Once upon a time there were three children who meant to save the world.
The first, and the oldest of the three—and whose name was Flannery—knew this on arrival: the world was in terrible trouble, and she knew it. The Great War, still less than seven years past, had left the world in a darkness that for all the optimistic political rhetoric—and the noble aims of the League of Nations—never quite lifted and which was soon to return fully fledged with a small mustache and renewed violence.
The second child—whose name was Heather, and who was the youngest of the three—arrived in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in December of 1950, just a little over five years after the Second World War finally ended, and on the very day that her sister Flannery left Ridgefield for her painful and prolonged audience with death. When in her seventh year Heather’s Irish Catholic father beat her younger brother senseless with his fists, and then killed him by tossing the lifeless five-year-old boy down a set of stairs—deemed an accident by the local Irish Catholic investigator, and grandly forgiven by the local Irish Catholic priest—Heather knew that evil roamed freely in this world and that God seemed to turn a blind eye. She did, however, not remember that she was meant to give God a hand.
The third child, Gabriel, was born on the 9th of August, 1945. He took his first breath the very instant that the atom bomb over Nagasaki, Japan, detonated. He was later to muse that his first lungful of air contained the souls of 40,000 Japanese children. He (like Heather) had no notion about his purpose on this Earth until one summer morning when 40,000 dust motes, shimmering in the slotted sunshine of an abandoned attic (where a man recently had hanged himself), suddenly began to sing.
Then there was the fourth child: Netoniel.
Gabriel was half-way up the dilapidated ladder. The day was Saturday and the date was the 23rd of July, 1960. The time was a little after 10 in the morning. The rungs showed evidence of age or rot or both so he proceeded up them slowly, taking care to place his feet close to the sides where they would be the strongest. The ladder groaned softly under his weight, but didn’t seem to mind him.
A perverse curiosity had brought him here. A few years ago—no one had been very specific about when—a man had hanged himself in this very attic. If the truth be told, Gabriel didn’t know that for a fact, he hadn’t even asked anyone to confirm it, but it was rumored, quite widely—common knowledge, as it were—especially amongst the kids (and as yet he was not much more than one himself).
From which beam? he wondered as his head cleared the opening in the attic floor and his eyes slowly (while dilating) took in the windowless and darker space above him—which beam had the man hanged himself from?
There were several to choose from. There was the long, foot-thick and roughly hewn one that ran the length of the open ceiling, and which spawned evenly spaced vertical risers supporting the rafters, and there were also, he counted one, two, three, four, narrower and smoother beams running perpendicularly, and neatly joined to the main beam, kind of keeping the walls apart, he thought, although that was not the case, of course. Interesting design.
He couldn’t picture it though. There would not be space enough for a fully grown man to hang himself from any of them, the distance from the attic floor to any of these beams was barely six feet, and with the rope and the noose and at least five foot plus worth of man, he would be standing on the attic floor, no matter what—no matter which beam he chose. Unless, well, of course, he realized with a little shiver, of course: he would have secured the rope to the central beam where it crossed the open hatch he was just emerging through. He looked straight up and yes, yes, of course, that’s what he had done. He would have secured the rope from the beam right here, then placed the noose over his head, tightened the knot, and then jumped through the hatch. That would still count as hanging oneself in the attic, wouldn’t it? or at least from the attic, if indeed it had happened at all.
Then the shiver returned and said: you are at this very moment, it said, standing on the sixth rung from the top of the ladder, occupying the very same space that the hanging man would have dangled in, life draining.
Gabriel shivered some more. Then he tried to taste it.
How did he die? he wondered. Did he know enough about hangings to place the knot just right—slightly to the left of but touching the atlas, he had read—so the fall would snap his neck, or unaware of this had he strangled himself and died from asphyxiation? Most hanging suicides do—the same article had said—do strangle themselves. He imagined the hanging man, losing breath and life, to never breathe again.
Gabriel held his breath and counted. By forty his lungs had had enough and screamed for air and he obliged. The man could have done the same, he thought, could have reached out and heaved himself up by the edge of the opening, back up to the living.
Then again, what’s to say that he didn’t? Or that he tried to, and failed. What’s to say that he didn’t try to claw his way up the rope and onto the attic floor, without much success, desperate for breath, strength draining.
Then again, what’s to say that it happened at all? It probably wasn’t true. Kids talking.
Outside the little house a cloud found the sun and suddenly the attic turned several degrees darker. His next thought was that even the sun knew about the hanging, and was sending him a warning: get out of there.
Maybe he should.
But: Oh, god, you’re such an idiot, the sun knowing about it. You’re here to look around, so look around. Besides, if someone did hang himself in here, that was years ago, no bodies here now, so come on.
Could be ghosts, though. No, not in broad daylight.
Convincing himself that he was quite safe, he stepped up another rung, then another, then held his breath: the attic was dead still, just the renewed groan of the ladder. He looked all around and could see no danger. And he was brave, right? Yes, he was.
Then he ascended the remaining rungs and stepped out onto the attic floor. Here he rose to full length. His eyes had adjusted now to the diminished light and he could see quite clearly by the sunless daylight seeping in through the narrow slots between the vertical planks of bare walls.
Dust, and lots of it, softly contouring what it covered with a wheat-colored blanket. Things in the corners. Things. He walked over to take a closer look, treading carefully, but even so stirring clouds of dust into the air behind him—obscured by the gloom.
Yes, things: shoes, two of them but not a pair (odd, that), the lower part of a broken ax handle, a bicycle seat (surprisingly new), a pile of old newspapers (from a little over a decade ago by the dates), a wooden bowl, huge. He pictured someone kneading dough for very large loaves of bread in the thing, old hands, grandmother-old hands, it was that kind of bowl, and he wondered if it might have value; whether this bowl in particular was one of an impossible-to-find kind that would make him immensely rich now that he, Gabriel, intrepid youth, had discovered it, and as such would pave the way for a great, rich life as yet unlived and undefined.
Of course not, it was just an old wooden bowl, tossed up into this above- the-ceiling out-of-the-way as in the way and worthless. Besides, it was chipped, and cracked. Not worth much, if anything. Or it wouldn’t be here, would it? Of course not. Maybe in a hundred years.
More newspapers. These were in a neat pile, held together with fraying string. He blew on the top paper to clear the dust, then read the date. Not as old. 1955, August. He untied the string and looked at the next paper. August 1955 as well. So the whole pile. He straightened up and looked around some more. More newspapers, these nailed to one of the walls as makeshift insulation, now torn and peeling, and only on this far wall. Why, he wondered. Then he looked closer at the other walls, and saw traces of newspaper on all of them. So, they had initially covered the whole attic. Not much of a padding, he thought. He leaned closer to check the dates of these papers. 1941, 1942, war pictures, originally in black and white, now more like brown on yellow. Fighting in Finland. Sweden still neutral, it said.
At that moment, outside, the obscuring cloud released the sun and the attic virtually exploded into light, surprising his eyes, now used to the cloudy gloom. He turned around by reflex, as if someone behind him had just thrown a light switch, and found the air startlingly alive with many brilliant sheets of dust where the sun now raced in through the evenly spaced bars of narrow air between the wall boards.
He had never seen anything quite like this, anything quite this beautiful before, not in his entire life. It was a gallery of sun and dust and suddenly—it’s the only way to describe it: they started singing.
He stood stock still, then sat down on the neat pile of papers, very slowly so as not to disturb the display. Very slowly down, down, and now he was sitting.
Seeing and hearing this silent song shimmer in the still air, he felt a need he had never felt before: it was to capture some of this, to, somehow, preserve what he saw—in words.
Not taking his eyes off the flickering sheets of dust and sunrays, he groped for and found a stub of pencil in his left pocket, and a sheet of paper in his back pocket. He unfolded the sheet (it held a phone number to call, don’t forget), turned it over, smoothed it a little on his lap and touched it with the pencil, thus:
Am I a troll or a human being?
I don't know.
But I do know that long before
I came here
this page of my life
was long written.
Here he stopped and read what he had written.
Somewhere within him a not-so-kind voice begged to demur, in fact it ridiculed him a little—just a little, mind you, a sort of snide whisper—for what he had just so reverently done had nothing at all to do with engineering, his paternally decreed, and on the whole much manlier, destiny.
But, he managed to answer, this felt right, it was right somehow, important somehow. Yes, they were just words, of course, he knew that, just made up words. Still.
He read them again. They sounded true, these words, though of course they were not. Just fantasy, but good fantasy, he said to himself, or thought to himself so loudly that his ears picked up on it.
He read the first line again, aloud. Listening closely to it while he read. Then he crossed out “a troll or a” and “being”. Then read it again: “Am I human?” That, he knew, was the better question, the real question. And again he read what he had written:
Am I human?
I don't know.
But I do know that long before
I came here
this page of my life
was long written.
Then he scratched out “do” and “long” from the third line, and then once more read the six lines aloud to himself:
Am I human?
I don't know.
But I know that before
I came here
this page of my life
was long written.
Another shiver: it rose from a faint but unmistakable internal resonance. The sheets of dancing dust motes still talked to him and now struck him as his very own and golden northern lights, a private winter sky made small especially for him. And so he trembled again, smiling this time.
At the very moment Gabriel for the third time finished saying the word “written,” his tongue still resting against his top teeth in the final “n,” Flannery hit the “?” key on her new, and still unfamiliar Underwood typewriter to complete a quick note to Fiona McCullough, a friend from the State University of Iowa, who now lived in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and with whom Flannery still maintained a regular, almost weekly, correspondence. This is what the note said:
Well poor old Jack. I hope he gets elected. I think King Kong would be better than Nixon. We didn’t see any of it, having no television, but one night I listened for a spell on the radio when we had company who must hear it. Fortunately the company soon left to seek out a television so we went to bed.
By the way, do you ever cross paths with any of the Paleys on your strolls through Ridgefield? I assume that you still stroll.
She read her note and was satisfied with it. She then addressed and stamped an envelope, folded and inserted the note and licked the envelope shut. She would take it to the mailbox the following morning before the mailman came.
Gabriel remained for some time looking from the sheets of light dancing before him to the words he had written, then back to the flickering dust. He felt there was more somewhere, that there were other internal wells with other waters to find and tap. Watching the sun and dust dance, he groped around within him for more words, for more meanings to pencil down, but could find none. Then another cloud found (or the same cloud re-found) the sun and the dust suddenly stopped singing. The moment was gone.
He surveyed the dark stillness one last time, the dust now invisible again, or mostly so. He felt slightly shifted from center, though, as if he no longer was quite himself, or just a little more himself. It was an odd feeling, one hard to put a finger on. Dance-less, the attic was dead still again, dust is not noisy. Outside he could hear birds in the nearby trees. Arguing, it sounded like. A raucous family gathering, perhaps. A truck geared down up on the road, its engine now groaning up the hill that he himself would soon have to climb to get back home. He stood up, folded his paper and put it and the pencil back in his pockets. With the same care he had climbed it, he now descended the rickety ladder, which again groaned its laddery protests but let him down unscathed, all rungs intact.
His bicycle, leaning against the red wall, waited for him. Green and silver it was and almost new. And always shiny, he saw to that. He was proud of it.
He climbed on, began to pedal, avoided the larger potholes in the old, now untended road leading up to the paved one where the truck had just gone by. He reached it, and picked up some speed before the hill. Steepest in the county, they said, and he could believe it, especially on a bicycle. It took some doing this hill, and with the effort he now had to exert to make it all the way to the top without getting off the bike to walk the last bit, he forgot all about the folded sheet of paper in his back pocket.
Much later, in London, in another language, he would look back on this day in the old attic, and write:
Dust and sun rays
dance for me
in sheets of light
that flutter silently
Still too young
this simple dreamer
gently gathers them
in his hand
An ever so real
handful of sun
rises to heal
hearts that crumble
lives that stumble
his very heart
but always depart
The popular view is that a possessed human being is nothing but bones, flesh, heart, and skin operated by the Devil—but it does not have to be the Devil. According to the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Possession, the term given to the supposed control of a human body and mind by an alien spirit, human or non-human; or the occupation by an alien spirit of some portion of a human body, causing sickness, pain, &c. The term obsession (Lat. for siege) is sometimes used as equivalent to possession; sometimes it denotes spirit control exercised from without, or it may mean no more than a maniacal focus as a result of hypnotism. From an anthropological point of view, possession may be conveniently classed as (a) inspirational, (b) demoniacal, (c) pathological, according to the view taken of the reason for or effect of the spiritual invasion of the possessed person.
The spirit that possessed Frank Paley, however, that afternoon in 1957 when he killed his son Michael, was not the Devil, nor was it a spirit or anyone or anything other than Frank Paley himself doing battle with his vividly hallucinated army of children surrounding him and drawing closer and closer and that he knew would smother him were they to finally corner him and make him own up to the monster he truly was. So, purely in self-defense mind you, for his own survival—he was only fighting back, for he had a right to live too, didn’t he?—so, fighting now for his life, he pinned the five-year-old boy to the floor of the second floor landing with his knees, and pummeled the little face with his fists until there were few teeth left in their original sockets and until no part of either eye could be seen.
As he hammered away, Frank swore at every cut those sharp little teeth (where broken into jagged chards) inflicted on his knuckles and proceeded to teach them all the lesson of breaking more evenly.
Having survived the vicious attack upon his hands by sharp little teeth, he then tossed the listless body down the steep set of stairs, where an unfortunate tumble—or fortunate perhaps, this is a matter of viewpoint—snapped the little neck with a sick crack that told Heather, sitting on the living room sofa and clutching her 13-months-old little sister to her, that Michael was no more.
When Michael’s body came to a stop at the foot of the stairs, it looked a little like a sack of dirty laundry, she thought. Frank must have thought something along the same lines for now he was yelling for his wife to get her ass out here and clean it up.
Then for precisely sixty seconds no one in that house could breathe.
Flannery, sitting on her porch in Milledgeville sensed the violence so many miles to the north, as she knew of and sensed so much violence elsewhere, but this had made her particularly sick to her stomach. So she strangled the house with her fist and deprived all who lived there of oxygen for exactly sixty seconds.
Frank Paley’s face was alternating between the white of terror and the red of asphyxiation when Flannery finally let go and oxygen again was free to enter starving lungs.
“Who the hell did that?” he said, then turned around, hoping to find a child source for this terrifying inconvenience.
“He’s dead,” said his wife from below.
“What the hell was that?” he screamed, still afraid.
“You’ve killed him,” said his wife from below. Then she, too, began to scream.
Heather, testing the air and finding it breathable again, dialed the police.
Flannery opened her fist and closed her eyes. She sat like this for several deep breaths, very still. She could hear the crickets and the birds. A cow mooed nearby, another answered farther away. The wind rustled many treefuls of leaves which to Flannery’s ears sounded like applause. She saw the peacocks strutting about the place like they owned it, dragging their multicolored plumes in the dust. Over in the kitchen, the help was arguing about something to do with dinner—their voices carried through the open kitchen window. So many things around her were alive.
Then she rose and walked back into the house, into her bedroom, which also served as her study and library. She sat down at her desk and found a pen, then a sheet of paper. Then she decided to type the note instead, a little faster, perhaps—clearer for sure, and easier on her hands, which had grown annoyingly weak of late—now that she was getting more used to this darn thing. She still hated it, it was a sort of an invasion, this stealer of pens’ work, but not as much as before. Yes, she had to admit, it was a little quicker, or for certain would be once she’d learned it a bit better. Easier to read what she had written, too. Noisy though.
She began, pecking out one letter after the other, reminding herself of a multi-headed chicken hunting for and finding seeds, her wrist the neck, fingers the many beaks:
“Once upon a time there were three children who wanted to save the world: Flannery, Heather, and Gabriel.
“Flannery, the older of the three was eight years old and had long, cascading red hair, bleached, but not much, by the sun. Her eyes were blue and non-believing.
“She was very pretty,” she added.
She read the last sentence, once, then again, frowned, then brought back the carriage and x’ed it out. “What has that got to do with it?” she mumbled to herself, then she continued:
“Heather, the youngest, was six years old and one of her small arms taller than her dark brown hair was long. She always wore a plain, blue dress.
“Gabriel, at seven, was all a blond mop of hair with blue eyes in a deep tan from playing in the fields most days of his life. He was Heather’s and Flannery’s brother.
“They had no parents, nor could they remember ever having had any.”
“There was also the fourth child: Netoniel.”
At this very moment Netoniel was hiding, as he had for some time, enjoying what he deemed a safe distance. And from this safe distance he still wondered why the silver strands did not evaporate like they had during his trial, why instead they had gathered (and kept gathering) to form an ever-growing, ever-thickening shroud now smothering the Earth. This was something he had not foreseen, could not have foreseen. How could he have?
Yes, silver strands had formed when he was putting the mirror to the test, but they had vanished almost immediately. When the mirror, as designed, caught his trial wishes, it then reversed them and reflected them back to him as opposites, while his original wishes passed right on through the mirror to exite the far side of it as thin silver strands, finer than the finest hair, and to then evaporate into nothing almost immediately.
In fact, he told himself again, these strands had not existed long enough to even be called strands, they were more like the promise of strands, the thought of strands.
Now, could this have been, he wondered, because he had been well aware of the mirror’s presence? Is that what made his trial wishes turned silver threads evaporate almost instantly into nothing. And was it the not knowing about the mirrors—which, of course, was the case with all on Earth (again by design)—that kept the silver strands alive?
He also wondered (also again) whether Flannery had gotten wind of this by now. He would have to assume—it had been nearly five thousand years, after all—that she had, and that she would do something about it.
The field was as green and shiny as some fresh underwater emerald. The sky was a dark, luscious blue. The wind was thick and slow and sweet and swayed the huge green valley surface now this way, now that, as the three children made their way through a waist-high grass that pretended not to want to let them through.
There were many movements around them of animals small and not so small scurrying—some to meet them, some to act afraid of them, though none were. The siblings noticed this and smiled but did not stop to talk, nor to pat them. They had things to do and were on their way to do them. The children were Flannery first, then Heather, then Gabriel.
An older bear noticed this scurrying back and forth in the tall grass of unbridled welcomes and silently told the younger, and smaller—and, perhaps, happier—creatures, to leave them alone. The children were busy, didn’t have time for your nonsense now.
Although Flannery (who heard the bear as well) didn’t quite know what to make of that—the little things were not disturbing them, after all, not getting in their way or anything, just happy to see them again—should she thank him, or not? The bear, though, knew her all too well, had sensed her urgency and had done what he thought would help, so she decided to appreciate this and so smiled in his direction: thank you.
The bear glanced at her sullenly beneath furry brow and forehead, and nodded, turned, and left them to their purpose.
The many smaller animals left too. That left only the three of them, wading through the green grass, which now parted to let them through uncaressed. The bear’s doing as well, thought Flannery.
Heather was quiet with thought. Gabriel, too, wondering why the urgency, though he could guess.
Flannery had insisted that they come, now. As in immediately.
They were nearing the far edge of the long valley where a small structure now came into view. It was a one room cottage, seated by a lively stream. Brightly red it was in the glittering sun, and with a thatched roof. White corners and a gray chimney made from many mortared stones.
They reached it and entered the cool interior. It smelled fresh with morning, it was clean and safe. Flannery set about making some tea. This was her house. Tomorrow, this house might be somewhere else, in some other valley, by some other stream, perhaps. Perhaps in a forest, or on a mountainside, or by a lake, to serve some other need. Perhaps it was the same house moving, perhaps they were different houses appearing and disappearing. Be that as it may. Today, this was the house Flannery had expected to find right here and her need was a meeting place.
Flannery turned from her task at the stove, where the fire had now begun to crackle, to face the other two: Heather already sitting by the table, Gabriel remaining by the doorway. “We must go there,” she said without preamble, and so loudly that Gabriel started a little.
“I take it you mean Earth?” he said.
“That is what I mean, yes,” confirmed Flannery.
Heather nodded, already in the know.
“He’s really done it this time,” said Flannery. “And now it has gone too far.”
Her parents never knew quite what to make of Mary Flannery. She was an unusual child.
For one, there were times when her mother Regina would swear that her daughter, at all but eleven months, could read, so intently would she scrutinize the magazines and papers she seized with strong fingers if they came within her reach. This got so she even mentioned it to her husband, Edward.
“Don’t be silly,” he assured her. “She’s just looking. The pictures, you know. Look at her.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she’d answer, “I don’t know.” Then she thought to herself (though she would never mention this to her husband), you scare me sometimes, Mary Flannery.
However, by the time Mary Flannery was almost two, Regina knew for a fact that her daughter was reading the papers and most likely had done so all along. She said nothing about this to her husband, though. It would have upset him, she presumed. Instead she said to her daughter, “I know that you can read, Mary Flannery. And I know that you do.”
Flannery looked up at her with the smile that often was to be confused with a frown in her later years. “I know,” she said.
At that moment Regina knew that she was in the presence of greatness, a sense that would never leave her, and which later gave her the strength to see her daughter through her long and slow dance with death.
Perhaps Regina, had she reflected on this logically, should have been scared, should have sought some help, should have told her husband, but she did none of these things. Instead she accepted what she saw with a proud heart and she was grateful to be in its presence.
Over the next few years Regina kept Mary Flannery’s ability a secret, all the while she supplied her with the books that she asked for.
“Crime and Punishment,” said Edward over dinner one night.
“I didn’t know you liked the old Russians,” he said.
“Oh, him. Yes. Well, he is a very good writer. A bit dark perhaps,” and shot Mary Flannery a glance, where on earth did you leave that book, girl?
“A bit much for my taste,” said her husband. “What are we having for dessert?”
At five, Mary Flannery told a chicken to walk backwards, and it did. She proudly showed her mother, who hurriedly showed her father, who happened to mention it to Morgan White, a realtor colleague, who mentioned it to his cousin, a reporter, who on a slow news day brought camera and notepad to Lafayette Square to see for himself, which is how the story got into print. The local story in turn caught the eye of Pathé News, a British newsreel company with a New York branch, which sent a cameraman to film Flannery and her chicken in action, which is how cinema visitors all over the country, and some even in Europe, got to marvel at Flannery’s amazing chicken feat.
“The highlight of my life,” she would say later, with that ironic smile of hers that to so many looked like a frown.
At ten she was reading openly and voraciously, making sure that others knew what she thought about the fare by writing short comments on the flyleaves of the books she read. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland she adorned with “Awful. I wouldn’t read this book.” Shirley Watkin’s Georgia Finds Herself merited “This is the worst book I have ever read next to ‘Pinocchio’”. She liked Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men better: “First rate. Splendid.” Regina thought at times to tell her to stop defiling perfectly good library books, but she thought better of it and said nothing. If the library complained, Regina probably ran interference for Flannery never heard about it.
At twelve she was already writing poetry and short stories that she would not show anyone, not even to her mother.
Regina did, however, come upon one of her stories while cleaning her room. Her initial reaction was that she was trespassing, but curiosity got the better of her and she sat down to read her daughter’s inky pages. The story was about a bear and a green valley, complete with illustrations. Had she not known this had to be Flannery’s, she would not have believed her daughter could have written it. She finished reading, confirmed in her conviction that her daughter was not of this world, then replaced the manuscript where she had found it and left the room.
The following afternoon, once Flannery had finished her homework she sauntered out into the kitchen for some juice and crackers, and said to Regina, “You’ve read my story, then?”
“Why, what makes you think that?” Regina answered, looking up from her task.
“You reordered the pages for me,” she answered. “Please don’t read what isn’t finished yet,” she added.
