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Innocence

Innocence

Innocence 24


  “I’ll do it,” Gwyneth said. “I’m not afraid to do it.”

  I said, “He won’t stop me.”

  “I don’t know what he might do. I’ll burn them myself.”

  I thought I saw the marionette’s eyes turn sideways to regard me. But when I looked directly, it still stared across the mantel at its twin.

  60

  GWYNETH’S HANDS TREMBLED, SO THAT SHE HAD some difficulty slipping the knot in the cord securing the marionette to the metal stand that braced it upright. When she freed the thing, she held it by its arms and lifted it off the mantel with an obvious dread that infected me.

  The archbishop said, “It won’t bite.”

  As Gwyneth took a step backward and began to stoop to throw the puppet into the flames, she cried out as if stung, threw it down on the hearth, and backed up another step.

  I said, “What’s wrong?”

  “It moved.”

  “I didn’t see.”

  She rubbed the palm of her left hand over the back of her right, the palm of her right over the back of her left, as though she felt the blue lizards of her faux tattoos wriggling on her skin and meant to smooth them into stillness.

  “I was holding it by its upper arms. I felt … its muscles tensed.”

  “But it’s made of wood,” the archbishop said with a note of amusement. “It doesn’t have muscles.”

  The marionette was lying on its back, one arm at its side and the other across its chest, one leg bent. The top hat had fallen off, revealing carved and painted hair. Its hinged mouth sagged open, the square chisel-blade teeth like the jaws of an unsprung trap.

  Gwyneth cautiously extended her right leg to kick the hateful thing up and into the firebox.

  “No, no. That isn’t permissible,” said the archbishop.

  “There aren’t any rules.”

  “My rules,” he said, and held up a cell phone, which he had evidently taken from a pocket of his slacks. “I’ve already entered 911. I need only press SEND. Use your hands, girl.”

  With no intention other than persuasion, I took a step toward Wallache, but Gwyneth said, “Addison, no. Your eyes.”

  As I lowered my head and eased back, the archbishop said, “What about your eyes?”

  Gwyneth withdrew her gloves from a jacket pocket.

  “Bare hands,” the archbishop instructed.

  In response to the look of contempt that she turned upon him, he only brandished the cell phone.

  Gwyneth put the gloves away, hesitated, hesitated, hesitated, suddenly bent down and snatched the hateful icon off the hearth. For a moment, she seemed to be struggling to shake it loose of her, and I couldn’t tell if one of the thing’s hands had in fact closed tightly around her thumb or if that was a detail conjured by my imagination, but then she flung it into the firebox, and the gas flames at once ignited the puppet’s costume.

  Perhaps the effect was a consequence of the pliancy of the oil-rich yew wood, but the marionette appeared to writhe in agony, flexed and twisted and seemed to seek handholds on the ceramic logs, as if it might clamber out of the fireplace and carry the consuming flames to us, setting the entire room ablaze.

  A sound like the wooden heels of wooden shoes drumming hard against marble broke the spell that the sight of the twitching puppet cast over me. I looked at its twin, which still sat upon the mantel. Although I was certain of the source of the sound, the abomination sat motionless, its legs stretched out in front of it, hands upon its knees, as it had been posed previously. Because the mantel was somewhat high, if I hadn’t been tall enough, I wouldn’t have noticed, scattered on the stone, a few chips of the high-gloss black paint with which the puppet’s shoes were made to look like patent leather.

  In the firebox, the marionette lay still across the logs, and tendrils of foul-smelling black smoke seethed like spirits from its shrinking form and were either drawn up the chimney by a draft or escaped through it into the night and storm.

  When I looked at Gwyneth, she was squeezing her right thumb with her left hand, and when she opened the hand, blood glistened, oozing from a cut on the pad of the thumb.

  “She needs a bandage,” I told the archbishop.

  “No, Addison. I’m okay. It’s not much of a cut.”

