Reification of a Consciousness

by Charlotte Dovey
Autry National Center [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“American Progress” by John Gast.
This is an allegory of America’s “manifest destiny.” My story is a different sort of allegory on a similar theme

Henry David bolted awake as toppled over onto his side, banging his head against a rock with a thud.  He was not yet sure exactly what was happening to him, except that his hands were tied behind his back and something was pulling roughly at his clothes and hair, trying to drag him along the ground.  Someone jerked his head to one side and roughly stuffed a wad of cloth into his mouth, stifling him.  It was then that he realized that he must have been groaning.

His vision was blurred from the blow on his head.  All he could see of the young woman who was manhandling him was a mass of dark, matted hair covering a filthy face smeared with dried mud.  She was also completely naked, despite the cold April air.  Once she positioned him where she wanted him, propped against a tree, she immediately lost interest and began scrambling around in the dirt where he had been lying.  As he watched the strange woman, he wriggled and flexed his hands and arms to loosen his binds.  She did not seem to pay much attention to him.  She was investigating the several small objects he had brought with him on his walk.  She picked up his pen and held it level to her face and peered at the nib.  She touched it, gingerly, and then dropped it.  She rustled through his papers, and then picked up a small flask he carried.  She shook it and seemed perplexed by the strange sound that came from it.  After peering at it for a moment, she also put this down.  She then picked up his gun and studied it for several minutes, and the dead rabbit that he had just shot.  As he realized that he was not in much danger of being murdered or permanently injured, his initial panic subsided, replaced by an eerily distanced curiosity.  The girl walked over to him and looked him in the face, pulling his head back.  When she met his eyes, she started suddenly, and backed away from him, looking frightened and confused.

He watched her as she ran off into the brush, leaving him helpless as he lay bound and unable to move.  After some time he loosened the fabric she had used to tie his hands and wearily he pulled himself to his feet.  He picked up his things, wearily, and limped slowly back to his cabin, thinking that in the future he should keep himself from nodding off in the woods like that.  He shook his head and laughed at himself, thinking that you never really know what Nature has in store for you, no matter how friendly you think you are with her.

Some many minutes later, he became aware that someone followed him.  He could feel someone watching him.  Then he heard a snapping twig and footfalls on some dried old leaves, confirming his fears.  He knew it was the girl, but he did not look back.

When he finally arrived at his small cabin, he went around back to collect a few pieces of firewood and he stacked them next to the door.  Then he went rummaged through his dirt cellar for some potatoes and turnips, using the bottom half of his shirtfront as a makeshift basket.  He carried these into his cabin and rolled the vegetables out of his shirt onto the table, then went out again for the wood.  He carried the pieces in a few at a time, since he still felt quite weak and his head ached terribly.  After he got the fire going nicely, he skinned his rabbit, then browned the meat in the pot, and added some beer and the root vegetables. 

Exhausted by the day’s tumult, and still suffering from a badly aching head, he turned to sit and drink what was left of his beer.  He nodded off to sleep. 

He awoke suddenly, the young woman stood before him in the fire light, just as naked as she had been that afternoon, with her dark skin obscured by what looked like the matted layers of dirt.  Slowly, his eyes on her, he sat in his chair, vaguely frightened, while she studied him with her intense, piercing dark eyes.  Then she looked around his cabin until her eyes rested upon the black pot over the fire.  It occurred to him that the smell of his rabbit cooking in the pot must have seeped beyond the cabin walls to compel her in.

Henry David silently portioned her out some food and put the bowl on the table.  She picked it up and, ignoring the spoon he gave her, scooped the food out, greedily shoveling it into her mouth with her fingers.  Then she wanted more.  When she had finished most of the pot of stew, she withdrew to huddle in the corner of the room, among the shadows cast by the fire, and waited, watching Henry David suspiciously with her sparkling eyes.  He sat in his chair, also watching, forcing his eyes open, fighting against his compelling need for sleep.

Again, in the morning, he bolted awake, but to a great crash.  The girl had overturned the pot, and had jumped back in reaction to the horrible clamor.  Henry David asked her what she wanted, but she did not seem to understand.  She continued to stare at him with wide, unblinking eyes, obviously alarmed.  He guessed that she must have been looking for food, and that was why she had been after the pot.  He cut up a piece of dried salted fish that he had stored away.  She sniffed it, then tasted it with the tip of her tongue, and apparently decided that it was all right to eat. 

