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?
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.
"How was your journey?" I spell into her hand, but before she can switch hands with me, I push on. "How is Doctor? When does he arrive?"
Julia writes a few words about her trip into my hand with her stubby fingers, not half the length of mine. The fingers feel thicker than on her last visit, and her palms, curiously, always sport slight calluses; even Miss Wight, a lady of much lower station, has no calluses. Julia spells as slowly as my uneducated visitors from the country, and I think she should stick to writing songs, because she'd need twenty years to write a book at this slug's pace.
And then finally, in answer to my question: "Doctor Howe will be arriving a week from tomorrow."
"Only a week, not a month?" I quiz her palm, thrilled that I might touch him so soon, but anxious that I have so little time to prepare.
Yes, a week tomorrow, she assures me, and now she is scratching on about her work. I am Doctor's project, and so she must have projects of her own: repressed women, and slaves. I feel a simultaneous affinity and disgust for both.
"Laura, you should speak out on these important humanist topics on Exhibition Days; you have a grand platform from which to share your views. You can write on your chalkboard for the crowds who come to see you, and influence people from all over the world."
"On Exhibition Days," I scribble as fast as I can, knowing she can't keep up and will understand only half of it, "Doctor likes for me to demonstrate my knowledge of geography and—SAUSAGE—reading comprehension—FINGERS—and to show my penmanship, needlework, and ability to recognize people by their hands."
"But, L," she spells now, using only an "L" for "Laura," either because she is lazy or because she mistakenly believes that I must hold her in affection (I allow only Doctor and Miss Wight to use that diminutive), "surely you care that women and Negroes should be free."
"I AM NOT FREE," I write, pushing down so hard that my nails press into her palm. "I am not free to even BE a woman like you."
"Of course you are a woman." Julia's fingers press equally hard, and slide on the valleys of my palm, which has begun to sweat. This almost never happens; I use a dusting of powder to keep my hands fresh and dry, and take pride in my coolness to the touch. No, it is Julia's hands that are wet, and polluting mine! I pull my hands away and wipe them slowly and deliberately on the folds of my skirt.
"You are all black to me," I write. "Everything is dark to me, and everyone is the same. I think it is the same for God." I wish I were brave enough to rip off the fillet that covers my eyes, to force Julia to see what I cannot.
Julia is excited, the tips of her fingers nearly dripping. "You could write that next week for the visitors," she spells. "Exactly that."
"Ask your husband," I telegraph back, and her hand waits and then falls away. I wonder about the bumps on her head, whether Doctor finds them pleasing in their causality. I reach up suddenly, toward where I think the top of her head is, but my fingers instead catch her on the ear, and I hold it for a few seconds, bending the soft, pliable rim up and down, marveling that through this sweet little maze she is able to hear: to let in the whole world and, most of all, the multitude of Doctor's sounds, his laughs and sighs. I know how to laugh too; I laugh a lot. It is apparently the one thing I learned as a baby to do well, before scarlet fever robbed me of four of my senses. And Doctor says my laughter is a beautiful sound, like angels' beating wings. But as I hold Julia's ear, I make one of my other sounds, the ugly ones I am not supposed to make, which Mr. Dickens wrote are "painful to hear." It comes up from the back of my throat, the same sound I have felt from Pozzo, the Institution's dog, thrumming in the cords of his neck. I push my index finger hard into Julia's ear. I push it in again and again, and her hands are on my shoulders and then on my elbow, and so are Miss Wight's, and I could do it harder still, but I take my finger out of her ear and allow them to shove me back into my chair. I feel the vibration in the floor as Julia's chair is moved away from me, out of reach. I slow my breathing and extend both my arms into the air in front of me, my palms facing up in supplication.
I know I have been bad, and that Miss Wight has gone to get the gloves, but I am sure Julia is still in the room, waiting. Yes, she takes my hands in hers, trembling, and I let her hold them before I tap on her knuckles to let me spell. I have slapped my teachers many times but never, ever, Doctor or Julia. I have slapped even poor, dear Miss Wight twice this year, and I have grown accustomed, probably too accustomed, to asking for forgiveness both from the persons I have hurt and from God. My friends always forgive me, and so, I am certain, does God—but He absolves me only on the occasions when I am truly sorry. This is not yet one of those occasions.
