My mother’s fifth pregnancy was an eventful one.
It would be a mistake to attribute that to a condition of poor health. My family, mother included, was extraordinarily healthy, both regarding our response to disease and average lifespan. On both sides of my family, even distant relatives lived long lives of great quality, free of serious disease or bodily complication. Individuals sometimes believe that factors of familial luck balance out, and that people as fortunate as we were in the matters of finance and natural intelligence must have suffered physically for it, but this was not the case. My parents and siblings had never encountered a medical incident more serious than a heavy sneeze prior to my conception, and all save for my father had no reason to think that I might be any different.
But my mother did, for the first time with me, suffer symptoms beyond the range of what could have been normally predicted for a woman who was expecting. There were the usual conditions as well, such as morning sickness and fatigue, but even when they went past the severity she’d experienced them at with my siblings, she didn’t worry. She was a little older than she was when she’d had my siblings, and four prior pregnancies took a toll. It was nothing to worry about, she knew.
But there were the features she could not have prepared herself for.
Unbearable, insatiable thirst, concentrated together in the span of several minutes, unaffected by whether or not she tried drinking, disappearing all at once in a single random moment.
Insomnia, a broken internal clock. Sleeping every day in multiple awkward three hour shifts, not able to rest in an interrupted block. A loss of vivid dreams, and then all dreams together, from a woman who enjoyed having them, who looked forward to them.
The sudden awareness, she described, of her own blood. It was rare and short, but for short bursts of several minutes each day, she felt with perfect clarity her heart pumping blood to every corner of her body, the liquid rushing, pulling, pulsing. It didn’t hurt, she said. But she could feel it.
Strangest of all, the need to watch, the urge. She would be sitting in bed, reading, and the sun would go down, and the stars would go up. And then her focus waned, and she would bite her lip and curl her toes and try not to think about it, but she would always give in because there seemed no other alternative. So she would pull out a small chair and go into the garden and watch it.
She hated it. She wanted to read, to talk to someone, to do anything else. But her eyes and her body would not let her, and for hours each night she couldn’t help but sit and stare in silence, loathing how boring it was, how much she wanted to stare at the little glowing orb. And her body ached for it if she tried to go back inside before whatever insane piece of her had its fill, not metaphorically but literally, her muscles stiffening and screaming out with soreness for her to sit back and in the chair and watch. My father would sit with her and try to entertain, and she wanted so badly to speak to him, and she couldn’t, because talking made the soreness come back, made the staring not count. It had to be in silence.
She was more than perceptive enough to notice that the urge strengthened and weakened together with the natural cycle, growing worse as it waxed, better as it waned. Whatever meaning there was to be had by this, she didn’t know. The only prescriptions given by those went to for help were bloodletting and prayer, and my parents had no interest in either. She would have to endure.
During this time, through everything, my father said nothing. I have no strict opinion on his decision not to tell her about his mistake, even if I do recognize that she had the right to know. It is very likely that nothing short of incinerating my mother’s body would have stopped my arrival, and it almost makes sense to me, the idea of him not wanting to worry her about what couldn’t be stopped.
I would never endorse or justify his poor choices, but to his credit, he never left her side. I ended up choosing in my later years to view his dishonesty towards her as a matter of caring, not cowardice. Wishful thinking, maybe.
It continued, and most symptoms grew more intense over time, but she powered through. For everything she dealt with that wasn’t the urge to watch, she read, and during that she would stop and analyze what she’d read, distracting herself. Like every other struggle she faced in life, books helped her make it. When I was growing up, she sometimes discussed the difficulties she was met with in bringing me to term, joking that Chaucer did most of the heavy lifting during labor.
But I was born, and her symptoms ceased. The childbirth itself was easy, and despite reasonable fears from my parents, I appeared as a healthy child, if not very small.
For a short time, my father allowed himself to pretend that everything was going to be fine.
It is common for the youngest child in a family to receive special treatment, especially when there is a relative gap in ages between them and the second youngest. This was also the case for me, although not, it is reasonable to say, for the normal reasons.
I was an extremely sickly child. Two weeks after I was born, I caught pneumonia, and was so close to death that a physician said at one point that I had less than a hour to live.
