David Leo Rice
After centuries of solitary travel across and across and across the Inland Sea, sailing in ANGEL HOUSE from one shore to another to another, compelling a fresh town into being every time I dropped anchor, impressing the reality of Death again and again and again upon all the children of all those towns, only to watch them cluster on my ceiling and melt into tallow, only to pull anchor and watch those towns, so newly created, subside beneath the waves… I have decided to give it all up here.
I have decided to cease all communication with the Totally Other Place and to delete all the emails that I simply addressed “Dear Master,” as if that alone were enough to guarantee their receipt. And perhaps they were received, just as, perhaps, this will be received, yet I must say I have little hope of that. I have little hope, indeed, that I would ever know if it were. And even if it were received and I did know, what then? What reassurance am I, at this late point, still seeking?
If you were going to answer me, if you were going to show, at long last, what good the colossal suffering I’ve caused has served, you would have by now.
Surely you would.
So, if you are listening—after these centuries and centuries and centuries abroad upon the Inland Sea, after engendering all the Death that has ever befallen humankind, just as surely as I also engendered all the birth, and much of whatever counted as experience in between—I am finally done with seeking reassurance.
I am done, most of all, with beginnings and endings. No longer will stories be structured around me such that their inception coincides with my arrival in a new town, and their denouement with my departure. A man comes to town, a man leaves, etc, etc, etc.
I have, in direct rebuke to all that wandering, marooned myself upon an island in what I’ve decided to call the Heart of the Inland Sea. Having discovered this landmass, I am free to name it. Aren’t I? As the soil here is too arid and rocky to support the growth of any settlement, which requires, as I ought to know by now, the swampy groundwater of myth, the epoch of towns, and of townspeople yearning for their paltry cultures to cohere and to prove generative, somehow, of meaning, is behind me for good.
So, what now?
Now, I wander ANGEL HOUSE, marveling at its emptiness, especially that of its ceiling, which was for so long invisible behind a web of decomposing children, clinging there in terror, desperate to forget the reality of Death, which I had impressed upon them on their very first day of school.
The reality of Death. This is what I, too, am endeavoring to find a way to forget. In a sense, perhaps, this is my purpose in undertaking these reflections, though I would prefer to dispense with purpose altogether. How I miss the numbing, spicy tallow that the children, clustered on the ceiling, would drip into my waiting mouth, as I lay naked on my mattress in the Master Bedroom, gazing up at them. I gaze up now, at the oil stains that still mar the plaster surface overhead, and… and yet all that is, as I’ve said, behind me. I stand here before some imagined ‘you’ as a man purged of all mission, marooned on an island in time as well as in space, simply waiting. But waiting for what? Not Death, of that much I am certain.
The Conclusion I have arrived at—and this will be the last time you’ll hear me use that particular C-word—is that Death manifests first in the minds of the living, and only then in their bodies. In essence, then, we would never die if we merely ceased playing host to the notion that we must. I ought to know, as all the people of all the towns that ever existed thought nothing of Death before my arrival, and all died upon my departure. What I mean is I’ve come to believe that, before my Lectures, the children were not only unaware of Death, but actually immune to it. I thus did not simply inform them that they were going to die; I ensured that they did.
So, yes, I intend to live here forever, free of the notion whose name I will no longer invoke.
But what to fill the time with? This is the question I wish to consider, here in the privacy of ANGEL HOUSE, now that it is no longer a vessel of holy terror. On occasion I hear footsteps on the upper floors, or down in the basement, and believe that the interior has taken on stowaways, or else grown sludgy with ghosts, which, after all these centuries, would surprise me very little. But I have yet to discover any proof, and have not gone looking for it.
If there are others here, I would tell them exactly what I am now attempting to tell you, by which I mean myself—affecting my old Lecture-voice just for the fun of it, now that it has been purged of all menace—which is, “So long as your story fits no established form, it need never run from beginning to end, and thus the notion of Death,” I would make an exception to my rule here and mention the term one last time, “need never intrude upon you, just as it need never intrude upon me, leaving us at liberty to live together in peace.”
Discomfited by the turn my thoughts have taken, I walk to the front window and peer out, over the porch and the stairs that lead down to the terra incognita of this remote island. I open the front door and am about to step outside for the first time since I’ve run aground here, when I’m ambushed by a vision of beleaguered children trudging upward, toward the sanctuary that I have promised them ANGEL HOUSE will provide, relieving the very fear I have so recently freighted them with.