Regina thought of answering, and sternly at that, but no words came to mind. Being upbraided by her daughter, even if mildly, was nothing she’d had experience with, and besides, she still felt a little guilty for intruding. Nonetheless, she was casting about for the courage to restore the authority of motherhood when Flannery asked, “So, what did you think?”
“Oh dear,” she said then, almost in tears. “You have a gift, Mary Flannery.”
Flannery grinned a smile that bore no resemblance to a frown, and Regina felt happy to have helped and to have such a daughter.
At fourteen Flannery drew cartoons and wrote for the Peabody Palladium, her school newspaper. While considered odd by most students, she was nevertheless appreciated for her caustic articles and cartoons.
When at sixteen she began sewing clothes for her bantam hens in her home economics class, she quickly gained notoriety as the weirdest person on campus.
“And proud of it,” she’d add to anybody voicing that sentiment.
Then, after a brief illness, Edward died, and she never mentioned her father again, erasing him along with the pain of losing him. That’s when she began addressing Regina as “Parent.”
She loved geese and set out to immortalize many of them in little illustrated books that she described to those who wondered what they were about as being “too old for children and too young for grown-ups,” which was her way of saying that these stories were not for public consumption. She hid them well, even from Regina, as she viewed these little books as private exercises—as getting ready, as finding her voice and medium. At that time she was partial to drawing thinking that “things with pictures talk louder, and these people need loud talking to.” Words struck her as too subtle, it was with pictures she would touch them, she was pretty sure of that. So she filled her books with them.
When she entered Georgia State College for Women, just a few blocks from where she now lived in Milledgeville, Georgia, she involved herself in all aspects of student life, except dancing, which she considered a waste of time, and sports, which she was no good at. She majored in Sociology and English.
While family and friends still addressed her as Mary Flannery, Flannery decided to drop Mary from her artistic name, and from this point on signed all academic work, and all writings and cartoons Flannery O’Connor. Regina thought of objecting, but as usual when it came to Mary Flannery’s quirks, thought better of it and said nothing.
So it was as Flannery O’Connor that her mother wanted to talk to her about two of her recent stories: My Relitives and Why I Chose Heart Trouble. These were two more little books that Flannery had written and illustrated for her own amusement and as her way of preparing.
“I’ve read these,” said Regina, indicating the two stitched sheaves of lined paper which lay on her desk.
“I know,” answered Flannery.
“I’m sorry,” said Regina, “I know you don’t want me prying.”
“I left them out for you to read,” she answered.
“Parent,” said Flannery. “I need someone to tell me how I’m doing. It’s so easy to lose perspective when all you have is your own opinion, and that of infantile juveniles.”
“Well,” said Regina, and flattened the fabric of her skirt against her legs. “Well,” she said again. “Although I must admit that what you say in these stories is true, or mostly true anyway, you can’t really say these things about people in this house.”
“Who’s to know?” said Flannery.
Regina thought about that for a spell, and yes, if Flannery kept them to herself, none would be the wiser. “You can’t publish these things in The Corinthian,” she said.
“Didn’t intend to.”
At which point Regina had run out of things to say. Except the one thing, of course, which she had noticed first of all: “Oh, and Relatives is spelled with an a, rel-a-tives, not with an i, rel-i-tives.”
Flannery cast a glance down at the cover page of the top manuscript. “Ah, yes,” she said. “Spelling’s not my strong point.”
“That would be good,” said Flannery, and from that point on Regina became her personal line editor-cum-critic.
A couple of her other pieces did, however, make their way into The Corinthian, the college literary magazine: The Domestic Bliss of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and The Bookkeeper’s Chaucer, to the delight of her classmates who had heard Flannery read them to the class firsthand as completed class assignments.
Her reputation as a comic and satirical writer as well as an artist grew, somewhat to her teachers’ dismay, who felt that perhaps Mary Flannery was not taking her assignments seriously—though even they could not help smiling as they read her pieces.
By now she had begun submitting her stories and poems to various publications, but commercially her work did not yet cut it. When asked at that time what she was up to or how she spent her time, she claimed that her main occupation was to “collect rejection slips.” But then she would add, without smiling, and mostly as a promise to herself, “I have things to say. I will learn how to write as well as I can, perhaps a little better.”
Of all her teachers it turned out to be a new college faculty member, George Beiswanger—being an outsider hit with a Flannery now in full stride—who saw her talent the clearest. He encouraged her to work for extra credit to win a scholarship, and to apply for the State University of Iowa’s graduate writing program.
“Could I cut it?” she wanted to know. “Or am I wasting my time?”
“I have no doubt,” he answered. “You are good enough.”
And he was right. At first, however, she not only took classes in literature, but also in advanced drawing, American political cartooning, advertising, and magazine writing, still thinking that pictures were perhaps how best to touch more of “the normal people,” even though the cartoons she had already submitted to The New Yorker and other commercial magazines had been rejected.
In fact, it was not until Paul Horgan, the director of the Iowa State Workshop’s fiction program, one day took her aside and convinced her to concentrate on fiction that she finally, and somewhat reluctantly, abandoned her cartoon aspirations.
Her roommate at Currier House in Iowa City, Fiona McCullough, agreed: If Flannery would concentrate on words instead of drawings—“let them form their own images,” she told her, referring to her readers—she would certainly be published. She would become a major writer, she added.
Flannery, who rarely listened to (and much less took) advice from anyone her own age was nonetheless heartened by Fiona’s encouragement, which was to form the foundation of for lifelong bond between them.
As if to corroborate a decision correctly made, Accent magazine accepted her story The Geranium in March of that year—it was now 1946. And that was it: she knew that she would make it, and knowing, now she began writing “for real” as she put it. She started a novel.
She remained at Iowa during 1947 and part of 1948 when she accepted an invitation from the Yaddo Foundation to spend June and July at its artists’ colony near Saratoga Springs, New York. She was still working through chapter after slow chapter of what she at the time called Wise Blood and Simple.
By the end of that summer she received an offer from Iowa State of a modest fellowship while she at the same time was invited to stay on at Yaddo through the end of the year. Much to Parent Regina’s dismay, and over her long distance protests, Flannery declined the teaching position at Iowa and remained at Saratoga Springs until February of 1949 when she left for New York City to continue the work on her first novel.
While in New York she met Robert and Sally Fitzgerald who would invite her to live with them in their house in Ridgefield, Connecticut, so as to let her finish the novel without financial worries, or with fewer, as Flannery put it at the time.
By October the following year she had found a publisher for her book and she knew now that she was on the cusp of success. She even allowed herself to taste the pleasure of renown, to contemplate the coming fruits of her labor, an indulgence her bear didn’t take too kindly to. So, to prevent Flannery from succumbing to the distractions of success and fame and so fall prey to the silver shroud, and also to keep her wide awake and focused on her graver task, he gently reached inside her body with tendril fingers and began to squeeze.
She was twenty-five then, and when these first tendrils reached her, when these bear reminders in the form of slow death first arrived (soon to settle in for good), she once again—and very clearly—remembered why she was here, green valley and all.
Flannery’s bear would not leave her side for the next fourteen years.
Neither Heather, who knew exactly what Flannery was talking about, nor Gabriel, who had yet to be told the full extent of things, answered.
Flannery leaned with her back against the countertop and looked at Heather in silence for some time. Then she turned toward Gabriel. It was a look he recognized well. The deep concern mantled with anger. Flickering eyes, which could reflect irritating annoyance and controlled rage, both. Gabriel was leaning towards controlled rage.
Then she looked out through the doorway. The wind had softened to hardly a whisper outside, the grass had stilled and seemed to murmur to itself, not entirely pleased with the stillness, wondering where had the wind gone. Grasses like to move.
She faced Heather again, then went over to and sat down at the worn kitchen table. Gabriel followed her, found his own chair. She looked at them both again, “He’s gone too far,” she said again. “Things are completely out of hand. There is no other option. We must go there.”
“Netoniel.” said Gabriel. His suspicion now confirmed.
“Yes,” said Heather.
“Yes,” said Flannery.
“So the silver shroud has not dissipated,” he said.
“Not only has it not dissipated, it continues to grow, and at an increasing rate,” she said. “It’s not going to go away on its own.”
“And Netoniel?” asked Gabriel.
“Is nowhere to be found,” said Heather.
“That doesn’t bode well,” said Gabriel.
He looked over at Heather, then back at Flannery. “You’re sure he’s not there?”
“Quite,” answered Flannery. “And we don’t know when he left, or where he went.”
“Well, he was there, last I knew,” said Gabriel.
“Last I knew, too,” said Heather.
“Not anymore,” said Flannery. “And now there has been a terrible war, a long and terrible war. The whole world was fighting.”
“And you’re sure it’s Netoniel’s mirrors?” he said.
“I’m sure,” said Flannery. “He spliced it into their DNA. They can’t help but create them. And they have no idea that they are doing it. Clever, I give him that.
“He is that,” said Gabriel.
“And ever since, each wish, each hope or intent is intercepted by the mirror—which surrounds the spirit like an invisible globe—then reversed and reflected back to the spirit as its opposite. The spirit then acts on the opposite of his own intent, and pursues this opposite. Love becomes hate. White becomes black. Good, evil.”
“That doesn’t explain the silver shroud,” said Gabriel.
“The mirrors are designed to let the original wish or intent sail right on through, but once through it forms a silver thread, while its evil twin returns to the soul to wreak havoc,” said Flannery.
“And,” said Heather, “these silver threads attract each other and with enough of them now, there’s your shroud.”
“How long has this been going on?” said Gabriel.
“As far as we can tell, ever since Netoniel set out to kill the soul,” said Heather.
“I didn’t mean for him to actually try,” said Gabriel.
Neither of his sisters replied.
“In other words,” said Flannery. “About five thousands of their years.”
“That’s a lot of wishes,” observed Gabriel.
“And silver strands,” said Heather.
“A lot of silver strands,” confirmed Flannery. “As a result, the shroud has grown progressively thicker and darker over the last several centuries and is now covering the whole planet.”
“What does the shroud do?” said Gabriel. “Do they see it?”
“They don’t see it. Same as with the mirrors, human eyes cannot. But the soul does see it, or at least senses it as this omnipresent, restless, hungry, desperate, shroud of unfulfilled wishes and hopes and dreams, billions and billions of them by now yearning to fulfill.”
“What does the shroud do?” Gabriel said again.
“It kills memory,” said Flannery. “And it blinds and blocks the soul. They can no longer look up and clearly see, and remember, other stars and other planets. And they no longer remember prior lives.”
Gabriel was shaking his head.
Flannery continued, “An no one can leave the Earth. No one has for the last five thousand years. It has become a prison.”
“How do you know?” said Gabriel.
“I know,” said Flannery, but chose not to elaborate.
“She knows,” said Heather.
“And now they’re preparing for another war, one even more monstrous and gruesome,” said Flannery.
Heather was inspecting her hands, then looked out at the still grass, wishing herself amongst it again. Roaming again. Exploring. Or, wishing herself at home in her own cabin, or house, or castle. “I wish we could forget the whole thing,” she said.
“Frankly,” said Flannery, “I wish we could, too.”
“I am tired of tidying up after him,” said Gabriel. And he was.
“He is our brother,” said Flannery.
“And as a brother,” began Flannery.
“I think you goaded him to it,” said Heather without looking at him.
“I did not,” said Gabriel. Not being entirely truthful.
“You said it was impossible, that he could not do it,” said Heather. “You said no one could do it. Could not be done, you said. I heard you.”
“Well, what he was proposing was ludicrous. And impossible. It still is, and ever will be impossible.”
“Knowing full well,” she went on, ignoring Gabriel’s interjection, “that for Netoniel that was pretty much the same as a personal challenge.”
“It cannot be done,” protested Gabriel.
“Calling his competence into question, that’s what you did. That’s goading. At least when it comes to Netoniel.”
“It was a stupid idea,” said Gabriel.
“That’s the only kind he has,” said Flannery.
“And it cannot be done. I told him the truth. You know that. Who’s ever heard of killing the soul?”
“We know that, and I’m sure that deep down Netoniel knows that too. But that doesn’t change things. He set out to do it.”
“I didn’t mean for him to try,” said Gabriel.
“I actually don’t care who or what made him do it,” snapped Flannery. “He set out to try, and that with some very horrendous consequences, which we now must do something about. Forgetting what he has done is not an option.”
“I know, I know,” said Heather, back to inspecting her fingers, which then began brushing nonexistent crumbs off of the scarred but well-polished table surface.
The whole valley was still now, listening. The grass had stopped its murmur, the hillsides held their breath. Creatures large and small had gathered outside the open door, trying—though not with any success to speak of—to remain unseen. The bear didn’t even try, sitting in plain view just outside the door, inspecting his paws very thoroughly, as if the last thing he had any interested in was their conversation.
The wind had settled on the roof, with a long, thin, listening leg slipping down the chimney and onto the floor, rustling a leaf or two that—by request from nearby trees—were there to listen as well, and to report back as soon as they knew anything.
Even the table and chairs held their breath.
And, as if by some strange accord, even the three siblings held their breaths as well.
Flannery finally let hers out in a long, part exasperated, part wistful, sigh.
“It’s very, very bad,” she said. She shot a glance out at the bear, who didn’t look back at her, then smiled her sardonic smile to herself. “During their big war they poured liquid fire down from airplanes, fire to burn the skin and lungs, poured it down upon a continent of young men, mired in soggy trenches for months, feet and souls rotting, to die, at last, with bleeding lungs, drowning, more often than not, in their own blood.”
She drew another deep breath.
“This they did from the safety of their wretched airplanes, knowing full well what they were doing. And to think that they will one day call this the Great War.” She shook her head.
“What was it?” asked Gabriel. “That they poured?”
“Poisonous gas,” she replied.
“They had no way of defending themselves, no means of protection?” he wondered.
“No.” said Flannery. “Not really. They had crude masks that went some way to protect their lungs from the chlorine gas they started out with, but once the ever enterprising War Research Departments developed mustard gas, these masks did little or nothing. Their coarse filters could not catch this new wonderful invention, at least not enough of it to make a difference.”
“And so cowardly,” said Heather, looking up from her fingers.
“When their nations, unified by war into this single monster, begin playing tit for tat with atrocities,” said Flannery, now more to herself than to the others, “there seems to be no depth to which they will not go.”
“Well, you have to hand it to Netoniel,” said Gabriel. “He does have a knack for these things.”
Flannery threw him a scathing glance. “I will pretend I didn’t hear that,” she said.
Gabriel shrugged. “Well he does, doesn’t he?”
Flannery didn’t dignify that with a reply. Then said, “And where have you been, by the way? Is this all news to you?”
“What? About the silver shroud? No.”
“No, about the war.”
“Here and there,” he said after considering a while.
“I’m not his babysitter,” he said.
“He’s our brother,” she said.
He didn’t answer her. Instead he asked, “So, are you saying that he’s actually killed the soul? That he has succeeded?”
“No, that’s not what I’ saying. Of course not. Killing the soul is impossible. But,” and now she shook her head slowly, “he has all but vanished it. He has managed to smother and confuse it by his mirrors. And on top of that he has managed to blind and imprison them under the weight of his ever-growing silver shroud. He has in effect managed to eradicate most traces of decency from an entire population, along with long-term memory. Yes, perhaps you can chalk that up to a success of sorts. By his dictionary.”
“I still think you made him do it,” said Heather, not letting this go.
“I just said what either of you would have said. That it couldn’t be done.”
“That has never stopped Netoniel before,” said Heather.
“True,” conceded Gabriel. “But I didn’t mean for him to actually go ahead and try.”
“Is that the truth?” said Flannery. Wanting very much to know.
“Yes,” said Gabriel. And now he was truthful. “I was just baiting him a little. Taking a piss, as they say in England.”
“Taking a piss,” said Flannery. “You know Netoniel well enough not to provoke him.” She shot Gabriel another cutting glance, which made him wince. “It’s a thing called judgment. You may have heard of it.”
“I was just taking a piss,” he said. “I really didn’t think he’d be so crazy as to try.”
“Well, he did try. And the outcome is horrifying and real. They have completely forgotten who they are. They are now convinced, to a man, woman, and child that they are their bodies. They suffer at every turn, their despair is tangible. And, as I said, even when they die, they cannot leave. The silver shroud blocks them.”
Then she added, “That is why we have to go there.”
Neither of the other two answered.
“It is our duty,” said Flannery.
“It’s his mess,” said Gabriel. “We should find him. Pat him on the back, Netoniel, you did it, well done, good job, now clean it up, fix it. Let him undo the thing.”
“Well, that’s the thing,” said Flannery. “I don’t think he can undo it.”
“We told you, he’s nowhere to be found.”
“Not a good sign,” Gabriel offered again.
And then no one said anything for so long that the leaves on the floor thought it was over and hitched a ride on the wind back to their trees to debrief, and the bear outside the door closed his eyes and pretended to fall asleep. So asleep that he fell over onto his back with a dull thud, which brought the three children back from their respective reveries. They all looked out at the sleeping bear, and each smiled a private, invisible smile.
Then Heather said, “Tea anyone?” Without waiting for replies, she stood up to boil the water Flannery had forgotten to put on the hot stove.
“We have to go there,” said Flannery.
It was the 21st of January, 1961, late in the gray Georgia afternoon. Flannery had just said goodbye to her visitor and now remained by the door for a while, watching her walk down the drive, almost vanishing in the dusk before she reached the road. Flannery then returned to her ground floor room. Here she sat down at her cluttered desk to write a letter to Fiona McCullough, in which she, among other things, said the following about her visitor:
I don’t know if anyone can be converted without seeing themselves in a kind of blasting annihilating light, a blast that will last a lifetime. I would be afraid that a psychiatrist would make him lose the little he’s gained, unless it was one who respected his beliefs. This girl, who shows up here from time to time, was a seminarian at Union in New York and quite snarled up in the emotions, etc. When the psychiatrist got through with her, her emotions flowed magnificently and she believes nothing and herself is her God, and everything for her depends on her success in the theatre—which I doubt she’ll ever have. She is charming and very generous but headed for some major crack-up if she doesn’t somehow get back some of what she lost in the psychiatrist’s office.
By the way, has anyone put Frank Paley behind bars yet? And how about Heather? How is she doing?
At the very moment Flannery sat down to her typewriter to write Fiona, Gabriel sat down at his gray Formica top desk in his little room in northern Sweden. He arranged a few things on it, put a pencil and a nearly new eraser away in the top right-hand drawer in the tray made for such things. He returned a dictionary to its proper place on a shelf to his right, then leaned forward on his elbows and looked out the window.
It was a cold, clear and crisp winter day. The sun stood low but bright in the sky and cast sheets of diamonds upon the snow that covered the valleys and fields this far north. Even the trees were sprinkled with frosty glitter. He followed the fields with his eyes all the way to the forest’s edge a mile or so distant, when he came to think about the suicide attic and the poem he wrote there. He was pretty sure that he had kept it, but was not so sure where he had put it.
Maybe it was that the thousands of diamonds, the sheets of sparkle that met his eyes recalled the dust motes shimmering in the still air, perhaps it was their combined brilliance, or maybe it was the silence—for he was alone in the house that Saturday morning—that stirred him.
And, as he thought about his little poem (if that’s what it was) and those ethereal, fluttering sheets of light in the stillness of the attic, the sparkling snow seemed aware of that and decided to synchronize in song. Again, as in the attic the previous summer, he looked around for pencil and paper, to soon remember where he had put the pencil. He then found a sheet of paper and began to write. And again, he surprised himself with the result:
What is it that wakes the soul? What is it that penetrates the slumber we seem to walk around in? What is it that touches him and stirs him awake? And what is it that puts him to sleep in the first place?
What can possibly drown the desire for beauty and truth so thoroughly that I could so forget those shimmering sheets of dust for these last many months, and not pay them as much as a thought? How is that really possible? How could I have forgotten?
For as I look back I see that I felt so alive that day in the attic, more alive than at any time before in my life. How could I, how can anyone, just forget a moment like that for months. Like I forgot until this very moment. This very moment, with the same sun dancing on the snow.
Is it that the soul forgets, that it falls asleep? Or is it something else? It was I who forgot, but am I really different from the soul? How do we know where to find the soul, and how do we wake him? Does every person have one? Even Hitler? Or, perhaps it is that we do not have a soul. Perhaps it is that we are a soul. Am I, the I who writes this, that guides my fingers to move this pencil into shapes called letters, is this I, perhaps, in truth, not a brain or a collection of molecules and patterns after all, but spirit?
He put his pencil aside and read through what he had just written.
As he approached the end of the last paragraph he felt a ripple in his feet and in his legs and now his chest and gathering strength and speed it reached his head and suddenly shot him, like an invisible cannonball, up into the clear Swedish winter air to take a look at things from quite a ways up.
His first notion was that he had suddenly (for some unexplainable reason) died. His second notion was that he had never felt so alive. He could see, all around him. Clearly, perfectly, everything.
And what a view. His third notion, or impulse rather, was to describe what he saw, but he found that he could not control his fingers from up there, could not even find them, could in fact barely keep his body breathing (inside that little house in the snow so far below). No, up here he could only look, and he found himself to be a looking that he knew was him, that perceived everything in amazing detail, that marveled at not feeling in the least cold so high up on a day so cold that just walking on the snow covered ground crunched and squeaked like you were walking on crispy cereal. A looking that was not so sure that there was any difference between seeing and tasting and hearing and feeling.
He remained there, suspended mid-space for a minute, or was it ten? he had no way of telling. Then his body suddenly inhaled him and he slid down the chute he had flown up and back into his head in an instant. Back to normal, but so very far from it.
For now he knew: the person does not have a soul, he is a soul.
Flannery had just finished the note to Fiona when she felt the ripple and rush so many miles to the north-east and so clearly that she could almost taste the snow. She smiled to herself and placed another sheet in the typewriter. And typed a note to herself:
He’s waking up is our brother Gabriel. I can tell he’s stirring. Stirring and steering that Swedish ship of his above those seas and seas of snow. How he loves the snow, does Gabriel, always has, and the sun. And there he is, looking and looking. Well, I’m glad he that is and that he’s stirring awake. It’s about time.
And you, stupid bear, crawling at me as slender-fingered Death. So this is your way of keeping me awake and honest?
She leaned back and closed her eyes. Her fingers ached. She was very, very tired. The Lupus was not kind to her. Her Lupus was Death in the shape of a well-intentioned and well-tendriled bear and it had settled in for the long haul.
Still, she kept Death at bay, it certainly wasn’t time to go yet. Was this part of the plan? Her Plan? His plan? She could not remember. But the bear knew that she could not, must not fall asleep, must not forget, must not be blinded by the silver shroud, and this was his way, most likely the only way, to keep her awake, for he loved her, did the old bear.
And what about Heather?
Maybe she should ask Fiona to at least speak to her. She thought of adding a post scriptum to her letter, but then changed her mind again. No, she had best be left alone for now. She had enough on her mind, and she was not old enough to leave home just yet.
Gabriel, on the other hand, would soon be on his way—as long as he steered clear of those dangerous boyish urges they have around here.
Back in his head, Gabriel again looked out the window. The snow still sparkled, twinkled, sang. He picked up his pencil again. Instead of writing, however, he looked at it as if he had never seen a pencil before in his life. He smelled it, the musky, almost spicy wood, the yellow nearly odorless paint, the gray aroma of lead. Then he weighed it in his hand, it was light. Warm. So very there. He looked at it some more, surprised almost to be holding it, that it stayed so very apparent. Then he finally put the dull point to lined paper, and wrote:
I have never experienced anything like it. At first I thought I had died and was on my way elsewhere. But it was more than that, more exhilarating.
