* * *
This is Jeremy Mishigosh, aged fifteen years, and these are some salient facts about him. One, he is always hungry. He is the kind of person who would always be hungry even if he had enough to eat, and he does not have enough to eat. Therefore he is skinny and forlorn-looking, with hands too big for his wrists and eyes too big for his face. Two, he hardly ever talks. Rather, he stares a lot and looks as if he is thinking. When he does talk the words seem to have a will independent of his own, and usually he trails off in the middle of a sentence as if human expression were a vast maze with infinite entrances and exits, none of which he can find when he wants them. Then he taps his lips with his fingers and is silent again for a long time.
Three, he is very docile. When thoughts all exist independently, free of any connection to each other, everything seems preordained. It is preordained that as he lies on his back in the grass he should be hoisted up by strange hands and carried away. He does not object. He watches the treetops and the clouds go by above his head.
He is tall when he bothers to stand up and despite being pitiably thin he looks older than he is. There are men making noises at him now and in a dim way he imagines they are speaking, the way his mother used to speak, and that perhaps the noises convey some kind of meaning that he could understand if he thought about it hard but there seems to be no particular reason to do this. Speech is a thing the way trees and rocks and people are things; it is part of the unchangeable fabric of the world, always there to be ignored or not ignored. Instead Jeremy looks at something across the room, or anyway he turns his eyes in that direction, away from the men making noises.
"Idiot," says one of the men, and the others mutter and nod, and their hands bear him away again and then he is in a room. It is a very big room and very dark and very loud. When the door behind him closes on the wedge of light he is standing in, someone hits him and he falls down. There is nothing very disagreeable about this as far as he is concerned. He can lie there as well as he could lie anywhere else, and that is what he does, for an amount of time that he would be unable to measure even if he had any very clear notion of what time is.
This room is filled with people and the noise of people. There is a smell there as well, one that after a few hours he is able to identify as unpleasant. He is unaccustomed to the amount of thinking he has already had to do today, and so his eyes close the way they do when he is tired and the darkness starts to lap at him the way it does when he is tired and his eyes have closed themselves.
The problem with this is that people keep stepping on him. Sometimes it is his feet and sometimes it is his stomach and sometimes it is his head. Over and over Jeremy feels the thwarted darkness trying to envelope him, but each time it is chased away by the feet stepping on him.
"Ouch," he says finally, and puts his hand out; his fingers close around an ankle through some volition that apparently exists in him without being controlled by him. The person whose ankle it is falls instantly to the ground.
This has given Jeremy so much to think about and laboriously arrange in his mind that he falls asleep immediately, overwhelmed, and heedless of being stepped on, which he continues to be for the rest of the night.
This is Jeremy Mishigosh, ward of the madhouse, and these are some of the things he learns over the course of the next few weeks:
One, that he is surrounded by people all the time.
Two, that these people have no qualms about stepping on him, sitting on him, hitting him, or walking over him as if he were not there.
Three, that sometimes there is light and sometimes there is not.
Four, that people like to sit or stand against the walls.
Five, that what people really want is to sit or stand in the corner.
It takes him longest to figure out this last thing, because it involves a certain amount of inference. The corners are never unoccupied, and often there are fights over them. Jeremy himself spends most of his time sitting with his back against the wall, as he always tended to do when he lived with his mother and father; he doesn't think about it; he just edges toward the wall, crabwise, by virtue of the same innate volition that moved his hand on that first night.
Maybe it is something about having arrived at this conclusion, the headiness of victory, though Jeremy in no way looks like a person heady with victory or anything else, that leads him to decide something, which he has done only a handful of times before. After weeks of watching the fighting that takes place in the corners, Jeremy, in the dead of night, rises from his compact huddle and flings himself upon the person sitting in the corner nearest him, a woman as skinny and still as he himself is. She stops him in mid-lunge with one motion of her skinny arm and with another slams him against the wall.
Jeremy has been made aware of the world in similar ways before. One of the features of the world has traditionally been a person of about his own age, his cousin Banquo, who knowing that he would not cry out used to hit him sometimes for fun. Being thrown against the wall reminds Jeremy of this, and being reminded of it is strange to him, because it conjures Banquo up where he was not before and gives Jeremy the suddenly overwhelming feeling that there is no real beginning or end to anything, but that the entire world is constantly present wherever he is and is as likely to manifest in one form as in another. So he doesn't even say "Ouch" this time, but draws his knees up to his chin and closes his eyes against the everpresent world.
