Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Unseen (part 3)


Keefe Godwin was the most beautiful person I'd ever met.

He wasn't bad-looking, of course. A girl has to have her standards. He was tall and slim, dark-haired, with the kind of ice-blue eyes that seem to be able to see through rock and steel and human hearts alike. But that wasn't why he was beautiful.

There were a number of private libraries in Corey, but no public library. For that, we had to travel to the next village over. So from the time the little ones were old enough to read and write, they were instructed carefully in "Public Niceties" -- the rules of decorum that must be adhered to at all times when venturing outside the limits of the Conscient. I still have a version of the Niceties, written in my own childish scrawl on one of the first pages of my commonplace-book:
  1. I will keep Corey safe and secret.
  2. When I talk to new friends, I use my voice.
  3. I will obey the law of gravity.
  4. If my new friend cannot do it, I will not show off.
...and so forth. The Niceties, ostensibly forms of etiquette, were designed to teach even the youngest citizens of Corey not to give themselves away to outsiders. Casual daily use of the knack might be commonplace in Corey, but we were told it was not so everywhere, and outside of town we were to behave in a way designed to give others the greatest comfort.

My mother had some trouble getting me to remember how to behave. When my friends and I were younger, she would conduct tea parties where everything was done according to the Niceties -- no cheating allowed. We had to boil water on the stove for tea, pass the cream and sugar and sandwiches manually, carry on conversations with no references to Corey or its ways, and clean everything up afterward by ourselves. Inevitably I'd get sick of waiting for Janie Herrick to pass the sugar my way, and surreptitiously draw it to myself with the knack, and get caught -- Mother had eyes in the back of her head, I was sure of it. I was nearly fifteen before she finally gave me permission to go to the library by myself.

"Going straight there and back, right?"

"Yes, Mum."

"The Niceties to be observed at all times?"

"Yeeees, Mum."

"All right. Don't forget yourself, young lady--"

"Mum, please! I can do this."

She smiled. "I know you can. But it's easy to forget."

"I won't, Mum. Honestly."

So I rode my mother's old red Schwinn out of Corey -- manually the whole way, even through town where no one would care if I cheated a little -- and down the tree-lined lane that led to the rest of the wide world.

I'd thought it all through. I'd go northeast, to the village with the nicest library -- the one with the post office where the rare letters addressed to "Corey, Massachusetts" ended up (and where Gerry Putnam came by once a week to collect them on the sly). I'd pick up a few histories and some fiction for myself, some how-to books for Mrs. Townley, and then I'd go straight home.

I hadn't thought, however, about what I would do if it rained. It rained sheets that day. And since the Niceties were being observed, I couldn't simply repel the rain away from me. I arrived at the library looking as bedraggled and miserable as a wet dog, my clothes plastered to my skin.

The librarian took one look at me shivering and dripping in the foyer and immediately hastened off to find a towel. She had me wrapped up and sitting beside the library's small fireplace in no time. I wished I could just dispel the water as I would at home, but I also realized she was doing her best to make me comfortable.

"Thanks," I said. "I should have brought a -- a -- a numbrilla." I'd only seen one in use a few times, always when accompanying my mother outside Corey, and I wasn't sure I'd gotten the name exactly right, but if so the librarian didn't seem to notice.

"Oh, you know the weather's so changeable this time of year," she said. "I've gotten caught in a downpour more than once on my way in to work."

"Is that why you had a towel in here?"

"Well, that. And of course, you should always know where your towel is."

I gave her a look of puzzlement. So by the time the rain finally stopped, the librarian -- Mrs. Sanger was her name -- had fetched me a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to go home with my other books. ("It starts with the end of the world," she warned me, "so don't take it too seriously.") The only trouble came when she asked for my library card and I didn't have one. I could fill out a form to get one, but then she would ask for my home address, and that would be a violation of the very first rule of the Public Niceties.

"We just moved," I lied. "Can't I give you my address the next time I come in?"

"Well, ordinarily I have to have some kind of address on file to issue you a card," Mrs. Sanger said. "But if you give me your solemn oath that you won't steal these library books..."

"Oh, I promise I won't!"

She smiled. "I'll give you a temporary card, then. It's five dollars, and we'll switch you over to a permanent card when you bring your address next time, all right?"

"Oh. I... actually, I didn't bring any money." We had no use for it in Corey, and though some people kept modest sums around for the purpose of doing business outside of town, I hadn't thought to ask for any before I left. "It's all right. Maybe next time. I'll just put these back..."

"Don't do that," said an unfamiliar voice. "I'll pay for it."

I wasn't sure exactly when he came in, but he must have been standing there a while. He was tall and slim, dark-haired, and had the most remarkable eyes, the color of ice in a winter pond. Also, he was digging in his wallet.

"Five dollars?" he asked Mrs. Sanger, handing her a bill. "Is it all right if someone else pays?"

"I suppose so," Mrs. Sanger said. "That's very thoughtful of you, Keefe."

"Y-yes," I said, finally remembering my manners. "Thank you."

"It's no problem." He indicated the small pile of books I'd picked out. "You want a hand with these?"

"Uh, sure."

Keefe helped me load the books into my bike basket. He had a strange way with the books, at least for a teenage boy -- a gentle, almost reverent way of handling them. I don't remember much about what he said to me, walking from the library to the bike, or about what I answered, but I remember very clearly the careful way he touched those books.

"You've got to promise me you'll bring these back," he said. "I don't want Sanger mad at me."

"Don't worry," I said, and then, recalling that money was important to outsiders, added, "And I'll bring you five dollars when I come back."

"Nah, that's all right," he said. "Just do something nice for someone else." Then he smiled a farewell and went back to the bench outside the library, where he'd been reading his own book.

I was so fascinated by this strange being that I cheated on full observation of the Niceties just the tiniest bit and eavesdropped on his mind. It wasn't as though any outsider could tell what I was doing.

The internal structure of a mind differs quite a bit from person to person. Infants usually have a bright kernel of intelligence, which over time and with experience develops into something more -- for some, a comfortable room; for others, a cozy little house with various mental furnishings.

Keefe's mind was like no other I'd ever seen. Far from a room or a house, he seemed to inhabit a living cathedral -- brimful and spilling over with astonishing complexities. He was reading something unfamiliar to me, a book of poetry, and his mind was quick with thought -- swooping and diving and spiraling up to touch the other ideas, like gleaming treasures, that he'd gleaned from other books or from firsthand experience. He was like an acrobat or a bird, making connections to thoughts so swiftly that I could scarcely keep pace. One poem made him chuckle and touch upon a half-dozen other experiences that bore out the poet's assertion, then another sent him darting off in a completely different direction through the recesses of his mind.

Slowly I became aware of the fact that I was staring at Keefe. That wouldn't do. I pulled myself together and focused on backing the bike out of the stand, still listening in on his thoughts. I got a fragment of the poem he was reading:
...and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that's lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright...
Then his own musings, right on the heels of the poet... Just because he wholeheartedly loved someone else and it didn't work out, that doesn't mean it can never work at all. There's got to be someone out there who would accept that kind of complete and perfectly given love, with no effort to conceal or deny what you feel...

It was hard for me to concentrate. I kept thinking about Keefe's mind on the way home, and about what he'd been thinking. I almost rode right past the point where I needed to use the knack to call to Corey, so that the way would open up for me. From that point until I reached home, in a dreamy reverie, the bike's tires never quite touched the ground.


No comments: