A Gathering of Forces
The past two hours had
been miserable ones for Inspector Tyrone. The psychiatrist had leaked
details of the letters to the chief, who saw in this the perfect opportunity to
get rid of his annoying subordinate. He happily set up a disciplinary
meeting for Monday and was even more thrilled to learn about the origin of the
semen spot. The coroner's jury was to be summoned for special session on
Saturday morning, while another cop searched for Franz Wilentz. Tyrone
had less than twenty-four hours to prove that the four deaths were not
suicides. If he failed he would be accused of obstructing an
investigation and harassing Vanessa Wilentz. Added to that, Vice-Inspector
Monagham was seriously considering lodging a complaint against Tyrone for
bursting into her lover's house, dragging her naked from the jacuzzi, and
severely lecturing her for blurting out secrets to non-police officers.
Now she really did have a cold, and she was sullenly sitting on a counter as
Tyrone completely ignored her as he madly paced around his office trying to
find some crucial clue. She was no longer her deferential self and she
kept making caustic comments, interrupted by sneezes, to Tyrone. Just as
she was making a very crude innuendo about Tyrone's general potency, the
Inspector looked at the map he had set up on the wall. The diamond formed
by the Castlereagh Hotel, the
"Look, the four schmucks obviously killed themselves. Why don't we wrap up the whole thing and call it a day?"
"No. There has to be a pattern. Otherwise, how could the compass exist? If only I could guess the next murder."
"North, south, east, west. That basically covers it."
"No." Suddenly Tyrone had a flash of inspiration. "Of course not! There is a fifth spot!"
"How? Where could it be?"
"The fifth spot is in the center!" And Tyrone eagerly jabbed
the center of the diamond with a thumbtack.
she stopped when she opened the door and saw
"Charles beat me."
"Why wouldn't she be sure,
"It was yesterday afternoon, we had just made love and it was wonderful. It was so precious, so unbelievable, so..."
"You couldn't go a little faster, could you?"
"It was amazing, actually. Do you have any idea of what it was like to be part of something much bigger, like I was part of the universal feminine. Can you imagine anything like that?"
"Do you have any idea who sent the letter?" asked Vanessa.
"No, I don't."
"Did you bring it with you?"
"No, I left it at home. Charles has gone to classes, and he won't be back until the meeting tonight."
"Who could have sent it? I seriously doubt it's the same person who's been sending me letters."
"Perhaps another member of the Flannery O'Connor Brigade." suggested
"I can't believe that," said
"But it's not as if he's ever done it before. Surely there must have been some sort of mistake."
"Of course there was a mistake. She shouldn't have married the bastard."
"But why?" asked
"I don't know what I'm going to do now. But if I could stay here for a few days until I could figure out what to do."
"That's a good idea. Charles could come to his senses and you could patch things up."
"I don't want to patch things up with him. I don't ever want to see him again. Vanessa, please I need your help more than ever before. I don't think I've said this often enough, but you're my closest friend. I need you more than ever before, I need you desperately, I need your help, please you've got to help me, I simply can't live without your help."
And then she started crying, and Vanessa moved over to comfort her. "You should rest. Why don't you lie down and I'll get something for you to eat. Once you've relaxed you can think things more clearly. Perhaps your mother can help you."
"Oh, mother!" and that was enough to stop
"You couldn't talk to your father, could you?"
"My father is a mortician, and he would know nothing about it. Oh, Vanessa,
I really really need you, and if you could only help me I would be grateful for
you forever. Please, you have to help me." And she started crying
all over again and Vanessa gradually got her to lie down where she rested in a
pose of helpless impotence. Vanessa then signaled to
They went outside the room, and over to the staircase. "This is a small
staircase. If we were ever to live together, and naturally I'm not saying
that we will, and certainly the way you acted towards
"What's the point of all this? And I can't say I like that tone. We were just talking about my closest friend back there, and I'm not going to see him condemned out of hand. I have every right to hear his side of the story first."
with those words she sent him on his way.
Ignatius Wilentz was sitting in his office and looking at two pieces of mail he
had just received. One was from his sister; but before he opened it, he
took out a black book which listed all the incidents that she had related in her
previous letters. He also took out a book on how to solve complex
problems in statistics. After working for about fifteen minutes on a
special algorithm Wilentz predicted that the letter in front of him would contain
details of one miscarriage, two broken limbs, a venereal disease, and a major
robbery. He opened the letter and found his sister relating how she and
her twelve children had suffered, in total, one miscarriage, two broken limbs,
a venereal disease, a major robbery, and a group of Arab hoodlums who kept
making sure that none of the Simrickys could eat ice cream cones in the worst
heat wave in
Ignatius peered over this letter very closely. He then decided what he
should do and turned to the telephone.
