The dim horizon, as yet an indistinctive silhouette, forewarned the dawn. Julian stared, depressed by its dumb inevitability. He had haunted each of the sanitarium's surrounding hills in turn, on night-walks—lonely, restive, autumn-chilled, pointless. The chess games, playing in random moves inside his weary head, went unattended. They had disarranged through want of concentration, and now were simply scribbled lines, a dense cross-hatching, occasionally countermanding thought—though unintelligibly. The agreement he had struck with Sister Zoe looked forever hopeless. Alive for what? The game was over. What use was living? He had resigned; why insist the mating moves be played? It was sadistic; it mocked, demeaned. It was equivalent to castration with a blunt-edged blade.

With grim dejection he surveyed the scene below—a cluster of stuccoed buildings tucked away in the mountainous wilds of northern Arizona, St. Francis of the Mogollon Rim. It seemed an unlikely place for a mental institution, though it was hardly that in any formal sense. How could it be, run as it was by this offshoot of an offshoot of Franciscan nuns, half of whom were highly trained psychologists, the others merely altruistic novices? And what an eclectic clientele: tubercular patients, Alzheimer's cases, alcoholics, people dying of AIDS, along with the loonies of various infirmity, and a few State referrals (when the State was confronted with a problem for which it had no category).

Julian's mother had heard of St. Francis while crusading to "save her boy"—said effort, for her, automatically leading to their neighborhood priest. He had recommended the sanitarium in glowing, hallowed terms, "a Godly island of Christian Grace where rest and faith and good clean air can heal the ravaged soul." Bolstered by so holy an endorsement, his mother had packed his bags, gotten him discharged from the hospital, and, after a long and tedious journey, delivered him into the merciful hands of God—i.e., Sister Zoe, for at St. Francis it was she who ruled supreme.

The eastern sky grew brighter. Its early rays intruding. He cursed it for its uninvited warmth. He walked on sullenly, allowing gravity to guide him through the evaporated night, his steady cadence kindling an argument with time.

How he had watched them—the second, the minute, the hour, those increments of doom, ticking away on the clock as though their march connoted truth—which, of course, it did in real terms, the terms of mutual agreement, the terms of common consent. What other terms were there? His visions'—where time had no hold, where moments were indistinguishable from days? Those visions were "auras," he had been informed. The term was one on which everyone had agreed. And therefore what had mistaken for a realm beyond time's tyranny was no more than a symptom of disease. And how could one give credence to a perception based on that?

Yet without respite from linear time, delusional or otherwise, how was one expected to prevail?

Time was pernicious; he knew its force. It paralyzed the will. It made winning moves impossible to find. And worst of all it nullified the poetry, inundating the mind with one unalterable rhythm: tick tock, tick tock, white black, black white, white to move, punch the clock, stop the time, black to move, white black, black white, white black, black white, start the time, stop the time, stop the time, MATE!

He stopped abruptly, images of clock hands, chessmen reeling through his head. A nauseating vertigo assaulted his perceptions, throwing him off balance, triggering the dreaded cry that signified the onset of a fit.

 

 

Upon regaining consciousness, Julian lay looking upward into a curious pair of prepossessing eyes.

"Are you okay?"

They shone with a mixture of amazement and compassion.

"I saw you fall. Did you get hurt?"

And were set off rather quaintly by a runny nose.

His senses rallied. Light! Up thrust Julian's hand to claim his property—his dark glasses—snatching them away and hurriedly fixing them in place.

"I-I found them next to you. They must have come off when you fell. I saw you fall."

"You said that."

He sat up. His clothes were sopping but he was otherwise unscathed.

"You were kind of squirming around like you were in a lot of pain."

He marshaled his wits. Having donned his disguise again, he felt less vulnerable—and besides, she was just a kid.

"No, no pain. Never any pain. Just a little something I do to entertain the wildlife."

He stood up. Marcy backed away a step.

"Don't worry, it's not contagious."

She stared at him with redoubled fascination—which he bore impatiently.

"You'll drool keeping up that gape."

"Sorry. It's just that you look exactly like him."

"I resemble someone whom you know? Marcy, you must have a very strange pack of friends."

She started again.

"How do you know my name? Did the Miniature Man tell you?"

"The who? Hey, kid, you don't make much sense. I know you're a patient. But are you one of the loony ones?"

"No! No. And I'm not a kid, either. I'm probably as old as you."

