A Time of Water, A Time of Trees

Fictionalized Biography

by Ann Fletcher

I met Louisa through my work as a geriatric social worker when her doctor referred her to me for psychotherapy because of her refusal to have a polyp on her vocal cords removed.

"She acts like she deserves it," he explained. "She must be clinically depressed to feel that way."

Her doctor said that the croaking sound was from a benign condition, but to her it was anything but benign. Louisa told me that her voice box was paralyzed. It seemed to her like a kind of cancer was devouring her words. Her voice was faint, hoarse, and painful to hear. All subtleties were gone from her speech. Listeners could not detect anything like annoyance, irony, or warmth in her conversations with them. Her pitch was frozen in the sub-zero range, encased in blocks of ice that did not thaw. During our meetings together, she told me the story of her life.

Louisa was born in Portugal in 1921. She came from a poor family, her father was a cobbler and a carpenter, and her mother worked hard to raise the seven children who survived. The only thing that kept them from starvation was her mother's ingenuity in growing most of their food, and keeping livestock on the property to supply the family with milk and eggs and cheese. Louisa went to the village school until she was 13.

"When girls began to menstruate, they generally left school," she told me. "To my family, this meant that I was old enough to stay home and help my mother with the little ones. I worked hard because I loved my mother and wanted life to be easier for her."

That a young girl had now left school and was helping her mother was also a signal to the other villagers that a girl had reached a marriageable age.

"Although my mother did not want me to marry at such a young age, my father did. It was one less mouth for him to feed and he knew that I would live nearby."

She remembered this time of her life with pleasure: "Even though I was up early and did many chores, I was young and half-asleep, giddy with the possibilities that I hoped life had in store for me. And the sun, it turned my skin a glorious nutmeg color. I was lovely then with my strong muscular legs and shining eyes. It was a time of water, a time of trees. . . .

"I knew that Vicktor followed me with his eyes. He watched me walk in the marketplace and kneel at Mass. I was too shy to meet his gaze, though I was secretly thrilled that such a tall and handsome man was interested in me. I saw him talking to my father after church one Sunday. When we got home, my father told me that Vicktor had asked him if he could keep company with me and my father had said yes.

"I sponge-bathed myself carefully that afternoon, and my mother added a precious drop of vanilla extract behind each ear. With my brown skin and eyes and wearing my best beige dress, I thought of myself as a fig sprinkled with cinammon, spicy and warm.

"I felt painfully shy when Vicktor arrived at around 2:00 in the afternoon to take me for a walk. His mustache looked freshly waxed and he carried a bouquet of wild flowers and handed them to me with a flourish.

"One thing about Vicktor was that he was good at courting. He was always on his best behavior. Things were very different after we were married. I never could predict his moods, there never seemed to be a rhyme or reason to them. Although I could usually tell when a storm was approaching the village because of the changes in the color in the sky and in the wind's volume, I never did learn to predict Vicktor's rages. He seemed to be angry at almost everything, and I learned early on that I could never please him. There was always something I did that irritated him.

"My parents were gentle with us and did not hit us for misbehaving. The first time Vicktor slapped me hard across the face for telling him to wait a moment for dinner to be ready stunned me. I felt as cornered as if I were a deer that was caught in the truck headlights of a hunter and could not escape.

"How I learned to despise wine. Drinking wine made my father cheerful and mellow, but Vicktor became even uglier, demanding and rough as a thorny bush. I had so wanted to enjoy lovemaking, but Vicktor used it as just another excuse to seize and conquer.

"How horrible it still is, to remember my 16-year-old self being dragged by her hair into bed or thrown on the floor and having my underpants torn off, and the way that he entered me so abruptly hurt so much that I could not stop sobbing. Once he actually fell into a drunken stupor on top of me and began to snore. I hardly knew myself when I looked in the mirror, my skin was often as bruised as plums left out in the sun too long. I felt that he was trying to take my soul from me, and I plotted escape, I plotted revenge.

"No one would help me, my father did not intervene, saying that he could not tell another man how to run his house. The realization that I was now thought of as someone else's property horrified me. The priest in the confessional box said that I must be faithful to my marriage vows, that this man was my husband no matter what. My mother understood, and was worried about me, but was too fearful to take me back into the house, or to confront Vicktor.

"When I first started to get nauseous in the mornings, I kept it secret. I would not bring a child into that hateful house. I knew that Vicktor would continue to hurt me while I was pregnant, and would eventually hurt my child. There was a mid-wife who lived in the next village, who smoked pipes of tobacco, and whose skin was wrinkled as prunes. She was strong and stubborn and well read. She had never married, and shared her home with her cousin Marta. I went to her and asked her how I could abort the child that I could not stand to bear. She gave me packages of bitter herbs and told me to take boiling hot baths, as hot as I could tolerate. This changed nothing. I was still pregnant, and terrified it would soon be found out.

