The Horse and the Elephant 

From the novel, Some Place Quite Unknown

“The narrative into which life seems to cast itself surfaces most forcefully in certain kinds of psychoanalysis, and Cardinal proves herself ideal in rendering this ‘deep story’ aspect of her life.”  (Toni Morrison, from Playing in the Dark p. v, writing about a story of an emergence from madness, The Words to Say It, by Marie Cardinal) I felt pushed down into the deep story, where I could be my truest self. At the same time I was a witness to my own journey, and  I wondered if I could use this double vision to find a comparable double tone– not a split voice, one explicating the other; rather, an echo in a related but different language from the first. In the end, neither voice sufficed. Language itself came into question.  In order to get to the bottom I had to abandon my faith in words.

How can we escape the narrative cliches of our own time? The story of childhood recreated in psychoanalysis. The compulsion of women writers before the end of the century to shed veils and give their stories to the world.  How imagine a structure to hold a truth that seeps in and out of conventional time frames?  There were times when I feared I would shit all over the chair. That’s how fast things were pouring out of me.  And no translation could match that dangerous ecstasy.  Old embers smoked, ignited new fires, and I grew increasingly unsettled beneath a deceptively calm surface.

“What makes us go on?”  (Virginia Woolf, in Mrs. Dalloway, a novel about suicide.)

“I confess I am broken only by the source of things.”   (Anne Sexton, in a poem called “Said the Poet to the Analyst.”)

Two women writers, miners of the language of the interior, both using traditional forms to break out of traditional forms, differently attuned to confession (one tactful and elegant, the other primal and blunt.) Both compelled to refashion old stories as a way of staying alive, yet both suicides in the end. Bibliotherapy, Dr. Daniels called it once, a long time after the beginning. And it was true that I had always sought answers in books, other peoples well crafted language, as if I believed I could will or think my way into change if only I could  find the perfect words.

Recollection of the First Period and How I Came to Be There:

It was a kind of laboratory. But no – that sounds too scientific. A retreat. A place where I was determined from the very first to reveal everything.  Where there would be no wall between me and my most private, even shameful and complex thoughts.  Yes – complex is the right word. I promised myself not to shrink from complexity.  It was a kind of temple, if I can use that word without too much mystification.  I was amazed, from the first weeks, even the very first few days, by the intensity between us.  Inner channels were opening.  Some delicate instrument was moving through layers of thick,  dark mud, making a tunnel, or a road.

Journal entry: June, 1995:  There is no difference any longer between my art and my life.  Not in terms of this story about the three women.  There has always been something with no name, something with no words, something needing, hungry, something horribly lonely, pulsing with desire and shame.  I keep it down; I deny it is there; I know it is there but I lie about it – to others, occasionally to myself.  It is too big.  It is big.  And repulsive.

Rats have always appeared suddenly, eating their way out of walls.  I see them, make other things into them.  Even going to the park is difficult.  But I will not tell him this yet.

His room: decorated in dark pinks and light browns; the walls a kind of beige;  a thick rose colored rug  – all the colors of flesh beneath the skin. I looked around the room until familiar shapes – a desk, a couch, a telephone – lost their realistic meaning and became just shape and color. (A large brown thing. A wide expanse of rose. A series of  shapes in light and dark tan.)  The way a representational portrait, of a woman let’s say, might become increasingly abstract in a series of paintings over time. I felt the need to blur the actual functions of things and notice their color and shape in order to lessen somewhat the intensity of my instant connection to him, the fear that I . . . the desire to open myself completely.

Each night for hours, I wrote down every word that was said, every thought, then went to my computer and translated the chaos of that hand written record into a somewhat more orderly form.  Sometimes I’d recreate the same story in a vocabulary as close to the heart of the first as possible, yet somehow beautifully veiled, I thought, by well-chosen language, the deepest illusion of all.  Soon a very different story  began to emerge,  though I knew it was really  the same underneath; a translation, a fiction, as close to the real thing as a ritual changing of names.

In the first week of our work, I told him Violet’s story, the same one I had told and retold a thousand times, now new and threatening again. The day I found her dead on the bathroom floor, blood streaming from pale wrists in two narrow, shining red lines. At first I could not comprehend what I was seeing, although I was nearly eight years old and perfectly capable of understanding the facts: A woman was lying on the white tiled bathroom floor. Her glazed eyes stared at the ceiling. Her wrists turned up revealed two deep cuts like cracks in the earth, and narrow rivers of beautiful crimson water moved over the small bony hills of pale gray wrists onto white tile. I saw it all, and thought – what is this? Why is she lying on the floor? Why did she spill that thick red paint on her arms?  Why is her skin so white?

Later, Frank constructed the original fiction.  She had an accident, he told me, staring at me with dazed, desperate eyes.  When I was much older and reminded him of his deception, left uncorrected for years, he denied having told the lie.  “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said.  “Maybe we told you that at first, to lessen the shock of it.  You and Liz were so little.  But soon afterwards we told you the truth.”

