A Knock at Midnight

Patrick Keppel

Stefan Mauer jerked his head out of the water, spluttering, gasping for breath.  Clinging to the edge of the tub, he felt about in the darkness for a towel and rubbed the sting out of his eyes.  At last he could manage a faint smile—it was after all possible to fall asleep in the bath.  Why, he might have drowned!  And it would have been his mother’s fault, he laughed; she’d nearly begged him to take this bath, as though somehow it were essential to his being that he experience the luxury of their fine new tub, soaking to the point of eternal languor in its bubbling, whirling jets.  Oh, yes!  She had drawn the water for him, opened a new bar of soap, laid out three layers of brilliant white towels.  This same Mother would have checked on him in an hour or so, knocking faintly at the door, and then a little louder . . . Stefan?  No answer—just that endless, tinny version of “Good King Wenceslas” bouncing all around the quiet house, mocking her.  Alarmed, she would have gone to wake his father, who would bang on the door three times with his fist, Come on, Stefan, let’s move it! and then finally just turn the knob, for the door was after all unlocked, and—shriek! The holiday which had gone so splendidly up until then, the whole Mauer family together once more at the old newly renovated homestead, would be ruined.  Stefan’s siblings and their excellent, handsome families had all left earlier that day (after their baths), but now they would have to return:  The Black Christmas.  Years later the tragedy would be a lesson, a warning, to them all:  be prosperous, marry young, have many children, keep your religion—and you won’t drown in the bathtub!

Oh, but that moral wouldn’t sit well with the younger generation of Mauers, Stefan’s nieces and nephews, who as they grew into painful adolescence would no doubt feel compelled to idealize him—their brilliant Uncle Stefan, the only relative who would have understood.  For a time they would bristle whenever their parents said anything which even slightly implied that Stefan had had his faults, had a chip on his shoulder, say, or took the world too seriously. “You’re all just jealous of him, you’re glad he’s dead!” they’d scream and storm up to their rooms, then whisper to his ghost when alone; perhaps on at least one marvelous occasion they’d even manage to see him in their dreams, gently telling them not to worry, they were doing fine.  Later they would write moving memoirs of him in their composition classes:  An excellent example of the power of the word.  You have brought your uncle to life!  (Watch redundancy):  A-.  But then in time they too would begin to forget; one by one they would be pulled back into the safe, narrow world they’d been breathing since birth, would sink deeply into watery reproductions of their parents’ lives and freeze over like a chain of ponds in winter—all save perhaps one stubborn lamb.  Stefan thought he knew already who this would be, his brother Peter’s youngest daughter Stephanie (what a mistake to have fated her thus with this name!), whose first words to her Uncle Stefan when at the age of six she discovered the strange pleasure in family taxonomy were so precisely to the point:  “My father never laughs, and you’re laughing all the time!”

No, Stephanie would never surrender, and so would follow her uncle’s tragic course.  At every opportunity this young, tormented soul would step outside her family’s carefully drawn boundaries—would turn a cold shoulder to profit and property and squander her high marks instead on the tattered academic fringe of the theatre, or some other useless art form; would marry someone the family disapproved of and divorce quietly several years later, childless; and then would pare herself down to her books and music and maybe two friends and live like a monk or an alchemist in a grimy corner of a sagging metropolis.  And despite it all, this neo-Stefan would insist to the rest of her family that she was happy; her way was less comfortable, more lonely, but (as her siblings would know deep down) more true as well—not an inherited, blueprint life, but a world all of her own making.  Nevertheless, thus would she die, suddenly and painfully at the age of thirty-three, the victim of an accident, a slight miscalculation, humiliated, exposed as a fraud:   There!  She should have stayed inside.

Stefan shivered in his steamy bath, groaned into his towel.  Even in jest such fantasies were childish, absurd.  Besides, he certainly had far less reason than most to complain about his family; in fact, often during his youth (well, once yesterday too) he’d wished they’d been openly cruel to him—locked him in dark closets or plunged him into freezing baths—instead of simply selfish and banal.  For it was precisely something like that, as he’d begun to see recently, that he was missing as a writer:  a monstrous tragedy lurking at the center of his life, something compelling and horribly clear which he would have had both to flee from in terror and confront with enormous courage.  It would have tried to crush him at every step, yet he would have fed off it too.  Oh, he’d seen it in others; it was unmistakable when it was for real.  It made one supremely confident no matter what happened; it even made one a little cruel.

Stefan had no such tragedy in his life, or not enough of one anyway—not to make art, as he’d dreamed.  He could teach the subject well enough; every year his passion and intensity won him many wide-eyed disciples.  But the possibility was beginning to haunt him that no matter how hard he worked or how much he wished it, he would create no such tragedy himself . . . and that maybe it was time he gave up trying.

Stefan stood up fast into the chill, so that his eyes went dark with the blood rushing from his head.  Quickly, one might almost say desperately, he wrapped himself in a towel and stood for a long moment listening to the shrill ringing in his ears, feeling the heavy, thumping pulse in his temples.  Finally he emitted something like a growl and gave his head a hard shake:  Just go home and forget everything. Yes, that was all it was; he always felt like this at the end of his visits home, exhausted from trying desperately to fit in on the one hand and to detach himself on the other, presenting a riddle not one of them could solve, least of all himself:  I am one of you, yet not one of you:  Who am I? . . . Right.  On the plane tomorrow he would feel dazed and dismal, but then the following day after a good night’s sleep within his own four walls—fortified by the colorful tiers of books, the delicate Japanese woodcuts that hung over his desk like windows to his soul, and the gauzy string serenades pervading him as subtly as breath—he would wake to who he really was, and recall what happened back here, these petty humiliations, only as a bad dream he would soon forget.

“And then he could enjoy life again,” Stefan was ready to add, but suddenly he stopped his toweling and stared into the tub, into the quiet vortex of the draining water.  And what was that dream he’d just been having, there, in the bath?  Something terrible, he was quite sure, but it eluded him now, fluttered like a moth against dim light, and then was gone.  Stefan breathed a heavy sigh, shivered off the faint dust the dream had left behind, then pulled on his clothes and wandered into the kitchen to boil some water for tea.

“Peter-Thomas-Mary-Stefan?” his mother called from the living room.  She always stuttered through the names of all her children before she landed upon his.  It was an annoying habit, and Stefan was slow to respond, as though to punish her.

“Stefan!” she called out again, an odd touch of fear in her voice.

“Yes, yes, it’s me,” he answered impatiently.

“What are you doing?”

“Making tea.”

“Oh, good!  Have some tea!”  She paused a moment, then added all in a rush, “Well, how about that, huh?  What did you think of that?”

Stefan frowned, genuinely confused.  “About what?”