A month later, it was diphtheria, and cholera, three months after that. At two, smallpox. Four, measles. Five was yellow fever. And it continued on and on, me getting some strange disease despite living indoors away from anyone and barely clinging to life, eventually recovering with no lasting effects beyond weakness and stunted growth. My parents and siblings were never afflicted with the sicknesses I was, and neither was anyone else who came into contact with me; many of my ailments weren’t even normally present in a place like Racine, which made the situation that more confounding and frustrating for my parents. It was as if I was cursed to live with eternal sickness that could never kill me.
I spent more than three-quarters of my life until I was nine bedridden, the first member of my family to possess anything aside from perfect health. I loathed it. I was always tiny and pained and miserable, half the time barely able to stand myself up. I hated being waited on, being pitied, especially by my comparatively blessed brothers and sister. I wanted to run outside and be able to breathe without choking on my own mucus, to have friends, to not have to constantly rely on others. In all cases, these were denied to me. I had nothing.
My parents lived with an all-consuming obsession towards literature, and all their children were raised in the hopes that they grow to be just as tormented by the written word. This meant schooling from both parents, which meant reading. So they crammed Homer and Shakespeare and Ovid and Voltaire and Cervantes and Augustus and every Greek and Roman and English and French and Spanish bastard’s work they could find into our little minds, hoping that it would take, that we would become worldly readers, whatever that was. So the five of us absorbed millions upon millions of words and sentences written by European men and the lectures our parents could give about them, waiting patiently for it to happen.
It did. We grew up smart.
We could quote and remember and understand poetry, we could have a conservation about Dante, we could read and consume high literature at the level necessary to impress and excel. We knew other things that were good to be in the know about too, science and philosophy, history and mathematics. But literature was king. Books were king.
But my siblings — including my sister, to the great disappointment of my mother — never were grabbed by it in the way that they were. They could read, and they enjoyed it when they did, but it didn’t consume them. They didn’t spend every spare minute thinking about, needing it, planning their futures around it. To them, it was something that made life more pleasant; to my parents, it was something that made life life.
I was the predictable exception. My illnesses made me the perfectly moldable captive, and my mother took advantage of it, doubling what was given to my siblings. She wouldn’t have gone as far as she did if I had resisted, but why would I have done that? Fiction, literature, that was my only escape. That was freedom. Alive, sick and by myself, I could be in a bed, very very occasionally on a short trip into town to visit our family bookstore. Thinking about a story, escaping into it… I could be anywhere.
It was obvious why I liked to read. What other choice did I have?
I took to it very easily, and my mother and I spent hours together, quietly reading and talking. I imagined in my head, as most kids probably do, that I was her favorite, that yes she loved the others, but only in the way all mothers love all children. I was special, because we had something in common, and it was our favorite thing in the world. We would discuss and have arguments about literary interpretation, and at the age of six or seven I would be making points that flew far above the heads of my older brothers.
My father was cold to me. Not in a way meant to hurt me, but to protect himself. He withheld affection, even more than was common for men at the time, never looking me in the eye, never allowing himself to be alone in my presence. He was an educator and a mentor and a provider to me, and I would have said that I loved him if he ever asked me, but it was abundantly clear to me that he never would.
But it was fine. I had my mother, and I already knew that I was her favorite. That was enough, I decided very young.
It got loud when we were together, and we fought a lot about what we read, always smiling. I remember one specific afternoon, we were finishing The Last Day Of A Condemned Man, a book about a man awaiting his execution, and she joked when discussing the ending that Victor Hugo must have had a sick mind.
I asked her why she thought that, and she said, well, he wrote books about people and situations that were very sick and very horrible. And he did it wonderfully, she emphasized. The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables and what we had just finished were all great and wonderful stories about misery and poverty and evil and societal cruelty and the human condition. But a person, she said more seriously, had to be a little sick in the mind to write them. She didn’t know much about him, but terrible things must have happened to Victor Hugo, if he could write about the topics he chose to in the way that he did, with the detail and skill he demonstrated.
I waited and I thought about it and told her she was wrong. Clearly. Victor Hugo wasn’t executed, obviously, and he still got into the mind of a man who was. You could write a story about sickness without being sick, couldn’t you? People told stories for thousands of years about monsters and gods and unspeakable horrors, but all of them couldn’t have been all those things. There were men who wrote about women and women who wrote about men, the old about the young, the healthy about the dying. In light of all that, wasn’t her idea absurd?
