|Chagrin River Review
Ian Breen and Nathaniel Minton
John Pater was not a good man or a bad man. Neither did he occupy the space between, but he was a man nonetheless. Proof came from the touch of steel that reduced his left hand by a thumb. Pain came in the silent breath before he screamed; he could never lie.
Of women he understood nothing, only that they were the figure beneath his skates, the mirror image that kept cutting without growing closer. Each night before sleep, hammers flinting anvils behind his closed eyes, he asked her what for, why not. Each morning, he got back on the road. He took solace in straightening rearview mirrors, smoothing his eyebrows, the truncated throb of his hand. When he passed his palm across his heart he touched the crease of her picture and remembered why he went to the funeral, why she didn’t. For both of them, the dead spoke.
He’d chosen the wrong site for the tower, he could admit that now. But her choice, wood instead of bone, had been an affront to God. How else to explain the mysterious shove, the failure of the safety bar, his missing left to match her missing right? Proof, he’d said, brandishing his jetting stump.
She was silent when the tower creaked, whined from location-induced misalignment of the sub-foundation. The screech of nails was a malignance to his ear. And why not? This was the difference between them. Her crumpled shoulders, his architecture. He reached for her hand, but she was gone.
Outside Oswego, he released the ocelots. It was JimBob’s sole request, as detailed in his will. They were to have done it together, he and she, but alas. As he watched, the fattest cat froze crossing the highway, ears laid flat, and was crushed by a semi. Next, the lake. He scattered his friend's ashes on the frozen surface and waited in his car until spring.
The day after the ice broke he returned to JimBob’s, burned the barn to cinders, and removed the safe with a backhoe. The house, practically held together by uric acid crystals, didn’t need his help. Inside the safe was a slip of paper. Two words were scribbled at the top: Bananas, which could have been a dietary suggestion or a denouncement, and Transubstantiation, a well-known ex-Catholic bar in Key South. Across the bottom: PS, don’t burn the barn.
Again, the road. If he stopped only for fuel he could be in Key South in nineteen hours. He considered calling ahead but decided not to change the situation on the ground. He wanted to walk in cold and see their terrible recognition, the way their faces tightened.
The Babel Society, where they’d met. Fools all, except for her; he couldn’t understand a word they said. When they’d split, taking his equations on fractal personality seismologies, the BS leader, a one-thumbed harpsichord virtuoso, had sworn revenge. Until JimBob’s note, Pater had thought their shared missing digits a coincidence.
He didn’t need to see blood. Offerman, the harpsichordist, was halfway to hell on a razor and too low for vengeance. The others, Dob McCully, Peck, the Roledeu family, Mr. and Mrs. Chalky, and a scattering of minor personalities, were too talkative to notice him. He waited for silence. Peck, named for his necklace of chicken beaks, saw him first. He elbowed Pa Roledeu, who cleared his throat loudly.
“I know what you made her do,” Pater said to Offerman’s back. “And I know she’s here. But I’m over it. And I’m ready to build with you.” He paused. “But I go up first.”
“Please, do not reduce me,” Offerman said. “I was born to a mother who never came home and my father built nothing that stood, but I’m a man with a strong back and the legs to climb, so if we build together we go up together. There is no first.”
“You still don’t see,” Pater said. “Strong minds, not strong backs. Fractals! The same pattern, small within large. The fractal of a ring of people arranged on mesh and borne up by backpack sails is a tower of the same. And those at the top touch Heaven.”
Pa Roledeu, wild-eyed, had had enough. He struck up his harp at the bleat of the trump and shouted, “I shall maintain you all upon our beaten path, ‘cause if the meaning of life ain’t living it, then the men who touch heaven get saved, and the men at the bottom enslaved."
For a long moment nobody moved. Then Pater said, “Goddamn it, Wiggly, put that bugle down and get out here.” The littlest Roledeu appeared from behind the bar, looking sheepish. “Don’t waste my time with puerile jokes.”
He plunked the jar containing his severed thumb on the counter and took up his hammer, belting his wrist to the wood. He spoke a single word, “Yes,” and then not again for quite some time. This was the business of nails that bound them in this life and the next, for each was born to build this spire—a meiotic reach for heaven.
Work began at dawn. They didn’t speak. Each knew his role and place, as the Prophet encoded. One day became years, though the sun never set, and their tower reached for the sky. Then, a halving, souls snapped like laundry from their flesh. Darkness. Out of it, a voice.
“Such as we finish so shall we begin, our tools and practice arrayed—a longitude of spirit, a latitude of mind—crossing from East, from West, from North, from South—our tower at the pivot, a spire in humility and grace, we neither seek nor strive, but are chemistry attained.”
As though toward a mirror or the skin of a frozen lake, Pater reached and saw her reach back. Below them, stretching countless to the beginning, the twisted chain of their ascent. Four digits each, gametic at last, they fused. Tower into mesa. Fractal iteration. One tooth in God’s infinite smile.
Ian Breen lives and writes in Western Massachusetts. His work has been published in Five Chapters, Roanoke Review, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Front Porch and elsewhere.
Nathaniel Minton lives in Maine. His writing has appeared in McSweeney's, Torpedo, Zyzzyva, and others.