One of the things that Annaliese doesn’t remember is that, just before her sister Lucy’s ninth birthday, she saw a shark while swimming in the inlet at their grandparents’ place in Cape Cod. It hadn’t been much, a fin and a slick dark thing that passed beneath her panicked legs, but it was enough to keep her out of the water forever. Lakes, ponds, even swimming pools at night: her joints locked up and her fingers fell gripless and white at the places where water nudged.
When she wakes up after the accident, all that is gone. She is wiped cleaner than a beach after high tide, no seaweed or crab carcasses bracketing the shoreline. She has to relearn the trick to opening the back door’s latch without making any sound, but her muscles still know the path down to the ocean, even in the dark. In the deep heat of summer she strips naked and lies floating in the cool water as it turns its back to the shore. She can see nothing beneath her, and that’s fine with Annaliese. The ocean hides volcanoes, Atlantis, whole continents, wreckages, salt.
Annaliese keeps her back to these things. She watches the moon.
The accident: Lucy’s horse, its hoof, and Annaliese’s head. That was all.
She lay in the dirt, blinking. Darkness webbed around the edges of her eyes, leaving her only a pinhole to see through. She remembers this, or thinks she does. She remembers thinking: all the world will be made new, and not knowing what her own thoughts meant.
In an argument, Lucy says, “My sister died. You’re—someone else.”
“Yes,” says Annaliese.
She is not sad. Her memories, now gone, are nothing. She is glad to have Lucy, to love her; knows the woman who has and loves her is not the woman Lucy lost. Dead, and not. Here, and not. As dark as the ocean. Shrödinger’s sister.
Once, waking to Annaliese’s newly clumsy hand on the noisy door latch, Lucy tells her the story. But this Annaliese has never seen a shark and doesn’t fear the clench of its jaw. She keeps her face toward the moon, her hair trawled out like a fisherman’s net. She imagines herself holding her sister for the first first time.
She is unperturbed when dark shapes passed beneath her because the whole ocean is dark.
There is a story my mother used to tell me, about Saint Lucy. Pursued by a man obsessed with her beauty, Lucy (for she wasn’t a saint then) plucked out her own eyes and sent them to him, as a parting gift.
Now, that’s love, my mother said.
No, idiot. For freedom.
It was not enough to love God, according to my mother; it was the mutilation that made her saintly. It was the blindness that set her free. Let go of the things that tether you to earth. What need, have you for eyes, idiot, when God in his wisdom can lead you down the path?
Let there be nothing at all of yourself that you are not prepared to sever.
My father, of course, would hit her.
Every time he did, she closed her eyes.
Did Saint Lucy’s suitor think the eyeballs were a token? Did he think she blinded herself because her love for him was an unholy temptation, or did he understand that they were evidence only of her disdain? Or did he know that between the two is a line so thin as to be invisible?
It’s me that taught you, said my mother, as I packed my things, as I loaded them into the truck. You think you learned this on your own?
Learned what, said I. In the driver’s seat sat a man who loved and never struck me. I thought he was fine. He would last me as far as St. Louis, probably. I’d break his heart there, once I had a place. Once I didn’t need the truck.
How to let go, idiot, said my mother.
My father did not come out to say goodbye. He’d keep hitting her til he died, and she said she’d go but she never would. My mother held on to things so tight it made her fingers numb.
Mama, said I.
I taught you, she said, stubborn. By showing you how rotten the holding on can get.
Did my mother love my father?
Did my mother love God?
Augusta. Atlanta. Nashville. St. Louis. Perhaps Saint Lucy’s suitor was a good man. Perhaps the goodness of men is relative. This man thought I chose him, but I was thinking of how my mother loved me. I was thinking: here I am, plucked free of her sockets; here I am, unblinking in the world.
When a thing is cut from you the wound of it is not the wound itself; it is not the pain of the place where it bleeds but the pain of knowing that the wound will heal, that your skin will stitch itself back into its best shape and you will become young again at the point of fixture. Your new skin born on the day the wound dies, skin that does not know what the wound was, that did not feel its making — this matters not because the pain was good but because its absence means the wound is gone, and the wound is what you loved. The wound is where you held a beloved thing now lost to you. To survive is a biological imperative, yes, but all this means is that humanity is an act of recovery, of never dying from the things that cut us; we try to hold onto our sorrows because sorrow’s nature is to linger, in love. What is the act of grieving except the act of still-loving? What is a bravely dressed wound except an altar to that grief? While we suffer we do it because the ghost of a severed limb is holding onto what we lost. But when the wound has healed the grace goes with it. Our skin is new and we have no need for the love that numbed the absent crater. We are not consulted about this. We are not asked whether we would like to be made new. We are not built to remember; we are built to survive: so the wound itself is not the wound. The wound is how you feel after, looking down at what has been restored and wondering whether the cut had really been that deep. Unable to recall the way a voice sounded when it called for you from the other room. It allows you to go on, this forgetting. It is the only thing that does. The wound is not the wound, but the faded memory of the wound. Perhaps forgetting is the truest form of grace. Perhaps grace is the truest form of loss. I know how this sounds. Grace saves by taking from us the things that cut our hands, but Father, we chose what we cupped in our palms. Oh, but this is why, you see. This is why.