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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
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Without hesitation, she said, “I’d rather slit my throat.”
Goddard pushed a button on the raised tailgate of the Mercedes, and stepped out of the way as it closed automatically. “I’d shoot you for your insolence, but you’ll suffer worse if I just leave you to a less swift fate. You’ll wish that I’d shot you, that nothing worse had happened to you than being tortured as even now the fools are torturing your Simon. Tell me, little girl, why does it disgust you to be touched? Is it perhaps because when you were much littler, your daddy diddled you?”
“Ah, there it is,” she said, “the fabled wit and charm.”
He gripped the pistol in both hands, and for a moment, I thought he would kill us. But after a silence full of menace, he said, “Both of you stay together and move back past the Land Rover, along the driver’s side, and then twenty feet behind it.”
“We aren’t going to rush you,” she assured him. “I believe what you’ve told me. Poor Simon’s beyond saving now. You have nothing we want.”
“Move back anyway.”
We did as he ordered, and watched him drive away into the storm. The tires of the Mercedes cast up pale clouds of powder, exhaust fumes smoked the night, and the brake lights briefly made of the clouds and fumes a blood mist before the SUV turned right into the cross street and out of sight.
Gwyneth started toward the Land Rover, but I said, “Wait,” and when she turned to me, I stepped back to make absolutely sure that she could not see anything of my face. “Father told me never to forget the moth.”
“What moth and what about it?”
“He said, ‘The flame delights the moth before the wings burn.’ ”
She was as shadowed to me as I to her, a girl shape, dark in the night. “Is there more?”
“Eighteen years ago, my first night in the city, the night you were born, I saw a marionette in the window of an antique-toy store in this open-air shopping mall along the river. There was something strange about it.”
“Odds are that’s one I’ve found and destroyed.”
“You’ve made yourself up to resemble it.”
“To somewhat resemble it,” she acknowledged.
“The Paladine marionettes? Six of them?”
“It’s cold out here. I’ll explain in the Rover.”
“Tell me now. Why would you make yourself up to resemble that … that thing?”
I could see that she tilted her head to look up into the sky, and when she lowered it, she repeated what she had said to me once before. “Everything now depends on mutual trust, Addison Goodheart.”
“I just need to know,” I said. “I don’t distrust you.”
“Then get in the Rover with me or go. There can be no third choice.”
The night, the snow, the girl, the hope for a future, the fear of unending loneliness …
Into my silence, she said, “I’m not a flame, you’re not a moth.”
“I am not a moth,” I said, “but you shine brighter than any light I’ve ever known.”
“This is a night of change, Addison. I see that now. And we have little time to do what needs to be done. There is no third choice for you.”
She returned to the Land Rover, got behind the wheel, and closed the driver’s door. I followed her.
IN ORDER THAT YOU MAY UNDERSTAND TIMES PAST and how they were, you need to know that my mother admitted that she often considered infanticide. During my first three years of life, on five occasions, she came within a moment of murdering me.
I remember a summer night, weeks before my mother banished me, when whiskey in a squat glass with a yellow rim, white powder inhaled through a silver straw, and two pills of some kind mellowed her into a maternal mood. She insisted that she, with more Scotch over ice, and I, with a glass of orange juice, should sit together in the pair of bentwood rockers on the front porch, for what she called “a little quality time.”
Seldom did she want to talk at any length, and more seldom still did we sit together for the purpose of companionship. I knew that her tenderness was genuine, the truest of her qualities, and although she had flushed it to the surface of her heart with powder, pills, and whiskey, I was no less happy to sit with her than I would have been if this expression of affection had come to her naturally, as now and then it did.
Even before we settled down, we moved the rockers from the porch to the front yard, because we both marveled at the vast twinkling arc above us. A greater quantity of stars pierced the black sky than I had ever seen before, as though the lamplighter of the galaxy had walked the spaceways overnight and rekindled all the suns that had burnt out during the last thousand millennia. As we sat leaning back, faces tipped toward the heavens, I saw many things figured in the stars, all kinds of wonders in addition to the named constellations, and I could recall no happier time on the mountain than that hour bathed in starshine.
For the first and last time, Mother spoke of her childhood. Her parents had been university professors, one of literature, the other of psychology, and I supposed that was where she had gotten her love of books. She said that she had grown up wanting nothing material, but she had grown up nonetheless in desperate need. I asked her what she needed, if maybe it was love, and she said she could have used some love, for sure, but the desperate need was for something else. I asked what that might be, but she didn’t answer me. When my mother chose not to answer, the only safe course was to honor her reticence.
She recalled a few of the happier experiences of her youth, and her little stories were fun to hear, though they would have been more enjoyable if the tone in which she told them had not been melancholy. In spite of the felicitous moments that she remembered, Mother seemed to wish that she’d never had a childhood, perhaps because all delight was fleeting and because the promise of one day was not fulfilled even just until the next.
