The House on Haverly Lane : Part II
A few days passed and there was a party. A dinner reception, as the tenants called it, which occurred every so often and that most people looked forward to with a lot of excitement. It was an opportunity to wear your best clothes, to dance, speak to people outside your regular circle - a welcome change in the daily routines of the House. Often, you met people who had been tenants all their lives and yet you found your paths had never crossed.
Francis was the type of person who especially enjoyed dressing up, and this particular evening found him at the vanity mirror in his room, smoothing his collar and retying his bowtie for the fourth time. He felt really put together and well-polished on the outside, and yet on the inside, he felt as troubled as the disheveled treetops that the wind tormented outside his open window. A spot of rain blew in and rested on his coat collar. Francis stared at it dully and then brushed it off.
The grand Ballroom was lit with a thousand candles, besides the sparkling light coming from a few stunning and terrifyingly large crystal chandeliers that hung from the vaulted ceiling. This was a tradition of the House, or a rule, for all Francis knew. There was never a candle less, it was rumored, though it was not likely that anyone but the servants who prepared everything took the time to count them. The House thrived on rumors and little pieces of information of this kind; it gave everyone something to say. The brilliance produced was actually extraordinary, and the Keeper always began the evening by reminding the tenants that the beauty and the overwhelming luxury of the entire evening was due exclusively to the generosity and kindness of the Owner.
“This evening is first of all a reminder of how very wealthy our patron is. The candle display, which he insists upon, is a symbol of light in this dark time and a reminder of our inextinguishable faith in the promise of his imminent return,” said the Keeper, and his eyes shone as they always did. He had repeated this same speech probably a hundred times, and yet he spoke with the same emotion and eloquent conviction every time.
Francis shivered, spotting Juggars in the crowd, and remembering there were many other people, a whole society of them, who joined in the subsequent clapping, and yet probably hadn’t believed a word of what the Keeper had said. He himself didn’t know what to believe.
There was dancing, and the room became hot and stifling. No window was opened, confirming Francis’ belief that it must be somehow dangerous or against the rules. He thought to himself that he should probably keep his open window a secret, just in case. He craved a breath of that crisp, wet night air, notwithstanding the fact that it carried the unavoidable ting of rot. He watched couples dancing for a while. Some of the women were very beautiful. He found his eye drawn back again and again to the lovely, undulating shape of a woman wearing a gown that reflected the light richly, made of a very flowing, delicate silk, Francis guessed (he was well-versed in the areas of fashion and had very good taste). The color of it was very pleasant - especially because it reminded him of Grenwich Park--it was a deep, dark, almost glowing, green. When she turned around, he recognized the graceful and refined face instantly. It was Matilda Lennox.
Matilda Lennox had hair the color of flax that was curled alluringly and kept very short. It seemed to cradle the willful curve of her chin. She had very light green eyes and pale skin. She had a bored, elegant manner. Francis found that he really wanted to talk to her again, but he was far too nervous to ask her to dance. He avoided the Keeper’s line of sight and waited until she had made her way to a bottle of champagne. He offered to pour for her.
“Oh, you!” she said looking passively amused. “The man with the questions. I like a man who dares to ask questions.”
“Uh--yes,” said Francis, starting weakly.. “I--and why shouldn’t he be questioned?” broke out of him with sudden boldness.
“He--referring to the Keeper?” said Matilda, half-lowering her lids. Her hand held the wide champagne glass as if it were empty and a toy. Her apathy towards him could not be more obvious.
They stood in silence, people-watching.
“I’m deathly bored,” said Matilda, after awhile.
“What else would you be in this stupid House?” said Francis.
“Ooh - bitTerr,” remarked Matilda, emphasizing the T and drawing out the R’s in a mocking drawl.
“This House is like a prison,” said Francis. “There’s never anything new. It’s the same thing day in and day out. Nothing to do or see that we haven’t done or seen before. It’s a miserable way to live, in my opinion. I’m starting to think that more and more.”
He wasn’t sure if this was actually how he felt, but he was trying to impress her. Boredom seemed the right way to go about it. Francis was surprised to feel the confidence that seeped into him as he talked.
But Matilda laughed at him as if he was a petulant child. He noticed that she was at least a head taller than him. “You’re cute. So fresh. Here, honey, come with me.” She took his hand and led him towards a nearby doorway. Her hands were long and cool, with beautiful cream-colored nails.
They made their way down a dark hallway, and through a series of doors, carpeted hallways, and stairwells. Things got gradually dustier as they went on. They stopped finally in front of a low door of rough wood that Francis recognized.
“The Keeper’s apartment.”
He had never been inside, but had occasionally been sent to deliver some letters to his door.
“Mhm,” intoned Matilda placidly, putting her hand on the knob. Francis put his trembling fingers on her milky, toned arm.
“Wait,” he said. “You can’t.”
