But even then she seemed unready, somehow, to tell him what her parents had said. Perhaps it was the oath she had made him take that was yet in the back of her mind, that thought that he would not understand, could not — that if he did not have the full context of the thing he would leap to the wrong conclusions, would think the wrong way…
“It was the hypocrisy that took me the longest to work out,” she said softly, blithely unconcerned with the abrupt change in direction her own words were taking. Her clear brow was slightly tensed in concentration, her fine lips serious and pert. A sudden breeze troubled the peridot leaves that waved crownlike over her head. “How could two people believe one thing, so strongly, and then do another? And not bad people, Uncle, you know my parents. Good people. But what I’ve realized is that it wasn’t hypocrisy at all. It wasn’t that they believed one thing and then did another; it’s that they’d stopped believing altogether. That was the really horrible thing. Church services, the prayerbook on our coffee table, the old rusty cross over the front door, prayers before we go to bed, all that… It’s just a show. I guess you could call that hypocrisy, in a way, but it’s not the terrible kind, the mean kind. Not the kind that gets you all twisted up in your soul, if that makes sense. Maybe that’s why it’s so horrible. It’s like you’ve forgotten about something that should have been the most precious thing, the one thing you should hold on to with your whole soul… and all that’s left is just left-over habit, I guess you could say. Just routine. It’s like when I used to bite my fingernails, and couldn’t get myself to stop, even though Mom was always on my case about it. That’s not a very good example… It’s like you get started in something, and you get used to it, and then you just keep doing it, even when there’s no reason to anymore. It was like that with them, I think. But it wasn’t hypocrisy.” She said this again, quite firmly this time, looking at her uncle with special emphasis with her dark, suddenly very intense eyes; and though it seemed to him he had only a vague idea of the distinction she was trying to draw, he nodded. Maybe she herself was unconvinced by him, for her eyes were dressed in that depth, like well-water glimmering deep below the earth. But if she doubted, she showed no further sign of it, and continued to speak.
“I mean, you know how they used to be. You probably remember it better than I do. I keep coming back to this conversation I overheard, when I was just a girl — well, old enough to understand more or less what they were talking about, but not old enough to participate or anything like that. I must have been eleven or twelve. Seems like ages ago. But it was with the Danielsons — I don’t know if you remember them? Our old neighbors? They moved out about five years ago, but it was for the best, because they’d stopped speaking to my parents altogether. Oh, nothing nasty, thank God, but I guess they were just living in another world altogether, and decided that they didn’t have anything to say to my parents any more. Or maybe it made them uncomfortable somehow, the contact with my parents, when it was like they were standing on two different continents. The ironic thing is that they probably agreed about more than they thought toward the end, because of that change in my parents. What could cause something like that! I ask myself that. It’s like we all have this weight on us nowadays, Uncle, and we’re all trying to fly, but you get so tired, and finally you just give up and learn to live waddling around with this heaviness… And you even get used to it, you even get attached to it somehow, that’s what’s horrible…
“But like I was saying, I remember this conversation with them. The Danielsons, that is. They’d come over for tea, I guess, or something like that. They used to come over a lot. They had two children, a little boy my age I used to play with, and a much younger daughter. The boy, John, was fast, really fast, I remember that, and always climbing on everything out in the yard. He liked tag. He had glasses, I think because he read so much. I always liked it when he came over, but he wasn’t there that day (I can’t remember why) and I was sort of babysitting their daughter. She was just a tiny thing, much too young to play my kinds of games. But I was there in that little game area they had at the edge of the living room, and she was playing with some of my old dolls, and the adults were all sitting around the coffee table. I think maybe they thought I couldn’t hear them, or that I was distracted. But I was always listening. Maybe they just didn’t care, that’s always possible too. Anyway, they were talking about something that had been in the papers. I didn’t understand all of it — it’s really only these last few months that I’ve pieced it all together — but I think what had happened is that a girl had been raped, here in our city, and had decided to have an abortion. Somehow or other she’d ended up in the news. I guess she wanted the attention, or maybe she just really believed in what she was doing and wanted to stand up for women’s rights — there are a lot of women like that. Or maybe it was her relatives that made a fuss over it. Anyway, there’d been an interview, I guess, with one of our local journalists — I found it just last week on the internet, in some archive of old news stories that someone had put together. I’m pretty sure it was the same story. I think it was probably a pretty famous case for a while. I don’t know if I could have understood what it was all about, back then — rape and abortion and all that. Those are pretty grown-up subjects, and I was still just a child. But I must have had a sense about it all, I guess, if it stuck with me for so many years. Anyway, my parents were talking to the Danielsons about it — I don’t even know how it came up — and the conversation had gotten pretty intense. That’s what made me start listening. I had the sense that Dad and Mr. Danielson were about to start arguing. I’d never seen Dad argue with anyone before, other than Mom sometimes.
