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THE LOST PRINCESS (Chapter 1)
1. A Make-believe Princess
"Once upon a time," came Tap Fullmoon's voice, "there was a little princess named Christine who lived with her uncle."
Christine burrowed her head deeper into her pillow, cold where the fabric was still wet with her tears. She shut her eyes tight and strove to imagine the princess in her castle. She saw her wearing a gown full of ruffles and ribbons, with stars--real stars yet, not foil cutouts, but actual lights, dazzling bright, silver and gold--somehow sewn to it. She lived in a big castle full of friends and treasures, and everyone had to call her "milady." A tear leaked from beneath her left eye and crossed the bridge of her nose before it was drunk by the pillowcase.
The princess Christine had no mother; her mother was long dead and she had never seen her. She had a father, a tall man with a beard both black and white, but Christine couldn't imagine him as more than a distant presence, a figure seen from the corner of the eye. Still she missed him and wept for him, but so long had he been gone from her life that her tears were more reflex than grief. And though she wrapped the princess dream about her every night, clung to it with desperate energy, she did so as a token of what she had lost, and no longer as a hope of escape.
She cried herself asleep every night, and cried when she awoke. She didn't sob, not anymore; when the tears had run their course she would knuckle the dampness away and rise from bed. Tap Fullmoon would be sitting on her chair facing the desk; he'd smile at her, consoling, his great big front teeth catching the morning light from the window. It gave her the strength to go about her day.
Daddy had been taken away when she was four, one-third of her life ago. She had lived in a different place then, a wonderful place that she couldn't recall precisely; not as nice as the castle in her daydream, surely, but still a source of delight. There had been many people, all of them nice to her. Her memories faded away swiftly as they reached into the past. It was like when she wet a brush on a disc of paint and smeared color across paper; the bright, full tint bleeding away into whiteness. If she closed her eyes for a long time and concentrated, she could bring some images to mind. People dressed in dark clothes bending down to talk to her, somewhere in a vast room full of shiny things, where pale blue marble statues ranked themselves along the walls. A plump woman wearing a wimple; her dress was red as wine, and stray strands of graying hair framed her face with its high cheekbones; but Christine could not recall anything else of her features, nor could she say who the woman was in relation to her. Walking along a cobbled street, the way her ankles flexed at every new stone, so that she found herself climbing up at one moment and down at the next. She had had to be careful, and someone with her, another woman, had held her hand with great care, hovering behind her to prevent her from falling. One memory that must have been only a dream she'd once had: a landscape covered with flowers, so many flowers, growing bigger than people, in a dazzle of purple and yellow. And a few pale impressions of Daddy. A tall thin man, with a long head, a long straight nose. Being in his arms; the warm wetness of a kiss on her neck and the terrible tickle of his beard.
When she was four, something had happened, something she couldn't recall, a great wrenching upheaval in her life that had come upon her without any forewarning. She had traveled away from the place where she had always lived and she had come here, to live with Uncle. This place was all gray and dull, and very small. She hadn't minded that so much, because she herself was so little still that in a way she preferred a world more to her own size. But Daddy wasn't here, and that was terribly, terribly wrong. In the beginning, she'd asked again and again where her daddy was; every time, Uncle told her Daddy was gone forever and she'd never see him again. She knew what death was, because Mommy was dead, so she'd ask if Daddy was dead. Uncle would grow angry then. No, Daddy was not dead. He was gone. Just gone. And Christine should forget about him.
Many of her questions made him angry; especially so when she mentioned the land of her birth and asked why things were so different here. Uncle had had to correct her, time and again, because she kept making things up. Now that she was six she understood better the difference between imagination and reality; back then she hadn't, and had invented things that couldn't be true, angering Uncle when she put forth her fantasies as fact.
She must have conjured up these wild stories because her mind couldn't hold on to the memories of her first few years: They'd poured out, leaving only their dregs behind. Just enough to make Christine yearn for an unattainable past. Most often it was in dreams that she recalled them; she would awake with a start, a scrap of remembrance clear in her mind. She knew with all her heart it was a true memory, and yet it would be a random image stripped of most of its meaning: It might as easily have been a dream. Towering walls of foliage, covered in blooms; a dizzying perspective of receding corridors striped blue and brown; a cascade of shining objects pouring into her lap yet somehow devoid of any weight; an intricate geometric landscape that must have been the pattern of a carpet she had gazed at from very close to the ground. Fragments of a life lost to the dim past of a few years back.
She no longer tried to connect these scraps together, to invent towering edifices of imagination to justify them; she merely kept them as safe as she could in the recesses of her child's brain, and focused on the world where she lived now, which was, as Uncle never tired of repeating, the real world, and the only one that mattered.
She did remember clearly what had come just after the change; she recalled that at first, she'd been terribly unhappy. She wanted her Daddy back, she wanted everything back as it was, with a fierce intensity. She would sob and wail for hours. Back then she must still have been able to remember how things had been before, but soon she must have started to forget, to fill the gaps in her memory with invention. Now that her memories had faded away, now that she had also forgotten the inventions that had so annoyed Uncle, she wasn't as sad anymore. And there was Tap Fullmoon to console her: her faithful companion and succorer in hard times. It felt as if he'd always been there, though there must have been a time when he wasn't. Tap was a little white rabbit who stood on two legs and talked. He didn't look like a real rabbit; he was more like a cartoon in some ways, or maybe a puppet.
