The Final Descent
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“William James Henry,” she said. “I don’t think you’ve aged a day.”
“There is something I must tell you,” I said.
There was a tall, broad-shouldered man watching us from the grave site. He was frowning.
“Is that your husband?” I asked Lilly.
“The latest one. Promise you won’t punch him or eviscerate him or feed him to anything.”
“Oh, I’m done with that. I haven’t killed anyone for a very long time.”
“You sound almost wistful about it.”
“I am not a monster, Lilly.”
“No, more like a ghost. Frightening but impotent. What is it?”
“What is what?”
“What you’ve come to tell me.”
“Oh. Never mind. It doesn’t really matter.”
“After nearly forty years, it must a little.”
It was a lovely spring day. Cloudless. Cool. The leaves of the sycamore tree a startled green. The man was still frowning at us from the grave site, but he had not moved.
“What’s his name? Your latest husband.”
She told me. “James?” I asked, thinking she had left out his last name. “Like the philosopher?”
“No, but James is his middle name.”
“Ah. His parents must have admired the brothers.”
“His brother was a novelist.”
She laughed, and still the sound was like coins tossed upon a silver tray.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s have a drink.”
Her laughter stopped. “Now?”
“We’ll celebrate your father’s life.”
“I can’t go with you now.”
“Later, then. Tonight.”
“Why not? He won’t mind.” Nodding toward the frowning man. “I’m harmless; you said so yourself. The impotent ghost.”
She turned her head away. Her profile was lovely beneath the sycamore tree.
“I don’t understand why you’ve come,” she murmured, raising her face to the sky. Its blue paled against the blue of her eyes.
“I wanted to tell you something.”
“Then why won’t you tell me and go away?”
I pulled the old photograph from my pocket. She saw it, and suddenly she was happy again.
“Wherever did you get that?”
“You gave it to me. Don’t you remember?”
She shook her head. “Look how round I was.”
“That’s just baby fat. You said—do you remember what you said?—for when I got lonely.”
“Did I?” And she laughed again.
“And for luck.” I slipped the photo back into my pocket. I feared she might try to take it from me.
“Did it work?” she asked. “Has it brought you luck?”
“I’m never without it,” I answered, meaning the picture. “Is he a good man? Is he kind to you?”
“He loves me,” she said.
“If he ever wrongs you, come to me and I will take care of it.”
She shook her head. “I know how you take care of things.”
“I am glad to see you, Lilly. I was afraid you might be . . . gone.”
“Why would you be afraid of that?”
“I have . . . an illness.”
“An affliction. It can be passed on by even the most chaste of kisses.”
“And that’s what you wanted to tell me?”
I nodded. She said, “I’m fine. Perfectly fine.”
Her husband was waving at us. I noticed; she did not.
I said, “I like him. He has a good face: not particularly handsome, but noble. And I like his name very much. A philosopher-writer. A writer-philosopher.”
She looked at me closely. Was I joking?
Impulsively, she rose up and pressed her lips against my cheek.
The most chaste of kisses.
Do you know who I am?
A stranger stands behind you in the checkout line. A man in a shabby coat passes you on a busy street. He sits quietly on a park bench, reading his paper. He’s in the seat two rows behind you in the half-filled theater.
You hardly notice him.
He is a practiced hunter who stalks his prey patiently. Years do not matter. Decades do not count. His quarry hides in mirrors. It lives one ten-thousandth of an inch outside his range of vision.
These are the secrets.
He wakes from restless sleep to the sound of his name. Someone is calling him. He rises, reaching in the dark for a tattered hat that is not there, to answer a summons that did not come. He is the hunter; he is the hunted. The bleating goat tied to the stake.
These are the secrets.
One day—never mind when—he finds himself upon a bridge—never mind where—and the water rushing below is dark and deep, and squawking on the balustrade is a murder of crows, hard black eyes and graceful beaks. River runs to the sea, is borne back again: a circle. The crows hold him in their eyes. Frozen there, he cannot climb the barrier. What would you? the crows ask with their hard black eyes.
A boy carrying a fishing pole and a bucket comes along. He throws his line down, and the crows release the man, for they have smelled the fish. They flock toward the bucket, a flurry of black wings and the comical hop-hop upon stick-thin legs. The boy wears a tattered old hat two sizes too small. Freckle-faced, light-skinned, and a mouth seriously set.
“How is the catch?” the man asks.
The boy shrugs. “Okay.” He does not look at the man. He has been taught to be wary of strangers.
