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The Ice Queenby Alice Hoffman
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR. I KNOW that for a fact. Wishes are brutal, unforgiving things. They burn your tongue the moment they?re spoken and you can never take them back. They bruise and bake and come back to haunt you. I?ve made far too many wishes in my lifetime, the first when I was eight years old. Not the sort of wish for ice cream or a party dress or long blond hair; no. The other sort, the kind that rattles your bones, then sits in the back of your throat, a greedy red toad that chokes you until you say it aloud. The kind that could change your life in an instant, before you have time to wish you could take it back.
I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but don?t all stories begin this way? The stranger who comes to town and wreaks havoc. The man who stumbles off a cliff on his wedding day. The woman who goes to look out the window when a bullet, or a piece of glass, or a blue-white icicle pierces her breast. I was the child who stomped her feet and made a single wish and in so doing ended the whole world?my world, at any rate. The only thing that mattered. Of course I was self-centered, but don?t most eight-year-old girls think they?re the queen of the universe? Don?t they command the stars and seas? Don?t they control the weather? When I closed my eyes to sleep at night, I imagined the rest of the world stopped as well. What I wanted, I thought I should get. What I wished for, I deserved.
I made my wish in January, the season of ice, when our house was cold and the oil bill went unpaid. It happened on the sixteenth, my mother?s birthday. We had no father, my brother and I. Our father had run off, leaving Ned and me our dark eyes and nothing more. We depended on our mother. I especially didn?t expect her to have a life of her own. I pouted when anything took her away: the bills that needed paying, the jobs that came and went, the dishes that needed washing, the piles of laundry. Endless, endless. Never ever done. That night my mother was going out with her two best friends to celebrate her birthday. I didn?t like it one bit. It sounded like fun. She was off to the Bluebird Diner, a run-down place famous for its roast beef sandwiches and French fries with gravy. It was only a few hours on her own. It was just a tiny celebration.
I didn?t care.
Maybe my father had been self-centered; maybe I?d inherited that from him along with the color of my eyes. I wanted my mother to stay home and braid my hair, which I wore long, to my waist. Loose, my hair knotted when I slept, and I worried; my brother had told me that bats lived in our roof. I was afraid they would fly into my room at night and make a nest in my head. I didn?t want to stay home with my brother, who paid no attention to me and was interested more in science than in human beings. We argued over everything, including the last cookie in the jar, which we often grabbed at the same time. Let go! You first! Whatever we held often broke in our grasp. Ned had no time for a little sister?s whims; he had to be bribed into reading to me. I?ll do your chores. I?ll give you my lunch money. Just read.
My mother didn?t listen to my complaints. She was preoccupied. She was in a rush. She put on her raincoat and a blue scarf. Her hair was pale. She?d cut it herself, straining to see the back of her head in the mirror. She couldn?t afford a real haircut at a salon; still she was pretty. We didn?t talk about being poor; we never discussed what we didn?t have. We ate macaroni three times a week and wore heavy sweaters to bed; we made do. Did I realize that night was my mother?s thirtieth birthday, that she was young and beautiful and happy for once? To me, she was my mother. Nothing less or more. Nothing that didn?t include me.
When she went to leave, I ran after her. I was barefoot on the porch and my feet stung. The rain had frozen and was hitting against the corrugated green fiberglass roof. It sounded like a gun. Ice had slipped onto the floorboards and turned the wood to glass. I begged my mother not to go. Queen of the universe. The girl who thought of no one but herself. Now I know the most desperate arguments are always over foolish things. The moment that changes the path of a life is the one that?s invisible, that dissolves like sugar in water. But tell that to an eight-year-old girl. Tell it to anyone; see who believes you.
When my mother said that Betsy and Amanda were waiting for her and that she was already late, I made my wish. Right away, I could feel it burning. I could taste the bitterness of it; still I went ahead. I wished I would never see her again. I told her straight to her face. I wished she would disappear right there, right then.
My mother laughed and kissed me good-bye. Her kiss was clear and cold. Her complexion was pale, like snow. She whispered something to me, but I didn?t listen. I wanted what I wanted. I didn?t think beyond my own needs.
My mother had to start the car several times before the engine caught. There was smoke in the air. The roof of the patio vibrated along with the sputtering engine of the car. I could feel the sourness inside me. And here was the odd thing about making that wish, the one that made her disappear: it hurt.
?Come inside, idiot,? my brother called to me. ?The only thing you?ll accomplish out there is freezing your ass off.?
Ned was logical; he was four years older, an expert on constellations, red ants, bats, invertebrates. He had often told me that feelings were a waste of time. I didn?t like to listen to Ned, even when he was right, so on that night I didn?t answer. He shouted out a promise to read to me, even if it had to be fairy tales, stories he held in contempt. Irrational, impossible, illogical things. Even that wasn?t enough for me to end my vigil. I couldn?t stop looking at the empty street. Soon enough my brother gave up on me. Didn?t everyone? My feet had turned blue and they ached, but I stood out there on the porch for quite a while. Until my tongue stopped burning. When I finally went inside, I looked out the window, and even Ned came to see, but there was nothing out there. Only the snow.
