Name: Margaret McCarthy
Date of Admission: February 7th, 1908
Date of Death: 17 August, 1938
Institutional suitcase inventory:
1653.23: spool of thread
1653.24: three photographs of young woman
1653.25: necklace with green cross edged with gold
1653.27: hair comb
1653.28: address book with ten listings
1653.29: smudged sketch of flowers
You don’t know how I know. Think like I think. But I could teach you. A teacher, like my father, was one of the things I wanted to be. A carpenter. A clothes maker. A gardener. And now they have more plots of land where they grow vegetables and crops outside this place. Hard times, they say. Dust in the South. No one working. Families heading west, they say. Everyone must contribute, so they grow more gardens. I can see one or two of the others out there who avoid my gaze when we’re at the supper table. They’re outside in the sun. One is bent over, tearing lettuce leaves. Pulling radishes. A little harvest in June already. His arms are browning.
If you want to know how most people think, you should watch the conversations of the deaf. Only you can’t know how to read their language. You have to watch their fingers. You have to watch their hands. For a while, they move like trapped birds. Randomly, you think. Then sometimes you see patterns and you’re on the verge of understanding. Then the flutter of wing and finger and you’re lost again. If their hands were words and pictures, that is how most people think.
But for me, in these long years, it’s different. After he left me here. And after they stopped touching me. When no one touches you, after a while, the words and pictures, they slow down. They don’t flutter and sigh. So to teach you how I think now, I would have to say something like: The man’s beautiful face shines in the sun.
here. But hearing how I think, who would have the patience to listen? So instead I will teach you how to know how I know.
I fell in love when I was sixteen. I thought I might be a nun till then, like almost every girl I ever knew, and my mother called me “sister.” I never knew if this was because she saw me as a nun or because people assumed we might be sisters because she married so young. I was the only child she could have. My father disdained religion; he was a schoolteacher who liked words only when they were in books. One evening, when I didn’t know he was home, he came out of a back room and saw me on a chair at the table with my rosary beads. I was maybe thirteen. I loved draping the beads between my fingers, the way you could tighten your fingers, and the beads would bind them, and your hands would feel strong, and in control. I liked counting a decade of beads, and imagining sometimes I was counting a decade of years, and dreaming who I would be when I was twenty, thirty, or forty, and thinking of the boys I knew and might marry. The way perspiration trailed down their faces and into their shirts, and the way their muscles worked in their forearms when they were in short sleeves, I knew I wouldn’t be a nun.
That evening, my back was to my father, and I didn’t know he was there. I had the strand of beads between my forefinger and my middle finger, and I was drawing the length of the beads along the fleshy area where they meet. (I know what you’re thinking, and this is how you will know how I know, though I didn’t know it when I was thirteen.) He may have stood there a long time watching me, I’m not sure, but I only knew he was there when I heard his breath catch, and looked back, and he was staring at me glassy-eyed, and I jumped. You think he’d laugh, or apologize, but he didn’t. He just cocked his head to one side, and asked, “Do you think God is watching you?” I still hadn’t caught my breath, but I said, without looking at him, “Mama says Mary is watching over me when I count the Rosary.” And he said, “Is that right?” And I didn’t know if he meant if it was right for Mama to say that, or if it was right for Mary to watch, or if it was right to even believe that she was watching. But then he didn’t say anything else and left the room.
My mother was the only one to call me Daisy, but the boy I fell in love with when I was sixteen told me Margaret was a name for an older woman, so I told him to call me Daisy, too. He was a slight boy with a very serious, pale face. I remember seeing him standing two houses down the street that October he started to like me, the year the century turned and just after the hurricane in Texas, which my mother said might be a sign that Jesus would return. The leaves were red and gold, and he took turns staring at the windows of our house then trying to snatch the leaves out of the air when they came spiraling down. On the last good day for a picnic one Sunday afternoon, he came over and sat down next to me. He asked me if I knew what Indian summer was, and I said of course I did. Then he reached down to where a red leaf was at his feet, and he picked it up by the stem, and then held it near my face, a bold thing for him to do. He said, “I see the red of this leaf shining off your skin. It makes you look like you’re blushing. “ And then I did blush, and he smiled his pretty smile, and got up and walked away.
He kissed me once. It was on a windy day in November, and he’d been sick for a week, so he hadn’t been walking me home from school. When he came back, he looked thin, and his skin seemed tinted blue. That afternoon, walking beside him, he kept coughing. He was telling me that he wanted to go West to be a logger. “Daisy,” he said. He used my name often when he spoke to me. “They have trees out there with trunks bigger than your house.” “Why would you want to cut them down, then?” I asked. He stopped walking then. He was tall and willowy himself, and looked down at me, his eyes looking sunken from his illness. He raised his bluish fingers to my face, and rested their tips there. I could feel them trembling. Then he leaned forward and kissed me, and he kept his fingers on my cheek, resting there, and his lips touching mine were as light as his fingers. Next day, I thought we’d kiss again, but partway home three boys came running out from behind a store and pushed him to the ground. One of the boys held his arms down and another punched him hard in the face. I never learned why. I ran to get help, but when I got back he was gone. At school in the morning, there were three small bruises on his cheekbone where the knuckles struck, and his lip was swollen. He wouldn’t look at me after that.
The next man I fell in love with became my husband. I was twenty-two and working in a dress shop when he stopped in. It was a day in May shortly after the great earthquake in San Francisco, and my mother was again talking about the end of the world, though I no longer believed her, and I was living on my own in a single room above the dress shop. He came through the door and was about to ask the shop owner for some help when he saw me. He put his hand to his face and stroked one side as if he’d just left the barber and was testing the shave. He wouldn’t stop looking at me and I became uncomfortable, and so I asked, “Can I help you, sir?” He took two steps toward me. He was handsome, and had a thick moustache and thick hair slicked back over his head.
“Shadows,” he said.
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Shadows,” he said. “If I had to give you a nickname, I would call you ‘Shadows.’”
“Why is that, sir?” I had been taught to be polite, but I was also flattered.
“It’s your face,” he said. “Your expression. It—shifts. It’s subtle. It’s as if your face was carved in a stone outside, but when you look at it, clouds keep passing over the sun.”
“Are you a poet, sir?”
He laughed at this but didn’t answer. I helped him pick out a dress for someone, though he didn’t say who it was right then. He was easy in his body, except sometimes he looked over at the window, not as if someone might be watching him, but more like he thought a storm might be coming up and he had to keep glancing at the horizon. He asked me to hold a dress up to see how it would look, and he reached out to pull one of its shoulders higher and his fingers brushed a lock of my hair and I could smell the soap on his hands.
When I left that evening, he was waiting outside, but no longer holding the box with the dress in it. The air was heavy for May, but the sun was out and his face looked damp.
“Evening, Miss Shadows,” he said. “I was wondering if I might walk you home?”
There was no home to walk me to, since I lived upstairs, and only came out the front door of the store to go up the back way, but I sometimes went to visit my mother after leaving the shop, so I thought I’d let him take me there.
“It’s a nice night for a walk,” I said to him, and smiled.
“Lead the way.”
It was a beautiful evening, and a good feeling to walk next to a man. I wasn’t lonely at the time, and I’d visited with a number of men since that first time I fell in love at sixteen, but my mother was already starting to worry that I’d never marry. “I thought any one of those men would be satisfactory,” she said, as if satisfactory was her ambition for me. I hadn’t even asked this man his name yet, and we walked two blocks without saying anything. In the late May sun, people were outside locking up shops or going into restaurants, wearing bright clothes. They seemed happy. The air stirred with the smell of horses, a smell that can only be romantic in springtime. Overhead, someone was taking in laundry that was strung between buildings, pulling on the rope so that the sleeves of the shirts seemed to flap with anticipation over the bodies that would enter them. (Know how I know.)
