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Innocence

Innocence

Innocence 28


  “No,” I protested. “You’re a good man.”

  “Better than some, perhaps, but far from perfect. In my youth, in that unconventional war, when the enemy was never easily identified, sometimes I shot in fear, when I couldn’t be sure that shooting was entirely justified—”

  “But, sir, self-defense—”

  “Is never a sin, but sometimes I knew shooting wasn’t justified, a delay was necessary, further consideration, further inquiry, but I didn’t inquire or delay. Surrender to fear is an invitation to doubt. There is lust and greed in every heart, son, and bitter envy. Perhaps there’s envy more than anything, and it’s worse than most passions. Even as a young priest, I had unworthy ambitions, a desire for praise and position that outweighed the desire to counsel, save, and serve.”

  I didn’t want to hear his confession. I asked him please to stop at once, be quiet, and he fell silent. He still held my hand. He was trembling. So was I. Quaking.

  If my difference was as he identified it, I would rather have been an abomination, a freak so hideous that my twisted face drove men to sudden insane violence. How much worse to be a mirror to their souls, to know that when they looked at me, they experienced in an instant all the errors of their lives, both petty and profound, that they felt the pain they had caused others and knew themselves to an extent that they were not meant to know themselves while still in the flesh, to a degree that no one could bear to know himself until he was but a spirit, in the docket, and free from the possibility of further error.

  The priest raised his head, and though I still wore the hood, there was sufficient light for him to see my shadowed features and to stare into my eyes. Across his face came such a look of mental agony and profound sorrow that, even though no rage accompanied it, no antipathy, I was distressed for him, anguished that I should have such an effect on anyone, and afraid for both of us.

  Shaken, I looked away from him. “You’re the first I’ve ever known who isn’t driven to violence by me, by Father, by just the sight of us.”

  “It’s despair and hatred of their own errors that makes them want to kill you, to put an end to that painful self-awareness. I feel the same urge and resist it, though I doubt that I could ever resist it with the courage of your mother. Eight years.”

  With that statement he put my childhood and my mother in a new light, and I stood astonished to think of her as a woman who remained moral enough—who loved me enough—to endure the intense mental and emotional anguish that Father Hanlon had just described.

  “And if your mother had something of a saint in her character, well then a case might be made that Gwyneth’s father ought to be canonized. He not only endured thirteen years, but he loved her with all his heart and would have endured much longer if he hadn’t been murdered.”

  The house creaked in the buffeting wind, the basement door shook in its frame as though it might break loose of its hinges, the knob rattled back and forth, back and forth, but at that revelatory moment I didn’t care what might be loose in the night or what might burst in upon us.

  74

  MINE IS THE KIND OF STORY IN WHICH NAMES should not much matter, certainly not full names, first and middle and last, not for every person stepping onto the stage. Had a story of this kind been told in the third person instead of the first, by some writer just two centuries earlier than my time, he or she would have used even fewer names than I have employed, and some characters would have been identified only by their occupation, such as Archbishop or Priest. Back in that time, had the story involved royalty, the king would have been known as nothing more than the King, and the queen’s name would have been the Queen, and the valiant little tailor would have been known as only the Little Tailor. Even in that long-past age but certainly centuries prior, the story might have been told with animals in all the roles, and their names would have been only what they were, such as Tortoise and Hare, Cat and Mouse, Lambkin and Little Fish, Hen and Mr. Fox. That would have been the way because, in those times, life was simpler, and people had a clearer sense of right and wrong than they possessed later. I will call that long-ago period the Age of Clarity. No writer or reader would have imagined that an analysis of a villain’s childhood traumas was needed to explain his wickedness, for it was well understood that a life of wickedness was a choice that anyone could make if he loved wickedness more than truth. For twenty-six years, I lived in the Modern Age, when it was said that human psychology was so complex, the chain of motivations so recondite and abstruse, that only experts could tell us why anyone did anything, and in the end even the experts were loath to render a definitive judgment of any particular person’s specific actions. But although this story is of the Modern Age, I have not written it for that age. Nevertheless, though we know Gwyneth’s father by his deeds and by his selfless love for her, and though I have gotten this far without saddling him with a name, it seems to me that because he was not representative of his times, not emblematic, that I should use his name, if for no other reason, to signify that he was a light in a darkening world. Surnames do not matter much anymore, so I will use only his first, which was Bailey. The name derives from the Middle English word baile, which means “the outer wall of a castle.”

  Bailey was present in the delivery room when his daughter came into the world and when his wife died in childbirth. The reactions of the attending physician and the nurses were not as radical as those of the midwife and her daughter who delivered me, but Bailey was aware of a curious tension and some antipathy toward the baby, not anything as strong as detestation but an uncongeniality, a want of tender touch and sympathy, almost a quiet shunning.