  In spite of Wallache and his cell phone, I went to the remaining marionette, snapped the cord that bound it to the metal brace, and lifted it off the mantel.

  An ink spot appeared in the center of my vision and spread to the perimeter, but I hadn’t gone blind, because in that darkness floated the music box from which Father had plucked and pocketed the winding key years earlier. As bright as a stage, illuminated by a light that had no source, the lid offered four dancers, as before. The prince and princess were dethroned, and in their place were Gwyneth and I, but dressed as they had been. She danced with the man-goat Pan, I held in my arms the goggle-eyed frog, and the four tiny figures waltzed along the inlaid tracks to cold and brittle music. The goatish god halted in the dance to bury his face in his partner’s cleavage, she threw back her head as if in ecstasy, the frog grinned to reveal teeth as pointed as needles, which no real frog had ever possessed, and flickering from the grin came a snaky black tongue, which the figurine of me bent forward to capture in its mouth.

  I don’t believe that I was released from the vision, but instead thrust myself out of it; and if I hadn’t done so, I suspect that next I would not have been merely observing my image on the music box but would have found myself there in its place, the scaly demonic form in my arms, in a hellish kiss with twining tongues.

  Although I thought that I had been gone from the archbishop’s private apartment for a minute or longer, the unnerving vision must have occurred and ended in an instant, because neither Gwyneth nor Wallache reacted as if I had seized up. I threw the marionette atop the burning remnants of its twin, and the ribbons of foul black smoke didn’t merely seethe from it but leaped to the flue as if they were raveling up the chimney and onto some cosmic spool that turned at high speed.

  The archbishop said, “What do you think you’ve achieved by this pointless ritual?”

  We didn’t answer or look at him, but watched until the black smoke faded to gray and the charred marionettes shrank in a tangle of withering limbs, until the fire split their torsos and, through the curtain of blue flames, red coals glowed deep in those cracks.

  “Are you done here?” asked Wallache. “Or would you like to burn a sofa cushion, perhaps an entire armchair?”

  “We’re done,” Gwyneth said.

  “Good. I’m in a hurry, if you don’t mind.”

  “Last-minute trip?” she asked, indicating the two suitcases.

  “As if it’s any of your business.”

  “There’s nowhere for you to go, Your Eminence.”

  “I grew up in worse snow country. I can drive through this.”

  “Not what I meant. Would you like all the funds in my trust, for your good works? You may have the money now, if you want.”

  No longer able to summon a smile, he said, “You are demonic.”

  “Outside the storm zone,” she said, “airports will be open. But what about your flock, all left behind?”

  A note of defensiveness at last blurred the sharp edges of his self-confidence. “There are many good priests in this diocese to see after them in my absence.”

  “Yes,” she agreed, “many good priests,” by her tone implying that she did not include him in that category.

  As when she and Goddard had sparred verbally with each other in the alley behind his gallery, this conversation had a subtext that I couldn’t quite grasp. Although I didn’t know where Wallache was going or why, Gwyneth seemed to have—or intuit—that information.

  Recovering his poise, the archbishop said, “If you would like to confess your vandalism, Gwyneth, and I assume much else as well, I will prescribe a proper penance.”

  “I’ve made other arrangements,” she said, dropped the key to the residence on the floor, an
d walked out of the apartment with me close behind.

  In the antechamber, I said, “We have to bandage your thumb.”

  “This will be good enough,” she said, and she pulled a knitted glove onto her right hand.

  Following her down the stairs as she worked her left hand into the other glove, I said, “You seem to think he’s not fit to be what he is, where he is.”

  “It’s not just what I think. It’s the truth.”

  Crossing the drawing room, where in paint and bronze and stone, the many sainted founders of the faith looked sadly down, I said, “But why is he unfit?”

  “Others under his authority broke their vows in a most terrible way. He didn’t do what they did, but he engineered a cover-up of what they did, less for the sake of the church than for the sake of his career, with no justice for the victims. And he engineered it in such a way that he left few if any fingerprints in his wake.”

