Some people believe that a bird appears when someone dies to carry the soul away. Perhaps it is true. A few minutes before I was raped, a bird I had never heard before flew into the branches of the cherry tree outside my kitchen window and began to sing. I couldn't see it through the small window over the sink and the filament of buttery leaves. I saw only jigsaw puzzle-shaped quiverings of lapis sky. It was autumn, a season I thought of as a time of beginnings. I still moved to the rhythms of my school years, the year beginning with my walk in new saddle shoes through the showy woods to catch the school bus, collecting butternut hickory, oak and maple leaves to press in my books.
The city trees were at their peak of color when I moved back to Boston after a year in Maine, where I had taken an extended consulting contract. I felt I was beginning again in Boston, although I'd lived there before for nearly a decade. The day I was raped I was settling into a new apartment in a familiar neighborhood, and enjoying the feeling
of putting my world in order, leafing through books before placing them on the shelves, polishing candlesticks and washing dishes.
The bird that sang from the cherry tree felt welcoming. I wanted to identify it, but my field guide was hopelessly inaccessible, still packed up in the jumble of boxes stacked in the living room. So I closed my eyes and listened. I remember still that the notes were tumbling down one after the other. They seemed to carry a singular joy, as if the light of the Indian summer day were becoming sound.
As suddenly as it had appeared, the bird -- a migrant, perhaps, on its way south -- flew away and the mutterings of the city returned -- traffic on the busy avenue a block away, a distant siren, the shouts of children playing baseball. I returned with renewed concentration to my tasks. I unpacked my kitchen utensils and put them in a drawer. I sharpened my kitchen knives and laid them on the counter. Then I filled a plastic bag with packing paper and dragged it out of the back door to the metal garbage cans at the side of the house. The air was a summery dream, sweeter still because a New England winter paced impatiently in the wings. As I stuffed the trash bag into a can, my back to the kitchen door, I listened for the bird, but it was gone. When I returned to the kitchen, I locked the back door behind me.
There is nothing more reassuring than a locked door -- unless you've locked the devil in with you.
I am standing at the sink, washing a pan. I see my kitchen knives on the counter. I am always seeing my kitchen knives. I am still standing at the sink, washing a pan.
A storm from behind, and impact. It sucks away the air around me in a great rush. I cannot breathe. Rage is turning the air to pumice. I cannot hear. Something in my eyes. The pain is in my eyes. I am closing my eyelids but they do not meet. Something is in my eyes, something is coiling around my neck, something alive. Something furious and terrible. Words, but I cannot bear them. I am thrashing in the air. There is a foul odor. My body is on fire from inside. My blood is rushing as if trying to escape. I hear only it. There is no air. It is all going out of me. Who is screaming? I do not know who is screaming. I cannot breathe.
Now I hear the words. These are the words I hear: Shut up shut the fuck up you bitch you dirty bitch you fucking cunt shut up do you hear me you fucking dirty bitch I'm going to kill you if you don't shut up you bitch I'm going to kill you.
Now I am sucking air into my lungs. I am prey, grasping for air.
Now I have a thought: So this is Death.
Now I have a feeling: Anything to live.
Now I feel something hard pressing against my back. I know what it is. It is a penis.
Later I wondered, Did the man who raped me hear the bird's song? And if so, what did the notes sound like in his ear? How could he have heard what I heard and still be what he was? Was the bird a warning that I should have heeded? How could I have felt so alive and not have sensed his shambling darkness drawing near? Had I not been awake at all, but asleep? I could not trust even my most fundamental perceptions. The feelings of wholeness evoked by my connection with nature, feelings that had been a glimpse of heaven since my childhood, were transformed in an instant into feelings of foreboding.
In a single moment, I was robbed of what had always soothed me. A bird's song became a harbinger of evil, the prelude to a season in the underworld.
The rapist was wearing slippers. This, the police said, suggested he had planned his attack. The slippers were enormous and my description of them was all the police had to go on. It wasn't enough. He attacked from behind and from the first instant had the advantage -- stealth and surprise. His right arm held my neck in a stranglehold and I could not extricate myself. The fingers of his other hand dug into my eyes. After he had me immobilized, only my feet kicking out wildly, he hesitated for an instant. It came to me then that my mouth was still free. Words. I still had words. I spoke words as he began to push me toward the bedroom. Words that tried to reason where there was no reason. I was struggling against the movement forward with all my strength and speaking the words. His fingers slipped from my eyes briefly and I saw his foot, a dirty, worn slipper. To this day the sight of a dirty slipper makes me gag.
He threw me on the bed face down, his knee in the middle of my back. He pressed down with his full and great weight so that I thought he might snap my spine in two, like a twig. At this point I became intensely focused on him and a strange calmness suddenly displaced my terror. He grabbed my arms and bound them together behind me with duct tape. Then he jerked my head up by grabbing a handful of hair and spun the tape around my head, over my eyes. "Don't do this," I said. "Shut up, you bitch, or I'll break your arms." He pulled my bound hands upward toward my head to demonstrate, but I felt no pain. Then he threw me over on my back, and sitting on my hips, tore open my shirt, jerked my bra up around my neck, unzipped my jeans, and pulled them down as far as he could without shifting his position. He then had to stand beside the bed to get them all the way off, fighting against my shoes, flats that fit snugly. Then he yanked off my underpants. At that moment, time disappeared into a continuous present.
