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Islander: Book Two of
(continued -- 5th excerpt)
By A.C. (Charlie) Haeffner
The following is the continuation of a novel the publisher of this website wrote a few years ago. The previous chapters can be accessed here and here and here and here. More will follow in coming weeks. This book is a sequel to Island Nights, which was a sort of childhood memoir wrapped in a mystery -- and which left unanswered a key plot thread. Hence the sequel, which takes the reader back and forth in time -- with a focus on World War Two, the fate of Mussolini, and questions of religious faith. It's pretty wild ride -- and really stands alone without need of reading the first book (although we'll probably get around to presenting that one, too. Meanwhile an excerpt from that first book is here).
“An exorcism!” I said. “Good God, Jacques, that’s positively medieval. I think you’ve been reading a little too much popular fiction lately. That kind of thing just isn’t done any more – is it, Addie?”
That last I asked a bit tentatively, for it occurred to me that I might not know what I was talking about, exorcisms being an area of religion and, hence, of some mystery to me.
Both Jacques and I looked to Addie, but she didn’t respond immediately. When she did, the words came out slowly, carefully.
“My church,” she said, “has historically avoided the practice, though there is provision in some of the older canons for its application in extreme cases. As I indicated, Avery, I ... tend to believe what Jacques believes about his father, for I sensed a dichotomy when I shook the man’s hand. Don’t ask me how. It’s an acquired sense.”
“Whoa,” I said. “Do you mean to tell me you’ve had experience with things like this before?”
“Like this, no,” she said. “Not possessions by wandering spirits, but ... let’s say there have been questions of demonic possession.”
“Demonic,” I said.
“Well, that was what the victims believed, and when their minds are fixed upon such a thing – even when it isn’t so – it can have the same effect. There is, in those cases, a dichotomy, too. So yes, I’ve had experience in these things; but no, nothing quite like this.”
“And what makes this so different?” I asked. “What makes you think this dichotomy isn’t like those others: self-delusional?”
She motioned to Jacques.
“For one thing, he’s jammed,” she said. “For another, the Italian language. It’s highly unlikely the old man would be spouting that without a possession; I haven’t seen anything like that before. And there’s the stench ... and the warm temperature around the lakes and the cabin. Those are really weird, and I think tied to the invading spirit. And there’s my knowledge of the crystal, and my experiences with seeing spirits. And ... shall I go on?”
I shook my head, not so much in disagreement as resignation. I didn’t believe this stuff – thought there must be alternative logic that would apply – but could see where we were headed. Jacques knew I wouldn’t buy into it right away, and so I didn’t have to explain myself; he knew I was grounded in earthly pursuits. But having come this far – having traveled to the Island in search of answers – I felt obliged to go farther, to do Jacques’ bidding and at least get an accurate reading on his father. Call it friendship; call it loyalty; call it journalistic curiosity. All three were at work here, guiding me toward the inevitable.
“I’ll do what I can, Jacques,” I said, “but I make no promises. If I think your father’s just being delusional or senile, I’ll call it that way.”
“Understood,” said Jacques. “And if you decide otherwise?”
“Well ... in that unlikely case,” I said, “I guess I’d have to know this from Addie: If push comes to shove, are you equipped or empowered to perform an exorcism?”
Addie rubbed a finger over her lip before answering. Her words came out softly, as though a gentle musing.
“It depends,” she said, “on what we would be driving from the body. If it were a literal demon instead of a delusion, no; I’d have to go to a higher authority. If it is Mussolini himself, I don’t think anybody in my church would be qualified to address it. I don’t know of any such documented case. Gypsy mythology and Episcopalian canon are not exactly bedfellows. In fact, I’m not even sure an exorcism would do any good. We’d be dealing with the embodiment of evil, as it were, instead of evil itself. So...”
“So you’re in the dark,” I offered.
“So I’m in the dark,” she agreed.
We all sat silently, each with his or her own thoughts. I broke the mood.
“There is this, too,” I said. “An exorcism, from the little I know of it, is a strenuous exercise. The strain would be intense on everyone, and could conceivably be too much for your father, Jacques. And even if it were successful, if Mussolini is in there and were driven out, then wouldn’t that rob the body of the will that has kept it alive?”
“My father’s time should have ended already,” said Jacques. “He deserves his freedom, even if that means physical death.”
“Okay; I understand,” I said. “But let’s chew on this for a moment. If Mussolini feared our efforts, wouldn’t he do something to stop us? You know, use his evil somehow.”
“Maybe,” said Jacques. “But he’s smart. I don’t think he’d do anything to hurt anyone; bring the law into it. I’m sure he doesn’t want that kind of complication. Oh, he’ll try to make things unpleasant – bombard the physical senses with unsavory elements, for instance. But that only offends the nose. Beyond that ... he may try to win you over with his sweetness, Avery; he can be all of that, despite what you saw at his cabin. But beware: any sweetness would be the slender remnants of my father, being used by the bully.”
“Which brings us back to something I still don’t understand,” I said. “Just how do you explain Mussolini getting in there in the first place?”
“I was sleeping the night that it happened,” he said. “I tried to pump my father for that information later, after I suspected what had happened, but by then Mussolini was asserting himself and wouldn’t say. But I can only guess that Papa – stubborn as he was on occasion – steeled himself to touch and hold the crystal despite its heat, and in whatever moment or moments he succeeded in the challenge, Mussolini went barging through. I do not believe that my father would have permitted the intrusion had he possessed the strength to fight it. But there you are.”
I was shaking my head, unhappy with the entire scenario. A crystal that provided a window of sorts into the spirit world; a transfer of a tyrant into a dying man’s body; evil spreading its talons into an old man and his surrounding land; talk of an exorcism ... it was far too much for a professional skeptic to accept. But something else was nagging...
“Pardon me for saying so, Jacques,” I said, “but wouldn’t it make sense to just wait for him to die of natural causes? He is, after all, 97 years old.”
“He was, by all rights, supposed to be dead years ago,” he said. “Now, the evil is so entrenched that I fear it might have the effect on the body of, if not immortality, then an extension of significant duration.”
“And that is not acceptable?” I said.
“Most assuredly not,” said Jacques.
I sighed. Well … in for a penny, in for a pound.
“When can we see him again?” I asked.
“Tomorrow,” said Jacques. “But now ... I think we are all probably hungry.” He jumped up from the table and headed for the kitchen. “Sit tight and I’ll round up some cold cuts and vegetables.”
I looked at Addie in the quiet that followed, and marveled again at how little she seemed to have changed physically in the four decades since our Island summer. But there was a great deal there behind those big eyes of hers: a history far removed from mine and, I suspected, a great deal more interesting. She was a person with heartfelt beliefs, ones to which she was committed; I didn’t know what I believed, other than that life was a confusing mess. She had a sense upon meeting Jacques’ father that something might be amiss, and knew right away upon seeing me that Jacques had manipulated her to Bois Blanc; I had no inkling of evil within the old man, and couldn’t see Jacques’ manipulation until it was practically explained to me. In sum, she was a participant, a doer in life’s struggles; while I was a spectator, a reporter and editor who cheered and jeered from the sidelines.
“Jacques,” she was saying now, “if we end up doing an exorcism, if it’s indeed the path we choose, will you help?”
“No,” said Jacques from his spot at the kitchen counter; he was placing food on a tray. “I think I am too close to the situation. I might be too easily manipulated by the intruder; he could use my emotions against me, and thus impede the process. Besides, you do not need me with Avery present. He will be your strength, should you require more than you alone possess.”
I looked up, a bit surprised. I had not quite envisioned direct involvement in the ritual, should it come to pass. And I was on the verge of mild protest.
But Addie responded before I could form the words.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t think he will do it. I might accept what you say, Jacques, but Avery seems to be beyond convincing – beyond the belief that comes with faith.”
“Oh, he will believe,” said Jacques. “It merely requires hands-on knowledge. That shall come tomorrow.”
“Maybe,” said Addie. “But he was always so literal. If he can’t see a creature with horns and a pitchfork, then I fear he may not accept what you’ve said.”
“I think he will accept it,” said Jacques. “He may be cautious, but he always struck me as level-headed, too.”
“Excuse me,” I said, “but do you mind not talking as though I’m elsewhere?”
Addie broke into a mischievous grin.
“You’re so easy,” she said. “Always were, always will be.”
I shook my head and smiled back – pleased despite myself at being toyed with; pleased, I think, at being once again within Addie’s sphere of attention.
“Chow,” said Jacques, carrying plates, silverware, a tray of cold cuts and a bowl of cold corn to the table. Then he got three glasses of milk and brought them back, and we dug in, clearing the contents of the tray and bowl in short order.
“Got some pie, too” he said. “Apple.”
He brought it in, and we did nearly the same to that, leaving but a quarter of it within two or three minutes. Then we sat back, sated.
“Well,” said Jacques. “It’s getting on toward eight, so I think we should turn in and get an early start tomorrow.”
I hadn’t even thought of where Addie was staying. There was no longer a hotel on the Island, but there were a couple of places with accommodations: a small motel out past the main dock, and cabins near the Island’s eastern end, I had been given to understand. Maybe Jacques was going to drive her to one of those establishments.
“Addie, you take the couch,” Jacques was saying. “Avery and I get the bedroom. Bunk beds. But I get the bottom, Avery. And if you want more privacy changing, Addie, use the bathroom.”
“Thanks, Jacques,” she said.
“Whoa. She’s staying here?” I asked.
“Of course,” said Jacques. “What did you think? We’re all adults here. I think we can handle cohabitation.”
“Well ... yeah, I guess so,” I said.
“Don’t worry, Avery,” she said. “I don’t bite.”
“Well, I ... it’s just...”
“What?” said Jacques. “What is your problem?”
“Oh, Christ,” I said. “No problem; it’s fine. Just...”
“Just what?” said Jacques.
Visions of intimate moments I shared with Addie four decades earlier flashed through my mind, quickly followed by a vision of the woman waiting for me back home in New York.
“Just don’t tell my wife,” I said. “I’m not sure she’d approve.”
Jacques let loose a guttural sound that I assumed was some sort of laughter; humor at my expense.
“What?” I said, turning to him and then to Addie. In so doing, I saw them exchange a look of mutual satisfaction. They were enjoying my discomfort.
“Nothing,” said Jacques. “Nothing at all. You just shouldn’t worry so much. I’m going to bed, and so are you. Come on, Avery. Say goodnight.”
I shook my head – he was right; I always worried too much – and grinned sheepishly at Addie.
“’Night,” I said.
“Good night, Avery,” said Addie. “Good night, Jacques. Sweet dreams.”
The words struck a chord ... resonated from something earlier in the day. For the first time in hours, I thought of my pre-dawn dream.
As I entered the bunkroom behind Jacques and swung the door closed, I wondered if – and I think I hoped that – Turk McGurk would visit me again before morning.
The bunkroom was black save for one small stream of moonlight making its way through a crack in the curtains on the window facing the Straits.
The door was closed, giving Addie a sense of privacy out in the other room, and in the process closing off any light source from that direction. I was just hoping I wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom in the night; it was tucked into the back corner of the cabin, accessible only through the living room. I’d feel a little strange – yes, maybe even guilty – wandering out into what essentially had become Addie’s bedroom.
Somewhere between trying to see through the dark and worrying about a call of nature, I slipped into sleep. It was, as far as I can tell, a dreamless sleep for the most part; at least I don’t recall any images of Mussolini or Nazis or spirits or a pendant. But near morning, I think, a dream did take hold; and as on the previous morning, it was vivid and included a discussion with the late Mr. McGurk.
I don’t recall any sound, but sensed his presence again nonetheless. Looking down from the upper bunk, I squinted through the poor light toward the floor. There he was, his large heft barely visible, leaning against the wall next to the door; he was examining his fingernails, but looked up after I had observed him for several seconds. This time I wasn’t frightened, for I knew him to be but part of a dream.
