It’s September of 2019, and I’m still revising a draft I started almost a year ago.
A lot happens in the space of one year. So many things have changed. I feel like I don’t contain the same cells. Like someone rewrote my code.
Maybe they did.
I’m not the same person I was a year ago. I’m wiser, stronger, more patient. I have a much better understanding of my limits than I did a year ago. Changing my priorities and realigning the rest of my life to match those needs has been difficult.
But I’m doing it.
Three years ago, agoraphobia had made life nearly unlivable.
Now, I’m unrooted.
There’s a cleared-out room in Asheville, waiting for me to move in. Finding work there is the next order of business. There’s no small amount of melancholy, gathering up the loose in Greenville. Tidying up all the places I’ve been, making sure the things and people I care about will carry on just fine.
The person I was a year ago was too sad, too anxious. Terrified by the idea of uprooting myself and trying to start over somewhere new. Over the past year, I’ve gotten to know Asheville well enough to navigate, enough to know its character, familiarized myself enough that it feels more like home than Greenville does.
As I travel back and forth, up and down 40 and 26, I think about stories. Old stories, new stories. I’ve found myself wondering where a certain ghost has gone. I wrote a piece about her last November, when I first started this revision of THE HOLLOW FOREST.
She is a messenger. She wanders through my drawings and stories, peering out, staring back at me. Into me. Drawing my attention to things I shouldn’t look away from.
Her absence always makes me wonder when she’ll come back.
As I wade deeper into this particular revision, I’ve thought about her a lot. Wondered about her purpose. And the spot where I’m at has made me want to revisit this piece for clues.
Maybe she’s in here, somewhere.
from November 1, 2018:
Nearly three weeks ago, I discovered I made it into Pitchwars. This weird book I’d written as a stop-gap for overwhelming grief made it into something like 3% of 3000+ entries. Good enough to be polished for an agent round. Good enough to be ripped apart into tiny, infinitesimal pieces–what I’ve been doing since then, trying to turn this thing inside out so I have something to show for that agent round. Stripping out points of view, tearing up subplots, gritting my teeth as I gut this thing and root around in its entrails.
What this really translates to: gutting myself. Scavenging tender wounds for things that are real, things that are meaningful. Something others can connect to. Will connect to, because they’re raw and enticing and have at least a tenth of the power over a stranger they hold over me.
And this is where this symbol comes in.
I’m not sure how to explain the black-eyed woman, except that she is the space between every word I write. Invert the colors, and there she is. If I flip the pages fast enough, she turns.
She sees me.
And then she makes sure I see her.
Her first iteration, written 19 years ago, was a demon made of shadows, oil, ink. Black pearls dribbling from her eyes, making her smile too wide. Too dark. Her hair spilled and twined around limbs, dragging those who saw her into the shadows. Every appearance was filled with menace, but she never harmed anyone.
She only existed to be seen.
“You don’t like it, do you.”
A thin figure stands before me. Her hair is dripping water; her eyes dripping black. The curve of an amused smile is etched into her face, perhaps in mirth, perhaps in malignant intent.
I back up against the wall, gritty cement pressing into me.
“You look, but you do not see. You see, but you do not look. If all you see is yourself, how can you see the world? How do you tell the future? How do you save yourself?”
The accusing eyes of my brother lay within that alabaster face. Within one look, the knives are thrown, and cold steel pins me where I am.
“You are consumed.”
She turns, wrists pressed to her sides like he used to, walking like he did, the shoulders and hips in that same jagged stagger, same air surrounding her that surrounded him.
“Follow me when you need me, and I will be your guide.”
This is the first and most forthright lesson, but at fourteen, I am too young to understand.
So in the next story, she tries again.
The figure stood up, liquid collecting itself. An opaque black shadow, with fuzzy white hands and face, dark hollows for eyes. Streaks like she’d been crying, black mascara tracks down her face.
“Who are you?” I asked. “It’s late. Wild animals come out, you know, you could get hurt.”
She scoffed softly, a haunting laugh. “They will never hurt me. They know I’m one of them.”
This version becomes demanding, malevolent, but at base, her motives stay the same. She is there to pass on valuable information. She is a warning. A ghost. An echo of something terrible and violent that must never, ever happen again.
At fifteen, I am starting to understand that trauma is a kind of haunting. I’m a troubled kid. I’m trying to retrace my footsteps so I can understand what’s happening to me. What happened. But I can’t see it. And this figure–I begin to call her “the black-eyed woman”–is trying to show me. So I’ll see it, recognize it, react instead of accruing more injuries.
At sixteen, I finally get the concept of one’s shadow. Our inverse, the things we consciously and unconsciously reject. That which is Other, that which is not Us. If I am Eve, this black-eyed woman is my Lilith. One who came before. One who knows more than me. One who remembers.
I was seventeen when mental illness took a turn. What was it at its heart? Therapists were hesitant to name it, as though they’d give it too much power. But it had already drawn its own strength. Scrawled itself from sleep into the waking world. I was never sure what caused the hallucinations. Chronic sleep deprivation? An overabundance of dopamine? Old trauma? I, like everyone else, wanted answers.
