All the letters — they would have made a snowstorm — began with Your Excellency . . . Sarah always wrote them by hand, with a fountain pen, taking particular care with the flourishes: the sensuous Ps, the loopy I’s, the trailing lace flounces on the Y’s. Your Excellency: It has come to my attention that contrary to Article XXIII, Clause 6, subsection iv of your own Constitution . . .
Her lips were bitten to a bruised purple as she wrote. Also — and this was beginning to be a problem — she had to sit on her bed with the goose-down quilt pulled up to her armpits.
Her son and daughter used to joke about the quilt — that was when the children still found it a laughing matter. ‘First sign of arterio-antarcticosis,’ Richard used to say. ‘Commonly referred to as icicles in the bloodstream.’ Richard was a second-year Med student; his head was crammed with biology; he liked to draw short straight lines between cause and effect. That was before things got out of hand, before Rosita moved in and the children moved out again. ‘You’ll progress on to frozen mucus,’ Richard promised, ‘stalactites in the abdomen, and then Ice Age catatonia. That’s when the shivering stops and they wrap you up in a white blanket.’
Sarah did not laugh. She was deeply embarrassed. She hadn’t realised she shivered as she wrote. She put on a sweatshirt and finished her letter.
‘Mother!’ Katy fumed. ‘Your sense of humour’s iced over already. Completely on the blink. What’s happening to you?’
Richard asked: ‘Is all this because of Dad?’
Sarah blinked. When she closed her eyes, she saw blinding asterisks and zigzags: a random geometry of directions changed, fault lines, lifelines, scars, prison bars, the furrows and welts of old wrongs. Some of the lines intersected (there were sparks, the soft pouf of explosions) and some never met.
‘After the moment of intersection,’ she said, ‘the lives diverge.’ Further and further. Already their father (had she really been married to him for twenty-five years?) was remote as an asteroid; but she and Rosita lived parallel lives and could not hold hands.
Her son and daughter looked at each other, and the look struck her in passing, a glancing blow. Later, the bruise would form.
‘It’s odd,’ she said, ‘how people only comment when the private and the public . . . when outer politics and inner politics, I suppose I should say . . . at those brief interludes, you know, when they become congruent.’
‘Mother,’ Katy murmured, cajoling. ‘Some people can handle this and some can’t I think you should just give money and leave the letters to someone else.’
‘What you need right now,’ Richard said, ‘until you feel more . . . I mean, until you sort out, you know, about Dad . . . You really need to be doing something upbeat rather than . . .’
‘Perhaps you’re right.’
‘Otherwise,’ Katy said (she was a first-year Arts student), ‘I’ll have to give up my flat and live here permanently again, so I can keep an eye on you.’
‘Oh no, really. I’ll stop,’ Sarah promised. She wanted to stop. But she couldn’t. She would huddle under the quilt, pretending to read, her shivering muffled in goose-down. Your Excellency . . . She kept her fountain pen tucked under the mattress.
In the late afternoons, they sat by the bay window that looked out on the horsechestnut tree. Katy sat cross-legged on the boxseat, the curved part, so that she had a skyful of horsechestnut candles (milky as twists of whipped cream) and the undersides of leaves; Sarah sat on a cushion on the floor, her back against the window box, her head against her daughter’s knees.
Katy unpinned her motlier’s hair and brushed it, languidly, deliberately, a hundred strokes, a thousand strokes.
‘Ahh,’ Sarah purred, ‘that feels so good, so comforting. Do you remember . . ?’
Did Katy remember? When Katy was a little girl, Sarah would brush out her black ringlets (she had her father’s colouring, her father’s curls), would brush them out one by one, wrapping each around her index finger like a tendril, stroking it with the bristles.
And did Richard remember how she used to stroke his hair while she told him bedtime stories, how she couldn’t bring herself to clip his one-year-old curls? His two-year-old . . . ? Until his father, outraged, whisked him off to the barber’s.
And did her husband remember . . ?
But the past was a Dead Letter Office, a great storehouse of messages never received. Your Excellency, Sarah composed, drafting the next letter in her mind. It is not the past history, but the future of your . . .
She began again: When you yourself were a child, Your Excellency . . .
