The weather worsened, and despite myself, I walked back to Natalie’s room where she lay, leaking her woman’s blood and holding the infant whose father I was not. The rain outside was more soothing than ominous, but I have always savored stormy nights, when the droplets on the rooftop form the pattering footfalls of elfin creatures come to bring me peace. That night, however, I could not give myself over to the joys of the storm because Ignacio, the house-servant, had ridden into Nashua to fetch the doctor, and I worried that along the muddy path his horse might break a leg. It was not that I put particular faith in doctors. They have killed as many as they have saved, but Natalie would be soothed by his presence—and though it might seem pathetic, I continued to wish her well. Even in her faithless transgressions, she was better-hearted than most.
And aren’t we all taken by weaknesses of the flesh? Hadn’t I, after a night of wine and meats, grabbed a barmaid by her dress-sleeve, pulled her close, and offered her what must have been a month’s wages in exchange that she would take me into her mouth, and even offered her extra to swallow my seed like strange nutriment? I had. More than once. And so, while my heart was filled with a hate worthy of the Devil himself, I would not allow myself to sit in judgment. I am no theologian, you can rest assured, and no sermon is here forthcoming, but I know as surely as I know my name is Josiah Cunningham that all of us were made in sin and make sin in our every day on this Earth.
Looking at Natalie and the boy-child at whom she gazed with adoration, I decided I would raise him as my own. To have a son had been among my greatest desires, but, perhaps due to my perennial illness, I had been unable to make my wife with child in the ten years of our wedlock. This was how I knew it could not be mine—this, and Natalie told me of her affair, a dubious gift from her guilty conscience. She also told me the man’s name. I dreamed a murderous revenge against him, as I was sure she would want to kill my barmaids. Or perhaps I was mistaken in that. It seems I have gotten nothing right in life, not one single thing. It’s true that I have made more money than ten men deserve, but I daresay this does not set me in good stead with the Lord. I have no illusions that my life has been anything but a complete waste, and that at its eventual end, I will meet Lucifer and see in his eyes my face reflected with lighted clarity. Etymology often elucidates our dark reckonings—elucidation, lucent, lux, Lucifer. Angel of light.
I made the path from bedroom to kitchen for what must have been the hundredth time, pausing to think purest murder, when I heard the rickety echoes from a carriage on the road. I yelled down the hall to Natalie that the doctor is arrived and she need not worry any longer. I went out to meet him, and to thank Ignacio for so swiftly dispatching his duties. He had been a first-rate servant since his hire some four years earlier. He and his wife lived in the small cottage on the southeast portion of the land and never complained of their duties. I decided that once the crisis had passed, I would give Ignacio a sizable portion of money to take his wife into Nashua for dinner at Le Fleur Heureux, which served duck brazed to exquisite perfection—as good as any I have had in Philadelphia or France itself. And the proprietor was a progressive man who would not refuse to seat two members of the servant class, provided they were properly cleaned up and had the money to pay for his wares.
And thus, absurdly, it was with oily thoughts of duck and wine sauces that I stepped outdoors. As the first raindrops hit my face, the doctor’s name came to me. Without fully realizing it, I had been absently trying to remember it since Ignacio rode off. Doctor Johann Becker—a German, which was pitiable; but Doctor Becker was, as Germans often are, at least efficient in the administration of his duty despite his predilection toward reciting poetry and speaking of ideas so lofty as to no longer make sense. (The Germans are a funny and backwards people who have produced only one civilized man, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose Christian name the good doctor had the fortune of sharing.)
“Good eve, mein Herr,” I said and flashed a smile. It was not my intention to antagonize the doctor, but it is hard to take such a creature too seriously.
“Where is the lady of the house?” Herr Doctor Becker asked without any sort of greeting. “Your servant tells me she gave birth a day ago and she bleeds still?” His accent and urgency lent the moment a quality of magic or fairytale unreality.
“Yes, that is the case, though she has been eating heartily. Follow me.”
I led him to the end of the hallway, where Natalie’s room was, and motioned for him to go on without me. His visit would seem more official if he went in alone, which would go a long way to quelling Natalie’s worries. I walked briskly back to the kitchen and opened a fine bottle of sherry. I opened it slowly, savoring the squeaky resistance of the cork, the tense little pop that lets one know the objective is obtained. I smelled it. I took my face away; smelled it again. When I turned to grab three glasses, Herr Becker was standing in the hallway, at the mouth of the kitchen, his face gray in the moon’s uneven light.