  I thought I knew to what she alluded, and if I was right, I did not want any further details.

  Outside, the street receded left and right like the white bed of a river, and turbulent currents of snow flooded through the air.

  61

  LEAVING THE ARCHBISHOP’S RESIDENCE BEHIND, Gwyneth at first pressed the accelerator too hard, so that even with four-wheel drive and tire chains, the Rover fishtailed along the street, whereupon she gave it more gas, which didn’t help matters, before she eased back on the pedal. When the vehicle became stable and we were proceeding at a somewhat safer speed than a bank robber’s getaway car, I relaxed my grip on the seat and lowered my bracing feet from the dashboard to the floor.

  I said, “Anger doesn’t solve anything.”

  “I wish it did. If it did, I’d anger away all the troubles of the world.”

  She hadn’t mentioned a destination. Again, she seemed to be driving a route chosen at random, but by now I knew that whatever map guided her this night, it had not been drawn by a whimsical cartographer.

  “Where is he going?” I asked.

  “Wallache? I don’t know.”

  “Back there, you did seem to know.”

  “All I know is that he’s going in a circle, and wherever he goes, he’ll only find the same thing that he’s running from.”

  “What is he running from?” When she did not reply, I said, “Sometimes it seems you know something I don’t know but should.”

  I could hear the smile in her voice. “Addison Goodheart, you are so well named. I love your innocence.”

  For a minute or so, I reran her words several times in my mind, and at last I said, “I don’t think that was a put-down.”

  “A put-down? How can it ever be a put-down when a girl says she loves you?”

  Let me tell you, I parsed and pondered those words, diagrammed the second sentence in my mind, and worried about what subtext was eluding me this time. Finally, I replied, “You didn’t say that you loved me. You said you loved my innocence.”

  “And you are your innocence. It’s as fundamental to you as water is to the sea.”

  Although words are the world and were the birthing of the world, there are no words to express what I felt at that moment, no words for the dimensions of my joy, for the great buoyancy that overcame my spirit, for the depth of my gratitude, for the brightness of my hope.

  When I could speak, I said, “I love you, too.”

  “I know.”

  “I’m not just saying it.”

  “I know.”

  “I mean because you said it.”

  “I know. You love me. I know.”

  “You really know?”

  “I really do.”

  “How long have you known?”

  “Since we met in the library. You were standing there in shadow by Charles Dickens and you said, ‘We hold each other hostage to our eccentricities.’ ”

  “I think I also said we were made for each other.”

  “Yes, you did. But it was when you said the other thing that my heart seemed almost to fall out of me. When we love someone, we’re held hostage by fate, because if we lose that person, then we, too, are lost. When you said we hold each other hostage, you declared your love as clearly as it could be said.”

  How strange it is that one can be rendered unable to speak as much by ecstasy as by terror. Fear never silenced me more effectively than this.

  At last I said, “Can there be such a thing as love at first sight?”

  “The great poets have always said there is. But do we really need poets to convince us?”

  “No. Not me.”

  “Not me, either.”

  Staring through the windshield, I didn’t see the snow or the veiled city. There was nothing to see, nothing worth seeing except her face.

  I wanted to touch her, just my hand to her face, but she could not bear being touched, and I wanted to stare into her eyes, but I dared not let her look into mine. Our eccentricities were more than merely peculiarities of our character; they were cruel conditions of our very existence. Our situation should have seemed hopeless, should have reduced me to despair. But regardless of what we couldn’t have together, we could still have our feelings for each other, and at that moment, knowing my feelings were reciprocated was such a grace that my bliss could not be deflated by any arrow.

  She said, “We’ve got to return to Walter’s and get the girl.”

  “The girl without a name? Why?”

  “Everything’s happening so fast. But before we go to Walter’s, I want to see your rooms, where you live.”

  “What, you mean now?”

