By Jenn Smith
[Note: this is an excerpt from a kind of fictionalized autobiography that I was working on before I got into the transgender debate, and it remains a work in progress. It is in essence a kind of new (at least for me) experimental writing style. It would be tempting, and perhaps a tad audacious, for me to compare it to James Joyce’s “stream of consciousness,” but it is quite obviously something much more extreme than that. It might be regarded as a kind of reverse mnemonics in the sense that the object is not to embed memories, but to pull them out and reshape them in ways that provide meaning and release from their originally emotionally fixed and binding power. I believe that what I have done constitutes a form of artistic therapeutic prose, but I suppose the reader will have to decide that for themselves.]
The story you are about to read is part fact and part fiction. I will not attempt to reveal for you just which parts are fact and which fiction, I will let you decide that for yourself.
Many elements of this story, perhaps all of them, will seem fantastic to the average reader. I would, however, strongly dissuade you from assuming that just because something in this book seems fantastic and implausible, that it is therefore untrue. I can assure you that in many instances this assumption would be quite incorrect. Indeed, many of the most implausible things described in this book are described exactly as they really happened, and even the things that did not happen are described exactly as they would have happened if they had really happened. As Ken Kesey wrote, “It’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.” If all of this seems overly obscure, I can assure you that it is in perfect keeping with the nature of life itself. For as Heraclitus once observed, “the nature of things is in the habit of concealing itself.” I therefore will not seek to deviate from this noble tradition.
Despite my advice, I am quite sure the temptation will arise during your reading of this story to try to separate what is “real” from what is “unreal.” But this is a dubious challenge at the best of times, for in the province of the mind the line that separates real from unreal is very thin and there is a great deal of cross-chatter in both directions. As H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them.” It should also be noted as a fact, that God communicates exclusively by the use of signs, symbols, and metaphors as well, and thus literal interpretations are not always wise or advised. I thus encourage you to abandon reality testing immediately, and open yourself up to the experience and the design of this book; allow it to guide you along without resistance, and use your intuition to feel beneath the surface of things.
It used to be, prior to the latter part of the 20th century, that most stories had a moral. But as the world has become increasingly shallow and hedonistic, this practice has fallen out of favor with the fashionable. The primary purpose of most books today is to titillate and excite – Fifty Shades of absolute garbage, designed to be read while your knuckles drag along the ground and the primal monkey howls – not a socially redeeming bone in the body of the entire work. This book breaks from the new tradition of mindless titillation and embraces instead the old-fashioned idea of a story serving a purpose.
The moral of this book and the truths addressed herein may shock and outrage some readers. Many of those outraged will undoubtedly be those people that have covered up truths with lies their entire lives, because they cannot bear or are afraid to look at the ugly truth. They are motivated instead by repressed guilt, fear, or both. They have either been directly complicit in the issues addressed, or indirectly complicit by simply looking the other way. Such people cannot bring themselves to face the truth, and instead seek to bury it and launch ad hominen attacks upon anybody that seeks to expose it. But there comes a time in the sociological evolution of a species when brave souls must kick open the closet doors of complacency and drag the skeletons into the street, where they can be exposed to sunlight and oxygen until they finally break down and turn into dust. We can then sweep the remains into the dustbin of history, along with the remains of the iron maiden, the thumb-screws, and other such horrors from our cultural past.
The outraged will thus do what the outraged always have done, namely, march about with pitchforks and torches screaming for the head of anybody that dares to expose their dirty laundry. Others still may not be able to see the forest through the proverbial trees; or perhaps, they will be found to suffer from both outrage and ignorance, one of the most powerfully destructive combinations in the history of our species. If they are unable to decode the moral of this book, it is because they insist upon looking at the finger that points at the moon instead of at the moon itself. In this regard, I will defer to the sentiments of brother Franz Hartmann when he wrote about the secret symbols and metaphors of the Rosicrucian brotherhood: namely, that those unable to understand the truth are not needed nor desired, and thus will be ignored until they have developed themselves to the point at which understanding becomes possible.
With this preamble out of the way, I turn the reader over now to the story at hand.
How did I come to this unfortunate state? That is the question that presents itself to us at this time with some degree of urgency. When Odysseus traveled to hell he found there an old friend, Elpenor, and he asked him what been the cause of his early and sudden demise. Elpenor coughed up some soot and ashes and proclaimed that it was, “Bad luck and too much wine.” With that the demons dragged his charred body back into the fiery pits of hell to have another go at him with the glowing hot pokers … at least that is how I remember the story. Bad luck for me to be sure, no wine to speak of, in fact none at all, but there were a myriad of other poisons equally as deadly, some to be delivered as enemas while I protested in futility. To understand how I arrived in this position we need to go back – back to the start, and dredge our way through the sewers and catacombs that comprised my early life.