"I'm sorry, but he's already left for the day. He left very quickly a couple of hours ago."
members of the Flannery O'Connor Brigade were mulling about the basement of the
"I have arrived." said Vivian Chelmnickon.
"All greetings and praise belong to you," proclaimed Madame Vovelle, "it is glorious that you should be among us, particularly in this hour of your bereavement."
"Yes, it was tragic that she died."
"It was indeed," agreed Roget. "She would have been a good woman, if there had been someone to drop a piano on her head every day of her life."
"I have arrived. And so has she." For in the corner the
angel had materialized. The Defender of Saint Rose of
"Yes, Oliver's poem. Oh Lord, our last meeting! I sent him to his death!"
"But you have been forgiven for that sin. You need not worry about that
any longer. But back to Brecht. When he returned from the
The defender of Saint Rose gave the cup to Vivian, clearly insinuating that he should drink it. When he tasted it, it was so sugary as to be almost inedible, but he kept drinking it, and when he reached the final drop a strange feeling of sweetness came over him. Just then Vivian remembered his final revelation. "Dramsheet! Louis Dramsheet's life is in mortal danger! Please, you've got to help him!"
"Do you have faith?" asked Madame Vovelle.
"Yes! Yes, I do."
The angel smiled. "Then in the name of the Lord, I shall ensure that no harm comes to your friend. But it is now time to begin your canonization. Do you accept the honor that you are about to undergo?"
"If you believe that I can and that I should, I will do so."
"Good. Now, if one of the members of the Brigade could give me The Unofficial Procedures for Canonization."
"No." said Madame Vovelle, with unexpected firmness.
"You refuse to give me the guide?"
"The Flannery O'Connor Brigade refuses to reveal its secrets to anyone. The Flannery O'Connor Brigade keeps its secrets even from God." And the other members agreed.
"And how do you justify this?"
"No man not a member of the Brigade is worthy to hear our secrets. And God should already know our secrets beforehand."
"Quite right. I already know the unofficial procedures," and
the book appeared in the Angel's hand. "Ordinarily canonization
requires years of investigation by the most respected Catholic scholars,
special ceremonies that take place in
"Indeed it has." said Madame Vovelle. "We will be using the old abandoned Cathedral of St. Michael Servetus. For the past few days, ever since we found the manual, we have been sanctifying the place for your glory."
"Very good. The service must begin on Saturday night, and it must conclude early Sunday morning, to coincide with the hour of the resurrection of the Lord. Granted, in such cases, only the successors of St. Peter could hold such a service, but this requirement too, can be withheld, if five angels come from heaven and sanctify it. Once the service is completed you, Vivian Chelmnickon, will be recognized by all parties as a saint of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. That leaves only the devil's advocate to be found."
"Couldn't we select one from amongst ourselves?"
"No, Madame Vovelle. You have worked too hard for this canonization to come about. You must find someone else who would be willing to criticize without reservations."
"Where are we going to find someone like that at such short notice?" asked the Legionmeister of the Signet of Saint Luke.
"Consider it merely another task for you to fulfill. But it is time for me to leave you all." And so she did, leaving Vivian, the five Flannery O'Connor Brigade members, the Siamese maid, and Aquilla Rogers Roget all alone in the basement.
"What do I do now until Saturday evening?"
"You will spend the next day being prepared for your role as saint by the Holder of the Averroes Seal and the Legionmeister of the Signet of Saint Luke. The Defender and the Master have other things to do tomorrow afternoon. Am I not correct Master?"
Mademoiselle Pandora Vovelle, alias Ms. Roda Ellen Van P--, alias the Master of
the Marthas, alias the Master and the Margarita alias Martha and the Muffins
alias Have some
"And then what happens?" asked the maid.
"Don't let it worry your pretty little head. I shall only say that my holy hydrochloric acid will play a major role."
"Holy hydrochloric acid?" asked Vivian.
"Certainly. You know what vampires are, don't you? Well suffice it to say, they do exist and holy water is a vital defense against them. Then one of the brigade members thought that if holy water would work so well against vampires, why not use something really difficult to remove, like consecrated molasses, or holy tar? When we tried this it was incredibly successful, and soon consecrated molasses was the weapon of choice for vampire-hunters everywhere. But personally, I prefer holy hydrochloric acid. Somehow, it's just more feminine."
"And after you visit Harding?" asked the Maid.
"Oh I shall return to my apartment and keep watch over everything. It can't be let out of our sight for too long."
