Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
Neither of his parents ate breakfast or lunch. They saved their remaining food for dinner, and at night, the family would huddle together for warmth. Edward and his father would try to find a copse of trees for them to sleep in, or at least a gully, and they would cover themselves with leaves and branches, both to protect
themselves from the wind and to try to conceal their scent from the patrol’s dogs. What was worse, Edward remembered thinking, even then—the terror or the hunger? Both defined his every day.
When they finally made it to Maryland, they went straight to one of the centers a friend had told Edward’s father about, where they remained for several months. Edward’s father taught classes in reading and mathematics to some of his fellow escapees’ children; Edward’s mother, a skilled seamstress, repaired damaged clothes, which the center took in to earn its residents a pittance. By spring, they had left the center and had embarked upon their travels once again—a difficult but less arduous journey, since now they were at least in the Union—this time to the Free States, where they continued northward to New York. Here, in the city, Mister Bishop had eventually found work at a printing press (there being a certain prejudice in the Free States and the Union against the educational standards of people from the Colonies, meaning that many learned escapees found themselves in reduced circumstances), and the six of them had settled into a small apartment on Orchard Street.
Still, Edward said (and David detected a note of sincerity, of pride, in his voice), they had most of them done well for themselves. His parents had died, carried away by the flu of ’90, but his two older sisters were both schoolteachers in Vermont, and Belle, a nurse, lived with her husband, a doctor, in New Hampshire, in Manchester.
“Indeed, I am the only failure,” he said, and sighed, dramatically, although David sensed that Edward in some way believed this to be true, and that it troubled him.
“You are not a failure,” he told Edward, and pulled him closer to his body.
For a while, they were silent, and David, his chin resting atop Edward’s dark head, traced patterns on Edward’s back. “Your father,” he said, at last, “had he been like us?”
“No, not like us, though if he had objections to our kind, he never said. I do not think he did.”
“Had he been a believer of Reverend Foxley’s, then?” Many of the escapees were secret believers in the preachings of the famous Utopian, an advocate of open love and one of the Free States’ founders.
He was considered a heretic in the Colonies, where possession of his texts was illegal.
“No, no—he’d not been very religious.”
“Then—if you do not mind my asking—why did he want to come north?”
Here David felt Edward sigh, his warm breath against his chest. “I must be honest and say that, even after all this time, I don’t know myself. We had a good life in Georgia, after all. We were known; we had friends.
“When I was older and therefore impertinent enough, I asked him why we had made the journey. And all he would say is that he wanted us to have a better life. A better life! He had gone from being a respected teacher to being a printer—a perfectly fine occupation, of course, but a man who works with his mind does not usually consider a life working with his hands a better one. So I have never understood, not to my satisfaction—and, I suppose, I never shall.”
“But maybe,” David said, quietly, “maybe he did it for you.”
Edward was quiet, too. Then, “I don’t imagine he would have known when I was six.”
“Perhaps he did. My father did; I believe he knew it of all of us. Well, not Eden, perhaps—she was still little more than a baby when he and my mother died. But John and I, even though we were so young…Yes, I believe he knew.”
“And he was not bothered by this?”
“No, and why should he have been? His own father was like us. We were not foreign to him, nor distasteful.”
At this, Edward gave a laugh like a puff of air and rolled away from him, onto his back. By now, it was evening, and the room had grown dark—David would have to leave soon, lest he miss another dinner. But all he wanted to do was lie in Edward Bishop’s hard, narrow bed, feeling the terrible itch of the poor wool blanket atop him, the lingering warmth from the fire burning low in the hearth, and Edward’s skin beside him. “You know what they call the Free States in the Colonies, don’t you?” Edward asked, and David, though he did not put much stock in what the Colonies thought of them or not, was not of course ignorant of the cruel and vulgar nicknames
by which they referred to his country, and instead of answering Edward’s question, he put his palm over his mouth.
“I do,” he said. “Kiss me.” And Edward did.
