She waved her arm at the grass, the trees, the sun, the sky. âThis is the same ...... that cooled us, and the foliage was rustling a bit, and the late afternoon sunlight kind of ... danced and gleamed through the leaves and branches. There was no ..... years old, and out the back door, down a few steps, and into a yard. It was a ...
MY NAME IS MYSHKIN
Dedication goes here
TABLE OF CONTENTS Some Silly Questions Are You Your Body, Or Are You In It? The Old Old World Is There Such A Thing As An Accident? How Do You Know You’re Not Dreaming? What Peacocks Sound Like Gods, Humans, Animals, And Everywhere In Between How Many Different People Are We? Stories About Stories About Stories Does Every Question Have An Answer? What Dogs Know Where Does War Come From? How To Tell What’s Alive From What’s Not Is There Such A Thing As Magic? How The World Began In The Cave Of the Nymphs The Sannyasin A Shawl And A Medallion Leaving Normal The River
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SOME SILLY QUESTIONS My name is Myshkin. My father said he and my mother named me after a prince in a famous book. I asked him how they could name me after someone who wasn’t even real, whom they didn’t even know. He said he felt like he knew this Prince Myshkin better than he knows lots of real people. Then he asked me what I meant by “real,” and what I meant by “know.” I didn’t answer, because I wasn’t sure. My father is always asking me questions like that. My father said that this Prince Myshkin from the story—he showed me the book--it’s very fat, and I couldn’t read it at all, even though I’m actually a pretty good reader—was a gentle man, “too gentle,” he said. I don’t know if I’m gentle. Sometimes I get very mad. Sometimes I feel wild, like I’m going crazy with energy, and have to break something, or bite someone or wrestle with someone, or kick something, or bounce bounce bounce a ball, or roll around in the grass, or stuff like that. Dolphius likes to do that too. He’s the best at that. He’s kind of like my teacher—because he’s a dog I guess, and dogs are really good at that, if you’re friends with them. I’ll tell you more about Dolphius later, because he’s a big part of this story, but for right now I’ll just tell you that he’s part Irish Setter and part Chocolate Lab with a beautiful curly dark red-brown coat, and that he came to live with me when he was a tiny puppy, just three weeks old, and I was only seven, and I took care of him all by myself. I house-trained him, and taught him to heel and to sit (except that he never did those things very well, I guess because he never really wanted to), and to come when I blow on one of those silent dog whistles that I have. Actually, he was my best friend. Or maybe I was like his father, or his older brother. Then, when he grew up—it took him just two years!—sometimes he was like my older brother. Dolphius is gone now—no, I mean he’s still alive (I think), but he’s not with me. He’s with the Beautiful Old Woman, and I’m sad but I’m not sad about it. I’ll tell you about all that later. Some people tell me I don’t talk very much. I don’t know if that’s true or not, because I’m always talking in my head. If it is true, I don’t know why—I guess I just don’t see any reason for it. I guess I like more just to 1
watch and listen and feel things and people and places. And I don’t like it when adults ask me questions and try to get me to talk, like I was some kind of different creature from them, or like an animal they were training or something. But I do like it when people— I don’t care if they are kids or grownups—are really talking, I mean really trying to make sense, and to hear and to be heard. I like that a lot. And sometimes, like I said, I get crazy, and sometimes I even get mean, and sometimes I get angry when grownups stop me from doing something, or other kids mess up what I’m doing. And other times I feel so peaceful, like the sun shining on a beautiful day, and there’s really no reason for it at all. My Mom notices it, and she always looks at me and says, with that nice smile of hers and her eyebrows raised a little, “The simple joy of existence?” I don’t know exactly what that means, but it sounds nice. In other words, I seem to be so many things from one moment to another that sometimes I don’t even know who I am! But I don’t know who it could be who doesn’t know who he is, because who else could it be but me? That’s one problem. The other is, if I know who I am, then it seems like I’m two people—the one who is and the one who knows he is. It’s kind of like those dreams where you’re watching yourself do something as if it were another person you’re watching. Or like when you feel a hand touching your hand and then you realize that it’s your own hand touching the other one. If I can watch myself, then who is watching? Am I just one person or many? How could just one being have so many ways of being? And when I’m just one way, what happens to the others? “Too may silly questions,” Nixie says. “Why can’t you be the same person with a lot of different ways of acting and feeling and thinking, and even being?” she says. “You’re just making up rules about what can’t be and what can be, but that doesn’t stop it from being what it is. Why can’t I be as many people as I want to be and still be me?” “As you want to be?” I repeated. “Well, or as I am,” she answered, then she giggled. “Or are.” Nixie lives in the house next door to us with her mother, and she’s my best friend. She’s a different kind of best friend from Dolphius. Sometimes I want so badly to be just like her—even to be her—but I don’t think I ever could. I’m not sure why. Is it because she’s a girl and I’m a boy? Or is it something else? Actually I’ve known her almost all my life. It’s funny, I know she looks different from how she looked when we were five, and me too, but I don’t see any difference.
Once we looked at both of our families pictures together, and we could see how different we looked when we were babies and then two, then three, and right on up to now—I’m eleven and she’s twelve—but it was like looking at someone else. It makes me wonder whether I have anything to do with this body that seems to be part of me—that seems to be me. And what if I had a body like Dolphius? Or the body of a girl? Or of an old man, or an old woman? Or somebody in a wheelchair who could hardly talk or move? Sometimes I feel so much like myself that it seems like I could be in any kind of body—even a tree or something, even a rock, or a worm, or bird or even a chair—and still be me. That’s crazy, I know, but maybe it won’t seem so crazy after I tell you about what happened to me and Nixie and Dolphius, when we met the Beautiful Old Woman (that’s not her name, but it’s what I call her). Nixie is Bulgarian. Before I knew her, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Bulgaria. She has very very dark hair and dark eyes and darker skin than me—mine is kind of sandy looking. I guess nobody would ever take us for brother and sister. Sometimes she looks like she’s dreaming. Then her mouth kind of turns down on one side, and her eyes go sort of blank and shiny, and she stares straight ahead, or looks around really slowly, and even if she’s looking right at me, it’s as if she’s imagining me rather than seeing me. When I ask her what she’s thinking, she usually says “nothing.” I don’t see how that’s possible. Or sometimes she says “I’m just seeing everything at once.” It’s almost as if she’s in a secret place, but she’s right there in front of me. Actually we do have a real secret place, but I’m not ready to tell you about that. It’s different from Nixie’s, because other people can go there— or they could. Now they can’t any more—nobody can, it’s been destroyed, I think. But we can still go there in our minds, so maybe it’s more like Nixie’s now. I told my other two friends about what my father said about “real”— about how this Prince Myshkin was just as real as you or me, and even more real to him than some people. “But this person is in a book,” Tracey said. Tracey is skinny and has red, red hair, like an orange flame, and he likes to go right to the point. “That’s ridiculous. He can only be more real to your Dad because he’s not real. If something’s not real in the first place you can make anything you want out of it.” We were in the big park near Nixie’s house, walking kind of slowly towards the huge fountain in the middle. It was summer. It was very hot— the hottest summer ever recorded, they were saying. Dolphius was with us
too. He was running up ahead and to either side, sniffing things. When he would pass another dog he would move aside, and put his head in the air that way he does, kind of looking sideways at the other dog, keeping an eye on it. Then, suddenly, he disappeared into a big patch of woods on our left. “Besides,” Nixie said, “each person reading it would see and hear and feel a different Prince Myshkin.” “Not if the author described him well enough,” Beth said. “How tall and his weight and hair and complexion and the way he talked and everything.” Beth is Nixie’s friend, and mine too I guess. Except sometimes she’s jealous. Or maybe I am. I’m not sure which. “You’d still see someone different,” Nixie said. “Everyone sees a different world.” “A different people world maybe, but not the nature world,” Beth said. She waved her arm at the grass, the trees, the sun, the sky. “This is the same world for everyone.” “I don’t think so,” Nixie said. “I think it’s more like a book—like that book with Myshin’s prince in it. You read it. And different people read it differently.” “Well, who wrote it then?” Tracey said. “And in what language?” He flashed that grin he has when we play chess, and he knows he’s just won. “God!” Beth said. She was kind of skipping as we walked along, her arms bent and stretched in front of her, raising them up and down, her hands open, like she was lifting and lowering the air. I don’t think I have to tell you that Beth loves to dance. “You don’t read it like that,” Nixie said. “It’s not, like, letters. I don’t know. I can’t explain.” I grabbed a leaf off a tree we were passing, and handed it to her. “What does this say?” I asked. It was a Silver Maple leaf. “It says, ‘Ow!’ You just destroyed my life!” Tracey said, laughing. But Nixie studied it as we walked along. Then she said, “It says veins and rivers and nerves. Green for life, shaped like a star, and”—she turned it over and stroked the white-downy underside—“skin, and hair. Flesh. Part of a tree’s body.” “And maybe medicine,” I said. “Like if you could boil it and make tea and it would heal something in your body.” “Uh huh,” Nixie said, nodding. “Maybe it could help animals.” Tracey snorted. “If you eat it it’ll make you sick. I know. I tried once when I was a little kid.”
“Do you think it feels anything?” Beth said. She was still doing that sort of dance as we walked along, her light skirt whipping around her legs. Sometime it seemed like she was gliding just above the ground. “It’s alive, isn’t it?” I said. “If it’s alive it can feel, you mean?” Beth said. “Well, maybe in some way,” I said. “Not the way we feel, but . . . . I mean, how could it not feel anything if it’s alive?” “Was alive,” Tracey reminded us. And he was right, I guess. Now, after I pulled it from where it was attached, it was just a thing. It wasn’t connected with anything anymore. Just then Dolphius came crashing out of the woods again, panting and kind of grinning. He was soaking wet. He ran up to us, shook himself like a porcupine throwing his quills and splattering us with water, then flopped onto his back on the grass and started writhing and squirming like a crazy animal, still with that big dog smile on his face. We all laughed, then kept walking towards the big fountain.
ARE YOU YOUR BODY, OR ARE YOU IN IT? Beth is my friend because Nixie is both our friends. Sometimes I wonder if Beth would be my friend if it weren’t for Nixie. One time a few weeks ago the three of us were supposed to meet at the park, and Beth and I were on time but Nixie was late. She was at the grocery store with her mom, and they took longer than they expected. First we were just kind of shy, like we hardly knew each other at all, even though we’d been together with Nixie lots of times. All we could seem to talk about was when Nixie was going to show up, and then, as it got later, whether she would show up at all. Then, when it started getting even later, I guess Beth decided that she really needed to try to talk, and she started asking me questions about my family, and vacations and hobbies, and things like that. I felt like a stranger she’d just met. When Dolphius would come back to check on us from his running around in the woods she would fall all over him like a mother with her baby or something. And when Nixie finally showed up, Beth started talking to her a mile a minute and didn’t even look at me. Nixie looked a little confused, like she wasn’t sure what was going on. As we got closer to the big fountain, I saw the park police in their white car and their black uniforms. We could already hear the water roaring and splashing. I took out the silent dog-whistle that I have for Dolphius—it’s set to a certain frequency that only dogs can hear—and blew on it. It’s a really good whistle. My father ordered it for me from Germany. You can blow on it really hard and all that people can hear is a soft little high squeak, but Dolphius hears it like a huge blast—well I guess he does, but how would I really know? Because Dolphius always comes, I guess. My father showed me how to always blow it the same way and for the same length of time. “That’s so weird when you do that,” Beth said. I didn’t say anything back. Dolphius came very quickly, because he always stays pretty much close by, and I put him on the leash. He understands when I have to do it, he never tries to pull away or anything. When we got to the fountain, I sat down on one of the benches that were in a huge circle around it, on the 6
outside rim of a very wide tiled pavilion that could fit lots and lots of people. Beth and Nixie kept walking around the circle of the stone rim of the fountain. Dolphius sat next to my legs, with his tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth in the heat, watching the water surging and leaping and splashing in all kinds of different ways. The sound of it was huge and beautiful. Everybody loves the fountain—especially dogs (well, most dogs). It’s called the Epistemi Fountain because it was built fifty years ago by a rich businessman named Epistemi. Actually, it was his wife who had it built, with his money. She’s from Italy. I have a lot to tell about her—in fact she’s probably the most important person in this story. Anyway, the fountain is huge and round, and it has seven bigger-than-real-size bronze statues of nymphs that the water spurts and splashes through and over and around in different ways. I did a project on the fountain last year for school, so I know a lot about it. In my school project, I discovered that nymphs are spirits—except they have real bodies, so I don’t know if you should call them spirits—of lakes and rivers and trees and oceans and meadows and mountains and springs and fountains and marshes. They’re like nature goddesses, except they’re not goddesses, because they’re not immortal. Nymphs lived for a long time but they didn’t live forever. Some wood nymphs would die if you cut down the tree they were the spirit of. The Nereids were sea nymphs. They had blue hair, but you can’t see that on the statues. They helped sailors in storms. My favorites are the Naiads, nymphs of fresh waters and forests. Nixie and I actually saw some— but I’ll tell you about that later too. One problem about them is that you can’t tell whether a nature spirit like a nymph is in the thing—a lake or a tree or a mountain or whatever—or whether she is the thing. It can get a bit confusing. Of course Dolphius loves the fountain, and if I don’t keep him on a leash when we’re next to it--and if it’s really hot like it was all last summer-he just goes and jumps in, and splashes and swims around with his crazy grin. About a month before that happened, and a park policewoman came and yelled at me to get him out of there. It’s really strange how some adults yell at kids they don’t even know, like they never would with an adult, or if you were with another adult. They treat you like you don’t know anything, or like you’re this stupid person who’s trying to get away with something. They seem to feel like they have to give you a lecture, or warn you about something, and of course they make you tell them who your parents are, where you live, where you go to school, and blah blah blah. Sometimes you wonder if they think kids are even persons. Sometimes I try
to imagine them as kids themselves, and it seems that if they were kids, they would just be bullies. On the other hand, I can think of a lot of adults who are really nice, too. And some grownups are really beautiful and powerful— so beautiful and powerful it’s kind of scary. Mrs. Epistemi is like that. Actually, she is the Beautiful Old Woman I mentioned before. Anyway, I keep Dolphius on a leash when we’re near the fountain now. There was a little breeze, and I could feel some very fine spray from the crashing fountain water every once and a while. Beth and Nixie walked around it lots of times, close to the edge, even closer to the spray, which was making rainbows in the sunshine. It seemed like Beth was doing most of the talking. She talks with her hands—they leap like flying fish when she gets excited, and she’s excited a lot of the time. I like that about Beth, except that it annoys me sometimes. Each time they passed Nixie looked over at me and smiled and waved, the way she does. Nixie is a very kind person. The fountain makes my body happy. When I watch it and listen to it, it’s like the water is shooting and bubbling up inside me the way it is in the statues. Sometimes I think my body is who I am. Nothing else. That’s enough. Because if my body is happy, I’m happy. And if I’m happy, my body is happy. But when I said this to Nixie and Beth one other time at the fountain, Nixie said, “But your body happiness doesn’t matter in the end. It’s what you do. What you do and say to people. Because your body will die, but what you do or say to people won’t. It will go on and on.” “But it’s the body that feels good or not,” I said. “It’s the body that’s sad or happy, or free or in prison, like a dog who can go wherever he wants or a dog who’s on a chain all the time, and gets desperate and crazy.” “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Beth. Beth never understands me. Is it because she’s smarter than me, or not as smart? Sometimes I think we’re from different planets. How can people be so different? But I do like her. Maybe if Nixie wasn’t my best friend, Beth and I would be better friends. But why can’t I be friends in the same way with both of them? I like Tracey too—I like him a lot--but I don’t want to be like him, the way I want to be like Nixie sometimes. I think it’s because Nixie understands me. She likes everything about me. Well, there are some things she doesn’t like, but they don’t change the way she feels about me. I think she likes me better than I like myself. That might mean that she knows me better than I know myself. But how could that be? How could anyone know me better than I know myself? That just seems impossible to me. But I
could be wrong. In fact, maybe it’s just the opposite: maybe pretty much anyone can know me better than I know myself. “Anyway, your mind and body are in each other,” Nixie said. “Which one is in which?” “They’re both in each other. They’re not the same thing, but you can’t separate them. They fill each other up. Or, I don’t know. Except maybe when you’re dreaming. Then your mind can really go away somewhere.” “But there are different kinds of bodies”, I said. “Like Dolphius for example, or an octopus, or a bee. Or a tree, or a rock. Or a star.” “A rock?” Beth said. “A rock is just a rock. A tree too. They’re just things. They’re not bodies, so they don’t have minds.” “A tree is made out of the same stuff as you and me,” I said. “It grows, just like you and me. It lives and dies. It needs water and food.” “But I think animal bodies are more complicated than plant bodies, or rock bodies,” Nixie said. “That’s how they’re different.” “Yeah, but everything is made of the same stuff. So something that’s in the more complicated one has to be in the less complicated one too. It’s not something else altogether, it goes step by step from simple to complicated.” “So?” “So if there’s some kind of feeling or thinking in an animal, there’s some kind of thinking or feeling in a rock. Just less.” “Are you saying that rocks are like persons?” Beth said. That was the end of that conversation. An old woman came onto the huge stone pavilion around the fountain and walked up close to it. She was carrying a big black plastic bag, and she didn’t look like she was going anywhere in particular. She didn’t appear to be sick or anything either, in fact she looked strong—her back was straight, her hair all white, and her skin very wrinkled but kind of tan. Even though it was a hot day, she was dressed in an old threadbare sweater and a long, full skirt that was kind of ragged at the bottom, and old shoes that looked like men’s working boots. She was talking to herself. I couldn’t hear what she was saying because the water was loud, but I could see her mouth moving. She looked over at me as she passed, and our eyes met. That’s when I realized that no one else who had walked by me—and there were lots of people there, walking around on the smooth stone pavement—had met my eyes at all, not even kids, except Nixie of course, when she passed. And when I met the eyes of the old woman, it was like I couldn’t look away, our eyes were locked. She wasn’t smiling or anything, and she had stopped talking to herself, and after a second it was a little scary, but I
didn’t look away. She kept walking—a strong, slow walk—and started going round the circle, and then she just nodded at me and turned her strong old wrinkled face forward and she was gone. It was so weird. I felt that I knew exactly who she was, and that she knew exactly who I was. It didn’t seem to make any difference that she was so old and I was so young, or that she was a woman and I was a boy. It didn’t matter what I knew about her life or what she knew about mine, or whether I could have said what she was feeling or thinking. It didn’t matter what she looked like. It was just . . . a connection. And I don’t think Dolphius noticed anything at all. He was still sitting next to my leg, on the leash, panting in the heat, and looking dreamily at the bursting, spouting, splashing water. Finally, after about their fifth time around the fountain, Nixie tugged on Beth’s arm and they came over to the bench and sat down. Nixie was in the middle. “You look happy,” she said. When she said it, I felt kind of happy, even though I hadn’t been thinking about whether I was happy or not before. “Did you see that old woman?” I asked. “Ick!” Beth said. “She’s so strange. She talks to herself. My mom says she was probably in a mental hospital. She gives me the creeps. My mom says she must be homeless.” Beth made a shuddering kind of movement. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t really explain what had happened, except maybe to Nixie, or to my mom or dad. Maybe it was nothing anyway. “I wonder why she’s like that,” Nixie said. “I mean if something happened to her, or if she just kind of got that way as she got older.” “I can’t even think of what it would be like to be that old,” Beth said. “I don’t know if it would be any different,” I said. “But think of all the things that would have happened to you,” said Nixie. “How could you not be different?” “Do you think you would be a different person?” Beth asked. “What if you looked at her baby picture? How can the same body be so different? I mean, how much can a thing change before it turns into something else?” “But she’s always been in the same body,” I answered. “I don’t think I’m in my body,” Nixie said. “I think I am my body.” “You mean you think they’re the same thing?” Beth asked. “Yes.” “I mean,” Beth said, “how could you look at your body, or touch your body with your hand and know that you’re touching it if they’re the same thing?” Nobody said anything for awhile. We all stared at the fountain.
“What about Dolphius?” I said. Dolphius heard his name and looked up at me, waiting. When I didn’t say anything more, he looked back at the fountain. I love the way he holds his head. “Right,” Nixie said. “That’s what I mean. He’s just his body—like us, but more. He’s more his body than we are ours, I mean.” “That doesn’t make sense. Either we are or we aren’t our bodies. Anyway, what would make us less our bodies than Dolphius is?” “’Cause our brains are different—that’s all. Ours are bigger. Your brain is like a mirror. It makes everything double. And it’s like a recorder too—it makes it so you hear yourself. But all you’re hearing and seeing and feeling and thinking is yourself. It’s just yourself hearing and seeing and feeling and thinking yourself. You feel like you’re more than one, but you’re really just one. Like an echo machine.” “What about when you’re asleep, and dream?” “It’s just your brain,” Nixie said. “It’s like it never goes to sleep, even though the rest of you does.” Beth shook her head, slowly, and brushed her long, blondish brown hair back, behind her ear. “I just don’t believe it—that we’re only our bodies, I mean. My grandma doesn’t either. Or my parents. My grandma says that when her body dies she’s going to go somewhere else. And I think maybe she’s right. I mean, how could I— me I mean—not be anymore? I just don’t see how it’s possible. I mean, how could you not go on, the same way everything goes on forever?” Just then a woman in a long fancy skirt walked by with two dogs—two tiny Pekinese with long tan and silvery hair. They looked like twins—or clones. When they saw Dolphius, they both leaped toward him and began yapping and growling and tugging at their leashes. They seem to have caught the woman by surprise, and even pulled her forward a few feet, to where they were almost under Dolphius’ nose. He was standing now, his tail wagging a bit but looking concerned. They were screeching and showing their teeth and lunging at him. Then Dolphius started a low growl, deep in his throat—suddenly he looked very mean!—and they backed up, but started yapping even louder. I held on tight to the leash, and the woman began ordering the dogs to stop in a loud voice and pulling at their leashes. Then she began dragging them both away. They slid and skittered, their little legs flailing, falling down under the pull of the leash and getting up again, still yapping and growling and straining their necks to look backwards, like two crazy little cartoon characters. She gave us one last apologetic smile as she pulled them away. We all started laughing, and
Dolphius looked up at us and watched us for a while, as if he didn’t quite know what was so funny, but didn’t mind us laughing.
THE OLD OLD WORLD When I did this school project about the Epistemi Fountain last year, I found out that in those times—long, long ago, I mean thousands of years— there weren’t just nymphs but all kinds of creatures who weren’t really humans or animals and they weren’t really gods, they were something in between. They lived in the wild places—not in towns or anything. Most of them had gods for fathers and sometimes mortals (that means humans like us) for mothers, and sometimes other nature-creatures for mothers. Some had the opposite--goddesses for mothers and humans or other nature creatures for fathers--but not half as many. I wonder why that is? There were male nature-creatures too, like satyrs for example. Satyrs were half man and half animal, and some of them had the legs and feet and hindquarters of wild goats, and the rest of them were like men. They had wild long hair that they never combed. I think it would have been really scary to meet one, because I think you wouldn’t know if it was an animal or a person, or both. I can just imagine what it might be like looking into their eyes—like maybe you couldn’t tell what they understood and what they didn’t, or whether they had thoughts or not, or if they did, whether they were like yours at all. Then there were centaurs, who were half man and half horse, and they were really wild, with no law, and didn’t care about anybody or anything, except a few who were really wise. And that wasn’t all, in fact that’s only a little piece of what I found out when I did my project. I just found everything I could read about it, and I’m sure there’s plenty more—plenty that I don’t know. Some of the stuff was too complicated and I just skipped over it, but most wasn’t. The humans worshipped these nature creatures, because they thought they were kind of divine, almost like gods. And there were people who followed the nymphs and satyrs and centaurs into the forests for days and nights and did all kinds of crazy dancing with flutes and pipes and killed animals by tearing them apart with their bare hands, and ate them raw! And sometimes the gods got mad at the nymphs or the humans or the satyrs and did awful things to them or turned them into this or that—like trees, or animals—and sometimes the nymphs or goddesses got mad at the humans for doing something and did 13
awful things to them—like having them torn apart by their dogs or something. Sometimes nymphs fell in love with humans, and ended up killing them by mistake. For example, a man named Hylas was drowned by the Naiad Ephydatea, who fell in love with him on first sight as he filled a water jug in the fountain where the nymphs got together to sing to the goddess Artemis all night long. She reached up and dragged him under the water to her cave to kiss him. She didn’t even seem to know that he couldn’t live under water, which is where she lived—in the fountain—and of course he drowned. But I guess the most important thing was that each of these nymphs lived in a very specific, particular place. And so if they were still here, they would be all around here, where we live. Except that around here it’s all streets and parking lots and highways and malls and supermarkets and convenience stores and warehouses and gas stations and trucks and cars and traffic lights and things like that. I guess it was like that when my mother was born, and her mother, and I don’t know how far back before that. So they’re gone—or that’s what I thought until last summer anyway. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live here four hundred years ago. Maybe the neighborhood where I live would be all woods, and there would be rivers and streams and springs and meadows and hills and cliffs and caves and valleys all over the place, and if you walked far enough to the east on a long long trail, after a week or so you would finally come to the ocean, and you could stand on a hill and see the green hills rolling down towards it in the distance. I think it was like that here once. That was before it was trapped and tamed, the way they trap and tame an animal. And I think it would make you feel very different from the way we feel now when we drive two hours on the superhighway to get to the beach. Very, very different. So different I don’t know if I can imagine it. Especially since there would be these beings, these creatures who were not animals and not humans, and not gods or goddesses—real but not real, visible and invisible, not all spirit and not all body—and they would be all over the place. Not everywhere, but in this or that particular spring, this grove of oak trees or that, and in the rivers and the meadows and the mountains. In the places that are beautiful and strong. So as you walked you would have to watch out for them, because they don’t like to be surprised, and if they surprised you it would be really scary, you might even have a panic attack. You would kind of have to look for them without looking, like with an eye that was inside your head. Sort of dream-like. And maybe sometimes they would help you with something really important that you couldn’t do because you were just a human. And sometimes they might get
mad at you—like if you made the spring that they . . . that they are . . . dirty with garbage or some kind of pollution, or if you cut down, or even cut branches from the trees that they . . . that they are. There was one kind of nymph called a Hamadryad, who was in, or of, or was an oak tree. And if that oak tree died, she died. That means that if you cut down that oak tree you would kill her. So what would happen if you cut down a whole grove of trees where Alseids—the nymphs of groves and glens—lived? They might not even be able to go anywhere, because that was their place—their only place—that you cut down. And what if you cut down all the trees? Where would they go? They would die, I guess. Because they could die--even though they lived much, much longer than humans, they could die from something like that. There’s one last thing I found out about this old old world. It’s that there were gods and goddesses above the earth, and gods and goddesses below the earth. I don’t think anyone knew which were older—the sky gods or the underworld gods. People worshipped the sky gods by killing an animal like a goat and cooking it and having a feast and putting some of the meat on a raised altar. It was all about food. They prayed to the underworld gods by digging a pit in the earth and killing an animal and cooking it and putting it in the pit. They ate part of the animal, and gave part of it to the god. It was called an offering, or a sacrifice. The smoke went up, and it smelled good to the gods. Sometimes the gods of the underworld came and stole humans and took them down there. The people, or gods, or nymphs (who were not people and not gods) would go and try to get them back, and would have to go through all kinds of dangers, and sometimes it didn’t work. All this makes me wonder what it would be like to get in a time machine and go back. Would those people who lived back then be like aliens? Or would I really like them, and think they were really cool, and think that the way they lived and understood the world was really cool? Or something else? When I told Tracey about my project—which I finished a few months before Nixie and I met Mrs. Epistemi—and about the time machine idea, he seemed a little surprised. We were standing around at recess. It was a beautiful spring day. “Of course they would be just the same,” he said. “Maybe just a little stupider, that’s all.” “Stupider!” I said. “Why do you say that?” “Well, because they believed all that stupid stuff.” “But how do you know it’s not true?” I said. “Or that it wasn’t true back then? That it didn’t used to be true?”
“Because it’s just obvious!” His bright blue eyes flashed. “I mean it’s like little kids who believe whatever you tell them. Like people who get scared by their own shadow. Like people who believe that something they dreamed is real. It’s like . . . . superstition!” “How do you know it’s not that people just can’t see them any more?” “Look,” said Tracey, “if you want to prove something, you have to be able to show everybody so everybody can see it, and you have to be able to show it every time you try. It doesn’t have anything to do with what you believe. It’s just what you can prove. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s back in the time of the cavemen or in the 25th century—the way things work is going to be the same. There’s either going to be these . . . “nymphs” or whatever you call them . . . or not.” “But isn’t that just what you believe?” I said. “I mean, because you say it has to be proved in just this way or you won’t believe it? What if it just can’t be proved that way, but it’s still true? And what if it was true at one time, and then the world changed somehow, and now it isn’t true anymore?” Tracey looked at me like he had suddenly discovered that he was talking with someone whom he had thought was normal, but was actually either stupid, or crazy, or both. “Whatever,” he said. Then the bell rang, and everybody lined up to go back inside—most of the boys pushing and shoving, as usual. But I like Tracey. He’s my friend.
IS THERE SUCH A THING AS AN ACCIDENT? The first time Nixie and I met the Beautiful Old Woman—I mean Mrs. Epistemi—was completely by accident. Actually, I don’t know if anything can be completely by accident. I mean, if something happens before something else to make it happen, then how could it be an accident? Because something happened before that to make that happen, and something before that to make that happen, and so on and so on and so on. In that case, there isn’t any such thing as an accident—everything has a cause. And if everything has a cause, there must be a first one. But how could there be a first one if everything has a cause? What caused the first one? And anyway, how do we know that something caused something else? Maybe it just happened before it, so we think it caused it, but in fact it just happened to happen before it. But let me tell you how we met Mrs. Epistemi for the first time, and you can decide for yourself whether you think it was an accident. We were on the bus, coming home from the swimming pool, which is all the way across town. Our parents let us do that by ourselves, and we did it just about every day last summer, because it was the hottest summer ever. They said they had been keeping records of the temperature for about 100 years, and it had never been that hot. It was in the middle of the afternoon, and we were on the bus, and maybe it was because we’d swum so hard or because the air-conditioned bus was so deliciously cool, or for some other reason, but we both fell asleep. I guess you could call that an accident, but I’m not sure. Nixie thinks it wasn’t an accident, because of what happened afterwards. That’s kind of funny too—I mean to say that something is not an accident because of something that happened after it. Usually it’s the other way around. Anyway, we must have looked strange there, sitting on the very last seat asleep. When we woke up, we were kind of leaning sideways and propped against each other, and we both realized right away that we had missed our stop. I guess the bus driver hadn’t seen us because we were slumped down in that seat in the back. 17
We looked out the window, and saw an empty bus right next to us, and an empty bus on the other side. We got up, and found that the doors were open. It was very quiet, and of course hot. We walked out from between the buses, and wow! There were hundreds of buses all around us, lined up, empty, with their doors open! And it was completely quiet—we didn’t see anyone. We started walking among the buses, looking for the way out. It was really strange, because we couldn’t see anything but rows and rows of them, with wide dusty dirt roads between them—so the buses could turn to park, I guess—so we had no idea where we were going. After we’d walked for about five minutes, we started to hear music. It got louder and louder, like it was from big loudspeakers. It was rock music—metal. The singer was screaming something, and the beat was like somebody was driving nails into my head. I looked at Nixie and could see that she felt the same. As it got really, really loud, we came to the end of a line of buses and saw that there was a small house by a tall metal fence, and a gate. The house was where the music was coming from—there was a round speaker attached to the roof. It looked like it was really just one space—an office I guess—made of brick, with a big plate glass window in front, just a box really, and we could see people in there, kind of moving around, or standing. And there was a dog on a chain attached to the house—a big German Shepherd. He was walking back and forth on his chain very fast, like he was crazy. Maybe it was the music. As we walked into the huge open paved clearing in front of the house, the big German Shepherd saw us and jumped at his chain and started barking, and then somebody came out of the house. I guess he’d seen us through the plate glass window. He had a uniform on, and black plastic gadgets hanging all over his belt--a gun too, in a holster. He had real short hair, like a soldier. He started yelling at us and waving his arm, but we couldn’t hear what he was saying because of the noise. Then I’m not sure what happened. We both just got really scared. I guess that’s why Nixie turned and started running back the way we had come, and I followed her. We ran past about three rows of buses and then ducked into an aisle between them to get out of sight, because we just knew he would follow us. We ran to the end of the aisle and there was a big tall metal fence with barbed wire strung across the top. There was no way we could climb over it, so we started running along the fence, hoping to find some way out. We could still hear the noise of the rock music, kind of like a huge screaming sound. I looked behind me and didn’t see anyone, but then I looked to my right and saw a car with a flashing light on top go by on the dirt road we
had been on. I didn’t know if the driver had seen us or not. We kept running. We were really sweating because it was so hot, and breathing hard. I was thinking, well, this is kind of dumb but it’s too late to walk out and give ourselves up. I mean, we haven’t done anything bad, but they’ll think we have because we ran away. It was Nixie who found the hole under the fence. I was actually running so fast that I passed it. It looked like a hole dug by an animal to squeeze under. It was kind of shallow, but when we knelt down and started pulling at the dirt with our hands we discovered that it was soft, and we could dig it easily. Just when we got it deep enough so that we could begin to squeeze under, we saw the dog. I guess they had let it loose, and it was running toward us, next to the fence, really fast. Nixie went first, and I kind of pushed her legs so she could go faster, and then she pulled my arms when I crawled under. There was a strip of woods running all along the fence—not very wide, because there was a highway on the other side of it—we could hear and even see the cars. By the time we were on the other side of the fence, the dog was there. He stood as close to the fence as he could and began barking and snarling at us, showing his teeth. He looked really mad, like he wanted to kill us. I’ve never seen such a big German Shepherd. I was afraid that he would crawl under too, but he didn’t even seem to notice the hole. We stared at him for a minute—well I don’t know how long it really was, maybe it was just a second. It was like we couldn’t take our eyes off him, like he was hypnotizing us or something with his rage. We tore ourselves away from him, and ran through the strip of trees and bushes and brambles between the fence and the highway. When we got to the edge, we looked back and could just see through the trees that the man in the uniform had arrived, and was standing at the fence next to the dog. He was yelling at us, and for a second I couldn’t tell who was yelling and who was barking—they both sounded the same. And we couldn’t hear what he was saying because a string of cars was going by. Have you ever been on a highway? I mean actually stood on the side of a highway while the cars were going by at sixty or seventy or eighty miles an hour? You can hear them from way far away—kind of a whine and a roar and a screaming of the engine and the tires. As they get closer they get louder, and when they pass you it’s like some huge metal ghost or monster, screaming and hissing. It’s a sound that goes right into your head kind of like a missile, just tearing a hole in it. And then you hear them all the way until they’re out of sight, and you can still hear them, even when you can’t see them. And they keep coming and coming, they never stop coming.
