A Serial Novel

A literary experiment in judicial philosophy and historical fiction, inter alia.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Chapter 8: Heaven's Experiments

Just pulled out a packet of letters, which was strange because he remembered only the one. Each letter was sealed with the seal he remembered but did not recognize, but the seals were broken. Jacques’s name was not written on the letters, but on a slip of paper that bound the letters together. He was spared from the moral quandary of satisfying his curiosity and respecting Mme Ledoux’s privacy. Except for Jacques’s name, the handwriting was his own.

“I did not write these myself,” he said. “But something may have written them through me in the night.” (He did not doubt that in this case what was written was for him to read even if it bore Jacques’s name.)

He unfolded the top letter—“I have much to tell you that I cannot write. Why this silence? Are these letters reaching you? (And if they are not, would the one who has stolen them send them to you? The one, or the many? I see a whole line of them, slobbering over these lines. Why don’t they write their own letters? My mind is wandering.”)

Just remembered how far away he had been the night before, how far away and how long away. He remembered the line of people whispering in the guardian angels’ ears. Were there things he had to tell that he could not write? There were. But still he had hoped these letters would tell him what they were.

He unfolded another letter— “I will keep it, you know, I will treasure it.” “I cannot go so far away that you aren’t still living behind my eyelids”

Just had expected much that he would not understand. He had not expected these passionate vaguaries. He thought of the angel of the lord. He could remember every word in her trumpet voice, but he saw the words written, mixed somehow into the letters in his own hand, mixed into those so-felt banalities. Why did the one make him think of the other? “These letters are a curtain,” he thought. “That I must read through.”

He went to find Abelard.

(You haven’t heard much about Abelard. The attentive among you might have wondered why everyone has been so elusive about him—a quick aside that indicates that he’s such a fixture that nothing more be said. But if such a fixture, then where has he been? The family may have agreed not to speak too much about him, but when did the authors decide to go along?)

Abelard was born between twenty and thirty years ago, and he resembled a cabinet. He was tall with a teenager’s look of unfinished bones, and his eyebrows stuck out in all directions because he ran his fingers through them while he thought. It was his mind that most resembled a cabinet—everything he heard, he stashed inside the correct drawer. Sometimes he shook the drawers about to see if something should hop to another, or if the drawer should be not a container, but a tunnel to another drawer or another place.

Abelard was the family’s servant, but if anyone had ever told him what to do, he had not noticed. He kept himself busy on his own; no one worked harder or more constantly. He himself had never given a command in his life though everyone from the Marquis to the youngest housemaid came to him for advice no one else could offer. If you wanted to know why mangoes grew in the east and nowhere else, Abelard had considered it and could catalogue for you the mango’s preferences, what it took from the soil and what it left, its affinity to the sun, how its sap followed that star’s unseen tides.

If you wanted to know how to stop a baby growing inside you, Abelard knew the best way to go about it depending on the fetus’s age and circumstances of conception. He could also warn you of what would be left inside you afterwards and how that would grow depending on when you stopped the child growing one way—out of you and into the light—and started it growing this other.

For example, if you stopped the baby at midnight, it would go leaving a word in your ear that you might not want to hear. And if you stopped it at matins, your stomach would bloat, eventually preceding you by three steps out the door, and you would never see your feet again. If you stopped the child at dawn, it would burrow its way into your future tense; you would too become so light that you float away like a dried-out leaf and your loved ones left wailing, why don’t you love us anymore, why can’t you love us. The best time to stop a child was about 3:00 in the afternoon, when it dissolved into the peculiar type of salt water in which unborn babies swim. Sometimes then you would wake up from dreams that left your checks wet, but who didn’t? Sometimes.

Abelard knew many things like this and was generous in sharing them.

So Just carried the letters to Abelard and told him how Mme Ledoux had left them and how they had fucked (though he did not use that word) and how she had told him to deliver the letters to Jacques. He told of the angel of the Lord and the long, long distance they had traveled. (You wouldn’t lie to a doctor; Just similarly did his best to tell the complete truth despite his promise of secrecy to Mme Ledoux. He felt that he owed her a man’s decision and not a child’s obedience.)

The first thing Abelard said was, “You were a man full-grown, then you were a child again, almost a man, as you are now. Now think carefully. When the angel of the Lord came to you, were you a man, a child, or a man having a vision of being once again a child?”
“The last, I think,” said Just. “Does it matter?” It meant the basic truth of him was something that carried forever a child. It meant the vision had no end, that is was he thought.