No one but her could see Tap; she was well aware of this and made sure not to tell anyone about him. She never asked that a place be set for him at the table, never protested when people sat in a chair he had been occupying. For Tap Fullmoon was clever, and fast, and did not need to eat. He scurried out from under people's rears in the twinkling of an eye; he never talked when other people were speaking, never did anything that might have made Christine betray his existence.
It was mostly at night that he talked to her, when she lay in bed with the lights out, head buried in her pillow. His voice wasn't what one might have expected. It wasn't a high-pitched, accelerated cartoonlike voice, but rather the voice of a young man, a light tenor. He would say, "Don't worry, my princess, one day things will be better for you. Hope and trust, trust and hope. Old magics are at work to free you. Don't despair."
It was nice of him to play the pretend game, that she was really a princess, and not just little Christine whose mother was dead and whose father had been taken away from her for reasons beyond her understanding. She played the game because it made her feel special, made her believe the path of her life would eventually extend into sunnier climes. Sometimes just as she fell into sleep she felt herself enter her princess dream, and it rose about her in a blaze of glory, like the fulfillment of a thousand immemorial promises, like an answer to every question ever asked. But come the morning, there would only be tears left.
Uncle was a balding, stout man with a temper, whose face went an incredible shade of crimson at least twice a week. Now that she was more grown-up, no longer such a little girl as she had once been, Christine was almost never the cause of these flare-ups anymore; and the few times she did get him mad he calmed down almost immediately and apologized. He said he understood she was still a child and didn't know any better. His real flashes of anger were caused by his many conversations: Uncle was a businessman, which meant that he went to work every morning in his office, where there was a telephone. He spent most of the day talking into the mouthpiece, and this made him rich. Every so often people would come to the house and deliver some new piece of furniture, painting, or small trinket she would be allowed to look at once but never touch.
Sometimes, but more rarely, they brought a toy for Christine. She didn't always like the toys, but mostly they were nice. Her favorite was a doll, a thin plastic Jessica with hair down to her buttocks. You were supposed to be able to cut and style it, but she never dared use scissors on it. There was something about its silken length that felt inviolable. She played quietly with it, whispering the things Jessica said to other, invisible, doll persons. Often Tap would play with her too, and he whispered what the other dolls said. They made up stories that Jessica lived out: Sometimes she was an explorer, or a singer, or a scientist inventing exotic potions and eldritch rays.
At first Christine would spend her days playing aimlessly (not outside, though, never outside, except on special occasions when Uncle would go out to "take the sun in," which meant he would lie down on a canvas chair and go to sleep, while Imelda, the woman who came in every day to cook and clean, would watch Christine with a bored expression). Then, not long after her sixth birthday, she was told she would have to go to school in the fall. She was scared of school, and said so. Uncle got angry, not crimson-faced angry, but angry enough, and said everyone had to go to school; he'd done it himself, and it had made him rich. Christine asked if school would teach her to use the telephone then, and Uncle's face started to flush pink. "Don't mock me, child," he said (when he called her "child" it meant she'd done something stupid). "You'll start attending as soon as the school year starts. It's time you made friends; you're old enough by now."
Christine, not wanting to push her luck, just nodded in silence. That night, when she went to bed, the tears came, as automatic, almost as meaningless, as when her bladder voided itself.
"Tap," she whispered. The rabbit bounded on the bed, cocked his head to look at her from closer up. His eyes were big and shining blue, even when the room was dark.
"Don't worry, my princess," he began.
"Uncle said I'm going to go to school in the fall. What will it be like?"
"Why, I think it will be a good thing," he said, surprising her. "You getting out of the house! Isn't that something nice?"
"But what could there be outside? I mean, other people...I don't know what they'll do."
Tap was silent a long moment. Then, "What could they do to you that's worse than what's already happened?" he asked in his light tenor voice, and Christine could not find an answer. The next morning, as she woke, she found she wasn't crying anymore.
Come Seventh Month, school was not so horrible as she'd feared. She didn't have to walk there; a man who worked for Uncle took her there in a car and dropped her off in front of the building, which was built of nice red bricks and had wooden trimming around the windows. She had taken Jessica with her in her bag, not telling anyone, hoping for some comfort from the doll. When she entered the classroom and filed to her desk, though her heart pounded from the proximity of so many people, she found she could stand it. And then she felt a silken touch on her bare knee and had to stifle a gasp of astonishment: Tap Fullmoon had followed her to school. He winked at her and whispered from the corner of his mouth, "Surprise! I'll be with you every day, if you need me. Don't worry; hope and trust, trust and hope."
Buoyed by the presence of two talismans, she was able to face the terrors of school after all. Her teacher was a kind woman with long reddish hair and a pointy nose, and Christine soon found she liked her. At recess, she got to talk with other children. She was pretty sure she had never done so before; it seemed to her that in her previous life, she had always been surrounded by adults, had never played with others of her own age.
She was shy, and didn't speak much, but no one was mean to her as she'd feared. Where had she gotten the idea that children were always rowdy and prone to hit each other for no reason? These children looked happy and not at all aggressive. Standing in the yard, leaning against the dark brick wall, she felt Tap's reassuring touch on her leg--he was much shorter than her, even when he stood on his hind legs he didn't reach higher than her waist--and began to think this indeed might work out.
