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Of All That Was Found and All That Was Lost
Once upon a time -- for that is how all stories should begin -- there was a boy who lost his mother.
He had, in truth, been losing her for a very long time. The disease that was killing her was a creeping, cowardly thing, a sickness that ate away at her from the inside, slowly consuming the light within, so that her eyes grew a little less bright with each passing day, and her skin a little more pale.
And as she was stolen away from him, piece by piece, the boy became more and more afraid of finally losing her entirely. He wanted her to stay. He had no brothers and no sisters, and while he loved his father, it would be true to say that he loved his mother more. He could not bear to think of a life without her.
The boy, whose name was David, did everything that he could to keep his mother alive. He prayed. He tried to be good, so that she would not be punished for his mistakes. He padded around the house as quietly as he was able, and kept his voice down when he was playing war games with his toy soldiers. He created a routine, and he tried to keep to that routine as closely as possible, because he believed in part that his mother's fate was linked to the actions he performed. He would always get out of bed by putting his left foot on the floor first, then his right. He always counted up to twenty when he was brushing his teeth, and he always stopped when the count was completed. He always touched the faucets in the bathroom and the handles of the doors a certain number of times: odd numbers were bad, but even numbers were fine, with two, four, and eight being particularly favorable, although he didn't care for six because six was twice three and three was the second part of thirteen, and thirteen was very bad indeed.
If he bumped his head against something, he would bump it a second time to keep the numbers even, and sometimes he would have to do it again and again because his head seemed to bounce against the wall, ruining his count, or his hair glanced against it when he didn't want it to, until his skull ached from the effort and he felt giddy and sick. For an entire year, during the worst of his mother's illness, he carried the same items from his bedroom to the kitchen first thing in the morning, and then back again last thing at night: a small copy of Grimm's selected fairy tales and a dog-eared Magnet comic, the book to be placed perfectly in the center of the comic, and both to be laid with their edges lined up against the corner of the rug on his bedroom floor at night or on the seat of his favorite kitchen chair in the morning. In these ways, David made his contribution to his mother's survival.
After school each day, he would sit by her bedside, sometimes talking with her if she was feeling strong enough, but at other times merely watching her sleep, counting every labored, wheezing breath that emerged, willing her to remain with him. Often he would bring a book with him to read, and if his mother was awake and her head did not hurt too much, she would ask him to read aloud to her. She had books of her own -- romances and mysteries and thick, black-garbed novels with tiny letters -- but she preferred him to read to her much older stories: myths and legends and fairy tales, stories of castles and quests and dangerous, talking animals. David did not object. Although, at twelve, he was no longer quite a child, he retained an affection for these tales, and the fact that it pleased his mother to hear such stories told by him only added to his love for them.
Before she became ill, David's mother would often tell him that stories were alive. They weren't alive in the way that people were alive, or even dogs or cats. People were alive whether you chose to notice them or not, while dogs tended to make you notice them if they decided that you weren't paying them enough attention. Cats, meanwhile, were very good at pretending people didn't exist at all when it suited them, but that was another matter entirely.
Stories were different, though: they came alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by flashlight beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world. They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being. They lay dormant, hoping for the chance to emerge. Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination, and transform the reader. Stories wanted to be read, David's mother would whisper. They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life.
These were the things that his mother told David, before the illness took her. She would often have a book in her hand as she spoke, and she would run her fingertips lovingly across the cover, just as she would sometimes touch them to David's face, or to his father's, when he said or did something that reminded her of how much she cared for him. The sound of his mother's voice was like a song to David, one that was constantly revealing new improvisations or previously unheard subtleties. As he grew older, and music became more important to him (although never quite as important as books), he thought of his mother's voice less as a song and more as a kind of symphony, capable of infinite variations on familiar themes and melodies that changed according to her moods and whims.
As the years went by, the reading of a book became a more solitary experience for David, until his mother's illness returned them both to his early childhood but with the roles reversed. Nevertheless, before she grew sick, he would often step quietly into the room in which his mother was reading, acknowledging her with a smile (always returned) before taking a seat close by and immersing himself in his own book so that, although both were lost in their own individual worlds, they shared the same space and time. And David could tell, by looking at her face as she read, whether or not the story contained in the book was living inside her, and she in it, and he would recall again all that she had told him about stories and tales and the power that they wield over us, and that we in turn wield over them.
