Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Unseen (part 15)


Life in Corey, like a strain of music, went on at its own particular pace, complete with grace notes and minor dissonances. Dad chose to take on Fay Ingersoll as his primary apprentice, Mum kept her sewing machine humming with a slew of new patterns, Janie stopped seeing Finlay and began stepping out with Marcus Felton. And Gerry Putnam had another seizure. He was having them more often, in spite of all the interventions by healers on his behalf. (The tendency toward seizures seemed to run in the Putnam family, affecting one or two in every generation. Gerry was also the only person in Corey -- at least while I was growing up -- to have been born completely without the knack. There were whispers that these afflictions were a curse on the family in retribution for the Putnams' cousins leading the persecutions back in Salem, but when I innocently repeated this to Mum once, she retorted that it was both untrue and unkind to say such things.)

Even after my grounding, it took a while for me to convince Mum that I was responsible enough to use her bike again. Eventually she relented, and I began taking the Schwinn out to explore all the towns near Corey, although most of my time was spent in the library talking to Mrs. Sanger. I didn't see Keefe for some time, and although I'm sure Mrs. Sanger knew I kept coming back mostly in hope of seeing him, I was too shy to ask where he was. I figured that eventually he'd turn up.

And eventually I was right. One spring Saturday I went bounding up the front steps of the library and there he was, reading a book on his particular bench outside the front door. He glanced up and caught sight of me.

"Hey," he said, and his smile lit up his whole face. "Where've you been?"

My brain was consumed with processing the whole Keefe-is-here thought, so it took me a while to reply. "I -- I could ask you the same question," I finally said.

"Well, after I gave you a ride home, I didn't see you for close on a month. I thought maybe I'd said something to drive you off."

"Oh! No, no, I got grounded."

"What for?"

"Oh, for losing the bike."

Keefe looked puzzled. "You got grounded because someone stole your bike?"

I nodded.

"Wicked unfair, you ask me."

At last, some sympathy! "Right? I tried to explain, but my mum wasn't having any of it."

"Did you tell her I was gonna help find it?"

"I don't think that would've helped. Besides, she and Dad went out and found it themselves."

"Wait, wait... so they find the bike that caused all the trouble, and you're still grounded?"


Keefe tapped a spot beside him on the bench. I sat down a little gingerly, my stomach wrangling with equal helpings of delight and panic.

"If you ask me," he said, leveling that ice-blue stare at me, "you ought to tell them that they're being completely unreasonable. It's not your fault the bike got stolen."

"Well, it kind of is," I admitted. "I left it unlocked."

"That's beside the point. You could have left it parked in the middle of the MassPike with a 50-foot-tall flashing light above it reading 'THIS IS AN UNLOCKED BICYCLE.' Still wouldn't give anyone the right to steal it."

I smiled at the mental image. "Guess not."

"Maybe you should save up and get your own bike. Or a beater car or something."

"Oh, we don't --" I began, before I remembered not to volunteer any unusual information about my family. But Keefe picked it up.

"You don't what?"

"Uh. Well, actually, we don't have a car."

"Are you serious?"

"Yeah. We take the bike, or --" Or we fly, my brain thought rebelliously. "-- or public transportation."

"Huh. Well, congratulations on keeping America beautiful, then."

I knew I needed to take this conversation in another direction. "What're you reading?"

"Oh, this?" He held up the battered paperback. "Just re-reading some Poe. I was in the mood for a little creepy goodness. Tell-tale hearts and pits and pendulums, you know."

I didn't know, but I wasn't about to let on. "Which Poe is your favorite?"

Keefe thought about it. I could feel him mentally shuffling through dozens of vivid stories: tales of black cats, nemeses bricked into cellar walls, Death wandering masked through the rooms of a great mansion. "Probably 'The Purloined Letter,'" he said at last.

"I don't know if I've read that one," I said.

"Really? You should. It was his best detective story. Not to mention a great example of how to hide something effectively."

"How's that?"

