His picture would appear in the paper, scrutinized for any sign of dementia. People would read between the lines for hints of indiscretion or scandal in his background as to what had motivated him. They’d find nothing. No illicit love affairs resulting in blackmail, no crushing gambling debts to do himself in over, no terminal illness that he couldn’t bear. Not a thing would be amiss.
He hadn’t even planned on doing this. Oh, that was untrue. He had, he had. But not in front of the students. He was sorry; it wasn’t like him really. He’d snidely told Kelsey Dunn to “shut her pie hole” in a moment of frustration at her interrupting his concentration, and sorry, too, that he’d alarmed anyone by warning Matthew Morgan to remain in his seat, afraid the boy would stop him, unable to face the humiliation of remaining alive as “that teacher who’d held the gun to his head.”
He’d initially planned to carry out the task after school (though he would have liked to consider it more a deed than a task, imbuing the act around its edges with a corona of historical significance). Drive to the lake or to an isolated and wooded area in the foothills. But he knew that would entail a search for a missing person, and although he had been missing from himself for some time, he didn’t wish to be officially designated as such and cause Margaret the extra hardship of agonizing about his whereabouts before his body was found. Best to get it over in a conspicuous place, and what could be more conspicuous than in front of his class?
Too conspicuous, in fact. He’d been staring blankly at his students’ quizzes when he reached down and felt the outline of the gun in his briefcase, the .44 caliber Colt black powder revolver. One hundred fifty thousand of the sidearms had been manufactured during the Civil War. Their durability and better firepower—the South had preferred the .36 caliber Navy model —had helped the Union to prevail. Or so he liked to suggest to his students in the reenactment club. He had hoped using such a weapon would lend his action a hint of noble sacrifice, but of course that was folly. He was not, and never had been, a soldier; he’d bonded with an army of men long dead, wearing their blue uniforms and wring their muskets. He read their words in ancient diaries, imagining their battles from Shiloh to Sharpsburg; he collected their regalia and mementos of battle, and remained as ripped apart in himself as the war had rendered the nation.
It would be humiliating for Margaret. Her husband of thirty years a “dedicated high school teacher” who “had snapped” after “holding his class hostage” in a “bizarre incident.” He could write the story himself: “a terrifying ordeal for the students,” “a frightening experience for the parents,” “a complete shock to his family.” Honestly, he’d wanted the opposite: privacy, oblivion, indifference; he’d wished to slip away without a splash, just like an old caiman. Or that wonderful last shot in On the Beach—the submarine, the last human habitat left in a nuclear toxic world, descending without a wake into the sea.
But he’d made a spectacle of himself now, fucked up again, as he was coming to think of his existence in these latter years, though there was no evidence of such failures, just the twisting pain he lived with all the time, the miserable discharge of dread and disappointment into his guts, as if from an unsalvageable rusting ship (he could not stop thinking about the oceans—those immense bodies of water that both swallowed one up and promised rebirth).
He had the little pink pills the doctor told him would help, and he had the schedule of exercise classes Margaret had highlighted for him, and he had the cell phone number of a “good man of faith” who wanted to aid, and he had his rightful mind, lest anyone excuse his behavior as that of a madman, and he had his family, of course. Yes, the family, their love, the children and grandchildren, and, if he could only bear staying alive, the great grandchildren too. All the years of watching their blossoming, bountiful lives . . . he’d had it all.
Gabriel Hap thought Mr. Adams looked well, considering. Their teacher stared at the white phone next to the bulletin board after the sheriff’s voice came over the classroom’s loudspeaker asking him to pick it up. The phone was only to communicate with the office.
“Would you like to pick up the phone, Mr. Adams?” asked Kelsey Dunn, as if she were his secretary. Mr. Adams had no response, which wasn’t a surprise, since he’d been standing there for an hour with the gun against his head. Gabriel didn’t actually know what would happen if any of them tried to leave, but based on what Mr. Adams had said to Matt Morgan about not moving, he suspected they weren’t free to do so. The problem, as Gabriel saw it, was God’s anyway. Their fate rested in His hands. At least that’s what he believed most of the time. At their Young Fellowship meetings they’d discussed destiny. The youth pastor, Chad, said that God knew every person’s fate but had given people free will to act independently, whether that be for good or evil. When Gabriel asked how you could have a destiny but still have choices, Chad said, almost too quickly, as if he’d gotten this question a thousand times, that it was a blessed paradox and had to be accepted on faith. God wanted Man to make the right choices even if those choices were predetermined. You could make bad choices, which were part of your free will, but you could make positive choices to follow Jesus’ commands and be in accord with God’s grace.
“So,” Gabriel had asked, “free will is bad choice and destiny is good choice?”
“Not exactly,” Chad said. “Both are your decisions, but only God knows which ones you’ll choose.”
“Then why doesn’t He tell us what to do?”
“Because He wants you to figure it out,” Chad said.
Gabriel decided Mr. Adams was in one of those “blessed paradoxes” right now. How else could you explain the behavior of a teacher who was one year away from retirement and had never so much as come on the radar screen as far as the crazy stuff teachers did, like Ms. Evers last year, their tenth-grade English teacher who wore a cheerleading outfit to class for a week straight, a joke at first, but then she wouldn’t stop, her pleated maroon skirt getting shorter and shorter. Or Mr. Norton, the married technology teacher who was seen groping his student teacher in the parking lot and then got fired. Those were at least explainable, even Ms. Evers who just wanted “inappropriate attention,” as it was communicated to them in an assembly after she got booted too. But with Mr. Adams it didn’t figure. He went to Gabriel’s church and his wife was in the choir. His kids were grown. Only last week, Gabriel had seen Mr. Adams and his grandkids helping out at the church’s charity car wash.
And wasn’t Mr. Adams worried about Judgment Day? Gabriel had accepted Jesus as his savior when he was thirteen. He didn’t do drugs, he didn’t drink or smoke, and he never cussed. He prayed every morning and evening to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, but he did, however, spill his seed at least four times a day, and despite what the sex-ed teachers said about such behavior being perfectly normal, he expected to go to hell. He would just as soon go now. Which was why he stood up from his seat and walked straight toward Mr. Adams.
Elissa Lorge watched as groups of students outside snaked their way along the perimeter of the school’s fence. She concluded the entire building was now fully evacuated, fifty minutes after Mr. Adams had put a gun to his head and thirty-three minutes after Kabir had glanced in the classroom door’s window. The policemen, the SWAT team that had surrounded the school seventeen minutes after Mr. Adams first lifted the gun to his head, were locked and loaded at every conceivable position, including belly down on the grass right outside their classroom windows.
Before this, she had counted the number of times Mr. Adams had shuffled his quizzes from right to left—six times—and vice versa—eight times—and the frequency with which he had sipped from his coffee cup—fourteen swallows—which was in line with how long, on an average, it took him to usually finish his morning coffee. She had also counted the words in each of Mr. Adams’ post-gun utterances, which divided by two, the number of times he’d actually spoken, added up to eight, an ominous sign because reticent murderers usually proved more cruel. Of course it was quite possible that Mr. Adams was not going to kill anyone, including himself, and that the eleven times the gun had moved from the center of his left temple to a slightly lower region at the top of his jawbone to his eardrum to the orbital arch of his eye, a total radius of not more than eight centimeters, possibly indicated he was losing his nerve. Elissa would be relieved if he did. She did not want to go through the aftermath of such a tragedy, as everyone would term it, because it would mean extra counting (and no doubt more enforced therapy).
Not counting at all meant, of course, she’d have to go to her room, close her blinds, lie on her bed, stare up at the ceiling, cross her arms, and watch those same old boring reruns of her stepfather holding a knife to her mother’s throat and telling the bitch, as he had put it, that he was going to cut off her fucking head. While Elissa screamed in the corner. Ho. Hum.
“Mr. Adams,” came a voice over the school’s intercom, “this is Jack Cunningham with the Severton County Sheriff’s Department. Can you please pick up the classroom phone?”
What Roland Fineman was thinking about, besides the fact that his father had quit his job as an accountant in midtown Manhattan and moved everyone to this small Colorado town on the Front Range because he believed it was paradise, was finality. What did it really matter that Mr. Adams had a gun pointed at his head? Hadn’t Nietzsche written, “Men are even lazier than they are timorous, and what they fear most is the troubles with which an unconditional honesty and nudity would burden them”? What could be more unconditionally honest than standing in front of your AP history class and putting a gun to your head? And talk about “nudity,” as in baring your soul—here it was in the flesh, but did anybody in this class of hicks, jocks, phats, spooners, and huggers really appreciate Mr. Adams’ guts? He doubted it. Kelsey Dunn was apoplectic with concern, no doubt dying to get in there and do some “peer counseling,” if only Mr. Adams hadn’t told her a few minutes ago to shut her pie hole, a retort Roland found positively and insanely lovely. He wondered for a brief moment whether he should stand up there in solidarity next to the man. He could quote Nietzsche: My death I praise to you, the free death which comes to me because I want it. Boom!—the gun would go off.
Was that relic even loaded?
“No can do, Mr. A,” Dan Brock said. “We can’t just turn our seats and let you shoot yourself—or us.”
“Why not?” Roland put in.
“Excuse me?” Brock said. The last time Roland had talked to Dan Brock was when he left his copy of The Power of One at home and asked Brock if he could share his. “You can have it,” Brock had said. “I’m not going to read it anyway.” The only other exchange had been Brock asking Roland why he used so many big words.
“If he wants to shoot himself, that’s his choice,” Roland said. He saw that Mr. Adams had lowered his gun a bit, as if from the strain of holding it in place.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Dan Brock asked.
Brock mostly sat in the back of class with his aviator sunglasses on, when he wasn’t sleeping. Roland was fairly terrified of him. He’d already sent a couple of kids to the hospital while playing football, a sport Roland despised but couldn’t help appreciate for its unbridled destruction.
“‘Nihilism stands at the door.’ Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Adams? From ‘whence comes this uncanniest of all guests’?” Roland saw Mr. Adams’ eyes flicker—was that in recognition of the tele-meta-philosophical level they were communicating on?
“Why don’t you shut your trap?” Matthew Morgan told Roland, and then to Mr. Adams, “Were our quizzes that bad?”
“You idiot!” Roland burst out, unable to control himself. “This is nothing to do with us. It’s . . . it’s about the Overman. Right, Mr. Adams?”
“You’re not helping,” Dan Brock said, through clenched teeth.
“I’m not trying to help, you jerk,” Roland said. “I’m accepting. ”
“Be quiet! Shut up, all of you! He’s standing there with a gun at his head, I’m fucking pregnant, and you’re all mouthing bullshit!”
“Ariana?” Oliver said.
“Yes, your goddamn selfish bastard of a brother is the father!”
Dan Brock was just coming out of a dream when he got nudged by the team’s center, Matt Morgan. In the dream, he’d been sitting in front of two college coaches, one from Texas A&M and the other from UT Austin. He found it kind of strange that they were both interviewing him at the same time in a Texas hotel room, but everything else was real, just like it had been for his brother Kyle who played quarterback for UT until he got in the car accident that left him a vegetable. He wasn’t supposed to refer to Kyle as a vegetable, or even think it, and never, never say, “Hey man, you’re a vegetable, did ya know?” His parents must have thought he was stupid or something. He’d never say that to Kyle. Sure, he thought it, but you couldn’t help that. The guy had a feeding tube and round the clock nursing care and his mobility pretty much consisted of jerking his head involuntarily. Sometimes, Dan stared at him and tried to see the person who’d broken the state high school record for passing yards, the star who’d gotten a full scholarship to Austin, the brother who on a trip to Eastern Colorado, just the two of them, before he left for college, pulled over on a back road, and let Dan drive, closing his eyes and pretending to nap just to show how cool he was about it.
Now they had to turn Kyle’s head so he’d slobber out the other side of his mouth.
“Make your brother proud,” their dad told Dan last year when he started as a linebacker. Parents on the other teams had complained. This was football for God’s sake, not hockey. Dan was too mean, too crazy. The refs constantly blew their whistles at him: “No illegal hits!” “It was legal!” he’d argue. And it was. He didn’t do helmet hits, just good old flying tackles, vicious enough to get him a penalty anyway, especially when he stood over his conquests afterward with his fists clenched. He didn’t care. He was trying to kill somebody, maybe even his brother, better off that way.
That’s what the A&M coach had said to him in the dream, “You’re a murderer, Dan Brock. Look what you did to your brother.” But the coach had a smile on his face. Creepy. Shit, he thought now, seeing that Mr. Adams had some sort of a long-barreled pistol pointed at his temple. What was he planning to do with that frickin’ thing?
“You think we should jump him?” Matt Morgan whispered.
Dan Brock stared at Mr. Adams. He was looking at a spot on the back wall, like they told you to do in speech class so you wouldn’t get so stressed by watching people’s faces. Mr. Adams, who was low key and the only teacher that let Dan sleep in the back of class, had once said to him, “I used to hate everyone when I was your age too, sometimes I still do.” He wasn’t fair game.
“Let’s roll,” Matt whispered again, just like they’d said on that plane that went down.
“Make one move, Mr. Morgan,” said their teacher, as if reading Matt’s name from a roll sheet, “and this gun goes off.”
The thing was, Vivian Hernandez thought, if I get out of here alive, will I be any different? She’d always heard that when you went through something traumatic and survived, it changed your life forever, mostly for the better. You appreciated every day, you liked your parents and little sister more, and you didn’t care about having to shop at Kmart for your clothes. But she wasn’t sure this was really going to change her life; they’d been sitting here for twenty minutes, nobody was getting up to leave or trying to talk to Mr. Adams, except Kelsey Dunn who had just said, “Mr. Adams, whatever is wrong, we can get help,” and Mr. Adams had answered in a fairly bright voice given the circumstances, “Please shut your pie hole, Kelsey,” and gone back to standing at attention with the gun at his head.
Everybody was texting back and forth. She wasn’t allowed to have a cell phone. Her parents thought it would distract her from school, and they still believed it meant gangstas on streets looking to deal, where she’d come from in East L.A. That, after all, was why they’d moved to Colorado. They had relatives in Northern Colorado and her dad had found a job working in maintenance out at the meat packing plant. Her mom cleaned homes just as she did back in L.A., but they had a bigger house here, even if the odor from the nearby stockyard made you gag on a hot summer day.
Kabir had looked in the window of the classroom door a while ago and seen what was going on and then disappeared. His eyes had gotten huge. She hoped he’d gone for help. Kabir reminded her of her father, who was always afraid of doing something wrong and getting sent back to Bogota, even though they were citizens now. Americans were suspicious of Colombians, he said, so they had to set a good example here, because of all the drug business. Kabir often had the same look on his face as her father did, worrying for some trouble he didn’t even do, a shame he carried with him just for being here. She wanted to tell Kabir to lighten up and not put his face so close to the exam paper, pressing his pencil down as if drilling his answers into the test. But he was too shy to even speak to anyone, and anyway, she was the same.
“Would you all please turn your chairs around with your backs to me,” Mr. Adams said.
They’d never used loaded weapons for the drills that they did in their Civil War Reenactment Club. Mr. Adams had strict rules about that. In fact, Jerry Worthington had never fired a gun in his life. But he did know that the particular gun Mr. Adams had, a six-shot Colt .44 revolver with a range of nineteen yards, long enough to reach any of them in class, had the power to penetrate seven three-quarter-inch white pine boards, because Mr. Adams had demonstrated that once using the same gun, blowing out their eardrums in the process.
“Mr. Adams?” Kelsey Dunn asked. “Is this a joke?” He didn’t answer. The barrel was flush against his temple. He was rigid. Was he trying to make a point? It didn’t really go with their lesson. They were studying World War I, the Treaty of Versailles. True, Mr. Adams wasn’t above a prank now and then. He’d once written comments on their papers backwards, some kind of weird skill he had, so they had to look in the mirror to read them. But was this a prank? It didn’t look as though he was punking the whole class.
Everyone turned to Jerry. As if he knew. How would he? They just dressed up in these uniforms and slung rifles with bayonets over their shoulders and marched around and learned about battles. What’s going on? Kelsey Dunn whispered to him. I don’t know, he whispered back.
Ariana was looking over the chart of Indie royalty that Oliver had passed her in history class. Oliver had put her at the bottom, somewhere below Shannon Grayson who had bought all of the band Bitzie’s demo tapes off eBay last summer, evidently giving her a secure place in the hierarchy. She noticed Oliver had made himself a bishop. Ariana, meanwhile, was some kind of lowly handmaiden. At the top were Hallie and Ishmael, the king and queen, even though they’d graduated last year. Hallie was in art school back East. Ishmael was still in Colorado working as a busboy at a Mexican restaurant. Ariana wasn’t sure how you could be a busboy and still be king of the Indies. At least Hallie had something to show for herself. She was a great painter. But Ishmael’s band hadn’t worked out. Oliver evidently disagreed. “If you’re really Indie,” he’d told her, “you understand that it’s all about attitude, not what you accomplish.” Success, in the conventional sense, was just such bullshit, he said.
“So why do this stupid chart?” she’d asked him.
“Just for fun,” Oliver had told her, with his simpering little smile. Oliver wore small green frame glasses and tight Capri jeans —he was above the gender thing, he said—but the jeans made him look like Anorexic of the Week. Oliver was also Patrick’s younger brother who was Ishmael’s best friend and the bass player in their now defunct band, The Turnkeys, and Patrick and Ariana had dated for a while, until it was clear Ariana didn’t know enough about Indie bands and obscure poets. Like she cared. The chart was stupid anyway. Indie royalty. What a laugh. Oliver was a little wannabe power grubbie. A snot, too.
He’d told her yesterday when they went shopping together at the thrift store that he didn’t like the term Indie anymore. Hipster was the better word. Not the old beatnik dudes with their silly berets and bongos or the hippies reeking of sandalwood incense, but the new kind of cool hipsters who could do fashion at the lowest possible cost, like the black suede boots he’d gotten at the Back to the Rack clothing store down in Denver and the velvet jacket with blue satin lapels and its nipped-in waist.
“Ugh,” he’d told Ariana, when she tried on a flannel shirt at the local thrift store—she’d stupidly agreed to go shopping with him. “That’s so Nirvana and Pearl Jam.” She took it off. Why did she let this twerp control her? He’d told her Mothman, a band she loved, was no longer acceptable as Indie because they’d appeared on MTV. “Kiss of death,” Oliver informed her.
“You’re just incredible,” said Ariana.
“Thank you,” Oliver said, taking it as a compliment. Ariana had rifled through the bins of t-shirts two sizes too big, since she was four months pregnant with Patrick’s baby and that was the only reason she was hanging out with Oliver, hoping to enlist his help in breaking the news to his brother, once she got up the guts to tell either of them. Patrick had come up from Boulder his first week after freshman orientation at college and called her. She’d thought they’d broken up but allowed herself to be flattered into screwing him at her parents’ empty house for the weekend. She hadn’t heard from him since, and she kept thinking she should do something decisive, but she couldn’t get past staring at the number for Planned Parenthood in the phone book. Her parents— her father was a retired Air Force colonel—would simply kill her.
“Oh, my God,” Denise Alexander said, who sat next to Ariana. They were waiting for Mr. Adams to stop shuffling the quizzes, which he’d been doing forever. Mr. Adams had finally stopped, but he had a Civil War pistol pointed at his head.
it had happened again. Kabir felt the warmth spread across his groin and into his underwear. Kelsey Dunn in her white shorts, with the flaps of her back pockets snugly buttoned, had simply walked up to Mr. Adams’ desk after collecting all their quizzes. The light from the tall classroom windows had revealed the outline of her panties. it was the same as two nights ago when he’d been watching a program on the History Channel—his parents restricted his TV watching—and a “flapper”—part of American culture from the 1920s—was dancing and swinging her beads, her loose breasts jiggling. That was enough to do it, his first ejaculation. While watching the History Channel! His mother would be mortified. His father would find it amusing perhaps and say that at least it had been an educational experience. But how could he tell either of them? Back in India no one talked about sex, not where his parents were from at least.
He decided Kelsey Dunn was staring at him oddly.
He raised his hand for permission to go to the bathroom, but Mr. Adams was busy moving around the quizzes that Kelsey had just brought him. He didn’t even look at Kabir when he left the room.
Stripping off his jeans in a bathroom stall, he tried— unsuccessfully—to wipe away the sticky fluid that only spread like glue. He thought about throwing the underpants away, but the trash can was empty and it didn’t have a lid. The last thing he wanted to do was stuff them in his pocket, so he flushed them down the toilet and watched as the toilet burbled and gulped and sucked them away with a roar.
He thought again about Kelsey Dunn. She was that kind of nice American girl in this small Colorado town an hour north of Denver where his parents had emigrated two years ago. He was only fifteen but had been placed in the eleventh grade because of high test scores and the insistence of his father who didn’t want him, their only son, to delay getting a head start on college and finding a good job, preferably in engineering or higher mathematics. Kelsey always questioned him in her sweet American voice about India. She had read two novels by Indian writers over the summer and would like to discuss them with him sometime. She had always wanted to go to India the way other kids dreamed of traveling to Europe or tropical islands.
He would nod politely at such pleasantries, not believing for a minute she was seriously interested in him beyond his importance as a cultural symbol. This did not stop him from picturing his mother having tea with Kelsey while they spoke about the wedding arrangements for Kelsey and him, his mother in her sari with a gold necklace and bangles up her arm to protect her from evil. He had little time to dwell on such a fantasy, because returning to his classroom and glancing in the door’s window, he saw his teacher Mr. Adams holding a gun to his head. The confused looks on his classmates’ faces indicated that this was not an idle demonstration. Several of them noticed him, including Kelsey, whom he thought mouthed Get help. And he recognized, too, the paleness and vacancy on his teacher’s face, the same as when his Uncle Bhanu lost his home and business to a flood in Bihar and held a knife to his own throat until Kabir’s father talked his younger brother out of killing himself.
He fled to the office, the fate of his new America trailing behind him.
Did he say anything? What were you thinking while he stood up there with a gun? Were you scared? Did he tell you why? No, everyone would answer to this last question. Yes, we were scared. We were thinking about our lives, they might say, if they could answer honestly. We were thinking about ourselves. And wasn’t that the same for him? He was thinking only about The Absence, which he’d been thinking about for a very long time. He could not imagine a more selfish act. After all these years of living alone in The Absence, of sparing Margaret and his children and friends, wasn’t he making up for lost time with this most public and heinous exhibit of self-serving misery? These young people had done nothing to deserve him laying himself out in such ugly pain before them. But he couldn’t reverse course now. For someone who abhorred public displays of emotion, he had become a baby again, crying in front of his class.
He could certainly picture an afterlife, but it was one for his students, not him. Kelsey Dunn would become a missionary or maybe work at a foodbank; Kabir Gupta would no doubt fulfill his parents’ dreams of being a mathematician; Elissa Lorge would go on for a PhD and more therapy over the death of her mother; Roland Fineman would try his hand at advertising after failing as a poet; Gerald Worthington would run his father’s hardware store until the day he died; Vivian Hernandez, never a contrary word out of her, would attend Yale on a full scholarship; Dan Brock would blow his knee out playing football and go into real estate with his buddy Matthew Morgan; Ariana, after a miscarriage, would become director of a women’s shelter; Oliver Yeager would move to the Bay Area and finally and officially come out.
He had a future planned for all of them but had somehow missed Gabriel Hap, that boy from a pious ranching family. He hadn’t expected Gabriel, always so accommodating and polite, to be the one who got up from his chair and came toward him. He really had not given the boy much thought. He doubted anyone ever had, even his parents. Gabriel Hap sat in a middle row, handed in his completed assignments—that was the best one could say for them—offered answers to only the most obvious questions, and was always thrilled to see his teacher at church. “I’m so glad you share a love for the Lord,” Gabriel bashfully told him once afterward. He wasn’t brownnosing either. But Gabriel Hap didn’t know that he attended only for Margaret. She sung in the choir and enjoyed being among the other worshippers on Sunday. Whether she actually believed in prayer or not, he couldn’t say. They never discussed it. The Absence grew greater for him at such times, and when he closed his eyes and heard the pastor’s words, he saw the warring tribes of the Bible tearing one another’s flesh from the bone. Why had he thought the Civil War was so different? It was not. It was one of the most lethal and brutal battles between men, savagery really. Six hundred thousand dead, twice that many gone from disease, fifty thousand amputees. And yet he could not stop glorifying it in his head. Those courageous men in blue and gray; armed with muskets and sabers in iron scabbards; their front lines strong behind the Chevaux-de-frises barricades; their feet bloody, bruised, and swollen from marching. He had wished to die for one side or the other.
And so it was Gabriel Hap who came forward, his hand out, his fingers extended, his eyes beseeching. What did the boy want? The gun of course. But was it to be a hero? Or to genuinely help?
Neither would happen. Gabriel, the young man’s future clear now, would go to war. He would learn to kill. He would talk about a day long ago in his history class when his teacher held a gun to his head, and how he alone stood up and tried to take the weapon away. A shot blasted through the window, blew out the back of his teacher’s skull, and stopped only after piercing the blackboard. His teacher jerked once and fell.
“The point was,” Gabriel Hap would explain to his young recruits, “you can’t hesitate and survive.” Sure, people had questioned his judgment, and some said Mr. Adams was actually lowering the gun to put it down, but the point was . . . “the point is you have to know you’re doing the right thing and not second guess. That gun was aimed at me,” he would tell them, “and the SWAT guys knew it and took the opportunity.” At that final moment there were words on Mr. Adams’ lips, but Gabriel would always say they weren’t meant for the living.
*Steven Schwartz, “Indie” from Little Raw Souls. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Autumn House Books, www.autumnhouse.org
When she was seventeen, Loretta discovered that she was pregnant with Blue Simpson’s child, a shame really. Not because Tildon turned out to be a bad son. (In fact, he would do quite well, thirty-two years later, buying and operating a chain of successful southern fried chicken franchises.) It’s just that Loretta’s future seemed genuinely promising before this turn of events. She’d graduated high school as the valedictorian when she was sixteen. Granted, this was in Honey Grove, Texas, so there were not that many students, certainly not that many bright ones, but she had nonetheless impressed her teachers enough to skip a couple of grades, and then went off to college in Denton on a full scholarship to study journalism. In Denton, she met Blue, a strawberry-headed pipe fitter and apprentice welder from Bug Tussle who liked to two-step. At the beginning of her sophomore year, he took her dancing every night for three straight weeks. By the end of that time, Tildon was conceived. Blue and Loretta hastily married during a freakish October snowstorm, and she gave up her academic pursuits and, until after Blue’s death, her dream of becoming a reporter.
Tildon arrived the following spring, followed by two miscarriages that left her depressed and wishing she could return to the promising trajectory of her old life. But then Melinda was born, and Tanya soon after. They’d moved to Charnelle in the Texas Panhandle, where they lived in a too-small, too-hot cinderblock house near the drive-in. On summer weekend nights, she and the kids and Blue would climb up to the flat, pebbly roof, set up folding chairs and a blanket and watch the double feature for free. Those nights—as the Panhandle dusk turned a velvety blue, as the kids fell asleep in their sleeping bags, as she and Blue sipped beers and she nestled in the crook of his arm with a blanket wrapped around them, and, on one occasion, they actually made love, quietly, thrillingly, during the final fifteen minutes of Double Indemnity—those nights were, Loretta would reflect much later, the best times of the marriage.
Blue worked at Charnelle Steel, and Loretta stayed home in the cramped house and cared for the children. She gradually realized, too late, that she had no special knack for mothering. It wasn’t that she felt a particular animosity toward her children, but rather against motherhood itself. At first she was ashamed of this epiphany, but after a few years, she no longer tried to deny it. She didn’t confess it to others, certainly not to Blue or the children. People tended to harbor a grudge against mothers who seemed to dislike their own, even though, from what she could tell, it was a common enough occurrence. To acknowledge her feelings, to herself at least, eased her conscience a little and rekindled the sense of disciplined observation and fidelity to truth, no matter how unpleasant, that had made her want to pursue a life in journalism. The effort to be kind and compassionate also demanded from her a rigorous testing of her spirit that was, she felt, not unlike prayer, even though she didn’t consider herself a religious woman.
Loretta believed she would have adapted just fine to this situation if matters had not taken a turn for the worse in the eighth year of her marriage when a miniscule filament of hot steel wedged itself in Blue’s left eye. The accident ironically had not taken place at work, so Charnelle Steel claimed no responsibility. Nearly blind in that eye, Blue returned, after surgery and a month and a half of recuperation, to work, but his disposition soured with the disfigurement, the now-endless medical bills, and the bad luck of getting an injury that, if he’d been more fortunate, could have resulted in a handsome settlement and perhaps a semi-comfortable life of early retirement.
Most mornings he left for work by five and didn’t return until six-thirty or seven, later if he happened to stop off at the Armory for drinks and to shoot a little pool, at which he was deceptively skilled, despite his bad eye. When he arrived home on these nights to the house that never seemed to stay clean or uncluttered, the dust growing like moss on the furniture, he often felt the walls squeezing him, a claustrophobic bitterness puddling like acid in his stomach. His wife had grown too thin, with a hostile little smirk nestled in the corners of her mouth, though she wasn’t even thirty yet. She’d always been smart, and perhaps that was the real problem. He’d wooed her away from college. He knew she held against him the life he’d provided for them. But that had been as much her fault as his, if fault was to be found. It seemed unjust the way her lips drew tight like a purse string, the way she seemed to hold him responsible for her regrets, without ever acknowledging that he was the one with the goddamn bad eye, who had to work seventy, sometimes eighty hours a week, relegated to the shitty welding jobs rather than the custom work he’d been trained and paid well to do, and still could do if just given half a chance. Entering the house, he often felt as if he’d been lit on fire, as if his whole body was a breeding ground for army ants, a feeling exacerbated by the holes in his shirt and little blisters and pockmarks beneath the holes where the torches had burned and re-burned his forearms and neck and wrists.
