A Horror Story
The game pieces were what transformed the distant light of a candelabra into an unearthly glow which seemed to arise from within the walls of the arena. The box was shaped to resemble an arena; its walls encased a playing field of sorts, laid out as a grid. There was space for two opposing teams, rather like chess but with important variations. Along all four walls the game pieces were lined up; they were metallic figures, stylized representations of various concepts, this being their main point of departure from chessmen, which merely represented social functionaries, more or less real entities. Here, the pieces were ideas men lived by, not the chance roles they filled. Here, the combat took on a more abstract, therefore a more universal, significance; not merely for territory did these pieces do battle, but for genuine conquest: for the minds of men. The walls were wooden, finely polished and stained a deep mahogany; the playing field was gray, its grid a mosaic of tiny ceramic tiles, each representing, not space, but a truth men believed in. These truths, collectively, represented mankind; the sum total of man's stay on this planet. The game pieces - the ideas - were not so much truths as they were ways of living: they were means, the grid the end they sought after. The attainment of humanity, of the earth, was the object of this game. At night it glowed with the captured light of three distant candles emblazoned upon the walls by the gamesmen's shadows. It was named after the family which owned it, for whom it had been created, in whose house it was kept. It was called The Grae Box.
The Box was stored in a seldom used room whose paneled walls it mimicked. There were other game rooms in the house: one for billiards, one for table tennis, one with an elegant table for card playing as its centerpiece, and one for fencing; these rooms were situated around the room where the Box was kept, and were invariably more enticing to guests of the house. Occasionally a guest would wander into the Game Room, as it was called; would come upon the Box; and would ask what it was. They were always given some vague explanation by whatever family member had been asked - "It's a souvenir," they would be told, or "An antique," or "An heirloom," and were skillfully, but politely, steered back into whichever room they had strayed from. An especially alert guest might note a certain apprehension appended to the reply; but no one ever persisted, no one ever asked what kind of heirloom it was. The room was small, without windows, richly carpeted in a pale gray wool; against each wall was a credenza, and on each credenza stood a silver candelabra with three candles. The ceiling, like the walls, was of mahogany, but tending more toward a black than the deep red of the paneling. There were no electrical fixtures in the room, which in fact had never been wired for electricity; nor had the matter ever been considered. In the years since electricity in houses had become a possibility, not once had any member of the Grae family toyed with wiring the Game Room, although every other room had been wired almost from the day the new energy source had been made public, in the time of Charles Grae VIII, great grandson four times removed of the family founder.
There had been an excitement in the air itself the day the wiring began. All the Grae children ran about, from room to room, trying their best to be first into the room first wired; their father refused their every request to reveal which room the electricians would begin their work in. "Oh please, please!" they all took turns shouting. "Tell me, father - tell me! Which one, which room? Oh please, father, please!" The elder Grae just smiled; he would not answer. In time, through all their scurrying about the house, each child decided finally upon a specific room, each going to the one he or she suspected would be first, to await the moment of triumph. None of the children, not even the youngest, had gone to the Game Room; they seemed to know instinctively that it would not be here the wiring would begin. Nor was it; the room was never wired, as if some inner impulse had worked to prevent five generations from altering its atmosphere. They were not consciously attempting to preserve the past, or anything else, here; they did not regard electricity, or the modernity it represented, as intruders in the special room. They simply never considered having it wired, as if the room had itself not wished the change and had taken control of their wills to make certain its own will was not thwarted. Twelve candles were now, as they had always been, the only source of light in the Grae Room, though, owing to its never being used, no more than three were ever lit at any one time, and when these three burned down, another three were lit, and the extinguished candles replaced with fresh ones to await their turn at lighting the room. This way, the light passed all around the room, completing an endless cycle. All four walls reflected the glow of three flames in turn. The Box, which sat on a stand in the center of the room, caught the glow of these flames from four different angles, never too long from any one direction, as if it were being lulled into a sleeping trance. Not in living memory had all twelve candles been lit at the same time. According to family tradition, Charles Grae IX had been the last to have all twelve lit, the last to use the room as a game room, the last to use the Box. Since then, the Box had remained an heirloom, the room a sort of museum housing it.
There were three stories - four, if one counted the attic - to the Grae family house. Everyone but the family called it a mansion; the Graes never used that term, however, but always referred to it as a "house": the Grae House. It stood on a slightly raised hill at the northernmost corner of one hundred acres of farmland, not far from a small township. Since it was an old house, and almost entirely in its original form, countless legends had grown up around it in the nearby town; ironically, rather than the object of superstition and foreboding, it was more nearly an object of ridicule, the townspeople having become increasingly sophisticated through the years. Their town housed a prestigious University and a new industrial complex was nearly complete; onto the original, uneducated population had been grafted a highly educated cadre of professionals. When some of the less educated "old-timers" would say "There's something evil up there!," the professionals would counter with "Yes, Charlie Grae's bank owns the lien on our house! - not to mention his mean backhand!" People do not as a rule suspect someone they play tennis with at the Country Club or someone noted for hosting the most elegant parties in town of being a ghoul. Too many otherwise dull evenings - this area being nearly a hundred miles from any great urban center - witnessed an entourage of too many fashionable town-cars along the gracefully curving driveway past the Grae House for rumor and innuendo to become a permanent fixture of town life. On an average weekend the house would be filled with guests from town; and on evenings, never rare in quality though quantity-wise always rare, when a dinner party was announced, the town-cars could be seen lining the entire three miles of driveway, almost bumper to bumper. A third of the first floor was given over to the dining room. Asked to describe it for a fashionable journal of home decor, Charles Grae XII said simply "It's where you eat." He did not intend facetiousness; he meant merely to point out that it was as all great dining halls were: it existed in everyone's imagination, a legacy of their culture, a fixture in countless movies, countless photographs of old family mansions. To describe it in detail would therefore have been as tasteless as it was redundant: how could it not have crystal chandeliers from Austria, polished sideboards from France, tapestries from Belgium, rugs from Persia, place settings from Germany? Either it had been plundered entirely or else it could blend unnoticed into the set of a motion picture. Beauty - and it saddened Charles Grae to know this: elegant beauty stood as much chance of becoming trite as did the clever plasticized dining rooms of the average household. Charles Grae loved what was beautiful, loved it because he knew of nothing else in life which did not lend itself to ownership. He possessed great treasures, precious heirlooms handed down over the generations, as well as art works he had acquired in his own lifetime; many were hidden away from all but his own eyes. Yet even these he felt were beyond his reach: the more they were hoarded - the more entirely they became his own - the more familiar they became; at the moment of familiarity, the beauty ceased for him, and could never be regained; so they were shut away in a storeroom. The only objects capable of preserving their beauty were those he could not own. Even so, he attempted to acquire whatever pleased him, as if compelled against his will and his reason to in effect destroy whatever was beautiful. The urge to possess, he had found, was stronger in him than the urge to admire - as it had been stronger in all his ancestors. A family did not build and maintain such a house as the Grae's without being obsessed with ownership, and with the methods needed to support their habit.
The house was of stone, a subtle blend of granite and masonry which, on the whim of an ancestor, had been given a facade of brick. Charles Grae IX had ordered the house sealed forever after some obscure event, some unnamed tragedy which, perhaps because unnamed, became the object of whispers among the townspeople. Terrible doings were imputed to him, heinous crimes which happened in a single evening. There was said to have been bloodshed, even torture, the maiming of others - followed by the inevitable "pay-off" of the survivors so there would be no official investigation. Charles Grae IX left the next day for Europe and never returned, although some say he did return toward the end of his life, and attempted to re-seal his house, which had been unsealed by his son, Charles Grae X; the townspeople - the older ones - say his ghost is even yet trying to re-seal it. He had it walled up completely; his son had the doors and windows and air vents opened, and the roof re-done in gray slate. Like a box the Grae House had been sealed, roof and all. A legend, which had grown up simultaneous to that of the strange behavior of Charles Grae IX, claimed that inside the house only one thing had been disturbed: the Box in the central game room had been encased in a lead-lined container which had to be cut through from the top with a welding torch in order to be removed. The welders were said to have sworn that their flames kept going out, as if something were escaping from the Box, some sudden swift rush of air. Two generations later, with the advent of comic books and television shows, whenever mention was made of this leaden case, the children would always say it was Superman in there: he could not see through lead; that had to be it - why else lead? lowly humble lead? deadly, but lowly.
These incidents were only the topmost layer of legends extending as far back as the house and family did. And while there was a time when they were taken seriously, these legends, and believed, literally, they were dismissed now as quaint superstition by all except a very few who, like the Graes, could trace their roots back to the beginning.
There had been a town before there had been a Grae House to dominate its life. Records in the town hall indicated that at first the town had no name; then, as the Grae family gained ascendancy, it was named after them: Graeton, it was called. Then, after the death of the family patriarch, the name was changed to Graesonton, after Charles Grae II. Upon his death it was changed again, to Graegrandsonton, after his son. The citizens silently balked at having their town renamed every generation. When Charles Grae III died, the people, sensing an endless string of absurdities beginning with Graegreatgrandsonton and ending with a monolith for a name, stood firm against the Graes and demanded the name be left as it was. The newest heir to the Grae family name and fortune refused to let his father's name stand for all time as the town's name, however; so a compromise was sought. Somebody suggested Charleston, but it was pointed out that this name would always be thought of as referring to the original Charles Grae, just as the name Graeton would have. There was no compromise possible where a family - particularly so possessive a family - persisted in passing along the same given name to every succeeding generation: each heir would want his own personal stamp on the name. Finally it was decided to give the town as non-personal a name as could be found.
Anything anyone could think of was considered, but someone always managed to find in every prospective name some secret reference to somebody else. Then one day a child was discovered babbling in the town square - not an unusual event in itself, except that the sounds the child made were so striking, so unlike the usual "goo-goo's" and "ga-ga's" children always made. Everyone who listened was amazed, perhaps a little frightened too; but, more significantly, everyone seemed to have been especially struck by one single phrase which the child seemed to be repeating at random intervals. It sounded like typhon. Not a syllable, or a repeated sound, but almost a word - and a nondescript word at that. "Sounds like moon-talk!" someone quipped. Immediately the word was fixed upon as a possibility. The residents were all summoned to a meeting in the town square, at which the word was formally proposed as the town's new name. When everyone's agreement was secured, a committee was chosen to carry the name to the Grae House, that the sanction of Charles Grae IV might be elicited.
No one had volunteered to venture the distance from town to the farm the Grae's owned; it was more by coercion that three citizens agreed to go. Not that it was the distance involved which made people reluctant; rather, it was the rumors which had spread during the lifetime of Charles Grae III, the present owner's father - rumors which in magnifying those having sprung up during his father's lifetime echoed the terrible legends surrounding the original owner, Charles Grae I - that caused the community to have to compel three of its members to make the journey. It was once believed that to go near the Grae House was an act of self-immolation; that once enticed inside one never came out alive; that strange, unearthly compulsions came over the people living in that house; and that these compulsions resulted in bloodshed. Once - not at the beginning, not during the ownership of the original Charles Grae, for there was no established order in the town at that time, but during his grandson's ownership - the newly formed town council appointed a constable, the term as well as the duties derived from a perusal of British law, to investigate certain rumored atrocities. At various times individuals disappeared from town, each one last seen headed toward the Grae's farm. Some never turned up; the ones who did were discovered dumped into shallow graves just outside town, their bodies dismembered or disemboweled or some other equally grisly fashion. There was no direct link to the Grae's, only the suspicious rumor produced. So a constable was dispatched. He looked around - the Graes were most hospitable; but he found no evidence of wrongdoing.
"What's in there?" he asked, coming upon the game room which housed the Box. When let in, a strange sensation came over him, an almost overpowering hostility. He found himself wanting to throw off his clothes and wrestle anyone he could get hold of; it was all he could do to resist. He was aware also of a feeling of omnipotence. The thought kept passing through his mind: "I am the constable!" He felt like a king; and he felt challenged, he felt a need to prove his power through physical means.
"What is this?" he asked, indicating the Grae Box.
"A game," Charles Grae III told him.
"Show me how it's played!" he demanded.
There was a pause, then Charles said "I don't know. It hasn't been played since my grandfather's day. I have no idea what the rules are." The constable got the distinct impression his host was lying, but he later attributed this impression to his own heightened aggression: "I wanted him to be lying," he told himself; "I wanted an excuse to strike him." He was able to overcome his impulse, though. Immediately upon leaving the Game Room his hostility seemed to dissipate; he returned to being the slightly self-conscious guest in somebody else's home. He thanked Charles Grae for his hospitality and departed. That was the end of the investigation.
Through the years, others who has occasion to visit the Grae House experienced feelings similar to those the constable reported, though to a much milder degree; the passage of time seemed to have progressively attenuated the pitch of any such feelings, until the guests of Charles Grae XII, the present owner, if they happened to enter the Game Room where the Box was stored, expressed "a slight tingling" somewhere in the center of their foreheads, which they attributed as much to the candlelight as to anything else.
The town, with the consent of Charles Grae IV, eight generations ago, officially became Tyfington. A legend of sorts grew up around the child whose babblings had given the town its name. Everyone wondered where this strange child had come from, and whose she was; she did not seem to belong to anyone here. Nor did anyone seem to have been watching her; she seemed to be sitting there all alone; yet in the excitement created by her strange babbling, in the momentary distraction her words caused, she had gone. Everyone seemed drawn to that one word she kept repeating; everyone began discussing it as a possible name for the town; and when their attention again focused on the child, they could not find her. She had either disappeared or been taken away. She could not have gotten up and walked off, and even if she had, she would still be within view. A search was initiated, but she was never found. It was concluded - tentatively perhaps - that she was an angel, and had been sent, presumably by God, for no other reason than to name this town. The word spread to other parts of the state, so that eventually Tyfington became known as "The town God named." A monument was built to the child - the angel - who had served as God's instrument: a plaque upon a stone slab in the very center of town, on the exact spot where the child had sat delivering the word of God to the people. Everyone felt blessed, divinely protected, beloved of the Almighty. "God watches after His own," came to be a kind of formal greeting among the people, especially when encountering one another outside church on Sundays.
Perhaps strangest of all the mythology built up around this child was a notion rarely alluded to and never stated any more succinctly than as "her line." It would have been impossible for anyone to have traced the origin of this notion. Somehow or another, through the years, a line of generation was vaguely attributed to her, as if she had mated and produced offspring, even though she was half believed to have been an angel. The most curious thing about this was the nature of her "line." For no apparent reason, a guardianship became commonly ascribed to her "descendants" - not in the manner of a "guardian angel" but rather in the manner of an overseer or a judge both gathering and examining evidence. It was believed that, having given the town its name, the child expected the people to live up to her standards - though what those standards were no one really knew; and that she and "her line" secretly watched and evaluated and waited to see if the town betrayed her. No one had any idea who her descendants might be, or whether they even inhabited the town, only that they were somewhere watching and waiting: angels of retribution ready to avenge their mother's betrayal.
All the legends - and there were more, many more, some trailing back even beyond the founding of the Grae family or of the town, back to a time when a virtual state of war was believed to exist between the ancestors of the townspeople and the ancestors of the Grae family, each side forming gradually, like hot clouds of stellar dust against equal polarities, into two forces able to hold each other's aggression in abeyance long enough for a truce to be affected, a town and a dynasty the structures respectively assumed out of the dust and debris of war: these, all these legends, so strong in the minds of early generations, inevitably weakening as the past receded from later generations, had come to be no longer even quaint but almost an embarrassment to the new breed of townspeople. They were not against there being a past history - they envied, for example, the glories European societies could look back on as their cultural heritage; what they opposed, and bitterly, was what they saw as the ignorant superstition of uneducated peasants. Tyfington did not possess even a decent American past, but more nearly something absurd as from a Transylvania. Not even Clipper ships and whaling, only ghouls and ghastly doings in an old house whose present day grace and charm were compromised by foolish legends which the world refused to let the present generation dispose of. No one came to town without first inquiring into the grisly past, and only then asking about the prestigious university or the industrial park. Variously, committees were proposed to find ways of dispelling the legends; one had gotten so far as having actually been formed, its members who saw themselves as exorcists of a sort, met bi-weekly in the university's student union. So far nothing concrete had come from these meetings, save for a half-facetious resolution to "run Carroll Poshun out of town on a rail!" But then, the committee always ended up noting, "where would Tyfington be without its leading ne'er-do-well?" Meeting adjourned.
The Poshuns, as far back as anyone could remember or remember hearing from their parents or grandparents, were at the center of that peculiarly small-town genre of citizenry: the legend-keepers. There were still a few "old-timers" left - the reference more to their intellectual sophistication than to their literal age; these were the ones who kept the old stories alive in the town, just as they kept the old records and the old chronicles extant. They presided over the past deeds of Tyfington. In some ways they paralleled the line of descendants attributed to the child who named the town; not in anything so clear cut as a one-to-one ratio, however, but only as forerunners of a sort, making certain that paths to the past were kept open. It was primarily these few citizens who kept the legend of the child and the notion of "her line" alive: they saw themselves, not as her descendants but as her instruments. There was something messianic about the whole thing. Carroll Poshun, age wise a contemporary of the present Charles Grae, was head of the "Poshun Clan," as his family was called, and had always been called. There were no legends directly concerning the Poshuns, and the records seemed to have been extremely ethereal, all but vanishing completely ten generations back, making it appear as if the family had sprung full blown from the ground itself. Nothing in the past suggested the family's having come from outside, yet neither did anything indicate any sort of antecedent. Some of the townspeople laughingly referred to them as "Minerva's children," an allusion to the goddess who in mythology sprang from the head of Jupiter. An eerie parallel was struck with the Grae family; the Poshuns' only discernible link with them being the firstborn male child in each generation given the name Carroll, just as the firstborn male Grae child was given the name Charles. They were accused of being upstarts in the sense of aping the family tradition of their betters; yet clearly they aspired to no social status, they never sought to rise above their lowly station in life, no generation ever exceeded what went before it, or ever tried to. From the beginning to the present day the Poshuns remained "ne'er-do-wells," this their only distinction.
Carroll Poshun was an excellent figure of a man, as all his ancestors had reportedly been. He was handsome - some called him the best looking man in town; he was of medium height, with very dark hair and eyes; his manner was easy going, and people found him very charming and gracious, in a personable way. When he spoke to someone for the first time he often embarrassed them because he spoke directly to them, not at them; just as often, though, he would sense their embarrassment and distance himself a little until he became better acquainted. His manner was compared to the way Latin Americans, in contrast to people of Northern European extraction, dealt with others, except that, where the Latins got literally - spatially - close to whomever they spoke with, his closeness was of a different character, more subtle, emotional. He always stood the correct distance, but something of him always reached out anyway.
"Am I a freak of nature?" Carroll Poshun's son, likewise named Carroll, asked his father one day after school.
"No, I wouldn't think so," the boy was told in a conscientious way which made it clear that the answer was not casually tossed off. A hint of interrogative trailed the statement, the boy's father seeming to suggest that this could be pursued further if the boy wished, or simply be dropped if that were his wish.
"You've got to be firmer with your son!" the father was often criticized by school officials. "Children," they would explain, "need the reassurance of discipline. They need to know you care enough to set strict standards." He would politely hear them out, thank them for their advice, then go his way.
"Your son has a discipline problem," the officials had often pointed out. "He seems to resent authority; he has little respect for positions of authority." When Carroll Poshun would look at them as if to ask why they considered this a problem, they would inevitably point out that "We cannot teach a child everything he needs to know to function in this world. You must do your part: respect for authority begins at home." Carroll Poshun would stare off into space a moment to consider their advice, then, turning, would thank them and leave.
"Mr. Poshun," the officials would end up declaring in exasperation, "this really is a problem you should give some thought to!"
"My son," he would try to explain, "is free to respect or not respect me. I will not seek to force it as some proof of submission to my will any more than I will go out of my way to earn it. It is his to give or to withhold as he judges fit."
"Ah!" they would point out in the manner of delivering an irreducible primary, "is a child of thirteen equipped to make such judgments?"
"No less so than a child of seven," Carroll Poshun would counter. "I don't think my son is unique, yet I recognized in him at a very early age a capacity to form judgments. A remarkable capacity, when you consider it. I would hate to set my wish for respect in opposition to it."
"You of course have the right to be a free thinker," the officials would say, "but your son does not, not in school. He's there to learn!"
The boy had been teased, but not in school. His schoolmates thought well of him, they enjoyed his companionship, they were not yet old enough to understand the social differences which set some of them above him, a few below him. Rather, it was a boy who did not attend the Tyfington public school who had called young Carroll a "freak of nature." Until very recently the children of the well-to-do had to be sent to boarding school if their parents chose not to send them to public school; now, however, a private school had been established within the expanding town limits. It was believed that, with the industrial park functioning so near its capacity, there would be enough professionals not wishing to have their children attend public school to make a private school profitable, particularly with the university right in town: the new school would naturally serve as a preparatory school for students whose parents wished them to seek admittance to the university.
Charles Grae XII had enrolled his son in the Tyfington School, one of the first students to be enrolled. It was a new experience for young Charles living at home during the school year, one that he was still uncomfortable with. He felt too dependent on his family. At age twelve, he was slightly humiliated at being driven each day to school, at having his meals served in his parents' company, at being questioned on the state of his well-being, at having to give some sort of an accounting of his activities. He did not see it as a matter of will but simply of circumstances; there was no sense of restriction involved, he felt no resentment at being under his parents' immediate, direct control. It just seemed awkward to him to be accountable once again to his family when for almost six years his accountability had been to an outside authority. His family's authority had lost in his sight a measure of legitimacy through the years; now here he was expected to behave as if nothing had ever intervened. There seemed to him something disloyal about returning his full allegiance to his family. He had encountered Carroll Poshun one day after school and had spoken to him of this.
Charles was waiting for his ride and Carroll was passing the School on his way home. The two boys knew each other, though not well, from the summers they spent together in the same locale; they had met, had played baseball, occasionally, had gone to the same movies, had shopped the same five and dime store. They neither liked nor disliked each other.
"It's eerie, isn't it?" Charles asked, indicating his new school. Carroll stopped to take a good look. The building was modern, was of stone rather than brick, and it had a certain architectural style to it in that it did not resemble the stereotype of a school, something it achieved without having to resort to dismemberment the way colleges and even community colleges cut themselves up into a number of small buildings to give an illusion of individuality.
"No," Carroll replied, "I don't think it's eerie. It's just, you know, an institution. Do you learn a lot there?"
Charles shrugged. "Somebody's already decided what's good for us to learn and what isn't," he said. "We learn how to dissect frogs, but not how to kill people. And yet, how many of us grow up to become frog chefs as opposed to soldiers? And we learn how trees grow, what their composition is, but not how to convert them to timber. We learn who runs the country but not how he holds power. We're not taught anything useful. That's why it's so eerie in there. It's like being in a wax museum. What we learn isn't real, it's just factual."
Carroll thought a moment about this. It was somewhat of a new view in that it looked at some of his own ideas from a different perspective - that of utility, as opposed to creativity. Carroll, too, had been aware that what he was taught seemed only to mimic reality; his concern, however, had been the difficulty of building upon such elusive knowledge. It was not its impracticality so much as its incompleteness that bothered him. He too could see the distance which separated what he learned from what really was; what this meant to him was not that it could be of little use but that it was so shy of being true. Utility followed truth, not vice versa, as Charles' view inferred.
"Have you discussed this with your teachers?" Carroll asked.
"I told you, didn't I: I don't consider them teachers," Charles replied. "They're more like drug pushers," he added. "They want you to think what they have to offer is good for you."
"You're probably right," Carroll agreed. He started to walk off.
"Hey," called Charles, "I could use someone like you!"
"Yes. I had an idea the other day. I was at home, kind of wandering around. I saw this game we have - I think I recall seeing it when I was little but I'm not sure. I want to learn how to play it someday; it looks very complicated. Anyway, an idea came to me. I'd like to start a club with some of the other boys in town. An exclusive club. With all kinds of exotic rules and maybe even some weird rituals. Not anything to harm anyone, not like college kids and their stupid fraternities. Just a club, just to be different; you know: to have something unique. I could use someone like you to help me get it started. You know this town, right? You're part of it, you could tell me which boys are worthy of membership, which are nobodies. I mean, you can't even go by who's rich and who's not, because some of the rich are more stupid and more docile than some of the poor - you know? How about it? Agreed?"
Carroll did not wish to offend Charles, yet at the same time he could not become a party to such an enterprise: it contradicted everything he had been taught by his father, everything he believed in, everything he considered worthwhile. To conspire with this other boy to exclude some of his peers as "unworthy" while accepting others as "worthy" for admittance into their exclusive club would have gone against his very nature. But don't I exclude? he asked himself; aren't I excluding now, by insisting on my own standards of worth? And aren't I setting my standards above his, simply because they are mine? Maybe I should, maybe that's what we're supposed to do. Maybe we're designed for discrimination, maybe it's our nature to exclude others as unworthy, to look down on them, to not care what happens to them. Maybe to care is to be a freak of nature. Maybe it's even wrong to care. But maybe not.
"Let me think about it," Carroll said.
"Christ man you've been thinking here for the last five minutes! What's to think about? Everyone wants to belong, don't they? And if so, why not belong to the best?"
"I want to think about it some more," Carroll insisted.
"If you have to think about it," Charles observed somewhat pointedly, "maybe you're not the person I need. Yeah, if you have to think, if you can't make up your mind, if you're that indecisive, then you wouldn't work out. You wouldn't be able to make the tough decisions we'd need to make. Maybe you're too much a good guy to deserve what I'm offering."
Carroll smiled. "Maybe so," he half agreed and walked on. The public school was at one end of town, the Poshuns lived at the other end, just beyond the town limits. There was a school bus, but Carroll rarely took it; he preferred walking, it felt more natural to him. The new private school was about halfway the distance he had to walk to get home. His encounter with Charles Grae XIII had started him thinking.
What was the right way of treating other people? he wondered. Immediately the maxims "As they deserve to be treated" and "As you would have them treat you" followed in rapid succession, simple answers, nice answers, easy to live with and by answers. But he wondered if they really had any meaning. What do people deserve? And how would a person like to be treated? And would everyone enjoy the same treatment? Carroll had heard the old adage that people had come to be regarded as things, and were treated accordingly, and that it was wrong - perhaps the greatest of all wrongs - to treat people as objects. He had heard how the traditional "I and thou" had given way to "I and it" - this, he was given to understand, had happened in this very century.
Yet in this century slavery had come as close as ever, perhaps as close as possible, to being eliminated. But then, the slaves were never considered among the "thous"; they had always been the "its." So really, all that had happened was that now everyone was treated as in the past only slaves were. How, he wondered, could something so universal be wrong? He had heard that the fault lay in western - particularly western - civilization's patriarchic social system, that in other, less structured, systems individuals were regarded as integral parts of the group, and that, among other things, greed and power were to blame - they were the motive for such a system's perpetration as well as the adhesive which bound people to it. These were important points, but he wondered how accurately they characterized the whole issue.
Was it just a certain system, or was it, as some said, human nature - or was a still wider framework involved? Was it the universe itself which was "to blame" for the way things were. Had not God - or however one chose to speak of the cosmic order - established things in such a way that man was forever just one step away from fulfillment? Was the available natural resources not, while enough to survive on, always shy of permitting a good existence save for only a few? Was there not in reality only enough to permit the privileged few to rise above the frustrating level of mere survival? And those who were able, because of their personal qualities, to take the lion's share of everything: were they in fact the ones most frustrated by this dearth of goods - not just material goods but spiritual as well?
Did being strong, aggressive, domineering, clever mean that one suffered most dearly being illiterate, or under-educated, or underfed, or under-loved, or without access to means of pleasure and entertainment and personal grooming, so that it was out of their heightened sense of frustration that their lust for power and their greed grew? Or did frustration in fact have no bearing, but only the fact that they had the means to take more so they took it?
These were ancient problems, he was told, problems never satisfactorily worked out. But he wondered: what if they could be worked out? would that change anything? would the powerful relinquish any of their holdings if it were proven to them they did not need so much? He was not so naive not to know the answer to that. Alright then, he tried reasoning, if nothing can ever be done to keep the strong from taking more while the others have less - then is that not the way things were intended, or at least the way they must be? He had heard too of "the survival of the fittest," but this was much too narrow a focus to cover all existence with its stars, galaxies, inter-stellar space, big bangs, exploding universes: did the fittest universe alone survive or would they not in fact all be "destroyed" in gravitational reduction to the pin-prick from which it all began? Assuming, as the astro-physicists pointed out, that there was a certain quantity of matter.
So: the more matter, the more certain the end. And in this the glorious thermonuclear age, it was as inconceivable that the "fittest" should survive as that the most unfit should, "survival of the fittest" nothing but a grotesque metaphor for hideous mutant forms, without the power to reproduce their kind, living out their wretched existence in agony and absolute hopelessness: pitiful, pitiful inheritance. Better to be "unfit" than to survive the final holocaust.
No matter how Carroll tried seeing it, his vision always ricocheted past what he was focusing on, always landed upon the same malignant growth eating away at the soul of existence the way the infamous black hole gobbled up the physical universe, bit by bit, star by star, galaxy by galaxy, only here, in the realm of idea, it was value by value, maxim by maxim, meaning by meaning, until only a skeleton once fleshed with the whole of mankind's beliefs remained. Maybe that was it: maybe there was no proper way of treating others, maybe they were all equally futile. And only such freaks of nature as he ever bothered to wonder.
"Am I a freak of nature?" he asked his father when he arrived home. He barely remembered the path he had taken, the same path always taken; barely remembered the feel of the street beneath him, the pounding of his steps one by one, the little jolts of pleasure running up his legs to the cushioning of his loins and his hips; barely remembered the weight of school books in his arm, the periodic shifting of this weight from arm to arm, the buildings his eyes involuntarily saw, the sounds heard; birds, children, traffic, doors opening and closing, windows and shutters, colors, textures, trees, leaves, grass, pebbles, insects gleaming like drops of dew, the buzzing of bees, silken tapestries spread across the branches of bushes invisible from one angle, visible from another; and he barely remembered the beautiful autumn sunlight, or the sky, blue as only an autumn sky can be.
He traveled with his mind upon the universe proper, the sinister super-structure of his world, and he failed to notice the treasures which "God," too big to see them, would some day trample into oblivion, as he himself in metaphor trampled them. They were all the means of his arriving at his destination a whole person; perhaps, being a child, he could be excused for ignoring his debt to them.
Charles Grae XIII lived too far to walk home from school. He was chauffer driven in a steel gray limousine. He watched everything, rolled his window down to listen - his father's car was so quiet he could hear sounds which only someone walking would normally hear - and he consciously considered everything he took in. "That would be nice to have," he would make a mental note when something he saw or heard especially pleased him; or else, if not quite sure of its worth, "This might be nice." Every percept had its place along the hierarchy of his values, some by approximation only, others very definite in where they belonged. Two broad categories subdivided his hierarchy: utility and ownership, in that order. What was worth owning, while of value, often considerable value, took a back seat to what was or might be of use.
Reality precluded an initial overlapping of the two categories; in the wondrous scheme of things, that which could not be owned could be used; but in being used - in being reduced to another form - there existed then the possibility of ownership, so that ultimately both categories reduced to ownership. Trees, like all natural resources, could not be owned; and, although his family owned many acres of woodland, Charles never seriously considered the land or the trees or the minerals as belonging to anyone. Cut a tree down, however, and make a table - and the tree is yours. In the cosmic sense, function followed form.
People, too, could be of use, and in using them properly a species of ownership became manifest. "Watch them carefully," young Charles reminded himself: to "know thyself" is to know where each other person fits. Give them each their due, otherwise they'll resist your efforts to extract value from them. Understand them, listen when they speak, watch for their sensitive spots. Good management is knowing how to handle people, and - don't forget, Charles - you are of the managerial class. You have a responsibility to others, both to your peers, to preserve their values, and to your subordinates, to see that their energies are productive. When people rise up in rebellion, it means their rulers did not use them properly. People don't object to being ruled; they simply object to having their energies improperly used.
The millennium will begin only when all managers understood how to use the raw materials of this earth as God intended. Who knows? Perhaps I shall lead the way - because while others merely played, I watched, and understood. Even the simplest game of tag is an opportunity to learn: how many boys lose themselves in it, or in whatever they're doing, and fail to gain insight into what makes people tick and the world go round? When I grow up, I shall hand pick a team worthy to put my ideas into practice: I shall train them; and, through them, I shall change the world into something people can enjoy for once because they will be properly used.
Charles had never consciously decided that people or things were to be put to use; he had just always known that that was the order of the universe and, as such, it represented the way things were to be done. Conceptualization seemed almost second nature to him; his conscious mind was free to concentrate on gathering information about the world he inhabited, while in his subconscious mind, ideas were being formed and pushed to the surface to become the foundation of his beliefs. It was no more "right" or "wrong" to use people than it was for hydrogen to be changed to helium inside the sun: it was the way things were done in this universe.
The limousine pulled up in front of the Grae House; the chauffer got out, went around, opened his passenger's door, and was thanked. The housekeeper came out with another errand for him; Charles Grae XIII passed her on the front landing, but he was looking up at the house and failed to notice her. The perspective of height thrilled him; especially, something about looking up here cast a spell over him. He was a little afraid, though not really of the house; only certain ways of viewing it frightened him and only from certain vantage points, such as this, looking straight up at it from the landing.
He felt it also whenever he entered the Game Room, the central game room, and particularly he felt it standing in front of the Box: a kind of enthrallment made more intense by the added quality of fear. From an early age he had shown a curiosity about the Box; it had been all his father could do to keep him from reaching the pieces. He knew he was never to take up the pieces; now that he was older he accepted it, he no longer had to be watched. Besides, he was now afraid to touch anything, even though the sculptured silver pieces seemed to impel him toward them. He would approach, start to reach, then withdraw his hand as a cold jet of air seemed to arise from the walls of the Box. Sometimes he thought he heard whispers affixed to these bits of wind; no words that he could understand though, just sounds, disjointed syllables, as if a code he was being challenged to break.
Always, no matter what else, he felt a challenge from the Box; he felt as if he were being summoned to perform, to excel, in some way: to prove himself. The sounds he heard today prompted the formation of a specific word in his mind, which he repeated aloud: the word "exploit."
Not that the whispers made this sound, they only suggested it to him. He thought immediately of his plan to gather the worthiest of his peers about him; somehow or another this word would have to impinge upon that plan, help shape it, give it purpose. He had vaguely realized that it did very little good to exclude entirely from his plan those who could not meet his standards, since it was primarily their existence which made it possible to discriminate between the worthy and the unworthy: in a world of equals, worth meant absolutely nothing. He had been toying with how to incorporate those left out of his gang into his overall plan; now the knowledge of their proper role seemed to have been given to him by a puff of cold wind ascending from the Grae Box. They were to be exploited - more as an exercise than anything else though. There was nothing he really wanted or needed from them: the mere fact that they existed sanctioned him. No, this was only to gain experience, this exploitation: an end in itself, as much to prove it could be done as to actually gain anything; and in the proof lay the validation of the belief that some were indeed of greater worth than others.
Suddenly the three candles were blown out, and the boy became an invisibility in the darkness. He could feel the darkness, it was cold and it passed over him like a snake. So this is the form night takes, he thought to himself as his initial jolt of terror gave way to another sensation, one he could not identify but which he experienced as pleasurable. Not a sensual pleasure, such as being touched in certain places, but an almost rational pleasure, of the kind which learning a new piece of information might entail. Then another jolt of terror gripped him as another jet of cold air leaped out to slither past him; this too gave way to a sensation of pleasure, only this one was of a more sinister nature, similar to what he had experienced when, at a pond in a remote corner of his family's estate, he had caught a frog and, on a sudden impulse, wrenched one of its legs from its body. He felt a constriction at the back of his neck which tightened his scalp until it tingled.
Looking around, he saw the sliver of light underneath the door, and he made for it. Outside the room, he returned to perceiving darkness in terms of sight rather than touch; he remembered its social significance in the present context: it should be dispelled by the light of three candles. He went to the kitchen to get matches - matches were never left in the Game Room.
"What's cookin'?" the family cook asked in the tone of a great exclamation, then broke into laughter. He found it hilarious to say this, so he said it whenever anyone entered his kitchen. Charles barely acknowledged his quip, which did not bother him in the least, since he made it for his own enjoyment. He never tired of hearing it. Sometimes, on a lark, he would say "Who's cookin'?" instead. Occasionally he would repeat a limerick he had heard since a little boy, but only when none of the Grae's were around. "There was a young man from Tyfington, Who set out to fight Charles Grae, But before the young man could bait him, old Charlie had him cooked and ate him!" This never failed to elicit great peals of laughter from the household staff, each of whom knew most of the Grae family legends, half believed them, but, not wishing to appear quite so credulous as they actually were, feigned derision of them. Make the most dreadful tale sound funny, they seemed to know instinctively, and no one will ever know how it scares you. Because, limerick or not, there were tales of cannibalism early on in the Grae legends, tales of not just one but of many young men from the town going up with the idea of challenging the resident master of the house to a fight, or a duel, or some other sort of contest, and of never returning. Accomplices, who claimed to have sneaked up to the house to get a look, or else claiming to have been asked to accompany a friend when he made his challenge - witnesses, however they happened to have found themselves in that role - swore they saw these young men being cooked over an open pit, heard their shrieks, smelled their naked burning flesh, saw their skin turned brown, saw them being sliced sometimes before they had died from the heat, and saw them being eaten. This legend grew up during the first three generations; by the time of Charles Grae IV there ceased being tales of cannibalism, the earlier tales gradually hardening into legend.
"When it's too threatening to believe, it's a tale; when it's too distant to affect you, it's a legend," Charles Grae IV reportedly said when the subject of his ancestors' cannibalism was brought up, adding that "neither has much bearing on reality." The stories could not be verified at the time; the town had not felt strong enough to appoint a constable then, or to send him to investigate, and by the time of the fourth Charles Grae the reports of cannibalism had ceased, though other strange occurrences continued; dismembered and disemboweled corpses turned up from time to time, and vagrants claimed to have seen blood and gore being taken in silver buckets from the Grae House. The land was rich and could support an army of vagrants without the family ever missing the pilfered grain, fruits and vegetables. And, being heavily wooded in places, and a big estate, it was easy for vagrants to come and go, especially during the summer months when there was no snow to record their passage. Not that anyone put much store in anything vagrants reported having witnessed - not officially, not to the extent of taking any official action. Unofficially, though, every word was taken in, every tale found its place alongside its fellows in the family legends.
If there had been just one other great family in the area," Charles Grae IV had once noted, a sentiment which was echoed by each of his descendants, "we would not have been singled out for so much gossip. One family dynasty gives you evil; given the second, evil becomes merely sinister; add a third, and a fourth, and you have banality." This defense had of late been set aside, the growing sophistication of the townspeople had rendered it superfluous; nothing was needed any longer to counter the legends. Besides, this too - this bit of wisdom designating rarity the breeding ground of superstition - served to keep alive pieces of legend, for while the Graes equated the absence of other family dynasties in the area with the townspeople's penchant for carrying tales, the people drew their own inferences. Why had no other great family arisen? Would the land support only one? But if one were so well supported, why not others? Why was there no competition? Had there not been other individuals equal to the task of founding a dynasty? Was the history of the region not rich in extraordinary individuals, some of whom had gone on to achieve world renown? Perhaps, but the initial isolation from major population centers, at no time absolute: had it not over the generations given way to a growing urbanity, until at present the town was itself something of a cultural center? Why then had its great men chosen to abandon their home, never returning again, not even in triumph?
Legend, as always, gave the only systematic reply. It was believed that every effort to establish another family's prominence was thwarted by the Graes, dealt with as severely as it had to be. This was their territory, they would brook no competition. No one was allowed to challenge their stewardship of the region, no one had ever successfully done so. Potential rivals were either driven out, to achieve whatever prominence they could elsewhere, or simply disappeared, never again to be heard of. The Graes, so sensitive to legend, had inadvertently kept it going with their machinations. If three, four, or five family dynasties reduced heroic grandeur to banality - if so, then there was perhaps more motivating the Graes to limit their number than mere territoriality: prestige is as powerful a stimulant as wealth or power. The King must not only be feared and obeyed, he must be respected; it is his right.
"What's cookin'?" asked the cook. Charles Grae XIII shrugged. "Don't know?" asked the cook in a style not unlike a parent's to his child, half playful but half critical. The cook had been with the Graes all his life, as all of the staff had; he had developed an intimate manner with the family, which they tolerated because he was exceptionally good at his trade, his skill acknowledged by everyone who dined at the Grae House.
"I'll simply steal Marvin away from you Elizabeth if I can get him no other way!" any number of matrons had warned Mrs. Grae. The declaration always got back to the cook; they made him feel sexy, as if he were a playboy or an extremely well-proportioned male model whose person all the ladies vied for. After all, he reasoned, what I do for their taste buds is very much the same as some gorgeous stud does for...other appetites. Or like the artists do to satisfy aesthetic needs. It's all sensual. We service humanity. They supply the demand, we fill it. We fill their bellies, we satisfy their loins, we entertain their families. Those who supply their coarser needs are the real winners though. Studs, cooks, artists - all take a back seat to the warriors, the arms merchants, the bankers, and to those who strip the earth and leave it despoiled, scarred, scorched: returned to its original state, billions of years of refinement and evolution ago. What it took suns and galaxies an eon to do, man does in a single generation. He can be...exceedingly coarse when he wishes. Pander to his need to destroy and to conquer, and you're a god, a god.
"I need some matches," Charles Grae XIII said.
"Going to burn the old house down, eh?" the cook speculated as he handed a box of blue-tip Ohio matches to the boy.
"Candles went out," was all Charles said in response. "Three: three candles," he muttered as he passed along the hallway leading to the Game.Room. A thought came to him as he approached the door; why not light three different candles? The three at the north end of the room had gone out: why not light three from one of the other walls? See if anyone notices. Maybe the western wall.
"Come to the western wall, Luke Havegill," young Charles Grae recited while opening the door. He let his hand rest a moment on the doorknob; he enjoyed the feel of this satin smooth metal against his palm. It let him experience the tremendous power of mankind: to take hard, rough metal and force an alien softness out of it, to dispel its given nature, replace that nature with one made amenable to man, to subdue its depth of atoms - in a word to conquer it: the absolute power of man's will, satin smooth to the touch. Awesome. He entered the Game Room, letting go of the doorknob. The door had to be kept open for the light from the hallway to guide him. He made first for the northern wall. At an angle the light cast three shadows against the wall, uneven daggers piercing where the white from outside struck the candelabra, deflecting these chunks from the wall; the mahogany paneling almost absorbed the shadows. Charles lit an Ohio blue tip match, from it the candles. Immediately the room brightened. He went next to the western wall, lit those three candles, then turned to go. Almost to the door a thought struck him: he had meant to light only the three candles facing west; to see if anyone noticed the difference. For some reason he had forgotten his resolve of barely five minutes ago. He debated whether to put the three superfluous lights out or to leave all six burning. "I'll put them out," he decided. A sudden commotion from somewhere else in the house disturbed his concentration: loud talking, laughter, greetings. A familiar voice.
"Catherine!" he shouted. He hurriedly put out the northern candles - he just blew, once, and turned around. The door had nearly closed; his palm brushed against the inside of the door knob as he reached out to open it wider; it was rough, almost scratchy. He would not take it; instead, he took the door's edge in his hand.
"Catherine!" he called out as he hurried through the hallway to the front room, where the sounds were coming from. His feet were soundless upon the deep red carpeting, his person subdued against the gray walls; only his voice left an impact.
"Catherine!" he kept calling as he passed one after another lighted sconce, as if they were stone images lining some great hall of kings, and he an envoy. Till at last he reached the front room and, looking in with glowing eyes, saw the visitor.
"Catherine!" he called one last time as he rushed to greet her. He stopped short of her open arms, abruptly, without intending it; he meant to let her embrace him, but at the last moment remembered who he was, what age he was getting to be, what manner of greeting was proper for a young gentleman - especially a Grae - and which aspect of his being was primary, which secondary. The will came first, emotion afterward. He extended his hand, she gave him hers, they shook hands. Neither was satisfied; but custom - a higher good - was upheld. They smiled at each other, a pair of warm beautiful smiles, all the energy ready to be released in embracing one another suddenly diverted to their lips to pass, if it could, psycho-kinetically between them. If it could. If the same power of will which damned the flow of energy, which changed the form it took, its expression, could generate a current able to leap from one being to another. If only it could.
A strange man trailed after Catherine Grae. Not perhaps strange in any interesting way, merely in the sense of not ever having been in or seen by this house, or known to its inhabitants.
"This is Braxton," Catherine introduced the man to her young brother. Charles had one thought upon seeing him: you would be nice served up on a platter. A host of images spread across the brevity the thought persisted, various body parts turning a golden brown over the spit, the skin bursting open, its juices crackling, dripping into the flame, innards melting, blood becoming moist balls of burnt fiber, like sugar in a spoon, and one part hanging down into the flame to be burnt to a blackened crisp.
"Braxton?" Charles asked. "Is that his full name?"
"Actually, his full name is Cornelius Eberhardt Braxton," Catherine explained, "but everyone calls him Braxton."
"He's your boyfriend?"
The stranger seemed barely aware of being spoken about so impersonally, certainly not the least resentful. In some way he liked it; it let him feel himself being objectified. "I'm an artist," he half murmured.
"You paint?" asked Charles.
"I paint," replied Braxton.
"Let's see your work. Can we see his work, Catherine?"
"If you like. Braxton: where are your paintings?"
"In the blue box marked 'Mine.' I assume your servants have brought it in by now, wherever it is they unloaded our things."
"We can see them later," Catherine suggested.
"I want to see them now," Charles insisted. "But you two don't have to go - I'll go look. The blue box, you say?" Braxton nodded.
"Be careful you don't damage them," he advised.
"I'll be careful. I value great art." With this Charles went away from his sister and brother-in-law. At the side of the house a wide door opened onto a patio; this, Charles reasoned, would most likely be the point of entry into the house. He made for the large, mostly vacant room whose exterior wall held this door. There, he found Catherine and Braxton's goods being moved inside. Against a wall was a large blue box labeled "Mine." Charles walked to it, opened it, lifted out one after another painting. Each was a variation of a single theme; each was a large phallus; each was painted from a different angle, through a different light, in a different degree of erection; each one was the same organ. Charles knew immediately, without ever having seen Braxton's or any adult man's erect penis, whose this was.
While he might imagine that very little idiosyncrasy adorned individual penises once size and general shape were settled, he could not conceive of these being any but the artist's own, for he could not imagine a Braxton painting anyone else's. His only puzzle was whether or not Braxton was aware they were all his. He could almost picture the artist seated, or standing, hour upon hour, looking down at his model; he could almost sense the artist wondering whose phallus was before him. The skin was what intrigued Charles. He could picture that skin stretched over a figure, as perhaps one of the pieces in the game room. A vital skin, if peeled just right, with a thin layer of corpuscle, animating the cold still form on the playing field. These phalluses were unattached, had no connection either to motion or to procreation; they were free standing. Remove the mass of tangled cells, drain the engorged blood: the skin would do just right, the softer shaft a snug cloak, the coarser head a crown, each red beaded papillae a diadem.
Charles returned the paintings to the box they were kept in. He returned to the front room, only to find it empty. Catherine and Braxton had already gone up to their room. The servants had taken their things upstairs. A hint of cologne remained; Charles sniffed hard at it. He found it putrid, and liked it because it was an odor he enjoyed in association with the paintings he had just seen, and with the man his sister had chosen. "The Yeti," Charles decided to nickname him, preferring the more exotic creature to the common American variety, the Sasquatsch. Except that where the Yeti evoked fear and superstition, Braxton gave off an air of cowering decadence: decadent can never be superstitious, nor does one cower out of fear, but out of self-loathing - an image Charles found satisfaction superimposing over this artist. A gelded Snowman, though on a literal level quite inaccurate.
Braxton was hung. This, plus his skill as an artist - a certain type of artist - was his claim to fame. He had started out being a model; but, finding no one able to capture what he regarded as his essence, he re-developed a long buried talent for painting. Not since a child had he pursued it: not since puberty, when his adult being began assuming full form. What his body portrayed, he found far superior to anything his talent could produce. Not only did his body grow, his hair became more lustrous, a pale brown suddenly infused with copper, with touches almost red, and with an occasional strand of blonde; and it grew wavy. His eyes, green but never in childhood noticeably so, took on ever greater depth of color. His mouth earned its haughty set, an ordinary boy at last a beautiful adolescent, as if he might in full vanity now assert that he had "told you so."
"I knew I was special," he said each time he undressed before a girl, or a woman. "Now everyone can see it." The same refrain, delivered each time as if it had never been said, or heard before, because each time it was said its sanctity was renewed. Adoration could not sustain from only one expression, it needed the weight of ritual if it were to endure.
He hated sex. The moans arising as he penetrated, the deep feelings he unleashed, were small payment for his body's disappearance when it was at its peak. He cursed that his eyes could not penetrate their wombs to witness his grandest moments on earth. He hated every woman he made love to for not being transparent. Not that he felt no ecstasy in orgasm, but the feeling was nothing compared to witnessing the feeling, seeing its expression, its mode of manifestation. Nor did he care to masturbate, even in front of others; nowhere but inside the womb was he perfect.
"Where are mother and father?" Catherine had asked the servants upon first entering the Grae House. She had inquired first of them, and only then of her brother.
"They're at the Club," the housemaid replied. An old woman, barely able to make her rounds, let alone meet the demands of helping care take so great a house, she had been given gradually less to do, until now she rarely left her room in the basement. All the servants were quartered in the basement, one to a room, all sharing a common bath. Even in such a house as this the basement was damp, musty, cobwebs hung from ceilings, centipedes stalked under beds and dressers and inside closets. Once in a while the rain seeped through the walls. But the servants were content to have a roof over their head; they seemed not to mind the tramping of elegant feet above them. It was said that at one time the servants' quarters were on the topmost floor, a large attic, all one room; but that sometime in the last century they were all moved to the basement. Those of the servants who were most superstitious, and who felt the house to be haunted, often quipped that in the real world it was spirits to the rooftops, ghouls below ground. Not that any of the servants thought themselves zombies - like automatons, they merely gave voice to the most general, and most sinister, image of their existence. Nor were they in any sense mistreated; in many respects they had the run of the house. Each night though, like ghouls, they must return to the earth when their day's work was done.
They had names, but never used their real names. Always they made up a name, and it was this name they gave out to their masters. Each child born - and each child of servants was born to be a servant, though by their own decree, not the decree of those who kept them: they could have risen, could have left their class, could have prospered, the paths were there, the opportunities freely offered, but just as freely rejected - each child was given two complete names, the first one recorded nowhere but in the minds of the servants, the second one - the fake name - given to its birth certificate and to the outside world. No one who dwelt above ground knew that when he called a servant by name he lied before all mankind, for that was not the servant's true name. No one suspected the fraud, least of all would anyone have imagined their purpose. Or who they really were.
