Loving Little Egypt: A Novel

Loving Little Egypt: A Novel

by Thomas McMahon


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In the early 1920s, nearly blind physics prodigy Mourly Vold finds out how to tap into the nation's long distance telephone lines. With the help of Alexander Graham Bell, Vold tries to warn the phone companies that would-be saboteurs could do the same thing, but they ignore him. Unfortunately, his taps do catch the notice of William Randolph Hearst, who hires Thomas Edison to get to the bottom of them—and the chase is on!

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226561097
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/15/2003
Series: Phoenix Fiction
Edition description: 1
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Thomas McMahon (1943 1999) was the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Mechanics and professor of biology at Harvard University. He is the author of McKay's Bees and Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry, both published by the University of Chicago Press, as well as the posthumous novel, Ira Foxglove.

Read an Excerpt

Loving Little Egypt

A Novel

By Thomas McMahon

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1987 Thomas McMahon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-56109-7


Finally, of course, Little Egypt made a great reputation for himself, and for a few weeks in the summer of 1922 everyone knew his name. The Hearst newspapers reported where he had been detected in various states—in Massachusetts, in Florida, in Michigan, in California. There was the suspicion, at last confirmed, that he was not one person but a whole network of people, most of them blind, all of them intent on causing the collapse of the telephone system of the United States. Because blind people ordinarily achieve little in the way of criminality, this was thought to be marvelous.

In those days, at the height of the glory, people drove their cars through Bucks Falls on Cape Breton Island and said, "What a funny little place, to be the home of a great saboteur."

Before he was a great saboteur he was a low-vision child, and before he took the name Little Egypt, he was Mourly Void, the only son of Peter and Ilse.

From the moment of his birth, it had been apparent that there was something wrong with his eyes. He was an alert child, obviously intelligent, but he paid attention to objects only when they were brought within a few inches of his face. His hearing was normal, even particularly acute, but his vision was weak. In a rare display of candor and honesty, the doctors said they could do nothing for him.

By the end of his third year, it was clear that he possessed an intelligence considerably above normal. He could repeat stories and poems his mother had read to him months earlier. He could mimic the sounds of all the animals—chickens, ducks, goats, horses, dogs, cats, and geese. He could do arithmetic in his head. He could calculate the date Easter would fall upon next year, or the year after that, or many years into the future. Most remarkably, he could imitate absolutely faithfully the voices of all the adults who came within his presence.

More than once, his mother was duped by a shouted greeting, which she took to be her husband's announcement of his arrival, only to discover after a search that she was alone in the house with her little son.

"I thought I heard Daddy coming home," she would say to him when she found him, putting her arms around him and picking him up. "But it was only you, wasn't it?"

Ilse Vold loved her son and disliked being suspicious of him, but sometimes she wondered whether his weaksightedness might all be a ruse. Once in a while it crossed her mind that he might be so wicked as to be pretending it all. Frequently she observed him through a keyhole. Once, she even left the house, banging the front door, and stood on an inverted bucket to see him through the window of his room. On that day, he was playing on his bed with wooden toys. One of the toys fell from the bed and lay on the floor out of his reach. His thick eyeglasses covered half of his little face. The lenses exaggerated his eyes the way a fishbowl exaggerates the fish. She watched him reaching for his toy, patting the bedclothes with gentle touches in random directions, and felt a terrible love for him. Something about the way the light fell on his face and shoulders revealed a beauty in him which shocked her deeply.

As she watched him, she thought how strange it was that he was separate from her, when only so recently he had been inside of her. Then, also, he had been blind and yet canny. He had moved, and reached out with his arms and legs, and his intelligence had begun to stir. Now he was an individual on his own, and for some unfair reason, he was unable to see normally. At this moment, that seemed to be no reason to be less proud of him, to love him any less. She wondered what would become of him, but this question had no power to frighten her.

He grew up a solitary child, with few playmates. From Gillis MacGillivary, who was more than eighty years old, he learned to whistle, and he learned to smoke a pipe.

Old Gillis was then too weak in the fingers to get the pipe ready for smoking. The tobacco was Appleman's Twist. It had to be cut in narrow strips, and the strips had to lie across each other in the bowl like the sticks in a bird's nest. Old Gillis could no longer do this for himself, and yet he continued to have a need for tobacco.

"I don't suppose a boy like you uses tobacco."

"Sometimes," Mourly Void told him.

"As long as you do, you can make yourself useful and get me a smoke."

He was sitting on the floor in Gillis MacGillivary's house, in front of the stove. There were drafts in this house strong enough to blow out a candle. The drafts came in through the cracked panes of glass in the windows, under the doors, and through chinks in the walls. Gillis MacGillivary tolerated the drafts. He spit in a tin pot. He had been a fisherman. He had narrowly missed death by drowning forty-seven times in his life. He had seen his two brothers and his father drowned. He believed in God, but he was not certain this had saved him, since his father and at least one of his brothers had believed in God also.