So we stood there with the man yelling and the dog barking and the cars screaming. There was garbage and litter and trash all over the side of the highway; empty pop cans and plastic bottles, and broken glass, and plastic bags—there were even plastic bags hanging on the branches of the trees—and pieces of plastic that we didn’t even know what they were, and cardboard containers from McDonald’s and Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a couple of cd’s and a filthy soggy t-shirt, and a big piece of tire, and a magazine, and more that I can’t even remember. We decided we had to get across the highway, so we waited until there was only one car that looked like it was far enough away, and grabbed each other’s hands and started running across. The highway was so wide—with the big white stripes—it felt like we were running across a football field or an airport runway or something. And when we got to the middle and looked, the car which had been so far away was so close now, or it seemed so close, screaming, like it was almost about to reach us. It must have been going about a hundred miles an hour. But we made it to the middle part, which was just a strip of concrete, curved kind of like the inside of a bowl, like a channel that water runs in. There was a dead dog lying there, stiff, all swollen up, its legs stuck straight out, and more garbage of the same kind. We waited again for a car to explode past us, and the next one seemed far enough, so we ran again. We ran across the road and right off it and through more trash and crashed together into the thick bushes on the other side and just kind of collapsed in the leaves and long grass, and the trash, which was even there, in the woods, and the brambles. And you know what? When there was a little pause in the cars, we could still hear that rock music. But we didn’t hear any shouting or barking.
HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU’RE NOT DREAMING? I know I haven’t told you how we met the Beautiful Old Woman yet, but I don’t see how I could leave out the part of the story I just told. And I’m not even sure I’ve told it right. Nixie says she thought the dog was a Doberman, but I’m sure it was a German Shepherd. And she says there wasn’t any car with a light that went by while we were running along the fence, and that the dog crouched down at the fence and began digging with his paws at the hole and even kind of stuck his head under. I don’t remember that. Also, she says that the car which was coming when we ran across the highway was nowhere near us. And that the man at the fence was talking on a short-wave radio—I don’t remember that at all! At least we both agree that it actually happened, that it wasn’t a dream. I guess you can’t be too sure of anything beyond that. Or maybe you can’t be sure of that either? Anyway, we rested a minute, getting our breath and wiping off our dirty hands and looking at the bloody scratches on them from the brambles. Then we sat there for awhile and thought about what we should do. We didn’t want to go out on the road again, because we were scared of who might pick us up, and we couldn’t go back to the bus depot. So we decided we would walk away from the highway and into the woods, and see if we could find a house, and ask the person to call our parents. We got up, and started through the bushes and trees and brambles. We crossed a small creek, a trickle of dirty-looking, oily water that was also full of garbage—we were able to jump over it—and then the way went suddenly uphill. The brambles got thicker. Pretty soon that was all there were—brambles. As we pushed through them they tore at our clothes and scratched our hands and even our faces with their thorns like a million claws. We thought we were on a little path, but it ran out, so the only way to go was up the hill. We were hot and sweaty and scared I guess, but I still felt something good inside me. It was like a stomach-feeling that told me, “This is OK. This is even fine, this is going to be all right.” Sometimes I get that. I couldn’t really tell how Nixie was feeling, even though I always sort 21
of know what she’s feeling--she just looked like she was working as hard as I was. The hill got steeper and steeper. Finally, we had to climb straight up a dirt embankment, almost like a little cliff. It was eroded, so there was no grass on it or anything, just loose reddish dirt, with deep lines in it like wrinkles on a face, from when it rained and the water ate into it and made little streams and washed it away. It was kind of sad and ugly. Besides, now we were really getting dirty, because we had to kind of crawl the last few feet, and the dirt was loose and red and soft, almost muddy. Right at the top of it there was a barbed wire fence stuck into the eaten-away hillside. I pushed down on the bottom wire and held the other one up to make a space and Nixie crawled through, and then she did the same for me. But I tore my jeans, and Nixie got another little cut on her hand. On the top, everything was different. We stood there for a minute or so, just looking. First of all, the brambles were gone, and it was flat. It was just woods—beautiful woods, with maples and oaks and hickory and poplar trees, and some pine and spruce mixed in, and even some birches, shining whitish like shy slender people, the undersides of their leaves rustling and glittering in the sun. In case you want to know how I know all those trees, I did a project on that once, but not at school. My Mom helped me. She got me some really good books. After you study it awhile, all you have to do is look at a tree and you know whether you know what it is or not. It’s kind of like looking at a person. The ground was covered with pine needles and twigs and nuts and pinecones, and in some places, where the sun shone through the trees, with soft grass and, in some places, shiny green moss. There was a gentle breeze that cooled us, and the foliage was rustling a bit, and the late afternoon sunlight kind of broke up into rays and pools and angles and patches as it danced and gleamed through the leaves and branches. There was no clear path, but we didn’t care. It was friendly. It was like wherever we walked, that was the path. I guess we just followed wherever it seemed most open. It was kind of like the forest was leading us, like when you’re in a big building, you follow the halls and stairways and doors. As we walked, we came across little openings, or glades—grassy spaces with no trees, some of them with a big stone—a boulder—sitting in the middle, covered with moss and lichen. It was hard not to stay in the glades and just sit. They seemed so familiar, like someone had just been there, but a little scary too, like whoever it was could suddenly appear again. So we kept walking, because we could see that the sun was getting low in the trees.
We walked through groves of oaks, and then into mixed trees again, and once across a broad meadow, where the sun was still covering everything and the grass was sweet and tall and green, then back into glades and forest again, and then darker woods. I really couldn’t tell you how long we walked. I mean it really could have been one hour or ten minutes, I honestly can’t tell you. Isn’t that strange? And Nixie said she couldn’t either, when we talked about it later. In one glade, we found two small yellow birds—I looked them up later in my bird book and saw that they were Goldfinches. They had black wings and tails, but the rest of them were yellower than any yellow thing I have ever seen—yellower than the yellowest egg-yolk, or the yellowest flower—as yellow as the sun. So small, and so quick, and so beautiful! They were both hovering in the air, just above a big rock in the middle, facing each other, with their wings fluttering almost like Hummingbirds, as if they were playing, or fighting—I couldn’t tell which. We stood and watched them, and they seemed to hover forever—and then they were suddenly gone. After they had disappeared, we moved closer to the rock, and saw what looked like something written on it. It was carved into the stone. It looked like this:
We passed through the glen and into the forest again, and suddenly it opened up and it seemed that we had come upon an old dirt road. It was grown up some with bushes and even a tree here and there in the middle, but the marks of an old road were clear. We walked along it for a ways, and suddenly heard a very strange sound. It was kind of like a whinny, but not that; a wail, a quivering whistle . . . how can I describe it? It was like a scream, but also like a laugh, and also like the sound of an animal, but we couldn’t tell what kind of animal it might be—a big one, or a small one, a cat or a bird or something else. Then we saw it. It was coming straight toward us, flying very fast, flapping its wings. It came right towards our heads and I realized then that it was an owl—a small owl—and both Nixie and I threw up our arms, to protect our faces, I guess, and the bird veered upwards just in time not to hit us and turned and flew back the way it had come. Wow! We both just stood there, more just startled than scared. I found out later that it was a Screech Owl. They’re only about eight inches long, but they have a wing span of twenty-two inches, so that’s not such a small thing to be coming right at your head. And as we were standing there talking about why this bird would do such a thing—both of us thought
maybe that it wanted to play?—it came again, swishing super fast just the same way it had before, and we threw up our arms again, this time to wave it away as much to protect our faces, and it did exactly the same thing—it veered up and flew back—but this time it went to a tree not too far away, and perched, and sat watching us, turning its head this way and that on its neck, the way owls do. It had yellow eyes, and it was gray with black stripes all over except for its face, which was brown. And we stood there quietly too, watching it, then suddenly it just flew away, it was gone. W e kept walking forward, along the road, a little more carefully now. There was a sort of a curve, and as we came around it, suddenly a big gust of wind blew through the tops of the trees, flowing through the leaves like a big wave hitting the beach. And at that moment we saw the villa.
WHAT PEACOCKS SOUND LIKE Well, now you are about to meet her—the person I’ve been wanting to get this story to talk about the whole time— but I have to tell you how it happened as exactly as I can remember, and there are some problems with that. First of all, I never know whether I’ve remembered everything. Or I could be remembering something that didn’t even happen, and how could I know? I could be making things up without knowing it. Some people—like Tracey for example—don’t even believe any of this. They think that Nixie and I are just making it up as a silly game, or that we’re crazy, or both. Even if I do remember it right, how can I tell that my words are making you see it the way I did? Maybe as you are reading this my words are making you see something completely different from what I saw. In fact I’m almost sure they are. How could they make you see the same thing I saw? And then, as I already said, when Nixie and I talk about it we remember different things. She says that Mrs. Epistemi’s dress was blue, but I say it was purple. And Nixie says that it was very dark when we left, and I remember that it wasn’t quite dark. And Nixie says that Mrs. Epistemi didn’t have an accent, and I say that she did. And lots more stuff like that. I’m not sure quite what to think about this problem. I mean, I wonder how we could decide who is right? Maybe if someone was videotaping it— or just taking pictures and writing stuff down, or maybe talking and describing everything they saw into a little voice recorder? With a tiny mic attached to their shirt? But I’m not sure that would settle everything. Maybe it would just create more problems. First of all, if Nixie and I were both talking into little voice recorders as everything was happening, would we notice the same things, and even if we did, would we describe them in the same way? Second of all, if we were talking into these little machines all the time, would we see the same things we would if we weren’t busy talking, or would the same things happen that would happen if we weren’t spending all our time talking into the little machines? And even if someone else—a third person—was filming it, like making a documentary of it as it happened, wouldn’t that change what happened? And what if the person 25
with the camera was filming the villa from one side and I walked around to the other side and saw something else—something really important—that never got on camera? When Nixie and I talked about this later, she said, “You just put lots of different things together to get the whole picture.” “But you’ll never have the whole picture,” I said, “because you don’t know if there’s something missing.” “Who needs the whole picture anyway?” she said. “Well, sometimes you might,” I answered. “What if you wanted to be sure whether or not somebody committed a crime?” “Well, I guess you just do the best you can.” “OK, but what if what you decided about him being guilty or not was going to mean he got the death penalty or went free?” “Too many questions,” Nixie said, and laughed. Anyway, the villa was right there in front of us. There was a large cobblestone flat area in front, like where people got out of cars, or carriages. The huge old wooden doors were open. There were no steps up to them. And standing right in front of the door was a peacock! It looked like a creature that was also a rainbow. When it saw us, it raised its huge tail. It was looking right at us, and its fan looked like it was one thousand eyes watching us too. Its throat was the bluest emerald blue, like the color of the water I’ve seen in pictures of the Caribbean Sea, only bluer and brighter even than that. As we approached, it screamed. It screamed like a . . . . I can’t describe it. How could words describe it? Then it lowered its fan, turned, and walked into the huge house, dragging its long train along the ground. We followed a safe distance behind it, and by the time we had gone through the doors and into the building, it had disappeared. The rooms were very large, with tall ceilings and lots of big windows. The furniture was old, but the cloth on it still had its colors—dark reds and blues, dark greens, and lots of beautiful wood surfaces on tables and doors and woodwork. The carpets were thick and beautiful too, full of rich flower designs. The late afternoon light slanted in through the windows. We walked up the huge curving stairway, holding the wooden banister, and through the bedrooms. All the rooms were connected by doors, and had dark-stained floors of fine wood. It was very quiet, but not a scary kind of quiet. It felt like whoever lived there had just left—yesterday, or last week. It was empty, but somehow still full. The staircase to the third floor was not as large. There we found smaller rooms. There was an art studio, with paintings standing around, and an unfinished wood sculpture, sitting on a table. I saw right away that it was
of a Hamadryad: an oak tree nymph. She was coming out from a tree trunk, but she was also part of it. Another room was a study, with book shelves going to the ceiling all around the room, and a big old desk, with a roll top and cubbies in front, and inks and pens, and a beautiful old chair pulled up to it. A third room had a thick red Persian carpet with geometric designs on it, and in the corner a black baby grand piano with a shining curved body, and musical instruments hanging around on the walls and leaning against them— a cello, and two violins, and drums that you play with your hands, and long-necked kind of guitar-looking thing that I later found out was a sitar, an Indian instrument. All the instruments gleamed in the late afternoon light—the fine old shaped wood, the strings taut and mathematical, the drums fitted with braided cloth and animal skin. We stood there for a long time, just looking at it. Then Nixie went to the piano and sat down, and began to play a piece that she was learning. It was a piece by Bach, a slow, beautiful piece, simple but difficult to do just right, with the notes going up and down almost the whole range of the piano, gliding in spread-out chords. The music lifted and drifted and spread and glowed, calm and peaceful and a little melancholy. I felt like it must be sounding through the whole house. It was as if the house was part of the instrument—the part that amplifies the sound. One part of me was nervous, because after all, we were trespassing, we could get in big trouble for this—we were already in big trouble! Another part of me felt that it was so beautiful that it couldn’t be wrong. Suddenly we heard the peacock scream again. People say it sounds like a woman screaming, but I don’t agree. I say it sounds like the sun in the desert, and it sounds like bloody murder, and it sounds like the crazy pride of being alive. Anyway, he called twice, and Nixie stopped. And she sat there and I stood waiting for another call, but there was just silence, and the echo of the piano slowly disappearing in the house, and the echo of the peacock’s cry disappearing above it. We left the room quickly and went downstairs. We wanted to get out of there. Not because we were scared—the house felt good—but because the peacock’s cry had told us to hurry. So we were almost running by the time we got to the foot of the stairs, and for some reason we turned left instead of right and found ourselves moving through a big old empty kitchen, with old cabinets and a stove that looked like it was a hundred years old, and out the back door, down a few steps, and into a yard. It was a garden, really—like an herb and flower garden and an orchard too, because there were a few plum trees scattered around it. It was enclosed by a high stone wall—at least twice as tall as us—and in the middle of it
was a stone well. The grass was all grown up, but it didn’t seem wild—or it was wild and not wild at the same time. We walked toward the well, and when we were a few feet from it, suddenly we saw the snake. It was a big one—thick and very long and all black—black snake on the grey stone. It was wrapped around the circular well, and moving in a spiral around and around, up towards the top. When it heard us (or felt us, or saw us, or . . . I don’t quite know how snakes know things, or how we could find out how they do) it stopped for just a moment, as if listening, then went slowly on, gliding, wrapped around the stones. When it got near the top its head lifted, searched out the opening of the well, then its whole body arched up in a flowing curve, slid smoothly into the well’s mouth, and disappeared. We weren’t scared, really. We knew that the snake didn’t want to hurt us. But we didn’t really want to go near the well. We walked to the fruit trees. I picked a plum and Nixie an apple, and we ate them. They were very sweet and juicy. It felt good all through my body, like sudden energy—I guess because we hadn’t eaten for so long. Birds—little birds, their bodies feathered with combinations of red and blue and yellow and grey, black and green and white and purple and . . . I can’t name all the colors of them—flew like big jewels in and out of the garden, singing and warbling and scolding and chattering in the branches of the fruit trees. They didn’t seem to be paying any attention to us at all. Then we heard another kind of singing. We weren’t sure where it was coming from but it mixed with the singing of the birds, like it was in the same key. We couldn’t make out any words, but it drew us: you felt like you wanted to go towards it. Nixie and I looked at each other as we listened. Her eyes were wide the way they get, like she was dreaming. Then, at the same moment, we looked sideways and saw a door—a green door—on the back wall of the garden, and we both knew—I think we both knew anyway—that the singing was coming from behind that door. Then the green door opened.
GODS, HUMANS, ANIMALS AND EVERYWHERE IN BETWEEN Her voice was strong, and musical— it was sort of like she hadn’t stopped singing when she began talking. She didn’t seem surprised to see us. “Hello!” she said, smiling. The moment she smiled I knew how I felt about her. I mean, I felt like I knew her. “I am the old Epistemi woman.” She laughed. “And who may you be?” “My name is Myshkin,” I said. “Oh! What a wonderful name. A special kind of prince. And you, beautiful young lady?” “My name is Nixie.” “Ah! You don’t look like a dangerous water sprite, but you do look like a dreamer, and it can be dangerous to dream. Well, come in.” And she opened the door wide and stood next to it and made a gesture for us to enter. Later, Nixie and I didn’t agree about whether her long, heavy dress was blue or purple—except that I’m sure it was purple. But we do both remember that she had very long white hair, and that she was kind of shining. Some people kind of shine. “Sit! Sit!” she said, and gestured us towards a couch with red velvet upholstery. We sat. It was a small couch—what they call a love seat—so we were right next to each other. I didn’t feel nervous at all, which surprised me. I could see that Nixie didn’t feel nervous either. “I think I know who you are,” I said. “And who am I?” “It was you who built the fountain.” “Well,” she said, “not with my own hands. And it was my husband Ernesto who paid for it.” She laughed gently, went to the mantelpiece over a large fireplace, and took down a photograph in a frame. She handed it to me. It was a picture of a woman of about forty I would guess (Nixie guessed thirty), standing in front of the fountain, smiling. I thought it was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Later, I told Nixie that she looked like I remember my mother when I was a little baby. She said she looked like she remembered her grandmother when she (Nixie I mean) was 29
very small. A man was standing beside her--serious looking, with a thin face, a thin moustache, and a long overcoat. “You see what time does,” she said, smiling. “You look hungry and thirsty. And you must have had a time getting here, from the look of those cuts and scratches. Let me get you some tea.” She turned to an old wood stove with shining chrome sides and feet and a big flat top, with circular plates that you could lift up to put the wood in. There was a kettle steaming a bit on top of it. She took some herbs from a shelf above the stove, and in what seemed like no time she had set two cups on little tables on either side of us, and some cookies. Mrs. Epistemi sat down in a rocking chair with some knitting, and her hands moved quickly, the needles clicking, as she watched us, smiling slightly. I guess Nixie and I both suddenly realized how hungry we were, because we both picked up the cups at the same time, and drank the tea and ate the cookies all at once. The tea tasted like earth and grass and flowers and honey. The cookies I don’t remember at all, but Nixie said they were oatmeal, with raisins in them, and that when she finished eating hers she was no longer hungry at all. “Now,” she said, as we finished. “Tell me about yourselves. You, Myshkin, have something of a look about you—something of a forest creature. And you Nixie, you look more like a watery one.” “I would like to know why you built the fountain,” I said. “And why you put some wood nymphs there—a Hamadryad and a Napae and an Alseid, and not just nymphs of the springs and fountains, like Crinaeae and Pegaeae.” It was strange. I wasn’t afraid of her at all, and it didn’t even seem to matter that I was a kid and she was an adult. I never forgot that difference—how could you?--but it just didn’t matter. “Ah! I see you’ve done some serious study, then,” she said. “And you want to know why I chose the nymphs I did when there are so many?” I nodded, and she went on. “Very simple really, but I don’t know if I should tell you.” She looked at us, smiling, her white teeth shining and her black, black eyes laughing playfully. A few days later, when Nixie and I were down the hill and back in town, at the fountain, on another hot day—while the huge water gusts spurted and sprayed and sprinkled wildly up into the blue tingling air—she said, “Do you remember when she said she didn’t know if she should tell you why she chose these nymphs?” I nodded. “I looked at her eyes then,” she said, “and you know what? Her eyes looked like a young woman’s. Like a girl’s. Was it like that for you?”
“No,” I said. Then I thought a minute. “Well, maybe, but it was more like her eyes don’t have any age. They’re the same eyes she had when she was a baby, and a girl, and a young woman and a middle-aged woman and an old woman like she is now.” “A smile can be like that too,” Nixie said, and I nodded. We were silent for a minute. “But it’s not always like that,” she said. “Some people look like their bodies are just kind of crushing the life out of them. Like they’re so tired they can hardly manage. Like their body is some kind of prison. And their eyes look sort of blank.” Anyway, Mrs. Epistemi said “But I will tell you, because you’ve studied them, and you deserve to know. I chose some of the nymphs I’ve met here, others I have seen elsewhere, and others I have only heard of.” For some reason I wasn’t surprised at all. Nixie didn’t look surprised either, even though she hadn’t studied them. I said “We didn’t see any. Coming here, I mean.” “No, I don’t imagine you did. You wouldn’t see them anyway unless they wanted you to. And they rarely show themselves to humans, especially nowadays.” “Why?” said Nixie. Her face darkened a little, like a cloud was passing across it, but then it was clear again, and shining. “For them, people mostly mean death,” she answered. “The times have changed. But the times are always changing.” We heard the fluttering of birds outside the large glass doors, on the patio of the little house. Trees came thickly up to the edge of it. Young willows shuddered and whispered as if in a sudden breeze, although the air was still, and soft, and darkening. We heard the sweet laughing voice of a brook somewhere near, and the tinkling of high little bells. A shadow had fallen over the window. Twilight was approaching. I felt hungry to know more, but I didn’t know where to start. “But aren’t they humans? Or are they animals?” I said. “Animals, humans . . .” she repeated, thoughtfully. “Hmm.” Nixie said, “Like us, you mean?” I tried to answer my own question. “They must at least be animals, if they die.” “I don’t like to think of being alive or being dead so much any more,” said Mrs. Epistemi. “I mean, it certainly happens. One second you’re alive and the next second you’re dead. On the other hand, what if we think of it as a change of state?” “A change of state?” I said. I didn’t understand.
“Yes, the way water can change into ice or into steam, or a rock can change into sand. Or . . .” she paused, then smiled . . . “an idea of a fountain can turn into a real fountain.” “Or,” said Nixie, thinking, “a child changes into a grownup? Or a normal person turns into a crazy person?” “Yes,” the Beautiful Old Woman answered. “And the nymphs . . . well maybe they are always changing state like that, from an animal—or even a plant!—or even water!--to a human and back. Can you imagine a creature like that?” We both stared at her, not knowing what to say. She smiled. “Well perhaps you can’t. I couldn’t imagine it either, until I met them. . . . But back to your question whether they are humans—what do you mean when you call something human?” Nixie said, “I mean people like us. Who live and die, and have families and governments and schools and stuff. Persons.” Mrs. Epistemi turned to me. “Is that what you mean by human?” she said. “Persons?” “Well, yes,” I said. “But I mean people who care about other people, or care about doing right to other people, about not hurting or doing bad tricks on other people,” I said. “Well, could we say that of a dog, or a deer, or any animal?” “I guess so, yes. I mean, I think a dog could be like that, for example. I have a dog, his name is Dolphius, and if that’s what we mean by a person, then Dolphius is a person.” “Then how do we decide what is a person?” Nixie said. The Beautiful Old Woman looked up at the ceiling, and her fingers stopped knitting. “Even in the old, old days, long before I or anyone I ever knew—my great-grandmother for example—can remember, there were certain people who could see or at least feel the nymphs more than others. Sometimes they were seized by the nymphs. They would start talking all in poetry, for example, a bit like they were drunk, but they weren’t drunk. They would say beautiful and wise things. And the nymphs also helped to raise small children who were lost and abandoned, to feed and protect them. And many people said they were healed by the nymphs, or by a pool of water in the forest where the nymphs lived, or in a cave where the nymphs were often thought to sleep, and, if it was a big cave with a large flat floor, to dance, because they love to dance. Of course they love music. Many people say that dance and music began with them, or through them.” She paused, thinking. “Others say that the nymphs gave the early people their customs—taught them how to keep sheep or goats in the mountains, for
example, taught them how to make cheese from the milk, or how to keep bees for honey. Others said that nymphs could predict the future.” “So they aren’t really human,” Nixie said, “but helped to give humans all the things that make them human?” “Yes!” the old woman said. “That’s a very good way of putting it!” “If they aren’t humans, and they aren’t animals,” I said, “then they must be gods.” “But what are gods?” Mrs. Epistemi asked. She seemed really interested—not like some teachers who know the answer already and are just asking it as a question to show you that you don’t know and that they do. Nobody said anything. We were all thinking— at least I was. Then Nixie said, “Maybe gods are what we humans might become.” “I don’t understand what you mean,” I said. “I mean that gods can do things that we can’t,” Nixie said, “like appear and disappear, or change into whatever shape they want to, or go into people’s dreams, and never die, and stuff like that.” Another silence. Mrs. Epistemi’s knitting needles were clicking away but she didn’t even have to look at her hands, and her shining eyes were on us, thinking too. “But people could never do that,” I said. “Well maybe not,” Nixie answered. “But maybe we could get closer to being able to do that than we are.” “I think I agree,” Mrs. Epistemi said. “Look at animals. A fox for example. Imagine all the things a fox can do that we can’t—smell things, or know if there are other creatures around even if they’re far away, or hide themselves, or stay warm when it’s cold, or move extremely fast, and who knows what else.” “So the nymphs are like animals but they’re like gods too!” I said. “Yes,” she answered. “They can do things that animals can do and we can’t, and they can also do things that animals can’t do and we can.” “But maybe they can’t do some things that we can. Like invent and build things.” “Certainly, yes. I have never read about or seen or heard about one house or one machine or one book or one weapon made by the dear nymphs. But they don’t destroy things either. They never, ever destroy, the way humans do so, so terribly.” “But I think they can just not care about you, or just not want you around,” I said. Somehow I just knew that from what I’d read. “Certainly. And that can feel cruel.”
“Why does no one believe in them?” Nixie asked. “We see what we are looking for,” she answered. We see what we have decided there is to see. Then, even if we see something else we don’t believe it, or we say it’s an exception, or we explain it away as something else. But you must be going.” She said it so suddenly that for a moment I thought she was mad at us, or bored or something. But then she smiled, and I understood that she wasn’t. She rose and went to the large double doors of the garden. She gave a wild, high cry, kind of like she was vibrating her tongue in her throat. Just moments later we heard the sound of something moving through the deep woods that crowded against the little garden, and two white ponies emerged from the shadows. Or, they weren’t exactly ponies, but they weren’t big horses either; they were somewhere in between. They came up to Mrs. Epistemi and nuzzled her long dress, and she stroked both of them along their long beautiful noses. She turned her head back toward me and Nixie, who were still sitting on the little couch, watching through the big open double-doorway. “These beautiful creatures—also a boy and a girl—will take you down the hill,” she said, smiling, still stroking them. “But we don’t know how to ride,” I said. “Oh, come now,” she said, “of course you know how. Horses and humans were made for each other. Come. They will take very good care of you.” She beckoned with her hand and we got up and came out the double doors and into the little garden. The ponies were so beautiful! They snuffled and snorted softly, and lifted their front legs a bit, and we reached out and stroked their dark silky whiteness. They smelled like tall grass, and forest, and rivers. She looked down at us. “You will come back, I hope. And I’m sure we will have more questions to think about.” I felt sad, like I didn’t want to leave her. I don’t know why. She laughed, and tousled my hair with her hand. “If we let ourselves feel everything, we would always be weeping or laughing or both, wouldn’t we?” she said. “Come, my dear boy and girl, mount.” She leaned over, intertwined the fingers of her hands, and gestured for Nixie to put her foot in the step she was making. Nixie did so, and seemed almost to leap onto the horse’s back. And she did look perfect sitting there, her back straight, holding a bit of the horse’s white mane in her fist. The proportion between their two bodies was perfect. And the horse had a sort of meekness about her, but she also gave the feeling of having great strength and power—as if she was balancing between the two, without even trying. Nixie smiled happily, her legs gently gripping the pony’s sides.
“Ah, what beauty!” said Mrs. Epistemi, gazing at the two ponies, then made a step with her hands for me. I set my left foot in it, swung my right over the horse’s back, and settled. It really was very amazing. I mean, I wasn’t afraid at all of falling off—it was as if it was a comfortable chair—and I knew, somehow I knew that I could trust this horse. “They will take you to the road,” Mrs. Epistemi said, looking up at us and still stroking the ponies noses. The sound of night birds calling had begun, and the cicadas too. The cicadas sounded like a huge orchestra playing a piece of music that went on and on. I don’t remember the moment it started. It was as if they were there before I knew they were there. Mrs. Epistemi said, “When the ponies stop, dismount and walk along the road about half a mile. You will find a telephone. Do you have a quarter?” Nixie nodded. “Goodbye my dears. I will be expecting you, and your very special Dolphius too. And when you come, if you can make the sound I made”—and she made the sound again, a high trilling in her throat, kind of like an Indian war cry, but not that—“they will come and bring you to me.” Before we could answer, or even say goodbye, she had removed her hands from the ponies noses and they were moving away. We were quickly beyond the villa and on a path we hadn’t taken on the way up. It was wide and grassy—wide enough for the two ponies to walk side by side—and it wound gently down through the woods. I could see that no cars had ever been on it, because there were no tire marks at all, it was flat and smooth. The darkness was almost complete, but the moon had risen and the path was glowing softly with its light. It made the white coats of the ponies glow softly too. The sound of the cicadas and the whippoorwills seemed to get louder and louder—a huge roar, with different, smaller groups inside the whole coming and going, getting louder and softer, and closer and farther away, like the sound of an ocean. Nixie and I rode easily. It was true what the Beautiful Old Woman had said—it was like we already knew how. We didn’t talk; we didn’t really need to, because it felt like we were both seeing exactly the same thing, and feeling exactly the same thing—although I can’t say we were thinking the same thing—probably not. I don’t see how that could ever be. Well, I suppose two people could be thinking they both wanted ice cream or something, but that’s not what I mean. I guess I mean thinking about what something means--a deeper kind of thinking, more like feeling, but feeling from the inside, not so much feeling what’s around you, like the cicadas and the ponies and the path and the moonlight, but feeling what they mean. Maybe two people could think the same thing that way; I just don’t know.
