Afterlife

While seeking to resolve his wife’s disappearance, a travel writer uncovers mysteries in the White Mountains that lead to ghosts, CIA revelations, and disturbing answers to political events that shook America in the 1960s. The story begins with an unusual train ride.

Chapter One: Train Ride

He wasn’t sure what to say or do.

He just kept staring down at the body looking up at him.

The conductor and a steward had rolled it over so that now those cold, gray eyes were in full view. If he glanced at them a certain way, they seemed to be posing a question.

But now it wasn’t going to happen. Neither the eyes nor the face behind it could interrogate him any longer.

Yet instead of feeling relieved, he felt lost.

He still couldn’t reconcile the face with reality.

It wasn’t a whole face, but a face frozen in separate parts. As if at the moment of death, the man at his feet had been redrawn by Picasso as a victim of Guernica. Cheeks, ears, eyes and nose all refused to come together in an expression of normal symmetry. Instead they resembled a mosaic of broken glass with blood imitating cracks.

He remembered how the man looked when he was alive—square-jawed, blond-haired, and Germanic, like Hollywood’s version of Nazi officers in World War II epics.

A mysterious figure who seemed to want to get something from him.

He hoped the conductor and the steward, and the passengers sitting on either side of him, hadn’t noticed their interactions when the man was still alive.

The train officials were still asking questions.

But so far, the conclusion was simple.

It was a fluke. An accident. That’s what everyone was saying.

As improbable as it was, the man had tripped and fallen, twisting in a most bizarre manner, and his gun had gone off from the jolt, shooting himself in the heart.

*

Once on board the train into Manhattan, he had sat down at a table with three other people. Next to him sat a young man reading H.G. Wells’ Outline of History. He appeared to be Chinese American, with a slender neck and a delicate chin.

Roger and the boy faced a woman whose low-cut dress magnified her ample figure. She wanted to sleep, but the train kept jarring her awake. She opened her eyes, tinted blue with contact lenses—and then, gradually, shut them again, bringing the fleeting presence of dream into their tiny, seated community.

Beside her rode an attractive young lady with light-brown hair. She was busy with her computer, doing something for her job in New York. She looked aristocratically Russian, as if she, herself, had been crafted by Fabergé.

*

As the train glided forward toward its first jolting stops, he had the strangest sense that someone was following him. Not a very original idea. But this man stood out.

For one thing, he was wearing a trench coat in May.

He remembered how the man entered the car, seemingly on his way into another. Yet when he took his seat, the man paused. Roger stared at the intruder who never actually acknowledged him, but then abruptly sat down next to an older woman.

After tickets were taken, the man remained there in a perfect position to observe him. To watch, as they say in the movies, his ‘every move.’

Roger tried to tell himself that any basis for concern was groundless—all inside his head. That he was just overreacting.

Later, when he looked up, he glimpsed the man talking to the woman like he might have known her, rendering his seeming paranoia ridiculous.

The man took a donut from a small computer bag and began to eat it, still not quite managing to look relaxed. Seconds later when his eyes met Roger’s they assumed a new ferocity, like a tiger’s, luminous with a predator’s hypnotic precision.

*

As they pulled out of Providence, Roger looked down the empty tracks blurred by movement and vacant of life.

He thought back to the disappearance of his wife, Rachel. She had been staying at the Presidential Inn in the White Mountains, where they found her dark blue Nissan Quest abandoned near Echo Lake. There were tire tracks from another car beside hers, but the police hadn’t been able to trace them.

And now every day began with a raw burst of anxiety, rage, grief and bewilderment. He was surrounded by the shreds of things that didn’t make sense. Clues that led to too many places at once. Haunting obsessions that took him nowhere. Scenes unfolding that he didn’t wish to belong in.

Soon after she was gone he realized that she wouldn’t come back.

And then he, too, walked among the ‘missing.’ Searching for himself while searching for her. Walking among the dead while hoping for love and companionship.

Nearly a year had passed since the Presidential’s innkeeper, Ben Bishop, had rolled out the red carpet for his wife to pursue her project—a “What/If” article for the national monthly, Currents Magazine. A probing inquiry drawn from many different perspectives and sources, after the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death had failed to produce much of interest in the ‘assassination discussion.’

The concept was: “What/if a select few of the so-called ‘conspiracists’ were actually onto the truth? What would it look like? When you added the clues together, what made the most sense?”

The White Mountains offered his wife, in her words, “a perfect place to write,” as well as some unique local sources, including Bishop himself, who had once worked for the CIA.

And now, suddenly, the CIA was once again in Roger’s thoughts.

It occurred to him that the man in the trench coat could easily be central casting for a rogue operative.

And yet the very idea seemed absurd.

Insane.

Why would someone be pursuing him now? Roger Thor Martens who was just a travel writer on his way to New York to meet with his publisher?

*

Nearly three hours later, as they neared Stamford, the man in the trench coat got up. As he approached Roger, the train jerked. He leaned forward so that his large, red hand spread like a giant, menacing spider, its fingers angling toward Roger’s chest. Then, almost delicately, the second finger pointed upward at Roger’s chin in a gesture of seeming accusation.

The Russian-looking girl also noticed the intrusion, widened her eyes, and then forced herself to go back to her work. The young man reading The Outline of History brought the book closer to his face. And the dozing woman with the low-cut dress turned away.

Roger got a good look at the man’s face, or at least his profile. He was struck by how small the man’s ears were. They appeared to be sewn on, as if they once belonged to someone else. The man glared back at him from his deeply set sockets. He seemed to be saying, “I want something from you. And you know what it is!”

Then the intruder turned his head away, abruptly regained his balance, stood up erect, and marched straight ahead—presumably to either the kitchen area or the men’s room.

*

After leaving Stamford, the gentleman in the trench coat came back.

As he approached, he looked down once again at Roger accusingly.

When he came within a yard or two, he opened his mouth as if to make a declaration, or more likely to pose a question. He seemed to know something Roger didn’t. Something about Roger, himself. About Roger’s situation. Or maybe even something about Rachel.

Roger felt that he had to act, to respond with a gesture of his own.

Then his entire body spasmed.

In a kind of St. Vitas Dance, his left shoe slid out from beyond his seat, pulling his leg into the aisle so that just the tip of his foot protruded. As the man inched closer, glaring down at him with a feral stare, Roger felt his leg push out another inch farther.

The result was instant collision.

On impact Roger raised his knee several inches, or rather the knee raised itself in an arcane martial-arts move that it had mastered quite on its own.

With this, the man collapsed on the train floor into a heap, hitting the carpet like a felled tree.

Then the most amazing thing happened.

He heard a shot.

A gun had fired.

The man convulsed in odd nervous pulses like he was suddenly inhabited by snakes, his arms jerking in front of him. Within seconds the tremors stopped, and the man became inanimate inside his clothes.

*

Reflexively, Roger, and several people around him, yelled for help.

In the commotion, the napping lady woke up with a startled expression that turned to disgust—like someone had just spilled coffee all over her—before she began to grasp the full extent of what happened. The beautiful young lady with Russian eyes sat back in her seat, her head hitting the cushion with a jolt so hard that she bit her lip. The young man sitting next to him finally shut The Outline of History, collapsed onto his chair, and turned to stare down at the floor.

Roger, on the other hand, became totally numb—his mind frozen in near paralysis as he felt himself falling down the proverbial rabbit hole.

Within a minute, the train’s conductor and one attendant came with their dark vests and billowing white shirts. A man and a woman. Both stooped over the body, rummaged through pockets and found two passports, each with separate identities.

They announced that once the train stopped in New York they would have to detain the passengers for interrogation.

After several minutes trying to reimagine himself in the so-called ‘real world,’ it finally occurred to Roger that he should call Sam Pullman, his publisher, to let him know he might be late.

Letter from “Finding Dimitri”

Dimitry became my best friend when I was an exchange student in Concepción, Chile, where he shared his keen curiosity and active intelligence. I was there in 1964-65, and we continued our friendship through a decade of correspondence, as well as a memorable visit to my home in Bergen County, N.J.