“I told you old Lightfoot was crazy,” he said to open the conversation – a conversation which, being in a dream, did not disturb Jacques as he slumbered nearby.
“Oh?” I said. “And why is that? You don’t think he was a great soldier?”
“Well, he was a great soldier, all right,” said Turk. “A very effective little terminator, from what I hear. I’ve met some of the people he dispatched, you know. They are not exactly enamored of him. They, too, think he’s crazy.”
“Why?” I asked. “Is it so crazy to serve your country well in time of war?”
“No, not that,” said Turk. “It’s just that he put a little too much zeal into his performance. Pretty ruthless.”
“Oh, and like you weren’t,” I said. “From what I hear, you terminated quite a few men with a certain gusto yourself.”
“Yes,” said Turk, “but I never said I wasn’t crazy.”
“But if you’re crazy,” I asked, “why should I believe what you say? It might just be an extension of your mental condition.”
“Judge for yourself, Mr. Mann,” said Turk. “I’m not really concerned with his war record, anyway. I am concerned, and so should you be, with his talk about the crystal, and the spirit mists, and his father. I mean, doesn’t that sound like just about the biggest load of crap you’ve heard in awhile?”
I smiled. Jacques’ story had indeed strained credulity. But I had promised to keep an open mind until our visit the next day at his father’s place.
“Perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn’t,” I said. “But it also strikes me that if I can have a lucid discussion on the merits of Jacques’ tale with a ghost, then maybe it is I who am crazy. Maybe everybody’s crazy. Well ... not Addie.”
“I beg to differ,” said Turk. “She may be the craziest of all. Come on. She thinks the crystal gives her special insights, that she too sees spirits. And this from a woman of the cloth. And now ... now she’s thinking of taking on the mantle of exorcist? I think maybe she’s had one sacramental wine too many.”
“Or,” I said, feeling contentious, “she might truly have been touched by the hand of God out there at Gull Island.”
“The Gull Island thing,” he said. “I notice she hasn’t commented specifically yet on her so-called ‘death’ out there.”
“No,” I said. “She doesn’t remember. But I think with everything else she says she’s experienced, that she trusts Jacques on that one. If he said he saw her die, saw her mist leave her body, then that’s probably good enough for her.”
“The mist thing again,” said Turk, shaking his head. “So sad. Well, if they want to believe fairy tales, they’re entitled. But if I were you, I’d get away from that crazy Lightfoot as fast as I could. He’s dangerous. I don’t think you’re safe here.”
I studied Turk, gauging. There was something so determined, almost desperate, in the tack he was taking ... he was clearly trying hard to discredit Jacques. And in my experience, the word itself implied that credit existed where the discredit was aimed.
“Why are you so determined to undermine this man?” I asked.
“Determined? What do you mean? I am merely trying to do you a favor ... save you some grief.”
“Turk McGurk? A protector?” I asked. “What’s wrong with this picture?”
“Look, Mr. Mann, I don’t have to stand here and be insulted. I have plenty of fellow ghosts who can fill that need.”
“He sent you, didn’t he?” I asked.
“Who? What are you talking about?”
“Mussolini,” I said. “He sent you to try and discourage me ... scare me off.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. And I think I’m through here. Good night, Mr. Mann.”
“Good night, Turk. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
“I don’t use doors.”
And with that he was gone, had disappeared almost as though he was never present. I lay there, staring into the blackness above me, pondering the visit, noticing the first indication of approaching daylight, and wondering when I would wake up.
Which in due time I did.
“Morning, Miss Addie,” I said with a faux Southern accent as she, Jacques and I gathered at the card table for breakfast.
In return, Addie shot me a withering look.
“Whoa,” I said, leaning back away from her. “Somebody got up on the wrong side this morning.”
“You were talking in your sleep,” she said, “and rather loudly. I don’t appreciate my sleep being disrupted by ... noise.”
“Oh?” I said, recalling my “chat” with Turk McGurk. “And what was I saying?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “It sounded like a bunch of loud mumbling and moaning. It really pissed me off.”
“Right,” I said. “Spoken like a true minister.”
“What would you know of ministers, Avery?” she snapped. “You ever go to church?”
She had me there. I rarely attended.
“Uh huh,” she said after I failed to answer for several seconds. “I thought not. Great choice for an exorcism, Jacques.”
I looked at Jacques, my eyebrows up, inquiring silently. He gave me an almost imperceptible nod, warning me off.
“Addie,” he said softly. “I realize I’ve put you both in a situation that for various reasons – stress, contrasting beliefs, whatever – might put you at odds. But please ... I gave this great thought, and need you two to work in tandem. Do not let anything destroy the bond between you and Avery. I am depending upon its strength.”
Addie was inhaling in short, sharp breaths, as though fighting to keep her emotion in check. Finally, she steadied her intakes and spoke calmly.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “My apologies to both of you. I don’t know what came over me. You’re right. It’s just ... I feel the presence of evil nearby. It’s perhaps affecting me.”
“Very well,” said Jacques. “Then we haven’t time to lose. Let’s finish up here and get on the road. Whatever can be done must be done soon. Or I fear we will lose our way. Come, come, eat up. You will need your strength. Oh ... and Avery...”
“Make sure to take the binoculars.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said. “Is that important?”
“Could be,” he said. “They were of an evil regime, and still possess a measure of that evil. They very nearly killed your father, and were used by him in turn to kill. So they are both of evil and its very antithesis. They might, for that reason, be of help to you.”
I wasn’t sure how.
“You’re not suggesting I strangle the old man with the binocular strap, I hope.”
“Not at all,” said Jacques. “But I cannot help but feel that the binoculars’ presence might, in some way, mitigate the effect he has over you. Perhaps they will distract him; he is certain to detect their presence and their aura. Addie noticed that aura, and I suspect he is even more likely to. I would not let him so much as touch them, though, for whatever good they might possess could be eradicated by the powerful nature of his evil. Do you understand?”
I frankly didn’t, for despite the bizarre way in which Jacques said the binoculars had been acquired, I thought of them not in philosophical terms, but as an heirloom. They had been in my family as far back as I could remember, had served their visual purpose well, and were a direct link back to my father. But I nodded.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll guard them closely. I owe that to Dad.”
“Good,” said Jacques. “Good. Keep that thought.”
“You really think he’ll see me?” I asked.
We had just cleared the narrow track and emerged on the main road next to the airport. I was in the passenger side of Jacques’ truck, and Addie was seated between us. As usual, I had to shout to be heard over the roar of the truck’s engine.
“Yes, I think so,” said Jacques. “Like I said, as soon as he finds out you’re a journalist, I’m betting he won’t be able to resist. He’ll at least want to drop some hints. You have your tape recorder, right?”
It was in a backpack I’d placed at my side, between Addie and me.
“Yes,” I said, patting it. “In here.”
“Good,” said Jacques. “But don’t use it at first. Set it up too quickly, and he’s likely to clam up. That’s how those things affect me, anyway.”
“That’s how they affect most people,” I said. “Don’t worry; I’ll make sure he’s talking – that he wants to talk – before I pull it out. But he might balk anyway.”
“I know,” Jacques said. “But I’d love to get something on tape – something Italian, something ... you know, Mussolini-ish. Something to maybe hold over him.”
I understood. Jacques felt helpless in the face of what he believed had happened to his father; was seeking some sort of beacon in a sea of uncertainty. For my part, I doubted that a recorder would do any good, for I thought the entire Mussolini-spirit thing was farfetched.
Still ... despite my skepticism, I found myself toying with its possible ramifications from a professional standpoint. As a news story, it would seem to have tremendous value if true. But there was the obvious underlying problem: even if I were convinced that Mussolini was living on an island in northern Michigan, disseminating it as acceptable newspaper fact was an entirely different thing – and probably impossible, except perhaps in tabloids like The Examiner or The Star. Those papers, however, I considered beneath my journalistic integrity.
Jacques took the next two curves a little faster than seemed prudent, the body of the truck leaning hard right and then left, throwing Addie against me and then against Jacques.
“Hey, slow down, old man,” I said. “We’re not going to get anything accomplished unless we get there in one piece.”
Jacques let up on the accelerator.
“Sorry,” he said. “Keyed up. I’m a little anxious. You might miss the truth and decide not to help.”
“We’ll help you,” said Addie, “in whatever way we can.”
“We’ll see,” I answered.
Addie shot me a look.
“What?” I said. “I’m not going to commit to something until I have all the facts.”
“He told you the facts,” she hissed near my left ear.
“I know, I know,” I said, leaning in toward her. “And if half of what he said is true, then there’s a problem here. And if I can, I’ll be glad to help. But let’s just wait and see, okay?”
Addie turned to Jacques.
“He’ll help, too,” she said to him.
Anyway, that was the plan. We were going to go to the old man’s cabin and try to weasel our way into his good graces and get him to spill his guts and then somehow, if warranted, effect a makeshift exorcism to drive out the soul of Mussolini – assuming he was indeed in the old man’s body.
I admit it sounds feeble, and no doubt was. But we never found out for sure, for the plan as it stood was never implemented.
My stay on the Island, in fact, took quite a different turn – a right turn onto the waters of the first of the Twin Lakes, as it happened.
Jacques and Addie and I had traveled the road back toward the lakes, walked through the smelly perimeter surrounding them and reached the northern shore of the first lake. We had turned east and headed up along its shoreline toward the second lake when, about seventy yards from the channel connecting the two bodies of water, a motion ninety degrees to my right caught my attention. An old man and a young boy were out in the middle of the lake, in a rowboat, and the boy had just cast his fishing line out in my general direction, although well shy of the shore. I can’t explain it exactly, but as the line touched down on the water, I stopped walking, mesmerized, immobile really.
I remember Addie saying something like “Avery, keep up,” but I didn’t bother answering. Everything – time, in particular – seemed to slow and then freeze. I remember glancing toward Addie and Jacques for a moment, and thinking how they seemed to have stopped too, though they weren’t looking out onto the water; they were in mid-stride, facing away from me and toward the channel.
And then, slowly, I turned back toward the old man and the boy just as the boy, in what seemed normal speed, recast the line, again in my direction. Only this time, it flew higher and farther, and started snaking its way closer and closer toward me, and as it approached I could see a shiny silver shape on its tip, but not a hook. It looked instead very much like a silver cross, and I wondered if this was death on the way, if this was how death looked when it came for you – if being struck by the end of the boy’s fishing line was, in some cruel-joke sort of way, indeed the end of the line.
The line kept floating closer and closer to me, an impossibly long cast that I knew should not be able to reach that far, but still it came, seemingly drawn to me as if with a homing device.
I threw my right arm up at the last moment to ward off the incoming missile, but instead of striking me dead, the line wound around my forearm three times, maybe four, before coming momentarily to rest. In that moment, I glanced at it and saw two things: the small metal crucifix up close, on my forearm, facing me, and an eerie light emanating from the line, as though it were glowing in the dark. Only it was daylight, and quite bright out.
Following that momentary hesitation, the boy started reeling in the line, and it wasn’t more than a few seconds before it grew taut and I felt the tug on my arm. Then, despite my resistance, my arm was yanked outward and I momentarily lost my balance. Struggling to right myself, the binocular case I had taken along at Jacques’ request was dislodged from my left shoulder and slid down and off my arm, bouncing on the ground and coming to rest a yard shy of the waterline. The pull of the fishing line was insistent, and my body started moving forward, step by gradual step. I fought as the water’s edge came close and then – setting my right foot forward to try to maintain my body’s balance – I took a step out onto the lake. But I did not get wet.
My foot came to rest on top of the liquid, which gave way only slightly. Another tug of the line by the boy, and I took another forced step out onto the water. Then, teetering to keep my equilibrium on the solid but sponge-like surface, I called out.
“Wait a minute! Just wait a minute! I gotta get my footing!”
