Tall, slender, dark
smooth skin, and those eyes! Clear, glittering, the iris that
looked like crystal. Those unearthly eyes were what made Anyango
a super-model. They flashed above jewelry by Cartier, above
perfumes by Xikain, above lipsticks by ReFactor, and today,
above a small snow-leopard cub for a wildlife conservation
Anyango hadn’t been
there when her family was killed, back in Nairobi, near the
stadium where the marabou storks roost in the roadside trees.
Instead, the death-scene played itself out before her mind’s
eye in a thousand variations, in clips from television news,
from videogames, from action films. The tire marks where the
red car careened out of control, crashed into a wall. The blood.
The slumped bodies of her mother and father and little brother.
The rush to the hospital, the frantic doctors who could do
nothing. What she remembered was the gasp when her Aunt Mary
took the phone, her scream, her words as she came over to Anyango
who sat on the sofa, looking up startled from her Gameboy. “Oh,
Anyango was too
frozen to respond. She stared at her Gameboy, pushing the same
buttons over and over, her mind stopped. And the next day,
Aunt Mary had screamed again. “Your eyes…Anyango, what happened
to your eyes?”
It seemed strangely
appropriate that the eyes she saw in the mirror were not the
familiar dark brown, almost black irises. They glittered instead,
like ice chips or diamonds shining where the light caught them.
Anyango had not cried then or since.
pit had opened in her life where before there had been sunny
savannah. Sometimes she dreamed about her family. She awoke
a couple of times to Aunt Mary hovering worriedly above her.
She looked at Anyango’s blankly glittering eyes. “Oh, baby…” she
and Aunt Mary left Kenya, moved to America. Aunt Mary got a
job with the Refugee Reception Center, dealing with people
as baffled as she had been by this new world. When she managed
to scrape together some money, there had been doctors’ visits
for Anyango. The ophthalmologist sent her on to a series of
specialists. Someone at UCLA got a paper out of it, a 19 year-old
African female presenting with unusual crystalline structures
contained in both orbits, no apparent effect on vision. No
one could explain how the 32 degree Fahrenheit melting point
of ice was compatible with the 98.6 degree temperature of the
human body. No one tried. After a while, Anyango refused to
see any other doctors. The diagnosis was idiopathic ocular
It didn’t usually
affect her eye-sight, but when it was hot, Anyango sometimes
felt her vision blur, and a ripple of panic. She took to wearing
dark glasses all the time, even indoors. She told people she
had sensitive eyes. Maybe they thought she was being cool.
Boys in baggy pants with silver chains around their necks tried
to befriend her, but their talk of gangstas and hos and bitches
annoyed her. She finished community college, and went to work
for a storage company, a climate-controlled environment where
they stored furs and other delicate and valuable things for
the rich and famous and couldn’t-be-bothered.
In Cold Safe’s office,
out of the heat of the Californian summer, she felt protected
by the gusts of cool air whenever she opened a storage locker.
Sometimes she even took off her specs, put them down on the
desk. They were very dark. She had bought progressively darker
ones as her fears had grown. Now, she could barely see through
them except in full daylight. She carried an extra pair for
The doorbell rang
unexpectedly. Clients usually called in advance to set up an
appointment. Startled, she leaned forward to buzz the visitor
in. Her glasses fell off.
“Fuck!” They were
broken. She picked them up as the client entered. “Oh, sorry,
“Max,” he said automatically. “Call
me Max. I was on my way to the studio and thought I could drop
this off…” He was carrying supermodel Sheliya’s fur coat for
storage. As Anyango looked up at him, he stopped short.
“Anyango! Your eyes!
You have simply amazing eyes! Why do you always cover them?”
“Thanks, Max,” she
said with a courteous smile. “They’re sensitive. I just broke
my glasses. Shall I take that fur?”
But he wouldn’t
let the topic go. He invited her out for a drink. She politely
refused. He suggested coffee instead. He called her home and
spoke with Aunt Mary. Ten days later, he signed her with his
agency, and Anyango said goodbye to Cold Safe.
They were very careful.
Anyango removed her glasses only for the actual shoot. The
hot lights were focused on a substitute, and Anyango stepped
into them at the last minute. Max ordered even darker glasses
for these sessions, so dark that Anyango could not see anything
at all except when under the lights. When she removed them
for the shot, the dazzle glittered off her ice and gave her
a brilliant dazed expression that became her trademark.
