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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears


Laura van den Berg

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



I want to tell you about the night I got hit by a train and died.

The thing is—it never happened.

This was many years ago.

I didn’t think about that night, my last night, for a long time and then one day I woke up and it was all I could think about.

Let me try to explain. I’ve spent years cultivating a noisy life. I live in a city riddled with unending construction projects, in an apartment above a bar. I see student after student during office hours; I let their words replace my thoughts. I volunteer at a women’s crisis center in my neighborhood. I listen to the women tell me what’s happened to their lives. Recently, though, silence has snuck in. For one thing, the bar closed the day after Thanksgiving without any warning at all, casting the whole block in quiet.

I blame that shuttered bar for the return of my last night.

I was seventeen and I had been in this place for ten months, receiving treatment for my various attempts to kill myself. My parents had mortgaged their house to keep me there and it was only in my last two months that I agreed to talk to them on the phone and even then it was mostly out of boredom. I was that angry they wanted me to live.

This place was in a rural pocket of central Florida and they had kept me too long. I knew because by the time they got around to discharging me, I had forgotten how to shave my legs. I had forgotten about the existence of mouthwash (alcohol) and dental floss (hanging). I had forgotten the sound of the ocean. I had forgotten about cable TV and the Internet. I had forgotten the other world.

My fellow patients had started speaking to me the way I imagined they might to someone soon departing on a dangerous and unknowable mission. A skittish hand on my shoulder, followed by Stay safe or Good luck out there or I hope I never see you again.

On my last night, I could not sleep. I was terrified. This place had kept me alive for the last ten months and soon it would be up to me. The other two girls in my room couldn’t sleep either. The three of us, we had become something like friends.

“It’s your last night,” they agreed. “We should do something.”

At midnight, or at an hour I remember to be midnight, we found the orderly, a white guy who always wore a baseball cap indoors. Million-dollar smile. We asked him to let us outside.

“It’s her last night,” the two roommates pleaded, trying their best to look harmless. This facility specialized in the mental troubles of women and we were among the youngest patients, which made us feel superior. We had our whole lives in front of us—maybe. If we chose to. What power!

“All we want is to take a walk,” I said. “Down the road and back.”

When I asked the question, I was banking on one of two outcomes: an unmovable no or a trade, because this orderly had always struck me as the type. In the lull before he answered, I calculated what I was willing to offer.

A hand job, for example, I could do in my sleep.

Because we wanted that warm midnight air.

Because I felt it would be my responsibility, given that this was my last night.

“Goodbye, kid,” the orderly said. “Hurry back.”

“What?” I’d never heard him call anyone kid before.

“Those were Humphrey Bogart’s last words,” he told us. “All the way back in 1957. Don’t ever forget: Humphrey Bogart was a juvenile delinquent who went on to do great things.”

And then he let us go! I still can’t believe it. If one of my students wrote that in a story I would call instant bullshit. Why would he risk his job? Why was he the only orderly on overnight in the first place? I would interrogate this imaginary student, all the while thinking You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, and I would be so wrong—because it really did happen like that, he really did let us go, and this is the problem with translating experience into fiction, the way certain truths read like lies.

Maybe he thought I had too much to lose, since it was my last night.

Maybe he knew we were in the middle of nowhere and had no place to go.

Maybe he knew every morning I stared up at the white ceiling as I swallowed my meds and thought, You’ve won. Because that’s when they let you go—not when you were well, but when you gave up the fight.

I wonder if this orderly still works as an orderly.

I wonder if he’s still alive.

I can’t remember his name or see his face, just the brim of his baseball cap shadowing his eyes and that million-dollar smile.

About the place itself I remember every detail. Even today, from the quiet bewilderment of middle age, I could draw it all from memory. They had gone for a “homey” look, which meant floral curtains with scalloped edges were pulled closed over every window, to cover the bars. The curtains were cheap, so during a sunlit day we could see the bars through the fabric, solid as trees.

The three of us slipped out a back door and started walking down a dirt road, in the direction of the train tracks, and here is the part about which I am most ashamed. We lived together for ten months, me and these two girls. We sat together at meals. We sat together on movie night. An island of girl. We brushed each other’s hair. We pinched each other’s waists. We touched each other’s lips. Bellies. Wet insides of mouths. We wept secrets. We eavesdropped nightmares. We conspired about how to ditch or switch our meds, back when we still had the will (I arrived addicted to prescription drugs, and coveted one roommate’s Klonopin).


I could not tell you their names. I have forgotten them. Their faces are twin black holes, deep space. I remember more about that stupid orderly, the way his baseball cap looked like it had been molded onto his head. What kind of person could forget?

Around the holidays, the women’s crisis center brings in a counselor who has agreed to donate sessions to the volunteers; this is their gift to us. On Monday and Friday afternoons, the counselor sits in the art room upstairs. None of the other volunteers go to see her, so I do and when the free counselor says that she can tell I’m resilient, that I do what it takes, I try to not hear this as an accusation.

