I remember my first glimpse of her. It was the first night. We had arrived at Bobbilli School for the Blind, India. The students had organised a talent show to welcome us—the Asian Aid ambassadors. While waiting for the students to be seated, all ordered according to their grades, a group of teenage girls bustled in, engulfing one girl in the middle. It seemed slightly odd—the blind leading the blind—but perhaps the girl in the middle had a more limiting blindness than the others.
I continued to watch the small huddle until her face became visible among those of her friends. I blanched. Her face—or the ruins of it—was not recognisable. Her nose was decaying, with only a few scraps of fleshy skin remaining. Other parts of her face were missing, the rest distorted with blotchy, scabby skin. Her one remaining eye was cloudy . . .
But after that I turned away. I was horrified. The rest of the evening I found myself turning to look her way, only to quickly regret it when I did. I knew it was so shallow—only caring what she looked like—but it was hard to notice much else when her physical appearance was so ghastly, almost inhuman.
Now here I was, just a few metres between us. My mother was beckoning—no, summoning—me to her side where I would also meet this girl. As terrified as I was, I could not defy the burning wishes of my mother, so miserably I all but crawled to her. My heart beat erratically. I dared not look up until it was absolutely necessary. After all, she could not see me nor the trepidation on my face. As Mum began making introductions, I chanced a glance up.
My heart stopped.
She was my age—17—and studying in the equivalent of our grade 12. She had skin cancer and her village had abandoned her. At that moment though, I could not conceive why they would do such a thing.
My heart had stopped, not from the shock of seeing her up close, but from complete awe in her presence, almost reverence. I found she did not repulse me. Instead my eyes were able to roam her face, taking it all in yet not feeling the need to turn away. I felt such a deep sorrow for her, more profound than I’d ever felt.
I was completely oblivious to the exchange of questions between the girl’s teacher and my mum, simply captivated by her at the same time as being overtaken by grief. Suddenly, in an act that felt so intimate yet so needed at that moment, she reached out and took my hand. Her scarred hands were in mine, and I held onto her hands with as much urgency as she held onto mine.
Then, unexpectedly, she smiled and I couldn’t help but smile too. She was so beautiful. Not just her nature but also physically. The way her smile lit up her face created creases around her eyes and mouth, lifted her lips and showed off her teeth. It was the most stunning thing, the most beautiful smile I had ever seen.
The short time passed quickly and she was to join the other girls eating lunch. But our hands were still joined and I felt as reluctant as she did to let go.
Before the teacher turned to lead her away, she squeezed my hand but ultimately she squeezed my heart. I can’t describe the overwhelming emotions I felt at that moment. I had known this girl for only minutes, yet I felt such a bond.
I quickly excused myself, hurrying along the corridors back to our cabin, desperately eager to be alone. Yet as I rushed away, I couldn’t control the wave of tears that hung in the recesses. When I saw my own perfectly normal, healthy face in the mirror, I couldn’t help but cry.
Why was it her and not me? Why am I privileged to escape such terrors? Why does she deserve this?
But I am the one with smooth, unscathed skin. Free of cancer and abandonment. I who think so poorly of myself, wishing to look different, and complaining about this and that. I am the one who is blessed.
It comes with recognising a different beauty: “Your beauty should come from within you—the beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. This beauty will never disappear and it is worth very much to God” (1 Peter 3:4).
More than a year later, she is still fresh in my mind, the emotions still raw. I know it’s foolish to hope but I wonder if she is alive today. Though I knew her for only a few minutes she is imprinted in my mind, her beautiful smile—despite everything—entrenched in my memory.
In those short moments I realised that whenever I am fearful I can think of her. But most of all, whenever I look at myself with disapproval, I can think of her and remember how she didn’t shy away because of herself and how she might appear to others. Instead, she seized my hand and understood that while we were worlds apart we were also much closer than both of us realised.
Nicole Sandy is a university student in Townsville, Queensland. With this story, Nicole won the Signs Publishing Writing Prize at the Manifest Creative Arts Festival 2015.