She still wept in the mornings, briefly, but not at night anymore. It had turned out that she liked school. She liked learning things. It was fun most of the time: There were lessons on the Earth, with the teacher pointing out the seven continents on a big globe; and ancient people (including kings, queens, and princesses, most of whom only lived in fairy-tale books anymore); and how to read and write too. She had taught herself how to read by watching educational programs on television and was astonished to find out other children couldn't yet make sense of the letters.
Her life was changing again, and this time for the better. Tap was happy too: There was an extra bounce in his step and a twinkle in his cartoony eyes, and his voice would sometimes briefly rise up in pitch like an excited child's. Uncle still got into his tempers every so often, but Christine was never the cause of his upset. He was pleased with her, and when he looked at her report card and smiled his praise, she would beam.
And so weeks and months passed. Having learned to write, Christine decided to keep a journal. Day-to-day occurrences swiftly grew boring to relate; then she thought to write down what few memories returned to her in dreams. Whenever she did this, Tap would stay at her elbow, quietly attentive, sometimes nodding. She filled page after page over the months, and for a time grew excited, since it seemed to her she had started to recall more of her past. But after a year, when she carefully reread the contents of her journal, she was chilled: What she thought she had remembered was painfully silly; no more than fluff culled from fairy tales and cartoon shows. Every time she had woken from dreams clutching a priceless piece of remembrance, hurrying to write it down, she must have been still in the grip of the dream. Daddy ordering three hunters to bring down a stag for the festival: that was from The Princess and the Peasant, obviously. And this next entry, scrawled in the predawn dimness so that the letters slanted across the blue lines on the page: The woman in red sings about God, a pretty song. Even now she could bring the scene to her mind's eye, hear fragments of the melody--but no one dressed like that, and no one sang like that. The upper corner of the page bore a scrawled mess of a drawing: She had meant to depict a dress made of feathers, something she had thought to recall, even to the sensation of her fingers brushing across dozens of feathers all at once. But Annika the Magic Girl on television wore a feathered dress, and clearly this was where the false memory had come from.
Yes, to read these penciled notes still brought flashes of impressions to her mind, and she felt something tremble at her core. But she couldn't make herself believe they were true memories; she had been playing pretend too much, had spent too much time wanting to be a princess, and so she had imagined these snatches of dream were meaningful. With regret, Christine went to the latest entry in her journal, wrote "THE END" below it, closed the notebook, and put it at the bottom of her sock drawer.
Months became years; Christine still daydreamed of being a princess, and still pined for her former life, but in a more and more abstracted fashion, as a routine matter, then an intermittent bad habit, the way some people bite their nails.
When she was ten, Tap Fullmoon began to fade away. She didn't notice it the first time, not really: She was at school, and she'd been working on her tasks hard, not paying attention to anything except the book she was reading from and the questions on her sheet. She looked up at one point, once she was nearly done, expecting to see at least the tip of his ears peeking over her desk, but she couldn't sense him. She looked at the clock, saw that she had less than ten minutes to finish, and bent back to the sheet of paper. When the last bell rang, he was there at her side, putting his paw in her hand, as always; she didn't question the situation.
But it happened again the next day, during recess: She was by herself, waiting for her friend Freynie to come back from the bathroom. Tap was chattering to her about unimportant things, and suddenly he fell silent. She looked down and he had gone. This would happen sometimes if someone were about to step over him; but always she would see him somewhere else close by, grinning at his own speed and cleverness. She looked about; he was nowhere in sight. Freynie came back from the bathroom and started telling Christine all about her older cousin Leon who was old enough to smoke. Christine could barely listen, all her energies focused on seeking her absent friend, until she suddenly sensed Tap was back; and he was, perching on a windowsill, batting his big eyes at her. She relaxed, told herself this meant nothing, that it would not happen again. But of course it did, again, and again, for periods of time ranging from five minutes to over two hours. And then, one Seventh Day, she woke up to an empty room, and for all that she concentrated on him, with desperate energy, he wouldn't appear.
The tears came to her eyes, as they almost never did anymore. She was being stupid, she told herself: She was simply growing too old for this sort of fantasy. She knew the difference between real and make-believe. Knew that what she imagined had no intrinsic grounding in reality. She had known this for years, nearly half her life. And yet she couldn't help but miss the imaginary rabbit terribly.
Tap was gone most of the day, but then, an hour before supper, he returned. She was sitting at the desk in her room, doing an arithmetic problem. She kept making mistakes when she had to divide by fractions, and was laboriously erasing her answer for the third time. Then she felt Tap's presence suddenly, at her back, and when she turned he was there. His eyes had lost their twinkle and his cartoonish expression was one of sadness--almost despair.
"Oh, my princess," he whispered in a tragic tone, "I'm so sorry!"
He ran to her, jumped up in her arms--though he had grown along with her, she had grown much faster than him, and she could now cuddle him almost as a pet.
"I didn't want to leave you," Tap said from the shelter of her lap, "but I couldn't help it. I'll try to keep it from happening again, but...it probably will. You must be brave...."
"Tap," she said, looking down at him, and suddenly uncrossing her arms so that he bounded onto the floor. "Tap, I'm glad you're here. But don't feel bad. It's okay. I think maybe I'm growing too old to have an imaginary friend...."
