Thoughts from the Asylum
A Cherokee Novella
Robert J. Conley
University of Oklahoma Press)This book tells of Wil Usdi's final years, just after the Civil War, his time in a madhouse in North Carolina. One day a student brings Wil his meal. "Did you bring my chicken soup?" says Wil."I brought you your meal. There's no chicken soup, though." Wil looks at the fare when the tray is placed on the table --- with one spoon. "No fork?" he says. "Why can't I have a fork? Bring me a fork and I'll stab you with it."
This is the merry jest that Wil indulges in during his times of near-sanity, but more often his mind goes foggy, he hears a sharp buzzing in his ears, he reacts with violence.
If he could only see Cudjo, he knew that Cudjo would bring him a knife for stabbing, or his sword. Cudjo would break him out of this damnable place. He would have a saddled horse ready and waiting outside on which Wil could make good his escape. He longed for that time. It was even good to just think about it. And if the guards came after him, he would shoot them down like dogs. Cudjo would, of course, have also brought him his gun.
Wil meanders back and forth between the land of the sane and the land of the mad, and both are described acutely by the author. When he plays at being "normal," we begin to think (as his visitors and doctors must) that he is faking it. He says "I'll eat all the meals they bring me --- with my spoon. I'll not complain about anything. I'll not shout and act crazy. I'll just be a perfectly normal human being. I'm all right." Two days later the doctor said that he had recovered and could go home.
So he returns to his family --- the four children, Sarah his wife, plus his 100 year-old mother. That night, he lay in bed with his beautiful wife. He wanted to "make mad, passionate love to her, but he know that he was unable to do so."
The longing was so great that Wil could not sleep. What a terrible thing it is, to be too old to do something, but not too old to long for it.
He remembered being "a most important man in his lifetime, almost an Indian chief, a state senator, and a Confederate colonel . . . . But he thought, that was all in his past. He was now an almost-forgotten old man. Who remembered his days of glory, his fiery speeches, is military charges, his challenges to the federal government on behalf of his Cherokee clients?"
Now he was old, and in debt, and he knew "that his debtors were after him from all sides. He realized that he was secured from their pressures by his madness."
The next morning, Sarah cooked him a delicious breakfast. He said, "Sarah, my love . . . you are the most wonderful cook in the entire South." He then asked her to play the piano. "It's been so long. Play for me." She said she couldn't, that she had burned her hand cooking breakfast. "I said play," he commanded. "I can't. Not now."
Over in the corner of the room, some tools were propped against the wall beside the door. One of them was a small hatchet. Wil rushed over to it and grabbed it. Then he hurried to Sarah's side, and he raised the hatchet above her head. "I said play," he growled. "Play for me, if you know what's good for you."
When his sons finally wrestle the axe from his hands, they tie him up and send for the sheriff. They pay him $33 to take Wil back to the asylum. "Don't hurt him, Sheriff," Sarah said.
"Don't worry, Miz Thomas," said the Sheriff.
Sarah stepped up close to Wil and put a hand on his arm. She stared into his face. "I'm sorry Wil," she said. "I hoped you'd be able to stay home with us this time --- at last."Wil Usdi's story is circular, like an epic, or like the memories of one who has turned old and balmy. We find ourselves hoping that Wil will stay out, but he never has the chance to do so, and when they finally give him his freedom, he finds that his wife and mother have long since died.
Wil Usdi's fate is not unlike that of King Lear, whom he quotes,
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks.
Your cataracts and hurricanoes spout
Til you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks . . .
Usdi, like Lear, is a once-powerful man laid low by his fantasy, his unwillingness to yield, the delusions that run him. For Lear and Usdi, these are deadly failings.
The author lets the reader share the anguish of knowing that despite Wil's power from before, it cannot cure him. The buzzing of the ears, the confusions, the violent reactions that, in a moment, can take on a life of their own. They will not let him be, can never save him. Even the 19th Century techniques of dealing with psychosis --- beating, starving, isolation --- are not enough to drive the devils from his soul.
By his very imagery, Conley shocks the reader into knowing this special helplessness: a captivating man at war with himself, one who wants to leave his tiny cell, leave behind the cell of his mind . . . to fly.
One day, Wil wakes from a dream, and he looks around, and "felt something something on his arms, and he looked down to see long black feathers that looked as if they grew out of his arms. He was astonished. He lifted his right arm until it stuck out straight from his side, and he saw the feathers clearly. He lifted his left arm and turned his head to the left. It was all true. Both his arms were well feathered."
He managed to stand, and then he raised both arms even higher and brought them down again. When he did that, he felt a slight lift to his body. He flapped his arms --- or his wings --- more, harder, and at the same time, he bent his knees slightly and then shoved off as hard as he could. He was going up --- up into the sky. He flapped his wings and rose higher and higher. It was wonderful. He had never before felt the breeze this way.
"He did no even need to flap his wings anymore, just stretch them out and glide along. It was so peaceful. Why, he wondered and asked himself, had he waited so many years to do this? He could go anywhere around the world and see anything --- everything."