  “Yes, now. I want to see where you’ve hidden from the world for eighteen years.”

  62

  ON AN APRIL NIGHT WHEN I WAS TWELVE, SHORTLY after I finished reading a novel about a lucky coin, Father and I went out into the post-midnight city, where in spite of the faint but lingering odor of automobile exhaust, the sweet smell of spring was in the air, as was the expectation of change, with the trees in the parks leafing out anew.

  In the great park, in the pavilion, on the elevated floor of the bandstand, a slant of moonlight polished a penny and brought it to my attention. I snatched it up, neither because we were profoundly poor, which we were, nor because we had much need of money, which we didn’t, but because of the book that I had recently read. I showed it to Father, declared that I had found my own lucky coin, and began to imagine aloud what miraculous benefits it might bestow upon us.

  He could always hold his own with me in games of fantasy, but that one did not charm him. In the spring warmth, as we slowly walked the perimeter of the pavilion, gazing out at the meadows pale with lunar frost, at the woodlet guarding its darkness, at the black lake floating the full moon like a raft upon its waters, he told me that there was no such thing as luck. To believe in luck, you must believe that the universe is a roulette wheel and that instead of paying out to us what we have earned, it pays out only what it wishes. But it is not a spinning wheel of chance, it is a work of art, complete and framed by eternity.

  He said that because we live in time, we think that the past is baked and served and eaten, that the present is coming out of the oven in continuous courses, and that the future is not yet even in the mixing bowl. Any thoughtful physicist, he said, well schooled in quantum mechanics, would agree that all time exists simultaneously, which I subsequently learned was the case. In truth, Father said, at the first instant of the universe, all of time was present, all our yesterdays and today and all our tomorrows, everyone and everything that was and ever would be existed at that moment. But more amazing still, in the first instant that the universe came into existence, the fabric of it also included all the infinite ways that things might have been, countless of them terrible in the extreme and countless others glorious. Nothing is predetermined for us, and yet all our possible choices are threads in the vast weave of things, so that we have free will even though the consequences of our will are predictable. Father said we were given a sense of time’s progression because our minds
are not able to cope with the reality that past, present, and future all exist simultaneously and that all of history existed in the first instant of the universe’s being.

  To help me understand, Father said that I should think of the universe as a giant painting rendered in more than three dimensions; some scientists say eleven, some say fewer, some say more, but no one knows—or will ever know—for sure. In an art gallery, when you stand too close to a large canvas executed in only two dimensions, you can see the artist’s brushstrokes and certain details clearly, but you can’t understand either the full effect of the piece or the artist’s intentions. You have to step back and step back again, and sometimes yet again, in order to grasp the totality of the work. To understand the universe, our world, and all life in the world, you have to step out of time, which for living humanity is not an option, because we are a part of this painting, characters within it, able to perceive it only as a continuing series of events, episodes. However, because we are conscious creatures with the gift of reason, we can seek and learn and extrapolate from what we learn, and conceive the truth.

  In a universe in which past, present, and future came into existence all at once, complete from beginning to end, with all possible outcomes of every life woven through the tapestry, there is no chance, only choice, no luck, but only consequences. A penny polished by moonlight is only a penny, though its existence—minted by thinking creatures for the purpose of commerce in the present and investment in the future—might be a kind of miracle, if you’re imaginative enough to credit miracles. He said that the penny would not bring us luck, that even if it had been a million dollars, it would not of itself bring us luck and change our lives, that what happened to us was of our election—and therefore allowed us more hope than luck could ever provide.

  I was only twelve that April night, but already worn to wisdom by the friction between me and the world aboveground. When Father took luck away from me, I was not downcast but exhilarated. The penny didn’t mean anything, but what I did with the penny mattered. I put the coin down on the bandstand floor, where I had found it, in the hope that whoever discovered it next might, by the loving guidance of someone like my father or by his own heart, be led to the revelation to which I had been led.