And back and forth, all the time. That conversation in particular had a big impact on me, and after we had, around the time I was six, I started to take an active interest in authors, the names on all the books that I read. I still preferred fiction to non-fiction, but my favorite part of any novel that included it was the foreword or postscript, especially where an author discussed their own work, their own history. I loved finishing a book and asking myself who the author was, what they were like. Why did they write the thing that they wrote? Where did the ideas come from? Did they like writing it? Would they have done it differently a second time? Were they a happy person?
I liked thinking about those questions. Sometimes more than I did about the work itself, as strange as it might have sounded.
The times I was living in affected the books I read. My world outside of rare trips into town was limited to my bedroom, but I read the news, same as my family, even if it didn’t hold the same level of interest as my stories did. The Dred Scott Trial, the violence in Kansas, what happened to Charles Sumner. Each new incident a little more shocking, pushing us all a little farther.
“Something” was going to happen. That much was obvious, even to me, even to my siblings. Nobody knew at what severity, but it couldn’t keep going, not the way that it was. One side wanted to mercilessly destroy an entire region’s culture, economy, and way of life, and the other simply wished to preserve their rights as equal member states of a great nation. Compromise was impossible, and in recognition of that, The War of Northern Aggression was unavoidable.
I’m just fucking with you. Relax. My parents were abolitionists.
I read a lot of anti-slavery literature, and although I enjoyed it, it didn’t have much of an impact on me, not in the way it should have. I knew it was based on a very real, very terrible reality, but I had trouble separating it from fiction, from any of the other stories I read. Slavery was a real occurrence happening in the world I lived in — I understood that, I could hear it being said and repeated to me, and I agreed with it — but I couldn’t empathize, not really. The plight of any individual slave in South Carolina to me seemed as far off as Robinson Crusoe.
When I was ten, around a month after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, my mother placed a book in my hands, a rarity for me, non-fiction. It was autobiographical, it was the first-person narrative of a former slave. I was horrendously sick at the time, so much that I could barely keep my eyes open, but I read anyway to distract myself, at my mother’s urging.
There were descriptions in it like any other book that I had seen discuss the topic, accounts of children being forced to work in horrible conditions with no chance of freedom, the cruel separation of families, the total and structural dehumanization of an entire people.
But I’d seen it before. It was just words to me, things I couldn’t relate to, as a nine year old fool. But I kept reading, and going on, I found passages that made my gut twist.
It was, printed in that narrative, explained to me the great value slavemasters placed on ignorance, on keeping slaves stupid, uneducated. The author was ruthless in explaining it, how painful education was in revealing the suffering of his condition, but how liberating it was to finally know and to read, and how horrifically, inexcusably evil an individual would have to be to try and prevent a man from obtaining it. How reliant those people were on ignorance in order to suppress, to control.
And I could, for once in my life, empathize, really and truly. I imagined a version of myself no different save for a lack of education, and that picture terrified me.
In a dark room, forever, coughing and wheezing and stupid. Knowing nothing and being nothing and being disconnected from everything and equating to an eternally dying waste. And that vision of myself haunted me and scared me for than anything I’d ever felt, even the worst of the worst moments when I thought I was hours away from melting into nothing.
I imagined then, a situation where I had been made to be like that, intentionally. That a person was causing it. That it was real, that it had been on purpose. That someone was ripping the single happy thing I had away from me for personal profit, to dehumanize me, to make me less than nothing. Turning me into a mule of sickness and mindlessness, content with that misery, only knowing it.
And I remembered that it was all real, and on the scale of millions, and with the righteous indignation only a dying nine year old could muster I threw the book against the wall and fell out of bed and screamed and vomited and pissed all over myself while my mother came running in, my father standing in the doorway, watching, knowing something she didn’t.
The next three days were outside of anything real. My head hurt, my arms and legs twisted, I shat and vomited and cried and felt my blood move and pump and thrust, like a burning river flowing inside me. I was so thirsty and so hungry and I couldn’t eat or drink anything, and I was like a sponge without energy. I was on my mother’s lap at one point, and my siblings were in the doorway with my father, and I was covered with my own vomit, which felt hot enough to be boiling. And she looked at me like I was something that wasn’t her son.
