Part the First
When she came to, she was trapped. Eliza had been bound into one of Grandmother Alexandra Jane’s heavy carved mahogany chairs, her squarish wrists tied with strong cord to the arms, her ankles bound to the legs. She flexed her hands—her man hands, as her mother called them—and tried to loosen the binds. Her efforts were of no use. They had trussed her like a hog. But not really, for Eliza knew what it meant to be hog-tied. She had seen hogs being carried through the streets in Chinatown, although she wasn’t actually allowed to go to Chinatown. She wasn’t allowed to go anywhere.
Eliza did not know how long she had been in her room. She didn’t even know how long she had been in the chair. She felt confused, as though she had a fever. She tried to call out, but found that she could not even manage a moan. She closed her eyes and tried to clear her head. She didn’t remember being put in this chair. The last thing she remembered was being snatched from Market Street, picked up and thrown into the back of Grandfather’s buggy as though she were a piece of baggage. Who in their right mind tied a girl to a chair? Probing her hazy memory, Eliza remembered her grandfather holding her down and forcing the spoon between her lips, while her mother hovered in the background.
“Swallow!” her grandfather had ordered, and when Eliza had refused, clamping her jaw shut, he had broken her clenched teeth loose by wrenching the spoon sideways and shoving it into the back of her mouth. Half of the sick-sweet brown stuff had dribbled down the front of her nightdress. She remembered the last thing her grandfather had said, before he had thumped from the room.
“You,” Grandfather had said, rolling his great eyes and shaking his forefinger at her. “Are more trouble than a wild Apache and worth less than a rabid dog.”
Not long after she had swallowed the stuff, she had felt a great heaviness in her body, and then dizziness, as if she had spun around in circles for too long. She had felt like she was going to fall asleep, but instead of falling asleep and dreaming, she had seen—actually seen—a great dark bird, maybe a raven, maybe a hawk, the size of a horse, resting on the bedpost, regarding her in her chair. It had spread its wings, which grew suddenly miles across, and cawed, making a ripping sound. Its great wings grew so that they engulfed the house, covering the great white mansion from cellar to attic eaves. The raven opened its maw and the world went in, everything—the girl, her body, her room. Then the bedroom furniture floated by—there went the desk and the mahogany chair and the wardrobe and the vertiko and the chiffonier. The great carved bed lifted up and sailed into the gullet of the bird. And then the drapes unloosed themselves from the windows and began to flap, flap, flap, right along after the furniture. And then whole house lifted up—Eliza had watched as her house lifted and was sucked, as if by a gyre, down into the beak of the monstrous bird. And there, inside the house inside the hawk’s mouth, stood her father, who was dead and could not stand anywhere.
“Papa?” Eliza had whispered and reached for her father. “Papa?”
The world had jolted again, and she was upright in a field, no, an ocean, no, she was hovering. The birds and leaves and vines woven into the carpet’s lush terrain had begun to move under her feet. They turned to spiders, beetles, snakes and worms. The pulls on the drapes writhed like eels, wriggling and wiggling up and down. Who was she? Where was she? She was not on the floor; she had never been on the floor. Eliza tried to get up—or dreamed that she tried to get up—but found that something was keeping her from moving. Then she was drifting again, like a schooner stuck in the doldrums. She was in a boat…and her mother was there, no, it was the bird again, flexing its horrible claws. She cried out But I am inside you! I am in the belly of the bird.
But still she had put a hand over her face, trying to protect herself from the great and terrible thing that lurked above her. The room rocked and rocked, as if she were on board of her father’s vessels. They were together, in a state room, sailing for the Orient. The breeze that blew in from the opened porthole was tanged with salt; she could taste it on her tongue. She put one hand out the porthole to feel the sea wind; sails cracked and jostled like live things. The sails were the shirts of giants, whickering against the ship’s twin necks, the huge mast poles. And her father was sitting at the huge desk in the captain’s stateroom, dialing a compass across a map.
“Come and look at this map. Let me show you the way.”
She had perched on the arm of her father’s chair. “Show me, Papa. Show me the way to go.”