“Why-ever not?” she asked, raising one finely delineated eyebrow.
“It’s--trespassing. We have to respect his privacy,” stammered Francis. “And I’m sure it’s against the rules!”
Matilda tilted her head quizzically at him, offering no response, but communicating the full force of her disdain. Then she turned the knob deftly and disappeared inside, leaving him at the door. Francis broke all over in a cold sweat, but he had nothing to do but follow her inside.
The Keeper’s apartment was clean and extremely simple. There was nothing of the luxury that the other tenants’ suites boasted. Natural wood lined the floors and walls, and the furniture was modern and minimal. Francis imagined this was probably by his own choice and grew sharply annoyed at the Keeper’s asceticism. Simplicity, barrenness, excessive, self-imposed regulation - was that all just a matter of his personal taste? Were the strict rules that the whole House ran by established by his preferences? Were they all living in self-denial because of one man’s ridiculous personality?
“What a gross little prison cell, no?” said Matilda, with distaste, when she noticed him behind her. She was struggling with a narrow door in the far wall that seemed jammed tight.
“Here, let me do it.” Francis tugged once and it opened. Cool, rancid air poured in and raindrops stung his face. There was that unforgettable, loathsome smell.
Matilda also smelled it. She drew a long, deep breath. “Ah,” she smiled. “He’s close.”
They stooped through the door, and this was the beginning of one of the most stunning and terrifying experiences of Francis’ entire life.
They were on part of the roof of the House, the Keeper’s rooms and windows behind them, a stone parapet surrounding them. The overhang of the attic rooms protected them from the cold drizzle that bathed the night and the city in a heavy, glowing mist. All this to say, that they were outside. Outside of the House. Outside, for the first time in Francis’ life.
As the wonder faded, a truly magnificent fear choked him. For years and years and years, he had been told that the moment he stepped outside of the House, he was placing his life in terrible danger, that its magic no longer protected him--that he was fair prey for the Daemen. Terrified almost out of his mind, he clutched at Matilda and tried to drag her back inside.
“Let go of me,” she snapped, slipping her slender arm out of his as if it were oiled. “And get it together,” she added, straightening her gorgeous dress and raising her hands into claws as if she were trying to frighten a child. “The big bad monster can’t get you here.”
It was several moments before Francis was able to force his panic down for long enough to speak. “I’m sorry,” he stuttered, trying to salvage his self-respect. “What do you mean?”
She stared at him, writhing in his terror.. “I knew this would be fun. Fun for you and for me. I’m not bored anymore, are you?” she laughed.
Francis’ laugh was forced and weak. “No - of course not.” He perceived now that she had done this a million times and that the fun for her was the prospect of his ignorance and his terror. A desire spiked in his heart that he could somehow become like her--bold, indifferent in the face of danger, knowledgeable of the ins and outs of this House, this situation, like Juggars was- street-smart - worldly-wise in this strange, strange world. He felt how profoundly he was a credulous, a gullible, child.
“You see,” she said, leaning her languid arms on the parapet and staring out. “It’s the perfect place to get a thrill. We aren’t outside, but we aren’t inside, either. We are technically in the House, because Houses are made of walls and here I’m leaning against a wall that belongs to the House. And yet,” she tossed her head triumphantly, “it’s not like we’re inside, you know? We are delightfully daring, magnificently mad” she stretched her arms out and then let them fall like weights. “ Ugh - I can’t come up with any more alliteration. Goodness gracious, how boring.”
Francis made no answer.
“It’s not,” she added sarcastically. “It’s not daring at all. We are unfortunately perfectly safe, so there’s nothing actually exciting about it. Oh yea - except for one thing. I think...oh - yesss. Here he comes....” She shivered and looked expectantly towards the horizon.
As she said this, the stench intensified. The air thickened foully with something powerful and undefinable. Far away, a chilling, hair-raising screech could be heard. Francis’ heart soared right into his throat.
Beside him, Matilda’s breath grew short. He looked at her in terror, expecting terror. Instead, she had her normally languid face turned to the blast of air, her straw-like hair ribboning wildly behind her, her eyes half-closed as if in excited expectation. Her delicate nostrils flared, inhaling the wind. She looked worshipful, something that both thrilled Francis but also made his hair stand up even further on end. What a strange group of people had he gotten himself tangled with, he thought alarm.
She turned her large, round eyes on him as if sensing his stare. They were almost colorless in the strange, vagrant light, very pale, like moons. “Don’t be scared,” she mouthed. The Scream was now too exceedingly loud to hear anything else. “We are not out. We are not in. You’re totally safe.” Or that’s what he understood.
He turned his eyes back to the horizon. Grenwich Park glowed bright, very bright and vitally green. The skies above thundered and blew, roiling with great, grey clouds and occasionally shattered with bolts of light. The rain fell fast and heavy, obscuring much of the nearby town from view, but the light of Grenwich Park lit the horizon and showed the jagged skyscape.