After a careless move in which much of my personal correspondence was lost, this is the only remaining letter I have from Dimitry. It is dated May 4, 1967, shortly after his visit to the U.S., and seven years before he was to disappear mysteriously during Pinochet’s reign of terror. Dimitry’s keen intelligence and his inquisitive imagination have remained both an anchor and a call to action as I’ve tried to “rediscover” him through my writing.

A little late, but here I am: Weather is the same you saw in your arrival to Chile. (If I think how long it is since then and realize that it’s been so many years…time is running fast.) It’s pouring. It’s pouring. Drops from a dirty sky falling on the heads and consciousness of my classmates. Yes. ‘Classmates:’ I decided my future. History. My ancient dreams of journalism fell apart when I saw black clouds of starvation. And I heard a few ugly stories about this career in the states. (It seems that the modern world no longer has real journalists, at least in the sense that I used to imagine. We have specialists. For example in law. Or sports. Who write in newspapers and magazines, but who aren’t journalists—just outstanding people in their fields.) So, the journalist like Da Vinci, a man who knows almost everything, is nonexistent.

In any case, I am in my second year of History and Geography going for my doctorate. Then I’ll go to the States, take any ship, and sail around the world. When I feel tired, I’ll return to the States, take some classes in Minnesota and try to find a teaching position and do research. The University of Minnesota has an agreement with my university about studying, so it should be easy to continue my work there.

What else? As always, I am a complete bum in school. It was almost a miracle that I passed my exams last year. Of course a Machiavellian personality helped and a small percentage of knowledge.

These months have been some of the best of my life. I did everything I wanted, and luck smiled a lot. I went to the coast, about three hundred miles north. It was all a photograph you would have appreciated. Big rocks gleaming with salt water, a deep blue sky, a few birds, peace, and miles and miles of sand. The most important thing was the feeling of loneliness—to know that you are alone completely and must live all by yourself.

Sometimes I threw a nylon line from the rocks and fell asleep. When the line began to shutter, well, usually there was a fish at the end. I brought in oil, salt, sugar, bread and coffee. That was enough. Then, I must confess, I was moved by the stars—as a poet said, ‘the wrinkles of God’—burning coldly. And there was a small wind throwing drops of salt and water in the darkness.

I was in my own world. It was a great stage for long distance thoughts. In those moments you get such peace of mind that I would recommend that all cops take their juvenile delinquents to the shore and leave them for a week.

Also, I am, for the first time, a little bit in love. I met a small, kind and curious brunette. She finished the University last year as a structural designer. She is very intelligent and struggles to take an equal place in our society which is still more about men than women, but she seems to find me more than acceptable.

Everything began with conversations about big themes—philosophy, science and so forth. But then it led to intimacy beyond ideas. This is not exactly a typical approach to seduction. But what can I say?

Well, I’m tired now. And the bed is warm and nice. I’ll read another chapter in Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ and then ‘the black clouds of death will surround me for a while.’

You can see, my friend, that I am a cheap poet. I hope you continue with your drawings. I want to see more. I have been a swine not to write more often.

Send my regards to you and your family.

Tell them I love them.  Dimitri

 

Letter from “From Another World”

A poetry workshop at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York, taught me that literature could become a shared experience with the potential to make the world a better place. The author of this letter, ibn kenyatta (or K), is himself a testament both to genius and to courage—an artist and poet who is still in jail because he refuses to deny his innocence.

Fremin

Fremin Le May chronicles his adventures with 15th Century French poet Francois Villon across courts, brothels and prisons in this ironic and sometimes strident confession.

Fremin Seeks Absolution from the Brothers at Fontenay-le-Comte

December 23,1491
Fontenay-le-Comte

ENTRY: THE FIRST

I give you this confession to save my soul, and ask you as my witnesses before God to say prayers on my behalf. I have chosen you because you are my neighbors, although we know only a little about each other.

I, in the flesh, will not presume to occupy but a few moments of your time.

When you have read and considered this written confession, I ask that you pronounce your judgments.

I also ask you to appeal to God on my behalf.

You will receive an honest account of my transgressions without trying to sweeten them. Nor will I pretend to know more than I do, but present to you my complete history as best I can tell it, for even honesty is not a full guarantee of truth.

Was it not Saint Augustine who said… “If I am deceived, I exist?”

*

To share fully in this confession, I must also tell you of another life so intertwined with mine that I cannot separate the two. You may know of him, for he is François Villon, the poet who wrote The Testament. A poet more intimate and shameless than anyone before or since.

It is writing that kept us together then, and it is writing that holds us together even now that François is gone.

But if you believe that there is a place in heaven for Solomon, who took 700 wives and 300 concubines, then there should be a place in heaven for me and François, as well. Our sins are different, but in the end, with your appeal, may God see them as no less acceptable.

Do these words sound familiar to you, taken as they are from our current canonical wisdom? –

“However rude may be the sinner
God hates only his persistence.”

Or…
“Who’s done no wrong need not confess.”

Or then, as François, himself wrote?
“When you’re down and out,
Don’t let appeals get stuck in your throat.”

If you can follow any of these familiar ideas—then I ask you to recognize that we all must sin while you pass judgment upon this confession.

It is my request that you first judge and then ascertain with a caring heart—exactly what are the true sins that I have committed before the eyes of God? How do they align with my virtues? How must they be reconciled? And how must I atone for them?

I leave you to judge my condition for yourselves from the truth behind my adventures as described within this narrative.

*

I was born in Brittany in 1432.

As such, I am younger than François by just one year.

My name, Fremin Le May, was derived from Saint Firmin, whose story few people remember. And yet all Paris celebrates him, along with St. Hilaire, on January thirteenth. This is usually a dismal day, as anyone who pays attention to the weather can observe. In that season breathing is more difficult and gazes are more fixed. It is a time when poor people are content just to survive, waiting for the distant light of spring and a new cheer for living.

I grew up in a village near the forest of Paimpont in a stone house with wood and plaster walls. My father belonged to a noble family, which was nevertheless no longer noble in itself. We were too poor to exercise more than the thought of nobility.

It was the better part of my father’s job to organize the Castle Library at Trecesson. He also acted as an advisor for the rich about how to build their own libraria. Such collections usually consisted of no more than ten, or sometimes twenty books, whereas the Castle of Trecesson had more than eighty books, which made it one of the greatest libraries in Brittany.

Many of Trecesson’s volumes were illuminated, on either paper or vellum. You could read about the noble ages before us. The Song of Roland about Charlemagne’s great hero, or Les Histoires du roy Artus about King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Tristan. And you could browse the poetry of Rutebeuf and the chronicles of Froissart, or savor The Book of the Rose, that parable of love, by Jehan de Meung and Guillaume de Lorris.

The Book of the Rose is a story that François and I read many times. It was written by two authors both of whom are remembered as having invested themselves in its labor. As such it became a great inspiration to us both, and in the end—especially to me. It represented, Good Brethren, an alternate path to what God delivered to François and to me. To how we would be remembered. And to who we are in the world. A divergence that caused many of the events in this confession to transpire in the manner that they did.

In the library of the Trecesson there were many other books. Among my favorites were—The Art of Good Living, The Art of Good Dying, The Ship of Fools, The City of God, Rhymes for Prudish Ladies, The Bestiary of Love, A Guide for New Spouses, A Guide to Herbes, The Very Useful and Profitable Mirror of the Soul, A Book of Marvels, In Praise of Women, In Praise of Victory, The Dance of the Blind, The Dance of Death, Purgatory for Bad Husbands, The Devil Pleads his Case, The Dream of the Flea, and The Way to Paradise.

*

Our house in Paimpont stood near a dark forest. It had pale red doors that opened in the middle, and windows held together by latticework. Within its walls were stones of brown, blue, gray and orange and it was larger than most of the houses in our neighborhood. The roof was made of small slate pieces and contained within it several gables of old wood where I sometimes imagined that I could step out into the air and walk above the landscape like an angelic spirit.

Such fanciful impressions were encouraged by the steep, slate roof with its “dragon back” crenellations, which gave the top of the house a magical character. When rains came and water poured down, it seemed that we lived inside a part of nature that was greatly excited, as if the weather had become a harbinger of far more dramatic events to come.

