VII. School the Second.
The tale and the game; a search for the unseen;
the first conjuration; illness and recovery.
Thrust against his wishes into a community that did not understand him, and did not want him; oppressed by teacher and by parent alike, and punished for a silence which owed nothing to stupidity; treated as a boy of weak mind, and made even himself to assume his own shortcomings; until, in an incomprehensible reversal of all that went before, he was stolen from that world he despised, was dragged like a stiff-legged mule to a new company and a new estimation, and surrounded by quite different but equally unfriendly peers, and teachers who suddenly praised his shy mind, and parents who suddenly took the most enthusiastic pride in the very capacities they had so lately called into doubt —
Well! That would be enough to turn any boy’s head; and it certainly cannot be expected to engender in the soul of a child like Samuel too great a trust in authority or too ready an obedience, among other things.
Yet Samuel accepted this radical change in his circumstances with — shall we say stoicism? No, it was too standoffish to be so characterized, too suspicious, too judgmental. He simply kept jealously to his interior world, which, if anything, had amplified and more stubbornly sealed in those recent months. He turned his voice inward and watched the world circumstanding as through windows, gazing through his eyes and their cold illegible sills at this radical change in his fortunes.
He did the work required of him at his new school — a small, religious, private school of the Episcopalian denomination — and if he did not complete it with dispatch, still he did not shirk it and never complained of it. The teachers were well pleased, and began from the first to laud Samuel lavishly to his parents. The other students regarded this boy with caution and even suspicion, this newcomer whose arrival in their midst came unfortunately late in the year, so that all their relations had already crystallized by the time he arrived and left but little room for entry. They beheld him almost as an animal strayed into their presence, and he kept shut of them as some shy animal might do, which finds itself introduced to a herd of a different sort. They would have done as much with any newcomer in their midst, but their reaction to Samuel was all the more vehement for his evident ability and their consequent envy. He for his part withdrew the more into himself, and was confirmed in his mistrust and nascent contempt for those most like him in age and appearance. We may wonder: if it had been different with them, and they had been more eager to receive him as one of their own — would it therefore have been any different with him?
However that may be, this much was sure: while his parents could count as their success the rise in his academic standing, nothing they could do would alter his situation vis-à-vis his peers. Not all their striving, nor that of his teachers, nor even a warmer regard on the part of his peers themselves would have altered what was fundamental to him, and what had been cast irrevocably now by first events: that intractable subterraneous will of his which underlay him like bedrock and burst up into his heart and his mind in such rigid, dramatic, and forbidding towers.
Only that in those days he was still quiet little Samuel, and not even an Albertus Magnus might have seen through to the feral terrain of his soul. He was unfathomable, and so unfathomed; and he looked on his peers as if they were so many beasts, setting foot strangely before him and incapable of meaningful discourse.
It was a curious thing to observe him, in his half-mute interiority, out there on the playground amidst the romping eight-year-olds; and he indecipherable still, observing, always observing; or playing by himself, speaking to himself, evidently quite satisfied with such exclusive company and not at all feeling the lack of that society which was to his peers the very medium through which they swam. The rumor was started amongst the children that he was autistic — which, we might add, was credible enough in those days, with his prohibitive air and that distance which he imposed around himself like an invisible shield. He liked to read, perhaps a trifle too much, even in that school of higher standards; and this seemed to put him into the category of fat little Kemp Rooser with his thick glasses and the bowl of his hair all too short over his plump face, and Plinnah Winmoore, that lisping girl with the upturned nose and the limp flaxen hair about wide watery eyes. Though he never spoke to these children, either, it is but part and parcel of this human makeup of ours, this need to set things to tidy categories; and if this child were not one of the over-studious outcasts of society, then what was he, this strange Samuel, and where might he be placed by a mincing human logic?