MY MOTHER HAD HER ACCIDENT ON THE SERVICE ROAD leading to the Interstate. The police report blamed icy road conditions and bald tires that should have been replaced. But we were poor, did I tell you that? We couldn?t afford new tires. My mother was half an hour late for her birthday dinner, then an hour; then her friend Betsy called the police. The next morning when our grandmother came to tell us the news, I braided my own hair for the first time, then cut it off with a pair of gardening shears. I left it behind for the bats. I didn?t care. I?d started to wonder if my brother had been right all along. Don?t feel anything. Don?t even try.
After the funeral, Ned and I moved into our grandmother?s house. We had to leave some of our things behind: my brother his colony of ants, and I left all my toys. I was too old for them now. My grandmother called what I?d done to my hair a pixie cut, but could she give a name to what I?d done to my mother? I knew, but I wasn?t saying. My grandmother was too kind a person to know who was living under her roof. I?d destroyed my mother with words, so words became my enemy. I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut.
At night I told myself a story, wordless, inside my head, one I liked far better than those in my books. The girl in my story was treated cruelly, by fate, by her family, even by the weather. Her feet bled from the stony paths; her hair was plucked from her head by blackbirds. She went from house to house, looking for refuge. Not a single neighbor answered his door, and so one day the girl gave up speaking. She lived on the side of a mountain where every day was snowy. She stood outside without a roof, without shelter; before long she was made of ice?her flesh, her bones, her blood. She looked like a diamond; it was possible to spy her from miles away. She was so beautiful now that everyone wanted her: people came to talk to her, but she wouldn?t answer. Birds lit on her shoulder; she didn?t bother to chase them away. She didn?t have to. If they took a single peck, their beaks would break in two. Nothing could hurt her anymore. After a while, she became invisible, queen of the ice. Silence was her language, and her heart had turned a perfect pale silver color. It was so hard nothing could shatter it. Not even stones.
?Physiologically impossible,? my brother said the one time I dared to tell him the story. ?In such low temperatures, her heart would actually freeze and then burst. She?d wind up melting herself with her own blood.?
I didn?t discuss such things with him again.
I knew what my role was in the world. I was the quiet girl at school, the best friend, the one who came in second place. I didn?t want to draw attention to myself. I didn?t want to win anything. There were words I couldn?t bring myself to say; words like ruin and love and lost made me sick to my stomach. In the end, I gave them up altogether. But I was a good grandchild, quick to finish tasks, my grandmother?s favorite. The more tasks, the less time to think. I swept, I did laundry, I stayed up late finishing my homework. By the time I was in high school, I was everyone?s confidante; I knew how to listen. I was there for my friends, a tower of strength, ever helpful, especially when it came to their boyfriends, several of whom slept with me in senior year, grateful for my advice with their love lives, happy to go to bed with a girl who asked for nothing in return.
My brother went to Harvard, then to Cornell for his graduate degree; he became a meteorologist, a perfect choice for someone who wanted to impose logic onto an imperfect world. He was offered a position at Orlon University, in Florida, and before long he was a full professor, married to a mathematician, Nina, whom he idolized for her rational thought and beautiful complexion. As for me, I looked for a career where silence would be an asset. I went to the state university a few towns over, then to City College for a master?s in library science. My brother found it especially amusing that my work was considered a science, but I took it quite seriously. I was assigned to the reference desk, still giving advice, as I had in high school, still the one to turn to for information. I was well liked at the library, the reliable employee who collected money for wedding presents and organized baby showers. When a co-worker moved to Hawaii I was persuaded to adopt her cat, Giselle, even though I was allergic.
But there was another, hidden side to me. My realest self. The one who remembered how the ice fell down, piece by bitter piece. The one who dreamed of cold, silver hearts. A devotee of death. I had become something of an expert on the many ways to die, and like any expert I had my favorites: bee stings, poisoned punch, electric shock. There were whole categories I couldn?t get enough of: death by misadventure or by design, death pacts, death to avoid the future, death to circumvent the past. I doubted whether anyone else in the library was aware that rigor mortis set in within four hours. If they knew that when heated, arsenic had a garlic-like odor. The police captain in town, Jack Lyons, who?d been in my brother?s class in high school, often called for information regarding poison, suicide, infectious diseases. He trusted me, too.
Once I began researching death, I couldn?t stop. It was my calling; I suppose it was a passion. I ordered medical texts, entomology books, the Merck manual of pharmaceuticals so as to be well versed in toxic side effects when Jack Lyons called. My favorite reference book was A Hundred Ways to Die, a guide for the terminally ill, those who might be in dire need of methods and procedures for their own demise. Still, I always asked Jack if he hadn?t someone more qualified than I to do his research, but he said, ?I know I?ll just get the facts from you. No interpretations.?