“What the hell are you doing standing there?” And when he didn’t answer, I translated for the simpleton: “Was zum Teufel machen Sie da?” But as the last word, which sounded like those poor Irish boys calling for their fathers, escaped my mouth, I knew it was I who was the simpleton. My wife was dead. No crying though. Had the child died as well? My arm raised the bottle of sherry and threw it at the doctor, missing, but spraying him and the entire hallway with dear fluid. The bottle bounced and clanked and spun and stopped spinning at the end of the hallway, just outside Natalie’s room.
“The boy is sleeping in the Kinder crib,” Herr Becker said, professionally calm. “I will ask your servant-man that he take me back now.”
I watched motionless as he walked past. My legs were all knees and cold blood; my arms hung alien and impotent at my sides.
I first met Natalie on a boat heading down the Connecticut River. It was early September, and I had been asked to join some of my fellow Dartmouth graduates in a fundraiser for a new experimental school—The Noyes Academy they were going to call it. The school would be the first racially integrated institution of learning our country had birthed. I was at that time a member of the Free Soil Party, in part because I honestly was an abolitionist (after all, I joined the Republican Party upon the dissolution of the Free Soil Party) and in part because John P. Hale was a good and loyal man with whom I’d conducted a fair amount of profitable business. I could not see any reason to deny freemen an education; and being exposed to their superiors might improve their intellect while reminding the young whites of their responsibility to history and for the wrongs of their fathers. I was therefore prepared to give quite a generous sum for the school’s construction. But to tell the Lord’s truth, I was bored and needed to travel. I had also heard that the crisp river air might ameliorate my ailing lungs. I had not had an attack in many months, and I hoped to keep it that way for many more.
I enjoyed the sweet sway of the Connecticut beneath me; and New Hampshire, I maintain, is the most beautiful place in Creation during its autumnal months.
I noticed her immediately. She was with a man I presumed to be her father. She was reading a small book, artfully bound. So absorbed was she in her researches, she did not notice my open staring. Her father went to consult the captain about some matter. I was worried of being rude with my open staring, but I couldn’t help myself. It was truly as the poets sing; I was transfixed from first glance.
I was wearing a hat fashionable that year, though the brim was perhaps too large in design, causing the wind to fancy it as much as any would-be dandy. As I stood there, taking her in, the river wind lifted my hat and sent it flying over the boat’s edge. I let out a small scream and took a few useless steps in the direction it had flown. Natalie looked up, saw my sad little comedy, and began to laugh.
“I am glad my misfortune amuses the lady,” I said, loading my voice up with good cheer.
“I am sorry, sir,” she said and pressed a hand to her mouth to stifle her last bit of giggling.
“Not at all. That hat was an offense to nature, and nature took her rightful vengeance against it.” I stepped closer and offered my hand. “Josiah Cunningham.”
Taking my hand in hers so lightly I barely felt anything at all, she replied, “Natalie Sherman. It is my pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure is mine, I assure you.”
After niceties with her and the man who indeed was her father—and who turned out to be a textiles mogul—it was arranged that we should dine together that evening. I was fairly bursting with giddiness, like a schoolboy who has felt his first lustful rush.
One of my favorite moments in our early life together was a few months into our courting. I had passed muster with her father, who needed to convince himself I was not after his wealth. Once he saw that I had means of my own and was of a mind to see those means grow, he consented (perhaps too eagerly) to our courtship. I restrained myself and would visit only once a week, on Saturday afternoons. I brought a single flower for Natalie or a nice packet of pipe tobacco and a bottle of cognac for her father.
