On a Knife’s Edge
Lurking at the bottom of the water lay the knives. I could not see them through the murk in the sink but I knew they were there: butter knives, serrated steak knives, kitchen knives, a huge, heavy carving knife — that one terrified me the most, although they all made me feel sick with fear. Here I was, thirty years old with everything going for me, college degree, good health, good looks, good husband, two thriving little children, a first novel published — what in Hell’s name was the matter with me? Haunted, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, afraid of knives? Yet every day I used knives to prepare meals. And every day, washing dishes, I dripped cold sweat because of the knives concealed under the water.
Somehow, beneath that fickle, winking surface they seemed even more threatening. The water, darkness tangible, gave them some extra significance I could not identify.
The book I had written was a fantasy novel, long ago and far away in an imaginary land where youthful heroes rode horses and wore swords. There was a golden, loyal hero who served a sort of tarnished-silver one, a magical moody hero bearing a great burden of sorrow.
I did not realize either that I was writing for adolescents or that I had missed out on my own adolescence. Nor did I realize, having been raised never to rebel, that I had choices other than to wash the knives. In my family we did our duty, we didn’t balk and we didn’t cry. Three months after the birth of my first child, my father had died. I hadn’t cried. I had a baby to take care of.
Trembling but without making a sound, I took tenuous hold of the butter knives, washed them and dropped them into the drying rack.
I had told no one about my terror, not even my husband. Especially not my husband. Raised much as I had been, he would not, could not understand, only tell me to get over it, then go about his business.
I was trying to write another novel, but the second baby got me up six times a night and the toddler kept me from napping during the day. My husband never heard the baby; he could sleep through anything, evidently, while I couldn’t seem to sleep at all. Obsessive, disturbing images of knives kept stabbing me awake to daydream about heroes with swords. When I could spare a few minutes, I was trying to write a sequel about the sunlit hero and the shadowed hero — but opportunities were rare. There was no one to help with the babies, no family nearby, no friends, not even neighbors — we lived way out in the country, and I didn’t have a car. There was no money for extras.
Every day, while I chopped vegetables, stewed them with cheap meat, then washed dishes, I wanted to be at my typewriter. Fumbling in the dishwater for the sharp knives, I felt both of my wrists, not the joints but the soft undersides, hurt more urgently than usual. Even though there was nothing wrong with my wrists, often incorporeal pain hovered around the veins.
A pain I could not acknowledge because I knew it to be unacceptable, inadmissible, weak and indeed, evil. Surely no one else in the world was as evil as I. Or as alone with my own worthlessness.
Gingerly I washed the knives and tossed them into the rack.
Finished. For one more day.
I breathed out.
Clinical depression, the doctors called it. Clinical depression with obsessive thoughts and paranoia. It didn’t matter what they called it. They couldn’t do anything about it, not back then, not without turning me into a Valium addict. They counseled me to “adjust” to the wife/mother role, and thereby changed nothing.
And seemingly there was nothing I could do either. Nothing anybody could do.
I cringe, remembering how long things went on this way. Writing saved my life, I think, for the fear of knives plus the pain in my wrists were, of course, a suicidal urge I could not acknowledge. But when I wrote, that pang gave way to a more bearable, bittersweet yearning in my heart. And each completed novel — eventually I carried my maladjustment so far as to write before facing the laundry, the string beans and potatoes, the knives — each book took me a long step farther into a completely imaginary (I thought) world where black winged unicorns flew and white moon-maidens waned and died and grew again, where the spirits of the dead spoke and heroes went mute, where kings did battle with shape-shifters — shadows, wolves, mirrors. Each book, like a speaking steed, bore me farther into what I did not yet realize was a quest.
Until a certain day.
Occasionally, in life as in fiction, occurs an epiphany.