It was like an orgasm, this was, this wonderful, wonderful release. I’m still shaking a little. It was as if I were a sperm, shot out in ejaculation, only it was the real me and through my real head, far away, far up, soaring. Was this a precursor to new life?
New life? Have I just exited Socrates’ cave?
And what an amazing thing this pencil is. Needs sharpening though.
Somehow, I have woken up.
Netoniel’s silver shroud (which by now covered the entire planet several layers deep) yielded a little at that last thought and opened just enough to reveal a different air above it, along with a far-away field of emerald grass outside a small cottage, his two sisters within. A large bear was sleeping in the grass just outside, or pretending to.
The image lingered for a moment, and while it did it was far more real than the glare of the snow outside his window, than the warm air inside, than the Formica top his elbows rested upon. Then the silver shroud sealed the tear in its fabric, smothering the green image and any memory of it. With that, the room returned in force, all real again, jealously so.
Nine days later, Fiona McCullough’s reply arrived. Her letter included these two paragraphs:
Frank Paley is still at it and is still very much a free man. Heather appears to be fine, but she looks tired most of the time. From what I hear—from a friend who works at her school, I may have told you about her—it seems Heather has become the peacekeeper in that madhouse of a family. Her mother is getting sickly and leans more and more on her as a crutch. My friend surmises this from the fact that Heather is missing too many days of school.
I wonder if the girl will in fact hold up under the various pressures she must be under. Also, the boys wear bruises to school most days. Do you want me to speak to her? To Heather, I mean.
Flannery answered, thanks, but no thanks. Just wondering, is all.
Heather set the table and served the tea. There was nothing to eat, but since neither of them were hungry that did not matter, they were content with the green tea.
Flannery blew on the surface of hers, took a silent sip, then slowly replaced the cup onto its saucer with a soft tinkle.
The world outside held its breath again, the better to hear. The bear rolled over heavily, onto its side this time, one ear to the door, wide awake behind closed eyes. Flannery looked at Gabriel. “Did you know that Charles went there?” she said.
“No, I didn’t. When?”
“Early eighteen hundreds, by their reckoning.”
“Is he back?”
“He is not back,” said Flannery.
“And he is not coming back,” said Heather. “At least not before we sort this mess out.”
Gabriel cast them a quick glance, surprised.
“The silver shroud,” said Flannery.
“The shroud was thicker and deadlier than he had allowed for,” said Heather, then took another sip of her tea. “He said he was only going there to have a look around. Quick dip, in and out, as he put it.”
Flannery answered, “The same reason we now have to go. He saw the suffering and went looking for Netoniel, hoping he could convince him to stop this thing. When he couldn’t find him he said that he had to do something, at least find out what was going on.”
Gabriel nodded. Cousin Charles would do that.
“But he got stranded,” said Heather.
Gabriel said nothing, only looked from sister to sister.
“He must have noticed right away, the weight of the shroud, its effect,” said Flannery. “He should have left then and there, but he chose to stay.”
“What happened to him?”
“He remained too long,” Flannery answered. “Couldn’t leave.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know.”
“Once he realized he could not leave, at least not on his own,” said Flannery, “I believe he decided to try to wake some of them up. Maybe with help, he, they could find a way through.”
“Wake them up,” said Gabriel. “How?”
“The only way he knew. With stories.”
“Of course. What better way is there? And he did write, many of them. He grew very popular as a matter of fact.”
“But it didn’t work?” Gabriel looked over at Heather, who shook her head.
But it was Flannery who answered, “No, It didn’t work. And by the time he saw that, Charles—although he had no mirror of his own—was already under the spell of the shroud, he had begun to forget, could no longer see past the shroud.”
“Then we lost sight of him,” said Heather.
“Nothing,” said Flannery.
Gabriel shook his head. Then he said, “And you mean for us to go down there?”
“Yes,” said Flannery.
“It does not sound too healthy.”
“We must,” said Heather. “We cannot let the silver shroud grow indefinitely. It will eventually smother everything, and we don’t know what that will do to Earth. Can anyone, anything survive that? It might become a lifeless desert wrapped in silver.”
“That is not a pretty picture,” Gabriel conceded.
A brief silence fell over the two sisters and their brother by the old table, each wrapped in their own thoughts, neither liking the choice, each knowing there was no other.
“More tea, anyone?” said Heather, ever the domestic one.
“Please,” said Gabriel.
“Since they don’t know that they are creating their mirrors,” said Flannery, “we have to wake them up to that fact.”
“You said it’s part of their DNA,” said Gabriel.
“They are still creating them, even if compelled by the pattern.”
“True,” conceded Gabriel. Then he said, “And once awake, they’ll realize what they’re doing, cease, and rid themselves of their mirrors,” said Gabriel.
“Which would then stop generating silver strands for the shroud.”
“From those who wake up, yes.”
“What will happen to all the wishes and intentions already in the shroud from those waking up, from those to disappear their mirrors?” wondered Heather.
Both Gabriel and Flannery looked over at her. “Good question,” said Flannery. “I have a hunch that those strands will return to the wisher, now that he or she is awake to fulfill them.”
“You think they’ll notice that? The wishes, I mean,” said Heather. “That their wisher is awake now.”
“It would not surprise me,” said Flannery.
“So the strands must know that their wisher is asleep,” said Heather. “No wonder they seek each other’s company.”
Flannery nodded. “Indeed.”
“And how do we wake them up?” said Gabriel.
“I think Charles had the right idea,” said Flannery.
“But you said Charles tried that, and that they did not work?”
“But he is the best storyteller among us.”
“So, we must learn to write even better stories, deeper, truer, closer, clearer stories.”
“And stories are the best way?”
“I would say they are the only way,” said Heather.
“You sure?” said Gabriel.
“Yes,” said Flannery.
“Yes,” agreed Gabriel, after a moment’s reflection. “Yes. That is how to touch the soul, isn’t it?”
“In the stillness of the page,” said Heather into the silence that followed, “when nothing but ink on white will stir the seeing eye, when nothing but the soul itself is left to bring alive the world once traced by inky fingers on willing paper.”
There, Heather fell silent.
Instead, Flannery continued the quote, “When nothing but the deepest knowing, the stillness behind those reading eyes, shines awake the meaning, to build, word by word, a world as full and fuller than that which made the ink, than that which made the paper.”
Gabriel could have concluded the quote, for as his sisters spoke he remembered sitting at a similar table, in a similar house many years ago, Charles brimming with conviction, reading to them from his notes the final lines: “When nothing but the towering mountains, raging seas and tenderest loves live within him, so received by him from the page, then so created by him, and not before, are we truly talking to the spirit.” But he didn’t.
Instead, he said, “And we have no idea where Charles is now?”
“None,” said Flannery.
“Or how badly off he is?”
“No,” said Flannery. “We have lost his trace.”
“Not as yet.”
“You’re still looking?”
Heather poured the newly brewed tea, but offered nothing more.
“What else?” asked Gabriel, who sensed the unspoken among them.
“What?” repeated Gabriel.
“The silver shroud is now so thick and so pervasive that I don’t think anything can shine through,” said Flannery. “And now it’s growing almost exponentially.”
“So you are saying that when we go there we will go the way of Charles” said Gabriel.
“Yes,” she said. “That is what I’m saying, I’m afraid. We will forget on entry. Well, you two will anyway.”
“I will stay awake.”
“The bear will help.”
“Yes,” said Gabriel after a moment’s consideration. “He would know how.”
“He does know how,” said Flannery.
Another brief silence settled. Which Gabriel broke:
“And there’s no way Netoniel…”
Heather shook her head. “It has gone too far, far too far. And even if he wanted to, I’m sure Flannery’s right, I don’t think he could. The shroud is too thick, and growing thicker too fast. I think perhaps that is why we can’t find him.”
“I’m sure that’s why we can’t find him,” said Gabriel.
“He realizes that he’s set a fire that will spread far wider than intended, and he’s run off to save his own skin. That’s what I think,” said Flannery.
“And we can’t just leave it be, to sort itself out?” suggested Gabriel, with little hope of agreement.
“No,” said Flannery. “That’s the one thing we cannot do. For one thing, we have to rescue Charles.”
“Yes, yes. You’re right.”
Netoniel: brother, sister, father, mother, son, daughter, angel, devil, genius, coward, escapee—no one could really tell, or keep track of which, he changed shapes and roles so often—was quite sure that he now could do nothing about the spreading fire: his mirrors and their growing shroud of hungry wishes. The thing had gotten out of hand. Way.
This would take Flannery to sort out.
Flannery pulled the sheet out of her typewriter and read through what she had written. She made a few corrections with a pencil, then read it again. Looking over her shoulder she saw the bear standing silently in the doorway, smiling his stern bear smile, thinking like her, perhaps, about emerald grass and a different wind, of a clear and shroudless sky.
If only he didn’t have to hurt her so much. If only she didn’t feel so drained.
She turned back to her typewriter, inserted a new sheet of paper, flexed her fingers to restore circulation, and resumed her typing.
“So, we agree then. We must write?” said Flannery.
Neither of her siblings objected, and she took that issue as settled then.
“We must choose the best language,” she pressed on. “Then master it to perfection, then write as clearly as we can. We must touch each individual soul and stir him awake.”
“I take it they read,” said Gabriel.
“Yes, that they do. A lot.”
“For enlightenment or entertainment?”
“Mainly for entertainment.”
“Will such reading touch them deeply enough?”
“If we write well enough,” said Flannery.
“Which language?” asked Gabriel.
“English,” said Heather.
“Same as Charles.”
“English has become the Earth’s tongue,” said Flannery.
“I thought Sanskrit was the Earth’s tongue,” said Gabriel to no one in particular.
Flannery shook her head. “I wish you’d keep yourself up to date.”
“It was a joke,” said Gabriel.
“Ah, yes,” said Flannery, not all that convinced.
Gabriel looked at Heather who didn’t find it funny either.
“Sanskrit has not been spoken on Earth for three thousand years,” said Heather.
“I said it was a joke,” said Gabriel. “I am not completely out of touch.”
“Are you not?” said Flannery.
“English then,” said Gabriel.
“If we—Heather and I, as you so cheerfully believe—will lose our memories on entry,” said Gabriel, “how do we find each other?”
“I will find you,” said Flannery. “I, and the bear, will enter first. I will get myself situated, then signal for you, Gabriel. A little later I will call you, Heather.”
“How are you going to reach us, with the shroud so pervasive?” wondered Gabriel. “Will it let you through?”
“The bear knows how,” said Flannery, and elaborated no further.
“Yes,” said Gabriel. “He would.”
“Why can’t we enter together, as siblings?” said Heather.
Flannery shook her head. “No, we need to spread out a bit, both geographically and temporally.”
“Why?” Heather wanted to know.
“If we are together and something unforeseen happens, it may happen to all of us. It’s a risk we cannot take.”
Heather was not convinced. “What could happen?”
“A car accident,” suggested Gabriel.
“Yes, for example,” said Flannery. “What if we’re out driving and our car breaks down and some escaped convict misfit criminal catches up to us and decides to shoot us all. If we’re together we’ll all be gone.”
“What are the chances of that?” said Heather.
“More than zero,” said Flannery.
“I see your point,” said Heather.
“I will leave shortly,” said Flannery. “In about twenty or so years of their time I’ll call you Gabriel, so please stay available and listen. It goes by fast, remember.”
“I do, and I will,” said Gabriel.
“Five years later, I will call for you, Heather.”
“I’ll be here.”
“I will learn the language well, and I will learn their writing craft. I will document what I find and pass this on to you two. And, I will write.”
“What will you tell them?” asked Gabriel. “What should we write about?”
“Anything that will remind them. We have to remind them,” said Flannery. “We have to remind them that they are spirits, asleep now, but still spirits. However we do this, whatever stories we tell, we must remind them. Remind them so well that they do remember. Remind them so well that they wake up.”
“And when they do…” he said.
“When they do, we will tell them about the mirrors.”
Netoniel: Always on the move Not too sure himself exactly where he was at the moment. What part of what galaxy. What sun, what planet exactly. He was in fact hiding. No, not hiding, not really, he told himself, that was not it, that was an ugly word, he was just staying away, thoroughly.
Flannery would figure something out. She always did. He’d check back later to see how she was doing. Much later.
On the 4th of February, 1961, Flannery’s letter to Fiona said, among other things:
I can’t get over the Mary Ann business. I told the Sisters that if that child was a saint, her first miracle would be getting a publisher for their book. And now the more I think about the way that book was written, the more convinced I am that it is a genuine miracle.
I have been reading Mauriac’s Memoirs Interieurs, which when I finish it I am going to send to you to read what he says about Emily Bronte. He sounds so much like you he might be you. He also has some good things to say about Hawthorne. I shall claim to be the only living person who doesn’t have a theory about Emily Bronte. I don’t know anything about her except she lived on the moor. I don’t know what a moor is but I should guess a piece of land that was desolate and damp. I read Wuthering Heights once but I am going to have to read it again to see why it fascinates you so.
I am worried about Heather Paley. How is she looking these days? Can you tell if her father beats her as well as the boys? And how about the little one?
I may ask you to talk to her soon.
Part of Fiona’s reply, dated the 28th of February, 1961, read:
I, too, must consider the Mary Ann story getting published a miracle, especially from what you told me about it and the Sisters initially. So, perhaps Mary Ann is a saint.
Heather Paley looks, I don’t know the best word for it, starved perhaps. Sallow of face and a little vacant. I’ve seen her a couple of times on her way to school. She looks over her shoulder often. Not happy.
I have never put the question to you before, but if you can, please let me know: What is your interest in the Paleys, and in Heather in particular? How did you even come to know about Frank Paley and his beating his children. I am curious but have always found it inappropriate to ask. I don’t remember you mentioning them when you stayed with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald here in Ridgefield. Did you know them then? I know it’s really none of my business, but I have to ask. I hope you don’t mind. There, I’ve asked.
Flannery did not reply to Fiona’s letter until March 23rd. She simply did not know what to tell her. She read the letter again, and again deliberated what to answer. The truth, of course, was quite out of the question. Finally, she drew a deep breath and let out a long sigh, and typed the following, lying all the way:
To answer your question, Fiona (and I don’t think it’s inappropriate of you to ask), I ran into Frank Paley in 1949, while I lived with Robert and Sally. Sally and I were out walking when I first set eyes on him. He looked so morose and so bullyishly evil to me that I had to ask Sally who he was. She had no idea, but agreed with me that he looked like harboring less than saintly intentions. Would Sally find out, I asked? Why? She wanted to know. Just curious, I replied, and since Sally by this time had pretty much gotten used to my many idiosyncrasies, she agreed to find out for me.
When she told me who he was, she also told me what kind of a man he was, at least by way of rumor. A wife and child beater. A grown-up bully, taking it out on his children.
I, for some morose reason that I could not explain to myself satisfactorily, needed to know more, and by mid-1950 I knew that Ann Paley, the wife, was pregnant again, and was due later in the year.
When on Santa Lucia day—they celebrate this in Sweden apparently, don’t ask me how I know—Ann Paley gave birth to a girl, her first, and they named her Heather. I don’t know Fiona, I just felt a kinship with her, the unfortunate baby to be born into this legitimate hell.
It’s one of those things, Fiona. A chance encounter and you remain interested.
Her real concern was, of course, that Heather, in her Heatherish way, choosing the healthiest mother on the maternity ward that day had, by chance and some very bad luck, also chosen the worst father possible. Had in fact joined a madhouse of a family, ruled by a little Hitler called Frank, and now she ran the very real risk of not waking up on time—by the time Flannery would have to leave—or of not waking up at all.
The day Frank Paley was fired from the phone company, his oldest son, Justin, died.
It was a Monday, the 14th of August, 1961. As he arrived for work that morning, Frank Paley was informed by his immediate supervisor, Jeff Walken, that the District Manager, up from New Haven for the day just to see him, was waiting in the lunchroom.
Ah, promotion, finally, was Frank’s first, and last, thought. What other reason could there be?
“Mr. Paley,” said the District Manager and rose as Frank entered. Jeff shut the door behind him and stayed in the room. He took up position by the door. Not un-guard-like.
They shook hands. “Norman West,” said the District Manager.
“I know,” said Frank.
“Please,” said West, indicating a chair.
Frank sat down, and smiled at Mr. West. Then he turned in his chair and smiled at Jeff as well.
Jeff didn’t smile back, which did not register with Frank.
This was his moment.
“Mr. Paley,” began the District Manager.
Here it comes, thought Frank, and he was already preparing what to say in thanks.
“Mr. Paley,” said the District Manager again. “I’m afraid we have some bad news.”
Frank didn’t quite stop smiling. Something, and it was more the tone of voice than the words he heard that told him all was not well with his promotion. He did not answer.
“I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go.”
That is of course not what he heard, he wasn’t sure what he heard, but they could not let him go, that was impossible, so that could not have been what Mr. West said.
Still smiling, he turned to Jeff who didn’t look up from inspecting his shoes. At length, Frank, looking back at the District Manager, finally said, “I’m not sure I understand.”
“We are letting you go, Frank,” he said.
Still, he did not connect the words he heard with any meaning relevant to him. Again he turned back to Jeff for clarification. Jeff looked up from the floor and saw the confusion in Frank’s face.
“You’ve been fired, Frank,” he said. Not one to mince matters.
“Jeff,” began Frank. “How, why?”
“Too many complaints, Frank,” said Jeff.
“Complaints about what?”
Neither man answered.
“Complaints about what?” This time Frank spoke very loudly.
“About your domestic affairs,” said the District Manager.
“My domestic affairs? What the hell do they have to do with anything?”
“Several customers refuse to have you visit. We have a list of fifty customers that have requested, specifically and in writing, that you never visit their homes.”
“You can’t do this,” said Frank, also very loudly. “The union.”
“The union has approved it,” said Mr. West.
“The hell it has,” said Frank.
Mr. West dove into his brown briefcase and extracted a typed sheet of paper. “Here,” he said. “Read this.”
Frank did. The union had approved his dismissal. He recognized the signature. Suddenly he felt completely cornered. Exposed. Someone had talked, and he knew exactly who had: Justin.
“You have been with us quite a few years,” said the District Manager. “You will receive a decent pension.”
Frank had stopped listening. Instead he was seeing Justin sneaking from neighbor to neighbor ratting on his father, holding up his bruises for them to gape at. Or what he would call bruises. They were not that bad. They were not really bruises. The little bastard.
The District Manager stood up, the audience was over.
Frank looked around at Jeff again, and then stood up as well.
“That, I’m afraid, is all I came to tell you,” said Mr. West, and did not offer his hand.
The little bastard, he thought again, and left the lunchroom without another word.
Heather knew something was terribly wrong when she came home from school and opened the front door. Her mom was sitting, white as snow, on the very far end of the living room sofa, pushing her knuckles into her mouth, her face shining with tears. Justin was lying in a heap on the floor by her feet. Frank was in the kitchen, she could hear him moving about, his heavy feet, not sitting down, pacing like he did when he was upset.
Her mom’s eyes were fixed on the heap by her feet. They did not move when Heather entered. She was carved out of the stillness. So was Justin.
There was a small puddle spreading out from under her brother. It was dark and moved slowly. That’s when she ran for the phone. She picked up the receiver and looked down to dial the police when Frank’s fist hit her squarely on her right temple and she dropped the receiver into the oncoming blackness.
The Irish Catholic Chief of Police ruled it an accident. It was forgiven by the Irish Catholic Priest.
The newspaper, basing its account on the official police report, said it was a terrible accident. All the more terrible for being the second son the poor father had lost in less than five years. No father, the reporter concluded, no family should have to endure such loss.
From now on Frank Paley had all day at home to torment his wife and remaining children.
Heather, now her mother’s right hand and full-time peacekeeper, tried so hard to forgive her father that she actually succeeded.
Gabriel arrived in Stockholm from his little hometown up north on the 3rd of September, 1961.
At barely sixteen he was perhaps too young to leave home, but his father had had just about enough of him and his constant scribbling—dreaming on paper as he called it, mockingly and disappointedly both, since the plan had always been for Gabriel to take over the engineering business his father had built, now obviously no longer the case—so, good riddance.
Also, since his mother wanted nothing but his happiness, and since she knew he was only happy now when he was writing, it was fine with her. Besides, some of his teachers had told her that Gabriel was a genius.
So, on the 5th of September, it was a cloudless day with air so crisp you felt crystallized just walking in it, on strong recommendations from his Swedish Literature teacher who was well connected with the Academy, and also from his hometown school board, he enrolled in the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts and Letters, and there set out to learn the craft.
As Flannery sat at her typewriter and picked her way through the story, she could breathe the clear Stockholm air through her words and relaxed a little. Yes, Gabriel was coming to, albeit in Swedish. He was on schedule.
The same could not be said of Heather, whose breathing she could no longer perceive, lost now in the dense fog of the shroud, cowed there by her father and held there by her mother and the need to keep the peace.
Even with Michael and Justin gone, she still had four siblings and her mother to comfort and support. And, Heather told herself, her father needed her too, despite what he had done, or perhaps just because of it. Heather did not see him as a murderer of children, but rather as another victim of his own violent daemons.
“We won’t wind up with Netoniel’s mirrors, right? On entry, I mean.” said Gabriel.
“No,” answered Flannery. “Not as long as you enter the body just before birth, the same day ideally. But the shroud will make you forget.”
“And there is nothing we can do to remember, to stay awake?” asked Heather.
“Nothing that I know of,” answered Flannery.
“But the bear will keep you awake,” said Gabriel.
“Yes, he will,” she answered.
“Can he keep us awake as well?, said Heather.
“No, he’ll stay with me.”
“Of course,” said Gabriel, “you also have the determination of a mule, that helps.”
“Pardon?” snapped Flannery.
“Nothing,” said Gabriel.
“That may be true,” said Flannery. “But it will serve us well.”
Outside, the bear rolled over and continued to pretend he was sleeping.
“There are quite a few of them,” said Gabriel.
“Billions,” added Heather.
“I know,” said Flannery.
“And we can only wake them one by one?” said Gabriel.
“I know of no other way,” said Flannery.
“But, billions,” said Gabriel.
“Yes,” said Flannery, “Billions.”
“It’s going to take some time,” said Gabriel.
“That’s one thing we have in good measure,” Flannery bit back.
The bear: Not a bear, of course, far from it. Some knew him as Semyaza, the leader of the supposedly evil angels—who weren’t evil in his opinion, a little rebellious maybe, but not evil.
Some knew him as the constellation of Orion, his favorite home. Flannery knew him as both of these, and as the bear, her self-appointed guardian.
A few knew him as Gadal, or said they did, but that would make him an angel, so there is probably not much truth to that. He is many things, but angel is not one of them.
Still listening intently behind what appeared to be hibernating eyelids, he did not like what he heard for he did not like Earth, not even a little, and it was now clear to him that he would have to go, too. To keep an eye on her. To keep her awake.
He made a big deal of turning over in his sleep, knowing full well that they all turned to watch him, knowing full well that he was listening, and knowing full well he knew full well they knew he was.
But Flannery meant for him to hear, so they continued their conversation.
Gabriel watched the bear pretending to sleep.
“But, billions,” said Gabriel, having some trouble with the magnitude of their task.
“Yes, billions. And one by one,” said Flannery. Then she added, less sternly, “And that’s why we have no other option: We must write. Stories to stir them awake.”
Gabriel looked back at her from studying the bear. “They have radio now,” he said. “And moving pictures. They’re sure to have television soon enough, too. Can’t we use that?”
