The older I become, the more I know that the past does not die cleanly, each moment vanishing as a new one is born. Rather, the soul of what has been seeps into the present, like water melting from snow into the roots of crops yet to grow. Or maybe we are born with the past’s cries in us like a voice we mistakenly believe to be our own. Once rediscovered, if we wrap our arms around the wraith hiding within us, whose face will we see when we look in the mirror?
At the exact moment a stranger told me that my twin sister had died at the hands of her husband, I died, too. My bowl of spaghetti steamed on the coffee table and I still clutched the phone that had grown cold in my hand, but the essence of the woman I knew myself to be vanished leaving a void as vast as the emptiness of the world without her. Perhaps it was then that centuries of other women’s sorrow rushed in to fill the loveless space.
The stranger’s name was Sheila and she was the director of a battered women’s shelter located about an hour away from where I lived. She asked if I knew someone named Mary McConnell and was insistent that I must when I answered that I did not. An emailed photo confirmed that it was indeed my sister who had fled to the shelter using a name not her own.
“Your sister and her husband changed identities and moved many times in the past year, though they finally came back to this area so he could take a job with an old acquaintance,” Sheila said. “Her appearance was so disfigured by his abuse that even people who knew her well did not recognize her. She finally found refuge with us, but decided to go home to collect a few things. We begged her not to, and sure enough, he was waiting for her with a gun. Only after the police called us did we know her real name. We couldn’t find any family in time for a funeral, so we gathered ourselves in our shelter. She was not unmourned. I thought you would want to know that.”
Sheila seemed not to blame me for losing touch with my sister, for not guessing what was happening to her, for not saving her. “Her husband was a master at isolating her. It was simply her misfortune that he chose her to want to possess,” Sheila said. “It could have happened to anyone and does happen to the most unlikely people. How could you have guessed?”
Sheila said that the gathering had been just a quiet time to remember her and to reflect on the bonds they shared with her. “We had no money for music or flowers,” the director said when I asked if anyone had played her favorite songs for her.
Friends suggested I see a grief counselor when, after more than two years, I still glimpsed my sister’s face in the shadows of strangers I met on the street and heard her voice in the silence of my evenings alone at home. The counselor did not tell me to expect the witch’s face in the mirror, however. One evening as I was washing my face and putting on face cream, the image in the mirror melted into that of a fairy tale witch with a bruise-tinted complexion, a broken, misshapen nose, and black, jagged teeth. As I stared, the mirror filled with smoke and the witch began to choke. For one instant I was both terrifyingly hot and cold and wondered if this is what it felt like to burn to death.
Over time, I did stop seeing and hearing my sister but the witch face and the panic the memory evoked still broke into my daily life. In rational moments, I reminded myself of the family story that one of my ancestors had died by the stake and how often as a child I imagined myself to be her. The rationalization that I would naturally turn to this memory made me no less terrified when I would turn a corner in my car only to see myself about to plow into pyres instead of safely passing through an intersection. The doorbell would ring but instead I would hear a heavy knock on a wooden door and know on the other side was a cart to take me to prison rather than the mailman with a package. My children would call from college and I would mourn that I would never see them again before I remembered that no death sentence had been passed upon me.
One morning, after I staved off sleep all the night before rather than dream of the trial, the prison, and the sight of the execution place, I entered my office and sat at my desk to begin grading exams. I am a tenured and award-winning professor, an academic scholar studying French music of the 18th century. In my mourning, I had become so accustomed to never knowing whether my senses’ perceptions had come solely from some place within that when I heard a chorus singing out my window I ignored them, assuming they, too, were phantoms. After an hour or so, I finally looked out my window and beheld twenty or so students, dressed in the usual 21st century dress of jeans and t-shirts, standing around a tree in the courtyard singing a round of Michael Row the Boat Ashore.
“It’s an experiment for a class,” my office mate told me. “They are doing a project about the healing effects of sound so they are singing all the songs they know, one after another. That tree has been poisoned from the inside out by some laboratory chemical that was buried beneath the courtyard in the 1950s. They are going to sing to that tree every day of the semester until it either dies or pops out with green leaves.” And from then on, every day from noon to two in the afternoon, the students circled around the tree and sang to it — folk songs, childhood songs, hits from Broadway musicals, Christmas carols. At other times, one or two students would come and sing alone. One day a student with one of the most symphonic voices I have ever heard sang medieval liturgical chants for hours and returned every few days.
The only time during the day I never experienced the visions was when I listened to the students’ songs. I always made sure to be in my office when I knew that music would be coming from the courtyard, even on weekends, for they sang every day, through snowstorms, wind, rain, and hail. In late April, after almost eight straight months of singing, a single green bud popped out of one of the branches of the tree, and by May, about a third of the branches sported tiny, frail leaves.
The students did not stop singing, though they had reached their goal. Someone had been to Ireland and had seen a shrine covered with white pieces of cloth. So, they invited anyone on campus to write the name of someone who needs healing on pieces of a sheet from a dorm room and tie it to the tree to be blessed during the singing. One night, after all the students had left, I tied a cloth with my sister’s name on it to the tree. A week later, I tied a cloth with my own name on it next to that of my sister.
Whether it was the cloths, or simply a new step in my grief, my visions began to form themselves into a life, a 16th century life, that was as much a remembered life as my 21st century one. Suddenly I could smell the forest floor beneath my feet in the few years of freedom 16th century children enjoyed, the once-in-a-lifetime luxury of my wedding, the ache and joy of watching those of my children who lived past infancy grow, and finally beginning to enjoy a sense of solidity and confidence that comes with what was then old age before the jailers came and stole it all from me. Peace overcame me as the memories of the last few weeks of that life took their proper place as a short moment of terror in an otherwise quiet, many times contented sixty years.
