I remain convinced that there are levels of worlds within worlds, seams and crosscurrents in which the old, worn rules shift slightly; that there are levels above us and below us, in which connections are made more easily, and that each of us occasionally passes through such seams.
-- Rich Bass, "A Winter's Tale"
Only those whose hearts have been broken can remember anything before the age of four.
This is what he remembers.
From his bedroom, he awakened to a noise in the kitchen, a long, high-pitched screech with a barbed hook on the end. It snagged him and tore at him and reeled him in. Something was wrong, he realized. Something was wrong again.
He ran out of his room and down the dark hallway. The floor fel middle-of-the-night cold. He reached the end of the hall and looked to his left. The bare bulb in the kitchen hurt his eyes.
He felt something horrible was coming. He heard labored breathing, hard and trembling, so he started to cry. Then he turned to face the light and heard hisfather shouting at his mother. The words fell on him; they landed like flat stones pounding...pounding down upon his shoulders.
Under this weight, he staggered toward the kitchen but stopped. He did not enter it. An invisible boundary kept him out. A curtain that separated stage from audience, an impenetrable veil.
He does not remember his father's words. But he can still hear them. They cracked open the sky of his mind. In the thunderous shouting, the boy fell to his knees. He reached out a hand to stop the storm. And when he did, he touched the veil; he felt its uncrossableness.
That's when it happened.
His hulking father stretched his broad hands around a stack of china plates on the table. He clasped the dishes and lifted them high above his head. The boy glanced at his mother. Her face screamed silently with the hard certainty of suffering. Her arms rose, hands up, fingers splayed out, trembling. Then his father heaved the plates down onto the floor, at the feet of his mother.
That crashing sound, that breaking and snapping, like a shattering of thin, brittle bones -- this is how he remembers the sound.
Then the shards and chips flew everywhere, slicing, exploding into terrible shrapnel. One piece stuck into the wall beside his mother. One caught the frayed hem of her robe.
And one piece entered the boy's soul.
That's what he says now -- that it sliced right in and cut him up. It left no mark on the outside.
But his father wasn't finished. He picked up the boy's mother like a sack and carried her to the front door. The boy reached out for her as she went by. His father opened the door, and the boy felt the freezing winter air rush over his hands and face. It held the coolness of death. His mother looked so helpless in his father's hands...as fragile as those china plates, beautifully breakable, her porcelain skin shining in the night.
His father paused for a second, as if he needed that moment to blow out the last flicker of conscience. Then he took two steps and threw the boy's mother into the snow on the front lawn. She screamed faintly. The father turned back into the house. He slammed the door and looked down at the boy as if the boy were the cause of his pain. As if he had broken the dishes. As if he were the reason that his mother lay bruised in the snow.
The father said nothing. His face raged with disdain, but his mouth did not form any words. He stomped with his boots down the bare-floored hall and slammed his bedroom door.
The boy dropped his head and cried. He cried on and on. He pounded his chest. And with each fist to his heart, he felt for the flying chip of glass that had entered him. He wanted to pull it out, but the shard cut deeper and deeper still....
Lizbeth Neferti realized she was panting. She wiped the tears that came in the telling and ran her hand over the wrinkles on her flower-print bedspread. She did not turn toward her friend Angie Bartholomew, sitting next to her on the bed.
Lizbeth sighed. "So, that's it. That's the nightmare. I just had to tell you. It was like a horror movie that the boy told to me, whoever he is."
"I don't know what to say, Lizbeth. What an awful story. I feel like that broken piece cut into me too." She put an arm around Lizbeth.
"I know what you mean." Lizbeth glanced around the room. The softball trophies, the clutter on the floor, the stuffed-animal ox that Angie had added to her piled-high collection. These familiar things did not weaken her grief. They looked cheap and powerless." It's not just this nightmare, Ang. It's everything."
"Yeah." Angie combed her fingers through Lizbeth's black hair. When she came to the end, she reached up and squeezed Lizbeth's neck gently. Then she let go and tugged on the cuffs of her own white shorts.
"After we came back from Welken..." Lizbeth paused, and her eyes brightened. "Can you even believe we were there -- in that magical place, where we met Piers? The amazing Piers -- with his golden skin and greengreen eyes. Think of it, Angie! One month ago we helped defeat that awful, evil beast Morphane. He still makes me shudder. Here I was, in the summer before my senior year, and I felt so...I don't know, so sure, so confident. Piers told me I was wise. And all of us helped change everything with The Welkening. I made the land shake. I felt like I could do anything." She grabbed a softball with a torn hide and flicked at the stitching.
Angie pushed her hand under her own leg. "I felt like that too. I never felt more real than when I was invisible in Welken. I loved the mistiness of it, the silent, hovering lightness." " You're weird, Angie."
"Yeah, I know."
Lizbeth tossed the ball into the air and caught it. "And I hate the McKenzie Butte Boys. They bug us. They bug everybody. Odin, Tommy, and Josh Mink, the McKenzie Boys. They're so demented.
Lizbeth slipped off the bed. She dug her fingers into the ball and pulled aimlessly on the torn leather. She flicked the ball back and forth in her grip -- and on one hard flick, the ball flew across the room. Bam! Lizbeth's eyes grew big. She rushed to open the bedroom door. "It's okay, Dad! Don't worry, nothing broke!"
