Maps in a mirror, p.17

Maps in a Mirror, page 17


Maps in a Mirror

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  “I’ve never lain awake at night afraid that someone would stab me to death.”

  Joe looked at him placidly. “But, Father, I told you, swords are words as often as not. What you fear is death at the hands of storytellers. According to the cards, you’re the sort of man who would have killed the messenger who brought bad news.”

  According to the cards, or according to you? But Alvin held his anger and said nothing.

  A card to the right. “This is behind you, the story of your past.” A man in a sword-studded boat, poling the craft upstream, a woman and child sitting bowed in front of him. “Hansel and Gretel sent into the sea in a leaky boat.”

  “It doesn’t look like a brother and sister,” said Alvin. “It looks like a mother and child.”

  “Ah,” said Joe. A card to the left. “This is before you, where you know your course will lead.” A sarcophagus with a knight sculpted in stone upon it, a bird resting on his head.

  Death, thought Alvin. Always a safe prediction. And yet not safe at all. The cards themselves seemed malevolent. They all depicted situations that cried out with agony or fear. That was the gimmick, Alvin decided. Potent enough pictures will seem to be important whether they really mean anything or not. Heavy with meaning like a pregnant woman, they can be made to bear anything.

  “It isn’t death,” said Joe.

  Alvin was startled to have his thoughts so appropriately interrupted.

  “It’s a monument after you’re dead. With your words engraved on it and above it. Blind Homer. Jesus. Mahomet. To have your words read like scripture.”

  And for the first time Alvin was genuinely frightened by what his son had found. Not that this future frightened him. Hadn’t he forbidden himself to hope for it, he wanted it so much? No, what he feared was the way he felt himself say, silently, Yes, yes, this is True. I will not be flattered into belief, he said to himself. But underneath every layer of doubt that he built between himself and the cards he believed. Whatever Joe told him, he would believe, and so he denied belief now, not because of disbelief but because he was afraid. Perhaps that was why he had doubted from the start.

  Next the computer placed a card in the lower right-hand corner. “This is your house.” It was the Tower, broken by lightning, a man and a woman falling from it, surrounded by tears of flame.

  A card directly above it. “This answers you.” A man under a tree, beside a stream, with a hand coming from a small cloud, giving him a cup. “Elijah by the brook, and the ravens feed him.”

  And above that a man walking away from a stack of eight cups, with a pole and traveling cloak. The pole is a wand, with leaves growing from it. The cups are arranged so that a space is left where a ninth cup had been. “This saves you.”

  And then, at the top of the vertical file of four cards, Death. “This ends it.” A bishop, a woman, and a child kneeling before Death on a horse. The horse is trampling the corpse of a man who had been a king. Beside the man lie his crown and a golden sword. In the distance a ship is foundering in a swift river. The sun is rising between pillars in the east. And Death holds a leafy wand in his hand, with a sheaf of wheat bound to it at the top. A banner of life over the corpse of the king. “This ends it,” said Joe definitively.

  Alvin waited, looking at the cards, waiting for Joe to explain it. But Joe did not explain. He just gazed at the monitor and then suddenly got to his feet. “Thank you, Father,” he said. “It’s all clear now.”

  “To you it’s clear,” Alvin said.

  “Yes,” said Joe. “Thank you very much for not lying this time.” Then Joe made as if to leave.

  “Hey, wait,” Alvin said. “Aren’t you going to explain it to me?”

  “No,” said Joe.

  “Why not?”

  “You wouldn’t believe me.”

  Alvin was not about to admit to anyone, least of all himself, that he did believe. “I still want to know. I’m curious. Can’t I be curious?”

  Joe studied his father’s face. “I told Mother, and she hasn’t spoken a natural word to me since.”

  So it was not just Alvin’s imagination. The tarot program had driven a wedge between Connie and Joe. He’d been right. “I’ll speak a natural word or two every day, I promise,” Alvin said.

