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Innocence

Innocence

Innocence 2


  Eventually the cloistered spaces of the forest were mine to roam at an age when most children would have been denied the wilds. But I had great strength and uncanny intuition and a kind of kinship with Nature, as if the sap of the trees and the blood of the animals were in my DNA, and my mother felt more at peace when I was not in the house. The shadowed woods by day and the moonlit woods by night became as familiar to me as my own face in a mirror.

  I knew the deer, the squirrels, the birds in great variety, the wolves that appeared from—and vanished under—the graceful arcing ferns. My community was populated by feathered and furred creatures that traveled by wings or four swift feet.

  In the bosky woodlands and in the meadows that they encircled, also occasionally in our yard, I sometimes saw the Clears and the Fogs, as I came to call them. I didn’t know what they might be, but I knew intuitively that my dear mother had never seen them, because she’d never spoken of them. I never mentioned them to her, because I knew that hearing of them would distress her and cause her to worry about me even more than she already did.

  Later, I would see the Clears and Fogs in the city, too. And I gradually came to understand their nature, as I will explain later.

  Anyway, in those years, I was happy, as to one extent or another I have always been happy. The forest was not a wilderness to me, but served instead as my private garden, comforting in spite of its vastness, and endlessly mysterious.

  The more familiar that a place becomes, the more mysterious it becomes, as well, if you are alert to the truth of things. I have found this to be the case all of my life.

  Shortly after my eighth birthday, my mother would not have me in the house anymore. She could not sleep in my presence. She could not maintain an appetite, and thus lost weight. She didn’t want me nearby in the woods, either, in part because the thought of me at home in the forest reminded her that she was not welcome there in the way that I was, but also in part because of the hunter. And so I had to leave.

  I couldn’t blame her. I loved her.

  She tried hard to love me, and to an extent she did. But I was a unique burden. Although I am always happy—or at least not unhappy—I made her terribly sad. The sadness was slowly killing her.

  5

  MORE THAN EIGHTEEN YEARS LATER, IN THIS FAMILIAR yet mysterious city, came the December that changed my life.

  When I went out that night, with a backpack slung from my shoulders because I intended to partially restock my larder, I took a pair of compact LED flashlights, the first in hand, the second clipped to my belt in case the other failed. The route from my rooms to the metropolis above was for the most part dark, as are many passages in this world, underground and not, concrete and not.

  A five-foot-wide corridor led out of the hammock room for ten feet, where it appeared to terminate in a blank wall. I reached high, to the top right corner, inserted an index finger in the hole that was the only feature on that smooth surface, and pressed the latch-release button in there. The foot-thick slab pivoted silently on a concealed pair of over-under ball-bearing hinges that were set one foot from its left edge.

  The resultant opening was four feet wide. After I crossed the threshold, the massive door swung shut and latched behind me.

  Even without light, I could navigate the second corridor: eight feet straight ahead, then the curve to the left, and finally ten feet to a cunningly designed louver door. From the farther side, the door appeared to be merely the cover for a large ventilation shaft.

  In darkness, I listened, but the only things that passed between the louvers were silence and a draft as faint and cool and pure as the breath of a snowman brought to life by love and magic.

  The air carried the scent of damp concrete, the lime that had fluoresced from the walls over the decades. In this section of the city’s underworld, I never smelled the decomposing rats or the foul molds that sometimes flourished elsewhere.

  Like the pivoting concrete wall, the louver door featured a hidden lock release. It closed automatically behind me.

  I switched on the flashlight, and a storm drain formed out of the darkness, as if the blade of light carved it from bedrock. The great cylindrical concrete tunnel appeared sufficiently large to spare the world from a repeat of Noah’s flood.

  On occasion, maintenance teams in electric vehicles the size of pickup trucks passed through primary drains like this. At the moment, however, I was alone. Over the years, I had seldom glimpsed such crews at a distance, and more seldom still had I needed to flee from them to avoid being seen.