The old housemaid's familiar name was Mary. Catherine thanked her by name for the whereabouts of Charles and Elizabeth Grae; she thanked her, too, for her help, though it was understood that no actual help could or was expected to emanate from her. It was merely a formality, an old family tradition. Each servant was expected to devote his or her life to the maintenance of this house, and, as its proprietors, to the family's well-being; when such could no longer occur in fact, it was brought forth symbolically as a portion of reality. Even dying servants were ritually thanked for their help upon important occasions. And as far as anyone knew, this had always been the way. At no time had the dreadful acts of carnage rumored to have occurred here been visited upon any of the servants; they seemed endowed with an immunity, so that the horrors all happened to outsiders. Nevertheless, for many generations no one could discern what happened to the servants when they died; no records showed their deaths, no burial plots held their bones. They seemed to have disappeared from the earth. Gossip from the town said they had been eaten by the family during strange ceremonies. It was also rumored that, upon death, they became new members of the Grae household, a suggestion not only of rebirth but of transmogrification from servant to aristocrat in a single generation and through the agency of that most solemn of all human acts. Nowadays records were kept, and caskets could be seen emerging from the mansion's back entrance; funerals were held, always close-casketed, and always followed by burial in the cemetery of a little church outside town, a church without name and, whether by chance or design, frequented only by servants - those of the Grae House, and other servants of other families in town, though these others were of a distinctly lesser prominence, owing to the Graes being the worthiest family to work for.
The church was exactly as one might imagine such a place: its frame was of wood; its siding white wooden slats; low-ceilinged and with one gable in front, one in back, wide spaced and wide angled; the center of the front facade giving poise to a steeple with a bell tower and small round louvered windows of gray. It looked exactly like a thousand other churches; to the side, its small graveyard completed the arrangement. Only its want of identification set it adrift of perfect banality - and even that small aesthetic salvation was an irony of chance. Its founders had meant to give it a name: Saint...something or other, they were not quite sure which saint, just that it ought to be the name of a famous sainted servant, since it framed the prayers of servants. They had found it abandoned, partly built but never used.
A quarrel had arisen between the townspeople and the Graes many generations ago, when the foundation was laid; each party insisted upon a favorite patron's name. Neither side would compromise, so the church, worked upon during the debate, was never finished till many years later, an enterprising carpenter had decided that this was the ideal place of worship. He was a free carpenter, not aligned with anyone in town; he did odd jobs whenever he could Little by little, he completed the structure. Gradually the town's servants, members of the same church as the carpenter, came to regard it as their church. They worshipped there.
At one service, some years after its completion, the platform which braced the church bell gave way; the bell, too heavy to be held back, tore through the ceiling and crushed a parishioner to death. The mangled corpse was that of the carpenter. A child, presumably the daughter of two servants, began reciting a poem. No one knew it, but everyone felt it hideous for the occasion.
"The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smoother and bright -
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night."
"The moon was shining sulkily...
The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry...."
"The Walrus and the Carpenter Were walking close at hand...."
No one knew why the little girl had recited as she did, or where she had gotten her verse. Everyone was transfixed by the unearthly juxtaposition of such banter upon such an occasion. In equal horror they watched the bell being lifted from the bloody remains and listened as young oysters were deceitfully led to their doom upon the beach.
"They'd eaten every one." ended the poem, while the mass of gored muscles and twisted bones was carried away. The ball, which had taken fifteen men to remove, was only cracked, and only on one side. A chunk was broken loose, impaling the carpenter to his seat; when he was lifted, it remained.
That night, the parents of the girl whose recital had so unnerved the parishioners both died. The girl was never seen again.
"Because we did not name our church," was speculated as the probably cause of the tragedy. "We have no patron, no protector, no one to ward off evil forces. We must find a saint and dedicate our parish to him."
They spoke of "him," then, proceeding to examine possibilities, gave out one after another of female saints. They were looking for those who might have been servants; and, as virtually all male saints were bishops or emperors or Jesuit missionaries, they turned immediately to the female sex.
"What about Saint Theresa?" it was asked.
"Ah, but which Theresa?" it was countered. "One was a nun, the other a nobleman's daughter. How can we be certain of getting the correct one? Besides, is a nun truly a servant?"
A nun, it was decided, was not a servant in the full sense of the term - notwithstanding that nuns are the servants of God.
"Saint Ursula!" somebody declared.
"She is the patron of circus bears," another pointed out. "And, even if we cared to co-mingle with those creatures, they, being entertainers, make the poorest of servants."
"Saint Minerva," a tentative voice held out.
"No, she is too much associated with the papacy, having sprung from the living head of the Holy Ghost. Better to have no patron than one whose loyalties are to Rome."
One after another saint was proposed, each in turn disposed as unsuitable, until, at last, all names exhausted, that of Jesus Christ was put forward. But immediately rejected.
"Jesus is not a saint within the context of the church - not, therefore, a true saint. Besides, he despaired at death and asked why God had forsaken him. Were he not the son of God, he would have been lost. He will not do."
A committee was formed to consider the matter further, to make from time to time recommendations as new saints were added to the list. The committee still existed, with different membership, still considered the matter it was charged with, still made an occasional recommendation. The church meanwhile remained unnamed. No one knew what had happened to the bell; nor was it ever replaced. Instead, one was painted onto the inside wall of the tower; and, when it was necessary to ring it, a button was pressed which worked a set of hollow tubes constructed so as to simulate the ringing of a bell, except that the sound came from the basement, not the bell tower.
No one but the servants knew who was buried in the graveyard, for each tombstone carried the real name of whomever lay beneath it, not the familiar name. And on each tombstone, at the lower right hand corner, was an inscription, the words known only to the servants.
The church was known simply as The Servants'. Those in town had their own churches; the Grae's had theirs. A surveyor once noted a right triangle where the three stood, their path lines almost perfectly aligned with that shape, the great side the span between the cluster of churches the townspeople worshipped in and the church of the Graes, with an equal distance pointing from each of those apices to The Servants. "Spytower" the surveyor dubbed the Servants' church, since its equilateral poise balanced the configuration. He passed from sight, though, believed to have left the area; till, months later, his corpse was found in a thick underbrush. A surveyor's tool had lodged in his throat. A triangle was cut into his skull. Everyone thought it the symbol of some strange cult; no one associated it with his findings.
Catherine awoke in Philadelphia. The sun, just coming up when she fell asleep, was still inching its way past the horizon. The airplane had come from Paris. She had neglected to set her watch.
"I thought it would be later than this," she said to her traveling companion.
"We went six hours back," he replied. "And traveled six. So here we are right where it started. It only confirms what Einstein said."
"Does it?" Catherine wondered. Einstein first thing in the morning? she asked herself. Oh, why not? "Or does it, rather, disprove him? Suppose we travel to Tahiti: we'll lose a day every day - right? Except for one thing: when we round Tahiti and if we kept going west, we'd eventually gain the day back by the time we arrived there the second day. And so on, every day regaining what we lost. So if you travel, it must always be in a straight line or you'll reach a point where you must give up the time you've gained. I wonder then: if you go at the speed of light, will you really begin going backward in time, or will you forever stand still simply because there is gravity, and gravity impels you to a curve? Can you ever progress beyond the time when you reached your lost day? Or is there an absolute loss of time, after which a balance is forever effected between loss and gain, keeping you at that point of transition till the end of time? I wonder."
Catherine's traveling companion, a young man she had met in Paris, a Boston aristocrat, did not answer; but, instead, shook his head in dismay. He was a physicist, his training at some of the finest schools proved that; he knew a little something about relativity. But Catherine chose not to pursue it. She was a Grae, and knew something of possibilities, but preferred to let her speculations stand or fall by their own merit.
"Yes," she answered in reply to the young man's question. He had asked her to dinner that evening. But when he arrived, she was already gone. She had meant to stay, meant to have dinner with him. A call home changed her mind. Her grandfather, Charles Grae XI, lay on his deathbed. She had been his favorite; she left for home at once.
When she arrived, she discovered time proper to have re-established itself; there was nothing of an international date line, no intrusive yesterday, no sense of three tenses bundling up. Rather, it flowed, as it was supposed to. At six P.M. she left Philadelphia by train; at nine she arrived. She had slept a little along the way; sleep was this time a prelude to awakening. Her father was there to greet her. In the back seat of his limousine her little brother, Charles, was asleep. The boy had wanted to be there when Catherine arrived. He was six years old; events still confused him.
"Shouldn't we be going?" he asked his father when he awoke. The limousine had already arrived home, Catherine had already gone inside; the entire occurrence had eluded him.
Catherine went at once to her grandfather, the bond between them from the very beginning a strong one, something generated from absolutely no discernible source, therefore all the stronger; no other tie in the household held so firm. He was awake; his hands too were awake, they reached out for her, though his body itself was insensitive to all motion.
"Catherine," he whispered.
"Grandfather," she whispered in turn. She had never seen him lying down, and one of the greatest dreads of her life was the inevitable homage to the coffin corpse. Because it ameliorated the dread, she was grateful for the chance to see him now, while he still lived, in the aspect she would be forced to see him in death. His features were in their final perspective, his face seemed to melt away, as if the force of gravity, always an aid to keeping flesh firmly against jaw and cheek bones, now pulled it out of shape. A dead man's face. How odd, though, she marveled, that the very perspective which in youth enchants with ultimate vibrancy, in death - in the coffin - most obliterates the body's reality. Catherine always believed that when people died they should be stood upright before their loved ones, so that the final view of them should be at least familiar. She longed now to grab this old man up in her arms and wedging him between herself and the wall, experiencing one last time the living that had gone on inside him. He was more cadaver than grandfather now.
He motioned her near. He whispered his final advice - final in a lifetime of sound advice, of gentle coaxings, of loving homilies, of the real warmth of two spirits too finely attuned to need reason or purpose. Fictions were obliterated, expectations incapacitated. To be a granddaughter was nothing compared to her being Catherine.
"You must," his nearly breathless voice rasped against her ear, "if you can, destroy your brother. He will bring this house down, with all who dwell within. Kill him, my pet. Kill him."
The old man's breath fell back, his limbs grew numb, his eyes sunk farther, his face gave its all to gravity, his mouth drawing open, his muscles touching the grave.
Catherine got up and walked out of the room. She was not sure where she ought to go; the house had suddenly estranged her, all her fond memories growing up here all at once portrayed abomination where before only love as their culmination. How, she wondered, could something which had driven her beloved grandfather to so ignoble an end ever stand equal in her estimation to the majesty she had assigned it. Merely to say he ha lost his mind was insufficient; he had not lost it, it had been taken from him, as if it were being prepared for storage upon some niche in a mausoleum. The stories she had always heard, the eerie gossip about spirits in the attic: she half believed them true now. And was his spirit up there? had it joined those of his ancestors? Catherine resolved to look and see.
The attic was such in name only; its design was more that of a dark, musty basement. Rarely did anyone go there; even in the heat of summer a dank chill air descended whenever the door leading to the stairway as opened. Not that anyone feared it, only that it was uncomfortable. It was the only part of the house which had given rise to no rumors whatsoever; no massacres, no ghoulish rites were whispered to have ever occurred there, only a place of repose: "they repose," one of the servants had once said, but would say nothing further.
No one went up. And, although the stairs were a beautiful spiral staircase, with ebony banisters and soft red carpeting on each step, it had been shut off from the rest of the house. Even the door was exquisite, a solid sheet of sculpture. Catherine opened it. A feel of cold escaped. She switched on the lights and shut the door behind her. The stairway led, not just to the attic, but to the very ceiling. No one knew why it was like that, nor could any sign of a trap door leading to the roof be discerned. One could step onto the attic landing or continue to the ceiling. It was open about the stairs. Lights hung from the ceiling, very typical lanterns; and, from the attic itself, came light, though dimly. Catherine ascended.
At the landing, she whispered "Grandfather? Are you here?" No answer came. She felt suddenly uneasy though, as if she were being watched. The lights, placed along the walls of the attic, which was one big room, silhouetted the stairway going to the ceiling. Something drew Catherine's attention to the far wall. She suppressed a scream. Silhouetted along with the stairway was a figure, a human figure, but a small one. Someone was standing above her, on the stairs, his head almost to the ceiling. From the lowered cast of the head she knew she had been seen, was being watched. She fought an impulse to turn and run. Slowly, she raising her head. There, above her, looking down at her, was her brother, Charles. She waved to him. He ran down to greet her. They embraced. When they had exchanged a few greetings, he asked why she had called their grandfather.
"Isn't he dead yet?" Charles wondered.
"Yes, he is," Catherine replied.
"How could he be here then?"
"Don't you believe in ghosts, Charles?"
"I heard a tapping," he replied, pointing to the ceiling. "When I got up here, the lights went out."
"Were you afraid?"
"No - should I have been?"
"Let's go downstairs," Catherine advised. Together they left the attic.
Why would he say it? Catherine kept asking herself. His own grandson. Charles is...a little too willful, perhaps. But is that his doing or the family's? Would this same boy, in another family, be quite so indifferent to other people? quite so imperious? And what if it should happen that he does bring down the entire house? what if it's known in advance he will? Does that justify taking his life? Punishment for what someone might, or even will, do, before the fact? What kind of concept is that? And what gives rise to it?
"Catherine," Charles said, "let's go into the Game Room."
"Why?" Catherine asked.
"I always go there after being in the attic. I feel as if I'm bringing, one by one, the spirits of our ancestors down, on my back. You're not afraid of it, are you?"
"No. I just don't like it."
"I'll go by myself then. And you can go bury grandfather. He is dead, isn't he?" Charles asked. Catherine nodded. "I knew it. He thought he was closer to you, didn't he? And you were with him, weren't you? But all the time I knew. His will be the last spirit I bring down from the attic. If I bring it at all."
Catherine went to attend to her grandfather's death. Charles went to the Game Room. Opening the door, he held fast a moment to the doorknob, to feel its smooth lack of texture. Three candles burned; out of the twelve, three, against the southern wall. He walked to the center of the room, to the great marble stand at whose summit stood the Grae Box. At age six, his height forced him to stand on his toes to peer into the box. He looked at the pieces lined against the far side; his perspective would not permit his viewing the ones nearest. He studied their shapes; they were strange shapes, too alien for one with so little knowledge of history or of philosophy. Represented at the periphery of the playing field were the great concepts which had shaped man's history, shapeless themselves in all ordinary senses, neither human nor geometrical, not animal, not mineral, not vegetable, nor were they star forms, nor atoms, nor even demons; rather, they were as shapeless as forms can be, as if molded in another dimension, one impervious to integrating matter.
Charles had names for each, identities forged from his own imagination, experience and education. And, as these identities took on meaning, so too did the shapes of the game pieces assume definition. One, he characterized as Ubu Roi, whose fictional existence he merged with Ethiopian Emperor Theodore to connote all that was physically primitive, bloodthirsty, power mad, brutal. Wild tortures this caricature devised and executed. Massacres, murders, all manner of agonies; Ubu Roi was the beast who carried out the orders. Others, he named more subtly, for they suggested subtlety of imprint upon the world. One was named Nineveh, for it made him think of absolute rule, of a kind given only to very ancient tribes. One was Knossus, for the awesome mysteries woven in the names of God. There was Kepler's Keeper, an unobtrusive presence forever denying access to the very knowledge one had discovered, an almost bureaucratic blur of metal Charles could visualize placing a stamp of Void upon the creations of men's minds. Old Mother Hubbard elicited false sympathy, for, being poor, she was counted helpless, but actually was the adhesive which made possible all power, all rule, all hierarchy; she was greed personified - not the legitimate greed of the rich but the false and deadly greed of the poor, who would rather live in a world ruled by aristocracy than in a world where no possibility of becoming rich existed. Another vaguely female form Charles dubbed Kali, and kept here the literal signification of that strange deity who both fed and fed upon the life she had brought forth. A tiny squat form, almost flattened on top, became in his scheme New York at Noon, an atavistic compression the inevitable end of too great a reach, too fond a preoccupation with striving, with height, with exceeding one's own limits, until the very sky began descending, crushing upon itself and upon the city which had sought to outdo it.
There were others too, each a manifestation forged from a six year old boy's imagination into a kind of raw essence. There was, at the very center of them all, a piece known simply as Essence; it was the ugliest, the most fearsome of the collection, an almost shapeless thing split part of the way down the middle, with what appeared to be a powerful shape, as of a phallus, penetrating. And, of course, Zarathustra, after Nietzsche's strongman; and History, called also Hegel's Hound; and Wealth, called, not Midas, not Croessus, but Zeus, for it was the Greeks who, once and for all, removed divinity from the clouds to divide up among those on earth about to retain it; and as many more as there were pieces. Not that Charles Grae's conceptions mirrored the actual concepts here represented, though by the coincidence of human mentality they could easily enough be shown to at least parallel these ideas.
The boy grew tired and left the room. At first the door stuck, as if someone were on the other side holding it. He was not frightened, but felt very strongly as if he were being teased, the way one child teases another in demanding a secret password before admitting him or letting him out. Charles turned to glance around the room. At first he detected nothing out of place; then, as he continued his observation, he saw the one of the three lighted candles had gone out. He went to the southern wall, took up one of the lit candles and, with it, rekindled the extinguished light. Now, his task complete, the door opened for him, and he was gone.
Never once did he enter the Game Room without some service to the candlelight compelled of him. He grew used to it; he failed in time to notice the ritual: having become automatic, it ceased functioning except as habit. Ceremony became second nature to him. "The Keeper of the Flame" he regarded himself. The Ghost of the Game Room, who never failed to appear just at the moment someone was needed to preserve the continuity of light.
"I am part of those who dwell here," he said of himself. "Except that I am living, therefore more powerful, more real." Of this there could be no doubt.
His room was at the head of the stairs, on the second floor, the room reserved always for the first born male. The master suite, where his parents slept, was farther down the hall, to the right. Catherine's room was to the left. Charles' room was said to be haunted; the family strove to strengthen its eldest male child, this was why they were placed at the very center of the house. Spirits never veered from the shortest, straightest path from roof to basement; they had to transmigrate this, the Gate Room, on their way to the room just below, where the Grae Box stood, so that to his many self-designations was added the official title, Gatekeeper. There were times when he felt their presence. Never afraid, he knew they liked him. He knew, too, that his grandfather, now, at last, liked him, now that the body element was gone, nothing left to dilute his essence, his spirit. The body was weak, it cherished what was human no matter what strange proclivities the soul might manifest. The body held to life, even if it was taking life. The soul was free to serve another realm, another existence, not exactly non-living, or non-being, but simply outside of life, for to be alive meant nothing more than to inhabit a static, nearly stifled world where time, space and matter - absolute intangibles - ruled all; whereas to be essential was to come and go, not only as one pleased, but simultaneously, all times and all directions confluent, past, present and future bonded onto forward, backward and sideways as if schizophrenia had been given finally a suitable form, the human brain unsuited to that greatest and most elegant deity.
The generations of Graes passed through Charles Grae's body and through the hole leading to China and through the armpits of Satan and through the fire-gored core of the sun and through God's hand all in one moment. They were boys and men and corpses and fetuses, and they were here, there and everywhere. And, what's more, they were anxious about something, and Charles felt their anxiety, and this was why the flames upon the candles in the Game Room, directly beneath him, kept him occupied feeding some unearthly ritual he could not as yet comprehend. He fell asleep with the sense of a mission upon his face. When he awoke the next morning, Catherine was already gone.
She became a wanderer. Her home was no longer here - not if she could be charged with so heinous a task as killing her own brother, and charged to do it by her own grandfather. That she felt no obligation, therefore no conflict, no guilt at refusing, was not sufficient to overcome her revulsion or her now complete sense of alienation. She had never liked her station in life, never felt really at home in the family mansion, so that this incident seemed as much for an excuse as for a reason to leave. She made no vow never to return; the will, she believed, was not something to determine the course of one's life, but rather to maintain one's identity. She was satisfied to say "I am who I am"; it was not necessary to say "I intend doing this no matter what": intention had no priority over identity, nor action over existence. She left content that circumstance might dictate her return one day.
"But is the will static?" she asked a friend who had remarked certain philosophical notions while on a date. "Does what you say you'll do now have the right to reach to the end of your life? Or does you will change as your sense of who you are matures?"
"Will is absolute," her date informed her. "Will is the cosmic force behind and determining everything. It is that part of us which is immutable, to which our identities are nailed. But, this is a philosophical matter. As you know, I teach philosophy. I deal every day with those nebulous matters, and it's nearly impossible even for me to keep abreast of them. So don't feel bad if you don't understand. Just accept it: for will to be in any manner malleable is a contradiction in metaphysics. Don't try to understand it - you'll go crazy!"
"Matter over mind?" Catherine asked. Her date smiled at her humor. He was very polite, and very correct, and knew the wherefore of things-in-themselves, and tried ever so hard to get her in bed that evening. Had the petulance of his insistence not belied the grandeur of his conceptions quite so pointedly, she would have acquiesced; she found him very attractive. The vulgarity of a college freshman in so educated a man, however, she found singularly unattractive.
"What's wrong?" he said after trying unsuccessfully for the third time to unbutton her blouse.
"Nothing, I'm just not in the mood," she replied.
"No reason, I'm just not."
A fourth time he tried, and a fifth, till finally she got up and walked to the door. "Good night," she said, indicating for him to leave. He complied, but said nothing.
When he had gone, Catherine whispered that, being a philosopher, he should know to heal his own stupidity. But, of course, everyone's philosophy was meant to enlighten only others, never oneself. Perhaps therein lay its great value - that built into it, however obtuse or absurd or profound, was this ultimate fail-safe of bearing little relation to the world people must cope with, or the things they must do to cope, or the feelings their attempts at life generated. Philosophy must forever exist inside books or the minds of philosophers; no doubt that was why, as with theology, everybody could preach it with the keenest enthusiasm while ignoring it absolutely. It took one's breath away what safety there was in channeling all passion into things which did not, could not possibly, matter to anyone. No concept truly mattered, therefore all concepts could be lived and died for with the utmost urgency.
If a woman gave birth, at once all the world marveled at the miracle of life, then inquired after the sex of the newborn - in that order. It need never be asked what chance the infant had of becoming real. For, as the great Quincas Borba observed, "Humanity must be fed"; and though but a fiction, this worthy soul better understood philosophy than all others combined. Or if someone died, it was pondered if he lived well, or if he suffered much, or if his faculties remained his to the very end. Never mind that nothing he ever said or did could properly be called his. Never mind that the self was probably an illusion, nothing but a camouflage over a hole where certain highly specific and perhaps even unique phenomena co-intersected. Interstice: this was what, and this was all, a human being was. So, yes, by all means, get it right - just ever so good and true and right - exactly what each and every concept is, and does, and reduces to, and denotes, and connotes, and who said what about it. Gossip is God in formation, for the intellect is All; and, because it is, the highest source must be mind, not matter. Man did not create God in his own image, but in the image of his concepts, so that that which proceeds from his mind may rule all existence for all eternity. It is, alas, the Thought that counts.
Catherine could, and did, travel the world, philosopher by philosopher, physicist by physicist, artist by artist, diplomat by diplomat, doctor-lawyer-banker by...and so on, 26,000 miles around and back, an international date line in every port. Her beauty and her family name took her wherever aristocrats sojourned; and if the Graes were not as great or as powerful or as wealthy as other families, they were gifted in other ways, and beyond measure, for they had the gift of legend; and legend carries its own kind of weight in the world. When something of a legend, however small a part, comes to town, eyes and ears long deadened to even the mightiest of the great go into gear. Everyone who is anyone wishes to be touched by something born of legend. Catherine could have been as plain as a deadbolt in its clear plastic packaging, still her presence would have coaxed magnificence from the palaces of this earth.
"Ah! The Graes! Tell me: is it all true what they say?" And there, as Catherine well knew, was the absolute and ultimate purpose and significance of life: is it true what they say? Is Gossip God or is He dead, or what?
"I wouldn't know," Catherine always insisted.
"Oh, come now," they in turn would insist, "you can tell us. Family secrets are not really secret among friends and fellow aristocrats. What's the scoop?"
"No one knows where the Graes came from originally," Catherine usually managed to dissuade further questions by offering, in place of murder and mayhem, ancestry and tribal loyalty. It almost always worked. Her family's legends, however fascinating, nowhere near approached the pure fascination of their familys' origins - for the conversation would inevitably at that point shift from the obscure background of her family to the ever so well documented background of theirs, at which point pedigree took over. So there was, even in this most curious of all worlds, something beyond legend. The Graes might indeed have eaten strange vagrants and other unfortunate souls - but, oh! had they a peerage to their name? were they in a direct line to a monarch? to what royal house could they trace their roots? Well, they had poor Catherine there: not knowing where her people came from, she could hardly claim descent from those who counted in the history books, now could she?
These were her friends, her traveling companions; her peers (if not in the finest sense of the term, then at least in the everyday sense). They thought big, and lived in elegance; they ate well, slept on silk and satin; they were, and did, and went, first class. And there was a genuine, documented peerage appended to every fourth one, at the minimum. Access to all that was valuable, and beautiful, and cultural was theirs; they talked operas and attended ballet (premiers only); they read only the best, the latest, the most critically acclaimed works; and when they took to their beds with the gout or had a bout of diarrhea, or when a hemorrhoid sprouted (which was seldom: peers of the realm do not suffer the afflictions of humanity as a rule), they were showered with gilt-edged calling cards demanding privilege of visiting when the expected recuperation arrived. But if one should happen to die, all cards were black. Some things must be.
They ruled the world, these happy souls. Sometimes they flowed compassion from their innermost beings. "Oh the unhappy, the wretched, the miserable, the poor of this wicked wicked earth!" they would say at such times. "To think they must live like that. How sad. How very sad. How very very sad." While at other times they were stern, matter of fact. "The poor just don't have the ambition it takes. What do they need more for? They'll simply waste it on trash. Money should go to money: money knows best how to use money." Their survival needs already met, they spoke the truth. All money going to the poor is eaten up by survival; only the rich, already guaranteed survival, have the wherewithal to put money to surplus use. Besides, the less one man has, the more the other has: that's economics. Catherine loved economics better even that the whole rest of metaphysics. She would sit enchanted by the hour as great economists wove the most delightful tales of how it was and why some must needs have more than others. It's better than the burlesque, she decided, and never so much as a breath off-color.
She especially loved it when, after expounding upon some or another trickle down theory, some up and coming young economist would try to seduce her. His hands, unlike the muddled hands of philosophers, went right for the goods. He always tried reaching up underneath her skirt. She had to slap his hand. Her widget wanted no part of his blodget.
One day "I'm off to Tahiti!" she announced. The next thing anyone knew, she was off to Tahiti. By herself. Jokingly, she said she wanted to see virgin existence, uncorrupted by Western Man. The truth was, her desire to cross the International Date Line had grown irresistible. I want to go back a day, she told herself. Let's see if the stench of the Western World begins to dissipate when the past approaches. Let's hope it will.
Only when she arrived did it occur to her that Tahiti might not be across the International Date Line. The trip somehow did not have the feel of time travel, nor the place the substance of relativity. Yet she had fervently believed that if anywhere sounded as if it belonged in another dimension, this Tahiti was it. In fact, no other place could be. Australia? New Zealand? Had they a wrinkle in their identities warped by time? Did they give out shoots already extinguished when perceived? Nonsense! Only Tahiti. Yet Tahiti was as unmistakably today as the Paris she had just left. The only way she could have crossed the Date Line would have been to take the slow way eastward; but then it would have been the future, not the past, she encountered - so why bother? anybody can meet the future, one need not travel in time to do that, merely sit peering out the window.
"So here I am in Tahiti," she said to herself; "the end of the line. The final nail in Einstein's coffin. I will have orgasm no more with physicist. There was a young lady named Grae, Who decided to go all the way, But the curvature of earth's spine, Made a mockery of Einstein, And a nunnery of Catherine. It is pretty here though. An oriental water garden, with a subtle hint of Versailles. But where is Tahiti? Ah, now I see: it's moved. Of course. The real Tahiti does lie across the Line someplace; this is an idealized replica. But no planes can reach the real ideal. It's truly across the Line, safe and sound, and without an international flavor. Then I've come to the right place: I've come to the only place mortals can ever truly and fully experience. And I didn't have to go backwards to get there. Still, I do not wish a physicist between my legs. Just one of those things."
Perhaps an artist. There were always art colonies springing up on Tahiti; no sooner would one fold than another took its place, fading enthusiasms prompting a high turn over. Never a lack of funds - this was the playground of the rich - nor a dearth of momentary artists, who were off from civilization to hastily retrace the Gauguin path and as quickly called back to step in and fill the important places reserved for these once they had found themselves, sown their wild oats, shed their virginal paens to beauty, it was only when interest waned that colonies were abandoned. Every scion of every dynasty flung his palette at the Muses before realizing his true stature within his sphere. "Well, I was an artist for a day," each would say; "a quaint pastime. But how many naked natives can you paint before you begin missing the paté a fois gras? Let the fools starve in their garrets. Me, I'll bide my time till they're famous, then make a million off their collected works. Me, I create something better than beauty: I create empires. Like the man said: Ozymonades lives because Shelley made light of him. You might paint it - but I'll own it."
And when the scions left, the hangers-on left too - the would-be artists who attached themselves to the rich, who pandered to their whims (which they charmingly called "taste"), who proffered their talents to the highest bidder that the interests of their masters might better be served, who, ultimately, became exploiters of the aesthetic, much like their masters exploited the real world. Aesthetics lives, a parallel to matter; and, like matter, can be used to uplift and to enrich, or to degrade and impoverish. (Most men know instinctively which it is to be.)
An unfolding took place the Wednesday after Catherine arrived. A colony was being disbanded, its quaint bohemian ramshackle villas were coming down - the same ones its members had erected not six months ago: rarely did the creative urge last longer than six months. Onlookers kept their distance: and why not? nothing original here, just another tally stroke along a continuum of tedium. It was something to do. Finally, before noon, the work was complete. The artists gathered up their Gauguin clothing, their futons, their incense, their brushes and palettes, their unused colors, their one or two oeuvres, and waved goodbye to the crowd. Others were already negotiating with a fat realtor in a Hawaiian print shirt, white slacks and a big Panama with a purple hat band for the site.
In the crowd watching the unbreaking of the ground was a young man who had come to Tahiti two years ago, had taken residence in no formal commune, had rented a small two room shack with an outhouse and no electricity, had set about in earnest painting. At first he tried his hand at the Gauguin Thing, but gave it up. He found himself unable to concentrate on his subject; all the while she posed, his attention grew increasingly toward his own anatomy, until finally he asked her to pose no more, his last session with her spent contemplating from the perspective of light his naked body. Her shape became on the canvas his sex organ, her features its nuances of flesh, her hair his public hairs. Not only transformation, he had painted her upside down, and in the horizontal. Yet when, the work completed, he tried to manipulate a release for his artistry, he found he could not. It grew flaccid. He tried making love, but, unable to fix his full concentration on his movements in and out, he derived no enjoyment; each spasm felt to him little more than urinating with a bad prostate that passed the water in dribbles. He continued to paint, though, painting nothing but his penis.
Cornelius Braxton, middle named Eberhardt after his mother's family, had not come to Tahiti to flounder before aesthetic altars before commencing his existence; he had come to paint. He was genuinely serious about it. He shunned his fellow artists, he never visited the colonies, never discussed rapture or technique or significance with his peers, never asked to see their works or offered to show his. Art was beauty, beauty was life, life was eternity, eternity was space, space was matter, matter was mind, mind was being, being was will, will was motion, motion was imagination, imagination was ecstasy, and ecstasy was art. And he, Braxton, created art from nothing. In a stroke, non-existence he dispelled. The world, made by him, for him, and, now, in his holiest image.
"Don't come home until you're ready to put this silliness out of your head and get on with the business of living!" was the ultimatum given him by his family five years ago. He never saw them or spoke to them since, and never intended to. Even so, up till his stay on Tahiti he had felt himself a failure; nothing he had painted satisfied him. He knew he had great talent, but despaired of ever discovering the means of realizing it. Then, a careless moment, an obscene impulse, and there it was, his means of expression, his medium for realization. He stood naked, deliberately to intimidate his model; and, looking down, he found himself. From then on, he painted nothing else, and every painting was a masterpiece, texture, shading, lighting, the sense of vitality, the subtlety of purpose coming as one into this, for him the ultimate reality, the final form, both of art and of life. The skin over the sheath seemed more than skin: it seemed an evolution, atom into molecule into cell into formed matter into causality and on into some mystical realm as yet undeciphered save through art.
He walked away from the disintegrating colony, into town, to buy toilet paper and toothpaste; he alone had waved back at those now abandoning art. Abandon it to me, he thought, go home, where you belong. Go home. The airplane from Paris had just disembarked, Catherine was likewise on the streets of Papeete. They met - he in the name of philosophy, she, of art. She had decided to try an artist, to see how his hands moved, and toward what first, and how he experienced orgasm. How he experienced love was of no concern to her; not that she no longer believed in love, but that, having seen the ugliness which could so easily coexist with it, she no longer cared what it was, or did, or meant, or became. Commissioned to murder by the person who loved her most, there could be nothing else, ever, of love, not in her life, not in this world. So it was a man's hands, and his stiff moans at the ideal moment she attended to.
And Braxton passed muster. Hating her - hating all women for what their opacity denied him, he neither groped nor moaned. It was silk and silence with him; touches barely felt, carelessly placed, without regard to seduction; and soundless, almost breathless orgasm, the tiny muffled squirts within the nearest thing to audible. Nor a collapse afterward; a quick withdrawal, as if he might still see himself flinging seed, but always a failure, always. He wanted to see himself in spasm, to paint his spasms, one by one, stroke by stroke, squirt by squirt; but he couldn't.
"God! God! For an invisible woman!" he cried, alone, in his makeshift studio, trying to imagine what he would look like. It was the existence of his outermost being he wished to capture; it was the essence of his imagination he got. And he cursed it - a good twenty years after the philosophy had gone out of fashion, he cursed his betrayal. Reality: it had done him in, it held out existence; when he reached, there was before him but a handful of essence. He spat upon essence. Only being would quench the artist in him. "God for an invisible woman! God! God!" There was none to be hand though. Not even a ghost, not even the greatest shaman in Tahiti could summon his ideal woman. So he settled for a real woman.
Once, though, he had almost gotten a succubus. He was sure that's what it was. Not on Tahiti, and not recently, but in California, where his family lived, at a "haunted house" a friend's family owned, just after high school. He had spent the night in a room in the exact center of the house. Precisely at midnight he felt something take hold of him, from behind. Then he was turned around. He felt hands at his loins, then lips, then a woman's part enfolding his. Then, as suddenly as it approached, it vanished; he felt the slippery departure of her body from his. He finished her work with his hand. Night after night he returned, but it never happened again.
The moment he heard of Catherine's home, of her family, of its legend, he resolved to go there, the sooner the better. Toward that end he proposed marriage. Only because she thought this could keep her from having to ever return home did she accept. When she agreed to return home - eagerly agreed - it was with the feeling that a victim had been found, someone who might substitute for her brother, someone who's sacrifice could appease her family.
"If it means that much to you," she told her bridegroom, "then, yes, by all means, let's do go. The sooner the better."
Mrs. Elizabeth Grae, of course, needed a new gown for the weekend. The leading citizens of Tyfington were to be once again invited for the duration, as about every second month or so they had been since the new Industrial Park was opened two and a half years ago. The bankers, the physicians, the attorneys, the stock brokers, the university professors, the entrepreneurs, the various administrators - and their wives - were all to arrive Friday evening, remain through Saturday, return home mid-day Sunday. Each gown had been worn; nothing had been found quite suitable in the whole of Europe this latest trip abroad, a one month jaunt conceived at the last minute by Mrs. Grae's sister, Pamela Autaun, married to the heir of the Autaun fortune, whose daughter Twixie had practically had to be disinherited when she took up with a known lesbian. "Europe has been picked clean to the bone!" Elizabeth swore. "You'd think peach - which as everyone knows is my color! - had gone decadent this season. It's just too absurd!" No doubt she knew what she was talking about. "Oh, I could have gotten something fit for a state dinner. But all I wanted was a simple evening dress to wear when company comes this weekend."
She had gone to town, to Trevessa's, the best - therefore the only - dress shop. Trevessa was a Jewish woman from Liverpool who managed to congeal a somewhat cockney voice through sieves of continental origin, until it gave off just the right sound. Elizabeth Grae suspected her dressmaker's Jewish roots but found both her and her wares too delightful to expose. A woman of genuine quality who could be made to pretend a ridiculous lineage and who put out superb couture was to be cherished, not embarrassed.
"When Count Schnolzenglazen, my late father's uncle's cousin, left Liechtenstein for Belgium," Trevessa confessed one fine day to Elizabeth, "he stole away every last seamstress from Kizberhoen Castle, our little retreat near the Swiss border. Well, angel, what choice had we but to make our own things till we could get a new staff competent to outfit us? My mother, the Marchesa di Bettenchorn of Bolzano, near the Italian Alps, sent at once for Betsy McCall to please come, patterns in tow, and salvage our La Cheza del Kamooner, which was barely two months away yet! How could any of us ever face ourselves again if we appeared less than our best before old Prince Yamaschat Fuchzenbun of Zagreb, now part of Yugoslavia since the war? We sewed day and night - and in those days, believe me!, the nights were as cold as a Sheik's breath - night and day, day and night, for three weeks, till finally our gowns were perfect - just picture perfect! Like something from a marble statue's unveiling. My poor old mother was all in aqua till a careless pin she'd lift in pricked her tailbone and caused a kind of gangrene. Fortunately the Duke de la Mazeltorf happened to be among the guests - you know: the Mazeltorfs, celebrated physicians! He managed to save mama, but her sewing days were over. She was never the same. You'd see her walking down the cobblestones of Bluderry looking everyone's rump up and down for signs of pins. Me, I took to sewing like a chicken to soup. I've done it ever since. God forbid I should ever forget to remove my basting!"
It was understood, of course, by all concerned that Madame Trevessa existed equally as a gifted dressmaker and an object of ridicule at Mrs. Grae's exclusive soirees. She understood it, without ever being invited. Even if they had bought her lineage, her being a common worker summarily excluded her from the guest list. Not that they bought her stories of aristocratic upbringing, although they referred to her as "the Marchesa."
"Imagine: a Marchesa making you housecoats!" one would say.
"Oh, I understand she was forced to give up her title when she left Liechenstein," another would counter.
"Yes, so I'm told. She had to turn it in at customs!"
She knew, Madame Trevessa. She cared. She would have chosen to go back to being a seamstress in a sweat shop, as her mother and grandmother had been. Or in a big textile factory. Dirtier work, all things considered; more honest perhaps, but a guaranteed disablement, an early death, in a cold water flat, her gray wrinkled corpse lying in state perhaps a week or more until her accidental discovery by her landlord, an army of roaches or rats paying their last respects at her bier. For a woman who had the grace and charm of a princess, could there really be a choice? These rich ladies, not half her equal in intelligence, in magnetism, in elegance - her "betters," each and every one, belittling her at every turn. But, at least, keeping the wolf from her door.
A dress of young peach would be delivered mid-Friday afternoon; Madame Trevessa promised, of the design agreed upon; no need to measure, Mrs. Grae's aspects were already on file in the cutting room - a thought that gave Elizabeth chills every time she heard it mentioned. She did not like her bust size, waist size, arms and legs and so on sitting in the cutting room; it made her nervous.
"Thank you Trevessa," Mrs Grae said as she left.
"From the Marchesa's mouth to your ears, Madame: Thank you!" Trevessa replied glowingly. She went to work at once. This was already Wednesday; she would have to work almost around the clock to meet her deadline - meet it, she would though. Her whole future depended on it. Menials, whatever their style, had better do as they're told.
Elizabeth Grae, before returning home, stopped at Jacquard's, the newest (and by some accounts best) restaurant in Tyfington, partly to catch up on the latest gossip so that, should anything especially interesting be related to her during the course of the weekend by any of her guests, she could feign surprise, just that right shade of surprise, without danger of actually being surprised; and partly because she wished to sample the very latest cuisine - a new recipe someone had told her about, one which Monsieur Zee, as he was affectionately called, had just perfected - to see if her cook might be able to duplicate it. A doggie bag was in order here.
"Rena! How good to see you!"
The ladies exchanged embraces. "Wasn't it awful about little Byan, Mr. Poole's nephew visiting from St. Louis?"
"Byan?" Mrs. Grae asked.
"Don't you remember?" Rena replied. "That little boy who simply vanished six years ago? Clarence Poole had just been made president of the Bank, and his sister's family came to visit? Surely you remember?"
"Vaguely, I suppose. The boy disappeared?"
"Yes, and was never found. His family had to leave without him. You may recall last week they found that decayed body out by the Church? a very small body? Well, Elizabeth, it turns out - they've just identified it - it's him: Byan!' That's whose body it was."
"Rena, you're kidding!"
"It's true. And wait, listen to this, you haven't heard the worst: his arms and legs had been wrenched out of their sockets. That's how they think he died. It's horrible, isn't it?"
"Are you saying he was murdered?" Elizabeth asked.
"I'm only repeating what I heard," Rena insisted.
In the Burnt Woods, where his body ought to have been discovered before six years had passed. A forest had burned, many years ago. A few trees had started up again; most were still perennially in winter. From a distance it appeared simply as a leafless stand, some fifty or so across; up close the charred trees, the ones still standing, for most had long since fallen, revealed lifelessness. Children played there, deep into the night, testing one another with "I dare you to go over there," or "I dare you to close your eyes for ten minutes," or "I dare you to go in tonight" when there was no moon overhead. Always the dare was met. The woods were haunted, as burnt woods must always be: by the dead trees if nothing more (man can hardly be the only creature with a soul). Let them be called Druids all over again. Anyway, they were haunted, these Burnt Woods: the ghosts, it was said, had set the blaze; the trees perishing sent their souls out - not to avenge, trees take no vengeance, only to wander among other forests that they might give warning. The forest - once called Tract Land, referring to its having been a tract of no-man's land, belonging (if it can be imagined) to no one, absolutely no one, not even the State. Careless surveyors had mistakenly omitted this acreage; it fit no one's property lines. It lay between what the Grae's owned and what the town proper considered public land; it was never settled. For just this peculiarity of its position was it deemed to be haunted: ghosts would set right man's oversight. Nothing should be free from ownership. And the ghosts had been seen, and heard, even before the conflagration. And when the fire came, it came in retribution for the defiance of man's law. Let no piece of ground escape detection, let no place evade ownership, let no part of earth exist outside the law.
But they were beautiful in silhouette, these Burnt Woods. Like etchings against a translucent screen the evening sky told exquisitely the sanctity of freedom; even in death these woods outshone with a fragrant light all others, for they could be destroyed sooner than they could be owned, and chose so. These woods' collective souls sought no vengeance - why should they? they knew their triumph, they understood it was their destroyers who confessed bankruptcy, not them. They wandered the earth in as charged an inner glow as their corpses evinced still the illusion of vital beauty. Each defunct tree that fell, and each limb that came loose, still was a siphoned illumination of perfect form; lying on the ground, new grasses forging between holes of bark, these burned carvings gave dignity and subtlety to the absolute worth of each entity in existence. There was no ugliness about their decay, only the quiet afterglow of majesty.
The little boy, Byan, as he lay about to die, realized he had told a lie that very day. This, then, was why God punished him. He forgave God; but to the last was troubled that God might not forgive him. Who the instrument of his retribution was, he never discovered. The dark moonless night concealed the act of destruction, though even a full moon, in the thickly shadowed grove the boy had wandered into, would have failed to highlight his murderer; even these burned out trees were sufficiently close, their limbs lush enough to block out the sky. He had been dared to enter the grove. Of the group of boys who had gone there to play, by sunset only two remained: Byan, and Charles Grae XIII, ages five and six respectively. Charles had summoned his playmate to the grove with his sudden dare.
"I'm in here!" Charles called. "Why don't you come in? Are you afraid?"
"I'm not afraid of anything!" Byan returned the call.
"Then come in!"
"I will. I'm coming!"
Byan entered the grove through a stand of bush branches so thick they were like a hedge row, only full of stickers. His arms were scraped, his clothes torn; but he made it through. His eyes had not adjusted to the almost pitch dark yet - and perhaps could not have anyway - when he felt something touch against him, not the feel of prickly branches, or of low hanging charred limbs, or of anything he had ever encountered. It was a pressure, but had no tactility, no sense of a surface or a texture, no warmth, no coldness, no dryness, no dampness. Then he felt the pressure growing, spreading all the way around his arms, first one then the other; then on his legs, tighter and firmer each second.
"Charles!" he cried out. "Charles! Help me! Help me!"
Charles heard the cry, but did not respond. Only a weakling cries for help, he thought, and why should anyone help a weakling?
"Charles please! Help! Help!"
Charles turned and walked out of the grove. All the fun had gone out of his game. You weren't supposed to cry for help, he thought. A muffled scream came after him; this too he ignored. Who cares what happens to weaklings? he asked.
The same pressure that had fixed like steel traps on his limbs suddenly covered Byan's mouth, just as he was letting out a scream. Then a sudden jerk, four separate points but occurring as one motion, wrenched his arms and his legs from their sockets. He felt himself descending to the ground. It didn't hurt, though, where he hit. He lay there, unable to move, too weak to cry out. He had lied, he realized, when he said he feared nothing: he feared God. All his life he feared God, but he told Charles he was fearless.
"The body's been moved," the coroner decided. Where it was found, the assessment was that it could not have been there but a very short while, perhaps a day, no longer. Even bones leave tracks. "Doubtless some stray dog moved it." Why a dog - or any animal - would bother with bones long since meatless, and not bother to conceal them if taking the trouble to claim and move them, was not considered. Nor was it considered that the body had been moved many times, as often as had been necessary to keep it from detection till just the right moment; for even in the thickest of groves, even in a real forest, a body could not go six years undetected, unless detection had been very studiously and very deliberately avoided.
The bones were analyzed then buried. The teeth had identified the body. The family was notified; they asked to have the remains taken care of by the coroner's office. Byan was out of their lives, they were already resigned to never seeing him again, old bleached bones could not restore a faded memory; besides, Byan was with God, whom he had always loved so much, now: he was happy.
It was awful; the rendering of it made it only a little less unpalatable, hearing it recounted always an improvement over simply imagining it: for when you imagined it, you were apt to feel something of the boy's horror, whereas having it told to you in as specific detail as possible - the more specific the better, the more detail the less you need or could imagine - put greater distance between you and it. Objectivity was everything. So, as awful as it was, it might have been worse - it might have sabotaged your peace of mind. Besides, it was six years ago, and something that that happened six years ago could not hurt your weekend soiree, not really; life was much too gracious for that.
Rena absolutely assured Elizabeth she would be there. So too would her management consultant husband, William Jakes, one of Charles Grae's earliest, most loyal, and most influential business associates in the Industrial Park, a man, solid as rock, who had been there from the start, had put his great drive to work securing backers, had made certain at every stage that future profits were not jeopardized by too careless a display of generosity in dealing with prospective workers.
"Labor will kill us all if we let it!" Bill Jakes had repeated time and again. "They're motivated solely by greed. They want what they've got - plus what we've got! The workers of America won't be satisfied till we're picked clean. Vampires: that's what they are. Leeches. Parasites feeding of our accomplishments. They, who create nothing, imagine their incompetence entitles them to a share of our success - a share hell: they want all of it! By God, let them work 18 hours a day and see how they like it! They're ready to drop after 8 - and they dare present themselves as our equals? Ha!" Bill Jakes minced no words. Harkins', second only to Jacquard's as Tyfington's finest restaurant, and conveniently located near the Industrial Park, besides offering private entertainment rooms for its clientele, was the scene of many a tirade in defense of competence and hard work, Bill Jakes only one of many eloquent defenders of freedom. Business lunches were Harkins' specialty. If it took three hours to mellow your prospective client, the staff of Harkins' acted almost as your silent partner; they seemed to know when a fresh round of drinks needed serving, you did not have to take precious time away from negotiating to order: your train of thought need never break. Jakes himself held the record: four hours it took him one fine breezy day in mid-Spring to close the deal - and this, after two hours of racquetball at the Club, fast on the heels of two rounds of golf the previous day. For four hours Harkins' intuited his every need; and when the handshake signaled success, the staff felt as if they too had struck the bargain.
Bill Jakes was intimately involved too in managing the Planton Foundation, a non-profit fund established by the Planton family, their PTA Inc. one of the big high-tech companies of recent years: Planton Technologies of America, Incorporated - PTA, Inc. Endowments of all types were handled: scholarships for college students; funding for the arts and the humanities; grants for medical research; plus various other charitable enterprises, too numerous to list. The Foundation, it was said, had done perhaps more good than all other such institutions combined. Its prestige was one of America's absolutes; a landmark of the nation's spirit as its headquarters in New York was a bedrock of the nation's history: the Planton Foundation, housed in the Empire State Building. But of course. Its most recent accomplishment being an art colony in Tahiti, whose cost Planton underwrote entirely; the colony's breaking up had no bearing on its funding, for the money - the Plantons made abundantly clear - was available however long it took to produce results consistent with the highly acclaimed talents of those highly screened young artists. Indeed, what creations emanated from Tahiti were already being catalogued and set up in the Planton Wing of the Heinerhoff Gallery for a special three month showing; "Sons of Industry: Artists of Tomorrow" its title. "Technique has at last found its place in America," one reviewer who had attended the private pre-display show announced to her readers. "Too long paint has been wasted on signs - yes signs, for all those 'message' men and women were, in truth, no more than sign painters, their works billboards cluttering the galleries of America. A sign should sell something, not a painting. The absence of all but color and style in the Planton Wing can only be applauded. And we say: 'Better late than never.'" All others agreed. Art was not the place to deal with human issues, however pressing or poignant. (That was why we have scandal sheets, don't you know! Not to mention soap operas!) No, not to mention them; please.
Oh yes, Rena and Bill Jakes would be there with bells on, as would Clarence and Ginia Ditten, the husband and wife team which had virtually "eaten up the competition" in the computer software area. So would Margaret and Martin Anderson, he the surgeon who had perfected the technique responsible for saving hundreds of newborns who had been born with malformed digestive tracks and would otherwise have died within days; one or two had lived as long as seven years, never once leaving the incubator they were maintained in. His whole staff wept when they died. He was internationally acclaimed.
The mind and soul of Tyfington would be at Charles Grae's this coming weekend. Tyfington was a growing metropolis, there was no need to import guests from outside. Carroll Poshun sat in jail contemplating the guest list. "Just for questioning," he was told: in connection with the death of Byan, six years ago. He was vaguely listening to the sheriff's questions, vaguely answering as to his whereabouts the night the coroner had fixed as probable for the boy's death. In his mind, all the while, was the guest list the society column had printed; a principle lay accumulating those names, like a sheaf of tar paper holding fast everything landing on it. But an elusive principle. Why have their activities revealed, he wondered.
"No, I don't recall being in the vicinity of Burnt Woods that night," he was saying. Is there a dynamic involved? he was asking himself. Is there in the simple - the tritely simple - act of sticking guest lists where everyone can read them a solid principle of social organization, over and above the eliciting of envy, or the open display of privilege? Is there something not just important but absolutely crucial involved, as if ceaselessly society must be reminded that privilege is real, it does exist, it is not illusory? And why that need? Why not go about your activities anonymously? What not hold your parties in total privacy? Why not keep your limousines for your peers' eyes only? Why not build your emporiums where the masses would never know of their existence? or your resorts on uncharted islands? Why is it crucial that people know? The aim cannot possibly be simply to rub their noses in it. There has to be more, and it has to do even more than with privilege being valuable as relative contrast to its lack, with its being a vital mold from which slowly societies are formed.
