One of the strangest stories in the history of Whistlestop was the story of Mrs. Mary Edelson Brooks, a woman whose main claim to fame in the village was her ability to throw stylish dinner parties; she was also known for her ability to always wear exactly the right shoes with exactly the right purse without being too “matchy,” the fact that her hair always looked “done,” and the fact that her hybrid teas almost always took a prize at the flower show. In addition, she was on three church committees and the town beautification team. Although the difficulty of these achievements was impossible to disregard, Mary was otherwise not the most fascinating person in the village. In fact, if you had asked her husband Bob, he would have called her stable and meant it as a compliment. Her seventeen year old daughter Virginia would have called her boring and not meant it as a compliment at all. But, as the villagers noted afterwards, you don’t have to be a fascinating person to have something interesting happen to you.
The story recounted here is a strange one and it’s hard to say exactly what did happen to Mary that hot and humid summer. Accounts vary. The story that was told by the few people closest to Mary is the one that most thoroughly explains the situation. Unfortunately, it’s also the most difficult to believe. But strange things were wont to happen in Whistlestop in those days. Besides, the truth of a story isn’t dependent on its believability. So here is the story of Mary Edelson Brooks, a fairy story more than an exact history, I guess you could say.
Of all the things that Mary loved, her hybrid tea roses were secretly at the top of the list. In her back yard, by the picket fence, she had a long bed full of them. Each rose was labeled and stood proud and alone in its spot. A bright green lawn stretched in front of the rose bed, neat and expansive. Each rose plant was pinched back so that just a few pointed buds were left to mature into fat, fragrant blossoms. She carefully sprayed them to keep them free of insects and diseases. When Mary was in her yard with her perfect roses, it seemed that life itself was perfect. A certain busyness ruled Mary’s life but on rare occasions she would find herself lost in the fragrance or form of a rose. Her pursuit of perfection seemed possible in her rose garden.
However, there were two things that seriously thwarted Mary’s pursuit of perfection, and everyone knew it. And since it was a small town, the fact that Mary’s life was not as perfect as it seemed made her much more bearable. First, there was her neighbor Isabelle’s garden. It backed up to Mary’s rose garden like a stripper doing a lap dance for a man wearing an expensive watch. Isabelle’s garden was almost the exact opposite of Mary’s, lush, dense and sensual, dominated by the whims of nature, not the firm hand of the gardener; Mary was constantly fighting stray tendrils of sweet peas that pushed through the fence slats, or peppermint or blackberries that simply bypassed the fence and thrust themselves up through the yard right between the knees of one of the grand hybrid teas. The tawdry scent of gardenia or lilac or tuberose often overwhelmed Mary while she was trying to tend to her roses. Mary often found herself hurriedly bending down to pluck a bit of naughty lemon balm or catmint from beneath the hybrid teas. The absolute bane of Mary’s gardening existence was a giant butterfly bush that sprawled its scraggly arms across the fence and shaded out the raspberry colored Auguste Renoir in the corner. The old butterfly bush sometimes nudged off Mary’s wide brimmed garden hat with a long twiggy finger. Mary wasn’t much given to nonsense, but the shrub seemed almost sentient in its attempts to annoy her.
Mary’s other nemesis was her daughter Virginia. Virginia’s roots were constantly slipping beyond fences and into the wilds; her untamed tendrils seemed determined both to invade and escape Mary’s soft, small and comfortable world. Some sort of spraying or pruning was definitely in order, but as anyone could see, Mary had never quite determined how such a thing might be accomplished. As with the butterfly bush, every effort to restrain Virginia seemed to result in even more vigorous and spiraling disorder. Virginia’s dyed black hair, books of dark poetry, strange dissonant music and habit of crawling out her window at night to paint pictures of the moon were frightening to Mary and amusing to the villagers. As an added insult, Virginia had since childhood preferred Isabelle’s garden and now that she was a teenager often went there to paint, even in the middle of the night. Once, when asked why by her perplexed mother, she had responded that the moon was happier there.
Mary found that the easiest thing was just to concentrate on the things she could control, and she happily went on pruning and deadheading and spraying her roses, a seemingly safe and fairly boring activity. During the summer in question, she was forced to spray even more than usual due to the humidity.
One fine summer afternoon, she had just started spraying her Blue Girl when she noticed something - something quick and silvery flitting at the back of the rose. A glint of sunshine touched an opalescent sliver of brightness which flung light back at her face like rain drops on a breeze. She gently pulled a branch toward herself and stared at the back of the bush. As she bent over, she felt a whirring above her head and something brushed the back of her neck. With a little shriek, she leapt up and swatted at her collar. She felt a tendril of hair escape her careful bun. She followed the drone of wings to the back corner of the garden right next to the dense, ancient butterfly bush. It loomed huge and dark, reaching its intricate, leafy arms over the fence, a giant hairy old man; it certainly could be a breeding ground for giant insects. She stared warily at it.
Mary pulled back one of Auguste Renoir’s branches to see if she could find the intruder. Perhaps it was just a large dragonfly. The iridescent light rippled onto the leaves in front of her. At first there was nothing, and then a sort of buzzing sound and then…whack! Something hit her in the face and then buzzed away hovering about 6 to 8 inches in front of her crossing eyes. When she uncrossed them, she had to look twice.
It was a fairy. It was just a bit bigger than her hand and brown as an acorn with leafy green hair and sharp green eyes. His nearly translucent wings were catching and flinging the sunlight in all directions. He was fluttering right in front of her. Her mouth dropped open briefly, and the soap bubble that surrounded her well established world quivered. It couldn’t actually be a fairy, nevertheless it appeared to be a fairy. Mary tried to make sense of the illusion.