"I am sorry if I hurt you," I write. "I pray I did not hurt your ear."
"A little," she spells back, "but I am fine. I didn't mean to upset you." Julia is taking this extremely well; I suppose that suffragists and abolitionists also get their dander up from time to time.
"I only wanted to feel for the bumps on your head," I tell her, and she pauses before she answers.
"I do not much believe in the science of phrenology, as my husband does," she writes.
I am shocked; to my knowledge, no one has disagreed with Doctor on this, though I myself have had some doubts.
"If we are born with these bumps that govern our character, then how are we to grow and change?" She fills my hand and waits.
I take a long time to gather my thoughts, unsure whether I want to share them with Julia. "I think maybe"—I pause and qualify myself further, this time careful to form each letter slowly and precisely, so that she will understand me fully—"maybe it is possible that phrenology interferes with the idea of free will."
"Yes, yes," Julia writes emphatically, in letters so large that she traces the stem of the first "Y" on my wrist.
"Did Doctor give you the phrenological examination before you were married?" I ask.
"Before we were even pledged," she writes back. Her fingertips bounce lightly up and down on my palm, and I know she is laughing. "Doctor Combe said that my self-esteem was far too elevated. That was the bump of destructiveness you were going for just above my ear, but don't worry, it was not destroyed."
I laugh too, but then Miss Wight tugs on my arm, and all I have time to spell is "Don't tell Doctor," without even a "please," before Miss Wight is pulling the gloves onto my hands. Of course I have to be punished for what I did to Julia, but still she kisses me long on the cheek, and I grab at her skirt as she's walking away. Just a touch, even if only of her scratchy serge, before the glove isolates that hand.
"Tonight and all tomorrow," Miss Wight taps through the thick cotton of the glove. Everyone knows, even the little blind girls when they sidle up and reach for my hands, that I am not allowed conversation when I am wearing the gloves. Though my punishment is deserved, it is worse than the solitary confinement with which they punish criminals: Not only am I cut off from all human contact, I lose all but the roughest impressions of the world itself. Touch is my one intact sense, and it is thickened and furred almost to nullity by the gloves—which on other young ladies would mean they're going out for a stroll. No one can comprehend the multitude of pleasures I receive from my fingertips, the hours I can spend stroking Pozzo's wiry, tangled fur, careening my fingers down the long whip of his tail, rubbing the softness of his firm belly. And the ladies' clothes!: their silks and satins, even the roughness of the out-of-towners' cotton broadcloths, the deep crush of velvet collars, the short, nappy rub of felt hats. And I am never more stirred than when I find the sharp quill of a plume on a hat, and can run my fingers up and down the feather.
Miss Wight taps me on the shoulder, and I know I'm being sent to bed early as further punishment. She takes my arm in hers and walks me down the hallway to my room, but she writes nothing to me tonight, not a word, and I know it's useless to ask her to spell out Doctor's last letter again into my palm. Of course, I have largely memorized all his letters anyway ("L—Yet another phrenologists' conference today—I ought to have my head examined!" "The Parisians feed their dogs at the table." But most of all, "Dear L, I miss you so").
I'm left alone to change into my nightgown; it is the rule that I cannot remove the gloves, even for bed. For my worst punishment, four years ago, I had to wear the gloves in bed every night for a month, because someone—I am still not sure whether it was Miss Wight or, to my greatest horror, maybe Julia, who was staying here because the Institution was short of help for a few weeks—caught me in the act of self-exploration. That wasn't the first time, and it certainly won't be the last, no matter how many times they glove me. I was on my stomach (Tessy, one of the blind girls, let me in on that trick), because of course I can't hear anyone coming, and if I am mightily preoccupied—both hands down, as they were that night—then I won't feel even the slight vibrations from footsteps on the wooden floor. A sudden smack on my upper arm, and I pushed down my nightgown and turned over, my hands up, waiting for the intruder to write upon them. Instead a fist came down on my forehead and NO was rapped across my brow by hard knuckles. I pulled the blankets up under my chin, and a minute later a cold, dripping washcloth was flung at my face. Every night for the next month the gloves were left on top of my nightgown and taken away again the next morning, after I'd changed into my day dress. I made sure that the gloves were spotless and unspoiled each morning, but restraint did not come easily.
