Authors: Keith Donohue
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Metaphysical, #Literary, #United States, #Contemporary Fiction, #Historical Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Literary Fiction
Angels of Destruction
The Stolen Child
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Keith Donohue
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers,
an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Centuries of June / Keith Donohue.—1st ed.
JACKET DESIGN BY JEAN TRAINA
JACKET PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDREAS KUEHN/GETTY IMAGES
To Cara, Rose, Eilís, and Owen
Is it my imagination, or is it getting crowded in here?
A Night at the Opera
e all fall down. Perhaps it is a case of bad karma or simply a matter of being more prone to life’s little accidents, but I hit my head and fell hard this time around. Facedown on the bathroom floor, I watched my blood escape from me, spreading across the cool ceramic tiles like an oil slick, too bright and theatrical to be real. A scarlet river seeped into the grout, which will be murder to clean. The flow hit the edge of the bathtub and pooled like water behind a dam. I blinked, and in that instant, the blood became a secondary concern to the hole in the back of my head, not so much the fact of the wound, but the persistent sharpness of pain around the edges. Yet even the knot of it weighs lightly against the mysterious cause of my immediate predicament. I have an overpowering urge to reach back and stick my fingers over the wound to investigate the aperture and determine the radius of my consternation, but despite the willful signals of my brain, my arms will not obey, and I cannot alter a single aspect of my situation.
Which is: I have landed in an awkward position. My left arm pinned
beneath me, my right extending straight out as if to catch something or break my fall. My legs and lower half stretched out in the dark and silent hall, and on the threshold, bisecting me neatly, would be my belt, if I were wearing any clothes. But I am, regretfully and completely, naked, and the jamb presses uncomfortably into my abdomen and hips. I have a hole in the back of my head and cannot move, although the pain is becoming a distant memory.
Just a second ago, I turned on the light, having awakened in the middle of the night to relieve my bladder, and something struck me down. A conk on the skull and my body pitched to the floor like dead weight. My left shoulder is beginning to throb, so perhaps it struck the edge of the commode as I fell. The bathroom fan hums a monotonous tune, and harsh light pours down from the ceiling fixture. Through the open window, the warm late-night air stirs the curtain from time to time.
Falling seems to have happened in another lifetime. Even as I tumbled, stupefaction began to gnaw at me and consume all. In that nanosecond between the blow and timber, my mind began to hone in on the who and the why. When the hardness struck bone, just at the base of my skull, an inch above my neck, when I began to lose balance and propel headfirst to the floor, my vision instantly sharpened as never before. All the objects in the room lost dimension, clarified, flattened as if outlined in sharp bold black, a cartoon of space. I saw, for the very first time, the cunning design of the sink, the way the dish and the soap were made for each other. The nickel handles curved for the hand, the faucet preened like a swan. A hairbrush, its teeth clogged with the tangles of many crowns, lay pointed in the wrong direction; that is, the handle was on the inside of the counter rather than the more conventional placement at the outer edge. A fine coating of mineral deposit from a thousand showers clung to the folds of the partially opened curtain, and one of the aquamarine rings had lost its grip on the deep blue plastic fabric, forlorn and forgotten on
the rod. The floor sped to meet my face. Not just the pleasing geometry of tiles, but all the detritus of the human body, the hair and scruff and leavings, and as I fell, I thought a good scrubbing was definitely overdue.
Bathrooms are the most dangerous place in a house. With daily weather conditions approaching levels found in the Amazon, germs and other microbes flourish, and bacteria reproduce in unrelenting blooms across every moist surface. One could easily perish here. Seventy percent of all household accidents occur in this room and, in addition to hitting one’s head, include scalding, fainting from an excess of heat and humidity, poisoning, and electrocution. Because we spend so much leisure and indulge in self-pampering—long soaks in warm baths, ablutions, digestive relief, perfuming our hair and bodies, scraping away unwanted hairs, polishing our teeth, trimming our nails, reading the funny pages—the bathroom seems as warm and wet as mother’s womb, yet it is a death trap all the same.
My skin and bones smacked the floor with a kind of wet sound, and the pain shot through my cheekbone and knees and all the air inside my body escaped in a percussive puff. Bleeding does not alarm us until we see the blood. There is the famous story of a roofer who had accidentally shot an eight-penny nail into his brain with a nail gun. He did not go to the emergency room for several days until he began to suffer from severe headaches, but once there, doctors discovered the embedded projectile by taking an x-ray picture, whereupon he promptly fainted. Once the nail was extracted by surgical means, the headaches disappeared, as if nothing had ever happened. We must be shown evidence of our pain in order to feel the concomitant sorrow, but our joy comes and goes as it pleases.