Perhaps there can be no social organization without privilege, or where all are privileged. Perhaps without antagonism society would disintegrate in a static flow of contentment, of harmony, of cooperation or fragmentation. If nothing tangible exists as Discord's Apple, if no one can point to very real and very desirable ends of social structure, why would anyone organize? There must be a common enemy - and since outsiders cannot forever suit that need, let that enemy be a lack, an absence, a non-being. Let it be the not having of privilege. All band together to fight that common enemy; only a few ever succeed, but without the gathered force of the many, those few could never hope to secure that utopia of all human endeavor. The few will have privilege, at the expense of the many - but only if the many, too, accept it as the ultimate end of all social behavior.
And to accept it, they must believe in it; to do that, they must know its existence - they must see, hear, feel, taste and smell it in action. So they must read, and read again, and still again, and ever yet again the guest lists, the vacations, the weddings, the visitations, the comings and goings, the properties, the managements, the corporations, the achievements: the whole panoply of rewards. All the news that's fit to print is but a society column; it all tells of privilege: who has it, who does not, who wants it, how much they would give for it, how often they would like it. Day in and day out, the same subject, as great in diversity as Hydra in wisdom. Never though will you read or hear of anyone who doesn't want it. He was does not seek privilege, does not identify.
"No, I had no reason to wish that boy dead," he was saying.
"We just thought you might," the sheriff explained.
"Now there's an interesting proposition," Carroll Poshun observed. Not interesting in any conversational way, probably, Carroll reminded himself; interesting only as a subject for contemplation, perhaps even more so as an opening to further contemplation: one of those concepts insufficient in itself but infinitely suggestible. So they thought I might wish him dead. Why might I, and not another, wish him dead? Why wouldn't everyone wish him dead? If he had been one of those starving Third World children with bloated bellies and staring eyes you see on TV, and you had felt oh so saddened by him, but realized that if you did anything to alter, even ever so slightly, the delicate balance of power, you might end up with the lion's share of the world's resources going to him, which, given the set up of things, could result in it being your child instead of him on TV. My son the cameo on UNESCO's Hungry World Tonight. But you know better than that. Logistics is in your blood. You know to distribute upward, not downward. You know only too well so long as the world is based on inequality, that boy from UNESCO must perish, or else you must.
In a world where some have more than they need, others must have less, a lot of others. So although you'll shed tears, even send hard earned dollars to UNESCO, you won't share power; you won't give up the privilege of being able to earn dollars, just to keep him alive. You wish him well, wish him life, liberty, health, wealth and the pursuit of happiness; but not so much of these that he becomes a threat to you. You know in your heart the nature of the world system you sanction; you know that those you allow to rule mean to have a billion fold what they need to survive; you know that someone has to die so they may prosper; and most of all you know that you prosper a tiny fold too for allowing it to happen. In the end, my compassionate friend seated before your TV watching the boy from UNESCO die - in the end, you wish him a safe, speedy death, and a million others like him. I just thought you might.
"I'm unable to say exactly where I was the probable night in question," Carroll Poshun replied to another pertinent question. The sheriff knew he was not responsible - why would he be? The sheriff also knew there were those - every influential "those" - who would very much like to see him become responsible. It won't stick, the sheriff assured himself; but at least I'll be seen going through the motions. It can't hurt my career. Nor will simply being questioned hurt him, not really. He's not exactly the most respected member of our community.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" Carroll asked.
"No, I suppose not," the sheriff handed his prisoner an ashtray.
"By the way: how long does propriety recommend you hold me? My wife probably has supper waiting. I suppose it'll keep though. I'd just as soon not spend the night; but then I wouldn't want you to appear too liberal. So whatever you think is best. I don't imagine a night in jail's likely to injure me in any appreciable way. Certainly not spiritually, probably not emotionally or intellectually either: it can only help in those realms. Physically shouldn't be a problem unless you've got lice in your beds. But I guess even that can be overcome. So what'll it be? What do the exigencies of your career require?"
"Now that's just why you're here," the sheriff replied, obviously peeved. "That God damn radical attitude of yours. And your whole family's been like that, far back as anyone remembers. No understanding of your fellow man at all, none at all, no sir, none at all. You Poshuns have always stuck your noses up in the air like the normal rules didn't, and couldn't be expected to, and wouldn't, no matter what, apply to you! Not the least respect for authority. No sir, not the least. And that's just why you're here now, mister, because it's exactly your type most likely to do something like this. Anti-social behavior. You behave that way in one area, it's only natural people're going to assume you'll behave the same way in another area. That's why you're here. I don't know who the hell would want to murder that child - God damn it, I haven't a clue! I can't find a motive. So I've got to look at it from some other angle. If there's no motive, what else might there be? And that's where you come in, with your God damn radical, anti-social, disrespectful behavior! Now I'm not saying there's no motive - that'd be crazy, a boy torn to pieces for no reason whatever! All I'm saying is I can't find one, and until I do, I've got to go on the best non-evidence available."
"You know what I mean. Don't bait me, Poshun, I'm not in the mood for it just now. Maybe non-evidence is not the best word. I can't think what to call it. Just attitude. Like the man said, 'You got an attitude problem.' A bad one. And just off the record let me tell you, you'd do a hell of a lot better in life if you'd get that chip off your shoulder and let yourself just be - just exist - just live, and let live. But you can't, or won't, 'just live' - so that makes me wonder if you can 'let live' either. And, for right now, till I know better, I'm saying you can't. Your beliefs don't allow it! I guess that's it, at rock bottom: your beliefs do not allow you to let others live. And that's what I'm holding you for: not letting that boy live. And I'm going to hold you the night. I'm going to hold you as long as I can. We have a society - a damn good one! - here; by your own choice you're not part of it. No one made you stand outside it and analyze everything. You chose to do that. Of course from the outside you can see all the flaws. So what? From the inside they don't look half bad - and a hell of a lot better than some of your beliefs you seen to want us to substitute for them!"
"I don't want you to substitute anything," Carroll pointed out. "Have you ever heard me recommend anyone - let alone everyone - take up my values? Of course not. They're mine. For me. And my family if they so choose. Not for anyone else. I don't expect you or anyone else to fully understand them, let alone live by them. You don't live by beliefs the way I do; you live by ritual."
"And you don't?" the sheriff asked.
"No, I don't."
"Well, mister, let me tell you: every ritual had to start out sometime as somebody's belief in something or another. Unless you propose there's no connection between mind and body."
"Not for most people."
"Well, for you there will be -"
"I know that."
"That's good! Because when your body's sitting in that cell, you can be thinking how it feels to be in jail. Maybe you'll even get some sense. Lot of men have. Jail does a lot to straighten out a man's thinking, make him see things the way his society sees them. Make him see things the right way. Lock him up!" he ordered his deputy. Carroll was led to a small cell, it was uninhabited; the door was locked behind him. A bed, a wash basin and a light bulb in a ceiling socket comprised the decor.
So my beliefs murdered that boy, Carroll thought. An interesting proposition. Murder by a philosophy of life. The power of ideas inadvertently acknowledged. Intriguing. The Ideal assuming the ultimate form: death. Being creating non-being. Please show us your murder weapon. Your honor, I present, for the jury to inspect, one premise, marked Exhibit A. Notice how the ending on the very syntax matches the marks on the victim's skull. Notice too the blunt end of the subject: see where it's been compressed ever so slightly to strengthen the object? The verb, once intransitive, has clearly become a most transitive part of speech, capable of delivering a blow powerful enough to stun the very life out of a man. Notice, finally, the utter lack of adjectives, of adverbs, of participles, of prepositional phrasing: nothing to soften, nothing to dull its impact. "I am me." He's the killer alright, your honor, the prosecution rests.
The prosecution can afford to rest; I cannot: I am me. I am the murderer of the innocent, the unsuspecting, the unprincipled. Of those without beliefs or passions. You say murder is bad? Well, I say there are worse. Much worse.
A minor cat burglar named Joseph Martin, a man of no consequence in his community, nor in the world either according to any acceptable standard, entered the Grae House late Wednesday night. He knew his trade, even if he had made no resounding success at it. His take, adding every completed assignment, totaled less than what minimum wage might net. But he had made a choice in favor of what he enjoyed doing over what the community offered him. Odd jobs had been his specialty before selecting his new trade. His peculiarity was that he never outgrew a minimum wage outlook. He kept a strict budget, spent no more then he took in, took in only what his expenses dictated: nothing here to romanticize. He stole from whomever he could, the exigencies of his budget determining his victims. When he needed little, he robbed from the poor; when his needs were greater, the homes of the middle class were burglarized. He had no use for the rich generally, plus he was a little afraid to rob them, not so much because he would be all the more vigorously prosecuted if apprehended as because something about their homes frightened him. Not the alarm, nor the guard dogs; something intangible, some quality corresponding to their being who they were. He was a man who would sooner rob the grave than a Mafia don; and in his estimation all rich men were one with that type of personage.
Why he chose the Grae House he could not understand. Of all places he feared this one most; he knew nothing, however, of its legends. A lifelong resident, the subtler aspects of Tyfington had passed him by as absolutely as its outward existence had. Yet he felt irresistibly that this was where he must go this particular Wednesday night: drawn by a power greater than his own will was how he experienced it. No inner voice warned him to stay away from here.
The night was a night for burglary. The night of the new moon, when heaven shuts its spotlight off, and a burglar can creep undetected, guided by his superior perception of the physical world. His eyes are trained for such a night, they feel the objects they encounter; they are fingers and skin. Pitch dark is to them the sum of all matter, and matter is their guiding beacon. He made his way - and this was greater than truth: he made his way - through the Burnt Woods. His eyes felt him a path around the petrified cinders which arose in mock splendor everywhere, until he had ascended to virgin soil, to earth untouched by flame. Grasses bled an invitation invisibly green which the eyes in his shoes discovered at once and followed unerringly to the vast shadow the Graes had laid across the landscape. From the first touch of their grounds, their great house led him on by a single light which seemed to seep, not from a window but from the wall itself, a strange flickering light, a three-pronged light glowing red-yellow with a tail of pure blue in each, a light which warmed his eyes, distant but as if he were standing beside it, a light whose warmth summoned where its glow repelled. He moved closer. The grounds grew taller, hedges and bushes and orchards, but the flame never disappeared; it cut through wood, through thick hedge rows, through elevations onto ruptures in the landscape, as if it were tunneling a way for him. And where he might have been turned back by a high wall when finally he arrived at the house, the flame, clearly now on the first floor, pointed as it seemed simultaneously to motion for him to proceed, to a breach in the wall, one just his size, through which he crawled. Soundlessly it sealed behind him. This wall was the remnant of what had once covered the house itself, piece by piece patiently put up. At last he was to the house. And the flame, no longer from the wall came at him finally from a window which led into a room whose opened door revealed a hallway traversing the middle of the house. The flame was in this hallway, awaiting his entry. He tried the window; like brushing a pearl over a surface, the glides were penetrated by the sashes. He climbed in. The window closed behind him.
The room held vast riches, of a sort apparent to even the most vulgar and tasteless. On a sideboard was an assortment of silver; across from it a cabinet filled with crystal. There were golden ornaments, vases too intricately detailed to be mistaken by even the uninitiated for store-bought, tapestries almost threadbare from antiquity, rugs and chandeliers and, on a table at one end, rare manuscripts and first editions. A treasure trove, a kind of storeroom where whatever was not presently being used was kept in a rigidly climate controlled chamber; the Graes selected their placements for each occasion from among this store of wealth.
But the burglar saw none of it. His eyes were fixed only upon the thin red-yellow tapers, with them the blue skeletons. He hurried through the room into the hallway. He saw nothing he passed. Down the hall, first the flames, then Joseph Martin, until a door was reached. There, the movement ceased except for the gentle flickers.
Slowly, this door removed from the jamb, backward through the darkness. But not a total darkness, for the flames made their way to a candelabra onto which they lifted themselves, their flicker catching darkly now against the wall, they the source of creating their own shadows. The burglar followed. He paused before the credenza where the flames had settled. The gleam of brass held him transfixed. He knew he must have this candelabra, he felt its worth to be greater than all other wealth on earth combined. He carefully blew out the three flames; and as he did, the door to the Game Room shut. Yet in the pitch dark he could still see the gleaming brass. It still held him in a trance. A shadow flickered against it, that he knew to be his own; he gave no thought to its source, even though it continued expanding until it completely hid the gleam of brass. He at last reached up to take the candelabra. He had seen only as his own shadow the three flames moving slowly toward him from behind. The same flames he had extinguished, three red-yellow tapers of fire, each with a spine of blue holding it upright.
His fingers touched the gleamless brass. A scream pierced his skull from within. A machete of fire, striking suddenly and from behind, as if a lesser lightening, severed his hand from his arm, leaving the crackle and the stench of burned flesh. He turned - or was turned: he could not tell which. Facing him were three shafts of fire like steel, and so sharp their edges gleamed. And they were cutting their way through the air, toward him, then away then back again, as if twirling in the hands of a swordsman, almost audible as air was scattered about. He could not move from the spot where he stood. He cried out.
"Please! Please! Don't come any closer! Oh God please stay away!"
They seemed to be in no hurry. They seemed to be performing, displaying their keen versatility. He held his other hand up, his only hand, as if to ward them off. So quickly that the heat of its movement singed his eyebrow, one of the three sliced his good hand from his arm. Again, his skull was pierced with the cry of his own voice. And the same smell of charred meat arose. Then at once all three attacked.
Thinly, at first, they sliced at him, barely breaking his skin, so cleanly and sharply that his clothes, where they struck, were not enflamed, only singed. Then, their play over, they came at him in earnest, ripping chunks from his bones, his skull pierced to bursting with shrieks, his blood and the inward gore nature endeavors to conceal spewing down his pants legs. In almost no time, now that they had at him for real, they reduced his body to a paste of meaty pulp. Arms, legs, face, neck, trunk: all became something less than the whole being they had incarnated, though. Volume by volume, the burglar lay perfectly intact on the Game Room floor, minus one thing: his hand, the first thing severed, remained where it was, grasping the gleaming candelabra, its grip - the grip of the slaughtered animal clinging to the very end to what it took for life - its grip absolute, but being-less.
The whole time he was being hacked to death, he imagined himself in the Burnt Woods, cornered against a row of tightly spaced trees. In his brain was the sensation of being chased, of running, even as his progress was blocked. And he was watching from behind a distant tree, listening to the shrieks of the man being sliced by fire, trying to recall where he had seen this man before. Don't cut his face off till I identify him! he kept praying, the man's identity somehow the single most significant fact of his existence. Then everything ceased. The man fell, unidentified, and his body folded over itself, and the Woods were gone.
Charles Grae XIII was awakened in the night by the smell of smoke in his room; at first it was in his room. Arising, he understood the smell; it was coming from downstairs, and it was the smoke of an extinguished candle. He hurried down to the Game Room. The door knob felt damp, it twisted at first in his palm; finally he got it turned. When he went in, he discovered the candles had gone out. He had left the matches he borrowed earlier in the week, from the cook, on the stand where the Grae Box stood. He re-lighted the three candles at the Western wall. He saw the severed hand still holding the base of the candelabra. He reached out to it; it was cold, but it was flesh. "I'll take it," he whispered. He was starting his club tomorrow. He had already gotten ten boys to join. As proof of their loyalty, he could have them kiss the hand. He would get dry ice. He would preserve this hand; it could be the emblem of his club, the first and most sacred relic, an object of awe and, perhaps, of worship. With great effort, he loosened the hand from its grip; he carried it upstairs, and put it under his pillow. And quickly returned to sleep.
When he awoke next morning, he felt underneath his pillow for the hand, but found nothing. It had moved during the night. His first response was one of anger; he cursed God for removing the hand. "We don't steal your relics!" he cried to heaven. "Do you see us walking off with Jesus' shroud? Or the bones of St. John? Or the transcendent egg the Holy Ghost laid? You've no right to that - it's mine! Damn you, it's mine!"
I can always get another hand, he thought, but it won't be the same, it won't have come from them. I could easily get another. I could get any one of those idiot boys to cut theirs off. But it wouldn't be the one they left me. Damn you, they left it for me! It's mine. No one on earth or in heaven or in hell has a right to it, it's mine. Damn you! Damn you!
Charles got dressed. I would give anything to have it back. I would do anything. I would say or think or become anything. I swear it.
He went at once to the Game Room. "Maybe," he whispered as he went. Opening the door, he smelled something rotten. His eyes shot at once to the candelabra; and, attached exactly as before, was the hand. Only it had begun to decay; rot covered the severed wrist. A stench escaped where the rot had eaten through tiny cell holes into the flesh. Again, Charles worked it loose. Again, he took it to his room. He fixed it into a pair of under shorts, then stuffed it inside his book bag. By the time he had gotten outside, and was getting into the limousine to be driven to school, he realized the hand was no longer where he had put it. He reached into his book bag, drew out an empty pair of shorts. Damn! he cursed inwardly.
Explaining that he had forgotten something, he ran back to the house, through the front chambers, to the Game Room. There, as he expected, it was again, gripping the candelabra. He would not attempt its removal a third time. The decay had spread. The thought came to him that here was its source of power, in this room, grasping, as it had been grasping when severed, this candle stick; and to remove it, to force it away from here, was to bring an impotence to it. He dare not move it again. Unable to bring it to his club, he would bring his club to it. He returned to the car, satisfied that no one would disturb his holy relic.
"We are to be Mohamidans," he told his club members, the ten boys he had persuaded to join. Charter members, he had called them, ten of his classmates at the Tyfington School. I need two more, he decided; it must be complete, I must have twelve if I'm to be the Anti-Christ. He had never framed his club in these terms till now; he had no idea why he should have thought of it now, or why it had taken him so forcefully, this new aspect of his club. He knew only that he found it irresistible, and that he relished the feel of obsession, whatever form it took.
"Anti-Christ it's to be!" he resolved. "I must have two more."
"Mohamidans?" Charles' first ten disciples asked.
"You dare question my judgment?" he asked menacingly. He stared hard at his disciples. He knew very well that this was the time once and for all to establish his mastery over them. One by one, according to the strength of their wills, each was turned away by the superior force of his will. Where before he had merely called himself their leader, now he became so in deed and in fact.
"Mohamidans," he said, "cut themselves as a sign of their manhood. They do not flinch. I demand that each of you cut himself as a sign of subservience to me."
"Where? Cut ourselves where?" they all asked, panic in their voices.
"Where all true Mohamidans cut themselves," Charles replied. He had not originally intended this; he only meant, at first, to connote the phrase concerning Mohamed and the Mountain. But when he saw how easily he overpowered the others, it stole upon him. He realized that the boys probably had no foreskins to circumcise. All the better, he thought; I will enjoy watching them skin themselves, if only by a hair's breadth. He pictured in his mind the ten boys holding fast to what little skin they could summon around the heads of their penises. Doubtless, he realized, I'll have to do the cutting myself. He visualized their hands trembling too fitfully, not only to cut their own but to cut each others' as well. He would have preferred to have each cut his own, but he would have to improvise.
"Tonight," he said. "Meet me at the deepest grove of the Burnt Woods. At sundown. I will lead you to a secret place you have never seen and have no way even to imagine. There, we will have our initiation. You will pledge your loyalty. Tonight. At sundown. The deepest grove in the world. From there, I will lead you on."
But he needed two more. Somehow, between now and sundown, he must find two more. When he first envisioned himself surrounded by 12, he saw only from among his peers; he did not so much as consider the boys from the public school, save for Carroll Poshun, who proved unsuitable. In his mind was the injunction not to bait his followers with anyone outside their own class, for fear the insult may drive them away. Now he knew otherwise. Pooh, he thought: I could get poor, I could get black, I could get Jew, I could get retarded, I could get crippled, I could get anyone I wished, or needed, and they'd go along, simply because I willed it. I almost think if I worked hard and long enough at it, I could get them to cut their whole bodies off. God, I'd like that! To see them cutting one another to shreds in my honor, or each cutting himself. God, how I'd love to see that! And who knows? Perhaps, in time, I will.
As he wandered the halls, he knew it would be easy getting two more disciples - or twenty more, or two hundred, or any number. But he only wanted two more. He couldn't be the anti-Christ with a multitude. And he only wished a certain kind of follower; the only identity he had for them was "the best among the will-less ones." He wanted a little sport at least. No one else he encountered at the Tyfington School quite measured up. The ten he had already selected were the best. Anyone, he reasoned, can rule the masses; but only a true master can rule the best.
He left school early to go among the students at the public school, to seek out two worthy of the effort it took to subdue them. He wandered those halls, he inspected those boys. Most already belonged to gangs or clubs or fraternities, their allegiance was already spoken for - not that he could not have easily gotten them away from their chosen leaders: it might even be fun, who knew? perhaps even something of a challenge? Or, better still, seek out the leaders of gangs, subdue them - except that that way he could end up stuck with all their followers too, of which he wanted no part. Only virgins. No prior allegiances. He must be first. So he kept looking until the right two were located.
He knew he would sooner or later encounter Carroll Poshun, the first boy he offered to make his disciple. The place of honor was still reserved for him; there was still a chance. Charles knew his will was greater than Carroll's; he knew also that Carroll possessed some other quality, something nearly as strong as willpower, or maybe as strong - some quality which would enable him to resist no matter what, a kind of will of its own, but not really will. The will sought one thing only: ascendancy. Dominion. To be first, but not just first: to be all; to encompass all the lesser wills of the lesser souls. This was not will, this quality Carroll Poshun possessed. Strength, yes, but of a different character, attuned to different goals. It gave infinite resistance, it shielded its possessor from the rest of humanity, yet it prompted him to seek nothing from others. It was neither born of nor conducive to competition; it was not aggressive. It simply stood its ground, unmoving and unmovable - not as Aristotle's "Immovable Mover," but as something static. Perhaps that expressed it best, the difference between stasis and dynamism. Charles' force was dynamic, the kind that built empires; Carroll's static, the kind that endured long after empires had crumbled. Not the power of doing, but the power of being, complete unto itself, unconcerned with, untroubled and unintimidated by the world. A force which was the will's mortal enemy, and which must at all costs be destroyed, since it could not be subdued. A threat to everything the will sought to do and gain and rule.
There was Carroll, just ahead. And with him another boy. Perhaps a friend? Charles thought. An allegiance already established - not a virgin; but not an unworthy endeavor. Perhaps most worthy.
"Carroll," Charles said as he neared the two boys.
"Charles, what brings you to this side of town?" Carroll asked.
"I'm looking for someone. Perhaps you can introduce me."
"If it's someone I know," Carroll replied.
"Oh you'd know him alright. He's your best friend."
"I don't understand."
"I want to meet your best friend."
"Why?" There was something about the way Charles expressed his wish that disturbed, almost repulsed, Carroll.
"I judge a man by the company he keeps," Charles explained. "I offered you a place in my club, you turned it down. Now I want to make the same offer to your best friend. It's that simple. Who is your best friend?"
"Carroll and Darrel," Charles reflected. "What a team. You ought to be in vaudeville. And this, I take it, is Darrel?"
"This is," Carroll Poshun acknowledged that the boy next to him was his best friend.
"Hi, Darrel," said Charles, "I'm Charles Grae XIII."
"Hi," said Darrel.
I don't think you're anywhere near as strong as your friend Carroll, Darrel, Charles thought as he stared into the boy's eyes and witnessed a discomfort gathering. Soon Darrel would probably turn away from his stare, or at least break eye contact. That won't be necessary though, Charles relented. I've got what I came for, no need to subdue you just yet. My eleventh disciple, Darrel of Carroll and Darrel fame. Congratulations my lad, you are truly blessed among men.
"Darrel, I'd like to speak to you about joining a club I'm forming."
Darrel looked to his friend, as if for either permission or refusal; a gesture the futility of which both Carroll and Charles at once understood. Charles was elated, though hardly surprised. Carroll was a little disheartened, though neither was he really surprised. This was still his best friend, no matter what; he loved Darrel for the qualities he possessed, not for some ideal quality which may or may not manifest in his behavior. He smiled graciously at his friend.
"We're friends, Darrel. We'll he friends no matter what you decide," Carroll assured him. And while it gave assurance of continued friendship, it offered no comfort. It made him, Darrel, the absolute master of his destiny. He could choose as he pleased.
"I don't think I really want to," Darrel replied.
"Why not?" asked Charles.
"I don't really have a reason. I'm just not interested. I don't need a reason, do I?"
"No, of course not," Charles assured him. Indeed not, thought Charles: for without a reason, it becomes a test of wills, yours against mine. Barely a contest. "We'll talk more of it later. I'll meet you after school. You can be thinking about it."
Charles continued his way; Carroll and Darrel continued theirs. Charles was looking for one more boy, he no longer particularly cared who, or whether the boy was truly worthy, he was too elated at having turned Carroll Poshun's best friend into his eleventh disciple to worry much about the twelfth. Carroll, though, was troubled by the ordeal - and it was an ordeal, watching someone he cared for floundering like a beached dolphin in some big game hunter's private preserve; knowing that his highest principle, the great principle of freedom, of allowing each person to make up his own mind, choose his own fate, he was absolutely a free agent: that that, the greatest of all principles of social interaction, was in effect the sudden tidal wave which had stranded the creature too far ashore to get back to safety. I know it's right, I know father's right when he formulated it, Carroll reminded himself; but I wonder sometimes if it always applies, to all people, in all circumstances, or if like almost everything else, it should be moderated when the harm of adhering to it exceeds the harm of betraying it. Adherence, or betrayal: the eternal dilemma. Or perhaps not a real dilemma at all but rather an artificial one. Was the purpose - the only reason for being - of all principles to serve, or to be served? Was the abstract the master or the servant of man? The creator or the creation? The nemesis or the benefactor? An avenger or a guardian? Did it exist in and of itself or because it was needed? And, if because of need, was the exact same need at all times and under all circumstances operative? How could that which man may never violate be truly for his own good, since conditions did not always permit the neat dissection of reality into clearly defined portions? Darrel wanted his friend to help him choose which course to pursue; but his friend's principle allowed him no such help. Unaided by either his own greater purpose or his friend's expressed preference, Darrel was to go against the cumulative will of thirteen generations of a family splattered with the blood of a thousand innocents. As Charles Grae surmised, it was no contest.
"If you don't want me to," Darrel hinted for support, "I won't join."
"It's entirely up to you," Carroll replied. The principle was inviolate, he would do it no injury today. He chose his loyalty to the abstract above his friendship for this boy. Principles, he told himself, exist only through us; their fragility depends upon our strength. And once a principle is lost - or abandoned, or whatever - it never, never, never, never comes again. Our responsibility - our duty - is absolute.
Charles was waiting. He had found, wandering the halls, his twelfth disciple, a surly boy with big muscles and a swaggering air which defied the world to get in his way. Now Charles came for his eleventh. He saw Darrel, alone, leaving school. He called to him. Darrel slowed to let him catch up.
"Well?" asked Charles.
"No, I don't think so," Darrel replied.
"I just don't want to. Not really. I don't know, I just don't."
"Oh, come on," Charles cajoled.
"No, I'd rather not," Darrel half pleaded. Charles took hold of his arm, gently stopped his progress, came around to face him, and stared hard into his eyes. He tried turning away.
"Look at me!" Charles demanded. Darrel's eyes obeyed. "I want you for my club, Darrel. I want you. I want you for my club. For my club, Darrel. I want you."
"Well, maybe - but I'm still not sure," Darrel explained, apologized, gave in.
"But I am sure," Charles said. "I'm enough sure for both of us. You are, as of this moment, an official member of my club. Welcome, Darrel. Welcome. By the way," Charles remembered the boy with him - his twelfth disciple, "this is Johnthan."
"Hello," Darrel said. Jonathan did not reply, he simply continued to look past Darrel.
"Jonathan," Charles gave his first ultimatum, "you're to speak to whoever I introduce you to or else you can find yourself another club."
Yeah, maybe I'll do that! Jonathan started to say, until the look in Charles' eyes persuaded him otherwise. "Hello, Darrell," he said instead.
"Let's go," Charles ordered. "My other boys will be waiting. In the Burnt Woods. Then, from there, we go to my flame - but not till dusk. I have a little ceremony planned. I think you'll both like it. I know I will."
The other ten boys were waiting, at the designated spot, where the woods were still thick enough, even without foliage, to conceal as in a deep grove the first meeting of Charles Grae's club. The two new boys were looked over, head to toe; it was clear that they had come from the public school, and that their clothes and manners were decidedly inferior - particularly those of the bigger boy, Jonathan, the muscle-builder.
"Where'd you find these mongrels?" one of Charles' peers asked.
"The little one looks like a sissy, the big one like a moron!" said another. Darrell and Jonathan both turned to Charles as if for help.
I can't refuse my followers, he reminded himself, even though he was enjoying the sport, his enjoyment made all the keener by the knowledge that the two boys would stand there and take his friends' abuse, the big one no less than the little one. Something about the common man, some unknown and incomprehensible quality which Charles had noticed, subjects him to endless abuse at the hands of those who control his life. He will fight his peers with the ferocity of a wild animal, he will take neither insult nor physical abuse; yet let him come up against his rulers and he will cower and whimper and stand perfectly still for the cruelest chastisement. The common man bows to authority; those in authority bow to one another; only the giants of this earth stand alone. Nonetheless, Charles could not have dissension among his followers; they must all be equal, for to place any above the rest would be to jeopardize his authority. Let them look down on whomever they wished, but not on one another. There could be only one superiority.
"That's enough," he said to his peers from school. "I order you to apologize to these two." One by one he made each apologize. "Good," he said, "now we're ready to begin. I want all of you to get undressed." Reluctantly, they obeyed. "Now I want all of you, all twelve, to masturbate one another. I will assign you a partner. Form a circle according to how I call you." The circle was formed. "Now each one of you, with your right hand, masturbate the one next to you to your right." His will was absolute. Everything was done as he ordered. Now, all twelve: lie down and roll around inside the circle where it's wet." This too was obeyed. "Now rise. We are ready to begin the initiation."
Charles took a switchblade from his pocket. He snapped it open. He watched the frightened eyes of his disciples as he slashed again and again through the air. He gave off an impression of being a Samurai swordsman; he seemed about to attack the twelve naked boys whose dusty wet bodies trembled before him. None of them said anything; but as he drew near, their eyes all pleaded with him. They were more afraid to speak out, even though they would be speaking for their lives, than to stand still and be sliced to pieces by the blade; so they let their eyes plead for them, and hoped they fear eloquently enough to save their lives, hoped their eyes religiously mirrored what they wished to convey. Charles drew alongside the closest one; he moved the blade to the boy's throat. The boy slammed his eyes shut: they had failed him. He waited miserably for his life to end, more anxious over the wait than over his imminent doom. Yet nothing happened; he still lived.
"Please," he mumbled. "Get it over with." The same voice which had been unable to plead for his life now pleading for his death. Still he lived.
"What's everyone so quiet about?" Charles finally asked. "And you," he directed this to the boy whose throat his knife was at, "get what over with?"
"Whatever it is you wish to do," the boy replied in a hesitant voice barely audible.
"Do the rest of you feel the same way?" Charles asked. They all nodded. "I can't hear you," he said.
"Yes," they managed to say.
"Very well," Charles agreed, "let's get it over with." He wandered in and out among them; he could feel their fear. Fear, he had heard, paralyzed, made the body insensitive to pain. Just as well, he concluded.
"Here!" he said, stopping at random. Take this!" he offered his knife to the boy. "Take it!" he had to repeat his order. The boy all of a sudden had the weapon in his hand. "Circumcise yourself!" Charles ordered.
"I, I," the boy mumbled, "I can't. I have none. See? I have none. I've been."
"Pinch the skin where your foreskin was," Charles said. "See? There's some. Do it. Circumcise what's left. Now!" The boy stared into Charles' eyes, seeking mercy, or pity; but there was none. The boy reached one trembling hand to take hold of the skin of his penis and squeeze it into a fold. With the other hand he slowly brought the knife to meet his leftover foreskin.
Now - do it!" Charles demanded.
The boy cut. "All the way around," Charles said. Bit by bit the boy squeezed all the way around his penis, cutting as he went, unevenly, a grotesque bleeding trail eventually winding into a circumference. The boy had made no sound; he was drenched in sweat. Charles took the knife from his hand and passed it to the next boy. This one, by chance, had not been circumcised. His hands shook so much he nicked his penis all over before establishing the proper cut. He bled more profusely than the first boy, and took longer to effect the circumcision. Then the knife was taken from him too and passed to the next, and the next, and the next, all the way around, each boy a little less frightened, a little more eager to maim himself, until at last all twelve had been circumcised, those who had no foreskin and those who did.
Dusk was beginning to pass. Charles left his disciples standing naked while he toyed with a new thought. An image had come to him: a trail of blood marking the way to his house, the imprint of his will indelibly upon the earth. An overpowering image. In the dim growth of tree limbs they could not see their mutilated sexes dripping the essence of their master's will, and though they were still numb to the pain, it was beginning to impact. "Gather your clothes!" Charles commanded. "But don't get dressed. Not yet. You must wait until I say. You may carry your clothes with you. But don't get dressed." Each boy began to grope and search to find his own among the pile of clothes. By the time they had completed their task, nothing but a dim light beyond the grove remained of the dusk. Charles now led them out, summoning them to follow him. They formed a single row trailing behind their leader. Enough blood dripped from their collective sexes to form a path from the deep grove outward to the lands the Graes called their own.
"None of you are to say a thing, nor make any noise," Charles instructed beneath the final slither of light as the horizon went all black. "Follow closely. The crucial test of loyalty is next."
More crucial than what they had just done, they despaired: Oh God. Oh God help us. Save us. Oh God, where are you? Save us. Please. Save us.
- Who does God help? was never asked that day. -
The wild growth gave way slowly to the grasses of real property. Nature had been slashed to smithereens. The ground became as a carpet, clear of briars and rocks and sticker bushes and too crisp blades. Naked boys' naked feet enjoyed the beneficent taming; they had hurt before. And the evening dew cleansed world weariness away. Softening their tightened stomachs with gentile ecstasy; the great boon of civilization. Boys come in from the wild, naked, circumcised, allergiant. Way in the distance a light crept over the edge of the earth from below, and crept ever nearer. And grew greater. The light of the Grae House, collective light a hundred windows forged by perspective into a single tall sheet dominating the whole horizon from top to bottom, rising, rising, like a god-sex upon an altar, to be worshipped. The source of all power, the might of dominion, the domain of will. God's ego, awaiting the worshippers its priest was delivering up for prayer.
"You may get dressed now," was whispered, and, though a whisper, was heard so clear by all the boys, as if not the priest but the totem itself had spoken. They obeyed noiselessly in the now glowing aura given out. The bodies hurt where the cloth touched; but they said nothing. And they hurt with each new step as the cloth rubbed their wounds. Man must hide his nakedness, whatever the cost to his flesh. Looming and rising the great god-head guided their steps. Visible now were huge trees paralleling the luminous tower, as if the god were measuring his ascent. Gradually, too, the light broke into Euclidian patterns - eaves, shutters, sashes and solid wall transmuting phallus to palace, the god-head to the man-made, the divine to the aristocratic, raw open power to a hidden vault filled with the earth's great store of treasures. Vases, statues, priceless porcelain and paintings walled where shafts of light beckoned master and disciple from the burned out forest and through the untamed wild to where the warmth and security of civilization awaited.
They were there. Their master was home.
He beckoned. They followed. The rear of the house, on tiptoe, past lighted windows full of opulence, around to the far side, where an open window, black and vacant within, waited to admit them. Charles climbed in first, one by one the others followed.
"Don't be afraid boys it's only inside your creator you've come."
The dark room became filled, first with the pungent aroma of sulphur, then with the sear of exploding match heads. Charles let them burn while he sought out the candle he had brought here to light the way; then he lit it and, on a sudden impulse, hurled the pack of matches at the boys. They fought to escape its leap, they scurried like frightened animals before an inferno; but they dared not cry out. No one was hit, no one was burned. The matches, finding nothing to sustain their heat, died upon the sterile flooring. Charles, candle in one hand, motioned with the other for his disciples to follow. The room opened onto a long, dark corridor which ran, near the back of the house, parallel the corridor cutting the house in two. Another corridor bisected this one; they turned onto it. Finally they were brought to the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, the seed the almighty had given to man to guard and cherish. The reins of creation, from which the universe had been expelled. Bang!!!...You're alive.
Charles' hand-held candle went out. There was no sudden air, nor had Charles extinguished it. It just went out, upon entry into the Game Room. Its light was not needed, the room was already lit by the flames of three candles fixed upon the bureau against the Western wall by a three prong candelabra. Charles led the way. The boys, their eyes drawn to the source of light, shuddered, all twelve. Upon the base of the candelabra the severed hand was set still in an iron grip. The boys took it for a rotting hand: none of them imagined it an ornament, or even a clever wax work; they all knew, just as they knew it figured somehow in the ceremony they had been brought here to consummate. They were frightened; they would at last have turned back had not the thought of the excruciating indignities they had already subjected themselves to dulled their terror. Rather than face the monstrous perversion of their own wills that lay waiting should they retreat, they moved, at their leader's command, nearer the putrefying icon. It gave no odor of decay; rather, it smelled of fresh spices and garnishes, over burned and sulphurous but not unenticing.
Charles motioned each boy to come obey his single command: "Kiss him!" One by one they fulfilled his wish. The last to come forth was the bully Charles had selected along with Darrel from the public school. Kissing the hand, he turned, as had the others, but with a different look on his face. His eyes had become blank, as if they were only painted on. And his skin grew dark with foul pus. His features hardened to something skeletous. He reached out, and as the boy Darrel was nearest, he took hold of him, by the throat.
"I am Joseph," he said in a voice of stone. "Joseph must eat. Joseph will eat."
Holding still firm to Darrel's throat with one hand, he released the other hand, held it suspended a moment, as if undecided, then, in a fierce motion, swooped onto the side of Darrel's face, ripping a chunk of flesh from the boy's cheek. The pressure on Darrel's throat kept him from crying out. In an instant the blood dripped between Joseph's fingers, then he stuffed the raw meat into his mouth. He spat it out after only a bit. In his free hand he now took the candle. He held it out.
"Take this," he said. The other boys all reached for it. Drawing the boy Darrel to the center of the room, Joseph commanded the candle be set on the floor. It was done. With his free hand again he grabbed first one then another of the disciples and forced them to take hold of Darrel as he instructed, one to hold each leg, one each arm, one the head, stretching the boy over the candles. Another disciple was made to undress the boy. Slowly, holding him against his fierce efforts to free himself, slowly, over the flame, the disciples began cooking the boy, his throat still held fast in Joseph's hand.
"Geld him first!" Charles commanded. "To make the meat more tender." He nodded to Joseph, who reached out, clutched Darrel's testicles and ripped them from his body. Then the disciples resumed cooking him.
"Turn him over," Joseph said. The disciples obeyed, careful not to let the boy's kicks and pulls interfere with their effort. Joseph's free hand reached to the boy's charred buttocks. A piece of meat was ripped off. Joseph tasted it. He nodded.
"Good," he said. The boy had almost ceased moving. Joseph motioned for the disciples to once again turn him over. Seeing that it had cooked well, Joseph ripped the boy's sex from his loin. He handed it to his master. Charles did not eat; instead he took out his knife, cut the boy's sex into eleven even pieces and passed them around to his disciples. For them to eat. Next the belly itself was wrenched open. Joseph pulled the boy's entrails and, still with his free hand, wrapped them about his neck.
The boy was cooked around the middle, and eaten. Joseph took his other hand from the boy's throat; no cries were threatened any longer. Both hands feasted. The boy's body was partitioned, delicacies which in a prior existence expressed the living force of his being passed from hand to hand around the campfire, till the best had been devoured and the eleven disciples had had their fill. The carcass was set aside; the disciples huddled around the fire and fell asleep. But were awakened by Charles.
"Have you swine no manners?" he chided his disciples. "Now that you've feasted, you must clean up the mess." The disciples all looked around for something to clean up the remains, the blood, gore, vomit, urine and feces covering the floor; but finding nothing, looked to their master for guidance.
"Have you no tongues?" he lashed out at them. "Use your tongues! Now swine!" he commanded. The boys all began crawling about the room, scooping up the remains and gulping it all down. They all started to retch. Charles called to his Joseph. "Anyone who vomits their dessert: geld him as you gelded our sacrifice." One boy was unable to hold his dessert. Joseph grabbed his throat, pulled his pants down and pulled his testicles from his body, exactly as he had those of the sacrifice. The flame which had cooked the sacrifice cauterized his wound.
Unable to cry out, Darrell had felt himself being turned, slowly, on a spit over a huge flame in the Burnt Woods, as he watched from behind a tree. He saw eleven hungry boys feasting on him, he felt their hands ripping his body apart, even as he watched. Then, when nothing remained of the features, he wondered who or what thing had been cooked. He tried moving nearer but no matter how much force he spent or how much space he covered, he remained behind the great barren tree watching at the same distance, unable to partake of the feast. Filled with despair at being kept an alien, he turned and left, or thought he left, yet no matter how far he traveled he was still astride the tree waiting to go. In time he ceased measuring himself against the concept of progress; he moved, and he filled space, and whether he got anywhere or not became, first, of no consequence, then, without even so much as a base in his experience. It was too long ago and too far away when progress meant anything. Now there was only time and space and motion. Endlessly.
Catherine Grae Braxton was passing the jailhouse at the exact moment Carroll Poshun was being released. The air was warm where she was walking, cold where the door opened to let the prisoner out, not so much a blast of air into the street as a cold pull upon it, as if things might be sucked in. Catherine and the prisoner were familiar to each other; it was necessary to make at least a show of greeting. A hello would have done; but something about each made the other contemptuous of mere protocol. One said hello as much to dismiss an unwelcome encounter as to render a greeting. Their encounter, however, was not unwelcome, therefore the prescribed form was unacceptable.
"So you've returned to Tyfington," Carroll Poshun observed.
"Yes, just this past week," Catherine explained.
"You don't sound glad to be home."
"I was glad to leave but, no, not to return. I wouldn't have returned at all had my husband not insisted. He wished to see the ancestral home. He wanted to get a feel for it - more, I suspect, as an artist than as my husband."
"Is he a good artist?" Carroll asked.
"In what he does, yes, he is. A superb artist. His subject matter suits his talents very well. If you'd care to meet him sometime, I'd be happy to arrange it," Catherine offered.
"I'd just as soon you didn't. Among my other preferences, I have one against art and artists - at least, recognized artists, which I presume your husband either is or eventually will be."
"I don't think so," said Catherine. "I don't think fame interests him. His art is more an obsession. He does not engage in it so much as indulge it. It seems to control him."
"Then I admire him," said Carroll. "if it's an obsession, it's not likely to be of service to the powers that be. I take it one is never obsessed with glorifying them or their rulership or the various moral and social trappings of their rule: one does not pander out of obsession, I don't imagine."
"And art is pandering?" Catherine asked.
"It has no choice but to end up that way. If it's successful, marketable, respectable, and so one. Those who rule are very clear and very specific about their interests. They can spot a threat a good ways off."
"Does it really matter who rules, or how they rule, or why?"
"If it didn't matter, there would not be so much time and energy put into becoming and remaining the powers within a society. Yet, it matters. Especially if one wishes to lead a principled life. One cannot be both principled and powerful."
"Perhaps not all principles derive from or lead to or revolve around benevolence," Catherine observed. "It may even be that all principles, whether well-intentioned or not, are evil. But that remains to be seen. You know," she added in a softer tone, "I've always been partial to this building. Of course, legend has it it was more than a jail, it was a torture chamber. But then the same legend has it that it was dismantled piecemeal and used to wall in my family's house; then when the wall was taken down, the jail was rebuilt. I'm sure you already know all this - I'm told your family has kept guard over all the town's legends. Still, I find it fascinating. Have you ever noticed that in most older cities the jails, the churches and the mansions are the most interesting structures? Schools, hospitals, places of business and commerce never are."
"Theaters - places of entertainment: don't forget them!" Carroll noted.
"Usually only on the inside," Catherine rejoined. "Outwardly, jails come first, then churches, then mansions - and if you look closely, and ignore the superfluous ornamentation, all three bear a striking resemblance. All three are designed as fortresses. I find that interesting. The Romanesque predominates - even in churches. Circles over angles. You get the feeling you could more easily find your way out of an angular than a circular structure. The angular suggests freedom, movement; the circular, stagnation. Nevertheless, I love the jail. Who knows, perhaps I'll murder someone just to spend the rest of my life in it? Who shall I murder, Mr. Poshun? You be my Svengali."
A strange image overtook the whimsical repartee, one that prompted Carroll Poshun's reply. "Your brother," he said, and was immediately sorry for having said it. The two remained speechless for a moment, both aware, if for different reasons, of some hideous irony brought into play. Catherine's eyes had shifted from Carroll to the jail; she zealously regarded its spiral of gray brick grown dingy and moist, its thick iron bars and delicate black grating, its high wooden door laced with what suggested a splay of hinge work, as if many smaller doors had gone to making up this one. I must get inside, she resolved. I must be somewhere, sometime to be charged with a crime, Grae or not. But it won't be the crime you recommend. My brother -
Catherine did not complete her thought. The words she would have used, had she used them, were: My brother will die at his grandfather's hands. She chose not to finish the thought. "Perhaps my husband would be better," she half quipped. "Then you and I could run off to the half buried islands, wherever they are: the place where half the land is principled, half empty. We could make love where the depression occurs, I to rise from my depth, where there are no principles, you to descend from your place. Of course, the imagery is reversed, isn't it?"
"Oh, I suspect it's my principled half you see actually as buried," Carroll observed. "In which event the imagery stands as is. Not that you have to first kill your husband."
"I thought you Poshuns never cheated on your wives," Catherine hinted.
"We don't. To run off with an heiress to the half buried islands is not viewed by us as cheating. We're principled - not moral. There's a difference. To be moral is to obey the dictates devised by others to preserve the hierarchy. Principle is of one's own making."
"Then the rulers too are principled, are they not? They follow no one else's rules," Catherine observed.
"They follow no one's rules - nor their own. The rules they make are dictated not by persons but by things. Not for themselves but for their interests - their power - their holdings - the protection of their attainments: for the sake of things, not people, they make their rules. Mine, however, are made for me, for my sake. I have nothing to safeguard. No wealth, no reputation, no influence. Nothing. I am free to live by principles, for I have no interests."
The irony of the terms struck Catherine. Everything, she concluded, was money. Even if you didn't have it, or want it, you gauged you life by it - by its lack, by its irrelevance, by its worthlessness. We can be greed or we can be non-greed, but we cannot envision our existence without some form of ego lust. Our greatest lust is for our egos. All of us. Even the principled.
"Then tell me," she asked, "if you would seduce me in the buried islands, would you seduce me in Tahiti?"
"E'en so," came the gracious reply.
"And if you would seduce me in Tahiti, would you seduce me in Paris?"
"I would have no choice."
"And if in Paris, doubtless in Amsterdam, and in New York, and on a dare perhaps even Washington D.C. Then why not in Tyfington?"
"My place or yours?" Catherine asked.
"How about here? In the jail. Tonight. We can sneak in, find an empty cell, a vacant cot. Perhaps the one I slept in last night. Tonight?"
"You know a way in?"
"I think so."
The Poshuns worked mainly as handymen, a useful trade handed down through the generations, a cacophony of useful movements which the life of their town depended upon but never rewarded. A handyman - a jack of all trades, who could be summoned to do or fix almost anything - equated, in a world obsessed with specialization, with a ne'er-do-well. The baker, the physician, the judge, the entrepreneur could all buy as they chose but knew nothing of their possessions, neither the structural nor the workings; while the man who knew the exact nature of physical objects had to means of obtaining any. The Poshuns were a race - or a species - content with knowing; they did not need to possess an object, they understood its nature: its soul. Platonists to the bone, this family disdained the actual thing as merely a poor insubstantial replica of the true object, which required no handyman to repair, for essence did not wear out or break down as did substance. A golden faucet, being twice removed from the system which drew water from the sea to be carried as clouds until released upon the land, was as unworthy an object of desire as could be imagined, to possess one a pitiful misplacement of values. The Poshuns could fix gold faucets, for they understood the mechanism expressed. They had only contempt for those who sought so desperately to own one yet knew nothing of the drawing of liquids, let alone of the liquid drawn. And they could dismantle whole buildings - they had been called upon even for this - and reset the form around another shape; then un-do that form to reassemble the original. They were ne'er-do-wells: they never did well. Whereas those who could only possess did exceedingly well. They understood as no race of beings ever had the vain, irresistible appeal of appearance, and how, the owners of matter having all the appearance of having mastered the forces of nature, it was inevitable they would be thought well of while those who understand the inviolability, the impregnability of existence were never perceived to do well.
The way into jail was no mystery for a ne'er-do-well. By the back or the front door he could enter, and be led or conduct himself. The dismantling of a building opens a wealth of paths to the man who knows how to unseam bricks and mortar. And to his descendants.
When it grew toward night, Carroll Poshun reappeared before the jail, exactly where he had left Catherine earlier in the day. He saw in the distance her form approaching, rich in shadow, almost lustrous beneath the orange-rose street lights of a growing city, empty of the small town which rapidly was turning from a patchwork of diversified interests to an amalgam of specialized and highly deliberate ideas. A town, for all its smallness, is never unified in the sense a city is. Everyone's quirks are like scales eventually hewn from the form, everyone conspiring to assume like shapes; the city has neither space nor time to separate a multitude of distinct identities, it must deal with all people simultaneously, it must know who will be where and why, it cannot afford its members the luxury of going and coming according to their own design. It makes one and only one mold; everyone's duty is to remake his own shape to fit this unique mold, soft, pliable matter becoming durable, like plaster, until the possibility of absolute predictability springs into sharp focus. Tyfington was fast becoming a great city; visitors come, new businesses locate, old businesses expand, without being accosted by a thousand colorful characters, each with his own opinions, his own standards, his own interests. In perfect safety commerce could flourish; everyone would do what was expected of him. Farmer Brown could be counted on to show up at the factory on time, to work his eight hours, to then get back home in time for the evening news broadcast - for now he was Citizen Brown of a growing metropolis. He posed no further problem.
Without speaking, Carroll took Catherine by the arm and led her down a side alley. Then stopped at a bolted door.
"This is not the easiest way to get in," Carroll explained, "but once inside the going is easier than if we entered somewhere else."
"How will you open it?" Catherine asked.
"Like every door, it has its quirks. It's a very old door, ten men couldn't break it down: they'd need a battering ram. But it can be coaxed. If I rattle it a certain way, move two or three things quickly enough, slip a penknife between the bolt and the frame - it'll open right up."
And it opened, just as he said. "No one'll notice if it's left unbolted for awhile."
There were lights in the alley, but they were angled down upon where the door was bolted, and the frame was slightly recessed from the building, so that where shadows were made at all, they cast the suggestion of a bolted door. And in a growing city no one anticipated the unsuspected; the door, unlocked in reality, could remain safely locked in everyone's mind.
Inside, a dimness had seeped as if through the walls dividing this open space from he rest of the jail. There were no lights; it ought to have been pitch dark, but the very mortar - for this area was a porch now walled in - admitted along its seams light from beyond, every foot and a half, from floor to ceiling, the over-porous material a honeycomb of irregular pinpricks between the large bricks, more like stone than brick - just enough to light their way through this area roughly the shape of a corridor paralleling the back wall. It led directly to the prisoner's area.
