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An architect and his wife live in seeming harmony with their pristine western surroundings—until a friend’s hidden past unleashes a host of evils
When Grant’s marriage begins to fall apart, he reflects upon the perfect lives of his uncle Henry and aunt Edmé, self-sufficient intellectuals who live blissfully together in a home built by Henry in the high Rocky Mountains. But when Henry and Edmé tell Grant of the terrible nighttime incidents that occurred on their property and ...
An architect and his wife live in seeming harmony with their pristine western surroundings—until a friend’s hidden past unleashes a host of evils
When Grant’s marriage begins to fall apart, he reflects upon the perfect lives of his uncle Henry and aunt Edmé, self-sufficient intellectuals who live blissfully together in a home built by Henry in the high Rocky Mountains. But when Henry and Edmé tell Grant of the terrible nighttime incidents that occurred on their property and culminated in the gruesome murder of one of their close friends, Grant moves in with them to help save an ideal he holds dear. Giovanni’s Gift is a modern reinvention of the myth of Pandora’s box, and a harrowing meditation on the allure of the American landscape—and the menace that lurks beneath the beauty of its surfaces.
All childhood homes tend to become spooky after a long absence, and Ash Creek is no exception. Nestled high in the Rocky Mountains, it has an isolated and ethereal quality to it, and Henry and Edme Fulton, the elderly couple who now live there, move through it as through a kind of Arcadia—until they begin to receive strange threats from an unknown enemy. When Henry and Edme's nephew Grant hears of their plight, he returns, with decidedly mixed feelings, to the home he grew up in. Now 33, Grant has been living in Rome for many years, and the reasons behind his exile form as much of a mystery as the haunting of Ash Creek. Shortly after Grant's return, his uncle's friend Giovanni Trentaz is found murdered near the house, and in an old cigar box of Giovanni's Grant finds clues that suggest just how deep and painful the mystery surrounding the family may be. This ostensible collection of junk turns out to contain the secret not only to Giovanni's murder, but to the hidden lives of practically everyone at Ash Creek. As Grant begins to piece together the fragments of his past, he also falls in love with Giovanni's mysterious, beautiful, extremely disturbed daughter Helen—an obsession that leads inexorably to the violent climax of a complex and highly charged tale.
Slick, suave, and substantial: Morrow works the classical narrative of Pandora's box into a readable and intriguing thriller with much wit and a very sharp eye.
The Night Music
For good unknown, sure is not had, or had
And yet unknown, is as not had at all.
In plain then, what forbids us to be wise?
Such prohibitions binde not.
—JOHN MILTON, Paradise Lost
IMAGINE A SCENE of rural serenity, a night scene. Dinner is over, the embers in the stove are dying. Outside, the air is perfumed by the sweet scent of alfalfa. Above the mountains surrounding this faraway place, the stars are a menagerie of silver flickering motes, phosphorescent droplets in the cold black infinity of space. Some cottonwood seeds, down here below, borne aloft in their own little clouds, mime their star cousins. They rise on a soft breeze above the darkened field whose coarse grass you wouldn't want to roam across barefooted. Imagine them, and imagine that the ridge beyond the creek is blackened by the night and that the meadow which stretches between is sunk in blackness, too. The amber dogtooth moon rests behind that cradling ridge but soon enough will bestir itself and rise, sometime after those who live here have climbed the stairs to their warm and familiar room, where maybe they will read a page or two before extinguishing the lamp and drifting off to sleep. Crickets will continue to make their humdrum song, one sustained percussive note rendered over and over, as the sleepers begin to dream country dreams. It would be hard to fathom a purer vision of people at peace in the natural world.
But look again, imagine just a little further, because there is more. When the unwelcome visitor, who was quite awake at the wheel of the car, reached the end of the rough mountain road, the crickets fell quiet and silence descended upon the valley. Later, when Edmé—she who was upstairs asleep beside her husband, Henry—described to me that first night of the grotesque visitations, she remarked how the nocturnal creatures that usually made such raucous music were oddly subdued. She awakened as if by premonition, sometime after the intruder cut his engine, parked, and presumably began his furtive hike up through the south field. Aside from the clock in the kitchen downstairs, whose pendulum measured out seconds and chimed hours with mechanical rigor, the house was hushed, drowned in thick quiet, so that inside and out tranquility reigned. Edmé fluffed her pillow, turned on her side, and closed her eyes again. But the silence insinuated itself into her thoughts and kept her from falling back asleep.
