The Question by Valerie Volk

It’s a long time since I’ve bothered with anybody else. Even longer since I’ve cared what they thought of me.

Oh, I know when the children pass my gate that they peer through the railings, in the hope they might catch sight of the witch. It no longer hurts me to hear that word. As long as they stay outside my gate, let them call me whatever they like. That old childhood rhyme … Sticks and stones may break my bones / but words will never hurt me.

Not entirely true, but you can learn to put up with what life deals you. So if they want to call me a witch, let them. I can live in my own little world, barricaded by the high fence, and no one will ever hurt me again.

Had I always been as stoic as this? Of course not. It takes time to grow a shell, and only the passing years have given me this toughness. It comes with wrinkles and old age, I guess.

Curious how wrinkles always remind me of that trip to the Galapagos, and the stories the guides had told us. Our travellers had many questions about the huge tortoises.

“How can you tell their age?”

“Are they really hundreds of years old?”

We had some pushy characters in our tour group, and Tom and I often found ourselves rolling our eyes in exasperation at their antics. But the guides were unfailingly courteous, and gave long and detailed answers, no matter how stupid the question.

“You tell,” Felipe explained patiently, “by the shell. If it has many striations – (his English was exceptionally good) – then it is probably young. As they age, that big dome smoothes out, and becomes a shiny polished surface. The fewer the markings, the older the tortoise.”

A middle-aged woman, lavishly made up, giggled girlishly, a sound she had probably practiced a long time.

“What a good idea. You mean, as they age, the wrinkles disappear?  Wouldn’t that be something, girls? I wish we could have that happen.”

Clearly there should have been a gallant answer. A quick response, like “Well, you don’t need to worry!”  But no one seemed inclined to offer it and, deflated, she became silent. Tom squeezed my hand, and muttered that I’d have a long time to wait.

Those were the years before the accident, when we were young, hard to remember now. Even harder to remember that those were years when he still loved me, before everything changed. When my face still looked normal.

I often think it would have been better to die.

If I had, my skin would never get the chance to grow old and to wrinkle. If they had left me in the burning car, I would not have had to face the nightmare years of skin grafts and the pain and misery of seeing what I had become.

Years in hospital beds, with operation on operation to try to repair the damage. I listened as they talked of new techniques.

“Dermabrasion,” one young specialist was enthusiastic. “They’re having great results with that for burns victims.”

“What is it?” Tom was cautious. Yes, he was still with me then, for he hadn’t yet discovered that it wasn’t only the outside that was permanently scarred, but also inside I was badly damaged. In the end, I just wanted him to go. The real pain was in seeing through his eyes what I had become. When I finally convinced him that I meant it, that I did not want him near me, and he left, it was almost a relief.

For all their hopes, dermabrasion failed. After they had scraped away the surface layers of that damaged skin, and trapped me in the helmet mask that left only one eye uncovered, and enough movement in the mouth for me to be able to eat, we waited for the passing months to grow the promised new skin.

It never happened.

“Skin grafting,” they promised that their skills could return a face to me.

Oh yes, a face that looked like a jigsaw, where scar lines showed too clearly where the pieces of this puzzle did not quite match.

“It’s like a stained glass window,” I raged when the final bandages were peeled away. “Black lead lines separating all the coloured pieces.” The young surgeon looked away, stricken, but offered some hope. 

“They will fade in time; those lines won’t be so obvious in a few months.”

“I hope you’ve enjoyed experimenting on me.”

His lips tightened, but he did not answer.

“So now that you’ve had a practice run with me, maybe next time you’ll do it better.”

I had learned to be cruel. Sometimes by hurting others, I could lessen my own pain. No, I was not surprised that Tom finally took me at my word, and left.

Attack is the best form of defence, they say. It was an adage I took to heart. No one was going to pity me, certainly not if I got in first and made sure there was no opportunity. 

Gradually friends got the message, and even the faithful finally dropped away. There are few people who can cope with constant abuse and vitriol, and it was easy to rebuff well-meant gestures of neighbours when I bought this house. They too quickly learned that there was no place here for their misguided friendship overtures and self-important Good Works.

I have created my own world, and there is no place for any intruders. Choice of the dog, whose threatening bark and vicious appearance is not unlike my own, keeps people out most effectively.  They are wise to take heed of the ‘Dangerous dog. Enter at your own risk’ signs on all gates, but what they do not know is that I am far more vicious than the animal. Delivery men, for I do not go out of my prison, leave goods in the arranged box they access through the slot in the wall.

One can, I have found, live completely without others. Human contact is vastly over-rated.  I have come to not only accept, but even enjoy, my role. I am the witch.

But still I ask, as I have done for years, “Why me? Why was I the one that mob of hoons, those teenage idiots, did this to?”

