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The Haunting of Charles Dickens
By Lewis Buzbee, Greg Ruth
Feiwel and Friends Copyright © 2010 Lewis Buzbee
All rights reserved.
Another sleepless night
London. Mid-summer night nearly upon us. Meg Pickel stood, as she had every night for six months now, at the edge of her family's roof-garden, and stared into the City, towards the massive black dome of St. Paul's Cathedral. It was nearly time, she knew, for the midnight bells to begin their ringing. Each night, in the brief moment before the bells first rang, the whole of the City grew unnaturally calm. Not a coach wheel turned, no horse collar chimed, not one child cried out for its mother — a perfect quiet.
St. Paul's sounded the first note, low and booming, as if the cathedral itself were an enormous bell struck by the City's legendary giants, Gog and Magog. Immediately the bells of a hundred other churches began striking all around Meg, a great hammering of bells, and soon the sky was nothing but bells, bells, bells. Like pebbles dropped into a still pond, each bell created a ripple of sound in the sky, great leaden circles that flowed outward. Meg leaned forward into the night, and the crashing ripples of the bells washed over and through her. Then the final stroke landed, and the bells stopped their ringing, and the leaden circles dissolved into air.
Midnight again. One day ended, another newly started. One more day without her beloved brother Orion.
This was Meg's favorite moment of the day, for in the great clang and crash of the bells, she could forget about her brother and the six months he had been missing, could forget about his handsome face and how it still laughed before her, even though he was not there. When the bells were ringing, she could stop imagining what horrible fates might have overtaken him. But the bells always stopped, and Meg was filled once again with nothing but Orion's absence.
Winding her way through the roof-garden's potted plants, she settled on a low bench — as she had every night for the last six months. She scanned what few stars shone, looking for the constellation that shared its name with her brother, Orion the Hunter. But Orion was a winter constellation and would not rise again until the autumn, when on clear nights, its bright and easily known shape — the three stars of Orion's belt — seemed to leap out of the sky. Tonight, though, the sky was a haze of soot and gaslight, and no constellations made their patterns known to her.
As she had done every night for the last six months, Meg turned her fancies to the many ways Orion might return. This was a game at which she excelled. If she could no longer imagine his return, then she had given up hope, and she would not give up hope — not yet.
Orion might, Meg knew, return in any one of a hundred different fashions. She had many versions of this story, and she whispered these to herself constantly, as one might sing a favorite song time and again.
In one version, Orion simply climbed up and over the edge of the roof-garden from out of the garish gas-lights of busy Cheapside. He told her that he had been chased by hooligans, but had managed to evade them. What Meg liked most about this dream was that she could pretend Orion had only been gone a few hours.
Meg also quite liked the version of return in which she saw him striding casually down the dark of Tonson Lane, humming a silly tune — Orion was always humming some silly tune, tunes he invented himself and which Meg still heard six months later. In this version, he simply walked in the print-shop's front door, while Meg watched silently from the edge of the roof-garden, waiting for the loud "Huzzah!" that would erupt from their family gathered by the hearth. She liked standing outside this moment and watching it unfold, like reading a scene from a novel.
Some of her imaginings were more incredible than others. In one, Orion came climbing out of the ancient plane-tree that bordered the eastern edge of the roof-garden. This was an enormous tree, whose crown shielded the roof-garden, and one of the only trees in this part of the City; Orion would swing out of it on a handy vine, pretending to be a savage ape-man.
When her mind was most fevered by thoughts of Orion's return — O please come back, Orion, please make our family whole again — Meg envisioned a strange light in the sky that drew nearer and nearer, until the shape of a hot-air balloon made itself known, hovering delicately over her head. Orion, laughing, would slither down the mooring rope and into Meg's arms.
It never mattered to Meg how her brother returned, only that he did. Imagining his return allowed her a brief rest from her constant memories of the night he disappeared.
It was snowing that night, the first real snow-fall of the season. The fires had been banked against the cold, but no one had noticed the snow yet. Dinner was over and cleaned up, bed-time near, and everyone was reading under gas-light and candle glow. Aunt Julia sat near the stove with a large book about tropical orchids, tracing their delicate forms into her sketch-pad. Meg's father lay on the sofa, a newspaper peaked over his head; he was probably asleep. Tobias, her younger brother, lay on the hearth-rug with the one book he favored most, Malory's Tales of King Arthur, and next to him, Mulberry, the dog, head on crossed paws. Meg and Orion both sat at the dining table, noses buried in novels.
Such was the nightly custom of the Pickel house-hold, and even six months after Orion's disappearance, Meg could recall how much pleasure this moment used to give her. Since their mother had died, three years before, it had become Meg's responsibility — taken on her by herself — to latch all the doors, upstairs and down, before settling with her family for a night's read. It was as if by latching the doors she could keep the darkness away from the family, stall any possibility of one more family member being snatched. It gave Meg great comfort to accomplish this task, and when she remembered that six-months-ago night, she could still feel that comfort — what was left of the family was together and safe.
