Maps in a mirror, p.21

Maps in a Mirror, page 21


Maps in a Mirror

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  Once their families came, once the words were spoken and the tears were shed, once the muddy bodies were laid on canvas on our lawn and properly identified from the scraps of clothing, then they brought the old man in handcuffs. He had our landlord and a sleepy lawyer with him, but when he saw the bodies on the lawn he brokenly confessed, and they recorded his confession. None of the parents actually had to look at him; none of the boys had to face him again.

  But they knew. They knew that it was over, that no more families would be torn apart as theirs—as ours—had been. And so the boys, one by one, disappeared. They were there, and then they weren’t there. With that the other parents left us, quiet with grief and awe that such a thing was possible, that out of horror had come one last night of mercy and of justice, both at once.

  Scotty was the last to go. We sat alone with him in our living room, though by the lights and talking we were aware of the police still doing their work outside. Kristine and I remember clearly all that was said, but what mattered most to us was at the very end.

  “I’m sorry I was so mad all the time last summer,” Scotty said. “I knew it wasn’t really your fault about moving and it was bad for me to be so angry but I just was.”

  For him to ask our forgiveness was more than we could bear. We were full of far deeper and more terrible regrets, we thought, as we poured out our remorse for all that we did or failed to do that might have saved his life. When we were spent and silent at last, he put it all in proportion for us. “That’s OK. I’m just glad that you’re not mad at me.” And then he was gone.

  We moved out that morning before daylight; good friends took us in, and Geoffrey and Emily got to open the presents they had been looking forward to for so long. Kristine’s and my parents all flew out from Utah and the people in our church joined us for the funeral. We gave no interviews to the press; neither did any of the other families. The police told only of the finding of the bodies and the confession. We didn’t agree to it; it’s as if everybody who knew the whole story also knew that it would be wrong to have it in headlines in the supermarket.

  Things quieted down very quickly. Life went on. Most people don’t even know we had a child before Geoffrey. It wasn’t a secret. It was just too hard to tell. Yet, after all these years, I thought it should be told, if it could be done with dignity, and to people who might understand. Others should know how it’s possible to find light shining even in the darkest place. How even as we learned of the most terrible grief of our lives, Kristine and I were able to rejoice in our last night with our firstborn son, and how together we gave a good Christmas to those lost boys, and they gave as much to us.


  In August 1988 I brought this story to the Sycamore Hill Writers Workshop. That draft of the story included a disclaimer at the end, a statement that the story was fiction, that Geoffrey is my oldest child and that no landlord of mine has ever done us harm. The reaction of the other writers at the workshop ranged from annoyance to fury.

  Karen Fowler put it most succinctly when she said, as best I can remember her words, “By telling this story in first person with so much detail from your own life, you’ve appropriated something that doesn’t belong to you. You’ve pretended to feel the grief of a parent who has lost a child, and you don’t have a right to feel that grief.”

  When she said that, I agreed with her. While this story had been rattling around in my imagination for years, I had only put it so firmly in first person the autumn before, at a Halloween party with the students of Watauga College at Appalachian State. Everybody was trading ghost stories that night, and so on a whim I tried out this one; on a whim I made it highly personal, partly because by telling true details from my own life I spared myself the effort of inventing a character, partly because ghost stories are most powerful when the audience half-believes they might be true. It worked better than any tale I’d ever told out loud, and so when it came time to write it down, I wrote it the same way.

  Now, though, Karen Fowler’s words made me see it in a different moral light, and I resolved to change it forthwith. Yet the moment I thought of revising the story, of stripping away the details of my own life and replacing them with those of a made-up character, I felt a sick dread inside. Some part of my mind was rebelling against what Karen said. No, it was saying, she’s wrong, you do have a right to tell this story, to claim this grief.

  I knew at that moment what this story was really about, why it had been so important to me. It wasn’t a simple ghost story at all; I hadn’t written it just for fun. I should have known—I never write anything just for fun. This story wasn’t about a fictional eldest child named “Scotty.” It was about my real-life youngest child, Charlie Ben.

  Charlie, who in the five and a half years of his life has never been able to speak a word to us. Charlie, who could not smile at us until he was a year old, who could not hug us until he was four, who still spends his days and nights in stillness, staying wherever we put him, able to wriggle but not to run, able to call out but not to speak, able to understand that he cannot do what his brother and sister do, but not to ask us why. In short, a child who is not dead and yet can barely taste life despite all our love and all our yearning.

  Yet in all the years of Charlie’s life, until that day at Sycamore Hill, I had never shed a single tear for him, never allowed myself to grieve. I had worn a mask of calm and acceptance so convincing that I had believed it myself. But the lies we live will always be confessed in the stories that we tell, and I am no exception. A story that I had fancied was a mere lark, a dalliance in the quaint old ghost-story tradition, was the most personal, painful story of my career—and, unconsciously, I had confessed as much by making it by far the most autobiographical of all my works.

