NOTE TO READERS: With this installment of "The Spiritkeeper," we will pause while author Lynn Biederstadt seeks a print publisher for her fine novel. MyStoryLives has been delighted and proud to serialize the first portion of the book, and if it works, we will continue to serialize at a later point. GOOD LUCK WITH PUBLISHING LYNN!!
By Lynn Biederstadt
In the morning, she decided to fit another piece to the David Emory puzzle.
Marjorie Maxwell’s cottage wasn’t difficult to find; it was the only one that was even remotely close to David’s place, just under a mile away. And a cottage was exactly what it was.
She had thought that the Emory homestead was ridiculously picturesque. The Maxwell house made David’s charming home look like a cinderblock bomb shelter. Picket fence. Rose arbor. An honest-to-god thatched roof. An immaculate 50s-era Buick in the gravel drive. And a pair of residents who might have sprouted from the earth of their English garden.
Marjorie and her sister Martha were ancient, deeply wrinkled Hobbits, adorable, grey-haired and Puritan thin. Their warm, bright, lace-curtained living room smelled of lavender, baking bread and wood stove. Every space was given over to sewing surfaces and a huge spinning wheel. From seemingly every corner, every sill, every chair, a cat watched the proceedings, just as David had described.
Despite their advanced years, the sisters were energetic, old-line New Englanders, industrious and purposeful. Their hands were never still. Every word of conversation was accompanied by the whirr of the spinning wheel and click of the treadle sewing machine. Marjorie, the spinner, was the talker of the two. Her sister seemed content simply to listen, nod and smile. “Did you come to pick up the things for David? “
Marjorie fetched up six neatly-twisted skeins of white handspun yarn. McGill held them to her cheek. The wool had presence in her hand, a soft weight, a trace of oil that spoke of living things. She had never been a big fan of handcrafts, but there was something touchingly alive about this product of an old woman’s labor. The spun wool, to the loomed cloth, to the finished product on David’s back: the circle completed. It was all very satisfying, somehow.
“All that yarn in David’s barn: Did you make that? And the jacket?”
“Oh yes. The yarn from David’s wool, and the jacket from David’s cloth. How is he? We haven’t seen him in several weeks.”
Marjorie had assumed for her an acquaintance of longer standing; McGill didn’t try to correct the error. She didn’t mention his stay at St. Amelia’s. That was for David to tell. “He’s fine. He’s well,” she said. The smell of lavender was making her euphoric. She wished she could have been one of their cats. She wanted to curl up on the doilied couch and nap the morning away in the sunshine. “You’ve known him for a long time, I guess.”
“And his parents. And his grandparents. I taught him to weave when he was eight years old.”
“Marjorie, what was he like back then?”
“Oh, I don’t know. He was a sweet boy, then. He’s a sweet boy now.” Sweet wasn’t what she’d hoped for. And it was far from all there was. Behind that milk-and-cookies smile, McGill caught a glimpse of the fierce protectiveness she’d seen in those who knew David well—Eli Cline’s steely loyalty, dressed in an antique lace glove.
“You’re asking me, I think, how he’s different between then and now?” Marjorie was more savvy than she’d let on. “He’s more complicated, now. In some ways, he’s still so very young. And he’s not as strong as he thinks he is. Why do you ask?”
“I just find him…interesting.”
Old women were wonderful. Old women missed nothing. They saw things you hadn’t yet guessed. “Of course you do, dear,” said Marjorie Maxwell.
McGill was letting herself in at the front door. Trying to. She never could figure out which key was which. Footsteps came quickly up the walk behind her. She turned, startled.
It was Jon Arledge.
What the hell? He knew where she lived. He had followed her home. This was creepy.
“What are you doing here?”
He smiled at her from behind his aviator sunglasses. She couldn’t see his eyes. He was all Ivy League casual, starched and pressed and expensive down to his fingernails. As cool and slick as a reptile in the rain. “Do you know where he is?”
“Why would I know that?”
“You were seen coming out of his home.”
Alarm bells. “How do you know that?”
“No one escapes attention in a small town. Could it be that you haven’t discovered this?”
“Could it be you haven’t discovered that it’s illegal to stalk people?”
“I’m not stalking you, Ms. Forester. I’m looking out for you.”
“Whatever you’re calling it, this Captain Ahab thing of yours is not very attractive. You’re obsessing over nothing. David is harmless.”