I woke up one week later, my faculties recovered, my pain gone. There were three letters at my door, all written neatly, with care.
One from my sister, very short, saying that she loved me.
Another from my mother, same length, same message.
Another from my father. More words in his letter than we’d ever shared together at any one time.
For your purposes, it isn’t important for you to hear all of it. It’s personal. But know that it was a man attempting to explain a full decade of regret to a child he had doomed from the start. And trying to justify it, from his end. It was very loving and apologetic and cold and cruel.
He met a being, a long time before I was born, promising him wonderful success in life, if he’d only sell the soul of his fifth child for the purposes of consumption.
My father would not have sold the soul of his fifth child, but he at the time didn’t have one. He said to the being, after being offered health and wealth and perfect romantic happiness, what if I sell this to you and I never do have that fifth child? And the being, the man with twelve toes, told him no repayment would be necessary, under those specific circumstances. That it would only apply if he did.
And my father said, the man with twelve toes already having demonstrated his power to him, what if you make it so that my wife bears my child without my consent? And the being said, no. He and his wife would have to make the fifth child normally if they ever did, and the man with twelve toes could use no magic to interfere.
So my father signed a contract he shouldn’t have signed, thinking I would never come about. And then much later he was tricked, so I did.
There were other words after that explanation. Words about being angry at him instead of my mother and siblings, who left forever with him to get away from me, knowing what I was about to bring.
My expectation had always been, well, my father might in fear one day try to abandon me due to sickness, but my mother wouldn’t, I was her favorite, she loved me. And she would defend me and he would come to see that she was right, the both of them being loving humanists, people of books, of education.
But I was not my mother’s favorite, not in the way I had always taken for granted. I saw the version of herself she showed me when we were together talking about books in my bedroom, and I was never healthy enough to see the her that existed outside of that context. She loved my sister too, and my brothers. I just didn’t get to see that love all that much. From that point, loving all her children and being faced with the decision that she was, the choice was obvious.
4 > 1.
So they left, my siblings, my parents. Whatever valuables were in the house, their favorite books, all gone. I might have been in denial about it while reading the letter, maybe rejecting the idea of magic, that souls existed, that a monster was coming for me or that they even left. But seeing my hands, as grown as they were, did not allow for that.
I went to a mirror as soon as I started to notice, and a man of twenty stared back at me, tears in his eyes. It was me. Dark hair, pale as paper, eyes of dark reddish brown. But older, a fully grown man that would have dwarfed my small father, with the muscles and stature of a man who had never been sick in his life. Not ugly, or even normal. Health, my body screamed.
I moved with ease, testing myself. I could move, I could walk, I could breathe, all effortlessly, all without trouble. I ran, for the first time in my life, trying not to think about how I had just been abandoned.
And then the adrenaline wore off and I was a grown healthy adult with the mind of a child, abandoned by everyone, what was probably the devil coming for me, coming for what I’d never chosen to give away.
I sat in my house and cried, not having a clue what to do. I didn’t want to read, for the first time in my life, but I didn’t want to join the reality I’d spent my whole life dreaming about either.
I expected at some point he would come and take me, but he didn’t, and I kept crying, too afraid to even walk outside. I stopped eating, and I thought, remembering Quasimodo, that maybe I’d keep up that starvation and lock myself away next to my favorite toy and make a coffin for myself and go to sleep forever.
But I saw the book I had been reading before my metamorphosis, and I picked it up, thinking. And I waited two and three and four more days, and I started eating again, and I waited a little longer for the man or the being or the devil or my parents, and nobody ever came.
So I finished the book, and I waited a little more, and I thought, in absence of any other choices, the kind of impact I might have on the world, if it truly was the case that I was already alone and damned. If I was a man, if I was an adult, what did I want to do with that? What could I do with that, that I couldn’t before?
The image flashed again in my mind, the real men who existed who locked innocents into chains of ignorance, who we were finally going up against. An enemy. Someone pure evil for me to hate, rightfully and truly, in spite of whatever had and was happening to me. Someone who liked to doom others without their permission, to hurt them irreparably, deciding their fates for the sake of greed.
Someone I could shoot.
I left my house forever and marched into town, a soldier in the making.