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Joe Allen Artz


Through Two Mind’s Eyes

I was born with two mind’s eyes.  Looking, say, at this saguaro cactus, I see not one but two, side by side with a slight gap between.  This is not double vision. My brain simply shows me what each eye sees; does not merge them into one. The two images are flat as paintings, but the one in my left mind’s eye sees a bit farther around the cactus’s left side, and my right one sees a bit farther around the right. From subtle clues of perspective, light, and shadow, my brain readily and congenitally discerns the cylindrical shape of the trunk, its uplifted arms, and the landscape spreading for miles around it.

I say “congenital” because my mother was also born with two mind’s eyes. I learned this at age seven. Crossing the village square, hand in hand with my parents. I stopped to look up at the cathedral’s gold cross, glaring like a second sun in the pale desert sky.

“Which steeple is tallest?” I asked, shading my eyes.

My father said, “There’s only one.”

“They’re both the same height,” said my mother.

I can see stereoscopically, if I choose. By crossing my physical eyes, I can draw together the images in my two mind’s eyes until they snap into one. The effect is terrifying. My field of vision expands in all directions. Close things, like this saguaro, leap toward me, distant things rush away. The saguaro stands forth, vividly cylindrical, deeply fluted, its spines menacing in all directions, its four arms yearning toward an unattainable sky. Those mountains, an instant ago in easy sight, are now unreachable, separated from the cactus and I by a vast, rock-strewn plain that was formally nothing but a narrow strip across the bottom. I cross my eyes only in situations of risk, curiosity, or need.

My mother crossed her eyes to thread needles. When I asked why, she handed me needle and thread and suggested I try without crossing my eyes. I could not.

“Now cross your eyes. Don’t be afraid. See? Sometimes, single-minded vision is useful.”

“How can the others stand it? All the time, seeing life in so many dimensions?”

“They adjust,” she said. “It’s why they keep things so simple.”

Except for my mother, my fellow villagers found the world far too complex to comprehend, so they took refuge in small talk, simple games, rote tasks, one liturgy in a foreign tongue: things requiring no deep perception, requiring only one mind’s eye.

In my teens, I taught myself the skills I would need to survive alone in the desert and at seventeen, fled. Several years I wandered a vast solitude teaming with hidden and not so hidden life, life with defenses strong and visible, defeating thirst and hunger by complex strategies combining tissue, behavior, and genes. Strongest of all were the tall saguaros, spread across the desert, among its plants and animals like silent shepards and patient providers. Their flowers, though small, gave nectar to insects and seeds to bird and lizards. Hawks built nests in the crooks between arms and trunks.



Tired of wandering, I become enamored of one particular saguaro because of the tiny owl I spy nesting in a cavity hollowed from the trunk. It peers at me from the round entrance with wide-spaced, scintillescent eyes. Unexpectedly, it crosses its eyes, as if to focus on me better. A distance away, I build a sturdy hut of brush and branches, covered with mule deer hides. I spend most of my days watching the owl come and go through the round hole.

Now middle aged, my vision is changing. My mind’s eyes see the same scene but in two versions. My left eye, for example, sees the little owl peering from its nest, but in the right eye, it flies away, returning with a lizard in its beak, and vanishes through the hole to a cacophony of hungry owlet voices. Then the left eye sees the owl return with a mouse. Then the two images of alternate times merge into a single present. Day after day, I watch the same owl living in the same cactus doing different things at the same time. The same owl, living different lives in an an identical span of time.

Once my eyes adjust to this new pattern, I learn I have the power to choose between the two versions of time. Coming from my hut, I see in both minds’ eyes a snake ascending the cactus, sliding beneath the spines, its long body pressed into the U-shaped vertical grooves that flute the trunk like a Corinthian column. The mother is away. As the snake’s head approaches the opening, the owlets begin shrilling in fear. As I break into a run toward the cactus, intending to grab the snake by its tail and fling it as far as I can into the surrounding rabbit brush, the images change. In my right eye, the snake’s head enters the hole and I hear an owlet silenced, then another, but my left eye a large hawk swoops from the sky, snatches the snake in its talons, and flaps away. I throw myself toward that image, leaving the other behind. Both minds’ eyes watch the hawk disappear across the desert, the snake writhing in its grasp, as the mother owl returns to find all its babies safe.