  “That’s what I’m afraid of,” Joe said.

  “Son,” Alvin said. “Dr. Fryer told me that the stories you tell, the way you put things together, is the closest thing to truth about people that he’s ever heard. Even if I don’t believe it, don’t I have the right to hear the truth?”

  “I don’t know if it is the truth. Or if there is such a thing.”

  “There is. The way things are, that’s truth.”

  “But how are things, with people? What causes me to feel the way I do or act the way I do? Hormones? Parents? Social patterns? All the causes or purposes of all our acts are just stories we tell ourselves, stories we believe or disbelieve, changing all the time. But still we live, still we act, and all those acts have some kind of cause. The patterns all fit together into a web that connects everyone who’s ever lived with everyone else. And every new person changes the web, adds to it, changes the connections, makes it all different. That’s what I find with this program, how you believe you fit into the web.”

  “Not how I really fit?”

  Joe shrugged. “How can I know? How can I measure it? I discover the stories that you believe most secretly, the stories that control your acts. But the very telling of the story changes the way you believe. Moves some things into the open, changes who you are. I undo my work by doing it.”

  “Then undo your work with me, and tell me the truth.”

  “I don’t want to.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because I’m in your story.”

  Alvin spoke then more honestly than he ever meant to. “Then for God’s sake tell me the story, because I don’t know who the hell you are.”

  Joe walked back to his chair and sat down. “I am Goneril and Regan, because you made me act out the lie that you needed to hear. I am Oedipus, because you pinned my ankles together and left me exposed on the hillside to save your own future.”

  “I have loved you more than life.”

  “You were always afraid of me, Father. Like Lear, afraid that I wouldn’t care for you when I was still vigorous and you were enfeebled by age. Like Laios, terrified that my power would overshadow you. So you took control; you put me out of my place.”

  “I gave years to educating you—”

  “Educating me in order to make me forever your shadow, your student. When the only thing that I really loved was the one thing that would free me from you—all the stories.”

  “Damnable stupid fictions.”

  “No more stupid than the fiction you believe. Your story of little cells and DNA, your story that there is such a thing as reality that can be objectively perceived. God, what an idea, to see with inhuman eyes, without interpretation. That’s exactly how stones see, without interpretation, because without interpretation there isn’t any sight.”

  “I think I know that much at least,” Alvin said, trying to feel as contemptuous as he sounded. “I never said I was objective.”

  “Scientific was the word. What could be verified was scientific. That was all that you would ever let me study, what could be verified. The trouble is, Father, that nothing in the world that matters at all is verifiable. What makes us who we are is forever tenuous, fragile, the web of a spider eaten and remade every day. I can never see out of your eyes. Yet I can never see any other way than through the eyes of every storyteller who ever taught me how to see. That was what you did to me, Father. You forbade me to hear any storyteller but you. It was your reality I had to surrender to. Your fiction I had to believe.”

  Alvin felt his past slipping out from under him. “If I had know those games of make-believe were so important to you, I wouldn’t have—”

  “You knew they were that important to me,” Joe said coldly. “Why els
e would you have bothered to forbid me? But my mother dipped me into the water, all but my heel, and I got all the power you tried to keep from me. You see, Mother was not Griselde. She wouldn’t kill her children for her husband’s sake. When you exiled me, you exiled her. We lived the stories together as long as we were free.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Until you came home to teach me. We were free until then. We acted out all the stories that we could. Without you.”

  It conjured for Alvin the ridiculous image of Connie playing Goldilocks and the Three Bears day after day for years. He laughed in spite of himself, laughed sharply, for only a moment.

  Joe took the laugh all wrong. Or perhaps took it exactly right. He took his father by the wrist and gripped him so tightly that Alvin grew afraid. Joe was stronger than Alvin had thought. “Grendel feels the touch of Beowulf on his hand,” Joe whispered, “and he thinks, Perhaps I should have stayed at home tonight. Perhaps I am not hungry after all.”

