The Sandman rides shotgun and quotes Titus Andronicus

Here is another excerpt from Dover Beach.  It’s early in the story, and our narrator is accompanying two of his friends on a trip to New Hampshire to do some business.  It’s nighttime, and it’s snowing out, and they’re far from what’s left of “civilization.”  Not a good combination in the world of this novel.

Our narrator, we are beginning to discover, has an odd literary bent.

*************

The road barely existed anymore. Hunched over the wheel, Mickey stared out through the snow and swerved constantly to miss the rocks and potholes and assorted debris. A broken axle up here would not be a good idea.

Bobby was nervous. When he’s nervous, he talks too much. “So she says, ‘Oh, it’s so hod to pot with all this. It’s been in the family for generations, you know. We godded it all through the Frenzy and now things are settling down, but what am I to do? One must eat, mustn’t one?’

” ‘Oh, certainly one must,’ I says. Jesus, they all make you feel like they’re doin’ you a favor, handing over their firstborn or something. But I’m not the one that’s starving. You know what I’m saying? Jesus, this snow’s a bitch.” Bobby leaned forward and peered out at an abandoned house. He doesn’t see very well. “I hate bein’ outside the city. I mean, the city is dangerous, but at least you know what’s goin’ on. There are rules, sort of. Who the fuck knows what’s goin’ on up here?”

Bobby sat in the middle, between Mickey and me. A shotgun rested between my legs. I held its smooth barrel in my right hand. The van’s heater was turned up full blast, and it felt great. I wished Bobby weren’t so nervous. He was making me nervous too.

We were off the highway now, passing by cold white fields and scrawny trees and rocks. Bobby was right: we didn’t belong here. Still, something stirred inside me—wisps of memories that were better left unremembered. “How much further, Mickey?” I asked.

“Not far,” he said. Mickey was about as talkative as Gwen.

Bobby drummed his fingers on his thighs. “This guy is so fuckin’ weird, Wally, you won’t believe it. It’s being stuck up here in the boonies, if you ask me. You got no human interaction, you know what I’m sayin’?”

“He has you. And O’Malley’s people.”

“O’Malley’s people. Shit. Talking to one of them’s like talking to a tree. This guy is so weird. Christ, I wish I could see something.”

Mickey was going even slower now. Eventually there was a light in the distance. “That’s it,” he said. We aimed for the light, and came to a stop in front of a large gate. The light shone down at us from behind the gate like a beacon from heaven. A dog was barking. I don’t like dogs.

“Get out with your hands up,” an amplified voice ordered. It sounded like God.

I looked at Bobby. “So fuckin’ weird,” he said, shaking his head. He motioned to me to get out. I left the shotgun behind and climbed down into the snow with my hands over my head. Bobby and Mickey did the same.

The gate swung open, and two figures appeared out of a shack. One stayed behind and trained a shotgun on us. The other moved forward. He had a revolver in one hand, a Doberman on a leash in the other; the Doberman was about the size of the van. The figure was wearing a knitted cap and a homemade sheepskin coat. He was about twelve.

He searched us. The Doberman growled when it was my turn. Good doggie. I kept my hands up. The boy found my Smith and Wesson and pocketed it. He found the shotgun in the van and gave it, and the Doberman, to the figure waiting by the gate.

The boy returned to us. “Okay,” he said. We all got into the van. The boy kept the revolver trained on Mickey, who drove slowly through the open gate. We passed the other figure, standing by the shack and restraining the Doberman. It was a girl, maybe a little younger than the boy. The Doberman kept barking. The gate clanged shut behind us. I felt as if I had crossed a border.

Here is a survival skill I have learned. Generally, when you come upon an isolated farm surrounded by barbed wire, with searchlights and Dobermans and shotguns in evidence, it is a good idea to move on. Quickly. Not tonight, however.

“So how do you like this snow?” Bobby asked the boy.

The boy didn’t reply.

“I don’t think there was this much snow in the old days,” Bobby went on. “Of course, they say that about a lot of things. But I think maybe they’re right about the snow. A lot more snow than there used to be.”

Bobby was nervous. I wished he would shut up.