“No,” said Flannery. “Only stories, in books, will work.”
“Why?” asked Heather.
Flannery studied her for a while. “Moving pictures, and soon television,” she said, “spells everything out. Foreground, background, expressions, size, movements, sounds, everything. They leave,” she paused to find the right word, “they leave nothing to imagine, nothing for the spirit to create with his own energy. And this he must do, for the spirit can only see what he himself creates.”
She looked over at Gabriel to make sure he, too, was listening. He was.
“Only the written story meets the reading spirit half-way, outlines—suggests may be a better word—what to create and the spirit then does the rest, filling in all the blanks.
“A well-crafted story is really created as much by the reader as by the writer, and written well, by someone who understands what happens when it is read, it will demonstrate to the reader that he or she indeed can still create, that he does in fact create, that he is still fully capable of creation. This will show the reading spirit that it is still awake,” she added after a brief pause into which no sound entered.
Gabriel nodded both his understanding and agreement. Heather, too.
“So we must write,” said Flannery. “And not only write, but we must write very well, and we must be read, widely read.”
“Is this perhaps easier said than done?” suggested Gabriel without a trace of cynicism.
“It is,” confirmed Flannery.
“We must become very good writers,” said Heather.
“We must become amazingly good writers,” Flannery confirmed again. “Magicians, I’d say.”
That’s a good word for it, thought the bear to himself, and turned over again. As noisily as before. To make sure they’d all notice how very asleep he was.
He stood quietly in the corner of her room, a transparent, shadowy figure of a bear, watching Flannery write. Some of his fingers, slender tendrils of death, massaged her lungs and heart and kidneys and liver and drained her strength. He loved her, did the bear, more than just about anything, so it pained him to hurt her. But he knew of no other way to keep her reminded, to keep her awake. By killing that about her which was perishable, he constantly reminded her of that about her which was not. And it kept her awake, well, awake-ish anyway—the shroud had now grown too dense for her to remain fully lucid, at all times, even with his help.
So, he stood quietly in the corner of her room, watching her write, constantly hurting her with tendril fingers, absorbing ever more of her physical life. Constantly reminding her: what part of her is perishable, what part of her is not.
Flannery’s Journal entry for August 5th, 1961 read as follows:
I know how to write now, damn it. I know how to write well. I know how to paint. I know that a good story is literal in the same way that a child's drawing is literal. When a child draws, he doesn't intend to distort but to set down exactly what he sees, and as his gaze is direct, he sees the lines that create motion. The lines of motion that interest the writer are usually invisible. They are lines of spiritual motion. That is what I put down. And I know how to do that well. How come I am hardly read then?
I have also learnt that as a writer I must first, last, and always, remain a true observer, so that I, like Socrates, can hold up a true mirror for the people, where they can see their true selves. Isn’t that my mission, our mission? Why then can I not reach them? Why do so few read me?
Of course I’m not very refined. I see only what is outside and what sticks out a mile, such things as the sun that nobody has to uncover or be bright to see. I used to worry over not being subtle, but subtle will not work for these people. However, it seems that neither will being blunt. Why am I not reaching these people?
Yes, I have sold thousands of books, but thousands will not do it. I need to sell millions. Many millions. And I’m not.
I had better compile what I have learned about this craft of writing for Heather and Gabriel. It is going to be up to them. Actually, at this rate, it is going to be up to Gabriel. I think Heather may be lost.
Yes, Heather, dear Heather. Where are you now?
At that time Heather, not yet eleven years old, had only one mission in life: to help her mother. Actually, the mission was more profound than that. Her true mission—which she would not, could not, articulate, not even to herself—was to help her mother stay alive.
But in her mind she had abbreviated this to simply: help her mother.
Having Frank around the house constantly was a continual torment. From his first demand for coffee and toast in the morning, to his last demand for another whiskey at night, the day was a barrage of orders, requests, barbs, directives, suggestions, sarcastic observations, and, if anything he said was not acted upon, or laughed at appropriately, or acknowledged with due respect quickly enough for his liking, beatings to go along with them.
Heather kept away from beatings by moving faster, pleasing harder, smiling more than anyone else in the house. All the while she sank deeper and deeper into the anesthetizing fog of the silver shroud.
And so she no longer had any idea of who she was, why she had come here, or that she had picked the entirely wrong family for her real mission.
“To stick out,” continued Flannery, “to attract attention, I will become a Catholic writer. There are not many of them, especially not in the American South.”
“How will that help?” asked Gabriel.
“I will be as visible as a pig on a sofa,” answered Flannery. “We have to be noticed to create an audience, a readership.”
“Why not be noticed for excellent writing and many books?” said Gabriel.
“There are too many writers already who are both excellent and who have written many books. Each of us needs an edge.”
“And you’re sure that’s going to give you an edge?”
“As I said, I’ll stick out.”
Gabriel didn’t rise to that bait, instead he asked, “What’s my edge?”
“You should be born in a non-English-speaking country. Sweden, or some such place,” answered Flannery. “Very few foreign born writers have achieved prominence in English. Each one of them was certainly noticed.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“Nabokov,” for example,” said Flannery. “Or will be,” she added. “He is Russian. And there is Joseph Conrad.”
“Konrad Korzeniowski,” said Gabriel.
“You know him?” asked Flannery.
“I’ve heard of him, yes,” said Gabriel. “Only just recently departed, as a matter of fact.”
“My task,” began Heather, off on one of her quotes again, “which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there, according to your deserts, encouragement, consolation, fear, charm, all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”
This time, however, Gabriel did complete the quote: “To snatch, in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time a passing phase of life, is only the beginning of the task. The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes in the light of a sincere mood. It is to show its vibration, its color, its form; and through its movement, its form, and its color, reveal the substance of its truth—disclose its inspiring secret: the stress and passion within the core of each convincing moment.”
He paused to refill his lungs a few times, then continued: “In a single-minded attempt of that kind, if one be deserving and fortunate, one may perchance attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the presented vision of regret or pity, of terror or mirth, shall awaken in the hearts of the beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity; of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world.”
“Impressive,” said Flannery.
“So you’ve read Conrad, too,” said Heather. Not a question.
“I have,” said Gabriel.
Flannery and Heather exchanged glances.
“Well,” said Flannery. “Wonders never cease.”
“What? Why shouldn’t I have read him?” said Gabriel.
“I’m surprised, that’s all,” said Flannery.
“Why?” said Gabriel. “Tell me why I should not be offended.”
“I would have thought you’d find him rather dry,” she said.
“I don’t know about that,” said Gabriel.
“He was a great craftsman,” said Heather.
“That he was,” said Flannery.
“And Polish, to boot,” said Gabriel.
Then Flannery saw it fit to add her own Conrad contribution. She took a deep breath, looked past Gabriel and out through the small window at the hills beyond, and spoke slowly: “The good artist should expect no recognition of his toil and no admiration of his genius, because his toil can with difficulty be appraised and his genius cannot possibly mean anything to the illiterate who, even from the dreadful wisdom of their evoked dead, have, so far, culled nothing but inanities and platitudes. I would wish him to enlarge his sympathies by patient and loving observation while he grows in mental power. It is in the impartial practice of life, if anywhere, that the promise of perfection for his art can be found, rather than in the absurd formulas trying to prescribe this or that particular method of technique or conception. Let him mature the strength of his imagination amongst the things of this earth, which it is his business to cherish and know, and refrain from calling down his inspiration ready-made from some heaven of perfections of which he knows nothing. And I would not grudge him the proud illusion that will come sometimes to a writer: the illusion that his achievement has almost equaled the greatness of his dream.”
“We should form a Conrad fan club,” said Gabriel. Then, when neither of his sisters answered, “And you think Swedish will do it?”
“Yes,” said Flannery.
“So I will be noticed.”
“That’s one thing.”
“And the other?”
“When you learn a language other than your native one, you have to learn it consciously, you have to fight to possess it. And that, usually, makes for a better understanding of that language. And you have to understand English better than anyone alive if you are to succeed.”
“So why not all of us, then?”
Flannery considered for a while. “We can’t take that risk.”
“The risk that you will not wake up fully and so never learn English.”
“If I’m awake enough to write, I should be awake enough to remember which language to write in.”
“No, the shroud will see to it that you won’t.”
“So,” said Gabriel. Then paused. “So, if we all were, say, in Sweden, and none remembered to learn English—well, yes, I see what you mean. But you have the bear.”
“I won’t be in Sweden,” said Flannery.
After a brief moment Gabriel said, “And it’s crucial that we write in English?”
“Yes, absolutely. Most of the world will know and read English by the time you are published.”
“Could I be translated from Swedish?”
“Something is always lost in the translation,” said Flannery. She stressed the word always.
The bear picked this moment to turn over again, noisily.
“Who else?” Gabriel asked into the spell of silence which followed.
“Who else, what?” asked Heather.
“Who else wrote in English as their second language. And caught attention.”
“Isak Dinesen,” said Heather.
“Anaïs Nin,” said Flannery.
They both looked for others.
“That’s only two,” said Gabriel. “Nabokov and Conrad makes four. Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“I am,” said Flannery.
“How can you be so sure?”
“They all made the world sit up and take notice,” said Heather.
“And that is what you must do,” said Flannery.
“Well, there’s Ayn Rand,” said Gabriel suddenly, happy to have added to the list. “She’s doing it.”
“So she is,” said Flannery.
“Didn’t Borges?” said Gabriel, who wouldn’t let it go.
“I don’t think so,” said Heather. “He only wrote in Spanish.”
On the 16th of September, 1961, Flannery wrote the following letter to Fiona:
I am wondering if Beckett on Proust arrived. I’m sure I sent it, a couple of days, I think, after the Critique.
Next weekend will be peachy and we will meet you at the rural mailbox and reserve you a seat Sunday amongst the nail kegs.
Shot has been restored to us and our troubles have begun. He can’t do anything yet and so he sits and decides what he is going to do with the wealth he has accumulated from his accident. This is a very demoralizing situation. A wealthy sitting black man.
I am going to keep the swans in the back yard until they produce offspring. Then I am going to retire the parents to the pond and bring the young ones up myself. They seem very content to sit on the grass and show no disposition to walk anywhere. We may dig a pool in the back yard, but I don’t know. They snort and hiss but are really quite timid.
I would like to see that D.S. Savage book. Don’t bother to mail it, just bring it when you come. The thing I am writing now is surely going to convince Jack that I am of the Devil’s party. It is out of hand right now but I am hoping I can bring it into line. It is a composite of all the eccentricities of my writing and for this reason may not be any good, maybe almost a parody. But what you start, you ought to carry through and if it is no good, I don’t have to publish it. I am thinking of changing the title to “The Lame Will Carry Off the Prey.” Anyway that analysis of yours about why Jack argues the way he does sounds pretty right to me. Entirely subjective. He says the artist leaves the herd and so becomes “evil.” But whose eyes is he using here? The eyes of the herd. Abraham left the herd and did not become evil. Nuts.
Are we going to be seeing Benton and Anna Magnani or what? We haven’t heard from him, but I can’t imagine him making anything but a triumphal tour of his journey to Mobile.
Also, please bring any news you can find about Heather. I really worry about that girl.
Fiona was sitting with Flannery in her bedroom-cum-study telling her about life in Ridgefield, about people they both knew, about writing, about publishing, and then, as if they both had been avoiding the subject up till then, Flannery asked about Heather.
Fiona, too tall to fit comfortably in any of Flannery’s chairs, began to play with her long, dark hair, twisting the end of it around and around her finger until her finger nearly reached the scalp. Then she let the long strands fall free only to start over. Then she said, “I have made a point of walking by their house now and then.”
Flannery eyed her with a concerned frown. “And?”
“And, I have seen her several times. Going to, or coming from the store, loaded down with groceries.”
Flannery, sensing that Fiona was getting to whatever news she meant to convey, said nothing.
“She’s wearing bruises almost constantly. Some on her face. Mostly though on her arms and legs.”
“He beats her?”
“It’s the only conclusion I can draw.”
“How does she look? Sad?”
“Absent,” answered Fiona.
“Yes, that’s the best description.”
“Absent,” said Flannery again, this time only to herself. And then she wished the bear would let her cry.
“How about me?” said Heather. “Where should I go?”
“The United States, same as me.
“Not foreign then? German, perhaps?”
“Or South American,” suggested Gabriel.
“No, not German. The Germans are not well liked at the moment. And as for South America, those countries always seem in a flux, too risky by far, I think.”
“Where then, where in America?” Heather wanted to know.
“I will let you know.”
Heather accepted that.
Then they finalized their plans, and finished their tea. Heather, ever the tidy one, insisted on doing the dishes and a little sweeping before they left. Gabriel and Flannery humored her by keeping out of the way. Once Heather was done, they left the cottage.
The bear, upright now, stood by the door and waved morosely as they made their way through the tall grass, as if he would never see them again. They turned and waved back.
He would, he decided, follow her as soon as they were out of sight.
By the spring of 1962 Gabriel was at the head of his class. By some margin. And even that is an understatement. By then he had mastered every point of craft his teachers could muster and impart and was more or less considered a genius both by the faculty and his fellow classmates.
He had completed a three-year curriculum in less than six months and now, in order to advance from there, he was going through the Swedish masters to absorb as much from them as he could.
His only regret, and a faint one at that, in delving into writing as a craft was that it had to some extent ruined his reading for pleasure. Now he was always reading with an eye to effect, how was it achieved, with an eye to craft and technique, to seeing how the plot developed, to seeing how the characters were grown and drawn, to understanding the story’s structure, to see what worked. In a word: to learn.
And learn he did.
It would appear, too, that he never slept, and hardly ate. He lost weight, but didn’t notice. He was possessed with the need to know, with the need to understand how to touch the souls of others. And so he pressed on. Another book, another midnight oil. And then another.
Heather broke her leg that spring of 1962. Or, rather, Frank broke it for her. This gave her a few weeks in the hospital and away from the house. Lying on her back with her casted leg hoisted up at a forty-five degree angle, there was nothing much to do but read, had she felt like it, or think, had she been able to. She managed neither.
All she did instead was worry.
About her mother, about her siblings, about Frank and about what he was doing to them now. About the house and how she wasn’t there to clean it, about the bruises and cuts and scrapes they all carried as evidence of a hell she didn’t even perceive as odd anymore. It had evened out to what life was: a stretch of endurance through beatings and toil. She could conceive of nothing else, and she wanted nothing more than to go home and help her mother endure it, too.
School was out early June, but even so, Gabriel decided not to go home. He would rather stay on in Stockholm for the summer, he said.
“But your dad and I want to see you,” urged his mother over the phone. “To see how you’re doing. We’ll pay for the train.”
“Dad just wants to see if I’ve ‘come to my senses’ yet,” said Gabriel.
His mother’s silence confirmed his guess.
“I have so much I still want to study,” he said. “There is so much to know about writing, you can’t even begin to imagine.”
“Are you eating enough?” asked his mom.
“I’m fine, Mom.”
“Have a girlfriend yet?”
“Who’s got time for those?”
“No, Mom. It’s just me and the books.”
“They seem to think you’re quite something.”
“Yes, he likes me. When did you speak to him?”
“He thinks you’ll really go places. Are you sure you don’t want to spend the summer here at home?”
Home. Suddenly, as if he had never defined the word: it was a stranger to him. Home. He tasted it, then said something he immediately wished he could have taken back.
“This is home now, Mom.”
She didn’t answer and Gabriel knew he had done damage.
“This is my life now, Mom, and home is where your life is.”
He would never forget her reply, for it made him realize that she did in fact understand. That, unlike his father, she knew him.
“Then,” she said, “you will always be home.”
“Yes,” he answered. “Yes, you are right. I will always be home.”
He was sure she would cry a little once they hung up, but not much. His mother was not given to tears.
He said goodbye and so did his mother. He hung up first. Then he gathered what he’d need for his day at the library.
One of his teachers, Soren Wallengard, a tall and prematurely balding man of Danish decent, was staying on in town that summer as well, and when expressing surprise at running into Gabriel at the library that morning, he learned that Gabriel was staying on, too. Perhaps on a whim, or perhaps wanting to do what he could to help his brilliant student, he invited Gabriel to come and stay with him and his wife Ann-Marie for the summer, to be near at hand with any assistance he could give, he explained. They had plenty of room, he added, no need for you to stay alone all summer.
Gabriel, though surprised, gladly accepted, not the least—were he to be absolutely honest with himself—because of their lovely daughter, Barbro. Whether his teacher knew of or had noticed the attraction is anybody’s guess.
What he did say, however, at dinner that night, was that Gabriel, if he continued to devote himself to the craft, would become a giant of Swedish letters. And he made sure his daughter heard that.
On September 8th, 1962, Flannery wrote this letter to Fiona:
I think that’s great about going to New York if that’s what I make out in the letter. I stayed there once very cheaply at the Y on 38th Street or 37th maybe off Lexington Avenue. Fourteen years ago that was and it was $2 a day and you could get your breakfast in the building. There was then a very good co-op cafeteria on 41st Street between Madison and Park. The only place in New York that I could afford to eat downtown where I didn’t feel I was going home with pyoria.
We called Benton on the phone when we got the news. He was at the hospital and sounded properly flustered. He told us Jenny was fine and then started right away telling us about his teeth, which it seems had been removed the week before and he had just got out of bed for the event. Not all his teeth removed, that is, just some embedded wisdom teeth. I hope you see him in New York.
On the basis of the fact that you use ten fingers to work a typewriter and only three to push a pen, I hold the typewriter to be the more personal instrument. Also on the basis of that you can read what comes off it.
When will you be back from New York? I am planning to visit Ridgefield sometime soon, before it gets too cold up there. I must see Heather.
Can I stay at your house?
Gabriel’s summer raced by in a blur of darkless nights, Swedish classics, and glimpses of Barbro.
Some mornings he’d see her at breakfast, some evenings at dinner, occasionally on the stairs, and always, it seemed, going in the opposite direction. And always with a smile and an air of curiosity about her.
Glimpses. Glimpses and whiffs. God, that girl smelled like a, like a what? A flower. A field of flowers. Oh, come on Gabriel, you can do better than that. Like a memory of a field of flowers? Ah, that’s better. That’s what she smells like. Sweeping by, trailing memories of distant flowers. Was it her hair or a perfume she wore? A soap she used? He couldn’t tell.
But delightful though they were, these glimpses were not strong enough to knock him off course, just strong enough to linger, sometimes for hours. He didn’t think he was falling in love or anything, he was just fascinated by her. For a moment, on his way to the books.
She was a tall girl, taller than Gabriel by nearly an inch. She had her mother’s blond hair, which she wore long, and she was as graceful as, well, he could never find the right word, but she was as graceful as the most graceful thing he’d ever seen which was a roebuck who cleared a four-foot hedge to his right from a standstill in one almost impossibly slow movement which more than anything had reminded him of a liquid arching the green bush before it vanished down the hill. That’s how graceful she was, ascending or descending those stairs to the apartment. Whisking by in the hallway. No, it wasn’t falling in love or anything, it was just appreciating perfection, that’s all.
Then came fall. School was starting up again, and Soren Wallengard asked Gabriel if he would like to stay on in his home for the new school year, they would be very happy to have him. Again, surprised, again Gabriel gladly accepted. Ann-Marie was an outstanding cook. In fact, he had gained some of his weight back again. Soren’s private library was a trove of fine writers, both Swedish and foreign, and he had the run of it. Also, Soren was never too busy to answer any of Gabriel’s questions, and was always delighted to do so.
And then there was the slender apparition floating about that he wasn’t quite in love with, but loved to admire. So it was settled, Gabriel terminated his boarding house rental and settled in long term.
Still on course.
Until, despite her father’s admonitions, which had grown not infrequent and less than subtle, Barbro Wallengard almost ended Gabriel’s writing career on the 15th of September, 1962. It was a Saturday.
For Gabriel had never been kissed. Well, not never, but not really. There had been pecks on cheeks, of course, and some brushing of lips against lips. And the occasional collision of teeth. But never the melting of tongues, and that was the gate that Barbro opened for him that evening, and Gabriel would not ever be quite the same, much to the dismay of Soren Wallengard, who felt not a little responsible for the turn of events.
It happened at a party. Schools all around town were back in business as of two weeks before, and this was to celebrate the re-union of mates and friends, many of whom had just returned to the city from long, relaxing summers at country residences. It took place in a very large Stockholm apartment, in one of those old five-story houses on Strandvagen in Ostermalm where each floor was a single residence. You could literally get lost in one of them.
Which is what Gabriel did, got lost in one of them. He was looking for a bathroom and opened one of many doors he hoped would lead to one. Instead this one lead into a small bedroom facing Nybroviken’s water, and by a small desk by the window sat Barbro, staring out into the fall evening.
There were a few barges on the water below, still moving, but you could tell, settling for the night with their loads of firewood or sand. Barbro turned around at his intrusion, and he could see that she had been crying, or at least he imagined that she had, her eyes had that bruised look to them which he assumed came from sadness.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know anyone was in here.”
“That’s all right,” she said, and turned back to face the window and the water below.
He looked out as well, and his eyes followed a small, white ferry boat docking to let its late load of passengers from the outlying islands disembark. Neither said anything for nearly a minute.
“If you want me to leave,” he said.
“No, no, it’s fine,” she said, but didn’t turn around to face him.
A lady, a small child on one arm and steering a pram with the other, had trouble getting the rather old-fashioned pram onto the gangway and several of her fellow passengers rushed to help her. She smiled, and from what Gabriel could make out, thanked her rescuers ever so much.
“Dad says there’s no way I’m to start anything with you,” she said to the window, or to the night outside, but not to him.
Halfway down the gangway now the lady with the child was still in trouble with the reluctant pram whose wheels refused to climb the narrow planking that crossed the gangway every foot or so—to provide good footing, he assumed—and soon another passenger came to her aid. She thanked him ever so much as well. Then Barbro’s words reached him, as if reflected from the water below.
“But we haven’t,” he said. “We haven’t, I mean, I haven’t even thought…” which was a lie of course.
“I have,” she said, and finally turned around to face him. “Many times.”
Her eyes were very blue even in the dimming light and her face almost almond shaped. Her hair was finely combed and a light blue hair band kept it neatly out of the way, framing her face as with a sheen.
“I have too,” he heard himself say.
Then she stood up. All of her, sculptured by her yellow angora sweater, with long arms already reaching. She took one step towards him and his heart took over. He took one step towards her and next their lips joined oh, so gingerly. Their tongues embraced too and melted, and after that Gabriel was hard pressed to intelligently string more than two words together for the better part of the fall semester.
On her way to visit Fiona McCullough in Ridgefield, Connecticut, Flannery spent two days in New York City. On the second day, browsing used book stores and antique dealers, she came upon the original of a letter written by Joseph Conrad on October 28, 1895, to his friend and disciple Edward Noble.
It was displayed in a well-dusted glass case, placed on a black background much like you display fine jewelry. It looked very expensive and she would not have given it a second glance, except that in that one glance she did give it, she recognized the hand.
She stepped closer and, almost putting her nose up against the glass, but not quite, for fear of leaving a smudge, she read:
17, Gillingham Street, S.W. London
28 Oct. ‘95
My Dear Noble,
I received your discouraged letter this morning and can assure you I felt very sorry for your disappointment ending the long-drawn hope.
