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Innocence

Innocence

Innocence 23


  We assured him that the blindness would be temporary. Although we couldn’t know if that was true, his eyes were without wounds, and clear. We got him within a few feet of the entrance to the hospital and told him that we couldn’t go inside with him, though we didn’t explain why. “The doors are in front of you,” Father said. “They’re automatic. Just two steps, they’ll open, you’re inside where someone can help you.” En route, the victim had asked our names, and we’d avoided giving them. Now he surprised me by reaching out and touching my face, insisting that he must know what his two Samaritans looked like. A ski mask on a June night would have drawn attention to us; we relied on light jackets with deep hoods and, until called to this task, on discretion. No sooner had his fingers begun to trace my features than he snatched his hand away. Because his face was bruised, bloodied, badly distorted by swelling, I couldn’t easily interpret the nuances of his expression, though it was one kind of horror or another. Without a word, he stumbled away, the pneumatic doors hissed open, he staggered inside, and we sprinted into the night as if we were his assailants, not his rescuers.

  Several weeks later, reading the newspaper after midnight in the central library, we came upon a story about a mugging victim who was searching for two men who had assisted him. We recognized him only because the story included two pictures—one taken post-recovery that meant nothing to us, the other taken in the hospital by a police officer. He had regained his sight. His name was Robert Pattica, and he hoped to find us and reward us for our kindness. We neither wanted nor needed a reward. Considering that Mr. Pattica had touched my face and therefore knew something of my difference, we couldn’t help but doubt that his motives were as he claimed.

  The most interesting thing in the article was what Mr. Pattica said about fireflies. When he touched my face, though blind, he saw fireflies as he remembered them from his youth in farm country, and though they were familiar, they were also strange, because he thought of them in a way he never had before; they seemed to him like tiny airships sailing silently through the dark. The vision had been so entrancing that he couldn’t get it out of his mind, and he was in the process of selling his home in the city, changing careers, and moving back to the town where he had been raised, where there were fireflies and wildlife aplenty, which he hadn’t known he missed until now.

  Father and I didn’t know what to make of that.

  We were certain that, if Mr. Pattica had seen my face, he would have either fled in terror or, in spite of his injuries, attacked me. We endured too much over the years to believe that, upon revealing ourselves, we would be embraced. The only abovegrounder who had been kind to Father was the friend who’d given him a key to the food bank, and even that individual found it difficult to meet with him more than once every year—and briefly—to confirm that he remained well.

  But what about the fireflies? How could Mr. Pattica have seen the fireflies to which I had stood witness earlier that night, and how could he have arrived at the same simile that had occurred to me—tiny airships in the dark? We could conclude only that the blows he had taken to the head had not only temporarily blinded him but had also conferred upon him an equally temporary clairvoyance.

  We were fortunate because his brief psychic vision distracted him from what his fingertips could have told him about my face.

  Of course we were aware that temporary clairvoyance was a lame and unlikely explanation. The ordering of this world, however, is so abstruse, so deep and complex, most explanations that people embrace to make sense of moments of strange experience are inadequate. Our very existence as thinking creatures is an astonishment that can’t be solved. Every human cell, with its thousands of protein chains, is more complex than a 747 or the largest cruise ship, in fact more complex than the two combined. All life on Earth, in its extravagant variety, offers itself for study, but though we probe to ever deeper layers of its structure, the meaning eludes us.

  There is no end of wonders and mysteries: fireflies and music boxes, the stars that outnumber all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world, pinhead eggs that become caterpillars that dissolve into genetic soup from which arise butterflies, that some hearts are dark and others full of light.

  58

  AT 1:40 IN THE MORNING, GWYNETH PARKED AT THE curb on the south side of the cathedral complex, steps from the break in the compound wall that served the residence of the archbishop.

  “Here?”

  “Yes.”

  “What are we doing here?” I asked.

  “Visiting.”

  She turned, reached over the console, groped for something on the floor behind her seat, and snared a laundry bag with a drawstring closure.

  “What’s that for?” I asked.

  “Convenience.”

  The frozen and crumbling sky, the countless shoals of crystals swimming down the night, the street a quiet sea of white …

  We climbed a snowbank compacted by a city plow, forged across a buried sidewalk, and disturbed the pristine white coverlets on the steps leading up to a much broader doorstep under a columned portico.

  When she took from a pocket the key on the stretchy coil of green plastic, I said, “Not really?”

  “What?”

  “This isn’t the place I was expecting.”

  “What place were you expecting?”

  “I don’t know. Just not this.”

  “Well, this is the place,” she said.

  “Wow. We should take off our boots.”

  “We didn’t take them off when we went into Simon’s place.”

  “It was just a bungalow, there was an urgency to the moment.”

  “There’s an urgency to this moment,” she said, “and who’s to say this place is more sacred than poor Simon’s bungalow?”