The land extended flat and unbroken on both sides until it disappeared in the darkness. The road along which we were traveling was plowed and newly paved. We were headed for a sprawling house that blazed with light about a half mile in front of us. Several smaller buildings were scattered like seedlings around it. There was a large barn and a silo off to one side, and in the distance a windmill loomed like a creature from a fairytale.

“Stop,” the boy said when we had reached the house.

Mickey pulled up by the front porch.

Another figure stood by the door, holding another shotgun. The boy got out and waved, and the figure motioned for us to come in.

“Here goes,” Bobby muttered. We got out and crunched across the snow to the open door.

“Wipe your feet,” the figure commanded.

We wiped our feet and walked inside.

“Come with me.” The figure took off her cap—it was a girl with a misshapen face. We followed her while our senses reeled. Warmth: the house was warmer than the van, warmer than the Ritz; a month’s supply of logs blazed in a fireplace. Light: electric lights, shining out from chandeliers and sconces, reflecting off mirrors and polished mahogany furniture. Smells: the sharp sweet scent of burning birch, the rich aroma of something sweet being baked. Apple pie? Strudel?

Somewhere close by a piano was playing, children were laughing. I felt as if I had stepped into a storybook.

The deformed girl led us into a long dark room lit only by a coal fire. The room had a vaulted ceiling, tapestries on the wall, a Persian carpet on the floor. At the far end of an oak table sat a man with a gray beard and deep-set, glittering eyes. He was wearing a flowing white robe. Maybe I hadn’t stepped into a storybook; maybe I had stepped into the Bible. Maybe he was God.

“You may return to your post, Lavinia,” the man said in a deep, God-like voice.

The girl silently left the room. The man’s gaze turned to us: three travelers from a distant land, bearing gifts.

Not much to look at. Bobby is the only fat man I know—but it isn’t a healthy fat, a storybook fat. And his eyes are clouded, and his teeth are rotten. Mickey is short and has a shriveled arm. And I—well, I am reasonably normal, which means reasonably scrawny, reasonably scarred by life. I don’t think I look like a private eye.

“Please sit,” the man said.

We sat.

“I trust your drive was uneventful.”

“Wasn’t bad, Mr. Fitch,” Bobby said. “But the snow didn’t help matters much.”

“Ah, yes, the snow.” Mr. Fitch paused. “‘When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul.'” He fell silent then, as if he had exhausted his supply of sociability, or forgotten the next line. He looked as if he didn’t have much need for sociability. He sat straight and stiff as a pine tree, his hands folded on the table in front of him. His skin was leathery, his mouth hard. He scared me.

“We brought some very good merchandise,” Bobby said. “You’d be surprised at how much is still out there, if you know the right people.”

Mr. Fitch nodded, unsurprised. “I’ll take a look.”

“Want us to bring it right in here?”

Mr. Fitch unfolded a hand and gestured at the empty table.

Bobby stood up. “Great. Come on, boys.”

Mickey and I followed him back out to the van. Lavinia kept a careful watch on us from the front porch. “What’d I tell you about that guy, huh?” Bobby asked as Mickey opened the doors and jumped inside. “He’s got maybe thirty kids and half a dozen wives and he goes around lookin’ like the goddamn Lord of the Universe. Watch that stuff, Mickey, okay? It’s fucking fragile.”

I did most of the lugging. Mickey couldn’t help much because of his arm, and Bobby preferred talking to lifting. After a few trips back and forth we had covered the table with our stuff, and Bobby started his sales pitch. “Look at this china, Mr. Fitch. Rose Medallion. Service for six, plus assorted other pieces—almost perfect condition. See this portrait? Look at the signature: John Singer Sargent. He was famous. Ever see his murals in the Boston Public Library? That tea set is sterling silver. And you said you liked books, right? A complete set of Dickens—leather bindings, acid-free paper. I don’t think anyone ever opened them. Isn’t that something?”

Mr. Fitch examined everything while Bobby rattled on. He unwrapped every piece of china and stared at it. He took the painting out into the hall to study it in better light. I noticed he was wearing hiking boots under his biblical robe. Bobby was sweating. Mickey and I stood by the fire and waited.

“All right,” Mr. Fitch said eventually. “Come with me.” He strode outside and signaled to Lavinia, who fell in step behind us. We crossed to a long, narrow structure off to one side of the main house. He took out a key and opened the padlocked door, then went inside and flipped on an electric light. We followed him in.