He was, above all, a boy of fantasy — such wild ungovernable fantasy indeed that it was easy to imagine he would never find an easy place in the company of his peers. For suppose, by way of example, that these peers were about some game, and, as children will, had established the rules of the thing, the boundaries within which it would be conducted, the limits of the artificial world; suppose they involved him in their game, quite against their habit and desire; and suppose finally he joined them, quite against his own. What would come of it then? For a while, perhaps, all would go smoothly enough; the children would play, would delight, as is the prerogative of children; though perhaps he would even then be odd one amongst them, serious when he ought have laughed, and laughing when no one knew why. But the Game would carry on, and that, after all, was the main thing — was it not?
Only look here, now! This Samuel Thornfield, as he always does, has gone and thrown everything askew! He has broken one of the cardinal rules of the Game, and stands there recalcitrant, grinning unpleasantly, even, as if he reveled in his trespass. Or maybe he has suddenly done something that is in the context of the Game utterly unorthodox, and now insists that a new rule be established, that the rules themselves have altered, that he has altered them, alone and without permission and imperiously so — Well, what are the others to do with this innovation? How are they to confront this commandeering of their game? Shall they permit it the once, and thus establish so perilous a precedent? Or perhaps they dispute it outright; perhaps an argument breaks out, and by and by, Samuel, who stands grimly aloof from these arguments anyway, might drift away once more, still grinning crookedly, as the children set about their game in the prescribed way…
It was always like that with him. He did not fit, and they would not follow. His mind was always enlarging on some story or other, which had nothing at all to do with the way that any of his fellows understood the world. That was sure invitation to trouble, in any contact between him and them. And so mayhaps it is for the best that there, at the beginning, he merely cultivated distance with them.
What was he about, then? As noted, he read; he began again to weave his stories to the adults, reinaugurating his little theatrical performances, now ornamented with new appurtenances and plots of a finer weft; he invented narratives and lived them out. His favorite tale, the one that he liked continuously to put before the now troubled eyes of the grown folk surrounding him, was of a mining disaster. This was already dark enough; but even this mining disaster was touched with something yet more worrying, more ominous and uncanny yet. Five men went into the mountain, he would tell, acting out the pantomime before watching eyes — went into the mountain and pierced the earth and chipped at the rock and cast dynamite into the crust of the world, and so burrowed deep, fishing silver in the deepest cavities of the world’s inner night. And silver they did find; silver abundant, such as could make men rich and establish cities to the world. A certain strain they found that skewered the very earth, so deep did it go; and the five men followed it like rats into the dark. At night they would return to their homes, laden with precious metal and exhausted to the bone.
One day an old man found them as they were eating their lunch in the meadow before the mine’s opening — a weird tall crooked old man, his face all gnarled and covered in stubble, and he leaning heavy on his staff, which Samuel mimed with a gray old besom broom he had found cast away behind the house. And this aged visitant came upon the miners there in that place, though the mine was high in the hills and the only paths that led hence were rough and difficult of the following. They gazed at him marveling that he should have been able to trek so high as that, and he glanced at the entrance to their mine, and began to rail against it, saying that they did not know in what they were meddling and could not know what dwelt in the mountain, and that if they dug too deep they would lose their lives if not their souls; nor could all the silver in the world pay for the stopping of one’s heart. They laughed at him, and called him a mad old crow, and sent him packing; and after their lunch they returned, devil-may-care, to their work.
That same day the rock encasing that strain of silver simply gave out, and a great underground cavern was revealed to the wondering eyes of the men — a cavern without end, all garlanded in silver crystals, that seemed to glitter even there in the dark independent of the lamps that they bore on their heads. And they, in amazement, began to gather the crystals to themselves, and to haul them out by the bushel and bag. A day they put to this work, neglecting even their nourishment, nor bothering much that the afternoon was waning, the sun growing dim in its sky. Suddenly, as they were exiting on one of their voyages to the surface, one of the men noted that their number had been diminished — that they were only four, when they had been five. They waited long there at the entrance until they were certain of it: one of their ranks was missing. They returned to the cave; they called out in vain for their companion; they split up, and went in search of him, crying his name in the dark. And when, frustrated and frightened, they came back together in the sooty dark — they found they were now only three —
A terror seized them. They turned about them, glancing in sudden alarm into the dark. The man named Hans was the first to see the eyes glowing in the dark — a pair of eyes slit like a cat’s or a lizard’s, lit up with an unearthly light — He screamed, and they all of them ran…
He felt the thing gaining behind them, did Hans; he heard the cries of his fellows as they fell to it; heard their bones shattering and their death moans filling the tunnel behind him; and he ran… And as he saw ahead the exit, he felt strangely that some terrible power was swelling behind him, and he felt the stones falling on his head. He raced on — was suddenly encased in the collapse of the ceiling, and felt his arm pinned behind him — felt the beast grasping at his hand — a wrenching —
He stumbled free of the broken entrance, grasping the stump of his shoulder where his arm had been, and fell to the earth there and lost consciousness. And when in the night he awoke feverish and half-mad, he saw the eyes glimmering malevolently at him from out a crack in the fallen stones.