  I seemed almost to have had cast upon me a spell of solitude. When I traveled below or above ground, people usually turned away from me and I from them in the moment before they might have seen me.

  Otherwise, I would have been murdered long ago.

  The most recent major rainstorm had been in late October. The tunnel bored into dryness, the floor littered with the small things—plastic bags, empty beer and soda cans, fast-food containers, cups from Starbucks, a knitted glove, a baby’s shoe, a sparkling fragment of costume jewelry—that had settled out of the flow as the last of the runoff withered away.

  The amount of debris was not great. I could have walked for miles without stepping on anything. Raised three feet off the floor, however, along both sides of the drain, were maintenance walkways where the surging water rarely deposited trash.

  Periodically I passed other louver panels that were nothing more than they appeared to be, and iron-rung ladders that led up to service traps in the ceiling, and the mouths of smaller tributary pipes that, during a storm, fed water to this drain.

  In this subterranean maze, earlier drains than this one were built of brick or stone, or concrete blocks. They possessed greater charm than more recent constructions, for they were the work of masons who were also proud craftsmen.

  According to metropolitan lore, one crew of masons had been secretly in the employ of a crime boss of that distant era, and they had walled up several of his enemies, some dead but others living. I had never seen one of the small crosses that were supposedly carved into bricks to mark those tombs, nor had I seen any skeletal fingers in the gaps of mortar between stones, like once-questing but long-fossilized pale roots. Perhaps such stories were not true, just urban legends, though I was well aware of how inhumane humanity can be.

  When I was halfway to the first intersection of major drains, I spotted a familiar glowing silver-white mist in the distance, one of the Fogs. A coherent and sinuous stream, it swam toward me as if the air through which it moved were water and it were a luminous eel.

  I stopped to watch, always curious about this phenomenon and about the other that I called the Clears. In my experience, I had no reason to be afraid, but I admit to feeling uneasy.

  Unlike a tendril of genuine fog or an exhalation of steam from a vent, this apparition didn’t feather away at the edges or change shape according to the influence of currents in the air. Instead it serpentined toward me, perhaps seven or eight feet in length and a foot in diameter, and as it passed me, it halted and stood on end for a moment, writhing in the center of the tunnel, as if it were a cobra enchanted by the music of a flute. Thereafter it went horizontal once more and shimmered away, a slither of silvery radiance diminishing to a point, and then gone.

  I had seen the Fogs and Clears all of my life. I hoped one day to know for certain what they were and what they meant, although I suspected that I might never be enlightened. Or if I discovered the truth of them, there might be a high price to pay for that knowledge.

  6

  “YOU’RE TOO HIGH A PRICE TO PAY,” MY MOTHER declared on the afternoon when she sent me away. “I’ve lived by my own rules, and I expected a cost, but not this. Not you.”

  Always as lovely as any woman in any magazine, as any TV star of whom millions were enamored, she had lately looked thin and drawn. Even the evident weariness and the crescents of darkness like fading bruises around her eyes did not detract from her appearance. In fact, they suggeste
d that she was tenderhearted and haunted by some terrible loss, that her pain, like the pain endured by a martyr, was beautiful, which then made her face yet more beautiful than it had been before.

  She sat at the kitchen table with the shiny chrome legs and the red Formica top. Near at hand were her medications and her whiskey, which she said was just another medication.

  The whiskey seemed to be her best medicine, if you asked me, because at worst it made her sad, but sometimes it made her laugh or just lie down and sleep. The pills, on the other hand, and the powder that she sometimes inhaled, could inspire unpredictable moods in which she cried a lot or raged and threw things, or hurt herself a little on purpose.

  Her graceful hands transformed everything they touched into elegant objects: the plain glass of Scotch glimmering like cut crystal as she repeatedly traced one fingertip around its whiskey-wet rim, the slim cigarette like a magic wand from which smoke rose as if to signify wishes granted.