Francis smelled rot. Undiluted, vile rot. A huge cloud of brown seemed to materialize out of the darkness -- a whirlwind of earth-colored material whisked round and around. Glimpses of a gorgeous, scintillating green piercing through brown mist in nearly indiscernible microinstants. He saw it sliding through the streets far off, drawing closer and closer. His heart beat faster and faster and he had an overwhelming urge to run and hide, but his pride before Matilda, his pure terror, and his deep need to see and understand held his feet cemented to the ground, hands clutching the wet stone parapet as if one with it.
In the next instant, his whole body became like a stone. This was because moments before, the monster had slipped through a back alley and disappeared. Their eyes had been roving the streets with baited breath when it suddenly shot up from just under thier balcony, materializing like a specter before them, rising from Haverly Lane, sprouting up as the horrifying, whirling stalk of the most enormous tornado Francis had ever seen or imagined or dreamt of. Frozen as he was, he strained his eyes to detect a face. There was none. The Keeper had mentioned eyes, a mouth - dagger-like teeth. Francis could see none. He narrowed his gaze down the pillar to a point and tried to see through the brown tornado. In the middle of the spinning shreds of mist were visible patches of a brilliant dark green, glazed with clear slime like that of a slug.
Suddenly, the Daemen dove down and began whipping round and around the House, screaming at its full capacity. Its anger and sovereign desire to murder the two exposed humans filled the air tangibly. Francis had the strangest sense, which he later incorporated into his theory, that the brown storm surrounding the humongous thing was somehow caused by its manical, physical rage. The ground began to shake and as the coils wrapped round and round, the bare bones of the House began to creak, to rubble, threatening to snap.
This is the end, thought Francis, we have gone too far, and the whole House will collapse.
And yet the House did not fall. With a terrific shriek and one last, great tightening of its hold on the House, the monster let go. It soared above them, darkening the entire sky, and then plunged toward the two as if to finish them off. Francis closed his eyes, prepared to die, but still hoping for a glimpse of its face, opened them quickly again, just as the huge storm-snake fell to about ten feet above them. Something in his mind shifted; he felt the tangible presence of his fear.
The unexpected happened. As if encountering an invisible wall, the torrent of the Daemen’s body was repelled backwards with the full force of its descent. The monster fell backwards so fast, it left part of its brown mist hanging in the air and flopped in quivering waves of visible green torso across several hundred buildings of the town, flattening them. And then, completely unharmed, it slinked away into the darkness, screaming all the way.
Matilda let out her breath long and slow and smiled cruelly. “Stupid worm. It tries the same thing every time, and every time, it bounces off the magical shield. Still--I never get tired of watching it happen”
“You’ve done this before?” demanded Francis. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
She scoffed at him. “I told you, idiot. We are perfectly safe. We are not outside of the House’s bounds. We are only baiting the ignorant, idiotic reptile. Didn’t you feel its anger? It’s exhilarating, if you ask me.” She turned toward the low door in a svelte, self-satisfied flurry of silk. “Completely less boring than a dinner reception.”
Francis scurried behind her, dreading to be outside even a second without her confident presence. “I didn’t see its face.”
“Yea,” she said, “It’s super annoying. I’ve seen it countless times and yet have never seen its face. It always shoots up like that with its back turned, and when it dives for me, it always bounces back before it gets close enough. I’d love a look into those furious, stupid eyes.”
It was only when they were back in the familiar safety of the lower hallways that Francis collected himself enough to ask her something that he had been wondering from the beginning. He was a little afraid to speak to her, especially since she did not seem too impressed with his courage this evening.
“What’s your opinion, of all this? What’s the story with this Daemen and the quarantine? ”
Matilda’s lithe shoulders rolled lightly. “What do I care about it? This house is a nauseating hole of a place - what did you call it? A prison. Just take what pleasure you can and do stop thinking so much.”
Francis spent a sleepless night. There was an incessant ringing in his ears, from the intensity of the Scream he had witnessed. That odd feeling that had started when the Daemen dived at them wouldn’t leave him. Besides, his mind raced, trying to piece together the new things he had learned so quickly, trying to piece together an interpretation. A theory as Juggars would call it. Up to this point, he realized, he had blindly accepted the Keeper’s theories. And yet Juggar’s theories seemed flawed too, and Matilda--her words kept ringing in his brain.
Just take what pleasure you can and do stop thinking so much.