In that regard, he was wrong. I was quiet, but I had my opinions: when asked to recommend which fairy tales were best for an eight-year-old, for instance, Andersen?s or Grimm?s, I always chose Grimm?s. Bones tied in silken cloth laid to rest under a juniper tree, boys who were foolish and brave enough to play cards with Death, wicked sisters whose own wickedness led them to hang themselves or jump headfirst into wells. On several occasions there had been complaints to the head librarian when irate mothers or teachers had inadvertently scared the daylights out of a child on my recommendation. All the same, I stood my ground. Andersen?s world was filled with virtuous, respectable characters. I preferred tales in which selfish girls who lost their way needed to hack through brambles in order to reach home, and thoughtless, heedless brothers were turned into donkeys and swans, fleas itching like mad under their skin, blood shining from beneath their feathers. I didn?t believe that people got what they deserved. I didn?t believe in a rational, benevolent world that could be ordered to suit us, an existence presumed to fit snugly into an invented logic. I had no faith in pie charts or diagrams of humanity wherein the wicked were divided from the good and the forever after was in direct opposition to the here and now.
When I walked home from the library on windy nights, with the leaves swirling, and all of New Jersey dark and quiet, I wouldn?t have been surprised to find a man with one wing sitting on the front steps of Town Hall, or to come upon a starving wolf on the corner of Fifth Street and Main. I knew the power of a single wish, after all. Invisible and inevitable in its effect, like a butterfly that beats its wings in one corner of the globe and with that single action changes the weather halfway across the world. Chaos theory, my brother had informed me, was based on the mathematical theorem that suggests that the tiniest change affects everything, no matter how distant, including the weather. My brother could call it whatever he wanted to; it was just fate to me.
Before I knew it thirteen years had passed at the library, and then fifteen. I still wore my hair the same way?the haircut I?d given myself at the age of eight had become my trademark. People expected certain things of me: assistance, silence, comfort. They had no idea who I was. I dated Jack Lyons for some of that time, if you could call it that. He?d phone me for information, and later that same evening he?d be waiting for me in the parking lot. We?d do it in his car. The sex was hurried and panicked and crazy, but we did it anyway. We took chances. Times when patrons would be arriving, days when there was so much snow, drifts three feet high built up around the car. Maybe I wanted to get caught, but we never did. We were alone in the world. Jack knew I didn?t like to speak; true enough, but it was my own words I mistrusted. No one else?s. He could say whatever he liked. He could even blurt out that he loved me, as long as he didn?t mean it. That was the important thing. The girl encased in ice facing the mountain. The cold silence that was so clean it didn?t hurt. For me, there was nothing beyond those mountains. Nothing worth going toward.
Jack always let me walk home alone and he never tried to follow me. I thought he knew me better than most. I thought he understood I didn?t deserve kindness, or loyalty, or luck. Then one night Jack brought me flowers, a handful of fading daisies he?d picked up at a farm stand, but flowers all the same. That was the end; that was how he ruined everything. The minute Jack acted as though we were anything more than two strangers who had a shared interest in death and sex, it was over. As soon as there was the possibility he might actually care for me, I stopped seeing him.
Without Jack, my life was completely uneventful. When the time came, it made sense for me to be the one to tend to my grandmother as she was dying. My brother was busy with his own life in Florida and I had no life at all, only the library, only walking home by myself at night. It was my duty, after all, and my responsibility. My grandmother loved me, truly and deeply, even though the only thing I had given her in return for her affection was chicken soup, toast with butter, pot after pot of English breakfast tea with honey and lemon, and an endless supply of library books. Our house was littered with books?in the kitchen, under the beds, stuck between the couch pillows?far too many for her to ever finish. I suppose I thought if my grandmother kept up her interests, she wouldn?t die; she?d have to stay around to finish the books she was so fond of. I?ve got to get to the bottom of this one, she?d say, as if a book were no different from a pond or a lake. I thought she?d go on reading forever, but it didn?t work out that way.
?You should be enjoying your life,? my grandmother said to me one night while I was helping her with her nightly cup of tea. Even drinking tea was difficult for her. She took little sips, like a bird. I had to hold her head up; she smelled like lemon and dust. I felt like crying, even though that was impossible for me. Crying wasn?t like riding a bicycle; give it up and you quickly forget how it?s done. Look in the mirror and make faces, cut up onions, watch sorrowful movies. None of that can bring back tears.
That night my grandmother?s sudden advice took me completely by surprise. I?d assumed that she of all people understood I?d been ruined long ago. I didn?t deserve to be happy. Didn?t my dear grandmother understand that? I had already passed the age my mother had been on that icy night when she drove off to meet her friends. Who was I to enjoy anything?
