Back | Next


1 / “My favorite color is black”

It was white. That struck me most forcibly about the classroom when I first saw it. The walls gleamed like naked porcelain. The light fixtures glistened as if with an icing of frost. The floor tiles gleamed as clean and hard as ivory. Further, the white classroom was beautifully equipped. From the observation window—actually a two-way mirror, but we termed it otherwise—I saw drawing tables, easels, glass display cases, sliding chalk boards, and a small soundproofed projection unit in its hard white casing. In a way, the children in the room seemed mere extensions of the equipment.

Still observing, I spoke: “Do you show many films?”

Ms Bitler turned toward me in the darkness of the observation room. She had the slender facial profile of an African princess and skin of a dark chocolate. She wore two tiny pearls in the long lobes of her ears. When she replied, her voice had the acidic whine of a turning drill bit: “Sometimes, Dr Greer. We sometimes show films on hygiene.” She spoke resentfully. Her last word had a particular edge. From where did this resentment flow? “And films on the life sciences,” she added: “films geared to their individual IQs and suggestive of the modern predicament.”

“Very good,” I said. “I’d say you have that down pat.”

The children sat at the long tables working—with crayons and finger paints, with plastic T-squares and drafting pencils. A few shaped delicate white flowers from tissue paper, and elongated stems from wire and florist’s tape. A few were making mobiles from cardboard and tinfoil. One mobile hung in the center of the room, a silver mock-up of the atom, slowly turning.

“Which one is Emory?” I abruptly asked.

Again, her drill-bit voice: “I expect you can pick him out if you look.”

Annoyed, I turned to rebuke her.

But Ms Bitler was staring fixedly through the two-way mirror, her chin jutting out like the cowcatcher on an old locomotive. The analogy was strange, but she carried her pride like a cowcatcher, an instrument with which to scoop up obstacles and push them away. Her lips were trembling slightly. But despite my pejorative images, she didn’t look ridiculous. She looked strong.

I turned back to the window. “OK, Ms Bitler. I expect it’s that one.”

The boy looked like a diminutive monk. He had cloistered himself away from the others at the only single-seating table in the room, a desk with a slanted top in the farthest corner. Leaning arthritically forward, he perched atop a white enamel stool and pressed a crayon against a sheet of paper, almost as if copying a manuscript.

“Is he as creative as the others?”

“Isn’t that for you to determine?” She still had not looked at me.

“Well, then, Ms Bitler, let’s go in.”

We emerged from the observation room’s darkness into the enameled clarity of the classroom. A few children looked up, but Ms Bitler rotated her wrist and set them working again. The classroom had an antiseptic smell, and Emory seemed an immensely long way off, humpbacked and isolated. He continued his tedious copying movements, and even from across the white, out-of-time room, I had the feeling he was pressing his crayon mercilessly downward, his face grimacing, the tight blue veins in his forehead ticking in concentration. I could guess that much. Ms Bitler had said virtually nothing about him. But if he had not posed a small tunneling menace to classroom order, and to himself, I would not have been there. All I knew was his name.

Emory. Emory Coleman.

Now I stood in the midst of that encompassing whiteness staring at Emory’s back, the other children mere blurred pockets of color. If only Ms Bitler would blur away to an indistinguishable hue, leaving me to deal with the boy. She must have sensed my desire, for she stopped between two tables and let me proceed alone. Over the rustling of paper and the children’s hushed voices, my footsteps on the tiles were deafening. But Emory did not look up.

Locked away in its hard white casing, the projection unit at my back, I believed that in approaching the boy, I was walking through the beam of the machine’s lamps—as if my journey demanded the consecration of light. All of it could be explained, however. Ms Bitler had put me on edge, and I was projecting on this boy the flame of anxiety that she had lit in me.

At length, I reached Emory. I pulled up an unattended stool and peered over his shoulder. He still had not seen me. All else in the room itself was far away, drowned in a sea of stabbing light. I put my glasses on. Images immediately resolved, but Emory had detected the movement and looked back at me.

“This is my corner. Who said you could come in?”

“Would you like to see my passport? I have papers.”

“They won’t suffice,” he said, surprisingly. Then the corner of his mouth sagged, in chagrin or disappointment, and he “corrected” himself: “They aint any good.”

“No? I’m surprised anyone would stake out claims in a big, wide room like this.”

“It’s not so big.”

“Don’t you have a buddy in this group?”

“I don’t have any friends here.” Now, he was correcting my use of a patronizing colloquialism. “I don’t choose to have any.”

“That’s a straightforward example of antisocial behavior. Did you know that?”

His eyes became two lozenges of intense brown, which went opaque as he turned back to his drawing. He pressed his crayon against the paper so fiercely that it snapped between his fingers. I moved my stool beside his desk. Blue veins ticked on his forehead, and flakes of crayon wax lay scattered on his desktop like tiny pieces of shrapnel. His knuckles had gone white with the vehemence of his anger. “Whoa,” I murmured, and he threw the broken crayon on the floor. “C’mon, Emory: Your teacher’s going to think me an absolute incompetent.” He studied me warily, shuffled all his sketches into a pile, and dumped them into the cargo hold beneath the desk’s lift-top lid. I placed my hand on the desk. “Can’t I see them?”

Unaccountably, he said, “Sure.” His face softened and he reached into his desk, withdrew the sketches, and handed them to me. I shuffled through them, reflecting on a few but making no comments about either their craftsmanship or their unorthodox subject matter. The most obvious detail of his work was that he’d executed every sketch in black: black octopi, black starships with black bodies spilling from ruptured bulkheads, black children standing in showers of black fire, black eels and scorpions, black madonnas and burnt-out planets, witches with black capes, and weirdly lovely black flowers. One sketch struck me as morbidly poignant.

I held it up. “Would you explain this one?”


“How about telling me the title?”

He paused long enough to make it clear that the idea appealed to him and that he was creating his title extemporaneously.

