Milo was staring back at her from the mirror, crying and biting his wrist through the fabric of her dress. She made him stop — the biting part, at least.
Ann, they hurt that poor man. Barnaby and Hyacinth hurt that poor man who liked dresses like I do. They tied him so he couldn’t move!
“I know, Milo. I know. I know.”
I don’t want to live here anymore! I want to go away and have suitcases again! I don’t want people! I don’t like people!
He was rocking himself. If she hadn’t been in the dress, he would’ve already been in the closet. And probably hitting his head against the wall because he wanted to scream and couldn’t.
“Milo, stop.” She touched the surface of the mirror. “Please stop. It wasn’t like that. I don’t understand it, but I don’t think it was like that. They loved him. It wasn’t like they didn’t care. They cared very much. It wasn’t like what happened to you.”
They took things away and they tied him so he couldn’t move!
It was no good trying to get sense out of him now. It was all she could do to keep him out of the closet. She stood in front of the mirror with her head bowed and both hands supporting her on top of the dresser.
She wanted to take crayons away from Erik! She takes things away!
“Oh, Milo. It’s all right. You’re scared right now. It’s not going to happen again. I won’t ever let it happen again. You’re safe. I’m here so you can be safe.”
It never stopped happening! It won’t be over… Please make it be over… Please make it be over…
He didn’t like people.
No. It wasn’t that. He didn’t like things about people. He didn’t like when they were loud, he didn’t like when they hurt him, and he didn’t like when they changed, because then they might do the other two things. He didn’t like eyes. Eyes were very hard for him. Eyes changed a lot, and you had to be careful not to look too long, or the wrong way, and he could never see what his own eyes were doing and that bothered him.
But, people could be all right, sometimes. Sometimes the girls would ask him to put them in pretty dresses. They couldn’t have real pretty dresses, but you could draw them that way and he could come up with a lot of pretty dresses. He would ask how they wanted their hair, because you could draw that any way you wanted, too. He wouldn’t draw faces or eyes, but he would say, “You can draw that part. Then you can be happy or however you like.” And that was okay usually. They wanted to grow up and have beautiful hair and pretty dresses because they couldn’t have that now. He kind of wanted that, too. They had a lot of nice fabric and they dyed it colors and they sewed it, and there were piles and piles of donated clothes that got washed and sold or given away, but that stuff wasn’t for them. They had gray things, mostly. Gray uniforms. Gray blankets on the beds. Gray food. It was very gray in the workhouse, except the clothes and the fabric that wasn’t for them.
The work was all right. He liked all the machines. Weaving machines and washing machines and wringers and sewing machines. Sometimes the kids or even the ladies would get caught in the machines and hurt very badly, but the machines didn’t want to hurt you. They had motions and functions and they kept to them. He understood the machines. Once he had opened up a sewing machine so he could understand it even better, but they caught him doing it and they hit his hands and they took it away from him. They wouldn’t believe him when he said he could get it back together, they wouldn’t even let him try.
The kids worked mostly the weaving machines and the dyehouse and the ladies did the sewing. Some of the ladies were their mothers, and some were little girls that had grown up there and some were just poor and wanted a place to stay. He didn’t know if he had a mother. They weren’t really allowed mothers. The sisters took care of them. They said, line up, go here, now it’s time for this, now it’s time for the other thing.
They said, ‘Speak up!’ Sometimes to the others, but they said it to him a lot.
They had to have school, not just work. They had to have church and school. Church wasn’t really a big deal, it was only one day a week and it was easy. Church ran a lot like a machine. There was a book with instructions and things to say and it was always the same things and when they spoke it was all at once and no one could tell if he was doing it wrong.
Parts of school were okay. Math. Math was good. You had to write math so they could check your work. Even when you had to go up and do it on the board, it was just writing and looking at the writing and no people. He hardly ever got math wrong.
Magic was good, although there wasn’t enough of it. You needed to know some to work the machines. Magic didn’t need talking, it was all about understanding things exactly. For magic, you had to be the machine. These thoughts, this gesture. Sometimes words, but not nearly often enough to be upsetting, and always the same words like church.