At one point, when he couldn’t bear his feverish tossing and his hot pillow anymore, he got out of bed and stepped to the window, which he had latched shut--so powerfully was the terror of the monster’s presence and rage imprinted in his mind. With trembling fingers, he undid the latch. The window blew open, scattering the heavy curtains as if they were gauze. The air was drenched, cutting. The night felt totally desolate. In the distance, the Daemen’s screech worked on the marrow of his bones. Whatever siren call Juggars had been referring to--whatever well-intentioned messenger Juggars believed the Daemen to be--Francis was convinced that he was wrong. The Daemen was an enemy to be avoided, a vile, dripping worm consumed by the dumb desire to devour. He felt absolutely sure of this from his short encounter with it.
Another thought occurred to him as his eye dragged the city and settled lovingly and magnetically on Grenwich Park, flushed in the night, refulgent with peace and mystery. Maybe Juggars was even more mistaken than he had first thought. Maybe, the monster, in its selfishness, was doing the exact opposite of pointing specific tenants to Grenwich Park as a way of escape. Wasn’t it more likely that it was guarding Grenwich Park like a greedy dragon would guard its jewels? Grenwich Park was so clearly an emerald--an oasis--in a desolate place, a dying world. What if, supposing you were ever actually able to reach the Park without being killed off by the monster, that you would be perfectly safe once you had passed the gates of Grenwich Park? It was clear that rot and desolation dogged the path of the Daemen, and yet the flourishing Park seemed untouched by it. Could it be that the Park, too, like the House, was guarded by a powerful magic that made the Daemen unable to penetrate it?
His breath was short and his hands clammy. Cold excitement filled him. A possibility--a hope--flowered in his mind.
He knew the voice well that pronounced his name with such marked gentleness. The Keeper.
Francis raised his head from the book he was studying and closed the heavy cover with what he hoped a leisurely and inconspicuous way. He was in the Glasshouse, where he had brought a large, ancient looking atlas and was studying historic maps of the city.
It was morning. Mornings were always grey and leaden, but compared to the nights, pretty cheerful and with considerably more light.
Francis loved the Glasshouse. The glass ceiling above provided enough grey light for various tropical plants and flowers to flourish. Under large, swaying fronds, dainty white cafe tables were arranged around gently splashing fountains. Francis had woken up exhausted and gloomy, feeling a desperate need for a steaming cup of espresso and the restorative atmosphere of his favorite spot.
The Keeper met his surprised gaze steadily. His eyes were grey and clear. His face was remarkably pleasant, tawny-colored and deeply lined, with silvering hair. His clothes were neat and simple. He was, much as Francis wished to avoid him, a truly refreshing sight. There was something relieving about considering the possibility that the Keeper had been right all along, that blind faith could still be his safe place. But even as he thought this, the pallid green eyes of Matilda mocked him in his head.
“Good morning, sir,” he said respectfully, motioning for the Keeper to sit down across from him. “Would you like me to order you some coffee?”
“No, thank you,” said the Keeper. “I had one earlier.”
They kept a comfortable silence for a while, observing the quiet buzz of activity around them.
“You’ve been well?” asked the Keeper, after awhile.
Francis rubbed his face with his hands and laughed a little wryly. “A little, um, on edge, actually. I haven’t been sleeping well.”
“I am --I have kind of a nervous disposition. I’m pretty easily overwhelmed by my thoughts.”
“What kind of thoughts?”
The Keeper was playing the little silver spoon that had come with Francis’ coffee and looking at him expectantly. Francis sensed that he knew something. But how could he?
“Erhm,” he began. “Questions. Nothing consequential, really. Nothing worth discussing.”
“They must be worth discussing if they are keeping you up at night.”
“Actually--the thing is, Keeper-- you have made it very clear that you dislike and in fact discourage questions.” Francis felt slightly audacious, but his respect for the Keeper had deteriorated slightly in the past few days.
The Keeper laughed. “You’ve got me all wrong. Questions are healthy and good. I don’t discourage them, not when they are motivated by a desire for truth.”
“Aren’t all questions motivated by a desire to find out the truth?”
“I wish that were true. Sometimes...” the Keeper paused. “...sometimes questions are used to justify rebellion. Sometimes, questions disquise a quest for personal satisfaction.”
“Yes - for example, someone might become captivated with something forbidden and proceed to try to get it at any cost. In that case, questions might be asked in the interest of justifying the pursuit of this goal.”
He seemed to be skirting around his point. Francis felt the urge to demand that he clarify himself, that he admit he somehow had read Francis’ thoughts and was talking about him. But a small, quiet part of him didn’t really want to know. Instead of the defiant answer that had surged up in him, he bowed his head respectfully.
“True, I guess. But whatever the motivation might be, the questions themselves are probably neutral and so can’t be wrong.”
“Then ask them.”
“I want to know…what is in Grenwich Park?” The question tingled on his tongue and provided an strange delight in being spoken.
“I am fascinated by it.”
“You are drawn to it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that ‘fascination’ is not an accurate diagnosis of what you are feeling. You have toned it down. My guess is that you feel something much more powerful than that.”