“They were already on the verge of it, but I don’t know what they were saying. It was the tone of Dad’s voice that first caught my attention, and his face; his face was really red. I mean, his face is always red, but it looked like he was about to blow his top! The first thing I remember is Mr. Danielson saying that it wasn’t the girl’s fault, and Mom said something like, ‘Well, it wasn’t the baby’s fault, either.’ Mr. Danielson said that it wasn’t a baby at all, just a lump of flesh, or something like that, and that’s what really got Dad going. I remember Mom’s expression, too, but I guess I’m just making it up, because I don’t think I could see her face from where I was sitting. But I know how she looked. You know how she gets, that twitching frown of hers, all stiff and haughty somehow, when someone says something she disapproves of? I’d bet money that was the look she had… I don’t know why that comes up for me every time I think of that day, but it does. I guess because of how much a person can change. We human beings are something, aren’t we? My science teacher used to say we’re just complicated robots, but robots wouldn’t be so different one year to the next, would they?
“Anyway, like I said, Dad was getting really worked up. This is the part I remember best. I guess it’s what I could understand best, at that age. Dad demanded to know what the difference was between a lump of flesh and a newborn baby, and why Mr. Danielson wouldn’t accept a mother strangling her baby right after it was born. There was something about that — oh, Uncle! It was horrible to hear… I mean, the idea itself, of course, but also something else about it… It’s like, especially when you’re a child, you have these feelings, or these associations, that are all your own. No one else has them. They’re yours. Do you know what I mean? You can put common words on them — fear, or love, or happiness; but these are just words, and they don’t even begin to explain what it is you’re talking about. It might be a sort of happiness that you’re feeling, but it’s not at all the same happiness you felt when Dad got you a puppy that time or something, and it might not be the kind of happiness that any other human being has ever felt in the history of the world… Do you know what I mean? It’s got this other quality to it, like this other emotion on top of it, and that’s what makes it special, that’s what makes it yours. Anyway, this was like that, only in a bad way. It was this absolute terror that gripped me. It was like… How can I say it. Like there was this thing, this monster in my chest, that was putting black tentacles around my heart… Oh God… I can’t even explain it. I guess that’s what we mean when we talk about ‘doom,’ just this totally black, horrible, hopeless feeling of not being able to escape… Well, I guess I know what it’s all about now — or mostly, anyway. Even as a girl, I would think of that, a mother with her baby, just like those little dolls I used to have, naked and helpless, and the mother reaching down and putting her hands around its little throat —”
She choked off suddenly, her hands slightly raised in the air as if in pantomime of that terrible gesture. Her face was writhing in pain and her lips were trembling. Far above, in the canopy of the tree, the little dark shapes of birds flitted and shook in the branches, and the high light of the sun glimmered through the boughs like a star through water. The whole gyration of that natural world, utterly and innately oblivious to the drama in the heart of this single creature below. For a moment her uncle thought she would burst into tears — but only a single drop fell from her dark, deep eye, a single shining trail down the arc of her high cheek, down the fine line of her triangular, pointed chin, to vanish into air, into space, and not even a glimmer to show where it had fallen. She regained control of herself and broke the paralysis that had gripped her, putting her tapered fingertips upon the tearmark. He saw their fine pink sea-shell nails glimmering beneath her eyes. She did not look at him — perhaps she was so taken by these memories that she had forgotten about him, in a way, or perhaps she knew that if she looked at him she would burst into weeping then and there, and have to run to him to be consoled, when her story was so far from completion, or perhaps had not even really begun. She swallowed deeply and with a series of swift, bird-like motions wiped the tear away and shucked the strand of hair out from her face, pinning it behind her delicate ear. She looked away intently, down at the green earth, her face calm now, but sorrowful. Then she began speaking again, her young voice more subdued now.