  I had not been invited to sit down; and so I stood across the table from her. I made no attempt to approach her. Long ago she had sometimes cuddled with me. Eventually, the most she could tolerate was an occasional touch, smoothing the hair back from my brow, laying one hand over mine for a moment. During the past few months, even a fleeting touch was more than she could endure.

  Because I understood the pain that I caused her, the very sight of me an offense, I was anguished, as well. She could have aborted me, but she didn’t. She had given birth to me. And when she saw what she had brought into the world … even then she defended me against the midwife who would have smothered me. I could not but love her and wish that she could love a thing like me.

  Beyond the window at her back, the October sky lowered gray and bleak. Autumn had stripped most of the foliage from an old sycamore, but in the fitful wind, the remaining leaves shivered like brown bats about to fling themselves into flight. This wasn’t a day for leaving home, or a world in which to be alone.

  She had told me to put on my hooded jacket, and I had done so. She had prepared for me a backpack of food and first-aid items, and I had strapped it on.

  Now Mother indicated a wad of cash on the table. “Take that—for what little good it’ll do you. It’s stolen, but you didn’t steal it. I do all the stealing in this family. To you, it’s just a gift, and clean.”

  I knew she never lacked for money. I took the gift and stuffed it in a pocket of my jeans.

  The tears that had been pent up in her eyes spilled now, but she did not make a single sound of grief. I sensed that she had been rehearsing this scene for a long time, intent on seeing it through without allowing me a chance to improvise a change to the script that she had written.

  My vision blurred, and I tried to express my love for her and my regret that I caused her such despair, but the few words that escaped me were distorted, pathetic. I was physically and emotionally strong for a mere boy of eight, and wiser than a child, but still a child if only chronologically.

  After crushing her cigarette in an ashtray, she wet the fingers of both hands with the condensation on the glass of iced Scotch. She closed her eyes, pressed her fingertips to her eyelids, and took a few long, deep breaths.

  My heart felt swollen, pressing against breastbone and ribs and spine, so it seemed that it would be punctured.

  When she looked at me again, she said, “Live by night, if you can stay alive at all. Keep the hood up. Keep your head down. Hide your face. A mask will draw attention, but bandages might work. Above all, never let them see your eyes. Those eyes will betray you in an instant.”

  “I’ll be okay,” I assured her.

  “You will not be okay,” she said sharply. “And you shouldn’t delude yourself into thinking that you will.”

  I nodded.

  After draining half the glass of whiskey in a long swallow, she said, “I wouldn’t send you away if it hadn’t been for the hunter.”

  The hunter had seen me in the woods that morning. I ran, and he pursued. He shot at me more than once and missed by inches.

  “He’ll be back,” Mother said. “He’ll be back again and again and again until he finds you. He’ll never leave those woods for good until you’re dead. And then I’ll be dragged into it. They’ll want to know about me, every little thing about me, and I damn well can’t afford that kind of scrutiny.”

  “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

  She shook her head. Whether she meant that an apology wasn’t necessary or that it was inadequate, I can’t say. She picked up the pack of cigarettes and extracted one.

  I already wore knitted gloves, for my hands might also betray me to others. I pulled up the hood of my jacket.

  At the door, as I put my hand on the knob, I heard Mother say, “I lied, Addison.”

  I turned to look at her.

  Her elegant hands were trembling so violently that she could not match the cigarette to the flame of the butane lighter. She dropped the lighter and threw the cigarette aside.

  “I lied when I said I wouldn’t send you away if it wasn’t for the hunter. I’d send you away no matter what, hunter or no hunter. I can’t stand this. Not anymore. I’m a selfish bitch.”

  “You aren’t,” I said, taking a step toward her. “You’re scared, that’s all. Scared not just of me but of … of so many things.”

  Then she was beautiful in a different way, like some pagan goddess of storms, highly charged and full of wrath. “You just shut up and believe what you’re told, boy. I’m selfish and vain and greedy and worse, and I like me that way. I thrive the way I am.”

