Photograph by Fernando Reyes
Letters cast a powerful spell. I have been under it all my life. Like Margaret Cavendish’s earring, each is a zodiac: 'wherein a sun goes round, which we don’t see.'
My daughter, who is learning her ABC’s, has recently become enchanted by the E and I in the gold STEINWAY stenciled on her grandmother’s baby grand. Our two initials, side by side. Hers so slender, yet vast as a world.
While she plays the piano in the home her father grew up in a universe ago, my hands fret over another keyboard in a nook of her nursery I call my 'office,' where I tryst with one of the three consonants that separate our vowels from one another in the Latin alphabet : 'Mademoiselle F…, aged 34, has a high waist; she has light brown hair, blue eyes, a bright face, a sanguine temperament; she has a gay character and a gentle humor.'
In the abecedaria that currently feature most prominently in our nightly rotation of bedtime stories—P is for Palestine and M is for Monocle—f is for falafel and funicular, respectively. Here, in French physician Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol’s early nineteenth century epicrisis, what does it stand for?
Above all, of course, for first. Mademoiselle F is the patient zero of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Hers is the earliest recorded case.
I take the responsibility of naming f almost as seriously as I would that of christening a child. Evidence, already, of our filial bond.
But she is my chronological forebear, nearly two centuries my senior.
I find f less formidable than most of its peers: s or j or l or n, for example, would leave me paralyzed with possibility. F is neither overwhelming nor predetermined. It offers enticing options, but not too many. In f, I find freedom and flexibility.
I begin to think of it as a favour for which I am grateful, or a fortune that has befallen me: it allows me to begin.
[I bracket, for now, the more complicated matter of finishing.]
Felicité, Fernande, Francesca, Frédérique, Filippa. I eliminate the first because, although Esquirol describes her as 'gai,' I do not believe she was happy. And the last four I strike because I am resistant to the idea of a male cognate (though I fret over the last, whose diminutive, Pippa, I find so appealing).
Two years before Mademoiselle F was born in France in 1804, the remains of a consecrated virgin were found in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. The tiles enclosing her burial niche were inscribed with the words, Pax Tecum Filumena . She was between thirteen and fifteen years old when she was martyred by Emperor Diocletian, for whom she refused to break her vow of chastity. (He had her tortured and then decapitated.) Her bones, enshrined near Naples since 1805, remain a popular pilgrimage site for those in need of miracles. Saint Philomena was canonized one year before Esquirol wrote his case study of Mademoiselle F.
(The dim memory of sipping an espresso on the steps of Diocletian’s palace during a long ago trip to Dalmatia sends a frisson through me.)
For me, too, f signifies an act of faith. The ultimate stage of the Inquisition was the auto-da-fé, when the accused were brought before the tribunal to receive their punishment. To the question my judges have posed—are you a writer?—I have answered as truthfully as I can.
If successfully executed, Mademoiselle F will result in my acquittal. Through her, I postpone the reading of my sentence and, at least for now, avoid paying penance. But until then, I am nothing but a heretic in sanbenito, shivering before the stake. What is writing, after all, but a trial by fire?
But that is all nonsense, of course, because what more ludic pleasure exists than to peer at this bit of fluorite under the loupe, to observe this otherwise invisible and insignificant cosmos? 'There earthquakes be, that mountains vast down fling / And yet ne’er stir the lady’s ear, nor ring.' Such fun.
Sometimes I think of f in terms of weather or atmospheric phenomena. She is a flake of snow, so fragile that she would melt at my touch. She is a frill of mist, a froth of cloud, a föhn in the lee of my steepest daydreams. She is faint and fading, like a shawled moon or a veiled dawn. She is the foam of contrail vanishing before my eyes, a fata morgana shimmering on the rim of my fancy. She is the flash of lightning that my words will fork—that I may go gently, when it is time.
How do I keep her on this precarious frontier between imagination and reality? How do I coax her into solidity while preserving her essential feyness?
Above all, how do I speak about such abstractions without frustrating my reader?
Walter Benjamin called the flâneur a 'botanist of the asphalt.' During that nightmarish spring—when daily walks were all we had and the sidewalks were always strewn with nitrile gloves and surgical masks the most nauseating shade of blue—I would glimpse her among the flowers. There she was, in the graceful cambré of a single fritillary; or in a sudden ovation of forsythia against chapped weatherboard: an applause of yellow, clapping me out of the fog of childcare less days.
Frantically reminding me of her existence.
It strikes me as ironic that so many words associated with speed or mania begin with f: fast, frenzy, fleet, febrile, frenetic.