As to my family’s past—several of my ancestors were renowned as soldiers and were given title during The Combat of Thirty in the time of Bertrand du Guesclin. Our brief 150 years of glory was the work of my great grandfather whose name was Bertran. During the Combat of Thirty, the French general suggested to the English that rather than shed the blood of two entire armies, thirty men from each side should fight it out until one side yielded, and that would decide the outcome of the battle.

For twelve hours, the brave knights fought at one another with swords, daggers, battle-axes and pikes. Wounded heroes persisted while losing blood—the weight of their armor pushing them down—until some were reduced to defending themselves on bended knee. When death came, it came slowly to these strong men, and more than a few died many hours after the battle was over.

The French won at nightfall, and my grandfather, Bertran Le May, was knighted there and then.

It is a story I still cherish despite its pain and suffering. For, Good Fathers, what is life about if it’s not to learn how to persevere?

*

Stories from childhood help to mold us.

You have heard the story of my ancestry.

But stories that are half myth and half real may also take hold.

My favorite story from childhood is one that you must know so well that I needn’t tell it. It’s the history of King Arthur and his knights, who came to the Forest of Paimpont in pursuit of Joseph of Arimethia and the Holy Grail. In my imagination, I grew up beside King Arthur in the fairyland of Paimpont. My mother, who grew up there as well, also seemed to belong to that ancient time, holding secrets that our current age has forgotten.

To this fine legend, I owe a commitment to courage and a no longer popular belief in the generosity of the spirit.

Now I must tell you another legend from my childhood, which in this case is true—in fact a part of history, about a man whom my father once knew. This legend is the very opposite of King Arthur’s. A tragic story of death and evil. A haunting story of what ills might someday lie before us all if we lose our way in mind and heart.

This story became a symbol of corruption and terror—a warning. But in the end, as you shall see, perhaps even a cause for optimism.

The man in question began his career well. He rode beside Jehanne of Arc as she took France from the English. In his youth, he was a great warrior, with his silver armor and red gloves—at Chinon, Poitiers, Blois, Orléans, Meung and Patay. He stormed the Castle of La Hire where he killed the English captain with his fists.

However, this same man sank to an abyss so low that hell itself opened its maw just for him, expecting with great confidence to swallow him up. If he was saved, it was only through the intervention of good grace far beyond normal expectation.

Let us begin when our nobleman is awarded all military honors, and seen as one of the greatest heroes of France. The first step in his long decline is the theater—most particularly those mystery plays, which are performed as religious lessons for ever larger audiences.

How could a man dishonor himself through his lavish support of lessons about the Last Judgment, the Birth of Christ, the Baptism in Jordan, and the Nativity?

This you shall see as it happened to this man, this Gilles.

In the finest of shows the scenery was elaborate. Tapestries moved. Beds moved. Coverlets moved. Tables moved. The stage was built in the fashion of scaffolds, so that the lower scaffold became Hell, the middle scaffold became Earth, and the highest scaffold was a platform for Heaven. Fires blazed in the lowest scaffold, where the actors playing the damned suffered with mortal discomfort and sweat.

A play could last for a full day.

When Gilles de Retz sponsored a play, the advertisements proclaimed Entirely new and elegant costumes. In fact, not a single costume was ever reused for casts, even if these sometimes exceeded a hundred actors.

It is not surprising, then, that Gilles de Retz, the great Marshall of France, soon fell into debt.
The next step in his decline combined vanity with greed and led to a cruel urge for acquisition that denied the sanctity of human life. Gilles believed that he could find eternal youth and repay his debts by transforming base metals into gold.

He had two castles, one by the rivers Crume and one by the River Sevre. In these castles the Marshall had laboratories filled with tubes and oubliettes where the stench of sulfur troubled the atmosphere.

He hired several magicians, three from France and one from England.

Gilles also imported an Italian magician as a servant. This man used phosphorous and other substances to deceive his patron, conjuring through these the shapes of frogs, serpents, leopards and dragons to show that he was in dialog with the Devil, who alone of all powers could grant Gilles de Retz the gold that he desired most. To do his bidding this false Devil insisted on human blood, and especially the blood of innocents.

A woman named Henriette worked for Gilles, and went from town to town covering the side of her face with her hood. Even so, she was seen by many of the villagers who also noticed that children sometimes disappeared after she left.

Imagine her manner as she lured them to herself, offering them some present or sweet. Her hand was hidden in shadow behind the glittering bauble that kept the child’s attention. Her veil disguised her smile, so taut and false behind its gauze, which nevertheless could not completely cover her dull, black eyes.

No one knows exactly what she said. No one survived to tell.

During his trial in Nantes Gilles de Retz, under the name Egedius, confessed to petitioning the Devil for the purposes of making gold. Before he was done he also confessed to the killing of more than 140 children, mostly boys. He would pamper them and dress them up and treat them to a fine dinner, and then lead them into a room where the true nature of their ordeal would quickly become apparent. They were sometimes killed by decapitation. Sometimes he hung them up by the neck from ropes.

For weeks and then months he confessed, detailing each thing and then begging for forgiveness in the most abject way.

Gilles was burned alive, along with his evil, Italian servant, as well as Henriette and a man called “Poitou.”

Yet, despite his atrocities, his confessors sought to pardon his soul because of the sincerity of his confessions. Even the local populace whom had been so wronged cried pardon for this monster, as Gilles de Retz once again became a man in their eyes.

His daughter erected an expiatory altar in his remembrance, which in subsequent years became dedicated to the Good Virgin of Mother’s Milk—and so, in the strangest of circumstances, his altar became a place of prayer for new mothers seeking to breastfeed their young.

*

There were two things for which I was most remembered as a boy.

The first I am less proud of, and yet I can still think of it vividly, as if it were yesterday.

I was lost to fantasies of being a knight, and often pretended to fight among my friends with wooden swords. These ‘swords’ were little more than boards with handles, and suited more to games of fancy than true sport.

But on one occasion, my urge to fight erupted into more serious fulfillment.

There was a young man, two years older than I, with curly hair—tall, proud and very self-satisfied. He assumed that he was entitled to anything he wanted, and believed himself to be a superior being to all those around him. While he came from wealth and could afford to indulge his desires, he didn’t come from nobility in any true sense.

One day he pretended to take an interest in my younger sister.

At first he treated her like a queen, but soon he was leading her around like a dog.

Then he promptly turned his back on her and seemed not even to know her.

As she was only in her thirteenth year, this crushed her as you can well imagine.

To make matters worse, every day we both saw him at school. There we were forced to endure his public conceits, while witnessing two new amorous adventures, all accompanied by pomp and boasting. In the face of these displays, my poor sister declined into a shadow, withered by isolation and shame.

Once while on the playground, this young man, this Gerard, threw a stone at a friend of mine for no reason other than to show his contempt. He hit my friend in the ear, causing him to lose some of his hearing.

Good Fathers, by then I had witnessed all I could stand. I feared the rage I felt might corrupt me if I took no action to release it.

Early one morning, when a quiet rain fell and the weather was soft with mist and fog, I hid in wait for Gerard. I held a wooden sword in my hand and wore the wolf’s mask my father kept for festivals upon my head. I was only fourteen and he was sixteen, and so I might have been afraid. But instead, I fancied myself an avenger with the might of both heaven and hell on my side.

As soon as Gerard emerged along a forest trail, I leapt out from behind a tall oak and struck him hard upon the knees.

He looked at me like a sheep staring at snarling predator.

My surprise had worked.

With just one more strike he fell to the ground instantly, landing first upon his knees, then his hands.

Then I struck him twice upon his back.

He rolled over with a wild look in his eyes and asked for mercy.

Trying to distort my speech into a lower, more somber voice, I granted him a pardon. But my pardon came at a price. I demanded that he remove all his clothes and stand up, so he might face God openly to confess his sins.

He did this grudgingly but quickly—looking all the while at the ground and not at me.

Then, after a brief ceremony of confession in which he mostly mumbled mindless words, I tapped him on the thigh and demanded that he run in the direction of the school.

He stared at me with eyes widened in desperation. Then he lurched forward through the mist and bushes with brown-red leaves of autumn.