Or maybe: Perhaps Your Excellency has not realised that the inflicting of pain will destroy your own . . . Present suffering, Your Excellency, can gobble up the entire past, indeed, can swallow time itself . . .
There it was, the answer to all the riddles, clear as the kernel of a flame: The past did not count; there was no past.
‘There is no past,’ she says. ‘There is only the present tense.’
Katy pauses in her brushing, a handful of her mother’s hair lifted up to the light, and looks at Richard. Richard presses his lips together, folds his book over his index finger, and blinks rapidly. ‘I’ll make you some tea, mother,’ he says. Katy holds the hair and runs her brush upwards from the nape of her mother’s neck.
Sarah thinks of Rosita’s long dark hair, snarled and matted from months in prison. She imagines herself combing it, untangling the wrongs, smoothing out the day’s cruelties. She thinks of Rosita’s children. Rosita is almost a decade younger than Sarah, but she has ten children. The oldest is nineteen — Katy’s age; Sarah sees Rosita’s daughter against the light, against the horsechestnut candles, the little ones clinging to her skirt; she is brushing their hair and singing to them.
‘It was something I always wanted,’ Sarah muses, ‘when I was a child myself .. . To have a little girl with curly hair.’ She twists her head backwards and up to look at her daughter. She smiles. ‘You’re so unharmed,’ she sighs. ‘So beautiful.’
But Katy has not yet discovered this fact. Katy does not believe it (There is a certain fellow student, male, who never calls; there is her father who finds it ‘awkward’ to call; ‘for the time being,’ he has explained, until the young woman he is now living with has time to . . . ) Katy insists she is ugly; she says this often with an angry sort of pride.
Oh dear god, no, Sarah disputes; you’re striking, you’re one of a kind, you’re very beautiful.
And Richard says: You’re OK, kid. Really, you’re OK.
Katy wrinkles up her nose and purses her lips. ‘Sure,’ she says.
She brushes her mother’s hair and fixes her eyes on the creamy candles in the horsechestnut tree.
As soon as Sarah heard the mailman’s step on the porch, she would begin to shiver; though this would pass quickly if none of the letters bore the Amnesty logo: a candle in a cage of barbed wire. Today, Sarah would think — and the shadow of a memory of an echo of hope would flit into the morning, would pass like a swiftly flying bird — today there was no-one who . . . there was not one single act of . . . not one instance anywhere in the world . . .
But once or twice a week, she was required to write letters. She had to huddle under the quilt and pretend to read.
Katy was upset when letters fluttered out from a pillow on washday. ‘Mum’, she pleaded. ‘I think you need help, you know? I mean, this is out of control, it’s obsessive.’
‘Yes’, Sarah said. She knew it was out of control. She hung her head and sat there meekly, hugging herself for the cold.
‘Look’, Richard said. ‘I’ve been reading up about this, about . . . well, you know, traumatic change, the stress scale, stuff like that. It’s called displacement, what you’re doing. Well, to some extent we’re all… I mean here we all are, back home, practically huddling together . . . It’s not unusual, it’s even healthy for a while, depending on what you pick as your substitute for . . .
‘Yes’, Sarah said. ‘The thing is . . ‘ The thing was, she was one of them now: no outer casing, naked, exposed, waiting for blows. ‘I know how she feels, so I have to help.’
‘Know how who feels?’
‘Rosita Romero. Well, all of them.’ Though, regardless of country, they had all come to look like Rosita.
Richard was disturbed. ‘I agree that somebody . . . But I don’t think, right now, this is the kind of thing that you . . . ‘
‘If you read the Urgent Action Bulletins,’ Sarah said helplessly, ‘you would understand. In fact, maybe you two —’
‘Mum.’ Katy was pacing, Katy was folding the letters into pellets. ‘There’s such a thing as knowing your own limits. And you and Dad . . . this is not without repercussions for us, you know. I don’t see . . . these people you write letters for . . . I don’t see where they get the right to swallow up our lives.’
Sarah watched anxiety pluming around them like a cloud shot through with orange and red. She studied it, fascinated, and realised: There’s nothing they can do about it; it’s like my shivering.