“About the bath!” his mother sang.  It’s great, isn’t it?  We feel like we’re in a spa.  We sit there and look out the window at the view.  It’s like an inn.  That’s what the Knapps said when we had them up.  You remember the Knapps?  We went from room to room, and their mouths just dropped.  They said, ‘Wow!  This is like a country inn!’  Isn’t it cozy here?”

“Oh, yes,” Stefan said, wincing.  There was a time, almost ten years ago now, when he’d decided he would help his mother overcome this compulsion to ramble on and on about how happy she was.  He would act as her confessor, her refuge in the family, the only one with whom she could throw off her quilt of delusions and admit the truth.  They would converse as they never had before, relying upon one another as they would their most trusted friends, perhaps even more so.  And at first there were a few startling moments when through his persistent questioning she’d broken down in tears, recalling times, awful scenes, when her father, vice-president of the cement mill that owned the small town they now lived in, came home drunk with or without his women and slapped her mother if she objected, or even if she didn’t; and how her mother on her deathbed warned her that she’d have to step in quickly to “rescue” her much younger sister, though from exactly what neither could bring herself to say.

And once the dam had cracked a little wider, Stefan’s mother had proved willing, even anxious, to let loose a steady stream of reproaches against Stefan’s father as well—though first Stefan had had to learn not to be so quick to direct its course.  For instance, in one of their early sessions, when he was only a year or so out of college and Stefan’s father was away on business, Stefan and his mother spent a whole evening lounging in the living room, getting flushed with wine and splitting a secret pack of cigarettes—even now she hid the fact that she sometimes smoked from the other Mauers.  For a while she went on and on about how large and lovely her family’s old home was, and how despite the abuses, “There was at least a sense of refinement all around.”  Then all at once she stopped, gave a light scoff and said what a shock it was that she’d ended up with such a man as Stefan’s father; after all, everyone in those days knew that she, Rivers White of Strawberry Hill, could have had anyone in town.  But “for some odd reason,” she said, she’d ignored all her rich, handsome suitors and instead plucked from the earth below a mate who was markedly uneducated and awkward, a mill worker’s son, no less.

“Well, of course!” Stefan had interjected with a laugh.  “You wanted someone as much unlike your father as possible.  It was your way of fighting back!  You never thought your father would approve, but when he found out Grandma and Grandpa were sitting on property every cement mill in the county had its eye on, it was a deal.”

The last detail Grandma Mauer had let slip to him not too long before she died, and Stefan instantly regretted mentioning it.  For a moment his mother stared back at him in deep confusion bordering on terror. “Oh, no, not that!” she said suddenly, “That wasn’t it at all.  It was just because your father seemed so kind and good-hearted,” she added, then lapsed at once into the familiar romance she’d spun hundreds of times:  The Girl Who Followed Her Heart, Not Her Purse (. . . And Was Rewarded Even So!)

So from then on, Stefan had withheld his analyses; whenever he sensed his mother drawing near the truth, he’d bite his tongue and let her drift on further and further, until at last she was simply there. . . .Yes, yes—the plan was to mold Peter Mauer into her ideal man, but apparently she’d underestimated the coarseness of the clay.  True, she’d managed to push him so hard about money that he actually pulled himself out of the mill and made a good salary in the ink and dye business.  However, although she’d worked diligently to refine his manners and prejudices, he was always an embarrassment at social gatherings, and at home he was often so vulgar and mean she’d finally had to insist he leave raising the children entirely to her.  Not that he was ever cruel, as her father had been, but having been raised with little tenderness in this crude old Mauer farmhouse (“They thought I was spoiled because I wanted them to put in a bathroom!” she often bitterly recalled), he just didn’t know how to respond to family matters of a delicate or emotional nature.  “Every one of you nearly died!” Stefan’s mother once told him angrily.  “Remember Mary’s cyst?  Your burst appendix?  Oh, but your father—what goes on in his head?  When it was all over, he’d say, ‘See?  You made a big fuss for nothing!’  Oh, it’s a wonder I’m not

. . . sick!

Her eyes had filled with tears, but the moment Stefan had reached across the couch to touch her hand, she recoiled and hurried to take it all back:  no, no, it didn’t matter, not a bit of it; at bottom, her husband, even her father, were both “good men”—they worked hard, they were excellent providers, they were very kind and sweet deep down.

Despite these inevitable retractions, Stefan had thought his mother was making progress—especially toward the end of her father’s dismal, self-imposed dissipation, during which she alone of the remaining Whites had bothered to care for him.  Every weekend for nearly seven years, often against the wishes of the Mauers, she visited him in his tiny apartment which he vehemently insisted he was too sick to leave, and which out of sheer perversity he kept absurdly hot, dim and bare.  There was nothing for her to gain—by then he’d thrown away nearly all his money—but she dutifully washed and combed and at last even diapered him as if he were her fifth child; she even made a few genuine attempts to save his immortal soul from the fires of hell that were licking eagerly at his bedsores.  But for all this attention she was rewarded only with the most bitter curses and reproaches, and last words which Stefan sometimes dryly quoted to his drama class as an example of how rare it was when someone actually died as people did on stage, with a characteristic exit line:  “Rivers, you blind idiot!  The lightswitch is right by the door!”

Since it was apparent all along that she was not going to receive even a tiny bit of the approval she was so desperately seeking from her father, Stefan had been worried that when the end finally came his mother might suffer an emotional breakdown of some kind.  However, at the funeral this past March she had seemed unusually calm and lucid—so much so that Stefan had really begun to hope that she would undergo a sudden metamorphosis, that all that heavy pain from the past, all that fear, would just drop away from her, useless in this new life, and there she’d stand in a kind of quiet awe:  how simple it was after all to be alive and free!  And why not?  Such things did happen to people, if rarely.  Indeed, after fitting together a few odd pieces in her behavior—that careful, sustained glance out the window, that sudden smile that had lit her face as she made her way up the stairs alone—Stefan had even believed it possible that she had been consciously looking forward to this day, preparing herself in luxurious secrecy for the ecstatic moment when at last she could step out from behind the curtain she’d drawn over her life and thrill in the light to the sound of her own true voice.  She had confessed to him once that she’d always dreamed of trying to write, as he was; well, now she would write—yes, she’d write it all down, all those thoughts and experiences too long ignored, a paper reality of her dreams, not for the public, not for her family, and not for Stefan (though of course he’d be only too happy to encourage her if she found her first attempts too trying), but for herself alone.