As we sat there on the mountain, the plenitude of pure-white stars seemed fixed in their positions, although of course all of them—and Earth, as well—were moving ever outward toward a void at terrifying velocities. I realize in hindsight that Mother and I, in the bentwood rockers, likewise seemed to be going nowhere at the moment, though in reality we, too, were speeding forward aboard the train of time, on different journeys, as would become clear within weeks.
When she proceeded from stories of her childhood to recounting the five times when she had nearly murdered me during my first three years, incidents of which I had no memory, a faint note of anguish underlaid her melancholy. Otherwise nothing changed in our posture, demeanor, or attitudes toward each other. The episode was not fraught with strongly expressed feelings, and there were neither apologies nor accusations. In her former life of robbery and other crimes, she had succeeded only at the cost of discarding all morals and also the better emotions that came coupled with them, and she couldn’t be expected easily to regain sentiments that she had discarded with such finality. And I could not justify anger, because I knew I was a burden to her, because she tolerated and even nurtured me as best she could even though I disgusted and frightened her, and because she had saved me from the midwife.
In retrospect I understand that, there under the sea of stars, when she revealed the five times that she had nearly murdered me, she wanted not merely to relieve her guilt by acknowledgment of it. More than that, she wanted me to be her confessor, to bear witness to her contrition, and to give her absolution. I was six months old when she determined to drown me in my bathwater, but though she could push me under and watch the bubbles streaming from my nose, she couldn’t bear to hold me down long enough to kill me. On the ten-month anniversary of my birth, she felt certain she could smother me with the birthing blanket that the midwife would have used, but she threw it in the fireplace and burned it instead. When I was fourteen months, she spent two hours obsessively sharpening a kitchen knife and then put it to my throat—though she couldn’t make the fatal cut. Six months thereafter, an overdose of the drugs that she called her medicines seemed sufficiently
merciful so that she might follow through with the plan, and though she mixed the lethal cocktail with apple juice and gave it to me in a nippled bottle, she snatched it away from me when I began to suck. She said that I was nearly three when she led me into the woods, going far enough from our little house to be sure that I would not find my way home, and there she intended to leave me to the mercy of the various predators that prowled those forested mountains and valleys. She told me to sit down in a small clearing and wait for her, though she had no intention of returning, but just then two wolves, lantern-eyed in the green shadows, appeared from among the surrounding ferns. In terror and regret, she snatched me up and ran with me to the house, and after much whiskey and some powder, she reconciled herself to the fact that she was not capable of infanticide.
She didn’t say that she was sorry, but sorrow like a river ran beneath her words. Although she wanted me to grant her absolution, I was not then—nor am I now—ordained with such a power. I could only say to her, “I love you, Momma, and I always will.”
We sat there in the yard, in the rocking chairs, for a while longer. I couldn’t say with certainty if it was ten minutes or an hour. We sat in silence, and the stars that crowned the night seemed to descend around us, until the house and the woods and the lane that connected us to the outer world all disappeared as if behind a veil, and a great host of diamond-white stars sparkled above and to every side of us, an encapsulating dome of stars under which we were safe.
PREVIOUSLY, GWYNETH HAD SEEMED TO TURN aimlessly from street to street when in fact she had been guided by a purpose; but now she was indeed making her way by whim and notion.
The city appeared less real than before, fading into falling snow not as though shrouds were being cast upon it, but as if it were retreating. The high-rises immediately around us stood their ground as always, but those that I knew to be a block away looked as though they had moved an additional block. Those buildings at any greater distance were pale shapes, their glowing windows like befogged running lights, as if they were enormous ships long docked but now cast off and setting sail swiftly away.
She said, “Charles Paladine was a much-hailed artist. He painted what he sometimes called abstracted abstracts, and though he said such things and even sillier stuff, no one in the arts community laughed at him. In fact, he was exceedingly well reviewed and, by the age of twenty-eight, he sold out every show, whether here, in New York, or London, and Goddard Galleries represented him exclusively. He went from triumph to triumph. He was said to be the next Jackson Pollock, the next Robert Rauschenberg, the next Andy Warhol, all rolled into one modern master. Then Paladine did something peculiar that endangered his reputation. He stopped painting abstracts and became obsessed with realistic scenes featuring marionettes.”
I said, “Black tuxedo, black shirt, white tie, top hat.”
“Yes, that one, but also others—men, women, and children. The scenes were exotic, moody and disturbing, sometimes featuring several marionettes and sometimes only two. The marionette you mean, the one in the antique-toy store, was often the most prominently featured, but in paintings where other marionettes were the focus, the one in the tuxedo always at least lurked in the background, half shrouded by one thing or another, or in shadow, but always there. The critics who praised Paladine’s abstracts were puzzled by his new direction. They had proclaimed him a genius for so long that they couldn’t at first be harshly critical. But their positive reviews weren’t quite as adoring as before, and some of them openly lamented that he had abandoned abstracts.”
“I’ve never understood abstract art,” I admitted.