  His beloved wife had died. A confusing mix of emotions stirred through him, grief and rejoicing, neither entirely suitable to the moment; but having always been an excellent judge of people and their states of mind, he felt that even in his current condition, he could trust his intuition. What he read in the faces and the actions of the medical team first puzzled him and then concerned him. He suspected that if the death of his wife and the failed effort to resuscitate her had not distracted the doctor and the nurses, if their attention had been entirely on the baby, their reactions to tiny Gwyneth might have been even less tender. He counseled himself that they had no reason to bear an animus against the infant, who was beautiful and helpless and unusually serene, that his fear for the safety of the child was nothing more than a reaction to the unexpected, devastating loss of his wife. But he could not persuade himself.

  The swaddled baby had been set aside in a bassinet that was in fact a lozenge-shaped white-enameled basin, pending the official weighing and transfer to the neonatal-care unit. No sooner had the effort to resuscitate his wife failed than Bailey let go of her hand and went directly to his daughter. When he picked her up and looked into her as-yet-unfocused eyes, he knew himself to a degree that he had never known himself before, and a flood of remorse for certain past actions nearly brought him to his knees.

  He withstood the wave of emotion, and his mind, always quick, had never been quicker as he tried to make sense of the effect that Gwyneth had on him. According to Father Hanlon, Bailey had been not merely a good man, but also scrupulously honest and honorable; successful, but humble in his success. If he had been corrupt, or if he had been ruthlessly ambitious in his rise from poverty to wealth, perhaps his reasons for remorse would have been so numerous and serious that he would have dropped the infant on her head, right there, right then, and blamed his weak grip on the grief that racked him. Instead, he held fast to her, overcome by a conviction that she was precious not only in all the ways that a daughter was precious to her father, but also for reasons he could not explain.

  He thought the effect she had on him might be proof of some psychic ability that she was too young to be able to control. She might be a telepath or an empath, if that was a word, a clairvoyant or a mind reader. He didn’t know which of those she might be or if she was any of them, but he knew that she was something. He suspected that the explosive e
xamination of conscience she had triggered in him could not have been what the physician and the nurses experienced. If they had endured anything that invasive and intense, their reactions would have been more dramatic; their quiet shunning would no doubt have been more hostile. Perhaps when still linked to her mother by an umbilical cord and in the few minutes after it was cut, Gwyneth had a lesser effect than after she’d been breathing on her own for a few minutes, her heart no longer in sync with her mother’s heart, the electrical activity in her brain more vital by the minute.

  Some on the hospital staff thought Bailey eccentric and others judged him imperious when he insisted that his daughter not be taken to the neonatal-care unit but that instead she be given a private room where he could stay with her and tend to her himself, according to the instructions of a nurse. Eccentric or imperious, or even if mentally unbalanced by grief, he was treated respectfully and his demands were granted because he was a well-liked man but, in truth, because his foundation had given the hospital millions in grants. No one on its staff or in its administration wanted to put at risk any future millions that might come to the institution.

  As soon as he could, Bailey phoned Father Hanlon, his parish priest. Without explanation, he inquired as to the availability of a particularly devout nun, someone who had taken her vows young and whose experience of the world was largely limited to her convent and to prayer. Preferably she would be in the contemplative rather than the active life, if such a one could be given a dispensation to leave her cloistered circumstances for this assignment. Bailey needed such a relative innocent to come to the hospital that night, to assist him with the care of his newborn and motherless daughter, for he didn’t trust a nurse, any nurse, in the room alone with her.

  Even in those days, the city was home to fewer religious orders than in the past. The number of moniales residing in convents was lower than in yesteryear, when the church was stronger. Nevertheless, as a consequence of Bailey’s former generosity and Father Hanlon’s persuasiveness, Sister Gabriel, of the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, though in the active life rather than the contemplative, proved to be an ideal choice, for she was an untroubled soul, yet wise to the ways of the world and effective in dealing with the most secular of individuals in a manner that made them pleased to do as she felt best.

  In addition, as a result of her meditation and contemplation, Sister Gabriel was a mystic with an awareness beyond the five senses. The very sight of Gwyneth troubled her but also filled her heart with gladness, so that she could endure the searing introspection caused by the very sight of the child and be uplifted by it. On only the third day of the infant’s journey in the world, the nun told Bailey that his daughter had been born in a condition of absolute purity, that somehow she was not burdened with the sad inheritance of the first-made in Eden. How this could be, Sister Gabriel could not say, given that Gwyneth was born of man and woman, but her certainty was such that, were she to be told by a superior that her perception was in error and that to insist upon it might be an occasion of mortal pride, she would have insisted just the same, because this was a truth that pierced her. Bailey knew it to be true, as well, the moment that he heard it.

  Gwyneth was taken home from the hospital, and for the next four years, Sister Gabriel visited daily, to assist with the child’s care. At the end of this period, she believed that Bailey could manage the situation himself, because Gwyneth was by then intellectually and emotionally mature beyond her years, aware of the great gift of her innocence, of the necessity and difficulty of preserving it, and of the danger of a world hostile to one such as she. Sister Gabriel elected thereafter a contemplative and cloistered life and never ventured again beyond the walls of her convent.

