She is the toughest person I have ever known, but she has always been very frail as well. The lightest touch causes bruises to bloom along her paperwhite skin like the poppies and foxglove in her garden. It’s like the toughness is all an act, a membrane of skin stretched so taut over nerve endings that every encounter with another object wounds it.
Only it isn’t an act, of course—she’s weathered things that would have killed any of the rest of us—but it reminds you what that toughness and resolve must have cost her. When a person has endured a lot and still managed to survive, a funny thing happens. Onlookers assume that the pain did not touch them as deeply as it might have another.
He looks okay, they think. She seems to be doing fine. Maybe to believe otherwise would be to admit that the same awful things could happen to you and that you, too, might actually have to survive them rather than being allowed to lay down and die the way you’d surely want to in the same circumstances.
Maybe you thought, when you imagined yourself in the same position, that you couldn’t survive such pain.
Maybe we should wear our scars externally. Maybe in the absence of an evolutionary adaptation in which emotional suffering marks the flesh, we should all get tattoos that detail the nature and extent of our pain.
Maybe, but that would be telling, and I don’t like to tell.
Her parents—my great-grandparents—had named her Dolorosa. It’s the kind of name that makes you wonder what were they thinking? It is as though its meaning, sorrowful, had indeed blighted her life. But my great-grandparents had been members of some mid-century doomsday cult that, among its more harmless affectations, expected its members to christen their children with Puritan-like names. Really, Dolorosa got off lightly given that in addition to being monikered with such deadly dull virtues as Temperance and Prudence, some of her contemporaries were named after sins or tribulations, and so her young playmates included Fornication, Humiliation, and Indolence. The community fell apart, as such places do, by the time she was a teenager, and she says some of the others eventually changed their names although she went by Dolly for a while before eventually reverting back to the augmentative. Even at such a young age she knew she was Dolorosa, would always be Dolorosa, and now, in her old age, she was my Grandmother of Sorrows: so when my life in Brooklyn shattered to bits it was home to my grandmother Dolorosa in Georgia that I returned
Home because my parents are dead, have always been dead as far as I’m concerned so it was never a particular source of anguish to me. The story went that I’d been found in my carseat, six months old, actually napping amid the wreckage of our Toyota Corolla and the broken bodies of my parents and two sisters—not a scratch on me. A miracle, people called it—a cruel and bizarre kind of miracle, if you ask me, but let people think what they must. They will anyway.
You might even have heard of me. The Miracle Baby. Apparently I gave the 24-hour news cycle something to chatter about for a little while.
My parents had, thank goodness, left me with a normal enough name, Lisa, the kind of name that allowed me to blend in as the “Miracle Baby” sobriquet eventually went away. All I wanted in those childhood days was to blend in, as desperately as grown-up me wanted to stand out.
That wasn’t Dolorosa’s first tragedy, either; far from it—her parents, dead of asphyxiation (officially; unofficially, they’d opened the gas jets and carbon-monoxided themselves into the sweet oblivion their awaited doomsday never delivered); her husband, missing and presumed dead in Vietnam; her other child, the uncle I never knew, drowned in the creek as a boy, deep in the woods down the hill from her house.
Somehow, she managed to raise me without infecting me with any of it. Somehow I grew up with the kind of cotton-wool childhood everyone thinks they should have had but that doesn’t seem to really exist. Except for me. I didn’t know how she managed it, to shield me from the notion that the world exists to ravage you to pieces. Of course, when it all finally did come crashing down, in the most commonplace and vulgar manner imaginable, it meant that I was utterly ill-prepared. I had not realized it until then, but somehow I had internalized a sense of invulnerability, and that sense did me no favors.
When I write the words to tell what happened, they seem so pedestrian: I came home one day and found my love in bed with another woman. Happens to millions of people, all the time, right? But not to me. Never to me. The bare facts of it cannot begin to convey the betrayal, the sense of the whole world turned suddenly alien and unnavigable. I remember my best friend—I thought she was my best friend—Marcella taking me out that night and feeding me shots of Jagermeister at some dive bar, a real one and not some hipster imitation, sitting in a hard wooden booth in the back that reeked of stale beer with a scarred wooden tabletop between us and a jukebox that was playing some 1980s Tina Turner song on repeat, talking about it all as though it were not something unthinkable. As though it were something I ought to be able to laugh off, or at least get past. “You’re not thinking of leaving him over it, are you?” she asked incredulously at some stage. “Mason’s a good guy, really. And he adores you.”