“Good day for fishing,” the man says.
The boy nods. He is leaning over the barrier, watching his line, the swift dark water. It occurs to the man that he might return to this bridge in another ten or twenty years and there would be another boy with a line and a bucket and another generation of crows above the swift dark water that runs to the sea and circles back again. It is the same boy—only his name changes, only his face—the boy who stands on the bridge fishing and the crows that hop about his bare feet scrounging for a morsel. Time is a loop, not a line.
For days afterward the man cannot get the boy out of his mind. Freckled-faced, light-skinned, mouth seriously set, and that tattered old hat. One afternoon he wanders into a secondhand store and discovers a set of leather-bound stationery books. The pages are the most beautiful cream color, thick and stiff so when they’re turned there is a portentousness, like the sound of distant thunder, the ominous prelude to a storm. He takes the books home.
If he could name the nameless thing.
To name something is to take possession of it, like Adam in the primordial garden.
For the boy on the bridge, the man thinks, taking up his pen. And for all the boys for a hundred generations who drop their lines into the swift dark water to catch the leviathans lurking in the deep:
These are the secrets
These are the secrets
These are the secrets
These are the secrets:
Yes, my dear child, monsters are real.
And I was happy for a time.
Six years after the director of the home gave me the thirteen notebooks, we met for coffee at a little shop two blocks from the beach in Boca Raton, where he had retired the previous year. His hair was a little whiter and a little thinner, but his handshake was just as strong.
“You’ve finished,” he said.
“With reading them, yes.”
I stirred my coffee. “After he was brought in, did anyone at the home get sick?”
The director gave me a quizzical look. “It’s an assisted- living facility. The average age is seventy-one. Of course people got sick.”
“High fevers, an itchy rash all over their bodies—maybe some recovered, but most wouldn’t.”
He shook his head. “I’m not following you.”
I slapped the spoon down on the table. “Have you ever heard of Titanoboa?”
“I’m guessing that’s a snake?”
“Fifty feet long, weighing more than a ton—the body would reach up to a man’s waist.”
“A big snake.”
“An extinct snake. They found its fossil in a place called Cerrejón in South America. It lived around fifty-eight million years ago.”
“Well, I can see where this is going.”
“He must have read about it or seen some television show about it, I don’t know.”
The director was nodding. “Can’t have seen a live one. He was old, but he couldn’t have been that old.” He smiled.
I didn’t. “No. Maybe not. Maybe he was just crazy. Maybe he made the whole thing up.”
He looked startled. “Well, I didn’t think there was ever a question about that.”
“Maybe he wasn’t a hundred and thirty-one years old. Maybe the journals weren’t even his. Maybe even his name was a lie.”
“William James Henry was the name of the man Lilly Bates married. I know that for a fact. There’s a tombstone in Auburn, New York. There’s an obituary. There are relatives. One of them contacted me. In the last notebook he hints that he stole the man’s name—he stole it!”
The director was silent for a moment, staring out the window. He blew out his ruddy cheeks. He toyed with his napkin. “Even his name? That’s not good.”
“You gave those notebooks to me hoping I could help figure out who this guy was. Six years later and I’m further from the truth than when I started.”
He sensed I was about to lose it. He tried to calm me down. “It was a long shot. I knew that. I think I told you that. It was worth a try, wasn’t it?”
“No. No, it was not. Even his name? He talks about secrets and won’t even reveal that? The whole damn thing is a lie!”
“Hey,” he said softly. “Hey. It was never about what he wrote, you know. It was about him.”
“Right, him. And at the end of it there is no him. There’s a blank, a cipher, the stranger standing behind you in the checkout line. A voice without a face, a face without a name, a secret without a confession. Who was he?”
The director shook his head. What could he say? I turned away in frustration. It was a sunny day, perfect weather for the beach. A kid was walking down the sidewalk toward the water, a fishing pole over one shoulder, a bait bucket in his hand. As long as there are leviathans in the deep, there will be boys to hunt them.
“I never should have given them to you,” the director said. An apology. “I should have read them myself.”
“I thought I could find him,” I admitted. “I thought I could bring him home. Everyone has someone. You remember telling me that?”
He nodded. “I do. And he does.”
“Who?” I demanded. “Who does he have? Who does he belong to?”
He looked surprised. “You. He has you.”
The hunter in his blind. The bleating goat tied to the stake. And the amber eye glowing just outside the circle of light.
I began his hunter. I ended up his prey.