As it turned out, I was too ambitious to be a permanent drug addict. I had plans and drinking seemed more compatible with plans, but that was exactly what compelled me to climb the creaky stairs to the art room in the first place—one too many hangovers. I tell the free counselor that I want a sober way to exist outside time and she suggests I take up swimming. Five mornings a week, I wake before dawn and trek to an indoor pool. I swim until I can’t lift my arms, until I’m so weak I could drown. When the free counselor asks me if swimming makes me feel good, I tell her it makes me feel obliterated. By the time I leave the pool, I can scarcely remember what day it is or if I already ate breakfast. Everything I own smells of chlorine.

“It’s working,” I insist in the art room.

Here is what passed for therapy in Florida, all those years ago: once a month a local hypnotist would come up from Sarasota to help us uncover our buried and traumatic memories. She wore an excessive amount of jade. Most of my fellow patients did have traumatic memories that were very much unburied, the kinds of stories that would make people in the outside world cluck and whisper, Can you imagine? Still, this hypnotist persisted in her digging.

Not me, though. I had nothing to give her.

The hypnotist disagreed.

The first time we met, she took my hands, the silver bands of her rings cold on my skin, and told me she believed with all her heart that something unspeakably awful had happened to me and that my memory had concealed this awfulness, in an attempt to save my life, and that this unprocessed trauma was the source of all my troubles.

After she said this, I refused to go under hypnosis. My commitment to the truth simply did not run that deep. I thought she looked like a fraud too, weighed down by all that jade.

Her monthly visits were a worrisome time at the facility. The woman with the worst story wouldn’t eat or speak for several days afterward. I tried to tell the others about my refusal, as this place could make us do a great many things yet they could only exert so much control over our unconscious minds, but everyone else wanted to keep getting hypnotized and letting her dig around and so what more could I do.

Most of us had been sent here by our loved ones and hated them for it, but the woman with the worst story had sent herself here, emptied her own savings, mortgaged her own house. She had the worst story and still she wanted that badly to live.

When I tell the free counselor about the hypnosis, she is appalled.

“Amateurs,” she says.

I add that the hypnotist might have been an amateur and a fraud, but nevertheless her words have haunted me ever since.

After these sessions in the art room, I walk neighborhoods I do not live in and snap photos like a tourist. A strange shadow cast in a park. Window boxes packed with ice and dirt, empty of flowers. On the way home, while waiting on the T platform, I take care to stand a healthy distance from the tracks, my back pressed to the tiled wall.

You notice details, you write them down. You cultivate your eye. This, I tell my students, is what a writer does.

About these two girls the only details I can salvage are a few facts from their stories.

One had been institutionalized twice before. All the treatments, all the attempts to save her life, had bankrupted her family—her parents, her fiancé; her fiancé’s family was even in danger. On her first night, she said, “I keep trying to tell them that it would be the greatest kindness to just let me die.”

The other one had been raped by her older brother. For years.

Her brother was the only person who ever sent her mail. Short, handwritten letters that focused on the weather.

I hope these girls have forgotten me just as completely. I hope they remember only a single humiliating, dehumanizing detail. That would be equitable, at least. Assuming they are still alive.

On our last night, the dust from the road made the air look fogged.

I am telling a story now.

The train tracks were elevated. We scrambled up a scrubby rise and balanced on the steel edges, dazed by our sudden freedom. We could barely make out the facility lights through the thin trees; that world, which had become the world, felt very far away. We did not talk about how tomorrow I would be gone, vanished before breakfast.

“What’s the first thing you’re going to do?” the facility director had asked me that afternoon, in our final session. This man was in his early fifties. He wore flip-flops to work. Sunglasses hung from a lanyard around his tan neck. Divorced but still a pale band where his wedding ring used to be. On Sundays, he drove a van into the nearest town for a supervised lunch at Olive Garden, where we, all adult or near-adult women, made obscene gestures with breadsticks and he, the facility director, was powerless to stop us.

The night air was still and heavy. It made me think of blood.

“A lot of people commit suicide by train,” said the roommate who had been institutionalized twice before. “Thousands of people in North America alone.”

Years later—I will read a novel where the protagonist’s sister commits suicide by train and cry for days. I will attempt to have a conversation with an acquaintance about the book and this person will fall under the impression that I, so overcome, must have lost a sibling to suicide and I will not be able to stop crying long enough to explain otherwise.

Later still—at the crisis center, I will take a workshop on speaking to people exhibiting suicidal ideation, for the volunteers who answer the helpline. The workshop leader will discuss the movement to change the language from committed suicide to died by suicide, since commit implies acting with intent and a person whose life ends in suicide is, we can only assume, too distressed to intend anything.

The problem with the helpline is that most people are calling about things no one can help them with.

Everyone else is calling about a parking pass.

They want to come in for a free meal or to use the computers and know the neighborhood is impossible to park in. Or they want to donate old clothes, books.