"Well, you leave it in plain sight," he replied, grinning. And just at that moment, something in my head shifted. It was an odd sensation, like a cross between enlightenment and déjà vu. A concept flickered into my mind like heat lightning; it was gone again just as suddenly, and I was left only with the strong impression that I'd stumbled on some vital idea. But what had it been?

Thinking it might be something about the story that had spurred that first intuitive burst and might fuel another one, I started asking Keefe questions about 'The Purloined Letter.' We went into the library talking about M. Dupin and a blackmailer and a letter hidden in such a way as to be completely unnoticed. Out of the corner of my eye I caught Mrs. Sanger giving us a knowing look as we went by, but I chose to ignore her.

"I don't want to give too much of it away," Keefe was saying. "It's worth reading. Pretty much all his stories are. You should borrow a copy."

"Maybe I should."

"Of course you should. Poe is a genius."

"I do seem to have a thing for genius," I admitted, not really thinking of Poe.

Keefe gave me one of those penetrating looks. Even being able to see how his thoughts were taking shape, I was still rooted to the spot by those eyes. I wondered how it was that he could look at me as though he were seeing into my soul, and at the same time be so frankly baffled about what I was thinking.

"There aren't that many people who truly appreciate genius," he said, thoughtfully. "Most people just make fun of what they don't understand."

I thought of what most outsiders would do if they could see the inner workings of the Conscient. "Or they feel threatened by it," I said.

Keefe nodded. "Either way, the world seems to be full of people who want to destroy genius." He handled the beat-up paperback with the same gentle reverence for books I'd seen before. "They sure helped destroy Poe. He was only forty when he died." His feelings of loss -- not only for the man, but for the hundreds of potential stories unwritten and gone forever -- were so strong as to be nearly visible in the air between us.

"Well, you've convinced me. I'm checking out a copy."

He brightened. "Here, take mine."

"Oh, I couldn't take your book."

"It's OK, really. Read it. You can return it when you're done."

Hesitantly I accepted the book. "Thanks. Um. When I return it, I -- I don't know where I should reach you."

Keefe dropped his glance to the floor. In that grand cathedral of a mind I caught, for just a moment or two, visions of a dark and painful anteroom inhabited by a bitter-faced older man who looked like a furious version of Keefe, and two little girls who clustered around Keefe for protection, before he firmly shut the door on the thought. I saw that, just as I had to protect Corey, Keefe also needed to protect his home life, though for another reason. "I'm here most days," he said.

I nodded. "It probably won't take long," I said. "I'm a fast reader."

"Really? How fast?"

I glanced over the book. "I'd guess about a week for this."

"Think you'd have it done by Friday?"


Keefe smiled. "Well, bring it back here on Friday and we'll discuss it over candlepin bowling."

"What's that?"

"'What's that?' You a local girl, and not knowing anything about candlepin bowling? Where have you been hiding?"

I shrugged, smiling.

"Well," Keefe said with mock severity, "clearly we've got to fix this deficiency in your education. Candlepin bowling. Friday. Say, five o'clock. How about it?"

This was sounding alarmingly like a date. I didn't have to guess what my mum would say about me dating an outsider. "I -- uh -- let me think about it, OK?"

Keefe's face fell. I quickly added, "I'm just not sure if I'm going to be available on Friday. But if I can, I'll be here."

"All right. Well, I hope to see you then. Enjoy the book."

"I'm sure I will. Thank you."

Keefe retreated around the corner. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach; I shouldn't have hesitated. He thought I was rejecting him. But how on earth was I going to pull off a date with him without getting in trouble?

My mind was so troubled with thoughts that I wasn't ready to go home. Instead I biked over to Mr. Herrick's foundry. Mr. Herrick, a short, powerful man with a shock of fading red hair, was at work on a fancy lantern pole, deep in concentration. He'd shaped it like a young tree, with the lights designed to hang from the boughs like ripe fruit. As I pulled up, he was just beginning to make the leaves, his stubby fingers pulling at the air to draw shapes from the red-hot metal as though it were clay. I waited a while in silence, knowing not to distract him when he was working at a potentially dangerous task.

Presently he asked, "Looking for Janie?"