"I went back to her and pleaded for her to help me. She reluctantly agreed. Marta had me drink a cup of whiskey and held me down as the mid-wife, after sterilizing the crude instruments, reached between my legs, where almost immediately I felt pain and the trickling of blood. They rocked me like a young child afterwards and tried to calm me. How much I wanted to stay and live with them, how badly I wanted to get away from Vicktor, and I knew that I would and I knew that I must.

"I went to talk to my best friend in the village, a girl 17 years old like myself, but who was not yet married. She wanted to help me, but she had no money to lend and did not know of anyone in another town who I could go to live with.

"I went home and told Vicktor that I was sick with my monthly and needed to stay in bed for a day or two. He grunted as usual, never really having a conversation with me that was not a command. I slept for almost two days, awakening only to use the bathroom and drink some water. I had just gone back to sleep when I heard the police at our door.

" 'Louisa Sutherland,' they said, 'We are here to arrest you for the murder of your unborn child.' "

"I was astounded. Who could have told on me? Even Vicktor was speechless as they let me get dressed and gather a few items before they took me off to jail.

"I was sentenced to three years in prison—one for each year of my marriage, I thought bitterly. My mother came to see me once a week, bringing me bread and cheese which I eagerly bartered for cigarettes and candy. I wasn't really miserable or treated badly in prison, but I grew very lethargic, which I now know was the direction that my depression took. What difference did it make what I did or not? My life was now under someone else's control as it had been ever since my marriage. I barely resembled that brown and shining girl I had been only a few years before.

"Seven months before I was let out of prison, Vicktor was robbed and stabbed to death outside a bar where he had gone to drink away his sorrows. Although I felt relieved, I was also grief-stricken that our lives together had brought us both to these terrible places.

"After being released, I got a job as a governess in Lisbon. It was there that I began to heal. This was a warm and loving family and they treated me well. Arthur was employed there as a gardener and we began to keep company. I was afraid to tell him about my past, but he just kissed my tears away when I told him all that had happened to me. I knew that I had at last found a kind and gentle man.

"We married and had a son Lucius two years later, and by that time I had an embroidery business that I ran out of our home. I was known for my skilled lace-work and was kept busy making wedding gowns and gifts of elaborate table cloths and napkins. This was a time of peace and prosperity for us. We had friends in for wonderful meals and once went to Spain for a week's holiday. I grew relaxed and plump and sunny once again.

"Things were changing in Portugal. The Catholic Church was not as powerful, and although I knew that I had committed and been punished for a grave sin, our parish priest absolved me, and I vowed to become as good and as generous a person as I could.

"When Arthur died suddenly when I was 60 years of age, it hurt so much that I was afraid I couldn't stand it, but I still remained so grateful for the loving and happy home that Arthur and I made together.

"Lucius went to college to study engineering. He met his wife Angela, an American of Portugese descent, when he was working one summer at the utility company near the University. After graduation, he moved to Boston, where they got married six months later.

"My life felt lonely with both Arthur and Lucius gone. Many of my friends were aging rapidly and were no longer able to manage their homes. Lucius insisted I move to America, and 10 years ago I did.

"It shocked me when I saw how noisy and busy everything is here, with so much emphasis on material things and so little importance placed on things of the spirit. My English, mostly learned from television and my granddaughters, has never been very good.

"I pray every day for God to forgive me. How different my life would have been if it had been Arthur and not Vicktor who took me walking, if I had only known the sweet kisses of Arthur and not the shoving and punching of Vicktor.

"Sleep eludes me now, an old woman with no voice and pains and aches in every joint. Sometimes I awake to hear a child calling me, sometimes it's a boy and sometimes it's a girl reaching out to me. When I have these dreams I do not go easily back to sleep. I bring my rosary beads into bed with me and ask Our Lady to make sure these children find a home with someone who will love and care for them.

"I still miss the olive trees in Portugal, where I remember stopping after school to pick some to eat immediately, and filling my pockets with them to be chopped into salad for that night's dinner."

There were many occasions during our therapy sessions together when I wished that I were a priest and could assure Louisa that God had forgiven her and that she was living a thoughtful and examined life. For six months I attempted to convince her that it was merely a polyp on her throat that made it difficult for her to speak, not the mark of a vengeful God, but she continued to believe that her voice had been silenced, and that her story was ending. If illness is a metaphor, then what happened to Louisa's vocal cords makes sense.

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