“Not enough,” I said, not nearly as vehemently as I felt, but the alcohol had thickened my thoughts. I was trying not to replay the pictures in my head from earlier that day, but I couldn’t help myself, so I tried to focus at least on the look in Mason’s eyes. Yes, there had been hurt there, and concern—for me, not for himself. I remember the girl snatched up the yellow bedspread Mason and I had picked out together to cover herself, and a flash of her long tanned limbs and blonde hair, the kind of girl I’d never be. Her face was a blur. I hated her too much to let her have her face in my memory of those moments.
“Look,” Marcella said, “there’s no need to overreact. These things happen. Especially when you’re with a guy like him.” I didn’t know what she meant by that and I didn’t ask. “Stay at my place a few days. Let him freak out for a while, then come swanning back in—Lisa? Are you okay?”
I had started to cry, miserably and without sound, just sitting there with my body shaking and the tears leaking down my face.
“Stay a week,” Marcella said hastily. “We’re playing a bunch of gigs anyway, I’ll hardly be around. He’ll be so apologetic by the time you get back—what’s that?”
I was mumbling so quietly that I hardly knew what I was saying myself. “The miracle baby,” I said. “It was our project. What’s going to happen to the miracle baby now?”
Mason knew everything about me. I mean everything. He was from a hardscrabble background himself and was fascinated by my relative privilege: rural and poor, sure, but, as he put it, “freakishly untraumatized,” and I think I told him about the Miracle Baby thing because when we first met I was completely enamored of him but afraid he would find me too boring. And it worked. Mason loved the Miracle Baby story. He loved it so much that he said we could turn it into art, or maybe Art. Some kind of weird performance piece about Miracle Baby Jane Doe (for that was to be my name in it). So my story worked; I was fascinating, but I guess only for a time. He was my first and only real boyfriend; before him, it had just been connections that fizzled out after a few weeks or hookups. We lived together, did ordinary things together like figuring out what to have for dinner or how to make rent in a lean month or argued about whose turn it was to call the super when the toilet malfunctioned yet again. I thought we were going to be together forever.
Marcella said, “What are you talking about? What miracle baby?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Are you pregnant? Because if you’re not too far along, you don’t have to do the suction thing, you can just get a pill—”
“I’m not pregnant!” I snapped, and slammed my palm down on the table. Other patrons looked our way. “Just forget I said anything.”
I woke up the next morning on Marcella’s couch and I’d vomited on myself, or rather, partly on the edge of her couch and partly on her floor. I’d never done anything like that. At first I couldn’t remember the last part of the night at all, and then I could—all too terribly, and vividly.
By then Marcella had been drunker than me. “I have to tell you,” she was saying, slurring her words. “You desherv to know.” Know what? Oh.
How could I have been such an idiot for so long?
“It wasn’t about you, and it was totally meaninglesh, for all of us,” Marcella said, swaying slightly. I remember how ugly she looked to me in that moment, her face red with alcohol, her black eye makeup smeared round her eyes in a way that made them look hollow. “It was so clear he was completely hung up on you.”
How could he?
Marcella laughed then in a way that twisted her mouth. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know why anybody else did it but for me it was because you were such a good naïve little country girl. You acted like you were so precious, above everybody else.”
Well. Hadn’t I been the Miracle Baby, after all?
“I guess I wanted to do something to show that you weren’t untouchable after all.”
That sure sounded like it was about me. It sounded like it was all about me.
If we’d been guys, I’d have hit her. That’s what guys do, isn’t it? Instead, we went for the female gut-punch—we hugged and we blubbered at each other and Marcella took me home and then at some point much later, I guess—I hadn’t woken till noon—I’d puked everywhere.