I will always wonder how long we were on that path. Nixie says it was about half an hour. It could have been that, or it could have been five minutes, or an hour—I just can’t say myself. And even if we’d had a watch and knew exactly, what difference would that make to how it felt? At some point we heard a rustling in the woods ahead of us and to our left. The horses stopped, and in front of us, only about twenty feet away, there was a deer, right in the middle of the path, very still like a statue, its head raised high as if both looking and smelling. It was a white deer, something I had never seen before—they call it an albino—a stag with tall antlers, and its huge eyes shone. It trembled—a sudden shiver—then bolted—leaped, all four feet off the ground—and was gone, crashing through the brush. The ponies’ skin rippled like a wave of energy was going through them, and they shook their heads, snorting softly. Then they started walking forward again. Nixie and I looked at each other—her eyes were big and wondering, and probably mine were too—but we didn’t say anything. We knew it meant something, but we didn’t know what. When we came to the bottom of the hill, the sound of the cicadas got quieter, and suddenly we were in a big open field of tall grass. It was really tall grass— even sitting on the ponies it was as high as our shoulders, and it was thick. It brushed us like it was stroking or hugging us as the ponies moved steadily through it; it felt good—soft, kind of like moving through dry water. And when we came to the edge of it, there was the road. It was a paved road, but a narrow one. The horses stopped, and we knew that this was as far as they would go, so we slipped off, and we moved to their heads and stroked their noses, and they snorted softly and looked at us, and turned and immediately disappeared in the grass again. We could hear the swishing sound of them moving through it for a little while, then we couldn’t. We walked along the road in the moonlight and the warm summer air. There were no electric lights, no cars, no houses, no anything. We went around about three or four long curves and suddenly there was light—very bright light— the huge, glaring lights of a gas station and a convenience store. The light seemed like it was making noise—blaring, buzzing noise, like a saw, or a drill. There was a big semi pulled up on the side of the parking lot, its engine running. We walked beside it. It was huge and noisy, like a vibrating metal house. The phone was right outside the glass doors of the store, on the wall. I could just barely reach it, but I did. Nixie gave me a quarter, and I called my parents’ number. My mother answered. When I said hello she said, “Myshkin, where are you?” and started crying. I thought that it might be crazy in the car, but it wasn’t. Both my Mom and my Dad were there—she was driving—and Nixie’s Mom was there too
(she doesn’t have a Dad. I mean she does, but he doesn’t live with them). It was lucky that my Mom was driving, because when she drives she can hardly talk because she has to concentrate so much, and I knew that she was full of questions and maybe she was a little angry too. Sometimes she gets angry when she’s scared. My Dad just said, “So what happened?” and listened while I told him what I remembered, asking a question here or there when he wasn’t clear about something. Meanwhile Nixie was talking to her mother very fast in Bulgarian in the back seat, her voice rising and falling like music the way it does in Bulgarian, and laughing, and her mother was laughing too—like two kids telling a story. But was her story the same as mine? By the time we got home, my mother seemed to think that I was OK, but she kept looking at me strangely— she would do it when I wasn’t looking, and then I’d catch her—as if she couldn’t quite figure this whole thing out. But when Dolphius met me at the door he sniffed me once and then kind of went crazy. Dolphius is usually a very calm dog— I mean he doesn’t jump on people or get nervous or pushy, or other ways that dogs can do with people—but he must have smelled something—maybe the horses?—which made him stick right next to me the whole time I was sitting on the couch in the livingroom talking to my parents—telling them the whole story again, as carefully as I could. He kept nuzzling my leg, putting his head in my lap and looking up at me with his wild kind eyes, then walking around the room and then coming back and doing it again. And right then I decided that I would take him with us if we ever went again. My mother and father knew about the Epistemis, because they were famous in the town. There was a story in the local newspaper about the fountain just about every summer, and everyone was very proud of it. It was the only fountain like that—I mean like the big old fancy Italian ones—in the whole United States. And usually in the stories they said that they had lived on a huge “inaccessible” estate —which means that you couldn’t get to it—outside of town, and that they had become very “reclusive”—which means that they didn’t want any visitors—when they got old, and that Mr. Epistemi had died, and that Mrs. Epistemi had, everybody thought, moved back to Italy. By now, most of the people who were the same age as the Epistemis were dead too, so there was hardly anyone around who would remember her. My mother and father only moved here eleven years ago—the year I was born—so they had never seen either of them, because Mr. Epistemi died twenty years ago, which was almost ten years before I was born.
When I told my parents the part about how she had invited us to come again, they looked worried. I guess the whole thing seemed weird to them—especially because of the nymph stuff—and they had hoped it was over. But they decided—because they are really nice parents—that they would take us the next time. My mother said she wanted to meet Mrs. Epistemi—probably to check her out and make sure she wasn’t a murderer or anything, but also (if she wasn’t a murderer) because she was curious. She really wanted to meet her. I like that about my mother. So we decided we would go in a week, when they both had a day off from work for Fourth of July. My parents both work at a scientific laboratory in a drug company. They’re trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. Alzheimer’s is a disease that happens to older people that makes them lose their memory, and after awhile they even start to forget who they themselves are. Your brain actually shrinks. I don’t know if you can imagine forgetting who you are, but I can’t. But it’s not just forgetting who you are. My mother says that after a while, as it gets worse, you forget how to do simple things, like brushing your teeth or combing your hair. Then you start to get confused about everything. You might put on two pairs of pants when you get dressed, or put your keys in the fridge. Then you start not being able to recognize people you know, or familiar places. Then you have trouble speaking, or reading, or writing, and you start having mood changes—like one moment you’re happy and the next moment you’re angry, or depressed. You might be talking along perfectly normally with someone, and suddenly not even remember what you were talking about, or maybe even who you’re talking to. You can still sort of tell how people are feeling—especially when they’re being funny—but after awhile you don’t care anymore. You can’t tell things apart anymore—you might be watching a movie for example, and think it’s real instead of just a story. You start to see and hear things that aren’t there—hallucinations. In the end you may get really scared, or paranoid, and just wander away from home, not even knowing where you are or where you were. Finally, everybody has to do everything for you. It’s like you’re just not there any more. But of course you are. Well, but are you? If it was happening to me, I think I might start to wish that I was a stone, or a tree, or a river or something. And I wonder, would you be more like a nymph is if you had Alzheimers? Or more like a baby? Is it like you actually go backwards until you end up like a baby that was just born? And are you there somewhere, in some place, even though it’s not here and now any longer?
Anyway that’s what my mother and father work on. They have been working on it for ten years, trying to figure out if there’s some kind of drug you can take that would stop it from happening—stop the brain from shrinking. I know that I wasn’t talking about that at all—I only thought I had better mention it because I told you that my parents were going to get off work in order to take us to the villa and meet Mrs. Epistemi, and then I thought you might want to know what their work is. And then talking about their work reminded me of some of my “silly questions.” It also makes me wonder about how you can work on a problem for ten years and not be able to solve it—what that would be like. Maybe my silly questions are problems like that. Or are they the same? I wonder if there could be a scientist who would work a long time and invent or discover a drug that would give your mind the answers to all the silly questions—questions about who you are, and why you’re here, and what is real and what isn’t, and what is possible and what isn’t, and whether there are nymphs or not, and whether there is a God, or gods, and what you have to do to be happy in life, and how you can be a good person, and whether people who kill other people should be killed themselves, and other questions like that. You would begin to take the drug, and after a few weeks maybe, as it started to work, you would start to know the answers, and you would know that they’re right! And if someone asked you how you knew, well I guess you’d have to say . . . well what would you say?
HOW MANY DIFFERENT PEOPLE ARE WE? A week later we were in the car, the five of us--Nixie and myself and Dolphius and my Mom and my Dad. First, we went to the gas station that we had called from that night, because my parents remembered where that was. I was nervous, because Mrs. Epistemi hadn’t asked us to come with our parents, and I knew it wouldn’t be the same if they were there. But still I wanted my mom and dad to meet her if they wanted to. It was kind of like I was two people— one person to my parents and one person to Mrs. Epistemi—and for some reason I thought that if I met all of them together I would be a different person to each of them—or at least to Mrs. Epistemi —and I didn’t want to be that. That seemed like it would be embarrassing. Later, in the park, on our way to the fountain, Nixie and Tracey and Beth and I were talking about this problem, while Dolphius streaked in and out of the woods. We had not told them about our adventure though—I guess we were kind of afraid they wouldn’t believe us, and we didn’t want the story to get around. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a different person for every other person in the world,” Beth said. “It’s like, when two of my friends meet each other I think they will automatically be friends because each one of them is friends with me, but it never happens.” “But you are a different person to everybody, really,” said Tracey. “Aren’t you? Am I the same person to Myshkin as I am to you? I don’t think so.” “What would be any different?” said Beth. “Well, for me Myshkin is another boy like me, but for you he’s not a girl like you.” “But how important is that?” said Nixie. Then she answered her own question. “It’s only as important as you make it. Another person might not notice it at all.” “But we have different bodies!” Tracey said. “How can you not notice that?” “Dolphius has a really different body from me,” I said.
“Exactly,” said Tracey. “And you can be sure that you don’t see Dolphius the way another dog sees him. And another example: grownups and kids. Do you really think I know the you that your parents know?” “But what about in a group?” Beth said. “Like what if there’s one kid in our class who everybody has the same opinion about—that he’s a bully, or always wants to be first, or is really smart, or stuff like that?” “But that’s not knowing him at all,” Nixie said. “That’s just knowing what he usually does when he’s in that group.” “But is you knowing me just knowing what I usually do when you and I are together?” said Tracey. “But it’s different,” said Nixie. “I mean, two people together is different from the way each person is for the group.” “Or a group like us,” Beth added. Then she said, “You know, maybe it’s not just that every person is seen differently by every other person. Maybe it’s also that every person acts and feels differently with every other different person.” “Oh my God!” Tracey said, mocking. “How many different people are we?” Nixie stayed serious. “Well, there’s ‘me’ as I know myself when I’m alone, and then there are two ‘me’s’ for each person I know. ‘Me’ number one is the way I feel with that particular person, and ‘me’ number two is the way that particular person sees me. And since I’m always meeting new people, we won’t know how many different people we are until we count it up just before we die.” Now we all laughed. “And potentially,” Nixie added “I am as many people as twice the population of the world plus one.” “What?!” Beth said. Then we all got it, like at once, and laughed again. We were starting to feel a bit crazy, and it didn’t help that Dolphius had just crashed out of the woods again, and was running around between us wagging his tail and grinning the way he does, and even jumping up on me and Nixie and almost knocking us over. “But what about all the other creatures in the world?” Tracey said. “Are you two different people to every ant and every worm and every firefly and every mosquito and every lion and every—even every tree?” “I don’t see why not,” Nixie said. “We’re all part of the same system, aren’t we?” “Yes.” Beth nodded, serious all of a sudden, “but we have command of the animals.” She tilted her face upward. “God made us that way. He designed us to be at the very top of the ladder—except under Him of course,
and the angels and stuff. Everything is just where it’s supposed to be. That’s what my grandma said.” “No,” Nixie said, “that’s not what I meant by part of the same system. That’s not what I meant at all. What I meant was that we might be different people or have different kinds of bodies or even some of us have big brains and some of us just one nerve for a brain, like a worm, or even no brain at all, like a tree, but we all can feel each other. We’re part of the same feeling system.” “But how can you tell?” Tracey said. “Because they can suffer,” Nixie. “Because you can tell when they are suffering.” “What? A tree suffer?” Tracey said. “It doesn’t have any nerve cells!” “That doesn’t mean it can’t suffer in some other way.” “Oh come on!” Tracey said. “Next you’re going to tell me that people can hear them screaming when they’re cut down!” Anyway, the five of us drove to the gas station—we passed the bus yard first, then went right, over the highway that we had been on, then right again for quite a ways—and then took the road that we had walked along in the dark, and went around a few curves, looking for the tall grass that we had gone through when the horses brought us to the bottom of the hill, and you know what? It was all tall grass by the side of the road! I mean it seemed to go on for miles. So we went back to the place where we thought we had come out, and parked the car by the side of the road, and walked together— all five of us—through the grass and up the hill. Now the grass was scratchy, and got in our eyes and mouths and noses. And the woods on the hill weren’t anything like I remembered them. The trees were scrawny and dry, and there were lots of bushes, and brambles that tore at our clothes, and we couldn’t find any sort of path at all, much less a road. So we wandered around in circles for an hour or so, getting hotter and sweatier all the time. Dolphius ran out ahead of us in one direction or another, then circled back to us, and after a while he seemed to be confused too. He was panting, and his long tongue was hanging out of his mouth the way dogs do when they get really hot. When we found ourselves back at where we could see the tall grass again, we just gave up, and went down the hill and pushed our way through the grass—it felt nasty and scratchy on my sweaty skin—to the road. We couldn’t see the car, so my father made a guess at which direction we had to walk, and we went that way. He was right. We found it about half a mile down.
We piled in, and nobody said anything. Dolphius sat on the floor in the back, and laid his head on the seat between me and Nixie. He looked like he was exhausted too. When the air conditioning started working it was a really delicious feeling, and I lay back on the seat and felt myself floating off. Even almost before I went to sleep I was dreaming. I was walking with Nixie and Dolphius in the woods. It was the same Epistemi woods. It was night but it was also day, or day but also night. There were birds all over the place, flying above us and even around and past our heads—like super-bright spots of color in a painting all of browns and greens. There were lots of animals—lions and deer, and white horses, and foxes, and a black bear. They didn’t seem to see us—some were walking, some resting, some rushing somewhere. Suddenly a person appeared. She just sort of emerged out of a tree trunk, like she was the tree trunk, and then turned into a person. She was wearing a long, thin flowing dress that went right to her ankles, and she ran off in the other direction. It seemed like her feet barely touched the ground, she ran so lightly and gracefully. Then other nymphs began coming out of the trees, as if some heavy wind in the branches had swept them out. They ran past us even, brushing us with their loose, billowy clothes. Then suddenly it changed, the way dreams do, and we realized that they were all moving in the same direction, as if the animals and the birds and the nymphs were running toward something or running away from something. Suddenly it was like some strange crowd scene, and I looked behind us and I saw that there was water. Water was rising and coming toward us, covering everything, creeping higher, like a huge silent animal. It was black water, shining in the weird light. Then I realized that way behind us, high in the trees, there was fire. A wall of fire was crackling and roaring through the forest behind the rising water. When I turned around again Dolphius was gone, and Nixie said she didn’t know where he was. I looked up ahead where the nymphs and animals were rushing forward and saw Mrs. Epistemi standing by a big tree, looking at us. She was just standing there, not smiling but not looking scared or upset or anything—just meeting our eyes with her eyes—kind of like that old woman at the fountain. Dolphius was standing in front of her. His head was raised, and he was resting his long muzzle in the palm of her hand, the way dogs sometimes like to do with people they love, and looking up at her face. Then I woke up. We were home.
STORIES ABOUT STORIES ABOUT STORIES Do you know what it’s like when someone doesn’t not believe you, but they don’t exactly believe you either? That’s what it was like with my parents, and with Nixie’s mom too, after we couldn’t find Mrs. Epistemi. And have you ever remembered something that you thought happened but then you find out that it didn’t—or you’re not sure whether it did or not? Nixie and I weren’t like that—not when we were together and talking about it. W e knew very well it had happened. But when I was alone, sometimes I caught myself wondering if I was wrong, and that I had actually dreamed it. If it hadn’t been for Nixie being there and us agreeing that it had happened, maybe I would have started to doubt that it happened—to think that maybe I dreamed it, and then later got confused about whether it had really happened or not. About a week after the trip we took into the woods, my mother said she wanted to talk to me when I got back from the swimming pool and she was home from work. She sat me down on the couch and got me some orange juice, which is my favorite drink, so I knew that she had something she wanted to talk carefully about. My mother is very direct. That means that she doesn’t beat around the bush, which means that she comes right out and tells you as clearly as she can what she’s thinking about something. I like this about my mother. Anyway she said, “Myshkin, are you sure it happened?” “Yes,” I said. “It sounds pretty fantastic,” she said. “And we looked for a path for an hour.” “Do you think I’m lying?” I said. I felt tears coming to my eyes. “Why would you lie?” she said. “Well some kids lie to get attention,” I said. “Or so that people will think they’re cool. Or to get something they don’t think they can get any other way.” I knew this very well from school. “But I’m not lying.” “Well,” she said, “I suppose a person might not be lying, but they might be . . . confused.”
“I am confused,” I said. “I know it happened, but I doubt myself. But Nixie knows it happened, and she knows it the same way I do. Well, there may be a few little things that we remember differently, but we know that we were together when it happened. So how could we both be confused in exactly the same way and about exactly the same things?” “Well,” she said, “I suppose two people could be ready to believe the same thing. I mean, what if everybody told you all the time that there were nymphs, for example. Everybody agreed that they existed. Or everybody told you that there was a god. Or everybody told you that there wasn’t a god. Or everybody told you that people come from apes. Or everybody told you that people were designed by some higher intelligence.” “You mean everybody would be telling everybody else the same story.” “Exactly,” she said. “But nobody’s telling me that story,” I said. “Nobody believes there are such things as nymphs, they think the whole thing is crazy. And Nixie hasn’t even studied it.” “You’re very close to Nixie,” she said. “And when people get close, they can even begin to share dreams.” “Mom, if there’s more than one story, how do you know which one is true?” “Well, I guess you gather evidence,” she said. “What do you mean by that?” “I just mean that you watch to see how each story works with your experience. Let’s say just for example if you see nymphs enough times, and you’re pretty sure you’re not dreaming, and other people see them, and they see the same thing you do. And maybe you have some evidence that everybody would agree was good evidence, like a photograph, or— “Like the way Dolphius went crazy when he sniffed me after we got back?” “Well, yes, she said, “except that we don’t know what the smell was that excited him. Maybe you brushed by a certain plant or something. . . .” “But aren’t there things that there is no evidence for? Things you just can’t get evidence for? Like, is there any evidence that the universe is infinitely expanding or not infinitely expanding?” “Well maybe the evidence can be ambiguous.” “What does that mean?” “It means you can’t really be sure one way or the other.” “Do you mean that the truth is just a story that most people agree on?” “Well, no. I mean for example there is something that happens to people that we call Alzheimer’s Disease. There are different stories about
how it happens, or what leads up to it, or what can be done about it. But there is that real thing that happens to people, and it always happens the same way.” “So if you and Dad figure it out, it won’t be a story any more. It will be a fact.” “Well maybe the best story we can find. Because something might come along later which shows we didn’t really have it right.” I was getting very frustrated. “How can you live like that?” I said. “But honey,” she said (she always calls me that when she sees I need to be calmed down), “it doesn’t mean that nothing is real, or that there is no truth to anything. It just means that we’ll never know the truth completely, and that all our stories just get pieces of it. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a story about everything that is not a story—that is true, that is what we call ‘fact’. It just means that we’re not in a position to know it. So all we can know are stories.” “What if you were way up above the world,” I said. “Maybe there is one place that you could stand, one place in the whole universe where you could see everything, and know everything, and figure everything out.” “But where would that be?” she said. “Nowhere,” I said, and we both laughed. But then I thought of something horrible I had seen on the news. I had to push it out of my mind. “Some stories can be really bad. They can make people hate each other, and kill each other.” She shuddered. “Yes,” she said. “It seems to be getting worse. Or more like it was before—five hundred years ago. People were killing each other over their different stories then, too. Some people can’t seem to live unless they have one big story which they believe is not a story at all, but the big truth.” “Do we have to have stories? Can we live without stories?” “Some people say they can,” she said, “but I don’t believe it. Because that’s a story too—that there’s no big story. We could just say, ‘There’s probably a big story but we can’t really know it’. How could we know? Or maybe we could live with a whole bunch of little stories and that would be enough. The problem is that people confuse the kinds of stories they’re telling. For example, one kind of story is about what’s normal—about how people should act and feel and think—about what’s ‘natural” and what’s not “natural’. Then there is another kind about what you see in microscopes, or how chemical reactions work, or things like that—about what the ‘facts’ are. Then there are stories about the big picture—whether there is a god, whether you go on living after you die, where everything came from,
whether there’s more than one universe, what we can know for sure and what we can’t, and things like that. Lots of people just mix the three types up. I’m not sure why they do that. Maybe it’s because they don’t want their stories to contradict each other. They want everything to line up under one big story.” I didn’t answer, and she didn’t go on. I was getting kind of tired of thinking so hard, and of how complicated everything seemed to be. My Mom reached out and ruffled my hair. “And what’s your story, my beautiful boy? she said, smiling. “That there is a beautiful old old woman who lives deep deep in the mysterious woods, and who knows you better than you know yourself? That there are creatures who are somewhere between humans and animals, or humans and gods, who you read quite a bit about last year, and that she seems to know quite a bit about them? That she has invited you and your best friend Nixie to visit her again, but you don’t know how to find her any more?” “Oh but I do Mom. I just remembered!” And it’s true, I had forgotten until that very moment. “She said that if we could make a certain sound, like the one she made when she called the horses, that the horses would come and bring us to her.” “And what kind of sound is it?” “It’s kind of like a . . . I don’t know how to describe it. Like a war cry, but it doesn’t scare you. Or like the sound I heard in a movie I saw—a movie about a real African tribe. When they danced in a big circle, all the women made that sound. It’s very high, and happens in the back of your throat, with your tongue, I think.” “I think I know what you mean. Kind of like a trilling sound?” “Trilling?” “Yeah, like an opera singer singing a high note that wavers and goes up and down, but different. Vibrating. Vibrating your tongue in your throat.” “Yes, that’s it!” “Well, then there’s hope, if you or Nixie can learn how to do it. And have you thought about what you would like to talk with her about next time?” “I don’t know. It would have to come to me right then. What would you want to talk about, Mom?” She sat for a while, thinking. Then she said, “Well, if it was my Beautiful Old Person I was going to see, I think I would like to talk about whether or not love could ever win altogether.” “What do you mean?”
“Instead of hate, I mean. Will things just keep getting worse, or will they, after they get worse, get even better than they were before they started getting worse, or will they stay all mixed up between the good and the bad forever?” “That’s a huge question,” I said. “How could we know?” “Well, it’s a question that we could talk about even if we could never know the answer until the answer happened. Maybe it would even help in some way.” Neither of us said anything for a while. I think we both felt that we had talked enough for now. Then she said, “How about you come into the kitchen with me and help me cook? You can invent a new sauce for the shrimp.” So I did.
DOES EVERY QUESTION HAVE AN ANSWER? It was getting into the very middle of summer, and still hot—so hot that things were beginning to break down. There were shortages of electricity now, because everyone used their air conditioners all the time, and there wasn’t enough power to run them all, but people kept using them anyway. We had had three blackouts already—that was fun! It hadn’t rained for one month, and the water level in the big reservoir north of town was very low. Our newspaper said that 50 people had died already because of heat stroke. All the lawns, which everybody took such good care of all the time, were getting yellow, because it was against the law to water them. The tar on the roads was melting in some places in the middle of the day, making them soft and dirty-wet and smelly and disgusting. The newspaper also said that there was a “sharp increase in domestic violence,” which my dad told me mostly means men beating up women or kids. The town was setting up special air-conditioned spaces—in church basements, school gyms and cafeterias—where people who didn’t have air could go to cool off. They were getting more and more crowded. Maybe that’s why they kept the fountain going. Or maybe because it ran back into the reservoir and the water was used again. Or maybe because they just couldn’t bear to close it down. Anyway, hundreds of people went there every day to cool off in the spray. That was fun too, sometimes—kind of like a street party. But the swimming pool across town was getting so crowded that it wasn’t so much fun. There were so many people in the water that you could hardly swim. My mom and dad decided we would only use the air conditioning for one hour a day, when they got home from work and we had dinner. “We’re just going to have to adapt,” my dad said. Dolphius was miserable all day long, lying around with his chin on his paws, until a little breeze would come at the end of the day—then he would perk up a bit. Sometimes I would splash him down with the hose (and myself too), and he would shiver and shake like a big porcupine throwing his quills.
And there was other stuff. The war never stopped, but it wasn’t any kind of war that anyone could figure out why. Nobody even knew exactly where it was—it seemed to be happening in lots of places at once. There were stories on the TV news all the time about people suddenly getting blown up in bus stations, and at rock concerts, and at hotels and offices, and about drones blowing up houses in some other part of the world with whole families in them, and of soldiers whose uniforms made them look like extraterrestrials kicking down the doors of peoples’ houses, and even shooting into crowds of peaceful protesters. The police were all over the place, even in our little town, and sometimes there was a drone, hovering like a giant insect. They’re like super surveillance cameras. And then there were the flags. It seemed like every house on every street, and every store and even cars had a flag. Nixie and Beth and Tracey and I talked about this stuff, even though no one ever talked about it in school. In school it was kind of a no-no to talk about it. You could see the teachers getting a little nervous when it came up, and changing the subject. I guess they think that kids are supposed to be protected from all these bad scary things, or that they should only talk about it with their parents, like about religion and sex and stuff like that. Or maybe they thought that most kids aren’t interested in it, and don’t really want to hear about it, that we are happy in our own little worlds of being kids, and that’s the way it should be. Maybe that’s true for some people, but I want to know about everything there is to know about. “But why would you want to know about something bad that you couldn’t do anything about?” Tracey said that while the four of us were sitting in the woods in the park. Actually, we weren’t supposed to be in there—the park regulations said you had to “stay on the paths at all times” or you would pay a fine and “possible imprisonment”—but people do it anyway, especially kids. It was just a little cooler in there, out of the sun. It was the same place we always went to, a little clearing in the woods about fifty feet off the path, with two old tree trunks lying there, that we could sit on. There was always some trash there—plastic bottles and candy wrappers, and other gross stuff. Sometimes we cleaned it up, and sometimes we just kicked it out of the way and left it. The moment we got there and sat down, Dolphius disappeared into the woods, the way he does. Sometimes he reminds me of the White Rabbit, the way he just takes off the minute he gets in any kinds of woods, as if he has an appointment somewhere that he’s late for. “But how would you know whether you could do something about it until you knew what it was?” Nixie said.
“Why can’t people just get along?” Beth said. “Well people do, mostly,” said Tracey. “It’s just that some people are crazy.” “Not just that,” Nixie said. “Some people get driven crazy. Like, what if your dad and your mom both had jobs—really hard, boring jobs—where they worked all day long every day of the week for, like twelve hours a day, and what they got paid wasn’t even enough for your family’s house and food! Or what if you lived in a country where somebody told the police that your father had said a bad thing about the President, and they came to your house in the middle of the night and took your father away and you never heard from him again, and nobody would answer your questions about what happened to him? I think living like that would actually drive a lot of people crazy.” “But the world is crazy,” I said. “It’s just like that. It happens that way. It’s always happened that way.” “It happens because people are greedy and selfish,” Beth said. “That means you are greedy and selfish, since you’re a person,” Tracey said, grinning. Beth blushed and looked at the ground and kind of stammered, “No, not everyone is that way.” “Yes, everyone is that way!” Nixie said. “We just don’t see it.” “How are you that way?” said Tracey, still grinning. Nixie looked down at her open hands, thinking. Then she said, “Listen to this. This is what my mom told me when we were talking about turning off the air conditioning yesterday. You know what? This country uses more electricity per person than just about any other in the world, and about a third of all the people in the whole world—that’s 2 billion people--don’t have any electricity at all. And we leave our lights on all the time, and our air conditioning. We don’t even think about it.” “OK So?” Tracey said. “Do you expect everything always to be the same? It would be impossible to make everything the same for everyone. If it’s there, then we use it, that’s all.” “And you want to know what else? The people in this country make up five percent of the population of the world. OK?” We all nodded, waiting. “OK, and this country uses twenty-six percent of all the energy—oil and coal and gas—in the whole world. OK? And you want to know how much all the poor countries—all of them put together—use? Thirty percent! All of them! That’s just four percent more than our country. For all the poor countries.”
“Well, that’s why they’re poor,” Beth said. “Isn’t it? Because they don’t have enough oil and coal and gas. And we do have enough.” “Besides,” Tracey added, “like I said, you just can’t expect everything to be the same everywhere. The world just isn’t like that, Nixie. And if it was it would be a big bore.” Nixie went on. “You know how many people in the world don’t have clean water to drink? One billion. You know how much water each person gets to use each day in some African countries? As much as you or I use when we brush our teeth with the water running. You know how many people in the whole world have enough to eat? One third. You know how many people don’t get enough to eat? One third. You know how many people are starving? One third. Every three and half seconds one person dies of hunger. And you know what? This is my last one. It would take thirteen billion dollars a year to make sure all the hungry people in the world got enough to eat—just basics, but enough. And you know what? This country spends eighteen billion dollars a year on pet food! And you know how much the war has cost since 911? Three and a half trillion! And you know how much more it costs every day? Three hundred million! Think of all the hungry people you could feed with that, or the people without any water you could help to get it. Or the new jobs you could make for people to do!” “OK OK!” I said. “How do you remember all this anyway?” Nixie raised her hands and showed us her palms. There was writing in ink all over them. “I want to keep this writing on my hands all the time, so I don’t forget,” she said. “Because we just forget. It’s not that people are bad, it’s just that we forget. It’s just that we’re asleep.” Tracey said, “So people are not just naturally greedy and selfish, like you said before.” “Well, if we let it happen, if we don’t say anything, if we don’t try to change it, if we just forget about it—then we might as well be saying it’s perfectly OK, that we have no problem with it. And what’s the difference between being that way and being greedy and selfish?” “But it’s not our job to work on it,” said Beth. There are people in the government who are elected to work on it, to make it better. It’s just our job to elect the people who will do that.” “But we don’t elect those people,” Nixie said. We elect people who don’t care about it either. We elect people who make it worse, who help the people who are already so rich that you can’t even imagine it even richer, and the poor people poorer. Or we elect people who think that the whole
thing is just about us, us, us, our country, our town, our neighborhood, our jobs, our big fat way of life, our this and our that.” “But isn’t that what it’s about?” I said. “We can only work on what we know, and where we live, and the kind of life we make together.” “Besides,” Tracey said, “my dad told me—and I think I agree with him—that the rich people make the jobs for the rest of us, so they deserve to be rich. And it’s the same for other countries. Our country make the jobs for them, which gets them more money, which help them fix their problems, like water and hunger and energy and stuff like that.” “Oh yeah?” Nixie said. “Look at my shirt. Look where it was made.” “Sure!” Beth said. She jumped up, went behind Nixie, and turned the collar of her T-shirt back. “El Salvador. Where’s that?” “It’s in Central America,” Tracey said. “So?” “OK, let’s look at everyone’s,” Beth said, and we did. Mine was from Bangladesh, Tracey’s was from Vietnam, and Beth’s from Honduras. “My mom tells me that the people who make our clothes in those countries make something like five dollars a day—not an hour, a day--and they work for twelve or sixteen hours every day. And it’s hot and dirty, and they breathe bad chemicals. And even kids are working in these factories, the same age as us, and even younger. Kids. Can you imagine that? And we’re wearing the clothes they make.” “So?” Tracey said. “My dad told me it was like that here, in this country a hundred years ago, and even worse before that, in England and stuff. So we got out of it, why can’t they?” “OK,” Nixie said, so you’re going to walk around in clothes made by kids who work sixteen hours a day and give it to their families and they still barely have enough to eat, and it makes them sick too?” “Well what do you want us to do,” Beth said, “make our own clothes or something, or dress in sheepskins?” “What I’m saying,” Nixie said, “is that we should do something about it. We’re partly responsible for it.” “Just because it happens doesn’t necessarily make us responsible for it,” Tracey said. “You can’t be responsible for everything. It’s like the weather. You can’t be responsible for a hurricane, or an earthquake or something.” “But it’s not the same,” Nixie said. “One is done by nature. The other is done by people.” “Aren’t people part of nature?” I said. “What if you were a god, way up in the sky looking down at the whole thing? Maybe they would look the same—the hurricane and the people-unfairness. Maybe Tracey is saying
that you just have to let it take its course. It works itself out, and that’s the only way it ever really gets better. Is that what you’re saying Tracey?” “Yeah, more or less,” Tracey said. “We can’t play god and fix everything. We don’t even know a tiny fraction of the bad stuff that’s going on in the world right now, at this moment. If we knew, it would make us crazy or depressed or something.” “But we know more all the time,” said Beth. “We can see everything on TV” “So?” Tracey said. “Are we responsible for it?” “Aren’t we?” Nixie said. “Aren’t you responsible for everything you know about?” She looked at her hands. “What are we responsible for anyway? How do we decide?” Beth said. There was a silence. I think we all felt stuck. There were just too many different sides to it, and we couldn’t figure out how to put them together, and we all felt so hot and sticky too. Then Nixie said, almost under her breath, “That’s the question I’ll ask her.” “Ask who?” Beth said. “Oh, um, an old woman that we know.” “Who’s that?” I could tell that Beth was suspicious, because Nixie was looking kind of like she didn’t want to talk about it. I thought to myself, well, we’d better tell them. After all, we’re all good friends. But then I thought, no, it’s not a good idea. They might not believe us, or they might believe us but think we’re really strange, or they might want to come with us. “Oh!” Beth said, as if she was suddenly realizing something, “I’ll bet it has to do with your nymph thing.” I wonder how she figured that out? “Oh, that!” Tracey said, grinning, and digging at the earth with a stick. Nixie and I sat there, looking at the ground. Neither of us were very good liars, and it’s not very good to lie to your friends anyway, so we didn’t know what to do. “You don’t really believe in that stuff, do you?” Beth said. She looked at Nixie kind of nervously. “Well maybe, maybe not,” Nixie said, looking over at me. “But I don’t believe in a lot of the things that a lot of people believe in, either. Do you?” “It’s crazy!” Tracey said. Then he laughed. “Imagine if Mr. Bork found out about it”—he was the guidance counselor—“he’d make your parents send you to the shrink!” “How does he get to decide what we should believe and what we shouldn’t?” I said.