?You?re always so negative,? my grandmother said.
?You got all the positive genes.? Amazing, considering her condition, considering the condition of the world.
Toward the end of her illness, even my grandmother had to face sorrow. She cried in her sleep. I couldn?t stand to hear her suffering. I left the cat I?d adopted to keep watch over her, curled up on the hospital bed I?d rented, and I went to stand outside, where I could breathe in the brackish air. It was spring and there was pine pollen everywhere; things had turned a sulfury yellow. That night I wished that my whole life had been different and that I could start all over again, in Paris or London, in Italy, even across the river in New York City, where I?d gone to school. I was still young. I wished I could shed my skin, walk away, never look back. But starting a new life was not my expertise. Death was my talent; before I could stop myself, I wished my grandmother?s pain would end. I wished that this world would no longer have a hold on her.
She died that night while I was sleeping on the couch. The cat was beside her, and when I heard Giselle mewling, I knew what had happened. My brother didn?t come up to New Jersey until several days after our grandmother?s passing; the funeral had to wait because it was exam week at Orlon University. Ned realized what was happening to me as soon as he walked in the house. I was like a bird that had been let out of its cage only to find it could go no farther than the windowsill. All those years of planning my escape from New Jersey, and now I couldn?t even leave the living room. I?d pretty much stopped eating, aside from cornflakes and milk, which was the only thing I could keep down. I hadn?t showered and I gave off a faint odor of mildew, the scent of the ruined and the lost. I had called in to the library to let them know I wouldn?t be coming back. The reference desk was too much for me. Everything was. Jack sent me a sympathy note on police stationery; he wrote that he missed me, more than he?d ever expected to, and was hopeful I would soon return to my desk. But that wasn?t about to happen. I could barely find a reason to get dressed, let alone field meaningless research questions or have sex with someone I didn?t care about in the backseat of his car. Sometimes I simply stayed in my bathrobe. I had lost the will to wash my face, to look in the mirror, to step outside, to breathe the air.
My brother and I hadn?t had a real conversation in years. Too busy, lives too far apart. But after the funeral he sat beside me on the couch. He was allergic to cats, just as I was, and his eyes had already begun to water because of Giselle.
?This is not going to do you any good,? Ned told me. ?You can?t stay here.?
Logical still, as if it mattered. Logical then, as well. I thought of the morning of my mother?s death; before my grandmother had arrived, I?d wandered out in my pajamas and saw him in the kitchen. I think he might have been cleaning up. He was orderly even then. It?s too early, Ned had told me. Go back to bed. I did exactly that. Two days later we?d sat together, side by side on folding chairs at my mother?s funeral, held at the gravesite. A few of my mother?s friends were there, all in black dresses. Ned wore a black suit, borrowed probably. I?d never seen it before. I had a navy blue dress with a lace collar that I?d snipped off with the same shears I?d used to cut my hair. There was a plain pine coffin, closed. Still, I?d read enough fairy tales to know the dead were not necessarily gone. Our mother might have been asleep, under a spell, ready to rap on the coffin from within and beg, Let me out!
It could happen at any time. The sky was gray; there was ice on the ground. And then I saw that Ned was crying. He was quiet about it. He didn?t make a sound. I don?t think I?d ever seen him do that before, so I quickly looked away. And then the coffin looked different. Shut tight. Over and done.
At my grandmother?s service, Ned and I were the only mourners. Same kind of plain pine box, same graveyard. We had never gotten around to putting a marker on my mother?s grave, and I was glad of this. I didn?t want to know exactly where she?d been buried. Maybe she hadn?t been buried at all. Maybe I?d been wrong and she had indeed flung open the wooden box to run through the dark and the cold the moment we?d left the gravesite. I looked for footprints, though it had been more than twenty years. Only the scratch scratch of birds. And something else?the tracks of a fox.
Ned had not only handled my grandmother?s affairs, he?d already done the research needed to set my life in order as well. He had found me a job, at the public library in Orlon, and a cottage to rent only a few blocks from the university campus. We debated the merits of a move. Statistically, the odds weren?t on Ned?s side. Had money been involved, I would have bet my future consisted of twenty more years in my grandmother?s house, wearing my bathrobe. But my brother was a worthy opponent, methodical if nothing else, and a challenge never deterred him, even if that challenge was me.
While I was moping about and eating cornflakes, Ned packed up the house, called the real estate agent, had new tires put on my car. And so it was. I was leaving New Jersey. My colleagues wanted to give me a going-away party at the library, but without me, there was no one to organize it. I took the cat with me. I had no choice. Giselle jumped in the car and made herself comfortable on my brother?s jacket, ensuring that Ned would sneeze all the way down to Florida.
It was an unseasonably hot day when we left. The air was sulfur-colored, gray around the edges, and the humidity was at 98 percent.
?This will get you used to Florida.? Ned was oddly joyful.