The apparition seemed to be glaring at her. He was wearing a loin cloth made out of what appeared to be a fresh petal from her Mr. Lincoln rose, which immediately annoyed her, illusion or not. He stared at her, continuing to hover about a foot in front of her nose, causing her to back up to see him properly. His silvery wings made a whispery sound in the warm sunshine. The smell of cut grass and roses and Isabelle’s mint and gardenia hovered thickly in the air. He gazed intently at her, looking her up and down with a sour look on his little pointed face.
Finally, he spoke, “Look. Would you quit spraying poison on these roses?” He frowned and pointed his little finger toward her nose, poking it lightly with a sharp little finger nail. “It’s drifting into the butterfly bush where we live. It’s gross.”
Mary realized that her mouth was hanging open. With an effort, she closed it. She continued to stare at the tiny creature. “I don’t believe in fairies,” she finally managed in a whisper.
The fairy sighed. He flew right up the bridge of Mary’s nose and nearly made her go cross eyed again. He pulled out an eyebrow hair.
“Ouch!” yelled Mary.
Mary covered her eye with one hand and waved the other around the fairy, who nimbly buzzed away from her, sniggering.
“Okay lady,” he said. “Do you believe in me now? Are you going to stop spraying that crap on the roses?” He narrowed his eyes, “Or not?”
She put her hands down and looked carefully at the hallucination. The dream before her had all the sharpness of reality and the strange taste of truth, although one could not rationally assent to it. She grasped for a way forward. If there were fairies…if there were fairies….well things couldn’t go on as they were…she would have to spend her days blowing soap bubbles and playing in mud puddles and …and walking barefoot. She shook her head…what nonsense was filling it…why would she be forced to do any of those things? Fairies weren’t real and why would they require her to remove her shoes? Her mind was filling with gibberish. Was she in a dream? Maybe she was dehydrated. Or a in a fever. Perhaps she was in a hospital room in her former reality, unconscious. There were no fairies in that reality…but if there were…or if she were stuck in the wrong reality…then she would have to crawl out the window in the night to see the moon…just as Virginia did…she would be forced to go down to the river and let her hair down and put her feet in…and then she wouldn’t have time for the things that she had to do…things like…like….oh…she couldn’t remember them now.
The comfortable blanket of her life was slipping from around her thin, soft shoulders. She felt naked. Her life…she had one…. Or had it always been about lying in a field looking at stars and smelling the dirt after the rain and feeling cat whiskers on her cheek? All that was left in her brain of her former life were a few odds and ends, strange memories that she didn’t even know she had, memories that felt like they must have belonged to someone else once. The sweet, sharp taste of grass blades, a wobbly rainbow of oil in a puddle, the feeling of water under a boat, the full moon across frost, the smell of a leaf fire, a puppy licking her foot. That was all she could remember. Fragments and sensations. She looked up to see the fairy grinning like a devil at her. And suddenly she was angry. It wasn’t fair. She was in the wrong world. She thought hard…what was it…where had she come from? She wanted her own world back; she didn’t like being naked in her thoughts in this other place. She took a deep breath, puffed out her cheeks and blew the thoughts of moon and river, cat whiskers and mud puddles right out of her mind and…Ah…there it was: a meeting at church; the flower show; a dinner party on Friday; her carefully mismatched china and the antique silver service. The ground that had been rocking and swelling under her like the water under a boat suddenly came to a trembling halt.
“I am not going to lose first place at the flower show due to an illusion,” she said with her voice shaking. “Nor am I going to miss my meeting. I am fine and this is not real.” She leaned down to pick up the bottle of fungicide, really meaning to put it back in her willow garden basket and then go inside and take an aspirin, although that might not have been clear to the fairy.
“Have it your way,” said the fairy with a shrug. He shot up suddenly into the bright blue of the sky. Mary followed him with her eye until he disappeared into the hot, white light at the edge of the sun. She felt a moment of relief. It had been a hallucination and she had banished it by simply acting in a sensible manner. Things started to fall back in place. Remaining thoughts of soap bubbles, free flowing hair, puppies and bare feet fell away from her, absorbed by the thick green lawn. Meetings and menus and hair appointments found room again.
And then she saw it, a tiny shape moving back out of the circle of the sun. It was small and dark and dart-like, diving toward her like a kamikaze, shooting out of the sky like a spear.
Mary automatically put up a hand to ward him off, but he slammed into her thumb, wrapped himself around it and bit her…hard. She felt the needlelike teeth pierce deep into her skin, all the way to the bone. His saliva flowed into her blood. It started at the tiny holes he had ripped in her flesh. It felt flamingly hot at first; it penetrated her blood stream like an arrow with a scorching head of fire trailing the icy tail of a comet so that first her blood boiled where it met the toxin then turned bitter cold behind it. The fire raced around her hand and up her arm. Then her arms and hands became too cold to move and the flame raced into her head. The fairy’s venom slowly searched out every part of her from the inside. When the venom hit her chest it was incapacitating. Her heart burst into a white hot flame and then congealed. She fell backwards into the Double Delight, scratching her arms and bloodying her crisp white shirt, and then she simply lay there as the poison finished winding its way through; it first burned and then froze her stomach and then her hips and legs. She had never felt herself inside but now every organ, every muscle was outlined in pain one fraction of an inch at a time. It was a revelation in anguish. The fairy venom searched out every last bit of her body, every molecule, every cell, until she felt its heat tracing the inside of her toes and then leaving her frozen and unmoving on the soft green grass with the sun above and the flowers shaking gently in the June breeze.