It seems strange, but life does not begin in the flash of lights and sounds that one might expect to accompany the process of birth. The good Lord in His wisdom and infinite mercy seems to have occluded us from the memory of this event that would have – if recalled – been enough to shock and embarrass even an enlightened and repentant Oedipus, let alone ourselves and our dear mothers. But the amnesia, if that is what it is, extends far beyond the first few moments of life and frequently reaches deep into the third or fourth years of our existence.
Life then begins like images seen on an old television set, poorly tuned, but getting better by the moment. A few fuzzy pictures and sounds flicker across the screens of our minds and gradually come into clearer and clearer focus, until a coherent story begins to emerge. At first it seems to be a melodrama, as all we can seem to recall are the very highs and lows – but then, for most of us, a few unremarkable non-sequiturs are inserted into our memories here and there just to assure us that the world is not a constant process of extreme pleasure and extreme pain. For life, we are assured, is more like the readings on an electroencephalogram, fairly steady most of the time, with periods of high and low activity. For myself, however, an EEG printout of my early years would look to any neurologist like something had gone terribly, terribly wrong with the equipment. The readings could not possibly be this low, and yet there they are.
I do not want to digress too deeply into the history of my origins, but when a proverbial gun has been fired, any attempt to discover the identity of the shooter must begin by ascertaining from which direction the bullets were shot. Without this basic knowledge, no subsequent conclusions can be drawn. As such, some degree of digression is required.
Because our earliest memories do tend to be primarily of the most urgent sort, my memories too begin in this way. When tuning to these early memories they appear as if scenes from a strange nightmarish tragedy, the first few acts of which have been missed.
I am four years old and I find myself in a noisy courtroom. To my immediate left are my mother, father, and grandmother – they are talking amongst themselves in a state of extreme agitation. To my far right I can see a collection of stodgy-looking penguin people and one old crone. The old crone looks over at me like a snake eyeing a rat. As I glance cautiously into her evil eyes, I become quite sure that she is the witch that tried to roast Hansel and Gretel. Had I remembered to scoop up a handful of white pebbles before leaving home, I too might have been able to escape the clutches of that old witch. But such was not to be the case for me, I would learn to call the oven my home.
Looming far above the chaos on the courtroom floor, is a frightening and yet surprisingly indifferent old man. The old man looks down at me with an expression of compassion equal to that which one might see on the face of a frog that has just snapped up another fly after a long day of gorging. He yawns and looks down at his wristwatch. The adults in the courtroom refer to this man as “your honor” and “judge so-and-so.”
Judge So-and-so mumbles something audibly clear but intellectually unintelligible, at least to me. Whatever he has said, it seems to have peaked my mother’s already dangerously accelerated attention. She has apparently confused the judge with an umpire. She winds up a reply and tosses it like a wild fastball over my head in his general direction, “We just wanted to get Ricky help, and now you want to steal him from us you bastards!”
The judge uses a callous but expert stare to bunt my mother’s fastball into the back of the courtroom, where it is immediately devoured by a pack of half-starved wolves. The judge leans back, unperturbed.
My mother is a heavy-set woman with auburn-brown hair; the extra padding on her body is distributed equally in the manner that is so common with women that have given birth to multiple children. She did not look like Raquel Welch and did not want to; her only purpose in life was to raise her three children – a task, I am ashamed to admit, that had been made much more difficult by my arrival in her life. Her blue eyes are wide, like over-inflated beach balls, as she yells words that are unintelligible to me. Her hair is getting redder by the moment.
A few more words are uttered – something about strange behavior and the size of my head. With this a disturbance arises in the back of the courtroom. I turn to look and see a bearded man rising and moving towards me. He walks slowly wearing a long white coat with a stethoscope dangling around his neck and a pipe hanging from his mouth. He appears to me as a kind of fleshy steam engine, with smoke rising and trailing behind him as he glides towards me. Arriving at my side he pulls a measuring tape from his pocket and quickly wraps it around my head. Marking the spot where it ends he holds the tape up in the air for the judge to see and declares in a thick German accent, “yes, yes … as you can zee, his head is very large.”
The judge looks down and asks, “But is it freakishly large?”