Mourly Void took the pipe in his hand. It had a surprising weight, and the end of it was rough from having been bitten. The old man was missing teeth, but the few he had left had done their work. Mourly Void bent over the pipe and peered into it, holding the bowl only a half-inch from his eye. The ashes from an earlier smoking lurked there, cold and damp. These residues were as bad-smelling and helpless as the old man himself. Following instructions, he scraped out the ash and cleaned the bowl with a penknife.

"Now cut the tobacco up small," Gillis told him. "There's a way to do it. I can't tell you how. I just found it out for myself. If you're going to do it at all, do it right. Otherwise, the smoke is no good."

Mourly Void cut the pieces into the right size and arranged them in the bowl. He took his time, and he showed Gillis his work at every stage. He tamped the tobacco down with his finger. The only way to tell if it was right was to light the pipe, and so he did. He took the matches and lit the pipe. When it was going well, he passed it to the old man. This is how he learned to smoke when he was nine years old.

It was said afterward that Gillis MacGillivary had taught a little weak-eyed boy to smoke. MacGillivary asked a good question about that: "What does his being weak-eyed have to do with it?"

With few exceptions, Mourly Void's friends were the old people of the town. In addition to Gillis MacGillivary, he visited Fermin Fraser and old Donald L. MacDonald. One of the conveniences of these old people was that they were stationary. He could be confident that he could find them when he wanted them.

There is an irony in the way tolerance skips a generation. Mourly Void received little attention from adults of his parents' age. No one knew what he did with his time. His handicap seemed to make him invisible to most of the citizens of the town, just as they were all but invisible to him. He crept about the neighborhood in search of an education, and picked up what he could from old people.

He heard mainly accounts of life on isolated coastal farms. It became clear that there was always the danger, in such places, of evil charms. A family could keep several cows and get little or no milk from them because the cows of a neighbor down the road would be taking the milk. The neighbor family would be getting milk that wasn't their own. Usually the trouble would be that a woman had put a charm on the cows. She could do this in several ways, but one way was to go to each of the nearby farmhouses and borrow something in order to rob the land and its animals of their power. When a charm was suspected, it was not uncommon for the merchant to refuse to accept a woman's butter if she offered him more than her cows had a right to give. The difference was stolen, and it would be as wrong as taking a stolen horse to take stolen milk or butter.

Certain stories he heard Donald L. MacDonald tell raised questions in his mind about the nature of time.

"You were there, weren't you?" Donald L. MacDonald said once. He was talking with Fermin Fraser on a windy afternoon. Mourly Void sat on the floor between their chairs. "I think you were there. The tree dropped right by his shoulder, and he never looked at it. He never turned, and he never stopped. He just kept walking down the road. Angus MacLeod."

"I remember that," said Fermin Fraser.

"He went on down the road toward Titusville. He should have dropped to his knees, but he acted like he never knew a sign had been given to him. We shouted to him, but he wouldn't look at us. That tree knocked his hat off, and he never picked it up. The clouds came apart and let a little puddle of light down on him. Really, it was just like a little puddle there. Shining, like. And it followed him until he was gone over the hill, into the next county."

"I was there," Fermin Fraser said. "His bald head was glowing."

"We went to his house to tell his wife, and she said, 'He's been here the whole morning.' And she opened the door and showed us. And there he was. This time he turned his face and looked at us."

"That's right," Fermin Fraser said. "That man lived another nineteen years, even though they say that when you see them split like that, they're already dead."

"I'm not going to say he was dead just then and I'm not going to say he was alive," Donald L. MacDonald said. "Nobody knows about these splits in time. You're going to see it happen a little differently, not the way it happened in the past or the way it's going to happen in the future. Now, we saw him walk out from under it, but in the past, years ago, it could have killed him. And we're only seeing it differently. Or it could be something from the future, that's come long before it's supposed to happen."

"I'll tell you something else," Fermin Fraser said. My aunt Jane Morrison saw a man going around the barn. She told her mother, and her mother, my grandmother, went out to look, but he wasn't there. Later, a man came to town selling blacking for stoves and she married him. The first man was a forerunner. My grandmother says she suspected it then, but didn't say anything."

"That could have been," Donald L. MacDonald said. The first man could have been coming toward the house to take her, and time could have split."

"It had to," Fermin Fraser said. "She was too young."

"That's what I mean," Donald L. MacDonald said. He was a heavy man. His chair cried out when he shifted his weight. "There was a reason why he couldn't come in then. The second time was a reoccurrence of the first time, except that he did come around the barn and he did come in."