Drawing. There seemed to be less and less drawing as he got older — they wanted him to just write things — but there were these papers with a blank space and a lined space and you had to draw something and write something about it and sometimes they still got those.
He had to be careful with those, though. They talked to him about drawing dresses too much. And, one time he got himself in trouble. They told him to draw a friend. He didn’t think he really had a friend. He had people he didn’t mind too much, but not friends. So he made up someone he’d like for a friend. He made sure to give her a pretty dress and pretty hair — he gave her red hair like his hair, but lots more of it and much nicer. He even gave her eyes and a smile. Her eyes wouldn’t be scary if she was his friend, she would have kind eyes that never got mad. Brown eyes, like his. He wrote, Ann is my best friend. (Ann was a good name. There were soft dolls with red hair called Ann.) She can talk to anyone. She has long red hair and she can have all the pretty dresses she wants.
He had to go to the office. They wanted to know if he’d sneaked out of the workhouse. He said, ‘no,’ but it didn’t come out loud enough and they said, ‘Speak up!’ and to stand up straight and don’t look at the floor. It was hard. They didn’t want him to talk too much, but it was still hard to stand there and have them be mad. They said there wasn’t any such girl at the workhouse. He had to say he made her up. He was too soft and they were mad about that and also they were mad about what he said because he wasn’t supposed to make up a story. They told him that was lying and lying was sinful.
He saw his picture and they had written Fail on it in red pen and then he never saw it again.
But, he did still like drawing, even if he had to be careful about it. And, he could find paper — okay, steal it, sometimes — and draw when it wasn’t school. He could draw pretty dresses for the little girls. He liked that, too.
He didn’t like school. Not even with sometimes math and magic and drawing. School was awful.
They were supposed to stand and answer. You had to stand up straight and have your hands behind your back and be loud and clear. If you were wrong you had to put your hands out, and they would hit your hands with a switch. It was hard to answer when you knew they might do that. He would be too soft, and he would hang his head and not look at them, and wince. They told him how to do it right but he couldn’t do it right. Then they would hit his hands for that.
One day he stood up to answer and he didn’t say anything. They were mad. They wanted to know if he was stupid and didn’t understand the question or didn’t know the answer and he just shook his head. He had to go to the office.
He said, ‘I couldn’t,’ very soft. They said, ‘Speak up!’ and he said, ‘I couldn’t,’ so that he could hardly even hear himself.
He didn’t get any dinner that night.
He stopped talking in school.
It wasn’t that he couldn’t, not at first. It wasn’t that he was too afraid, it was just too hard. They hit him anyway when he tried to talk, so what difference did it make? Maybe he just shouldn’t talk at all.
They said he was being willful. Maybe he was. At first.
They knew he could talk. They wouldn’t let him just stop. They started trying to make him.
They tried to do things he didn’t like. First they just hit him, or made him stand in the corner. They would send him to the office and they would bludgeon him with logic, ‘We hear you talking to your friends! You talk outside of school all the time! You are perfectly capable of speech!’
All right, fair enough. So he stopped talking outside of school, too. He decided to do that. He didn’t just lose it or get too scared, he gave it up.
He didn’t really have friends, anyway, just people he didn’t mind too much. It didn’t bother him not talking to them, and he could still draw pretty dresses for the girls.
He was willful. They set out to break him.
They started taking things away from him. They didn’t say they were going to take it away, they said, “You can have it if you ask.” Sugar was the first thing. Then salt. Then meat. He could manage that.
What he couldn’t manage was when they figured out how he didn’t like eyes.
It didn’t bother him to stand in the corner. It was boring but it was quiet and he could think up dresses the whole time. It was obvious that it didn’t bother him.
They started making him stand in front of the class. Facing the class. And they would talk to him the whole time so that everyone remembered to look at him. They would ask him every question and tell him he was wrong for not answering. They told him to pick his head up and they’d hit his hands for not doing it.
