Eighty-eight-year old Elva and Courtney, an attractive sixteen-year-old with a severed spinal chord, lie in adjacent beds in a grim Bismarck, North Dakota convalescent home. Ignored by the world, the only resource they have left is their imagination.
As Elva and Courtney go on a fantasy trip to Italy (accompanied by Elva's long dead husband and guided by a 1910 travel book), Elva shows Courtney a new way to envision love. But to accept it, and the gift of the imagination, Courtney must make the trip her owneven if she destroys the art Elva holds most dear.
Written entirely in dialogue, Mind's Eye can be performed as reader's theater, but it is a fully satisfying novel. In this extraordinarily innovative, profound, and yet readable book Paul Fleischman makes us all feel what a powerfuland dangeroustool the imagination can be.
About the Author
Paul Fleischman won a Newbery Medal for Joyful Noise and a Newbery Honor for Graven Images. His most recent novel, Whirligig, was voted a Best Book of the Year by Publisher's Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist, and a Notable Book by the New York Times. Paul Fleischman lives in Monterey, California.
Read an Excerpt
By Paul Fleischman
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1999 Paul Fleischman
All rights reserved.
Elva: [Languidly, to herself.]
"So all night long the storm roared on: The morning broke without a sun...."
A bona-fide blizzard, in the first week of November. It's too early. Much too early. Even for North Dakota. [Louder.] Don't you agree?
[Pause. She sighs. Voice returns to original volume.]
"In tiny —" Tiny ... First my eyes, now my memory.
In tiny something, something, something, "... all day the hoary meteor fell; And, when the second morning shone, We looked upon a world unknown, On nothing we could call our own."
Dear girl, are you awake? It's nearly eleven.
[Long pause and sigh.]
"Around the glistening wonder bent The blue walls of the firmament, No cloud above, no earth below, — A universe of sky and snow...."
Courtney, are you awake? You are — I can see it. At last! Dear girl. It's not healthy to sleep so much.
Courtney: [Voice flat and barely audible throughout.] Where am I?
Elva: Poor thing, don't you remember? You came yesterday. In the afternoon. Briarwood Convalescent Home. You've slept nearly the entire time. ... I'm Elva. Have you forgotten? ... The other bed is May's. She's out right now. She's the one who touched your face and stroked your hair. Remember? ... She's got Alzheimer's. Though I'd guess there are plenty of us here who'd like to feel that smooth skin of yours. We don't have any other patients so young. You're a visitor from a far country for us. How old are you?
I asked how old you are,
Courtney: [Long pause.]
Elva: I guessed seventeen. I taught high-school English and drama for thirty-two years. I was just reciting from "Snow-Bound," actually. Keeping myself company. Look at the snow coming down out the window. Can you believe it? I'm sure you know the poem. ... Don't you?
By John Greenleaf Whittier.
It takes me straight back eighty years to Ithaca, New York. When we lived in the big house out on Frenchman Road.
Did you grow up here in Bismarck?
Am I prying? Or simply talking too much? Forgive me. I've been starved for talk, marooned here with May. Holding a conversation with her is quite a hopeless proposition. But I can enjoy silence. Just watching the snow fall.
[Long pause. Then she starts up again softly.]
"The old familiar sights of ours Took marvellous shapes; strange domes and towers Rose up where sty or corn-crib stood, Or garden-wall, or belt of wood...."
It's rather like being snowbound, living here, you'll find. Trapped inside, the front door locked so that the likes of May don't wander out. Confined with a mixed lot of lodgers all taking shelter from the storms of sickness and senility. The flickering TV instead of the hearth. The unchanging days. It's a winter without end. But then, when I heard I'd be getting another roommate!
"Next morn we wakened with the shout Of merry voices high and clear; And saw the teamsters drawing near To break the drifted highways out...." The first thing I asked the nurse was, "Does she read?" And when she said she was sure you did — why, I felt I'd been rescued. I can't tell you how glad I am that you're here.
I didn't mean that I'm glad you've ended up here. Of course not. Please forgive me.
The nurse told me about your accident. I've never trusted horses, myself. ... I'm so sorry for you, dear thing. ... Then again, doctors can work such wonders these days. A few weeks or months of rehabilitation and you'll be winging out of here like a bird from the nest.
Courtney: [Long pause.]
Elva: You speak so softly I can't quite hear.
Courtney: Guess again.
Elva: Which means what?
Courtney: [Long pause. Rote recitation.] My spinal cord was severed completely at the first lumbar vertebra.
I won't be flying. Or walking. Or leaving.
My dear girl. I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry.
But what about your family? Surely you'll be returning to them.
What about your family?
Courtney: [Long pause.]
I don't want to talk about it.
Elva: I'm sorry. Forgive me.
What a blessing, at least, that your injuries are strictly below the waist. That your brain was spared. The life of the mind is so much more sustaining than the life of the body. ... A pretty girl like you may find that hard to believe. But you've actually been handed a golden opportunity.