On one of these Saturday visits, Natalie and I took a walk along the rocky beach, heading without plan or conviction toward a lighthouse in the distance. As we got closer, she suggested we go into the lighthouse and get a good view of the day. It seemed somehow inappropriate, but deliciously so. And thus we entered the lighthouse and walked up the spiral staircase—me behind her in the closeness of that tower, her dress airily bouncing just before my face. There is something fathomlessly intimate about walking behind a woman on a staircase; and not merely because you are behind her, not merely because of the proximity of her rear, not merely because you could—so easily—reach out and let your hand graze her skirts. No, it is something more, something ineffable about the enclosed nature of staircases and the spaces of the human soul. When we got to the top of the stairs and found our perch, Natalie said, “I don’t care about the balance of our letters, Josiah. Nor the frequency of your visits.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, though I knew perfectly well what she meant. She had noticed my carefully planned visits and my fastidious way of replying to a letter from her with exactly one letter of almost exactly equal length. I was keeping a ledger of sorts, and I loved her all the more for noticing it. It was then that I kissed her. Not the chaste little pecks she’d allowed before, but a full kiss full of passion and animal moisture.
And so I raised the boy, the offspring of Natalie’s infidelity, the living proof of my shame. I named him Isaac, after my business associate and then-Governor of New Hampshire, Isaac Hill. Hill agreed to be the child’s godfather (after I offered him assurances of future business deals with his printing press), a relationship that would set the boy in good stead. Perhaps he could work as a printer’s apprentice as his first employment, like that great American Benjamin Franklin did to start his way in the world.
As my final show of devotion to Natalie, I would see to it that her child was promised a good future. And though I had expected to hate him, when I took in his formless body, I recalled the look of love Natalie gave him in her last hours on Earth, and in doing so I could not but feel a twinge of that same love. I knew the best way to ensure his future was to have him start life well-connected. We have created a great democratic experiment here in the new country, which in practice simply means a more convoluted line of succession—not the idealist’s hope that we might create actual equality. But this is a state of affairs I can endorse over all the other options mankind has put in place over the centuries. The more difficult we make it to centralize wealth and power in one family or faction, the better—though I hold no utopian illusions.
I also hired Adalina, a young Italian woman of better than average upbringing. She could read and even played a touch of fortepiano, both of which she had learned during her childhood in Italy, not after her arrival here. Her husband had died in a steamer explosion in one of my factories, and she had come to me to beg for financial help.
At first, I assumed she had heard of my adventures with barmaids and thought it more appealing to prostitute herself to a man of good stock than on the streets where a woman exposes herself to myriad dangers. Under normal circumstances, I would have been delighted by such an idea, but I had not yet regained my lowlier appetites. It is a cruel irony that while Natalie was alive, I would leave her alone to pursue my dalliances, but now that she was dead, I stayed home nights and worked at my ledgers and other business matters. I was even writing a small history of agricultural technology I thought I might bring out in an edition of a hundred or so copies, thereby putting my modest little book out in the world and discharging my debt to Hill by hiring his publishing enterprise to print the book.
“I am sorry,” I told Adalina. “You have caught me during a peculiar lack of need.”
“But, sir,” she began, then paused.
“I heard about your wife.” She looked to the ground. “I just thought...”
I nearly slapped her. What right did she have? But there was something in her demeanor I could not place. “You thought what?” I spit out.
“With the child, sir. I thought you might need help.” She looked at my face and, seeing my anger turned to confusion; she pressed on. “I am an excellent cook—or that’s what my Bertrando always said—and though I’ve never had a child myself, I helped raise my sisters.” She actually went to her knees and grabbed my hand. She most certainly was literate; her gesture was straight from those women’s novels Natalie always read, an expense I had chided her over but never refused.
“If you just give me a chance,” she pleaded. “Otherwise, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“You could simply remarry,” I said coldly. “You are young yet. And fetching.”
She stood up and for the first time looked me directly in the eyes. “I am surprised you of all people would suggest that.”
And now it was my turn to look sheepishly to the floor.
“You are right, Mrs. Rossi. Please forgive me,” I said. “And I accept your offer. But you will need to move into the house immediately. You can talk to Ignacio about pay and the rules, but I assure you both are quite fair. You will answer directly to Ignacio.”
“Thank you, sir. Thank you.” She was again on her knees pressing the back of my hand to her forehead, as though I were the Pope.
