When I was young, there seemed to be never a childbirth, or a burst appendix, or any other drastic physical event that did not occur simultaneously with a snowstorm. The roads would be closed, there was no question of digging out a car anyway, and some horses had to be hitched up to make their way into town to the hospital. It was just lucky that there were horses still around – in the normal course of events they would have been given up, but the war and gas rationing had changed all that, at least for the time being.
When the pain in my side struck, therefore, it had to do so at about eleven o’clock at night, and a blizzard had to be blowing, and since we were not stabling any horses at the moment, the neighbours’ team had to be brought into action to take me to the hospital. A trip of no more than a mile and a half but an adventure all the same. The doctor was waiting, and to nobody’s surprise he prepared to take out my appendix.
Did more appendixes have to be taken out then? I know it still happens, and it is necessary – I even know of somebody who died because it did not happen soon enough – but as I remember it was a kind of rite that quite a few people my age had to undergo, not in large numbers by any means but not all that unexpectedly, and perhaps not all that unhappily because it meant a holiday from school and it gave you some kind of status – set you apart, briefly, as one touched by the wing of mortality, all at a time in your life when that could be gratifying.
So I lay, minus my appendix, for some days, looking out a hospital window at the snow sifting in a sombre way through some evergreens. I don’t suppose it ever crossed my head to wonder how my father was going to pay for this distinction. (I think he sold a woodlot that he had kept when he disposed of his father’s farm, hoping to use it for trapping or sugaring or perhaps out of unmentionable nostalgia.)
Then I went back to school, and enjoyed being excused from physical training for longer than necessary, and one Saturday morning when my mother and I were alone in the kitchen she told me that my appendix had been taken out in the hospital, just as I thought, but it was not the only thing removed. The doctor had seen fit to take it out while he was at it, but the main thing that concerned him was a growth. A growth, my mother said, the size of a turkey’s egg.
But don’t worry, she said, it was all over now.
The thought of cancer never entered my head and she never mentioned it. I don’t think there could be such a revelation today without some kind of question, some probing about whether it was or it wasn’t. Cancerous or benign – we would want to know at once. The only way I can explain our failure to speak of it was that there must have been a cloud around that word like the cloud around the mention of sex. Worse, even. Sex was disgusting but there must be some gratification there – indeed we knew there was, though our mothers were not aware of it – while even the word cancer made you think of some dark, rotting, ill-smelling creature that you would not look at even when you kicked it out of the way.
So I did not ask and wasn’t told and can only suppose it was benign or was most skilfully got rid of, for here I am today. And so little do I think of it that all through my life when called upon to list my surgeries, I automatically say or write only ‘Appendix’.
This conversation with my mother would probably have taken place in the Easter holidays, when all the snowstorms, the snow-mountains, had vanished and the creeks were in flood, laying hold of anything they could get at, and the brazen summer just looming ahead. Our climate had no dallying, no mercies.
In the heat of early June I got out of school, having made good enough marks to free me from the final examinations. I looked well, I did chores around the house, I read books as usual, nobody knew there was a thing the matter with me.
Now I have to describe the sleeping arrangements in the bedroom occupied by my sister and me. It was a small room that could not accommodate two single beds, side by side, so the solution was a bunk bed, with a ladder in place to help whoever slept in the top bunk climb into bed. That was me. When I had been younger and prone to teasing, I would lift up the corner of my thin mattress and threaten to spit on my little sister lying helpless in the bunk below. Of course my sister – her name was Catherine – was not really helpless. She could hide under her covers, but my game was to watch until suffocation or curiosity drove her out, and at that moment to spit or successfully pretend to spit on her bared face, enraging her.
I was too old for such fooling, certainly too old now. My sister was nine when I was fourteen. The relationship between us was always unsettled. When I wasn’t tormenting her, teasing her in some asinine way, I would take on the role of sophisticated counsellor or hair-raising storyteller. I would dress her up in some of the old clothes that had been put away in my mother’s hope chest, being too fine to be cut up for quilts and too worn and precious for anybody to wear. I would put my mother’s old caked rouge and powder on her face and tell her how pretty she looked. She was pretty, without a doubt, though the face I put on her gave her the look of a freakish foreign doll.
