Who By Fire, Who By Blood
Excerpted from the novel

The medication the doctor had prescribed did nothing except make him thirsty, so when he arrived home after class, he did not notice that the living room was piled high with his father’s boxes, stacked exactly as they had been before they were stolen. He had walked right past them, the way one might walk past a gnarled tree or a graffiti tagged mailbox every day, part of the urban landscape, barely registering in his brain. It was only after he had tilted his head under the sink that he realized that the books had returned.

“Pinky!” he called, but Pinky was not at home, and his disheveled room provided no answers. The apartment felt like some sort of industrial warehouse, and Stone rushed around the apartment with renewed energy, opening cabinets, pulling out the garbage can, rifling through his own closets, slipping on the newly polished floor. It took him a few moments to gather himself, until he figured out what to do next.

He hurried into the street in search of the homeboys, but they were not playing dice in front of the building; the barbershop around the corner where they got their heads shaved every week was empty, a wide screen tv at the back of the shop tuned to an old sitcom from the seventies. A young child sat on the sidewalk banging on a garbage can lid. For a moment, Stone wanted to ask him if he had seen who returned the boxes, but a long string of snot hanging from the child’s nose told him not to bother. Stone looked around, as if through some secret power he would be able to see the repentant thieves, as though, if he looked hard enough, he would catch a glimpse of their vapor trails shimmering like diamonds in the sun.

A long black car pulled up at the curb in front of the Brotherhood Ministry, and Stone saw two immaculately dressed black men step out —they were tall and broad shouldered and could have been former college football players. The setting sun cast a pinkish glow over the street, and the two men, from a distance, seemed to be moving in slow motion, as if grooving to their own private soundtrack. One of the men opened the passenger door, and out stepped the Reverend Randall Roebling Nation, immaculate in a blue pinstripe suit, his hair gleaming in the afternoon light. Stone was overcome with hatred; this was the man who had singled out his father as a villainous cause celebre, who had fanned the flames with his rhetoric and had drawn the national media to Brooklyn. In a moment, he had disappeared into the ministry and Stone stood alone in the street. He suddenly realized that he had better get back home before something happened to his father’s books again.

The boxes were piled some eight or nine feet in the air—halfway to the ceiling. Stone felt humbled beneath them. He pulled over a kitchen chair and began gingerly to lower the uppermost boxes to the floor. He did this until there was almost no room to walk in the living room. He sat on one of the boxes, sweating. He thought, “Maybe the boxes were here all along.” It didn’t seem as if they had been moved, and if someone had opened them, they had been very careful to seal them up again as they had found them. Stone’s muscles ached in places they had not ached in a long time. He felt weak and flabby. His shirt was covered in dust and grime. For a moment Stone thought absurdly of vacuuming the boxes, cleaning them as if they were the thing itself. He decided to open them, unload them, stack them away safely in his room.

The first box seemed to open with a sigh, as if the books were glad to have been returned. They lay stacked in piles, exactly the way Stone had packed them. As he pulled the books out of the boxes, he realized how dusty they were, how quickly his fingers blackened. He had not dusted while caring for the Judge, and the caustic, particulated Brooklyn air made it difficult to keep anything clean without significant labor. He opened the second and third box, washing his hands of grime after each carton. A yellowed, torn envelope with Israeli postage, addressed to Walter J. Stone, fell out of one of the books; it had been folded as a bookmark. The return address was from Abba Eban at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The envelope was empty. Stone soon noticed that the dust on many of the book jackets had been smudged in places, as if someone had been through them, but Stone could not figure out which books he might have brushed up against as he was packing. He unpacked nearly half the boxes with an incredible burst of energy, and with each book, each familiar title, something whispered inside him.

He knew instinctively it was his father. He was gone, but his eyes had tracked these pages, his mind had been shaped by the words written before him. Stone found a leather bound copy of The Thousand and One Nights; Churchill’s History of the English Peoples; Rashi’s Commentaries; a massive book on the origins of the Spanish Inquisition; religious texts; legal texts; all of William Faulkner’s novels; two books on the Gematria; the complete works of G. K. Chesterton; a silk bound copy of Othello, with a tasseled bookmark that tickled Stone’s wrist.

And with each book, Stone felt like he was unearthing his father, communing with him in a way they never had in life. He picked up the Othello, and turned to the pages his father had cited all those years ago. He read, “Reputation, reputation, reputation/ O, I have lost my reputation/ I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.”

