I Was a Wicked One to Save
by Brenna Carroll
Dragging my feet in the face of salvation,
I sought out the holiest of damnations.
I thought my home was in the grave–
I was a wicked one to save.
Sylvia sat up. Her breath heaved, sweat dried on her forehead, a low humming in the background dug into her ears and her head beat with her heart. As disorientation faded, Sylvia became filled with surprise.
Why am I still alive?
As consciousness returned, Sylvia retraced the steps of her life up to this point. Rough childhood, unstable relationships, depression, insanity, but a star student, an athlete, a prodigy– then death. Death was the most recent memory, except that it was not a memory. Sylvia had simply been awake, then awake again. Dying had been easier than falling asleep.
In a moment of clarity: How did I get here?
For a second, the sun knocked on the window and let itself in, and Sylvia felt a divine presence, but it left as quickly as it came on. A cloud passed overhead and blotted out the light.
Sylvia remembered her downfall vaguely and intensely, all at once, a wild churning of the mind that rendered the edges of her psyche nothing more than yellowed wallpaper. It is funny how you do not notice you are losing your mind until it is long gone. But where does a lost mind go? To what galaxy does it traverse? In what cycle of inhumanity does this happen: why are some cursed with such creativity that it divorces them from self-preservation? Where does a lost mind find its home?
Sylvia looked down at the bandages on her wrists and finally understood where she was, as well as why.
Is there valor in suffering?
Sylvia ran wild through the streets, a feral human bent on immortality. She was a hedonistic saint, indulgent in her asceticism, an untamed girl, undomesticated and untethered. Light shot from her heart and colors morphed around her with blinding intensity. Feet thumping the street like ancestral drums, those goatskin drums beating into the past in Ireland, Sylvia neared the park that was her impromptu destination. She ran up the steps in a daze of electricity and euphoria. Joan of Arc sat upon her horse, looking over the park and Sylvia, protecting her from the evil apparitions she had heard in her ears on the way there. It briefly occurred to Sylvia that she and Joan of Arc were probably soul sisters. She took comfort in this new reality.
Joan of Arc nodded her head to Sylvia as she skipped past. Sylvia nodded back. Staring up at the heavens and stretching her arms out to embrace the world, Sylvia spun, spun, spun, whirling and unfurling into the air. She felt like her very being had been dispersed into the universe and she was everything and nothing, all at once.
Slowly and all at once, an idea grew up in the soil of Sylvia’s mind: I am the Archetype of Humanity.
Some pride came along with that idea. Sylvia felt she had experienced every emotional extreme of the human race; her life was an archetype for the human condition. She was not Jesus, but she was close.
Sylvia composed poetry in her sleep but rarely remembered the rarified words that were the keys to her heart. She could still faintly taste them upon awakening, but the rhythms fled as soon as she opened her eyes. An incessant beeping issued forth from a machine near Sylvia’s head. The lines and verse disappeared under the tyranny of the beep-machine, and this vexed Sylvia endlessly.
Fluorescent lights stared down at Sylvia, and a nurse stirred in the corner upon her awakening. Holding a gnarled book in her gnarled hands, the nurse looked grandmotherly and soft with a certain sternness. Her face held a wisdom that offended and impressed Sylvia. It was not often she met someone more world-worn than herself. The nurse gazed upon Sylvia with kindness, which Sylvia promptly rejected.
Sylvia was her own ultimate torturer.
“You’re awake,” the nurse noted.
Sylvia looked around her, appraising the room. It was barren and sanitary, with glaring lights and plastic surfaces. The mattress was thin and Sylvia could feel the bony structure beneath it. The air was cold; the beep-machine continued; her heart kept beating.
“How are you feeling?” the nurse prompted.
Sylvia looked at her for a moment before answering, then down to her bandaged wrists, then back at the nurse.
How do you feel when you have woken up from death?
“I feel fine.” This was a lie.
The nurse saw Sylvia’s eyes dart towards her wrists again. Her eyes softened and enveloped Sylvia in their warm gaze.
“Why did you do that to yourself?”
Sylvia began to pick at the bandages instead of answering, but the nurse stood up and pulled her hand away from the injuries. Sylvia looked up at the nurse with a feral light in her eyes, indignant at the interference, and yanked her hand away. She continued to unwind the bandages with shaky hands until she could view the scars fully. They were deep and red, dried blood dotting the surface of her skin. Sylvia liked it better this way– the scars on her body mirroring the scars on her soul.