“So what am I going to call you other than Miss Shadows?” he asked.
I didn’t tell him right away. It felt so good to be walking. Instead I asked, “Who were you buying that pretty blue dress for today?”
He smiled quickly at this, but turned his head, and glanced over the top of a building with that look that was checking for the building storm.
“It’s not going to rain,” I said. “It’s a simple question.”
He laughed at the lilt in my voice, which I could tell he liked.
“What if I make you guess?”
“If I had to guess, I would guess it was for your girl.”
A woman in a bright bonnet passed us on the street, and with some fanfare he greeted her.
“How do you know it wasn’t for my mother?” he asked.
“A man doesn’t buy a dress like that for his mother,” I said, smiling.
“Then perhaps it was for my sister.”
“And a brother would buy his sister something more chaste.”
He laughed out loud at this, tilting his chin toward the sky.
“Nothing wrong with making new friends, Miss Shadows.”
I put my hand on his arm then, maybe more firmly than I intended. It felt strong.
“My name isn’t Miss Shadows,” I said. “It’s Miss Miller.”
“Miller? With that pretty Irish cross around your neck?”
“It was Muilleoir before my grandfather came over.”
“Do you have a first name?”
“Daisy,” I said.
He stopped me on the street and squinted one eye and took a half-step back. “Daisy? Daisy Miller? Like the story?”
He smiled at me. “A story about your namesake. I’ll find it and bring it to you.”
“And your name, sir?”
“Well, it’s not Winterbourne,” he said, though I didn’t know what he meant. “Robert McCarthy.”
He brought me the book a few weeks later, though I didn’t like how it ended, with the girl dying. We started going out walking when I was done in the dress shop most every evening. From time to time I had to endure the glare of the girl for whom he bought the blue dress, and once or twice she wore it deliberately. After a month, one morning when I came down to open up the shop, it was heaped in front of the door with the bodice ripped out. Weeks later, in the peak of the July heat, one day when the shop was closed, and without my mother knowing, he came to pick me up in a horse and buggy. He watched with envy the few automobiles that would take over in the years I spent in the hospital.
“I get tired of looking at the back end of horses,” he said.
We rode out into the country into the July sun, and he pulled the horse to a halt near a stream with woods on one side and a grassy hill with wild flowers on the other. No one else was around, and we spread a blanket over the grass and watched butterflies light on the petals of the tall flowers while an occasional grasshopper jumped over our outstretched legs.
“Are you uncomfortable being out here with me, Daisy?”
“No. Should I be?”
“Many women would be.”
“This isn’t the first time you’ve taken a girl to this spot, I’d guess.”
He let his head fall back and laughed. I could see the speckled whiskers on his throat.
“Why might that matter so much?”
“It doesn’t,” I said. “But I want to know you.”
“You know me well enough.”
“That you work in the mayor’s office? That you’re friends with a lot of people? That you’re charming?”
He looked at me then. But the expression that he’d earlier described as shadows must have appeared, and he looked away. I lifted my hand to his face and directed his eyes back to mine. They were liquidy and surfaced with what seemed like fear. He took his free hand then, the one he wasn’t propped up on, and laid his palm over the fabric of the dress covering my hip, and this made me close my own eyes, and take a breath. That was the first time I heard the whispers. Then he lifted my dress up away from one of my legs, and even the warm air felt cool on my damp skin, and when he placed his fingers there I heard the whispers again, only not in human words, but in the way a snake would whisper, or a rabbit would whisper if it had words. But when I felt his mouth on mine, and his hand caressing my throat, I could hear only our breathing, and the whispers went away.