Two Entities Exhumed.”

“How apt.”

It was, I suppose. But the sketch embodied a compassion that the boy’s awkward title did not really suggest. Two figures of uncertain age, sex, and race lay sprawled in faintly smoldering rubble, mere sockets for eyes, mouths blackened and agape. But the hand of one figure had reached out to touch the hand of the other so that, the desolation of the scene aside, an odd infusion of life appeared to be taking place.

“My favorite color’s black,” Emory said. His eyes were the color of brandy. His close-cropped hair was blond.

“You realize that may be an affectation?”

“No, sir,” he said. “It’s an assertion.”

“Oh, really? About what?”

He lifted his desktop and withdrew a tissue-paper flower, which he extended to me semi-skeptically. It was black, like those in the drawings—an aggressive parody of all the pale tissue-paper flowers the other children had made or were making. The tissue was so imbued with black stain that it seemed evil. I took the flower, half expecting a snake to strike from its ebony heart.

“Emory, this sort of thing carried too far becomes self-conscious.”

He grabbed the flower away, held it deftly in thin fingers and studied its corolla, the separate petals in its center. (Was he looking for my snake?)

“What is it? A black rose? A black carnation?”

He looked me full in the face. “If a flower could eclipse, it would look like this.”

“Especially a sunflower?”

“Nobody ever sees the sun,” Emory said.

“I’ve never heard of a flower eclipsing. You’re not using eclipse with its scientific meaning, are you?”

“No.” He placed the flower inside the desk again and took Two Entities Exhumed away from me. My last question had set a small black wall between us. The barrier was almost touchable. “That’s the assertion,” he said. “Now go away.”

“You believe in blackness?”

“Sometimes there aint anything else.”

“Do you believe in Ms Bitler?”

Emory laid his head on the desk, the blue veins in his temple electrically pulsing. I patted him high on his back, turned my stool to its original position, and faced about. The classroom regained focus, the whiteness of its walls, ceiling, floor, and equipment an ironic contrast to what I had just discovered. But for one slippery moment I thought I had grasped the gist of the boy’s final statement. Emory stayed in his corner. I returned to Ms Bitler past the well-behaved prodigies who manifested their gifts in a reasonable, socially acceptable manner.

Ms Bitler and I retreated to the observation chamber and stared through the two-way glass like visitors at an aquarium, together but never touching. “Well,” she said. I continued to regard the children. From that vantage, Emory was just one of the group. In the world of concrete, vitrifoam, and reinforced steel to which we all belonged, these children still believed in flowers, madonnas, and joyously wriggling eels. Inside the tight clean boxflats to which they returned after school, they still contrived horror stories about witches and ogres, still made up romances and fairy tales. With his insistence on black, even Emory was a romantic. But outside—above the huge bubble encysting Atlanta, beyond the architectural miracle housing us—a nightmare menaced all our dreams. We had forgotten the precise nature of that nightmare and its beginnings. We knew only the clean but finite world of the dome. Within that world, I still believed in the children, the starships that would transport us into the freedom of the void.

I turned. “Don’t say ‘Well’ again, Ms Bitler. I heard you the first time. What will you have the children do this afternoon?”

She faced me haughtily. “Integral calculus. Then a session of kinetic relations, dramas that the children extemporize. Then a break.”

“And after that?”

“A film,” she said defiantly. “On hygiene.”

“Great. These children possess quantitative intelligences in the genius range, and we’re showing them movies about their non-existent pubes.”

“I don’t formulate policy or curriculum, Dr Greer. I simply do my job.” She stood before me with awesome dignity, a white-frocked tribeswoman aloof from her wizened children. One dark hand fingered the single pearl on the pendant at her throat.

I backpedaled. “Ms Bitler, forgive me.”

“And maybe you should know something else: Emory Coleman, the little boy who loves the color black. He’s our projectionist. He runs the films.”

“Thank you. I’ll return this afternoon—in time for the film.”

I left Ms Bitler and the Van-Ed classroom. The outer corridor was hung with a series of abstract, geometric paintings, which nonetheless suggested starscapes. At last the corridor ended, and I took a lift-tube up to the heart of the education complex. I spent the next two hours at a private carrel in the library. I took notes and eShots of computer graphics. Our preoccupation with light becomes more and more intense as we learn the impenetrability of the dark.

2 / Two Biographies

Some of the things I tell you now, I can’t fully explain. We live in shells, inside architectural blisters, bound in cocoons of personal isolation, so I must tell this story as it happened. Little of it appears in the report I filed with the Vanguard Education Program, in whose computer banks, you see, logic and good order prevail.

No one intruded upon my work.

In the quiet I took advantage of my access to Van-Ed information. The media spec, a purse-lipped man with pale jowls, helped me find e-biographies of Ms Bitler and Master Coleman. Then he wandered off into the antiseptic stacks, losing himself amid CDs, DVDs, and immaculately bound old books. I heard his voice a time or two, distilled from afar, and knew that other people haunted this facility too.

No one intruded. I called up Fiona Bitler’s biography. I already knew that she was tall, black, aristocratic in bearing, and disinclined to let herself be patronized or bullied. But her biography told me things that could aid me in fathoming the mystery of Emory Coleman. At thirty-four, Ms Bitler possessed a doctorate in applied psychology from the University’s urban extension (which now comprised the whole University), but no one addressed her by the title she had earned because she refused to allow it. This fact made me consider her in a different light.

I read more, and, with maddening slowness, I began to learn about Fiona Bitler’s heart. Born in a stagnant backwater hamlet, she came into the geodesic cocoon of Atlanta with her parents during the third Evacuation Lottery. At six months, she had been alive only because of the random impartiality of the computers sifting the names of Georgia’s remaining rural inhabitants. Her father had been Amos Foe, and when the Foes arrived in Atlanta, authorities boarded them in a walk-up flat in an unrenovated ghetto building and gave her father custodial duties in a clearing house for organic foods, a stopgap position. The family did not thrive, but it did exist.