The only prisoner in the overnight lockup had been released earlier in the day. The overnight was separated by a wall and a corridor from the rest of the cells. It was smaller, and had no bathroom facilities; there was a cot, narrow but long, on it, a gray army blanket with a border of almost indistinct olive, a white sheet and a pillow without a pillowcase. There was no light in the cell, but in the corridor beside it was a brass shade holding an exposed bulb. Everything was quite standard, except that the bars surrounding the cell had once been used as part of a battering ram against some Central European fortress, or so it was generally believed. The cell door was kept locked only when someone occupied the cell.
Sounds from the other side of the corridor wall reached the lockup - sounds of the prisoners, nightly sounds from men no longer free, predictable sounds, some belligerent, some mournful, some the incomprehensible laughter of the confined, occasionally a mumbling or a prayer, or talk about the sex they could not enjoy. There were no heinous criminals here, nor were any here for life; most would be out within the year. Several expressed terror, not so much of confinement, but of where they were confined; constantly they pleaded to be let out, or put elsewhere, even to be executed rather than be left here: these were men who knew the legends, they were life-long residents, they, like their peers on the outside, had spent a lifetime obeying the law, for no other reason than that they lived in terror of being put in this jail. One or two were unjustly convicted of crimes they had not committed; one or two were being held as material witnesses; one or two had let their tempers get the better of them - none had deliberately broken the law. These, familiar with the town's legends, knew also the things that had happened here through the years, things never made public but known anyway by old-timers. Mysterious accidents; strange, horrible ends to prisoners' lives; fires which trapped men in their cells; bars which when touched electrocuted; bed-sores which grew overnight into hideous tumors; insects which came out of the floor in vast armies to devour whoever was near; knives of flame which sliced men's flesh from their bones; prisoners found feeding on their cellmates. Nothing was ever said, but the old-timers knew, just as they knew this jail had once walled in the Grae House; knew the evil of the house had passed into these gray bricks, into the mortar, into the flooring, into the ceilings, into the bars, and could be triggered at any time into spewing out onto whomever was unfortunate enough to be there when it did. So they begged and pleaded, these old timers, not to be left here. Kill us instead - do anything to us, only please - in the name of God, please! - let us out of here!
A strange air seemed to have arisen from the floor. Carroll Poshun and Catherine Grae, making their way to the overnight lockup, noticed it first: there was a sense of being touched, but too softly to register on the skin itself; only the brain could sense it. They felt as if they had passed through a spider web, but so gently that no threads broke against them to wind about their bodies. Yet the sense remained, as if layer upon layer of webbing were being traversed. When they reached the cell, however, it seemed to have dissipated. Beyond the wall they heard a pitiful voice pleading.
"Oh God no," the voice of the old-timer moaned, "it's here. The evil's here. I feel it. Oh God no. No. Please, no."
Carroll Poshun encircled Catherine Grae in his arms. They drew each other's breath. Their bodies touched so hard that where they were not touching they felt already naked. There was no possibility of undressing each other without moving apart, and no possibility of doing that. They fell as much as laid back on the cot. They had no knowledge of the sounds beyond the corridor, on the other side of the wall.
"Stay back - please! Stay back!" The old-timer cried out his final plea.
Carroll freed one hand, and with that hand made a place, both on Catherine's and his own clothes. There was only this one path open, and that opened only at great effort. They were almost too tightly wedged to begin the motions, which alone could free them.
The old-timer's scream pierced the walls. A huge gaping mouth came out of the ceiling at him. Just a mouth, dripping saliva which, like acid, ate into his face where it spilled onto him.
Carroll Poshun cried out as if his sex had been torn open by an explosion. Again and again the explosion ripped through him.
The old-timer's head was severed from his neck and swallowed whole.
Catherine Grae felt her insides collapsing.
The great mouth vanished into the ceiling.
Carroll Poshun could feel his crushed sex disappearing.
The headless body tumbled to the floor.
Catherine Grae could feel the shambles within beginning to settle.
The guards ran to the old-timer's cell. Gradually the voices of panic began being heard across the way. "Who did this?" "My God!" "Who did this - which one of you did this?" "Where'd you hide it?" "Where'd you put it?" "Where is it?" "We don't have it!" "We never saw it before!" "What do we want with another head?" "We don't know what happened!" "We just looked and there he was, on the floor!"
"Did he cry out?"
"Maybe he did, we don't know! Maybe he didn't! So what if he did?"
"Who killed him?"
"We thought he was just sleeping?"
"Without a head?"
"God damn it he can sleep anyway he pleases!"
"We want that head!"
"And for identification! We've got to check it against his dental records! It's the law!"
"The law? "The law be damned!"
"You've got it backwards, buddy: the law damns, it's you who'll be damned!"
"Want me to say 'Well I'll be damned'? Huh? Want me to?"
"You just keep your mouth shut!"
"You should have been here to tell that to the demon!"
"Yeah: you should have told him to keep his trap shut!"
"You saw something?"
"Maybe we did, maybe we didn't!"
"Maybe a demon, maybe an angel, maybe no one! You get him on the line-up, we'll see if we recognize him!"
"You, you can lock us up quick enough just because we stole somebody's valuables - not that we did, but if we did! But just try locking evil up!"
"Yeah, I want to live so long to see you bring in all the evil there is - handcuffed too, by God!"
"We don't need to arrest evil - we've got all we can do just to keep ourselves arresting you boys!"
"While the demons get away!"
"There are no demons," the guards maintained, and would continue to maintain, right to the end. For they were men of law, keepers of the peace, enforcers of their society's rules, guardians against dissenters and other malcontents, champions of the norm, and maintainers of order. They knew nothing of evil and cared less; their job was to bring in their man. Did you step the wrong way? then, sir, you are indeed under suspicion. And if found to have violated one of the sacred principles, under arrest.
Demons, on the other hand, posed no appreciable threat to the social order. And were too big, besides, to haul into such tiny cells; nor would they likely remain to serve out their sentence. Besides which, as every law-abiding citizen knows, there were no demons - they were all the invention of Hollywood, either beings from another dimension, another plane of existence, or else the manifestation of evil forces. And since we now knew that evil resided in the human heart, and the heart religiously obeyed the clinical dictates of modern science, it surely followed that evil died as the heart ceased beating; and could be safely laid to rest. For, once dead, always dead. The past was a graveyard unsurpassed, a depository from which nothing could ever escape: the ultimate jail. Consign a thing to the past, you shall have destroyed it absolutely. The evil that men do cannot live after them, nor will modern science let it. Rather, it slumbers in eternal cryogenics neither beneath nor above the ground but inside a clock, whose every tick dispels it farther and farther from us. The more clocks we have, the safer we are. May God help us, though. from he who would steal our purse.
The headless corpse was carried off to lie in state inside a refrigerator until the law could decide how best to account for its having come to be upon the floor of cell number 17. A thorough search was made for the missing head. Every prisoner was questioned, every contradiction in every story carefully examined for some clue to the murderer's identity. All night and all the following day this went on.
Catherine Grae and Carroll Poshun quietly got up and, as uneventfully as they had entered, departed, their amorous escapade a thing now of the past. The web-like air had dissipated with the death of the old-timer, a sweet, normal air returning at once to reclaim its rightful place.
"What happened in there?" Catherine asked.
"Does it matter?" Carroll replied.
"Perhaps we caused it," Catherine hinted.
"Why? Because we made love? Nonsense."
Catherine was not so readily convinced. "I'm not referring to what people term morality," she said. "I've long ago discounted that as the worthless thing it is. I would have thought you of all people would give me at least that much credit."
"Then what are you referring to?" Carroll asked.
"Forgive me a moment's arrogance, but perhaps you have to be a Grae to understand."
"Adam," said Carroll, "was, I believe, the first Grae. Then cam Eve. Then the demon - not Satan though: Satan came much later, a kind of panhandler seeking handouts. And then came Charles Grae the First. Who, perhaps, had a younger brother. Or perhaps not."
"Did he?" asked Catherine.
"Have a younger brother? Maybe he did. Maybe he didn't."
"Then maybe we're guilty of incest?"
"You'll have to consult Adam and Eve about that."
The activity attending the death of the old-timer drew all attention from the side of the jail to the front. The coroner came; the dentist, with the old-timer's records, useless as they were; the chief of police had been summoned from the new Tyfington School, where he had been banqueting with the School's faculty and administration at the PTA's initial meeting; even one of the Circuit Judges had been summoned. No one noticed Catherine Grae and Carroll Poshun leaving by the side entrance, no one saw them in the alley, no one caught sight of them heading away from the jail. They could have come and gone a dozen times to rendezvous in the overnight lockup and no one would have been the wiser. There was death loose in the jailhouse; no time for sex.
"What is it you have to be a Grae to understand?" Carroll asked as they strolled the streets of their city.
"Remember when street lights were all greenish purple? Now they're all orange rose. I wonder what they'll be next. I'm not trying to change the subject," Catherine explained, "nor is this to illustrate what I meant. It's just that it occurred to me I have no way to explain what it is that makes me know our being there is what prompted whatever happened in there. I saw, as we lay there, a huge mouth reaching down from the ceiling - not the ceiling over us, but somewhere else. The features were distorted and grotesque, but I knew them. The mouth was our mouth. The Graes. My father, and especially my brother, has that same set, the same texture, the same color. It was our mouth I saw overhead wherever it was. Something is re-occurring, Carroll, something that has not visited us in many generations. The worst of it is, I'm neither surprised nor upset by it: I expected it, and somehow I welcome it. I get the feeling it will all soon be over, and we'll be free. But at a terrible cost to us. My grandfather, who I loved very much, told me on his deathbed to kill my brother. Without knowing why he said it, I too felt it as something that must be done. In order to save the family. But I don't wish to save the family, or else I might have done it. I've always felt my brother is capable of anything. I knew it would be he who would unlock the past and open it up to us...upon us. It's not just that the evil we do lives after us: it preserves us as well, so it has someone to do its bidding. The evil my family has done has kept it alive. Literally as well as otherwise. Had we been less monstrous in our dealings with everyone else, we might very well have died out long ago. But we captured as much life as we could. With evil, we captured life on an immense scale and made it ours. And what we could not have we destroyed. You know the legends as well as I. Evil has made us exceptionally vital, and in turn our vitality has elevated evil to awesome proportions. Along the way our vitality as a family became intermingled with the evil which reinforced it and which it reinforced until they became a force almost of nature. So that when I speak of the Graes, I mean not merely the family but the thing we have created, the power of life and death we have bred into an entity which has always lain in wait inside our house and which has re-awakened, given energy from some source, and now stalks this city. If I sound melodramatic, forgive me. It's a characteristic of my genes. You cannot be asked to murder your brother without growing a bit morbid. Nor do I know of any other family that would ask it. You still don't understand, do you?"
Carroll Poshun did not reply. To have done so would have been to confess a far greater understanding than he cared to reveal, even to Catherine. Were she not a Grae, and still as full a person as she was, then he would have replied. Nothing would have kept his deepest understanding from her. But as it happened, her lineage made her the last person with whom to share intimacies - real intimacy, as he saw the thing, and not the superficial intimacy he took his moments with her in jail to be. Not that he lacked an appreciation of what they had shared, but only that he believed their value to be externally created, by the moment, rather than generated internally by his principles. He had never felt, never experienced anything of so great a worth; he concluded feeling and experience both, however, to be inevitable and irresistible, therefore unconscious and impersonal, concomitants not of his chosen principles but rather of the dynamics underlying their encounter.
He loved Catherine, but he knew he loved principle more, because whereas the one he had merely encountered, the other he created, and creation was greater than circumstance. He said nothing of this, though all of it Catherine sensed. She realized that to win this man's love was to win something inferior in him - inferior because it was valued inferiorly. She said nothing, however. What could she say? She had always wanted a man she could deal with on a level close to her own; now that she had him she was if anything more unfulfilled than before. She could not have love and wisdom both, nor both on a par; one would always be higher. This was the curse of being born...a Grae. She was capable of balancing the two, but had found no one else who was. Braxton valued love, if only in its most sensual form, but cared little for wisdom. Whether an artist needed both was another matter; he needed only the one, his work reflected only the one, but reflected it with an enthusiasm almost unheard of among artists.
Carroll Poshun, however, valued wisdom, and evidently needed it in his line of work, but not love; and his work showed that it was not the tangibles of life which he took as its essence; nothing you could see or touch could truly move him. If only both men could combine into one. If only a proper magic could be found. But there was none. Even all the generations of Graes, should they somehow manifest in the present, on the physical plane, with all their collective power, would fail to effect such a blend. Braxton, supremely sensuous; Carroll, majestically principled: nothing could forge a whole man from these separate parts. Wisdom and love, love and wisdom; never to meet. Catherine Grae: never to know the two at once, except in her own person; and, then, only subjectively. Never the experience of witnessing the two together, never as an object, never as something moving closer, never a complete entity sent to complement herself.
She wondered what would happen if the two did ever come together, if these two separate men were joined. Would one dominate, or would both remain trapped by the other's pull? Perhaps most of all though: did it really matter? Must one obtain the perfection she knows is possible, or he knows, or it knows, or they, or some as yet undetected pronoun? Does one's ultimate fantasy demand a world where it can be realized? Or are the creations of our imagination of a higher order than reality? Is it that in dreaming we exceed the creative potential of the universe? That our minds go too far beyond anything the universal mind has ever envisioned? Is it, that Mind, too full of everyday existence to accommodate these most exquisite of our fantasies? Has the essence of existence rendered the creations of our imaginations superfluous? Is there no place for what we would like?
Catherine Grae had suspected for a long time that man was greater than God, for while God knew what man's soul needed, only man knew what his heart cried out for. Give him what he needs, and be his God; or give him what he craves and be his friend. His wish is who he is. He only needs what he needs because he cannot get what he wants. His soul perhaps will live on, but his heart will die and be gone forever. Therefore, what his heart desires is of infinitely greater worth to him. He has eternity to enjoy the fruits of his soul, but his heart - his feelings - are his only in the interim. If he sees God at all, he will see Him forever; his dreams, besides being visible to him alone, and visible only while he breathes and his heart beats. So that a single heartbeat surpasses the power, the beauty and the significance of God Himself. The sooner something dies, the greater its value. One need not look for rarity in heaven. Look inward.
Braxton was waiting when his wife arrived home. "Catherine," he said, "I want to give a show of my work. Are there any small galleries in town? I don't recall seeing any. I was out yesterday, all day, all evening, wondering the city. I didn't find anything. Someone said there was some trouble at the jail, but I was elsewhere, out looking for a place to display my talents. I want the people here to see my work. Do you know of anything?"
"No," Catherine answered, "I don't. I know very little about this place. I don't even know where my mother goes to have her hair done, or to get her clothes. I don't know where my father goes for lunch, or whether there are any clubs he belongs to. I just live here, I don't dwell here."
"You really didn't want to come back, did you?"
"I told you that."
"I know. I know," Braxton admitted. "I thought maybe I could find something here to paint. Something besides.... And in a way I have, but I'm not sure what. Something about your house, some...quality. If I can just find the medium. If I could just find whatever it is that manifests whatever that quality is. The closest I've been able to come is your brother. I've thought about painting him. But he's not grown up enough. It would do no good to paint him nude, he's still too much a boy. If I could only capture the first time his full manhood awakens, I think I could capture that quality as well. But that won't be for awhile, and I can't wait. I don't know why but I know I can't; I know if I don't find it soon - very soon - it'll be lost to me forever. His first ejaculation will be too late. I need it now, or I'll never be able to quit painting myself."
"Why do you want to show your work?"
"I don't know. I just have to. It's the same craving that an exhibitionist has. I want the people of this town to see me as I see myself. I want them to know me. I want to expose myself to them, but not as they would see me: as I see me. I want it more than anything I've ever wanted. More than anything."
This is what makes you love, Catherine thought. She was not offended that he loved his own sexuality more than he loved her; she knew that, otherwise, he would have either no love to give her - none to spill over from himself to her - or else an average, everyday, normal, healthy love to bring to her as his wife: a good, moral, sanctified love, not worth the trouble of taking if offered, and certainly not worth seeking. His love was profoundly immoral, its source obscure almost to the point of repugnance. Almost to that point, and doubtless had he been other than an artist, or a lesser artist, it would have been repugnant, this obsession with his sex organ, for then he would have been merely brutal, not immoral - and a good man could be brutal as well as an evil man. Thankfully, he was neither: he was a man transfixed with the mystery a sudden gush of blood through his loins generated. He loved his sex with so intense a passion and so deep a longing to both experience and understand it that everything it touched became too an object of the most tortured, therefore the most exquisite, love. But for all his intensity he would never succeed in knowing what his body was, and the more he sought to know it the more impossible his quest.
Carroll knows; Carroll's body posed no mystery. Therefore, Carroll had no real passion, only the wisdom of absolute familiarity with, therefore absolute mastery over, his body. In a thousand years Braxton could never make love as Carroll had; but neither could Carroll desire the way Braxton did. Desire was as powerful an entity as the body it fed, a presence entering alongside the body, the physical sensation of its entry as exhilarating as that of the body itself. A Daemon, it went for the base of the brain the way the body went for the womb; its impact as great. If the womb shuddered, the brain took flight, this Daemon a winged beast as familiar with the hidden stars as the body with the covered hills. Desire for a knowledge absolutely unattainable, it searched the universe. Wisdom proclaimed this earth its home; love knew no home, its search was endless, the one planting seeds, the other dreams.
It occurred to Catherine that her husband was sterile: there could be no other way. He would never have a child. Dreams only could issue from his explosions. Exquisite dreams, such dreams as only she could conceptualize. Exquisite dreams.
Not that she needed the dreams of another to be fulfilled. She understood the threading of a thousand invisible strands; she composed universes; she needed no one's help. That she wished in a way she did need it changed nothing. The dynamic of an almost total completion made as much for emptiness as for perfection, and of all things in existence only emptiness approached perfection. No, not that she wanted fulfillment; it was far more subtle, the thing she sought. She knew love and wisdom could co-inhabit; but was there a complement? Anywhere? She had not found it. When she walked away for good from her home, it would be with only half a man, no matter who she finally chose.
"You want a gallery?" Catherine mused to her husband. "A gallery you shall have. If I can find one in town, fine. A suitable one. If not, we'll make one here. I'll be back by dinner. I may have to ask around. I'll see what I can come up with. This is, of course, a very old city; but, beyond that, a commercial city. Factories are what it sits on. Art - galleries - symphonies - the theater: they're not really part of our heritage. We're not primitive enough for that."
"Primitive?" Braxton asked. "I thought the great intellects were all in agreement on that one: art is a rather late development of any society. It follows surplus, I thought."
"Oh darling, when the great intellects speak of art, they mean high art only - the art sanctioned by the ruling classes. Official art. Sanitized art. The art which religiously conforms to pre-established forms, acceptable forms, filled with an acceptable content. That art. All else is dismissed as so much chicken-scratching."
"Are you a socialist?" Braxton asked, only half seriously.
"Of course," Catherine replied, "I belong to the International Workers Party and am a member in excellent standing with the Worldwide Woman's Anti-Imperialist League, not to mention the DAR - only a cover of course."
"You should carry a sign."
"I do. Everywhere I go. It works too: I've never been asked to vote or to sign a petition or to give money."
"They see you for an aristocrat."
"No," said Catherine, "they see me as I am. People with causes, whether the cause is upper or lower, for or against, guns or butter, foreign or domestic, know only how to deal with people in a group. When they can't quite place you, they pretty much leave you alone. I'm going into town now. Save dinner for me, will you?"
Catherine summoned a taxi, not from any socio-political imperative but simply because a taxi driver should come closest of all townspeople to knowing the whereabouts of any out of the way establishments. When he asked "Where to?" however she realized she had no ready answer.
"Oh," she replied after a moment's reflection, "just drop me anyplace you think I might belong, or might like to belong."
"How about the country club?" he asked.
"Just drive, please. I'll tell you when to stop." Unfortunately, she found out next to nothing from this particular taxi driver. In fact, a moment's forethought would have led to the crucial error in the logic which prompted her taking a taxi, for, of all jobs in a city, or town, that of a taxi driver was perhaps the least stable, the people who were likely to fill it as transient as they were readily mobile. The element she neglected was the prime consideration: the pay relative to the hazards, the monotony, the attention to petty detail. The pay was too low, too dependent on tips; the work force therefore unstable. Taxi drivers came and went almost daily; few considered it anything more than a hiatus between jobs. Pocket money till something better came along. Therefore, "Sorry, ma'am, I don't know of any galleries. Unless you'd care me to drive you down to Boston. I hear they've got one or two."
"In that case, just take me downtown. I'm not in the mood for Boston. Too much culture."
"Oh, ma'am, you can't have too much culture, no ma'am," the taxi driver assured her. "No, ma'am."
Catherine could tell he was dying to say "No, siree," but evidently felt it out of place. So she said it for him. "No siree, you can't - not too much culture!"
"No ma'am, that's right. Can't get too much of a good thing!"
"What would you say," Catherine said on an impulse, "if I told you I have in my purse a special vial. It contains the pure undiluted essence of culture."
"A whole vial?" the taxi driver asked.
"A whole vial."
"What: you pour it on?"
"Very thick," Catherine emphasized.
"Ah, like syrup." The driver seemed now to understand. "I bet that costs a pretty penny."
"You only need a drop."
"Well, that's true. How much it goes for?"
"More than Chanel Number 5."
"Oh, that's out of my range."
"But just think," Catherine pointed out, "with this they'd roll out the red carpet for you at the symphony, the ballet, the vaudeville, the burlesque."
"Now I've seen their carpet down to the burlesque - but I'd never thought of it as culture. Ain't that funny?"
"Oh, without the burlesque, culture would rot overnight, I assure you that's just how fragile it is."
"Ain't that something. And those ballet shoes, I guess?"
"Even the lanb's wool!"
"Honest to truth!" declared the driver.
Catherine felt no inclination to laugh at anything this man said. It seemed no purpose to make fun of him; and if he believed culture could be bottled as a heavy syrup, was he any more ridiculous than those who imagined it could be generated by a skillful manipulation of reality according to some elaborate scheme. His formula at least had charm, and left the door open to anyone, for if culture could be applied like perfume, implicitly anyone could do it; whereas according to the formula theory only the elite had a shot at it: you had to be trained to it. Thus the collectors who saw in Rembrandt, Titian and Vermeer a many dollared splendor were cultured - and had the goods to prove it; while the man who must briefly visit the galleries was not, for he had not the appearance - the aura - of a cultured man, to say nothing of the clothes or manners. A very old story.
Up ahead was a gate, and an arch of brick. "This is the old part of town," the driver said. It had not occurred to Catherine till now that her city had been erected upon the most ancient design. The "old part" of Tyfington was the remnant of a walled city. From even this slight point of elevation the rudiments of walls could be distinguished, left over pieces, all clearly identical to one another, unmistakably the remains of a once integrated structure which the eye could resurrect. Now they served as sign posts or as backdrop to someone's business or as barricades between back yards; they cut alleyways short, they shielded spring flowers from the sun, they supported patio covers. But wherever they were they suggested a pattern, interconnected, each bit of wall, though torn from the whole, in a sense reaching out to try and reestablish its former defense posture. Tyfington had been modeled after the European, or perhaps better still the Mesopotamian, city-state. A walled city.
"Do you know anything about this part of town?" Catherine asked.
"No, ma-am," replied the driver, "I'm sort of a newcomer myself. Come up from Boston - for the climate."
"The climate is better here?"
"Must be. My doctor just said move to a better climate. So I got in my car and drove. And the day got better - sun came out, a nice breeze. So I stayed. Must be a better climate. I feel good. So I guess this is where he had in mind."
The streets were all narrow; in most places two cars could not have passed. There were only a few one-way streets, however; but this posed no problem: custom had dictated traffic patterns. Rarely did anyone approach any street from other than the usual direction. The American people need fewer laws than any other people on earth for they police themselves with an almost religious propriety. Tyfington's inner city was quaint; and, far from being the poorest, was the most prestigious part of town, full of expensive shops and restaurants catering to the elite. No busses crossed its threshold; people who rode busses were not encouraged to visit. Real walls had been erected in place of those naively innocent ones which would never have been seriously expected to withstand the assault of time. The old part of town: the core of any society; the inner sanctum, which the outlying districts fed but could only watch from a distance.
"Let me out here," said Catherine.
The taxi stopped in front of a little shop with white shutters and a white door cut in the old style. A tasteful sign to one side of the door read "Trevessa's." Catherine recalled hearing her mother make reference to a Madame Trevessa recently; this was the first connection with her family's life she had made since returning home. So let's begin here, she resolved. Perhaps she'll know of a gallery. Perhaps she'll know a little something about our walled city. Perhaps a little something about my family. Who knows? perhaps even something about life.
A bell tinkled when Catherine opened the door. Disappointed with the sound, she would have been shocked had it not emanated from this quaint little shop. Everything is perfect, she was compelled to admit. An American ideal of what a little European village was all about, minus the horrors. No one had ever died here of the plague, or been persecuted for their religious beliefs, or gotten caught up in wars of national conquest. No one had ever been asked to switch his allegiance, or forget his heritage, or to take sides. Quaint here, in Tyfington, was just that; it extended no farther. Even if Madame Trevessa's bell had been brought from abroad, it sounded with a distinctly American peel. Nothing mournful rang; this bell tolled for no one.
"May I show you something?" Madame Trevessa greeted her visitor. Even through the banal formality of the vacuous greeting Catherine detected something immensely likable, something very much like a genuine charm.
"I'm not sure," Catherine replied. "I wanted as much to acquaint myself with the town as to actually purchase anything."
Far from displaying the least disappointment, the proprietress seemed almost pleased not to have to display any wares. "In that case," she said, "please forgive me a moment, I'll go get us a nice cup of tea - you of course take tea?" Catherine nodded. "Good. I'll just be a moment."
Catherine idled about, examining the bolts of fabric arranged in various patterns throughout the shop: pattern the word the arrangement best suggested, there appearing nothing haphazard about either the displays or the blending of materials; the total effect was as pleasing as a work of art. Presently Trevessa returned, setting a tray of silver service onto a tiny breakfast table on each side of which was a delicately wrought chair, one of which Catherine's hostess offered her while the other the hostess herself took.
"Now we can just chat a moment," Trevessa announced as she poured the tea, allowing her guest to select milk, lemon or sugar as she might desire.
"I like your shop," Catherine complimented her hostess.
"It's a poor excuse - an even poorer reflection of our shop in St. James. But, what can you do? I've often toyed with absconding with the facade of our O'Schlockenderry Castle in County Cork, just outside Dublin. Oh, not the whole of it - my second cousin removed, Lord Dinglebey de Goim, who lives there in season, would simply die if he returned home from Pub to find the whole front of his house stripped bare! No, only a small part of it, just sufficient to covering the front of my little shop."
"And you have another shop - in London?" Catherine inquired.
"My sister runs it. Silhouetta von Prostahoffer, second wife of the Baron. They had to move from their Schichzard Castle outside Sent Gotthard, on the Austro-Hungarian border, when the Communists took over. A very great loss, as you can imagine. The lady managed to get out with their lives - let alone their daughter Golpie's trousseau, which the poor girl was waiting in Funsterfeld, across the border, for! She was to be married within the month to the second Earl of Chaimbock; they'd met on the Riviera the previous season. But listen how I'm rambling on! I'm starting to sound like my maternal great aunt, the Princessa Shiksa Shiksanna of Bulgaria: she was positively tossed out of her ancestral palace near Sofia for talking during the consecration. The whole family was scandalized, but what could we do? she had the only key to the family vault in Ghent, where at that time we kept our valuables. Enough though! Tell me a little about yourself."
"I had hoped I might get a better picture of Tyfington," Catherine explained. "I thought perhaps, being so centrally located, your shop might well be a hub of -"
"Of gossip? Oh, indeed! replied Madame Trevessa. "There's very little escapes my ear. What is it you wanted to know? This place simply abounds with legends. Why, did you know it was named by a child? A little girl. No one knows who she was or where she came from or what happened to her. But they speak of 'her line': descendants who guard the town legends; not only the legends though: the customs, the beliefs, the very behavior of the town. They guard it. Yet no one knows who they are, or where to find them. I have my theory - but, who am I? Just a poor seamstress."
"May I hear your theory?"
"I think the servants are her descendants. That's what I think."
"Oh not the new ones. Oh no, no, not those who've just come here: the waitresses, the busboys, the janitors. Oh no, not those, but the real servants, the true servants: those who work for the great families of the region. I'm told they pass their positions down just like some kind of hereditary titles. A kind of Feudalism. I suspect 'her line' runs there. Just a theory. And I have another one. It concerns the Poshuns."
"May I hear it?" Catherine asked.
"Well, the Poshuns - I don't know if you've heard of them - they're a very old family, one of the oldest, in fact they go back to the very founding of this town. Now some say it's they who follow 'her line,' but I say no, they do not. The servants are her descendants. And in a way it makes sense the servants should have given the town its name, and should guard its past and assure its continuity. No system can long endure if the serving class does not accept it. I know that seems specious, but think for a moment: the servants are those who maintain the physical world, while their superiors construct all manner of social, political, religious and cultural air castles. That's all very fine, and I of all people understand and appreciate the need for castles of air; but the fact is we live in a world of matter, which must be kept constantly on the move; it must be repaired, rebuilt, cleared, dusted, well-oiled, and so on, or it simply disintegrates. With all due respect to the ruling classes, they do nothing to maintain their civilization. Therefore I say those who maintain it have the real power, for without their consent it cannot survive seven full days into the week. The cream rises to the top, yes; but take it away, it's hardly missed. Take away the milk, the cream loses all buoyancy. Who's more essential: the boy peeking over the fence to see what lies beyond, or the boy on whose shoulders he stands? Not that I care too much about such things; I simply make note of them. Society adheres best where its seam is sturdiest. I use silken thread wherever it may show; otherwise cotton: for strength. Do you see?"
"Yes," said Catherine. "But, tell me: what of the Poshuns?"
"Ah!" explained Trevessa. "I'm getting as absent minded as my fourth cousin, Matildie Critchcrotchenstein of Plzen, near Prague, who one day strayed all the way across Czechoslovakia into Russia and was converted to Leninism almost overnight. She wrote us from Petersburg informing us she had never known the Mze to freeze up entirely in winder before, but assured us it would not keep her from passing over. What was I saying? Ah, yes: my theory concerning the Poshuns. Well, I believe - and with no hard evidence - they are somehow related to the Graes - poor cousins or something; rather like the Byzantine branch of my own family."
"What makes you think that?"
"Just a hunch. Some...quality...in the Poshuns - and though I've not had an opportunity to deal with them socially, I have, you might say, studied them: I'm trained to be aware of family resemblances - something about them convinces me they share a common ancestry with your own family. And please forgive my not mentioning it till just this moment, but it's quite plain to me you must be a Grae yourself. It would not surprise me all that much, though, if you corrected me, revealing yourself, not as a Grae, but as a Poshun. Either family could lay equal claim to a young patrician woman. Am I correct, though, in assuming you to be a Grae?"
"Yes. Catherine Grae. I've returned only for a visit, and only because my husband insisted. In fact, that's partly why I'm here. I've been commissioned to find him a gallery suitable to a display of his paintings. They're from his phallic period - his most prolific: I'm at a loss to come up with a gallery. Do you know of any?"
"Oh, if only we were in Amiens! The galleries I could show you! My paternal cousins, Count Bernie and Lord Ruben d'Brith, have such a gallery in downtown Amiens it would make your palette paint itself green! All the old masters they've got, and a few moderns. Oh, such days, such days. My mother and I'd go early of a morning, we'd each go a different corridor, and meet in the middle at noon. Then a leisurely brunch at Les Hadassaks on the Somme. Then to Rouen for a mutton and cream cheese. Such days. Oh such days. But in this town: are there galleries? I know of one. It's proprietor is a collector; most of what he displays is his own."
"He paints?" asked Catherine.
"Oh no," replied Trevessa. "He owns. He collects. He invests. You pay admission. Only I refuse ever to set food in that place again. He had a lovely, lovely miniature by...oh, I can't even think who it was by - isn't that awful? Was it Vermeer? Did he ever do miniatures? Or perhaps it was Picasso. I can never keep them straight; all I know is I kiss the stars they were born under that such beauty they should give us. One day the miniature was gone...just like that: gone. I asked what happened: was it out being restored? No. Not stolen I hope! No, not stolen either. Ah, then on loan to another gallery. God forbid! Then what? where is it? Sold, said he, Mr. Collector! Sold? That's right: sold - at a handsome profit too! Well, I thought to myself: if you had the good fortune to acquire such a miniature and turn around and sold it, then you are indeed a fool. If likenesses of American Presidents against a green ground are of greater value to you than a Vermeer or a Picasso, then Mister Collector, you can do without my business from this day on! And I have not been back since. I don't recommend it, Miss Grae; but if you'd like, I'll give you the address. Perhaps he'll know of some other gallery."
"Yes, if you could, please do give me the address."
A moment devoted to appropriate parting remarks and Catherine was on her way. The gallery was not too far; it was part of the old city. Catherine walked. The buildings everywhere were quaint, but as she had already noted, quaintness took on here in its assumption of plasticity a slightly sinister quality. Why fake quaintness? she wondered. Why, on nearly flat ground, attempt to emulate a quality which arose naturally where there were mountains - and only there? Quaint was at home where the natural forces of the environment demanded at once a picturesqueness which might come close to doing justice to the majesty of the landscape and a hardiness of construction equal to the elements. In truth, these little mountain villages were quaint only because their background so dictated; nothing constituted of man could fail to evoke that quality. Why attempt a duplication where nature became the subdued, man's creations the subduer? Cities on flat land should go ahead and dominate the landscape. Anything less spoke of coyness, and as such spoke ill of its builders.
Several blocks separated Trevessa's from the Mansard Gallery, a semi-quaint structure separated by the slimmest alleyways on either side from its neighbors. It was more nearly a box than any other building Catherine had ever seen. It was grayish, with the slightest hint of pink, as if it mimicked marble; Catherine thought of contact paper - not that it had such a siding, only that she found it desirable for a gallery which sold miniatures by great masters to be covered with bogus matter. If Trevessa had accurately reported the transaction, that is; and of this Catherine had no doubt. Whether or not she got the painter right she was eminently a lady of superb qualities, fictitious lineage notwithstanding. Catherine admired her as something vastly superior to a person of taste and breeding; Madame Trevessa had both heart and soul, therefore an instinctive love of beauty. This made her, if not an artist, then the kind of audience an artist yearns for. A true artist, that is. Picasso would be far greater honored in being mistakenly named Vermeer or Rembrandt by a Madame Trevessa than in having his full pedigree catalogued forward and back by nine-tenths of those who consider themselves patrons of his art, for while they could draw the very finest web of distinction about his various periods, she could cherish his works. A most rare achievement.
Catherine went inside the nearly quaint gray box; its nomenclature was not lost on her. Inside was a perfect gallery, exactly what one would expect a gallery to be. Walls everywhere, paneled of course, and white, making a gadget box full of cubes, with the exception of a large open space down the center. Twelve plaster pillars there were, supporting a ceiling sixteen feet distant, some kind of creature cherubs burnished into it, like twenty dozen baby chimeras readying to take their first leap. Even a skylight in the middle of it all. Yes, thought Catherine, the owner of this place could very well exchange Vermeer or Picasso for a few hundred grand.
It was still early. The place, though unlocked, was not actually open yet. You could tell that plainly enough because no one was at the door to take your money. Catherine browsed: that was what one did in this type of gallery, was it not? A young man hurried past her, evidently on an errand. He was dressed in such a way as to suggest something janitorial. Catherine could hear voices coming from a room labeled Office. She moved in that direction.
"A raise?" asked an indignant voice.
"He claims he needs more money," came a reply.
"He said he'd like to get a seat at the symphony this season. He likes the line-up."
"The symphony?" an incredulous voice asked. "What does he need with the symphony? He's only a janitor!"
"He claims to be an artist."
"What's that got to do with it? I'm no more required to fit him with a box at the Symphony than I am to display his works. If he wants either, let him earn it. Let him make it worth my while and I'll gladly display his works. You want the finer things, you have to pay for them! You can tell him for me, if he doesn't like his wages, he can look for better ones elsewhere."
"Yes, Mr. Mansard, I'll tell him."
The door opened. Right away the man who had spoken in behalf of the young janitor saw Catherine. "I'm sorry, madam, but the gallery is not open for business yet. If you would be so kind, please return at five this evening."
Catherine smiled. Even a cursed name came in handy in a pinch. "My name is Catherine Grae," she introduced herself, "I'm hoping this gallery is open to me at even so ungodly an hour?"
Mansard himself answered. "For so gracious a lady, we are always open!" he refrained this most exquisite of all artistic truths. He was out of his seat the split-second Catherine's surname passed her lips, and around his desk, and practically flying into her arms by the time her question had been thoroughly framed. He was all smiles. Six feet in height, somewhat portly, slightly graying at the temples, wearing a tiny goatee and dressed as a collector of fine art ought to be. No one could have faulted his image. "Please," he begged, "do let me give you a personal tour." Before she could respond, he had taken her arm and began the tour.
"Forgive me," he confessed, "if my voice sometimes falters; but, as you might well suspect, I am awed in the presence of great art."
"What a wonderful way to repay the artists for all they have given you," Catherine congratulated her host.
"Perhaps I'm overly sentimental," Mansard further confessed.
"Ah," Catherine took up for him, "but in the presence of great art how can one help being sentimental?"
"Why, I remember the first girl with big eyes I ever saw," Catherine related in a voice brimming with tenderness. "It nearly melted my heart. Or was it a dog with big eyes? Well, one or the other. Tell me, have you any Vermeers or Picassos?"
"Oh yes: one Vermeer, three Picassos - from his blue period." Mansard tightened his hold of Catherine's arm and hastily led her to the Picassos.
Catherine sighed. "To think," she said, "that while I can look all I like, I can never possess these, were I to offer you half a million for the three."
Mansard stammered ever so gracefully. "You must keep in mind, dear lady, this is not the National Gallery. We suffer no prohibitions regarding the disposition of our treasures. We are, indeed, a free agent."
"An agent - why how wonderful! Then there's hope?"
"One may always hope, good lady," Mansard replied. He eyed her as he spoke, much the same way he eyed the paintings in his gallery; his eyes seemed more to weigh than to undress her, however, as if to assess her value per pound. She sensed his interest, and felt very sorry for these poor works of art. It occurred to her that should their artistic worth ever disappear, he would not hesitate to sell them for whatever their fiber content would fetch. A single George Washington on a green ground meant infinitely more to this man than a Da Vinci or a Michelangelo. Is this what art was all about? she wondered. Did all art come to this ignominious end, that it should be valued more for its commercial than its aesthetic merit? Is this what the exquisite tortures prompting her husband's hand reduced to? Would a Braxton Penis one day be assessed by the inch, by the squarage of pigment, the bulk of fiber? For this she should strike a bargain with Mansard's Gallery to have her husband displayed? So that one fine day, when she and he were no longer alive to protest, some future collector could hawk the screams, the ecstasies, the very breathing of a great soul as if it were toilet tissue?
A malevolent smile hinted its presence. For it occurred to her that yes, irresistibly yes, impellingly yes, imperatively yes - yes, yes, oh God yes, a thousand times yes - this was of all places on the face of this earth - of all places in the universe - the very one in which she must display her Braxton. It was right as nothing else in existence was right. Right unto perfection. And indeed, should she not bargain for a little exhibition, nothing henceforth would ever be right with the world again. So she bargained her best. She would have given all she possessed had this been the cost of her husband's being brought to this place. The true cost, of course, was nowhere near so great. In fact, she had only to ask, the purchase of three Picassos held dangling before the collector, and she shall have received. The bargain was struck.
Darryl's remains were brought in. One of the boys hand-picked as Charles Grae's disciple confessed to the crime. He went home that night in a daze; he thought he had been to the movies and had seen the grisliest movie ever made. He had gone straight to bed; in his dreams the movie re-appeared, scene by scene. In the middle of the night he awoke and tried to scream but could not. It felt to him like he was gagging on his voice; whenever a sound began to stir it seemed to slide back down his throat. He jumped out of bed and, in his pajamas, ran downstairs and out of the house. At first he ran at random, still trying desperately to scream; then he headed for the police station. He lived in town and had but a short distance to go. He ran inside and up to the first person he encountered. He still could not make sounds, he had only gestures with which to make himself understood. He pointed, pulled at the policeman's sleeve, tried leading the man somewhere. Others were summoned by the extreme agitation of this boy's movements; no one could get a reply from him. On an impulse the boy grabbed a pen and a piece of loose leaf and wrote in big letters that looked electrified "I killed him!" The note was held up for all to read. Then, his note still held above his head, the boy again motioned to be followed. This time the policemen obliged. The boy ran out and started down the street but was apprehended. The police tried to get a coherent statement out of him.
"Where?" they asked. "Where is it you want us to go? Tell us: where is it?" The boy still could not speak. "Then write it," they urged. The boy wrote.
"The Burnt Woods." The police forced the boy into their car and drove off. Half an hour later, they arrived. They got out. The boy led them to the spot where he remembered leaving Darryl.
- He remembered. - It had been no movie. - It had been something he took part in. - He had murdered Darryl. - -And he had eaten him. And now he went crazy. Now it would be a movie no longer, but a memory. And his voice would be forever locked deep inside his throat. And he would always see the body turning over the spit, and smell the burning skin, and taste the hot flesh. He would always be crazy. He lacked any sense of having acted in concert with ten other boys. He had murdered, he had cooked his victim over an open fire, he had eaten the body. He had thought he was at the movies, then in the middle of the night, awakening from a dream, he knew he had lived the grisly horror, and he lost his mind.
The moment the stray lights of the policemen fixed upon the remains, he ran away.
"Come back!" the police cried, followed by "You two: go after him!"
Two of the men chased the boy through the Burnt Woods, from the deepest, most heavily wooded places, where the corpse was found, to the clearings and finally beyond the woods entirely. They thought they had spied him silhouetted under the moonlight, running through the open meadow toward the Grae's estate. But when they reached the spot where he seemed to be, they found only the shadow of a lone tree in the meadow, cast by the moon upon the ground. They knew this could not have been what they saw, not lying on the ground like this; but there was no trace of anything else, and no sign of the boy anyplace.
He had doubled back, but from the opposite direction; he had been nowhere near the meadow, his presence there had been an illusion to draw his pursuers away from him. Eventually the pursuit was abandoned; the police gathered Darryl's remains and returned to the city. The boy came out of hiding. He returned to the deep thicket and stood there beneath the huddled gnarls which all but blocked out the moon's light. A distorted halo from the sky encased him, a network of webbing glowed all around him where the overhanging limbs parted. He found the exact spot where Darryl's body had been. He removed his pajamas. From the tightened material he formed a noose, tied the noose to his neck, climbed to where the nose fitted to a limb, and, lifting himself to slacken the rope, released his hold. His neck failed to snap. He hung some three feet over the scene of his crime, kicking, flailing the night's glow with his hands, until he strangled. The whole time, no sound escaped his throat's death grip. The last image he ever saw was the body of Darryl running past the tree where he was hanging. He knew he would see that forever.
His body too was found, only he was not hanging from the tree. The search party which had lost his tracks the night before returned mid-morning and, on the same spot where Darryl had lain, his body was heaped. From its condition, the coroner concluded a wild animal had discovered him, toward sunrise probably, and had pulled him down. He had been partly eaten. He too was placed in a black polyethylene bag, which was tagged and taken to the morgue. The word got around: wolves. The wolves had eaten him, just as they had eaten the other boy. The cause of the first boy's death could not be determined; clearly this second boy, though, had died from hanging. The rope was gone, or whatever had been used; doubtless, the coroner concluded, the wolves had managed to unloosen it and had stole away with it: find the den, you would undoubtedly find the rope.
"Wolves!" the word got round. A wolf had not been seen in those parts since the woods burnt; even then, what people took for a wolf may only have been a stray dog. A hunting party was formed, boasting three of the police department's crack marksmen; half a dozen hunters from the National Rifle Association who, in a televised interview, reminded the good folks of Tyfington that but for such as they the wolves would have long since overrun the known world; plus another half dozen or so ordinary citizens hastily deputized. Perhaps, it was now speculated, it had been the wolves and not Carroll Poshun who had murdered the little boy Byan six years ago - or else Poshun and not the wolves who had killed these latest two boys. At any rate, someone or something had to be hunted down and made to pay. A few whispers even laid the blame to werewolves; but the old-timers would not hear of it: there were, they said, things in these parts to make the worst work of the worst beasts child's play. Werewolves? they asked: we should be so lucky if that were all it was.
The hunting party left and went one way. A young boy, alone, went another way.
Carroll Poshun Jr saw the second but not the first black bag as it was brought from the Burnt Woods. He wrongly saw his friend Darryl inside. When he went to the coroner's his relief was aborted by word of an earlier body. He begged to see it, and since the coroner had no more regard for a Poshun than anyone else had, he was shown the devoured corpse. There was nothing to recognize; still, he knew. He knew. This was Darryl. He knew. And while the hunters were gathering, the boy was collecting his thoughts just as if they too were wild beasts to be tracked down and, if found guilty, destroyed.
Why didn't I answer? he asked of himself. When he all but begged me to tell him not to go, why didn't I? Why was my idea of his right so much more valuable than his? Was his right to decide his own course worth more than his right to be protected by his friend, even if in protecting him I violated his independence? Did my responsibility end with granting him the freedom to choose his own doom? When he asked - when he asked! I wanted to tell him not to - I wanted to tell him. But everything I was taught said no, tell him only that the choice is his, and his alone. The absolute freedom of choice. His alone. But look at the result. Yet, if the end doesn't justify the means, neither does it condemn them. Then what does the end do to its means? Is it not the sum of them? and if so, what kind of means produce such an end? Why? Why didn't I follow my heart and reach out to him? Why? Why?
Carroll journeyed to the Burnt Woods. The other hunting party knew better than to look for wild beasts where no greenery afforded shelter; it went westward, combing the vast forested areas which bore somebody's name on a deed and had not been burned away, wooded sanctuaries of eminent domain, their cry of Wolf their key to getting inside somebody's private preserve. Carroll watched the hunters as they entered first the low spectral horizon then the more complete obliteration of somebody's woods. Whose woods those were, he thought he knew; whereas these rising up from another horizon, he did not know, except that nobody's name kept them from the rest of the universe.
He loved these Burnt Woods. He knew the tales, how their extinction had been laid to the spirits; he believed what he had heard, and the fact of their being the object of someone's ancestors' wrath made them all the dearer to him. What mankind with its clever systems of values hated must be of the keenest worth, for the same formula applied always: what could not be ruled, or bought, or in some other way owned must be hated and, if possible, destroyed. Therefore only that which was hated had any real value, and where destruction had been wrought, the value was supreme. He knew the spirits of these trees were gone: out wandering the earth, just as he had always heard. But he knew also that they were not searching for another forest to inhabit, for, having escaped man's reach, what would induce them back?
The tender dry wood in some places had started disintegrating. Light filtered in through pierces in the limbs, just as it used to where the wind parted the leaves, except that now one had to look hard for these tiny snatches of light amidst the afternoon sun's deluge. The only place where they stood out was in the deepest, most overgrown spot, where branches criss-crossed to a still dense weave which blocked even now most of the sunlight. Carroll had worked his way to this place. He looked for tears in the wood, and where he found them he discovered traces of light. As he neared the tree where the boy who had led the police to Darryl's body had hanged himself, he felt a presence, which he knew to be Darryl.
"You're here," Carroll whispered. Nothing answered; but a tiny breeze seemed to examine his face, as if something, passing, had stopped right where he was, its wake of air rushing likewise to a momentary standstill before moving on, as if encircling the great old tree beside which he now stood. Its wood was undisturbed; no soft holes had bored through even its smallest branches. You could hang a hundred boys from this tree, or feast off a thousand beneath its spread.
A thought - not a voice but with the force of a voice - said to him "Your cousin has done this." An only child of an only child, he knew no cousins; nor were there any from his mother's line in these parts. Yet he knew the words were not lies. Somewhere he had a cousin, nearby; the murderer of his friend. He thought of Charles Grae and of the club Darryl had joined; these he had thought of the moment he learned of Darryl's death. He had no concept to link the two entities - the club and the death; but he was certain they were connected. And he intended to learn the nature of their connection. Then a beautiful cliché came to him: If you can't fight them, join them; only here it was of a slight difference, here it was: If you wish to fight them, join them. There, in the Burnt Woods, Carroll Poshun decided to accept Charles Grae's invitation and join his club; in those woods, watching the light boring through soft holes in the charred trees, it became inevitable.
"Darryl was my friend," he whispered up into the tiny wormholes, and I betrayed him. I sold him out for a few principles. How cheap to hold so precious a thing as life. Not to avenge him, only to learn what, besides my ethics, took his life. Who else's ethics helped kill him? It's so clear...it's so clear...ideas mean nothing...the good ones no less than the bad ones...it's so clear. There are no good ideas. All are evil. If I end up like him, it's no matter. It's far better to be eaten alive by...by whatever...than to have your soul eaten away by its own beliefs. Darryl...Darryl...
A wind, reversed to the vertical, came down the soft holes; the slightest echo of a breeze engulfed the boy beneath the burnt trees. He felt it as a touch of his friend's soul. He is sentenced to go up and down this forest forever, the boy thought. His eternity, a wormhole. A wormhole softened by destruction. There is nothing but death...of all things, only death. I regret only that if I am killed it may look as if it was done for a principle. I simply wish to know - not in order to learn, only to be a part of my friend's life. My principles kept me from him. If I abandon them, I have a chance to be close again. Only our eyes were close and only once. My consciousness must become a soft wormhole, slanted on the vertical. Nothing hard. I will go join. But I will do nothing again, ever, for a principle. Charles: where are you? Where are you? Where would a murderer hide? Or does that depend upon his station in life? The lowly murderer hits the trail once his deed is discovered; from then on he is on the run, pursued by the forces of justice, never able to stop long at one place, until in time he is caught and punished. The higher murderer hides within his role, he goes to work as always, to church, to his broker, his banker, his money maker; his life is not disrupted by his crimes. An old, old, old story - old to the n'th power, and showing no signs of aging. Let a Darryl murder a Charles Grae and the very universe quakes for vengeance; but let it be the reverse and scarcely a shock wave trickles. I conclude therefore that life is of no possible value; and when people say it is, all they mean is that some lives have value, but for the sake of expediency they will proclaim all life valuable.
My only regret is having learned this so early in life; this being the case, I have but two options: I can grow indifferent to all life, or else I must struggle against the entire weight of existence. Either way I lose, so it has to be entirely the struggle which matters, not any possible outcome, because the only result is absolute destruction of all living things. Thanks to my principles I see only annihilation. Had I believed nothing I might have failed to see this or to see anything. But no, we must each have our legacy, and mine has been wisdom; therefore I know life to be utterly meaningless and, as far as the universe goes, worthless. Not a new realization, I'm sure: the same old thing all human wisdom leads to. If only...if only I had not been taught all these fine principles...if only...then I might have gone a full lifetime and not seen, or learned. What good is knowledge if all it can do is show you the empty space at the core of living? Better to have no mind at all - isn't it?
