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Authors: Kate Walbert

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But Kiran Vicram. She had read it; she had read all of it, gathered in more than twenty-three volumes and published posthumously. In fact, Margaret had read so much about Vicram’s life she could recite it at random: a hypergraphic, he had filled twenty-three volumes as well as an additional three-volume appendix. Why she sought him out she could not exactly say, only that at particular moments, by either accident or design, persons appear from nowhere to point you in a certain direction. He had pointed her in a certain direction, had ushered a path for her by his very example: perseverance, fortitude, courage, appearing so vivid in print it was as if he rose from the page to meet her mid-sentence, wavy, translucent, warped as old glass but not that, not translucent: thin as onionskin but real somehow and effortlessly beautiful.

In Volume III, still a young boy, brown and waiflike, Vicram stood among a group of similar-looking young boys in the ghastly orphanage in Calcutta, a wet shine in his eyes. He had found himself there, deposited by a destitute and widowed father, and there he stayed, excelling at the missionary school, studying cross-legged in the weak halo cast by the streetlamp outside the orphanage gates.

In IV through VI he disappeared among the cows and the beggars and the ruins of those streets, a runaway like so many of them, homeless, starving, picking through the trash heaps for bits of copper and coal, befriending a darker boy named Bronze, who figured prominently in Volume VII for the character of his conscience and the depth of his soul—some of Vicram’s less inspired sentences, true, and yet she felt happy to see Vicram make a friend, to see Vicram and Bronze at a café in Stockholm, the two wearing dark suits with white shirts and ties, looking fresh-shaved and smart, flanked by women.

How they got to Stockholm forms the crux of Volumes V and VI, in chapters gamely titled “Quality of the Brain and Body Concerned,” “First Start in Life,” and “Struggles.” The remaining volumes fascinating reading, though Dr. Constantine had paused for some time, exhausted all over again by Volume XVII, which told the devastating tale of Lily, the ill daughter, and the running attendant losses in Vicram’s life, losses something Dr. Constantine knew well: first T. R. Constantine, eclipsed by his wife’s success as a graduate student and inclined, even before, toward moodiness, descended into a full-blown depression and left her six weeks into Ariel’s babyhood. In a different story, T. R. Constantine may have guaranteed Margaret and Ariel an impoverished, wizened life—but not in hers. Margaret Constantine, soon to be Dr. Constantine, was not made of that metal; she’d been forged by stronger stuff and so, given her depressive husband’s abrupt departure and her yowling baby girl, she chose to storm the department head-on and make her mark in the one way available to her: sex. She’d come up with the idea while having drinks with her soon to be thesis adviser at a place in one of the charming towns east of the bay: “So,” she had said. “What do you do for fun?”

“Sex,” he said, leering.

Behind him some fated fluke bubbled in the tank; above them a net was hung from here to there.

“Oh,” she said, lighting a cigarette, ignoring his hand on her thigh.

Her dissertation documented the clear evidence that the notion of an inherent innocence in childhood had no biological precedent per se—in this she drew mainly from the work of Erikson and Ping—and that babydom (
baby-doom
, she wrote) was an outdated sociological construct, along with parental guidelines, movie rating systems, and any other twentieth-century conduit of oversight. The very idea that children needed to be kept innocent (Innocence is Ignorance, she wrote), screened from what adults might view as inappropriate material, was absurd, and, with the obvious encouragement of her adviser, she chose sex as her best weapon. Sex is for All the Young, she wrote, shortening it to SAY Anything. (The stir pleased the department, who went along happily, awarding Margaret Constantine the Katherine Bement Davis Prize for outstanding scholarship, Katherine Bement Davis a long-ago pioneer of something and named one of the three most distinguished women in America at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.)