When the rescue party found in him the mountains he was unconscious there in the meadow, lying amongst heaps of silver and a pool of blood, in shock from the loss of an arm, and on the brink of death from blood loss. They carried him out. But on the path down the mountain, he suddenly awoke; it had its heart, he said, its hand was on his heart — and he felt the flesh within him crushing, closing off the passage of his life —
So, and so abruptly, would end the story, as Samuel, breathing heavily in the trance of his tale, would gaze with strange transfixed eyes on his audience, as they, unsure how to react to such a tale as that, applauded sparsely and complimented him uncertainly on having so vividly brought the horror to their eyes.
So much for the tales he acted out to the adults. Likely, however, these adults in their well-ordered well-rationed world guessed nothing of the stories he reserved to himself, the tales he played out in his fantasy as he tromped through the woods — stories that would last sometimes for years, unfolding over the long course of time. They could not have known, for example, that his favored tale involved a battle with Satan, a cosmological war of good and evil which would determine the fate of the world. Modest consequences! And he, Samuel Thornfield, the linchpin and the mainstay of the entire affair! Well, we can forgive much vainglory in our children — can we not? More interesting was this: that despite the Manichean quality of his invention, it was never entirely clear what his true relation was to that dark principle against which he ostensibly fought, if he was simply the champion of its opposition, or if he, drawn by temptation, might at last succumb to it, join with it, become its slave — or its master —
And so much for how he kept his own company! His parents, asking himself what he did out there in the woods alone, would have been much tried to imagine that their boy could be so self-sufficient as to build a second world, parallel our own, replete with companions and with enemies, tasks and tales, gods and goals. They wondered, to be sure, how he passed his time. For apart from those few hours he spent with his one friend — Fred Thine, a waif of a boy who insisted disconcertingly on telling streams of the most incredible lies — he was ever out of the house, going here or going there in perfect solitude. And his parents, worrying, were soon reconciled to his abnormality, and let him be on his way to wherever he might go. His father followed him once, to be sure, to know that his son was not getting himself into any kind of trouble; but the boy merely wandered a while in the forest, talking as though in a dialogue to some invisible companion, and went whooping through the trees and beating at their dead branches, calling mild insults at invisible enemies, and tarried in an old graveyard there, touching nothing, however, but staring long at the moss-gripped stones as though trying to make out their names and the dates that marked their lives, or striving perchance to scry some arcane meaning hidden in so many numbers. Odd as it all was, Samuel’s father could find no harm in it, and thenceforth let his boy be.
In truth, Samuel had been about something definite, past his fantasy-charged play, and for some time at that; he had been hunting the ghosts. He loitered near the houses that the children said were haunted, and stared at them from a distance, longing to enter, lacking as much the pluck; throwing stones or sticks against walls and windows and racing away with phantasms hot on his heels. He spent long hours in the graveyard, muttering imprecations and improvised charms to summon the dead; or he chipped at the gravestones there to outrage laying spirits, or smothered and trampled the flowers brought by mourners, or even once urinated over a grave and then ran to hide behind the bole of a tree.