“It might be best not to press,” a therapist cautioned my mother. “She might not be ready to open this door for another two decades. These sorts of things have to resolve on their own. In time.”
At sixteen, I didn’t feel like I had time. Friends I’d confided in feared I’d let some kind of demon in. The more I tried to understand whether or not the thing I saw was “real,” the more I realized that sort of thinking relied too hard on semantics. In hindsight, I know it was a sort of magic my brain conjured to keep me alive.
It wasn’t enough.
Another traumatic event triggered a landslide in my brain. A fear my conscious mind had forgotten, but old traumatic memory brought back to life.
In September of 2003, I discovered a black-haired girl standing in the corner of my room.
I remember the first time I saw her. I recognized something about her. She faced the corner, utterly still, her fingers curled around the hem of a faded, dingy white dress. The same dress an old, beloved friend had worn.
Someone I’d loved, who’d died very suddenly when I was a child.
I’d never forgotten her.
But who was this girl in the corner, and why was she wearing that dress?
For two months, I waited for the day she’d look back at me. I turned my head quickly, trying to avoid her whenever I had to approach the door. I kept a rotation of pilfered vodka and gin under my bed, and I’d blur my eyes as I stared at those pale shoulders, waiting for the alcohol to drag me under long enough to sleep.
But the black-haired girl never turned around. She was just there. Part of the room. If I’d been braver, bolder, maybe I would have tried to approach her, rather than ignore her.
But I didn’t, and the day came when she left, and the black-eyed woman took her place and moved. She was everywhere. That long oil slick of hair trailed over everything. Swept over my toes. Till my eyes met hers, and I felt a wordless, icy terror when I saw the rage reflected back at me.
The mind plays all sorts of tricks on us, when it wants us to understand.
If I’d been paying attention, I would have realized the girl in the corner had been a warning.
The black-eyed woman was furious because I had chosen to look away.
And the more I refused to look, the more she appeared.
She is there, in every story. In drawings, in poems. Lurking between the words. Spoken and unspoken. There, in the negative space, screaming for me to look.
And when I do, when I truly look at her, into her…
Inside of us are things that resonate. Personal symbols. Meaning assigned to seemingly infinite things.
Here is my major arcana:
When I was seven, I lost my closest friend. She was a kind lady who allowed me to garden with her. She had green eyes, long black hair, and she always wore a plain white dress.
She was only five years older than I am right now when she died.
And if I’m honest, as the black-eyed woman demands—
Well, I’ve never been able to forgive her for leaving the way she did.
She is the wound where it starts.
She is why the first card is The Fool, an innocent child.
But the second, The Magician, is me in my current skin, transmuting awe out of the horrors of that past.
I know the black-eyed woman is my High Priestess, the self who crawled out of a corpse, the knowing self who urges me to look. To truly see.
Another card. The Empress, upright: the mother who lived. Inverted, the mother who died. Together, creator and destroyer alike.
Strength is another iteration of the black-eyed woman, scarred but unbowed. “The fighter still remains.”
Temperance is a familiar woman, small, stout, red-haired. Kind, but fair, always grounded, her hands always dusted and speckled with dirt.
My Tower is a forest, a labyrinth, that dark, endless place that goes deep within the self.
The Moon hangs over two women, both their faces heartrendingly sad.
But the Sun shines over those same women, incandescent with joy.
The Star is someone I remember, but also someone I wish to be.
And the Devil is merely her mirror image, a warning of possible mistakes.
Perhaps Judgment is her truest aspect: a black-and-white reflection without color, without eyes, capable of seeing the whole of things. Who urges me to seek truth. To find my place in the World those mothers brought me into, wishing the best for me, seeing only potential, capability. What could be possible if they encouraged me, told me to make them proud.
All these black-eyed women reflected endlessly in me. All those refracted faces. Waiting. Reminding.
If I hold still long enough, if I calm myself to look past the fearful woman she projects, I see who she really is.
I know exactly what that fearsome figure hides.
There is a small child, rubbing her eyes in the dark. Crying. Trying to stop, but unable to. Vulnerable, scared.
And this is the truth the black-eyed woman wants me to see:
Remember what happened to you.
Remember what happened to her.
And if I’m patient, if I stay with this child, if I simply wait for her to get out those big, hiccupy gasps of air, there’s only one thing she’s trying to say.
“Don’t die the way she did.”
But then she resolves her shape. From the child springs a tall, strong-shouldered, fearsome woman. This woman, this strange, black-eyed woman, she is capable of bearing any night, every night, no matter how dark.
This woman is me, scarred, but unbowed.
“Bring her the meaning of a life well-lived,” she says. “Let’s hunt for it and make her proud.”
I was afraid.
Now, I am not.
I can forage in here. I can take apart the pieces of this thing, this shadow. Handle it safely. And hopefully, hopefully…
Hopefully you, too, will see what your shadow is trying to reveal.
How strange it is when the answers are plain to see, right in front of us.
Duly noted, my black-eyed friend.
We’ll keep going, then, hunting a life well-lived.