There was sheet lightning ahead of us on the New Jersey Turnpike, the silent sort that is so vivid it can light up the whole sky. My brother was delighted by the weather; his department was currently involved in a lightning study and he was one of the project advisers.
?Without thunderstorms, the earth would lose its electrical charge in less than an hour,? Ned told me.
He kept notes on the storm as I drove. I was used to being alone, accustomed to talking to myself; without thinking, I made another wish aloud, despite how it burned. I wished lightning would strike me.
?Like hell you do,? my brother said. One of the tasks of the meteorology department at Orlon was to work with a team of physicians and biologists, addressing neurological injuries found in lightning-strike victims. ?You have no idea of the damage that can be done. None whatsoever.?
But it didn?t really matter. I had made another death wish, and I could tell what was to come from the bitter taste in my mouth.
It was too late to take it back.
THE CAT WASN?T AT ALL HAPPY WITH THE MOVE. I couldn?t blame her. Orlon was hardly a paradise. Cats, after all, are creatures of habit, said to become more attached to a place than to a person. This was certainly true of my alleged pet, who had never seemed to miss the original owner from whom I?d inherited her. Not for a moment had she sat by a window, waiting to be rescued. Why, she didn?t even seem to recognize the existence of human beings. My prize. My pet.
Giselle, I?d call when she was out in the garden, but she?d only ignore me and flick her tail, as though I were another fly, one of the thousands that seemed to be breeding in Orlon. Even my own cat disliked me. What had I expected? Life was no better here in Orlon, despite what my brother had promised, only hotter, buggier, far more humid than New Jersey at its worst. The library where I found myself employed was underfunded: there was one other librarian, Frances York, who had worked at the same post for forty years and whose eyesight was now failing?hence my job. Untrustworthy as I might be, I was to be her eyes.
This is what I saw: Most of the shelves were empty. Budget cuts. Public?s lack of interest. I had more books packed in cartons and left in storage in New Jersey than the Orlon Public Library had in its entirety. There were no computers available to the patrons, only one ancient word processor at the desk, and an old-fashioned card catalog was still in use. As for the reference department, there didn?t seem to be one. After several weeks at work, there?d been only three calls of any kind: two concerning the proper use of fertilizer, and a third from a second-grader wanting to know what medical school Dr. Seuss had gone to. Maybe I should have lied to my young caller, but it wasn?t in my nature to do so. When I told her that her favorite author wasn?t a doctor, that in fact his last name wasn?t even Seuss, she hung up on me. I suppose no one had told her before that she mustn?t trust words, not even the ones in books.
Because we were a college town, the students at Orlon had their own high-tech facility, so our little building was all but invisible to them. And as our budget didn?t allow the purchase of any new editions, even the local folks stayed away. The only weekly activity was the nursery-school reading club, but that group was nearly disbanded after I read ?The Goose Girl,? a tale in which a truth-teller, a beloved, loyal horse named Falada, continues to speak long after his severed head is mounted on the wall. Frances took back the position of reader, even though she was nearly blind and had to hold a book right up to her face to make out the story. Frances was polite about my removal, and I understood. Death was my talent, not lively toddlers. I gratefully relinquished the nursery group, happy enough to avoid the rush of noisy little creatures on Thursday afternoons.
During my hours at the library I found myself longing for questions about death. New Jersey had begun to seem like a dream rather than a nightmare. I stared at the phone, missing Jack Lyons and his calls; our longest, most intimate conversations had been about diseases that were spread by mosquitoes, especially West Nile virus. As for my brother, he and Nina were busy with their work at the university; after they?d helped me set up the house?which my brother had failed to mention was not air-conditioned, there was only a ceiling fan?I rarely saw Ned and his wife. I hadn?t expected more, and why should I have? They had their own lives, after all.
In the evenings, I listened to the radio and busied myself with killing flies, using a flyswatter I?d bought at Acres? Hardware Store. A bit of death at home. Something I understood. Something I was good at. I?d killed hundreds of flies in no time. I kept piles of bodies on the windowsill. That?s what I was doing when it happened. I was holding the flyswatter when I saw something that appeared to be a tennis ball right in front of me. The window was open, the ceiling fan was on, the sky was heavy with heat. I thought perhaps some neighborhood kids had thrown the ball through my window. I didn?t care for children of any age or size. I knew how they thought and what they were capable of. I was about to shout out for the culprits to get off my lawn. But then I saw that the ball was oddly bright, so shimmery I had to squint. When my gaze shifted I noticed that the flyswatter I was holding was edged in fire and that the fire was dripping down onto the floor, like a sparkler on the Fourth of July.