The instant after she uttered these words she found Tap was perching on her desk, in front of her. She was stunned: In all the years he had been her companion, he had never done anything of the sort. Every move he made, no matter how swift, had always been continuous--she had been astonished sometimes at her own powers of imagination, more spectacular than any animated trickery on television. But this time, Tap had actually blinked between one place and the next. The discontinuity rasped at her nerves, a deep wrongness. And now, compounding the strangeness, he spoke to her in a dead-serious tone, sounding like a priest at First Day confession.
"It isn't a question of your age. I am not imaginary. I was constantly there for you, because you needed me. You still need me now, but something has gone wrong with me. I'm not sure what; when I'm not there I'm still there, but everywhere at once.... I can't explain it, because I don't understand it. I'm not very smart, really. All I know is I may not be able to stay with you much longer."
Christine felt sadness warring with incredulity.
"But, Tap, I...I made you up," she whispered. "I imagined you. Dora at school used to have an imaginary friend too, he was an invisible boy called Tod...."
Tap shook his head and his left hind paw trembled in agitation. "You didn't make me up, my princess. A little part of me may have come from your mind, but most of me does not. In an instant I was made and in the next sent out after you; I flew so fast...I think there were more like me at the beginning; many of us, seeking for you. But only I could reach you, and you were fleeing away so swiftly, I barely could keep up. But one of my paws was grasping your hand, and I was pulled down, down, down, along with you.... I remember those first days; you were so upset that you had lost the power of speech. You were screaming and wailing, and I was there for you. I let you see me, and feel my fur, and it soothed you. You don't remember, do you? Oh, my princess, I'm old. It shouldn't be possible for me to age but I feel old; something's gone wrong. It's like I'm in a thousand pieces inside...."
Christine felt a shiver go through her at these words. Her imagination was running amok. "This is crazy," she said, and waved her hand through Tap. There was no resistance; her outstretched fingers passed through his presence as through air. "You are not there. No one sees you except me."
Tap's cartoonish face was twisted with anger, or despair.
"That doesn't mean I'm not real! If I were made up, would you be thinking to yourself what I'm saying to you? I was sent to you, I was charged--"
"That's enough!" she shouted, loud enough, she suddenly realized, that Uncle could hear her from the living room. She closed her eyes and dropped her voice to a whisper. "Go away, Tap. I don't want to hear those things. You're making me sad. Go away! I don't want to believe in you anymore!"
Tap's voice nearly broke as he replied, "I must not hurt you, my princess. I will not...I will not. I'm sorry. I love you."
And Christine felt a surge of warmth go through her, an intense tingling in her fingers, a roaring pressure in her ears. She was looking at the ceiling, and pinpoints of light swam in the periphery of her vision; her back and shoulders hurt.
The door to her room opened; Uncle rushed in, saw her and knelt by her side.
"What's going on?" He helped her sit up, an arm protectively around her shoulders. "Are you hurt? I heard you shout, and then a thump. Did you fall off the chair?"
"I...I was playing, just playing. I was playing pretend, and I tilted the chair really far back, and then I fell. I'm sorry, Uncle."
"You don't look well at all. I'm taking you to the hospital."
Despite her protestations that she would soon be fine again, Uncle carried her in his arms to the car then drove her to the big dark building over by the river. He had her lie down in the backseat and would frequently look over his shoulder at her. She assured him she was feeling much better, but each time he forbore to answer and returned in silence to his driving.
Was he angry at her? His face was its normal color, so perhaps he was only worried. Christine herself felt shame at her condition; she dwelled on it, tried to drown herself in it. Anything rather than think about what had just occurred. That feeling of dislocation, the rush of strangeness in her...She mustn't think about it. Her hand, of itself, moved out to feel the reassuring touch of fur; it encountered only air. Hope and trust, trust and--she was starting to cry, and desperately told herself, I'm so ashamed, I'm so ashamed, I was playing pretend like a little girl and I fell out of the chair and my uncle is going to all this trouble for me....
The doctor was kind in an impersonal sort of way. He asked her to focus on a little light he shone into her eyes, to hold out her arms in front of her and keep them steady. Did it hurt when he touched here, or there? She kept her answers almost mechanical throughout, related the stripped-down story she almost believed herself, about goofing off in the chair and falling down.
"What's your sign?" asked the doctor.
"Hmm. This wasn't supposed to be a bad day for you. Do you know your ascendant?"
"Mr. Matlin?" But Uncle didn't know either.
In the end the doctor nodded his head sagaciously. "Well, there's nothing to worry about," he said to them both. "Christine never lost consciousness, there's no sign of a concussion. She just had a scary fall and bumped her noggin hard."
As if this dismissal was instead an accusation, Christine's tears started again at that point. She tried her best to hold them back, but her entire body was shaken by sobs. "There, there." The doctor held her shoulders as she gasped and wailed. "It's all right, you'll be fine now. You had a good scare, didn't you?"
"No," she blurted out, unable to hold the words inside, "it's Tap, I'm scared for him, he left and I know he won't be coming back, and it's my fault, I sent him away...."
"What was that?" The doctor was looking at her with a frown. For the first time, she felt she had truly engaged his attention. And Uncle was gaping at her over the doctor's shoulder. She was so scared, so bereft, that she sobbed out the whole story: how she'd had an imaginary rabbit friend, how he'd told her he wasn't imaginary, how she had said that was enough, and been so frightened at his words that she'd sent him off and she'd fallen out of the chair then...
