Far From the Thick of Things
A Collection of Literary Short Fiction
The pages of Far From the Thick of Things drip with incongruous, dreamlike images: a clever trollup braving an earthquake on a London street, a garage sale genie who takes wishes instead of granting them, a destitute theater actress who meets her former self in a dark alley. It’s these absurd juxtapositions—the extraordinary in the ordinary—that reveal the mechanics of the universe, as well as the inner-workings of our own hearts. 83,535-word Far From the Thick of Things uses language itself to reveal the human condition, but only the spaces between can breathe metaphysical truth. Equal parts whimsy and poignancy, this collection of short stories is populated with colorful, diverse characters. We meet them at different stages of life, observing the dots that connect over time, weaving a mysterious tapestry of destiny, free will, and complete randomness. Some of the eccentric characters are cuddly, others prickly and rough around the edges. But all are—like us—redeemable.
The TROLLUP, the HOBO, and the DANDY
Ruby Fuller walked the length of Brewer Street, towing a tiny wire handcart with a wobbly wheel. She traversed the stretch daily after leaving the West End theater where she spent afternoons, picking up a fresh baguette on the way home, or a stick of butter, or whatever was needed for supper that evening. No one shopped in bulk back in the day—oh, maybe a burlap sack or two from the weekly farmers’ market, but it was convenient enough to shop daily; there was a butcher and a patisserie on every block. Not to mention a produce stand on every corner—two en route from the tiny equity waiver theater to home. And post-depression, who could afford to stuff a shopping cart on equity waiver (read: non-existent) wages?
She’d moved to the city to pursue her dream of acting in the theater, like so many before her. Though her tiny flat was far from the thick of things, tucked away on a narrow stretch of Whitcomb Crescent, the hustle and bustle was a heartbeat away. Walking to and from the lanky brick theater with its rows of rickety mahogany seats and its burgundy velvet curtains that smelled perpetually of pipe tobacco, she got her fill of humanity and felt she was part of something. There was the trollop who always said a kind hello through curls of cigarette smoke while leaning seductively against a rain gutter at the corner of Berwick, the loner in the fedora who could be seen slipping in and out of the seedy motion picture house a block later, always alone. The hobo at Lexington Street called her by name and said ‘God bless’ whether she was in a position to spare a shilling or not. On the rare occasion there was anything left after making rent, she’d place several coins in his palm, a token of good will at best. He’d jingle the coins between soot-stained knuckles with a broad, toothless grin. Secretly, Ruby Fuller suspected or hoped he was actually heir to a small eastern bloc country and had chosen to lay low for a spell. He didn’t need the coins, but liked how shiny they were, the sound of their jingling.
The trollop was low on morals, to be sure. But she was clever. If any banter was exchanged beyond a polite hello, it took the form of a witty commentary on some current event or other. Despite her destitution, the woman was well read.
The loner in the fedora was equally bankrupt, morally speaking. Ruby knew full well what kind of films were shown there in the dark, what strain of patron populated every fifth seat, and what went on beneath their long, pin striped trench coats. Her suspicions were confirmed whenever the young man hurried in or out, eyes glued to the buckled, exhaust-stained pavement.
These were the usual suspects. If Ruby did not encounter two of the three during the course of her day, she knew she’d wandered astray or stepped into an alternate universe through some portal disguised as a newsstand. Oh, there was plenty of other foot traffic. Her own street ran smack through the heart of the Jewish ghetto. Most pedestrians there were devout Hasidim, costumed in kippas or wide-brimmed kolpiks and long, eccentric (in her opinion) sideburns she’d learned were known as payot. And weaving between them, the strange bedfellows that seemed to come hand-in-hand with the Jewish ghetto in most metropolitan settings—the dandies. The same ones that frequented the stag theater.
Ruby never judged the characters she passed. She herself had come from means, even if she’d insisted on being independent when she moved to the city. Mum and Dad had retired early, lived on a fixed income. She was young and healthy, and in a much better position to garner a living. And the war had made it feasible for a woman to earn her own livelihood without resorting to turning tricks like the clever trollop. Not that she judged. She had the foresight to recognize that with time, her own resources could dwindle—her own currency. The world had always worshipped youth, but she’d not bought into the mentality. She rarely thought about age, as a number or a comportment. The form her non-judgment took was this: given slightly different circumstances, she could find herself, in a heartbeat, right there alongside the trollop or the hobo or the dandy. It was not an effort for her to be gracious, accepting or tolerant—merely her nature. It never occurred to her to be otherwise.
Even when she’d slipped on that johnnie while crossing Brewer Street and nearly twisted her ankle, she’d simply drawn a tissue from her clutch, kneeled and folded the thing into the tissue, depositing it into the nearest rubbish bin. She did not like the thought of some old Rabbi breaking a hip, or worse—meeting his end—in such an inglorious encounter. Besides, birds are known to choke on rubber products.
Come to think of it, she was morally opposed to rubber products altogether. “They’re not biodegradable,” she’d heard herself say. The new term would gain popularity over time, but for the moment the other young actresses at the theater would label her ‘progressive.’
Ruby spent afternoons honing her craft—learning the dell’arte tradition and doing improvisation and simply reading the works of the great playwrights, silently mouthing the dialogue but not daring to run a scene with an actual partner. When a casting call was posted, the other girls dove in headfirst without inhibition, and from afar Ruby learned the whole affair was largely political.
At callbacks for Perchance To Dream, Ruby was approached by the director, Nathan Whitaker.
‘Why didn’t you audition, doll?” He asked, earnestly enough. He’d approached her on the darkened stage as she gathered up her belongings and stuffed them into that wobbly handcart. She’d assisted with the auditions but nothing more ambitious than that.
‘Oh,” she gasped, taken off guard. “I don’t suppose I’m ready…”
The man stepped closer, gently easing the cart to the warped floorboards of the stage. His hand lingered on hers.
“When you are ready,” he assured her in a scarcely audible rasp, “I’m confident you’ll do quite well. In fact, I’m sure of it. “
Ruby said nothing. The footlights blinded her, rendering everything beyond them a featureless black void. Nathan’s hand was on her breast, gently stroking the coarse fibers of the blouse she’d picked up at the second hand store on Warwick Street.
“I’ve watched you in class. You have a gift.”
“Thank you,” she blushed, paralyzed, unprepared, unable or not wanting to remove the hand from her breast.
“From what I’ve seen, I can guarantee you are ready—more ready than those other girls…”
Ruby was not repulsed.
Nathan Whitaker was a celebrated director. He was as handsome as any one of those cocky aspiring actors who hung around the theater, with their pompadours and horn-rimmed glasses and ironic seersucker suits. But the twenty years he had on them only gave him an edge. Though still a virgin at twenty-three, Ruby had impulses. And there was something sexy—though she would never have used the word in polite conversation, about character. The fine lines that appeared around Nathan’s jowls when he spoke, those that defined his vaguely tortured brow, all spoke of experience. Of richness. Ruby could not have seen any of this coming, but found herself tempted all the same, wondering if she could separate work from play. Whether taking logical advantage of opportunity would cause her to question the very gifts this man saw in her.
Suddenly the footlights went out with a thud and the two were left standing—levitating—in an ambiguous void as black as pitch. His image persisted in her mind. Those fine lines may have been etched by experience, she realized, but they are not character.
His hand was still on her breast.
Instead of removing it, she simply turned away, allowing it to drop to his side. The sound of it grazing his smart hounds tooth blazer was deafening in the hollow dark. Final somehow. Ruby Fuller retrieved her cart of modest affairs and was gone.
Fifty years later
I really need to oil that thing.
The wobbly wheel of Ruby Fuller’s cart squeaked incorrigibly, echoing off the stucco facades of Brewer Street. The stretch had been renovated recently, the third time in her memory, and the cheap modern building materials did not absorb the sound like the more durable, lasting brick and mortar of her day.
“They’re earthquake-proof,” she’d been informed by the contractor, a third her age, who’d singlehandedly developed the whole area. “They’re retrofitted. Instead of collapsing like brick, they’ll sway.” With that the man demonstrated, writhing and undulating in a mildly sexual, if awkward, manner.
“Hmph.” The old woman summarized, unimpressed, trying to picture the buildings doing the same. She rattled on with her baguette and a random assortment of library books. A block later, it occurred to her: earthquakes in London?
She considered turning around to put the man in his place, but thought better of it. She was nearly home. She was returning from the equity waiver theater that had somehow remained standing, wedged between midrise office buildings with street-level businesses. There was still plenty of foot traffic, as renovation often meant gentrification. Which meant ‘trendy.’ Instead of Hasidic Jews, she passed hipsters and yuppies and tourists.
In her day, the progression went like this: a neighborhood started out avant-garde—a well-kept secret. Then word got out and it became trendy, then mainstream, and then the fun was over altogether. The ghetto days became lore as the artists and musicians and screenwriters were pushed out by the franchises to more affordable areas. Nowadays, even in its bohemian phase, a neighborhood could boast at least one Chipotle and several Starbucks without losing its credibility. When a Wall-Mart appeared at Brewer and Warwick, Ruby had stepped inside out of morbid curiosity. She’d parked her wobbly cart just inside the entrance and looked around. She’d stayed long enough to see screaming, unattended children, and to hear a lackadaisical cashier request a price check for tampons over the PA system between smacks of chewing gum. When she’d braved Starbucks, Ruby had witnessed a bandage being changed at the neighboring table.
She never entered either establishment again.
Today, she stuck to her familiar route. She’d left the theater just as rehearsals started for an upcoming revival of Cats. She’d picked up the groceries needed for supper, and was nearly home. She’d passed the clever trollop, who was no longer turning tricks at her advanced age, but passing out rations at the halfway shelter she’d established on a grant. Ruby had passed the loner ducking into the seedy cinema as he’d done several times weekly since its opening decades ago. The old man’s cataract-shrouded eyes remained glued to litter-strewn pavement as always.
The hobo had long since passed.
At the time, Ruby imagined he’d collected on his inheritance and was ruling a small Eastern bloc country.
Of course Ruby had learned to adjust her vocabulary. Though occasion rarely presented itself to discuss the hobo or the trollop or the dandy, in her head she knew they’d become the homeless man, the prostitute and the homosexual, respectively. Even if she did find it all silly.
The neighborhood had become known as the gay community. It was full of handsome young men with notable physiques who knew how to dress and occasionally walked hand-in-hand. In her day, they were known simply as ‘bachelors,’ with an understanding that what they did behind closed doors was their own business and no one else’s. Now their business was everyone’s business.
Of course in the theater she’d known plenty of ‘bachelors,’ or as the more eccentric of them were called, dandies. In fact, she’d nearly married one or two. Despite declining the overtures of a celebrated and influential director, she’d stayed on at equity waiver. She never told anyone about the encounter, and Nathan never directed another production there. He’d learned he didn’t like ‘slumming it.’ Ruby landed roles, even lead roles, and felt sure she’d done the right thing rejecting his advances. The right thing for her integrity, if not her career. But in the end, though she was practicing her craft, the roles that came her way were still just equity waiver. And the bright lights of Shaftsbury, or even Broadway one day, still called to her.
When juicier roles in larger productions evaded her, she would become painfully aware of the importance of the casting couch, of influential individuals and the grapevine and the small, incestuous world the theater would turn out to be. She’d blame her career plateau on that one fateful decision. But when her head hit the pillow at night she’d wonder if doing so wasn’t just rationalization, if there wasn’t an inverse relationship between one’s degree of success and the number of war stories one accrued.
For the moment, it was equity waiver, in the same theater that had brought her up.
Opening night of her first noteworthy role—Stella in the hit new show Streetcar Named Desire, she’d met a young American soldier on shore leave from the Navy. He’d been so smitten he dashed to the corner grocer during intermission while his mate held their seats, and purchased a dozen red roses. He’d waited at the stage door and presented them to her with a nervous grin. So well scrubbed was he, standing there in his pressed white uniform holding that crimson red bouquet, and what a picture it made, that she married him within weeks.
When he died on the front lines at Kumsong, Ruby was glad he hadn’t done so a virgin. She was glad to have given him that gift.
Without planning it, the memory of their breathless encounters would become sacred to her as well: the brushing of swollen lips, the gentle thrusting in utter syncopation, the oneness of their heartbeats as they climaxed together amid cool, rumpled sheets.
Oh, she spent time with other men over the years—mostly those she met at the theater. But they’d turn out to be dandies more often than not. She’d never again share a bed with a man, nor even a kiss. As the very idea grew more and more remote, the memory of it became more and more precious.
Ruby reminisced as she walked, dragging her cart across buckled pavement. She often lingered in the past, if not always among the bed sheets. Suddenly her cart planted itself stubbornly of its own accord and she halted.
For some reason it came surging back to her: the day she’d turned down Nathan Whitaker’s indecent proposal. She’d walked away without a word, made it through the dark house of the theater with her cart, and out to the street. Her heart beat like a hummingbird’s. Her mind reeled mile-a-minute. She traversed the familiar stretch of Brewer Street in a daze without any awareness of it. Its sights and sounds and smells were an abstraction, the only true reality the moral dilemma that spun in her head.
“You did the right thing. “ A voice permeated her reverie, popping the bubble.
The trollop smiled through a cloud of smoke. “You did, Sweets. I promise.”
For a split second, Ruby wondered if her encounter with Nathan had been audible through an open theater window, or if the woman was psychic, or had simply read it all in her gait and downcast expression. It didn’t matter, she decided; It was one of those days when the universe revealed itself.
“Thank you,” Ruby moaned softly, a single tear cascading down her flushed cheek. And then the fear returned.
“What if I never act again? It’s my passion.”
The woman placed her long cigarette holder between pursed, painted lips, extending a hand to take hold of Ruby’s. The hand was weathered beyond its years, nails painted with abandon as if to compete with her ruby red lips.
“It’s beyond you,” she advised simply. “Ain’t one of us gets to choose the hand we’re dealt.” There was something prophetic in the woman’s musing, but Ruby could not foresee the incredible losses to come. That Kumsong would just be the first of many.
And then, after a spell, the seemingly destitute woman surprised Ruby: “The trick, Sweets, is to be in the present moment, whether you’re livin’ your passion or you ain’t. To be there for the good, the bad, an’ the ugly. There’s beauty in the ugly.”
Ruby was not sure what they were talking about anymore, but her heart lifted. Suddenly she had the guts to ask: “How do you do it? Do you turn out the lights?”
The woman laughed, ruby lips parting to reveal perfect rows of pearl-like teeth. “Hell no, Sugar! I just don’t kiss…”
Ruby wondered what this meant. How preserving something so silly and arbitrary could rationalize such a lapse in morals. For the first time in her young life, Ruby Fuller judged.
The practice would only get easier. With every disappointment, a judgment. With each loss a reflection and each missed opportunity, an aspersion. Observations became opinions, and opinions beliefs. The world became a very different place.
Ruby closed the gap between the Walmart and the tiny flat she’d kept all these years. A woman with a tramp stamp and low-riding jeans bent over just inside the enormous store window, retrieving a screaming toddler.
“Tart,” Ruby thought. And then she chastised herself as she did everyday. She wondered how she got there—thoughts so sharp and prickly, how the world had changed so drastically around her. If the world were the way it used to be, she wouldn’t have to judge it! Oh, she knew it was all connected; the nastiness without reflected the nastiness within. But knowing a thing and reversing it were two different things.
At that moment, something happened that had never happened before. The woman literally forgot how she got where she stood. That she’d been at the theater, not performing on its stage but sweeping it for cash. That she had no pension and her measly social security had not allowed her to retire.
Without warning, the earth began to quake. Violently. The toddler screamed and the tramp chased after him. Merchandise plummeted from the shelves and cheap stucco rained from above, narrowly missing Ruby and the other pedestrians on the cement walk. The ground jostled from side to side, setting the buildings to swaying like a man’s hips or two bodies entangled in cool, crumpled sheets. Ruby could not bring herself to dash into Walmart. But the world was collapsing, raining down lacerating shards of flack.
The old woman yanked her wobbly cart into motion and dragged it along, ducking into the side door of the stag theater next to the Walmart.
The pitch-blackness was all consuming.
When her failing eyes adjusted to its chaotic flicker, the movie screen seemed light years away. She felt for a seat in the palpable dark, planting herself on cushy velvet. The silhouettes of scattered patrons revealed themselves slowly—a motley crew at best. As she’d always imagined, they sat alone, punctuated by empty seats in-between. Though the earth continued to jolt, all of them remained strangely calm.
Enormous chandeliers swayed overhead, ceiling tiles careened into empty seats.
Ruby wondered if she was comfortable expiring here, in a stag theater with lonely bachelors. The idea was about as glorious as slipping on a johnnie on the way to synagogue. But she couldn’t relocate now. Amid the torrents of shrapnel, she realized she had bigger fish to fry than location, location, location. It was the whole ending. It would never do. She’d never married. Never had children. So much had passed her by. There was so much to regret. Only now, in the final act, could she say it had not been worth it. That preserving her integrity warranted no crown in heaven. That preserving one’s heart out of loyalty was a romantic idea, and overrated. That ideals and principles and ethics and morals and all those other invisibles were just dust and scratches on the celluloid if your life was an empty screen. What good is a theater if no one is there to act on the stage? The old woman pondered with what she thought might be her last ounce of mental fortitude.
A tear cascaded down her cheek, no longer flushed and youthful but quilted with character. She’d stopped performing in the theater—only cleaned it. She’d stopped seeing movies—it hurt too much. And now here she was, an old lady trapped before a silver screen, unable to escape the movie of her life. She wiped away the insolent tear and allowed herself to focus on the screen light years away. The last thing on Earth she expected materialized on it. The flickering image was not a stag film at all. There were no naked dandies, no tangled sheets or limbs helplessly intertwined.
The film all these men were silently watching was It’s A Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart. She was sitting in an art house, one that played revivals.
Suddenly there was a stirring next to her. She’d seated herself next to one of those silhouetted, anonymous patrons, and he was fumbling beneath his pinstriped trench coat.
Who tosses off to Jimmy Stewart? Was all she could think.
It touched her that the motion picture house had survived three gentrifications. But even more so, that it still played art. Ruby squinted at the stranger next to her, trying to assemble the flickering fragments that made sense of the dark. It was the dandy. The man who’d ducked in and out of the tiny theater all these years, alone. And here he sat, fedora in lap, grinning smugly as if he’d always been beside her and always would be. Those eyes that had never looked up from the pavement were fixed on the screen, twinkly blue and wistful and full of good humor. Brimming with the fullness of life. He was an old man now, as old as her.
Only then did Ruby notice the man had company. To his left sat the trollop, and to her left, a male figure whose stately garb was dripping with diamonds.
The man was fumbling again, trench coat stirring. When it parted, it was not a penis the man withdrew. Only a hand. A knotted, arthritic hand that reached out and held hers in the silent dark, as the world fell around them.
Phil Jacobs started jogging at fifty. He’d had a mild scare—an irregular heartbeat they said was due to a bundle block he’d been born with but which had gone undetected. Still, it was enough, when combined with the acute awareness that his father and brother had both died of heart failure, to inspire dietary changes—one lump of sugar in his afternoon tea, not three—and a sudden interest in track and field. He’d take leisurely jogs at dawn before commuting to his London office, or once his supper had settled at night if he’d been unable to fit it in on a given morning. Straightaway, he felt like a new man.
Oh, he’d had his brush with track and field in parochial school what seemed ages ago. So the wellbeing and sense of accomplishment that came with his daily excursions was not a new discovery per se—just something excavated, like a treasure chest lain dormant for ages untold beneath the crushing weight of an unforgiving tide, coddled in the threadbare carcass of a wrecked pirate ship.
He’d pass familiar sites—the incessant scrim of densely packed birch trees, the warm amber glow from the bay windows of that magnificent mansion on the hill behind the forest preserve—but suddenly saw them in a different way. The birch trees, as monotonous as the recurring patterns they formed seemed to be at first glance, actually thrust from the earth at random angles, exciting the eye with rhythm. Their velvet-black knots and striations winked from the mad flurry that flew by, as though acknowledging a shared secret. Still, as meditative and rejuvenating as the regime started out, the man quickly became aware he was running from something.
Something more than death.
“Phil,” Ann’s voice stabbed into his reverie, both lilting and grating at the same time. He’d slipped in the side door of their country cottage, was already stripping sweaty cotton from a lean torso.
“Yes, Love,” he replied, tossing his crumpled tank top into a wicker hamper. He’d entered through the laundry for the very convenience of it.
And already she was on him.
“Did you sign that paper for Sarah?”
“Yes, Love,” he cooed in his wife’s ear when she appeared in the threshold from the parlor. “It’s in the post. I’m way ahead of you.”
“Not me. Sarah.” Her voice was terse. “She rang about it this morning.”
Sarah was a college freshman, the second of their two girls to go off to university. She needed proof of her independence to qualify for scholarship. Problem is, Phil had claimed her on his taxes right up to the moment she’d relocated to her tiny brick dormitory. So he’d be paying out-of-pocket until she was eligible for financial aid in a year. No matter. Unlike many, Phil had figured college tuition into the estimated cost of childrearing.
“Good on you,” Ann praised, awarding her husband with a tiptoed kiss on the cheek. Her severe chestnut pageboy bobbed as she settled to the tile floor in her sensible flats.
Phil placed his sinewy hands about her slender waist, pulling her closer. Her tension dissolved, reluctantly. He teased her cheek with an unshaven jaw, gently reminding her he was, in fact, a man. He knew he was emitting a slight musk, but she’d always liked his scent. That’s what chemistry is, she’d even said in the early days. It’s all pheromones. One partner’s funk just jives with the other’s. It means genetic compatibility. She hadn’t meant to use academic-speak, but after eight hours of lecturing as an adjunct sociology professor, jargon was bound to spill over.
Nowadays, she was more apt to push him away.
“You, young man, are in need of a good shower,” she condescended.
Though the message was clear, she followed it up with a pat on the behind as he passed, to soften the blow of rejection.
“You used to like my funk,” he lanced with good humor over a glistening shoulder.
“I like sweat. Not B.O. There’s a difference. Not to be too technical, but it lies in the bacteria quotient.”
Phil laughed despite himself as he continued down the narrow hall from the laundry. “Such a romantic. I’m sure there’s a position waiting for you at Hallmark.”
Phil obeyed his wife out of habit, turning toward the downstairs water closet off the hall. No need to wait, he’d unfastened the fraying string and let his threadbare sweatpants drop about his ankles. He kicked them into the loo ahead of him. There was no call for modesty these days; the couple had the cottage to themselves for the first time in two decades. Surely there was some benefit to having grown children. Not that the two were experiencing empty nest syndrome. Phil had looked forward to an empty nest. Instead, Ann had found herself pregnant at forty-three, something neither imagined was even a remote possibility. The term immaculate conception had been thrown around, and in order not to interfere with Ann’s plan to become tenured, the moment their first boy arrived home from hospital, they’d hired a nanny.
It was she who rounded the corner from the salon just as Phil turned, stark naked, into the downstairs wash closet. Her patent leather flats screeched audibly on faux marble tile.
Normally Beth was well on her way by this hour. Once Ann arrived home from the local college and received any and all updates on sleep or feeding schedules, any significant developments on the ‘stool’ front, Beth jumped in her vintage BMW and headed home to Stallion Springs to complete her own homework. She was a college sophomore; Ann had handpicked her from Sociology 101 to help out.
Any modesty Phil possessed at fifty yielded to opportunity, and he eased the bathroom door shut with a minimum of urgency. At the last millisecond before the latch clicked, reverberating exponentially against faux marble, his eyes locked with Beth’s.
He proceeded to lock the door behind him, something he did only when necessary—and embarked on one of the longer showers of his life. He never had any guilt tossing off over the nanny; part of him suspected his wife selected her not in spite of, but precisely because of, her youth and beauty. A little favor to spice things up. Or to take some of the pressure off of herself. And the man was always horny after jogging—something about his junk swinging free (he never wore a jockstrap—too restrictive.) But it wasn’t the friction that got him going. It was the mental freedom that tempted his mind to wander. Instead of alpha waves, his reverie more often than not ventured into fantasy.
That tendency, combined with such an utterly flawless moment in the hall, whipped up the perfect storm. There was heavy lathering head to toe, front and back. His fingertips caressed the live wires of his throbbing feet, toes ecstatic to be free from those sweaty Converse high tops. His calloused fingertips moved on the length of his body, finally lingering, making circles around his already erect nipples. Ann would never have worked his nipples. Beth surely would; her generation had fewer hang-ups. Not to mention noshing him off. For Beth’s generation, a good nosh off was the equivalent of a handshake. Though Ann and her friends likely did their wifely duties, they didn’t enjoy it. Penises altogether were considered a necessary evil—an inconvenience to be tolerated. Beth and her friends, thanks to the Internet, gobbled them up, appreciated them nearly as much as gay men did. Phil pictured the nanny down south, going to town on his knob, her twenty-two year-old lips puckered and full. And when he went down on her—the least he could do—it was not just her juices he was extracting; it was her youth.
Phil came with a stifled moan, tossing his head back and allowing the showerhead to caress his face and shoulders.
He toweled off, wondering when the knock would come, the grating voice making sure he was ‘alright.’
To her credit, it was his heart she worried about.
When Phil went upstairs, the baby was down—Tucker was his name—and Ann was in her study preparing the following day’s lecture.
“You smell good,” she noted, not turning from her work. Phil’s own musk now mingled with the somber tones of Old Spice, a much more civilized combination.
“I’m going to whip up some supper,” he called to her from across the study. “You hungry?”
After supper, the two fell asleep to the Late Show, side by side, arms at their sides.
A week later, Phil was jogging through the forest preserve crunching numbers. He was a CPA—his work a far cry from what his wife did for a living—and more often than not it followed him home. He tried to focus on his junk, swinging free, tried to think of Beth—anything to escape the spreadsheets and figures that nipped at his heels. But he just couldn’t get there today, couldn’t find that open clearing. The birch trees crowded him, winking hollow black knots taunting him from a void blanketed in dusk’s silvery ambience.
After work, he’d stopped home just long enough to pull his gym bag from the back seat of his Lexus and change in the driveway. He knew better than to go inside, even for a moment, and put himself alone with the nanny. Ann had decided once and for all to chip away at the baby weight and upped her workouts. Three nights a week, they paid Beth extra to stay late while Ann did her cardio at Hollyglen Fitness. Phil adjusted his jogs to the new schedule, so as not to put himself in temptation’s way. Having an affair with the nanny would not only make him a walking cliché; it could destroy his marriage. But surely it couldn’t hurt to think about Beth while jogging. Ann probably wanted it that way. And so he did. Often.
But tonight, the image of her full cheeks and full breasts and pouty lips could do nothing to force out thoughts of work. It was numbers that chased him in the falling dark. Only numbers.
And then, in a split second, the spreadsheets dissolved, the abstract figures that nipped at his heels disintegrating in a puff. Several hundred yards away, he’d spotted something curious. The highway split just on the edge of town. The pavement on which he normally jogged skirted the forest preserve that was their backyard. Its offshoot ran parallel further down an embankment, leading to a small gated community inhabited by horse people. Stallion Springs, it was called. Ann’s SUV rattled along the highway from town. But instead of taking the high road toward their cottage, it slinked along the lower tributary headed for Stallion Springs. None of this would have been disturbing to Phil had there not been a figure in the passenger seat. A male figure.
“How was your workout?” Phil asked. Suddenly he was the terse one.
“Fabulous, Love,” she sang, pinching a section of midriff between her sports bra and yoga pants. “I think I’m making a dent.”
Phil rolled onto his side on their queen-sized bed, watching her watch herself in the full-length bedroom vanity.
“I hated the gym at first,” she reflected. “But it really grows on you.”
“So does bacteria.” Phil had once seen a science program that pointed out, complete with CG graphics, the innumerable microorganisms—parasites—hosted by the human body. And showering made no difference, the narrator was sure to say; their numbers only increased exponentially with the introduction of water.
Phil continued watching his wife as she stripped off her sports bra in one fluid movement and her breasts jiggled in the dim light from the upstairs loo. Phil wondered what had gotten into her. Or more accurately, didn’t need to wonder.
He hadn’t showered since his jog. Even so, she attacked him, yanking the worn sweat pants to his ankles after peeling off his sopping sneakers.
“I haven’t showered,” he protested.
But she didn’t seem to mind. She was going to town down there, bobbing the way he’d imagined Beth or one of her friends might. When she straddled him moments later, he felt a bit used but quickly got over it. He had a man’s instincts, after all. He silently thanked the evolutionary theory Ann often rattled on about that men didn’t struggle with feeling objectified. In his youth he’d been able to judge girls for being promiscuous, then fuck them all the same. Objectifying them was not a turn off; truth be told, it was necessary to do the deed.
“The height of arrogance,” Ann diagnosed when Phil had confessed as much. “To judge a woman for being a whore, then use her all the same.” She’d diagnosed him two weeks into dating, and he was hooked. He loved her for her brilliant mind. She’d also pointed out he was comfortable with objectification because he himself had been touched early on. He was compartmentalized. Though he’d had plenty of carnal experience before meeting Ann, her hand was the first loving touch he’d known. And here she was, decades later, objectifying him. For the past few years, on the rare occasion she was fired up for whatever reason, she turned him into the equivalent of a delivery boy.
Not that he was complaining.
It was on Wednesday he’d seen her SUV slinking along the highway toward Stallion Springs. Friday was her next gym day.
Phil Jacobs skirted the scrim of birch trees, tracing the border between crumbling asphalt and delicate brush. His arms jostled loosely at his sides, his jaw hung slack and listless. Even so, the shock of the pavement ran through his joints tonight more than ever, reminding him his nerves were all connected. And then he felt it. That microscopic blip. That one missing beat that felt like a hiccup in the universe. Whenever his heart palpitated, he said a silent prayer thanking the Lord things worked as well as they did. Considering the natural order of things was chaos, Phil found it redeeming that his car started as often as it did, from one random spark.
Maybe it was that tiny blip. Maybe he wanted to get away from all those prying eyes that stared him down from the birch forest. Whatever the impetus, Phil found himself veering from the high road. In moments, he’d barreled down the slope of the divided highway, cutting through mustard yellow grasses to that offshoot that ran in the wrong direction. By sheer coincidence, an SUV was arriving from Hollyglen, meandering from its melancholy dusk-draped skyline.
The vehicle disappeared momentarily due to a cleft in the landscape. When it reappeared, accelerating out of the wide turn in the road, its speed was unexpectedly fast. Phil dashed into the mustard yellow grasses as it roared by, narrowly missing him. His heart hiccupped.
It was not her.
Phil found his wife exactly where she was supposed to be—at the gym. He’d added an extra mile to his jog by taking the small detour down Highline Avenue, the street that ran through town perpendicular to the highway. But it was worth it. His heart no longer felt it was beating out of sync, rebelling against his body.
The floor-to-ceiling windows of Hollyglen Fitness offered a full view of its members: all those gym rats and roid heads and yuppie moms that stared at themselves blankly from treadmills or lifecycles, headphones further cutting the off from the real world. Instead of exercising the way God intended, with the wind in their hair, gently kissed by the sun. Suckers.
Ann was not doing cardio. Instead, she held a ridiculously light dumbbell in each fist and traced the circumference of the gym’s cardio room with long, exaggerated lunges. Phil stationed himself in shadow between groomed hedges, assuring himself the squares of fluorescent window light would not give him away. Just then, he saw that Ann had company. The kid had been refilling their water bottles. But now he joined her, gently placing a hand on her back as if to remind her of her posture. It lingered there, neither firm nor relaxed against taut Lycra, neither pushing nor pulling. His other hand found her belly, countering the one in back, massaging her poise as she strode with awkward confidence.