“And how many hospitalizations would it take to convince you otherwise? Two? Three? Five? You don’t know him well enough to have an opinion, I assure you.”
It was true: She knew David Emory nowhere near well enough to defend him in anything, from anyone. But she was coming to understand that she would have defended Charles Manson if Arledge had been on the opposing side.
“Here’s a thought: Maybe next time you can follow him home and tell him how concerned you are.”
“Do you know how he came to me this last time, when you met him?”
“He collapsed. At an execution.”
“Exactly. But there have been no executions in New York State for more than 30 years. Have you asked yourself what he was doing at an execution at all? In another state? A place he had no legitimate reason to be?
“Listen to me, Ms. Forester: Be very, very careful around David Emory. Sooner or later, he is going to harm someone. When he does, it won’t matter whether he’s been out of the hospital for two weeks or ten years. Whoever is close to him will suffer.”
The sweet afterglow of the Maxwell’s living room was snuffed, stolen. McGill was all scrapper, now. “Jon—I’ll call you that since we’re on such intimate terms—take it up with him.” She saw herself in his slick sunglasses, and saw his superior smirk harden. She was about to make an enemy, and she couldn’t have cared less. “Now get off my property. And don’t ever come here again.”
She slammed the door, slammed her bag onto the kitchen counter, slammed a few counter doors just for punctuation. She had started way wrong with Arledge as far back as their first meeting, but he’d taken it too far. Was this his bizarre idea of courtship? Was it a genuine concern for her wellbeing? Maybe he did know his patient better than she did. Maybe he was just an ass. But he was dangling David in front of her like a perverse little carrot, playing her curiosity to recruit her to some personal crusade. She didn’t like it. Did she know where David Emory was….
The fact was, within five minutes she did know. As soon as the phone rang.
It was David, pulled up short by the exasperation that hadn't been intended for him. “Ahhh…I think I’ve caught you at a bad time.”
“No, no, it’s okay. I was just chasing away a pest. What can I do for you?”
“Are you busy around one? I wanted to invite you to lunch.”
Two invitations. In two days. Not good. “David…you know I’m married, right?”
An uncomfortable hesitation. That appealing awkwardness again. “You know it wasn't, ummm… that kind of an invitation. Eli will be here.”
She laughed, embarrassed at being so full of herself. “In that case, yes, I’d love to come. Where shall I meet you?”
Instantly, the gaff was forgiven. Discomfort was not allowed to live long in David Emory’s company. “Come here to the house. See you at one.”
His call had tickled her, she had to admit. Social invitations weren’t all that common—at least, not ones without the strings of Ty Florey attached. He was a hot commodity; people got close to you to try to get closer to him. As for her other opportunities, the self-congratulatory ego-fests that were part of the writing business, they held not a scrap of appeal for her. Invitations came in a unending stream. Without exception, she turned them all down. Were they to stop coming, she wouldn’t be particularly sorry to see them go.
But this one, this was different. This was going to be good.
She showed up at David’s place a socially-incorrect five minutes early, a bottle of wine in each hand. David answered the door on the third ring, elegant in pale grey, wiping his hands on the crisp white chef’s apron tied around his waist. She’d caught him in mid-preparations. He was flushed with activity and, charmingly, he was a bit flustered; evidently, his “join me for lunch” logistics were a little rusty.
As distracted as he was, his big smile switched on when he saw her. He seemed genuinely delighted that she’d shown up.
“Come on in. Oh…wine. Thank you. I forgot to ask whether you like Thai food.”
“It’s my favorite.”
“Good, good. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do if you said no. Eli will be along shortly, I expect. He makes a point of never being on time for anything.”
“You’re sure he’s coming?”
“Eli eats sausages out of a can. If there’s food in the invitation, yeah, he’s coming.”
“Shall I join you in the kitchen?”
“Probably not a good idea. I’d try so hard to impress you that I’d probably cut a finger off. But there’s wine open over there on the coffee table. Make yourself at home. I won’t be long.”
She poured herself a glass of the same good white varietal he’d offered her yesterday in the barn; helped herself from a platter of rumaki and parmesan crisps warm from the oven. She settled in on the couch, and, as she’d done in Cline’s office, she indulged herself with the property-anthropology she’d been too preoccupied to undertake the last time she was here.
