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Long After Midnight

Long After Midnight
Long After Midnight Рэй Дуглас Брэдбери A classic collection of Ray Bradbury’s short fiction, available in ebook for the first time.In twenty-two stories of amazing range and variety, Ray Bradbury once again works his special magic, sounding out life's mysteries in the past, present, and the future. LONG AFTER MIDNIGHT Ray Bradbury Dedication (#) This book, with love, is dedicated to William F. Nolan, amazing collector, fantastic researcher, dear friend. Table of Contents Cover (#u1ffad92a-1FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) Title Page (#u1ffad92a-2FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) Dedication (#) The Blue Bottle (#) One Timeless Spring (#) The Parrot Who Met Papa (#) The Burning Man (#) A Piece of Wood (#) The Messiah (#) G.B.S.—Mark V (#) The Utterly Perfect Murder (#) Punishment Without Crime (#) Getting Through Sunday Somehow (#) Drink Entire: Against the Madness of Crowds (#) Interval in Sunlight (#) A Story of Love (#) The Wish (#) Forever and the Earth (#) The Better Part of Wisdom (#) Darling Adolf (#) The Miracles of Jamie (#) The October Game (#) The Pumpernickel (#) Long After Midnight (#) Have I Got a Chocolate Bar for You! (#) Keep Reading (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#) Also by the Author (#) Copyright (#) About the Publisher (#) The Blue Bottle (#) The sundials were tumbled into white pebbles. The birds of the air now flew in ancient skies of rock and sand, buried, their songs stopped. The dead sea bottoms were currented with dust which flooded the land when the wind bade it reenact an old tale of engulfment. The cities were deep laid with granaries of silence, time stored and kept, pools and fountains of quietude and memory. Mars was dead. Then, out of the large stillness, from a great distance, there was an insect sound which grew large among the cinnamon hills and moved in the sun-blazed air until the highway trembled and dust was shook whispering down in the old cities. The sound ceased. In the shimmering silence of midday, Albert Beck and Leonard Craig sat in an ancient landcar, eyeing a dead city which did not move under their gaze but waited for their shout: “Hello!” A crystal tower dropped into soft dusting rain. “You there!” And another tumbled down. And another and another fell as Beck called, summoning them to death. In shattering flights, stone animals with vast granite wings dived to strike the courtyards and fountains. His cry summoned them like living beasts and the beasts gave answer, groaned, cracked, leaned up, tilted over, trembling, hesitant, then split the air and swept down with grimaced mouths and empty eyes, with sharp, eternally hungry teeth suddenly seized out and strewn like shrapnel on the tiles. Beck waited. No more towers fell. “It’s safe to go in now.” Craig didn’t move. “For the same reason?” Beck nodded. “For a damned bottle! I don’t understand. Why does everyone want it?” Beck got out of the car. “Those that found it, they never told, they never explained. But—it’s old. Old as the desert, as the dead seas—and it might contain anything. That’s what the legend says. And because it could hold anything—well, that stirs a man’s hunger.” “Yours, not mine,” said Craig. His mouth barely moved; his eyes were half-shut, faintly amused. He stretched lazily. “I’m just along for the ride. Better watching you than sitting in the heat.” Beck had stumbled upon the old landcar a month back, before Craig had joined him. It was part of the flotsam of the First Industrial Invasion of Mars that had ended when the race moved on toward the stars. He had worked on the motor and run it from city to dead city, through the lands of the idlers and roustabouts, the dreamers and lazers, men caught in the backwash of space, men like himself and Craig who had never wanted to do much of anything and had found Mars a fine place to do it in. “Five thousand, ten thousand years back the Martians made the Blue Bottle,” said Beck. “Blown from Martian glass—and lost and found and lost and found again and again.” He stared into the wavering heat shimmer of the dead city. All my life, thought Beck, I’ve done nothing and nothing inside the nothing. Others, better men, have done big things, gone off to Mercury, or Venus, or out beyond the System. Except me. Not me. But the Blue Bottle can change all that. He turned and walked away from the silent car. Craig was out and after him, moving easily along. “What is it now, ten years you’ve hunted? You twitch when you sleep, wake up in fits, sweat through the days. You want the damn bottle that bad, and don’t know what’s in it. You’re a fool, Beck.” “Shut up, shut up,” said Beck, kicking a slide of pebbles out of his way. They walked together into the ruined city, over a mosaic of cracked tiles shaped into a stone tapestry of fragile Martian creatures, long-dead beasts which appeared and disappeared as a slight breath of wind stirred the silent dust. “Wait,” said Beck. He cupped his hands to his mouth and gave a great shout. “You there!” “… there,” said an echo, and towers fell. Fountains and stone pillars folded into themselves. That was the way of these cities. Sometimes towers as beautiful as a symphony would fall at a spoken word. It was like watching a Bach cantata disintegrate before your eyes. A moment later: bones buried in bones. The dust settled. Two structures remained intact. Beck stepped forward, nodding to his friend. They moved in search. And, searching, Craig paused, a faint smile on his lips. “In that bottle,” he said, “is there a little accordion woman, all folded up like one of those tin cups, or like one of those Japanese flowers you put in water and it opens out?” “I don’t need a woman.” “Maybe you do. Maybe you never had a real woman, a woman who loved you, so, secretly, that’s what you hope is in it.” Craig pursed his mouth. “Or maybe, in that bottle, something from your childhood. All in a tiny bundle—a lake, a tree you climbed, green grass, some crayfish. How’s that sound?” Beck’s eyes focused on a distant point. “Sometimes—that’s almost it. The past—Earth. I don’t know.” Craig nodded. “What’s in the bottle would depend, maybe, on who’s looking. Now, if there was a shot of whiskey in it …” “Keep looking,” said Beck. There were seven rooms filled with glitter and shine; from floor to tiered ceiling there were casks, crocks, magnums, urns, vases—fashioned of red, pink, yellow, violet, and black glass. Beck shattered them, one by one, to eliminate them, to get them out of the way so he would never have to go through them again. Beck finished his room, stood ready to invade the next. He was almost afraid to go on. Afraid that this time he would find it; that the search would be over and the meaning would go out of his life. Only after he had heard of the Blue Bottle from fire-travelers all the way from Venus to Jupiter, ten years ago, had life begun to take on a purpose. The fever had lit him and he had burned steadily ever since. If he worked it properly, the prospect of finding the bottle might fill his entire life to the brim. Another thirty years, if he was careful and not too diligent, of search, never admitting aloud that it wasn’t the bottle that counted at all, but the search, the running and the hunting, the dust and the cities and the going-on. Beck heard a muffled sound. He turned and walked to a window looking out into the courtyard. A small gray sand cycle had purred up almost noiselessly at the end of the street. A plump man with blond hair eased himself off the spring seat and stood looking into the city. Another searcher. Beck sighed. Thousands of them, searching and searching. But there were thousands of brittle cities and towns and villages and it would take a millennium to sift them all. “How you doing?” Craig appeared in a doorway. “No luck.” Beck sniffed the air. “Do you smell anything?” “What?” Craig looked about. “Smells like—bourbon.” “Ho!” Craig laughed. “That’s me!” “You?” “I just took a drink. Found it in the other room. Shoved some stuff around, a mess of bottles, like always, and one of them had some bourbon in it, so I had myself a drink.” Beck was staring at him, beginning to tremble. “What—what would bourbon be doing here, in a Martian bottle?” His hands were cold. He took a slow step forward. “Show me!” “I’m sure that …” “Show me, damn you!” It was there, in one corner of the room, a container of Martian glass as blue as the sky, the size of a small fruit, light and airy in Beck’s hand as he set it down upon a table. “It’s half-full of bourbon,” said Craig. “I don’t see anything inside,” said Beck. “Then shake it.” Beck picked it up, gingerly shook it. “Hear it gurgle?” “No.” “I can hear it plain.” Beck replaced it on the table. Sunlight spearing through a side window struck blue flashes off the slender container. It was the blue of a star held in the hand. It was the blue of a shallow ocean bay at noon. It was the blue of a diamond at morning. “This is it,” said Beck quietly. “I know it is. We don’t have to look anymore. We’ve found the Blue Bottle.” Craig looked skeptical. “Sure you don’t see anything in it?” “Nothing … But—” Beck bent close and peered deeply into the blue universe of glass. “Maybe if I open it up and let it out, whatever it is, I’ll know.” “I put the stopper in tight. Here.” Craig reached out. “If you gentlemen will excuse me,” said a voice in the door behind them. The plump man with blond hair walked into their line of vision with a gun. He did not look at their faces, he looked only at the blue glass bottle. He began to smile. “I hate very much to handle guns,” he said, “but it is a matter of necessity, as I simply must have that work of art. I suggest that you allow me to take it without trouble.” Beck was almost pleased. It had a certain beauty of timing, this incident; it was the sort of thing he might have wished for, to have the treasure stolen before it was opened. Now there was the good prospect of a chase, a fight, a series of gains and losses, and, before they were done, perhaps another four or five years spent upon a new search. “Come along now,” said the stranger. “Give it up.” He raised the gun warningly. Beck handed him the bottle. “Amazing. Really amazing,” said the plump man. “I can’t believe it was as simple as this, to walk in, hear two men talking, and to have the Blue Bottle simply handed to me. Amazing!” And he wandered off down the hall, out into the daylight, chuckling to himself. Under the cool double moons of Mars the midnight cities were bone and dust. Along the scattered highway the landcar bumped and rattled, past cities where the fountains, the gyrostats, the furniture, the metal-singing books, the paintings lay powdered over with mortar and insect wings. Past cities that were cities no longer, but only things rubbed to a fine silt that flowered senselessly back and forth on the wine winds between one land and another, like the sand in a gigantic hourglass, endlessly pyramiding and repyramiding. Silence opened to let the car pass, and closed swiftly in behind. Craig said, “We’ll never find him. These damned roads. So old. Potholes, lumps, everything wrong. He’s got the advantage with the cycle; he can dodge and weave. Damn!” They swerved abruptly, avoiding a bad stretch. The car moved over the old highway like an eraser, coming upon blind soil, passing over it, dusting it away to reveal the emerald and gold colors of ancient Martian mosaics worked into the road surface. “Wait,” cried Beck. He throttled the car down. “I saw something back there.” “Where?” They drove back a hundred yards. “There. You see. It’s him.” In a ditch by the side of the road the plump man lay folded over his cycle. He did not move. His eyes were wide, and when Beck flashed a torch down, the eyes burned dully. “Where’s the bottle?” asked Craig. Beck jumped into the ditch and picked up the man’s gun. “I don’t know. Gone.” “What killed him?” “I don’t know that either.” “The cycle looks okay. Not an accident.” Beck rolled the body over. “No wounds. Looks like he just—stopped, of his own accord.” “Heart attack, maybe,” said Craig. “Excited over the bottle. He gets down here to hide. Thought he’d be all right, but the attack finished him.” “That doesn’t account for the Blue Bottle.” “Someone came along. Lord, you know how many searchers there are….” They scanned the darkness around them. Far off, in the starred blackness, on the blue hills, they saw a dim movement. “Up there.” Beck pointed. “Three men on