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Saturday, 2 May 2015

Saturday Story - 'From the memory a rooted sorrow' - part 1 of 2


Part 1 of 2


Nik Morton


 ‘Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain,

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart?’

- Macbeth, Shakespeare

She surfaced and smiled, as though glad to be able to wake and see the world with fresh eyes, yet this thought instilled in her a tremor of apprehension, and a feathering of unease flitted across her dark brown eyes. Her clothes hung on her with a newness that felt uncomfortable; she was conscious of wearing clothes, when normally she would not give it a thought. As a frown slightly marred her flushed yet strangely radiant features, she brushed aside a distinctive long lank curl of black hair from her face and again looked hesitantly across the street.

            It had happened before, so often that she did not think her emergence abnormal. All the bits would not fall into place, so they would provide the missing pieces.

            The street was unfamiliar: she glanced up, at the black-on-white sign - OGLETHORPE AVENUE. Dredging memory, all she could come up with was that the name Oglethorpe stirred feelings of admiration.

            Traffic was heavy, and disconcerting. Loud horse-less carriages trundled by, at remarkable speeds. Distraught, she covered her ears with her hands and ran along the sidewalk, passing the Presbyterian church on her left, to the junction of Hull Street and Chippewa Square. Everywhere she looked, the beautiful azaleas and dogwood blossomed, mocking her lack of understanding: the last she had known of downtown Savannah, it had been neglected, almost derelict... Yet now it was almost as though she had travelled back in time, was visiting the city in its prime - except for the alarming appearance of those vehicles...

            The statue of an 18th century soldier in the square wavered before her eyes in the bright sun's glare. His rock-hewn features softened: the surrounding buildings shimmered and were gone.

            General James Oglethorpe was haranguing the townspeople about the latest vote for the introduction of slavery; although he pleaded in the just cause of humanity, it seemed that economics held sway.

            Katherine stood to one side, and as she glanced away in shame at the treatment of the General, she glimpsed young Tomo-Chi, her Yamacraw Indian sweetheart of many years. He had not seen her - she would surprise him -

             - abruptly, Tomo stopped, as if alerted by something or someone, when, suddenly a whip lashed out of the nearby shadow-filled alley and cut a terrible red weal on his face, from brow to chin. Katherine stifled a scream as three farm youths stepped out into daylight, jeering: ‘Won' be long afore ye'll be our servant-boy, eh Injun?’ And they laughed and walked away.

            The incident had gone unremarked by the crowd round the general, but Oglethorpe seemed to notice and made to step down.

            Katherine ran up to Tomo, but, his large hand - shaking as with subdued rage - covering his wound, he abruptly brushed past her and hurried down the dark alley.
            With his eyes watering, the general stepped up towards her. ‘Young lady, I fear the free future I promised young Tomo and others has been outvoted - he will have to live somewhere else...’ 

            Later, she tried to find Tomo, but he simply melted away: he learned English all the better to comprehend ostracism, bigotry and hypocrisy...

            Shortly afterwards, the colony began taking black slaves, ‘to compete against the neighbouring colonists whose compunctions about slaving were not so punctilious’, so the city fathers said: the birth of the large plantation era...

            Knowing her place, Katherine stilled her small voice. As she watched the saddened General set sail for the shores of England for the final time, she yearned for the love and friendship shared with Tomo. But Tomo had been driven out of the area, was rumoured to have been murdered in a drunken brawl... Love died then, seemingly never to be rekindled. Only the stark image of that terrible red cicatrix remained with her, to her dying day.

            ‘Excuse me, Miss,’ said someone behind her, the voice gentle but masculine.  She involuntarily flinched as the man touched her arm.

            ‘Are you all right?’ he asked and the haze lifted as she saw the concern in his wide rich hazel eyes.

            Shock hammered at her chest at sight of the white scar tissue from brow to chin; yet he was not an Indian...

            Though he seemed about her age - was she twenty? - he was slightly taller than her, dressed in a grey suit that contrasted starkly with his tanned skin. Life's iniquities seemed to have ploughed their furrows in his face, yet the ready smile appeared genuine and warm.

             Abruptly, he let go of her arm, stammered, ‘I'm sorry - I thought you were unwell... You seemed so distant - ‘

            ‘What is the date?’ she asked, as she nearly always did after emerging.

            Before replying, he checked his gold watch; the action sat uneasily with her experience of life: no fob - unfamiliar yet not surprising. ‘May 30th,’ he said.

            ‘No,’ she smiled thinly, ‘I mean - ‘ and then she stopped, realising in time that though her memory was awry in many respects, that you do not inquire about the year without occasioning serious doubts about your sanity. And to be branded insane, regardless of the evidence of her devastated memory, was something she shied away from instinctively. ‘Thank you, Mr - ‘

            ‘Jasper - William Jasper,’ he answered and took her hand, firmly shook it. He said, ‘And you are - ?’

            Turning to face the stresses of the traffic, she smiled: ‘Thank you for your concern but I must be getting home... my mother will be worried, I imagine...’