As my 21st century self listened to the woman singing her chants beneath the tree in the courtyard, I remembered other voices from my 16th century existence. I could hear the nuns in the abbey in our small village whose singing could be heard whenever I passed by on my way to market, home from the fields, on my journey to church, or to and from my parents’ house just outside the village.
I called Sheila and told her “I want to teach the women in your shelter to sing together.” For twenty years I had studied the compositions of others, analyzed them in their historical and artistic context and written reams to be read only by the few hundred scholars in my field. Now I remembered and felt again the awe of the music’s transcendent beauty that had drawn me to it in the first place. And, at last, I wrote music, too. When I first heard the unfamiliar sequences of notes in my mind, I thought they must be obscure chants performed by the singer outside when I was not paying attention. But yet, I knew each note deep in my being and that the songs were mine, and mine to give away. I would teach the women to sing my own songs, as my gift.
“It’s my way of making sure that no one is ever buried from the shelter again without music,” I told Sheila. But I knew myself that I longed to hear those women’s voices from so long ago again, but with the unique strengths and tendernesses that only women from the 21st century could bring.
On the day of the first meeting of the chorus at the shelter, Sheila and I sat alone in the living room for at least a half hour, neither one of us willing to pronounce the chorus a failure. Finally, one woman came and silently sat with us, then another, and another till we had five or six, all seated with their hands in their laps looking at me. I passed out the music, which the women glanced at, then began watching me again. Finally, Sheila said “I don’t believe any of us can read music.”
“That’s fine, that’s even better,” I replied. “It’s much easier if I sing it for you and you follow along, then you’ll learn by singing together. That’s how these songs should become a part of you, with the other women.” We spent the next hour with me singing a line and the women singing it after me, then adding it to what we had learned till we could sing the whole song through. Their voices were soft and tentative, as if they really did not want anyone to hear them.
I taught them five more songs and each one faded away with the women’s breath unable to hold the sound at the end. Their quavering tones made me think of smoke rising to heaven, unable to cling onto the earth’s gravity, dissipating into nothingness while the fire within them continued warm, to nourish, to make life possible. Their almost inaudible voices belied the courage and strength each had shown to come to this moment in their lives — surviving, choosing the uncertainty of the shelter, walking away from all they knew to make a new life for themselves and their children.
“Sing loud for the women who need to hear your voices most, but who never could, whoever they may be,” I finally told the women. We could not perform in public without risking the women’s lives by revealing their location to their abusers, so I asked each woman to think of someone in her past or our broader human history whose misery she would like to heal, and we would hold a concert at the shelter for each other, the other women there, and, in spirit, the women we had named. For many of the women it was their mothers or grandmothers, who may have been victims of violence themselves, or perhaps worked too hard until their bodies or spirits gave out, or may have been murdered in the Holocaust or a genocide. For me it was my sister and the women who, in my mind and soul, had died with me centuries ago.
The evening of the concert, when we finished all the songs we knew, we kept singing, repeating our program over and over, until the dawn, when the women’s voices could sing no more. Perhaps I was just exhausted, or maybe I was finally listening with my soul rather than just my ears, but behind our voices I heard those of the women of the 16th century. It might have been the nuns singing vespers, or even the women with me in prison, making music to be heard by those in the future who needed the inspiration and solace of their song.
I went home and looked in the mirror as I took off my make-up. Again, my image in the mirror began to transform into the monster on a million Halloween masks. But, the image did not stop at the mask, but continued metamorphosing. Slowly, the radiance of wisdom and humor came into the mask’s eyes. In the edges of her smile was both compassion and toughness. The face I had always recognized as my own and the one I now gazed at in the mirror became one that brought together the everyday world I had lived in before I learned of my sister’s death and the one in which I had come to live where the unseen is sometimes more real than what we can touch.
I thought again of the caricature of the witch I had first seen in the mirror. Some people say the image comes from the injuries of the women seen by the crowds when they were brought to be executed. Others say that the image is much older, an expression of the luminous powers of the old women who were both wise and dangerous, who held life in their hands as healers and death as the weaver of fate. What I saw in the mirror was not a mask, but rather my own face as it could be in time, as I wished it to be.
“What will happen to the women when they leave here?” I asked Sheila.
“The women here will not all go on to make perfect lives for themselves,” she said, “Some will use what they have experienced to help others, maybe even open a shelter themselves. Some will go on to make a career, buy a home, raise their children and love their grandchildren. Some will never fully recover. Some will eventually go back to their abusive partners. But,” she said, smiling, “all are here now, singing. They will always have this moment. And they will not be the same women when they leave as they were before they learned to sing together for themselves and others.”
On my way home, I stopped by the tree in the courtyard. A few more leaves were popping out of the branches, though they were thin and sparse. Would they grow big enough to nourish and sustain the tree or would it eventually wither and die in the coming summer drought? I don’t know, but for now it lives and soon its seeds will scatter and a new generation of trees will flourish, and that must be enough.
The older I become, the more I realize that the past does not die cleanly, each moment ending as a new one begins, but rather seeps into the present, giving life to thirsty souls. Or sometimes it has always been in us like a seed that begins to grow in the dark where we cannot see and we are surprised by its gifts. And sometimes the power of the human voice, in all its manifestations, reaches through us beyond time and space and we sing each other home.