foot.” “They must have …” “My God, look!” Below them, in the ditch, the figure of the plump man glowed, began to melt. The eyes took on the aspect of moonstones under a sudden rush of water. The face began to dissolve away into fire. The hair resembled small firecracker strings, lit and sputtering. The body fumed as they watched. The fingers jerked with flame. Then, as if a gigantic hammer had struck a glass statue, the body cracked upward and was gone in a blaze of pink shards, becoming mist as the night breeze carried it across the highway. “They must have—done something to him,” said Craig. “Those three, with a new kind of weapon.” “But it’s happened before,” said Beck. “Men I knew about who had the Blue Bottle. They vanished. And the bottle passed on to others who vanished.” He shook his head. “Looked like a million fireflies when he broke apart ….” “You going after them?” Beck returned to the car. He judged the desert mounds, the hills of bone-silt and silence. “It’ll be a tough job, but I think I can poke the car through after them. I have to, now.” He paused, not speaking to Craig. “I think I know what’s in the Blue Bottle…. Finally, I realize that what I want most of all is in there. Waiting for me.” “I’m not going,” said Craig, coming up to the car where Beck sat in the dark, his hands on his knees. “I’m not going out there with you, chasing three armed men. I just want to live, Beck. That bottle means nothing to me. I won’t risk my skin for it. But I’ll wish you luck.” “Thanks,” said Beck. And he drove away, into the dunes. The night was as cool as water coming over the glass hood of the landcar. Beck throttled hard over dead river washes and spills of chalked pebble, driving between great cliffs. Ribbons of double moonlight painted the bas-reliefs of gods and animals on the cliff sides all yellow gold: mile-high faces upon which Martian histories were etched and stamped in symbols, incredible faces with open cave eyes and gaping cave mouths. The motor’s roar dislodged rocks, boulders. In a whole rushing downpour of stone, golden segments of ancient cliff sculpture slid out of the moons’ rays at the top of the cliff and vanished into blue cool-well darkness. In the roar, as he drove, Beck cast his mind back—to all the nights in the last ten years, nights when he had built red fires on the sea bottoms, and cooked slow, thoughtful meals. And dreamed. Always those dreams of wanting. And not knowing what. Ever since he was a young man, the hard life on Earth, the great panic of 2130, the starvation, chaos, riot, want. Then bucking through the planets, the womanless, loveless years, the alone years. You come out of the dark into the light, out of the womb into the world, and what do you find that you really want? What about that dead man back there in the ditch? Wasn’t he always looking for something extra? Something he didn’t have. What was there for men like himself? Or for anyone? Was there anything at all to look forward to? The Blue Bottle. He quickly braked the car, leaped out, gun ready. He ran, crouching, into the dunes. Ahead of him, the three men lay on the cold sand, neatly. They were Earthmen, with tan faces and rough clothes and gnarled hands. Starlight shone on the Blue Bottle, which lay among them. As Beck watched, the bodies began to melt. They vanished away into rises of steam, into dewdrops and crystals. In a moment they were gone. Beck felt the coldness in his body as the flakes rained across his eyes, flicking his lips and his cheeks. He did not move. The plump man. Dead and vanishing. Craig’s voice: “Some new weapon …” No. Not a weapon at all. The Blue Bottle. They had opened it to find what they most desired. All of the unhappy, desiring men down the long and lonely years had opened it to find what they most wanted in the planets of the universe. And all had found it, even as had these three. Now it could be understood, why the bottle passed on so swiftly, from one to another, and the men vanishing behind it. Harvest chaff fluttering on the sand, along the dead sea rims. Turning to flame and fireflies. To mist. Beck picked up the bottle and held it away from himself for a long moment. His eyes shone clearly. His hands trembled. So this is what I’ve been looking for, he thought. He turned the bottle and it flashed blue starlight. So this is what all men really want? The secret desire, deep inside, hidden all away where we never guess? The subliminal urge? So this is what each man seeks, through some private guilt, to find? Death. An end to doubt, to torture, to monotony, to want, to loneliness, to fear, an end to everything. All men? No. Not Craig. Craig was, perhaps, far luckier. A few men were like animals in the universe, not questioning, drinking at pools and breeding and raising their young and not doubting for a moment that life was anything but good. That was Craig. There were a handful like him. Happy animals on a great reservation, in the hand of God, with a religion and a faith that grew like a set of special nerves in them. The unneurotic men in the midst of the billionfold neurotics. They would only want death, later, in a natural manner. Not now. Later. Beck raised the bottle. How simple, he thought, and how right. This is what I’ve always wanted. And nothing else. Nothing. The bottle was open and blue in the starlight. Beck took an immense draught of the air coming from the Blue Bottle, deep into his lungs. I have it at last, he thought. He relaxed. He felt his body become wonderfully cool and then wonderfully warm. He knew he was dropping down a long slide of stars into a darkness as delightful as wine. He was swimming in blue wine and white wine and red wine. There were candles in his chest, and fire wheels spinning. He felt his hands leave him. He felt his legs fly away, amusingly. He laughed. He shut his eyes and laughed. He was very happy for the first time in his life. The Blue Bottle dropped onto the cool sand. At dawn, Craig walked along, whistling. He saw the bottle lying in the first pink light of the sun on the empty white sand. As he picked it up, there was a fiery whisper. A number of orange and red-purple fireflies blinked on the air, and passed on away. The place was very still. “I’ll be damned.” He glanced toward the dead windows of a nearby city. “Hey, Beck!” A slender tower collapsed into powder. “Beck, here’s your treasure! I don’t want it. Come and get it!” “… and get it,” said an echo, and the last tower fell. Craig waited. “That’s rich,” he said. “The bottle right here, and old Beck not even around to take it.” He shook the blue container. It gurgled. “Yes, sir! Just the way it was before. Full of bourbon, by God!” He opened it, drank, wiped his mouth. He held the bottle carelessly. “All that trouble for a little bourbon. I’ll wait right here for old Beck and give him his damn bottle. Meanwhile—have an other drink, Mr. Craig. Don’t mind if I do.” The only sound in the dead land was the sound of liquid running into a parched throat. The Blue Bottle flashed in the sun. Craig smiled happily and drank again. One Timeless Spring (#) That week, so many years ago, I thought my mother and father were poisoning me. And now, twenty years later, I’m not so sure they didn’t. There’s no way of telling. It all comes back to me through the simple expedient of an examined trunk in the attic. This morning I pulled back the brass hasps and lifted the lid, and the immemorial odor of mothballs shrouded the unstrung tennis rackets, the worn sneakers, the shattered toys, the rusty roller skates. These implements of play, seen again through older eyes, make it seem only an hour ago that I rushed in from the shady streets, all asweat, the cry of “Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free!” still excitedly trembling on my lips. I was a weird and ridiculous boy then with brooding and uncommon ideas; the poison and the fear were only part of me in those years. I began making notes in a lined nickel tablet when I was only twelve. I can feel the stubby pencil in my fingers now, writing in those timeless spring mornings. I paused to lick my pencil, thoughtfully. I sat in my upstairs room at the beginning of a clear endless day, blinking at the rose-stamped wallpaper, my feet bare, my hair shorn to a hairbrush stubble, thinking. “I didn’t know I was sick until this week,” I wrote. “I’ve been sick for a long time. Since I was ten. I’m twelve now.” I scrouged up my face, bit my lips hard, focused blurrily on the tablet. “Mom and Dad have made me sick. Teachers at school also gave this—” I hesitated. Then I wrote: “Disease to me! The only ones who don’t scare me are the other kids. Isabel Skelton and Willard Bowers and Clarisse Mellin; they aren’t very sick yet. But I’m really bad off ….” I laid the pencil down. I went to the bathroom mirror to see myself. My mother called me from downstairs to come to breakfast. I pressed close to the mirror, breathing so fast I made a big damp fog on the glass. I saw how my face was—changing. The bones of it. Even the eyes. The pores of my nose. My ears. My forehead. My hair. All the things that’d been me for such a long time, starting to become something else. (“Douglas, come to breakfast, you’ll be late for school!”) As I took a quick wash I saw my body floating under me. I was inside it. There was no escape. And the bones of it were doing things, shifting, mixing around! Then I began singing and whistling loud, so I wouldn’t think about it; until Father, rapping on the door, told me to quiet down and come eat. I sat at the breakfast table. There was a yellow box of cereal and milk, white-cold in a pitcher, and shining spoons and knives, and eggs planked with bacon, Dad reading his paper, Mom moving around the kitchen. I sniffed. I felt my stomach lie down like a whipped dog. “What’s wrong, son?” Dad looked at me casually. “Not hungry?” “No, sir.” “A boy should be hungry in the morning,” said Father. “You go ahead and eat,” said Mother at me. “Go on now. Hurry.” I looked at the eggs. They were poison. I looked at the butter. It was poison. The milk was so white and creamy and poisonous in its pitcher, and the cereal was brown and crisp and tasty in a green dish with pink flowers on it. Poison, all of them, poison! The thought ran in my head like ants at a picnic. I caught my lip in my teeth. “Unh?” said Dad, blinking at me. You said?” “Nothing,” I said. “Except I’m not hungry.” I couldn’t say I was ill and that food made me ill. I couldn’t say that cookies, cakes, cereals and soups and vegetables had done this to me, could I? No, I had to sit, swallowing nothing, my heart beginning to pound. “Well, drink your milk at least, and go on,” said Mother. “Dad, give him money for a good lunch at school. Orange juice, meat, and milk. No candy.” She didn’t have to warn me on candy. It was worst of all the poisons. I wouldn’t touch it again, ever! I strapped my books and went to the door. “Douglas, you didn’t kiss me,” said Mom. “Oh,” I said, and shuffled to kiss her. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked. “Nothing,” I said. “’Bye. So long, Dad.” Everybody said good-bye. I walked to school, thinking deep inside, like shouting down a long, cold well. I ran down through the ravine and swung on a vine, way out; the ground dropped away, I smelled the cool morning air, sweet and high, and I screamed with laughter, and the wind threw away my thoughts. I tossed myself in a flip against the embankment and rolled down as birds whistled at me and a squirrel hopped like brown fuzz blown by the wind up around a tree trunk. Down the path the other kids fell like a small avalanche, yelling. “Ahh—eee—yah!” Pounding their chests, skipping rocks on the water, jumping their hands down to catch at crayfish. The crayfish jetted away in dusty spurts. We all laughed and joked. A girl passed by on the green wooden bridge above us. Her name was Clarisse Mellin. We all hee-hawed at her, told her to go on, go on, we didn’t want her with us, go on, go on! But my voice caught and trailed off, and I watched her going, slowly. I didn’t look away. From way off in the morning we heard the school bell ring. We scrambled up trails we’d made during many summers over the years. The grass was worn; we knew each snake hole and bump, each tree, every vine, every weed of it. After school we’d made tree huts here, high up over the shining creek, jumped in the water naked, gone on long hikes down the ravine to where it emptied lonely and abandoned into the big blue of Lake Michigan, near the tannery and the asbestos works and the docks. Now, as we panted up to school, I stopped, afraid again. “You go on ahead,” I said. The last bell tolled. The kids ran. I looked at the school with vines growing on it. I heard the voices inside, making a high, all-the-time noise. I heard little desk bells tinkle and sharp teacher voices reaching out. Poison, I thought. The teachers, too! They want me sick! They teach you how to be sicker and sicker! And—and how to enjoy being sick! “Good morning, Douglas.” I heard high-heeled shoes on the cement walk. Miss Adams, the principal, with her pince-nez and wide, pale face and close-cropped dark hair, stood behind me. “Come along in,” she said, holding my shoulder firmly. “You’re late. Come along.” She guided me, one two, one two, one two, upstairs, up the stairs to my fate…. Mr. Jordan was a plump man with thinning hair and serious green eyes and a way of rocking on his heels before his charts. Today he had a large illustration of a body with all its skin off. Exposed were green, blue, pink, and yellow veins, capillaries, muscles, tendons, organs, lungs, bones, and fatty tissues. Mr. Jordan nodded before the chart. “There’s a great similarity between cancer and normal cell reproduction. Cancer is simply a normal function gone wild. Overproduction of cellular material—” I raised my hand. “How does food—I mean—what makes the body grow?” “A good question, Douglas.” He tapped the chart. “Food, taken into the body, is broken down, assimilated, and—” I listened and I knew what Mr. Jordan was trying to do to me. My childhood was in my mind like a fossil imprint on soft shale rock. Mr. Jordan was trying to polish and smooth it away. Eventually it would all be gone, all my beliefs and imaginings. My mother changed my body with food, Mr. Jordan worked on my mind with words. So I began to draw pictures on paper, not listening. I hummed little songs, made up a language all my own. The rest of the day I heard nothing. I resisted the attack, I counteracted the poison. But then after school I passed Mrs. Singer’s store and I bought candy. I couldn’t help it. And after I ate it I wrote on the back of the wrapper: “This is the last candy I’m going to eat. Even at the Saturday matinee, when Tom Mix comes on the screen with Tony, I won’t eat candy again.” I looked at the candy bars stacked like a harvest on the shelves. Orange wrappers with sky-blue words saying “Chocolate.” Yellow and violet wrappers with little blue words on them. I felt the candy in my body, making my cells grow. Mrs. Singer sold hundreds of candy bars each day. Was she in conspiracy? Did she know what she was doing to children with them? Was she jealous of them being so young? Did she want them to grow old? I wanted to kill her! “What you doing?” Bill Arno had come up behind me while I was writing on the candy wrapper. Clarisse Mellin was with him. She looked at me with her blue eyes and said nothing. I hid the paper. “Nothing,” I said. We all walked along. We saw kids playing hopscotch and kick the can and playing mibs on the hard ground, and I turned to Bill and I said, “We won’t be allowed to do that next year, or maybe the year after.” Bill only laughed and said, “Sure, we will. Who’ll stop us?” “They will,” I said. “Who’s they?” asked Bill. “Never mind,” I said. “Just wait and see.” “Aw,” said Bill. “You’re crazy.” “You don’t understand!” I cried. “You play and run around and eat, and all the time they’re tricking you and making you think different and act different and walk different. And all of a sudden one day you’ll stop playing and have to worry!” My face was hot and my hands were clenched. I was blind with rage. Bill turned, laughing, and walked away. “Over Annie Over!” someone sang, tossing a ball over a housetop. You might go all day without breakfast or lunch, but what about supper? My stomach shouted as I slid into my chair at the supper table. I held on to my knees, looking down at them. I won’t eat, I told myself. I’ll show them. I’ll fight them. Dad pretended to be considerate. “Let him go without supper,” he said to my mother, when he saw me neglect my food. He winked at her. “He’ll eat later.” All evening long I played on the warm brick streets of town, rattling the tin cans and climbing the trees in the growing dark. Coming into the kitchen at ten o’clock, I realized it was no use. There was a note on top of the icebox which said, “Help yourself. Dad.” I opened the refrigerator, and a little cool breath breathed out against me, cold, with the smell of rimed foods on it. Inside was the wondrous half-ruin of a chicken. Members of celery were piled like cords of wood. Strawberries grew in a thicket of parsley. My hands blurred. They made motions that caused an illusion of a dozen hands. Like those pictures of Eastern goddesses they worship in temples. One hand with a tomato in it. One hand grasping a banana. A third hand seizing strawberries! A fourth, fifth, sixth hand caught in midmotion, each with a bit of cheese, olive, or radish! Half an hour later I knelt by the toilet bowl and swiftly raised the seat. Then, rapidly, I opened my mouth, and shoved a spoon back, back along my tongue, down, down along my gagging throat…. Lying in bed, I shuddered and tasted the acrid memory in my mouth, glad to be rid of the food I had so eagerly swallowed. I hated myself for my weakness. I lay trembling, empty, hungry again, but too sick, now, to eat…. I was very weak in the morning, and noticeably pale, for my mother made a comment on it. “If you’re not better by Monday,” she said, “to the doctor’s with you!” It was Saturday. The day of shouting, and no tiny little silver bells for teachers to silence it; the day when the colorless giants moved on the pale screen at the Elite movie house in the long theater dark, and children were only children, and not things growing. I saw no one. In the morning when I should have been hiking out along the North Shore Rail Line, where the hot sun simmered up from the long parallels of metal, I lolled about in terrific indecision. And by the time I got to the ravine it was already midafternoon and it was deserted; all of the kids had run downtown to see the matinee and suck lemon drops. The ravine was very alone, it looked so undisturbed and old and green, I was a little afraid of it. I had never seen it so quiet. The vines hung quietly upon the trees and the water went over the rocks and the birds sang high up. I went down the secret trail, hiding behind bushes, pausing, going on. Clarisse Mellin was crossing the bridge as I reached it. She was coming home from town with some little packages under her arm. We said hello, self-consciously. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Oh, walking around,” I said. “All alone?” “Yeah. All the other guys are downtown.” She hesitated, then said, “Can I walk with you?” “I guess so,” I said. “Come on.” We walked down through the ravine. It was humming like a big dynamo. Nothing seemed to want to move, everything was very quiet. Pink darning needles flew and bumped on air pockets, and hovered over the sparkling creek water. Clarisse’s hand bumped mine as we walked along the trail. I smelled the moist dank smell of the ravine and the soft new smell of Clarisse beside me. We came to a place where there was a cross trail. “We built a tree hut up there last year,” I said, pointing. “Where?” Clarisse stepped close to me to see where my finger was pointing. “I don’t see.” “There,” I said, my voice breaking, and pointed again. Very quietly, she put her arm around me. I was so surprised and bewildered I almost cried out. Then, trembling, her lips kissed me, and my own hands were moving to hold her and I was shaking and shouting inside myself. The silence was like a green explosion. The water bubbled on in the creek bed. I couldn’t breathe. I knew it was all over. I was lost. From this moment on, it would be a touching, an eating of foods, a learning of language and algebra and logic, a movement and an emotion, a kissing and a holding, a whirl of feeling that caught and sucked me drowning under. I knew I was lost forever now, and I didn’t care. But I did care, and I was laughing and crying all in one, and there was nothing to do about it, but hold her and love her with all my decided and rioting body and mind. I could have gone on fighting my war against Mother and Dad and school and food and things in books, but I couldn’t fight this sweetness on my lips and this warmness in my hands, and the new odor in my nostrils. “Clarisse, Clarisse,” I cried, holding her, looking over her shoulder blindly, whispering to her. “Clarisse!” The Parrot Who Met Papa (#) The kidnaping was reported all around the world, of course. It took a few days for the full significance of the news to spread from Cuba to the United States, to the Left Bank in Paris and then finally to some small good café in Pamplona where the drinks were fine and the weather, somehow, was always just right. But once the meaning of the news really hit, people were on the phone, Madrid was calling New York, New York was shouting south at Havana to verify, please verify this crazy thing. And then some woman in Venice, Italy, with a blurred voice called through, saying she was at Harry’s Bar that very instant and was destroyed, this thing that had happened was terrible, a cultural heritage was placed in immense and irrevocable danger.… Not an hour later, I got a call from a baseball pitcher-cum-novelist who had been a great friend of Papa’s and who now lived in Madrid half the year and Nairobi the rest. He was in tears, or sounded close to it. “Tell me,” he said, from halfway around the world, “what happened? What are the facts?” Well, the facts were these: Down in Havana, Cuba, about fourteen kilometers from Papa’s Finca Vigía home, there is a bar in which he used to drink. It is the one where they named a special drink for him, not the fancy one where he used to meet flashy literary lights such as K-K-Kenneth Tynan and, er, Tennessee W-Williams (as Mr. Tynan would say it). No, it is not the Floridita; it is a shirt-sleeves place with plain wooden tables, sawdust on the floor, and a big mirror like a dirty cloud behind the bar. Papa went there when there were too many tourists around the Floridita who wanted to meet Mr. Hemingway. And the thing that happened there was destined to be big news, bigger than the report of what he said to Fitzgerald about the rich, even bigger than the story of his swing at Max Eastman on that long-ago day in Charlie Scribner’s office. This news had to do with an ancient parrot. That senior bird lived in a cage right atop the bar in the Cuba Libre. He had “kept his cage” in that place for roughly twenty-nine years, which means that the old parrot had been there almost as long as Papa had lived in Cuba. And that adds up to this monumental fact: All during the time Papa had lived in Finca Vigía, he had known the parrot and had talked to him and the parrot had talked back. As the years passed, people said that Hemingway began to talk like the parrot and others said no, the parrot learned to talk like him! Papa used to line the drinks up on the counter and sit near the cage and involve that bird in the best kind of conversation you ever heard, four nights running. By the end of the second year, that parrot knew more about Hem and Thomas Wolfe and Sherwood Anderson than Gertrude Stein did. In fact, the parrot even knew who Gertrude Stein was. All you had to say was “Gertrude” and the parrot said: “Pigeons on the grass alas.” At other times, pressed, the parrot would say, “There was this old man and this boy and this boat and this sea and this big fish in the sea….” And then it would take time out to eat a cracker. Well, this fabled creature, this parrot, this odd bird, vanished, cage and all, from the Cuba Libre late one Sunday afternoon. And that’s why my phone was ringing itself off the hook. And that’s why one of the big magazines got a special State Department clearance and flew me down to Cuba to see if I could find so much as the cage, anything remaining of the bird or anyone resembling a kidnaper. They wanted a light and amiable article, with overtones, as they said. And, very honestly, I was curious. I had heard rumors of the bird. In a strange kind of way, I was concerned. I got off the jet from Mexico City and taxied straight across Havana to that strange little café-bar. I almost failed to get in the place. As I stepped through the door, a dark little man jumped up from a chair and cried, “No, no! Go away! We are closed!” He ran out to jiggle the lock on the door, showing that he