Other agencies and
models tried to copy the effect with contact lenses, with digitally
altered images, even with surgery. Nothing was exactly the
same and Anyango remained unique. Max added no one else to
his Agency list, and let his other clients go. Anyango seemed
never to go out of style, never suffer from over-exposure.
Her eyes were likened to diamonds. Her dark skin shrugged off
the abuse of the hot lights and the passage of time. She was
and frozen. It seemed to Anyango that she saw no-one but Max
and various camera crews, occasional marketing directors, a
rival model or two, that she was alive only before the cameras.
She had never been very good at making friends, not since Nairobi,
not since the sparrow chatter of schoolgirls who did not know
that Fate could swoop on them like a falcon. These days, the
mystique of her super-model status seemed as much a barrier
as her permanent dark glasses.
People had been
good to her, and she was grateful. People like Aunt Mary, people
like Max, people like some of her professors, even people like
George Blair at Cold Safe. As a substitute for warmth, she
practiced what she learned to call, in this America, random
acts of kindness. A gift here, a note there, a new house of
Aunt Mary’s choosing. It kept her tenuously connected to the
Max, Aunt Mary told
her, might be interested in more than a professional relationship.
“He let all his
other models go to rival agencies, girl,” said her Aunt Mary. “That
man is not hedging his bets. He goes out of his way to be nice
to me, like I was family to him. A man does that for the future
in-laws. I thought he would ask you out.”
“He did, a few times,
but I was too tired. My eyes are sensitive.”
Today’s shoot was
for Fauna Friend, a wildlife group. Anyango had waived her
fees. Conservation was a cause important to her.
The session had
gone on much longer than usual. She was tired. The snow-leopard
cub had gone past curiosity, into playfulness, fallen into
a nap, and awoken curious again. It had gotten away from its
trainer a couple of times. She fondled the animal as it lay
in her lap. It seemed about to curl up for another nap. It
was really a delightful little creature. Her eyes closed to
protect them from the glare of the lights, her mind drifted
back to Kenya.
Instead of the endless
variations on violent death, she recalled other cubs, lion
cubs back in the savannah, where zebra grazed as casually as
cattle in the Rift Valley. Clusters of shy giraffe stalking
about the acacia-spotted plains. The protective mother elephant
whose baby was always guided to the off-side, away from the
vehicles and staring human eyes. Flying gazelles, and waterbuck
and bunny-sized dik-diks that looked like plush toy deer. That
had been their last trip together, just a few hours from Nairobi.
The day they were leaving, they had come on the pride of lion
lazing in the shade of a bush, two small cubs about the size
of this one in her lap, playing with their mother’s tail. The
animals ignored their car with the air of bored celebrities.
It was a long time
since she had thought of it, thought of her family in any way
but the car crash. Tears welled up in Anyango’s eyes. She quickly
suppressed them, fearing what they might mean.
“One more shot
and we’re done!”
She shook her head
to clear it, then picked up the purring cub, held him under
her chin, and stepped into the lights. Max removed her glasses,
she opened her eyes, there was a click. She closed her eyes
and Max put her glasses back on for her. She cradled the sleepy
animal. The lighting tech killed the lights. With her dark
glasses, she could see nothing. Max rushed to her elbow.
“Here, give the
little guy over here.” He took hold of the animal to return
it to its handler. “Ready?” he asked.
But before she could
say anything, the cameraman exclaimed, “Oh, shit! Shit shit
Ten pairs of eyes
turned to him.
wrong! Nothing’s come out.”
A technician hurried
over and fiddled with the camera. “Nothing much,” he said dismissively. “It
needs a new chip. This one’s worn. I told you to replace it
“But you never gave
me one. It’s your job to keep the spares.”
“You should have
The Director took
charge. “Stop squabbling, you two. Crew, stay where you are.
Sorry, folks, we’re going to do this over. Jen, bring Fluffles
to the make-up counter, let’s give him a quick brush. Max and
Anyango, stand by. Shanika, we probably won’t need to adjust
the lighting again, but stand by anyway.”
“Max, I can’t,” Anyango
whispered. “It’s taken too long. We’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
The Fauna Friend
president, watching the whole process anxiously, overheard
and shook her head. “Anyango, please? We don’t have the budget
to rent the studio and the leopard and the crew again. We’re
grateful, really grateful, that you’re waiving your fees. But
if we don’t do it now, we can’t do it at all.”