Henry David wasn’t sure what to do.  Clearly, this girl was not going to leave yet, but what had she to do with him?  Why did he end up with this creature on his hands?  He decided that he would continue with his plans for the day, and simply hope that she would tire of him and leave. He prepared a small number of things he would need for fishing, such as his basket with lures, his fishing rod, and his small notebook and pen that he took with him everywhere, to jot down observations as the occasions warranted.  She sat at the small kitchen table and watched him as he moved around the cabin.  He ignored her.  He pulled on his old, worn jacket, picked up his gear, and began to head out the door.  He closed it behind him without looking back.  He heard the door open and close again behind him.

There was something distressing to Henry David about being followed by a nude girl.  It was not as though there was anyone around to witness this, but nevertheless his sense of modesty was so ingrained that it seemed somehow unnatural for humans to be naked, even here in the silent woods where he rarely saw other people.  He was ashamed for her, and for himself, and half expected that at any moment some other soul would come upon them out of the woods, and somehow associate the young woman’s nudity with him.  He felt exposed, if he was naked himself.

As they wandered deeper into the woods, into the calm, cool, dampness of the ancient, tall trees, Henry David looked behind him at the girl following behind.  He was surprised to see that she looked quite frightened.  She ran up to him and tugged at him, trying to stop him.  He pulled away.  He could not understand why a creature who had, it seemed to him, obviously spent so much time living on her own in this wilderness would fear it, while he, a mere student of Nature, found such profound comfort in it.  It was even more than that to him; Nature was the source of all wisdom.  She tried again to tug at him, and he marched ahead, trying not to take any notice of her.  The next thing he knew, he was on the ground, stunned.  He tried to push her away, but she fought him down.  They returned home without any fish, and he had to pull some old root vegetables out from his dirt cellar for dinner.  This proved difficult with a bandaged and throbbing hand and his head still aching.

Over the next few days, he found it impossible to keep up with the girl, and every night he fell off to sleep exhausted through the attempt.  Every day he battled actively to keep going, always hoping that she would leave, but he never dared to try to force her away.

After two weeks Henry David discovered that he and the young woman were quite familiar with each other.  He even found that he was able to bathe her without her screaming and running away from him.  After he scrubbed her he said to the girl, “My friend is coming out to see me soon and will want to take a look at you.  It’s best if we cover you up.”  She looked up at him casually, apparently unconcerned or else uncomprehending.  Henry David pulled a simple brown smock over the girl’s head and yanked her arms through the sleeves.  To his surprise, she did not object, but curiously tugged at the crude garment and examined it.  He ventured to comb the knots out of her hair but she shrieked, so he desisted. 

When his friend Ralph came by that afternoon, Henry David told him about how he had come across the girl, and of her behavior.  After Ralph examined her carefully, he told Henry David, “It’s hard to say exactly – her features are not really those of a Negro, or of an Indian either – on that point I quite agree with you.  But she’s much too dark to be white.  Where did you find her, exactly?” 

Henry David retraced his steps of the day that the girl attacked him.  He and Ralph tracked along the path and in the clearing, but they were unable to determine her origination into the area, though the exact spot where she attacked him was evident enough.  They returned to the cabin, where the girl awaited them, sitting on a log and scratching at the sandy dirt with a twig. 

Henry David and Ralph stood and gazed at the girl.  Henry David sighed.  “Well, what do you suppose I should do with her?”

Ralph suggested, “Why don’t you take her to Chief Cloud at Hutchins Pond and see if he can make anything of her?”

“And if he cannot?”

“Well, you could always post an advertisement asking if anyone is missing a young woman.”

Henry David scoffed, and then he realized that it might not be a bad idea after all.  He asked Ralph, “When you go back to town today, could you post a notice asking if anyone knows of a missing person found in the woods by Walden Pond, and if they do, to contact you?  Don’t give any details about her.”

Ralph agreed, but then asked, “What will you do if no one claims her?”

“I suppose we’ll figure that out later.  She can’t stay here indefinitely, obviously.”

Ralph returned a week later, and this time he had another man with him.  Henry David walked out to where Ralph had stopped his buggy and nodded a welcome to both men, then helped Ralph, an elderly man, down off of the seat. 

Ralph, Henry David, and Chief Cloud greeted each other, then the three men walked back toward the cabin. 

