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In this fateful hour
The big kitchen of the Murrys’ house was bright and warm, curtains drawn against the dark outside, against the rain driving past the house from the northeast. Meg Murry O’Keefe had made an arrangement of chrysanthemums for the dining table, and the yellow, bronze, and pale-gold blossoms seemed to add light to the room. A delectable smell of roasting turkey came from the oven, and her mother stood by the stove, stirring the giblet gravy.
It was good to be home for Thanksgiving, she thought, to be with the reunited family, catching up on what each one had been doing. The twins, Sandy and Dennys, home from law and medical schools, were eager to hear about Calvin, her husband, and the conference he was attending in London, where he was—perhaps at this very minute—giving a paper on the immunological system of chordates.
"It’s a tremendous honor for him, isn’t it, Sis?" Sandy asked.
"And how about you, Mrs. O’Keefe?" Dennys smiled at her. "Still seems strange to call you Mrs. O’Keefe."
"Strange to me, too." Meg looked over at the rocker by the fireplace, where her mother-in-law was sitting, staring into the flames; she was the one who was Mrs. O’Keefe to Meg. "I’m fine," she replied to Sandy. "Absolutely fine."
Dennys, already very much the doctor, had taken his stethoscope, of which he was enormously proud, and put it against Meg’s burgeoning belly, beaming with pleasure as he heard the strong heartbeat of the baby within. "You are fine, indeed."
She returned the smile, then looked across the room to her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, and to their father, who were deep in concentration, bent over the model they were building of a tesseract: the square squared, and squared again: a construction of the dimension of time. It was a beautiful and complicated creation of steel wires and ball bearings and Lucite, parts of it revolving, parts swinging like pendulums.
Charles Wallace was small for his fifteen years; a stranger might have guessed him to be no more than twelve; but the expression in his light blue eyes as he watched his father alter one small rod on the model was mature and highly intelligent. He had been silent all day, she thought. He seldom talked much, but his silence on this Thanksgiving day, as the approaching storm moaned around the house and clapped the shingles on the roof, was different from his usual lack of chatter.
Meg’s mother-in-law was also silent, but that was not surprising. What was surprising was that she had agreed to come to them for Thanksgiving dinner. Mrs. O’Keefe must have been no more than a few years older than Mrs. Murry, but she looked like an old woman. She had lost most of her teeth, and her hair was yellowish and unkempt, and looked as if it had been cut with a blunt knife. Her habitual expression was one of resentment. Life had not been kind to her, and she was angry with the world, especially with the Murrys. They had not expected her to accept the invitation, particularly with Calvin in London. None of Calvin’s family responded to the Murrys’ friendly overtures. Calvin was, as he had explained to Meg at their first meeting, a biological sport, totally different from the rest of his family, and when he received his M.D./Ph.D. they took that as a sign that he had joined the ranks of the enemy. And Mrs. O’Keefe shared the attitude of many of the villagers that Mrs. Murry’s two earned Ph.D.s, and her experiments in the stone lab which adjoined the kitchen, did not constitute proper work. Because she had achieved considerable recognition, her puttering was tolerated, but it was not work, in the sense that keeping a clean house was work, or having a nine-to-five job in a factory or office was work.
—How could that woman have produced my husband? Meg wondered for the hundredth time, and imaged Calvin’s alert expression and open smile.—Mother says there’s more to her than meets the eye, but I haven’t seen it yet. All I know is that she doesn’t like me, or any of the family. I don’t know why she came for dinner. I wish she hadn’t.
The twins had automatically taken over their old job of setting the table. Sandy paused, a handful of forks in his hand, to grin at their mother. "Thanksgiving dinner is practically the only meal Mother cooks in the kitchen—"
"—instead of out in the lab on her Bunsen burner," Dennys concluded.
Sandy patted her shoulder affectionately. "Not that we’re criticizing, Mother."
"After all, those Bunsen-burner stews did lead directly to the Nobel Prize. We’re really very proud of you, Mother, although you and Father give us a heck of a lot to live up to."
"Keeps our standards high." Sandy took a pile of plates from the kitchen dresser, counted them, and set them in front of the big platter which would hold the turkey.
—Home, Meg thought comfortably, and regarded her parents and brothers with affectionate gratitude. They had put up with her all through her prickly adolescence, and she still did not feel very grown up. It seemed only a few months ago that she had had braces on her teeth, crooked spectacles that constantly slipped down her nose, unruly mouse-brown hair, and a wistful certainty that she would never grow up to be a beautiful and self-confident woman like her mother. Her inner vision of herself was still more the adolescent Meg than the attractive young woman she had become. The braces were gone, the spectacles replaced by contact lenses, and though her chestnut hair might not quite rival her mother’s rich auburn, it was thick and lustrous and became her perfectly, pulled softly back from her face into a knot at the nape of her slender neck. When she looked at herself objectively in the mirror she knew that she was lovely, but she was not yet accustomed to the fact. It was hard to believe that her mother had once gone through the same transition.
She wondered if Charles Wallace would change physically as much as she had. All his outward development had been slow. Their parents thought he might make a sudden spurt in growth.