The doctor looks thoughtful for a moment as he puffs on his pipe and says, “well, it really is a question of relativity.”
“Relativity? As in Einstein?”
“Perhaps, but that is not what I meant actually. What I meant was that his head is much too large relative to the size of his tiny body.”
“What does this mean?”
“I am not sure. I can speculate some sort of self-arrested hydrocephalus, but it could just be that the boy’s brain is unusually large. He shows no signs of retardation, thus the parents’ concerns are completely unfounded, and clearly indicative of a deep subconscious hatred of the child. In my opinion, for safety reasons, the boy should be removed from their custody!”
These comments cause my family – including my usually timid and silent father – to burst into an uproar. As I attempt to shield my ears from the chaos that has erupted, the light in the courtroom gradually begins to amplify. After a few moments, my hands drop to my sides and a ringing noise begins in my ears as everything gets brighter and brighter. All four walls, front, back, and both sides, slowly begin to slide away, taking everybody into the distance away from me except for the old crone. The voices from the court-room are distant and faint now. I look at the crone slowly. She looks at me with an indignant, soulless expression. Her eyes are very strange; they seem to be devoid of the sclera and iris, and are instead all pupil. No light bounces back into my eyes from hers, they are all black, deep black, with no reflective qualities at all. Her enormous pupils appear to be swirling like black holes in space and my attention is, like light, sucked helplessly into them. Something is happening to my mind. What is she doing to me?
Suddenly I am traveling back in time, two months earlier in fact. I am walking out the front door of my home into a dark and deserted street. I am alone and it seems to be the middle of the night. What am I doing outside? Why am I alone? I do not know, but I am walking now towards the orchard behind the house.
The town is Oliver, British Columbia, in the Okanagan Valley near the United States border. It is 1970 and judging from the weather it is fall, probably October. Oliver is a tiny town of only 1500 people, widely dispersed, and it is the place where my miserable life began. In the downtown core streetlights are sparse and dim, but our house is not in the downtown core. Our house, a very small one, is in an orchard on the side of a small hill. It should be noted that the climate and terrain of the Okanagan is much like that of Southern California. Very dry in the summer and frequently very warm well into the fall. Tumble weeds can be seen blowing through the streets, and those that hike the low-rolling mountains spend a lot of time dodging rattlesnakes and picking jumping cactus out of their socks and legs, a painful process to be sure. Far better, however, to pick cactus out of your leg than to try the same thing with the fangs of a rattlesnake. Hikers therefore proceed with the greatest of caution.
Because of the sunny climate in the Okanagan Valley, the primary industry is fruit growing. From one end of the valley to the other, a distance of almost one hundred miles, the low hills are covered by one huge orchard after another, with the odd luxury home occupying the best locations. The centerpiece of the valley is Okangan Lake, a huge, deep lake eighty-four miles in length and three miles wide. Dry, gray, sheer clay cliff walls surround much of the lake, and most of the inhabitants live above and beyond, not below, these cliff walls. The immense lake is a water-skier’s and power-boater’s wet dream come true, and droves of mindless good-time boys pack the valley every summer to torment locals. Roaring about the lake in their high-powered marine craft, and then screaming like demented banshees as they drive through the streets in their convertibles, searching for more and more alcohol … but there is never enough to satiate their unquenchable thirst for booze and revelry. It is the Saturnalia come early and on water. Oh well, at least they tip well and leave thousands of dollars worth of empty bottles for the locals to cash in during the off-season when the economy suddenly tanks.
Stalking the depths of Lake Okanagan, or so the tourist bureau tells us, is a creature fearsome enough to terrify the Lochness monster. The name of this fearsome beast, ironically, is a rather comical one – “the Ogopogo,” a name that sounds more like a tasty summer treat or child’s play toy than a hideous terror capable of swallowing entire boats. Fortunately for me on this night, the Ogopogo is not, as far as anybody knows, an amphibian. I am safe for the time being, or so it seems. But I am still confronted by the impenetrable night and the forces that seem to be beckoning me deep into the orchard.
Because it is fall the tree branches are bare of leaves. The leaves, once on the tree, are now being pushed aside by my feet as I walk. They are not only dry, but rapidly deteriorating. Every few steps my bare foot squishes into a rotten apple hidden beneath the leaves, which omits a fragrance not unlike apple pie, minus the cinnamon. Leaves are sticking to my feet. I hear an owl hoot in a tree. Another owl hoots in a shrill tone from a more distant tree. More owls hoot, farther in the distance. They seem to be calling and guiding me forward. I walk deeper and deeper into the dark orchard. It is not dark anymore. A light on the horizon illuminates the path between the trees. Is it the moon? No, it is something else. An owl swoops down in front of me blocking my path. Somebody takes me by the hand, and suddenly I am back in the courtroom.