Though Doctor delayed my religious education until I was sixteen, because he was often away in Europe and did not want me tainted by the doctrines of Calvinism (he is an ardent Unitarian and does not go in much for the actual words of the Holy Bible), I begged him to raise the Bible for me, and after months of labor by the Institution's publishers for the blind, I was given the Bible entire except for Revelation, which he has still refused to let me read. I have devoured that great book (I am a very fast reader), and have never found anything that I believe speaks against my explorations of my body. The spilling of seed is written against, but I don't see how that applies to me. And even if it does (Tessy is the only one who has ever explained the relations between men and women to me, and her effusive ramblings may have left me ill informed, so I could be wrong on this point), I still contend that the unique condition which my Maker has forced upon me for His own unintelligible reasons might also grant me an exception—a special pardon, if you will—when it comes to touching. The sensitive, peaking nipples of my breasts, and that whole silken netherworld, are God's gifts to me. My universe is manifest only through touching, and I refuse to be a stranger to it.
So if Doctor can't ever see his way clear of Julia and the trouble she causes him, then he must at least find me a suitable young man, soft-skinned and well spelled, from among his vast acquaintance. Miss Wight has been promised to the Unitarian minister who has been visiting me; she will leave me soon for this man with deeply ridged fingernails. I am fair to pleasing, I think: dark-haired and pale, my features regular, my nose a little long. "Petite," I have had spelled into my palm many times by visitors, and Mama says I am like a little bird. Who might not love a little bird, I am hopeful, even if it is locked in a dark and silent cage?
But I must remember to eat, to eat more. I vow to chew and swallow all three meals every day to fatten myself for Doctor. My bones poke through my skin, and I think that the soft, plump pillows of Miss Wight's hands are nicer to touch than my birdy bones. Eating is hard, though, when I taste almost nothing; the fever that took my eyes and ears took even the senses of taste and smell. I move my jaws and grind my teeth and pass my tongue over the lumps of whatever it is that slides from my fork or spoon, but the exercise seems meaningless. I would much rather dip my fingers into the warm pond of the soup and plumb its depths for legumes, rend the slick skin from the chicken and peel away the sheaves of muscle until I reach the hardness of the bone, tear the bread into a hundred tiny pieces and roll them into buttered balls to juggle over my plate, squish through the pliant mounds of the potatoes, ravage the soft pulp of the baked aubergines, and burrow both fists into the pie I will never know the sweetness of. Soak the whole feast in milk. For me the only delights of food are in its destruction, and it so disappoints me that I can no longer indulge my play now—not at my age, not in my position as the world's most famous woman, second only to Queen Victoria (second only to Julia!), and certainly not with Doctor coming next week.
Yes, yes, he will see me fatter, and I will fatten my affection bump, too. I tried once before to elevate its standing by beating on it several nights with the ends of my knitting needles, but that increased it hardly at all. Now I have a whole week, and this time I will not shy from employing the best tools at my disposal: the heels of my Sunday dress boots! I slide from my bed and crawl along the floor to my closet, and there it is: a boot for my affection. After all, Doctor arranged for Julia to undergo a thorough phrenological examination by the famed Dr. Combe before they were pledged, so I will make certain that even to Doctor's less trained eye the enormity of my capacity for love will be impossible to miss. He hasn't seen me for almost six months, so I think he will perceive my faculties as not greatly changed but only rendered more pronounced.
I take one boot back to bed with me and pull up the blankets, leaving just the top of my head uncovered. I hit myself hard on the spot I have studied in the raised charts he has given me. Harder, harder; and it hurts, yes, it hurts, but my labors will be worthwhile. Although I do not believe that my character, especially my ability to love faithfully and well, is sealed within the physiognomy of my skull, Doctor does, and so I rally my cause—Love! Love!—with each shuddering vibration through my temples and down my jaw. I move the heel of the boot closer to the front of my head and strike at the positions of benevolence and veneration, because I know that these are the qualities that impress Doctor most and that, he reports, are his own largest visible faculties.