Loretta understood how his predicament might embitter him, but it didn’t seem right that he’d sometimes take it out on her and the children, shouting for them to shut up, shut up, just for holy chrissakes shut the fuck up, and after the injury, occasionally and then more routinely striking Loretta, once even with his brown leather belt, the buckle of which left a puncture in her hip that had become infected and never completely healed. A blistered scab chafed under the elastic waistband of her slip.
After these incidents, he would leave, setting out for the Armory or, in lonelier moods, on long drives to the nearby lakes or to the Waskalanti Creek where he’d get out, take off his shoes and socks, cuff his jeans and wade into the cold running water, the smooth pebbles caressing his feet. He’d wait for the train to roll across the wooden bridge at five minutes past midnight. Pressing his hands against the posts when the train passed, he would feel the trestle shake and the surprising heat shimmy to the bottom of the foundation. Standing in the cold water and touching those warm vibrating wooden posts soothed him.
After he returned, calmer, contrite even, he’d sometimes take his guitar from the closet, wake the children and sing to them, ballads he’d learned before he was married, when he dreamed of traveling with a band from dancehall to dancehall all the way to Nashville. Tildon, Melinda, and Tanya warily appreciated this part of the evening and came to recognize it as a prelude to quieter months before their father’s dangerous sap would rise again.
Later in bed with Loretta, he’d stroke her stomach as he kissed the places where he’d bruised her, and then he’d make love to her with a tenderness that she relished, even if she didn’t like the road by which they’d arrived at this place, nor did she want any more children, and had taken to cleansing herself afterward, once Blue’d fallen asleep, with a foul-smelling potion that she purchased from Maria Fernandez, the midwife who lived in what was back then called Mexican Town on the east side of Charnelle.
The next morning she would stir into a cup of hot tea a yellow powder, also provided by Maria Fernandez, that tasted like formaldehyde smelled. Then she’d spend the rest of the day in the bathroom vomiting and sometimes spotting, even if it wasn’t her time of the month. It seemed to her a heavy price to pay for an hour of tenderness, but she did not want to imagine another child in this house.
On March 22nd of the twelfth year of their marriage, Blue came home late with more burn holes in his shirt than normal. He’d been to the Armory where he’d drunk six shots of tequila and lost twenty-eight dollars on a double-or-nothing rack of Nine Ball. When he arrived, at nearly midnight, he struck Loretta twice across the face, and then drove to the Waskalanti Creek and stood under the trestle in the ice cold water, waiting, but the train never came. He’d missed it. After a while, he felt soothed just the same by the hooting of the owls, out now for spring, and the purr of the tequila in his body, which rendered him, as it often did, feeling more alert than sleepy, though he knew even in his drunkenness that he might not remember a damn thing the next day. He drove home and woke the children, who patiently listened to him strum a song he’d written himself years ago called “Long Train Rolling” followed by a particularly soulful rendition of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and then he kissed them and carried Tanya to bed, nearly toppling over the nightstand in the children’s room.
“I love you,” he said and lingered by the door.
After a long pause, Melinda said, “I love you, too, Daddy,” though Tildon remained quiet, feigning sleep. Tildon knew what his father wanted, but he could not bring himself to appease the man’s wish to be forgiven.
Blue shut his bedroom door, shed his clothes into a puddle, and stretched out over his wife and began to kiss her. She pushed him away.
“I’m sorry, honey, I’m so sorry,” he said and then wept for a good ten minutes. “I’m a sorry bastard, I know. Sorry sorry sorry.”
She remained unmoved. He pried her knees open, cooing into her ear. She felt and then, surprising even herself, acted upon an impulse to claw his back and his face. He cuffed her clumsily across the temple, but she didn’t make a sound. He held her arms down, and they wrestled on the bed until Tildon knocked on the door, tentatively whispering, “Is everything all right?”
Tildon’s words provoked a momentary truce, both of them unsure what to do next. Blue said, “Get on back to bed, son.”
“Mom?” Tildon said, and Loretta heard, alongside her son’s fear, his desire to help her. Please, he seemed to be telling her, please please tell me what I should do, and please don’t have me do a thing. That voice broke her heart.
“Mind your father,” she said as lightly as she could.
They heard him retreat, and then, without resistance, she let Blue finish what he’d started, holding the headboard so that it wouldn’t thump against the wall and alarm the children any more than they were already alarmed. It was over in a matter of minutes. She pushed him off her. He rolled over and fell asleep.
She opened the door. Tildon and Melinda sat huddled in their pajamas outside, their backs against the wall.
“Everything’s okay,” she said. “Go on to bed.” They didn’t move at first, but then she said, “Hurry up, now. It’s late.” Her voiced pacified them, and they obeyed.
She went to the bathroom, where she cleaned herself and doctored her face, and then returned quietly to the children’s room to make sure they were asleep. The girls were both out, but Tildon was merely pretending. She didn’t question him, though, just kissed all their foreheads. She whispered in his ear, “Don’t you worry.” And then she left the room, closing the door behind her.
She started to go back to her bedroom, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. She shuffled into the dark living room and lay on the sofa, where she just wanted to close her eyes for a few minutes and collect herself. The house was silent except for the whisper of branches brushing against the window. She rose and went to the kitchen, where she thought about administering Maria Fernandez’s remedies. She knew that she would begin vomiting in an hour or so if she did, so she decided to wait. After pulling her favorite cast iron skillet from the cabinet, she shifted it from hand to hand, feeling its familiar heaviness. She drank a glass of water slowly, rinsed the glass, put it in the drainer, and then carried the skillet back to the bedroom.
She shut the door and pulled the cord on the lamp so that a yellow glow enveloped the bed, where her husband lay, his mouth agape, his naked body sprawled over the tangled sheets. He looked like a dead man, limp and pale, splotched with blisters at his neck and wrists. Holding the cool and slightly greasy handle, she raised the skillet and hit him across his face, the flat bottom covering his nose and right eye socket. She heard bone crack and felt his blood spray her arm and the hollow of her throat.
Immediately, she knew that she hadn’t hit him as hard as she had wanted to. She had wanted to crush his skull, and she felt she would have been justified in doing so, but at the last second she’d held back just enough so that only his nose and perhaps his cheek appeared to break. He did not move, though, and she was unsure whether or not she had, despite her failure of courage, killed him.
For a solid sixty seconds, she watched him, counting each second. He still didn’t move. She sat down on the chair next to the bed with the skillet in her lap.
Tentatively, she put her hand on his chest, searched for the thump-thump of his heartbeat. She tipped his chin away from her and inspected the broken part of his face. His nose and cheekbone were starting to swell and appear pulpy. The dried blood from the earlier scratches created a black line running from his temple to his jaw, another one on his forehead. Fresh blood from his nose trickled over his upper lip. The sheets were flecked with blood. She reached over to the dresser and pulled a clean handkerchief from the top drawer and dabbed gently at his face until the white cotton turned red.
When he woke forty minutes later, she was holding a cloth full of ice against his nose and cheek. Groggily, still in shock, he asked, “What happened?”
“The dresser tipped over onto the bed. We’re lucky it didn’t kill us both.”
She could tell he didn’t believe her. In all this time of waiting, she hadn’t given one thought to what she would say when he woke. She was surprised by the words that came out of her mouth. It seemed outlandish even to her, but she decided, out of curiosity, to leave it at that, to offer nothing else in order to see how he’d respond. She was even more surprised that he didn’t challenge her story, just lay there, limp and swelling. He pulled the sheet up over his exposed body.
When he said nothing, she felt some crucial element of power in her marriage shift.
At five-thirty, he went to work with his nose bandaged, the cuts on his face beginning to harden, his good eye as threaded with broken blood vessels as his bad one had been several years before.
When Tildon and the girls woke, shortly after their father left, they studied their mother’s face, but she understood that they didn’t really want her to tell them anything. The inner life of a marriage must be kept hidden from children. She knew that much. Loretta made them oatmeal and toast, fixed their lunches, and hurried them off to the bus stop, and then she bathed quickly. She remembered that she hadn’t taken Maria Fernandez’s powder. Maybe it wouldn’t make her vomit this time. Maybe she had built up immunity, like a person who is bitten several times by snakes becomes snake-proof. But when she went to the pantry and opened the tin can on the top shelf where she kept the powder hidden, she found it empty. She would deal with that later. Right now, she needed to remain as clear-headed as possible. She put on her nicest wool skirt and dark purple sweater and walked down to the courthouse.
“I want a divorce,” she told the clerk, Gail Weathers, a man who’d lost all four fingers of his left hand in the war.
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t love my husband anymore.”
“That ain’t a good enough reason for the state of Texas.”
She pointed to her bruised face, and when he still seemed unconvinced, she discreetly rolled back the waistband of her skirt and slip to reveal the belt buckle puncture, a halo of swollen pink flesh surrounding the still-infected hole. This got Weathers’ attention, mainly because of the audacity of the revelation rather than the impressiveness of the wound. But he didn’t show his surprise, just continued chewing on an already-gnawed toothpick.
“Guess you should talk to Hef Givens,” he said.
She walked over to the office of Hef Givens, one of only two lawyers in town.
“A divorce’ll cost you more than it’s worth,” he said. “And you can be sure Blue won’t take it well.”
Hef Givens and Blue Simpson sometimes hunted deer together. He was not excited about being enlisted as the attorney in a divorce proceeding against his friend.
“Here,” Loretta said, handing Hef Givens twenty-five dollars for his retainer, money she had been hoarding the past year by shaving a couple of dollars off the grocery bill each month. “That’s all I have right now.”
These were not, despite post-war prosperity, exactly fat times in Charnelle, but Hef Givens was doing well enough. He did not need to take on this case. But his own father had been a thief who sometimes savagely beat his mother and him, and then deservedly spent seven years in jail for armed robbery—a time of poverty for Hef and his mother, yet also a period of relative safety and occasional happiness, especially after they moved to Charnelle to live with his grandparents.
Hef looked at Loretta, an intelligent but sullen woman, and saw in her bruises and resolve a refracted portrait of his own mother’s life. “Okay, then,” he said, without touching the money. “Here’s the first order of business.”
She returned home, as Hef Givens instructed her to do, and packed Blue’s personal belongings into two boxes, which she placed on the porch, along with a suitcase filled with his clothes. She took the children to Carol Lippincott’s house. Then she called the sheriff and requested that a deputy be sent to escort Blue away when he arrived home.
The sheriff’s office had already received a call from Hef Givens, and no one there relished this assignment. They didn’t appreciate domestic situations, since those were often the only dangerous ones in Charnelle. Not many people were injured with criminal intent in the county unless, experience had taught Sheriff Britwork, they were on the receiving end of a love gone sour. In 1949, there was very little by way of criminal activity at all in Charnelle, so Sheriff Britwork and his four officers spent most of their time at the Ding Dong Daddy Diner, drinking coffee and munching onion rings, or hanging out at the high school football and basketball games to prevent adolescent brawls, or cruising through Mexican Town to make sure the residents knew that someone was keeping a suspicious eye on them. There were also no divorces recorded in Charnelle during the previous six years, even if a majority of marriages, by Britwork’s estimation, were not happy ones. Sometimes a couple would separate temporarily, or a man would run off with a mistress for a while, or a wife would run off with her husband’s best friend, only to return a few days or weeks later. These incidents seldom resulted in divorce. Acrimony, certainly, and a malignant resentment. Sometimes shots were fired or knives wielded or suicides threatened. But seldom divorce.
The sheriff sent Fortney Nevers, the pudgy twenty-year-old deputy, out to the Simpson home to oversee the proceedings. This wasn’t a kind assignment on the part of the sheriff, but Britwork had a root canal performed that very morning—the fourth of what would eventually be six surgeries—and he was not in a generous mood. He didn’t want to be the one dealing with a marital dispute, especially between Blue and Loretta Simpson. He had known them since they first moved to Charnelle. The sheriff and his wife had even played pinochle with the Simpsons a time or two before both couples were besieged by children. Britwork would now and again shoot a game of pool with Blue at the Armory, but since Blue’s accident a few years ago, the two families seldom saw each other, and that was just fine with the sheriff. Blue Simpson carried his misfortune and self-pity around like a virus, and the sheriff didn’t want to catch it.
Besides, it would serve Fortney Nevers right. The young deputy annoyed the sheriff. The boy’s fatness was particularly galling to Britwork, a man with the metabolism of a greyhound, who harbored an unreasonable prejudice against the portly.
“Nevers ain’t old enough,” Britwork once told his other officers, within earshot of the deputy, “to have earned the right to be fat.”
The sheriff had been forced to hire the twenty-year-old because Fortney’s uncle was the Honorable Cleavis Nevers, the county judge. Given the irritable mood the root canal had fostered in Britwork, he half-hoped that Blue Simpson might beat the shit out of the young deputy—not badly enough to inflict serious injury, of course, but enough to persuade the pudgy kid to give up on police work.
Months later, at Fortney Nevers’ trial, the sheriff would change his tune. He would testify that the deputy was a model policeman, and that he was confident Fortney could handle the assignment when he sent him to the Simpsons’ house that day. The sheriff would tell the court that he was sure the boy had warned Blue Simpson not to take another step, and that he had fired the shot only to scare the man. The jury would acquit Fortney Nevers, in large part because of their fondness for Hef Givens, who had agreed to represent the young officer, and out of deference to Judge Nevers, who reluctantly recused himself from the case but sat on the front row, directly behind his nephew, and stared solemnly at the jury members, as if issuing his own verdict. Sheriff Britwork would emerge as the incompetent one, the person in fact most culpable for the tragedy, a courtroom performance that would result in the loss of his job in the next election.
Fortney arrived at the Simpson home shortly before five-thirty. Two boxes and a suitcase were sitting ominously on the front porch, and Fortney wished he’d urinated before he left the station because he didn’t want to be stuck inside the Simpson bathroom with his penis in his hand when Mr. Simpson showed up to what would most likely be an unpleasant situation. Fortney worried about wetting his pants while he was supposed to be officially presiding over a civil separation. He’d inherited a weak bladder from his father’s side of the family, complicated by a serious kidney infection when he was a boy, and consequently he had to piss eight to ten times a day and often twice during the night. When he was nervous, he sometimes lost continence, which was not advantageous for a young man, especially a deputy—a predicament that forced him to order double-padded underwear from Montgomery Ward. This solution minimized but did not entirely eliminate his worry and shame.
Blue was already in a surly mood when he left for home. His eye itched and watered. His nostrils had swollen shut during the day, forcing him to breathe through his mouth, and now his throat was raw. He’d gobbled down aspirin every two hours to diminish the pain of his swollen nose and cheek and the scratches on his face and back, but it didn’t seem to help much. To make matters worse, he’d had to field the same questions a dozen times from his co-workers about how his face had become mangled.
He repeated what Loretta had told him—that the dresser had fallen on him while sleeping. It had knocked him out and broken his nose, maybe busted his cheek. His co-workers’ arched eyebrows and smirks reinforced the suspicion he’d already had that such an accident was unlikely at best and preposterous at worst. Moreover, he didn’t have a good excuse for the scratches on his face, not to mention the unseen ones on his back and shoulders, and couldn’t come up with any better story. He didn’t tell them he’d gone a little nuts himself last night, drunk too much tequila, lost too much shooting pool, and did what he always regretted doing when he drank more than three shots and lost more than twenty dollars. Nor did he tell them that he didn’t really remember much after that, except that he woke in the morning with his face swollen and aching, his nose broken, his eyes black.
“That dresser must’ve had some pretty sharp fingernails,” Zeeke Tate said. The other men snickered in such a way that Blue understood he’d been and would continue to be the butt of jokes for days, maybe weeks, to come. It didn’t help that, at four o’clock that afternoon, lightheaded and then dizzy, hyperventilating, he’d collapsed on the floor of the shop and had been forced to breathe into a paper bag that Bean Peterson, the foreman, put over his mouth.
How could the day be any more miserable? But then he arrived home to find a police cruiser parked on the curb, two boxes and a suitcase on the front porch, the door locked.
Blue rapped on the door, but no one answered. He didn’t have his key. They never locked the house, except when they went for Christmas every other year to Bug Tussle and Honey Grove. He knocked again and heard footsteps on the other side, but no one answered.
“Open the damn door,” he said.
“Take your things and leave,” Loretta answered.
He pressed his cheek, the one that was not bruised, against the door, and could hear his wife breathing on the other side, her face just inches of wood from his.
“I don’t mind breaking this fucking door down.” He said this flatly, without malice, which was a kind of victory, though he regretted the profanity. He didn’t usually swear at his wife unless he’d drunk too much tequila, and he’d sworn off tequila soon after he’d become lightheaded today and found himself on the floor with a paper sack over his face.
The deadbolt was thrown. He waited a few seconds and then opened the door to find Loretta standing on the other side of the room, near the fireplace.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Stay there,” she said. There wasn’t any alarm in her voice. In fact, he wondered if this might be an elaborate joke.
His sinuses throbbed, and he felt again the wooziness he’d experienced just moments before he’d passed out earlier in the day. He touched his nose. It felt tender and swollen—and he imagined that it was already turning a darker shade of purple. Both his good and bad eye began to itch and water, but he knew enough not to scratch that itch. It would only make things worse. He blinked a few times to clear his vision. A chubby boy in a uniform suddenly emerged from the bathroom.
“Who are you?” Blue asked.
“Deputy Nevers?” the boy said, his voice going up at the end so that his answer sounded like a question.
“You related to Judge Nevers?”
“I’m his nephew,” Fortney said, almost embarrassed.
“Get out,” Loretta said. “This officer will follow you to the Charnelle Inn or wherever you want to go. But you must leave. Now.”
“What’re you talking about?” Though Blue assumed that whatever he’d done last night could not have been good, given the state of his own face and hers, he didn’t expect such immediate nor dire consequences for his actions. He just wanted, for now, to lie down in his own bed and sleep for about twelve hours.
“Where’re the kids?”
“Out,” she said. Blue wasn’t sure if she was referring to the children or issuing him another order. He breathed deeply through his mouth, having forgotten again, in the confusion of the moment, that this was the only way he could breathe. Dizziness seemed ready to engulf him.
“Come with me, Mr. Simpson,” Fortney said nervously. “I’ll help you load your things.”
“Loretta,” Blue said. He could hear a whine in his own voice, which surprised and embarrassed him.
“Go, Blue,” she said, quieter now. He detected a trace of pity, a tenderness that he thought he might leverage to his advantage.
“Let’s just you and me have a glass of tea and talk about it.” He sat down in the chair closest to the door.
“No, Blue. You have to go.”
“I don’t feel so good, you know. It’s been a hard day, Loretta. I need to rest.”
“Sir,” Fortney said, “I’m afraid you have to leave. I’ll help you.”
“You’ll be hearing from Hef Givens in the morning,” Loretta said.
“Hef? What do you mean Hef Givens is your lawyer? Hef is my friend.”
He remembered suddenly, vividly, the last time he and Hef had gone hunting, both of them squatting in the bushes, the predawn light shrouding them, their breaths misting in the November air, both of them waiting, waiting, waiting for the bucks to appear on the meadow by the lake. He loved such moments, rare though they were, when he and another man, who also understood the dignity and beauty and suspense of such stillness, crouched together, watching and waiting patiently.
“It’s over,” she said.
“Come along, sir,” the deputy said, his voice rising again in a way that reminded Blue of Tildon. Where was Tildon? Where were the girls?
Fortney put his hand on Blue’s arm, a place where Blue had blistered himself that very day when he dropped the torch as he fell to the concrete floor. Blue knocked the boy’s hand aside and stood up.
“Mr. Simpson,” Fortney said, unsnapping the button on his holster. Fortney saw Blue glance down at the front of his pants. A small dark circle growing wider and wider. The man’s swollen lips seemed to curl with the dismissive contempt Fortney had already put up with his whole damn life. Blue shoved him aside and took two long strides toward his wife.
Fortney would later swear under oath that he didn’t aim for the man’s back but for the fireplace, though after the trial he would sometimes remember or, in a feverish night sweat, dream it differently, would see his revolver pointed at a spot just below Blue Simpson’s left shoulder blade, would feel again his finger squeezing the slightly oily steel of the trigger.
It was now dusk, and the lights were not yet on in the house. Loretta was surprised when her husband moved toward her, suddenly blocking the window. The shadowy outline of him reminded her of the young man—not even twenty, with a thin fuzz of reddish blond scruff on his chin and jaw—who had charmed her when she was at college in Denton. The night they’d met, Blue was standing on the edge of the dance floor. He’d offered his hand. She’d taken it, and he twirled her quickly through a double-time waltz, and she’d smiled, thanked him for the dance and started away, but then the next song began—a slow melancholy number, evocative, lovely—and he’d pulled her close, held her against him, and they’d moved in slow, swaying circles, and then he’d kissed her on the lips, a feather touch.
As he closed in on her now, she saw, in that split-second, his face clearly. His left eye disfigured. She almost thought she could see the filament of steel lodged there—like a tiny jagged flower. There it was, and then gone. She heard the sound of the shot, which echoed in the small room and kept ringing in her ears days later. Then she no longer saw Blue’s features, just his distinct silhouette falling toward her, eclipsing the fading sun.
At one time, the landlord Jeffers had been a busy person, but not anymore. Now he had time to think, and he had recently decided that he was going to die. His stomach was no longer the taut paunch it had been. Food passed his tongue joylessly. He no longer lusted. His feet and legs often went numb, and he’d taken to massaging isopropyl alcohol on them to regain some feeling. The smoke from his pipe remained one of the only things that seemed right—perhaps the craving for vice was the last thing to leave a person. Just before his mother passed away she would only eat soft candies. Jeffers’ death wouldn’t be immediate: he wouldn’t pass away today or tomorrow. It just landed upon him, pressed upon him, that his own passing was imminent, and he had no idea what to expect in the afterward.
Alone on the front porch in a frayed and stretched lawn chair, eyes closed, he imagined funerals. His tenant’s wife had died a few days ago. He pictured her supine like all bodies he’d seen in a coffin—clenched eyes, somewhat enlarged nostrils, mouth gently closed as if asleep. Peaceful rest. He remembered the summer evening years before when he’d had a body removed from Ashcross. The renter’s daughter draped across her father’s swollen body, weeping “daddy… daddy.” Her little fists sinking into her father’s stomach, her fingers groping at his shirt. The mortician’s assistant, grinding his teeth, pulled the little girl off the body, rending the moist stitching around the shirt’s collar. The renter didn’t appear as if he slept. In the near-subterraneous light, gape-jawed with eyes half-closed and unfocused, his waxy face was constricted into a rictus articulating the ineffable of the beyond. Or perhaps the lack thereof. He didn’t look heaven-bound. If Jeffers had not gone when the rent stopped coming in, he wondered how long the kid would have stayed there, caring for her father’s corpse.
Jeffers envied those who had seen a person die. He believed they understood what he didn’t—what death brought. He asked the renter’s little girl what had happened when her father passed. Without a tear in her eye, she said she didn’t know. She hadn’t seen it.
This envy had taken root when his son, James, witnessed his mother pass away while Jeffers was out making a deal with a man named White who was ignorant enough to believe a handshake was still as good as a notarized contract. For James, watching his mother’s passing had been such a powerful thing he’d gone into the seminary. He now ran a church out of the storefront of an old third-rate grocery in the lower part of the state; its sanctuary still smelled of hoopcheese and day laborers. (Jeffers thought his son would have been better off re-opening the grocery.) But James had witnessed many of his parishioners die, some of old age, others from disease. Each time his son told him of another death, Jeffers’ resentment grew. He never asked his son what it was like, afraid he’d get an earful of capricious religious nonsense, a tangle of words that would make him feel stupid.
He opened his eyes to stop the images and looked at the clear plastic freezer bags filled with water and four pennies hanging from the upper porch railings. Craziest thing he’d ever heard—a suggestion from James, an article he’d sent Jeffers on how to ward off flies. It said to hang plastic freezer bags with pennies and water outside to keep flies away. It worked. But as the sunlight shot through them casting a liquid-copper glow, he thought of the coins once used to cover the eyes of the decease. He spat over the porch railing. He put his unlighted pipe in his mouth.
He tried to recover his mind, replacing contemplating death with what to do about the Ashcross property, in which—he’d been told—a set of kids were now squatting. He’d let the place go to seed since the renter died in it nearly three years ago. Its roof and plumbing leaked, its walls drilled out by all manner of nest-builders, but he couldn’t abide the squatting. But apathy or something like it had gotten hold of him; it had embraced him at the same time the numbness started creeping into his legs. In quiet times such as these, something in the boredom and the numbness and the nature of age drew back like a bow and twanged when he tried to move, and a misdirected laugh or, on occasion, a hiccup-like cry sprang from his mouth. He didn’t understand it. But it locked him in his chair, kept him from getting anything done.
He tapped a wooden, bald-headed match on the arm of the chair while trying not to look at the pennies. But images of edemas, time at work, wasting disease, null and vacant and quicklime-covered faces impinged upon his concentration. His pipe hung limply from his lips. He sucked on the raw tobacco packed inside it to get a hint of sweetness mixed with a burned residue.
Jeffers saw the tenant who lived across the street walking up the driveway. As he walked, he smacked at the ash-brown leaves of the spent okra that framed one side of the property.
Jeffers dropped the unlighted match in his palm.
The tenant stopped at the porch steps. A scrawny man with brow-darkened eyes and a fresh crookedness barbing his face as if he’d been howling or banging his head against the wall.
“RD, what’s ailing you?”
“We buried LaRae this morning,” RD said, closing his eyes.
“I was sorry to hear about LaRae,” he said. He looked down at RD, who shifted his weight between his feet like a child needing to pee. He patted the porch railing, causing it to wobble. “It’s a hard thing to lose a wife,” Jeffers continued to fill in the silence. He pictured his two wives in his mind, pondered which one might meet him in heaven, if there was a heaven. Age had made him hopeful again that there was such a place. Experience made him doubtful. “I’ve lost two myself.”
RD nodded thoughtfully at the bottom of the porch steps. He shifted his weight and squinted at the pennies and water bags.
Jeffers studied RD. He knew little about him. Looked mid-thirties, but Jeffers had stopped believing he could guess a person’s age a long time ago. A quiet tenant—paid his rent. But RD had a bottom-of-the-litter look, runt-ish, forgotten. He looked given to schemes. He might have been the skinniest grown man Jeffers had ever seen—his shoulders angled like those on a starved child. He’d known scrounging for sure. RD and LaRae had come from Tennessee.
“She saw haints, you know,” RD said.
RD nodded and splashed a brown vein of spit into the grass. A wind buffeted his face, and he looked a slight better to Jeffers, who supposed the little man had come over just to talk out his sadness. Jeffers struck the match, sheltered its flame, and pressed it to the tobacco while making gentle, moist pops to pull the fire into the pipe.
“In that house of yourn,” RD said.
“What’s that?” Jeffers said.
“Haints in your house.”
“No, ourn. The one you lettin us have.”
Jeffers lowered the pipe and shook out the match. “Rent.”
“Yep. Haints in that house you lettin us rent.”
Jeffers leaned forward and looked across the porch where he could see through a stand of weather-broken pines the squat gables of the house RD rented. Below the boundary of trees, a graying neighborhood dog was working over road-kill flattened on the unlined blacktop that split the properties.
“I’ll be damn.” Jeffers looked back at RD, who had climbed the first step and was leaning toward the porch as if he wanted to come up. He was almost panting.
“Them haints killed LaRae.”
Jeffers leaned back in his chair and drew on his pipe. The spirit of the tobacco warmed his mouth as he considered his next words. RD climbed another step. He shuddered and proffered a what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it glare. Behind the spindly man, the sun was low and the sky bloodied in a balsam light.
Jeffers took the pipe down: “I am sorry about LaRae. But what do you want me to do about a ghost? I cain’t charge it rent.”
“You could pay for LaRae’s buryin expense that’s what, since it was your haints that killed her.”
“How you figure they’re mine?”
“It was in your house.”
“Well, they could have come with you from Tennessee. I’ve had untold number of folks live in that house. Not one of them complained of ‘haints.’”
RD squinted, catching the sarcasm in Jeffers’ voice. He quivered.
“If there are haints in that house, as you say, RD, they must’ve come to roost the same time you did. And that house is only supposed to be occupied by two people. The way I see it, you might owe me money, housing your haints, when your lease says only two shall live there.” Jeffers drew on his pipe, satisfied with himself. He felt a pleasant jolt of blood and adrenaline shock his body.
“That house killed her.”
“House or haints?”
RD chewed the inside of his cheek. The broad outlines of his skull were visible. He reminded Jeffers of the half-fed prisoners who worked chain gang years ago.
“RD, how do you make money? You work?”
RD, leering, backed down a step.
Jeffers held his gaze wide-eyed until he squinted from the falling sun breaking from the clouds. If this was a scheme, Jeffers thought, it’s awfully weak.
“Before LaRae passed, she told me that you would take care of her funeral bill. She said it was your wives who told her that you’d cover it.”
Jeffers peered unblinkingly through white smoke.
“You going to pay?”
“What do you think?” Jeffers said.
“I think you will.”
For a brief moment he considered giving in before a surge of meanness rose up: “Get the hell off my porch ’fore I throw you off.”
RD stood up straight and a haughty tic ran through his shoulders. He turned and headed back in the direction he’d come from.