He found an urn cast into a poolbed on the long stream that trickled down by his house, a silver-lidded pot with simple flower patterns designed along its swelling and the initials C.S.K. carved into the bottom alongside the dates 29 June 1915–2 September 1948, and beneath the Latin inscription Omnes una manet nox; and for a long time he kept that ash-gripping jug like a talisman hidden away in his bedroom, and awaited some visitation in his waking or his dreams which never came. And by and by, the taboo, which remains inviolable only insofar as it convince that born transgressor, the human being, that it be sacrosanct or malevolent — the taboo grew weak to his eyes, and he pried open the lid and gazed on the gray ashes within, and portioned them out across the mountainside in some profaning rite, to summon the wrath of its restless spirit. But not so much as a false whisper did he seem to raise from behind the veil of the other world, and at last he became weary of his strange seeking, and decided with all the folly and fallacious severity of the child, that he had been romancing beings as mythological as the chimera.
It was at the tail end of these attempts, when the boy had but thirteen years to his name, that he began to trouble the parish pastor of his school with unorthodox questions, mainly revolving around why God must hide himself from our eyes, and speak to us only in riddles and at the distance of hearsay. There was sound reason the parish pastor had become the priest of mere school children. He was a decent man but not a very astute one, and was not so very well-armed to defend the faith from the precocious doubts of clever men; and so he responded with stock answers to Samuel’s aggressions, until before long it grew obvious even to him that they were not satisfactory to the proponent of these queries. And by any by, as the demands of the boy became all the more strident, the poor parish pastor found himself trying to avoid Samuel Thornfield. This was little enough respectable in a man of God, to evince terror of a thirteen year old boy; and by and by his pious pride reined him, forcing him to confront the unbridled child, despite the certainty that it would lead to no delight.
Much the same course did these conversations tend to take. “Is God real, Pastor?” Samuel might ask, peering up at him with an expression that was all earnestness, as they strolled on the tree-lined avenue behind the church.
“Of course He’s real,” the pastor would reply, with his best soothing voice, which had something tender and motherly about it — for the pastor was a pink and womanish sort. And mincingly would he smile down at his young parishioner, touched at his own ability to soothe the doubts of the young.
“How do you know?” the boy in all sobriety would demand; for he was invincible against much that convinced the other boys and girls.
“Because I have faith!” the pastor would declare, spreading out his hands before him as though presenting the child a gift of price, and stretching his mouth into a thin smile that seemed to say, “There you have it, now all is explained, shan’t we go home and pray over our suppers?”
But the child was never impressed by such felicities of the believer. “But why do you have faith?” he would challenge incorrigibly.
And at last the good pastor’s eyes would narrow, his stride would slow. He would try to recall that it was a boy he was speaking to, and that boys did not know any better, and could not be held altogether accountable for their folly. Only that this boy —
“I have faith because the Bible tells me to have faith,” he would reply somewhat vaguely, standing now in the dusty road with the boy two steps ahead of him, and uncomfortably aware of the inadequacy of this response. “It’s a choice that we all must make,” he would add, to give some democratic meat to so bone-bare a notion, “to believe in God, you see. Faith is a choice. Don’t you want to choose to believe?”
And this, his final card played, won him the rounds; until one day, at a similar point, when the boy, peering at the priest in that intense way of his, smiled crookedly and said, quite clearly, “I don’t.”
“I’m sorry?” begged the priest, quite taken aback.
“I don’t want to have faith. It’s absurd. God doesn’t exist: only things are real.”
Now, this was much for our poor parish priest to swallow, and he set his hand upon his hip and told the boy that it was a wicked thing he had said, a wicked, blasphemous thing, that should never be uttered.
“Did you even see Him, Pastor?” demanded Samuel, smiling still, and standing there, his hands behind his back, like a little professor.
“See who, my child?”
“Why, I see him everywhere! He is all around us! He is in everything…” cried the pastor in a flash of disingenuous inspiration.
