Maps in a mirror, p.12

Maps in a Mirror, page 12


Maps in a Mirror

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  “Don’t you see, Elaine, that’s how the real hallucinations come? They feel like reality.”

  She shook her head. “I know all that. I’ve had the nurses read me psychology books. Anansa is—Anansa is other. She couldn’t come out of my head. She’s something else. She’s real. I’ve heard her music. It isn’t plain, like Copland. It isn’t false.”

  “Elaine, when you were asleep on Wednesday, you were becoming catatonic.”

  “I know.”

  “You know?”

  “I felt you touch me. I felt you turn my head. I wanted to speak to you, to say good-bye. But she was singing, don’t you see? She was singing. And now she lets me sing along. When I sing with her, I can feel myself travel out, like a spider along a single thread, out into the place where she is. Into the darkness. It’s lonely there, and black, and cold, but I know that at the end of the thread there she’ll be, a friend for me forever.”

  “You’re frightening me, Elaine.”

  “There aren’t any trees on her starship, you know. That’s how I stay here. I think of the trees and the hills and the birds and the grass and the wind, and how I’d lose all of that. She gets angry at me, and a little hurt. But it keeps me here. Except now I can hardly remember the trees at all. I try to remember, and it’s like trying to remember the face of my mother. I can remember her dress and her hair, but her face is gone forever. Even when I look at a picture, it’s a stranger. The trees are strangers to me now.”

  I stroked her forehead. At first she pulled her head away, then slid it back.

  “I’m sorry,” she said. “I usually don’t like people to touch me there.”

  “I won’t,” I said.

  “No, go ahead. I don’t mind.”

  So I stroked her forehead again. It was cool and dry, and she lifted her head almost imperceptibly, to receive my touch. Involuntarily I thought of what the old woman had said the day before. Woman troubles. I was touching Elaine, and I thought of making love to her. I immediately put the thought out of my mind.

  “Hold me here,” she said. “Don’t let me go. I want to go so badly. But I’m not meant for that. I’m just the right size, but not the right shape. Those aren’t my arms. I know what my arms felt like.”

  “I’ll hold you if I can. But you have to help.”

  “No drugs. The drugs pull my mind away from my body. If you give me drugs, I’ll die.”

  “Then what can I do?”

  “Just keep me here, any way you can.”

  Then we talked about nonsense, because we had been so serious, and it was as if she weren’t having any problems at all. We got on to the subject of the church meetings.

  “I didn’t know you were religious,” I said.

  “I’m not. But what else is there to do on Sunday? They sing hymns, and I sing with them. Last Sunday there was a sermon that really got to me. The preacher talked about Christ in the sepulchre. About Him being there three days before the angel came to let Him go. I’ve been thinking about that, what it must have been like for Him, locked in a cave in the darkness, completely alone.”


  “Not really. It must have been exhilarating for Him, in a way. If it was true, you know. To lie there on that stone bed, saying to Himself, ‘They thought I was dead, but I’m here. I’m not dead.’ ”

  “You make Him sound smug.”

  “Sure. Why not? I wonder if I’d feel like that, if I were with Anansa.”

  Anansa again.

  “I can see what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, ‘Anansa again.’ ”

  “Yeah,” I said. “I wish you’d erase her and go back to some more harmless friends.”

  Suddenly her face went angry and fierce.

  “You can believe what you like. Just leave me alone.”

  I tried to apologize, but she wouldn’t have any of it. She insisted on believing in this star woman. Finally I left, redoubling my cautions against letting her sleep. The nurses looked worried, too. They could see the change as easily as I could.

  That night, because I was in Millard on a weekend, I called up Belinda. She wasn’t married or anything at the moment. She came to my motel. We had dinner, made love, and watched television. She watched television, that is. I lay on the bed, thinking. And so when the test pattern came on and Belinda at last got up, beery and passionate, my mind was still on Elaine. As Belinda kissed and tickled me and whispered stupidity in my ear, I imagined myself without arms and legs. I lay there, moving only my head.

  “What’s the matter, you don’t want to?”