A little ashamed of herself, she went for the snark first. She looked for the taint of money in his living space; that sense of privilege that had always chapped her raw. She didn’t find it. The place was not fussy. It was tasteful. And comfortable. Good furniture. A lot of beautiful New England antiques, well used but well cared-for. Lamps placed for reading. Bike in the hallway. No sign of a pet.
There were more of the superb, unearthly, grey abstract paintings on the walls, David’s work. Conversely, he kept no self-important evidences of his weaving around the place; no wall hangings, no rugs, no fiber-art, no pillows. She supposed that, outside of the elegantly simple white jacket she’d seen him wear, he gave most of it away.
On the coffee table, next to the food, Poet Charles Wright’s Buffalo Yoga, with David’s reading glasses left to mark his stopping-place. The Sibley Guide to Birds with a pair of binoculars resting on top. A stack of books beside it, and a wall of books behind that, a collection that described a questing intelligence. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica. James Hillman’s A Blue Fire. E.O. Wilson. The Tao. The Tao of Physics. Socrates, Dialogs. Between Silence and Light, about the spiritual architecture of Louis I. Kahn. Books by Stephen Hawking. Hunter Thompson. Isaac Asimov. Nabokov. Books on Art History. CDs that confessed a taste in music as all-embracing as his taste in books.
A laptop in its own bookshelf space. A sweater thrown over the arm of the sofa. A hearth, recently used. Everything just tidy enough, but not too much. It was all so… normal. Maybe he had bodies buried in the basement as Doctor Arledge had hinted, but where was the crazy in all this?
David has a rich inner life, Cline had said, not altogether ironically. This was evidence of it: a life that was solitary but not nearly empty. More and more she wondered why someone so essentially present, so fully realized and comfortable in his skin, could have isolated himself as completely as David had done. This place was an island—a wonderful one, given, but an island nonetheless.
Eli arrived to the disquieting sound of gunfire in the near distance. He let himself in. “Those damn kids are back out there in your woods again, David,” he shouted toward the kitchen. To McGill, he said “The little bastards shoot anything that moves. Somebody’s gonna get killed.”
David came out with a platter of cheese. “They’re Jeffrey’s kids, Eli. Nobody’s going to do anything about the sheriff’s kids.”
“I’ll do something about them—with an ass-full of rock salt.”
“Look. McGill brought wine.”
“Oh thank God. I was afraid she was going to bring her book. Feed me.”
It was her own fault, the turn the conversation took.
David was one of those easy, natural hosts who made his guests feel welcome without trying. As he warmed to the task, his moments of gawky social discomfort were replaced by flashes of grace. He was amusable. Engaging. And the man could cook.
David was good at conversation, engaged and responsive. He listened, at times, with an attention that was almost unnerving, yet he tempered the effect generously with that warming, childlike smile of his. He had an endearing way of tilting his head to the side when he grinned at you; of tossing his head when he laughed, and he laughed a lot. The laugh was a surprise—even to him, it seemed. He laughed as if he had forgotten how; as if he were laughing at the joy at discovering laughter again.
And he had a liberal hand with the wine bottle. The more he poured, the more interesting the conversation got.
It started innocently enough. “David, I noticed you don’t have a pet.”
“That surprises you?”
“I didn’t expect it—somebody with such an affinity for animals…
“That’s not my choice, exactly. I like animals, but….”
“David, they follow you in the road.”
“I can’t get them to stop. I’ve tried.”
Eli, a wry broadside. “I know the feeling.”
“Sometimes they get hit by cars. Then I feel terrible.”
McGill said “You know, David, I was curious….”
David sat forward. McGill being McGill, he should have guessed that she would take even the most casual conversation as far as it would go.
“Tell me about the first time.”
“The first time animals followed me?”
“No, the first time for everything.”
No hesitation, this time. His eyes wandered after the memory. “It was a cold day, I remember. Down in the City. The November before the fire at the mill. A bird hit a window. I picked it up; held it the way you do, you know, hoping it will come back. But it didn’t. And when it died, I felt something happen.”
His eloquent hands fluttered an ethereal outline around his chest. “It was like a door opening. And something came in. Light and small. Suddenly, for just a second, I was that thing….that quick, bright thing lifted by the air. I knew what flight was. I saw trees and branches differently; berries. Bugs. I could see color.” He gave a delighted little laugh. “I’d never seen color before. And then the feeling was gone. But the...the thing…the presence…was still there. It had weight. And substance and character. I didn’t know what it was. But it was wonderful.”