How I used to envy the pretty girls when I was young. The graceful ice-skaters. The beautiful dancers. I was quite plain myself. Crooked teeth. Disobedient hair. A disgrace and a public danger on the dance floor. I thought they had everything and that I had nothing. I burrowed into books while they frolicked. And how very glad I am that I did. Because now, when their bodies are failing them, they have no mental life to support them. I pity them. There are quite a few of them here.
Do you like to read?
I asked whether you like to read.
Elva: What a shame. But you can read, surely. ... Can't you?
Elva: Then you can be a woman of independent means, like me, no matter what your body will or won't do. Think of Milton, blind but with all of English literature stored in his brain.
Elva: Gracious sakes. John Milton. Milton was his last name. Perhaps the greatest name in English poetry. Prescott, too, was blind or nearly so. History of the Conquest of Mexico. I'm sure you've heard of it. Or think of Beethoven, deaf, hearing his glorious symphonies in his —
Courtney: Christ! What are you — my teacher?
Elva: [Long pause.]
I'm sorry. Forgive me.
I suppose I've never really retired from teaching.
I only want to help you.
My point was simply that here you are, living in this little room, stuck with two strangers not of your choosing. But your mind can be as vast as Russia and as crowded with characters as New York City.
Please don't go back to sleep.
I don't mean to minimize what's happened to you. Or to paint the future in glowing colors.
It must be especially hard, given your good looks. Your face, and your figure, and that lovely auburn hair. I would guess that you're one of the popular girls. And that you've had no shortage of male admirers. Dances. Parties. Trysts and intrigues. And then this.
"And, when the second morning shone, We looked upon a world unknown. ..."
It must seem a strange world, indeed. But if you're going to survive in it, you'll have to remake yourself. You'll need to spend hours on your mind, not your hair. It's there that you'll run and dance and fly. You're going to have to build inner resources.
Perhaps you've heard of the poet William Blake. "Five windows light the cavern'd Man...." The five senses, in other words. But you'll need a sixth window, so that you can escape from your cavern. You'll need imagination. You'll need it as much as oxygen. Or more. We both do, actually. I'm as unhappy here as you probably are. My only good friend here died last month. I don't like these dismal green walls or that sagging window blind or the smell of urine or the aides who manhandle us and then steal from us when we sleep.
[Confidentially.] And I have a plan for getting out. For getting us both out.
Elva: A wonderful plan. But I need your help. Let me find it. Here, in my dresser. Do you recall the Gray Sisters, from Greek mythology? They're in the story of Perseus. Three hags living in a lonely cave, with only one eye between them. When one wanted to see something, she had to borrow the eye from one of the others. That's the situation we find ourselves in here. My sight is leaving me. It's going quite quickly. Even large-print books are a blur. May is utterly incapable of reading. But you, dear girl — you have the eye.
Ah, here it is. Precious treasure. The book that will take us worlds away from North Dakota and winter and wheelchairs. A book that will strengthen your imagination marvelously. Take a look. The type is quite small, but your eyes are young.
Courtney: Bah-ed —
Elva: Like "bay." Baedeker. Baedeker's Italy. But you won't simply read it. No indeed. Let me explain. When my sister and I —
Courtney: Not now.
Elva: I beg your pardon?
Courtney: I'm tired.
Where's the remote?
Elva: For the television? My girl, that's for people who have no mind, who have to borrow one from the networks. That would only weaken you. Fortunately, you're in luck.
Elva: Dear Courtney — that TV hasn't worked for ages.CHAPTER 2
Elva: This oatmeal really isn't too bad. At least you can't break a tooth on it. Which can't be said of some of the delicacies here. Just last week I broke another. On a soggy fishstick! Can you believe it? ... Forgive me, Courtney, but headlines such as that are what pass for news around here.
May: They make the sheets too tight tight tight!
Elva: Another headline ... It's true, it is rather hard to straighten one's toes. Sheila never leaves a centimeter of slack in the sheets. I believe she must have had a career wrapping packages before she became an aide. ... That was Glenadine who brought the trays. You'll soon know them all. They become one's family, in a way. Glenadine is wonderfully consistent. Bad attitude, bad posture, and bad grammar. "Leave 'em lay there" is one of her staple phrases. Not to mention the double, triple, and quadruple negative. "By rights she should be taken out and hung, for the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue." As Henry Higgins said. In My Fair Lady ... That's all you're going to eat?
Do you know the words to any musicals? Give us a tune.
You probably have a lovely voice. Unlike the rest of us. You should have been at the singalong yesterday. If Stephen Foster had been called back to earth to hear our "Old Kentucky Home," he'd have fled back to his grave at a run.
The poems you've memorized will serve you well also. What do you know?
Some Robert Frost, surely. Some Shakespeare sonnets? Perhaps a few ballads? They make fine reciting.
Do you know any Robert Service?
"There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold...."
Courtney: [Long pause.]
Don't know any.
Elva: [Startled.] Truly?