Years passed by with relative happiness. I watched with pride as Isaac grew into robust boyhood and young adulthood. I hired tutors in mathematics, French, and philosophy. Adalina undertook to teach him Italian, and when at the age of ten he recited a sonnet by Petrarch for my birthday, I held my face in my hands and cried—from the beauty of the poem, my love for him, and my love for his mother all rushing in upon me at once. He read the verses tenderly, innocent of the possible meaning of the words to which he gave angelic voice:
...et benedetto il primo dolce affanno
ch’i’ ebbi ad esser con Amor congiunto,
et l’arco, et le saette ond’i’ fui punto,
et le piaghe che ‘nfin al cor mi vanno.
“Did you like that, father?” Isaac said.
He waited for my approval, and my heart broke perfectly. “Yes,” I said, searching for the simple word—“That was good.” Had I been too hard on him over the years, asking for a perfection I myself could not attain? Was my wound too great?
Indeed, blessèd be the first sweet agony. But even Petrarch’s sweet agony passes into the background eventually, and perhaps because of her attentive care of Isaac or perhaps because of the romantic sentiments the poem brought forth in me, I asked Adalina to be my wife a few hours after his recital.
“It would be my great honor if you would consent to be my bride,” I said and unceremoniously fell into a coughing fit. I had recently been quite ill, and Adalina served as much as nurse as she did house-help and tutor to my adoptive son.
She turned her head somewhat coquettishly and said, “It would be my honor, Josiah.”
Our living arrangements would only change slightly, becoming more public. We had begun secretly meeting in her chambers two years previously. It was strange for me, a man who had been with so many women, to be celibate for eight years and then to be with this younger beautiful woman who had observed a similar period of celibacy. I daresay our love formed from this, though I do not mean to belittle it by saying such.
“I know you will never forget her or stop loving her,” Adalina said, “just as I will always love my Bertrando. But we will also love each other.”
“Yes, my dear, we will.” I kissed her lightly on the cheek and took in her scent.
Adalina was a wonderful woman and still is. I hope that when I am done with these pages and am tucked away in my grave, she will enjoy the fortune I am leaving her. Perhaps she’ll return to Italy. It is none of my business what she (or anyone) does after I die.
But I am getting ahead of myself. I am yet alive and yet have much to tell.
Isaac’s real father, Natalie’s lover, often entered my mind. Were I a man of greater physical strength, I might have merely engaged him in fisticuffs and thereby regained my pride. I like to think my hatred of him was further proof of my love for Natalie. I have said, and believe it is true, that the sweet agony of first love Petrarch so indelibly describes did pass from me, though my devotional attitude did not. Natalie was as potent to me in memory—and precisely as a memory—as she had been in life. But I can not be sure of my heart’s machinations.
I was unsure if Natalie’s lover knew of his progeny. After she confessed her infidelity, I conducted the dreary interrogations of the cuckolded husband—Did you enjoy it? Is the girth of his member grander than mine? Would your father be proud of his whore daughter? Do you still love me?—but I forbade her to speak to him (or of him) ever again. He might, therefore, not have known the child was his.
It occurs to me I have not yet committed his name to paper. Ethan Tyler. A sturdy but ultimately unintimidating name—yet looking at it written here in my own hand makes venom bubble in the dark wells of my heart, opens in my stomach the sensation of falling through a helpless abyss. At the start of these memoirs, I mentioned that there are things I regret. Let me say as clearly as possible for all to know—God, the Devil, or any earthly judge—that I have never regretted for the briefest moment what I did to this man. It brings me joy to know the suffering I wrought. I regret merely that I cannot do it a thousand times again.
Ethan Tyler was a minister in the nearby town of Salem. Are you surprised to hear that the instrument of my cuckolding was a minister? Surprised to know I could bring myself to murder a man of God? Do not be, on either count. We met dear Ethan at the wedding of Natalie’s younger cousin Albert. As we ate peppered lamb and corn, Douglas Tyler, our minister in Nashua, introduced us to his brother Ethan who had made the trip to help Douglas prepare for the rites and festivities. He appeared to me a less than impressive creature—short in stature, soft-spoken, and too cowed by his father’s wishes to do anything but enter the family business of religion. My father made a distinction among men. They were either dangerous or not. Dangerous did not mean, or did not necessarily mean, that the man would do you harm. It merely meant that he was capable—in a political, financial, or, in rare instances, a physical sense—and was therefore worthy of respect. Perhaps the thing I regret most in my life is that I did not accurately assess what sort of man Ethan Tyler was, dangerous or undangerous.
