When I was young, my life was like a river, straight and true, like water running over stones, each one touching the other, each one big or small, smooth or rough, each one worn down by time. But now the river is dry. The stones are covered in dust. They’ve lost their luster. My memory fades.
On any other day, the images torment me. I have to push them away like an insect, they’re too quick to kill but too irritating to ignore. So I brush them to the fringe where they can’t touch me.
Yet now, as I search for them, they escape. Hidden away under years of earth nudged over by my own hand, a shallow but unmarked grave where I scramble to find them, bleeding from my fingertips, desperate to close this chapter of my life.
Learning to forgive.
Here at my table in my home at night, I grope my hands around in the black, hoping to find one – just one. And it evades me.
I lean forward to hold my head in my hands, wondering how I will be able to move on after such a loss.
And there it is.
The elusive stone uncovered.
Clearly now, I turn the stone over in my hands and see where my story begins.
I journey back to the winter of 1916.
Wilson had just been re-elected. Women marched in the streets protesting the election from which they were excluded. They were yelled at, spit on, beaten, arrested. All so that they could have the right to vote. So that I could have it too.
Countries outside of the United States were rocking on the edge of a precipice, this one assassinating that one, this one invading the other. Girls just like me in other places, raped, bleeding, dying, dead. Every day, I was reminded how lucky I was to live in this country, where I could worship every Sunday in whatever manner I chose.
The military had designed boats that didn’t float on the top of the water but swam underneath the surface like a snake, circling in the darkness, attacking boats with the bite of their torpedoes. Something called a U-boat. But back then, I thought it was spelled You-boat, that somehow, the boats belonged to all of us. The Sussex had been attacked in this manner earlier that year leaving a hole in the bridge large enough to pull the life out of all the passengers, their bodies bobbing up and down in the waves like corks.
Mexico was engaged in some kind of revolution. But Mexico always seemed to be in one war or another. I kept hearing about Zapata which I thought was the Mexican word for shoes but was really the name of a man, a peasant revolutionary.
Europe was a bubbling sea of hate. Stories came every day of people killed, towns ransacked. The Battle of the Somme left more than a million men dead. I couldn’t even conceive of a number that large. France, Russia, England, Italy. What made all these countries hate one another so much that they should leave the blood of a million men coloring the ground.
And my life had changed forever on that November night. Behind me was my home. And ahead was a vast wilderness of the unknown, a desert, a stone on which to expose my neck. Ahead of me was something I couldn’t picture, a shadowy beast, maybe waiting to pull me into its folds. The icy jaws opening to ensnare me. The pit. I floated there, pulled on waves I couldn’t control or understand, no longer sure if I was alive.
Night had fallen when we drove the long road from the train station to the asylum. A night so black I might have been travelling through the underside of the earth. Papa was next to me on the seat but his head was turned, looking out his window trying to see outside.
The driver whistled a song out of tune, repeating verses, stopping and starting until I wanted to smack his head to improve his performance. It was called “My Melancholy Baby.” Years later, while chaperoning a dance for youth in a church basement, I heard it again. It played over the radio. And I felt like I was being led to the pit of the brute once more. I had to leave the basement and go outside. Of course the other chaperones followed me, trying to comfort me, offering me water. They reached out their arms, concerned but I pushed them away. Too many people, too many hands, too many good intentions pulling me under until I felt like I would drown.
I walked by myself for some time before my breath slowed, before I believed I would not be taken to the end place. The place where people go when they have nothing left. The last stop.
“Sit still.” said Papa slapping his hand on the seat of the motor-car. These were the only two words he had spoken to me since we began our journey.
The world on the other side of the cracked windshield passed me by in shadows. From where I was sitting, there were only vague, grey shapes sitting on a sea of black. A gravestone? A dead body? And my breath froze onto the inside surface of the glass. even when I rubbed it away with my sleeve, the frost soon covered over the clean spot.
“Billy. How much further is it?” Papa leaned his body forward towards the driver. When his knee touched mine, he pulled it back.
“Oh, it’s a ways.”
“But how much longer exactly?”
Oh, a good while.”
Papa sat back and looked out his window at the nothing again.
