Authors: Kimberly Elkins
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To my parents, Paul and Linda Elkins,
for everything then and everything now
First off, a bottomless thank-you to Gail Hochman, my superhuman agent, a demi-goddess in my book; and to Deb Futter, my editor and an absolute dream sent from heaven. You two have provided such wonderful, heartfelt, and goshdarn smart guidance and support and hand-holding all the way through. And how lucky to have been blessed with the assistance of the brilliant Brian McLendon, associate publisher at Grand Central Publishing and Twelve; Twelve’s publicity manager genius Paul Samuelson; and Libby Burton, Tony Forde, Carolyn Kurek, Kathleen Scheiner, and the rest of the amazing crew at Grand Central/Twelve. I am so happy to be one of the Twelve! A shout-out also to Jody Klein at Brandt & Hochman.
My mentors Bob Shacochis, Robert Olen Butler, and Ha Jin gave me the courage, the skills, and the wherewithal to write this book. I am also grateful to have studied with several other great teachers: Janet Burroway, Leslie Epstein, Mark Winegardner, Hilma Wolitzer, Jill McCorkle, Jennifer Belle, and Natalie Sandler.
My generous and needle-sharp first readers who helped me far more than they’ll ever know: Rita Mae Reese, Kristin Ginger, J. Kevin Shushtari, Joe Connelly, and most of all my parents, Paul and Linda Elkins, who critiqued the work with amazing compassion, intelligence, and insight.
Much gratitude to all those who have encouraged and supported my dreams, early and late: my family, Toni, PJ, and nieces Bailey, Sophie, and Paola Elkins; Manny Azenberg, for nurturing me as a young playwright, and Harvey Weinstein, who employed me long ago as his assistant, for both proving that business can still be art; C. Michael Curtis, for publishing the story that begot the novel; dear friends Steve Bibko, Dawn Cardinale, Peter Cecere, Suzy Chamandy, Ben Coates, Cliff Cole, Natalie Danford, Danny Depamphillis, Jeffrey Dersh, Gene DeSimone, Caimeen Garrett, Jeff Girion, Mark L. Gottlieb, Marni Halasa, Andrew Hollweck, Joan Ingber, Angel Khoury, Cindy King, Katherine Klotsas, Amir Korangy, David Krancher, Lys Lanctot, David Levinson,Tom Livesey, Melinda Marble, Michelle Mintzer, Randy Noojin, Noah Pivnick, Alden Richards, Page Richards, Mike Robinson, Jenny Schlossberg, Julie Shushtari, Judith Simonian, Monica Stordeur, Hal Stucker, Rebecca Webber, James Varner, and Tim Young; all my students, grad and undergrad, who teach me wonders; and Annie Ide, without whom this book would never have been possible.
For the two years of research necessary for the novel, I am indebted to the New England Research Consortium for providing me with fellowships to the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Maine Historical Society; to Perkins School for the Blind, guided by expert research librarian Jan Seymour-Ford; the American Antiquarian Society, with special thanks to Joanne Chaison, Jim Moran, Jackie Penny, and Elizabeth Pope; the St. Botolph Society; and Marcia Trimble, for generous fellowships to pay for both my MFA at Boston University and a research trip to Italy.
To the terrific folks at the Kerouac Project, Blue Mountain Center, the Albee Foundation, and the Millay Colony who gave me time and space to write; and the Sewanee Writers Conference and the Wesleyan Writers Conference, where I was honored to be a Fellow.
To the books that inspired me in writing mine: Chris Adrian’s
; Jean-Dominique Bauby’s
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
; and Valerie Martin’s
And to those of you who continue to inspire me daily, though you are gone from this place: my grandparents Lawton and Altona Walters and Clinton and Zelma Elkins, dear ones; Dawn Couch, Brook Thaler, Casey Nye, Clarence Pope III, Ann Gregory, and Chris Stewart. I miss you so.