"That's when I should have known things weren't right. When I should have figured out that someone was probably out there."
Meaning: in the country, silence is the harbinger of change. Then, her voice darkening like the very night she described, she told me of the deafening music that brought her, in a single swift movement, to her feet. She and Henry faltered past chairs and a bureau bathed in shadow, toward the window on the creekside wall of the bedroom. Though they could not see one another, each knew what a look of shock would be there if they could. As they crawled to the rectangular opening that was only faintly brighter than the murky room, both were awed by the bewildering volume of the music, by its nascent violence, its forthright chaos. Night would never be like it had been in the past. Both of them intuited this, too.
They looked into the open fields, the near meadows, but were able to see nothing out of the ordinary. Staring into nothingness, as their eyes reconciled the dark and pupils dilated, they listened. Once they could begin to make out forms, they worked hard to see. He studied the near yard for movement, and she the brambles along the creek. But no one walked defiant across the yard; no one was to be observed running under the pendant river willows. All was utter pandemonium, despite the physical stillness of the scape. The music, this unholy racket, harsher than anything either of them had ever heard, persisted with bludgeoning drum and screeching voice, so that from every corner of the world outside their window, it seemed, the air filled to bursting. Maracas and cymbals sizzled, and the thrashing bass pounded in an upheaval of sound. She said she may have screamed, but the music—what seemed to be music, though since misshapen by its amplitude it brought to mind industrial noise, like an exploding ironworks—was so tumultuous that neither she nor her husband could hear anything else.
And then, as suddenly as the music began, it ended.
One of them said,—Jesus. But neither moved.
Their hearts beat hard, as the reverberations, aftershocks really, of the music throbbed in the valley, diminished, and finally succumbed to the palpable quiet.
Crickets chirruped again as if nothing unusual had happened. The barn owl shrilly sputtered. Several birds, thrushes or Steller's jays, traded boughs and issued echoey cries of protest, but soon they quieted, too, and the night reverted, as if on ungodly cue, to its original rich calm.
Edmé and Henry listened for retreating footfalls in the cut field grass, or the crunch of pebbles along the walk, or muffled laughter below them in the gauzy bushes that ringed the house or from behind the small outbuilding which stood at the corner where two irregular drystone walls converged down toward the whispering brook. Nothing. Flashlight cradled in one hand and his old Remington in the other, Henry made a brief search beyond the near periphery first and then moved on out past the tract of stubbly ground that was illuminated by security floodlights. Edmé stood on the east porch, in her white bathrobe, and watched his progress as best she could, calling his name whenever he ventured too far beyond the margin made by the powerful halogens that shone from the eaves. As he wandered back up toward the house, he turned now and then to look behind into the darkness. Still, nothing. In a shocked daze he climbed the stairs and together they went inside and for a time sat unspeaking at the kitchen table. The peace was punctured only by that steady cadence measured out by the wall clock. It was two-twenty.
—Should we make a call? she said, finally.
He didn't respond. She understood why, but spoke again.
—See if Noah wouldn't be willing to come up and look around?
—I don't know, he said in a soft voice. He was studying his hands as if they might hold some answer.
—We ought to at least let him know what's going on here.
—But we don't know what's going on.
—It couldn't hurt to call.
He caught himself tapping his thumb against the tabletop. The rhythm of the music still pulsed in his memory, in counterpoint with the pendulum at his back.—Well, he said, and folded his fingers into a tight knot, hands merging then pulling apart and relaxing out flat before him.—In the morning, maybe. They seem to be done for tonight.
The pot whistled, the clock struck the half hour. Chamomile tea from hops that grew wild in the meadow, and hard spoon-biscuits. After they put the dishes into the sink, they bolted the three doors, drew the curtains on the first floor, and climbed the wide stairs back to the bedroom.