Jeffers called to RD when the little man was equidistant between the porch and the road: “If you see them haints, send them my way.”
RD didn’t respond. As he passed the old dog in the road, he stopped to stare at it, and then for no reason scared it off its tire-mangled dinner.
Jeffers spat a long slivery streak into his boxwoods. He relaxed and puffed, satisfied. But the reminder of LaRae’s passing made him think again about his own shortening time, of what was to come. He lowered the pipe and leaned once more to see the house across the road, looking for the little, dissatisfied man, angry with him for his audacity and privation and for his existence, which Jeffers suddenly considered unearned.
The little spat with his tenant left Jeffers wanting some more excitement and so he went to the Ashcross property to run the squatters out. He found no one there. They had trounced the weeds around the house creating a cowpath to a five-gallon bucket simmering with turds and urine. In the long-untended shade tree hung wispy catfish skins. Several catfish heads had been hammered into the tree’s trunk and their husky mouths and eyes gawked in bewilderment. Redneck trophies, Jeffers thought.
Standing on the Ashcross porch Jeffers recalled the last time he’d been inside the house, holding the little girl by the shoulder, quizzing her on his father’s death, and her dry-eyed answers. Her little fingernails had been chewed to the quick.
His remembrance was broken when he glimpsed a young pregnant woman walking down the road, her hair a freak of colors—yellow, red—her stomach full and hanging low. Jeffers thought for a moment she was the squatter, but she passed the weed-lined driveway as if she were headed elsewhere. And then Jeffers felt a twinge of lust, something he hadn’t felt in a while. He stifled a half-laugh. If asked what he thought of the young woman, he would have ranted over her hairstyle and clothes—he knew a slut when he saw one! But in truth she was lovely, and her pregnancy made her all the more so. What if she had been his squatter? Could he have thrown her out? He’d never felt sorry for squatters. One winter he had thrown a whole family out, and learned later that one of their children died of pneumonia. Still he thought he’d made the right decision. He was well off and thought it was because he’d made good decisions. These people had to earn their place; they couldn’t just take. Wanting something for nothing, that was the problem.
He still liked to brag that he once held over a million dollars in his hands. It had come from the sale of the White property, which he considered bad luck, seeing as how he got it the same day his first wife died. His second wife came with property but she died within a year of when they married. Her kids had taken her away from Jeffers, back to her home state, to care for her. He’d given all of her property to her children. It seemed the right thing to do. And after she passed, he sold off several large sections of his holdings. But he wished he had it all back now. It worried him how easily he’d accepted age, how he’d told himself he was getting old and selling off his properties was a good idea. At one time he’d owned twenty-one rental properties, most of them run-down farmhouses in which he installed young couples and hard-working hillbillies. Grief-pierced, he yearned to have it all back. Now he just had the house next his own to give him his pocket money, and the Ashcross place.
James wanted Ashcross to put a church on, and he wanted Jeffers to donate it. But there was promise still in the property and money to be made. He needed to get the squatters out, and install fresh tenants. It was also that his son wanted the plot so bad that Jeffers couldn’t let it go; he couldn’t let his son take the last of his holdings, leaving him with just the squat-gable home. In his imagination, Jeffers saw his son holding the hands of a dying parishioner, whispering that the man who had owned the property had donated it, just gave it up. The face of the imagined parishioner looked up with a wink and smirked. And Jeffers saw that this was where his son would bury him, too—under a light-grey headstone carved with his birth and death and ASHCROSS UNITED METHODIST CHURCH BENEFACTOR.
The young woman passed behind some trees. His lust abated, the numbness in his feet stretched out as if originating from inside the bones. The numbness, the age. There would be a time soon when he wouldn’t be able to care for himself. He wouldn’t be able to rise from a chair, wouldn’t be able to put himself to bed, wouldn’t be able to cook or attend to his own needs. Perhaps giving the land to his son would be a good thing, and then James would have no choice but to make it his duty to devote himself to Jeffers. But what he really wanted was someone who would care for him without demand. He would pay for that.
That night Jeffers dreamed of LaRae. He dreamed of going over to the little house with pockets full of cash. He found her there with a baby up to her breast while she smiled brightly at him. He looked down at the baby, its jaw fluttering, gnawing. Unhealthy, pallid, the child unmistakably RD’s: they shared the same sunken cheeks. LaRae draped a frayed copper-colored shawl over her chest and tugged the baby from her nipple as if to show Jeffers the infant, and the child gave out an insufferable squall, bile resembling doused ash dribbled from its mouth. Its cry wasn’t like any infant’s he’d heard before, and Jeffers woke to hear that the sound wasn’t the child’s at all but was coming from something else nearby. He sat up in bed, switched on the bedside lamp.
The painful howl went up again.
His feet and shins were numb as they often were when he woke. He slipped on his yard shoes and tried to stand. He sat down on the bed and then stood up again. It felt as though he was walking on peg legs. He stumbled across the room. Another wail went out. He forwent his pants. He went to the closet, held to the doorjamb, his legs muscles smarting and stinging. He pulled out his pistol. He tromped down the hall in his boxer shorts and undershirt; he said a prayer that his varicose legs wouldn’t give out and that he’d have sense enough to protect himself. He looked out the living room window and saw nothing. He eased his front door open, his pistol pointed in the direction he imagined the sound was coming from, his lips parted, ready to receive a breathe of cool air.
The outdoor lamp washed everything in a plaintive white or buried it in shadow. At the far end of his yard, a quaking silhouette crouched under a pecan tree. He walked slowly over to it—his face jutted trying to see what it was. His pistol lowered.
The old dog moaned as Jeffers approached. Its gut had been slit open. Blood adorned its fur in black blotches.
He heard rustling in the pine trees that flanked his property. He kept the pistol lowered and listened. He called for the cutthroat to come out. He called again. The base of the pine trees were bleached white from the lamp’s light and between their trunks Jeffers could see only darkness.
He looked down at the dog. One visible eye glinted in the sparse light. Jeffers looked back at the stand of pine trees before gripping the barrel of the pistol. He brought its handle down swiftly on the dog’s skull to avoid firing a bullet in the middle of the night, which would bring the curiosity and ire of neighbors. And there was the cost of the bullet to consider.
He hit it again—and then a third time. After each strike, he glanced back at the trees and saw only rib-white pine trunks and night. Jeffers peered down at the extinguished dog before limping back to the house, knowing the man in the pines was watching.
His sleep was chancy these days. Many nights he sat up, the vapors from the isopropyl alcohol rising from his feet, a subsuming numbness creeping further up his legs. He often mapped its assent, trying to sense the true direction of the numbness, what area would it covet next, whether it had or would enter his spine or some other territory. When would it be too late to ask for help? When would the numbness settle in his stomach and make it impossible to eat? Or would it skip his stomach and spine and ground itself with fresh purchase in his heart? And then what? Death.
But this night Jeffers sat at his kitchen table, puffing on his pipe, replaying the events. He figured it was RD who had gutted the dog. He imagined the two, both lean and dirty animals—RD with the upper hand only because he had sense to bait the scrawny thing and could wield a knife.
Just before light, he went out with a shovel to remove the dog from the yard. Taped to the door was a list of LaRae’s burial expenses written in an untrained hand. At the bottom, beneath the tally, was the message, “You O me that much RD”.
It was unlike Jeffers to befoul one of his properties and he wished he hadn’t. He knew he might suffer for the considerable effort it took to carry the animal up a ladder, but he was angry and dropping the dog’s gut-slung body down RD’s chimney made him feel young as if he were playing some outlandish prank. He knew the dog would get stuck in the flue and create an unbearable stink. But it had felt good, his legs felt strong.
Seated on his porch, a warm breeze eased him. Numbness slowly budded in his toes. Soon it would blossom up his legs, and then like vines it would gather around his waist and approach his back. Unrelieved numbness: faintly its tendrils would furl the base of his spine. He knew paralysis would take soon. He looked up at the bags of pennies and water. Such a simple measure, and a small cost to keep the flies at bay. With lips folded between teeth, he squelched a whimper.
As the numbness grew, he pondered over the list of expenses RD had tacked to his door. He thought of his own wives. One was buried in the city’s cemetery and the other was buried in North Carolina. Even though it had been almost a decade, he knew by the tally tacked to his door that he’d spent more, given more respect, to his wives than RD had to LaRae.
He saw RD coming up the driveway, gripping something nearly hidden in his hand.
“Ain’t you got business?” Jeffers blurted.
“I’m here on business. I’ve been to the funeral home.”
He gazed down at RD, who was dressed in a shirt Jeffers wouldn’t have used for a rag—threadbare in the chest as if it belonged to a man who itched a lot. He noticed that RD was petting a rabbit’s foot in his left hand, part of a keychain: “You bring that for luck?”
“Hell, I don’t need no luck.”
“You need something. You’ve eaten or buried the best part.”
“You get my note.”
“Yeah, I got your duns.”
“I told them at the Home you’ll pay for it.”
“You kill that dog?”
“LaRae said it was your wives that haunted her. Said you beat ‘em.”
“I never struck them.”
“That’s not what they said.”
“You kill that dog?” Jeffers asked again.
“Said you should have to pay.”
“You kill that dog?” Jeffers leaned forward, puffed smoke.
RD gnawed at the inside of his cheek: “Why don’t you give me a smoke and I’ll knock off a few dollars on that bill.”
“You kill that dog?”
“I know who did. I’ll tell you for ten dollars.”
“So you know it’s dead.”
“I know you been asking about a dead one, and that one’s been lately put out of its misery.”
Jeffers shot a gleaming stream of spit at the little man without hitting him: “I didn’t cause its misery.”
“But you killed it.”
“I put it down.”
“Then why are you ragging on me about killing a dog?”
“Cause you’re the one who gutted it to start with.”
“I don’t know about that,” RD said.
“You don’t know you gutted a dog?”
Jeffers was silent.
Looking at the spit webbed across the parched-green leaves of the boxwoods, RD said: “What’s that dog mean to you?”
“Nothing. Having it slaughtered on my property does mean something.”
“Well I’ll help you look for your dog-gutter if you pay for LaRae.”
Jeffers felt the slight palpation of his heart: “I’m not paying you for a goddamn thing.”
“Why do you think I’ll pay?”
“You want peace, don’t you?”
Jeffers legs were numb, up to his stomach. At that moment, he wanted more than anything to chase RD down and beat him senseless.
Slightly hunched, RD eased up onto the porch as if he sensed weakness. He stood up and reached for one of the Ziploc bags of pennies and plucked it down from its nail. Jeffers’ head twitched and he ground his teeth. There was no feeling whatsoever in his legs, as if he were dead from the waist down.
RD turned and walked down the steps.
“Hey,” Jeffers called. “Come get this.” Jeffers held up the funeral bill.
RD stood in the yard, with a big smile on his face, danced a burlesque and mocked masturbation and then spat a reddish-brown streak. He wiped his chin: “You can knock four cents off that bill,” he said. He turned and walked out of the yard, disappearing behind the trees.
His Sunday evening phone calls with James were little more than reminders—for James it reminded him that his father was still alive, and for Jeffers that his son was little more than a beggar, begging for a donation. Tonight James called asking about some article he’d sent Jeffers regarding blood circulation. Poor circulation: that was what was wrong with Jeffers’ according to James.
They sat in silence, Jeffers listening to his son’s breath and the hum of foreign ambience at the other end of the line. He yawned. He flicked off the lamp beside the chair and sat in the dark so he could see through the window to the little, unlighted house across the road. He opened his shirt and put a hand to his chest, his heart. His feet were cold in his bedroom shoes.
“Any more thought given to what you’re going to do with the Ashcross place?”
“Some,” Jeffers said.
“I spoke to the United Methodist Ministries. They said if I could get the land, they’d help me with the church.”
James called it a perfect little hill to build a church upon. For Jeffers property had to be earned. He had earned it, bought with monies he got paid from other lands, which he bought with monies he earned originally from labor in a dust-filthy mill. Everything he owned he’d earned. He wanted his son to earn it. James prated on about church, but Jeffers couldn’t listen to him. He was angry with RD, angry with himself. He was going to have to get rid of the little man, evict him.
“Anything else going on up there?” James asked.
“Did you get the squatters out the house?”
“You can’t do anything with the place until you get them out.”
Jeffers let out a meek huh, which his son didn’t respond to. He flicked the light back on and saw himself in the blacken window with a hand across his chest as if he were taking a pledge. His face was sullen. He smiled at himself, mirthless, false. When he stopped smiling the leaden expression returned. His son wasn’t speaking. Who was his confidant, Jeffers wondered.
“Don’t make any decision about that place before talking to me,” James said.
Jeffers didn’t respond.
James sighed on the other end and told his father goodnight.
Jeffers got up the next morning surprised he’d had a good night’s sleep. His feet were warm and when he stood he could feel them—he could feel the coolness of the floor. He was still angry, but he felt good and up to running off squatters. He would have to deal with RD soon and getting Ashcross taken care of would be one less thing to worry about. He’d foregone calling the police. In years past, just telling the squatters to leave did the trick. Sometimes he’d flash his pistol.
When he got to Ashcross he knocked on the front door and a young woman with a gaudy bloom of red- and yellow-dyed hair answered. She was very pregnant, and she smiled so brightly that Jeffers couldn’t help thinking of a flower he wished he could pick. The young woman said her name was Lucinda, but that everyone called her Panky.
He didn’t mention that he’d seen her before. He began by telling her that she was a squatter and that the property belonged to him. If she didn’t clear out immediately, he would have her arrested for trespassing and demand back-rent by garnering future earnings.
The young woman stood quietly as Jeffers finished speaking. After a few moments she spoke: “Someone told me and Toby it was empty and we could just stay a while until Toby got a job.”
“I am the landlord. I charge rent on the people who live here.”
“But it’s been empty for a long time.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“But we have nowheres to go.”
He’d never felt sorry for squatters or tenants, but Panky’s festival hair, spray of freckles across her nose—her belly—released an unexpected shock of tenderness in his chest. He looked away, toward the trees and the catfish heads, as she continued to talk about their plucky intentions to stay briefly, have the baby, find a job for herself, find a better place. She just needed a little more time.
He hustled his pants around his haunchless hips. The weight of the pistol tugged on his trousers. His feet were going numb.
She was silent for a moment, and he looked back to see why she’d stopped talking. Then she said: “We could do some repairs on the house. Toby’s good with that. Let us stay here and we’ll fix it.”
He hustled his pants again. He felt squirmy. His legs were being subsumed. His mind snarled with untethered thoughts. The woman before him, unpleasantly steady, continued to plead for more time. Her words became senseless in his ears.
He needed her. Or someone like her. This sudden upstroke of clarity frightened him. He needed someone to relieve him of the unrelenting loneliness of the last few years, someone to care for him. He was going to need care. He was dying and she was about to give life. She couldn’t help it. Panky carried it inside her freely. He saw that.
Jeffers’ mouth palsied inward before he stammered: “Do I look sick to you?”
Panky took a step back: “Maybe a little.”
Jeffers stumbled forward: “How little?”
“What about my face?” He took another, cautious step forward.
She parried his gaze and reached back for the doorknob.
Something uncoiled itself within his body. For a moment, he believed he might have pissed himself, and he patted his crotch, checking for dampness. He took another step toward Panky. He murmured—he wasn’t sure what he had intended to say. He reached for his crotch, still not convinced that he hadn’t soiled his trousers. He felt his mouth gape inexplicably. Panky blurted: “Mister, I don’t know what you want.” He stumbled forward and clasped his hand on her shoulder. She smacked at his hand. His thumb bit into the meat between her collarbone and ribcage. Panky grimaced and threw Jeffers’ hand away.
He lurched forward: “I want you to tell me what I look like.”
“You look sick. Like an old man,” she said, swatting his hand as it reached out again.
“I am sick.”
“Do you need me to get help?”
“Yes. Yes.” He then turned and left the porch—Panky already behind the door. Jeffers heard scraping as if heavy furnishings were being drawn to block entry.
He cranked the truck and drove out of the pea-gravel drive. He wanted to howl or squall. He sensed he was running out of something. He gripped the steering wheel so tightly he felt the rubber give loose of the wheel inside the tubing.
He clenched his jaw until his partial denture bit into his gums and he could taste blood. He belched a laugh, or maybe it was a cry. He was stunned by how empty he felt. His crotch wasn’t wet, but the numbness swarmed his legs and was advancing upward, a gripping numbness combined with a pressure that seemed to gnaw at the bone. He could no longer sense how deeply he pressed the accelerator or the brake. He let out a yowl and then wondered for a half second if there was someone else in the pickup with him. And then he did it again.
When he got home, RD was on his porch steps, smoking a pipe.
He pulled his truck into the yard, coming as close to the porch as he could, got out, with the pistol in his hand, and walked slowly, purposefully, painfully the few steps to where RD sat, puffing, his lips drawn into a mirthful grin. All the bags of pennies were gone.
“That yours?” Jeffers asked, snatching the pipe out of RD’s mouth.
“Just smoking a little. There’s a God awful smell over there and just wanted to smell something sweet for a little bit.” RD cocked his head at the pistol: “That’s a nice one.”
“Maybe it’s that haint of yours stinking up the place. Is it house trained?”
“Where you been, landlord? You do some shooting?”
“What do you want, RD?”
“Call it what you like. It’s all the same to me.”
Jeffers collapsed in his porch chair, put the pistol across his lap, and cleaned RD’s spit off the mouthpiece of the pipe with a handkerchief.
“Smells like something died over there, Jeffers.”
“Well, she did.” Jeffers swatted at a fly that had landed on his arm.
RD looked at him darkly. “Something new.”
“Maybe you ought to clear out then, RD. Maybe it’s that haint. Or it might be my wives wanting the house for themselves. Maybe they’re tired of your laying about.”
“Maybe.” RD turned to leave. He spat a brown streak of spit in the yard. “When you’re ready to settle up, you know where I live.”
When RD was behind the pines, Jeffers exhaled a short strangled laugh, and then another, but it was more like a gasp. He placed the pistol on the little table beside him. His right leg twitched, his left crackled as if its very veins and capillaries were bursting. He rapped the pipe on the porch railing to clean out the tobacco RD had been smoking. He took out his pocketknife and scrapped the chamber clean; he lighted a match and burned the mouthpiece a little. He sighed and let his body rest for a few moments.
He reached under the chair where he kept a pack of tobacco. Its weight was wrong—too light. Jeffers spread the bag open. Dust, ash, dirt? He wasn’t sure. He leaned over and poured out the contents. Teeth fell out. Fragments of bone. The dog’s? LaRea’s? Another copy of the funeral bill lined the bottom of the tobacco bag. A small deduction had been made for the tobacco RD had smoked and the pennies.
A fly landed on his hand.
By the time he walked to the squat-gable house, he was sweating and quaking with a chill. The numbness in his legs scoured him bone to flesh. He didn’t know why he hadn’t driven the short distance. Impatient with RD’s games, he’d gotten out the lawn chair and shoved his pistol in his right front pocket and descended the porch steps half blind with anger.
He entered the front door with his own key and limped into the tiny living room, bare except for a tattered recliner and an empty TV stand with a midden of chicken bones and stale French fries littered across it. The smell of the dog was monstrous.
In the kitchen, empty bean cans lined the counter and most of the cabinet doors hung open. A spoon, crusted and unpolished, reclined in the sink. Jeffers could hear RD moving around in the back of the house. He listened for a few moments before continuing down the hall. He passed a slender closet, empty except for a lone, bent coathanger. He passed the bathroom, darkened and faintly urinous.
When he reached the bedroom, he was surprised by the vision of RD seized in a blade of dust-speckled sunlight—shirtless, his bones seemingly lifted to just under his skin. It was as if Famine itself stood before Jeffers in a swirl of ash and red-brown light. RD smiled at him.
As if heat lightning passed through the little house, he glimpsed a future and past. He re-imagined the death-rictus of his Ashcross renter long ago. His first wife’s closed coffin. He saw his own death—the paralysis, the absolute loss of modesty. His son, robed, offering up thanks to heaven for his Father and for land. Jeffers removed the pistol from his pocket, pointed it at RD and pulled the trigger. The little man snapped up in the dusty air and landed on his back.
He looked down upon the little man gasping, observed his twitching, witnessed a tiny spring of blood bubble up and then flow. RD grasped at his chest, his breath already shortening.
“What do you see?” Jeffers demanded
“What?” RD spat.
Jeffers crouched over RD and moved in close enough to feel the other’s moist breath: “What do you see?”
A half-smile, half-grimace palsied RD’s face, “I see you.” He rolled over and tried to stand.
Jeffers shoved RD back to the floor. He stepped to the window and drew the copper-colored curtains.
“You goin to get me some help?”
Jeffers turned from the window and in the cheap light raised the pistol and shot RD again. A shallow splatter of blood leapt from RD’s chest, a near-inaudible grunt left his mouth. Jeffers resumed his position over RD’s face.
“And now, do you see anything?”
RD squinted. “You got to help me.”
“What do you see?” Jeffers roared.
“You don’t have to pay that bill.”
Jeffers stepped away from the spread of blood. He pointed the pistol at RD again, but then didn’t shoot. He thought he saw some change in the little man: “What do you see?”
“You,” RD gasped. “I see you. Help me.”
Jeffers asked him again and again what he was seeing, but it didn’t change. Jeffers was in disbelief that he was awaiting a man so given to lies as RD to tell him the truth. RD tried to crawl. Jeffers struck him, and then again, thrashing like a man at labor. The little man curled tighter and clutched his head after each blow.
Finally both men were still. Jeffers leaned in. He turned RD’s head and held his crumpled cheek tenderly as a nurse might do. “What’s there? What do you see?”
There was no answer. RD was dead.
Jeffers sat for a spell in the recliner. With his index finger he pushed at the pile of dry chicken bones and withered fries. He could no longer smell the stench of the dog rotting in the chimney. He could feel his legs and feet, but knew it wouldn’t last long. He could sense the numbness creeping in again and he removed his shoes and socks so he could rub his toes. We are perched atop nothingness, Jeffers thought, we make up heavens, but we are atop nothing. He didn’t want to go home. He called his son.
They took his pistol, his belt, and the laces of his shoes, and put in the back of the patrol car. His son was running his mouth to the police. He couldn’t hear what was being said. He wanted his pipe, which still rested on the porch railing where he’d left it.
He was numb up to his waist.
As Jeffers began to close his eyes, the glimpse of a specter stopped him. In the distance, crouched between pine trees he saw something beautiful. She was unmistakable with an ornate flourish of hair, her round pregnant belly. She had come to his house, had come to see him, to help him. Jeffers stared at her, hoping that she would turn and look his way, see him behind the glass, give some forgiveness. He needed that gift. But she looked past him, watching James and the police. He wept dryly, knowing that he had earned nothing today. She turned to walk back into the pines. Jeffers watched the disappearing carnival of hair and the bubble of a cry burst from his lips.
As soon as they called the First Class passengers I stepped to the head of the line, hurried down to my seat and braced myself for the crowd that came slumping past minutes later with their loose, swollen bags. Any of them could stop, pretend to cough or adjust a strap, and a runty hand could pull out a cobbled together shank which he’d stick into my chest, my neck, my cheek where it would clatter against my teeth, again and again, sinking through the soft meat of my eye. I left my seatbelt unbuckled, ready to fly up and fight my way back to American soil. When the stewardesses began their pantomime of safety I was able to relax a little, probably only because by that time I’d finished two vodka tonics. I was hoping to drink myself to sleep, but as we reached cruising altitude and the ice in my drink tumbled under the collar of my shirt, I knew I wouldn’t be so lucky this time.
When I was first told they were sending me to this country to do an accounting of the Canadian mining firm’s books, I told them I couldn’t. I said, “My wife is sick.”
There was silence on the other end of the line and I was suddenly unsure if I’d ever met the man to whom I was speaking. I’d assumed he was the same Steve we’d had over for dinner a few years earlier. My wife had made enchiladas with mole sauce. Steve had picked around the plate, ate half his salad and a few scoops of refried beans, leaving two perfectly formed enchiladas like a big old fuck-you to his hostess who’d spent hours in the kitchen, lifting the skin off broiled peppers.
The man on the phone eventually said, “I’m sorry to hear about that.” Another pause, as though this made what came next acceptable, “Your flight’s tomorrow, at seven.”
“A.M.” he explained.
As turbulence wobbled the plane I leaned my head into the oily leather seat and breathed deep, but this made the pressure in my chest expand into a lead weight.
Half-way through the flight the woman beside me turned and grinned until I stopped pretending to be asleep. She was an American, a Mississippian, she clarified, and was going down to visit her daughter, who was about to marry a young man from the country’s elite. She wore a beige suit like an ill-fitting exoskeleton. Every inch of exposed skin – face, neck, hands – was layered with foundation and powder so a smell of petroleum oozed out from beneath gusts of perfume. Her eyes were small and a beautiful blue, startling to find rooted in that puffy, twitching face.
“They’re very nice people,” she said, then admitted that in fact she’d never met them. “But they own three coffee plantations. The wedding is going to be at one of them.”
Despite her grin, she was clearly horrified that her daughter was about to be swallowed up by a family of brown people, no matter how rich they might be, no matter how comforting the word plantation.
“You know, they’re not actually Hispanic, they’re Spanish. I mean, they have no Indian blood at all.”
Eventually, she left me alone and began searching through her cavernous plaid handbag, setting off an incessant clinking of lipstick cases against her cell phone, wallet, makeup case, the tinny rattle of loose change. At one point she pulled out a photograph in a gaudy metal frame. In it a beautiful young woman in a tight fitting white dress leaned against a stone wall. The woman stared for a few minutes then, with an elaborate sigh, dropped the frame back into the purse.
I’m sure I looked like a compatriot, an overweight, middle-aged man with thinning hair gone white expect a few strands of black that looked permanently wet. The starched collar of my button-down shirt, the faint pinstripe on my suit pants, and the shine of my black shoes all suggested not only that we were both Americans, but that back home we might even have been friends, would’ve invited each other over for dinner parties where we’d drink too much, flirt clumsily at the fridge, then turn our energies to moaning about our ingrate children, the awfulness of youth in general, and the folly of anyone who disagreed with us about anything. And, I knew, we were compatriots of a sort, but I was too tired, too angry at being on that plane when I should’ve been home with Joyce.
I’d promised no more trips after she got sick. I told her I’d work from home, or at least from the American headquarters of the firms I audited. But, it turned out, this wasn’t possible, and so every few months I was off again – Zimbabwe, Peru, Bolivia, South Africa – in each place working to make sense of the tangle of fraud that constituted the local office’s financial records. I had a particular talent for this, an ability to see through bureaucratic madness and to articulate a legally defensible financial record. Typically, I went down to the capitals of these godforsaken places and took a limo to my hotel – the nicest in the country, holdovers from colonial days – and the next morning another limo would ferry me to the offices that were always staffed half with gringos who looked like they’d had too much local rum, and half by locals who hadn’t quite learned how to smother their bitter scent. I was given my own office, usually that of some recently fired executive, and I would make sense of the confusion they’d all bred in their frenzy to pull minerals from the earth.
We descended through a scrim of clouds. The city clung to a tangle of ravines at the foot of sheer, black mountains, the lower slopes of which were smothered with shanty-towns. The downtown was marked by dull gray buildings and a few half-finished concrete towers. Our plane touched down with a jolt, the seatbelt cut into my gut, then we seemed to be rising again before slamming down a second time, the engines whirring, the smell of burning rubber filling the cabin. Then we were there, trembling on the runway.
None of the three men holding name-signs were waiting for me when I came through customs. The glass doors weren’t tinted and the near-equatorial sun set off a pulsing headache behind my eyes. When I checked my cell phone, set up with world-wide access, it said, Looking for Service.
Maybe it was my exhaustion, my hangover, or the soldier who stepped away from the wall, eyeing my bag, but I felt suddenly weightless and lost, as though waking from one dream into another when I should’ve been back in the real world, not caught in this greasy airport with the high, rising scream of a woman at the customs point as soldiers tossed her underwear, her socks, her shirts to the floor, then held up a pair of blue jeans and scythed them in half with a knife. Whatever the reason, I panicked and joined a clump of passengers heading for the glass doors.
“Excuse me?” an American voice said. There beside me were two young hippy travelers, a boy and a girl, both grinning like idiots. They wore loose, dirty clothes that might’ve been hemp and stank of patchouli and sweat. Loose leather sandals showed off filthy feet, toenails blackened with grime, feet they surely planned to tan before going back home with dysentery and a few snapshots of indigenous kids atop a trash heap.
“Do you know which way the train is?” the girl asked.
“There’s no train,” I said, hurrying after the crowd.
As we rushed along, the tall, thin boy held up a travel guide and said, “No, it says there’s one that goes into the city center.” He said this with a kind of desperation, which was understandable. Stretching out around the airport was a dead zone of warehouses with metal shutters pulled over the doors. Power lines sagged from leaning poles. All this made it look that if there had once been a city here it had long ago been abandoned.
“No,” I said, “the book’s wrong. There’s no train.” I quickened my pace, hoping in their confusion they’d fall away.
“So, how do we get to the city?” the girl asked, scurrying to keep up.
“Take the bus,” I said, pointing at the crowd ahead of us, which bulged around the doors before squeezing out, like a clot of blood from a narrow wound. “Or a taxi.”
“Dude, isn’t that expensive?” the boy said.
“Depends on what you think of as expensive,” I said.
