I remember the cold stones against my toes. I remember the roughness of the wooden door frame beneath my fingers. I remember the jagged indentation in the floor, the one that perfectly fit the pad of my thumb, that became smooth and soft with years of worrying. I remember pressing my ear to the wall hard enough that the shell of my ear suctioned to the stone, and wondering if I would be able to hear if anyone came close. Or if the stones themselves would warn me if I listened hard enough.
I did hear things while I sat there in the dark. Voices that were not my own, whether from memory or madness I was never sure. These voices whispered things, shared their dreams, told me stories. I was raised as much by their words as I was by the cold stone around me. The darkness eventually began to show me things as well. The shadows took shape, pictures forming and reforming, history repeating itself over and over. This is how I learned to speak, to sing. This is how I learned to listen and observe. This is how I learned to mimic and remember.
And the stones did warn me. I heard them coming, and heeded the warning to cover my eyes before the door was even opened. Sometimes I wonder what they thought when they first saw me, those mysterious door openers. I never saw them; they were gone by the time I could open my eyes. The first person I saw was one I recognized from the shadow stories.
Those memories are all dark and distant, because the room was in a near constant state of darkness and because I was young. Too young, I now know. Or maybe not young enough.
My second seemed like a luxury compared to my early days.
First, there were windows. Two of them.
The windows were too high to see out of, but the light and the air and the feeling of being human was novelty enough. It wore off eventually, but I never forgot the swell inside my chest when I first stepped into that room.
The sunshine reflecting on the warm wood floor was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. There were a hundred thousand colors layered into the grain of the wood, and depending on the time of day the sun would paint them with even more. Everything sparkled and there was more variation and nuance than I had ever imagined in my life.
I used to lie in that beam of light and doze like a cat. And when I wasn’t dozing I would count the grain lines in the floor, or watch the dust dance through the sunbeam. And for the first time I noticed change in my surroundings. The sun would rise and set, the shadows it made moving slowly across the wall, moving in a slow dance with the shadows who had stayed with me. The temperature would fluctuate with what I now know were seasons. All I knew then was the fact of the cool floor against my cheek and the blanket (that had been a new word to learn) over my chest. I saw the places the sun touched the wall change from day to day. I learned that other people slept when it was dark and rose when the sun did. I had never had anything to measure my time before and it was an odd sensation.
I learned to read in that room. Through the combined efforts of the voices and a nurse I learned swiftly, and devoured book after book. I learned that my darkness was not the same as other people’s. I learned to see myself in the way other people looked at me. I slept in my first bed. That was one I was sad to leave, because for the first time it felt like mine, like I had changed a place by being in it.
The feelings there are still mostly fond ones.
For the first time I was not alone.
I was never truly alone, for I always had my voices and the shadows. But never had I been forced to engage with others on a daily basis. Surrounded by young ones my own age, it was impossible to sleep. I had lived my life to that point listening to very little except the sound of whispered voices, my own breath and heartbeat. And suddenly I heard every single heartbeat in that room, pounding nearly as loudly as my own. Every single shift and shuffle: skin against fabric, wood against stone, the crunch of straw, the gasping lungs and the grumbling stomachs, the midnight tears and the whispered conversation.
I learned about language. Some people used different words, entirely different sounds, to describe the same thing. There were some things, some experiences, we had no words for at all. And yet others we had words for but were not supposed to say. That sometimes people could not understand each other, even when they spoke the same language. I learned that not everyone heard the voices from the stone and wood and air.
I learned that words had an unknown power to shape the lives around me. Some of the young ones took words very seriously, while others threw them away. I collected as many words as I was able, learning how to string them together in a myriad of different languages and patterns. Words that caused pain, words that healed wounds, words that brought tears and joy in equal measure. Words that lay the dead to rest, and words that brought back memories repressed over many lifetimes.
Pain taught me that not all words need to be repeated.
Never in my life had I felt more isolated than when I was surrounded by other people.
I could see the others look at me differently than they did each other. Especially after I took the straw filled mattress off of my tiny cot and slid it underneath the wooden bed frame.
I slept better after that. I felt safer with something over my head. Less exposed. And it helped to soften the noise. A little.
The fourth one was not my choice.
None of them had been, but it’s different when you don’t know you have a choice.
The polished wooden floor, the silk sheets on a bed three times the size of any I had seen, the personal fireplace, the four (yes four) floor to ceiling windows, the mahogany wardrobe ready to fill with belongings I did not have, the ten foot silver mirror that reflected anything but my own image.
I had never felt more trapped.
This luxury was misplaced and ill-used. I could see out of these windows, of course I could. I could see the life I would be missing. I could see the people I could not touch. I could see the countryside I would never visit. And my voices could describe it to me in exquisite detail. It was the best and worst place I had ever been.
This is where I learned to weave everything I had learned together, literally and figuratively.
I learned to weave the tapestries that were so prized by so many, none of them knowing exactly where they came from. I wove the stories in gold and silver thread, in deep eggplant and striking scarlet. I embellished them with embroidery till my fingers bled, and then I wove some more. I learned to spin my own thread from wool and darkness, and I learned how to touch each fiber with memory until it sparkled. I learned how to create the most beautiful stories in the world, and I learned that I would never be in them.
To have a taste of a life I have never known, without the option to choose it. It was not on my terms, it would never be on my terms. I could have all these things, the only thing I could not have was myself.
From this place I saw eternity pass me by. I wove it into pictures. I learned of the hubris, the caprice, the cruelty, and the unbelievable arrogance of the world. But I also learned of its desire, its compassion, its selfless joy, and its love.
It was unbearable.
To see the world and be unable to participate. To record the mistakes of others without being able to help. To hear of the adventure and the great deeds without the option to add my own to the list. I never saw myself. I saw my handiwork everywhere, but never the person who had created it.
Until I saw you.
Looking at me from my mirror, out of my tapestry, up at my window.
There you were. Over and over and over.
And I knew it was time for this to end.
When I threw myself from that tower, I never dreamed there would be another one.
I fell from a great height, understanding and expecting it to be the last I would see and feel of this world.
Instead I woke floating down the river I myself had described countless times in blue and gray and purple threads.
I woke to a broken neck, unable to feel my toes. I breathed out and sank, feeling only relief as the water closed over my head.
I woke to a face, blurry and far away. Calling out to me. I fell under again.
I woke to a bed. To one of my own pieces hanging on the wall.
I woke to sunset and music, and a figure in the corner of the room.
I awoke to you.
The only person who has looked and seen me, not merely what they want from me.
I woke to another tower. This one not so high, nor so fine, but much closer to the home I used to have. Warm, quiet, full of light. Not a prison or a cage, but a choice.
You gave me everything, and asked nothing in return. You showed me compassion, helped me learn to move again on my own, and then gave me the choice: to stay, to go, to come back.
That is what I choose: to make my own way, to participate, to find, to learn, to be. To come back.
Always to come back.
Azalea is a writer, director, actor, and bookseller living in the weirdest place on earth (open for heated discussion). She loves words, knows a little too much about Shakespeare, and will happily discuss books for literal hours.