Over the next three hours he raped me and tormented me with descriptions of how he would kill me with a knife, telling me exactly where he would cut me. Or maybe, he said, he would smother me with my pillow. He seemed undecided about the method. Many times he did cover my face with the pillow and press it down so that I could not draw a breath. Each time I expected to die, but he always relented just before I lost consciousness. He slapped my head with open palms after these episodes, the way you swat a fly.
In the scheme of things, his penis, although employed as a bludgeon, did not make much of an impression. What he did with it was the least of my worries. Those parts of my body that hitherto had been reserved and private were no longer mine, but in this they were indistinguishable from the rest of my body, also no longer mine. It was his rage, a fierce, unearthly tempest, that cast me into an immensity of dread.
Sometimes he left me and vented his fury on my possessions. He hurled a wooden jewelry box that my father had made for me against the wall, shattering it. He broke lamps, kicked chairs, threw glasses. His frenzy increased when he couldn't find any cigarettes in the house. I had finally quit smoking just a week earlier. As he demanded them over and over I contemplated the irony that I would be murdered because for the first time in 20 years I didn't have a cigarette handy.
Twice before he finally left, he pretended to leave. By then, hours had passed and I had acquired another sense. Although I was blindfolded, I could "see" everything clearly. I could see around corners. I could see my entire apartment as if it were a hologram I could walk around. I had no attachment at all to my body, although I wanted only one thing: to preserve it. It seemed this was something my body wanted and I had become nothing but body. Whatever part of me was "watching" did not feel alive because it no longer seemed to possess a body. When he pretended to leave, I didn't move because I knew he was hiding in the small pantry off the kitchen. I could "see" him standing there. I knew he was playing cat to my mouse. I lay there, exposed and bound, waiting, bracing as best I could for the next attack.
The first time he did this, he waited a long time before rushing from his hiding place and leaping upon me. The knife, he said, was at my throat. But instead of cutting, he held the pillow over my face and then vanished again, back into his lair. While he was gone, I turned over on my face, so that my back was exposed. I calculated that I might survive a knife thrust in my back and began to rehearse the move I would make when he returned with the knife -- how I would thrust up my left shoulder at the precisely right moment so that the knife would strike my shoulder blade rather than plunge into my heart. I waited, gathering strength, "watching" him tiptoe across the kitchen and hover at the door to the bedroom. He seemed to hesitate. Then he sprang onto the bed and began slapping the top of my head, as if he were putting out a raging fire. And then, for reasons I shall never know, he ran to the back door, unlocked it, and disappeared into the sunlight.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Just before he left, he demanded that I tell him where his knife was. He kept slapping me on the head, making this absurd demand. I knew there were four excellent knives sitting on my kitchen counter, the ones I had cleaned and sharpened just before I took out the trash. What he really meant was that his rage, this hungry beast that drove him, was satisfied -- for the moment. He'd lost, as it were, his edge.
"How am I supposed to know where you put the knife?" I said, sounding bored and not responding to his blows. "I can't even see you."
He seemed to consider this. Then he said, "Don't you move. I'll be watching you. Don't you move for an hour, you stupid cunt." He had said these words before, but there was something different this time. I knew that he meant to leave. He was now afraid. I knew he was too afraid to kill me.
"Why would I move?" I replied in a ho-hum tone of voice, as if I were perfectly content to be wrapped up like a UPS package. He hovered for an instant and then fled. I lay still for no more than a minute.
Getting the tape off my wrists was difficult because they were taped together behind my back. I pulled one hand down, the other up, until I could work the thumb of my right hand over an edge. My efforts seemed to be in slow motion. Finally my hands were free. I tore the tape off my head, pulling out hair in clumps. I was beginning to feel pain, a distant dull pain that was like hearing a train in the distance.
The instant I was free, the seed of terror that had been planted in those hours burst open, spitting out an uncharted island where I was now stranded. Its peaks and valleys, its shores and streams would take a lifetime to explore, but I didn't know that. I stood on its shore bewildered. Terror overwhelmed me. My body shook uncontrollably. My thoughts were flawed in structure, like cups without bottoms. Words fell through them. Words no longer referred to anything, even themselves. My shock was so great that I could not walk. I crawled to the back door, expecting it to burst open again, expecting him to be there. If his rage fed on terror, now there was terror in abundance. All I could focus on was locking the door. This I did with great effort. Then I crawled back through the bramble of overturned chairs toward the bedroom for my clothes. It was now as unbearable to be naked as it had been moments before to be in an unlocked apartment. My shirt was torn, but I was still wearing it. My bra was dangling under my armpits. I secured it and crawled around in the debris of my bedroom looking for my underpants and jeans. The air on my naked flesh seemed to burn, like dry ice. I found my jeans under the bed, but could not find my underpants -- this thin membrane of cloth, the margin of safety, the ledge that if regained might keep me from plunging into the abyss. I thought that if I put my underpants back on, I could undo the thing I could not yet name. But my underpants were gone, sucked down into the vortex of violence. I did not remember that other underpants were in a suitcase, the contents of which were dumped on my dresser. Defeated, I pulled on my jeans, sitting on the floor. My hands shook so violently I could not zip them, but somehow I managed to secure the snap at the waist.