The boy waited a few seconds, time enough for me to accomplish the task. In that moment, I glanced at the boat and its occupants. The boy, small and about twelve years of age, was wearing a bright red short-sleeved shirt. The old man, pale white and bald, was in a bright white jacket and white slacks. The hull of the boat was painted a two-toned red and white.
The boy gave the line another gentle tug, and reeled me in, out toward the boat, the water under foot holding its consistency, leaving me literally high and dry. It took but a couple of minutes to reach the boat, where the old man held out his right hand and took my left, helping me over the edge and onto a seat. Then he and the boy put down their lines, and the boat – without a motor and, I noticed now, without any oars – started moving southerly, toward the reeds on the far shore. As we started moving, the boy disengaged the fishing line from my arm and rewound his reel.
From this perspective I could see he was unusual in only a couple of regards, but they were telling. A lad of some five feet, two inches with short-cropped brown hair, he had what I think were the bluest eyes I had ever seen – blue not in the sense of color so much as depth, as though I were peering into the deepest blue of the highest reaches of the atmosphere itself, on the edge of the cosmos. They were mesmerizing, but not – as I said – his only significant trait; and so I did not focus on them for long. No, my attention was also drawn to a point lower on his face. The boy had a very small mouth, or what I assumed to be a mouth. It was in the right place, but it was no more than a quarter-inch long. In fact, I never saw it open, never heard him speak; cannot be sure that he even had the ability to communicate verbally. I cannot, in truth, be certain exactly what kind of being I was dealing with.
Nor, for that matter, can I attest to the nature of the old man. I must confess I paid him little attention. He seemed, again, normal enough – circumstances excepted. White hair, tousled in the wind, the aforementioned white jacket, a white stubble on his cheeks and chin, white chino pants, and white sneakers over white socks.
When we were within a dozen feet of the shore, the boat slowed to a stop and the boy pointed at me and then at the land. I nodded, and climbed out onto the water. From there, it was but four or five paces – once again dry – to solid earth. As soon as I reached it, I turned back toward the boat for further instructions, but it was out of sight. Where it had gone, I had no idea; but considering what had been transpiring, I was not surprised by its sudden disappearance.
Sighing, I turned my attention back to land, looking for a path that
might cut through the overgrowth.
“Damn!” I muttered, and stepped back onto the shore, but edging toward the right. I hadn’t gone three steps when the brush on my left seemingly parted of its own accord, and a huge brown bear came lumbering through.
“Stop!” it said, or so I thought, and I did – as much from the novelty of the situation as from fear.
“Turn!” it said next, and I pivoted on the spot where my intended escape had ended, pivoted until I was facing the beast.
There, in front of me, barely two-dozen feet distant, the bear was standing on its hind legs, its forepaws crossed in front of it, its claws resting on its powerful chest. We stood staring at each other, me in fascination and him in – well, I’m not sure what he was feeling. But the meaning of his words were clear.
“You will follow me, Mr. Mann,” the bear intoned in a rumble, and I in turn nodded meekly.
“Of course,” I said. “Lead on.”
The bear got down on all four legs, turned, and ambled back toward the woods. As he neared it, the heavy growth of bushes at the perimeter leaned to either side, clearing the way for his passage. And the same phenomenon continued as he made his way through the forest. I was several feet behind, and fully expecting a branch to come swinging back and slap me in the face, so I proceeded with my hands up to ward off the blow. But it did not come; the plants – the bushes and branches that bent at his approach – remained parted until I had passed. Looking back over my shoulder, I could see them close gently behind me.
We walked on soundlessly for what seemed like a quarter of an hour, though it was so surreal – being led through magically parted bushes by an English-spouting bear – that I did not seem to have a firm grasp of time. It felt, beyond that, as though we were moving in a timelessness; but that was an unfounded feeling, for I had nothing physical to base it upon.
Moving through bushes, across clearings, around clumps of birch trees and pine and oak, and through more bushes, we advanced steadily, deeper into the woods, where there was no wind, where the sunlight was only suggested, where silence reigned. I saw no deer, no squirrels, no wildlife save the bear, and heard no sound of birds – and so deduced that we had passed beyond the realm of normal Island geography. But where exactly we were eluded me.
At last, we reached a clearing of significant proportion, barren of all plant life. In its center, thirty yards from where we came through a large bush, sat a partially built home. This exceeded the cabin occupied by Jacques’ father in both size and ambition. The structure was made of wood, stone and brick, with fireplaces at either end and a huge picture window facing us, wrapped around two sides where they met in a V. The window did not yet have its finished framing – appeared to be set in place tenuously – and portions of the brick wall were not yet complete, piles of bricks to complete the task lying nearby.
The roof was clearly a recent addition: Tar paper gave way to bare boards halfway up, and stacks of shingles still packaged were arranged in three locations in front of the structure. At one end – the left, from my vantage point – the sleek, even line of the roof rose to a second, rectangular level, topped by a tapered peak. I was studying the second story, thinking its lines awkward when compared to the rest of the building, when the bear spoke for the first time since the start of our journey.
“It’s a loft,” he said of the upper floor. He was still on all four legs by my side at the clearing’s edge. “He uses it for meditation. It puts him closer, at least metaphorically, to heaven.”
I looked at the bear, not too much shorter than me though down on his paws; as I did, he slowly swung his head left, toward me, until our eyes met.
“Go,” he said.
“Where?” I asked.
“Inside,” he answered. “He awaits you.”
“Your host,” said the bear. He then turned and shuffled off into the surrounding woods, past a clump of trees and then between a pair of bushes that parted for him.
I watched him go, took a deep breath, turned to the cabin and stepped toward it, wondering what I could possibly encounter next.
“So ... what do you think?”
The voice came from the right. I had just swung the door inward and stepped through the entrance, and was scanning the interior to my left. I whirled around, seeking the source of the sound, and found it in the far right corner. He was kneeling there, turned away from me, measuring something near the fireplace set into the wall to his left; I couldn’t quite make out his features.
“What?” I responded.
“What do you think of the place?” he said, and swiveled in my direction. I could see now, despite the poor illumination – oil lamps were burning along the back walls in either wing, casting soft flickering light – that he was a bearded man with wavy blondish hair combed neatly in the center but falling loosely down the sides and back to his shoulders. As I squinted to see him better, he rose and faced me, which told me his approximate height: he was taller than me by at least three inches, putting him a little over six feet. A long-sleeved flannel work shirt hung from his wide shoulders, and rolled-up sleeves showed powerful forearms. He was wearing blue denim trousers, narrow at the waist.
It was the man I had spotted at the side of the road shortly after I had arrived on the Island; the man Jacques had driven past without seeing. I looked around for the surplus military jacket he had worn that day, and saw it draped over a sawhorse not far from the front door.
“Nice,” I conceded. “Your home?”
“Will be; yeah. Well, already is. Has been since I got the roof on. Now it’s a matter of shingling, bricking and interior work. So yeah, I spend my free time here; sleep here.” He swept his arm back and pointed to my left, toward the building’s V, the point where the two wings joined. A doorway led to the right from there, into a darkened room.
“Eat here, too,” he said. “The kitchen’s functional.”
“Right,” I said. “So ... I didn’t imagine you on the road.”
“Not at all.”
“I didn’t think so. But Jacques didn’t see you.”
The man shrugged.
“Does he know you?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. Indeed he does,” the man said.
“Then why didn’t he see you? Or recognize you from my description?”
“Oh, that,” the man said. “We’ve never actually met.”
“I thought you just said...” But then I dropped the matter,
struck silent by a revelation – a sudden glimmering of the heart
of this situation. Whether hallucination or reality, I knew who I was
The carpenter, my father had said in his last moments.
This man, whoever or whatever he was, was part of the riddle of my father’s final message. Of that much I was sure. Beyond that, I knew little, and clearly needed more information.
“Why was I led here?” I asked.
“Ah, of course,” he said. “You have the curious mind of a journalist. Ask the question, get an answer. Not always a cogent or correct response, but a response nonetheless. That satisfies you, does it not?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “So am I gonna get one from you?”
The man smiled, nodded, and moved off toward the kitchen.
“Want something to drink?” he said. “Milk? Water? Pop?”
“Ummm ... water,” I said.
He entered the kitchen, and suddenly there was bright light in there. It didn’t look like he had reached out toward a switch; the light just flicked on as he crossed the threshold. Curious, I took three or four steps in that direction. But the man suddenly reappeared, a glass in each hand, the light going off as he stepped through the doorway. I was still staring at the darkened entrance when the glass of water was thrust into my right hand.
“How’d you do that?” I asked. “With the light.”
The man quickly looked back over his shoulder.
“Oh, that. That’s automatic.”
“You have electricity out here, then,” I said. “But why not in this portion of the house?”
“Oh, long story,” he said, waving his hand in dismissal. “Well, to change the subject, you wished to know why you were brought here.”
I took one last look at the kitchen door.
“Yes. Of course,” I said. “Why was I? And what’s with the bear? How is it he can talk? And move bushes? And for that matter … exactly who are you? I mean … I see you’re a carpenter …”
The man drank from his glass – water, it looked like – and smiled.
“You wish to know if I am the carpenter; if I am Jesus?” he said. “Is that your question?”
I hadn’t actually thought that; not overtly, anyway, since it seemed so … religious. But now that he had actually said the name, I realized the idea might have subconsciously crossed my mind.
And so I shrugged, my way of giving grudging assent.
He took another sip before answering.
“If I say no,” he said, “I might not be truthful. But if I say yes, then it is in your nature to disbelieve.”
I waited for more, but it was not forthcoming.
“Then you’re saying you are,” I finally said.
“That is for you to judge,” he responded. “It is for you to judge, as well, whether what you are experiencing is real or a dream. I’m sure that, being the skeptic, you will no doubt find ample reason to disbelieve the reality of this.”
I thought of the boy and the old man on the lake, and of the bear, and of the bushes that parted; and I thought of the story of Mussolini and the necklace, and of the possible presence of that selfsame Italian bastard in the body of Jacques’ father, and of the fact that this all seemed un-dreamlike ... and couldn’t make a snap judgment as to its reality. And the man smiled again.
“Ah,” he said. “I see you are starting to doubt your entrenched observational system. What seemed incomprehensible – fable-like – before now gives you pause. Well ... it is a start.”
“Why am I here?” I asked again.
“Ah, that,” he said. “You truly wish to know?”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s why I’m asking.”
“Very well,” he said. “I shall tell you. But only if you agree to withhold judgment – and debate – until I have finished.”
“Finished with what?” I asked.
“With a story,” he said.
I moaned. Another story. First Jacques’ war account, and now …
“Is there a problem?” the carpenter asked.
I took a deep breath. A problem? How could there be a problem, I thought. I had been pulled from the safety of the shoreline out to a boat manned by a couple of strange male figures, and then escorted by a beast of the forest to God-knows-where. And now I was talking to a carpenter who had hinted that he may be Jesus … and I had absolutely no control over the situation.
“No, no problem,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “Then you agree to my terms?”
“Agreed,” I said.
“Good,” he answered.
And he began.
“There once was a young man – well, a boy actually –
who witnessed a miracle amid the violence of a deadly storm. It happened,
in fact, not far from here, out in the Straits of Mackinac.”
“This wouldn’t have been, say, about forty years ago, would it?” I asked.
“I thought you agreed not to interrupt,” said the carpenter.
“I agreed not to debate,” I corrected him.
“Well, don’t interrupt, either,” said the carpenter, “for you will just break my concentration and make this much longer than need be. Are we agreed on this?”
I waved him on.
“Whatever,” I said.
“Very good,” he responded. “Now then, this boy, he witnessed a resurrection, a true miracle, that was brought on by the selflessness of an old man who offered himself in exchange for a victim of the storm – a young girl of roughly the young boy’s age, as it were.
