“After the operation — ah, what a cold word! After… it was done… I fell sick almost immediately.” Victoria was standing now, walking slowly beneath the tree, her long dress dragging immaculately in the dust, her face set in consternation. She had not returned to her swing after she had left her uncle’s embrace, but had kept her feet, her hands moving in slow open gestures to accompany her words. She had said no more about her father, no more even about the conversation with her parents — it seemed she remembered little enough about what had been actually said, in any case — and likewise little enough about the “operation” itself: only that it had been, as it were, encompassed before and afterward by a kind of numbness in her soul. Oh, she had resisted, at first, and had attempted to argue with her parents, but that was quickly put down, and her mother asserted her will to devastating effect. After that, Victoria no longer protested, no longer fought. It was as if she had ceased to feel anything at all, as if a kind of passivity had conquered her and was now carrying her along like a mere piece of flotsam on its inevitable waves.
It seems that Cory had fallen into the same feeling, though perhaps on his part with a secret and guilty feeling of relief that this burden should have been removed from his shoulders by the arrival of so unexpected a deus ex machina and by the evident acquiescence of his bride never-to-be. She, for her part, once more exempted him from the burden of any kind of responsibility, and it was difficult for her uncle to say to what extent it had been Cory’s inactivity and unresponsiveness in this entire affair that had brought about their final rupture. Or perhaps it was just owing to this: that they could no longer live with that “might have been” between them, the horrible weight of it, the dark shadow of that little smothered life, but had to seek their light elsewhere now, each bearing that tiny faceless and tenebrous anti-presence as they were able. Yet looking at her now, there beneath the mottled glimmer of the canopy-broken sun, it did not seem to him that she was so very lacking in light for her part; indeed, whatever did not come from the star above them was made up for by some strange inner light he saw glowing in her now, had seen glowing in her indeed since she had risen so stunningly from the grave, though he himself had not named it, had almost not even noticed it save in that tacit and undercurrent way that a man might notice a haircut in an acquaintance or a change in the wind.
“I didn’t even have time to understand what I’d done, or how I felt about it,” she was saying, her long neck bowed slightly in the piebald shade. “Or maybe I did understand, and the sickness of my body was just the extension of the sickness of my soul. Does that make sense, Uncle? It’s like we turn everything around, we want to say that a sick person can’t have good and healthy emotions because his body is compromised… But aren’t we always getting it backwards? Isn’t it really that we get outwardly sick because we’re already sick, deeper inside us? And what killed me… It was… it was part of… ah, I can’t even say it! They didn’t remove it all the way… Some little piece of it… Oh God…” She stopped speaking, stopped moving even, just stood there, staring down at the ground, helpless, trembling slightly. But she pressed on almost at once. “But that’s just what I’m saying, Uncle.” She looked at him, almost imploringly, as if she expected something from him, some response to assure her she was not mad in these idle and stray thoughts. There was something so un-American about her, he suddenly thought, something so un-businesslike, so far from the down-to-earth bearing of her peers, something etherial and faraway.
“It’s like… like something that happens to you, really, physically happens to you, is at the same time a kind of message, or a symbol maybe. It’s both real and a symbol. Does that make sense? I mean, do you ever notice that maybe you keep hitting the same spot on your knee, the very same spot, on all kinds of different things? Not just on the same object, that would only be normal, but in totally different places, in totally different movements… Or maybe you keep hurting the same finger, in the same place, and it just won’t heal because you keep opening the cut again… It happens to me all the time. Just before all… this… I scratched my eye, really badly on a branch out in this very yard. I went in to get it healed — had to wear an eyepatch for three days, like a pirate —” she chuckled softly. “Then I take the eyepatch off, and what happens? Some huge bug flies into my eye, and opens it up again! Just like that. I practically couldn’t see anything for two days after that, the pain was so bad. It’s like someone’s trying to tell me something, in some language I don’t understand. It was the same thing here. The… thing was done, I couldn’t go back, I’d done it — but a piece of it was still with me, still inside me, rotting in me, infecting me…”
She shuddered, and despite the almost oppressive humid warmth of that summer-tending day, drew her arms about her as if from damp or cold. He could see her fair, unblemished skin prickling as though from a chill. She was biting her frowning lip.
“Of course, I learned all this only later,” she continued after a moment. “Mom didn’t want to tell me what had happened, but I made her. It all happened so fast — I think I might have saved myself… oh, how stupid language is! I wouldn’t have saved myself at all! I was saved, by dying… I might, anyway, have avoided all that, if I’d acted on it faster. I just told my parents I had a fever, a cold, and that I wanted to stay in bed, and they let me. They were really kind to me, I remember that. Particularly Mom. Maybe she felt guilty about it all. I bet that was it. She spent the whole day bringing me tea, and even read a few stories for me, like she used to do when I was a little girl. Oh, Uncle, that’s just it! You don’t know how much she’s suffered over all of it, but I do. Maybe she’s suffered more than me, more than Dad, more than anyone, though she’ll never show it… You mustn’t, you mustn’t judge her…!
“Anyway, by the time she realized what was happening to me, that this was worse than a cold, far, far worse, it was already too late. I think I’d probably even changed color by then, I was so sick. I don’t know why she hadn’t done anything before. I guess the doctors probably told us all to look out for signs like this. Wouldn’t they have had to? But I don’t remember it, Uncle, honestly I don’t… I’ve tried to think back to it. Of course, everything that happened in that period is such a blur to me. I haven’t asked Mom about it. She was there, she must have overheard them. But it’s like this whole line of failures on everyone’s part, doctors and my parents, and me myself, and if just one person had gotten one little bit of it right, then it all would have been different, and I’d never have died. I’d just be going about my business right now like nothing, just like before. Maybe we wouldn’t be talking now. Maybe I’d be off with Cory, who knows, or my friends. But wherever I was, it wouldn’t be better, it wouldn’t be better at all… It’s such a gift, what happened, do you know that! Not the thing itself, not the act, not what I did to… Anyway, not that!” she suddenly cried, waving her hands as though in warding. “But the event itself. And maybe, that too… I mean to say, it’s like you have this second chance, but now you’re not just living for yourself, you’re living for this other life, too. It’s like you have to live for both yourself and that other — does that make sense? A double life, I guess you could call it. And it’s a tremendous responsibility, but it gives you such strength, Uncle…
“But anyway, they called an ambulance, and I was taken to the hospital… I remember that much, but I think I became delirious shortly afterward, because I don’t remember anything that happened in the hospital. The infection had me in its grip. I guess it all happened very, very fast from there. I just slipped away from them. And that’s the strange thing, Uncle, that’s the really bizarre thing, the thing they will all tell me isn’t possible, or was just a dream, even though I know, I know that they’re wrong, because I’ve never felt anything so real in all my life… I died, there on the hospital bed — all those nurses and doctors couldn’t have been wrong, they weren’t wrong — I died, and that was when I woke up…”