really meant to shut the place down. All the tables were empty and there was no one around. He had probably just been airing out the bar when I arrived. “I’ve come about the parrot,” I said. “No, no,” he cried, his eyes looking wet. “I won’t talk. It’s too much. If I were not Catholic, I would kill myself. Poor Papa. Poor El Córdoba!” “El Córdoba?” I murmured. “That,” he said fiercely, “was the parrot’s name!” “Yes,” I said, recovering quickly. “El Córdoba. I’ve come to rescue him.” That made him stop and blink. Shadows and then sunlight went over his face and then shadows again. “Impossible! Could you? No, no. How could anyone! Who are you?” “A friend to Papa and the bird,” I said quickly. “And the more time we talk, the farther away goes the criminal. You want El Córdoba back tonight? Pour us several of Papa’s good drinks and talk.” My bluntness worked. Not two minutes later, we were drinking Papa’s special, seated in the bar near the empty place where the cage used to sit. The little man, whose name was Antonio, kept wiping that empty place and then wiping his eyes with the bar rag. As I finished the first drink and started on the second, I said: “This is no ordinary kidnaping.” “You’re telling me!” cried Antonio. “People came from all over the world to see that parrot, to talk to El Córdoba, to hear him, ah, God, speak with the voice of Papa. May his abductors sink and burn in hell, yes, hell.” “They will,” I said. “Whom do you suspect?” “Everyone. No one.” “The kidnaper,” I said, eyes shut for a moment, savoring the drink, “had to be educated, a book reader, I mean, that’s obvious, isn’t it? Anyone like that around the last few days?” “Educated. No education. Señor, there have always been strangers the last ten, the last twenty years, always asking for Papa. When Papa was here, they met him. With Papa gone, they met El Córdoba, the great one. So it was always strangers and strangers.” “But think, Antonio,” I said, touching his trembling elbow. “Not only educated, a reader, but someone in the last few days who was—how shall I put it?—odd. Strange. Someone so peculiar, muy eccèntrico, that you remember him above all others. Someone who—” “¡Madre de Dios!” cried Antonio, leaping up. His eyes stared off into memory. He seized his head as if it had just exploded. “Thank you, señor. ¡Si, si! What a creature! In the name of Christ, there was such a one yesterday! He was very small. And he spoke like this: very high—eeeee. Like a muchacha in a school play, eh? Like a canary swallowed by a witch! And he wore a blue-velvet suit with a big yellow tie.” “Yes, yes!” I had leaped up now and was almost yelling. “Go on!” “And he had a small very round face, señor, and his hair was yellow and cut across the brow like this—zitt! And his mouth small, very pink, like candy, yes? He—he was like, yes, uno muñeco, of the kind one wins at carnivals.” “Kewpie dolls!” “¡Sí! At Coney Island, yes, when I was a child, Kewpie dolls! And he was so high, you see? To my elbow. Not a midget, no— but—and how old? Blood of Christ, who can say? No lines in his face, but—thirty, forty, fifty. And on his feet he was wearing—” “Green booties!” I cried. “¿Qué?” “Shoes, boots!” “Sí.” He blinked, stunned. “But how did you know?” I exploded, “Shelley Capon!” “That is the name! And his friends with him, señor, all laughing—no, giggling. Like the nuns who play basketball in the late afternoons near the church. Oh, señor, do you think that they, that he—” “I don’t think, Antonio, I know. Shelley Capon, of all the writers in the world, hated Papa. Of course he would snatch El Córdoba. Why, wasn’t there a rumor once that the bird had memorized Papa’s last, greatest, and as-yet-not-put-down-on-paper novel?” “There was such a rumor, señor. But I do not write books, I tend bar. I bring crackers to the bird. I—” “You bring me the phone, Antonio, please.” “You know where the bird is, señor?” “I have the hunch beyond intuition, the big one. Gracias.” I dialed the Havana Libre, the biggest hotel in town. “Shelley Capon, please.” The phone buzzed and clicked. Half a million miles away, a midget boy Martian lifted the receiver and played the flute and then the bell chimes with his voice: “Capon here.” “Damned if you aren’t!” I said. And got up and ran out of the Cuba Libre bar. Racing back to Havana by taxi, I thought of Shelley as I’d seen him before. Surrounded by a storm of friends, living out of suitcases, ladling soup from other people’s plates, borrowing money from billfolds seized from your pockets right in front of you, counting the lettuce leaves with relish, leaving rabbit pellets on your rug, gone. Dear Shelley Capon. Ten minutes later, my taxi with no brakes dropped me running and spun on to some ultimate disaster beyond town. Still running, I made the lobby, paused for information, hurried upstairs, and stopped short before Shelley’s door. It pulsed in spasms like a bad heart. I put my ear to the door. The wild calls and cries from inside might have come from a flock of birds, feather-stripped in a hurricane. I felt the door. Now it seemed to tremble like a vast laundromat that had swallowed and was churning an acid-rock group and a lot of very dirty linen. Listening, my underwear began to crawl on my legs. I knocked. No answer. I touched the door. It drifted open. I stepped in upon a scene much too dreadful for Bosch to have painted. Around the pigpen living room were strewn various life-size dolls, eyes half-cracked open, cigarettes smoking in burned, limp fingers, empty Scotch glasses in hands, and all the while the radio belted them with concussions of music broadcast from some Stateside asylum. The place was sheer carnage. Not ten seconds ago, I felt, a large dirty locomotive must have plunged through here. Its victims had been hurled in all directions and now lay upside down in various parts of the room, moaning for first aid. In the midst of this hell, seated erect and proper, well dressed in velveteen jerkin, persimmon bow tie, and bottle-green booties, was, of course, Shelley Capon. Who with no surprise at all waved a drink at me and cried: “I knew that was you on the phone. I am absolutely telepathic! Welcome, Raimundo!” He always called me Raimundo. Ray was plain bread and butter. Raimundo made me a don with a breeding farm full of bulls. I let it be Raimundo. “Raimundo, sit down! No … fling yourself into an interesting position.” “Sorry,” I said in my best Dashiell Hammett manner, sharpening my chin and steeling my eyes. “No time.” I began to walk around the room among his friends Fester and Soft and Ripply and Mild Innocuous and some actor I remembered who, when asked how he would do a part in a film, had said, “I’ll play it like a doe.” I shut off the radio. That made a lot of people in the room stir: I yanked the radio’s roots out of the wall. Some people sat up. I raised a window. I threw the radio out. They all screamed as if I had thrown their mothers down an elevator shaft. The radio made a satisfying sound on the cement sidewalk below. I turned, with a beatific smile on my face. A number of people were on their feet, swaying toward me with faint menace. I pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of my pocket, handed it to someone without looking at him, and said, “Go buy a new one.” He ran out the door slowly. The door slammed. I heard him fall down the stairs as if he were after his morning shot in the arm. “All right, Shelley,” I said, “where is it?” “Where is what, dear boy?” he said, eyes wide with innocence. “You know what I mean.” I stared at the drink in his tiny hand. Which was a Papa drink, the Cuba Libre’s very own special blend of papaya, lime, lemon, and rum. As if to destroy evidence, he drank it down quickly. I walked over to three doors in a wall and touched one. “That’s a closet, dear boy.” I put my hand on the second door. “Don’t go in. You’ll be sorry what you see.” I didn’t go in. I put my hand on the third door. “Oh, dear, well, go ahead,” said Shelley petulantly. I opened the door. Beyond it was a small anteroom with a mere cot and a table near the window. On the table sat a bird cage with a shawl over it. Under the shawl I could hear the rustle of feathers and the scrape of a beak on the wires. Shelley Capon came to stand small beside me, looking in at the cage, a fresh drink in his little fingers. “What a shame you didn’t arrive at seven tonight,” he said. “Why seven?” “Why, then, Raimundo, we would have just finished our curried fowl stuffed with wild rice. I wonder, is there much white meat, or any at all, under a parrot’s feathers?” “You wouldn’t!?” I cried. I stared at him. “You would,” I answered myself. I stood for a moment longer at the door. Then, slowly, I walked across the small room and stopped by the cage with the shawl over it. I saw a single word embroidered across the top of the shawl: MOTHER. I glanced at Shelley. He shrugged and looked shyly at his boot tips. I took hold of the shawl. Shelley said, “No. Before you lift it … ask something.” “Like what?” “DiMaggio. Ask DiMaggio.” A small ten-watt bulb clicked on in my head. I nodded. I leaned near the hidden cage and whispered: “DiMaggio. 1939.” There was a sort of animal-computer pause. Beneath the word MOTHER some feathers stirred, a beak tapped the cage bars. Then a tiny voice said: “Home runs, thirty. Batting average, .381.” “I was stunned. But then I whispered: “Babe Ruth. 1927.” Again the pause, the feathers, the beak, and: “Home runs, sixty. Batting average, .356. Awk.” “My God,” I said. “My God,” echoed Shelley Capon. “That’s the parrot who met Papa, all right.” “That’s who it is.” And I lifted the shawl. I don’t know what I expected to find underneath the embroidery. Perhaps a miniature hunter in boots, bush jacket, and wide-brimmed hat. Perhaps a small, trim fisherman with a beard and turtleneck sweater perched there on a wooden slat. Something tiny, something literary, something human, something fantastic, but not really a parrot. But that’s all there was. And not a very handsome parrot, either. It looked as if it had been up all night for years; one of those disreputable birds that never preens its feathers or shines its beak. It was a kind of rusty green and black with a dull-amber snout and rings under its eyes as if it were a secret drinker. You might see it half flying, half hopping out of café-bars at three in the morning. It was the bum of the parrot world. Shelley Capon read my mind. “The effect is better,” he said, “with the shawl over the cage.” I put the shawl back over the bars. I was thinking very fast. Then I thought very slowly. I bent and whispered by the cage: “Norman Mailer.” “Couldn’t remember the alphabet,” said the voice beneath the shawl. “Gertrude Stein,” I said. “Suffered from undescended testicles,” said the voice. “My God,” I gasped. I stepped back. I stared at the covered cage. I blinked at Shelley Capon. “Do you really know what you have here, Capon?” “A gold mine, dear Raimundo!” he crowed. “A mint!” I corrected. “Endless opportunities for blackmail!” “Causes for murder!” I added. “Think!” Shelley snorted into his drink. “Think what Mailer’s publishers alone would pay to shut this bird up!” I spoke to the cage: “F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Silence. “Try ‘Scottie,’ ” said Shelley. “Ah,” said the voice inside the cage. “Good left jab but couldn’t follow through. Nice contender, but—” “Faulkner,” I said. “Batting average fair, strictly a singles hitter.” “Steinbeck!” “Finished last at end of season.” “Ezra Pound!” “Traded off to the minor leagues in 1932. ” “I think … I need … one of those drinks.” Someone put a drink in my hand. I gulped it and nodded. I shut my eyes and felt the world give one turn, then opened my eyes to look at Shelley Capon, the classic son of a bitch of all time. “There is something even more fantastic,” he said. “You’ve heard only the first half.” “’You’re lying,” I said. “What could there be?” He dimpled at me—in all the world, only Shelley Capon can dimple at you in a completely evil way. “It was like this,” he said. “You remember that Papa had trouble actually getting his stuff down on paper in those last years while he lived here? Well, he’d planned another novel after Islands in the Stream, but somehow it just never seemed to get written. “Oh, he had it in his mind, all right—the story was there and lots of people heard him mention it—but he just couldn’t seem to write it. So he would go to the Cuba Libre and drink many drinks and have long conversations with the parrot. Raimundo, what Papa was telling El Córdoba