While Eliza was occupied with her attempts to swim out of a sea of laudanum, Lavinia Crane was in the front parlor, regarding her father-in-law across a great expanse of Persian carpet. She thought: he needs to trim his eyebrows. Making no attempt to control the motions of her own face, she made a little moue of distaste, thinking of how, in general, most men were wild animals. The Colonel, in turn, sourly studied his dead son’s wife, wondering why God had seen fit to burden the world with women. Surely He could have found a better method of propagating his greatest creation than via the sorry vehicle of Eve. The horloge clock on the mantle ticked audibly, as the two sat on the Louis XIV chairs, which Jake Crane had had shipped from an antiques dealer in New York not long before his death. Lavinia had never liked the chairs, thinking them out of tune with the rest of the room’s decor, but they were too fine not to display.
“Well.” said the Colonel.
“Well,” echoed Lavinia.
“Now we await the physicians.”
“Await the physicians,” murmured Eliza’s mother.
Without acknowledging that Lavinia had spoken, the old man got to his feet and struck idly around the firedogs with his cane.
“Your daughter’s case is so difficult I have consulted with Conway, and he has asked two specialists to call at the house this evening.”
He managed to make all this sound like it was in some way Lavinia’s fault. Which, presumably, he thought it was. For who else could possibly be to blame? The bad blood the girl had inherited from her father, of course, but that was beyond his control. Just as his son had always been beyond his control. Eliza’s grandfather made a sort of snorting sound deep in his throat, and sharply rapped the floor with his stick.
Lavinia frowned, and then repeated his words. “Consulted with Conway.”
Eliza’s mother had learned long ago, in the first bloom of her youth, that by merely repeating back to men what they had said, one could make them feel as though they were carrying on a brilliant conversation. And so it had gone on, until Lavinia had found herself essentially unable to complete a sentence. In her mourning clothes, she had become like a mina bird, black, shiny, and given to mimicry. All the worse, she knew it, and for the most part, did not care. It was hard work making conversation, and when did any man give two figs what a woman had to say? After the death of her husband, Lavinia Crane had given up a great many things, some difficult, some painless, and conversation was among the easiest to let go. And though Jake Crane had died some eight years earlier, Lavinia remained in deep mourning. It was less of a state than a calling, for Eliza’s mother had found new meaning in a matrimonial connection with death. It improved her relationship with her deceased husband: It was more straightforward to love Jake when he was under the ground than above it. Lavinia had found her husband…confounding, not to put too fine a point on it. She was aware that her daughter believed she only loved his money, but this wasn’t true. Or it wasn’t entirely true. It had just been that they were not very well matched, and had nothing in common, and yes, she had married him for the money, but she had had to. And just how did you go about explaining that to a nearly grown female child who thought her dead father was God?
She realized that Colonel was looking at her with even more than his usual amount of irritation.
She repeated the last word she could remember him saying.
For a long time, English had felt like a foreign tongue to her, every word reticulated and coruscated, every syllable more mysterious than the last. Spanish was in fact her first tongue, the tongue of her mother’s family, though she hadn’t spoken it for years. But she spoke it in her mind, and in her dreams. Lavinia knew that she appeared to others as mysterious as a foreign creature, her heavy-lidded eyes betraying so little that she might have been carved from stone. This was intentional: Her mother had raised her that way.
“I’ll be in my study,” the Colonel snapped, and marched out the door, not bothering to wait for a reply. Lavinia toyed with the jet beads that lay across her meager bosom. She hoped that it would be well after dark before the specialists arrived, for servants’ eyes were sharp, especially Lucilla Simpson’s new maid, who seemed to be peering at the Crane household at the most inopportune moments. She closed her eyes and allowed herself exactly one ragged breath, before taking up her embroidery needle and her embroidery.
“Eliza Jane!” Her grandfather had her by the shoulder. “Awaken, child!”
Eliza opened her eyes to see her grandfather standing over her, two bearded men behind him. Her neck ached, and her hands were swollen in their bindings. She wondered if the flow of blood had been entirely cut off to her hands, and how quickly one could begin to suffer the gangrene. She ran her tongue around her mouth: she was not gagged, but it made no difference. She might as well have been, for when she tried to speak, she made only a rough croaking sound. She could not speak. Oh, how her arms ached! Her whole body hurt; she felt the same as she had when she had rheumatic fever, and had been consigned to her bed for weeks, joints aching, first burning, then shivering. Then, as now, she had had no liberty. But an affliction of the body bore no similarity to this affliction of the mind. She closed her eyes, feeling the remaining effects of the drug swimming in the currents of her veins. She was adrift, and in her mind’s wake, she saw herself as she was: a girl with pale skin and dark hair, her face pinched and her arms bruised. She had a vague notion of how she must look to these doctors: like a madwoman. And this notion made her feel afraid.
