When monster meets monster, one monster must give way,
and that monster will never be me.
Kano – Opening
The road to Circe is little more than a path through the swamps. The pavement recedes silently into the mind of the traveler, and the swamps themselves seem to take the land. The land is thick and overgrown and the undergrowth reaches up for you, suffocating you with its moist, green fingers. The water is still, muddied by insects and the remnants of life. Alligators hide beneath the water’s tall grass. They wait quietly. You can barely see them in the daylight. The institution crawls out of this murky soil, as if planted there by nature herself. It sits, waiting quietly. Its white walls lean awkwardly into the soft, damp earth. From a distance the old watchtower can be seen. It’s crooked and battered. Despite its years of constant use, no one has bothered to repair the older parts of the institution. They remain quiet and dull, listening to the voices of the madmen within them.
Cassie once told me that ancient and angry spirits guarded the fort. They were the keepers of the institution. They were its patients and its doctors. I never believed her. I rarely believed anything she said. But I always listened. I watched her pale lips bob up and down and wondered at all the strange philosophies that drifted out of her mind. Cassie became Circe for me. Not the lonely witch who seduced Ulysses, but the place. She became cool stone and marble. A fantasy with the power of a haunted house or a lost dream.
“Circe” is what we called the place. It was actually named after some long dead man with gray whiskers and a propensity for racism. Dr. Clement Richard Clark had enough vision to turn an abandoned fort into an institution and Circe carried his name. With a little bit of an Alabama slur, C.R.C. always came out Circe and throughout my childhood I thought the hospital was named Circe. After I took my first mythology class, I figured they named it after the mythological enchantress. As an adult, despite my knowledge, it seemed more appropriate that the hospital be called Circe.
Circe always seemed to have some power over us. It had a power over all of those who lived and worked there, whether they knew it or not. The first time we saw its crooked and chipped walls it carried an unnamed mystery. It was foggy that first day. It’s often foggy in the swamps of Southern Alabama. The air was thick and hot and we drove to Circe because it was our future. Our rite of passage. We would no longer be graduate students after we left this place. We would be psychologists. Healers of the mind and soul. We were to become the modern witch doctors. So the mystery with which I perceived Circe on that foggy morning came as much from my own psyche as from any of the fog that encased it, but it had that effect on all of us. All of the interns were daunted by the future it held for us. The buildings were hidden at first. Hidden behind the veil. All we could see of the place was the parking lot, wrapped in 12-foot fences and barbed wire. It was ugly, as parking lots always are. In front of it, perched on a mailbox, there was an azure peacock. Its tail feathers were spread widely, exposing all of its extravagant beauty. It gazed out at us, through the fog, as if it was guarding the stark parking lot. It was out of place. A fish in the desert. At first, I thought it was some plastic bauble set up to decorate something hideous, but then it moved. It drew breath and walked away and we all laughed. We laughed at the absurdity of the creature itself.
The white walls of Circe crept out in front of us as if they belonged to the swamp. These high, impregnable walls had once withstood weeks of cannon fire, and now they entombed the mentally ill. Three doors allowed entry into the hospital. A beautiful and ornate arch opened up into the main court from the picturesque visitor’s parking lot. All around this entrance there were beautiful things. An old fountain spat rust-filled water into the sticky air. Flowers lined the walkway. Huge oaks lined the gardens. All this beauty and splendor also encased the second entrance to Circe. That door opened up into the main office, which was rumored to have held Geronimo on his trail of tears. The old building had once been a prison and an armory. Now it was decorated with pictures of pink daisies and happy children. Plump secretaries sat behind cool desks smiling happily at visitors on the same floors where countless Indians had marched to their demise.
The last entry into the fort was hidden. A tiny door had been built into the walls of the fort forty years ago to allow the staff to go directly from the dreary staff lot into the main hospital.
Buildings from long ago peppered the square within the wall. The large watchtower in the center of the fort used for vocational rehabilitation had existed for as long as anyone could remember. It rose out of the earth like a monolith, taller than anything around it. It could be seen from miles away. It was a fading testament to the French occupiers who had been there before. There was another building, old and dark, built out of red brick and crowned with a cupola, which loomed near the front of Circe. This dilapidated structure had been constructed during the Victorian period. Huge, ornate, and beautiful, its dark windows looked out onto the square. Motionlessness engulfed the building. Cassie told me that this building was constructed at the turn of the century. It had been abandoned not because it was structurally unsound, as I was to be told, but because people were too afraid of its dark history.
The modern facilities didn’t fit in with the rest of the fort. Their architecture stood out as a monument to 1950’s postmodernism in all of its glory. They were faded and tattered, but these antiquated buildings housed all of the patients of Circe. Cassie avoided the first of them. She described the admissions unit as a processing center for the mad where the acutely mentally ill would stay until a better place was found for them. On the other side of the tower lurked Cassie’s building. It looked exactly like the admissions unit, but the chronic ward hid in the back of the hospital, alone in an empty field. The patients who lived here were too far from reality to ever hope to find a way back.
To me, when I think back, it all began there. My voyage. My journey. When I close my eyes it is all I can see, staring back at me through the mist. But I had a life before that place and my story does not begin within its walls. It begins with my wife. My beautiful wife.
I often ask myself now, “Who was I?” I wonder at the kind of man I had been. I had been empty. Empty and hungry. Always searching for something out of reach. I went into psychology because it happened upon me. My father had been a psychologist, and I excelled in the subject. I did wonderfully in math and I did wonderfully on my Graduate Record Exams. I was competitive enough to get into the best Clinical Psychology programs in the nation. I chose to go to the North because I wanted to see a new world. I took my wife with me knowing she despised the North. I took her with me, knowing how much she wanted to stay in Alabama. She cried when we packed the U-Haul and she cried when we drove away, but she never blamed me for the next four years. She never blamed me for Detroit.