“It’s a miracle you’re alive.”
Why do they try so hard to save me?
Sylvia cleared her throat.
“Miracle is a strong word.”
The nurse frowned, but at that moment a doctor came in. He was tall and gave an air of self-assurance.
“Hi Sylvia, I’m Dr. Townsend.” He glanced down at his charts. “How are you feeling?”
“Why are you people so concerned with how I’m feeling?”
“Well, seeing as you tried to kill yourself, how you’re feeling could be a matter of life and death.”
“I wasn’t trying to kill myself,” Sylvia said with conviction.
“Oh?” Dr. Townsend’s face became puzzled.
“I was just trying to feel alive.”
“I see.” Dr. Townsend looked down at his charts again. “How long have you been self-harming?”
“That is not your concern.”
Dr. Townsend raised an eyebrow.
“Actually, as your doctor, and the one who bandaged you while you were unconscious and bleeding out, it is very much my concern.”
Sylvia pouted but relented in her petulance.
“Since… I don’t know… I was eleven?”
Dr. Townsend made some notes.
“Why do you do this? Was there a specific trigger?”
“I already told you. I was trying to feel alive.”
“So you only feel alive… when you’re dying inside?”
“I mean, yeah.”
“Ok.” Dr. Townsend made more notes and addressed Sylvia again. “I’m going to transfer you to a behavioral health hospital.”
“No! I will not go there.”
“Sylvia,” Dr. Townsend said, and tried to retain the remaining patience in his voice, “you tried to kill yourself, and, as a doctor, I have a responsibility to you and to society to do all I can to prevent this happening again. If I discharge you now, you will probably attempt suicide again, and this time you might not get so lucky.”
“But I don’t want to go! You can’t force me! I know my rights!”
Panic flew around the room and settled in Sylvia’s gut.
“You ceded that right when you put the blade to your wrists.”
The Archetype of Humanity flew through the thoughts in her mind recklessly and bravely. A thousand thoughts would come forth out of the shadows of her psyche, and then a thousand more would crash into the preceding ones when they were halfways through and mangle, tangle each other like cars in a wreck. Poetry streamed from Sylvia’s hands and alit on the pavement, trickling out of her being to light the world around her. It was still dark outside, but Sylvia could see by the glow of her poetry.
The birds sang along to Sylvia’s steps. For a moment, she faced the terror of eternity, but ecstasy again won over. Sylvia saw the world with wild eyes, a feral trance that transcended her physical body. She was a wolf of a woman.
The woman-wolf thought back to the she-wolf of Rome, who raised Romulus and Remus, who gave rise to the empire and the glory and the cruelty and the war and the riches. Sylvia snarled against all around her that was placid and gave life to the world in her hands.
I’ll never sleep again. I’ll never die again.
Sylvia could not sleep. The whites of her eyes had begun to turn red. Her hands trembled and she hoped to God the wallpaper would just come alive to absolve her of her feelings, because she felt she was mired in sin, she was a medieval nun, scourging her body to purify her heart, scourging her heart to heal her soul, if she had one at all, if it had not fled into the place where lost minds go.
The air in the room grew cold, although the heater was running. Tendrils of thought dripped from Sylvia’s mind. She thought she might go insane if she had not already been insane. Icy fingers traced her spine. Sylvia closed her eyes and fought her wakefulness, but could not fade into unconsciousness. She shut her eyes tightly, but soon enough they sprang back open.
A scratch at the window, a knocking on the pane of glass. Sylvia sprang up and looked outside. A white figure, as if made of mist, stared at her through the window. Sylvia shrunk back in panic, stifling a shriek so as not to alert the nurses. Sylvia knew this apparition was real, she felt it in her bones, but if the nurses came, they might not believe her. It does not serve you to be crazy in the asylum.
The ghostly figure motioned for Sylvia to open the window, mouthing words Sylvia could not hear. Curiosity overcoming fear, Sylvia reached out and pushed the pane. The windows did not have bars in front of them, but they also did not open wide enough for a person to fit through, to fling themselves in a fit of joy and fury to the ground below; however, it was big enough for a spirit to glide through. The ghost alit on the floor and stared at Sylvia. Sylvia stared back.