This had all happened in a flurry: in Dr. Constantine’s twenties; in the 1970s; in the froth and tumble of the Second Wave stirring up and washing ashore all those rainbow bubbles in its greasy foam, the long, coarse hairs of mermaids tangled around shiny shells that only dulled when dried. There were so many of them! Or us! The trash that accumulated! Difficult to remember what it was all about or, rather, not, but painful given now, with Who We Are more to the point—Dr. Constantine fully aware of the tenor of the times—her general mandate,
the
General Mandate: Identity or, rather, Personhood or, rather, as the educational consultant hired by Progressive K–8 defined it, Self.
I

Still, sometimes that collective of women comes back to Margaret like an old song, a long-ago, welcome chorus: the little one, Connie, who organized—sit-ins, marches, buttons pressed on housewives outside the A&P. Connie danced: Margaret could still see Connie dancing in Vivien’s living room. Vivien another one—left by her first husband, the love of her life, a Russian aristocrat she met in Hawaii, military, something: a story. They were all just stories. Pregnant when transferred to California, Vivien couldn’t fly and so the aristocrat went alone.
Sayonara, mon amie.
But there were kind men, too; we weren’t all women, she’d say. There were men who mimeographed petitions, who brewed coffee, who racked their bearded brains for rap sessions: everyone gone now, taken under just as suddenly by the stormy, turbulent sea.

She had lived in a small white Victorian off People’s Park, birds-of-paradise lining the walk, blue glass bottles she collected at flea markets cluttering the windows of her tiled kitchen so that on especially sunny days she felt as if she swam to her whistling teakettle. A stream of men replaced T.R., and then a few women, and then no one, really. She felt no need. Ariel grew up and flew away, ascending through the chimney on a particularly raw and foggy morning in Scotland. She had taken her daughter there to apprehend the monster, a graduation present, Ariel a more natural scholar than herself or T.R., now recovering and slogging it out at a third-tier community college in Rhode Island. He still called from time to time to discuss their salad days, or something of Ariel’s he’d read, or the fact of his prostate, which, once removed, had released him to what he took to calling his feline self, softer, more aloof.

So Ariel, then: Ariel is what she has, or had: Ariel with her beautiful mind and lovelier face, Ariel on their last morning in Scotland, a thick sweater rolled at the wrists that dwarfed her thin hands as she pushed a sausage around the plate with a tinny Scottish fork. She said she could “buy” none of it, whatever it was—they were having a disagreement over something Margaret couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand. She only knows that on that raw and foggy morning, as she leaned toward Ariel to say, I adore you, she heard the pop. The tiniest of sounds: her daughter dissolved in smoke, swirling with the updraft out of sight.

What If your daughter is lost with the updraft?

The day before, they had hiked to Loch Ness, the monster presumably slumbering in the depths. The bicyclist had stopped and offered to memorialize them ahead, on the famous Anderson stone, the rocky outcrop from which legend had it the monster could best be viewed. The bicyclist read from his guidebook what they already knew, the bicyclist a young man eager to introduce himself as Michael.

Enter Michael. Enter heartbreak. Kiran Vicram would give it an entire volume but Margaret Constantine needs just a few sentences to describe the boy, the thief, the daughter poacher: a tanned young man wearing a thin silver bracelet. She, too, could see his beauty.

His companion had broken his leg and collarbone—struck, actually, by a pickup truck with a load of sheep, weeks ago. Yeah, sheep, he said. He had continued the trip alone and now couldn’t help himself, seeing such a pretty girl and her pretty sister. (Hah! Margaret did not say.)

Fat gray clouds edged a weak sun, the weather a rainy constant, stone cold. At night she and Ariel pulled itchy blankets to their chins and closed their eyes, exhausted. Mrs. MacIntyre insisted they take the hot-water bottles up; she of the Glasgow collector MacIntyres, found through Rachel’s guides as they had found everyone. Coins. Silver spoons. A cousin in Leeds fancied letters of the American presidents: Hamilton, too. Mrs. MacIntyre had made her own mark with dolls, nineteenth-century, porcelain, they’d see a few on the Mother Hubbard in the hall: Lucy and Faith, her favorites. Sisters. Don’t touch, they’ll wear away, Mrs. MacIntyre said.

Michael, Michael says, reaching out to shake her hand first and then Ariel’s—the silver bracelet!—balancing his bicycle against his bony hip.

Your poor friend—this from Ariel—is he all right?

He wanted to quit anyway.

I’m sorry.

I think he secretly missed his girlfriend.

You? Ariel asks. (She has completely forgotten her.)

I’m a loner, essentially.

(Essentially? thinks Margaret.
Essentially?
)

Oh, says Ariel.