All was on the up and up; she’d had a trainer for two years now. Phil made the decision to put the matter to bed then and there, not to say a word. If he did, she’d probably say that yes, her trainer lived in Stallion Springs and his car had broken down. She was simply giving him a lift. She’d also say he was getting suspicious in his old age. Truth be told, she liked his jealousy. She’d once put on her professor cap and made him feel better about it by saying, “It exists for a reason. Propriety keeps the family unit together, contributing to propagation. We can’t demonize all our instincts.”
Ann attacked her husband that night. She went down on him, however selfish the motivation, then straddled him once he was rock hard. Phil was reminded of their first few years of marriage. She’d been a prude, an inexperienced one, nearly frigid. But somehow, during her first pregnancy, her hormones had gone awry. In the still of night she’d turn to him (as if demon-possessed, he’d later razz her) and throatily command:
“FUCK ME! NOW!!”
Phil did not mind being used. Sex was sex. He did not care what whet her appetite during the day—even if it was a fitness trainer half his own age. It was understandable. And if he could fantasize about the nanny, however cliché, turnabout was fair play.
Why then, after she rolled off of him, did he continue to picture the kid’s hand on her back? Their taut, toned physiques coming together on a leather workout bench, him forcing himself inside her with gym-worthy grunts. Suddenly, something dawned on him he’d never considered: Ann was a college professor surrounded by horny college jocks. Virile Adonises in the prime of their lives, with chiseled abs that required no effort whatsoever. With perfect skin and perfect smiles and perfect stamina and worst of all—perfect arrogance. That brand of cockiness he’d once known so well, the one that had allowed him to judge a girl for her sexual appetite even while fucking her balls deep.
Phil Jacobs did not sleep that night.
The trees flew by, angles more opposed than ever, limbs knotted and torqued. The empty spaces between seemed more staggered than ever, whispering to Phil Jacobs of chaos from deep, wind-scored hollows. The forest preserve, once so orderly and comforting, was a meaningless jumble.
He had no earthly idea why he’d done it. He often changed in the driveway for his jog. But he’d timed his jog with Beth’s departure this time. He’d locked eyes with her through the salon window as he dropped his trousers and she gathered up her affairs to leave. He’d stuffed his junk into his sweats last of all, already engorged.
She hadn’t looked away.
And now, her BMW rattled along behind him, navigating crumbling asphalt. Without turning, he shifted his trajectory. Slyly. Seductively. Down a narrow, unpaved side road. Boy he was good; she followed.
Still, he did not look back. Cat and mouse, it was called. He still had game. The blood rushed into his groin as he planned their imminent encounter in his mind. He’d objectify her, in ways Ann would never tolerate, and she’d like it. He might even call her a whore.
Once out of view of the main highway, Beth parked between two colorless birch trunks and Phil heard the engine sputter and die. In the waning light, he spotted a small clearing just ahead. Moss laden, fertile, open enough but covert enough. A curtain of lacy vines hung from contorted branches, attempting in vain to conceal the empty pocket. To make it sacred somehow.
Phil heard a car door slam, but no footsteps. He lingered halfway down the congested footpath, halfway to the sacred but forlorn clearing. Still no footsteps behind him, no crunch of twigs or leaves. Dusk was falling, muddling details in purple confusion. They didn’t have much time; he’d have to turn around.
The reason he’d heard nothing behind him was simple: she’d removed her clothing, every thread, was now folding the garments meticulously. She placed the stack neatly atop the hood of her car and advanced. The two locked eyes—his hungry and alive and desperate all at once, hers oddly serene. Lord but she was a thing of beauty. Her straw colored hair spilled across pale alabaster shoulders, lightly freckled but pristine. In the dimming ambience, purple tones rendered her complexion even fairer, impossibly ethereal. She navigated the narrow, leaf-strewn path like a ghost, tender feet stepping gingerly as if across hot coals. The gait was deliberate, seductive, hips pronouncing themselves with each sway—not yet having incubated life but promising as much. Her muff jumped out against the pale, as much a signal as any traffic light or any tropical flower begging to be pollinated.
When she reached him Beth continued on, the swing in her hips a primal signal to follow. She stepped into the fertile clearing, porcelain feet gently depressing verdant moss. With a delicate hand, she propped open the lacy vine curtain in invitation.
Before Phil could join her in the glade, something alarming happened. Something wholly unexpected, but more than that, something that would profoundly change the course of events and his heart forever. A deafening growl reverberated through the woods, setting the trees to quaking, their leaves to falling madly all around. A dark shape sprang from a cavern at the back of the glade, one Phil had not even noticed in the gluttonous dark. In a split second it was on her, whatever it was, tearing her limb from limb, decapitating her with a pop and a spurt of blood, spattering the pale trees and her pale corpse and the verdant moss with violent red.
His heart accelerated as he sprinted, panicked and irregular. Fight or flight, his body warned him. He doubled over when he reached the familiar highway, pavement dark and rich compared to the footpath, and wondered what in hell he’d just witnessed. As much as he wanted it to be a bear or a cougar or a mountain lion, his heart knew in no uncertain terms what he’d seen.
And it was not of this earth.
He looked down. Thankfully, he’d not been spattered.
Phil Jacobs caught his breath, made sure not to touch her car or even the stack of clothing, and continued on his jog.
Ann found a new nanny within a week; the college girls in her classes were always in need of extra income. In the past, the Jacobses had entertained the idea of a live-in nanny; when it came up this time, Phil made it clear it was a bad idea all the way around.
The investigation was short-lived. No foul play, the lead investigator determined. Only a wild animal could have lacerated her flesh the way it did, down to the bone. Only feral teeth could have serrated her spine. What the girl had been doing in the woods without a stitch of clothing would remain a mystery. Old-fashioned provincial reserve compelled investigators to leave the matter alone; to avoid scandal out of respect for the girl’s family and reputation. Though she’d been in the Jacob’s employ, that very evening no less, Phil was never even questioned.
The new nanny was chubby and wore braces to correct an overbite.
Phil breathed a sigh of relief. But knowing he’d dodged a bullet, his heart continued to betray him. The hiccups grew more frequent.
One Saturday night, Ann suggested they attend church the following morning. It had been awhile.
“Absolutely,” Phil agreed without saying more. He’d attended parochial school as a child, found services nostalgic. And before becoming an accountant, though he’d nearly forgotten about it entirely, he’d considered studying theology. He’d even checked out a few local seminaries.
Strangely, the sermon that Sunday had to do with infidelity. The scripture Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife was referenced. More than once. There was talk of the difference between religious sins and moral sins: religious sins went against man’s covenant with God, while moral sins had to do with man’s transgressions against his fellow man.
After services, the couple picked up young Tucker from church daycare. In fellowship court, neighbors and acquaintances cooed over how quickly he’d grown. There was talk of growth charts and percentiles and what was ‘normal.’ Phil’s own growth spurt had come in middle school. Until then, he’d remained in the lower percentile, though neither the chart nor the concept existed at the time. He certainly hadn’t sported a mop of unruly blond locks like Taylor. And that stallion of a trainer from the gym.
At afternoon tea, it was just the two of them. Taylor was napping. The sun beamed lazily between blinds, flooding the quaint breakfast nook of the Jacobs’ cottage with nostalgia. Ann caught Phil, out of pure habit, attempting to drop a second lump of sugar in his tea. She reached out, removed the spoon sternly from his grasp, and laid it gingerly beside his cup and saucer. He smiled.
“The church really frowns on divorce,” Ann commented matter-of-factly, out of the blue. “Still. In 2015.”
Phil’s lip curled involuntarily with amusement. “Should it be otherwise?”
“We’re living longer than ever now,” Ann pointed out. She swept cinnamon lochs from her face, and Phil saw the sociology professor in her coming from a mile away. “Once upon a time we were wired to maintain lifelong monogamous relationships. And we were capable, because you bore children when your hips were at their prime, reared them while you had the strength to do it, and once they reached independence, you died!”
“Hmph.” Phil’s grin spread. He waited.
“Now that lifespans have doubled,” she went on, “we’re challenged with maintaining monogamous relationships for decades longer than nature intended.”
Phil already knew what he was going to say. “Well, as an evolutionary theorist, surely you think nature knows exactly what it’s doing. You’ve said yourself every social norm and more, every institution including dating rituals and marriage, exist to propagate the species. That we’re no different than animals.”
She thought about it. “I do believe our values evolve to suit what is needed to adapt. But sometimes it just takes our biology time to catch up with our ideas. Or vice-versa. Even our daughters the vegans have carnivorous teeth, for heaven’s sake.”
“So then current divorce rates are an extension of a philosophy—individualism—but they serve evolution as population control.” Phil posited.
“Sure,” Ann nodded.
“But the truth is,” Phil pointed out, playing Devil’s advocate, “with or without traditional marriage and forbidden divorce, the masses are still fucking and popping out kids.”
“True.” Ann smiled as if to signal they were in agreement. “Like I said, the system is not perfect. There is catch-up time.”
There was a long pause. Not an uncomfortable one, but a hiccup, a gift, a silence of birds chattering and lacy curtains fluttering and indefinable memories, shared ones, filling a tiny kitchen with fondness.
“Do you want a divorce?” Phil Jacobs asked at last.
Her eyes were moist, fixed beyond the fluttering sheers. She said nothing.
Lying beside her in bed that night, Phil wondered why he hadn’t done it. Why he hadn’t taken an opportunity so within reach. He could have, right then and there, proposed an open marriage. They wouldn’t have to use the term ‘swingers,’ or ‘wife-swapping’ or anything remotely sleazy like that. It would just be an agreement—a covenant—made by two people with a shared history they wanted to preserve, two people who also happened to understand the new rules: he could fuck whomever he wanted and so could she, while they were still young enough to procure. And still, they’d grow old and pick out patio furniture together.
He’d bring it up after church the following Sunday, he decided.
He shouldn’t have done it; luck always runs out eventually. On some level, if he was going to propose the new rules, he needed to know if he had it in him. As Phil Jacobs craned his neck to peer over the trimmed hedges at Hollyglen Fitness, he saw what he’d wanted to see.
The kid’s hands on her, front and back like before, but nothing to do with posture this time. Not neutral like before, forging equilibrium, but throwing every thing off-balance. If what Ann had said was true, it was his pheromones she was addicted to now. His sweat she liked. How dare the kid touch that belly when it had borne children nearly his own age. How dare he take such a familiar liberty—such ownership.
How dare she allow it.
Phil ran. He ran to create alpha waves, that mind space in which mental chatter disappears. But he’d never been good at it—only at fantasy. He ran faster, to wipe the image from his mind or to get okay with it—the image of his hand on her, the kiss they’d shared seconds later. Even if he could get okay with it, even if he became a glutton for punishment, just another cuckold, even if his own molestation wired him for it, would he want to do the same to her? To burden her with equally indelible images? Maybe the covenant, it finally came to him, mind racing, was not to burden the one you love with indelible images over which to obsess. Maybe the very agreement was to spare them out of love. To lock such images away like a treasure chest in the carcass of a threadbare shipwreck or a heart beating in a ribcage.
No matter how fast Phil Jacobs ran, the image of the kid was right there at his heels. The more he taxed his heart, the more it gained on him. Like a racehorse. He imagined luring the kid to that clearing in the woods. Getting him naked somehow, watching his perfect physique being torn limb from limb in a smattering of blood. Night was falling and Phil was disoriented but still he ran, unsure if he’d taken the high road or the low road, unsure whether he was headed home or to Stallion Springs, where young bucks waited to fuck your wife.
His heart was beating an irregular warning, the hiccups more and more frequent, like gaps in the universe that threatened to expand and take over all. Like the black spaces between the winking eyes of trees, the chaos that waited to consume.
He had to stop.
The man doubled over in the fleeting purple twilight, trying in vain to catch his breath. To slow his heart. He’d strayed from the familiar crumbling pavement of the highway. The forest around him was uncharted. As the last fleeting warmth abandoned a corner of the sky, Phil’s eyes adjusted to the moonlight that remained. It slathered crisscrossing branches, hopelessly intertwined, trying in vain to make order of them. It was then that Phil noticed: he’d wandered into that tiny, fertile green clearing.
If there was any blood left on the trees, it had dried brown and was camouflaged—neutralized—by the cool moonlight. But the gently draping moss shared hues with night’s ambience; the moon only accentuated its sensual folds. Phil brushed aside the curtain of vines, now sparse and revealing. He stepped with trepidation into the shrine-like glade.The pale trunks stood erect, no longer jumbled, their winking black knots agape. The universe had never been so agape. The man’s hand went involuntarily to his ribcage, checking for a heartbeat. The gaps were growing longer. The hollow breath of the universe was filling them in. Despite his reticence, his palpable fear, Phil Jacobs drove deeper. He’d been unable to resist taking the detour to peep in the gym window; he was no more capable of defying the forceful strings that now guided him like a marionette.
The cavern yawned wide, neither menacing nor inviting, but very like a womb. Inside, some inexplicable ambient light, or an imagined one, extruded stone walls from the unsettling dark. The chamber was a cave, but also a labyrinth.
The puppet strings compelled Phil Jacobs onward, despite any remaining will of his own. Shedding his will was freeing somehow, feeling he was little more than a slave to destiny. He suddenly identified with all those whores he’d used, their drive to reduce themselves to objects, to be chewed up and spit out by the universe in its mysterious dialectic.
He could already hear its grunting. Its hot, tantalizing breath glancing off helplessly entangled facades like the chambers of a heart. They grew ever more concentrated as he neared the center of the maze, his own heart anxious with dread but perversely self-destructive at the same time. He was headed toward doom, but had never been more lustful of a thing.
Whatever awaited him at the core, he knew his heart might not hold out. That its final blip may well glance off the very stone walls that imprisoned him.
He reached the center of the labyrinth.
It was already there, salivating. Throwing a huge shadow to block the inexplicable light. It had the torso of a man, an impossibly muscular man defined by sinew and pulsing veins. It had his physique, the kid’s, pale like a white stallion but broiling with blood. Its powerful thighs were matted with fur, reversing painfully into equine haunches and hooves as polished and iridescent as conch shells. A long, whip-like tail stroked the corrugated stone walls seductively. The enormous head and neck pulsed with equine fury, eyes fiery and inhuman. Its gaze fixed on Phil, vertical pupils slamming shut as if zeroing in on prey.
“Are you going to tear me limb from limb?” Phil wanted to know.
The deep growl penetrated Phil to the core like a red-hot poker. Ever so slowly, the eviscerating tone morphed, vibrations forming words.
“You know that’s not what I want.”
Suddenly the vertical slits were entire universes. Phil felt he was looking into the microcosmic universe of his own life.
“You’re not going to eat me?”
“No.” The creature’s tail whipped impatiently.
“Thank you,” Phil heard his own voice utter, raw and abject, unsure if it was thanking the beast for sparing him or rejecting him.
“I think you know what I want, “ the bass rumble purred at last.
I finally occurred to Phil: it was the running that taxed his heart. Only the running. If there was any hope at all for his heart, he knew he had to be still.
And he knew what was coming next.
Ever so slowly, he unfastened the frayed cord and dropped his sweats to his ankles.
The DISTANCE BETWEEN STARS
Next door to Brewer Street Theater stood a nondescript midrise brick building with misshapen windows. Their sills were tired and waterlogged, some spilling even wearier-looking succulents from corroded wrought iron planters. At night, the portals twinkled like slow-burning stars—marigold embers spangling an indifferent brick cosmos with signs of intelligent life. The ashen cinder block buildings flanking either side of the lanky theater house were identical, rendering both incognito.
Passersby mistook the facades for those of residential suites. But their skewed vertical windows told a different story, even when smoldering into the wee hours: several floors of the derelict structure had been leased as an annex by a reputable university outside London, designated as labs for the thesis projects of grad students. The idea was for the university to establish a presence in London proper, while providing students a connection to the hustle and bustle. A lifeline to the pulse of the real world that awaited them after graduation.
Maurice Steadman and Garret Milne were two such upper term students, and more often than not the ones burning the midnight oil. They could be seen hunched over monitors or reading punch cards in the semi-dark, their high-tech (for its time) equipment incongruous amid soot-smattered brick, mortar, and chipping plaster. In their infancy, computers spanned entire rooms, spat out data on ridiculously large manila squares; such means were necessary to calculate—to convert all that abstract chaos into something meaningful. When not scrutinizing punch cards, the two young men could be seen on the building’s roof, gazing at the cosmos through sophisticated telescopes mounted between corroded water towers and oxidized rain gutters. They’d been thrown together by faculty on a joint thesis: Parallax: Alternative Methods for Measuring the Distance Between Stars. Their research entailed mathematical equations and axioms; even the most powerful telescope could not come close to validating the abstract data. Their research was theoretical.
Even now, Maurice Steadman’s olive skin furrowed between heavy brows as he squinted through the eyepiece of the tripod-mounted monstrosity they’d heaved up the fire escape. He let out a heavy sigh.
“You really can’t see it?” Garret needled him incredulously, pushing blonde bangs from his own freckled brow.
Maurice squinted harder, every muscle tensing with his ocular mechanism. Then, all at once, his shoulders drooped in defeat.
“You’re joking! To me, it’s clear as day!” Maurice bragged, nudging his partner aside and restationing himself before the eyepiece to the cosmos. “Looks like I could reach out and grab it!”
His hand swiped at nothing.
Their data had revealed the existence of a small, smoldering amber star—Jen 3.5, normally invisible to the naked eye. But the parallax shift that occurred between when they’d begun their thesis and now, fall, had revealed the small beauty to empirical evidence.
As though he’d failed at something vitally important, Maurice seated himself on a hooded vent that slumped in tandem with his spirit.
“I can’t focus on it,” he lamented, feeling the need to explain himself. I’m trying, really. It’s all those other heavenly bodies competing for my attention!”
Years later, when it became a thing, Maurice would be diagnosed with adult ADD. Garret would even provide a testimonial to help him get his diagnosis—and access to medication.
“Well, for the record, it’s beautiful,” Garret assured him. “Jen 3.5 may not be a nova or a supernova, but it’s stunning. For me, everything else around it just disappears…”
Garret seated himself beside his partner. The two were as different as night and day—Maurice dark and exotic, Garret familiar and blonde and—obvious in appearance. Gravity took hold of the boys’ collective gaze, dragging it like an anchor into the more immediate sea of city lights that mirrored heaven. The lights twinkled incessantly, a reeling tide of possibilities. Some of the shimmering lights were large, some small, some near and others far. Some shone cold and fluorescent, others pulsed warm with incandescent welcoming. In the closer buildings, silhouettes could be distinguished blocking the light: children running about past their bedtime, lovers kissing or throwing things about, loners gazing into the night in still silence. Without voicing the fact, both boys felt they were looking out at the myriad of possible lives that awaited them after graduation. Maybe administration had it right to let them dip a toe in the pool before diving in cold turkey. To minimize the shock.
Both young men had come from small villages in the country—one a farming community and one fishing. They’d bonded over a shared affinity for sunburned farmers (or fisherman) short on teeth, for John Deere tractors or schooners, for melancholy sunsets hanging over gently waiving crops or choppy seas. Just as powerful a cement was their shared distaste for bible-thumping, ignorance, and sawed-off shotguns. That alone—the prospect of escaping the small-mindedness of provincial life—was enough to justify the other challenges that came along with city life.
Long before partnering on their thesis, the two had been thrown together as dorm-mates by sheer chance. Their paths had first crossed on moving day when Garret’s mattress collided with Maurice’s hutch in the narrow dormitory hallway. Within a week, the congestion problem would be resolved—one bed instead of two. They’d shared a kiss that very first night, effortlessly—a goodnight peck that turned into an all night affair of spooning and telling stories in the dark (Maurice saying he felt like a kid at camp again) and then melded into a brief interlude resembling sleep. Then they’d woke with stiffies and done it all again.
They were late for class that day.
Their arrangement would not have flown in the country; in London, no one batted an eye. The university’s liberal mindset managed to trump the pervasive conservatism of the nineteen fifties; no one from the dorm monitor to the Dean of Students asked about the lumpy mattress that found itself slumped against an industrial dumpster in the alleyway behind the dormitory.
Still, the two refrained from holding hands in public—only on the couch at home, fingertips gently grazing, firing sparks from the universe confirming—anointing—their connection. Both knew the feeling was mutual, undeniable, a gift. All else followed, effortlessly: the joint shopping sprees, the melding of tastes and habits—the formation of a household. Their temperaments and dispositions were blissfully copasetic; neither had ever felt so at home.
Oh, some of what they built together came from mimicry, relationship models they’d seen; how could it be otherwise? But for the most part, their relationship was its own animal, a docile one requiring no handbook or training manual.
Despite their compatibility, despite the wellbeing and inner peace it brought, Garret couldn’t help but sense, at times, there were corners of his lover’s mind he would never know. Dark corners, like cigarette-burned borders vignetting an idyllic tableau. Maurice had spoken of abuse—horrific things he’d overcome. Garret did not have the life experience to know these were the things that reared their ugly heads over time, chipping away at bliss.
Oh, part of him likely subscribed to the quaint notion that love conquers all. His own upbringing had been far from a fairy tale. But he’d repackaged it, thanking the good Lord he’d been raised with the good sense to make lemons of lemonade. Simply put, to compensate for any damage done by his alcoholic father, his mother had fitted him with rose-colored glasses. It would be painful when they were eventually torn off—they’d been surgically attached—but for the moment, the boy was glad he had tools to cope: ideals, ethics, morals. A productive thought process (some called it positive thinking) that allowed him to transform and renew, transform and renew. To cleanse the world.
It would not be enough.
After graduation, the couple moved into a small West End flat. Garret hit the ground running, continuing his research (only for a salary now) with the company where he’d interned during his undergrad studies. The work was an extension of what he’d specialized in at university; he quickly found himself at the forefront of Interstellar Parallax. Maurice found work with a rival research institute. Several of his studies were published in scientific journals. Still, his name did not ring synonymous with the cutting edge like his partner’s.
It may have been professional jealousy at work, or simple pride: the feeling that he was the breadwinner’s wife and not the breadwinner (men being socialized as they are) but whatever the case, resentment came to roost in Maurice Steadman’s heart.
It did not take long for the young man to stray. He took to long strolls at night, promenades that compelled him along the moonlit Thames, under Waterloo Bridge, to that nondescript underground pub with no sign above the door. The one you rang to enter, professing in a whisper to be a ‘friend of Dorothy’s,’ the equivalent of a passcode.
The darkened den was a microcosm of the city—its seedy possibilities, its moral ambiguity, its endless options and overstimulation. In a small town it was easy to commit; one settled on whomever was in front of him. In the city, with so many prospects, one held out for whomever offered the most…advantage.
It was here among the myriad of swirling options that Maurice encountered Jack Pershing, an old acquaintance from the fishing village of Whimby. The man was not an old flame, but a spark that had never been kindled. So much had changed: London’s rules were different than those of Whimby’s. Both men knew themselves better than before. Not to mention Jack had grown into a strapping, handsome man with a smart moustache. And his own law firm.
Maurice Steadman traded up.
Oh, Garret Milne was no slouch; he was world-renowned. But he was devoted to research. And research did not pay, whereas chasing taxis did, and handsomely.
The day Maurice moved out, Garret saw him shed a tear, for the first and last time ever. He himself was cried out.
“I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing,” Maurice rasped from a damaged place. His brooding, heavy-lidded eyes flashed moist in the darkened flat.
Years later, Garret would figure out it had all been a test. That on some unconscious level, his lover had hoped he’d fight for what they had. Fight for him. Save him from himself. But in the moment, Garret’s ideals told him tests were emotional manipulation, that one cannot make another want to stay, and that the old adage was true: If you loved something you set it free; if it came back to you it was meant to be.
Garret finally understood that the dark cigar-burned corners of his lover’s mind, the ones he could never know, spawned demons. They were rearing their ugly heads, blinding Maurice with superficiality to what truly mattered, driving him to sabotage the best thing that had ever happened to either of them. To forfeit a gift from the universe. Garret knew in his heart Maurice was sentencing them both.
That night, each of them acted on the thing drove him: Maurice on visceral, mysterious, broken instinct, and Garret on the heady ideals that had saved him thus far. That night both men made the most momentous error of his life.
And nothing would ever be the same.
After his lover was gone for certain, the buckled wooden door having clicked shut with finality, fickle footsteps having faded with any hope of rewinding time, Garret remained paralyzed on the couch in nearly complete and utter darkness. The fluorescent glow of a computer screen flattened his expressionless features, the machine itself spitting needless punch cards from its gut.
Just then, with a thud, the lights went out.
The city’s entire power grid.
Garret stumbled to the distorted window frame and gazed out at an unrecognizable London. Her skyline stood stark and wretched against the night sky, but any sign of life below was swallowed in unforgiving black. No twinkling, welcoming lights, no shadow puppets dancing or dirty laundry hanging, no sordid lives on display. By contrast, the heavens jumped forward, Milky Way flung from horizon to horizon incubating countless nebula, clusters of stars as old as time. Garret had never seen the city this way; normally the city lights obscured heaven altogether.
In that moment, nothing was what he’d presumed it to be.
Nothing made sense.
Fifty Years Later
Garret Milne made his way down Jewel Street toward the L-train at Nassau, planting his right foot and then dragging the left along to meet it. Navigating the buckled sidewalk was not always such an excruciatingly slow affair; he’d landed on his hip the day before after losing his footing rearranging the few sparse items on his mantle. It was not broken; that much he knew. It would take time, but his body would return to its old self. He refused to accept that this was the new normal. He refused to be seen, even by strangers, with a cane.
The old man waved at Mrs. Stefanowicz, his neighbor. They’d exchanged the same familiar greeting for nearly thirty years. Oh, when he’d first moved to Greenpoint in his mid-forties she’d stared him down with suspicion, girded eyes staunchly compressed beneath a surly brow. The well-entrenched Polish community was insular at best and any outsider, especially a Brit, was subject to scrutiny. Mrs. Stefanowicz herself was third generation, but had never needed to learn English; that’s how exclusive the Brooklyn neighborhood was. At first, Garret found her and her family an odd bunch, leaving their shoes on the porch at night. Garret had made it a point to count the bodies that came and went from his neighbor’s residence, comparing the figure to the number of shoes. It was disproportionate; he came away convinced the shoes multiplied at night.
Garret Milne did not mind being an outsider, despite moving to Brooklyn to disappear. As a gay man, he’d long since grown used to being the odd man out. And despite being an ethnic anomaly, anonymity would prove effortless in Greenpoint; kids today, even if they learned his name, would have no inkling of his contributions to science—the many articles that had transcended academia and made it into Time Magazine or Popular Science.
He’d left London ostensibly to trade in research for aerospace, or more accurately, a crown in heaven for a paycheck. Practicality had set in, and he knew he’d need to sock away retirement funds while he could. No pension, and no children of his own to look after him. But despite very real practical concerns, part of the man knew his ambition had waned with a broken heart, and he was relocating in order to fade away. Like a whale leaving the pod. Even before leaving London for the tri-state area, he’d found himself isolating more and more, allowing his world to atrophy. Consciously, he’d told himself he was simplifying his life in an admirable way. He took public transportation when needed, but mostly rode his bicycle—to the local grocer, the library, his favorite coffee shop.
When he arrived in Brooklyn at forty, any semblance of a social life shriveled like kielbasa on a hot sidewalk. He’d been able to blame it on the long commute to Greenwich, Connecticut, where the aerospace facility was located, shrouded in lush, green forest. The train to and from simply ate up too much time. And then, weekends, he was too exhausted to step out. Oh, maybe a stroll to the corner café for morning cappuccino when there was little chance of meeting anyone or having to put on a good face. Though logistics did hinder things, the truth was he’d thrown in the towel.
The more people had disappointed him, the more he’d stopped trying. He’d always clung to some kind of naïve hope humans were capable of rising above their animal nature and acting on their best behavior, that they could be guided by true principle and not the pleasure principle. That they could delay gratification and operate as man did best, tempering base drives with intellect. But time and again, they’d proven his quaint notions nothing more than fantasy.
His first love had broken his heart, to be sure. Healing had taken time, (he was a Scorpio, after all) but the resilience of youth told him the disillusioning event was all for the best. Once he’d rebuilt his ideals (as he’d have to do many times in his life) he’d even told himself had the two remained together, their growth would have been retarded. Maurice had his own heart broken a few years after leaving, and wanted Garret back. But Garret found the prospect degrading; he’d moved on. He’d licked his wounds, mourned his illusions in a chrysalis, and emerged reborn. What new person went back to his old self?
He’d have a few more false starts in the years to come. The second love of his life touched his heart and mind, but in a different way than Maurice. Garret allowed himself to be raw, vulnerable, in ways he’d never been with his first love. But in the end, the chemistry was just not there; the two should only ever have been best friends. His third love would be primal, visceral; their lovemaking would move mountains. They’d climax at the same millisecond every time, breathing into one another, the very impossibility of it a gift from the universe. But the tempestuous affair would end painfully, leaving him to feel he’d betrayed his good sense and danced with the devil. Leaving him sure the gift had come from below. Each ending reshaped Garret’s heart in its own cruel way, but still, his lemons-to-lemonade nature told him it was all leading somewhere. That one day he would find everything in one package—the mind, body, spirit connection. The universe was preparing him for it.
Even his growing self-sufficiency he’d frame in a positive light; ideally one had to be complete without another; only then did one have something to offer a relationship. He’d heard it said that the moment one stopped looking, true love appeared. In the mean time, he’d just have to pay attention so as not to grow too set in his ways.
Somehow, things changed in the waiting. While basking in his completeness, ever ready to turn his head not out of desperate need but only if someone came along who could enhance his complete life, he grew old. His currency dried up.
With waning assets and waning options, his perspective on the past began to sour. Lemons become, well—lemons. Stripped of his familiar rose-colored glasses, the truth became all too clear: rather than preparing him for some grandiose destiny, the trials of his heart had been for naught. The rose-colored ideals had been nothing more than rationalization. When Maurice had wanted him back, it was the hubris of youth, and nothing more, that convinced him he’d outgrown the stilted relationship. Trading up for integrity rather than material gain was still, in the end, trading up. It was arrogance to think he’d ever find better. Nowadays, he’d give anything to turn a head.
He’d lost touch with Maurice twenty years previous, about a decade after moving to Brooklyn. After that, other than hearing mention of his former lover’s name in a journal from time to time, there had been nary a blip from the universe. He’d often wondered what became of the man, even found himself checking the obituaries out of morbid curiosity. When the internet took off, he’d conducted the occasional Google search. Nothing. He’d scoured Facebook, knowing even while doing so that Maurice wasn’t the Facebook type and his conspicuous absence meant little. He’d checked LinkedIn—still nothing. Eventually Garret found himself wondering how a person could so thoroughly disappear without a trace. But then, he’d managed to do it.
“What do you need?” A voice called from a tiny yard on Jewel Street.
The old man paused, planting his left foot and dragging the right along to meet it.
He turned. The old woman looked like her voice: plump, eccentric, full of wisdom and humor. He’d never seen her before, though she lived a mere three doors down. Her figure was matronly, wrapped up in exotic scarves and slathered in costume jewelry. Heavy eyeliner adorned almond eyes that turned up in the corners, thin lips were lined to match. Her dark hair formed natural finger waves streaked with silver. Full, rouged cheeks resisted gravity, filling out any folds that might have otherwise appeared with time.
