I have only ever known one automatic writer, and that was Lydia Hai Huang. She was a public servant for thirty-six years before a stroke downed her, three more took her speech and mobility. I can still see her clearly if I think hard: lying in bed with her immaculate blue cardigan, hair trimmed into a pageboy bob, skin wrinkled as ancient parchment.
Lydia resided in the same hospice where my great-aunt came to rest after a car accident. The stroke had left Lydia with limited mobility. The thing she could move the most was her left hand, and boy could she use that hand. I would watch her write, no pauses, no hesitations, while her dead left eye drifted mindlessly in its socket.
Lydia’s convoy to the material world was the executor of her will, a woman named Helen Mears. Lydia had no children, and her siblings were either dead or back in China. I don’t know if they were lovers or acquaintances, but Helen doted on her like a sibyl at a temple. Helen was the one who introduced me to the writing. She had overheard me speaking Polish to my aunt and assumed I could read Cyrillic characters. My curiosity turned to fascination when I examined page after page of dense scribble, all coming from a woman who could not lift her own head.
Lydia had not received much in the way of education. Struggling with the language barrier, she barely managed an associate degree in accounting. Yet foreign languages would pour from her pen without cease. Helen said that Lydia always wrote. When she took the writing utensil away for the day, Lydia’s hand would remain twitching and jerking on the covers, inscribing invisible characters on the air itself.
Yes, Lydia was in an article or two. Fortean Times. Nexus. Small publications of dubious reputation. All these articles helped to do was further push away the skeptics who accused Lydia of faking the severity of her disability. I heard it all. Lydia was a closeted eidetic learner who absorbed books when supposedly on her own. Helen was the one who really did all the writing. The supposed writing was just gibberish.
I will tell you(and you don’t have to believe me) that I watched her carefully inscribe line after line of Greek letters and then took those pages to a linguist, who dated them as mid-sixteenth century.
I don’t know how Lydia felt about her gift. She was non-verbal, due to the stoma in her windpipe. Half her face was perpetually slack. Sometimes I wondered if Lydia was even present in her body, if she wasn’t just a conduit, a hollow tube for spirits to whisper through.
I don’t know what was on a few of the papers. Most were translated as best we could manage. I was a poor college student at the time. Helen had only a little money from the estate, as well as a small stipend from caring for Lydia. Some papers must still be moldering in Helen’s storage, awaiting a knowing eye.
I do remember one of the rare English writings. It was a woman from Maine on her way to an arranged marriage. It was a babble of her day-to-day thoughts, musing on her life and her future husband and the world around her. It ended abruptly when her ship crashed, the writing turned into a panic loop about the rocks—the boat—the rocks—the boat. It’s my understanding that most of the writings were like that: simple, stream-of-consciousness narratives.
Not the last ones.
I came in one day, bearing my customary tupperware of soup for Helen. By this time we had formed a sort of team with a few others: a linguist from the college, an old acquaintance of Lydia who was an amateur polyglot, a semi-professional historian. Lydia was wearing a thick mohair sweater and three blankets. I remember she was breathing erratically, and sweat was spotting her face. I remember asking if she wasn’t uncomfortable under so many heavy layers. As a response, Helen put the back of my hand against Lydia’s cheek. It was clammy.
Lydia wrote in a sharp, angular alphabet that looked like viking runes. Almost as soon as her writing neared the bottom of the page, Helen would swap that paper out for a fresh one. She had been writing nonstop for three hours, they told me, in a flurry that they had never seen before. Her temperature was slowly dropping with every letter.
I took the few pages they gave me to the university, in what had become routine for me. I learned it was in old Turkic script long before I even knew what was on the paper. While I was waiting for translation, Lydia died.
The pages I handed over were from the point of view of a fisherman on the shores of the Aral sea. He spoke of men who had arisen from the sea, lead by a golden madman, of a new religion that spread like a sickness among his fellows. His increasingly frantic words described the clouds boiling, hot rain that smelled of dead fish filling the lake. He pled the end of the world on the very last page.
When I went to retrieve the other pages, that was when I learned of Lydia’s death. Helen was investigated by APS for her role in the demise, how she waited until the bitter end before fetching a doctor.
Was she culpable? She cared for Lydia much, in her own way. I, like everyone else, can’t speak much for Lydia’s quality of life. Perhaps she wanted this, wished for this every day she was stuck inside tabulating other people’s finances. Perhaps she begged for something mystical and special to strike her, even if it came in her last days. Perhaps the skeptics were right, and death was merely an end to Helen’s manipulations. All that we have is on those pages, that question that is her parting gift to the world.
The last few pages were almost nonsense. They were like the beginnings of hieroglyphics, pictographic symbols whose context had long since become extinct. When Helen went to trial, the papers disappeared forever. Maybe they are in a safe. Maybe they have been destroyed by something ignorant.
Lydia was pronounced dead at 6:08pm. Her lungs were full of salt water.