Pierre says I should lie in exactly the same position, just like how it happened, for as long as it happened, and for as long as it takes until the pain comes out of me, otherwise it will never leave. It will be stuck inside, forever, and it will do bad things. I picture myself lying first on my front, face down, neck bent sideways; then on my left side, hip twisted at an awkward angle; then on my right side, curled into a foetal position. It is possible that my body did other things during the time that it was lying on the ground, but I cannot remember. I would have to do this for seven hours? I ask. Maybe longer, Pierre says. You mean, I think, it could take forever? You can do it anywhere, he says. Choose a place you feel safe and will not be interrupted. But you have to do it.
I imagine myself lying down – prostrate, a chalk outline, a dead man’s float – and then, after some blank period of time, a sticky, tar-like substance oozing out of me in a viscous pool that spreads thickly, coagulates, peels itself off the ground, pulses, contorts and vanishes into thin air with a dark, creaking moan, after which I am, all of a sudden, free. Unfortunately, this does not happen, and I do not even attempt to do as Pierre suggests. I now regret this. Perhaps It is stuck inside forever, most certainly It does bad things. Though I remain unconvinced that It would have been so easy to get rid of, just like that, all in one go.
When the six men with their masks and their guns and their knives and machetes and screaming and terror arrive, we are about ten minutes into watching Mrs Doubtfire, the good-natured 1993 family comedy about a divorcé who impersonates a no-nonsense Scottish nanny so he can spend time with his family. I see a flash and movement in the corner of my vision and suddenly the men are there. I did not hear them coming. Maybe I heard them coming. I did. I did not. The film continues to play in the background as they ransack the house, force us to the ground, put blankets and pillowcases over our heads, hold guns to the back of our skulls, whisper in our ears – we don’t want to hurt you, but we will – grope our bodies, tie my father’s hands, hit him with the end of something blunt, his back, his head. After three of the six men leave, leave us cowering on the ground, leave the other three men ‘in charge’, the film continues, continues to play. I hear familiar lines, It was a run-by fruiting! and Frank, make me a woman! and the chorus of Aerosmith’s ‘Dude Looks Like a Lady’ and Robin Williams as Daniel Hillard, the divorced father desperate to see his children, Did you ever wish you could sometimes freeze-frame a moment in your day, look at it and say ‘this is not my life’? As it happens, Daniel, I do. But I do not know that one of the men now ‘in charge’ is sitting on the couch watching the film until I hear him laughing at one of the most famous trailer gags in which Mrs Doubtfire, trying to learn how to cook, accidentally lights her blouse on fire: My first day as a woman, and I’m getting hot flashes! The man laughs, hard, and dangles his machete idly over the arm of the couch. I watch him through a small hole in the crocheted blanket that has been hooded over my head.
Once the movie is finished, after it is stuck on the Menu for what seems like an eternity, the looped soundtrack for which is a cartoon bird voiced by Williams singing ‘Figaro’, one of the men turns the television off and begins to fumble through the small selection of CDs – Christmas music – we have brought with us. He doesn’t want anyone to be able to hear us, I realise, when we XXX or XXXX or XXXXX or X. He chooses Agnus Dei, a compilation of classical religious choral music performed by Edward Higginbottom and the Oxford New College Choir, boys with voices high and pure, like angels. The subtitle of the album is ‘music to soothe the soul’, but it is filled with songs that are actually imploring cries of anguish: Lord, have mercy and Hear my prayer, O Lord and Have mercy on me, O God, in English, Latin, German, ancient Greek. There are Beatitudes, Ave Marias, psalms, hymns, several variations of Ave Verum Corpus (Hail, true body) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God ), which are both liturgical chants. The most beautiful are the most ominous, from Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem – a Mass for the dead, whose text variously begs for delivery and absolution, for mercy upon the deceased at the Last Judgement.