all through those long drinking nights was the story of his last book. And, in the course of time, the bird has memorized it.” “His very last book!” I said. “The final Hemingway novel of all time! Never written but recorded in the brain of a parrot! Holy Jesus!” Shelley was nodding at me with the smile of a depraved cherub. “How much you want for this bird?” “Dear, dear Raimundo.” Shelley Capon stirred his drink with his pinkie. “What makes you think the creature is for sale?” “You sold your mother once, then stole her back and sold her again under another name. Come off it, Shelley. You’re onto something big.” I brooded over the shawled cage. “How many telegrams have you sent out in the last four or five hours?” “Really! You horrify me!” “How many long-distance phone calls, reverse charges, have you made since breakfast?” Shelley Capon mourned a great sigh and pulled a crumpled telegram duplicate from his velveteen pocket. I took it and read: FRIENDS OF PAPA MEETING HAVANA TO REMINISCE OVER BIRD AND BOTTLE. WIRE BID OR BRING CHECKBOOKS AND OPEN MINDS. FIRST COME FIRST SERVED. ALL WHITE MEAT BUT CAVIAR PRICES. INTERNATIONAL PUBLICATION, BOOK, MAGAZINE, TV, FILM RIGHTS AVAILABLE. LOVE. SHELLEY YOU-KNOW-WHO. My God again, I thought, and let the telegram fall to the floor as Shelley handed me a list of names the telegram had been sent to: Time. Life. Newsweek. Scribner’s. Simon & Schuster. The New York Times. The Christian Science Monitor. The Times of London. Le Monde. Paris-Match. One of the Rockefellers. Some of the Kennedys. CBS. NBC. MGM. Warner Bros. 20th Century-Fox. And on and on and on. The list was as long as my deepening melancholy. Shelley Capon tossed an armful of answering telegrams onto the table near the cage. I leafed through them quickly. Everyone, but everyone, was in the air, right now. Jets were streaming in from all over the world. In another two hours, four, six at the most, Cuba would be swarming with agents, publishers, fools, and plain damn fools, plus counterespionage kidnapers and blonde starlets who hoped to be in front-page photographs with the bird on their shoulders. I figured I had maybe a good half-hour left in which to do something, I didn’t know what. Shelley nudged my arm. “Who sent you, dear boy? You are the very first, you know. Make a fine bid and you’re in free, maybe. I must consider other offers, of course. But it might get thick and nasty here. I begin to panic at what I’ve done. I may wish to sell cheap and flee. Because, well, think, there’s the problem of getting this bird out of the country, yes? And, simultaneously, Castro might declare the parrot a national monument or work of art, or, oh, hell, Raimundo, who did send you?” “Someone, but now no one,” I said, brooding. “I came on behalf of someone else. I’ll go away on my own. From now on, anyway, it’s just me and the bird. I’ve read Papa all my life. Now I know I came just because I had to.” “My God, an altruist!” “Sony to offend you, Shelley.” The phone rang. Shelley got it. He chatted happily for a moment, told someone to wait downstairs, hung up, and cocked an eyebrow at me: “NBC is in the lobby. They want an hour’s taped interview with El Córdoba there. They’re talking six figures.” My shoulders slumped. The phone rang. This time I picked it up, to my own surprise. Shelley cried out. But I said, “Hello. Yes?” “Señor,” said a man’s voice. “There is a Señor’ Hobwell here from Time, he says, magazine.” I could see the parrot’s face on next week’s cover, with six follow-up pages of text. “Tell him to wait.” I hung up. “Newsweek?” guessed Shelley. “The other one,” I said. “The snow was fine up in the shadow of the hills,” said the voice inside the cage under the shawl. “Shut up,” I said quietly, wearily. “Oh, shut up, damn you.” Shadows appeared in the doorway behind us. Shelley Capon’s friends were beginning to assemble and wander into the room. They gathered and I began to tremble and sweat. For some reason, I began to rise to my feet. My body was going to do something, I didn’t know what. I watched my hands. Suddenly, the right hand reached out. It knocked the cage over, snapped the wire-frame door wide, and darted in to seize the parrot. “No!” There was a great gasping roar, as if a single thunderous wave had come in on a shore. Everyone in the room seemed knocked in the stomach by my action. Everyone exhaled, took a step, began to yell, but by then I had the parrot out. I had it by the throat. “No! No!” Shelley jumped at me. I kicked him in the shins. He sat down, screaming. “Don’t anyone move!” I said and almost laughed, hearing myself use the old cliché. “You ever see a chicken killed? This parrot has a thin neck. One twist, the head comes off. Nobody move a hair.” Nobody moved. “You son of a bitch,” said Shelley Capon, on the floor. For a moment, I thought they were all going to rush me. I saw myself beaten and chased along the beach, yelling, the cannibals ringing me in and eating me, Tennessee Williams style, shoes and all. I felt sorry for my skeleton, which would be found in the main Havana plaza at dawn tomorrow. But they did not hit, pummel, or kill. As long as I had my fingers around the neck of the parrot who met Papa, I knew I could stand there forever. I wanted with all my heart, soul, and guts to wring the bird’s neck and throw its disconnected carcass into those pale and gritty faces. I wanted to stop up the past and destroy Papa’s preserved memory forever, if it was going to be played with by feebleminded children like these. But I could not, for two reasons. One dead parrot would mean one dead duck: me. And I was weeping inside for Papa. I simply could not shut off his voice transcribed here, held in my hands, still alive, like an old Edison record. I could not kill. If these ancient children had known that, they would have swarmed over me like locusts. But they didn’t know. And, I guess, it didn’t show in my face. “Stand back!” I cried. It was that beautiful last scene from The Phantom of the Opera where Lon Chaney, pursued through midnight Paris, turns upon the mob, lifts his clenched fist as if it contained an explosive, and holds the mob at bay for one terrific instant. He laughs, opens his hand to show it empty, and then is driven to his death in the river…. Only I had no intention of letting them see an empty hand. I kept it close around El Córdoba’s scrawny neck. “Clear a path to the door!” They cleared a path. “Not a move, not a breath. If anyone so much as swoons, this bird is dead forever and no rights, no movies, no photos. Shelley, bring me the cage and the shawl.” Shelley Capon edged over and brought me the cage and its cover. “Stand off!” I yelled. Everyone jumped back another foot. “Now, hear this,” I said. “After I’ve got away and have hidden out, one by one each of you will be called to have his chance to meet Papa’s friend here again and cash in on the headlines.” I was lying. I could hear the lie. I hoped they couldn’t. I spoke more quickly now, to cover the lie: “I’m going to start walking now. Look. See? I have the parrot by the neck. He’ll stay alive as long as you play ‘Simon says’ my way. Here we go, now. One, two. One, two. Halfway to the door.” I walked among them and they did not breathe. “One, two,” I said, my heart beating in my mouth. “At the door. Steady. No sudden moves. Cage in one hand. Bird in the other—” “The lions ran along the beach on the yellow sand,” said the parrot, his throat moving under my fingers. “Oh, my God,” said Shelley, crouched there by the table. Tears began to pour down his face. Maybe it wasn’t all money. Maybe some of it was Papa for him, too. He put his hands out in a beckoning, come-back gesture to me, the parrot, the cage. “Oh, God, oh, God.” He wept. “There was only the carcass of the great fish lying by the pier, its bones picked clean in the morning light,” said the parrot. “Oh,” said everyone softly. I didn’t wait to see if any more of them were weeping. I stepped out. I shut the door. I ran for the elevator. By a miracle, it was there, the operator half-asleep inside. No one tried to follow. I guess they knew it was no use. On the way down, I put the parrot inside the cage and put the shawl marked MOTHER over the cage. And the elevator moved slowly down through the years. I thought of those years ahead and where I might hide the parrot and keep him warm against any weather and feed him properly and once a day go in and talk through the shawl, and nobody ever to see him, no papers, no magazines, no cameramen, no Shelley Capon, not even Antonio from the Cuba Libre. Days might go by or weeks and sudden fears might come over me that the parrot had gone dumb. Then, in the middle of the night, I might wake and shuffle in and stand by his cage and say: “Italy, 1918 … ?” And beneath the word MOTHER, an old voice would say: “The snow drifted off the edges of the mountain in a fine white dust that winter….” “Africa, 1932.” “We got the rifles out and oiled the rifles and they were blue and fine and lay in our hands and we waited in the tall grass and smiled—” “Cuba. The Gulf Stream.” “That fish came out of the water and jumped as high as the sun. Everything I had ever thought about a fish was in that fish. Everything I had ever thought about a single leap was in that leap. All of my life was there. It was a day of sun and water and being alive. I wanted to hold it all still in my hands. I didn’t want it to go away, ever. Yet there, as the fish fell and the waters moved over it white and then green, there it went….” By that time, we were at the lobby level and the elevator doors opened and I stepped out with the cage labeled MOTHER and walked quickly across the lobby and out to a taxicab. The trickiest business—and my greatest danger—remained. I knew that by the time I got to the airport, the guards and the Castro militia would have been alerted. I wouldn’t put it past Shelley Capon to tell them that a national treasure was getting away. He might even cut Castro in on some of the Book-of-the-Month Club revenue and the movie rights. I had to improvise a plan to get through customs. I am a literary man, however, and the answer came to me quickly. I had the taxi stop long enough for me to buy some shoe polish. I began to apply the disguise to El Córdoba. I painted him black all over. “Listen,” I said, bending down to whisper into the cage as we drove across Havana. “Nevermore.” I repeated it several times to give him the idea. The sound would be new to him, because, I guessed, Papa would never have quoted a middleweight contender he had knocked out years ago. There was silence under the shawl while the word was recorded. Then, at last, it came back to me. “Nevermore,” in Papa’s old, familiar, tenor voice, “nevermore,” it said. The Burning Man (#) The rickety Ford came along a road that plowed up dust in yellow plumes which took an hour to lie back down and move no more in that special slumber that stuns the world in mid-July. Far away, the lake waited, a cool-blue gem in a hot-green lake of grass, but it was indeed still far away, and Neva and Doug were bucketing along in their barrelful of red-hot bolts with lemonade slopping around in a thermos on the back seat and deviled-ham sandwiches fermenting on Doug’s lap. Both boy and aunt sucked in hot air and talked out even hotter. “Fire-eater,” said Douglas. “I’m eating fire. Heck, I can hardly wait for that lake!” Suddenly, up ahead, there was a man by the side of the road. Shirt open to reveal his bronzed body to the waist, his hair ripened to wheat color by July, the man’s eyes burned fiery blue in a nest of sun wrinkles. He waved, dying in the heat. Neva tromped on the brake. Fierce dust clouds rose to make the man vanish. When the golden dust sifted away his hot yellow eyes glared balefully, like a cat’s, defying the weather and the burning wind. He stared at Douglas. Douglas glanced away, nervously. For you could see where the man had come across a field high with yellow grass baked and burnt by eight weeks of no rain. There was a path where the man had broken the grass and cleaved a passage to the road. The path went as far as one could see down to a dry swamp and an empty creek bed with nothing but baked hot stones in it and fried rock and melting sand. “I’ll be damned, you stopped!” cried the man, angrily. “I’ll be damned, I did,” Neva yelled back. “Where you going?” “I’ll think of someplace.” The man hopped up like a cat and swung into the rumble seat. “Get going. It’s after us! The sun, I mean, of course!” He pointed straight up. “Git! Or we’ll all go mad!” Neva