As much as I wished Marcella had done the same, and choked on it as far as I was concerned, I knew she hadn’t because I was the only person in her little studio apartment. Amid takeout containers and half-drunk cups of coffee on the kitchen counter I saw a note, folded in half but with my name written in Sharpie on it. I reached for it—Marcella’s place was tiny enough that you could reach just about anything from anywhere in the apartment. When you opened the front door, it touched the sofa. It didn’t help that she’d painted the walls a deep burgundy color that made you somehow feel like you were in a cave, or maybe a womb. The place was always a mess, strewn with clothes and half-read paperbacks splayed face-down, but it wasn’t as though there was actually anywhere to put anything if she’d bothered cleaning it up.
I opened the note. “Lisa, I’m so sorry about last night, and for everything. I have to go to work. But when I get home we need to talk, okay? I’ll bring wine and something fancy from the restaurant. I love you, sweetie, and I’m really sorry. I can explain things better when I see you.”
I loathed the audacity of that “we” who needed to talk—no, “we” did not, although she might want to try to explain why she and apparently almost every woman Mason and I knew had been fucking him—and everyone knew. And no one told me.
I looked around her studio. I wanted to set it on fire. I think I only didn’t because that wouldn’t be fair to the other people who lived in the building. Instead I turned on all the taps and left them running, threw her laptop in the tub in the corner of the room, and packed one of her bags with as many of her clothes as I could fit in it—we were roughly the same size. Needless to say, I didn’t clean up the vomit at all, left it splattered down the side of her sofa. The room stunk of it. I left her door unlocked as I let myself out and headed for the Port Authority. Once I was safely out of the city on the bus that would, many hours later, deposit me back in Georgia, I threw my phone out of the window so I wouldn’t be tempted to contact anyone.
After that, I felt strong and whole. I was going home to Dolorosa, who would understand.
As I’ve said, I don’t like to tell. Dolorosa understood that. She picked me up at the Greyhound station and didn’t ask me any questions, just fixed me something to eat and then she sat in her easy chair and, as I did when I was a child, I put my head in her lap as she stroked my hair. The light and noise and all the people of New York seemed like a dream. This was the only place in the world that was real.
We didn’t talk much at all, about anything, until she said to me, “You can choose one thing or the other, but not both. You can choose to let go of whatever happened to you, and forgiveness means it will recede in your memory and eventually take the pain away, but that means the ones who did whatever they did to you to you get off scot-free. Or, you can choose to make them pay, but if you do, the pain will never leave you.”
“I choose the pain,” I said. “As long as they have to feel it as well, I don’t care how much it hurts me.”
Dolorosa stopped stroking my hair and sat silent for a long time. When she finally spoke again, she said, “Oh, my child. You know that choice is the wrong one, don’t you?”
I nodded against her knee. “I don’t care,” I said.
“I always tried to protect you,” she said. “From everything. Maybe I was wrong to do so.”
I didn’t say anything. Finally, she spoke again.
“For what you are after,” she said, “you have to find, and walk, the old roads.”
I lifted my head. “Which roads are those?”
She shook her head. “I can’t tell you. Those you have to find on your own.”
“And which did you choose?” I don’t know why I asked; I knew the answer.
Or thought I knew. She lifted my chin in her hand like she had when I was a child and said, “Neither.”
“But you said—”
“I said you could choose between two things. I didn’t say they were the only choices you had.”
Stubbornly, I said, “It’s what I want, though.”
“I know. It’s why I told you about them.”
“Can you at least tell me what the old roads are? Or what to do when I find them?” I was aware that now I sounded like a child as well.
Dolorosa shook her head. She looked at me sadly and I thought, I am all she has in the world and she is about to lose me and she knows it. But I put the thought away and lay my head in her lap again.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I lay in my tiny narrow bed in the room I’d grown up in and listened to the big clock in the living room ticking. I thought about what the old roads might be. Dolorosa lived on an old red-clay road, but I suspected I would have to look harder than that.
At dawn I gave up on sleeping, got up and put on one of the orange vests Dolorosa had hanging on the coat rack in the living room. It was early fall, so still sticky-hot at midday but cooler in the morning, and on the cusp of hunting season. Someone was up anyway either hunting or doing target practice; I could hear the shots echoing. Their irregular intervals unnerved me, menacing cracks that either spelled or simulated something’s death.
I headed down into the woods. It occurred to me as I walked how little I knew about this place where I had grown up. I wondered whether this was some sort of virgin forest or had once been farmland that the forest took back.