The girl was still smiling, bobbing her head as though we were listening to a good, thick reggae beat. Then we were outside in the too-bright light. Sitting at the otherwise empty curb was a black SUV and in it were two men wearing sunglasses. They leaned forward and though it was possible they were just trying to get a better glimpse of the American girl’s thin white shirt, I felt sure they were waiting for me and so I started walking faster, pushing through the crowd. Behind me the American kids were shouting. I hunched down and jogged to the orange bus. In that SUV a rifle could be sliding up between the men, scope swirling out of focus before sharpening in on the white hairs at the back of my head.
The bus driver was leaning in the open door and for a moment my Spanish abandoned me. I gestured at the door and nodded. I glanced back at the SUV. One of the men was standing in the street, pointing. Finally, I found the word, “Abierto.”
“Lo siento,” the driver said, stepping aside. I sank into a narrow green seat, my legs pinched up against my gut, suitcase and briefcase piled to my chin.
At that moment, I finally paused to wonder what in the hell I was doing. My limo driver was probably inside right now, he’d probably just gone to the bathroom, but here I was, in the open, jammed into this bus which was already filling up with peasants hauling bags of all shapes and sizes they’d managed to smuggle past the driver who screamed at everyone to toss their luggage onto the roof.
“Is this taken?” The American girl was smiling at me, pointing at the empty six inches of seat.
Once settled, her leg pressing against mine, she held out a hand. “I’m Allie.”
“Robert,” I said. Her hand was slim and cool and in the midst of my confusion, I held on too long, until she was forced to pull back with a pitying smile.
Soon, every seat was full and the aisle was packed. The American boy, Billy, was pinned between two fat ladies, his spiky blond hair brushing the ceiling as the bus lurched away.
“Is this your first time here?” Allie said, leaning across me to look out the window so her breast rested on my arm. I tried to see the road behind us, to see if the SUV was there, but the angle was wrong.
“No,” I lied, because it was easier.
“It’s mine. But I was in Mexico last year for a couple months. In the Yucatan.”
I tried to smile, though my mouth was so dry my lips stuck against my teeth.
We passed a few dozen warehouses and pulled up onto a truck clogged highway. Men bent beneath enormous piles of sticks, or stones walked along the road, their faces gray with the diesel and dust kicked up. We passed a line of auto-body shops where cars sat stripped and piles of tires leaned toward the street. Mangy dogs and naked children scampered in and out of the open garages while shirtless men hefted greasy tools and wiped their sweating faces with handkerchiefs.
“Dude,” Billy shouted, leaning toward our seat. “Have you ever been to Tonterrico? I hear the waves are awesome.”
I didn’t answer, all my energy focused on ignoring the puddle of what was possibly piss sticking my shoes to the floor.
At the bus station, I paid for my ticket and those of the kids, who patted their pockets as though they’d lost their wallets. I’d hoped this generosity would be enough to get rid of them, but they followed me to the hotel shuttle. There was no sign of the SUV, and as I was ushered to a plush red seat by a man in a tuxedo shirt and bow-tie, I felt a measure of calm returning. While the driver stood in the door to see if there were other passengers – there weren’t – I noticed that neither of the kids had backpacks, or, for that matter, bags of any kind. They looked tired and unwashed, though that, I knew, might be an affectation.
“Are you staying at the Palacio?” I said. These kids were pretending to be vagabonds, and so I knew they’d never put up the cost of the room, which was, considering the general destitution of this entire region, extravagant. But now that my confusion had receded, I felt sorry for them. They were scared and lost and I could help them out, a little.
Allie said, “We don’t have a reservation, but maybe. Is it nice?”
I said it was unquestionably the best.
“Well, so maybe we will,” Billy said, plastering his face against the window.
As the shuttle pulled away, Allie started telling a story about the time she’d traveled to Saint Petersburg and ended up getting in a cab whose driver promised to take her to a club.
“He said it was the hip new place. Then we got off the road and were driving through these warehouses and I got pretty nervous. I mean, I thought he was going to rape me or something, but then we turned a corner and there was this one warehouse, with lights and techno music. I guess I was just relieved, so I didn’t think it was so weird when the driver got out of the car. The music was so loud it was like shaking your head apart, and he opened the door for me. I didn’t step inside. I could see that the place was empty, I mean, almost empty, except this huge speaker stack and these towers of strobe lights and then I noticed like four or five guys, all holding baseball bats and on the ground in front of them was this guy, all beaten up. The guy on the floor looked up and shouted, “Help!” He was American. I started running. If I’d been wearing sandals I’d be dead. I ran and ran and that fat fuck of a cabbie couldn’t keep up and eventually I hid in this empty warehouse. I could hear the men go by, looking for me, and they came by again later. I was hiding behind this stack of metal barrels, but if they came into the warehouse they totally would’ve seen me. It was the middle of the night, you know, but I ran out and went to another warehouse, in case they decided to search that first one and I heard them, shouting, a ways off. When it was light I snuck out and walked back to the city along the train tracks. It was pretty goddamn scary, though.”
In all likelihood this was a myth she’d heard while traveling, or one she’d read on the internet. That it wasn’t true didn’t matter, what mattered was telling the story and the practice this gave her. In a few months she’d come down from the remote mountains to get drunk in gringo bars on the coast and talk about all the crazy stuff she’d seen. It wouldn’t matter if anything she said was true, because facts weren’t important, what was important was the idea of herself that traveling confirmed: she was brave and adventurous and open-minded and now she could go home thirty pounds lighter and filthy, which would frighten her parents enough to allow her to live off their money for a few more years.
“That’s totally fucked up, man,” Billy said, his face up against the window as we pulled past the gray government buildings. “Hey, isn’t that the Department of Interior?”
“So, are you traveling, or what?” Allie said, picking at the dirt ground under her nails.
“No, I’m here for work.”
“Where do you work?”
“I’m a consultant.”
“For what, the government?” From the hardening of her consonants it was clear she had me figured out: I was a bad guy and she was more than eager to judge, not all that different from my daughters, both of whom fancied themselves world savers. They had the security to use their educations and opportunities however they saw fit – one was an Assistant D.A. in New Jersey and the other was a school teacher in Brooklyn – all because I’d worked my entire life to make enough money so they could attend Columbia and Brown.
“Not the government,” I said. “Independent companies.”
“What kind of companies?”
“A mining company. I’m auditing their operations here.” I said this in a rush as though I was flustered, which I guess I was. That’s how I got any time my daughters started in on universal health care, or how awful American foreign policy was. Susan, our oldest, the teacher, was home helping Joyce while I was away and for her I’d pounded a sign into the front lawn: Thank You, George Bush.
Allie just stared, as though waiting for horns to sprout from my forehead. Billy was still muttering about this building and that building and the civil war.
“Aqui, El Palacio,” the driver said, easing to a stop.
I left the American kids frowning at the glimmering façade of the hotel and hurried into the revolving door. The lobby, with its slick stone floors and dribbling fountain, was empty except for a cluster of boys in bright red jackets and black pants who looked desperate to snatch my bag away.
In my reserved room I went to the drawer of the bedside table and found the promised handgun and shoulder hostler. I splashed cold water on my face, dried it on a plush towel, lay down on the slightly lumpy mattress, and watched the jerking ceiling fan.
I woke to the knocking at the door and groped for the gun, nearly falling out of bed, shouting, “Hold on. Just hold on.”
Through the peephole I saw a bellboy. He was barely five feet tall and so thin his arms and hands looked withered, his fingers long and spindly. He rattled away in Spanish, spraying spit.
“What?” I said. “English. Speak English.”
“Guests, down.” He pointed at the floor. “Wait. You. Guests.”
“Who? Who is it?”
He shook his misshapen head and pulled his lips up into what he must’ve imagined was a smile.
“Why didn’t you call?”
“No phone work,” he said, pointing into my room. “Guests. Down. Bar.” Then, probably sensing I wasn’t going to tip, he shuffled away.
I checked the phone. There was no dial tone, just a blank space. I checked my cell, hoping to call Joyce and make sure Susan had arrived. The phone said, Looking for Service. Before leaving the room I grabbed my briefcase. You could never be sure with these companies. They were often frantic and might want to see something to comfort them right away.
The bar was off the lobby, through a frosted glass door. I let my eyes adjust to the darkness, taking in the sour smell of bleach, half-full ashtrays, and rum. An oily sunset was smeared across the one window.
From a booth near the window a woman waved. It was Allie, and beside her was Billy. They were drinking tall, fruit-adorned cocktails.
“We were waiting,” she said, pointing at their drinks in which quivered flecks of poisonous ice. “Someone’s got to pay for these drinks, after all.”
Still in something of a daze, I joined them, settling the briefcase on my lap. The waiter appeared and soon we were sipping a round of beers.
“Are you staying here?” I asked, not quite able to pull myself fully into the waking world.
“Dude, are you crazy?” Billy said. “This place costs a fortune.”
“We found a hostel,” Allie said. “Not too far away.”
“Well, that’s great,” I said, tipping my bottle at them, then taking a sip and trying not to gag.
“But we thought we’d come and meet you for dinner.” She reached across the table to pat my hand, as though they felt sorry for me. At that moment her smile reminded me of Susan, with that smug twist to her mouth. I’d assumed these kids were in their early twenties, but now I thought they might be the same age as my daughters, late-twenties, on the cusp of realizing that life wasn’t a game, that it was hard and ruthless and that the main thing was to keep from getting completely and totally screwed over by others.
“Sure,” I said. “We can get some dinner. I bet the food’s OK here.”
“Don’t be silly,” Allie said, leaning forward to slap my shoulder. “Not here. We know a great place nearby.”
“Is that a good idea? The food can be pretty dodgy down here.” I touched the gun under my arm.
“Come on,” Billy said, biffing me on the shoulder. “We’ll be fine, man. It’ll be an adventure.” He stared at the briefcase on my lap, seemed about to say something, then just grinned dopily.
I should’ve gone to my room and back to sleep. Maybe it was exhaustion, or maybe, like that idiot Billy said, I just wanted to do something different, something that might help me slip for a moment out of my life.
“Just don’t order salad. You’ll be fine,” Allie said. “And you better get the check, big guy,” she said, then threw back her head and chugged the rest of her beer, clinking the bottle down on the table. Gasping for breath, she said, “Ready?”
They refused my offer of a taxi and so we walked, gathering attention on every street – three gringos ripe for a mugging, or, if the locals were feeling more industrious, a kidnapping. The chances of this increased the farther we walked, out of the governmental area, through what counted here as a “middle class” neighborhood and past a hostel with a few gringos hanging around out front. I asked if that’s where they were staying and they smiled dimly.
We walked on, into a slum. The narrow passageways between crumbling concrete walls were littered with garbage and an open sewer trickled down the middle. All the children were barefoot and ravenous, dark eyes glittering as they displayed their stumpy teeth. A clutch of them gathered around us, tugging at our pockets and sleeves and smearing swarms of bacteria over my fingers and the brass lock on my briefcase, so eventually I cradled it against my chest. What the hell am I doing here, I kept thinking, but I didn’t turn back. I began to wonder if I’d picked up some tropical bug and was in the early stages of delirium. Sweat soaked my back. I touched the handle of the gun again and again for comfort.
This was probably just the sort of thing Susan had done during her recent trip across India. She’d come back with a new wardrobe of sari’s, a streak of red dye in her light brown hair, and stories about the noble poor and our responsibility to them. Like Allie and Billy, Susan had played at destitution, renting rooms from families in remote villages where she could’ve easily been raped or killed. During her recent visit she’d worn me out with her stories and self-righteousness. One night, after listening to awful, jangling music for an hour, I’d helped Joyce to bed, hooked up the tubes, and said, “Well, that was quite a performance.”
“Performance?” she said, in the raspy near-whisper that was all she’d been able to manage for the past year. The brittle strands of her hair clung to the crisp pillowcase.
“Susan,” I said, kissing her papery cheek. “That music.”
Joyce closed her eyes and said, softly, “I thought it was beautiful.”
“Beautiful?” I said. She opened her eyes and at that moment she looked frightened of me. I tried to calm myself. “Don’t be silly, Joyce. It was awful.”
“No,” she said, closing her eyes again. “No, Robert.” And then she was asleep. Music leaked up from below for hours and I ground my teeth until my jaw throbbed.
I told myself that Allie and Billy weren’t much different from my daughters, which is obviously part of the reason I went with them: I wanted to protect them and, in so doing, I thought maybe I could teach them something useful. The longer I was around them, the more ragged they looked. Both were severely under weight, especially Allie, whose jaw was drawn so tight it looked painful, and she had the wild look of hunger, the kind of fear that could get her into real trouble. There was something black and feral in her eyes, as though they didn’t quite see you, only what she could get from you. She’d carried her Central American adventure too far and soon, if she wasn’t careful, would end up truly lost.
At the door of the restaurant the urchins fell away. At first my relief they were gone was so great I didn’t notice that the restaurant doubled as a brothel, but by the time we were seated at a rickety plastic table, I’d noticed the sickly girls, none older than sixteen, lined up against the far wall, shifting their legs apart so their tiny dresses rode higher. The bar stools were full of heavy men wearing cowboy hats which they tipped back on their heads to peer at us through the smoke-haze.
“Apparently,” Allie said, scooting up to the table, “the tacos here are killer.”
A tiny Indian woman with wildly unkempt hair took our order. I lied and said I’d eaten but that dinner was on me, of course. A few urchins approached the door warily, eager for us to emerge, drunk, easy targets.
When the food came the American kids bent over the paper plates and crammed everything into their mouths, even the lettuce, sauce dripping over their dirty hands, which they licked clean like dogs. I signaled to the waitress for another round of tacos, and they tore into them, letting out little groans of pleasure. Wiping their mouths on their sleeves, without a word of thanks, they pushed their plates away and grinned at me.
“Hey,” Allie said, sitting up straighter. She pointed at me. “Do you have any money?”
“What?” I said. “Of course.”
“So, like, do you think we could borrow some?” She cocked her head and grinned and when she did I noticed she was missing several teeth, as though they’d been pried from her raw, red gums.
“To buy stuff,” she said, so brightly, so stupidly that I pulled out my wallet.
“How much?” I said, peering at the lump of nearly useless local money and the crisp American bills behind.
“I mean, whatever you can spare.” She was still smiling, but it had a harder edge now. This wasn’t the first time she’d asked someone for money.
I pulled out two American twenties and handed them across the table. She squinted at them as though not quite believing I was so cheap, then slipped them beneath the table.
“That’s great. Thanks,” she said.
“Hold on.” I pulled out another two twenties.
“Thank you,” she said softly, folding the bills carefully and tucking them away. “I’ll pay you back.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Done with me now, the American kids started yakking about something, music, I thought, though the arcane names of bands, or brands, or TV shows proved impenetrable. I fell into the role of observer, watching men slip in from the street, skirt the far wall until they reached the line of girls, one of which would peel off and lead the man through a curtained doorway. One of the girls had noticed me watching and kept catching my eye, smiling, maybe thinking I’d be good for a big tip.
“So, are you like actually going up to the mine?” Allie said, cutting Billy off in the middle of one of his stories.
“The mine, are you going there?” She was squinting, as though I was far away.
“No. There’s plenty of work to do at the headquarters.”
“Yeah, I bet,” she said, propping her knobby elbows on the table.
Like my daughters, this girl clearly had some fantasy about a world made up of good guys and bad guys. This was a liberal delusion, one that sensible people eventually realized was a limited and immature way of seeing the world.
“I’ve heard about that mine,” Allie said.
I knew she meant in Harper’s. Susan had mailed me a copy of the issue. The article focused on the displacement of the local population and the tensions this generated within the community and the possibility that it might reignite the civil war. In truth, I’d only skimmed the pages, bloated as they were with nonsense.
“I guess that makes you an expert, doesn’t it?” I said.
“I think it’s pretty fucked up,” she said. “I mean, how can you work for that company? They’re stealing those people’s lands.”
“Those people don’t own the land. That’s the point.”
“That’s such bullshit!” she shouted, slapping the table. The men at the bar turned on their stools.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, just above a whisper. “The opportunities that mine presents for this country outweigh the concerns of a few subsistence farmers.” I hated myself for getting sucked in, but I’d never been able to stop myself. Thanksgiving dinners always ended in acrimony in our house.
“Of course it does!” Allie was shouting now. Everyone was watching us. “Opportunities for the rich who’ve raped this country for hundreds of years, and for North American corporations. Which I guess is what your job is, right? Grease the fucking gears.”
There was something in her tone that made me think she wasn’t just someone who’d stumbled across an article, which had mentioned, now that I thought about it, the presence of international human rights organizations, serving as observers and even human shields for the local communities when the mining company sent in men to burn the villages. Seeing her indignation, I began to wonder if maybe she was one of these. Even brainless Billy could’ve been an activist.
“I think you’re simplifying things. The world isn’t that easy,” I said.
“It’s not?” she shouted. “What’s so complicated? Thieves come down and steal land, property, goods, and call themselves a company. That’s how it’s always been.” Her face was red and the cords of her neck stood out. A little vein pulsed along her forehead. Billy watched all this with a bemused smile, as though we were speaking a foreign language.
“That’s how a child thinks,” I said. “Just because you read something in a magazine doesn’t mean you understand anything.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? What fucking magazine? I guess you,” she lunged forward, trying to poke me in the chest, but the table caught her in the stomach, “are just naturally full of fucking wisdom, aren’t you?”
Before I could say anything she stood and stomped to the bar, squeezing in between two men. Billy fussed with the label on his bottle, then followed. They whispered together furiously while I finished my beer and gestured for another. Little peaks of their bitching rose into audibility every now and then. When I’d nearly finished my new beer, they went and sat at another table, back near the prostitutes.
Maybe at that point I should’ve left. But I’d seen the way the men in the bar were looking at the American kids, and though they were strangers, I felt responsible for them. I ordered another beer, told the waitress I was paying for everything the Americans had, and snuck a look at my cell phone, which was still getting no service. Though the lopsided clock on the wall said it was only six o’clock, dark had fallen. Back home, Joyce would be exhausted, barely able to shuffle to the bathroom where she’d strain to urinate, and then brush her teeth. Susan would have to help lift her mother into bed, hook up the tubes and set the level of the oxygen. These are things I’d done every day for the past year when I was home and I’d come to think of them as rites no one knew how to enact but me. I hated when reality imposed on this feeling, as it continually did when we had to hire nurses to help while I was abroad. This time, Joyce said she didn’t want a stranger. She couldn’t stand another bored, tired nurse changing her bed pan, lifting her frail shoulders from the sheets to slip her nightgown off before sponging her down, massaging her legs and slipping a clean gown over her head. I’d written out how to do all this in explicit detail for Susan, but I was worried something would go wrong. Joyce might die and even though I knew this was inevitable, knew that soon enough she’d be gone, I wasn’t ready for it and couldn’t accept it. And now I was here, thousands of miles away and out of touch. I wanted to be there, to take care of her, to sit up in bed when I heard her sighing in pain, or just shifting her hips. I was alert in a way I haven’t been since Susan was born and for the first few weeks had only been able to sleep nestled between us. All that time I slept thinly, always aware of her delicate body on the mattress. Instead of thrashing around in the sheets as I usually did I was suddenly calm and careful, and it was how I felt taking care of Joyce, the slight weight of her body in my arms as I cradled her and lifted her up and set her down in the soft seat of her wheelchair. But what was I suppose to do when the man who might’ve been Steve called? If I’d refused to come down here, they’d have fired me, had nearly already done so because of my “personal conflicts” that were “hindering my accountability,” and if that happened we’d be left without health insurance.
Distracted by these thoughts, I didn’t notice the two men join Billy and Allie. The men looked about the same age as the Americans, but were of a whole other world. Both men had cowboy hats tipped down over their narrow faces. I’d seen men like this all over the world, charming enough on the surface, but an inch down they were criminals. I could tell from the way they sat in their chairs that beneath their shirts were knives, or guns. The two men laughed, stood up, and gestured to the Americans. Allie and Billy complied. They knocked at a door on the back wall, which opened a crack, then let them in.
By the time I fumbled up out of my seat and across the room, the door was closed. The nearest prostitute grinned at me, tugging down the neck of her blouse.
I knocked and waited. While I did, I reached into my jacket and lifted the gun half an inch out of the holster, let it fall back. In my other hand I gripped my briefcase, full of financial papers and spreadsheets and my laptop computer. When no one answered my knocks I turned to the bartender, who avoided looking at me. “Abierto la puerta,” I said. The bartender smiled at me, then nodded and stepped around the bar and unlocked the door.
“Dancing,” he said, speaking Spanish slowly, as if I was a child. “Good dancing.”
A steep flight of stairs led down into a room that pulsed with blue light and a dense, throbbing music. The stairwell was smothered with water sodden posters – political ads, deodorant advertisements, and what looked like rock bands, men and women studded with piercings, sticking their tongues out and flicking off the camera as they danced atop blood red letters that had blistered and burst apart. The door above slammed, a lock thrown.
The music was too loud to hear voices in the room, the walls of which seemed to be shaking with the violent strobe light, and it took me a moment to recognize Allie and Billy at a table near a low wooden platform out of which rose a greasy metal pole. The Americans were laughing, bent doubled over as if in pain, and the two men they’d been talking with were smiling and smoking, holding what must have been joints out as the kids straightened up. There were half a dozen other tables, only one of which was occupied by a single man in a long trenchcoat, a baseball cap pulled low over his face. I sat at the table nearest the stairs, turning my chair so I could see if someone came down. A tiny, shriveled woman stepped from the shadows, her old body grotesquely squeezed into a leather bra and panties, her loose, cellulite thighs quivering as she stepped beside me and glared until I ordered a beer. Watching her slink back to the bar in the corner I noticed a wall, covered with leather straps, whips, and a long, thin machete.
I jumped when the music cut off, just long enough to hear Allie say, “Exactly. That’s exactly what I’m –,” and then the music erupted again, a crashing heavy-metal that felt as if it was scraping the inside my eyes. A silvery cloud drifted along the low ceiling filling the room with the overripe stink of marijuana.
At the far end of the wooden stage a heavy black curtain was pushed aside and a young woman walked out unsteadily on high, silver stilettos and nothing else, her small, high breasts not moving even when she tottered into the bright puddle of a spot light. She stopped in the middle of the stage and stood smiling shyly, her skin shining blue with sweat, or oil. She stared straight ahead, blinking heavily in the spot light, smiling. One of the men at Allie and Billy’s table stood up, stretching his arms over his head, leaning down to whisper something to Allie, who laughed and nodded. Slowly, as if everyone wasn’t watching, the man walked to the wall beside the bar and took down a short-handled black leather whip with three strands that sagged at the ends. Hefting it to test the weight, he walked back to his table, made another joke then, as the music rose to an even more frantic pitch, stepped onto the stage beside the woman.
I stared at my beer, but I could hear the wet, heavy snap of the whip and once I heard, through the din of the music a single cry of pain. Only when the music shifted between songs and I heard a woman’s voice, “No, I’m serious,” did I look up.
Allie was being pushed toward the stage by one of the other men, his mouth open, teeth flashing. Allie tried to turn, but the man grabbed her arms and spun her around to face the stage on which the naked girl was bent over, her face hidden by a fall of hair. Allie shook her head, but the man on the stage leaned down, grabbed her wrist and jerked her onto the stage. Billy, I noticed, was staring at his hands in his lap, as if about to go to sleep. The man on the stage held the whip out toward Allie. She turned to step down, but the man grabbed her arm and pulled her back and thrust the whip into her hand. I couldn’t tell, with the flashing light, with the blue haze, with the pounding music, but I thought she might be crying as she looked down at the whip in her hand, but I know that as she stepped up beside the kneeling girl she looked up, back at me, as if she’d known all along I was there. I put my hand on my gun, out of fear I guess, but also because I felt sure at that moment that I was in danger, that after she was done with the girl, she’d come for me. Then the fear left her face and Allie twirled the whip around head and gyrated her hips. Beneath the music I could hear the men cheering as I scrambled out of my seat, knocking over the untouched beer on my table and ran up the stairs, slipping so I hit my knee painfully, so that I limped through the door after knocking wildly until it was opened.
Outside the bar I got lost immediately, but kept hobbling until I found a larger street, lined with auto-body shops, against the fences of which snarling black dogs hurled themselves. I walked along the side of the road, tucking the gun back into the holster, my briefcase in the other hand, glancing back until I spotted a cab and flagged it down.
Now it’s nearly morning. Allie and Billy are surely dead, raped and tortured and robbed, all because they thought life was a game. In a few hours, the men from the mining company will come for me. We’re having breakfast here before heading to the office. It’s all there on my itinerary. The phone in my room is still dead. My cell phone still has no service and of course there’s no internet, so I can’t check on Joyce, can’t make sure Susan arrived, that they’re all still safe.
There’s nothing more to write. But I can’t stop thinking about what must’ve happened to Allie. I can’t stop thinking there must have been something I could have done to save her, to keep her safe.
In a few weeks her mother will start to worry. In a month she’ll call the embassy and her daughter’s degenerate friends to see if they’ve heard anything. She’ll sit up for hours, staring into the brittle, suburban dark, unable to even begin to imagine what might have happened, or what the world that swallowed her daughter was like. With no answers, there’ll be nothing she can do but wait and hope for some final word, for anything other than the silence.
The transport, once owned by an outer system cartel and appropriated by Earth’s Pacific Community after the Quiet War, ran in a continuous, ever-changing orbit between Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It never docked. It mined the solar wind for hydrogen to mix with the gram of antimatter which could power it for a century, and once or twice a year, during its intricate gravity-assisted loops between Saturn’s moons, maintenance drones attached remora-like to its hull, and fixed whatever its self-repairing systems couldn’t handle.
Ben Lo and the six other members of the first trade delegation to Proteus since the war were transferred onto the transport as it looped around Titan, still sleeping in the hibernation pods they’d climbed into in low Earth orbit. Sixty days later, they were released from the transport in individual drop capsules of structural diamond, like so many seeds scattered by a pod.
Swaddled in the crash web that took up most of the volume of the drop capsule’s little bubble, Ben Lo, woken only a day ago, was as weak and unsteady as a new-born kitten. The sun was behind the bubble’s braking sail. Ahead, Neptune’s oceanic disc was tipped in star-sprinkled black, subtly banded with blue and violet, its poles capped with white cloud, its equator streaked with cirrus. Proteus was a tiny crescent shining off to one side. The transport had already dwindled to a bright point amongst the bright points of the stars, on its way to spin up around Neptune, loop past Triton, and head on out for the next leg of its continuous voyage, halfway across the solar system to Uranus.
Proteus was a tiny crescent shining off to one side of Neptune, a battered ball of rock and ice, like so many of the moons of the outer planets. Over billions of years, most of the rock had sunk to its core and an enhanced view showed that its icy, dirty white surface was splotched with a scattering of large impact craters with dark interiors, like well-used ash trays, and dissected by stress fractures, some running halfway round the little globe.
The spy was falling towards this little moon in a thin transparent bubble of carbon, wearing a paper suit and a diaper, and trussed up in a cradle of smart cabling like an early Christian martyr. He could barely move a muscle. Invisible laser light poured all around him – the capsule was opaque to the frequency used – gently pushing against the braking sail which had unfolded and spun into a twenty-kilometre diameter mirror after the capsule had been released by the transport. Everything was fine.
The capsule said, ‘Only another twelve hours, Mr Lo. I suggest that you sleep. Elfhame’s time zone is ten hours behind Greenwich Mean Time.’
Had he been asleep for a moment? Ben Lo blinked and said, ‘Jet lag,’ and laughed.
‘I don’t understand,’ the capsule said politely. It didn’t need to be very intelligent. All it had to do was control the attitude of the braking sail, and keep its passenger amused and reassured until landing.
Ben Lo couldn’t explain. An unsettling feeling, a yawning sense of dislocation and estrangement, had suddenly washed over him. How strange that he was there, in a tiny capsule falling towards a cold dead moon millions and millions of miles from everything he knew. How had it happened? When he’d been a child, spaceships had been crude, disposable chemical rockets. The space shuttle exploding. The first men on the Moon. President Kennedy’s assassination. No, that had been before he’d been born . . . For a moment, his sense of dislocation threatened to swallow him whole, but then he had it under control, he remembered where he was, where he was going. It was the treatment, he thought. The treatment and the hibernation.
Somewhere down there on Proteus, in one of the smaller canyons, was Ben Lo’s first wife. But he mustn’t think of that. Not yet. Because if he did . . . no, he couldn’t remember. Something bad, though.
‘I can offer a variety of virtualities,’ the capsule said. Its voice was a husky contralto. It added, ‘Certain sexual services are also available.’
‘What I’d like is a chateaubriand steak butterflied and well-grilled over hickory wood, a Caesar salad, and a 1998 Walnut Creek Cabernet Sauvignon.’
‘I can offer a range of nutritive pastes, and eight flavours of water, including a balanced electrolyte,’ the capsule said. A prissy note had edged into its voice. It added, ‘I would recommend that you restrict intake of solids and fluids until you reach your destination.’
Ben Lo sighed. ‘How about you give me an inflight movie? Show me Wings of Desire.’
Despite its minuscule intelligence, the capsule had a greater memory capacity than all the personal computers on Earth at the end of the millennium. Ben Lo had downloaded his media archives into one corner of it.
‘But it’s partly in black and white!’ the capsule said ‘And flat. And utilises only two senses-’
‘Once upon a time, capsule, there was a man who was very old, and became young again, and found that he’d lost himself. Run the movie, and you’ll understand a little bit about me.’
The moon and Neptune dwindled to a bright star. The star went out. The film began.
Falling through a cone of laser light, the man and the capsule watched the story of an angel becoming a human being, out of love.