The ghost was dressed in a Victorian nightgown and white as that pallid bust of Pallas. Her eyes were shrouded with dark circles, and her hair fell gray over her thin, translucent shoulders. She smiled in a troubled sort of way.
Sylvia did not know what to say. She had never been confronted by the paranormal before. Sylvia continued to stare, heart beating fervently.
“What do you want from me?”
“I want… to be… your friend.”
The ghost spoke in a sort of lilting, ethereal tone, pausing between words as if her gossamer lungs could not quite get all the words out. She smiled a broken smile. Dying is a solitary act, and the afterlife is lonely.
The ghost moved closer and touched Sylvia’s hand, a gentle, cold caress. She looked into Sylvia’s eyes, a lonely, hungry entreaty. Sylvia found herself unable to speak– she was afraid, but the same curiosity as before overwhelmed her.
“But… why me?”
“We are… of the same cloth. We are… soulmates.”
“How? I’m alive and you’re… not.”
The ghost raised up her bandaged wrists to Sylvia.
“We are… the same.”
Sylvia pounded through the street. Her ecstasy had risen to a fervent boil until she was overflowing with the joy of the world, the joy of humanity, that exhilarating rush of realness that only the manic can grasp. Her mind opened and sunshine poured directly in. Sylvia was not worried about getting burned– she was invincible. The sun could not burn her! She was above the moon and the stars, above the sky, maybe even above God– she was above it all.
Awake through the night and into the day, Sylvia’s eyes burned red and her soul burned free. Skipping down the steps from the park where Joan of Arc kept watch, the air swirled around Sylvia’s body and gently greeted her as it warmed in preparation for the day. The sun was rising and Sylvia’s mind greedily ate up its rays. In a spiritual sort of photosynthesis, the light transformed into energy inside Sylvia’s head and egged her on further in her path to insanity.
Sylvia walked for hours until she reached the open field with all its glorious monuments and memorials. She walked from one edge to the other, drinking in the air and the smells and the noise and the energy. The land upon which Sylvia walked was holy to her, and she consecrated it with prayers and exclamations as she went. The land received her sacrament and deposited it underground to save for future pilgrimages.
Electricity split the air. Sylvia stared straight into the sun.
This must be enlightenment.
Sylvia wanted to burn stigmata in the palms of her hands with a lit cigarette. As she smoked her cigarette, floating into oblivion, life burned into the tobacco, but the flame soon left it dead and tarnished. Sylvia thought she might like to be like Catherine of Siena some day.
The other patients chatted inanely, Sylvia floating in and out of the conversation. Smoke enveloped the circle of chairs, and the sun filtered through it onto the ground. Very little of it entered Sylvia’s mind, and she mourned the time when her head was open to the heavens and bliss poured in. She grieved a state of mind.
I was the Archetype of Humanity. Now I’m in an asylum. Oh, how fickle life can be.
Sylvia stared at her palms.
Am I really alive? Or am I in Purgatory? Is this the immortal plane to which I’ve been banished as a consequence of my sins? Sylvia recited a litany of her shortcomings in her mind, but none of them seemed serious enough to cast her into spiritual limbo.
Is that why I could see the ghost?
That night, Sylvia pulled out her pack of cigarettes and the lighter she had snuck into her room under her shirt. She lit a cigarette, caring not whether she got caught, and extinguished it in the palm of her left hand. An involuntary yelp escaped Sylvia’s lungs, but she quickly covered her own mouth as she processed the exhilarating agony.
A presence entered the room, but the door did not open. The ghost appeared. Sylvia sat in silence for a moment, recovering from the pain, panting. Her palms continued to burn. The ghost came over and held Sylvia’s hand in her own, and the sensation was soothed. Sylvia looked up at her face.
“What’s your name?”
“Two sisters.. in madness… it seems.”
“You mean, like, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf?”
Virginia continued to cup Sylvia’s injured hand in her own.
“Why… did you do this.. to yourself?”
“It makes me feel better.”
“Does… it make you feel better… because you hurt inside?”
Sylvia nodded, and Virginia looked at her in knowingness, then down at her own wrists.
Mania shapes a martyr’s scorn.