She was so cold that she could not even shiver. She could not move at all. She thought briefly about death but found it uninteresting and then for the first time in her life that she could remember she thought nothing. A flower petal fell gently on her face as though she did not exist. June and warmth and flowers and birds and bees dwelt in the earth around her but she was nothing…a cold hole in the universe.
Mary was found on her lawn by Reverend Digby who had come looking for her when she missed a church committee meeting for the first time in her life. She then spent four days completely insensible in the village hospital with a bizarre ailment that mystified her doctors. Anyone who has lived in a small town will understand the strange mix of sympathy, curiosity, and secret gratification involved in such a serious and alarming occurrence. While the excitement lasted, Mary’s family was knee deep in casseroles and gossip. However, just as the hearsay was reaching its pinnacle and the organist was wondering whether to cancel her trip out of town for the funeral of the year, Mary sat up and asked the nurse for tea and toast. With a sigh of relief (and truth be told, a bit of disappointment) the village collected itself and went back to business.
Mary recovered her health rapidly and for a few weeks all was quiet. She told Bob and Virginia about her experience in the garden, although she couldn’t be certain if it had really happened. She briefly seemed to be growing more lucid and healthy. Then the “incidents” began. About two weeks after her release, Mary was found in the park in a thin silk nightgown halfway up the giant oak at 6:00 AM, apparently talking to a squirrel. Bob was there along with the fire department. Everyone was trying to talk her down but to no avail. Mary refused to leave the tree until noon and was quite bellicose with both Bob and the firemen.
The next week a pair of kayakers found her with unkempt hair in only her underwear singing an aria from Ophelia’s mad scene while sitting on a log overhanging the river. By the time the Bob and the constable had arrived, she had drifted away. Ultimately, she was found in a deep sleep on her back porch swing still clad in her underwear.
Within two days of the river incident, Mary Jo Baker called Bob from the diner on the square to tell him that Mary was riding a bike around town in the hot sun in one of Virginia’s costume cloaks with all her jewelry wrapped around her neck and head and telling people that she was a Berber and she had just returned from the desert. Bob managed to talk her into going home with a promise to look into purchasing a camel; although this went against his plain and practical way of dealing with things, it seemed preferable to the continued humiliation of his wife’s very public decline.
The constable called Bob only a few days later to ask him if he knew that Mary and Homeless Tom were having “wine tastings” in the park with some bottles from Bob’s wine collection and some of Mary’s antique wine glasses. Bob did not. He was also rather surprised on pulling up to retrieve his wife and his wine to discover Mary in one of her best evening gowns, complete with opera gloves. Homeless Tom was wearing one of Bob's best silk ties.
Bob was beginning to think that he would soon be as unhinged as Mary with all the worry she was causing him. The villagers were beginning to think that Mary was more entertaining than she had ever been, dinner parties be damned. Virginia was beginning to think she had underestimated Mary on some level, somehow. And Elwin McGee, the fairy who had bitten her in the first place, was beginning to think he had gone too far. The rapid progression of symptoms disturbed him.
As the incidents increased in volume and sheer weirdness, it became apparent that Mary needed supervision. That task fell to Virginia. Surprisingly much of her time with her mother that summer was unexpectedly pleasant. Virginia had never particularly enjoyed unstructured time with her mother before.
Virginia took her mother to Isabelle’s garden and they fed the fish in the shallow koi pond and told them mermaid stories. They went to the lake together and Virginia listened to her mother sing snatches of opera, for which she had trained as a young girl, while she rowed the flat bottomed boat toward a grassy little island for picnics. They had tea parties and pretended to hunt unicorns. Virginia taught her to paint. They threw rocks at trains. They stayed out all night and watched the stars or made poems for the moon. Mary was sometimes convinced that a colony of feral cats behind an abandoned house worshipped her as their goddess; when this feeling overtook her she brought them cat food and while they ate she made grand pronouncements with one of Virginia’s old princess crowns on her head. They picked flowers, danced in the rain, and made old fashioned lemonade.
But things did not remain this pleasant. As Mary’s mind tilted wildly out of orbit, she seemed to be more and more likely to slide out of control and through some dark door in the universe. Virginia tried to explain the situation to Bob but to no avail. If Mary wasn’t in trouble, he wasn’t interested. It was the only way he could stay sane.
Virginia didn’t have this luxury. Mary seemed to be moving further and further away from her memories and toward some dark mystery that only she could see. Once, on one of their wild moonlit nights, Virginia had to pull Mary from the river.
“I’m going with the river,” Mary said. “I want to feel it licking at my skin.” She lay on the water as though she were going to bed and began to sink. Virginia saw her, white in the moonlight, smiling as the water tugged at her clothes and hair, soothingly sucking her into its liquid darkness.
“You’ll drown,” said Virginia. But Mary didn’t hear or didn’t care. Virginia waded into the water and dragged her mother back to shore.
Another time, Mary found the sharp edge of a broken bottle glinting in the grass and before Virginia could take if from her, she had cut her finger. She was staring at it, watching the blood fall in droplets to the ground.
“It bit me,” said Mary simply. She seemed enchanted by the blood droplets that fell from her hand and she swirled them onto her other hand and made patterns on her shirt.
Virginia had no reply. She buried the shard in the dirt and took her mother home to clean her up.
Even in the grip of her newfound affection for her mother, Virginia found it to be a difficult summer. Eventually, roVirginia could no longer take her out in the boat as she was drawn like a magnet to depths of the lake and she had tried to climb out of the boat to be swallowed by the deep, dark belly of water. Once, Virginia narrowly managed to pull her mother from the edge of a cliff on a hike. Mary became more enamored with the motion and rush of the trains, and Virginia had to pull her back from the mighty rush of the wheels more than once.
