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By Gene Wolfe
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1975 Gene Wolfe
All rights reserved.
ALDEN DENNIS WEER
THE ELM TREE planted by Eleanor Bold, the judge's daughter, fell last night. I was asleep and heard nothing, but from the number of shattered limbs and the size of the trunk there must have been a terrible crashing. I woke — I was sitting up in my bed before the fire — but by the time I was awake there was nothing to hear but the dripping of the melting snow running from the eaves. I remember that my heart pounded and I was afraid I was going to have an attack, and then, fuzzily, thought that perhaps the heart attack had wakened me, and then that I might be dead. I try to use the candle as little as I can, but I lit it then and sat up with the blankets around me, enjoying the candlelight and listening to the sound of the dripping snow and to the icicles melting, and it seemed to me that the whole house was melting like the candle, going soft and running down into the lawn.
This morning, when I looked out through the windows, I saw the tree. I took the cruiser ax and went out to it and chopped a few broken limbs finer still and put them on the fire, although it was no longer cold. Since my stroke I have been unable to use the big double-bitted Canadian ax, but at least twice a day I read it; "Buntings Best, 4 lb. 6 oz., Hickory Handle" has been burned into the wood. It was, in other words, branded, as though it were a steer; the three- or four- or five-hundredth time I read it, it finally came to me that this must be the origin of the phrase "brand new" — tools like my ax (and no doubt other things as well, more when more things were made of wood) were branded with the manufacturer's trademark after passing inspection, or by the inspector as a sign of approval. This would be the last manufacturing operation — they were then ready for sale and were "brand new." It seems a pity that I have only thought of all that now, when there is no one to tell it to, but that may be for the best; there are many questions of that kind, as I have observed, to which people would sooner not know the answers.
While I was still living with my aunt Olivia, her husband bought her a Dresden figure of Napoleon for her mantel. (I suppose it is there yet — it may well be; I should find her room and see.) Visitors often wondered aloud why he kept one hand thrust into his waistcoat. As it happened, I knew the cause, having read it a year or so before — I believe in Ludwig's biography of him. At first I used to tell it in the hope of satisfying curiosity (and so obtaining those real though impalpable satisfactions, sweet at any time, but sweetest at thirteen, which accrue when we appear knowledgeable and thus, at least by implication, effective). Later I continued it as a psychological experiment, having observed that the innocent remark invariably offended.
My little fire is only smoldering now; but, dressed warmly as I am, this room is not uncomfortable. Outside the sky is leaden, and there is a breeze blowing. I have just taken a walk, and the weather feels ready for rain, though the ground is already so sodden by the melting snow. The half-warm wind is fit for spring, but I saw no other sign of it; the roses and all the trees still have hard, tight winter leaf buds; and, indeed, some of the roses still show (like mothers holding up their dead infants) the softly rotten shoots they put forth in the last warm weather of fall.
Sometimes I walk as much as possible, and sometimes as little as I can, but the difference is not great. I do it to comfort myself. If I have decided that walking will bring death closer yet to my left side, I plan each errand with care; first to the woodpile (next to the china elephant whose howdah is a cushion for my feet), then to the fireplace, then to my chair again, before the fire. But if it seems to me that exercise is required, I deliberately include small side trips: first to the fire to warm my hands, then to the woodpile, then back to the fire, and sit down glowing with hygienic virtue. Neither of these regimes seems to improve my condition, and I change physicians regularly. There is this to be said for doctors: they may be consulted though dead, and I consult Doctors Black and Van Ness.
I consult Dr. Black as a boy (though with a stroke), but Dr. Van Ness as a man.
I stand straight and six feet tall, a fine figure of a man, though twenty (Dr. Van Ness will say thirty) pounds underweight. It is important, going to the doctor. Even in some mad way more important than a board meeting. As I dress in the morning, I remind myself that I will be undressing not, as usual, for bed, but in the doctor's office. It is a little like knowing I am going to be with a strange woman, and I shower after shaving and choose new shorts and undershirt and socks. At one-thirty I enter the Cassionsville and Kanakessee Valley Bank Building through bronze doors, more bronze doors to the elevator, and a glass door for the waiting room where five people sit listening to Glinka's A Life for the Czar. They are Margaret Lorn, Ted Singer, Abel Green, and Sherry Gold. And me. We are reading magazines, and the magazines are Life, Look, Today's Health, and Water World. Two of us are reading Life. Different issues, of course, and I am one of these readers, the other being Margaret Lorn. There is (as a matter of fact) a whole pile of Lifes before me, and I play the old game of trying to arrange them chronologically without looking at the dates, and lose. Margaret tosses down her copy and goes in to see the doctor, and I know, somehow, that this is a mark of contempt. I pick it up and find an area of the cover that is still warm (and slightly damp) from her hands. A nurse comes to the window and asks for Mrs. Price, and Sherry, who is sixteen now, tells her that she has already gone in, and the nurse looks aggrieved.
