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Authors: Dorothy Gilman

Tightrope Walker

BOOK: Tightrope Walker
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Praise for
Dorothy Gilman
The Tightrope Walker

“A very touching and memorable novel … should become a classic in its genre.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Dorothy Gilman is one of those authors that we would like to lock in a tower and command to produce a novel at least every three months. To get a new one is to become ecstatic, to finish it is to grieve, and to wait for the next one is torment!”

Chattanooga Times

All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

A Fawcett Book

Published by The Random House Publishing Group

Copyright © 1979 by Dorothy Gilman Butters

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Fawcett Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Fawcett is a registered trademark and the Fawcett colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

ISBN 978-0-449-21177-9

eBook ISBN: 978-0-8041-5182-5

This edition published by arrangement with Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

First Fawcett Edition: June 1980

First Ballantine Books Edition: December 1983



The important thing is to carry the sun with you, inside of you at every moment, against the darkness. For there will be a great and terrifying darkness.

The Maze in the Heart of the Castle


Maybe everyone lives with terror every minute of every day and buries it, never stopping long enough to look. Or maybe it’s just me. I’m speaking here of your ordinary basic terrors, like the meaning of life or what if there’s no meaning at all, or what if somebody pushes the red-alert button, or the economy collapses and we turn into ravaging beasts fighting over food, not to mention the noises in an old house when boards creak and things go bump in the night. Sometimes I think we’re all tightrope walkers suspended on a wire two thousand feet in the air, and so long as we never look down we’re okay, but some of us lose momentum and
look down for a second and are never quite the same again: we

That’s why, when I found the note hidden in the old hurdy-gurdy, I didn’t take it as a joke. I could smell the terror in the words even before I’d finished reading the first sentence:
They’re going to kill me soon—in a few hours, I think—and somehow they’ll arrange it so no one will ever guess I was murdered.

But perhaps I’d better explain about the hurdy-gurdy and why at my age, which is twenty-two, I am not out in the world setting it on fire, figuratively speaking, or graduating from Wellesley or Bryn Mawr, or doing any of those normal upper-middle-class things, but instead own and tend the Ebbtide Shop, Treasures & Junk, Amelia Jones, Prop., 688 Fleet Street (not your best section of town).

Actually it’s because I’m so free, a word I use loosely and not without irony. Due to circumstances I won’t go into at the moment I have been quite alone in the world since I was eighteen, and with a rather strange childhood under my belt as well. When I was seventeen my father packed me off to a psychiatrist named Dr. Merivale. I think my father knew he was going to die soon and one day he looked across the room and saw me, really saw me—perhaps for the first time—and he thought, “Good God!” So off I went to Dr. Merivale, who was supposed to inject confidence and character into me in prescribed doses, three times a week, at forty-five dollars an hour, and a few months after I’d begun seeing Dr. Merivale my father went to the hospital with his last heart attack and died. He left a rather surprising amount of money, to be doled out to me month by month until I was twenty-one by the First National Bank downtown. I think he hoped that Dr. Merivale would assume some kind of responsibility for me.

I continued visiting Dr. Merivale for two years, at first out of sheer inertia, having nothing else in my life, but gradually I began to grow interested in what he was trying to do. Actually it was like going to college, except that while other girls were studying Jung and Freud out of textbooks in class I was collecting dreams for Dr. Merivale, learning the difference between super-ego and id, discovering that I came from a trauma-ridden family and that I was terrified of life. I crammed just like a student, reading books on psychology all day and half the night.

It had an effect: one day I looked in a full-length mirror and realized why nobody had ever noticed me: I shouldn’t have noticed me, either, in an over-sized gray sweater with stretched sleeves and a gray skirt with a crooked hem. I went out and bought a pair of bellbottom slacks, which were in style at that time, and a bright pink shirt, and a pair of sandals. The bellbottoms swished when I walked, and I liked that; the next week I bought a white sweater and then a blue one. One day I accused Dr. Merivale of being a stuffed shirt—heady stuff! He was really very pleased with me after he’d recovered from the initial shock. I can’t say I blossomed physically: I was still thin and freckle-faced, with straight brown hair, but inside I was coming to life. I could almost forgive my mother for hanging herself when I was eleven.

After the big house on Walnut Street was sold I moved into a boardinghouse—Dr. Merivale insisted I be among people—and fell into a very growth-oriented regime because I wanted to change as fast as possible. I set the alarm clock for eight, rose and did deep breathing exercises, then transcendental meditation for twenty minutes and after that half an hour of yoga followed by thirty minutes of Canadian Air Force calisthenics (aimed mostly, I have to confess, at increasing my bust
measurement). Sometimes it was almost noon before I had breakfast. And three times a week I went to Dr. Merivale, and I hung mottoes all over the walls of my room like “I am the master of my destiny and the captain of my soul.”