Carroll Poshun was moving the Burnt Woods farther toward the horizon: his knowledge of where to find a high murderer caused the dead forest to recede. Where one finds a Charles Grae the morning after a murder was wherever one normally found him. The place, therefore, to look was the Tyfington School, where Charles was a student. Accordingly, Carroll made his way back to town; and this action, behind his back, pushed the place he was leaving farther and farther until it existed only in a concept: the horizon...not even a real place. Just as when one died one went to heaven, only there was no heaven, so all one went to actually was a concept. One did not cease to exist; rather, one became himself a principle of sorts. The graveyard of ghosts, that vast linguistic miasma built of softened abstracts criss-crossed to a floating weave. "Send us your dead!" it cries, this myriad of threads stretched, each, to be a blade of seedling cloud heaven sends to envelop the receding soul. And there it was, there was where we went when we died: we trailed the Burnt Woods into the horizon, we kept moving as the horizon kept trying to situate itself against some absolute point of reference, but of course it could not for it existed only in relation to an endless succession of points. So in death, just like in motion, there was no absolute. We who were ever born were sentenced to endlessly shifting our position relative to all possible points along all conceivable axes. And this restless infinity we chose to call heaven.
Coming up straight ahead: the private school where the best children of Tyfington went. Where a murderer went free from mathematics to economics to literature to theory of music to principles of sociology. The school playground was empty, lunch had ended, the children were in their classrooms learning the things they needed to know to make their lives worthwhile. Among them a murderer.
Carroll went inside and wandered the halls until the break between classes. He noticed that this school had less of an institutional look; it was designed to avoid long corridors with classrooms on either side. It seemed more like a group of small buildings connected by causeways than one large rectangular warehouse. Plus, the decor was different: there really was decor, not the plain cement blocks painted either pale green or pale yellow. Each section had a style, a color scheme and a set of textures blended. The children who went here were expected to want and to insist upon the better things of life, the things more in keeping with their projected stature within the community.
It occurred to Carroll that, having abandoned principles, he had nothing to hold higher than simple arrangements of matter: he no longer knew of anything finer than the riches gotten from the earth - and yet he still knew that of all possible things these had the least value. Fine jewels, which slaves must wrest from deep underground; furs, the handiware of butchers; porcelains and rugs, created by artisans for pennies, marketed by vultures for thousands; palaces, yachts, touring cars, private jets; the latest designer fashions, sewn up in sweatshops by illegal aliens - these, the stuff of aristocracy, the finest of the fine, were but an embarrassment to this thirteen year old boy, who had known the incomparable glory of abstract thought, even if now that too had been revealed for what it really was. Yet no matter how meaningless, the products of philosophy were infinitely greater than those of economics. Man the creator of ideas still stood on a mountain overlooking the miserable cesspool where man the exploiter of resources had settled in. The quest for truth, however absurd, would continue to make a mockery of greed and avarice and the thousand other petty meannesses that went into creating the material riches men sacrificed everything else for. Gold, diamonds: pathetic lures of pathetic little worms of souls. Money, securities: sad little impotent jokes sad little impotent creatures play on humanity, and on themselves. Computers and bombs and rocket ships to nowhere: just that much more to be hauled off to the junk shop.
It could be a magnificent paradise, this world, where each being could fulfill a destiny worthy of its potential. Instead, the great mass had been tricked into expending all its energy looking for baubles. With so much to share, all humanity can think to do is waste its time counting coins - its own and everyone else's lest it find itself short changed. And thereby it truly has made itself an "it" - a thing, as if it were its own brazen image cast up to be fought over and picked out and ultimately destroyed by the very forces which had forged it.
And while Carroll discovered humanity, the classes were letting out. The young students, Tyfington's finest, were being released from the grip of fourth period knowledge. Charles Grae XIII saw Carroll an instant before he was himself seen, so it was he who first approached. A lesser child might have made some condescending remark about Carroll's being out of place here, where he did not belong; but Charles recognized the pettiness of this institution alongside such a boy as Carroll Poshun and how meaningless any remark calculated to embarrass him was. Besides, he was genuinely glad to see him - especially since he knew what had brought him here. It was vengeance, but of a different sort - and that, more than anything else, intrigued Charles.
"I heard about your friend Darryl," said Charles, adding "I'm sorry."
"How did it happen?" Carroll asked.
"How would I know?"
"You must be short a disciple," Carroll said. "perhaps two: a boy hanged himself. Was he one of yours?"
"They're all mine," replied Charles. "You should know that. I'm the aristocrat in these parts. They look to me - just as their fathers look to my father - for the correct view of existence. I give them that. Naturally, the view is weighted in our favor - but why not? we didn't ask them to relinquish their minds. If they choose to accept our perceptions in lieu of their own, they choose as well to become our subjects. It's the oldest story on record, Carroll. Who knows why they willingly accept somebody as their master? The sociologists have their theories, as do the politicians, as do the psychologists - all worthless, when it comes right down to it. Better to blame the supernatural and be done with it. People are all possessed. They only exist down to a point, then they're someone, or something, else."
"You must need another disciple," Carroll said.
"I do," replied Charles, "are you interested?" Since Carroll Poshun was one of the few humans not possessed, any interest he might have in becoming a disciple of somebody else was of an entirely thought out character. He would not make a good disciple - therefore all the more reason to accept him in that role, even if he were only playing at it.
"I am, yes, very much so," Carroll admitted.
"To find out why people choose to become disciples. Maybe I'll like it, who knows? Am I acceptable?"
"You are accepted - we'll leave it at that," said Charles.
"Is there an initiation rite?"
"Only for those who would undertake it. My disciples have all been circumcised. They have all cast seed on the forest floor. Is that to your liking?"
"For them - who cares? for me - no. Does that disqualify me?"
"Do you think it does?"
"When is our next meeting?" Carroll asked.
"This evening. In the dead forest."
The boys parted company. Charles went to his fifth period class, Carroll went home to await the evening. He had realized for certain that he and Charles were cousins; he realized too that this made a difference in his feeling toward Charles - or, more exactly, it provided him with a feeling where before there had been none. Not a feeling of kinship in the usual sense; but, even more astounding, a feeling of being involved together in some kind of struggle against the rest of humanity: fellow travelers on a road posted Detour, only not a real detour - not one born of wear or repair but rather one posted simply in order to steer everyone to some other path. He and Charles had ignored the sign and proceeded anyway; and even though each had chosen this road for different reasons, even though the choosing had led to contrary patterns of motion, there was still more binding them together than binding either to the rest of humanity. Carroll had more in common with a fiendish murderer than with anyone else, for all the others, in following all the postings, revealed themselves as non-existent entities, mere mechanicals responding correctly to pre-selected cues. This affinity did not bother him; he understood it to be inevitable, so that when the time came to go, he was ready.
He proceeded under a sunset to the Burnt Woods. The horizon threw a jagged scarf as if at the moon, barely visible in the eastern sky. This overhead corridor, bordered with the gray-black of trailing stratus clouds, a vivid rose in the almost golden bands marking its path, appeared to lead to the very tree where earlier the bodies of the two boys had been separately discovered. And when he stood before the forest, this same corridor seemed to be leading away from the tree, as if it were the spirits of the woods once again departing; then the trees themselves had the sky, except for tiny red wormholes in the overhanging branches.
The other boys were already there. They had stripped and they stood waiting a signal from their leader, who, fully clothed, leaned against the great tree. When he saw Carroll enter the deep grove, he signaled the other boys. They began masturbating. They worked themselves slowly at first, ceremoniously, all ten in perfect time, in their circle with two empty openings, gradually increasing their motions, still in perfect time, increasing rhythmically, building force, reaching a crescendo feverishly, almost fiendishly, as if they would tear their sexes from their bodies, still remaining in time to the very climax. Then standing, eyes shut, heads bowed, awaiting further instruction, the hand of each bloodied from the unhealed wounds of circumcision their fitful ceremony had opened, blood in tiny droplets falling at their feet. They seemed to be in a trance, as if their collective act had been, not a sexual release but a pattern of movement carefully contrived to induce a hypnotic state, like the mesmerizing tapping of the black widow spider's mate upon her web.
Charles motioned Carroll to join him beside the great tree. "They're out of it till I release them," he said. "They have no power of will. They do as I command. If I chose to have them tear you to pieces they would."
"Would it be you?" asked Carroll. "Or some other entity directing them?"
"Such as what?"
"My ancestors, if they exist at all," said Charles, "exist through me. They dwell, if they dwell at all, in a box in a room in my house. They are game pieces in a candlelit room whose lights flicker against the walls of a game board. But the candles keep going out, even though there is no wind, and I must re-light them. Momentarily, we shall go there. You can feel for yourself if anything lives in that room, inside that box. Perhaps the two boys who died have gone there, not to be game pieces but to be candle flames. Perhaps we shall see them tonight. Perhaps they will reach out to us, or perhaps destroy us. That is, if you wish to go?"
"I wish it," said Carroll.
"Good." Charles lifted himself from the tree, and motioned for the boys to take up their clothes and follow. He then turned and proceeded from the deep grove through the forest to the open meadow leading toward his home. He did not turn back to see if his disciples were following: he knew they were. An order, once given, was obeyed unquestioningly to its conclusion. This was what it meant to rule - to really, truly rule other men. Absolute obedience. One did not have to look, only to give his command.
Nor did Carroll look: he did not care to see such creatures as could so easily relinquish their destinies to another's will. He walked alongside Charles, an equal, therefore unable to be ruled - for this was what, and this was all, equality meant. To be equal to another was nothing more than to be in control of one's own destiny; once it was surrendered, equality ceased, you became the property of another, to do with as he pleased.
The sunset had passed; only a few pale pink lines among the clouds trailing eastward remained, these so faint as to seem as much an illusion created by the pall of light and dark as actual color. The clouds were beginning to visibly move, where before only their structure suggested motion: a wind, perhaps the jet stream reaching lower than usual, had taken hold of the clouds, and either pushed or led them toward the dark eastern horizon. The few pieces of sunset moved to a point where their hue was lost. Below, however, was only a faint breeze, where Charles and Carroll and the other boys headed westward across the open plain, still too far away to see the house they were moving toward. As it grew darker the house became clearer, its lights against the night giving a fuller description of it than its walls at twilight. The way the lights interacted seemed to reveal certain irregularities in its structure, hidden behind its outer appearance. The house appeared almost to be two houses joined in the center to form one structure, as if something had cut it in half, though no seam was visible, only a slight angle of descent from either side leading toward the middle.
The boys finally reached the edge of the house's grounds. A moment was taken while the ones who were naked got dressed, then they proceeded, exactly as they had the night before, first to the open window, then through the darkened room, down the corridor to the one traversing, and finally to the Game Room, where two sets of candles burned. Griping the candelabra facing the western wall was a shriveled hand; in it, jutting from two fingers, was a still burning match. The hand had lit the other candelabra. Charles alone knew what was signified, and what would inevitably happen. He knew that the next time he looked, as he would look, again with his disciples, a third set of candles would be burning, then the fourth. He felt the kind of thrill he had not felt since, as a boy, he had gone to the attic and ascended the stairway leading nowhere, and an evil spirit had passed through him. But he was suddenly aware of something else too, though he had no sense of what it might be. Not a spirit, nor exactly prying eyes as from a hidden passageway, but something was watching, something was aware of what was happening here tonight. He had not felt it before when his disciples had assembled to carry out his orders, nor when the boy Darryl was being eaten; no one watched then, or if they did, they had not made their presence known. Tonight, someone was watching, at least to the extent of being aware of what was going on.
The disciples had lined up before the candelabra. Before Charles could signal, they each approached and kissed the hand, the brute who had torn Darryl apart last to kiss it. He turned to where Charles and Carroll stood. He pointed at Carroll.
"He must kiss Joseph!" the brute, in a borrowed voice, proclaimed. Carroll did not move to obey. The brute pointed to the hand holding fast to the candelabra and repeated his command. "He must kiss Joseph. Or die!"
It did not seem as if the brute had moved, but he grabbed Carroll by the throat and forced him to the western wall. "Joseph is hungry!" the brute whispered in a way like venom dripping from a Cobra's teeth. He lifted a hand to Carroll's face. Slowly he moved his fingers, talons, toward the boy's eye. "Joseph is hungry!"
The boys felt suddenly as if they had become caught in a maze of spider webs, though nothing was visible. A musty odor seeped into the room, overpowering the boys. Each felt damp and brushed all over by silken strands. From the ceiling a gaping mouth appeared, directly over where the brute held Carroll in his grasp. Inside the mouth was the severed head of an old man beginning to rot. It approached the brute, this mouth with the severed head. He released Carroll to raise both his hands as if fending off these jagged teeth growing nearer and nearer. But like a ghost it went right through his hands, and his raised forearms. It came at last to slowly fit itself about his head. Its teeth fixed on his neck and slowly closed, muffling his shrieks. His whole body convulsed, but it would not fall; it stood upright. Till finally the mouth opened, the teeth withdrew from his neck, and slowly ascended, leaving behind, not a headless body, but a half eaten head, as if immersed in a vat of acid, sitting on the body. Nor did it fall even then. The brute still lived, his head half eaten; but he still lived. His arms were still raised, but were still untouched. Only his head had been eaten. The gaping mouth had disappeared into the ceiling.
The other boys could not move; even Charles and Carroll stood as if turned to stone, as if the brute had been morphed into a gorgon, the stare from the gore of its eye sockets paralyzing everyone in that room. There were steps in the corridor, faint but growing firmer. Then they stopped. Suddenly the door opened. Those nearest moved away, almost running to the western wall to hide, or escape, their paralysis overcome by a greater terror: the terror of discovery. An equal terror kept those more distant frozen where they were. Only Charles and Carroll's actions were free of panic, the one moving immediately to the door as if to greet a newly arrived guest, the other merely relaxing his stance.
The cook walked in, followed by the gardener, the chauffer and one of the butlers. They bowed a servant's bow to Charles and his guests then proceeded to the brute. "Leave him to us," the cook said, taking one of the boy's arms while the butler took the other. They led him away, the chauffer, last to leave, shutting the door behind him. Their steps faded into the corridor. Charles motioned for his disciples to collect by the door.
"We must go," he ordered. "We will return to the forest."
First Charles, then Carroll, then one by one the nine disciples trailed from the room. It was understood that the last one out would shut the door; and it was shut. Not by the boy though. The eighth having passed into the corridor, the ninth started out, reaching for the doorknob as he went. Something stopped him. He could not move farther. Something had hold of his hand and was pulling him back into the room. He cried out for help. He screamed for help. The other boys stopped, looked around, as if each one were looking down a path in a deep wood; but, seeing nothing, they proceeded on. The door to the Game Room closed. The ninth disciple felt himself being pulled to the western wall. He looked and saw, holding fast to his wrist, the rotted hand which had held the candelabra, the hand he had kissed in ceremony, the severed hand of the cat burglar, Joseph Martin. The boy was forced against the credenza where the three candles stood, lighted, in the silver candelabra. Slowly, his head was forced down until the flames of the candles flickered in his eyes. And burned at his eyes until they were burned through. His screams were muffled by the hand having grabbed his tongue. He saw two burning branches in a charred forest plunge into his eyes, he felt their career through his skull. He saw, from behind a burned tree, an eyeless boy whose tongue had been convulsing as if an electric current were passing through him. He wondered who this boy was. Then the forest disappeared, the boy disappeared, the universe disappeared, and he knew he had swallowed it all; and he felt himself expanding as if he would burst. But he did not burst: he kept expanding but did not burst, for in swallowing the universe whole, he had killed time, destroyed space, and without these he might expand forever but never burst.
And while the ninth disciple expanded in the Burnt Woods, existence taking hold in his belly, the brute washed and dried the cook's pots and pans. He had been put to work. Gently he had been led to the kitchen, an apron found and slipped over his head, his hands placed at the sink, in the hot sudsy wash water, dirty dishes given him to clean. He did a good job, so good that he was rewarded with a sweetmeat, which dissolved the instant it touched the gore at his mouth. Next he took out the garbage. Again he was rewarded, this time with a pastry; it too dissolved. Then he was led to the basement, where some rats had gotten in. Their hole was found; he was placed so that his mouth covered it. When the rats came in, they too were dissolved. He was treated a final time. One by one his parts were put to his mouth, first his arms, then his legs, then little by little the rest of him; it was all they could do to bring his sex organs to his mouth, they were so small - smaller even than young Charles' immature organs: they had to crack his spine to get them in his mouth. One by one his parts dissolved, making it easier to twist his bones until his very neck, last to dissolve, was put to his lips, leaving only the raw head, which the gardener turned on end and arranged flowers in.
"Very pretty," the cook said. He said it in Sanskrit.
"Yes," the gardener agreed, also in this strange language, "the family will have a lovely bouquet for their party come Saturday."
"Will they all be here?" the chauffer asked.
"The young boy is doing everything right," replied the cook. "Just as our ancestral mother set down for us. It has taken these many generations for such a Grae to appear again. We will leave nothing to chance."
"The big boy almost ruined it," observed the butler.
"The flower pot there?" asked the gardener, pointing to his handiwork. The cook nodded.
"He would have killed the young Poshun boy had our ancestral mother not been alert," the butler explained.
"No one could have foreseen that boy becoming one of Charles' disciples," the cook insisted.
"True," said the butler. "Even so, the dynamic came much too close to being disrupted. We cannot be so careless again. All must be kept in balance: we, the servants; the Graes; the Poshuns; Typhon. Otherwise the world as we know it will cease. And all the past will have been for nothing."
"You mustn't fear," said the cook, "we know what we're doing. Step by step the past will be brought to renew our way of life. Never forget the power that this house holds within its walls. No challenge will ever subdue it. The old ways will prevail. The division of life into steps, each higher than the previous, but all equal in terms of preserving the whole: this must and this will continue. The force of all the Graes will combine to ensure it. After dinner. Saturday. The life blood of the system: what is the blood of a few individuals in comparison? So long as the equation is kept in equilibrium, all will be well. Without us to tend the equation, the force of the Graes would have long since brought the system down. And fools - blind, ignorant fools - imagine that we who serve are the victims. Let them continue thinking it."
The cook laughed. And at the same moment a board gave way in the church the servants attended, weakening the church bell's hold. It did not fall through, nor were there parishioners at worship; so even if it had fallen just then it would have caused no harm. It was too early for evening services; they were another hour away. This was to be a special service. The foundation had been attacked by termites, the structure itself compromised. One of the parishioners had discovered the problem; he noticed, one Sunday, an insect flying toward the ceiling. Its wings caught a ray of incoming sun, making it at first merely another, if a larger, dust particle floating upward. But the sharp eyes of this exterminator quickly separated truth from illusion. Termites, he concluded; termites, it was. He prepared the wood for injection that same day, came back Monday to plant the curative. Soon the pestilence had ceased. He announced his handiwork. A service of thanksgiving was planned for later that evening.
And as the rotted board gave way, exposing the church bell to the forces of gravity below, a branch shook hard upon a great burned oak in the forest, as if a hurricane had touched down. Yet no other limb of no other tree shook, only this one, the one Charles Grae and his disciples were passing beneath. The air about this tree was heavy, bloated, and it smelled of indigestion. It made the boys momentarily nauseous. One of them retched. Turning, they saw what they had taken to be the ninth disciple burst apart. They thought they felt a great wind, thought they saw a volley of stars shoot forth, thought a huge black hole slipped inside the tree trunk. Charles ordered his eighth disciple to put his finger in the wormhole. The boy obeyed. His finger became lodged. He cried for help. The other disciples grabbed him, but could not pull him free. Then his whole hand began slipping into the wormhole, its skin flayed loose by the bark. He screamed. He begged for help. But his arm too was drawn in, its skin catching on the wormhole. Then, slowly, as the wormhole widened with its new bulk, his entire body was drawn in, shoulder, neck, head, arm, trunk, and finally his legs and his feet. Only his skin was left outside the tree, dangling like a wet balloon from the hole. The boy felt himself inside the belly of someone, felt himself swallowed. He stood waiting to be digested. But he knew he never would be. He knew he would spend eternity in this belly, awaiting something that would never happen.
The other boys took down the skin, as their leader commanded, and placed it over his shoulders. The fit was perfect, like a royal robe marking the fine contours of his body. No other cloth could have better signified his reign. Each of the boys longed to touch it; but, receiving no command, refrained; except Carroll, who reach out and felt the smoothest fabric he had ever experienced, a nap almost of down buoyed by something silkenly metallic. Carroll's hand was instantly pulled away.
"He gave no one permission!" said the boy who had acted.
Charles approached the boy and started in his face until the boy turned from him. "Get undressed!" he ordered. The boy obeyed. Charles pointed to the wormhole. "Mate with that tree!" he ordered. The boy hesitated.
"Please," the boy begged. "Please."
"Do as I say."
"Please," the boy said once more then, looking around as if for help, obeyed. He came to the tree. He brought his loins close. His sex went inside. He felt his testicles against the bark, hitting and rubbing as he brought his body closer, then away, then closer, until he stopped, tight against the tree, and let out a terrible moan. He collapsed on the ground. His body was intact. He had suffered no worse physical injury than a boy's first mating. But his fear had reduced him to a mindless wretch who had not even the intelligence to remember how to get up. He would lay there till he died. Charles motioned for his disciples to leave the woods now. They obeyed. The boy lay panting, without so much as knowing why. He knew only one thing, a thing he understood only as an image formed inside his brain with the sound of his moan, as if the seed he spilled inside the wormhole gave birth to something distant, something in the church where the servants were gathered at prayer service. The falling of a bell.
The weakened plank gave way. The weight of the church bell reached out to its god, and fell into the outstretched arms, the invisible, the eternal arms that pull all things toward it; and in heaving toward that embrace, crushed a man to death. The living blood of the exterminator whetted god's lips and blessed in absolution god's supplicant. The bell only murdered that it might experience the exaltation of god's communion. Matter serves only the Eternal Force, the pull, the tug that holds all things together, and frees all things when props fail to contain them. Mountains and seas and sky all do homage. And if a man stands between a bell and the earth's call to it, he will perish for his sin, his spilled blood the sacrament bonding matter to spirit.
A little girl arose to say a few words over the exterminator. They were quotations from Newton, and Kepler, and Einstein, all having to do with the motion of gravity, which they were pleased to name a phenomenon of nature. Only that her head was bowed as she recited lent them the solemnity attendant to the invocation of a god. Everyone felt her words disparate to the occasion, though no one stopped her from speaking. For ten minutes she spoke, then left the church. everyone thought they knew her, though no one could quite place which family she belonged to or had come in with. When she left, no one claimed her as theirs. The body of the termite exterminator was cleared away. The prayer service resumed. Outside, a red bolt shot over the church while, inside, the mock candles gave a pale yellow aspect to the rows of tiny church windows on either side. No one in church saw the boys passing through the church yard on their way home from the forest.
The young man who worked in the Mansard Gallery, sweeping floors, dusting treasures, carrying out litter and who, by his employer's own assessment, was much overpaid for his services, saw Charles, Carroll and the other boys pass the church. His eyes were drawn to Charles' cape; its color and texture made him shudder, though he mistook it for simple cloth. He felt something knifelike moving along his spine; he hurried on, to escape it. He was on his way home; a number of errands had kept him later than usual. Sometimes he was paid for the extra hours, sometimes not; whether he was or was not paid did not seem to depend on anything predictable. He tried his best to influence which way it would go, but he never knew for sure how much weight his words carried. In attempting to get his pay aligned with his work, just as whenever he wished to ask for a raise, he never consulted his employer, Mansard, directly, but always Mansard's assistant, as though this man were an intermediary. He had learned that while he might persuade the assistant to his cause, he could do nothing with Mansard. This time he had no luck with either. His additional hours were dismissed as personal time: his being on specific errands took him away from the gallery, his being away made his time suspect. Was he actually working the whole time he was away, or was he malingering - that was the question, a question any businessman worth his salt must consider. And after due reflection, there was determined to be too great a chance of overpaying him; Mansard simply could not take the chance. The young man was reminded, lest he balk, that the world was full of janitors, while galleries were few and far between.
He was on his way home from work. He did not really expect to be paid, so he was not really disappointed. He was frightened though. His life posed a dilemma, for while he was tolerated, and wished nothing more than to be an artist, he had to survive, which meant he had to earn his living however he could. In his naive young artist's way, he mistook a place of business for a museum of art; he imagined that if he got a job at a gallery he would earn his living and at the same time gain a greater insight into painting. He wished to paint, and did paint; but while his sweeping and dusting and carrying out became his life's work, his painting became more and more a mere hobby. He found that, although his association with the Mansard made a proper backdrop to his ambition, the nature of that association made him little more than a laughing stock. He had never understood that an artist was or was not taken seriously according to his status rather than his talent; so that when it dawned on him how difficult his ambition would be to fulfill, it nearly destroyed him. But he saved himself from ruin by painting his sense of hopelessness, of impotence, or impending doom rather than acting it out. His psyche had been badly scarred, but it survived, and was if anything stronger for the trauma.
"Caveman," he signed all his works, dark, brooding works filled with the remains of a shattered light, but a light which on close inspection seemed to be falling back to a common point, like a closed universe after the big bang. He signed everything Caveman because he felt like those anonymous first artists, whose works endured an eternity but who, for want of a hieroglyphic, had no way of securing their own immortality. Recognition would never be theirs; but all the same, the fact of their having created a magnificent work would never be erased or ignored. Their work was their only reward, just as his work would have to be his. He could never hope for recognition or remuneration save by a fluke of fortune. The world was not his. He had no power, no wealth, no influence. He was not a modern artist in the true sense of the term, but a caveman, a throwback to another era; or perhaps a harbinger of the future, where it will be machines which create art, where men's talents will be redirected to oiling and programming and framing the produce, while in the galleries floppy discs and digital contraptions will sit surrounded by mechanisms designed to prevent their theft. We are all destined to become Cavemen one day. From dust to dust.
The moment he reached home he collected a new canvas to replace the one he had already started, which contained the beginnings of his small efficiency and which he now set in the closet. He wished to try and paint the robe he had seen over Charles Grae's shoulders. He had only undertaken his apartment's portrayal as an exercise in realism; even so, there were traces of light visualizing about the furnishings, as if whatever in him that made him paint refused to take such surroundings as anything more than a point of departure. Seating himself before the canvas, he took up each color he felt would express the strange rubbery sheen of the robe. He worked late into the night; he had no trouble holding the image in his mind. Stopping to inspect his work, he grew discouraged with how pitifully shy of the mark it was - not for want of skill but because of the impossibility of grafting the image onto canvas. He realized that no one could have come any closer to capturing the essence of it. He grew angry. And from anger a closer approach to truth arose. His brush became a kind of weapon. He began slashing the mangled figure of a man onto the canvas surrounding the robe, as if this piece of cloth were being torn from the man's body. He spurted blood from that body, he painted a scream over the man's face, he created an anguish only an artist could see. And, as if the torment, as real as blood, had somehow gotten not only on but inside the very threads of the robe, suddenly the painting took on a life. The cloth became as it had appeared to him when he first saw it; the folds had that same exquisite suppleness, the texture that same delicacy, the shading that same subtlety. It was no longer a representation of an entity: it was that entity. But it frightened him. At first the source of his fright escaped him, then he realized what it was. The man, whose bare skin was being torn from his body, was himself; the features, twisted by the sudden pall of skin, were his. Behind the mangling mask was the artist.
He trembled. Then he got up and crossed the room to where a narrow cot stood against the wall. He lifted the sheet back - it had an Aztec design, in brown, faded - and lay down. He meant to cover himself but fell asleep first. He meant to rest his mind, to let it fabricate something pleasant to contemplate as he slept; instead, he began almost at once dreaming, a dream not self-induced but created somewhere outside, a beam which came upon him and seemed to deaden his will. At first, all was mist; he had an awareness of having gone into the past, deeply, and the mist was linked to a world long since departed, but a world which had always existed inside the heavy, moist atmosphere. A voice, which he knew to be his, said of it: "Just like in the movies." He heard a laugh, very deep, all around; it came not out of the mist but from it, as if it were an entity in its own right. This too made him think of the movies, the only place he knew where a fog could exist as a separate being.
"Why do you think they always associate mists with the past?" a voice asked, the same deep voice which had laughed. "Wherever fog arises, the past may be found."
"Fog arises everywhere!" he heard himself say. Then, as he watched, the air cleared, but with the solid clarity of ice more than the absolute clarity of dissipation. A village square appeared, of at least two hundred years' age. People were milling about, discussing some important matter which he could not ascertain. He felt himself moving through the crowd, toward the center of the square, where a well stood. He watched as a little girl raised herself from the well, her tiny hands grasping the top so that she could pull herself out. No one seemed aware of her presence; no one offered to assist her. When she was free of the well, she sat down, some few feet beyond, appearing to entertain herself in the ordinary little girl's way of babbling.
At first no one paid her any attention, thinking her, if they noticed her at all, merely a village child left momentarily unattended. Gradually, people became fascinated with her contentment: here was a child, uncared for, abandoned for the moment, yet unconcerned, unafraid, merely sitting, talking to herself. Once their attention was directed toward her, however, they became aware of something else, a thing more peculiar than her being here in the first place, more enchanting than her serenity. She was not merely babbling, as little children did; she seemed to be talking - not just feigning the sounds and syllables she heard others pronounce, but actually speaking a whole language, with whole words, whole phrases, whole sentences: with a whole meaning, nothing of which anybody understood. They listened in awe, aware she was speaking to them, or to someone, but unable to decipher what was being said.
All of this, in his dream, the young artist who swept the floors of Mansard's gallery, saw, and heard, and felt. Yet at the same time he knew himself to be a presence distinct from the rest; not a spectator the way the villagers were. Suddenly the little girl looked directly at him, right through the others. He knew her garbled language was addressed to him; still, he could not decipher it. Until it finally worked itself into a language intelligible to him.
"I offer you what all men seek," this child said. Again, he thought, like the movies. "Power," she said, "and wealth. And, beyond that, I offer you what all men are afraid to name but all men want: I offer you the blood of your fellow man. I offer you their heads on a stake. I offer you their skins for your floors. I offer you their bones to forge into weapons. I offer you the chance to fulfill your deepest urges. I offer you what is called Evil but what in their souls men know to be the highest good, for it gives the greatest pleasure. I offer you real power, not the substitutes men have created to disguise their bloodlust. I offer you absolute freedom: the freedom to call Evil the supreme Good you know it to be. You do not need war, nor pillage, nor conquest, nor their softer sides. You need no commerce, no usury, no taxation. You need not fumble with such glossy appendages as money or gold or jewels, nor do you need to buy and sell other men. You need no exploitation, no serfs, no slaves, nor workers, nor any measure of humbling. You need no longer settle for less than the full reality you long to experience. You need not put chains on arms and legs - you can wrench them from their sockets. You need not outsmart your neighbor - you can smash his skull. You need not steal his land - you can bury him beneath it. You need not covet his wife - you can mangle his manhood. All that has happened since man appeared has been to sublimate his lust for blood. All his achievements have been to shed blood with as little gore as possible. All his institutions have been to cover his eyes from seeing his true self. I offer you freedom from all this - freedom, absolute freedom! Those to whom I have given this have betrayed me. Their line has degenerated. They have produced a boy who will destroy all that has gone before. In a single gesture he will end twelve generations. They are no longer worthy. The branch which was wrested from the main tree will inherit. The power, the wealth of a whole family will pass into the hands of a philosopher. It will be useless. Accept it - accept it! It is yours for the taking! Accept it! Evil - the god of all gods, the master of all creation: it shall be yours."
The child stopped speaking. The villagers, who had gathered around her, had momentarily forgotten her; something she said had fixed their attention elsewhere. They began chattering among themselves, discussing some issue crucial to their village. Something the child said, a word, abstracted from the flow of what sounded to them as gibberish, was taken up. Over and over they repeated it to one another, until everyone in the square had agreed it was the right word. They seemed then to remember the child; they looked where she was but found nothing. She had gone.
Watching, in his dream, the young artist too had failed to notice her disappearance, his attention diverted by the villagers. Then everything receded once more into mist, and the dreamer was left to contemplate the child's words. Through it all he got the impression that what she had spoken was not directed at him specifically, even though he had been the observer, and the only one there, able to comprehend her message, but at anyone who would listen and understand. It had a stage quality to it - the quality of a recorded message, but one recorded long ago and replayed over and over along some definite circuit which had found its way into his sleep. Perhaps this was why her speech sounded so stilted, and why the setting had so nearly the feel of a theatrical event.
Whether others had heard or whether he alone had received the communication, he had no way of knowing; least of all did he understand why he had picked it up. His own ideals were entirely different from those the child expressed. Not that he had never considered the interpretation of man's existence the dream gave, but that he had never accepted it as true, or as the whole of man's life. Yes, if you looked at things a certain way they spelled bloodlust; and undoubtedly a great many men approached life exactly the way the child offered him; undoubtedly, too, they had prospered: such is the nature of this "good" the child offered that those who seek to realize it are bound to reap great rewards. It has always been that way, and because it has it has always appeared temptingly right and proper behavior. To shed your neighbor's blood almost always nets a reward. Since the beginning tribes have always sought to conquer others, and when they succeeded history gave them its highest honor: immortality. No one knows the names of the defeated, only of the victors.
History concerns itself with empires. But empires, too, fall. Is their fall linked to the manner of their creation or rather to their having grown less bloodthirsty? Is it when they begin developing a conscience, when they begin questioning their own significance, when they begin doubting that they are the elect of God that they begin to die? Is a people's only safety in madness? so that the moment they grow sane they become easy prey to madmen whose only self-image is omnipotence, whose only ideal is conquest, whose only driving ambition is the lust for blood? Is a mind absolutely closed, then, a greater asset than one open to all existence? And the first breath of truth is your dying gasp? Will you become Ozymandias or remain a Caveman - because whichever you would be you would be forever? Ozymandias' statue may give terror to no one further, it may lie a pitiful ruin in the mythical desert - but his name endures. Is this not proof of the little girl's words? Perhaps not. But even if it is, does that make it a worthy endeavor? If all you have to pass on is trophies, has your life been worth the living? If the bones of your fellow man become the foundation of your legacy, why would anyone want it? What possible value?
No, little girl, no. You were heard too well tonight. What you offer is rubbish and filth. You can make me a king, but you cannot make a king a worthy being. You can give me everything, but everything you give must be extorted and pillaged. To accept your offer I must first become less than who I am. What will you give me to equal the soul I will have renounced? No, little girl, no. Your offer is the lure of fools. Cavemen, whatever else they may be, are not fools. They do not give away their treasures in exchange for trinkets. They are not fools.
But the dream went on; it would not stop simply for one artist's rejection, or for a million rejections. It played since the beginning of time, sometimes to a single dreamer, sometimes to a whole village. Those who could not interpret, those who took one word from context to name a town, those who heard too well - and a thousand other circumstances - had no effect on a portrayal created out of the same gases and dusts and forces spewed from the first seed to forge a universe. No little girl's message was ever truly her own; a billion reactions along the horizontal plane; the narrow band where existence levered its elements with its laws, tempted certain inevitable words from her lips. For all of anybody's part in the process, it may as well have been a child as a spread-faced warrior who solicited tyrants from the human race. And as well in one tongue as another. And it may as well have been a species of servants as one of aristocrats who took it upon itself to preserve the eternal ways. Existence, with its laws which moved every particle indiscriminately toward, then along, well chosen pathways, neither right nor wrong paths, neither serving nor preempting life, neither conducive nor harmful to its own furtherance - existence had no preference. No one species or sub-species was favored. Anything could coalesce anywhere, it did not matter, no more than it mattered whether the universe ended tomorrow or lasted forever. Ozymandias or Jack the Ripper or Little Bo Peep could become the medium transmitting eternity, or disrupting it. The supreme order of absolute chaos: that anything could happen produced the ultimate maxim: something would happen. Men could have their skins torn from their backs, or their hands eaten by a ghost, or they could discover a pot full of gold: it was all one. It mattered only to them individually; and if it did not matter to them individually, it did not matter at all.
That one group of boys played at sticks and stones, another at baseball, a third at checkers and a fourth at the supernatural was irrelevant. What mattered was they they moved, they created actions, they carried existence a little farther along the horizon. If it made a difference whether one produced laughter, another tears, another screams, it was a difference born of and borne by something they themselves thought or felt or did; outside themselves it was meaningless. If they wish to survive they must do it themselves; for the moment they leave it to anything else they have left it to chance.
The boys, out wandering the night on their way from the stick forest, passed the rear window of the room where the young artist lay dreaming. Charles Grae XIII looked in and saw him. He felt an intense love for this man. He wished that somehow he could die in this man's place; or, if not, then at least die with him. He longed to go to him, to lie with him, to become a girl for him. He knew that everything he was feeling was manifesting itself to his newest disciple. He could sense, not so much Carroll Poshun's eyes as his awareness upon him. He knew that in this moment he had passed his leadership to his cousin, but he wanted to die with this man more than he wanted to rule the world. He pictured in his mind the two of them, naked, their hands tied to an overhanging branch, their skin flayed from their bodies. He could hear their screams. He could feel the man dying. He whispered something, a curse upon those who had done this. Then he too died.
"It's all yours," he said to Carroll Poshun.
"I don't want it," Carroll replied.
"You have no choice. Sometimes it must be fought for and won, sometimes it is given on a golden platter. Either way, it passes from someone to someone. It moves. It will all be yours."
Carroll did not question what was said to him, only the value of what would be given to him. But he realized that his family could no more preserve its poverty forever than the Grae's could their wealth. No one had any choice in the arrangement of particles impinging upon their lives. All anyone could do was evaluate. Power, wealth, or any other attribute had meaning only in how one viewed them. One could hate them or love them; but, like passing through a mist trailing a comet, one could not escape them. The place along the plane where earth lay was a belt of hierarchy, of power, of wealth, of murder. Somewhere else, perhaps other things; but here, in this plane, these were the things. Your only choice in life was to like or to dislike them. The Graes had chosen to like them, the Poshuns to dislike them. But the outcome was of an impartial distribution of particulates; it had nothing to do with personal preference.
Charles Grae XII, on his way from his office in the new part of town, thought he had seen his son, in the company of six other boys, headed toward the old part of town. He could have been mistaken though; at any rate, it was nothing to turn around for: he was on his way to Harkins' Restaurant, to meet with his banker, his broker, his attorney, his accountant, his chief consultant, and a man scheduled to make an important presentation. And, from the looks of it, Charles had been in the lead anyway: things were as they should be - as nature intended them to be.
A private room had been reserved at Harkins' - not one of the banquet rooms, but a viewing room, where an occasional first run film was shown, usually it was rented for stag parties. This evening, however, something entirely different was on hand. A well-known advertising agency had recently established a new concept in promotion, with neither product nor service being promoted but rather the people behind the products and services. Others too had gotten into the business, but Smass was generally recognized as innovator and leader. Marick R. Smass had had the genius and the foresight to get in on the ground floor. His already successful ad agency had nearly tripled its revenue since he started his video based concept. "You are who you appear to be," Smass had eloquently maintained; his job was to assure you the proper appearance - the appearance best calculated to sell you to a skeptical public. Not as a celebrity (others had already cornered that market) but specifically as an entrepreneur did he seek to groom you - not only seek but guarantee.
He worked the field, he knew exactly at any given time what the public would buy in a businessman and what it would not buy. His job, for which he received a handsome retainer, was to prompt you, to dress you, to manicure and barber you, to effect the precise shade of expression best calculated to win over the public to your side. To this end he made use of video equipment; not merely did he get you ready to go face the public, he made you part of that public. You watched yourself, on video tape, under pressure; you and he took notes, compared notes, ironed out difficulties, smoothed out rough lines, and got you eventually looking like the best and latest ideal of what a man of means ought to be. You came across as tough but compassionate, industrious but not humorless, ambitious but not greedy, aggressive but not ruthless: in short, you became nothing less than a folk hero, one of Jung's archetypes. You were the Father Figure, regardless your sex or age.
There was a small stage in Harkins' viewing room, raised for burlesque shows and other performances, with a screen at the rear. Seven rows of seats, in brushed red velvet, faced the stage. More important for tonight's performance were the stage lights, without which the video was rather useless: it could photograph in subdued light, but could not illuminate the innumerable nuances which had to be evaluated. The same lights, therefore, which only last evening stressed the costumes of Miss Debbie Dallas, tonight would reveal the perfect businessman. Marick Smass guaranteed it, or quadruple your money back. Smass understood as no other man alive what the public wanted or could be persuaded to want.
Charles Grae XII entered Harkins' in a blue-gray suit; he carried a very small attaché case, a one-of-a-kind, created expressly for him by Monsieur Hubert of Paris, who had died shortly afterward, when his tie, an original created by Mme. Janelle of Ghent, had become caught in a sewing machine. It was the fright that killed him; his heart stopped. Mme. Janelle could not be reached for comment, but as a result of this incident her ties became the immediate toast of the continent, then fell out of fashion when a Count Balbot of Liechtenstein mistakenly ate a section of the tie Mr. Scuct of Lisbon had made for him and strangled. At first they thought it was the patois sinc which he choked on and there was a run on that delicacy; but when the blazing blue of Scuct's cravet was discovered in Balbot's gullet, it was all up with Mme. Janelle's Ting Ties, not to mention patois sinc. It was Mr. Suct's Click-Clock Cravets or nothing from then on.
Grae's business associates had already arrived and were situated at the ebony bar to the immediate right of the entrance. Each was appropriately dressed: each had been asked to wear his favorite suit; each had also been measured and photographed by one of Smass' assistants so that The One True Suit could be tailored for him. The suits were all in the coat room awaiting the right moment. The disparity between the businessmen's ideas of what they should wear and Smass' expert opinion gave an index of how much work they needed, or how little, depending. And work they would, if it was demanded of them: they did not get where they were by being lazy, any more than simply by virtue of birth. You can lead the Chairman's son to the boardroom, but you cannot make him sit; he must learn that on his own.
Even the booze at Harkins' ranked second only to Jacquard's, was unpalatable to the gourmet tongue of Charles Grae XII; he drank nothing. His associates knew he would drink nothing; therefore, knowing the presentation would now begin, they moved from the bar to their seats in the auditorium. They had no sooner been seated than a small plumpish man in a burgundy suit came from backstage. He was bald, and had a big face with features almost ugly. He spoke in a deep baritone, resonant and inspiring: a voice to motivate you to find the best you had in you and to seek the best life had to offer, and to settle for nothing less. Not a puny voice, for puny men, but a powerful voice, for powerful men. Men like you.
In his hand he carried a long stem rose, very deep red. he motioned, with the rose, backstage. Three men, assistants of his, came out, each carrying a silver pail approximately a gallon big. They carried them carefully; one by one, as each was motioned, they set the pails down, in a row, then returned backstage. The short, plumpish man turned to his audience.
"I have a rose," he said. "Very much I suppose to Miss Stein's liking. But not to mine. A rose is a rose. Let me introduce myself: I am Marick R. Smass. And I would very much prefer the flower wet." With this, he approached the first pail, directly to his right, and dipped the upturned rose into it. Letting it set a moment first, he then held it up; water trickled down the petals onto the floor, a few drops of moisture remained after the dripping had stopped. "Nice, isn't it?" Smass asked. "Not that that matters. What matters is that it pleased me to wetten it. So I did. I altered it ever so slightly to suit my fancy. But now, as I look at it, I think what I'd like is a nice blue rose. I've wearied of red. Let's try blue." He reached beyond the first to the second pail; he dipped the upturned rose into this pail, he let it stay a moment, then slowly withdrew it, shaking it slightly as he righted it. Tiny blue droplets trickled back into the pail, thick blue gobs of paint. "How's that?" he asked. "Better? Is blue better? I suppose so. For now. But now has the shortest duration of any time length. I'm already tired of this blue rose. Oh I could make it, say, green, or yellow - or any other color I chose. I have the means. But I won't. I don't want any other color. I don't want any color. I don't want the rose anymore - I'm just plain tired of it." He reached long, avoiding the first two pails to dip the flower into the third. There was an audible fizz; a tiny mist arose. Then the flower was withdrawn.
"There," said Snass, holding up now an empty stalk, "it's gone. All gone. I like that. I liked having the rose, I like not having it. If I want another, there are plenty more to be had. For the taking! I like that too. I like knowing I can change my environment at will. It doesn't matter, as you see, what I change it to. The question is, as our dear friend Humpty Dumpty so eloquently said, which is to be master - that's all. Is nature to be in charge, or am I? - if you'll permit me to state the proposition in its most basic terms. If I prefer the earth warmed, I'll have it warmer - pure and simple, regardless what nature tries to decree. I have the means to effect such a change. So why should I not? Why, in other words, should I allow anything else in existence - or even existence itself - ascendancy over my will? My will is mine - and more, it is me. And who am I - or who dare I pronounce myself to be - if I have not the courage of my will? My power. And you gentlemen: you too are men of will, of power. Why, if you choose a rose to become something other than what it was made to be, should you not carry your resolve to the finish? Why stop short of gratifying your will? Are you squeamish at changing it color, its structure, its very existence? You need nothing to justify yourself further than that you wish it; you need not look beyond yourself: if your will does not permit you an action, nothing does. You may as well sit all day in a corner. There is but one impediment to the free and complete exercise of your will: the need for order. To maximize the expression of your will requires a certain kind of social setting. There must be as little opposition to your wishes as possible. The less resistance you encounter, the more you can achieve. There is a way to handle resistance, to turn where it exists as potential into something helpful, useful to you, something which will actually further your aims. Hindrance can in the right hands become your most powerful ally. You need only learn the fine art of disguising your ambition, of presenting it to potential resistors as an asset and a benefit to themselves. Image: this is what it's all about. As far back as Machiavelli men realized the enormous potential of manipulating how others saw them. And this is where I come in."
He motioned again for his assistants, waving the rose stalk, which he still held in his hand. They entered, carrying various pieces of equipment: video equipment; camera with microphone, short circuit television. When it had been put in place, they returned backstage. Smass turned to his audience and asked "Who's first?"
Bill Jakes spoke up. "I'll go first!" he declared.
"Up here," Smass ordered. Jakes was on stage in two bounds. "Sit here," he was told. Smass went behind the camera, got it focused, properly distanced, made sure the light was right, then began the interview. He asked tough questions, the kind a sharp reporter out for a story and a reputation might unexpectedly ask; and when he had gotten Jakes' responses, he played it all back. There were close-up and long shots, the close-ups revealing reaction, the long shots attire and overall appearance. And there was stop-action, so that Jakes' errors could be highlighted for his, and everyone's benefit. Next, Jakes was sent backstage, where the three assistants assisted with a suit of clothes more appropriate to the image selected as best for him, and with a new hairstyle, and a few tips on grooming. While they worked on him, Smass summoned another from his audience for the initial interview. In this way, each of Charles Grae's associates eventually ended up backstage. Charles was at last summoned for the interview.
The lights revealed a calm, self-assured aristocrat, the video a strong, confident entrepreneur whose every response balanced charm with toughness, his image the sum total of everything Smass expected of a man in his position. Nothing needed to be added or taken away; nor did his clothing require assistance. He was already the perfected Machiavellian, ready to deal effectively with the public.
"I am profoundly impressed," said Smass, his voice somewhat congratulatory. Charles Grae noted with distaste the hint of condescension. "No one has ever come across so well. You may indeed be proud of yourself." Charles smiled and thanked his mentor He was correct and polite yet a chill was sent down Marick Smass's back. Then the others returned, dressed as they ought to be. They were prompted and rehearsed until they had gotten it down pat, the mannerisms, the expressions, the style, the rhythm of speaking, the diction, the choice of words, at which they were pronounced ready to meet the public - the fickle public - upon whom so much depended nowadays.
It was late when they left Harkins'. Smass and his assistants had been invited to the Grae's Saturday dinner; they had of course accepted, as graciously as the invitation had been issued. It was, as everyone knew, a high honor to receive an invitation to the Grae House; and, being one of the new breed of high priests - being a pep-talker, a coach of sorts, a spokesman for the socio-economic status quo, one of those whose self-appointed task it is to inspire his "team" to go out there and win - being a champion of will and drive and ambition, it was only natural that Marick Smass should be invited. Why his assistants had been was something of a puzzle, since their very nature as assistants - that is, as ancillary, corollary, inferior to another - seemed to disqualify them for admittance through any but the back door. Worse still, their presence would understandably dilute that of their boss, their invitation lessen the effect of his invitation, He meant to dissuade them from going. No sooner had Grae and his associates departed than Smass informed his assistants they would not be attending the soiree.
"Most unfortunate," he commiserated, "but, as you know, we have a presentation next Tuesday in Springfield. I've got to have you boys scout ahead for me, make sure the arrangements are satisfactory, and so forth. I'll need you to be there Saturday. There's a big world out there; a lot of it is being lost for carelessness on the part of those who've earned it. We can help save it for them. This is not the Dark Ages; even the ignorant are sophisticated. And they're getting greedy, they want a little more each day, only there's not enough to go around. They've got to be made to believe that less is more - because, as every economist worth his salt knows, less is more: less for them, more for us. We've worked too hard for it to hand it back over to them. Boys, we have a mission. And your being in Springfield is a crucial part of that mission. Without you three, I'd be nowhere. I'm counting on you."
The three assistants, their worth reaffirmed, proceeded to clear the stage of props. Their zeal rekindled, they forgot their disappointment at having to miss Charles Grae's dinner party - the only such affair they had ever been invited to in their lives. But without them - without their great work - who knows? perhaps all dinner parties would come to an abrupt end. And a world without dinner parties was...it was a perfectly ordinary world, a world where men lived out their days as if their lives were an end in themselves. The world must be kept safe for dinner parties...and for those who had the means to give them. Marick Smass' three assistants knew their worth.
It was past ten, and such a lovely night that, while Smass, true to his principles, drove from Harkins' to the hotel, his assistants chose to walk. Advised not to be late - there was still work to be done; and the props, loaded into the trunk of Smass' automobile, had to be unloaded - the three men set off. The walk was less than a mile. Overhead was like an advertisement for sky. Not even city lights could dilute the clean black depth, nor obscure the millions of stars. One could almost hear the artistic director calling for crispness; nothing must haze his photographer's lens, all must be perfect. "They're paying good money for this sky" he might remind his crew; "they expect the best sky one can simulate." It was almost too ideal to be a real sky. Plus some other quality had entwined the overhead, not exactly visual but something the three men out for a walk sensed. The night had the feel of a natural phenomenon, as if an eclipse or an aurora had been forecast and the sense of expectation had migrated out of the spectators into the very ground they watched. The three men found themselves looking up every few feet, with anticipation rather than wonder. Yet there was to be no eclipse, nor an aurora. They were not alone though, the three; little by little the streets began to fill as others stepped out to watch, to await this phenomenon, whatever it was. Perhaps even a comet; but neither had it been forecast. Not even a thunderstorm. That there was nothing in the offing, however, could not keep people indoors. They all felt they would witness something awesome, spectacular, and it would be celestial, and very soon. Yet nothing happened, no phenomenon visited the sky over Tyfington.
It got to be midnight and, as suddenly as everyone had appeared, they returned indoors, each one seeming content, just as if the great event they awaited had occurred. All parts of the city, filling, now unfilled; streets emptied. There was no discussion, before or after, concerning the event. Not even the three assistants spoke of it, not even when pressed to account for their tardiness. Smass had not felt the phenomenon; he stayed in his hotel room, assessing his assistants' behavior against their recent request for a raise in pay.
"Men who request a raise should be there to collect it," Smass remarked when the men at last made their appearance before him. That, he entertained, sufficed. They now knew what to expect. The men were sent to bed, to rest up for tomorrow's drive to Springfield. The men fell asleep each with a grin on his face; each knew he would never get to Springfield, that he would, instead, make his way to Charles Grae's dinner party. This, they got from the night sky, this knowledge of the future.