Sherry turns to Ted Singer: "I have ..." Her voice sinks to a whisper. Ted says, "We've all got problems."
I go to the nurse, a woman I do not know, a blond woman who might be Swedish. I say, "Please, I've got to see the doctor. I'm dying."
The nurse: "All these people are ahead of you."
Ted Singer and Sherry Gold are both obviously much younger than I, but there is no use arguing with that kind of thing. I sit down again, and the nurse calls my name — into a cubicle to undress.
Dr. Van Ness is slightly younger than I, very competent-looking in that false way of medical men on television dramas. He asks what seems to be the matter, and I explain that I am living at a time when he and all the rest are dead, and that I have had a stroke and need his help.
"How old are you, Mr. Weer?"
I tell him. (My best guess.)
His mouth makes a tiny noise, and he opens the file folder he carries and tells me my birthday. It is in May, and there is a party, ostensibly for me, in the garden. I am five. The garden is the side yard, behind the big hedge. It is a large yard, I suppose, even for adults, big enough for badminton or croquet, though not for both at once; for five it is enormous. Children come in boxy, tottering cars, as though they were toys being delivered in little trucks, the girls in pink lace dresses, the boys in white shirts and navy shorts. One boy has a cap, which we throw into the blackberries.
Today it is spring, a season that in the Midwest may last less than a week, leaving the jonquils to droop in the heat before they are well opened — but this is spring, true spring, the wind whipping the first dandelions for their birthday, once for this year, once for last, ten to grow on, and a pinch for an inch. Mothers' dresses are a hand's-breadth above their ankles, often of sensible colors; they like wide-brimmed, low-crowned hats, and jet beads. Their skirts flutter and they laugh, bending to gather them, holding the hats with one hand when the brims flap, the wind rattling their beads like the curtains in a Tunisian brothel.
In the wind-shadow of the garage, on the smoothly mown lawn, there is lemonade for them and a pink-frosted pink cake whose five candles blown at a breath grant every wish. Violet-eyed and black-haired, my aunt Olivia takes ice water in a large goblet instead, swirling it in her hand as though she were warming brandy; Cassionsville water from the Kanakessee River, around and down, lonely for its catfish. There is a white Pekinese as big as a spaniel at her feet, and it snarls when anyone comes too near. (Laugh, ladies, but Ming-Sno will bite.)
Mrs. Black and Miss Bold, sisters, sit side by side. They have — together, as though they were the goddesses of nations joined to blast the fields of that foreign power, myself — brought Bobby Black. Barbara Black has chestnut hair, regular features, and long soft lashes; since bearing her child she has — so my grandmother, whose ghost vaguely, pinkly, haunts my party, says — "put on twenty pounds of healthy flesh"; but it has not heightened her color, which remains that soft and only delicately pink-tinted hue which is the heritage of all the Bolds. Her sister is radiantly blond, slender and flexible as a willow — too much so for the other women, for to them a physical pliancy implies moral accommodation, and they suspect Eleanor Bold (assigning her, in their own minds and in sewing-circle, sugar-lending, Methodist-social conversations, the most improbable of lovers: farmhands and railroad firemen, the rumored sons of departed ministers, the sheriff's silent deputy).
This high, white house was my grandmother's and since our mothers on the lawn can see what we do there, we are — largely — in it, clattering up and down the steep and narrow and carpetless stair leading from the second floor to the third that we may stare in giggling silence there at the huge picture of my father's dead brother, which leans, unhung, against the wall of the farthest, coolest room.
It was, as I know from some occult source that, beneath the sleepless and probing lenses of the Cassionsville Spiritualist Society now so recently organized by my aunt Arabella, might be found to be Hannah (once my grandmother's cook and now my mother's) — it was, I say, painted almost precisely a year before his death. He appears to be about four, a sad-eyed, dark-haired child standing willingly but without joy to have his portrait done. He wears loose red trousers like a zouave, a white silk shirt, and a black velvet vest, and he smells of apples, from having been stored so long with them, and of quilts (hand-stitched with incredible fineness so that each in its own fabric of being stood a soft, warm monument to the endless labor of Tuesday and Thursday afternoons — just as so many did, in their designs, to the genius of William Morris); and afterward, when I had not seen my father's dead brother — whom he himself had never seen — for years, I came to imagine that he stood wrapped in a quilt (just as I, as a child, had been made to wrap myself in a large towel after a bath) with apples rolling at his feet. I went, I think at about the age of twenty, up into that house again and disabused myself of the notion, and at the same time recognized — with a start of surprise that might almost have been shame — that the dreaming landscape before which he stood as though upon a windowsill, a region I had always associated with the fairy tales of Andrew Lang (particularly those of the Green Fairy Book) and George MacDonald, was in fact a Tuscan garden.