  I shook off the mood. No need to disappoint Belinda—I was the one who had called her. I had a responsibility. Not much of one, though. That was what was nagging at me. I made love to Belinda slowly and carefully, but with my eyes closed. I kept superimposing Elaine’s face on Belinda’s. Woman troubles. Even though Belinda’s fingers played up and down my back, I thought I was making love to Elaine. And the stumps of arms and legs didn’t revolt me as much as I would have thought. Instead, I only felt sad. A deep sense of tragedy, of loss, as if Elaine were dead and I could have saved her, like the prince in all the fairy tales; a kiss, so symbolic, and the princess awakens and lives happily ever after. And I hadn’t done it. I had failed her. When we were finished, I cried.

  “Oh, you poor sweetheart,” Belinda said, her voice rich with sympathy. “What’s wrong—you don’t have to tell me.” She cradled me for a while, and at last I went to sleep with my head pressed against her breasts. She thought I needed her. I suppose that, briefly, I did.

  I did not go back to Elaine on Sunday as I had planned. I spent the entire day almost going. Instead of walking out the door, I sat and watched the incredible array of terrible Sunday morning television. And when I finally did go out, fully intending to go to the rest home and see how she was doing, I ended up driving, luggage in the back of the car, to my trailer, where I went inside and again sat down and watched television.

  Why couldn’t I go to her?

  Just keep me here, she had said. Any way you can, she had said.

  And I thought I knew the way. That was the problem. In the back of my mind all this was much too real, and the fairy tales were wrong. The prince didn’t wake her with a kiss. He wakened the princess with a promise: In his arms she would be safe forever. She awoke for the happily ever after. If she hadn’t known it to be true, the princess would have preferred to sleep forever.

  What was Elaine asking of me?

  Why was I afraid of it?

  Not my job. Unprofessional to get emotionally involved with a patient.

  But then, when had I ever been a professional? I finally went to bed, wishing I had Belinda with me again, for whatever comfort she could bring. Why weren’t all women like Belinda, soft and loving and undemanding?

  Yet as I drifted off to sleep, it was Elaine I remembered, Elaine’s face and hideous, reproachful stump of a body that followed me through all my dreams.

  And she followed me when I was awake, through my regular rounds on Monday and Tuesday, and at last it was Wednesday, and still I was afraid to go to the Millard County Rest Home. I didn’t get there until afternoon. Late afternoon, and the rain was coming down as hard as ever, and there were lakes of standing water in the fields, torrents rushing through the unprepared gutters of the town.

  “You’re late,” the administrator said.

  “Rain,” I answered, and he nodded. But he looked worried.

  “We hoped you’d come yesterday, but we couldn’t reach you anywhere. It’s Elaine.”

  And I knew that my delay had served its damnable purpose, exactly as I expected.

  “She hasn’t woken up since Monday morning. She just lies there, singing. We’ve got her on an IV. She’s asleep.”

  She was indeed asleep. I sent the others out of the room.

  “Elaine,” I said.


  I called her name again, several times. I touched her, rocked her head back and forth. Her head
stayed wherever I placed it. And the song went on, softly, high and then low, pure and then gravelly. I covered her mouth. She sang on, even with her mouth closed, as if nothing were the matter.

  I pulled down her sheet and pushed a pin into her belly, then into the thin flesh at her collarbone. No response. I slapped her face. No response. She was gone. I saw her again, connected to a starship, only this time I understood better. It wasn’t her body that was the right size; it was her mind. And it was her mind that had followed the slender spider’s thread out to Anansa, who waited to give her a body.

  A job.

  Shock therapy? I imagined her already-deformed body leaping and arching as the electricity coursed through her. It would accomplish nothing, except to torture unthinking flesh. Drugs? I couldn’t think of any that could bring her back from where she had gone. In a way, I think, I even believed in Anansa, for the moment. I called her name. “Anansa, let her go. Let her come back to me. Please. I need her.”

  Why had I cried in Belinda’s arms? Oh, yes. Because I had seen the princess and let her lie there unawakened, because the happily ever after was so damnably much work.