Circe made my wife jubilant at first. The night I told her my internship was going to be there, I was finishing my dissertation early. I had built off someone else’s research. This made it much easier for me to produce an excellent dissertation in less time. I was working on the conclusion of my dissertation that Christmas Eve. We did not go home that year. We couldn’t afford it. Pria, my wife, had been supporting us both. She had supported me financially and emotionally. She snuck up behind me that night, and wrapped her arms around me.
“Merry Christmas,” she whispered.
“Is it Christmas?” I asked. I did not turn to face her, although now I wish I had. I wish I could remember the curve of her cheek illuminated by the computer screen. I wish I could see the line of her body, with the Christmas lights she had so painstakingly put up glowing behind her perfect black hair. But I kept on typing. I kept on working and I never looked back.
“Yes,” she said. There was such sadness in her voice. “Can we open our presents?”
“Go get everything set up,” I muttered. “I’ll be in after I enter this last set of numbers.”
Pria was a mixture of perfect paradoxes. Her mother was from Northern India and her father had been born and raised in Mobile, Alabama. Instead of compromising on faith, her mother had tried to raise her Muslim and her father had tried to raise her Baptist. Pria believed in both and neither. She could talk about Christ and Mohammed in the same sentence. She would mouth devotion to make her parents happy, but she clung only to the rituals that she found the most interesting. She would fast for Ramadan (mostly because it helped her lose weight), and then celebrate Christmas with a vengeance, manger scenes and all. Her personality was as dichotomous as her faith. She was brilliant, but could be banal. She was all parts of woman: independent and unyielding, but needing and compromising. She was addicted to modern culture, but constantly seeking her mother’s traditions. She would wear the most stylish modern clothes, only to turn around and wear a sari the next day. She was all things to me and I adored her.
After I finished my work, I followed her into the living room of our tiny apartment. She was smiling brightly. My wife was a beautiful woman. She had a tiny waist and large hips and chest. Her skin was dark and so were her eyes. I called her my fertility goddess. She used to get mad at me for that. She said that meant I thought she was fat. But I never thought that. Her skin was smooth and soft, and was never puckered with cellulite or excessive fat. Her curves gave her a sexuality that glowed from her whenever she moved. The mix of ethnicity in her was perfect.
I sat down beside the tree with her. “You only get coal this year, you know,” I said.
“I think it’s you who gets the coal this year. Working all the time and neglecting your poor wife.”
I leaned over and kissed her. “I would never neglect you. How could I?”
“My other lover says that you neglect me.”
“Other lover? Are you saying that you’re sleeping with another man?”
“Not just one,” she teased. “Ten beautiful men who hang on my every word. And all of them promise that they’ll take me back to Alabama for New Years.”
I became serious. I always took her seriously. “I’m sorry about this.”
“Nothing to be sorry about.” She smiled as she cried. “I knew what I was getting into when I married you. You never lied to me and I’ll never regret it.”
She kissed me and I forgot about my dissertation. She had that power. “Open your first present from me then,” I said.
“Which one should I open?”
“The small one.” She shook the little box before she opened it. She tore into the silver paper like a child. Her hands quaked as she unfolded the small scrap of paper inside the box and as soon as she read the scrap she laughed almost hysterically. The laughter melted into tears and she threw her arms around my neck.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
I basked in the warmth of my success. “Are you sure?” she asked. “I mean, you can have any internship you want. You could go to one of the best internships in the country.”
“I don’t want that. I know you think I can’t, but I know how sad you’ve been. You hate this place.”
“Oh no. I love it. I love the yellow snow and the black ice. I love the smell and I love the fact that I’m terrified to walk the dog after 5:00 p.m. What’s not to like?”
“Always joking,” I said with a wry grin.
“My humor is what has kept me alive these last four years.”
“It hasn’t been that bad?”
“Not that bad. I had you and I have a few friends. I’m just homesick and I hate the cold.”
“Well, to Pintlala, Alabama we go then.” I said with a grimace
“It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but it is still closer to home than before.”
“There aren’t too many internships available in Alabama.”
“I know. I’m not complaining at all. Have you ever been to Pintlala?”
“No. I’ve been to Mobile. That’s about as close as you can get and not end up on dirt roads.”
She laughed. “Sweet home Alabama.” I hugged her.
“Aren’t you going to open the rest of your presents?” I asked.
“I don’t need to. This is all I want. We’ll only be a few miles away from Mom and Dad and Sally and Rachel and all of our friends. It’ll be good for you too, you know. You’ll never have to have my icy feet on your belly again.”
“Somehow I doubt that. Your feet will be cold when it is 90 degrees. Your feet are always cold.”
“That’s not fair. My feet get warm.”
“I can’t think of when.”
That was a good Christmas. She was happy. I had made her happy. I had made her glow and that was all that mattered. I did not want to return to Alabama. We were going home and I was ambivalent about this; I had been content in Detroit. I found its stark landscape alluring and I loved the way the steam rose from the manholes in the winter. I liked the silence with which the general population moved through life. Never greeting one another. Afraid to make eye contact on the street. They were all separate and estranged. They never asked questions or cared what you did or whom you did it with.
At home, everyone smiled and asked you how your day was going. They hugged you when they didn’t know you and talked about you when they didn’t care. It didn’t matter. It was just a place, like any other.