He had gentle hands, my father, but his touch was not enough for me. But it did make being sick less miserable: I could have told you that, but I didn’t.
̶ Did you ever think of becoming a doctor yourself?
̶ Never. I was too busy trying to become a human being.
̶ And just what do you mean by that?
̶ Sometimes when I think of what I’ve been through, I can’t believe I’m still alive.
̶ What happened?
̶ I was buried alive.
̶ It’s been very hard, clawing my way back to the surface.
̶ What are you talking about?
̶ One day, if ever you love me a little, I’ll tell you.
̶ Sprague, you’re frightening me!
̶ No, I mean…
̶ Your face, your voice—you’re not kidding.
̶ No, I’m not. I know what it is to be dead, Marietta.
̶ Am I frightening you?
̶ No, but…
̶ Just give me some idea what you’re talking about.
Numb: To the last redoubt
I retreated, dumb
̶ I told you: One day, if ever—
̶ Okay, but give me a little clue now!
̶ All right. I was eleven when we took a ship to Canada. No one ever told me why we’re leaving, where we’re going. I had no idea why we were on the boat.
̶ But that’s impossible! Your parents must have told you.
̶ If they did, I didn’t get it. It didn’t register.
̶ You could have asked your sisters.
̶ I have no memory of them even being on the boat! All I remember is feeling totally lost, with no idea of what’s going on.
̶ My God!
̶ And when we arrived at last, in Toronto, the daily torture started.
̶ Outside the house I was a target. Inside, I was invisible. I don’t know which was worse.
Wild, your eyes drill into me.
̶ My mind was a kite in a windstorm. My heart the ball of string. Or maybe it was the other way around.
̶ What do you mean?
̶ Only when the kite was grounded did I feel no pain. I became a zombie. Every day I was stoned.
̶ No. Violence. Cruelty. Humiliation.
Here it comes, the old pain, just like I knew it would.
A boy slides open a shower curtain. Fǣringa! His heart leaps as a stranger steps out of a mirror. The boy stares into the glass: His face configures a double of the stranger.
Was he insane? Every shower an ordeal, he fearing he’d become unreal should he fall under the spell of the pelting water and forget to think about himself. Unable to inhabit his body, he was incapable of inhabiting the world.
With reading it was the same: Persecuted by his own lucidity, obliged to be permanently aware of himself, he was unable to get beyond the first pages of a book. To lose himself in a narrative, to leave himself behind—that was simply too much of a risk.
And his horror of drugs: When everyone was smoking dope and popping pills, he refused to, afraid that if he got out of his mind he’d never be able to get back in. When he finally took the leap—lipstick on a reefer was something he couldn’t resist—drugs were an anti-climax: Nembutal couldn’t match his own capacity for self-benumbment, nor could marijuana make animals laugh the way he could.
And, once more, his madness: That time with Phoebe in her basement. She took an atlas off the shelf so he could show her where he comes from. Opening it up, he felt he was opening up a world he might be able to slip into. South Africa, here. East London, Cape Town, the SS Carinthia to Southampton. Stopped over in Madeira. On the ship, an English girl with blue, blue eyes. They stood at the railing, staring at the horizon. She seemed to recognize him. He’d hardly said a word in weeks. He couldn’t form a sentence. She wasn’t afraid. She didn’t walk away. Looking into his eyes, she said: ‘I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.’ He felt himself drowning in the blue of her eyes. ‘That’s the ending of the book I’ve just read. Meet me here tomorrow at ten. I’ll read something new to you.’ The next morning, side-by-side in deck chairs, she read Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains to him. He began to speak. She took off her glasses and kissed him. He spoke the story. Pages and pages of it. Then she disappeared, the girl with blue, blue eyes, never to be seen again.
Had she ever been on the ship? Had he ever read Heroes and Villains? Had it all been a dream? Questions without answers. He was eleven years old. The girl was thirteen. ‘I’ll find her when I get to London’, he told Phoebe, ‘Maybe her mother and father would adopt me’. Why didn’t Phoebe tell him he was mad? That Wuthering Heights and Heroes and Villains are fictions, that he’s neither Heathcliff nor Marianne? Did she believe his fantasy could make him a meaningful world? Did she think the girl with blue, blue eyes was a wish fulfilled in a dream? Or did she believe it’s better not to undeceive him because no girl, not even one with blue, blue eyes, could ever save him?
And now once again I am overcome with love, once again I give thanks for the light: And then the shadow falls. I can’t forget the abortive search, the darkness of asylum; I can’t forget the silent screams, the air grabbed in gasps. Yes, I remember the dread of impending madness, the head-banger banging at my door; I remember the days when I couldn’t be still, fearing I’d lose myself, forget to think about myself, slip out of reality. I’d watch the clock, keep busy, for if I didn’t I’d no longer know who I am. I tried to read, but reading had become a game of infinite regression, an exercise in stealth: Persecuted by my own lucidity, obliged to be constantly aware of myself, I couldn’t accept the coin of signifiers lest it depredate my soul. No girl’s touch came to remind me that the most immediate, the most trustworthy, the most integral source of knowledge is the body. Then again, I didn’t have a body. I was weightless, a wisp of smoke escaping from the citadel of myself, a faint signal of a murdered soul: I was an idiot. Look! Walking across a field of white, a boy feels a tremor running up his spine: He’s just realized the bare feet trudging through the snow are commanded by his mind. Look! The girl in the school bus, the terror in her eyes as the boy stares into them: ‘Know me. I want you to know me’. Look! The creeping rootstalks, the tender grass—look at the boy watching them grow; the mangy dog, the stray cat—see them licking his face. I can’t forget, I can’t forget, I can’t forget!
And I, born into emptiness, had but a flame in my heart, a gentle flame in the last redoubt. And with me, always, the chill chafing of a hand, the hand of madness awaiting me should the flame go out.