A few stragglers remained in the street looking up, but in wonder, the way they usually perceived the sky, and no longer in anticipation. Whatever had enticed them had already happened; and, although nothing looked different for its happening, everything felt different. It was as if the universe had shifted a gear a notch, as if the earth had altered its trajectory about the sun. If someone takes your furnishings and, while you're not looking, puts them in another room, and arranges it exactly as the old room was, so that no difference is visible - you would still know that you're not in the same space as before, that somehow your position has shifted. You may not mind, but you will be aware of the change.
The servants, taking a route different from the one they came by, returned to their family dwelling. Not all the servants who had assembled at church lived or worked at the Grae House, but all owed their allegiance to the ruling family of their region; and they would be needed before the week was out. A single column proceeded homeward. Not a word was spoken as, from their church, they wound their way on the outskirts of town, to the great burned forest. Pausing only to look down at the ground beneath their feet, they slowly, solemnly moved through the dark tangled woods toward the distant light from their home, They were lost in the deepest prayer, they had no sense of alienship here, where through their agency a thousand thousand living trees had been turned to scorched wood standing idle in no-man's land. They had set no fires, but still they had moved to drive the trees from this place, for the trees, alive, could not be owned, and in not being owned they threatened the eternal order: the great hierarchy. "The Great Chain of Being" of Middle-Ages lore - more nearly accurate a rendition of how things must be than anything before or since. A tree - so much as a single tree - which escapes the chained helix threatens the very ground against which the universe is matched. A whole forest of such trees can bring God to His knees. Burnt Woods, men could walk through safely, confident the natural law was emitting its essence through all matter. Green trees escaped from man's orbit filtered existence from the ether. Eternity was strangled. Burn the woods, burn all woods, turn it to cinders, to ash, to dust, to monsters upon whose stickers souls clung on their way from their bodies. Destroy all, but save God. He needs to Be.
The sky suggested itself through the dark mantle of charred bark and twisted branches. The sky itself seemed a tangle of oddly situated lights, not stars in the careful symmetry motion and gravity generate but sparks randomly placed, carelessly pieced, irrespective of each other's placement; this sky had the look of chaos, and the feel, as if all order had gone from the universe, and only chance was left. A cold sky for the want of pattern, like a pile of green twigs scattered from any impelling flame. Far into the horizon were thick stratus clouds, toward which the whole sky seemed to be moving, as if being slowly drawn into the layered void. The woods held the night; just as green trees kept God from omnipresence, black trees kept the universe formless. Until the procession reached open land again; then everything returned to normal. The great celestial disintegration ceased, the forces re-collected, motion and gravity took over, the eternal mechanism started up again. As the lights of the Grae House grew in volume, the stars came ever more toward their assignments, until every constellation was where and as it should be and every star's twinkle synchronized with every other.
A sense of relief took hold of the processioners. They were above all an orderly people, given to convention, and as the keystone of convention, to the concept of hierarchy. There must be God, and God must be on high, and the pattern of sky, however dynamic, must serve God's ends, must remain static in terms of its arrangement; and the earth must serve its god against the same design. Man was earth's god, and whatever his nature he must come first, all else to bow before him. No matter the cost, trees, seas, fire, stones, clouds and creatures must be made to serve his ends. Order or chaos: there was no other choice. Order was good, chaos evil. Anything which furthered the cause of order was good, anything prompting chaos was evil. A thousand screams from a thousand wrenched bodies, if order was thereby served, were sanctioned; a single life spared, if in sparing it chaos was served, was unconscionable.
Therefore, there must be a division of existence into these two camps; and insofar as man had free will, a division of mankind: those who, in serving their own wills, chose chaos, those whose service was to hierarchy. Leaders were needed to insure the preservation of this great and only human imperative. But they must be carefully chosen. It was no accident that the most brutal, most ruthless, most oppressive always ascended, for they were the ones most in tune to the eternal way. God must be served; without rulers none would willingly assume a subordinate place; the absence of inferiors anywhere along the chain threatened the entire structure. Men of peace, men of brotherhood, men who preached, men who practiced equality had no place in such a scheme; men who at any cost extracted the obedience of others fit in.
They were "her line," these processioners. They had devoted their lives to keeping the sacred truths revealed by a little girl in her foreign tongue alive and at all times dominant; her creed, they were absolutely committed to maintaining in ascendance. To this end they called forth the wild unseen powers of eternity, powers reaching as far into the past as into the future, whenever the creed, and with it the hierarchy, and with it order itself, was challenged. They summoned the mechanisms of eternal pacing to assume convenient shapes; they gave them claws or teeth or corrosive matter; they set them upon anyone or anything threatening the truth. So too did they unleash these forces upon the innocent when in doing so some ulterior good was furthered, however remote the connection. They, as guardians of sacred truths, were empowered with sacred mysteries. What some might call demons they called upon as angels to come protect God's ways. They needed only a medium, and the Graes had been that medium - the bloodlust of that tribe served to funnel the eternal momentarily into human affairs; for only a medium attuned to hierarchy was alike enough to the laws of existence to conduct the impulse from heaven to earth. Without such families as the Graes, this planet would soon free itself from heaven, and in doing so begin a chain reaction culminating in the destruction of God Himself. This, the servants - carriers of sacred truths - vowed never to allow.
But they were concerned. The Grae line was coming to a close. Another family must be found, or else the wealth and influence would pass to the illegitimate hands of the Poshuns, who were philosophers, not princes. Yet better into theirs than alien hands, for the seeds of aristocracy, however diverted, still carried along their line; and in time, given sufficient wealth, sufficient power, would come to bloom. For this reason the son of Carroll Poshun had been spared from the spirit which had overtaken Charles Grae's disciples. Still, they were uneasy. They had known dark times, when a madman had walled the house in, and gone off to Europe intending to abandon the family entirely; but for their perseverance the traditions of eight generations would have been lost.
Charles Grae IX had gone mad one evening from remorse. The evening sky had brought forth the most magnificent sunset anyone could ever remember having seen; layer upon layer of red had infused streams of stratus clouds which joined on the horizon as at the mouth of some great jungle river, their flow thinned with fanning out across the horizon, enough to absorb copious beams of the setting sun. The diffusion which set in scattered red through every layer, leaving a golden wedge where the earth and clouds brushed one another, the entire breadth finally reducing red to a pale pink which encircled mists escaping nearby to the eastern horizon. The air seemed alive, the nine branches the sky forced upon the flow of clouds visibly moving, though except for the illusion of westward motion no one could tell for certain which direction they flowed, whether toward the west or from it. This optic display prompted a similar flow on the ground, as townspeople made for every open space to get unencumbered views. Coincidence, or some genuine parallel forged, from the multitude of directions people pursued, nine streams, all headed toward the great open space between the town and the estate where Charles Grae IX and his family lived. The rest of the family was away.
From a balcony situated where either direction could be seen, Charles Grae viewed the sunset. His eyes caught a tiny motion in the east, like a snake along the ground, then another, and another, until there were nine snakes slithering their way toward him, each of a vaguely brownish-red hue. His interest, divided between the awesome flow overhead and the repulsive one below, failed to fix entirely on either, so that the sunset never fully became light trapped inside cloud layers nor the movement below people in procession: the one still nine divergent streams, the other nine serpents. He felt like something at once connective yet a barrier, as if he had been charged to draw the essence of each together while maintaining a distance between the objects themselves. He had become a paradox, a contradiction, a being fulfilling two contrary dicta simultaneously. The snakes, the rivers, he had to keep from ever joining, which if they reached the horizon together they would; the being of the one, however, he must forge with that of the other.
This was his task: what he was born for, what he was raised for, all he lived for. This was his moment in time, and for this moment the universe had been created, God had breathed life into this earth, the Graes had ascended above their fellow men - all that Charles Grae IX might transmit through his person essence and existence, that the two might blend even while the entities from which they had been extracted remained discrete.
As he stood on his balcony, slowly he could feel something from above flowing into the fingers of his left hand which, unaware, he had lifted to the sky; and at the same time a surge from below entered his right hand, held downward toward the human streams. He felt the two forces moving along the paths of his arms, then at his shoulders and, through the arteries of his neck, into his head. He stood, a tall man with deep set gray eyes which grew dark, almost black; on his balcony, the thoughtful expression of a lifetime shattered into a thousand brutish fragments through which, his eyes suddenly turned fully upon the procession below, he watched the nine paths making their way closer. Lifting his hand, he motioned the procession closer still. Closer still. Then he disappeared behind his house's facade, appearing again, momentarily, below, motioning again for the people to come closer. Holding the door to his house, he motioned them in; when enough had entered, he closed the door to the others.
"Come," he invited his guests to follow. There were twenty-seven - three from each of the nine paths leading from the city to his house. Through the main foyer, along a corridor leading to the center of the structure, down another corridor a few steps, to a closed door, which opened, it seemed, of its own accord.
"I'll send for refreshments," Charles Grae informed his guests. "Go on in, make yourselves comfortable."
The twenty-seven entered the Game Room. There were no seats, so they stood, milling awkwardly about in the dim light of three candles in a candelabra sitting on a credenza against the western wall. Charles Grae took out a match, a very long match; struck it; and, going around the room, lighted nine more candles, three each in three identical candelabra on three credenzas against the other three walls. The room grew dimmer, at ground level, where the guests were standing; above, toward the ceiling, an almost blinding light escaped from the candles, forcing everyone's eyes downward and, because of its point of focus, toward the center of the room where on a marble stand sat a covered object. Presently the servants entered with trays of crystal stemware, and stone decanters from which they poured a deep red wine which they passed to the guests. When the twenty-seven had sipped their wine, their host again spoke.
"Let us have entertainment," he said, indicating with a graceful gesture the covered stand. He motioned. His cook, the only servant without a tray, made for the center of the room. Delicately, as if handling a veil of gossamer, Charles Grae's cook lifted the cover and folded it carefully. A cry as of something out of a dream arose from the stand, followed by a host of what sounded like voices engaged in all manner of intercourse: bartering, haggling, issuing commands, summoning subordinates, calling forth curses, debating, accusing, condemning, maligning - a hundred, a thousand vocalizations, a mélange of intricacies escaping from the four sided arena in which were situated two opposite teams of game pieces which, from amidst the noise, gave off a rustle, as of cloth and metal and leather and the like beginning to move about. Suddenly the door to the Game Room slammed shut; a furious wind began moving the twenty-seven guests about the room, impelling each to step here, then there; back, then forward, to this side, then to that side; the whole, from above, enacting a pattern which mirrored the playing field within the arena at the center of the room.
The next day Charles Grae IX summoned the brick masons to wall in his house. He called long distance. He wanted no one from Tyfington to ever come near his house again; the brick masons were out of Springfield. He told them what he wanted for his house, plus one additional task: he wanted a lead lined vault, one solid piece, built around an object whose dimensions he gave, to seal it completely and in such a fashion that it could not come undone. He wanted them to begin at once, he would pay whatever they asked, and to work around the clock until the house was closed off from the outside. They agreed. He then summoned his servants, when they finished cleaning up from the night before, to his study.
"I'll see that you're all taken care of," he told them. "If you wish to seek other work, you'll have no trouble. Through my attorneys I'll keep in touch with you until you're all settled. You will work no more here, nor will you be allowed residence. The Grae House is to be closed. Were it not for what might be unleashed, I would have it leveled. I have brought enough evil to this town; the house will stand, but no one shall enter or leave. I refrain from designating it closed forever; I cannot know what my descendants will do, I will not attempt to dictate to the future - enough has been done in the name of immortality, I will do nothing to keep anything of this family alive. I am leaving; I will never return. My son is being sent to Boston to be raised by his mother's family. The moment the last brick is in place I shall leave. None of you are to attempt to return here. You saw what this house has done. I had not believed myself capable of such madness. I will have my attorneys settle with the townspeople. It is a madness almost as great as my own that money can settle even this kind of debt. I should be torn to pieces; instead, I will be honored as a philanthropist. The entire old part of town, the last of our property holdings, I am turning over to the people. The Grae's will own nothing but this shell which I pray to God will never be opened. I regret that your long years of service have brought you to such as this, but I cannot allow the forces we have caused to infest this house to remain free. Chance is too often lying in wait. Therefore, you are all to go at once and gather your things. And leave. Whatever remains behind will be sealed inside. God go with you."
By day's end the servants had obeyed their master, collected their belongings, and departed the Grae House; the work had already begun. They proceeded through the forest, along the periphery of Tyfington, to their church. There, they offered prayers for the work of the madman to be quickly undone. Charles Grae's son was only six years old; many years awaited the reopening of the house - if, indeed, Charles Grae X could be induced to undo his father's work. Meanwhile, to keep the old order intact, a means of thwarting the madman must be found. To this end the servants plotted. No less a thing than the will of God was at stake, for, as man had free will, he could choose to ignore the eternal ways, to honor instead his own ways, to replace God with himself as his standard of value, concern himself with his own and not God's well being.
The Grae House, the focus within the house, had aggregated through the generations the great truths needed to keep man from taking over. These truths could not survive locked away from the world; man dare not be allowed to experience their absence. He must not live a day, let alone a generation, unguided by truth, unobserved by those who kept the truth, unattended by those who executed it. Take away truth, man would quickly forget where his allegiance lay. He would begin seeing things altogether wrong. He would see himself as the agent of his own destiny, the creator of his own values, the arbiter of his own laws, the master of fate. His focus would begin to turn inward; externals would assume ever less an importance; till finally God Himself - the supreme external force - would cease to exist, in fact as well as in name.
"We do not cherish suffering," the cook gave testimony before the congregation, "nor applaud warfare, nor relish torture. We seek to inflict neither disease nor famine. We enjoy no shedding of blood, no breaking up of families, no pillage, no burning, no rape. None of this is our desire. But we know that without these tools man's eyes will shift from the sky to his soul. We know that unless stimulated man will neglect his world to concentrate on his own perfection - what good is a perfect creature in a void? We know that man's basic qualities link him inextricably to the universe, to God. Greed, hate, ambition: these are the belts keeping man firmly attached to reality: the extrinsic trinity. Take away the incentives - let there be no power, no hierarchy, no status, no wealth - and man would soon abandon these qualities without which he can never come to experience and to know eternity. Transcendence will be lost forever. It is a cruel truth, but an inescapable truth, that only if man sees his brothers as enemies will he ever see God. Should peace, and with it the other of the intrinsic trinity - love, brotherhood - should these ever come to dominate, man's eyes would never again open upon the universe. We cannot allow his eyes to be shut. We must keep our God alive. My plan is this:"
The plan, as laid before the congregation, was to tunnel beneath the madman's wall, to dig through the foundation and into the lower chambers, from there to reestablish intercourse with the House, perhaps even to reside once more in it. The madman need never know. So long as the house was not isolated from the community - and a continuous movement through the barrier, like osmosis around a living cell, would keep it from becoming isolated - the forces within would retain their energies, the creed they represented would remain vital, the truths that creed housed would continue to exist. In isolation, all was lost; it could not feed on itself, it required human awareness, a continual adherence, an unquestioned and undivided loyalty. Its fragility was all too apparent.
When the brick masons' work was done, Charles Grae IX, standing in a small grove of trees his driveway circled, looked one last time to his house. A huge brick box encased it; windows, doors, eaves, roof, porticoes had all disappeared into this vague warehouse. It looked smaller than the house had, for lack of shape: the eyes followed it too easily, an expanse unbroken by cornices, by slopes, by shadowed angles. Nor were there clouds draped behind it; the sun shone full. Charles Grae got in his automobile and drove away. He was never seen again, and in time never heard of. It was assumed that he died in exile, perhaps by his own hand. Eventually his son, at last of age, took over management of the family fortune, and reopened the house. It had not laid vacant, though at the time of its reopening it was uninhabited. The servants had kept it vital; their comings and goings linked it with the town. They had invited guests, under pretext of pillage; their guests were never seen again.
For a long time Catherine watched the procession of servants. Though it was dark, with barely the tip f a quarter moon to enlighten the land around the Grae House - clouds covered all but the topmost horn - Catherine saw from as far off as their exit out of the Burnt Woods the servants' slow march homeward. From her bedroom she had been looking out, as if expecting the servants. Braxton was asleep; they had had intercourse; he had asked of her "Who was he?," like a bridegroom discovering his wife to be not a virgin, only in this instance it was not her virginity in question, but her aesthetics. She had never responded like this before - she couldn't, her husband's narcissism permitted no real response; this time, however, she had reacted as if his every movement were a stimulus calculated to elicit a like movement in her. He did not want a responding woman; if anything, he was repulsed by the idea of her enjoying it: since, because of her body's opaqueness, he could never fully enjoy the act, he refused her the privilege of pleasure. She had managed it all the same, though never before had she; therefore, she must have been with another man, a man who must have taught her ways to extract sensuality even from calculatedly insensitive love making. So he asked "Who was he?" to which his wife replied that it was none of his business."
"You're my husband, not my lover," she reminded him.
"Then don't respond as if I were," he rejoined.
"He's a philosopher," Catherine said just as Braxton was falling asleep. He lifted himself long enough to consider the remark, then, shrugging, returned to his pillow, muttering to himself "A philosopher, eh? Yeah, yeah, you're right. Too much in his head to care what his cock does. Philosopher's a good lay. Good night, philosophette."
Good night my beloved," Catherine in turn murmured. She had gone to the window, and had stood there since, until finally catching sight of the servants. Her room was dark, nothing inside competed with the procession for her attention; so, though all but the moon's highest horn was visible, she was able to focus on the abrupt motion stealing from the woods.
She had come to her bedroom from the servants' quarters in the basement, where the old housemaid, Mary, too ill now to leave her bed, lay dying. She had gone to the old woman when it became clear to her the servants were not at home. Braxton had called for someone to help him frame those of his paintings he wished to display at the Mansard Gallery. Tomorrow, Friday, someone from the Gallery would stop by to get them; tonight was the time to prepare them for transit. But no one came. Finally Braxton went to the kitchen, the garage, the garden: wherever a servant ought to be stationed; none were at their posts. He descended to the basement; this too was empty. He could hear breathing, however, labored breathing, broken by an occasional sign. When he pinpointed the source, he opened the door and found the housemaid, Mary, alone in her room, half unconscious.
"Catherine!" he called, then went to the stairway and called her again. "Catherine!" When she appeared at the head of the stairs he motioned her down. "This way," he led her to Mary's room.
The old woman smiled the instant she recognized Catherine. "They've sent you," she muttered, a note of surprise in her voice, though nothing of dismay or disappointment. "How odd," she added. "Give me a few moments to gather my wits," she said after a long pause.
Catherine went and sat beside her. "Why have they left you alone?" she asked. The old woman looked puzzled.
"How else can it be?" she in turn asked.
Catherine took her hand. "Tell me, truthfully," she inquired of her housemaid, has your life been blighted by the station you held? I know you - all of you - might have gone on to something better. I know you chose to stay. But do you have any regrets - have you ever regretted your choice?"
Once more the old woman looked puzzled. "How could it continue if we left?"
"We could do our own work," Catherine explained. This made the housemaid smile, as one might smile at a child's quaint attempts to define some abstract principle with reference to his toys.
"The work is nothing. We don't remain to work," Mary said. "What is work?"
"Then why? Why do you remain? Are you afraid to go out on your own?"
Again the housemaid smiled, this smile more like an adult's to an adolescent, who has learned a lot but has a lot still to learn. "We are afraid, yes," she replied; "but not for us. We are afraid for you. You could do your own work; but without someone to do it for you, you would soon forget how to rule."
"If we forgot that, the world would no longer be what it is," Catherine observed.
The old woman's smile was now the knowing smile of a peer. "The world," she repeated, "would no longer be what it is. It would cease. The truths it rests on would be lost. The universe would float away. God would vanish forever. There must be servants, or it cannot exist in its present form."
"Then let there be another form!" Catherine said.
The old woman shook her head. "No," she muttered. "This is the right way. The only way. The universe creates us that it might see itself reflected in our behavior. The forces that fill the galaxies would turn from us forever if we became only ourselves. We are vessels. There is room for but one essence: our souls, or our selves. There sits a great storm amidst our galaxy; it both is and isn't; it moves forward and backward; it pulls apart contradictions to make a whole. Those paradoxes too elusive for molten stars to resolve, it hurls at living things to give shape and resolution. It observes life's slow, painful working out in detail of its contradictions. A certain mode and no other embodies this process. The ways must be preserved. At all costs."
"At the cost -" Catherine started with a string of antecedents: at the cost...of life...of limb...of freedom...of happiness - as many as there were sacrifices possible; then stopped herself before the first one. She realized it was no use. A woman who had devoted her entire life to sacrifice would not understand that the cost was too dear. The universe asked too high a price of those it created. They had neither demanded nor even requested creation; they might owe their creator something; but not everything. If everything was set as the price - and it seemed it was - then give nothing. The resolution of eternal contradiction though their bones and blood was unacceptable. But how explain this to a dying housemaid? How tell her that men live but a moment: the self, the being which is human, alive but an instant. The emanation, if there is one, perhaps endures; but the memory is lost. The life is gone. No truth is so great it legitimately claims a man's existence. But how tell this to a dying housemaid?"
Catherine smiled, as one smiles at senility, sadly and with resignation; the knowledge that it is too late now to explain dictated her smile.
"Your line -" Again Catherine stopped herself. She had started to say "Your line has always been servants"; she started to ask why. Instead, the term she had begun with redirected her thoughts: not "your line," tracing from the housemaid back, but rather "her line" - from the patroness, the protectress, of this place, forward to her descendant, an old housemaid dying in a small room in the basement of a great house. Of course, thought Catherine: her line; you are of her line. Her heir. This city, named, not by my ancestor, but by yours, watched over, not by me, but by you.
"You could as easily have ruled as served," Catherine realized aloud.
"It's of no importance who rules and who serves," the old woman spoke. "All that matters is the order of things. There must be rulers, and servers. No other medium expresses the eternal truths. Everything that ensues from that relationship manifests the will of God. Freedom - the absence of rule - disrupts the divine mechanism. When kings claimed divine right to rule, they spoke a far greater truth than even they knew. It was enough that we knew. Her ancestors: they understood, and therefore they served. They have always served, for they alone have always known that those who serve, not those who rule, were the key to it. Anyone could rule, but not everyone can serve. There must be a center, enough willing to serve to make it impossible for the rest to refuse. It was never kings who kept their subjects in line but us; we alone preserved the order of things. Without our willingness to serve, chaos would have long ago come and claimed all."
"Then her line...extends -"
"It extends to the farthest reaches of this planet!" the old woman cut Catherine short. "We, truly, are legion."
At this, the old woman grew silent. Her eyes closed. Her breath ceased. Her life ended. The task of preserving truth fell now to others."
"Let's return to our world," Catherine said as she got up and walked past her husband. Braxton followed.
"What did she mean," he asked along the way, "when she said 'they've sent you'?"
"Who knows?" replied Catherine. "If they go back that far, they must have thousands of years of ritual, perhaps unbroken, ceremonies lost to the rest of us. Her line need never have been disturbed; no one knew her family, its name appears nowhere, no one sought to destroy it, there was neither glory nor wealth to expropriate. Unnoticed, such a family might endure forever. A solid line reaching deliberately from the beginning to the end, each generation aware of its remotest origins, the passage down of secrets, undiluted, unchanging. Braxton, if I truly wished for power, I would curse my own origin, not to have been born along 'her line.' Of what real value are great families? Their only value is historical, and that only because people like to associate particular names with events. But they're soon destroyed, these great families, their members scattered, their secrets lost. Just as well: all secrets should suffer that fate. But hers doesn't. Think of it, Braxton: her secrets - of a thousand generations - remain intact. All because she chose to serve rather than rule. I find the irony more satisfying than almost anything else. The power - the real power behind each and every throne. Loathsome though it is, I love it. I love it."
Braxton was watching, not his wife, but his easel, which sat in the corner of their bedroom, its line of view directly to Catherine's left, so that it almost appeared he was looking at her. She knew of course he wasn't; she knew it was the texture of the painted flesh and not real flesh he was considering, his own and not hers: the subject of his painting. His latest, little more than an outline but already of a subtlety exceeding anything he had yet done. Being here seemed to have given his talent an added dimension. There was in the bare musculature a sense of force which promised to burst across the canvas. The growing tension along the shaft compelled a reality greater than any mere outline; and, like pockets of nuance transversing the rigid lines, soft jabs of flesh lifted a sensuality from deep inside, to blend with the straining ridges, as if something long hidden were at last becoming tangible.
Braxton was beginning to experience what it was about his body that had eluded him. There were split-seconds when he could see his body inside Catherine, when a sudden movement of his flesh came into focus then quickly blurred or disappeared again. The house was objectifying the act of intercourse for him. During every act, at its climax, he would turn to his easel: he had placed it beside his bed; and add some new perspective. The almost silent rustle of the brush against the canvas was like a gasp of ecstasy. He made his mark then hurled the brush against the wall and fell forward, first to his hands, then to his elbows, then his belly.
He had not realized till now that he had been painting, not his penis, as always before, but his wife's ecstasy, and it was this which guided his hand toward the subtleties he had never captured in any other canvas. The house had given him nothing: it had renewed Catherine; and hers was the force which had let his eyes inside her womb to see herself. He realized it because now it was not there. This act of love went unconsummated. Nothing spilled onto his easel. And as he realized it, he grew aware of some difference - some lack - something not present tonight which had been there since Catherine's return. He knew she had been with another man. He knew another man had felt this force which had become his eyes; now his eyes were once again shut from his wife's womb. Whoever he was, this other man had diverted the force, made it physical, turned it outward, until it became blind to its source: and with blindness came an end to the art it had generated.
"Who was he?" asked Braxton.
Who was he? thought Catherine. That's easy enough: he was the other half of you. Someone else might regard him as your competition - and that's precisely why he isn't: the mind should never compete with the soul. If it does, it sabotages its own as well as the soul's value. How can something which rends a being in two be said to compete with that being, when that being no longer exists? If either of you were whole, he would outshine the other. You negate each other - cancel each other out. Hardly a competition. You're an artist, Braxton. He's a philosopher. Neither your art nor his philosophy is quite human; each is brilliant, but without the other it never rises beyond the everyday. You cannot be a great artist nor be a great philosopher. Both of you have attained the pinnacle of the one-dimensional; neither can move any farther.
"He's a philosopher," said Catherine. This seemed to satisfy her husband; he mumbled something; then rolled over and fell asleep, and fell asleep so quickly it seemed that he had rolled literally into sleep, as if sleep were a vat of liquid by his bed. Nothing of it splashed, however; his wife remained awake. After awhile she got up and went downstairs, then on to the basement.
The servants had returned. They had found Mary and were attending her. Catherine made no attempt to get near the old woman's room; she knew there were ceremonies, she knew they were not for her participation, she knew that though down to the minutest detail the rituals of rulers were transparent to all, rulership had nothing to do with the affairs of those who were ruled. Those affairs were secret - secret because, being unimportant to the momentary flow of recorded events, they went unnoticed; no one thought them worthy of consideration. No one realized they were what, more than anything else, moved the world, and simultaneously kept it from falling apart, at least in its historically constituted form. If there had been a time when the world was different, then all ceremonies - if there were any - were of equal importance, and none hid behind obscurity. If there had ever been such a time. Now, and in the knowable past, only the doings of the great were visible; the rest moved under cover of anonymity.
The sounds coming from Mary's room were unintelligible to the 13th generation daughter of greatness. For all being of the same species in the same household on the same planet was worth, they might as well have come from an alien world. They may just as well have arrived by spaceship from Neptune as by foot from the Burnt Woods. Their jargon was as alien as the mandibular chirpings of a spaceman; and the other sounds - those which were not drawn from any living thing's throat - could have come from some wholly unknown species of machinery. To think something was banging, or rustling, or in any other way moving was to pinpoint the nature of these sounds as purely physical; there was no reason to think they were. Nor were they all of a type. Some were softer than others; some were more like a liquid being squeezed, though not really a liquid and not really squeezed; some were nearly soundless, as if deliberately whispered. What Catherine thought of were human souls being pressed as in a juicer: why this image and not another, she had no way of knowing; but she felt certain that it was the correct image.
In her own house she could approach any place she wished. She therefore drew nearer the housemaid's room. No one was anywhere in sight; all the servants had somehow gotten into the tiny space where Mary had lain. There was, on the doorjamb, a flicker of light, as of candles. Otherwise, all was dark immediately surrounding the room, which was by itself in what seemed approximately the center of the basement. All the other rooms were recessions against the various walls; this one room stood apart, and alone - something Catherine had not noticed when she was here before.
Mary's room was at the center of the house - right below the Game Room.
It was drawing near. Though she was the one approaching, it felt to her that she was standing still, the room coming closer, as if it were being brought to her, as if her volition were insignificant compared to her will. She was the ruler; it, the thing ruled, its owner at her disposal, hers for the asking. The sounds remained constant; they grew neither louder nor softer. Souls being squeezed of their essence. She felt a draft. It seemed to be coming not from underneath the door but from the floor itself - all around the room she imagined - as if it would lift the room aloft. It came at her at an angle, a damp breeze, both warm and chill at the same time, a checkerboard of air coming from the base of Mary's room. It had a quality that made Catherine hear screams in her mind, the cries of young masculine voices just beginning to deepen. Five distinct tones were carried along the spray, woven alternately warm and chill, like the air itself. These were the souls being squeezed of their essence. The remains of five boys whose souls no longer enwrapped a core, like a body whose frame had been removed. The soul, like the loosened flesh, went slack and slithered away, hot cold and moisture no longer in balance. Five boys, pared of their innermost core. Catherine's hand reached the door, though it seemed the door had come to her, the knob fitting itself cat like against her palm. Then the knob turned, and as it was turning the sounds inside the room died away, the spray from below ceased, the flicker of candles disappeared. The door opened.
Mary stood in the doorway. The housemaid who, earlier, had died; or at least who had given all the appearance of having died. Catherine had believed her dead: her breath had stopped, her eyes had shut, her face had grown pale. Here, against a darkened background, she now stood, still the same woman, in no way rejuvenated, still a frail old woman of middle height and spare frame but revived all the same. Catherine was not frightened by her appearance at the door, nor really puzzled; if anything, she was somewhat angry, as if a joke had been perpetrated on her, the housemaid only feigning death.
As Catherine's eyes adjusted to the dark, she began to perceive the other servants gathered in Mary's room. All the servants were there, just as one would expect, their having all gone in and none come out. None had disappeared, nor had any left by some hidden passage; they might do many wondrous things - they might even restore a dead woman to life - but they could not disassemble themselves to materialize elsewhere. They were stuck on the same plane as everyone else, and while on this plane if they backed themselves into a corner, they would remain in just that corner and no other.
"I hope I haven't startled you," Mary thoughtfully explained.
"No, you haven't," Catherine replied. "I was apprehensive for your well being," she then confessed. "But you seem to have weathered the storm alright." A thought came to her, that perhaps she had not been mistaken, that Mary had not only appeared dead but had actually died - perhaps was dead even now. At any rate, if she could be revived once, why not an infinity of revivals? It occurred to her that her housemaid might be half a million years old. But were the others too? she wondered. Or was this woman unique? And why, if she truly were immortal - why choose this role in life when she could so easily rule the world? Had she not propounded the great worth of rulership? Why deny it to herself?"
"Are you 'her'?" Catherine asked.
"No," replied Mary. "There is no 'her.' Only her line. All of us are her line. She is only a projection. To explain how it's done would be useless; you would not comprehend. She does not really exist, yet we are all from her. You still wonder, don't you, that I have chosen to serve rather than rule? I have failed to make it clear that the role on this plane is to remove yourself from the deeper dimensions, where true rulership occurs. To truly rule is to maintain a system eternally. Only a division permits immortality. We who serve channel the forces of the infinite onto this plane. I have always been a housemaid, Catherine. As long as I remain one, the Truth will prevail. This, Catherine, is my strength; this is what revives me. Not the souls of the dead - they are only the means for collecting the eternal forces: they're like lightening rods, no more than that. The boys - and they are always boys: again, the division, male and female, male the ruler, female the servant: a division that must always prevail - these boys, these sacrificial victims, do not serve to reincarnate me, or to get me reborn - the forces do that - but only to prompt the forces to where I am. Sacrifice is not idle, Catherine; it serves a great end. Without it, the eternal ways could not continually re-establish their supremacy. Five otherwise meaningless young lives, Catherine, made part of an infinite process. I regret only one thing in all this: that you had to discover my secret. It can only trouble you now. You alone, of all humanity outside this room, know the truth, and why no one has ever been able to defeat us or to establish another way. We cannot allow any other way, Catherine. Still, there are things even you do not yet know. You do not yet know the place your family holds in this great scheme; you do not yet realize how crucial their role is. You have already an inkling - you saw it first in your grandfather; but the full impact you have no more idea of than an outsider. Your family's rule is coming to an end. Another has not yet been found. Oh, many great families exist - many which in the world's eyes far surpass yours; but none have proven suitable to our needs the way yours has. There has been a physic force in your line which has fed our way for twelve generations. That force cannot endure another generation. There must be a great and a final fusion of that force, to provide energy sufficient to hold the way together until we find our next great family. This event I speak of, Catherine, is very soon. Very very soon. Now, you must return to your part of the house. Forgive me for taking this liberty to dictate to you, but I must be left alone. This is our place, these lower quarters: the downstairs, remember? I must insist, Catherine. Please return to your world."
What made the strongest impression on Catherine's mind was not the resurrection, not the strange tale she had heard, not the forecast of her family's end, but the image of all the servants gathered in so small a space as this woman's room. Somehow even immortality seemed pale beside the pure physical act of congregation. Mary's words may well have been the cornerstone of some eternal creed, or her presence the key to some unfathomable mystery; but infinitely more so, it occurred to Catherine, this tiny filled room was the true center of the universe, the one point where all lines, real and imaginary, joined. But not a fixed point; it would change as rulership fell to other hands. Perhaps the dimensions of existence had shifted, and in shifting threw its center to another spot, and once that spot was found, the Grae's successors would also be found.
On her way up the stairs, Catherine stopped and turned back. The door to Mary's room had already closed; sounds were again coming from the room - sounds as if of partying. A deep chill overtook her; but it seemed to come from above, not from below. She felt too a great tension, as though the air about her had become taut; she felt as if she were pushing a great pillar ahead of her that grew more resistant with each step, until, ascending the stairway to her bedroom, she could barely move. She grabbed her door knob, as much to support herself as to open her door. The task of turning the knob, then freeing the door from the jamb, seemed almost an impossibility. Gradually she managed to accomplish it. She got in.
While Catherine kept vigil at Mary's room and struggled to work her way back to her own realm, two naked boys stole into her bedroom, one as if sleepwalking, the other fully awake. The one made his way softly to where Braxton was sleeping, then motioned the other to follow. For some minutes both stood looking down at Braxton; then the sleepwalker was motioned to uncover his naked body. The sleepwalker's hand was directed to begin a motion as if fondling Braxton's sex, which was aroused to its strongest erection ever. The hand was directed to feign masturbating Braxton; yet never touched him. Braxton awoke and began moaning, staring down at his sex. His eyes saw neither boy. His sex grew red; not the work of friction, but something else. He felt the skin of his sex being flayed, his sex being washed in blood. He could feel his skin coming loose. The feel made him moan louder and harder. His eyes were so wide watching the flaying they almost popped from their sockets. From its head working its way slowly down to its base his sex was flayed by the naked sleepwalker's hand. When the last piece of skin was loosened and the sheath lay bleeding on his belly, and his moans reached the crescendo of a scream, his eyes were tempted to rise to witness the discharge; but with every ounce of his strength were held toward the spasm which propelled his seed almost to the ceiling. They watched the skinless flesh of his sex expand in a split-second bloat, then contract, then in a lesser bloating expel again, and one more time expel, until momentarily it was still and lay down against his belly in the pool of blood and sap which the sleepwalker's hand had drawn. Then he fell into a deep sleep though his eyes remained open. And while he slept the sleepwalker gathered, first the blood and sap and rubbed it on the other naked boy's face, then the skin itself and smoothed it over the boy's face; and led the masked boy from the room back to his own, then to his bed to lie with his face covered, then to gather the cape of skin the Burnt Woods had made and cover him.
By the time Catherine finally entered her bedroom, Braxton's skin had already started growing back. She noticed the dried blood on his belly before the strange condition of his penis drew her attention. "What happened?" she asked, more out of curiosity than concern.
"My muse!" Braxton replied. Then he began laughing, interspersing the words at random. "My muse!" "My muse!" "My muse!" And each time he said it, it struck him funnier. He thought vaguely of these people one occasionally hears about, who begin laughing, or crying, or whatever, and, unable to stop, become hysterical and have to be treated. He endeavored therefore to quit his laughter, finally, after several tries, succeeding.
"I have seen it," he murmured. All the humor was gone from his voice and his eyes, both of which areas of sense had grown soft with reflection. "At last," he added in a voice almost despairing. "You know how they say it is: when you attain what you've wanted above all else, and then have to see how shy it is of your ideal? It's even worse when it hits the mark you aimed for, when it's everything you hoped for, because then you're forced to see how meaningless your ideal was all along. No matter how frustrating never attaining your goal is, you can still preserve your ideal. You attain it only at its own peril. I believed in what I could do, what my body would experience. I believed in it. It was my life, my work. I painted it. Now that I've seen it, truly experienced it - and know it's everything I imagined it would be - I've lost whatever in me had set it as my ultimate goal. Suddenly I have nothing left. My muse, in realizing my deepest dream, has murdered sleep. Your house has destroyed me. I...I don't know what to say or do further. Catherine: I no longer exist. My soul was stolen. It was smeared over another's. Another has made off with my soul, Catherine. And I don't even know who. I want to go away from here. Perhaps back to Tahiti. Not to paint though, not ever again. Just to pick fruit, and eat, and lie back, and watch the ocean break. Not ever to remember. All my paintings: let them hang in that gallery. Or let them be a canvas for another painting. Or give them to the Goodwill if you want. But you must come with me. You must leave your philosopher, leave him far behind. Come with me. Pick the fruit of Tahiti, eat, lie back, watch the ocean break. Then, when you have done that, be free to bury me. Not on the lone prair-ee, Catherine; but on the beaches of Papeete, as far from the art colonies as you can. My muse has murdered my sleep. Come to bed, Catherine; my wife. Come to bed."
Charles lay on his bed wearing Braxton' soul on his belly, just underneath his disciple's cloak of skin. He knew in two days he would never again see the man whose skin covered his face and whose soul lay on his belly. He cried for his loss. He was a boy: in spite of everything still a boy.
While Charles cried, his cousin paced the floor of his father's house, not knowing how he got there. Earlier, Carroll Poshun had been apprehended by the police, again for questioning, again on a charge of murder, again involving a boy - the boy whose remains had been uncovered in the middle of the night, and possibly the young informer who had been found half eaten the next morning. No credence was put in what the boy who had led them to this body in the Burnt Woods had related; it was dismissed as hysteria, pure and simple. The police right away perceived a familiar pattern which gave the lie to anything the boy had said when, on the way to the woods, he regained use of his voice.
"He's killed before. We had to let him go. Now he's killed again. Same M.O. Same mad-dog senseless brutality. Poshun is clearly insane. We'll make it stick this time. Two corpi delecti, both dead, both maimed the way only a maniac like Poshun would do. Yeah, we've got the goods on him now. Pick him up. Bring him in. We'll make it stick."
Three policemen were dispatched to the Poshun home. They found him out back, studying the sky, but without benefit of telescope or star chart. It was not isolated, as the police did not have to go through the house, they simply walked to the back yard, which was visible from their point of entry onto Poshun's property. He had seen them before they caught sight of him, so he greeted them at once.
"Gentlemen," he said. "I have noticed something, which in turn has prompted an axiom. The space between objects proportionately parallels the time between events. That is, major events, events which touch all people; the tiny everyday events - including almost all of what is reported as 'news' - being analogous to the empty space between galaxies, solar systems, planets and moons. This would suggest both a need for what might be called a buffer zone, and a period - or distance - necessary for the proper entity, be it material object or event, to formulate from the debris, both of time and of space. What you - and I too - are doing here, now, is debris. My contemplation, your visit, are merely fillers. The real event, whatever it might end up being, comes later; but, I suspect, not much later."
"So," retorted one of the policeman, a particularly patriotic soul, "you think the forces of law and order are 'debris,' do you? Well it might interest you to know that out of this debris is about to become your arrest on a charge of premeditated murder. How's that for an earth shaking event?"
"An event," explained Carroll Poshun, "has substance, and debris from a prolonged build-up of activities. What you're doing is merely an activity. It derives from nothing in particular and will lead to nothing of any consequence. It's just something someone chose to do: an activity; interstellar space. An event, by contrast, will change the course of history, and is not dependent on anyone's whim or will or want or need or discovery. I cherish everything I've learned in my lifetime, but it has no significance outside myself. Someone else cherishes the apprehension of what he thinks is a murderer; this, neither, has significance outside the action itself. But, forgive me, I haven't shown you my new barbecue pit, have I? Over here -"
"Just don't forget we're watching every move you make!" the policeman cautioned as the three men followed Poshun to a corner of his back yard, opposite where an ornamental tree stood. He indicated a small object made of brick, rather typically an outdoor barbecue.
"I show you this, first, because it's new, I've just built it; and, more importantly, to illustrate my point. This pit is of very great consequence to me personally, for even though I regret looking the part of a middle class American which, as you know, and mercifully so, I'm not, nevertheless I put great store in the concept of such a structure. However, you would hardly regard my having it as being significant to the history of mankind. Well, gentlemen, take a good look at it - a good, hard, long look. What you see before you is Proteus. Any man's ambition fits my back yard as well as this pit. The world is composed of an infinity of meaningless activities such as this, be they what we term great or what we term small. In the greater sense, they're all small. An industrialist's empire is of the same substance as my own handiwork, and would fit every bit as nicely, could it assume such a form. No man's ambition or achievement ever changed the course of history - not even those of the conquerors, or the emperors, or the discoverers. The flow of history is altered not by activities but by events. For there to be an event, the order of the universe must be challenged. This happens only when what is most natural is ignored. When Christ gave his Sermon on the Mount, for example, the nature of things was challenged. An infinity of activities led to his being there, and being listened to. When Mr. Lincoln freed the slaves, another event occurred. Never before had slaves been proclaimed in one stroke free of their bondage. And so on. But I see you gentlemen are growing restless for the far greater activity of arresting me. So, by all means, let us at it!"
Carroll Poshun was taken away to jail, the policemen thinking to themselves "What a fool!," a sentiment no doubt shared by most of mankind. It was simply the product of a moment's reflection, when what seems like a sudden insight comes and comes so clearly to one that he can hardly keep from sharing it with others. He may later decide against it, though even then, if he's wise, he'll recognize at least a grain of truth in it. Man is so used to encountering truth only in the guise of readily measured data that he usually ignores the gifts his soul places before him; very few are enlightened, very few allow truth to appear in anything but its physical garb, very few are willing to sift through the preposterous and the absurd to locate that one precious grain. And in time their minds dull to where they lose the ability to search. Truth is either handed down to them as tradition, which while they may not believe, they find it more convenient to accept than to question, or else it is imparted to them by specially designated truth-tellers, be they priests, scientists or psychics. Few men expect to find truth on their own, so they don't bother with it. "How can I know?" they ask, when in fact they should be asking "How is it you're any better equipped to know?" How is it that others can know, or institutions know, yet you cannot? How is that?"
The boy was pacing his father's house. He saw the police come for his father, take his father away. He was told nothing. Yet he knew why, and knew therefore that his father would have to be released. In his mind were the images of the boys he saw earlier - Charles' disciples. He saw the boys who perished, he saw the boys who survived. He wished there were an answer for the randomness of their respective fates; but he feared there was not. He feared it was nothing more than one boy being in a certain place, another boy not being there. Nothing he had ever been taught came close to this truth. His mother was what people called religious, and had always conveyed to him the belief that a supernatural being directed each and every action. His father was philosophical and credited a person's choices in life, be they actions or beliefs or still subtler manifestations of his existence, with what did or did not happen to him. Carroll Poshun's mother would have said that God has put each boy in harm's way, sparing some while not letting others be spared and that, no matter how arbitrary it seemed, it was done for the best, and that all would work out in the end, all would come clear. Carroll's father would have said that while one boy's choices had so reduced his will as to render him an easy, almost an eager, victim, another boy, outwardly perhaps no different, had retained enough of his own will to shield him from the same fate.
But neither of them had been there. Neither of them had seen the group of boys all reduced - equally reduced - to the status of slaves before their self-proclaimed leader. Neither of them had seen the look of abject submission in the boys' eyes. Neither of them had felt the blind reach of fate. Nor had they come so close to slaughter as he had. True, he was spared - but not by God, nor by his own will: God had not sent the gaping mouth; he had not summoned it. Some other agency, deliberately to save him, had sent it. A plan, perhaps; an act of will, perhaps also. But it did not have the feel of divine intervention, or of willpower. It had felt to him as much like an act of chance as his being grabbed by the brute was: the sheer chance of having been who he was, for evidently his identity had special significance to someone somewhere - not he himself, only his identity. He knew who he was and where his line derived from. He knew because his father had told him.
He paced his father's house, the weight of that certain knowledge which comes only with wisdom on his shoulders, the knowledge men had decided to dismiss now as commonplace, the knowledge that chance and order are one, that chance is but the physical side of reality, order the principle it manifests. He knew that the only thing which could ever matter was whatever he chose at any given moment to let matter. Like all men, he created all things as he went, not in the sense of willing it out of nothing, but in the sense of simply isolating what would be of value from the rest of existence, rearranging the balance with each act, recreating existence each time he acted.
Order was not what mattered, but disorder: the disorder enacted through proclaiming something a value, for to value was to single something out; to single something out was to violate the established pattern of infinity. To value was to attack the hierarchy, and this meant the destruction of order, which in turn sentenced oneself to an eternity outside the universe. One went to hell the moment he truly valued something.
Young Carroll continued pacing all night, finally realizing why: there was something lodged in the back of his mind and his pacing was meant to loosen it from his mind's grip that it could come before his memory. But he failed. He could not recall that he had sleep walked his way through an entire evening; that six boys - the six he believed had been spared - had been savagely butchered, through his own hand; that he and his cousin had removed their clothes and entered Braxton's sleep; that he had flayed the skin off Braxton's sex without even touching him; or that he had made a paste of Braxton's blood and expelled seed and with it attached the flayed skin to his cousin's face and then led the boy back to bed and covered him with another boy's flayed skin. He could not recall any of it; for just as his paste had stuck skin on his cousin's face, so too had the trance Charles' put him in pasted these events to the farthest reach of his mind.
Carroll Poshun's father made his one allotted call. To Catherine. To come be with him in jail. She could sneak in, as the two had done before. She could follow the same trail. She could be at his cell. She could take his offering through the bars. She could then return to her husband.
Too late it was discovered that, all things considered, the prisoner ought not to have been permitted his call. The matter was being discussed even as he was dialing. "We can stop him half way through," the chief of police observed. "It'll be almost the same as not allowing him to make his call in the first place. Input, gentlemen," he demanded of his subordinates.
"We just had him here yesterday -" one policeman began.
"The day before," another corrected.
"Seems even longer ago than that," a third policeman noted.
"Makes no difference," retorted the first, "the principle remains: he was here, he already made his one phone call."
"But isn't he allowed one per arrest?"
"Depends on the charge. If it's the same charge, then he should be allowed only one, no matter how often we pick him up."
"But can it be the same charge when the victim isn't the same?"
"Anyway, he's not being charged again, just questioned. So the ruling doesn't apply anyway."
"Then, gentlemen," the chief summed up the discussion, "we seem to have acted improperly in letting him make even his first call - let alone this one. Joe," he called to one of his men, "hang up the phone."
Joe proceeded at once to do just that, only to catch the prisoner in the act of replacing the receiver. Nonplussed, he returned to his superior officer, reporting that the instructions had been carried out as ordered.
"You personally hung it up?" the chief asked.
"Well, sir, he saw me coming and saved me the trouble," was the reply.
"Good man. Now take him to his cell. I don't want him around the others. Put him in the old overnight."
Carroll Poshun was taken to the overnight detention, a smaller cell in the old part of the jail - the exact cell where Carroll and Catherine had rendezvoused. This cell plus the corridor leading to it from the main body of the jail, the wall separating the two sections, and the corridor extending along the outer facade were all that remained of the original structure. When Carroll had entered, the iron door was closed and locked. The policeman who had escorted him returned to report his duty done. An hour later, Catherine arrived.
Carroll was lying on the cot. He arose at her tap upon the bars. He walked to where she stood. A strange air lay between them, like the air they had encountered when they were here before. The same feeling as if strands of a spider's web brushing against them, they felt. Carroll unzipped his trousers. Presently his sex passed through the barrier of spidery air between the iron bars. He lifted Catherine's skirt and pulled her against the bars. He came nearer and nearer.
In the main body of the prison, in a cell closest to the overnight, separated by only a wall, a man began to twist on his cot. He saw, stepping through the bars of his cell, his fellow prisoner, the one who had died earlier in the week, the one whose head had never been found. He saw, coming toward him, the Old Timer. He tried to cry out but had no voice. He held his hands up, as if to fend the apparition off. When the Old Timer reached his cot, he stopped moving. He waited a moment before the cot then put his hands to his head and, lifting his head from his shoulders, placed it onto the prisoner's belly. The prisoner was trembling so hard it looked as if the head would fall off. Blood began to spurt; the head began sinking into the prisoner's belly, as if eating its way through his body. The prisoner still could not cry out, but his eyes bugged nearly from their sockets, and his tongue hung from his mouth. All that remained of the head on his belly was its eyes; the rest had disappeared into his belly. Suddenly the eyes shot from the skull. They landed on the prisoner's eyes. Tears flowed from the Old Timer's eyes down over the prisoner's face and onto his tongue; not regular tears: tears of lye. At last the prisoner cried out. One scream, horrible and filled with agony.
Carroll Poshun and Catherine Grae heard the prisoner's scream. He had finished; he withdrew his sex. The air had dissipated. He returned his sex and zipped his trousers. "Go," he said. Catherine turned at once and left. Carroll went to his cot and lay down. His thoughts were a mixture of what had passed between he and Catherine, and what he had heard from beyond the wall; he realized that the two events were not discrete, and that the feel of the air - the same feel as before - was what linked them. He knew that momentarily someone would respond to the prisoner's cries, and that from the ensuing activity enough would spill through the wall to depict what had happened. None of this, however, concerned him, as neither did the terrible fear the lifelong residents of Tyfington had of this jail.
What did concern him was why now, after all these generations, the old fear had been realized. Why now, at the same time young boys were being butchered in the Burnt Woods. Why now, at the same time he and Catherine were indulging their passion for one another. Why now, when his own son was acting so strangely. Why now, when Tyfington seemed about to become a great cultural and industrial center. There had to be a link, just as the spidery air had linked the two sides of the jail. Not that his interest was that of a detective, or of a hero seeking to stop some unnatural horror from spreading, or of an avenger set out to right a great wrong; his interest, rather, was that of a philosopher - first, last and always. He wanted to understand it above all else for its metaphysical properties; epistemology, ethics, logic, aesthetics: they all took a back seat. Let me know what it means, he asked; it points to some ultimate principle, or some first principle. An a priori - a real a priori - not some insipid premise daintily composed in an academy or a monastery; but a real principle, made of something able to tear flesh and crack bones the way the real universe does. Not the universe of a quaint old ontology, but that of a boogie man, with real claws and real teeth and dripping real blood. Not the essence of an existence animated through the clever movement of pages in correct sequence bound in a book, but the balls and bowels of a reality fitful and menacing and always on the prowl, always coming for you. And it'll get you too, you won't fend it off with an analogue or distract it with a tautology or conceal your scent with a prolegomenon. No, not this reality you won't, not for all the Tao is China. If it sets its sight on you, it'll get you alright. Because it's philosophy as philosophy was meant to be, not as man has foolishly made it out to be: not the aristocratic contemplation of the sublime but the very commonplace dance of doom, wherein you live your life as rapidly as you can on the assumption that a moving target will avoid more cosmic debris than a still one. Perhaps this was why the Old Timer feared being confined: life went slow, too slow for one's own good, in jail.