“But the young boy couldn’t countenance what his eyes had seen, and opted to believe it was a secular, physically explicable occurrence – this despite the assurances of a wise old churchman and a wizened mariner. And so the boy entered into adulthood, and into a career well-suited to a skeptic: journalism. And he went from decade to decade, and from a first wife to a second, and from youth to middle age with a stoicism bought not through faith and a belief in the Almighty, but through a resignation that all he was able to see was all there was to see – and through a resignation that with the end of life came the end.
“He gave up, in other words, and in so doing lost sight of some of the truly good things in life: the birds, the flowers, the stars, his memories and an abiding faith. And he would have proceeded farther down that same path had he not been ... prompted ... to recall that summer of the storm and the resurrection and the girl and the old man and the mariner, and to start questioning what he had seen and what he had now become.
“And he came to this rock – this island – to seek some answers, and in the seeking learned much more than he had bargained for, and was asked to stretch his perceptions beyond the immediate and into the spiritual, to accept the presence within the mariner’s father of an unwelcomed visitor, a visitor believed to be steeped in evil. But through his reasoning powers, the journalist deduced that his friends – the wizened mariner and the young resurrected girl turned woman – had most probably erred in their assumption of the presence of the evil.
“And of this he was quite proud. For in rejecting their belief and faith and observational abilities, he had reverted to the cocoon of his training. And in that cocoon he was warm and snug ... and quite smug. For in close-mindedness is arrogance.”
The carpenter stopped, and stood staring at me – somewhat sadly, I thought.
“Arrogance?” I asked, stung by the accusation. “You think me arrogant?”
“And the man,” the carpenter said, “was satisfied with himself, and in his satisfaction exhibited a vanity both unbecoming and ... misdirecting.”
“Misdirecting? How?” I asked.
“Misdirecting in that he led himself away from a very important learning experience,” said the carpenter. “But all is not yet lost. He needs but apply logic and intellect while discharging his preconceived notions. Then he can see the truth. Well ... would you like more water? I see your glass is empty.”
“What? Oh. Yes. I guess so,” I said, handing him the glass. I hadn’t even realized I’d been drinking from it. “But what is it I – this man – should be seeing?”
The carpenter turned and walked back toward the kitchen, speaking over his shoulder.
“Meditate on it while I am gone,” he said, entering the kitchen and the sudden bright light.
In his absence, I tried to work my way past the sting of criticism to the truth he professed was out there, but to no avail. And inasmuch as his return was as swift as his first one had been, there was not much time to pursue it.
He handed me my glass, now nearly full.
“Well?” he said. “Have you thought on it?”
“Mmmmm,” I said, taking a sip and swallowing. “Yes. But I’m afraid I don’t know where you’re headed.”
“None,” I confessed.
“Not an inkling?”
“Not even that,” I said.
“I see,” said the carpenter, and he took a large swallow of his water. “Well, okay ... I guess I had best direct you, then.”
“I’d appreciate it,” I said.
“It has to do with an item that belonged to your father,” he said.
“My father?” I said. “The only thing of my father’s that I brought to the Island would be the binoculars.”
“Yes,” he said. “It is those of which I speak.”
“What about them?”
“You know of their history?” asked the carpenter.
“Yes,” I said. “Nazi officer derivation. Procured by a soldier, who then assaulted my father. Dad used them to strangle the fellow. They apparently still retain some semblance of Nazi evil. Both Jacques and Addie seemed to pick up on it almost immediately.”
“Ah ... I see,” said the carpenter. “Then you have no knowledge of their history before your father ... came to possess them?”
I must have been wearing a blank expression, for the carpenter merely nodded before continuing.
“Very well,” he said. “It is instructive. So pay close attention.”
And I did.
“There was an ocular craftsman of considerable repute in a small shop-filled neighborhood of Berlin in the early third of the twentieth century,” the carpenter began. “It was a craft which back then was very time-consuming, very laborious, and thus not nearly as prosperous as it is today. Eyeglasses were not as easy to come by as they are now; in fact, the poor and middle-income residents of practically any civilized area did without. Twenty-twenty vision was not considered a birthright.
“Accordingly, this craftsman – himself of no higher than the middle class – did most of his work for the wealthy, the upper class. He started with standard eyewear, eventually graduated to bifocal construction, and ultimately into the areas of binoculars and microscopes and telescopes.
“He built up quite a reputation, this fellow did – quite a following among the German aristocracy, and among the aristocracy’s various cousins across the German borders. His fame, though limited to his particular narrow talent, grew to European proportion.
“Alas, his fate was not one of upward mobility, for even as the craftsman started to make small strides in an economic ascent, Adolf Hitler and his band of cutthroats started taking control of the country, gradually stifling the economy, creativity, ambition, freedom and, ultimately, the very existence of men like the craftsman. For the craftsman was, in the eyes of Hitler’s Nazis, of the worst possible persuasion.
“He was a Jew.”
The carpenter paused, took a sip from his water glass, and considered me. It appeared he was waiting for me to say something, so I did.
“And did this craftsman have a name?” I asked.
The carpenter shook his head.
“That is not what I expected you to say,” he replied.
“Oh?” I answered. “What did you expect?”
“Perhaps something along the line of the horrible plight of the Jews under Hitler, at which point I was going to explain patiently that the Jews have been persecuted for centuries.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” I said, “but I knew that.”
“Uh huh,” the carpenter said absently. “What was your question again?”
“The name of the craftsman,” I prompted.
“Oh, right,” he said. “Why? Does it matter?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You tell me. Was he somebody I would have heard of?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not,” said the carpenter.
“Nonetheless,” I said. “It would help bring your story closer to home. Personalize it.”
“Oh, it gets personal enough,” he said.
“Yes, I somehow expected that,” I said. “Nonetheless...”
“The name...” said the carpenter.
“The name,” I answered.
“Abraham,” he said.
“Abraham,” I echoed. “Did he have a last name?”
“Well? What was it?”
“I preferred to tell you this later,” he said.
“Tell me what?” I asked.
“The name,” the carpenter said. “The last name. But, I guess it won’t hurt. So, since you ask, it was ... Mann.”
I started to smile at the coincidence, and then even wider at the thought that the carpenter was having a little fun. But the look on his face brought me back from any thoughts of levity. He was looking at me both seriously and kindly – a look I recalled having seen on the face of old J.J. Stellingworth years before. It was one of ministerial kindness, exhibited for those poor earthly souls who are in need of spiritual counseling.
“Okay ... you’re not kidding,” I said softly. “So ... it was a coincidence, right? His name? Mine?”
The carpenter’s look varied not at all as he slowly shook his head. The meaning was clear enough.
“A relative?” I said. “But I don’t recall any mention of another branch of Manns in our family history ... and certainly not a ... oh, Good Lord. Are you saying my family is Jewish?”
The carpenter smiled gently, and shrugged.
“The past is so murky,” he said. “Are we not all God’s children? Derived from one gene pool? Would it really matter?”
“I don’t know,” I said, trying to grasp the concept of a Jewish ancestor – and perhaps mildly stunned by it. “You tell me.”
“Very well,” he said. “As to whether it would matter ... that is for you to decide. But as to whether your family – you and your immediate forebears – is Jewish ... no. Your branch, the one with which you are familiar, is not. But somewhere in the past, one of your people married into the Jewish faith, and it led down through the generations to Abraham Mann. Now ... do you wish me to go on?”
I didn’t know what else to say, still focused as I was on the sudden, albeit aborted, concept of a personal Jewishness being thrust upon me. I had always viewed the Jewish persecution from a distance, with the “tsk tsk” utilized so often by gentiles who are, after all, just glad to be clear of the persecution themselves. But now, with a few short moments of the ancient faith in my frame of personal reference, and a newfound Jewish relative the centerpiece of this tale, I had been drawn instantly closer to the people and their religion and the unfairness that life had visited upon them time and again.
And so I nodded my acquiescence. I wanted to know more; know it all. And in response, the carpenter resumed his tale.
“The Nazis took Abraham during an early-morning sweep, one of many going on in the late 1930s. They rounded him and his neighbors up and put them in a controlled, walled-in ghetto, and from there, months later, sent them packing on a train to one of the Third Reich’s concentration camps: Buchenwald.
“Of course, well before that particular inevitability, before he and his fellow Jews had been gathered up and sent away, before the camps, they had been stripped of most of their rights and all but the most basic of their economic options. They were a people deprived of the comfort of tomorrow, waiting for the other shoe – or in this case military boot – to drop. And it did. Hard.
“Until the night he was seized, Abraham’s ocular business had been allowed to continue, but Abraham had seen none of the proceeds, or had seen them but briefly, before they had been transferred into the hands of the state. Accordingly, he had slowed his production pace to a crawl – his way of rebelling – and ignored some of the ocular orders coming in. This did not set well with the Nazis, but it was of small moment in their overall scheme. They knew they would become wealthy beyond imagination by ultimately taking possession of the property of the Jewish people – an immense array of art and jewels and currency – and so the small rebellion of one of their victims did not register very loudly. Besides, they were still getting some work out of him, and hence some income.
“In fact, though, Abraham was not just working a slowdown; he was busy in secret, mostly late at night behind drawn curtains and locked doors, fashioning what he hoped would be the crowning achievement of his career. His project, to the casual observer, would not seem like much – just another product, one of many over the years from the talented hands of the master craftsman. In fact, compared to the stunningly ornate work he had done in telescopes and microscopes, and to the exquisite level of artistry he had achieved in fashioning chic eyewear for the aristocracy, this was a rather plebeian-looking effort.
“His project was a pair of binoculars: basic black, mid-sized binoculars with black rubber eyepieces and a dull black case. These were clearly – to the uninitiated – a product of less than the first order. In fact, so common looking were they that Abraham did not, when away from his shop, bother to hide them. He felt that by leaving them out on a table or shelf, in clear view, he would have a better chance of keeping them and finishing them should the Nazis raid his small business or should one of his Nazi customers get it in his head to abscond with any goods that looked promising enough to fetch a sizable price.
“And so he hid them in plain sight, and kept them through two raids and one such customer visit, and worked on them always late at night, perfecting them, turning them from a basic visual unit into something special, something that would be a testament to the evil that was gathering force in Berlin and elsewhere in his country, something that would enable the holder of the binoculars to see, through the eyepieces, a basic truth afoot in the Europe of the 1930s and, indeed, in decades yet to come, in totalitarian regimes yet unimagined.”
“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,” I said to the carpenter. “These particular binoculars are no doubt the ones handed down to me by my father...”
“I thought that was clear,” answered the carpenter.
“But aside from a sense that Jacques and Addie had about their Nazi influence, I’ve seen nothing unusual about them,” I said. “And I’ve had them – my family has had them – for years. Had them and used them. Looked through them a thousand times. They’re well crafted, to be sure, to have lasted in such fine condition for so many years. And they’re fairly powerful. But possessed of a special quality beyond the normal, measurable ones? I don’t think so.”
“No?” said the carpenter. “Well, you are wrong … very wrong. I think, accordingly, that you will find the rest of my story to be most educational. Are you ready?”
I pursed my lips and nodded. Where in heaven’s name was he heading?
“Okay,” I said. “Go on.”
“Abraham,” the carpenter continued, “finished the binoculars just two short nights before he was taken by the Nazis and sent on to the ghetto and Buchenwald and, alas, his doom. His departure to the ghetto was a hasty one, and among the possessions he failed to take – whether by choice or not is unclear – were the binoculars. Perhaps he left them deliberately to prey on the psyche of his malefactors. It is difficult to say.
“In any event, he was a man who, while not uncommonly old, was possessed of a physical frailty diametrically opposed to the strength of his spirit. He did not last long in the camp. He avoided the fate of many of his fellow prisoners – gas, a bullet, a hangman’s noose – dying instead of a sudden and massive stroke after a particularly grueling day of manual labor. He was, by comparison, one of the fortunate ones.