I therefore did not notice Natalie’s visits to the minister’s house or her carriage rides to Salem for this or that household item or for some article of clothing. I have been magnanimous in my judgment of Natalie, but if there is one thing I hold against her, it is that she used my love and my doting upon her as the means to betray me. But I have sworn to myself that I will not use these pages, which I have darkened with so much careless ink, to defend my righteousness or to sully Natalie’s name. And so I will not write further on the matter. Suffice to say that there were secret trysts, there were letters exchanged (which I later made Natalie read to me one by one before throwing them into the fire).
Since this is a confession of my crimes, not Natalie’s, and in order to spare myself the heartache of recounting certain events, I will leave it to the reader to imagine which variations of love my wife and her minister enjoyed.
And the variations of fantasy are indeed infinite, but perhaps more so in the recursive imaginings of revenge than in those of love. I spent so many years imagining what I would do to Ethan Tyler that I sometimes doubted I would settle upon the proper punishment for his crime of humiliating me in my own eyes and usurping me in Natalie’s heart. You must realize how often I envisioned Ethan’s suffering and death.
I must admit, however, that I did not maintain this hatred perfectly. For blissful months and years, I even managed mostly to forget him. And just as I might have entirely let my thoughts of revenge recede into nothingness, Adalina, Isaac, and I attended a Christmas ceremony at the church, and who should be preaching that day but Ethan Tyler. I am honest enough to admit that his sermon was well composed and moving, though this might have further incensed me. How could this man who had done me so great a wrong stand before our congregation and move people to religious transcendence?
Over the following months, my hatred for Ethan Tyler grew in equal measure with my devotion to the memory of Natalie. In fact, they grew through and because of each other. But it would be error to consider them one and the same. My devotion was the glow of a lighthouse on a foggy night that one draws ever nearer to, thus increasing the precinct of its glow. But my hatred, my eventual vengeance, it grew ever more gray and with a texture resembling more by the day that of finished granite. It took its shape so slowly and perched atop my soul, and my imagination became as grotesquely murderous as a gargoyle’s horn.
I sought out two lowly sorts, thieves and pimps by trade. I had grown my beard and carried a cane with a golden lion’s head at the top end—a flimsy disguise, but I had never carried a cane in my life and was never seen with a beard. My hope was that they would not be able to recognize me if it ever came to that, and that if they did, their testimony would be in enough discord with what I was known to look like that everyone would take the word of a gentleman over the confused accusations of such mongrels. When I approached them, they looked upon me oddly, taken aback that a man in such rich dress would want to have words with them. This gave me an added advantage in manipulating them.
“G’day, Governor,” said one, trying at nonchalance but failing.
“It is not a good day,” I said, “and I am hoping you can help me to make it worse still.”
Melodramatic, admittedly, but this got their attention. They looked back and forth between themselves and then to me. I let the silence linger a moment longer, for further dramatic effect, and then I tossed a small pouch of coins to the one who had spoken and who seemed to be the alpha. I had put enough money in the pouch for the two of them to live in unfettered libertinage for a month, maybe more. Once you set men’s dreams in motion, you own them body and soul.
“A goodly haul you’ve handed over,” he said. “What’s to keep us from dashing off with it?”
“Nothing. The coins you hold are of no consequence to me. I have wasted more in an evening entertaining myself. It will do me no great harm to see them lost. But I promise you four times that amount if you complete a task for me.” I waited long enough to allow their debauched dreams to rot through any suspicions. “But I must say, it is an ugly task I am asking.”
“An interesting proposition, it is,” he said. “What’s the job?”
“I want you to abduct a minister and bring him to me.” I find it is better in negotiations to get the unpleasant aspects out of the way at the beginning so that you can spend the rest of the conversation explicating the gains associated with the enterprise at hand.
“Well, interesting indeed. And, as you say, ugly.”
“I merely want to have a conversation with the man and set a matter straight which he began with my wife.”
“I think I get your meaning.”
“I reckon you do.”
“What kind of conversation were you planning on, Mr...”