The capsule collapsed its sail as it skimmed the moon’s surface, shed the last of its relative velocity in the inertia buffers of the target zone. And then it was down, and was almost immediately picked up by a striding tripod that looked like a prop from The War of the Worlds, and carried into a steeply sloping tunnel, through a triple set of airlocks, into something like the emergency room of a hospital.
With the other members of the trade delegation, Ben Lo was decanted, stripped, washed, and dressed in fresh paper clothes. Somewhere in the parade of nurses and technicians he thought he glimpsed someone he knew, or thought he knew. A woman, her familiar face grown old, eyes faded blue in a face as wrinkled as a turtle’s . . . But then he was lifted onto a gurney and wheeled away.
Waking, he had problems with remembering who he was. A universally impersonal hotel room, could be anywhere on Earth except for the fractional gravity. A ship that was changing its delta vee, an orbital habitat, or one of the smaller outer system moons.
And what role was he playing?
He sat up, moving carefully because any sudden movement could catapult him across the room, asked the big window to depolarise. It was night, outside. The shadow a steep dark mountainside or perhaps a vast building loomed across a gulf of black air, a necklace of lights wound at its base, shimmering on a river down there . . .
Proteus. Neptune. The trade delegation. And the thing he couldn’t think about, which was fractionally nearer the surface now, like a word at the back of his tongue. He could feel it, but he couldn’t shape it. Not yet.
He stripped in the small, brightly lit bathroom and turned the walls to mirrors and looked at himself. He was too young to be who he thought he was. No, that was the treatment, of course. His third. Then why was his skin this colour? He hadn’t bothered to tint it for . . . How long?
That sci-fi version of Othello, a century and a half ago, when he’d been a movie star. He remembered the movie vividly, although not the making of it. But that was the colour he was now, his skin a rich, dark mahogany, gleaming as if oiled in the lights, his hair a cap of tight black curls.
He slept again, and dreamed of his childhood home. San Francisco. Sailboats scattered across the blue bay. He’d had a little boat, a Laser. The cold salt smell of the sea. The pinnacles of the rust-red bridge looming out of banks of fog, and the fog horn booming mournfully. Cabbage leaves in the gutters of Spring Street. The crowds swirling under the crimson and gold neon lights of the trinket shops of Grant Avenue, and the intersection at Grant and California tingling with trolley car bells.
He remembered everything as if he had just seen it in a movie. It was a side effect of the treatment he’d just had. He’d been warned about it, but it was still unsettling. The woman he was here to . . . Avernus. That was her name now. But when they had been married, a hundred and sixty odd years ago, she had been called Barbara Reiner. He tried to remember the taste of her mouth, the texture of her skin, and could not.
The next transport would not swing by Proteus for a hundred and seventy days, so there was no hurry to begin the formal business of the trade delegation. For a while, its members were treated as favoured tourists, in a place which had no tourist industry at all.
The sinuous rill canyon that housed Elfhame had been ploughed to an even depth of a kilometre, sprayed with layers of insulation, and sealed under a construction diamond and fullerene roof and pressurised to seven hundred millibars with a nitrox mix enriched with one per cent carbon dioxide to stimulate plant growth. Its sides were raked to form a deep vee in profile, with a long narrow lake lying at the bottom like a black ribbon, dusted with a scattering of pink and white coral cays. The Elfhamers called it the Skagerrak. Steep terraces rose above it. There were narrow vegetable gardens, rice paddies and farms on the higher levels, close to the lamps which, strung from the roof, gave an insolation equivalent to that of the surface of Mars; below them, amongst pocket parks and linear strips of designer wilderness, houses clung to the steep slopes or perched on platforms or bluffs, all with panoramic views of the lake at the bottom and screened from their neighbours by soaring ginkgoes, cypress, palmettoes, bamboo (which grew to fifty metres in the microgravity) and dragon’s blood trees. All the houses were large and individually designed; Elfhamers went in for extended families. At the lowest levels were the government buildings, commercial malls and parks, the university and hospital, and the single hotel, which bore all the marks of having been recently constructed for the trade delegation. And then there was the lake, the Skagerrak, with its freshwater corals and teeming fish, and slow waves ten metres high. The single, crescent-shaped beach of black sand at what Elfhamers called the North End was very steeply raked, and constantly renewed; the surfing was fabulous.
There were ziplines with T-bar seats, like ski lifts, strung up the steep terraces, and train capsules shuttled along a line that followed the western shore of the lake, but people mostly bounded around in huge kangaroo leaps, or flew using kites or foil wings and little handheld airscrews – the gravity was so low, 0.007g, that human flight was ridiculously easy. Children rode airboards or simply jumped from terrace to terrace, which strictly speaking was illegal, but even adults did it sometimes, and it seemed to be one of those laws to which no one paid much attention unless someone got hurt. It was possible to break a bone if you jumped from the top of the canyon and managed to land on one of the lakeside terraces, but you’d have to work at it.
The entire place, with its controlled, indoor weather, its bland affluence and universal cleanliness, was ridiculously vulnerable. It reminded Ben Lo of nothing so much as an old-fashioned shopping mall, the one in Santa Monica, for instance. He’d had a bit part in a movie set in that mall, somewhere near the start of his career. He was still having trouble with his memory. He could remember every movie he’d made, but couldn’t remember making any one of them.
He asked his guide if it was possible to get to the real surface. She was taken aback by the request, then suggested that he could access a mobot using the point-of-presence facility of his hotel room.
‘Several hundred were released fifty years ago, and some of them are still running, I suppose. Really, there is nothing up there but some industrial units.’
‘I guess Avernus has her labs on the surface.’
Instantly, the spy was on the alert, suppressing a thrill of panic.
His guide was a very tall, thin, pale girl called Marla. Most Elfhamers were descended from Nordic stock, and Marla had the high cheekbones, blue eyes, blond hair, and candid manner of her counterparts on Earth. Like most Elfhamers, she was tanned and athletically lithe, and wore a distractingly small amount of fabric: tight shorts, a band of material across her small breasts, plastic sandals, a comms bracelet.
At the mention of Avernus, Marla’s eyebrows dented over her slim, straight nose. She said, ‘I would suppose so, yah, but there’s nothing interesting to see. The programme it is reaching the end of its natural life, you see. The surface is not interesting, and it is dangerous. The cold and the vacuum, and still the risk of micrometeorites. Better to live inside.’
Like worms in an apple, the spy thought. The girl was soft and foolish, very young and very naïve. It was only natural that a member of the trade delegation would be interested in Elfhame’s most famous citizen. She wouldn’t think anything of this.
Ben Lo blinked and said, ‘Well, yes, but I’ve never been there. It would be something, for someone of my age to set foot on the surface of a moon of Neptune. I was born two years before the first landing on Earth’s moon, you know. Have you ever been up there?’
Marla’s teeth were even and pearly white, and when she smiled, as she did now, she seemed to have altogether too many. ‘Of course, in virtuality. Also places on Earth. London, Shanghai, Antarctica. It is part of our education.’
They were sitting on the terrace of a café that angled out over the lake. Resin tables and chairs painted white, clipped bay trees in big pots, terracotta tiles, slightly sticky underfoot, like all the floor coverings in Elfhame. Bulbs of chilled schnapps in an ice bucket.
Ben Lo tipped his chair back and looked up at the narrow strip of black sky and its strings of brilliant lamps that hung high above the steep terraces on the far side of the lake. He said, ‘You can’t see the stars. You can’t even see Neptune.’
‘Well, we are on the far side,’ Marla said, reasonably. ‘But if you like, I can arrange a link with a mobot on the surface.’
‘That’s nice, but it isn’t the same as being there.’
Marla laughed. ‘Oh, yah. I forget that you were once a capitalist’ – the way she said it, he might have been a dodo, or a dolphin – ‘from the United States of the Americas, as it was called then. That is why you put such trust in what you call real. But really it is not such a big difference. You put on a mask, or you put on a pressure suit. It is all barriers to experience. And you would need training before you could go outside, many hours, so it would be much easier to use a mobot link, and little different, I think.’
Ben Lo didn’t press the point. His guide was perfectly charming, if earnest and humourless, and brightly but brainlessly enthusiastic for the party line, like a cadre from one of the supernats. She was transparently a government spy, and was recording everything – she had shown him the little button camera and asked his permission.
‘Such a historical event this is, Mr Lo, that we wish to make a permanent record of it. You will I hope not mind?’
So now he changed the subject, and asked why there were no sailboats on the lake, and then had to explain to Marla what a sailboat was.
Her smile was brilliant when she finally understood. ‘Oh yah, there are some who use such boards on the water, like surfing boards with sails.’
‘The waves are very high, so it is not easy a sport. Not many are allowed, besides, because of the film.’
It turned out that there was a monomolecular film across the whole lake, to stop great gobs of it floating off into the lakeside terraces.
Marla’s watch chirped. It was tattooed on her slim, tanned wrist. ‘Now it will rain soon,’ she said. ‘We should go inside, I think. I can show you the library this afternoon. There are several real books in it that one of our first citizens brought all the way from Earth.
When he wasn’t sight-seeing or attending coordination meetings with the others in the trade delegation (he knew none of them well, and they were all so much younger than him, as bright and enthusiastic as Marla), Ben Lo spent a lot of time in Elfhame’s library. He told Marla that he was gathering background information that would help finesse the target packages of economic exchange, and she said that it was good, this was an open society, they had nothing to hide. Of course, he couldn’t use his own archive, which was under bonded quarantine, but he was happy enough typing away at one of the library terminals for hours on end, and after a while Marla left him to it. He also made use of various mobots to explore the surface, especially around Elfhame’s roof.
And then there were the diplomatic functions to attend: a party in the prime minister’s house, a monstrous construction of pine logs and steeply pitched roofs of wooden shingles cantilevered above the lake; a reception in the assembly room of the parliament, the Riksdag; others at the university and the Supreme Court. Ben Lo started to get a permanent crick in his neck from looking up at the faces of his etiolated hosts while making conversation.
At one, held in the humid, rarefied atmosphere of the research greenhouses near the top of the east side of Elfhame, Ben Lo glimpsed Avernus again. His heart lifted strangely, and the spy broke off from the one-sided conversation with an earnest hydroponicist and pushed through the throng towards his target, the floor sucking at his sandals with each step.
The old woman was surrounded by a gaggle of young giants, set apart from the rest of the party. The spy was aware of people watching when he took Avernus’s hand, something that caused a murmur of unrest amongst her companions.
‘An old custom, dears,’ Avernus told them. ‘We predate most of the plagues that made such gestures taboo, even after the plagues were defeated. Ben, dear, what a surprise. I had hoped never to see you again. Your employers have a strange sense of humour.’
A young man with big, red-framed data glasses said, ‘You know each other?’
‘We lived in the same city,’ Avernus said, ‘many years ago.’ She had brushed her vigorous grey hair back from her forehead. The wine-dark velvet wrap did not flatter her skinny old-woman’s body. She said to Ben, ‘You look so young.’
‘My third treatment,’ he confessed.
Avernus said, ‘It was once said that in American lives there was no second act – and now biotech has given almost everyone who can afford it a second act, and for some a third one, too. But what to do with them? One simply can’t pretend to be young again – one is too aware of death, and has too much at stake, too much invested in self, to risk being young.’
‘There’s no longer any America,’ Ben Lo said. ‘Perhaps that helps.’
‘To be without loyalty,’ the old woman said, ‘except to one’s own continuity.’
The spy winced, but did not show it.
The old woman took his elbow. Her grip was surprisingly strong. ‘Pretend to be interested, dear,’ she said. ‘We are having a delightful conversation in this delightful party. Smile. That’s better.’
Her companions laughed uneasily at this. Avernus said quietly to Ben, ‘You must visit me.’
‘I have an escort.’
‘Of course you do. I’m sure someone as resourceful as you will think of something. Ah, this must be your guide. What a tall girl.’
Avernus turned away, and her companions closed around her, turning their long bare backs on the Earthman.
Ben Lo asked Marla what Avernus was doing there. The contrast between his memories of his wife and what she had become, what she was now, was dizzying. He could hardly remember what they had talked about. Meet. They had to meet. They would meet.
It was beginning.
Marla said, ‘It is a politeness to her. Really, she should not have come, and we are glad she is leaving early. You do not worry about her, Mr Lo. She is a relic of the previous administration. Would you like to see the new strains of Chlorella we use to manufacture complex hydrocarbons?’
Ben Lo smiled diplomatically. ‘It would be very interesting.’
There had been a change of government on Proteus, after the war. It had been less violent than a revolution, more like a change of climate. Before the Quiet War (that was what it was called on Earth, for although tens of thousands had died in the war, none had died on Earth), Proteus had been loosely allied with, but not committed to, an amorphous group that wanted to exploit the outer reaches of the solar system, beyond Pluto’s orbit; after the war, Proteus had dropped its expansionist plans and sought to re-establish links with the trading communities of Earth.
Avernus had been on the losing side of the change in political climate. Brought in by the previous regime because of her skills in gengineering vacuum organisms, she found herself sidelined and ostracised, her research group disbanded and replaced by government cadres, funds for her research suddenly diverted to new projects. But her contract bound her to Proteus for the next ten years, and the new government refused to release her. She had developed several important new dendrimers, light harvesting molecules used in artificial photosynthesis, and established several potentially valuable gene lines, including a novel form of photosynthesis based on a sulphur-spring Chloroflexus bacterium. The government wanted to license them, but to do that it had to keep Avernus under contract, even if it would not allow her to work.
Avernus wanted to escape, and Ben Lo was there to help her. The Pacific Community had plenty of uses for vacuum organisms – there was the whole of the Moon to use as a garden, to begin with – and was prepared to overlook Avernus’s political stance in exchange for her expertise and knowledge.
He was beginning to remember more and more, but there was still so much he didn’t know. He supposed that there were instructions that had been buried for security reasons, and would emerge in due course. He tried not to worry about it.
Meanwhile, the meetings of the trade delegation and Elfhame’s industrial executive finally began. Ben Lo spent most of the next ten days in a closed room dickering with Parliamentary speakers on the Trade Committee over marginal rates for exotic organics. When the meetings were finally over, he slept for three hours and then, still logy from lack of sleep but filled with excess energy, went body surfing at the beach of black sand at the North End. It was the first time he had managed to evade Marla. She had been as exhausted as him by the rounds of negotiations, and he had promised that he would sleep all day so that she could get some rest.
The surf was tremendous, huge smooth slow glassy swells falling from thirty metres to batter the soft, sugary black sand with giant’s paws. The air was full of spinning globs of water, and so hazed with spray, like a rain of foamy flowers, that it was necessary to wear a filter mask. It was what the whole lake would be like, without its monomolecular membrane.
Ben Lo had thought he would still have an aptitude for body surfing, because he’d done so much of it when he had been living in Los Angeles, before his movie career really took off. But he was as helpless as a kitten in the swells, his boogie board turning turtle as often as not, and twice he was caught in the undertow. The second time, a giantess got an arm around his chest and hauled him up onto dry sand.
After he had hawked up a couple of lungs-full of fresh water, he managed to gasp his thanks. The woman smiled. She had black hair in a bristle cut, and startlingly green eyes. She was very tall, very thin, and completely naked. She said, ‘At last you are away from that revisionist bitch.’
Ben Lo sat up, abruptly conscious, in the presence of this young naked giantess, of his own nakedness. ‘Ah. You are one of Avernus’s—’
The woman walked away with her boogie board under her arm, pale buttocks flexing. The spy unclipped the ankle line which tethered him to his rented board, bounded up the beach in two leaps, pulled on his shorts, and followed.
Sometime later, he was standing in the middle of a vast red-lit room at blood heat and what felt like a hundred per cent humidity. Racks of large-leaved plants receded into infinity; those nearest him towered high above, forming a living green wall. His arm stung, and the tall young woman, naked under a green gown open down the front, masked and wearing disposable gloves, deftly caught the glob of expressed blood – his blood – in a capillary straw, sprayed the puncture wound with sealant, and went off with her samples.
A necessary precaution, the old woman said. Avernus. He remembered now. Or at least could picture it. Taking a ski lift all the way to the top. Through a tunnel lined with tall plastic bags in which green Chlorella cultures bubbled under lights strobing in fifty millisecond pulses. Another attack of memory loss – they seemed to be increasing in frequency. Stress, he told himself.
‘Of all the people I could identify,’ Avernus said, ‘they had to send you.’
‘Ask me anything,’ Ben Lo said, although he wasn’t sure that he recalled very much of their brief marriage.
‘I mean identify genetically. We exchanged strands of hair set in amber, do you remember? I kept mine. It was mounted on a ring.’
‘I didn’t think that you were sentimental.’
‘It was my idea, and I did it with all my husbands. It helped me to remember what I once was.’
‘You were my wife, once upon a time.’
‘I was a silly young fool.’
‘I must get back to the hotel soon. If they find out I’ve been wandering around without my escort they’ll start to suspect.’
‘Good. Let them worry. What can they do? Arrest me? Arrest you?’
‘I have diplomatic immunity.’
Avernus laughed. ‘Ben, Ben, you always were so status conscious. That’s why I left. I was just another thing you’d collected. A trophy, like your Porsche or your Picasso.’
He didn’t remember.
‘It wasn’t a very good Picasso. One of his fakes – do you know that story?’
‘I suppose I sold it.’
The young woman in the green gown came back. ‘A positive match,’ she said. ‘Also, he is doped up with immunosuppressants and testosterone.’
‘That’s because of the treatment,’ the spy said glibly. ‘Is this where you do your research?’
‘Of course not. They would notice if you turned up there. This is one of the pharm farms. They grow tobacco here, with human genes inserted to make various immunoglobulins. They took away my people, Ben, and replaced them with spies. Ludmilla is one of my original team. They put her to drilling new agricultural tunnels.’
‘We are alone here,’ Ludmilla said.
‘Or you would have made your own arrangements.’
‘I hate being dependent on people. Especially from Earth, if you’ll forgive me. And especially you. The others in your trade delegation, are they part of this?’
Just a cover,’ the spy said. ‘They know nothing. They are looking forward to your arrival in Tycho. The laboratory is ready to be fitted out to your specifications.’
‘I swore I’d never go back, but they are fools here. They stand on the edge of greatness, the next big push, and they turn their backs on it and burrow into the ice like maggots.’
The spy took her hands in his. Her skin was loose on her bones, and dry and cold despite the humid heat of the hydroponic greenhouse. He said, ‘Are you ready? Truly ready?’
She did not pull away. ‘I have said so. I will submit to any test, if it makes your masters happy. Ben, you are exactly as I remember you. It is very strange.’
‘The treatments are very good now. You must use one.’
‘Don’t think I haven’t, although not as radical as yours. I like to show my age. You could shrivel up like a Struldbrugg, and I don’t have to worry about that, at least. That skin colour, though. Is it a fashion?’
‘I was Othello, once. Don’t you like it?’ Under the red lights his skin gleamed with an ebony lustre.
‘I always thought you’d make a good Iago, if only you had been clever enough. I asked for someone I knew, and they sent you. It almost makes me want to distrust them.’
‘We were young, then.’ He was trying and failing to remember his life with her, and a tremendous feeling of nostalgia for what he could not remember swept through him. Tears grew like big lenses over his eyes and he brushed them into the air and apologised.
‘I am here to do a job,’ he said, more for his benefit than hers.
Avernus said, ‘Be honest, Ben. I was only a passing whim. I don’t suppose you remember much about us.’
‘Well, it was almost two centuries ago.’
Avernus said, ‘When we got married, I was stupid with love. It was in the Wayfarer’s Chapel? Do you remember that? The day hot and very dry, with a Santa Ana blowing, and Channel Five’s news helicopter hovering overhead. You were already famous, and two years later we were divorced, and you were so famous I hardly recognised you.’
They talked a little while about his career. The acting, the successful terms as state senator, the unsuccessful term in Congress, the fortune he had made in land deals after the partition of the USA, his semi-retirement in the upper house of the Pacific Community parliament. It was a little like an interrogation, but he didn’t mind it. At least he knew that part of the story. The bare bones of it, anyway.
The tall young woman, Ludmilla, took him back to the hotel. It seemed natural that she should stay for a drink, and then that they should make love, with a languor and then an urgency that surprised him, although he had been told that restoration of his testosterone levels would sometimes cause emotional or physical cruxes that would require resolution. Ben Lo had made love in microgravity many times, but never before with someone who had been born to it. Afterwards, Ludmilla rose up from the bed and moved gracefully about the room, dipping and turning as she pulled on her scanty clothes.
‘I will see you again,’ she said, and then she was gone.
The negotiations resumed, a punishing schedule taking up at least twelve hours a day. And there were the briefings and summary sessions with the other delegates, as well as the other work the spy had to attend to when Marla thought he was asleep. Fortunately, he had a kink which allowed him to build up sleep debt and get by on an hour a night. He’d sleep when this was done, all the way back to Earth with his prize. Then at last everything was in place, and he had only to wait.
Some days later there was another reception, this time in the little zoo halfway up the west side. The Elfhamers were running out of novel places to entertain the delegates. Most of the animals looked vaguely unhappy in the microgravity and none were very large. Bushbabies, armadillos and mice; a pair of hippopotami no larger than domestic cats; a knee-high pink elephant with some kind of skin problem behind its disproportionately large ears.
As Ben Lo came out of the rest room Ludmilla brushed past, saying, ‘When can she go?’
‘Tonight, if she’s ready,’ the spy said.
Marla was feeding peanuts to the dwarf elephant. Ben Lo said, ‘Aren’t you worried that the animals might escape? You wouldn’t want mice running around your Shangri-La.’
‘They have a kink in their metabolism,’ Marla said. ‘An artificial amino acid they require. That girl who talked to you, do you know she was once one of Avernus’s assistants?’
The spy was instantly alert. ‘I met her once, when I was trying out body surfing. She propositioned me, if you can believe that.’
Marla said nothing.
‘I can’t make any kind of deal on my own. If someone wants anything, they must present it to the delegation, through the proper channels. All she wanted was sex. And I turned her down.’
‘You are an oddity here, it is true. I suppose some women would sleep with you out of curiosity.’
‘But you have never asked, Marla. I’m mortified.’
He said it playfully, but he knew that Marla suspected something, wondered if the precautions he and Ludmilla had taken, when she had led him to Avernus, and afterwards, had been enough. It didn’t matter. Everything was in place and soon he would be gone.
They came for him that night, but he was awake and dressed, counting off the minutes until his little bundle of surprises started to unpack itself. There were two of them, armed with tasers and sticky-foam canisters. The spy blinded them with homemade capsicum spray (he’d stolen chilli pods from one of the hydroponic farms and suspended a water extract in a perfume spray) and killed them as they blundered about, screaming and pawing at their eyes. One of them was Marla, the other a muscular man who must have spent a good portion of each day in a centrifuge gym. The spy disabled the sprinkler system, set fire to his room, kicked out the window, and ran.
There were police waiting outside the main entrance of the hotel. The spy ran right over the edge of the terrace and landed two hundred metres down amongst blue pines grown into bubbles of soft needles in the microgravity. Above, the fire touched off the homemade plastic explosive and a fan of burning debris shot out above the spy’s head, seeming to hover in the black air for a long time before beginning to flutter down towards the Skagerrak. Briefly, he wondered if any of the delegation had survived. It didn’t matter. The enthusiastic and naïve delegates had always been expendable.
Half the lights were out in Elfhame, and all of the transportation systems; the city comms was crashing and resetting every five minutes, and the braking lasers were sending twenty-millisecond pulses to a narrow wedge of the sky. It was a dumb bug, only a thousand lines long. The spy had laboriously typed it from memory into the library system, which connected with everything else. It wouldn’t take long to trace, but by then other things would start happening.
The spy crouched in the cover of the bushy pine trees. One of his teeth was capped. He pried it loose and unravelled the length of monomolecular diamond wire coiled inside.
In the distance, people called to each other over a backdrop of ringing bells and sirens and klaxons. Flashlights flickered in the darkness on the far side of the Skagerrak’s black gulf; on the terrace above the spy’s hiding place, the police seemed have brought the fire in the hotel under control. Then the branches of the pines started to doff as a wind got up; the bug had reached the air conditioning. In the darkness below, waves grew higher on the Skagerrak, sloshing and crashing together, as the wind drove waves towards the beach at the North End and reflected waves clashed with those coming onshore. The monomolecular film over the lake’s surface was not infinitely strong. The wind began to tear spray from the tops of the towering waves, and filled the lower level of the canyon with flying foam flowers. Soon the waves would grow so tall that they’d spill over the lower levels.
The spy counted out ten minutes, and then began to bound up the ladder of terraces, putting all his strength into his thigh and back muscles. Most of the setbacks between each terrace were no more than thirty metres high; for someone with muscles accustomed to one g, it was easy enough to scale them with a single jump in the microgravity, even from a standing start.
He was halfway there when the zoo’s elephant charged past him in the windy semidarkness. Its trunk was raised above its head and it trumpeted a single despairing cry as it ran over the edge of the narrow terrace. Its momentum carried it a long way out into the air before it began to fall, outsized ears flapping as if trying to lift it. Higher up, the plastic explosive charges the spy had made from sugar, gelatine and lubricating grease blew out hectares of plastic sheeting and structural frames from the long greenhouses.
The spy’s legs were like wood when he reached the high agricultural regions; his heart was pounding and his lungs were burning as he tried to strain oxygen from the thin air. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and mingled with panicked staff, ricocheting down long corridors and bounding across wind-blown fields of crops edged by shattered glass walls and lit by stuttering red emergency lighting. He was only challenged once, and struck the woman with the butt end of the fire extinguisher and ran on without bothering to check whether or not she was dead.
Marla had shown him the facility where they stored genetic material on one of her endless tours. Everything was kept in liquid nitrogen, and there was a wide selection of Dewar flasks. He chose one about the size of a human head, filled it, and clamped on the lid.
Then through a set of double pressure doors, banging the switch which closed them behind him, setting down the flask and dropping the coil of diamond wire beside it, stepping into a dressing frame and finally pausing, breathing hard, dry-mouthed and suddenly trembling, as the pressure suit was assembled around him. As the gold-filmed bubble was lowered over his head and clamped to the neck seal, Ben Lo started, as if waking. Something was terribly wrong. What was he doing here?
Dry air hissed around his face; head-up displays stuttered and scrolled down. The spy walked out of the frame, stowed the diamond wire in one of the suit’s utility pockets, picked up the flask of liquid nitrogen, and started the airlock cycle, ignoring the suit’s recitation of a series of safety precautions while the room revolved and opened on a flood of sunlight.
The spy came out at the top of Elfhame’s South End. He bounded around the tangle of pipes and fins of some kind of distillery or cracking plant, and saw the railway arrowing away across a cratered plain towards a close, sharply curved horizon. The single rail hung from smart A-frames whose carbon-fibre legs compensated for movements in the icy surface. Thirteen hundred kilometres long, it described a complete circle around the little moon from pole to pole, part of the infrastructure left over from Elfhame’s expansionist phase, when it was planned to string sibling settlements all the way around the moon.
The spy kangaroo-hopped along the sunward side of the railway, heading south towards the rendezvous point he had agreed. The ground was rippled and cracked and blistered, covered in fine ice dust that sprayed out from the cleats of his boots at each touchdown. In five minutes, the canyon had disappeared beneath the horizon behind him.
‘That was some diversion,’ a voice said over the open channel. ‘I hope no one was killed.’
‘Just an elephant, I think. Although if it landed in the lake it might have survived.’ He wasn’t about to tell Avernus about Marla and the policeman.
The spy stopped in the shadow of a carbon-fibre pillar, and scanned the terrain ahead of him. The mobots hadn’t been allowed into this area. The land curved away to the east and south like a warped checkerboard. A criss-cross pattern of ridges marked out regular squares about two hundred metres on each side, and each square was a different colour. Vacuum organisms. He’d reached the experimental plots.
Avernus said over the open channel, ‘I can’t see the pickup.’
He started along the line again. ‘I’ve already signalled to the transport using the braking lasers. It’ll be here in less than an hour. We’re a little ahead of schedule.’
The transport was a small gig with a brute of a motor taking up most of its hull, leaving room for only a single hibernation pod and a small storage compartment. If everything went according to plan, that was all he would need.
At last, at the top of one of his big kangaroo hops, he saw her on the far side of the curved checkerboard of the experimental plots, a tiny figure in a pressure suit standing at what looked like the edge of the world. He change course, bounded across the fields towards her.
The ridges were only a metre high and a couple of metres across, dirty water and methane ice fused smooth as glass. It was easy to leap over each of them – the gravity was so light that the spy could probably get into orbit if he wasn’t careful. Each field held a different growth. A corrugated grey mould that gave like rubber under his boots. Flexible spikes the colour of dried blood, all different heights and thicknesses, but none higher than his knees. More grey stuff, this time mounded in discrete blisters each several metres from its nearest neighbours, with fat grey ropes running beneath the ice. Irregular stacks of what looked like black plates which gave way, half way across the field, to a blanket of black stuff like cracked tar.
The figure had turned to watch him, its helmet a gold bubble that refracted the rays of the tiny intensely bright star of the sun. As the spy made the final bound across the last of the experimental plots – more of the black stuff, like a huge wrinkled vinyl blanket dissected by deep wandering cracks – Avernus said in his ear, ‘You should have kept to the paths.’
‘Any damage I’ve done doesn’t matter now.’
‘Ah, but I think you’ll find it does.’
Avernus was standing on top of a ridge of upturned strata at the rim of a huge crater. Her suit was transparent, after the fashion of the losing side of the Quiet War. It was intended to minimise the barrier between the human and the vacuum environments. She might as well have flown a flag declaring her allegiance to the outer alliance. Behind her, the crater stretched away south and west, and the railway ran right out above its dark floor on pillars that doubled and tripled in height as they stepped away down the inner slope. The crater was so large that its far side was hidden beyond the little moon’s curvature. The black stuff had overgrown the ridge, and flowed down into the crater. Avernus was standing on the only clear spot.