However, ever since then—what had gone wrong?—she had turned in the opposite direction.  Now she rambled day and night about the work they’d had done on the old Mauer farmhouse—gutting the humble dwelling as rock-solid and square as its previous owners and transforming it into a great big burgeoning thing right out of Country Living, with the latest in cathedral ceilings and sun rooms, all exploitive of view.  This was supposed to be the crowning achievement to her happy life; at last she could live according to those famous folksy lines she and nearly every woman of her generation and class had cross-stitched as a girl:  Let Me Live in My House by the Side of the Road and Be a Friend to Man. This little motto was everywhere in the house, most prominently in a bright red tapestry that hung down over the balcony above their new living room.  Oh, she was relentless now; every moment of her day she spent weaving still more evidence into the fabric of her happiness, wrapping it round and round like a silk shroud, and then almost perversely holding it up for all the world to see, no matter how sadly transparent or shabby it actually was.  In a couple of weeks she would send Stefan an envelope crammed with snapshots she’d taken during his visit, pictures of him with this brother or that nephew, their backs stiff, their smiles weary and strained.  On the reverse she would write for posterity’s sake the date and names of the people in the picture, and then a little caption like “This is great!” or “So warm and cozy!”  Her life thus labeled, it must be so.

No, she was beyond help now; there was nothing left for Stefan to do but humor her, as his siblings did, or else ignore her entirely, as his father had done for their entire marriage.

Stefan?!”

“What?”

“Isn’t it cozy?”

“I said it’s very nice,” Stefan shouted, his eyes fixed on the coils beneath the tea kettle.  He would be damned if he said the word cozy.

His mother shuffled into the kitchen, her tiny frame smothered in an immense blue bathrobe.  “Oh, you!  Why don’t you like the house?  We’ve put so much work into it!  And now it’s finally done—well, except for the deck.  Everyone else likes it!”

“It’s your house now, and you can do what you like with it,” Stefan said coolly.  “But I don’t have to like it.”

“Oh, really?  Well, what do you like?”

Stefan gave a shrug.  “I liked the old house.  Grandma’s house.”

“But it was too small for us!” his mother erupted.  “Where would we put everything?  Where would everybody stay?”

“I don’t know,” Stefan said wearily.  “Look, it doesn’t matter.”

“But it does!”

“It doesn’t!” Stefan said sharply, then paused and allowed a warm smile to spread across his face.  “All right, you really want to know what I like?” he said gently, moving over to the doorway that led to the front hall, which was built a foot higher than the kitchen.  He bent down and rested his hand on the step, as though it were an old dog asleep.  “I like this step.  All these years, and I’ve never noticed it.  See how the wood has worn away at the edge?  Feel that.  It’s so soft—it’s like the lip of a clay pot . . . Smoothed by the steps of so many thousands of people.  By pure, simple life.  The simplest thing we have, a step.”

Stefan’s mother gave a light scoff.  “What are you talking about?”

“The whole house was like this,” Stefan said, appealing to her.  “This step is all that’s left.”

“Well, it’s dangerous too,” his mother said, bristling.  “You could slip on that and conk your head.  And how would you like it if we didn’t have a bathroom?  How would you like to have to go outside in the freezing cold?”

“You must know by now that I’d enjoy that immensely,” Stefan said, rising and returning to the stove.  “And let’s not even start talking about those old sheds.”

“They blocked the view!”

“They were the view!  Not just the outhouse, but Grandpa’s workshop!” he added, as though casting shame on her.

“Everything in there was covered with filth!”

“You didn’t even ask the rest of us.”

“Why?  None of you uses tools.”

Stefan looked away, somewhat caught by this line of reasoning.  “No, but . . . I just liked being there,” he said softly.  “I liked looking at all those jars of nails and screws lined up so neatly on the shelves.  And the racks of old saws he saved, and the little scraps of wood.  And the mousetraps still waiting to be sprung—“

“There was nothing of value in there, we checked.”

“It felt like him in there!” Stefan said.  “It was where he went to get away from everything.”

“Well, it was in the way!  It’s our house now—“

“Yes, yes, that’s fine!  I said that to begin with.”  Stefan sighed and shook his head.  I’m finished with all this.  “Look, just forget it; it doesn’t matter to me, it really doesn’t.”

Stefan’s mother crossed her arms.  “Well, I don’t know how you got this way,” she said.  “No one else is.  I think it’s just a pose.”

“You’re right, that’s it,” Stefan nodded.  “It’s just a pose.”  Stefan frowned at the kettle—what on earth was taking so long?  He felt the side of the kettle, and then the coil beneath; both were cold.

“Oh, that one’s broken,” Stefan’s mother said lightly.

Stefan glared at her.  “You just got this stove!”

“I know.  We don’t know what’s wrong with it,” she said, mystified.  “We’ll call and have someone come look at it tomorrow.  Good thing it’s not Grandma’s old coal stove.  Who would we call then?”

Stefan muttered something that sounded sufficiently like agreement, then moved the kettle to another burner and went over to the sink to pour a glass of water.

His mother followed him tentatively, then after a moment came up from behind and gave him a gentle squeeze.  “Oh, it’s been so good to have you here, Stefan,” she said.  “All my chicks are gone but the baby.  Hey!  It’s your day today.  ‘On the feast of Ste-phen . . .’”  She forced a laugh and lapsed into baby-talk. “‘Member?”

Stefan grimaced behind a half-smile.  He peered out the window at the slab of concrete that covered the spot where the sheds had been, and beyond that at the shadowy field, a pristine winter wasteland of frozen dirt and dead cornstalks.  Just then a bright white light shone down, and Stefan took a step back, stunned.  “What is that?”

“Oh, that’s the spotlight,” his mother said, pleased.  “It comes on by itself.”

The concrete slab was now illuminated like a stage, surrounded by a taut hexagonal string of stakes marking the space for the new deck.  The field beyond had vanished.  “For what?!” Stefan said incredulously.

His mother was equally baffled.  “To keep the burglars away!”  Stefan scoffed at her.  “Yes!  And the animals!”

“The animals!” Stefan said, rolling his eyes.

“Well, sure.  Groundhogs do a lot of damage.  And raccoons, and skunks—

“Terrifying.”

“They might be rabid!  They smell food.”

Stefan laughed at her.  “I can’t believe I grew up thinking animals were devious.”

“Well, they are, especially out here,” Stefan’s mother said in deep earnest.  “Give them half a chance, they’ll find a way in.”

“—And dangerous, too.  Like everything.  Like the Boy Scouts—“

“Oh!  Those leaders were bad, they’d have lost you in the woods.  It happens, Stefan!”

“—And riding a bicycle.  And swimming. . .”

“Why are you blaming me?” Stefan’s mother said suddenly.

Stefan was taken aback.  “I’m not,” he said tonelessly.

“I feel like you are.”

“Well, I’m not,” Stefan said, then added after a pause:  “But you have to admit, it was a good thing Thomas almost drowned in that motel pool, or we’d never have learned to swim.”

