Empathy Camp
Liz Breazeale

Volunteers must not ask questions at Empathy Camp, and our sacrifice makes us proud.

The rule prompts snickers from other groups filled with our husbands, coworkers, fellow members of church groups and charities and HR seminars. No gossiping, ladies. They speak in the joking way of men who are not joking.

Our Orientation leader continues. Listening can be as hard as telling. Giving your time, you’re heroic.

Curiosity is not our impetus for charity, we tell ourselves. We are here with promises to grow, to be better, promises made in fluorescent rooms that now disperse like aerosol. Because we ache already to ask each victim how a shattered self tastes and whether it happens at once, this destruction, or whether it is a manipulated collapse, a finessed extinction—probe by probe, brush by brush.

Give yourselves a round of applause.

Men’s shouts echo, balloon as we turn, expanding their possession even out of sight.

Counselors lead us from the assembly ground and we trip over roots, veins under skin. We are swimming and lazy in lemonade sun; we smell of sunscreen and childhood camps we once loved.

In Rape 1, the first of our six-cabin rotation, stories disintegrate. The four victims are not the tentacles of steam we imagined, purled and transparent and nearing nonexistence. It is their words that slip, too slick to form a mass we can confront. The hour blurs, we move on, forgetting what we are meant to have heard.

Fifteen minutes each, a counselor reminds Sexual Assault. We have used this tone with our children, our husbands. We are proud of this connection, smile, but the victims do not meet our eyes. Focus on one another, read their pale stars of hands, their constellation features.

We shift, unease a ripple in our bones.

In Abduction, the victims focus on the act of speaking and every word is a fight, a struggle whose stakes we are not privy to. Our attention is an eggshell, brittle and forgotten. We do nothing, go unnoticed. Whether they fold into commas like shrimp or sit before us, inches from our bare knees, they make their choices without us, a phenomenon we are used to at work, at home. Our promotions left gaping, nonexistent after maternity leave, our homes uncleaned by spouses who somehow cannot see the clutter. Our children and our lives and our bodies all shaped by words of others, words we have never asked for.

And at Empathy Camp we give the victims voices. At Empathy Camp, too, then, we become silence, absence itself.

We break for lunch, enjoy carousel-colored food and someone from another group says, makes you grateful, doesn’t it.

In Domestic Violence, the victims are vessels filled with smoke. One speaks of abuse in an abandoned house voice, by her husband or father, but she cannot finish before time and the counselor cuts her off, leaving us leaning forward. Another opportunity lost.

We listen, extend a hand or wadded forgotten tissue, unfazed now by stories that penetrate and snap off, shards no longer lodged deep enough to scar. We are proud when we do not ask questions, the desire gnawing for more everything, more words for cavities dark and charred.

Incest’s fourth victim arrests us, too powerful to be opaque. We know she can answer without our asking, know now, at last, our speechlessness will matter. Her anger permeates, forces all other emotion out, and we imagine the windows cracking and the log walls bowing and all of us vaporized, an explosion audible hundreds of miles away.

She clears her throat. I don’t want to.

I know you’re tired. The counselor checks her watch.

Our minds like slavering jaws.

I told it yesterday. I told it four times today.

They’re here to help.

Are they?

She storms out, a tornadic being, a supercell form.

The counselor follows her, grin sticky with embarrassment.

Poor thing, we whisper, although we think in stabs, just tell us everything, how it felt and whether your body drifted away. Explain it, why it changed you and what you dream and why life spirals like hairs slinking down the shower drain. Mold it all into something we can hold, an achievement we can crop and share.

The counselor dismisses us early. This never happens, she assures us. Her radio crackles.

We leave with plaster faces and stomachs full of nail clippings, catching their edges inside. We close our eyes and find an unseeable darkness we cannot focus or believe.

Grouped outside Rape 2 we talk, heatstroke-wobbled, our bones melted snakes, throats lined with words of bile.

I thought they’d say more.

It must be so hard.

Talking, that’s their end of the deal, right?

We give her a chance and she just leaves like that.

They are holding something back, betraying some ancient, scabbed-over promise we do not remember but still exists. If we wanted stories never tongued into being we would simply look in the mirror.

The first victim begins after we enter, voice radiant.

Air so thick inhalation is impossible. From the distance the echo of men.

One of us stands, a flash of fishbelly movement.

How does it feel?

Before us a shattered glass wall.

And we shout, too, because we can only exhale, or because we cannot listen anymore, cannot continue absorbing others—or because these victims are free, have the power to be heard and leave this place and we will go home and be told so many things we fear we will forget what we sound like.

So we shout. Ignore how some victims shrink, all bullethole eyes in a wall of pale.

We become fists of questions, instruments of penetration. Wanting the answers for our own, answers we are owed, trophies won in some camp game, some raid not for flags but for trauma we steal away, hide under our jackets, under our shirts, under our skin.

Liz Breazeale holds an MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University, where she worked as a staff editor for the Mid-American Review. She currently lives in Kansas City and is a content editor for the Blue Monday Review. Her work was featured in the 2015 Best of the Net anthology and is forthcoming or has appeared in The Sycamore Review, Fence, Passages North, Carolina Quarterly, Booth, Flyway, and others.