The woman’s mass was distributed horizontally; she stood five feet tall at most. As if to compensate, she sat perched atop a teetering heap of incongruous affairs in the middle of the yard, stocking feet dangling nonchalantly over a manicured lawn. The artifacts consisted of cheap luggage, a stuffed armadillo, antique Persian rugs rolled into tight scrolls, old tube televisions and lava lamps and an accordion. Endless shoes, worn and shapeless, a lamp with water stains, emerald blue shot glasses and an art nouveau chandelier with missing panes. Vinyl phonograph records, a queer teapot and exotic cups, old pulpy dime novels—Great Expectations and To Have Or Have Not, The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. The woman resembled an old world gypsy as much as anyone Garret had ever crossed paths with.
And she was having a garage sale.
“Good morning,” Mr. Milne greeted her, tipping his suede fedora and attempting to continue on his way.
“What are you looking for?” the woman demanded a second time, hopping from her perch into a pair of wooden clogs.
The old man planted a foot and dragged the other behind, attempting in vain to make his escape despite the ball and chain. The old woman was faster.
“Whatever it is,” she sang, “I’ve got it right here!”
Before the man knew what had happened, she’d grabbed him by the wrist and was escorting him with a minimum of grace down one of the aisles between folding card tables. Here were yet more absurd juxtapositions: ceramic wiener dogs sprouting dried flowers from strange places, bauble heads and pickaninnies and lawn jockeys. Salt and pepper shakers and Jesus pencil cap erasers, exotic crystals haphazardly placed in emerald green molded glass ashtrays.
“I really don’t need anything, Ma’am,” Garret assured her, making a concerted effort to remain polite. “I live a very simple life. And I’ll be late catching the L-Train to work.”
Neither excuse was a lie. He still commuted to the facility in Connecticut three times a week to act as consultant; he’d not yet had the luxury of retiring. And to say he was a minimalist was an understatement. Things, too many things, always proved to get in the way. Just yesterday, he’d twisted something trying to rearrange the three possessions on his mantle he actually cared about.
“I’ve got it!” The woman exclaimed with a jubilant flourish of pudgy hands. “I know what it is you need.” And then, before turning toward whatever it was she had in mind, she looked at him. Into him.
Without wasting a moment, she plucked something from amid a haphazard pile of kitsch on the third card table to her left. She blew on the artifact, and a cloud of dust billowed from it, settling to the manicured lawn.
Garret Milne’s jaw dropped.
The item in her chubby-fingered grasp was a collapsible antique telescope mounted to a sophisticated tripod. It looked Chinese and Arabic and Victorian and futuristic and otherworldly all at once.
“This was given to me ages ago,” she recalled. “By a monk high on a mountaintop between Nepal and Tibet. Back then, there were no borders—not the way we know them now.”
The old man was awestruck, speechless, found himself turning the gilded cylinders over and over in his palm.
“It sounds very special,” he said at last. “Surely you don’t want to part with such a fantastic treasure. Considering it was a gift.”
“The monk said all gifts are to be passed on,” she assured him. “Paid forward. He said when I met someone who needed it, to pass it on. It’s been ages, but I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life.”
“Someone who needs it?” Garret said with a chuckle not meant to come across as ingratitude. “We have much more powerful telescopes now.”
“Their power does not come close. This treasure was found when they broke ground on the monastery. It predates Nepal and Tibet both. It predates the monks themselves and their fathers and grandfathers.”
“What then, is its power?” Garret pursued.
“To make its owner happy.”
Something made the old man bristle, so that he nearly dropped the thing in the grass. “I don’t believe in happiness,” he heard himself say. “Happiness is a fantasy, a romantic ideal invented by those who don’t know true contentment. I have contentment, and that is enough.”
The man set the artifact on the card table next to a porcelain candleholder resembling Elvis, and felt himself inching backward toward the sidewalk.
“Perhaps,” the old woman suggested with infinite compassion, retrieving the object and following close behind, “you have forgotten what happiness is. Like a crab in boiling water, you’ve grown used to your surroundings.”
The man was almost to the sidewalk. But something about the woman’s words stopped him in his tracks. A small tear, the size of a pearl, rolled down his cheek. Despite his resistance, something in his body decided it was now or never and a trembling hand reached for his billfold.
“How much would you like for it?”
“As I said, it is a gift.” The woman assured him, wrapping his shaky fingers around the armored body of the ancient telescope. And with that, she turned toward her second customer of the day. Mrs. Stefanowicz was marching across the manicured lawn.
He could feel it jostling about in the pocket of his cardigan as the L-Train rattled toward Union Square. There, he’d transfer to Grand Central, where he’d have the almond croissant and black coffee he’d enjoyed there thrice weekly since becoming a consultant and limiting his commuting days. Then he’d jump on the train to Greenwich, Connecticut, and he’d pass the time reading the New York Times cover-to-cover. Bringing the antique artifact along to work would not have been his first choice, but he’d not had time to stop off at home. He kept a hand on it throughout the day, gently caressing its coarse patina, to make sure it never left his person. Oh, the morning’s synchronicity had worn off, its magical fog yielding to the very real possibility the woman was not a gypsy but a loon, her merchandise less likely exotic artifacts than estate sale acquisitions or thrift shop fodder.
Still, she’d somehow paired him with his first love, astronomy, without a palm reading or a single exchange of personal information. She’d sensed the gift was meant for him. Needless to say, he was intrigued.
As the day wore on, he remained vigilant, searching his heart for any tinge of happiness—any microscopic blip or flutter. But at quitting time, he did not feel any happier. His day had offered all the same highs and lows he’d grown accustomed to: the bliss of caffeine and an almond croissant, the frustrations of the facility—an elusive code or the very existence of the twenty-three year-old sycophant who ever clawed and scraped to climb the corporate ladder but didn’t know what he didn’t know. Nothing was more frustrating than that.
That night, he hopped off the train prematurely at Brooklyn Bridge. He found himself perched at its base, gazing out across choppy, moonlit waters toward the Manhattan skyline. He withdrew his new possession, extending its armored body segment by segment. Gingerly, he stabilized its tiny tripod atop a cement slab and tilted the telescope’s gaze to the sky. But the night was humid, heaven shrouded in turbulence. Garret could not recall the last time he’d seen stars hovering over the Manhattan skyline. Or for that matter, the last time he’d bothered to look up.
Tonight, the city lights shone as prominent as ever, rendering heaven a silly, outdated notion. The old man found himself surveying what his vantage point did proffer, even if it insisted on withholding the cosmos. He darted from window to window, thrilled at the prospect of playing voyeur. Suddenly, Garret was reminded of a moment a lifetime before, when he’d sat with a young man so polar in appearance but so like himself in many ways. They’d been crouched at the starting line of their lives, gazing at the London skyline and silently pondering what lay ahead. They’d surveyed the domestic scenes playing out in tiny, skewed windows, no different than those sprawled before him now. It nearly startled Garret: nothing had changed. Only him. Though he could never have predicted it, he’d become the loner gazing out at the world from a misshapen sill.
It dawned on Garret the woman was right; he was the crab in the boiling water. Depression had crept up on him. Though he prided himself on being content, on his ability to transform what he saw and renew his faith in order to get out of bed each morning, the truth was he’d once aspired to he happy. Blissfully, blindly happy. And he’d known what it was to be so. It was true: getting up everyday required hope—that silly thing they say springs eternal—a belief that one is redeemable and can make his difference in a vast cosmos despite being dust in the wind. But being blissfully happy was a different prospect altogether, one Garret Milne had forgotten existed.
As a child, he’d dreamt he was a constellation. In the dream, a silent voice had run through him like a whispered breeze. You are made of stardust, it said. Now, in a single moment, the voice came back to him, reminding him true bliss was not some elusive, over-romanticized ideal to be coveted, the pursuit of which was doomed to fail. It was his natural state. His birthright. He knew because he’d once had it. He hadn’t created it through alchemy or transformation. He’d not mastered any axiom spit out by that room-hogging oversized calculator. It had fallen in his lap as if from heaven—a gift.
The old man’s rusty keys clanked riotously as he wriggled one in an equally rusty lock. Once he’d mastered it, he threw open the tall, splintery door to his darkened flat. Moonlight skidded across buckled hardwood, climbing the fireplace and bathing its lonely mantle in quiet blue. He approached it, not bothering to throw on a light.
He’d decided to give the ancient telescope a home on the mantle; apparently, it took time to work its magic. It’s gotta be lived with, Garret had decided.
Of course, things would have to be rearranged. Three items adorned the faux marble surface, marking it a shrine of sorts. The first was a climbing succulent that spilled from a wire basket, reaching for the floor. He’d transplanted it ages ago from the wrought iron planter that edged his windowsill on Brewer Street, and managed to keep it alive all these years. The second item was a snapshot of his parents, who’d died in the late eighties within days of one another. The third and final item was a book titled It’s All Perspective. Its yellowed pages were coddled in a thick embossed leather cover. Written by the founding father of stellar parallax, the tome had inspired much of Maurice’s work during their time together. It was the one item his lover had forgotten to take on leaving. When Garret had stumbled to the window in the blackout, he’d kicked it to the wall by mistake. He could have returned it at some point; the two stayed in touch for many years despite the acrimonious nature of the breakup. For some reason, Garret said nothing and held on to the book.
Apprehensive of falling on his hip a second time, Garret slid a small stepladder from the breakfast nook. In the melancholy moonlight, he created a space between the droopy plant and the leather book. He positioned the telescope there, angling it just so.
He backed into the room, cocked his head to view the new arrangement in a variety of ways to make sure it would do, and went to bed.
That night, he dreamt he was a constellation. The familiar voice returned to him, the voice of the universe like a whispered breeze. Or was it his own voice, the soundless one that narrated his reverie? Regardless, it spoke to him. Not of stardust this time, or his essence or a state of bliss. The voice rattled off only data. Numbers. Abstract figures in an incessant barrage. And then, in the dream, Garret discerned the source of the voice. Though it vibrated everywhere and nowhere, bodiless, a tiny, distant star pulsated with each utterance. Dwarfed by novas and supernovas, the tiny yellow ember was easily overlooked. It was Jen 3.5.
Over breakfast, Garret pondered the visitation, wondering what it meant. In fact, he began to question his entire life’s work. Stellar parallax was the only means to accurately judge the distance between stars. Without it, a map of the heavens appeared flat, dimensionless, lending itself to misinterpretation. To the eye, the relative size of stars, how brightly they burned, all those other factors confounded the distance between stars. Everyone saw them differently. Until the abstract data came in.
But so what?
Everyone knew objective truth was tenuous at best, that one’s subjective experience is all he can be sure of. That the reality that allows us to build bridges and drive across them is nothing more than consensus. So why had he devoted his life to proving again and again that the truth is relative depending on perspective? That the distance between stars is greater than we think? That we’re all just floating bodies, millions of light years apart, like countries without borders or entire constellations, doomed to live and die alone?
Garret rinsed the remaining porridge from his ceramic bowl, realizing he needed to take a walk if he knew what was good for him. As he reached the door, he glanced back at the telescope.
I wonder if I’m supposed to do something with it? he pondered.
He decided to ask the Gypsy woman, but when he reached her manicured lawn three doors down, neither she nor her haphazard affairs were anywhere to be found. A moving van was parked in the drive, loaded up with the possessions of what looked to be a medium-sized family.
Mrs. Stefanowicz will know what’s become of our mutual neighbor, he decided. After all, she’d perused the bizarre yard sale just after he had two days previous.
But when he reached the old Polish woman’s stoop, he stopped in his tracks. A muffled sobbing permeated the buckled, powder blue door. He looked down at the pile of shoes on the porch—the pile that over the years had dwindled from thirteen to eight to five and now two. There had been but two misshapen pairs of shoes for some time now. Occasionally, the woman’s children would come to visit and she would smile cheerfully watching her grandchildren run through the sprinklers on particularly hot and humid days, pigtails flopping.
Reserve compelled the man to turn on his heels, to spare the woman embarrassment and allow her privacy. But what if she needed something? He might be able to help. He turned back and rang the buzzer.
The splintery door groaned open in agony. The woman’s deep-set eyes were red-rimmed and raw. The batik paisley kerchief that swaddled her face was stained with tears.
“My love—gone,” she said simply in broken English, as if to explain her distraught appearance. “Mr. Stefanowicz die yesterday in hospital.”
A wave of sadness washed over Garret. Words were a long time in coming.
“Please accept my condolences,” he offered earnestly once he was able to wrangle his words.
The woman reached inside her screened door and produced an ornate pewter and marble tray heaped with krowki. “Please,” she insisted.
Garret obliged, humbled by the woman’s grace at what was surely a difficult moment.
As if to explain the excess of treats, the old woman managed: “My children come this afternoon. To plan services.”
“Ah,” Garret sighed, relieved to know she would not be alone.
He offered his condolences one more time and continued on his walk.
At home, Garret Milne planted himself in the antique wingback chair that was one of few furnishings in his modest living room. It was oriented toward that shrine of a mantle, as if gazing into an invisible fire.
But he was looking at the telescope.
It had not brought him happiness—not yet. If anything, his day had been characterized by melancholy. The eccentric Gypsy’s sudden, unheralded disappearance made him sad, though he did not know why. Mrs. Stefanovicz’ loss had felt like his own. Perhaps due to pending mortality, Garret seemed to be feeling things more deeply these days. Especially the feelings of others. Nothing to do with the telescope. On his afternoon walk, he’d seen a bird splashing through a puddle; it brought a smile to his face. He’d passed a basset hound walking its master, nose glued to the ground and folds of skin cascading like an accordion with gravity. He’d seen a perfect white rose that spoke of perfection. All of it took the edge off of the loss he felt, upgraded acute sadness to melancholy.
When are you going to start working? He mentally asked the telescope.
It said nothing in reply, remaining perfectly still.
Mrs. Stefanovicz had sent one of her grown children over with a handwritten invitation to her husband’s services. The funeral took place at the cemetery, but the memorial service, an all day affair, took place at her home afterward. Garret put aside any social anxiety he felt and paid his respects. Afterward, he was glad he’d done it. Some of the woman’s children had learned English, made sure to translate any and all anecdotes about Mr. Stefanovicz that were shared in tribute. The Polish pastries and desserts were to die for. Though Garret felt every iota of sadness in the room, eyes moist and a perpetual lump in his throat, it felt healing. When he left, he shared a tight embrace with the recent widow, something he hadn’t done in thirty years of being her neighbor.
Walking home, he pondered how such loss could feel healing. He’d been to many funerals (too many) in his life and they always promised a good, life-affirming cry. The loss of a broken heart, on the other hand, stayed with you. It changed the very shape of your heart. Suddenly he had it: death is part of the natural order of things, he decided. Whereas a broken heart involves deception. In the former case, one can continue to believe in the laws of the universe; the latter makes one question them, throwing his hands in the air in futility. Though he’d learned one did not have to be dumped to have his heart broken—the world could break it or it could break slowly over time, even within a marriage—he’d decided long ago not to trust anyone who’d never experienced it.
Summer was turning to fall; the humidity lifted. One evening, through his parlor window, Garret noticed the stars that began spangling a shimmering purple twilight. By the time he’d assembled the ancient telescope in his back yard, they were everywhere, like fireflies reflecting on a frozen lake.
To his amazement, what the old man saw through the eyepiece was the first thing the artifact had yielded that remotely resembled magic. Instead of the dense clusters that defined the Milky Way, the ancient contraption cancelled out certain stars altogether while enhancing others. Garret imagined the resulting constellations, those that pronounced themselves from all the rest, were actually ancient formations, those mankind never had occasion to witness. He suddenly knew, beyond all reason, that the telescope predated not only the monks and their ancestors and even the monastery—it predated the very mountaintop on which it had been built.
Garret grabbed a scratch pad and a number two pencil, began madly scrawling what he saw through that lens. He did this nightly for months, as long as the weather allowed, charting the heavens as the earth careened about the sun on its strange axis. In spring, he had an entire sequence committed to chicken scratch. But what to do with it? What to make of ancient constellations and their parallax shift?
A sudden storm ended the sequence of charts abruptly; Garret took it as a sign to stop. That very night, in the pouring rain, he had a strange dream. His intuition—the photographic memory of his subconscious, recalled each and every arrangement in the sequence of mad chicken scratch and laid them one over the other in his mind’s eye. The mandala that was formed was hypnotic, mesmerizing. But more than that, it formed a face, old and wise, framed by a ghutra above and a long, sweeping beard below. In the center of the forehead beamed a star that seemed to have survived eons, one that had followed Garret throughout his life: Jen 5.3. That tiny, smoldering ember that had come between himself and Maurice all those years ago. The one that had been hidden from his lover’s view, its smolder hardly enough to compete with more brightly burning stars.
The genie spoke.
Its voice was silent and omniscient, defying description. Garret knew it well from his own reverie. To be truly happy, it commanded, you must surrender the three things you love the most.
The next day, though he was not expected at the facility, Garret rode the train to Greenwich Connecticut. He’d been vectorizing the charts, feeding them into the system to record the progression, the pattern. All he had to do now was assign numeric values to the sequences, and convert those numeric values into letterforms.
It was an all day affair, but when it was over the old man held a single sheet of recycled paper in his trembling hand.
To be truly happy, it read, you must surrender the three things you love the most.
He sat in a daze in that wingback chair, just as he’d done for hours. His hands, just beginning to show signs of arthritis, remained folded in his lap. There they were before him on that faux marble shrine: the three things he loved the most. He’d been staring at them for hours, so he’d long since made the realization: the three things that meant most to him represented memories. There was the picture of his parents, now long gone. They’d been the first connection he’d ever known in life. Though they hadn’t done everything right, the bond had been unbreakable. Even now he spoke to them daily. Maurice’s book, bound in that leather book cover he’d bought at Pickadilly bookstore to protect it, was also a link to the past. Something he’d refused to let go of. The succulent, so obstinate and persistent, was the only one of the items that linked past and present, its sweeping tributaries a through line to who Garret used to be.
He wondered vaguely what the genie had meant by surrender. Would he have to burn the items? Take a blowtorch to them? And if he did, would the accompanying memory go up in smoke along with them? Somehow, likely due to the incredible nature of the whole dilemma—to surrender or not to—he found it one of the more excruciating decisions of his life.
What kind of genie takes things instead of granting them? He fumed, his moral dilemma turning to anger.
Garret stood in a huff, approaching the mantle-shrine. His fingers found the succulent, tracing the blue-green bulbs that showered toward the earth in tiers, like a waterfall. Then they moved on, picking up the gold-framed snapshot and gently caressing it through callused skin. In the grainy, black-and-white snapshot, his parents smiled from a distant past, about to board a Ferris wheel. This was the photo that most captured his resemblance to his father. And there, held listlessly at his mother’s side, were the rose-colored glasses she so often wore, the ones she had fitted him with. Garret moved on, found his hands reaching out involuntarily, clutching that leather-bound volume to his heart and gently caressing. A tear formed in his eye.
Suddenly, without warning, something fell from its pages, fluttering to the hardwood floor.
With a grunt, Garret stooped to retrieve it. Slowly, with equal parts exhilaration and reluctance, he unfolded the yellowed notebook paper. It was Maurice’s writing. But the letters were hard to distinguish, the words they formed, due to the tears that already streamed down the old man’s face. He wiped them away, determined to focus through the deluge.
Garret, I saw it tonight, the note read. Jen 5.3. Somehow, all those other heavenly bodies retreated, all those million year-old balls of fire and swirling gas. They all just disappeared. And you’re right; it’s beautiful! –Maurice
The old man saw his hand form a fist, crumpling the note. And then it was quaking, his tears turning to anger. He had no earthly idea why it meant so much to him they saw the universe the same way. Or why knowing it hurt so, like the twisting of a knife. Why hadn’t his lover said something at the time? Perhaps he felt he’d made his decision and the damage had already been done. The book had intentionally been left behind; if he’d found the note all those years ago he might have fought for what they had, exactly as Maurice had secretly wished. Still, it was not Maurice Garret blamed for his discontent; it was the universe. Why had it withheld the information all this time? Why had that tiny paper remained lodged between buckled pages for so many years, and why had it decided to dislodge now? As universes go, the one Garret Milne knew was a cruel one.
He felt his body in motion, no longer weary but determined, trudging across the patchy yard to that flimsy wooden shed. He found the sledgehammer in no time, was marching back into the living room and swinging it madly through salty tears, heaving over and over again. He’d been loyal to his principles, able to tune out all the noise. He’d been loyal to his lovers, never distracted by opportunity. And for the past several decades, he’d been loyal to his memories. But the genie was right; it’s our memories—our attachments—that stand in the way of bliss. They’re full of pain and regret and even fondness—fondness so deep it hurts. Garret Milne had opted for contentment, forgoing risk and adventure and passion and romance for fidelity. But he’d surrender it all in a moment for bliss.
Even as he watched the leather book cover curl up in the flames, growing brittle and decomposing, he felt the memories fading with it, going up in a puff of smoke. It was just as he’d suspected. Oh, he knew they’d just say he had Alzheimer’s, not that some Genie had wiped him clean.
It was a crisp fall morning Garret wrapped the old metal telescope in tissue paper and headed out. He knew who he’d give it to. After all, a gift was to be passed on. Oh, he had no recollection of the Genie or what it had told him to do. He simply remembered buying the thing at a yard sale. He knew it had the power to make its owner happy, and that its original owner, a monk, had said it must be passed on to whomever needs it the most. Since it hadn’t worked for him, he’d give it to Mrs. Stefanovicz.
He stopped off to buy a nice gift bag for it. The novelty store on Nassau had plenty of nice gift bags. Maybe he’d even pick up a bow and a greeting card and really spruce up the presentation. The woman behind the counter fluffed several sheets of tissue, on the house.
Before Garret placed the ancient artifact to rest in all that heavenly ambrosia, he extended its body and placed the eyepiece over his eye socket. Through the shop window, he was able to focus on the row of facades overlooking Nassau, the storefronts below bustling with activity. Pedestrians walked to and fro, some so close to the shop window they wiped his screen entirely. And then, all of a sudden, a stranger appeared at close range, displacing all else. Garret nearly dropped the contraption.
“Garret? Garret Milne?” Came the voice. It seemed oddly familiar, but he couldn’t place it.
The man standing before him was his own age, equally silver at the temple, but darker in complexion.
“It’s me,” the man rasped excitedly. “Maurice Steadman!”
“I’m sorry,” Garret smiled. His memory had been slipping more and more lately. But instead of turning away to spare himself embarrassment and risk offending the stranger, he smiled from ear to ear, taking the man’s hand in his in a hearty handshake. There was naught but bliss in his heart.
But the dark-complected man looked disappointed, wounded even, and wandered on his way.
When the woman was done wrapping his gift, Garret thanked her warmly and continued on his way, whistling a blissful tune. On the way to Mrs. Stefanoviz’ place, he saw a bird splashing through a puddle and his heart delighted in it.
A few years later Garret Milne found himself in a retirement home for senior citizens diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. His only nephew had taken care of the details, even made him meet with a lawyer to complete a living trust.
The first day in his new home, Garret was told he would be rooming with another Alzheimer’s patient with a similar background and similar interests. The man’s mattress was being maneuvered into the shared room from the hall, when it collided with Garret’s mahogany hutch. The two locked eyes, both wishing they knew why it all seemed so familiar.
“Glad to meet you,” Garret greeted the man, taking his hand.
The orphanage was a dusty place, and dimly lit. No matter the time of day or year, beams of speckled sunlight dared enter only at oblique angles, illuminating narrow slivers of buckled, faded wooden floors. Arranged haphazardly to conceal particularly unsightly water stains were great Persian rugs with fantastic designs, also choked with dust. As if to compete, the musty aroma of mildew hung in the air, a permanent resident of Wonderlodge Home for Children. The must and soot were perfectly warranted; the orphanage was actually a Victorian cottage predating the village of Slumber Cove itself.
The building’s classification as a cottage was somewhat misleading; in truth, it stood austere and grand, tiny shuttered windows dwarfed by a colossal Moorish spire like the Taj Majal’s. Some of the other boys and girls found the place oppressive—scary even. Especially in the rain. I, on the other hand, saw (and smelled and heard and otherwise sensed) nothing but magic.
Its nooks and crannies begged to be explored—laundry chutes and dumbwaiters leading to unknown places, pointy gables that had been converted into box rooms and attic space and then completely forgotten. My exhaustive exploration of the grounds, of course, was done in secret. During playtime, I’d steal away from the others and slip into some dark corner or other. Though it took an entire childhood to fully discover the place, the slow revelation—the magic of it—made all the lonely waiting worthwhile.
There came a time when I did not have to seek out magic; it came to me. At the age of seven, I was abducted by a small band of clowns.
But only for a week.
They were your standard issue circus clowns—joyfully sad, provocative, creepy but not sinister or stabby, jubilant and vaguely inappropriate. They exhibited all the qualities one would want from a circus clown. Only they did not take me to the big top or a carnival. Instead they took me to strange, exotic places far away from buttered popcorn, cotton candy and screaming children. They took me to places with strange names (that could not be found on any map) and places with no name at all (which I did not bother looking for on a map.) Far away places where birds swam and fish flew, where lakes reflected in skies and not the other way around. I saw upside-down sunsets that tickled the stars. Looking at them, I felt jubilantly sublime and sublimely jubilant. I felt ecstatic melancholy and somber whimsy and a number of other things difficult to describe.
Later in life I would recall them only vaguely, as if from a dream, and yet never fully forget them, as if from a nightmare. Wherever they came from or continued to dwell, the poetic things I saw and felt hinted at what lay ahead—all the horror and beauty life promised.
My final night with the clowns (though I did not know it would be at the time) I saw the birth of a star. The clowns never spoke a word the entire week, but somehow they told me the star was mine. That it was more than a ball of gas; it was a whole world awakening. My world.
I was returned home after a week, in one piece.
The staff asked over and over again where I’d been off to. But I’d never spoken a word since arriving at the orphanage shortly after birth, so my silence was received as customary.
A week later I was adopted out to a middle-aged couple with frosty silver hair.
They quickly became Mum and Pop, the first I’d ever known. They came with a brother and sister—a built-in family.
I began speaking, and stopped seeing fish that flew or birds that swam. The clowns only visited in my dreams.
Until they didn’t anymore.
Eventually, even my dreams were clownless.
I studied business and became an entrepreneur. I married and bought a home in the suburbs with a white fence and an orange tree in the yard.
My wife Zoe became pregnant a year into our marriage.
The night Zoe was due to give birth (or so we thought) her labor turned out to be a false one. The hospital staff sent me home but kept her for observation should there be an encore performance.
The moon was hanging full and low when I passed Slumber Cove’s only orphanage. Silvery light frosted the treetops and the peaked roofs. The great Moorish spire of Wonderlodge Home for children thrust higher than all the rest, silhouetting itself against the enormous cratered disc.
For some reason, I pulled over.
Twenty minutes later, I found myself still parked, gazing at the iconic image like a postcard sent to me from childhood. I’d driven by the landmark countless times, but rarely if ever thought of my childhood there—the long lonely waiting or the magic that made it all bearable.
But tonight, the half of my brain that was not anxiously fretting about impending fatherhood, the responsibility that came with it, the part of me that was considering running away, dwelt in that nostalgic place known as childhood. Just beyond the iridescent halo of the harvest moon, a tiny star was burning brighter than the others. Signaling to me. I recognized it as my star—the one bestowed on me by clowns. The one whose birth marked the unfurling of a world.
It suddenly came to me: when the clowns had appeared to abduct me, they’d not shown up on foot or arrived in a taxi. They’d climbed one-by-one from that old, rusted trunk in the orphanage’s basement. It had been off-limits, but I’d found a way to get in through a crawlspace in the back yard.
For some reason I found myself stealing across the narrow sidewalk, skirting the great Cyprus hedge that hugged the property, slinking past the porch and the kitchen windows, careful to remain in shadow. What are you doing? I asked myself. You’ve got a mortgage and mouths to feed. Sanity to preserve!
The crawlspace was still there, its louvered hatch askew as it always had been, partially shrouded by overgrown weeds. I threw it aside as quietly as possible, eased myself into the mysterious dark. The trunk was there, exactly where I’d left it: slid up against a mildewed cement wall beneath the stairs.
I gazed into the dark recess, wondering what it would take to pry the thing open—a crowbar? A sledgehammer? And if the clowns were still available, would I have the guts to steal away with them and leave the life I knew behind? Half of me wanted it more than anything. The other half would miss my wife, my unborn son, the connections I’d made in life. Why couldn’t one have both, I wondered—the magic and the connection for which it was a substitute? I’d learned in college most of man’s endeavors were driven by fear. But when we obeyed it or stuffed it away in a trunk, the clowns went with it—the inexplicable, the indefinable, the inconvenient. The blinding beauty between the cracks in life’s façade, the possibilities of true imagination that make life worth living.
I decided to return to my car, and my life.
But first, I’d slide the trunk away from that mildewy wall, just a bit, out from under the splintery stairs and into the light. That way, should some kid be adventurous enough to explore the endless nooks and crannies of the dusty old manor, he might stumble upon it, and what climbed out of it just might make all the lonely waiting worthwhile…
The SCULPTOR’S MUSE
The sculptor worked in darkness, among the paltry beams of lurid light that insinuated his cold stone basement-turned-studio. On the rare occasion his creations saw the light of day, were put on display at the urging of a gallery owner from the village, the public were awed by their unearthly beauty. The sculptor was respected and admired, even when absent for months on end, chiseling away in palpable dark. When not on display, his creations dwelt there with him in the cold, damp stone quarters that were as much a prison as a studio.
He hadn’t always been a recluse. He’d been born right there in the cloistered village where he would live out his days and die. The home into which he was born was teeming with chaos, as was the world beyond it. His older, louder, more obstinate siblings demanded every last grain of attention from his parents, leaving him to occupy himself for hours at a time gazing intently at the mobile in his crib, colors endlessly churning with the rotation of the earth or fluttering in some invisible draft from nowhere. He quickly learned to be self-sufficient, to require little from the world without. The village itself was as chaotic as the boy’s household. Its men hustled about, forging weapons in order to feed their families, the younger of them marching off to war regularly or drinking in the local tavern and fabricating brutish offenses among themselves.
The sculptor understood none of it. He spent his time turning inward, imagining a world without conflict, without war. To pass the time, the boy began trying to extricate the world he envisioned from the dark universe of imagination in an attempt to share it with the others of the village. He would chisel away at the sheets of marble that lay about in droves; the village’s main export, after weaponry, was limestone. On occasion, the quarries yielded stubborn, useless veins of marble that held no value under the limestone-only ordinance of the village, of all villages in the kingdom.
Soon the cast-off chunks took shape at the boy’s hand, one slab paring itself down to a winged Pegasus, another whittling itself subtractively into a cupid with tiny scalloped wings that seemed to flutter in the reticent morning light. All were pristine—both refracting and absorbing the light with sublime perfection, suggesting their divine origin to the few who beheld them.
The boy took no credit for the alchemy—felt he was simply serving the universe by giving the ethereal creatures form. But his siblings were enraged at this ability to transform—hunks of useless marble no less—into artifacts of blinding beauty. Not to mention the boy’s father lived in constant fear that visitors would catch glimpses of the purposeless, impractical relics and not know what to make of them. And so it was the boy was banished to the family basement to forge his creations in lightless solitude. The turn of events proved inconsequential; the swarthy expanse so resembled the boy’s vast, limitless imagination he felt he could pluck divine inspiration directly from it—give his muses concrete form as easily as take a breath.
One day, as the mad frenzy of creation slowly drained from him, the boy returned from some threshold to stand in his body and gaze upon what had materialized. He was nearly eighteen now, and his creations had grown ever more sophisticated. The slab of marble had been taller than him, and despite the odd impurity that miraculously managed to crumble to the stone floor as negative space, what remained was flawless. The figure was that of a boy on the cusp of manhood, identical in height to the sculptor himself. Its physique was ideal—taut and toned and powerful and imposing—the ideal balance of form and function. Efficient musculature held the memory of the stone’s geometry, chiseled planes promising strength and fortitude, and yet these lines were softened by delicate sinew, by the impossible perfection of poreless skin that brought a tear to the eye.