I nodded.

"She's not here." He drew out another few leaves, his hands directing the shape of the metal without touching it. "Probably canoodling with the Felton boy right now." His tone suggested he wasn't too impressed by her choice of Marcus.

"I'd like to wait here for her, if it isn't an imposition."

"No, not at all," he said. "Long as you don't mind the noise."

I didn't mind. I tended to go into a kind of trance when I read; Mum used to say that when I was reading the world could be falling down around me and I'd never notice. "Thanks. I'll just be in back."

I wasn't all that concerned about waiting for Janie. Not only did I want a place where Mum and Dad couldn't eavesdrop on my thoughts about Keefe, but I wanted to get started on the book. I was fairly sure that if I filled my mind with Poe, there wouldn't be much about Keefe to pick up on. I turned straight to 'The Purloined Letter' and began to read. Poe's writing style was less like the books Mrs. Sanger had given me, more like the histories I enjoyed, and I dived right in.

It happened again when I got to the point where Dupin said, "Had the letter been deposited within the range of their search, these fellows would, beyond a question, have found it" -- that flash of sudden intuition, the sense that I'd stumbled on something. And then it was gone again. I sat fuming; what was this maddeningly elusive idea, and why did it keep escaping me? I read over the paragraph again, but it didn't return.

I put the book down for a minute, just watching Mr. Herrick for a while. He did such beautiful work. One thing I'd noticed about outsiders was their apparent lack of interest in craft; so much of what I'd seen outside Corey was stark and utilitarian, with no poetry in it. Didn't outsiders care at all about artistry, about the joy of creating useful things?

Idly I wondered what service I'd give to Corey when I was old enough to decide. There was no necessary service to the town that really appealed to me yet. But I knew I'd have to pick something. We take care of each other. We all contribute --

-- and the thought came back again, and because this time I was waiting for it, I caught and held it in my mind. It was hard to hold onto; I knew I'd need to write it down to keep it from getting away. I had a bit of pencil in my pocket, but no paper -- the one time I really needed my commonplace-book, and I didn't have it. In desperation I scrawled the idea across the flyleaf of the Poe paperback, hoping Keefe would forgive me for marking up his book.

I sat for a minute and read the thought over and over. Even having put it down on paper, I could still feel it slipping out of my mind immediately after I read it. That had all the marks of a spell. And that, even more than the thought itself, convinced me that what I'd written down was important. I got up and went straight for my bike, waving goodbye to Mr. Herrick without stopping to explain.

Halfway to my destination, I forgot where I was going and why. I almost turned the bike toward home. Then I vaguely remembered having written something in the book, opened it and read the flyleaf, and it all flooded back into my brain. I went on, mentally chanting a reminder to myself to keep the thought active. I ditched the bike, bounded up the steps and knocked on Mrs. Townley's door.

It took a while for her to answer. "Well, hello child!" she said, Peck staring down at me from her shoulder. "What brings you here?"

And again, I found I couldn't remember. I opened the book.

"You're reading Poe?" Mrs. Townley smiled. "He's quite the hair-raiser. I remember --" and she reached for the book, but I pulled it away.

"Mrs. Townley," I asked, quickly before the thought could retreat again, "what service do you do for Corey?"

Her smile faltered, but only for a moment. "Why, dear," she said, "I've already told you." And for a few moments, the charm held. But I shook it off, determined.

"No, you never have told me. I always thought I knew, but I don't remember anyone ever telling me what your service is. And I've never seen what service you do."

Mrs. Townley's face seemed to fill with sadness. "I'm blind, child," she said. "I'm indebted to Peck here for being my eyes, but there are limits to what an old sightless woman can do."

At first I felt ashamed of myself. Then another thought occurred to me and I realized I was being played. "No," I said sternly. "No, we all contribute. Gerry Putnam has terrible seizures and no use of the knack, and even he does service for Corey. You can do all kinds of things even without your sight. What is your service?"

Mrs. Townley nodded slowly to herself. "You're an observant young lady," she said softly. "For some time I've had a feeling it would be you." She sighed and pulled the door wide open. "You'd better come in, child," she said, as Peck stared down at me. "We have quite a few things to talk about."