In this manner, I drove him into the schoolyard, fully naked, until he was surrounded by his classmates. I watched him there, ashamed and cowering, but still afraid to run back into the woods alone to seek the privacy of his house.

Before the schoolmaster came out, I retreated into the forest to remove my costume. There was much commotion as you might imagine, but no one seemed inclined to hunt for me.

The schoolmaster soon found a coat for him.

But his era of “entitlement” had ended.

From that day onward, he went from being a snarling jackal to a housecat.

After that time he often looked at me with suspicion from the corners of his eyes—as if he secretly knew it was me who had put the burden of truth upon him in a rude attempt to liberate my sister from her shame. And yet he was never sure, nor was I ever about to confess my deed to him, as I have just done for you.

*

The second thing for which I was famous drew from my love of the earth and her treasures. As a youth, I was restless and anxious to use my body. As an example, I built a stone wall when I was thirteen.

Brittany is famous for its ancient rocks and boulders, which are often bigger than a man, and which stand in lines and patterns whose meanings have long been forgotten. I loved stones for their variety in shape, texture and color, for while one may think of them as gray, many are in fact either brown, or red, or blue, and some have crystals in them in such proportions as to appear more like jewels than rocks. Many of the most beautiful stones have moss in brilliant green, and if one touches the smoothness and the wetness, it is like entering an undiscovered place almost feminine to the touch.

The wall began out of my desire to create a pile of pretty rocks.

However, within the course a single summer morning, I amassed such a horde that I began to wish for some more formal organization for my collection.

This became a wall about chest-high, three stones wide on the bottom and two on the top. For many days over a period of years I worked on this wall, which gradually became a boundary to the cleared land around our house.

By the time the wall was done it had many partitions and irregularities, such that my mother and sister began to plant flowers and herbs in its vicinity. It numbered several acres in length and was serpentine in line.

The neighborhood, seeing that I alone had built it, called it “Fremin’s Wall,” and this name has still survived even to this day. Even recently when I have come upon it, I still relish the feel of the stones and celebrate the fact that it has endured as a monument to that quiet moment in my life. A monument to a time when I believed in building something beautiful from God’s hardened tears without questioning the labor or petitioning for rest.

Dog

Once a famous 18th Century naturalist and friend to Ben Franklin, Mendel wakes up to discover he’s a black-Lab-terrier mix in this comic dystopian drama where the excesses of American politics provoke a divine act of retribution from ancient Greece.

You never know how things are going to turn out… (Mendel)

You never know how things are going to turn out.

Especially when something truly amazing intervenes.

For instance, I didn’t know that I was going to be reincarnated as a dog when I was exploring the wilderness, or tending my gardens back in Pennsylvania, or writing letters to Benjamin Franklin. Yet, as luck would have it, I became a black Lab mix—the vet says there’s a little terrier in me as well.

*

I began this life in an old house in the lake region of New Hampshire. According to our vet, I was about six months old at the time.

But I have no puppy memories whatsoever.

I can’t say much about my ‘birth.’ When I first opened my eyes, I was trembling on the floor with a collar and a chain around my neck. At the other end of the chain was a book.

It was in the middle of an August thunderstorm.

Everything shook. The lightning was blinding.

My every movement was slowed by my neck-choking chain with its heavy, leather-bound journal. I felt like a prisoner in so many ways at once that I wished to disappear.

Yet just when I believed I might dissolve into a host of fears, a heartening voice from within invited me to rise to the occasion.

In that same moment, I understood that the book belonged to me.

That it was a tangible link to my past.

As if to reinforce this revelation, I noticed a $100-dollar bill lying on the floor with the face of my old friend, Benjamin Franklin staring back. Ben seemed to have a great deal on his mind with his firm, pursed lips and the tensions evident in his eyes.

*

I was still shaking when Sunny Morris came in soaking wet seeking refuge from the storm. Her long hair was dripping and her cheeks carried raindrops.

She walked across the room and examined my collar for my name.

But she found nothing.

I was as nameless as the manor that held me.

Then she took me in her arms for a magical moment of comfort as her mouth opened into a warm smile.

“You must be someone’s dog!” she proclaimed, breaking the spell. The idea, logical though it was, seemed offensive.

“Let’s wait for your owner!”

The term I would have preferred was “caretaker” or “attendant.” But I had no vehicle to express my opinion.

This sad limitation came yet more emphatically to my attention when, after shivering anew from the cold, I experienced the urge to urinate. I tried to communicate my sudden need in a symbolic way, crouching on the floor to suggest what I believed to be the correct position for a dog eager to go outside. My new canine instincts helped in this, but nonetheless I feared that I was performing largely as if I were a dog, rather than simply being a dog—exaggerating my postures like a dancer trying to exemplify a narrative far too complex for his or her abilities.

Then I dragged the book and the chain to the door and began to whimper—sullenly at first, but with a fast building fervor. In that moment, I could barely tolerate the sound of my own voice. A sullen, rippling, whine, like a child being tickled and possessed at the same time. The timber was wild, belonging to the womb of nature and the outdoors.

After a difficult few seconds in which I only seemed to frighten my new companion, she finally understood my request.

“Oh, you poor thing! You must have a bladder problem!”

She came to me again, this time undoing my chain.

As her fingers moved against my neck, I watched her smile again.

I responded instinctively by licking her face.

Soon the chain was collected in a neat pile and I was freed from my book. She picked it up and held it as if it were sacred before she set it down beside me.

Then she opened the door she laughed.

“Don’t look so worried!”

Once outside, I urinated into an abyss—superfluously adding my own liquid to the abundant precipitation. And yet it felt good. My first successful ‘bodily function’ in my new form.

After I came back soaking wet from the rain, Sunny said I still looked “worried.”

While I shook the water off my back she began to sing. Her voice was strong and clear, and I wondered then if she’d ever sung in a church choir.

What does the Lord require of you?
What does the Lord require of you?
To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your dog…

She had substituted dog for god and laughed afterward.

Then she winked at me. “Right now, in this very moment at least, you’re my dog—and I’ll do my best to do you justice!” As she knelt down to give me a hug, I hoped we would never part.

*

We spent more than an hour in that house together, still waiting for my past owner to appear.

No one came.

During that I had to go out to urinate two more times.

Once the rain let up, Sunny took me to Sarras College and her apartment—a modest place with a small living room that opens onto a generous kitchen and a bedroom with an ample bed. In the morning, the sun radiates through a large window onto a plush tan couch with seven green-and-white pillows.

She pulled a knit, wool rug out from her bedroom and laid it beside the couch.

Then she winked at me again. “You can spend the night here, if you like!”

This I did.

The next morning Sunny gave me the name ‘Mendel’ to honor Gregor Mendel, the great nineteenth century scientist whom many call “the Father of Genetics.” To this day, it is a name I still cherish.

Later she posted a picture of me on the Internet. The advertisement stayed up for ten days, but no one responded.

After she stopped advertising I understood her to be, in human terms, my new ‘owner.’ In accepting her in her new role, which required some level of governance (in her eyes) and care (for which I am forever grateful)—I gave her the name, ‘Mistress.’

*

The general opinion seems to be that Mistress looks young for her age of thirty-five.

Her real name is Megan Morris but everyone calls her “Sunny” because of her patient smile and sparkly blue eyes. She is also a brilliant researcher in the field of genetics, which she pursues at Sarras College beside New Hampshire’s largest lake.

These are things I have learned about her from listening, watching and reading. And yet, despite her intimacies with me, she remains in some respects remote.

Literally a different species.

It is for this reason that I have taken a unique approach to metaphor. I have imagined all the otherwise disconnected human beings that now surround me as dogs. Dogs with unique breeds and temperaments.

Just as I was once a human, with a fully human life, but emerged as a canine of comparatively fine lineage—a black Lab—it seemed only fair and reasonable for me to bring my human family down to my own level. To imagine that they had all once been dogs in a prior life, and then transformed in this next life into their human state with missions and temperaments akin to their breeds.

A symmetry of being that allowed me to adjust to my new conditions far more amenably than I might have otherwise.

Given my name, Mendel, this seemed especially appropriate.

You might even say these were my new “laws of Mendelian inheritance.”

After doing some research, I decided that Mistress was a poodle. A poodle of the “medium” persuasion, which isn’t recognized by the American Kennel Club, though it is by the French.

And why is this?

I will insist that it is not a casual linkage.

Poodles are gifted with “extreme intelligence” and “will attempt to solve problems independently.” Moreover, they are “highly sociable” and “require both physical and intellectual activities.” The validity of this last shall be more apparent in time.

And finally, I should say that Mistress in her many expressions, and especially in the way she looks at me, is with poodle eyes—intimate, sincere and seeking. Her ‘medium’ size is also just, for as she stretches out in a manner to preside over our living room, she is still of modest dimensions, although in no way “miniature” or “toy.”

*

Sunny is also very dedicated to her work, fully as obedient to her assumed obligations as the most the most perfect example of the poodle breed.

But at that time, she was also very much at risk—struggling to preserve her patents against threats from the government and the megacorporation, Rudmer, Inc. Struggling as well against the machinations of a figure I came to loathe by the name of Jack Marvel.

I soon pictured Marvel as a maniacal creature whose breed I identified as that of wolfdog—cast in the least predictable most terrifying mode. Indeed, wolf-dog hybrids are less predictable in their behavior than either the wolf or the dog. And now 40 U.S. states forbid their ownership. The secret of the breed—their strength and efficiencies in battle—is perhaps why Jack Marvel’s misguided admirers unwittingly applaud his unique DNA and call him “War Dog.”

An epithet which, I must admit, he well deserved.

*

Despite Sunny’s ongoing attention and care, my first few months I still wondered if I were the one being punished.

If in some inexplicable way, I was being taught a lesson and paying for past sins.

First of all, I had come back to earth as a dog.

But I wasn’t really a dog, or just a dog, so associating with other dogs wasn’t much fun. Their curiosities rarely converged with mine, so they often treated me as an outcast—barking as if I were a stranger or a mailman.

Reading up on dogs didn’t help much. I knew their breeds. I knew their mix. And they were all too fixed in character, unlike my human counterparts, whose canine metaphors carried with them an almost infinite variety of behaviors and expressions.

I also found myself increasingly critical of the book that was joined with me at birth—a book that I came to believe I had written in my former life. Soon all I could see were its failings, revisiting the many things I might have done differently in style or meaning.

Moreover, when I tried to connect the dots—what had happened in those 250 plus years that might have led to me becoming a dog? —nothing came to mind.

And this left me feeling cheated.

*

Nevertheless, after several months I finally managed to settle into my new life and my old book with more comfort. My journal became a way of reaching back into the past so that I might better orient myself in the present.

Very few people have this luxury.

In fact, I can think of no one else.

While we have the voices of many deceased authors in bookstores, libraries and online repositories, no one outside of sanitariums for the mentally disturbed can claim any one of those voices as being his or her own.

I eventually came to relish the fact that I had such a magical fount to reconsider who I once was, and by association—what I might now become.

These readings were all the richer (but also all the more perplexing) because this unique indulgence was multiplied by a factor of two, as there seemed to be two voices at work in the texts, not just one.

Here are a few paragraphs by the writer I termed ‘the Thinker.

We acquired a Modest house twelve miles outside of Philadelphia. It was just Two stories, with only one room on each floor, but I believed then that we might eXpand it over Time. And with hard work and much Luck, this Came to pass.
Now our house is an Estate.
In parallel, our garden began as a Mere few Flowers. Today the house has more than a Hundred acres of garden and farmland.

Clearly this speaks of a charmed, educated and successful life.

Now here is the other voice—the Adventurer.

Like a Bird I Dreamed often of Flying from ye top of one Mountain to Another. And this Was as I Lived my Liffe. For I so Often Ventured over Peaks and Valleys, And have witnessed Many of the most Desolate, craggy Dismal places Where no Mortal before or After me had Trod.
I do not Adore solitude for Itself. Yet only In these Places can I Explore Nature’s Wondrous productions. I observe the Dances of ye Night Hawk and ye Bumblebees and Ye Wasps and Locusts and Tumble Turds.

This author, on the other hand, appears to be rough and strong and even a little haunted. I concluded that this could not be the same person as the one with his fine gardens, his comfortable estate and his more elegant mind.

I decided that the Thinker was the owner of enterprise, and the Adventurer was the owner’s right-hand man—traveling to rough spots where he might bring back samples of plant and animal life from the wilds.

At times, I dreamed of being the owner, the Thinker, with his more lofty and elegant mind. While at others, I fancied myself as the Adventurer exploring parts of the New World never seen before by any English-speaking gentleman.

And yet I knew I was a black Lab as well.

I was Mendel, trying to create a new life, merging the best of my past, present and future. To make the most of my lot as both man and dog.

A life fully my own—whatever its rewards, its mysteries, its embarrassments, and its terrors.

*

One morning in late February Mistress took me for a walk. After a cold night, it was suddenly misty and surprisingly temperate. I could feel the seasons changing in a brand-new way, for our planet had warmed considerably since I last remembered it. The weather often shifted as if it were adrift on the ocean, changing course on whim—sometimes minute to minute—from sun to cloud, from stillness to wind and rain.

But that morning I could also feel the earth moving beneath me.

I looked up at Sunny, but she seemed to notice nothing at all strange, as if she were smelling only the air with her thoughts turned inward.

Then I heard machinery from far off construction. It seemed to be fighting with the earth in way that I couldn’t begin to fathom. I remembered Sunny talking about how the last remnants of work had just been completed on the camp next door—an elite government facility called “Arcadian Grove.”

“There’s nothing to worry about,” I told myself, seeing that Sunny was
smiling and at peace with the world. Quite unaware of those forces within me wanting to cry out in alarm. “The earth is only vibrating because of the normal working men and their machines.”

Soon the machines stopped and there was a silence.

For a moment, I felt the earth calm beneath my paws.

But then as we moved through a mist-haloed grove of small trees, I heard a stream running long before we reached its banks. At the water’s edge, with its beautiful moss and stone, I sensed something beyond the stream. Something grabbing, reaching up, rolling through me, crying out, calling for more, and begging for all of nature to come to its aid.

Mistress was still smiling happily. No doubt she was thinking of the workday ahead and how she was close to another breakthrough.

But despite her peace of mind, my entire body was shaking in rhythms with the earth.

Moments later we reached a bend in the trail where two dead trees were lost in an ancient dance. One moved up from the ground like a giant serpent with its huge, fat trunk. The other leaned over us with two of its branches touching in the shape of a mouth, trembling as if to speak.

Instantly a mist rose up to surround both trees, gliding across them in a trance-like progression. The mist quickly shaped itself into what seemed to be two hands. The one poised to reach out for understanding. The other a fist seeking to inflict pain.

Then I felt a force from inside the earth pulling at me yet again. Pulling through my heart. Begging me to stand outside myself, to try to understand what I couldn’t possibly be expected to understand.

In that moment, I knew there was message to me in all this.

That somehow we were in danger.

Sleeping Sickness (Novel)

Blocked in his career at The Myriad Corporation, and betrayed by his wife Yvette, aspiring novelist Rodger Davies tries to reclaim both his life and his fiction.

Silver and the Angels (Novel)

Journalist Constance Graham tries to resolve the many implausible riddles that arise when a family of “angels” (or are they vampires?) war against the industrialization of the human species, in the wake of unexplained, violent murders that rock Stamford, Connecticut.

*

Dying Young

When the phone rang Fran felt a stinging sensation as her still waking flesh touched the cool, plastic receiver.

“Hello. Is this Ms. Desnoes?” It was a male voice, too polite to be anything other than a sales call.

“Yes, this is she.” Fran was curt, but she didn’t hang up on her caller. A new level of energy required her to take on everything, and then all too often to subvert it.  Her appetites had become stronger, coarser, and more independent of herself. As if she were becoming someone generic, whom she really didn’t know.

“Do you live at 270 Hope Street?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you have a United Visa Card?”

“Yes.” Fran was relieved. Miraculously, she already had one. The call was superfluous.