We were married in a church three months later on the 20th of October, and walking outside into the bright sun, leaves stirring on the sidewalk, I was a little sad remembering the boy who held the red leaf to my cheek. My father had sat bolt upright in the pew during the ceremony, his face without expression. He kissed me lightly on the forehead afterwards, which I took as a gesture of good-bye. My mother had sat next to him, glancing up at Robert and me, and then into her lap where she seemed to be worrying her hands.
We moved into a house that was the nicest place I ever lived, with a dining room, a bedroom, and a parlor. I managed it well for the time I was there, and took care of Robert as best I was able. Most every night we had sexual relations, partly because it felt so good, and partly because he wanted a son. Sometimes, when he first touched me, I would hear the whispers, and sometimes I would not. They were the non-words of living things, early on, of the tree outside our window, or the squirrel that clambered down the side of the house. Sometimes the non-words were hard to make out, but sometimes I wanted to translate them. Robert started to tell me that I seemed distracted, though I took care of my duties at the house. Once he brought home to me a rough sketch of flowers that he’d drawn that day. I think they were supposed to be daisies, but he did not have a sure drawing hand. When he showed me the sketch, it was the first day I “slipped,” as he began to call it. I was holding it in my hands, trying to be appreciative, and Robert came around behind the chair where I was sitting to look at it with me, and he placed his palm high between my shoulder blades, and I could hear the flowers whispering, even from the field where he must have drawn them. So I lifted them to my ear to see if I could translate their language, and I said out loud, “They’re telling me that you love me,” which I knew was true. But Robert looked at me like he had that first day, only he looked much older.
At first I thought it was only Robert’s touch that brought the whispers, and for a while that was how they worked. But one afternoon I went to visit my mother, who almost never touched me any more, and when I came in the door, she said, “Daisy, you look thin.” She took hold of my forearms as if to steady her vision of me standing in front of her. When I was growing up, my mother never had a living thing in her home, but she had taken up houseplants after I’d left. While she held me, one of the plants whispered through its large, heart-shaped leaves, and I translated, “They say you’re afraid of my father,” which I already knew. But my mother said, “Who says that? Daisy, who have you been talking to?”
After a year, I still showed no sign of being with child, and the whispers had sometimes become audible as voices, but only when someone would touch me, and that was almost always Robert, of course. Our relations at night were still frequent, but the affection had started to drain from his face because there was no promise of a child for him. It seemed an effort for him, propped up on his arms on top of me, and he wouldn’t look in my face. That was when I began to hear the voice of the son I would not have. At first I tried to keep it out, and focus on Robert’s rough breathing, or my own voice calling out in rhythm to his thrusts, but it worked for only a while. It didn’t matter when I was lying next to Robert, and he was sleeping, but those evenings he would want to try, he’d put his hand on my thigh and I would hear my son’s voice. He would say simple things, like a child would. How long do you think it will keep snowing, Mama? Do you think we could bake bread for dinner tonight, Mama? What time will Daddy be home? Do you think he might bring me something? Finally, one night I heard him pleading, and I couldn’t help but answer. He said, Where are you, Mama? , and as Robert was moving on top of me I whispered, “I’m right here.” But he asked again, Where are you, Mama? and I said more loudly this time, “I’m right here.” And Robert said, “I know you’re right here,” but he said again, Mama, where are you? so I said louder, “I’m right here.” And then Robert stopped and said, “Daisy, I know you’re right here.” And I said back to him, “I’m talking to my son.”
He rolled off me then, completely, not touching me at all, and I couldn’t hear anything, so I said, “Touch me, Robert.” He put his hand lightly on my belly, and my son said, like Robert had, “I know you’re right here.” But then he took his hand away.
“Daisy,” he said. “Something’s wrong.”
“I know something’s wrong.”
“I don’t mean that. I’m not talking about a baby. Something’s wrong. It has been for months.”
I wouldn’t look at him then, but I missed the voice I’d been hearing. So I said to him something I’d been thinking about. “When I was a girl, maybe ten, my mother took me to Mass one Sunday morning.”
