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The Son

The driver of the carriage is a black bundle of waiting. His thoughts bolt from one meaningless locality to another, mimicking the flight pattern of a May fly. The pair of horses shift their weight from hoof to hoof. One could touch their great soft nostrils which flare and contract, emitting little white puffs of condensation. These two beasts may be the only sentient beings for many miles capable of enjoying this brief entr'acte but they are, tragically, beside the point. Our business is with Monsieur and Madame who have entered the great oak doors of the Département des Morts Libres.
The manager has opened the Book of Lists but the name and the man they seek has not appeared. However, considering the recent unrest, a man may easily have been stripped of his true identity at the end. And so a viewing follows quickly upon the shutting of the book. The inner courtyard is lined with the dead. The diggers, they're told, have faded back into the bush and joined up with the holiday makers. She steps gingerly not to get the rot on her shoes, as they are satin of a faded pink with little fabric roses at the instep, flattened from long-storage. "Oh" she says pointing to a dead Communard who has achieved rigor mortis in a position resembling a tight balletic leap, "Could that be him? Could that be the murderer of my brother?" "What difference could that possibly make now?" asks her companion of thirty years, an aging aristocrat who lives on Campari and daytime television.
Later, sitting in a cafe cordoned off for the famous, they both weep. That was before the waiter arrived with an infant boy, something utterly pure, swaddled in damask and exuding the smell of lilies. She immediately recognized a reincarnated saint. He did not, the years of television having damped his senses to the point of near-retardation. She folded the child into her arms, into the place ready made for holding, a configuration she knew almost immediately.
I say "almost" because there was that moment's awkwardness which he clung to ever afterward, as a justification for his refusal to participate. It proved to her companion, with the force of a sign, that she was unfit for motherhood. "It either is or it isn't," he would often say. But the moment of hesitation, the infinitesimally short crash-course in motherhood, had given her what she would need for the time being.
The crib arrived, something scroll-like from the violin maker who was, after all, in her debt. The room was draped with Venetian cut velvet. A lantern showing the phases of the moon was hung at a central point determined, in reverse geomantic fashion, by her old companion, the doctor. And four monkeys were strategically placed in cages to indicate the cardinal directions. Everything, in other words, was at it should be for the raising of a healthy, psychologically fit child.
And his childhood was indeed a dream of perfection. He grew splendidly, like a well-tempered instrument. The disappearance of the father was never noticed because, in fact, it was never achieved. The old man merely retired to an unused wing of the chateau and installed cable. And so it was that, when the child was old enough to tell primrose from prozac, he discovered the seepage known to the rest of the world as his father. At this moment the entire carapace of maternal care was left behind at the portal like a pair of shoes unfit for a holy and dangerous place.
His father's eyes, he discovered, glancing sidelong at the old man watching TV, had grown a dull membrane from lid to lid, like a cod fish too long at the Chinese Market. The process of petrification, however, was not entirely complete. The old man still laughed at the jokes, good and bad, with a laugh that contained all the comfort of a landscape shifting over subterranean plates. The laugh seemed to contain a revelation that might prove intolerable to the boy. And that is precisely what rooted him to the spot.
You'd think this would be enough to send him scurrying back on his nice, muscular legs to the mother that had gone to such pains to orient him for tractious living. Is there greater joy than feeling the earth move solidly backward under your feet as if, good God, you actually turned it with each foot fall? As if all of us together, with some notions of maps and their reliability, moving across the earth, turned this great, sluggish ball and became, in our little way, like gods? Instead he peeped at his father day after day, as mesmerized as a rube in a side show, watching the campari move slowly down the glass like the red line of a thermometer.
The doctor came by at the behest of the mother. What was she to do? Who rely on? Certainly not the father. Today, as always, he sat fixed, detecting neither the clatter of hooves in the courtyard nor the hurried formalities at the door. The doctor went right to work. First he felt the walls to ascertain the PH factor of the house. He was sure the problem was environmental, being a man of the new science. He sniffed the spices in the kitchen, upsetting the cook's entire day and ran his finger along the top shelf in the library till suddenly he felt the unmistakable point of a revelation. "Ah!" he cried, "The solution, ipso facto, will be simpler and certainly cheaper. Here is the key!"
But when he was lowered back down to the floor, the mother saw that he'd found not a key but, rather, a small dagger. Never the less, they proceeded immediately to the television room. The idea was to slice, with precision of course, the by-now encrusted film that covered the father's eyes. The operation was not contested by the father, though the child needed to be hustled out of the room into an antechamber where he leaped about in slow motion agony. Two snips, a bit of chipping and it was done, all to the sound of canned laughter. Underneath were tears, no eyes. And now there would be no more TV, only tears. Was he pleased as he stood up, spilling his drink? Was he pleased as he stumbled toward the door and careened into the wall? Was he pleased as he made his way to the great out-doors and was invaded by the smells of the garden as if mocked, Christ-like, by unseen hands and lips? They never knew because he disappeared into the shaggy woods, bellowing to be left alone for five minutes.
The doctor, meanwhile, was overcome with public grief and private joy. This was because he knew himself to be the father of this child. The boy, you see, was the product of an affair he'd had on the eve of St. Joseph's day with the wife of a dropsy patient who'd been bed-ridden for some years. The doctor had never known about her pregnancy because, at the suspicious insistence of the sick man, a new doctor, a man with an odoriferous skin condition, had been taken on in place of the spry fellow with the curvaceous hands. It would seem she'd left the infant child in a jar, Roman-style, at the crossroads near the restricted inn. In fact, it wasn't until the child's first birthday, when the doctor had been summoned to mark the occasion with a rectal examination, that he discovered the truth. When he leaned over the boy in the quiet of the examining room, the child had reached up and pulled him close. Into his old ear the one-year-old had whispered the words, "In faxo cum deus minorum." In precise enunciation, he'd repeated the words that the awe-struck doctor had written some forty years ago as a preamble to his over long and self-congratulatory suicide note, an exquisite work that lay collecting dust somewhere in his files.
As to the false father, there was a newspaper article that arrived, many years later, from Papua, New Guinea on the day of the son's wedding. It told of the death of a sightless white man who'd created quite a stir. Having washed up half dead on the shores of Tanna, one of the many islands in the New Guinean archipelago, he'd been taken for a fish with speech, smoked and eaten by several tribes meeting to bury old grievances. Millennial expectations had been rekindled, fires were lit on mountain tops and worldly goods thrown into the sea, giving the authorities quite a nasty situation to deal with.