The old crone is leering at me. She coughs hoarsely, but not loudly, through lungs thick with tar and disease. She is a chain smoker of the worst and least repentant kind. It is much worse than this though. For the old crone is not only a chain-smoking witch, but I happen to know as a fact that she is one-half human and one-half lizard. As I look at her I see a long tongue, like that of a snake, dart out in front of her sampling the air from time to time. She looks around the courtroom briefly as if looking for a suitable rock to bask on. Seeing none, she returns her gaze to me. Am I the only one that notices her bizarre behavior? She holds up her hand and scratches her bumpy nose with not one, but two fingers. The judge seems alerted by her scratching. He sits up straight, coughs, and scratches his own nose in a similar way.
“It is the decision of this court,” the judge coughs, “that the boy be sentenced to a life of living hell. He shall be removed from his parents’ custody and shipped through as many foster homes as is needed to completely strip him of any sense of self-confidence or worth. That is the decree of this court. Court is adjourned!”
With this pronouncement the judge slams a hammer into his desk causing wood to splinter and fly into the air. The courtroom is once again in an uproar. The judge hops onto his splintered desk, transforms into an enormous bat, and flies off into the rafters. The old crone nods up at the bat, does something funny with her fingers, then looks back at me with an icy soul-freezing stare. The bat makes a loud screeching noise causing my ears to ring again. The walls begin sliding out and the chaos drifts off into the distance. It is just the crone and I again in middle of an ever-expanding courtroom. Her black eyes are swirling, and soon I am too. I am powerless to resist. Back in time I go again, this time only one month before.
Again it is late at night. I am under my bed with a pillow. A large brown spider scurries along the wall past me, apparently unnerved and a little offended by my presence in a domain previously exclusively her own. I have now taken up regular nightly residence here, much to the spider’s chagrin. I know my mother has tried repeatedly to cure me of this habit, to no avail.
My bedroom door is open and I can see a light on somewhere down the hall. A dark shadow moves and grows on the hardwood floor. Footsteps. Fear. I push myself against the wall and the spider heads for safer terrain. I hear a tiny voice whisper as it scurries away, “Terribilis est locus iste.”
The lights go out. All I can see now are the silhouettes of things. The moon outside is apparently providing a dim ambient light. I look out from under my bed at a world of moving shadows. Suddenly, one of the shadows reaches under the bed and grabs me by the leg. I try to scream but cannot. I am being dragged across the floor. I close my eyes in an attempt to escape the terror.
I open my eyes. I am back in the courtroom. The walls have returned to normal and the proceedings are at an end. Neither the judge nor the bat are anywhere to be seen. I am no longer standing with my mother. Two snarling, slobbering Rottweilers have their teeth sunk into my pants and shirt, and are dragging me away from my family. The old crone follows close behind. I do not want to go. I scream, I cry, but I am ultimately dragged into the deep yellow hallway outside the courtroom. I close my eyes and wish this awful moment away. The “secret” of Rhonda Byrne is disproved in this one terrible instant, for despite my earnest wishes for another fate, when I open my eyes I find myself not back at my mother’s side, but instead in an unforgiving hallway that leads to a new world of uncertainty and pain.
I would like to say that the next few years of my life were to be like a roller coaster ride, but that would only be true if it was a roller coaster that always only went down. Down, down, down. Thirty-two feet per second, per second. No, it is not a roller coaster at all, it is a coal cart on a rusty track rolling into a deep mineshaft without brakes. What horrors await me at the bottom? We shall see.
Sages since the dawn of time have realized that that which is above is like that which is below, and that which is below is like that which is above; furthermore, that which is within is like that which is without, and visa-versa. If this seems overly obscure to you or hints at a digression into philosophical non-sequiturs, then it is probably best that I not trouble you with the perceptual epiphanies of Bishop Berkeley, the wisdom of which is so deep that it would require a team of enlightened mystics to fully decode. Suffice it to say that we cannot let the details get in the way of what is ultimately an issue of perception and essential rather than literal truth.