“Daisy,” he said.
“I remember the priest who gave the homily. He quoted the New Testament, and he said, ‘In the beginning was the Word.’”
“Daisy,” Robert said, and his voice shook a little.
“But it was not the Word,” I said. “It was not the word. In the beginning was His fingers. That was the beginning. His fingers. He did not know what words were before He used His fingers.”
Three days later was when he first took me up to the hospital. It was near a lake Robert told me was hundreds of feet deep and made by glaciers. The hospital even then had its own farm. They put me in a room by myself for an hour while Robert met with doctors in an adjoining room, but they kept the door between them locked. I knew why I was there, of course. But in those three days, Robert had barely looked at me, much less touched me. And it’s not like I was incapacitated. I made his meals. I kept the house neat. But sitting in that small room with only a chair, I thought maybe the whisper-touches and the voices had gone away, and then I thought maybe if I could get them to speak myself, that others touching me would no longer lead them to speaking. I knew they were thinking of keeping me at the hospital, and I was afraid. So I tried placing my hands on myself, over my clothes, but there was absolutely nothing. I rolled up the sleeve of my dress, and touched the skin of my arm, but there was nothing there, either. Then I thought maybe it was only the intimate places that led to them speaking, though I knew that wasn’t true, and so I was taking my clothes off, touching my breast, my belly, and my legs, but still, there was nothing, not even a rustle of a whisper. I thought maybe that was because there was no living thing in that room, only walls, and a chair, and a small table with a glass of water, but it was then, when I was like that, when I was naked, and trying to hear any voice, that someone suddenly unlocked the door, and came in, and saw me like that.
Two days later, Robert stopped the buggy outside my mother’s home so I could say good-bye. It seemed that some of the people in the old neighborhood knew what was happening, because one was watching at his window, and another, who used to sneak candy for me when I was a girl, wouldn’t look at me as he passed by on the road. For a while, my mother wouldn’t let go of me. She kept pulling me close to her, and then pushing away, holding my forearms so she could see my face. It was like I’d just returned home from a long journey, and she couldn’t believe I was standing in front of her. But of course I was leaving. “You’ll be home soon. In a month, you’ll be home, won’t she, Robert?” she said, and Robert nodded his head, but I knew this wasn’t true. She put a book in my hands with the addresses of the few people I knew.
We took the train north out of the city. We sat across from one another, and watched the snowy landscape rise toward the hills and the gray sky. For most of the time, we didn’t talk, but I could see Robert glance at me from time to time, and I could imagine the way the light reflected off the snow and off my face in the shadowy way he had often spoken of.
Finally, he asked, “Is anyone speaking to you?”
“You are,” I said.
“You know what I mean, Daisy.”
“That’s not how it happens.”
“How does it happen, then?”
I turned my head toward him and looked at his face. I felt sorry for him a little, but mostly angry. I kept my chin still and stared, and finally he became uncomfortable and looked away.
I said, “I might be able to forgive you for this, Robert. Some day. But I can’t forgive one thing. You haven’t been curious. You haven’t even wanted to know. When they come. And what they say. Not even your own son. “
“I don’t have a son, Daisy.’
“You have one that isn’t born yet,” but I could see in his face he was thinking and never will be born, which did not turn out to be true, as I heard many years later. Robert stared out the window and his own face was cast in shades.
I said, “I don’t hear those voices all the time. Sometimes they’re whispers. And they only come when you’re touching me.”
He turned toward me then, his eyes glassy, and reached for my hand, but I pulled it away.
“Why did you take your clothes off at the hospital when we were waiting for you?”
“You weren’t waiting for me. You were talking about me. And I was seeing if my own hands would make the voices come.”
“You said only my hands make the voices come.”
“No,” I said. “Anyone’s hands. Except mine.”
His expression turned hard.
“How many others have touched you, Daisy?”
Then I crossed my arms and turned back toward the window.