stomped on the gas. The car left gravel and glided on pure white-hot dust, coming down only now and then to careen off a boulder or kiss a stone. They cut the land in half with racket. Above it, the man shouted: “Put ’er up to seventy, eighty, hell, why not ninety!” Neva gave a quick, critical look at the lion, the intruder in the back seat, to see if she could shut his jaws with a glance. They shut. And that, of course, is how Doug felt about the beast. Not a stranger, no, not hitchhiker, but intruder. In just two minutes of leaping into the red-hot car, with his jungle hair and jungle smell, he had managed to disingratiate himself with the climate, the automobile, Doug, and the honorable and perspiring aunt. Now she hunched over the wheel and nursed the car through further storms of heat and backlashes of gravel. Meanwhile, the creature in the back, with his great lion ruff of hair and mint-fresh yellow eyes, licked his lips and looked straight on at Doug in the rearview mirror. He gave a wink. Douglas tried to wink back, but somehow the lid never came down. “You ever try to figure—” yelled the man. “What?” cried Neva. “You ever try to figure,” shouted the man, leaning forward between them “—whether or not the weather is driving you crazy, or you’re crazy already?” It was a surprise of a question, which suddenly cooled them on this blast-furnace day. “I don’t quite understand—” said Neva. “Nor does anyone!” The man smelled like a lion house. His thin arms hung over and down between them, nervously tying and untying an invisible string. He moved as if there were nests of burning hair under each armpit. “Day like today, all hell breaks loose inside your head. Lucifer was born on a day like this, in a wilderness like this,” said the man. “With just fire and flame and smoke everywhere,” said the man. “And everything so hot you can’t touch it, and people not wanting to be touched,” said the man. He gave a nudge to her elbow, a nudge to the boy. They jumped a mile. “You see?” The man smiled. “Day like today, you get to thinking lots of things.” He smiled. “Ain’t this the summer when the seventeen-year locusts are supposed to come back like pure holocaust? Simple but multitudinous plagues?” “Don’t know!” Neva drove fast, staring ahead. “This is the summer. Holocaust just around the bend. I’m thinking so swift it hurts my eyeballs, cracks my head. I’m liable to explode in a fireball with just plain disconnected thought. Why—why—why—” Neva swallowed hard. Doug held his breath. Quite suddenly they were terrified. For the man simply idled on with his talk, looking at the shimmering green fire trees that burned by on both sides, sniffing the rich hot dust that flailed up around the tin car, his voice neither high nor low, but steady and calm now in describing his life: “Yes, sir, there’s more to the world than people appreciate. If there can be seventeen-year locusts, why not seventeen-year people? Ever thought of that?” “Never did,” said someone. Probably me, thought Doug, for his mouth had moved like a mouse. “Or how about twenty-four-year people, or fifty-seven-year people? I mean, we’re all so used to people growing up, marrying, having kids, we never stop to think maybe there’s other ways for people coming into the world, maybe like locusts, once in a while, who can tell, one hot day, middle of summer!” “Who can tell?” There was the mouse again. Doug’s lips trembled. “And who’s to say there ain’t genetic evil in the world?” asked the man of the sun, glaring right up at it without blinking. “What kind of evil?” asked Neva. “Genetic, ma’am. In the blood, that is to say. People born evil, growed evil, died evil, no changes all the way down the line.” “Whew!” said Douglas. “You mean people who start out mean and stay at it?” “You got the sum, boy. Why not? If there are people everyone thinks are angel-fine from their first sweet breath to their last pure declaration, why not sheer orneriness from January first to December, three hundred sixty-five days later?” “I never thought of that,” said the mouse. “Think,” said the man. “Think.” They thought for above five seconds. “Now,” said the man, squinting one eye at the cool lake five miles ahead, his other eye shut into darkness and ruminating on coal-bins of fact there, “listen. What if the intense heat, I mean the really hot hot heat of a month like this, week like this, day like today, just baked the Ornery Man right out of the river mud. Been there buried in the mud for forty-seven years, like a damn larva, waiting to be born. And he shook himself awake and looked around, full grown, and climbed out of the hot mud into the world and said, ‘I think I’ll eat me some summer.’ ” “How’s that again?” “Eat me some summer, boy, summer, ma’am. Just devour it whole. Look at them trees, ain’t they a whole dinner? Look at that field of wheat, ain’t that a feast? Them sunflowers by the road, by golly, there’s breakfast. Tarpaper on top that house, there’s lunch. And the lake, way up ahead, Jehoshaphat, that’s dinner wine, drink it all!” “I’m thirsty, all right,” said Doug. “Thirsty, hell, boy, thirst don’t begin to describe the state of a man, come to think about him, come to talk, who’s been waiting in the hot mud thirty years and is born but to die in one day! Thirst! Ye Gods! Your ignorance is complete.” “Well,” said Doug. “Well,” said the man. “Not only thirst but hunger. Hunger. Look around. Not only eat the trees and then the flowers blazing by the roads but then the white-hot panting dogs. There’s one. There’s another! And all the cats in the country. There’s two, just passed three! And then just glutton-happy begin to why, why not, begin to get around to, let me tell you, how’s this strike you, eat people? I mean—people! Fried, cooked, boiled, and parboiled people. Sunburnt beauties of people. Old men, young. Old ladies’ hats and then old ladies under their hats and then young ladies’ scarves and young ladies, and then young boys’ swim-trunks, by God, and young boys, elbows, ankles, ears, toes, and eyebrows! Eyebrows, by God, men, women, boys, ladies, dogs, fill up the menu, sharpen your teeth, lick your lips, dinner’s on!” “Wait!” someone cried. Not me, thought Doug. I said nothing. “Hold on!” someone yelled. It was Neva. He saw her knee fly up as if by intuition and down as if by finalized gumption. Stomp! went her heel on the floor. The car braked. Neva had the door open, pointing, shouting, pointing, shouting, her mouth flapping, one hand seized out to grab the man’s shirt and rip it. “Out! Get out!” “Here, ma’am?” The man was astonished. “Here, here, here, out, out, out!” “But, ma’am … !” “Out, or you’re finished, through!” cried Neva, wildly. “I got a load of Bibles in the back trunk, a pistol with a silver bullet here under the steering wheel. A box of crucifixes under the seat! A wooden stake taped to the axle, with a hammer. I got holy water in the carburetor, blessed before it boiled early this morning at three churches on the way: St. Matthew’s Catholic, the Green Town Baptist, and the Zion City High Episcopal. The steam from that will get you alone. Following us, one mile behind, and due to arrive in one minute, is the Reverend Bishop Kelly from Chicago. Up at the lake is Father Rooney from Milwaukee, and Doug, why, Doug here has in his back pocket at this minute one sprig of wolfbane and two chunks of mandrake root. Out! out! out!” “Why, ma’am,” cried the man. “I am!” And he was. He landed and fell rolling in the road. Neva banged the car into full flight. Behind, the man picked himself up and yelled, “You must be nuts. You must be crazy. Nuts. Crazy.” “I’m nuts? I’m crazy? said Neva, and hooted. “Boy!” “… nuts … crazy …” The voice faded. Douglas looked back and saw the man shaking his fist, then ripping off his shirt and hurling it to the gravel and jumping big puffs of white-hot dust out of it with his bare feet. The car exploded, rushed, raced, banged pell-mell ahead, his aunt ferociously glued to the hot wheel, until the little sweating figure of the talking man was lost in sun-drenched marshland and burning air. At last Doug exhaled: “Neva, I never heard you talk like that before.” “And never will again, Doug.” “Was what you said true?” “Not a word.” “You lied, I mean, you lied?” “I lied.” Neva blinked. “Do you think he was lying, too?” “I don’t know.” “All I know is sometimes it takes a lie to kill a lie, Doug. This time, anyway. Don’t let it become customary.” “No, ma’am.” He began to laugh. “Say the thing about mandrake root again. Say the thing about wolfbane in my pocket. Say it about a pistol with a silver bullet, say it.” She said it. They both began to laugh. Whooping and shouting, they went away in their tin-bucket-junking car over the gravel ruts and humps, her saying, him listening, eyes squeezed shut, roaring, snickering, raving. They didn’t stop laughing until they hit the water in their bathing suits and came up all smiles. The sun stood hot in the middle of the sky and they dog-paddled happily for five minutes before they began to really swim in the menthol-cool waves. Only at dusk when the sun was suddenly gone and the shadows moved out from the trees did they remember that now they had to go back down that lonely road through all the dark places and past that empty swamp to get to town. They stood by the car and looked down that long road. Doug swallowed hard. “Nothing can happen to us going home.” “Nothing.” “Jump!” They hit the seats and Neva kicked the starter like it was a dead dog and they were off. They drove along under plum-colored trees and among velvet purple hills. And nothing happened. They drove along a wide raw gravel road that was turning the color of plums and smelled the warm-cool air that was like lilacs and looked at each other, waiting. And nothing happened. Neva began at last to hum under her breath. The road was empty. And then it was not empty. Neva laughed. Douglas squinted and laughed with her. For there was a small boy, nine years old maybe, dressed in a vanilla-white summer suit, with white shoes and a white tie and his face pink and scrubbed, waiting by the side of the road. He waved. Neva braked the car. “Going in to town?” called the boy, cheerily. “Got lost. Folks at a picnic, left without me. Sure glad you came along. It’s spooky out here.” “Climb in!” The boy climbed and they were off, the boy in the back seat, and Doug and Neva up front glancing at him, laughing, and then getting quiet. The small boy kept silent for a long while behind them, sitting straight upright and clean and bright and fresh and new in his white suit. And they drove along the empty road under a sky that was dark now with a few stars and the wind getting cool. And at last the boy spoke and said something that Doug didn’t hear but he saw Neva stiffen and her face grow as pale as the ice cream from which the small boy’s suit was cut. “What?” asked Doug, glancing back. The small boy stared directly at him, not blinking, and his mouth moved all to itself as if it were separate from his face. The car’s engine missed fire and died. They were slowing to a dead stop. Doug saw Neva kicking and fiddling at the gas and the starter. But most of all he heard the small boy say, in the new and permanent silence: “Have either of you ever wondered—” The boy took a breath and finished: “—if there is such a thing as genetic evil in the world?” A Piece of Wood (#) “Sit down, young man,” said the Official. “Thanks.” The young man sat. “I’ve been hearing rumors about you,” the Official said pleasantly. “Oh, nothing much. Your nervousness. Your not getting on so well. Several months now I’ve heard about you, and I thought I’d call you in. Thought maybe you’d like your job changed. Like to go overseas, work in some other War Area? Desk job killing you off, like to get right in on the old fight?” “I don’t think so,” said the young sergeant. “What do you want?” The sergeant shrugged and looked at his hands. “To live in peace. To learn that during the night, somehow, the guns of the world had rusted, the bacteria had turned sterile in their bomb casings, the tanks had sunk like prehistoric monsters into roads suddenly made tar pits. That’s what I’d like.” “That’s what we’d all like, of course,” said the Official. “Now stop all that idealistic chatter and tell me where you’d like to be sent. You have your choice—the Western or the Northern War Zone.” The Official tapped a pink map on his desk. But the sergeant was talking at his hands, turning them over, looking at the fingers: “What would you officers do, what would we men do, what would