The phone was in the living room, a continent away. I crawled to it. I could not remember the three-digit emergency number, 911. Later, I recalled this lapse with shame, as if it were a measure of my inadequacy. I dialed the operator because there were letters on the "O" button -- OPER -- and I could still read them. The part of me that had detached continued to drift. She did not seem to know the trembling person who was using the telephone.
I do not remember what I said to the operator who responded when I pressed the OPER button on the telephone. The sound of a human voice, even one trained to be inhuman, was a shock. I felt myself falling inward. I must have asked for the number of the local police station because the operator gave me a seven-digit phone number. I hung up. The only thought in my mind was the phone number. I'm notoriously bad at remembering numbers. But if I forgot the number, I was sure the rapist would return. I dialed the number. Then there was another voice on the line, a male voice. The voice said, "Good afternoon."
To say that I had been raped, to use the word, required that I sort out the incubi from the saber-tooths from whatever it was that had just destroyed my apartment. I was choking on the word.
"Who are you?"
"Shut up, you shut up, you bitch, or Ill kill you."
"Theres something I have to tell you."
"I have a disease. It's very contagious. I'm really sick. Thats why I'm home."
"What is it?"
"It's called hepatitis B. It's very contagious. Rare. Deadly."
"Shut up, you fucking bitch. Shut up. I'm going to kill you. Im going to break your fucking arms and then I'm going to cut you up, you fucking cunt."
So much for words.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Through the living room window I see the squad car pull up, but I cannot move. I am holding the phone. Someone is telling me to open the door, but the voice is dead and unreal. Someone is pounding on the back door. Someone is opening the back door. It is me, backing away from the door, holding my torn shirt together with one hand. A tall, overweight man in his 50s is standing in the doorway. He is wearing black shoes the size of fish poachers, a dark uniform. He stares at me and I recoil. He is afraid of me. I can feel his fear. I can see he doesn't know what to say. Silence. He doesn't speak. I am terrified of him.
A woman appears behind him and he steps aside, relieved. She is carrying a medical kit. I see more policemen behind her. They follow her into the kitchen. I think if I do not speak to any of these people I will wake up. Police come and go while the woman talks to me. I am in a bubble of air and all these people are in the water around me. I am like the pond spider that builds a nest of bubbles on the stems of reeds underwater. The spider grabs air and takes it down, one bubble at a time until the nest is done. Then the spider crawls inside. Inside is safe.
The woman is gently urging me to go with her to the hospital. She helps me find a jacket and a change of clothes, including another bra and pair of underpants I pull from the heap of clothes on my dresser. She suggests that I zip my jeans. I am humiliated because I am not wearing underpants.
"I can't find my underpants," I tell her. "He stole my underpants." I'm down on my hands and knees looking for them. What a terrible thing to do, to steal someone's underpants, I am thinking.
The woman wants them, too. "What color are they?"
"White and blue. Little flowers." We both hunt for them.
"We have to go," the woman finally says.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I want water. My thirst is vicious. I am in the kitchen now. I turn on the faucet at the kitchen sink. My mouth is full of dirt. "Was there oral penetration?" the woman asks.
"Yes," I say.
"No water," the woman replies. "You might wash away evidence."
Her words are terrible. I want to wash my mouth out with fire. What is in my mouth? Dirt is in my mouth. In my body. His dirt.
Everything is upside down. Words are backwards. The floors are littered with debris everyone is stepping over. My jewelry box is in pieces. "My father made that for me," I say to everyone, gathering up the pieces. I hold two together, but when I let go, they fall apart again. The policemen stare at me. I don't want to go to the hospital. I say I have to clean up the apartment. I can't leave it like this. I have to find underpants. The woman helps me gather together the contents of my purse because I am going to the hospital. My wallet is empty and on the floor. My purse is under the bed.
When I finally get in the ambulance it is dusk. The sky is lavender and gray. The first thing I do is ask the woman for a cigarette. Miraculously, she has one. A Salem. The menthol is cleaning my mouth, burning my throat. Smoke is water. All the birds are dead.
Open your legs. Go on, you dirty bitch. Groan. That's not good enough. I'll cut you. Groan good. Now suck it. You bite me and you die, you fucking bitch. You gag and I'll kill you. Tell me how good it was. Now you die.
) 1998 by Nancy Venable Raine. Used with permission of the publisher.