Though I know they’re merely apparitions, I turn from them in terror, slam the door and double-bolt it, and run blindly back into the house, uncertain of my direction.
This blind run lands me in the cellar, where I begin to catch my breath beside the anchor that sits embroiled in its chain, rusty and dull from disuse. I run my fingers along its edges and reminisce on the eons in which I’d drop it into the shallow water just outside a new town and thereby initiate the cycle that had already played itself out thousands and thousands of times before, and lose myself, over the course of my year in that town, in the travails of its natives, who invariably believed, having no means of comparison, that they were the first and only souls ever to undergo such torments.
I laugh and wipe a tear at the thought of how long ago that all seems now. Another lifetime, I’d say, if I still had use for such a concept. I shed a second tear at the thought that, no matter how well I knew the nature of the cycle, I too fell into its rhythm in each new town, in a sense sharing the yearnings of the townspeople for a past that had never existed, and a future that would never come. Though I knew I would survive the destruction of their town in a way that they would not, I nevertheless, as time went on, found myself sharing their panic and remorse.
And because it happened to me over and over again, my suffering was amplified, not reduced, as if I too lost something of myself each time a town went under. As if, each time, the tether tying me to the Totally Other Place was submerged a little deeper until, now, it has sunk or rotted away completely.
For this reason, I think, as I wade through a pile of dried seaweed and barnacles, turning my back on the anchor to approach the deeper caverns at the back of the basement, the retirement I have embarked upon is more than merited. Sometimes I wish I’d never set out on my very first journey, that I’d simply stayed on the far side of the Inland Sea, ensconced in the Totally Other Place, though I’ll admit, here in private, that I have no clear notion of what that might have entailed. I have no image whatsoever of a time before ANGEL HOUSE, of a childhood or adolescence or young adulthood, or of any name before Professor Squimbop. I can picture only the sea growing brighter near the horizon, the water turning shallow and sandy, a shore beginning to appear in the distance, and then… a new town, another cycle of one- and two-story buildings rising like mushrooms from the murk and the people there begging themselves and one another to pretend, if only for a few moments, that they were all home at last.
Within the framework of conscious memory, this is all there’s ever been. Though not any longer, I remind myself. Now begins something new. Something built to last.
Or no, I think, not begins, because a beginning implies an end, but rather… is something new. Something new simply exists, implying no forward or backward momentum, no mythic cycle to be enacted, no attempted heroism and eventual triumph or defeat. Simply life being lived, on a plane where time does not pass.
I’m climbing the back stairs when a rustling in the basement violates the calm I’d just barely succeeded in tricking myself into, so I hurry up to the landing and back through the kitchen to the Master Bedroom, where, every night of every school year, the Totally Other Place would pry open the back of my skull to drip raw Lecture in, which I would then, in the morning, firm up in the shower before delivering it to the children in the…
I bolt upright on my mattress in the Master Bedroom, and, still partly asleep, shuffle to the kitchen for a glass of tawny port, though I know my supply is limited and unlikely to be replenished. Sipping before an unshaded window, I look out at the moonlit shore of the island and roll the port around in my throat, swallowing as frugally as possible, until, hearing footsteps, I turn and, for the first time, regard an apparition whose existence I cannot deny. It stands beside the uncorked bottle, watching me watch it take a glass down from the cupboard and pour it full. Then it swirls the syrupy liquid in a slow arc, holds the glass in my direction mimicking a toast, and takes a long, satisfied gulp.
As it swallows, its eyes meet mine and some question, delayed this long, announces that it now requires an answer. Is this a ghost story? The apparition’s eyes seem to ask. Is the point here that you’re being haunted by the victims you’ve left in your wake?
I wonder this as well. I fear that my house is turning on me, generating creatures out of some malicious impulse to quash my solitude. As if by refusing to fill ANGEL HOUSE with children on my own terms, the structure has decided to fill itself with ghosts, turning me, so long the jailor, into the jailed.
