Authors: Bradford Morrow
Tags: #ebook, #book
The Almanac Branch
The author would like to express his gratitude to Karen Kelly for allowing him a glimpse at a migrainous childhood, to Tom Cugliani for his memories of Shelter Island in the sixties, and to Donna Fish for gaining him access to the medical library at Mt. Sinai and helping him to understand what he read there.
For Susan and in memory of Suibne Geilt
List, O my friend, unto the tale of love
Â Â Â Â Â
and God forbid that I should speak and
Â Â Â Â Â that thy heart to hearken should not feign!
As 'twere El Asmai himself, of passion
Â Â Â Â Â I discourse Fancies rare and marvelous
Â Â Â Â Â
linked in an endless chain.
Tale of Hasan of Bassorah, 822nd Night
THEY SPOKE IN
light, when they felt like speaking. They spoke only to her, they said. When she asked them what they wanted, they retreated into the bark of their tree, and the night turned back to black. Sometimes she just watched them where they congregated in that old ailanthus outside her window, and didn't ask them questions. They would do as they pleased, whispering in hostile tendrils of crackling light words she often couldn't understand, or tracing curious cartoon figures on the pane with mercury and yellow sparks, or bursting into a cloud of crystals when at last she told them to go away. She alone knew them in the beginning, though she hadn't known them well enough to be able to say, in her child's voice, “Such and such took place.” But now, because of what she had done, and after they had warned her not to, others would know they were there, and that meant there was going to be a problem.
It was late when the knocking was heard. Her father found her in her room standing at the third story window, slapping her palm against the glass, which was luminous with the light that came from a window across the back yard. Her face was dappled by shadows thrown through the wet limbs and the errant snow drifting down between them; and her father's wonder at how she had gotten herself so worked up, and what kind of dream could have left her in such a stateânaked and shakingâwas only overwhelmed by what formed on the girl's lips once he got a blanket around her and lifted her into his arms.
“They come in off the branch,” she said, rubbing her eyes.
“They did, out there.”
He looked over her head into the night where winter smoke had settled with the snow over everything, peered down in the courtyard at the brick walls veined with ivy and dangling cables. A silhouette of some intruder, which he always hoped for, something to substantiate these events, was nowhere to be seen. He lifted the window a little, as her room was warm, and heard the music of the pianist who lived across the way, echoing against the brick. The city, someone always awakeâcouldn't that guy learn something else, all those crowded arpeggios flying every which way, and the piano out of tune through every note.
“They're gone now,” he assured his daughter, setting her down and running his hand over her damp hair. The room had cooled, and he pulled the window shut.
“They want in.”
The man heard her brothers talking in the hallâsmall voices of complaint about this middle of the night stuff going on againâand he shouted over his shoulder at them to go back to bed, and hearing their footsteps retreating down the corridor, asked her, quietly as he could, “Grace, who wants in?”
“Right there, them light people,” she pointed to where they were still, out there pulsing and pushing, sending out their white razor flame. They weren't happy about being tattled on, was what the small one with the electric zigzag tongue told her. Hey, that girl was going to pay for her indiscretion. Her father was saying something to her but she couldn't quite make out his words given what an angry din the intensified lights had raised. They never really said they wanted to be her friends, but on the other hand they didn't think they had done anything to her that would provoke such treachery. She opened her mouth to apologize but they weren't interested in listening to apologies. They reminded her that she could have come out onto the branch and joined them whenever she wanted. Hadn't some of them been beckoning? Her father put her back to bed, and read to her for a while. The music from across the walled yard stopped, and the tree dimmed and was silent.
Just before Christmas, two nights later, a static voice came to her and said, Hey Grace?you want to see a trick?
Watch this, watch this, you won't believe it.
She went to the window, her fingers gathered to her chest, her quilt wrapped like a shawl around her as she stood there and again watched the light show. The flare manâthe only one of the light people Grace felt was a friendâwas alone, and had on a shell-pink tuxedo through which you could see his skeleton. Across his face, a crisp fuchsia smile.
Don't look down, girl, just watch this, he said.
Grace was afraid to call for her father, in part for fear she might awaken the small one who had threatened to sting her with that zigzag tongue of his, and in part because she didn't want her brothers to say anything about her light people, especially Berg, who made fun of her, and them, whenever he got the chance.
Sheepishly, she shook her head yes.
It was an astonishing display. It made her smile back at him, despite her terror. The flare man had gathered himself into a small ball of voltage, about the size of a baby, and then ran lightning snakes down and up and out, winding their way around every branch and limb of the tree so that the tree burst bright into bloom, and this ailanthus, this glorious urban weedâthis botanical survivor, which sprouted between subway tracks, survived in pitch-dark cellars, in ventilation shafts, which sent down roots into fissures in the streets, where they strangled pipes and needled the bedrockâwhich was called, for all its love of darkness, the Tree of Heaven, wore for a moment its full garland of summer leaves, right here at the beginning of winter. The leaves nodded, cordial and companionable. Each leaf was impeccable in shape and contour, each was composed of humming, blue light.
