The inexact science of Fredericka

MY NAME IS Fredericka. Every night, I find myself in the same room. Thankfully, it is coloured to my taste: black wallpaper, and the glow of a red light bulb. It is too dark to read, but I like the ambience.

I light raspberry-rose incense. The smoke drifts carbon smudges across the curtains. I eat chocolate-covered Turkish delight, and squash the dark-red jelly equally with both of my fingers. Once, a man mistook me for a Turkish girl, but I am Maori. If I look in the mirror to check that everything is in place, I will see a girl with black teeth, two of which are missing, and a monobrow. She will be wearing a black T-shirt dress, and up her arms she will have red roses with dark shadowing tattooed into her skin. Roses are for remembrance. She must remember to check, count and sort. She will have her sisters′ names tattooed there too: one on each shoulder. My sisters and I used to be so pretty. I am not pretty now. The reverse.

When I first got the tattoos done, blood oozed from the flowers like water seeping up through the footsteps that you leave behind when you walk in wet sand. Best not to think of wet sand: untidy, messy and a symptom of a world out of control.

The lino on the floor is red and black, like the squares of a chessboard. I wonder, if I move from this square to that, can I take my enemy′s queen? Will they die, or will I? Chess is a game to the death. I listen to Reb Fountain on my iPod. I warm myself with the tones in her voice. My shotgun leans up against the wall. I have strings of rabbit skins drying, dark-chocolatey brown, some with flecks the colour of sand, heads down, ears still attached. Somewhere, I have a black felt hat with a floppy brim that I have threaded a pair of rabbit ears on to.

When I come in, I straighten things. I don′t know how they have slipped, but somehow, while I′ve been away, they have. Infinitesimally to the side – a millimetre here, a millimetre there, and it all adds up. Before I know it, things have moved right out of place. I count the ovals on the black lace curtain. I like dark colours. My thinking has become dark. I count the ovals in case one has disappeared during the day. I do not want to be where things are going to disappear, here one day and gone the next.

I vacuum for an hour or two, in case any dust has settled on the floor. The universe is constantly making dust out of nothing at all. Dust can get out of control. I vacuum the left side of the carpet with my left hand, and the right side with my right. Then I turn around the other way, and do the opposite, just to keep things even.

After that, I set out the cards. There are four packs, because there are four suits, and each must have a pack where they dominate, where I place that suit on top of the pack. I mix them up. Then I sort them out, all over again, to check that every card is there. I don′t know what I would do if one was missing.

Shuffling cards keeps memory in order, and in its place.

Hearts, spades, diamonds, clubs. Spades, hearts, clubs, diamonds.

I bring order to the chaos. I rearrange the universe so that it is safe, and I am safe. Everything is in its place, and nothing is out of control. The nine of clubs is the wishing card. I find it four times. When I find it in the pack where clubs are dominant, I make a wish. Always the same wish. I wish that they would ask me the right questions.

I take my pills. I′m not sure that they′re working. I haven′t noticed any change. They say that I should have. They ask me, ‘Do you feel sad? Does your heart race? Can you see things that aren′t there? Do you want to harm yourself?′ These are the wrong questions. ‘We can only help you if you tell us exactly what′s happening for you,′ they say. For people who think that they have all the answers, they don′t seem to know the rules very well. And the rules are that they have to ask the right questions before I can give them the right answers. You would think that they would know what to ask, but maybe not, because they don′t seem to know so much.

They ask me, ‘Do you think that you might harm someone else?′ I say that I am not sure, but I laugh as I say it, and they laugh too. No one says, ‘Do you straighten things?′ (And isn′t that wise, to prevent accident and loss?) ‘Must you always do everything equally?′ (And who wants the world to become unbalanced?) ‘Are you trapped like a soft, furry creature in a maze, performing the same rituals in the same way, night after night, as if you are stuck in the Mad Hatter′s never-ending tea party, where the most you can do is to move around a few place settings and get a fresh cup?′

These are the questions that they should be asking, but they don′t. You really would think that they would know the rules. But maybe there are rules that I don′t know about. Maybe they are trapped in their own little rituals: of coming into the room and asking the wrong question, of keeping me on the wrong medication, of resolving nothing and then leaving the room. Doing the same thing, week after week.