Virginia was at a loss, Bob couldn’t afford to think about it, the villagers began to shake their heads and say quietly, with a shake of the head that things couldn’t go on like this anymore. Elwin McGee was sitting in the butterfly bush thinking and thinking. It didn't usually go this far. A romantic fling, running naked through the park, eating a little dirt or otherwise committing embarrassing acts when the wildness flowed into your blood were all symptoms certainly, but they eventually wore off. Those things happened. This was different; he had never seen someone so affected by the bite. He could only imagine how stifled a human would have to be to have no immunity at all.
Virginia had taken to tucking her mother into bed in the guest room across the hall so that she could keep an eye on her. One night as the late summer drifted toward autumn, she checked on her mother at around ten and was surprised to see that she already seemed to be in a deep slumber. But Virginia could not sleep; too accustomed to late hours and wild nights, she felt bone tired but somehow too restless to sleep. After about half an hour of hopeless tossing and turning, she looked out to see the moon rising. She threw on an old, soft jacket and headed out. She crossed the picket fence and sat in the shadows of Isabelle’s garden, letting the moonlight pour down on her face.
She was attempting to let the moon soothe her into sleepiness when she heard something on the other side of the bush. She crept close to a knothole and peered through. It was Mary; she was standing in the corner of the yard next to the August Renoire in her thin silk nightgown. It was a chilly night but she was not shivering she merely stood there calmly as though she were waiting on someone. Virginia strained closer. She was crouched under the butterfly bush on Isabelle’s side of the fence. She felt the bush shudder and she heard the fluttering of leaves. She looked up, startled. There were hundreds of tiny lights above her, glimmering and moving through the leaves.
Mary simply stood there. The lights gathered themselves into a glittering sphere and moved from the bush and hovered over Mary’s head. One light separated itself and hovered in front of Mary’s face. Virginia squinted. The light was emanating from a tiny person. A person with wings.
“Mary?” the tiny person asked.
“I am glad you bit me,” said Mary. “But I don't think I can stay here anymore."
"I expect not," said Elwin. "You had no immunity. I didn’t know.”
“Would you like to lie down?,” asked the tiny man. “I expect it would be more comfortable…as such things go.”
“Okay,” said Mary. She lay gently on the ground on her side. She arranged her gown.
“Elwin?” said Mary softly.
“Yes?” he asked.
“I’m sorry. About the roses, I mean.” A single tear slid from her eye.
“It’s okay Mary. I’m sorry too. About the bite,” he said.
She said. “I’m ready.” Mary smiled and wiped away the one tear that had been turned into a diamond by the moon.
Elwin darted up and rejoined the ball of light. It hovered and hummed a moment and then swelled. The giant light moved up in the air, like a zeppelin taking flight and then sharpened itself into a point and dove. The light swallowed Mary. Virginia heard a cry of joy and pain and then saw nothing but the humming of the light. At first, Virginia could see the outline of her mother’s body in the swarm of light. Then the light became even lighter, whiter, transparent. Mary was gone. Virginia gasped and then sat perfectly still with her back against the fence just breathing. The moon poured its cold sympathy down on her, shining, shining on the living and the dead - as it always does.
Virginia looked up. Elwin hovered in front of her.
“Hey kid,” he said.
Virginia stared at his chin. She pointed to her own chin and made a tiny wiping motion. Elwin flicked out his tongue and licked off the tiny speck of blood.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Yeah,” Virginia said. She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Elwin scratched his head. “I’m not sure what I can do for you to make up for things but I can give you this,” he said. He darted forward and kissed her forehead. She felt a terrible, beautiful warmth filling her. She opened her mouth to say something, anything, and tasted the moonlight as it fell on her tongue. She heard the murmur of the trees as they talked together and she was certain she could hear the fish singing water songs from the pond. She felt the movement of the ground beneath her as the earth spun its orbit around the sun and she felt the universe expanding until it slid aimlessly into other universes and she split into more than one Virginia and then reformed herself. Elwin was smiling at her.
“You’ll be fine I think,” said Elwin. “Moonlight gets in your blood. It will protect you from the worst of it.”
She sat quietly in the garden staring at Elwin for a second and then tried her feet. The earth was still moving but she took to it like a natural born sailor takes to walking on a boat in the swelling, flowing ocean.
“Thanks then,” she said.
"No problem,” said Elwin.
Virginia went upstairs and packed her knapsack. She was gone by morning. Bob did not see her again for many years, when she resettled in the village, a famous and well traveled artist. Most of the villagers assumed that she had taken Mary away to keep Bob from putting her in an institution. A few of them suspected Bob of foul play, but he doggedly went about his business, refusing to respond to any of the rumors. Eventually, he married one of the bank tellers. She was young and pretty and she threw magnificent dinner parties.
Once upon a time, there was a mountain village far, far away from every place else. It was a lovely little village; the town square boasted a large white Victorian bandstand where crowds often gathered late into warm evenings to hear barbershop quartets or the high school band. There was a beautiful park with picnic tables centered on an ancient, spreading oak and twisting maple lined roads that slid smoothly past rows of beautiful homes from neat brick cottages to frilly Victorians. When the snows came and the rosy cheeked children flocked to the hillsides with their sleds and bright colored hats and mittens, the village looked like it had been plucked from a Christmas card and brought to life.