Stefan’s mother grimaced.  “Oh!  Don’t remind me of that.”

“It was in the shape of a clover,” Stefan said—a detail he never forgot when telling this story.  “Our ball went into the deep leaf.”

“And you kept moving toward him!  I kept telling you to stay back!”

“Your voice was ferocious, it was more like a growl.  You were clawing through the water; your eyes were like knives.  And your teeth!  I’d never seen you like that!”

“You kept wanting to help!  It was awful!”  Stefan’s mother squeezed her brow.  “Oh!  What if I hadn’t been there?”

Stefan gave a shrug.  “Thomas would have drowned.  Maybe we both would have.”

“Oh, don’t even say it!” Stefan’s mother shook her head rapidly, dried her eyes.  “How did we ever get on that?  What were we talking about before?”

Stefan frowned indifferently; he knew he should feel guilty, but he just didn’t.  “I don’t know.  The spotlight . . . the animals. . . ”  Just go home and forget everything. Stefan’s face lit up.  “Wait.  There it is!”

“What?” Stefan’s mother said, looking out the window.  “Where what is?”

“No, not out there,” Stefan said, smiling.  “It’s this dream I had.  In the bath.”

Stefan’s mother was aghast.  “You were sleeping in the bathtub?!”

“Yes!” Stefan laughed, then extended his hands and stared at the space between them, as though conjuring the dream.  “There were these strange lumpy animals . . . or just thick shadows of them, it was so dark. . . . Oh, but first, I was going home.”  Stefan turned to the window.  “ I had to cross the field—my house was on the other side.”

“Really?” Stefan’s mother beamed.  “You know, you could have some of that land right now if you wanted—anything up to the row of pines is ours.”

“But I just couldn’t do it; it was so . . . dark,” Stefan went on, trying hard to concentrate; his dreams were like revelations to him, and he knew if he didn’t remember this one now, he might never.  “Oh, and you’d left the side door and a couple of windows wide open, so I had to go back and close them first.”

“Well, that would never happen,” his mother said.  “That’s the last thing I do before I go to bed every night—set the alarm and try all the doors.”

“Then I went back to the field,” Stefan said.  “But it was so muddy—my foot sank in up to the ankle.  And then there was a storm rising over the pines, huge gusts of wind—ah, yes!  These clumps of dirt kept stinging my face, and I had to turn away for a second.  But when I turned back, the wind had stopped and there were these dense clouds—but then they weren’t clouds at all, they were those animals.  They were like . . . buffalo, or wildebeests—I mean not really, they were just these strange, hairy, lumpy things.  They were almost sad.  They seemed harmless enough—they ran off a little when they saw me—but then the way they spread out, in a wide circle—”  Stefan turned to his mother and smiled broadly.  “Well, they were sneaky!” 

Stefan’s mother laughed incredulously.  “Oh really, Stefan, this is all so ridiculous,” she said.  “I just don’t see the point.  Why do people always make such a fuss over dreams?  I don’t dream, or if I do I can’t remember.  To me, it’s just not necessary.  Not if you have God.  Believing in dreams is like, I don’t know, believing in astrology, or tarot cards . . .”

As she spoke, Stefan kept straining after the rest of the dream, but it was fading from him fast, and at last was gone, lost in all the chatter.  Vexed, he moved back over to the stove and noticed that he’d placed the tea kettle on the wrong burner.  He snatched up the kettle and dropped it noisily on the coils that were lit.

“Oh, I do that all the time,” his mother laughed.

“It’s endless!” Stefan muttered to himself.  “I’m done with all this!”

Stefan’s mother stared back at him.  “What?” she asked, aggressive, but a little frightened too.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Stefan turned and faced her.  “Tell me about your plans for the deck.”

His mother’s face instantly brightened.  “What?  Oh!  The deck, the deck, yes—you haven’t seen those.”  At once she scurried down the hall and into the study, where she began searching for the plans.  “The lumber is coming in March.  We wanted the builders to start right away, but they said the wood is pressure-treated and has to dry out for a month or so.  If you start before the preservative has dried, the wood shrinks in place and leaves much bigger gaps between the boards than you want . . .”

Stefan followed her, but then stopped at the front door and stared out through the curtain into the cold darkness, across the narrow road passing just in front of their porch to the dead fields beyond, then back again to the surface of the glass, where his own face was reflected, weary and flushed from his bath.  He pressed his forehead to the glass and kept it there, absorbing the cold sting, searching for that dream.

“. . . Dad thought it was just the opposite, that after all that pressure the wood would expand like a balloon, but he doesn’t know. . .”

And soon it began materializing in fragments, blurry stills that slowly bled into the next until at last they blinked and rolled like an old film:  the dark, empty field; the open windows and doors; and then the mud, the sudden squall and the stinging flecks of soil; and then at last out of a chain of dense, black clouds, those hapless animals that run off when they see him, but never really go away, just stand lurking in the distance, waiting . . . for what?

“ . . .They said in fact sometimes the wood shrinks so much it cracks! . . .”

He looks away for a moment, searching for some other way around, but when he turns back he sees they’ve crept back closer to the edge of the field than before.  They stand there like slabs of stone, like the jagged crenelations of a ruined castle, the broken arc of some ancient calendar . . .

“. . . I told them ‘Good!  Let it dry out as long as possible!’ . . .”

Their huge black eyes stare off to one side or the other, but are watching him too; certainly they are watching him.  It’s amusing in a way, but he can’t quite bring himself to pass through their ranks, their silent picket line.  What do they want?

“. . . We don’t want any cracks or gaps, like the Knapps

have . . .”

He tries again to cross, but the same thing happens—first the mud, then the storm, the clumps of dirt, and last the dusky clouds, the retreating, encroaching animals.  What are they guarding?

“. . . Oh, theirs is terrible!  And only one level.  Ours will have two levels, eight-by-eight for the upper and ten-by-twelve for the lower, with a two-foot rise between. . . ”

Stefan pressed his face harder against the window, as though that would help him see beyond the line of animals in the dream.  But just then, a black glove reached up from below and brushed hard twice against the glass.

Stefan jumped back as if he’d been struck, then slowly leaned into the window again and peered out.  On the porch stood a man in a black jacket.  He was hunched over and breathing heavily between low, incoherent moans, as though drunk.  At last, after an immense effort, he managed to pronounce one word:  “H-hel-p.”

Stefan slowly backed away from the door and drifted in a kind of daze to the study, where his mother was still rooting about for the plans for the deck.  He approached her timidly.  “Did you . . . hear anything?”

His mother whirled around in terror.  “What?!  What?!”  Just then the glove scraped once again, louder this time, against the pane.