“After they had sent Abraham to the ghetto, the Nazis had cleaned out his shop, throwing anything of value into sacks and tossing the sacks onto trucks bearing the goods of other Jews in other shops, as well. The trucks were driven to a warehouse and unloaded, and their cargoes divided into categories – jewelry, art, metals to be melted, and so on. And it was here that the binoculars passed into the hands of their first non-Jewish owner, a low-level Nazi officer who decided they were plain enough not to draw suspicion if he were to walk out of the warehouse with them. Which is what he did. He put them under his chair until the end of his shift, and then placed them around his neck and strode out with them in plain sight – the same method, basically, that Abraham had used in keeping them for so long.
“The soldier’s name was Rammelkamp, a feckless little man who had been drafted into the military and was truly amazed at his own audacity in stealing the binoculars. With the temptations laid before him every day in that warehouse, he had not even entertained the concept of theft, realizing the consequences of discovery far outweighed any potential gain. But there was something about the binoculars that made him set them aside and then boldly walk out of work with them dangling from his neck.
“He took them to his barracks and stowed them in his knapsack, and there they stayed for all but short periods of each night. In the cover of darkness, Rammelkamp would pull them out and caress them, feeling their metal contours and smooth glass lenses, run his hands over the exterior of the carrying case, and hold the case’s strap up close to his nose and smell it. It was leather, and being fairly new it had the strong pleasing aroma that only fresh leather can give. He would take several deep inhalations and, sated, tuck the binoculars back into the knapsack until his next surreptitious examination.
“Eventually, Rammelkamp was transferred out of Berlin. The rape of the Jewish wealth was nearly complete, and able-bodied soldiers were required in many of the far-flung areas into which Germany was expanding. Rammelkamp’s unit was sent to Poland, then over to France, then eventually east to the Russian front.
“Alas, it was there, in the frigid Russian winter, that Rammelkamp and the binoculars parted company. His unit was drawn into a firefight with Russian partisans who had set up a crossfire, and Rammelkamp was one of the first ones hit. He fell, mortally wounded, and as his final act worked his knapsack off his back and pulled free the binoculars tucked within. Freeing the glasses from their case, he held them close as one might a security blanket, shuddered his last breath and died, blood pouring out of his nose and over the binoculars and onto the exterior of the case that lay at his side. There, inside, secure in small pockets near the lip of the case, were two eyepiece filters that Abraham Mann had worked long and hard to perfect. They, however, were untouched by the blood of Rammelkamp.
“The binoculars fell into the hands of one of the Russian partisans who stripped the bodies of the fallen Germans. This was a man named Grinkov, and while his personal history is interesting, for our purposes it need only be said that he held the glasses for but a short time before he fell in much the same way that Rammelkamp had, and likewise spilled his life’s blood on the binoculars and on the case.
“It went on like this for some months. The binoculars, never damaged, survived battle after battle that claimed a half-dozen owners before they finally ended up near war’s end in Bremerhaven, northern Germany, at an industrial school occupied by German soldiers. There, in the final tense hours before the end of the war, the soldiers were confronted with the presence of American naval personnel who, on the final night of the conflict, moved into an empty portion of the school to await the peace.
“And in that uneasy truce, the binoculars’ latest owner was the first to relinquish them in a non-violent way – in a way that did not end in his death. A lieutenant in the German army, he was in charge of one of the units housed at the school. In the tension created by the arrival of the Americans and the concurrent orders to stand fast for the armistice, he had been making the rounds of his troops, urging them not to fail their responsibility – urging them not to engage the Americans. No good could come of such a confrontation; indeed, it would be like suicide given the promise of the American commander at the school to exact frightening revenge for any American casualties.
"During the lieutenant’s rounds, a subordinate who disdained rank decided to separate the officer from one of his possessions – and chose the binoculars. It was easy, for the lieutenant had left them lying unattended in his duffel bag in a private room he had been using.
“When the soldier was convinced the lieutenant was safely out of sight, he entered the darkened room and grabbed the binocular case. Lifting it in the dim light cast from the hallway, he smiled. This would show the lieutenant, he thought; the bastard had worn them around his neck in two recent skirmishes, brandishing them as though they were a special privilege of lieutenancy. Besides, there had always been something about the binoculars that had drawn the soldier to them...
“He draped the binocular case around his neck and made his way to the door, peered carefully into the hall and, seeing it clear, scurried out and in the opposite direction from which he had seen his lieutenant go. His immediate thoughts were of finding a safe place to hide his prize. He was not familiar with the portion of the building into which he was heading, though, since he’d had no call in the past to learn its labyrinthine corridors and lounges and alcoves, and so inadvertently wandered closer than he imagined to the American side. While moving about he came upon a bathroom, and feeling a sudden and powerful need to urinate, was about to enter when the door swung open and a man dressed in the uniform of a United States naval officer came out and, seeing him, told him in German to get back to his unit.
“I see by the look on your face,” said the carpenter, “that you realize the German soldier had entered that section of the building in which Jacques Lafitte and your father had set up camp, and had just encountered your father himself.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m familiar with the scene.”
“Perhaps, but I think this will lend new perspective.”
“Why am I not surprised?” I said. “Please ... go on.”
“Just so,” said the carpenter.
“The German, frozen in place upon seeing the American and then intimidated by his directive, turned back in the direction from which he had come; as he did, your father – I must refer to him as ‘Mann’ from here on out, for it is simpler – turned and took a couple of steps toward the supply room he was sharing with Lafitte.
" In that moment, the German, quite free of his own wishes – under the influence of some power that directed his motions – lifted the binocular case from his neck, wheeled back around and, covering the distance to Mann in one leap, swung the case strap over Mann’s head. The German’s suddenly independent hands quickly yanked backward on the strap and twisted hard, bringing the leather tightly around Mann’s neck. The American, though surprised and at first gasping for air in the struggle, reacted with equal violence – reaching back to grab hold of the strap and then pulling it forward, creating a slack in it. His strength surprised the German, and since the attacker’s body had not worked in tandem with the hands and thus was not positioned properly – he was, in fact, shocked at his own actions and wishing to be any place but where he was – it was but a moment before Mann had reversed positions and was tightening the strap around the German’s neck.
“This last was witnessed by Lafitte, who had heard the commotion and appeared around a corner looking for the cause of the noise – and now saw his friend strangle the life out of the German soldier. Only it wasn’t quite that simple, things sometimes not being what they seem.
“For in gaining the advantage, Mann was not exerting superior strength or superior fighting technique. Having been surprised and very nearly strangled himself, he wanted merely to keep the German off of him until help could arrive or he could neutralize his opponent. He did not want to stir up any unnecessary trouble by killing anyone in the school on the last night before the armistice. But it was almost as if the German were helping him. Not only was there little resistance after he had pulled the soldier in front of him, but it almost seemed as if the German was trying to get the strap around his own throat and, once it was there, helping Mann pull it tighter and tighter.
“The German soldier, for his part, was not trying to do that, but his hands were still operating on their own, as if possessed, and once the American was behind him and pulling on the strap, the German’s hands reached back and grabbed hold of the strap too and pulled in an almost spasmodic, superhuman fashion that took the soldier to the edge of consciousness and then beyond. But even there, in his darkness, the German continued to tug, exerting more force by far than Mann, who at that point was just trying to extricate himself from a puzzling situation.
“But he couldn’t, and the soldier slumped, and the pressure continued until death arrived and blood poured forth from the soldier’s nose and mouth, running down his chin and underneath to the binocular strap.
“‘He’s dead,’ Lafitte then told Mann in a whisper.
“‘How can you tell?’ Mann answered.
“‘Trust me on this,’ said Lafitte. ‘He’s long gone.’
“Only then did the pressure abate; only then did Mann manage to loosen the grip of the strap, allowing the soldier to slide to the ground.
“And there was total silence. In truth, there had been little noise in the course of the struggle, but it had been cacophonous next to the quiet that succeeded it.
“Mann, his breathing barely pushed beyond normal levels by the struggle, stood above the body, binocular case in hand, agape in confusion.
“Lafitte remained to one side, marveling at the savagery of his friend, oblivious to the truth of what he had seen.”
We stood silently there, in the carpenter’s house, each of us with a glass in his hand. Mine was empty, and my mouth dry. He raised his to his lips and took a sip, and then tossed the small remaining portion of liquid down his throat in one quick move.
I cleared my throat, trying to find my voice.
“What are you saying?” I finally managed, but he didn’t answer right away. Instead, he took the glass from my hand and retreated once more to the kitchen and the automatic lighting, returning quickly with refills. He handed me a full glass, which I promptly half-drained.
“Better?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” he said. “Now where were we? Oh, yes. You wanted to know what I was ‘saying.’ Which I assume means you want me to explain what happened there in that school with your father and the binoculars.”
“For starters,” I said.
“Oh?” said the carpenter. “What else is puzzling you?”
“What isn’t?” I answered. “I mean, these binoculars made by a relative of mine just happen to travel across Europe a couple or more times, passing through the doomed hands of several owners until they’re delivered into those of my father – who obtains them when some poor German thief gets his neck tangled in the strap and helps my father tighten the leather noose. A bit too much coincidence, I’m afraid. From Mann to Mann, as it were, by way of war.”
The carpenter chuckled.
“Something funny?” I asked, a little annoyed.
“As a matter of fact, yes,” he said. “You are quite right, but the way you put it amused me. But okay ... I will explain it all.”
“That would be nice,” I said. “But just how long will it take? My friends will be expecting me back. Hell, they’re probably already wondering where I am.”
I looked at my watch, but in the dim light could not read the digitized numbers.
“I don’t think they are,” said the carpenter. “If you could see your watch, you would discover that there has been no passage of time as you know it since you set foot on that lake back there.”
I started to look at my watch face again, but decided not to bother. Even if I could somehow get a reading, I knew in my heart he was right. Jacques and Addie, I recalled, had seemingly stopped in mid-stride back at the Twin Lakes. Besides, there was something in the carpenter’s manner that was ... believable.
“Oddly, I trust you on that,” I said. “Hell, why not? I’ve walked on water, been given a guided tour by a bear, and heard a fairly incredible story. So why not timelessness? Okay ... explain away, will you?”
The carpenter took another swallow of water, wiped his mouth with the back of his free hand, licked his lips and nodded.
“Right,” he said. “Where was I? Oh, yes. The binoculars and that soldier. Well ... I’d better go back a ways, back to your relative, old Abraham Mann.
“I told you he was a master craftsman, and that he spent a lot of time working on those binoculars, but what I didn’t explain was what was so special about the binoculars ... or rather the lenses and filters. You have, of course, heard from your friend Jacques about the special powers of the gem given him by an old gypsy in the Second World War.”
“Yes,” I said, though I failed to see the relevance.
“Well,” said the carpenter, “the gem of the pendant he has so long possessed has its own particular powers. But there is another gem – with different attributes – that stems from the same source, a source described by myth. Are you aware of that? Of the Legend of the Crystal? Perhaps the one with the bear?”
I couldn’t help but look behind me, through a window to the woods.
“No, not that bear,” said the carpenter.
“Well ... yes, as a matter of fact,” I said, turning back. “Jacques wrote me an account of the legend before I came up here to the Straits. He was preparing me for his Mussolini theory.”
The carpenter smiled gently.
“Theory,” he repeated. “Interesting. And his version of the legend was the one with the bear? Not the ones with the alien or the angel?”
“The bear, right,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “Being a forest-dweller, that is my preferred story as well. But the version doesn’t matter, really; however it happened, the gypsies came into possession of a number of these crystals, and dispensed them sparingly. They did not have a bottomless supply, and so were careful in their distribution. Among the crystals was an extremely limited supply of blue ovals – one of which ultimately reached your relative, Abraham Mann, through a circuitous route that would probably fill a book by itself...”
“Excuse me,” I interrupted. “If you know so much about it, is it reasonable to assume that you had something to do with the route the crystal followed? Or with the fact that it just happened to reach Abraham? Or, for that matter, with the fact a relative of his – me – just happens to be acquainted with the possessor of yet another crystal from the same legend?”