She said, ‘This is my most successful strain. You can see how vigorous it is. You didn’t get that suit from my lab, so I suggest you keep moving around. This stuff is thixotropic in the presence of foreign bodies. It spreads out like thixotropic paint over the neighbouring organisms, but doesn’t overgrow itself.’
The spy looked down, and saw that the big cleated boots of his pressure suit had already sunken to the ankles in the black stuff. He lifted one, then the other; it was like walking in tar. He took a step towards Avernus, and the ground collapsed beneath his boots and he was suddenly up to his knees in black stuff.
‘My suit,’ Avernus said, ‘is coated with the protein by which the strain recognises its own self. You could say I’m like a virus, fooling the immune system. I dug a trench, and that’s what you stepped into. Where is the transport?’
‘On its way, but you don’t have to worry about it,’ the spy said, as he struggled to free himself. ‘This silly little trap won’t hold me for long.’
Avernus stepped back. She was four metres away, and the black stuff was thigh deep around the spy now, sluggishly flowing upwards. The spy flipped the catches on the flask and tipped liquid nitrogen over the stuff. The nitrogen boiled up in a cloud of dense vapour and evaporated. It had made no difference at all to the stuff’s integrity.
A point of light began to grow brighter above the close horizon of the moon, moving swiftly aslant the field of stars.
‘That’s about as useful as pouring water on a lawn,’ Avernus said, and turned and pointed into the black sky. ‘I believe that’s the transport.’
The spy snarled at her. He had sunk up to his waist now.
Avernus said, ‘You never were Ben Lo, were you? Or at any rate no more than a poor copy. The original is back on Earth, alive or dead. If he’s alive, no doubt he’ll claim that this is all a trick of the outer alliance against the Elfhamers and their new allies, the Pacific Community.’
He said, ‘There’s still time, Barbara. We can do this together.’
The woman in the transparent pressure suit turned back to look at him. Sun flared on her bubble helmet.
‘Ben, poor Ben. I’ll call you that for the sake of convenience. That body isn’t yours. Oh, it looks like you, and I suppose the altered skin colour disguises the rougher edges of the plastic surgery. The skin matches your genotype, and so does the blood, but the skin was cloned from your original, and the blood must come from marrow implants. No wonder there’s so much immunosuppressant in your system. If we had just trusted tests on your skin and blood we might not have guessed what you really are. But your sperm – it was all female. Not a single X chromosome. I think you’re probably haploid, a construct from an unfertilised blastula, treated with testosterone so that you’d develop as male. But you aren’t a man. You aren’t even fully human. You’re a weapon. They used things like you as assassins in the Quiet War.’
He was in a pressure suit, with dry air blowing around his face, and displays blinking at the bottom of the clear helmet. A black landscape, and stars high above, and one bright star pulsing, growing closer. A spaceship! That was important, but he couldn’t remember why. He tried to move, and discovered that he was trapped in something like tar that came to his waist. He could feel it clamping around his legs, a terrible pressure that was compromising the heat exchange system of his suit. His legs were freezing cold, but his body was hot, and sweat prickled across his skin, collecting in the folds of the suit’s undergarment.
‘Don’t move,’ a woman’s voice said. ‘It’s like quicksand. It flows under pressure. You’ll last a little longer if you keep still. Struggling only makes it more liquid.’
Barbara. No, she called herself Avernus now. He had the strangest feeling that someone else was there, too, just out of sight. He tried to look around, but it was terribly hard in the half-buried suit. He had been kidnapped. It was the only explanation. He remembered running from the burning hotel . . . He was suddenly certain that the other members of the trade delegation were dead, and cried out, ‘Help me!’
Avernus squatted in front of him, moving carefully and slowly in her transparent pressure suit. He could just see the outline of her face through the gold film of her helmet’s visor.
‘There are two personalities in there. The dominant one let you back, Ben, so that you would plead with me. But don’t plead, Ben. I don’t want my last memory of you to be so undignified, and anyway, I won’t listen. I won’t deny you’ve been a great help. Elfhame always was a soft target, and you punched just the right buttons, and then you kindly provided the means of getting where I want to go. They’ll think I was kidnapped.’ Avernus turned and pointed up at the sky. ‘Can you see? That’s your transport. Ludmilla is going to reprogramme it.’
‘Take me with you, Barbara.’
‘Oh, but I’m not going to Earth. I considered it, but when they sent you I knew that there was something wrong. I’m going out, Ben. Further out. Beyond Pluto, in the Kuiper belt, where there are more than fifty thousand objects with a diameter of more than a hundred kilometres, and a billion comet nuclei ten kilometres or so across. And then there’s the Oort cloud, and its billions of comets. The fringes of that mingle with the fringes of Alpha Centauri’s cometary cloud. Life spreads. That’s its one rule. In ten thousand years my children will reach Alpha Centauri, not by starship, but simply through expansion of their territory.’
‘I remember now. That’s the way you used to talk when we were married. All that sci-fi you used to read.’
‘You don’t really remember it, Ben. It was fed to you. All my old interviews, my books and articles, all your old movies. They did a quick construction job, and just when you started to find out about it, the other one took over.’
‘I don’t think I’m quite myself. I don’t understand what’s happening, but perhaps it is something to do with the treatment I had. I told you about that.’
‘Hush, dear. There was no treatment. That was when they fixed you in the brain of this empty vessel.’
She was too close, and she had half-turned to watch the moving point of light grow brighter. He wanted to warn her, but something clamped his lips and he almost swallowed his tongue. He watched as his left hand stealthily unfastened a utility pocket and pulled out a length of glittering wire as fine as a spider-thread. Monomolecular diamond. Serrated along its length, except for five centimetres at each end, it could easily cut through pressure suit material and flesh and bone.
He knew then. He knew what he was.
The woman looked at him and said sharply, ‘What are you doing, Ben?’
And for that moment he was called back, and he made a fist around the thread and plunged it into the black stuff. The spy screamed and reached behind his helmet and dumped all oxygen from his main pack. It hissed for a long time, but the stuff gripping his legs and waist held firm.
‘It isn’t an anaerobe,’ Avernus said. She hadn’t moved. ‘It is a vacuum organism. A little oxygen won’t hurt it.’
Ben Lo found that he could speak. He said, ‘He wanted to cut off your head.’
‘I wondered why you were carrying that flask of liquid nitrogen. You were going to take it back and what? Use a bush robot to strip my brain neuron by neuron and read my memories into a computer? Turn me into some kind of expert system? Convenient, I suppose, but hardly optimal.’
‘It’s me, Barbara. I couldn’t let him do that.’ His left arm was buried up to the elbow.
‘Then thank you, Ben. I’m in your debt.’
‘I’d ask you to take me with you, but I think there’s only one hibernation pod in the transport. You won’t be able to take your friend, either.’
‘Ludmilla has her family here. She doesn’t want to leave. Or not yet.’
‘I can’t remember that story about Picasso. Maybe you heard it after we – after the divorce.’
‘You told it me, Ben. When things were good between us, you used to tell stories like that.’
‘Tell me it now.’
‘It’s about an art dealer who buys a canvas in a private deal, that is signed “Picasso”. This is in France, when Picasso was working in Cannes, and the dealer travels there to find if it is genuine. Picasso is working in his studio. He spares the painting a brief glance and dismisses it as a fake.’
‘I had a Picasso, once. A bull’s head. I remember that.’
‘You thought it was a necessary sign of your wealth. You were photographed beside it several times. I always preferred Georges Braque myself. Do you want to hear the rest of the story?’
‘I’m still here.’
‘Of course you are, as long as I stay out of reach. Well, a few months later our dealer buys another canvas signed by Picasso. Again he travels to the studio; again Picasso spares it no more than a glance, and announces that it is a fake. The dealer protests that this is the very painting he found Picasso working on the first time he visited, but Picasso just shrugs and says, “I often paint fakes.”’
His breathing was becoming laboured. Was there something wrong with the air system? The black stuff was climbing his chest. He could almost see it move, a creeping flow devouring him centimetre by centimetre.
The star was very close to the horizon, now.
He said, ‘I know a story.’
‘There’s no more time for stories, dear. I can release you, if you want. You only have your reserve air in any case.’
‘No. I want to see you go.’
‘I’ll remember you. I’ll tell your story far and wide.’
Ben Lo heard the echo of another voice across their link, and the woman in the transparent pressure suit stood and lifted a hand in salute and bounded away.
The spy came back, then, but Ben Lo fought him down. There was nothing he could do, after all. The woman was gone. He said, as if to himself, ‘I know a story. About a man who lost himself, and found himself again, just in time. Listen. Once upon a time. . .’
Something bright rose above the horizon and dwindled away into the outer darkness.
From May to September Delia took the Churro sheep and two dogs and went up on Joe-Johns Mountain to live. She had that country pretty much to herself all summer. Ken Owen sent one of his Mexican hands up every other week with a load of groceries but otherwise she was alone, alone with the sheep and the dogs. She liked the solitude. Liked the silence. Some sheepherders she knew talked a blue streak to the dogs, the rocks, the porcupines, they sang songs and played the radio, read their magazines out loud, but Delia let the silence settle into her and by early summer she had begun to hear the ticking of the dry grasses as a language she could almost translate. The dogs were named Jesus and Alice. “Away to me, Hey-sus,” she said when they were moving the sheep. “Go bye, Alice.” From May to September these words spoken in command of the dogs were almost the only times she heard her own voice; that, and when the Mexican brought the groceries, a polite exchange in Spanish about the weather, the health of the dogs, the fecundity of the ewes.
The Churros were a very old breed. The O-Bar Ranch had a federal allotment up on the mountain, which was all rimrock and sparse grasses well suited to the Churros, who were fiercely protective of their lambs and had a long-stapled top coat that could take the weather. They did well on the thin grass of the mountain where other sheep would lose flesh and give up their lambs to the coyotes. The Mexican was an old man. He said he remembered Churros from his childhood in the Oaxaca highlands, the rams with their four horns, two curving up, two down. “Buen’ carne,” he told Delia. Uncommonly fine meat.
The wind blew out of the southwest in the early part of the season, a wind that smelled of juniper and sage and pollen; in the later months it blew straight from the east, a dry wind smelling of dust and smoke, bringing down showers of parched leaves and seedheads of yarrow and bittercress. Thunderstorms came frequently out of the east, enormous cloudscapes with hearts of livid magenta and glaucous green. At those times, if she was camped on a ridge she’d get out of her bed and walk downhill to find a draw where she could feel safer, but if she was camped in a low place she would stay with the sheep while a war passed over their heads, spectacular jagged flares of lightning, skull-rumbling cannonades of thunder. It was maybe bred into the bones of Churros, a knowledge and a tolerance of mountain weather, for they shifted together and waited out the thunder with surprising composure; they stood forbearingly while rain beat down in hard blinding bursts.
Sheepherding was simple work, although Delia knew some herders who made it hard, dogging the sheep every minute, keeping them in a tight group, moving all the time. She let the sheep herd themselves, do what they wanted, make their own decisions. If the band began to separate she would whistle or yell, and often the strays would turn around and rejoin the main group. Only if they were badly scattered did she send out the dogs. Mostly she just kept an eye on the sheep, made sure they got good feed, that the band didn’t split, that they stayed in the boundaries of the O-Bar allotment. She studied the sheep for the language of their bodies, and tried to handle them just as close to their nature as possible. When she put out salt for them, she scattered it on rocks and stumps as if she was hiding Easter eggs, because she saw how they enjoyed the search.
The spring grass made their manure wet, so she kept the wool cut away from the ewes’ tail area with a pair of sharp, short-bladed shears. She dosed the sheep with wormer, trimmed their feet, inspected their teeth, treated ewes for mastitis. She combed the burrs from the dogs’ coats and inspected them for ticks. You’re such good dogs, she told them with her hands. I’m very very proud of you.
She had some old binoculars, 7 x 32s, and in the long quiet days she watched bands of wild horses miles off in the distance, ragged looking mares with dorsal stripes and black legs. She read the back issues of the local newspapers, looking in the obits for names she recognized. She read spine-broken paperback novels and played solitaire and scoured the ground for arrowheads and rocks she would later sell to rockhounds. She studied the parched brown grass, which was full of grasshoppers and beetles and crickets and ants. But most of her day was spent just walking. The sheep sometimes bedded quite a ways from her trailer and she had to get out to them before sunrise when the coyotes would make their kills. She was usually up by three or four and walking out to the sheep in darkness. Sometimes she returned to the camp for lunch, but always she was out with the sheep again until sundown when the coyotes were likely to return, and then she walked home after dark to water and feed the dogs, eat supper, climb into bed.
In her first years on Joe-Johns she had often walked three or four miles away from the band just to see what was over a hill, or to study the intricate architecture of a sheepherder’s monument. Stacking up flat stones in the form of an obelisk was a common herders pastime, their monuments all over that sheep country, and though Delia had never felt an impulse to start one herself, she admired the ones other people had built. She sometimes walked miles out of her way just to look at a rockpile up close.
She had a mental map of the allotment, divided into ten pastures. Every few days, when the sheep had moved on to a new pasture, she moved her camp. She towed the trailer with an old Dodge pickup, over the rocks and creekbeds, the sloughs and dry meadows to the new place. For a while afterward, after the engine was shut off and while the heavy old body of the truck was settling onto its tires, she would be deaf, her head filled with a dull roaring white noise.
She had about 800 ewes, as well as their lambs, many of them twins or triplets. The ferocity of the Churro ewes in defending their offspring was sometimes a problem for the dogs, but in the balance of things she knew it kept her losses small. Many coyotes lived on Joe-Johns, and sometimes a cougar or bear would come up from the salt pan desert on the north side of the mountain, looking for better country to own. These animals considered the sheep to be fair game, which Delia understood to be their right; and also her right, hers and the dogs, to take the side of the sheep. Sheep were smarter than people commonly believed and the Churros smarter than other sheep she had tended, but by mid-summer the coyotes had passed the word among themselves, buen’ carne, and Delia and the dogs then had a job of work, keeping the sheep out of harm’s way.
She carried a .32 caliber Colt pistol in an old-fashioned holster worn on her belt. If you’re a coyot’ you’d better be careful of this woman, she said with her body, with the way she stood and the way she walked when she was wearing the pistol. That gun and holster had once belonged to her mother’s mother, a woman who had come West on her own and homesteaded for a while, down in the Sprague River Canyon. Delia’s grandmother had liked to tell the story: how a concerned neighbor, a bachelor with an interest in marriageable females, had pressed the gun upon her, back when the Klamaths were at war with the army of General Joel Palmer; and how she never had used it for anything but shooting rabbits.
In July a coyote killed a lamb while Delia was camped no more than two hundred feet away from the bedded sheep. It was dusk and she was sitting on the steps of the trailer reading a two-gun western, leaning close over the pages in the failing light, and the dogs were dozing at her feet. She heard the small sound, a strange high faint squeal she did not recognize and then did recognize, and she jumped up and fumbled for the gun, yelling at the coyote, at the dogs, her yell startling the entire band to its feet but the ewes making their charge too late, Delia firing too late, and none of it doing any good beyond a release of fear and anger.
A lion might well have taken the lamb entire; she had known of lion kills where the only evidence was blood on the grass and a dribble of entrails in the beam of a flashlight. But a coyote is small and will kill with a bite to the throat and then perhaps eat just the liver and heart, though a mother coyote will take all she can carry in her stomach, bolt it down and carry it home to her pups. Delia’s grandmother’s pistol had scared this one off before it could even take a bite, and the lamb was twitching and whole on the grass, bleeding only from its neck. The mother ewe stood over it, crying in a distraught and pitiful way, but there was nothing to be done, and in a few minutes the lamb was dead.
There wasn’t much point in chasing after the coyote, and anyway the whole band was now a skittish jumble of anxiety and confusion; it was hours before the mother ewe gave up her grieving, before Delia and the dogs had the band calm and bedded down again, almost midnight. By then the dead lamb had stiffened on the ground and she dragged it over by the truck and skinned it and let the dogs have the meat, which went against her nature but was about the only way to keep the coyote from coming back for the carcass.
While the dogs worked on the lamb, she stood with both hands pressed to her tired back looking out at the sheep, the mottled pattern of their whiteness almost opalescent across the black landscape, and the stars thick and bright above the faint outline of the rock ridges, stood there a moment before turning toward the trailer, toward bed, and afterward she would think how the coyote and the sorrowing ewe and the dark of the July moon and the kink in her back, how all of that came together and was the reason she was standing there watching the sky, was the reason she saw the brief, brilliantly green flash in the southwest and then the sulfur yellow streak breaking across the night, southwest to due west on a descending arc onto Lame Man Bench. It was a broad bright ribbon, rainbow-wide, a cyanotic contrail. It was not a meteor, she had seen hundreds of meteors. She stood and looked at it.
Things to do with the sky, with distance, you could lose perspective, it was hard to judge even a lightning strike, whether it had touched down on a particular hill or the next hill or the valley between. So she knew this thing falling out of the sky might have come down miles to the west of Lame Man, not onto Lame Man at all, which was two miles away, at least two miles, and getting there would be all ridges and rocks, no way to cover the ground in the truck. She thought about it. She had moved camp earlier in the day, which was always troublesome work, and it had been a blistering hot day, and now the excitement with the coyote. She was very tired, the tiredness like a weight against her breastbone. She didn’t know what this thing was, falling out of the sky. Maybe if she walked over there she would find just a dead satellite or a broken weather balloon and not dead or broken people. The contrail thinned slowly while she stood there looking at it, became a wide streak of yellowy cloud against the blackness, with the field of stars glimmering dimly behind it.
After a while she went into the truck and got a water bottle and filled it and also took the first aid kit out of the trailer and a couple of spare batteries for the flashlight and a handful of extra cartridges for the pistol and stuffed these things into a backpack and looped her arms into the straps and started up the rise away from the dark camp, the bedded sheep. The dogs left off their gnawing of the dead lamb and trailed her anxiously, wanting to follow, or not wanting her to leave the sheep. “Stay by,” she said to them sharply, and they went back and stood with the band and watched her go. That coyot’, he’s done with us tonight: This is what she told the dogs with her body, walking away, and she believed it was probably true.
Now that she’d decided to go, she walked fast. This was her sixth year on the mountain and by this time she knew the country pretty well. She didn’t use the flashlight. Without it, she became accustomed to the starlit darkness, able to see the stones and pick out a path. The air was cool but full of the smell of heat rising off the rocks and the parched earth. She heard nothing but her own breathing and the gritting of her boots on the pebbly dirt. A little owl circled once in silence and then went off toward a line of cottonwood trees standing in black silhouette to the northeast.
Lame Man Bench was a great upthrust block of basalt grown over with scraggly juniper forest. As she climbed among the trees the smell of something like ozone or sulfur grew very strong, and the air became thick, burdened with dust. Threads of the yellow contrail hung in the limbs of the trees. She went on across the top of the bench and onto slabs of shelving rock that gave a view to the west. Down in the steep-sided draw below her there was a big wing-shaped piece of metal resting on the ground which she at first thought had been torn from an airplane, but then realized was a whole thing, not broken, and she quit looking for the rest of the wreckage. She squatted down and looked at it. Yellow dust settled slowly out of the sky, pollinating her hair, her shoulders, the toes of her boots, faintly dulling the oily black shine of the wing, the thing shaped like a wing.
While she was squatting there looking down at it, something came out from the sloped underside of it, a coyote she thought at first, and then it wasn’t a coyote but a dog built like greyhound or a whippet, deep-chested, long legged, very light-boned and frail looking. She waited for somebody else, a man, to crawl out after his dog, but nobody did. The dog squatted to pee and then moved off a short distance and sat on its haunches and considered things. Delia considered, too. She considered that the dog might have been sent up alone. The Russians had sent up a dog in their little sputnik, she remembered. She considered that a skinny almost hairless dog with frail bones would be dead in short order if left alone in this country. And she considered that there might be a man inside the wing, dead or too hurt to climb out. She thought how much trouble it would be, getting down this steep rock bluff in the darkness to rescue a useless dog and a dead man.
After a while she stood and started picking her way into the draw. The dog by this time was smelling the ground, making a slow and careful circuit around the black wing. Delia kept expecting the dog to look up and bark, but it went on with its intent inspection of the ground as if it was stone deaf, as if Delia’s boots making a racket on the loose gravel was not an announcement that someone was coming down. She thought of the old Dodge truck, how it always left her ears ringing, and wondered if maybe it was the same with this dog and its wing-shaped sputnik, although the wing had fallen soundless across the sky.
When she had come about half way down the hill she lost footing and slid down six or eight feet before she got her heels dug in and found a handful of willow scrub to hang onto. A glimpse of this movement—rocks sliding to the bottom, or the dust she raised—must have startled the dog, for it leaped backward suddenly and then reared up. They looked at each other in silence, Delia and the dog, Delia standing leaning into the steep slope a dozen yards above the bottom of the draw, and the dog standing next to the sputnik, standing all the way up on its hind legs like a bear or a man and no longer seeming to be a dog but a person with a long narrow muzzle and a narrow chest, turned-out knees, delicate dog-like feet. Its genitals were more cat-like than dog, a male set but very small and neat and contained. Dog’s eyes, though, dark and small and shining below an anxious brow, so that she was reminded of Jesus and Alice, the way they had looked at her when she had left them alone with the sheep. She had years of acquaintance with dogs and she knew enough to look away, break off her stare. Also, after a moment, she remembered the old pistol and holster at her belt. In cowboy pictures, a man would unbuckle his gunbelt and let it down on the ground as a gesture of peaceful intent, but it seemed to her this might only bring attention to the gun, to the true intent of a gun, which is always killing. This woman is nobody at all to be scared of, she told the dog with her body, standing very still along the steep hillside, holding onto the scrub willow with her hands, looking vaguely to the left of him where the smooth curve of the wing rose up and gathered a veneer of yellow dust.
The dog, the dog person, opened his jaws and yawned the way a dog will do to relieve nervousness, and then they were both silent and still for a minute. When finally he turned and stepped toward the wing, it was an unexpected, delicate movement, exactly the way a ballet dancer steps along on his toes, knees turned out, lifting his long thin legs; and then he dropped down on all-fours and seemed to become almost a dog again. He went back to his business of smelling the ground intently, though every little while he looked up to see if Delia was still standing along the rock slope. It was a steep place to stand. When her knees finally gave out, she sat down very carefully where she was, which didn’t spook him. He had become used to her by then, and his brief, sliding glance just said, That woman up there is nobody at all to be scared of.
What he was after, or wanting to know, was a mystery to her. She kept expecting him to gather up rocks, like all those men who’d gone to the moon, but he only smelled the ground, making a wide slow circuit around the wing the way Alice and Jesus always circled round the trailer every morning, noses down, reading the dirt like a book. And when he seemed satisfied with what he’d learned, he stood up again and looked back at Delia, a last look delivered across his shoulder before he dropped down and disappeared under the edge of the wing, a grave and inquiring look, the kind of look a dog or a man will give you before going off on his own business, a look that says, You be okay if I go? If he had been a dog, and if Delia had been close enough to do it, she’d have scratched the smooth head, felt the hard bone beneath, moved her hands around the soft ears. Sure, okay, you go on now, Mr. Dog: This is what she would have said with her hands. Then he crawled into the darkness under the slope of the wing, where she figured there must be a door, a hatch letting into the body of the machine, and after a while he flew off into the dark of the July moon.
In the weeks afterward, on nights when the moon had set or hadn’t yet risen, she looked for the flash and streak of something breaking across the darkness out of the southwest. She saw him come and go to that draw on the west side of Lame Man Bench twice more in the first month. Both times, she left her grandmother’s gun in the trailer and walked over there and sat in the dark on the rock slab above the draw and watched him for a couple of hours. He may have been waiting for her, or he knew her smell, because both times he reared up and looked at her just about as soon as she sat down. But then he went on with his business. That woman is nobody to be scared of, he said with his body, with the way he went on smelling the ground, widening his circle and widening it, sometimes taking a clod or a sprig into his mouth and tasting it, the way a mild-mannered dog will do when he’s investigating something and not paying any attention to the person he’s with.
Delia had about decided that the draw behind Lame Man Bench was one of his regular stops, like the ten campsites she used over and over again when she was herding on Joe-Johns Mountain; but after those three times in the first month she didn’t see him again.
At the end of September she brought the sheep down to the O-Bar. After the lambs had been shipped out she took her band of dry ewes over onto the Nelson prairie for the fall, and in mid-November when the snow had settled in, she brought them to the feed lots. That was all the work the ranch had for her until lambing season. Jesus and Alice belonged to the O-Bar. They stood in the yard and watched her go.
In town she rented the same room as the year before, and, as before, spent most of a year’s wages on getting drunk and standing other herders to rounds of drink. She gave up looking into the sky.
In March she went back out to the ranch. In bitter weather they built jugs and mothering-up pens, and trucked the pregnant ewes from Green, where they’d been feeding on wheat stubble. Some ewes lambed in the trailer on the way in, and after every haul there was a surge of lambs born. Delia had the night shift, where she was paired with Roy Joyce, a fellow who raised sugar beets over in the valley and came out for the lambing season every year. In the black, freezing cold middle of the night, eight and ten ewes would be lambing at a time. Triplets, twins, big singles, a few quads, ewes with lambs born dead, ewes too sick or confused to mother. She and Roy would skin a dead lamb and feed the carcass to the ranch dogs and wrap the fleece around a bummer lamb, which was intended to fool the bereaved ewe into taking the orphan as her own, and sometimes it worked that way. All the mothering-up pens swiftly filled, and the jugs filled, and still some ewes with new lambs stood out in the cold field waiting for a room to open up.
You couldn’t pull the stuck lambs with gloves on, you had to reach into the womb with your fingers to turn the lamb, or tie cord around the feet, or grasp the feet barehanded, so Delia’s hands were always cold and wet, then cracked and bleeding. The ranch had brought in some old converted school buses to house the lambing crew, and she would fall into a bunk at daybreak and then not be able to sleep, shivering in the unheated bus with the gray daylight pouring in the windows and the endless daytime clamor out at the lambing sheds. All the lambers had sore throats, colds, nagging coughs. Roy Joyce looked like hell, deep bags as blue as bruises under his eyes, and Delia figured she looked about the same, though she hadn’t seen a mirror, not even to draw a brush through her hair, since the start of the season.
By the end of the second week, only a handful of ewes hadn’t lambed. The nights became quieter. The weather cleared, and the thin skiff of snow melted off the grass. On the dark of the moon, Delia was standing outside the mothering-up pens drinking coffee from a thermos. She put her head back and held the warmth of the coffee in her mouth a moment, and as she was swallowing it down, lowering her chin, she caught the tail end of a green flash and a thin yellow line breaking across the sky, so far off anybody else would have thought it was a meteor, but it was bright, and dropping from southwest to due west, maybe right onto Lame Man Bench. She stood and looked at it. She was so very goddamned tired and had a sore throat that wouldn’t clear and she could barely get her fingers to fold around the thermos, they were so split and tender.
She told Roy she felt sick as a horse, and did he think he could handle things if she drove herself into town to the Urgent Care clinic, and she took one of the ranch trucks and drove up the road a short way and then turned onto the rutted track that went up to Joe-Johns.
The night was utterly clear and you could see things a long way off. She was still an hour’s drive from the Churros’ summer range when she began to see a yellow-orange glimmer behind the black ridgeline, a faint nimbus like the ones that marked distant range fires on summer nights.
She had to leave the truck at the bottom of the bench and climb up the last mile or so on foot, had to get a flashlight out of the glove box and try to find an uphill path with it because the fluttery reddish lightshow was finished by then, and a thick pall of smoke overcast the sky and blotted out the stars. Her eyes itched and burned, and tears ran from them, but the smoke calmed her sore throat. She went up slowly, breathing through her mouth.
The wing had burned a skid path through the scraggly junipers along the top of the bench and had come apart into a hundred pieces. She wandered through the burnt trees and the scattered wreckage, shining her flashlight into the smoky darkness, not expecting to find what she was looking for, but there he was, lying apart from the scattered pieces of metal, out on the smooth slab rock at the edge of the draw. He was panting shallowly and his close coat of short brown hair was matted with blood. He lay in such a way that she immediately knew his back was broken. When he saw Delia coming up, his brow furrowed with worry. A sick or a wounded dog will bite, she knew that, but she squatted next to him. It’s just me, she told him, by shining the light not in his face but in hers. Then she spoke to him. “Okay,” she said. “I’m here now,” without thinking too much about what the words meant, or whether they meant anything at all, and she didn’t remember until afterward that he was very likely deaf anyway. He sighed and shifted his look from her to the middle distance, where she supposed he was focused on approaching death.
Near at hand, he didn’t resemble a dog all that much, only in the long shape of his head, the folded-over ears, the round darkness of his eyes. He lay on the ground flat on his side like a dog that’s been run over and is dying by the side of the road, but a man will lay like that too when he’s dying. He had small-fingered nail-less hands where a dog would have had toes and front feet. Delia offered him a sip from her water bottle but he didn’t seem to want it, so she just sat with him quietly, holding one of his hands, which was smooth as lambskin against the cracked and roughened flesh of her palm. The batteries in the flashlight gave out, and sitting there in the cold darkness she found his head and stroked it, moving her sore fingers lightly over the bone of his skull, and around the soft ears, the loose jowls. Maybe it wasn’t any particular comfort to him but she was comforted by doing it. Sure, okay, you can go on.