I was still in hospital, swathed in bandages, a masked mummy, when they went to trial. But what a travesty, their sentences. A few years in gaol, while I stay imprisoned in the battered shell they left. And again I ask: “Why me?”

Bitterness does not fade. It feeds upon itself, but is never consumed. It colours the world, and my world is not just grey, but black. There are no mirrors in my house, and I no longer see myself in others’ eyes. It is a solitary world.

“Why me?” I asked the God I still believed in then. But there was never an answer. Now I scour the daily papers, and see how many others have suffered, are suffering, just as I am. The ones who die are better off. They have escaped. They may have found peace, but I have not. If there really is a hell, I have entered it, and through no fault of my own.

Did I do something wrong that has brought me such a punishment?

I live again the story of Job, that old biblical story. He too lost everything – his possessions, his health, his children, all swept away from him in a saga of misery and despair. The friends who came to him – my friends too could have been called Job’s ‘comforters’ – all asked him to consider his life and see how he had deserved such cataclysmic disaster. He replied with conviction that he could find nothing. That always he had walked with God.

Not a claim I would make. How could I? A life with all the usual petty faults and misdemeanors, but nothing to have deserved such a fate. And, unlike Job, there would be no swift reversal, no last chapter return of fortune and happiness. My world was fixed in its misery.

They say that ‘misery loves company.’ Is this why, for years now, I have sought out similar stories? I scan the newspapers, hunting for tales of irrational calamity, of unexpected blows, of an unjust universe. They too must ask: why me? They too do not find answers to the cause of such calamities. They must rail against an unfair fate the way I do. They too must look at others in their world who do not have to deal with  catastrophes like ours. I look at the horrors that television shows me each night, for I do still observe the world – from a safe distance. The fact that I am not alone does not make it any better. They too must ask: why me?

But not all.

She was a young mother, and it was her first baby. She had told her story on one of those Current Affairs programs that wallows in the misery of others, because she wanted to help raise money for some unfunded piece of hospital equipment. For this she was willing to show the world her damaged child.

“Do you know what caused it?” the interviewer asked, while the cameras focused mercilessly on the sleeping child, with its badly disfigured face and blotched body.

“No one can give an explanation,” the mother, herself beautiful, just shook her head.

“But how do you feel about it?” The show’s host was not unkind, but it was his job to probe. “What do you think will happen as she grows up?”

The mother considered. “I do fear for her,” she admitted. “We are such a lookist society. So much depends on one’s appearance.”

I knew how right she was. Would her child grow up to face the barbs and the rejection that had been the basis of my life since the accident?

“Children can be cruel …”  And not just children, I thought. The adult world is even more malevolent.

“So we have decided to try dermabrasion … but at times I wonder. Will she one day hate us for altering what she is? Will she see it as a rejection?”

“Surely not,” the host replied. “Surely she’ll see it as the right thing to do.”

Dermabrasion. I knew all about this. The pain, the misery of living inside bandages for weeks, growing into months. The agony of dressing changes where the cloth has to be scraped away each few days. And on such a little baby.

The program host was not satisfied. “But what about you? How do you feel about it – for yourself, I mean?”

The baby stirred, and began to wake. She opened her eyes. They were lovely, a deep blue and beautiful. They made a poignant contrast to the blackened skin of the huge mole like growth that covered more than half her face. I felt a stirring of pity. What would her future be? Like me, years of misery and pain, hospital stretches, a hostile world to face each day.

The mother was pondering her answer. “First, I was totally dismayed. No, that’s inadequate. I was devastated. When they put her into my arms, I could feel nothing but anguish. How would I cope? How would she cope? Why us? Why me? ”

Oh yes, I could relate to this.  It had been the central question in my world all these years. On this basis I’d constructed my reality, world of anger and bitterness.

But the mother went on. “Then I thought more about it. Not why me, but why not me?”

The interviewer nodded, but she continued.

“By what right do I expect to be spared problems or misery?  If I can bring her up to feel this, to live her life with ‘Why not me’ instead of ‘Why me’, to recognize that all lives have problems, but they don’t have to define who you are or how you live, then surely her chances of happiness are greater.”

I don’t remember the rest of that program, but I do remember those three words. Somehow they started a small crack in the shell that I had built around myself. 

Why not me?

A door had opened – just a little. Whether I would be able to push it further ajar would be up to me. But somehow I could see the chance of my world changing. Those three words were the star of a new perspective. I do not have to live my life as the witch. There is a different world for me if I allow it to happen.

After all, why not me?

Valerie Volk is a South Australian writer of novels, short fiction, verse novels and poetry, with nine books and many poems and short stories published in journals and anthologies in Australia and internationally. She is interested in reading, theatre, film and music, and loves to travel, especially in places like Siberia and the Arctic Circle, but her favourite pursuit is people-watching.

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