Sprouting from the youth’s thick shoulders were robust wings like those of an eagle. Though one-third again the statue’s height, when folded into repose their unearthly power remained harnessed. They appeared to quake there in the dull pallor of the subterranean prison.
The statue opened its eyes.
The sculptor did not blink, remained transfixed.
When at last he tore himself away, the sun had long since dipped behind the remote mountains to the east.
The sculptor took to sleeping in the basement, unable to tear himself away from his creation. He joined his family for meals but returned immediately to the obsidian-black chambers that called to him, where solace waited to enfold him in basalt wings.
As if to defy the void, the statue emerged from it stark white and iridescent. It never spoke. Its pupil-less eyes exacted a hypnotic hold on the sculptor, who found himself wishing he could run his fingers through the chiseled curls that framed such an angelic countenance. The two stood nose-to-nose for hours at a spell, the menagerie of former sculptures falling away into nothingness all around. The sculptor would not forget his children; that much he knew. But he also knew he’d solicited his most perfect creation to date, had coaxed from darkness a promise of perfection from the universe itself—a vision of what was possible.
The statue required little of the sculptor. No food nor drink, no nourishment beyond his frequent attention: a fixed and steady gaze, the light grazing of a raw-knuckled hand.
The sculptor had no desire to sculpt. Oh, the drive might return one day, but for the moment—call it the fear of falling short of the perfection he’d achieved—he remained content to leave his tools scattered in neglect on the damp stone floor. The statue moved about soundlessly, with barefooted grace, even as the sculptor slept. Its wings fluttered imperceptibly. The sculptor’s dreams were empty and visionless; in place of images lived the vast comfort, the profound wellbeing of connection. The statue’s company rendered all else needless, even in sleep.
One morning, the sculptor awakened to find the statue gazing at him, seated in reverent silence at the foot of the tiny cot he’d dragged to the basement.
The youth sat up, mildly startled.
It was then the statue extended a stony, forceful hand, lifted the sculptor to his feet like a feather so they stood face-to-face.
At that precise moment, a maiden from the village was making her way to market. She was passing outside the sculptor’s residence, fishing a coin purse from her handbag, when an insolent silver coin dove to the flagstone walk, rolling swiftly downhill. She chased after it, snatching it up just before it escaped into a rain gutter. She raised herself up on willowy haunches, then stopped suddenly. Before her, a tiny, rusted iron grate separated her from a dark basement, sealing off its sole window like a prison. Curiosity got the best of her and she found herself squinting into the somber interior as if through prison bars.
There they were—two nearly identical figures—one impeccably alabaster in appearance, the other coursing with the blood of humanity. They stood in a tight embrace, encircled by a scarcely discernible entourage in the sketchy dark, kissing passionately.
She was captivated. Riveted. She’d never seen anything so beautiful in all of her nineteen years.
Oh, the flaxen-haired maiden had heard of the boy who sculpted; rumors had flown despite his father’s best efforts to quell them. And now that she’d seen his wares for herself, the maiden rushed home to tell her father, who was a gallery owner.
A week later, she brought the man to visit. The sculptor’s father led them to the basement, the idea of financial gain—a practical application for his son’s predilection—dancing in his eyes. Not to mention the fair maiden might get the boy’s attention, force him out of that dungeon where he spent all his time.
The heavy iron door groaned open on miserable hinges. The statue stood perfectly still, down to the feather.
The sculptor turned.
Two portly men flanked an ethereal maiden, who stood bathed in a sole shaft of errant light from above. The visage was perhaps the fairest the sculptor had seen, honey-colored hair spilling across a pleated peasant blouse and pronouncing supple breasts. Her slim waist was cinched tight, revealing a svelte, willowy frame. Full lips coursed with blood, as if to rival the rosy cheeks that flushed further when her eyes met his.
The boy felt things he’d never felt before.
At first, the prospect of parting with his creations did not sit well with the boy, sounded akin to severing a finger or worse. But the more time he spent basking in the maiden’s fairness, while their fathers discussed a business arrangement, the more detached the sculptor felt from his creations. The father’s hunches proved prophetic when the two youths began stepping out together—to market, to festivals, even to the local tavern. It was there, animated by spirits, by the contagion of the music, where they shared their first kiss.
The sculptor returned home in the wee hours, stole to the basement in stealthy dark. He threw open its heavy lead door, and his heart sank.
The winged statue stood motionless in the center of the dim chamber, surrounded by lacerating shards of marble. Nothing but shards—senseless, chaotic fragments, like serrated bones, of what had once been divine creations solicited from beyond: seraphim and cherubim and satyrs and centaurs.
“Did you do this?” The sculptor demanded, eyes flooding with tears.
The statue said nothing.
“Answer me!” The sculptor cried, rage surfacing in him now. “Did you do this?!”
A pickaxe leaned against the damp stone wall, catching guilty moonlight, but the sculptor did not want to believe the story it belied.
The muse stood silent and pupil-less in the wan, pallid light from the tiny street-level window. Its steel bars cast confusing shadows over all.
Something came over the sculptor—something visceral and unexamined. In a split-second, he’d hefted the pickaxe from its indifferent station against the wall and found himself heaving furiously, cleaving marble and sending shards of it careening through the confusion of light. And then he was standing perfectly still, arms flaccid and vanquished, breathing heavy as he surveyed the dark chamber. The young man was shocked at what he’d done: the stone floor was but a graveyard of broken tooth-like fragments, some large, some small, each indistinguishable from the next.
A sick feeling came over the man. And then numbness. Utter, pervasive numbness. Life had effectively ended for him.
It took some time for the maiden to tell her father there was nothing left to show; he’d already scheduled an exhibition, though far in advance. In place of anger, the man extended grace, seeing that his daughter had fallen in love with the young sculptor. He hosted a lavish wedding ceremony in the gallery’s rose garden, then put the newlyweds up in a quaint cottage on the edge of the village before a great, winding moor. For a healthy percentage of the first exhibition’s proceeds, to be collected at a later date, their accommodations would be covered. As well as a space for the sculptor to create a new body of work. The new studio, at the sculptor’s insistence, occupied the cottage’s basement, where little light dared tread.
But inspiration refused to strike.
The sculptor dragged slabs of marble into the lightless vault, but found himself staring at them blankly for hours on end. He needed his muse. On the cold stone floor, he scattered the shattered fragments he’d brought along from his parents’ basement. He’d made sure not to confound the fragments—those of his muse with the senseless, anonymous ruins of other inferior creations. And though he was confident he had all the assets necessary to reconstruct his muse, he hadn’t the first clue where to begin assembling them.
His marriage was joyful. So much so that the diversion rendered the muse little more than a distant memory, and the sculptor nearly forgot why reconstructing it had seemed so vitally important. But as the seasons turned and the exhibition’s opening night drew nearer, he was reminded of the urgency. He’d made a promise. And if he was going to keep a roof over his wife’s head, not to mention that of their newborn baby soon to arrive, he had to produce. One needed a muse in order to create.
Slowly, painstakingly, over the course of the year, fragments were turned over, examined, turned over again and viewed from a myriad of angles. They were assembled tentatively, and only once the sculptor was convinced he had them right, cemented with conviction. Ever so meticulously, the figure reappeared, the one that so resembled the sculptor himself. When it stood complete, it had lost an inch in height. Its pristine surface was scarred with deep fissures that ran from toes to wingtips. It was imperfect.
Still, its great wings fluttered in still shafts of amethyst light. Its pupil-less eyes opened evenly.
The muse looked elated to see its master, who tried to hide any pity his own eyes might betray.
But just as quickly, elation turned to disappointment.
“Look what you’ve done to me,” the broken muse lamented. Its voice was an earthquake, slabs of earth grating one another.
And then, ever so slowly, its marble eyes shifted to the pickaxe in the corner. “If you do to her what you did to me, I will be perfect again.”
The sculptor followed his muse’s gaze to the pickaxe, bathed there in a shaft of sinister light. Though he had no earthly idea why it should be so, he knew the muse’s words to be true. Still, he bristled at the suggestion.
The statue’s wings twitched impatiently and a stone fist clutched the sculptor by his tunic, lifting him from the floor with unearthly force.
“We must be together,” the muse commanded, voice gravelly with plumes of sediment.
“I cannot live without you,” the sculptor agreed. “Nor you without me. But the rules have changed.”
There was a shift in the inscrutable marble eyes. A pieced-together forearm began to tremble. Rather than testing its waning strength, the muse returned its master to the floor.
“From now on, you will remain here with me,” the sculptor explained. “But you must be content with half my attention. It is the only way for you to remain. I will never forget about you and I will always return. I promise.”
The statue looked as if it might crumble. But when its eyes returned to its master’s, they were abject and submissive. “I understand.”
The two shared a kiss, one rendered more powerful by imperfection, by gritty aggregate so much more sensual than the cold antiseptic of marble. The friction, the dissonance, was electric.
The sculptor made his deadline. Opening night was populated by creatures drawn from that cool, still reservoir he’d known so well, only now it was more like an abyss. The beings that materialized were grotesque, demonic, beautiful in their sublime imperfection. The sculptor had made no attempt to idealize. The muse had done its job, stirring about with barefooted grace in the cruel dark, lingering at the sculptor’s side, remaining close, remaining obedient.
The exhibition was well received, by both the critics and the public.
The pieces sold, every last one, leading to a second showing. And a third.
The sculptor’s wife would never speak of what she’d seen. Oh, she knew it was down there, milling in darkness. But it’s not like the thing required anything; even houseguests would eat you out of house and home, but not a muse. From then on it would remain there, slightly broken, content to dwell obediently in the sculptor’s presence and never to see the light of day.
Every suburban street has it: that one eccentric house that captures the imaginations of neighborhood children, for generations. It’s set back from the sidewalk, stately but shrouded in shoddy foliage. Peering through thorny, intersecting branches invites intrigue—that brand of speculation only childhood can do justice. Tall tales are spun about the origin of the brick manor or the Tudor cottage, at once enchanted and sinister, like a faerie tale. Built by a Transylvanian count or sprung up from the very earth, completely abandoned (as evidenced by boarded up windows) or inhabited by a mad scientist and his bevy of ghosts.
In our neighborhood, the origin of said residence was no mystery. If you believed the talk, that is. No reason not to—the rote mythology only added to the mystique of the colossal old Victorian cottage: It had originally been constructed in 1837, in Slumber Cove, Maryland. The monstrosity had been moved to the even sleepier town of Glendale, California in the early seventies on a flatbed truck, then deposited on a double lot on a cul-de-sac at the end of Maple St. As a child, I pictured it making its way west, being shuttled past cornfields and alfalfa crops on its flatbed truck, like a great land-locked ocean liner.
Once planted in the quiet Glendale neighborhood, the house surely stuck out like a sore thumb. Over the years, cottonwoods and shrubbery had grown up around it, concealing the larger part of its mass. But the second story, with its peaked gables and enormous Moorish spire, towered head and shoulders over every last house on the modest cul-de-sac.
The original owners had passed; the old world relic had been inherited by the couple’s eldest daughter. She moved there with her husband, a psychiatrist who swiftly set up his own private practice there in Glendale. The couple were clearly from means, both of them. Neither old money nor nouveau rich, their brand of wealth (rarely seen in Glendale) was the kind that spawned eccentricity. The grounds were cluttered with incongruous affairs. Not plaster flamingos or koi ponds or even lawn gnomes, but inexplicable artifacts whose original function was distinctly ambiguous. Oxidized antique washing machines sprouting cherubs or dolphins with weeds poking from their blowholes. Incinerators and tiered marble fountains long since drained but still clumped somehow with lichen and hanging moss. Misshapen wire cages with rusted locks, strange bird feeders and Easter Island cinder gods. Corroded swing sets with faded plastic seats that looked to have been jacked from a public playground, a section of rollercoaster track with a single mining car rusted to it. Even a jungle gym. Everything on the grounds seemed to shout to the neighborhood children: Come! Climb on my crusty armature! Lacerate yourself on my broken nubs and tetanus-ridden prongs!
And that’s exactly what my brother Walter and I planned to do! Peering saucer-eyed between parted vine curtains, our imaginations wandered in tandem.
“Gotta be at night, though,” Walter qualified. “You hear me, Jason?” He was a year older than I, at eight, so his way went.
“Sure thing,” I agreed.
He had a point. The psychiatrist ran his practice out of an office on Brand Boulevard, Mom had once said. But his wife was home most days, could be seen hanging laundry on a corroded clothesline or moving about inside the upstairs gable that faced my own bedroom across Maple St. Rumor had it the couple had once had a child, but the boy had died an untimely death at seven. My age. Since, they’d contented themselves collecting not children, but junk.
From my bedroom window, I traced the moon-drenched contours of the colossal Victorian. During the day, it was powder blue with white trim, horizontal wood siding chipped and weatherworn. At night, the blue melded with the iridescent cobalt ambience, leaving its immense, slate-tiled turret to silhouette itself against a harvest moon. No one stirred inside.
“C’mon, Jason!” Walter whispered insistently, prying me from my bedroom window. It was time.
It was witching hour on a warm summer night; the jackets we threw on were camouflage as much as anything. Plus, they’d come in handy weaseling between thorny branches and navigating angry, rusted prongs. We slinked across the silent cul-de-sac as discreetly as possible, but an enormous harvest moon bathed the asphalt in its pearlescent glow like a lighthouse. The street seemed to have widened; crossing it was the equivalent of crossing the Atlantic. When we reached the far side, we took refuge in the shadows of great, rustling cottonwoods.
“C’mon,” Walter whisper-shouted, edging his way between a low picket fence and a mangy shrub.
We’d discussed the plan: rather than taking a straight shot into the yard, we’d make our way covertly between the psychiatrist’s lot and his neighbor’s, then hop the fence into the backyard to start. Surely more to see there anyway. Once we were sure the coast was clear, a full exploration of the grounds was in order.
The deeper we drove between lots, the higher the yellow grasses grew on the one side. They glistened pale in the scattered moonlight, consuming the picket fence entirely. A stagnant, summery aroma wafted on the warm midnight breeze; the rustling of boughs high above was interspersed with a chorus of chirping crickets and boisterous frogs. The first thing we saw after hopping the completely shrouded fence was a good-sized pond bordered by mismatched rocks and reflecting the abalone moon.
When we got right up on it, we saw that it was wriggling with tadpoles. Their darting rippled the water’s surface, shattering the moon in a million pieces. All around the pond, towering, shadowy forms extruded themselves from the overgrown lawn, like watchers. The artifacts in the front yard had the look of inherited things, or stolen things, or treasures acquired at estate sales and Oxfam shops. Here, ambiguous assemblages of steel girders and scaffolding spoke of three ring circuses and amusement parks.
Before we’d had time to figure out what any one item was, or once was, something drew both our attention at the same time.
Peals of faint, distant laughter were skimming across the lawn. They sounded canned, electronically distorted like those of a television laugh track.
And then we saw the flicker. The back porch was aglow with ice blue TV light that bounced off the white support columns and the chair rails and even the sills of shuttered windows. Someone was watching T.V. on the back porch.
But rather than startling us into flight, the laugh track and the mesmerizing blue light only emboldened us. We crossed the lawn, dashing from one monolithic museum piece to the next, wanting to see more. Huddled between a dented mining car and an errant stretch of track, we stared in wonder, as if watching T.V. on one’s porch was a wondrous recreation. We were both thinking the same thing, we’d later confess: carting a T.V. out onto the porch, never mind the sofa and wingback chair and comforter, watching who-cared-what under a harvest moon on a summer night surrounded by crickets and frogs, was something only rich people got to do. Eccentric rich people. The most Mom ever let us do was pitch a tent in the lawn and play cards with a dim plastic flashlight.
Without warning, something rustled the grasses at the base of the rollercoaster track, and the two of us looked down, startled. A family of mice darted from between the tall ochre blades, squeaking as they crossed what remained of the lawn. One by one, the rodents scurried up the painted concrete stairs, congregating at the base of a chipping column. There they froze, hypnotized by whatever was being broadcast this late at night. Walter and I looked at each other in the pale moonlight, astonished. The mice were watching T.V. with…whoever was under that enormous comforter.
Suddenly it was vitally important to know what they were all watching. Once, I’d stayed up late enough to see every last network sign off. It was an eerie feeling witnessing the Iwo Jima memorial dissolving to static so abruptly, being assaulted by white noise. It haunted me as a child. That’s all there was when the broadcast ended? Just white noise? I hoped death would be more glamorous.
My brother and I strained to discern the dialogue that spawned the disjointed, cacophonous laughter of the laugh track. But before we could identify the witching hour programming, something alarming happened. A horrific groan yielded to a deafening rumble behind us. We turned. Without warning, the dented mining car, which had been perched—cemented—at the apex of its arched track, dislodged itself and began careening hellward.
No time to discuss a plan. No time to do anything but scatter, both of us bolted for freedom on different trajectories. Not for the light, or the sidewalk or even Maple street per se—anywhere was preferable to here. To a haunted amusement park rife with rodents.
We met one another, scabbed and bruised, in the shadows of the cypress trees beside our own home. For a good five minutes neither of us spoke; we simply huffed and puffed, trying to make sense of what we’d witnessed.
“Don’t go in there ever again.” Was all Walter said when he’d caught his breath.
Despite my brother’s warning, or in direct defiance of it, I of course did go back. I’d recently scored my own bedroom when Dad finally converted our box room into something remotely livable; Walter was none the wiser as I stole out my second-story window into a gusty August night. I shimmied down the bare trellis that Mom had big plans for but never got around to, dropping at last onto our patchy lawn.
Crickets from miles around synchronized their chirping, animating the night and conspiring in my nocturnal adventure. I tried a different tack this time; rather than hopping the camouflaged picket fence midway, I skirted the periphery of the lot to its deepest point. Here, a crumbling block wall separated the property from its neighbor one street over. It would be a straight shot across the lawn to the back porch—no chance of inadvertently setting a Ferris wheel in motion or awakening a rollercoaster.
I stole through tall grasses interspersed with clumps of willows and withered cattails. I could see the flickering cerulean glow over waving ochre tufts; it called to me as hypnotically as before. Like a cheetah stalking its prey, I traversed the vast, parched Savanna in no time. There was no moon tonight, nothing to compete with the flickering neon haven of the cozy porch. More importantly, nothing to give me away. Still, I felt vulnerable, exposed, found myself darting from one random, discarded item to the next. Nearest the porch, a great rusty drum rose up from the sea of blades and stalks. It was a cement mixer; I knew from having accompanied Dad to work on countless occasions. But it may as well have been a Mayan temple, posing itself authoritatively against the stark, moonless night.
I clung to its base like a buoy on the tide, peering around its amorphous mass at the mysterious lighthouse of a porch. The TV was opposed, as always, by the incongruous couch and the wingback chair. The psychiatrist’s wife was perched in the heart-shaped chair in her pajamas, knees drawn up beneath her chin. Draped with a crocheted Afghan, she tossed handfuls of popcorn into her mouth to sporadic peals of canned laughter.
On the couch, the massive quilted comforter billowed like a tent, morphing every now and again when an arm reached out for the stainless steel popcorn bowl. The aroma of hot chocolate hung in the air. The family of mice was in attendance like before, hanging back and feasting on their own assortment of snacks from the nearby trash bin.
I suddenly knew there was nowhere else I’d rather be at that moment. I suddenly longed to be nestled right there under that comforter. There was something novel and adventurous, familiar but exciting about the whole scene. But mostly, there was something…cozy about it. I found myself overtaken with a nostalgia for which I had no context. Oh, maybe I’d felt something similar roasting marshmallows or making S’mores on a camping trip. But it was something more than chocolate or sugary, sticky-sweet marshmallows that I found cozy. It was the feeling of unconditional safety. I would come to learn that such a feeling is unique to childhood if it exists at all; after that, anything could come at you: the I.R.S., bill collectors, the overwhelming strife in the world impossible to reverse. And only you could shoulder the burden.
For now, the closest thing I could equate to the warm fuzzy feeling was that scene early on in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in which all Charlie’s relatives snuggle up in a single rickety bed.
The night was surreal to say the least, like the extension of an aborted dream. In all the absurdity, the thing that struck me most—in fact, it downright startled me, sent me bolting back across the savanna and into my own empty bed—was this: there was a third figure on that porch. As the psychiatrist’s arm reached out for a fistful of popcorn, the comforter dislodged itself for one tiny second, succumbing to gravity. In that split second, I saw him, in no uncertain terms: a boy of seven, like myself. Towheaded and slight, leaning against a great barrel chest and blinking incessantly to stay awake.
Just before hopping the dilapidated block wall at the back of the property, I spotted it in the moonless ambience: a pair of binoculars was slung across an errant, twisted branch that poked up from the sea of yellow grass.
I snatched it.
For the rest of August, I plastered myself nightly to my bedroom window with those binoculars. I’d wait until witching hour, or on occasion if I’d nodded off early I’d wake suddenly at midnight as though I’d forgotten something vitally important. There was little to see; all the action was on the back porch. On occasion, I’d glimpse the silhouetted form of the psychiatrist’s wife moving about listlessly inside the peaked gable opposite my window. But once she retired to the backyard, all that availed itself was that mysterious neon glow from the rear, taunting me.
“He died of pneumonia,” Mom said, citing a newspaper article from years previous, around the time the psychiatrist and his wife moved in. They’d moved from New Orleans when she’d inherited the house. But the article failed to say whether the child died before or after the move.
I’d been sly in my prompting, so as not to alarm Mom with my sudden interest in neighborhood lore. And needless to say, Walter was not a resource I dared tap into.
The kids in the neighborhood told a different story than Mom’s. Or rather, several. Timothy Hutchins had it on good authority that the couple had beaten the child to death before leaving New Orleans and buried him under a slab of concrete. Escaping the authorities was the sole reason for their move to the west coast, according to Timothy. Eventually, when the new owners of their home in Louisiana tore up that porch, he knew, they’d discover the kid’s remains and law enforcement would come after the couple. It was only a matter of time. Jessica Fletcher disagreed. Her version of the story held more water; she’d heard adults discussing the grim details, after all. The child had not been beaten to death at all. He’d been poisoned. And it had not been an intentional or malicious act. Rather, the boy had taken up Voodoo at the tender age of seven; his untimely death was the product of a ritual gone wrong, involving incantations, chicken feet, and…arsenic. In Jessica’s version, the body was brought along, as the poor woman could not bear to pry herself from it in her grief. According to the adults, there was no record of a proper burial in Glendale, or services of any kind. Word was, the unfortunate child was buried there in that yard, beneath the miscellany of oddities.
The grief part made sense. It was always in a vacant, dazed state that the psychiatrist’s wife shuffled about that peaked gable. When she hung laundry in the late morning or early afternoon, her empty eyes looked far beyond the clothesline. The only remote expressions of joy I’d seen from her came on that porch the night of the harvest moon. She’d tossed her head back, laughing along with the laugh track, tossing popcorn carelessly into her mouth.
End of August, I could help myself no longer. A harvest moon hung full and low, framing the enigmatic cottage in mystique. I found myself climbing leg-at-a-time out of my bedroom window, binoculars secured about my neck but swinging wildly in anticipation.
Moments later, I was perched in the tall grass, stalking. I squinted, through binoculars this time. The towheaded boy yawned and stretched, fighting to stay awake. I identified with the feeling of keeping slumber at bay, not wanting to miss a single cozy moment. It occurred to me I’d never heard a single line of dialogue issuing from that vintage TV with its rabbit ears and oval screen. Only the laugh track.
Suddenly, something metal groaned in the yard. I turned. Any moment, a mining car was bound to dislodge itself, barreling toward me and revealing my presence. Or worse, squashing me like a pancake. Instead, it teetered indecisively atop its arched track, perfectly centered in the cinnamon disc of the moon. There were other noises—those of scuttling in the grass, impatient creaks or irritable moans from hidden artifacts. The frogs and the crickets had cut out altogether, yielding to a silence of rusty moans. The place was a graveyard, but it was coming to life. Slowly, cautiously, I raised the binoculars.
What I saw through their antique, amber-tinted lenses has not left me to this day. An entire world was awakening around me in the dark, one that existed always but could only be seen or heard or otherwise sensed through those magic lenses. The tracks were not rusted at all, nor were the mining cars cemented to them. They were careening wildly about under an enchanted moon. Ferris wheels spun and fountains spewed and great sledgehammers rose and fell. There were children. Dozens of them from every walk of life, pigtails flopping or bowl cuts stubbornly defying night’s breeze, laughing and twirling and screaming with delight. And to amuse them, an equal number of acrobats and clowns and fat ladies and strongmen.
I never went back.
Nor did I make ever make sense of the invisible carnival. Had it come with the house from Slumber Cove? Had the couple accumulated the junk to attract the children and satisfy some perverse need? Had the children then been murdered, resulting in ghosts? Or was it all just a fanciful creation? The amalgamation of childhood imagination with the whispers of adults, the gossip that sprouts up to fill the gaps in what we don’t understand?
When I hopped the block wall that night, the binoculars flew from my neck. I left them behind.
I all but forgot about the strange alternate reality I’d glimpsed that night. It settled among other fanciful dreams or memories, dusty old volumes on a high shelf. I became occupied with other things; such is the nature of youth and attention deficit disorder.
But it continued to haunt my subconscious. The one recurring dream that characterized my wonder years was that of being there on that porch, bathed in the flattening blue light. It was me beneath that comforter, leaning against that barrel chest, stretching and blinking to stay awake. Swaddled by the aroma of hot chocolate and popcorn and…safety. Looking out into the nebulous glow, I’d strain to identify the program on that flooded oval screen. But before I ever did, I’d start awake, straight out of the dream.
I was leaving for college when we met in the street. I’d just tossed my third and final suitcase into the idling taxi that would take me to the airport, when the psychiatrist pulled up in his vintage BMW. Dusk was falling; he was arriving home from the office on Brand Boulevard I’d never seen. I’d always imagined it to be boxy and nondescript—the opposite of their home.
“Off to college?” The man called cheerfully across the cul-de-sac, approaching from his vehicle.
I’d never heard the psychiatrist speak. I’d never bothered to learn his name, for that matter. The voice matched his appearance: the full beard and the stocky frame, that fusion of culture and roguishness that was ever so slightly out-of-touch. His voice, like his shocking blue eyes, turned up in the corners.
“SCAD,” I answered him. “Savannah.”
“Ah,” the man exclaimed on approach. “You’ll love it there. My wife and I are from the south.”
The psychiatrist planted himself before me. His look beamed with pride, the same pride it would project were I his own son. He’d grown older; his barrel chest was a bit more sunken than it once was, the full beard more peppered with silver. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with sadness at never having gotten to know the man.
“My wife and I wish you well,” he assured me wistfully.
For some reason, I found myself suddenly invested in her happiness. “Please tell her goodbye for me.” And out of nowhere, I found myself fighting tears.
The man seemed to understand. Our roles suddenly reversed and he embraced me tightly, there in the cul-de-sac, as if to lend me strength for the journey ahead.
The DEAD END
Carmen Goldstein dashed through the side entrance of Brewer Street Theater, letting her affairs clatter to the darkened stage. The cast was already gathered in a tight circle center stage, awaiting notes from the previous night’s run through. Tonight was final dress, and it was poor form to show up late to final dress. Especially when you’d been lucky enough to land the lead in Dare To Live. Especially when opening night was the following evening and this was your last chance to get things right.
The production’s director, Nathan Whitaker, hustled toward her, materializing from the blackness between wings. But instead of reprimanding her, he stooped to help organize her affairs: the wig from act two she’d taken home to restyle herself, the three new options for angora sweaters she’d brought from her own closet even though it was late in the game.
“You all right?” he asked, earnestly bracing her slender shoulders in broad, capable hands.
“Thank you, yes, “ she convinced herself, lifting her large almond eyes so that the footlights refracted just the right dazzle.
“I’m ready,” she sighed, transforming exasperation into exhilaration.
“I believe in you,” the man reassured her, giving her shoulders one last squeeze before restoring his capable hands to a flimsy clipboard scrawled with notes. “I only wish you believed in me,” he followed up, the mischievous twinkle in his deep set hazel eyes betraying the dual meaning.
Carmen’s eyes flashed to the circle of patiently waiting thespians, the sprinkling of young aspiring actresses.
“I’ve no interest in being one of your conquests,” she asserted, putting him in his place with good humor as she always did.
“I told you,” he protested, “those days are over.” The man’s crescent-shaped eyes morphed, quite convincingly, into those of a puppy.
She was not convinced.
Her tongue sharpened. “Once a lothario, always a lothario.”
The man looked almost wounded. “Not true,” he defended. “Even the most shameless dog will tell you when his head hits the pillow at night, that playing the field is ultimately an empty pursuit. A dead end road.”
“And that’s where you find yourself,” she echoed back. “At a dead end. In that case, I’m flattered to be your dead end, Sir Whitaker.”
“You’ve got it twisted all around, my lady.” Here he took her hand, like so many times before, turning feelings of rejection into faux confidence. “I’d love to tell you all about it over a nightcap.” Old habits died hard.
Carmen’s wits ran out. She withdrew her tiny hand from his, her good humor sprouting thorns.
“We’d best concentrate on what’s at hand,” she reprimanded. “You know full well Irma Callahan will be front and center tomorrow night. And I needn’t remind you she happens to be the most important critic on the scene. Nor that opening night is everything if we are to take this production to Shaftesbury.”
“You speak the truth, my lady,” Nathan conceded, prying himself from the tractor beam of her unearthly charms. “But I’m not giving up.”
Carmen smiled as she turned away, throwing him a bone out of proper breeding.
“Memories flood my weary heart…”
Carmen’s rich, tremulous alto, so bursting with visceral subtext, projected to the foyer of Brewer Street Theater. Act two was well underway, each cast member doing his or her best to incorporate their notes from the previous night’s run through. Carmen, as she’d done when faced with Nathan’s come-on, wavered between confidence and paralyzing, debilitating insecurity. The former kept the latter at bay, even if she hadn’t yet figured out why. She often questioned her dramatic choices later, the authenticity of her interpretation, but in the moment, performing on that stage—any stage—gave her wings. It always had.
Even now, as her monologue rang throughout an empty house, she basked in the solace. It transported her to the moment, what seemed like both yesterday and a lifetime ago, when she’d cemented her relationship with the stage:
She was seven years of age. She stood, petticoats perfectly still, patent leather shoes not fidgeting in the least, belting the lyrics of Ten Cents a Dance into a black void. The footlights obliterated all, wiping away anything distasteful or unsavory or unbecoming, replacing it with fantasy. The stark black nothingness beyond the blinding footlights was whatever she wanted.
One thing was sure: whatever she fancied it to be on a given night, whatever she projected on it, what came back was love. That incredible energy from all those faceless, anonymous folks that cradled her like a cocoon. Even as a child, albeit a child prodigy, she recognized the truth: the stage was the only place she felt safe.
“LOUDER!” A lacerating voice serrated the cocoon. It came from the wings, shrill and terrifying.
“Louder, Goddamn it!! And stop fidgeting!”
But I’m not fidgeting, she thought, careful not to stray from the lyrics. Her arms hung perfectly still at her sides, not tempted in the least to fuss with the ridiculous petticoats she was forced to wear. They’d run the song endlessly, not just in rehearsal, but every waking moment in their modest Chelsea flat. She was performing as impeccably as ever. Still, it would never do.
