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My Mother’s People

I was sick—sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me.

Reading in the backseat while my mother drove up the canyon always made me a little sick unto death, but I could not resist cracking that midnight-blue, luscious-thick, brand-new book that smelled so sweet and was all mine.

The cover was a painting of a tiny blond girl, white-gowned, curled in the corner of a blood-red chair, shelves of books looming above her. She held a dripping candle to illuminate the book she had chosen. In the night library, it was the only light. The child’s eyes were wide, astonished and blue.

I thought it was the most beautiful picture in the world.

Impia tortorum longos hic turba furores
Sanguinis innocui, non satiata, aluit.
Sospite nunc patria, fracto nunc funeris antro,
Mors ubi dira fuit vita salusque patent.

Tortorum. I was pretending to teach myself Latin from the workbooks my mother ordered me, because I loved words, and to keep up my reputation as a gifted child. But I did not need middle school Latin workbooks to pick that one word from the meaningless quatrain.

…all at once, there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery.

My mother said her people had been tortured. I knew they were killed, but not tortured. How had they been tortured, I wanted to know, but could not ask. I knew I was evil, for wanting, for needing to know.

I confided my confusion in my fifth-grade teacher, and she said the moment where I needed to know how my mother’s people had been tortured was called morbid curiosity, and it was normal.

At home I pulled my OED from under my bed, and looked up morbid. Sick. Morbid meant sick. It was as I suspected, that I was evil and bad for feeling my mother’s people’s torture as my own. I began to think of myself as sick. Although somehow I knew my need had more heart than morbid curiosity. It was not the car wreck of strangers I was craning to see.

I knew I must stop thinking of torture. I saw the word printed where it was not, heard people speak it when they had not. I had to get a grip. But I could not. The more I tried the more virulent the twisted roller coaster in my stomach became. There had to be a way to stop this, but I did not know it, and again I blamed myself.

We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss—we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnamable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall—this rushing annihilation—for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination—for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore do we the most impetuously approach it. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a Plunge. To indulge, for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.

I knew if I could not pull my mind free from the precipice, something bad would happen. I would fall somehow, die somehow. Emotionally or mentally or spiritually. When I thought of my mother’s people’s torture, I could not move my body, and my classmates would ask me if I was ok. I did not answer them because I was not there. I was not drinking chocolate milk in the cafeteria of Nederland Elementary. I stood on a precipice, sick, dizzy, hypnotized, staring.

My classmates whispered about my strangeness. My teacher called me in to discuss my depression.

But couldn’t she see? I was not depressed at all. I was on fire, bad fire and good fire. It was spring, and the leaves of the aspens shivered sensually. The sky ached a glorious blue, the rocks were ancient and covered in beards of lichen. Death had stripped my nerves raw, now every caress of life shocked them into ecstasy.

I was alive. I was alive and I was so happy and I was so guilty. There was a good part of me, the child part, the wholesome part, and then there was the dark part. I wanted to remove my darkness but everything was intertwined.

I could not love except where Death
was mingling his with Beauty’s breath

The thoughts of my mother’s people in their torture could not stay in my slender body. I squirmed constantly, I whispered to myself. I paced on the playground to release the terrible energy, and at night I rocked back and forth on my child’s bed in the moonlight, that I might sleep.

Poe knew of the constant movement needed to lance thought. He knew that thought must be killed.

At first, I made an effort to shake off this nightmare of the soul. I walked vigorously—faster—still faster—at length I ran. I felt a maddening desire to shriek aloud. Every succeeding wave of thought overwhelmed me with new terror, for, alas! I well, too well understood that to think, in my situation, was to be lost.

But the torture could not be outrun, because it lived in my cells. Because I could not speak it, had no right to speak it, I had to let its caustic elements harden to glittering minerals inside me, for it was two of us alone in a sealed skull.

And by strange alchemy of brain
His pleasures always turn’d to pain—
His naïveté to wild desire—
His wit to love — his wine to fire—
And so, being young and dipt in folly
I fell in love with melancholy

I took no pride in my psychic survival, and regarded it as evil. As rapidly as I paced, now I wrote in school notebooks, alone, hiding from the classmates who now openly mocked and feared me. I wrote at night when I could not sleep. I built up a pure self, apart from the evil self who held a scalding ember against her heart and refused to let it go. And the ones who read what I wrote sensed the fire behind it, and mistook its light for beauty.

To me a painted paroquet
Hath been — a most familiar bird—
Taught me my alphabet to say—
To lisp my very earliest word
While in the wild-wood I did lie
A child—with a most knowing eye.


Samantha Stiers has published fiction, memoir, and poetry in magazines including Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, and Black Warrior Review. She was awarded the Frances Locke Memorial Prize in Poetry. She lives in Boulder, CO.