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The Childhood of Despair

Once upon a time in Aftermath, a long line of daughters came to its end with the appearance of the last. Troubled or troubling; troubling or troubled—each and all of those girls had been one or the other or both. So it was no surprise that the infant cried with a certain degree of professionalism.

There was no birth announcement; no date or weight recorded. It wasn’t that kind of place. There would be nothing, as usual, for the postal carrier to take away, to deliver to the world when he left, retraced his steps, returned from the detour and started back on the regular route, a far cry from Aftermath Manor.

It was the old groundsman who discovered the child in an untended meadow on the outskirts of Aftermath. It was he who wrapped her, as best he could, in his own red and white paisley bandana and then carried her away in his arms. A squalling, untidy bundle. Little legs kicking out. Little arms at once reaching in want of comfort and pushing in rejection of discomfort. Reaching and pushing in expression of need.

Indeed it was an awkward kineticism, the newborn flailing while the man resolutely picked steps back toward the stone and mortar of Aftermath Manor, took a path back through the modest gate leading from the meadow to the gardens, back through the arbors and arcades, the fresh flowing fountain, back through the perpetual balm of the gardens internal. He moved with the child through the soft buffering haze until they reached the hedge maze.

It was here that he became flustered with the crying baby. It was here that the groundsman lost his way, got turned around in the labyrinth. Never mind how he’d kept its secrets, squared its dead ends, trimmed the privet walls flush, labored here since whenever, forever. His breathing quickened to a pant, heat gathered under the bib of his coveralls, sweat dampened the collar of his work shirt. The infant cried in a pitch of need utterly open-ended. Panic mounted. It was here that the groundsman totally lost his cool.

Then, lo—a seeming dead end in the hedge maze was nicked with a narrow notch in the privet. A small wooden turnstile stood in this opening. The groundsman all but crashed through the turnstile, now clutching the newborn to him as she wailed. Thus they pressed through a close passage way in the privet, and on, with the momentum of panic, through a thicket of thorns that pushed up on tall curving green tendrils thick as fingers. With every length the groundsman advanced, the thorns sprang back, thickened and tangled in his wake. In the groundsman’s crashing push, the infant’s covering was torn away, and her flesh was exposed, caught by thorns. Those thorns dragged in the skin, left a cross hatching collection of scratches.

Thin lines of bright blood rose to the separation of the baby’s ever so tender flesh, the white scars of which would go internal yet leave a legible map of the way back to this crazy trial-by-thorn, this moat-like thicket separating some kind of in from another kind of out. It would be a map legible, at least, to the bearer—and who else is reading the etch of the marked? Who else is consulting, for direction, the engraving of scar?

Once through the thicket of thorns, the infant immediately, amazingly, with a kind of proto-conversational knack, fell silent—no more crying—in response, perhaps, to the first class silence of the place in which they now found themselves: A graveyard bounded all around by a low stone wall. At the far end, beyond the wall, a road cut through woods. These would presumably be woods bordering the property adjacent to Aftermath Manor, to its park and garden and grounds, but perhaps not. This depends on a geography for which we have no map.

But to be sure there was weather here, weather of the world. It was autumn, crisp.

The groundsman hunched his shoulders and drew Despair, for that of course was the baby girl’s name, close to the relative warmth of his body. He made his way with the child in arms across the graveyard. He stepped around the edges of the plots. The idea here being: get the baby back to the Manor with no more monkey business, please.

Once through the graveyard, the groundsman passed through a serviceable pause in the low stone wall, then paused, poised for a few moments at the edge of the road, unsure, perhaps, of which way to turn, when a figure appeared, approaching. This person, dressed in a navy blue uniform, labored with a heavy satchel, fairly dragging it along. In closer range: none other than the postal carrier! He was on his way to Aftermath Manor, having taken the seasonal detour from his regular route, still carrying the mail from the world. The groundsman hailed this poor creature then unceremoniously passed the baby on, figuring the kid would be better off in arms more accustomed to delivery. With that, the groundsman turned back toward the cemetery, entered and crossed it with the intention to fully backtrack.

The postal carrier shulmped along with the postal satchel and with Baby Despair, who slept deeply and long. When they finally arrived at the manor, he awkwardly shifted the child in his arms in order to produce a knock on the narrow wooden door set in the wall beside the large iron gates. There he stood with Despair until the housekeeper came bustling down through the green rain of Aftermath’s raining season, carrying an enormous umbrella low about her head.
My word, a baby now? The housekeeper was delighted, though she tried not to show it, just indicated to the postal carrier that he was to carry the umbrella while she, of course, carried the child. And so the postal carrier nestled Despair into the cradle made ready by her ample arms, then tucked the housekeeper’s apron up about the child as per that good woman’s instructions. Off they set for the Manor.