She heard him sigh, and then sigh again, and each time wondered if it would turn out to be his death. She had used to wonder what a coyote, or especially a dog would make of this doggish man, and now while she was listening, waiting to hear if he would breathe again, she began to wish she’d brought Alice or Jesus with her, though not out of that old curiosity. When her husband had died years before, at the very moment he took his last breath, the dog she’d had then had barked wildly and raced back and forth from the front to the rear door of the house as if he’d heard or seen something invisible to her. People said it was her husband’s soul going out the door or his angel coming in. She didn’t know what it was the dog had seen or heard or smelled, but she wished she knew. And now she wished she had a dog with her to bear witness.
She went on petting him even after he had died, after she was sure he was dead, went on petting him until his body was cool, and then she got up stiffly from the bloody ground and gathered rocks and piled them onto him, a couple of feet high so he wouldn’t be found or dug up. She didn’t know what to do about the wreckage, so she didn’t do anything with it at all.
In May, when she brought the Churro sheep back to Joe-Johns Mountain, the pieces of the wrecked wing had already eroded, were small and smooth-edged like the bits of sea glass you find on a beach, and she figured this must be what it was meant to do: to break apart into pieces too small for anybody to notice, and then to quickly wear away. But the stones she’d piled over his body seemed like the start of something, so she began the slow work of raising them higher into a sheepherders monument. She gathered up all the smooth eroded bits of wing, too, and laid them in a series of widening circles around the base of the monument. She went on piling up stones through the summer and into September until it reached fifteen feet. Mornings, standing with the sheep miles away, she would look for it through the binoculars and think about ways to raise it higher, and she would wonder what was buried under all the other monuments sheepherders had raised in that country. At night she studied the sky, but nobody came for him.
In November when she finished with the sheep and went into town, she asked around and found a guy who knew about star-gazing and telescopes. He loaned her some books and sent her to a certain pawnshop, and she gave most of a year’s wages for a 14 x 75 telescope with a reflective lens. On clear, moonless nights she met the astronomy guy out at the Little League baseball field and she sat on a fold-up canvas stool with her eye against the telescope’s finder while he told her what she was seeing: Jupiter’s moons, the Pelican Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy. The telescope had a tripod mount, and he showed her how to make a little jerry-built device so she could mount her old 7 x 32 binoculars on the tripod too. She used the binoculars for their wider view of star clusters and small constellations. She was indifferent to most discomforts, could sit quietly in one position for hours at a time, teeth rattling with the cold, staring into the immense vault of the sky until she became numb and stiff, barely able to stand and walk back home. Astronomy, she discovered, was a work of patience, but the sheep had taught her patience, or it was already in her nature before she ever took up with them.
Dracula’s Guest was excised from the original Dracula manuscript by its publisher because of the length of the original book. It was published as a short story in 1914, two years after Stoker’s death.
When we started for our drive the sun was shining brightly on Munich, and the air was full of the joyousness of early summer.
Just as we were about to depart, Herr Delbruck (the maitre d’hotel of the Quatre Saisons, where I was staying) came down bareheaded to the carriage and, after wishing me a pleasant drive, said to the coachman, still holding his hand on the handle of the carriage door, “Remember you are back by nightfall. The sky looks bright but there is a shiver in the north wind that says there may be a sudden storm. But I am sure you will not be late.” Here he smiled and added, “for you know what night it is.”
Johann answered with an emphatic, “Ja, mein Herr,” and, touching his hat, drove off quickly. When we had cleared the town, I said, after signalling to him to stop:
“Tell me, Johann, what is tonight?”
He crossed himself, as he answered laconically: “Walpurgis nacht.” Then he took out his watch, a great, old-fashioned German silver thing as big as a turnip and looked at it, with his eyebrows gathered together and a little impatient shrug of his shoulders. I realized that this was his way of respectfully protesting against the unnecessary delay and sank back in the carriage, merely motioning him to proceed. He started off rapidly, as if to make up for lost time. Every now and then the horses seemed to throw up their heads and sniff the air suspiciously. On such occasions I often looked round in alarm. The road was pretty bleak, for we were traversing a sort of high windswept plateau. As we drove, I saw a road that looked but little used and which seemed to dip through a little winding valley. It looked so inviting that, even at the risk of offending him, I called Johann to stop—and when he had pulled up, I told him I would like to drive down that road. He made all sorts of excuses and frequently crossed himself as he spoke. This somewhat piqued my curiosity, so I asked him various questions. He answered fencingly and repeatedly looked at his watch in protest.
Finally I said, “Well, Johann, I want to go down this road. I shall not ask you to come unless you like; but tell me why you do not like to go, that is all I ask.” For answer he seemed to throw himself off the box, so quickly did he reach the ground. Then he stretched out his hands appealingly to me and implored me not to go. There was just enough of English mixed with the German for me to understand the drift of his talk. He seemed always just about to tell me something—the very idea of which evidently frightened him; but each time he pulled himself up saying, “Walpurgis nacht!”
I tried to argue with him, but it was difficult to argue with a man when I did not know his language. The advantage certainly rested with him, for although he began to speak in English, of a very crude and broken kind, he always got excited and broke into his native tongue—and every time he did so, he looked at his watch. Then the horses became restless and sniffed the air. At this he grew very pale, and, looking around in a frightened way, he suddenly jumped forward, took them by the bridles, and led them on some twenty feet. I followed and asked why he had done this. For an answer he crossed himself, pointed to the spot we had left, and drew his carriage in the direction of the other road, indicating a cross, and said, first in German, then in English, “Buried him—him what killed themselves.”
I remembered the old custom of burying suicides at cross roads: “Ah! I see, a suicide. How interesting!” But for the life of me I could not make out why the horses were frightened.
Whilst we were talking, we heard a sort of sound between a yelp and a bark. It was far away; but the horses got very restless, and it took Johann all his time to quiet them. He was pale and said, “It sounds like a wolf—but yet there are no wolves here now.”
“No?” I said, questioning him. “Isn’t it long since the wolves were so near the city?”
“Long, long,” he answered, “in the spring and summer; but with the snow the wolves have been here not so long.”
Whilst he was petting the horses and trying to quiet them, dark clouds drifted rapidly across the sky. The sunshine passed away, and a breath of cold wind seemed to drift over us. It was only a breath, however, and more of a warning than a fact, for the sun came out brightly again.
Johann looked under his lifted hand at the horizon and said, “The storm of snow, he comes before long time.” Then he looked at his watch again, and, straightway holding his reins firmly—for the horses were still pawing the ground restlessly and shaking their
heads—he climbed to his box as though the time had come for proceeding on our journey.
I felt a little obstinate and did not at once get into the carriage.
“Tell me,” I said, “about this place where the road leads,” and I pointed down.
Again he crossed himself and mumbled a prayer before he answered,
“It is unholy.”
“What is unholy?” I enquired.
“Then there is a village?”
“No, no. No one lives there hundreds of years.”
My curiosity was piqued, “But you said there was a village.”
“Where is it now?”
Whereupon he burst out into a long story in German and English, so mixed up that I could not quite understand exactly what he said. Roughly I gathered that long ago, hundreds of years, men had died there and been buried in their graves; but sounds were heard under the clay, and when the graves were opened, men and women were found rosy with life and their mouths red with blood. And so, in haste to save their lives (aye, and their souls!—and here he crossed himself) those who were left fled away to other places, where the living lived and the dead were dead and not—not something. He was evidently afraid to speak the last words. As he proceeded with his narration, he grew more and more excited. It seemed as if his imagination had got hold of him, and he ended in a perfect paroxysm of fear-white-faced, perspiring, trembling, and looking round him as if expecting that some dreadful presence would manifest itself there in the bright sunshine on the open plain.
Finally, in an agony of desperation, he cried, “Walpurgis nacht!” and pointed to the carriage for me to get in.
All my English blood rose at this, and standing back I said, “You are afraid, Johann—you are afraid. Go home, I shall return alone, the walk will do me good.” The carriage door was open. I took from the seat my oak walking stick–which I always carry on my holiday excursions—and closed the door, pointing back to Munich, and said, “Go home, Johann—Walpurgis nacht doesn’t concern Englishmen.”
The horses were now more restive than ever, and Johann was trying to hold them in, while excitedly imploring me not to do anything so foolish. I pitied the poor fellow, he was so deeply in earnest; but all the same I could not help laughing. His English was quite gone now. In his anxiety he had forgotten that his only means of making me understand was to talk my language, so he jabbered away in his native German. It began to be a little tedious. After giving the direction, “Home!” I turned to go down the cross road into the valley.
With a despairing gesture, Johann turned his horses towards Munich. I leaned on my stick and looked after him. He went slowly along the road for a while, then there came over the crest of the hill a man tall and thin. I could see so much in the distance. When he drew near the horses, they began to jump and kick about, then to scream with terror. Johann could not hold them in; they bolted down the road, running away madly. I watched them out of sight, then looked for the stranger; but I found that he, too, was gone.
With a light heart I turned down the side road through the deepening valley to which Johann had objected. There was not the slightest reason, that I could see, for his objection; and I daresay I tramped for a couple of hours without thinking of time or distance and certainly without seeing a person or a house. So far as the place was concerned, it was desolation itself. But I did not notice this particularly till, on turning a bend in the road, I came upon a scattered fringe of wood; then I recognized that I had been impressed unconsciously by the desolation of the region through which I had passed.
I sat down to rest myself and began to look around. It struck me that it was considerably colder than it had been at the commencement of my walk—a sort of sighing sound seemed to be around me with, now and then, high overhead, a sort of muffled roar. Looking upwards I noticed that great thick clouds were drafting rapidly across the sky from north to south at a great height. There were signs of a coming storm in some lofty stratum of the air. I was a little chilly, and, thinking that it was the sitting still after the exercise of walking, I resumed my journey.
The ground I passed over was now much more picturesque. There were no striking objects that the eye might single out, but in all there was a charm of beauty. I took little heed of time, and it was only when the deepening twilight forced itself upon me that I began to think of how Ishould find my way home. The air was cold, and the drifting of clouds high overhead was more marked. They were accompanied by a sort of far away rushing sound, through which seemed to come at intervals that mysterious cry which the driver had said came from a wolf. For a while I hesitated. I had said I would see the deserted village, so on I went and presently came on a wide stretch of open country, shut in by hills all around. Their sides were covered with trees which spread down to the plain, dotting in clumps the gentler slopes and hollows which showed here and there. I followed with my eye the winding of the road and saw that it curved close to one of the densest of these clumps and was lost behind it.
As I looked there came a cold shiver in the air, and the snow began to fall. I thought of the miles and miles of bleak country I had passed, and then hurried on to seek shelter of the wood in front. Darker and darker grew the sky, and faster and heavier fell the snow, till the earth before and around me was a glistening white carpet the further edge of which was lost in misty vagueness. The road was here but crude, and when on the level its boundaries were not so marked as when it passed through the cuttings; and in a little while I found that I must have strayed from it, for I missed underfoot the hard surface, and my feet sank deeper in the grass and moss. Then the wind grew stronger and blew with ever increasing force, till I was fain to run before it. The air became icy cold, and in spite of my exercise I began to suffer. The snow was now falling so thickly and whirling around me in such rapid eddies that I could hardly keep my eyes open. Every now and then the heavens were torn asunder by vivid lightning, and in the flashes I could see ahead of me a great mass of trees, chiefly yew and cypress all heavily coated with snow.
I was soon amongst the shelter of the trees, and there in comparative silence I could hear the rush of the wind high overhead. Presently the blackness of the storm had become merged in the darkness of the night. By-and-by the storm seemed to be passing away, it now only came in fierce puffs or blasts. At such moments the weird sound of the wolf appeared to be echoed by many similar sounds around me.
Now and again, through the black mass of drifting cloud, came a straggling ray of moonlight which lit up the expanse and showed me that I was at the edge of a dense mass of cypress and yew trees. As the snow had ceased to fall, I walked out from the shelter and began to investigate more closely. It appeared to me that, amongst so many old foundations as I had passed, there might be still standing a house in which, though in ruins, I could find some sort of shelter for a while. As I skirted the edge of the copse, I found that a low wall encircled it, and following this I presently found an opening. Here the cypresses formed an alley leading up to a square mass of some kind of building. Just as I caught sight of this, however, the drifting clouds obscured the moon, and I passed up the path in darkness. The wind must have grown colder, for I felt myself shiver as I walked; but there was hope of shelter, and I groped my way blindly on.
I stopped, for there was a sudden stillness. The storm had passed; and, perhaps in sympathy with nature’s silence, my heart seemed to cease to beat. But this was only momentarily; for suddenly the moonlight broke through the clouds showing me that I was in a graveyard and that the square object before me was a great massive tomb of marble, as white as the snow that lay on and all around it. With the moonlight there came a fierce sigh of the storm which appeared to resume its course with a long, low howl, as of many dogs or wolves. I was awed and shocked, and I felt the cold perceptibly grow upon me till it seemed to grip me by the heart. Then while the flood of moonlight still fell on the marble tomb, the storm gave further evidence of renewing, as though it were returning on its track. Impelled by some sort of fascination, I approached the sepulchre to see what it was and why such a thing stood alone in such a place. I walked around it and read, over the Doric door, in German:
COUNTESS DOLINGEN OF GRATZ
SOUGHT AND FOUND DEATH
On the top of the tomb, seemingly driven through the solid marble—for the structure was composed of a few vast blocks of stone—was a great iron spike or stake. On going to the back I saw, graven in great Russian letters:
THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST.
There was something so weird and uncanny about the whole thing that it gave me a turn and made me feel quite faint. I began to wish, for the first time, that I had taken Johann’s advice. Here a thought struck me, which came under almost mysterious circumstances and with a terrible shock. This was Walpurgis Night!
Walpurgis Night was when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad–when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel. This very place the driver had specially shunned. This was the depopulated village of centuries ago. This was where the suicide lay; and this was the place where I was alone–unmanned, shivering with cold in a shroud of snow with a wild storm gathering again upon me! It took all my philosophy, all the religion I had been taught, all my courage, not to collapse in a paroxysm of fright.
And now a perfect tornado burst upon me. The ground shook as though thousands of horses thundered across it; and this time the storm bore on its icy wings, not snow, but great hailstones which drove with such violence that they might have come from the thongs of
Balearic slingers–hailstones that beat down leaf and branch and made the shelter of the cypresses of no more avail than though their stems were standing corn. At the first I had rushed to the nearest tree; but I was soon fain to leave it and seek the only spot that seemed to afford refuge, the deep Doric doorway of the marble tomb. There, crouching against the massive bronze door, I gained a certain amount of protection from the beating of the hailstones, for now they only drove against me as they ricochetted from the ground and the side of the marble.
As I leaned against the door, it moved slightly and opened inwards. The shelter of even a tomb was welcome in that pitiless tempest and I was about to enter it when there came a flash of forked lightning that lit up the whole expanse of the heavens. In the instant, as I am a living man, I saw, as my eyes turned into the darkness of the tomb, a beautiful woman with rounded cheeks and red lips, seemingly sleeping on bier. As the thunder broke overhead, I was grasped as by the hand of a giant and hurled out into the storm. The whole thing was so sudden that, before I could realize the shock, moral as well as physical, I found the hailstones beating me down. At the same time I had a strange, dominating feeling that I was not alone. I looked towards the tomb. Just then there came another blinding flash which seemed to strike the iron stake that surmounted the tomb and to pour through to the earth, blasting and crumbling the marble, as in a burst of flame. The dead woman rose for a moment of agony while she waslapped in the flame, and her bitter scream of pain was drowned in the thundercrash. The last thing I heard was this mingling of dreadful sound, as again I was seized in the giant grasp and dragged away, while the hailstones beat on me and the air around seemed reverberant with the howling of wolves. The last sight that I remembered was a vague, white, moving mass, as if all the graves around me had sent out the phantoms of their sheeted dead, and that they were closing in on me through the white cloudiness of the driving hail.
Gradually there came a sort of vague beginning of consciousness, then a sense of weariness that was dreadful. For a time I remembered nothing, but slowly my senses returned. My feet seemed positively racked with pain, yet I could not move them. They seemed to be numbed. There was an icy feeling at the back of my neck and all down my spine, and my ears, like my feet, were dead yet in torment; but there was in my breast a sense of warmth which was by comparison delicious. It was as a nightmare—a physical nightmare, if one may use such an expression; for some heavy weight on my chest made it difficult for me to breathe.
This period of semilethargy seemed to remain a long time, and as it faded away I must have slept or swooned. Then came a sort of loathing, like the first stage of seasickness, and a wild desire to be free of something—I knew not what. A vast stillness enveloped me, as though all the world were asleep or dead—only broken by thelow panting as of some animal close to me. I felt a warm rasping at my throat, then came a consciousness of the awful truth which chilled me to the heart and sent the blood surging up through my brain. Some great animal was lying on me and now licking my throat. I feared to stir, for some instinct of prudence bade me lie still; but the brute seemed to realize that there was now some change in me, for it raised its head. Through my eyelashes I saw above me the two great flaming eyes of a gigantic wolf. Its sharp white teeth gleamed in the gaping red mouth, and I could feel its hot breath fierce and acrid upon me.
For another spell of time I remembered no more. Then I became conscious of a low growl, followed by a yelp, renewed again and again. Then seemingly very far away, I heard a “Holloa! holloa!” as of many voices calling in unison. Cautiously I raised my head and looked in the direction whence the sound came, but the cemetery blocked my view. The wolf still continued to yelp in a strange way, and a red glare began to move round the grove of cypresses, as though following the sound. As the voices drew closer, the wolf yelped faster and louder. I feared to make either sound or motion. Nearer came the red glow over the white pall which stretched into the darkness around me. Then all at once from beyond the trees there came at a trot a troop of horsemen bearing torches. The wolf rose from my breast and made for the cemetery. I saw one of the horsemen (soldiers by their caps and their long military cloaks) raise his carbine and take aim. A companion knocked up his arm, and I heard the ball whiz over my head. He had evidently taken my body for that of the wolf. Another sighted the animal as it slunk away, and a shot followed. Then, at a gallop, the troop rode forward—some towards me, others following the wolf as it disappeared amongst the snow-clad cypresses.
As they drew nearer I tried to move but was powerless, although I could see and hear all thatwent on around me. Two or three of the soldiers jumped from their horses and knelt beside me. One of them raised my head and placed his hand over my heart.
“Good news, comrades!” he cried. “His heart still beats!”
Then some brandy was poured down my throat; it put vigor into me, and I was able to open my eyes fully and look around. Lights and shadows were moving among the trees, and I heard men call to one another. They drew together, uttering frightened exclamations; and the lights flashed as the others came pouring out of the cemetery pell-mell, like men possessed. When the further ones came close to us, those who were around me asked them eagerly, “Well, have you found him?”
The reply rang out hurriedly, “No! no! Come away quick–quick! This is no place to stay, and on this of all nights!”
“What was it?” was the question, asked in all manner of keys. The answer came variously and all indefinitely as though the men were moved by some common impulse to speak yet were restrained by some common fear from giving their thoughts.
“It—it—indeed!” gibbered one, whose wits had plainly given out for the moment.
“A wolf–and yet not a wolf!” another put in shudderingly.
“No use trying for him without the sacred bullet,” a third remarked in a more ordinary manner.
“Serve us right for coming out on this night! Truly we have earned our thousand marks!” were the ejaculations of a fourth.
“There was blood on the broken marble,” another said after a pause, “the lightning never brought that there. And for him—is he safe? Look at his throat! See comrades, the wolf has been lying on him and keeping his blood warm.”
The officer looked at my throat and replied, “He is all right, the skin is not pierced. What does it all mean? We should never have found him but for the yelping of the wolf.”
“What became of it?” asked the man who was holding up my head and who seemed the least panic-stricken of the party, for his hands were steady and without tremor. On his sleeve was the chevron of a petty officer.
“It went home,” answered the man, whose long face was pallid and who actually shook with terror as he glanced around him fearfully. “There are graves enough there in which it may lie. Come, comrades—come quickly! Let us leave this cursed spot.”
The officer raised me to a sitting posture, as he uttered a word of command; then several men placed me upon a horse. He sprang to the saddle behind me, took me in his arms, gave the word to advance; and, turning our faces away from the cypresses, we rode away in swift military order.
As yet my tongue refused its office, and I was perforce silent. I must have fallen asleep; for the next thing I remembered was finding myself standing up, supported by a soldier on each side of me. It was almost broad daylight, and to the north a red streak of sunlight was reflected like a path of blood over the waste of snow. The officer was telling the men to say nothing of what they had seen, except that they found an English stranger, guarded by a large dog.
“Dog! that was no dog,” cut in the man who had exhibited such fear. “I think I know a wolf when I see one.”
The young officer answered calmly, “I said a dog.”
“Dog!” reiterated the other ironically. It was evident that his courage was rising with the sun; and, pointing to me, he said, “Look at his throat. Is that the work of a dog, master?”
Instinctively I raised my hand to my throat, and as I touched it I cried out in pain. The men crowded round to look, some stooping down from their saddles; and again there came the calm voice of the young officer, “A dog, as I said. If aught else were said we should only be laughed at.”
I was then mounted behind a trooper, and we rode on into the suburbs of Munich. Here we came across a stray carriage into which I was lifted, and it was driven off to the Quatre Saisons—the young officer accompanying me, whilst a trooper followed with his horse, and the others rode off to their barracks.
When we arrived, Herr Delbruck rushed so quickly down the steps to meet me, that it was apparent he had been watching within. Taking me by both hands he solicitously led me in. The officer saluted me and was turning to withdraw, when I recognized his purpose and insisted that he should come to my rooms. Over a glass of wine I warmly thanked him and his brave comrades for saving me. He replied simply that he was more than glad, and that Herr Delbruck had at the first taken steps to make all the searching party pleased; at which ambiguous utterance the maitre d’hotel smiled, while the officer pleaded duty and withdrew.
“But Herr Delbruck,” I enquired, “how and why was it that the soldiers searched for me?”
He shrugged his shoulders, as if in depreciation of his own deed, as he replied, “I was so fortunate as to obtain leave from the commander of the regiment in which I serve, to ask for volunteers.”
“But how did you know I was lost?” I asked.
“The driver came hither with the remains of his carriage, which had been upset when the horses ran away.”
“But surely you would not send a search party of soldiers merely on this account?”
“Oh, no!” he answered, “but even before the coachman arrived, I had this telegram from the Boyar whose guest you are,” and he took from his pocket a telegram which he handed to me, and I read:
Be careful of my guest—his safety is most precious to me. Should aught happen to him, or if he be missed, spare nothing to find him and ensure his safety. He is English and therefore adventurous. There are often dangers from snow and wolves and night. Lose not a moment if you suspect harm to him. I answer your zeal with my fortune.
As I held the telegram in my hand, the room seemed to whirl around me, and if the attentive maitre d’hotel had not caught me, I think I should have fallen. There was something so strange in all this, something so weird and impossible to imagine, that there grew on me a sense of my being in some way the sport of opposite forces—the mere vague idea of which seemed in a way to paralyze me. I was certainly under some form of mysterious protection. From a distant country had come, in the very nick of time, a message that took me out of the danger of the snow sleep and the jaws of the wolf.
Every night my father took the path from the cemetery to our house. I could hear his footsteps in the garden. I pretended to be asleep while he looked for the stick that he used to hide in my closet. I left the door open for him and played an amusing game with him – he left his eyes in his grave and every time I hid his stick in a different place.
I watched him with half an eye until he gave up. Then he curled up on the floor, miserable and tired. I got out of bed, took his hand and walked him back to the cemetery gate before the people of the house woke up. He walked through the gate confidently and with assurance, and I watched him from a short distance as he disappeared among the graves.
I’d never thought of getting rid of the stick—by throwing it in the river, for example, or breaking it on the garden wall. On the contrary, I’d taken extra care of it since my father’s night visits began. After each visit I got rid of one of the scars he had given me with it. I had one on my right shoulder, one on my left leg, and many small scars here and there—some visible and some beneath the skin.
I had gotten rid of all but one scar that was left at the bottom of the list. I didn’t know where it was on the skin or beneath it. One last visit from him and it would all be over and I would have eliminated them all. This time I would leave him lying curled up miserably in the corner of the room for longer than usual. I might wait until dawn or until he swallowed his pride and asked me openly to escort him back to his grave before the sun came up.
But he didn’t come for three nights. His absence made me very anxious. Had he caught on to the game? Or had he given up hope of finding his stick?
On the fourth night I decided to look for him. Maybe he had lost his way or was having a long doze in his grave. But this would be his last visit to us and then I would leave his stick on top of his grave and he wouldn’t bother walking around at night dead and blind.
At two o’clock in the morning I left my room quietly, taking care not to wake my mother, who leaves the door of her bedroom ajar. Then I crossed the living-room and the garden and made my way towards the cemetery. I didn’t think about how I was going to persuade my father to visit us for one last time. I didn’t have any particular plan in mind. But what dead person doesn’t hope to be invited out for a walk at night so that they can breathe cool refreshing air?
At the cemetery gate I spotted two shadows moving in the distance. I couldn’t make out their features in the dark. I went closer slowly and watched them from behind a large tree. It was my mother laying into my father with the stick. My father was trying to avoid her blows but he wasn’t moving from where he was or making any noise.
From my hiding place I heard her say, “You bastard, I told you not to hit him on the head. Don’t hit him on the head or you’ll kill him.”
I felt my head and found a deep wound covered with dried blood.
A few minutes later the two of them were making their way towards the house with tired and heavy steps.
I went through the cemetery gate and disappeared among the graves sunk in darkness.
It happened when I was about eighteen or nineteen years old (began Dr. Simsen). I was studying at the University, and being coached in anatomy by my old friend Solling. He was an amusing fellow, this Solling. Full of jokes and whimsical ideas, and equally merry, whether he was working at the dissecting table or brewing a punch for a jovial crowd.
He had but one fault—if one might call it so—and that was his exaggerated idea of punctuality. He grumbled if you were late two minutes; any longer delay would spoil the entire evening for him. He himself was never known to be late. At least not during the entire years of my studying.
One Wednesday evening our little circle of friends met as usual in my room at seven o’clock. I had made the customary preparations for the meeting, had borrowed three chairs—I had but one myself— had cleaned all my pipes, and had persuaded Hans to take the breakfast dishes from the sofa and carry them downstairs. One by one my friends arrived, the clock struck seven, and to our great astonishment, Solling had not yet appeared. One, two, even five minutes passed before we heard him run upstairs and knock at the door with his characteristic short blows.
When he entered the room he looked so angry and at the same time so upset that I cried out: “What’s the matter, Solling? You look as if you had been robbed.”
“That’s exactly what has happened,” replied Solling angrily. “But it was no ordinary sneak thief,” he added, hanging his overcoat behind the door.
“What have you lost?” asked my neighbor Nansen.
“Both arms from the new skeleton I’ve just recently received from the hospital,” said Solling with an expression as if his last cent had been taken from him. “It’s vandalism!”
We burst out into loud laughter at this remarkable answer, but Solling continued: “Can you imagine it? Both arms are gone, cut off at the shoulder joint;—and the strangest part of it is that the same thing has been done to my shabby old skeleton which stands in my bedroom. There wasn’t an arm on either of them.”
“That’s too bad,” I remarked. “For we were just going to study the
ANATOMY of the arm to-night.”
“Osteology,” corrected Solling gravely. “Get out your skeleton, little Simsen. It isn’t as good as mine, but it will do for this evening.”
I went to the corner where my anatomical treasures were hidden behind a green curtain—”the Museum,” was what Solling called it— but my astonishment was great when I found my skeleton in its accustomed place and wearing as usual my student’s uniform—but without arms.
“The devil!” cried Solling. “That was done by the same person who robbed me; the arms are taken off at the shoulder joint in exactly the same manner. You did it, Simsen!”
I declared my innocence, very angry at the abuse of my fine skeleton, while Nansen cried: “Wait a moment, I’ll bring in mine. There hasn’t been a soul in my room since this morning, I can swear to that. I’ll be back in an instant.”
He hurried into his room, but returned in a few moments greatly depressed and somewhat ashamed. The skeleton was in its usual place, but the arms were gone, cut off at the shoulder in exactly the same manner as mine.
The affair, mysterious in itself, had now come to be a serious matter. We lost ourselves in suggestions and explanations, none of which seemed to throw any light on the subject. Finally we sent a messenger to the other side of the house where, as I happened to know, was a new skeleton which the young student Ravn had recently received from the janitor of the hospital.
Ravn had gone out and taken the key with him. The messenger whom we had sent to the rooms of the Iceland students returned with the information that one of them had used the only skeleton they possessed to pummel the other with, and that consequently only the thigh bones were left unbroken.
What were we to do? We couldn’t understand the matter at all. Solling scolded and cursed and the company was about to break up when we heard some one coming noisily upstairs. The door was thrown open and a tall, thin figure appeared on the threshold—our good friend Niels Daae.
He was a strange chap, this Niels Daae, the true type of a species seldom found nowadays. He was no longer young, and by reason of a queer chain of circumstances, as he expressed it, he had been through nearly all the professions and could produce papers proving that he had been on the point of passing not one but three examinations.
He had begun with theology; but the story of the quarrel between Jacob and Esau had led him to take up the study of law. As a law student he had come across an interesting poisoning case, which had proved to him that a study of medicine was extremely necessary for lawyers; and he had taken up the study of medicine with such energy that he had forgotten all his law and was about to take his last examinations at the age of forty.
