Any Number of Eyes

“We should plant the potatoes this week. What’s your schedule?” The energy in my dad’s voice at the prospect belays the uncharacteristic April chill.

“I work Thursday night and Friday morning. I want to help, but if you just can’t wait, then don’t wait.” My reply is matter of fact. The sense of urgency I held in prior years to learn how to plant a garden has lessened in the third year of following his lead.

Still, he waits.

On Thursday afternoon I tie up my dog and try to ignore his deep stare, looking into the holes my dad dug instead. He fumbles in his pocket for the knife to cut the seed potatoes apart. “Just keep as many of the eyes as you can.”

I follow along behind cutting and dropping. He digs ahead of me. Turns back and forgets he already asked, “Are you cutting them?”

I smile, “Please. At least I know that much.” I feel the knife and dirty foam from the sliced potato and then the cramp in my hand from years before as I noted every movement my dad made. Why bother writing about gardening again with the same level of detail as years before?

“Alphabetical order. Two rows each. Kennebec. Pontiac. Yukon.”

“I still have some left.” “How many?”

“Four.”

“Well I guess we can have three rows.”

“Why not? What difference does it make? It won’t be like the squash seeds I mixed together.”

It hadn’t made a difference except for paying attention to which vegetable I wanted to pick once their skin had filled out with flesh in the summer heat. Yet somehow, in the muted skin colors, as if dirty but not, I am seeing the same thing, differently. So too was my experience with the following books.

The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham is the formerly reported story of identical twin brothers who build their lives in California after escaping violence in their native country of El Salvador. The book follows the struggle of an underrepresented narrative of an overwhelming majority of immigrants, unaccompanied minors, who must navigate school, language, family, immigration court and coyote debt.

Which eyes did I cut apart? Which eyes became roots? The enormity of the story told in the numbers. The gravity of the story told in the common.

The Boat People by Sharon Bala is a novel about a group of refugees who survive an ocean voyage from war torn Sri Lanka to Canada only to face the threat of deportation amid accusations of terrorism. The group is kept in a detention processing center, while government officials and citizens debate the men, women and children as possible threats to Canada's national security. The novel is told through the alternating perspectives of Mahindan; his lawyer, Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan Canadian who reluctantly represents the refugees; and Grace, a third-generation Japanese Canadian adjudicator who must decide each individual's fate.

Which eyes did I cut apart? Which eyes became roots? The evil and innocence, the weakness and strength, the rigidity and flexibility of each character set against the other.

The Lost Letter by Jillian Cantor is set in Austria, 1938. Kristoff is a young apprentice to a master Jewish stamp engraver. Kristoff has no choice but engrave stamps for the Germans, but he works secretly with Elena, his disappeared teacher’s daughter connected to the Austrian resistance. As the situation degrades, escape looms as the next challenge in which to use their forged papers. This story alternates its telling with Katie Nelson in Los Angeles, 1989. She discovers her father’s stamp collection with an unusual World War II stamp placed on an old love letter. Katie must connect both the stamp and her own story to their pasts.

Which eyes did I cut apart? Which eyes became roots? The “victim” is an advocate and determined agent for change who saves her self-determined savior and to continue her life instead of dying as a martyr.

Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story by Nomavenda Mathiane is a retelling of her grandmother’s story, daughter of a Zulu king. While the historical context is the young woman’s survival of the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War between the British and Zulu, the narrative is one of the give and take of identity when the only choices are not the best choices, yet they are opportunities to continue to live.

Which eyes did I cut apart? Which eyes became roots? The storyteller understands that the story is hers and isn’t. She is both in awe, awkward and unapologetic for the evolution of the protagonist’s choices.

Quiet Until the Thaw by Alexandra Fuller is set on the Lakota Oglala Sioux Nation in South Dakota and follows two Native American cousins, Rick Overlooking Horse and You Choose Watson. The men share blood and land, but not direction nor interpretation of their historical and current heritage. You Choose serves time in prison while Rick raises twin baby boys, orphaned at birth, who he immerses in their ancestry. Theirs is a life disrupted by the release of You Choose and his return to the reservation. .

Which eyes did I cut apart? Which eyes became roots? The names and mirrors are given, but our reflection is still our own choosing.

I rub the pad of my fingers over the eyes. I try not to split any apart. Seed potatoes don’t look distinct from other potatoes, but their destiny is to be divided into roots that grow in different directions.

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