the world do if we all woke tomorrow with the guns in flaking ruin?” The Official saw that he would have to deal carefully with the sergeant. He smiled quietly. “That’s an interesting question. I like to talk about such theories, and my answer is that there’d be mass panic. Each nation would think itself the only unarmed nation in the world, and would blame its enemies for the disaster. There’d be waves of suicide, stocks collapsing, a million tragedies.” “But after that,” the sergeant said. “After they realized it was true, that every nation was disarmed and there was nothing more to fear, if we were all clean to start over fresh and new, what then?” “They’d rearm as swiftly as possible.” “What if they could be stopped?” “Then they’d beat each other with their fists. If it got down to that. Huge armies of men with boxing gloves of steel spikes would gather at the national borders. And if you took the gloves away they’d use their fingernails and feet. And if you cut their legs off they’d spit on each other. And if you cut off their tongues and stopped their mouths with corks they’d fill the atmosphere so full of hate that mosquitoes would drop to the ground and birds would fall dead from telephone wires.” “Then you don’t think it would do any good?” the sergeant said. “Certainly not. It’d be like ripping the carapace off a turtle. Civilization would gasp and die from the shock.” The young man shook his head. “Or are you lying to yourself and me because you’ve a nice comfortable job?” “Let’s call it ninety percent cynicism, ten percent rationalizing the situation. Go put your Rust away and forget about it.” The sergeant jerked his head up. “How’d you know I had it?” he said. “Had what?” “The Rust, of course.” “What’re you talking about?” “I can do it, you know. I could start the Rust tonight if I wanted to.” The Official laughed. “You can’t be serious.” “I am. I’ve been meaning to come talk to you. I’m glad you called me in. I’ve worked on this invention for a long time. It’s been a dream of mine. It has to do with the structure of certain atoms. If you study them you find that the arrangement of atoms in steel armor is such-and-such an arrangement. I was looking for an imbalance factor. I majored in physics and metallurgy, you know. It came to me, there’s a Rust factor in the air all the time. Water vapor. I had to find a way to give steel a ‘nervous breakdown.’ Then the water vapor everywhere in the world would take over. Not on all metal, of course. Our civilization is built on steel, I wouldn’t want to destroy most buildings. I’d just eliminate guns and shells, tanks, planes, battleships. I can set the machine to work on copper and brass and aluminum, too, if necessary. I’d just walk by all of those weapons and just being near them I’d make them fall away.” The Official was bending over his desk, staring at the sergeant. “May I ask you a question?” “Yes.” “Have you ever thought you were Christ?” “I can’t say that I have. But I have considered that God was good to me to let me find what I was looking for, if that’s what you mean.” The Official reached into his breast pocket and drew out an expensive ball-point pen capped with a rifle shell. He flourished the pen and started filling in a form. “I want you to take this to Dr. Mathews this afternoon, for a complete checkup. Not that I expect anything really bad, understand. But don’t you feel you should see a doctor?” “You think I’m lying about my machine,” said the sergeant. “I’m not. It’s so small it can be hidden in this cigarette package. The effect of it extends for nine hundred miles. I could tour this country in a few days, with the machine set to a certain type of steel. The other nations couldn’t take advantage of us because I’d rust their weapons as they approach us. Then I’d fly to Europe. By this time next month the world would be free of war forever. I don’t know how I found this invention. It’s impossible. Just as impossible as the atom bomb. I’ve waited a month now, trying to think it over. I worried about what would happen if I did rip off the carapace, as you say. But now I’ve just about decided. My talk with you has helped clarify things. Nobody thought an airplane would ever fly, nobody thought an atom would ever explode, and nobody thinks that there can ever be Peace, but there will be.” “Take that paper over to Dr. Mathews, will you?” said the Official hastily. The sergeant got up. “You’re not going to assign me to any new Zone then?” “Not right away, no. I’ve changed my mind. We’ll let Mathews decide.” “I’ve decided then,” said the young man. “I’m leaving the Post within the next few minutes. I’ve a pass. Thank you very much for giving me your valuable time, sir.” “Now look here, Sergeant, don’t take things so seriously. You don’t have to leave. Nobody’s going to hurt you.” “That’s right. Because nobody would believe me. Good-bye, sir.” The sergeant opened the office door and stepped out. The door shut and the Official was alone. He stood for a moment looking at the door. He sighed. He rubbed his hands over his face. The phone rang. He answered it abstractedly. “Oh, hello, Doctor. I was just going to call you.” A pause. “Yes, I was going to send him over to you. Look, is it all right for that young man to be wandering about? It is all right? If you say so, Doctor. Probably needs a rest, a good long one. Poor boy has a delusion of rather an interesting sort. Yes, yes. It’s a shame. But that’s what a Sixteen-Year War can do to you, I suppose.” The phone voice buzzed in reply. The Official listened and nodded. “I’ll make a note on that. Just a second.” He reached for his ball-point pen. “Hold on a moment. Always mislaying things.” He patted his pocket. “Had my pen here a moment ago. Wait.” He put down the phone and searched his desk, pulling out drawers. He checked his blouse pocket again. He stopped moving. Then his hands twitched slowly into his pocket and probed down. He poked his thumb and forefinger deep and brought out a pinch of something. He sprinkled it on his desk blotter: a small filtering powder of yellow-red rust. He sat staring at it for a moment. Then he picked up the phone. “Mathews,” he said, “get off the line, quick.” There was a click of someone hanging up and then he dialed another call. “Hello, Guard Station, listen, there’s a man coming past you any minute now, you know him, name of Sergeant Hollis, stop him, shoot him down, kill him if necessary, don’t ask any questions, kill the son of a bitch, you heard me, this is the Official talking! Yes, kill him, you hear!” “But, sir,” said a bewildered voice on the other end of the line. “I can’t, I just can’t….” “What do you mean you can’t, God damn it!” “Because …” The voice faded away. You could hear the guard breathing into the phone a mile away. The Official shook the phone. “Listen to me, listen, get your gun ready!” “I can’t shoot anyone,” said the guard. The Official sank back in his chair. He sat blinking for half a minute, gasping. Out there even now—he didn’t have to look, no one had to tell him—the hangars were dusting down in soft red rust, and the airplanes were blowing away on a brown-rust wind into nothingness, and the tanks were sinking, sinking slowly into the hot asphalt roads, like dinosaurs (isn’t that what the man had said?) sinking into primordial tar pits. Trucks were blowing away into ocher puffs of smoke, their drivers dumped by the road, with only the tires left running on the highways. “Sir …” said the guard, who was seeing all this, far away. “Oh, God …” “Listen, listen!” screamed the Official. “Go after him, get him, with your hands, choke him, with your fists, beat him, use your feet, kick his ribs in, kick him to death, do anything, but get that man. I’ll be right out!” He hung up the phone. By instinct he jerked open the bottom desk drawer to get his service pistol. A pile of brown rust filled the new leather holster. He swore and leaped up. On the way out of the office he grabbed a chair. It’s wood, he thought. Good old-fashioned wood, good old-fashioned maple. He hurled it against the wall twice, and it broke. Then he seized one of the legs, clenched it hard in his fist, his face bursting red, the breath snorting in his nostrils, his mouth wide. He struck the palm of his hand with the leg of the chair, testing it. “All right, God damn it, come on!” he cried. He rushed out, yelling, and slammed the door. The Messiah (#) “We all have that special dream when we are young,” said Bishop Kelly. The others at the table murmured, nodded. “There is no Christian boy,” the Bishop continued, “who does not some night wonder: am I Him? Is this the Second Coming at long last, and am I It? What, what, oh, what, dear God, if I were Jesus? How grand!” The Priests, the Ministers, and the one lonely Rabbi laughed gently, remembering things from their own childhoods, their own wild dreams, and being great fools. “I suppose,” said the young Priest, Father Niven, “that Jewish boys imagine themselves Moses?” “No, no, my dear friend,” said Rabbi Nittler. “The Messiah! The Messiah!” More quiet laughter, from all. “Of course,” said Father Niven out of his fresh pink-and-cream face, “how stupid of me. Christ wasn’t the Messiah, was he? And your people are still waiting for Him to arrive. Strange. Oh, the ambiguities.” “And nothing more ambiguous than this.” Bishop Kelly rose to escort them all out onto a terrace which had a view of the Martian hills, the ancient Martian towns, the old highways, the rivers of dust, and Earth, sixty million miles away, shining with a clear light in this alien sky. “Did we ever in our wildest dreams,” said the Reverend Smith, “imagine that one day each of us would have a Baptist Church, a St. Mary’s Chapel, a Mount Sinai Synagogue here, here on Mars?” The answer was no, no, softly, from them all. Their quiet was interrupted by another voice which moved among them. Father Niven, as they stood at the balustrade, had tuned his transistor radio to check the hour. News was being broadcast from the small new American-Martian wilderness colony below. They listened: “—rumored near the town. This is the first Martian reported in our community this year. Citizens are urged to respect any such visitor. If—” Father Niven shut the news off. “Our elusive congregation,” sighed the Reverend Smith. “I must confess, I came to Mars not only to work with Christians, but hoping to invite one Martian to Sunday supper, to learn of his theologies, his needs.” “We are still too new to them,” said Father Lipscomb. “In another year or so I think they will understand we’re not buffalo hunters in search of pelts. Still, it is hard to keep one’s curiosity in hand. After all, our Mariner photographs indicated no life whatsoever here. Yet life there is, very mysterious and half-resembling the human.” “Half, Your Eminence?” The Rabbi mused over his coffee. “I feel they are even more human than ourselves. They have let us come in. They have hidden in the hills, coming among us only on occasion, we guess, disguised as Earthmen—” “Do you really believe they have telepathic powers, then, and hypnotic abilities which allow them to walk in our towns, fooling us with masks and visions, and none of us the wiser?” “I do so believe.” “Then this,” said the Bishop, handing around brandies and crème-de-menthes, “is a true evening of frustrations. Martians who will not reveal themselves so as to be Saved by Us the Enlightened—” Many smiles at this. “—and Second Comings of Christ delayed for several thousand years. How long must we wait, O Lord?” “As for myself,” said young Father Niven, “I never wished to be Christ, the Second Coming. I just always wanted, with all my heart, to meet Him. Ever since I was eight I have thought on that. It might well be the first reason I became a priest.” “To have the inside track just in case He ever did arrive again?” suggested the Rabbi, kindly. The young Priest grinned and nodded. The others felt the urge to reach and touch him, for he had touched some vague small sweet nerve in each. They felt immensely gentle. “With your permission, Rabbi, gentlemen,” said Bishop Kelly, raising his glass. “To the First Coming of the Messiah, or the Second Coming of Christ. May they be more than some ancient, some foolish dreams.” They drank and were quiet. The Bishop blew his nose and wiped his eyes. The rest of the evening was like many another for the Priests, the Reverends, and the Rabbi. They fell to playing cards and arguing St. Thomas Aquinas, but failed under the onslaught of Rabbi Nittler’s educated logic. They named him Jesuit, drank nightcaps, and listened to the late radio news: “—it is feared this Martian may feel trapped in our community. Anyone meeting him should turn away, so as to let the Martian pass. Curiosity seems his motive. No cause for alarm. That concludes our—” While heading for the door, the Priests, Ministers, and Rabbi discussed translations they had made into various tongues from Old and New Testaments. It was then that young Father Niven surprised them: “Did you know I was once asked to write a screenplay on the Gospels? They needed an ending for their film!” “Surely,” protested the Bishop, “there’s only one ending to Christ’s life?” “But, Your Holiness, the Four Gospels tell it with four variations. I compared. I grew excited. Why? Because I rediscovered something I had almost forgotten. The Last Supper isn’t really the Last Supper!” “Dear me, what is it then?” “Why, Your Holiness, the first of several, sir. The first of several! After the Crucifixion and Burial of Christ, did not Simon-called-Peter, with the Disciples, fish the Sea of Galilee?” “They did.” “And their nets were filled with a miracle of fish?” “They were.” “And seeing on the shore of Galilee a pale light, did they not land and approach what seemed a bed of white-hot coals on which fresh-caught fish were baking?” “Yes, ah, yes,” said the Reverend Smith. “And there beyond the glow of the soft charcoal fire, did they not sense a Spirit Presence and call out to it?” “They did.” “Getting no answer, did not Simon-called-Peter whisper again, ‘Who is there?’ And the unrecognized Ghost upon the shore of Galilee put out its hand into the firelight, and in the palm of that hand, did they not see the mark where the nail had gone in, the stigmata that would never heal? “They would have fled, but the Ghost spoke and said, ‘Take of these fish and feed thy brethren.’ And Simon-called-Peter took the fish that baked upon the white-hot coals and fed the Disciples. And Christ’s frail Ghost then said, ‘Take of my word and tell it among the nations of all the world and preach therein forgiveness of sin.’ “And then Christ left them. And, in my screenplay, I had Him walk along the shore of Galilee toward the horizon. And when anyone walks toward the horizon, he seems to ascend, yes? For all land rises at a distance. And He walked on along the shore until He was just a small mote, far away. And then they could see Him no more. “And as the sun rose upon the ancient world, all His thousand footprints that lay along the shore blew away in the dawn winds and were as nothing. “And the Disciples left the ashes of that bed of coals to scatter in sparks, and with the taste of Real and Final and True Last Supper upon their mouths, went away. And in my screenplay, I had my CAMERA drift high above to watch the Disciples move some north, some south, some to the east, to tell the world what Needed to Be Told about One Man. And their footprints, circling in all directions, like the spokes of an immense wheel, blew away out of the sand in the winds of morn. And it was a new day. THE END.” The young Priest stood in the center of his friends, cheeks fired with color, eyes shut. Suddenly he opened his eyes, as if remembering where he was: “Sorry.” “For what?” cried the Bishop, brushing his eyelids with the back of his hand, blinking rapidly. “For making me weep twice in one night? What, self-conscious in the presence of your own love for Christ? Why, you have given the Word back to me, me! who has known the Word for what seems a thousand years! You have freshened my soul, oh good young man with the heart of a boy. The eating of fish on Galilee’s shore is the True Last Supper. Bravo. You deserve to meet Him. The Second Coming, it’s only fair, must be for you!” “I am unworthy!” said Father Niven. “So are we all! But if a trade of souls were possible, I’d loan mine out on this instant to borrow yours fresh from the laundry. Another toast, gentlemen? To Father Niven! And then, good night, it’s late, good night.” The toast was drunk and all departed; the Rabbi and the Ministers down the hill to their holy places, leaving the Priests to stand a last moment at their door looking out at Mars, this strange world, and a cold wind blowing. Midnight came and then one and two, and at three in the cold deep morning of Mars, Father Niven stirred. Candles flickered in soft whispers. Leaves fluttered against his window. Suddenly he sat up in bed, half-startled by a dream of mobcries and pursuits. He listened. Far away, below, he heard the shutting of an outside door. Throwing on a robe, Father Niven went down the dim rectory stairs and through the church where a dozen candles here or there kept their own pools of light. He made the rounds of all the doors, thinking: Silly, why lock churches? What is there to steal? But still he prowled the sleeping night … … and found the front door of the church unlocked, and softly being pushed in by the wind. Shivering, he shut the door. Soft running footsteps. He spun about. The church lay empty. The candle flames leaned now this way, now that in their shrines. There was only the ancient smell of wax and incense burning, stuffs left over from all the marketplaces of time and history; other suns, and other noons. In the midst of glancing at the crucifix above the main altar, he froze. There was a sound of a single drop of water falling in the night. Slowly he turned to look at the baptistery in the back of the church. There were no candles there, yet— A pale light shone from that small recess where stood the baptismal font. “Bishop Kelly?” he called, softly. Walking slowly up the aisle, he grew very cold, and stopped because— Another drop of water had fallen, hit, dissolved away. It was like a faucet dripping somewhere. But there were no faucets. Only the baptismal font itself, into which, drop by drop, a slow liquid was falling, with three heartbeats between each sound. At some secret level, Father Niven’s heart told itself something and raced, then slowed and almost stopped. He broke into a wild perspiration. He found himself unable to move, but move he must, one foot after the other, until he reached the arched doorway of the baptistery. There was indeed a pale light within the darkness of the small place. No, not a light. A shape. A figure. The figure stood behind and beyond the baptismal font. The sound of falling water had stopped. His tongue locked in his mouth, his eyes flexed wide in a kind of madness, Father Niven felt himself struck blind. Then vision returned, and he dared cry out: “Who!” A single word, which echoed back from all around the church, which made candle flames flutter in reverberation, which stirred the dust of incense, which frightened his own heart with its swift return in saying: Who! The only light within the baptistery came from the pale garments of the figure that stood there facing him. And this light was enough to show him an incredible thing. As Father Niven watched, the figure moved. It put a pale hand out upon the baptistery air. The hand hung there as if not wanting to, a separate thing from the Ghost beyond, as if it were seized and pulled forward, resisting, by Father Niven’s dreadful and fascinated stare to reveal what lay in the center of its open white palm. There was fixed a jagged hole, a cincture from which, slowly, one by one, blood was dripping, falling away down and slowly down, into the baptismal font. The drops of blood struck the holy water, colored it, and dissolved in slow ripples. The hand remained for a stunned moment there before the Priest’s now-blind, now-seeing eyes. As if struck a terrible blow, the Priest collapsed to his knees with an outgasped cry, half of despair, half of revelation, one hand over his eyes, the other fending off the vision. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, it can’t!” It was as if some dreadful physician of dentistry had come upon him without narcotic and with one seizure entire-extracted his soul, bloodied raw, out of his body. He felt himself prized, his life yanked forth, and the roots, O God, were … deep! “No, no, no, no!” But, yes. Between the lacings of his fingers, he looked again. And the Man was there. And the dreadful bleeding palm quivered dripping upon the baptistery air. “Enough!” The palm pulled back, vanished. The Ghost stood waiting. And the face of the Spirit was good and familiar. Those strange beautiful deep and incisive eyes were as he knew they always must be. There was the gentleness of the mouth, and the paleness framed by the flowing locks of hair and beard. The Man was robed in the simplicity of garments worn upon the shores and in the wilderness near Galilee. The Priest, by a great effort of will, prevented his tears from spilling over, stopped up his agony of surprise, doubt, shock, these clumsy things which rioted within and threatened to break forth. He trembled. And then saw that the Figure, the Spirit, the Man, the Ghost, Whatever, was trembling, too. No, thought the Priest, He can’t be! Afraid? Afraid of … me? And now the Spirit shook itself with an immense agony not unlike his own, like a mirror image of his own concussion, gaped wide its mouth, shut up its own eyes, and mourned: “Oh, please, let me go.” At this the young Priest opened his eyes wider and gasped. He thought: But you’re free. No one keeps you here! And in that instant: “Yes!” cried the Vision. “You keep me! Please! Avert your gaze! The more you look the more I become this! I am not what I seem!” But, thought the Priest, I did not speak! My lips did not move! How does this Ghost know my mind? “I know all you think,” said the Vision, trembling, pale, pulling back in baptistery gloom. “Every sentence, every word. I did not mean to come. I ventured into town. Suddenly I was many things to many people. I ran. They followed. I escaped here. The door was open. I entered. And then and then—oh, and then was trapped.” No, thought the Priest. “Yes,” mourned the Ghost. “By you.” Slowly now, groaning under an even more terrible weight of revelation, the Priest grasped the edge of the font and pulled himself, swaying, to his feet. At last he dared force the question out: “You are not… what you seem?” “I am not,” said the other. “Forgive me.” I, thought the Priest, shall go mad. “Do not,” said the Ghost, “or I shall go down to madness with you.” “I can’t give you up, oh, dear God, now that you’re here, after all these years, all my dreams, don’t you see, it’s asking too much. Two thousand years, a whole race of people have waited for your return! And I, I am the one who meets you, sees you—” “You meet only your own dream. You see only your own need. Behind all this—” the figure touched its own robes and breast, “I am another thing.” “What must I do!” the Priest burst out, looking now at the heavens, now at the Ghost which shuddered at his cry. “What?” “Avert your gaze. In that moment I will be out the door and gone.” “Just—just like that?” “Please,” said the Man. The Priest drew a series of breaths, shivering. “Oh, if this moment could last for just an hour.” “Would you kill me?” “No!” “If you keep me, force me into this shape some little while longer, my death will be on your hands.” The Priest bit his knuckles, and felt a convulsion of sorrow rack his bones. “You—you are a Martian, then?” “No more. No less.” “And I have done this to you with my thoughts?” “You did not mean. When you came downstairs, your old dream seized and made me over. My palms still bleed from the wounds you gave out of your secret mind.” The Priest shook his head, dazed. “Just a moment more … wait …” He gazed steadily, hungrily, at the darkness where the Ghost stood out of the light. That face was beautiful. And, oh, those hands were loving and beyond all description. The Priest nodded, a sadness in him now as if he had within the hour come back from the true Calvary. And the hour was gone. And the coals strewn dying on the sand near Galilee. “If—if I let you go—” “You must, oh you must!” “If I let you go, will you promise—” “What?” “Will you promise to come back?” “Come back?” cried the figure in the darkness. “Once a year, that’s all I ask, come back once a year, here to this place, this font, at the same time of night—” “Come back … ?” “Promise! Oh, I must know this moment again. You don’t know how important it is! Promise, or I won’t let you go!” “I—” “Say it! Swear it!” “I promise,” said the pale Ghost in the dark. “I swear.” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/rey-bredberi/long-after-midnight/?lfrom=390579938) на ЛитРес. 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