"The man's been shot gunned to death!" Carroll heard a confident voice relate across the way. "Anyone see the killer?" No one owned up to seeing him. "Anyone hear anything?" No one had heard. "You guys deaf? Anyone'd hear a shotgun!"
"Did you hear it?" the chief of police was asked.
"We keep our eyes peeled and our ears pierced to the ground," was the senior lawman's reply. "And our monitor at full blast," he added almost defiantly. "That's right: full blast! What music is to the common ear, sirens and reports are to ours. Does that answer your question?"
"Maybe he wasn't machine gunned," one of the prisoners suggested.
"Shot gunned!" a corporal reminded the man. "This was no gangland killing, just a plain old mongrel murder."
"How do you know he was even shot gunned?"
"His whole belly's gone, that's how! And his face's been half eaten away. Ain't nothing alive does that but a shotgun. But since you boys aren't talking, you just might find yourselves charged as accessories. You might want to think about that."
In time, the investigation worked itself to the overnight lockup. Carroll Poshun was asked if he had noticed "anything suspicious." The question reminded him of something he had seen in Catherine's face - something suspicious, something he had not seen before, but something significant.
"I don't know how to answer that," Carroll replied. "I've seen very little in my lifetime I wasn't suspicious of to some degree."
"Did you see anyone come through here - specifically, anyone carrying a shotgun, or what looked like a shotgun?"
No, he thought as he studied the question, it did not resemble a shotgun, although the look had something of violence in it; more of a violence done to her than by her. Like a woman raped, but in such a way that the violence lay in the perpetrator, not the act itself. "No," he replied, "I can't say as I did."
"Or a violin even - the case anyway," the police sought to broaden the scope of their inquiry.
"Gangland slaying?" Carroll asked.
"Who said anything about a murder?" the chief asked in the manner of a prosecutor who has successfully trapped the defendant.
"Then whatever it was I saw wouldn't pertain," Carroll responded.
"Just what exactly did you see?"
"I saw a woman ravished."
"But no weapons?"
"Only those of a psychic nature."
"Can you explain them?" the chief inquired, his voice hesitating between doubt and excitement.
"No," replied Carroll Poshun, "I only have eyes for reason. The psyche is lost on me. I have no idea what happened."
The police satisfied themselves with this reply. In their report they concluded the prisoner to have been killed "by person or persons unknown, using shotgun blast at close range. The witnesses are afraid to talk for fear of retaliation. It's a sad day," the report went on, "when prisoners do not feel the system looks after their well-being."
Friday morning at 6, Charles Grae XIII arose; one minute later the young artist, the janitor at the Mansard Gallery who signed his works "Caveman," arose. At 6:02, Trevessa arose to add the finishing touches to Mrs. Elizabeth Grae's gown, which she had promised by four o'clock that afternoon. Trevessa went at once to her sewing machine. The janitor took time for a light breakfast before going to work.
Charles Grae XIII went to the room where Braxton's paintings had been stored; he was still naked and still wore Braxton's foreskin over his face. He could see just enough to grope his way. He removed the paintings' coverings and looked at each one. He ran his hands over them as if stroking or fondling them. He experienced a sensation stronger than what he had felt the night before when he watched his cousin flay the actual organ represented here in paint. He began rubbing himself against the paintings, one by one. Braxton came in.
"I was dreaming you were here," he said. Charles ignored him and kept rubbing his paintings; his sex had grown, but not enough. Nothing came forth; no cue for him to stop. The paintings were as likely to have orgasm as the boy who had not fully attained puberty. Charles began to cry. In a few moments he pulled himself together and left the room. He did not look at Braxton; he did not in any way acknowledge the artist's existence.
The paintings were left uncovered. Braxton examined them. They had been products of his imagination; now he sought to verify the truth of their depiction of him. He had at last a model. In his mind was the memory of his sex at the point of orgasm. One by one he verified his paintings; one by one they proved true. What he had imagined had been real; what his soul had visualized was as his eyes had witnessed. The artist and the man had become one. He regretted now that he had commissioned his works to go on display. It did not seem important now to have them seen; his discovery of truth had rendered them irrelevant. So long as he only supposed them to be him he was committed to their presentation. Nevertheless, he decided to go through with it, after which he would destroy them. He could not bear them one more moment in his sight now. Had they been proven false he could not have loathed them more.
He returned to his bedroom and asked his wife what the name of the gallery was. When he was told, he telephoned immediately, demanding that someone be sent within the hour to take them away.
Monsieur Mansard promised to comply with the artist's request. He summoned his janitor to go fetch the paintings. The Caveman did as he was told. Half an hour later, he arrived at the Grae House, was admitted, shown to the storeroom, and began collecting the paintings. Silently, Charles Grae XIII entered the storeroom and watched.
"What are you doing?" the boy demanded. The Caveman turned. He at once hated the boy. I know you! he thought. I painted you. I died with you! He found himself wishing to skin the boy alive.
"I'm taking these," he replied arrogantly.
"Where?" Charles demanded to know.
"To the Mansard Gallery." He had come close to saying "To my gallery." He thought for a moment that the gallery would soon be his; his thought as a statement inside his mind, the voice which had spoken it that of the girl in his dream.
"To be displayed!"
"No!" Charles cried out, as if he had received a wound. "They're for me! They're for me! No one else! Me! You can't take them!" The Caveman merely laughed at this and went about his business. "You'll die if you take them!" Charles vowed. The Caveman, knowing why the boy wanted them, began stroking the paintings exactly as the boy had earlier. He then unzipped his pants, took out his sex, and began rubbing it against the paintings. Charles screamed. "No! Joseph will tear your balls off! He'll pull your belly out! He'll eat you alive!" The Caveman only laughed that much harder. And kept rubbing himself until he expelled seed onto one of the paintings. "I swear: you'll die! You'll die!"
"If there's any dying, boy, look closer to home," the Caveman said as he zipped his pants up and pushed past Charles with Braxton's paintings. Once outside, he began crying. He regretted what he had said to the boy and what he had done to the paintings and having laughed at his threats. I don't want that gallery! he vowed. I don't want it! Damn you girl - damn you! leave me alone! I won't want it! I don't want it! I don't want the boy to die, I love him, I don't want him to die. Yet, somehow, the thought of pulling this boy's skin from his body had taken hold of him; he could not focus his mind on anything but the screaming, trembling body of the boy fast in his grip, his hands clawing beneath the boy's flesh to rip away the bleeding skin. No! No! he kept repeating with each inch of torment, till finally he saw the boy lying in a heap, an ugly pink form convulsing on the forest floor then at last still, something escaping with the boy's last breath.
"Let him die," the Caveman resolved, "it won't be me who does it."
When the Caveman arrived back at the gallery, Mansard was already setting up for the display. "About time," the Monsieur informed his janitor. "Let's have a look at the masterpieces of the idle rich." With great distaste Mansard reviewed the Braxton Collection. "How can I show this trash?" he wondered aloud. "Yet, they are who they are, aren't they? If they say pricks are chic...pricks are chic. Tell me, as a would-be artist, what do you think of them? Turn you on?"
The Caveman smiled. Would-be artist? he mused. Would-be god. Artist? Of course. God? We shall see. "I see why he threatened me," he said.
"Threatened you? The painter threatened you?" Mansard asked.
"No. His lover." Why did I say that? he wondered. Why do I think it? You skin a boy, you learn his secrets? In evil there is truth - just like the girl in the dream said? I seek truth. I seem to be caught. But no. No, I won't. I won't. "When does the exhibit open?"
"This is to be settled Saturday after dinner," was Mansard's reply. "I shall be at the Grae's for their soiree. Tyfington's finest will all be there. So of course I have no choice, do I?" A hint of arrogance caught on some of Mansard's words, but the Caveman, far from being humiliated, was only amused. Mock arrogance, he mused. Like the mock turtle: soup of the evening/beautiful soup. I, too, Monsieur, shall be there. Not without invitation though. Oh no. Oh no indeed. I have been personally invited, by special messenger. RSVP on Charles Grae's backside. And you, Monsieur? Shall you too become a beautiful soup? Si vous plait?
"Cornelius Eberhardt Braxton may very well be the greatest living painter," Mansard's janitor said in reply to his boss' earlier question. Monsieur Mansard simply shook his head.
"For now," he instructed, "put the trash in the back. No point cluttering the place up till we have to. Then go over to Trevessa's and pick up my wife's gown. Bring it here. I don't want you at my house: my wife has somewhat of a taste for low types."
On his way out, the janitor took time to examine the one Vermeer and the three Picassos from his blue period. He liked artist's names nearly as much as he did their work: quite often their names were their greatest works of art, not in the sense of their being pseudonyms but in the much more delicate sense of being gifts from fate. A Vermeer by any other name was not a Vermeer. A Picasso by a Jose Jimenez was already second-rate before it even left the palette. A Rembrandt, a Cézanne, a Renoir could not have come into this world through the agency of a Ripnip, a Clapdid or a Rollypip. We associate no quality or style to an artist equal to the sound of his name; we have always been a world of celebrities. And if fate has not conferred fame upon us by birth, we must work doubly hard to acquire a famous sounding name.
The janitor walked to Trevessa's. The distance was small, and as for being seen carrying carrying an evening gown through the old city, he rather liked the idea: maybe I'll wear it, he thought.. Trevessa was at work on Elizabeth Grae's gown and failed to hear the bell tinkle when her door opened.
"Psst!" the janitor called. "How you call you lover boy?"
Without looking up, Trevessa answered "Oh lover boy!"
"And if he still doesn't answer?"
"He'll have to make his own dress!"
"Speaking of: I've got to get Mrs. Mansard's gown: you got it ?"
"No," replied Trevessa. "The Grae woman has changed her mind four times already. I've had no chance to do anything but work on her gown."
"Uh-oh," said the janitor, "you're in for it when Mansard finds out."
"Not at all. The Grae's come first. I didn't make that rule, I merely follow everybody else's lead. Monsieur Mansard will fall right in line when I explain to him. Now go. The quicker I can finish this the quicker I can do my other work."
"Pssst! Who's the bigger bitch - the truth now: Lizzie Grae or Annie Mansard?"
Trevessa thought a moment as she worked. "I think I know," she finally said, but made no effort to elaborate. Her bell then sounded; Mansard's janitor left. It's sad, she thought; such trifles. Gowns, parties, hairstyles, handbags, hats, brunches and limos: spots, tiny drippings along the way; infinity's leavings, and they take them for the seven wonders of the world. The sum total of their lives, a collection of filth. Is there a God? are we real? how do we know we know: enough to fill the universe, and they, upon filling a chamber pot, feel themselves almost divine. They know nothing, feel nothing, see nothing, create nothing; yet think fit to dictate to the whole world, they who cannot even tell treasure from tripe. But then, since they are the most useless of beings and power the most useless entity, it's right for them to rule. It's only natural. They can't know what it is to live, so let them rule. It's sad though that anyone should sink so low as to wish to stand above the rest. Sad. So sad.
The doorbell tinkled again, interrupting her thoughts but not her work. Monsieur Mansard, the gallery master, had entered. He was angry. Trevessa assumed it was he. "I understand," he said, "you haven finished my wife's gown - the one I distinctly heard her commission the day before yesterday: is that correct?"
"Yes," replied Trevessa, "I'm afraid Mrs. Grae has found a design more to her liking. I've promised her to complete it before the evening. But since your wife needs her gown too, perhaps I could ask Mrs. Grae if she minds." Trevessa did not finish her statement, but let it trail off instead. Mansard, as she knew, would finish it for her.
"Don't bother!" he retorted. "Just make sure she has it by tomorrow afternoon! Otherwise you can look for a job cutting off foreskins! Mazeltov!"
"La chaim," Trevessa replied once the bell had again sounded and the door slammed shut. It occurred to her she ought not to have taken so long with her response. It occurred to her that long, long ago - at the start - was the proper time to have responded. It occurred to her to have let them know right off who she was, because it occurred to her that they knew all along, and she knew they knew, and they knew she knew. Whoever started this crazy idea, she wondered, that Jews must pretend to be anything and everything but Jewish? Trevessa: Madame Trevessa, of the Carpathians and Riviera and St. James. Why is she significant and Tressie of South Liverpool not? How is the one better equipped to sew cloth than the other?
The image of her mother and her grandmother rose before her; like her, seamstresses. Unlike her, they remained workers. They never became their own bosses; they never made more than just enough to survive. Even their fellow Jews took their business elsewhere: to the fancy shops, where the front was false and the polish thick, so thick it could stand by itself. Always a Madame-This or a Monsieur-That. Never mind they were no better at their trade: they didn't work out of a cold water flat. Her grandmother died at her sewing machine. They had to loosen her fingers from the cloth. They had to set her in the corner. They had a garment to finish. A South End restaurateur needed new tablecloths; Lil - grandmother Lil - had gotten all but one finished. The restaurateur arrived at 3 P.M., as he said he would. He did not inquire after the health of his seamstress, only after his tablecloths. When he saw someone else working, he feared the worst: an inferior product. When told Lil had died, he inquired if her replacement were as good. Reassured, he got his tablecloths and left. He had not noticed the dead seamstress in the corner.
Not all Jews serve, Trevessa noted. We have industrialists, bankers, all manner of power, influence and wealth. But Jews who serve...still serve. They are not invited to dine with industrialists, or bankers, or any other manner of aristocracy. Rich Jews, too, have back doors for us. I don't wish to die in a coldwater flat. Yet perhaps it is best being a Jew in the garb of a Jew than in the garb of a Jew attempting a disguise. But no, they demand disguises. That way they can be sure you feel inferior. They don't mind you being a Jew, they only mind you saying so.
"Oh well," Trevessa remarked. "Problems, problems. And me, I've miles and miles of cloth before I sleep. Perhaps one day I'll get beyond this. In another field." She smiled. "Another field" amused her; it was a funny term.
Trevessa missed a stitch. She was unaware of it, however; a strange sensation had momentarily stimulated the skin of her hands. She thought of silk - raw silk, as it comes from the cocoon; she had felt it once when a sailor tried selling contraband. The feel was as she imagined hydrogen and oxygen at that exact point of becoming liquid would feel, were it possible to get close enough to the essential atoms. It was a supernatural sense, but with as much repulsion as attraction, as much of never again as of eternity. She returned to her work minus a stitch.
Mrs. Elizabeth Grae had been riding, in the back seat of her limousine, nearby, and felt it too, this raw silk feel which had caused her seamstress to miss a stitch. She was not headed for the Old Town, merely passing its gate on her way to the new London-based department store. Originally its owners had intended building it as part of a shopping complex in the suburbs. Mrs. Grae had been instrumental in changing their minds. She wished it separate from all other shopping areas: she had no intention of going among the common man (who was very common indeed, as she saw him) in order to shop; and the prices were sufficient to keep all but the few away. Of course, the London-based department store was going broke: it depended, unlike the small exclusive shops of the Old Town, on the many; the few were too few to sustain the kind of trade the store needed; and there was nothing like a shopping mall to get the masses to buy up, and to buy big. Every time she entered the store, the feather in her cap pricked anew. It was almost deserted. It opened at 10 A.M. only out of habit.
"Ah Mrs. Grae!" piped the store manager, who would have liked to spit in her face for what she cost him in annual sales, "so very, very good to see you!"
"Thank you Armand," she replied as she moved past him to where the cosmetician stood idling beside a gray marble counter. "Marie," she reported, "I need something to go with peach." Marie at once put all her expertise at her client's disposal. An hour later, and much opening and shutting of containers, Mrs. Grae was satisfied with her face. "Good," she announced, "I'll take these." Her bill came to seventy dollars - the entire sales for the London-based department store's first hour of business that Friday. The local department store, at the shopping mall, did almost a thousand that first hour.
On her way home, she happened to remember the strange sensation she noticed riding past the Old Town gate earlier. She inquired if her chauffer had likewise noticed it. "A kind of...oh...static," she described it.
"No, ma'am," the chauffer replied. Static? he wondered. But the more he thought, the more appropriate it seemed. Most astute, he concluded. Madame Trevessa does represent...static...of a sort. Static can be adjusted. Saturday is a good day to...adjust static.
"Oh John! Stop the car! I see Charles," Mrs Grae called to her chauffer. He stopped. She let her window down. Her son, who had seen the car, came forth to greet his mother. He gave her a good morning kiss. He retreated, she let her window up, the chaffer was instructed to continue on; her next stop was the Country Club for brunch with the banker's wife, the broker's wife, the surgeon's wife, the lawyer's wife, the consultant's wife, the computer expert's wife.
The talk at brunch centered around the recent events at the Burnt Woods, the boys' bodies the subject of their repartee. "These were nice boys," it was unanimously decided.
"Just think," said Mrs. Jakes, the management consultant's wife, poignantly, "so many brilliant futures: gone. Never to be. It's so sad."
"And so many young debutantes," remarked Ginna Ditten, the computer expert's wife, "whose already narrow choices will be further narrowed. Why, who knows? my own daughter might have grown up to carry one of those boy's children. It's tragic."
No one argued that point, not even Mrs. Anderson, wife of the surgeon, who, though she had no daughter to suffer the loss of potential husbands, nevertheless felt the pain this tragedy brought to Tyfington every bit as keenly as her brunch sisters. "With a whole world full of people to choose from," she asked, "why did he have to butcher some of our finest?" - a question, of course, with no answer, but no less important for all that want.
"I hear they've arrested someone," the banker's wife interjected.
"Give you one guess who," observed the lawyer's wife.
Everyone knew that answer. It could only have been the local madman, Carroll Poshun. The very thought of him repulsed these ladies, and were it not for the timely arrival of their parfaits, their brunch would have surely been a disaster.
"I saw your son on my way here," the surgeon's wife remembered just as dessert was being finished. "A very handsome boy. He's going to be quite a catch for some young lady. So dignified a young man. And he seems so mannerly. But underneath it, I can tell: he has that drive - that special quality a man needs to maintain his station in life. A remarkable boy, Elizabeth; you're to be congratulated."
Mrs. Anderson, the surgeon's wife's, compliment was graciously received. Even certain knowledge, in this case Mrs. Grae's knowledge that her son was like all other sons of the same type and class, stood occasional confirmation. Yes, she thought, my Charles will be fully prepared to assume his rightful place. He will not be found wanting.
And, in the main, Charles still agreed. It was a part of his upbringing; even though it was no longer immediately accessible to his conscious mind, this idea of belonging to a certain milieu; nonetheless it still suffused his subconscious. It was there at his, or his family's, or his society's beck and call. He knew who he was and what was expected of him, even if the ideas circumscribing his identity - the ideas he had expounded to his remote cousin Carroll Poshun barely a week ago - had lost their foothold on his soul. He could still act out of rote; just as he would always know which fork one ate salad with, so too would he always retain the intricate shades of bearing indigenous to and required of an aristocrat. But right now his soul had a gaping slit in its throat where his brother-in-law's sex had pierced his innocence. Nothing else mattered to him but Braxton's penis. He did not care whether he ever saw it again, or wore its covering; he was obsessed by his reaction to it more than by the organ itself.
He was on his way to the Mansard Gallery when his mother passed him. He had noticed, a few minutes earlier, the wife of Dr. Anderson watching him from her automobile. He hated being watched; it made him think his obsession was on display. Because he had become his obsession. And watching this woman watching him, it occurred to him, as if through divine revelation, that he was no longer Charles Grae XIII but Cornelius Eberhardt Braxton's penis. He had robbed his lover of his sex: he called Braxton his lover; but in robbing him had ceased to exist materially as himself. Therefore whenever anyone saw him, it was Braxton's penis they were seeing. And neither this woman nor anyone else alive had a right to see that - not even Braxton. No one has a right to look at me, the boy realized. If they look...they must die.
The woman's car moved on. Charles hastened to the Gallery - not to go in, merely to stand guard, to be there, where Braxton's paintings were being readied for exhibition.
"But they won't be seen," Charles said out loud, a statement refrained throughout the day. Young Carroll Poshun came by, from visiting his father in jail, and stopped to look at Charles. You will die, Charles said to himself.
"Come to the Woods tomorrow night," Charles said to Carroll. "My disciples will meet. We will know then our fate. Be there at six. Tell no one." Charles turned away and resumed his vigil, leaving Carroll nothing but to continue home.
"You will die," Charles whispered as his cousin gradually disappeared along the street leading from Old Town. Everyone who passed and took time to notice Charles received the same death threat. They would all die, and at his command. I have the power of life and death, he asserted. I have caused the deaths of five: my disciples, boys not worthy of living. I can summon death almost at will; I need only obey my instincts. You: passer-by: at a word from me you will die. You will all die, you who dare desecrate my lover's body, you who would stare at his open sex. Die, all of you. And spend eternity inside a burned out oak in no man's land.
The door to Mansard's Gallery opened. The Caveman stepped out. He saw Charles at once; he stopped to stare. He reached over and stroked the back of Charles's neck; then he slapped the boy across the face.
"You will never show his paintings," Charles vowed.
"You are his paintings," the Caveman said.
"You will die," Charles told him.
"No. You will," the Caveman rejoined. "And he will never paint again. Because everything he tries to paint will be you. You first stole his penis to wear as your death mask; then you stole his gift - and for that you must die."
"Come to my house tomorrow," said Charles. "Come to the Game Room. I know you know where it is, because you've been there, haven't you?"
"Why are you so late coming to puberty?" the Caveman asked. "Boys your age are already men. You will be a boy forever." He walked on. Charles followed him, to his house. He left the door unlocked; Charles came in and proceeded to where he heard footsteps. The Caveman's studio was a dim, dingy and musty room which had no windows and only the light of a bare bulb in the middle of the ceiling. At one end of this tiny room was an easel, at the other a platform. Charles, as if following written instructions, made for the platform where, once he became situated, he stripped his clothes and stood naked, posing, his boy's undeveloped sex lost in the shadow cast from overhead. Furiously, as if he was butchering a calf, the Caveman painted his model. He had unzipped his pants and taken his sex out. When he finished painting, he went to his model and gently brought his sex to rest between the boy's legs.
"For this moment we will share it," he said. "Pretend it's yours. Do with it as you would with yours. Turn it with your into his, so that your soul will no longer be a painting."
Charles took the brush from the artist's hand and painted the man's sex together with his own so that it might resemble his lover's paintings. Then the boy got dressed and left. The artist wept: for Charles Grae he wept. For the purity of innocence he wept. For the sacrifice of the virgin he wept. For the malevolence of existence he wept; and for the truth of the little girl's words which had come to him in a dream he wept. I have more right to maim or to murder this boy than to help or to love him, the artist at last realized: for the universe sanctions cruelty but not kindness. I can obey or I can disobey this eternal law; I have no other real choice in life.
A vision, of a gaping jaw dripping raw acid, appeared to him, confirming his new found philosophy. The nearer it drew, the greater the power of the truth he had discovered. And when it retreated, having passed through him, in its teeth was uncertainty, writhing like a hunk of raw flesh freshly gouged from a body. Then it disappeared. He felt sticky all over; nevertheless he fixed himself inside his clothes and went back to work. He said nothing when he passed Charles again standing vigil at the door to the gallery.
Nor did the boy's father say anything when he drove past a side street leading from Old Town which permitted Charles to be seen. Charles Grae XII had always considered his son more an idea of a person than an actual person. Not so much that he never expected his son to materialize as that it did not matter if the boy ever came real or not. Charles was his heir, that was enough; nothing more was expected of him.
"The trend in software," Clarence Ditten, whose specialty was computer software, was explaining when Charles Grae entered Harkins' for his weekly business luncheon, "is toward divergent modalities." Ditten's audience was enthralled - so much so that he interrupted his talk just long enough to acknowledge Charles Grae's presence. When, three-quarters of an hour later, it was over, he ordered a round of drinks. Then, after some comment on various items in the business weekly, which had just that day come out, lunch was served.
"We'll expect you at six-thirty," Charles Grae told his colleagues. This seemed to please them. It tended to confirm the cosmic order of things; it was something they could organize their lives about: a six-thirty invitation to the most prominent family's Friday dinner, the start of a long weekend, a special gathering of Tyfington's elite rubbing elbows with one another; gourmet food, fine drink (of a very good year indeed: this was understood), witty repartee, perchance a deal or two closed. The natural order, preordained since the first jet of light stole from the big bang, so many many years ago. It was right that the best should meet this way. It was just. No less a dignitary than God the Father had arranged it. It was good. It would set the stage for Saturday evening's soiree.
- But: should one be fashionably late? Quick: consult the oracle. -
On a street corner in Old Town, ensconced in shadow, stood the young heir to the Grae fortune, guarding the entrance to the art gallery. No one would rob him of his treasures. Down the street a familiar figure approached. The guardian's sister, in a red dress which called forth the auburn highlights of her dark brown hair.
"You must go home now Charles," she said, upon reaching the intersection. It had gotten to be four o'clock. No one was coming to steal Charles' treasure - not on a Friday; who would want it? The elite, who would attend the exhibition, could have had it for the asking, but it had no appeal to them; it would not have brought them ten thousand. The masses were stopped behind a different kind of barrier shield; they could not have seen it had they been looking for it. They would have seen "dirty pictures" in its place. Dirty pictures they could get elsewhere, and at a much better price and much more titillating. So the exhibition was safe. Charles Grae could go home. Catherine led him away by the hand. She had never realized until just now that he was still a child, and perhaps needed to be walked home rather than left to his own devices. He gave no resistance.
They passed Madame Trevessa on their way home. She was just leaving, Elizabeth Grae's dress had just been finished, she was getting into her car to make the trip to the Grae House. She smiled at Catherine.
"You know," she said, sensing that Catherine and her young companion seemed to be in no particular hurry and that Catherine, unlike the boy. who was looking at her with an almost fiendish frown, seemed if anything anxious to chat a moment. "You know, it isn't true, all the things I've told you about my family. We're not of the aristocracy, we're poor Jews from Liverpool. My only distinction in life is having attended St. Edmund's College - and that's a distinction in name only, since it's only a grade school, and I never completed sixth grade. I know my work; I also know the world. Even if they think me a fool, even if they don't believe me, it's still better than if I gave a true account of myself. They'd sooner catch me in a silly lie than at the truth. I can't change that."
"No," Catherine tended to agree, "I don't suppose anyone can. We've always traveled under cover of darkness, and like those other poor unfortunates who get caught out in the woods in the night, we always come back to where we started. All you can be sure of, Trevessa, is that if something is being done a certain way now, it was always done that way. Oh, the anthropologists will insist otherwise, because they think in studying man's culture they've discovered man: man in all his poses, all his different masks; when in fact all they've seen is man at a different arc of the circle he makes throughout his history. If truth were lying two feet from his path, and he had already been assured that it could only be found up ahead, he would have happily passed it by."
"Can I give you a lift home?" asked Trevessa. "I'm going your way."
"I think we are perhaps going the same way, Trevessa. But no, we'll walk. Thanks all the same."
And on her way back, Madame Trevessa again passed Catherine and young Charles Grae, just where the road going to the Grae House most closely approached the Burnt Woods. Catherine and Charles were coming out of the woods. Trevessa waved, they waved. Trevessa was in too great a hurry to stop and chat; she was on her way to repair a great damage. Elizabeth Grae's dress had split a seam.
"It's alright, so long as it's corrected by tomorrow," Mrs. Grae consoled a rather distraught Trevessa. "I wasn't planning to wear it until then. Do see that it's ready."
Trevessa was dismissed to return to her shop with the damaged dress. The seam, the one she had missed a stitch sewing, had given way when Mrs. Grae tried it on. It could of course be repaired, that was no problem. Completing the gown she had promised Mr. Mansard for his wife by Saturday afternoon, however, would be. But no, she thought, perhaps even that would not be. I can always go back to being a Jew; I simply wouldn't be seamtress to the elite, only the semi-elite, the professionals: the new revolutionaries.
Madame Trevessa had a theory, after Marx. It was this: his idea of the proletariat rising to the top after the revolution presupposes them to be next in line. But they are not: there is a buffer class - the professional, managerial class, which in actuality ran everything but had little more real power than the working class. It was they who stood next in line. It would be they who would take over should there be a revolution - as they already had in Russia. And after them, yet another buffer class rising out of the workers to man the machinery the professionals would set up; and after that, still another, and another, and so on, until the workers will have at last realized the hopelessness of their situation, at which they will either cease working or cease hoping - one or the other, but never both. Work and hope - that is, work in the sense of toil, of drudgery, of monotony, frustration and unremitting boredom, hope in the sense of belief in a better life - are mutually exclusive. Madame Trevessa could lower her sights and, in doing so, should the great revolution come about, raise her station, as those of the professionals she might serve if she chose, rose. But it was all "iffy," since it depended upon a given abstraction becoming concrete. She would have to keep her ear to the ground.
When Catherine had waved at her from the far end of the woods, she had had a vision of sorts. Of a little girl in a long dark gray dress sitting next to a public fountain speaking in a strange tongue. She could make none of the words out, the vision lasted only a second, but she understood the child's message. And she feared for the safety of Catherine Grae. "Their heir will die," the little girl made clear. But Trevessa had no time to ponder the message, she had her work to do.
Catherine and Charles had passed the various places within the woods where the boys had perished. Each time, Charles grew frightened and huddled against his sister; for, each time, he had felt a tug at his pants leg, and, each time, a whisper at his ear. Charles Grae XIII, who intended killing everyone alive, was terrified only of the boys who had died in this forest. They alone could not see him, therefore could not desecrate his lover. Neither could they acknowledge him. Their souls were kept occupied by the restless trees, whose own spirits had gone; but what they could do was abscond with his, Charles', soul, they could set it among the leaves and worm holes and charred roots, to be kept on the move for the rest of time.
Once they were beyond the woods, Charles rekindled his courage. He glanced back, behind his sister, and saw a blade of flame hacking limbs from one of the trees, which tethered a boy's soul. Tiny red moistened lights spurted from the cuttings, then went out before falling to the ground. Turning back, Charles saw into his house, into the Game Room, and to the credenzas where, against each wall, three candles stood ensconced in candelabra. He saw himself lighting all twelve candles. And they stayed lit.
But when he and Catherine arrived home, and he went at once to the Game Room, and tried to light the candles, he found he could not keep them lit. All but three refused to burn. He trembled. A sudden crack startled him. The sound came from the center of the room. He made for the Grae Box. In it, a piece - one of the tokens - had fallen over. He reached in to set it upright; but he couldn't. It had become too heavy to lift or else stuck to the playing board. It would not budge. Charles turned and ran from the room. For the first time in his life, it frightened him being there. He escaped to his lover's bedroom. He crept in. Braxton was standing, naked, beside his easel; on it was a blank canvas. In Braxton's hand, a brush; beside him, on the stand, his paints. But he hesitated picking the first color. He saw nothing, so how would he know what color to use? He stood there and pondered the problem.
Charles went to him and knelt before him. He looked down at the boy's mouth, it was open and coming hearer. The boy's fly was open too. He was immediately aroused, but not by what the boy offered. Instead, he pushed him away. "My muse," he muttered, over and over, masturbating. The boy tried to get near him, but each time he pushed him back. When he felt himself growing ready, he waited till the boy made another move for him; then, in time with his orgasm, he slapped the boy's mouth with the back of his hand, as hard as he could. He had worked his body close to his easel, he stood as tall as he could, and when he came, it splattered against the easel. "Quickly - quickly!" he cried. "My muse! My muse!" And with his ejaculate he formed a momentary image of his muse, pale and disappearing fast into the canvas, what was not absorbed trickling down the picture.
As the boy reeled from his blow he caught for a fleeting instant the image of his lover's muse; and a piercing wail escaped from his injured mouth, for the muse was not him but his cousin.
"Get out of here!" Braxton cried. Charles took no step to comply. Braxton grabbed the boy in his arms and forced him out, slamming the door behind him; but not without a struggle. And in the struggle, the boy wet on him. When he realized, a moment after he had thrown the boy out, what had happened, he laughed. He lay down and wet on himself, letting his urine mingle with what of the boy's still remained on him, on the thick hair of his loin; then he fell asleep.
The sounds filtering from below occasionally roused him; each time, he went back to sleep. The dinner party had begun; the orchestra modulated itself according to the activities, soft at dinner, more intense for dancing. The guests, by name, had all arrived, Tyfington's finest, their limousines lining the drive, themselves seated in a descending order from the head of Charles Grae's table. The Austrian chandeliers, the French sideboards, the Belgian tapestries, the Persian rugs, the German settings - all deeply embarrassed the host. Charles Grae could not believe that these, his guests, most of whom had been here too many times to be still in awe, continued heaping praise on his possessions. Normally he did not actively mind their fawning; this evening, however, he felt so strong a revulsion that he resolved to destroy every last treasure this room housed. And perhaps all of you with it, he mused with each fresh round. He had never before experienced this sense of being trapped inside a torture chamber, of having to remain silent and unmoving while the most degrading epithets were being hurled at him. Each new "Oh how lovely!" was like the prick of a red hot needle. Do anything you bastards, he thought: condemn me as an exploiter, vomit on my plate, dismiss me as a vulgar lout - anything, just stop, for God sake stop praising my possessions!
"Oh Elizabeth!" he overheard someone telling his wife, "these tapestries are so wonderful - so wonderful! Why, I'd just die if I could get one for my husband's gallery!" Mrs. Mansard had delivered this glowing tribute.
"We'll see what we can do," Mrs. Grae graciously replied. Indeed we will, her husband silently agreed.
Every compliment drove the wedge deeper between Charles Grae and his possessions. That these people could marvel over beauty stole it from him; that they could see and appreciate his treasures robbed him of their value; that they could assume a right to praise them negated his right of ownership. He wanted to murder every person at this table. He wanted to hang their skins on his walls and watch the patterns their dripping blood made. He wanted to string their bones from the ceiling and listen to the rhythm the wind made. He wanted to skewer their organs and smell and taste them. They had taken beauty from him; he wanted to create, from their remains, a new beauty. A new art. And to contemplate it at his leisure.
"Oh, Elizabeth!" he again overheard, "this china looks good enough to eat!" Momentarily, the lady who had spoken found a stain on her gown. She could not account for it, she had not begun eating yet. "Perhaps a servant spilled something!" she speculated in a disdainful tone. Elizabeth Grae and the head butler both looked to Charles.
"Elizabeth," Charles suggested, "why not show the good lady to the kitchen. Surely there will be something there to right this terrible wrong." It was done. Elizabeth showed the lady to the kitchen, leaving her to her stain. On a side table was a place setting. The lady sat in a chair beside the table, wiping her stain. Suddenly she felt a pressure, as of hands holding her; but no one was there. A plate lifted from the table; but no one had moved it. It came toward her. She felt her mouth opening; but no one opened it. The plate applied itself delicately to her lips; she bit down, though nothing caused her to bite. She chewed the piece of dinner plate. Blood gushed from her mouth. She swallowed the piece. She fell in a heap under the table. She strangled on the broken German glass.
Catherine heard the thud the woman's body made when it fell. She was directly beneath the kitchen, in the servants' quarters downstairs; she had gone there soon after returning home, to talk with Mary, the housemaid resurrected from the dead. Mary's door was closed, so Catherine sat down, on the floor, outside her door to wait. It seemed more important than anything else on earth to speak to this old servant, worth waiting an eternity for if need be. Catherine fell asleep, leaning against the wall beside Mary's door. She dreamed. She dreamed of a skeleton, the size of a child, animated, seated in front of a fountain in a town square. People were gathered around; they were normal, only the small seated figure was skeletous. The people seemed to be listening; the jaws and mouth of the skeleton moved as if it were speaking. Then the mouth grew wider, as if the skeleton were yawning; yet it kept growing wider, until at last a head protruded. This head had great long teeth which dripped a sticky substance which hissed and steamed. It too opened its mouth wide. The skeleton seemed to be playing with it, as if it were a cherished toy. The people seemed to enjoy watching the skeleton play with the head in its mouth. Then a painting appeared, of a man's sex. The skeleton ceased playing and, with its bony fingers, peeled the skin from the painting, fashioning a boy with it. The boy began playing with the head in the skeleton's mouth. Catherine noticed the skeleton's hands readying to push the boy in its mouth. She tried to warn him, but it was too late. He turned to find out what she was saying. While he was turning, the skeleton heaved him inside its mouth. He disappeared; the jaws worked up and down; Catherine heard a crunching. The skeleton spat out the remains. They landed with a thud at Catherine's feet.
The thud woke her up. In her state of half sleep, she mistook the direction it came from: instead of overhead, she concluded it to have been nearer at hand and on a parallel level. She thought of Mary, outside whose room she had fallen asleep, and it gave her courage. Where before she felt constrained by the closed door, now she felt almost an obligation to get inside. She raised herself and knocked.
"Mary," she quietly called. "Are you alright?" The old housemaid might have tumbled onto the floor; perhaps she had neither died not been revised but only ill, perhaps catatonic. Perhaps, too, her explanation had been the delirium of a woman seized of an illness and not the statement of a woman who seemed to be the center of some great ancient conspiracy.
Slowly the door opened. Mary stood in the doorway, if anything younger, more vibrant than earlier. There had been no mistake about her transformation. "I thought you had fallen," Catherine said.
"Please come in and sit a moment," Mary invited. "I know I asked you please to stay above, where you belong. You must realize, Catherine Grae, that we are not helpless, or powerless."
"I heard a noise," Catherine said.
"Yes, you did. But it came from up there, not down here. A woman - a guest of your father's, some insignificant sycophant - has died. In the kitchen. By her own wish, in a manner of speaking. Perhaps you wonder that I, who choose service, speak disparagingly of this woman? She, too, serves; but not for the sake of the Truth. She serves only that she may yield a tangible, a monetary, gain. Her service is venal, therefore it serves no higher end. And so with all your father's guests. Their serving is without worth, without justification. Nothing builds upon it. Nothing of infinity filters through it. So they are useless. Let those who are useless either live or die. If their dying can serve some higher purpose, then let them die. Would you have warned that woman had you known? Will you warn the others? - for there will be others. The end has begun. What I told you before will come about very soon. These mock servers will all perish, and in perishing will help end your family's rule. You and your brother are unfit to rule. He, because he is made, but in a way incompatible with power. He feigns dominion, but is more of a saint than a king. You, because you are our enemy - our only enemy: otherwise, we could not allow you to survive. You exist as yourself only. Given a great enough following you could destroy the universe. You would undo all that existence has intricately wrought through eternity. In a world of your making, Catherine Grae, would be no rule, no power, no violence, no service; but absolute freedom. However, you have no following, nor will you ever, for people will never choose the freedom you offer. Partly because we will always counter your arguments with stronger ones: where you will be appealing to their selves, it is their souls - their link with the workings of infinity - to which we appeal. Ours is the stronger. But even without our appeal you would fail. People do not, at root, wish to exist. Therefore what you offer them is terrifying. They would sooner burn you at the stake than accept what you offer. Test my words, Catherine Grae: go to them, they are gathered upstairs at your father's ball. Warn them. Tell them all you have heard, and seen, and reasoned. If you must, call upon me. I am still your servant, I will verify all you have said. Do you think it will be enough?"
Catherine shook her head.
"Will it convince them?"
Again, Catherine shook her head.
"Will they choose the freedom you offer? They have only to walk out of your father's house to save themselves. They have only to be free. Will they?"
"No," Catherine said.
"Catherine Grae" you are the zenith of your family. You alone, of all the generations, are truly human. You have wrestled your soul to subjugation. But in doing so you have turned yourself against God God requires the betrayal of the self. You are unable to obey. You are an outcast. You will never know peace. But you will know what it is to be alive. Whereas the others won't."
Catherine turned and for a third time left the old woman's quarters to return upstairs. She knew this would be the final departure. She went first to the kitchen, where, on the floor, a broken piece of china clutched in her hand, was the woman whose fall had awoken Catherine. Congealed blood covered the woman's mouth and throat. After staring a moment, Catherine went to announce the dead guest.
"There a dead woman in the kitchen," she said, loudly enough to be heard over the dinner table conversation. "Shall I have her removed?"
Charles Grae, the host, shrugged, as if to say "Do what you wish." Elizabeth Grae pretended not to have heard; she went on dining and chatting, though all the guests had stopped. No one chatted back.
"Who is she?" it occurred to someone to ask. Then the man whose wife she had come as remembered the lady's absence.
"Did she have a stain on her dress?" he inquired in a feeble voice.
"There was staining, I believe," Catherine replied. The man
"Oh my God!" he muttered.
"Is something wrong with your dinner?" Charles Grae asked.
"My...my...wife...she's...she may be..." the man tried to say.
"But I asked about your dinner, not your wife," the host noted. "Is you dinner alright?"
"Is your dinner alright?"
"I...I..." the man looked at his host in utter bewilderment, but got no hint of sympathy, nor any cue that the question was merely rhetorical and might be ignored. "I," he again faltered. Then, a moment's reflection later, he replied "Yes...it is...it is alright."
"Good," the host was please to observe. "Of course," he added, "if you feel the need to excuse yourself, I suppose I can, in time, secure the services of another contractor for the concourse. Do you wish to be excused?"
The man's eyes looked as if they had blown inward and scattered. He seemed to have trouble focusing them. "No," he answered in a trembling voice, "no, I don't wish to."
"Then I suggest - unless anybody else feels the need to leave - we all resume eating," Charles Grae said.
Presently they were all back at their dinner plates. The talk was subdued, but it had resumed, business the main topic of discussion; and all business discussed at the Grae table centered around the Grae family. Not a single enterprise did not in some way depend upon Charles Grae for fruition. It was awkward to be talking, as it were, over a dead body; but essential. The host had made it clear there would be reprisals for the skittish.
Catherine watched as the guests resumed their dinner,; she observed their faces pass from tense to normal, their gestures from forced to graceful. So this is what divinity means, she thought. Put aside your human interests for the sake of higher concerns. Never mind one of your own is dead; attend to business - to what you call "worldly matters," though in reality they are not worldly at all but otherworldly. They are of the universe, these interests - these petty deals for which you are content to ignore your dead; not of the world.
"You are all gathered here to die," Catherine announced. The guests looked up, but saw the stern eyes of Charles Grae before the eyes of his daughter, and at once looked down to their plates again. Maybe we aren't, they reassured themselves with the next bit. Just possibly, maybe, we aren't. Our host is a civilized man, a good man, a consummate businessman, a superb tennis player, a collector of exquisite taste: no, he wouldn't kill us, not him. With every bite, their relish great greater. Soon they had entirely forgotten the dead woman and were each back to conversing with one another.
"Do you care to join us, Catherine?" Charles Grae inquired of his daughter. She smiled. She had always appreciated her father's sense of the absurd: from it, from observing it, from her earliest attempts to mimic it had evolved her own sense of humanness - this selfhood which the housemaid, Mary, had condemned her to.
"No, I think not," she replied. "I'm going to town - to the jail - to visit your cousin. Do you care to join me?" Now it was her father's turn to smile.
"No," he replied. "But give him my regards. Invite him, if you will, to tomorrow evening's activities. I plan to show my guests a few of my treasures - and who knows what else? Come, give your mother and me a kiss before leaving."
Catherine complied, not from a sense of duty but out of genuine regard for her parents. "I wish sometimes," Charles Grae whispered to his daughter, "we could have been servants. They're much closer to where life enters this world. They may even know why we exist."
Catherine," Elizabeth Grae instructed, "do be careful out there."
It saddened Catherine to be leaving again. She knew though that very soon her stay at this house would come to an end - and that this time there would be no returning. She took her time going out; once outside, she decided to walk, retracing the path she and her brother had taken earlier. On her way through the Burnt Woods she passed the ghosts of five boys, or perhaps it was ten - or, at any rate, what gave her the sense of proximity to departed spirits. They covered a wide berth, each associated with a particular tree, as if a kind of druid. There seemed to be motion coming from these trees, but always pulling back. She remembered what Mary had said about five boys being sacrificed. Now these five boys inhabited each his own burned out tree. Perhaps new life would come to this forest.
The old part of town was practically deserted as Catherine made for the jailhouse. Just as she was about to enter, from the side, as before, she heard steps coming toward her down the alley; and, as the steps grew near, her name whispered. "Catherine," an unfamiliar voice called.
"Catherine, I was crushed by a church bell," from the shadows the jail cut across the alley this strange voice plaintively told. "I did not do right by my kin. I took upon myself to expose the weakness in their church's foundation. I know now the termites were a part of its strength. That it covered the abyss was what made it endure. Oh Catherine, every bone in my body was crushed. I am now an outcast. I have only a burglar, a carpenter, an Old Timer and a prisoner for company. We all stand, side by side, at the forest aron watching five naked boys come and go from their gnarled tree trunks. We would go to them but we cannot. We have offended the natural order. We can never be among our own, nor even be comforted by innocent boys. Our infractions were small, but crucial; each of us helped expose the weaknesses in the foundation. I am telling you this only because Mary loves you and, though it can do you no good, she wishes you to know the meaning of events which have taken place here. Our ways are very old, because our line is unbroken. That child who appeared to the townspeople, and who even to this day appears before them, is nothing more than the projection of our line. We have learned that one may both exist and not exist together. Therefore you hear me but do not see me. Catherine, for your own sake, do not allow the Poshuns in your house. For your sake, Catherine. For your sake."
Then the voice vanished. In the context of everyday reality, were she an ordinary person, from a normal environment, possessed of conventional wisdom, Catherine would have concluded, or at least feared, herself mad to have heard a disembodied voice telling her about his death. From the perspective of her true situation, she found no cause to doubt her senses. The tale she was told fixed too many points astride the reality she moved amidst for hallucination to have fostered it. Why she was accosted, she was not sure; only that the words were real, and were true. She decided not to go in, not to be with Carroll Poshun. Instead, she walked the streets of Old Town, past the picturesque, European styled shops. She peeked in the window of Trevessa's and saw the seamstress at her sewing machine. She moved on. She met a young man coming from the Mansard Gallery. Something about him fascinated her. They both stopped a moment and stared then continued their respective ways. The rose colored street lamps blocked most of the night sky; the moon was near and, though directly overhead, completely invisible from where Catherine was. She took a leisurely stroll home.
The Caveman was headed to Trevessa's dress shop with an update on his boss's wife. "I've been sent to tell you," he said, "that Mrs. Mansard will not be needing her dress. She's been taken ill."
"It's only half finished."
"In that case I'll take it...for my model should he ever return."
"Does he model in a dress? or in the nude?"
"He's incapable of nudity. Nor is he the right size for a woman's dress; but I'll wrap it tastefully about him."
"Then this dress will suit him."
"You made a joke," the Caveman told the dressmaker.
"Jews are supposed to make jokes."
"And artists are supposed to get syphilis and go mad. I'm already mad so I'm halfway there."
"And the other part of being an artist?"
"I'm told I must do certain things first," the Caveman noted.
Just coming from the glare of Tyfington, Catherine could not at first identify the landscape. The Burnt Woods looked as if crushed into the ground, or perhaps melted. She thought of the five boys; it seemed absurd: not only had they been butchered, their souls were now reduced to a kind of pressed oil. Yet as she drew nearer, as the city faded itself into a toy world behind her, the Woods sprang back to their true dimension; the boys' souls circled their allotted tree trunks full form again. She could sense their presence, the way one senses presence in a graveyard, by a kind of inversion, as if a photograph had gone negative. How sad, she thought, to have eternity forced on unwilling victims: even the peace of death was denied them, and for no better reason than that those five bodies had been at the wrong place in time.
The five boys were laid to rest within the Burnt Woods and spend eternity trying to get out because they were sacrificed by Charles Grae XIII. The other six boys were butchered by Carroll Poshun so deep in a trance he believed himself watching the same brute who cooked and ate his friend Darrel, and would have done likewise to him had not fate intervened, holding them fast as he cut all six into pieces so small no tree would take them and only the ants could seek them out, each boy reaching out to the others for help until the last to be cut up reached out to the brute to save him. But it had not been the brute, for not only his entire body but his very soul had dissolved on his tongue. It was Carroll Poshun's hand being primed for the work he would later perform for his master in Braxton's bedroom.
Catherine lingered a moment in the forest. She happened to think of Jean Paul Sartre's philosophy, of the chestnut tree he depicted as representing the essence of the universe, a heavy, melting, oppressive grotesqueness, formless except for our need to conceal its true identity, a monstrosity. How poor a choice to exemplify a philosophy, she realized; for, of all things, a tree is least like existence. A tree remains, yet lives too. Powerful in the raw, painfully fragile tamed. Only power can kill a tree: the need to destroy it to establish dominion. Then its essence goes, returning only when kingdoms vanish.
Their souls, these five boys: only when the trees return will they be released. A tree neither wants nor needs captives. It is a complete thing. A being in and of and for itself. Watch for the new green, boys: that alone will free you.
Catherine passed from the woods. The lights of her home began their ascent from the horizon. The time, once, when she wished to be free of that place, she realized, was not merely long ago, not merely gone; it had never existed, because she had never really needed to be set free. She had never been imprisoned there, or anywhere. She always knew, thinking back, that she belonged nowhere - not if belonging meant, as it always meant for man, the conflation of location with personal identity. "I am an American" meant nothing; neither did "I am a Grae." The generations may have produced her genes, but not her soul. She realized, furthermore, that even were she of some tiny, obscure tribe, her identity would have evolved distinctly from her home. Just because her vision reached so broadly, she was not truly of this earth. She had no more a place to have come from than a place to go to.
Inside her home, standing in the middle of the kitchen, a dead woman not three feet away, she discovered the absolute peace of knowing she need not care, need never have cared, what became of her fellow man or the world he had created. These people might all die soon; it did not matter, for they had all chosen to be part of the eternal process. They, like her, could have chosen to move outside; but they chose instead to partake of what lay within. They had gathered the rubble that lay strewn along the ancient path, and from it had each assembled his own petty empire - nothing so great as this, but an empire all the same. Now the rubble was to be reclaimed, their empires would tumble. They could go, it wasn't too late, they could still save themselves; but their greater interest lay here, where their empires stood firmest, up against the Grae walls. They would resist salvation; the pull of life had weakened through constant servitude to other - higher - ends. They would perish beneath their fallen empires; even such petty empires had bulk enough to crush a man's skull.
Everyone had retired for the night. The dining room was empty - almost. A woman lay in a heap against the wall, dead. She had smothered.
"You may have any tapestry you please," Charles Grae had informed Mrs. Mansard toward the end of dinner. "For your husband's gallery," he added. The lady selected a fine Flemish tapestry; her husband's eyes shone with delight. The lady got up to inspect it. As she was looking, it fell. It covered her completely. She struggled but could not get free, nor could anyone else lift it from her.
She screamed, continued to struggle as the other guests attempted to remove the tapestry, then grew silent and still, at which point all resistance left the thick Flemish fabric. It easily lifted. The woman, however, was dead.
