger, among other journals and anthologies. More at