When the applause finally died after final curtain, young Carmen rent herself from the validation, the affirmation, the safety of the cocoon. Reluctantly, she edged toward the ominous wings stage left.
What a contrast it always proved to be emerging from such profound comfort to a violent swat on the behind, however padded with knickers.
Carmen was her mother’s ticket out of the dump she’d found herself in, both literally and figuratively. To Mabel Goldstein, there was no dignity raising a child alone in a tiny run-down flat when you’d been brought up with means. When she’d found herself knocked up at seventeen, out of wedlock, she’d been sent away to the country like so many girls before her. But instead of letting them give her baby away to strangers, Mabel had returned home with the tiny, helpless thing, ready to face consequences.
She was quickly put out. Disowned. Though she could have negotiated another solution, taking work as a seamstress in a factory that allowed her to keep a bassinette on the floor beside her was a concession she was willing to make. She found herself a modest flat in Chelsea—the very affluent neighborhood where she’d been raised. The residence, however, was situated on one of its slummier streets, in a pocket longtime residence preferred to refer to as ‘Chelsea-adjacent.’ It may have been something resembling love that had driven her choices, but the bond Mabel Goldstein shared with her infant quickly turned to resentment. More than that, as the psychiatrist who’d eventually diagnose her put it, the child became an extension of herself. Not property. Not a creation. A projection. Simply put, the whole ordeal had driven the woman stark raving mad.
She took to frequenting local pubs, attempting to land stability in the form of a man. Several nights weekly, she’d lock Carmen in her upstairs nursery and stroll down to the smoky pub at Lexington and Brewer where she kept her own personal barstool. But word spread as fast as her legs, and it took no time at all to earn a reputation. Switching haunts didn’t help; despite being smack in the center of London proper, Chelsea had all the trappings of a small provincial town: the backwards values, the piety, the gossip. When Mabel tired of overhearing herself referred to as a harlot, a hussy and a strumpet interchangeably, she made a decision. As long as the prospect of respectability had been left in the dust, as long as she’d been labeled, she figured she may as well make it official. She began turning tricks for cash.
The liquid revenue was a far cry from the wages of a seamstress. Still, if they were going to get ahead, she simply could not throw away cash on a babysitter. Instead, she brought her johns home to compete transactions.
From her nursery, young Carmen could hear them conducting their business. All of it. She took to singing lullabies to drown out the grunting, the headboard, the mattress springs. One day, just before climaxing, one of Mabel’s johns went perfectly still, cocking an ear.
“To whom does that angelic voice belong?” He’d heard young Carmen’s rendition of When You Wish Upon a Star through paper-thin plaster.
Though the girl would be beaten for it, the turn of events was fortuitous.
The john was a talent agent.
In no time at all, Carmen became a phenomenon on the London stage. Adored by critics and audiences alike, her rising star eclipsed all others. ‘Carmen Goldstein’ became ‘Carmen,’ and she was all the rage. The It girl.
Having a meal ticket did little to improve Mabel Goldstein’s mental state. She stopped turning tricks, but remained haunted by the level to which she’d stooped. She’d chastise herself. She’d reprimand and shame and even punish—only it was not herself on the receiving end—it was that tiny little extension of herself. That projection.
“Whore,” she’d seethe vehemently after ransacking her daughter’s room in the middle of the night and throwing things about. “You dirty little whore!”
At nine most girls had no inkling of the word’s meaning. Carmen, conversely, had heard it nightly from the lips of those shadowy men who came and went. Uttered with horny disdain between primal grunts.
At fifteen, Carmen met a boy. Nothing at all to do with the theater. The faces of her public had remained anonymous, masked by darkness. She hadn’t met the boy at school either; she was being tutored between performances in lieu of public school. She’d met the boy, three years her senior, at his workplace—the corner grocery. She’d been allowed to walk there on one of many occasions Mabel sent her to fetch a pack of smokes. He was spraying down heads of lettuce when he saw her, ended up dousing his shoes and those of several nearby patrons.
The two took to meeting up in secret, in the few stolen moments Carmen was afforded weekly. One day, blinded by love, emboldened by it, she brought him home, ready to face consequences. Instead of beating her daughter or throwing the boy out, Mabel greeted him politely. She proceeded to treat him to afternoon tea and fresh-baked scones.
Carmen sensed a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Eventually word got out that the former floozy had had her way with the produce boy. But he had just turned eighteen, so no charges were filed. Knowing first-hand how paralyzing her mother’s will could be and how terrifying her wrath, Carmen let the boy off the hook. But even so, even knowing her mother was stark raving mad, nothing could soften the blow: her heart was broken.
Broken though it was, Carmen knew in her heart it would be a very long time, if ever, she tried again at love.
From that point on, the stage lost its appeal for Carmen. It was no longer the safe place it once was. The cocoon had been shredded. As logic would have it, her career trajectory followed.
Granted, she was now an adolescent, a maladjusted one at that, but the only roles to come her way were, well, those of maladjusted teenagers: Rhoda in The Bad Seed, Vida in Mildred Pierce, Abigail in The Crucible. She related to Vida’s desire to do away with her mother. She even resonated with the themes of The Crucible—the chasm between appearance and truth—delivering what she considered to be inspired performances.
The critics did not agree.
Her talent manager (she’d kept him all these years, despite how their paths had originally crossed) would ask her regularly if she was practicing her craft. Taking workshops or classes.
“An intuitive child actor does not a Sarah Bernhardt make,” was his way of putting it. “In fact, quite the opposite. It is well known there is an inverse relationship to be found.”
The roles dried up entirely.
At eighteen, Carmen got access to her finances. She cleaned out her bank accounts and emancipated herself from her mother’s clutches in one fell swoop. She used a portion of the money for university. Nothing to do with theater nor film, nor anything art related. World History would be her major. She never looked back. Oh, she continued to pay her mother’s rent, even visited on occasion. It was she who eventually convinced the old loon to visit a shrink. But she refused to take her medication.
Carmen did not go near a stage, or anything resembling a theater, for a full decade.
Returning to the stage at twenty-eight for an equity waiver production of Dare To Live was an effort to revive her career. But more importantly, her heart. She’d chosen equity waiver because the stakes were lower. Not to mention the director, Nathan Whitaker, had been the first director to shed a tear at auditions and say he believed in her.
Though the stakes may have been low, a bad review was a bad review. And Nathan had plans to take the production to Shaftesbury. So sweaty palms and a palpitating heart came as no surprise to Carmen opening night. She had no earthly idea how things would go. How the critics would respond. The most important of them all, Irma Callahan, would be right there in the front row. Looking up her nostrils. But just as important to Carmen as critical reception, though she’d not fully formulated the realization, was whether she’d find that…place. That familiar solace.
She had them in the palm of her hand. End of Act two, and they were eating it up. You could hear a pin drop.
Nathan Palmer watched from the wings. He would have been beaming ear to ear had he not been fighting tears, fighting the lump that had taken up residence in this throat.
“The truth is,” Carmen admitted through Eva Galante, her character, “I didn’t have what it took. It takes faith to live fully. Naive, childlike faith.”
Carmen felt the tear spill down her cheek, or Eva did, or some combination thereof. And then, all of a sudden, she appeared lost. Nathan squinted from the wings. Carmen squinted into darkness, as though what she saw was vague and unfamiliar.
And then it happened. Some kind of power surge.
The houselights came on. Somehow. Just for a moment.
But Carmen saw what was out there. What was really out there: People. Just people. Fanning themselves. Quieting their snot-nosed kids. Coats draped over chairs and programs littering the floor.
She’d hope to feel something out there—to reconnect. Feel safe. But even when the houselights dimmed down again half a second later, all she could picture were those people out there. So human. So frail. She could hear them stirring in their seats, no bigger or stronger or wiser than her. She did not feel safe. She felt more alone than ever.
With a look of increasing panic, Carmen Goldstein bolted from the stage. Heads turned as she cut through the wings stage left, stumbling toward the theatre’s side entrance. She wrenched the heavy door open, heart pounding, and flew out into the night. As the monstrous thing groaned closed behind her, she thought she heard waves of applause from the house.
No one came after her. She pressed her back against the heavy stage door, trying in vain to catch her breath, sliding to the pavement in surrender. The alley was pocked and lacerated, gritty aggregate shooting in tendrils across a tortured landscape. Somewhere at a distance an enormous dumpster spewed funk, overflowing and ripe. The terra cotta brick and the corroded fire escapes, the rusty water towers and the splintery wooden sills, all were slathered in graffiti—something she’d never noticed when rushing in the side door of the theater. Even more alarming, she’d never noticed that the side alley through which she’d entered was a—dead end. Not far beyond the dumpster, a great wall thrust from the tired asphalt, sealing off the tiny, claustrophobic space.
Suddenly, there was movement. Dusk was just surrendering to night, but in the faint, twitchy yellow light from a nearby wall sconce, a tiny figure emerged from behind heaps of garbage. It was a girl, no more than seven, wearing patent leather shoes and ridiculous petticoats. She advanced awkwardly. Tentatively, as though walking on new legs. As if she’d just emerged from a…cocoon. It was then that Carmen noticed: she had wings.
There was no need for introductions. Carmen said nothing as the girl approached, just sat agape, full of sweet surrender. The girl reached up with a porcelain hand, as frail as a doll’s, and wiped the tear from Carmen’s cheek.
“Looks like there’s no going back,” Carmen pondered. “The lights are on for good.”
The girl smiled with a patient wisdom beyond her years. “You used to feel safe out there,” she sang, her voice a melody borrowed from the stars that were beginning to materialize above. “But it was just a substitute.”
Carmen let the words wash over her. Another tear fell, and then another.
“All you ever wanted was to feel safe,” the girl offered kindly. “To belong. To feel connected.”
Suddenly the traffic was inaudible. The graffiti-slathered walls disappeared and the dumpster overflowing with trash. Only the stars remained. And the ethereal figure that now levitated before her. “And doesn’t that all just add up to love?”
In a flash, the girl was gone. The flickering yellow light reminded Carmen she was sitting at the dead end of an urban landscape. One with very few redeeming qualities. She could hear crowds gathering on the sidewalk in front; Nathan must have called intermission. And then she could see them, milling about with coffees in hand, excitedly discussing what they’d just seen. Speculating about where act three would take them.
Carmen stood up, dusted herself off, and stepped into the side door of Brewer Street Theater. Nathan was there, just inside, to greet her.
She collapsed into his arms, sobbing speechlessly.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last. “I’ve ruined opening night.”
“You kiddin?” Nathan’s voice was cheerful. He took her by the shoulders as he often did, squaring them so she had no choice but to look into his eyes. “They’re eating it up! They don’t know the difference! In fact, I want to keep it! It works!”
Carmen was not consoled. “But Irma. The critics. They’ll know how the piece is supposed to go…”
“FUCK the critics.” Nathan spat.
Later the unconventional choice would be characterized as avant-garde, papers lauding the both director and his ingénue for being on the cutting edge. The musical would move to Shaftesbury the moment the contract expired with Brewer Street. It would become the longest running play in Theatreland history.
But all that mattered was tonight.
Nathan didn’t see it coming. Suddenly he was being kissed. Long and hard. With passion. When the two parted, he couldn’t help but smile.
“What’s come over you, doll?”
“How ‘bout I explain over that nightcap,” she teased. “Offer still good?”
“Course! You kiddin’ me?”
Before she trotted off to prepare for act three, she settled into his arms once more. His broad, capable hands caressed the small of her back. His burly arms held her close. For the first time in her life, Carmen Goldstein felt maybe there was something bigger, stronger and wiser out there she could surrender to. For the first time ever, she felt…
The marionette was kept in the basement among the cobwebs, the corroded pipes and the scuttling varmints that would have fared better in the kitchen but didn’t dare venture into the light. The basement hadn’t always been his home; Jacques, as he was known, had once lived upstairs with the Hollister family. He’d been given to seven year-old Jack, the boy of the house, by his great aunt Marie-Martine Chaumet de Provence. She’d been passing through on her travels for the first time in Jack’s short existence, en route to some obscure eastern European country. Aunt Marie was the exotic bohemian relation—the one rarely mentioned in polite conversation, and only then in hushed tones. Jack’s older sister Mary had bristled awkwardly at supper, displacing lumps of mashed potatoes with her fork for the duration of the strange woman’s adventure tales. Jack, on the other hand, ate them up, forsaking his meal entirely.
She spoke of her travels to the orient, her time with the gypsies in eastern Europe and the Bedouins in Arabia, her seasoned voice alternating between hooty overtones and dry, throaty rasps that warned of all that could never be unseen. Mr. and Mrs. Hollister looked from the middle-aged woman to their young son, his eyes wide in astonishment. Their own expressions betrayed guarded concern, a scarcely discernible shift from their customary poker faces. Jack had often sensed that the two were sleepwalking through life in some sort of trance. And Mary, his older sister, was dead-set in their tracks, content to mimic the expressionless masks otherwise known as faces. They may as well have been made of paper mâche´.
And here was a woman, one Jack had only heard of in whispered anecdote, whose eyes resembled his own: wide and alive and unfettered, whose voice spoke to every fiber of his being that was unlike his parents. For a single evening Jack felt slightly less alone, as if he’d found a kindred spirit in all the monotony. What he didn’t know—couldn’t know—was that what the two shared ran much deeper than the sparkle in an eye; what that sparkle revealed was an unfathomable treasure chest of shared history—more than a lineage or simple DNA—more like a shadowy beast that had the run of the collective, trampling the patchwork quilt that was the landscape of dreams.
Jack’s Grandparents had passed before his birth; he’d not had occasion to meet them. Aunt Marie-Martine was the younger sister of his grandmother on his father’s side—all that remained of a former generation. The woman did not explain the origin of the marionette, only that she’d picked it up at a flea market near Rialto Bridge in Venice, Italy. She’d found it next to a tiny, leather-bound triptych depicting the rapture when unfolded on its tiny rusted hinges—the kind old Catholic women carried in their clutches for emergencies. When guilt got the best of them, the foreboding panels would be withdrawn, extricated from the cosmetics, hairpins and chewing gum. A few hail Marys and they were good to go.
After dinner but before leaving, the eccentric aunt had presented young Mary with a mirrored music box that played Frere Jacques, a detail that infuriated the girl. The marionette, swaddled meticulously in colorful tissue paper, played nothing when unwrapped. Just smiled silently from the bed of crumpled tissue with reptilian beads for eyes. His grin was broad but toothless, plastered across a hingeless paper mâche´ jaw. Gangly limbs splayed themselves in every direction, listless and lacking in determination. Only when aunt Marie took hold of the coarse wooden cross to demonstrate did the nearly invisible strings grow taut, extremities springing to life. A satin headdress flounced atop the paper mâche´ cranium, something between that of a medieval court jester and the crown of a Czar.
Jack smiled from ear to ear. How could she have known that he adored puppets? That his only recurring dream was that of finding one laying on the cement sidewalk outside the front door, and then another, and another, forming a trail.
After Aunt Marie-Martine Chaumet-de-Provence said goodnight, Jack imagined she’d not simply hailed a cab, but had tethered herself to a great, broiling tempest instead, or departed by hot air balloon at the end of the block. For a time, the marionette was a reminder of the woman. Jack would wake up in the middle of the night to catch his toothless grin glinting in the pale moonlight, betraying their shared secret.
“I’ll call you Jacques,” Jack decided.
The satin head piece with its tarnished gold bells, so stately and ridiculous all at once, cast long shadows across the wallpaper, poking as it did from a menagerie of various and sundry stuffed animals. The good majority of them had been amassed not from far-off lands but from carnivals that had passed through town or from dime stores or the boardwalk at the local pier. Jack tolerated the motley crew like family; after all, they were bound by geography alone, having been thrown together inside the four walls of his bedroom without any say in the matter. Jacques was the sole exception. Like Jack and his aunt, whom he imagined was off somewhere wearing wooden shoes or sitting about a great cauldron with Ubangis, the two were kindred spirits.
The first time Jack actually took hold of the coarse wooden cross and attempted to conduct the invisible puppet strings, something strange happened. It felt as though something were tugging at the strings. Not gravity nor inertia nor any other earthly force; it was more like free will. Whatever it was Jack planned for his new friend, whatever business or choreography he attempted, Jacques did the opposite. From that point on, Jack decided it best to avoid puppet shows altogether. Jacques would remain the centerpiece of the room, propped there atop the pine dresser with the others, smiling inscrutably.
In the weeks and months to follow, Jack would often reenter his bedroom afterschool to find his motley crew of stuffed animals in disarray, or in a completely new arrangement than how he left them. Often, it was his mother who had moved them while dusting or vacuuming. Just as often, she’d not even entered the room.
When Jack was right smack in the crosshairs of puberty, his aunt came to visit on her way through town. Like the first time years before, she’d called ahead with little notice.
“You’d better find that puppet, and quick!”
The warning in his mother’s voice keyed into his own guilt, and Jack rifled in a frenzy through the graveyard of neglected toys deep in his closet. He did not recall the precise moment when the marionette had been banished to the forsaken pile; the milestone, however pivotal, was lost among the flurry of other changes: the appearance of pubic hair and the strange inability to wrangle his own vocal chords. The confusion of his first kiss and the shame over his own impulses he was forced to wear like an old hand-me-down overcoat.
When at last Jack plucked his old friend from between a plastic fire truck and the terry cloth hind section of Barney the Dinosaur, Jack felt elated and overwhelmed with shame all at once. The doll’s paper mâche´ complexion, once flawless as porcelain despite its lumpy constitution, was now blotchy and watermarked. One of the beads had gone missing. And not just any bead, either—the left eye.
Even so, when propped up front and center atop his pine dresser, the marionette resumed his former proud, regal appearance. Though the old woman had too much class to ask after him, Jack’s mother was sure to throw open his bedroom door and draw attention to the artifact with its mysterious origins.
Marie-Martine Chaumet-de-Province’s hand went instinctively to her heart, jangling layers of exotic beads from the world over.
“My heart is full,” she beamed from the narrow hallway.
At supper the woman asked a lot of questions and told few stories. Those she told were light on adventure or romance but somehow infused with melancholy reflection. She’d slowed down in her old age. Oh, she still traveled, but was more apt nowadays to travel by taxi than caravan, to stay in hotels over mountaintop monasteries. It was Jack who found himself rearranging his mashed potatoes—leveling certain mounds and building others with the tines of his fork.
After dinner, Jack found himself alone with the old woman on the porch. She’d been pacing its rickety planks to walk off dinner, while gazing out at the spangling of stars. Jack seated himself on the antique swing, searching her eyes for that glimmer that had once validated his entire being, his very existence. It was there all right, but hard to distinguish, obscured as it was by cataracts. The nebulous clouds, so much like tiny galaxies, complemented the silver streaks that ran through the once dark locks of her shoulder-length hair.
“I want to travel like you,” Jack revealed.
The woman reached out a pudgy, warm hand and took hold of Jack’s. “This world is full of adventure. Exotic places and people and sights and sounds. They will enrich you beyond belief…”
Here, the old woman’s eyes drifted from the jewel-like stars to the dark silhouettes of suburban rooftops.
“But truly all we need to be rich already exists in our own hearts.” She thumped her own ribcage and exotic beads jangled, some kind of armor over her own heart.
Her eyes found Jack’s. “When I was very young,” she confessed in a scarcely audible whisper, “My heart was broken. Irrevocably.”
Her smile was full of utter joy and sadness all at once. And then, in an instant, there was only regret. “I’ve not stopped running since…”
Jack watched from the porch with a certain melancholy as his mysterious relation, so exotic and so familiar, disappeared down the suburban lane in a yellow taxi.
He proceeded to his bedroom where Jacque sat atop his makeshift throne, the one that had been pieced together in haste. He took in the missing eye, the inscrutable smile, the satin headdress that now hung listlessly like a wilted flower.
He carried Jacques to the basement and cast him into the dark void.
High school was bearable, but hardly. Jack focused on his studies, rarely thinking of the life that awaited him but knowing exams and essays and good marks would put him on the right path. He felt his eyes going dead like theirs, like tarnished beads in a paper mâche´ mask.
Aunt Marie-Martine Chaumet-de-Provence’s funeral was a silent, stilted affair. Few got up and spoke, confirming Jack’s suspicion that she was scarcely known to her own family. He watched her being lowered into the earth, the last of a generation.
Dust in the wind.
Mr. and Mrs. Hollister filed for divorce, despite their best efforts to wait until Jack’s commencement. Mary had long since moved out, marrying young to get away. Jack had seen the sour turn of events coming. He’d felt the resentment so thick it could be cut with a knife, and then in its place the horrible, stifling indifference. He’d always had the sense the two were sleepwalking through life, that only on their deathbeds might they look beyond the surface of some deep pond and confess regret or fondness or even affection. But he also knew things were not so simple. Later he’d learn that no one sleep walked, that life was not just some lucid dream, that we were all learning the same lessons; they just looked different on different people. Different generations. What he couldn’t know, blinded by youth and inexperience, is what actually drove his parents. What invisible behemoth trampled the patchwork quilt of their dreams.
His Aunt’s story haunted his own subconscious. Though she was spoken of only on rare occasion, and even then only in a whisper, the story of her long ago heartbreak loomed like a tenant in Jack’s psyche. Perhaps to save himself from similar heartbreak, he’d avoided girls in school. Of course it was under the guise of focusing on this studies. And doing so had paid off; he was accepted to every last college he’d applied to. Thing was, he wasn’t sure he’d attend any one of them. He felt the call of the wild—the urge to backpack the Himalayas and stay in youth hostels and grow dreadlocks if he wanted.
The day of Jack’s commencement, Mr. and Mrs. Hollister preened themselves before the full-length mirror in the foyer, pretending to be a family. The divorce would be final in a week, but the charade was still obligatory. For some reason Jack found himself slipping away from them, padding down the hall like a marionette on an invisible string, and yanking the beaded cord that hung from a swinging yellow bulb in the stairwell.
He knew not what compelled him, nor what he’d do after receiving his diploma, nor how he’d break the news to his parents he was leaving, or if he even would. Maybe he’d just disappear without a trace.
The lurid, moth yellow light seeped down the concrete stairs like syrup, spreading across a moldy cement floor. It climbed the splintered support beams that seemed to sag with the crushing weight of the Hollister home. The home he’d grown up in that was now a ghost of its former self. When the viscous light reached the rafters, Jack emitted an audible gasp.
There was Jacques, not crumpled in a forlorn pile on the floor where he’d been tossed years ago, but perched among the cobweb-infested rafters. He straddled a particularly precarious crossbeam like a demented matador, paper mâche´ fingers flailing as if to execute some kind of intricate choreography. Strangest of all, the translucent fishing wires that should have been directing the dance were taut, leading not down but up, where they disappeared between the mahogany floorboards of the Hollister home.
As often as not, the idea of something stands in stark contrast to the thing itself. Only on rare occasion does the reality surpass its shapeless representation in the mind, thorny extremities writhing and falling away to reveal the perfect rose at its center.
Later, he’ll equate her to a rose, imprisoned by media thorns, the sense no less acute on first meeting. Ben Jamin 35-D’s line of work often puts him in close proximity to the Empirian elite, if not always with celebrity. Biomeme Technologies never lets on in advance who the client is, either for security or to discourage fawning and replace it with pure shock. As he navigates the colluded queue snaking its way toward the Empirian shuttle, not a thought goes to who this one might be. He’s never been impressed with social status or perceived value or celebrity or any of that fabricated Empirian shit-sling. Inevitably the client will be just another entitled bastard—some fucktard politician or jack-slacker sports figure or entertainer expecting him to jump through circuit board hoops while remembering his place.
He tugs at the stiff uniform he’s been issued less than six months ago, checking its cumbersome belt for Infogoggles and circuit detectors, the trade tools most often needed on a call like today’s. He’s gotten used to the drill since graduating, but still has the good sense to let the butterflies have the run of his stomach. Puts him on his best behavior. He sweeps dirty blonde bangs from a sweaty forehead, scowls into the dark metro tunnel with cobalt blue eyes. A lithe cylinder fast approaches, comes to a silent halt.
Just as its expressionless passengers debark, a powerful explosion detonates on the platform nearby, its deafening blast reverberating through the subterranean M-station like a current through a fried biocircuit. Shrieks of horror mingle with the hiss of cascading silt, aftershocks of realization.
Ben doesn’t so much as flinch; such mild annoyances are par for the course lately. Probably a pipe bomb. Old school. He steps over a mound of carnage, entrails trailing, trembling hands reaching, and boards the electromagnetic M-Train. Despite the mayhem, all systems remain operational. Terrorist attacks rarely make it inside the insular dome of high society, remain self-inflicted on the periphery. Once the shuttle enters the biosphere it will soar above the strife, joining all the other invisible highways crisscrossing in its strata.
An intangible current reverses and the narrow cylinder engages its coils. The velocity of it jetting off shears the guts that have been splattered on the glass—the scarcely recognizable innards and shreds of tissue. Only the hand remains, slapped there like an ineffectual keystone cop directing traffic. Slowly, it slips toward the back of the train and flies off.
The exterior wall of the estate is no more or less austere than the rest of Empiria, rising monumentally from a sea of pearlescent stark white facades. Their biomorphic silhouettes careen heavenward, imposing themselves against a broiling cloud cover kept at bay by the scarcely discernible biodome high in the atmosphere. Ben can hardly tell one sublime undulation from the next; it’s his GPS implant that has guided him thus far, like a puppet on a string, the master plan known only to his superiors at Tech Central.
At the main gate, a retinal scan permits him entry. A narrow flagstone walk compels him between curved walls like unsavory flotsam on the tide of privilege, to a second checkpoint. Here, a rather impersonal instrument swabs his gums for the obligatory DNA analysis that will let him move on. Then there’s the code he must enter at checkpoint three, each retaining wall folded into the last like the petals of a sterile white rose, leading to some inner sanctum. The labyrinth has been forged by necessity, but the need for security has birthed an aesthetic bi-product—the sense this is an introspective journey of sorts.
Mounted cameras gawk from countless roosts, perversely recording the body scan and delousing. None of it is invasive to Ben Jamin 35-D; such measures are all he’s ever known. On visiting Empiria, anyway. In the Periphery, squalor prevails. It’s every man for himself.
A small courtyard separates the maze of parapets from the estate itself, where armed guards flank a stately pair of double doors bordered by opulent filigree. One of them pushes a button and the doors part, hissing open in sinister invitation.
“You may make yourself comfortable in the foyer, 35-D,” one of them advises. “Miss K will be with you momentarily…”
Miss K, Ben’s brain parrots, tongue silently caressing the words in his mouth. Could it be? Really? He wonders, seating himself in a plush crimson love seat shaped like a lotus blossom.
Though he’s never been wowed by celebrity, if ‘Miss K’ means what he thinks, he’s hit the jackpot. How many times has he jacked off to the flawless image of Kamana K, however media-fabricated, submitting to the hold on his psyche only an assemblage of tiny pixels could exact? How many times has he found himself tempted to reach out a calloused fingertip to caress that cold monitor, hoping to transcend its barrier and stroke a perfect breast, a supple porcelain neck, an impossibly slender waist or jiggling posterior?
And he’s not alone. Every pubescent male—Empirian or Exterian, has shot to the fantasy of her leather-clad, often bound-and-gagged personage. His mind cannot help drifting to countless such lonely nights in front of a computer screen, such a faithful surrogate for intimacy. Or better, yet, his Reality goggles and apparatus, behind which she almost seems to be moaning for him alone, breasts giggling to the touch of his Reality gloves.
Blood rushes to his groin, a reflex. But just as quickly, the palpable excitement wanes as he becomes acutely aware of the dozen or so cameras peering down at him in scrutiny. Not to mention the miscellany of floor-to-ceiling mirrors, likely double-sided, that panel the walls of the foyer, expanding it to an infinite kaleidoscope of self-reflection. It’s entirely possible he’s being broadcast throughout the State, unwittingly ensnared in its preoccupation with entertaining itself numb.
He wills the mound down beneath stretch denim, smears a palm across the tangled mop of his head. A thousand versions of him do the same, as reticent as him to meet her. Inferior stock aside, he’ll feel awkward and homely in the blinding glare of her beauty. Life in Exteria has weathered him beyond his twenty-six years, leaving him with a chipped tooth and crooked smile. Still, when juxtaposed with the perpetual squint of deep-set eyes, the burly, vascular physique of a laborer, the effect is impressive.
Suddenly, one of the mirrored panels slides upward like a tile in a crossword puzzle. In its absence, a darkened chamber extrudes itself in space, fracturing the fly’s eye of perpetuity. And then, so slowly as to be nearly imperceptible, a series of soft amber floor lights permeate the chamber, washing a pale figure into being.
It stands perfectly still, elevated on a pompous pedestal, one leg half-folded in front of the other, hand resting on hip in a stance seductive and authoritative all at once. Alabaster skin reveals itself in sacred glimpses amid folds of sheer red taffeta that spill to the floor in tiers.
Or a version of her.
But where are the shackles and the restraints and the feigned look of aroused terror? Where are the nipple clamps and the baby doll voice and the slave-whore makeup? Though Ben recognizes the figure poised regally above, the impression made is altogether contrary to its media representation; instead of shouting to the perverse in him, it whispers to any purity that remains.
“Welcome, 35-D,” she greets him, stepping from the ridiculous pedestal. The petal-like tiers of her train shimmer as she glides across slick marble. A thick braid of coal black hair swings in tandem with her gait, so rich and dark as to absorb the light and render her olive skin fair. Her exotic, almond eyes narrow, tempering a smile, impossibly full lips curling up in the corners as she nears the lotus seat.
Ben rises ineptly.
She extends a hand. “Kamana K.”
Her voice is a velvety alto, effusive and fragile at once. Ben’s heart flutters, what remains of it. He takes her hand in his, suddenly shameful of all the times he’s used it to pleasure himself to her avatar.
She neither bristles nor sanitizes her hand once withdrawn. After all, he’s been deloused.
“Come,” she both commands and invites as a second panel glides heavenward, revealing a wide corridor. “We think the problem is in the salon.”
He follows after her abjectly, biting his tongue. Say nothing, he tells himself. The IT handbook puts it in no uncertain terms: speak of nothing personal unless the client instigates; make eye contact only when absolutely necessary.
“Have you been briefed on the details?” She asks, politely enough.
From his backpack, Ben Jamin withdraws the brand new set of Infogoggles Biomeme has issued him, places them over a crooked, sunbaked nose. Now that he knows who the client is, Technologies furnishes him a case history. He scrolls through the data that appears on a virtual monitor, hovering on air as the two traverse the lengthy hall.
“Rogue activity. Recurrent. Possibly due to free radicals,” Ben offers. “Is that accurate, Miss K? May I call you Miss K?”
“Please. And you, 35-D? Do you have a surname?”
“Ben,” the young man offers tentatively, thrilled she would ask. “Ben Jamin.”
“The rogue activity, as you put it, takes the form of surges. Random surges, when least expected. In the middle of the night an entire wing will suddenly come to life, become operational.”
“Hmmm. Not so odd,” Ben reassures her. “Happens over time. ‘S just a matter of finding the right synapses and rewirin’ ‘em. Don’t worry, miss—ere’s little chance of a security breach or any sort o’ hacking. ‘S all internal stuff.”
“That’s a relief,” Kamana smiles as an immense gothic door slides open, yielding access to an opulent salon slathered in Versailles décor. “It started here first, then spread to other areas. Strangest of all, the salon has now gone dark.”
It’s true—only a dim smattering of pendant lights defines the otherwise swarthy space.
“Well, miss, over time the overactive circuit can burn itself out. Then…nuthin’.” Ben advises.
“I thought this stuff was supposed to last forever,” the girl grouses.