If there are rules that I don′t know about, the world really is out of control.

I am good at taking my pills. One, two, glass of water. The first to my mouth with my left hand, the second to my mouth with my right. Sometimes, I do it one, two, with a glass of dark red wine; it just depends on my mood.

At first, I had such hopes for the potency of my pills, but even my dreams are still the same.

My dreams are as dark as my room. I don′t remember a lot of colour, other than blood. The tones are shadowy: blacks, darks and greys. I have a knife and a club. Clubs, hearts, spades, diamonds. At first, I think it is for killing rabbits. But somewhere in my dream, I realise that it is to protect myself, and that it is inadequate, because the other person has a gun. I don′t see them at first, but they are always there. I know them from the others in my dreams because they have a shimmer, as if their being is created with some sort of smudged diamond that marks them as special. Diamonds, spades, hearts, clubs. They are killing off people, and they have chosen me to be next.

Sometimes I wake, and the nightmare comes with me into the room. I can see the shimmer of my assassin in the dark. My heart is contracted and frightened. Hearts, spades, diamonds, clubs. I am so scared that I have a pain in the left side of my chest. I thump the right side with my fist, to provide an equal and opposite pain. Then I will myself to relax, and the shimmer fades. If it is a good day, I wash myself clean in the knowledge that it is Sunday, and I can go shooting. During the week I hold down a job, and on weekends I walk to the edge of town with my gun, and I kill rabbits.

I prefer to hunt them at dawn, before a human footstep has disturbed them, under the apricot glow of the sky, when the grass is dark in silhouette, and they do not expect me. They gather brazenly in huddles, and their fur is soft and relaxed, free of fear as they gently sniff each other with their dark quivering noses. My sisters and I used to think they were cute. Snuffle-nose and soft, perpetually late and flustered.

But then they got out of control. They became a threat, as things that get out of control always do. Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades. Sometimes I wish I had a spade to dig the rabbits out from their underground burrows, where they lie, fucking themselves silly, even the ones who are little more than babies. It is always night, or half-light, between dusk and dawn, underneath the earth where the rabbits are snug, moulding their bodies to fit against the curved walls and each other.

Soon, their burrows will all join up beneath the ground, and the surface of the earth will collapse.

The eyes of rabbits are so big and dark, velvety and glassy. I lock the sights of my gun into the glassy reflection of myself. There are too many of them, and they must die. I touch the trigger, they drop, and life just stops. As if it has a switch that is suddenly flicked, and permanently off. Clubs, diamonds, spades, hearts. The heart of a rabbit, still quivering with warm blood, quivering with biology, and the need to produce new young. Biology is out of control. As if rabbits could build a spaceship, and colonise the stars.

We are like rabbits, using up all the space and all the resources, and soon we will be like them, starved of nourishment, because it will all be eaten, and the earth will be raped and despoiled by holes. The world will collapse from the weight of over-population, because we are replacing ourselves too fast. If we could see past our noses, we would have no more than two children, and preferably only one. Three is too many. We are no different to rabbits.

There are too many people on the planet. We are out of control. It only takes one too many to cause a catastrophe.

Today, I saw a new psychiatrist. The old one has gone back to Whakatane. Her room has no windows. ‘They′ve put me in this little cupboard,′ she said. ‘All the other rooms are full. There is a rush on mental health.′ Her big, dark, velvety eyes locked on mine, and she leaned straight into me, as if I was the only thing in the world that mattered. She asked the right questions. Do I check things, count things, sort things? Yes, yes, yes, I do. What am I afraid might happen if I don′t? That the world will be out of control. That it won′t be a safe place. That bad things will happen. She said I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. I am obsessed with order and control, and compelled to check, count and sort. ‘Why hasn′t anyone realised this about me before?′ I said.

She told me that it is mostly to do with the frontal cortex of the brain, the last part to develop, and the part that governs empathy, and the ability to understand the pain of other living things. It is also the part in charge of planning. Often, when the brain isn′t working properly, we get different clusters of symptoms, each responding to different therapies and different cocktails of drugs. But sometimes, psychiatrists realise that what looked like one cluster of symptoms is actually another, because they have so many symptoms in common. And sometimes, there are several disorders at once, all overlapping, which confuses them too. The most that psychiatrists can say for sure is that my brain isn′t working properly.