Francis shrugged his shoulders. The semantics did not interest him, and he felt that his love for Grenwich Park was a personal, precious secret he did not want to discuss.
“It is forbidden,” said the Keeper at length. His clear grey eyes never came off Francis.
“Yea,” said Francis impatiently. “Because of the danger. But can you not expand your vision a little and imagine the possibility of avoiding the danger and actually making it there safely. What is “there”? What would we find if we were brave enough to venture out?” He leaned forward, a little too desperately, forgetting himself.
“Whatever it is, it has to be better than this prison we are basically condemned to. At the very least it has to be different. Even if I can never see it with my own eyes, at least to know what it is! I bet you know-- the Owner must have told you--” he broke off suddenly, collecting himself, and sat back in his chair.
The Keeper was silent for a moment. Then he looked around the Glasshouse. “This place--it’s pretty pleasant, huh?”
“Yea,” said Francis, rather sullenly.
“But you called it a prison.”
Francis felt a little ashamed; he realized that he had insulted the man by calling it a prison; inadvertently, he had implied that as the Keeper, he was the one imprisoning them all.
“I called it that because it doesn’t matter how beautiful a place is; if you are confined to it--denied the freedom of ever leaving--it classifies as a prison.”
“On who is restricting you. If someone that is your equal is denying you your right to leave, yea, it is a prison. But, like in our case, if a tyrant more powerful and terrible than you can imagine is actively seeking to take your life -- and yet you dwell in safety -- why -- I would call this a haven.”
“You cannot accept the fact that this is where you will spend the rest of your days?”
“I would be forced to since this the only livable alternative. But that’s not really our plight. The Owner will return.”
Francis threw up his hands in frustration. “Yes. So you have said. And said again. Again and again and again.”
The Keeper seemed unwilling to be offended by Francis’ brusqueness. “And so I will continue to say.”
“Has--has the Owner told you what is in Grenwich Park?” asked Francis, gingerly. “You’ve said before that you are close friends.” That is, if he even exists, he did not say aloud.
“No,” said the Keeper, honestly. “I have no idea. For all I know, you may be right, and it may be a wonderful and safe place. A haven far superior to this House. It’s not unlikely. One thing I do know, and to this I hold. My safety and the safety of every tenant in the House depends on the one mandate we have received from the Owner. Remain in the House. Don’t set a single foot outside of it.”
“And you listen to him just like that? Blindly? You believe it simply because he said it. What if he is wrong? Why listen to him?”
The Keeper looked around. “He has stood by his word to protect and provide for us so far. But tell me, who else should I listen to?”
“Well--” Francis felt at a loss. “That’s what I’ve been thinking and thinking about. There are many more opinions on this topic than yours and the Owner’s. There are any number of people you could listen to.”
“You have been talking to the wrong people,” observed the Keeper.
“Or I have never understood who the wrong people are. I want the truth.”
“Francis,” said the Keeper, changing his stern tone slightly, as if he were addressing a frustrated, very confused child. “Ultimately, you will have to listen to someone. No one in the House knows anything except what we have been told or what we have imagined. We have none of us physically set foot outside -- of this House or the city.”
Francis felt incensed by his palliative tone. But he subdued himself, afraid to reveal his thoughts. Something was forming in him, something linked to what he had seen and deduced last night, standing by the window.
“Thank you, Keeper,” he said, modulating his tone. “You are right, of course. I am just -- sifting through my thoughts. A life unexamined is not worth living, as the philosophers said. I just want to understand this--place--this House--our unfortunate circumstances.”
The Keeper bowed his head in agreement. “Of course, it’s great to ask questions… if the goal you have is to find out the truth. But remember Francis, it is easier to get lost than to be found.”
He stood up and ran a hand through his silvery hair. Sadness and old age sat in the corners of his eyes. Francis pitied him--a good man, most likely, but so short-sighted, so simple-minded--trapped in a little world of the Owner’s making. Always protecting, on the defensive, never advancing, never aspiring higher, to freedom. He felt genuine compassion blossoming in his heart.
It seemed the feeling was mutual, however, because before he left the Keeper looked in his face with a long and searching gaze.
“You are a brave soul, Francis,” he said, sadly. “What you could be.”
Francis was a short, neat man. His clothing was always tastefully chosen and trim, made of fine, quality materials. His suite was always kept in perfect order, and as a general rule, he followed a pretty tight schedule. It was particularly important to Francis that he maintain this orderly, aesthetic quality to his life, because often his mental health balanced on it. He had a strong desire to feel that everything he tackled was done just right and precisely so--not necessarily to impress anyone but rather to satisfy himself. He was an anxious person, in many ways a timid person, and these things brought him much needed stability.