Ben laughs. “If only. Hardware’s getting’ better all the time. But biomimetics ain’t quite there yet. Free radicals can still get in.”
“Ah.” She’s looking at him in the dim light. At him, not through him.
Though he knows it would not look good to his superiors at Biomeme, Ben secretly hopes it takes several visits to locate and rewire the synapses. More than one occasion to bask in her presence.
He unhinges a circuit detector from his tool belt and begins to massage the curved wall. He imagines it’s her curves he’s tracing—from thigh to hip to belly. And then he catches himself. Snap the fuck out of it! He tells himself. You need this job you fucking ape! Still, as he continues to skirt the circumference of the grand hall, he imagines he can feel her looking at him from behind. Then again, it could be the dozens of mounted cameras peering from chartless dark vaults overhead.
Suddenly he stops.
“I gotta ask, Miss K. It ain’t a personal question…’s somethin’ I jes got to know. So as to conduct my business. Are we being broadcast?”
Kamana laughs, tossing her braid playfully. “Course not. We’re on hiatus. Between seasons, as they say.”
He eyeballs the cameras. Indeed their shutters appear closed, like cold, lifeless eyes.
“And Mr. and Mrs. K?” Though their daughter’s exploitation has become the thrust of the show, they’re still a big part of it.
“They’re in Sector 6—the Levant,” she reveals, rolling her eyes. “Looking for a husband for me. For next season. Ratings, you know.”
“Ah.” Ben returns to his work, for fear of lapsing into forbidden personal territory or crossing some kind of boundary firmly established in the handbook he was furnished at orientation. He’s been on the job a whole six months since graduating trade school, and it would not look good to have a dismissal on his record. Too many stains and one goes back to panhandling or turning tricks like most of the Periphery’s castoffs.
He breathes again, fully, only once he’s boarded the train for home. He leans his head against thick, curved glass, Empiria flying by steeped in sunset’s fiery hues. The M-train jets toward the aperture that will deposit him in the Periphery as if into an alternate universe. Several kilonauts from the arched portal a bomb goes off, sending a plume of debris crawling up the inner face of the biodome. They’ve penetrated it. Made it inside.
No matter. He’s thinking of her.
Her image persists in his mind, fleeting and tenuous as reflections on a pond. Her heavenly countenance, her scent, the velvety tone of her voice. He struggles to reconcile the impression with her media image. Oh, he knows it’s a distortion. He knows Kamana K is just a part she plays, that the Reality Network is the furthest thing from reality. Still, her true essence has proven alarming in its purity.
More to the point, he’s startled by what it’s awakened in him—something he was sure he mourned: the ability to want. The capacity for desire. Oh, he’s lusted after her countless times—objectified her, even shot on her virtual tits for God’s sake. But this want is something different—the want of something real.
The want of more.
He’s not felt such desire since before the heartbreak what seems a lifetime ago now. His first love ended without explanation. And since, without his planning it, the walls went up.
And as often happens, the exterior world went the way of his heart. Though he came into the world during a period of relative peace between wars, the false sense of security, the imperviousness, crumbled with the destruction of the first biodome. Terrorists. And now, all these years later, the world’s a more hostile place than ever. It’s as if all the State has repressed has come to roost—all that’s been festering behind the façade has spread like a cancer hell-bent on making up for lost time.
Part of him knows the outside world is just a projection of the one inside—that healing one means healing the other. And as remote and unattainable a prospect as undoing his disillusionment seems to be most of the time, he also knows it’s just within reach. He came across a buckled, water-stained Old World paperback once, in the gutter. It said that every moment is a universe unto itself that can be turned around. Alchemy, the author called it.
And in this moment, he knows the Old World had it right; he’s been reminded in no uncertain terms. He knows because he wants her.
There’s a familiar comfort in the melee—the discordant symphony of clashing noises that wafts from the forsaken alleyways of the Periphery to Ben 35-D’s shutter-less window. His shoddy loft teeters atop a haphazard assemblage of terraced shanties flush with Empiria’s fortified wall, scaffolds reaching for its lip in fruitless desperation, like tendrils. By Exterian standards, this is the highlife. Luxury Apartments, the penthouses are called, despite being pieced together from various and sundry incongruous materials. Like the soot-stained tendrils they form, Ben has climbed from the squalor of his birthright, from the lawless cesspit of the Periphery’s meandering honeycomb streets, to the mid-rise stratum of workers who support—enable—the daily functioning of Empiria.
He’ll never be one of them; he knows that. He’s made of different stuff. The genetic stock of Empiria’s elite has been painstakingly engineered. The undesirable has been skimmed off, distilling the population to an impeccably controlled gene pool, while rendering him the equivalent of an ape. A much needed one, but still an ape.
As such, how could she ever love him? Inferior stock? To say nothing of the consequences the State would impose. He knows he’s doing it to himself: setting himself up by indulging the fantasy of her. Something in him is a glutton for punishment, a lithe M-train on a determined course he’s powerless to stop.
The sky outside his misshapen window is a swarthy, toxic red. Twilight has long since succumbed to night, to the spangling of Exterian lights that illuminate the pollution from below in a most unnatural way. To the soothing cacophony of dissonance, Ben Jamin drifts into restless slumber.
In his shapeless reverie, he’s kissing her. Pressing against those tender lips—firm yet supple—any resistance melting away to invitation. In the dream her media image is nowhere to be found, all artifice shed like a borrowed shell.
“You’re not what you’ve become,” he whispers in her flushed ear. “You’re not what they’ve made you…”
His waking mind remembers the moment they sold her virginity. He was on the cusp of puberty himself. The Reality Network had tapped into the public thirst for blood, begun auctioning off hymens like throwing Christians to lions. Of course they carefully preened her in advance—from the pigtails and schoolgirl uniform with its knee-high socks, to the chastity belt and carefully choreographed burgeoning of her own boy-crazy urges.
The highest bidder was a sheik from Sector 6.
The State was riveted—both the Exterian masses and the Empirian elite. The breaking of her hymen was broadcast pay-per-view, of course. As good entertainment would have it, Kamana K fell for her perpetrator. Hard. But after breaking her in, the sheik who’d popped her lock returned her to her parents used goods. Unfit for marriage. Viewers shared in her public humiliation but salivated for more. The stakes would have to be raised; anyone could break a hymen. Suddenly it was prime time gangbangs and half-time specials. Just last Sunday she was nailed by the winning team on the astroturf of Empiria’s main sports arena, the Colosseum. To a dozen cameras on wires and drones for maximum cinematic effect.
Then of course came Birth Canals of the Rich and Famous, and the Kamana K Speculum Tour of 2109 during which viewers who’d paid enough could orchestrate the action or randomly shout commands into virtual space.
Heaven knows what they’ve got planned for her next. Ratings have not wavered; desensitization being what it is, they’ve consistently upped the ante. But luck always runs out. And eventually, Ben knows, she’ll be put out to pasture.
From his reticent slumber, Ben starts awake. When at last he’s fully aware of his surroundings, he’s sitting full up on his dilapidated cot, sweating profusely.
He’s tracing the voluptuous curves of the salon’s eastern wall, reading blips like Morse code. He’s already detected one dead circuit—one series of burnt out synapses—and replaced it, replenishing the transmitter fluid. The self-healing wall has sealed itself around the tiny hole he’s had to drill, leaving no evidence whatsoever of the intrusion. A corner of the room is lit now; it’s there in the warm amber glow of pendant lamps that she keeps vigil. Watches him with keen interest. It’s she who breaches a boundary, lapses into personal banter.
“You seem different,” she lances, off the cuff.
Different from what? He wonders. From other Exterians? From what she expected? From yesterday? Doesn’t matter; she sees him. That’s what matters.
“So do you,” he returns over a uniformed shoulder. He continues to scrub the wall, to massage it.
“I’m not her, you know,” is all she says next.
He doesn’t turn this time. “I know.”
The dim lights hum, a microscopic hiccup interrupting the amber glaze that will burnish the moment in nostalgia once it’s retreated to memory.
“I was born into this franchise,” she reflects, as if for the first time. As if to explain something.
Don’t say anything, he tells himself. Just let her talk.
“A Reality family is a dynasty. A lifestyle.”
An abrupt surge awakens a corner of the room like an otherworldly apparition, illuminating a ridiculously opulent chandelier more costly than all Ben’s worldly possessions combined. A light fixture larger in mass than his entire apartment.
“But sometimes,” Kamana K continues pensively, “It feels more like indentured servitude. You may think we’ve got it made up here. But it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“Count yer blessings,” Ben can’t help coming back. His familiarity is the product of proximity, the sheer amount of time the two have spent together, even in silence. He feels he’s known her his entire life.
“Just gettin’ te my shuttle this mornin’,” he continues, illustrating a point, “Had te step over five homeless dregs, watch the arm of another git blown off, then caught sight of a spur-o-the-moment C-section in a alley.”
Her eyes expand like solar systems, both refracting and absorbing the light. She plays with her long, rope-like braid.
“All I’m saying is: we’re victims of circumstance like everyone else—just in a different way. They call us the ‘ruling class.’ But who’s really pulling the strings? We’re just puppets for the masses. There’s no dignity in a dog and pony show.”
“Ain’t no dignity in pipe bombs full o’ nails. In scraping human flesh off yer sneakers when ye come in at night.”
A hollow silence descends on the K Estate. A silence of undetectable hiccups and curves to mask them and all that divides people. Suddenly, she’s reaching out to bridge the divide, and they’re two souls made of the same stuff.
“It wasn’t always this way. For either of us. Was it?” There’s a tear in her dark, almond-shaped eye.
He stops scanning and turns. And then, hitching the circuit detector to his wide leather belt: “Time was, ‘fore the bombing o’ Biodome One, had the world by the frackin’ balls. The arrogance o’ youth, I know it now, but all them books I come across in the muck tol’ me we created the world around us. That we somehow invited disease through some tiny frackin’ crack, some kind o’ flaw in our thinking. Never did listen to the doomspeakers. I didn’t invite war or disease, so it wadn’t part o’my reality. Well, 2100 changed all ‘at. The destruction of the dome. Taught me straight quick there was a very real world out there we can’t none of us control.”
It’s then she surprises him for the first time. “We can control how we react to it.”
The wisdom in her words does not keep him from playing devil’s advocate. “Easy for you to say. You ain’t gotta deal with disease. Or strife.”
She throws her braid over a shoulder and sits up in her lotus-chair. “Not true. Just yesterday a terrorist breached security at Wall Sixteen. A dozen Empirians died.”
He’s seated near her now. For the first time, he considers her disillusionment, how it’s the same animal regardless of circumstance, greater maybe for so long having been sheltered from it.
“It’s a frackin’ cancer,” he hears himself say. “The State ain’t never been so hostile.”
She surprises him for the second time. Could be breeding or education that infuses her insights with the ring of truth, but whatever it is they hang on the air without context, penetrating him to the core.
“Do you ever wonder if it’s not the world that changes, so much as the eyes through which we view it?”
His eyes drift into abstraction, caressing the salon wall with melancholy. They follow its curves into the scrim of darkness that swallows all detail at a certain distance. For the first time, he notices it: A floor-to ceiling mural, just opposite that enormous chandelier. He recognizes the narrative from an Old School Bible he came across in a street-level trash dumpster. Adam and Eve stand naked in the garden of Eden, before the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. There’s no snake—only the two of them, pearlescent white skin as pristine as the facades of Empiria. It’s the tree itself that beckons them, its low hanging, blood red fruit.
He knows that behind the clusters of engorged fruit, circuits have been overused, synapses burned like obsolete things put out to pasture. He knows that her words are true: with each disappointment, a crack has appeared in the biodome of his life. With each disillusionment, a free radical has gotten in. With every heartbreak a breach and a crumbling of ideals.
All that’s left is terror.
The next day she insists he take a break. She’s printed an array of sushi and poured them both glasses of hot saki. The color and texture of the simulated cuisine is quite convincing; high society’s got the food chain pared down, weaned itself off farming and agriculture. In Exteria you can still find a good steak and lobster, despite scant risks. There’s no comparison, Ben knows.
He returns daily for what stretches into weeks, each time convinced the maze of retaining walls has reconfigured itself, each time offering the obligatory swab of tissue that will prove he’s who he professes to be. On arrival the armed guards flanking the K Estate’s only entrance take to greeting him by surname rather than number, a familiarity that does not exempt him from the delousing and head-to-toe sanitizing vapor. And as long as he’s allowing his mind to wander, he half suspects she’s programming errors to keep him coming back. The sense could not be more acute when the faulty synapses lead to her bedchamber, where sheer billows of fabric spill from a vaulted dome to enshrine a flower petal bed in the very heart of the space. It’s an odd feeling—her lounging there on it, the folds of her own shimmering gown spilling like iridescent rose petals to the platform that elevates the canopy bed to the gods in ritual sacrifice. It’s odd not due to the seductive curve of her hip or the plummeting valley of her slender waist, or even the chasm of cleavage that glistens in the cellophane light, but because of the swarm of cameras mounted to ribbed vaults, staring down at them like a thousand soulless eyes. He knows they’re comatose; the show is on hiatus. Still, there’s something unsettling about the whole voyeuristic affair.
He hasn’t jacked off to Kamana K since meeting the dimensional model behind the hologram. Could be it’s harder to objectify what’s real, harder to get there. But just as likely it’s just that the show’s on hiatus until Spring. There’s a prime time special in the works, but it’s not yet been advertised, slathered like media-fabricated bile on the sides of M-Trains and skyscrapers. The sobering thought returns to him—the prospect that sprang him like a plywood board from a sound sleep, sweating with the thought of it: what will the spectacle entail? What could possibly be left—bestiality? Scarrification? Modification? If it’s bestiality they have in mind, it bodes well for him; after all, in their estimation he’s the equivalent of an ape.
For the first time, the thought enters his mind, like a tiny seed as yet unfertilized:
The thought of rescuing her.
“They found you a husband yet?” His good-natured chuckle masks grave concern.
“Not yet, thankfully,” is her answer.
If she were to marry, even some arrogant sheik, he estimates, she might be spared. They might not put her out to pasture.
“They’re due back in a week,” she advises, “so they’d better do some fancy footwork.”
“There was another breach today,” Ben says absently. “Pipe bomb. Seen it wit my own eyes from the M-Train. Whole frackin’ tower down.”
The conversation always gets serious. Usually it’s she who allows gravity to take hold, to cut through the superficial shit-sling. As if she’s got no one else to confide in. Or no one she wishes to confide in. Nothing’s at stake with him; they’ve got no mutual…well—anything.
“Why do you suppose things are so bad?” She ponders.
He pretends he’s onto something behind the self-healing Versailles wallskin.
Then, all at once his movements slow, allowing him to formulate his thoughts.
“Time was I thought it was somethin’ we could fix. I come across a Old School book once in an abandoned bookstore. Smack in the middle o’ the Periphery. Said the hippies once adopted the phrase: Never trust no one over thirty. Funny—‘s the other way ‘round now. It’s them angry youth who’ll mow ye down wit a high power laser soon as look at ye, strap on a pipe bomb like puttin’ on knickers.”
He pauses. She waits. He likes that she’s interested in his thoughts—even if they are the thoughts of a lower primate.
“’Ere’s always been angst,” he goes on. “Only now ‘ere’s too much te fix. Nuthin’ left te sign up for. Every last thing makes life worth livin’s been knocked off its phreakin’ pedestal te hear them tell it.”
He shakes his head. “Naw…it’s too big. Threw my hands in the frackin’ air a long time ago.”
Her almond eyes narrow. “They’re doing nothing to fix the institutions they despise,” she points out.
“’At’s cuz we’re so far beyond the prospect. Makes a person feel futile.”
“Then why not band together and destroy the institutions. Or at least try? The violence is always self-inflicted.”
“Population control,” he says flatly, knowing his is not a popular opinion. “No other way ‘round it. Someone, somewhere knows—call it the phreakin’ universe in all its intelligence—that there ain’t enough to go ‘round. So they’re killin’ ‘emselves off, one pipe bomb at a time.”
“Come here,” she beckons suddenly.
What can he do but obey? He hitches the circuit detector to his belt and advances tentatively toward the pedestal on which she lounges. When he’s standing over her she reaches out a slender hand, taking his calloused knuckles in hers, as though touch can heal all of this, transform the moment or the universe and make it all fixable again.
A light breeze from nowhere moves soundlessly through the canopy bed, expanding its billows like a breathless breath. The whole estate breathes with it, the labyrinth of interfolded walls so much like a rose.
He knows it’s now or never. Her parents will return in a week, someone will shout ‘action’ and the cameras will awaken from their dreamless slumber. If he’s going to act, it’s gotta be now, under the radar. Out of the public eye, and that of the feds. He can’t be incarcerated for things done in the dark. Unless one of those cameras is infrared, he reasons with himself, this is between her and I.
With that he kisses her full on the lips.
She braces his skull with fragile fingers, pulling him into her. His stubble lacerates flawless porcelain. Ape or not, she wants him. It’s in her touch.
She pulls him on top of her ferally, her jaw slamming his like a sack of flour, reaching down to grope a raging hard-on as her legs fall to the side receptively. She’s already wet, he discovers with a raw-knuckled hand. When he enters her, she gasps. Not the phony schoolgirl expression of feigned surprise meant to convey what every man wants to believe—that his is the biggest member ever permitted entry—but the gasp of remembrance despite oneself. She’s surprisingly tight, all things considered.
They rock the ridiculous platform, him breathing into her, canopy inhaling and exhaling with rhythmic abandon, hearts pounding in synch, sweat mingling. They climax together, then collapse as one, him sill inside her. Juices flow. Dopamine flows.
His head rests on her perfect breast, the one he’s over-idealized in his mind, elevated to elysian heights. He can say it with conviction, if only in his mind, for the first time in his life: the reality was better than the fantasy. For what seems an eternity, neither of them move. He feels it deep inside her ribcage—her heart’s beating in synch with his.
She looks down at him as if from heaven, reaches out to stroke the deep furrows between his heavy brows. As if by doing so she can smooth them away like earthen clay. And with them, his worries, his disappointments, the weight of the world Exterian life has burdened him with.
It’s nearly imperceptible, but he catches it. Her eyes flash for the first time to the circus of cameras, comatose but intently poised. She leans in close, as if to shut them out, brushing his ear with swollen lips. Their softness traces its contour, covertly plucking the rim with forbidden tenderness. And then she whispers, almost inaudibly:
“They’re going to maim me…”
He shutters, tries not to should the cameras actually not be sleeping. Her look is one of mild, forbidden terror.
So that’s what they’ve got planned for the special—a public maiming. That old world ritual that’s made a comeback as fetish, along with ridiculous codpieces and scarification and body mod. Once upon a time genital mutilation was a form of oppression, a forced pillaging of that reservoir of female desire too mysterious and daunting for the world of men. Now it’s nothing more than public shaming. They’ve built her up, lived vicariously through her exploits, salivating all the while. And now they’re tearing down the Madonna pedestal to erect a crucifix in its place. A torture rack of cathartic judgment and obscene hypocrisy.
“They can’t do this to you.” He hopes his outrage does not register in his body language.
Her eyes flash again. “They used to do more than desensitize. It was battery acid they used to disfigure—to make sure their used goods were marked undesirable.” She pauses, wading back in time to a conflicted place. “The sheik was kind to me…”
Ben does not agree, has to physically harness the torment he feels in every extremity. She knows how to play to cameras, but the charade proves too much for his demeanor. Despite his rage, or precisely because of it, his body surrenders. He feels it go limp and tingly, his impertinent tuft of tousled hair settling against her rising and falling bosom.
“We’ll think of something,” he reassures her, the world growing fuzzy and tenuous.
Her face is the last thing he sees, framed by a corona of dim pendant lamps like distant starlight.
An hour later, Ben wakes suddenly. It’s occurred to him all at once. Reality has penetrated some minute fissure in the bubble they’ve created, and his heart pounds like a jackhammer.
“I’ve got to get back.” If he’s not on the last shuttle before it slips into that arched portal at dusk, if he’s left wandering the streets of Empiria, he’ll be incarcerated.
She watches him beneath lazy, euphoric lids as he pulls on his stretch denim overalls, straightening that god-forsaken leather monstrosity of a tool belt. He leans over her, grazing her ear with three-day stubble.
“I’m going to get you out of here,” he mouths.
She blows him a kiss as he heads for the salon, regretfully.
It’s not the first time she’s let him see himself out unattended. But suddenly he feels them peering at him from all angles, every lens gaped on its mounted perch, imagines he can hear their irises zeroing in on him like prey. In the salon, the gargantuan chandelier flickers, casting only shards of the vast, careening hall in shattered light. Abruptly, Ben becomes aware of a detail he’s not noticed before: on the far side of the salon, mirroring the first, a second mural flaunts itself in the semi-dark.
Adam and Eve are depicted thereupon, only here in the hours and days following those of the first. The Tree of Knowledge breaks a distant horizon, diffused as a fleeting memory. A brooding sky thunders forebodingly as the two cower together, draped in pelts, shamefully exiting the Garden of Eden.
They’ve been cast out.
Ben Jamin 35-D threads his way through the sludge-smattered back alleys that separate dilapidated shanties in the Periphery. He’s made it out on the last train just as the sun’s fiery disc sank behind the splendid skyline of Empiria. Exiting the M-station, he gazed up at the colossal, indifferent platform elevating privilege just out of reach. The dome was still catching light. When the last of it waned, he plunged into the honeycomb havoc that not so long ago represented all he ever knew or aspired to.
He heads for home.
A cluster of street urchins huddle about a rusted fifty-gallon drum that spews flames, sends ash scattering like shrapnel to lacerate the night. Squatters dart to and fro inside darkened, misshapen windows of Old World shops. A sex worker hits her pipe, leaning against a corroded rain gutter with die-hard determination despite limited prospects.
“Yo, Ben!” A boisterous voice cuts through the night, bouncing off crumbling facades.
It’s Dr. Dregg, the corpulent middle-aged man who runs the only shop in the neighborhood that peddles Old World relics. He fixes them up, places them in a dirty shop window, then tries to sell passersby on their mysterious function, to convince them they absolutely, categorically, cannot live a single moment more without them. He’s managed to sell Ben on every last book he’s come across in the muck, without any haggling at all.
“Evenin’, Doc,” Ben shouts back.
“Yo, come over here. Got a new find to show ye!” The man’s closing up shop, boorishly pulling threadbare blinds and extinguishing tungsten lights.
Ben keeps on. “Been a long day, Doc. I’ll stop by first thing in the mornin’ on my way to the train. Promise…”
His mind’s on her. It’s reeling mile-a-minute. Grappling. Somehow the prospect of rescuing Kamana K—extricating her from her shackles and all those imploding walls—has become his reason for being. And at the same time, it all seems like a perverse dream. Or a hologram.
He turns down a side alley, kicking sludge. The constant activity yields to a dreadful, poetic silence, broken only by the scurrying of varmints across muck-slathered pavement. The shortcut is nothing new. But its gritty desolation is suddenly unnerving. Ben halts, thick-soled work boots skidding through filth with the suddenness of it.
He’s heard something—footsteps—clattering off decrepit facades. Ye learn to read the signs in the Periphery, he’s heard himself explain. After a moment, he continues on, resolves to feign nonchalance and let his stalker gain. But the footsteps, so faint they masquerade as imaginary, remain peripheral. He makes it to the old wrought iron elevator of his penthouse unmolested.
In the dead of night, a loud crash awakens him. Not from a deep sleep, but from a feverish delirium that only vaguely resembles it. He lights a kerosene lamp, wheels about. Turns out the racket was far below, not in his apartment. Two feral cats are now having it out in a narrow, moon-drenched passage.
As promised, he stops by Doc Dregg’s teeming sty on the way out. He’s hardly slept. The morning’s taken on a surreal patina, like an extension of some disjointed dream. Hazy sunlight refracts in halos from the various artifacts lining a waterlogged windowsill.
“Top o’ the mornin’ to ye, sir!” The stocky, silver-bearded proprietor calls over heaps of enigmatic junk.
“So what is it you come across? That you wanted te show me?” Ben wants to know. He’s anxious to get to the K estate. No plan yet, but he wants her to feel safe. To know one’s in the works.
“’Course it’s a book,” the man chortles. “Like to give ye first dibs on every one crosses my path. Yer the only soul who reads anymore—‘round here leastways.”
A pudgy fist withdraws a yellowed paperback from behind the antique cash register, waves it so its buckled pages flap in the amber morning light.
“The Anarchist’s Cookbook, it’s called. 1971.”
Ben takes it, begins to flip through its contents.
“Everything from phreaking to hacking to explosives,” the man grunts. “Even the dimmest wit could make a—”
“Pipe bomb?” Ben finishes, eyeing the miscellany of corroded steel fittings lying about.
Antiseptic vapor clears in plumes, settling to the ground like volcanic ash. Ben steps forward, wipes any remaining residue from his uniform.
“You may enter the complex, 35-D,” advises one of the two attending guards.
They are not the guards he’s come to know. Ben tells himself they’re on vacation.
He waits nervously in the foyer, fidgeting in a lotus blossom chair, smashing unruly bangs against a sweaty brow in one of the countless mirrored panels. Any moment one of them will slide up and she’ll appear. She’ll step down from her pedestal and glide across the marble floor, falling into his burly arms. She’ll brush his sunburned ear with supple, coursing lips. She’ll—
It’s not her.
When the mirrored panel purrs open the figure descending from the pedestal is clad in military black, steel-toed leather boots completing an austere tailored uniform decorated with chevrons and insignias. The man’s high forehead culminates in a sharp silver widow’s peak, arched brows shading dark, recessed sockets. Sunken jowls form a terse smile as he strides across the foyer, extending a hand.
“Welcome, 35-D,” he greets, voice thin and raspy.
Ben shakes the man’s lean, vascular hand mistrustfully. His heart beats like a jackhammer; he’s got the book, right there in the front pocket of his tool belt. Not once has he encountered a Fed en route from the M-train to the estate, and surely not on the premises themselves. But suddenly the footsteps he heard last night and even this morning, the feeling of constant surveillance, are beginning to make sense.
“General Jakobah,” the man identifies himself. And then, after a tense millisecond, “Mr. and Mrs. K send their regards and would like to thank you for the thorough, conscientious work you’ve done on the estate.”
Ben waits. He eyes the man warily.
“They’ve sent for their daughter to join them in Sector 6. They’ve found a suitor.”
Ben knows it’s not true. His gut tells him so immediately. He’s seen the advertisements that sprang up overnight, spangling buildings and the sides of hovercraft—the shameless plugs to tune in for next week’s spectacle. It can’t be both.
“Why are you here?” Ben manages through a clenched jaw.
“Please,” the man entreats him, kindness nearly authentic. “Come.”
With that he takes Ben by the shoulder, guiding him toward the salon. The chandelier is aflame now, burning so brightly Ben nearly has to shield his eyes from its glare.
“What do you drink?” the man is asking, positioning himself behind the bar.
“Old world martini,” Ben obliges.
When the two are seated on cushy velvet settees, the man leans forward, drink in hand. “I regret to tell you that Kamana K is not who you think.”
“I know.” Ben folds his arms.
“I don’t think you do,” the man says gently, proceeding with caution. “I know you think fondly of her, but her intentions may not lie where you think. Her loyalties. She’s implanted you with a biochip.”
Ben knows he’s being fed lies, that none of it is true. “Why would she want to surveil me?”
“Not surveillance. It’s a chip you’ve always had. It just needed replenishing.”
Involuntarily, Ben’s hand moves to the base of his skull, where a dull throbbing has been pestering him all morning. He recalls the dreamlike slumber he fell into the day before, lying there among the crumpled ambrosia of her sheets. The man’s words have the ring of truth. But if it’s true she did it, they put her up to it.
“Tell me something, K-13: How many times have you been swabbed on entering the K Estate?”
“Dunno,” he confesses. “A dozen?”
“And how many retinal scans?”
Ben’s spirit of cooperation yields to resistance. “The same.” He replies flatly.
“We were making sure we had our man,” General Jakobah explains, lips curling into a sly smile. “And it turns out we do.”
Ben reads the insignia on the general’s chevron, emblazoned beneath an embroidered pair of eagle wings that is both austere and sublime. Empirian Federal Government, it reads, gold threads shimmering in the chandelier’s glow.
“She works for you? For the federal government? You ‘spect me te buy that?”
The man inhales, drawing on his patience. “She works for The Reality Network. Mediacorp owns The Reality Network.” The man tips his head, taking a long, indulgent sip of his martini. “And we own the Reality Network.”
Of course, Bean realizes—control by diversion, oppression by preoccupation. Consumerism, greed, celebrity—it’s all the same brand. Ben sighs. The ring of truth is beginning to mute his brain’s objections, to bring things into sharp focus. Jakobah reaches out a hand and clutches Ben’s shoulder consolingly.
“Let me start at the beginning,” the man proposes. “Now, I know you’re well-read, so some of this will ring true from your education about the Old World. But what I’m going to tell you is not common knowledge. To anyone in The State. In Empiria proper or the Periphery or even Exteria. It must remain confidential.”
“I understand,” Ben nods, unsure what he’s committing to. His world is reeling and nothing is real anymore, least of all the network. The man before him could be a hologram for all he knows. An avatar. This could all be some sort of computer-generated matrix. He could be an avatar, for God’s sake. Just a lowly pawn—a creation of the mind of the media gods.
The man begins a pedantic discourse:
“As you know, after the war the State had to do everything in its power to ensure the survival of its citizens. So much of our world was uninhabitable, our very propagation was at stake. Our scientists were already on the cutting edge of many things that would aid in our survival, including biodome technology, epigenetics, space travel, genetic engineering. The upper class had been custom-ordering the DNA of their children for generations—from blue eyes to strong teeth and good health. But with the creation of the biodomes and Empiria, it was time for the government to step in and regulate. While those in the Beyond perished due to the fallout, those in Empiria thrived, and those in the Periphery—well—supported life in Empiria. None of this should be a surprise to you.”
Ben shakes his head in a daze.
“What you surely don’t know is this: The Empirian gene pool, though impeccable, would not endure. The price for conquering disease was grave. The random variations needed for adaptability evolved out in the first few generations. And though conditions in the biodome are controlled, adaptability is still necessary for survival. Our scientists thought ahead about a solution. They looked to all the randomness in the squalor of Exteria. The Periphery, to be precise.”
Ben has no idea where the general is headed. The confusion shows on his face.
“Do you ever wonder, 35-D, why you are the only one among your peers who reads? Why they’re killing themselves off around you? They’ve devolved. While our master race was headed for Eutopia, your people regressed. Our evolutionary theorists have determined that the need for civility was no longer an asset, so limited were resources and so overpopulated was the small chunk of inhabitable land. Things like morals, ethics, and principles became silly and obsolete. All those invisibles, the socialization we Empirians continue to enjoy, were products of an over-developed cerebrum, and of no use outside these walls.”
No wonder we’re killing ourselves, Ben thinks. We really are apes.
“Again, I ask you,” the man posits, leaning further forward than before in insistence. Ben notices his eyes are clear and blue, like ether. “Why do you suppose you’re different?”
“Never did consider myself differ’nt,” Ben shruggs. “Jes love to read is all.”
“You’re just being humble,” Jakobah smiled. “The truth is you know right from wrong. You feel a responsibility for your fellow man. Your altruism is not just a trait that contributes to propagation but something you value. You are civil. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“S’pose,” Ben mumbles, the Anarchists’ Cookbook nearly burning a hole in his pocket. He used to be all those things, but he now knows how the world gets to you, how at some point you throw in the towel and join the conflicted masses.
