I am one of those people gifted with the ability to find another’s psychological Achilles heel, which as a writer is not such a bad thing, I suppose, but can make interpersonal relations difficult. This gift is purely instinctual and spontaneous. I swear to you, there is no malice aforethought. It’s as if I unconsciously scan the energetic lattice surrounding the physical body and perceive a gaping rend there. Suddenly, before I know it, I’m reaching out a finger and sticking it in the hole, exclaiming, “Oh look! What’s this?”
Of course, it is as complete a surprise to me as to the other person, when they instantaneously recoil, shrieking, “Oh my God! Don’t touch that!”
We leap away from one another: they staring at me wildly, as if I were a sudden epiphany of Wickedness, and me shaken, all wounded innocence, like a speckled pup that’s been kicked. I am left bewildered, saying, “What? What??!!” as they back cautiously away, holding out their hands toward me, index fingers forming a cross.
This ability is not exclusively a human trait, either. Puppies, as many can attest, have this gift to an extraordinary degree. When my Rotteweiler, Grif, was a puppy, about the size that his head is now, he revealed his secret identity as a carrier of this trait.
My husband, David, had a collection of vintage fedoras of which he was justifiably proud, since he looked like the French film director Louis Malle in them and was, in fact, mistaken for him in Paris, while under brim. I, meanwhile, had a pair of Yves St. Laurent gold kid high-heeled sandals—I confess, an unconscionable number of Euros, at Rive Gauche—which I kept enshrined on a tall wooden stool in my closet. Before he was even half the size he is now, Grif had reduced these favorite items to rags. It is a testament to the adorableness of puppies that he survived these ravages.
My friend Bill King owned an art gallery where I used to stop on my way home from town. Bill would pop me a Budweiser and we’d sit in the long, ramshackle, sloping gallery space and talk art. He had, among many other fine objects in his personal collection, a small cinnabar lacquered elephant, about five inches high, that always delighted me.
“When I die,” Bill said, “you’ll get that.” And when he did, I did.
The elephant was my delight. I kept it close to my work spaces and I suppose, although I wasn’t thinking in those terms in those days, it was a kind of totem animal to me. I determined that if there were ever a fire, it would be the first and only thing, besides the cat and dog, that I would rescue.
Then, one afternoon, my friends came to call, bringing their ten-year old son, Ted. As I sat in the garden chatting with the parents, Ted disappeared into the house to explore. About three minutes elapsed. Suddenly, there was an horrific crash.
We raced into the house, to find the cinnabar elephant in smithereens on the floor. I was stunned. His mother was stunned. His father, too.
“It fell,” said Ted.
Now, if that elephant had weighed 20 pounds, it might have made such a noise, in its death throes. But as it was small and weighed no more than a pound, at most, it was obvious: the elephant had not fallen—it had been hurled. With great force.
I gave Ted that look that people sometimes give me, as if next he might swivel his head around backwards and vomit on the bed.
“Was it valuable?” his mother asked weakly.
“Believe me,” I said, “you don’t want to know.”
Ted is now married, with children of his own. Mercifully, he lives in a foreign country. I have always had tremendous respect for that kid. In three minutes flat, he ferreted out and earmarked for destruction, from among what I admit is an embarrassment of objects, the single most beloved and precious item in my possession. That’s impressive, by any standards. If there are standards for such phenomena.
People like Ted and me could be thought of as Agents of Karma. A small, covert band of souls placed on the planet to sniff out and expose Attachment. And in my case, at least, to try to convert this ungainly sensitivity into art. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
Suzan Still is the author of Fiesta of Smoke. You can learn more about her and her other book, Commune of Women, at our website.