At the age of four, Fiona began to read. Amos Foe found her one evening on her knees on cold peeling linoleum, hunched over an open spread of newsprint, deciphering the letters by a legerdemain that neither parent could comprehend. Amos Foe and his wife had had only the barest rudiments of education, but their four-year-old daughter was sitting in the drafty half-darkness reading a newspaper.

The next day Amos took her to the educational complex.

He waited six hours in a carpeted anteroom but finally spoke with a tall lean man in a technician’s smock. This man, after talking with Fiona a few minutes, then made her father return to the anteroom. The interview lasted half an hour. The technician let Fiona read from a thick book with a stippled black binding, all the while watching the way she touched the words and magically deciphered them, saying each aloud tentatively. Then he returned Fiona to Amos.

The Foes received new accommodations. White rooms inside a white building that from the street looked monolithic. Their neighbors were black. But the Foes found themselves in a unique predicament. They did not conform to the patrician ethos of their neighbors’ blackness. Throttled by aloof white administrators and unfriendly blacks, the family turned inward. Fiona grew up in her books. At sixteen, she secured the nomination of one of her Van-Ed tutors, and the urban extension admitted her into its psychology programs. With Amos’s wary permission, she lived away from home, taking a room in the facility’s sexually and racially integrated dormitory-terraces. Eight floors up, sealed away in an interior section of the complex, she pursued her studies. The walls remained white, but the people had changed. Upon emerging from her books and obtaining her first degree, Fiona Foe married Carlo Bitler.

I recognized the man’s name. But I had never associated Carlo Bitler’s name with marriage, and now I had real trouble associating it with that deeply proud but somewhat resigned woman Fiona Bitler, whom I saw among the children as at once demanding and gentle, energetic and mildly haggard. She worked within the streamlined inefficiency of the System, but without especially liking it. She was not much like her husband, whom I knew by reputation.

Though this line of narrative may seem momentarily tangential, Carlo Bitler is important. He has a great deal to do with the story of Emory Coleman, as well as with his wife’s. Therefore, fix in your mind the vision and voice of Fiona Foe Bitler that you may understand the contrast that her husband provides. As quickly as possible, I will detail the points of his life that connect most significantly with his wife’s.

Before his marriage, Carlo Bitler had graduated from the urban extension with degrees in both theology and political science. A combination of the spiritual ideals and the crass realities, he often said. He was neither a black man nor a white man, but his soul gravitated to that which was dark and primordial in his makeup. He was wide-nostriled and narrow-lipped, his flesh the color of coffee, his eyes buoying within their irises small flecks of golden light like shattered coins. Unlike Fiona Foe, he had never experienced the stale self-negating existence of the ghetto, whose buildings were roach-infested anachronisms, but which unofficially received sanction and so still stood. Carlo Bitler damned the authorities for craftily yanking their caps over their eyes, for ignoring that which needed change.

He felt the inconsistencies. In a closed world purportedly cleansed of its inner pollutions, all the residual hates gnawed at his gut. But he fought these off, looked up, and realized that no help would reach to him from without. So he made noises that he hoped would send groundswells through the concrete, and tremors through every dome-supporting girder in Atlanta. He raised his voice. He preached from the pulpits of back-alley churches. Over the gray heads of beaten-down laborers, he shouted the necessary one- and two-syllable words. The city buried these people. He wanted them to come out of their rat holes. Always, Fiona watched from the backmost pews of the urine-stained sanctuaries to which his rudely formulated purpose had led him. She watched him out of an uncomprehending love that simply endured. She now held a teaching position; she would not question her husband’s calling. Finally, the electric glow that suffused Carlo Bitler as he reached out with tortured hands to his auditors became a physical adjunct to his person: he generated the charisma that brought to him the young.

As Fiona watched, others in our dome took note. Something was happening. Here was a man who should not be practicing such demagoguery, these others said. After all, didn’t he have full rights of citizenship, full protection under the Federal Urban Charter? Unlike his wife, unlike eighty percent of the middle-aged blacks who now found air and subsistence under the dome, he had never been an integer in an Evacuation Lottery. He held the franchise of any urban-born person. That he should be making these noises was a ludicrous affront to the city that sheltered him.

The pressures were of two kinds. Carlo Bitler had one such pressure inside him, and he released it in those innumerable harangues that returned him to Fiona drained and sallow. The other pressure was that which grew in proletarian whites. They remembered just enough history to envision domed Atlanta as a racial battleground. Those who felt so threatened had no outlet but invective through which to vent their bemusement and anger. For a time, the city ignored both factions.

Here, I stopped reading and stalked out of my study cage. I walked to a lift-tube. The book stacks through which I strode reeked of disinfectant. Somewhere the purse-lipped media spec was mumbling heedlessly. I rode a clear, clean lift-tube upward until an amber light clicked on in the glass carapace above my head. Then I was alone on the uppermost rampart of the Ed-complex. Instead of sky, only a colossal honeycombing of steel and opaque Plexiglas still challenged my belief. How had we accomplished this and why? We are inside a walnut, I thought. Who in our walnut is king of infinite space? On that high parapet, I mulled the remainder of what I had just learned, afresh or anew, about Carol Bitler:

He demanded and received the opportunity to address a combined session of the Urban Council and the Conclave of Ward Representatives. His clamor had bought the time but it didn’t buy much. They gave him twenty minutes on a slow Monday, between two sessions of a debate on fund allocations. Bitler’s remarks would provide an interlude, as if he were either jester or magician. From the rear of the chamber, he threaded his way to the platform, where he stood beside the podium to survey the slack-jawed legislators, black and white. He began. He rocked and leaned to define his own limits in space. In spite of the air-conditioning, the assembly chamber smelled of sweat. He said that, next time around, he would run for ward representative, so that he would not have to threaten in order to be heard. He railed at the legislators for worrying about chipped and irrelevant statues while ignoring the crumbling edifices in which black people slept.