When she was done, she felt a ghastly relief spread through her like venom. This must be what confession felt like when one had real sins on one's conscience. After confession came penance, of course, and she knew she was in for some unpleasantness. Uncle would rage and storm, call her names, maybe confine her to her room. But she could look him in the face now, hold his shocked gaze without trembling, now that she had scooped out all her secrets and utterly betrayed her younger self.
"Can you wait here in the chair for a little while, Christine? I need to talk to your uncle; we'll be right back," said the doctor. Christine nodded obediently and sat in the black vinyl and chrome chair for fifteen minutes by the clock on the wall, feeling and thinking almost nothing. Finally the door to the examination room opened again; Uncle came in to take her back home.
He was silent during the whole journey. Christine, sitting in the right front seat, said nothing either. She watched the scenery pass by, slowly in the distance, so very fast close to her. So was her life moving now, her childhood receding in the distance. Tap was gone; why should she think about him any longer?
They reached Uncle's house in the suburbs, parked in the driveway. Uncle got out and opened the door for her. It was as he was helping her up, her hand tiny in his big meaty paw, that he finally spoke.
"I've made an appointment for you," he said--she couldn't figure out the tone of his voice: It seemed to speak at the same time of deep sadness and bleak satisfaction. "You're going to see a Dr. Almand next Second Day."
Dr. Carl Almand's office was all the way across town; Uncle's chauffeur drove her there as he did for school, but it took a lot longer. She guessed, of course, what kind of doctor she was being sent to, but she knew little about them, and had not dared asked Uncle for any details. She wished she had brought her Jessica along, though she had stopped playing with her a full year ago. The plastic doll at least was tangible.
Christine had expected Dr. Almand would practice in a modern clinic, a white square building. In fact it was on the second floor of what had been a private home and had been divided up into apartments and small offices. Dr. Almand himself opened the door to his office when the chauffeur knocked.
"This is Christine Matlin," the chauffeur announced when the doctor peered out.
"Yes, you're right on time. Very well. You can wait in the smoking lounge at the end of the corridor; we won't be more than forty-five minutes. Won't you come in, Christine?"
Dr. Almand had her sit on a chair at first, while he studied a lot of papers, among which was her astrological chart. He was a tallish man, with a very round face and sparse sandy hair. He had on casual clothes, neither suit nor cloak, but brown trousers and a pale violet shirt, open at the throat, without a tie. He wore glasses--why did doctors always wear glasses? The light from the windows was reflected in his lenses, and she could also see tiny rounded images of the papers he was looking at.
"Now, Christine," he said at last, in a soft yet firm voice, "do you know why you were sent here?"
"My uncle didn't say, sir."
Dr. Almand leaned back in his chair. "Well, I'll tell you straight out; you're old enough to accept it. Your uncle asked me to see you because he's afraid there may be something wrong with your mind. I'm not saying he thinks you're crazy. He doesn't think you're crazy, and I don't think you're crazy either. We're just...concerned that you might be feeling troubled, confused, and I want to help you out."
"Why...Why does he think I'm...that I have a problem?"
"When you were brought in to the hospital, you told the doctor in charge that you had just sent away your imaginary friend, and that was why you fell out of the chair and fainted."
She lowered her gaze, nodded assent. In a low voice she said, "I used to have an imaginary friend; but now he's gone. Other people have had imaginary friends. A friend of mine had one."
"Was she as old as you are now?"
"You're saying that it's normal for a child to have an imaginary friend, Christine, and it is--but not past a certain age. You are ten years old. How long have you had this friend?"
"Well...as far back as I remember."
"I have read many books, Christine," said Dr. Almand, pointing to the shelves on the side walls of the office, which indeed overflowed with them. "And in all of these, it says that past the age of five or six at the latest, a child shouldn't have an imaginary friend. If yours lasted so long, I think it means something has been bothering you. Making you unhappy. That's what imaginary friends are, Christine, they're a way to help unhappy children cope with the world around them. Would you say you're unhappy, in any way?"
"No. I like school. I like learning things. I'm happier now than I was before."
"So you were unhappy in the past?"
"...Yes. I was...very unhappy when I was young."
"In what way?"
"I cried a lot."
"Why was that? Did you feel bad about yourself?"
"No. Not that. I missed my father. I can't remember him, but I know that when I was young I could, and I cried because he had been taken away from me."
"And do you know why your father was taken away?" asked the doctor in a soft voice.
She drew a blank. "Well, I...When I was four, Daddy went away; he didn't die--my mom was dead, but he didn't die. I went with Uncle. I suppose I had to. It was...It was..."
"You don't know. You have no memory of it, do you?"
She found she was breathing very hard, clutching the wooden armrests of the chair. "I know that someone took me away.... I know my mother had died a long time before that. I know I couldn't stay with him, even though I wanted to...."
"Those are not answers, Christine."
She was sweating and almost sobbing. "I don't know," she admitted. "I forgot. I think I used to know, maybe, when I was young, but it faded."
Dr. Almand made a note on a pad of paper, steepled his fingers and leaned forward, his round face looking very grave.
"Do you know what 'abuse' means, Christine?"
"Yes, I do. This year we have a lesson on it every week, on Fourth Day."