“Well it’s not that,” said Tracey. “It’s just that unless people believe more or less the same stuff, nothing would work. And nobody believes in nymphs!” “How do you know what to believe anyway?” Beth said. “You believe what makes sense to you.” “But what makes sense to you should be what makes sense to me,” I said. That’s what ‘makes sense’ means—that it’s something that everyone would agree on.” “Except for people with no sense,” Tracey said, grinning. “But doesn’t it make sense to think for yourself? So do you think that everyone who thinks for herself will come up with the same answer?” “Well, more or less. I mean about the basic things,” Tracey said. “Basic things like, for example, insane noise pollution? Or a war that goes on and on and spreads over the whole earth and kills millions of innocent people?” “That’s not what I mean by basic.” “This world has broken apart then! Because what makes basic sense to one person will seem just completely wrong and even crazy to another person.” “Yeah, but nymphs? I mean, that is just freaky!” “So you think you know what makes sense and what doesn’t,” I said. “Me and the people who agree with me,” Tracey answered. And there are more of us than there are of you. In fact, like I said, I don’t know anyone who would agree with you.” “Then you’re not thinking for yourself,” Nixie said. “Yes I am. And most other people are, and we agree.” No one said anything for a while. I had a feeling in my chest, like a pressure. Finally Nixie said, in a quiet voice, “I guess all we can do is just be good to the people around us. If everybody did that, we would all be OK Right?” “Well yeah, I guess that’s logical,” Beth said. “But is it possible?” We walked home slowly, passing by the fountain to cool off a little. The fresh water was gushing and bubbling and splashing, swirling and gurgling and spurting, trickling, spraying, foaming, misting. It seemed even more powerful than usual—like it was alive. Of course I put Dolphius on the leash. The big plaza was crowded with people—all the benches were full, and lots of people were sitting on the low circular wall that held the water; their clothes were soaked through by the spray, but they all looked happy. A group of three musicians with a guitar and a violin and an accordion were playing some really happy music, which was partly
drowned out by the sound of the water. Some people had brought chess games and were leaned over their boards, and there were little kids running in and out and through and around the crowd. The dark green metal skin of the seven nymphs was gleaming and streaming with water in the sun. The three Naiads—they were nymphs of the rivers and springs and fountains, and that’s why there were more of them here—were all in different positions; one of them was running, one was crouching to pick something up, and another was reaching up as if to take a fruit from a tree. There were two Oreads, nymphs who lived in mountains where there were springs. One of them was leaning over like she was about to dive into the fountain, and another stretching her arms out as if she was about to leap into the air. Then there was a Dryad, which is a tree nymph. She looked just like the one I had seen in my dream—stepping forward as if she was right in the middle of changing from a tree into a person. Finally, there was Maenad. She was the scary one. She was draped with a panther skin cloak, and held a live panther cub in one hand, and a thyrsos (a long stick with a huge pine cone on the tip) in the other. Her hair was tied with a live snake! She seemed to be dancing some wild kind of dance. We only stayed a few minutes, walking around the fountain with the rest of the crowd. I guess there were just too many people for us, after being all alone in the woods and talking the way we had. So we said goodbye and Nixie and I went one way, and Tracey and Beth another. When we got beyond the fountain a ways, I let Dolphius off the leash and he just stayed next to me the way he had been, walking along with us. Somehow, I knew Nixie and I were thinking the same thing, so I just waited. Then, just like I thought, Nixie said, “How are we going to get back there?” “What does your Mom say?” I asked. “She’s not worried about Mrs. Epistemi or anything, but she said she doesn’t like the idea of us alone in those woods very much.” “I guess my mom and dad are about the same way. But I’m pretty sure that if I asked them they would say no. Or they would say they would have to come.” “But we already tried.” We walked a little way in silence. “Do you think it’s wrong just to go without telling them?” I asked. “It’s wrong to lie.” “But we wouldn’t be lying. We just wouldn’t be telling them.” “Is that any different?”
I kicked a stone. “I just know that it feels right to go back. And it doesn’t feel right to go back with our parents. And even if it did, I don’t think we could find it with our parents. How can something be right that doesn’t feel right?” “It’s just the way it is,” Nixie said. “Feelings have nothing to do with it. Besides, are feelings good enough reasons for lying?” “Is there ever a good enough reason for lying?” I asked. “Well maybe, but are those good enough?” “How could we decide? Wouldn’t it depend on what came of it?” I said. “What do you mean?” “I mean whether it went well or badly.” “So you can lie if you think it’s going to turn out well?” “Oh I don’t know!” I said, and kicked another stone. Nothing seemed to have an answer today that made sense all the way through. Nothing!
WHAT DOGS KNOW We decided on a way not to lie but to do what we wanted. You will have to decide if you think it was a lie or not, and if you do you can blame me, not Nixie, because it was my idea. Or maybe if you think it’s a lie you’ll have to blame Nixie too, since she agreed to it. I’m not sure. Nixie and I planned it that night on instant messenger. We talk that way all the time anyway. We couldn’t take the bus because Dolphius was coming with us. I had decided that he had to when I got home after that first time, and he smelled me and got all excited. That meant we couldn’t take the bus, although we did play with the idea of me pretending I was blind, and that Dolphius was a seeing-eye dog. The dark glasses were no problem, but how to get one of those special dog harnesses was a problem, and we thought they would probably suspect something and make a scene and throw us off the bus if we just walked on with a regular dog leash. The harnesses probably cost a lot, and all I had was ten dollars, and Nixie fifteen, and even if it cost only twenty-five dollars, we wouldn’t have anything left for the bus. We didn’t even know where to buy them anyway. So we would have to walk. We knew which way it was: you had to go out on Route 37. Route 37 is the big four-lane with huge stores on either side of it—Walmart and Chunky Cheese and Hooters and Barnes & Noble and Office Max and Linens & Things and all the new car and used car places. I found the bus yard on the Internet. I did a mapquest. It was five miles to get there, but we weren’t going to the bus yard—we were going to that gas station and convenience store that was on the road into the woods. We knew that it was past the bus yard from the time we went with our parents. Nixie remembered that it was called Dion’s Convenience. So I googled that and found three hundred “Dion’s Convenience” stores in the whole world! I didn’t know what to do. Then Nixie messaged “wait a minute” and went and looked in the phone book and found it and sent it to me, and I mapquested the address, and sent a copy to her. Then we logged off, and I printed the map and wrote the note, in my best handwriting. It said, “Dear Mom and Dad: Nixie and I have decided to go look for Mrs. Epistemi by 58
ourselves, since we couldn’t find her with you. I promise we will call you right away when we’re done. Dolphius is with us. Please don’t worry. I love you.” Nixie wrote one too, for her mom. I didn’t ask her what it said. I was up really early because I was nervous, but I stayed in my room like I was still sleeping until just before they went to work, which was always at 9:00, just like Nixie’s Mom. Was that a lie? Then I went downstairs and said goodbye to them—when my mom kissed my cheek like she always does, I felt stiff and a little scared—and ate the breakfast that she had left for me, and fed Dolphius. I certainly felt like I was lying, so I guess maybe I was. I put the note on the dining room table and called Nixie on the phone, and made sure I had my keys, and got a bottle of water and the ten dollars, and folded the map and put it in my pocket, and made sure the back door was locked, and put the leash on Dolphius. He was wagging his tail and kind of smiling—happy about going out so early. Nixie and I met outside, on the sidewalk, and the three of us started walking. It took us about half an hour to get to Route 37. The map said we had to walk on it for two and a half miles. We hadn’t even thought how hard it was going to be. To get on it, we had to go along one of those curvy entrances for cars, and there was just a little thin strip of grass to walk on. The cars were already going fast, even on the entrance, and once we got out on the highway, there was hardly any place to walk. We had to stay on the right side of a big white line on the pavement. Sometimes it was just a few feet wide, and the cars were going past us at 50 miles an hour or more just a few feet away. There were huge green signs with huge lettering hanging above the road and along the side, with the names and numbers of exits on them and commands like “Keep left,” or “No Turns,” “Stay in Lane,” “Exit Only.” They were so much bigger than us, like they were written for giants. We felt like ants crawling along the road, since everything else was so big, and was going so fast. There were hundreds and hundreds of people going past us, on and on, in these fancy metal and plastic and glass boxes on rubber wheels. We couldn’t see these people very well or at all, because they were behind thick glass, and moving very very fast, but they could all see us, if only for a few moments as they passed us, looking out: like suddenly shining a flashlight on an animal in the night. There was trash all over the side of the road—plastic bottles and bags, and cups and cardboard from fast food places, and wet pieces of newspaper and pieces of plastic and that white foam stuff that they use for packaging, and a broken car mirror, and pop cans and other stuff you couldn’t even recognize. Behind a low metal fence there were scraggly bushes here and
there, and dirty looking water in caked puddles or mostly dry creek beds. The cars were speeding up and going around each other or following right behind each other, and people would honk when someone did something that got in their way, and sometimes, if their windows were open, you could hear them yelling angrily at each other. Later, Nixie said, “I thought of all the times I had been in my Mom’s car on this same road, with no idea—absolutely no idea—of what it would be like to be where we were. Isn’t that strange? I mean that you can be right there in the same place, but not be in the same place at all? I mean that there could be two such different experiences of exactly the same place? I’m in the car, the air conditioning is on, it’s quiet except that my favorite music is on the stereo, just rolling along the road, like . . . heaven!” Dolphius looked very nervous, and I held him tightly on the leash, because I was nervous too. When we would come to a place where another lane would start so the cars could go into the huge parking lots of the stores and malls, we would have to stop and wait and look, and make sure that no one was coming when we crossed the lane. A couple of people in passenger seats yelled at us out their windows, but we couldn’t really hear because there was so much car noise. And it was so hot! Hotter even than usual, because all the pavement on the roads and in the parking lots was soaking up the sunlight, and there were no trees anywhere. In some places the asphalt was even sticky and soft, and smelly, and stuck to our shoes. That went on for about an hour I think, and I’m not going to say any more about it, except that it was like being thrown into some kind of furnace, and I was happy just because we weren’t being burned alive. In that way, it felt like a miracle. And right in the middle of it, when it seemed so bad that we couldn’t stand it anymore, Nixie said, “Let’s practice the call.” I knew right away that she meant the call that Mrs. Epistemi had made to the horses, and told us to make when we came back to see her. It was the perfect time to practice, because there was no one there except people closed up inside the cars, and the cars were making so much noise that no one could have heard us anyway. So we made that high cry in our throats, practicing vibrating our tongues, like wild birds, while Dolphius looked up at us, wondering what we were doing. Nixie did it much better than me. I thought it would be funny if the horses suddenly appeared, and we jumped on them, and they took us away from that place that was as much like Hell as any place I could think of, with Dolphius running behind. I looked at Nixie and we laughed, because we knew we were thinking the same thing. Finally we saw a giant green sign hanging above the road that said “Saw Mill Road.” That was it, but we had to walk another fifteen minutes
before we got to it. We took the exit, walking on the little shoulder of the ramp, right next to the white line, and kept walking, still as fast as we could, with the cars passing right next to us. Then there was another big road—a giant intersection with huge stoplights hanging in the air and glowing and blinking, clicking and buzzing, and then more parking lots, and banks and car dealers and fast food restaurants and gas stations, and cars and cars and cars, and we walked and walked to get past them. Way ahead of us, in the distance, we saw green hills rising up in the bluish sky from the flat land before us, and I realized that it was the first time I had been aware of anything like trees, or hills, or even just earth, or even sky, since we had been walking on the road. Now there weren’t quite so many cars, but we could hear a new sound, one that the cars had drowned out before. It was a loud humming and rasping of machines—the sound of the giant air conditioners, stacks of metal that sat on the roofs of the buildings or in fenced-off little spaces next to them. It was different from the engines of the cars—just one steady loud machine droning grinding noise, on and on, throwing even more heat out into the air that was already so hot. An hour later we were in those hills. W e had followed the map—it wasn’t hard—and found Dion’s Convenience Store, and passed it, and were on the winding road with the tall grasses. It was much cooler. Dolphius was free of the leash. There were big trees, and shadows. I guess it was about noon, because the sun was high in the sky. It felt so good to be there! The tall grass was whispering, and the birds chirping and whistling and clucking and singing and moving swiftly here and there. Their voices were part of a deep silence underneath. When we came around the second curve in the road, Dolphius suddenly put his nose to the ground, turned, and headed straight into the tall grasses, and we followed him. That might sound crazy to you, but we knew very well that Dolphius—or most any dog—can hear or see or smell or feel things that people can’t. I mean, they have a very different kind of body, so they must know the world differently. Besides, Dolphius had been here before, and I knew he wasn’t chasing a squirrel or rabbit or anything; he didn’t turn that way. So we followed, and walked through the grass and came to a steep bank and started climbing, Dolphius up ahead of us, and suddenly it was green green green again, the green I remembered from the first time. It’s a green that nobody makes, the way you make a building, or a street, or even a lawn in front of a house. It’s a green that can’t ever go wrong, unless somebody comes and destroys it. It’s a green that has a million different shapes and forms—all the different leaves and needles and blades and mossy strands thrown together like a painter who makes a
perfect picture—and a million different shades and hues—light green and dark green and bluish green and whitish and grayish green and so on—and then there in front of you, just next to the path, one tiny bright red flower, glowing. We were on a path now, and it wasn’t one that we remembered from before. It climbed a steep hill, with huge rock faces jutting out of it, and went along a flat, wide ridge for a ways. There were trees on the ridge—White Oaks—gleaming smooth and pale grey and tall and textured, straight and very strong, and soft green grasses underneath, and tiny yellow birds with black foreheads and white edged-black wings and tails—Goldfinches—darting here and there in the leafy branches, swooping and rising and rustling and twittering brightly. The path was very clearly marked. It went a ways, then curved and wound down around an even steeper rock face, down and down, and then we were in a valley. Dolphius was out of sight. As we reached the bottom, we heard the sound of running water and looked, and saw it bubbling out of the side of the hill; it was trickling in some places and flowing in others. It seemed to be coming from everywhere, as if it were in the whole hill, but it all ran into a pool at the very base, where it sparkled and glinted and splashed in the sun. Beyond the pool was a grassy meadow in the shape of a circle, and around it were fruit trees and vines and flowers. We kneeled at the pool. Water was gushing up from the ground in the middle, almost like a fountain. We leaned and cupped our hands and tasted it, and splashed it on our hot faces and necks and arms. It was so fresh and cold and clear that we shivered at the taste and the touch of it. We felt like we had been woken up by some kind of magic bright wetness pouring down our throats and over our skin. Above us the sunlight danced and glinted through the branches of the trees, casting dappled shadows. Suddenly Dolphius appeared, running. His legs and belly were all wet, his tongue was hanging out of his mouth, he was grinning and his wild eyes were shining. He rushed up to us and began licking us both, one after the other, with his big wet tongue. He slobbered us so hard that we fell over on our backs in the soft grass and flowers, laughing. Then he ran off again, and we saw him sniffing around on the other side of the meadow, going this way and that, like a crazy detective. The little valley, enclosed by rocky slopes on every side, was like a garden, but a garden that was its own gardener. Nixie said it later: “Everything was in order, perfect order, but it was just the order of whatever grew wherever. It was an order that came from inside, not outside. Not from somebody’s mind.”
“Where did the order come from, then?” I said. “How should I know?” Nixie answered. “Does it matter anyway? But it seems like you couldn’t change one part—you couldn’t take one grain of sand away—without the whole thing changing.” “Well, the whole thing must be changing all the time,” I said, “since things are always being taken away and put somewhere else.” “Except nothing is ever really taken away. It’s there some place. It might even be a different form—like steam instead of water— but it’s still there.” “So it’s always changing but it’s always the same,” I said. “Yes,” Nixie said. “Yes.” We strolled around in the meadow a little, then we followed Dolphius to the other side of the valley, where there was another big rock face. Suddenly he disappeared--one moment he was there and the next he was gone. As we approached the wall of rock we saw a big hole. “He must have gone in there,” Nixie said, and she got on her hands and knees and stuck her head inside. I heard her shout, then she moved forward and was gone. I got on my hands and knees and looked. It was a cave. W e had discovered a cave. When I got inside Nixie was already standing up and looking around. It was a huge space, with rock ceilings way above us, like a cathedral. Light came streaming in from seven (I counted them) large openings in the rock ceiling. The floor of the cave was smooth, as if someone had put down flat stones to make a floor, but you could tell that it was natural because it was all just one stone floor—one piece of rock, and so very smooth, as if worn down by many feet. Around the edges were natural benches of stone, and next to the benches in some places, little niches in the wall, like places you would put statues, or candles. We could hear water splashing somewhere. It smelled sweet, like honey and flowers, and as our eyes adjusted to the light, we saw little pools of water in places around the edge of the floor, like bowls. We heard the sound of bees buzzing but we didn’t see any, and the sounds of birds twittering somewhere. There were vines and flowers crawling along the walls where the light came in. I loved the smell. I can still smell it when I close my eyes and picture the place. We didn’t notice him at first, because he was so still, but Dolphius was sitting on his haunches about ten feet away from us, next to a bench. He was very still, completely calm, with his nose up in the air as if he was smelling everything, but not sniffing for anything in particular. It was very strange, because he had been so excited just five minutes ago. And there was some kind of echo in the cave that sometimes made it sound as if music was
playing somewhere—a flute and chimes, and a simple drum with no regular beat. Maybe it was the echoing of the sounds of the bees and the water gurgling and dripping, and the birds. I don’t know. Nixie heard it too. I saw what looked like wetness on the wall right behind us, and when I went to look, and touched it, it was sticky. I put my finger to my mouth; it was honey. When my tongue touched it, I felt a bright thrill spread through my body, like a burst of sweet light. Nixie tried it too, and I saw her eyes brighten. It felt so good there—cool, and peaceful, and full of sweetness. We walked across the huge smooth floor to one of the rock benches. It was smooth too. Next to it, in a niche in the wall, there were little clay figurines set up--of animals, birds, fruits, and what looked like a little child’s doll from long long ago. A rosebush was growing out of one corner of the little shelf, and the silky cups and petals of the dark red blossoms glistened in the soft light from above. We sat down. “You know what this is,” Nixie said softly. “What is it?” “It’s a cave of the nymphs,” I said. “This is their dancing floor. They do round dances here.” Nixie didn’t answer, and I didn’t say any more. We sat there for another long while—Dolphius never moved once either—neither of us can remember how long, then we got up and walked slowly along the edge of the dancing floor. Each niche along the wall had figurines in it, and flowers growing. When we came to the other side of the cave, we saw a statue. I knew right away that it was the same kind as the ones in the fountain—it was made of dark green metal—bronze too. It was way way taller than us. It was of a woman in a long flowing dress that went all the way to her feet, which were raised and poised like she was dancing. She had kind of a veil—long and transparent over her hair and both arms. One of her arms was at her side, the fingers pointing down, and the other was lifted above her head, the fingers outstretched, almost like she was pointing upward. She was looking down and sideways. Her lips were slightly open, and she looked kind of like she was dreaming. “Wow!” Nixie whispered. “Which kind is she?” “I don’t know,” I whispered back. We stood in front of the statue, looking up at the face of the woman. Dolphius came up behind us, and looked at it too. Then he turned and moved further into the cave, and we followed. In one corner of the cave, we found a natural staircase in the stone. We followed the steps up. They started as little steps that were easy to climb, but each step got a little higher, and by the time we got to the tenth step, we had to grab the edge and pull ourselves up to it, and Dolphius just
stayed on the last step he could jump to. Then they got too high for us to reach, so we gave up. We looked up. We could see bright open light at the top, as if the steps went off into the sky. We climbed back down, each step getting smaller. When we got to the cave floor again, it was like coming home to a comfortable place. We heard the echoing again, like the music of pipes and drums. We decided we had better go. When we got outside again, Dolphius just stayed with us—he didn’t go ahead, or sniff and investigate, or even go play in the water again--he just stood right next to us. So we didn’t know what to do. We realized that we had been following him—that he had been our guide—and I guess he had nowhere else to guide us. So we walked to the middle of the round grassy meadow—the meadow surrounded by fruit trees where the birds were flitting and chattering—and Nixie gave the call. She threw her head back and made the trilling sound—a high, sweet screeching kind of song, like an animal. It was amazing how well she did it! We sat down to wait. Five minutes later she stood up and called again, then sat down. The honey bees buzzed all around us in the meadow; it was so strange—we weren’t the slightest bit afraid they would sting us, and they didn’t. We watched them move as they covered the meadow, rising and falling and criss-crossing. After a while it was as if we could understand the patterns of their movement, as they went from flower to flower and back and forth to some hive that we didn’t see. It seemed like they were weaving something together and that they knew very well what they were doing. It began to kind of put us in a dream—we started to feel drowsy—in fact Dolphius was stretched out on the grass dozing already—when we heard the hoof beats, and almost immediately after we heard them, the white ponies were there. The horses slipped out of the little valley through a thick grove of trees and a narrow passageway between two huge rocks. Once we were out and looked behind us, it seemed like there was no opening at all, like it was just a big hill. The ponies moved at a fast walk, side by side, and Nixie and I looked across at each other and smiled—we both felt like we had been riding horses all our lives. Now we were in the deep green woods again, with Dolphius trotting behind. The sunlight danced and played through the leaves of the trees above us, and one of the ponies snorted occasionally. Just minutes later, we were at the villa. The ponies, their hooves clip-clopping on the pavement stones, came to the huge door, which was open, the way it had been last time we were there. We slipped off, and the moment we did, they moved away and disappeared in the woods. We heard the peacock cry somewhere inside the house, but we couldn’t see it. I thought I should put Dolphius on a leash, but
I thought too late, because the moment he heard the cry, he moved quickly through the door and into the house, his head held high, looking from side to side, and we followed. We heard a click-clacking sound somewhere in the big house, like the sound of wood striking against wood, and above, or behind, or around that, singing—rising and falling like an avalanche of light. We found Mrs. Epistemi in a big room at the back of the house. Her back was to us, and she was sitting on a stool in front of a large old wooden loom. The loom had two huge posts on either side and cross pieces where the yarn was hung. She was moving a wooden bar up and down with one hand and holding a thread with the other as she sang. The yarns were all different bright colors, and her hands were moving very fast. On the loom was a piece of woven cloth. It was so bright that it looked like a ray of sun was touching it from the big window behind her, but it wasn’t. It shone in the room like the heart of a rainbow, mixing with the colors of her voice as she sang. “Hello my young friends!” she said, without turning around, and we waited, stopped at the door. She pulled one strand of yellow flax tight, pushed it down with the shuttle, turned around and said, “And your Dolphius!” At the sound of his name, Dolphius trotted straight across the wide room and sat down on his haunches, looking up at her. She leaned forward and held his handsome curly-haired reddish brown head lightly between her two hands, then began stroking his long nose and his forehead. “Hello, you wonderful creature,” she said. Dolphius just sat there as she stroked him, looking happily into her eyes. I knew at that moment that he would never want to leave her. How did I know? I just knew. “Come,” she said, rising, her voice lilting, as if she was still singing. “Let’s go have some refreshment, and a talk. Come Dolphius.” She approached us where we still stood in the doorway, and extended her hands. We each gave her one hand and she squeezed them gently, smiling at us, then moved ahead of us—Dolphius following just behind her right heel—and led us through the old kitchen, into the back yard, past the stone well, through the green door, and into her little cottage. “Sit, my darling ones,” she said. She seemed very happy, so we were happy too. We sat on the same little padded love seat as last time. It was cool in the stone cottage. She brought us some water to drink in tall blue glasses, then sat in her chair and took up her knitting. Dolphius sat next to her chair on the cool tiles of the floor, on his stomach this time, his paws out in front of him, his head raised, gazing at us. The beautiful old woman looked directly at Nixie. “Now tell me about what you have written
on your palms,” she said, the knitting needles click-clicking in her quick hands. Nixie looked embarrassed for a moment, and wrapped her hands together, as if to hide them. Then she held them in front of her, palms up, and looked at them. “It’s about all the people who are dying for no reason at all,” she said, still staring at her hands. “People who don’t even have a chance. Millions of people who can’t go anywhere else, who can’t change their lives, and then just die, or get killed. It’s to remember them. So I won’t let myself forget them.” Mrs. Epistemi didn’t answer right away, and we all sat there in silence. Finally I said, “If we don’t forget, at least for a while, then how can we live? How can we go on?” “But if we forget, it’s like being asleep” Nixie responded. “It’s like being asleep in a big wave that is carrying us along. If no one remembers, if everyone turns away and just goes about their business, then nothing ever changes. Then we’re just like mice, or insects, or monkeys. Then we aren’t persons. We’re just animals.” “Well,” Mrs. Epistemi said, her needles click-clacking, “maybe we just have to accept that we can’t wake up all the way, and that it’s not really our fault. That we’re only human, which means that we are partly like other animals—mice, or insects, or monkeys.” “And if we were completely awake,” I said, “what would that be like?” There: that was the question I wanted to ask her! “Well, how could I know?” she answered, her black eyes twinkling. “I am human, after all. But I can imagine that the world would look very different. I imagine that I would feel a great deal more.” “Feel what other people feel, you mean?” Nixie said. “Oh, not just people, but other animals, plants—every living thing— maybe even stones!” She laughed. “Maybe it wouldn’t be so good,” Nixie said. “Because you could feel all the pain.” “The pain?” “All the hurt and sadness and need and cruelty.” “But maybe if everyone was awake, there wouldn’t be as much of that,” I said. Mrs. Epistemi nodded, watching her needles. “But everyone would have to be awake,” Nixie responded. “’Cause it only takes a few people to mess things up.” I could see that Nixie was still very stirred up, and was trying hard to stop herself from saying more, like when you’re in an argument and each person always has to say just one more thing, and it goes on and on, and
every time you’re about to stop you have just one more thing that you have to say. But I knew that she wasn’t arguing with us; she was arguing with life itself, or with the human race, and maybe she knew that she couldn’t win, because it was like arguing with yourself. Anyway, there was a silence. Dolphius sat like a statue, and birds sang and twittered outside, on the patio that was beautifully tangled with bushes and tall grasses and wildflowers, and Mrs. Epistemi’s knitting needles clicked like some strange message in Morse Code. Finally she said. “And did Dolphius take you to the cave?” “How did you know?” I said. “Oh, you have a look about you,” she said. “Your eyes are a bit wider than they usually are. And creatures—or persons”—she laughed brightly—“like Dolphius can sometimes find things that humans can’t.” Dolphius looked sideways at her at the sound of his name, then put his head down between his paws and closed his eyes, like he was snoozing, but I knew he wasn’t. He was listening. “How did you find the cave?” I asked. “I found it wandering in these hills when we first came, many years ago. But it didn’t surprise me—I was quite sure I would find it.” “Why were you so sure?” “I will tell you the whole story,” she said, “but very briefly. “Even so, I will have to begin with my beginnings. Are you prepared to listen? Here, let me get you something to eat while you listen.” She rose and fetched us some of the fat homemade cookies we had had last time—the ones that are sweet but are like a meal too—and some more water, sat down again, and began without a pause. “I was born and grew up on an island off the coast of Sicily, in the Mediterranean Sea. The island is very small—only 12 square kilometers—and only a few hundred families live there, almost all of them fisherman’s families—they fish for tuna. Now you can get there by a fast boat in an hour and a half, but when I was a girl, it took three hours. In fact I never went to the mainland more than once a year with my parents, to buy things we needed that didn’t come with the trading boats. Even now there are no cars on the island—people go everywhere by donkey or on foot. “The ancient Greeks called this island ‘Hiera Nesos’, which means ‘sacred island’. If you look at it from the sky, it is a huge mountain set in a green field, which is set in the unbelievable blue of the blue Mediterranean sea. W hen I wasn’t in the little schoolhouse or at home, most of my childhood was spent walking the paths of the island, exploring the many watery caves all around its coasts, and sitting in the ruins of the small Greek
temple at the edge of the water. In the evening I would walk back to the village as the men docked their blue boats in the harbor, and the sun set on the water.” Mrs. Epistemi paused and smiled at us. “I was an only child, like you two. And like you two, I had one good friend, a boy named Francesco. We went almost everywhere together. At your age, we spent the summers in the water all the time, swimming from cove to cove and through tunnels in the rock into the magical sea grottos, where the sun shone through holes in the rock and lit up the clear blue-green water and the sandy sea bottom. And until I grew up and left the island, I don’t remember going to sleep one night without the sound of the sea—sometimes sweet and calm, sometimes huge and wild—in my ears.” She fell silent. “And why did you leave?” Nixie said, softly. Her eyes were shining. She felt better. “When they found out that I had made contact with nymphs, the villagers turned against me,” she said. “I was a young young woman then, 14 years old. First I met the nesos of the island. The ancient writers called her a goddess--an elemental goddess, the spirit of that island from the beginning. Meeting the nesos was strange and mysterious. I couldn’t tell you exactly what I saw and heard, but I can tell you what I felt when she appeared in the deep grotto where I was lying on a little strip of sand, warming myself in the sunlight that shone through the hole in the rock way above me: I felt her in everything. I knew that I had felt it all along, but had not really been aware of it in that way. I don’t remember a face, or a person, but something that was both the island and the sea, and the fish and the bright-colored coral and the sun, and that was also, not a person the way we understand the word, but something like a person. “The day that happened, I came home changed, and the villagers knew it. Of course my mother and father knew it too. They were frightened that I would disappear—that I would be taken away and drowned or perhaps turned into a mermaid, or become “una strega pazza”—a crazy witch—but I knew very well that it wasn’t like that. The villagers, you see, had grown up being told by the priests that the nymphs were evil. They had forgotten the old ways of love and adoration. Anything that was more than what they thought was normal nature—or that was not in their church—frightened them.” She sighed. “They are like fearful children.” “But weren’t they frightening?” I said. “I mean, isn’t it frightening to meet something that’s not human but that looks like a human?” “The nymphs are where the non-human meets the human,” she answered. “They are what there is of nature that is human, and what there
is in humans that is nature. Nymphs are always found in places of special beauty—flowing with water and sunlight, and honey and green growing things, and a thousand different creatures like goldfinches and dragonflies and snakes and lions, monkeys and bears, eagles and worms and fish. They are good and pleasant and even holy places to be--places where you can feel the soul of the world.” She paused, and we waited for her to continue. “Then a few summers later, when I was sixteen, I found a sea grotto I had never known of before, on the most remote part of the coast. Inside the watery cave, the sea had worn down the stone around the sides, to make smooth flat benches on which many could sit. There, one strange and beautiful day, I met ten Nereides, nymphs of the Mediterranean Sea, with long tangled hair strung with pearls and the wildest blue eyes, who ride dolphins and other sea creatures. They are seldom seen, and thus not believed in by humans. It is said that there were only fifty of these nymphs then—each one with a name--but I must say I never saw more than ten together, and I saw them mostly in smaller groups or alone. The ancient writers said they were the guardians and caretakers of the sea—this sea in particular, the Mediterranean—and the help of sailors who are in trouble. Just as the Dryads are both themselves and the trees they inhabit, the Neriedes are themselves and the waves that flow and crest and swirl and splash and spray.” “Did you speak to them?” Nixie said, her eyes wide. “I don’t know if I would call it speaking,” she said slowly. “I might say that I learned to sing with them, but that would not be quite right, because it was more than singing. There were words of some kind, but I never learned them, because they seemed to come from somewhere else than the throat and the mouth and the tongue: they came from the whole body, if you can imagine that. I never knew when I would meet them that summer, and I can’t tell you exactly how many times I did—maybe three at the most. And I was never quite sure if they knew that I wasn’t one of them, or whether they knew very well and didn’t care a bit. Being among them was the most beautiful experience I have ever had in my life, and I can’t really even tell you why. They didn’t give me anything that I know about, or even teach me anything particular. I guess it was just the deepest pleasure one could imagine: the pleasure of just being, of just existing, of just being completely wherever one was at that particular moment.” “I was changed that summer. Of course my body was developing and I was becoming a woman, but it was more than that. I couldn’t see it if I looked in the mirror, but I knew from the looks of the villagers—the
fishermen and their wives—but mostly their wives. They were not friendly looks, and things began to be said behind my back, and behind the backs of my mother and father. The old widows dressed in black who sat on the benches all day stopped talking and stared at me boldly as I walked past them on the narrow streets. Once one of them even spat after I passed, and I could hear them whispering loudly as I walked on.” Mrs. Epistemi paused, then said, “I’ll not tell you more about that. It’s a very unpleasant memory. I will just tell you that that next summer Ernesto came to the island. He was a student, and was on an archeological expedition with other students. They were studying the Greek temple whose remains were still there from over two thousand years ago. We met, and at the end of the summer, left the island together. We were married on my seventeenth birthday.” “And have you gone back?” Nixie said. Her eyes were still very wide. Mine probably were too. “Yes, years later, when those villagers I grew up with were mostly dead, and their children were living in their houses. And of course life had changed so much, and is still changing. Now it is a tourist island, and its way of life of has been made into a story to tell the tourists for money. It’s like a movie about what once was real, but no one knows what is or was real anymore. Boats full of tourists go in and out of the sea grottos, and on the boats there are guides with microphones, reading into loud speakers what the tourism company has written for them to say—‘This, ladies and gentlemen, is the cave where the nymphs of the Mediterranean once came on a regular basis’ . . . and so on. But of course the nymphs are gone, and the tour guides don’t believe what they are saying anyway—they smile when they say it, like it’s a cute story— and the little strip of sand where I was lying in the sun when they first appeared is littered with the garbage that the tourists have thrown into the water, without even thinking about it. So now I don’t go back.” I had not seen the Beautiful Old W oman look sad or angry or disappointed before; now I saw all three in her face. But it was as if the anger and the sadness and the disappointment were visitors that she didn’t want. I saw her push them away from herself, sharply and cleanly, and then the clearness came back into her eyes, and her face glowed again. She laughed. “In fact I followed Ernesto’s interest and became an archeologist. He wanted to be an archeologist too,” she said, “but he was so good at business that the poor man couldn’t resist. He didn’t enjoy it very much, it was boring for him, but he had a golden touch! He became very rich without, it seemed, even trying, and we lived in Rome, and other European
cities, and when the second great war came, we moved to the States—to New York City. In the States, it was confirmed by the doctors that I could not have children, and I began to die inside. Do you know what that is? It’s when you no longer wake up in the morning with the simple joy of existence, and you find yourself asking yourself, ‘Is this all there is? Is this what I can expect of life from now on?’” “One summer fifty years ago, Ernesto and I decided that we would get in a car and drive all the way across this big big country. I wanted to see the desert and the ruins of ancient dwellings, and the mountains, and the huge forests, and the small towns and the different people. But I knew that I was also looking for something—something that I couldn’t tell anyone except Ernesto about, because if I told anyone else, I knew that they would really and truly think that I was crazy. Or that they would laugh at me, and tell me I was a superstitious fool. “On the second night of traveling, we arrived here at nightfall, and found the town, and stayed in the Royal Hotel, which as you know is still there. In the morning, as we drove out of town on the little road you walked on today—there were no big highways then, so it took much longer to drive across the country—it was as if I smelled something, but it was not a smell, or saw something but there was nothing there, or felt something touching me but there was nothing touching me, or heard something, but it was not a sound. There was only the forest, calling to me “Come in here!” I told Ernesto, and he did not believe me or disbelieve me—this was how he was with me, for he had never seen them himself. There was something wild in the forests here, like an invisible swelling, or a glow, or a sound that not everyone could hear.” She paused. “But how could it be just here?” I said, “and nowhere else?” “Oh, of course they are—or were—everywhere. Everywhere the forests were not cut down. But I wasn’t interested in finding all of them, and I wasn’t interested in trying to show them to those who believed that no such creatures exist. I was only interested in being among them, as I had in my childhood.” “And did you find them right away?” Nixie said, “or did you have to look?” “W e got out of the car and walked up into these hills. We found the abundant water—as you know, the nymphs inhabit the sweetest places, the most watery, and grassy, and full of trees and flowers, and birds, and bees—and then the cave, as if we were led to it. And I knew right away what it was, for like you Myshkin, I had read a great deal about the Naiads,
and Dryads, and Hamadryads, and Oreads, and many more. I knew all the stories from the ancient writers. Of course I recognized, as you did, the smooth dance floor right away. For the nymphs, to move is to dance—I don’t think they know a difference between the two. In the same way, for them to speak is to sing—it’s the same. “So you stayed here?” Nixie said. “You just dropped everything and stayed here?” “Oh no,” Mrs. Epistemi said. “We finished our trip. And on our way back, we stopped here again, and bought this land—a great deal of land—no one really wanted it, it was too hilly to grow food on, and there weren’t so many people around as there are now, so no one wanted it for houses. We built the villa, and came here every year from May to October. And after we had been here a few years, we went to the mayor of the town— a Mr. Brick by name—and offered to build a grand Italian fountain—I missed the wonderful fountains built by my native people—and a park to surround it. It was the only way I knew to tell them about what I knew, and to give back what I had been given, and to honor the local nymphs, as towns used to do in ancient times. The town council accepted gladly. It would, they hoped, “put them on the map.” And in fact it was a big tourist attraction for some years, and still is, though not as much. We hired a team of Italian planners to lay out the park, and a well-known Roman sculptor—Luigi Antonioni—to make the statues. “I worked very carefully with him on each of the seven figures. I wanted to give people as complete a picture as I could of the whole world of nymphs, even though no one had any idea that I was doing so. Luigi stayed three summers at the villa while he was working, and finally he met the nymphs himself. In fact it was right around this time of the year, in high summer, although it certainly wasn’t so hot then.” “And do you see them now? Do they know you? Do you communicate?” I said. “Well yes, they know me, of course. I keep the cave for them. I put the figurines there for them, the way the ancient people did. And I have been there a few times when they emerge like water pouring through the mouth of the cave to dance on the smooth rock floor, and I have been taken into their dance, although I have to say that I don’t remember it.” “How could you not remember?” I said. “Well, when you’re with them—I mean in their presence—you—or I anyway—am not with myself in the same way as I usually am.” “I don’t understand,” I said.