When she came home from work the next day, Katy’s things were gone and there was a note beside the telephone:
Dear Mum: I’m moving back into the flat with Sandra and Jill. If you need me, call me. Or maybe write, since you’re so good at that. I could do with a few letters of support myself. And so could you, of course. But I know my limits. Love, Katy.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ Richard worried. ‘There’s this biology project I’m supposed to be working on; it involves a field trip. But how can I leave you when you’re —’
‘Oh Richard, don’t be silly. It’s high time we stopped — what did you call it — huddling . . . I think you should move back into residence. And there’s nothing the matter with me. I’m fine.’
‘But you’re not. You’re behaving in this . . . it scares me, it’s obsessive . . . ‘
‘I’ll stop,’ she promised, as Richard packed his things — although she knew it was not within her power to stop.
Rosita has long dark hair and a tiny mole low on the left cheek. Sarah’s hair is fair-turning-silver, and still hangs below her shoulders when she unpins it; her mole is near the right corner of her lips. Each month when Rosita begins to bleed, Sarah wakes with the sensation of a leaden ball low in her belly; she reaches down with her finger, slides it into warm fluids, tastes her own salty menses.
The night she staggers next door to Mrs Donovan and is rushed off in an ambulance, Mrs Donovan holds her hand in the back of the van. ‘It’s a miscarriage,’ she says. ‘Had four myself, in between the six children, so I know those cramps. Perhaps it’s all for the best,’ she says, kindly, wiping Sarah’s sweating forehead with a doth, putting a soothing hand on her jack-knifing stomach. ‘So late after the other two. And since he’s left, you know.’
‘It’s Rosita,’ Sarah gasps between spasms. ‘It’s not a baby, it’s Rosita.’
At Emergency, they do tests. The interns look at one another and shake their heads and administer sedatives.
‘What do men know?’ Mrs Donovan says staunchly at her bedside. ‘Sometimes they slide right down the toilet like a barrel going over Niagara and direct into Purgatory. Little unbaptised souls, not an eye to see them except God’s. Don’t waste your time expecting doctors to understand. I know women’s problems when I see them.’
‘Yes’, Sarah whimpers. Women’s problems. ‘Rosita, Rosita,’ she whispers into her pillow.
‘I’ve done that, too,’ Mrs Donovan says. ‘Gave them all names before they came. Maybe it’s tempting fate, I don’t know.’
‘Sympathetic magic,’ Dr. Fisher says. ‘A form of hysteria. You believe that if you suffer with her, it will help. You believe you are, as it were, draining off some of her pain into your own body.’
As a matter of fact, this is exactly what Sarah believes, though she is aware it would not be a good idea to admit it.
‘I was baffled at first,’ Dr Fisher says. ‘All the signs of an hysterical pregnancy. Because you do — don’t you? — you do want to believe there’s still some physical bond between you and your husband. But your daughter gave me these.’ Dr Fisher fans out a collection of Urgent Action Bulletins. He reads aloud: Rosita Romero, factory worker, province of . . .
‘Yes, yes,’ Sarah says impatiently, brushing this aside with her hand.
‘Urgent Action: Letters should be sent to His Excellency the —’
‘I know,’ Sarah says. ‘I did.’
Dr Fisher glances at her over his bifocals and continues reading:
for circulating a petition requesting better conditions at the factory where she works, Rosita Romero was arrested as a ‘subversive element.’ Evidence gathered from fellow prisoners indicates that Romero was subjected to the ‘water torture’, in which a hose is inserted into the vagina, and water is admitted under high pressure while an assistant of the interrogator stands on the woman’s stomach . . .
‘I know,’ Sarah interrupts, doubling over. ‘You don’t have to tell me. I know.’
‘It’s not Rosita Romero’s problem you have to work on,’ Dr Fisher says. ‘You have to stop avoiding your own. You have to cure your own pain.’
Will that lessen Rosita Romero’s? Sarah asks herself.
(‘What do doctors know?’ sniffs Mrs Donovan, visiting. ‘Women’s problems. What do doctors know?’)
In the middle of the night, Sarah wakes in agony. She is burning and sweating, she seems to be in labour, she feels as though she is giving birth to a wombful of razor blades. Oh God, she moans. She is going to die. She hears groaning and crawls towards it.
