Grateful thanks to Joan W. for allowing me to write
this companion piece to her wonderful story, Grief.
When I read her story, my first thought was:
This is so genius that I just wish I’d thought of it first!
My next thought was: What would these stages
have looked like for the one who caused that grief?
It was the itching that woke Devin that morning. The claw marks on his left cheek, although nearly healed, were firmly entrenched in that phase of the healing process when the desire to scratch the wound becomes nearly unbearable.
He rolled over and flipped his pillow to the cold side; maybe that would soothe the itch. It didn’t. All it did was put him face to face with a sleeping, angelic Vincent illuminated by the light of the amber window above their bed.
“Little Saint Vincent,” he thought sullenly. “You always get off so easy! You were allowed to watch Sebastian’s magic show last night. You aren’t grounded for another month of kitchen and laundry duty. The Old Man always has liked you best!”
Part of him knew these thoughts were unfair, but a larger part simply didn’t care, at least not at that particular moment. Perhaps it was the itching that was the final straw, but just then, Devin couldn’t tolerate looking at Vincent one more second. He felt exactly the same way about everyone and everything in the tunnels.
He rose from bed, pulled on some clothes and climbed the ladder to the second story of their chamber. There, from its hiding place between a pipe and the rock wall, he extracted his clasp knife, recently liberated from Father’s study. He bolted down the auxiliary tunnel towards Midtown, determined to spend the day Above. Somewhere. Anywhere. Consequences be damned, he wouldn’t be trapped in these tunnels today! He just had to get out.
Devin stalked to the Penn Station threshold which bypassed the concourse area and led directly to a platform. As he stood in the darkened recess, he watched people milling about outside the train, obviously on a smoking break. New passengers boarded from the concourse far down the platform. The smokers began extinguishing their cigarette butts on the concrete and re-boarding the train as he watched. There were no conductors here since all the passengers had already been ticketed as they boarded.
His eyes darted up to the sign on the side of the train: The Pennsylvanian. The name didn’t exactly conjure images of Neuschwanstein Castle or Machu Pichu. Nonetheless, at that moment, it did sound deliciously exotic to young Devin. He thought about where that train might be going, the places it could take him. His head filled with images of the Liberty Bell, Wrigley Field, the Rocky Mountains! Oh, the things he could run away to…
Visions of Father yelling, finger waving, brow furrowing with blatant disappointment, also ran through Devin’s mind. Not just memories of this most recent incident with the knife and the carousel, but from countless other similar conflicts as well. Oh, the things he could run away from…
There are crimes of opportunity; Devin’s was an escape of opportunity.
The train was there. The door was open. The allure was overwhelming.
Later, he would remember that moment when time seemed suspended, a million factors both propelling and compelling him. Only later would he remember something which, in that elongated moment, he had forgotten: Vincent.
Devin was thinking about himself when he jumped through the open train door. He was thinking about Father when he bumped a passenger, causing his briefcase to spill open in the aisle. He was thinking about Shangri La when he snatched a ticket from the overhead shelf and disappeared into the next car. What he wasn’t thinking about was the grief he’d be causing to Vincent, not only today, but for years to come.
The excitement of this adventure lasted a good forty-five minutes during which time he fantasized about how far he could get before he was caught. By the time the train pulled into the station in Trenton, the adrenaline had begun to wear off, and he asked himself, “How am I going to get back?”
The answer formed fully-grown in his mind, like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus. “I’m not. I’m not going back.”
The repercussions of that thought echoed through his heart for many long minutes and he saw his reflection in the window shaking his head. “No. No! It’s not like I’m never going back! I’m just not going to go back right now. Yeah! I got this far, and I’ll get farther, if I just keep going. And man, am I going to have some great stories to tell when I do go back!”
While he hid from the conductor in the restroom, he washed the sweat from his face and thought, “I can’t give up now! What fun would that be? I can’t very well go back now and let everyone know I chickened out. I’ll go back… someday!”
The face in the mirror seemed unconvinced.
“I will go back someday! I will!”
Weeks later, he was still telling himself, “Vincent will know that I’ll come back someday. It’s not like I’m never going back.”