“It’s difficult to explain if it hasn’t actually happened to you.” She paused, thinking. Her needles stopped clicking for a moment, then, when she began talking again, started again. “Do you know what I mean if I say that when we’re awake, we are always watching ourselves?” “Watching?” “Well, let’s say there is always a witness—always someone there in our heads, noticing. I say to myself—well, I don’t say it, but I’m aware—‘I’m walking along this path’, or ‘I’m sitting here in this room talking with Mrs. Epistemi’, or ‘I feel good’, or ‘I don’t feel good’. Let’s call it the Watcher.” “Yes,” Nixie said, “I understand.” “Well, when I am among them, the Watcher disappears. Well no, not exactly—it’s not exactly that the Watcher disappears, but let’s say that there is another kind of Watcher. And when there is that other kind of Watcher, I don’t remember the same way. It’s not that I don’t remember anything, it’s just that I don’t remember it in the same way.” “Yes!” Nixie said, “I think I understand. It’s about time.” “Yes!” said the Beautiful Old Woman, “that is exactly it, Nixie. Time is different. It’s all one big now. Everything is still there, and everything is familiar, but it’s different.” “But how is the Watcher different?” I said. “Let’s just say that it is the same Watcher, but that it watches from a different place,” she said. “It watches from further away, but it is also closer. Oh dear, I don’t think I can explain it. I think you would just have to experience it yourself, and then you would know perfectly well what it is. It wouldn’t surprise you at all. You would say to yourself, as I did to myself, ‘Oh, so this is what this is!’” We were quiet again. The silence was sweet, and long. Then we heard another sound. It was the sound of loud machines far away. It sounded like giant metal insects buzzing. Nixie and I turned, our heads raised, and Dolphius too—listening. “You hear them?” said the Beautiful Old Woman. “They are coming, and some day they will be here.” “Who are they?” I asked. “They’re called ‘developers’,” she said. “They buy the land, and divide it into very small pieces, and cut most of the trees, and make roads, and build houses on each small piece—each one looks like the other—and sell them. Some day—soon, perhaps—they will surround this property.” “But the cave is on your property.” “But the nymphs will not stay, closed in like cattle—they don’t take well to captivity. On the other hand, the nymphs cannot leave, for they are this land. So the nymphs will die, and leave the land different than it was.”
“How will they die? And how will it be different?” “Good questions! Will they die, or just become invisible? And will the land just be less than it was, or something else altogether?” “But you’re answering my questions with questions!” Mrs. Epistemi laughed. Her laugh sounded like running water. “I see that the sun is already way over the top of the sky, and I think maybe you have come here without your parents’ permission. Am I right?” “We tried to find you a few weeks ago,” I said, “all of us. Our parents wanted to meet you.” “Of course. I would think they might be a bit nervous about me. So this time I will send you home with gifts.” She rose, went to a tall mahogany cabinet, and pulled two thick woven tapestries, rolled up, from a drawer. She held one in each hand, let them unroll, and they fell to the floor. Each was about twelve inches wide and very long—four or five feet—and each was a different long explosion of yellows and blues, reds and purples. They looked like the pattern she had been working on her loom when we arrived. Then she swung them onto the round table next to her, quickly rolled each of them up, and placed them in a thin blue canvas bag. “Now you must go my dears,” she said, “and my good friend Dolphius with you.” We didn’t want to go, but we didn’t try to change her mind. On the other hand, Dolphius walked by her side as she went to the garden and called the horses, and when we were mounted and turning to go, he didn’t follow us. I called to him, but he didn’t even move, he just stood by her side. “Until next time!” she said to us, brightly. Then she looked down at Dolphius and lifted her arm and pointed at us and said, “Dolphius, go!” He lifted his long nose and looked at her, begging a little, the way he sometimes does when he’s being told to do something he really doesn’t want to. “Go, Dolphius,” she said again, very seriously, and he trotted after us as our horses wheeled and moved quickly around the villa and into the deep woods.
WHERE DOES WAR COME FROM? The summer seemed like it was over almost as soon as it had begun, but not the heat. The news was saying that it was the longest heat wave in history. Of course that doesn’t mean it hadn’t happened before, before people began writing things down. In fact Tracey said that for all we know, the world might have been destroyed a million times before—all the people killed by floods or fire or a comet or a disease or an ice age or a heat wave like this one that went on for hundreds of years, or changes in the continents, or some kind of world war that poisoned everything—and each time it might have been a world just like ours—with cars and airplanes and telephones and stuff like that, or maybe even more complicated machines than ours. We may have started over lots of times, and each time gotten just so far, and then something stopped us. What’s strange about that idea is that it would mean that we never learned anything from the time before. Or maybe we get a little further each time. How could we know? And if it was war that killed everybody off each time, then we would have to ask, could there ever not be war? I mean is it just part of human nature to want to kill people who are not part of your own group, or who get in your way? Are human beings killers by nature? Do human beings even have a nature? Aren’t people just whatever their parents raise them to be? Or maybe people are what they’re going to be from the very beginning— from the very minute they’re born, from even before they’re born, from while their mother is still pregnant with them—nice, or mean, or weak, or strong, or liars, or great leaders, or . . . killers? We—I mean the four of us, the usual four—were riding the school bus together after the first day of school, which was August 15 th this year, because the School Board took two weeks off our summer vacation. They were doing it all over the country—that’s why our school board did it. There were lots of arguments about it, and some parents just refused to send their kids to school until after Labor Day in September, especially since the heat wave was still going on. They said that it just made things worse, because all the air conditioning that was used to keep the school cool would make the air outside even hotter. 76
The teachers were complaining about it too, but no one really dared not to come to work, because the School Board said that if they did, they would be fired and they would bring in new teachers to replace them, and there was nothing they could do to stop them. There were big fights about it on TV, and in Washington, and the President, who was running for re-election and giving speeches all over the place, was saying it had to be done to “make our great country competitive again,” and sometimes “to defeat our common enemy.” My dad said that nobody really knew who exactly that enemy was, but nobody said anything. It made him mad. And nobody asked the kids what they thought about it, except in little 30-second interviews in the news, where you can tell from the look on the reporter’s face that she thinks it’s sort of like some cute joke to be interviewing children, since they don’t have any say in the matter anyway. “It’s easy to see where war comes from,” Nixie said. “It happens when some people have more than others.” “But some people always have more than others,” I said. “So there will always be war.” “Of one kind or another maybe, yes,” she said. “But you can make it a little more even, and then there is less war. And you could keep working at it, so it got more and more fair, and the more fair it was, the less war there would be.” “How? How are you going to do that?” “Well, like the government can take some money from the rich that they don’t need, and give it to the poor.” “But the rich always think they need all the money they have,” I said, “just like you and me, just like everyone. And besides, the rich have the most power in the government. They can give the politicians lots of money, then tell them how to vote, so why would the rich people want to give up power?” “Well, because they thought it was the right thing to do.” “And where would they get that idea?” “From their experience,” Beth chimed in. I like that about her. She doesn’t say anything for a long time, but then suddenly she says something, and you know that she was listening carefully all along. “Like, maybe one time, even just one time, they didn’t have enough food or money or something, and the person they were with had more than enough, and the person they were with wouldn’t give them any of theirs, and they felt bad, and they said to themselves, ‘I will never do that to another person, because I know how bad it feels’. Or maybe the person did give them some of theirs, and they felt good, and said to themselves, ‘I’ll do the same thing when the
situation is switched around’. That’s what I mean by ‘from experience’.” She stamped her feet and shook her hands, and smiled at us. “But would everybody get the same idea from the same experience?” I said. “Maybe the one who didn’t have enough and who felt bad would say to himself, ‘Some day I’ll get back at him, I will have revenge’. How can you know what ideas people will get from their experience?” “OK,” said Nixie. “So the people who are fair have to have more power than the people who are not fair.” “But how can you make sure of that?” I said. “I mean, no one is fair all the time. You might be fair about some things and not fair about others.” “Then you have to have principles,” Nixie said. “What do you mean, ‘principles’?” “Rules that you make for yourself, and decide that you will live by, even if other people don’t. Principles.” “And what if your principle, your rule is: ‘Whatever is mine is mine, and I don’t have to share it, and no one else has to share what they have with me’? What if my principle is, ‘It’s not fair to take something away from one person and give it to another, as long as that person got it fair and square?” Tracey said. “Even though the other person is starving?” Nixie said. She looked at her hands. “Yeah,” Tracey said. “Even though a million people might be starving. What if my rule is, ‘Everybody gets what they deserve’. What about that?” He was grinning that grin of his. “Well,” Beth said, “then maybe you will have another experience that will, like, make you change your principle.” “And if you don’t?” I said. “Then what?” “Then there will always be war, I guess,” Nixie said, and Beth nodded. “And the ones who have more will always win,” Nixie said, because they can buy more weapons. Right Tracey? Is that what you believe?” Tracey started to answer, but it was their stop, and he and Beth had to get up quick to get off the bus. “See you guys!” he said, grinning. As it turned out, we found out on the first day that all four of us were in the same class! Our teacher’s name was Mr. Frame. He seemed all right, but I wasn’t sure whether I liked him yet. He said that were going to study world mythology until Christmas, which I did like, because I had already read a lot of books about Greek mythology when I was studying the fountain last year. The minute he said it, I wanted to know whether there would also be nymphs and those other creatures in Indian, or German, or Chinese or African mythology. If there were, maybe it would be proof that
they were really real, because if they were real, I didn’t see how they could be in one place but not another, or how one group of people would know about them and not another. It seemed like they would have to be all over the planet. I knew that school was going to be different the first day, but it took me a while to find out how. First, when I walked in with Nixie, the whole front hall was hung with flags. There were two rows of them on either side of the hall, on poles, set about five feet apart, making kind of a corridor. There was a huge one hung on the stage wall in the auditorium, too. When we had our opening day ceremony there, it hung like a huge movie screen behind the principal, who was standing on the stage at a podium with a microphone. The whole school was there, of course. First, the national anthem came on the loud speaker system very loud, and everybody stood up and put their hands on their chests and sang along. When that was over, the Principal, Mr. Mach, started reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and everybody said it along with him. When that was finished, Mr. Mach greeted everybody and said what a great year we were going to have, and about how important it was to come to school every day and to do your homework and to be a good community member, and how the buses would be leaving and arriving in such and such an order, and how anyone found wearing a hat inside would have it taken away from them, and how if anyone was found with a piercing their body jewelry would be confiscated, and how if anyone was found with a tattoo, or showing more than two inches of skin at the waist, or wearing spaghetti strap tops, or if their clothes were too tight, or too baggy . . . and more stuff I don’t remember . . . that their parents would be consulted, and that they could “face possible suspension” from school. Later, on the bus, Tracey was really ticked about all that. “Why do they think they have to control every little thing we do?” he said, tossing his red hair, his blue eyes flashing. “Because they do,” Beth said. “Kids are wild. If you leave them alone they just go wild and ruin things.” Then she made a little smile, like she suddenly realized she had to be talking about herself, since she was a kid. “That’s not true,” I said. “Sometimes people go wild, but most of the time they control themselves.” “Are kids people?” Tracey said, with a sarcastic smile. “Some kids can’t control themselves,” Beth said. “Somebody has to have power over them. My grandma says that parents have to have power over kids just the same way God has power over adults. Otherwise there is evil.”
“So you think someone always has to have more power than someone else for things to work,” I said. “That’s what my grandma says.” “I think just the opposite,” Nixie said. “I think that things will never work out until people stop using their power like that. Until that happens, people will always be fighting and trying to control each other.” “That’s just your imagination,” Tracey said. “It could never be.” “If you can imagine it,” I said, “why couldn’t it be?” “That’s simple. I could imagine that everyone on this bus is a threeeyed alien from another planet, and it could never be.” “You’re not giving a fair reason,” Nixie said. Tracey grinned. “First of all,” she went on, “I didn’t say that it had to be, I said that it could be. Second of all, imagining aliens on this bus is different from imagining world peace. You can’t compare them.” And in case you’re wondering, that’s when we started talking about war. Anyway, after Mr. Mach gave us all those rules, he said that now he would like to present a very special guest—a former student of our school who was also a former college football star and was now an A-Team member of Special Operations—the ones, the Principal said, who were “keeping us safe from terror.” A man in a Marine’s uniform came out, and the principal put his hands up so everyone could see them, and started to clap very loudly, and then most of the teachers started to clap and even cheer, and the principal looked over at the students, and most of us started to clap too. The man was tall, with very wide shoulders that looked even wider because of his uniform, which had all kinds of belts and buckles and badges on it, and his head was shaved. He didn’t have a gun, at least that I could see. He began talking about how he was working at the most important job he had ever had, even more important than being a football player, and that job was to preserve the lives of Americans and to protect our “great way of life.” Then he said that he knew that we were young but that time always went faster than you thought, that before we knew it we would be “all grown up,” and no one was ever too young to think about their career, and that he encouraged everyone, both girls and boys, to think about what service they could do for their country “when the time comes to serve,” and especially to think about the career opportunities that the armed forces offered to young men and women. He said, “It could be the ticket to your future— it has been for a lot of boys and girls.” I remember that because I don’t quite know what he meant by a “ticket to the future.” It sounds like an interesting idea. Then he said he would like to lead us in a cheer, and he
raised his arms and said in a loud voice, “Gimmee an A!” and everyone shouted “A!” Then “Gimmee an M!” and everyone shouted “M!” and so on, until we had spelled “America.” Then he put his arms straight out in front of him and gave that kind of hip-wiggle that football players do when they have just scored a touchdown, and everybody cheered, and he walked off the stage with longs steps, smiling, his arms swinging. The next day was a hard one for our teacher Mr. Frame, because five kids came in with notes from their parents saying that they would not be allowed to study world mythology. We heard about the notes at recess, and even got to look at a few. One of them said that they would not allow their child to be “introduced to the doctrines of demons,” and one said they refused for their children to be exposed to “false gods,” and one said there was no good reason to study the “beliefs of unbelievers”—that one was a little hard to figure out—and one even threatened Mr. Frame with going to the School Board to have it stopped, and another said that they were “willing to go all the way to the Supreme Court to confront this dangerous moral turpitude.” I looked up “turpitude” on an Internet dictionary later, and it means “inherent baseness or vileness of principle, words, or actions; depravity.” I don’t know what most of those words mean either, but they sound pretty awful, and certainly not like Mr. Frame. Anyway, these five kids were going to go across the hall to Mrs. Guardi’s room during our mythology class, to her Character Education class, where they taught about the Seven Virtues. That’s how the problem was solved. It was that September that the town started to have big trouble with the electricity. There were blackouts and brownouts just about every week, because the grid for the whole region had been under such pressure to supply air conditioning all summer. That’s what the politicians and the people from the energy company and the media said anyway, and there were commercials on TV and big ads in the paper asking people to cut down on their energy use, but it didn’t seem to make any difference—most people just kept using the same amount they had been. There were letters to the newspaper from people saying that they were paying for it, it wasn’t free, and if they had the money it was their right to do it, and it was the energy company’s responsibility to supply enough to meet the demand—that’s what the market economy was about, they said. Then there were some people who were sure that it was terrorists who were causing the blackouts. There was a group called the Citizen’s Against National Terror (CANT) that seemed to have a lot of money from somewhere to put their own commercials on TV showing pictures of Arab men staring into the camera,
with a smooth voice underneath saying things like, “How much more can we take? . . . How much more should we take?” They even had a political candidate who was running for mayor of the town, a millionaire who owned ten stores that sold home appliances in malls all over the state. He was on TV in a debate with the other candidate—the person who was already mayor— and he said that he thought it was about time that the country declared a state of national emergency. Right after this debate, the President came on, debating with his opponent in the big national election. He said that it was “time for the American people to accept the fact that we may have to use nuclear weapons in our struggle against the hate-filled murderers who want to destroy our freedom and our way of life.” I was sitting with my parents watching the debate when he said that. I saw that my father got very upset. He said a curse word, and my mother looked at him quickly, then away, and he got up and went into the kitchen. We had turned off the air conditioner, all the doors and windows of the house were open, and there was a very slight breeze. I got up too, and went out the back door and into the yard. It was a full moon, and it was very large, and reddish, and bright—the harvest moon, the one the farmers can work by at night to get the harvest in, because it gives so much light, and comes up early in the evening, and stays up longer. And thinking about farmers, I began to wonder about this yard. It was just a patch of grass, with a fence all around it, and on the other side of the fence there was another little plot of grass, and then a house, and then the street, and then a house, and then another back yard, and then another back yard, and then a house, and then a street, on and on. My father told me once that it had been a farmer’s field once not too long ago—fifty years, he said—and that the farmer sold it to a developer, and the developer divided it into even little squares, and built the houses, which were all the same, and sold them one by one, and became very rich, and built a huge house in another development, where the houses were bigger, and had bigger yards, and swimming pools. I looked up at the moon and thought how it was the same moon that someone sitting here when it was a farmer’s field saw, and that someone sitting here when it was a little clearing in the forest with a cabin saw, or that someone walking through it a thousand years ago, or two thousand years ago, or I don’t know how many years ago saw. I put my hand on the grass and pressed it on the ground. It was the very same ground as millions of years ago. I thought, in a thousand years, or two thousand years, or ten thousand years, or a million years, or billions, this ground will probably still be here, unless the earth runs into a huge comet and smashes to bits, or
something else big happens. Even if the oceans change and it becomes the bottom of the sea, or if the heat wave never stops and it becomes a desert, this ground, this spot my hand is touching will still be this spot. I began to imagine that I could feel it—energy I mean—the way you can feel it when your hand is touching someone’s body, or your own body, or the body of any animal, and maybe when you are touching a plant? I lay down on the grass. Was I lying on a huge body? Weren’t my body and this body of the earth with its roots and rocks and seeds and streams made of the same stuff? Aren’t I the same flesh as the flesh of the world? Maybe the sky was breathing. Was it breathing the way I was? Is there breath in everything? I heard my mother calling softly from behind the screen door. “Mysh! Are you out there?” She does that a lot lately—wanting to make sure where I am. “Yeah Mom, I’m here,” I called back. Then both of them—my mother and my father—came outside and sat down next to me on the grass crosslegged, as the huge moon rose and hung above us, and the sky darkened softly. After awhile I said, “Dad, how do you know what’s alive and what’s not?” “That depends on what you mean by ‘alive’,” my father said, and as soon as he said it, we both laughed. “I really have to stop doing that,” he said. Then we sat quietly again, the three of us, for a long time, as the cicadas started singing.
HOW TO TELL WHAT’S ALIVE FROM WHAT’S NOT I forgot to tell you that I was grounded because of our last visit to Mrs. Epistemi. I had to come home every day right after school for a month. My parents weren’t mad—Nixie’s Mom wasn’t either—they just grounded me. Nixie’s Mom didn’t even do that to her. Maybe they didn’t get mad because I got back just after they got home from work and read the note, and they really didn’t have time to get nervous. Or maybe because of the tapestry that Mrs. Epistemi sent to them through me. They looked at it for a long time, like they were reading something, then started talking about where they would hang it up. And they put it in the living room, where you could see it from almost all over the first floor. It put a huge splash of color in the house. “Look,” my father said, “you can consider us to be reasonable people. And I think you’re a smart guy. If there’s any way that I can possibly help you to do what you think is really important to do, I’ll do it. What bothers me is not that you did it, but that you didn’t trust that we would be reasonable about it.” “You mean all I had to do was to come to you and say I wanted to do it, and you would have let me?” “Well, I can’t say that. I have no problem with Mrs. Epistemi, but to walk on the highway can be dangerous in more ways than one—crazy or mean people or both, or police—in fact it’s probably not even legal—or accidents. Second, it’s not hard to get lost in the woods.” “Then you probably wouldn’t have let me go.” “All’s well that ends well,” he said. I couldn’t see how that made too much sense, or solved the problem, but I didn’t say anything, since he seemed to be OK with it. I didn’t mind being grounded, since I could go next door to Nixie’s house whenever I wanted, and since, as it turned out, I was starting on the world mythology project, and could spend a lot of time on the Internet. All that I missed was being able to go the fountain. But the fountain had gotten so crowded with people every day all day, because of the heat wave that never stopped, that 84
it wasn’t as much fun to go to anyway. And the next day they got me a cell phone. “Just in case you get abducted by nymphs some day, and need to call for a ransom,” my mother said. I couldn’t take it to school though—it was against the rules. Mr. Frame gave us an assignment the very first day of school. He told us to go on the Internet and to search for “origin myths”—meaning, stories about how the world was created--and to come back the next day and tell about one that we found. Well I found some of those, but most of all I found out right away, the first night, that there seem to have been creatures like nymphs everywhere around the world! Sometimes they were called fairies, or elves, or nixies, or mermaids, or sylphs, or swan women, or wise women, or undines, or Lorelei, or pixies, or sprites, or genii, or jinns or Tennins, or Xanas, or Yosei, or Yumboes, and on and on . . . or just goddesses. On the second day of school, before class started, I asked Mr. Frame if I could specialize just in that—nymphs. He said he didn’t have any problem with that, but he asked me why. I said that I had done a project on Greek nymphs by myself last year, because I was interested in the Epistemi fountain. He gave me a quick look, like he had noticed something, then smiled. Mr. Frame is very tall, and wears thick glasses with black frames that kind of hide his eyes unless you look right into them, and then they look very big because they’re magnified by the lenses. He’s not fat at all but he’s kind of huge and a little clumsy-looking, and he’s always dressed in the same kind of clothes—khaki pants and button down shirts. One interesting thing about him is that his face gets red, not when he’s embarrassed, but when he’s angry. I’ve never seen him do anything else when he gets angry —shout, or scold or even punish kids when they break rules or are obnoxious. His face just gets red. At first I thought this was really strange, but then I got to like him for it. We had our first mythology class that day—the second day of school. The five kids whose parents wouldn’t allow them to study mythology left the room and went across the hall. You could tell that they weren’t sure whether this was good “special treatment” or bad, and a few kids kind of laughed and giggled as they filed out. Right away I could tell that Mr. Frame was really interested in this subject. The other thing I like about him was that when he gets excited about something—about an idea I mean—he stutters a little bit, kind of like he’s so excited he can hardly talk. “I want you to take notes in your mythology journal while I talk, and then we’ll talk together about it, he said. “OK.” He paused. The pause went on for the longest time, and then, just when it had gone on so long that we thought maybe he was having some kind of embarrassing problem, like that
he had forgotten what he was talking about, or where he was or something, he said, “The thing to remember about this,” he said, “is that the people we’re going to be talking about, trying to figure out—these ancient people —saw—not just understood, but s-s-s-saw—the world very differently from us. “Here’s the big difference: for us, things that are alive are made out of things that are not alive. We start with atoms and then molecules, and they build up into combinations, and when you get certain combinations, you get cells, which are the basic units of life—that’s the way we usually talk about life, I mean people nowadays. Do you guys have the d-d-d-definition?” Nobody said anything. I don’t think we even knew what he was talking about—definition for what? I was sitting near the back and to the side of the room, so it was easy for me to look around. Some kids were listening very closely—there was something about that stuttering that made you hang onto Mr. Frame’s every word—and some kids looked confused but still interested, and some looked confused and quickly becoming not interested, and some didn’t even seem to have any idea what he was talking about at all and were nervous about it, and some didn’t seem to have any idea what he was talking about and didn’t even care—just drawing comic book characters or whatever in their journals. “OK, here goes,” Mr Frame said when nobody answered. “D-D-DDefinition Of A Living Thing. Please write this down in your journals.” He went to the white board and began to write himself, speaking as he did so. “One: It’s a complex organization of one or more cells. Ever heard of a protozoa?” He wrote down the word in great big letters: P-R-O-T-O-Z-O-A. “One cell. If you want to meet one, go down to the pond and scoop up some water and take out your microscope and make a slide and stick it under the microscope and focus it and look around in there. Look for one cell moving around. Now. Do you know the number of cells in the human body? Ten to 100 trillion cells, depending on who you talk to. P-p-p-Protozoa: one cell.” I looked over at Beth, who was sitting next to me. She was writing like crazy. She looked like she was totally excited. Me too, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I couldn’t see Nixie and Tracey, because they were sitting behind us. Mr. Frame went on, writing like crazy on the board. “Definition Of A Living Thing Number Two: if it’s alive it has a metabolism, which means it produces energy by burning food. OK? Your body burns the food you eat, like burning fuel. Got it? OK? OK.” “Definition Of A Living Thing Number Three: if it’s alive, it responds to stimuli, which means it reacts if you poke at it, or if it’s a lion and it sees
an antelope and it’s hungry, it chases it, or if it’s a plant, it turns toward the sun. OK? Everybody with me? OK.” “Definition Of A Living Thing Number Four: it reproduces. I think you know what that means. You know how the protozoa reproduces? It splits in two! What if we reproduced like that? What if you went to bed with a bad headache and passed out and when you woke up there were two of you?” We all laughed—those of us who were following anyway. “Definition Of A Living Thing Number Five: if it’s alive it grows, like you all are doing like crazy, and not just the individual but the s-s-s-species. When I was born, the earth’s human population was three billion. When you were born, it was 5.75 billion. Now it is 6.5 billion. In fifty years it will be over nine billion. The human species is growing! “Definition Of A Living Thing Number Six: if it’s alive, it adapts to the environment. If the climate gets colder it grows special hair like dogs, or learns to build houses and use fire, like humans. It adapts. Adaptation.” He turned and folded his arms. “Six things. That’s you and me, and the wasp at the window and the dandelion in your yard.” Then he waited while we finished copying them down. “OK That’s probably enough already, but it’s just half of what I want to say. The main thing is that it’s what we think “alive” means. By “we” I mean the modern scientists— the ones we believe the most these days. But it’s not what the ancients thought, the ones we’re going to talk about. The modern scientists think that everything starts dead—or, not dead, because you have to be alive first to be dead, but just not alive in the first place. Let’s call it “inanimate,” which means without life. Or we can call it “matter,” just bare matter, building blocks, like a pile of stones. No life. Just a thing. The whole universe like that. Everything starts inanimate, and then, when you get these more and more complex c-c-c-combinations, these organizations, these little systems like the protozoa, then we get animate, living, alive. That’s our story. Am I making sense to you?” He looked at us, his eyes traveling around the room. His face was a bit flushed. Beth raised her hand. He nodded at her. “Do you believe it?” she said. Mr. Frame looked startled, then pleased. “Do I believe it?” he repeated, and it was as if he was asking himself, right then and there. He paused, looking down, then looked up again. “Well, let me tell you about the other story, the one that will help us understand mythology. Then we can talk about which story we ought to believe.” Beth nodded. I could tell she already had a crush on him.