“We are entombed! Every sick whelp among us. Yet this assembly aspires to bury us even deeper. Our surface buildings stink. They crawl with vermin. Yet you propose to replace them with still deeper ghettos. For several decades, the exigencies of history have spared you this confrontation. And now you are burying us—” He stopped, for a tiny red circle had appeared on the right side of his forehead. The report of the pistol sounded like a single amplified cough. He tried to complete his sentence. “. . . burying us in light . . .” The circle on Bitler’s forehead sent out crimson runners. It let them drop across his eyes. Soon the wash of blood obliterated his features so that his face was no more than a scarlet Greek mask. One arm still reaching toward the assembly members, he slumped in a heap beside the podium: death by assassination.

End of Carlo Bitler’s story, as it ties into Fiona’s.

Of course, there was an untidy aftermath, but that hardly concerns me. In the five years since her husband’s death, Fiona Bitler has sewn her life together, shunning the role of a martyr’s widow. She teaches children and does so within the cold white system her husband railed against. “No longer involved in socio-political activity,” the site hosting her biography declares. Authoritatively.

I looked down at the city. Moving air touched my garments. Beneath the dome, I could see the old Regency complex with its central tower and smoky blue turret, but also the blinding lofty cylinders of new structures. A dull, all-pervasive luminosity seemed to hang in the air like dust. But there was no dust, only light. We no longer fret the medieval terrors of the dark, I thought. Then I rode the lift-tube down.

When I returned to my carrel, the media spec rose diffidently from my seat. What was he doing here? “You’ve had a message, Dr Greer.”

“From whom?”

“Ms Bitler. She told me to tell you you’re going to miss this week’s instruction in hygiene. Her scheduled activities wait for no one.”

“No. I don’t imagine they do.”

“Will you need this carrel any longer, sir?”

“I suppose not.”

“A woman,” he said. “A film on hygiene.”

I smiled at him in irritated puzzlement and left. His empty whistling followed me.

3 / The Witch of Tooth Decay

I wrote that some of what I must tell you is beyond my power to explain. Let me reiterate. Occasionally people try to live so strenuously by the processes of logic that they become irrational. So don’t expect explanations of me. I refuse to add to the inanities into which you will rationalize yourselves. Darknesses of all sorts exist, and sometimes we had best simply accept them. They exist. Meanwhile, we carry the gnarled rudeness of our souls like shillelaghs, either stumping around or bludgeoning aside those things that annoy or confuse us.

It was nearly three when I stumped into the Van-Ed observation room. Through the two-way mirror, I saw Ms Bitler standing to one side of the classroom. Tables and chairs had been shoved against the walls. Engaged in kinetic relations, the children held forth on the ivory parquetry that they had cleared to enact a conflict of some kind. Two groups stood facing one another. Chins jutted forward bellicosely. Hands fisted and unfisted. There seemed to be, for all the jutting chins and clenched fists, an unwritten law that no one touched anyone else during these cathartic little dramas. Whether any such provision really existed, the children all obeyed it. I turned a dial beside the window. The voices of the children came lucidly through several small circular speakers.

They were arguing about the time when the geodesic domes of the twenty-five Urban Nuclei must eventually suffer demolition, releasing us to the sun. The two sides made no concessions, reached no compromises. My own charge, young Emory Coleman, belonged to neither group. He sat on the table supporting the antique projection unit, one lank white arm draped over its casing, his gaze resolutely on the floor.

The argument among the other children went on: “We should destroy the domes as soon as we can.” “We must keep them even after the conditions that prompted them no longer exist.” “The domes proclaim humankind’s stupidity.” “No, they demonstrate all that we can do through close cooperation.” And on it went.

Emory looked up at the two groups in forensic confrontation. His pale hairless legs, ending in a pair of dark blue moccasins, swung back and forth. “Why don’t you all shut up?” he said. “You’ve gone over your allotted time. We ought to be watching our movie.” He dropped the metal canister from which he’d already removed the reel of film and let it clatter on the floor.

Every head turned toward him as he threaded the flimsy old celluloid through the projector’s sprockets. The hard white casing sat on a rack beneath the table. He’d taken it off almost without our seeing, as easily as he might doff a beanie. Now he was standing, working efficiently at his sole gratifying duty.

The other children stared blankly for an instant, but Ms Bitler nodded a stringent approval and they moved their chairs into position for the film. Then Ms Bitler dialed the lighting down, turning the classroom into a glossy crypt.

Into this gleaming darkness, I finally stepped. My presence caused no stir.

Ms Bitler, with no evidence of surprise, turned and indicated a chair beside the projection unit.

Emory saw but ignored me. “It’s ready,” he said.

One of the children drew a white panel out of the wall at the opposite end of the room; the panel was a screen. Then we sat in darkness, Ms Bitler and I, looking over the children’s heads and studying Emory’s profile as he ran the obsolete projector.

The film flickered into view in veined splotches of gray and black, stuttering and blazing like a fire in a wind tunnel. The film was inestimably old, and the frames seemed to jump one another. Numerals burned on the celluloid and vanished: 9, 8, 5, 5, 4, 2, 1.

My eyes ached. “This is going to be a talkie, isn’t it?”

Ms Bitler looked at me but spoke to the boy: “Emory!”


“You’ve shown this before, haven’t you?” Her inflection did not suggest a question. “I know it’s not the scheduled one.”

“Yes, ma’am, I’ve shown it before—sort of.”

“I think once is enough.”

“No, ma’am. It’s not.”

The projector fed a gentle whirring into the otherwise quiet room. Chagrined or nonplused, Fiona Bitler leaned back in her chair and watched.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Just watch.” She refused to look at me. “Just let your eyes show you what later you’ll reject altogether.”