In the year following Mourly Void's birth, Albert Einstein wrestled with the problem of time. He was then technical expert third-class at the Federal Patent Office in Bern. He ached to become a professor of physics. This seemed unlikely, as he had written only five scientific papers. Two of these concerned his speculations about a universal molecular force. The other three aimed toward a dynamic basis for the laws of thermodynamics. All had fallen short of their lofty targets. Einstein was apparently undaunted by these failures. In the spring of 1905, he wrote a great shower of papers, one of which made garbage out of all classical doctrines of space and time.

The insight had eluded him for a year as he worked alone. One fine day he had visited his friend M. Besso and begun to talk with him about his problems. He told Besso that he felt certain that the Maxwell-Lorentz equations in electrodynamics were true. If these equations were to hold in a moving frame of reference, then the velocity of light should be invariant. But this invariance of the velocity of light was not possible unless one ignored one of the most fundamental rules of mechanics, the rule of addition of velocities. Besso listened to all this patiently. He served Einstein a cup of tea. Einstein ignored his napkin and blotted his mouth with his fingers. Before long, he stopped talking and went away. The next day he called on Besso and said to him immediately, "Thank you. I've completely solved the problem."

What he had done was to tear up the idea that time is absolutely defined. He let there be as many times as there are reference frames. He required only that the laws of physics take the same form in all such frames, and that the velocity of light should be the same, whether the light is emitted by a moving body or one at rest. In his paper, he remarked in casual language that if a clock is taken on a journey around a closed path and brought back to its starting point, it appears to have lost time relative to clocks fixed at the starting point. In this way, preserving the most balanced judgments ever tendered about the nature of space and time, he explained what had always been a source of great wonder until then—how the past may visit the present.


Mourly Vold's father owned a small steam launch, the Kitten. He ran it between Bucks Falls and Sydney, carrying grocer's supplies one way and furniture the other. Sometimes passengers rode with him from Sydney. In foul weather, the people waiting for these passengers climbed up into the bell tower of St. Mary's Church and looked out with spyglasses. They said that sometimes they saw the Kitten's smokestack disappear when she sank into the troughs between the high waves.

When Peter Void had owned the Kitten five years, without asking anyone's advice he dropped the insurance on her, and later people said this was what brought on the disaster. On a day when the snow was falling gently and evenly into the ocean, he left Sydney with a cargo of groceries and hardware for the mercantile store. There was no wind. The visibility was satisfactory, although the snow made the horizon indistinct. In addition to her cargo, the Kitten carried three passengers and six sea gulls. The gulls rode on top of the wheelhouse.

He allowed himself to be drawn into a conversation with Mrs. McPhee, a young widow. In Bucks Falls, Mrs. McPhee was considered dangerous because she wore no corset. He had never spoken with Mrs. McPhee before, nor was he likely to again, at least not on land, because of the risk of scandal. That made this trip something of a special opportunity.

Throughout the morning, as he stood in the wheelhouse, he could see Mrs. McPhee from various aspects. For a time, she stood beside a keg of pickles on the forward deck. The snow began to accumulate on her hat. When she turned her head, Peter Void could see her fair face contrasted against the water. Her eyes appeared to be the same green color as the water, but this may have been only a trick of reflections.

Peter Void liked women and regarded himself as generally skillful in matters concerning women. When he was thinking of himself generously, he gave himself credit for being a patient and persistent womanizer. He put himself in the place of women in order to conquer them. He matched a softness in himself against their softness in order to win their friendship, to slide into their confidence. The trick was to have ambition toward them, but not to display it. Imagine his consternation, then, when he discovered that the sight of the snow melting on Mrs. McPhee's bare neck had thrilled his trousers into an odd shape.

Later, out on the ocean, he lashed the wheel and went out on deck to talk to her. Before long, they discovered that they were the same age, namely thirty-one years. Something about this simple fact seemed to let down a barrier between them. They fell into a conversation as pleasant and sincere as either of them had known in their lives. They spoke about their parents and their spouses, and told each other their most secret dreams and fears, and never noticed the peril descending upon them until the Kitten struck a rock off Cross Island.

"Now look what you've done!" Mrs. McPhee said in a shrill voice. Somehow this remark seemed unfair, and later Peter Void had trouble forgiving her for it. The passengers ran back and forth on the little deck, making the stability of the boat more precarious than it would have been otherwise. The gulls found the rolling of their perches on the wheelhouse unsatisfactory and flew away. Trading on luck as much as skill, Peter Void put the Kitten on the beach at Indian Bay. The tide happened to be falling, so that the captain and his passengers merely waited an hour before walking to shore, and never got their feet wet.


Excerpted from Loving Little Egypt by Thomas McMahon. Copyright © 1987 Thomas McMahon. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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