Niels Daae took the story of our troubles very seriously. “Every pot has two handles,” he began. “Every sausage two ends, every question two sides, except this one—this has three.” (Applause.) “When we look at it from the legal point of view there can be no doubt that it belongs in the category of ordinary theft. But from the fact that the thief took only the arms when he might have taken the entire skeleton, we must conclude that he is not in a responsible condition of mind, which therefore introduces a medical side to the affair. From a legal point of view, the thief must be convicted for robbery, or at least for the illegal appropriation of the property of others; but from the medical point of view, we must acquit him, because he is not responsible for his acts. Here we have two professions quarreling with one another, and who shall say which is right? But now I will introduce the theological point of view, and raise the entire affair up to a higher plane. Providence, in the material shape of a patron of mine in the country, whose children I have inoculated with the juice of wisdom, has sent me two fat geese and two first-class ducks. These animals are to be cooked and eaten this evening in Mathiesen’s establishment, and I invite this honored company to join me there. Personally I look upon the disappearance of these arms as an all- wise intervention of Providence, which sets its own inscrutable wisdom up against the wisdom which we would otherwise have heard from the lips of my venerable friend Solling.”
Daae’s confused speech was received with laughter and applause, and Solling’s weak protests were lost in the general delight at the invitation. I have often noticed that such improvised festivities are usually the most enjoyable, and so it was for us that evening. Niels Daae treated us to his ducks and to his most amusing jokes, Solling sang his best songs, our jovial host Mathiesen told his wittiest stories, and the merriment was in full swing when we heard cries in the street, and then a rush of confused noises broken by screams of pain.
“There’s been an accident,” cried Solling, running out to the door.
We all followed him and discovered that a pair of runaway horses had thrown a carriage against a tree, hurling the driver from his box, under the wheels. His right arm had been broken near the shoulder. In the twinkling of an eye the hall of festivities was transformed into an emergency hospital. Solling shook his head as he examined the injury, and ordered the transport of the patient to the city hospital. It was his belief that the arm would have to be amputated, cut off at the shoulder joint, just as had been the case with our skeleton. “Damned odd coincidence, isn’t it?” he remarked to me.
Our merry mood had vanished and we took our way, quiet and depressed, through the old avenues toward our home. For the first time in its existence possibly, our venerable “barracks,” as we called the dormitory, saw its occupants returning home from an evening’s bout just as the night watchman intoned his eleven o’clock verse.
“Just eleven,” exclaimed Solling. “It’s too early to go to bed, and too late to go anywhere else. We’ll go up to your room, little Simsen, and see if we can’t have some sort of a lesson this evening. You have your colored plates and we’ll try to get along with them. It’s a nuisance that we should have lost those arms just this evening.”
“The Doctor can have all the arms and legs he wants,” grinned Hans, who came out of the doorway just in time to hear Solling’s last word.
“What do you mean, Hans?” asked Solling in astonishment.
“It’ll be easy enough to get them,” said Hans. “They’ve torn down the planking around the Holy Trinity churchyard, and dug up the earth to build a new wall. I saw it myself, as I came past the church. Lord, what a lot of bones they’ve dug out there! There’s arms and legs and heads, many more than the Doctor could possibly need.”
“Much good that does us,” answered Solling. “They shut the gates at seven o’clock and it’s after eleven already.”
“Oh, yes, they shut them,” grinned Hans again. “But there’s another way to get in. If you go through the gate of the porcelain factory and over the courtyard, and through the mill in the fourth courtyard that leads out into Spring Street, there you will see where the planking is torn down, and you can get into the churchyard easily.”
“Hans, you’re a genius!” exclaimed Solling in delight. “Here, Simsen, you know that factory inside and out, you’re so friendly with that fellow Outzen who lives there. Run along to him and let him give you the key of the mill. It will be easy to find an arm that isn’t too much decayed. Hurry along, now; the rest of us will wait for you upstairs.”
To be quite candid I must confess that I was not particularly eager to fulfill Solling’s command. I was at an age to have still a sufficient amount of reverence for death and the grave, and the mysterious occurrence of the stolen arms still ran through my mind. But I was still more afraid of Solling’s irony and of the laughter of my comrades, so I trotted off as carelessly as if I had been sent to buy a package of cigarettes.
It was some time before I could arouse the old janitor of the factory from his peaceful slumbers. I told him that I had an important message for Outzen, and hurried upstairs to the latter’s room. Outzen was a strictly moral character; knowing this, I was prepared to have him refuse me the key which would let me into the fourth courtyard and from there into the cemetery. As I expected, Outzen took the matter very seriously. He closed the Hebrew Bible which he had been studying as I entered, turned up his lamp and looked at me in astonishment as I made my request.
“Why, my dear Simsen, it is a most sinful deed that you are about to do,” he said gravely. “Take my advice and desist. You will get no key from me for any such cause. The peace of the grave is sacred. No man dare disturb it.”
“And how about the gravedigger? He puts the newly dead down beside the old corpses, and lives as peacefully as anyone else.”
“He is doing his duty,” answered Outzen calmly. “But to disturb the peace of the grave from sheer daring, with the fumes of the punch still in your head,—that is a different matter,—that will surely be punished!”
His words irritated me. It is not very flattering, particularly if one is not yet twenty, to be told that you are about to perform a daring deed simply because you are drunk. Without any further reply to his protests I took the key from its place on the wall and ran downstairs two steps at a time, vowing to myself that I would take home an arm let cost what it would. I would show Outzen, and Solling, and all the rest, what a devil of a fellow I was.
My heart beat rapidly as I stole through the long dark corridor, past the ruins of the old convent of St. Clara, into the so-called third courtyard. Here I took a lantern from the hall, lit it and crossed to the mill where the clay was prepared for the factory. The tall wheels and cylinders, with their straps and bolts, looked like weird creatures of the night in the dim light of my tallow candle. I felt my courage sinking even here, but I pulled myself together, opened the last door with my key and stepped out into the fourth courtyard. A moment later I stood on the dividing line between the cemetery and the factory.
The entire length of the tall blackened planking had been torn down. The pieces of it lay about, and the earth had been dug up to considerable depth, to make a foundation for a new wall between Life and Death. The uncanny emptiness of the place seized upon me. I halted involuntarily as if to harden myself against it. It was a raw, cold, stormy evening. The clouds flew past the moon in jagged fragments, so that the churchyard, with its white crosses and stones, lay now in full light, now in dim shadow. Now and then a rush of wind rattled over the graves, roared through the leafless trees, bent the complaining bushes, and caught itself in the little eddy at the corner of the church, only to escape again over the roofs, turning the old weather vane with a sharp scream of the rusty iron.
I looked toward the left—there I saw several weird white shapes moving gently in the moonlight. “White sheets,” I said to myself, “it’s nothing but white sheets! This drying of linen in the churchyard ought to be stopped.”
I turned in the opposite direction and saw a heap of bones scarce two paces distant from me. Holding my lantern lower, I approached them and stretched out my hand—there was a rattling in the heap; something warm and soft touched my fingers.
I started and shivered. Then I exclaimed: “The rats! nothing but the rats in the churchyard! I must not get frightened. It will be so foolish—they would laugh at me. Where the devil is that arm? I can’t find one that isn’t broken!”
With trembling knees and in feverish haste I examined one heap after another. The light in my lantern flickered in the wind and suddenly went out. The foul smell of the smoking wick rose to my face and I felt as if I were about to faint, it took all my energy to recover my control. I walked two or three steps ahead, and saw at a little distance a coffin which had been still in good shape when taken out of the earth.
I approached it and saw that it was of old-fashioned shape, made of heavy oaken boards that were already rotting. On its cover was a metal plate with an illegible inscription. The old wood was so brittle that it would have been very easy for me to open the coffin with any sort of a tool. I looked about me and saw a hatchet and a couple of spades lying near the fence. I took one of the latter, put its flat end between the boards—the old coffin fell apart with a dull crackling protest.
I turned my head aside, put my hand in through the opening, felt about, and taking a firm hold on one arm of the skeleton, I loosened it from the body with a quick jerk. The movement loosened the head as well, and it rolled out through the opening right to my very feet. I took up the skull to lay it in the coffin again—and then I saw a greenish phosphorescent glimmer in its empty eye sockets, a glimmer which came and went. Mad terror shook me at the sight. I looked up at the houses in the distance, then back again to the skull; the empty sockets shone more brightly than before. I felt that I must have some natural explanation for this appearance or I would go mad. I took up the head again—and never in my life have I had so overpowering an impression of the might of death and decay than in this moment. Myriads of disgusting clammy insects poured out of every opening of the skull, and a couple of shining, wormlike centipedes—Geophiles, the scientists call them—crawled about in the eye sockets. I threw the skull back into the coffin, sprang over the heaps of bones without even taking time to pick up my lantern, and ran like a hunted thing through the dark mill, over the factory courtyards, until I reached the outer gate. Here I washed the arm at the fountain, and smoothed my disarranged clothing. I hid my booty under my overcoat, nodded to the sleepy old janitor as he opened the door to me, and a few moments later I entered my own room with an expression which I had attempted to make quite calm and careless.
“What the devil is the matter with you, Simsen?” cried Solling as he saw me. “Have you seen a ghost? Or is the punch wearing off already? We thought you’d never come; why, it’s nearly twelve o’clock!”
Without a word I drew back my overcoat and laid my booty on the table.
“By all the devils,” exclaimed Solling in anatomical enthusiasm, “where did you find that superb arm? Simsen knows what he’s about all right. It’s a girl’s arm; isn’t it beautiful? Just look at the hand—how fine and delicate it is! Must have worn a No. 6 glove. There’s a pretty hand to caress and kiss!”
The arm passed from one to the other amid general admiration. Every word that was said increased my disgust for myself and for what I had done. It was a woman’s arm, then—what sort of a woman might she have been? Young and beautiful possibly—her brothers’ pride, her parents’ joy. She had faded away in her youth, cared for by loving hands and tender thoughts. She had fallen asleep gently, and those who loved her had desired to give her in death the peace she had enjoyed throughout her lifetime. For this they had made her coffin of thick, heavy oaken boards. And this hand, loved and missed by so many—it lay there now on an anatomical table, encircled by clouds of tobacco smoke, stared at by curious glances, and made the object of coarse jokes. O God! how terrible it was!
“I must have that arm,” exclaimed Solling, when the first burst of admiration had passed. “When I bleach it and touch it up with varnish, it wild be a superb specimen. I’ll take it home with me.”
“No,” I exclaimed, “I can’t permit it. It was wrong of me to bring it away from the churchyard. I’m going right back to put the arm in its place.”
“Well, will you listen to that?” cried Solling, amid the hearty laughter of the others. “Simsen’s so lyric, he certainly must be drunk. I must have that arm at any cost.”
“Not much,” cut in Niels Daae; “you have no right to it. It was buried in the earth and dug out again; it is a find, and all the rest of us have just as much right to it as you have.”
“Yes, everyone of us has some share in it,” said some one else.
“But what are you going to do about it?” remarked Solling. “It would be vandalism to break up that arm. What God has joined together let no man put asunder,” he concluded with pathos.
“Let’s auction it off,” exclaimed Daae. “I will be the auctioneer, and this key to the graveyard will serve me for a hammer.”
The laughter broke out anew as Daae took his place solemnly at the head of the table and began to whine out the following announcement: “I hereby notify all present that on the 25th of November, at twelve o’clock at midnight, in corridor No. 5 of the student barracks, a lady’s arm in excellent condition, with all its appurtenances of wrist bones, joints, and finger tips, is to be offered at public auction. The buyer can have possession of his purchase immediately after the auction, and a credit of six weeks will be given to any reliable customer. I bid a Danish shilling.”
“One mark,” cried Solling mockingly.
“Two,” cried somebody else.
“Four,” exclaimed Solling. “It’s worth it. Why don’t you join in,
Simsen? You look as if you were sitting in a hornet’s nest.”
I bid one mark more, and Solling raised me a thaler. There were no more bids, the hammer fell, and the arm belonged to Solling.
“Here, take this,” he said, handing me a mark piece; “it’s part of your commission as grave robber. You shall have the rest later, unless you prefer that I should turn it over to the drinking fund.” With these words Solling wrapped the arm in a newspaper, and the gay crowd ran noisily down the stairs and through the streets, until their singing and laughter were lost in the distance.
I stood alone, still dazed and bewildered, staring at the piece of money in my hand. My thoughts were far too much excited that I should hope to sleep. I turned up my lamp and took out one of my books to try and study myself into a quieter mood. But without success.
Suddenly I heard a sound like that of a swinging pendulum. I raised my head and listened attentively. There was no clock either in my room or in the neighboring ones—but I could still hear the sound. At the same moment my lamp began to flicker. The oil was apparently exhausted. I was about to rise to fill it again, when my eyes fell upon the door, and I saw the graveyard key, which I had hung there, moving slowly back and forth with a rhythmic swing. Just as its motion seemed about to die away, it would receive a gentle push as from an unseen hand, and would swing back and forth more than ever. I stood there with open mouth and staring eyes, ice-cold chills ran down my back, and drops of perspiration stood out on my forehead. Finally, I could endure it no longer. I sprang to the door, seized the key with both hands and put it on my desk under a pile of heavy books. Then I breathed a sigh of relief.
My lamp was about to go out and I discovered that I had no more oil. With feverish haste I threw my clothes off, blew out the light and sprang into bed as if to smother my fears.
But once alone in the darkness the fears grew worse than ever. They grew into dreams and visions. It seemed to me as if I were out in the graveyard again, and heard the screaming of the rusty weather vane as the wind turned it. Then I was in the mill again; the wheels were turning and stretching out ghostly hands to draw me into the yawning maw of the machine. Then again, I found myself in a long, low, pitch-black corridor, followed by Something I could not see—Something that drove me to the mouth of a bottomless abyss. I would start up out of my half sleep, listen and look about me, then fall back again into an uneasy slumber.
Suddenly something fell from the ceiling onto the bed, and “buzz— buzz—buzz” sounded about my head. It was a huge fly which had been sleeping in a corner of my room and had been roused by the heat of the stove. It flew about in great circles, now around the bed, now in all four corners of the chamber—”buzz—buzz—buzz”—it was unendurable! At last I heard it creep into a bag of sugar which had been left on the window sill. I sprang up and closed the bag tight. The fly buzzed worse than ever, but I went back to bed and attempted to sleep again, feeling that I had conquered the enemy.
I began to count: I counted slowly to one hundred, two hundred, finally up to one thousand, and then at last I experienced that pleasant weakness which is the forerunner of true sleep. I seemed to be in a beautiful garden, bright with many flowers and odorous with all the perfumes of spring. At my side walked a beautiful young girl. I seemed to know her well, and yet it was not possible for me to remember her name, or even to know how we came to be wandering there together. As we walked slowly through the paths she would stop to pick a flower or to admire a brilliant butterfly swaying in the air. Suddenly a cold wind blew through the garden. The young girl trembled and her cheeks grew pale. “I am cold,” she said to me, “do you not see? It is Death who is approaching us.”
I would have answered, but in the same moment another stronger and still more icy gust roared through the garden. The leaves turned pale on the trees, the flowerets bent their heads, and the bees and butterflies fell lifeless to the earth. “That is Death,” whispered my companion, trembling.
A third icy gust blew the last leaves from the bushes, white crosses and gravestones appeared between the bare twigs—and I was in the churchyard again and heard the screaming of the rusty weather vane. Beside me stood a heavy brass-bound coffin with a metal plate on the cover. I bent down to read the inscription, the cover rolled off suddenly, and from out the coffin rose the form of the young girl who had been with me in the garden. I stretched out my arms to clasp her to my breast—then, oh horror! I saw the greenish-gleaming, empty eye sockets of the skull. I felt bony arms around me, dragging me back into the coffin. I screamed aloud for help and woke up.
My room seemed unusually light; but I remembered that it was a moonlight night and thought no more of it. I tried to explain the visions of my dream with various natural noises about me. The imprisoned fly buzzed as loudly as a whole swarm of bees; one half of my window had blown open, and the cold night air rushed in gusts into my room.
I sprang up to close the window, and then I saw that the strong white light that filled my room did not come from the moon, but seemed to shine out from the church opposite. I heard the chiming of the bells, soft at first, as if in far distance, then stronger and stronger until, mingled with the rolling notes of the organ, a mighty rush of sound struck against my windows. I stared out into the street and could scarcely believe my eyes. The houses in the market place just beyond were all little one-story buildings with bow windows and wooden eave troughs ending in carved dragon heads. Most of them had balconies of carved woodwork, and high stone stoops with gleaming brass rails.
But it was the church most of all that aroused my astonishment. Its position was completely changed. Its front turned toward our house where usually the side had stood. The church was brilliantly lighted, and now I perceived that it was this light which filled my room. I stood speechless amid the chiming of the bells and the roaring of the organ, and I saw a long wedding procession moving slowly up the center aisle of the church toward the altar. The light was so brilliant that I could distinguish each one of the figures. They were all in strange old-time costumes; the ladies in brocades and satins with strings of pearls in their powdered hair, the gentlemen in uniform with knee breeches, swords, and cocked hats held under their arms. But it was the bride who drew my attention most strongly. She was clothed in white satin, and a faded myrtle wreath was twisted through the powdered locks beneath her sweeping veil. The bridegroom at her side wore a red uniform and many decorations. Slowly they approached the altar, where an old man in black vestments and a heavy white wig was awaiting them. They stood before him, and I could see that he was reading the ritual from a gold-lettered book.
One of the train stepped forward and unbuckled the bridegroom’s sword, that his right hand might be free to take that of the bride. She seemed about to raise her own hand to his, when she suddenly sank fainting at his feet. The guests hurried toward the altar, the lights went out, the music stopped, and the figures floated together like pale white mists.
But outside in the square it was still brighter than before, and I suddenly saw the side portal of the church burst open and the wedding procession move out across the market place.
I turned as if to flee, but could not move a muscle. Quiet, as if turned to stone, I stood and watched the ghostly figures that came nearer and nearer. The clergyman led the train, then came the bridegroom and the bride, and as the latter raised her eyes to me I saw that it was the young girl of the garden. Her eyes were so full of pain, so full of sad entreaty that I could scarce endure them; but how shall I explain the feeling that shot through me as I suddenly discovered that the right sleeve of her white satin gown hung empty at her side? The train disappeared, and the tone of the church bells changed to a strange, dry, creaking sound, and the gate below me complained as it turned on its rusty hinges. I faced toward my own door. I knew that it was shut and locked, but I knew that the ghostly procession were coming to call me to account, and I felt that no walls could keep them out. My door flew open, there was a rustling as of silken gowns, but the figures seemed to float in in the changing forms of swaying white mists. Closer and closer they gathered around me, robbing me of breath, robbing me of the power to move. There was a silence as of the grave—and then I saw before me the old priest with his gold-lettered book. He raised his hand and spoke with a soft, deep voice: “The grave is sacred! Let no one dare to disturb the peace of the dead.”
“The grave is sacred!” an echo rolled through the room as the swaying figures moved like reeds in the wind.
“What do you want? What do you demand?” I gasped in the grip of a deathly fear.
“Give back to the grave that which belongs to it,” said the deep voice again.
“Give back to the grave that which belongs to it,” repeated the echo as the swaying forms pressed closer to me.
“But it’s impossible—I can’t—I have sold it—sold it at auction!” I screamed in despair. “It was buried and found in the earth—and sold for five marks eight shillings—”
A hideous scream came from the ghostly ranks. They threw themselves upon me as the white fog rolls in from the sea, they pressed upon me until I could no longer breathe. Beside myself, I threw open the window and attempted to spring out, screaming aloud: “Help! help! murder! they are murdering me!”
The sound of my own voice awoke me. I found myself in my night clothes on the window sill, one leg already out of the window and both hands clutching at the center post. On the street below me stood the night watchman, staring up at me in astonishment, while faint white clouds of mist rolled out of my window like smoke. All around outside lay the November fog, gray and moist, and as the fresh air of the early dawn blew cool on my face I felt my senses returning to me. I looked down at the night watch man—God bless him! He was a big, strong, comfortably fat fellow made of real flesh and blood, and no ghost shape of the night. I looked at the round tower of the church—how massive and venerable it stood there, gray in the gray of the morning mists. I looked over at the market place. There was a light in the baker shop and a farmer stood before it, tying his horse to a post. Back in my own room everything was in its usual place. Even the little paper bag with the sugar lay there on the window sill, and the imprisoned fly buzzed louder than ever. I knew that I was really awake and that the day was coming. I sprang back hastily from the window and was about to jump into bed, when my foot touched something hard and sharp.
I stooped to see what it was, felt about on the floor in the half light, and touched a long, dry, skeleton arm which held a tiny roll of paper in its bony fingers. I felt about again, and found still another arm, also holding a roll of paper. Then I began to think that my reason must be going. What I had seen thus far was only an unusually vivid dream—a vision of my heated imagination. But I knew that I was awake now, and yet here lay two-no, three (for there was still another arm)—hard, undeniable, material proofs that what I had thought was hallucination, might have been reality. Trembling in the thought that madness was threatening me, I tore open the first roll of paper. On it was written the name: “Solling.” I caught at the second and opened it. There stood the word: “Nansen.” I had just strength enough left to catch the third paper and open it—there was my own name: “Simsen.”
Then I sank fainting to the floor.
When I came to myself again, Niels Daae stood beside me with an empty water bottle, the contents of which were dripping off my person and off the sofa upon which I was lying. “Here, drink this,” he said in a soothing tone. “It will make you feel better.”
I looked about me wildly, as I sipped at the glass of brandy which put new life into me once more. “What has happened?” I asked weakly.
“Oh, nothing of importance,” answered Niels. “You were just about to commit suicide by means of charcoal gas. Those are mighty bad ventilators on your old stove there. The wind must have blown them shut, unless you were fool enough to close them yourself before you went to bed. If you had not opened the window, you would have already been too far along the path to Paradise to be called back by a glass of brandy. Take another.”
“How did you get up here?” I asked, sitting upright on the sofa.
“Through the door in the usual simple manner,” answered Niels Daae. “I was on watch last night in the hospital; but Mathiesen’s punch is heavy and my watching was more like sleeping, so I thought it better to come away in the early morning. As I passed your barracks here, I saw you sitting in the window in your nightshirt and calling down to the night watchman that some one was murdering you. I managed to wake up Jansen down below you, and got into the house through his window. Do you usually sleep on the bare floor?”
“But where did the arms come from?” I asked, still half bewildered.
“Oh, the devil take those arms,” cried Niels. “Just see if you can stand up all right now. Oh, those arms there? Why, those are the arms I cut off your skeletons. Clever idea, wasn’t it? You know how grumpy Solling gets if anything interferes with his tutoring. You see, I’d had the geese sent me, and I wanted you to all come with me to Mathiesen’s place. I knew you were going to read the osteology of the arm, so I went up into Solling’s room, opened it with his own keys and took the arms from his skeleton. I did the same here while you were downstairs in the reading room. Have you been stupid enough to take them down off their frames, and take away their tickets? I had marked them so carefully, that each man should get his own again.”
I dressed hastily and went out with Niels into the fresh, cool morning air. A few minutes later we separated, and I turned toward the street where Solling lived. Without heeding the protest of his old landlady, I entered the room where he still slept the sleep of the just. The arm, still wrapped in newspaper, lay on his desk. I took it up, put the mark piece in its place and hastened with all speed to the churchyard.
How different it looked in the early dawn! The fog had risen and shining frost pearls hung in the bare twigs of the tall trees where the sparrows were already twittering their morning song. There was no one to be seen. The churchyard lay quiet and peaceful. I stepped over the heaps of bones to where the heavy oaken coffin lay under a tree. Cautiously I pushed the arm back into its interior, and hammered the rusty nails into their places again, just as the first rays of the pale November sun touched a gleam of light from the metal plate on the cover.—Then the weight was lifted from my soul.
*First published at “The Continental Classics, vol. 18, Mystery Tales, 1909.”
Well, as I was saying, the Emperor got into bed.
“Chevalier,” says he to his valet, “let down those window-curtains, and shut the casement before you leave the room.”
Chevalier did as he was told, and then, taking up his candlestick, departed.
In a few minutes the Emperor felt his pillow becoming rather hard, and he got up to shake it. As he did so a slight rustling noise was heard near the bed-head. His Majesty listened, but all was silent as he lay down again.
Scarcely had he settled into a peaceful attitude of repose, when he was disturbed by a sensation of thirst. Lifting himself on his elbow, he took a glass of lemonade from the small stand which was placed beside him. He refreshed himself by a deep draught. As he returned the goblet to its station a deep groan burst from a kind of closet in one corner of the apartment.
“Who’s there?” cried the Emperor, seizing his pistols. “Speak, or I’ll blow your brains out.”
This threat produced no other effect than a short, sharp laugh, and a dead silence followed.
The Emperor started from his couch, and, hastily throwing on a robe-de-chambre which hung over the back of a chair, stepped courageously to the haunted closet. As he opened the door something rustled. He sprang forward sword in hand. No soul or even substance appeared, and the rustling, it was evident, proceeded from the falling of a cloak, which had been suspended by a peg from the door.
Half ashamed of himself he returned to bed.
Just as he was about once more to close his eyes, the light of the three wax tapers, which burned in a silver branch over the mantlepiece, was suddenly darkened. He looked up. A black, opaque shadow obscured it. Sweating with terror, the Emperor put out his hand to seize the bell- rope, but some invisible being snatched it rudely from his grasp, and at the same instant the ominous shade vanished.
“Pooh!” exclaimed Napoleon, “it was but an ocular delusion.”
“Was it?” whispered a hollow voice, in deep mysterious tones, close to his ear. “Was it a delusion, Emperor of France? No! all thou hast heard and seen is sad forewarning reality. Rise, lifter of the Eagle Standard! Awake, swayer of the Lily Sceptre! Follow me, Napoleon, and thou shalt see more.”
As the voice ceased, a form dawned on his astonished sight. It was that of a tall, thin man, dressed in a blue surtout edged with gold lace. It wore a black cravat very tightly round its neck, and confined by two little sticks placed behind each ear. The countenance was livid; the tongue protruded from between the teeth, and the eyes all glazed and bloodshot started with frightful prominence from their sockets.
“Mon Dieu!” exclaimed the Emperor, “what do I see? Spectre, whence cometh thou?”
The apparition spoke not, but gliding forward beckoned Napoleon with uplifted finger to follow.
Controlled by a mysterious influence, which deprived him of the capability of either thinking or acting for himself, he obeyed in silence.
The solid wall of the apartment fell open as they approached, and, when both had passed through, it closed behind them with a noise like thunder.
They would now have been in total darkness had it not been for a dim light which shone round the ghost and revealed the damp walls of a long, vaulted passage. Down this they proceeded with mute rapidity. Ere long a cool, refreshing breeze, which rushed wailing up the vault and caused the Emperor to wrap his loose nightdress closer round, announced their approach to the open air.
This they soon reached, and Nap found himself in one of the principal streets of Paris.
“Worthy Spirit,” said he, shivering in the chill night air, “permit me to return and put on some additional clothing. I will be with you again presently.”
“Forward,” replied his companion sternly.
He felt compelled, in spite of the rising indignation which almost choked him, to obey.
On they went through the deserted streets till they arrived at a lofty house built on the banks of the Seine. Here the Spectre stopped, the gates rolled back to receive them, and they entered a large marble hall which was partly concealed by a curtain drawn across, through the half transparent folds of which a bright light might be seen burning with dazzling lustre. A row of fine female figures, richly attired, stood before this screen. They wore on their heads garlands of the most beautiful flowers, but their faces were concealed by ghastly masks representing death’s-heads.
“What is all this mummery?” cried the Emperor, making an effort to shake off the mental shackles by which he was so unwillingly restrained, “Where am I, and why have I been brought here?”
“Silence,” said the guide, lolling out still further his black and bloody tongue. “Silence, if thou wouldst escape instant death.”
The Emperor would have replied, his natural courage overcoming the temporary awe to which he had at first been subjected, but just then a strain of wild, supernatural music swelled behind the huge curtain, which waved to and fro, and bellied slowly out as if agitated by some internal commotion or battle of waving winds. At the same moment an overpowering mixture of the scents of mortal corruption, blent with the richest Eastern odours, stole through the haunted hall.
A murmur of many voices was now heard at a distance, and something grasped his arm eagerly from behind.
He turned hastily round. His eyes met the well-known countenance of Marie Louise.
“What! are you in this infernal place, too?” said he. “What has brought you here?”
“Will your Majesty permit me to ask the same question of yourself?” said the Empress, smiling.
He made no reply; astonishment prevented him.
No curtain now intervened between him and the light. It had been removed as if by magic, and a splendid chandelier appeared suspended over his head. Throngs of ladies, richly dressed, but without death’s-head masks, stood round, and a due proportion of gay cavaliers was mingled with them. Music was still sounding, but it was seen to proceed from a band of mortal musicians stationed in an orchestra near at hand. The air was yet redolent of incense, but it was incense unblended with stench.
“Mon dieu!” cried the Emperor, “how is all this come about? Where in the world is Piche?”
“Piche?” replied the Empress. “What does your Majesty mean? Had you not better leave the apartment and retire to rest?”
“Leave the apartment? Why, where am I?”
“In my private drawing-room, surrounded by a few particular persons of the Court whom I had invited this evening to a ball. You entered a few minutes since in your nightdress with your eyes fixed and wide open. I suppose from the astonishment you now testify that you were walking in your sleep.”
The Emperor immediately fell into a fit of catalepsy, in which he continued during the whole of that night and the greater part of the next day.
* Taken from the manuscript of the “Green Dwarf” dated July 10, 1833 – September 2, 1833, and republished in The Twelve Adventurers and other stories, London, 1925.