Madame Vovelle nodded and then turned to Vivian. "Before the two men can prepare you for the next evening, there is still a task that you must perform. Before you can do it, I am going to tell you a story. A parable to be precise."
Defender served Vivian another cup of the undrinkably sweet coffee that had a
strange fulfilling taste when you reached the bottom as Madame Vovelle
began. "This is an old story. Or an old parable. It
"Murderess!" hissed Naipaul, "you mentioned one of our names while we were in assembly! How could you do such a thing?!"
"I am telling a parable, Holder, and many things are forgiven to people
who tell the truth. You've never visited
"No, they didn't," said Roget. "My parents wouldn't have
to talked you in a million years, and none of my uncles and aunts would have
either. Besides they all lived in big wealthy houses in
"Perhaps I am. Perhaps what I just said was completely
irrelevant. Perhaps it would be completely fatuous to say that
"Perhaps," said Dr. Roget, who could not repress a sneer, "it
would be most utterly idiotic of all to say that
"I beg your pardon?"
"Legionmeister, how dare you insinuate such a thing?" demanded Madame Vovelle. The Holder agreed, "Aren't the Quebecois known for their lack of sympathy for the Jews?"
"Oh yes," said Roget, "but I find they're great in bed."
"Legionmeister," said Madame Vovelle, "we wish you were not so aggressively vulgar."
"We would prefer that you were only mildly vulgar." agreed Mademoiselle Vovelle.
"After all, vulgarity has its place." noted Naipaul.
"Preferably in the grave." added the Defender.
"Besides," continued Madame Vovelle, "No one has any reasons to complain about Chelmnickon's conduct towards the Jews. He has been a model of dignity, tolerance and compassion."
"Perhaps we should hold that against him." said Roget.
"Don't be frivolous, Legionmeister. Naturally we all know about the Colonel Moczar affair, do we not?"
"I don't." said the Siamese maid incautiously.
"What! You haven't heard about Colonel Moczar? How can you be
so irresponsible?" and Roget grabbed the poor maid by the scruff of the
neck in order to berate her more ostentatiously. "In 1956 there were
strikes and protests against the Stalinist regime installed in
"It wasn't much of a consolation." said Vivian.
"And because only dirty communists would claim they care about the Palestinians, that's why all good Central European intellectuals hate the Arabs."
"I don't hate the Arabs?!"
The maid was puzzled. "If you knew that beforehand, why did you insinuate that he was some sort of anti-Semite?"
"Because insinuation is the finest of the Catholic arts."
"No, it isn't." protested Naipaul. "Painting is."
"What about music?" asked the Defender.
"No, I think painting's better."
"What about architecture?" asked the Master of the Marthas.
"Catholic architecture is very good, but I would have to argue that Islam has surpassed us on that ground."
"Umm, if I could interrupt..." said Vivian.
"But of course you can interrupt," burst Madame Vovelle. "You're a saint, and many things are allowed saints. Well not everything, we are after all a perfectly orthodox group of Catholics, so antinomianism is completely out of the window. None of the garbage that just because you're one of the elect you can have a torrid affair with one of your household pets."
"Oh yes," agreed the Master, "If you tried to have sex with my non-existent pet cat, I would strangle you to death with my very existing pet cobra. So watch it."
"Actually, what I wanted to say...."
"Of course," said Roget, "you could still dream about having sex with her non-existing pet cat, because being a Catholic saint you can still wrestle with all of our heresies."
"And I could still strangle you," continued the Master, "because dreaming about having sex with my non-existent pet cat is the only way you could have sex with my non-existent pet cat."
"What if it was Schrodinger's cat?" asked Naipaul.
"Then you could masturbate your wet dreams in quantum notation, before I strangled you with my real cobra."
"Actually, what I really wanted to talk about was the parable you were going to tell me."
"How do you know this isn't already the parable?" asked Madame Vovelle.
"But we haven't been saying anything! All we've talking about are amputated parachutists, disgraced Communists, and love affairs with non-existent cats. It's completely illogical."
"Who said parables had to be logical? Parables can have as many meanings as are necessary, including no meaning at all, a special solipsist trapdoor to be used by all who fear the creative or fear the truth. Ambiguity, banality, clarity, parables have all this and more. Parables have no meaning, they do not have real characters, and they do not take place in real countries. Who said they had to have a plot as well?"
"But that's not how parables work. You can't simply flit from topic to topic."
"Why not? These are the nineties after all."
Mademoiselle Vovelle agreed. "If reactionary Anglicans can write modernist poetry, cannot Catholic fanatics write post- modernist parables? Althusser, Barthes, Calvino, Derrida, why shouldn't they serve our purposes?"