For the first time since the bus had left the station in New York, I thought about Marcella and what must have greeted her when she got back to her apartment. I hoped all of her things were ruined; I hoped people had stolen what was not. I hoped she had nothing left. I hoped she wanted to die. I thought about Mason as well. I was not yet ready to hate him. I would get there, I thought, but not yet. I used to have contempt for women who were incapable of hating the men who hurt them. You don’t know him like I do. How could they hold themselves in such little regard, I wondered? But now I understood; it was as though his betrayal was something from outside of him, unconnected to the man I loved.
I was nearly to the creek where my uncle had drowned. I could hear it before I saw it, and as I approached it, I felt differently about it compared to the past. The story had always seemed so distant to me. Now I stared at the water rushing across polished rocks and thought What right did you have to take him from us? In that moment I felt contempt for Dolorosa. I would not have allowed that creek to go on if it took a child from me. If I had to carry rocks for miles to deposit there and stop its flow, dry it up, I would have.
And yet as I stood there it occurred to me that this might be one of the old roads. I still wasn’t quite sure what Dolorosa had meant by that, but presumably roads that had been followed by people long ago, and it made sense that they might walk along water sources. I wondered then for the first time about my uncle: I had always imagined he had played there carelessly, slipped and hit his head, but then I found myself wondering what child past toddler age manages to drown in a creek. The water ran clear and unconcerned, feigned innocence.
I took off my shoes and socks and I stepped into the creek. Now take me where I need to go, I told it. You took my uncle but you won’t take me.
I had not been the best student as a child, but one particular topic I’d reveled in was stories about the European explorers who passed through Georgia in the sixteenth century. I used to wish I could find some artifact of their journeys, perhaps a dropped coin. Arrowheads, or rocks I’d convinced myself were arrowheads, were easy enough to find, but traces of those expeditions were more elusive despite my scouring. I had known these woods so intimately as a child, and how the sticky fetid summer gave way first to crisp air and crackling leaves and then the rotting damp of autumn and the brittle cold of winter. Spring would tease all through those dark months giving us just enough sunlight and warmth to despair.
My presence in these woods was the greatest legacy of those explorers, of course: they’d brought with them bubonic plague, smallpox, other filthy European diseases. I’ve always been bemused by people’s fear of the world ending: global warming, pandemics, nuclear war. It seems to me that little apocalypses are happening all the time. Surely Dolorosa’s world had ended several times over: what fresh horrors could nuclear winter or some new bird flu bring that she had not already endured? And so it was the same throughout all of history, and certainly for the people who had inhabited this land before us. When you see your entire civilization and the whole world as you know it wiped out, how is that any different? The apocalypse is already here with us, happening around us every day.
And it was what I wanted for them as well, for Marcella and all the rest and for Mason, too, although it would be hardest of all to hurt him. I kept doggedly placing one foot in front of the other as I paced my way down through the water, and the three words beat out a tattoo in my head: the old roads. The old roads. It sounded like something out of a fairy tale. I would be asked something three times, or I would have to solve a riddle, or they would try to tempt me to eat and drink and trap me there forever.
I stopped. Where had that come from?
Older than those people. Older than people. Older still.
How can it be older than people? What would make roads if not people? I’d seen things about chimps using tools, of course, but I didn’t remember anything about them creating roads. Anyway, didn’t they stay in trees? They didn’t need roads. Prehistoric, human-like ancestors, maybe?
I almost turned back then because the whole endeavor seemed so silly. Dolorosa had probably sent me out here on some country woman’s version of a personal growth seminar: get me alone in the woods with my own thoughts for a few hours and see if I can’t get my head straight. Come home, have a decent supper and maybe a cup of coffee and a slice of lemon cake and put this episode into perspective. Wake up in the morning and realize this silly romance about moving to New York to become an artist (what sort of artist? I had not even decided that yet) was just that. Get some sense. Find a good man, marry him, and give Dolorosa the happy family she’d never had.
Do you believe in possession? I know, it sounds crazy, right? But something got inside me. And in that moment, I knew. The old roads. Older than anything. Older than Earth. These were fragments of roads from some other time, some other place, long since destroyed, written on the churning dust and fragments of worlds that combined to create our planet long ago. Someone else’s apocalypse. Something else’s apocalypse.