I love you all darlings, but I can’t bear the emptiness any longer. There is nothing to live for, and I can’t make you suffer any more. I have no more words.

When I recited Violet’s last note to Dr. Daniels, he looked stricken.  “Terrible words,” he said.  “Angry and tragic and terrible.”

“Desperate and tragic,” I repeated.  But angry?  I didn’t think angry was the right word.

Two women: One in the beige, pink interior, letting the story flow out like blood flowing from slit wrists. The other leans over a wooden table in a white walled room a mile away recording everything she said, then translating it into a different language.  And the split works some kind of power that enables me to get at the deep story, the one that has been winding around beneath ordinary consciousness since the beginning, presumably, when the actual beings of Violet and Frank met up with my temperament, my genes, my life.

I have no idea why the “deep story” has to be uncovered by me so obsessively, but it has always been this way.  I don’t always like it, but I have learned to accept it, if not before the day I was killed, then certainly after.

Not killed.  I had obviously not been killed.  I had almost been killed.

I had just passed my fiftieth year.  Khoby was living thousands of miles away in Los Angeles where he was completing  graduate work  in a clinic for disturbed children, and I had never gotten used to it as everyone promised I would.  Longing for him could overwhelm me at any time, unexpected and fierce, like a sudden hailstorm in the summer.   Luke and I were in one of those periods common to long marriages when chronic distances patterned over decades descend like some elaborately sewn net and both people are caught under it, able to see but not touch each other. We shared our domestic chores as usual. We slept together every night, although we tended to seek our own sides of the bed.  We communicated about necessary things – news of Khoby, our jobs, family events, planning a weekend dinner with friends. The distance was all the more marked by the continuation of daily intimacy. I felt as if I had donned a mask that looked exactly like my face but was not my face.  Then I was denied an important promotion at the university, one I felt I deserved which would  have given me a sense of accomplishment as well as a less demanding schedule.  I was offered a variety of generic explanations.  All promotions were to be frozen for some time.  We were in an enrollment crisis, a state funding crisis, a global economic decline.   I’d worked for years to earn a respected place in that institution, and even if I understood the fact that my experience was reflected in that of many others, I was devastated.  I felt I hadn’t been given my due.

One night, I found myself imagining suicide plans, a recurring fantasy of my youth I thought I had long since overcome, discarded as so much self-mystification from the time I became pregnant with Khoby and felt I had something to live for besides myself, which never seemed enough. I imagined taking enough pills the next morning after Luke went to work so that by the time he came home eight hours later there would be no question of a reversal. They would assume I’d had a heart attack.  No one – certainly not Khoby – would suspect anything other than an accident. A heart attack at a young but not a tragic age.  I realized I was having the fantasy as I became conscious of my increasingly specific elaborations. And suddenly a line from one of Ann Sexton’s poems came into my head: “But suicides have a special language./Like carpenters they want to know which tools./ They never ask, Why build.”  I got up and washed my face. Drank water. I had wrestled with a death wish through intense psychoanalysis in my late teens, again in my middle thirties when I approached and passed Violet’s death age, determined not to leave Khoby the legacy she had left to me.  Still, I thought, it was only a fantasy, and because I called it that, I permitted myself to return to it regularly, after a while almost daily for about a year, and began to emerge from it strangely refreshed.  It was an indulgence, I thought, and the relief, like that of any indulgence, was a sense of escape from everything mundane and controlled to something exciting, essential.  I elaborated details about which pills would serve, imagined the slow stopping of my heart, the relief of unconsciousness.  I’d be lying in bed, not on the bathroom floor.  There would be no ribbons of blood to distress anyone’s dreams for years afterward.  And I was over fifty, not thirty-eight, as Violet had been. No one would presume a connection.  Besides I had no intention of making the fantasy real.  It was a fantasy, not a plan.

Then one morning I was walking to the subway on my way to my class at the college downtown. I remember noticing the sky. It was striped with color, as if an artist, layering the space behind a landscape, had become so involved with the background it almost became foreground.   Stripes ranging from pearly silver to nearly black, and in between each stripe a brilliant blue. As I stepped off the curb, I just missed getting hit by a taxi rounding the corner at high speed.

I saw him begin the turn. In a split second, I thought – I remembered this clearly later – that bastard – he’s going to kill somebody one of these days.  Years of crossing streets anxiously, always afraid of cars making those swift, unhesitating turns, of grabbing Khoby’s hand when he was a child and I still felt able to protect him if I were sufficiently vigilant – all the fear and vigilance gathered into anger in that split second when the driver, speeding up the avenue, began to turn onto the street I was about to cross. I thought: I’d better back up, out of his way.  But then I stepped off the curb, right into the path of the taxi. It swerved just in time, and I was not hit.  I missed getting killed by a hair, the woman who helped me up told me.  I might have been knocked down by the edge of the car, or I might have fallen on my own.  I was in the street on my knees, not exactly sure for a moment of where I was. I must have blacked out for a few seconds. The woman who reached me first put her arm around me.  Then a young man leaned over and between the two strangers I got to my feet and hobbled back onto the sidewalk.  “You missed getting killed by a hair,” the woman said.  And instantly I remembered that I’d seen the cab turning, knew the danger, thought about stepping back out of his way, and then stepped into the street.