Of course, meeting Juggars, the adventure with Matilda, and finding that for the first time in his remembered existence, he was at odds with the Keeper, proved to be extremely taxing on Francis’ mental and emotional state. His normality had been disrupted. Worse than that, he could not seem to settle on new ground, to make sense of everything he had learned. Thoughts and questions swirled around in his head, causing him to feel agitated. The thought that he in any way disagreed with the Keeper especially disturbed him. Francis had always made it a point to be on good terms and more than that, particularly close to, Authority. He took pride in his close relationship with the Keeper and his title as Assistant to the Librarian. If anything, he scolded himself, I should be teaching and encouraging other people in the House to obey the rules. And here I am, doubting everything.
The next few days were clouded by this inner turbulence. That incessant ringing and that odd feeling had not gone away, and he felt that they confused his thoughts more than normal. He felt now one thing, now another. He would grow hot with curiosity to meet more of Juggar’s secret society, learn more theories and explanations, weigh the alternatives. Then he would be shaken with anxiety and dismiss everything that had happened--latch his windows tightly and decide firmly never to think of Grenwich Park, ever again-- to await the Owner’s return loyally for the rest of his days. He would muse on his experience with Matilda Lennox, fascinated by her cool indifference, her intoxication with danger. He would try to imagine the stupid, maddened face of the monster. He would theorize and then poke holes in his own theory; he would grow eventually cold, leaden, indifferent, and exhausted.
Always, it ended with the same thing. He would sit on his wide, cushioned window seat and throw open both panes. The scented and cozy air of his chamber would give way to a raw, wet, malodorous breeze that carried on it faint, shivering streamers of sound--wretched, infuriated screams. This only partially relieved him--true relief came from allowing his gaze to stroke the city with its jagged black housetops, trace the gleaming curvature of Haverly Lane in its lurid lamplight into the eerie murk beyond, down the dripping, destitute streets disfigured by the tracks of the monster, past the stinking, matted mess of a city to its lush prize--the verdant jewel--the mossed glory that stood out in even greater splendor for all the desolation that surrounded it--Grenwich Park.
Even from such a distance, through the floating mists, Francis could discern its peacefully rolling lawns shaded over by stately and ancient trees. Their boughs seemed heavy and intertwined into an opulent canopy. Though he could not see it, there was no doubt in his mind that there was at least a stream or two there, flowing plentifully enough to water such a gorgeous garden. And there had to be something magical about the place, something haven-like, because even though the black vault of clouds obscured the sun over the whole city, the Park glowed with its own light, a dreamy, underwater light so attractive to Francis his heart ached inside of him.
This, his heart whispered. This. This had been the beginning of it all--whatever thoughts and doubts troubled him now, of this he felt fiercely confident. Somehow, this place was where he needed to be, no matter what obstacles blocked his path. Gradually soothed by these thoughts, he would curl up on the window seat into a tranquil sleep and wake in the morning to the same grey turmoil and a strengthened, galling desire to escape and see the Park.
He began to spend copious amounts of time in the Library, but not in the large, main room where the Keeper was always present. He would instead slip in unnoticed through one of the side doors and hole himself in one of the many study rooms attached to the main floor. There, he would sit with huge piles of books, atlases, and his laptop and pore over old maps of the city and anything of historical relevance to parks and the building of them in the city. Despite his intense research, he could not seem to find a single book ever published on Grenwich Park.
The truth was that he had a hazy, undefined plan in his head to plan a route from the House to the Park. He did not even admit this to himself. He was especially interested in the existence of any tunnels or sewer system under the city where he could pass beneath the city and escape the notice of the Daemen. His studies depressed him, because he always ended up faced with the incontrovertible fact that he could never, ever be brave enough to step out of the House. Still, he read and studied and fantasized.
There were various study rooms attached to the Library, but one of them was especially beautiful to Francis because the interior decorator had themed it with tones of green. The walls were, of course, filled bookcases and the floor was carpeted with a botanical pattern of green. The chairs and couches were varying, jewel-toned shades of a green velvet that reminded him of Grenwich Park. Besides this, it so happened to be one of the rooms that the Keeper least often visited. That’s how it happened that Francis always chose the same room, in which, unfortunately, he almost never found himself alone. There was another man frequently there, sitting in front of the little marble fireplace along one wall, reading calmly and peacefully, always with a little red-bound notebook and pencil in hand. He never spoke to Francis or disturbed him in any way, and after some time, Francis stopped really noticing him at all. Eventually, however, circumstances connived to force their interaction, and this is how Francis met the man he came to consider one of the most interesting tenants in the whole House.
It was a regular a day, as hateful as any other, with Francis struggling to focus his flurried thoughts on a book that he found totally perplexing and irrelevant but that Juggars had recommended to him. It was about the physics of sound and the effects of very loud or high-pitched sounds on the human ear. He looked up and noticed that the calm gentleman was reading a book entitled “Grenwich Park: A Basic Overview.”