He had returned to Washington Square after that, reluctantly dressing and venturing into the cold, but later, up in his study, he was able to recognize that that discussion, that encounter, had left him changed. He had a secret, and his secret was Edward, and not just him, his smooth white skin and his soft dark hair, but Edward’s experiences, what he had seen and what he had endured: He was from another place, another existence, and in sharing his life with David, he had made David’s own suddenly richer, more profound and ecstatic and mysterious all at once.
Now, in his study, he reviewed his journal again, poring over details he well knew as if he were learning them for the first time: Edward’s middle name (Martins—his mother’s maiden name); Edward’s favorite piece of music (Bach’s Cello Suite no. 1 in G Major); Edward’s favorite food (“Don’t laugh—it’s hominy, with bacon. No, you
laugh! I am from Georgia, after all!”). He read through the pages he’d written with a greed he’d not felt for many years, and when he finally retired, unable to stop yawning, it was with pleasure, for he knew that it would soon be the next day, and that would mean he would see Edward once more. The affinity he felt for Edward was thrilling, but equally as thrilling was the
of that affinity, and the speed with which it had developed. He felt, for the first time in perhaps his whole life, reckless, wild—as if he were atop a runaway horse, scarcely holding on as it galloped down a long stretch of plain, gasping with laughter and fear.
For many years—so many years—he had wondered if there was something not just amiss with him but deficient within him. It was not that he was not invited to the same parties as John and Eden; it was what happened at them. This was back when they were younger and simply known as the Bingham siblings, and he was only identified as the eldest, not “the bachelor” or “the unmarried one” or “the one who still lives at Washington Square”: They would enter the party, ascending the low, wide stone steps of a recently built Park Avenue manse, Eden and John first, her arm looped through his, he
bringing up the rear, and upon entering the glittering, twinklingly lit space, he would hear what sounded to him like a cheer, as John’s and Eden’s faces were kissed by well-wishers sighing in delight at their arrival.
And he? He would be greeted as well, of course; they were well-brought-up, their acquaintances and peers, and he was a Bingham, and no one would dare be anything less than cordial, not to his face. But for the rest of the party, he would feel strangely elsewhere, as if floating above the room, and at dinner, where he would be seated not with the bright young things of the gathering but, rather, among their parents’ friends and relations—the father’s sister, for example, or the mother’s elderly uncle—he would feel the full force of his undeniable otherness, how what he had striven to conceal had been recognized and accounted for by everyone in their circle. From the other end of the table would occasionally come gusts of laughter, and his seatmate would shake his or her head indulgently, before turning to him and commenting on the irrepressible frivolity of the young, and how one must allow them such latitudes. Sometimes after saying this they would realize their mistake, and hastily add that he, too, must have his moments of mirth, but other times they would not; he would be aged before his time, cast from the island of youth not by his years but by his temperament.
Or perhaps it was not temperament at all but something else. He never had been jolly or lighthearted, not even as a child. He had once overheard his grandfather remarking on his somberness to Frances, adding that it was because he was the eldest, and therefore his grief had been the most intense when he and his siblings lost their parents. But the qualities that often attended his sort of inwardness—a studiousness, a seriousness of purpose, a scholarliness—were absent in him. He was attuned to the dangers of the world but not to its delights and joys; even love, to him, was not a state of elation but a source of anxiety and fear: Did his beloved actually love him? When might he be abandoned? He had watched first Eden and then John in their courtships, had witnessed their returning home late in the evening, their cheeks pink with wine and dancing, had seen how quickly they snatched letters from the tray proffered by Adams,
tearing open the envelopes even as they hurried from the room, their lips already lifting into smiles. The fact that he had not experienced the same kind of happiness was a source of both sorrow and concern; of late, he had been beginning to fear that it was not just that no one might love him but that he might be incapable of
such love, which seemed altogether worse. His infatuation with Edward, then, the awakening he felt within him, was not just transporting for the sensation itself but intensified by his sense of relief: There was nothing wrong with him after all. It was not he who was damaged; it was only that he had yet to find the person who would rouse in him his full capacity for pleasure. But now he had, and he was at last experiencing the sort of transformation that love had visited on everyone he knew but that had always eluded him.