Thus it was that Baby Despair was born in an untended meadow on the outskirts of Aftermath (but still within its sway) and was transported through the gardens. It was in this way that the path became befuddled and in this way that the child surfaced via a boundary collapsing tuck in the landscape. And finally, it was in just this way that the Baby Despair was returned (posthaste) to begin her very young life in Aftermath.

The housekeeper took on the care of Aftermath’s baby child. She placed the cradle next to the big iron stove in the kitchen, filled time chit chatting away—so comfy to have a girl in the house again, never mind how they all turn out so wild in the end. The end, at least, as far as the housekeeper goes, which is to say as far as she knows. Despair went through the moves of infancy: rolled over, sat up, pointed, and learned to crawl apace, though the stone floors of the manor did a number on her little shins and knees. Bloody scrapes, my word, scabbed over so that the child looked as if she’d been whacking her way through the thorn hedge of Briar Rose. When the girl began to walk, well, the housekeeper dressed her in pinafores from a chest in the nursery and turned her loose in the manor to discover it as she would.

The gloomy passages and high windows, the sense of partial abandonment, of secrecy. An architecture of enclosure, of neglect. The air of a venerable history, a haunting, or time racked up, at least, time that makes a claim. An institution, taken broadly. A place that both pities and craves its inhabitants, holds and chills, marks but does not stoop for a look in the eye.

When Despair was school aged, an alphabet began to appear a letter at a time on the mirror of the east wing washroom, lesson-style lettering in a plum colored shade of lipstick. The housekeeper scrubbed it away each evening, stood on a step stool with a damp rag packed with baking soda and firmly addressed the reflective surface. Oh yes, she scrubbed and scrubbed. Despair, meanwhile, perched on the edge of the porcelain tub and watched each evening as each letter, upper and lower case, disappeared with the housekeeper’s effort. Still, the housekeeper had never been one to stand in the way of any of those girls’ educations and was perfectly happy to offer suggestions around the particulars:

A is for Aftermath, I imagine. I don’t know Dwinkie Pops, that’s just what the Manor has always been called. Always? Yes always at least as far as I know. B might perfectly well be for baby. We have gotten them here at reasonable intervals, though I suppose some of us have swaddled our last. C is for cold. Ohhh so chilly in the passageways especially—don’t you think that must be it? D? Well. I can hardly venture to say. Really it would be impossible to choose out just one for mention. Almost like playing favorites. Look up in the library, Pumpkin Doodle, all of you girls’ names are listed in the big black book on the stand.

The housekeeper motioned toward the door. The housekeeper was talking about the dictionary, though when Despair made her way to the library, pulled a stool up to the stand, clamored upon it and looked, she found that the pages in question were missing, the entire section gone, dab to dystrophy torn out of the book.

Have they been now? Actually, the housekeeper was not surprised. Well, none of you girls ever have stopped at anything to complicate things. Delirium, like as not. Though it never has done to point a finger.

And so it was that Despair began to haunt the library in search of those missing pages, looking into every last volume; it was a medium sized and motley collection:

novels that were once contemporary

slim volumes of poetry by sensitive yet egotistical men,

others by wise yet high-strung or foul mouthed women. There were the works

provocatively inscribed with enigmatic inside jokes

water damaged gardening books

textbooks on topics in philosophy—logic, aesthetics, and the Greeks

a shelf of Japanese/English dictionaries, phrase, and usage books

volumes on various needle arts—knitting and crochet

several translations of The Odyssey, one very well thumbed

a stack of mail order catalogues featuring scantily clad ladies in costumes or maybe uniforms—

all of Austen, Baldwin, and James. And then

the unbound manuscripts; stacks of drafts sporting the present tense, repetition, a depressive heroine, and places with unlikely names.

She’d bring piles of material to the deep window seat in the library that overlooked the sweep of lawn, the park, and the gardens of Aftermath beyond; she’d sit criss -cross applesauce or stretch out on her belly. From this perch Despair could see out over the lawn and across the grounds to the high stone wall of Aftermath, to the large and heavy iron gates, shut as shut can be, shut so as to become theoretical, opening-wise. It was only the postal carrier who came and went, and he did this via a narrow wooden door set in the wall adjacent to the gates, escorted to and from by the housekeeper, who held the key in her deep apron pocket.

Despair would spend her time leafing through the contents of the library’s collection, sure at first that the pages of the dictionary would fall out intact, ordered, ready to be restored, ready to go back to their slot in the good book. But no dice.

Never mind. She’d pick up definition from context.