  I did not do it in the fever of the first realization that I had lost her. It was no act of passion or sudden fear or grief. I sat beside her bed for hours, looking at her weak and helpless body, now so empty. I wished for her eyes to open on their own, for her to wake up and say, “Hey, would you believe the dream I had!” For her to say, “Fooled you, didn’t I? It was really hard when you poked me with pins, but I fooled you.”

  But she hadn’t fooled me.

  And so, finally, not with passion but in despair, I stood up and leaned over her, leaned my hands on either side of her and pressed my cheek against hers and whispered in her ear. I promised her everything I could think of. I promised her no more rain forever. I promised her trees and flowers and hills and birds and the wind for as long as she liked. I promised to take her away from the rest home, to take her to see things she could only have dreamed of before.

  And then at last, with my voice harsh from pleading with her, with her hair wet with my tears, I promised her the only thing that might bring her back. I promised her me. I promised her love forever, stronger than any songs Anansa could sing.

  And it was then that the monstrous song fell silent. She did not awaken, but the song ended, and she moved on her own; her head rocked to the side, and she seemed to sleep normally, not catatonically. I waited by her bedside all night. I fell asleep in the chair, and one of the nurses covered me. I was still there when I was awakened in the morning by Elaine’s voice.

  “What a liar you are! It’s still raining.”

  It was a feeling of power, to know that I had called someone back from places far darker than death. Her life was painful, and yet my promise of devotion was enough, apparently, to compensate. This was how I understood it, at least. This was what made me feel exhilarated, what kept me blind and deaf to what had really happened.

  I was not the only one rejoicing. The nurses made a great fuss over her, and the administrator promised to write up a glowing report. “Publish,” he said.

  “It’s too personal,” I said. But in the back of my mind I was already trying to figure out a way to get the case into print, to gain something for my career. I was ashamed of myself for twisting what had been an honest, heartfelt commitment into personal advancement. But I couldn’t ignore the sudden respect I was receiving from people to whom, only hours before, I had been merely ordinary.

  “It’s too personal,” I repeated firmly. “I have no intention of publishing.”

  And to my disgust I found myself relishing the administrator’s respect for that decision. There was no escape from my swelling self-satisfaction. Not as long as I stayed around those determined to give me cheap payoffs. Ever the wise psychologist, I returned to the only person who would give me gratitude instead of admiration. The gratitude I had earned, I thought. I went back to Elaine.

  “Hi,” she said. “I wondered where you had gone.”

  “Not far,” I said. “Just visiting with the Nobel Prize committee.”

  “They want to reward you for bringing me here?”

  “Oh, no. They had been planning to give me the award for having contacted a genuine alien being from outer space. Instead, I blew it and brought you back. They’re quite upset.”

  She looked flustered. It wasn’t like her to look flustered—usually she came back with another quip. “But what will they do to you?”

  “Probably boil me in oil. That’s the usual thing. Though, maybe they’ve found a way to boil me in solar energy. It’s cheaper.” A feeble joke. But she didn’t get it.

  “This isn’t the way she said it was—she said it was—”

  She. I tried to ignore the dull fear that suddenly churned in my stomach. Be analytical, I thought. She could be anyone.

  “She said? Who said?” I asked.

  Elaine fell silent. I reached out and touched her forehead. She was perspiring.

  “What’s wrong?” I asked. “You’re upset.”

  “I should have known.”

  “Known what?”

  She shook her head and turned away from me.

  I knew what it was, I thought. I knew what it was, but we could surely cope. “Elaine,” I said, “you aren’t completely cured, are you? You haven’t got rid of Anansa, have you? You don’t have to hide it from me. Sure, I would have loved to think you’d been completely cured, but that would have been too much of a miracle. Do I look like a miracle worker? We’ve just made progress, that’s all. Brought you back from catalepsy. We’ll free you of Anansa eventually.”

  Still she was silent, staring at the rain-gray window.