Despite the satisfying logic of this scenario, I shake it off as my guest refills its glass, goading me toward anger by further depleting my limited supply. I resist the Gothic turn at all costs. No, I decide, putting my glass in the sink and turning back toward the Master Bedroom, this is no ghost story with its stock haunting-and-exorcism structure, grinding toward some happy or unhappy conclusion. No, I refuse to fear you, regardless of the toll that refusal may eventually take.
I will not fear you, and, what’s more, I will not compel you to fear me. I will not lecture you about Death, nor make any effort to harm you, as Professor Squimbop would have.
Pleased with myself for having made this decision, I shuffle past the ghost and back to bed, only to lie down in sheets that now feel soiled. I pull a pillow over my face and try to blot the feeling out, but I only succeed in rubbing it more deeply into the tender skin around my mustache.
When I wake in the morning, ANGEL HOUSE feels more foreign still. I sit up and briefly entertain the fear that I’m late for school, that my head is full of frothy, unprocessed Lecture, direct from the Totally Other Place, so I run into the shower and turn the water on as hot as it’ll go, and rub a full palmful of shampoo into my thinning hair in hopes of…
“Excuse me,” someone mumbles, “but would you mind waiting your turn?”
Bracing for the sting of the shampoo, I force my eyes open, resolved to face this intruder head-on, but my vision swims and my resolve wavers and, next thing I know, I’m sitting at the breakfast table wrapped in a damp towel, my hair still sudsy and matted down, waiting my turn to fill my mug with coffee.
When my mug is full, I take my place at the table that I still refuse to admit is crowded with presences other than my own, and I try to muster my thoughts into some kind of order, despite this being, if I remember correctly, the precise action I’ve retired to this island so as to refrain from taking. Perhaps some degraded version of the same process that always occurs when I dock ANGEL HOUSE is playing out now, overriding the infertility of the soil here. Perhaps a town is sprouting up around me, even here, even after I’ve renounced my position as the father of towns.
Perhaps, I go on thinking, as I spoon up scrambled eggs from my plate, perhaps I was never the father of those towns. Perhaps I was only ever their inhabitant, one among many.
But then why are you here, I ask myself, when they are not?
When who is not? I also ask myself.
The townspeople, I answer.
Look around you, I also answer. Everybody’s here. The whole town, the town you’ve lived in all along. They’ve all come over for breakfast. Isn’t that nice?
“No!” I shout, aloud this time. I push my eggs across the table, into someone’s lap, and hurry outside, still in my towel.
Shivering in the early morning mist, I run down to the beach and stare out at the lapping waves of the Inland Sea, trying, though I know the effort will prove futile, to gain some perspective. I stare at the featureless water, no other islands visible on the horizon, and then I turn and regard the beached contours of ANGEL HOUSE, smiling at the notion that it was ever an ark. From where I stand now, it looks more like the weather-beaten mansion of some reclusive millionaire, and for a moment I fear to approach it.
I skulk along the beach, wincing as my bare feet crunch mussel shells and jagged shards of sea glass, and I squint at the thick clumps of heather and gorse and at the watery sun beginning to emerge from behind the mist. Before I can stop it, a feeling of homecoming grows out of the dread I’d felt a moment ago. I begin to feel like a sailor who’s been abroad in some Crusade or Holy War and now, at last, after decades at sea and adventures too numerous to recount, I’ve made it home, back to the island of my youth, the one place in all of creation where the sense of lostness and exile abates, and a sense of…
“No!” I shout, again, into the ocean breeze. “No, I refuse to participate in that story. I will not die simply for the pleasure of slipping into a tale of wandering and eventual return. That is not what’s going on here.”
Well then, what is going on here? Part of me asks, but I hardly hear it. Rather than standing on the beach any longer, I’m running back toward ANGEL HOUSE in my bath towel, throwing open the front door and shouting, to the ten or twelve ghosts still lounging at my table, “Out! Everybody out! This is not your house to haunt. Don’t make me tell you again!”
They don’t. One by one, they scrape their eggs into the trash and then, with glances that hover somewhere between menace and regret, they process, drifting an inch above the floor, onto the front porch and down the steps.
As the last one drifts past my ear, she whispers, “Thanks for having us over. See you around town.”