His father was speaking to him through his books, and now Stone understood the enormity of his betrayal. He had been instrumental in destroying his father’s carefully constructed reputation. He was guilty, there could be no doubt. Proof of Stone’s disgrace lay before him and condemned him. Stone determined that he could make good on his sins, and that he would read all his father’s books, and piece him back together like a child’s jigsaw puzzle, solve the mystery of the man he could not please.

Stone found a package of his father’s cigarettes in one of the boxes. He opened the flat cardboard pack and placed a Nat Sherman between his lips. The smoke curled in the air and danced before him, spinning up into the light and dissipating. His muscles burned, his neck ached. Books lay everywhere. He could smell the musty pages, the dried out glue from the binding, the formaldehyde. He picked up a copy of The Power Elite that had been written by one of the Judge’s teachers while he was at Columbia. It was signed, “To Walter, Prestige is the shadow of money and power. Best of luck.” And it was signed in faded blue ink. How am I ever going to read all of these? Stone thought. He felt himself shrinking amidst his father’s books. He was reaching for another box when the phone rang.

“Hello, Matthew.”

“Yes.”

“It’s me.”

And after all that time, over half his life since he had last spoken to her, she offered up only the simple moniker: me, not Mom, or mother, but me, as if she were a friend returning his call after a weekend vacation, because no one forgets his mother, no matter how long it has been, no matter how hard he tries to bury the memory of the woman who first broke his heart.

“Matthew. I’m so sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am.”

Stone dragged on his father’s cigarette. His blood seemed to have stopped flowing, to have gelatinized in his veins. He blew a crooked smoke ring into the air.

“I don’t blame you for hating me, but I’m asking you to give me a chance to explain.”

Silence.

Stone’s smoke rings died with his cigarette. He found the last remnants of his pot in a small plastic bag balled up next to the empty Chinese food containers, dumped it into a Zig-Zag and rolled it one-handed into a tight joint.

He took a long drag on the joint and held the smoke in his lungs until they started to burn.

“Are you going to say something?” The voice on the other end of the phone was a near monotone. Older, worn down, tired perhaps.

“Are you?” Stone replied at last.

“Things must be hard for you right now.”

“No shit.”

“I just want you to know, you are not alone.”

He tried to picture her in his mind, but he could not; colors he could see, red, blue, black, abstractions of feeling, but no clear image of his mother.

“I’m sorry.”

“About what? That my father’s dead? Or that you ran out on me when I was 12 with no explanation, nothing?”

The joint flew out of Stone’s shaking hand and rolled across the floor. He reached blindly and picked up the burning end by mistake and felt a familiar surge of relief. When he picked up the phone again he could hear his mother say in her flat, unaffected voice, “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”

Stone almost laughed, “Your career sure didn’t suffer.”

She had disappeared from Stone’s home, his life, but not from life, the life out there; he read about her periodically in the Arts section of the Times. One of the most important American figurative painters of the late 20th century. She had last appeared in the paper three years earlier when the National Gallery in Washington had purchased her work for its permanent collection.

“I would have taken you with me.”

“That’s easy to say now,” Stone replied. “What about my father? You’d just take me like a piece of luggage?”

“Screw him! I should have done it,” she said.

“What about me? What if I didn’t want to?”

“You still think your father was Mr. Clean, shiny head and all, because he was a judge.”

“He didn’t do anything wrong. You don’t know him anymore.”

“People never ch...” His mother said, catching herself just short of self implication. “Listen Matthew, I don’t want to fight. I want to come see you.”

“Does it ever matter what I want?” Stone said, turning over a fortune in his hand that read: You are lucky boy/girl. “It’s too late.”

“Matthew, it’s Rosh Hashanah, a new year. Give your mother the chance for a new start.”

He did not remember his mother celebrating Rosh Hashanah; as a matter of fact the High Holidays had always been a bone of contention between her and the Judge.

“Wait a second,” he said suddenly. “How did you get my number after all this time? I just moved in here.”

“What’s important is I’m coming to see you,” she said over his words. “You have to say yes or I’m coming anyway.”

The line went dead.

“Fuck!” Stone shouted.