I was paralyzed, I think, helpless to do anything but watch as the ball fell to the floor. I heard a huge noise: an explosion of some sort, like a shotgun. I thought of the ice that had ricocheted off the roof when my mother drove away. Death sound. The thud of what cannot be stopped. For a second I thought, It?s the end of the world. My world, I meant. In a way this was true. In a matter of seconds, everything changed. If I had turned left instead of right, perhaps it wouldn?t have happened; if the fly I?d swatted had never come in through a hole in the screen, if I?d never left New Jersey, if a butterfly in South America had never unfurled its wings and with a single beat altered everything, now and forevermore.
When I awoke in the hospital I knew at least part of my wish had come true. I could taste it, the burning flavor of death. The wish I?d made in the car traveling down to Florida had accomplished half of its mission, but I was still half alive. I couldn?t move my left side. Arms, legs, trunk, had all been affected. There hadn?t been a multi-organ disruption?no kidney or lung effects. But my heart had been affected and there had been neurological damage, the two most frequent causes of mortalities in lightning-strike victims. All the same, I was informed that I was lucky to be in Orlon, where there were more lightning strikes than anywhere else in Florida?glorious Florida, the top state for deaths and injuries caused by lightning. Because of this, the medical care in our county was expert. I was supposed to be grateful for that. I would need physical therapy and a serious relationship with a cardiologist, since my heart now skipped a beat. I could feel it fluttering inside me?torn posterior pericardium, they said. It was as though a bird were trapped inside me, one that belonged in a place outside the cage of my aching ribs.
While I was being told about my condition, with my brother and Nina looking on, the only thing I could concentrate on was the clicking inside my head. That wasn?t unusual in cases such as mine, the doctor assured me when he heard my complaint. Neither was my nausea or the pain in my neck or the swelling in my face or the fact that my fingers were numb. But look at all I?d escaped! Pulmonary edema, tympanic membrane rupture?deafness brought on by sound and shock?thermal burns from ignited clothing, serious vascular effects, heart attack, cataracts, lesions on the brain, the eye, the skin.
I had been unconscious for thirty-two hours, hence the IV in my arm. Naturally things were fuzzy. Of course, my brother and Nina looked concerned. And so I didn?t mention anything when the nurse came in with a dinner tray. I didn?t say a word when I noticed that the Jell-O I was being offered was the color of stones. The nurse herself, not more than twenty-five, appeared to have long white hair. The flowers my brother and his wife had brought me seemed dusted with snow. I understood then. I had completely lost the color red. Whatever had once been red was now cloudy and pale. All I saw was ice; all I felt was the cold of my own ruined self. Perhaps I had an ocular reaction to the heat of the strike?vitreous hemorrhage was one of the many potential effects on the eye, along with corneal scratches and cataracts. Why the absence of a color would affect me so deeply, I had no idea, but I suddenly felt completely bereft. I had lost something before I?d known its worth, and now it was too late.
I stayed in the hospital for nearly two weeks. I didn?t see much of my brother, but Nina went daily to my house to feed Giselle. When I was finally allowed out, still using a walker because of the weakness on my left side, Nina picked me up and drove me home. I saw that my sister-in-law had also stocked my refrigerator. I think she may have vacuumed. I understood why my brother had been drawn to her. Nina was logical, a great believer in order, and like my brother, she was not a fan of emotions. She stood there and wrung her hands while I sat on the couch and wept.
?Sorry,? I said to Nina. She nodded and waved me on. I kept at it, running through nearly a box of tissues. It was my first cry in a long time, and I overdid it. I sat there sobbing, shudders running through me. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by everything, a wreck, true enough. My hair had fallen out in clumps and there was that dreadful clicking noise in the back of my head. I still wasn?t able to hold down solid food. The doctor had told me the symptoms were similar to someone suffering from radiation poisoning. That?s how I felt?to my bones, to my toes?poisoned. All down my afflicted side there was a wrenching sort of feeling, as if something had been twisted. A short in my electrical system, I supposed. My very essence, my inner self was gone. I reached for things and couldn?t feel them. It was as though everything solid had slipped away from me. Inside, my heart felt frozen.
The weather was still humid and stifling; no outsider could be prepared for Florida. We weren?t even close to summer, still the heat exploded in midair, then settled; it weighed you down. All the same, when Nina asked if I?d like anything, I asked for hot tea. I sat there shivering, colder than ever. Ice in my veins. Ice behind my eyes as well, it seemed. While my sister-in-law fixed the tea, I looked out the window. Everything out there was the color of ice. I wondered if the bougainvillea was scarlet: I?d never noticed it before. Now the vine was pale and ghostly, frostbitten and shivering in the heat. I felt as though I had one foot in this world, and one in the next. I couldn?t even get the death wish right this time around. I was like a person who?d tried to commit suicide by jumping out a third-story window, succeeding only in breaking every bone. Still alive, still more or less intact, still trapped in the same life.