"I doubt that. Don't let my complexion fool you. Beneath this baby-powder veneer, I'm an aged man of twenty. You can't be over twelve."

"Oh, no; I'm at least thirteen and I might be as old as fifteen, sixteen even."

"Don't you know?"

"None of your business."

Julian's superior attitude had begun to annoy her. She, after all, had rushed to help him, and by way of thanks, he seemed to want to make fun of her.

"What's under the cap?"

She reached up to the knit hat she wore, making sure it was still secure.

"My head, what else?"

"I'll wager very little."

He smiled. She disliked the smile; it was too much like a smirk. She disliked its implications, too. Defiantly, she snatched off her hat.

"There! Anything more you'd like to say? People who make fun of other people are just covering up for what they don't like in themselves."

"Sounds like a Zoeian platitude."

"'Zoeian'? Sister Zoe, you mean? She didn't tell me that. I'm not stupid, you know. I think for myself."

Her pluck amused him. It irritated him some, too. He had tried to even the score—his seeing her bald head for her seeing his pink eyes. It was a reflex of petty meanness of which he was a little ashamed—considering the difference in their ages. He decided to mollify her.

"Your eyes have already told me you're not stupid."

She picked through his words to see if there were any traces of nastiness, then blushed—on realizing he had just paid her a compliment.

"I didn't mean to look at yours. I wouldn't have if I'd known."

"Known what?"

She struggled.

"That it made you mad."

"'Mad'?"

"Embarrassed, I mean."

"'Embarrassed'?"

"Self-…" She stopped. "It doesn't matter what word I use, does it?"

No dresser's dummy here. He was impressed. A little competition might prove amusing. He retreated—to draw her back in.

"You're right. It makes me self-conscious. I'm fully aware I look like an oversized rabbit."

"I didn't think that at all! You shouldn't make jokes about yourself like that."

The play for sympathy worked. He had exposed a weakness.

"Would lab rat be more apropos?"

"Now you're just feeling sorry for yourself."

Or had he? She had countered that well. He realigned his defenses, changing the point of attack.

"So, what are you in for. Burglary? Murder? Rape?"

A strangling lump arose in Marcy's throat. Her limbs went numb. She fought for control. But the insect sounds were already buzzing cruelly in her ears. She used the only means she knew to make them stop.

Her shriek took Julian totally by surprise. He staggered backward. Yet through his shock he saw the girl's hysteria rebound, collapsing in on itself as if greedily reabsorbed.

And before he was even aware that the scream had carried to the grounds below, a triumvirate of attendants had arrived.

With neither question nor reprimand, two nuns bracketed Marcy, who let herself be spirited away. A third nun stayed to determine the cause of Julian's disheveled condition. He looked at her contemptuously, then marched off toward his quarters unescorted.

 

 

 

 

"Was there anything different you noticed about the seizure?"

"No."

"Can you reconstruct your thoughts and actions just prior?"

"No."

"Have you been taking your medication?"

"No."

Sister Zoe was exasperated.

"Mr. Papp, you promised that…"

"I wouldn't kill myself. I didn't promise I'd swallow those horse pills."

"What do you expect, then?"

"I can only hope."

"The seizures won't kill you."

"Unless I'm precariously perched when one hits."

"Is that your plan—passive suicide? If it is, I'll have to insist you be accompanied on all your walks—the after curfew ones, as well."

"I thought you didn't have the staff for that."

"Julian… Mr. Papp, I thought we agreed that it was in your best interests to remain here until your convulsions were under control and you felt well enough to return home. Dr. Wheeler has changed your prescription to amend the side effect about which you complained, so taking…"

"Which one was that, Ms. Zoe?"

"It was my understanding you were experiencing a lack of sexual potency."

"Ah, yes. Quite right. Limp as a noodle."

"Well, that should no longer trouble you."

"Oh, Ms. Zoe, you can't imagine how reassuring that will be for all my ladies-in-waiting."

"Spare me your wit."

"And spoil the child? It's a thought. She's no doubt willing. But is she old enough to know how?"

The nun slapped her hand down on her desk.

"Enough! If it is Marcy to whom you are referring, I will not caution you again. She is in a very delicate psychological state…"

"Unlike mine."

"… and any further insensitivity you show toward her will not be tolerated! Do I make myself clear?"

"As the chapel bell."

"Good."