It was a storage building—shelf after shelf of cartons jammed against the walls, a narrow aisle down the middle. Amazingly, the place was heated. We stood awkwardly in the aisle while Lavinia waited outside, her shotgun cradled in her arms.

“PC?” Mr. Fitch asked.

“Right,” Bobby said.

Mr. Fitch reached up and took down a small box. He opened it. The object inside was covered with bubbly plastic stuff. He unwrapped it.

It was not as beautiful as the china, but Bobby was not interested in beauty. He took it from Mr. Fitch and hefted it approvingly. It was a hard drive, I knew.  Not that I cared.  “How many?” he asked.

“I’ll give you twenty-five.”

“Are you crazy? I need fifty, or no deal.”

Mr. Fitch shrugged. “I haven’t got fifty.”

“Well, what else do you have? Got any ammo?”

Mr. Fitch stiffened. “I don’t deal in weaponry.”

“Okay, okay. How ‘bout software? And printers. How about them?”

Mr. Fitch and Bobby started dickering. I was impressed by how forceful Bobby was, considering that his entire future was on the line, and a girl stood ten feet away holding a shotgun she was clearly prepared to use. He obviously knew what he was doing, at any rate, because after a few tough minutes they had struck a deal, and I found myself lugging the precious equipment out to the van.

“Nice work,” I said to Bobby when he came to inspect.

“Thanks. He’s weird, but he’s a Yankee, and that means you can do business with him. Jesus, I could use a drink. Let’s go inside.”

I followed him back into the house, carefully wiping my feet before I entered.

Our merchandise had been cleared from the table. One of the Rose Medallion plates was piled high with pieces of cake. A solidly built woman with gray hair was pouring cups of tea, using the sterling silver tea set. I sat down next to Mickey, who was eyeing the cake with considerable interest.

“Can I get you anything else?” the woman asked when the tea had been poured.

Bobby cleared his throat. “I was wondering if there might be anything stronger than tea in the house. To celebrate our new business relationship, you understand.”

The woman looked at Mr. Fitch. He paused a moment, then banged his fist on the table. “‘What?'” he thundered. “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?'”

She smiled and left the room. In a moment she returned with a green bottle, which Bobby gazed at with something approaching religious ecstasy. She poured an inch of the amber liquid into a glass and gave it to Bobby, then did the same for Mr. Fitch. She offered the bottle to Mickey and me next, but we refused. We were tea people.

Bobby toasted Mr. Fitch. “Here’s to many more nights like this,” he said.

Mr. Fitch nodded his agreement.

The cake was delicious. Bobby drank half his whiskey. “You must come to Boston and let me return your hospitality,” he said.

Mr. Fitch’s face darkened. He set his glass down. “I will not go to Boston, Mr. Gallagher. I lost a child there once. Killed by the brigands who inhabit that place.”

“Well, it’s really a lot better than it used to be,” Bobby said, a little uneasily.

“‘Dost thou not perceive that it is a wilderness of tigers?'” Mr. Fitch roared. “Tigers must prey, and Boston offers no prey but me and mine.”

Tigers? Bobby scratched his head, for once at a loss for words. I reached for another piece of cake. “‘How happy are thou, then,'” I remarked, “‘from these devourers to be banished.'”

Mr. Fitch stared at me. “You know Titus Andronicus?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t everyone?”

He smiled and drank his whiskey. “Maybe this world has a future after all,” he murmured.

Bobby looked at me as if I had just caused the blind to see and the dumb to speak.

Mickey poured himself another cup of tea.

In which a miracle is performed

Pontiff is (among other things) about miracles of various sorts, and their paradoxical effect on the people who perform them, and the people on whom they are performed. In the novel, the new pope has a reputation as a healer.  Before being elected to the papacy, he was the courageous leader of the Church in a nameless African country.  In this flashback, he has been imprisoned by the country’s maniacal dictator, Leonard Tokomi.  One night he is pulled from his prison cell, and he assumes he is going to finally be executed.  Instead, he is brought to the presidential palace.

What, then? Did Tokomi want to kill him himself? That seemed more than plausible; there were rumors of far worse outrages that had taken place inside the palace walls.