“Good. This call is for people who already have Citibank Visa cards. If you didn’t have one, this call wouldn’t apply to you. May I get the pronunciation of your last name? “Des – no – es?”

“Desnoce,” Fran said.

“Desnoze.” The man was courteous but he had a tin ear. “Ms. Desnoze, do you know that one out of twenty credit card holders loses money, sometimes in the tens and even hundreds of thousands a year, due to credit card fraud?”

“No,” Fran confirmed. “I did not.”

“Don’t you believe that protection for card members from this type of fraud makes sense?”

“I suppose it might make sense.”

“We have a program where you can have insurance against such fraud free for the first ten months. Then you pay only thirty-nine dollars a year. What do you think?”

“It sounds reasonable.” Fran wondered, what was she doing? She would never have said this before. She would have hung up within the first second.

“So will you let me sign you up right now for your first ten months of free insurance?”

The phrase “first ten months of free insurance” stuck in Fran’s mind. The first ten months would be more than enough. She wouldn’t need any months after that.

“Yes,” she said crisply. “Sign me up!”

Fran had been getting gradually more depressed ever since about 1840. Maybe it was a near fatal bout she had had with Asiatic Cholera, although she had been revived with the massaging touch of Noel’s incomparable hands. Then, if anything, life had seemed sweeter for a while afterwards. During this brief time, she enjoyed a wave of optimism.

So, she decided, it wasn’t that particular sickness.

As absurd as it sounded, Fran now believed her recurrent depressions were fueled at least in part by the Industrial Revolution. The odors and sensations she loved, the thoughtful rhythms of life, and all the values that came with these things were bit-by-bit being purged for something else. It wasn’t nature against civilization. Nature and civilization were allied against this something else.

Fran knew she wasn’t alone in noticing this. The Desnoes sometimes talked about it, and then they talked about it to a degree that drove her crazy.

But she, Fran, didn’t just talk about it.

She felt it.

She was consumed by it, much like bad air consumes the dying during a plague.

Then, during the last months her weakness had only gotten worse.

She had seen the darting eyes of Dis Silver and with them she had succumbed to nightmares where she was placed in a world in which everything was created through manufacturing. Mercantile priorities governed not only the marketplace, but the entire landscape right down to minute, cellular forms. A new kind of standardization was taking hold. People were becoming more like bugs. All they cared about was “performance.” And everyone wanted to be measured and quantified.

Long before coming to Stamford, Fran had hiding in terror from this new reality.

But that morning she entered her nightmare willingly—feeling that it was time for a reckoning one way or the other.*

Upon the hour, Fran found herself in Hartigan’s.

She had decided to clothe herself for summer. Here it was May, with June not far behind, and she had nothing to wear. Or actually, she had plenty to wear, but she didn’t have anything new to wear. She decided that she needed to see herself freshly even if it were only for a few minutes.

As she rose upward on the escalators, she saw women in all shapes and sizes, although most were plump, their overfed contours pressing outwards in pleasant lumps. They worried about their scents. They considered their colors.

Fran looked at their soft, white necks and she regressed. She saw them no longer as privileged consumers but as objects to be consumed— as the ultimate food.

Or in other words, dressed to kill.

After Fran descended one of the escalators a heavy woman in a black dress began to spray her with perfume that smelled faintly like excrement.

“No thank you,” Fran said.

“It’s Bain d’Or.” The lady spoke in Scarsdale French. “Shower of gold. It’s the house special. We’re selling it for thirty percent off.” The woman stared at Fran and Fran stared right back and the woman flinched.

Fran rose again on the escalator, realizing that she was still wearing her black evening dress, the one she had on the other morning at breakfast after she had worn it for three days solid.

She had even slept in it.

Now she wanted something a woman could die in without seeming funereal.

A poplin skirt. Or maybe a madras dress. A cotton jersey polo in grapefruit pink. Or how about an oversize dress in Capri that reversed to reef? Or a nice floral tank dress?

This last made the most sense. It was very spring-like and, it was already May.

Fran picked a salesgirl in the sporty section of the store—a young, black woman with a kind smile. She reminded Fran of Nubian royalty with her almond eyes.

“Can I help you?” the salesgirl asked with the sun in her face.

“Yes. Yes you can. I’m looking for spring and summer clothes. I’d like to start with just one outfit. But I’m open to anything.”

“Something for the spring?”

“Spring and summer.”

“Something for today?”

The unseasonable heat must have clued in the salesgirl to the immediacy of the situation.

Just then a man pushed against them. He did it in a non-confrontational way, like someone who had lost his balance on a bus.

Fran knew this man many times over. He was the generic camp follower for the wrong camp. And now this wrong camp, devoted neither to nature nor civilization but to something else, seemed to be especially wrong. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been such a bad man under most circumstances.

He was so used to being self-conscious that he had achieved a kind of poise. Fran could tell all this by his gestures and by the way he stared at both her and the salesgirl. His eyes peeked in and out of Fran’s direction. He fondled his wedding ring.

Fran knew that the one he wanted was her.

“I’m looking for a turtleneck for my friend’s wife. It’s her birthday and she likes to go out on their boat.” He wasn’t even a good liar. He was really shopping for his wife, but he didn’t want to publicize it. “I want to get her something she’ll be comfortable wearing on the water.”

“Well,” the salesgirl said pleasantly. “I have a customer right now.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the man nodded.

Fran noticed that he was wearing a pale blue cotton T-shirt, beige chinos and white sneakers. He wasn’t wearing socks, but he should have.

“The turtlenecks are over there if you want to look.” The salesgirl pointed. There they were, stacked up by size in all those catalog colors—natural, white, chili, yam, wine, cactus, ink and, Fran’s favorite of the day, stone.

Then the salesgirl turned her eyes back to Fran.

“I was thinking of a dress, something in a floral pattern, but I’m willing to look at anything,” Fran explained.

The first item she saw was a chiffon tee and skirt.

“Very simple, very sheer,” said the salesgirl. “It suits you!”

Fran studied herself in the mirror. “It makes me look like I think I’m still a teenager.”

“It does make you look incredibly young!” The salesgirl was beaming with sincerity.

In spite of herself, Fran felt flattered, but flattery was hardly the point.

“I’m sorry. It’s not what I want.”

Fran retreated into the changing room to try on a long series of things, but she already knew she would pick the floral dress with white-and-yellow daisies and a pale blue background. It would have looked unsophisticated on an unsophisticated person, but it would look fine on her.

She put on the dress—a kind of farewell treat.

Then she walked out of the changing room and into the rest of Hartigan’s.

The salesgirl sized up Fran in her new dress.

So did the middle-aged gentleman dressed in white sneakers and beige pants.

“It’s perfect! It’s beautiful!” the Nubian said, aglow like the Nile at sunrise.

“I am not trying to look beautiful. I am trying to die,” Fran said, but she spoke so charmingly that the salesgirl only smiled, as if it were all a joke.

“No need to die. This dress will help you forget your troubles. Whenever you wear this, you’ll feel like a new person!”

Fran noticed that the man, who was now pouring his way through a different stack of turtlenecks, was still looking at her with the kind of gaze you see in the movies heralding an encounter.  The new choice of colors he faced were chili, white, oatmeal heather, surf, yam, cactus, nut, chambray, indigo heather.

Fran wondered, what kind of colors were those?

“What do you think my friend’s wife would like?” the man asked. He was probably just over fifty. He rubbed his arm against Fran. He smelled of cheap cologne. He wanted to be nice, but he didn’t know how. “Which color would you like if you were her?”

“But I’m not her, am I?”

“What color would you like? If you were buying this? That’s my only question.”

That was definitely NOT his only question. It was barely a prelude.

“Indigo heather. That’s for me,” Fran said barely containing her laughter. “I’ve always been a fan of indigo heather!”

The middle-aged gentleman stopped and pondered. “Indigo heather” took some time to digest. “Yes,” he said. “That’s what I’ll get. What a cheerful color!”

The Nubian squinted. She knew she would have two sales in spite of being abused—the man had put his hand fleetingly on her ass and then removed it as if he had just been off balance.

He followed Fran out of the store like a dog.