He was lucky, Michael says. He
should
have been killed. The trucker didn’t even see him. “Stopped and asked after the satchel in the road. Didn’t even know he’d hit a guy.”

“Jesus!” (This from Ariel.)

“I’ll give the Scottish cops their chops. They were on it in an instant and took him to this little hospital—”

“Where?”

“Dunberry. Beautiful town. I’ll show you if you’d like. Somebody’s from there. Robert Burns or the guy who married Elizabeth Taylor—”

“Burton.”

“Right. Robert Burton. Anyway, it’s this little hospital run by nuns and there’s like three other patients and this freakin’
priest
runs up and I’m thinking he’s so bad they’re giving him his last rites—”

“Oh my God.”

“And I don’t want to interrupt to say he’s
Jewish
because what the hell do I know? Maybe it works on everybody and so I’m standing there thinking. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was just standing there. But the priest is the doctor.”

“What?”

“I know, right? Like that joke the father’s the doctor only the joke is the mother’s the doctor—”

“Right!” (Ariel laughing.)

“And then he’s in surgery and I’m just there and then I start thinking how we left his bicycle—what was left of it—wherever we were and so I go and it’s the truck driver with his load of sheep. He’s been waiting the whole time.”

“Wow.”

“I love these people.”

“I know what you mean.”

“You do?”

“Totally.”

And so on: Soon they exhaust Scotland and its people and are on to Cornell, Duke, MIT, Yale. Between the two they know the entire world. Margaret listens and then she does not. Then she pages Rachel’s guides:
West from the Anderson Stone, locate the cross where the Scottish hero McIntry fell on his sword in King Arthur’s time, if the Welsh monk Nennius is to be believed. Look for the trampled grass, the evidence of pilgrimage, the occasional blunt stub of the candle and Mardi Gras beads given the recent popularity of Medieval and Celtic gatherings.

She thinks to share what Rachel says with Ariel now, even with Michael, but the hitch in Ariel’s voice gives everything away. She follows the two toward the Anderson stone, where Michael, predictably, insists: a shot of Margaret and Ariel, together. He’s beyond the frame already. Here, too, in the photo as Ariel looks up from her mother’s lap, shading her eyes.

A tractor startles the crows that caw and lift toward the gray clouds. Somewhere always a rainbow, Michael informs them, another thing about Scotland the constancy of good luck, and also, the heather, larkspur, and yarrow.

From over the ridge the German walkers approach with a blast of German. They have hiked from Inverness and won’t stop until they reach the sea.

This all and what else; that in the morning she will say whatever she says to make it not right; she will say whatever she says to make Ariel disappear. New Zealand of all places, an acre of garden in back, gargantuan trees, a raggedy dog adopted in Auckland. Michael is out of the picture. Ariel is finishing another book. This from T.R.—who wouldn’t know a thing but for the fact of his absent prostate; “I make it my business to never hang up without saying I love you,” he told Margaret, as if this were a revelation. And then, hanging up, he said, “I love you.”

I
. Personhood, he explained, was out due to the Supreme Court muddling of the word, and Identity felt over, too late twentieth century. “Self is streamlined, contemporary, now,” the educational consultant said, he formerly of the Clinton, Bush, Obama administrations and once, lifetimes ago, the associate director of the recently defunct National Museum of Tolerance. The simplicity of
self,
he said. “In four letters it somehow references
me
and
sell.

“And
elf,
” Bud Charger, the cutup of the six-member committee elected to draft Progressive’s Mandate for the Next Phase, had added.

IX

O
n an earlier Thursday, Sid Morris circled the class during Friendly Break, his cigarette sharp. If they were to turn off the lights and blacken the windows they would see only the orange glow of its embers as Sid Morris sucks in and breathes out, exhaling smoke. Smokers evolutionary dragons, Helen once said to the two old newcomers; Olympians evolutionary mermaids. Helen’s round glasses are framed in thick plastic, black as her dyed hair. (A cheaper brand, Simone said. The way Helen peered through the lenses as if trying to see in murky water, her eyes exaggerated and a little off, Simone thought—she’s been through something; and did Marie notice how certain times she went so close to her canvas it seemed she might be smelling it? And other times she squeezed her eyes shut like she was trying to paint in the dark?)

BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
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