He paused, carefully gathering the right words. “Have you ever heard the expression ‘When you witness one death, you witness them all’? Everything was different for me after that. Death was different. I could no longer say ‘that was just a bird that died’ or ‘that was just a dog’ or ‘that was just somebody I didn’t know.’ There was no just in anything. It was all…I don’t know how to say this…greater. More meaningful. Every time I opened the door inside, I got a glimpse of something human beings don’t get to see. That limitlessness: It’s a very humbling thing.”
“A look into the void.”
“No…not a void, because it’s not empty. And not full because there’s nothing to fill. I can’t call it everything, because you have to stand outside of everything to know that it is everything. This is just…” that awed, aimless flying of hands again “…is.”
“Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” Eli said in Hebrew. I am that I am.
McGill quoted. “You mean, it's kind of like ‘an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.’”
“Yes. Who said that?”
Eli howled. “I love this woman.”
Their host took the ribbing in good spirits. “I know, I know. After all this time, I have a hard enough time believing it—and I’m the one living with it. But it is what it is.”
“David, I don’t know what you think you’re seeing. But there are no dead relatives waiting to greet you when you die; no floating above your body, no going toward the light.”
“No, those things are real—except maybe the dead-relatives-waiting part. So far the only one waiting has been me.”
“I don’t believe that. These aren’t cosmic phenomena. They’re the brain’s synapses shutting down. Science knows this.”
“Ah, science,” Eli said caustically. “Conversation over.” He put his fork down. “How do you explain the nursing home pets that know when a person is going to die? How do you explain the 21 grams?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Science. In a controlled experiment in the last century, a physician weighed dying men before death and in the moments after. The difference was 21 grams. The weight of the soul.”
“Sorry. Not buying it.” She could have left it there. But she had a point to make. “Tell me this: Why you, David?”
“Don’t know. Don’t need to know. Carpenter builds a house…doesn’t necessarily know who’s going to live there. Or why.”
“Are they animal souls? Human souls?”
“What’s the difference? Souls are souls. The rest is window dressing.”
“Why would they want to come to you, these souls?”
“No idea. For safekeeping, maybe. Some wander, like the ones in accidents—they’re the worst: They can’t get their bearings; they need to be pointed in the right direction. The rest? Maybe they’re the ones with no place else to go. If they don’t want to come to me, they don’t.”
“Wouldn’t they want to…go on?”
“Not the ones that come to me.”
“Where do they go…after?”
“They don’t. Go anywhere. Not so far.”
“And what happens to them if something happens to you?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out one of these days.”
Her next question was loaded. Like a shotgun. “Do you believe in God, David?”
Eli reached for the wine bottle. “Here we go.”
David held up his hands. “Sorry. Too big a question.”
“Not for most people.”
Cline snorted. “Quod erat demonstratum.”
David said, “Let me ask you the same thing, McGill.”
“Don’t go there, Em,” Eli muttered. “I’m warning you.”
“The question’s on the table, so it’s fair game. I’d like to know.”
“The jury’s still out on the God thing for me,” she answered bluntly. “The soul? No. I watched both of my parents die within a year of one another. There was no upside. When you’re dead, you’re dead. The end. Nothing stays. Nothing goes anywhere.”
She had momentum, now. Between the wine and the passion of the debate, she couldn’t have stopped if she’d wanted to. “But let me backtrack. You can’t do anything with this gift of yours, correct? You can’t channel it or put it to use? If you’re just wandering around collecting things, what’s the purpose? What’s the point?”
Eli spoke up. “You mean it has to have a mission? Like what—saving Mankind? Why does there need to be a point? Why does it need to do anything at all?”
“That’s very Talmudic of you, Eli. But you’re taking an awful lot on faith.”
“Exactly. Let me ask you this: What if the question is the reason? Is a higher state of being made of knowing? Or is it merely the opening of a door to more questions? What if this thing of David’s is nothing more than questions: Isn’t that enough?”
“It’s a human interpretation of an essentially empty universe.”
“And if the universe is just us and energy, is it any less wonderful? You asked if David believes in God. You didn’t ask me.”
She grinned. “I was afraid to.”
“The answer is no. But if there were a God, what do you think Yahweh would think about all these inconsequential little bio-blobs so absolutely sure they’ve got it all figured out, and so willing to tell you exactly what to believe?