“Mr. Danielson said it was different, and my father asked him how. He replied that the newborn could live on its own, that it didn’t need the mother’s body. I don’t really remember how the rest went, except in bits and snippets. I think Dad wanted to know exactly when it crossed the line, when it became a human being, and Mr. Danielson said that that wasn’t very clear, but that everyone should at least be able to agree that a fetus wasn’t a baby at all. He was probably talking about the first trimester, or something like that, but what did I know then of any of these concepts? I wish I still didn’t. Mrs. Danielson didn’t say anything — I could see her there on the couch looking nervous, her arms folded; I don’t think she liked confrontation much — and Mom had also stopped speaking. It was just Dad and Mr. Danielson. And Dad asked him if he believed in the existence of the soul, I remember that — and I think he said that of course he did. Anyway, I’m not sure. They both got very heated about it after that, almost even shouting, then they just stopped talking, and got all morose. I didn’t follow very well at that point, because little Danielson girl was getting impatient with me for not playing with her, so I had to get back to my babysitting. I was pretty distracted though. I guess the Danielsons left soon after that, and I wonder if that conversation was part of the reason they stopped seeing my parents.
“I remember Mom and Dad arguing that night, but I don’t know what it was about. I could just hear their angry voices through the wall of their bedroom when I got up in the night to get some water. But it was all muffled. Mom was really on about something. I think she was probably mad at Dad for making a scene and for spoiling their tea party. You know how she is when guests are coming… Everything has to be per-fect. Everything has to be in order, everything has to be clean. Everyone has to say just the right thing. I guess it’s like that even for what they believe. Whenever there are guests, everyone’s just supposed to stop believing controversial things, or something like that, or to pretend that they don’t. And everything’s so controversial nowadays, Uncle. Everything that the Bible teaches, at least, everything we learn in church. That’s funny, isn’t it? That should all just be normal, just what everyone thinks naturally and without thinking about it — and now you can’t even talk about it at school without getting strange looks. I don’t know what that’s about. I didn’t used to care, but lately… It’s really been gnawing at me, I don’t know why. It’s like something’s about to happen, and you can’t even talk about it, because if you do you become that weirdo who believes crazy things. I can’t talk to my friends about it at all. I couldn’t talk to Cory about it either — that was the thing. That was the thing, Uncle! But how can you be quiet about it? Dad was right to speak out that day. Maybe not to get so angry; but we have to speak out, we have to, because these are the most important things, and you can’t just hide them away and pretend like they don’t exist, like they don’t matter —”
She broke off, and looked up at her uncle, and suddenly, he could not say why, smiled. A look of such gentleness suffused her features, such love, that he marveled at it, and for the third time almost rose to go to her. “That’s why it’s so nice to be able to talk to someone,” she said softly. “I can’t talk to anyone else about these things. Thank you, Uncle.”
“My dear!” he managed, softly, waving away her thanks.
“No, really, I mean it. I mean, I don’t know what you think about God and all that…”
She paused, as if inviting him to some confession. He looked at her, amazed that she should have struck so near the chord, so surely. “I don’t, either,” he said with a wan smile and a shrug. She nodded quickly, looking at him closely.
“We can talk about all that another day. But you don’t judge people. That’s the main thing… You never judge people. Thank you.
“Anyway, the really strange thing is that it was the same room, the same place, where all of that happened. That’s what gets me. I think that’s why the Danielsons keep coming back to mind. I mean, it was the same coffee table, for crying out loud… They had been sitting there, both of them, in that argument with the Danielsons, and though Mom was sore with Dad for getting so angry, I know she agreed with everything he said that day. She would have said the same things, if it had been her brother or something to say what Mr. Danielson was saying. It was the same room, Uncle! And here we three were, Mom and Dad and me, were, sitting in that same furniture. I think I was even sitting where Mr. Danielson had been sitting — isn’t that crazy? But now everything was turned on its head… Everything was backwards — Oh, how could everything have been so turned around! But it was, Uncle. I never would have guessed it, never would have believed it, but it was. It’s like in the space of those six or seven years, my parents were different people altogether. And the sad thing is that I hadn’t even realized it beforehand. Otherwise I might have been prepared for what they told me, and then maybe everything would have turned out differently…”