The problem with memories from early childhood is that there is no clear separation between what transpires “really” in the physical world, and what transpires in dreams. For those that are born into the world with a particularly powerful subconscious mind, this causes a very strange and hopeless blending of fact and fantasy, with no way to reliably tell which is which. Traditionally such a blending of fact and fantasy has been regarded as the domain of the very young and the mentally disturbed – mystics have added to this list the recently deceased, but this latter speculation is outside the purview of this story. For the living, those prone to such a blending of the conscious and subconscious minds, the proclivity generally decreases with age, dissipating completely long before the teen years. For a unique minority, however, the propensity continues apace throughout life.
With these difficulties in mind, I am trying to summon for you now memories that are relevant to the issue that concerns us all. I should warn you, however, that memories are not fixed objects. The mind is not a safety deposit box from whence one extracts and then returns important papers. Even if we were tempted to accept the “safety deposit box” analogy of memories, we could only do so if we also conceded that a band of stealthy intruders were continually breaking into the box and altering the documents, then returning them – all without our knowledge. When we access these documents again later, we imagine them to be in their original state – but such is seldom the case. Heraclitus once suggested that all things are in a constant state of becoming; I would suggest that this philosophy applies to memories as well. So I can only give to you that which I seem to remember, and leave it to your good senses to extract order from the chaos that accompanies my recollections. Where were we? Ah yes:
I am traveling rapidly down a mineshaft, hurtling into the darkness. My long golden hair flaps and flutters behind me like “Old Glory” on a windy day. Adjusting my grip in an effort to secure myself as the cart speeds into the darkness, I am surprised to find a brake lever on my right … it appears that I do, after all, have brakes. I pull on the lever with all of my might. Sparks fly everywhere, lighting up the dark cavern walls with a flickering orange glow. Suddenly I crash heavily, but not injuriously, into an ostensibly invisible wall in front of the cart, followed shortly by a large cloud of smoke, which had been trailing my progress down the mineshaft. After the smoke dissipates, I climb out of the coal cart.
I am now standing in front of a dark gray rock wall. In the middle of the wall is a wooden door that has light shining around the edges, indicating a lighted room beyond. I open the door and step into the backseat of an olive green, 1969 Dodge Coronet 4-door, that is traveling south along Highway 97, somewhere between Okanagan Falls and Oliver. The 318 V6 engine roars as the vehicle tears down the highway with apparently reckless abandon.
The car is filled with a gray cloud of smoke. I wonder if I have somehow stumbled upon a traveling poker game, populated by cigar smoking, whiskey drinking, sweaty t-shirt wearing clones of Marlon Brando. My eyes burn and water. I can see, but only with difficulty. Marlon Brando is nowhere in sight. In the driver’s seat, clutching the steering wheel with fingers that look like talons, is the old crone. Seatbelts are not yet common, nor apparently is common sense, as the old crone seems to think it is perfectly fine for me to be standing in the backseat of her car while she is speeding down the highway at – I strain to see the speedometer – 85 miles per hour. Perhaps she does not know I am here. She leers at me through the rear-view mirror – apparently she is aware of my presence. Her eyes begin swirling at me through the mirror and smoke … swirling, swirling … but only for a moment. She turns her gaze back to the road. It was apparently only a threat.
After a moment of disorientation, I suddenly recall that we have just left some sort of government building, which is now many miles behind us. There is something unpleasant about that building that I am trying to remember, but ultimately I cannot. It has been a year since my separation from my family, but it feels like an entire lifetime. I have been in three separate and rather unremarkable foster homes, interrupted occasionally by brief stays in some sort of government facility, the details of which I still cannot recall.
As the Coronet roars down the highway, I turn to look out the back window. I exhale and relax. Best just to enjoy the view and the journey. I watch as the world falls away behind the car, growing smaller and smaller until it is completely gone. A curious sight to be sure. I wonder if all that stuff which I can no longer see has somehow ceased to exist. I am, apparently, a budding young solipsist.