I did not offer him my name. “Nothing overly untoward, but not one he will likely want to see repeated. I mean to put fear into him such that the matter between him and my wife might be over.” There was sufficient truth in my lie that it sounded convincing, even to my own ear.
“Interesting indeed. And you say four times this amount on completion?” he asked and looked to his friend for a sign. I knew I had them.
It was agreed that they would escort Ethan Tyler to a farmhouse on a property I happened to know lay dormant. At that site, I would give them the remaining sum. And there I would conduct my dreadful business.
The men made good on their side of the bargain. A week later, we were standing at the appointed spot, Ethan Tyler tied like a farm animal, ankles to wrists, and with a burlap sack over his head. They must also have shoved something into his mouth, for I could hear his muffled protestations. One of the men kicked him in the jaw, rendering him unconscious.
“Bind him to those railroad ties,” I ordered.
The men hesitated. I had fashioned the planks of wood into a cross, and though these were men of crime, even they were given pause by the idea of tying a man of God to a cross.
“It is merely for theatrical effect,” I reassured them, and they reluctantly followed my orders.
The two men stood, likely wondering if they were lowly enough for this. I pointed out a large sack of coins on a table on the other side of the room. “There is the remainder of your payment,” I said. “Take it and our dealings can be done.”
With relief they went to gather it, and I pulled my pistols. In the time between our agreement and their fulfillment of the bargain, I had come to fear my disguise would not suffice. (The planning of murder is more complicated and full of self-doubt than you might think, dear reader.) I fired first at the alpha. The bullet hit just below the shoulder. He went down and slithered toward the northwest corner of the building, where oblivion awaited him. The other tried to run, but I fired, more surely this time, and the bullet must have severed his spine, for he dropped fast as a rock and did not move.
My imagination then drew up a scenario I had several times considered—that of forcing Isaac to watch as I killed his father. Isaac cowered small and frightened in his corner, admonishing me with his glistening eyes. In my imagination, he was younger, perhaps nine instead of his actual fourteen years of age. Ethan Tyler came slowly awake and I waited as his senses returned. He rolled to one side, as if to get out of bed, and noticed his right arm bound to the railroad tie, then he noticed his left arm was likewise bound; his feet as well; he formed the shape of his Savior. But isn’t it written in the Holy Bible that the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death? How could this man pretend to his profession having committed such an act? Natalie had already paid the wages of sin, and now so would her lowly accomplice. And if the Bible itself justifies my action, then wasn’t I right in killing him? No, that is wish-thinking, and there is no verse to absolve me of the murder of the other two men, whom I killed merely to prevent my own capture and persecution.
“Hello, Ethan Tyler.” My voice was strange, cracked on its edges but luminous in its depth.
“What is going on here?” Then, recognizing me: “Josiah Cunningham?”
“You remember me. Good. But then, of course you would, given that you knew my wife so well.” I let my words detonate in his mind; his face slumped with heavy emotion I could not decipher.
“Josiah—” There was a pleading in his voice, which pleased me.
“I will do the talking for now. In a moment, if I feel it necessary, you will get a chance to have your final say in this world.”
I walked to the table, stepping over the dead men’s bodies, where beside the bag of coins, the tools of my revenge lay. My imagination brought Isaac back into the room against my wishes. I picked up three long nails of iron and a driving hammer, trying to push Isaac’s sweet face from my mind. I stepped over the bodies again on my way back to Ethan Tyler. He had managed to gain a view of the room and saw the dead men. He did not scream, for which I give him credit. His face was, however, bleached by a pale terror. I squatted over him, my joy almost erotic in its intensity. I pressed the first nail to his left palm, and raised the hammer. Now he screamed.
There were ligamental shifts in his hand, and my hammer faltered for the briefest moment, but I reminded myself that this was the man who killed Natalie. Again, I imagined Isaac huddled in the corner and I thought I might not follow my plan. I hardened myself to the task. Isaac, look, I thought. This is your father. I nailed Ethan Tyler’s other hand and his feet to the vulgar cross, not enjoying his screams quite as much as I had hoped. It is a grand effort to ignore our impulse for empathy. But I was willing to make that effort in the case of Ethan Tyler.
Isaac stood in front of me, holding the rifle, and I hugged him as I held my trigger finger over his and steadied the barrel. “We aren’t to shoot him are we, Father?” My heart nearly fell out of my chest and I could feel my cheeks wet with tears. But a cold wind dried them.