"Do you understand that you were taken from your father because he abused you?"
Her heart started pounding. She stood up, outraged. "That's not true!" she shouted. "I was never abused! No one's ever...I...I..."
Dr. Almand smiled appeasingly at her. "It's all right, Christine. Please, sit down. I won't keep you here any longer today. I'll make us an appointment for next Sixth Day, after school, and we can talk some more, okay?"
Though he gathered up his papers immediately, she was able to read the word he'd written in capitals on his pad, reflected backward in his glasses: DENIAL.
She came to see him after school four days later. She didn't want to go, she had kept trying to imagine excuses not to see him, but in the end she could not avoid it. Tap hadn't come back; she had tried to will him back into existence a dozen times, but always it was as if she were struggling to overturn a concrete wall: the sense of exertion against something so immovable it was worse than futile. And she was worried about herself. Worried that Uncle was right in his concern; worried that she was indeed having problems with her mind. Worried that even Dr. Almand might be correct.
There was a couch in Dr. Almand's office. This time he made her lie down on it. He sat next to her, playing with a shiny gold coin on a chain. "Look at the coin," he said. "Focus on it. Listen only to my voice. You can hear no sound except for the sound of my voice. You see nothing except the coin. You are feeling very relaxed...." He went on in this vein for several minutes; gradually the outside world faded away, leaving only the doctor's face, the shining coin winking light then dark, and the droning voice.
"Your body remembers, Christine, even though your mind has blocked off memories.... You remember what your father did to you.... Don't you remember?"
She tried to focus on the period of her life before coming to live with Uncle. It was so hard: That era lay beyond a kind of blurred barrier, or rather at the end of a road grown patchy through disuse. She had to force her way over obstacles, overgrown areas, fallen timbers.... She was afraid she would lose the path completely; but the doctor's voice was there to urge her along. And suddenly she found something.
"I remember...," she said. "I remember being with my father...on a boat." Warmth filled her at the recovered memory. "On a sea...it was so shallow, you could see the bottom; with lots of fishes swimming around. I was small. Daddy held me in his arms and let me look above the rail. I was afraid, because I was leaning over the water, but Daddy held me close, so I knew I was safe...."
In that moment she grasped the memory entire, jewel-like in its translucence and purity. She was held tight in her father's arms; she could feel the warmth of his flesh and the solidity of his bones through the fabric of his clothing. The ship stretched behind her; it was a blur of brown at the corners of her sight, but she could smell its fragrant wood, and mixed with the tangy scent was a wisp of floral perfume from upwind. Below her, a sea spread, a shallow sea, its transparent waters refracting the sunlight. Fish of all shapes moved about the bottom, their bodies glittering, their fins like sequined wings, darting between the fronds of seaweed. Here and there on the seafloor were large pieces of swarthy metal, looking like parts pulled out of a gigantic clock, speckled with marine life: urchins and seastars, in all the shades between incarnadine and deep purple. She was aware of people about her father and herself, though all of them at some distance. There was the murmur of conversation in several voices, a sharp clink of metal on metal that drove into her awareness. But all she really cared about was the water, which lay far below her, what seemed both an exciting and a frightening distance. For all her fascination with the sea life beneath, she felt a dread of falling, some fear that welled up from the core of her mind, as inevitable as drawing a breath would be.
As she marveled, caught within the miracle of this morsel of the lost past returned, Dr. Almand's voice broke in.
"Christine...you were afraid that your father would let you fall, weren't you?"
"No," she said, only half aware of him, wishing he would be silent. But he went on.
"But you just said you felt afraid. Why did you feel afraid, then?"
"Because...I was leaning over the water. I could have fallen in, if he hadn't held me tight." She was losing her focus on the memory; the sense of immanence had faded.
"He held you tight. Very tight?"
"Yes. I remember his hands on me." She did; she recalled her father's hands, strong bony fingers. But again her grasp on the memory loosened. She found herself wondering where in the world one could take ship on a sea so shallow and transparent, and why it was the fish she recalled were more extravagant than any tropical marine life in the nature books she'd read.
"You are saying more than you realize, Christine. Your daddy who held you so tight; do you think he might have let you fall? Or even thrown you down? Weren't you afraid of being thrown into the water?"
Dr. Almand was looking at her intently; she met his gaze behind the lenses of his glasses, and the sights she recalled dimmed away into wisps of fog.
"Your body recalls everything, Christine," said Dr. Almand. "Your cells hold a perfect memory of every instant you've lived. You must remember. Didn't you feel your father shake you, like he was about to throw you into the water?"
She squinted and drew back her lips. She tried to recall any such feelings. There had been no hint of this in her memory, she was sure. But now it had all grown vague. Still, she persisted in her denial. "No, I didn't feel him shake me. If he held me tight, it had to be so I would be safe."
"But then why were you so afraid? You had to have a good reason. If you had been by yourself, you wouldn't have been afraid of falling, because you would have been able to hold on to the rail. You had to have another reason. Why was your father holding you up so high?"
"I wasn't so high. And he wanted to show me the fishes."
"But why? Don't you think he might have been trying to scare you? Hadn't you been a bad girl? Didn't he call you that? Don't you remember? I am sure you do, Christine. You simply have to try harder."
There was something; some other memory, very dim. She said, "I remember...once, I did something bad, and my father called out my name. He was angry at me. He shouted."