“Around the time your birth,” Jakobah explains, “Our scientists conducted an experiment. It was our only hope. We couldn’t just mate Empirians with inferior stock, so inclined to war and strife. If we could reintroduce those invisibles, implant socialization through AI, epigenetics would ensure they took root over time, that civility would be passed on. In this way, even from Exteria, viable genetic stock could be gleaned. Viable candidates.”
“For procreation?” Suddenly what he’s hearing sounds incredulous.
“For propagation. To reintroduce into Empirian bloodlines.”
There’s a long, excruciating pause. The chandelier flickers and the base of Ben’s skull throbs and suddenly he knows.
“I was one of them.”
Jakobah smiles with compassion. “The experiment was involuntary. Even your mother did not know. The poverty in the Periphery allowed us to do it all under the radar, to implant the chip at birth. Five hundred infants. Over five years.”
“And what—now you’re rounding us up? Harvesting us? What was it she implanted?”
“Sadly, the chip our scientists used in the experiment failed over time. It was manufactured by the leading firm in biomimicry, to work with the body’s systems and self-regulate. Which means it’s also vulnerable to free radicals. The bombardment of free radicals in Exteria altered structures in the chips—drained them. Like a cancer, if you will.”
“So she implanted a new chip?”
Again, the man’s compassion kicks in. He has no desire to tear down too many curtains in one day. So he says it as gently as possible: “When the two of you were—intimate, the nano-opiates were administered. It was no task at all to replace the chip once you were out.”
Ben feels duped, shit-sure. Not just by her—by the world. The State and its government and the media and all he’s refused to believe but known on some level and kept at bay. By the haunting possibility that she does love him but acted on orders all the same. That she was more loyal to her owners than her own heart. The sudden crumbling of walls is as disillusioning as the slow, painful invasion of free radicals that burn out synapses, the bomb blasts that terrorize, the harsh realizations that fracture arrogance and erode innocence.
“Tell me the truth. Where is she?” The man has shown kindness; Ben banks on his compassion—as if he could begin to suppress the desperation in his eyes had he wanted to.
“Mr. and Mr.s K’s parental instincts may have kicked in in the final act,” the man explains. “They are in fact in the Levant, planning a wedding. But Kamana K has other contractual obligations and sadly will not be able to attend. Let me put this as simply as possible,” the man concludes flatly, “The Reality Network has reclaimed its property.”
Defiance subsists in Ben’s eyes, and Jakobah quickly shifts trajectory. “The good news is, your new chip is much better than the last; the technology has come a long way. It should take no time at all to foster the Methyl groups that will encode the new traits on your DNA.”
“Great. Then I can breed?”
“If you wish.” The man is serious. “Of course any procreation must be registered with the State. After a period of observation and an official confirmation, you will be furnished an Empirian citizenship. You may live among the elite. Doesn’t that sound a far cry from what you’re living now?”
Suddenly the sterility of the biodome seems like a prison, its artifice and its obscene fixations birthed from sheer boredom. The squalor of Exteria brims with the stuff of life—the textures and the sounds and even the smells that are the aching beauty in the survival.
“I’d have to think about it.”
“Of course,” the man nods. “You are free to come and go as you please. But we will need an answer within a week.”
Ben nods. He’s fidgeting now, wants out of the room.
“But you will be under constant surveillance,” the man warns. “Remember, what I’ve told you is confidential. You’re life depends on it. In a week we’ll know if the Methyl groups have formed—whether the encoding has succeeded or failed.”
“Whether I’m still just an ape?”
Jakobah’s smile is a concession. “If encoding fails,” he explains, “We’d still like to make you an offer. We’ll extend the full package—full Empirian citizenship—in exchange for your continued participation in the study.”
“My allegiance,” Ben suggests.
“We’ll continue peptide therapy and monitor levels. Genetic desirability for the inbreeding program is fluid, not cut-and-dried. Methyl groups govern the expression or repression of genes on the DNA strand. But all that matters is their arrangement at the moment of conception.”
Suddenly it occurs to Ben. “If I’m one of five hundred lab rats, where are the others?” He’s thinking of those kindred spirits he’s run into regularly, rifling through or ransacking the mildewed remains of Old World literature in those abandoned bookstores.
“Most were rounded up in 2108. Introduced to polite society in our first endeavor to conclude what we’d begun twenty-four years ago. Let’s just say things didn’t…end well.”
Ben’s face grows pale.
“Like I said,” the man reassures him, “Biomimetics has come a long way…”
The Empirian shuttle penetrates the wall like a silver bullet, exits the arched portal seconds later to a blood-red sky. A bomb blast has shaken the periphery mere moments before; flack rains down in ashen hues.
Oh, to be exempt from the madness. Shit-sure, their pipe bombs have begun to permeate the inner sanctum, but the elite population to which he’s fast bound to belong remains largely protected from the violence. The general’s offer is sounding better all the time.
Alone in his loft, Ben drifts in and out of sleep to the riotous white noise that wafts from crooked streets below. It’s a mingling of shouted threats and machinery and the laughter of mischievous children. It’s the fragile beauty of subsistence.
He’d miss it, he decides. Being another shut-in of that sterile bubble up there, the richness and poetry of life would be reduced to a distant hum, anesthetized by the State. Their obscenely opulent preoccupations, the deliciously decadent obsessions he now recognizes as diversion have been flawlessly designed by the State. But more so, in a perverse way, they’re a surrogate for all that’s missing.
If his chip could be restored—his morals elevated once more—hope might come with it. He recalls Kamana’s words not so long ago. About whether the world changes or just the eyes through which we view it. Part of him knows he’d give his left arm, lose it to a pipe bomb packed with nails, for a chance at the rose-colored goggles of his youth. Even if they’ve become blinders.
All at once it occurs to him: there were no footsteps today, glancing off the facades. No prying eyes hidden behind dark glasses on the M-Train. Maybe they’re surveilling him from inside, broadcasting his every thought, impulse and mental fantasy to the State. The thought paralyzes him. His body goes limp; he’s sure it’s full of nano-opiates. But his mind shows no sign of slowing. Linear thought reels uncontrollably, intertwining with shapeless reverie. They’re mining it, he’s sure. Looking for subversion.
He can’t help it; he’s picturing her. Not bound in chains but stark naked on that pedestal, perfect alabaster breasts catching the light.
“They’re going to maim me,” the hologram in his mind repeats.
Suddenly she’s the only thing that is real in all the artifice—the duplicity and duality and the virtual reality that’s the furthest thing from it. He knows she loves him like he does her, that their coming together was mutual desire. The want of something real. That despite her imprisonment, despite the media shackles, her own will survives.
Her whisper was a plea.
Maybe I am an ape, he chastises himself. Am I so weak-minded? A moment ago he was signing their contract in his mind, fancying a life far above the strife in the superior simulation of Empiria. And now, seconds later, he wants nothing more than to blow it up with a pipe bomb. A thousand pipe bombs, and run away with her into Exteria where the Beyond is toxic and uninhabitable, they say.
He’ll pay a visit to Dr. Dregg. He’s got everything they’ll need right there in the perfect filth of his pigpen. He’ll bring The Anarchist’s Cookbook and they’ll make a dozen of them—maybe a thousand. He’ll scour the streets and the abandoned bookstores and round up the others—all those curious individuals more interested in reading about the Old World than blasting themselves to smithereens.
It’s the only solution. The only tourniquet for the hemorrhaging of his heart. She was a momentary gift, but one that lived in the ideal world of aspiration long before materializing in his reality. And now she’s being torn away like a limb or some other extremity with which he’s not ready to part. The feel of it is excruciating.
He knows he won’t see her until the spectacle on Sunday. At the arena. Whether she’s one in a harem in Sector 6 or bound by chains at Mediacorp doesn’t matter. Even if he finds their covert headquarters, cloistered somewhere in all the obscene luxury, he’ll never make it past the front gates. It will have to be public.
They like it that way.
The ads have propagated exponentially. Every last skyscraper and bullet train sports her likeness. In it her eyes betray nothing though they know what’s coming. The abject, titillating boner-inducing fear has been displaced by sweet surrender.
He’s standing outside the arena, hands trembling; a light sweat frosts his upper lip. Anxiously, he pushes greasy bangs from a furrowed brow. The crowds inside are boisterous, their collective chants palpably contagious, like blood rushing into a groin. He imagines that their bloodthirsty cries glance off the biodome confounded in atmosphere high above. Drones are diving, saddled with gloating cameras; he can see them through the colossal Roman arches of the stadium. Others careen about on zigzagging cables. She’s there on the platform, more a crucifix than a pedestal but still high above the astroturf.
As he fingers the exposed threads of cold metal plumbing, his heart pounds like a jackhammer. He knows the others are positioned about the circumference, like battered, seedy shanties in the Periphery. They’ve crawled up through the bowels of the great plateau, through the subterranean sewage canals and climate-control vaults—the vast cardio-pulmonary system they were destined to service.
As he awaits the perfect moment, he ponders the conspicuous lack of surveillance that has characterized the last few days. Maybe the State wants a big splooge-spattered finish. A showdown. In the end, oppression is all about ratings. And fear sells. It’s as worthy a diversion as consumerism or sexual obsession. As sweat collects on his nervous lip he wonders at the irony of it: how the good guys become the terrorists in this world. In the skewed reality that is The State.
The click of heels.
The gentle, pedantic, hushing of childhood.
Bounces cold off marble, under velvet ropes, cruelly taunting now. Eviscerating with nostalgia.
He does it to himself. Skirts the past like a dark, still lake, perched precariously but never plunging past fleeting reflections that dance. Weekly, he plants himself there—right there—on the brink.
Dudley’s aura simmers when the guard passes, tinged fur-standing crimson, then settles back to good-humored cocoa brown. Pascal pulls the lead taut. It’s not Edwyn who’s passed—the usual Saturday morning attendant. The gait is more deliberate, less rhythmic, navy blue authority of the aura less tempered by magenta levity. It’s all clanking keys and patent leather and billy club jostling.
Overkill, is Pascal’s assessment.
What, is some stealthy art thief going to make off with ‘Chaque Jour Est Samedi’ in broad daylight? Whip out an X-Acto blade and peel the un-stretched canvass off its curved wall inch-by-inch before rolling it up like a Persian rug and hustling it out of the circular gazebo enshrining it? Though it’s been years since Pascal has seen the masterpiece with his own eyes, he knows it stretches floor-to-ceiling, the centerpiece—indeed the only piece—in the room. And though it post-dates Seurat’s quintessential chef-d’oeuvre by a good five years, Pascal also knows its title is a direct reference to that hustling, bustling day in the park George so masterfully captured, splitting complements and abstracting dapples of warm morning light. Every Day Is Saturday, the English translation reads, gilded plaque long since swallowed by darkness. As if to imply that the visual splendor of the park, its sights and sounds, are a state of mind. That they’re all around us, all the time, if we would only tune in.
In some ways Pascal Picot treasures the darkness. Before it consumed all, when it but waited in the wings like a stark sepia vignette, he was hyper aware of the gazebo’s Berber carpeting, chewing gum smashed thereupon, the feeble insufficiency of the nondescript wall sconces flanking the tableau. During the depression but before the war, the museum renovated, replacing mildewed carpet with faux marble, installing natural skylights, building an extra bridge across the lotus pond for broader access. Weekdays, field trips and guided tours make the gazebo a slightly less lonely spot on the map. But today, it’s families—mostly families—hustling past en route to Modernism. Or more interested in the cotton candy, magicians and acrobats who should be relegated to Central Park but are granted the run of the gardens.
The renovation years before gave the man hope. Not that the public’s tastes had elevated—humanity was surely going to hell in a Modernist hand basket—but that the economy was improving with war. That despite its ravages people still knew what was important.
Today, none of it matters. He’s long since thrown his hands in the air, content to let Rome burn around him, sitting on that stone bench in oblivious dark before a masterpiece he cannot see, imagining all is as it used to be.
Darkness for him is a blank canvass.
Suddenly, he and the guard have company.
An amber aura bleeds into the bungalow, like pigment on turpentine or sunlight across a rippling pond. As auras go, it’s youthful. Unfettered.
Pascal picks up on all this, long before the thick-soled boots pivot, before the buttons of a floor-length pea coat clatter next to him. Pascal wedges his highly polished walking stick against an emaciated thigh, making room.
“Hope I’m not crowding you here,” comes the spry voice.
“Not at all,” Pascal returns, his own voice raspy as pumice by comparison.
“This is my favorite piece in the collection,” the young man offers. “Visit every week. Amazing we haven’t crossed paths.”
“Hmmmph…” The old man ponders in accordance. The guard keeps to himself, continues pacing, jangling, projecting navy blue authority into an amorphous void. If it were Edwyn on duty, he could explain the mystery—how it is the two have remained ships passing in the night. But this changing of the guard has rendered the moment an isolated one—a dreamlike bridging of past and present, of fleeting youth and more fleeting experience.
“I just love where it takes me. It really transports,” the boy marvels, wide eyes navigating the canvass as if to circumvent daubs of impasto cerulean like icebergs.
“You don’t say.” Pascal raises his gravely pitch along with thinning but errant brows. And then: “You’re an art student then.”
A brief silence yields the sounds of the garden, indifferent.
“Museum studies,” the boy confesses, wondering what gave him away. “NYU.”
“Ahhh,” Pascal smiles, feigning enthusiasm, profiting from the restored confidence of his recent investment: dental implants. It’s the academic-speak that rankles him, the heady dropping of elitist, highbrow code words, often the furthest thing from an artist’s intentions. It’s all speculation, Pascal Picot decided years before. But he has yet to decide whether it’s Art History majors or Museum Studies who take the prize for intellectual masturbation.
“I’ve always loved this piece,” the boy goes on, as if reading the man’s thoughts, his judgments. “Long before art school. As a child, I used to stare at it for what seemed hours on end. I’d lose all track of time…”
Somehow, in an instant, the boy’s opinions are no longer white noise. The old man’s ears prick.
“I remember wandering away from the others and just gazing at it—into it—feeling the colors had leapt from the canvas, were swirling around me. Enveloping me.
Pascal smiles. He won’t let on, he decides. At least not yet. That he’s the artist. The one who, long before time robbed him of the proclivity to do so, replicated the dapples of light, the hollow reeds and gondolas, the parasols and the fiery wells of molten sunlight they ensnared, the crisscrossing reflections on choppy water. He won’t tell the boy how he sat in Bois de Bologne years previous, not Gardin de Luxembourg as many mistakenly presumed, replicating sensory details with precision, drawing on every faculty of observation. Whomever it transported in the end, his process was once of empirical observation.
“My mother used to bring me here,” the younger man explains. “After she’d gotten my older brothers and sisters off to school, before I’d started school myself, she’d bring me here, to Central Park. I now know it was her time to unwind; that I just happened to be there. And I was low maintenance—I required nothing of her. Together we’d lie in the grass and stare up into the maze of branches and leaves, the patches of blue eternity in between. Our fingertips would lightly graze as we lay there, surrounded by fallen leaves. I just knew that was true connection. It was the first I’d known in the world. Later I’d learn I imagined it all, that the connection I felt was much stronger than what she felt. She’d lived in the world for a time, experienced romantic love, the love of four other children. Me? It was the only connection I’d known since arriving from—”
He stops suddenly, allowing the riotous sound of unruly children to punctuate the silence. And then:
“And now she’s gone.”
The breeze carries the stern voices of mothers wrangling children; what he wouldn’t do for a bit of sternness. For a reprimand or two. “This painting,” he summarizes, however abstractly, “Was the first evidence I was not alone in the world. That someone, somewhere, saw the world as I did.”
The old man smiles. This is not artspeak. He feels a twang deep in his heart—neither pleasurable nor agonizing—just a jolt that reminds him it’s still there.
“Isaac,” the kid offers, extending a hand.
Pascal finds it in the eternal dark, tries to steady his own knobby fingers in its firm grip. The hold is steadfast, palm warm and supple with youth, but not so silky as to suggest privilege. The fingertips are abrasive; the kid has in fact lifted a finger in his life, unlike so many of late. He’s indulged a trade. For now the old man will have to imagine the perfectly square fingernails, not manicured but immaculate with self-respect, white crescent moons pronouncing themselves from a swarthy, Semitic complexion.
“And how is it that you saw the world?” Pascal pursues, genuinely interested.
Isaac’s head bows involuntarily; Pascal feels the flush of crimson.
“I was a weird kid,” Isaac confesses. “As we lay there in the grass staring into the clear blue, I wasn’t as interested in the more obvious clouds in which other kids saw koalas or bunnies or even dragons. I was more interested in the molecules that dropped from space, gliding incessantly through the blue nothingness to settle in the grass.”
“I can’t explain it, but this painting—the world it represents—was beyond familiar. I knew that whoever painted it was made of the same stuff I was.”
“Surely you know Pascal Picot was not well respected in the art world. In his day, anyway.”
“I disagree” the youth objects, suddenly riled. Strangely invested in his childhood muse.
Pascal goes on. “Never once invited to exhibit with his peers. Not at Rue le Peletier in 1876. Not on Avenue de L’Opera in ’79 nor Rue des Pyramids in 1880.”
“Who cares?” Isaac’s tone is infused with passion, like pigment-charged linseed oil. “He was before his time.”
Pascal scoffs, shakes his head stubbornly. “The critics said the opposite. That he was a relic. Stilted, they said. Irrelevant.”
“Maybe at the time,” Isaac enthuses defensively, “But Art History has treated him kindly. The man is credited with lighting a fire under modernism. More than any of those impressionist hacks. They just copied one another, replicating what the galleries expected, what sold: the crunching of darks or exposing of lights, putting all the information in only one world or the other, splitting complements but not so far as to optically gray. The public had no category for gray area. They insisted, however, on the obligatory bustle wearing, parasol-wielding mademoiselle and 2.5 jubilant children. Picot bought into none of that. He painted the world as he saw it. And his vision was unique!”
Though it means something to the old man that the books recognize him, something irks. Suddenly his own foggy voice, not what it once was, brims with defiance.
“Picot’s voice was literal. Devoid of interpretation. That’s what bothered the critics. It too accurately reflected the empirical evidence. Those others hid behind their silly distortions; Picot was able to capture reality and document it!”
The old man’s tone grows so cantankerous that Dudley’s fur stands on end. The lead grows taught. Keys jangle mere yards away. A youthful amber aura shifts to a confusion of yellow.
The old man collects himself, feels the need to explain. “The very reason Picot’s works were not accepted by impressionists was their immediacy. Rather than creating an impression—overexposing or underexposing, his work captured too much.”
“Perhaps he saw too much,” Isaac suggests.
“In the end, it’s too literal.”
The younger man, driven by the nature of youth, plays the devil’s advocate. “What makes you so sure his perception coincides with universal truth? The objective truth?”
The old man is stumped. He’s never thought of it that way. Doesn’t everyone think his perception is the true reality?
“That’s exactly what spoke to me,” the young man explains, his voice suddenly full of poetry. “The nuance. The suspending of a moment. The acknowledgement of all those levels that exist in every instant. He illuminated all that we tune out in life without even realizing it. He proved that the narrow margin of perception we all agree constitutes reality is just the tip of an iceberg.”
His eyes explore the painting, the impasto daubs of cerulean, so much like fleeting glaciers.
“No,” Picot laments. He’s no longer defiant, but resigned. “I even failed at that. I spent my life going inward rather than outward. It was safer that way. I thought if I could replicate what I saw and share it, it would bring me something. Now I know it was just avoidance of the real world. I was biding time. All I really wanted was to connect.”
The ensuing gap is a bridge, itself an isolated moment in time and space, a changing of the guard. Both men know the children are a haunting of past, the harsh, pedantic voices of mothers a reminder of the present reality, the rules which must be abided. All that matters is what we can see, touch, feel. How else could we build bridges—even that shaky bridge over the lotus pond that got us here. Suddenly the tiny shrine with its sole masterpiece is floating in space, among a spangling of koi fish and lotus blossoms and drifting, isolated lily pads. Koi live forever, Isaac’s read somewhere. Unless killed off by something.
“You’re him.” Isaac marvels. “You’re Pascal Picot!” The old man can’t see it, but his dark, heavy-lidded eyes are wide with astonishment.
The young man’s sense of elation at meeting his childhood hero, his muse, is lessened only by the profound sadness he feels. What it must be like to feel one has wasted his life. That his work amounted to nothing in the end.
Isaac reaches out a hand, takes the knotted, nearly crippled hand in his own capable one.
“The Indians believe the dream world is the real one, and this is all an illusions.” Isaac says for some reason. “For me, as a child, this painting represented a world I knew existed but that no one else could see. This painting told me I was not alone. That I had a kindred spirit in the world.”
The old man’s heart lifts, just a bit. He’s known for a long time that painting was a just a diversion. That his own inability to connect without the surrogate felt like a prison. It occurs to Pascal Picot he’s unknowingly connected with another through those iron bars, through his vision. More importantly he now knows his vision is not the universal truth, but the furthest thing from it. It’s full of distortions. The world he thought he was so faithfully replicating was in fact being seen through some lens—one he did not even know he wore.
Most alarming of all, Pascal Picot realizes his eyes were going long before he admitted it to himself. Those loose, expressive brush strokes that leapt off the form—sure, they spoke of refracting light, like tiny halos. The keen splitting of colors on the fly rang true somehow, if only as some mental prism not everyone had. But the truth is, the abstractions evolved inversely with the deterioration of his rods and cones, the failure of empirical evidence.
And it hadn’t ended there. Like a crab in boiling water, blissfully unaware of the shift, he took greater and greater refuge in the realm his faculties could not avail—that of auras and essences and vibrations, of feelings and visceral instinct. Chaque Jour Est Samedi meant we knew all we needed to know. We had all the goods within. Occasionally, we cross some creaky bridge across a lotus pond to a shrine of sorts. We meet in the middle between realms.
“May I?” The old man raises trembling fingertips.
“Of course,” Isaac obliges.
The boy’s features are that of a landscape, epic and quaintly intimate at the same time. Familiar and exotic. Arched brows careen against deep, sullen sockets where lies the pain and aching sorrow rivaled by only a furrowed brow. The furrow, that tiny furrow—It’s suddenly the world. It’s the impossibly beautiful possibility that innocence may not prevail. Pascal’s fingers move on. Volatile undulations dance, flinging quaking fingertips into space like a buoy on stormy tide. There is a knowing in touch, unlike any disembodied voice or the insufficiency of words. To Pascal, touch has always been evidence he’s alive. The tactility of a five o’clock shadow is suddenly sweetly abrasive, proof of his existence.
For one silent moment, Pascal wishes for the gift of sight. He’s long since mourned it. He’s spent his life documenting people from afar—studying, observing, recording his findings. But now, in the final act, he’d trade it all for one single moment of beauty. He’d gladly expire on that bench in that shrine on that lotus pond in a garden lost to time for a chance to see the soul of another. His wish is granted. Colors swirl off the nearby canvass, ensnaring the two, transporting youth and age far from Central Park to some plane that exists beyond screaming children and acrobats and cotton candy.
The world emerges from darkness. A single, crisp beam of immaculate white light pierces the solitude, and the boy is there.
His perfect teeth gleam stainless white against poreless skin as yet untaxed by gravity. A flawless complexion has not even begun to erode with the elements. The smile is utter grace—that rare sharing of youth that has nothing to do with flaunting. Oh, he could see the eyes as his own, if he chose to. But somehow the old man knows, beyond the ability to know, that the outside world is real. It’s not just some projection. That he’s crossed that bridge and met in the middle and found the objective in the subjective.
And then, in an instant it’s gone. Familiar dark reclaims all.
“Thank you,” Pascal says to the boy, or the universe.
Dudley’s cocoa brown aura has deepened to chocolate. He’s snoozing. The authoritative blue aura of the guard has taken on magenta warmth, more like Edwyn’s. The voices of children have returned, harmonious now, less a taunt than a nostalgic reminder of what can never be reclaimed. Slowly, it dawns on the old man he has not, in fact, expired. He’s aware of his heart, but it’s beating more steadily than it has in a long time.
“You’re French,” the boy says suddenly, stating the obvious. “Have you ever read Le Petit Prince?”
“Bien sur,” the old man obliges.
“So you remember the chapter about ‘apprivoiser?’”
“More or less,” Pascal claims, not sure where the kid is going with the reference.
Isaac reminds him how the Little Prince, only once he’s left his home planet, discovers how the flower he loved, and thought unique in the world, turns out to be one of thousands throughout the universe. Later in the book, he learns how to make something ‘unique au monde’ once again—unique in the world: taming.
Pascal nods. “Doesn’t mean much here. In this language. In this culture. But in the French culture, ‘apprivoiser’ is important. Taming is essential.” He smiles, suddenly glad he splurged on the dentures.
Isaac reminds the man how the Little Prince and the fox learned to trust one another by meeting regularly, at the same time, without fail, over the course of days.
“I’m sorry you lost your mother,” Pascal offers.
“Thank you.” Isaac returns. The gesture means the world to him.
The two sit in silence for a long while, perfectly content. The jangling of keys becomes familiar, the rhythmic clacking of patent leather on tile.
When it’s his usual time to go, Pascal stands. He pulls the lead taut and Dudley rises on his haunches, stretches in the golden afternoon light from outside.
“See you next week, then?” Pascal asks nonchalantly.
“Bien sur,” Isaac returns. “Same time?”
The old man has long gone when Isaac Buttons his pea coat, preparing to leave. An involuntary smile spreads across his face as he approaches the tiny plaque he’s read so many times before. Chaque Jour Est Samedi 1877. For the first time, he understands the title’s meaning.
As he crosses the lotus bridge into Central Park, his cell phone rings in the pocket of a floor-length pea coat.
KAITLIN and TITUS
A harsh winter had ravaged the landscape, leaving little more than tracts of hard-packed ice impaled by bare stumps, set stark and wretched against a brooding sky. The bleakness was alarming but strangely familiar, echoing her heart’s melancholy with sublime poetry. Adolescence had come without warning, isolating Kaitlin Spencer as much or more than the relentlessly churning storms, making her a stranger to her own impulses. Worse, she’d been holed up for weeks in a tiny, dilapidated cottage just inside the palace walls with her parents, also strangers. She’d spoken to them only when inevitable.
This was her first outing since the sun had peeked sheepishly between walls of gray, illuminating a single patch of snow. Thankfully, the girl’s nurse had encouraged the excursion, even vouching for her whereabouts. She’d been surveying the surrounding terrain on horseback for mere moments when Puck lost his footing on the slickness, throwing her and bolting into the shadowy gullet of the bare-limbed forest that reared up behind the palace. She rose, dusted herself with stiff, frozen fingers, and ignoring the throbbing in the hip on which she’d landed, started after her impertinent steed.
“Puck!” She cried into the hollowness. The mysterious dark swallowed her velvety tones instantly, just as tangles of wretched limbs strangled all light at a certain distance. She could hear the clopping of hooves on randomly strewn rocks not far ahead; he hadn’t gone far. It wasn’t like him to be spooked, and even less so, disobedient. Soon he’d return and eat carrots from her outstretched palm.
“Puck!” She called again, to combat the dread that seemed to hang over the place more and more the deeper she penetrated. The cloud cover filtered the sun like a blanket, but the crisscrossing limbs rendered light even more muddled and confusing here in the forest, making it impossible to tell the time of day. She’d left the palace grounds only moments before, but suddenly felt hours could have passed, or days, or weeks.
She called a third time, but the sound of her own voice was scarcely recognizable, edged as it was with panic. She pursued the resounding clatter of hooves, her own overtones mingling with the gentle cacophony. But suddenly there was a third sound, weaving its rich, melodious baritone between the more percussive, staccato lines like a shimmering thread. It was sweetly seductive and captivating all at once, transforming the barren glen into a magical tapestry.
Kaitlin found herself entangled in its weave, tugged along weightlessly by the shimmering thread of a voice, helpless to resist even if she’d wanted to. Puck became an afterthought or a distant memory, so hypnotic was the effect. And there, emerging from darkness and centered in the tapestry like a perfectly embroidered tableau, stood the source of the unearthly melody. Framed by an ashlar bridge that spanned a shimmering rivulet, bathed in dapples of golden light—the few that dared penetrate the sheath of darkness—stood the most beautiful youth Kaitlin had ever laid eyes on. Dark, wavy locks hung over staunch, surly brows. But the eyes they framed were wide and angelic, emanating ice blue to rival the clumps of snow all about. The boy’s jaw formed a continuous, uninterrupted line, denoting strength and stalwartness, as did the muscular neck and well, every part of him. Full lips enunciated the wordless melody that hung on the air.
The first peculiar thing Kaitlin noticed about the youth was his attire; his tunic was tattered and soiled, a far cry from what she was accustomed to among the courtiers of the palace. The coarse fabric was cinched at the waist, and sheer leggings defined muscular thighs that remained casually crossed as the boy leaned against the ashlar bridge. His sinewy forearms were outstretched, offering her the reigns that had slipped out of her own grasp moments before. He’d enchanted Puck too; the horse did not so much as stammer or pace—only waited patiently for command.
“Thank you,” Kaitlin managed, tipping her head.
“M’Lady,” the youth replied, putting an end to the enticing lullaby.
Kaitlin advanced with reticence; she knew better than to put herself in danger so far from the company of others. But something about the boy’s angelic voice made her trust him. Or to not wish to trust him. Or to mistrust herself, or some combination thereof.
She felt her hand leaving her side. As it reached for the reigns, the boy’s outstretched hand closed around hers, and her eyes locked with his. In seconds, their lips had come together and she found herself in a state of complete surrender, sliding to the earth in wonderment at her own abandon, and at the same time, never having wanted a thing more. And then he was inside of her on the slippery earth, the two of them gasping in unison and her staring into the confusion of crisscrossing branches, flushing and heaving and welcoming the light sweat that came in defiance of winter. She’d been told by schoolmates the first time was always a disappointment; how wrong they had been. Or how unlucky.
After the final gasp, the two lovers, strangers to one another, made introductions.
“I’m Titus,” the youth offered, reclining against the base of the ashlar bridge, fairly spent.
Sheets of ice had begun to melt there where mitered granite met the soil, yielding a margin of verdant moss. It’s there Kaitlin wedged herself, collapsing into his sturdy frame.
“I’m Kaitlin,” she reciprocated.
She would not tell him she was Kaitlin Spencer, of the noble Westshire Spencers. Nor that she lived inside the castle walls, the only child of the royal seamstress and her silversmith husband. Least relevant of all at the moment—hence, no need to share—was the fact she was in line to court King Zardus himself one day. She was not descended from nobility, nor was she a member of the royal court. But her parents had been bestowed titles for one simple reason: it was well agreed-upon that she was the fairest maiden in all the land. She was soon to be put on market; her coming of age ceremony would take place in mere months.
In the mean time, she was being preened.
Withholding her social status did not feel like deception to the girl; the station that awaited her was hardly who she was anyway. And the roll in the—snow, as it were—that she’d just shared with the boy was the most honest act she’d engaged in in God knew how long.
Still, to deflect attention, she asked: “Do you live here, in these woods?”
“Yes, M’Lady,” was all the boy offered.
“I’ve heard tell of villages deep in these woods, but never had occasion to meet an inhabitant. Only at the Spring Festival, of course…”
Once a year, folk from every corner of the kingdom gathered to celebrate the arrival of spring and to sell their wares. As a child, she’d been fascinated by forestfolk—by the dark, unruly appearance and demeanor of those who dwelt beneath leaf and limb. When she shared as much, the boy scowled.