“These doctors are here to examine you. Now behave. They are fine men, at the top of their field.”
Her grandfather motioned to Rosie, who came forward, frowning, to untie her wrists. “Be good, now, mavourneen,” Rosie whispered. “Don’t ye cause no more trouble.”
Eliza tried to rise on her own, but staggered and fell into the waiting arms of the maid. The feeling came painfully back into her legs, prickling sensations running up and down her calves. She bit back a cry of pain, and avoided her grandfather’s eyes. She did not want him to see that she suffered; she never wanted that. She tried to avoid his eyes, which always seemed to land on her with dissatisfaction. (Although the Colonel had likely felt unsatisfied since he had last fired on a Reb.) He had come to live with them after her father died, taking charge of everything from the hiring of scullery maids to the length of the wicks in the lamps. Her own father had run from this man, and Eliza had tried to do the same. But she couldn’t run anywhere at the moment; she was weak as a newborn kitten. Rosie helped her into bed, half-carrying her as she swayed on stiff muscles. Her nightdress was stiff with sweat and spilled liquids. The slats of the back of the chair had been so hard that she felt like they had been welded into the flesh of her back. Now she slipped woozily between ironed white sheets. Her stomach heaved, and she shut her mouth to keep from retching.
“As you can see,” her grandfather declaimed, speaking so that he could likely be heard at least three blocks away, “the girl is unstable. We’ve had to bind her for her own safety and protection. In the last year, she’s run off half a dozen times, consorting with common street trash, with thugs and public women.”
Her grandfather paused, giving her a look that had withered battle-hardened men. Eliza looked back, saying nothing only because she was uncertain that she had yet regained the use of her voice.
“Her mother and I fear for her sanity.”
Eliza scoffed, and the doctors looked at her with diagnostic curiosity. Her grandfather was being absurd. She had never consorted with anyone. All she had done on her journeys out of Nob Hill was to walk, and walk, and walk some more. She had just wanted to see things. What was so strange about that? What was so wrong with that? She had wanted to see the wharf, and the Chinamen with long queues down their backs, and women selling fruit in the street, and the dice players squatting in alleyways. She just wanted to know her city, the women with shopping baskets, the factory workers, carrying their box lunches. Once she had even seen an Indian, with actual feathers in his hair. She had just wanted to look. She had never met a thug or a harlot. She was starting to wish she had. She had met someone, but he was not a thug. And he certainly wasn’t a harlot. Eliza let out a little giggle at the thought, and everyone in the room looked at her. Her grandfather sighed and gestured toward her, looking impossibly exhausted.
The two doctors, who might have been twins in their pointed white beards and gold wire-rimmed pince nez, nodded gravely in unison.
“My son was not in his right mind, and I fear the girl has inherited her father’s insensibility. He was…he was a disappointment to me. After his death, I came here to care for his widow and…” he made a dismissive gesture, flicking his wrist in Eliza’s direction, “this…this girl.”
“Don’t say that,” Eliza whispered. “He was not crazy.”
“Hush, granddaughter,” her grandfather commanded. “These doctors will examine you now. Be good, for once.” He turned slightly toward the doctors, who despite their eminence, seemed to shrink. “They are,” he said, his lip curling, “men who specialize in women.”
“Yes, that’s right, sir,” one of the men spoke up. “I believe it to be a complaint of common hysteria. I believe when we examine her we will find that her womb has wandered—“
Her grandfather thrust up a hand. “I do not wish to know the particulars of my granddaughter’s condition. I wish only to see her cured. Please, gentlemen, rid her of this madness, and restore her to sanity.”
The last thing she wanted was for these doctors to touch her, but she knew better than to fight the Colonel now. She was too weak. Tears started in her eyes, and she closed them, not wanting anyone to see. Nor did she need to see her grandfather to know what expression he had on his face. A tall man, with a chest pushed forward like a pigeon, he still behaved as though he was leading the charge at Appomattox. He turned smartly on a polished boot heel, and started to leave the room.
“My good sirs, please pull the bell if she will not…comply. The servant will remain here to assist you.”
Eliza shrank back into her bed, still holding Rosie’s hand. The two doctors loomed over her, each placing a big black medical bag on top of her counterpane. A tremor went through her as the two men, in a mirrored pantomime on either side of the big bed, opened their bags and began to withdraw shining instruments.