Fran led him through beer mugs and corkscrews and coffee makers. She led him through wine glasses and walking sticks with owls on top. She led him through nifty little leather purses that looked like Pocahontas had made them while she was still in Kindergarten. She led him to the parking lot and then to her car.

It had two doors and the seats could go back.

“Get in,” she said.

The man did.

“I have a wife and a mistress,” he said out of sheer amazement. “But I would give them both up for you!” And then he pinched Fran on the breast.

“Where are we going?” he asked as they drove out of the lot.

“Exit six,” Fran said. “I will take you to where there is nothing.”

The man looked at her. He seemed excited.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“We’re going to a place that’s nothing.”  Fran said definitively.

The man began to squirm in his seat.

“It’s a good place to go when you want to forget,” Fran explained.

The man repeated his proposal as if it were relevant to the notion of ‘forgetting.’  “I would give them both up for you.”

Fran could tell, he wanted her to grab his cock. He could hardly control himself. He stared out the window with wide, blue eyes. He was like a child hoping to be force-fed candy.

He fondled Fran’s breast again with an incidental motion as if he were really reaching for a baseball.

“I have a lot of resources,” he suggested. “I can give you anything you want.”

This depressed Fran. It wasn’t exactly the right tone.

Fran found the cul-de-sac where they once used to sell an odd assortment of lawn ornaments, including free standing Buddha’s, but which was now just cement.

No one was there.

“I can tell that you need to be fucked!”  The man stated as if he had just heard it as a revelation in therapy. “I can tell that it’s been a long time for you.”

As banal as his proposition was, Fran had already decided that she would let him try to have his way—that was the whole idea.  That was why she had decided to let him follow her like a dog into the afterlife.

His wrists were very stiff.  She remembered the little tags inside his collar. He had an erection that protruded from his trousers like an awkward tuber.

He pushed up her new dress and tore off her panties and buried it into her as quickly as he could manage. The he pumped at her against the seat.

He came quickly sweating and huffing in his off-key, crooner’s voice.

After ejaculating, he put his head down beside hers to catch his breath.

Fran was glad that he wouldn’t repeat such a depressing act in the future.

When she pulled her knife across his neck, she must have become incredible to behold because his eyes spread into amazed surrender. He gasped while his arms pumped into the air and against the dashboard. He seemed to be hurrying against time, which was always insufficient.

Always insufficient. It was Fran’s Law of Insufficiency.

After several seconds he sank upon her shoulder like a lamb.

Fran held him. The man’s burial, his entire future as a corporeal entity, was in her hands. The old days of knights and martyrs were gone. And now here was this poor, middle-aged man leaning on top of her with his spiffy clothes.

She didn’t even know his name.

Yet he, too, seemed to be waiting for her to change. He, too, was oppressing her like her family—”Fran change! Fran heal! Fran get better! We cannot move without you.”

In contrast, Fran finally saw a clear road ahead.

She thought of Constance and, according to Georges, the “Voltarian nature” of her journalistic enterprise. She hoped that Constance Graham would have understood her final act—if she’d been able to witness it through her own eyes.

Fran walked to the side of the car, opened the gas cap and dropped a match inside. She leaned against the car to embrace the flames as they burst into the pale, blue sky making a sea of light and pain.  And then she made herself remember the Cathars, and their last brave deaths at the pinnacle of Montségur.

The Northern Spy (Novel)

Agent Felix Andropov, once assigned to guard Rasputin, struggles to recreate his life and his marriage against a backdrop of extraordinary political events and a haunting series of murders in 1920 Petrograd.

Murmansk

(From Felix Andropov in a letter to his brother, Semyon.)

I proceeded north and then eastward through the wilderness, hunting as I went.

Instead of living from moment to moment, always assessing my health and position in the immediate scheme of things, I began to make long-range plans. I could picture Murmansk and indulged in an odd fantasy about getting there being my salvation, as if by arriving at the top of the world I might find my freedom and safety, along with clarity and vision about Russia, itself.

But I found something else.

Upon the odd barren landscape of Murmansk, I only found a different desolation. I approached something which I believe could pass as the center of hell.

Before me was a village that had been burned by the Bolsheviks.

It was completely annihilated. I understood vaguely that this had to do with teaching the villagers a lesson. Bodies were everywhere — men, women, children — all in a state of decay with a cry of despair upon their faces.

No one had been buried. No one was left to do the burying.

It was odd to see this after coming out of the forest. After a solitude of animals. And now this was my first human contact after Volkov.

No doubt you must think that this is it — the third horror I promised.

But no, Semyon!

This was not the horror, although the horror was close by.

In the middle of the village I found a gathering of living souls.

The center for the gathering was a photographer. A very young man had been given camera of a professional photographer, no doubt confiscated from its original owner during the Revolution.

Even though this young man was wrestling with his apparatus, a smug, indifferent expression cramped his face. He was about to teach another Bolshevik lesson by recording a new form of human depravity.

In front of him were several of the surviving villagers, only they hadn’t really survived in a fully human sense. Their faces were long and drawn beneath hats made of wrapped cloth and fur. An old woman sat in a tattered, plaid dress staring down at the ground. Her pointed nose aimed at something that it still repels me to describe.

Behind her was another woman. I remember her eyes — squinting hard, and focused outwards. Her expression was one of both severity and madness.

In a third tier behind her was a young man with a fur cap. It was not clear to me if he were part of the group, or an onlooker, or perhaps a friend of the Bolshevik official in the middle. This figure, distinguished by his long coat and proper attire, and by his youthful age — maybe twenty-one at a stretch, but more likely eighteen — sat in the middle on something too high for a normal chair. And he had a ledger in which he posed for the photographer as if he were keeping a disapproving record of the horrid scene around him.

Beside him, to his left, was a young man, or boy, also in a tall fur cap. The boy’s expression is the one I best remember. The mouth was open. The lips hung desolate and guilt-ridden. The eyes were robbed of the fire that would let them weep. It was an expression of a face without memory or purpose.

The figure on the lower right, perhaps another woman, was ancient and despairing. She may have lost her capacity for joy, but somehow she did not seem to have lost her mind. Under the circumstances one must view this as an achievement.

The photographer took their picture — and now I will tell you what was before them, at their feet.

There, Semyon, were the bones of human beings strewn around like the remains of pigs after a feast. In the middle of the pile of bones was half of a human carcass: the legs and buttocks of some man or woman, frozen so that the knees were bent and the feet still raised high off the ground.

In other words, Semyon, these people had become cannibals to survive.

This is what the photographer had wanted to capture to teach us all a lesson.

The young man with his long coat and his stupid contempt was writing some bureaucratized description of the scene. It was to become an example for the Bolsheviks.

A cameo.

Something like a greeting card with the caption “Horrors of the Old Regime.”

But it was not caused by the Old Regime. It was a product of the new one.

The photographer took not just one picture, but several.

Then everyone was marched away and shot.

The only survivors of the village were now ten years old or under, and they were left to live, or more likely to die slowly, on their own.

I went towards them to try to help them, but they ran away from me in fear.

To this day, Semyon, I wonder how I might have saved them.

*

Two days after I saw this I became convulsed with fever.

From then on I remember very little. Somewhere I dropped my gun.

I walked towards what was obviously some regional city. Dimly I remember deciphering the name — PETROZAVODSK.

Do you know the place, Semyon? It is full of large boxy houses and office buildings that look like warehouses. But there are also some old timber houses that are more charming.

I entered the city prepared to die.

I, too, expected to be executed. It no longer seemed like such a bad thing.

In my fever, Petrozavodsk began to swirl. It seemed to belong to a medieval scene in which everyone in the village was about to engage in a holiday dance. I remember this commotion of people and buildings.

And then I remembered nothing except darkness.

After nights of hellish but forgotten dreams, this darkness yielded to the soft, gray eyes of a nurse.

“I am Sophie Pishkov,” they whispered to me. “You have been very sick. But you will get well now.”

Finding Dimitri

While seeking to discover the truth behind his best friend’s disappearance in Pinochet’s Chile, photographer Marten Sorensen ends up playing a game of life and death with the Devil.