David would always remember the day his mother died. He was in school, learning -- or not learning -- how to scan a poem, his mind filled with dactyls and pentameters, the names like those of strange dinosaurs inhabiting a lost prehistoric landscape. The headmaster opened the classroom door and approached the English master, Mr. Benjamin (or Big Ben, as he was known to his pupils, because of his size and his habit of withdrawing his old pocket watch from the folds of his waistcoat and announcing, in deep, mournful tones, the slow passage of time to his unruly students). The headmaster whispered something to Mr. Benjamin, and Mr. Benjamin nodded solemnly. When he turned around to face the class, his eyes found David's, and his voice was softer than usual when he spoke. He called David's name and told him that he was excused, and that he should pack his bag and follow the headmaster. David knew then what had happened. He knew before the headmaster brought him to the school nurse's office. He knew before the nurse appeared, a cup of tea in her hand for the boy to drink. He knew before the headmaster stood over him, still stern in aspect but clearly trying to be gentle with the bereaved boy. He knew before the cup touched his lips and the words were spoken and the tea burned his mouth, reminding him that he was still alive while his mother was now lost to him.
Even the routines, endlessly repeated, had not been enough to keep her alive. He wondered later if he had failed to do one of them properly, if he had somehow miscounted that morning, or if there was an action he could have added to the many that might have changed things. It didn't matter now. She was gone. He should have stayed at home. He had always worried about her when he was in school, because if he was away from her then he had no control over her existence. The routines didn't work in school. They were harder to perform, because the school had its own rules and its own routines. David had tried to use them as a substitute, but they weren't the same. Now his mother had paid the price.
It was only then that David, ashamed at his failure, began to cry.
The days that followed were a blur of neighbors and relatives, of tall, strange men who rubbed his hair and handed him a shilling, and big women in dark dresses who held David against their chests while they wept, flooding his senses with the smell of perfume and mothballs. He sat up late into the night, squashed into a corner of the living room while the grown-ups exchanged stories of a mother he had never known, a strange creature with a history entirely separate from his own: a child who would not cry when her older sister died because she refused to believe that someone so precious to her could disappear forever and never come back; a young girl who ran away from home for a day because her father, in a fit of impatience at some minor sin she had committed, told her that he was going to hand her over to the gypsies; a beautiful woman in a bright red dress who was stolen from under the nose of another man by David's father; a vision in white on her wedding day who pricked her thumb on the thorn of a rose and left the spot of blood on her gown for all to see.
And when at last he fell asleep, David dreamed that he was part of these tales, a participant in every stage of his mother's life. He was no longer a child hearing stories of another time. Instead, he was a witness to them all.
David saw his mother for the last time in the undertaker's room before the coffin was closed. She looked different and yet the same. She was more like her old self, the mother who had existed before the illness came. She was wearing makeup, like she did on Sundays for church or when she and David's father were going out to dinner or to the movies. She was laid out in her favorite blue dress, with her hands clasped across her stomach. A rosary was entwined in her fingers, but her rings had been removed. Her lips were very pale. David stood over her and touched his fingers to her hand. She felt cold, and damp.
His father appeared beside him. They were the only ones left in the room. Everyone else had gone outside. A car was waiting to take David and his father to the church. It was big and black. The man who drove it wore a peaked cap and never smiled.
"You can kiss her good-bye, son," his father said. David looked up at him. His father's eyes were moist, and rimmed with red. His father had cried that first day, when David returned home from school and he held him in his arms and promised him that everything would be all right, but he had not cried again until now. David watched as a big tear welled up and slid slowly, almost embarrassedly, down his cheek. He turned back to his mother. He leaned into the casket and kissed her face. She smelled of chemicals and something else, something David didn't want to think about. He could taste it on her lips.
"Good-bye, Mum," he whispered. His eyes stung. He wanted to do something, but he didn't know what.
His father placed a hand on David's shoulder, then lowered himself down and kissed David's mother softly on the mouth. He pressed the side of his face to hers and whispered something that David could not hear. Then they left her, and when the coffin appeared again, carried by the undertaker and his assistants, it was closed and the only sign that it held David's mother was the little metal plate on the lid bearing her name and the dates of her birth and death.