Then Samuel stepped on a flower: looked at it, and kicked it with deliberation, and smote it into the dust; and he turned to the pastor with that awful smile — and the poor pastor could do nothing but rise up indignantly and ask the boy whatever he could have meant with such a gesture. And Samuel — trampled down another —
It was, alas, not the last nor even the least of the boy’s profanities, reading the prayer book upside down or putting the host in front of his eye like a blind monocle, before the pastor set himself about contacting Samuel’s parents to beg them for an audience, that he might communicate to them the danger into which their boy’s very soul had fallen. And his parents, helpless as ever before their child’s strange willful comportment, did what they might to right Samuel’s course. But, they certainly had to ask themselves if their efforts could ever suffice?
It happened coincidentally in those very days that Samuel was seized with an inexplicable malady. He stopped eating, grew frail and pallid and weak, and was bedridden for days. At the beginning, when asked what was troubling him, he responded shortly, and in a way that nobody could make out; later, he complained of nausea and lack of appetite. He grew thin and his pale skin became drawn and greenish and strangely luminous. His eyes gazed out as if from some world beyond the world, and he became distressingly silent, save for a soft wheezing cough that seemed to linger about him like a habit.
More troubling yet, despite his reticence with his visitors, he was heard babbling on several occasions as though to some companion, though he was perfectly alone. He was conducted to the doctor, who received his case with a degree of somberness, and insisted on running a battery of tests. He came soon to believe the boy had eaten a poisonous mushroom of the hills — some relative of the Amanita family, some one of its less deadly brothers. He himself had borne witness, he said, to a similar case once, some years back, of a local mushroom hound who had been envenomed by these little white fleshy balls boiling out on the mountain, the very toadstools of which he claimed to be so expert. Samuel’s parents asked the doctor what had become of that man, and he but glanced at them under his brows, and proffered no word; and Samuel’s mother began to cry, collapsing into her husband’s arms, though the doctor begged them not to despair, saying that nothing was known, nothing was clear, and that even if the boy had consumed some bad fruit of the earth, the varieties were manifold and it was impossible to predict the outcome. But this seemed to Samuel’s terror-stricken parents only to open up new horizons of horrid possibilities.
They asked Samuel urgently if he had not tasted of some fungus, some spore-bearer bursting out betwixt rock and rotting wood; if he had not been tempted, perchance, to try such a meal? His eyes grew dim, he hesitated visibly, he denied it staunchly, setting his jaw firm; and the doctor, sitting beside him quietly with his hands folded between his knees, looked at the boy beseechingly and asked him once again with subdued gravitas. It was important, added his father; Samuel would not be in trouble if he had, but they needed to know, to make him better. And again, looking at them as from a distance, as though through filters of mistrust, the boy shook his head.
They brought him home again, but still he would not eat. And the days passed, the child in a state of wasting, his parents sleepless and haggard and hovering about the door to his bedroom like the very ghosts the boy had evidently failed to rouse. By and by at the doctor’s recommendation they took him to the hospital, where he was stripped and given a hospital gown and lain upon a hard white cot. They rolled machines around him, clumsy beeping cycloptic towers with glowing eyes whose singular monomaniacal purpose in all of existence was to monitor bodily functions, and they put him on a drip system, and began to introduce sustenance intravenously into his failing body. He stopped speaking altogether.
His life seemed to ebb away there unto the last strand of vitality — until of a sudden, and as mysteriously as he had sunk, Samuel began once more to rise. He seemed to awaken somehow from out of a fog-bound dream one day, came to with hunger returning to him at once and with a ferocity. He asked imperiously for food, practically demanded it of the nurses, as a little ill-tempered prince might have done. They fed him on watery soups to seep strength again into his weakened stomach, and from there proceeded to solider foods — to bread, and to steamed vegetables, and fruit sauces, and thence to meat. He regained color and mass, and smiled shyly at his parents, enigmatically somehow, like a child with a naughty secret about which he is endlessly pleased, and responded willingly to their jests. Until at last they could take him home once more — though with them to the great cabin returned as well a spectral but inescapable ambiguity.
The above chapter has been excerpted from the novel Thorntree, by John Bruce Leonard. Chapter 6 can be read here. Chapter 8 will be published next Friday, 28 May 2021 with all subsequent chapters to follow at one-week intervals. Thorntree can also be purchased at the following links:
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