Two months later, Devin was finding it almost natural to answer to Carl, and was Carl honing his knife-throwing skills at an amazing pace. During a break between shows as the knife-thrower’s assistant, Devin lounged in the shade between two game booths, eating some fries that had sat too long to be sold to paying customers. He’d learned right away which of the food vendors he could con into saving a few grease-logged fries for him.
It was a busy Saturday, perfect weather, and the midways were full. He watched family after family strolling by. He watched little kids dragging dads over to toss baseballs at milk bottles, moms tying balloon strings onto their kids’ wrists so they couldn’t blow away, big brothers helping little sisters onto merry-go-round horses.
He chucked the empty paper cone into a trash bin and sauntered to the sideshow midway behind a family with two boys. The parents gave the kids some cash and sat on a bench while the boys ran ahead. He lost sight of the brothers for a while, but rounding a corner, saw them again laughing and elbowing each other for space in line to ride the Scrambler. The more he watched them, the more he realized that only the older boy, the one who was about his age, was laughing. The younger brother was desperately trying to be first in line.
He remembered a similar scuffle with Vincent last winter. They were jockeying for position outside the chandlery to get an early start delivering their Winterfest candles. Vincent had spent the last month reminding Devin how he’d beaten him the previous year, and Devin was determined to get a jump on his younger brother this time.
The carnie operating the ride opened the chain to let the brothers in and they both rushed to the nearest open car. There they continued jostling each other to see who could get the outside position. To Devin it was obvious that the bigger boy wanted to be on the inside so that he would be able to squish his smaller brother with the centrifugal force of the ride.
Devin didn’t catch what the older boy said next, but he clearly heard the smaller one yell back, “Nuh-uh! I did not! It wasn’t me!”
He hurtled himself over the small fence surrounding the ride and rushed the older brother. “Stop it! Quit it! Let him have the seat!”
Devin pulled the bigger boy out of the Scrambler and pushed him to the ground, screaming down at the befuddled kid, “Don’t you know how lucky you are?! He looks up to you! He’s only trying to sit there because you want to sit there! He wants to be just like you, you selfish jerk! He can do a hell of a lot better than ending up like you!”
The older brother stared up at this lunatic boy from nowhere as his little brother remained in the seat, tears welling in his eyes. The ride operator manhandled Devin and carted him away as Devin continued yelling. “You selfish jerk! You’re supposed to be looking out for him!”
Four months after he left, Devin formulated a plan. “If I go back when I’m 18, I’ll be a grown-up then. Father won’t be able to drag me back down there again, no matter what. He won’t make me stay in those tunnels if I don’t want to. Then Vincent will know that I’m OK, and I’ll have four years of adventures to tell him about. He’ll love hearing about my living up here with the carnies and about all the things I’ve seen and done…”
Four years after he left, Devin amended that plan. “If I go back when Vincent is 18, I’ll find some way to bring him back here with me. Then Father won’t be able to make him stay Below if he doesn’t want to. If I can get a car or something by then, I can take Vincent to the Mississippi and we’ll go camping under the stars and rafting…”
Years and incarnations came and went.
It was a warm spring day and the air was so full of the scent of orange blossoms that Devin could have sworn he was breathing honey. He had spent the day exploring the palaces and the gardens of La Alhambra in southern Spain.
He had climbed the ancient Moorish fortress that was conquered by Ferdinand and Isabella almost 500 years ago. He was serenaded by the same dancing fountains where Katherine of Aragon played as a child before she left for England and married King Henry VIII. He even stood in the shade of the very same cypress tree that Washington Irving described in Tales of La Alhambra.
“How many hours did Vincent and I spend reading those stories to each other? His favorite was always the one about Prince Ahmed who was trapped in one of the towers of this palace, until magic birds helped him to escape.”
Finally he stood on the balcony of the sultan’s hunting lodge, a vantage point from which he could take in the entirety of this masterwork of Man and Nature. He watched the sun setting over Granada, painting the heavens pink and gold above the fortress turrets and the snowy peaks of Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was so stunning, so heart-stoppingly beautiful, it should have given his soul wings to see it.
But all he could think of while watching that palace shining golden in the sunset was how Vincent was still trapped Below, and no magic in the world could help him to escape.