  “You don’t have to be embarrassed about pretending to be completely cured. It was very kind of you. It made me feel very good for a little while. But I’m a grown-up. I can cope with a little disappointment. Besides, you’re awake, you’re back, and that’s all that matters.” Grown-up, hell! I was terribly disappointed, and ashamed that I wasn’t more sincere in what I was saying. No cure after all. No hero. No magic. No great achievement. Just a psychologist who was, after all, not extraordinary.

  But I refused to pay too much attention to those feelings. Be a professional, I told myself. She needs your help.

  “So don’t go feeling guilty about it.”

  She turned back to face me, her eyes full. “Guilty?” She almost smiled. “Guilty.” Her eyes did not leave my face, though I doubted she could see me well through the tears brimming her lashes.

  “You tried to do the right thing,” I said.

  “Did I? Did I really?” She smiled bitterly. It was a strange smile for her, and for a terrible moment she no longer looked like my Elaine, my bright young patient. “I meant to stay with her,” she said. “I wanted her with me, she was so alive, and when she finally joined herself to the ship, she sang and danced and swung her arms, and I said, ‘This is what I’ve needed; this is what I’ve craved all my centuries lost in the songs.’ But then I heard you.”

  “Anansa,” I said, realizing at that moment who was with me.

  “I heard you, crying out to her. Do you think I made up my mind quickly? She heard you, but she wouldn’t come. She wouldn’t trade her new arms and legs for anything. They were so new. But I’d had them for long enough. What I’d never had was—you.”

  “Where is she?” I asked.

  “Out there,” she said. “She sings better than I ever did.” She looked wistful for a moment, then smiled ruefully. “And I’m here. Only I made a bad bargain, didn’t I? Because I didn’t fool you. You won’t want me, now. It’s Elaine you want, and she’s gone. I left her alone out there. She won’t mind, not for a long time. But then—then she will. Then she’ll know I cheated her.”

  The voice was Elaine’s voice, the tragic little body her body. But now I knew I had not succeeded at all. Elaine was gone, in the infinite outer space where the mind hides to escape from itself. And in her pla
ce—Anansa. A stranger.

  “You cheated her?” I said. “How did you cheat her?”

  “It never changes. In a while you learn all the songs, and they never change. Nothing moves. You go on forever until all the stars fail, and yet nothing ever moves.”

  I moved my hand and put it to my hair. I was startled at my own trembling touch on my head.

  “Oh, God,” I said. They were just words, not a supplication.

  “You hate me.” she said.

  Hate her? Hate my little, mad Elaine? Oh, no. I had another object for my hate. I hated the rain that had cut her off from all that kept her sane. I hated her parents for not leaving her home the day they let their car drive them on to death. But most of all I remembered my days of hiding from Elaine, my days of resisting her need, of pretending that I didn’t remember her or think of her or need her, too. She must have wondered why I was so long in coming. Wondered and finally given up hope, finally realized that there was no one who would hold her. And so she left, and when I finally came, the only person waiting inside her body was Anansa, the imaginary friend who had come, terrifyingly, to life. I knew whom to hate. I thought I would cry. I even buried my face in the sheet where her leg would have been. But I did not cry. I just sat there, the sheet harsh against my face, hating myself.

  Her voice was like a gentle hand, a pleading hand touching me. “I’d undo it if I could,” she said. “But I can’t. She’s gone, and I’m here. I came because of you. I came to see the trees and the grass and the birds and your smile. The happily ever after. That was what she had lived for, you know, all she lived for. Please smile at me.”

  I felt warmth on my hair. I lifted my head. There was no rain in the window. Sunlight rose and fell on the wrinkles of the sheet.

  “Let’s go outside,” I said.

  “It stopped raining,” she said.

  “A bit late, isn’t it?” I answered. But I smiled at her.

  “You can call me Elaine,” she said. “You won’t tell, will you?”

  I shook my head. No, I wouldn’t tell. She was safe enough. I wouldn’t tell because then they would take her away to a place where psychiatrists reigned but did not know enough to rule. I imagined her confined among others who had also made their escape from reality and I knew that I couldn’t tell anyone. I also knew I couldn’t confess failure, not now.

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