Sister Mary Francis finally magicked the back of his head to the wall so he had to look up.
He saw all their eyes. He had known they were there before, but this time he had to see them. Eyes and smiles. They were smiling at him. They thought he was funny.
He was done being willful right then. He was done being anything. They could’ve given him a gun and told him to kill himself and he would’ve done that just to make it stop.
He wanted to say, I’m sorry. I’ll do anything you want. Please don’t make me do this anymore. Please.
And he couldn’t. He opened his mouth and nothing came. Only fear. All those eyes. All those smiles.
It wasn’t perfect yet. They asked him questions. They tried to get him to talk. What’s two plus two? Who’s the Emperor? What are the colors of the Marselline flag? Milo, don’t you know any of this?
He couldn’t answer aloud, he had no voice. He couldn’t turn and write it on the board because he couldn’t move. He couldn’t even cry. They would see him.
They let him down. He wasn’t sure when, because it wouldn’t be over. There were still eyes, but he was expected to sit at tables and eat and then wash and go to bed. He wanted to scream. He spent the whole time wanting to scream, and not doing it because that would make them look. They were already looking, they wouldn’t stop, but a scream would make them all look. That would be worse than always needing to scream forever. He thought maybe he could handle always needing to scream forever and he didn’t want to trade.
When they tried to talk to him he would cover his head and say nothing and not even look.
That night, after lying in bed ramrod straight and staring at the darkness with all his nerves like twisted wires, he got up and drew eyes. He didn’t have paper, he didn’t even try to get paper. He drew on the floor and the wall. He drew eyes and he put them out, he colored over them all in black, heavy, multiple layers.
They found him doing that in the morning with his hands shaking and his own eyes wide and his black crayon worn down to a tiny nub, and they hit his hands and they said he couldn’t have crayons anymore. Not even if he asked.
Now it was perfect. It was pain, it was fear and it was always, with them still calling him willful and trying to come up with worse things to do. If it did get any worse, he didn’t notice it. Maybe they took away food. Maybe they made him scrub the wall and the floor and he had to watch the eyes come back before the cleaner took them away again, but that didn’t really matter. It was always eyes, and he wasn’t allowed to scream.
It was like that for a while. He’d never know how long. Just a while. Finally, it broke him down enough that he spiked a fever and they thought he might actually be sick instead of just willful.
So he went to the infirmary.
Things stopped making sense in the infirmary. He arrived with a fever and in mortal terror and there was an immediate disagreement with the staff. They wanted him to sleep in the bed. He wanted to sleep under the bed, and be very small, and maybe not sleep but just rock back and forth until he couldn’t think anymore. Willful again. The solution was twofold: drugs, and they tied him to the bed. And things stopped making sense.
He saw the ceiling a lot. It was slightly arched, white plaster, with an uneven finish. Sometimes there were things moving on it. Shadows. Or, not shadows. Sometimes he liked it, sometimes he didn’t like it and sometimes he was so stupid he didn’t really notice it at all.
Sometimes they would lean over him and look down and he had to see their eyes.
He had a metal bed and a metal table, both painted white, and all white sheets and blanket and shirt, nothing gray anymore, not even the dresses on the sisters. He had lost even gray. There was a water-glass on the table, sometimes, and a lamp which he mustn’t touch (but sometimes he did if they were letting him touch things that day. It burned.). They weren’t his things. He wasn’t allowed things. They were just there.
Sometimes there were things that weren’t there. Usually on the ceiling They were scary, but they might have colors and he did like that about them. It was like someone was drawing over all the white for him. He wished they would draw pretty things instead of scary ones, but it seemed like they couldn’t do that.
The things never had eyes, so he appreciated that they were trying to be nice.