The deep story was against me, and I had known it, without admitting it, for nearly a year.

After that, I fell ill with a long flu or virus of some kind. Luke tended me maternally, worried about what he called my lethal distraction. I would be lying in bed, drifting in and out of sleep, and I would hear him tiptoe into the room. Opening my eyes a crack, I watched him as he lowered the shade to darken the room the way he knew I liked it, then looked at me with an expression of love and concern.  I pretended to be asleep, but he always knew and would ask if I wanted something to eat, straighten the sheet or make a joke about my lazy desire to be a child again.  The net lifted to a place just above our heads.  We didn’t talk much, but we made love gently, frequently.  When my fever was gone, I began a search for therapists and found Dr. Daniels.


Journal entry: September, 1995.

Everything I tell him seems to border on cliché, a story told so often and so melodramatically it threatens to lose its meaning –  stories of childhood loss, of erotic passion, even of psychoanalysis itself.   Her mother commits suicide when she is eight years old.  She adores her mother, but now she has a clearer path toward her father whom she also adores.  And her mother has always been so moody, her dark despair ruining countless events; a party, looked forward to for weeks, destroyed; a summer vacation spoiled before they hit the road by her obsession with her own comfort, her intolerance of any inconvenience or demand.

Oh Oedipus/ Oh God,” Anne Sexton had written in one of her poems.

I described this reticence today in a clinical tone, as if I were delivering a paper at a conference, and he said, “Well, it is a cliché in a way, a generalized story told many times.  But each time an individual discovers their own particular version of the story, it is as if the discovery is happening for the very first time.”  He paused. He looked at me with an intensity I have already come to depend on.  His eyes seem to darken. He laces his fingers together and holds his hands remarkably still in front of his mouth, as if he is keeping himself from speaking precipitously, or he keeps his hands immobile on the arms of his chair, as if he too is on a dangerous ride.  I imagine he thinks carefully about everything he says – a quality which provides me with a sense of safety and at the same time some of the worst frustration I have ever known.   In his silence, the pit of my self-loathing threatens, the sudden fall where I doubt even – no most of all –   the quality of my own voice.

“Delphi, specifically, was the shrine of the Prophet and Musician, the inspiration of artists and the patron of physicians.  . . .  Religion, art and medicine, through later ages, became separated;  they grow further apart from day to day.”  H.D., from Tribute to Freud

A sudden recollection of a past reading recovering the perfect words.  A brief passage, but enough to remind me of a kind of faith in this direction I have chosen  comprised of reading, writing and medicine of the spirit, a last ditch effort to save my life.

Of course, there is another thing about H.D. and her famous analyst that kept me reading her words.  They became friends. He wrote to her.  She visited him in London when he was an old man.  She brought him gifts which he accepted. And he reciprocated her feelings of admiration, of love.

During that first year I told him countless stories of my childhood, alternating with stories of my life with Luke, raising Khoby, about my writing and my teaching job, back and forth in time like a classically structured fiction.  One day the word refraction kept coming into my mind.  I looked it up in the Columbia Encyclopedia and found the definition:  “A lens uses refraction to form an image of an object for many different purposes, such as magnification.  A prism uses refraction to form a spectrum of colors from an incident beam of light.  Refraction also plays an important role in the formation of mirage and other optical illusions.”    Then I began gathering all my emotions and images into a story about three women.  At first I had only three lines:  Melissa is big.  Betina is smart.  Leza is wary of the task ahead.  The three of them took shape in my notebook between sessions, and all along I knew there was something different about this story from anything I’d written before.  I was risking something, exposing something, and could name neither the full danger, nor, for a long time, the revelation itself.  I had the sense of a door of some kind to a future I could not yet describe.  Or perhaps my so-called story (three fragments really) was a door to the past, because the night I finished the first draft  I had the horse and the elephant dream.

I was standing at the edge of the ocean when waves began to grow large and powerful, as if the bottom were churning up sea storms, mud slides, and suddenly, as if out of nowhere, two large, magnificent animals emerged – a black horse galloping, his mane whipping backwards in the strong wind, and a grey elephant, his trunk lifting as he brayed loudly at the sky. I wasn’t afraid. They were galloping but at the same time remaining in place, always at the edge of the water, never moving onto shore. I looked up at them and felt a surge of excitement, something like relief, but not of a serene kind, more as if I had come to a point of rest after an arduous climb, but the rest itself was ecstatic, orgasmic.

Ref: Hamilton Stone