  Months later, I sat in a car in the snow at a cemetery in Utah, watching a man I dearly love as he stood, then knelt, then stood again at the grave of his eighteen-year-old daughter. I couldn’t help but think of what Karen had said; truly I had no right to pretend that I was entitled to the awe and sympathy we give to those who have lost a child. And yet I knew that I couldn’t leave this story untold, for that would also be a kind of lie. That was when I decided on this compromise: I would publish the story as I knew it had to be written, but then I would write this essay as an afterword, so that you would know exactly what was true and what was not true in it. Judge it as you will; this is the best that I know how to do.


  Authors have no more story ideas than anyone else. We all live through or hear about thousands of story ideas a day. Authors are simply more practiced at recognizing them as having the potential to become stories.

  The real challenge is to move from the idea through the process of inventing the characters and their surroundings, structuring the tale, and discovering the narrative voice and the point of view, and finally writing it all down in a way that will be clear and effective for the reader. That’s the part that separates people who wish they were writers or intend someday to write a book, and those of us who actually put the words down on paper and send them out in hope of finding an audience.

  To the best of my memory, here are the origins of each of the stories in this book:


  I was working at The Ensign magazine as an assistant editor and sometime staff writer. Jay A. Parry was copy editor there, as he had been at Brigham Young University Press, where my editorial career began. In fact, Jay was the one who alerted me to the possibility of applying for a position at The Ensign and helped shepherd me through the process.

  He and I and another editor, Lane Johnson, all had dreams of being writers. I had already had something of a career as a playwright, but when it came to prose fiction we were all new. We started taking lunch together down in the cafeteria of the LDS Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, riding the elevators down from the twenty-third floor, grabbing a quick salad, and then hunching over a table talking stories.

Naturally, when we actually wrote the stories down, we showed them to each other. In many ways we were the blind leading the blind—none of us had sold anything when we began. Yet we were all professional editors; we all worked in a daily mill of taking badly written articles, restructuring them, and then rewriting them smoothly and clearly. We might not have known how to sell fiction, but we certainly knew how to write. And we also knew how to see other people’s work clearly and search for the soul of their story, in order to preserve that soul through any number of incarnations as text.

  (Indeed, that may be the reason I have always been so skeptical of the whole contemporary critical scene, in which the text is regarded as some immutable miracle, to be worshipped or dissected as if it were the story itself. What anyone trained as an editor and rewriter knows is that the text is not the story—the text is merely one attempt to place the story inside the memory of the audience. The text can be replaced by an infinite number of other attempts. Some will be better than others, but no text will be “right” for all audiences, nor will any one text be “perfect.” The story exists only in the memory of the reader, as an altered version of the story intended (consciously or not) by the author. It is possible for the audience to create for themselves a better story than the author could ever have created in the text. Thus audiences have taken to their hearts miserably-written stories like Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, because what they received transcended the text; while any number of beautifully written texts have been swallowed up without a trace, because the text, however lovely, did a miserable job of kindling a living story within the readers’ memories.)

  How other stories in this collection grew out of that friendship, those lunchtime meetings, will be recounted in their place. This story came rather late in that time. I had already left The Ensign magazine and was beginning my freelance career. I still had much contact with the Ensign staff because I was supposed to be finishing a project that I had not yet completed when I resigned my position as of 1 January 1978. In one conversation I had with Jay Parry, he mentioned a terrible dream he had had. “You can use it for a story if you want,” he said. “I think there’s a story in it, but it would be too terrible for me to write.”

  Jay lacks my vicious streak, you see; or perhaps it’s just that he was already a father and I wasn’t. I’m not altogether sure I could write this story after Kristine and I started having kids. At the time, though, Jay’s nightmare image of a child with flipper arms drowning in a toilet seemed fascinating, even poignant.

  I had recently read whatever story collection of Harlan Ellison’s was current at the time, and I had discerned a pattern in his toughest, meanest tales—a sin-and-punishment motif in which terrible things only seemed to happen to the most appropriate people. It seemed obvious to me that the way to develop this deformed baby into a story was to have it come into the life of someone who deserved to be confronted with a twisted child.

  After my first draft, however, I submitted the story to Francois Camoin, by then my teacher in writing classes at the University of Utah. I had taken writing classes before, and except for occasional helpful comments had found that their primary value was that they provided me with deadlines so I had to produce stories. Francois was different—he actually understood, not only how to write, but also how to teach writing, a skill that is almost completely missing among teachers of creative writing in America today. He didn’t know everything—no one does—but compared to what I knew at the time he might as well have known everything! Even though I was selling my science fiction quite regularly, I still didn’t understand, except in the vaguest way, why some of my stories worked and others didn’t. Francois helped open up my own work to me, both its strengths and weaknesses.