The meaningless lead-ins finally gave way to a series of scripted titles, all in flourishing longhand. Scratchy marching music came from the stereophonic speakers. Trumpets made scrolls of Victrola cacophony in the air. I half-expected to see phalanxes of goose-stepping soldiers come striding through the screen. Some of the children turned cautiously in their chairs. Was there some mistake? They looked at Emory. Undaunted, he continued to stare at the screen.

“Well,” I said. “At least there’s sound, isn’t there?”

The main title came up, in fancy longhand: The Dental Institute of America Presents . . . Your Teeth and the Witch of Tooth Decay. Trumpets and drums rattled from the speakers. The film jitterbugged on the screen.

“Where did he get this thing?”

“From his father.” Fiona Bitler still did not turn her head. “He got it once upon a time from his father.”

I will not dwell on the preliminaries. A narrator spoke of proper dental care. A crude line drawing showed the alignment of a person’s upper and lower dentures. Arrows appeared in miraculous animation to designate the individual teeth: molars, bicuspids, canines, incisors. There followed a quasi-clinical sequence in which a child demonstrated proper and improper methods of brushing. The film continued to pop and flicker, and the narrator—he never appeared, but I pictured him with a slick mustache and pompadour—lectured pontifically over the fading martial cadenzas of the trumpets. A boy in one chair murmured, “She’s coming,” and the children shifted in their chairs, preparing themselves. Envision, then, that same screen:

A close-up of the girl demonstrating brushing techniques. Another close-up, this one of her cherubic mouth. Her lips part. The camera takes us inside the moist cavern where her teeth rise like porcelain toadstools, their enamel glistening. The narrator goes on talking, but we ignore the drone of his voice. At last he ceases, as does the music. All we hear is the whirring projector, the odd static in the film itself. Into this hush comes the hag. Deep in the sacristy of the girl’s throat there appear a conical hat and, beneath it, a hideously sutured face. Flickering, the hag ascends from the epiglottis, balances on the child’s tongue, and nears us through a sheen of spittle. Toting a gnarled staff, she proceeds up the row of baby teeth, tapping on their crowns. At last, in a frightening close-up, she consumes the screen and grins malignantly. When she speaks, her accents are those of an earlier era’s touring-company player:

Acid, acid, stinging poison,

Mixed in cauldron, stirred in chalice,

Poured atop the clean crown chosen

Object of our special malice.

Fester, fester, let the sickness

Plague the pulpy heart within,

Rot the capsule ’round the quickness,

Send the crownlet crashing in.

Sour, sour, Carrie’s power.

Smokes the luster from your smile,

Chars to chalk the children’s hour

Grinning ashen, black and vile.

Carrie the hag falls silent. Her face contorts to make it even more hideous. She hunches her shoulders, scrunches her head on her neck, cocks an oyster eye at everyone. Seemingly, she cannot bear the stinging poison of light from the projector, the flooding light to which she owes her existence. She draws up her cape to shield her eyes. The screen showcases her agony. Inside the child’s mouth she crumples to her knees. Her conical hat totters. She looks into the projector lamp and haltingly recites:

Lamp of logic, burning straight

Through the grottos of our hate,

Let thy brightness amplify

The mote of love in each man’s eye.

Strangely, it appears that someone has lip-synched these words to the contorted movements of the witch’s mouth. What has logic to do with any of this? Then Carrie the hag falls silent and collapses in her billowing robe. The girl’s mouth closes, eclipsing her. Martial music begins again, as does the narrator’s unctuous blithering. The closing titles appear in flamboyant longhand, caught in the wavering filaments that have accompanied the entire film.

The screen goes white.

And at last the film goes slap slap slap on its take-up reel.

4 / Gerard Nettlinger’s Son

The lights were dialed up, the children shuffled their chairs into rows, and Emory replaced the film in its canister. Ms Bitler sat unmoving in a plastic chair that had been made for nine-year-olds. Her eyes had pulled down on her thoughts. She said nothing. Waiting to hear from her, the children grew restless. They whispered and fumbled with their school supplies. I stood and hurried to fill the vacuum.

“Well,” I said jovially, “what did you all think of the movie?”

“We’ve seen it before,” said one girl, speaking over her shoulder from a table. “But this time it was different.”

Emory looked at me. “I’ve closed the projector up. It’s time to go. We’re seven minutes late already.”

Ms Bitler at last stood. She smoothed the folds in her rumpled smock and turned bewildered eyes on Emory.

“It’s time to go,” she told the whole group. “Put your materials in your desks—all but the texts you’re to read tonight. Tomorrow we’ll have language, urban history, and a discussion about the effects of superstition on both primitive and rational societies. You all know which parts you’re supposed to take.” She looked over the top of Emory’s head. “You’d better take that film back to your family’s boxflat.”

“No. I must show it again. I’ll leave it on the projection stand.”

As the other children prepared to leave, Ms Bitler took an awkward step or two toward the boy. She had no idea what she intended to do, so I hurriedly interceded and spoke to him:

“If you could stay a few minutes, I’d like to talk to you.”

“No. I must arrive home when my parents expect me.”

“Your stepfather?” Ms Bitler asked.

Emory turned aside. The other children left by a clean white panel next to the door to the observation room, filing out in a blur of bright backpacks and red and yellow moccasins. Emory traversed the room, opened his desk, and removed every crayon sketch I had looked at earlier. He also removed the delicate black flower, cupping it in one palm. Across the intervening whiteness, he spoke to us:

“You may only look at the ones I show you.” Then he also left, his light blue moccasins padding through the door. With him he carried nothing but his drawings, and the flower. When he had gone, the classroom was childless.

I sat down on a table and turned toward Ms Bitler, who stood at one end of the room like a tall African sculpture.

“That was a very odd film.”

She said nothing.

“A very odd film on hygiene.”

She continued mute.