"You'd use those writers?" asked Vivian.
"We use everyone. Our parables will be parables of fashion, and soon they will be so fashionable, they won't have any words at all. Only God will understand their meaning, and is that not for the best? We shall be the scholastics of solipsism."
"So the conversation we've been having for the past few minutes on nation and morality is the real parable?"
"No," said Madame Vovelle, "merely a crucial pre-amble. Christian parables are infected with the practicality and directness of Jewish parables. We thought a little madness would wash off this Semitic level-headedness."
"But isn't Derrida Jewish?"
"Well of course he is, I never said we were going to succeed in washing it
off completely. But there is a parable and you must all be quiet so I can
tell it. I want you all to imagine a poor farming community in northern
"But you're just making this up." said Roget.
"Oh yes, I am. But even though every word I say I have made up entirely by myself, everything that happened is completely true. In this community lies a woman, a very old woman, who is dying. Many years ago when she was a beautiful young woman she had come to this community, having left her own family in the village thirty kilometers away. She worked as a very young schoolteacher and one of her students had an older brother, a handsome young man exactly her age. She met him a few times, and the two fell in love. There were problems, he wanted to get away from the village, and he would go off to other places to make money. He did not make much, and because he was almost illiterate he did not write to her. But despite this they reconciled, they got engaged and they married.
"And did not live happily ever after. They had arguments. They had fights. Twice he beat her so hard that she had to stay in bed for a week. On both occasions he would be so full of remorse that he would get disgustingly drunk and crawl back to her bedside and beg for her forgiveness. And both times she forgave her husband."
"Rather stupid of her, don't you think?" added Pandora.
"Aside from those two times he was not really a violent person. It was very rare for him to abuse her, or to hit her or even to slap her even when she was actually being very unfair."
"78% rarer than the provincial average." declared Naipaul. "There are statistics!"
"Nor for that matter did he really drink that much, though he did when he was extremely depressed. His real vice was fornication. With his wife he had nine children. By prostitutes he had two more. Well, strictly speaking the second woman was not a prostitute. But then strictly speaking she was a prostitute. But that will have to wait until later. His wife, whom we will give the name of Therese, had given two daughters to her husband, whom we will give the name of Andre. When he saw them he was actually a bit disappointed, but he tried very hard to be a good father and a loving husband. This did not mean that Andre was a good father, quite the contrary, he was a very bad father, his greatest sin being that he was never at home, looking for work some place faraway. One day he returned to Therese, bringing a baby, his first son, along with a young teenaged girl with bloody brown eyes and hair like black seaweed, like the hair of the devil's sirens. This girl, whom we will not bother to name, was only sixteen, but she had been prostituting herself for two years before she met Andre. Her figure was small, here appearance was dark, instantly striking and seductive, even though she was suffering from consumption...."
"You mean tuberculosis, don't you?" asked Vivian.
"Look, if you were going to be that prosaic, you wouldn't tell parables at all." admonished Naipaul.
"Yes, she was suffering from consumption, and she would often cough, and feel weak, but she never died, on the contrary she kept suffering from it for another fifty years. And it did not really depress her, for her work required her to do so little, and the men of the town always found her passivity extraordinarily erotic. Also, they had very low standards, though she was quite attractive. Her hair stank of the sea, you understand and while she was with her customers, she could always repress her coughs, her fits, even as blood was coursing up her throat and gathering in her cheeks. She never lost her charms, the way Therese did before she gave birth to her last child, and though she was officially employed among the community as a creator of various trinkets and doer of odd jobs, she managed to make a comfortable living off her prostitution."
"Or more comfortable than she deserved." said the Defender.