“There’s someone outside,” Stefan admitted.

“Oh my God, who is it?” Stefan’s mother cried.

Stefan shook his head.  “I don’t know . . . Some guy . . .”

“Some guy?!  Who?!  We’re not expecting anyone at this hour!  Oh, God—come with me, come with me!  Don’t let him in.  We’re not letting him in.”

Together they sidled into the hallway, trying to be quiet.  Stefan stood in front of her and edged to the door, peeked out, and flicked on the porchlight.

A horrible sight!  The man stood gazing into the harsh floodlight like some grotesque wax figure, his face a bluish mask rivered with blood, the brightest red imaginable.  “H-help me-e!” he moaned, his lips freezing at last in a ghastly oval, red and wet.  This wisps of vapor twisted up and out of his mouth like a slow leak.  “S-some-body . . . h-help!”

Stefan withdrew from the door and turned to his mother, who was standing at the other end of the hallway wringing her hands.  “It’s a man,” Stefan said.  “He’s bleeding.”

“Oh, God!” his mother said through her fist.  “Don’t let him in, we can’t let him in.  It might be a trick.  You know that’s how they do it sometimes.  They get you to let them in, and then they knock you over the head—what’s that?!”

Just then the tea kettle had begun its piercing shriek.  All at once Stefan woke from his daze and strode quickly past his mother into the kitchen and turned off the stove.  “We’ve got to help him—”

“No!  Don’t let him in!” his mother shouted with desperate vehemence.  “We can’t do anything!”

Stefan snatched up the telephone receiver and waved it at her aggressively.  “I’m just dialing 9-1-1!”

“Oh, good—Wait!  We don’t have 9-1-1 here.”

Stefan groaned.  “Then what’s the number for the police?”

His mother bit her fist.  “Oh God, I don’t know, I don’t know!”

You don’t know the number for the police?!” Stefan snapped.  He dialed the operator and after being passed along many different channels, finally was connected to the Bethlehem police.  In a faltering voice he described what was happening—there had been an accident, perhaps even a shooting!—and requested an ambulance.  “We’re here in Olivet—”

“Four Corners Road, number 4,” his mother said.

“Four Corners Road, number 4.”

“Take the left off the Pike at the nursery.”

“Take the left off the Pike at—”

“Where is the man now, Sir?” the young woman’s voice at the other end broke in.

“He’s on the porch,” Stefan said.  “We haven’t let him in . . . just in case.”  Stefan thought he heard the woman snickering to herself.  After a lengthy pause, she came back on the line to tell him someone would be right over.  Stefan thanked her awkwardly, then slowly returned the receiver to its cradle.

“Oh, that’s good, thank God,” his mother breathed.  “They’ll get here and take care of it.  I don’t know why I don’t have the number right there.  For all those years Grandma always kept the number right there—Stefan!  Where are you going?” she shouted as Stefan glided on by, his gaze fixed on the door, which drew him on like a magnet.  “Stay back here!”

Stefan stopped and turned on her angrily.  “I’m just going to talk to him,” he said.  “Tell him that help is on the way.”

“Oh, good, good, that’s ok—but don’t go out there!  Ah!—I’ll go wake Dad,” she added, her face suddenly brightening—at last she could be useful too!—and scuffled off through the kitchen to their bedroom at the back of the house.

As soon as she was gone, Stefan hurried to the door, then stopped just short and slowly leaned in to the glass.  The man outside seemed younger now than before, perhaps in his mid-twenties.  He was leaning on the porch railing; one by one, great drops of his blood fell off his face and splashed onto the grey-blue slats below.  His head was still turned toward the light, his face twisted in silent agony, but his eyes were now sealed shut with clotted blood.

For a long moment Stefan did not speak, did not even move, but instead just continued to gaze though the window as though he were standing before a painting in a museum.  Finally Stefan’s lips parted, but words evaporated in his uncertain breath, condensed in a faint cloud on the glass between.  “H-Help Is On The Way,” he pronounced at last, his voice buzzing against the glass like a trapped fly.  “Help Is On The Way.  It Will Be All Right.”

At this, the young man began to lean back ever so slowly—clicked on, it seemed, animated by his audience, like a funhouse robot or a streetmime.  His red mouth widened, as though he were about to laugh.  “I’m s-scared,” he moaned.  “I’m s-so . . . scared.”

Stefan paused, took a step back.  For a moment he wondered whether this might be some kind of trick after all.  There seemed to be something suspiciously rehearsed in the young man’s words, an underlying “purpose” one might detect in the pitch of a con-man determined above all to be let inside the door.  In light of this, the blood seemed an even more impossible red, like the fake splattering they used in the theatre.  And besides, there had in fact been a story circulating about a murder that had been committed in Bethany, the next town over. . . .

But then all at once Stefan frowned in self-reproach.  What utter nonsense!  He’d just told the man that Help Was On The Way.  If he were a criminal, he’d have fled at once.  Stefan went back to the window.  Slowly the young man began to sink down, down, until at last he was sitting on the porch in a smear of blood.  He was scared—obviously!  He probably just wanted someone to hold his hand, his bloody hand.

“Is he still there?” Stefan’s mother whispered as she reappeared in the hallway with his father, who surged past her looking large and angry, his bleary eyes trained intently on the front door.  He seemed ready to punish someone, anyone, and Stefan instinctively stepped aside.  His father glanced through the window, then quickly turned away.  “Was there an accident?” he said, heading off toward the living room to look down the road.

Stefan’s mother made an answer as though he’d expected one—they didn’t know what was happening; they just heard a knock, and there he was!—then gazed off toward the living room, anxiously awaiting some new information, or else an order, some useful act she could perform.  When her husband didn’t respond, she turned to Stefan.  They stood there motionless, an oppressive silence between.

“What’s keeping them?!” Stefan said through his teeth, though it really hadn’t been all that long.  Wringing his hands, he retreated into the kitchen.  His mother trailed after him.

“You did the right thing, Stefan,” his mother said.  “They’ll come and take care of it.  I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d been alone.”

Stefan glared at her for an instant, then slowly let his eyes fall to the red swirls marbling the tiles below.  Suddenly he felt queasy, light-headed, oddly wounded by that plainly terrible fact—yes, in that case the young man surely would have died.  But as clear and awful as this fact seemed, it was really no more than a thin veil covering another that was far more appalling; when all at once the veil dropped, vanished like a scrim, Stefan recoiled in horror:  Was he not dying even now?  He spun around on his heels and as in a dream, ghostlike, glided rapidly toward the door.

“Stefan!  Stay back!  Don’t open it!”