When they got to the small house, the girl was sitting on a rock, watching their approach. 

Henry David nodded at Chief Cloud, who then approached the girl, quite close to her to examine her more fully.  She stared at him in return.

Chief Cloud spoke to her in Wampanoag, but she just continued staring.  He then spoke to her in English, but again, there was no response.  He then poked her arm to see how she would react, but she just grunted impatiently and swatted at him.  He tried again in a couple of other languages, including French and Spanish, but she did not respond, other than to continue staring.  He returned again to Henry David and Ralph.

Chief Cloud asked, “Where did you say you found her?”

“She attacked me about a quarter of a mile from here, by the edge of the pond.”

“She attacked you?  With what?”

“A stone.  She must have come up behind me and struck me.”

Chief Cloud’s eyes narrowed.  He commented, “You are known to be a very observant man and a reasonable tracker.  I’m surprised that she was able to take you unaware.”  When Henry David did not volunteer any comment, the chief asked, “Her clothes – was she wearing those when you first discovered her?”

“No, she was quite bare altogether.  I covered her up.”

“Was she injured?”

“No, quite strong, actually.”

Ralph scoffed, amused, whereby Henry David glanced at him askance and frowned slightly.

Chief Cloud suggested, “Well, I suppose she could be mixed blood, but other than to venture a guess, I cannot categorize her at all.  As far as her lack of language and the condition in which you found her, I suspect that she must have suffered some sort of shock, or perhaps an illness.”

Ralph ventured, “And what would you do with her if you found her?”

Chief Cloud thought for a moment.  He suggested, “I suppose we would simply take her in, but inform the authorities in case her people sent inquiries.”

“Yes, I’ve told the authorities, and I’ve also posted advertisements.”

Henry David shook his head sadly, then he sighed.  He told them, “I suppose I will have to keep her for a while longer.”

“Do you know if she has a name?”

“We know nothing about her at all.”

During the men’s discussion, the girl sat on a rock, watching them slyly.  Ralph finally walked over to her and cupped her face in his hands.  He intently looked her in the eyes and told her, “We shall call you Fier.”  She clamped her teeth into his hand and bit him hard. 

Before Chief Cloud and Ralph left, the Chief told Henry David, “We’ll pray for her, and for you.”

Over the next few months the girl had grown fond of Henry David, as was clear to the small group of people who sometimes visited Henry David, generally stopping by to give him some of the things he needed.  Fier followed him everywhere, holding onto his coat sleeve or belt whenever she could manage it.  She also warmed to Ralph and greeted him with ferocious embraces whenever she saw him, and he had to tear himself away from her, generally with an embarrassed laugh. 

Henry David marveled at Fier’s energy and vivacity, and looked on her with dread.  As he drifted reluctantly to sleep by the lake, she would often bound upon him, toppling him over.  He never saw her sleep.  He was worn out by her restlessness, and decided that he should put her to work.  One sunny day in early June, he took her out to the small garden outside his cabin and showed her how to use the garden tools, and what to do with them, and he showed her where to move any rocks in the bed to.  She took to it instantly, proving far more capable than he was.  They worked separately all day, and after some time, Henry David began to tire.  He looked up and saw that she still happily worked away, just as heartily as when she had begun.  He sighed.  “Don’t you ever need rest?” he said to her, somewhat disgusted. 

To his surprise, she yelped a loud, smug “No!” and cheerily grinned at him.

As Henry David lie down on his cot that evening for sleep, he mulled over what was the meaning of this girl’s capacity for language.  Had it been present all the time?  Could she perhaps speak some strange foreign dialect?  Possibly she even knew English but had not wished to talk to him until now for some reason of her own. 

He suddenly decided to teach her English.  This idea struck him as better than physical labor – it required no physical exertion on his part, and a great deal of mental exertion on hers.

The next day, it was immediately clear to him that she did not know English other than the few words that she must have picked up recently while in his company.  He taught her words by showing her things, such as the small wood violets or last season’s fallen leaves, and making her repeat the sounds of the words.  However, he found that she put every bit as much effort into learning as she put into the gardening; she sat for hours on end concentrating, tirelessly listening and often repeating after him.  He read to her as he wrote his essays, thinking aloud as he drafted.

Henry David quickly learned that teaching Fier was a greater labor than working in the garden or hunting, but she learned alarmingly quickly, and in that way, he found her instruction rather pleasing.  He decided that he would also teach her to read and write so she could start working a bit more independently. 