The carpenter was shaking his head and smiling ruefully.
“Think what you may, Mr. Mann. If you have that much faith in me, all the better. Now ... may I continue?”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Very well,” said the carpenter. “The blue crystal made its way to Abraham Mann, but through – as I said – a circuitous route, one that left him unaware of its purported powers. He was quite taken by the crystal, though, to the extent that he fashioned a finger ring in which to hold it – a ring that, when completed, he immediately started wearing on his right hand. He did not know – could not – that in so doing he was about to receive from the crystal not the certitude of an afterlife, but rather a vision of what was to be on this orb, in this life.
“For through his crystal, he would attain the wherewithal to see the future – a power as told in the legend. He would find that he could discover, in moments of introspection or great concentration, events that had not yet occurred.
“This ability came unexpectedly, as he sat resting in a rocking chair early one evening, and he thought it a dream. He saw in his mind a neighbor of his, a kindly old woman named Frau Burkoff, walking the street on a bright day and then suddenly crumpling, falling to the pavement at the base of a gaslight, one foot over the curbing, a black leather shoe on her left foot dangling on her toes, suspended between foot and pavement. The shoe balanced precariously until her lifeless body was moved by someone – maybe a friend – who cradled her; then it dropped to the street.
“The dream unnerved him, but there was little to be done about it. He could not very well tell old Mrs. Burkoff, for it would serve no purpose other than to perhaps really frighten her to death. And being a bachelor, he had no wife to whom he could confide this odd vision. He had friends, to be sure, but did not tell them for fear they would mock him or think him mad, or perhaps suspect he was harboring secret feelings for the old woman, which he was not.
“And so perhaps a week passed, until one sunny day he left his shop early to take advantage of the clear sky and warm temperatures. A walk, he thought, would help shake a slight depression he had been carrying since the vision. And so he wandered the streets in his section of Berlin, looking at the goods in the various shop windows, greeting the other Berliners out for a walk or merely sunning themselves on the sidewalks and front stoops, until he rounded a corner heading toward his apartment. Almost immediately, he saw Frau Burkoff across the street, striding purposefully toward her own apartment a half-block distant. It did not register at first, the similarity to his dream – she was wearing the same clothing and it was a bright day – until she passed a gaslight. Only then, as she approached another one, did Abraham’s fear rise in his throat, and he took a deep breath with which to yell across to her ... but could not utter a sound before the old woman suddenly collapsed, buckling at the knees, hitting the sidewalk hard, her head bouncing and her legs kicking out, one of them coming to rest over the curbing, her black shoe hanging from her toes, suspended between foot and pavement.
“Abraham raced across the street and knelt at the woman’s side, saw her lifeless eyes looking ahead, and knew she was gone. But he reached out anyway and cradled her, and felt futilely for a pulse in her neck, and as he did her shoe fell to the street, a sudden light thud in the silence of the moment, a silence that had settled despite the gathering of a growing number of people, a silence at odds with the screaming fear that was raging in Abraham at the thought that he had seen it coming ... had foreseen it ... had glimpsed the future.
“To say this was a significant event in Abraham’s life would be something of an understatement, for he was terribly unnerved by it, so much so that he retired for a week to his lodgings to ruminate upon it and perhaps bring some sense to it. And it was there, in the darkness of his apartment, that he had another vision, this one of jackbooted troops rousting the residents of a nearby neighborhood in the still of the night, smashing store windows, bloodying innocents, ransacking businesses and setting fire to several shops. Abraham recognized the exact locale – a diamond district some six blocks from his own shop – but again doubted the validity of what he was seeing. It wasn’t that he disbelieved it – or thought it only a dream, as he had in the case of poor Frau Burkoff – but that he didn’t want to believe it. If it did not happen, then he would be free of the curse of visions, and life would be easier to live. Besides, while certain rights had been gradually stripped from the Jewish population by the Nazi regime under Hitler, nothing quite like the violence in his vision had yet occurred. If the events foreseen by Abraham were to prove true, then it would bode terribly ill for him and his people.
“This time, a fortnight passed before the vision came true, and this time he did not actually witness it. It was described to him in detail by diamond-district merchants and in secondhand accounts the next day, but the descriptions ran perilously close to what he had pictured. He went with a group to the district to view the damage in the afternoon, and it only confirmed for him what had become quite obvious. He knew which windows would be broken before he saw the shattered glass; knew which stores would be burned-out shells before he saw the smoldering remains. There was no doubt in his mind now. He could see ahead. But he did not know why.
“The next time a vision struck, though, he understood its genesis. The knowledge came to him as stunningly as lightning brightens the sky – a flash of intuition. For in the grip of the next vision, he realized that his ring finger was warm, and that it had been warm on both of the previous occasions; accordingly, he placed a finger from his opposite hand – his left – onto the blue crystal in the ring, and felt more than warmth. It was actually hot to the touch, and he recoiled, and in the shock of the moment lost the vision. But he had seen enough. An elder of his synagogue would be gunned down in broad daylight by a brown-shirted young man, a member of one of Hitler’s youth groups – outside of the synagogue.
“This time, Abraham knew two things. First, he must warn the elder; and second, he must not wear this ring if he wanted to keep control of his existence. These visions were frightening and, to the degree that they had driven him to seclusion, debilitating. And so he immediately removed the ring and put it in a drawer, and within the hour had visited the elder to warn him of the danger awaiting him.
“Two resultant things happened. First, the elder, though kindly, considered Abraham’s warning to be that of a man who had lost touch with reality; he had no intention of giving the story any credence. Alas, he was gunned down within a matter of days, his last moments no doubt a mixture of shock, confusion and wonder at the vision Abraham had shared with him.
“The second thing was less predictable. Abraham, despite his fear of the crystal, pulled it out of the drawer the day after the elder was murdered, to examine and perhaps understand it. He did not stop to mourn the elder, nor – after extended meditation and prayer over a period of days – did he let his fear stop him from taking what he had somehow grown to consider the next logical step. He had decided, in the confusion of his odd circumstance, that a rare opportunity was at hand for a man of his talents – that he could take unique advantage of the insight he had gained into the nature of the crystal.
“He was now imbued with a drive to create something from this power that might be better controlled – that he could utilize only when he wished, if he wished. Or which he could leave alone, but in the full knowledge that he had the power to use it, to command it, instead of the other way around. And that was where his optical training came in.
“His idea – no more than a theory, and thus suspect – was to create a future-vision of a physical rather than internal, abstract nature: to shape the crystal into something that could be altered in its intensity with a turn of a knob, brought into focus at a touch of the fingertips; to use the crystal to see the future of whatever or whomever he wished by merely pointing it in a specific direction or at a specific object or person. In other words, he wanted – hoped, wished – to view the future through an optical device that had control knobs: a telescope or binoculars.
“This was obviously a matter of faith, though not in a deity: a faith in the field in which he excelled, the only area of his life over which he held mastery. He chose the binoculars for their portable and, by comparison with the telescope, inconspicuous nature. And he decided that with the small mass of crystal with which he was working, the only effective means at his disposal would be to segment the crystal into a couple of circular, flat filters that could fit into binocular eyepieces.
“A jeweler friend split the crystal for him, and Abraham proceeded to polish the pieces until they had acquired the consistency he needed. He then placed them in the eyepieces of several different pairs of binoculars he had in his shop, but could not acquire the desired results. He was getting refracted images that were more abstract art than reality, prisms instead of pictures. It was obvious to him that the crystal was incompatible with the traditional mode of optics in binoculars. And so he began an arduous testing sequence, grinding glass and checking its compatibility with the crystal pieces, setting up distances and different powers of magnification, altering the heat used to shape the glass, changing from one kind of grinding compound to another – trying every variation of construction and component that he could think of. And failing for months.
“But a deep obsession had taken root, and Abraham pressed on, and one day – quite by accident – he succeeded in attaining his goal. It came about when he left a kiln on too long and overheated a silicone compound with which he was working. He was going to discard it, but decided at the last moment to use it anyway. Heating by kiln was just one small step in a lengthy process, but it proved – in that instance – to be the key. When he had completed the lenses using the overheated compound, and for the hundredth-plus time put crystal to glass and peered through it, he knew instantly that he had succeeded.
“He always ran a visual test using the scene immediately outside his shop. He would place the new oculars in vices placed a proper distance apart, with the crystal filters, now in metal borders he had constructed for them, held in front of the smaller of the oculars by a makeshift device that resembled a tiny crane. The entire experiment was placed on a table by his front window. By merely leaning his chin on the innermost edge of the table, he could peer through the filters held in place from above by the “arms” of his crane-like device, and through the two pieces of ground glass set in line beyond the filters, and thus through his window and out onto the street.
“Up to this particular attempt, the scene outside his window had been of the aforementioned abstract variety – with but two exceptions in which proper magnification and focus had been attained, but there had been no hint of the future. But now his heart started racing, for what he was seeing outside was not what was happening there at that moment. In actuality, it was a cloudy and blustery day, with very few people braving the streets. Shop owners were nowhere to be seen as they would be on a pleasanter day, when they would stand by their doorways and chat with the passing populace. No, they were inside, out of the wind and the chill. And the residents of the neighborhood were likewise scarce that day, justifiably disinclined to be out walking for the sake of the constitutional; the weather was just unpleasant enough to discourage casual exercise.
“But the scene Abraham was seeing through his filters and newly ground pieces of glass was very different from a scene of cold desolation. It was bright outside in the view through the lenses, and the people were plentiful. He was, in fact, seeing a traditional street festival held in various of the neighborhoods annually. The next one for his street was still a month distant; but here it was in front of him now, and he could not help but smile at it. The people at the festival – many of them familiar faces and old friends – were enjoying a glorious day, celebrating life despite the hardships that had been imposed and the fear invoked by the Nazi regime. Ah, he thought, the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people.
“He watched like that, mesmerized by the festivities in front of him but still yet to come, for fully an hour. Here, at last, was a glimpse ahead that was not fraught with peril and death. It was a harbinger instead of a better time. It showed his people at play, happy, engaging each other in a celebration of spirit as well as of the street.
“He pulled himself away only when hunger started to intrude, and left his shop briefly to secure food at a local delicatessen. But he was back in short order, eating a sandwich as he settled in to look once again through the filters and the glass. He had just taken a large bite of his food, chewed it and was in the process of swallowing it when his eyes focused once again on the scene in front of him ... a scene of such horror that he sat abruptly upright, his heart racing – and inhaled so violently that the food lodged in his windpipe and he started to choke.
“His immediate concern – his own existence – sent him reeling toward a bottle of flavored water he had brought home with the sandwich and set on a table near the door. Grabbing the bottle, he pulled the cardboard cap from its opening and poured some of the liquid into his mouth, trying to dislodge the food; at the same time, he started to cough, sending most of the water and some of the food in his mouth two yards out and onto the floor in front of him. Another dose of water freed the remainder of the food, and a third brought him out of his spasms and back to a regular – though labored – breathing pattern. He stood quietly, reflecting on the tenuous hold we have on life, took another swallow of the liquid, and looked out across the table that held the binocular pieces, out onto the street. It was nearing sundown, even colder now, and still very quiet.
“Shaking his head, Abraham edged slowly toward the table, tossed the remainder of his sandwich into a waste can near the wall to his right, and reseated himself. Taking a deep breath, he leaned forward and peered through the filters and glass to the street scene that had so appalled him, and forced himself not to recoil this time.
“It was still bright out there, in his optical view of the street, but the festival was long since shed of its gaiety. Brown-shirted youths and jackbooted Nazis were storming the roadway and sidewalks, clubbing the people who had been so happy so short a time before; the intruders were smashing store windows, dragging the people who could still walk onto the flatbeds of trucks and hauling them away, and piling the crumpled and, Abraham feared, lifeless forms of dozens of his neighbors onto other trucks. The Nazis then looted stores and set fire to piles of debris they were hauling from the shops and apartments along the street, until the brightness of the day was obscured by the black of smoke hanging in the air between the street’s buildings.