“I’m not!” Stefan said and pulled up just shy of the door, as though if he would but touch the knob he would be instantly electrocuted.  He peered out at the young man—a boy actually, perhaps no more than sixteen.  “It’s ok, it’s ok,” Stefan said through the glass in a softer tone than before.  “They’ll be here soon . . . Hang in there.  You’ll be all right.”

This time the boy didn’t answer, but just sat there on the porch in his steamy red smears, sobbing and shivering.

Just then the police drove up.  “They’re here,” Stefan announced with great relief.

“Oh, good!” his mother sang and rushed toward the living room.  “Peter, the police are here, you better—”

“He didn’t make the turn,” Stefan’s father broke in, then added somewhat angrily under his breath, “They always have to drive so fast.”  He steamed right past them both to the kitchen and went out through the side door.

“Oh!  You better go outside too, Peter-um, Stefan,” his mother said, gesturing to him wildly.  “They’ll probably want you for something—to make a statement or something.”

Stefan drifted past her and out the side door.  He joined his father under the pear tree about ten feet from the porch and watched silently through the pulsing strobe of red lights as the two policemen bustled about the injured boy.  Gently they laid him flat on the slats, then one pressed a cloth to his head, while the other began at once to clear the porch of its decorations, grabbing the copper milk can and electric candle by the crown and neck and setting them down over the side railing.  As swiftly he seized the bench, but struggled when what was resting on it—a large, densely woven wreath knotted at the top by a huge red bow that read Mauer’s Farm in gold script—began to roll out from the side.  He glanced toward Stefan and his father, and at last the latter stepped forward in a rush, received the bench and wreath as they were lowered from above, and set them gently on the grass beneath the pear tree.

“Stefan!  Get your coat on!”

Stefan looked behind him at his mother standing alone in the doorway, stared at her uncertainly for an instant, as though through dim glass or a fog.  She seemed miles away, and very old and frail besides—someone’s grandmother shivering in an enormous blue bathrobe.  Stefan glanced down at his black t-shirt, his bare arms bathed in flashes of red light.  “I’m not cold,” he said curiously.

Just then a fire truck drove up noisily and was directed by the police down the road to the scene of the accident.  Stefan’s father watched them pass, set down the milk can and candle with the other things, then turned and strode rapidly toward the house.  “I’m going to call the Knapps,” he announced.  “They might see all the lights and start to worry.”

“Good idea!” Stefan’s mother exclaimed and followed him into the house.

Stefan turned back to the porch.  The policeman with the cloth was kneeling closer to the boy, who was moaning faintly, trying to speak.  “It’s all my fault,” he finally managed to sob.  “I was . . . I was going too fast, I—”

All at once he stopped, perhaps even passed out.  Stefan shut his eyes, embarrassed to be gazing upon the boy’s desperation—his futile hope that if he but told the truth, took all the blame, then somehow everything that was happening now would stop, and all would return to the way it was before, except that this time he would be more careful, always and forever more careful, in every way imaginable.  This plea, this innocent attempt to invoke magical powers long disbelieved, made the boy seem even younger than sixteen, a mere child of twelve, or eleven, ten . . .

“Better not touch those.”

Stefan turned around abruptly, then followed his father’s gaze down toward a pair of bloodstained tissues lying at the foot of the milk can like orchids.  “You never know what kind of . . . diseases,” his father went on in the same low voice, then handed Stefan a wool overcoat.  Stefan took it as though it were some tool he didn’t know how to use.

“Put it on!” his mother called from the doorway.  “You just had your bath.  Your pores are open.”

Stefan stared at the coat until at last he recognized it as the Christmas gift his parents had given him only yesterday, then slowly put it on.  Suddenly in its warmth he felt very cold, or else felt only then how cold he had really been.  It was probably nearly freezing out, and he’d been standing there in just a t-shirt.  All at once he felt ridiculous, useless, and so headed back inside.

“Yes, come inside, it’s cold out there,” Stefan’s mother said.  She followed him anxiously into the kitchen and then into the hallway.  Finally he stopped a good distance from the front door, and so she stopped.  “Dad called the Knapps so they wouldn’t worry.  I’ll call the Wands first thing tomorrow.  It won’t take them long to hear about it—you know how people talk!  It’ll be all over town that we had some trouble here.  Who knows what everyone will think!—”

“He’s just a kid,” Stefan broke in abruptly, then trailed off.

“He is?” his mother said to fill the gap.  “Well, you did the right thing, Peter-um, Stefan.  We couldn’t have let him in.  We didn’t know who he was, he could have been anybody—”

“I knew he wasn’t a criminal.”

Stefan’s mother looked stunned.  “How?”

“Because I told him help was on the way and he didn’t run off,” Stefan said rather sharply, then grimaced, recalling his own doubt.

Stefan’s mother searched his face, apparently a little unsure why her son was so agitated.  “Oh, you did?” she said, weaving this detail into the story she would tell tomorrow.  “That was a good idea—very clever.”

The side door creaked open, and Stefan’s father quietly joined them in the hallway, his eyes on the floor; perhaps he too had begun to feel a little useless outside.  For a moment the three of them just stood there frozen in an awkward silence, which as always Stefan’s mother felt compelled to break.  “What’s happening?”  she said to her husband.  “Did they ask you for a statement?”

Stefan’s father stared past her, rubbed his elbow.  Just then there was a knock at the front door, and he lunged forward to open it.  A policeman poked his head through the crack and asked politely if they might use a blanket.

Stefan’s father nodded, shut the door.  “A blanket, they need a blanket,” he said, charging back down the hallway.

Stefan’s mother bit her fist.  “Oh, God!” she said, following her husband.  “We don’t have a blanket!”

“You must have a blanket!” Stefan muttered under his breath, and then he too followed.  Together they paraded through the kitchen to the closet near the bathroom.  Stefan’s father threw open the door, and all three Mauers stared dumbly at the six shelves crammed with fat, flowered blankets and thick stacks of colorful towels.

“We don’t have any blankets!” Stefan’s mother said again.

Stefan’s mouth fell open.  He turned to his father; apparently he agreed there were no blankets in this closet.  Stefan tore himself away and reeled back to the hallway.  He looked at the door; they were out there, waiting for their blanket:  What’s taking those people so long? Filled with shame, Stefan thought of offering the police his new overcoat; he even started to take the awful thing off his back, and for an instant actually saw himself opening the front door and stepping out onto the porch, kneeling next to the boy and gently swaddling him in the coat, brushing his matted hair from his eyes.  Shhh.  Lie still.  I’m here.  It’ll be all right . . .