Living out one’s dreams, with no one there to share them, can be a nightmare.
“Maybe I’ll try Africa next…”
Devin wondered why it wasn’t hot. He thought it should be hot - oppressively hot and muggy. But the air was damp, and it was a cold dampness. Somehow he knew that it was always cold and damp here. As he attempted to reconcile this conundrum of climate, he scanned his location. Bookshelves, bedrock, candelabras… a raspy voice with the faintest hint of a lisp calling, “Dev, Dev, Dev,” with the cadence of pipe-code.
He followed the sound of the voice up the ladder to the rock ledge above their chamber. Vincent’s feet were dangling off the edge of the upper level as he recited from a dark russet volume:
“I years had been from home,
And now, before the door,
I dared not open,
lest a face I never saw before
Stare vacant into mine
And ask my business there.
My business? Just a life I left.
Was such still dwelling there?” 1
Vincent’s eyes stared blankly down at Devin.
Devin’s eyes flew open and he sat bolt upright in his cot. He wiped at his face as if that might clear away the dream that enveloped him as thick and hot as the night air. Knowing the futility of trying to get back to sleep after one of those dreams, he went outside to the fire.
Kawassi, the Kenyan guide he’d been working with these last several months, was there standing sentry. His lilting English, heavily influenced by his native Swahili, wafted across the fire. “You have that dream again, Derek. The one that bothers you.”
“Yeah, I did, mate. How did ya know?” So far, Devin’s attempt to imitate an Australian accent was still fooling the clients. So far.
From the darkness on the opposite side of the fire, Kawassi’s brilliant smile illuminated the night like the Cheshire Cat’s. “You always look even whiter after one of those dreams, my friend.” Despite the months spent in Samburu Game Reserve, Devin was perpetually pale, and Kawassi loved to tease him about it.
“Derek, here in Africa we have a proverb for everything. The wise mothers say that, ‘the dreamers remember their dreams when they are in trouble.’ Are you in trouble?”
“Nah… I’m not in any trouble, mate. I guess I’m dreaming about… some old trouble. Trouble I started…. and it’s too late to fix any of it now.” Devin poked at the fire with a stick. “‘What's gone and what's past help, should be past grief.’ 2 One of my wise ones used to say that.”
“Did your mother say that to you?”
“Nah, mate. Was a bloke named Shakespeare said that. But I was weaned on him, ya might say.”
The two men sat in companionable silence for some while, each absorbed in his own thoughts. Kawassi rose and walked the perimeter of their camp, listening to the tourists snore inside their tents. Beyond the firelight, he surreptitiously observed Devin, who had by then forgotten he was not alone.
Kawassi was an exceptional tracker, and now he caught the trail of a most elusive prey: his friend’s true face. It was something he had glimpsed only one or twice before; this man allowed himself precious few unguarded moments. He watched a sadness appear in Devin’s eyes, as if the weight of a world were on his shoulders.
Kawassi walked silently back to the ring of firelight and stood at its furthest edge where he made a small noise to remind Devin of his presence. Devin looked up, and in the darkness could barely make out his guide. But he did hear his voice.
“Derek, the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”
Kawassi turned and left that proverb to keep his friend company. Devin scratched at his face, which was suddenly itchy. He could just discern the three deep scars beneath his beard.
One Fall evening -
Real horses at a full gallop could not have pounded harder than Devin’s heart as he crossed the park from the carousel. He managed to keep his hands from trembling as he cut the lock and pulled the chain from between the door’s iron bars. That control faltered as he pulled out his old clasp knife and knelt to jimmy the lock near the bottom of the secret door.
Before he could even begin to manipulate the mechanism, the door sprang back, leaving him standing there. Startled by the unknown figure silhouetted against the backdrop of the tunnel, he backed away until the movement of an arm illuminated the golden mane and sapphire eyes of Vincent.
Vincent! His brother!
“Devin?” His name!
“Nobody’s called me that in twenty years. Oh, god… Vincent!” His home!
He was home again at last.
1 Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Poem 79
2 The Winter's Tale (III, ii, 223-224)
Photo Montage Courtesy of Cyndi