“And Abraham watched all of this – forced himself to – until the Nazi soldiers and brown shirts had left, and the street was deserted, and all that remained was smoke and an eerie light cast by the flames. Only then did he rise from his table. Stumbling to his shop door, he opened it and walked down the short hallway to the building’s entrance and out onto the street – the cold deserted street of a Jewish neighborhood in downtown Berlin – and knelt at the curbside and cried out to the dreariness in front of him, cried out to the desolation that was to come.
“‘Why?’ he yelled in the gathering darkness. ‘Why?’
“And was greeted only with silence.”
“But he finished the binoculars,” I said after the carpenter had stopped speaking for several seconds.
“Despite the horror of what he had foreseen.”
“Oh, yes,” the carpenter said, brought out of his brief reverie. “Indeed. He had come so far, and succeeded so well, that he didn’t wish to stop. In truth, it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to proceed when all that the glasses had done was foreshadow evil. But Abraham did not see it that way. The glasses foretold the future, and in the particular case of Nazi Germany and the fate of the Jews, the coming evil was inevitable. And so he proceeded, thinking he might leave something of substance behind – truly the wish of much of humankind – and hoping that with further experimentation he could learn to gain some control of the events he was foreseeing. That seems naive and foolish to the average observer, I am sure, but to Abraham it was a point of faith. He had no control over the events unfolding in his own life, and so was hoping to gain some control in some other way. I believe the accurate term would be ‘grasping at straws.’
“In any event, he proceeded to construct the glasses – really just a matter of encasing the elements properly. But in so doing he did not want to risk the theft of his invention, and so he made the binoculars far short of fancy or flashy. The tubular housings were all black and quite dull, and there was no ornamental trim. And the leather case was black as well, with a dull sheen. He even went so far as to chip out small dents from the metal surface of the binoculars, to carve small strips of leather from the exterior of the case, and to run the surface of each through a mud puddle outside his shop late one night. Thus the glasses were old looking when new; unobtrusive and lacking allure. Abraham felt it was the only way to ensure – if such a thing were possible – that they would not be stolen. And as I have said, he was successful in that regard.
“And so they remained in his possession until the day the Nazis came – in another sweep weeks after the day of the festival. He had sidestepped the festival assault by visiting relatives on the outskirts of the city, but had not foreseen the one in which he was rounded up. Or perhaps he knew of it and had resigned himself to his fate. He had surely engaged the power of the glasses again; maybe they had told him his fate, and maybe they hadn’t. He was a tired man, though, entering what would have been his twilight years, and disinclined to run. Whatever his thinking, he was snatched from his sleep and taken away to a ghetto, and sent to Buchenwald, and there died. And the glasses passed into the hands of the soldier at the warehouse, and began their journey to your father, and ultimately to you.”
I handed the carpenter my empty water glass and shook my head; three drinks had been enough. He wordlessly took it and placed it on a roughhewn crate set endwise nearby.
“Why didn’t...” I said, and then stopped. I was going to finish with “... he tell me,” but decided that sounded like finger pointing. I wasn’t really upset with my father for withholding all of this information about the binoculars – figured he had his reasons for not telling me. I was, however, upset with myself for not knowing. It’s a badge of honor among journalists: It’s best if we ferret out the facts, not have them delivered gift-wrapped.
The carpenter considered me carefully, and responded as though reading my mind.
“There was no way for you to know about them, unless you happened to use the filters at some point. But I doubt he ever loaned the glasses out – to you or anybody – with the filters still in the case. They are in there now, though, I believe.”
“Yes, they are,” I said; I had noticed them, just as I had noticed them many times in the case since inheriting them. It’s just that I had never utilized them; had never seen the need; considered them, in fact, to be an odd supplement – a mere means of reducing or altering the available light reaching the eyes. But to what end? I never pursued the matter beyond that. I couldn’t recall, though, whether they had been in there whenever I had used the glasses before my father’s death. Maybe; maybe not. Perhaps the carpenter was right; Dad might have removed the filters when the glasses were about to go outside his sphere of control; or even replaced them with look-alikes.
“Wait,” I said suddenly, shaking off the image. It was also possible that neither maneuver had occurred. “Maybe my father didn’t know about the binoculars’ powers.”
“How could he not?” said the carpenter. “They basically
strangled the German soldier in that school hallway by themselves. It
is not likely he would let that pass without a careful study of the properties
of such a thing. Your father was, by his wartime training and, I think,
by his nature, a meticulous man.”
So yes, I could believe he would know – if indeed such a thing were true. I was still not ready to embrace all of this supernaturally charged information, though. But it occurred to me that even if the legend were true, and even if my father knew about the filters, his good friend – the man who had brought me to the Island – did not. He would have said something about them otherwise.
“Jacques doesn’t know,” I offered.
“But why wouldn’t Dad tell him? They went through a lot together. They were close.”
“I’d guess,” said the carpenter, looking out his window, “that your father was ambivalent about the binoculars – about their value and about the wisdom of their very existence.”
I was shaking my head, baffled – overwhelmed, really – by the ocean of facts I was being fed, first by Jacques and now by the carpenter. He caught the motion; turned back toward me.
“You are confused,” he said.
“I guess so,” I said. “That ... and not yet convinced. There’s ... so much. And even if I were to buy into this, I’m not quite sure how I fit in.”
“Oh, that is easy,” the carpenter replied.
“Yes. I thought you must know by now. It is because you possess the binoculars.”
“The binoculars,” I repeated, and shook my head. “I don’t understand.”
“Well, to put it bluntly ... I want them,” he said. “They are too dangerous to be left out in the world.”
“You want the binoculars.”
“Yes. Although you don’t make it easy. You thought to bring them with you to the Island only because I reminded you. Mental suggestion.”
“Really,” I said noncommittally, but then recalled that I had grabbed them off a shelf at my house on my way out the door – at the last second. I truly had almost neglected to bring them. So maybe what he said was true. “Well, I’m not sure I’d want to give them up. They’re a family heirloom; worth something on a personal level.”
“I would hope to dissuade you of that position,” he said.
I shrugged in reply; didn’t know what else to say. His simply wanting them wasn’t enough.
“Of course,” he said after several moments, “I realize you don’t have them now. But do not dismiss my request out of hand.”
I recalled the boy and the fishing line, and how the binoculars had dropped from my shoulder to the shore of the Twin Lake.
“Right,” I said. “I dropped them back near the water.”
“You were meant to,” he said. “They have no place here. They must be dealt with in a secular setting. Not ... in these woods.”
I looked out the window.
“This isn’t secular?” I asked. “It’s still the Island, isn’t it?”
“Yes and no,” said the carpenter.
A shiver coursed through me.
“Just where are we?” I said. It came out a whisper.
“We are here,” he said. “That’s all you need know.”
I considered the answer, and decided not to pursue it further; was, I think, afraid to. And so we stood, silent, awkward, at a seeming conversational dead-end.
“There is more,” he said at last. “I didn’t wish to alarm you, but apparently must ... explain things more fully.”
“What more could there be?” I said.
“There is,” he said, “the matter of Beelzebub.”
“Beelzebub?” I said. “You mean Satan?”
The carpenter shrugged.
“Satan. Lucifer. Beel. Or his favorite: Billy. Whatever you want to call him.”
I took a deep breath. More religion. I wasn’t sure I was ready for this.
“How does he fit in here?” I asked at last.
“Oh, he plays a key role,” said the carpenter. “It
is he who introduced Mussolini into the equation.”
“Oh, hell,” I said. “We’re back to that; I’d almost forgotten. I gather that at some point here I’m simply supposed to accept the fact that Mussolini is really, truly inhabiting the old man. Oh, brother ... Imagine that.”
“Oh, it’s far short of imaginary. It’s quite based in fact.”
“Uh huh,” I said. “Okay. Let’s assume it’s possible. Are you quite sure Mussolini is in there? It couldn’t just be an old man’s senility? There’s no room for mistake?”
“None,” he said. “But Mussolini is more than inhabiting; violating, is more like it.”
“And you’re saying Beelzebub did that?”
“Arranged it. Yes. Billy,” he said.
The mention of the devil triggered a memory.
“Wait … my father,” I said, recalling something in Jacques’ story. It was another piece that neatly fit this growing mosaic of mythological and religious assertions.
“What about him?”
“He told Jacques, when they were nearing the Ligurian Sea with Mussolini, that he felt like something bad might happen if they didn’t keep moving. Kept looking over his shoulder. Well ... Jacques decided that Dad had sensed the devil himself.”
The carpenter was nodding.
“He was right,” he said.
My mind was awhirl. All these facts, seemingly fitting together: Jacques’ story, the carpenter’s, this visit ... Could it be that Mussolini ... Il Duce ... was actually on the Island? On the Island of my childhood? If so ... if so ... that just couldn’t stand. A wave of skepticism washed over me, and again I doubted the possibility. But then the fatigue came again in equal force, weakening my resolve. I felt, actually felt for the first time, that what Jacques believed and Addie believed – the power they ascribed to the crystal – might actually be true. And with that growing acceptance came a touch of panic.
“But if he’s in the old man, why don’t you do something?” I said. “Get him out of there!”
The carpenter shook his head.
“It is not my job to directly combat evil,” he said, and then, waving his hand as if dismissing the thought, added: “Besides, it is not of primary importance to me.”
“Why not?” I said, a little too loudly, and then toned down my volume. “I mean ... Mussolini. The guy was ... still is ... poison.”
“Yes, indeed, he is that,” said the carpenter. “Evidenced by the effect he’s had on his surroundings; you have no doubt noticed the stench in the woods. But he is now in an old frame, one that limits his mobility and capacity for mischief. This, like all evil, will pass.”
“Yeah, but Jacques doesn’t want to wait,” I said. “He wants Addie and me to perform an exorcism.”
The carpenter scoffed.
“Foolishness,” he said.
“Perhaps,” I replied. “But Jacques wants his father to be able to die with dignity, rather than suffer possession. So ... if Mussolini’s actually in there ... then I can’t disagree with him.”
“Foolishness,” he said again. “An exorcism is generally futile. Beelzebub does not scare off at the drop of a religious ceremony. That would be a lark to him; his idea of recreation. He’d just fight you off with some of his mind games.”
“Mind games? Like what?” I said.
“Oh, dreams are probably his favorite sport,” the carpenter said.
“Dreams?” I said, suddenly suspicious, and approached the subject of my dreams obliquely. “I don’t suppose he shows up as himself?”
“Oh, not usually. Unless it were to his advantage. He’s usually in the guise of someone else. Whatever suits his purpose.”
“Like Turk McGurk,” I said softly to myself.
The carpenter studied me.
“You have seen him,” he said.
“I had a couple of dreams out at Jacques’ cabin,” I said. “Each time, it was Turk McGurk appearing, trying to steer me away from doing anything about the old man; saying Jacques was crazy.”
“Billy,” said the carpenter, nodding. “Old Turk hasn’t been around out there since shortly after his death. The place was vacant for a while, and he got bored and went on to ... well, it doesn’t matter where. No ... you definitely have had contact with Billy. Interesting ... you say he’s been warning you away from Jacques’ father?”
“Yes. But of course I haven’t paid any attention. If anything, it’s driven me toward the old man.”
There was a silence then. I waited while the carpenter chewed his lip, obviously pondering something.
“And in what temper – mettle – did you find him ... Jacques’ father?” he asked. “Was he receptive to having visitors?”
“Not terribly,” I said. “We were going to try again ... just before you waylaid me out at the lake. In fact, that’s why I was carrying the binoculars. Jacques thought that since they were from World War Two – and apparently hold some sort of evil aura, probably from all that bloodshed you’ve told me about – that Mussolini would be attracted to them. That it might help me get past this barrier he’s thrown up. He doesn’t much like me.”