"And such a pretty gown, too," Mrs Elizabeth Grae had remarked. "What a pity. Perhaps someone should inform Madame Trevessa she no longer needs to finish the lady's gown on order for tomorrow."
"It's getting late," Charles Grae observed. The guests remained speechless, staring down at the body. "I'll have the tapestry sent first thing tomorrow to your gallery," he advised Mr. Mansard. "As I recall the layout," he mused, trying to picture the gallery in his mind, "there's a blank space at the rear, just beyond the bronzes. I think you'll find it perfect. However, we really must be turning in." No one stirred. "I said," he repeated, "we must turn in." Gradually, the stunned guests shifted their gaze to their host, as if doubting they had heard him, yet at the same time certain he had spoken.
"Come," he arose and, motioning to them, began moving from the dining table. "it's late, good people - and we have a busy day tomorrow. Come now, we must turn in." He stressed the word "must" as if gathering everyone's attention to it, as if a while new word had just been offered and everyone needed to consider its absolute relevance. He made no reference to the dead woman. Once he was sure everyone was in his charge, he turned and walked from the dining room, knowing they would all follow. Each went to their own room.
Catherine saw the dead woman not just as the collected quiet of the house at this deserted hour but as the far more absolute quiet of assent. She ha no trouble superimposing the earlier scene when she revealed the body in the kitchen over this later scene. The guests, of course, succumbed to the same cajolery as before. Their empires at stake again deadened their shock; any action would have jeopardized those empires, so they took none. They were asleep now, having been told to be. Catherine too went up to bed.
Braxton unlocked the door to let her in, then locked it behind her., "Is it to keep my brother out?" Catherine asked. There was no reply. "I met your match today," she then said, referring to the young man she had encountered outside the Mansard Gallery - the Caveman. "I may run off with him to Tahiti."
"Not the philosopher?"
"No, not him," Catherine replied. "Philosophers, I think, have been barred from artist colonies."
"Perhaps we'll see each other there," Braxton said. In their dreams, they did. Both dreamed of Papaete, of the hut they had lived in, of the heat admitting freely through thatch, of the inescapable sun, the Pacific moon, the variegation an uncontrollable vegetation created. In the morning the dream brought them together, its rhythms meshed, its images caught one over the other.
Catherine's presence in the Burnt Woods the evening before had kept two boys at bay. Neither Charles nor Carroll wished to be seen here; so they waited. "Where are your other disciples?" Carroll asked. "Someone dispatched them it seems," Charles answered. Carroll began crying. "So none made it," he moaned; "not even one. They were all in the wrong place in time." Charles reached out to him. "You made it," he said. Carroll pulled away. "You brought me here to kill me," he said; "so go ahead, do it." This, in turn, made Charles cry. He turned and walked away.
"Are you coming downstairs?" Catherine asked. At first Braxton said "No," then he relented. They found the kitchen deserted except for the woman who had eaten fine Dresden china. They ignored her equally, until breakfast was over, at which time Braxton decided to paint her; returning to his room, he collected his easel, brushes and paints. He established a perch near the breakfast table and set to work. Catherine advised him that when he finished, if he wished, there was another subject he might paint - in the dining room.
"But don't rush: there will be more," Catherine noted. "On the other hand, though, you may wish to hurry along to be sure you get everyone. Like a group portrait. Or can you paint from memory?"
Braxton had forgotten his muse, so that when he tried to paint the woman he actually expected her features, her figure to dissemble to a likeness pre-determined by her genes. The paints would not form that way, nor the canvas permit the woman space. The face, the body were those of Braxton's muse. Beneath the caked blood was a boy's face; protruding from the dress was a boy's penis. The artist cried for his subject. Leaving the canvas beside the woman's body, he went to the dining room to paint. Again, his muse's face and sex intruded. He left the second canvas beside the second body.
The rest of the household was stirring. No one came to the kitchen or the dining room, however. Nor did anyone mention either dead woman. Presently, the Caveman came in - having been summoned to remove the tapestry. He was instructed where in Mansard's gallery to hang it.
"When you have finished your work," Charles Grae extended an invitation, "when the gallery is as it should be, you are welcome to join us for some sport, if you like. I suspect, as you seem to be an artist in your own right, you may find our sport interesting." Mansard over dinner had commented disparagingly about his assistant's desire for recognition as a painter. Seeing the young man, however, Charles Grae knew it was the comment and not its object which deserved ridicule. "We may even got to some body painting," Charles Grae added. "I'm told that once a man has painted skin, he is done forever with canvas." Charles glanced briefly at Mansard then smiled at the Caveman.
Catherine had come, unnoticed, into the drawing room, where this conversation took place. Her eyes except for a moment never left the Caveman's hands, in which she sensed a force poised equidistant to two distinct acts: creation and destruction. He could do either; and, as she realized, would soon choose which. He would paint, or he would rule. His eyes gave no clue which his choice would be. When he left, with the tapestry, Catherine too left the room.
She wandered her father's house, stopping along the way at the Game Room, where she lingered a moment beside the Grae Box. The pieces seemed to be in disarray, as if they had been moved from the meticulous formality of their usual placement. Catherine thought perhaps her brother Charles had been playing with them, had even knocked one over, but had set nothing right. It pleased her to think that they had been disturbed, that their scrupulous pattern had been disrupted, that the ideological superstructure they supposedly manifested had been thrown out of balance. She knew their history and what they represented; and she hated it. She hated the diffraction of thought ideologies wrought, and she hated its consequent subjugation. The purpose, the worth of thought was not that it should scheme to promote or preserve or justify some pre-determined system of belief; its worth, its meaning lay in its ability to free the mind, therefore the self, from such subjugation. Not to devise methods for believing what was already believed but to figure ways of disbelieving what was either false or meaningless was the purpose of thought. One needed no mind to simply accept: any creature on earth could do that, and do it honestly, and with dignity. Only the act of rejection necessitated mind. Every living thing gave affirmation; only man possessed the power of negation.
"Let us then add to the disruption of dogma," Catherine mused, reaching to the game pieces to scatter them. But she could not move them, neither lift nor pull them from where they were. They were fast. "It wasn't him," she whispered. Her brother, then, had not been the cause of their disarray. Perhaps, she realized, no human agency. She suddenly felt a presence in the room. She turned to where it seemed to emanate. A moment's terror quickly dissipated into the more normal sense of inevitability.
Mary was standing behind her. In that split second before the image of the housemaid formalized, Catherine thought she beheld a pulsating substance, a protoplasm, but not something of a monster; rather, something of a primitive formation, as if she had witnessed the condensation of matter out of raw energy.
"What you have seen," Mary spoke softly, "was a process of a sort which produced us all. I am not a prehistoric creature. I am merely able to control the energy I produce, to create a valence with the energy flowing around me, thereby to constantly renew my being from fresh sources. Catherine, you must not remain in this room. It is peril. Your line is ending, the dynasty of your family is disintegrating, just as I told you; the sources of the Grae's power are being disrupted - just as these game pieces are losing their integral pattern. The cohesion is being eaten away. The force it represents is being released. This room is its channel, its link to infinity. It was here, on this very spot, where the Box sits, it first entered the Grae line. It is an immense force and, like a star that dies, in a sudden brilliant, untamed, unfocused burst it will destroy all in its path. All who are here when it happens will perish. Catherine, you must not be among them. You are not of the mechanism, you are an alien, you must not perish. You don't belong to the world as it is constituted. So please leave."
Catherine obeyed. Mary, too, left the room. Side by side they walked the corridor. "Incidentally, Catherine," Mary explained almost playfully, "I didn't actually materialize before you, as it may have appeared. I walked. I can't move any more exotically than anybody else. What you saw was a combination of your perception and my stealth. I had simply walked into the room. You saw me as I can be seen only in that one room. Now I must return to my quarters. I strongly suggest you leave this house at once. Take your husband if you wish, but not your brother. I'm sorry, but he must remain here forever. Goodbye, Catherine. Even if we see each other again, this is the last time we shall speak. Goodbye."
Mary and Catherine parted ways, the one going downstairs, the other to the sitting room, which was, in Charles Grae's own words, "where you sit." It had the appropriate decor, it paralleled a movie set, it had furnishings, and it looked out onto both the front and the side lawn. Catherine went to the end windows. Outside, the guests had gathered on the lawn for a picnic: this was entirely their host's idea; generally, picnic were not correct divertissements for this class of people, but Charles Grae had insisted. Catherine studied for a moment the forced enjoyment on the guests' faces; their attempts to act natural checked at every step by their embarrassment at being forced to participate in a lower class enterprise. She decided to join them.
"Isn't this fun?" she asked her father's guests after a moment or so among them. They each one affirmed her supposition. "We haven't had a picnic here since the Duke and Duchess paid us a surprise visit."
"The Duke and Duchess?" it was asked. "Here?" it was further asked. "At a picnic? Here?"
Catherine had made their day. Embarrassment departed like a too rare atmosphere. Enjoyment stayed behind. "Catherine," Charles Grae complimented his daughter, "you have a way with people. Is it your intention to join the diplomatic corps?"
Catherine thought a moment then smiled. "Yes, it is," she replied. "I propose to constitute the legation traveling to the Date Line. I wish to see if by going forward and backward one can exceed the speed of time. Today and tomorrow and tomorrow and...well, you see what it is I propose. Tell me: will they all die?"
"I'll tell you what, Catherine: select the ones you think should be spared. I'll send them home. Well?"
"I was told to leave," Catherine said; "and take Braxton if I wished."
"But not Charles?"
The icnic wore away in a couple hours, and when it was gone it had existed in name only, everyone realized. The food was taken back inside, as were the blankets, the baskets, the ice buckets, the naperkins. The time was drawing near four. A car approached, but not one of the fine models Charles Grae's guests drove; rather, it was an older car, and of a cheaper engineering: a people's type of car, designed to stay on the road under ideal conditions, to keep running with massive assistance from automotive mechanics, to wear and tear at a rate commensurate with its cost - a car deemed entirely enough for those to whom cost as an object of immediacy. Catherine had moved enough beyond the picnickers, toward the front of the house, to observe the car coming down the lane. It made occasional noises, as if movement were a great labor. With it stopped, Madame Trevessa got out. Catherine had already come to the front, to greet her.
"Madame," she said, extending her hand, which Trevessa warmly pressed.
"Miss Grae," Trevessa replied in kind. "I have your mother's dress. I had to re-work it, a seam split," she proceeded to explain as she collected the garment from the back of her car and carried it in. "Exactly what happened to my great great aunt the Baroness Odessa Streudel von Bagel, back in Constanta on the Black Sea, at the turn of the century, so I'm told. Her daughter, Barbarella von Bagel der Lochs, the Rumanian émigré who, you may remember having heart at some time, tried to claim succession to the House of the Romanov's, a la Anastasia, was only a child then - but oh! how well she remembered! Poor Odessa was at the coming out party of some minor Hapsburg Princessa, and while doing the Viennese waltz (poor thing didn't realize but that particular branch of the Hapsburgs hated everything Austrian anyway and would have been utterly scandalized had nothing happened), her dress gave way totally - unraveled right in front of everyone! Well the poor old dear had absolutely no undergarments on whatever! She'd forgotten them: her memory, my dear, was a thing from another universe altogether. Well, she was absolutely mortified. She made positively not another appearance that entire season. And all for a careless stitch!"
"Trevessa, please if you will," Elizabeth Grae said upon the dress being delivered to her, "remain the rest of the afternoon. I simply do not have time at the moment to try this on, and I do not wish a second time to have to pick from my other gowns. So please stay right here, don't leave. I want you at my side when I try the gown on, and if there are any further problems you'll be there to fix them. I intend to wear this gown. I'm sure we can find needle and threat or whatever else we need. My other servants, I'm quite certain, can oblige us. In the meantime, I'll have someone move your car. It won't do, of course, to have it sitting in front of the house. So just make yourself at home, I'll have Mary or someone fix you something to eat if you like. There's a little room just beyond the kitchen; you can stay there till I'm ready for you. You'll be very comfortable. Catherine, can you have someone show her where it is?"
"I'll show her," Catherine replied.
"If you wish - though it really is a servant's job," Elizabeth Grae pointed out.
"You're not absolutely obligated to stay," Catherine advised Madame Trevessa as she led the way. "Nor for that matter need you hid away in the room my mother specified."
"I don't mind," said Trevessa.
"You should mind."
"As I'm sure you know, my relatives are not altogether who I say," Trevessa reminded her hostess, as if to justify her willingness to be whisked away to the servants' quarters.
"All the more reason," Catherine retorted. "Your blood need not be blue before you're entitled to respect. But, that's your decision. I suppose it's much too easy for me to talk. I wonder sometimes would I have been so independent minded had I had to depend upon crumbs dropped from the great tables of this planet for my survival. Although I may yet get the chance to find out."
"Your family is in financial trouble?"
"My family is...troubled...in many ways. Trevessa: if I told you how dangerous it is being here, would you turn and leave?"
"Miss Grae, there is in Liverpool a cold-water flat lying in wait for me. I doubt if anything here holds as much horror as that does. I have resolved to stop being the scion of European aristocracy. I shall become Tressy, scion of poor Jews. But not grandma Goldie, who died while we were sewing and had to be left unattended till our work was finished. I can't imagine what it would take to get me back in that flat. I appreciate your warning, Miss Grae, but I'm not at liberty to heed it. However, rest assured a poor Jew knows better than anyone alive the meaning of 'careful'."
"Nevertheless, let me know when you're summoned. Please. Whoever mother gets to summon you, ask them to find me. They will. Will you promise?"
It never occurred to Catherine to question what had brought Trevessa here, other than a simple sewing error. The particular train of events, if examined, might have led her to doubt the servants' willingness to comply with her wish - they might have pointed somewhere else entirely. As it was, Catherine left the seamstress confident she could intercede if anything threatened.
The guests were coming in from their picnic; they were going upstairs to rest awhile then get ready for the evening's activities. Cocktails would be served at eight, dinner at nine, dancing at ten; other activities to begin at eleven.
Catherine had really no idea what to do. In one sense she wanted to leave, now, and be done with it; yet in another, a darker sense, she wished to see this thing to its end. She wanted to be here when the Grae dynasty ended; she wanted to witness its destruction. Above all, and greatest of all paradoxes, she feared for her brother; yet at the same time believed his fate, whatever it should be, to be as just as it was inevitable. Charles Grae XIII had somehow slipped outside the narrow band humanity moved along; he had developed into something which jutted from unknown quarters onto the human plane. It was doubtful if he could ever be human again. Catherine feared he would be the instrument through which the carnage would manifest itself. She would have liked to have enticed him from this place, except that she feared for her husband if she succeeded; somehow Braxton's fate seemed linked conversely to her brother Charles' fate.
She noticed a flickering light under the Game Room door and crept along the corridor outside. She heard a boy, whose voice she could not identify, say "They won't light! They won't light!" The voice was filled with despair. Momentarily the door opened. Her brother came out. "Carroll, you die - you die," he muttered. Catherine followed him. He left the house. The sun was moving toward the western horizon; it seemed to light a path to the Burnt Woods, which the boy followed and, close behind, the boy's sister likewise followed. Upon finally disappearing into the forest, Charles made for a tree with a distinctive knot hole in it. No one was there. Presently, though, another boy approached, from the opposite direction. This second boy was Carroll Poshun.
"Again you've summoned me. Again I came. Again I ask: where are your other disciples?" Carroll asked.
"They're here. You have killed them and fed them to the ants. Now you too will die." Charles looked about as if he expected something to happen, something or someone to descend on Carroll Poshun, yet nothing happened, no one came, the boy remained unharmed. Charles looked surprised, but not upset: it was more as if his plan had been given a set-back than thwarted.
"Come home with me," he said. Carroll hesitated. "I am ordering you as my last remaining disciple to come home with me," Charles insisted. Something in his manner prompted his cousin to agree. Together the two boys left the woods for the Grae House. Catherine lingered in the forest.
The sun was beginning to set. Layer upon layer of red began infusing twelve streams of stratus clouds which were joining on the horizon as at the pit of some great volcano, their flow thinning into fan-like fingers ready to trap approaching beams of sunlight. Red oozed like crushed petals dripping onto a golden scimitar the length of the entire horizon. Then the squeezed red, like blood diluted by sickness, hurled pink onto the upper layers of cloud, filtering toward the darkening eastern sky, a pale lifeless hue enfolding into the night; the night slowly swallowed up the twelve streams, a magnet drawing misty jets toward disappearance.
The uppermost branches of the burned trees, turned toward the sky though hidden by blackened bottoms, sheening of twilight, almost visibly absorbing from the streams a living energy, but unseen. Not even Catherine saw it, though she felt something stirring all around her, something immensely alive and inviting, as if an essence of life as it could be - the life her vision constructed - had suddenly revealed itself, and she knew: she knew it was real, it could and it did exist, if only as this essence, this possibility which may, or may not ever, manifest itself. But was real. Not the life the universe bestowed; not the rigid, dogmatic hierarchy the world had been given; not anything build of existence: but something, some manner of living beyond that tired old death-mask, some energy, some quality. Some unknown quantity. Something as if a mind and not a universe of gray-green mechanism devised. A universe as if built by trees and not human gods, as if fear had been banished from all grains of all matters, serene self-confidence and an unyielding soul, a soul that bows before nothing the chemical base of this unknown universe.
Perhaps, Catherine thought: perhaps I can never find it, never make it real on my level; but at least I know it exists, I know it is possible. A life without the need for hierarchy, a life untorn by great and small, a life free of power, a life lived - lived: lived; not died, but lived. A life that is, and remains being; as opposed to one whose only object is ending.
Catherine left the Burnt Woods, renewed. She made for her home, to catch the carnage, realizing that as these people lived not for life but for the end of life, they would be getting not only what they deserved: they would be getting what they bargained for. That the hierarchy should persist, they were willing to be sacrificed; that this particular manifestation of it would perish, they were willing to provide the fuel to feed it till it again found a home. It had laid, just as Mary said, in the Box: the Grae Box; from there, it tentacled out its arms through the generations of Graes. Now it was withdrawing; and, like all energies, it would go out with greater flourish than it began. Catherine was resigned to everything, except the fate of Madame Trevessa and that of her cousins, the Poshuns. She did not want the Poshun line to die; nor did she want the seamstress, who brought such exquisite fantasy to existence, to perish.
On her way home, Catherine became aware of someone following her. The sky drained at last of its color, nothing above lighted anything below. Catherine could not see who it was approaching her. At first she was frightened, then amused at her fright, when so clearly the danger was ahead, not behind, the victims those more willing to be victims. She paused to let herself be overtaken.
"Catherine," a familiar voice spoke, and as it did a familiar hand toucher her arm.
"Carroll," she in turn spoke.
"I thought, perhaps, you would have visited me," he said.
"Something prevented it."
"Part of this coming to an end of things?" Carroll asked. "Of course, it would have to be," he answered his own question. May I walk you home, Catherine? I can't say I'm going that way, but I will if you've no objection."
"No, I have no objection."
"Good. And we can talk of events as we go. And of principles, and morals, and the end of great dynasties. I have fought power always - or perhaps 'resisted' would sound better. Yet I feel, if I'm not extremely careful, it will be thrust at me. I don't want it: I don't want to rule. Yet it's inevitable that as the crown breaks up the boots will be transformed. The underside will ascend. I have no delusion that wealth and power can be used to fight the concepts of wealth and power. Not to fight is to contradict my own values. Yet resistance effects a far more exacting defense than attack. Go after power, it merely shifts: shape, direction change, and you come away empty. Whereas if you wait and let it come after you, as it must eventually, its very nature drives it to hunger after everything and everyone; and there and then set up your resistance, pitting all your conserved energy against its expending force: perhaps you can deal it a death blow. But if you prematurely let it in, if you let it grow strong on your feigned acquiescence - which it will - it will have sapped too much of your energy. There is no essential difference between willingly bowing and only pretending to bow; power grows on either food. I don't wish to enter your house, for fear I may end up possessing it."
"Regardless," Catherine said, "you will have to come in. Your son is there."
"At the Grae House? How?"
"My brother invited him."
"And he accepted? Then leave him to his fate," Carroll Poshun resolved almost without thought - as if none were necessary, as if his principles had done his thinking for him. "I will accompany you since I've already said it; but I will not enter your house."
"Not even to save your son?"
"Least of all for that! He chose his fate: he chose to violate the principles we live by. He must bear the consequences."
"All philosophers should be as you," Catherine said against the cutting lights from the house, her voice as if a key of a like enough match to open the innermost recesses, where photons by the score got birthed; to open, and release the precious store; to witness the ultimate meaning of light. It was all there was left of God. And growing dimmer the brighter it seemed; for these photons, once born, kept their path and would never return. Wherever they went to die, it was in a spaceship of their making: if fast enough to overtake time, their end was foretold; if too slow, they would disappear anyway, new ones generated until time had completed its round. It was true you could see God, but true also that you could see Him vanish.
The Grae House, one of God's many vicars on earth, had given birth to millions of generations of lights, yet because they flew away toward the future so fast, no image was ever formed. God was always just about to appear, and presumably would if they all got bunched up at some final warp. The Grae House was lit from top to bottom; every window emitted the same luminous trail, as upstairs the guests prepared themselves for the evening's activities and the downstairs was being readied. The servants, at their discretion, had covered the two bodies - the first, in the kitchen, the second, in the dining room - rather than removing them. They knew what they were doing.
Catherine and Carroll, having entered through one of the back doors, walked the lighted corridors, at random; randomly peeking into the various rooms downstairs as, overhead, the muffled noises of people scurrying around separately getting ready was replaced by the concentrated noise of people collecting for their entrance. They could not be heard coming down the staircase. Carroll had not intended to enter and was barely aware that he had; had someone asked him what he was doing here, he would have stammered as embarrassingly as a cat burglar.
"The march of death has never been played quite so gaily," Catherine observed.
"This has happened before," Carroll pointed out. "And not just here either. Though it was here my ancestors were forced into exile. You realize, of course, that my name is nothing more than a corruption of your family's name. In those days it was still possible to disinherit a son. My ancestor was disinherited, cast out. He became the Poor Son. How absurd that something like that should end up mocked by its own designation. Poshun, from Poor Son: it seems ludicrous, like a vaudeville. Don't you see? It was the absurdity of our situation that opened the world of philosophy to us. No one can be socially correct and philosophically adept at the same time. This goes beyond anything that even the artist can say: he can be a rebel, or a sycophant, or a pervert - he can be anything, except one: he cannot be an absurdity. Only a philosopher may. You do understand, I hope, that at the moment of crisis I will save my son; but it will be entirely a fatherly response, a reflex, nothing philosophical in it. He has forsaken his heritage, as your brother has his; when he chose to accompany your brother, he turned his back on absurdity, for neither in leading nor following can the absurd be found. These are purely somatic notions."
"But if my family will cease to exist as rulers, isn't the tie with your family broken?" Catherine asked. "Why should you remain philosophic? Perhaps your son knows full well what he's doing."
"perhaps so. Then I'm the last of my line. Ideas and principles will cease."
"Power will cease," said Catherine. "Absurdity will be meaningless here. When the servants have located my successors, yours will be there too."
"No doubt," Carroll Poshun agreed. "Well, shall we try for a ring-side seat?"
The guests were all gathered in the lounge for cocktails. There the first casualty of the evening occurred. A gentleman in a slightly off-color tuxedo was sipping a side car when his glass shattered in his hand. Each piece of glass embedded in him - some in his hand, some at his throat, some in his face, one tiny sliver in his eye - began working its way deeper and deeper into his flesh, cutting more and more as it went. He cried out.
"Help me! Get a doctor! Help me!"
"Sir," the butler informed him, "the glass you have shattered is merely attempting to reconstruct itself, nothing more. Give it time."
"It's cutting me - look - look - I'm bleeding - I'm all covered with blood! Help me! Save me!"
The glass cut all through him, piece by piece, seeking its initial integrity, going for the veins so as to meet and be rejoined. The man fell to the floor, screaming, blood seeping from everywhere, till finally the pieces ceased circulating. They met, in the chambers of his heart, and rebuilt the glass. The man's heart ceased beating; otherwise the glass, encasing his heart, might have smashed all over again.
"What a shame," remarked Charles Grae, the host of this cocktail party.
"Will I be able to replace it?" asked Mrs. Elizabeth Grae.
"I fear not," Charles Grae replied. "The artist who created it swallowed hot glass by mistake."
"Then the set is ruined! They may as well all break!"
Everybody who had the same kind of drink as the gentleman on the floor endeavored to set his or her drink down. "Finished already?" their host inquired. "Refill their glasses," he instructed the butlers. The glasses were refilled and returned to those who had set them down, five in all. One by one the five glasses shattered, as had the first; one by one the five guests fell down in blood and screams, as had the first.
"They were a beautiful set," Mrs Grae noted. "Don't you agree?" she asked several ladies standing nearby. They all nodded yes.
"Please everyone, this is a party," Charles Grae reminded his guests. "Let's have some sparkling conversation. Clarence, tell us about the latest floppy discs." This was addressed to Clarence Ditton, who, with his wife Ginnia, was attempting to get out of the room. He stopped on command; his attraction to power proved stronger than his instinct for survival. After a moment's hesitation, he offered a lively description of various new pieces of softwares - some not even on the market yet!
"The rest of you: let's hear of your latest exploits. We have a while yet till dinner," the host cajoled. One by one, the guests responded, each elaborating on some particularly interesting aspect of his chosen field. Bill Jakes gave the very last word in management technique: team play, buddy-buddy stuff.
"Excellent!" Charles Grae gave his approval. "And you, Martin: what latest surgical technique did you perfect?"
"The permanent implantation of ionized particles in tumors. We add just a touch of almost decayed radium," Dr. Anderson explained.
"And the patients?"
"They're mostly poor," Dr. Anderson reported. "It's still in the experimental stages."
"Wonderful! And you, Master Harkins: what latest masterpiece have you cooked up for Tyfington's finest?"
"Grub steak," the restaurateur announced. "Monsier Che of Chez Che in Paris has made the common, lowly grub a household word this season. Those of the scarabaeid beetle in particular seems to be best when sauteed, and the garnish of stinkweed accents their delicately pungent aroma perfectly!"
"Sounds absolutely divine! But now, I'm afraid, our before dinner conversation must end. Dinner is served." The company retired to the dining room; and, although sans grubs and stinkweed, the fare proved most adequate. Only three guests perished at dinner; one seemed to have swallowed the silver spoon she ad admiring the pattern in: she had wanted a closer look. Another choked on a dainty morsel. A third managed somehow to catch fire on his cherries jubilee; he tried running from the room, but the butler barred his path: A man of breeding does not simply run pell mell out of a room like that. He fell screaming by the door. The flames died quickly out enough after the man's tuxedo burning the man's tuxedo through; he died shortly thereafter, from the embarrassment at having his clothes ruined, no doubt. A certain unpleasant aroma hung in the area, however, so that everyone was quite pleased he had burned during dessert and not the main course. Presently the company returned to the ballroom, where a mélange of mayhem ensued.
No sooner had the first guest entered than she was impaled on a cello bow. She seemed to practically fly through the air toward it. A piece for cello and strings was deleted from the program. A finely dressed gentleman upon going to inspect the harp lest it prove untoward, had the misfortune to have the strings all pop in his face; several wrapped about his throat, cutting deeply enough to draw blood, sever more gouging out his eyes. A fugue for harp was summarily scrapped. The rest of the orchestra intact, the musicians were summoned to begin the recital. The perfect harmony of a Bach Mass was disrupted by a sudden banging of doors, followed by the entrance into the ballroom of a last minute arrival, who, perceiving his faux-pas, tiptoed to his host, tapped him on the shoulder, gave a condescending not then tiptoed back to take an available seat. This lat arrival was Marish R. Smass, the media consultant whose presentation had so impressed Charles Grae that he was invited tonight. His video cassette had gotten jammed, he had taken time to repair the damage before coming; his late entry had disturbed his host's enjoyment of Bach.
When the recital was over, Charles Grae announced that a special performance had been arranged. "Clear a space," he said. He called the butler to his side and whispered instructions. Momentarily the butler reappeared, carrying video equipment. "I would like not," said Charles Grae, "to introduce a man who, if he will be so kind, can aid us in our presentation. My guests, may I present Marish R. Smass. Some of you may already know him."
As if responding to a pre-arranged cue, Smass arose from his seat and went at once to the cleared area. "A little closer," pointing to the video camera, he advised the butler. Turning to the audience, he assured them that he knew a little something about video equipment; a smug assurance. The camera was brought nearer. "There!" Smass halted its progress. "I'd like to demonstrate for you the necessity for effecting just the right appearance. Some of you have already seen my technique. The rest of you, please pay special attention. What I'm going to do first -"
He was interrupted by Charles Grae. "actually," the host informed his guest, "I have in mind another sort of demonstration altogether." While Smass struggled to regain his composure - he was not a man used to being interrupted - Charles Grae motioned to his cook. The cook left the room, but came immediately back; with him were three men: Smass's assistants.
"I thought I told you to go to Springfield!" he said ominously. Charles Grae, however, took up for them.
"Springfield won't be needing them," he advised his guest. Meanwhile, three large vats were being wheeled into the room. They were put in place in the cleared area. Silently, the butler moved the camera back to where it had originally been positioned.
"I told you a little closer!" Smass ordered. "I know video equipment."
"What you fail to grasp," Charles Grae advised, "is that we will not be focusing on you alone. Our field of vision must include these three vessels, which, as you'll soon see, are essential to our little presentation." Charles Grae motioned his cook; the vats were uncovered. Then Charles Grae motioned the three assistants. "Please proceed," he said. "You see," he turned to the audience, "I don't care for our esteemed guest in his present form. I would very much prefer him wet."
The three assistants took hold of Smass and, lifting him, despite his protesting motions, dipped him into the first vat, then quqickly brought him out again. He gagged a bit but was otherwise unharmed by the dunking.
"Nice, isn't he?" Charles Grae asked. "Not that that matters. What matters is that it pleased me to wetten him. So I did. But now, as I look at him, I think what I'd like is a nice blue Marish Smass. Let's try blue." Despite even stronger protests from Smass, his assistants lifted him and dunked him into the second vat, which contained blue paint. Again, he was quickly brought out; this time he was blue, from head to foot. Again, he gagged a little.
"How's that?" asked Charles Grae. "Better? Is blue better? I suppose so, For now. But I'm already tired of seeing our guest blue. I'm just plain tired of him altogether." He motioned the assistants a third time. They came at the guest. His face, through the blue, became rigid; an expression of absolute horror took hold of it. He knew. He could neither cry out nor resist as they grabbed his frozen body and lifted it to the third vat. They lowered him, feet first, into the vat. His screams drowned out the fizz; jagged cries, as from a voice turned to glass and now shattering. Slowly he was lowered, by his arms, until his head was covered, and only the fizz cold be heard. Then he was pulled out and laid on the ballroom floor.
"There," said Charles Grae, pointing to the burned and half eaten remains, "he's gone, all gone. I like that. I liked having him as my guest, I like not having him. Come," he announced, "let us retire to the Game Room."
On the way out, Charles Grae asked his daughter if she had liked the presentation. "Better than the vaudeville," she replied.
"Then you'll join us for an after dinner game?"
"Perhaps," Catherine replied.
Down the corridor, from the Game Room, came a strange sound, like the scratching of nails against a wooden surface, as if someone in a coffin were trying to dig his way through the closed lid. The guests, hearing it, even though it was a faint sound, all stopped, terrified of going farther.
"Come now," Charles Grae chided his guests, "we mustn't tarry, must we? We can't keep our game waiting, now can we? Everything is arranged. There's nothing to be afraid of. We'll all business associates here. We're all professionals. We know our worth. We know our strength. Com. Let us proceed. The game table awaits."
They wanted to run away, the ladies in their latest originals, the gentlemen in their tuxedos: every one of them. But, just as if a private voice had whispered inside each elegant head, they were all reminded of some or another splendid business opportunity awaiting one thing only: a nod of Charles Grae's head. Without his cooperation, they stood to lose eveything; with it, their potential for gain was immense. So when he turned the knob and opened the ddoor, they were only a step behind him. The scratching on the coffin lid dissolved into insignificance.
Two boys were inside the game room. Charles Grae XIII and his cousin Carroll Poshun. The nails of neither showed signs of wear - and everyone had instinctively looked. "You boy sure were making some racket in here," somebody said. The boys looked puzzled; their look made everyone uneasy.
"They wouldn't light," Charles Grae XIII said in a voice absolutely helpless. He had brought his cousin here to kill him; but for that he needed all the candles lit - all twelve, three at each compass point. The three facing north were already lit; the others refused to respond to his matches. He could not hope to summon anything from his family's past. If he wished his cousin to die, he would have to kill him himself. And he realized he could not do it. He could watch Carroll being killed, but he could not kill him. His hands could not be forced to commit murder, only his eyes to watch. He was not equal to the soul that dwelt within him. That which was of the Graes and which could only be carried on through his agency had no means of expression through him. His heart was not that of a tyrant but, rather, that of a saint. He, Charles Grae XIII, who had come here to kill his cousin, was killing his line.
The boys started to leave. But their way was blocked. Three men - three of the guests - still standing in the doorway, refused to yield. They had no reason to block the boys' way, they had intended to step aside; but they could not get their bodies moved, as if something had forced them to remain where they were. And the longer they remained, the better they liked it. From wanting to let the boys out to not caring whether the boys got out or not, they had slipped finally to an almost maniacal need to compel the boys to remain. Others, too, felt this overpowering urge. They began calling from around the room to the boys: "Stay! Stay here! Play with us! Stay! Stay here!" Hands began tugging at the boys. "Stay!" The cries grew more desperate. "Stay here!"
"Light the candles!" Charles Grae, the host, commanded - not of his son but his cousin. The boy refused.
"I'll light them!" cried a man who had been pulling at the boys. He took the matches from Charles and went to light the candles. But the match was pulled from his hand by something which felt to him as it scraped against his palm like a claw. The match came at him; slowly it set him ablaze. The invisible claw held him fixed where he stood wile he burned. His screams sounded as if something were scraping against the raw bones of his throat.
Charles Grae turned to Carroll Poshun. "Light the candles," he repeated. Again the boy refused. A woman, as eager for the lighting as the burning man had been, but more cautious, approached the boy to force his compliance. She grabbed him, led him to the first unlighted candelabra, made him strike a match. But in forcing his hand to the candle, she lost her footing and fell against the wall to the right of the credenza. She cried out and fell, face down, onto the floor. The wall where her body had lodged, had five razor thin cracks running down the length of its plaster. Her torso, skull to as far down as could be seen, had the same five gouges; each oozed blood.
"Light the candles," Charles Grae a third time ordered. This time his young cousin obeyed. He struck a match, raised it to the first candle, then to the second, then the third. A sound, as of rats scurrying about, came from the entire western wall.
"The next ones: light those," Charles Grae ordered. Carroll Poshun moved to the southern wall, struck another match, lit all three candles. The same noise of rats grew out of the wall.
"The next." The boy complied. Rats clawing from within the eastern wall. The last set of candles needed no lighting; they had remained ablaze. Slowly the rats arose from somewhere deep inside the northern wall.
The candles were all lit. They cast an eerie greenish aspect to the guests. The sounds of clawing surrounded the room. Hairline fractures began appearing at random along the walls. Charles Grae XII walked to the center of the room. "Let the game begin," he announced. "Come," he beckoned his suddenly reluctant guests. "Come gather around. Let us begin."
The guests grew nearer, until each was within view of the game table. "Behold," said the host, flourishing his arm, "The Grae Box." At first nothing: the guests were both disappointed and relieved. Then a haze, like heat shimmering on asphalt. Then bits of isolated movement, as if the game pieces were stretching. But quietly. The rat-like sounds at the wall were all that could be heard.
"This," Charles Grae pointed to a certain game piece, "is Falsehood, though not exactly. The term is merely as contrivance. As you see, it begins to stir first. Without it, nothing else is possible. Unless men are willing to deny the evidence of their senses for a higher purpose, nothing else is possible. None of the others will move. Tell me: do you wish to see the others move?"
"Yes!" the guests all answered together.
"Then choose one among you to sacrifice. Tell yourselves that the end justifies it."
One was taken up. Her throat was cut. "The end justifies it," the survivors chanted.
"Good," the host complimented. "Observe: a second comes to life. Him, let's call Expediency. He is, as you see, smaller than his peers. But very useful. One among you must be blinded. It is expedient."
It was done. A man was held as his eyes were pierced with the pins of two ladies' brooches. He was left standing where he was, unable to participate further in the game.
"Each piece has its meaning. Each fits toward creating a climate for the lord and master of all. Look here; watch." A piece moved to the center square of the grid. It looked around, eying the guests, then beckoned one, a man who bent down to see what it wished of him. I reached a tiny hand to him. It grabbed his tongue. It pulled. The tongue sprang from his mouth. Blood gushed over the game piece, which then withdrew to the side.
"Bloodlust," Charles Grae explained. "Next - and fourth greatest - is Greed. Man's name for it at any rate. The fourth highest value in the universe. You call it Greed. Without it, nothing higher than life is possible. It is the spark. You must want everything. You must - each of you - want everything everyone else among you has. And you must take it. For without that spark, the next rung will not be reached. Take it, and in taking it you will release the third greatest good. Competition. Now! Take it! Take it!"
The guests began scrambling for each other's possessions. Jewelry, money, clothes, pair-pieces: whatever might be of value. And as they progressed, more and more possessions assumed a value in their eyes, greater and greater in value the more intensely they fought for control. Shoes, stockings, handkerchiefs, buttons, bows, undergarments, brassieres, even bobby pins suddenly became the most priceless of treasures. The more they gave themselves to competition, the more they sought; when a man or a woman was stripped of everything, they looked to their bodies for trinkets. A belly button: pull it out! Nose hairs: give it up, give it up! Teeth. Bits of sagging flesh. Pubic hairs. Toenails. Earlobes. Until the party was reduced to a mass of cuts, tears, bruises, bashes, and a few had all while the rest had none.
"Excellent," their host commended, "most excellent. The strongest, as always, won; the weakest lost. Now rule, those who won: rule the others. Know power. Use it. Feel it. For it is second only in greatness and worth. Those of you who have it: make the others crawl! Make them lick your feet. Use them any way you see fit; they are yours. In power you have absolute dominion. Use it, and in using it you release that which stands at the summit of all there is: the highest, the greatest, the ultimate value. Hierarchy. From the highest to the lowest. Hierarchy. The force out of which comes order. Without which, chaos reigns eternal. Do it. Use the power you have won to establish hierarchy. Do it. Do it."
And it too was done. The naked were made to crawl. Those whose hair and teeth had been riped out were forced to lick the feet of their rulers. Those with pieces of flesh and skin torn from their bodies were compelled to perform as sewers and as brothels and as vomitoriums for their betters.
The walls split open. The Hierarchy was established. The ghosts of all who had owned this house tore free and filled the room. Those among the guests who had come to rule in Charles Grae's game were taken up and ripped to pieces; it was only a game which put power in their hands, they were not true rulers, they had neither sought nor gained power but had merely followed their host's direction. Now those wh had ruled - and truly ruled - and who undrstood what power meant, had been brought forth to overthrow the usurpers. Only one was kept living: the greatest rule the game had produced this evening, the one who had established his ascendancy over all his peers. He, with his subjects, watched his lieutenants being torn apart by unseen hands. He, like his subjects, trembled. He, like his subjects, was relieved when the carnage stopped just short of himself.
The door to the Game Room opened. The Caveman, accompanied by two servants, who carried his easel and paints, came in. His eyes went immediately to his employer, Mansard, owner of Tyfington' only art gallery. Mansard had become the grand ruler of the game; he had subdued all others, earning the distinction.
"This man is here to paint," one of the servants explained.
"But he had no canvas," the other servant pointed out. "He has an easel, he has paints: but no canvas." With this, the servants bowed and left the room.
"You wish to paint?" Charles Grae inquired.
"I have been asked to," the Caveman replied.
"By whom?" asked Charles Grae.
"By your son," the Caveman answered.
"Then you must paint. First, we must get you a canvas."
At once, the grand ruler was taken up by invisible hands. He was slowly spun around. His eyes, before they popped from his skull, saw the walls of the Grae Room. It was their essence which had split open; it dripped, like an acid, steamingly, from the insides of the walls. The the screaming of his voice loosened his eyes and they came out as he fell to the floor. His skin was draped over the easel.
"You may now paint," said Charles Grae.
The two boys, who had stood in a corner of the room, were stripped of their clothes and held aloft invisibly. The Caveman used them for his models. He painted the cousins, naked, suspended. When he was done, the boys were set down. They retreated to the corner, where their clothes had been left. They proceeded to get dressed; but in each other's clothes. Neither knew why he was doing it, but both felt compelled to wear what belonged to the other.
The door again opened. Mrs. Elizabeth Grae, who had not joined the party's activities in the Game Room till now, entered, accompanied by two servants. Behind them were two more servants; with these two was Madame Trevessa, Elizabeth Grae's seamstress. He hands were tied in front of her.
"This wretch has ruined my dress," Mrs. Grae told her husband. "Another seam came loose. I summoned her to repair it; and while working on it she spoiled the gown's symmetry. She's not worthy to be called a couturier. What can be done with someone who offends our sensitivities?"
"She can be sacrificed if nothing else," Charles Grae told his wife. Set her with the other." Trevessa was taken to where the two boys stood. Where is Catherine?" Charles Grae asked his wife.
"She and your cousin are visiting, I think, with her husband," Elizabeth Grae said.
"We shall await them," said Carles Grae. "I wish my cousin to be present when his son is sacrificed. Braxton too: let he and this young painter compete for who is the better. Let the winner receive our first annual prize in the Beaux Arts. Let the loser become a base for oil paints. We shall wait."
Gradually, the servants all assembled along the corridor outside the Game Room to watch: to watch the sacrifice the Graes would offer; but more so to witness the irony which would end their line. By the time they were all in place, footsteps could be heard approaching: descending the staircase, passing through the great formal hall, along the main corridor and finally down this corridor toward the Game Room, where they saw the servants gathered on either side of the corridor.
Catherine, Braxton and Carroll Poshun walked together. They had come from Catherine's quarters upstairs. As they proceeded toward the Game Room, Catherine stopped a moment to look at Mary, though neither spoke; then she continued on. Braxton reached the door first, but he waited to let Catherine open it and go in. He went in behind her; Carroll Poshun went last. All threw saw the two boys and Trevessa first.
"You son has seen fit to join us," Charles Grae pointed out to his cousin.
"So he has," was Carroll Poshun's reply.
"Braxton," Charles Grae addressed his son-in-law," I've taken the liberty to send for your easel and paints and two blank canvasses. I've arranged a contest between yourself and another painter." Braxton said nothing. He was entranced with the Caveman's painting of the two naked cousins. He saw an alien face affixed to the body of his muse, and he saw the face of his muse on another's body. He wanted to rip his clothes off and rub agaianst the painting, but he only stared.
Presently, Braxton's things were brought into the room. His glance was diverted by their familiarity. He began feeling the canvas of both easels. Then he ran his hands over the Caveman's canvas. "My muse," he spoke softly and tenderly. "Why have you disembodied him?"
"I painted what I saw," the Caveman said. "It isn't my concern who is sacrificed, who is not. I am an artist, not a judge."
"You can separate it?" Braxton asked. "Then I accept defeat. We need no contest. Yours is the greater art."
"Nevertheless," Charles Grae interjected, "the contest has been set already in stone. It must be held. My guests await. I their host cannot disappoint them. I insist. You must paint, both of you."
The sounds inside the room, as of the chewing of rats upon paper, grew in momentum as the two painters went to stand before their easels. They both faced the corner where the two young boys stood. Charles Grae turned to his cousin, Carroll Poshun.
"We must sacrifice your son," the host informed his uninvited, but not unwelcome, guest.
"You will not," Carroll Poshun replied. He started to move toward his son but was unable to penetrate the wall of rat noise filling the room. He struggled, but he could not move. He looked to Catherine.
"Father," she asked, "must you? I'm asking you not to. Please, don't."
"Yes, I must," Charles Grae assured his daughter.
"It will be the end of everything," Catherine said. Her father only smiled. Carroll Poshun continued to struggle to free himself, to save his son; but still he could not move. He had already sentenced his son philosophically; it was only as a father he struggled. He was forced to realize that it would have made no difference; that all his principles laid on end, side by side, could not have reached his son. They were useless in a place which did not recognize them. They were good only in one's own mind.
Charles Grae took a dagger from a secret drawer in the game table. He passed it to one of his guests - one of the subjugated ones, naked - he did not care which one, any of them would do; just the first he came to. He pointed to the boys in the corner. The noise of rats chewing became an almost unbearable din over top of which his voice giving the command for sacrifice could hardly be heard.
The guest lifted the dagger in his hand. The others watched. The artists readied their canvasses. The philosopher struggled against the unseen. The host and his lady stood beside the Grae Box. Catherine listened. For her grandfather's voice she listened; she knew she would hear it. She realized who was to be sacrificed.
"Kill him, my pet: kill him!" a dying throat uttered.
Catherine could only watch as the dagger was directed closer and closer to the breast of her young cousin, Carroll Poshun. His breast, Carroll Poshun's breast, concealed under his shirt - his shirt, therefore his breast. The noise became deafening.
"Kill him, my pet: kill him!" But not to save a dynasty: to avenge its destruction. "Kill him!"
The father - father of the shirt, of the breast belonging to the shirt - struggled against the mangling sound. The artists lifted their brushes, selected their colors: red, for the first spurt of blood from the breast of the victim. The sacrificial victim.
- Then it struck -
The dagger, aimed at the breast beneath the shirt, struck. It gouged through the flimsy cloth, through the skin, through the layers of gristle, through the rib cage, through cartilege, through vein, through membrane. Into the boy's heart.
A soft voice.
The artist screamed, as if it had been his heart pierced.
The boy sacrificed whispered above the din of rats.
"I forgive." The boy said. It cut through the noise which filled the room. It gorged upon that noise. It finished it off, that noise.
The boy fell against his young cousin, who gently lowered him to the floor and sat holding the dead body in his arms.
The horrible piercing scream died into a soft voice. "My muse," it whispered. The artists had painted, even as the artist screamed. The boy's heart, wrapped in the shirt of his cousin, lay against the artist's canvas. The identical image lay embedded onto the other canvas.
The noise of all the generations of the Grae dynasty had grown silent. The feel of something present in the room went away. The ghosts, the rat sounds of ghosts, were gone. Only the present moment remained. A young boy holding his dead cousin in his arms. The boy's father, his eyes shut to the scene. Two artists competing to be the best. A seamstress, held fast by two servants: a butler and a cook. A room full of naked guests. The host and hostess, looking at their young cousin cradling their dead son in his arms. And the sacrificial victin's sister, who alone realized what it was the universe had done here tonight.
Only the purest virgin on earth could have been sacrificed. Only he could have forgiven those who sacrificed him. Only his forgiveness could have cleared this place of its past. Only then could the power that had been given the Graes be taken from them.
Gradually, the room unbearably silent, the naked guests began to stir. To grow blood thirsty. To assume the places the noises of the past had filled. To begin moving, groping at air, feeling for conquest.
A parody of what went before.
Catherine was first to sense it. She went at once to your Carroll Poshun. She took her brother from him and took the dagger from his heart. She carried the boy across the room to her husband. She laid the body in his outstretched arms. He had won the contest.
The Caveman turned and was first to leave. Carroll Poshun gathered his son in his arms and they too left. Catherine took the seamstress from the servants and, alongside her husband, also left. The guests attempted to follow, but the way out was barred now by the servants. Their blood lust, in parody of real blood lust, was turned on themselves. They killed off one another. Charles Grae and his wife drank the blood and ate the flesh of the last living guest, who had turned the dagger, which Catherine had pulled from her brother's heart, on himself. The servants made ready to leave.
On their way along the corridor outside the Game Room, Trevessa paused long enough to bow to Mary, the old housemaid. She knew Catherine would not have been able to rescue her had Mary judged her unworthy of life. She knew it was the servants she had betrayed; and only the servants could judge her. If they decided she would die, then she would; if they decided to spare her, she would live.
"Where will you go?" Catherine asked her.
"To my coldwater," Trevessa replied. Oh well, she thought as she walked to her car, if I must go die in a coldwater flat as my punishment, so be it. So be it. To die alone, at my machine; to to die in a frenzy of living: we have no other choice. The counts and countessas are all buried. No one will understand though. Why would a woman kill off such relatives? When look what all they're done for her. She slowed her car a moment going past the woods; she looked; and she smiled, then drove on.
The caveman hung around the grounds of the Grae House, not really knowing what he was waiting for, till he saw the servants, all packed, proceeding from the house. He went to join them, fitting in at the end of their stream. He did not ask where they were going; he knew for certain, however, that they already had a destination, and that theirs was his, whether for the same reason or not. Nor was he discouraged by them to join their exodus. They knew that he and they now shared a common destination; unlike him, they knew what it was.
Catherine Grae watched, from the upstairs hallway where Charles Grae IX had once stood watching a sunset, as the servants departed. They went single file, slowly, on foot; they carried very little - being servants they needed little, the world provided for their needs, it always had, and it always would. Servants never wanted for sustenance. She saw, at the head of the line, the housemaid, Mary, who of course knew she was being watched. Mary reached behind her far enough to tap the servant behind her on the hand, who in turn did the same to the servant behind him, and so on, through the line, no words spoken, until, at the end, the Caveman's hand was tapped. He paused, turned, waved good bye to Catherine, then resumed his place.
Catherine went back inside, where Carroll Poshun was waiting, with his son, for her. "Come with us," he said. "We will go where you wish."
"Except where I'm headed," she replied. "You are not welcome there. No philosopher is. There are those who have tried, but had to leave in the end. The air is tool sultry. I wish you well, Carroll. You and your son. You are now heir to all this. Goodbye."
Catherine went to her husband, who had placed young Charles Grae XIII on his bed and was painting the boy's face - literally: painting the boy's face, applying his oils to bring the boy's features into focus. He chose the colors most natural to the lifeless complexion. When he was satisfied, he took a fine linen cloth he had found, laid it over the boy's face, smoothed it out, pressed all the boy's features onto the cloth. Then he carefully removed the cloth and set it aside to dry. The boy's image had traced itself against the cloth.
"I love boy more than anything, so I killed him. I made his cousin my muse when I refused to dirty his mouth. Had I dirtied him he would have been my muse. Now I would do anything to get him back. I would cut myself to pieces if doing so would return life to him for even an instant."
Then he gathered the boy in his arms and carried him downstairs for burial. He carried him to the basement - to the servant's quarters; he carried him to Mary's room, where he laid him on her bed. Then he returned to his room. Catherine was waiting for him.
"I'm returning to Tahiti," he said to her. "I shall never leave. I may or may not paint. If you wish to come with me you can."
Braxton proceeded to gather his things, still waiting for the cloth to dry. Catherine began preparing her things; she and he both had several trunk loads. Only servants dare go through the world empty-handed. When both were packed, Catherine said that she would accompany him.
"For a while," she mused. "Sooner or later, I will have to find an island situated on the Line. Time stands still there. Space is equidistantly poised between everything and nothing. Perhaps it won't be too far from the rest of the world. The rest of the universe."
At last Braxton's cloth was dry. He folded it, placed it in a trunk. Someone from town was summoned to carry their luggage t the airport. The movers came and went, oblivious to everything in the house. Catherine and Braxton then got in their car and drove away. They too slowed down going past the woods. They too smiled. Patches, tiny patches, of a new green were starting.