“You seem altogether—different,” she observed. The vendors and merchants who’d captured her imagination at the festival were less—idealized, to put it kindly. More gnarled and torqued and knobby, beset with peculiarities like not enough fingers or too many. Some sprouted fernlike limbs or fungus-like antlers, which made them ideal novelty acts during festival season. Kaitlin knew full well, even as a child, that the misfits and undesirables stood little chance in society, and so took to the shadowy underbelly of the forest canopy, forging a civil bond by their shared uniqueness. Over time, their existence, revealed only when stumbled upon by the wayward traveler unsure what he was seeing, gave rise to lore of dwarves and elves and goblins.
“I was not born a forest dweller,” Titus explained. “I was taken in by forestfolk when my mum ‘n’ pop perished.”
“I’m sorry,” Kaitlin consoled, gently stroking his thick umber locks.
The boy’s eyes retreated in time, as though hacking away at thickets of brush to get at his earliest recollections.
“My entire village was burned,” he explained. “By the Royal Army. It had been a harsh winter; we hadn’t the means to pay our taxes…”
The boy’s sadness touched Kaitlin, and she lay her head upon his chest, allowing her chestnut hair to spill across it like spun gold. She knew her fair complexion contrasted with the swarthiness of his swelling ribcage, that the crimson flush of her cheek complemented the heart that beat inside, so rich with life and loss.
“And how did you learn to sing?” Kaitlin asked earnestly. Though his melody had been wordless, the sheer mastery of his instrument, the perfect tone and utter pitch control, spoke of training.
“I’m not sure,” Titus confessed humbly. “As far back as I can remember, I amused my new family with song. The forestfolk, though musically inclined themselves, called it a gift.”
“A gift indeed,” Kaitlin Spencer concurred with unbridled enthusiasm. “The gift of enchantment…”
Here she took to planting tiny breathless kisses across the flawless expanse of her lover’s chest.
And then something came over her. “Carry me away once more,” she pleaded. “Let your voice take me far from here, where words are silly and useless, where branches flutter and the forest quakes and appearances fall away like so many dead leaves…”
Titus indulged her with his gift, that of impossibly ethereal overtones and undertones that resonated above and below—in the heady chambers of her lofty ideals and the very core of her being. The melody was the same as before—one she recognized from a dream of the past or a vision of the future, or both. She felt he knew her better than she knew herself, keyed into her essence from some expansive perch beyond the here and now. The ineffable feeling of being transported, however, quickly turned to that of being abducted, and her heart beat wildly. Somewhere in the ether, her heels scrambled for solid ground, for fear of being whisked away to a place of no return.
She panicked and sprang to her feet.
“I must go,” she bade him.
He sat up, bewildered. “But—”
“I have had a most wonderful afternoon. One I shall never forget.”
In her heart, she knew it to be true. What she could not know is how the memory of it would come to haunt her, how an indelible stamp had already imprinted itself on her soul.
“When shall I see you again?” the boy asked as Kaitlin mounted Puck from the bridge.
“Never,” she called back regretfully. “I must never return to this place…”
Halfway back to the barbican, she felt it and looked down. Her garment was soaked in blood.
She began to devise an alibi. If she could not make it to her chambers unnoticed, she’d say her cycle had arrived, or that it was the horse. He’d become startled (not altogether untrue) and she’d suffered quite a jolt. She promised God that if King Zardus would buy the story (after all, she’d heard of quite a few hymens that had been broken not by husbands but by temperamental horses) she’d never be so reckless again.
And she made sure of it. Or life did. From that day on, abandonment was tempered with structure and discipline, their meticulously orchestrated plans for her sufficient to distract her from her own heart. A week after Kaitlin Spencer’s coming of age ceremony, King Zardus called upon her by sending an engraved invitation to the door of the small cottage she shared with her parents.
Lady Spencer’s eyes swelled like a squall on the high seas imagining an entire future for her daughter in the few words the squire read aloud:
Lady Kaitlin Spencer
Your presence is required this very eve, at six-and-thirty on the clock
At the Royal Banquet Hall
That King Zardus might be enchanted by your company o’er supper.
Lady Spencer nearly slammed the door in the squire’s face, wasted no time pressing her daughter’s fanciest gown and adorning it with brocade sashes and a train to rival her cascading locks. She was the royal seamstress after all; it was no effort ensuring her daughter’s appearance would eclipse that of every last lady of the court. She smiled approvingly once finishing touches had been applied, and bade her daughter farewell alongside her husband, who was teary-eyed and full of pride.
The King’s reaction on seeing the maiden was no less effusive; his jaw nearly fell to the floor in abject surrender when she was escorted into the enormous dining hall. Still, it was she who curtsied and kissed his ring, gluing her eyes to the floor. King Zardus immediately put the girl at ease, seating her beside him at the head of a ridiculously long rosewood dining table. The two were waited upon hand and foot, treated to a four-course meal of roast mutton and a string quartet. Kaitlin found the affair less stuffy than she’d feared, reveled in the sheer glory of abundance. It was clear the harshness of life was kept at bay here in the castle’s bailey, but a distant memory.
She even found the king himself attractive, in a fatherly sort of way. His effusive laugh was earnest, contagious, calming her nerves and endearing him to her. She had to remind herself throughout the evening not to take the attention personally; the king was keen to settle on a wife and produce an heir.
Rumors of the otherwise benevolent ruler’s temper had made it to the farthest reaches of the kingdom, however distorted, rendering the momentary charity, at least in Kaitlin’s estimation, disingenuous. Or worse, subject to whim. She couldn’t shake the sense that although good fortune had landed her in the path of opportunity, the stakes were all or nothing. If she said the wrong thing, or if a foul mood beset the man, her head could end up in a basket like that of the last contender.
Her fears proved unfounded in the end and her head remained attached. After a three-week courtship, the two were wed in a lavish public ceremony. Subjects attended from far and wide, eager to lay eyes once again on the fairest maiden in the land, now a bride and their soon-to-be queen.
It was not long, however, before the fanfare and ceremony yielded to malice. Soon after the royal wedding, rumors of former dalliances came to haunt the queen in a most unkind way. In preparation for betrothal, royal midwives had officially confirmed the bride’s hymen had gone the way of so many other young equestrians’, and the assessment had appeased royal concern. But whispers began to circulate on the lips of courtesans, primarily the lips of those who wished to cull favor with the king. Or better still, to share his bed once the queen’s head was on a post somewhere.
The rumors were not confined to the palace walls; pamphlets circulated in the streets, tabloids meant to tarnish the as-yet pristine but mysterious reputation of the young queen. In an attempt to endear herself to the people and diffuse any ill will with earthiness, the queen guzzled ale at festivals, told raucous and bawdy jokes in public. The king was only charmed by the impropriety, momentarily blinded by a love he hadn’t seen coming—not by a long shot. But the people were not so charitable, taking the relaxed decorum as further proof of their queen’s inferior stock.
The king paid no attention; if anything, his myopia extended to the notion the two were a team, that the shelter of their union could withstand any storm. He touted a new protocol—a more friendly and accessible oligarchy. Even so, when Kaitlin’s head hit the silk pillow at night, imagining Titus’s supple lips on her breast all those years ago, she couldn’t help but worry. Part of her knew at any moment the gossip might rouse her husband’s suspicions. Despite his own disdain for appearances, he’d behead her in an instant if his dignity was threatened. He was a man, after all, and a prideful one at that.
Over time, the king’s council bent his ear. The people were not sophisticated enough for change, they said, at least not in the form of relaxed protocol. It would be wise to curtail ‘earthiness’ with manners, he was advised; the rebellious streak the royal couple shared would benefit from improved appearances. And it was always best to have the people on your side. The king took to reminding his wife to sit up straight, to retire her goblet early in the evening, to wave correctly and use the right utensil at the right time.
Queen Kaitlin took to sobbing at night once she’d dismissed her handmaiden. Eviscerating slander aside, the formalities were killing her inside.
Even the couple’s lovemaking was routine. At first, when she was called upon to visit the king’s chambers and do her wifely duty, she cherished the regularity. She found great purpose in lying beneath his corpulent royal mass, staring at the gilded ceiling tiles. She wanted nothing more than to bear the man an heir. But the familiar, comforting ritual turned eventually to desperate protests her heart alone could hear: she had wants and needs of her own. Desires. Dear lord, she thought, if he only knew…
Over time, Queen Kaitlin’s despair grew too deep for a satin pillow, and overflowed its banks. It was her nurse, Lady Crawley, whom she confided in—the very same handmaiden who had birthed her in her midwife days, the very authority who’d inspected her before the betrothal. She was trustworthy, Kaitlin knew; after all, the woman could easily have thrown her under the proverbial carriage on discovering her hymen had gone missing.
Lady Crawley was a comforting, matronly presence, alternating between stroking Kaitlin’s hair with compassion and cradling her cheek to a full bosom.
“Every woman since Eve herself has felt the way you’re feeling,” the woman explained. “There’s no shame in it. We’re so much more than our wombs and their ability to birth babies.”
Here, she lowered her voice to a whisper. “We’re Goddesses, truth be told. Each one of us. And each one of us shall inherit a kingdom.”
Her depression lifted somewhat. She didn’t take the woman’s wisdom as license, per se—more as an elixir to the guilt that came with fantasizing. About him. His full lips and broad shoulders and taut physique. Imagining it was his hips that swiveled and thrust against hers between embroidered satin sheets when the lights went out. The image of Titus kept lovemaking bearable, diminished the feeling of objectification, and even worse, failure. After all, it had been three years, and her body had yet to produce an heir.
It was three years to the day, in fact, when he reappeared.
She’d never imagined laying eyes on him again. Oh, sure—she’d kept one eye out for him at the three Spring Festivals that had come and gone, both disappointed and relieved when his fair visage failed to materialize. She’d begun to wonder if she’d imagined him, somehow dreamt him into being.
Until there he was, in no uncertain terms, at a public hearing in the village square she was loath to attend. Titus was not merely in attendance; he was the defendant. He’d been arrested for stealing bread from a too-trusting baker who nightly left fresh baked loaves to cool in the open air of a cobblestone alleyway.
Titus looked just as she remembered him. If anything, the beauty of youth was now edged with the ruggedness of experience. Oh, his brow had always been tortured by loss, the look in his eye tragic. But fine lines had now etched themselves on the wide expanse of his forehead, and Kaitlin, rather than lamenting the passage of youth, basked in the beauty of experience.
From afar, that is.
Titus’s eyes remained glued to the earth throughout the proceedings. Only when King Zardus himself rose to pronounce a verdict, did Titus’s eyes find Kaitlin’s across the village square.
Without warning, something came over her, pushing out her better sense for a far more dangerous pursuit—principle. She took hold of her husband’s massive forearm as he prepared to deliver both verdict and sentence.
“Have mercy, my dear,” she whispered, voice trembling. “Please.”
The king remained stoic, fixed on the throngs of countrymen hushed in anticipation. His eyes alone shifted, finding those of his wife. What he saw in them was inscrutable.
She spoke too quickly, to cover up for something. “It’s been a punishing winter, my love. The forestfolk are a good people…”
“A good people?” the king scoffed. “It is well-known they are baby-stealers. His people drink the blood of infants.”
Kaitlin shook her head. “It is but a mean-spirited myth, my love. Search your heart and you know it to be true. When the plague strikes, forestfolk are the only ones courageous enough to take in the orphaned.”
All at once, fear of discovery gave way to conviction and she stood as if readying herself to march though the valley of the shadow of doubt on integrity alone. “They are misunderstood,” she insisted. “Oppressed, by our very own way of life. They are a good and kind people—close to the earth and all that matters. And this man is no exception; he is beyond reproach, my love. A victim of circumstance alone. Of appearances.”
A microscopic change stirred in the man’s eyes, as though the truth in her words had disturbed the surface of some glassy pool. Just as quickly, his eyes girded.
“On this day the court hereby pronounceth one Titus Lockewood of Willowbrook Province guilty of the offense of thievery, sentenced to an incarceration of no less than eight year.”
The sentence had been doubled.
Kaitlin’s heart sank.
The kingdom’s sole prison was the vast dungeon whose labyrinthian cells riddled the palace basement. It was here Titus was ordered to serve out his harsh sentence, and here he was flung into darkness, as good as forsaken. The wails of prisoners and the cracking of whips never made it above ground, could not penetrate the durable stone masonry that divided the world of the living from that of the damned. Just as the silvery moat protected the palace itself—a stronghold of sublime, if precarious ideals—from assault, an ashlar barrier kept the sounds of the unsavory dungeon from permeating daily privilege. For that reason, it was no great effort for the royal couple to march onward, just as life itself was wont to do. Guilt is a peculiar thing, after all, culpability such an unsavory prospect to the waking mind as to be pushed further down with the digging in of heels, the polishing of appearances so obstinate in defiance of it.
The look Zardus had seen in his wife’s eyes at the public hearing was never discussed. Not a thought or an utterance went to the subsistence of prisoners deep in the earth. But the far-below toil made its way through stone walls all the same, if by vibration alone, weakening the foundation. The wails of prisoners hijacked royal dreams, tainting them with a nightmarish dread.
It was a moonlit night two years after the arraignment that Kaitlin called out in her sleep, bolting upright. She was alone in her bedchambers, not having been called upon to join her husband in his. Lady Crawley’s modest quarters were adjacent, and hearing the anxious cries of her queen, she dashed in to see what was the matter.
“A haunting dream is all,” Kaitlin explained. “Still, it moved me. I dreamt a mocking bird came in the dead of night, and landed right there…”
Here the queen indicated the stone ledge of her windowsill.
“The melody it chirped was hauntingly familiar, so much a part of my soul as to distinguish fire from ice…” She wouldn’t say it, but the familiar melody came from a distant past, when life was infinitely less complicated, from the lips of a boy whose soul was as innocent as her own.
“It seemed so real,” she insisted, her visage still haunted. “But when I woke, there was nothing there.”
Lady Spencer looked to the open window and back. “Pay it no mind, my dear. You must rest.” The woman attempted to pull up the bedding, but Kaitlin pushed it away restlessly.
“There’s something I must do,” she proclaimed.
As eerily nostalgic as the song had been, she wished it hadn’t come. Surrendering to her husband’s touch would only be torture going forward. Though the wandering of her own heart had never been discussed between the two, his lovemaking had become characterized by the disdainful grunts of one harboring a nagging grudge. It was nearly unbearable.
Before standing, Kaitlin took her nurse by the pudgy shoulders in earnest. “The king is fast asleep,” she whispered. “’Tis highly unlikely he’ll call for me.”
Lady Crawley waited, unsure where her mistress was headed.
“As such, I am relying on you for a simple favor.” The look in her eye grew insistent.
“Should my husband’s page, or anyone for that matter, request audience, please inform them I am incapacitated. If my husband insists, please impress upon him that my company would be—messy at best.”
Crawley nodded. “In any case, “ she concurred, “Next week would be more suited to conception. I shall make the fact clear; the state defers to my authority on such matters.”
“Thank you, thank you!” Kaitlin cried, her enthusiasm betraying something to the woman.
The queen had already risen, dressed herself. She approached the open window of the turret that was her bedchamber. Without further explanation, she swung her legs over the precipice and was gone.
A moonless night shrouded her shimmy down the trellis, the drop to hard earth. Discretely, Kaitlin located a small, slatted vent in the bailey’s foundation, one she’d well researched. In no time at all its louvered slats lay on the earth and the queen was maneuvering covertly through the narrow space that remained.
Once inside, she unrolled a parchment in the dim light. She studied what was etched thereupon, as she’d done many times before. It was nearly by rote that she proceeded to navigate the maze of darkened corridors and grim, lightless vaults.
When she found him, he was wide awake.
“I’m so sorry,” were her first words. “I did all I could.”
“I dreamt you’d come,” he said deliriously, as though looking upon an angel or a ghost.
“I only wish it could have been sooner,” she lamented, her eyes scanning the crisscrossing ridges of flesh that had been scarred at the crack of a whip. Tears formed in her eyes.
Any bitterness on Titus’s part yielded to long-suppressed desire, a longing that had never left him. He pressed his ravaged body against rusty iron bars. She didn’t dare encourage him by returning the gesture, even in pitch-blackness without a warden in earshot.
“Please, you must heed my words,” the queen insisted urgently. We haven’t much time…”
With that, she handed a scroll between iron bars. And then a rusty key, ridiculously large.
“Once I’ve gone, this is your way out.” A distinct red scrawling of ink indicated the proper route to freedom. Suddenly it became clear to Titus that solving the maze had been the reason for her delay, not indifference. A look of gratitude came over his youthful visage, still flawless despite wear and tear.
“I’ve missed my family,” he said simply, tears forming in the enormous discs of his eyes, visible even in the scant light. “They need me…”
Kaitlin folded her hand over his about the rusty bar that separated them. It was the grandest gesture she dared attempt. “I must go before I am discovered.”
“Please, he whispered throatily as she rose. “Come to me in the forest in two days’ time. Where we first met, by the bridge.”
She hesitated, torn.
“I must see you again,” he cried. “I’ll not lose you a second time.”
Her voice rose through a tense gullet like magma through terra firma, despite her own objections. “I will. I promise.”
In two days’ time, having yet to shake the delirious, foggy dream that had taken the place of reality, Kaitlin appealed once more to her nurse’s confidence.
“Yes, M’Lady,” Crawley agreed without hesitation. “Incapacitated.”
An orange crescent of moon hovered over the stark landscape as Kaitlin shimmied down the trellis. Managing to evade notice by palace guards, she made it through a crenel in the parapet and dashed across the open field separating it from the towering wall of pinions that was the forest.
Its face was perforated with deep hollows receding to unknown depths, tangled limbs that defied the tangerine hues of the crescent moon. A nearly inaudible breeze moved between them, beckoning Kaitlin into uncertainty. Her first step echoed forebodingly, the snap of leaf and limb sounding a grave warning. She ignored it, dashing forward over snaking roots and undulating mounds of heaving soil, following the rhythm of a racing heart. Only yards into the shroud of ambivalence, a gnarled tendril came to life, springing into her path.
There was no time to react; straight away whatever it was sunk its unruly fangs deep into the flesh of her bare ankle. And then, it slithered away and was gone. Kaitlin winced at the sharp pain, writhing. But she refused to succumb here, would have to barrel onward to the agreed upon place—the long ago refuge that existed in secret, a hollow glen reduced to dreamlike memory.
He was there, bathed in moonlight, leaning casually against the misshapen bridge just as before. The moment he saw her, he sensed something was amiss and rushed forward. Without a word, his mouth was on the pale flesh of her ankle, sucking out poison. Titus relied on instinct, an intuition forestfolk seemed to share due to sheer proximity to nature. When he was sure he’d sucked out every last drop of poison that had begun coursing through her veins, he lay her upon the verdant moss, legs splayed out and away from her beating heart. Finally, he plucked a handful of moss from the earth and pressed it gently to her flesh. In seconds, the two small perforations sealed themselves and disappeared. A blush returned to Kaitlin’s face, pushing out deathly pallor.
“Thank you,” she sighed.
“How I’ve missed you,” Titus panted, unable to tear his gaze from her fair visage, tiers of chestnut hair that spilled across his lap like waterfalls.
She gazed up at him deliriously. “I’ve missed you too,” she confessed. “It’s too much to bear.”
She reached up and stroked the stubble-strewn expanse of his strong jaw, traced the supple contours of his full lips with a trembling finger. “Take me,” she entreated him.
For half a second, the youth looked as though he might consider the proposition. And then: “You must preserve your strength.”
“On the contrary,” she protested, “Your touch is all that can bring me back to life.”
With that she raised herself from the earth, pressing her lips to his. Her hand found the base of his skull among unruly locks, pulling him further in to her. The insistence in her grip was feral, rising up from a place in her she scarcely knew. She found herself surrendering to utter abandon, driven by a primal desire so forceful in that moment she’d have forsaken anything to fulfill it: her good sense, her status, society’s codes and the confidence of her husband. Indeed, her very life was at stake and she welcomed the risk for a single moment more entangled in him, feeling the tingle of his wavy locks caressing her to life. Feeling the rippling mass of his broad back as it heaved, her fingers tracing each scar and reading the agony it memorialized. She felt her body awaken; it was nothing less than the force of life that moved between them, uniting their souls with each thrust and spasm and pulsation, pushing out chaos and assigning meaning in its place.
She felt the shudder and release as he climaxed, the involuntary contractions in her own body that invited more and more of him upward and inward. And then, the two collapsed to the earth, remaining entangled, basking in a union both wished would never end. The world could not pry them apart, nor the threat of death that would surely be their punition; all that mattered was lying there as one.
A hundred yards away, cloaked by underbrush and intertwining roots, a figure watched until the two rolled apart.
There were to be subsequent liaisons, now bathed in the dappled light of a full moon, now shrouded by humidity or lost to the swarthiness of a moonless night. At least once, Kaitlin became distracted by the rustling of leaves but eventually returned to the task at hand.
The queen’s will to live returned with the color in her face. She’d stopped eating, but even her appetite returned. The king noticed, and the begrudging duty he performed between the sheets grew ever more spirited. Every aspect of life improved for the queen.
Until one day, she became alarmed when her monthly flow was missing in action.
She beseeched the council of her nurse, Lady Crawley.
“Perhaps you shouldn’t have lain there so long,” was all the woman said in reply.
“I beg your pardon?” Kaitlin came back, in earnest shock. Her heart began to beat wildly in the barrel of her chest.
“Let’s not, shall we?” All at once, the matronly look in the woman’s eyes yielded to something more sinister—something inscrutable Kaitlin had yet to put a finger on.
“Sit down, my love.” Crawley’s hold was insistent, more forceful than need be as she guided her queen to a settee near the turret window. Her eyes flashed to the falling dusk without, the margin of trees that defined a towering wood, now a sheath of moral ambiguity.
“You’ve been foolish,” she began. “Not for betraying your king, or even your own heart, but for all the rest.”
Kaitlin waited, her own eyes darting to the violet dusk and back. She tried to slow her breathing, the palpitations of her heart.
“Every midwife knows how conception occurs. It’s not through regularity or persistence. Not even love. It takes a youthful seed and a level of—shall we say—skill?”
Kaitlin scoffed involuntarily. She had no idea what the woman was getting at, or knew precisely but didn’t want to hear it.
Nonetheless, the woman persisted, her eyes narrowing to slivers. “Every contraction in a woman’s body is a receptive impulse. And lying there, basking in chemistry or infatuation, indulging the delusion of romance, only allows those contractions to do their intended job, to defy gravity. Better to up and throw one’s clothes on.”
Kaitlin withdrew her hand from her matron’s suddenly clammy one, deciding to pull rank. “How dare you speak to me in such a manner. Watch your tongue.”
The woman did not bat an eye; time and experience told her exactly what cards she held. “My darling, I’m trying to help you. Let’s not forget I brought you into this world, nor that I know you better than you know yourself.”
The thought made something in Kaitlin bristle, the hairs on her neck to stand. On an instinct to escape the room, she flew to her feet and approached the open window. And then, thinking better of fleeing, she wheeled around.
“What have you seen?” she demanded.
The old woman took her time, allowed her thin lips to curl into a wry smile. “Everything.”
And then, once she knew the information had sunk in: “It was quite the spectacle.”
In a single moment, every gasp and shudder and spasm and contraction came back to Kaitlin—those caressed by moonlight and those under cover of pitch blackness. She felt more than dirty; she felt invaded. Suddenly every maternal embrace the woman had provided, every gentle stroke of her chestnut locks, had new meaning.
“My Lady, there is no need to fret.” The words were disingenuous, fraught with duplicity. Still, Kaitlin sat once more; she had no choice.
“We can move on from here,” Crawley explained, her voice a seductive whisper. “You and I both know the king will be elated to finally have an heir. Your secret is safe with me. We shall announce the fact to him tomorrow.”
Kaitlin looked and felt sick.
“And anyway, neither of us knows to whom the child truly belongs.”
As much as she wished not to utter the words, Kaitlin heard herself say: “You mentioned skill. Simply put, the contractions do not occur when the act is routine. But on one point I will differ, to the grave:”
Here, a conviction rose up in Kaitlin’s body, one she had felt coursing throughout her life, here and there making itself known, but driving her always in defiance of appearances. The rebellion in her was the core of her essence, the passion that made her feel most alive. “It is love that cements, that ensures conception. Any man can learn a skill. Any woman can allow her body to produce contractions. But chemistry alone compels one to ‘lie there’ as you call it, to bask in euphoria. And isn’t that, in the end, just another word for love? Conception is an act of the universe, the product of two souls uniting in love.”
“You foolish child.” Here Crawley herself rose and advanced to the window, looking out over what was left of the kingdom. Darkness had begun to claim it in all directions, leaving nothing sublime or redeeming to the eye. “You are hardly the first silly girl to confuse ‘la petit mort’ with love. Your romantic notions are amusing…”
Here the old woman’s eyes scanned the nebulous void that swallowed the landscape. They deadened, any spark that may have danced in them effectively extinguished. “Lives have been conceived by rape since the dawn of man. And they continue to be, every day.”
Kaitlin had nothing to say back. The woman’s wisdom—that of experience—so eclipsed her own. She waited.
“Now then, shall we prepare the announcement for tomorrow?” Crawley pressed.
“And what is the price for your silence?” At that moment, for the first time ever, Kaitlin felt innocence drain from her, like the blood that should have gushed two days previous but refused.
The old woman did not answer—only smiled inscrutably.
The eight months that followed were strangely joyous, by all appearances. The king was elated, even vindicated in his estimation. His virility had been publicly confirmed, after all, not to mention the future of his dynasty. Kaitlin herself stopped worrying about paternity; Lady Crawley assured her regularly women had carried such secrets since the dawn of time. Kaitlin even imagined her husband was in on the unspoken code, as long as propagation was in place. His means, indeed the love he felt more strongly now than ever—the one that would shelter and protect their union and even turn to a useful propriety—all would nurture an intact family to proliferate well into the future.
The only thing that weighed on the queen’s heart was the thought someone was waiting for her. That that someone had been disillusioned when she’d failed to appear, that his heart had been broken. Irrevocably, even. She’d begged Lady Crawly for one last bout of confidence, that she might shimmy down that trellis one final time and explain things.
“Not in your condition. Absolutely not,” the woman had refused. But there was duplicity in her eyes even as she uttered the words.
Kaitlin didn’t dare beg Crawley to deliver word on her behalf, knowing now the woman couldn’t be trusted. Knowing now she’d escaped being thrown under the carriage all those years ago for simple ammunition. And now, as if all the preening and planning had paid off, Lady Crawley became the queen’s sole caretaker in the final months of her pregnancy. The maid waited on her queen day and night, even as she was confined to bed rest, wiping her brow, tending to her cravings and nourishing the growing life inside.
The queen went into labor two weeks early, in the dead of winter. The latter stage of her convalescence had been as tumultuous as the winter storms that howled without, battering the stronghold of the castle, but it was nothing compared to the ravaging toil that besieged her now. Nothing Lady Crawley could have said would have prepared her for the sudden, eviscerating pain. No matter how frequently or regularly it seized her, there was no preparing for it. The queen cursed her husband aloud several times, before the Royal Court, no less; they’d gathered about the maternity chamber as was customary, to witness the royal birth.
But when complications set in beyond anything Lady Crawley had seen in forty years of birthing, she ordered them away. The King obliged, deferring to the midwife’s authority and suddenly gravely concerned for his beloved wife. And perhaps even more so, for the wellbeing of his heir.
“What is the matter?” the kind demanded.
Crawley shot him a look from her position at the food of the maternity bed. Not only had the queen dilated well beyond what was normal, the crown that emerged was enormous. So much so that it remained stuck there, well after the first push, and the second, and the hundredth.
Crawley sighed, unsure what to do next. But all at once, the queen issued a blood-curdling, guttural wail, and the thing shot out of her. The king watched as Crawley severed the umbilical cord and placed the placenta in a bedside bowl. As much as Zardus had hoped to revel in the glory of the moment, he could tell by the midwife’s expression something was terribly amiss. As the woman swaddled the newborn in linen and prepared to rest it upon the queen’s breast, Kaitlin let out yet another visceral scream, this one an expression of terror. The king moved closer, lest his eyes deceive him. Could it be the infant bore a grisaille complexion, that in place of the poreless, if blotchy skin of a newborn it was covered in…scales? And when it opened its puffy eyes to gaze far too lucidly into those of its mother, could the pupils really have formed vertical, reptilian slits?
“You musn’t do such a thing. I won’t have it,” the queen protested when she heard her husband’s plan. “Divorce me or execute me if you must, but I’ll not abide such a lascivious crime! I’d rather drink poison.”
Though she herself was repulsed by what had come out of her, murdering it was not the answer. The king could publicly announce the infant had perished during delivery if he was dead set on it, but she’d not permit him to snuff the life out of it. It took a great deal of convincing, but in the end Zardus conceded: the infant would be trotted off into the woods, far from the palace, and left there to be raised by forestfolk. They were known for taking in undesirables, after all.
Such was their way.
It was Lady Crawley who insisted on accompanying the king’s horsemen into the woods, to see to it the child was not simply abandoned in a drift of snow, but delivered into the hands of the forestfolk directly. In the former scenario, the child would not have lasted an hour.
From the window of the turret that was her bedchamber, Queen Kaitlin watched the company of horsemen departing below. They were but specks against the stark white plain, black as spent embers blowing across mud-streaked ice. As they galloped away, strode into the shadowy fringe of encroaching wood, the queen allowed her gaze to shift to the horizon. It was swallowed up in broiling fog, as vague and uncertain as her future. All she knew for sure was that future would be one of pining, fraught with a deep sorrow no one man or kingdom could fill, the emptiness of having forsaken true love and abandoned the product of it. She’d go on to bear a brood for her kingdom—not just an heir but two siblings to spare. Still, part of her would forever dwell there among leaf and limb, alive in the beating heart of the hideous lovechild she could have grown to love had the world been a slightly different place.
“Wait here,” Crawley commanded the king’s horsemen.
She cradled the infant to her full bosom, swaddled as it was in layers of coarse linen. A great arch loomed over the clearing in which she stood, both ominous and welcoming at once, made up of writhing limbs and helplessly entangled roots that reached out to ensnare visitors in a sinister embrace. She advanced from the ambient, directionless light of the clearing into the swarthy hollow that breathed frozen breath. Tendrils retracted as she was swallowed up in shadow, clearing a wide thoroughfare.
Forestfolk moved about in darkness, forging strange silhouettes. Some were crowned with cascading ferns, others augmented with peculiar extremities not unlike fungus or fractured stone. Light glistened cold off reptilian scales as the last of the figures dashed into formation; it was nothing less than a reception line they formed in the dim light.
“I request audience with your king,” Crawley announced, her voice resonating with authority throughout the hollow.
A great set of double doors appeared, so organic as to be infused with—or hewn from—the bulbous striations of colossal tree trunks. There was no sound, other than that of the raspy wind, no fanfare or beating of drums. Two dignitaries accompanied the goblin king—one squat and rotund, the other spritelike and willowy.
“Your Highness,” the erect, tuberous one announced in hooty tones, “May I present Lady Crawley.”
It was Titus who stepped forward to inspect the gift that flailed restlessly in the woman’s grasp. Its tiny, ineffectual limbs flitted as she offered the thing up with outstretched arms.
Titus took the infant up in his own capable arms, drawing it nearer for inspection. Scrutiny quickly yielded to paternal affinity, fondness even. His eyes welled with tears.
“You’ve done well,” he commended Lady Crawley. “Would that we could flourish without your services. Would that our own pool would suffice in isolation. But such is not the way of nature.”
“Understood, my King.” the woman replied dutifully. “Glad to be of service.”
Here the woman bowed and retreated a step or two.
A moment later she’d rejoined the black riders who would whisk her away, across banks of unforgiving ice to the sublime spindle that towered over a bleak landscape, stronghold of tenuous ideals and ill-gotten privilege.