Today, today, Doctor arrives today, and I am ready! I have eaten all my meals this week, even asking for seconds on several occasions, much to the surprise and delight of Miss Wight and the cook. I feel very cheerful and plump, no little bird but a downy hen. I have been careful, ever so careful, to wear my cotton bonnet with the string ties all week, so that no one might observe the heightening of my bumps. I have used the excuse of helping to clean and scrub the premises for Doctor's arrival—I always wear my bonnet when I clean, so that no strands of my long hair will escape from my bun and be dirtied. Miss Wight has been pleased, because I am a very good cleaner and she likes to see me clean. I cannot see the dirt, of course, but if you sit me down in an area and give me some good rags and a bucket of soapy water, I will scrub and scrub until you tell me the floor is spotless. This quality will also prove me a good wife. The only thing I dislike is wearing the heavy cleaning gloves, but they are necessary to protect the softness of my hands, which Doctor will soon be touching, again and again.
I run the duster over the top of my armoire and let the feathers stroke the heads of my Laura dolls, all sixteen of them. Twelve-inch likenesses of me—with their eyes poked out and little green grosgrain ribbons tied over the eyeholes—were sold across the country and even in England in the days when Doctor's educational exhibitions drew standing-room crowds. As I tickle the tiny molded toes of my Lauras, it occurs to me that if I am to have a real life—the realest life—then I must no longer allow myself to be quickened by these constant reminders of my fame; and besides, I am too old to play with dolls, to hold mock teas for my sixteen other selves. The little girls who cuddled me are all grown up, and most of them probably have their own babies to play with now, as I intend to. Carefully I take the dolls down from the armoire and place them in a heap on the bed beside me. One at a time, I rock each Laura to sleep, humming a tuneless lullaby I'm sure would make a real baby cry, and before I push the dolls into the dark beneath my bed, I untie the ribbon from the sightless eyes of each porcelain head. I braid the ribbons into a thick, soft plait and then fold it beneath my pillow, because green will bring me luck.
Green is the color I remember with the most pleasure: the green of the grass outside our house, in New Hampshire. Blue still spills from that square of sky visible over the bed where I lay ill for almost a year. Mama says my eyes were bright blue before they shrank behind my lids forever. Red I have a strong and disagreeable sense of, from when they bled me with leeches. And black I know the longest and best, because it is my constant companion. These are the only colors I can recall or imagine with any clarity. Yearning alone glimmers in my darkness, and the shades of my deepest desires cannot be described, just as I am certain that the color that is God is not known to any man.
I pat the hands of my clock's glassless face—Doctor will soon be here. The bonnet comes off, and I check the bumps. They are raised and sore, the veneration one especially; I hope they are not red. I've awakened every morning with a headache from the boot's work, but the pain is nothing compared with gaining my share of life's affections. I arrange my hair in a bun low on the back of my head, so that the bumps will show to their best advantage. I have even plucked a few hairs from the tops of each of them, so that they might be seen more clearly. I change into my best Sunday dress, my only silk one (a rose-pink robe á l'anglaise that Miss Wight says gives me color), and lace up the dress boots that have nearly knocked me senseless. I slip the green fillet over my eyes and go to meet Doctor, as nervous as I have ever been.
I know that Doctor is not here yet; I can always tell when he is in a room—the air warms and condenses almost imperceptibly, and its weight tilts me gently in his direction, as if I were borne aloft on the high end of a seesaw but losing balance, sliding slowly toward him on the ground. I sit in my chair by the hearth, pinching at my cheeks to redden them, and wave away Miss Wight's attempts at conversation. I am almost faint with worry when suddenly the air shimmies with heat and I feel the floorboards tense and then shift heavily—Doctor at last! But he doesn't come near me for a good ten minutes, probably talking with Miss Wight, and I force myself to wait patiently for him, like a lady. I used to run whimpering to him like a puppy whenever he came in, but I have learned to wait, no matter how painful it is. Finally the chair beside me is swung around, and his hand takes mine.
