Someone saw her coming up out of that culvert naked. Her arms raised in a foolish attempt to keep the blood in. Or maybe she was waving for help. I can’t remember now how she'd ended up in his van the night before. Was she a runaway looking for a ride or some money? Did he kidnap her? I can’t remember. But he raped her, beat her severely and then used an ax to chop off both of her arms above the elbows. And then threw her out to die.
I cannot even imagine how she looked in the brilliant light of morning to the driver who stopped to help her. Disheveled, tear and blood streaked, her entire being in shock, holding up those two horrific wounds. Those were the visible ones, of course. They were not the only ones she had. My God! There is a suffocating silence around that first moment before the relief of action kicks in. Speak calmly and kindly to her. Stop the flow of blood. Call 911. Get her to a hospital. NOW.
I was seven when I read about her and what he’d forced her to experience. I’m 32 and I still can’t forget. To this day, I pray for her every time I remember her. In my mind she is Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace rolled into one. Tell me she will never be whole again, and I will tell you that she breaks my heart with her strength and her beauty. All of the infinite value of her humanity insulted and savaged and yet… she is triumphant. She is alive. She is loved. She cannot be lost to that love.
I kept up with current events once I started reading. I watched the news with my father every night. Feeling concerned when he’d shout at Sam Donaldson or Peter Jennings. I read newspapers and magazines. Constantly. So, I knew who was up to what in the Middle East and what was happening in the Soviet Union, etc. And this is how I heard about her.
This is how I heard about children being molested, neglected, and abused. This is how I learned that lovers cheat. That men hit women on a regular basis, throwing in verbal and emotional abuse for good measure. This is how I learned that governments lie. That people in power- people with grave responsibilities- shirk their duty and gather to themselves resources which are desperately needed by those who rely on them. Nobody had to tell me as a 6 and 7 year old that communism was doomed to failure, for example. I would have laughed at your naiveté if you had insisted that it had ever been a well designed plan for human beings in the first place.
Eventually, keeping track of the news, I learned that her attacker was arrested. Was sentenced to prison. I also learned just a few years back that he’d been released and had moved into a neighborhood where nobody knew him. Nobody knew what he’d done. He tried to commit suicide in his car- carbon monoxide pouring in- and would have succeeded except that a young boy noticed and alerted his father to help. They dragged him out of the car. And saved his life.
A few days later, the man brutally killed a prostitute inside his house. I can’t remember whether he was arrested or killed when the police showed up. I felt sorry for the little boy and hoped he’d never decide that his good deed had cost another human being her life. How could he have known?
But I’m not sure what it’s done to me to be aware of the very worst aspects of humanity from such a tender age. Of course, I was reading about the strength and loveliness of human beings- the self-sacrifice and incredible achievements of humanity at the same time. The picture wasn’t all black. But for me- well my eyes were old when I looked out of my little girl face. Old when I reacted to social situations. And my heart was old- stopped already in its tracks by grief and shock. Shock that we do this- we do these things to each other. We are not safe. Not safe at all here together. We cannot be trusted.
Maybe people could tell. My eyes have a look at times- something about the inside corners- which make me look very tenderhearted, blinded almost, by kindness. I don’t know how else to describe it. Adults used to look into my eyes and confide in me. Things which adults should never confide to children. And I looked back- calm and comforting- and did not know that anything was out of the ordinary. Maybe this is why I have never encountered a conversation I could not have- a topic that intimidated me- or an aspect of human existence and choice which my mind refuses to consider.
Even as a child I already understood that we live a limited number of scenarios as human beings. We have only a tiny handful of emotions from which to choose. We are observable. We are knowable. We repeat our weaknesses. And repeat them again. Love is the only surprise.
I’m not sure I was able to put all of the things I read at age 6 and 7 and 8 and 9 into a framework which allowed me to feel insulated and invincible. Many people feel insulated, you know. And invincible. I don’t. I don’t feel separated at all. I don’t feel endlessly strong anymore, either. Except in a string theory kind of way which slyly and stubbornly knows that I have connections. Which knows that my will was always a trillion times bigger than my body. Which knows that this awareness of mine- this compassion of mine- is not freakish but functional. It has its place, its purpose. It’s good for something.
If I had a child though, I wonder- would I hide all of the books?