On the outskirts of my Tanti Marie’s village, where the village met the wild forests, there was a proper little cemetery, with marble cross tombstones alongside wooden ones, enclosed by a wrought-iron fence. Very beautiful but quite scary to a little girl of 7.The village madwoman spent all her days and nights in there, sleeping on what she thought was her lover’s tomb. He had gone to the war and left her pregnant, and when word got to her that he was dead, she tried to drown the baby in the courtyard well and drank a glass of poison to kill herself. Her family took the baby away and gave it to a wealthy couple in the city, no doubt lining their pockets with lots of gold pieces and crisp banknotes. Her, they turned out of the house, spitting and cursing after her departing figure. At least, they spared her the institution.
As children, we were afraid of her and her eerie wailing, and stayed well away. It was a good thing the village was long and narrow. The grownups, accustomed to grief and having known her since her childhood, yet also highly superstitious, made the sign of the cross whenever they saw her but did not neglect to bring her bread and a woolen shawl when the nights got chilly.
I don’t know where she slept in the winter months, when the entire village was under a blanket of snow. Her family home, abandoned since the death of her mother, she had set unsuccessful fire to. My Tanti Marie claimed that
the madwoman was actually a witch who turned herself into the black cat that was forever scratching at villagers’ doors to be let in on those long winter nights. Before dusk darkened the sky and lengthened the shadows, the village women would set a bowl of milk and a chunk of black bread out. Whether they were consumed, I do not remember.
But I have been thinking about her lately. About how little was known, back then and in that country, about mental illness. About how the mentally ill were institutionalized and even killed because of the fear they instilled in others. About those whispers I remember amongst the village women about her promiscuity, when all along she had most likely been raped. And about how fear finds a way to feed on fear until it leaves one gasping in its wake.
And I am ashamed and embarrassed at my own reaction even nowadays: flinching when I see a mentally unstable homeless man or woman and so starkly uncomfortable with those I see mumbling to themselves. Once, on a crowded train, there was a man shaking a fried chicken leg and yelling profanities, and I fled in terror, preferring to wait another 15 minutes in the cold station rather than risk his attention. Why? I’m well aware my fears aren’t realistic. I’ve studied mental health. I’ve worked in mental health. I know that these people are probably far more afraid of me than I am of them.
And yet. … Although I may not be literally making the sign of the cross, I still am praying up a storm.
Did I say I am ashamed and embarrassed? Mired down by superstitious fear? When I really ought to know better? Yes, I did. But I am working on it. Because it is fear that hides the beauty within and keeps me from living. And I really want to live.
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