By Rikki Ducornet
Coffee House Press
Along the Hudson River, the world goes on forever, unspooling, and just when you think you know it, something happens, the summer is snatched away by an ice storm, a blizzard dissolves the spring, there are moths in sudden numbers, an unprecedented migration of geese. Autumn arrives unparalleled in its beauty. The river gleams, there are shad and snapping turtles, quantities of water chestnuts, and under porches: copperheads.
If America has gods, this is where they dwell—under rocks, in the branches of trees, in ivy, skunkweed, the hearts of fish, the flight of geese. But—everyone says it— things no longer shine as they once did. Ever since the war, everything is dimmer.
When he was very little he knew—if only for a brief moment—that the world was imbued with light. That he came into the world beaming and burning. He was always combusting. He was enchanted.
Here is a curious paradox: he is a man, quick as a whip, thin as a razor, by acts of will invisible, someone who snakes about, who is always needing (ah! This pesky need of his!) to puzzle the world back together again, to polish the pieces and make them shine. But as he was undone so early he cannot know—no matter how avidly he watches the lives around him unfold—where his pieces go, and this despite his desperate, his imperious need to gather the pieces together (and he is tireless), to see it all fall into place.
He grew up three miles down the road from the campus, in a place so small it was known by the name of its one bar: Annie's. When he was growing up and a kid asked him where he lived, he'd say up the road from Annie's. If they had not heard of Annie's he'd say 'bout four miles east of town. Meaning Hawkskill, where the school was, the post office and dry-goods store—all that—and the hotel-restaurant that still fills up when folks drop their kids off, turn up for Christmas break, Easter, graduation. For this reason Hawkskill is called a college town, although there is not much there to attract students. The rest of the time the hotel clients are traveling salesmen, and in cider season, on the long weekend of the county fair, tourists.
When he was a boy, and this happened a year or two after his mother left, his father took him and his grandmother out for a big midday meal to celebrate his grandmother's birthday. She had turned eighty and they ate roast beef and gravy with Yorkshire pudding and mashed potatoes. His father, usually taciturn, talked about what he'd seen and been bewildered by on the campus—students kissing in public, even mixed couples; he disliked the girls' wild hair. Their bare feet and thighs. Their untamed, their graceful ways. Shameless, he complained. But the day he saw a kid playing a fiddle on the commons, playing it well, he thought it was tremendous.
When Stub turns nine, he decides to check out the campus for himself. Near summer's end, he walks the three miles and finds it deserted. He wanders freely, enthralled by the expansive beauty of the place, the inscrutable stone buildings, the ink of their shadows, the impossible grass curving toward a forested horizon. Lying down in a saucer of grass beside a flagpole, its flag, too, at rest, he thinks he could haunt this place, move along the many dark recesses beneath the walls and plantings and not be seen. Somewhere a clock chimes the hour and he looks up at the sky and thinks that everything he learns must be put to good use.
In front of the library he comes upon kids his own age, faculty brats (his dad's words), he supposes, playing kick the can. The can has been kicked, and as they scatter they look at him with disdain—or so he thinks—and dash away with a piece of him. He feels ashamed, somehow. Corroded. But the library is open, and bravely he walks in. As he passes the front desk the librarian welcomes him, standing up from his chair, which doesn't make him any taller. "I am so pleased you have come in," he says, "you're the first person I've seen all day. But I haven't seen you before."
"My dad works here," Stub tells him. "Fixing things."
"What's his name? Perhaps I've met him."
"Jiggs Wiznet," Stub tells him. "I'm Stub."
"I know Jiggs Wiznet!" the librarian exclaims. "He fixed the library toilets and he did a nice job. It makes good sense you both share the same last name. I'm Axel." As he speaks he scribbles something on a small square of stiff paper that turns out to be a library card. "If I were named Stub Wiznet, well . . . it would be perfect. I'm the dwarf, after all." He sighs softly. "Want to trade?"
"Our time here is so brief—one day you'll see what I mean—and it would be better to have a perfect name." He hands Stub a card. "If I were a wrestler, well . . . Axel would do me fine. Are you wanting anything in particular? The card means you can take books home."
"Verner Vanderloon," Stub says, surprising himself. "I'd like a book of his."
"A book of Loon's! I knew Loon. A recluse. No one has seen him in years." He walks with Stub to the stacks. "We also have much of his library—a gift—in storage . . . no room left in the stacks." And then Stub is alone among more books than he imagined possible, Vanderloon's eight volumes, all with the familiar green leather bindings, tightly shelved together side by side within an ocean of books. The first thing he does is sit down on the floor and look at the spines. At that moment he vividly recalls Jenny and is freshly stricken by an old suffering.
At some point it occurs to him that he could live in the library. He could read all day and sleep on the floor at night.
Use the restrooms, and nobody would be the wiser. And when he got hungry he could steal a pie from the windowsill and run into the woods and eat his supper under the trees, among the ants, just as the animals do.
Terrible things happen all the time, he thinks, but not today. Terrible things, beautiful things, things of such power, of such bewilderment, lucent and dark as tar. But right now the universe, restless beyond imagining, a universe of rock and flame, whose nature is incandescence—a universe that flickers, its impatient forms blinking like fireflies in the night—astounds and delights him. Because he has in his hands a book of Vanderloon's, its text scattered with peculiar sketches like the scrawl of restless spiders. Sketches of altars exhaling smoke, of volcanoes spitting gravel and sparks, of pearl divers and temple gates, of naked people wielding clubs, their faces lifted, stunned by the sign of a meteor.
That night when Stub and his father are at supper, Stub remembers with nostalgia the family lunch they'd had in town not long before his grandmother passed. He asks if they could go again. His father says no, not ever, because the people in there make a man feel like a rag, like a rope of tripe. But Stub's memory is radically different. The waitress had been friendly and she had playfully mussed his hair. She had wrapped a fresh piece of pie in a shiny piece of foil for him to take home. Later on when Stub considers his childhood, that simple gesture will be one of the most benevolent instances he can retrieve.
Stub returns to the library often. Axel is always there for him, eager to talk, as he makes his way, doggedly, through Vanderloon's books: Ancient Roots and Ways; Big Ears, Small Ears: Easter Island at War; Rules of Rage; Cannibal Ways; The Lost Archipelago; Primates in Paradise; Dream's Dying. Axel advises: "Don't let Loon get you down, Stub. It's a dark vision." He continues:
The trunk be mangled, with the limbs lopped off,
The soul withdrawn and taken from the limbs,
Still lives the trunk and draws the vital air.
Lucretius," he says.
Stub cannot tell his father about Axel, Vanderloon, the library. Jiggs both resents the campus and fiercely protects his place in it. When Stub attempts to describe his first afternoon there, it is exactly as if he has unknowingly breached a taboo, desecrated the holy of holies. At home his isolation deepens. But instead of dying, his affections are displaced.
Excerpt is used with permission from Brightfellow (Coffee House Press, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Rikki Ducornet.