"Did he call you a bad girl?"
"I...I think he might have...maybe."
"Cast yourself back to that time, Christine. Do you understand me? I want you to go back in time to that occasion. You can do it, don't be afraid. You remember."
As Dr. Almand urged her on, Christine focused on the shred of memory; it began to come clearer and clearer. Her father yelling at her, yes. She was feeling afraid of his anger. Dr. Almand asked her if her father had hit her. Didn't she feel pain from that time?
She did not, not at first. But he pressed on, and after a while she did. The memory assembled itself. It was harder to recall than the earlier one, and Dr. Almand had to coach her extensively. He helped her examine the dim memory of the pain; asked her if she had felt it in one place or in another, at long last discovering that it was her face, her cheek, that had hurt. After a while she fully recalled the sharp sting of a blow to the face, like that time she had been struck by a branch whipping back after another kid's passage through a hedge. Yes, she had been struck; but why? It took many questions, but the answer eventually became clear: to silence her because she was bawling too loudly. She remembered it. As Dr. Almand had promised, her body remembered.
Dr. Almand ordered her to wake fully; Christine shuddered once, all over, and sat up abruptly. At the end of the overgrown road of her memories, that one tiny patch had been cleared. A yell from her father, the sharp sting of his hand slapping her face. Crying and fear. She looked at Dr. Almand in dismay.
"Why did you do that? Why did you make me remember that?" she asked him.
"I want to help you, Christine. And to be helped, you need to remember what happened when you were young. Your memories have been repressed--that's a technical term; let's just say you made yourself forget. But you must regain your memories if you're to be healthy."
"Is there...Is there more? More like that? Him slapping me?"
"I'm here to help you find that out."
"Are you sure I need to? I'm okay, really, I am."
"Oh, Christine, but you're not. You know you're not. That imaginary friend was just one element of your condition."
"I don't understand."
"You've kept an imaginary friend with you all these years. But this friend isn't the problem; he's a symptom. You know, like when you have the flu. You get a fever, but it's not the fever that's the real problem. What's wrong is that you have a virus inside you, and you need to fight it. Well, it's the same with your friend. He may be gone, but that doesn't mean you're well. You have issues that are going to make you unhappy, maybe your whole life, unless you work them out with me."
Christine found herself crying in fear; Dr. Almand offered her tissues from a box printed with pink flowers.
"Now, now, Christine, don't worry. It's not that bad. The point is your uncle wants you to be well, and you want to be well. And I'm here to help you. You've made progress already. Now I want you to go home and get some rest. I'll see you next week."
And so she returned to Dr. Almand the next Second Day. During that session, her body was made to remember more. Blows. And touches also. By the end of the fifth session, she was screaming as Dr. Almand made her remember all the times her father had hit her, and the other things he'd done. For he had used her in unspeakable ways, which she was asked to describe precisely and which Dr. Almand dutifully noted down on his pad. It was during the tenth session that she recalled her father had killed her mother in front of her. And Dr. Almand sent her back to that time again and again, until she could conjure up every last detail of the horror.
When she got home after a session, she would eat some cookies and then go to bed. Once she had undressed and turned out the light, she would crawl under the covers and start hitting herself, slapping her face hard with her open hand, until the pain became too intense to bear. Five or six blows were all it took. Then she'd curl up into a ball, and she would weep in silence, until sleep released her from the pain.
On the night of the twelfth session she hit herself so hard that she couldn't suppress a cry of pain. As she lay in her bed, her left hand stuffed in her mouth to muffle herself, she heard the door open, Uncle's tread on the floor. He called out her name and whipped off the coverlet, just in time to see her right hand make contact with her cheek as she slapped herself uncontrollably.
Uncle caught her wrists, begging her to stop. He pulled her hand out of her mouth with the utmost care; Christine wailed something incoherent as soon as her voice was unfettered. Uncle threw her arms around his neck, picked her up bodily, carried her into the living room, sat her down in his armchair. Christine curled up on herself in the chair, trembling and sobbing. Uncle picked up the telephone on a little table and made two calls, his face scarlet, his words brooking no denial.
He wrapped a fleece throw around her and brought her water to drink, stroked her hair and babbled at her while she mostly ignored him, sunk in unthinking misery.
Soon the doorbell rang and Uncle answered; Dr. Almand walked into the room. Christine whimpered but lacked the strength to flee. Uncle spoke angrily at Dr. Almand, who was very calm in response. "This is all perfectly normal," he said soothingly. "I'll admit I was taken a bit by surprise, since she seemed otherwise to be coping with the revelations quite well. You must understand that, as buried and repressed traumas rise to the surface, she will necessarily have to work out her stress in new ways. This behavior is a sign of returning psychic health. So there's really nothing to worry about."
As Uncle expostulated, Dr. Almand pulled out a large bottle full of bright orange pills. "Now, now, Mr. Matlin, I'm not saying you weren't right to call me. We want the best for Christine. If you just give her two of these now, she'll calm down. Have her take one every evening before bedtime, two after a session. This should suppress the behavior entirely. If it should recur, there are stronger medications we can use. Also, an extended stay in the hospital might do her a world of good; you should consider it."