Grace clapped and laughed, until the force of a flash against the casement knocked her backwards into her bureau.
Shelter Island. How appropriate the name must have seemed. Seasoned a traveler though he was, my father, whom I have called Faw as far back as I can remember, had never been there, and for all he knew, the island was nothing but a hump of granite, with patches of bitter grass cropped by stinking unshorn sheep, or a mud flat furred with pampas and populated by birds and scuttling crabs. But he liked the way it looked on the map, cradled between two earthly arms of the north and south forks of Long Island. I can still see him settling his lanky body into a library chair and putting his lean, intent face down close to the map. I can see how he imagined Peconic Bay flowing outward toward the east, Gardiners Bay flowing in from the open waters, how all the coves and inlets of the island swirled in their wash. Together they suggested renewal to him, my renewal. They hinted of absolution and health. And though there have been people in my life who have tried to convince me that a man as self-absorbed as my father could only have removed me and the rest of us to the island to reduce the distraction of raising a familyâto hide behind mine his own need for renewal, or a darker need to be left aloneâI have refused to believe it. Even now I know that it's never been quite that simple.
My father was an atlas man. He trusted maps more than the land itself. He lived by them, and the names people had given to the rivers and towns on them. While he was not what you would call a religious personâwe children were never exposed to the sepulchral interior of a church, or any lessons about virgin births and miracles and so forth (except somehow I knew that St. Peter was crucified upside down, which I thought was pretty wild)âhe was superstitious to a fault. My father would trust the most important decision to what most people would consider trivial, a word, a number, a color. So when my night visions got “completely out of hand”âthese were Mother's words the morning after the flare man's show, words not meant to be overheard by me who never felt the night visions to be visions, as suchâhe went to his map case. Out came his compass. I watched him, my muscular yet delicate Faw, as he pinned its metal tip into the paper at the point where we lived, pulled the pencil leg out, and described a circle. Half the area inside the circle was light blue, the ocean. He let his finger wander over the map as if it were a Ouija board, then his intuition (yes; for though he was superstitious, he was willful in his way) tempted him out along the length of the burnt umber body of Long Island. He smiled at me, and it was one of those moments in which I couldn't tell whether we were experiencing something together and I was supposed to offer a conspiratorial smile in return, or whether he was enjoying himself while mildly teasing meâsomething he loved to do from time to time. With his free hand he gathered me over against him and showed me where we were going.
Shelter, I read.
Did I know what that meant?
He explained. All of it seemed so innocent at the time, and rather than feeling used, I felt grateful, rather than feeling apprehensive about what my father was about to do to himself, and the rest of us, I felt elevated by the warmth of his affection toward me.
Thirty years I have tried to piece together what happened to me, to all of us that crucial winter. It's been a task that I've taken up, and dropped, and then taken up again, and dropped again. Only now I realize that I must reconstruct all this, because it's no longer a matter of curiosity, but survivalâthis time, in fact, not merely my own. Crises have a habit of engendering more of their kind, just as do healthy organisms, emotions. My family's early catastrophes brought on the later ones, and we have had a time of it trying to break the trend. You get used to things that came before coming again, you even get to where you not only expect but secretly want to see more of the same trouble you've already gone throughâ“If it wasn't for bad luck I wouldn't have no luck at all.”
It happens because you become familiar with a certain way of living, so that living perversely feels natural and comfortable. Health has become foreign to you, and frightening, and far away, so far away as to appear unreachableâno matter how you define it. For me, health means having a conscience and living by it with as much energy as is available to you, it means having a discipline. And health has always seemed distant to me, far more distant than any island, until recently. Catastrophes have had a way of taking me down so far and, given that I've been a faithful and willing traveler, may now have brought me, whether I like it or not, to a place ofâand I use the term reluctantly, because it's a word that smacks of religion and I'd argue that none of this has to do with religionâredemption. On the other hand, as my older brother Berg insists, now that he has an adult stake in such matters, redemption “is something that only happens in the movies, and it happens because audiences demand the happy ending, they insist on deliverance, even when they know that everything is pointing in just the opposite direction.” A filmmaker and, until this most recent project he's got himself entangled with, in business to make money, Berg has always been one to believe in providing his audience its dose of generic, feel-good resolution. Give them what they need, take from them what you want. I, in my role of recovering cynic, and as someone who now must finally face up to, even go up against Berg, who is about to ruin himself, along with the rest of usâthrough inadvertence as much as greedâcannot speak for others, can only speak for myself, can only address my own redemption, such as it is, or might be.