Around town? I collapse at the table once they’re gone and brood over the phrase. There is no town here, I tell myself. There is only ANGEL HOUSE, isolated upon an island where history will never catch up with it, there is only…
No, I hear myself answer, in a voice that is far more convincing than any I could muster in rebuke. No, we are in the town now. The town where we’ve always lived. Relax. All is well. You’ve simply gotten yourself worked up again.
I try to take my own advice, but, over the next few days, the rocky expanse outside my door fills with specters, clotting ever more densely, their translucence growing opaque as they seem to summon one another from a dark realm where they had all, until recently, been waiting for a sign.
But what sign?
As I linger in the ANGEL HOUSE foyer, staring at the wall of flesh just outside the windows, I torment myself with this question, feeling ever guiltier as I fail to produce an answer.
Or no, not quite this. It is, rather, that I feel ever guiltier as the same answer continues to arise from the interior of a mind over which I feel myself losing control. They came, this part of my mind insists, because you summoned them.
You’re wrong about me, I tell the voice, as I empty the rest of the tawny port into the same glass the ghost used, and take it into the shower.
As I stand and sip under the hot spray, willing myself not to think back on those innumerable mornings when I stood right here, waiting for my Lecture to firm up, I begin to think, instead, of a new guise for myself in this town.
Right now, I tell myself, is the last time you’ll remember making this up. As soon as you step from the shower, a complete town will have taken shape outside your doors, and it will be as if you’ve lived there always, as a wealthy man in a mansion on its peripheries, among apparitions that you will, from now on, regard as your neighbors, those with whom it was your lot to live, peaceful and hard-working, if occasionally fractious, as townspeople everywhere occasionally are. Everything will cohere, nothing will end. The clot of flesh on your porch will abate, and you will have no memory of it, nor of the millions of towns that, because of you, are rotting on the bottom of the Inland Sea.
After I finish my morning shower, I shave around my mustache, taking care not to nick my chin. Then I pull on a clean white shirt and a pair of pressed black slacks, pull a crushed silk blazer over my shoulders, step into my worn but freshly polished red leather boots, spritz aftershave on my neck—the same kind my father and grandfather wore—and walk down the front steps of my mansion.
Outside, I follow the path that leads across my lawn and past several grain silos and then through the outskirts, which the train tracks bisect, and from there onto Grove St, which leads, over the course of several blocks, past an auto garage, two bars, a printer’s shop, the police station, and a used guitar store, then joins Main St in the shadow of the old Home State Bank & Trust building, a gothic hulk that now contains a toy store, a ladies’ fashion store, and an open-plan food court with several fine restaurants.
Everything is quiet; the few people out today are minding their own business, smoking and reading newspapers at the tables outside Cara’s Café, or bustling into the hardware store to ask Gerry how to fix whatever it is that’s broken.
When the sun comes out from behind the façade of the old opera house, I begin to sweat under my blazer, and consider taking it off, but I resist for the time being. Though I’m overdressed for the weather, it’s important to keep up appearances as the beloved town millionaire, the philanthropist and patron of the arts, friend of the Mayor and the taxpayer alike, the man everyone knows they can come to if they have a problem. I am, in short, expected to provide a touch of class around here, just as surely as Gerry is expected to provide his customers with the right kind of screw and acid-free drain cleaner.
Crossing the street from the opera house, which has recently been remodeled into a multipurpose theater and today displays posters for an upcoming revival of The Music Man, I enter McCormick’s General Store and head to the lunch counter in the back. I nod at the two older women drinking sodas and chatting behind the register, and wait while one of them bustles over.
A few moments later, I make my way out of the store and along Maritime St, my lunch in a bag under my arm. I pass the library and what used to be the video store, shuttered now, and climb up three steps to the boardwalk that skirts the waterfront.
Here, I take an empty bench with an unobstructed view of the harbor and finally, now that I’m out of sight, remove my blazer and fold it beside me. Then I remove my chips, pickle, can of root beer, and cod sandwich from the bag, and lay them on the concrete by my boots.
Before I begin to eat, I lean back and regard the wide-open expanse of the sea, calm and glimmering in the noontime light. I’m not a man much given to flights of fancy, but I feel a bit reflective at the moment, so I give into it. I think back on my life in this town, where I’ve always lived, and I think of how nothing ever changes, and how lucky we are for that. Everything is perfect just as it is. All the right people are here, and none are coming, and none are going.