                                       Listen to the author reading

The Message from the Window

The Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Poets were gone. The people who inspired those eras had passed from the earth where they were soon remembered like a collection of fancy cameos.

The door had opened for change.

And so, he immersed himself in the new populist democracy and its twin sister, populist fascism, something like a sporting event where the crowds succumb to the rapture of winning and losing until it becomes the new world-religion.

Right wing. Left wing. No wing.
It didn’t really matter.

In the spirit of justice, He tried to approach both sides equally. It was only fitting, after all, that His politics should be transcendent.

That evening, He stood waiting in an alley where garbage cans lined the backs of buildings like so many stunted doormen. The next morning, his newly designated host would see the garbage cans and their surprising contents from his window. An alarm to begin an alarming day.

A wakeup call of a unique kind.

A hint that his life would never be the same.

But now, it was a night you could inhale. It smelled like earth even in the middle of Boston. Dust to dust, ground to ground, another death for the burial mound.

“Quid es homo, qui magnificas eum?
“What is man that Thou shouldst magnify him?
And why dost Thou set thy heart upon him?”

He liked the old medieval Latin with its direct inquiry into the nature of sin.

It made him feel more at home while He waited at the corner for his secret rendezvous. She would emerge from the bar where she had just performed on her way to her Boston apartment. Conveniently for Him, she hated cabs and liked to walk, assuming the walk was less than a mile. And in just a few minutes, she would walk right in front of him.

He knew this not only because He was a professional with professional connections across the board—from entertainment to politics to the secret service. But also because He had connections of a wholly different sort.

Or was that a different sort?

Just an hour earlier He had seen the singer’s show, which was disappointing. A talent squandered for the convenience of packaging. Another example of Career Vanity. Hardly worth inviting her into the vastly overrated afterlife, except that her hypocritical influence was growing with sinful speed.

She was filthy rich while pretending to be poor. She had a luxurious apartment in New York and a house in Foster City, near San Francisco. She wore rags when she sang and bounced across the stage, but she owned three horses and four cars.

She was also putting on weight and hated to exercise. When she wasn’t singing, she was always chewing gum. But she styled herself around attitude and energy when she performed, turning herself into a package that anyone with no thoughts might come to worship.

That night she did a bluesy imitation of Janis Joplin. He remembered the opening lines of her last song

“You know it,
You know,
You can’t stop loving America.
It can’t stop loving you.

“Freedom is your one true goal,
Don’t sell it off. Don’t pigeonhole…
You’re not in Wall Street’s pocket,
Not in the devil’s hole,
Go venture forth—fly like a rocket
Float free and free your soul…”

He finished it in silence with the words –
“Don’t be a jerk—become a mole!”

Suddenly He heard her steps.

Then He saw the woman approaching.

She had a small nose and not much of a chin and a waist that had gotten thick with age. She couldn’t know that he had something for her. A treat that would transform her evening into something far more than routine.

When He first caught her attention, her eyes gazed up at him ever so cautiously.

But she wasn’t afraid.

He looked, after all, like a wise, old gentleman.

And this He was, in his own unique way.

But then, as she would soon find out, He was also so much more.

*

Marten Sorensen had come full circle.

He was living in a three-room apartment with a clean, wooden floor like the kind in dance studios. It was a larger replica of the West Village apartment he had taken after college nearly thirty years before.

His living room window overlooked a small street where the major daily event was the morning garbage pickup, while twenty-seven years ago his window in the West Village exposed a cramped back alley with a similar lineup of trashcans. Between 7:00 and 7:15 in both places a trio of garbage collectors made a noise fit for a steel drum Calypso band.

But that morning, the banging of cans reached a crescendo with a sudden series of screams and yells.

He sat up in bed, while his brain still lost to dream and memory.

Before it would allow him to get to the window, it insisted on reminding him why it was that he had returned to virtually the same setting nearly thirty years later.

*

After college, he moved to the West Village where he had found a small gallery to represent his photographs and drawings. There he enjoyed the happiest years of his life.

Soon he got married and began to plan a family.

But not long after the wedding, his personal life was obliterated in two terrible moments. One was a tragic accident in which he lost both his parents and his new wife. The other might have been in some respects an even darker tragedy, although without knowing the details, he could only speculate.

After nearly a year spent trying to navigate inside a sinister vacuum, he sold his house and decided to look for a new career—a different workplace where he might escape from what haunted him. He soon found employment in the marketing arm of a mid-sized technology corporation.

At first, it made him feel a part of America’s mainstream corporate life.

But after ten years he sensed that he was on one of those highways that you can’t get off, stuck driving forward for miles beyond your intended destination.

It took him nearly another decade before he had finally saved up enough to quit his job and move to his current apartment where he could renew his pursuit of art and photography.

He was already forty-eight years old.

Despite all the financial risks, he believed it was the right thing to do.

Yet now he seemed to be pursued by shadows and dreams that he still couldn’t bear to face. The demons from his past returned, albeit in a more veiled or muted form.

Perhaps as a result, his art remained fragmented.

Each day he had only a piece of himself to work with, and each day it was a different piece.

*

Well before he finally got to the window, the yelling had stopped.

Instead, what he heard were the punctured voices of men trying to reconcile an irreconcilable scene.

As he put his hands on the sill, leaned forward and squinted into the already intense morning light, he saw three garbage men standing in disarray and glaring at the trash bins where one lid was obscenely askew, as the tip of a sneaker projected beyond the rim.

Then he heard police sirens.

Within minutes a police car arrived, and two men leapt out.

The taller of the two policemen called on his phone, presumably for backup.

The two uniformed men barely acknowledged the garbage workers, who watched like a stunned Greek chorus as the policemen, both wearing gloves, knocked off the lid and pulled on the sneaker.

First Marten saw a foot, then an ankle, and soon a calf—all revealed beneath the bedazzled gaze of the audience in the alley. As they reached in and pulled up the other leg, soon the whole woman soon became exposed. She was wearing baggy jeans and a tie-dyed sweatshirt. Marten could see that she was plump even in her loose clothes.

Her glazed expression was partially obscured by the bobbing heads of both policemen while they stood on either side of her searching for clues. But he got the impression from her swooning face that she had died almost instantly—her mind and soul taken from her in a single stroke.

With surprising speed, three more patrolmen and two men in white gowns appeared with a stretcher and a body bag. One of three uniformed arrivals had a camera and took pictures. His awkward sense of urgency was almost slapstick.

*

She lay there in the alley, while the police interrogated the three garbage men, who nodded, gestured with their arms, and finally shook the hands of Boston’s finest. The woman, presumably a victim of something, whoever she was, seemed to be sleeping. Gone. Lost to a world that Marten had vacated just minutes before where past, present and future all converged into a mixture of dream and nightmare.

After a hurried examination of the crime scene, the two men in white coats carried the corpse away, still oddly farcical and all but scripted, like it had all been a shoddy theatrical production.

As Marten tried to assimilate what he’d just witnessed, he felt, quite inexplicably, that the whole scene had been staged for him—part of a mystery to try and resolve. A way of getting his attention and pulling him into a story yet larger than the disjointed spectacle in the alleyway beneath him.

And what was the message?

A woman found lying in a garbage can? Apparently dead. A metaphor for someone who had thrown her life away?

Was that a warning to him? A warning to the world? Or a mere delusion?

No matter how much his rational mind sought to persuade him otherwise, he sensed that he was supposed to solve both the woman’s murder and the larger mystery surrounding it, as if the crime might be explained more through art than forensics. And moreover, that the victim’s death had nothing to do with anything obvious. Anything probable. Anything normal. Anything ostensibly ‘real.’

It was an impossible idea.

An absurd form of self-inflicted delusion.

Something a child might seriously consider before the age of six or seven.

And yet he couldn’t dismiss it.

From Another World

This non-fiction account explores the lives of four members of a poetry workshop at Green Haven in Stormville, NY in 1976-67 – two of whom are still alive, one still in prison, while one became the subject of a Paul Simon Broadway Musical. The short section below highlights both Salvador Agron’s transformational experience in prison, as well as the very different points of view, still visible in America, about people in prison and rehabilitation.