Exhilaration started to give way to exhaustion. Sylvia’s tired eyes could not close, and she was driven forward as if by a motor. Compelled to adventure, Sylvia dragged her aching muscles further through the streets. She did not know how long she had been awake, but it was longer than at least three sunrises.
Sylvia’s mind had started to close to the sunshine all around her, but a tepid joy still crept through her head. It was slowing down and cooling down. Terror sprung up, but Sylvia pushed it down.
What is insanity but joy inverted?
The hospital’s first mistake was giving Sylvia a plastic spoon. The second was leaving her alone with it. The mad are particularly resourceful.
Breaking off the round part of the spoon and storing it under the mattress for later, Sylvia set the sharp edge of the handle against her arm, and cut. The pain seeped into her skin and pooled at her wrists. Sylvia had not cut deep enough to injure herself– she had another end in mind.
Virginia appeared in her room and held Sylvia’s arm in sad respect.
“Why… did you do this… again?”
“So I could see you again.”
If a ghost could have blushed, Virginia would have, but she had no blood to color her cheeks.
“I don’t… want you… to hurt yourself.”
“But,” Sylvia said, puzzled and embarrassed, “I really wanted to see you.”
“Do not… bait me… with your pain.”
Sylvia began to cry.
“You’re the only one who’s ever cared,” Sylvia choked out. “You’re the only one who hasn’t been like, Oh, why are you trying to kill yourself? rather than, What’s hurting you inside?”
Virginia did not speak, but looked at Sylvia knowingly.
“You’re the only one who gets it.”
Virginia flew over to Sylvia and enveloped her in a hug. As they pulled apart, they looked into each other’s eyes, found the galaxy in each, stared in wonder and amazement. Sylvia reached her face forward and gently kissed Virginia. Virginia kissed her back, then looked at Sylvia in love and regret.
“I’m dead… how could we… ever be together?”
Sylvia, again, cried.
When depression strikes, it does not do so halfheartedly. The lightning struck Sylvia down suddenly and acridly. The clouds passed over the sun and the light was blocked from Sylvia’s mind, and it withered like a flower abandoned by the day.
Sylvia retired from the outside world and lived entirely in the excruciatingly small room inside her mind. The doors and windows were barred and she could not get out. It was a cage, and she was ready to kill the bird.
The razor blades sat on Sylvia’s desk, calling to her in whispers, then shouts, then a wild cacophony of self-immolation and a reification of death.
No longer able to resist, Sylvia picked one up and dragged it across her wrist. She had done this many times successfully, but this time she was a little too earnest. With regret, Sylvia realized her mistake, and laid down on her bed to say goodbye to the world. She texted her mother a heartfelt farewell, and went to sleep for what she thought would be the last time.
This is the day my life will surely change. This is the day I join Virginia in the grave.
Sylvia had snuck some scissors out of the art room and sat with them on her bed in contemplation. There was a little fear, but it was tempered by conviction.
How can I be with you in this life?
Sylvia drew the scissors across her wrists with abandon but had to go over a few times to produce the intended result. If she could not be with Virginia in this life, she would join her in eternity. Sylvia felt a sense of joy, of relief, seep in through the cuts and into her being.
Virginia appeared in a panic. Sylvia expected joy, but her vision began to fade and she laid down on the bed to enter the afterlife. Virginia screamed and a nurse came running. Sylvia felt cold tears fall on her face, and then– oblivion.
Sylvia awoke in intensive care, yet again.
Wow. I’ve come full-circle.
This time, Virginia was there in the corner. Sylvia teared up.
“Why would you not let me die? I love you. I wanted to be with you in eternity.”
Virginia was crying.
“Eternity… lasts forever… I love you, too… but you need… to live… for yourself… first.”
“Why do you haunt this hospital?”
“I died here.”
Sylvia remained silent.
“I am trapped here… in my misery… for eternity… I cannot transcend… this place… even in the afterlife… our suffering… doesn’t save us.”
“So, why did you come to me?”
“I knew… you could be saved… in a way… that I wasn’t… if I showed you… that your pain was welcome here.”
Sylvia sobbed into the void in her heart that had started to close up before she tore it open again.
“I’m sorry you died here, that you’re stuck here. I wish someone could have saved you.”
“I thought… my home… was in… the grave.” Virginia paused. “I was a wicked one to save.”
Brenna Carroll is a writer located in Houston, TX. Her other work appears in Adelaide Magazine.