Before she left, Nina told me a physical therapist would be coming to see me. When the therapist appeared the next morning and rang the bell, I didn?t open the door. Maybe I didn?t want to be healed. Maybe I deserved whatever I got. Maybe this was the fate I deserved. I sat on the couch with Giselle, imagining I was safe from the well-meaning and the helpful. But my brother had an extra key, which he?d handed over, and the physical therapist let herself in. She introduced herself as Peggy Travis. As though I cared. As though I intended to make this personal. I suppose Peggy was wearing a red striped dress, but it was gray to me. She went through the list of exercises we?d be doing to strengthen my left side. I excused myself. Fumbling with my walker, I went to the bathroom and threw up.
?It?s very common to feel sick.? My unwelcome visitor had actually come up behind me and was watching me vomit. ?For some people it lasts only a short time, for others it?s different.?
She shut up then. But I got the drift. For others it?s an eternity.
I was pathetic really. I couldn?t even squeeze a rubber ball. More clumps of my hair fell out just from the stress of trying. But my Peggy wasn?t the type to let her charges give up. She had seen it all in working with her clients?the lame, the frail, the screwed-up, the messed-up, the chewed-up, the burnt, the sorrowful. She told me about them when we had tea?hers iced, mine steaming. I?d sweated and grunted through my workout, with my swollen face swelling even more and the clicking going on nonstop; I hardly felt up for conversation. That?s how people like Peggy got to you; they waited till you had no defenses, then talked you to death. I felt like a time bomb, as a matter of fact, but I drank my tea. I had no choice but to listen. I heard about Peggy?s last client, a man who?d been mauled by a bulldog. By the time the attack was over, the victim had only three fingers, total, and I should have seen how quickly he?d improved. He was now working at Acres? Hardware Store. Before that, it was a woman in a car crash who couldn?t remember her own name and needed to be spoon-fed but was now up and about and taking art history classes at Orlon University.
I knew exactly what Peggy was up to. So take that! See there! You can do it, too! Up by your bootstraps! Work a little harder!
All of Peggy?s cases were success stories. Perhaps I should have warned her: her luck was about to change. I was stubborn; I suppose I tried to fail, and yet I did improve slightly, at least on the surface. I never mentioned the lack of the color red, the buzzing under my skin, the clicking in my head. The one creature I couldn?t hide my most secret effects from was the cat. Sometimes Giselle would come to sit next to me and place her paw on my arm. Her paw would vibrate violently and after an instant, she?d remove it and stare at me. I thought she knew me then. The only creature in the universe that understood how I really felt. No wonder she disliked me. I hadn?t fooled her one bit.
Frances York had promised to keep my job open for me at the library, that bookless, underused place. When she telephoned to tell me the news I said, Oh joy. She missed the sarcasm; she thought I meant it.
But of course I will, dear. We stick together.
I didn?t know if she meant librarians, or losers, or women who were alone, facing some sort of tragedy. I figured she?d had tragedies of her own, not that I wanted to hear about them. I wanted to tell her that at my last job I used to have meaningless sex with someone in the library parking lot on a regular basis. Someone I didn?t love and didn?t want to love me. That I did it even in the winter, when there was ice everywhere and our breath steamed up the car windows. I wanted to tell her that ever since my lightning strike I spent my nights vomiting and clicking, and that my eyes?the stand-ins for her failing vision?hurt so badly I?d probably never read another book again. I wanted to tell her I had managed to do away with nearly all of the people I loved most in the world, death by proximity and idle wishes, and I still couldn?t manage to get rid of myself. Instead, I said, Thank you, and promised I?d advise her about my condition; as soon as I felt up to it, I?d come back to the library.
My life was empty and that was fine. It was what I was used to. Yet there was something expected of me, like it or not. I was to be a part of the lightning-strike study, persuaded by my brother to be among the dozens of patients tested by a team of biologists, neurologists, and meteorologists on the third floor of the Science Center over at the university. My brother seemed to feel guilty about what had happened to me, and yet he was avoiding me. Best not to see what disturbs you. Best to order it, examine it, and place it in a study. The way I saw it, chaos theory was at the root of Ned?s guilt. On those occasions when he phoned me, it was to discuss the probabilities of my lightning strike. If he hadn?t insisted, I wouldn?t have moved to Florida. If I hadn?t moved, I wouldn?t have been struck, and on and on. I didn?t want to hear any more and I certainly didn?t want to see Ned suffer. One of us doing that was enough.
So I gave in.
The experts tapped at me, charted my heartbeat, examined my skeleton. I saw a neurologist. A cardiologist. Then a psychologist. They gave me a battery of intelligence tests and told me it was fine if I didn?t remember the names of historical figures most fifth-graders could reel off. There were psychological tests as well; I expected as much. On those questions I answered that everything was false.
I was informed that there were many different kinds of lightning strikes?splash, contact, step voltage, blunt trauma, and direct hit. Mine seemed to have been a splash?the flyswatter, it seemed, had come between me and the full force of what can be as much as 120 million volts. Ninety percent of lightning-strike victims survived, but 25 percent suffered major effects, some of which weren?t apparent for months or even years. My brother sent over several books, and the medical staff loaded me down with pamphlets. I think they were all trying not just to educate me but to let me know how lucky I was simply to be alive.