You have any amount of stuff in you, but you (I think) have not found your way yet. Remember that death is not the most pathetic,—the most poignant thing,—and you must treat events only as illustrative of human sensation,—as the outward sign of inward feelings,—of live feelings,—which alone are truly pathetic and interesting. You have much imagination: much more than I ever will have if I live to be a hundred years old. That much is clear to me. Well, that imagination (I wish I had it) should be used to create human souls: to disclose human hearts,—and not to create events that are properly speaking accidents only. To accomplish it you must cultivate your poetic faculty,—you must give yourself every sensation, every thought, every image,—mercilessly, without reserve and without remorse: you must search the darkest corners of your heart, the most remote recesses of your brain,—you must search them for the image, for the glamour, for the right expression. And you must do it sincerely, at any cost: you must do it so that at the end of your day’s work you should feel exhausted, emptied of every sensation and every thought, with a blank mind and an aching heart, with the notion that there is nothing,—nothing left in you. To me it seems that it is the only way to achieve true distinction—even to go some way towards it.
It took me 3 years to finish the Folly. There was not a day I did not think of it. Not a day. And after all I consider it honestly a miserable failure. Every critic (but two or three) overrated the book. It took me a year to tear the Outcast out of myself and upon my word of honour,—I look on it (now it’s finished) with bitter disappointment. Judge from that whether my opinion is worth having. I may be on the wrong track altogether. I say what I think and from a sincere desire to see you succeed,—but I may be hopelessly astray in my opinions.
The letter came with its original envelope—displayed beside it—address to Edward Noble. The envelope carried a stamp that strangely had not been cancelled. Either the letter, once stamped, was delivered by hand or it was never sent. She asked the dealer which was it. He told her that he did not know.
How much exactly, she wanted to know. He told her, and it was far too much. Would he consider less? No. Ten dollars less? No.
Flannery sighed, and then bought possibly the most expensive thing she had ever bought, or ever would buy. The dealer, a man with dirty hair and a ridiculous mustache, gently opened the glass case and took out the letter and envelope. He carefully—almost lovingly, she noticed—folded the letter along its well established creases, and placed it in its envelope. This he was about to hand to her when she asked him to place it in a larger envelop for protection. This he did, although the dealer’s assistant had to run next door to buy one from a stationary store. She wrote him a check and he gave her the letter.
With the letter safely lodged in her handbag, she thanked first him and then his assistant for their troubles, wished them both a good day, turned, left the store, and stepped out into the crisp New York October.
She set out down the sidewalk a little lightheaded, she had spent a very large amount of money, but wondered again if this Edward Noble—of whom she had never heard—had in fact received the letter and whether Conrad’s advice had struck home. She hoped so.
And she hoped too, that Heather would recognize Gabriel’s handwriting. Why had he not told them?
Returning by degrees from the ordeal of spending so much money, she felt desperately tired. The bear, following at a safe distance, and looking nothing like a bear in a light brown overcoat and three-piece suit, saw to that.
Soren Wallengard felt like he had killed the artist within his, what he now considered, protégé. He might as well have shot Gabriel, he thought. It would have been much quicker and less painful to watch. More humane.
His daughter was, as he thought of it in some of his darker moments, leading Gabriel around by his, well, dick. He had never seen such puppyish devotion to anyone displayed quite so patently by anyone, and, as he mused, he had seen a few—his own courtship of Ann-Marie included, during which, he had to admit with a smile, he had been nowhere near planet Earth.
There was, in principle, of course nothing wrong with love and all that, and this spectacle would have been fine with him, had the boy’s genius not at the same time sprouted wings and taken vanishingly to the air. The only thing Gabriel seemed capable of writing nowadays were what he suspected to be sappy—his daughter, naturally, refused to show him any of them—love poems for Barbro.
Gabriel was not attentive in class, if indeed he showed up, and his progress as a writer had simply come to a halt. No more intense research, no more late nights at the school library or among the many books in his apartment. Instead he was now given to long walks, often with his daughter, and to grinning a lot.
And naturally, he, Soren Wallengard, was seen as a culprit throughout pretty much the entire faculty. Inviting him to stay with you? What were you thinking of Soren? You know what we have, or had, here, don’t you? It was hard to take, but nowhere near as hard as seeing Gabriel go to waste in such a ludicrously happy fashion.
Although, as a father, he could not deny that his daughter was happy, too. His normally moody little girl, or not so little anymore, was happier than he had ever seen her. That went a long way to muddy the conflicting waters within.
Then he decided to speak to Gabriel. Then he put it off, he was no good at these things. He would have Ann-Marie speak to him. Talk some sense into him. Then he decided that it was up to him to do it. Then he put it off again.
Fiona met her at the station. Even though she knew about Flannery’s illness, and although she had seen her not so long ago, she nevertheless drew a quick breath of surprise at how frail she looked, barely able to climb down the railroad car steps on her own. A tall man in a brown coat and a three-piece suit was helping her with her luggage.
Fiona rushed over to help, and Flannery noticed her concern.
“Oh, don’t fuss,” she said with a weak smile. “I’m just fine.”
“Don’t fool yourself, said Fiona. “You’re not fine.”
“I’m not fooling anyone,” said Flannery.
The tall man in the brown coat handed Fiona the luggage, one suitcase and a satchel for her overnight things. Flannery nodded a thank you to the man, who touched his hat and bowed courteously in return. They seemed to know each other, but neither said a word. Fiona watched his large back move away from them towards the station house.
“Who was that?” she asked.
“Oh, just someone I ran into on the train. I believe they call them gentlemen. I thought they were extinct.”
“Big fella,” observed Fiona.
“A bear of a man,” said Flannery.
Fiona had a car and put Flannery’s luggage in the trunk. Then she helped Flannery into the passenger front seat. Flannery did not seem to resent the help, but rather clung to Fiona’s arm as she lowered herself into the car seat.
Fiona said nothing, then closed the car door gently on Flannery.
“Drive by their house, please,” said Flannery once they were underway.
Fiona didn’t understand at first and her look at Flannery said as much.
“Heather,” said Flannery.
“Of course,” said Fiona.
Flannery slipped her hand inside her handbag to make sure that the envelope was still there. It was.
The house came into view.
“You want me to stop?” asked Fiona.
“No, just drive by, please. Slowly.”
The house was a two-story tract home covered with grayish brown clapboard. It was unattractive, with a small front yard gone to waste apart from two rose bushes, a few brave, pink roses still blooming. Flannery saw people move about inside as they drove by, but she could not make out whether any of them was Heather. Then they were past it.
“Do you want me to drive by again?” asked Fiona.
“No,” said Flannery.
Fiona drove directly to her apartment about twenty minutes away.
The bear of a man in the brown overcoat was nowhere to be seen.
It was a bleak January afternoon in 1901, and Joseph Conrad finally put his pen down on his desk to rub his head. This left a small dark stain on his right temple from an inky finger. His head ached, and he felt depleted. It had not been a productive day. Or at least it didn’t feel like one. Not even a thousand words. But even so, it was done. He had finished it. The first draft anyway.
Picking up the pen again, hand poised over the page, ready to strike, he re-read the final sentence: The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
It was good. Good and true. And paralyzing.
There was a name, the name of a dark angel he could not capture. And there were memories. Memories masquerading as images. Images he had no business possessing. Of green valleys he knew he had never visited. Of tall grasses that knew how to caress or yield out of the way by his mood. Of two sisters, one called Flannery and one called Heather that he had never met. Of a dark brother angel he felt deserved to be hated, but whose name would not come.
None of these images made it onto his pages. Still, what pages he did manage to write all sprung from them, this he knew. But when he tried harder still to remember, first his temples, then his forehead protested in pain and he could think no further about it. Though the smell of grass and crisp valley air would not leave him.
He put the pen down again and allowed himself to feel a small satisfaction.
He had finished the first draft of Heart of Darkness, and he knew that he had succeeded in capturing at least a portion of his dream. He knew that. But he did not know where this grass grew, or why he could smell it so clearly.
Fiona, sleuthing, had established that Heather normally went to the grocery store three times a week: Tuesdays and Thursdays in the early afternoon, and Saturdays between ten and eleven in the morning. They had waited outside the store in Fiona’s car from noon Tuesday until nearly dinner, but no Heather. They came back Wednesday, thinking she may just have slipped a day, but still no Heather.
It was not until late afternoon Thursday that she appeared, two large, empty shopping bags under her arm. Flannery stepped out of the car, with an effort, while Fiona remained behind the wheel.
Heather, nearly twelve now, stopped short and looked up, as if out of a dream. Her eyes were bruised. From tears or from recent fists, Flannery could not tell.
“Yes?” It was as much a question as an acknowledgement.
“Heather?” Flannery asked again. “Is that really you?”
A touch of fear entered the young girl’s gaze as she looked a little closer at Flannery, not much taller than Heather, weighed down as she was with fatigue and pain, and an unforgiving purpose.
“Who wants to know?” she said, mimicking her father’s abruptness.
“It’s me,” she said. “Flannery.”
“I don’t know any Flannery,” Heather replied.
“You don’t remember?” said Flannery. It was mostly a statement.
“Our plan, Heather. Yours, mine, and Gabriel’s.”
“I don’t know any Gabriel.”
“Listen,” said Flannery. “Trust me, you do.”
“You crazy?” she asked again.
“No, not at all,” she said. “Listen,” she said again, as she opened her handbag and fumbled around for the letter. “Here, you’ll recognize his handwriting.”
She found the letter and handed it to Heather.
Heather didn’t take it.
“Here, look at it.”
“Listen, lady, I don’t know what you want with me.” Then she brightened up as if she had just come upon what the lady did in fact want with her. “If it’s got to do with school,” she said. “Tell Mrs. Forrester that I will be back on Monday, for sure. I’ve been ill.”
“Heather, please. I’m not from your school. I’m Flannery, your sister.”
Heather looked at her, perhaps with fresh eyes, or perhaps that was only Flannery’s hope playing a trick.
“Here, please, take it.”
With each word she was pleading for Heather to recognize her. “This letter was written by Gabriel, your brother, you’ll recognize his hand.”
Heather looked around her now, as if for help. A father ushered his little boy past them as if they were an unpleasantness not to get involved with or to take too close a notice of. The boy turned around and looked at Heather, not curiously, more like the way you watch someone bleed. He was chewing on a piece of candy almost as large as his mouth and he was drooling a little. Others entered the store from the parking lot without paying them any mind.
Flannery held out the envelope for Heather to take.
“Please,” said Flannery. “Look at it.”
Heather finally took the envelope.
“Open it,” said Flannery.
She did. And then the smaller envelope inside. Unfolded the letter. She looked at it for a good while. Flannery could not make out if she was reading it or not. Then she threw the letter on the ground, and looked up at Flannery, terrified.
“Get away from me, stupid woman,” she cried. “You stay away from me.”
“Stay away from me,” she cried again, “or I’ll call the police.”
Heather turned from her and ran into the store.
Fiona got out of the car and hurried over to Flannery to help her collect the letter and the two envelopes which the wind now threatened to carry away.
They didn’t speak on the way back to Fiona’s apartment.
Flannery returned to Milledgeville in late October of 1962. Her illness was getting worse and for the next few months she could make it out of bed on her own only with difficulty, and once up she only had the strength to sit by her typewriter for an hour at the most.
Most days the outline of a bear could be seen in the corner of her bedroom, but only by Flannery and only in a certain light, and it was this outline that one day in April of 1963 whispered Gabriel’s address into her ear, so that she could write him.
Which she proceeded to do, aching hand on flimsy paper.
This is what her letter said:
I trust this letter finds you awake, and able to read English.
I have bad news, I’m afraid. We have lost Heather. I went to see her last fall and she did not recognize me at all. I mentioned your name to her, and she did not recognize that either. She arrived in December of 1950 so she was not yet twelve years old when I spoke with her.
I have since tried to write her, but my letters are returned unopened. From that, and from what a friend of mine who lives in the same town as Heather writes me, I can only conclude that the shroud has gotten the better of her, suffocated her. Just as with Charles.
I know this is not good news, but I felt I had to tell you.
And you, Gabriel, how are you holding up? I sense, when I look in your direction, that you’re having a spot of trouble with the girl and sex thing. Remember, please, that it is not real—we have no such thing in our valleys, remember?—it’s some sort of invention, this snake that invades the sweet understanding between a boy and a girl and swells it and turns it sticky. Once you’re caught in that net, really caught, it’s darn near impossible to wiggle free. It can grab you and drown you as well as can this damn shroud. Please remember, Gabriel; and stay alert. And Netoniel’s shroud, by the way, now reaches all the way to the ground. I have seen it. I see it every day.
The bear, fool that he is, as I may have mentioned on more than one occasion, is here with me, making damn sure I don’t forget, or fall asleep. I don’t like his tactics though. Admittedly, they are very effective, and, as usual, very straightforward: he is basically killing this body of mine, forcing me to fight like hell to stay alive, which, apparently, and incidentally, also keeps me awake. So there is method to his cruel madness. There always was, he is a good bear. However, it is painful and tiresome, and I don’t know how much longer I can stand it.
I have written quite a few stories and a couple of novels. They’ve been very well received and not a few people have read and are reading them. But, Gabriel, the truth is that my work is not read nearly enough. I underestimated both the difficulties and the size of the reading population. I’m not even making a dent, not even a dent. I’m afraid that it’s going to be up to you now.
I take it you’re still at school in Stockholm, and that you’re on track in your literary studies. It’s soon time, though, for you to begin your English studies for real. Remember, this is the language you will have to write in, long term. If you are to succeed.
I am taking pretty good notes on the craft, of what I have found to work the best. I will summarize them before I leave, I promise, and get them to you, somehow.
My guess is that I will hang on for another year, two at the most. The bear is pretty brutal and his tendril fingers keep hurting me, but, as I said, if that is what it takes to keep me awake, well, then the old thing is doing a fine job.
No need to write back, Gabriel, just remember what you’re about. Who you are. Remember our valley, remember our meeting at my cottage, and get going on your English as soon as possible.
Good luck to you, my brother.
P.S. Why didn’t you tell us about Conrad?
Heather’s mother died late that morning of April 11, 1963 from injuries she had sustained two weeks earlier when she, with Frank’s help, fell down the basement stairs and fractured the back of her skull and portions of her upper spine.
She drew her last breath smiling, knowing she had finally managed to escape her husband, at the very moment Flannery put her tongue to the envelope holding her letter to Gabriel. She moistened the flap and pressed it sealed. Checked the address again, and wondered, not for the last time if this was enough postage. She would ask Regina to check with the postman before she gave it to him.
Then she tasted the air with her imagination and knew that Heather was now motherless.
There was enough postage, Regina had made sure of that, very sure; had in fact made the postman swear to her, by St. Mary and everything that was holy to him, that there was enough postage on the envelope to make it all the way to Sweden. After some back and forth—including a brief dissertation on the U.S. Postal Service’s position vis-à-vis saints, and Regina’s retort that that was neither here nor there—he did swear in the end and the letter arrived in one piece ten days later, care of Soren Wallengard, Tegnergatan 16, 4th Floor, Stockholm, Sweden. Gabriel found it on his writing desk when he returned from the Academy that afternoon, placed there, as was all his mail, by the Wallengard maid, an old silent, sinewy woman which Barbro had told him was at least half Saami (“They know witchcraft, you know.”).
Gabriel picked it up and looked it over before opening it. Didn’t weigh much. Three American stamps, one covering the last three letters of his name, as if it had been placed there by a hurried afterthought.
He had never had a letter from America before. The envelope was thin and flimsy and was edged by short, alternating blue and red stripes. It had a postmark that read “Milledgeville, GA.” GA, he discovered, was an abbreviation for Georgia, one of their Southern states. He even looked it up in an atlas later, to see exactly where it was.
He found his letter knife and cut open the envelope. It was written on equally flimsy paper. Like bible paper, he thought. In English.
He recognized his name, “Dear Gabriel” it said. But that was about as far as he got with any certainty; his English was simply too poor. He put the two sheets down on his desk and looked out the window at the budding trees. Then he rose to open the window, just a crack. It was still chilly outside, but the air was fresh and sweet with spring. He looked down at the letter again. Barbro would have to help him. She was good at English.
Then he picked it up again, and looked at the bottom of the second sheet to see who had signed it. “Flannery,” it said. Flannery? Who was Flannery?
And, where was Barbro? She should have been home by now.
The old bear knew that she was fading; knew that despite his efforts she was falling asleep under—or within, by now—the thick, suffocating silver shroud. It was starting to bother him as well, but he certainly did not have the luxury to give in to it, nor would he. Flannery, however, found it very hard to breathe, hard to hold on to herself. He noticed her slipping into the comforting sheath of habit, and at times she now forgot who she was. He could tell by the pictures that surrounded her. There would always, always be a glimpse of the fields, the green, wavy grass, of himself waving goodbye by the door, but not now, not now that she was slipping. The memory vanquished by mist.
Though it pained him to do so—for he knew it hurt her terribly—he again extended tendril fingers across the room and into her body. There they found her kidneys and liver and her many other glands and again he poisoned them with the will to die. Flannery, stung awake by the pain, again, and again, and again, had to make the decision to live, to go on no matter what, and in that effort the pictures of their valley returned, and she, as Flannery, one of three children that set out to save the world, returned as well.
He didn’t know how much longer, though, he could keep her from falling.
“Barbro, look what I got.”
She opened the door all the way and stepped inside. She smelled fresh all the way across the room.
“What is it?”
“A letter from America.”
He held it out for her to take.
“I didn’t know you knew anyone there.”
“Neither did I.”
She took the envelope from him and examined it. “Georgia? That’s where Atlanta is,” she said. She took out the two sheets and unfolded them. “And now I guess you want me to translate this for you.” It was not a question.
She did, and that brought everything to a standstill.
A standstill of conflict. On the one hand, the dream fragments he sometimes woke up wondering about had returned, but no longer as fragments and no longer as dream. He could clearly see the valley, the one with grass that knew how to yield, with familiar murmuring winds and with a sun that could do so much more than shine, with trees that knew his name, and those of his sisters. And on the other hand, he looked up at her, a girl—a dear, wonderful girl, his girl—sitting on his bed with a letter in her hand wondering what on earth this was all about.
And sitting next to her, on his bed, or sitting across from him by an old kitchen table, next to another girl who liked to frown and whom he knew was called Flannery, sat Heather. And outside, he knew he would see him if he turned his head, noisily rolling this way and that in his sleep—although he was not really sleeping—Flannery’s old bear.
This of course was totally crazy, and his focus returned to Barbro, to her almost smile, to her questioning eyes, to her wondering. But the valley would not leave, those pictures were his and they were memories, they filled him with a strange certainty that indeed they were, and suddenly another memory rushed in on him: his wintry insight, his exploding aloft to see the world from above. As spirit.
A conflict holding its breath: these certainties, vast and still expanding, filling him, and: this wonderful girl—young woman really—her long, blond hair falling softly like light across her shoulders, sitting on his bed with two sheets of flimsy paper in her hand, unmoving. Her blue eyes now held confusion when she looked up at him, examining him, closely, as if looking for someone she suspected was in there but who had been hiding from her all this time.
“Who is Heather?” she asked finally.
She is my sister, he thought. But he said, “I don’t know.”
She probably didn’t hear. “And who is Flannery? And,” she looked down at the letter, “Netoniel? Sounds like an angel. And,” she looked down at the sheets again, “Conrad. Conrad, who?”
I am Conrad, he thought. Netoniel, my brother, is an angel, and a bad one, and they’re my sisters, Flannery and Heather both, and as he thought this he almost said it. But he managed not to. Instead, he told her, almost believably, “I don’t know.”
She did not strike him as a believer. “You don’t know?”
“No,” he said, and shook his head. “Not really.”
“Not really? What does ‘not really’ mean?”
“It’s,” he began. “It’s kind of hard to explain, but, it’s, I have dreamed them. And now, the dream has, it has, I think it has become memory. I remember them.”
“Do tell,” said Barbro. She hadn’t meant to sound hurt, or flippant, so she added, “Please.”
“I have dreamed them,” he said again, remembering nights when he had smelled this very grass in his dreams. Heather sometimes teasing him about looking like a miniature sun, all that blond, shining hair. Sometimes Flannery was there too. A frown and a quick word mostly to the effect that we were wasting our time. But mostly she was off somewhere, doing important things, looking for Netoniel or keeping an eye on Earth, guessed Heather.
Barbro didn’t reply, waiting for more.
“We’re in a small house,” he said after a while. “By the edge of a valley. There’s a big brown bear outside the door, pretending to be asleep. And we’re planning to save the world—this world, the Earth,” he added.
Barbro remained silent, watching him as he searched for words. She knew him well enough to know that he was not lying. She could, in fact, see that he was both desperately serious and grappling with something he did not fully understand, but which had touched him deeply. Had shaken him.
But he did not go on, seemingly unable to.
“You are planning to save the world,” she said after a stretch of silence.
Gabriel looked up at her, as if surprised to find her in the room. “Yes,” he said. “We are planning to save the world. We’re drinking tea which Heather has prepared. And the only way to save the world, says Flannery, is to become writers, the three of us. And we decided, well Flannery decided, really, that English should be our language, just like Charles had decided, and Conrad as well. And outside the little cottage the valley holds its breath the better to hear, for everything there is sentient, can listen and understand, but has never learned to mind its own business.”
Barbro did not move, hardly dared to breathe lest she would disrupt his dream.
“It’s Netoniel’s mess,” said Gabriel, as if Barbro needed that explanation. “It started out as one of his stupid ideas, but got really messy.”
What, she wondered, started out as a prank, but Gabriel did not elaborate. In fact, he did not go on.
“Charles?” she said quietly, “Conrad?”
Gabriel returned to the room, his eyes saw her again. Then he shook his head, but did not speak.
Barbro looked down at the sheets in her hand, then over at the envelope on Gabriel’s desk. She reached over, retrieved it, and looked at the return address.
“I’ve heard of Flannery O’Connor,” she said.
He looked at her but did not answer.
“She’s an American writer,” she continued. When he still did not answer, she said, “Gabriel, you’ve just had a letter from Flannery O’Connor. How do you know her?”
“I don’t,” said Gabriel. “I have no idea who she is.”
“But she knows who you are?”
Now it was Barbro’s turn to fall silent. Had she not been sure that Gabriel was incapable of lying to her, she would have taken the whole episode, letter and all, as a prank, and one in bad taste at that. But this was no prank. The letter was genuine, and she was pretty sure—no she was in fact certain—that were she to verify the letter’s handwriting, it would prove to belong to the American writer, Flannery O’Connor. But beyond that, nothing really fell into any sort of place.
“Are you going to answer her?” she asked then.
“Of course,” said Gabriel, disturbed again from where he had gone.
This is what his letter said:
Dear Miss O’Connor,
I received your letter dated 11th of April. To say it was a surprise to receive it is to say far from enough.
My girlfriend, Barbro, who is very good at English, translated it for me, and is also helping me to write this. My own English is terrible, I’m afraid.
Your letter left me with many strange images and left both of us with a lot of questions.
What I want to know is: first, how do you know me? And how can you know about my dreams? About the valley. You sound as if you’re speaking from within my dream, which, of course, is not only quite odd, but also quite impossible.
Too weird for coincidence, too impossible to be true.
You make many strange references to things I have no idea about. Such as, “We have lost Heather.” If you mean the same Heather I have met in dreams, how can she have suffocated? And again, how can you know about her?
And what’s with the shroud?
Nor do I remember Netoniel, not really, he’s another name from the same dream, although Barbro thinks his name sounds like an angel’s. I think so too. But the same question returns, over and over actually, how can you know about my dreams?
I don’t know what you mean about sex problems either, nor, if I had any, what business they would be of yours (that’s Barbro talking—and me too).