He was led through softly lit hallways and up a flight of stairs, until finally he faced a couple of enormous men standing guard in front of a set of equally enormous double doors.

“He is to go in alone,” the army officer instructed the guards. The guards said nothing, but searched Gurdani thoroughly. When they were satisfied, one of them grunted, and the officer removed his handcuffs. “Even though you are alone, you will be watched every moment,” the officer said to him. “Do not think of trying anything, or you will be dead before the thought is finished.”

Gurdani rubbed his wrists and said nothing. One of the guards opened the doors, and the other guard pushed him inside.

He was in a huge room dominated by a large canopied four-poster bed. He was so used to the grim monochrome life of a prison cell that his senses were momentarily overloaded by the luxury that surrounded him—from the vivid wall-hangings to the thick carpet beneath his feet. His brain started to clear, finally, when he say the shrunken figure lying in the bed. At first glance the figure looked like a corpse, but then it raised a bony arm and beckoned to him to come closer.

Gurdani did as he was instructed, and it was only when he was standing next to the bed that he recognized the figure lying before him. It was Tokomi, though so wasted by illness that Gurdani could scarcely believe that this was the monster who had bludgeoned an entire nation into submission through the force of his will.

But his eyes still sparkled with fierce intelligence, and his mouth still twisted into a malevolent sneer. There could be no doubt that Gurdani was now in the presence of the foe he had battled for so many years.

“Welcome, your Eminence,” Tokomi rasped.

He didn’t reply. Tokomi’s face was blotched; he was sweating, and he breathed with difficulty. Death has him in his grip, Gurdani thought. And that made it difficult to think about anything else.

“Are you pleased to see me in this condition, Joseph?” Tokomi went on. In their previous meetings he had always liked to use Gurdani’s first name, as if he were dealing with a child. “Are you savoring the punishment of the wicked?”

“What is it?” Gurdani asked finally. “Cancer?”

Tokomi waved the guess away. “Some new disease. The idiot doctors know nothing about it, except that it is contracted from sexual encounters. Even more reason for God’s punishment, eh? It does nothing itself, they say, but leaves your body open to every other disease that comes along. Not good. Not good.”

Tokomi’s gaze drifted away, and Gurdani tried to figure out why he had been brought here. He didn’t think it likely that Tokomi was seeking a deathbed reconciliation with the Church. If not that, then what? He stood by the bed, waiting to find out.

The dictator finally focused his attention back on Gurdani. “They’re idiots,” he repeated. “They know nothing. They tell me to rest. I haven’t the strength to do anything but rest. Do you see? I’m dying, and they shrug their shoulders and tell me there’s nothing they can do. I’ll let them know how it feels to die!”

Gurdani continued to wait. He had nothing to say to this man.

“So I want you to cure me,” Tokomi said finally.

Gurdani was too taken aback to understand at first. “Me?”

Tokomi managed a grin. “You, Joseph. You who are so close to God. You’ve cured others—I know the stories, I know everything about you. So cure me.” Tokomi reached out a hand toward him, and Gurdani involuntarily shrank back.

“Don’t be afraid, Joseph,” Tokomi said. “God will protect you. He’s protected you very well so far, or you would have been dead years ago. You should thank me for that, as well as God. I didn’t want to risk killing such a favorite of His, for fear of His wrath. Now you must return the favor. Lay your hands on me, and bring me back from the dead.”

Gurdani stared down at him. He couldn’t imagine it—couldn’t imagine trying to save this monster’s life. How desperate must Tokomi have been to ask such a favor of his archenemy! Desperate, but still he obviously enjoyed the position he had put Gurdani in. “Do you play God, your Eminence?” Tokomi demanded. “Do you decide who is worthy of saving and who isn’t? What if you cure me and I repent my sins—wouldn’t that make it worth doing? Wouldn’t God want you to cure me, rather than let me die and go straight to hell?”

“I cure no one,” Gurdani pointed out. “Only God can do such a thing.”

Tokomi waved away the distinction. “He cures through you,” he said. “You are His favorite, and you know it.”

“Will you repent if you are cured?” Gurdani asked.

“But that makes it too easy, doesn’t it?” Tokomi pointed out. “I would say anything to be cured, but how can you be sure I’m not lying, or won’t change my mind? No, you should cure me because you’re a Christian and I am in need.”