Very soon he was able to leave her to copy simple letters, pouring over the information he imparted to her.  Then, every day after they got settled into the work, he left her at the table and went off on his own to write, or study plants, or cook, or sleep, as he wished.

In early autumn, Ralph visited again after being away for several months.  When he saw Fier sitting next to the hearth in Henry David’s cabin, he was visibly stunned.  Henry David smiled at his friend’s reaction and said to him, “It’s truly remarkable what proper clothes and a small amount of education will do.  She’s quite astute, really; she’s already fluent in reading and writing in English, and after such an impossibly short time.”

Ralph studied his friend silently for a minute or two, and then said, “Perhaps it is because you spend so much time with Fier that you haven’t noticed.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at her skin.”

Henry David focused on the girl’s face and hands, now the only part of her body not completely covered by cloth.  He realized that his friend was right, but he was at a loss for how it could have happened.  “It’s impossible,” he said at last, shaking his head. 

The men pondered.  Ralph suggested that perhaps her skin had changed because she spent more time indoors, but Henry David said that she still spent a good deal of time during daylight hours working in the garden.  Then Ralph asked if it was possible that their initial perceptions had been colored by some expectation they had about her.  Henry David shrugged, and asked, “Do you suppose it is possible that we did not observe her carefully enough when she first came to us?”

Jean-Léon Gérôme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Pygmalion and Galatea”

Ralph chuckled.  “I might consider it if it had been anyone else but you who was observing her.” 

The men finally had to agree that Fier’s skin had turned from a rich brown to almost pale within the course of the summer, although the explanation was somehow beyond them.

Ralph stayed that evening to have an early supper with Henry David and Fier.  Fier seemed largely to ignore them, so the men discussed the immanent war.

Ralph asked, “Have you begun your essay about John Brown’s hanging?”

“Yes, but it is not yet finished.  It is truly a travesty when human beings are murdered for defending others, and our newspapers call it just punishment for an inhumane act.  I’d like to ask these fine newspapermen who is truly inhumane – those who enable slavery or those who die, and are prepared to go to battle, in order to free men from those terrors?”

When Henry David paused, he glanced up to find that Fier was staring at him quite intently.

One day two weeks later, Fier rather abruptly told Henry David that she was walking to town.

He asked, “What are you going to do there?”

“Ralph told me about a political meeting.”

Henry, caught unaware, blinked and drew his head back suddenly.  He asked, “Why do you want to go to a political meeting?”

“Shouldn’t we do our best to fight against slavery?  And part of that fight is to show our support of the abolitionist movement.  Another part is to get involved in a free exchange of ideas and to learn as much about the issues as possible.”

“But how do you know about politics?”

“I know a lot.  I have even become quite interested in Transcendentalism and I wish to learn more about it.  There’s nothing wrong in that.”

“How did you learn about Transcendentalism?” asked Henry David, quite shocked.

“Why wouldn’t I know about it?  There are books here in the cabin.  Besides, Ralph gave me some essays to read.”

“He did?”

“Yes, so I could practice reading.”

Fier, therefore, went to town, but alone.  When she returned in the evening, she had a basket full of books on her arm, but she was haughty, even somewhat secretive, when Henry David asked her about them.  She did not reply, but simply sat down on a stool and began to read.

She spent the next several weeks reading, and rarely stopped, even to sleep or eat.  She did not even pay attention to Henry David, except to grunt in an inattentive, off-hand manner when he spoke to her.  She was uninterested in helping him with the work around the cabin now that she had a pile of books.

Henry David watched her sadly, as the girl read by candlelight.  Her energies now turned from hard labor to intellectual pursuits, but her vivacity in no way diminished.  Even her facial expression evoked an extreme physical and mental power – the tension in her jaw and the alertness in her eyes were almost frightening in their severity, and this power at once turned away from the physicality while it reflected it.

By late autumn, Fier took a room in a respectable boarding house, with Ralph’s assistance.  It was clearly not seemly for her continue her life with Henry David, and the change seemed to suit her.  Ralph and his wife also saw to it that the girl was dressed appropriately.

Henry David quickly drifted away from her and back to his life of quiet, tired isolation.  He sometimes missed the girl’s former excesses as her affection had cooled to dignified fondness; her passions that had been poured into intellectual endeavors now carried themselves quietly and with enormous self-discipline.