By sunrise it all seemed illusory. Though they weren't ones to be easily spooked—they were accustomed to both the pleasures and liabilities of solitude—they did make a search of the grounds for evidence of the anonymous intruder, but found nothing, not so much as a broken branch in a juniper berry bush, or a trail of crushed grass that might lead down to where the road ended by the main gate, a swinging metal horsegate a couple hundred yards below the house, down where the road that led to Ash Creek ended. Maybe they had suffered a simultaneous nightmare? Neither raised the question of telephoning Noah, the sheriff in town.
What was most fascinating about their reluctance to seek any help, Aunt Edmé told me later, was how it seemed to be the result of their unwillingness to acknowledge, in the fresh light of another dawn, that it had happened at all. She explained to me, "We just managed to forget, by afternoon the very next day, how upset we'd been, how frightened, shocked even, we were by the strangeness of it all. We just kind of decided without saying so that, no, nothing had happened."
Nothing, in any event, that would warrant Noah Daiches coming over. It would take more than loud music in the middle of the night to persuade Henry to ask Noah for help. Not that there was an unbridgeable rift between the two men; just that Henry had developed a tactful if grim resistance to Noah because of the incident with Giovanni Trentas some three years before, and neither Henry nor Edmé wanted to reopen that scarred wound. This night music did not, of itself, point backward in time to Giovanni's misfortune. Therefore, my aunt and uncle found it logical to believe that what had happened to them just now would never happen again, was a freak occurrence. Some kids had gone berserk, say, in the middle of the night, were driving around high on drugs, maybe, just driving with no particular destination in mind, with nothing in mind at all, which was possibly their usual state of mind—or state of non-mind—only to arrive at the end of a dirt road, where they decided purely randomly to harass whoever happened to be asleep in that house up there. Why not? Just for kicks, what the hell.
Yes, this was one way to discount what happened. No doubt there were other explanations, equally viable. In the tacit way husbands and wives have of reaching agreement about certain matters, without ever coming to an explicit resolution, Edmé and Henry Fulton devalued the madness and hostility of the music and carried on, a stubborn pair of hopeful stoics.
Life went forward. Men came with rigs and over the course of the next couple of days hayed both the meadow below the house and the larger meadow across the creek, leaving behind great cylinders, raw spools of yellowing green, here and there, to dry in the sun. Both Edmé and Henry helped with this process. In another few days they would come back, to load these bales onto ricks and convey them down the road. No money changed hands between my uncle and these fieldmen, one of whom happened to be Noah's brother. They took the hay off, did a neat job of it, three times a year, and for the effort got feed for their livestock. It was a perennial ritual and gave my aunt and uncle a meaningful connection to their land. Moreover, the men had known Henry's father, admired him, back when Ash Creek was a working ranch. They'd known Giovanni Trentas, too, before the mishap, or whatever one would call it. Trentas had been Ash Creek's caretaker during the years when Edmé and Henry lived out on the coast, and the men would encounter him from time to time in town, with that daughter of his, named Helen. She was a pretty girl, they concurred, almost a woman really. She certainly had always seemed older than her years, and stayed by Giovanni Trentas's side at all times, as if she were his child bride. Sometimes when he would go quiet as an empty jar—living as he had for so many years on his own, taciturnity was a habitual quirk of his—Helen was seen to pick up the conversation where it had been left off. They were an inseparable pair, father and daughter.
While Noah's brother, Milland, and the others might not have encumbered themselves with the admiration for Trentas that they had always held for Henry's father and Henry himself, neither did they openly dislike him. They did express to Edmé their regret at not being able to attend Giovanni's funeral. And, Henry told me, Milland Daiches had asked him, once, what would become of Helen, now that her father was gone. Henry no doubt declined to respond, having always thought that Milland was not altogether there, so to speak, and not someone he would care to see Helen involved with in any way—not that Helen Trentas had ever seemed to be one in need of protection.