He is not surprised, then, when he feels himself sliding slowly along the floor, dragged by unseen hands. His eyes open though it is dark and he can't see any better than he could when they were closed. There is a voice, and it repeats itself many times until through no will of his own he understands what it is saying: "What are you?"
Jeremy, who has never in his life answered a question, who does not in fact have a very firm grip on the nature of questions or even the nature of words themselves except as noises like the noises that birds or crickets make, goes to sleep. When he wakes up it is no longer dark and there is a person poking him repeatedly in the breastbone with one finger. It is the skinny woman who sits in the corner. "You," she says.
One thing Jeremy does know is that when people talk directly at him it is generally because they expect him to do or say something. He reaches up and seizes the finger that is poking him. "You," he says. The woman laughs, which entails producing an unpleasant noise not unlike that of a knife striking a flint.
"What are you?" she asks. "Are you a person?"
Jeremy is silent.
"No," she says after a moment. She attempts to withdraw her finger from his grip, but for some reason his hand has decided not to relinquish it. She laughs again and jabs him in the ribs with the fingers of her other hand. This is when Jeremy learns he is ticklish, because he is suddenly forced to let go her finger in order to defend his midsection. When he has succeeded he looks back up at her, and it's possible that in his expression there is a hint of reproach -- that he is wondering why, if his hands so often do what they want without his permission, they are willing to do what she wants them to who is not even attached to them. She pokes her finger into his breastbone again, but more gently this time, and only once. "Lulack," she says, naming him after the name of a forest spirit, the ghost of a wolf that tasted human blood in life and that tries to disguise itself as human in death.
Jeremy's mother has told him stories about lulacks, and this skinny woman has done it again -- where last night she summoned the notion of Banquo where Banquo had not been before, now she summons the notion of Galabardera, Jeremy's mother, bearer of the word lulack. Jeremy looks to the right and left as well as he can from his position on the floor, but his mother is nowhere to be seen.
The woman who sits in the corner defends her position against all comers in much the same way that she initially defended it against Jeremy. She strikes or pushes out of the way anyone who encroaches on her territory, which extends about three feet beyond her person in each direction. Her reach is deceptively long, and her wiry arms deceptively strong. She is capable of throwing full-grown men away from her without getting up from the floor. Jeremy she suffers to sit or lie near her, for whatever reason, and after the first time she does not hit him, though sometimes she jabs him with her fingers or grabs his wrists or covers his eyes with her hands. She usually does these things when she is talking to him.
Her name is Lydia. Jeremy learns this after a day or two, when she grabs him by the shoulders and pulls him up to a sitting position and announces the word to him before dropping him again.
After a few days Jeremy has edged in his glacial way so that he is sitting next to her with his back against the wall. Lydia in certain moods is very talkative, and Jeremy is a good listener, or at least resembles one, because he looks very thoughtful and hardly ever says anything while she talks. This endears him to her. Soon the range of her territory has expanded to encompass anything within three feet of him as well as anything within three feet of her.
Lydia claims that her mother put her in the madhouse when she was no older than Jeremy because her father was in love with her, Lydia, and her mother was jealous. Her father sometimes comes but Lydia does not trust him and will not see him. She knows all about him and his filthy urges. What she wishes for most of all is that wolves will eat both her parents and drag their bones to the door of the madhouse so she can see. This is a cherished fantasy of Lydia's, and she often evokes it in great detail for Jeremy's benefit. And because Jeremy rarely speaks, and never more than half a sentence at a time, she occasionally makes up stories about him as well.
"Lulack!" she says. "You were a wolf pup whose mother fed you human bones. That's why you got those big eyes and those greedy guts. But then she went mad and ate you and your brothers and sisters too. That's why you're not a very good lulack, you were just a puppy when you died."
Jeremy does not remember being a puppy and finds this somewhat confusing. He puts his hand on her arm. "Lydia," he says.
Jeremy presses his lips together until they turn a faint shade of blue. "A puppy," he says, finally. What he is trying to say is that he does not remember having been a puppy, and is this yet another example of the world being everything at once, is he himself everything at once, is he a puppy (and a dead one at that) at the same time that he is himself, and why is he the only person in the world who cannot understand these things? "But," he says, and holds up both hands, which are not paws, unless there is really no difference between hands and paws, in which case why are there different words for them? "No," he manages, and suddenly he is crying.
"I never knew a lulack could cry," says Lydia. But Jeremy is not actually very good at it, because he has never done it before. For fifteen years his eyes have been untainted by tears, and so he does not understand what is happening, what subtle trap his traitor body has laid for him now. He squeezes his eyes shut but the water keeps running out of them and the sobs rise in his throat.
"You," he says, and "What." Then he gives up.