  Alvin tried for a moment to pull his arm away but could not. What have I done to you, Joe? he shouted inside himself. Then he relaxed his arm and surrendered to the tale. “Tell me my story from the cards,” he said. “Please.”

  Without letting go of his father’s arm, Joe began. “You are Lear, and your kingdom is great. Your whole life is shaped so that you will live forever in stone, in memory. Your dream is to create life. You thought I would be such life, as malleable as the little worlds you make from DNA. But from the moment I was born you were afraid of me. I couldn’t be taken apart and recombined like all your little animals. And you were afraid that I would steal the swords from your sepulchre. You were afraid that you would live on as Joseph Bevis’s father, instead of me forever being Alvin Bevis’s son.”

  “I was jealous of my child,” said Alvin, trying to sound skeptical.

  “Like the father rat that devours his babies because he knows that someday they will challenge his supremacy, yes. It’s the oldest pattern in the world, a tale older than teeth.”

  “Go on, this is quite fascinating.” I refuse to care.

  “All the storytellers know how this tale ends. Every time a father tries to change the future by controlling his children, it ends the same. Either the children lie, like Goneril and Regan, and pretend to be what he made them, or the children tell the truth, like Cordelia, and the father casts them out. I tried to tell the truth, but then together Mother and I lied to you. It was so much easier, and it kept me alive. She was Grim the Fisher, and she saved me alive.”

  locaste and Laios and Oedipus. “I see where this is going,” Alvin said. “I thought you were bright enough not to believe in that Freudian nonsense about the Oedipus complex.”

  “Freud thought he was telling the story of all mankind when he was only telling his own. Just because the story of Oedipus isn’t true for everyone doesn’t mean that it isn’t true for me. But don’t worry, Father. I don’t have to kill you in the forest in order to take possession of your throne.”

  “I’m not worried.” It was a lie. It was a truthful understatement.

  “Laios died only because he would not let his son pass along the road.”

  “Pass along any road you please.”

  “And I am the Devil. You and Mother were in Eden until I came. Because of me you were cast out. And now you’re in hell.”

  “How neatly it all fits.”

  “For you to achieve your dream, you had to kill me with your story. When I lay there with your blades in my back, only then could you be sure that your sepulchre was safe. When you exiled me in a boat I could not live in, only then could you be safe; you thought. But I am the Horn Child, and the boat bore me quickly across the sea to my true kingdom.”

  “This isn’t anything coming from the computer,” said Alvin. “This is just you being a normal resentful teenager. Just a phase that everyone goes through.”

  Joe’s grip on Alvin’s arm only tightened. “I didn’t die, I didn’t wither, I have my power now, and you’re not safe. Your house is broken, and you and Mother are being thrown from it to your destruction, and you know it. Why did you come to me, except that you knew you were being destroyed?”

  Again Alvin tried to find a way to fend off Joe’s story with ridicule. This time he could not. Joe had pierced through shield and armor and cloven him, neck to heart. “In the name of God, Joe, how do we end it all?” He barely kept from shouting.

  Joe relaxed his grip on Alvin’s arm at last. The blood began to flow again, painfully; Alvin fancied he could measure it passing through his calibrated arteries.

  “Two ways,” said Joe. “There is one way you can save yourself.”

  Alvin looked at the cards on the screen. “Exile.”

  “Just leave. Just go away for a while. Let us alone for a while. Let me pass you by, stop trying to rule, stop trying to force your story on me, and then after a while we can see what’s changed.”

  “Oh, excellent. A son divorcing his father. Not too likely.”

  “Or death. As the deliverer. As the fulfillment of your dream. If you die now, you defeat me. As Laios destroyed Oedipus at last.”

  Alvin stood up to leave. “This is rank melodrama. Nobody’s going to die because of this.”

  “Then why can’t you stop trembling?” asked Joe.