  “No, you’re not those things, you’re—”

  “You shut your freakin’ mouth, you just SHUT UP! You don’t know me better than I know myself. I am what I am, and there’s nothing here for you, never was and never will be. You go and live however you can, in farther woods or wherever, and don’t you dare think of coming back here because there’s nothing here for you, nothing but death here for you. Now get out!”

  She threw the Scotch glass at me, but I’m sure she didn’t mean to hit me. Her aim was too wide, and the glass shattered against the refrigerator.

  Every moment that I lingered was another wound to her. Nothing I could say or do would help her. Life is hard in a world gone wrong.

  Weeping as bitterly as I had ever wept—or ever would—I left the house and didn’t look back. I grieved, although not because of either my condition or my lean prospects. I grieved for her because I knew that she didn’t hate me, that she hated only herself. She despised herself not for bringing me into the world in the first place, more than eight years earlier, but for turning me out into it now.

  Behind the low overcast, the day waned. The clouds that had been smooth and gray earlier were everywhere coarse and in places kettle-black.

  As I crossed the yard, the wind made dead leaves caper at my feet, in the way that small animals, familiars to a witch, might dance around she whom they served.

  I entered the forest, confident that the hunter was gone for the time being. His horror had been greater than his rage; he would not linger with night coming but would return with the bright of day.

  As soon as I was sure that shadows hid me, I stopped and turned and leaned back against a tree. I waited until I had no more tears, until my vision cleared.

  This would be the last I saw of the house in which I was born and thus far raised. I wanted to watch the twilight begin to harden into darkness around those walls, to see lamplight bloom in the windows.

  On those days when the sight of me had most troubled Mother, I had roamed the woods until dusk and had either slept in the yard or, on cold nights, in a most comfortable sleeping bag in the ramshackle detached garage. She always left a small hamper of food for me on the front seat of her Ford, and when banished I ate dinner at twilight, watching the house from a distance, because it pleased me so much to see the windows suddenly blush with warm light and to know that, in my absence, she must be at peace.

  Now agai
n, as the black of a starless night mantled the small house, as the wind died with the day and a hush settled over the woods, light came to the windows. Those glowing panes reliably evoked in me a most satisfying sense of home and safety and comfort. When I was welcome inside, however, the quality of the same light, seen from within, was not as golden and as stirring as when seen from without.

  I should have left then, should have followed the narrow dirt track out to the distant county blacktop, but I delayed. At first, I hoped to see her pass a window, to get one last glimpse of this woman to whom I owed my existence. When an hour passed, then two, I admitted to myself that in truth I didn’t know what to do, where to go, that I was lost here at the edge of the woods as I had never been lost far deeper in the wilderness.

  The front door opened, the subtle protest of the hinges carrying clearly to me in the stillness, and my mother stepped onto the porch, backlighted, a mere silhouette. I thought that she might call out to me, hoping I was still nearby, that she might say she loved me more than she feared me and that she’d had second thoughts about sending me away.

  But then I saw the shotgun. The pistol-grip pump-action 12-gauge was always loaded in anticipation of unwelcome visitors whom she never named; she called the weapon her insurance policy. She was not holding it casually, but in both hands and at the ready, the muzzle toward the porch ceiling, as she surveyed the night. I assumed she suspected me of lingering and that with this display she intended to convince me that my banishment was final.

  I felt ashamed of myself for not honoring her wishes without delay. Yet when she returned to the house and closed the door, I remained in the perimeter of the forest, still unable to make myself set out upon my journey.

  Perhaps half an hour passed before the shotgun roared. Even muffled by the walls of the house, the blast was loud in the quiet of the mountain.

  At first I thought that someone must have forced his way through the back door or through a window beyond my line of sight, because Mother often spoke of enemies and of her determination to live where they could never find her. I thrashed through the low brush, into the yard, and ran halfway to the house before I realized that no intruder lay wounded or dead in there, no enemy but her worst one, which was herself.