We were sitting on a bench in front of the hospital, waiting for the bus. Every once in a while the breeze would rustle the green leaves above us.
"Sometimes you can't hear anything at all?" I asked him.
"That's right," my cousin answered. "I can't hear a thing."
"What does that feel like?"
He tilted his head to one side and thought about it. "All of a sudden you can't hear anything. But it takes a while before you realize what's happened. By then you can't hear a thing. It's like you're at the bottom of the sea wearing earplugs. That continues for a while. All the time you can't hear a thing, but it's not just your ears. Not being able to hear anything is just part of it."
"Does it bother you?"
He shook his head, a short, definite shake. "I don't know why, but it doesn't bother me that much. It is inconvenient, though. Not being able to hear anything."
I tried to picture it, but the image wouldn't come.
"Did you ever see John Ford's movie Fort Apache?" my cousin asked.
"A long time ago," I said.
"It was on TV recently. It's really a good movie."
"Um," I affirmed.
"In the beginning of the movie there's this new colonel who's come to a fort out west. A veteran captain comes out to meet him when he arrives. The captain's played by John Wayne. The colonel doesn't know much about what things are like in the west. And there's an Indian uprising all around the fort."
My cousin took a neatly folded white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his mouth.
"Once he gets to the fort the colonel turns to John Wayne and says, âI did see a few Indians on the way over here.' And John Wayne, with this cool look on his face, replies, âDon't worry. If you were able to spot some Indians, that means there aren't any there.' I don't remember the actual lines, but it went something like that. Do you get what he means?"
I couldn't recall any lines like that from Fort Apache. It struck me as a little abstruse for a John Ford movie. But it had been a while since I'd seen the film.
"I think it means that what can be seen by anybody isn't all that important . . . I guess."
My cousin frowned. "I don't really get it either, but every time somebody sympathizes with me about my ears that line comes to me. âIf you were able to spot some Indians, that means there aren't any there.' "
"Is that strange?" my cousin asked.
"Yep," I laughed. And he laughed. It'd been a long time since I'd seen him laugh.
After a while my cousin said, like he was unburdening himself, "Would you look inside my ears for me?"
"Look inside your ears?" I asked, a little surprised.
"Just what you can see from the outside."
"Okay, but why do you want me to do that?"
"I don't know," my cousin blushed. "I just want you to see what they look like."
"Okay," I said. "I'll give it a whirl."
My cousin sat facing away from me, tilting his right ear toward me. He had a really nicely shaped ear. It was on the small side, but the earlobe was all puffy, like a freshly baked madeleine. I'd never looked at anybody's ear so intently before. Once you start observing it closely, the human ear-its structure-is a pretty mysterious thing. With all these absurd twists and turns to it, bumps and depressions. Maybe evolution determined this weird shape was the optimum way to collect sounds, or to protect what's inside. Surrounded by this asymmetrical wall, the hole of the ear gapes open like the entrance to a dark, secret cave.
I pictured my friend's girlfriend, microscopic flies nesting in her ear. Sweet pollen stuck to their tiny legs, they burrow into the warm darkness inside her, sucking up all the juices, laying tiny eggs inside her brain. But you can't see them, or even hear the sound of their wings.
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