Stone felt his stomach rising and he rushed to the bathroom. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror: the filmy sickness in his eyes, the revolting sallowness of his skin, his spiny hair that hadn’t been washed in days. He tried to vomit, but could not, forcing his toothbrush into his parched throat. It only made him gag. He saw himself in the mirror again, saliva hanging in strings from his chin. He sat swaying on the toilet seat for a moment, and knew that the only thing inside him was bile and vomit kicking to be released and he curled his head into his hands. He noticed twenty three hairs on the tile floor and wondered briefly whether he was going bald. The lights were too bright when he raised his head, squinting. “Hello!” he called out. But no one answered, just the honking of a horn in the street. “Go to hell then!” He sat down in the cool bathtub, rolled a towel between his neck and the tile wall and smoked a cigarette. He unbuttoned his pants, pulled aside the zipper and found the pale winter white of his upper thigh. It had been a long time, but the skin called to him now. He took a deep drag on the cigarette, the tip, a bright orange star. His hand shook as he maneuvered the cigarette towards his thigh. An old purple scar, in the shape of the letter C, seemed to smile at him, beckoning. He felt the hair burn first, then the skin. He felt his blood begin to calm, soon, he closed his eyes.

A memory appeared in Stone’s mind, brightly colored and crystal clear. He was five or six years old, and his mother had taken him to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to stroll through the greenery. They walked through the Rock Garden, the Children’s Garden, the flaming purple Bluebell Wood and through the entire cross-section of the Native Flora Garden where they stopped along a ledge of limestone.

“Here is the bladdernut tree, and there’s the butternut and the Angelica tree.” She told him those trees grew best in highly alkaline conditions such as are found in limestone areas.

Matthew gripped his mother’s hand, feeling some import in her words, but not understanding the meaning. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Look,” his mother had said. “If you can name it, you own it. It becomes part of your life, part of your world forever. Nobody can take that knowledge away from you. If you don’t have a name for something, how do you think about it, talk about it? How can you paint something and make it yours if you don’t know what it is you are trying to paint?”

“What’s that?” He pointed into the middle distance.

“Slippery elm.”

“Yuck.”

In the Herb Garden she pointed out conium maculatum, which was poison. “Stay away from hemlock.”

Later she pointed out lavender, rosemary, mint and thyme and explained their various healing qualities.

“Time?”

Thymus Vulgaris. It means ‘courage’ in Greek.”

“Courage,” Matthew said, rolling the word around his mouth like a cat’s purr. “It smells good.”

On their way home, Matthew pointed to a tall, leafy tree, its graceful leaves palm-like, almost tropical, swaying languidly in the spring breeze.

“What’s that?”

“That’s an ailanthus tree.”

Matthew was disappointed. “Why would they call it that?”

“It means Tree of Heaven.”

“Really?”

“Really,” his mother said. “I read about it as a little girl. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

“A lot of trees.”

His mother laughed. “Let’s go home.”

“Can I climb it?”

“Climb it? No.”

“Why not?” He stamped his feet and raised his voice in bitter objection; it was still an effective technique back then. “Please, please. I want to climb the Tree of Heaven.”

The bark was smooth and she had to boost Matthew up to the first branch so that he could climb to the yawning Y of the next branch. The leaves were smooth and tear-like, tapering out in the end to a fine point. He could see the roofs of houses and the tops of cars passing by. His mother looked small, childlike standing below, her face etched with worry. The canopy was fuller above him and he wanted to climb where the leaves were thickest. Beyond was heaven.

“Don’t go any farther,” his mother called from below.

“One more branch.”

“No.”

“One more.”

“No. Come down right now.”

Matthew had made the move to climb further up the tree when his foot slipped against the smooth bark and he tumbled to the ground below, hitting his head on the recoil.

“Oh my god!” his mother screamed. “Are you all right?” She placed her hands under his head and kissed his forehead with her dry lips. “Are you all right?”

He pulled himself to his feet. “I’m fine.” He was more embarrassed than hurt. He had taken worse in the schoolyard. He was a big boy, after all, and he had climbed the Tree of Heaven.

“Are you sure?” His mother pressed the back of her hand to his forehead. “Do you need to go to the hospital?”

“I wanna go home.”

“Are you sure?” She stared hard into his eyes with her wet black eyes. “You know I love you and wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Okay. Let’s don’t tell your father about this. It will be our little secret. Deal?” And she extended her trembling hand to shake.

“Take me to McDonald’s?”

“Deal.”

Stone’s head throbbed in the bathtub. Was that simple deception, he wondered now, the first time he had betrayed his father? Was it the beginning of a life of betrayal, its consequences echoing to this very day?

If you can name it, you own it. If you name it, it is yours forever.

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