By the end of the month, the neurologist in charge of my case, Dr. Wyman, said I was progressing nicely. I knew I wasn?t. Oh, I had moved on from a walker to a cane, from physical therapy every day to twice a week and finally to practicing my exercises alone. Peggy had gone on to her next patient, an elderly man who?d fallen down the stairs and broken every single bone in his legs. I was done as far as Peggy was concerned. Up and about and enjoying the Florida weather, I?m sure she was saying to the man with broken bones. Dr. Wyman was most likely discussing me with his colleagues. Such good progress! Even when I admitted the ocular problem, he insisted the fading of a single color was nothing to worry about. Perhaps to him it was nothing, but to me the loss of red was staggering; the emptiness I was left with made me weep. In my world, a cherry was no different from a stone. Oh, how I missed things that had never mattered to me before. An apple, a carnation, a bird I knew to be a cardinal, which to my eyes was as gray as a dove.
There were no words for how wrong Wyman was in his assessment of my condition. In fact, I?d been deteriorating. The crying, the coldness inside, the fear every time I walked out the door. How could I tell the doctor what was wrong with me? I didn?t understand it myself. I couldn?t articulate the pain; it was the pain of nothingness. My fear was of the weather, the atmosphere, the very air. What good did safety tips do me now? Avoid water, metal objects, rooftops; stay off the telephone in a storm; don?t think glass can protect you; even if a storm is eight miles away, you?re still not safe from a strike. Avoid life, perhaps that was the answer. The number one safety tip. Stay away from it all.
Without words, only action would do. To show my doctor what little progress I?d made, to show him what my world was made of, I put my hand through the window. It was a staggeringly stupid thing to do, but maybe Peggy had been right. Maybe I wanted help; maybe I was desperate for it. I was trapped behind glass, cold, empty, dead inside. Such was my condition, Doctor, if you really want to know: shattered.
The Science Center was cool, crisp, temperature-controlled. It was a shock to have broiling hot air stream through the broken window into the deeply cold room. The doctor leapt back. Glass covered the floor, shimmering. In all honesty, I had stunned myself. It was as though the girl in my childhood story had suddenly lurched forward against her casing of blue ice.
?Good Lord!? Wyman said. ?What do you think you?re doing??
Blood, I suppose, was running down my arm. It looked like paste to me.
?Are you crazy?? my doctor asked me.
That didn?t seem a very professional question. And frankly, I thought it was up to Wyman to tell me. He was the diagnostician, after all; he was the one so certain I was improving.
The maintenance crews were mowing the grass, and the humming of their work mixed with the click inside my head, so I stopped listening to the doctor. I was taken back to the hospital in an ambulance, even though all I needed was a few stitches. I had just wanted to get my point across. What was so wrong about that? There it was, every bit of who I was: blood, panic, sorrow. Did I have to spell it out for him?
I was observed by internists and a psych team for forty-eight hours, during which time I made certain to be extremely pleasant. I could do that whenever I wanted to. I?d learned how in high school. The me you want me to be, the girl who knows how to listen. It didn?t take long before the nurses were confiding in me about their love lives, just as my friends had in high school. The dietitian took a special liking to me. Her mother was dying; she closed the door so she could cry in front of me. I didn?t tell her about my own history, my mother running to her car, my dear grandmother crying in her sleep.
But all the time I was in the psych ward, I might as well have been made of ice. That first crying jag I?d had was surely an anomaly. In the ward, I looked in the distance for mountains, but there were only meshed windows, tall cabbage palms. The things I was most aware of were the things I was unable to see: geraniums in pots along the windowsill, gray and black checkers set out on drab boards, the mouths of the nurses as they spoke to me, lips so icy white they seemed frozen.
When they released me?progress, again!?I took a cab home. I found Giselle pacing at the door, ravenous. This time Nina had forgotten her, so I fed the poor creature tuna fish from the can and a saucerful of milk. My diagnosis was panic disorder and depression, and I couldn?t agree more. Trauma-induced, they told me. Well, yes, that was true. Only the trauma hadn?t happened here in Florida, and it had nothing to do with lightning.
When I let the cat out in the yard I could feel the change in the atmosphere. It was the oddest thing. It was as though I were a cloud instead of a human being. I knew it would start raining minutes before it did. I could feel the charged atoms in the air, and I was quick to call Giselle in before her coat got matted and wet. While I was getting into bed there was a lightning strike nearly five miles away. The strike split a pine tree in two and started a fire that burned several houses down to ash. It was summer lightning, the kind that appears without thunder, without a sign. But I didn?t need anyone to tell me about it.
It was the one thing I could feel deep inside.
Copyright © 2005 by Alice Hoffman
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