Abelard said, “Maybe, maybe not.” He was collecting symptoms. “I think it matters for the angel. It might explain what heaven was hoping to gain from the experiment—I would call it that: from your perspective, a vision, from the angel’s, an experiment. If we begin to think of it as an experiment, as well, I think we will learn much. ”

Just nodded; he was glad that someone had studied these things and that it was Abelard.

Just had described the angel, that she was a sexy woman. Abelard now asked him to describe her tongue.

“It was made of silver,” said Just, “and pointed like a sword. I could not see it well; it flickered.”

“Did you notice how it was fixed to her mouth?”

No, Just hasn’t.

“I believe that if you had, you would have found it fixed to the roof of her mouth instead of the root, spinning like a dervish.”

Abelard went to his cabinet and found the file for “Angel,” flicked to “of the Lord.” He returned with a small instrument, like two shallow bowls clasped together, or a clam. At the front, crossing the seam, was a thin pair of lips puckered like a trumpet. The instrument was a model of a mouth. Separated from the head, the mouth resembled that of a frog.

“The angel’s mouth,” said Abelard, “a simplified model, of course, based on my researches.”

Abelard wound a key at the top of the instrument, where a true mouth would hook into the septa behind the nose and then to the brain.

Just recognized the liquid whir and what he had thought was the sound of the angel’s rarified breathing. Abelard carefully lifted the top bowl so the lips half parted. Just recognized the fixed mask of the Angel of the Lord about to speak.

“I bring glad tidings of things to come. I bring news of the regime to come.” The angel’s own liquid and metal voice.

“Look inside,” said Abelard, and Just pressed his eyes to the crack. His eyelids brushed the bowl, and he saw in the darkened cavity a needle flashing and spinning and spinning, scrapping the inner surface of the lower mouth. Silver and pointed like a sword, the needle resembled the angel’s tongue remarkably.

The key unwound and Just remembered the mechanic fixity with which the angel had walked into the ocean.

“Yes,” he said, “this is my angel.”

Abelard said, “A recorder angel, then, as I expected when you reported it saying what recorder angels always say. Wound up in heaven and sent to earth. The important thing—the thing no one remembers,” Abelard was impatient, “but I expect it is hard to remember in the midst of a vision, which you must understand I have never had—is not what the angel said, but what you said to her.”

“Nothing,” said Just. He did not remember saying anything.

“Maybe you were wise,” said Abelard. The key stopped spinning, and Abelard wound it the other direction.

“Nothing,” echoed the angel’s mouth. “Maybe you were wise.” Without the bellows of their lungs behind, both Just and Abelard’s voices sounded thin, pure, and childlike and resembled each other.

“The tongue,” said Abelard, “spins one way on earth and the other in heaven and what it says in heaven, it recorded on earth. So, as I said, maybe you were wise not to speak. We do not know what experiment heaven was performing on you.”

And maybe, thought Just, the angel would be back. “Thank you,” said Just formally. “I will consult you again if necessary.” He was going to read through the curtain of the letters.

Abelard looked out the window and said, “And here is your family coming up the valley. Did you want me to give Jacques his letters back? It’s difficult to say what affect this will have on him, although I’m sure Mme Ledoux has a reason for returning them based on guess about the affect that is almost certainly wrong.” Abelard grinned at him confidentially, and Just unconsciously mirrored the smile back.

“Jacques his letters?” Just said.
“His letters to Mme Ledoux. That she wishes you to return to him. I told Jacques—when he asked—that she has, of course, heard the rumors about what happened between her husband and him.”

“Oh yes,” said Just. But he said that he would deliver the letters himself. He remembered the single letter that Mme Ledoux had given him so clearly. He resolved to search the packet for that letter, the one in neither his nor his brother’s handwriting, which evidently matched so closely.

Abelard said, “I told your brother—when he asked, of course, months ago—that he was not good for a woman like that, the type that lives in fear, but is not imaginative. For example, when she was pregnant, she had a simple plan and a simple contract she wanted him to sign, but could she tell him? No. Somehow the way he conducted conversation never gave her the words she needed. She always takes the words she needs from the person nearest her. You noticed? It’s disarming and leads to problems.” Abelard sighed, “The two of them weren’t suited to each other. I warned your brother.”

Just had thought all of these things were secrets.