"L," he writes, "you're looking very well."
I am shaking—he must notice—but I write the next line of our customary greeting: "Thank you, Doctor. And you?" This is our little joke, our routine, and now he lifts my hand to his face so that I can feel for myself how well he is looking.
"Oh, yes," I write, as I limn the familiar perfections of his profile, "you look very well." I round the tip of his nose just as he snorts out a laugh, and my fingers catch his delight. "How was your trip?"
He fills my hand with his travels even as he mouths them, allowing my fingers to float in front of his lips so that I can feel the different forces and velocities of the puffs of air as he exhales the names of places I will never touch: New York, London, and—in a warm fluff of breath—Paris. "Paris," he says again (he knows the exquisite pleasure that the rushing air of any "P" gives me), and in my excitement I rub my fingers against his lips. They are soft but slightly dry—chapped, maybe, from riding in the wind. I am pulling open his lower lip with two fingers when he grasps my wrist firmly and pushes my hand down into my lap. I am too bold today; I have never tried to open Doctor's mouth before. I can tell from the movement of his arm holding mine that he is leaning back and away from me.
"L," he writes, "what has happened to your head?"
"Nothing," I reply. "It is fine, as always."
"It looks like a woodpecker got loose on it. Maybe you have banged it on the bed frame."
That is what he sees—an accident? I cannot write a thing. My hand is limp under his heavy one, and I don't even let my fingers stray across the beloved hairs on his knuckles.
"Dear L," he writes, as if composing a letter to me, as if we were still corresponding from a long distance apart, though I am trembling right here in his hands, "I have made a special trip back here just to speak with you."
And not to see your beloved wife? I want to write.
"After I returned from Europe, I took a train from New York to New Hampshire to see your family." His fingers stiffen, as if writing is difficult for him, and I worry that he might have contracted the rheumatism. Mama has it, and she can scarcely bend her fingers to converse with me.
"Mama and Papa are well?" I ask.
"Of course," he spells. "They miss you very much, and we all think ..." His fingers stop, only the heat of them hovering above my palm, and then he etches the words into my soul, firmly and furiously. "We all think it best if you go back to New Hampshire to live with them now."
What happened? Did Julia tell him that I questioned phrenology, or that I hurt her ear? Did Miss Wight tell him? My fingers panic; they scrabble all over his palm, paw at his arm; I am squeezing his hands, reaching for his face. Doctor pulls away until I stop moving and sit perfectly still, my hands shaking but folded in my lap. After an eternity he reaches for my hand again and spells into it very slowly.
"Your education is finished here, L. We have nothing else to teach you."
I write as deliberately as he does, though usually we are so quick with each other that no one else could possibly keep up. "Do you not see that I am ready, Doctor, that I am fit for finer things?"
"Do you mean a convent?" he writes, and I realize that he does not see me at all. I shake my head violently "no" and wipe at the wetness soaking through my fillet.
He pats my hand. "Good. I think you have too much temper for a convent."
His fingers strike again in the hollow of my palm, but I am thinking about my favorite Bible passage, Mark 7:32-34. "And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit and touched his tongue; And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Eph-phatha, that is, Be opened."
Every night before I go to sleep, I put my fingers in my ears; I spit and touch my tongue; and, looking up to heaven, I sigh and I write the ancient word upon my hand, I spell it across my forehead, I open my thighs and write the letters down that slope, against that place, the only place, that is as dark and silent as the cave inside my head.
I pull my hands away from Doctor and stand up. "Eph-phatha," I write across the width of his forehead, between the temples of his ideality, and I laugh because I have finally spelled a word he does not know. I run to the door—it is far fewer steps than twenty-eight when I am running—and down the corridor to my room.
I want to write this all out, but I am denied the pleasure —or pain—of ever being able to read my own words. Doctor will be able to read them, others will be able to read them, but I will not. So I write this out into the air, in a grand and looping cursive, and what is invisible to man will be visible to God.