“The people who told all these stories that we’re going to be studying saw things differently. For them, everything was alive. Not just the people and the insects and the corn and the trees, but the wind and the water, and the earth. For them, nothing dies, so they couldn’t understand it when people died, they just couldn’t believe there could really be such a thing as death, so they made these big tombs for people, and when they buried them they put some food in there, and a bowl to eat from, and maybe a weapon or some tools in case they would need them wherever they were going, and they painted them with a special paint called red ochre. Why red ochre? Maybe because it’s sort of the color of blood, and blood means life. No one knows for sure.” He paused. He looked tired, as if it had been a lot of effort to make these two points—about how everything starts without life for one way of looking at things, and everything starts with life for another. Then he seemed to kind of pull himself together, and said, “Now who has some origin myths? We’ll save”—he looked down at his class list, then looked up at Beth—“Beth?” he said, and she nodded—“we’ll save Beth’s question for next time, along with whatever other questions we have. Now please don’t tell us where your origin story is from yet. Just tell the story, and we’ll try to guess.” Luigi raised his hand, and Mr. Frame nodded at him. “Here’s one that I found,” he said. “In the beginning there was just the sea. There was a god, Tane—you pronounce it ‘Tahnay’—who once dove to the bottom of the sea and came up with some mud, and made the land out of that mud. And that was the beginning of everything.” Mr. Frame smiled and nodded again. Ali raised her hand. “In the beginning there were two worlds: the world of ice and the world of fire. Between them was the nothing. In the nothing the ice and the fire met, and the fire licked the ice and shaped it into a giant whose name was Ymir, and also into a huge cow that fed the giant. The cow licked the ice and made the first god, whose name was Buri. Buri made a son Borr, and Borr made three sons—Odin, Vili, and Ve. They killed the giant Ymir, and they made the world out of him. They used his blood to make the oceans, his bones for mountains, his hair for trees, and they made the sky out of his skull. The sky was held up by four dwarfs: Austri, Vestri, Sudri, and Nordri.” Some people thought that was really gross, and there were groans and exclamations. “Let’s save our comments,” was all that Mr. Frame said, then just waited until it was quiet again. Helena raised her hand. “First there was chaos. Everything was all mixed up—air, water, earth. Nothing had any form. There was a huge egg floating around in this chaos. After a long time, the egg broke open and a
goddess and a god came out, and they were Earth and Sky. The name of the earth was Maia, and the name of the sky was Uranus. Then they created the sun and the moon and the stars. There’s more, but that’s all I’ll tell right now.” “Wow!” said Vishnu, “that’s like mine. Except in mine, there’s this . . . well I don’t know if he’s a god, but he’s a living thing, and he’s inside a giant egg, and that egg has all the pieces of the universe mixed up together in it. His name is P’an Ku, and he grows about ten feet every day, and as he grows he separates the earth and the sky inside the egg. At the same time, he separates all the opposites—male and female, wet and dry, light and dark and so on. After about eighteen thousand years the egg hatches, and he dies from working so hard at creating everything. And from his eyes the sun and moon appear, and from his sweat, rain and dew, and from his voice, thunder, and from his body all the natural features of the earth—like hills and valleys and mountains and so forth.” “Hmm, that’s interesting,” says Mr. Frame. “In one story the egg is in the chaos, and in another, the chaos is inside the egg.” “Yeah, so where’s the egg?” said Sigi. “What?” “I mean if all nature is inside the egg, what’s the egg inside?” “Good question. Write it down and we’ll come back to it. Now can we guess where the stories are from?” Beth said, “I think the first one must be from some place where there’s mostly water, like those islands in the Pacific or something.” “Yes!” says Luigi. He was very impressed, and so were we all. I suddenly realized how smart Beth is. “I think the second one must be from someplace up north,” she went on, “because there’s ice in it, what seems like a lot of ice.” Now that we knew what trick she was using, we weren’t so impressed, but she was right again. “Great,” said Mr. Frame. “Others?” “The last one is Chinese,” said Mai. “How do you know?” said Mr. Frame. “’Cause my parents told it to me before.” “Good. And the other one with an egg?” “It must be American,” Bobby said, because it has the name of an American planet in it. Uranus.” “But we don’t have any myths,” I said. We just have other people’s, or like our grandparents. And besides, Uranus isn’t an American name. It’s Greek.” Bobby gave me a dirty look.
“We don’t have any myths?” said Mr. Frame. He looked like he was thinking about it, like he wasn’t sure. “Isn’t what the scientists say a myth too?” Antonio said. Then the fire alarm went off. Mr. Frame’s face got red, even though we all knew it would probably happen—they do it once a month. He grabbed his coat and led us out of the building, into the 100 degree heat.
IS THERE SUCH A THING AS MAGIC? We took the bus home together that day, as usual, and this time Beth and Tracey got off with Nixie and I and went to get Dolphius and we went to Nixie’s house, since I was grounded and we couldn’t go to the fountain. We got into our bathing suits (Nixie and I loaned extras to Beth and Tracey) and went into her back yard—which is just exactly like mine except that Nixie and her Mom had made half of it into a garden of wildflowers and tall grasses—turned on the sprinkler, and ran around in the spray for a while, yelling and screaming. Dolphius got all wet too, and wrestled with all of us like a crazy creature, panting and smiling and snorting and making happy sounds, his long tongue hanging out of his mouth. When we had done that for a long time we had some cold drinks, and lay around in the shade that was beginning to creep across the small grassy yard. Dolphius lay on his side, his red-brown curly coat all wet, and went to sleep. Every once and a while his legs jerked and he moved a bit, or made a little thin yelp, like he was dreaming. That’s when we told Tracey and Beth about Mrs. Epistemi. We told them because Beth wouldn’t stop asking me again and again, in as many ways as she could figure out, why I was grounded, and she had suspected something all summer anyway. I didn’t want to tell her a lie, so at first I just had to say, “I’m not going to tell you,” and that was a big challenge for her, and she just wouldn’t give up. She came up with all kinds of possible reasons, but never of course even got close to what it was about—I don’t see how anyone could have guessed. Tracey didn’t push me to tell the way Beth did, but he didn’t really have to because Beth was working so hard at it, and he probably figured that eventually I would give in. He was right, because after three weeks of Beth never giving up, Nixie and I decided that we would tell them about Mrs. Epistemi, but not about the nymphs. I don’t know if you could call that lying or not—I mean when you tell the truth about something, but leave something out. Maybe it depends on what you leave out? But we did tell them that we had found a huge cave.
Of course they had heard of the Epistemis too, because they were famous in the town. Beth wanted to know if she was scary, “like a witch or something.” W hen Nixie told them she was the most beautiful old person she had ever met in her life, she said, “Yeah, but you know witches aren’t always ugly. Sometimes, in books and stuff, they’re beautiful, and they fool you into thinking they’re nice, but they’re not. “What is a witch anyway?” Nixie said. “I think a witch means someone who tries to control you,” Beth said. And they do it by things that you can’t fight unless you know about them, like spells and stuff. Secret stuff. Magic. They use magic.” Beth was sitting with her legs stretched out on the grass, almost in a split, and doing long, slow stretches with her arms—first over one leg, then the other. She looked like a swan dancing. “But some people say there are good witches, who don’t try to control you, so how could you define witch as someone who tries to control you?” Nixie said. “OK,” I said. “Let’s try another word. It’s just about power. It’s about having power over things by ways that most people don’t have. So a good witch would stop the tornado from hitting the town by a spell or a prayer or a ritual—a special one that had to be done just right, that only he or she could do, and that took a lot of studying with a master, and stuff like that.” “By magic,” Beth said, still doing her stretches. “Yeah, but what do you mean by magic?” I said. “I mean, if you imagine a tribe someplace way in the middle of the jungle where no one had ever seen airplanes before, or iPods or cars or any of our technology, they would think those things were magic too. Magic is just some kind of power to do something that you can’t understand scientifically. It’s like saying something, or doing something that makes a thing happen, and you don’t know why but you know that it works.” “Yeah,” Tracey said, “but it’s different from technology. I mean, with technology, you can understand how it works—anybody can understand. Anybody can fly an airplane, or even build an airplane. Because it acts by the laws of nature.” “What do you mean, ‘laws of nature’?” Nixie said. “Just how things work. Like, if I let go of this cup, it will fall downwards. It will do it every time. That’s a law of nature. Gravity. A law of nature.” “Not if you’re in outer space,” Beth said. “Or on the moon.” “Well OK, then the laws of this nature—here on this planet.”
“OK,” I said, “but what if there are laws that we don’t know about, or not everyone knows about, that only a few people know about? Laws that haven’t been discovered yet?” “If it’s a law, that means that everyone knows about it, or can know about it if they try. That’s what ‘law’ means. It means it happens every time, to everybody: if you do this, that will happen, every time. Everything is under a law. I mean, even if you’re in outer space or on the moon there are laws. It’s just that they’re different from the ones here.” “OK,” I said, “how about this?” And I told them about Mrs. Epistemi’s horses—how they come when they’re called, and know exactly where to go. “Are those horses under the law of what horses are supposed to be able to do?” I said. “Maybe there are laws about what we can do, but those laws could be changed, or you could go beyond them,” Beth said. Like maybe horses could be taught to do something that we thought at first they couldn’t do—like circus horses. Maybe Mrs. Epistemi trained them to do that. Or maybe a horse could be born that for some reason knew how to do something that none of the other horses did. And he would have babies that knew how to do it to, and also teach it to the other horses.” “OK, but they’re still operating by laws,” Tracey said. “Yeah, but I don’t think you heard what I said before,” I said to him. “Even if everything is covered by laws, it doesn’t mean we know what they all are. Or that we ever could know all of them. What I mean is simple: maybe there are some laws of nature that we don’t know about.” Tracey was about to answer me when Nixie’s Mom came out into the back yard. She had just gotten home from work. She works in a hospital, in a laboratory. She looks at stuff—diseased cells and things like that—under a microscope, and then writes a report on what she sees. W hen they came from Bulgaria, she was a doctor, but they wouldn’t let her be a doctor here unless she went back to medical school. She has a really heavy accent, but you can understand her fine. Nixie doesn’t have any accent at all. Her Mom was pregnant with her when she came, and she was born a week after she arrived. Nixie’s Dad stayed in Bulgaria. He didn’t want to leave, but I guess they weren’t getting along too well either. Nixie can speak both languages, but her Mom says she has kind of a funny accent when she speaks Bulgarian. Nixie’s Mom is tall and dark like her, and they have the same eyes. When they’re together I sometimes feel like they’re one person—or, not that, but that when they look, they see the same world. She seems like a different kind of parent to me than most of the ones here in this country.
She seems to kind of spoil Nixie, but it doesn’t turn out that way. What I mean is this: she gives her pretty much whatever she asks her for, and she never seems to get mad at her, and she never puts pressure on her to take soccer or dance or music lessons or whatever, and she never hassles her about her grades, and never makes her wake up early when she wants to sleep late. You might think that would make Nixie kind of spoiled—like all wrapped up in herself, always thinking and talking about what she wants or thinks she needs, and sometimes mean to her Mom, and kind of stupidly proud or proudly stupid or whatever, the way spoiled kids are—but in fact Nixie is just as nice as she is. Sometimes I see these little stories on the news—I like to watch the news with my parents—where there’s some anchor person with fancy clothes and hair, and then some reporter out on the street with a microphone, saying in a sort of excited serious voice, like they’re talking about war or something, “Are we spoiling our children?” And then they give all kinds of numbers about how much money is spent on toys every year, and junk food for kids, and ipods and stuff, and then they go to some fifteensecond interviews with mothers and fathers who talk about how their children are “uncontrollable,” or how they can’t “resist” them—but the parents look more like they’re just happy to be famous for 15 seconds—and then they go to some expert like Dr. Phil or something telling parents three things they have to do if they don’t want to spoil their children, things everyone has heard a million times before. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that none of that makes any sense for Nixie and her mom, and that I’m not sure what “spoil” means anyway. There—I sound like my dad again. Nixie’s mom seemed happy to see us out there in back yard, sitting around in a circle on the wet grass, and she asked us what we were talking about. Beth stopped her stretching, sat up and crossed her legs like a yogi, and said “We’re talking about witches and magic and laws of nature,” and laughed. “Hmm. And how do they go together?” I said, “Well, what do you think about witches?” She sat down next to Dolphius, and began to play with his coat with one hand while she talked and listened. Dolphius stirred, like he was waking up, but didn’t. “What do I think about them?” “Beth thinks Mrs. Epistemi might be a witch,” Nixie said. Her mother didn’t look surprised, as I thought she might. She paused, looking down at Dolphius, like she was thinking. Then she looked up and said, “Oh, you mean that witches break—or bend--the laws of nature by magic? Is that what you were talking about?”
“Yes!” Beth said. I could see she was really impressed with how Nixie’s mom had figured out how witches and laws and magic went together. It wasn’t exactly what I had been thinking though. I meant that maybe witches knew laws of nature that regular people didn’t. But I kept quiet. “Well, maybe it would depend on what you thought was and wasn’t alive.” “Yes!” I said. “Mr. Frame was talking about that in class today!” “Who’s Mr. Frame?” “He’s our teacher,” Nixie said. “He was talking about how people used to think everything was alive, and how scientists now think that nothing is alive.” “Well not exactly,” I said. “More like how life is made up from nonliving stuff rather than everything being alive in the first place. And not just scientists believe that, but everybody.” “I don’t see how you could think any differently about it,” Tracey said. Nixie’s mom looked down, then up again. “But what difference would that make to magic and the laws of nature?” The idea came to me like a sudden rush of oxygen. “If everything’s alive,” I said, “then the laws aren’t so . . . so . . . fixed.” “Huh?” Tracey said. “Yeah, what do you mean?” Nixie said. “I mean, things that are alive usually have a choice about what they’re going to do—like move this way or that way. For example, I can lift my arm right now, or I can leave it here on the grass. What I mean is, if you have a choice then maybe you could do something differently from the laws.” “Well, plants don’t have a choice,” Tracey said. And I don’t think animals do either. And besides, your choice can’t be outside of the laws of nature! I mean you can’t all of a sudden choose to fly up in the air! And even when you do choose to move your arm, how do you know it’s a choice? Maybe everything you’re going to do is already fixed in advance by this long string of causes, and you just think that you’re choosing it.” “Ooh, that’s weird,” Beth said, and shuddered. The phone rang. Nixie’s Mom got up and went inside to answer it, and we all sat there without saying anything, like we were waiting for her, even though we didn’t mean to particularly. Dolphius got up and walked around the yard, next to the fence, looking out and sniffing. Nixie’s mom came back almost right away and said, “Myshkin, your dad is coming over. He called wondering where you were.” And almost as soon as she said it, he
appeared from around the corner of the house. He was already out of his work clothes and had his shorts on. Nixie’s mom invited him to sit down. “We’re trying to decide about what’s alive and what’s not, and about the difference between technology and magic.” She laughed. “And probably some other things that we don’t even realize that we’re talking about.” “Wow!” he said. “Well I guess you guys know about Gaia—or no?” Nobody said anything. “No, I guess we don’t,” I said. “Well, it’s called a ‘hypothesis’,” he said. “Like a theory. It’s a theory that the whole planet earth, including its atmosphere, is actually one living system, like an organism, or some people say, like one cell. Let’s say it’s like a body. So: the oceans and rivers are its blood, the atmosphere is its lungs, the land is its bones, and all the things that we usually call alive—like you and me and animals and plants and other organisms are the earth’s senses.” I could see Beth’s mind clicking away like crazy. “But it doesn’t reproduce!” she said. “I mean, it doesn’t make other earths.” “And does it grow?” Tracey said. “Or react to stimuli, or adapt?” “I don’t know about growing,” Beth said, but it does react—I mean things that people do to it can make a desert where there was grass before, or if something changes and the rain doesn’t come there any more. And if it gets hit by a meteor the climate will change for a while. Stuff like that.” “And it does adapt,” I said. “I mean, maybe the things that people are doing to it now will make it impossible for people to live on it, so humans will die out, they will disappear, but there will still be lots and lots of different kinds of living things on it, like insects or whatever, and they will change when the humans aren’t around any longer.” Then Nixie spoke up. “But why do we have to stick to the definition that Mr. Frame gave us anyway? He didn’t give it to us as if it was the truth, he just said that it was what most scientists agreed about it right now. I mean, if the ancient people thought that everything was alive it would mean not just the earth, but the whole . . . universe! And if you believed that, then I think you would have to have a different definition of the word ‘alive’. And—“ She paused a minute. I knew exactly why. She gave me one quick look, then went on— “And what about things like God, and gods and goddesses, and things that are in between, like fairies and elves and so forth?” “What?” Tracey said. “Are you going to believe every stupid thing anybody tells you just because you like to be entertained?”
“No!” I said. “But it’s also stupid to make this big separation between alive and not alive. I mean, it’s like racism or something. If a tree is alive and a human is alive, then how can we say they are not both aware?” “What? Now what?” Tracey said. “Trees aware?” “Yes, I think I understand,” Nixie’s mom said. “I mean, you jumped a bit far, Myshka, but I think I understand what you’re getting it. Nowadays most of us think that you’re not really alive like us unless you have a brain—and a big brain like ours at that. Unless you can think. Think the way we do. So we make this big difference between humans and other animals, and we have no problem killing them and eating them, or even just killing them for sport. We think animals are just like machines. Robots. And as for trees, we don’t even think twice about cutting them down and killing them. We don’t even really believe they’re alive at all, even if science tells us they are.” “Well we are heterotrophs, after all,” my dad said. Everybody laughed, because nobody else had any idea what that word meant. He smiled at Tracey, who smiled back. “That means that we are organisms that can’t make our food from light, or water, or from things like dirt, or from minerals or salts or stuff like that, the way plants do, so we have to eat other creatures to survive.” “Wow!” Beth said. “Imagine being able to stay alive and healthy on light and water and dirt! That would be so cool!” She lifted her arms in the air as if she were about to float away. “And what’s the other kind called?” Nixie said. “It’s what Beth is imagining being, and it’s called an autotroph. You see, ‘hetero’ means ‘other’ and ‘auto’ means ‘self’ in ancient Greek. And ‘troph’ comes from the ancient Greek word for ‘nourish’. So you get heterotroph, being-nourished-by-others, and autotroph, being-nourished-byoneself. Anyway, the autotrophs are called the producers and the heterotrophs are called the consumers. The autotrophs—the producers--just stay alive and healthy on light and water and chemical compounds from the dirt and so on. Plants are autotrophs. The heterotrophs stay alive by eating the autotrophs.” He paused. “Of course of course some heterotrophs stay alive by eating other heterotrophs—like lions, and eagles, and wolves, and . . . humans. They all eat other animals.” “But humans don’t have to eat other animals,” Beth said. “It’s not a law of nature, right?” And now she paused. “I swear I’m going to become a vegetarian someday —I am!”
“OK,” Tracey said, grinning. “But just don’t try to become a plant someday, OK? W e can be a lot of different things but we can’t be autotrophs,” Tracey said. “That’s a law of nature.” “Well, said Nixie’s mother, smiling, “I guess you haven’t heard about the breatharians then.” Tracey groaned. “What?” We all laughed. So many big fat new words! “You should look at their web sites,” she said. “They say there are a few thousand of them in the world, but that they are what everyone will become as the human species evolves. They claim that they get all their nourishment from air and light—by breathing! They say it stops the aging process.” “You mean that you never get old?” Beth said. “Well, you just live for much, much longer, and you don’t get old so fast. You’re in what they call a ‘higher vibratory state’. You need hardly any sleep, you have tremendous strength, your mind is like a supercomputer, you can more or less tell what everyone is thinking and feeling, you never get sick, and your body can easily resist extreme cold or heat. And you are always happy and clear and confident!” Nixie’s Mom has a very quick, bright laugh, like musical notes. “Oh my god!” Beth said, “I want it! I want it! Please God, make me a breatharian!” and now we were all laughing so hard that we started rolling around on the ground. The wet grass was cool and exciting, and we were wriggling like worms and laughing so hard that we were crying. Then Dolphius jumped in, and it turned into another crazy group wrestling match. Meanwhile, my Dad and Nixie’s Mom were just sitting there watching us and kind of grinning. I guess it’s not so easy for adults to turn into worms all of a sudden. I guess there are at least some advantages to being kids.
HOW THE WORLD BEGAN The next day in school everyone wanted to go on talking about creation myths. A lot of kids had found new ones; some were funny, some had sex in them, and some were violent. Mr. Frame said that was OK with him—we could tell that he was pleased that people were interested. So instead of doing Health, people told the stories they had found. Here’s one that I liked and wrote down in my journal. It was from a tribe of people who called themselves the Warao, in the Amazon jungle. James told it: “They say that the first world of the humans was in the sky—a skyworld—and the only other animals around were birds. One day a hunter shot at a bird. He missed it, but he shot his arrow so hard that it went through the ground of the skyworld and kept going to the earth below. The hunter kneeled and looked through the hole that the arrow had made, and he saw a whole rich land under him, full of all kinds of animals to hunt. So he tied a long rope to a tree and lowered himself down to the earth. Soon his friends and his family came too, and finally everyone decided to leave the skyworld and settle down there. “Oh! I have one that’s like that except it’s opposite!” Ellen said. “And it’s also from South America—central Brazil, the Karaja. They say that their ancestors once lived in an underworld, until one day someone found a hole above him and he climbed up and came out onto the surface of the earth. And later some other people followed, and eventually they all followed and settled there.” We had lots more, from all over the world. Most of them were heard and written down by anthropologists, but some were from ancient books like the Bible or the Koran. It seemed like everyone had one, and everyone’s hand was up every time, some kids sort of moaning because they wanted so much to be picked to speak. Anyway, it came to the end of the hour and Marvin, who had had his hand up each time, had still not been called on. When Mr. Frame said they couldn’t share because they had to go to a whole-school meeting right away, Marvin was so upset that he just kind of slumped onto his desk, with his head in his arms. Mr. Frame noticed, and told Marvin to go ahead—he would be the last to share. 99
Marvin immediately sat up. He said, “It was fifteen billion years ago, and there was nothing. Then there was a point the size of an atom—no, not even an atom, but the nucleus of an atom—which contained all the energy and matter in the universe! All in one point! Then there was an explosion—or an implosion, I’m not sure—because the whole universe was just one point and it was too much. The explosion happened in, like, a nanosecond. The whole thing! And what exploded out of that point in that second is what became the stars and galaxies and the time and the space that we’re in. And they’re still traveling outward, expanding from that explosion. They never stop expanding.” “Wow!” Alexandra said, “where’s that one from? It’s wild!” Mr. Frame smiled. “Any guesses?” Tracey laughed. “That’s ours,” he said. “That’s the Big Bang theory.” “What do you mean ‘ours’?” Mr. Frame said. “The scientists. The one today.” “But that’s just a story too!” Beth said. “We call it a theory,” Marvin said, “not a story.” “But wait a minute!” Sigi said. “If the universe is expanding and expanding, then . . . What does the universe expand into?” Nobody said anything. Then Marvin said, “Into itself?” “And not just that,” Sigi said. “There’s another problem. I mean, what happened to make something come out of nothing? How could time and space have a beginning? I mean if they have a beginning, then what’s there before them? I mean, what comes before the atomic nucleus and the explosion?” “Spirit!” Bobby said. “It was the Spirit of God.” “And where is God?” Sigi said. “Nowhere. He doesn’t have to be anywhere. He’s not in space and time.” “What do you mean ‘he’?” Alexandra said. “You mean God is a man?” “Yes,” Bobby said, “a man.” “A man who is not in space and time?” “That’s right,” Bobby said. “The Bible says that.” “Why not a woman? Why shouldn’t god be a woman? Or why does god have to be either?” “’Cause the Bible—“ “Whoa!” Mr. Frame said. “Let’s slow down.” I had to say something. I had to. It just happened. “Well why shouldn’t there be something called spirit, or energy or something, without space and time? I mean if there can be something as crazy as one nucleus of one atom
that the whole universe comes out of, why shouldn’t that atom come from something that is outside of time and space?” “Because if there’s no space and time, there’s no such thing as an outside or a moment when something could happen,” Tracey said. “Well then there’s always been something. That means there’s no beginning.” “Well I mean, why should there have to be a beginning?” “That means there’s no such thing as nothing.” Everyone laughed. We were starting to get kind of crazy. “But,” said Mr. Frame, “there’s nothing on earth—or in the universe as far as we know—that has no beginning.” I saw Tracy nod. “My mind,” Nixie said. “My mind has no beginning or end.” “Hmm,” Mr. Frame said, “but how—“ The office secretary’s voice came on the loud speaker, very loud. “Will Mr. Frame’s class please report to the gymnasium immediately. Will Mr. Frame’s class please report to the gymnasium immediately.” Mr. Frame’s face got red. “Quick, let’s go,” he said, “we’ll go on with this later,” and we all jumped up and got in line—sixth graders know how to do that really well—and rushed off to the gym, with Mr. Frame kind of lumbering along behind us. We already knew what the principal was going to talk about—after the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance that is—because Ellen’s mother worked in the office, and she had told her the night before. It was about the new video cameras they were going to install all over the school. Ellen’s Mom told her that one whole wall of the principal’s office was already covered with TV screens, each one of which would show a different place—all the classrooms, the hallways, the bathrooms, the entrances, and nobody was sure what else. What was surprising was that Mr. Frame didn’t seem to know about it until he heard the principal announce it in this meeting. I don’t think he knew because I was sitting behind him, and when the principal said it, I saw his face get red again and his body get really tense, like he was upset. That was the thing I liked about Mr. Frame—he just couldn’t hide his feelings. For a minute I thought he was going to get up and say something, his body was so tense. But he didn’t, and after a while he seemed to relax a bit. Mr. Mach was dressed in a shiny grey suit and a red tie, and he stood behind a microphone on the stage. His voice boomed all over the gym, very loud but difficult to understand because of the echo from the hard shiny walls and floors. From what we could make out, he said that the “monitoring”—which is what he called it—was going to “increase all our
security,” and “make life more comfortable for you and for your parents, knowing that their children are safe at all times.” Then he started to tell us how everything would be recorded on a special hard drive that could store millions and millions of hours of tape of . . . well, of people coming in and out of doors—or just the spots in front of the doors, with nobody at all—and sitting in classrooms and washing their hands in the bathroom (or not washing their hands) and stuff like that. “We are very proud,” he said, “to have the most cutting-edge, high-tech equipment on the market today in our school. The cameras are so small that you won’t even be aware of them, and you can forget they’re even there and go about your business of learning. Let me emphasize that knowing that you are protected by the very leading edge technology in security apparatus today will allow you to relax about your safety and improve your academic performance today and tomorrow. And your academic performance is what matters. This investment in our future as a school community will make your parents proud, and bring our school the recognition for excellence and innovation which it deserves.” Then he called the Head Coach to come lead us in the School Cheer. Everybody had to stand up to do it—or at least I think we had to. Everybody did anyway. Then we were dismissed. Back in the classroom, Mr. Frame sat at his desk in the back of the room, writing with a pen. Some of us felt like something was wrong, but we weren’t sure exactly what. Mostly kids were just talking among themselves, and a couple of the boys were horsing around with an eraser—flicking it at each other’s heads, then scrambling to grab it, and bumping into people’s legs or reaching across their desks, annoying everybody, but they had no idea, or didn’t care. After a few minutes it got very quiet, as if everybody had suddenly realized that it was strange that Mr. Frame was just sitting there, writing. Then it was like people forgot and started talking and fooling around again. Then, suddenly, it would get quiet again, then noisy—that happened about three times. Finally he got up and walked to the front of the room, and sat down on his tall stool. “OK,” he said, “where were we?”