Lydia reaches out with her bony arms and presses him against her bony chest. This is not especially comforting, partly because she squeezes too hard, but also because Jeremy, not understanding what is happening to his eyes, does not know how to receive comfort for it. "Poor beast," she says. "Why are you crying?"
"Crying," says Jeremy. It is the one word in her sentence that he does not understand; he has never heard it before that he can remember.
"That's when the water comes out of your eyes, like that," she says, roughly swiping at his cheek with one hand while keeping him pressed against her with the other. "It happens when you are sad or hurting. What makes you sad or hurting, lulack Jeremy?"
Jeremy can't answer her. He turns his face to her knotty malodorous shoulder and lets the sobs shake themselves out of him, which appears to be what they want to do.
* * *
Lydia is human, though in size she more closely approximates an elf. In color she is various shades of gray, her skin being somewhat lighter than her hair and the limp sacklike dress she wears being somewhat lighter than her skin. She blends in with her surroundings, which are all made out of gray granite and gray iron bars and shadows.
Lydia is gray in part because she barely eats anything. This is because she is convinced that she is being poisoned by the people who run the madhouse, who are in her mother's pay. She tells Jeremy about this, and he neither believes nor disbelieves these words, nor even thinks of them as things to be believed or disbelieved. They are just words, things like rocks and trees and people that make up a landscape. Lydia goes days and days without eating, and then only pecks at crusts she laboriously peels from the black hunks of bread she is thrown. She says that the poison is less concentrated there, and gives the rest of the bread to Jeremy. "It won't hurt you, it is women's poison," she says. "And you are not even human."
Jeremy is so hungry, all the time, that he barely chews his food when he gets it. He swallows the bread Lydia gives him in two vast mouthfuls and belches. Lydia laughs. "Wolf boy!" she says.
Jeremy thinks about this for a while, fifteen or twenty minutes. If he isn't human, it will explain a lot. He looks at Lydia and says, "I am a wolf?"
"Perhaps not literally," she says.
"Literally is what happens on the face, but there are things under things, and meanings between things." Noticing that Jeremy's eyes have gone wide and uncomprehending, she socks him gently in the shoulder. "Listen. It's not hard. Stupid people can do it."
Jeremy blinks two or three times in rapid succession, as if to free his eyes from the uncomprehending look. He takes hold of Lydia's skinny forearm. "Tell me," he says.
"You're talkative today," says Lydia.
"Tell me. Literally," Jeremy says. He is suddenly possessed by the feeling that this word hides the secret of human comprehension, the thing that makes so difficult for him what is so simple for other people. Banquo, after all, is able to use words, and his mother has often told him that Banquo is a useless waste of breath.
"Words don't always mean what they mean," says Lydia.
He spends the next six hours formulating the sentence he will present her with. The words at his disposal are arranged in front of him in his mind's eye; this is not the hard part, because there are not many of them. But how to put them together so that they approximate a thought? If he could somehow touch the words with his hands, traitors to the cause of his preservation though his hands are, he feels certain that he would be able to arrange them to his satisfaction. But he has to arrange them using nothing but his mind. This seems arbitrary, and also something else; the concept he is searching for, but does not yet grasp, is that it is unfair.
It is in the middle of the night that he reaches out for Lydia, who is awake, as she always seems to be. He grabs her by the wrists, the way she sometimes grabs him. "Lydia," he says. "If words don't mean what they mean, how can they mean anything?"
Lydia replies as if there has not been a gap of hours since the conversation began. "A word cannot mean just whatever you want it to," she says. "It can mean many things, but not anything or everything at once. Don't be lazy; you know that or you wouldn't have been able to ask."
"What -- how can you tell?" he asks. He waits, biting his lower lip, certain that she will tell him she does not understand. It is not possible that he should formulate two scrutable sentences in a row.
"There are many ways," Lydia says. "Words are like people: they do different things at different times and in different places."
This seems to Jeremy like a logical explanation; words seem to behave around him in much the same way that people do. It strikes him suddenly that perhaps this is not a coincidence. "More," he says. He is still holding her wrists, but now she shakes them out of his grip.
"Anything is more than nothing," she says. She is invisible against the wall under cover of the darkness. "A word is an envoy and an escort. It brings the real and the unreal together in a between-realm, a place where everything is the same, neither real nor unreal, laid out indifferently for examination. It is a map of thought, and maps are different colors, so things can be told apart. There is a country here on the map" -- and from her couch of invisibility a forefinger comes to jab him in the collarbone -- "and a country here on the map" -- whereupon a forefinger jabs him in the other collarbone -- "and they are the same color. Are they the same country? No. And you know that, because of the color of the things around them. Just so words. Even if they seem the same on the outside, you can tell what they really are by the color of the things around them."