Midweek the following week, after life seemed for all the world to have settled back down into a peaceable routine, the intruder returned. This time Edmé slept and Henry was awake when the chaos began. Lying in their bed of carved mahogany, he first heard a gust of wind rustling the dry bushes below, then rose and moved to the window in five smooth steps and looked out, just as he had looked out that window many times in the past, noticing how the leaves of the grant lilac seized moonlight which pooled under the strew of clouds over the mountains. The leaves shivered, gathering that light like greedy children who hold out their palms for sweets. There was no murderous figure standing in the middle of the yard gazing defiantly up—although the scarecrow in the garden might have seemed to wave its sackclothed arm at him; there was nothing he could see that was out of place. Minutes passed. He breathed in, out. More minutes, and then he was tired. Just as he began to back away from the window frame, tempted to give up and try again to sleep, he heard vague human murmurs, a man with a deep voice and maybe even a lisp, followed by the blunt cluck of a switch being thrown. The second invasion of their solitude was under way.
This music was different from the other night. Where first the music had been rock and roll, this was orchestral, a brooding tone poem—Richard Strauss, Tod und Verklärung, Edmé recognized—but once more pushed through speakers with such sheer belligerence as to render it primeval. Like the birth of some nasty new universe out in the kitchen garden.
Henry was prepared this time. He pulled on his trousers under his nightshirt and slid into his wellies. With twelve-gauge, already loaded, in hand, he made his way downstairs in the dark, and stole out onto the side porch that paralleled the creek some hundred yards away. Standing for several moments in the pitch black, he tried to get a precise sense of where the music was coming from. He grasped the shotgun, cheekpiece of the thing up against his heart, as he studied the nightscape before him. A haze filtered the light, and he blinked as if to clear it away. As he glimpsed his land he saw it wasn't black outside, and yet it wasn't light, either. The fields, walls, barn, vista, every familiar landmark—all awash in music—had been robbed of detail and visual nuance. The moon, high overhead, had leached the sky of pigment. If he hadn't been quite so enraged, he might have thought he was having a vision.
He trained the gun on what seemed to be the source of the noise, and thought for a moment about how the world out there seemed afflicted, in some way unhealthy, as if it had been wounded and some metaphysical physician had wrapped it in medicinal vapor. He pulled the trigger. The blast, which under other circumstances would have seemed loud, was weirdly faint, enveloped as it was by music. Since the mouth of the barrel had flared bright, giving his position away to anyone who might be watching, he strode, careful not to catch his knee against any of the old Adirondack chairs arranged along the porch, to the corner where the front adjoined this side veranda. He stood at the head of the staircase that led down to the foreyard and, having noted the music was drifting toward the south, shot in that general direction a second time. The report echoed through the valley and up into the gorge above the falls. The music ceased.
Henry swallowed what felt like a small stone going down his dry throat. Silent, Edmé came up next to him, and together they waited.
The smell of powder tasted bitter in the dewy air. Henry was a man comfortable with guns. When he pumped the twelve-gauge to eject the spent shell, he felt a momentary surge of power, only slightly edged by the horror of having just unloaded live ammunition at a man. Edmé whispered,—Look there.
—What? he asked.
—See that, down by the gate? They're gone now.
She was sure she'd seen double red taillight eyes blink down beyond the lowest meadow. They listened, but their ears were ringing from the cacophony of music and gunfire. Then they heard the engine of the car traveling away from the ranch, down the dirt road, which was nothing more than a pair of furrows hedged by wild grass, larkspur, and thistle.
Henry squinted, thinking, This is Tate doing this. Nobody else could be so hateful.
It was a thought he would keep from Edmé.
An hour eased by, maybe more. Certainly, the moon had moved down the sky. A shower of meteors brought them back to themselves, a fine cascade of silver threads, and Henry saw that the world had been returned to its subtle nighttime colors, its cobalt and Prussian and blackberry blacks. They sat side by side under the eaves until dawn conjured other bands of the spectrum, pinks and saffrons, to dye the horizon. She went into the house and made coffee. Her back was numbed by the long watch.
Excerpted from Giovanni's Gift by Bradford Morrow. Copyright © 1997 Bradford Morrow. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted January 13, 2011
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