But then all at once Stefan woke from his reverie and shook his head miserably.  No, he couldn’t do it, couldn’t bear to make it all so clear—spelling out his parents’ selfishness in a young boy’s blood!  He was embarrassed for them, and in truth even a little afraid of how they would react; for when they found out what he’d done, they would no doubt recoil from their exposed shame and go on the defensive right then and there, even while the boy still writhed right outside their door.  How could he do such a stupid thing? they’d shout at him.  Oh, he always had to be so dramatic.  Of course they weren’t going to give them one of their “good” blankets, they weren’t expected to; no one would do such a thing.  “Well, now you don’t have an overcoat,” his father would say in disgust to end the discussion, as though Stefan couldn’t possibly have realized that that would be the result of his rash act.

So Stefan put his coat back on.  No doubt the policeman would have been surprised and embarrassed by the gesture; he’d have probably just handed the coat back:  Any old blanket would do fine.  Stefan shivered, wrapped his arms around his stomach.  He felt trapped, frozen to his spot; meanwhile, ten feet away a boy was going into shock.  It was awful!  Oh, if only this had happened outside his front door, it would all be so different. . . .

Stefan’s parents stepped briskly into the hallway.  “We might have something upstairs,” his mother said calmly, like a store clerk.  Stefan paused a moment, then followed them up; this time he would grab the first thing he saw and run like a thief no matter what they said.  At the top of the stairs his father and mother stood gazing into another closet stuffed with blankets.  Stefan was about to push between them when Stefan’s father selected a thin, pale blue blanket from the top left shelf.  “Good, that one,” Stefan’s mother said.

“I’ll take it down!” Stefan said, seizing the blanket.  He ran downstairs, down the hallway, and out the side door, but then slowed to a stop at the pear tree.  The paramedics had arrived and were scrambling to get their equipment out of the ambulance.  One of them was spreading a sheet of yellow canvas on top of the boy to keep him warm.  Stefan stood there for a moment in awe of those who knew precisely what to do to save lives.  He felt useless again, his parents’ threadbare blanket dangling from his hand.  But at last he shook himself free and timidly approached the porch.

“You still need this?” he said.  The policeman who before had been pressing a cloth to the boy’s head looked at Stefan as though he were standing in some distant world.  He took the blanket without saying a word and laid it down on top of the boy, whose legs at once began to quiver.  He was unconscious, in shock; a faint cloud of steam rose steadily out of his open mouth, until the paramedics snuffed it with an oxygen mask.

Stefan turned away, squinted up at the crisp winter moon glaring down through the spiky black shoots of the pear tree.  He thought of his grandmother who had died in this very house, died in the very bed in which she was born, and how one misty night just before she was buried he had come out here to the yard and all at once stood deathly still, knowing as sure as he lived that if he were ever to see her spirit, taking one last look at the farm that had been as flesh and blood to her, one last look before it was swelled and lacquered into The Country Inn, The House By The Side Of The Road, it would happen right then.  He’d peered bravely into the mist swathing the edges of the rotting barn and sheds, alert to any shapes or shadows dancing at the corners of his eyes, ready to whirl and see her standing there as plain as day, smiling, child-like, as though playing a game she’d let him win.  But of course nothing had happened, and he’d shrugged and gone inside; it had been a ridiculous notion, but at times later he suspected he just hadn’t been patient enough, that he just hadn’t believed . . .

Stefan felt the same way now.  He wondered whether the boy would die there on their front porch, or whether he might already be dead and gazing down at them all, as many people who had come close to dying later claimed to have done.  Stefan glanced suddenly to his left, to the empty swing dangling on rusty chains from the apple tree, then straight ahead to the dead fields beyond, where blades of red light fanned wildly outward in a wide arc to the invisible horizon, as though on a desperate search for the boy’s confused and drifting soul, hoping with their garish touch to sweep it back into this safe world where presumably it still belonged.  Stefan followed the sweep of every blade, his heart skipping at the sudden gleam of a stone or a darting rabbit, then peered hard between the blades, until instead of a flurry of motion he saw only a vast stillness, a taut red web with a black cloud looming at the center, formless, empty—if that was where the boy’s soul had fallen, who dared follow?

Stefan sighed and turned back to the porch.  The paramedics picked up the boy on their stretcher and quickly carried him down the steps of the porch.  The policeman to whom Stefan had given the blanket stood nearby, and together they watched the paramedics load the boy into their ambulance.  “Will he . . .” Stefan began, then faltered.  “Do you think he’ll be all right?”

The policeman sighed.  “I don’t know,” he said, then added more reassuringly, “Oh, I bet he will.  He lost a lot of blood, but he should be okay.”

Stefan stared hard at the man.  Unlike a lot of cops Stefan had met, this one seemed straightforward and sincere, even kind in a neighborly way—why, then, was it impossible to believe him?  The policeman turned away and went back to the porch, where his partner had already begun wiping bloodstains off the railing with his handkerchief.  Stefan’s father returned and stood next to his son in silence.  Finally one of the policemen looked up at them.  “You know, if we could get a bucket of water on this . . .” he said politely.  “I mean, you should probably get this off before it dries.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure,” Stefan’s father said and charged off as before.  This time, however, he was back in no time with not only a bucket but an old broom as well.  The policemen stepped aside as Stefan’s father carefully poured out the soapy water over the bloodiest areas.  The porch sizzled, and wispy clouds of steam rose up from the slats.  The policemen went back to work with their cloths, while Stefan’s father grabbed the broom and, in a series of quick hard strokes, scrubbed up a milky red froth.

Stefan gasped and let his head drop to his chest, then gently pressed his eyelids shut with his thumb and forefinger.  He felt drained and strangely detached, as though he were standing in a fog.  He had an intense desire to run headlong into the field, or to anywhere, yet at the same time he felt utterly inert, as rooted to the spot as the pear tree or the house itself.  Then he heard another splash, more scrubbing, and Stefan turned on his heel and hurried into the house.  Once more his mother was standing just inside the door to greet him.  “What’s happening?” she asked, still breathless.

Stefan slowly took off his overcoat and placed it in its box.  “They took him away,” he said, then added after a pause, “The police say he’ll be all right.”

“Oh, good,” Stefan’s mother said, clasping her knotted hands to her chest

“But I don’t believe them,” Stefan cut in.  “I think he’s dead.”

“No, Stefan . . .”  Stefan’s mother turned away, smoothed her robe.  “Oh, the poor boy,” she said, blandly grave.  “Well, it’s in the Lord’s hands now.”

