from his slashed wrists
the dim homunculus
cries for the unbirth
My dearest sister Iris,
I thank you kindly for the copy of the The Magician; it’s the one book I needed to complete my collection. Over the summer, the Academy was outfitted with electricity, so now I may sit up reading Maugham as long as I like, my room illuminated with a strange new light. If we were still “bunkmates,” I fear it would drive you mad!
I remember fondly how you brightened our bedroom at home, hanging your jewelery on the lampshades to make colored phantasms shimmer on the wall. As I write this letter, I am seated in my empty classroom. This is the one room that has ever truly felt my own, not because of its decoration, but because I have filled it with the glow of my own spirit.
In my mind’s eye, the long rows of desks are a palimpsest of the boys who sat here in years gone by. The room seems to ache with their absence. I used to pride myself on remembering every name, but right now I struggle to bring a single face clearly to mind — they scramble together like the heaps of bodies at the European front. Some of my students are among those corpses, thrown into piles as if their young bodies were nothing more than driftwood. Iris, even in death, this world has shown them so much disdain! Some of those bodies will never be returned decently to their parents because they lie in pieces among still-unexploded bombs.
And to think that I fumed for years about women’s suffrage. I do not mean to say that our lack of voting rights is not a grave iniquity, but how small that injustice seems when they can ship our boys off to slaughter before they ever have a chance to vote! One of my dear friends here, Mr. Pursley, served on the Western front. He likens our society to a Leviathan, mindlessly chewing up humans as a steam engine consumes coal. It sounds dismal, but I fear his metaphor is accurate. Ah, sometimes I don’t know what to think!
I enclose last year’s class roster. Where I have drawn a line through a name, it means that I have received news of that boy’s death. A ‘W’ indicates a serious wound (and they are a terrible sight — I am sure you have seen your share of unfortunate fellows in Providence). Where I have written a question mark, I have been unable to discover the boy’s fate. There are too many like that.
Over the summer, I wrote to one talented young student, an orphan and budding playwright. My letter returned crumpled, marked RECIPIENT NOT FOUND, and smeared with the mud of the Western front. That was Charles Barnaby Delano. I wonder if I will be one of the only people to remember his name. News of my former students still trickles in, but I am through with recording losses and deaths. I send you this list to demonstrate to you the enormity of our loss here at the Academy, but mostly to get the cursed thing away from me.
It is only when disaster strikes that you realize the bedrock of assumptions upon which our daily lives rest. You know that I have always been an anxious type, prone to gloom and melancholy and focusing on the worst possible outcome and, yes, I will admit that I took up the practice with extra zeal after our Aunt Demetria joined the New Thought Church!
Mr. Pursley says that the Oriental mystics must meditate on their bodies blackening with decay and flaking away to nothing. I told him that if that is all there is to spiritual attainment, then with all my ministrations I must be an awakened Buddha! He found the notion quite amusing, and now he calls me “Vi, the Enlightened One.” (He says my middle name is much nicer than my first, and to be honest I have always agreed, but you know I have never felt or looked like a Violet.) And I can already hear your question in my mind, Iris. No, Mr. Pursley just became engaged to a girl from Elford Village. And I am sure he has no interest in a twenty-six-year-old spinster who is already stout as a matron! But I will admit that I enjoy my rapport with him; it makes the dreary days here go by twice as fast thinking about what he might say next.
But the loss of these boys has hit me harder than I could have imagined. Even the ones that have returned are much changed. I bumped into one former student at the train station in Boston. I barely recognized him. He smelled like a medicine cabinet! And this was someone once bound for seminary. There is a rumor among the instructors here (Pursley, of course, is the only one gallant enough to let me in on it; the rest think I’m some fair lady) that the boy’s real problem is not the alcohol but an untreated case of syphilis he acquired from some French trollop!
But listen to me gossip. I sound like Aunt Demetria! I am simply overcome, Iris. As much as I love my teaching and my work in the world, part of me regrets ever leaving our home. I grieve for my students, but I will always be an outsider looking in to their world. And to my fellow teachers, I am an alien, an interloper upon their male sphere of serious studies and football hijinks. They think because I laugh, I am not serious, and so I have to restrain myself like a horse in harness. Thank goodness for you, with whom I have always been able to share everything.
Your loving sister,
Click here to read Part Two.