When he was very stupid he would forget about not talking anymore and being afraid and eyes. Words would drip out of him like slow poison, things he knew didn’t make any sense but which he had forgotten to never say. “Sister Mary Francis glued my head to the wall,” or, “Give back my crayons,” or, “I want to have a pretty dress.” Or, “I’m not stupid,” even though he was. The same thing over and over, for hours, until he could be afraid again and hate himself and hate every word and stop. It would bring them over to look at him when he was talking. They would say, ‘Shh. Quiet.’ Maybe they didn’t like him to disturb the ceiling. Sometimes he could be quiet when they asked and sometimes he’d say, “Speak up!” and laugh. Not because he was happy or it felt good, it was just something to do. Like rocking back and forth when they put him in the jacket so he couldn’t bite.
He liked biting. And scratching, but they would do things to make it hard and he would have to think of something else. There were a lot of things to do besides talk or draw, or scream. Things he could do that were like screaming, so he didn’t need to scream anymore. Like hitting the back of his head against the metal bed-frame, or chewing his tongue, or holding his hand over the lamp. They didn’t like him to do any of those things, probably because they were good things and he was supposed to be punished. They would put him in the jacket or put cloth in his mouth or give him a shot so he’d be so stupid he couldn’t remember what he liked or hated anymore. He had to keep coming up with new things, but he could still do the old ones if they weren’t paying attention. That was nice.
He couldn’t remember whether they cut off all his hair or he pulled it out. Maybe one because of the other.
There didn’t seem to be days, really, or nights, or any time at all. The only way to count the hours was by what he was doing, or what had been done to him, and when it was over. One thing bled into another, and they were all very much the same things. It was like that for a while.
Then he found a pencil.
It was yellow against the white floor. A color, like something that wasn’t real. He didn’t know he wanted it right away because he was very stupid but that went away and the pencil didn’t. He had to wait until he could think again and move, and he had to be very quiet and calm so they would let him stay that way. When he didn’t see anyone, or any eyes, he dropped both bare feet on the floor and he knelt down where there was the pencil, like he was going to pray. He picked it up and he rolled it into the bedclothes beside him and he had it.
He stole it, probably, because he wasn’t allowed things, but nobody ever said he couldn’t have a pencil. It wasn’t like crayons. It only drew gray. Maybe that was why he could have it.
He knew not to draw on the wall or the floor. He knew that would make them take it away. For a little while, he had a pencil but no paper. It was a little like having a mouth with no voice. He thought about maybe hurting himself with it, like when he bit. He might’ve done that later, if he really couldn’t draw with it.
But then he found his chart.
Okay, he stole it. It was just at the end of the bed, but he knew he wasn’t supposed to have it. It was there so they could take care of him. They put everything bad he ever did in there so they’d know, and all the things he liked that he wasn’t allowed. It was supposed to stay there forever so they could read it.
But it was paper. He could draw on paper.
He knew he wasn’t supposed to, not on that paper, and it might be just as bad as the wall or the floor, but wanting to was stronger than knowing.
He drew his waterglass. He shaded and blended with a fingertip and he used the eraser to add highlights so you could see where it had sweat and how the light shone through. It was good and he was happy with it, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to just say that he had a waterglass. Everyone could see that. He wanted to say something about the waterglass.
It never occurred to him to write words. There were so many words already on the chart and all of them about him and all of them bad. He didn’t like words.
He remembered liking math a little. When there used to be math.
He could say something about the waterglass in math. He could say he knew how it worked. He could say he wasn’t stupid because he knew how it worked. That was so much better than “I’m not stupid,” over and over and not even true. He could really be smart.
He drew lines and angles and he played with the glass a little and drank down the level of the liquid and he came up with a neat little equation for it.
As the water level in the glass decreases, the angle of tilt necessary to reach the water increases.
That was pretty good. He wondered what else he could say.
He could say a lot of things. He could say how you did a corner fold to keep the ground sheet on the bed or how a straitjacket laced up the back.
He heard one of the nurses say, “He’s drawing on his chart,” and he froze.
Another one said, “Let him. At least he’s quiet.”
Gods bless that apathetic bitch.