Heart beating violently, Francis cleared his throat, reluctant to break their unspoken mutual agreement that they leave each other alone. “Excuse me. I’m very sorry to disturb your reading. I just couldn’t help but notice the book you are reading. Is that a book about--Grenwich Park?” His voice broke a little with the effort of hiding his excitement.
The man looked up with raised eyebrows, surprised out of his concentration. He had vintage gold-rimmed glasses that sat very low on his nose and generally the unmistakable look of an intellectual.
A little absent-mindedly, he flipped the book over to look at the title. “Ah. Yes. Certainly. Grenwich Park.”
“Where did you find it, if you don’t mind my asking? I have been searching for a book on Grenwich Park for weeks.”
The man rubbed his beard which was a sandy mix of reds and golds. “Hm... I honestly couldn’t tell you. I found most of my books today in the botany section, so I must have found it there. Most likely, it must have been misplaced.”
“Again, please forgive all my questions.. If--if you don’t mind my asking, why did you pick it up? Are you interested in Grenwich Park?”
“Not particularly.” The man shrugged. “I have been on a bit of a botany streak, very interested in the flora and fauna that used to thrive here prior to the arrival of the Daemen. I thought perhaps this book would contain some information on the species planted in the Park that could explain their resistance to the Daemen’s poisonous slime. Not much of interest here, though,” he sighed and flipped the book closed.
“Are you a botanist?”
“Oh!” the man chuckled. “Yes and no. I am more of a botanist than you are. But no, that is not my main profession.”
“What is your profession? You seem to be very educated, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“Educated!” he laughed. “Hmph. Maybe. I am--a scholar. Of everything. My joy in life is to know, and so I devour books on whatever topic I wish to know about. I have made it the goal of my existence to be an encyclopedia of information. You see, I was born with a memory that retains everything it reads even cursorily.”
“Fascinating,” said Francis. “I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Francis Woods.”
“Arthur Corbyn,” said the man, reaching out to shake Francis’ hand. “Call me Artie.” He motioned towards the large piles of books flanking Francis. “You are studying one particular topic?”
“Yes,” said Francis, flushing. “I am very interested in...the city. And its parks.”
Artie raised one eyebrow. “One park in particular, I surmise.”
“Yes,” said Francis, flushing even more intensely. “Grenwich Park.” And he did not know why, maybe because the man was so bookish and easy-going, maybe because he had a fierce hope that Artie’s vast knowledge might contribute to his plan, maybe simply because he needed someone neutral to speak to, Francis poured out his heart and the goings on of the past few weeks to this new acquaintance.
Whatever he may have thought of Francis’ impulsivity and his fevered manner, Artie listened
calmly and seriously. At times, his mouth betrayed slight humor, especially when Francis strayed from actual events to his confused thoughts and feelings. His eyes were very unlike the Keepers -- a burning gold color -- something Francis had never seen before, and he kept them fixed on Francis the whole time, until Francis felt he could not tell the difference between their hot glow and that of the hearth. But overall, it was very comforting; they seemed to stoke the fire inside of him as he spoke of his desire to see Grenwich Park.
When he had finished, Artie was silent for a while, finally taking his eyes off Francis and gazing into the fireplace, rubbing his beard and at intervals glancing back up to Francis.
“That is certainly a large amount of information to process. I was certainly not prepared for this when I came in to study botany this morning,” he chuckled finally. This eased Francis’ tension and he laughed nervously.
“I’m really sorry. It is totally impolite of me to just dump all of that on you, and I promise I'm not usually one to tell strangers so much about me,” said Francis. “I think...I’ve been like a volcano ready to explode, and you unfortunately found yourself in my path.”
“Oh, never mind about that,” said Artie, waving this away good-naturedly. “I am, first and foremost, before any other discipline, a student of mankind. I welcome any interaction and connection with another human, no matter the circumstances. The stranger their story, the better for me. It gives me something new to mull over. But now -- to your particular story. It is a pretty fascinating one, though I confess, I have no real connection to it since I’ve never for one instant desired to leave the House.”
Something leaden and cold sank down into Francis’ stomach. Disappointment.
“But,” said Artie, as if sensing this. “I do think I may have a little guidance to give you.” He broke off and drummed his fingers against the table.
“I have known the Keeper a very long time,” he began again. “Wonderful man. Very strong-willed and single-minded in his dedication to a purpose. I have a lot of admiration for him. So should you. We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but as you’ve been saying -- we will have as many opinions as people, since everyone will always see things through a lens particular to themselves.”
“Yea!” said Francis. “That is the idea that I keep running head into and I can’t seem to decide who to believe. Who is right? How can we know?”
“But does it follow that anyone has to be ‘right’?” asked Artie. “That seems to me kind of an old-fashioned idea.” He chuckled. “Spoken by an old-fashioned gentleman. And yet particularly I don’t like old-fashioned ideas. I am speaking from the perspective of someone who has read almost everything there is to read, really. I have encountered tens of thousands of ideas and opinions, all different and unique. Every voice adding a little to our knowledge.”