“I mean, even for these youngsters that was a pretty erudite presentation of a subject like tooth-brushing. Not to mention weird.”

“Didn’t you hear the little girl?”


“The one who said it was different this time. Emory sneaked that same film into the classroom once before, and showed it. But this time it was different.”

“How so?”

“Carrie. The witch. She didn’t speak in poetry. She didn’t slump into a pathetic heap after reciting a Blakeian stanza about love. It was different.”

“Are you sure Emory just didn’t bring in another film?”

“I remember. How often do you see a spliced and tattered movie from the middle of a previous century? Besides, everything was the same this time except for the behavior of that old witch.”

“A fitting prelude to a discussion on superstition.”

She looked at me sharply.

“Is he trying to annoy you? Or to make you hate him?”

“I don’t understand him well enough to say.” Ms. Bitler still hadn’t moved. She kept her face, darkly sorrel, averted from me. I tried something new.

“Why are you teaching, Ms Bitler? Some would hold that you’ve let the calling of your late husband slip by.”

“You have a long memory, Dr Greer, and a remarkable ability to make difficult associations.”

“My memory’s quite ordinary. But I’ve just read your Internet biography.”

“Well.” She touched the pendant at her throat. “You must be amused by the irony of my position in regard to Emory. Do you think it’s funny?”

She had lost me. “Irony?

“Let me tell you,” she said, approaching the table, “it’s not a coincidence that I’m teaching that child, no droll little quirk of our destinies.”

“I hadn’t presumed it was. What are you talking about?”

She stopped, and we made our positions clear. When Ms Bitler understood that I had reviewed only one of the biographies—hers—we sat in conference for an hour.

She believed Emory had suffered from understanding the mystery of his father. The boy now lived with his mother and a taciturn stepfather whom Fiona—for no good reason—distrusted. The boy’s real father had been a dentist, dead now for five years. While alive, he had made his living working for the urban Medicaid programs, caring for that segment of the population confined to sweat-stained tenements. His name had been Gerard Nettlinger. His background was Austrian, and he recalled, as if in the darkness of racial memory, a prenatal time when witches and demons had controlled the destinies of men. In the Urban Nucleus, however, these things capitulated to expediency and science. He became a dentist and a good one. He gathered to himself all the supplementary aids of the meticulous practitioner.

But he was a bitter man. The Medicaid professional received a fixed salary, one beyond which there was little advancement. The city provided; that was all. Gerard Nettlinger thus felt some antipathy toward a system that sheltered him, but that denied him the opportunity to govern his own rates. He wanted to practice among an elite cross-section of the city’s governing hierarchy, where, if not advancement, he might find other benefits.

Blacks—and the needs of blacks—prohibited him.

The outlet for Gerard Nettlinger’s bitterness toward the urban system was in his overweening contempt for those whom he involuntarily treated. He despised the patients into whose mouths he probed with tongue depressors and drill bit. He considered them beneath him. He despised their docility. He raged inwardly that his career should belong so utterly to their helplessness. The city was using him.

“I understand that,” Fiona told me. “He was discriminated against.”

But apparently, for all his bitterness, he worked the more fiercely. He stopped dragging himself to the boxlike office that the Urban Health Bureau had assigned him. Instead, he made voluntary trips to the ghettos. He set up his projector in walk-up flats, bullied the residents into becoming an audience, and showed out-of-date movies on the cracked plaster of the walls. He showed the film that Emory had just shown. Carrie the hag allowed him to play to the primordial Austrian instincts in him while simultaneously scaring his audience. After the films, he lectured from the tops of stairwells. Sometimes, in mid-street, he intimidated skinny black children into opening their mouths; there he angrily checked their teeth. But he hated those upon whom he so impulsively showered his attentions.

“His impulsiveness was not unlike Carlo’s. In some ways the two men were very much alike.”

Gerard Nettlinger followed the news. Many things enraged him. Although he had a young wife and a new child, the political affairs of the Urban Nucleus concerned him more than his family. He grew angrier. And, one slow Monday afternoon in a legislative assembly chamber, he vented his frustrations through the muzzle of a pistol. Sweating, he stood up in the midst of a body of politicians and fired at the gesticulating man beside the podium. His bullet created a victim. He knew he had succeeded even as four or five men grabbed his arms and bore him uncomplaining to the floor. Noise abounded, but he had heard his victim’s last prophetic words and almost sympathized with them: “. . . burying us in light . . .

Gerard Nettlinger died in a sterile chamber, executed by the city. His son was a prodigy, an immature genius who no longer carried his name but might conceivably carry his primordial guilt and social hatreds. Science did not think that acquired attitudes were in the genes—but which are acquired, which innate hatreds?

Fiona Bitler folded her hands, her story concluded.

“And you say it’s no coincidence you’re teaching the son of the man who killed your husband?”

“No,” she said. “There’s no coincidence. I plotted to obtain this position, showed credentials, and deluged the Van-Ed offices with references.”


“To get close to the boy.”

“So you could carve your initials into his psyche?”

Her nostrils visibly flared. “To teach him forgiveness, Dr Greer.”

“Whose forgiveness? Do you think the sins of the father are visited on the son? And if so, will Emory forgive you for forgiving him?”

Fiona Bitler made a helpless gesture. I held my glasses by a stem, letting them dangle, waiting with blurred eyes. “OK,” she said. “We haven’t gotten through to each other. Consequently, I haven’t done any real teaching.”

“The fault isn’t entirely yours.”

“If I thought so, I’d quit. Now, Dr Greer, let me straighten up in here and correlate my notes. You can always interrupt class tomorrow.”

“All right, tomorrow it is.” I stood up and surveyed the austere porcelain luster of the room. It seemed achingly empty now that the children had gone and our conversation was over. I asked a final question: “Why don’t you let anyone call you doctor?”

“Titles are barriers.”

“There are others, maybe more important ones.”