‘Rosita!’ she whispers. Rosita’s hair is dotted with blood, her face is swollen, she is naked, her body is grotesquely blackened . . . but Sarah recognises her. Doubling over her own pain, pleating it between her knees and breasts, containing it, she cradles Rosita.
She sings to her, she rocks Rosita in her arms, she strokes her hair.
Rosita cannot smile. Her lips are swollen shut, they are purple as eggplants, they are embroidered with scabs of blood. Rosita is slipping away. The mud floor is slick and treacherous, they are both of them sliding downhill. When the guards appear, swinging their truncheons like magicians, like jugglers, like the circus man with one red eye, they take Rosita by the ankles as though she were a sack of dung and begin to heave. It is easy work.
But Sarah digs in her heels and will not let go. She feels the mud and blood squelching up, warm, between her toes. She is on fire from her own contractions, a siren is blaring inside her head. She hooks her arms around Rosita, she sways and weaves to avoid the truncheons, she digs in her heels.
‘Let me go,’ Rosita pleads. Her lips are like rubber pontoons; the words ooze out, slow and viscous. ‘I can’t hold on anymore. Let me go’, she pleads.
The guards are dragging her off by the ankles. They are using chains; the flesh has gone, Sarah can see the bone. ‘Rosita!’ she gasps. She is losing her hold, Rosita has almost gone. ‘Rosita!’ She clasps Rosita’s hands and hangs on.
All night Sarah braces her legs against the wall. She will not let go. The muscles in her thighs and wrists are fraying like old ropes, they are twisting like knives, they hum a high note of pin so pure it fills the room with fog.
Rosita’s hands are limp and clammy and slippery as fish. Sarah squeezes harder. She insists that the hands stay warm; she will not let them go. When morning comes, Sarah wakes exhausted. Her sheets are sodden.
I did not let go, she thinks.
Sarah was curled up on the window-seat looking out at the horsechestnut candles, her daughter visiting for Sunday dinner. Katy sat on a cushion on the floor and leaned against her mother’s knees.
‘When you were little . . .’ Sarah said, winding a black curl around one finger, and stroking it with the brush. She smiled. ‘Do you remember that time — third grade? fourth grade? — when Michael Dunlap filled your shoes with mud?’
‘Oh god, Michael Dunlap!’ Katy laughed. ‘Did he do that? I’d forgotten. I’d completely forgotten. I used to have nightmares about that boy.’ She laughed again, then sobered. ‘Who’d have though the way things would . . . God, poor Michael Dunlap. What a seesaw life is.’
‘I saw his mother one day in town. . . So I asked, you know. Just making small talk, really. It was thoughtless of me. But he’s doing all right now, she said. Driving a truck, a fruit and vegetable business, something like that. As a matter of fact, Richard bumped into him one day at a service station on the highway, an incredible fluke, did he tell you? They had a drink together.’ She ran the brush upwards from Katy’s neck, sweeping the curls into dusters; she held them in a loose knot with her left hand, and brushed up again, over and over, massaging.
‘Mmmm,’ Katy purred. She twisted her head back to look at her mother. ‘Mum?’
‘We’re not doing so badly, are we?’
Sarah smiled and feathered the brush in deft little swirls behind Katy’s ears.
‘Nice,’ Katy murmured. ‘Mum?’
‘Are you still writing those letters?’
‘When it’s required.’
‘Do you think it accomplishes anything? Do you ever hear. . ?’
Sarah thought of the terse bulletin that came . . . oh, two months ago? . . . along with news of fresh arrests in South Korea (please send letters to His Excellency President Chun Doo-Hwan . . .) and reports of torture in Iran (please write to His Excellency . . .)
Rosita Romero — Update: Release yesterday, after worldwide barrage of letters, and after a number of official and semi-official protests from political figures in the US, Canada, Australia, and Europe. (The politicians themselves were a target of our letter writing campaign.) Released in critical condition, due to several bouts of interrogation with torture. Currently under Red Cross care. Present condition: stable.
‘You never hear much,’ Sarah said. She let Katy’s curls fall loose over her shoulders, and ran the brush through them again.
‘Don’t stop,’ Katy murmured.
‘I had no intention of stopping.’
Janette Turner Hospital is an Australian-born novelist and short story writer.