There is so much overlap, she said, that psychiatry is like forecasting the weather, or predicting earthquakes. An inexact science. We may know a lot, but mostly we know what a lot there is that we don′t know.

She gave me some new medication. Serotonin, she said, should help.


EVERY NIGHT, I find myself in the same room. Thankfully, it is coloured to my taste: black wallpaper, and the glow of a red light bulb. It is too dark to read, but I like the ambience. I take my new pills (soon I will be well again!), follow my rituals, and I go to sleep. There are so many dreams, but they are all the same. I am never sure which one I will find myself in. Tonight, I am in my secret garden. The flowers among the dark leaves over the water are the colour of blood. At first, all is well. The flowers in the trees are the hearts of rabbits that have been shot by me, and everything is under control.

There are people in the dream. Too many of them. The world cannot stand it. I know that they must die. I have a club and a knife. But my assassin appears. They want to kill me. They don′t say why, and I don′t know if they are culling the population because there are too many of us, or whether they hate me especially. I don′t want to be the one who dies, so I run from them. And I hide in dark places where they couldn′t be expected to find me: dimly lit streets, the corridors of buildings, the rabbit warrens of the human world. I curl up small in an empty cupboard, trying to mould my body to its walls.

But there is no escape from them. They find me, and they kill me. I do not remember pain, only fear. People say that if you die in your sleep, you will die in reality. But how can I be dead if there is some sort of dream self to observe my dead self? Red roses are sprouting from my body. Roses are for remembrance. The assassin is laughing.

I cannot bear it any longer. I go back to the beginning of my dream. I am in my secret garden. The dark leaves glow fiercely with the red hearts of rabbits. People are everywhere. I search for the assassin. I know that they will be there, at the centre of any crowd, alone with me on a dark street, or rowing me across the river of my dreams. It takes me a while to see the shimmering mark, and then I know just who they are. Except that I don′t, because I have never seen their face.

But tonight in my dream, I don′t just have a knife and a club. I have a gun. And I raise it, and shoot straight at them. As the bullet hits them, I see my own dark, glassy eyes. I am the assassin. I am killing myself every night. I laugh. My blood is still warm. There is a spade nearby to bury me. Spades, diamonds, clubs, hearts.

Everything that I don′t want to remember returns. It plays like a movie, and I can′t stop it, no matter how careful I have been, no matter how many cards I have counted, or which hand I chose to pick up the spade with.

It is dark. My sisters and I are in a small dinghy. The water is black. The mopokes are calling across the river to say how very far away each is from the other. I am the oldest, and I say that there are too many of us for the tiny boat to hold, but none of us wants to be the one left in the dark while the other two row across, or the one left alone on the other side while one of us comes back for the one left behind. We are captured by the delicious thrill of fear.

So we all get in, three instead of two: one too many. One of my sisters – Marama, I think – is wearing a red jersey. I can see it, even in the dark. Afterwards, I know that I should have checked the boat more carefully. I should have counted; I should have sorted. One on the bank, two in the boat, one in the boat, two in the boat. Never three. If there had been fewer of us in the boat, there would have been enough room. Overcrowding is a dangerous thing.

But I am more afraid of the dark, and what might happen to me alone in it. The boat begins to fill with water in the middle of the black river. The moon is behind a thin cloud, but it still reflects on the water like the shimmer of a smudged diamond. Diamonds, clubs, hearts, spades. When my parents find my sisters, they are not warm but cold, as if life had a switch that was suddenly flicked, and permanently off. A rabbit with big glassy eyes is sniffing at Marama′s red jersey. The world is out of control. Three becomes one.

I wake. I go to work. I come home. I take my pills with some red wine. Soon I will be well. I want to be well.

My name is Fredericka. I am an inexact science. Every night, I find myself in the same room. Thankfully, it is coloured to my taste: black wallpaper, the glow of a red light bulb. It is too dark to read, but I like the ambience.


Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review