Yes, there is a bear in my dream too sometimes, and yes, I should stop being surprised that you know, but please elaborate on “is here with me.” It does not make any sense. In fact, in broad daylight, none of your letter makes sense.
And heading the list of the nonsensical, of course, is how you can possibly know about what goes on when I’m asleep? Are you some sort of strange psychic? If so, you’re a good one, I’ll give you that.
As to English, again, no business of yours. But let me say that I am not planning to learn English nor to write in English, although I must confess that Barbro has suggested I do every now and then.
As to school. I have no idea how you know about that either, and it scares me a little. Where do you get your information from? It’s accurate, to boot, which scares me even more.
Now, I have to admit that I am interested in, and curious about, your notes on the craft. But why me?
Hanging on for another year, two at the most? Are you dying?
Tendril fingers? Keeping you awake?
I’m afraid, Miss O’Connor, that this letter is not very polite, and that it only poses questions, but I fear it would have been even less polite not to write back at all, or to write back but not be honest about it. To put it mildly, I’d be curious to hear what you have to say, and I hope that you will do me, us—Barbro and I—the courtesy of writing back soon.
Flannery read his letter a third time. It was worse than she had expected or hoped. For one, he was quite plainly in love—the head-over-heels kind. And for another he was immersed, there was little doubt, in the shroud. Dreams, he called his memories dreams. Dreams, the last realm of freedom for these poor people.
She closed her eyes and took off her glasses. She rubbed her eyes and felt the strange comfort that comes from rubbing the right spot at the right time spread throughout. God, she was tired.
She glanced over at the bear in the corner. Silent as always, as always speaking his wordless language, replacing words with acts. So it had been for as long as she could remember. In fact, she and the bear had never spoken, the bear had always only acted his meaning. Other than that, he had no meaning to communicate. Her shadow, her guardian bear. She smiled to herself at that, and apparently, so did the bear.
She read his letter a fourth time, then looked out the window.
Outside her peacocks were strutting about in the early May sunshine. It was already too hot for comfort; they didn’t seem to care though.
How to get through to Gabriel? That was the question.
Then she knew. She found a pen and began to write, knowing full well that what she had to communicate to him would have to go through his girlfriend. Yes, through her and through Conrad.
This is what her letter said:
Thank you (and you, Barbro) for taking the time and trouble to answer my quite mysterious letter. I know that perhaps—well, not only perhaps—this all comes as a surprise to you, but you’re not quite who you think you are. Actually, you are a lot more than you think you are. As are you, Barbro, there is so much more to you than what you think (Gabriel, I hope, can help you remember).
Enclosed, Gabriel, is a letter that you wrote in 1895. Yes, Gabriel, you wrote it. I honestly don’t know what you were doing here then, you never let on—but that, of course, is not unlike you, you take off and tell no one why or where—but I know that you will recognize the handwriting. That should tell you all you need to know.
And the famous bottom line, an expression and line so cherished here in the United States, is that it will be up to you to accomplish our task. Heather has indeed suffocated—and I’m afraid that by now you might know what that means—and I will soon have to leave as well. If I can hang on to this wailing body for another year I’ll be surprised. The bear is making it unbearable—pun intended. Though he is keeping me alive, and remembering, I have to give him that.
Here’s another bottom line: You have to, have to learn English, Gabriel, and soon. With a bit of luck you’ll remember most of it, but if so, please be aware that your vocabulary will be slightly out of date, since I doubt you’ve been back since Conrad. You’ll need to freshen it up a bit.
I suggest that you move to London, England, and bring your friend Barbro. She can help you. Read all you can (in English), swim in the language, live it, absorb it. You must.
I plan to send you what I have found to work when it comes to fiction. They are my current thoughts on the subject and I hope you will concur, and find them useful. Of course, your own views on the matter, as Conrad, show that we agree.
“Up to you to accomplish our task? Accomplish what task?” said Barbro.
Gabriel, if he even heard the question, did not answer, for he had woken up. He looked at the letter in his hand and there was no doubt about it. He had written it. In 1895. As Conrad.
“Accomplish what task?” Barbro said again.
And Heather was lost. He looked out the window but only saw the field of grass, and the three of them by the table, planning.
“Gabriel.” Barbro touched his shoulder. “Where are you?”
He stirred at the touch and looked at her, this woman he had come to know, to love, really.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s up to you to accomplish what task?”
He told her. She listened intently and on the wing of her love for him knew him to tell the truth. Of course, there was no way that what he said could be at all real, but then again—as she had thought to herself many times—there was no way that a love as wonderful as hers for him could be at all real either, so there you have it: it was real all right.
When he had finished his tale she said simply, “So, we have to move to London.”
That night Barbro wrote her own letter to Flannery:
Dear Ms. O’Connor,
As you know, I am Gabriel’s girl. And what’s more, I believe him. And I believe you.
I have read two of your stories—Wise Blood and A Good Man is Hard to Find—and I found you to be a very brave woman. Now I know why.
Do you suffer much?
I will go to London with him, and I will make sure that he learns English, or remembers it, as you put it.
I hope that somehow we can meet before you die. Pardon me for being so blunt.
What else can I do to help? I know, have known for a long time it seems, that the shroud, as you call it, is real, that our blindness is only artificial. Tell me what I must do.
I am not sure I understand how your bear fits in, I wish you would tell me about him.
Please write again.
She couldn’t honestly tell herself that she had known Gabriel’s girl would write her, but she nonetheless felt she had expected it, and so did her best not to be pleasantly surprised.
Flannery read Barbro’s letter again, and smiled. She held it up for the bear in the corner and said, “See, you old thing, she wants a rundown on you.”
As usual the bear pretended not to hear.
Soren Wallengard had noticed the change in Gabriel, and that was why, in the end, he relented and allowed his daughter to take him to London.
Gabriel wasn’t walking into walls anymore, had regained sole possession of his reproductive organ, and had graduated from infatuation to true love it seemed. And his daughter felt the same, he could tell. There was now something very mature about them, something, well, almost—he didn’t know why the word seemed so appropriate—ancient.
“But why London?” he had asked.
“He must learn English, dad,” was all she would answer, in a hundred different ways. And he agreed. A talent such as his deserved a language more widely read; for so much is apt to get lost in translation. This boy, his boy in a way, he realized, had a gift that only English would do justice. So he agreed. And paid, as well.
They were out on the North Sea, standing by the rail of the port side promenade deck of the large and very white MS Uppland, a ferry making its way from Gothenburg, Sweden to Felixstowe, England, when he proposed to her.
“Of course I’ll marry you,” she said. “But not until you know English better than the English.”
Gabriel smiled at that, for by now he had come to remember quite well. He had found the trove of thousands of slightly archaic words gathered with such care by Conrad, and was looking forward to putting them into practice.
“Sunday suitable?” he said, in English.
Barbro wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, but smiled back and took his hand, and then, his hand still in hers, looked out at the waves—if you could call them waves, they were more like a carpet of ripples on the undulating ocean as it heaved its long, lazy sighs—coruscating now and then in the sunlight. No land anywhere to be seen, only the water, endless water. Easy to see here that the Earth is indeed a large ball.
In August of that year, 1963, Flannery had her second operation, to no avail. She was bedridden, mostly, and was grateful for any day that she could find the strength to rise and feed her peacocks. The bear suffered with her. But he did keep her awake.
Fiona’s letters made occasional mention of Heather, and news about her were not good. Flannery strained against the shackles of her wasting body, to fly loose, to go to Heather, to infuse her with life, but she knew she could not do it. Heather was lost now, and her remaining strength would have to be saved for Gabriel.
She also knew that at this point it was tantamount to spiritual suicide to attempt to move through the silver shroud without the shield of a physical body. The mist of strands was tangible to the spirit, if not to the body. Its fog thicker than fog, a prison now of unfulfilled wishes all desperate for life, clinging to anything that approached it, shrouding bodies like mold, smothering any spirit that ventured near. The shroud—empty space to the human eye—was nearly impenetrable to the soul. She would never make it through on her own.
When Flannery next wrote Fiona she asked her not to mention Heather again.
By December, thinking that she probably did not have long to go, she wrote Gabriel in London, and asked if he and his wife could come and spend Christmas with her.
They had found a flat on Fenchurch Street, not two blocks from where the original London Shipmasters’ Society had had their offices. Gabriel had wanted to see the place where he, as Conrad, had spent so much time, and while in the area had found the sign advertising the two bedroom flat, three stories up in a newly renovated brownstone building.
The rooms were light and comfortable and both Gabriel and Barbro took to their new home right away. Perhaps a little costly, but daddy had promised to help, said Barbro. Let’s take it. And they did.
Barbro, whose English was certainly good enough, enrolled in a small business college three tube stations and a short walk away. A generous grant from the Swedish Government paid the tuition and books.
Gabriel, tempted at first, to take English Literature classes, opted instead—and Barbro agreed—to peruse libraries and old bookstores for anything he could find on the subject of writing fiction, in English. He was surprised at how much had actually been written on the subject. By James, Stevenson, Forster, Woolf, Flaubert, Stendhal, and—amusingly—by himself as Conrad. Not to mention Aristotle.
He also found Elizabeth Bowen’s recently published and wonderful collection of essays called Afterthought; and he read and re-read Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis to make sure he understood what that brilliant man had observed, and later, in a small Istanbul apartment, had set down in his native German during much of the Second World War. From what he could tell, the translation was good, and he trusted it implicitly.
There were others and they all seemed to have something to say on the subject: Joyce, Cervantes, Nabokov, Steinbeck and Hemingway, and by early December 1963 Gabriel realized that he had to put some order into his assimilation of the craft. That is when he began to isolate and outline the various fictional elements recognized by these his many teachers and to record their thoughts and comments on each to illustrate them.
It was to be an ongoing project, for there was always the slightly different, and thus differently illuminating, viewpoint on characterization, or plot, or narrative, or time management, or point of view, or opening paragraphs, and he wanted to make sure he got them all down. He called his growing compendium “Elements of Fiction, a Survey,” and he added to it daily and paraphrased Montaigne almost as often: “I am gathering a nosegay of other men’s flowers, only the thread that binds them is my own.” He felt the weight of this accumulated knowledge gather a force of its own, first in his gut, and then—of late—in his heart.
“When are you going to start writing your own stories?” asked Barbro one night.
“When I won’t make a fool of myself,” he answered.
“You can prepare forever, and never get anything written,” she replied.
“I am aware of that. Four months is not forever, though.”
“I’m not saying it is.”
He looked up at her and discovered in one glance that she was not out to goad, but to help him.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She smiled in return and walked over and kissed him smack on the lips.
The following day the letter from Flannery arrived, inviting them to Georgia. Enclosed were two return airplane tickets, booked for the 19th. There was never the thought of not going. They packed and on that Thursday morning took the train to Heathrow airport.
Flannery was too weak to meet them in Atlanta, and it was only with an effort that she managed to meet them at the door of her house. But she did manage, resting on a rubber-footed cane, and with an embarrassed smile. She waved at them as they stepped out of the car in her driveway, a couple of peahens still running away lest the car was pursuing them, while a large peacock decided to put on a show for the guests, and so spread his tail to display his very best plumage for their benefit.
“Well, I’ll be,” said Flannery, looking at the peacock, even before she got around to saying “Welcome.”
Gabriel embraced her long and hard, almost hurting her. Barbro noticed her frailty and hugged her less fervently. Flannery showed them in to the parlor and introduced Regina, her mother.
“Welcome to Milledgeville,” said the older woman. “What can I get you international travelers. Tea? Coffee?”
“Coffee, please,” said Gabriel.
“Fine,” said Barbro.
Flannery, on a strict diet, could have neither, and Regina brought her the juice of two apples.
Once seated and served, Regina—on Flannery’s earlier request—withdrew and left the three of them to talk.
“Tired?” asked Flannery. “You’ve come a long way.”
“Yes,” said Gabriel. “Yes, we are and yes we have.”
Barbro, sensitive to the effort it took Flannery to simply sit upright, began to cry in appreciation of the bravery she observed. Flannery noticed.
“Oh, don’t fuss,” she said.
“It’s just that,” began Barbro.
“I know, I know,” said Flannery with a dismissive wave of her hand. “It’s a fact of life, my life. Get used to it.”
Gabriel then saw her so clearly that he instinctively looked around for the bear. And found him. The bear seemed to nod in recognition, but other than that he remained motionless in his corner.
“How are you holding up?” Flannery addressed Gabriel as if Barbro wasn’t even present. This was a question, one sibling to the other.
“Fine,” said Gabriel. “Pretty good. The Conrad letter helped. It woke me up, in fact.”
“I thought it would. You never told.”
“Well, you know.—And you?”
“I have the bear.”
“Yes, I can see that.”
“Tell me,” said Flannery, as the thought again struck her. “As Conrad, how were you able to leave Earth. Charles could not, and no one else has been able to for thousands of years, but you obviously managed.”
“Ah, yes,” said Gabriel. “Good question. I had help. Your bear helped me.”
“The bear,” said Flannery. She looked over at the bear who seemed to nod ever so slightly—mea culpa—then back to Gabriel. “Yes, the bear. I see.”
Flannery then looked over at Barbro. “And you?” she asked.
“How am I holding up?”
“I’m holding up fine, I guess.”
“Has Gabriel told you? I assume he has.” Flannery looked over at Gabriel who nodded.
“Yes,” said Barbro. “He has.”
“You asked me once how the bear fits in,” said Flannery to Barbro. “I never answered you. This is how he fits in: by keeping the door to death wide open, and constantly, he never lets me forget who I am. It hurts a lot, but I know it hurts him even more. I don’t know if you can see him, he’s over there in the corner by the bookshelf. No, the other, with the small corner table with the little vase on it. You have to know what to look for though.”
Barbro turned and looked.
“Can you see him.”
“No,” said Barbro.
“Hey, bear, do something,” said Flannery.
At which point two books left their shelf and gently sailed, in unison, to the floor.
“He’s got tendril fingers when he wants to,” said Flannery.
“I can see them,” said Barbro, meaning the fingers.
“Follow the glimmer to its source, and that’s the bear,” said Flannery.
For an instant the bear materialized for Barbro. Huge and brown, slightly bent to fit under the ceiling. She drew a quick breath.
“I see you found him,” said Flannery.
“I did,” said Barbro, and then he was gone.
“Well, he’s been with me, the old thing, since I got here.”
“Hurting you all the time?” said Barbro.
“No, heavens no. Only when I seemed to him to be forgetting.”
“And he, the bear, never forgets?” asked Barbro.
“No,” said Flannery, “he never forgets. There’s something with bears from where we come from, they never forget.”
Gabriel nodded in agreement. “They don’t. Ever.”
“How’s the writing going?” asked Flannery, seemingly of both of them. So Barbro answered before Gabriel could.
“He’s still preparing.”
“I’m trying to gain, well, regain, the feel for it,” clarified Gabriel
“So, he’s started a massive research project to track down and illustrate every conceivable element of fiction he can find,” said Barbro.
“In and of itself an admirable task,” said Flannery. “But hardly productive of fiction.”
“I know,” said Gabriel, slightly embarrassed.
“You’ve got to get going,” said Flannery.
“I know,” said Gabriel.
“My favorite quote on the subject,” said Flannery, “is from Matthew Arnold, the English poet. He said: ‘Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.’ And I agree, with all my heart. That’s all there is to it. Couldn’t have put it more succinctly myself.”
“I know,” said Gabriel.
“You keep saying that,” said Flannery.
“I know,” said Gabriel.
“So, what’s holding you up?” she asked.
“I’m trying to get the right feel of it. I’m trying to get it back.”
“Forget the right feel,” said Flannery with a flash of anger that Gabriel—with a smile—recognized. “You learn to write by writing, not by feeling right about it.”
“I’m not sure I know English well enough. Yet.”
“Fiddlesticks,” said Flannery.
Barbro looked at Gabriel then tipped her head in Flannery’s direction as if to say, ‘see what I mean?’
“Another thing Matthew Arnold said was: ‘Truth sits upon the lips of dying men.’ So you’d better listen, for I tell the truth. Get writing. Now. There’s a desk. There’s pen and paper. Tell me something, and tell it clearly, in English.”
Gabriel didn’t answer at first, then he said. “So, you are dying?”
“Of course I’m dying. The bear’s seeing to that.”
“But, how soon?”
“Next year this time I know I’ll be gone.”
Barbro made signs of beginning to cry again.
“Oh, stop it,” said Flannery in her direction. “And, you, Gabriel, are avoiding the topic at hand, which is your writing. There’s the desk. Begin.”
Gabriel, smiling again as he saw his sister so clearly, stood up and walked over to the writing desk, apparently put there for his benefit, for it seemed out of place in the parlor.
He pulled out the chair, sat down and began to write.
Flannery followed his movements with silent approval, then looked at Barbro and said, “And now, my dear, you’ll have to help me to my bedroom.”
Barbro rose immediately, as if startled awake, “Oh, sure.”
This is what Gabriel wrote, that afternoon and into the evening of the 20th of December, 1963.
He sleeps in a small grass hut. Its floor is smooth ground, is hard dry mud trod and trod again by feet coming, going, coming, going, and sometimes staying.
The hut contains nothing but empty space and a yellow and green mat of woven grass, still fresh and with a scent of field, serving as his bed. This mat is light and easy to roll up and stow away or to carry. Although it is thin he sleeps well on it and he does not wake sore.
This morning was no exception: when he woke he felt well rested and much refreshed, if still somewhat dislocated.
It was the sun that woke him, this new sun. This white, new sun. The hut’s opening faced this sun’s rising above the mountain ridge on the far side of the valley below. As it climbed, it lit the sky above, shadowing the mountain below, and then entered first his hut and then his eyes even through closed lids. This is how he knew morning again, and this is what now woke him.
This is what marked the end of another darkness, of another inactivity so deep he could not remember doing this nothing. He welcomed this new sun, though, this warm sun, white and closer than he remembered any other sun.
Once awake, and once he had rolled up his grass-mat bed for the day, he crawled on knees and hands through the low opening and out into the pleasant and lighter still morning air.
He was tall and slender. He was black-skinned and strong. Once out of the hut he stood up and felt how good it was to stretch arms and legs and to fill lungs.
It is good here, he thought, wherever here was. The air is fresh, the view stretches wide and far under this closer sun.
His hut was built—though he does not remember building it—on the edge of a large plateau rising high above the valley floor. The plateau itself was a wide expanse of green now rippled by the morning winds. The man smiled as he held the air and watched the small, bright clouds overhead. This wasn’t so bad after all. Yes, things could definitely have been a lot worse.
A loud screech rose from the sea of grass to his left and a large many-colored bird took wide wing; rose higher, the screech trailing. He watched as the bird winged into the morning sky. Another screech, as in answer, reached him and with it another bird, a copy of the first, arose further still to his left and soon circled with its mate (he assumed) looking down at some shared annoyance.
He walked toward a movement in the grass to see what could have stirred those powerful wings. The movement at the same time parted the grass in his direction and they soon met. The shared annoyance was a large, beautiful cat. Not black, as cats should be, as he remembered them to be, but cat nonetheless, he was pretty sure. Green eyes and sharp teeth, long, pink tongue. A deep cat-voice spoke slowly and wondered who he was. He had not heard a voice like this, words like these, for…, for he could not remember when. Rumbling, whispering these cat words. While he wondered how the cat could speak so well with a long tongue like that, he answered him that he was not altogether sure exactly who he was, it was a bit of a blur, but he suspected, he said, that he had been sentenced not long ago, and that he was here, now, serving time.
At this the big cat sneezed and sat down on his hind legs and looked up at him long and hard. For what crime? he asked in the end. I don’t remember, he answered. And who are you? he asked of the cat. I am Cheetah, answered the cat.
Is that a cat? the man wanted to know.
“Are you serving time too?” he asked.
“Yes,” said the cat.
They continued to look at each other for some time. He was trying to see the cat within the cat who called himself Cheetah. Looking out from the man within the man.
“What was your crime?” he asked.
“We all are,” the cat added, ignoring his question.
“Why did you scare those birds off?” he asked, looking up at the two still-circling wide-winged birds.
“I didn’t mean to scare them,” answered Cheetah. “I bungled it.”
The man did not understand and looked at the cat for an answer. His face must have asked the right question, for Cheetah said:
“I meant to catch me one, or two.”
The man glanced up again at the two circling pairs of wings, closer to the ground now. Looking down at them. Concerned.
“What is eat?” said the man.
“How long have you been here?” asked the cat.
“Three risings of this sun,” said the man. Turning halfway towards the sun to indicate precisely what sun he was talking about, he added, “This is the third.”
“Give it another rising or two and you will know what I mean.”
The man was about to ask Cheetah to explain, please, when a new movement in the tall grass interrupted their conversation. Cheetah spotted it first. Soon the man saw them too: antlers and heads of two deer making their way through the green sea to their right.
The cat stiffened as he watched the brown backs part the grass. Without looking back at the man he said, “Got to go,” and set out after the deer; a bit furtively, thought the man.
The man, still wondering about this eat remained where he was, watching the yellow and black of the cat move away from him. Cheetah did not seem well-intended, and he almost called the deer in warning but suspected it would offend the cat so instead he simply watched.
Watched how the two deer suddenly froze, heads and antlers etched against the undulating green; watched the tail of the cat moving slowly from side to side now while creeping—yes, creeping now—closer. Watched the sudden brown explosion of flight as the deer burst into run and the equally explosive pursuit of the cat.
He saw Cheetah leap, saw him kill, heard the last cry of the deer with lesser antlers, smelled the blood, almost felt the meat tear from the bones of the now dead animal. Saw the other, more impressively-antlered deer stop a ways off, looking back at the carnage, sad, relieved.
The man wondered why this was taking place. The deer had done nothing to offend Cheetah that he could tell.
The man walked over to the cat. The cat didn’t turn around at first, but once the man’s presence was beyond doubt he looked up with fiery eyes and growled a low and threatening greeting. The man got the message and did not approach further. Instead he asked what the cat was doing. Cheetah did not answer, so the man asked again. Eating, the cat eventually answered, between bites.
The man remained for a while, fascinated, watching the cat tear at the carcass, still wondering about this strange eat. Cheetah did not turn again and the man did not interrupt further.
When Cheetah had finished what surely must be eating there was only the broken suggestion of deer left on the ground, a long twisted neck, torn and dark with blood, an empty eye socket looking up at the man, the deer within the deer gone. Freed? Sentence served? He thought not.
The man turned and walked back towards his hut. The two birds overhead were settling back into the grass and he now walked towards them, maybe they too could speak, and tell him about this eat. As he drew closer he saw one lean closer to the other and whisper something. If a wing could point, it pointed at him and they both took to the air again, screeching. No answerers of questions, these birds.
He did, however, admire their aerial artistry for a while and tried to remember flying. There should be memories, there were memories, he was sure of it, but like stones slippery with wet moss they could not be grasped. He fetched nothing.
The birds remained aloft and he walked the rest of the way back to the hut.
Inside he unrolled his mat again the more comfortably to sit down and wonder about this eat. He tried to remember the feeling that had certainly possessed the cat, the one that had made him so rude. But these memories, too, proved elusive, and though they cast shadows they were of little substance and he fetched nothing from his pastward groping.