That night, he had a dream: It was years in the future. He and Edward were living together in Washington Square. The two of them were sitting, side by side, in chairs in the parlor, where a piano now stood beneath the window that overlooked the park’s northern boundary. At their feet lay three dark-haired children, a girl and two boys, reading picture books, the girl wearing a scarlet velvet bow atop her glossy head. There was a fire burning and boughs of pine arranged atop the mantelpiece. Outside, he knew, it was snowing, and from the dining room came the fragrance of roasted partridge, and the sounds of wine glugging into glasses and of china being arranged on the table.
In this vision, Washington Square was not a prison, or something to dread—it was his home, their home, and this was their family. The house, he realized, had become his after all—and it had become his because it had become Edward’s, too.
The following Wednesday, he was leaving for his class when Adams hurried to the door. “Mister David, Mister Bingham sent word from the bank this morning—he requests you be home precisely at five o’clock today,” he said.
“Thank you, Matthew, I’ll take it from here,” he said to the valet, assuming the box of fruit he was bringing for the students to draw and turning his attention to the butler. “Did he say why, Adams?”
“No, sir. Only that he asks for your presence.”
“Very well. You can tell him to expect me.”
“Very good, sir.”
It was politely stated, but David knew it was no request but a command. A mere few weeks ago—a few weeks! Had it only been a scant month since he had met Edward, since his world had been redrawn?—he would have been frightened, anxious about what his grandfather might have to say to him (for no good reason, as his grandfather had never been unkind to him, had rarely rebuked him, even in childhood), but now he felt only irritation, for it meant that he would have less time with Edward than he otherwise might. After class, then, he went directly to Edward’s, and it seemed as if in no time at all he was having once more to dress and leave, with a promise he would soon return.
At the door to Edward’s room, they lingered, David in his coat and hat, Edward wrapped in his horrid scratchy blanket.
“Tomorrow, then?” Edward asked, with such unabashed yearning that David—unused to being the party who would provide the affirmative answer upon which another’s happiness would be
determined—smiled and nodded. “Tomorrow,” he agreed, and finally Edward released him and David tripped down the stairs.
As he climbed the steps to his house, he found himself nervous to see his grandfather in a way he never was, as if this were to be their first encounter after months of distance, rather than less than twenty-four hours. But his grandfather, already in his drawing room, merely received David’s kiss as he always did, and the two of them sat with their sherry and chatted about topics of little consequence until Adams came to announce dinner. It was only as they were going down that he whispered to his grandfather. But “After dinner,” his grandfather replied.
Dinner, too, was uneventful, and near its conclusion, David found himself experiencing a rare resentment toward his grandfather. Was there no news, nothing for his grandfather to relay? Was this only a gambit to remind him of his own dependency, of the fact—which he knew very well—that he was indeed not the master of this house, that he was not even an adult but someone who was allowed only in theory to come and go as he pleased? He heard his answers to his grandfather’s inquiries become curt, and had to correct himself before he crossed from being taciturn into being rude. For what could he do, what could he argue? It was not his house. He was not his own man. He was no different from the servants, from the bank’s employees, from the students at the institute: He was dependent on Nathaniel Bingham, and always would be.
And so he was seething with emotions—irritation, self-pity, anger—by the time he was settled in his usual chair by the fire upstairs, when his grandfather handed him a thick letter, much battered, its edges crisped with dried water.
“This arrived at the office today,” his grandfather said, expressionless, and David, wonderingly, turned it over and saw his name, addressed care of Bingham Brothers, with a Massachusetts postmark. “An express delivery,” his grandfather said. “Take it, read it, and return,” and David stood, wordlessly, and went to his own study, sitting for a moment with the envelope in his hands before at last slicing it open.