“You are being cruel,” I said. “Can you see that? Can’t you see this is cruel enough?”
I didn’t think that I would stay here every day for the rest of my life. I did think I would eventually go home, mostly in that first month when Robert would come up every Sunday and sit next to me. Often, he’d hold my hand, or at least rest his fingers on mine, but always so lightly that I could hear only the most distant whispers, from the trees when the wind shook their branches, or the grass that rolled over the hills around the hospital and whispered again and again, “On and on and on.” Robert visited me every Sunday for a month, then one Sunday a month for twelve, and then when three months passed before I saw him, I knew when he arrived on a Sunday in October that I would never see him again.
He sat next to me on a chair, and I had to turn my head to look at his face. He looked thinner, but strong, and the weight he had lost I had gained. He took my hand for ten seconds, and I heard a whisper I translated as “goodbye,” and then “goodbye.” One of the first things he said to me was, “You look healthy, Daisy.”
“Healthy enough to go home?”
“That’s not my decision alone.”
“Whose is it then?”
“The people here. The doctors.”
“You mean the people who touch me, when they shouldn’t? The places they touch me, where you won’t any more?”
“I don’t believe that’s what’s happening, Daisy.”
But it was happening. Not all the time. But they would say they would need to examine me when I knew there was nothing to examine, nothing for them to find. And if I turned away, they would take hold of me firmly, and sometimes they would touch me in intimate places, even when I asked them to stop, and then I would hear the voices of other patients here, but as if they were screaming, and they said things like JESUS, I AM READY! SWEET JESUS, LORD. I’M READY! or things like THIS FOOD IS NEVER ENOUGH TO FILL ME UP!, and once the non-words of the distant oak in the yard, translated as I CANNOT REACH THE SUN! But as frightening as this sometimes was, it was sometimes better than not being touched at all.
“Why would I say that if it wasn’t true?” I said to Robert.
“To scare me into taking you home,” he said.
“You’re not taking me home.”
“No, I’m not,” he said, but I wasn’t asking a question. “Not this time.”
“I feel like the Daisy in the story,” I said, but he wouldn’t look at me. “Can I ask one thing before you leave?”
“Would you touch me? Right here, on my leg? My thigh? Just cup your hand around my thigh.”
“I can’t, Daisy.”
“Cup your hand right here.”
“I can’t, Daisy. They tell me I can’t touch you. They tell me I can only hold your hand.”
“I don’t want you to hold my hand.”
Those were the last words I ever spoke to him, which I didn’t consider any kind of victory. He kissed me on the top of my head before he left, and lingered long enough for me to hear something whisper the word burn. But I may have been imagining it, and I never saw Robert again. I got a letter from my mother years later that told me in angry tones that he’d remarried and had a boy, the son whose voice I hadn’t heard since that time in our bedroom. And now Robert had two wives, my mother wrote, which she said was disgusting. But I wish she hadn’t sent that letter. I kept gaining weight, and got larger and larger, and they said this was because I wouldn’t move, that I was sitting at the window waiting for Robert to come back. But I wasn’t, I knew I wasn’t. I was instead listening, listening to the normal things that everyone always hears: the clatter of silverware, footsteps growing louder in the corridor as someone approaches and then fading when they pass, rain spattering the window under the overhang when the wind blows hard, a mouse scuttling along a floorboard, and now the man out in the gardens again stretching his back after picking radishes, and shouting, “I love the sun!”
Eventually, I grew large enough that they stopped touching me at all, except for health reasons that were true ones, and then the voices would come back only as a rustle, too faint for me to translate. I understood then how they were always there, only they needed others’ fingers like ears for them to be heard. And I missed their company the way you miss the company of someone who sometimes hurt and sometimes loved you. Without them, and without anyone touching me, as I’ve said, all my own words came to me more and more slowly.
It took me a year to tell this story. But I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, especially now that you know how I know. There are more terrible sorrows than the memory of hands.