The sun climbed further and the band of light on his floor grew shorter and brighter. He thought about closing his eyes to revisit the darkness but could not find the stillness within to, not with the sun so high, and not with the dead deer still on his mind. So he sat for a long time on his hut floor looking out across the valley, at the trees clustering the valley floor, at the grasses, grasses everywhere and the many animals, deer, antelopes, zebras, elephants, other cats, both larger and smaller than Cheetah, strolling some, sleeping some in the sun. How could they sleep when he could not? He crawled through the opening again and stood up. Other birds were soaring overhead. Some flew close to each other as if in conversation. Others darted singly up and down seemingly without purpose.
Cheetah returned. Quietly. One moment there was no cat, the next there was.
So, that was an eat? the man said. With the deer? Yes, said the Cheetah. That was an eat. Hungry yet? he added.
“It’s must eat,” said the Cheetah.
“No,” he answered. “But I’ve thought about it.”
“That’s how it starts,” said the Cheetah.
“You can remember?” asked the man, a little surprised.
The cat didn’t answer, but instead began to clean his left front paw with his large pink tongue. The man could hear each raspy lick and watched the long white whiskers fold and unfold as Cheetah again and again licked pads and claws and furry top. There was still the faint smell of blood in the air. From his paws, jaws, teeth, the man guessed.
“Can you remember?” he asked again.
The Cheetah slowly put his paw down and looked like he would begin cleaning the other, but he did not.
“Not much,” he said.
“What then?” he asked.
“Only being Cheetah,” said the Cheetah.
“No other sun?”
“But you’re serving time. You remember that.”
“That is not something I remember. That is somehting I know.”
The man thought about that and saw that the Cheetah was right. No memory there. Just know. He nodded.
“What about the others?” he asked. “Do they know, too?”
“Most do,” said Cheetah.
“Can they all talk?”
“Most do,” repeated Cheetah.
“Only this sun,” said the Cheetah, and then he left.
The new sun was setting now. The man watched it slowly sink beyond the far end of the plateau. Cheetah returned again from his grassy nowhere and sat down beside the man. The world was stiller now, but for a larger roar than the Cheetah’s coming from the valley below. Another like you? he asked. No, said Cheetah, Lion. You don’t want to meet him hungry. He will eat you. For that matter, you may want to stay away from me too if you see me too hungry for choosing. I’d settle for man flesh in a pinch.
“You’d treat me like deer?”
They spoke no more and soon Cheetah disappeared into the dusk. Inner stillness returned to the man and he crept back into his hut, unrolled his sleeping mat, and closed his eyes on the fading day.
The closer sun reached the top of the ridge, found his eyelids, and lit his eyes open for a fourth time. The man looked out and onto the valley below, still in shadow from the range, still not lit by the closer sun which now seemed to have found his stomach with a strange heat, an ember at first below his heart, now waking it in small steps: first into hollowness, then into glow, then into pain, then into larger pain, now into hunger and suddenly eat was all he knew.
Without rolling up and stowing his sleeping mat, he crawled out of his hut on hands and knees, and this morning not with pleasure but with urgency.
Once outside, he stood up and surveyed his world, no longer for beauty and fresh light and air, but for food. Shadows cast by daemon memories dictated motion, guided his feet, steered his eyes and he remembered the birds. Cheetah had stalked them. As food.
He tried to remember where, exactly, while his hunger roared below. He seemed to remember where and made his way through the grass in that direction, though seeing no birds. Then a screech and the powerful down beat of muscle and feather: the bird rose and screamed the warning. He was not going to catch him. Instead he knew to look for where the bird had come from and found the nest. Large and brown it was, filled with eggs, with food.
He bent down to pick one, to eat one, when talons ripped long, red furrows across his back and shoulders. The pain seared through and he whipped around to see the bird again, only to feel the down draft of desperation and anger. The bird had grown fearless and dove for him again. He was too perplexed to get out of the way and talons found his ear this time and drew blood. The man ran.
His shoulders and ear were pulsing and burning from the attack and he needed water to cool them. The hunger returned below and told him about eggs to eat. But eggs told him about talons that rip and he stalled, undecided. Pain returned and clamored for water.
He found the path to the water hole. He had seen it traveled by antelopes and zebras. Pain and hunger made momentary battle but pain prevailed. He must soothe his shoulder. And here, within sight of the water hole, sitting on the path, was Cheetah, sniffing the air—perhaps his blood was in it. Green eyes held his steadily as he approached. Cheetah’s tail was tap-tap-tapping up tiny puffs of dusty cloud. The man could see four sharp teeth as Cheetah smiled.
“Hungry now?” said the cat.
The man did not answer.
“I can smell your blood,” said Cheetah.
A new feeling, sparked by these words and by now hungry green eyes, told him he had better run away from this cat. Cheetah remained very still except for tail and nostrils and hungry, calculating eyes. The man, too, undecided, remained very still.
Cheetah’s muscles tensed and rippled. Then the big cat leaped.
Claws found his chest, teeth found his neck and powerful jaws closed down over arteries and spine. He heard his own neck break before all went quiet as he now looked down on Cheetah taking his first bite out of his shoulder. Then there was a new and wider darkness.
Then that darkness ended.
He slept in a small grass hut. Its floor was smooth ground, was hard dry mud trod and trod again by feet coming, going, coming, going, and sometimes staying. This very well-built hut contained nothing but empty space and his bed—a yellow and green mat of woven grass, still fresh and with a scent of field. This mat was light and easy to roll up to stow away or to carry. Although it was thin he slept on it well and he did not wake sore.
Before Flannery fell asleep that night she said to the bear: “I’m worried about what his wife might do to him, she’s such a wonderful girl, you know. But when the urge hits, and it will, she’ll derail him.”
The bear, as always, said nothing.
“As I mentioned, I am putting together a few notes of my own,” said Flannery the following morning. “For what they’re worth, I’ll have them ready for you before you leave.”
Gabriel was showing her his Elements of Fiction survey at breakfast, and she was pleasantly impressed, leafing through the pages with interest.
“Are they quotes?” asked Gabriel.
“Are what quotes?” said Flannery.
“No, just thoughts.”
She read on. “You have a keen eye for what makes fiction work,” she said.
“Not me. I’m just mining the work of others.”
“Don’t undervalue a selective eye,” she answered, still scanning his pages. “Be sure to include what Matthew Arnold said about style,” she said.
“I’ve already made a note of it,” he answered.
She looked up at him over the rim of her glasses and smiled. “I knew you would,” she said.
He said nothing, just watched her intent scrutiny, seeing again, clearly, his sister from the little house by the edge of the valley. “I like the way you’ve organized this,” she muttered. Then she looked up at him, “Did you finish your assignment?”
“So, where is it?”
“Here,” he said, and handed her the thin sheaf of papers by his side. She took them without comment and began to read.
Gabriel finished his eggs and toast at about the same time Flannery finished his story. “There’s hope,” she said. “You’ve taken well to English, or perhaps it has taken well to you.”
Gabriel smiled at that and said: “I have a strange and overpowering feeling that it has always been an inherent part of myself. English was for me neither a matter of choice nor adoption. The merest idea of choice had never entered my head. And as to adoption—well, yes, there was adoption; but it was I who was adopted by the genius of the language, which directly I came out of the stammering stage made me its own so completely that its very idiom I truly believe had a direct action on my temperament and fashioned my still plastic character.”
“You didn’t just make that up?” said Flannery.
“No, I’m quoting Conrad.”
“Ah. Excellent memory.”
“It’s all coming back nicely,” he answered.
It was a strange Christmas Eve. For everyone.
Flannery had declared that this year, in honor of her guests from overseas, all presents were to be handed out, in the Swedish fashion, by Santa himself, on Christmas eve.
“No stockings?” her mother had asked while preparing the eggnog.
“No stockings,” confirmed Flannery.
Barbro had baked Swedish gingersnaps which, although strange to the taste of the help, were a hit. Stranger still, though, was Santa Claus. Shot, the hired help, black as night and not a little indolent, was pressed into service by Flannery and Regina ganging up on him while also bribing him with expensive whiskey and eggnog.
In Sweden, Santa Clause arrives in person with a large bag of presents slung over his shoulder. He knocks on the door, and when let in is supposed to look imposing, though friendly, and then say, sternly like, but with a glint in his eye: “Does this house contain any good children?”
Whereupon all children present (and most of the adults—at least everyone with still a trace of child in their heart) all yell, “YES”. Santa accepts this answer at face value and proceeds to sit down, opens his bag, picks up the first present: “To Gabriel from Mom.” And so it goes.
Shot, however, once let in, looked neither imposing nor friendly, and had forgotten his line. “Some of that eggnog sure enough would hit the spot right about now,” is what he actually did say, which Barbro found hilarious and set her giggling. That took the edge off Flannery’s frown and Shot was forgiven.
Regina was still asking Flannery about stockings, surely they had stockings in Sweden. “No, dear Parent,” Flannery said more than once that night. “They do not hang up stockings in Sweden. Let’s do without them, just this once, please?”
“But this may be your last…” Regina began, then bit her tongue and forced herself not to cry.
“I know, I know,” Flannery said, and hugged her mother. “You’re probably right, but in honor of our guests.”
Shot, who could read, but only with difficulty, and with strong glasses which he fished out of Santa’s coat, took his time handing out the presents—between eggnog refills, and in the warm parlor began to disrobe well before he was done with his Clausey duties. By the time he handed out the final present—which Flannery had passed him on the not-so-sly, Shot was back to being only himself, reading with difficulty though his glass bottle bottom glasses: “To Gabriel from Flannery.”
It was the collection of Flannery’s thoughts on the craft, carefully typed, then stitched together in a small book by Flannery herself, which he stayed up late that night, reading. This was the one book he would never lose.
Regina sneaked down into the parlor at one in the morning on Christmas Day and hung up four stockings, which she filled with trinkets and candy.
On the eve of their departure for London—it was now January 2nd, 1964— Gabriel sat with Flannery in her bedroom. Flannery, exhausted from the busy holiday season, was leaning into her heavy pillows and seemed asleep. Gabriel knew that she was not.
“I have trouble staying awake,” he said.
“Not surprising,” Flannery answered without opening her eyes.
“Your first letter brought me around, but only temporarily. It opened my eyes, but only a crack, and only for a moment.”
Flannery opened her eyes, nodded, and looked at him.
“When you sent the second letter, enclosing the one from Conrad, everything did come back, clearer, stronger. As strong as knowing. Then, four or five days later I caught myself having forgotten again. Only by picking up the Conrad letter again did I come awake.”
“That’s what the silver shroud does,” said Flannery.
Gabriel nodded, “Yes, I know.”
After a spell of silence, when they both heard the soft hush of a steady but fine rain outside, Flannery said, “Poor Heather.”
“Maybe she’ll recognize me?”
“Don’t get your hopes up.”
“But it’s worth a try?”
“Why, I guess.”
“What if I fall asleep, like Heather?” asked Gabriel. “What happens then?”
“Then,” said Flannery. “I’ll have to think of something else.”
“No, I don’t think so. I don’t think he will be of much help. Even if I could find him, which I doubt.”
Then Gabriel asked the question that had been on his mind all Christmas. “Even if I do reach them, say a hundred million sleeping souls, and manage to wake them. Will that undo the shroud? Will that actually make a difference?”
Flannery closed her eyes and didn’t answer for so long that Gabriel thought for a moment that she had actually fallen asleep. Then she opened her eyes again and looked at him.
“The death of a mirror will free its shroud wishes to seek their attainment at last. They will then leave the shroud and return to the spirit as true intents.”
“So, with the mirror gone. No more strands.”
Flannery nodded, “Yes. No more strands from that spirit. But remember,” she added, “the shroud is added to constantly, at an ever madder rate. You must wake up at least one half of the population of Earth before the shroud will cease to grow, and all on Earth before it will vanish.”
“Awake enough to stop creating their mirrors.”
Gabriel looked at her steady eyes looking at him. “That is a very tall order,” he said.
“And you, your books? How many do you think?”
“Not even a dent,” she answered with a frown. “Not even a scratch on a dent.”
“And you suppose that I?”
“For one,” said Flannery, “we don’t have a choice. For two, you can do this better than I, as long as you stay awake.”
“Oh, I doubt that.”
“No, I know that.”
“As long as I stay awake?”
“Mind if I borrow the bear?”
“I don’t mind at all, but he might. Staying awake with his help, though, is not a pleasant proposition. He’s got a very painful way of reminding you.”
Gabriel looked around the little bedroom, littered with books and magazines. “How many souls on this planet, would you say?”
“So I have to wake one billion?”
“That’s to stop the shroud from growing.”
Gabriel shook his head.
“You’d better hone your skills, Gabriel,” said Flannery.
“I’d better turn into a God.”
“No, no, no. Don’t even go there. They have enough problems with religion as it is. Also, I’ve tried that route, the religious metaphor route. Didn’t work. At least not for me.”
“No, I mean, I’d better perform some miracles.”
“Won’t work, Gabriel. They can only cast this shroud off from within. Each and every soul has to find their Netoniel mirror and see for themselves that they indeed are the ones creating it. Once they see that, they are free to cease the mirror, their undead wishes will return as true, and their new wishes will work again. There is no other way, really, than reaching, touching, and waking one soul at a time.”
“But that’s an impossible task, Flannery.”
“It must not be. It simply must not be.”
Then they both fell silent. The rain kept up its soft hiss outside. Flannery’s breathing changed into something softer, sweeter, something less punished by the bear who stood listening in his corner, recognizing Gabriel, of course. She was asleep.
Gabriel left her room to pack. In the parlor he asked Regina again if the airline had called yet to confirm their one day stopover in New York. Regina said yes, they did call. It was all settled now. Gabriel thanked her. A day would be enough for him and Barbro to travel from New York to Ridgefield and back.
Heather was hurting. Lately Frank had taken to punishing her with a belt on her bare buttocks. She found it impossible to sit, hard to walk, and made her way through the crisp winter morning with difficulty. The two grocery bags were heavy, but she managed all right, her arms were unhurt.
A young couple was walking towards her on the sidewalk. He was perhaps twenty, so blond that the sun seemed to make a private pool around his head. She seemed a little older, though almost as blond. His face was flushed by the cold and his breath came out in little clouds, same as his girlfriend’s or wife’s, same as her own for that matter.
As they came closer the young man’s face looked faintly familiar, like something in a dream may look faintly familiar to something you meet in the waking world, and so connects the two. He was looking directly at her as they approached, and the feeling of having seen him before grew almost painful. She’d heard of déjà vu and this was it, as strong as anything. The need to make a connection mounted and she was about to say something to him when he killed her by speaking first.
“Heather,” he said.
Hearing her own name, surrounded by cloud, issue from the lips of a complete stranger found and twisted something fundamental within her. The dream face turned nightmare in an instant and the shroud jealously clamped down completely. The young man no longer seemed familiar, he seemed much more like a threat. Probably someone from the school board, actually. Sent to ‘rescue’ her again. How many thousand times would she have to tell them that she didn’t need rescuing. That her family was just fine, for them to mind their own damn business.
“Heather,” he said again and stopped, not five feet away.
“Who wants to know?”
“It’s me, Gabriel.”
“I don’t know any Gabriel.”
He exchanged a quick glance with his girl. “How about Flannery? Do you know Flannery?”
“She from the school board too?”
He looked confused, too confused to be faking it, she thought. Or a very good actor.
“The school board?” he said.
“Listen mister, if you don’t mind. I need to get home with these groceries.”
“You don’t remember me, Heather?”
“I’ve never seen you in my life.”
“The bear,” he said then.
“Are you crazy? Please leave me alone. I have enough trouble as it is without crazy people I don’t know.”
They looked at each other again, almost sadly, she thought. She could not make them out, what they were about. But they were becoming a nuisance, this she knew.
“So,” she said. “Not very nice to have met you.” She shifted her grips on the grocery bags and set off for her house.
Neither of them moved, so she had to walk around them.
She didn’t look back, but she knew that they were still watching her, standing where she had left them. Luckily, though, they didn’t try to follow.
That night Heather dreamed of a soft meadow with a tall grass that knew how to bend without the help of wind. And just for a flicker, for a spark of a moment, she saw his face again, Gabriel. But then she turned onto her back and her burning buttocks brought her awake enough to roll over on her left side to escape the pain. Her new dream was of something completely different, one to do with Frank.
Gabriel looked out of the small, partially frosted window of the 707 taking him and Barbro back to London. Flannery had bought them first-class seats and the flight was comfortable. Barbro was asleep beside him, her head now and then falling onto his left shoulder.
He gently eased down to the floor for his travel bag where he kept Flannery’s notes. Barbro did not wake up.
The little book was about one hundred pages long, with one of her notes, neatly typed, per page. Flannery had taken good care with her typing, and had also added some decorative borders here and there, along with numerous little drawings of peacocks. He knew that he was holding a lifeline in his hands. His sister’s legacy.
He continued to read:
“The writer's business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.”
That, of course, thought Gabriel to himself, was easier said than done. And what experience was she talking about? This, planet Earth’s, or the real, the true experience of the soul? Of course what choice did he have right now than to be merged in it, the Earth and its shroud.
Still, he could picture himself, in the stillness of his room, quietly pulling back from it all to view things from an inward and silent distance. That was of course what she meant. And also, he could see this even more clearly, this would help him stay awake, as it was certainly intended to by Flannery.
“Imagination is the light by which we see.”
Well, that’s true. He had realized this himself not long ago, for what they called imagination here on Earth, they called creation back home, where what you imagined did in fact materialize—if you were any good at it. Here, he had noticed more than once, this was not the case. The imagined stayed imagined only—fantasy they called it, and if truly wished, Netoniel’s mirror took care to reverse it, while the original wish sailed on as yet another strand for the shroud.
No, there was no imagining things into existence here. Except, as Flannery was pointing out, for the writer, and especially for him, mirror-less and free to create. But back home, what you imagine, becomes. What other light would you need?
Then it occurred to him: were these quotes written specifically for him, or were they aimed at other writers? Or, naturally, both? He settled on both, in the end.
“Imagination is the light by which we see,” he read again, softly to himself and looked out the window, back at the enormous wing and its two large engines, down at the fading sea, New York City now two hours behind them.
He felt the Earth beneath him as a giant ball that for all its giantness is still a rather small planet. Well, it’s all a matter of perspective, of course, people were so damn small here, everything so damn small. And so much of it. He had thought it before, and mentioned it to Barbro several times, how you cannot even breathe the air on this Earth without inhaling a handful of some life or other. Millions of species, both flora and fauna, billions, trillioins, quadrillions of lives.
And he mused again, now letting his eyes rest on the water far below, on Earth there is life everywhere, in the soil, in the water, in the air, scurrying around on the ground in the guise of two hundred and fifty thousand species—species if you please—of beetles, or flapping around in the air in the guise of one hundred forty-eight thousand species of butterflies. Who counts these things, anyway? And how many species have yet to be discovered, or are being mutated into right now? Probably millions.
If a planet ever was crowded, this is the one. There is literally hardly room to breathe, he thought, and if you don’t watch out, someone or something will breathe you. And I am to wake them up? All of them?
Why so many? And why this place? Was this all Netoniel’s doing? No, he found that hard to believe.
Barbro shifted in her sleep and brought her head over to the left of her seat. He adjusted her pillow for her and she seemed to grunt a soft thanks.
A ball. He closed his eyes, a huge, life-infested ball. Then he too fell asleep, with a firm grasp on Flannery’s book in his lap.
On February the 15th, 1964 Flannery wrote this letter to Fiona McCullough:
We appear to all have our nasal drips stopped for the moment by the right amounts of anti-histamine. Louise’s and Shot’s cases are complicated by liquor and a bucket of potash water which she keeps handy to throw on him. He gave her a bad blow over the eye, or at least she claims he did. He claims she was so drunk she fell down and hit her head on the fender. Anyway these trials are normal. Miss Mary is out of the hospital and Robert appears okay. I may have to go into the hospital some time soon for an operation but that will have to await somebody else’s decision. Meanwhile, I am trying to have out a book of short stories in the fall but I doubt very much I will get it as the manuscript would have to be delivered in May and there is much work to be done on it.
What did you think of the Hawkes opus? I am supposed to go there in April and read on my way to Boston and if I get there, I will view them in their natural habitat but not stay with them.
My two new swans arrived and they look like a much younger pair than the last, have high voices and use them considerable. The weather has been too bad for me to get out and commune with them much.
Andrew Carl Sessions sent his godmother a picture of himself for Valentine’s in which he appears in cowboy hat, six-shooters etc. and looks like the old man without the learning. She was much impressed.
We are broke out with records now as Thomas sent me a box full out of his basement. All I can say about it is that all classical music sounds alike to me and all the rest of it sounds like the Beatles.
I am reading for the first time I’ll Take My Stand, the Agrarian Movement Manifesto which is out in a paperback. It’s a very interesting document. It’s futile of course like “woodman, spare that tree,” but still, the only time real minds have got together to talk about the South.
I know I’ve asked you not to bother about Heather anymore, but just curious, do you know how she is doing?
Gabriel and his wife, I keep thinking about her as his girlfriend, she looks too young to be his wife although I understand she is older than he is, arrived back in London fine and he is busy writing, at last. His English is remarkable considering that he was born and raised in Sweden. His girlfriend is a sweetie.
I may try to come by Ridgefield if I make it to Boston. We will have to see about the operation first, however. Wish me well.
It was the middle of March. Gabriel and Barbro were on a short visit to Stockholm. The city was overrun by snow. The snow-clearing brigades, normally so efficient, were falling behind and children could be seen skiing and otherwise enjoying themselves on the sidewalks. Gabriel sat by his large window looking out at people fishing through the ice. The room was well heated and a sense of surreal comfort spread throughout. Everything was white. He opened Flannery’s book again and read:
All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.
Thanks, sister, he thought. That is how real I must be, how far my reality must reach.
He looked out again, at the very real city below, at the very real children, one of them now falling over on skis too large for her, although she did not hurt herself; at the very real fishers on the ice, at the very real boats stuck in the ice, immobile until the April thaw sets them free. Strong hulls, he reflected.
He tried to remember, to picture again, the valley, the grass, the cottage, but found them hard to grasp. He got a flimsy notion of grass, but nowhere as real as the snow outside. So which is real? He read Flannery’s quote again, but still could not decide.
Flannery next wrote Fiona McCullough on March 28th, 1964:
I can scratch you out this kind of note anyway but if you are like me when I see one of your handwritten communications, you will just wish it would go away. As far as the operation goes, I suspect it has kicked up the lupus again. Anyway, I am full of infection and am back on the steroids. Possibly I will end up at Piedmont. I hope not. Piedmont is a little more antiseptic socially than this country hospital here. You don’t, as I recollect, hear what groans are being groaned in other rooms. Here there was an old lady across the hall from me who had been in the hospital since last November. She was about 92. Whenever they touched her, she roared LORD LORD LORD in the voice of a stevedore. At night when she coughed a nurse came in also in a voice you could hear anywhere and said “Pit that old stuff out, Sugar. Pit it out. Pit that old stuff out. Pit it out, Sugar,” etc.
Yesterday we went to the doctor’s office—same scene as in “Revelation” but nobody in there waiting but us and two old countrymen—about 6 ft tall & skin and bones in overalls. They just had a talk. The first one said, “Six months from now this here room will be half full of niggers.”
“Aw,” says the other one, “It ain’t the niggers so much. It’s them high officials. Jest take the money away from them high officials & you won’t have no trouble. All it is is money.”
Cassius Clay says he don’t like all this talk about hate. Says, a tiger come in the room with you you gonna either run or shoot him. That don’t mean you hate the tiger. It just means you know you and him can’t make out. Did you see Cassius interviewed by Eric Sevareid on CBS? Worth seeing.