My dear David,
January 20, 1894
There is nowhere for me to begin this letter but with my deepest and most sincere apologies for not having written earlier. I am wretched at the thought of any pain or upset I might have caused you, though perhaps I am only flattering myself—perhaps you have not thought of me as often as I have thought of you these past almost seven weeks.
I do not wish to make excuses for my poor manners, but I do want to explain why I have not communicated, because I do not wish that my silence should be mistaken for lack of devotion.
Shortly after I left you in early December, I was obligated to make a trip up North to visit our fur trappers. As I think I mentioned, my family has had a long-standing agreement with a family of trappers in northern Maine, and over the years, it has become an important aspect of our business. On this trip, I was accompanied by my eldest nephew, James, who had left college the previous spring to work in our business. My sister, understandably, was not enthusiastic about this idea, and nor was I—he would have been the first among us to graduate from college—but he is grown and we finally had no choice but to acquiesce. He is a wonderful young man, high-spirited and enthusiastic, but as he has no sea legs and is indeed given to sickness, my siblings and parents and I decided that he might be trained to eventually oversee our fur trade.
The North has been unusually cold this year, and as I had mentioned, our trappers live very close to the Canadian border. Our visit was largely a ceremonial one; I would introduce James to them, and they would take him out to demonstrate how they caught the animals and skinned and cured them, and then we would return to the Cape in time for Christmas. But that was not what happened.
Initially, everything proceeded as planned. James immediately formed a friendship with one of the members of the family, a very likable and intelligent youth named Percival, and it was Percival who spent several days introducing James to their trade while I stayed behind in the house to discuss how we might expand our offerings.
You may well be wondering why we are concerning ourselves with fur when the industry has been in decline for the past sixty years; certainly our partners did. But it is precisely because the British have now all but abandoned the area that I think we have the opportunity to make our business there more robust, by selling not just beaver but, crucially, mink and stoat, which are much softer and finer and for which I believe there will be a small but meaningful group of dedicated customers. This family, the Delacroix, are also one of the very few European families left in the trade, which means they are much more reliable and much more suited to the realities and complexities of business.
The afternoon of the fifth day of our visit was reserved for leisure, to be followed by a dinner to celebrate our partnership. Earlier, while touring the Delacroix property, we had passed a pretty little pond, now frozen over, and James had been excited to skate on it. It was a frigid day, but clear and calm, and as the pond was just a few hundred meters from the main house, and he had comported himself well, I said he might.
He had not been gone an hour when, abruptly, the weather changed. In minutes, the skies had turned first white, then a deep pewter, and then nearly black. And then, at once, it was snowing, the flakes falling in clumps.
My first thought was of James, and it was the first thought as well of Olivier, the family’s patriarch, who came running to find me as I was running to find him. “We will send Percival with the dogs,” he said. “He can walk this route in the dark, he knows it so well.” To ensure his safety, he tied one end of a long length of rope to the bottom of the staircase banister and the other to his nephew’s belt, and told the boy, armed with an ax and a knife as a precaution, to return as quickly as he was able.
Off the boy set, unafraid and calm, while Olivier and I stood at the staircase, watching as the rope unspooled itself and, eventually, grew taut. By this time the snow was so thick that I, standing at the door, was unable to see anything but white. And then the wind began, gently at first, and then so fierce, so howling, that I was forced inside altogether.
Yet still the rope remained taut. Olivier gave it two sharp tugs, and a few seconds later, received two sharp tugs in response. By this time, the boy’s father, Marcel, Olivier’s younger brother, had joined us, silent and anxious, as well as their other brother, Julien, and their respective wives and their aged parents. Outside, the wind blew so loudly that even the sturdy cabin shook.
And then, suddenly, the rope went slack. It had been some twenty minutes since Percival had left, and when Olivier yanked on the cord once more, no one returned his signal. They are stoic people, the Delacroix: One cannot live in the part of the world they do, with the weather they have (not to mention the other dangers—the wolves and the bears and the cougars, and of course the Indians), and not remain calm under dire circumstances. And yet they all treasured Percival, and a hum of nervousness immediately circulated through the entryway.