There was a downside to life in the village though. In the winter, the snow and ice on the mountains surrounding the tiny town blocked the roads so inhabitants who chose not to leave before the snows began were stuck there for most of the winter. In the summer mudslides on the mountain had a similar effect. The villagers had to carefully consider their needs for the year and order far more food and other goods than they really needed just to be on the safe side. This made them a very practical people. The very rare newcomer to the village noticed a certain lack of imagination and a great deal of concern with working to buy goods, having them delivered, and storing them. Anyone might be forgiven for thinking the whole town was a sort of open air asylum for hoarders. For instance, old Dr. Benjamin H. Johnston had suffered brain damage when he was hit by a pallet of canned beans that he had unwisely stacked atop several pallets of paper towels and toilet paper. The whole mountain of canned goods and paper goods had finally become weak and one winter morning when he went into his basement to look for another can of tuna for his cats, the paper towels gave way and the tower of canned beans toppled over on his head. After that, he became very confused and tried numerous times to feed the beans to the cats. Eventually, they ate him. However, that’s neither here nor there for our story.
No…this particular tale revolves around someone entirely different, a villager named Geoffrey. Geoffrey was an attorney in the village, actually the attorney in the village. As you might expect, he had quite a roaring business. After all, though the village was small and of a bucolic and peaceful appearance, these people were completely stuck with each other for at least nine months of the year. As such, they got into the most terrible legal disputes, partly out of boredom. Of course, this was good for Geoffrey. He was quite the richest man in town. His stack of groceries and other goods was three times higher than anyone else’s. One late winter morning he was working very hard to make it four times higher; in the interest of this goal, he was preparing a spreadsheet to predict which of his neighbors’ petty disputes might be fanned into legal flame when, according to his friends and neighbors (well mostly neighbors, as the town’s only attorney he didn’t have many friends) his brain must have broken. He was right in the middle of thinking of ways he could encourage the Smiths to enter a long and acrimonious divorce when he suddenly lost his taste for the law. He got up from his office chair and never returned.
At first, this brain brokenness revealed itself in mere agitation. He could barely sit for a few moments before he had to stand. He could stand for only a few seconds before he needed to move into another room. He could barely stay in that room for a few seconds before he needed to move to another room. He could barely stay focused long enough to remember to go to the toilet. (And sometimes he couldn’t).
His neighbors noticed him muttering as he wandered aimlessly around the village, sitting on benches, then standing, then running, occasionally asking directions to the nearest public toilets. As his troubles grew deeper and more apparent, the villagers often pointed out the public restrooms before he could even ask. He was saying things like, “Four is not as much as five. Is five enough? Could it be more? What is the last number? Why infinity? Then I can never have enough.”
The concept of infinity was a constant in his muttering, a taunting goal, an abstraction Geoffrey seemed to think existed only to make him feel small and inadequate. Sometimes he would ask directions to infinity, which brought him nothing but troubled looks and explanations that infinity wasn’t a place. One day he made it a point to ask every person in town to tell him the last number of all. The one that made infinity a moot point. That was the number he was after. He did not like feeling small. Feeling small made him feel afraid. Feeling afraid made him feel angry, although he did not know why.
When asked for the last number, most of the townspeople merely answered contemptuously that there was no such thing. Only May Anna Clark, a sturdy three year old in pink overalls, made the attempt.
“Eighty-ten,” she said decisively, as that was the only number that came to mind and it seemed large enough to be impressive.
After this he wandered around town muttering “Eighty-ten” to himself for some time, shaking his head.
Finally he came to a conclusion. “It can’t be stopped,” he would say. “Infinity can’t be stopped.”
After that his question to the villagers was, “Aren’t you afraid of infinity? It can’t be stopped and no one can achieve it.”
He received various answers. May Anna Clark simply stared at him and continued to lick her red swirled sucker as it dripped down her chin; she rightly guessed that a number wouldn’t answer this question.
Dr. Benjamin Johnston (while he was still extant), replied, “No. I’m afraid of cats.”
Ellen Smith, who was very much in love with her husband and who did not want an acrimonious divorce, said, “No. But I’m afraid that Charles might leave me someday.”
Martin Elliot said, “I’m afraid we’re never going to have another attorney and I would really like to sue the Marcotts because their dog keeps pooping in my yard.”
All in all, none of the answers were satisfactory. But he kept doggedly going from house to house and to the park and to the market to ask everyone he could find. He walked through the white picket fence with the red roses at the Anderson’s historic home with the broad porches and frightened the maid with the question. He found the Carpenters behind their red brick cottage on the patio, enjoying drinks, but they were about halfway to infinity themselves and found his question immoderately hilarious. He accosted Mr. Jones at the old fashioned two pump gas station where you still had to walk in to pay, but Mr. Jones just laughed and told him he was crazy. He was even less successful questioning two young couples entwined under the giant oak at the park, and when he interrupted a pick up soccer game, the teenagers actually threw the ball at his head.
He didn’t get an answer that helped him at all until he came to question the last person in town. It was the English instructor Ms. Schmidt. She was an outsider, young and opinionated, who had recently graduated the university and she was perhaps used to looking at questions more academically than the rest of the villagers, especially since she had gone through two years of graduate school and was now working on her thesis. Emily Schmidt had begun to suspect that living in this village probably would make a person crazy eventually, and she really couldn’t blame Geoffrey for finally going round the twist. In fact, in a way it seemed the most logical response to this place. She liked him better as a lunatic in fact, except for the occasional strong smell of urine; otherwise she might have begun to find him quite attractive with his strange questions and deep brown eyes. (As for Geoffrey, he was probably predisposed to listen to Ms. Emily Schmidt. He had been quite attracted to her pale freckled skin and her rather serious tortoise shell glasses that hid bright green eyes. He had only avoided asking her out by reminding himself how expensive a divorce could be. Then he had had a nightmare that involved her coming with a dump truck to take half of his stack of stored goods.)