The following summer, Ralph invited him to one of these organized intellectual events.  His concern for his ex-pupil outweighed his usual reticence and he agreed to attend.  As usual, when he arrived at Ralph’s house people who were eager to attract his attention surrounded him.  A man that Henry recognized as an English professor approached him.  The professor was accompanied by a women whom Henry David assumed to be his wife, walking at his side.  The professor seemed to be pushing, or at least steering, the woman from behind, toward Henry David, through the mob of people in the foyer, many of whom were chatting and removing their coats.  The professor seemed to be quite determined to talk to him, but Henry retreated hastily, making his way through the front room into the larger parlour. 

Henry David looked around for Fier, but as he glanced around the room, he caught the eyes of several people who seemed intent upon attracting his attention.  He impatiently looked away from them all, making it quite clear that he did not wish to acknowledge them.  Anxiously, he kept searching for Fier.  Then he saw that she was herself surrounded by people, and she was their center of attention.  His first impulse was to approach the circle of people standing around her, but instinctively he withdrew and decided to wait for her instead, to avoid what inevitably would amount to useless small-talk and his own discomfort of trying to flee from it.

As he stood in the corner, drinking a glass of sherry that had been handed to him, he overheard a middle-aged woman next to him say to her companion, “There she is!  Do you see that woman in the gray dress?  That’s Henry’s pupil, Fier.”

The companion craned her neck, curious to see her.  “Oh, yes, she’s speaking with Ralph and his wife – and the parson’s crowd.  I’ve heard that the woman is quite an intellect.  Ralph told me that she has a remarkable memory and facility in language and is  fluent in more than half a dozen, including Latin and ancient Greek.”

“Really?  I thought she was illiterate when they found less than a year ago?”

“I can’t imagine where you could have heard that.  What nonsense!”

Henry David moved away from the two women.  He was annoyed that he could overhear their conversation.  The room, however, was quite crowded and as he escaped from one conversation, he ended up having snippets of yet another thrust upon him.  This time, it was two middle-aged men.

The man with the long beard explained to his companion, “…The fact is, no one knows anything about her past, up until less than a year ago.  Even the girl does not know her own background.”

“How can that be?” his companion asked, apparently confused.

“Apparently she does not remember.”


“I suppose so.  I can’t imagine what else could cause it.”

The men continued talking.  Henry David turned away, trying to block out what they were saying.

Once again, Henry David moved through the crowd, but by the time he made his way to Ralph, Fier had been called away to another part of the house.  He saw only the back of her, as she walked down the hallway.  She wore a simple, elegant dress and an austere hat with a few osprey feathers.  A golden ringlet hung down from the back. 

He was startled when Ralph greeted him abruptly from behind.  “Henry!  I am glad to see you here.  I was sure you wouldn’t come, but I see now that I should have expected you to come, if for no other reason that to see Fier.”

“I heard you found her a job at the library?”

“Yes, and it seems that she is quite indispensable there, I am gratified to report.  Not only is she gifted with languages, but she is quite capable of articulating the most acute and complex philosophical arguments.  She is a wonderful resource for students and intellectuals alike.”

Henry David thought that this indeed would make her a valuable resource in the library, as in a drawing room discussion.  Henry David did not question the how or why behind this – it merely seemed right to him. 

Shortly after, on a trip to town for supplies, Henry David stopped by to see Fier again.  Fier’s landlady showed him to the door of the sitting room where the girl spent her time deeply engrossed in some book or other.  As the elderly lady paused outside the sitting room door, Henry David smiled politely, and thanked her.  The landlady nodded and disappeared down the hallway.

When he walked into the room and saw Fier, as she sat on a large stuffed armchair, he froze in terror.  A wave of uncontrollable revulsion seized him.  She was pure white – even her hair was the pure, powdery white, the color of chalk, and she sat perfectly still, her back straight, her head up, and a book fixed in her hand.  She wore a pure white dress, high and tight around the neck, the folds in the fabric rigid.  Her eyes that once shone with animal alertness were now transcendent and tranquil, but inert. Henry David approached her, and when he touched her she was cold, frozen.  She had turned to stone. 

In her alabaster hand rested the book he had given her some time before – Spinosa’s Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect.

Museo nazionale romano di palazzo Altemps [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Athena of the Parthenos

© Copyright 2019, Metamorphorica

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