Stefan raised his eyes and glared at his mother, his lips parting, poised to rebuke or to smile.  Surely there was no Lord here, no room for Saviors in this Country Inn. . . . The poor child, the star eclipsed after just one day, the Word silenced before it can be spoken, the Play closed down before it even opens.  The spotlight flickers and goes out; the stage is broken down in pieces and sold for scrap.  Angels curse their luck and scour the want-ads.  The Author is disappointed, but philosophical; even had the Play gone on and on, its praises sung on every continent, it would only rarely have been understood and would have made no real impact on the world, would have changed none of the corrupt institutions it held up for scorn.  No, it’s much easier this way.  The shepherds follow their usual routine, do their jobs as they’re supposed to; the astrologers stay home, content to gaze only at their own skies.  Herod rests easy, even shrewdly turns the star’s death to his political advantage, making a great show of his benevolence by calling off the massacre.  The blind remain in the dark, the dumb keep quiet, and except for the lucky ones hoarding their scraps of bread and fish, the multitudes go hungry.  The knock at midnight goes unanswered, and the Prodigal Son is turned away.  There is no hope of a revolution to be crushed, no Passion, no pain, and no butterfly dream of salvation.  Needless to say, the dead stay dead.  No, there was no use bothering with all that.  The Play’s aborted run makes only one real difference, and it’s strictly personal:  now there’s a little less to remember, a little less to desire, one less story to make life seem more real.

“Well, you did the right thing, Peter-Mary-um, Stefan.  It’s very dangerous to let people in when you don’t know them.  They could be anybody.  Did I mention there was a murder nearby?  In Bethany—that’s just down the road! . . .”

Stefan turned away and fled to the living room, but his mother scurried after him.  Beneath all her banalities his mother sounded oddly angry, as though she were berating him for something, demanding an apology for having wounded her in some way.  And it wasn’t fair—it was the other way around!  He tried to take refuge in whatever he could—surveying the Christmas tree ornaments, peering into the proscenium of the crèche, poking at the molten coals in the fireplace.  But these evasions were simply absorbed into the relentless rush of words spilling out of her.

“. . . Wasn’t it a nice tree?  I noticed you hung Grandma’s old decorations.  I left them for you, because I know how much you like them.  Oh, we were so worried about Grandma when she lived here.  Imagine!  All by herself!  I don’t know what I would’ve done if I had been alone.  You did the right thing, Stefan.  Oh, did you see?  Look on the mantle.  See the Wise Men?  Remember how you used to move them a step every day until the Epiphany?  It was so cute, you used to measure it out first.  Oh, might as well let the fire go out, honey.  We’re going to bed soon.  I’m tired, how about you? . . .”

Stefan spun away into the library, and he might have kept going on and on through the whole house, into the bathroom for another long bath if necessary, except that at the threshold of the front hallway he heard that awful scrubbing going on just outside.  Stefan stopped in his tracks.  Tomorrow all traces of the boy would be gone.

“. . . Is Dad still outside?  What are they doing out there?  Did they ask you for a statement?.  Oh, that’s right, it’s different where you are.  I’ll bet things like this happen all the time.  We don’t expect all this excitement here. . .”

And what remained?  In a kind of desperation Stefan let his eyes glide over the spines of the books no one read and the keys of the piano no one played; over cabinets crammed with the fat scrapbooks that proved what a happy life the Mauers all had; and over the shelves of family photos, over the whole section of wall devoted to his awards and degrees, a kind of apology for the fact that he had produced no progeny, a way of filling in what they all perceived as an embarrassing absence in his life, and thus in their lives too.  His mother had left some space, but there would be little else to add from here on.   Perhaps if the boy outside had survived he would have written the Mauers a thank-you note they could frame and display here like a trophy:  The Boy Whose Life Stefan Saved.

“. . . Well, we’ll certainly hear about this tomorrow.  It’ll be all over town.  You know how people talk.  I know the Knapps will want to hear every little thing.  Oh, I have your awards up—did you see?  What a story!  Now this would be something to write about!”

Stefan grimaced, locked his hands against his abdomen.  How had he ever thought he could write even a single word?

“You can’t help it,” he muttered to himself.  “You’re just miserable.  I can’t do anything to help you.”

His mother recoiled.  “Stefan!”

Stefan turned and faced her.  Her eyes were red and pleading, her hands twisted in the same knot as his.

“We did it,” Stefan said in a kind of trance, his eyes fixed on those hands.  “We killed him.”

“We what?  No!”

Stefan nodded, almost elated.  “We’re monstrous!”

“Stefan, what are you saying?!”

Stefan’s mother was terrified, right at the very edge of tears.  “Shh.  It’s over now, it’s all right,” Stefan said, embracing her.  “I’m here, I’m not going anywhere, not really.”  Stefan gave a short laugh.  “I can’t!”

“I don’t understand,” his mother said.  “What did you mean by that?”

“Never mind.  It doesn’t matter,” Stefan said, releasing her, then looked down at the desk, on which were the scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  His mother had assigned him the task of assembling it a couple of days ago, had seized his arm and led him into this room as though a marvelous surprise awaited him there.  “Remember how good you were at these?” she’d asked, sitting him down at the desk.  She’d opened the box, set the lid up as his model, and then had run off to gather a few of his nephews and nieces to pose with him over the puzzle in a photograph:  Uncle Stefan the Puzzle King Shows How!

“I’m sorry.  Here, sit here with me.  Help me finish,” Stefan said gently, sitting down at the desk and lowering his head as though dropping away into deep meditation.  Yes, this was the right thing to do; at last she’d have the proof she so urgently needed that she was right, that nothing bad had happened, not now, not ever.

Stefan stared intently at the lid, the picture that had been carved up into a thousand pieces—a man and his three sons trudging across the snow at dusk, dragging behind them a felled tree on a sled.  “Their prisoner,” Stephanie had laughed—poor Stephanie!  He’d told her the secret:  Forget the picture.  Sift through all the pieces gently—like it’s a prospector’s pan, or maybe a box of wishes, or the place where children are waiting to be born!—until one of them appears that seems to say, at times in a shout but usually in the faintest whisper, “It’s me.”  Then just let it guide you to its place—don’t fight it.  You know where it goes.

And thus had the four bright red human forms materialized in jagged little islands, along with their massive farmhouse in the distance, their barns, their cars and trucks.  They made their way in silence; it wasn’t much fun, it was a job, a tradition, something to photograph.  And of course, as a result they’d never really get there.  Stefan heard nothing; outside they were done with their scrubbing, and his mother had gone.  No, he was no better, no worse; he had merely chosen a different way to express his shame.  He was leaving tomorrow; it would be better then, for a time.  Ah, but the poor boy outside—where was he now?  Stefan’s eyes welled over with a clear film—no matter, he wouldn’t need them.  He sifted through the remaining pieces, flicked the dust from his fingers, and set to work.  Nothing was left to fit together but the spaces all around, the parts that were impossible to see in fragments:  the dense cloud of woods that filigreed into the violet haze of mountain, and then the ashy fields of snow smothering the sun, and last the spreading, milk-blood sky.

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