"The only man she truly loved was her son, who grew up under Andre and Therese's care, and whom she would relentlessly spoil every time she came to visit. The son grew up into a strong, handsome young lad, courageous and resourceful, much more so than Therese's three sons, who were much weaker and more nervous. But because he was strong and resourceful he could always ignore Therese's pleas for him to behave, saying that he could always go visit his real mother. By the time he was eight he was too violent and clever to let himself be beaten, and he grew even more impudent. Every time he did something like skipping school or refusing to go to mass, Therese's heart was pierced just a little worse. Andre continued to go away and find work, and continued to waste his money on prostitutes, though no more children resulted from these unions. Every few months he would return, would stay for a few weeks, often just long enough for Therese to become pregnant, and would go off again. Every couple of years the two of them would drown their feelings in what they thought was a renewal of their love, but what was really a sentimental indulgence, a refusal to face the truth. For twenty years their marriage went on, their affection waxed and waned, and their relationship became more and more attenuated, until by the time their ninth child was five years old, Therese said that she could no longer tolerate such a marriage. She did not do it like that, she was a good Catholic after all, and she would never willingly break up her marriage. What had happened was that Andre had gone to a brothel where you could have whores on credit, and he quickly fell into debt as unscrupulous pimps kept raising the interest. Therese had to take her children away, just to be safe, she did not even fully realize that this would lead to the end of their marriage. There were still assorted letters, though there was a new tone in them that should have shown that a decisive step had been made. She had to take up being a teacher again, which never really paid enough, and she would have to depend on the wages the whore's son gave to her, as well as some of the extra earnings of the whore herself. Three years after she had left Andre, she returned to what was his new home, and she found in her bed another woman. She was the young widow of one of Andre's fellow workers, and not only had she been sleeping with Andre for two years, she had already born him a child, another son. This was not quite the end of the marriage, but after that Therese only received the rarest news from her husband.
"And so it went, until we finally come back to the beginning of the tale,
where Therese is an old woman in a cold
As the time of her death came closer Therese begged her daughter and stepson to try to find her other children. It took time, since her daughter was so terribly absent-minded. There were only six other children by now, one daughter had died in childbirth, and her favourite child, her last son, had died in one of Canada's more futile battles of the second world war. But there was still her favourite daughter, a bright sparkling woman who had married an only mildly unreliable farmer. They had already had three children and she was obviously expecting her fourth by the time she came to see Therese in the last three weeks of her life. It was approaching Christmas, and the whore's son, whom I suppose we must give the name of Andre as well, was decorating the little house with the assorted kitsches of Christmas. Cheap American Christmas cards, sentimental portraits of Santa Claus, evil-tasting bitter toffees, and unending American schmaltz on the radio suffocated Therese, giving her painful headaches and making her last few days even more painful. Finally, as the last week of her life began Therese asked her favourite daughter to try to find her husband. She asked for him in a low rasping voice, and she had to say it quickly in order to make room for the priest, who now had a very busy schedule, and who now spent twenty-minutes by her bedside every day. Her constant presence in his life had worn down his reserve, for when she asked him what would happen to her, he replied with no hesitation at all that she was destined for salvation.
"Finally, on the last day of her life, there was a knock on the door. It was Andre, of course. Had he come a day later he would have only found a corpse, but now he could see his wife. By now Therese had subtly managed to push the whore, Andre junior and her oldest daughter away from the home. They were still there every day, but Therese had ensured that they would not be there that afternoon. So when Andre came in there were only the priest, the favourite daughter, and Therese. For the past few years Therese had had almost no contact with her husband at all, and very little news. The widow who was the mother of his eleventh child had died many years ago, and he had put his dissolute days behind him. There had been enough signs over the past few years that he was not interested in returning to her, and only from what their children said did they have any news of each other at all. Still, he was here, and Therese asked if the others could leave them alone for a few minutes. They protested, surely she had not very much time left to live, and the last rites might have to be begun at any moment. But they agreed to what turned out to be her last request of them.
"Andre took off his coat and moved closer to the deathbed, turning off the radio as he did so. As the voice of vacuous American singers was abruptly terminated the room filled with the smell of Therese's dying body. Andre swallowed hard and sat down on the chair that his daughter had been using moments before. He paused, then he began to speak: 'Hello, my little wet rainbow.' He paused again. 'Hello, Therese.' He paused again, he was going to say that he had been told that she had only hours left to live, but then he realized that she already knew that, and it would be pointless to bring it up. So he tried again. 'When we got married forty years ago I never thought it would end this way. I never thought that we would go on for such a long time without seeing each other. I thought that we would live together forever, I thought that only the English and the Jews were so corrupt as to end their marriages altogether.' He paused. There was no look of penitence in his eyes and there was no look of forgiveness in his wife's. He had confessed and begged and abased himself for her forgiveness many times before, when they were still a family, and she had always forgiven him, but all for no purpose. He had always said his hail Marys for his sins, taking special pride in the fact that he always said one more than was necessary, but as he looked at his wife he could not hide the basic fact. He had betrayed her, he had forsaken his vows, he had beat her and abused her and long ago he had come to the conclusion that he did not love her enough to come back to her, that it would be pointless to start another round of sacrifices, that despite all his other sins, the failure to follow this duty was a failure he could not and would not overcome. But all the same he did not want to say to her that he did not love her anymore, and he did not want to hear her say that she no longer loved him. This was a strange thing, for was it not patently the case that she no longer loved him? She had written few letters to him in the past twenty years. They all had the same message, that he should come back, but they were of two separate kinds. The first kind were the ones she actually wrote, telling him that she could no longer bear his presence, that it was only for the sake of the children that they should stay together, that she could not have a good conscience if she failed to keep her marriage vows. The second kind were the ones the priests dictated to her, which she filled them with her secret lusts and guilty sins in an attempt to humble herself in the hope that Andre would return. But the message from the first letters were clear, but yet he still did not want to hear her say that she did not love him.