My eyes continue to show me two choices at opportune times. My left eye shows the boiling pot spilling; the right shows me backing away. I choose the right and am saved a scalding burn. As a rattlesnake strikes, my right eye shows it aimed at my ankle; my left shows its opened mouth shooting toward my calf. I choose the left image, and the fangs strike the thick leather of my boot, not the flesh a few inches higher. In one eye, the jackrabbit in my snare is lean, in the other, it is fat.  At the sound of thunder, I step from my hut to see towering black clouds, not far off, dumping solid sheets of rain across the parched desert floor. Back inside, one eye shows me returning to bed. In the other I pull on my clothes and frantically roll up my blanket. I move into that image, gather up the rest of my possession and run for higher ground. An hour later, a muddy, foamy torrent rushes down the arroyo, overtops its banks, washes away my hut.

Floods occur more often these days.  Summer storms heavier than any I’ve experienced unleash flash floods In winter, snow falls thicker and lasts longer on the desert and the far off mountains. Come spring, the melt courses for weeks through every gulch, arroyo, and wash, each year toppling stream banks on either side, gouging deeper the stream beds. Year on year, floods bear away muddy tons of desert floor, with its abundant life, including hundreds of saguaros. One day, it occurs to me, my saguaro will soon suffer their fate.

With this thought, the saguaro fades from my mind’s eyes, replaced by a pine tree at the rim of a vast canyonland of bottomless gorges separated by knife-sharp ridges. I know I have moved not just in time but also space: the horizon is a sawtoothed maw of mountains unfamiliar to me. I stand on a long, narrow ridge, with canyons in all directions. I feel infinitely small, a sensation I never felt in the desert, where I stood equal, in my minds’ eyes, to saguaros far taller than me.

Am I the equal of a pine tree? The tree fades from my mind’s eyes, replaced by a semicircular grated-metal platform, projecting over the canyon rim but supported by strong, cross-braced girders. A girl stands on the platform, leaning on the railing. She stares intently into the distance, unaware of my materialization. Following her gaze, I see a town of black, warty buildings, not far away down the ridge on which I stand. Tall stacks roil black smoke into  the smudgy sky.

The girl turns to the rail, looking down into the abyss. In one eye, she clambers the rails and throws herself over, plummeting wordlessly. The girl in the other eye has not moved.

“Don’t jump,” I shout, stepping into that image.

Startled, she turns. Her face is despairing but fearless. She stands swiveling her head side to side, as if choosing between me and another at my side, invisible to me. She focuses on me, crosses and uncrosses her eyes then steps in my direction.

“Give me a reason not to,” she says, jutting her chin.

“Because you can travel much farther from that town than you have,” I gesture in the direction of the sky-fouling settlement.

She gestures in the opposite direction. “There’s nothing beyond here but canyonlands.”

“They can’t go on forever,” I say, and strain my eyes down the long ridge on which we stand, trying to see as far from the town to our backs as possible. I make out a tiny spike, centered on the ridge, at the limits of my vision. Crossing my eyes, I see it is a saguaro. I imagine, for I could not possibly see, the minute dot of a small owl flying around it.

“Can you see that cactus, far down the ridge?” She gazes, shading her eyes. “You may have to cross them,” I say.

She shoots me a sideways glance, wary but not alarmed, then pulls her eyes inward toward the bridge of her nose.

“There’s something tall” she says, uncrossing. “What’s a cactus?”

“A plant that grows in deserts. That particular cactus is a saguaro.”

“There is a desert there?” Her eyes are a quiz and all depends on my answer, because her eyes shift left, then right, as if considering two choices.

“The saguaro never grows alone,” I say. “There are always others. If we follow this ridge, we will come to a broad desert, beyond the canyons.”

“I’ve dreamed of deserts,” she says, her focus on me.

“Travel with me,” I say. “Maybe we will find a village where people will accept you as you are, as one of them.”

She steps toward me, reaching for my hand. 

“I’ll go with you,” she says. “Both of you.”

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Joe Allen Artz is an archaeologist when his hands are dirty and writes fiction when they are clean. His short stories have appeared in the Wapsipinicon Almanac, Daily Palette, and Every Day Fiction.  He belongs to the Gray Hawk Memoir Writers, which meets fortnightly in Iowa City, Iowa

All Responses:

Respond to a Prompt:

Submit your response to our current prompt(s). See our Submissions Guidelines page for details.

Joe Allen Artz is an archaeologist when his hands are dirty and writes fiction when they are clean. His short stories have appeared in the Wapsipinicon Almanac, Daily Palette, and Every Day Fiction.  He belongs to the Gray Hawk Memoir Writers, which meets fortnightly in Iowa City, Iowa