Jeremy is wide-eyed again, though in the dark Lydia cannot see. "I don't," he says, and halts. "I can't."
"You do and you can," says Lydia. "Words are thoughts. As you arrange one you arrange the other. A mother bore twins, but one always smiles and the other only frowns. That's how you tell them apart."
Jeremy is by this time thoroughly confused, and he can tell that the darkness wants his eyes to close so it can descend on him, but something drives him to pursue the conversation further. "Back. Say it again," he says.
Instead, she grabs his hand and presses it against the wall. Another thought comes to Jeremy, that she must have the second sight because the ordinary kind is no good here and yet she always seems to be able to find parts of him to grab and poke when she wants to. "What is it?" asks Lydia.
Jeremy thinks; the sands in the glass trickle down until he finds among them the single grain he is looking for. "Stone," he says.
"Yes. And it is a stone in a wall, but there are other kinds of stone. Stone is a cliff and stone is a wall, but stone is a feeling in your chest when you are miserable, and stone is a look on someone's face who hates you."
Jeremy thinks about this. He has heard the word hate before. Lydia with her magic has conjured Banquo up again; he is stalking among the sprawled forms of the sleeping lunatics, but he is not graceful, and Jeremy predicts that he will soon trip over someone and fall flat on his face. "Banquo," he says, but this is not magic because Banquo is there already.
Specifically what Banquo said one day to Jeremy was that their grandparents hated him (Jeremy) and had told Jeremy's parents many times to drown him like a puppy, but that Jeremy's parents, being no doubt fools, kept not doing it. Jeremy didn't pay attention to the words then but they come back to him now. He thinks of his grandparents' faces. Stone, said Lydia, and slowly Jeremy begins to see a resemblance. Whenever his grandparents looked at him their faces closed, the way the door closes in the stone wall of the madhouse -- their eyes became slits and their lips pressed against each other, a closing in of the soft parts that was like the closing in of the soft bodies in the big stone room.
"Stone is a weapon too, to punish the sinner with," says Lydia, and smacks her lips lasciviously. She always does this when thinking bloody thoughts, because they make her think of the punishment she would like to see visited on her parents.
But Jeremy has had enough, and the darkness will not wait any longer. Quite clearly, in the instant before sleep overtakes him, he hears Banquo tripping over someone and falling flat on his face.
Jeremy, fifteen, nearly six feet tall already. He hugs his knees to his chest when he sits, so that when he stands he is like a young fern coming out of its curl, slowly achieving his full height. He eats all he can get his hands on, all that he gets and all that Lydia gives him and all that he can steal from the bog of prone bodies that surrounds him, but it is never enough. Experimentally he chews at the moss that grows on the walls, rips the straw apart looking for tender shoots, chokes down pebbles and small creeping bugs he finds on the floor. He would crack bones open and suck on the marrow if there were bones, any bones. He would not ask questions.
Having learned that the course of his existence can be altered, if only a little, Jeremy abruptly learns self-pity, a spirit of shocked indignation at a universe that out of so many choices should bestow upon him merely this: crusts and offal, bare wet stone, and no one but shriveled bony Lydia to be kind to him. For one whole night that single thought possesses him, the thought that things might be different, and he does not sleep at all, just sits with his back against the wall and the sound of Lydia, watchful yet invisible, breathing a few inches from his ear.
"Lydia," he says as dawn begins to stain the room a watery blue.
"Yes Jeremy," she says, breathing the words. Her eyes are half closed.
"Can I change things?"
"Which things?" she breathes.
Her thin gray lips spread upward to form a smile. "Can you? But that's the brutal thing, ghost-puppy, you must, we all must."
"It is the horror of existing that one cannot be without altering everything one encounters. That one cannot be vapor and exist between reality and unreality, changing nothing."
Jeremy thinks about this, or thinks about it as hard as he can given that he doesn't understand the words alter or encounter or vapor, and comes to the conclusion that it isn't nearly as bad as Lydia seems to think it is. Rather, the idea of changing things comes to him as a vast relief. But he doesn't know the word relief; he can only say, with a feeling of dissatisfaction because this is not nearly good enough, "It's not bad."
"Oh, but it is. You don't know yet because you haven't tasted it."
Jeremy says nothing, but runs his tongue over his teeth and wonders what changing things tastes like. Better, no doubt, than moss and bugs; better than the scummy water, laced liberally with piss, that stands in a trough along one wall. Lying on his face, he uses a piece of straw to push pebbles back and forth, and his mouth fills with the sweetness of exercising his will.