On that night, Meg was staring at the pages of Robinson Crusoe, one of her most loved books, but she was unable to concentrate — the letters simply refused to become words for her. Although he was doing nothing but reading, Orion was causing her great consternation, for he was reading the third volume of Great Expectations, the newest novel by Mr. Charles Dickens, their favorite author. That Mr. Dickens was also a long-time friend of the family, something of a god-uncle to the Pickel children, did nothing to soften Meg's desire for his newest novel.
You see, Mr. Charles Dickens was often a guest in the family print-shop, for he had been purchasing his special writing paper from Campion Pickel and Co., Printers, since the time Meg's grandfather had run the shop. His visits to the shop, then and now, were never brief and never quiet; Meg loved to listen to his stories, and he often helped her with her home-school work — he was particularly good with Latin, though not so much with Maths. He was fond of all the children, Meg knew, but he had taken a special liking to Orion in the last year, and the two of them were often found huddled together over sheets of scribbled-upon paper.
Aside from being a family friend, Mr. Dickens was also one of the most famous people in all of England — and for Meg this meant all of the world. She knew of his fame only what other people said about him, not what she witnessed. The famous Mr. Dickens seemed a wholly other person from the one who used to bring Meg endless boxes of Turkish Delight.
But so much of who Mr. Dickens was, friend or celebrity, had nothing to do, for Meg at least, with how she felt about his novels. Mr. Dickens, the writer, was only found in his books. This Mr. Dickens, the writer, was not a man, but a world. Each new book of his was an event of great excitement in the Pickel house-hold.
On the night he disappeared, Orion had been tormenting Meg by the simple act of reading Great Expectations as slowly as possible. O the agony of having the book you most want just out of your grasp.
Meg's father had brought home Great Expectations only the week before. He had traded the three volumes of it for some print-work to be done at a later date. While there was never much money in their house-hold, there were always books. In the printer's trade, in which Meg had grown up, books were like water from a mountain spring, flowing freely everywhere. Meg grew up reading the novels of Mr. Dickens, as had Orion and Tobias. The first book she recalled reading on her own was Oliver Twist, that tale of a pitiable orphan's despair, a pity only relieved at the end by Oliver's adoption into the house of the kindhearted Mr. Brownlow. There was a constant flood of books in Meg's house, new books coming in and finished books going out, but the novels of Mr. Dickens always remained.
When the publication of Great Expectations had been announced, Meg and Orion decided not to read it in its serialized form, the thirty-six weekly installments appearing in Mr. Dickens's own magazine, All the Year Round. Meg and Orion would wait, instead, for the bound volumes to appear, once the serialization was complete. Mr. Dickens, they both agreed, was simply too frustrating a writer. He would lead you into a chapter, which you would follow with great enthusiasm, only to find yourself on some cliff-edge and having to wait days for the next installment. No, when Meg and Orion began a novel by Mr. Dickens, they wished to read the entire book as quickly as possible, and with very little disturbance from the outside world.
When their father brought home Great Expectations, Meg and Orion decided who would read it first in their usual manner. They played Rochambeau for dibs. Orion won the Rochambeau — scissors cut paper — as he always did, and Meg could still remember the look on his face at that moment, kind but superior, as though he had played a trick on an unusually clever dog.
So Orion would begin the first volume, and Meg would start the minute he finished it. For days they both ignored their home-studies, with their father's permission, and drowned themselves in Mr. Dickens's world.
But by the time Orion got to the end of the third volume of Great Expectations, he began to — without mercy — taunt Meg. The day before Orion disappeared, she had finished the second volume — Pip had just discovered the source of his great expectations to be the fearsome convict Abel Magwitch — and now Orion was reading as slowly and methodically as a spider spins a web. If he read any slower, Meg thought, he'd start reading backwards. He was torturing her.
Meg looked down at the suddenly dull pages of Robinson Crusoe, then looked up at Orion reading Mr. Dickens. Every once in a while, Orion would laugh out loud, or gasp in horror, or wipe away a tear as he read, each gesture overdone so she would know exactly what she was missing. This behavior of Orion's drove Meg to the edge of her wits. It was all she could do to keep from yelling at him; her foot was beating the floor as if it were Orion's accomplice.
"Listen," Orion said of a sudden, in a stage-whisper. The entire family looked up, including Mulberry the dog, who seemed somewhat ashamed that he hadn't first heard whatever noise Orion had.
But it was Meg, not Mulberry, who barked.
"What?" she said crossly. "I don't hear anything."