That is your real father, Isaac. I am only a fool who has loved beyond my own ability to love. Isaac squirmed slightly in my embrace but I held him tight. Isaac, do not turn your eyes away. You must see this.
I flinted the fire that consumed my victims but not my crime. Isaac’s face grew obscured in the smoke rising from the burning house, and I left him there to fade from my consciousness.
That the burning of the Noyes School—a massive setback in human equality—should coincide with my murderous act is not a coincidence that escapes me. I benefited from the distraction, since more people were concerned with the money invested in the school and the debate about racial freedoms than with the demise of an empty farmhouse almost no one knew existed. But I did not benefit from the fact of the school’s destruction. I had not realized it, but I was pinning hopes of a minute salvation on the success of that noble project.
I relegated Isaac to his room for days. I even arranged for him to spend a year in France studying the classics of literature and the piano, as is common for aristocratic boys of his age. Also, with President Lincoln now threatening war with the unruly South, a war which promised to drag on indefinitely in my estimation, I feared Isaac might be conscripted—or worse yet, might get the idea that it was his duty to fight for his nation’s well-being. When Adalina—dear, sweet, innocent Adalina—threatened to bring him down from his room to dinner, I begged her forbearance and suggested we have his food sent up by the maid. She did not understand my behavior in this matter anymore than Isaac, who was too obedient to ask about my tyrannical new decree. I do not know if she suspected some subterfuge or dark secret, but if she did, she did not let on. She played the dutiful wife and allowed my dark farce to carry on. And at night, when I could not sleep, she would move from her bed to mine and attempt to console me.
I should like to add here that I was wrong when I first put myself to the task of writing these memoirs. I had thought recounting Natalie’s death would be the most painful part, but now I see that I have never suffered more than during this period of emotional estrangement from Isaac and Adalina. Does this prove my fickleness, that I would shift the balance of my love away from Natalie? Why then have I carried this hatred of Ethan Tyler in the core of me? Whence the impetus for my crimes?
There is a certain type of American gentleman who feels it beneath him to set foot on farmland he owns or to check in on the state of his factory’s daily goings-on. Those are menial tasks better left to others who care for such things. Although I was, I admit, a spoiled youth, I always hated that faux superiority to the very thing that brought one one’s wealth. I pride myself on touring every property I own twice a year and inspecting every inch personally. And it had long been my intention that Isaac should take up the same habit. It would be good for him to know the daily workings of his estate, not only for the aforementioned reasons but also because such knowledge would prevent him from being swindled by those in his employ. I did not allow the burden of my crimes to stop me in this habit, and it was the only time I could stand to be around Isaac after the murders. I do not know why this was, but such was the case. Perhaps because it had to do with his future instead of my past.
Allow me to describe an event of extreme oddity. I will attempt to set it down here in stark ink precisely as it appeared to me at the time.
One day, a few months after my murders when I was in a particularly nervous state, we were inspecting the machinery at a cotton treatment facility, as had been our custom for some time. I was diligent to point out each aspect of the machines to Isaac, though he had heard these explanations several times and seemed confused as to why I was repeating lessons he had learned by heart.
“But I know all this.”
“Listen to me,” I said. “Just listen. I am your father. Do what you’re told.”
As before, in the abandoned house, he seemed to me younger than his actual years. I tried to see him as the young man he was, but I could not get the image of him aged eight or nine out of my head. I was angry at him for changing his age so unexpectedly—and without my permission. I wanted it to be like when he was younger, and we would turn his lessons into sport. And so I went on instructing him in the ways and means of the textiles business.
I am not sure whose attention strayed first or who grew tired of our little master and pupil game, but about an hour into my inspection, Isaac was no longer at my side. I had told Adalina to stay at the house, that this was man’s business and Isaac should learn it without her softening presence. I knew the look I would get if I told her what had happened: that reproachful look women get when they are right and you have no way to counter their rightness. It is damned frustrating, that look, but it is also somehow perversely wonderful; it reduces one to boyhood all over again—and one’s mother is in a scolding mood.