The demons of our theologies. The night terrors of our childhood. The monsters and the unseen forces that doom us.
These are the roads they walk to reach us, these are their ghost roads.
As the dead souls of monsters rushed to consume me, I knew that with them inside me, I could do anything I wanted to the people who had wronged me.
To come back, even for a short time! To exist again, ten billion years after your own apocalypse! Had they destroyed themselves? Or had their world simply grown old and died? Had they always been mad, or had ten billion years of nothingness made them so?
I woke with a shuddering gasp and a sense of being agonizingly birthed into this world again. In fact, my own birth did indeed come back to me then, or a simulation of it, at any rate: another brutal apocalypse. From peace and comfort to a pain and terror that would, truth be told, never abate. You could only adjust to it. The shock of the senses: of air forcing its way into my lungs until I thought I would choke, the unbearable clamor of birds screeching overhead and the smell of blood and death underneath it all. My eyes streamed tears from the pain of daylight, and I thought my very bones must have been crushed.
Once the initial force of it had ebbed, I managed to sit up. I was surprised that I was not maimed somehow. My lower half was in the creek, and my legs were soaking wet, but only with water and not the blood and viscera I had imagined myself shrouded in. Had I fallen differently I’d have met the fate of my uncle—or perhaps not; I imagined his child’s body and mind wracked into madness and consumed by these things.
I was somehow surprised that the world looked the same as it did before. I don’t know why. It was the same world. I was the only thing that had changed.
I sat there for a few moments. I could not understand why Dolorosa had sent me on such a journey without more warnings. It was the one thing I had always been confident about: that she loved me and would keep me from harm.
That was wrong, of course. Dolorosa had been very clear with me about the consequences of my actions. What else had I imagined would happen?
I guess I thought life would continue to not touch me, just as it always had.
I got up slowly. I did not want to think about Marcella, Mason, or any of the others; I had the feeling that whatever had me would be all too willing to show me their fate, and I no longer had the stomach for it. They deserve it, said a small stubborn unsure still-uncolonized part of me. That part was wrong, but it was so brave and sweet in trying to make me feel better that it gave me the courage to start putting one foot in front of the other and walk back to Dolorosa’s.
I worried that behind the normalcy all around me that the fabric of the world might be fraying: what if I had brought about something that couldn’t be controlled and couldn’t be undone? There was no reason to think the world ended here, now, with me.
By the time I got within sight of Dolorosa’s house, my home, I was running. I was calling her name as I ran into the house. I was shouting something too, words that were coming out of me without even realizing it, crying out, “Dolorosa, I take it back, I’m sorry, I take it back!” Once again, like a child.
She was in the kitchen, like always, and she came out and she looked at me and her eyes were so sad. That scared me more than anything that had happened up until that moment. I think until then, I really believed that she would be able to make everything okay again.
Instead, she opened her mouth as if she meant to speak to me, and from it came a flood of moths, sticky and blackened and blind, falling to the floor after a short desperate flight and writhing there in death; then she plucked at her blouse, and when she tore it open, there were snakes coiling where there ought to have been breasts. From between her legs gushed a dark flood and chunks of things that might have been living matter, creatures that could not be born and were not human. I did not want to see any of it. I should have embraced her, but instead I backed away. I think she tried to say something again but her mouth and tongue and teeth had been ruined. I ran out of the kitchen and into my room and I slammed my door shut and I stayed in there until I didn’t hear any more sounds coming from anywhere else in the house, and then I stayed in there some more.
I am still in my room. I don’t know how long I’ve been here.
I did look back at her once as I abandoned her. There was nothing left of her but a shell on the floor, like an abandoned locust skin.
She had made the most terrible bargains to protect me. And yet I had fallen anyway. Because what she set out to do was impossible. You can’t do that for anyone, no matter how hard you try. How foolish she had been to think such a thing possible, however long she carried those monstrosities within her.
I can feel their roads now in me. After all, are we not also made of the dust of dead worlds? I had their maps inside of me, just waiting for them. I can feel them moving about under my skin, contorting my flesh into new shapes. It’s becoming difficult to write.
I can still take my vengeance. Whatever happens, I must remember that, and that it has been worthwhile.
There is a mirror in the corner of the room.
In a moment, I am going to drop this pen and see what I have become.