"Precisely, Megling. Not a sound."
"Why, thank you, dear brother," Meg said with a nasty hook in her voice.
Mulberry cocked his head from one side to the other, trying to locate the noise.
"But why is it quiet, dear sister?"
"Because ..." Meg said. She had nothing to say to Orion at that moment except Give me that book!
"Because it's snowing!" yipped Aunt Julia.
And Mulberry barked, and they all jumped up and ran out the door to the stairs and into the snow on the landing and up onto the roof-garden, where, indeed, it was snowing, and beautifully so.
Mulberry barked and barked — O that was the noise, he realized, the super-silence of snow — and tried to catch the fat flakes with his snapping jaws. Tobias, as a nine-year-old boy must, by his nature, gathered up and packed snow-balls and pelted everyone. Meg simply watched in silence as the snow fell over London and transformed the black and brown world of the roof-tops into an immaculate forest of white chimneys and spires.
It was such a beautiful sight that even Tobias stopped to admire it.
"This is what I think," Tobias announced. "I think that snow is when you take the moon to a nutmeg grater, and it turns to snow and lands everywhere."
They all laughed and nodded, and Meg looked at Tobias with a new appreciation. He was correct; the snow looked exactly as he said. Even though he was her little brother, she realized, he could be rather clever.
"And with that," Meg's father said, "I suggest we all return before we become moonlight ourselves. The snow will be here tomorrow."
Only Orion stayed behind. At fifteen, he was old enough, their father said, to make his own decisions, which rankled Meg. Yes, she was younger than her brother, she would admit to that. But she was also a girl, and therefore, much more mature and reasonable. This was a fact Meg considered obviously obvious.
Meg stood at the top of the stairs and watched her family go down and re-enter their warm rooms, Mulberry herding them along.
"Orion," she said. "Please come in, you'll catch your death."
"O, Meg, you humbug," he said. "Don't worry so. I'll be down in half a tick, I promise."
"It's cold and late, Orion. What keeps you out here?"
"I've thoughts to think, and they require solitude. Shortly, I promise."
Meg didn't want to leave him there. It went against her instincts — everyone should be together and inside. This was the only safety against the darkness, against losing more than had already been lost. They had lost Mother, and an unnamed brother, and those two losses were too much already.
The image of Orion alone on the snowy roof-top would haunt Meg forever, she knew, as unchanging as a photograph. He stands in the snow, looking over his shoulder as if already going away, and the look in his eye is curious. He's seen something in the world his sister hasn't seen yet, and he's determined to go after it. Just before she turns to go in, he winks at her. In that wink was a secret she has not solved in six endless months of decoding.
But Meg turned and went down the stairs and pulled the door closed behind her, leaving her brother alone on the roof. It continued to snow all night, and in the morning Orion was gone, his bed unslept in. He had disappeared.
Meg has been sleepless every night since.
O she can fall to sleep. Even on the first evening of the day Orion went missing, with everyone in the family flustered and confused and frightened, Meg fell asleep early. But she woke near midnight, and could not find sleep again until just before dawn. And for six months, each night has been the same.
Each night she wakes and begins her rounds, always near midnight. On first waking up, she lies in bed and waits for the house to settle, the deep breath and snore of the family — O how her father can snore! She tries to will herself back to sleep, but this effort only wakes her more. Finally she gives up and rises, a spirit about night roaming the dark rooms. She goes to Tobias's chamber and listens outside his curtain for his soft breathing, waits for the sudden shift of his restless legs. Then she pulls his curtain aside and peeks in. There he is, asleep, as safe as a baby but as vulnerable, too. She glides to his window and tests its latch. All's safe here. Then she does the same for her father, his proud snoring a testament to the depth of his sleep. And does the same for her aunt, who has a way of mumbling to herself in her dreams. She latches these windows, too, as well as the windows in the kitchen and the windows and doors of the print-shop downstairs.
Her first round complete, Meg climbs up to the roof-garden and dreams of Orion's return. And waits and waits through the long, chilly hours. Then she goes downstairs again, first to the print-shop, then to the bedchambers, and when the last window is checked once again and the last door relatched, she climbs into bed. With the sky growing lighter, she finally falls asleep, satisfied that her home is intact, at least for one more night.
It has been six months of no sleep and no Orion. How much longer can Meg live like this?
Meg stood up from the bench and pulled a handful of leaves from a silly old shrub — Stupid, stupid shrub! — and threw them down as if to shatter them. But they did not shatter or make any noise, and this only made Meg angrier. She stamped her feet, then stood, her arms folded, and gazed with fierce eyes at the midnight world.
Excerpted from The Haunting of Charles Dickens by Lewis Buzbee, Greg Ruth. Copyright © 2010 Lewis Buzbee. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
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