"Andre did not really want to confront the issue, did not want to admit that this would be the last time he would ever talk to his wife, and tried to think of some innocuous pleasantry. But before he could think of one, Therese thought up one for him. 'Could I see your shirt?' 'What for?' She said that she had an old friend who had been dead for many years who made similar shirts or had similar shirts or took the rags of similar shirts she could not remember which or whether the friend was actually the sister of someone who was the real friend and who in actuality she did not really know but could she please have the shirt. Andre decided to indulge his wife's senile whim and took off his only shirt. Therese took it in her hands and absent- mindedly toyed with it to no good reason, then she tossed it over the far side of the bed.
"'The water. I need some water, please.' Andre reached over to pour a glass, but Therese stopped him. He was supposed to use the dishrag to cool her brow, not give her a drink. Andre corrected himself and wiped the brow of his dying wife. As he leaned over to do it he flinched at the unpleasant smell of her death. When he sat back in his chair he was evidently relieved, which made Therese's task all the more difficult.
"'Andre, could you please hold my hand?' Andre asked if this was the time, no it wasn't, not for several more hours at least. So he held her hand, and as he did so Therese started chattering incoherently again. She said it was her wedding day and they had just returned to their new house for the first time, why it was exactly like the day more than forty years ago (it wasn't even the same house). She cooed softly a mixture of nursery rhyme and obscene song, and still in her newlywed voice she asked Andre to join her in the bed.
"Andre protested. It would be improper to get into the bed of a dying woman, besides it wasn't even a double bed, the real one had been given to one of her daughters on their marriage. Andre was tactful enough not to mention the smell, but Therese pretended not to hear him and continued to beg for her to join him. Andre swallowed, took off his pants and joined Therese in the deathbed. She had just enough strength to roll over, and asked for Andre to remove her dress. He winced on being asked to do so, but for some reason he did not immediately object. Slowly he undid the straps and buttons on the back of her dress.
"And as he did so, a strange thing happened to him. As he revealed his wife's back, which was old and withered with age, he was not as repulsed as he should have been, as he thought he would have been. Indeed, as he slowly removed his wife's dress the evil smell seemed to vanish from his consciousness, and a strange feeling began to enter into his soul.
"Therese had just enough strength to roll over again so that she could face Andre again. 'Kiss me.' Andre did not hesitate as he reached over and kissed her desiccated lips and felt her dry tongue. Unasked, he kissed her again, and slowly wrapped his arms around her, and as he did so he started to cry. All the things he had done in his life, all his failures, all the unatoned sins, all his crimes and petty offenses, they returned to him with a perfect clarity untouched by self-pity or euphemism. All the wrongs he had committed, all his evil and sin, the pettiness of his response towards them, his complete and total failure to face them and change himself. There was nothing he could do but admit the abysmal state of his own soul, and hope for an act of grace. And that after all that he had done his wife could still respond with such love, could still love him, could still give him her love as a gift for the remainder of his days, he could not believe it, he was not worthy of such a gift, which is why it had to be given unconditionally, all he could do was to sob and ramble on with yet another list of sins and ask her one more time, `Do you forgive me?'
"Therese did not immediately respond. She looked one final time into her husband's eyes, and saw the sincerity and pain that were in them, saw in them the final proof of his husband's eyes. Still she did not respond. Instead she lifted her arms that were lying impotently on Andre's chest and moved them to her husband's throat. With one final serge of energy she grasped Andre's throat and twisted it and broke the brittle bones inside. 'I forgive you. Go and sin no more.' And that evening she died, and that very day her husband entered the halls of paradise, while she condemned herself to hell because of her sacrifice."
Madame Vovelle stopped, clearly signifying that the tale was over. The Siamese maid was quite upset. "Why did she do such a horrible thing? What a rotten trick!"
"You do not understand. Her act was an act of sacrifice; it was the only way her husband could enter heaven."
The maid considered this, and thought she understood. "But if she acted out of love why did she have to go to hell?"
"Well it wouldn't be much a sacrifice if they both went to heaven, would it? Try to think clearly, girl."