I turn around and look at the old crone again. She appears equally curious. Her mouth drops open from time to time, and her lizard tongue darts out above the cigarette that dangles below, which is somehow stuck to her bottom lip. It seems to me that the cigarette is the same cigarette that I saw in her mouth back in the courthouse a year earlier. I have, over the past year, come to know the hag better than I knew my mother. I have never seen her/it, even for a moment, without that cigarette dangling from her scaly lip – always half-smoked and always oscillating between an orange glow and a dull gray smoldering. Perhaps, I think to myself, the cigarette is a permanent part of her lip, always burning and never extinguished, much like the ever-burning lamps that the ancients used to put into the tombs of the dead to help them light the dark underworld [or like the perpetual fire kept for so long by the Jews in the Temple of Solomon]. Upon further consideration I wonder if the old crone herself might actually be one those ancients that has somehow, much like the Cumaean Sibyl, thwarted the normal processes of time and continued not only to live, but to deteriorate. Perhaps she will live on for centuries longer, until eventually her shriveled skin turns into dust and the cigarette at last drops from her mouth, tumbling to the ground, closely followed by a pile of nicotine-yellowed bones. I suspect, however, that her lizard tongue will continue darting out through the skull’s pale gaping mouth long after the rest of her flesh has been carted away by ants and worms. Yes, the tongue will be the last thing to go. Perhaps the tongue will not “go” at all, but will instead slither into a hole and lay eggs that will one day hatch and launch a new generation of smoke rasping crones upon the world.
The thought of a new generation of crones unleashed upon the world, tearing children away from their families like a hawk tearing flesh from a half-dead squirrel, is too much for my young mind to handle, so I once again turn my attention to the car and our destination. A small, dark, shadow-covered lake (not Okanagan Lake) is to our immediate right and even darker cliff walls are to our left; the cliff and lake whip past the peripheries of my vision as the car continues to roar and swerve down the now winding highway.
To my left, I see, out of the corner of my eye, something with horns scamper up the cliff, but when I turn to look it is gone. I hear the tires squealing as the car barely negotiates a sharp corner, almost bumping up against a guard-railing that separates the road from the deep lake. In the distance ahead of us I see a police car parked in a narrow pull-off on the side of the road. A burly aged-cop is inside the car. He looks up and waves at the crone and she waves back as we speed dangerously past him. I turn and stare at him like a trapped and frightened gazelle, placing the palms of my hands pleadingly against the back window. His eyes make contact with mine briefly, just long enough to see him smirk with indifferent resignation, then he is gone. The crone coughs violently and the car lurches left and then right again, causing me to fall on my side against the car door, which I now see is partially ajar. Wind whips in through the crack in the door and I can see pavement rushing past below. Best I sit down for a while. I push myself upright, pull the door fully closed, and sit down. Exhale.
I would learn, in subsequent years, that the old crone’s real name was Rachel Ravenscrag, although I would always refer to her as “the old crone”. Almost all foster children and orphans in the Southern end of the Okanagan Valley knew her (they knew her by various names, none of which started with the letter “R”), and as far as anybody knew she had always been a social worker and had always appeared to be near retirement age. She had always coughed through the same tar saturated lungs, and her short black hair had always been streaked with gray. She was short in stature with a slightly humped back, but she was enormous in presence. Her voice was that which might come out of the beak of a one hundred pound wheezing raven (hence, perhaps, her name), but much more surreal. I look at her as she drives. Her yellow-stained talon-claws clutch the steering-wheel with apparent angry malice. She is trying to strangle the car and violate the road at the same time. She coughs several times in succession, then caws at me, “stop moving around so much back there!” I ask her when I will see my mother again. She coughs up a cloud of smoke and responds, “nevermore!”
After an hour or so of driving, the old crone wheels the car up a dusty unpaved driveway that is as long as some city streets. The car winds and slides dangerously around graveled corners at top speed, and eventually skids to a stop in front of an old weathered house, which appears to have been constructed in the 1920’s. The crone turns off the engine. A cloud of dust drifts past us silently and momentarily obscures the front door of the house. An empty porch-swing creaks noisily as it swings back and forth occasionally bumping into the wall of the house.
The house is situated on top of a hill at the foot of an expansive and dry plateau, sparsely populated by ponderosa pine trees. It seems out of place here, as no other homes are in sight. An old wooden fence encompasses a large area behind the house that contains nothing in particular except a few pine trees and a couple acres of desperately dry grass. The crone exits the car, but then rapidly sticks her head back inside and rasps, “you stay right here!” She then slams the door, trapping me inside choking on a still remarkably thick cloud of cigarette smoke. I roll down the car window, not only to wheeze in some much-needed air, but to see what the old lizard is up to. She is greeted at the door of the house by a female that I immediately recognize as Donna Reed, the 1950’s television star. I have never seen Donna Reed wear a lumber jacket and hiking boots before, but on this day it is apparently her chosen attire. Very odd. I hear some muffled, distant, unintelligible words. Donna looks at me with sinister red eyes before the two women disappear inside.