“I must also think of the innocent victims of your cruelty—past and to come,” Gurdani responded. “They are in need, too.”

“Is your morality a matter of statistics, then? Do you need to count up the numbers of people helped and hurt before deciding right from wrong? Your God disappoints me, Joseph. I didn’t know He was nothing more than an accountant.”

Tokomi closed his eyes, worn out once again. Gurdani gazed at him. He could almost see the skull beneath the taut skin. His breathing was shallow, irregular. Gurdani could imagine taking a pillow and smothering him right now; it wouldn’t take much to kill him. Could he finish the deed before the guards shot him?

His back was starting to hurt from standing for so long—Tokomi’s doing, of course. A minor beating long ago: one tiny sin among so many. It was strange that tonight he had at last come to understand why nothing worse had happened to him: Tokomi was afraid of him, afraid of the power God had given him. He was as superstitious as most of his subjects, and probably thought of Gurdani as some sort of witch doctor, capable of brewing up spells for evil as well as for good. But Tokomi wasn’t so afraid that he wouldn’t drag his enemy to his deathbed, in desperate hopes of a miracle he of all men least deserved. Did he think he could chop logic to convince Gurdani to do it? Or was he counting on fear, his oldest ally, which worked on many but had never worked on his greatest enemy?

Gurdani had no interest in what Tokomi had to say. Instead he looked into his own heart and tried to understand what Jesus wanted him to do.

The answer was clear. Jesus had not scrupled to cure sinners, and neither would he, who cured only through Jesus’ power. Jesus had never had to deal with someone like Tokomi, but was it possible to imagine him refusing to help? Gurdani couldn’t. He wouldn’t think about the consequences of success—he couldn’t bear to. And what of the consequences of failure? No worse, he supposed, than those of refusing to try. He could only do what was right, and hope for the best.

He leaned over Tokomi and placed a hand on his clammy forehead. Perhaps the guards would misinterpret the action and kill him now. Perhaps he should hope for it to happen before he had a chance to do what he was about to do. But the room remained quiet, except for Tokomi’s ragged breathing. He opened his eyes finally, and they showed surprise and, yes, fear. “Save me,” the fiend whispered, and his bony hand gripped Gurdani’s arm.

Gurdani closed his own eyes. This wasn’t a monster but a human being, he told himself. A child of God. Did anyone besides God love him? Could anyone possibly love him?

And suddenly Gurdani felt himself flooded with love, not just for this man but for all of humanity. So much pain, caused and suffered. So much striving, so much loss. What had all Tokomi’s striving achieved for him but a lonely deathbed, an ending filled with terror and (one could only hope) regret? You can only love, or die.

And then he felt the familiar wind of grace pass through him, and into Tokomi. And for a moment he thought he felt all the weight of Tokomi’s sickness and sinfulness bearing down in turn on him, and he staggered backwards, then crumpled to the floor.

When he looked up Tokomi was staring at him from the bed. The feverish glitter had disappeared from his eyes, replaced by dullness and confusion. Something had happened, but he didn’t know—or was not yet willing to admit—what it was. “Is the feel of my skin so unpleasant it makes you fall to the ground?” he asked, but it was clear his heart wasn’t in the sarcasm.

Gurdani struggled to his feet. “God has touched you,” he said. “You might consider your good fortune. I would say that you may be the luckiest man alive.”

A sneer appeared on Tokomi’s face, then faded again into confusion. “Nice to see you, Joseph,” he replied. “Thank you for your assistance. Let’s be sure to meet again.”

Gurdani gazed at him, then left the room, saying nothing more.

He never did meet Tokomi again. He returned to the prison, where conditions improved markedly for him, presumably on Tokomi’s orders. A couple of weeks later, though, word swept through the cells: It had finally happened; Tokomi had died.

Shot to death by his closest aides, it was said. It was only later that Gurdani pieced together the story. They had gotten used to the idea of their leader dying and begun readying themselves for the new era. When his condition inexplicably improved, they became impatient and took matters into their own hands, murdering him while he slept. Gurdani’s miracle had miraculously accomplished nothing. Except, perhaps, inside Tokomi’s heart. Gurdani would never know what changes God had wrought there.