Ms Bitler extended her hand and I took it. The flesh was warm and supple and brown in my grasp. I held her hand a second or two longer than I should have, but her expression did not change. Then she let her hand drop, I nodded goodbye, and the two-way-mirror room swallowed me soundlessly. Standing in darkness, I looked out on the woman who seemed to be an African princess contemplating other worlds from an ice floe. That was the last time I really ever saw her.

Looking through that mirror, I had a heavy sense that someone had preceded me into the observation room. The air was warm, as if with the residual warmth of a spy who had just retreated. But no one was there. I calmed myself, opened the panel sealing off the aquarium, and left through the Van-Ed suite’s outer chamber. I was going home. My head throbbed with pulses of new information, and I wanted a drink.

One moment I was walking down an empty hallway, too preoccupied to look at the canvases spaced along the walls; the next I was facing a person who had seemingly manifested from the sterility of the corridor. I halted, my footfalls echoing away into the labyrinth. Emory Coleman faced me, his drawings clutched in one hand. With the other he thrust the purplish black flower at me. I took the flower and wondered where everyone else had gone and how exactly Emory had materialized.

“Are you giving me this?”

“You were talking about me, and about my father.”

“I thought you had to be home when your parents expected.”

“I went to that room where the teachers spy on us.”

“And you listened?”


“What did you think of our talk?”

“Neither of you learned anything. You never think about things that happen when it’s dark.”

“The way your father did?”

Emory eyed me disdainfully, blue veins working in his shaven blond temples. I felt exposed, vulnerable. The hall was a place of neither comfort nor privacy. Shifting from foot to foot in that open whiteness, I heard my thoughts echoing. Insidiously, the paintings on the walls retreated to a distant vanishing point.

“Is that why you brought the film, Emory? To make us think?”

“It’s a film on hygiene. Just like the Van-Ed people wanted. But there’s a witch in it, aint there?”

“Yes. There certainly is.”

“Ms Bitler ought to know about blackness, like my father did. But she doesn’t. That’s why I brought the film with the witch.”

“Look, Emory, Ms Bitler says the movie was different this time. So did one of the girls. Was it?” I stared into the black flower, still half expecting a coral snake to emerge from its corolla.

Emory ignored my question. “She wants to understand what my father did to her husband by understanding me. But she doesn’t want to understand me first. And that’s the reason she can’t do it, why she can’t touch me.”

“That’s difficult reasoning. Do you dislike Ms Bitler?”

“Sometimes. But I’d never do anything bad to her, even if it looked that way.”

“Emory, I don’t understand.”

“Do you know what paradox means?”

“I believe so.”

“Ms Bitler taught us that word, but she doesn’t know what it means. Hygiene and witches is paradoxical, though, isn’t it?”

“I’d say so.” If for no other reason than to appease you.

“Well, something else is paradoxical, too. Blackness is. Do you know how?”

“Please tell me.”

Emory composed his features, stared past me down the hall, and finally began reciting. “Black pushes things apart by separating and making outlines. But it’s the oldest color, and it pushes things together by covering them up so that they’re just alike. That’s what Ms Bitler doesn’t seem to understand.”

“I’ll try to remember that.” Immediately, I regretted my tone.

Emory’s eyes went opaque, like those of a lizard, a creature of another species. Before I could react, he knocked the black tissue-paper flower out of my hand. My response to his philosophizing had violated years of training. Now I watched the results of that error. Emory flew down the corridor and quickly disappeared into the brightness containing us both. I picked up the fallen blossom and turned it in my hands. Footfalls echoed.

I was alone again.

5 / If a Flower Could Eclipse

I spent the evening with my feet up on an oversized red ottoman, a cold glass of Scotch and water in my hand. Watching the patterns that my water-lantern threw against the white fiberboard, I stared at my ceiling. The shapes enthralled me. In the quiet, my mind emptied of all but the phantasmagoric images overhead and the slowly befogging incursions of the Scotch. I stared at the ceiling for two hours.

Then I stumbled to bed.

My cell phone’s ring woke me. It sounded inside my skull like the amplified whir of a dental drill. I imagined myself gagging as Gerard Nettlinger probed ruthlessly at my jaws. Perhaps I hadn’t come fully awake.


A voice curled into my ear, not to be mistaken for any other—a shrill contralto that I’d heard earlier in the day chanting about Carrie’s power. Unmistakably, it was the voice of a witch.

“Who the hell is this?” My mouth tasted as if I’d been chewing the tongue of an old canvas shoe, horribly wrong. “Ms Bitler—Fiona—is this your patented variety of a practical joke?”

A hesitant cackling. Then silence.

“C’mon, now, who is this?”

Nothing in response but the voice of the hag: Shakespearean accents that pieced together a message. I can’t remember if she recited her message in the trochaic meters of Emory’s film, but she clearly ordered me to follow her directions.

“Dr Greer, you will come to the educational complex . . . to the Van-Ed suite. . . . And you must come this very moment.”

I begged for elaboration, but my cell went dead. Groggy from sleep and alcohol, I pulled on a jacket and left the apartment. Fluorescents burned overhead in every corridor; crystal lift-tubes carried me up and down the gleaming levels of masonry; a transit-car whisked me through echoing stone vaults.

My stomach churned in anticipation.

In twenty minutes, I burst into the outer office of the Van-Ed suite. The door stood open, the panel sheathed inside the wall. Silence: the quiet of a cathedral sanctuary: a sentient hush. I activated the panel into the observation room, but saw nothing through the window. The classroom was an inscrutable black cave.

I knuckled the glass. “Ms Bitler, are you there? Fiona!”

Looking down at my other hand, I saw that I had crushed the black flower Emory had given me that afternoon. Without realizing how or why, I’d carried it with me all the way from my boxflat. Turning to the panel into the classroom, I found further evidence that Emory was manipulating my comings and goings. Taped to the middle of the panel was one of his drawings—the sketch he’d shown me fourteen hours ago. I removed the tape and held the sketch uncomprehendingly in my hands, along with the crushed paper flower. A legend, in flourishing longhand, ran beneath the two figures in the sketch. Two figures who touched in the rubble of Emory’s unspecified holocaust.

