Katie Letcher Lyle

Books & Articles:

The Dark

from Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 1993

Virginia Quarterly Review


The year following my father’s death on an island whose name sounded to me as if it must be spelled backward, Mother needed money, and first found work as a seamstress in a department store. But it was wartime, and the pay was so poor that Mother had to sell off some of our fine old furniture: the applewood safe, the dropleaf table from the hall, Grandmother’s massive walnut fourposter; the rooms in the house grew larger. I remember the day they came and took away the carved wood and brocade “conversation chair”—a great heavy elegant piece that I had played recklessly over and on and behind all my life, and now it turned out to be one of a kind, and extremely valuable, so my mother sold it for a thousand dollars and told me we’d be all right now. This chair (Empire, my mother called it) had three seats; from the balcony at the top of the stairs in my grandmother’s house, it looked rather like a dark trilium, with three petals, between which were carved swirls of heavy wood, topped by an absurdly delicate rail, with intricate three-inch spooled railings connecting the lighter top turned rail to the piece itself. If three people were to sit in the chair, which I never saw happen, each one of them would have had one graceful arm swirled around his or her back, and could converse comfortably, almost facing but not quite, the other two. On the day it was sold, it was for a few moments in the moving process upended, and rested on its side against a wall; in that position it resembled an enormous wagon wheel. Treacherously heavy, it took four grunting red-faced men several tries to urge it on to the truck. I watched snow fall onto its rosy brocade seatcushions and padded low backs, and disappear. Mama stood by me at the window and tried not to cry. “It’s so ugly,” she said, “and so big.” “It takes up an entire room,” she said. “I’m glad to be rid of it.” But she meant none of it. By then my grandmother was senile, and living in another lady’s house, and about her mother said, “Thank goodness she can’t know it’s gone.”

Soon after this my mother got what she thought was a wonderful offer: she would be a housemother at the school for the blind. The job required living in an apartment at the school; we could take our meals in the school dining room.

Mama closed up Grandmother’s house, worrying that people would think it was too soon after Father’s death, and what right had she to drape the huddled furniture in sheets and abandon the house, its windows all as blank as blind eyes? She worried about me, too, but reasoned that I would still be in regular school with my friends during the day. I had never even known a blind person. But now we could put away the money we still had left, and we would not have to worry.

The last day at Grandmother’s, I came upon Mother in the bathroom after supper, running my bath and crying. I knew it was not so much for the house as for my father. “Don’t,” I said, and she snuffled and blew her nose into one of the lacy hankies she ironed so carefully. “We’ll have our own place now.”

She nodded and dried her eyes. “Sure,” she said. “And we’ll be brave. We’re not the only ones in this boat,” she said.

I hadn’t thought of that, that there must be hundreds, maybe thousands, of other mothers and daughters in the world like us, robbed of the reassurance of fathers, forced to acknowledge their losses with unreal military funerals with no coffins, no bodies, just flags folded to small triangles, and left compact in widows’ hands. I should explain that I never knew Father in a way that his death mattered greatly to me—he had been away four years, since I was six. It was sad because Mother was so sad, and I loved her very much. But the insight that we were not alone sustained me.

It was strange, the way the blind children looked at me but at the same time did not look at me. It was more like they looked toward me. Or that they looked through me, as though I were bodiless, a spirit. Either way, I felt for a while that to them I did not exist. They wanted to get to know me by running their hands over my face, the girls and the boys alike. It made me very nervous, but I stood still and tried not to breathe, and let them. They were astonishingly agile in the dark corridors. There were painted dots on the floors to inform the maids where exactly to reput the furniture after they cleaned. I felt like myself only in the outside world, the world of daylight and paintings and books, the world where people looked at you with expressions that meant they saw you.

One boy, Donald, thin and bloodless, with hair that was almost white it was so blond, white eyebrows and lashes, would not come near me. He had not been there long. Donald, refusing to abide by the school’s sensible rule of counting—how many steps up, how many steps to the end of the corridor, how many steps to the bathroom, always clung to the wall, face out, his hands feeling along the wall behind him, as he scuttled along like a crab. Often he ran into others, and there would be terrific rows. Refusing to conform, he also refused to welcome mother and me. He was not liked. He whined. In passing I would hear him mutter, “If I didn’t have these fingers I could feel more of the walls. Oh, how I wish I didn’t have any fingers.” I awoke one night to my mother's voice in the darkness saying, “Sit down here on the edge of the bed. You'll be all right.”

Donald had come in the middle of the night to our apartment, and in, totally without sound or guide, and was in fact standing between our beds, definitely frightened of something. I felt that if I had awakened to his hands on my face I would have died right then and there. I was also indignant that he was in our private room. I pulled the covers up to my neck so that he could not see me in my nightclothes, then remembered. He stayed a long time, and though I went to sleep hearing him and Mother whispering, I could not make out what they were talking about.

With the death of Father, I lost Mother’s laughter and her lightness, but after we moved to the blind school, I lost even more important things. Her smell, for instance, because the school's smells overwhelmed hers. I noticed it most when I came in from school—things didn’t smell like ours anymore. Her cooking was dearer to me than I had known before I lost it. I craved food not cooked by strangers, and at my Aunt Harriet’s I ate until my stomach ached, her food was so good. I lost Mama’s music (no radios or victrolas after bedtime, which was when she and I would listen to Oklahoma! or Peter and the Wolf or The Firebird Suite, or any other music we liked). And I even lost the sense of her soft fingers pinning and tucking, plucking and overlapping, tugging and draping, as she made a pinafore or dress for me. She didn’t have time any longer. I had to make do with Cousin Isabelle’s hand-me-downs, always too big, but made of wonderful things like satin, and cashmere.

Getting used to our new society was wearying. At first, forgetting, I would say to one of them, “Well, look here, I’ll show you—” and hear belatedly my use of words I must no longer say, along with things like, “See here. You just bumped me,” or “Can’t you see what I mean?” They for the most part overlooked my gaucheries, but by the end of each day, I was exhausted, falling into deep slumberous naps on the sofa after supper, clothes wrinkled, homework undone. When she found me, Mama would silently help me undress, walking me to the bathroom to brush my teeth, whispering to me to use the toilet so I wouldn't have to get up later.

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