I cautiously followed her into the dining room, took a seat at the huge wooden table I'd helped polish so carefully. Mrs. Townley sat down beside me, mulling over her thoughts.

"Horace and I always thought we'd have children," she said. "I'd planned on teaching one of my sons or daughters -- what I'm going to teach you. But it wasn't to be." She sighed. "I suppose that's the nature of sacrifice."

"Mrs. Townley --"

She turned her face toward me. "Child," she asked, "have you never wondered why there is no schoolhouse in Corey?"

"Yes," I said with a shock of recognition. "I even wrote it down."

"Hmm. Well, we used to have one in the old days. A simple little one-room school, near where the Flint house is now. All of Corey's children got an education in that school. My ancestors used to teach there -- it was a tradition for one son or daughter in my family to serve Corey as a teacher."

"So why don't we have one now?"

"Patience, I'm getting to that." She folded her hands. "Around the early 1800s, there were some things happening outside Corey that worried the Conscient. Religious zeal was flaring up all over New England. People formed all sorts of new churches. Some of them were a lot like the old Puritans, obsessed with witchcraft. Even with Corey safely hidden away, some people worried that it might be possible for an outsider to find his way in. They figured that if such an outsider were to find the schoolhouse, and to see us teaching our children simple spells and charms along with the three Rs, we'd be destroyed. And so someone came up with a way to keep both teacher and students safe, to help Corey's children get a good education without having to go to school. The schoolteacher would be hidden -- unknown even to the students, so that they wouldn't be able to reveal anything to outsiders -- and the teacher would pass knowledge and information to them at night, while they slept."

I stared.

"It's a system that's worked well for over a century," she said simply.

"You're our teacher?"

She nodded. "Young minds don't just pick up knowledge, dear. They have to be trained."

"So, all this time you've been -- putting things into our heads while we were sleeping?"

"It's my service," said Mrs. Townley proudly. "One of the most important to Corey."

My brain felt as though it had been turned upside down and shaken. "How many people know?"

"Some of the adults know. Most of them only think they know. There's a spell in place that blunts curiosity on the subject." Her cloudy eyes drifted around the room, but Peck appraised me solidly through one eye. "You have a particularly strong will; otherwise you couldn't have broken through it." She smiled. "But then, you know about the nature of spells and how they're broken. I taught you."

I sat silently thinking of all the different ideas that popped into my head in the early mornings, as though they had spontaneously occurred to me. I wondered how many were really my own, and how many had been Mrs. Townley's doing.

"I'm telling you these things," Mrs. Townley was saying, "because I intend to take you on as my apprentice. I can't live forever. I have no children. Corey needs a teacher. And you're certainly bright enough to take on the responsibility."


"Why not? You love learning. You gobble up histories the way some children eat candy. I think you'd be very good at it."

"I -- I don't know." I still needed time just to get my brain around what she'd told me.

"All right, dear. I know this is a lot to consider all at once. Tell you what, let's have a cup of tea and then I'll teach you a nice sturdy spell that will help you shade your mind very effectively, so you don't have to worry about anyone eavesdropping on your thoughts. Then take a few days to think it over."

I nodded slowly. At any rate, I wanted some tea. Mrs. Townley rose and patted my hand sympathetically, then slowly made her way toward the kitchen. Peck remained on the chair back, cocking his head at me -- no doubt to make sure I don't bolt from the house while she's gone, I thought.

What was I supposed to think about this? It was one thing to be able to tell what other people were thinking, and another to be able to plant things in someone's mind without that person's knowledge or permission. Then I thought about how often I'd eavesdropped on Keefe's mind without his knowledge or permission, and felt a huge rush of guilt. Maybe it wasn't all that different.

True to her word, Mrs. Townley provided both the tea and the spell, and I was free to go home -- for the first time easily able to shield my thoughts of both Keefe and Mrs. Townley from my parents. But I felt terribly guilty for the next few days, as though I'd done something shameful.


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