IN THE CAVE OF THE NYMPHS The night before our last visit to the villa, I had another dream. It wasn’t like the one I told you about before. In this one, I was standing in our living room and looking at the long thin colorful tapestry that Mrs. Epistemi had sent my parents. Suddenly, the arrangement of the colors turned into writing. I mean, I saw that the tapestry was actually a piece of writing. I thought to myself how strange that was, that I hadn’t seen before that it was writing and not just colors. And somehow I knew that I was supposed to read it differently from the way you usually read writing. I was supposed to read from the bottom up, and from the right to the left. I started reading it, and it was something amazing, but now I don’t remember what it said. I don’t even remember what it was about! Then suddenly I was on a street somewhere in a big city, but it was a very narrow street—an alley. Dolphius was with me, next to me. There were little shops on either side. It seemed like maybe it was another country, in another time long long ago or far far in the future, but I didn’t really think about that. I don’t know if it was day or night. I was walking down the street; or not exactly—it was more like I was a camera moving down the street. I mean, there was no me, really, just what I was seeing. Then suddenly I was on some narrow stairs—old wooden stairs—and then in an apartment, an old apartment with all kinds of strange antique furniture around. I’ve never seen anything like that before, ever. That’s what can be really strange about dreams. There were seven women in the apartment, and they were all very old. They were dressed in long dresses, like dresses from a long time ago that you see in pictures—fancy dresses, like evening dresses for a wedding or a ball or something like that, but very old, kind of yellowing. They were sitting in chairs, just talking. I knew that they were nymphs, even they didn’t look like the usual pictures that people make when they imagine nymphs. I don’t remember what they were saying. One of them seemed to stand out more than the others, but she wasn’t talking very much--it was
just that she was the one I was paying the most attention to in my dream. Dolphius sat next to me, on his haunches, looking from one to the other. In my dream, it was like they didn’t see that we were there. Or, they knew that we were there, but it didn’t change the way they were talking with each other. Like we were so much a part of their group that they didn’t notice us. I was standing by a window, with small dusty panes of glass. I looked out the window and down at the street below—the apartment was on the first floor. My father and Nixie’s mother were standing down there, on the street, in the middle of the alley, looking up at the window. The sun was shining horizontally, like a golden fire on everything, like it was the end of the day. I could tell that they didn’t see me. Then I woke up. The moment I woke up, I tried to remember what the writing had said, but I couldn’t. It was already gone! It was so near to me, the memory—like it was in the next room, I had just known it, but I couldn’t go back to it. I thought to myself that if I could remember what the writing had said that I could understand the rest of the dream, but I just couldn’t get back to it. So I got up and went downstairs and stood in the same place I had been standing in the dream and looked at the tapestry, and studied it and studied it, but it was just colors, I couldn’t see anything else, no matter how hard I stared at it. I tried to let my eyes go out of focus, like do when you look at a picture that changes into something else if you stare at it long enough, but that didn’t work either. Finally I gave up, and figured I would just forget the dream, since I didn’t know what it meant. That was strange, because it seemed to mean so much, but I just couldn’t get at it. It was Saturday, a strange Saturday, because it was still hot—it had been hot for so long that I couldn’t remember when it hadn’t been hot—but the sky was dark and the air was humid, like it was going to rain. My mom and dad were still asleep—they like to sleep late on weekends. I went to the kitchen and to the back door— it was a screen door—and looked out. Dolphius came from the living room, where he had been sleeping on the soft rug we have for him, and I opened the door and let him out. It felt like a very special day, like something was going to happen. I could hear thunder way, way in the distance, like drums far away, announcing something. The air was heavy, but wet, and sweet—soft. And suddenly I wanted to go out there again, to the villa. You know how it is when you want to do something very badly and it doesn’t seem possible? Or maybe not you--I don’t know, I guess I should say me, and just speak for myself. My mind just starts figuring and figuring, like a small animal trying to get out of a box, rushing around and looking for a way out, like it can’t stop until it’s found it—like a smart animal, but
not quite smart enough to get out. All the obvious ways come very quickly, in a flash, but none of them work, and then it’s like you know there must be some other ways, but they’re on the outside of the box, and I imagine myself outside the box, but don’t know how to get from where I am to where I imagine I am. I mean, I know that there must be something I’m missing, but I don’t know what it is. I know that there must be a way, because I want it so much. If you want something so much, how could there not be a way to have it? But there’s not a way. It’s like sitting at your desk with a math problem that you can’t solve, or a rubic’s cube that just won’t fit together. You know that the only way you can solve the problem is to forget about it for a while, to go and do something else, to think about something else, but you just can’t. Then my cell phone rang. It was Nixie. She said, “Let’s go to the villa.” Three hours later we were on the road with the tall grass. Nixie’s Mom was driving, very slowly as we looked for the spot, and Dolphius was sitting straight up in the back seat, looking out the window, his head turning back and forth. The sky was even darker now, and the thunder closer, rumbling like a huge muffled voice in the distance, but there was no rain. There was a feeling of expectation everywhere, in everyone’s faces, as if something was about to happen that had never happened before. The air was very still, and heavy, as if it were waiting too. When we thought we were in the right place, she let us out. She said she was going to go shopping on the highway (the one we walked on the last time we had come), and she would take her time, and that we could call her on her cell phone when we were ready to be picked up. She turned the car around on the narrow road, and we stood and watched as it disappeared around a corner. I know, I know, I haven’t told you anything about what happened with my parents—I mean why they let us do it, to go see Mrs. Epistemi again, I mean. I’ll just tell you that they had a big discussion about it in their bedroom, with the door closed. When that happened—when they went in and closed the door--I knew that they had different opinions about it, and I could pretty well tell what they were, and who had them. Then they called Nixie’s Mom, and they had a long talk, and finally they all settled it. But I don’t want to talk about that right now, because I really want to get to what happened. We made the call for the horses—actually Nixie made the call—as soon as we were in the woods. I think we almost could have gotten there ourselves this time—it seemed pretty familiar—but we figured that if we called the horses, Mrs. Epistemi would somehow— or might
somehow—know, and would be expecting us. But the horses didn’t come. We called three or four times, then began walking. And in fact it was like we knew it, or our bodies knew it, somehow we didn’t have any doubt that we could get there. It was clear—the wide lane, more than just a path, more like a road except there were no ruts on it—grassy and overhung with tree branches, dark in the sunless light, the brooding air. W e had walked about fifteen minutes when suddenly a flock of goldfinches—those yellow birds with black masks and wing-bands—very small, quick birds—a whole flock, more than a dozen—suddenly appeared in the branches above us, flittering and twittering, darting and fluttering, almost around our heads. It was a like a little storm, like yellow rain spattering the trees. The leaves were shaking and trembling and moving. We stopped and stood, looking up, listening to the music of it, as if we were in a strange church. Then Nixie said, “Look!” It was the white deer, the same one we had seen the first time we came back on the horses--at least it looked just like it. He was standing near a bend in the path ahead of us, his whiteness glowing in the dark, brooding light, his head up and sideways, one huge shining blue eye on us, his rack of horns jutting and branching above his head like a strange crown. Later, Nixie said he blinked, or winked, but I don’t remember seeing that. Anyway, she said, “Let’s follow it. I think we’re supposed to follow it.” She started walking, and I followed her, leaving the goldfinches behind, still swarming around in those trees. Nixie had that look about her—the dreamy look—except that usually when she had it she was just sitting or standing, and now she was moving like she really knew where she was going. We had to kind of scramble after the white deer, because he was moving fast. Dolphius stayed behind us, at our heels, which was strange because he usually likes to go out ahead. The stag shone in the dark gloom of the day like a soft white light. He disappeared for a while, but when we came to a crossing of paths—there were actually three—we looked to the right and saw him standing, looking like he was waiting for us, at the same distance he had always been ahead of us. Then he turned, and we followed again, as fast as we could. W e walked another ways and saw him stop again, watching us. W hen we got to where he had been standing we saw a narrow footpath, to the left, that wound itself between thick trees and bushes. It was very dense, but the path was clear and smooth and covered with pine needles. So we left the larger path and took it, and it got even darker, and he shone up ahead of us like a moving beam of light. We felt like we were going deeper and deeper into some kind of night in the middle of the day—as if the light was fading
and fading, while the thunder still rumbled in the distance like huge warguns in a battle far away. Then we came to a rock—a cliff, towering above us, rising up out of the thick bushy forest—and just glimpsed, ahead of us, almost no longer to be seen, the white deer, and saw that he was inside the rock! We looked again: he was in a tunnel that went into the rock! He just fit in the tunnel. We could see that his antlers were almost scraping the roof of it. But we could stand up, and even walk side by side with Dolphius just ahead of us. We kept our eyes on the big white deer because it seemed like he was the only light there was, shining. It was strange: we could see the ground in front of us as we set each foot down, even though it was dark around us, and we felt a cold dampness flowing from the rock walls on either side of us. It was a natural tunnel—we could tell it wasn’t made by people—so maybe really I should call it a cave, but it was very straight, and very regular, and it got darker and darker as we got to the middle of it. I tripped on something—a root, or a stone—and Nixie grabbed my hand as I pitched forward and balanced me so that I didn’t fall. Now we even felt cold, it was getting colder the further we went into the tunnel, and I realized that I hadn’t felt cold in such a long time that it seemed like we were on another planet. I began to feel afraid, and I think that Nixie did too because she was still holding my hand, and her grip was tighter than before. We could hear the deer’s hooves clopping and scraping on the stone floor of the path ahead of us, and I imagined that I could hear the deer breathing, and that I could see its eyes shining like blue flames, and that it didn’t have a body like us—that it had a spirit body, like a ghost. I mean, I really started to have some strange thoughts. And then, just before those thoughts became stranger than I could stand, we came out. We came out suddenly—we just came to the end of it and we were standing in a meadow, and—it was so strange!—the sun was shining. Yes! The sun was shining, and it was a beautiful day! Can you believe me? The sun felt like an old friend that you thought you might never see again because he had moved away. That’s strange if you think about it, because until today, on all those other days of the heat wave that never stopped, the sun felt like a cruel, blind punisher that caught us in its oven-arms and never let go, and didn’t even know what it was doing— like a stupid mean old powerful thing. Now it was like an old friend, like someone who was as much inside us as it was outside of us. We stood there, blinking, feeling it like a warm friendly body hug. The deer was nowhere to be seen. We heard water bubbling and running water, and as our eyes adjusted to the light, we looked around and
recognized where we were. It was the little valley! The valley with the cave! And the water, and the rich green grassy meadow, and the flowers, and the bees, and the fruit trees! The water was singing, and the birds were there, the flock of goldfinches playing in the trees and swooping low over the grasses and darting here and there and even, it seemed, turning somersaults (Nixie says they weren’t, and that goldfinches never do that anyway). Dolphius went right to the bubbling spring and pool and waded into it, smiling, then drinking, but we headed straight for the meadow with the soft thick green grass. I think we meant to sit down there and just let the sun hug us for awhile, but something happened first. Well, two things happened, and I don’t know whether they happened at the same time, or one right after the other. Nixie doesn’t know either. The first thing was that there was a big oak tree on the edge of the meadow, and as we walked past it, we heard a strange rustling sound, and the trunk began to change its form. We both saw this, exactly the same way. We looked at it for one second—for less than a second—and suddenly the tree trunk was a woman, and then before we even realized that that wasn’t possible, she twisted and flowed out of it, like one body turning into another kind of body and leaving the old body behind, and she flowed past us like a ghost. She was taller than us, and dressed in a long flowing brown robe, the same color as the trunk of the tree, and her hair rippled down her back and behind her, and she passed within a few feet of us. As she rustled past a cold breeze struck us, and she turned her long face to us. It was the face of a beautiful young woman, but she had no age. She was like a statue but she was alive. Her eyes fixed on us, huge and blue, open so wide it was like she was looking through us. Then she was already way past us, her feet barely touching the ground, moving in huge bounds, like an Olympic athlete, her robe and her hair flowing behind her, and we realized that she was moving toward the cave, and then she was gone. Nixie and I turned to each other, our eyes wide. “Dryad!” I whispered. Then we heard the singing. Dolphius was not in sight. We knew he was probably already in the cave, and we knew that’s where we were going too, as if something was pulling us along. We came to the entrance, and I have to say that I don’t even remember slipping through the hole, which had bushes in front of it so you had to know where it was or you wouldn’t see it. It was just that suddenly we were inside and saw everything all at once under the huge cave ceiling—the circles of robed dancers whirling and spinning, flowing and stooping and rising, linking hands and separating, and Mrs. Epistemi sitting on one of the stone benches along the wall, her eyes wide and round, a
dreamy smile on her face, watching. Dolphius was already sitting next to her, right next to her knee, his head cocked, watching too. We walked in, staying close to the benches, and sat down on the same bench as her. She didn’t even turn her head. We knew right away that it wasn’t because she didn’t want us there—it was more like she was in some kind of dream. The dancers moved like water, and like wind, and like sunlight playing on a lake. They moved like galaxies, and like wheels of fire, and like waves smoothly crashing on a long white curving beach. Their long hair was wreathed with flowers, and flowers lay strewn around the smooth stone floor. They were singing, but it was hard to know how, because you didn’t really notice their mouths moving. It was more like their bodies—draped with light, flowing robes—were instruments that made the music as they moved through the sweet-smelling air. It was high music and breathy, like wind instruments. Sometimes there was a trilling, like the sound that Mrs. Epistemi made to call the horses—the sound that Nixie had learned how to make—and sometimes a low kind of roaring, like the throat of the sea, and underneath a kind of drumming, that didn’t seem to have any rhythm until you let yourself go listening to it, and just let it drum in your body, like it was your heartbeat, or the rhythm of your blood. I read that one of the first mathematicians we know about—his name was Pythagoras—taught that the planets actually make tones—music—as they move around in space, and that those tones are in harmony, the way strings are tuned, and that is what they called it the “music of the spheres.” Well, this music sounded kind of like what you would think nature—I mean trees and grass and rocks and wind and clouds and sun and streams and rivers and mountain tops and all the animals of the world—would make as they moved—if everything that moved made a sound, and even things that didn’t move gave off some kind of humming vibration. Maybe it’s what you hear when you are tuned in to the atomic structure of everything that is. I looked at Nixie and her face was still that way it is when she’s daydreaming, as if she were looking as much inside herself as outside. Then I knew what it was she felt when she looked like that, because I felt like that too—like I didn’t know what was a dream and what was real anymore, but it didn’t feel scary; in fact it felt good. And were these persons we were watching? Were they once persons and had become something else? Were they what persons might become? Or were they not yet persons? If we joined them—if they would accept us—and lived with them, would we become like them? Would we find ourselves being able to do everything they did just through living with them and learning from them? Or would
we always be different, the way apes are different from humans—somehow the same, but forever different? Later, after everything that happened, and we were talking about the nymphs, my mother said, “We really don’t know what the human race might become, and I don’t think we can predict it. I suppose we could easily become more like animals, but not in a good way. I mean more selfish, and more violent, and less caring about other people. That would be more like dogs that had been spoiled or abused by their masters. But I could also imagine that we might become more like what we’d like to become—more caring, more fair, more gentle, more determined not to do harm to anyone. And I’m not really sure what would make one thing or the other happen.” “Well there are drugs that people take that make them more peaceful,” I said. “So if everyone was taking the ‘peace drug’, then it would stop war. And maybe they would develop a drug that made everyone want to share things equally with each other—make them feel bad when they had more than another person.” “Do you really think so?” my father said. It was two days later, and we were sitting around talking—my parents and Nixie’s mom, and Beth and Tracey, and of course Nixie and myself. “That would be a fake,” Nixie said. “A person who is a certain way, acts or feels a certain way because of a pill is a fake person.” “How can you say that?” Beth said. “I mean, if they’re really feeling that way, they’re really feeling that way, whether it’s a pill that does it or something else.” “Yeah,” Tracey said. “I mean, the people who study the brain say that feelings come from chemical states in the brain anyway, and the drug would just change the chemical state a little, to make it . . . “ Tracey seemed to be looking for the right word. “Perfect?” said Nixie’s Mom. “Yeah, perfect,” Tracey said. “Like, always smooth.” My mom kind of shuddered. “Perfect like a machine?” “Well, why not?” my father said, and from his tone of voice I could tell that he was about to play the devil’s advocate. He likes to do that sometimes, just to make things more interesting, I guess. “I mean, humans have been moving toward being machines ever since they invented the first piece of technology, the first tool. Maybe it wouldn’t even have to be a pill. It could just be a computer chip that’s installed under your skin—a minor surgical operation, five minutes, no pain, and you’d hardly even remember it was there, especially if it was programmed so you wouldn’t.” “Robots!” Beth said.
“Not robots. Just taking advantage of robotics, which we invented. We might as well be robots anyway,” my dad said, with that little smile. I can see why Tracey likes him, because in a certain way they are very much alike. “People tend to walk around like sleepwalkers anyway.” “But the people who program the chips and put them in have to have chips themselves,” Nixie’s mom said. “Otherwise they’ll take advantage of the others. They’ll take all their money, or program them to be their slaves.” “Why are you afraid of that?” my Dad said, still with that smile. “Don’t we have to trust that they’re doing it for a good cause?” You could tell he was being sarcastic. “OK, seriously,” my mom said. “If you really could do it, and you could guarantee that if everyone put in these chips, there would never ever again be war, and everyone would have enough to eat, and that the pollution would stop, and wage slavery would stop—“ “What’s wage slavery?” I asked. “It’s when rich people have poor people working for them, and they keep them poor by never paying them enough, while they get richer and richer. If you could guarantee peace and justice, would you agree to it?” No one said anything. No one knew what to say, even my dad! In the cave, the dancing and singing went on and on, I think. I honestly cannot say whether it was five minutes or fifteen, a half hour or two hours or more, and Nixie says she can’t either. Dolphius sat next to Mrs. Epistemi, at attention, his nose pointed up, as if he was smelling all the mysterious sweetness, but he was watching too. I have never seen him sit still like that for so long. The dancers moved like there was no plan, but everything was in perfect order. And the huge bronze-green statue of the nymph that stood in one corner—the woman in the long flowing dress and the veil, and one arm raised and one pointing down—seemed to be part of the dance, seemed to be moving with them. There was a huge clap of thunder. It seemed to shake the cathedral walls of the cave, and echoed rolling back and forth around the high empty space. Just one huge stroke of sound, and when it had faded, we heard the rain. It was a soft, sweet sound, and soon we began to hear the trickling of water as it ran down the cliff walls outside, and dripped over the cave entrance, and drifted in like a misty spray from the seven openings way The dancing never stopped, baubtotvhee ussinigninthge crhoacnkgceedi.liInt gm. ixed with the gentle, steady sound of the rain, and the sounds of water running somewhere in the cave, and the soft brushing of bare feet on the smooth cave floor. It was one whole sound; you could not tell the pieces of it apart, even though each was different. Then there was another huge clap of thunder that shook and went rolling around
the cave, and as if it were a signal, the nymphs whirled and spun, spiraling like a cyclone, and then began streaming one by one toward the huge stairs—the ones Nixie and I had not been able to climb the last time we were there. One would spin off and run leaping, her long legs flashing like beams of sunlight, towards the stairs and stride up it and then another behind her, and another, like a line of poplar trees waving in a high wind, and before we even knew it, they had all swept away and off and upwards and were gone, leaving the smooth stone floor empty except for the wildflowers strewn about and the sound of the rain all around us—pouring now, spattering through the seven openings in the rock way above, and drifting down on us like ocean spray. Mrs. Epistemi turned to us, smiling, her eyes bright with greeting. “Dolphius!” she said, and Dolphius stood, his tail wagging, and set his noble head on her knee.
THE SANNYASIN Outside, it was raining very hard. We were soaked immediately, the moment we stepped into it. The horses were there, standing in the rain, their heads lowered, like they were half asleep. Mrs. Epistemi climbed onto one of them—she had no trouble at all, it was almost as if she leapt onto the horse. Her long skirt bunched up on her strong bare thighs, and she leaned down and offered a hand to Nixie. Nixie leapt up behind her like a nymph. “Put your hands around my waist, my darling child,” she said. “Myshkin, Fluvia is yours. Climb up.” I jumped on, and immediately both horses were at a gallop. It was a smooth gallop. Just like before, I felt like I had always known how to ride. The cool rain washed and streamed against us—it was so thick I felt like I was riding a dolphin, a big fish surging and plunging smoothly through the water. I felt like I could go on like this forever, riding through the pouring rain, as if I were swimming through the sky, knowing what the horse felt, as if I and the horse were one body. Not as if I were a horse, but as if the horse was me, too. Later, sitting around after it was all over—the fires, and the school closing, and the destruction of the fountain—we sat around in our little hideaway in the park woods, Beth and Tracey and Nixie and I, and we told them about that ride, and Beth wondered, “Is it the same for a car? Like when you’re riding in a car, do you feel like you’re part of the car, and the car is part of you?” “That would mean that now that horse riding is gone, we become the machines. We identify with the machines. Isn’t that horrible? Wouldn’t it make us not human anymore?” Nixie said. “Why wouldn’t it make us more human?” Tracey said. “How do you mean? How could bonding with a machine make us more human? Machines don’t have feelings, or brains, they don’t even have bodies.” “Well, because we made them. The car is designed by the human brain. And if you’re riding horses, you’re actually in a master and slave relationship. You are the master and the horse is the slave. And humans 113
don’t like to be slaves, so why should horses?” Tracey said. “And it does have a body. A car is a body, isn’t it? It’s not like the human body, but it’s a body.” “But it doesn’t . . . desire. It’s not a desiring body,” Nixie said. “What do you mean, desiring body?” asked Beth. “I mean a body that feels and wants and needs and makes plans and things like that.” “It has become part of our body when we drive it,” Tracey said. “We designed it to be part of our body. It’s like an extension of our body—our body with wheels instead of legs—so you could say that it is a desiring body too, if you want to use that word.” Well now, riding in the sweet rush of the rain, I think maybe I was an extension of Fluvia’s body the same way hers was an extension of mine. Was she the slave and I the master? That didn’t seem to be what it was about at all—I mean, it seemed more like a partnership. Is that wrong? Maybe if a slave got used to being a slave he wouldn’t even know he was a slave--he wouldn’t even know that there was such a thing as being free. It would take someone telling him, and then he might not even believe it. Like when the guard opens the cell door and the prisoner doesn’t go out, he just stays there because he’s so used to it. And besides isn’t the master also a slave, because he needs the slave in order to be the master? No slave, no master. No master, no slave! The horses clattered onto the paving stones in front of the villa, with Dolphius streaking behind them, then veered around the side and to the back and stopped in the little garden outside the hut. We slipped off and went inside, and Mrs. Epistemi brought us some towels. Then she took a towel and began to rub down Dolphius, smiling as she did so, and he sat calm and happy as she rubbed his head. The first thing we noticed was that the room looked different. It was bare. The pictures had been taken off the mantle and the tables, and there were no longer any of her bright tapestries hanging on the walls. There were no longer any cups or dishes above the wood cooking stove, and the wooden carving of the nymph was gone. And strangest of all, there was a knapsack sitting next to the door, packed full. The thunder struck very close, a huge booming crack, making the walls tremble, and almost immediately afterwards a sudden brilliant shaft of lightening struck outside in the woods. It was close enough that it lit up the whole room, and we saw a ball of fire lift and drift upwards into the air. Nixie and I jumped, and looked at each other, but Mrs. Epistemi seemed hardly to notice— she just kept toweling Dolphius’ head fondly.
“It’s time for me to be in the world in a different way,” she said, her eyes still on Dolphius. “Do you know about the four stages of life in India?” We sat watching her, tense, waiting for her to go on. Another booming clap of thunder, another jagged flash of lightening. “The first is the stage of the student, which is you, my dears. What the student learns is to be obedient, respectful, and non-violent. For these Indians of course, the teacher is God. “The second stage of life is called the stage of the householder. This is more than keeping a house. It is also practicing your gift, your vocation, the thing you are good at, that you feel called to do in the world. It is also the stage where you have children, and you teach.” She looked around her at the bare walls, the empty space, and sighed. Then she smiled. Later, Nixie said that she has a way of allowing herself to be sad, and then allowing herself to become peaceful and happy again. “I don’t think it’s something that you can make yourself do,” she said. “You just have to let yourself be sad, and then happiness will come back.” “And if you don’t let yourself?” Beth said. “Then what?” “I mean, if you can’t let yourself be sad, then you can’t let yourself be happy,” Nixie replied. The Beautiful Old Woman went on. “The third stage is the one I am finishing. It’s called the stage of the forest dweller. It’s when you’re hair is gray and your skin wrinkled, and you often have grandchildren to carry on the family. You and your husband or wife leave all your business and your possessions, and go to the forest together to live as hermits. This has been a beautiful time, even though I lost my Ernesto.” More thunder. A blinding flash. “And the last stage, the one I am beginning today, is the stage of the wanderer. It is called sannyâsa, the stage of the wandering acetic. You take only your clothes with you—some, called the “sky clad” ones, don’t even take their clothes! In India, when the sannyâsin enters a temple, she is not the worshipper, but the one who is worshipped. And who knows who or what my companions will be. I will find out every day.” “Dolphius will be your companion,” I said. No one had said this, but I already knew it. I had known that Dolphius wanted to stay with her from the first time they met. “Yes,” she said. “Dolphius will be my companion, and you are two times a master by letting him go.” “What do you mean?” I said. “By letting him move naturally to me, you have shown not just that you can control him, but yourself too.” I felt hot in my face, and thick in my
throat, like a wanted to cry. But I didn’t. Again the thunder. When the lightening flashed, it seemed so close that I thought it had hit the cottage. The light was blinding and I shut my eyes. When I did, I suddenly saw in my mind the old woman at the fountain, the one I had seen just a few months before, the one whose eyes I had met. Was she a sannyâsin too, or just a crazy old homeless woman? But isn’t that what sannyâsin are? Suddenly there was the sound of a distant siren. It was one of those huge Civil Defense sirens, that ones that warn the whole town that there is a tornado, or fire, or in the movies of World War II, bombers are coming. It was far far away, but the sound reached us. Mrs. Epistemi finished toweling Dolphius, and he got up and came to me and laid his head on my knees where I was sitting, looking up at me. I stroked his head, the way she had been doing. Nixie had her hands over her ears, because the thunder was really bothering her. “The horses are for your use,” Mrs. Epistemi said. “They are here in the garden. I will be going in the other direction, on foot. Now show me your hands again, my beautiful Nixie.” Nixie took her hands off her ears, put them out in front of her, and opened them. The writing was still there, but it was kind of washed out from the rain. “You will be called on to be brave, with a task like the one you have written on your hands,” she said. “How could one person make any difference?” Nixie asked here, looking up into her eyes. “Who else will make a difference, unless it is persons? And how are persons ever any more than one person, and another, and another? Then how else could a difference be made?” “But I’m afraid that evil is too strong, and too deep,” Nixie said. “Evil is nothing but people who cannot or will not do the good,” answered Mrs. Epistemi. “What about those who kill the good ones, or put them in prison? And especially when they think that they themselves, the killers and jailors, are the good ones?” “Even so, there are many, many more of the good ones. It is only fear that stops them from doing good.” “Then we are evil, if we can’t do the good, even if it’s only fear that stops us!” Nixie’s soft eyes were blazing. Thunder—a crack this time, as if something were breaking in two, and then lightening, and a sharp but hollow sound. We all knew it had hit something. We heard the horses whinny and rear. And still the huge siren miles away--a machine screaming like a human, or a human screaming like machine.
“We must continue this conversation the next time we meet, my noble friend,” said Mrs. Epistemi, and she leaned and kissed Nixie on the forehead, then on both cheeks, then briefly on the lips. She turned to me and reached out her hand. I took it and kissed it. I don’t know why—I’ve never kissed anyone’s hand before, unless it was a joke I guess, like with my mom; but then I’m not really sure it was a joke either. She smiled at me and squeezed my hand back, then reached out and rubbed my head, like I was Dolphius. “Goodbye my beautiful boy. And what will you write on your hands so as not to forget?” I didn’t answer. I couldn’t talk. I didn’t know. There was a lump in my throat, and I don’t know if it was because of Dolphius, or her, or both of them, or the lightening. I thought I smelled smoke. “Here,” she said. “Something to help remember,” and she put a very small dark blue velvet bag in my hand. It had something heavy and flat and round in it. I looked up at her and nodded. My throat was still lumpy. She turned and walked to the door and picked up her knapsack and pulled it over one shoulder and turned again, her eyes shining. Dolphius quickly lifted his head, then trotted to her. “Goodbye my dears. Watch for us,” she said, and she was gone. Dolphius didn’t look back. We sat as if we were frozen. I don’t know how long. Then BOOM, another clap and a strike and we both jumped up as if it was a signal. “Let’s go,” Nixie said, and I stuck the velvet bag in my pocket and followed right behind her. But instead of going out the sliding glass door into the garden, she turned and opened the wooden door that went into the courtyard—the green one where Mrs. Epistemi had first met us. Even though the courtyard had high stone walls around it and a tall tree in the middle of it, the rain was still pouring down, and we could hear strong wind in the tree tops beyond the walls. As we passed the well, we saw the snake again. It was huge and black and wet and muscular, glistening in the darkening light, and stretched out around the round stone well. It didn’t move, and we walked quickly past it, towards the kitchen door. I looked up, and saw where the smell of smoke was coming from. The roof was on fire in three places. The flames weren’t too high, because it was so wet I guess, but they gleamed and shone like holes in the sky. “The piano!” Nixie said, and stopped, looking up at the third floor windows. I took her hand. Thunder, and the lightning struck again, and hit the big tree. A hissing sound, and another fireball rose like a balloon, disappearing into the air. “We have to go on,” I said, pulling at her hand.
But Nixie would not. “I have to see the piano again,” she said. Her face was streaming with water in the rain, so I didn’t know if she was crying or not, but she looked upset. She pulled her hand away and walked quickly up the three steps and pushed the kitchen door open and we walked through it—past the old sinks, and the big wood burning cook stove, and the big old table where the food had been prepared for so many years. Then we were in the main hallway with the beautiful old rugs and the dark glistening hardwood floors. We saw Mrs. Epistemi’s loom sitting in the room on the left—there was a half finished piece in it of shining blues and yellows—and as we turned and began climbing the wide spiral of the stairs, there was another huge clap of thunder that rolled through the house, echoing. We ran up the two flights to the third floor. I smelled smoke again—because we were nearer the roof, I guess. Nixie went to the piano and sat down and without even pausing, began playing the Bach piece. Now I saw that she was crying; the tears were streaming down her cheeks, but it didn’t stop her from playing. The music drifted smoothly, in perfect measure, into the troubled air, while the rain drummed and hissed on the roof not too far above us, and the war siren roared through its open metal throat far away, and the thunder close and far smashed and cracked and shook the big house. It was like listening to some strange and terrible symphony. I went into the study, stood in the doorway and gazed around me. Then I went and ran my hand over the old roll-top desk that still looked like new, and across the books that lined the shelves that reached from floor to ceiling. I looked and looked, knowing I would never see it again. I wanted to take it deep in my memory, so that I could bring it back to mind just as real as it was; but it was like a hungry person staring at a feast that he will never be able to eat. Later, when I told everyone about that moment, my father said, “Yes, you can’t take anything with you.” We were sitting around in our house, after the storm, talking about what happened the day before in the woods. Beth was there too, and Tracey, and Nixie and her mom. “Each moment is gone,” he said. “It never comes back. The memory of something is never any better than a tourist’s snapshot.” I moved into the art studio, while the music drifted and settled like bars of color in the air. Everything was like it was the last time we were there—the paintings and the easels and the unfinished statue of the Hamadryad was still sitting on the table, with the wood-carving tools next to it. I picked it up. I decided I would take it with me. It was very heavy, because it was actually made from part of a tree trunk, but it fit in my arms.
Another clap of thunder, and a bolt of lightning hit the roof—it felt like it was hitting me—and then the peacock screamed. It was the same scream, exactly the same, and at the moment it tore through the house, the piano stopped, and Nixie appeared in the door of the study. “We have to go!” she shouted. “Look!” I looked behind me. There was smoke drifting through the partly open window. We turned and moved quickly down the wide spiral staircase, then out the open double front doors and into the pouring rain. The wind had risen now, and was blowing the rain sideways against our faces. The wood sculpture was heavy, and I began to wonder if I would have to leave it somewhere. Already my mind was racing, thinking of where I might hide it on the way so I could find it later. Nixie called for the horses, in her throat, but they didn’t come. “We’ll keep calling, but let’s go!” she said, and we ran for the cover of the trees, and found the wide path that the horses took us on, and I knew then that we could find our way out, even without the horses. And we had a cell phone, and Nixie’s mom was waiting for our call. But what I didn’t expect were the fires everywhere. I guess it was because the woods were so dry from the drought and the heat, and the lightning storm was so violent, that it set fires almost everywhere it struck. It was a bunch of small, individual fires—here a leaf fire on the ground, and there a dead tree in flames. In places it was kind of creeping along the forest floor, through the dead leaves. Smoke was drifting through the trees. In some places there were no flames, but just burning coals on the ground, like patches of the earth’s skin were burning, and when I looked at them, suddenly it seemed to me that the fire was not on the ground, but in the ground—I mean that it was glowing up from underneath—that the whole earth was on fire from underneath. Maybe the whole earth is fire, and we just don’t see it because there’s a skin on top, but now the fire was spreading from the middle of the planet upward and outward. Two days later—it was that same conversation in our livingroom—Tracey said “But it is, Myshkin. The earth is mostly fire. You only have to dig a hole twenty or thirty miles deep and you’ll find it. And if you dig down from the ocean floor, in some places you only have to go ten miles deep. It’s so hot it’s melted— it’s liquid stone! I mean seven eighths of the planet is molten rock! The crust that we live on is just that—a little crust!” I have to say that this was the first time I had seen Tracey excited like that—I mean really in wonder about something, like he could hardly believe it. “The mantle—that’s the melted rock part—is 6000 degrees! And the inner core—the inner core— listen to this!” Tracey was so excited that he
was almost stuttering. “The inner core might be hotter than the surface of the sun!” “Really!” my father said. He was getting excited too, just hearing Tracey talk about it. “Yes!” Tracey said. “Thirteen thousand degrees! Hotter than the surface of the sun!” “And that’s where life began!” Beth said, her hands moving like fluttering birds as she talked. “Remember what Mr. Frame told us? In the water four billion years ago, in the panthallasa, the everywhere-sea, the warm primordial soup, and bacteria, the first life, formed in the cracks between the plates of the crust, in the hot water vents.” Anyway, that’s what it looked like in the forest, and after I saw it that way just once as we were moving almost at a run down the wide path, I couldn’t see it any other way. It was like it says in the Bible—the day of judgment—I read it one time when I just picked up our Bible and opened it anywhere and looked. It talks about “the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire.” That’s what it says. Then it says there will be “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” That means there won’t be any more people doing bad things, that all the evil and fighting and horrible weapons and meanness and ugly power situations will be over. In another place in the Bible—my mom told me about this one--a prophet says that in this new heaven and new earth nothing of the past will be remembered, and that there will always be rejoicing and happiness, no weeping or crying, just joy and delight, and nobody will die young, and everyone will live long past 100, in fact at 100 you’re just a “youth,” and everyone will have their own house and plenty of food that they grow themselves, and no one will build houses or plant food for someone else, like poor people working for rich bosses, and wolves and lions and lambs will all be vegetarian—they’ll eat grass together in the same field, and “none shall hurt or destroy on all my holy mountains, says the Lord.” Well, that’s what I thought was really exciting—I mean just the idea that it might be possible, that there really could be peace. I mean real peace, like people acting peacefully all the time, and no police or soldiers or beatings or torture, or lawyers or courts or jails or jealousies or threats or stealing from each other, or greed or corruption. When I shared that (there in our house) nobody really said anything for a few seconds. Then Tracey said, “Yeah, don’t you wish!” The wooden Hamadryad was getting too heavy. My arms were hurting, and my back. I had to leave it. I put it down, carefully, next to an oak tree.
I wondered to myself how I could remember where that oak tree was, when I came back later. But I didn’t have time to figure it out, so I just tried to fix that particular place in my memory by staring at it really hard. And as I did so, we heard that same weird rustling, and the trunk of that very same tree began to change, shifting like a picture losing its focus, and a nymph came rushing out and past us. I think that no matter how many times I see it, it will always be such a shock—my hair felt like it was standing straight up, and it felt like electric current was running up and down my body, like I was some other kind of creature. Then I looked down and saw that there was something lying on the ground. It was a piece of cloth, light purple, lying right next to the carving I had just put down. It was like a shawl—very thin cloth, almost transparent and it hardly weighed anything. The Dryad must have dropped it. I picked it up and stuffed it in my pocket and ran after Nixie. Nixie hadn’t seen the nymph because she was already walking ahead, but soon enough she saw too, because all around us, on either side of the path, we saw nymphs streaming and flowing through the forest, and among them animals of all kinds—deer, and foxes, and rabbits, and skunks, and big birds—wild turkeys—and flocks of smaller ones, all streaming through the forest and away, in one direction—toward some place behind us, while the lightening kept striking, and the thunder made the sky shudder and tremble. Later, thinking about it, I realized that they were all heading for the higher hills, and the little mountain ranges to the north. Then I just thought we might be going in the wrong direction, that maybe we should turn and follow their direction. I stopped, unsure. Nixie turned and knew what I was thinking right away, and she grabbed my hand and started pulling me along with her. “No!” she said. “They should go that way, but we can’t.” So I followed.
A SHAWL AND A MEDALLION It was the next day, Sunday. It was the conversation I already told you parts of. But I can’t tell you any more about that until I tell you what happened the evening we got back—Saturday night. I guess I have to tell you about it from the beginning, starting with what happened first, even though it doesn’t really make sense to me. I mean because the way I understand what happened on Saturday is different now because of the conversation we had on Sunday. And everything started to seem even more different when we went back to school a week later, and even more so when we heard in the newspapers what they’re going to do to the fountain, which was months later—and to the Epistemi estate, which came after that. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the things that happen after certain things make those things mean something different than they did when they happened. Even if nothing special happens, the meaning of what happened before keeps changing. Nixie’s mom said—on that Sunday after—“It’s as if one thing clears the way for the next thing to happen. It’s not that it makes the next thing happen, but that it couldn’t happen unless it had happened. It’s not that it makes it happen, it’s that it allows it to happen.” “But millions of things happen that aren’t connected at all. I could makes something happen right now that has nothing to do with what happened before.” That was Tracy, of course. “OK, let’s see you do it,” my Dad said. “Sure!” Tracey said, and he got up from his seat on the couch and did a headstand, right in the middle of our little circle in the livingroom. Everybody cheered. “Did he do it?” my father said. He looked like he wasn’t sure, but might be willing to agree. “He wouldn’t have done the headstand if it hadn’t been for that conversation before,” Nixie said, “so I don’t think that counts as an example.”