There was some swift, murmured discussion about what to do. Percival had two of the family’s best hunting dogs with him, which would offer him some protection—the dogs were trained to work as a unit, and one could be trusted to stay with him while the other returned to the house for help. This was assuming the dogs had not, for example, been urged by Percival to find and remain with James. By now the snow and wind were so intense that it seemed the entire house was listing to and fro, the windows rattling in their casements like chattering teeth.
We had all been timing how long he had been gone: Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Half an hour. At our feet, like a dead snake, lay the length of rope.
Then, nearly forty minutes after Percival had left, there was a thudding at the door, one we at first mistook for the wind and then realized was the noise of a creature tossing itself against it. Marcel, with a cry, quickly threw off the heavy wooden bolt and he and Julien pulled it open to discover one of the dogs, his coat crusted so thickly with snow it appeared as if he’d been baked in salt, and, clutching at his back, James. We pulled him in—he was still wearing his skates, which had, we later realized, probably saved him, allowing him purchase as he made the walk uphill—and
Julien’s and Olivier’s wives fell upon him with blankets and hustled him away to a bedroom; they had been heating water for the boys’ return, and we could hear them running back and forth with pails full, and the sound of water splashing into the metal tub. Olivier and I tried to interrogate him, but the poor boy was so chilled, so exhausted, so hysterical, that he was making very little sense. “Percival,” he kept saying, “Percival.” His eyes flicked back and forth in a way that made him seem crazed, and I was, I will admit, frightened. Something had happened, something that had terrified my nephew.
“James, where is he?” Olivier demanded.
“Pond,” James babbled, “pond.” But we could get no more information from him.
At the entryway, Julien told us later, the returned dog was pawing and scratching, whining to be let out. Marcel grabbed him by his collar and yanked him back, but the dog was desperate, yelping and straining, and finally, on their father’s command, they again unbolted the door and the dog ran out into the white.
Once again, the waiting commenced, and after I had dressed James in clean flannels and held him while Julien’s wife had him drink some hot toddy and then put him to bed, I rejoined the party in the entryway in time to once again hear that sickening thump against the door, which Marcel this time opened at once, with a cry of relief that soon became a wail. There, at the door, were both of the dogs, frozen and exhausted and panting, and, between them, Percival, his hair in icicles, his young handsome face the particular unearthly shade of blue that means only one thing. The dogs had dragged him all the way from the lake.
The next hour was awful. The rest of the children, Percival’s brothers and sisters and cousins, who had been instructed by their parents to stay upstairs, came running down and saw their beloved brother frozen to death, and their father and mother keening, and began to sob as well. I cannot remember how we managed to calm them, nor how we managed to make everyone go to bed, except that the night felt interminable, and outside the wind continued to scream—spitefully, it now seemed—and the snow to fall. It was
not until well into the following afternoon, when James had finally awoken and become sensate once more, that he was able to relay, tremblingly, what had happened: When the storm had come, he had panicked, and had tried to make his way back on his own. But the snow was so blinding, and the wind so ferocious, that he was driven back again and again to the pond. Then, just when he had convinced himself he would die there, he had heard the faint sound of barking, and had seen the top of Percival’s bright-crimson cap, and knew he was to be saved.
Percival had reached out his arm, and James had grabbed it, but at that moment there had been a particularly strong gust of wind, and Percival had skidded onto the ice with him, and the two had tumbled into a heap. Again they stood, inching together to the edge of the pond, and again they fell. But this second time, after being once again pushed by the wind, Percival fell at a strange angle. He had had his ax drawn—James said he meant to stick it into the shore and use it as a lever to pull themselves out—but it instead pierced the ice, which cracked beneath them.
“Christ,” James said Percival had shouted. “James, get off the ice.”