What Emily Schmidt said was this, “Infinity is a silly thing to be worried about Geoffrey. It’s too big and you can’t get your mind wrapped around it. You can’t do anything about it. You need to find something more concrete to worry about.”
And suddenly he realized….she was right. Infinity was far too large and heavy. Infinity was an elephant and his worry was ant-sized in comparison. He suddenly pictured himself as an ant with a tiny spear desperately poking at the toe of the behemoth. No matter how crushingly heavy the weight of his fear and anger felt to him, it would never affect infinity. No, Emily was right. It would never do. He needed something to embody his fears. Something to blame. Something concrete and REAL and relatively small, a skin to wrap around his dreadful angst and anger and fear of inadequacy.
So from that day forth, Geoffrey was afraid of…giraffes. No one knew exactly how it happened. As a matter of fact, some of the villagers who had spent their whole lives there weren’t too sure what a giraffe was until Geoffrey started going on about them. Of course, they had seen them in school books and library books, but giraffes had never really registered in their minds. They were a practical and incurious people and honestly didn’t have any need to know about such exotic and unlikely creatures. Almost all of the villagers were of pretty much the same mind. Teach the practical. Teach what you know will be encountered. Giraffes were an unnecessary bit of fluff and fantasy. No real point to them.
When Geoffrey transferred his fear from Infinity to Giraffes it was spring in the village. The Sun was beginning to peek out from behind the mountains earlier and earlier. The air had quit slapping the villagers in the cheeks every time they walked out the door and caressed and cajoled them instead, like a psychotic and changeable lover. Every moment of warmth and light needed to be used, gardens dug, possessions aired out, streets and roofs mended. So when Geoffrey began his speeches in the public square, there were almost always people available to hear him.
He spoke about the great and terrible size of the giraffe. He preached about the aggression of the male giraffe during mating season. He had large poster displays of giraffes. On some of them he had obviously painted devil horns and mustaches. He had pictures, which he had obviously drawn himself, depicting giraffes committing bank robberies and picking pockets. He once gave a long speech on the terrible music taste of giraffes – he referenced heavy metal and had three very under-ripe tomatoes thrown at him by several of the soccer players he had previously inconvenienced. He returned the next day with his black eye and this time he had some very graphic although badly drawn pictures of a gang of giraffes murdering a chimpanzee. His pleas were very heartfelt, though obviously insane. Emily felt more and more sorry for him every day. And then a funny thing happened.
A few people in the village began to display a slight prejudice against giraffes. The town librarian was taken to task for displaying a children’s book that pictured a giraffe for the letter “G.” Actually, this always rather annoyed Emily too, but only because she felt it was too confusing to represent the soft “g” sound instead of the hard “g” of goat. Emily had been sitting at the library preparing for an upcoming class simply because she loved the smell of the old building and the way the light poured in through the tall leaded windows onto her book when a frazzled looking woman came in dragging her four year old child by the hand. The child was gripping a book with The Animal ABCs printed in a bright cartoony font on the front cover.
“But I like it, Mommy,” the child was saying.
The woman looked a little disconcerted and handed the book to the librarian. She looked around to see if anyone was listening and then said, in an almost apologetic tone, “You see, it has a giraffe in it. So if we could just swap it out. Please.”
The librarian looked confused. “A giraffe? But I don’t exactly see the problem?”
The mother looked around again and bit her lip. “Well, of course, I read this book when I was young, but that man keeps talking about them doesn’t he? And he,” she paused to jerk her head at the child, “Well, he had a nightmare about a giraffe just the other day, didn’t he?”
“I wouldn’t know,” said the librarian, perhaps feeling somewhat accused. “I mean, you can bring back a book and get another one any time. You don’t actually have to ask, you know.”
“Well,” said the harassed mother, “I’m telling you this because…well, because, you know he might not be the only one. I’m just not sure that children should be reading this book. You know….maybe not right now.” She clung fiercely to the little boy’s hand as though she were protecting him, though he was squirming so that Emily wondered how his arm remained in its socket.
“I would think,” said the librarian – he was looking increasingly exasperated, “that he might benefit from seeing a friendly and happy giraffe. That seems like the best cure for his nightmares.”
“Oh no,” said the offended mother. “I really just don’t think…He’s four, you know. Please just take it back.”
“Doesn’t he want to choose another?” asked the librarian.
“I just…” she stopped as the child nearly twisted out of her arm. “I just don’t know. Maybe later.” And she scurried out.
The only good that came out of the encounter was that Emily made friends with Eddie, the village librarian. Because from that day on, things slowly started to deteriorate and they needed each other.
Several mothers complained. They knew, of course they knew, that giraffes weren’t so bad, it was just that right now the kids were afraid of them. Some of their little ones had been having nightmares. They knew that giraffes didn’t commit bank robberies or murder chimpanzees. Of course not. But the aggression was real. When the internet was working they had looked up “male giraffe aggression.” Maybe giraffes were more dangerous than they thought. Some of the mothers took it upon themselves to remove any book from the library that had any information on giraffes. Just to prevent nightmares of course. And, of course, Geoffrey was an educated man. He had a law degree for goodness sakes. There had to be some truth to whatever he might say.
And some of the villagers, particularly those who had been the most prone to suing their neighbors after a long boring winter, began to agitate against giraffes as well. It seemed to be a sort of outlet for some of the simmering unrest created by the feeling of entrapment, the same sort of outlet that suing each other had been. And, of course, Geoffrey was really no longer capable of aiding them with their former pastime. The idea that giraffes were evil caught some sort of swirling current in this village of oddly practical people. It began to spread like a disease. The preacher at the old village church used the giraffe as a metaphor for wickedness. When confronted by Emily about this, he replied that he didn’t believe all of that nonsense himself, but it was a handy tool since his parishioners did believe it. School teachers began to tell their students to behave like humans and not giraffes.