  As a playwright I had learned that I have a tendency to write in epigrams; as one critical friend put it, all my characters said words that were meant to be carved in stone over the entrance of a public building. That tendency toward clever didacticism was still showing up in my fiction (and probably still does). It was Francois who helped me understand that while the events of the story should be clear—what happened and why—the meaning of the story should be subtle, arcane; it should be left lying about for readers to discover, but never forced upon them. “This story is about guilt,” said Francois. “In fact, the child, the tiny Fury, is guilt. When you have a word embodied in a story, the word itself should never appear. So don’t ever say the word ‘guilt’ in this story.”

  I knew at once that he was right. It wasn’t just a matter of removing the word, of course. It meant removing most sentences that had the word in it, and occasionally even whole paragraphs had to come out. It was a pleasurable process, though not without some pain—rather like peeling away dead skin after a bad sunburn. What was left was much stronger.

  It appeared in a rather obscure place—Roy Torgeson’s Chrysalis anthology series from Zebra books. But Terry Carr picked it up for his best-of-the-year fantasy anthology, so it got a little better exposure. My name is on it, but much of this story is owed to others: Jay, for the seminal image; Harlan, for the basic structure; and Francois, for the things that aren’t in the text here printed.


  Like “Eumenides,” this story began with someone else’s nightmare. My wife woke up one morning upset by a strange lingering dream. We lived at the time in a rented Victorian house on J Street in the Avenues district of Salt Lake City. We were only a bit more than a block from the Emigration Ward LDS meetinghouse, where we attended church. In Kristine’s dream, the bishop of our ward had called us up and told us that they were holding a funeral for a stranger the next day, but that tonight there was no place to keep the coffin. Would we be willing to let them bring it by and leave it in our living room until morning?

  Kristine isn’t in the habit of saying no to requests for help, even in her dreams, and so she agreed. She woke up from her dream just as she was opening the coffin lid.

  That was all—a stranger’s coffin in the living room. But I knew at once that there was a story in it, and what the story had to be. A coffin in your own living room can only have one body in it: your own. And so I sat down to write a story of a man who was haunting his own house without realizing it, until he finally opened the coffin and climbed in, accepting death.

  What I didn’t know when I started writing was why he was left outside his coffin for a while, and why he then reconciled himself to death. So I started writing as much of the story as I knew, hoping something would come to me. I told of the moment of his death in his office, though he didn’t realize it was death; I wrote of his homecoming; but the ultimate meaning of the story came by accident. I can’t remember now what my mistake was in the first draft. Something like this: During the office scene I had written that he had no children, but by the time I wrote his homecoming, I had forgotten his childlessness and had him hear children’s voices or see their drawings on the refrigerator—or something to that effect. Only when I showed the first draft of the story’s opening to Kristine did we (probably she) notice the contradiction.

  It was one of those silly dumb authorial lapses that every writer commits. My first thought was simply to change one or the other reference so they were reconciled.

  However, as I sat there, preparing to revise, I had an intuition that my “mistake” was no mistake at all, but rather my unconscious answer to the fundamental question in the story: Why couldn’t he accept death at first? Instead of eliminating the contradiction, I enhanced it, switching back and forth. Now they have children, now they don’t. He could not accept death until their childlessness was replaced with children.

  If you want to get psychological about it, Kristine was pregnant with our first child at the time. My “mistake” may have been a traditional freudian slip, revealing my ambivalence about entering onto the irrevocable step of having and raising children. What matters more, however, is not the personal source of the feeling, but what I learned about the process of writing: Trust your
mistakes. Over and over again since then, I have found that when I do something “wrong” in an early draft of the story, I should not eliminate it immediately. I should instead explore it and see if there’s some way that the mistake can be justified, amplified, made part of the story. I have come to believe that a storyteller’s best work comes, not from his conscious plans, but from his impulses and errors. That is where his unconscious mind wells up to the surface. That is how stories become filled, not with what the writer believes that he believes, or thinks he ought to care about, but rather with what he believes without question and cares about most deeply. That is how a story acquires its truth.


  The idea for this story came simply enough. My son, Geoffrey, was a born insomniac. It took him hours to fall asleep every night, and we learned that the most effective way to get him to sleep was for me to hold him and sing to him. (For some reason he responded more to a baritone than a mezzo-soprano.) This would continue until he was four or five years old; by that time I was spending a couple of hours a night lying by his bed, reading in the dim light from the hall while humming the tune to “Away in a Manger.” When he was a baby, though, I stood in his room, rocking back and forth, singing, nonsense songs that included tender lyrics like, “Go to sleep, you little creep, Daddy’s about to die.” Even when he finally seemed to have drifted off I learned that he was only faking, and if I laid him down too soon he’d immediately scream. I appreciate a call for an encore as much as the next guy, but enough is enough. Especially since Kristine was asleep in the other room. Most of the time I didn’t begrudge her that—she would be up in the morning taking care of Geoffrey (always an early riser no matter how late he dropped off) while I slept in, so it all evened out. Still, there were many nights when I stood there, rocking back and forth, listening to both of them breathing during the breaks in my lullaby.

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