“So, how you all doing this evening?” a leader says without a shred of interest. She is a teen-ager, five or six years older than Billy was, with a tattoo of the spider of Nazca on her throat.
After a long silence, someone offers, “I’m good. More and more stuff I’m thinking I can put into words.”
“We’d have to challenge you on that one, I’m sure,” the leader says mildly.
“But then they belong to others, your thoughts,” a woman says cautiously. She is wearing a long, bright canvas coat that looks like a painting torn from its frame.
Many present seem to be crying behind their sunglasses. The light in Dove is almost vindictive. Jane Click feels she will never become used to it and makes no attempt to avoid it. She stares right into it as often as she can.
“Two billion people on this earth less than a hundred years ago,” the dishevelled man says. “Now there are seven billion people.”
“And you can’t love them all is the problem,” a woman says, nodding.
No one sits near Theodore. Maybe it’s his confusing garments. Maybe they think he’s unlucky, though they’re all unlucky here, decent enough individuals caught by the mishaps of time in a circumstance of continual, bearable punishment.
Someone mentions that it’s her birthday, or will be soon, tomorrow. The others murmur and clap a little.
Jane Click’s son, Billy, had a friend, a shy child with a harelip. “Like the rabbit,” he’d explained, when Billy first brought him home. He said that on his birthday he always had pie; he didn’t care for cake. The driver of the car that struck them as they were on their bicycles, returning on the long, flat road from Chaunt, was a retired thoracic surgeon. He was not without blame, was not guilty, either. He saw the boys only when the situation was upon them all. They had been invisible to him. Invisible in the wolfish dusk.
A group wanted to erect two “ghost bikes” at the spot, bicycles painted a flat and horrid white, but she wouldn’t allow it.
“Is your name Jerry or Jerome?” she’d asked when Billy first brought him home.
“Jerome. I don’t like my name. I was named for my mother’s brother, but I don’t know why, because he doesn’t like it neither.”
“There was a St. Jerome,” she told him. “He healed a lion’s paw.”
“What was wrong with it?”
“It was injured in some way. A thorn.”
“That’s nice he fixed him.”
“So think of the story of Jerome and the lion. They became best friends.”
“Billy’s my best friend, aren’t you, Billy? Are there any pictures of Jerome and the lion?”
“I’ll try to find one for you.”
The boys were not impressed. St. Jerome was an old man who did not inspire their interest. The lion did not look like a lion.
“It has a face,” Jerry said.
“Animals have faces,” Billy said.
“It looks like something else’s face, though.”
“My father had a pet raven once,” Billy told him. “He had it for a long time but then it flew away.”
“Did it come back?”
“If it came back, why would I be telling you he had one once?”
Jerry shrugged. He was not a boy who took offense. His father wasn’t a presence in his life, either, and there were a few stories about him, too. There was a leather jacket that Jerry could wear when he got bigger, but he didn’t really want it.
For days after the accident, the authorities chose not to disclose the name of the driver. The way they put it was, “At this time, our intention is not to share.”
Eventually, they shared. He was a man of some prominence. He wrote Jane Click a letter expressing sorrow at her loss. Her hands burned holding it. Of course she didn’t keep it.
People were not kind to Jane Click after the accident. Jerry’s relatives threatened her and threw bags of trash on her doorstep. Billy’s father returned for a bit of one day, with a new wife and son, who refused to enter her bright and bookish house or even accept a glass of water. (She hated books now, had not brought a single one to the Dove.) No one could understand why she had allowed two small boys to go to Chaunt again and again. It was twenty miles away, at least, and wasn’t even there, a hamlet abandoned long ago, harboring only a few collapsed structures in an exhausted valley.
She doesn’t think of the place in terms of distance. If absence becomes great enough, it grows into a genuine apparition, an immediate presence.
When Jane Click still read, she preferred the language of displacement and estrangement that prepared a path to revelation over language that simply refreshed and enlarged upon what she already knew. But if you asked her what was the very last book that she had read—the one that had ultimately led her to the conclusion that books wanted only to expose and destroy you, tear your heart out and leave it in the dust, like the soul of a murdered and soon forgotten little animal—she wouldn’t be able to tell you.
Nor would she be able to state with any surety whether it was Billy who had discovered the church at Chaunt or whether the boys had discovered it together. It had been more chapel than church, with a single long rectangular room. And more rubble than chapel now. It took an extravagance of imagination to see it as a house of praise. The roof was gone, though a wheel window remained unbroken, high above the absent door. Inside, a few pews lay scattered, as though smashed with an axe.
The long room was full of animals.
“They weren’t made-up animals,” Billy said. “They weren’t people or statues.”
“They weren’t zoo animals, exactly, either,” Jerry said. “There wasn’t an elephant or a lion or a polar bear, not exactly.”
“They were waiting,” Billy said, “but they weren’t waiting for us.”
“You know when a dog is lost and he looks at you intently for a minute but . . .”
“Well, less than a minute,” Billy said.
“Less than a minute, then, but then he realizes that you aren’t the one he needs to find. They looked at us that way and then they went back to waiting.”
“There wasn’t a sound. You couldn’t even hear them breathe, but then you could.”
“Once they know you’re not who they’re waiting for, they don’t look at you anymore.”
“They become motionless.”
“Yes, motionless. But still animals. All the animals you’d ever hope to see,” Jerry said with joy.
She tried to get them to describe the animals. Did the boys speak to them or touch them? Were there birds?
There were birds, apparently, but very small ones.
Were there horses there?
When she was a child, she wanted to be a horse. She had a treasured collection of horses—metal, ceramic, plastic, wood. She had never ridden a horse or cared for one, but she had kept pictures of them and much commentary concerning them in a large black notebook for many years, though the book had been missing for just as long.
“Maybe someone’s using it as a barn,” she said. “A corral.”
Her son regarded her with disappointment.
“Maybe. Not really,” Jerome said politely.
“When you’re there, you know that something is going to happen any moment and you wait with them so you can be there when it happens,” Billy said. “You haven’t been invited to stay but you’re welcome to stay. It’s just about to happen.”
“But what?” she asked, smiling. “And why?” She remembers smiling. She can feel it still on her lips, the falsity and carelessness of it.
Then they spoke no further of the ruined little building and the animals.
Though sometimes she thinks that they did, that, indeed, that was all they spoke about, but she cannot remember it now, she cannot remember.
The boys continued to travel out there. They would take sandwiches and jars of water and be gone all day. Something extraordinary was about to be known, yet at the same time it would never be known—that was what she thought. That was its disturbing beauty, what made it irresistible. She thought, Soon the children will no longer realize what they understand. They will no longer be at ease with wonder. They will be unable to abide it.
But she is thinking this now. She cannot remember thinking it then.