  Nevertheless, I unzipped my snow-caked boots and shucked them off, and so did she. We were both still wearing athletic shoes, and hers were the silver ones on which she had flown like Mercury through the library stacks.

  The key worked, the deadbolt retracted, and we went into the spacious foyer, which was round and paved with marble. Next to the door, the numbers on the keypad of the security panel glowed a soft green. The audio function had been disabled, as promised, and the indicator light above the words PERIMETER ARMED blinked silently to announce a violation of the premises. Having stripped off her gloves and shoved them in a jacket pocket, Gwyneth held in her left hand the paper that her guardian had given her. I shone my flashlight on the code, and with her right hand she entered the four numbers and the star symbol. The indicator light stopped blinking and went dark.

  Trust. Our relationship hinged on trust. And I did trust her. But I was nevertheless nervous. My mouth went dry with apprehension.

  The stairs were not an architectural feature and did not open into the foyer. We ventured into the large drawing room, probing left and right with our flashlights. This was one of the chambers in which the archbishop entertained, for among his responsibilities was the work of establishing bonds with the leaders of the city’s political, business, arts, and faith communities. Several elegantly furnished seating areas, Persian carpets, and exquisite antiques were balanced by marvelous paintings of scenes from Scripture, marble statuary of Biblical figures, including one of the Holy Mother, and small icons on various tables and consoles. There was also a large portrait of Christ by an artist unusually observant of detail and superbly skilled at creating an illusion of depth, so that the image appeared three-dimensional, and for a moment I could not breathe.

  The stairs were behind a corner door in the drawing room, and we climbed to the third floor. At the head of the stairs, another door opened onto an antechamber that offered two chairs. It was lighted only by a flickering electric candle in a glass chimney that stood before a shrine to Mary.

  I whispered, “We shouldn’t be here.”

  “But we are.”

  “Why?”

  “We have two things to do before we can go back to my guardian.”

>  I remembered then that he had asked her if he would see her in a little while, and she said that was the plan.

  “What two things?” I asked.

  “Trust me,” she said, and turned to the apartment door.

  I thought the door would be locked, that we would be foiled by the lack of a second key. But it was not locked.

  When we crossed the threshold, I expected darkness, but a couple of lamps glowed. The light made Gwyneth hesitate, but then we stepped into a different world from the ground-floor rooms, which had clearly been part of the residence of a prince of the church.

  Here, the living room reminded me of pictures of homes furnished by interior designers who specialized in soft contemporary style. The upholstered furniture, covered in rich golden silk except for two red chairs, featured waterfall edges and round plump arms, and the legs were tucked back out of sight, so that each piece seemed to float an inch off the floor. Tables laminated in exotic lacquered woods in shades varying from silver to gold, scarlet accent pillows, and large canvases of bold abstract art finished a space very like those that, in magazines, belonged to au courant novelists, avant-garde artists, and movie stars who described their taste as “simple glamour.”

  I was surprised that the living room contained no smallest representation of things sacred. But the most striking thing about it was the pair of marionettes on the fireplace mantel. They sat with the support of decorative metal stands, facing each other from opposite ends of a painting in which several black arcs made with a wide brush were stark against a white backdrop, spattered across with blue like the blood of some extraterrestrial species.

  59

  AT THE END OF THE LIVING ROOM, ON THE RIGHT, A hallway led to the rest of the apartment. Although the hall was mostly dark, a rectangle of light issued from an open door, catching the tight nap of the pale-gray wool carpet at such an angle as to make it appear pebbled. From that room came two solemn male voices.

  Sensing my trepidation, Gwyneth whispered, “Talking heads.”

  Baffled, I whispered, “What?”

  Because she was more familiar with TV than I would ever be, she said with quiet certainty, “Just TV. News or late-night talk.”

  Obviously, the archbishop remained awake, and I thought we should leave at once.

  She thought differently, returned to the cold fireplace, and whispered, “Come on. Hurry. Help me.”

  As I went to her, she opened the cloth laundry bag and put it on the hearth.

  I said, “But this is stealing.”

  “No. This is a cleansing.”

  Although I believed that she didn’t lie, I assumed that she could be misguided.

  “They know I’m here,” she whispered. “They know.”

  The marionettes still faced each other from opposite ends of the mantel. Their striated eyes had not turned toward us.

  “I don’t think I should touch them, Addison. Will you take them down and put them in the bag?”

  “But why is it not stealing?”

  “I’ll send him a generous check for them if you insist. But put them in the bag. Please.”

  In a state of quasi-bewilderment, not quite able to believe that I was in this place and engaged upon such a task, I tried to lift one of the puppets, but it was secured to the metal brace that disappeared under its tuxedo jacket. When I tried to lift the brace, I discovered that it was screwed to the mantel.

  “Hurry,” Gwyneth urged.

  I worked the tuxedo jacket up the brace until I found the cord that tied the marionette in place. As I fumbled with the knot, the archbishop entered from the hallway.