This music plays and plays until the men leave. Every time the CD finishes, one of them walks over and plays it again, and again, again, again. I begin to use the number of repetitions to count time, to keep track of how many hours they have been here, we have been here, when will it end. The music plays so many times, so many requiems, that I begin to think and then vividly hallucinate that I am witnessing my own death Mass. Could this have something to do with the Christmas a few years ago when my parents sat us down and told us, with a strange sense of ceremony, they did not believe in God any more? Not a surprise to us, already never-believers, but somehow a momentous thing, they believed, to announce. To be Godless. A family decision. A family requiem. A family death Mass. The End.
Once I think this, I cannot not think this, cannot not imagine it and what it will involve, the family death Mass, The End, cannot not recall the fear, heart-pounding, unbelievable, and appearing at unexpected times for years after.
Francisco de Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei (1635 –1640), which hangs in the Prado, is said to be one of five versions the painter did of the subject. In it, the titular lamb lies slumped on its right side, neck softly extended forward, across a charcoal-grey surface surrounded by dark shadows that seem to both emanate from and enclose the brightly front-lit figure. The lamb’s gentle hooves are crossed over each other and trussed to form an X that extends towards the viewer. Painter and writer Antonio Palomino wrote in 1724 of an art lover in Seville who ‘has a lamb by this maker’s hand, painted from life, which he says he values more than one hundred living rams’. Other of the five paintings contain iconographic elements, such as sacred inscriptions about the lamb’s holy character, or a halo around its head. But the Prado’s Agnus Dei fuses the religious with the still life, carefully rendering the manner of the lamb in the latter – an isolated study of a subject against a neutral backdrop, with a focus on texture, detail, volume. Although the lamb’s face is passive, resigned even, it is not possible to tell whether he is yet dead. Maybe he is just lying there, waiting.
In Ghent, almost a decade later, on a study trip with my students, looking at the central panel of the famous Van Eyck altarpiece, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (c.1420 –32) under restoration, I hear one of the British students describing the painting to a student from India, who has asked about the iconography. The lamb is evil, he says, it has the devil in it, so it has to be sacrificed, but first they let its blood so that everyone can drink it and be purified. So you can see, right there, he points, where the blood is spouting into the cup, that’s getting rid of the sin. Everyone here has come to watch and celebrate. He says nothing of the angels, the processions of dignitaries, the scholars in prayer and worship, the lamb’s radiant crown of light, more light from above, the scene shot through with gold. I wonder how to intervene, to gently correct, or if I should just leave them with their own symbolic readings, since Catholicism is abstruse and superstitious enough. The teacher in me says no, the writer in me says yes, why not. Transubstantiation would then dictate that congregants are drinking not the blood of Christ, but the blood of a satanic lamb; and the liturgical chant, what would it conjure? The Lamb of God no longer God’s innocent child, but God’s great, dissembling foe. A daemon in merino wool? Sure. Weirder inversions have certainly occurred.
Earlier this year, restorers found that the lamb’s face had been painted over sometime during the sixteenth century. Stripping away the overpaint revealed the lamb’s ‘intense gaze’ and ‘large frontal eyes’. The Smithsonian Magazine described the lamb as having an ‘alarmingly humanoid face’ with ‘penetrating, close-set eyes, full pink lips and flared nostrils’, features that are ‘eye-catching, if not alarmingly anthropomorphic’. Yes, shocking to see a human face where it seems not to belong, but what is it that tips the anthropomorphic – itself a purposeful misattribution – into the alarming? Another version of this question might be: what is too alien to consider human?
In Ghent, all those years later, I will remember the songs of Agnus Dei, and I will still hear them ringing in my ears again and again, their force, however, lessened, now almost beautiful. But I do not know any of this, lying on the floor a few days before Christmas in 2009, as they play on repeat, and I think about J.D. Salinger’s Franny, who repeats the ‘Jesus Prayer’ from The Way of a Pilgrim – ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me’ – as if it might allow her to leave her body, leave it behind, the words themselves almost incidental to the practice of repetition. ‘Alone, Franny lay quite still, looking up at the ceiling. Her lips began to move, forming soundless words, and they continued to move.’