I open my soda with a sigh and swirl the cold, sweet liquid around my gums while I gaze out at the unbroken horizon and simply bask in the day’s mellow warmth.
I spend a full hour on the bench, enjoying my sandwich, until, at the very edge of the horizon, a black speck appears. I lean forward, and watch as it takes shape, drawing closer with alarming speed.
I stay riveted, barely thinking, for the rest of the afternoon, as the sun begins to creep lower and the ship takes on size and definition. I can tell, just barely, that if I were to look away now, the speck would cease approaching—perhaps it would even cease to exist—and yet I can also tell that I won’t look away.
It’s now close enough that I can see its windows and molding, and what appears to be a front porch on the side facing land, a floating house rather than a typical ship.
An ark, a voice in my head says.
I clear my throat, determined not to let this voice, which has crept up from time to time over the years, distract me now. Now, of all times, I need to focus.
I rise to my feet as the ark makes landfall, crushing the modest dock just across from where I’m sitting, and I see a male figure emerge from its luxurious interior. He’s dragging a tremendous anchor across its porch, toward the edge, where he hurls it overboard and looks down, as if eager to see it make contact with the silt below. When it lands, I feel the town shake as a queasy purple glow begins to emanate from the ark. Part of my sandwich rolls up my throat and I have to clamp my teeth to swallow it back down.
By the time I’ve accomplished this, the figure is striding down a gangplank and onto the boardwalk, carrying a briefcase in one hand while the other shields his eyes from the setting sun, which now also glows purple. Soon we are less than five feet away from one another. At this distance, there is no denying that he and I look alike.
I know, in what suddenly seems a distant part of my mind, that I should be surprised at this, but I can’t muster anything other than morose relief. I feel my will draining out of me, as if all the shock and outrage I ought to feel were natural resources buried deep underground. Resources I should’ve extracted long ago, when I still had the chance.
“So,” the man says, with a smile. His aftershave is the same as mine, as are his red leather boots. “You’re the Squimbop who tried to quit. Nice of you to come out here to welcome me.”
“My name is…” I say.
He smiles again, winking this time as well. “If it’s any consolation, you almost got away. For a little while, the Totally Other Place wasn’t sure where you were. It was still receiving your thoughts, of course, but it couldn’t pinpoint where from. If only you weren’t such a coward. But we all are, in the end, aren’t we? None of us can live alone for long. As soon you decided to believe in this town,” here he gestures at the street flanking the waterfront, the street that, I sense, I will never walk down as myself again, “you appeared back on the map.”
He reaches out to take the rest of the sandwich from my hand and gnaws appreciatively, taking real pleasure in McCormick’s cod. Then he says, “Well, no sense in waiting around. There’s children here who’ve never heard about Death. I better go remedy that, don’t you think? Want to come along?”
Once he’s submitted to me, he becomes kind of cute. Like a mascot, a furry familiar I can drag with me from town to town, once I get into the swing of my new profession. I ruffle his hair as the two of us stride into the warren of side streets, in search of the main plaza. You were a false Squimbop, I think, a pretender to the name, and now I’m the real thing, vested with none of your failings. Built to do this job forever. Though the Totally Other Place has made it clear that Squimbops inevitably break down after a certain number of centuries, and, having developed psychotic attachments to the towns they’ve been hired to destroy, need to be replaced, this is nevertheless the story I plan to stick to. There has, after all, never been a Squimbop like me before.
When we reach the plaza, I’ll pose my mascot in a seated position and climb the highest thing I can, so as to look down over the children who, I’ve been told, will begin to gather automatically, drawn from their homes by the promise of spectacle.
Once they’re all in position, I’ll clear my throat and begin to expel the Lecture that I firmed up in the ANGEL HOUSE shower just after I spotted land. “Death,” I will tell them, “is real, and it’s here now. You are already producing it, in your minds and so in your bodies as well. Perhaps it wasn’t here before. Perhaps all of you drifted outside of time for a while, but no longer. You had a coward in your midst, a man who couldn’t bear to exist without a story, and so now that story has begun. And all stories that begin,” I will tell them in a minute or two, “must also end.”
Then I will ask if they have any questions and, provided they don’t, I will shuffle off with my new mascot to see about another of those delicious cod sandwiches, before the place that sells them closes for the night.