If there were an equivalent to musical notation for linguistic composition, Mademoiselle F would emerge under the aegis of the fermata : a drowsy cyclops eye, signifying a grand pause, is the perfect warden of her becoming. F’s compulsions prevented her from moving fluently through her material environment:
as soon as she touches something, as soon as her clothing is in contact with a piece of furniture or another object, or whenever she herself is a guest, she shakes her hands vigorously, rubs the fingers of each hand against each other, as if she needs to remove a very subtle substance from beneath her nails. This singular ritual repeats itself throughout every moment of the day and is performed in all circumstances. What if Mademoiselle wants to move from one room to another? She hesitates, and during this interval, she takes all sorts of precautions so that her garments will touch neither the doors, nor the walls, nor any furniture. She is very cautious when opening doors, cabinets, armoires, etc. Something of value might be attached to the keys or buttons with which she opens them and remain on her hands afterwards. Before sitting, she examines the cushion with great care, and she shakes it to reassure herself that nothing precious will cling to her skirts.
The obsessive mind is glacial in its fury.
I have often heard writers talk about their 'process' in terms of flow or fugue, but for me it has always been frictive.
This absence of fluidity elicits in me an unspeakable fear, which no ritual can exorcise.
For as long as I can remember, in that dizzying waltz with the world, I was following. FOMO, I think they call it.
I have not yet mastered the fine art of not giving a fuck.
But I digress! F is, most fundamentally, for female. Even more important than her 'interesting' pathology, at least in the age in which she lived, was her femininity. Fille. Femme. In most Germanic languages (the English miss notwithstanding), the word for mademoiselle begins with f: fräulein, frøken, fröken.
F was once flesh, though even her skeleton would now be dust.
(The fossil record, by the way, is mostly male.)
And I must admit, however sheepishly, that the idea of her past embodiment fortifies me. It lends a certain gravity to my fascination. (I, who would swear up and down that fiction is never frivolous!).
Yes. I am relieved that she is not pure figment.
Of her face, we know little. Esquirol calls it 'coloured,' which could mean so many things. It occurs to me that it might allude to freckles, but on further investigation that seems far fetched. At the very least, I think we can infer that she was not excessively fair skinned. As for her features, I trawl film’s flea market of physiognomies for prototypes: Josephine Baker in ZouZou; Anna Karina in Bande À Part; Pia Degermark in Elvira Madigan; Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Geraldine Chaplin in Doctor Zhivago.
I am not sure what form can accommodate all this flotsam. I have always been captivated by fragments: Michelangelo’s Prigioni, Degas’s draftwork, Leopardi’s Zibaldone, Benjamin’s Arcades Project, notebooks, sketches. Genres of intimation and foreshadowing.
But isn’t the allure of character the tidy parabolic arc of its fate? Oscar Wilde said that the only real people are imaginary ones, and I can only suppose he meant that they needn’t flounder like we do. That their finitude allows them to exist.
What ventriloquist, after all, falters over the puppet’s words? 
Henry James talked endlessly in his prefaces about the origins of his narratives: they are 'germs' that ferment, or 'seeds' he farms to maturity. W.B. Yeats talked of the 'foul rag and bone shop of the heart,' where 'all the ladders start.' And Virginia Woolf wrote of Flush: 'I was so tired after The Waves, that I lay in the garden and read the Browning love letters, and the figure of their dog made me laugh so I couldn’t resist making him a Life.'
Mlle. F was a footnote in a personal memoir of OCD I read once. It was like entering the most exquisite foyer, only to find the rest of the house locked.
Fatu will be the last of her species, if (as seems likely) she survives her mother. They are the only Great White Rhinos left on Earth—they persist in an absence of viability that scientists call 'functional extinction.'
I wonder, albeit fatuously, about the ethics of resuscitating a human life through one of our oldest technologies, language, when none of the spoils of our 'civilization' can restore all the permutations of consciousness that we have annihilated.
Anyway. It’s my hope that f is for futurity. The kind that women can only find in each other.
Filomena means 'daughter of light,' but she shows up most vividly in the darkest part of the year. She appears to me in the season of flames, a frail flicker that I try to keep from guttering. Between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, she grows brighter with the days. How many years have begun with the promise that I will bring her to fruition? 
F is, at long last, for finally.
 I learn that there may be a philological basis for my long standing impression that f is one of the few consonants with the delicacy of a vowel. In researching its genealogy, I discover that f derives from the archaic Greek digamma, which was the 'consonantal doublet' of the vowel upsilon (/Y/).
 Peace be upon you, Filomena.
 I suppose diacritics are the closest analogue in spoken pronunciation. French, Mlle. F’s native tongue, is full of them; they would have embroidered all her speech. How can I depict her in a language that lacks them entirely?
 Nota bene: (semi-)labial consonants like f, which involve the lips, are impossible for the ventriloquist to 'throw.' Alternatives must be used.
 But doesn’t soil need to lie occasionally fallow in order to optimise its fertility?