T is for touch, as in do not, as in noli me tangere, do not touch me, as Jesus is said to have told Mary Magdalene when she recognised him in the garden, just after his resurrection. Do not touch me, do not hold me here, in this place I must leave, I think he meant – we are now worlds apart, with a vast chasm between us, I think he meant, and I am no longer human: I am changed.
T is a body with arms outstretched, noli me tangere, splayed to the sides, if lying down, if standing, held up to the sky, or drooping with fatigue. T is a posture of gravity, eternity, endurance. T might have been taller – a cross! – until the head bowed or was lopped off.
Noli me tangere is another way of saying I am marked – the touch remains – ça me blesse, ça me perce – it wounds and punctures, like the ‘punctum’ Barthes writes of in Camera Lucida. The touch, the mark, is the detail that leaps out of an image, piercing its viewer like an arrow: cette blessure, cette piqûre, cette marque faite par un instrument pointu – this wound, this prick, this mark made by a sharp instrument. Barthes is writing of photographs, but I begin to believe this is also how any moment or sequence in time works, how memory works: the mind is touched, marked, pierced, wounded, and the piqûre, the puncture remains, maybe multiple, a nebulae, draws the eye, the heart, the soul, draws everything into it like a vortex. And what to do then, all turned inside out?
Noli me tangere is another way of saying trauma, losses that have no shape or face, too immaterial for the rituals of mourning we have available. Something we cannot hold, some hole the darkness shines and shines through.
Arthur shows up I don’t know when. Arthur shows up at maybe, it must be, around 3 a.m., maybe later. What time is it, time is over, The End. Did the police call him, the police must have called him. Arthur is the partner of the woman who owns the house we have rented on the low-lying coral island in the Atlantic Ocean where the waters are cyan, turquoise, azure blue and the sand is the finest pink-flecked white. The woman is extremely upset that this has happened, he says, she is bereft, he says, she has been unwell, he says, she cannot attend. Arthur has brought an enormous spotlight with him and a bag with some heavy tools in it including a gun. Does he not know the men have gone. Does he think they will come back. Arthur says his father was a tracker who passed down the knowledge to him, and he will find human tracks if there are any. He runs outside to the steps that wind down to the beach through thick green brush, the spotlight bobbing blinding bright before him, a circle in the dark. They did not come from that way I want to say but actually who cares I can’t feel anything, The End.
The police are not surprised when Arthur shows up, they all know each other, did they call him, they seem happy for him to walk around the house that is now being called ‘the crime scene’. How many police are there. Three or four or maybe only two. I don’t know. The house is no longer a house, it is like nothing I have ever seen, it has been raided, trashed, turned over, like in a film, down to details that strike solely as absurd, like slashed-open mattresses and couch cushions, as if – in a slightly run-down rental house – something valuable must certainly be elaborately hidden within. There is smashed glass everywhere, chocolate cake smeared on the walls, empty bottles of rum and cans of Diet Coke, a roasted chicken wrapped in an undershirt, not ours, and thrown in the bushes outside. It is horrible, but what is really horrible is how ordinary it is. The violence has not endowed the house with any spectacular or unusual qualities. It is exactly the same as before, just ruined. Arthur says he is shocked, appalled that this has happened but his face does not look that way.
The woman from the huge house next door who wouldn’t let us use their phone to call the police comes over to apologise. My sister knocked and knocked and implored and maybe begged, I think, since we were panicked that the men might be about to return at any moment, but we don’t talk about this. We have children, the woman says, I thought it might be too dangerous to open the door. I don’t remember what else anyone says, I just stare at her, her coral nail polish, her dark tan, her white flip-flops, her jean shorts, her pinched face and wringing hands. We’re so sorry, she says, we’re leaving, we say, Merry Christmas, we say, and all that.