After a series of abortive exchanges with Lydia, most of which end with Jeremy biting his knees in frustration, she manages to make him understand that the word for this sweetness is because. "Because the bread is poisoned I will not eat it," she says. "Now you."
Jeremy looks at her blankly.
"Say because," says Lydia.
"Because," he says.
"Now, what is the rest?"
This is a good question. It is so good that Jeremy cannot answer right away or even that same day. The darkness falls and lifts but he is so intent on his because that he does not notice having slept or having woken. Suddenly he sees volition everywhere, in the fist that strikes the jaw and the tongue that licks the stone floor, in the cords of Lydia's bony arm, in the mouth that gapes wide to shriek. The madhouse is a dense swamp of because, smelling strongly of human filth, and Jeremy wonders how something that is so sweet in his mouth can be so sour in his nostrils.
In the middle of the big room he stands rubbing his unreliable hands together, almost wringing them in his longing to seize the answer to Lydia's question. Curiosity has led him farther away from her than he has been in weeks, but if he turns his head he can see her, or the grayness that he knows to be her against the larger grayness of the wall. He could go to her this minute and she would grab his wrists, drown him in her words, drag him to the ground and sit on him. Somehow he feels certain of this; he can even close his eyes and open them again, and see Lydia again, and feel certain again. In much the same way he suddenly suspects that the glowing blue square of sky visible beyond the barred window is indicative of a larger blueness, one that he has seen before and knows to be called the sky. The sky has been there this whole time; if he could leave the madhouse, he could stand under it.
The sky has clouds in it, treetops, the sun. Beneath it are tree trunks, houses, people, grass -- the madhouse; and in the madhouse, himself. The thought causes a twitch of pain behind his eyeballs. Somehow he has split himself in two, and alarmed, he turns to look for Lydia, and it is at this moment that someone punches him in the head.
At first, sprawled on the ground, he is not sure what has happened. Perhaps he has brought this on himself somehow; perhaps one part of him has torn free of the other and left him here to endure an even greater inadequacy than before. But he suspects that this is not the case. He is able, after all, to move, to think, to consider Lydia, present somewhere in the dimness, and wonder what she will say when he relates his thoughts to her. He is able, more immediately, to stand up, and having done so he is able to duck out of the way of his assailant, a man whose foul beard renders him anonymous. The man's bony fists are highly animated, and Jeremy is momentarily fascinated by the discovery in himself of a sense of alarm. The volition slumbering in his hands awakens, and almost as soon as he has become aware of the alarm he finds that he has seized the madman by the throat and shoved his head into the water trough. There is thrashing, but Jeremy is determined this time not to relinquish his capricious will, or to be ruled by it for a moment and then abandoned; it is his by right, and he means to keep it.
After a minute or two the thrashing stops, but Jeremy does not release his grip at once. Because is a tricky thing, and there is no reason to believe that he can grapple with it successfully when so many of his attempts to do other things have met only with failure. He is waiting for the man whose throat he is squeezing between his hands to stand up and throw him off, as a goat might toss its head to rid itself of a gadfly, unthinkingly; he is waiting to learn that he cannot affect the vast, bewildering world, that he cannot do but can only be done to. But after a minute this still has not happened; after two his bloodless fingers rebel and relax their grip without his permission. The blood pulses back into them and with it comes pain. He stands wringing his hands, dripping water into the moldy straw.
"You're wet," Lydia observes when he returns to her. His hair is plastered down over his eyes, something he has noticed, vaguely. When he kneels before her she knocks it away with several sharp, stinging flicks of her index finger. "You haven't enough sense to come in out of the rain." She laughs, still flicking at his face, sending minute droplets into his eyes.
Jeremy puts a stop to this onslaught by pressing her shoulders back against the wall. "Lydia," he says.
"Bones for the puppy!" says Lydia, delighted afresh. "Crack them open and suck the marrow out. Whose bones are they?"
That he does not understand this is little matter; he is used to not understanding her. He can think of nothing but the words in his mouth, the words whose importance has swollen until it seems they will block his throat if he does not divest himself of them: if they do not emerge as speech, they will emerge as vomit.
"Lydia!" he says.
She stops laughing. "What is it?" she asks.
Slowly the first weight rolls off his tongue. "Because," he says. She is gazing at him expectantly but for a moment the rest of the words will not come -- only because, which is not even his; she lent it to him, and he has only rendered it back again. So he repeats it, to make it his own, and forces the others out after it: "Because I held his head under, he died."