            As he made to escort her, she hastily added, ‘It's all right - my house is not far - on East Hull,’ and she felt quite pleased with herself, remembering her address. Perhaps it was only a matter of time after all... Now, why would she think that?

            She left him standing open-mouthed, scratching his curling black hair.

            ‘Perhaps another time!’ he called after her.

            She turned, waved.

            Memory was reasserting itself: who had said earlier today, ‘Only a matter of time; be patient, maybe in time everything will come back’...?

            Imposing and grand, the Georgian style house loomed white and sepulchral. The broad stone steps looked welcoming enough, but her flesh tingled with chill. Fingers tentatively sliding over the ornate ironwork railing, she tugged the bell-pull and braced herself for her mother's whining complaints and accusations.


Kate surfaced and smiled, as though glad to be alive, yet a feathering of disquiet marred her normally shining dark brown eyes.

            The room was unfamiliar, shrouded in shadows whose identity she did not know.

            A single shaft of light slanted through the window to her left, dust motes dancing, almost mocking in their freedom of Brownian motion. There was an unpleasant smell, too, of carbolic, of her mother - and she trembled, edged up the bed, her arching body resembling the foetal position against the thin pillow and bed-head.

            Dimly, as if through a kind of muffling cotton-wool, sounds impinged. Street-noises penetrated from the window behind the dusty slats of the blind: motor-horns, and the shrieks of carefree children arguing, expressing opinions! Other sounds, inside, deep within, seemed to be voices echoing, like people talking loudly down a long endless tunnel. The clatter of cutlery accompanied the plaintive appeal for oil from a trolley's wheels...

            She did not like this place at all.

            Slowly, sensing her heart hammering against her ribcage, she gently uncurled and, disgusted to find she had been sucking her thumb, she cast her hand away from her drooping, slightly drooling mouth and lowered her feet to the floor.

            Cold, oddly reassuring linoleum welcomed her bare feet. For a moment she stood, supporting herself at the bed-head, and regained her breath after the exertion of getting up, of making a decision: she would open the blind, let daylight scare away the shadows, banish the strangeness, the otherness that she so unaccountably feared.

            I know how Eve must have felt, she thought, having been created full-grown out of somebody's rib without any past history... But as she let the grogginess fall away she realised she was not as empty as Eve. Memory was tenacious, and that thought was comforting.

            Moving over to the window, she pulled the cord to reveal herself in a crumpled and once-white but now stained bed-smock.  Like evil succubae, thoughts of guilt assailed her; with an effort, she screwed tight her eyes and gripped the garment's round neck and tugged harshly, ripped the material from her, to stand naked in the welcoming warm sunbeams.

            The simple action seemed cleansing, suffusing her with a sense of achievement, as if she had been bestowed with freedom. Freedom, something she had worked for, fought for, some time... Contrition followed; where could she go without clothes, where to run to? And why run anyway?

            A metal locker behind a curtained bed-screen offered up a surgical gown, cap and boots. She quickly pulled them on: the boots fit when she padded them with tissue from a bedside box.

            The door was unlocked, the corridor empty: a clock revealed the time: 3.10 PM, obviously siesta-time... Such an inconsequential thought surprised her, relying as it did on former knowledge buried in subconscious memory. Despite her grogginess, she smiled, pleased with herself.

            Why she was in hospital remained a mystery. Apart from some slight bruising on her arms and head, she felt well: but there was a loss of memory. Strange, the loss was recognisable as such: she could remember having a memory...

            Time blurred round the edges as she dashed to the laundry room and out the exit bay; the large doors clanged noisily behind her.

            She was brought up sharp by the bright sunlight. The need for secrecy seemed paramount, though she did not know why: she edged along the red brick wall, past oleander bushes, and crouched under an open window as a dread voice reached her:

            ‘Yes, but, Alan,’ her mother was saying in her distinctive whine, ‘when can I safely let her out of the home again without fear of her disgusting rutting - ?’

            ‘Evadne, dear, I've explained...’

            ‘In expensive jargon, Alan...’

            ‘- she has had a serious persecution complex, with marked suicidal tendencies. It's fairly common in young women of her age - either this, or they get into drugs or end up being an anorexic. She was deprived of a loved one...’

            ‘Deprived! The stupid girl couldn't see through him, he was after our money - and black for Heaven's sake! And as for loved one - she doesn't know the meaning of love...’

            ‘Be that as it may,’ he continued, not sounding convinced by her outburst, ‘the ECT will destroy the disturbance inside her, sort of kill the bad and leave only the good. In a way, it will be a wish-fulfilment, a rebirth.’

            Guilt? She thought about her stained bed-smock; surely not -

            ‘Hey, you!’ shouted a stocky crew-cut orderly from the van bay.

            Startled, she stood up, rushed through the bushes, across the grass towards the road.

            ‘My God, that's my Katie!’ shrieked her mother, followed by other strident, male voices.

