He turned from her to me. “Tell me, what’s heavier—a kilo of iron or a kilo of wool?”
I felt myself growing tense, I was sure it was a trick question, but before I could stop to think it through, I had blurted out, “Iron.”
“Think again,” he said, with a smirk. “Think again, my boy. One kilo of a heavy substance is the same weight as one kilo of a light substance.” He tapped my head with his ruler and said, “Can’t be weak everywhere, eh? If the body’s weak, the mind must be made stronger!” I must focus on developing my mind by learning chess, he said. “Alekhine, Tarrasch, Capablanca! Great minds in ailing bodies, all of them.”
I did not know who these chess masters were, nor if they had ailing bodies. I could only nod and search for an escape route, but my mother made sure this uncle never came to stay again. “Myshkin has chicken pox; Banno’s son has measles; the khansama seems to have cholera. One can’t be too careful,” she would write back if there was a letter from him announcing a visit. She made sure the excuse was a long-winded, contagious illness and if anyone pointed out that a string of infectious diseases with a doctor in the family was hardly believable, she would say the more patently false the excuse, the more obvious the truth.
My pet name was Myshkin, and unlike boyhood names which fade into distant memory along with the people who used them, this one stuck. My grandfather gave me that name because of my convulsions—like the epileptic prince in a book by Dostoevsky, Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, Dada told me.
As I grew older, the fevers and convulsions came less often. It was not epilepsy, it turned out. For a few weeks, then months, and then a whole year, there were none. After the second calm year my grandfather stopped pushing thermometers into my mouth at the slightest hint of fatigue in me and relatives no longer suggested quacks who had cured a second cousin twice removed with magic potions to be swallowed on the night of a new moon. After the third year, the fits became a story from my past, although they are in my present: the illness permanently ruined my eyesight. From when I was six I had to have glasses that grew thicker every year. Without my glasses the world became a painting of the kind my mother copied at times: dabs of color against other dabs of color adding up to a sense of a lake with a boat or water lilies in a pond.
Sometimes I take my glasses off to see differently from other people. Colors and words swim into each other, meanings change on the page. In the distance, everything becomes a pastel blur. There is a kind of restfulness in not seeing well that the clear-sighted will never know.