  During those same four years, Bailey had so often experienced the involuntary examination of his conscience, which occurred when he but looked at the girl, that he came to fully understand himself and his past errors. He arrived at a state of perfect contrition, so that he could enjoy her company and she his, in as normal a fashion as any father and daughter.

  He had by then divested himself of his real-estate empire and reordered his investments so that management of them could be left largely to others. He devoted himself to Gwyneth and embarked upon a most unlikely second career as a novelist, under a pen name, which proved amazingly successful in spite of the fact that he never toured or engaged in much publicity.

  To explain Gwyneth’s reclusive, almost monastic, existence, Bailey told the household staff and others in his life that his daughter was afflicted with fragile health, a compromised immune system, though in fact she never had as much as a cold or a headache. Later it was said that she suffered from social phobia, which in fact she did not. The girl’s nature was such that she thrived on seclusion and devoted herself to literature and music and study. She and her father believed that hers was to be a life in waiting, that the day would come when her purpose would be clear and that in the meantime she needed only to be patient.

  When she hit upon the scheme to disguise her nature and thereby be able to go out into the world, her father was at first reluctant to grant permission. But Gwyneth was nothing if not persistent, and she proved that her plan was workable. In the magazine photographs of the Paladine marionettes, she recognized a portrait of evil that would be the perfect mask to hide her true nature and to dissuade people from looking closely at her, so that if she could avoid being touched, and thereby known, she could dare to venture tentatively and cautiously out of the house in which she had, until then, passed her entire life.

  When I had asked why she imitated the look of the marionettes, she had said that it was to overcome her social phobia, that she felt she needed to look edgy. She was afraid of people, and she thought the best way to keep them at a distance might be to act a little scary. I had known at the time that her answer was incomplete, that she was keeping something from me. The full truth was that she and I were two of a kind, that whereas I lived by day underground and aboveground only by night, she moved safely in the city by spackling over her true nature with Goth makeup. Her strange, disturbing eyes, black with red striations like those of the vile marionettes, were contact lenses, nonprescription because she had perfect vision, custom-made for her by a company that produced all manner of prosthetics for actors of stage and screen, as well as for the growing number of people who chose to escape unsatisfying, mundane lives by donning costumes not just for fantasy and gaming conventions but also for more and more of their lives outside of their office jobs.

  Much of that I learned from Father Hanlon as we sat together in the rectory basement, with the house creaking around us and the storm rattling the door, if indeed it was the storm and not a bestial hand, though Gwyneth shared some of her story with me later.

  I still had questions, not the least of which was, What next?

  This might not be the last winter of the world, but by all the evidence, it was likely to be the last winter to which the people of this city or any other would stand witness. The contagion out of Asia, spread by man and bird, might have a hundred-percent mortality rate among the infected. However, if we were what we now believed ourselves to be, we were not heir to the ills of this fallen world.

  I said, “If Gwyneth and I—and the child—aren’t destined to die from what those madmen have unleashed, what’s our future and how do we ensure it?”

  If Father Hanlon knew the answer, he had no time to tell me, for just then Gwyneth returned with the girl.

  75

  DRESSED NOW IN SWEATER AND JEANS AND SNEAKERS, with a coat draped over one arm, the nameless six-year-old girl came down the basement stairs, fully alert and smiling. No evidence remained that she had been comatose for years. Her sweet smile seemed to shame the storm, or whatever wanted to be let into the house, because the door stopped rattling and the rectory ceased its creaking.

  Following the child, Gwyneth appeared, dressed as before but with all the Goth makeup washed off. She did not glow as the Clears glowed, but I
will tell you that she glowed anyway, for no other word quite conveys the wattage of her beauty, skin as clear as rainwater, eyes reflecting summer heavens here in the winter of the world, not luminous, no, this girl of flesh and blood, but radiant nonetheless. The serpent ring was gone from her nose, the red bead missing from the corner of her mouth, and her lips were no longer black, but the red-pink of certain roses.

  Of the child, Gwyneth said, “Her name is Moriah,” and I asked, “How do you know?” and the child said, “I told her.” Of Moriah, I inquired, “Do you remember what happened to you?” and she responded, “No, I don’t remember anything of the past,” and I said, “Then I wonder how you remember your name.” She said, “I didn’t remember. It was spoken to me just when I woke, a whisper in my mind, Moriah.”

  Father Hanlon closed his eyes, as if the sight of three such as us would undo him, although his voice didn’t tremble when he said, “Addison, Gwyneth, and Moriah.”

  Gwyneth came to me, stood before me, and considered my shadowed face within my hood.

  “Social phobia,” I said.

  “Not a lie. People did terrify me, their potential. My social phobia wasn’t a mental affliction, but a choice.”

  Throughout much of her eighteen years and much of my twenty-six, we had known the world more through our books than through direct contact. We should not have been surprised that of those many hundreds of volumes, we had for the most part read the same books, which we began to discover there in the rectory basement.