The hand spelling used by Laura Bridgman was the manual alphabet, which augments current American Sign Language when spelling individual letters of a word as opposed to making signs that represent entire words. In the case of the deaf-blind, the letters and signs are performed directly into the hand. She spelled the letters into the palms of her teachers, friends, and others who had learned ASL to communicate with her, and they spelled into her hand the same way. This form of communication is now practiced as Tactile American Sign Language. In the case of those who didn’t know ASL, a friend or member of the Perkins Institution staff acted as translator between them and Laura. She wrote on what was then known as a grooved French board to help align her block letters, and read from special raised-letter books printed by Perkins. Braille was not used at Perkins at that time, though it was used in Europe.
ow little they trot me out for show these days, and yet here I am this frigid morning, brought down from my room to meet a
, and me not out of my sickbed two weeks. They’re actually calling her “the second Laura Bridgman.” The second, and I’m still here! What am I supposed to do, bow down to her? Set her on my knee? I didn’t like children even when I was one, and now I think them worse than dogs. I’ve shriveled and so they’ve searched for another freak in bloom to exhibit and experiment on. It’s taken Perkins decades to find one pretty enough, quick enough. Well, pretty is really the important thing, or at least not too strange or looking like what she
. Not looking like what I am.
“Just talk to her,” Annie Sullivan writes upon my hand. “You have so much in common.” Like two in the throes of the plague might share tips and grievances? Yes, little Miss Keller and I will rattle on about our lives in our respective cells, and since I can’t taste or smell either—she’s got that on me—she can tell me how the succor of roast mutton and strawberries and the odor of feces and chrysanthemums have opened enormous windows of happiness and universal feeling that I will never enjoy.
She curtsies, I feel the whoosh of her skirts as she goes down, and then she is on me, too excited for them to hold her back, if they are even trying. Her hair is heartbreakingly soft—I had forgotten this about children, this wonder—and her face round and warm as a meat pie against my leg, clutching at my dress, reaching for my hands. Too much! I raise both arms into the air. Annie always had bad manners, so this assault is no surprise. In the years she shared my cottage here, she acted the queen since she had partial sight, but really she was dirty Irish straight from the almshouse. After everything, though, I do miss Annie greatly, and she’s done better than all right, it seems, as the teacher of this one. I taught Annie the manual alphabet, the finger spelling tapped out into the hand that is the only way to communicate with me and with Helen. Will she give me that credit, I wonder. And though Dr. Howe, Perkins’ director, disavowed Braille, Annie says she is trying it with her charge.
The girl steps hard on my foot, right on the big toe that is bent with the rheumatism. “Get her off!” I rap into Annie’s hand, and Helen is pulled back. We all breathe for a moment, and Annie takes the chance at last to greet me properly.
“Dear Laura,” she writes, “you look well.” Proof of her half-blindness right there!
“God tells me you are splendid also.” She is no fan of religion, Miss Sullivan; that will get her goat. “Congratulations on your work with this―”
And then the little hand taps again at mine, insistent as a summer fly. “Thank you for doll. I love very much.”
She is difficult to follow. “You’re welcome.”
“I’m almost nine. How old?”
What cheek to ask a lady her age, but then again, with my fame, it’s no secret. “Fifty-eight.” I try to walk away from her toward the heat from the window, but she grabs at my skirt.
“Please talk to me,” she writes. “Please.”
My presumptive heir is begging in my palm. And so I ask Helen my favorite question: “If you could have one sense back, which would it be?”
Her fingers go round and round in circles, and I can feel the girl actually
in my palm.
“Which do you pick?” she asks.
Though I have been deprived of all senses save touch since the age of two, while she is only deaf and blind, for me the choice is simple. “Sight,” I tell her, all the glorious colors God has painted on lands and faces. Green is the color I remember with the most pleasure: green from the grass outside our house in New Hampshire. Blue still spills from that square of sky visible over the bed where I lay ill for almost a year, and Mama says my eyes were bright blue before they shrunk behind my lids. Red I have a strong and disagreeable sense of, from when they bled me with leeches. And black, black I know the longest and best because it is my constant companion. These are the only colors I can recall or imagine with any clarity.
“Choose.” I tap Helen’s hand.
What a serious one! The firmness of her fingers marks her as quite unlike other children I have known; she seems more like an adult in her faculties.
“Tell me,” she writes. “Tell me about you.”
My story? Everything? Heaven knows there are parts not suitable for a child. But maybe I could try, invoking the voices of others to join in, since much of the last fifty years is still a mystery to me. I fear this is my last season, so I will try. Yes. For Helen.