It must be very lonely. ... I can't imagine it myself. ... It begins to snow and you hear "Snow-Bound" in your mind. You see a hummingbird and you hear "a resonance of emerald; a rush of cochineal." ... It's as if poems are walking with you, arm in arm. There's no experience that hasn't been written of. They accompany you everywhere you'll ever go. Even through your surgery. Even into this very room. Even into death, and beyond.
May: Glenadine is the mean one.
Elva: I had scores of poems memorized at your age. Many of them quite long. I'm not bragging. We all did. Where did I read that Winston Churchill memorized twelve hundred lines of Macaulay as a schoolboy? My father could recite long passages of Homer in both the Greek and English. Mother favored the Brownings and Wordsworth, and the Walter Scott ballads. The poems of her youth.
Truly? Not a single poem?
Do you know the story of Scheherazade?
She was the Arabian woman who kept herself from being murdered at dawn by a sultan by starting a story late at night, a long, fascinating story the ending of which she couldn't get to by sunrise. The sultan simply had to know what happened, so he let her live another day. That night she finished the story, and then started another just as good. And on and on, night after night. Those are the stories of The Arabian Nights. ... You, my girl, must be your own Scheherazade. You must keep yourself alive. But how will you do so if you haven't any poems or stories? ... Or do you plan to simply sleep away your remaining years? Or pass them with those headphones of yours permanently in your ears?
Courtney: My Walkman's gone. Somebody stole it last night.
Elva: No! ... Actually, I'm not surprised. It's just the sort of thing they take. That's a shame. ... But, frankly, Courtney, that machine was holding you back. It was keeping you from tackling your problems.
Courtney: It was keeping me from going insane.
Elva: And leaving you no time for reading and memorizing.
My brother Terrence knew several whole scenes from Dickens, word for word.
Courtney: Goody for him.
Elva: He was always called upon on Christmas Eve to give us the last chapter of A Christmas Carol.
And my sister, Rose. She used to entertain me with "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" time after time.
That juice tastes odd, doesn't it? I don't believe it ever had any actual connection with an orange.
Do you have any brothers or sisters?
Elva: That's a shame.
Are your parents still living?
Courtney: [Long pause. Sighs. Rote recitation.]
My father took off when I was two, for good. Then my mom married my stepfather. Then my mom died last year. Leaving me and my stepfather.
Elva: Dear Courtney. Poor child ... At least you two have each other.
Courtney: Right. Try "stuck with each other."
I never liked him and he never liked me. After my mom died, all we did was fight.
May: They say my dance dance dance lesson is tomorrow, not today.
Elva: More likely it was fifty years ago, May. ... Has your accident stirred some paternal feelings in him?
Courtney: Are you kidding? No way he was going to wait on me and empty the pee from my bag. Or turn the house into a hospital with nurses in and out and him working at home. So he dumped me in here. His dream come true. And his pathetic girlfriend's, who couldn't stand me either. She moved in the minute I moved out.
Elva: Aren't there any other relatives who could take you in?
Courtney: Not really.
Elva: Surely you could demand to live in your home.
Courtney: [Yelling.] I don't want to live with those assholes!
Elva: [Long pause. Gently.]
I see. Forgive me.
No poems or family for companions ... Do you belong to a church?
Elva: What about friends?
Courtney: [Long pause.]
They visited me in the hospital. The first few weeks ... It kind of gave 'em the creeps. I don't blame 'em.
I don't like 'em seeing me like this anyway. ... I don't like anybody seeing me.
Elva: I would guess that your accident has had a winnowing effect, separating the faithful from the faithless. That's a boon, actually. Especially where friends of the opposite sex are concerned. "In sickness and in health ..." the marriage service says. Many couples aren't up to that promise when it comes due. ... Do you perhaps have a boyfriend who's passed the test?
Courtney: [Long pause.]
We broke up. Before the accident.
Elva: I'm sorry.
Do you miss him?
Courtney: Not really.
I'm the one who called it off. ... He was seeing someone else. ... So was I, actually, sort of.
Elva: Well. I don't know quite what to say. Except that faithless friends are no friends at all.
I'm not repelled by your condition. The talk of catheters and bedsores and all the rest. There isn't much I haven't seen in eighty-eight years. ... When we have no families, we must find support elsewhere. Sometimes in strangers. We're all alone on this earth. We must take any hand that's offered us. I offer you mine, dear girl. I'll be your friend, if you wish. The faithful kind.
Courtney: [Long pause. Flatly.]
I had very few friends myself when I was young. But I did have four brothers and Rose, my sister. We girls were the youngest. She was my constant companion. Very artistic. She was three years older and loved to organize neighborhood pageants and plays. She was writer, director, costume maker, set designer. She always made sure I got a good part. Dear Rose. She was an ideal older sister. Life was quite inconceivable without her. Now that she's gone, I find the memories of her coming up unexpectedly, like daffodils you'd forgotten you'd planted. ... A marvelous memory garden to stroll through.
Excerpted from Mind's Eye by Paul Fleischman. Copyright © 1999 Paul Fleischman. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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