"But that's horrible."
"No," interrupted Vivian. "It's quite just. But who you were referring to in this parable?"
"What makes you think I was referring to anyone other than Andre and Therese So and So?"
"Because it could not be otherwise. Were you thinking that you would have to do this for your husband?"
"Or do you think this is what grandmother should have done to grandfather?" asked Ms. Van P---
Madame Vovelle nodded sagely. "It's a rational thing to think. It is what most people would be inclined to think. You think that I hate my husband, though you know nothing about him. But then you know it's more complicated than that. Everyone would think my vessel is flawed, but you know the water brings true life. Liberals would assume I have 'mixed feelings' about my husband, about sex, about my parents. They assume that because they don't believe in sacrifice, and they also assume it because it makes me more complex and intriguing and nuanced a character. Well, then, let's assume it is so, and go on, even if I'm really much more subtle about ecumenicalism and Arabic literature. It is now your turn to provide us with a parable."
"This is the final test, before the ceremony can began, and before you can be prepared for the ceremony. You must tell us a parable. It will show whether or not you are a saint."
"I see. Could you give me a few minutes to think of one?"
"Of course not. You must give your parable right now, or we will have no proof that you are inspired in anyway."
"Ah." For a few seconds Vivian was quite silent. Then, to his surprise, he began to speak.
"Once upon a time there was a young man who lived in a far away city who decided one day that he was going to kill his father. It was a cold day in March when he decided to do this, the time of the year when the temperature dropped below freezing but all the snow had melted away before. He was coming out of a cafe and was emerging from the shadows of the cold black baroque architecture, passing a decrepit looking man dressed in a black overcoat whom he ignored completely, when he decided that he would kill his father. His mother had already been dead for several years, and his father lived alone in a large, gray, uncomfortable and shadowy house and every Friday he would invite his son for dinner and have him stay for the night. The young man planned to kill his father next Friday, in the middle of the night, he would go into his room and stab him to death with an old family knife. Only he and his father knew the existence of the knife, as it was an old heirloom that his father kept hidden and had only shown to his eldest son. Once he was dead the young man had an ingenious scheme of getting rid of the body, but those details are not important.
"There was no obvious reason for him to commit the crime. His father had never beat him, or had tried to sabotage his career, or blackmail him or refuse to bless his non-existent fiancé Nor was his father guilty of some terrible crime that demanded that all citizens should try to execute him. The father was not a murderer, or a rapist, or a war criminal in disguise. But his son had no doubt that he should die, and he had no doubt that he would be the cause. Why?
"If there was a reason, it lay in his childhood. There was a sense of resentment in the young man's soul against his father. Every memory he ever had about his parents had crucial features in common. Whether he was being reprimanded for breaking the cuckoo clock, whether he was sitting with his brothers and sisters at one of the many austere dinners, whether it was the times his father asked him to sweep the basement, whether it was the speeches his father gave when congratulating him on his academic success, whether it was the instructions he was given when his parents had to leave the house for some reason, what he was struck by most of all was a lack of intimacy. There was never a sense that his father was anything more than a legal expression, there was never the sense of love in the household, between his parents, between his siblings. Any affection that his father had ever shown was somehow always insubstantial, insincere, that it was too much the calculated reward for his son's obedience, for his willingness not to challenge his father on any important issue, for his agreement not to criticize any of the hortatory clichés that came from the old man's mouth.
"The young man had learned many things since he had left his parents to pursue his studies and entered a profession. He had read books which told him about the vacousness of clichés, and he could not help reading them into his father's speeches. He read books from far away places that delighted in the colours and the smells of a world that was far away from the degraded spectrums that he was allowed to look at as a child. He read books on the worldwide need for love, on the need for justice and humanity. And every time that he considered these thoughts the more he hated his father. So he decided that he would kill him.
"He ignored the decrepit man in the dark trench coat whom he passed as he hurried his way through the streets. He left him behind and would never see him again. But he would see the sickly young woman in the dark trench coat as he made his way to the jewelry store. He would ignore her as well, as he made his way inside. The store was a very large one, and while the old man at the front kept a careful eye on whoever entered and exited the building he could not watch all the obscure corners of the store. In one of the far corners, hidden from the front desk by a row of mirrors, was a set of the cheaper jewelry that was frequented by only the poor clerks when they found they had to get married. None of them were here at this time in the early afternoon as the young man made his way to the corner. He laughed to himself and thought about canceling debts owed to his father with his father's approval. Among the cheap imitation jewelry and wretched plastic necklaces there was a case which contained a rusty jewel box. The young man calmly approached the simple locks of the case and undid them. There was no problem in doing this, the case was not electrified, and he made sure no one heard him as he put the case aside and touched the rusty jewel box. Again, without a sound he undid the latch and carefully opened it. Inside there was nothing of importance, some wretchedly fake rubies, some poor blue lacquer that dishonest jewel makers sold off to the gullible as pure alabaster, some gaudy necklaces, with half the balls already chipped or replaced with wood balls whose red paint had already faded. But what concerned the young man most was the object that lay in the center of the box, which he reached over to pick up.