In vain, Emily and Eddie protested that giraffes were grazing animals. They were actually quite peaceful. And they were not a threat to the village at all. No giraffes lived anywhere near the village. Emily tried to teach a lesson on giraffes but was reported to the principal who told her in no uncertain terms that his job depended on the parents trust and buy-in. (Emily almost punched him in the nose when he said buy-in. She felt ethically compelled to punch people who said buy-in and synergy and used acronyms on a regular basis. She felt this punching compulsion around the principal recurrently.) He noted that, of course, he didn’t believe any of that nonsense at all, but who was he to question the parents of his students. And what was the harm? There were no giraffes here in the village.
The whole thing came to a head one day when she was jogging in the park with Eddie. One of her students came running up to them and said simply, “You’ve got to see this.” They followed her to the town square, dread weighing so deeply on Emily that she was silent until she saw the terrible sight. Almost half the population of the town had turned out for an anti-giraffe protest. Speaker after speaker took the stage to spout terrible and egregiously false facts about giraffes. Oddly, they didn’t all agree with one another, but most seemed to agree that giraffes were an awful and growing problem. One speaker claimed that they were an alien race who had come and waited a hundred thousand years grazing but that soon they would throw off their disguises and take over the earth. Most people disagreed with this premise, but Emily could hear them grunting things like, “Well, of course, the fact that he’s crazy doesn’t prove that giraffes are not disagreeable.”
One man claimed that it had been proven that giraffes consumed so much vegetation including gardens and fields of crops that children who lived in countries where giraffes were found suffered and died from starvation. This was less outrageous than the previous claim and no one had proof to the contrary so the majority of the crowd seemed to agree that it was probably true. Someone else spoke about a rumor she had heard that the government would be releasing wild giraffes into the mountains around the village. When one man was heard to question the ability of giraffes to live in the mountains, the woman told him that she had heard the government had bred certain giraffes for this special purpose.
After about an hour of this madness, Emily felt a tug on her sweater. It was Eddie. He made a brief gesture toward some of the crowd at the back of the square close to where he and Emily were standing. Three older men stood staring at them, arms crossed, legs squarely apart, frowning. Apparently Emily and Eddie had made their status as doubters too well known. “Time to go,” Eddie whispered.
Emily and Eddie made the rounds and talked to the half of the townspeople who had chosen not to attend the protest. The Carpenters were three sheets to the wind as always and they found the whole situation funny. The Smiths said quite frankly that they were afraid to say anything and they couldn’t see why they should risk angering their neighbors over something that wasn’t a problem in the first place. The whole thing was a fantasy and it wouldn’t affect the town in the long run. Emily tried to note that since this particular fantasy was creating an atmosphere of fear and anger perhaps it was important, but the Smiths assured her that they figured the whole thing would blow over by fall. And so it went. The people who did not attend the anti-giraffe protest refused to consider it a problem, or they were afraid to consider it a problem, or they simply didn’t care because it didn’t really affect anyone.
As a last resort, they tried talking to Geoffrey. They found him sitting alone on a park bench, smiling and singing to himself. Oddly, he seemed far less agitated by the situation than the rest of the townspeople.
Emily tried first, “Geoffrey, please tell me you know all this stuff about giraffes is not true.”
Geoffrey simply smiled at her. “What is truth Emily? The people have fears. They have anger. They need somewhere to place it. Why not a creature that lives far from here, a creature they need never deal with at all. Why not take that angst and burn it up in public anger and then send it far away from us. We will all be better for it.”
Eddie recoiled and then said, “No one has ever been better for believing a lie, Geoffrey.”
Geoffrey smiled peacefully, “It isn’t a lie as such, you see. It’s an allegory of sorts. I am calmer now because I have taken all the badness and sadness and anger out of myself and given it to a creature far, far away where I will never have to deal with it again. Don’t you see what peace I have? Why can’t they all have that same peace? Why will you deny them peace?”
“That’s not peace!” said Emily. “Geoffrey they are not at peace. They are angry and they are becoming angrier at each other. You can’t gain peace by believing something that’s…that isn’t true because it will only lead to endless arguments. They are starting to fight with each other and to split into factions. You have to tell them that you made all of that stuff up.”
“No,” Geoffrey said quietly. “That will never do. They will burn through the anger. They will let out their badness and the giraffes will gallop away with it, using it to fuel their own aggressions which evolution has given them as a tool for survival. We will all be better for it. Let the anger burn. It will burn away as mine did.”
Eddie spoke up, “Your anger didn’t burn away dude; your brain did.”
Geoffrey replied, “Infinity is frightening. We can’t do anything about it. Infinity is real and engulfs us at every turn. It’s best to be frightened of smaller things. You told me so yourself Emily.” Here he reached for Emily’s hand and patted it.
“That’s not what I meant Geoffrey. It’s best to be frightened of things you can confront. Things you can do something about. Like stopping this really scary lie.” said Emily. And for one second Geoffrey’s eyes opened and he seemed to see her. But it faded almost immediately and his eyes drooped again, back into beatific complacency.
Emily started to speak up again, but Eddie tugged her arm. “It’s no use Em. He’s gone.” And they left. They packed their bags and Eddie’s cat Gordon and left the village that night. Emily’s small car was stuffed to the brim and they drove out at midnight to the soft yowls of Gordon, who was not a happy traveler.