The carpenter snapped his fingers.
“Of course,” he said.
“Billy is after the binoculars, too,” said the carpenter. “He’s been playing a kind of chess game with me, and I didn’t even realize it.”
He turned and stared out the window again, clearly deep in thought. But I broke into his reverie.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m having trouble with this. Old Billy, as you call him, is playing a game you didn’t know was being played? I thought you knew everything.”
The carpenter shook his head slightly, bringing his focus back to me.
“What?” he said. “Oh. ‘Everything.’ That’s a human crutch. I know everything that matters, as a rule; but there are just too many things, and some far too meaningless to bother with. You folks should really get a grip on existence, you know. While you’re in this world, you’re pretty much on your own.”
“Our own,” I said.
“Your own,” he repeated. “With exceptions, of course, where circumstance warrants an intrusion. Like now, I should guess. Listen, we’re going to have to get back in this game. I really don’t want those binoculars to fall into Billy’s hands. Too much mischief there.”
“Whoa,” I said, holding up my right hand in a stopping gesture. “Let’s back up. If the glasses are so important, why don’t either of you just grab them?”
“Aren’t you listening?” the carpenter said. “We don’t get involved; can’t directly. Everything’s indirect: spiritual guidance, belief systems that lead people to actions, that sort of stuff. We can’t physically obtain anything. And in the matter of the binoculars, Billy needs them to be given up willingly. Remember the Legend of the Crystal? That’s the only way a crystal can maintain its power. So he’s angling for that; you can bet on it. And he’s doing it through Mussolini. That’s why he set that bastard on the old man. It got Jacques involved, and got you here. Right near one of the windows.”
“Windows?” I said. “I don’t understand.”
“Windows. Portals. Transfer sites. We can access something only if it’s in one of the right spots.”
“Right spots,” I said. I was beginning to sound like a parrot.
“Exactly,” he said. “There are certain specific locales ... windows ... through which we can act. The Red Sea is one. The Bermuda Triangle – well, a portion of it, anyway – is another. The Pacific Ocean has a spot, too, where Amelia Earhart disappeared from your sphere.”
“Earhart?” I said. “You mean you grabbed her?”
“Well, not me personally,” he said. “I think ... this won’t be as difficult as it would be in another locale; we have geography on our side. I have a plan in mind for the binoculars, Avery, a way to stop Billy from getting them.”
I was standing there shaking my head, totally mystified.
“If the binoculars will only work for him if I give them willingly,” I said, “why bother with a plan? I simply don’t give them to him, that’s all. As long as I know what he’s up to, then he’s out of luck.”
The carpenter reached out and gently took hold of my shoulder.
“You have no idea,” he said, “just how persuasive Billy can be – the subterfuges he might use to gain his end. No ... believe me when I say this is necessary. If you proceed on the assumption that a simple refusal will suffice, then all is lost. We must proceed with my plan.”
I tossed up my hands – half in surrender, I think, and half in frustration. It was clear that simple logic wouldn’t win the day here; I was dealing with something beyond my experience and, I realized, maybe my control. Perhaps the matter was best left in the hands of someone who did understand. And that meant the carpenter. But still something – I think it was my inborn skepticism, for it hadn’t totally vaporized – held me back.
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe ... But I want to hear the plan first. Just what do you have in mind?”
“We are near one of those windows of which I spoke,” he said. “We need to get the binoculars there, and at the same time take the old man with us.”
“The old man? Why?” I said, aghast at the idea. “I don’t know what this window’s like, but if it’s anything like the Bermuda Triangle or those other spots, it doesn’t sound safe. I’m not going to put Jacques’ father in danger just to suit your plan.”
“But he might keep Billy off of us,” the carpenter said. “Since Billy is behind Mussolini’s intrusion, he’ll want to protect his investment.”
“No,” I said. “That’s crazy.”
The carpenter held up his hand, palm toward me.
“Okay, tell you what. We’ll combine our two needs here. You get the binoculars out there, and the old man ... and I’ll see that Mussolini is chased clear of him. I’ll see that the old man is freed from that tyrant.”
I was taken aback; hadn’t expected the offer. But saw the opportunity.
“You mean like an exorcism?”
“Oh, much more efficient,” he said. “We can sweep him up in the same window as the binoculars.”
“You mean sweep up Mussolini; not the old man. Right?”
“Absolutely,” said the carpenter.
“Okaaaaaay,” I said slowly. I tried to muster some skepticism for the plan and, really, for the whole Mussolini-binocular-crystals saga, not to mention for the current conversation itself; but despite the effort, I found myself starting to buy into everything. This whole experience – the lake, the bear and the carpenter, in a strange wooded setting – could be an illusion, I told myself; but it all seemed quite real. It looked real, smelled real, felt real – not at all like a dream or hallucination or whatever. I even pinched myself to see if it would hurt, and it did.
So I was in an accepting mood. And in that mood, I decided the carpenter’s plan sounded better than the exorcism proposed by Jacques and seconded by Addie. I couldn’t help but note, either, that it would be orchestrated by someone more attuned to the supernatural than Addie was.
“You keep mentioning a window,” I said. “I gather this is some specific locale?”
“Yes,” he said. “Where do you think?”
“I haven’t a clue. That’s why I’m asking.”
The carpenter smiled.
“You’ve been there,” he said. “Think back.”
I gave him a blank look.
“Think thunder and lightning,” he said. “It’s part and parcel of a window exchange.”
“Oh, my,” I said, suddenly realizing.
“Right,” said the carpenter. “We have to get the binoculars and the old man out to Gull Island.”
A surge of adrenalin at the thought of another Gull adventure made me momentarily giddy, and I found the scene in front of me fading. For a moment, I could see Addie and Jacques along the shore of the western of the Twin Lakes, frozen as they had been upon my departure from their company.
“Wait,” I said, but not to them. I was speaking to the carpenter, trying to get back to his cabin, to his side, to his knowledge and counsel. And as that desire to return took hold, the giddiness retreated, and I found the carpenter and his home coming back into focus, first in shadow and then, gradually, into a three-dimensional stage in which I was once again a player.
He was standing there as he had been, a patient look on his face.
“Adrenalin,” he said. “I know. It knocks things askew. But you are back, and I gather with more to address.”
I felt a wave of nausea ripple across me, steadied myself and took a deep calming breath.
“Gull,” I said after several moments. “It’s a transfer site?”
My mind went back to that night four decades earlier.
“I don’t suppose,” I said, “that what happened out there in ’56 was a window transfer?”
“What? No, of course not. Why do you ask?”
“Well, it’s obvious,” I said. “It’s a transfer site, and Addie was – well, thinks she was – transferred out; died. And then brought back again. Why wouldn’t I ask?”
The carpenter was smiling, gently shaking his head.
“Right, right,” he said. “No ... that’s coincidence.”
He stroked his beard and strolled past me, back to the window. From there, he looked across to the tree line, but not seeking something in the woods, I decided; he was looking inside himself and backward to that long-past event, formulating his reply.
“That was no transfer; it was natural forces at work. It was simply your friend’s time. That’s all.” He said it so softly I almost didn’t hear.
The carpenter turned from the window and considered me.
“Of course,” he said, “old Billy could have had a hand in it. He’s always trying to create problems ... sadness ... grief.”
“What? Are you saying she really did die?”
“Of course,” he said.
“Whoa,” I whispered, trying to digest the validation. Surprisingly, my skepticism on that point, too, seemed to have disappeared. Acceptance took but a second.
“And Beelzebub killed her?” I asked, my mind working past the fact of her death to the cause. “I thought you guys didn’t do things directly.”
“No, no ... he wouldn’t have killed her,” he said. “Directness is not permitted. But he may have caused her to be killed; I’m not sure how. Maybe he tossed a wave of confusion over you; forced you to turn the wrong way in the water at a key moment in your frantic search for the girl. Maybe he made her turn the wrong way. Maybe he delayed Eliot Ness’s rescue efforts, even for a moment. Who knows?”
“When she died,” I said, “how was it that she returned? Was it my grandfather’s cries?”
“Then he really did die for her?”
“He was old,” the carpenter said. “His time was coming anyway. But ... we waited for him; didn’t rush him. He was really very impressive that night. Earned a lot of respect.”
“Are you the one who sent Addie back? That night, I mean.”
“Me? No, I had little to do with it.”
“But somebody ... or something ... sent her back.”
“Well, yes. I suggested it. But it was ... you know ... Him.”
The next words came out of my mouth a whisper.
“Oh, God,” I said.
“Indeed,” he responded. “Now, then … to change
the subject. There is the matter of your father.”
“What?” I said. “What about my father?”
“There is something ... about the binoculars.”
The binoculars again; we were back to them. He seemed determined not to let the subject lie ... continued to press his case – although, in truth, I was already sufficiently swayed by his Gull Island plan.
“What?” I said, rubbing my eyes; they suddenly felt strained, a little overworked in the dim light of the cabin.
“Well, I don’t suppose there is harm in telling you this: I talked to him about the binoculars – right here, in fact – on one of his Island visits.”
I was surprised, and must have shown it. He had only minutes before talked in mostly speculative tones about the extent of my father’s knowledge – but here he was saying they had discussed the matter.
“Yes,” he said. “In this very clearing; of course, I didn’t have but a shanty here then. I related to your father what I’ve related to you: the history of the binoculars. I do not know for sure the extent of his knowledge to that point; but when I was finished, he understood as much as you do now. And I thought I convinced him of the wisdom of turning them over to me. But I don’t think he believed after the fact that he had really seen me. Some react that way after a visit; they chalk it up to hallucinations or something. Or forget completely. Or remember but decline to consciously concede my reality. I cannot say for certain whether the information I imparted stayed with him. In any event, we didn’t follow through; he kept the binoculars.”
Something about his words triggered the memory bank I harbored on my father. I mentally pored over several images, and settled quickly on the one that will forever leave a part of me saddened: the scene at his deathbed. But beyond the sadness was a revelation.
“Oh, my,” I said.
“I’m pretty sure,” I said, “that he recalled your meeting. He said a few words just before he passed away. He said ... he said the words “carpenter” and “bear.” He remembered you, all right; you and your large hairy friend. So I guess it’s reasonable to assume that his response to your talk was intentional resistance; that he just didn’t feel he could part with the glasses.”
“Yes,” said the carpenter. “That would fit. So it brings me back to this: Will the son part with what the father would not – take the high road for the greater good?”
Son. Father. The words again triggered the image of my Dad’s deathbed. I could visualize it, and then feel it: the emotion of the scene, and even the antiseptic smell of it. I could sense my father near me, mumbling his final words, breathing his final breath.
“The binoculars,” he had said. “You take ... carpenter ... moose ... bear...”
“Oh my God,” I said to myself.
“Pardon?” said the carpenter.
More of my father’s final words flashed across my mind, adding another layer of certainty.
“And yes,” I said. “He definitely did know about the filters.”
“Oh?” said the carpenter. “What has convinced you?”
“His last words. Dad said, ‘fill ... terse ... see ... a ... head.’ It made no sense to me at the time. But he was telling me about their power.”
“Well ... good,” said the carpenter, smiling gently. “Then it is settled. You will help me?”
I shrugged. I was, as I said, pretty well convinced of the plan’s desirability, if only because it offered the chance to drive Mussolini from the old man. But now, beyond that, allegiance to my patriarch also seemed to dictate that I help. The discovery of the meaning in my father’s message had left me feeling ... I don’t know ... both pleased with myself and pleased with the carpenter. And in the grip of that pleasure, I found myself wanting to share the internal glow it created – a feeling of power that comes with knowledge.
The decision was easy.
“I guess so,” I said, and smiled. “It’s what Dad wanted. Right?”
“Right,” the carpenter answered.
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869