“So, how do you feel about having a democrat for another four years?” Billy looked over his shoulder. He had pale hair, thin, the color of straw. And those eyes. One always pointing in a different direction than the other. But they were serene blue eyes, the same blue as the shallows. Like the edge of the sky before dawn.
Papa didn’t answer him but Billy didn’t worry himself about it. Instead, he talked to me.
“Almost there.” He reached his hand back and patted me on the leg. “It’s a real nice place Miss. We got most of the last floor cleaned up. It don’t even smell musty anymore.” He smiled. “Mice have been burrowing into the spare mattresses but not to worry, we’ll find somewhere to tuck you in.”
The engine whined as we came to a crest and there it was. Easily the largest building I had ever seen. All around was a glow of light. Rows upon rows of windows, beside one another, on top of one another, lining up stretching out to each side seemingly forever. This was the place, the coral where inconvenient people were housed. The final stopping ground for the insane. The home of the forgotten.
“Papa,” I said but he didn’t turn his head. He didn’t look at me.
“Papa.” I touched his arm and leaned towards him.
He brushed my hand away.
Billy brought the motor-car to a full stop at the front of the asylum. A row of stairs led up to the wooden doors sitting back from the edge of the porch.
“Here we are.” Billy nodded his head. “Home sweet home.”
I tugged my wool hat down over my ears and stepped out into the night.
Shivering, I pulled my shawl over my shoulders. Brisk air burned in my nostrils as I looked up at the endless windows above me. Were there people inside looking back? Could anyone see me from the windows?
At the bottom of those stairs, my mind began wandering through all the possibilities, dreading what I might find inside.
Papa got my case out of the back and closed the door. The sound of metal striking metal was crisp on the night air. I couldn’t help but think that if the door had stayed open, that if he hadn’t slammed it shut none of this would be real. The sound of the door closing made it real.
He placed my case on the ground and I caught his eye for a moment. Only for a moment. Then he turned away. I think it was the last time he ever looked at me.
Loose tangles of my hair blew around my face. I tucked them back under my wool hat, fingertips cold against my cheek. Blowing air onto my hands to warm them.
The wind smelled of pine, there in the land of the forgotten. Trees stood all around, an entire circle of them holding us in, trapping the living creatures at the center. They stretched up towards the coldness of the stars, rubbing on one another, creaking in the dark, so tall I could have disappeared under their wings, so scornful I could have cried.
“You know Papa, It wasn’t my…” My teeth were chattering. “It wasn’t on purpose.”
Somehow I still thought I could change his mind. Maybe none of it was real. Tomorrow morning I would wake up in my snug little bed in Idaho as if from a dream.
“Lovetta, these people are going to help you.”
I only saw the side of his face. He dug his hands into his pockets and stepped away. Just one step. Just one. And in the space of that one step, was a rift great enough to separate us forever. That one step was large enough to remove me from his life.
“Impressive isn’t it?” Billy picked up my case. He pushed me up all seventeen stairs to the large wooden doors at the top, his hand pressing on my back, his shoulder nuzzled into mine from behind. Papa stayed by the motor-car, his back turned. Already I was invisible to him.
“We got lots of things for pretty girls like yourself to do here. Like work in the kitchen or the laundry. And they’re all pretty safe. Hardly any injuries. Last year, only one girl lost a finger. Best record in the state.” He rested his hand on my lower back, turned his head to look down at my father, then back to me. “We do everything we can to make you girls comfortable. It’s going to be all right.”
His face was close to mine. It was a round face, pale, glowing like the moon in the dark, a healthy face, a beacon. A face that drew forth trust.
Just in front of us was a large set of double doors. Each one had a glass window that was covered in a spider web of frost. Light glowed from the inside like a lantern. On the left door was a brass sign that said “St. Isadora’s Asylum for the Deficient and Insane, State of Washington, Est. 1882.”
Zoo of Human Frailties is a study of family disintegration after the loss of one of its members as seen through the eyes of a young girl. The book opens as Lovetta’s father abandons her at an insane asylum in the years immediately preceding World War I. As we flashback to her experiences growing up on the farm, we learn what occurred in the family to cause her to be disposable. All of the things she lives through, abuse, archaic medication, primitive surgery, neglect, hunger, Spanish flu, all cause her to find the strength to escape and go to the only family she has left.
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