By instinct, I reached for a towel to staunch the mess, but could not move. Not one millimeter. Not one grasping fingertip or one twisting toe. I could not even blink my one open eye. Given that I was facedown
on the cold floor, even the expansion and deflation of my chest in the act of breathing had to be taken on faith. I believed I continued to breathe. My imagination, however, could readily float above my body, able to see the figure on the stone-cold floor and chalk an outline around the naked form. The thought occurred that someone might discover me there in the bathroom, and I would be embarrassed to death.
Just as that mortification set in, a noise in the room alerted me to another living presence. A little cough, not much more than the clearing of a throat, an
that changed everything. The existence of another soul in the room produced a strange sensation in my mind. I forgot about the wound, and all at once, the bleeding stopped. I could open and shut my free eye, and feeling returned to my extremities. Conscious of the elastic restoration of my body, I sat up, perhaps too quickly. My skull ached worse than any hangover, so I pressed my hands against the temples in order to steady myself. The cougher coughed again, this time from the vicinity of the bathtub.
He sat on the porcelain edge, clad in a terrycloth bathrobe, a pair of sandals keeping his bare feet from direct contact with the red puddle on the floor. His posture ramrod straight, the old man stared right through me. His thin bare legs hung like two pipe cleaners beneath the blue hem at his knees. In his lap, he clasped his hands together like a supplicant or a holy ascetic, and when the next cough worked its way from his lungs to his mouth, he lifted one bony fist to his lips. Jutting out from the collar, the rope of his neck strained to hold up his long head, and his face looked austere, like something by Giacometti, all severe angles, skin tight on bone, a hawklike nose holding up round rimless glasses, his eyes darkly colored of an uncertain hue but expressing a relentless sense of blinkless surprise. Atop his skull, a shock of silver hair brushed carelessly straight up and back, which added to his startled-in-repose appearance, and his ears stuck out like the handles on a ewer. When he coughed, small
feathers escaped from the corners of his mouth and through the lattice of clenched fingers. Yellow pinfeathers wheeled in the air, then began to float like ashes to the tiles. A wan smile creased the lower half of his ruined mug for an instant, as if the cat apologized for swallowing the canary.
His face was like one of those I carried in daily memory, and I had known a younger version of it for many years. I could not be sure absolutely of his identity, and if he was who I thought, his physical presence and existence threw rational thought through the window. That his arrival did not surprise me can be attributed to the other startling events of the day, or perhaps he was not there at all, but rather some hallucination brought on by the concussion I had suffered the moment before. Because of the haze in my head, I put it as a question to the figure perched on the bathtub.
He went into paroxysms again, that dry cough rattling up from his core, and clamped his hand over his mouth. Tiny yellow feathers popped out of both ears. “Excuse me, Sonny, but I have a powerful thirst.”
Aware of the deleterious effects of moving too quickly, I eased up to my feet and held on to the sink for balance. I removed my toothbrush from the rinsing cup and turned on the tap, letting the water chill before filling the glass. The fanlight overhead played on the liquid surface, and some opaque sediment swirled and settled in the bottom of the clear cup, another reminder that a general cleaning of the room was in order. I turned and handed the glass to the old man, who had remained motionless throughout the whole procedure. He considered the contents for a moment and then passed back the water with a look of disdain.
“I never drink from anything in the bathroom.” He motioned over to the toilet, indicating by dumb show some symbiotic connection via the plumbing. “Do you have anything else besides this swill
from the sink?” His voice had an unbecoming plaintive quality. From historical antecedents, I inferred a preference for something alcoholic, and when asked, he nodded vigorously, a delicate smile pursing his cracked lips.
“I may have a beer in the fridge. Or a bottle of whiskey somewhere.”
He raised his bushy eyebrows at the latter. “Smashing. On your way back, you may want to throw on some clothes.”
The shock of again meeting my supposedly departed father, even an enervated version of the man I remember, made me forget momentarily that, except for a wristwatch, I was naked. On the hook screwed into the door hung a white robe, a constellation of fine red spots sprayed along the collar and one shoulder. I put it on and reflexively checked the time. It was 4:52
. when I stepped into the hallway and out of the light and hum of the bathroom and into the darkness, which immediately compressed the visual stimuli that had set off the firing synapses. My mind cleared. With nothing to see and little to think about, I quite nearly forgot my purpose.