Arthur drives us to a hotel. The police drive us to a hotel. Someone drives us to a hotel. Where is our car, did they steal the car. The hotel is a hotel the room is a room I think the bedspreads are olive-coloured and I take the one in the corner. They tell us to get some sleep and we will be picked up in the morning to go back to the house and get whatever remains of our things, then go to the police station to give statements and have other dealings with ‘officials’. What does that mean. It must be 5 a.m. by now, maybe later, or earlier, the hotel room is freezing and I am quite sure I will never sleep again. I am petrified to assume any of the positions I held on the floor all those hours, lest they somehow suck me back in, like my body is a traitor, a deep hole to somewhere else, not mine, so I lie flat on my back, like a slab of stone. I sleep in my clothes a few hours of leaden, faithless sleep.
Nothing until we are in a car with I don’t know who driving to the police station. Sleeping, showering, breakfast, nothing, what am I wearing, where are my parents. Hazy memory that Arthur arrives early at the hotel with a group of young men who have been out with him in the early hours of the morning searching. They say that people live in the bushes. They say there is an open border with Haiti and the Dominican Republic, people come over on boats and join gangs. They are furious, they say, they are ashamed – the people who do this, this is why people think we are poor and criminal and it’s not safe to come here, to our home, to the beautiful island, crystal blue water, grilled conch, johnnycake, schools of shining fish, so much coral, land that licks and arcs through the ocean like a poem, like an arabesque – no, they say, this is not our country. Arthur calls me poor baby and touches my arm, strokes it lightly with the back of his hand, where the shattered glass made a cross-hatch of fine cuts. His face still does not look surprised. But I am surprised, surprised to be touched by this man I do not know. Poor baby poor baby. I am twenty-five. I battle feelings of gratefulness, oh so grateful that these angry men are here to help us because not all angry men are the same is that true. The place at the base of my skull where they pressed the gun throbs gently.
Arthur takes my parents to the Governor’s Office, because the island is a British Overseas Territory, to see what to do about our missing passports, how to get home without them, also official procedures about what will happen and what the Governor is going to do about – anything. Why are we special we’re not. We are just from another British colony, albeit one that was granted its freedom long ago, one not so ‘foreign’, which means white, one with wealth and infrastructure, which also means white.
No, Arthur has already taken my parents to the Governor. The group of men arrives separately? How would we have known who they were. Maybe they all came at once and these ones waited for us to be ready because we were all meeting at the police station at the same time later on.
In the car the two no three men have a strange energy about them and so do we, we recount things quickly and then fall silent, like waves of fever filling the car. They shake their heads and tsk in sympathy, sometimes pound their fists in outrage, but we do not say much because you learn quickly that all anyone wants is the bare bones, no details, please, and anyway as you speak the story becomes something else and the reality falls away to a place more horrible, less utterable and stays there as you rehearse what becomes a version of the good story, the short version that doesn’t make anyone feel too uncomfortable, bad, complicit. This is another version of that story. You can stop reading any time you want. I look at my sister and barely recognise her, her face stained with bewilderment. I know I must be a mirror reflection but for some reason we both grit our teeth and smile dutifully, as we have been trained, I feel my mouth forming words but I do not know what I am saying. I think I make a joke, maybe two. Ha ha. I look down at my pale legs and think I am fat and feel ashamed of the blue sky that presses against the windows the green that rushes past as we drive over hills and through low shrubland, ashamed of the heat of the wind in my hair of something invisible of everything.
The main police station is out by the airport so that as we approach it we seem to be driving directly alongside taxiing planes. It is so loud we all stop speaking. The station is a low, flat building that looks more like a strip mall, run-down, squat. The sound of the planes overhead is deafening. Suddenly my parents are there too and we are walking through a hallway at the end of which is an actual jail that could be from another era, a bad stage set – a grim concrete door with a window of bars – a man shoves his face through it and shrieks at us, makes a grotesque visage, waggles his wiry arms. My mother gives him the finger? What are you doing, I ask her. That was one of them, she says, I recognise him. I don’t, but her fury is so hot, so radiating, wouldn’t yours be, mother, that I say nothing.
