Secrecy; a ring;
laughter of the cradle and laughter of solitude;
the imp and the angel.
We are begun strangely — are we not? One writes of a human being, precisely as he differs from his fellows, and therefore is worthy of notice in one way or another — because he is a personality or a character or a destiny, or because he has been cut out by some tragic or some comic happenstance. One writes even of commonplace lives only so as to make them appear the more wonderful and strange, or to recreate them to tired accustomed eyes. We instead have commenced by insisting on the regularity of our protagonist’s very introduction into this world. But in this we are merely heeding good counsel; for in the desire to differentiate one human from another, we are often induced to service lies, precisely to protect his individuality and his integer novelty. We do not mean to diminish Samuel Thornfield’s singularity, but only to establish its antecedents. For the rebellion against normalcy is destined to be a part of the hidden life history of many an aspiring soul in our day; and in this, Samuel, in his violent youth, was very far from being an exception.
There were, however, differences enough between our protagonist and his contemporaries — differences evident as early as his infancy and juvenescence. Now this period of a person’s life is a difficult time for his chronicler, so crucial is it for his growth and development, so overflowing in wonders and essential events — and all of it totally inaccessible, not only to the dispassionate observer, but even to the person himself when he has outgrown it. To neglect this epoch in Samuel’s life would be irresponsible and must result in our ignorance of him; but to speak of it at all is to speak incompletely at best, like a writer who labors in a language he commands but imperfectly.
What are we to say of Samuel’s earliest years? There were, as we have suggested, oddities to that time, and perhaps they may serve us as obscured windows into the essence of matters. For one thing, there was the child’s striking tendency to stare, even as far back as when he was a baby, at people, at objects, at events, for time longer than was sometimes comfortable, with his eyes intense and troubled, his lips firm compressed, like he were stranger to his surroundings and seeking to comprehend everything for the first time. To be sure, babes often will stare, and often enough will thereby inflame the vanity of the observed. But let it speak to the strangeness of Samuel’s gaze even in his earliest days that his uncle, Mortimer Brinkerhoff, brother of his mother, was disquieted by the baby’s attentions. He never mentioned this fact to his gentle sister, of course; but we find in his journal, dated just before Samuel’s second birthday, unhappy reference to the child’s eyes, which Mortimer went so far as describing as “unnatural” — though he hastened to strike out this surprising word and replace it with the much softer and more ambiguous and altogether more democratic “unusual.”
Another trait of the infant we may note was a strange propensity, from a very early age, toward secrecy. He was found one day when he was but four, out in the yard bestride his house, with something wrapped tight in his little curled fist. His mother bid him hand the object over, but he refused with a tenacity that she found unexpected and worrisome. She tried to force from him whatever he was gripping — he reacted with a strange vehemence and a strength of his tiny hand that surprised her — his father with his rough working hands was summoned — and the object was forcibly brought out at last. ’Twas a tiny bejeweled ring, silver and slender of band, crowned with seven sapphire-blue stones and a large, deep-hued amethyst. It had evidently been lost into the lawn from the finger of an unfortunate guest, or perhaps drawn thence by the force of the child’s person, as these talisman sometimes disquietingly are, or perhaps long left behind by the home’s old indweller.
When his little treasure had been subtracted from him, the boy became sullen and dour and would not speak a word for some days. His parents, to whom such utterly possessive behavior would have been foreign even in an adult, much less in their own son, were totally bemused by the event and tried to pass it off merely as an idiosyncrasy in Samuel’s young life, such as children sometimes try like a new toy, immediately to discard. How could they know that they were confronted with something that rooted deep in the child and was not to be disregarded? Indeed, it speaks to the strength of the thing that this very ring, which they later gave to Samuel as a sort of heirloom, and which he in a moment of boyish affection gave to his mother to sport proudly on the ring-finger of her right hand, was to make a startling impromptu reappearance, was destined to play a central role in his life many, many years later, when he chose his way, and made a thrust as though to throw his tragedy from his shoulders —
But all things to their rightful place. Suffice it to say, Samuel’s parents were to encounter similar tendency in their child again and again. On subsequent events, when he took silently to hording bits of detritus he had collected from around the neighborhood, or to hiding his childhood books so that his guests could not read them, or even as late as middle school to stealing fragments of his peers’ writings and notebooks (and in one case a girl’s entire diary) — on such subsequent events, Samuel’s parents, fearing what these deeds signified for their boy’s moral development, reprimanded and punished him in their mild but firm way. He always bore such consequences stoically and without complaint or rejoinder, but also darkly, as though some injustice were being perpetrated against him. And once more, we must give his parents credit; for by their efforts, the danger was perhaps averted that these tendencies might have developed into a base greed and a selfish lust and avarice for mere things and objects, coupled with the desire to own such things and objects oneself, totally and tyrannically oneself. His parents made his urges an item of his shame — which is not at all to say that they eradicated these urges from his breast! For the well-springs of certain compulsions lie too deep ever to be eradicated, and can only, like geysers, be stopped up at the surface, and thereby redirected.