They left her alone in the church that night. If he could, David would have stayed with her. He wondered if she was lonely, if she knew where she was, if she was already in heaven or if that didn't happen until the priest said the final words and the coffin was put in the ground. He didn't like to think of her all by herself in there, sealed up by wood and brass and nails, but he couldn't talk to his father about it. His father wouldn't understand, and it wouldn't change anything anyway. He couldn't stay in the church by himself, so instead he went to his room and tried to imagine what it must be like for her. He drew the curtains on his window and closed the bedroom door so that it was as dark as he could make it inside, then climbed under his bed.
The bed was low, and the space beneath it was very narrow. It occupied one corner of the room, so David squeezed over until he felt his left hand touch the wall, then closed his eyes tightly shut and lay very still. After a while, he tried to lift his head. It bumped hard upon the slats that supported his mattress. He pushed against them, but they were nailed in place. He tried to lift the bed by pressing upward with his hands, but it was too heavy. He smelled dust and his chamber pot. He started to cough. His eyes watered. He decided to get out from under the bed, but it had been easier to shuffle into his current position than it was to pull himself out again. He sneezed, and his head banged painfully against the underside of his bed. He started to panic. His bare feet scrambled for some purchase on the wooden floor. He reached up and used the slats to pull himself along until he was close enough to the edge of the bed to squeeze out again. He climbed to his feet and leaned against the wall, breathing deeply.
That was what death was like: trapped in a small space with a big weight holding you down for all eternity.
His mother was buried on a January morning. The ground was hard, and all of the mourners wore gloves and overcoats. The coffin looked too short when they lowered it into the dirt. His mother had always seemed tall in life. Death had made her small.
In the weeks that followed, David tried to lose himself in books, because his memories of his mother were inextricably interwoven with books and reading. Her books, the ones deemed "suitable," were passed on to him, and he found himself trying to read novels that he did not understand, and poems that did not quite rhyme. He would ask his father about them sometimes, but David's father seemed to have little interest in books. He had always spent his time at home with his head buried in newspapers, little plumes of pipe smoke rising above the pages like signals sent by Indians. He was obsessed with the comings and goings of the modern world, more so than ever now that Hitler's armies were moving across Europe and the threat of attacks on their own land was growing ever more real. David's mother once said that his father used to read a lot of books but had fallen out of the habit of losing himself in stories. Now he preferred his newspapers, with their long columns of print, each letter painstakingly laid out by hand to create something that would lose its relevance almost as soon as it appeared on the newsstands, the news within already old and dying by the time it was read, quickly overtaken by events in the world beyond.
The stories in books hate the stories contained in newspapers, David's mother would say. Newspaper stories were like newly caught fish, worthy of attention only for as long as they remained fresh, which was not very long at all. They were like the street urchins hawking the evening editions, all shouty and insistent, while stories -- real stories, proper made-up stories -- were like stern but helpful librarians in a well-stocked library. Newspaper stories were as insubstantial as smoke, as long-lived as mayflies. They did not take root but were instead like weeds that crawled along the ground, stealing the sunlight from more deserving tales. David's father's mind was always occupied by shrill, competing voices, each one silenced as soon as he gave it his attention, only for its clamor to be instantly replaced by another. That was what David's mother would whisper to him with a smile, while his father scowled and bit his pipe, aware that they were talking about him but unwilling to give them the pleasure of knowing they were irritating him.
And so it was left to David to safeguard his mother's books, and he added them to those that had been bought with him in mind. They were the tales of knights and soldiers, of dragons and sea beasts, folk tales and fairy tales, because these were the stories that David's mother had loved as a girl and that he in turn had read to her as the illness gradually took hold of her, reducing her voice to a whisper and her breaths to the rasp of old sandpaper on decaying wood, until at last the effort was too much for her and she breathed no more. After her death, he tried to avoid these old tales, for they were linked too closely to his mother to be enjoyed, but the stories would not be so easily denied, and they began to call to David. They seemed to recognize something in him, or so he started to believe, something curious and fertile. He heard them talking: softly at first, then louder and more compellingly.
These stories were very old, as old as people, and they had survived because they were very powerful indeed. These were the tales that echoed in the head long after the books that contained them were cast aside. They were both an escape from reality and an alternative reality themselves. They were so old, and so strange, that they had found a kind of existence independent of the pages they occupied. The world of the old tales existed parallel to ours, as David's mother had once told him, but sometimes the wall separating the two became so thin and brittle that the two worlds started to blend into each other.
That was when the trouble started.
That was when the bad things came.
That was when the Crooked Man began to appear to David.
Copyright © 2006 by John Connolly