Nothing again until I am in a room alone with a woman who will take my statement, which seems laborious for her. She sighs a lot and clicks her nails, annoyed that the acrylics are interfering with her handwriting. Every once in a while, when I am mid-sentence, she picks up her phone to read and send text messages. A couple of times she answers phone calls about if she wants to come for lunch and what she will order. A salad. With chicken. And mandarin oranges. Sigh, sigh, and then what happened, yes, yes, and then what happened. Then XXX then XXXXXX then XX then X and XXXX. I know that it is not right, but I feel embarrassed, like this is all our fault, like why are we here anyway, we are interlopers, fools, like I am wasting her time, like my terror, my abjection, my dehumanisation, my body is of – like I am of no consequence. No. She makes me feel that way. No. It is our fault. No. People keep walking past in the hallway, pretending to casually look in out of interest, but actually look right at me, as if memorising something. I watch the woman’s round writing form letters, another version of the good story. She keeps spelling ‘yelling’ as ‘yalling’. Will the police think I can’t spell. I don’t want them to think I can’t spell. That doesn’t make sense I didn’t write it. What if they think I can’t spell. I don’t want to disappoint anyone. When we are finished, she sighs again and half rolls her eyes and says slowly and unconvincingly, ‘I’m sorry you had this experience,’ then gets up and walks away leaving me alone in the room.
Nothing again, again, until I am outside sitting in the parking lot with my sister and the two no three men, sitting on the hot concrete curb watching the planes fly so low, so loud in the wide bluest sky. They tell us they will find the men, they have a plan. I believe them more than I believe the police, who lamely offer that they heard there was going to be ‘a siege’ on one of the houses in the area we were staying, offer ‘a siege’ in casual tones, what is that, offer no explanation for lack of vigilance but that it’s too big an area – five kilometres, a ten minute drive – for them to patrol. Sorry. Sorry, and we do hope you’ll come back to visit again.
Some of this makes more sense later, when I find out one of the men involved was the teenaged son of a police officer. My sister says that the two men who took her statement locked the door of the small room they were in. As they loomed over her, a man in the hallway outside started banging on it open this door he said OPEN THIS DOOR. They opened it why did they lock it why.
Sorry. Sorry, and we do hope you’ll come back to visit again.
This is said by the many officials, all of them, time and again, but my only consolation – the moment I am waiting for – is when I can leave this low-lying coral island in the Atlantic Ocean where the waters are cyan, turquoise, azure blue and the sand is the finest pink-flecked white and never return. I think that I will leave It behind.
I am wrong.
At the hotel we talk fast and hysterical our voices shrill and high like we cannot stop. It’s like electricity is coursing through our bodies, our eyes brighten, we sit up straight, the words come thick and wild, building on each other, interrupting each other, until we remember what we are talking about and fall silent. The trauma – the experience of it, its strange details and recollections, the bizarre dealings with officials – is like a current we are drawn to, like an incandescent voltage, like moths to a bulb, like sucking on it. It is unpleasant and yet deeply difficult to speak about anything else, so particulars are hashed over again and again – but only the weird, almost comical, parodic ones, not the life-threatening, not the deep marrow-fear scarring ones. Not my dad lying on his chest for hours, hands tied, only a year after quadruple bypass heart surgery. Not how we yelled he is going to DIE if you don’t let him move. Not how they did let him move. Were they good after all. No. Only relatively speaking. Many awful things seem just fine if ultimately you are not raped and murdered. It is over, I think, it is over. But it doesn’t seem to matter that the worst didn’t happen, because it feels like it is all still happening all of the time, on some sort of horrible subterranean level, like something cold and awful is wrapped around my oesophagus, pulling it down, pulling it out. Like my brain is burning along its neuronal pathways, like it is screaming SCREAMSCREAMSCR but my face is blank, pliable, doesn’t forget manners. My mind will get used to this, but my nerves will not.