“What if it’s the asking that’s sacred? That priceless, inestimable ability to look at an unknowable universe and say, humbly, I don’t know. When the question is enough, McGill: That’s faith. When you can be content to do nothing more than let it all come into you—for reasons you will never understand: That’s worship.” He drained his wine glass and held it out to be refilled. “Thus endeth the lesson.”
David was grinning in unrestrained delight. “That was fun.”
“I don’t know about you,” McGill said, “but I’m worn out.”
“Coffee, anybody? Prozac? You two, sit. I’ll be right back.”
As David left the room, McGill caught Cline watching him, as if seeing something in the younger man that he hadn’t seen in a while, something he approved of. He caught her watching him; scowled at her. “What are you looking at?”
She dared him with her smile. “You’re cute together.”
“Cute.” A murderous look. She loved getting under his skin: It was so easy. “Young woman, you do love to live dangerously.”
“No, it’s not that. You surprised me. He surprised me. I never expected any of this.”
“Then you’ll have to stop making things so interesting.”
“Do you think I went too far?”
“You invented ‘too far.’”
“He’s got me curious, I’ll give him that much.” She drew patterns on the tablecloth with her spoon. “Speaking for a second as if I were actually buying all this? He’s so different today. Not the David from a few days ago.”
“Why should that surprise you?”
“I don’t understand why his…his gift…would affect him that way.”
“Think about it. There’s only so much the human organism can take. We’re born with an infinite capacity for love, yes. For forgiveness, yes. But one soul is all we’re issued. There isn’t room for more. Not for most of us, anyway.”
“Why does he do it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know that he knows. Maybe he thinks he’s doing good. Mostly, I think he can’t help it. He never could turn himself off.
“The problem is, David isn’t afraid of death. I wish he were. I wish this thing scared the crap out of him. Because sooner or later, one more is going to be the one too many.”
“That’s not enough to get him to stop?”
“Apparently you don’t know David.”
She reached for the wine bottle and refilled both their glasses. “Did he tell you that Jon Arledge came to see me at my house? He was lobbying for an ally in the David Emory witch-hunt. He was trying to tell me something about David at an execution.”
Eli reined-up. Hard. He sidestepped the subject so fast he could have given himself whiplash. “Jon is a self-righteous idiot. But unfortunately, he’s a connected one who gets what he wants in this county.”
The Pay Attention bell was going off in her head. Eli was stonewalling. “Eli, what is it about the execution?”
David returned into the room, coffee-laden. “What did I miss?”
Eli steered the conversation decisively to safer ground. “We were talking about Jon.”
David grimaced. “And everything was going so well.”
“David has been Jon’s personal project for years. There’s been bad blood between his family and the Emorys forever—property, money, influence. And now that he’s decided that David is a danger to the community, he thinks he’s legitimized a grudge that really started long before he was born.
“He gets his hands on David once every couple of years, when he can catch him incapacitated. Locks him up, throws the key away. It’s medieval, what he does to him in that hospital: electro-convulsive therapy, for God’s sake. He shoots him so full of anti-psychotics he can’t see straight. The drugs only make it harder for David to find his way back. And of course David won’t talk to him about what’s wrong, which Jon chalks up as one more symptom.
“After a while, couple of weeks in, David always manages to struggle back on his own. Jon runs out of legal means to keep him inside, and so he pronounces his latest psychiatric miracle cure and lets him go. Then David has another episode and it starts all over again. How many times so far, Em?”
“Five. Five too many.”
Eli’s pager went off. “Shit. I gotta get to the hospital. Mike Dockery’s boy broke another limb. The little klutz.”
“Don’t forget to tell your patient that his doctor is drunk.”
Cline snorted. “Drunk—please. How long have you known
me? Besides, I’m not getting within ten feet of that kid. Not when I can terrorize my snot-nosed resident Daniels into doing it. I do love making him sweat.” He downed his coffee at a gulp headed for the door. “David, you haven’t forgotten how to cook. McGill, thanks for the seminar.”
McGill reached for her purse. She fumbled her car keys out of her bag.
“Maybe I’ll call it an afternoon, too,” she said.
David plucked the key ring gently out of her hand. “Bad host. Bad. Too much wine, too little time.”
“Guess I don’t have Eli’s constitution. Drive me.”
“I haven’t driven in fifteen years. We’ll go through the woods. It’s closer than driving, and we could both use the walk. Come on—I won’t let anything happen to you, promise."