The workshop leader will suggest we focus on forward-thinking, open-ended questions. “What’s one small thing you could do today to better your life?” I will ask a woman who calls the helpline one afternoon, picking from a list the workshop leader provided. “If I could answer that question do you really think I’d be calling this stupid number?” the woman will say back.

I wish the workshop leader could have met the roommate who knew so much about suicide by train. She’s coming back to me now, this girl—very tall, her dark hair long and straight as a curtain. I remember the way she spoke lovingly about all her attempts, like a career criminal reviewing past and future heists—her plans, what went wrong at the last moment, what she would do differently next time, one last big job and then she’s out.

I have never met a person so clear.

I remember being very impressed that she had acquired a fiancé. He sent one postcard a week, called every Sunday.

None of us knew if the train tracks were still in use or abandoned. We assumed they were derelict, since we could not ever remember hearing a train whistle. I pointed out that it would be awfully risky, working train tracks down the road from a facility for mentally disturbed women.

The second roommate, the one with the perverted brother, was a redhead with translucent eyelashes.

She said, “I hear a train coming.”

“Shut the fuck up,” the tall roommate said. “You don’t either.” She was always telling people to shut the fuck up. It was a term of endearment.

“I do too,” said the redhead.

I imagined the ground shaking under my feet.

“People who commit suicide by train look like they’re praying,” said the tall one. “The way they kneel down and lay their heads on the tracks.”

“What would you do on your last night?” The redhead turned to me. Her round pale face shimmered like a moon. “Would you pray?”

As it happened, I had recently started to pray—a fleeting thought shoved out into the ether before bed, a raft on a turbulent sea. I wondered if God found people like me annoying, those who turned to prayer only when they were neck-deep, that terrible friend we’ve all had.

“All I want right now is a cigarette,” I said on the tracks. “After that, I don’t know.”

The next morning, at the airport, I will buy a pack and smoke the whole thing on the curb. I will get so sick, spend so much time puking and then dry heaving, my arms hugging the cold bowl, I will nearly miss my flight. On the plane, I will sob like I just left the love of my life behind.

“What I wouldn’t give for a train.” The tall roommate stared dreamily down the dark tracks.

The redhead jabbed two fingers in her mouth and made a shrill whistle.

“Stop that.” I smacked at her hand. I didn’t like how she was acting.

The redhead stuck her fingers back in her mouth and did it again.

“Oh, oh. Don’t stop.” The tall roommate slid a hand between her legs. “You’re making me wet.” That was what she said whenever she liked something, whenever she thought something was good—you’re making me wet.

The more the redhead kept whistling, her two fingers buried in her mouth like a prong in a socket, the more I could see it. Hear it. Feel it. The palm fronds trembled. The tracks shuddered. I felt sweat on my rib cage. The bottoms of my laceless sneakers heated up.

A train was coming.

We were all still young enough that our deaths would be considered tragic, though the tall roommate was always telling us we owed it to ourselves to commit suicide before we had been ravaged by time. Think of Alice, she would implore, referring to the sixty-year-old who had been shipped to this place by her adult children after attempting to gas herself in her garage. Alice walked around with stains on her sweatpants and a sad bowl haircut and ingrown toenails. Alice had done electroshock in her thirties. Think of Alice if you want to talk about what’s tragic.

When the New Year arrives, and it is almost here, I will be closer in age to Alice than to the girl who stood on those tracks, on her last night, thinking about trains.

Not long after that girl rejoined the world, she came to the conclusion that the self who spent ten months staring at bars through floral curtains must be killed, so the person the girl needed to become could take her place. It was a good plan, except she has proven resilient, that old self. Never more so than now.

I want to tell you about the night I got hit by a train and died.

The thing is—it never happened.

Because there was no train. Of course. We talked for a while—about what I can’t remember—and tried to find stars we could name. We didn’t know the name for anything except the Milky Way; we knew so little back then, the three of us. We returned at the appointed time. We knocked once and the orderly let us back in, flashed that million-dollar smile, confident in our dumb obedience. We crept into our room and got into our beds. Lights out. I slipped away on the edge of dawn. I have never traveled with so little. If they were awake they didn’t say anything. Apparently we had all decided, without discussion, that we didn’t believe in goodbyes.

This was a long time ago.

Long enough that it has ceased to feel like the defining period of my life.

Except sometimes.

Like when I see a train.

The weird thing is: I love trains. I never get tired of riding them.

After the free counselor’s last day in the art room, I take the long way to the pool. It’s still winter, the downstairs bar is still stuck in its sudden silence, though right now it’s warm enough that I do not need to zip my coat. I wonder, as I have before, what would have happened if there really had been a train. If the tall roommate would have wanted to pray. If the redhead and I could have talked her down. What’s one small thing you could do today to better your life? If the redhead would have seen her brother’s face in ours and sent us flying. If we all would have come to our senses and gotten the fuck out of there. Or if I would have abandoned them both to the tracks, those ghosts I killed to survive.

Copyright © 2020 by Laura van den Berg