Abelard said, “You have noticed that your sisters have been worried sick and the Marquis feverish with activity and that Jacques walks up and down the floor, ordering everyone to just let him die?”

Just nodded because he couldn't imagine how he could not have noticed.

The cure was washing the Marquis’s body, preparing him for the funeral. He cleaned the crust of spittle around his lips and wound his body in linen. He had trouble maneuvering thebody and Heloise helped.

She had wanted to watch and the family hadn’t (they were all people who lived too much in their eyes; there were many things they couldn’t bear to see). She had thought that the cure might turn her away. She did not know why she should feel guilty before the cure.

“I did not know,” Heloise said, “that I remembered this, I was so young, but I saw my father wrapped like this.”

The cure said, “I didn’t want—I’m glad you’ll witness—“ He started again more composed, lecturing, quizzing. “If the law sentences and puts a man to death and God brings him back to life, what happens to the man? Does the law’s will win out or God’s?”

This should have seemed to Heloise a dangerous question, but she said, “The law’s because God will eventually come around to killing the man again.”
The cure shot her what was rapidly becoming her favorite look, “Hey you, little girl, you said something I didn’t exactly expect to hear.”

“But still,” the cure said, “God’s reasons for putting the man to death might be different from the law’s, or they might be the same. God might kill the man so that he will not die again—it has been said before—He might kill him to hear what he has to say when He brings him back to life—it would be interesting to hear. Tell me what you think?”

“I’m not learning from you anymore” said Heloise.

The cure went back to washing the body. “But you’re still here?” he asked after a while.

“I’m still watching.”

The cure nodded—that was to be expected from her, good girl.

He unwrapped the Marquis’s head. The man’s eyes were closed.

( “Who closed the Marquis’ eyes?” the cure asked Jacques. “I did,” said Madeline.

Jacques was angry in turn at being reproached for refusing to close his father’s eyes. He had sat next to his body for hours and carefully failed to touch it. He had expected he would come to terms some day about how his father had and had not managed his life, how he had refused to be a bad father and failed to be a good one, But, obvious though it would seem, Jacques didn’t expect this to happen at his father’s death. He was so angry that the old man had gotten away from him, so angry that he had at last slipped out of the old man’s fingers.)

The cure dripped water into Marquis’s eyes, which rivuleted into the sparse eyelashes and the seam of the eyes, ran out the corners. The cure took a vial out of his sleeve. The liquid inside was clear like water, but began to evaporate rapidly when the stopper was pulled.

The cure tipped the Marquis’s head back and poured the liquid down his nostrils. The Marquis’s eyelids stretched—the damn fools had shut his eyes, the cure snorted— but they had stiffened fast shut.

The cure released the Marquis’s head; a small amount of liquid dribbled back out his nostrils. Underneath his eyelids now, the Marquis’ eyes were open. His tongue moved inside the cage of his teeth.

Heloise jumped back, then put her hand on the Marquis’ forehead where it touched his hair. His skin was cold and soft.

“Are you there?” asked Heloise.

“Shit,” said the cure.. “They call the drug the water of the fountain of youth,” he told her.

“Is it supposed to work like that?”

“What do you think?”

Heloise shook off a sudden conviction that this was nothing new, a sudden vision of an army of priests stooping over deathbeds, pouring something more volatile than water down the dyings’ notrils. She had heard it said that the dead went somewhere else, she had never considered that perhaps it was that they became something else.

The cure slapped the Marquis sharply on the cheeks, he pounded assiduously at his chest. In the end, he stopped and wound his head again in linen. “I never wanted to be an executioner,” said the cure. “I told you that last night.”

That was not what Heloise remembered, but she supposed everyone had their own things they thought they had made clear.

The family continued home, one member now making the journey feet first and horizontal. Jacques sat in the wagon next to him. He talked to Heloise because he was a stranger. “Mlle Beaujeu, you see everything.”


“You do. I had you sighted out as a girl that saw everything from the first. Do you hear everything too? He won’t talk to me, but he’ll talk to my brother. He says, ‘Because I love him more than you,’ but that’s not true, or if it is, I’ve always loved Just better. I’ll go far away for him.”

Heloise said nothing.

“Pretend I didn’t say that,” said Jacques, and she said nothing.

“I think you can hear him too.” he said.

“I don’t think I’m crazy,” he said, “but it’s a idea.”

“You don’t have to come,” he said.

The Marquis’s tongue clicked and clicked against the bars of his teeth.