He drew on his chart. He drew all over his chart. He covered all the bad words about him with things he knew. He drew where it said, ‘Willful’ and he drew where it said, ‘Mute,’ and he drew where it said, ‘Self-harm.’ He drew there it said, ‘Incontinent,’ he drew a bedpan there and how it worked. He had a sense of humor! (Even if he didn’t want to smile or laugh.) He drew everything he saw and everything he knew about it and he used every inch of paper, front and back. And when he had drawn over everything and there were no words left at all, they let him out of the infirmary.
He knew it couldn’t have been that because that didn’t make any sense, but so many things didn’t make any sense, especially about the infirmary.
And it did make sense, anyway. It made perfect sense.
They didn’t know he could talk anymore. (They didn’t know anything about him because he drew over all the words!) They left him alone. They didn’t make him have school. He could have a pencil and paper and draw, because that kept him quiet. It was so much better!
Then he found a broken sewing machine. He didn’t steal it, he found it, because it was broken and nobody wanted it. It just sat there. He felt kind of bad for it. He took it apart and he examined all the pieces and he drew some of them and then he fixed it. He showed them he fixed it so that they would use it again. He didn’t really think about what might happen, he just thought the machine wanted using. That it might be happy to be used, in its own way, even if it couldn’t smile or laugh. Then they knew he could fix things. He was scared about that for a minute because he thought they might realize he wasn’t crazy or stupid and they would make him have school again, but they didn’t care. It got even better after he fixed the sewing machine, because now they would let him play with all the machines.
They didn’t think that. They thought they just gave him things that needed fixing, but he figured out very fast that he could have anything he wanted as long as it was broken. So he started breaking things. Subtly. If he was interested in it he would lay a hand on it and undo some of the enchantments and then all he had to do was wait until someone noticed it. They didn’t really understand the magic like he did, they just knew it was broken and he could fix it. He could take it apart and play with it as much as he wanted before he fixed it and gave it back. He even improved some things. (Not too much. He had to be very smart about being crazy and stupid. Besides, they didn’t deserve to have any nice things at the workhouse.)
He learned a lot more about magic than they wanted to teach him that way, and a lot more about wires and gears and the way things worked. They weren’t teaching him math anymore, so he had to invent what he needed and he probably learned more about that than they would’ve taught him, too. He also learned a lot about getting drawings out of a pencil, shading and blending and perspective and texture. He only lost out on the things he had to answer with his hands behind his back and he never cared about those things anyway.
He couldn’t have crayons and he couldn’t draw pretty dresses for the girls anymore, but he hardly noticed it. He had machines and magic and pencils and paper and none of those things had eyes and they never would. He was contented. He was safe.
“You’re safe, Milo. You’re safe. It won’t happen again. I won’t let it happen again. I’m here.”
I don’t want her to hurt me…
“She won’t hurt you. I won’t let her hurt you.” Ann shook her head. “She doesn’t want to hurt you. I think if you let her know this was happening, she’d be in here trying to help you…”
Don’t make her come!
“No. No. I won’t. It’s just me. I’m going to do what I can. Milo, this is what I’m going to do.” She showed him the glass in the mirror. It was still half-full. It had a smiling orange on it. “I am going to drink this, and I am going to be drunk…”
I don’t want to be drunk! I don’t want to feel that way!
“That’s why I’m doing it for you. I am going to stay in our room and no one will see, and I will be very weepy and sad like we sometimes see people at the bar in the club. I will cry a lot, with real sounds, and you will feel better. Then I’m going to sleep and if there’s a hangover, I will have it. Then, if we see Hyacinth again later, or Barnaby, if you see them, I will be not-scared of them for you. Until you can be not-scared again yourself.”
Milo shook his head in the mirror, wide-eyed. I’m always scared, Ann. Always.
“Less scared, then. Until you remember you like them again.”
I don’t like Barnaby. He does crazy things and he yells.
“Just Hyacinth, then.”
She takes things away…
Ann shook her head. She wasn’t going to let him start that again. “Shh, darling. It’s all right. I’m going to drink now.”
Don’t let them hurt me, Ann.
“I won’t ever let them hurt you, Milo.”