What Is Visible

A Short Story

I was so fortunate as to hear of the child [Laura Bridgman], and immediately hastened to Hanover to see her ... The parents were easily induced to consent to her coming to Boston, and [soon] they brought her to the Institution.
—Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, quoted in American Notes, Charles Dickens, 1842

Miss Wight says that Julia will be here any minute, and that I must dress to see her. Julia has returned from New York today—a month early, the cook told Miss Wight, and without Doctor. I wish that I could have a cameo of Doctor's head to wear as a brooch on the lace collar of my black day dress, above my silver cross. No, no, to wear on all my collars, on all my dresses, every day. And then at night, alone in my bed in my room, I would push the pin of the brooch right through the skin in the hollow of my neck so that his dear face would stay with me the whole night long and I could run my fingers over his raised likeness and never sleep. Miss Wight, my companion, who lives with me here at the Institution, says they almost never make cameos of men, but I don't understand why not. Everyone says that Doctor is the handsomest man in Boston—who would not want him as an ornament? I would carve the cameo myself if I could procure the ivory and a good small knife, and then I might not suffer as unbearably when he's away—six months this time!

I know his features as well as my own: the strong, wide brow and bushy eyebrows; the long prow of his nose between the deep-set eyes; the bristly fur of moustache half covering his upper lip, and the plump lower lip that I have traced with my finger a thousand times, but never met with mine. And his beard, Doctor's beard—I would spend an hour curling each hair with my blade, all the way up to the prominent ridges of his cheekbones. Maybe I could get a large block of ivory with the money I've saved from my sewing and crochet work that people buy on Exhibition Days (oh, look: handkerchiefs embroidered by Laura Bridgman, the deaf, mute, blind girl—we must buy a whole set!) and carve a life-size cameo of Doctor's head, large enough to sleep beside me on my pillow. It would be cold to the touch, but it would be something.

Before I work the thick masses of curls for his hair, I might please him with my learning of phrenology—his decade-old passion—by rendering expertly each bump on his skull. Ah, there it is: the well-developed veneration bump right at the top, between firmness and benevolence, evidencing the faculties of his divine creative spirit and his quest for the sublime. I round the twin bumps of ideality at his temples, which display the disposition toward perfection, toward beauty and refinement in all things, and then notch the bulge of individuality between his eyebrows that sets them so far apart and him so far apart from lesser men. And the affection bump on the upper back of his head, so prodigious that the famous phrenologist Dr. Combe cautioned him at forty that he must find an appropriate object on which to bestow its vast benefits—dare I carve that affection with my little knife?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (September 18, 2001)
Americans today are finding new inspiration in Julia Ward Howe's anthem—originally published in The Atlantic in 1862 to rally Union troops.

If I had been twenty, as I am now, I think Doctor might have chosen me instead of Julia. Dr. Gallaudet and Mr. Clerc, at the Hartford Asylum for the Deaf, both married their students, and they were just silly deaf girls—nothing like me, the star pupil of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, my own dear Doctor, of the world-famous Perkins Institution for the Blind, taught to read with Doctor's miraculous raised-letter books and to write with the finger alphabet (Doctor and I do not believe in Sign). I have been visited by thousands, written about by Mr. Charles Darwin, and given an entire chapter in Mr. Dickens's American Notes. Mr. Dickens says that I am the second wonder of North America; apparently, only the roar of Niagara Falls is more impressive than what I have achieved in silence. But I was only thirteen when Doctor's affection bump forced him to choose an object, and look who he chose: Julia Ward, in possession of all five senses and then some, and the author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which, I understand from Miss Wight and others, might be a fitting accompaniment for their married life! And anyone who has eyes to see confirms that Julia has not lost the weight from her last child, and that the fabled blonde locks are now tricked out with gray. Gossip flies into my hands as easily as it does the ears of others, and lands buzzing on my palms like flies.

Miss Wight shakes my arm. "Hurry," she spells into my palm. "Julia is waiting for you."

I would like to make her wait, but I am eager for news of Doctor. I tap my way exactly thirty-eight lady's steps down the corridor, take a sharp right, and walk twelve more through the foyer to the public room. My movements are very precise. I enter the room slowly, my head held so high that my bun almost slides down the back of my head, and I am about to take the twenty-eight steps from the door to my visiting chair when the air directly in front of me is suddenly and violently disturbed. Julia has rushed me; she hugs me against her bosom. Though she has three children of her own, I think she fancies herself some sort of mother to me. Does she not realize how I have blossomed and flourished so long and so far without my own mother, with only Doctor to meet my needs (and Miss Wight a little, I suppose)? I pull away from Julia quickly, holding her hand in mine but at a full arm's length. Thank God she no longer stays here at Perkins often, now that she is off waging campaigns with the suffragists and the abolitionists. I gather my skirts and settle into my chair by the hearth, angling it to catch the last of the November afternoon's warmth on my back.

Presented by

Kimberly Elkins is a New York-based writer who is working toward a master's degree at Florida State University. This story will appear in Best New American Voices 2004, to be published this fall by Harcourt.

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