Dinner is a wild oscillation between talking about It, not talking about It, trying not to talk about It and failing, sucking on It, feeling guilty and possessed, and various people coming up to the table to apologise for It, to ask us about It, yes, strangers, and to invite us back next Christmas because It would never happen again, they all promise. I remember a busy restaurant, I remember candlelight, a white tablecloth, our faces flickering, laughing, remembering, uncomprehending, brittle, no longer fearful, just furious. My mother insists that we should stay for the rest of the two weeks as planned, but at the hotel, so that we are not also ‘robbed’ of our holiday, since we have run away from Christmas and our lack of extended family for so long that there is nothing to return to, only snow. Everything feels like a poorly scripted satire I am watching from outside of myself. We leave the next morning.
Back in Ottawa, you are tasked with creating the Schedule of Loss. This is the official title for what must be given to an insurance company or any kind of court or tribunal issued with loss compensation. Laptop, clothes, jewellery, dignity, mind. You also come to think of it as the required repetition of the good story over and over again to friends, family, more officials.
In some cases, the Schedule of Loss is required – passport replacement, health card replacement, driver’s licence replacement, UK visa replacement, all of which are difficult to get when you don’t have a single piece of identification remaining. A birth certificate is not enough. But I am myself, you have to keep reiterating, told many times, at this bureau and that, that you do not, unfortunately, have enough evidence to prove that you are you. At the Ontario Health Care Office, the desk clerk rips up your application form, she seems to think you are trying to commit health insurance fraud. You burst into inconsolable tears for the first time since It happened, petty bureaucracy truly the last dehumanising straw.
In some cases, the Schedule of Loss is voluntary – you do not want to tell people, but it is too weird to not tell people, which would feel like an injunction of some sort. Make a list of who can be trusted with the Schedule of Loss. Some people shake their heads in disbelief. Many people say ‘it sounds like a movie!’, with a strange mix of horror and glee. Some people say, and reiterate later, that they are traumatised by what happened to you. I can’t believe it, they say, I will never feel safe again, they say. Some people cry!! Some people don’t answer your messages for days. Some people say, a few times, I can’t talk right now I’m talking to my boyfriend. Some people, you get the distinct impression, ask obliquely about specific details of the event because they want to know if you were a victim of sexual violence – if there was Rape, the Worst Thing they can imagine, and which holds within it all the other Worst Things that have no clear designation. Imagine asking someone, casually, as if it were the ultimate salacious detail. They think it is their business, that it is information they are entitled to. Like what happens to women’s bodies is for public consumption, though the public generally chooses to do nothing about it. But maybe you have offered this licence by telling the good story at all: it is no longer entirely yours, it is open to the world of Trauma Stories and all of the ways in which these are rehearsed and narrated and constructed and peddled and normalised in so many spheres of contemporary culture.
But the Schedule of Loss, the good story, is just that: a rehearsal – socially acceptable – with a narrative arc – just enough details to perturb, to hint at but never say what cannot actually be turned into a story with any serviceable point other than randomness, cruelty, and utterly speechless fear. The real Schedule of Loss is its other side, boundless, an endless tally, what you cannot find words for, what you are too afraid to say – as if it might conjure something awful – what feels like a dark hole in your heart beating through your throat or tar pouring out of your eyes. You do not, actually, think that there is anything language cannot do, just things it will not do, because language is representational but it is also relational. The Schedule of Loss is what can be heard, what can be tolerated, what can be borne by both teller and told.
The Schedule of Loss henceforth goes by many names, used by many different speakers including yourself, such as the good story, It, That Awful Thing That Happened, That Christmas, The Incident, What Your Family Went Through, The Thing, The Home Invasion, sometimes – though rarely, and latterly, as it seems too explicit, sometimes embarrassing, as victimhood, because it is helpless, often feels – The Trauma. Perhaps the greatest euphemism of all of them, since it implies something singular and enclosed, which is precisely the opposite of its effects, no matter how you try to contain it.
Painting by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, detail from The Ghent Altarpiece: Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432
Photograph © Alamy