Uncle dismissed that last suggestion, but he did bring her the pills. Christine struggled to swallow them with a glass of water, the slick coating of the capsules pressing against the walls of her throat, making her think she would retch. Within minutes she fell asleep. When she woke up the next day, she was so groggy she couldn't attend school, could hardly make her way out of bed. By evening her mind was clearer, but then it was time for another orange pill. She swallowed it dutifully, glad there was only one. On Fourth Day morning she returned to school, her steps uncertain, her attention clouded.
And so the new routine went. Sessions, pills, grogginess. Christine's grades started to slip as she lost a large part of the energy for schoolwork. Uncle talked with the teachers and it was agreed she would retake her year if it became necessary. She was given several books with titles like What He Did Was Wrong and It's Not My Fault: A Manual for Victims of Childhood Abuse. Uncle told her several times a week how proud he felt that she was facing up to reality with such strength. Jessica the doll gathered dust in a drawer.
During her fiftieth session, Christine recovered a startling memory: As she focused on a particular instance of rape, she saw Uncle's face leering at her. She related her discovery to Dr. Almand, who immediately corrected her: Uncle had never met her until she had been taken away from her father. It couldn't have been him; rather, someone else, who only looked like Uncle. With Dr. Almand's help, with what her body remembered, over the course of a double-length session, Christine finally came to understand it had been a perfect stranger. A stranger who had purchased the use of her body from her father, when she had been three and a half years old.
Coming out of the trance, Christine was drenched in sweat. Even Dr. Almand seemed tired. He gave her paper tissues to wipe her streaming face, a drink of water from the cooler in a conical paper cup. He congratulated her for her efforts, praised her for achieving this major breakthrough. As she made her way out of his office, he reminded her to take two pills that evening and to get some rest.
Come nightfall, Christine went to the kitchen, poured herself a glass of water, and dutifully swallowed the two pills prescribed after a session. She put the water jug back into the refrigerator, then went to the sink, pulled open the second drawer, which held various odds and ends, and took out a pair of scissors. She opened the blades wide, gripped the scissors firmly in her right hand, laid her left flat on the counter. Then she slammed the blade into her palm.
She hadn't wanted to make a sound, but the pain was so awful she couldn't hold back a shriek. Still, she pulled the blade free and prepared for another blow.
The bright blood pouring out of her wound gave her momentary pause; and then Uncle had grabbed her hand, torn the scissors from her grasp and cupped her bleeding hand in his.
"Child! Child!" he screamed. "What are you doing! I won't let harm come to you; do you understand?" His face was scarlet; he looked scared, far more than angry. "I will not let you be hurt!" he repeated. Christine only howled in reply, something rising in her that she could neither explain nor avoid. She struggled in his grasp, her whole body jerking, like a string puppet when the crossbars are snatched up. Another jerk, and she freed herself. She fell against the kitchen counter; her legs gave way under her and she crumpled into a heap. Her screams sandpapered her throat until she started choking and passed out.
She awoke at the hospital, in a bed with leather restraints. Her left hand was bandaged. It hurt dimly, more like an itch. Her eyes were sore from crying. Something was wrong with her throat: Her voice was gone and she could only speak in a whisper.
Dr. Almand came to see her, his round face grave. For once, he was wearing a jacket and tie.
"I'm very sorry, Christine," he said. "I didn't expect the intensity of your reaction. But then, what we discovered took me aback as much as it did you. I failed to realize how much of a turning point this must have been for you. I'm deeply sorry. I should have had you supervised. But now that you're here, things will be easier. They'll take off the restraints soon; this was just a temporary arrangement. You'll be getting a different medication, a newer drug that's better at calming you down but won't make you feel sleepy at all. I know you can't feel very happy now, but trust me: This is an important day in your life. In the future, you'll look back on it as the day you finally began to heal."
Christine wanted to hit him, to stab him with the scissor blade, not in the hand but across the face and through the heart. But she knew she was wrong to feel this. This was the man who helped her; no matter that his revelations brought pain, he was doing her good. She started to weep again, at the hurt she was doing him. "I'm sorry," she croaked, "I'm so sorry." He patted her hand. "Don't worry, Christine, you'll be fine. I'll see to it personally."
The next day her restraints were removed. Instead of the orange pills she had been given white ones. These did work a lot better: After taking them, her feelings were still wrapped in layers of cotton but her mind was no longer fettered as it had been.
Dr. Almand came back to see her and they held a session in her hospital room, with the knowledge and approval of the staff. Armed with the breakthrough, Dr. Almand was able to make her remember other times she had been assaulted by strangers. That day, she recalled two such instances. The day after that, three more.
By week's end, running sessions every day, the picture was at last complete and Christine's story clear. With her mother's passive complicity, her father had sold Christine's sexual services to a roster of pedophiles from the age of half past three onward. The day Christine's mother had finally dared to raise her voice in protest, Christine's father had murdered her in front of their child.
He had not been able to conceal her death, and the authorities had at last stepped in. Christine had been taken from him and given in adoption to Uncle, whom in fact she was not related to. Uncle had tried to give her a life sheltered from all the horrors of her past, as he had told Dr. Almand, but the traumas his foster child had endured had left their mark. It was a good thing she had gone to see Dr. Almand early on: Time would only have worsened her condition. Now the abscess had been burst. Armed with the new drugs, with Dr. Almand by her side, Christine was well on the path to recovery.
THE LOST PRINCESS Copyright 2012 by Yves Meynard