Cassandra’s Tears

Tears of joy, tears of pain, we are reflected in the salt-water pools we create. So let us build a fleet of paper boats and sail them on our ocean of indecision, laughing at the wind-whipped white-crested waves that would wash over us, drowning us in our own despair, yet somehow never vanquishing us in the end.

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Location: Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada

Monday, December 26, 2005

Take my hand

Reaching for his morning coffee, Arthur suddenly realized that the hand he observed protruding from his checked flannel shirt was not his own. Sure, it was his wrist; there was the scar he had received at age eight from the scythe in his uncle’s barn that day he and his cousin were jumping out of the hay loft. It had faded much over time, but had never totally disappeared, a lifelong reminder of a moment’s youthful recklessness. But this hand, this right hand, was a stranger’s.

The skin was pale, unfreckled; the back was hairless and the palm and fingers smooth and uncalloused. There was no obvious join, as though a mad scientist had performed vivisection on him while he slept, but the bizarreness of this discovery helped to keep Arthur from panicking. He turned the hand over, examining it closely. The nails were manicured and it was obvious that the previous bearer had never known hard labour. “A white-collar sort of hand,” Arthur thought to himself. He wondered if it played the piano or the flute, if it wielded a pen or paint brush.

It was most decidedly not his hand though, and that did concern him. He picked up his coffee mug, noting that it felt hotter than usual before attributing it to his new hand’s lack of protection in the form of thickened skin. This was not the hand of someone who hauled timber and groomed horses, split firewood and baled hay. What if the original owner of the hand wanted it back? Was Arthur obliged to keep it in the pristine condition in which he’d discovered it?

He felt a sneeze coming on and reached up his left hand, which was thankfully his own, to put a finger under his nose, when he realized suddenly that something was terribly wrong with his face. He put down his coffee and pulled the shiny chrome toaster towards himself and peered into its reflective surface. Sure enough, the nose in the middle of Arthur’s face was not the same appendage he had seen in the mirror when he was brushing his teeth the night before. Whereas it had been large and pitted, rosy from his bedtime scotch and hairy of nostril, this one was narrow, aquiline, aristocratic and unblemished. It was obvious that it went with the hand that reached up a tentative finger to prod at the shiny surface.

Suddenly Arthur burst out laughing. Sure, it was funny enough, a country bumpkin like himself suddenly sporting the body parts of an English lord, but how did that same bloke feel about having Arthur’s hairy hand and sizeable schnoz decorating his otherwise elegant form? “Poor bastard,” he thought to himself, and dismissed the mystery from his mind. There were horses to be groomed, wood to be chopped and hay to be baled. It wasn’t his problem.

Saint Beatrice: Virgin Martyr of the first Christian Centuries

I was just a child then. I suppose I will forever be a child, for death puts an end to one’s growing. I may even have been beautiful, but that wasn’t important to me then, and it certainly makes no difference now.

I took orders very young, possibly against my will, for death makes you forget much. I cannot even remember if I had begun my monthly bleeding yet. I was a quiet girl, obedient and studious. My family was poor and my mother fecund, so I was the obvious choice to send to the convent. I had a brother who entered the priesthood as well, but I’ve forgotten his name. I barely remember my own. Was it Clara, Elizabeth, Beatrice, Josephine? Yes, I have forgotten. That doesn’t matter now either.

At the nunnery I no longer saw my parents or my siblings. The sisters became my family, but I still pined after my natural relations. There was not much in the way of warmth among the inmates and many was the night I cried myself to sleep on the hard palette in my small cell. I especially missed my puppy and the cat that kept the mice from the grain. The mother superior would not let me befriend the convent cats. She was a mother in name only, possessing little of any milk of human kindness for me and the other young initiates.

Eventually I fell into the routines of the convent and got used to the bad food, the lack of sleep, being woken up at all hours to troop down to the chapel in bare feet on the freezing stone floor. As I said, I was a quiet girl and my silence must have been taken for piety. I started spending much time alone in the chapel meditating, remembering carefree afternoons with my sisters, my lips moving silently as I mouthed the songs we sang together. My rosary reminded me of a necklace my older sister had given me but my vow of poverty prevented me from now owning, and I would finger it as I knelt and dreamt of lost freedom.

Everything changed when the war broke out. The bad food got worse, there were no new habits and small clothes to replace the ones I was rapidly growing out of, and suddenly we nuns were required to turn our cloisters into hospital rooms. The little joy I took in my privacy was set aside for a shared cell with one of my fellows. We girls learned how to clean wounds, to sew severed skin together, to bandage and, on occasion, to amputate. The work disgusted me, but I said nothing as always, and the soldier patients found my manner and my silent stolidness reassuring. They would even ask for me by name, the name I have since forgotten. This did not go unnoticed by the priest and the mother superior.

Then one day our makeshift hospital itself was attacked by the enemy. We were dragged outside into the smoke-filled yard as our convent was set to the torch. The soldiers, boisterous in their conquering mania, did not care that we were servants of God, but proceeded to have their way with the sisters. I was sickened by what I saw, more so even than when I had sawed off a festering leg, as I watched my cellmate stripped naked and raped by an armed man. Her screams cut deeper than the bone saw, her tears more draining than the blood that spurted out of his arteries, and when it was my turn I would not yield, but seized my would-be rapist’s weapon and slashed my own throat, hoping for a quick oblivion that would end my adolescent suffering. Alas, my death did indeed end the lustful violence, but the mother superior quickly canted my own life blood as it spilled from my wound. My broken body was spirited away and I was declared a saint, for I had died a martyr, defending my chastity as Christ’s virgin bride.

There is not much left to tell. My bones now lie in a glass case beneath this altar, clad in silken raiment. Pieces of my crushed skull are hidden inside a beautiful wax head, the rest are in a bag hanging around my spine and resting inside my empty ribcage. Golden locks the like of which I never possessed in life adorn this effigy, golden mesh gloves encase my skeletal hands, and a bottle decorated with a cross guards the dried blood that flowed from my corpse. I cannot sleep, I cannot leave. There is no rest and there is no exit.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The last time I saw her…

The last time I saw her she was wearing a flowered summer dress and a straw hat, her honey-coloured hair hanging down her back and over her shoulders in ringlets, her feet clad in open sandals and a basket of berries hanging from her arm. She was standing beside the road, picking the wild blackberries growing among the service berry trees, her fingers stained, popping a ripe black-lobed fruit between her purple-stained lips every so often.

It was a hot day, summer already on the wane. Yellowjackets buzzed around the ripened fruit, but she did not mind them. As I recall, she was not deterred by much, not by stinging insects, nor spiders, nor by worms in the garden. She could pick up hot pots and dishes with her bare hands and cleaned out drains by plunging her fingers into disgusting sludge. That always grossed me out, but to her it was business as usual.

I never saw her again. That evening a deer crossed the road in front of her car and she tried to avoid hitting it, only to spin out of control into an oncoming vehicle. The medics said she was already dead when they arrived at the scene, her neck broken. The other driver, in a pickup truck, was unhurt, and there was no sign of any injured deer.

I shall always miss her. Every time I see honey-coloured curls or a flowered dress, my heart leaps in my breast until I remember she is dead. How can I forget? Father was never the same after. My brother and I eventually grew up and moved away to make our own lives, but that spot our older sister occupied has always been vacant, like a wound that won’t heal. Summer ended that day and winter has not yet ceased.