After waiting for several minutes, Donna and the old crone walk out to the car. Donna greets me with a bizarre crooked smile. Strange, she is not nearly so pretty in person, in fact, much to my horror, she now appears absolutely hideous. Perhaps it is something about the dirty work boots she is wearing, or the red plaid lumber jacket, the hair-lip, the bloodshot eyes, or perhaps some other visibly intangible quality that is now seeping into and polluting my awareness like oil in a crystal clear pond. This is not good. A psychic sense tells me that this is not the real Donna Reed at all; she is somehow in league with the crone. I eye her just as suspiciously as she eyes me – we glower at each other for a moment as I try to peer into her rotting soul. Yes, there it is, the lizard tongue slips out of Donna’s mouth and then disappears. She is trying to hide it from me, but I am savvy to these evil creatures now. The old crone barks at me suddenly breaking my trance, “What are you staring at? Don’t you know it is impolite to look at your elders that way? Now smarten the hell up and get out of the car … now!”
I am led inside the house and told to go to the bedroom at the top of a small, dry, steep staircase, which is apparently the only room on that floor. I look at the crone. She coughs and says, “well, what are you waiting for? Go!”
I slowly and reluctantly climb the odd staircase, which is so steep it almost constitutes a ladder – a difficult task for an unusually short five-year-old. At the top of the stairs is an old door with white paint peeling off of it. The door exudes a strange foreboding power of dread. I am reluctant to open it. I look down at the women below who apparently have not taken their eyes off of me. “Get in there!” the crone croaks. I turn back to the door. I turn the door handle and let it go; the door creaks open the rest of the way on its own, but slowly, ever so slowly … creaking noisily. The world behind me vanishes. There is now only the poorly lit bedroom in front of me and a black void behind me … no turning back.
The “bedroom” is actually a pyramid shaped attic that has been converted into a bedroom. Makeshift flooring has been hammered haphazardly into the center of the space and a lone lightbulb hangs in the middle of the room with an elastic chord dangling down to turn it on and off. On the far distant wall a tiny, filthy window lets in a modicum of light from outside. The perimeter of the room has no flooring, just exposed floor joists and wires that obviously feed power to the ceiling lights below. There is no insulation visible anywhere and spiders defiantly occupy every corner, snapping and growling at me as I peer into their space. Two spiders begin fighting ferociously in one corner like angry dogs, with the larger one at last sinking its fangs into the smaller one and thirstily draining all of the fluids from its body then dropping its deflated, flattened husk to the floor. No, I thought, this is not good at all.
There are two beds in the room and two white antique dressers that were obviously painted at the same time as the door, and which are approximately in the same condition. A white night table sits between the two beds, and sitting on the table is a big windup clock, with two big bells attached to the top of it, and a cartoon mouse on its face. The arms of the mouse point to the hour and the minute. It has red pants, yellow shoes, black hands, and a peculiarly protruding groin. My eyebrows scrunch together. I have seen this mouse before somewhere, but there is something different about this one. It seems to me that the mouse usually wears white gloves, but this one has no gloves at all, just bare black hands. There is something about its expression too; it has a kind of evil-trickster smile on its face. After some careful thought, I conclude that the mouse, like Donna Reed, is an imposter – a fake, a three-dollar bill, a cheap knock-off version of the “real” thing. The clock ticks loudly. Tick, tick, tick. It holds all of my attention, and gradually begins ticking louder and louder until the entire house vibrates from the ticking. TICK, TICK, TICK! Suddenly the mouse’s black hand waves and motions for me to come closer. “Come on in,” the mouse squeaks at me in a muffled voice. The glass on the front of the clock suddenly swings open like a door, and the mouse peaks out, laughs, and says in a voice no longer muffled, “don’t be shy, come on in.” With that he leaps from the clock face onto the bed and slowly begins to transform. Like some kind of strange werewolf, his entire body morphs and grows until he takes on the appearance of a red-headed, freckled boy in his early teens. The boy grins at me, “ah-ha, a new friend,” he says, still sounding like a mouse. “Come on in boy, have a seat on the bed.” He points to the bed opposite to where he is sitting.
I wander towards the bed slowly and uncertainly. I stop as I see a large spider sitting menacingly in the middle of the bed, with an angry, possessive expression on its face. “This spot is mine,” the angry spider’s eight eyes seem to say to me. The red-headed boy suddenly leaps to his feet and slaps the spider off the bed. The spider crashes into the wall and then scurries into a corner, where it is immediately attacked by a much larger spider. The boy laughs indifferently, “ha ha, don’t worry about them… have a seat.” With that he sits back down on his bed. I sit down across from him. A strange tingling sensation buzzes through my head and travels down the length of my body.
