The Virgin Cure
TO THE READER:
In 1871, I was serving as a visiting physician for the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. While seeing to the health and well-being of the residents of the Lower East Side, I met a young girl, twelve years of age, named Moth. In the pages that follow, you will find her story, told in her own words, along with occasional notes from my hand. In the tradition of my profession, I intended to limit my remarks to scientific observations only, but in the places where I felt compelled to do so, I've added a page or two from my past. These additions are offered in kindness and with the best of intentions.
OCTOBER 1878 S.F.H., DOCTOR OF MEDICINE
Recall ages - One age is but a part - ages are but a part;
Recall the angers, bickerings, delusions, superstitions, of the idea of caste,
Recall the bloody cruelties and crimes.
Anticipate the best women;
I say an unnumbered new race of hardy and well-defined
women are to spread through all These States,
I say a girl fit for These States must be free, capable, dauntless,
just the same as a boy.
- WALT WHITMAN
Shrewdness, large capital, business enterprise, are all
enlisted in the lawless stimulation of this mighty instinct of sex.
- DR. ELIZABETH BLACKWELL,
Founder of the New York Infirmary
for Indigent Women and Children
I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.
My father ran off when I was three years old. He emptied the rent money out of the biscuit tin and took my mother's only piece of silver - a tarnished sugar bowl she'd found in the rubble of a Third Avenue fire.
"Don't go..." Mama would call out in her sleep, begging and pulling at the blanket we shared as if it were the sleeve of my father's coat. Lying next to her, I'd wish for morning and the hours when she'd go back to hating him. At least then her bitterness would be awake enough to keep her alive.
She never held my hand in hers or let me kiss her cheeks. If I asked to sit on her lap, she'd pout and push me away and say, "When you were a baby, I held you until I thought my arms would fall off. Oh, Child, that should be enough.
"I didn't mind. I loved her.
I loved the way she'd tie her silk scarf around her head and then bring the ends of it to trail down her neck. I loved how she'd grin, baring her teeth all the way up to the top of her gums when she looked at herself in the mirror, how she'd toss her shawl around her shoulders and run her fingers through the black fringe of it before setting her fortune-teller's sign in the window for the day. The sign had a pretty, long-fingered hand painted right in the middle, with lines and arrows and words criss-crossing the palm. The Ring of Solomon, The Girdle of Venus. Head, heart, fate, fortune, life. Those were the first words I ever read.
It was my father who gave me my name. Mama said it came to him at a place called Pear Tree Corner - "whispered by a tree so old it knew all the secrets of New York." The apothecary who owned the storefront there told my father that he could ask the tree any question he liked and if he listened hard enough it would answer. My father believed him.
"Call the child Moth," the twisted tree had said, its branches bending low, leaves brushing against my father's ear. Mama had been there too, round-faced and waddling with me inside her belly, but she didn't hear it.
"It was the strangest, most curious thing," my father told her. "Like when a pretty girl first tells you she loves you. I swear to God."
Mama said she'd rather call me Ada, after Miss Ada St. Clair, the wealthiest lady she'd ever met, but my father wouldn't allow it. He didn't care that Miss St. Clair had a diamond ring for every finger and two pug dogs grunting and panting at her feet. He was sure that going against what the tree had said would bring bad luck.
Excerpted from The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay. Copyright © 2012 by Ami McKay. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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