“Are you trying to say... that all of us add a little piece of knowledge to the picture, based on what we see, and when we put it all together, we will have the right answer?”
“No-oo,” said Artie. “Not exactly. After all, Juggars’ theory and the Keeper’s are diametrically opposed to each other. How could they both be ‘right,’ as you say? No, go a little deeper, Francis. What exactly do you mean by ‘right’ to begin with?”
“Well, I think I mean -- the truth?”
“Yes, yes, now you are getting at it. The truth. As if there is one solid thing called the truth out there, and we must discover it.”
“Well, isn’t there?”
“There might be,” said Artie. “There might not. We don’t know. We don’t know anything. I have studied, all the knowledge I could, my whole life, and that is my conclusion. We don’t know much of anything, Francis.”
“That’s not very helpful,” said Francis, rubbing his head with annoyance. “That leaves me exactly where I started.”
“I should think it is very freeing. You are on this, ehrm, tortured search for truth about Grenwich Park. My advice -- which counts for nothing, but you have asked for it, so I freely offer it -- stop searching. You can unburden yourself from this need to know ‘the truth.’ Simply accept that we cannot know, not in the absolute way you wish to, what all this is about.”
“Is that a satisfying answer to you?” asked Francis. “I see you still study and try to - to know -- everything.”
Artie smiled. “Ah -- I like to know what I can. But I know my limits, and stop where I can’t go on. Besides, my idea of truth is very different from yours and yes -- it satisfies me.”
“What is it?”
“The Keeper asked you a very interesting and insightful question,” said Artie. “One that I myself considered long ago, when I was at a similar crossroads as you. He asked, by your account, ‘Who should I listen to?’”
“Yea. And he meant the Owner,” said Francis darkly.
“I ask you again, Francis. In this midst of all these voices, in the conviction that none of us truly know, who should you listen to?”
Francis felt confused. “To -- you -- do you mean?”
Artie laughed long and hard, a deep-bellied, kindly laugh. He took off his golden glasses and wiped his nose which had turned red from laughing. “Francis!” he said, finally, out of breath. “You are a noble soul. What you could be! I am impressed by your innocence, your honest civility. No, not me, silly. Who am I? A stranger you met a short hour ago? What can I know and care about you? No, Francis,” he said, replacing his glasses and turning his yellow eyes on Francis. “You must decide who in the world knows you the most deeply and cares about you most. That is the person you should listen to.”
Francis was quiet for a while, but in the end he nodded his head slowly. This seemed a valuable piece of truth and it resonated with that thing that had been forming in him since his last conversation with the Keeper. He looked up at Artie.
“I think I get it,” he said. “At first I thought you meant the Keeper, and I was angry, because I don’t want to listen to the Keeper. Not just because I want to disobey,” he added hurriedly, “ but because -- I feel in my heart that he’s wrong about everything. But I thought about it more and I think I get what you mean. And you’re right. There is no one in this House that knows me, my heart, my desires, my way of understanding things -- better than myself. There is absolutely no one that would care more for me and my well-being than I would care for myself.”
“You have said it, not I,” said Artie.
“I need to listen to myself -- what my heart is telling me,” said Francis. “It’s the best way.”
“No--” said Artie. “There you have it wrong again. It is the only way. Whatever sense of right and wrong we may have, little as we understand it, I stake my claim that because of the love we bear for ourselves, we have a duty to ourselves.”
They were both silent for a while. The fire crackled and popped. “What does your heart tell you?” asked Francis at length.
“My heart tells me to read. To learn. To know. It is what I love, and what is good for me. And so you see me here, faithfully, following my heart. And I cannot express to you the joy that comes with doing so.” His eyes twinkled. “What does your heart tell you?”
“I don’t know,” said Francis. “I have barely started listening to it. But -- “ he paused. “Grenwich Park.”
Artie smiled at him and grabbed another dusty book from his stack. He tossed the little book that had started this discussion to Francis, who caught it deftly. “A pleasure to meet you, Francis. May your heart lead you to your own joy.”
Artie was the last person that Francis discussed the subject with. He left the library earlier than usual that day and headed back to his room, back to his window seat, back to that strange, disgusting and yet invigorating air. The cool, murky breezes cleared his mind and sifted through his hair, and he felt a rebirth, a clearing of the skies of his mind. The ringing had stopped, the strange feeling had subsided. For the first time in what seemed like a very long time, he felt confident of something, of a truth. He knew that he could trust himself. The thought of what that meant sent shivers down his spine, and yet he felt strangely calm. He finally admitted to himself what he was going to do--what he had, in a way, always known he was going to do.
He was going to Grenwich Park.
End of Part 2 --> Stay tuned for the final Part 3!