I was safety-belted into the passenger seat while my husband drove the car — he always drove — and my wrists hurt. I do not remember where we were going, only that the children were not with us, so there was silence. I turned to the window, gazing as we drove past a lake. Lovely lake, dark and deep. I looked down a steep wooded slope into inscrutable water, and immediately felt the cold sweat, the fear, out of place here yet more intense than ever before. Terror dizzied me, as if I might somehow fall out of the car and down, down into deep water where something monstrous lurked.
I blinked, and — as had never happened before, not in my haziest daze of fatigue — it, the manifestation beneath the water, emerged.
I saw it.
Point first, aspiring skyward, a huge knife broke the surface and arose, shining, golden, from the lake.
It was one of my obsessive imaginings — I knew that; I wasn’t crazy — this time an image so powerful as to be nearly a hallucination. But it was also something much more.
It was a sword.
And my fear rarefied into clear-eyed awe, for it was a sword I recognized. A sword I knew.
It was Excalibur.
It was also, of course, the biggest, heaviest carving knife under the dishwater in my kitchen sink, yet — yet it was Excalibur.
King Arthur’s sword. Not a villain’s knife, but a hero’s sword. Not weakness and evil; the sword’s lambent blade stood for power and good. More: it was an archetype, and the moment I recognized it, while it still flashed aureate in the sunlight and while my husband drove on, oblivious — in that moment my great loneliness ended, for the lake was my mind, but it was also the minds of Sir Thomas Malory and Chretien de Troyes and thousands of others since before recorded history. Its water’s shadowshining surface was the threshold of my uneasy sleep, but also the sleep of all other storytellers since dreams began. Its shadowy depths were my unconscious self and the collective unconscious of which Jung had written. And my struggle with my personal demons was at one with Hans Christian Andersen’s shadow-man, with yang and yin, with the Genesis story of darkness and light, with Yeats’s white stag leaping from mountain steep to steep, with haunted towers and holy grails and a whole trans-human language of symbolism I had studied in literature class after literature class —
But had never fully understood.
Epiphany: symbolism was not just a pretty way of saying things. Archetype was not just a concept. They were real.
In all of us.
Completely imaginary fantasy world? Ha. That world where I spent my days was the landscape of my imperiled self, the inward place where I quested to be whole. Where aspects of me, myself and I rode horses, and ventured upon journeys, and carried swords, and had permissible anger and along with it, power to change and make things change.
Power. The old, old, weapon of double edge, cutting both ways: myself, others. Neither good nor evil so much as human and necessary.
All of this I learned, I understood, I knew to my bones in that lakeside moment as my husband swerved the car a bit too fast around the next curve, and I was carried onward, watching over my shoulder as the Lady of the Lake lowered Excalibur once more beneath the surface of the water.
The Lady of the Lake. She was an archetype too. She was me, in me, at one with me and my ancestors and my unborn descendants and all humankind.
I gave her my heartfelt thanks then and I give them again now, three decades later.
I have no speech but symbol, the pagan speech I made
Amid the dreams of youth
— William Butler Yeats
I wish I could say that everything changed for me right away, that very day, the day dark water’s surface was broken for me. But it didn’t, of course. Growth takes time. Flowers and stories and selfhoods take time to unfold. And it took me time to learn to wield the heavy blade of which I had always been afraid and with which, in my clumsiness, I kept hurting myself.
But slowly I did wrest my sword, the power of my own self-will, from the inert stone of my distress. And slowly my life began to feel different, began to be different, and little by little my pain ebbed away.
My personal character arc balances upon the point of Excalibur.
Even now, many years and many publications later, I find it difficult to communicate the immensity of my discovery that a true fantasy world is not just a product of imagination, but is the landscape of the psyche; that symbols are not just a literary device, but are the language of the unconscious mind; that story is not just words on paper; indeed, archetypical stories may well be encoded into our DNA. At the time I could not have explained my epiphany in words. Yet, ever since that eidetic lakeside day, never again have I felt myself to be evil or alone. Since then, I have come to know myself as a person at one with — with struggling adolescents especially, but at the end of that quest for self, with all people. I know now that every word I write connects me, directly or indirectly, with the whole of humankind.