“I wish I could,
but I can’t,” said Anyango. “I have sensitive eyes.”
The president sounded
ready to cry. “We’ve spent a big chunk of our budget on hiring
this outfit,” she said. “We can’t come back. We’d have to pay
for it all again. And if we don’t have the shots, it will all
“I’m sorry,” said
Max brusquely. “Anyango supports your cause. But she can’t
do another shoot now.”
“It’s not just paying
the studio,” said the woman. “This was the only day they had
available this month. You don’t know what it took to pull this
whole thing together on a small budget. The commercial is due
to run early next month. We already paid for the space.”
“I’m sorry,” said
“Wait,” said Anyango.
She turned to where she heard the photographer still arguing
with the technician. “How long will you need to retake it now?”
is already set up,” he said. “We can do this in 20 minutes.”
“Let’s do it, then.”
Max looked dubious. “Anyango,
it’s okay if we don’t. The contract specifies…”
“I know,” said Anyango. “But
it’s only 20 minutes. They can’t afford to come back.”
“You’ll do it then?” said
the president. She sounded jubilant. “Anyango, thank you!”
There was a whirl
of activity as everyone took their positions. Fluffles allowed
himself to be brushed and carried back to Anyango. She stepped
into the light again. Suddenly, the cub raised a paw and batted
her glasses off.
“Fuck!” she exclaimed,
and bent over to pick them up. The cub scrambled out of her
arms and escaped. Jen ran to intercept him as he scampered
amidst the equipment. Too hot, too bright, thought Anyango,
and she stepped quickly out of the lights. Even with her eyes
shut, the glare was considerable. She raised her lids for a
second, and realized her vision was blurring. She covered her
eyes with her hand. Someone retrieved the glasses for her,
but the lenses had popped out of the frame.
“That damn fool
optician !” swore Max. “I told him unbreakable.”
“My outdoor specs
are in my bag,” Anyango said.
Jen captured Fluffles
and brought him over. Everything was made ready for the camera
again, and Anyango positioned the wriggling little animal under
her chin. The photographer took a succession of shots. Anyango
could feel her eyes beginning to burn.
As soon as the director
said “Okay, that’s it,” she handed Fluffles to Jen and turned
to Max for the spare glasses. Max was right there, holding
her bag, a large leather bucket full of impedimenta. She reached
in, feeling around for her shades. Her eyes felt as though
they were on fire. She put on the specs, and stumbled out.
Max put his arm
around her, guiding her. His face was very close to hers. She
could feel his warmth, and leaned into it.
“Come on, Anyango,
I’ll take you home. Careful, there’s a step.”
It was cool and
dark in his car. He had put in little curtains on the windows.
“My eyes, they really
hurt. Did I overdo it?”
“Let’s get you home.” His
tone was concerned, protective.
“I can’t go home
like this; Aunt Mary will worry terribly…”
“To my place, then.
And a doctor if needed.”
“Doctors,” she said
bitterly. “What do they know?” She kept her eyes closed under
The car stopped.
Max came around and helped her out of the vehicle and in through
the door of his house. He had his arms around her.
“Let me look,” he
said. She put her face up for him to see her eyes, but kept
them shut. He blew gently on her closed eyelids. “Let me look,
His voice was tender
with suppressed worry. Impulsively, despite the burning, she
pulled his face to hers, and kissed him on the mouth, hard.
Even as she did so, it seemed the pain lessened. Eyes still
closed, she moved back until she felt the couch behind her.
She sat, drawing him down with her.
“Shh.” Her hands
were fumbling around his collar now, down his shirt front.
She put her hands behind his head, and pulled it toward her,
and kissed him again. All the while, she kept her eyes tight
shut. The pain was definitely ebbing. Her hands went to his
“Anyango, are you
“Come on, Max,” she
said impatiently, and at last he put his hands over hers, helping
still dared not open her eyes, though she longed to look at
Max. They no longer hurt, but were they well? She had to know
but feared to find out.
“Max. Do you think
He took her face
in his hands. “Open your eyes, Anyango,” he said. She could
hear apprehension in his voice. What would he find underneath
She looked up at
him, trying to read what he saw in his face.
He had a strange
expression. “Your eyes, Anyango. They’re different. Take a
They were. Instead
of the cold clear crystal of ice, the eyes in the mirror were
dark and bottomless and full of stars.
# # #
Sensitive Ice by Keyan
published in the Fall 2011 print edition