He did—the dogs moving close to the water so he could grab them by their ruffs to steady himself—and then turned to reach for Percival, who was once again sliding on his boots across the frozen surface toward ground, but before he could reach it, he was buffeted by another gale, and fell back a third time, this time landing on his back near the spiderwebbed crack. And now, James said, the ice gave a groaning, sickening noise, and split, and Percival was swallowed by the water.
James yelled, from fright and desperation, but then Percival’s head emerged. My nephew grabbed the end of the rope, now no longer attached to Percival’s belt, and threw it to him. But when Percival tried to pull himself out, the hole in the ice split further, and his head once again slipped beneath the surface. By now, of course, James was frantic, but Percival, he recounted, was very calm. “James,” he said, “go back to the house and tell them to send help. Rosie”—one of the dogs—“will stay with me. Take Rufus and tell them what happened.” And, when James hesitated, “Go! Hurry!”
So James left, turning to watch Rosie pick her way across the ice toward Percival, and Percival reaching toward her.
They’d not gotten more than a few meters when they heard a dull sound behind them; the wind was so loud that it muffled all noise, but James turned, and he and Rufus returned to the pond, scarcely able to see through the snow. There, they saw Rosie running in circles on the ice, barking and barking, and then Rufus ran to her, and the two stood there together, whimpering. Through the snow, James could see Percival’s red glove clutching at the surface, though not Percival’s head. But he could see a thrashing from the water, a kind of violence. And then the red glove slipped, and Percival was gone. James hurried to the pond, but when he stepped atop the surface, it broke into plates, soaking his feet, and he only managed to scrabble up to the shore again before it split once more. He shouted for the dogs, but Rosie, no matter how much he called for her, wouldn’t move from her floe of ice. It was Rufus who guided him back to the house, but for many minutes, he could hear Rosie’s whining, her cries carried by the wind.
He had been crying as he told this story, but now he began to sob, gulping for breath. “I’m sorry, Uncle Charles!” he said. “I’m so sorry, Mister Delacroix!”
“He didn’t even have time to sink,” Marcel said in a strange, faint, strangled voice. “Not if the dogs were able to rescue him.”
“He couldn’t swim,” Olivier added, in a low voice. “We tried to teach him, but he never learned.”
As you can imagine, it was another dreadful night, and I spent it with James, holding him against me and murmuring to him until he at last fell asleep again. The snow and wind stopped the next day, and the skies turned brilliant and blue, and the weather even colder. I and some of Percival’s cousins shoveled a path to the ice house, where Marcel and Julien would keep Percival’s body until the ground had thawed enough for them to bury him properly. The day after, James and I left, detouring to Bangor to send word of what had happened to my sister.
Since then, as you can imagine, things have been much changed. I do not even mean from a business perspective, about which I dare
not ask—I have sent the Delacroix our deep condolences, and my father ordered they be given the monies for a smokehouse they’d intended to build. But we have heard nothing from them in response.
James is very different now. He has spent the holiday season in his room, hardly eating, rarely speaking. He sits and stares, and sometimes he cries, but mostly he is silent, and nothing his brothers or mother or I can do seems able to bring him back to us. It is apparent he blames himself for the tragedy of Percival’s passing, no matter how many times I tell him he is not at fault. My brother has temporarily assumed control of the business while my sister and I spend every moment we can with him, hoping we might be able to puncture his fog of grief, hoping we might once again hear his dear laugh. I fear for him, and for my beloved sister.
I know it will sound terrible, and selfish, to say this, but as I sit with him these days and weeks, I find myself returning repeatedly to our conversation, which I left feeling embarrassed—of how much I had said, of how emotional I let myself become, of how much I burdened you—and wondering what you must think of me. I say this not as a rebuke, but I wonder if this is why you’ve not chosen to write me, though of course you might have mistaken my silence for lack of interest and been offended, which I would understand.
Percival’s death has made me think more often as well of William, of how wild with misery I was when he died, and of how, in my brief time spent with you, I began to imagine that I might be able to live again with a companion, someone with whom I might share the joys of life, but also its sorrows.