If we have given the impression in all this that Samuel was uncommonly serious, or was a stranger to boyish exuberance, humor, and pranksterism, then we have badly wrought our portrait. If anything, he was more prone to laughter than most young boys. But even this seemed to grow akimbo in him, as if even his more regular traits were destined to fall through the bending power of his character, like a ray of light dented through a lens. For as he grew older, and found himself more and more in company of the solitude, his laughter became his own private thing, and it would not at all be unusual to find the boy chuckling to himself over some hidden delight or joke. This is perhaps common in the child, whose laughter is not always connected to humor as an adult will understand it, but more often to simple, innocent, burbling, overflowing joy at the wonders of existence, that capricious child-mirth at which the grown person, in turn, often wonders, and which he is sometimes wont to try to recapture — such may be the vanity of our human endeavor! But in the normal course of things, as the babe grows and begins the long, almost never completed, often self-sabotaged process of rectifying its dependency on other human beings, so it begins to awaken to its social self, and its laughter becomes more and more a tool of expression, a tool of communication, and a bond between the “self” and its fellows, a primitive and thus nigh adamantine chain wrought between it and its new society. In the awakening of this new laughter, humor comes to take its right role; and gradually, the laughter of awe and wonder is forgotten and replaced with the laughter of joke, mutually appreciable jest, and mockery.
Samuel never abandoned the laughter of his cradle, as indeed many of us do not altogether, and his laughter was often tied with amazement. In some way he clung to that state of being with a determination and a capability that most of us lack. But more strikingly, Samuel’s humor became a thing unnervingly his own, and his laughter was almost uniformly identical to that laughter of his solitude. Indeed, for a time, it seemed that he had sunk the claws of his incomprehensible secrecy into his laughter, had made it a thing, the fount of which he loathed to share — as if laughter shared should be laughter diminished, like a bright new coin passed on to grubby hands. It even reached the point for a time that when asked why he laughed he would at once fall silent and serious, might pretend he had not laughed at all, and would go about his play or his exploration with a sudden and untoward intensity. Even long after he learned to laugh with others, one always had the suspicion that, when Samuel laughed, he laughed somehow individually and apart; that there was not only amazement to be found in his laughter, but also contempt; and that no matter to what chorus of hilarity he indulged in others — he laughed only to himself, and at the world…
But let us interrupt ourselves, let us step back, lest we, in our attempt to delve into the child’s depths, neglect his surface and its effervescent winsomeness. We must stress that these were only Samuel’s peculiarities and excesses, and not at all the traits that most commonly governed his personality. He was, in fact, rightly much adored by those around him, be they relatives or friends of family; and it is possible that even his peers, insofar as they would not befriend him, were but suffering from the first pangs of that envy and discomfort at strangeness which stand above the strings of so many human actions. The twin spurs of envy and malcomprehension, indeed, were always to leave their shadowy traces on the borders of Samuel’s existence — even when, as was his way, he proudly refused to acknowledge them their rights.
Should the farce not then have started early? For he was a beautiful boy, already with his dark curls of hair and his large green questing eyes and his bow-shaped lips, like some strange dark little cherubim; and he was already different enough from his fellows, even in appearance, that it is no wonder that they mistrusted him from the first — sometimes for the selfsame reasons that many adults found him so winsome. He was full of life, vibrancy, curiosity, an intelligence far beyond his years, and if he would not laugh in company, he seemed nonetheless delighted in making his company laugh. With his triangular face and bright smile, with his glittering glance and his strong, puckish eyebrows, what adult could have resisted his bewitchment? Like the hybrid of an imp and a cherub, he was. What adult would not be willing to forgive even his oddest habits and idiosyncrasies, which after all mean far less to the average adult than do a child’s commoner deeds and his more quotidian, and above all more public, demeanor? When he smiled, his watchers were brought to laugh; when he played, they frolicked with him in their hearts. And indeed, so great was his charisma even as a toddler, that when he was in the company of adoring adults, there were no longer observers, but only participants in the stories that he wove around himself.
The stories! Oh, he was a child of stories from the very first, a boy of tales and even of lies, a creature made up. And what stories would he tell to his enchanted listeners, these adults — what stories for his aunts and uncles, his parents and their friends! And he there before them, in the living room, perchance, on the thick soft carpet, flashing his white teeth and putting on theater for whatever audience there happened to be. And they, delighted or appalled, as his tale would have them, enraptured, his mother’s hands before her lips and her eyes proud crescents, her small straight lips smiling with that semblance they had of pain at smiling, his father with his arms crossed and chuckling softly, and glancing now and then at the others, to delight the more in their delight of his son. And all eyes rapt on little Samuel marching there across the floor, with all the accouterments and all the costumes of his imagination in tow; little Samuel, already a being of masks and a dozen faces, putting on one and sloughing off the other with remarkable ease; little Samuel who would have no truck with the world as it stood, for the potency of his mind, and who therefore and for that reason — enthralled…
Thus it was in the presence of the boy. There was something charmed about the world when he was in it; his wide-eyed wonder was infectious, his energy, catching; his movements were so beautifully frank. All seemed promise before him, as though life were but a flowing carpet unrolled in a straight line toward some unknown but splendid goal. In the promise of a child like Samuel, one is tempted to feel that everything has a sense and a right order after all; that the future is no diminution of the present, but rather its crown; that humankind is still on the ascending path, and that life itself is surging upward upon the breath of benevolent powers…
Alas, alas, for the frail simplicity of our hopes!
The above chapter has been excerpted from the novel Thorntree, by John Bruce Leonard. Chapter 2 can be read here, and Chapter 4 can be read here. Thorntree can also be purchased at the following links:
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