  “Because I’m angry, that’s why,” Alvin said. “I’m angry at the way you choose to look at me. I love you more than any other father I know loves his son, and this is the way you choose to view it. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth—”

  “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child. Away, away!”

  “Lear, isn’t it? You gave me the script, and now I’m saying the goddamn lines.”

  Joe smiled a strange, sphinxlike smile. “It’s a good exit line, though, isn’t it?”

  “Joe, I’m not going to leave, and I’m not going to drop dead, either. You’ve told me a lot. Like you said, not the truth, not reality, but the way you see things. That helps, to know how you see things.”

  Joe shook his head in despair. “Father, you don’t understand. It was you who put those cards up on the screen. Not I. My reading is completely different. Completely different, but no better.”

  “If I’m the King of Swords, who are you?”

  “The Hanged Man,” Joe said.

  Alvin shook his head. “What an ugly world you choose to live in.”

  “Not neat and pretty like yours, not bound about by rules the way yours is. Laws and principles, theories and hypotheses, may they cover your eyes and keep you happy.”

  “Joe, I think you need help,” said Alvin.

  “Don’t we all,” said Joe.

  “So do I. A family counselor maybe. I think we need outside help.”

  “I’ve told you what you can do.”

  “I’m not going to run away from this, Joe, no matter how much you want me to.”

  “You already have. You’ve been running away for months. These are your cards, Father, not mine.”

  “Joe, I want to help you out of this—unhappiness.”

  Joe frowned. “Father, don’t you understand? The Hanged Man is smiling. The Hanged Man has won.”

  Alvin did not go home. He couldn’t face Connie right now, did not want to try to explain what he felt about what Joe had told him. So he went to the laboratory and lost himself for a time in reading records of what was happening with the different subject organisms. Some good results. If it all held up, Alvin Bevis would have taken mankind a long way toward being able to read the DNA chain. There was a Nobel in it. More important still, there was real change. I will have changed the world, he thought. And then there came into his mind the picture of the man holding the world in his hands, looking off into the distance. The Two of Wands. His dream. Joe was right about that. Right about Alvin’s longing for a monument to last forever.

  And in a moment of unusual clarity Alvin saw that Joe was right about everything. Wasn’t Alvin even now doing just what
the cards called for him to do to save himself, going into hiding with the Eight of Cups? His house was breaking down, all was being undone, and he was setting out on a long journey that would lead him to solitude. Greatness, but solitude.

  There was one card that Joe hadn’t worked into his story, however. The Four of Cups. “This answers you,” he had said. The hand of God coming from a cloud. Elijah by the brook. If God were to whisper to me, what would He say?

  He would say, Alvin thought, that there is something profoundly wrong, something circular in all that Joe has done. He has synthesized things that no other mind in the world could have brought together meaningfully. He is, as Dr. Fryer said, touching on the borders of Truth. But, by God, there is something wrong, something he has overlooked. Not a mistake, exactly. Simply a place where Joe has not put two true things together in his own life: Stories make us who we are: the tarot program identifies the stories we believe: by hearing the tale of the tarot, we have changed who we are: therefore—

  Therefore, no one knows how much of Joe’s tarot story is believed because it is true, and how much becomes true because it is believed. Joe is not a scientist. Joe is a tale-teller. But the gifted, powerful teller of tales soon lives in the world he has created, for as more and more people believe him, his tales become true.

  We do not have to be the family of Laios. I do not have to play at being Lear. I can say no to this story, and make it false. Not that Joe could tell any other story, because this is the one that he believes. But I can change what he believes by changing what the cards say, and I can change what the cards say by being someone else.

  King of Swords. Imposing my will on others, making them live in the world that my words created. And now my son, too, doing the same. But I can change, and so can he, and then perhaps his brilliance, his insights can shape a better world than the sick one he is making us live in.

  And as he grew more excited, Alvin felt himself fill with light, as if the cup had poured into him from the cloud. He believed, in fact, that he had already changed. That he was already something other than what Joe said he was.

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