            Blood pounded in her temple. The rubber boots flapped her shins and chafed. She ran awkwardly, oblivious of the scratches from bushes on her legs and the ripping tears made to her green smock.

            An unholy screech stopped her in her tracks.

            A car had missed her by inches. The bald occupant leaned out the window, shouting at her, but her head spun. And spun...

            ‘Water-front, waterfront...’ Words. Movement. She sat up in the front seat of the car, turned, bemused, yet not surprised at the fogginess.

            William Jasper grinned, said, ‘Glad you've come back to earth, Kathy...’

            She was wearing a sweater, jeans, sandals - ‘How - ?’

            He shrugged. ‘I drove by just as you nearly got run over. Spirited you away in my Chevy before the riot squad turned up... The clothes are courtesy of my sister, Annie - don't you remember?’

            Flushing, she shook her head. ‘The last I can recall is my mother shouting...’ And then, what little she could summon up, she told him. Of so very real visions of herself in the past; so real that no recent memories of the last few years survived. There were simply oceans of blankness: as though these detailed visions were filling up the emptiness on purpose.

            ‘Are you fit to get out?’

            For the first time she noticed where she was. ‘This is River Street.’

            ‘Yes, while you walked around as if you were on another planet, you mentioned more than once something about being haunted by other selves, and that the first haunting started near here, at the waterfront.’

            ‘Oh, then that's how you know my name?’

            He nodded. ‘For someone who seems to be in a constant unreal world, as you called it, you're pretty sharp!’

            She gazed around, at the renovated waterfront, the pink paving stones, the ornate street lamps, the shrubbery and the shop-fronts where warehouse entrances were: ‘But it has changed so much...’

            Stevedores hauled the bales of cotton under the enormous warehouse beams and rafters of heart-pine. And Katherine's heart pined for young Josh Davenport, fighting against his brothers in the civil war.

            Already one of them had died.

            Their Georgian style mansion was shown up as an empty shell as the stupidity of war raged, coming closer every day.

            She looked most alluring in her soiled new green flowered-muslin dress that spread its twelve yards of billowing material over her hoops and exactly matched the flat-heeled green morocco slippers her father had recently brought her from Atlanta. She now helped the war effort by stacking the comestibles and other light produce landed by a blockade runner, joking with the Negro slaves, the dress becoming dirtier by the minute. Her slim waist was set off to perfection, and the tightly fitting basque revealed globules of sweat, like morning dew, on breasts well matured for a seventeen-year old.

            She brushed at her moist brow and her once-netted hair suddenly fell in disorder from its chignon. Smudges, dirt and hard work did not worry her, though, for rumours abounded of Sherman's 'March to the Sea', burning everything in a 40-mile swathe from Atlanta on...

            Her eyes glazed, she felt giddy, and found herself lying in a bed, calmly contemplating the end.

            The earnest young reporter wanted to know something, what was it?  ‘Miss Martus, is the legend about you true? Can you tell our readers?’

            ‘Legend, boy?’ she croaked.

            He leaned closer and told of one Katherine Florence Martus who had lived with her lighthouse keeper brother and had bidden farewell to her sailor fiancé. She had promised to greet every ship that passed her lighthouse home until he returned. For forty years she waved a white apron by day and a lantern by night. Seamen made a point of standing on deck to watch for her as their ships came into port.
            ‘Is it true?’

            She smiled, sweetly, thinking of Beau, of that lovely ship, lost forever... a lost love... ‘That's a nice story, isn't it?’ she whispered and died.

            ‘Kathy!’ She had fainted.

            Unfortunately, she had attracted attention, for a police car pulled in.

            Within minutes, after a radio call back to the station, William was under arrest and Katherine was facing her mother at the police precinct station house.

            No charges were preferred.

            Katherine's mother was plump, unattractive, with mousy hair and a permanently down-turned thin-lipped mouth that looked out of place amidst the pallid folds of facial flesh. She said, irately, ‘At least you're not black! You've very likely undone all the doctor's good work!’


That evening William slunk through the clinic's shrubbery and found his way to her ward window.

            A narrow chink in the blind afforded a view of the room. She drew him like a magnet; he could still feel that weird tingling sensation as she'd fallen into a trance and into his arms, her eyelids flickering as if reliving more visions of the past...

            She was there all right, unconscious and strapped down, her muscles alarmingly flaccid.

            On a metal tray a bottle's label announced its contents: succinyl-choline.

            Her temples were treated with gel and electrodes were fixed.

            Something resembling a dog's sponge play-bone was inserted in her mouth, between her teeth.  The needle of the voltmeter on the trolley suddenly jerked round the dial to 120. It could only have been for a fraction of a second, but the response from Kathy was horrifying to watch.

            Her face contorted in a pallid, stretched grimace, lips tightening round the sponge. Despite the muscle-relaxing drug her back arched, her whole torso straining, arms and legs hard against the padded straps.

            Now he understood the bruising Annie mentioned when she had changed Kathy's clothes...  He turned away, and voided his stomach amidst the oleander, whose fragrance he welcomed.

To be concluded tomorrow…

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