“Well in that case,” my father said, “there’s nothing he could do that wasn’t connected to what came before, or that didn’t need what came before in order to make sense.” Later, thinking about it, I’m not sure what I believe about it. I don’t think there is anything you can do that wouldn’t follow, because then you would have to be outside of time. But in fact I do feel like I’m outside of time. I mean, if I can be aware of time, and watch it pass, and even feel it pass and I know that I’m feeling it pass, doesn’t that put me outside it, because I can observe it? Or is that just some kind of trick that my brain is playing? On the other hand, what else is there except what my brain tells me anyway? But I said that I was going to start from the beginning—or, not from the beginning, but from where I left off. I don’t know where the beginning is. We made it to the road and called Nixie’s mom and waited for her in the rain, watching the fires on the mountain, sitting on the grass by the road, and me with this big hole in my heart where Dolphius had been. The thunder had stopped. We were tired—I knew that Nixie was as tired as I was, I didn’t have to ask her—tired like we had never been in our lives before. We felt like a thousand years had passed since we went up the mountain, but that it had passed in a few minutes. And looking at each other, we felt different--like we knew ourselves differently, and each other too, but it didn’t really make any difference, because we were so tired that we didn’t want to talk, and we didn’t really care what happened next, because whatever was going to happen was going to happen, and so it was like it had already happened. That’s how we felt. We were dirty—our clothes soaked through and mud all over our shoes and on our arms and faces too—and when Nixie’s mother drove up we got up like sleepwalkers and climbed into the car like we were falling back into bed. I got in the back seat and Nixie in front, and I lay back slumped against the seat while Nixie and her mom talked in Bulgarian. I felt like I knew exactly what they were saying, even though I didn’t understand a word. Honestly, it was like we had just been on an airplane for twenty hours, like we had flown from Hong Kong or something. The heavy thunder had passed, and now there was an occasional clap somewhere far away, and the lightning had moved on. It was still raining, like it does sometimes after a huge storm—gently, like it knows that all the big stuff is over, and is just soothing now, like the end of a long piece of music. And the air was cool and clear for the first time, it seemed, since the heat wave had begun. There was some flooding, and when we came to the convenience store we had to drive through water that went over the tires, but the car didn’t
stall. It turned out that there had been really high winds in town, and then, suddenly, a tornado—and it was as suddenly gone. As we got closer to the center, we saw that there were trees down all over the place—big ones—and we had to make a long detour. There were police lights flashing in the rain, and in one place a huge electrical wire that was lying in the middle of the street, crackling and sparking like a huge firecracker. We finally made it back to our street and went to our separate houses. My mother took one look at me then helped me take off my shoes and shirt and told me to get in the shower, and I did, then I went into my room and lay down and the next thing I knew it was morning. I went downstairs. It was Sunday, and no one was up yet. I got myself a glass of orange juice and put an egg on the stove to boil—in the small saucepan. I opened the door that went from the kitchen to the back yard. There was a cool breeze flowing through the screen door, and I stepped outside. The grass was still wet: drops of water glittering on the tips of each blade, and the sun rising horizontal, cross-ways, like endless light shining from a huge sky-lamp, a living lamp the size of a million planet earths beaming in from ninety-three million miles away—if you could drive it in a car, a 160 year trip at fiftyfive miles per hour if you never stop or slow down. The dear sun. I lay down in the grass, in my pajama bottoms, and the cool drops of water exploded all over my back and shoulders and neck in stabs of thrilling brightness, like noisy light going right through me, ringing my flesh like a bell. Then I started rolling around in the wet grass, like Dolphius used to do. When I got up I was completely awake. My mother was in the kitchen. She laughed when I came through the door all wet, but then she must have seen something in my face, because she said, “Where’s Dolphius?” I told her and she looked hard at me, like she was searching for something. “No, it’s OK,” I said. “He wanted to be with her.” Then I started to cry. She hugged me for a while, then went and got a towel and rubbed me dry and sat me down at the table and served me my egg. Then I went to my room and got the blue velvet bag and the purple shawl, and brought them back down to the kitchen table, where she was waiting. What slipped out of the blue velvet bag was a coin of some kind, except that it was larger than any coin I had ever seen. It was more like a medallion. It was made of silver, polished and gleaming like the moon. On one side was a raised figure of a wood nymph standing under a tree in long flowing robes. On the other side was a picture of what looked like a temple. There was writing on that side, in letters I didn’t understand. It lay on the table shining, like it was alive, like it gave off its own light.
Then I showed her the shawl. When I took it out, she got very still, and stared at it. It was so filmy that you could hold it up and look through it, but it was a bright purple just the same. My mother took it and put it over her shoulders, and looked down at it. It was a perfect size for a shawl. She asked me again: I hadn’t seen it before the nymph came out of the tree? How sure could I be of that? I just knew that when I looked down and saw it it had just fallen there. It was something about the way it lay there. And it wasn’t wet when I picked it up. Then she took it off, and smoothed it out on the table, looking at it closely, feeling the cloth. She rubbed it against her cheek. I could see that she was getting confused. “It’s just that I don’t know how to believe this,” she said. “But I have no choice. I know that you’re not crazy, and that you’re not a liar. But I also know that no one I have ever talked to and nothing I have ever read or seen before considers it to be true, or possible. So what do I do?” She looked upset. “You don’t have to believe it or not believe it, I guess,” I said. I didn’t want her to feel bad. “Maybe I am crazy. Maybe when you’re really crazy you don’t think you are. You just see what you see.” “Or you could say,” she said, “that you have to be crazy to see it. That crazy people can see things—sometimes—that people who aren’t crazy can’t.” Then she laughed. “In that case, who’s crazy then? Anyway, we have to make a special box for this mysterious thing.” And she carefully folded it, took it into the living room and put it on the coffee table. Later, in the afternoon, Beth and Tracey came over, and Nixie and her mom. We had a sort after-the-storm party. By that time we already knew about what had happened the day before—how lightning had struck again and again at the fountain, and then three huge trees close to the fountain had fallen and crushed all seven statues. We went to see it that evening, but we couldn’t get close to it, because there was yellow police tape strung everywhere, and the park police and other police all over the place stopping people. Later we heard about the villa burning down, but we knew that already. And about the forest fire which had burned all around the villa and in different places through the woods. It wouldn’t have been so bad if there hadn’t been a drought for so long, but it helped that it was raining at the time too. Nixie and I told the story from the very beginning. We didn’t leave anything out. We told about the albino deer, and the tunnel, and the cave of the nymphs, and the Dryad coming out of the tree, and following Dolphius into the cave, and watching the dancing, and riding the horses back to the villa in the rain, and what Mrs. Epistemi said, and when she gave me the blue velvet bag, and how Dolphius went to her, and the fire in the villa, and
the purple shawl, and seeing the nymphs rushing away from the fire on our way back to the road. As each of us talked, we would stop and look at each other and the other one would go on, or say something else. Beth had a glass of lemonade, and as we talked, she began to pick it up and put it down a lot, like she was getting nervous. Tracey sat there watching us, a slight smile on his face, as if he were listening to a fairy tale, but he didn’t seem nervous. The grownups watched us very seriously, letting us talk. The purple shawl lay there on the table, folded, and the medallion sat on it like a huge open eye. When we had finished, there was a silence, and Beth began to look even more nervous. Then she began to shake her head. “My mom says it’s demons,” she said. “She said it’s the devil.” “What’s the devil, Beth?” my father said gently. He said it like he was really interested. I like that about him. “My mom says that all those nature spirits are demons, from the devil, and that there is only one spirit that’s good, that’s from God, and it’s the Holy Spirit, which is Jesus. Everything else is evil.” “And do you believe that, Beth?” my father asked. “I don’t know!” Beth said. “I don’t know how you figure out what you believe. I guess you just have to take somebody’s word for it. Somebody you trust.” “Could somebody you trust be wrong?” my father said. “That’s the trouble,” she said. “If you thought they could be wrong, how could you trust them in the first place?” “But it’s true, isn’t it,” Nixie’s mom said, “that the world feels like one big battle between good and evil?” “Yes, but the problem,” my mother said, “is that sometimes what seems to be good turns out to be evil, and what seems to be evil turns out to be good. That’s what’s confusing.” Beth nodded. “But there are some basic things that are good,” Nixie said. “Very basic things. Like you don’t kill people, and you don’t steal from them, and you feed them if they’re hungry, and take care of them if they’re in danger. Stuff like that.” There was a little silence, like everyone was thinking. Then Tracey said, “What if, let’s say, Hitler had escaped and run away somewhere when World War II ended, and he ended up on your doorstep, cold and sick and hungry and weak, and you knew very well who he was—the man who was responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people. Would you take him in?” “I would have to,” Nixie said.
“Wouldn’t it be better to kill him?” Tracey said. “Let’s say you could do it really easily, and never get in trouble for it.” “Yeah,” I said. “And what if you knew that the police, who are supposed to be good, were actually evil—that they beat up and tortured people even if they were innocent, and that they took bribes, and that they followed orders from politicians who took money from people who sold guns and drugs and slaves.” “Slaves?” Nixie said. She looked at her hands. “Yes,” my mother said. “Women. Sex slavery. They take the women from poor countries and sell them. At least half a million a year.” “Death penalty!” Tracey said. “You’ve got to have the death penalty. Some people are just too bad.” “Death penalty for what?” said Nixie’s mom. “Did you know that in some countries you can get the death penalty for being gay? Or for changing your religion?” I had never seen her upset before. “Good and evil,” my father said. “The battle between good and evil. Like Beth said, how do you know which is which?” Beth had not said that, but I guess that’s what she meant. “It’s simple!” Nixie said. I could see that she was getting in that mood, like the mood she was in in the woods that time when she read all those numbers about world hunger from her hands. “You do no harm, that’s all! Do no harm!” “But it’s not that simple,” Tracey said. “Because harm is everywhere. It’s like saying ‘Don’t get wet’ when you’re walking in the water.” “Prayer,” Beth said. “My mom says it’s about prayer. You’ve got to pray.” “I think that’s right,” my father said. “You’ve got to find some way to pray.” We all stared at him—my mom and I anyway. We just couldn’t imagine him saying anything like that. I mean, we didn’t ever go to church, and he had never talked about it before. Was he just trying to be nice to Beth? He looked completely serious. “I mean it,” he said, when he saw how we were looking at him. “There are lots of ways to pray. You know I don’t mean just getting on your knees and folding your hands together. I mean something more like really paying attention. That’s what I mean.” “Paying attention . . .” Nixie’s mom said. She smiled, then put her chin on her hand, thinking. “Paying attention to what?” “I’m not sure,” my father said. “Just paying attention. Because when you really pay attention, you realize that you’re paying attention to something. Something bigger than you.”
“Break time!” my mother said. “Time for a break!” She laughed gaily. “We can return to this deep conversation after ice cream and cake.” “Ice cream!” I said. “Whose birthday is it?” “It’s the storm’s birthday. Or maybe it’s a celebration of our day of relief from the heat wave. Or maybe it’s the birthday of the new world. You decide what’s been born. Myshkin, would you help me serve it?”
LEAVING NORMAL Things changed after the storm, and kept changing, and they are still changing. There were changes on the outside and changes on the inside and changes between us, and the three kinds of changes got all mixed up together. You could never tell which came first. The first outside change that happened was the storm, and after that the heat wave went on until October. Then the big blackouts began, and then the gasoline shortages, and then more huge storms with tornados and the coastal flooding because the sea level was rising. Then the refugees from the coasts started to arrive, and then the bombings in the big cities, and all the arrests. None of the adults seemed to know what to say about all this at school, except to keep telling us that there was really no problem, that life would go on as usual, that we shouldn’t worry, that everything was under control, that everything would turn out all right, that there were experts working on it, and so on. Then there were all these articles in the papers and magazines and on TV by experts on how to raise children. Like, “What Should We Tell Our Children?” or “How To Talk to Your Child About Staying Safe,” or about what V-chip to buy so they could block this or that on TV And more and more parents just wouldn’t even let their kids go outside anymore. They would pick them up at school and take them home. Most of the kids I talked to at school didn’t seem to mind all that much. They said they got the chance to spend as much time as they wanted playing video games or watching TV And then there were more and more news reports about the “childhood obesity epidemic,” which means that so many American kids are fat. Another thing that changed was between us. After the storm, school was closed for a week, because there was so much to clean up. On the first day back Beth seemed really nervous, and she wouldn’t meet my eyes. I knew right away that something was wrong. Then, at recess, I saw her talking to Nixie over in the corner of the playground. They were standing by the fence, and both of them had their heads bent, looking at the ground, and sometimes Beth made little gestures with her hands. Then, when school was 129
out and we all got on the bus as usual, Beth wasn’t there. It was just Tracey and Nixie and me. I asked Nixie if she knew where Beth was, and then she told us: Beth had told her mom about what had happened in the woods—the nymphs and Mrs. Epistemi and everything—and her mom had gotten very upset, and said that it was witchcraft and demon possession, and that she absolutely could not “associate” with us anymore. “What’s demon possession?” Tracey said. “It’s when you let an evil spirit come inside you and it kind of takes over your mind,” I said. “Then they do all sorts of ceremonies and stuff to make it come out. It’s in the Bible. There can be more than one too. Jesus threw them out of people. He commanded them to come out.” Nixie and I looked at each other. For one brief moment we believed it. Or we imagined it to be real. Suddenly everything was full of fear, even the air itself. It was like our bodies were bent and squeezed--like we were seeing each other in one of those crazy mirrors they have at the amusement parks. The world was suddenly so different from what it had been that we couldn’t even recognize it. Then it passed. “Wow!” Tracey said. “Can you imagine that? I mean isn’t that interesting?” “Interesting?” Nixie said. “It’s scary. Like something living inside you, like a horrible virus or something.” “Like a horror film,” I said. “Are we living in a horror film?” “Do we all just live in a world we’ve made up? Like making up the story of book or a movie or something?” Nixie said. “Maybe Beth’s mother is right,” I said. “I mean, if there are nymphs and those other kinds of creatures, then why shouldn’t there be demons who can get inside you?” “Well it might be possible,” Nixie said, “but just because it’s possible doesn’t mean that it is.” “Look,” Tracey said, “it’s simple. If you can see it you can believe it.” “Both Nixie and I saw the nymphs,” I said, “and we both believe it. But what if you had been there and didn’t see anything?” “Yeah,” Nixie said. “In fact maybe it’s the other way around, Tracey. Maybe it’s more like, “If you believe it, then you can see it. Because you can imagine pretty much anything. And then when you believe it, you think you see it.” Later, I thought a lot about what my father said about prayer—that it was a kind of paying attention. If we could pay attention all the time in the way he was talking about, would we see whether there were these things called demons? Would everyone be able to see nymphs? Would we be
paying attention to the same things anyway, if each of us sees a different world? And how do we know we’re not just paying attention to our own hallucinations? W hen the people started arriving from the cities and towns that were flooding on the coast, things really began to feel different. First, all the hotels and motels were full, and people were flooding the local campground even when it started getting cold, in November. There were two things that happened. One was nice. Some people started being really helpful. There were groups who were collecting food and making sure all the people got fed, and some people with big houses were arranging to have families stay with them while they looked for a place. My mother said that it made her hope in human nature again. Of course I had to ask, “What is human nature, mom?” “I guess it’s what is the same about all of us humans, wherever we come from,” she said. “But how do you know it’s not just the way people are raised?” “That’s a good question,” she said. “I guess we can never know exactly. But there are lots of people who are raised badly and they turn out all right. And the other way around.” “And besides,” I said. “Isn’t it also human nature to kill, and to cheat and lie and steal? How could you say there’s not, when there’s so much of it?” “OK,” she said. “I guess I have to change my statement. I’ll say it makes me hope that we could be good. That we could always be making things better for everyone. That people have as much good in them as they have bad.” Because there were other kinds of things happening. There were new kids in school--the refugees from the big floods--and once there was a big fight on the playground. Now there are security guards in the school. A gang of teenagers started up in the big settlement in the campground, and there began to be robberies, and cars stolen and stuff. There was even a murder, which never happens in our town. There are security guards all over the place, and hidden cameras on the street and in the stores. The paper said that more and more people were carrying guns with them in their cars. There were letters to the paper complaining about all the “outsiders,” and what to do with the “undesirable elements.” It seems to have come to a head since the gas shortages began. There are long lines at the gas stations, and the prices go up and up--it’s seven dollars a gallon now. But my mom insists on pointing out to me the good things that have come out of that. They have added lots more buses and bus
lines, and people have begun to form carpools to go to work and even to the supermarket, so that you almost never see a car that isn’t full, with people chatting. There’s less pollution. And lots of people have begun riding bicycles to work, including my mom and dad. It takes them twenty minutes each way, and they say it’s great exercise. And if they decide they don’t want to ride their bikes, there are three or four carpools just on our street. They share money for gas. And another thing: people have started to organize food coops in some neighborhoods—we don’t have one yet but I hope we will—and smaller, neighborhood grocery stores too, like in the old days. They have a lot of customers, so their prices aren’t much higher than the big supermarkets. It’s really nice to be able to walk to the store, and you get to know people who might live right across the street but you never saw before. It’s like the neighborhood is waking up from a long sleep. The refugee situation that we have is nothing like the refugees from the war places, and from the places where there is not enough food, but now we can sort of know better what that’s like, because we have our own refugees, and there are more and more poor people, and the price of food in the supermarkets is going up like crazy, according to my mom. If the drought continues in the Midwest, where they have the huge cornfields, there could even start to be shortages. Can you imagine that—going into the supermarket and finding nothing there on the shelves, or just one or two puny little things? Plus the war that never stops is here just as much as it’s there, because there are bombs here, and drones, and police all over the place. Not just that, but there are more and more men—and some of them are kids--going crazy and walking into a church or a movie theatre or a gym or a school and just starting to shoot, killing everyone they see. So like my dad says, nobody seems to really know who the bad guys are. Aren’t those guys who just start shooting the terrorists of ourselves against ourselves? The President says we’re the good guys, but my dad says that everybody else in the world hates our country more and more, because of the torturing, and the killing of innocent people with bombs “by mistake,” and putting people in prison without any trial, and all the secret stuff the government does. My dad also says that more and more people are losing their jobs and becoming poor because, he says, “the whole system is going out of balance.” The rich are getting richer, and they don’t even make anything or work at it—they just use the banks to gamble other people’s money on the stock market and make deals that are dishonest but the politicians don’t dare punish them because the bankers pay them off. Meanwhile, regular people are getting less and less money—not even enough to live on. And when
they organize protest demonstrations in the streets, the police push them around, and pepper spray them, and even beat them up and arrest them. Then the police chief or the mayor or someone apologizes and says how wrong it is, and then they just do it again the next time. My dad says, “Myshkin, this is going to be your world for a while. It’s pretty ugly, but don’t let that hypnotize you, because there are beautiful things going on too. Look at all the new ideas people are having! New ways of solving problems. There’s a lot of new stuff happening. Maybe there’s more danger, but there’s also more opportunity. So look for that. We humans always pay a price for change. It never comes easy.” I don’t know what to answer. It feels mysterious to me—like, inexplicable. How could people let all that bad stuff happen in the first place? I have a feeling Mr. Frame thinks the same as my dad, but he’d never tell us straight out. A few months ago he told us that he had been learning how to construct a webpage, and that he wanted our class to create one for Social Studies. So we went through a long process discussing what our web page should be about, and decided—the vote was almost unanimous (including Mr. Frame)—that we would concentrate on four things: 1) Stop war! 3) Stop pollution! 3) Stop world hunger! 4) Stop human rights abuse! I guess you won’t be surprised when I tell you that the name of the webpage is STOPTHAT.org. And maybe you also won’t be surprised if I tell you that Nixie was the person who pretty much persuaded everybody that those four things should be what we worked on. Then we got into a whole bunch of committees—in fact this was Samantha’s idea—and now we’re each serving on two or three of them. There’s one for each of the four themes, one for what we called Action, and one for figuring out a way to contact as many other kids as we can, to get them working with us, whether through connecting with other schools or kids at their own email addresses. There’s another committee for writing stuff on the home page and keeping it up to date, and another called Tech, which Tracey is part of. They work on technical things, like setting up teleconferences with kids from other schools all over the world, and also on designing action alert software. That way, we can send an email to everyone on our list asking them to sign a petition about something—for example to the President asking him to stop torture—and it would be sent directly to the White House. Of course the Tech committee needs a lot of help, but Mr. Frame seems to know a lot of webtechies, and they come for a few hours when he asks for help. It’s like building a building room by room and with all the electricity and telephones and everything.
Anyway, each committee has started gathering all the information it can about each of the four themes—the permanent war, pollution, food and water shortage, and human rights--and we’re beginning to find and post and even write articles, and to set up links with other websites. Nixie started us off with the hunger one. She made a list of all the things that she had written on her hands, and more, and also added as links all the websites she had used to find the information. And each committee did that for the other themes too. Then some of us made a short video about the website for YouTube—what we did was to interview each other--and the day after we posted it we had a thousand hits! Now we have four or five thousand hits a day, and the busiest committee is the one answering emails from schools and classes and individual kids all over the world, getting ideas and information from them. About half the class stays after school each day for work on the project, and then, when we get home, we work on it there. Some kids don’t participate except in what Mr. Frame makes them do, like researching a paper on the history of this or that war, or of the climate changes in the Sahara region—stuff like that. For most of them it’s because their parents don’t want them to—and in fact it’s the same parents that didn’t want their kids to study mythology. Ellen heard from her mom, who works in the office, that they are making a group to go the school board and demand that Mr. Frame be fired because of the website. They say he is “indoctrinating” us, which means telling us what to believe. She told us on the school bus. This makes Nixie so angry she can hardly talk. “Nobody has to tell me to believe that war is bad, and pollution, and hunger, and torture, or getting thrown in jail because of your beliefs and held there as long as they want to,” she said, “or making eight-year olds work sixteen hours a day in toxic factories for a few dollars. I mean, anyone who believed in those things would be a retard or a . . a . . .criminal! Besides, I can think for myself, and so can you.” We were walking home from the bus stop. “Maybe they think it’s too complicated for us,” I said. “Kids don’t have good judgment.” “Well, some kids don’t. And some adults don’t either. And some kids have better judgment than their parents. That’s a fact.” “They don’t like it because it’s negative,” I said, “and adults don’t want their kids thinking negative stuff about the world. They think it’s dangerous. It could make the kids do crazy things, or make them sick in the head, or always afraid.” “But these four things are obvious! It’s about survival! You don’t have to have a bunch of other beliefs—like about god, or government, or the
death penalty, or all that stuff adults are arguing about all the time--to believe these things. You just have to have the most basic sense of right and wrong. These are not things that you should have to argue about!” “Well,” I said, “maybe they think that pollution isn’t so bad—that nature is so big it can always recover from it. And that people never get arrested unless they deserve it. And that poor people deserve to be poor because they’re lazy. Maybe they think some people should not live—that they deserve to die, or be tortured, or whatever, because what they did was so bad. So for them it is about what’s right or wrong. Maybe they think God says ‘kill them’, or ‘let them die’.” “’God says’?” Nixie looked at me like she was about to hit me. But I was just trying to think of what reasons those people might have for doing that mean thing to Mr. Frame, who we had all decided was the best teacher we had ever had. “Their god tells them, I mean,” I said. “Like in the Bible.” “It’s because they don’t feel others’ suffering,” Nixie said. “That’s the main thing.” Now she seemed tired from all the emotion. “It’s like they are missing a sense—like sight, or smell, or taste, or touch, or hearing. Like they’re born without it.” “That’s not fair,” I said. “OK, maybe everyone has it in the beginning, but then something takes it out of them. The way they’re raised or something. Something makes them afraid, and when you’re afraid that sense goes away. Then you live in fear. It’s like the opposite of having a demon inside you. It’s like not having something inside you. But maybe it’s just as bad.” “OK, so what is the sense that you’re talking about--the one they’re missing?” “Compassion. It’s called compassion.” “And what about you?” I said. “Do you have it for them?” Nixie didn’t answer for a very long moment. Then she said, “No Myshka, I don’t. I have to say that I don’t.” We walked the rest of the way home in silence.
THE RIVER Yesterday—Friday--Beth was on the school bus again. She sat with Nixie, and Tracey and I sat behind them. Tracey was telling me about how we were going to get the new webcam technology, and set up a teleconferencing program that would allow up to fifteen people to show on each screen. You just had to bring your laptop and hook up. Then, if there were schools or just other kids in places like India or Greece or Rwanda, we could have video conferences. Then, just before his stop (he gets off first) he said, “Hey, let’s all go to our place in the woods!” Nixie and Beth said yes, so we all waited and got off at the stop nearest the park, and walked in. It’s December now, but it’s still pretty warm weather—it only gets cold at night. The only thing I notice that’s different is that there are still insects around. The news says that when there are no heavy frosts to kill them in the winter they start to multiply, and everybody’s worried about mosquito bites now. Since the refugees began arriving there are more police in the park, to stop people from camping there, but some people get away with it anyway, and there is a big vote coming up by the Town Council on whether to open part of the park to campers. When we got to our little clearing with the tree trunks, it was like coming to our own council chamber, but it was really trashy—more than we had ever seen before—so we spent about half an hour just picking it up and taking it out to a trash can on one of the park paths. Sometimes I really miss Dolphius. It’s usually at twilight, when the sky is darkening, or when I first wake up in the morning and go downstairs and don’t find him there. This time, coming into our council chamber, I could just see him taking off into the woods like a happy crazy puppy, and coming back every once in a while with his tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth smiling and slobbering all over us. I don’t know. I guess that when you lose somebody like that, you just live with it. I didn’t say anything about it. Mom says we should get a new dog, but I just can’t think about that right now.
After cleaning up the trash we sat there for a while in silence. That was kind of unusual for us, but a lot had happened since the last time we were there. Nixie sat looking at her hands, and Beth looked really nervous. Finally Tracey, who I must say is probably the bravest of us all, said, “So your mom let you come back, Beth?” “Yeah,” she said. “She said she wasn’t sure any more.” “About what?” “Um, about demons and stuff.” “That’s just crazy anyway,” Tracey said. “I mean how people can believe some of the things they believe I just don’t know." “Hey, don’t call my mom crazy!” Beth said, and there was something about the way she said it that made us all laugh, including Beth. Then we were OK again. “That’s just your beliefs,” I said to Tracey. “You haven’t been everywhere and seen everything. And you haven’t lived in another time or place. Maybe her mom is right—but not about Mrs. Epistemi, that’s for sure.” “That’s just what I like about Tracey,” Nixie said, smiling. “If you put him in a time machine and took him back to Greece in 800 BC he would be just the same. He’ll still say, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’.” “But what if, when you travel in a time machine,” I said, “you change to be like a native—like someone who was born there. The minute you step out of the machine, everything changes—what you think, what you feel— even the way you see things. Then would Tracey still be the same? Could there be someone like Tracey back then?” Tracey grinned. He actually liked being talked about like he wasn’t quite there. “Yeah, they’d probably take me for an alien. But some people do now too.” We all laughed. “But really,” I said, “maybe you would be, or you might as well be an alien. Because you would be so different. You wouldn’t see the same way, you wouldn’t think the same way, you wouldn’t feel the same way, you wouldn’t walk the same way, you wouldn’t talk the same way, you wouldn’t dress the same way, you would do things that no one else does and not do things that everyone else does. You would be like E.T. or something.” “W hat if you traveled forward in time?” Beth said. “Say, a thousand years? D’you think it would be the same?” Then she answered her own question, sitting there on the log, hugging her knees, looking dreamily at the ground: “Of course. If we’ve changed so much from the past, how could we not change in the future?”
“What would they be like?” I said. “The people a thousand years from now?” “Maybe humans will be gone,” Tracy said. “Blew ourselves up, or poisoned the planet and died off. Maybe there will just be huge evolved insects or something. Insects with brains three times as big as ours. Or maybe we’ll be here, but we’ll be the slaves of extraterrestrials. Or of the evolved insects.” “But what if it went well?” Nixie said. “What do you mean?” “If we became what we . . . what we could be? If we used our whole big human brain instead of just a little part of it. If we woke up. Then we could solve our problems.” “What do you think we would be like?” I said. “I think we might look just the same, but we would be different on the inside. And we would see and feel a different world, so we would have different reactions to things, and act differently.” “Example?” “Well, like we would go outside in the morning and we would recognize every tree, and rock, and squirrel and bird and insect like they were persons, who we could relate to and learn from. It would be like the whole world was a world of persons. Everything would be alive. And we would hate violence and ugliness and unfairness--not just because we didn’t believe in it, but because it was against our . . . nature. W e would have a different nature inside, and so we would see and feel nature outside differently. We would want to protect it, and cooperate with it, not cut it up and kill it or put it in a cage.” “Like breatharians?” Beth said, and giggled. “Yes, kind of,” Nixie said. “And if we visited the future now in a time machine, they might think we were kind of . . . well, crude. They would be able to sense our blindness and our bad thoughts and our fear right away, so they would feel like we were kind of smelly and ignorant and halfawake.” “But wait,” I said. “How do you know we wouldn’t find people like that if we went back in time as well? How do we know those people in 800 B.C. weren’t like that? Maybe they had something like that that we have lost.” “Maybe it’s even worse than that,” Tracey said, grinning. “Maybe they had bad things—like slavery and genocide and stuff—and good things, like being able to feel nature. And maybe, to get rid of the bad things we had to get rid of the good things too. Maybe we threw out the baby with the bathwater. So now we are both better than them and worse than them.
There’s not as much slavery and killing, but not as much connection with nature either.” We all sat there for a minute, thinking about that. Do you always have to give up something to get something else? Finally, Nixie sat up straight on the log and took a deep breath. “Maybe it’s a spiral,” she said. “A spiral?” “Yes. The old stuff comes back in a new way, and history keeps going like that.” Tracey dug at the ground with a stick he was holding. “Actually,” he said, “I think it’s much simpler than that. All that changes is the technology. Everything else stays the same. People are people wherever and whenever. The tools get more complex is all. Like this.” He patted the bulge in his pocket—his cell phone. “Yeah, I agree,” Beth said. “Besides,” he said. “Who wants people that are all happy and peaceful and lovey-dovey all the time? That so twee! You’d have to put everybody on medication to get that, or install a brain-chip!” He grinned, then raised his voice like a character in a play: “Oh dear, Miss Nixie, don’t tell me you haven’t gotten the new chip installed yet!” We all laughed. “And you would have to be friends with everybody,” Beth said, “even when you didn’t feel like it at all. You’d never be allowed to have any sort of conflict with anyone or anything.” I looked at Beth, sitting so confident and graceful, like a dancer, her elbows raised slightly off her knees as if she were going to do a turn, but kind of insecure too in another way, and I thought about how she and I never quite connected, and how sometimes it hurt a little. Then I looked at Nixie, with her black, black hair and dreamy hazel eyes and calm thoughtful mouth, and Tracey, short and wiry and red-haired like a rooster in his baggy shorts, grinning. Then, without really thinking about it I said, “I don’t agree. I think you’re twisting it, Tracey. I think the people of the future are already here, just the same way they were back in 800 B.C.” “Huh?” Tracey said. “Are they living in a secret mountain somewhere?” “No. I mean everybody’s different, and some people are smarter and nicer than others, that’s all. And smarter and nicer is the future. Like Mrs. Epistemi. Or Mr. Frame. But everyone could be smart and nice. When they’re born, I mean. It’s just about what happens in your life—your parents, and school and everything.” “But you’re still wanting to make everyone the same,” Tracey said. “Everybody ‘smart and nice’. That’s like, the chip.”
“No,” I said, “smart and nice in as many different ways as there are people. That’s what I mean. Smart and nice people let other people be smart and nice in their own way. They let them be different. That’s the only thing that has to be the same: letting other people be different.” “But some things about people are just the same, and stay exactly the same,” Beth said. “They must. Otherwise we would be all over the place.” “Like what things?” Nixie said. “Like being happy for example. Everybody is happy in the same way.” “And what way is that?” Nixie said. “Feeling safe,” Beth said. “Feeling safe and feeling you’re doing the right thing. Feeling good about yourself and your friends.” “I think there could be a lot of people who feel safe and think they are doing the right thing who aren’t happy,” Nixie said. “OK, then what do you think happy is?” Beth said. “I don’t think we can be happy,” Nixie said. “W e have too many problems.” “You mean no one can be happy unless everyone else is?” I said. “Well kind of, but that doesn’t sound exactly right. I mean, I can feel peaceful when other people don’t, I guess, but happy is more than that. What do you think it is Myshka?” I thought a few seconds—well, I wasn’t really thinking, really I was just facing the question in myself, “What is happiness?” Then I said, “Well it’s not just fun, hah hah. When my mom says, ‘the simple joy of existence’, maybe that’s it: happy. I think it has something to do with being simple and free.” “Oh no!” Tracey said. “Another big word. Free!” “Yes,” Beth said. “Not worrying.” “Like--like being a river,” I said. “Just being a river. It can’t do anything else than what it does, and it doesn’t want to do anything else than what it does. And whatever happens next happens next. There’s nothing that’s supposed to happen. It’s not comparing itself to anything. It’s not saying to itself, I wish I could be bigger, or smaller, or faster, or slower, or I wish I could be a mountain instead of a river. It’s free. It just, like, rivers. It just rivers along.” “But a river doesn’t know it’s happy. Don’t you have to know you’re happy to be happy?” Nixie said. “No, the opposite,” I said. “When people say they’re happy I don’t know whether to believe them or not. It’s like they’re trying to persuade themselves of something.”
“Somebody could invent a machine to check them,” Tracey said. “Like a lie detector test. You put a silver dollar in the machine, then put your hand on the piece of glass, and you get a color—black to orange. Or no, maybe purple.” He grinned. Nobody said anything for a little while. “But the way you are saying ‘happy’ and ‘free’,” Nixie said, “in that case criminals could be happy, and murderers, and all kinds of people who hurt other people.” “Could they?” I said. “Yeah, cause it has nothing to do with being good.” “Isn’t a river good? Isn’t everything good when it just is what it is?” Beth said. “No. We’re not rivers,” Nixie said. “We have to try and try to be good. What’s good about us is not that we are good, but that we try to be good.” “And what’s good?” Tracey said. We laughed. We were getting tired. I heard a noise in the woods, and just for a second I imagined it was Dolphius. I even saw him for a split second, crashing into the clearing. The Beautiful Old Woman was right behind him, with a walking stick and a backpack, and a long dress. They were both smiling. I looked over at Nixie, and she smiled too.