Only you should look at this one, the legend read. It explains.

It explained nothing. I held the drawing and the flower, and waited for something momentous to happen. I heard only my own breathing. And decided to find the prankster, whether pupil or teacher. I entered the classroom and dialed the lights up. No one. Rows of red and yellow chairs. Seven or eight revolving mobiles. The absence of any human presence was discouragingly palpable. I walked into the room, toward the corner where Emory had sequestered—the only desk in the room. Facing it, I heard the clatter of a movie canister on hard tiles. The noise jerked me around. No one. I was looking at the projection unit in its creamy white casting. The battered canister lay beside it. No sound but a fading clatter and my own fretful breathing.

What I did next has neither motive nor explanation.

I picked up the canister, took out the reel of film, set aside the projector casing, and carefully threaded the film through the machine’s sprockets. My hands were shaking, but I made no mistakes. Never before had I operated a projector; nothing in my work had required the use of a machine now altogether primitive and obsolete. But I operated this one. The screen was still in place. As the lead-in frames of numerals and letters flickered there, I dialed the lights down and perched forward on a plastic chair. At once numb and expectant, I concentrated on repressing the alcoholic blur that had seeped into my eyes. Victrola music. Trumpets.

What in God’s name had maneuvered me to this idiocy?

Envision the screen.

A crude chart depicts the upper and lower dentures. Animated arrows point out the bicuspids and molars. A little girl (one who has since grown old, died, and blown into the night as dust) is brushing her teeth. The narrator’s lubricated baritone slides back and forth in your ears. A close-up of the girl’s cherubic mouth.

Then the screen goes black. You can hear the film as it bunches in the sprockets and tears. But even as the film seems to be tearing, the picture reappears. But we are not gazing into the child’s huge mouth. No hag grins at us from her Carlsbad throat. Instead, the confrontation is something other, something terrifyingly other. You are looking at the aristocratic figure of Fiona Bitler, who stands in the middle of the very classroom that you are watching her stand in. The film shows her looking pensively at her folded hands, a secret preoccupation playing in her mind. She appears irredeemably isolated and alone. But maybe she is waiting. (I started and came to my feet during this initial sequence of frames, but the woman’s herky-jerky image assured me that she was indeed on film. I sat back down, shaking with disbelief.) Into this uneasy reverie, bouncing through the door like a miniature Mack Sennett cop, comes Emory Coleman. The action develops at twice the normal pace. Emory waves his hands, moving back and forth before Fiona in comical sparrow-like hops. She frowns, places her arms akimbo, tries to touch the boy’s face, and watches him skip away with mincingly censorious steps. The room appears to spin about their pirouetting bodies.

You realize there is no sound, merely a whirlpool of black and white ribbons.

But then Emory (on film) scurries to the projector, takes the film from its canister, winds it onto the machine, and points emphatically at the lighting dial. Fiona whirls to the dial and flicks her wrist, plunging the screen you are watching into darkness. You dimly see both figures in the darkened classroom; they stare toward the deeper screen that exists in their circumscribed celluloid world.

Now: Envision a screen within a screen.

The cinematic persons of Emory and Fiona are viewing the same film the boy showed that afternoon. But their movie begins with Carrie the hag coming forward from deep in the little girl’s throat. She fills the more removed of the two screens with her puckered eyes and stitched alligator’s mouth. But no longer does the action waltz by at twice its normal pace; Carrie’s slow smile forms in thirty dragging seconds of agonized stasis. Then the camera dollies back for a long shot, and Carrie steps clumsily out of the girl’s mouth. She hoists her ebony skirts over the child’s moist bottom lip and carefully plants one bony bare foot . . . into the classroom. She is still a two-dimensional character to you, but to the woman and the boy in that filmed classroom she is a three-dimensional reality, coexisting with them in time.

Draw back to your first screen: the real one.

Emory and Fiona rise. The witch in the classroom with them has descended from that other screen. Her eyes grow as wide and bright as outsized silver coins and she jabs a crooked finger at the two human beings who confront her. She draws a looping circle in the air. Fiona pulls the boy protectively to her body. He does not resist. The two of them face their antagonist, locked one against the other.

At that instant the screen bursts into color: red and yellow chairs, the violet tones of Carrie’s wrinkled visage, Emory’s soft blue moccasins, the warm chocolate of Fiona’s skin. Then Carrie sweeps the darkness of her cape over the screen and reduces everything again to black and white. A blinding phosphorescence blots out your vision. Glowworms swim in the water of your eyes.

You recover in time to witness a vivid tableau:

On the bonewhite floor lie the charred remains of both Emory Coleman and Fiona Bitler. Each face is punctuated with the black crater of a burnt-out mouth. Their hands are extended and touching.

Things concluded swiftly.

I did nothing so melodramatic as to scream or faint away, but I did rush forward from where I had been watching and stop in the middle of the room—exactly on the spot where the two lay outstretched and incinerated, exactly on that place where the film had shown them.

But nothing lay there.

Then I smelled sulfur and heard a sound like the popping of grease in a skillet. Again the room filled with light. I turned and saw flames skirling over the surface of the projector, threading between the spokes of the take-up reel, running across the curling film itself.

I waited for the fire to burn itself out. I waited for Atlanta’s dome to collapse in ruins of Plexiglas and tangled steel.

All that happened was that the burning stopped. I stood in the empty classroom. When I looked at my hands, I found that I was still clutching Emory’s flower. I let it slide to the floor. So pale were my hands that I thought myself stricken with a leprous disease. Ashes coated my palms.

And when I beheld that crumpled paper flower, I knew that it had done something decidedly other than eclipse.

Back | Next