But I still had nightmares every night.

It was at the boardinghouse that I met Calley Monahan, who had freckles, too. What struck me first about him was his great calmness. He couldn’t have been older than thirty, he had a red beard and red hair and every evening after dinner he would remain behind at the table and peel an apple, slowly and very intently. I knew nothing about him except his name and that he played the guitar; sometimes I would hear him practicing in his room, which was above mine: sweet lonely songs like “Red River Valley” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” After about three weeks we said hello when we met on the stairs—I was feeling quite daring by that time—and after a few more weeks I stopped going into a panic when he said “How are you?” and one evening after dinner we actually had a conversation. He wanted to know what I did in my room all day.

I rather incoherently stammered out an explanation—it didn’t occur to me to dissemble—and he said, “So what does this doctor do for you?”

I said he was trying to free me.

“From what, and for what?” he asked pleasantly, looking up from his apple-peeling.

I turned scarlet, and then after a moment said defiantly, “Well, for one thing I’ve learned I have an IQ of 140 and that frees me from feeling stupid, which is the way I’ve felt all my life.”

He looked at me for a long time, gravely, without amusement, which was merciful, and he seemed to be
making up his mind about something. He said at last, quietly, “You’d better come and meet Amman Singh.”

What’s strange about this is that after he took me to meet Amman Singh that evening I never saw Calley Monahan again, which always reminds me of Jung’s speculations about “meaningful coincidences” in our lives, because if it weren’t for Calley Monahan I would never have met Amman Singh. I would probably have joined the typing class that Dr. Merivale kept urging on me, and I would certainly never have found the note in the hurdy-gurdy. Sometimes I ask myself, would anyone else have discovered it, and if they did would they have cared, or done anything about it and changed the lives of so many people?

It’s things like this that comfort me when I feel frightened about life.

I was very nervous about going out for the evening with a young man, and quite unable to decide whether it was a date or not, so I compromised and wore the old gray sweater with the bellbottoms: half old life, half new. From somewhere Calley Monahan produced a motorcycle—I hadn’t known he had
—and off we roared through the streets of the city with me hanging on for dear life. In spite of having lived all my life in Trafton I’d never visited Clancy Street before, or even seen it. It was in the oldest section of town, a narrow street lined with decaying old houses, funny little shops and a few stalls set out on the sidewalks. We parked in front of a grimy wooden house with a lopsided front porch, climbed five flights of stairs to a grimy hall and walked into Amman Singh’s room.

The room was dim and not very clean and he was the oldest man I think I’ve ever seen, and yet.… His skin was the color of coffee and cream, with a network of fine lines crisscrossing it everywhere, not wrinkles
so much as lines like filigree lace. He glanced at me just once as we came in, and I saw that his eyes were black, really black, like ink or a raven’s wing or a black pearl, and so soft, so luminous they seemed to melt all over his face. When he looked at me I felt something inside of me melt, too. He sat cross-legged on the floor like a Buddha in pajamas; several people were crouched uncomfortably around him talking a language I couldn’t understand.

We sat down and waited. Being here struck me as weird and a little scary and yet I felt a sense of peacefulness flowing over me. It seemed to come from Amman Singh: his voice, for one thing, so soft, almost whispering as he replied to the others, and then of course those luminous kind eyes.… I felt he wasn’t trying to please anyone, or demand anything, he was simply
, and the others adjusted themselves to hear him. It was about ten minutes before he turned to Calley and said, “You have brought a friend.”


His eyes rested lightly on me. “We have been speaking of violence.”

“Oh,” I said.

“The violence inside us all, the angers, the negative thoughts, the resentments, and greeds.”

I nodded politely.

He said in his soft, whispery voice, his eyes kind, “When you entered this room I felt your violence.”

Now if there is one thing I felt I was
at that time it was violent. I was soft, malleable, shy and timid, and having doggedly visited Dr. Merivale for two years I determined to assert myself. I said indignantly—after all who
this creepy old man who looked like a high lama in
Lost Horizon
—“But I
have violence in me, my psychiatrist is trying to
anger to me, he says I don’t want
for myself.”

Amman Singh listened with his head cocked like a bird and then he said in his soft, singsong voice, “Always … how blind we are to ourselves.…”

“How?” I gasped.

His eyes met mine and held them. “A tree may be bent by harsh winds,” he said softly, “but it is no less beautiful than the tree that grows in a sheltered nook, and often it bears the richer fruit. In your desperate longing to be like others, to be like everyone else, you seek to destroy what may be a song one day.”

BOOK: Tightrope Walker
13.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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