“My name is Micky,” the boy says while sticking out a black, unwashed hand at least twice the size of mine. I reach out and shake his hand. There is something wet, slimy, and sticky on his hand. I pull my hand away quickly and wipe it off on my pants. “Well,” he says, “aren’t you gonna tell me your name?” I do not reply, but instead eye him cautiously. While he appears to be a normal teenager in most ways, he still has large mouse ears and a cartoon grin. He smiles and says, “that is okay, I have dealt with your type before. I used to be a lot like you in my first foster home. But I learned to adapt and make the best of things. It is okay, you and me are gonna be great friends.”
I am not sure what to make of Micky, but he unsettles me despite his outwardly friendly demeanor. I look back at the clock. It is a plain white clock with no images. The glass is attached to the clock firmly, and plain black clock hands point to the time: 3:33 pm. There is no mouse or any trace of a mouse having ever been on the clock. The only trace of a mouse in the room is Micky, with his big mouse ears and cartoon smile. He laughs suddenly, startling me. It is a high-pitched cartoonish mouse laugh, that hurts my head and causes my body to tingle all over again. He squeaks at me, “yeah, we are gonna get along just fine you and me.” He scratches his groin with one hand and then puts one dirty black finger in his mouth and laughs.
The crone went away later that day after unloading my clothes from the trunk of her car. Before she left she coughed one last cloud of smoke into my face and rasped, “now you better behave damn it!” “You do whatever you are told by your new foster parents,” she spat and sprayed her words, drenching me in saliva, “Mickey is your new brother, so you listen to him too, and I do not want to hear anything about you being disrespectful or disobedient.” She accentuated the final words by poking me hard in the chest with her yellow-stained talon-finger. With that she leapt into her car and spun the tires as she stepped down on the gas pedal. Gravel and sand flew out from under the tires pelting me in the face as she roared off into the distance. Micky was on the deck of the house pulling down his big mouse ears, and then letting them bounce back up. He laughed and said, “don’t you just hate that old bitch?” He laughed again in his rapid, high-pitched way.
I could not, in all honesty, say that Micky and I became as close as brothers during my time in the fake-Reed home. I can say that we did become close in terms of absolute physical proximity – Micky made sure of that – but there was nothing brotherly about the nature of our relationship in the tiny little attic bedroom we shared.
Micky, I would learn, had apparently descended from the same clan as the mythical Cadmus – for Micky could transform himself into a serpent, and then (unlike Cadmus) could transform himself back again. It was always the same. He would slither across the floor, wrap around my legs, wind his way up my body, and then stare into my eyes with his serpentine eyes. His anaconda-like body held me tight, pulsating squeezes continually threatening to squeeze all of the air out of me, while his forked-tongue would search the breadth and width of my terrified face. Then he would unwind, slithering back down to the floor. Once on the floor he would coil up into a ball and slowly begin morphing and growing back into human form. There he would stand, grinning evilly, naked as the day he was born, looking like an unmutilated Priapus and staring at me lasciviously. He would bend me to his will, hissing commands like, “I told you to do that faster you little prick” or “no, no, no, you push back when I thrust forward you little jerk.”
I will not mention Micky anymore. I choose instead to push Micky from my mind like a huge heavy block towards a sheer cliff. I can see Micky’s petrified form inside the block as I push it with all of my strength towards the cliff edge. He falls off the edge and out of sight. No more Micky. But something else, or someone else walks out of the fog of the past and into the peripheries of my memory. No matter how I turn I cannot get his image in front of me, but he has been there all along. A shadow that prefers not to be seen. He was with me in my parents’ home; he was with me in the fake-Reed home, and he watched silently just out of sight as the mouse-thing defiled me. He summons me in the night, always to the left.
I walk out the front door of the fake-Reed home, and into the open air under a moonlit, starry sky. It is late at night and everyone is asleep except for me … or perhaps I am asleep too? No, I am awake. I walk with my head to turned to the right, as it is the only way I can keep his image in front of me as he leads me forward. After a time he vanishes, leaving me alone in the field. I look straight ahead now. The owls are there now and screech their instructions, leading me on. I see the light in the distance. It hovers just above the pine trees. I walk towards it with owls fluttering above my head, hooting and screeching. The ground gives out beneath me and I am suddenly sliding down a ramp. Down, down, down… [to be continued]