I immediately ordered two workers to search the premises, but they merely ceased their work and stared at me. I began yelling his name and walking, at first quite calmly, between the machines, looking beneath them one by one, as if we were playing some sort of game of stealth. Soon I was in a near-panic. The workers were looking at me with fearful confusion, and I could not understand why they would not help me find my boy.
I ran outside, thinking little Isaac might have run outside to play. I was confronted with the young man Isaac, and in my nervous and exhausted state, I thought I might collapse, unable to manage his shift in maturity.
“Father, what is wrong?” Isaac said, and the panic is his voice brought me back to my senses. His voice and that word. Father.
“Nothing, son,” I said. “I have just overworked myself.” My senses did come back to me mostly, but I was faking a strength I did not have. “See to it that I am brought home,” I said with as much command as I could muster.
I was carried by buggy to my house, and Doctor Becker was sent for. He had not been to my house since the night of Natalie’s death. And the workers who brought me home had been ordered by Adalina to place me in the downstairs bedroom, precisely the one Natalie had died in. I have mentioned my regrets. Foremost among them is having not died that day, in the room where Natalie also departed this earth.
Though I did not die that day, it did inaugurate the beginning of my deathly decline. A tenacious form of pneumonia settled into my lungs, which had always been weak, and I could not eat or sleep sufficiently to regain my strength. And to make matters worse, my machinations to send Isaac to France came to fruition just as I was barely able to get about the house. I haunted my former life like some shuffling ghoul. It was unbearable the way he looked at me with a mixture of pity and confusion. I wanted to slap his face and remind him who I was; I wanted to beg him put off his journey for a year.
Images of the men I had killed came back to me unbidden, though not in dreams as our popular writers would have it, but rather at the most unexpected times—during breakfast as Adalina looked at me lovingly; as I bathed myself or relieved my bowels; as I completed orders for the factory. I kept my eyes out for the news that the bodies had been found, which they were a few weeks after I had dispatched them. It had rained heavily in that time, which gave me hope that any last bit of evidence against me that had not burned might have since been washed away, thereby bringing opposite elements together in the commission of my crime.
There was much noise made about the horrific sight of the bodies burned as they were. Some unknown ally concocted the existence of a third street-dweller who had kidnapped the minister for a ransom, but then events went awry, and he killed the other two men before escaping. The authorities were therefore looking for a man who did not resemble me and did not even exist. At first, this did not sooth my anxiety at being caught, but after a few weeks, I took it as settled that I would never be found out.
One night, as lay in a feverish half-sleep, Adalina came into the room, carrying moist towels, presumably to wipe the sweat from my face.
“Natalie,” I said, “your lover is no more. I am your only husband.” Just as I finished my dream-speech, I came fully to my senses and saw Adalina staring at me, hurt and silent. She had said we would always love our former spouses, but we never spoke of them, and seeming to have mistaken her for Natalie was perhaps too much for even so good a heart as hers to bear. She set the moist towel on the table beside the bed, where I could reach it, and left the room without a word.
I can feel my time drawing nigh. Adalina and Isaac will inherit more wealth than they need. I hope Adalina will find her way back to Italy and perhaps even find love again, a third chance at happiness. And Isaac will be able to afford the best education and launch himself into any profession he chooses. At least I will leave this world without worry on that account.
As I lie here in bed, scribbling with my last bit of energy, my gaze often occasions upon my withering body. It is such a strange thing to exist at all, and stranger still that my existence should have taken this particular form and traveled this particular path. I cannot help but follow that line of thought to its necessary conclusion. This physical form will remain when I am gone. And it will convulse with death in my final moments. I do not dare predict how I will react to my demise. I think I am prepared for it. One thing I do know: I am unlikely to cry out, as Goethe did, “Mehr Licht! Mehr Licht!” More light? No. I will meet Lucifer sufficiently filled with earthly glow.
Okla Elliott is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois where he works in the fields of comparative literature and trauma studies. He also holds an MFA from Ohio State University. His nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, A Public Space, and Subtropics, among others. He is the author of the fiction collection, From the Crooked Timber (Press 53, 2011). His poetry collection, The Cartographer’s Ink, is forthcoming in late 2014 from NYQ Books, and his novel, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (co-authored with Raul Clement), is forthcoming in 2015 from Dark House Press.