"What's her problem, anyway?"

"It is our policy not to discuss the…"

"I see. You cultivate sensitivity by keeping people ignorant—a method your church considers tried and true, I believe. But has it occurred to you that if I knew something about the girl, that banshee number she pulled this morning might not be repeated?"

The nun was sorry she had lost her temper. The incident had been reported to her and she had intended to compare versions; Marcy's had not been overly helpful. She was counting on Julian to shed more light. But now he was on the defensive.

For Julian's part, the puzzle of Marcy's bizarre behavior had aroused his curiosity. He remembered precisely what he had said, but had "burglary" or "murder" or "rape" been the catchword?

What did her not knowing her own age imply? Why was she hairless? The more he dwelled no her, the more he was intrigued.

"You say you don't recall what happened just before the seizure. What about afterward?"

He resented her avoiding his question.

"My mind's a blank."

"Oh, come now, Mr. Papp. You don't really expect me to accept a claim of feeble memory from a chess master."

He considered a moment. The flattery was a bit transparent, but perhaps he could gain some time, manipulate her into offering an exchange. It was worth a try.

"When I opened my roseate eyes, two hazel mirrors bounced back my reflection. I didn't look well. Of course that's understandable considering I'd just performed my human earthquake routine. Nonetheless, the eyes that stared unblinkingly finally blinked, relieving me of the spectacle of myself—which enabled me to take in my surroundings. Weeds—tall, wet, smelling faintly of sod and cow dung—ensconced my head. My canopy was two parts sky, one part female. The sky was approximating blue. The female hovered between flesh tones and an adolescent crimson; I fear she blushed for me. I sat. The blood deserted my addled brain then casually reentered. Lucidity, alas, bestowed its blessing. Not only had my comely antics soaked and soiled my clothes, they had drawn an audience. Perfect. I rose to take a bow. The girl—my single fan—backed up, overwhelmed no doubt by the proximity of her idol. I thought her failure to applaud a trifle rude, but she managed to stammer a comment or two in praise. Appeased, I engaged her in a 'normal' conversation during which: she dared compare me to another, mentioned a miniature man, expressed confusion about her age, exposed her shaven head, lectured me on man's inhumanity to man, and finally ended on a piquant note screamed at the top of her lungs. All in all a remarkable performance in its own right, don't you think?"

Sister Zoe had been tempted to interrupt this impudent monologue, but mixed with Julian's elaborate deprecations were valuable bits that did ring true—though not enough to piece together the whole of what had happened.

"Is that all the detail you can muster, Mr. Papp?"

"Detail? Those were merely the skeletal facts. I can be as comprehensive as the tiny mole on Marcy's cheek—the left cheek, I believe—a pinhead mole not raised but flush to her nubile, nay cherubic, skin. There was a second one, too, as I recall, just below the right corner of her mouth, a mouth like a cherry stain—sweet, puffy-lipped, profoundly kissable. The girl is bald, of course, but it's a feature not altogether hideous, for she has a rather shapely skull, good cheekbones, sturdy chin. Her face might even be considered beautiful if it weren't so young. But naivet� drips from Marcy's phiz like snot from a runny nose."

"Perhaps, Mr. Papp, a compromise might be reached between your describing too…"

"Compromise? I'm amenable to compromise. I'll even offer you a handicap. For every two questions I answer of yours, you answer one of mine."

"So you don't intend to tell me what happened unless I betray a patient's confidence? Sorry, Mr. Papp, no deal."

"Three questions to one?"

"And further, you are to stay as far away from Marcy as possible. Is that understood?"

"You're sounding like the chapel bell again."

"We will talk again tomorrow morning when you come at nine to take your medication."

"You want to watch? I guess there's a little voyeur in us all, eh Ms. Zoe"

"You may go."

It had been a long time since the personality of a patient had gotten under Sister Zoe's skin. But Julian's definitely had. He had even made her feel an old fool, and she was unsure precisely how he had done it. She had encountered comparable intellects in the past—some rivaling Julian's cynicism, too. What made him such an exacerbating exception?

She watched from her window as his spectral figure crossed the common, heading toward the solace of the evergreens, alone. That aloneness was probably Julian's worst enemy, yet the first interest he had shown in anything outside his brooding solitude—his interest in Marcy—she had summarily forbidden. Had she acted rightly?

She returned to her desk to commit her doubts to paper.

 

Without a sound...

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