My Heart Laid Bare Part 41

DON'T LET FATHER know. I will call you soon.

Millie, from whom Darian hasn't heard in more than a year, has sent a packet of clippings to Darian, guessing he doesn't read the New York papers, indeed the world of politics and racial strife is distant from him, and not very real; now that he's music director of the Muirkirk Consolidated School District, a position he accepted for the salary exclusively (though it isn't much of a salary, as Abraham Licht allowed him to know), he's too busy to read any newspaper; Millie has sent clippings PRINCE ELIHU SHOT DEAD IN HARLEM the headlines read NEGRO REVOLUTIONARY BY UNIDENTIFIED NEGROES. An ugly account of a black leader shot down in the street outside his fortresslike house, but Darian's perplexed what this has to do with him. He studies the accompanying photographs . . . but this isn't his brother Elisha, certainly; he a.s.sumes Millie means him to think that "Prince Elihu" is Elisha, for otherwise why would she send the clippings and warn him against letting their father know? But this angry-looking Prince Elihu, identified as African or Jamaican, is no one Darian has ever set eyes on in his life, he's sure.

Darian destroys the clippings, not wanting Rosamund to discover them, either. His older sister has had a "drinking problem" for some time, Darian knows, for Warren Stirling has so hinted to him; Darian thinks he'll call Millie soon, yes he should call Millie soon, except he's so d.a.m.ned busy, and what will they talk about?

Better to wait for her to call him. If she ever does.

It's an accident, yet they blame him.

The mailman's low-slung car is stuck in mud out on the Pike, his tires spinning helplessly so what's he do but climb out of the car of course and go to knock at the Lichts' door, he's an acquaintance of Darian Licht, went to school with Darian in fact, but Abraham Licht peering from a window doesn't recognize him, Abraham Licht's eyes are bad and he's had a bad night, a succession of bad nights, he's convinced that his enemies have come for him, federal agents have come for him as long ago they came for him and 'Lisha, and they got away across rooftops barely escaping with their lives, bullets flying past them, bullets grazing their heads, and this is a special order of the secretary of the treasury since Abraham Licht knows the inside story of what happened in October 1929, he rushes for his shotgun, locked in his study and in perpetual readiness for just such an emergency; he means only to frighten away the intruder (he will swear afterward) but somehow one of the barrels is discharged, the explosion is deafening, buckshot shatters a window and sprays gla.s.s everywhere and the kick of the gun knocks Abraham backward onto the floor, and there's Darian white-faced entering the room, Father? My G.o.d, all you all right? and Rosamund behind him staring and Abraham is on hands and knees crawling to pick up the gun for there's another barrel remaining to be discharged, but Darian rudely wrestles the gun from him, Father, no! G.o.d d.a.m.n it no-struggling with Abraham Licht whose shoulder is dislocated, yet he feels no pain, he's ashamed, repentant, a fool in the woman's eyes, he manages to get to his feet and runs from the house by a rear door before anyone can stop him, he's bareheaded, in his shirt-sleeves and stocking feet, he runs into the marsh, without boots or shoes he runs into the frozen marsh where like a cagey wounded old beast he eludes his son and his wife refusing to answer their desperate calls, hiding in the marsh burrowed in icy mud and underbrush for the remainder of the long day.

And when he returns at dusk the shotgun is gone.

And never again will anyone in the household speak of it, including Abraham Licht.

AS IF I never was.

Stooped over the hot flames, poker in hand. Tears gathering in the creases of his face, in whiskers and eyelashes; both whiskers and eyelashes singed; but he's determined to destroy all incriminating evidence; all evidence that involves Abraham Licht; he must erase Abraham Licht; every doc.u.ment, every financial record, every worthless share of stock in every extinct company, Liebknecht's secret formula, his most recent cosmological speculations and coded journal entries and as many as two thousand pages of the memoir t.i.tled My Heart Laid Bare, the work of sixty years and the labor of his life.

Except Rosamund is knocking frantically at the door, begs him to unlock the door, the house is filling with smoke, what is he doing? what is he burning? in the fireplace? but the chimney is clogged as he must know; but Abraham pays the woman no heed, he has broken off all relations with her and with his son, he feels only a lofty scorn for the adulterous conspiring lovers, Abraham please what are you doing? won't you unlock the door? striking her fists against it, she's a powerful woman for one so young, so slender and well-bred, like all of Abraham Licht's wives she's a well-bred woman and yet she has betrayed him, he pays her no heed, he's mesmerized by the fire, by clouds of smoke emerging from the fire, flames leaping and crackling greedy for all he can feed them, a notarized doc.u.ment pertaining to the Santiago de Cuba Company bursts into flame and vanishes within seconds, several yellowed copies of Frelicht's Tips, stationery bearing the letterheads of the Panama Ca.n.a.l, Ltd., and X. X. Anson & Sons Copper and the Society for the Reclamation & Restoration of E. Auguste Napoleon and here's a scented love letter from a woman named Eva (whose heart he broke, she's accusing him) and here a packet of unopened letters from Millicent (who having broken his heart was never to be allowed to mend it) and here a semi-illiterate letter from one "Felix Bies, M.D." threatening litigation and here in a cascade the myriad papers of his memoir and coded speculations on the ligatures between distant constellations and the most immediate human actions, speculations on Past, Present and Future burning as one; for he understands that he must die soon in his sleep or (better still) in the marsh, in the wintry marsh where no one will find him.

So he pays no heed to the woman's raised voice. Or to a child's crying. And by the time his son returns home the task is completed, everything destroyed, or nearly; only blackened and wads of paper remaining; fireplace, hearth, the cluttered room itself filthy with ash.

THE .38-CALIBER HANDGUN. A weight in his jacket pocket. He intends to throw it far into the marsh. Where with spring and the melting of ice it will sink from sight. Where it will never be found or if found linked to him except I refrained from using it, I might have used it yet did not, four bullets were all I would have needed yet I did not, remember me with kindness.


The place where sunlight ages and withers to Night, the place where the trees are Night, where the woman walks in the mist, where the woman brushes her long pale-golden hair and sings, the air winks and glitters with cold, suddenly he's young again, on young springy legs he's running, he's flying, his feet barely skim the surface of the broken marsh, to the East where no one knows him, to the West where no one knows him, to the North where ice cl.u.s.ters are blinding, the winter winds are deafening, someone is whispering his name, someone walking in mist knows his name, it's time she says, it's peace she promises, it's solitude, it's oblivion, it's the place of Night, the place where his children are waiting, where the world's voices converge to one, deafening, and the light blinding, she draws him to her, she whispers his name, his hair is grown long and filmy-white caught in the tallest branches of the spider-trees, lichen grows in patches on his skin, his feet are tangled in the cattails, his fingers are tendrils and roots, the breath that has steamed and panted so hotly turns now to ice particles, the flaring stallion's nostrils are coated with ice, these clutching fingers that are ice, she promises Night, she promises sleep, eyelashes stiffening with ice, the curve of the eyeball hard with ice, the lungs coated with ice, the spinal column that's ice, the veins that are ice, a tree of ice, a constellation of ice, not the most fierce of winter suns can penetrate such trees, not the most fierce of winter winds can melt such trees, such a place of icy sleep, such Night.


Photo by Star Black.

JOYCE CAROL OATES is a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys; Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award; and the New York Times bestsellers The Accursed and The Falls, which won the 2005 Prix Femina. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.

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