On the way out of town, Emily noted, “Well, I guess they are just not a metaphorical people. They take things way too literally.”
“No, Em,” said Eddie, “They are an extremely metaphorical bunch. If they knew that they would be okay. It’s the fact they think they’re being practical that’s killing them.”
By the next spring, the village was in a shambles. There were posters of giraffes in nefarious poses pasted all around the village, but there were also posters of hippos in suggestive poses shooting guns or hippos shooting heroin or hippos committing violent crimes. The warm wind blew pieces of torn posters and banners playfully through the streets, as if to convince the residents to lighten up already, but the mood was not light. There were weekly protests in the town square, but sometimes the protestors were protesting other protestors. The village was now split because Mrs. Harriet Gunderson, who ran the village post office, had come to the conclusion that hippopotami were the real problem and were far more evil than giraffes. While reading an article about giraffes she happened to notice that more people were killed by hippos than any of the large predators in Africa and had immediately realized that hippos were the real killers.
People lost jobs because they believed in the evils of giraffes or because they were hippo people, or vice versa. There was a spaced out looking hippo painted in thick, dripping black paint on the side of Mr. Walter’s pristine white Victorian house. Some graffiti artist had painted a giraffe with devil horns on the courthouse wall. There were posters and poorly painted animals all over town. There were houses with broken windows. The poor town constable had finally given up on trying to discipline people for such actions. The town jail only held twelve people at a time.
The people who really didn’t believe any of the stories at all tried to go quietly about their jobs without saying much of anything with varying levels of success. Even the Carpenters had to sober up a little to avoid saying the wrong things to the wrong people and thus losing their jobs or their ability to barter. It had been a rough winter with no ingress of supplies at all for months on end and people were starting to eye the basements and attics of their neighbors, especially those on the opposite side of the giraffe question. Only Geoffrey seemed calm and he would occasionally pop up at a neighbor’s house bearing a gift from his stash. Even the hippo people saw him as a sort of prophet and everyone had great respect for his wide eyed sayings and air of preternatural calm. He had now taken to wearing a sheet around his shoulders, almost as a cape, and it fluttered around his threadbare suits as he walked the town.
Things might have gone on this way forever, but one day there was a change in the wind. It was a bright and balmy day and there was a strange scent hanging in the air, hot, bright, and pungent. It was an exotic smell. And from deep in the mountains there was a sort of rumbling. At first, many people believed it was the roaring of the streams from the melting snow. This added a certain nervous tension to the atmosphere since flash floods often delayed the shipment of goods. The rumbling grew louder. Geoffrey went from door to door, quietly asking everyone to meet in the town square for an important assembly. Though his demeanor was quiet, his eyes were large and wild. It was a potent combination and most of the townspeople obliged him. The hippo people gathered to the right side of the gazebo and the giraffe people to the left. As the people gathered, Geoffrey stood in the middle of the gazebo smiling like a happy child and waving them closer. The crowd, which had been muttering and buzzing to itself, stood silent and watched him with wonder. Geoffrey began to remind them of all of the things they had believed about giraffes and all of the evils of giraffes. As the hippo people began to murmur against him, he turned to them with compassion and told them lovingly that all they believed might be true and that one thing did not necessarily cancel out the other. They might all be right to hate and fear both hippos and giraffes. And then he paused, hand held sharply over his eyes, looking into the glaring sun. The rumbling became louder. Though no one noticed it but Geoffrey, a small car pulled up in the public parking lot across Main Street under a large and sturdy oak tree.
Geoffrey smiled and raised his hands to the skies. He shouted above the rumbling din, “A wise woman once told me that the only way to defeat fear is to face it. I did not believe her then, but I have been humbled. You have humbled me with your inability to find peace. Behold your fear! Face it!” Geoffrey then leapt from the gazebo and walked through the crowd toward the growing clamor. He waved at two small figures that had left the car and had climbed up the massive old oak.
“Emily! Eddie! I’m glad you could come!” he called out.
One of the figures put something to its lips. The people could barely hear the voice, “Run! Run for your lives!”
This strange warning did not move the villagers. Perhaps they were confused by the thundering of hooves and the odd hot smell in the air. Perhaps they didn’t know what to believe any more. At any rate, they were totally unprepared when the stampede of giraffes exploded into the square. Many of them hardly had time to think at all. One survivor remembered a great golden knot whirring and pushing in the direction of the square, brushing past the oak tree, swaying the two small people hidden in its branches but not dislodging them. He remembered thinking that the oak tree would have been a good place to be. And then the herd was upon them, a tangle of limbs and dust, screams and the sounds of cracking bone. He remembered the smell of blood and then a thick force pushed his head into a well of blackness. That was all.
After it was over, while the survivors tended to the wounded, Emily leaned over Geoffrey’s battered form. He was twisted almost beyond recognition, the sheet wound around his neck. He was struggling for breath and one arm was pinned beneath him.
“You were right Emily,” he reached for her with his good hand. “They could not release their fears as I could.” He coughed for a bit, spitting out blood. “They had to face them.”
“Oh Geoffrey, you moron,” said Emily, “You are always misinterpreting me. Giraffes only stampede if you frighten them. You should have shown them that they were peaceful grazing animals. That would have been the way to confront their fears.”
But it was too late. Geoffrey was dead. The wind blew in a great gust over the field of death and wreckage and a small white card fluttered by in the wind. Emily picked it up and read, “Stampedes ‘R’ Us – Exotic Animal Rentals.” She noticed May Anna standing at the side of the square, open-mouthed, staring at the carnage. She took the little girl’s hand and walked to Eddie and said, “After we get this cleaned up, let’s call the auto club and then go hang out at the library until they get here.”