I don’t mean to say that I was entirely in control of her, or even that our lives were constantly intertwined. She had her own friends, her own games. These tended towards domesticity rather than glamour. Dolls were taken for walks in their baby carriages, or sometimes kittens were dressed up and walked in the dolls’ stead, always frantic to get out. Also there were play sessions where somebody got to be the teacher and could slap the others over the wrists and make them pretend to cry, for various infractions and stupidities.
In the month of June, as I have said, I was free of school and left on my own, as I don’t remember being in quite the same way at any other time of my growing up. I did some chores in the house, but my mother must have been well enough, as yet, to handle most of that work. Or perhaps we had just enough money at the time to hire what she – my mother – would call a maid, though everybody else said hired-girl. I don’t remember, at any rate, having to tackle any of those jobs that piled up for me in later summers, when I fought quite willingly to maintain the decency of our house. It seems that the mysterious turkey egg must have given me some invalid status, so that I could spend part of the time wandering about like a visitor.
Though not trailing any special clouds. Nobody in our family would have got away with that. It was all inward – this uselessness and strangeness I felt. And not continual uselessness either. I remember squatting down to thin the baby carrots, as you had to do every spring. So the root would grow to a decent size to be eaten.
It must have been just that every moment of the day was not filled up with jobs, as it was in summers before and after.
So maybe that was the reason that I had begun to have trouble getting to sleep. At first, I think, that meant lying awake maybe till around midnight and wondering at how wide awake I was, with the rest of the household asleep. I would have read, and got tired in the usual way, and turned out my light and waited. Nobody would have called out to me earlier, telling me to put out my light and get to sleep. For the first time ever (and this too must have marked a special status) I was left to make up my own mind about such a thing.
It took a while for the house to change, from the light of day and then of the household lights turned on late in the evening, from the general clatter of things to be done, hung up, finished with, to a stranger place in which people and the work that dictated their lives fell away, their uses for everything around them fell away, all the furniture retreated into itself without wanting or needing any attention from you.
You might think this was liberation. At first, perhaps it was. The freedom. The strangeness. But as my failure to fall asleep prolonged itself and as it finally took hold altogether until it changed into the dawn, I became more and more disturbed. I started saying rhymes, then real poetry, first to make myself go under but then hardly of my own volition. But the activity seemed to mock me. I was mocking myself, as the words turned into absurdity, into the silliest random speech.
I was not myself.
I had been hearing that said of people now and then, all my life, without thinking what it could mean.
So who do you think you are, then?
I’d been hearing that too, without attaching to it any real menace, just taking it as a sort of routine jeering.
By this time it wasn’t sleep I was after. I knew mere sleep wasn’t likely. Maybe not even desirable. Something was taking hold of me and it was my business, my hope, to fight it off. I had the sense to do that, but only barely, as it seemed. It was trying to tell me to do things, not exactly for any reason but just to see if such acts were possible. It was informing me that motives were not necessary.
It was only necessary to give in. How strange. Not out of revenge, or even cruelty, but just because you had thought of something.
And I did think of it. The more I chased the thought away, the more it came back. No vengeance, no hatred – as I’ve said, no reason, except that something like an utterly cold deep thought that was hardly an urging, more of a contemplation, could take possession of me. I must not even think of it but I did think of it.
The thought was there and hanging on to my mind. The thought that I could strangle my little sister, who was asleep in the bunk below me and whom I loved more than anybody in the world.
I might do it not for any jealousy, viciousness or anger, but because of madness, which could be lying right beside me there in the night. Not a savage madness either, but something that could be almost teasing. A lazy, teasing, half-sluggish suggestion that seemed to have been waiting a long time.
It might be saying why not? Why not try the worst?
The worst. Here in the most familiar place, the room where we had lain for all of our lives and thought ourselves most safe. I might do it for no reason I or anybody could understand, except that I could not help it.
The thing to do was to get up, to get myself out of that room and out of the house. I went down the rungs of the ladder and never cast a single look at my sister where she slept. Then quietly down the stairs, nobody stirring, into the kitchen where everything was so familiar to me that I could make my way without a light. The kitchen door was not really locked – I am not even sure that we possessed a key. A chair was pushed under the doorknob, so that anybody trying to get in would make a great clatter. A slow careful removal of the chair could be managed without making any noise at all.