“We will lock him inside a mausoleum,” said Jacques. “Because he is dead.”


Blogger Phoebe said...

I should explain my long absence.

As I’m sure you knew, I cried when I read your last post. It’s not that I thought you were criticizing me about Dave. I know you were wise to him long before I was, and it’s not like you didn’t try to warn me. So we’re both clear on that front. But I really can’t believe that you think I don’t like our characters. Alright, so I wasn’t fond of the Marquis at first, but I’ve told you that you were right about that, and I don’t see why you’re still being such a dick about it. And you’ve completely misunderstood me about the cure. Since when can’t we love people by detesting them? I meant it as a description, not an evaluation.

If you’d just misunderstood me about that, that would be one thing, but then there’s this personal attack that I just don’t understand. I almost called you to demand an explanation, even though that’s against the rules, but then I read your post and Abelard (who seems to have absorbed so many of our childhood games with such great seriousness) made me laugh so much that I thought I could wait.

Only there’s one thing in that post I’d have to be an idiot not to recognize as being meant for me: “He had expected he would come to terms some day about how his father had and had not managed his life, how he had refused to be a bad father and failed to be a good one.” That’s all the explanation I need, isn’t it? Okay, so I’ve been a faithless daughter. I plead guilty. You don’t know what pain that causes me and whether I wish things were otherwise. Of course, I should be more devoted. (But I don’t stop them from calling me. I take their calls, and I’m polite. If they don’t call, it’s their problem.) But do you think its because I demand perfection? It’s never been that. Sure, I hate their faults. But I could forgive Mom her pathetic need to be eternally young; I could forgive Dad his insecure narcissism, despite all the pain that these and their myriad other faults have caused both of us. I could forgive them if only I wanted to. And you misunderstand me so deeply if it isn’t obvious why I don’t want to. I can’t believe you don’t know that it’s not their pathetic faults or their mediocrity (the best defense you can muster) but what they’ve done to you. And if you refuse to get angry at them, I’ll do it for you, no matter how much pain it causes.

There’s so much more that I want to say about this, but instead I’ll tell you a myth.

Leda and the Swan

Once upon a time, there was a very beautiful woman. She was beautiful, and slim and young. Zeus saw her while she was bathing, and he felt an animal desire for her. So he became a swan. He flew to earth, and his feathers covered her naked body, his wings spread over her. You might have heard that this was a rape. This is a lie, which is different than a myth, perpetrated by mortal men who, unlike the gods, are jealous of animal desire. In fact, Leda thought it was delicious. Oh sure, it took her by surprise, but she and Zeus had been lovers for some time, and the ticklishness of his fathers on her wet body, its difference from the force of his animal movements, robbed her of her reason, and so she forgot to make sure Zeus was wearing protection (he was an animal at the time; animals don’t have reason, and so he couldn’t be expected to remember that himself). Because the gods are so potent, Leda got pregnant from just this one time, or so the myth goes.

Fortunately for her, she laid two eggs before she got too fat. But, nonetheless, as the eggs incubated, she felt obliged to sit on them, and felt strange cravings she couldn’t explain, so that when her children came out, Apollo and Artemis, beautiful, young and divine, she realized that she was getting old, and a little fat.

While Leda dieted, her children grew up. And, because they were gods, they had time to play infinite games. Sometimes they did their own thing. Apollo chased every skirt he saw, and when he was alone he made music. Artemis hunted all night long, lived in the cold air of the moon, and rejoiced in the silent company of dangerous animals. Sometimes, more often than not, they played together. One time, a woman named Niobe, who had seven children, compared herself favorably to Leda, who only had two. Leda, who was miffed that she was being defined through her children, saw to it Apollo and Artemis took care of that. And they had fun, relishing picking each kid off with their arrows. Why not? They had time. They were gods.

They were gods; we aren’t. What I’m trying to say, Art, is that I had to make a choice. After my last post, I called Cheryl and talked with her for hours about everything that happened. It turns out she was just on her way to join her husband, who has been temporarily relocated to Italy. To cheer me up, she insisted I come with her, at first at least: Milan, Venice and Rome in four weeks.

I needed to do this. I had been tormenting myself about how to tell you I’d have to take a pause. But then, when I got your post, it because easier to just leave. We needed a break from the novel.

But I missed our story and you while I was gone. I’m back now. I’ll write more next time, okay?

7:42 PM  

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