  He carried two suitcases and, upon seeing us, dropped them so abruptly that one of them fell over. He said, “Who’re you, what’re you—” Then Gwyneth turned toward him, and he recognized her.

  “You.”

  He wasn’t wearing a cassock, rochet, stole, pectoral cross, or Roman collar, nor was he wearing the simple black suit of a priest, nor robe and pajamas. In comfortable suede shoes, khaki slacks, and a dark-brown wool sweater over a beige shirt, he might have been anyone, a schoolteacher or accountant, preparing to catch an early flight and wing away on holiday.

  Tall, fit, he had the handsome but pale and sharp-featured face of one of the tort lawyers who ran ads in certain magazines, seeking clients for class-action lawsuits. His hair was thick for his age, quite curly, still more blond than gray.

  He didn’t at once approach us. If he began to step closer, I would back away. At this remove, he couldn’t clearly see the eyes in the holes of my ski mask. I remembered well the church by the river and the man with the kindly face, who had come at me with a baseball bat. Among other implements hanging from the rack of fireplace tools on the hearth was a long-handled poker, which would perhaps do more damage than a Louisville Slugger.

  “There must be an agent of the devil among my confreres, and perhaps more than one,” he said.

  “Your Eminence, Archbishop Wallache,” Gwyneth said and nodded to him, as if we had come calling by invitation.

  Father and I never read the entire newspaper, and I did not keep up with ecclesiastical news, but the name resonated with me. I had heard it six years earlier, as I stood by the open drain in the crypt beneath the cathedral. Two men, never seen, met in the farther reaches of that place to share a secret that meant nothing to me at the time but that, I now realized, involved news of whom the Vatican had selected to be the next archbishop.

  Please tell me it’s not Wallache.

  But it is.

  They’ve all gone mad.

  Say nothing to anyone or I’m toast. This is übersecret.

  But they must know—he must know—Wallache’s history.

  They seem to believe Wallache’s version of it.

  Now, Archbishop Wallache said, “I assume you haven’t come to me at this hour for a blessing.” His courtroom face produced a smile that I would not have thought it could, one warm enough to charm any jury. “Are you admirers of the marionettes?”

  “Why would you have such a foul thing here?” Gwyneth asked.

  “I grant you that the subject is macabre and their history is dark, but the workmanship is lovely. For another thing, they were a gift, and it is rude to turn down a sincerely offered gift.”

  “A gift from Edmund Goddard,” she said, coloring the name with contempt.

  “May I say also that, when one spends every day among people of faith, always bringing the hope of Christ to those who need it, there is a tendency to become too sunny in temperament, to lose track of the truth that Evil walks the Earth and that the battle against it remains always urgent and desperate. Having such a reminder of great wickedness keeps one alert to the possibility of error in one’s own life.”

  Gwyneth said, “So you keep them on your mantel to remind you that evil is real and that anyone can be tempted.”

  “Yes, exactly.”

  “So have they been effective, have you avoided error since you’ve had them?”

  He could hold a smile with the apparent effortlessness of a world-class high-wire walker maintaining balance far above a tense crowd of upturned faces. “If I may be allowed a question of my own, I should ask what you want with them.”

  “I want to burn them. I’ve bought and burned the other four.”

  “You wish to destroy icons of evil, and yet you make yourself up to resemble them.”

  She did not respond.

  Indicating me with a gesture, the archbishop said, “Who is your masked companion? Is he what would be called your muscle?”

  Instead of answering him, Gwyneth said, “I’m taking these last two marionettes to burn them. If you want to call the police and tell them how you kept these things on your mantel as reminders to be on guard against evil and to avoid wickedness yourself, by all means do so. They might believe you. Most of them. So many years have passed, almost twenty-five, since those murders that a lot of people might have forgotten the most gruesome details of what Paladine did to his fami
ly. However, that’s the kind of thing cops don’t forget. I’m sure they’ll want to know why Goddard would think to give them to you.”

  If he was a man who could take offense, he was too diplomatic to show it. If he had feathers, they would never ruffle. He consulted his wristwatch and said, “I’ve no use for the things anymore. You may burn them—but you may not take them. That’s a gas-log fireplace. The flue is open, and it draws well. You see the remote control lying by the rack of tools? You can switch on the flames with that.”

  Gwyneth picked up the remote, clicked it, and blue-orange flames at once licked up around the realistic-looking ceramic logs.

  “The wood of the yew tree,” the archbishop said, “is pliable because it retains its natural oils decades after it has been cut and shaped. They should burn well and quickly.”

  I returned to the marionette that I had been trying to loosen from its brace.

  “Not you,” Archbishop Wallache said.

  “Sir?”

  “Not you. She must take them down and consign them to the flames. Or I really will pick up the phone.”

  “I’ll stop you,” I said.

  “Will you really? I suspect not. I’m a good judge of people, masked or not, and you seem to me to be a lamb, not a lion.”