That garden, with its marble faun and fountain, its Lombardy poplars and its beeches, has impressed my mind always far more strongly than poor dead Joe, whom none of us except my grandmother and Hannah had ever seen, and whose little grave in the cemetery on the hill was tended mostly by the ants that had built a city upon his chest. Now, when I sit alone before my fire and look out at the wreck of the elm revealed by the lightning flashes, confused and ruinous as a ship gone aground, it seems to me that the garden — I mean little Joe's garden, basking forever in the sunshine of its Tyrrhenian afternoon — is the core and root of the real world, to which all this America is only a miniature in a locket in a forgotten drawer; and this thought reminds me (and is reinforced by the memory) of Dante's Paradiso, in which (because the wisdom of this world was the folly of the next) the earth stood physically central, surrounded by the limbus of the moon and all the other spheres, greater and greater, and at last by God, but in which this physical reality was, in the end, delusive, God standing central in spiritual truth, and our poor earth cast out — peripheral to the concerns of Heaven save when the memory of it waked, with something not unlike an impure nostalgia, the great saints and the Christ from the contemplation of triune God.
True; all true. Why do we love this forlorn land at the edge of everywhere?
Sitting before my little fire, I know, when the wind blows outside, moaning in the fieldstone chimney I caused to be built for ornament, shrieking in the gutters and the ironwork and the eaves and trim and trellises of the house, that this planet of America, turning round upon itself, stands only at the outside, only at the periphery, only at the edges, of an infinite galaxy, dizzily circling. And that the stars that seem to ride our winds cause them. Sometimes I think to see huge faces bending between those stars to look through my two windows, faces golden and tenuous, touched with pity and wonder; and then I rise from my chair and limp to the flimsy door, and there is nothing; and then I take up the cruiser ax (Buntings Best, 2 lb. head, Hickory Handle) that stands beside the door and go out, and the wind sings and the trees lash themselves like flagellants and the stars show themselves between bars of racing cloud, but the sky between them is empty and blank.
Not so the Tuscan sky: it is of an untroubled blue, once or twice touched with thin white clouds that cast no shadows on the ground below. The fountain is sparkling in the sun, but Joe does not hear it, nor will it ever damp his clothes or even the flagstones about its own basin. Joe holds a tiny gun with a tin barrel, and a stiff-legged wooden dog, but Bobby Black is coming and will, if he gains this room, throw apples that, striking the walls, will break, spattering picture and floor with crisp, fragrant, tart fragments; and these in turn, eventually, become brown, dirty, and sour, and will be discovered (most probably by Hannah) and I blamed, for it is impossible, unthinkable, that I should clean the floor, like asking a pig to fly or a mouse to play on the mouth-organ — we pigs, we mice, we children do not do such things, our limbs would not obey us. I stand at the top of the stair, inferior in strength and size but superior in position, silent, my eyes nearly closed, my face contorted, ready to cry, and I defy him; he jeers at me, knowing that if he can make me speak his battle is won; the others look over my shoulders and between my legs — my audience, not my allies.
At last we close, grunting, each grasping the other's pudgy body like wrestlers, red-faced and weeping. For a moment we sway.
Outside my aunt Olivia has lit a cigarette in a mammoth-ivory holder (tooth-of-the-devil) as long as her forearm. Mrs. Singer says, looking not at her but at my mother, "Have you the skin?" and my mother: "Yes, it's in on the piano; I'll have Hannah bring it when she comes out again," and Mrs. Green, who is somehow — I am too young to know — something of a slavey to my mother because we own her husband's farm: "I'll get it, Princess White Fawn," and my mother: "Fly swiftly, Princess Little Bird," and everyone laughs, for they are all Indians, and Mrs. Green, who is not little at all but short and big-boned and heavy, has chosen to be Princess Little Bird (when she might have been something suitable like Princess Corngrower, which was what Princess Star-Behind-Sun — my aunt Olivia — suggested for her) and has an expression of foolish joy when referring to herself by that name, as she must on ceremonial occasions (standing with her hand over her left breast while my mother places a feather in her hair for baking brownies for the Pow Wow).
"It's a shame, I think," my mother says. "They ought to have taken care of the old one."
Excerpted from Peace by Gene Wolfe. Copyright © 1975 Gene Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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