“Sometimes I think no one does, but they have to pretend or be considered uncool and unsophisticated. My father liked to quote the critic Paul Johnson, who once referred to Jackson Pollock’s work as ‘inspired linoleum.’ Daddy deeply disliked the marionette period of Paladine’s career, but he said that at least the artist had been putting something recognizable on the canvas instead of the blobs of nothing and nihilistic scratching that had made him rich.”
She drove around a city plow that moved too slow to please her, and coming the opposite direction was a second plow. She maneuvered fast between them in a center lane that was as yet uncleared, and both drivers gave her a blast of their horns in disapproval.
“What happens if a policeman pulls you over?” I asked.
“Won’t happen. Anyway, Paladine sold his marionette paintings, but at a lower price—until he killed his wife and two children, a boy of ten and a girl of twelve. In some of the paintings, he’d used their faces as the faces of the marionettes. When they were dead, he beheaded them—”
“I don’t like these kinds of stories.”
“It doesn’t exactly bring a smile to my face, either. Paladine beheaded and dismembered his wife and children. Then he sewed their heads and limbs back on, though loosely, with coarse black thread. He painted their faces white, added black details, and drew bright spots of rouge on their cheeks.”
With cloaks and robes and cerements of white whirling and billowing and swooning in every quarter, the city looked as if it must be populated by more ghosts than living people, and all those spirits were agitated in their haunting.
I said, “Did he ever explain himself? In court, I mean?”
“No need for either a trial or an asylum. After he finished with his family, Paladine painted his own face like that of the marionette you saw in the shop window. Then he went to the roof of his four-story house, right here in the finest neighborhood in the city, and threw himself into the street.”
I shuddered. “Why?”
“We’ll never know why.”
“Where do the real marionettes come into this?”
“Police found the six of them in Paladine’s studio, which was there in his home. They were identical, like the one you described. He had carved them from cubes of yew wood and crafted their joints and painted them himself. Do you know the yew tree, Addison?”
“No. I’ve not had much experience of trees since I was eight.”
“The yew is the graveyard tree, symbol of sorrow and death.”
“What happened to the six?”
“Oh, they were sold to collectors. His paintings of marionettes soared in price—I won’t say ‘value’—following the murders and the suicide. Many Paladine collectors no longer wanted his work from that period, but certain … enthusiasts purchased multiple paintings. And each of the six hand-carved marionettes brought a serious price when Edmund Goddard put them up at auction.”
I said, “All this happened before you were born.”
“Yes. Before you came to the city.”
“And then, when you turned thirteen, you used the marionette as the inspiration for your Goth look. Why?”
“I happened to see photographs of it in a magazine article.”
“Yes, but why make yourself like it?”
Instead of answering the question, she said, “As you heard me tell Goddard, through surrogates I’ve tracked down and purchased four of the six. I personally oversaw the burning of them.”
“Are you going to buy and destroy the other two?”
“I haven’t known where they are. Which greatly worried me.”
We arrived at the traffic roundabout in Washington Square, where atop a plinth, the first president and legendary warrior sat on his horse, his stone face solemn, as though he issued a challenge to the city, if not to the world, a call to rise to his vision of truth and liberty and honor. Three Clears in hospital whites stood around the statue, looking for whatever it is they seek, waiting for whatever it is they anticipate.
Gwyneth drove three-quarters of the way around the circle before taking one of the avenues that radiated from it. A first-pass plow had cast the snow from the street onto parked cars, which by morning would be so buried that they would look like a series of igloos along the curb.
Throughout these two nights together,
I had feared that if I pressured her too much to reveal her secrets, I would trigger her social phobia, that she would retreat from me or even terminate our friendship. But now I knew that her life and mine shared points of intersection long before we met, beginning in fact on the night she was born. In light of that puzzling discovery, I resolved to press her a bit more insistently.
“Why are you worried about the last two marionettes?”
“I’m not as worried as I was. We have an appointment at one o’clock. We can’t be late.”
“Appointment with whom?”
I returned to the more essential matter: “Why are you worried about the marionettes?”
She hesitated but did not resort again to silence. “Over time, after to some extent I adopted their image, I gradually came to realize … I’d made them aware of me.”
“Aware of you?”
“I know what I feel, and I know it’s true. But you don’t have to think it makes sense, that’s okay.”
Perhaps right then was the moment to tell her about the Fogs, the Clears, the music box with mismatched dancers, and my conviction that the marionette in the shop window had been aware of me, too. I almost followed that impulse, but then I said instead, “What is there to fear from toys?”
“They were never toys.”
“All right. But what is there to fear from puppets?”
“I don’t know what, and I don’t want to find out.”
The wind found its strength again and hurled the snow at us so furiously that the flakes, smaller now, ticked faintly against the windshield, as if by virtue of their numbers and persistence, they would pit the glass and eventually dissolve it, so that the storm could claim the interior of the Rover and us, as it had claimed the city’s streets.
A thought occurred to me, and I shared it with her. “Earlier, when we were having dinner. The rapping. In the attic.”