"It was a toy scepter, though it was too large to be used by any of the fashionable dolls of the time. The only valuable thing about it was that it was exactly the same weight as the secret dagger he would use to kill his father. The young man grasped it in his hand, raised it above his shoulder so that it could almost be seen over the row of mirrors, and then practiced jabbing his leg with it. He ignored the pain entirely, and was pleased at this little practice. He put the scepter back in the jewel box, and as placed everything back in its normal place, he began to remember his father more deeply.
"But there was a clear therapeutic purpose behind these memories. He was to go through his memories not in the unconscious hope that he would find some reason not to kill his father, but that be reviewing them on his own terms and at his own leisure he would guard himself from a sudden surge of sentimentality or cowardice disguised as empathy or love. He remembered his birthday parties where he ate too much of too sweet chocolate cakes, remembered the long pointless essays he wrote for his biology examinations and his father's lack of useful advice, he remembered the many fatuous and silly books that his parents had read, books that were worse than simple trash, because they were so 'clever' and 'profound.' The young man remembered the hordes of books on politics that his father had bought and which he had read as a child and had been so impressed by, but which he now realized were empty and depthless. He remembered all the hideous, gaudy trinkets that his father had once convinced him were beautiful, the trinkets with the lacquer of false gold that had all been scraped away leaving only the rust. As he reviewed all this in his mind he could not help but remember the coolness, the quiet, the unreal calm that had pervaded all the relationships in the old ugly large house.
"But soon his father would be dead. He would no longer have to worry about his stultifying presence. The young man smiled at this prospect: now he could really begin his life! He could get a wife! Not that he was actively looking for one, or that he even cared about women; as a point of fact women appeared to him generally as a nuisance and a bother, though to be fair he only needed one of them. But he could not go about his investigation if he had to explain everything to his father: his death was a prior condition to forming any real attachments. There would be money; not that much actually, and the young man had always had an educated disdain for money. But there would be something new, the new sense of freedom, the new liberty, the freedom from the coarseness and stupidity of the past, away from his sycophancy and the sycophancy of all his brothers and sisters. Freedom would grow, like a mustard seed. He would be free, free at last, and as he closed the case he lifted his right hand above his head as a premonition of his victory.
"But when he brought down his hand again he realized with a sudden shock that he would never kill his father. He could never kill his father, not because he cared, not because he loved him. His father had thought the world ugly and cruel, and so his whole family was ugly and cruel, and no one was more ugly and cruel than the young man himself. He was not killing his father out of passion or instinct or outrage, it was simply a game, simply a whim, not even a fantasy, like all his other whims of justice, love and imagination. His father had crippled him beforehand, he had anticipated this moment long before him, he had ensured that his son did not have the soul to be a murderer. The young man realized how utterly impotent he was, that it was simple an indulgence in nihilism, as he had indulged and would indulged in such esoterica as socialism, anarchism, anti-Semitism, theosophy, liberalism, internationalism, feminism, Buddhism, and other assorted nonsense. And he realized that he had planned this patricide many times before, and every time he had managed to dissuade himself from the real feelings, that he had convinced himself that it was just a normal set of feelings that he felt, to feel resentful of his father, that he would never actually do anything like that. And after every thought of patricide he would leap into a pool of euphemisms and evasions and emerge, naked and brainless, willing to accept a new world of mindless conformity while making snide cheap comments against it in the cowardice of his private life. But as he dismissed this patricide from his mind, the young man could not repress the thought that if only someone could help him...
"'Here I am,' said the young woman in the trenchcoat who had materialized right beside him."
Vivian then stopped, and to his surprise he realized that all of the members of
the Brigade had simply vanished, that he wasn't in the basement of the church
of St. Tertullian Casanova, that he was in a world of sudden strangeness, and
as he saw in front of him the pure form of the angel, the room began to swirl
and turn, the space was full of special winds and at the center of the
whirlpool, as his memories slipped away from him and he was face to face with
the pure divinity of the Angel Vivian Chelmnickon was filled with a feeling of
unbelievable purity, of sensation of utter truth, of absolute mercy, of
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