She missed Charles Wallace more than she missed the twins or her parents. The eldest and the youngest in the family, their rapport had always been deep, and Charles Wallace had an intuitive sense of Meg’s needs which could not be accounted for logically; if something in Meg’s world was wrong, he knew, and was there to be with her, to help her if only by assuring her of his love and trust. She felt a deep sense of comfort in being with him for this Thanksgiving weekend, in being home. Her parents’ house was still home, because she and Calvin spent many weekends there, and their apartment near Calvin’s hospital was a small, furnished one, with a large sign saying NO PETS, and an aura that indicated that children would not be welcomed, either. They hoped to be able to look for a place of their own soon. Meanwhile, she was home for Thanksgiving, and it was good to see the gathered family and to be surrounded by their love, which helped ease her loneliness at being separated from Calvin for the first time since their marriage.
"I miss Fortinbras," she said suddenly.
Her mother turned from the stove. "Yes. The house feels empty without a dog. But Fort died of honorable old age."
"Aren’t you going to get another dog?"
"Eventually. The right one hasn’t turned up yet."
"Couldn’t you go look for a dog?"
Mr. Murry looked up from the tesseract. "Our dogs usually come to us. If one doesn’t, in good time, then we’ll do something about it."
"Meg," her mother suggested, "how about making the hard sauce for the plum pudding?"
"Oh—of course." She opened the refrigerator and got out half a pound of butter.
The phone rang.
"I’ll get it." Dropping the butter into a small mixing bowl en route, she went to the telephone. "Father, it’s for you. I think it’s the White House."
Mr. Murry went quickly to the phone. "Mr. President, hello!" He was smiling, and Meg watched as the smile was wiped from his face and replaced with an expression of—what? Nothingness, she thought.
The twins stopped talking. Mrs. Murry stood, her wooden spoon resting against the lip of the saucepan. Mrs. O’Keefe continued to stare morosely into the fire. Charles Wallace appeared to be concentrating on the tesseract.
—Father is just listening, Meg thought.—The president is doing the talking.
She gave an involuntary shudder. One minute the room had been noisy with eager conversation, and suddenly they were all silent, their movements arrested. She listened, intently, while her father continued to hold the phone to his ear. His face looked grim, all the laughter lines deepening to sternness. Rain lashed against the windows.—It ought to snow at this time of year, Meg thought.—There’s something wrong with the weather. There’s something wrong.
Mr. Murry continued to listen silently, and his silence spread across the room. Sandy had been opening the oven door to baste the turkey and snitch a spoonful of stuffing, and he stood still, partly bent over, looking at his father. Mrs. Murry turned slightly from the stove and brushed one hand across her hair, which was beginning to be touched with silver at the temples. Meg had opened the drawer for the beater, which she held tightly.
It was not unusual for Mr. Murry to receive a call from the president. Over the years he had been consulted by the White House on matters of physics and space travel; other conversations had been serious, many disturbing, but this, Meg felt, was different, was causing the warm room to feel colder, look less bright.
"Yes, Mr. President, I understand," Mr. Murry said at last. "Thank you for calling." He put the receiver down slowly, as though it were heavy.
Dennys, his hands still full of silver for the table, asked, "What did he say?"
Their father shook his head. He did not speak.
Sandy closed the oven door. "Father?"
Meg cried, "Father, we know something’s happened. You have to tell us—please."
His voice was cold and distant. "War."
Meg put her hand protectively over her belly. "Do you mean nuclear war?"
The family seemed to draw together, and Mrs. Murry reached out a hand to include Calvin’s mother. But Mrs. O’Keefe closed her eyes and excluded herself.
"Is it Mad Dog Branzillo?" asked Meg.
"Yes. The president feels that this time Branzillo is going to carry out his threat, and then we’ll have no choice but to use our antiballistic missiles."
"How would a country that small get a missile?" Sandy asked.
"Vespugia is no smaller than Israel, and Branzillo has powerful friends."
"He really can carry out this threat?"
Mr. Murry assented.
"Is there a red alert?" Sandy asked.
"Yes. The president says we have twenty-four hours in which to try to avert tragedy, but I have never heard him sound so hopeless. And he does not give up easily."
The blood drained from Meg’s face. "That means the end of everything, the end of the world." She looked toward Charles Wallace, but he appeared almost as withdrawn as Mrs. O’Keefe. Charles Wallace, who was always there for her, was not there now. And Calvin was an ocean away. With a feeling of terror she turned back to her father.
He did not deny her words.
The old woman by the fireplace opened her eyes and twisted her thin lips scornfully. "What’s all this? Why would the president of the United States call here? You playing some kind of joke on me?" The fear in her eyes belied her words.
"It’s no joke, Mrs. O’Keefe," Mrs. Murry explained. "For a number of years the White House has been in the habit of consulting my husband."
"I didn’t know he"—Mrs. O’Keefe darted a dark glance at Mr. Murry—"was a politician."
"He’s not. He’s a physicist. But the president needs scientific information and needs it from someone he can trust, someone who has no pet projects to fund or political positions to support. My husband has become especially close to the new president." She stirred the gravy, then stretched her hands out to her husband in supplication. "But why? Why? When we all know that no one can win a nuclear war."
Charles Wallace turned from the tesseract. "El Rabioso. That’s his nickname. Mad Dog Branzillo."
"El Rabioso seems singularly appropriate for a man who overthrew the democratic government with a wild and bloody coup d’état. He is mad, indeed, and there is no reason in him."
"One madman in Vespugia," Dennys said bitterly, "can push a button and it will destroy civilization, and everything Mother and Father have worked for will go up in a mushroom cloud. Why couldn’t the president make him see reason?"
Excerpted from A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle.
Copyright © 1978 by Crosswicks, Ltd.
Published in May 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.