Meanwhile, the alphabet on the washroom mirror had morphed to script, then to the text of an easy reader then to a chapter book—a story about a little orphan girl who is befriended by a charmed doe. The doe offers her a magic ride to enchanted Sticky Land, all candy and flowers but sticky for some reason somehow as in a dream. The plot was never resolved, but gave way to a series of fragments through which the orphan girl wandered over the course of her own childhood.

The ground of an untended meadow, the walkways of a complex formal garden, the treaded soil of a graveyard. These episodes appeared disjointed and self conscious for a time and then began to forge some connection. O.K., they began to work up some steam: The wanderings brought the girl back to the orphanage in which she’d been raised, though in the intervening time the building had been emptied and converted into a psychiatric institution for young ladies. But oh from a distance it looked for all the world like a castle! The old stone. The high wall.

It was here that the girl took up residence after she was found collapsed and weeping on the wrong side of the wall. She was exhausted and all scratched up—as if she’d been whacking her way through the thorn hedge of Briar Rose. She was admitted against her will by the head nurse, who had a rogue maternal instinct and firm notions on the keeping of such cases. The girl experienced a decidedly interior darkness, often with the benefit of long stretches on a straight-backed chair in a dim room where she reached into the guts of adolescence only to come out with her hands entangled in innards. No place to put the stuff. A wreck, indeed.

Well how dee do—hate to clean away someone’s story, but I suppose that’s what it is to be on the outside of the mirror. Aftermath’s housekeeper had her sympathies for tales of wayward girls, but she also had her rag and her job description.

It was at this point that Despair began to protect the text from the housekeeper by stealing into the washroom in the middle of the night and rubbing bits of the story away herself in a preemptive strike. In time, this editing technique was joined by the working of corrections and revisions. These were executed using a Lady Desiree eye pencil in midnight black, which Despair acquired through a special free offer coupon in the back of one of the mail order catalogues in the library. It promised the eye pencil in exchange for a brief questionnaire to be filled out completely front and back. Postage paid by the addressee! The postal carrier accomplished his return trudge to Aftermath in due time with a new edition of the catalogue, the eye pencil packaged along with it in a plastic casing.

Despair was going great guns now. Cookin’ with gas. She’d swap out an adjective for accuracy, get a parallel construction in line, rearrange a sentence in the interest of rhyme. She’d adjust the punctuation, experiment with phrasing. The narrative on the washroom mirror took the tone of a kind of gothic coming of age story, in which the trapped heroine whacks her hair off with a pair of thieved kitchen shears, suffers untold nightmares, and wanders the grounds in the black of night, plotting some kind of out; yes. A companion piece to the present narrative.

This went on. Time certainly passed. Eventually, she was practically writing the thing herself.

And then, oh my word, nothing doing. The orphan girl took a turn for the much worse. The story flattened in the present as the girl succumbed to a hopelessness, a deep passivity. She quit her high drama antics, stopped her nightly wandering, and took to her bed with a tortured torpor.

Poor Despair did not take this turn of events well. She turned into a total night owl, pick pick picked her fingers raw. Oh the collection of neurotic behaviors…! She stood there in the washroom, reflected, rolling the pencil over the hard bump of a callus on her middle finger. She tried to make the thing go. But no go. That orphan girl would not budge from her heaviness, her fake sleep and vacent dreaming. Obviously there was supposed to be some kind of push? A crisis, a situation of peril—the threat of electric shock or lobotomy!—or should it be some kind of pull? A high burn promise to keep, a tryst—a love interest, someone dark, intense, insistent…

Despair could not believe the incredible paralysis of the situation, could not believe that she could not make that girl do a thing, not eek out a single plot incident, much less get her anywhere near a turning point. It was only through sheer force of will that Despair dragged that girl out of bed, roughed her up a bit, got her walking the cold corridors and indeed walked with her. This lasted for several nights in a row. On the third night, Despair began to pause for deep knee bends, then began to alternate the knee bends with another stretch—arms out, palms flat against the wall, body in a V. From the depths there was coming a suction and a tightening, the heightening and heightening of wrenching tension. The corridor tilted, the washroom mirror was a blank when she leaned in and gripped the edges of the basin as everything gathered, scrunching in an agonizing squeeze that doubled her with pain. Then release; a smooth pond, calm before the freakishness, breath if possible, which it was not, two minutes till the next one, hours like that. She had long since dropped the pencil, dropped everything in prelude to final collapse—the last ditch lunge to the very bottom where she lay, out cold on the washroom floor.

The creation of before and after. A new grasp for the pencil and she would have to find a way to sharpen it! The last in a long line of daughters. A map drawn by scar. A boundary collapsing tuck in the landscape, a garden of despair. Despair had an idea for that orphan girl, for the writing of her life, and she wasn’t going to take non-response for an answer. This time, the story would extend into the future if it killed her.


Evan Harris

Evan Harris lives in East Hampton.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2009

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