The doctor couldn’t tell much, though—or wouldn’t tell much. Still, I could see by his demeanor that he was not coming out with it. I’ll be surprised if I’m alive six months from now.
Then on 30th of April, 1964:
Don’t pay too much attention to my good uncle in the matter of people’s health. Rigor Mortis has to have started setting in before he sees any serious difficulty. He was dying to call you up and tell you but I wouldn’t let him as I have this real high blood pressure and am not supposed to have company, although the door has opened several times & somebody I haven’t seen in twenty years has burst in.
They seem to think I’ll be here another week. Cheers.
And on May 25th, 1964:
I’m afraid the telephone would finish me off for good. Letters I can do, company I can now have for 10 minutes but telephone clobbers me the thought of. Only thing I would be tempted to use it for is to call up & ask how I am & be told I am resting comfortably and have peaceful days & nights! That’s the sweetest thing I ever heard, now ain’t it. Peaceful days & nights. My.
It sure don’t look like I’ll ever get out of this joint. By now I know all the student nurses who “want to write”’—if they are sloppy & inefficient & can’t make up the bed, that’s them—they want to write. “Inspirational stuff I’m good at,” said one of them. “I just get so take up with it I forget what I am writing.”
If you have the time, I would like to see you.
The same day Flannery wrote a letter to Gabriel:
I can hold on perhaps another two months, not longer. The bear has pretty much ruined this shell of a body I still have to call mine. He is not too happy about it, and neither am I. It is not pleasant, dying. But I will say this, it has kept me awake, he has not let me fall under the shroud, not even for a second, or at least not very far, and if so then he’s pulled me right back out from under again. I don’t know how he himself stays awake. But he does.
Please write something, a story, a poem, anything, and send it to me. I would like to see what you can do now. I would like to know that you will make it.
Meanwhile, as Death makes great inroads upon your sister, I will try to observe him as much as possible, to see if I can chronicle him for you. Who knows, it might come in handy.
I’ll stop here. Even this much writing is a strain, and—as you can tell—I am no longer up to using a typewriter, even if they would allow one in this hospital, which they don’t.
I hope to hear from you soon.
Gabriel read the letter again, then put it down and looked out across Fenchurch street, where a grocery store owner was having his building repainted. He could smell the new paint through the open window. That building was certainly coming alive, redly alive.
He could hear birds, too, among the buses and cars. A nice day, much alive, one foot already in summer.
Barbro had gone home to Stockholm for her cousin’s graduation, and would be gone another week. Meaning that he had already had several days of pure solitude in which to grant what he really perceived as Flannery’s last request.
Her letter had done him good, it had stirred him awake, something her little book tended to do as well. But it seemed to grow harder with each day, harder to grasp that sense of self which knew where he had come from and what he was doing here. It was so much easier to look around the room, and his books, and at Barbro, and simply bow to reality: this is who I am, nothing more. But her letter had stirred him again, all the way, and now picking it up again, he marveled at how insidiously the sliver shroud worked, how unnoticeably it wrapped itself around you, like mold, and told you some tales while making you forget others.
He had not been able to write anything meaningful, however. “I would like to know that you will make it,” she wrote. She wanted to make sure that he was good enough for what lay ahead, for their mission, in other words. That he had mastered the craft.
Christ, at eighteen? What did she expect? Then, as if a drape was brushed aside again by her letter: of course she’s right. I’m not eighteen at all, I am not this Gabriel at all. I’m not even the Conrad Gabriel. I am the real Gabriel.
Still, he could not start, could think of nothing to write about.
He stood up and walked over to his bookshelf, searching for inspiration. He found Conrad’s A Personal Record, a grim little book that stirred memories. He was looking for a certain section, which he had underlined. Found it and read it again:
All I know, is that for twenty months, neglecting the common joys of life that fall to the lot of the humblest on this earth, I had, like the prophet of old, ‘wrestled with the Lord’ for my creation, for the headlands of the coast, for the darkness of the Placid Gulf, the light on the snows, the clouds on the sky, and for the breath of life that had to be blown into the shapes of men and women, of Latin and Saxon, of Jew and Gentile. These are, perhaps, strong words, but it is difficult to characterise otherwise the intimacy and the strain of a creative effort in which mind and will and conscience are engaged to the full, hour after hour, day after day, away from the world, and to the exclusion of all that makes life really lovable and gentle—something for which a material parallel can only be found in the everlasting sombre stress of the westward winter passage round Cape Horn. For that too is the wrestling of men with the might of their Creator, in a great isolation from the world, without the amenities and consolations of life, a lonely struggle under a sense of overmatched littleness, for no reward that could be adequate, but for the mere winning of a longitude. Yet, a certain longitude, once won, cannot be disputed. The sun and the stars and the shape of your earth are the witnesses of your gain; whereas a handful of pages, no matter how much you have made them your own, are at best but an obscure and questionable spoil. Here they are. ‘Failure’—‘Astonishing’: take your choice; or perhaps both, or neither—a mere rustle and flutter of pieces of paper settling down in the night, and undistinguishable, like the snowflakes of a great drift destined to melt away in sunshine.
He remembered writing that. Remembered the struggle of writing that very paragraph, as if it, and not his fiction, was the real creation that had to be wrestled from a jealous Lord. And then he knew what to write for Flannery. It would not be a story, it would be a poem, about returning. He wrote:
We’ve been lost and
running since these
many moons ago
Where we are
and how we came
is not for me to know
Through the rage
of heartless weather
wrought by skies unkind
We still race
to keep the pace
for what we hope
our final run will find
Crossing the tundra
fighting the snow
where to go
rise in our path
urging the gods
to vent their wrath
this ageless forest
pale moon on the rise
'neath our flight
that we may realize
that for all the
moonlight might betray
what we are
and what we seek
and what this aged voice
will never say
Fording the rivers
besting their chill
finding the air
Thirsting for sunrise
we rest on the run
cursing the clouds
that shield the sun
We are hunters of an open country
seen by our hearts and dreams
and by the hunger chasing us
Embered eyes and distant skyline
fade into night that seems
kin to the season facing us
On the wind
our fathers whisper
that the path is true
but with cold
and empty belly
hard to keep in view
Still the deep
and vibrant calling
surges to the fore
Lick your wounds
and quell your pain
the trail is long
you'll run forevermore
Racing your shadow's
urging the pack
to keep the pace
Braving the chasm
plunging the deep
ceding your life
the pace to keep
Winds are fading
with the starlight
dawning is at hand
and mountains part
to yield their hinterland
Blinded by the
shivering I see
No more wolf
no more life
no more always running
left for me
Ceasing the darkness
I shed my pride
I reach the well
you slake my thirst
I surge to light
as shackles burst
Flannery put the letter down and wondered how come he knew so well: “I surge to light as shackles burst.” Her shackles were bursting, from pain to be sure, but bursting nonetheless. And she was surging to light, to her own so much truer self.
And then she did something she had not done very often. She cried softly. It was from loss and relief both. The loss of having to leave him here, alone. The loss of Heather. The relief of knowing that if Gabriel could stay awake, he could, no, he would make it.
The fall of 1964 was the fall that Heather set fire to Frank. Frank, however, did survive, and that is how Heather become his nurse for life, the grass and the small house at the edge of the valley forgotten even by her dreams.
The fall of 1964 was the fall that Gabriel saw the Beatles live in London and began searching for the author of the quote: “If there were no music, life would be a mistake.” Something he had read or heard as Conrad, but could not for the life of him put his finger on.
It would not be until 1969 that he found out that it had been said, or written, by Nietzsche, someone he had not at all suspected.
The fall of 1964 was the fall that Flannery left. On August 2nd she went into a coma and on August 3rd her kidneys, hugged to death by bearish tendrils, failed, and Flannery returned to the valley. The bear, however, did not. He went to London.
On August 11th, 1964, Gabriel received the following little poem in an envelope addressed to him by a shaky hand, though unmistakably Flannery’s, and mailed to him by Regina, two days after Flannery’s departure (as she had promised Flannery she would). The envelope contained nothing else, just a blank sheet of paper, folded around the little scrap of paper, upon which was scrawled by a young hand, also unmistakably Flannery’s:
I'm a little angle
I lack a certain grace,
My hands are always dirty
And I never wash my face.
That was all the notification Gabriel got.
He had expected more. In one of her letters she had promised him a chronicle of Death’s inroads on her, as she had put it, but if she had kept a record, she didn’t send it. Just as well, he thought. Probably just as well.
He re-folded the little poem in its long settled creases, and placed it in the book she had given him for Christmas. Then he wept for his sister.
Heather never found out. Fiona McCullough approached her once in late September of 1964 to inform her, but Heather must have mistaken her for some official or other, for she looked at her startled and afraid and refused to stop and talk even when Fiona called out her name. Fiona, who moved to New York City the following spring, never saw Heather again.
Christmas Eve 1964 was picture perfect. The snow started falling on Christmas Eve morning and it continued to fall, quite heavily, but gaily nonetheless, all day. By evening, which arrived early in Stockholm, the city was draped in a quilt of perfect white, turning almost blue in the fading light. Carolers strolled the cobblestoned streets of Old Town, hushed now by a million flakes, advent candles and Christmas stars shone in most every window. It was not too cold to venture out, nor so warm the snow might melt. It was, simply, as Soren Wallengard put it, “the finest damn Christmas Eve I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a few, ha, ha,” and with that he raised his glass of glogg, hot and reeking with spices, in a toast to Christmas, and to the couple back from London for the holidays, and to the excellent news that Barbro was expecting a baby.
Everyone was cheerful, warmed by love and drink, with laughter bubbling here and there in a warm and festive room where only the bear wore a frown, but no one could see him. Not even Gabriel.
Barbro was shining with the promise of motherhood.
On their return to London life became the new baby, long before it arrived. It appeared that Barbro’s many talents had finally found their focus and she now knew what she was put on earth to do: to raise children. Nothing, nothing, could be more important. Not even Gabriel’s writing, no, not even that.
Luckily, she thought, Gabriel agreed.
The second bedroom was to become the nursery, of course. The problem was money. Of course Soren was helping, but he was not supporting them. Were they to move back to Stockholm, well, that would be another matter. Then they could live in his apartment, which was certainly big enough for another little one, ha, ha, and Gabriel could go back to the Academy, no?
Oh, Gabriel had thought about that offer, and about little else, the last few days before they were due to return. In the end, however, a deeper need had demanded that he go back, if for no other reason than to finish learning the language, something he felt he really had to do, although, of course, on some level, he knew it better than most.
Back in London the problem now became money, the lack of it, and so Gabriel got himself a part-time job in a local bookstore, which soon became a full-time job, to make enough of it.
Barbro worked too, but only part time, and would soon quit altogether, to get ready.
“Surely you will have the baby at home,” said her mother over the phone.
“No, Mom, we’re having it in London.”
“This is our home, Mom.”
Had it been up to her, she would have loved to go home for the May delivery, but Gabriel insisted on staying, not himself quite knowing why. It had something to do with Flannery O’Connor and the little book she had given him.
Then Gabriel stopped writing altogether, and that tipped the scales for the bear. He had seen enough and made up his mind. Flannery may not have approved of his methods, but she would have approved of his objective.
“Gabriel,” she said, walking into the nursery where he was busy removing old wallpaper which revealed an even older wallpaper, which exposed one older still, before he finally got to the bare wall.
“Gabriel,” she repeated.
He put down the scraper and turned around.
“Something’s wrong,” she said.
The bear’s long tendrils had grown little fangs and were now seeping into her kidney and heart and liver a tiny stream of poison. Too small to be detected as such, but plenty enough to cause the symptoms.
She stood in the doorway, leaning heavily against the jamb. Small pearls of sweat glistened on her brow. Her face was sallow in the bare light of the bulb.
“What’s wrong sweetnose?” he asked. “The baby?”
“No, I don’t think so,” she said. “It’s me.”
With that she took a step forward to reach his arms, but she did not make it. She collapsed on the floor by his feet.
She was diagnosed with lupus. Or as the pedantic Indian doctor explained to Gabriel in his strange accent, “She has developed a rather advanced case of systemic lupus erythematosus. It is an inflammatory disease affecting connective tissue of joints and internal organs. Her liver is affected, as are her kidneys.”
“Cancer?” asked Gabriel, who did not understand.
“No,” said the doctor, “not cancer. Lupus.”
For several seconds Gabriel could not breathe. The realization was too colossal, its weight impossible to endure. That is how Flannery went. He was suddenly wide awake: the bear.
Gabriel looked around the doctor’s office, not expecting to see him there, and he did not. But he did see him in Barbro’s bedroom. Even when they moved her back to Stockholm for what they hoped was better treatment. The bear was with her. And there was nothing Gabriel could say or do that would stop him from killing his wife.
By the end of March, the fetus was declared “non-viable,” poisoned by its mother’s blood. They had to remove the fetus surgically. It was an operation the mother did not survive.
Heather changed the morphine drip. Frank was sitting immobile in his wheel chair. Much of his face was still bandaged. His arms and legs likewise. But he could sit up now and insisted on doing so, no matter how painful. At least as long as the morphine could handle it.
“The bastard isn’t going to hit anyone now, is he?” said Ralph, her younger brother, loud enough for him to hear, wanting him to hear.
If Frank heard, he didn’t show. Or didn’t care. Morphine made you happy that way.
“Oh, Ralph,” said Heather. “How can you say that. Look at him. He’s suffering very much.”
“Not nearly enough,” said Ralph.
Heather didn’t answer, just turned away to face her father, her poor father.
The funeral was on a cold Sunday in April. Though it had not snowed in the night, it had threatened too. Gabriel had smelled it in the air as he had walked along Barnhusviken’s still icy water, black here and there as the ice had broken to let the water breathe once again. He had not slept since Tuesday, when Barbro had died at Karolinska Hospital. Yes, he had tried, often, but could not find the handle on sleep, or rather, could not let go of the handle of awake. And he still saw the bear now and again. Why didn’t he just get the hell out of there.
But he didn’t. And even now, as they lowered the caskets, the large one for Barbro, and the very small one for her unborn daughter, their unborn daughter—Soren had insisted on it—he could glimpse the bear by a tree, looking cold among the little snow flurries kicked up by the wind. He did not look happy, only effective.
Soren and Ann-Marie, cried quietly. Gabriel had no tears left. He was cold and empty to the point of exhaustion.
That evening he finally fell asleep, robbed of his life. He slept for nearly forty hours.
The bear did not return to Flannery’s valley.
Gabriel took the ferry back to England. They had flown back from London, of course, to reach a Swedish hospital as soon as possible.
Now he stood by the rail and looked out at the North Sea, much the way they had stood here almost two years ago, although the sun had shone then, on calmer waters. The sea was quite wild now, and the rain was attacking the choppy surface.
“Of course I’ll marry you,” she had said. “But not until you know English better than the English.”
Not until he knew English better than the English.
He was going back to settle things; or at least, that is what he had told Soren and Ann-Marie. In his heart, however, he knew he was going back to stay. Without Barbro there was nothing for him in Stockholm. Without writing there was nothing for him in life, and his writing—he was sure—had, like Conrad’s, like Flannery’s, to be in English.
He had avoided the nursery since his return. There was only the closed door, brown and shut between now and a life lost. Weeks of unwillingness to accept.
But now he had opened it, and he stood in the doorway, unmoving and looking in on the devastation: the half-stripped wall, the strips and scraps of old wallpaper on the floor, the foul smelling paint remover, its lid still on the floor, the bare floorboards, that’s right, they were to put in a new carpet too.
Where is Barbro now, he thought. Does she know about the valley, Flannery’s valley, about Flannery and Heather, perhaps. He didn’t think so. She was probably busy getting born again, oblivious to him standing here, her memories sealed shut by the silver shroud. Then he thought of Swedenborg’s wonderful thought: that a man and wife who truly loved each other become one and the same angel in heaven. Ah, if he could only believe that. But now there was always the bear. Not touching him, not hurting him in any way, but watching him, always. Making sure he stayed awake.
His thought had been to clean the room up, in preparation for leaving—he would relocate, south perhaps, or north, or, in any case: away. But now, as he surveyed the nursery again, he made up his mind: he would not run. He would confront, accept, and he would put his new life in here, this would become his study. His library, his world of writing. Ignoring the bear, who seemed—in his taciturn way—to approve, he took one step into the room and bent down to pick up the lid to the bottle of paint remover.
I still live in our Fenchurch Street flat, I have for the last twenty odd years. And I still think of it as ours. I have become what’s known as a fixture in this building. I’m their secret and their pride and joy, as Mrs. Emerson on the first floor put it just the other day. And they protect me. After all these years, they—those who know who I am—protect me.
Let me clarify: Early on I took an important cue from Thomas Pynchon, that American master of elusion. When my first novel was accepted in 1968, I had only two demands, that I be paid well enough to continue writing full-time, and that I was to remain anonymous. No interviews, no pictures, ever. No book tours, no readings or signing events, ever.
It was my first editor that brought that about. “This is so great,” he said, patting the manuscript, “you’ll be more famous than the Beatles.” Of course he was kidding, to a large extent anyway, but I still saw the danger, clearly: If I were to become anywhere near as good at this as I planned to, I would become what they call a celebrity, and fame, I realized, was something to be avoided at all costs. Some celebrities I could name are more famous for being famous than for what brought them to fame in the first place. The long and short of it then: if I were to carry out my mission, I needed to write, not to strut about in (or fighting to stay out of) the limelight. So, anonymity at all costs, that was my price. And the wherewithal to write full-time.
Eight novels and four story collections later I am still with the same publisher, and they have, despite enormous pressure to give me up—the public has a right to know, being the journalistic sword normally wielded—to the press and television, held up their end of the bargain. And to those souls in the building who know who I am, my sincere thanks, they have protected the secret as well.
In all these years I’ve had only one major run-in with my publisher, and my agent for that matter. We were offered some ungodly amount of money for the BBC to serialize my second novel, but I refused. “In fact,” I said, “I will not have any of my stories filmed, in any fashion. They are written to be read.”
“But the wider market. The appeal,” protested my agent.
“The wider market can read,” I said.
“The majority of the film goers or television viewers do not,” she answered.
“Well, they can learn.”
For a few months, while the BBC kept adding to the pot, thinking my reluctance was simply a negotiating ploy, things remained tense. Until, finally, my agent gave me an ultimatum: go with the BBC, or he would resign.
My new agent was more understanding, in fact, she agreed with my philosophy, and has had it written into every deal since that none of my stories are to leave the domain of print. It is where they belong, and where they will stay as long as the copyrights belong to me.
I am now what you’d call a household name. And a mystery. Enigma, say some. Others have picked up on the epithet the dailies use: the Scarlet Pimpernel, the one out-eluding Pynchon. And this suits me just fine for it lets me write.
I add to Elements of Fiction now and then as I stumble upon things to highlight the craft, and I open Flannery’s little book, and read her little poem, at least once a day. A sort of ritual.
The bear is still here. Invisible mostly. Quite pleased with my progress it seems. I’m staying awake without his help, which seems to surprise him, pleasantly. Surprises me too, very pleasantly. It seems that his presence is reminder enough. It might also have something to do with keeping my purpose vividly alive—the task that Barbro died for.
And while we’re on the subject of surprises. My brother, yes, Netoniel, showed up one day. Don’t know how on earth he found me (pun intended). The doorbell rang, well, it’s no longer a bell, I’ve had it changed to a soft gong, so it gonged, and I went to the door and opened it. Still one foot or more in the story in progress at the time, I could not place the fellow’s face, although it seemed faintly familiar.
“Not letting me in, are you?” he said after a silence long enough to be awkward, I guess.
“Not letting in whom, exactly?” I wondered.
“Ah, come on,” he said, and held out his arms as if to embrace me.
“No, I’m serious,” I said. “Who the hell are you?”
“Your brother, Gabriel. Netoniel.”
That brought both feet firmly out of the story and onto the hallway floor.
“Netoniel,” I said.
“I should kill you—if that were possible.”
“Flannery’s words, precisely.”
I stepped aside to let him in. He glided past me, more like a prospective buyer, surveying the flat, than visitor.
“How is she?” I asked.
“Back here, I hear,” he said.
“Don’t know, really.”
“You really don’t know?” I asked.
He turned toward me and said, “On my honor.” And I believed him.
Though I still added, “Or what’s left of it.”
“Tut-tut,” he said.
“How is she? You’ve seen her?”
“Few years ago.”
“How is she?” For the third time.
“A little miffed at the bear,” he said.
“Speaking of which,” he said. “Is he still around?”
“Yes,” I said. And left it at that.
“She told me what you’re up to. Well, the three of you. Very gallant.”
“Yes, well, I guess,” he conceded.
“This is your doing,” I said, and he had no problem understanding what I was referring to.
“Mea culpa,” he agreed. A little insincerely.
“But, it’s not a big deal, is that what you’re saying?”
“Well, is it? It’s just a planet.”
“No, Netoniel, it is a big deal. It’s not ‘just a planet.’ It’s billions of souls, literally. Trapped.”
“Well, I didn’t mean for this to happen, not this badly anyway, if that’s any consolation.”
“I don’t care about consolation, but I could do with a hand.”
Which he chose to ignore. Completely.
“How’s Heather?” he asked me. Which surprised me.
“Don’t know, to be honest.” Which was the truth.
“Heard her father died, finally.”
“I didn’t know.”
“And she moved to Los Angeles doing something or other.”
“Does she remember?” I asked.
“Not a bit.”
I shook my head.
“Though I hear she’s an avid reader of my brother’s stories.”
“Where do you get this from?”
“Looking. Listening. Staying away from this place.”
“You have not come to help,” I said.
“Just checking to see how you’re doing.”
“And,” I said, realizing that he would actually know. “How am I doing?”
He gave me a strange look. As if my question was either unanswerable or too simple to deserve an answer. Finally he deigned one, “Would I be here if you didn’t?”
“Didn’t what?” He didn’t make sense.
“If you weren’t making good progress.”
And, sadly, I saw his point. Safe enough now to visit. I was making progress, in other words. Ever Netoniel. Still, it cheered me to hear his cowardice sing so clearly. A great deal, actually.
“And you?” I asked. “Staying on for a bit?”
“Nope. Just a quick in and out.”
I nodded again. “I thought so.”
Then, the last of his surprises: “Gabriel,” he said. “I am sorry about this mess. If there was something I felt would help, I might just volunteer, but I don’t have your gift, or your tenacity, and what you’re doing, is, well, the only way.”
Too stunned, I guess, to answer, I saw him smile, take a last look around the flat, head for the door, “Well, ta-ta, then.” And was gone.
I have managed to track down Heather. Netoniel was right. She’s living outside Los Angeles with husband and two children. Apparently content.
I have not contacted her. I fear that she, at least in her current state, would not recognize me as Gabriel, and also that she would spill my identity beans.
But I get monthly reports.
I read again what I have just written. It’s not a bad story. No. Perhaps it is in fact very good. As usual, though, I find it hard to tell. While writing I do not keep sufficient distance to my work to be objective. Well, what writer does? For me it takes anywhere from days to weeks to sometimes months to get far enough away from my story to actually see it for what it is, for what is there. But my editor will tell me.
I hope, though, as I do with every story, that this one will find and touch more souls than my last one. That it will stir more souls awake. That the television viewership will decline further. That more silver strands will dissolve.
I turn again to the first page and read the all-important opening paragraph once again, just to make sure it does say exactly what I want to say. It does: Once upon a time there were three children who meant to save the world.
And, oh, by the way. As of two months ago, I have a new editor. Her name is Flannery.