Shoulders drooping, Lizbeth picked up the softball again and sat dejectedly back on the bed. "Look, Angie, a month has gone by -- and, and, and nothing. No message from Welken or Piers, no sense of what we should be doing. Then the worst of it, Percy runs away." She paused. "I'm so sad about it. He is a cat, you know, a cat that could get run over. I know he belongs to you and Len, but I'm scared for him. It's got to be something terrible. And I miss him. And now you and my brother together. C'mon, you're going to be a junior in high school and Bennu's going off to college this fall. It's so pointless."
"You're making me feel bad."
"I'm sorry, Angie. I just thought it would be different. I didn't think I'd crash back into my standard funk. It's a cliché, I know, but Welken feels like a dream to me now." Lizbeth tossed the ball in the air.
Angie caught it. She brushed her strawberry blonde hair out of the way, turned the softball over in her hand, and pulled back the torn section. "It's like this, Lizbeth. Here's the world. It's got a tear in it. And that's how we found Welken. Remember how I used to say that the fabric of the world is stretching? But maybe it's more like a tear. Maybe the rip's still going. And y'know, we're not supposed to make the rip bigger." She patted Lizbeth's knee. "Maybe we need to find the tear and sew it up. I don't know. Maybe Welken is a dream -- but who says dreams aren't real?" She put the ball into a mitt so the tear wasn't showing.
Lizbeth grabbed the mitt and threw it into a plastic bin. "I want to know where Percy is. I don't want to dream about broken dishes, an abused woman, and a frightened little boy with a sharp chip of glass that cut into his soul. I don't want another month of bad news!" She jumped off the bed, rushed into the bathroom, and closed the door.
In the bathroom Lizbeth let down her guard even more. She knew that only a door separated her from Angie, but, to her in this moment, the door felt thick -- a heavy, bank-vault barrier.
Lizbeth leaned over the sink and cried. When she peered into the mirror, she saw her anguished face and thought how ugly she looked when she cried, how ugly she was with her broad shoulders, thick thighs, and her dark Egyptian skin that reminded no one of Cleopatra. She put the top of the toilet seat down and sat on it, wondering if there could be a more humiliating position. It gave her one more reason to feel sorry for herself.
She thought about Welken. How she'd felt so full of strength and purpose when she had been transformed into a real ox. How she'd felt for once that she'd done something worth doing. She and her older brother, Bennu, and Angie and her older brother, Len -- the self-proclaimed "Commiseration of Misfits," four inseparable friends -- had made a difference in Welken. They had helped restore the tiles to the Tetragrammaton. They had joined forces with Piers and other Welkeners. Their bodies had changed into ox, falcon, angel, and lion, and together they had brought about The Welkening, that miraculous event that seemed to make everything right. That's where the meaning of life was -- in Welken, with Soliton, that mysterious presence, the one who became "whatever love requires." Instead she was stuck in the economically depressed, rainy town of Skinner, Oregon.
Lizbeth stood up and walked toward the door. "Angie, I hate this place!"
"Lizbeth, c'mon, open the door."
"No!" She clenched her fists at her sides. "I don't want to be here!"
"Then come out."
"No, I mean I don't want to be in Skinner. I want to go back and see where Terz turned into stone. I want to see Mook and, most of all, I...I..." She leaned her head against the door.
"What, Lizbeth, what?" Angie's voice sounded like an open hand.
"I miss Piers."
"Me too. Lizbeth, please open up."
"No." Lizbeth turned back to walk to the toilet and bonked her knee on an open cabinet door. "Ahhh!"
Angie hit the door. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. But I'm so uncoordinated, it's like I'm drunk."
Lizbeth sat down again. She rubbed her knee and then her eyes as memories of Piers rushed by -- his faithful leadership, his wisdom and eloquence, his way of calling the best out of each of the four friends, and how what made them misfits in Skinner had made them needed in Welken. Then, as she had for the last month, Lizbeth wondered about Bors, Piers's friend who was lost. She remembered that life-saving moment when she'd seen Bors inside the mind of Piers. And she worried about Bors...whether his soul had been reunited with his body.
Lizbeth had returned from Welken with hope that Percy, Len and Angie's house cat, would whisper Welken's secrets as he purred, and that Len's softened heart would grow more tender yet.
But her dreams hadn't come true. The worst of it was that the newness, the sense of being changed, had slipped away. She thought it was like trying to hold the good feeling of winning a softball trophy. The bronzed player kept shining on her bookshelf, but the glow from the high-fives faded like an echo, growing fainter with each retelling. Lizbeth's mother liked to say, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away," but, Lizbeth thought, who wants a God who takes?
She didn't want to be at home, yet here she was with Angie, the one stable force in her life, her best friend. One year behind her in school, perfect Angie -- the girl beautiful enough to have any guy for a boyfriend but who had, for the time being anyway, decided to make a go of it with Lizbeth's brother, Bennu. Now that Angie and Bennu were always together, Lizbeth felt that she'd lost both of them.
So Lizbeth felt alone, the thing she least wanted to feel. With all these familiarities gone, the weight of that absence fell on her oxen shoulders, like a yoke heavy and unyielding.
Then she felt a sharp pain in her stomach. She winced from it and stood up. She probed at the pain the way a doctor might, pressing here and there. She found it and winced again. She thought the pain had a shape, that its borders could be discerned with her finger. It felt solid, like a broken piece of glass or a shard chipped off a shattered china plate.
Just then a knock sounded on the door and startled her.
The Guardian of the Veil © 2007 by Gregory H. Spencer