|Apr/May 2009 Fiction|
The glass eye was put in Jonah Rabin's right socket when he was eleven years old. A stone from a slingshot came at him through the needles of a spruce tree. The incident took place at Young Israel camp in the mountains and the shooter was another orthodox boy whose parents had released him from the boiling hot city for a month of kosher cooking and canoeing.
Horrible as the accident was, what Jonah remembered even more vividly than the agony and the rage and the sudden blackness was the spectacle that preceded it: the strange sight of hundreds of skullcaps crowded together on the camp lake, bobbing like a flock of black, silken birds. The yarmulkes were perched atop the heads of young bearded men who had invaded the lake from a convoy of buses. They were there for a rally in support of the state of Israel, the budding kibbutzim and the gloriously successful Israeli army. The men looked partly like soldier recruits, partly like rabbis in training. Bare-chested, they stood in the shining lake, locked arms, and sang in Hebrew, filling the air with bold, wild songs of promise and destiny. On the shore Jonah stood and gaped, heart pounding with warrior pride, yet wondering what was wrong with him. Standing on the shore was exactly where he wanted to be, and no closer. He felt like a dog bred for the water but too timid to jump in after a stick.
In actuality there was a dog at the scene, but it was hardly timid. It was an eager black and white mutt that came running across the beach, leapt into the water, and attempted to join the frenzied pack. The mutt so annoyed two of the celebrants that they pounced on it, yanking its tail and slapping it until it retreated, violently paddling back to the shore.
The fever touched off by the mass singing was caught by the younger boys in camp and by the counselors. Days after the buses left, they were still circling around campfires, pretending to be Israeli soldiers, shouting out battle cries and slamming against each other in games of hand-to-hand combat.
A few nights a week the counselors brought the boys' and girls' camps together for hot dog cookouts followed by hora dancing. The dancing was always intense, but after the bobbing yarmulkes had come and gone, it was different, even hotter, more like a war dance. It was the morning after a particularly frenzied hora night that Jonah lost his eye. The boy with the slingshot was at the edge of the woods, shooting at branches, squirrels—anything that moved. The boy was not a bully. He did not get in fights. He was much like everyone else. The boy stood on a pile of earth pretending it was a sand dune and shouted he was gunning for Goliath.
At the height of Jonah's pain, when the eye felt like it had a red-hot coal in it, his mind fixed itself on the image of the black and white dog, terrified and churning up the water to get away.
In that half-blind moment, he first saw that he would become a protector of innocent animals. When he revealed this years later to his fiancé, a Camden, Maine, pediatrician named Anne Hanley, he used that exact phrase: "protector of innocent animals."
"Well, we're in the same business," Anne said. "But I do my work at the top of the food chain. And I've been known to sneak a meatball sub."
He was off in Bozeman—at a conference developing a declaration on wild horses—when the catastrophe struck, the discovery of Ethan's secret. It happened ten months before Jonah was to sign the boy up for Bar Mitzvah training, and it was Anne who stepped onto the minefield first—the horror of horrors on the computer screen. She caught the flash of steel out of the corner of her eye, entering Ethan's room just as he was clicking onto something else. The glaring image of the fat-barrelled handgun, which she later determined was a Glock 39, nearly pulled her across the room, right through the air.
She turned on her heels, kept a poker face, and waited until her only son ambled off to a friend's house. Soon as the door shut, she sat herself down, mowed through the cache and found all of his accomplices: Smith and Wesson, Luger, Uzi, Remington, Sturm-Ruger. The list went on and on. He had assembled a vast arsenal of firearm websites.
She remembered the Christmases and Hanukahs and birthdays, the years of artistic, creative, peace-loving presents they had showered on Ethan, more often than not with a loving word about why playing with guns was even worse than playing with fire or poison or knives. She paced and wrung her hands, then swung into action. Behind the locked door of her home office she went off on a telephone rampage, grilling physician colleagues all over the country. She tore into textbooks and crunched through all the professional med-sites. What she found out, from enough pundits, came as no surprise. In the world of science, it had all the bitter irony of original sin. Suppress a need, and it will fester and swell. Keep a gun out of a boy's hand, and he carries it in his mind—if you're lucky. In his heart, if you're not.
Jonah's stay in Bozeman with PETA gave Anne time and space to think it all out—the way she really wanted to, unilaterally, as a doctor and a mother. And Jonah sensed this with alarm, felt the distance coming from her right away, the moment the three of them met and hugged at the Bozeman airport. Hugged the way in-laws hug. The van that picked them up was driven by a yahoo in a cowboy hat who wore too much leather and smelled like a barn. The plan had always been they would take a family vacation out west, and that Anne and Ethan would fly in when Jonah's conference was over. But he assumed they would rent a car and head north to the Canadian border and some posh Alpine hotel nestled on a glacial lake. A place with jacketed waiters, a cider press, pedal boats, and a spa. That was what they had talked about, ripping glossy pages out of magazines.
Instead, the van turned off the highway forty miles at most from the airport and bounced over rutted red dirt and rocks. At a stand of charred trees, the driver let out a rodeo whoop and the vehicle swerved onto an old wagon path and labored through several switchbacks. Finally, they came to a roughhewn log arch studded with horseshoes.
"Is this your surprise?" he asked her. "Your idea of a vacation?"
"Roll down your window," she said, "and smell the sky."
They passed a corral packed with munching horses and entered a dusty compound of about two dozen small cabins made of honey-colored western logs. In the center loomed one giant cabin, on which the logs were thick as courthouse pillars. There the van bucked to a stop.
"A dude ranch, Anne?"
"Resort ranch. The best of the west. Look at Ethan. He's ecstatic—can't you see?"
Jonah climbed out, looked at the red dirt on the tires of the van. As he was tipping the driver, he stopped himself from speaking his mind, from asking if there were rattlesnakes hiding in the shadows under staircases.
Anne took his arm. "You're in good hands. And don't worry. The chef can do wonders with alfalfa sprouts."
To check in, they climbed a pyramid of thick, sun-baked planks leading to a deep wraparound porch and doors nearly as tall as the trees from which they had been cut. Inside the cool, cavernous lodge, they were met by young, fresh faces and warm smiles—and reassuring answers to every question they asked. If the driver had been buckaroo cornball, the hospitality staff was smartly professional, no less competent in bandannas and boots than they would have been in Armani gray.
Jonah's most pressing question he was unable to ask—not till later, when he was alone with his wife. It began to seep out, though, in the sweat and pallor that broke onto his face as he scanned the length and breadth of the huge log walls beyond the front desk. North, south, east and west, there was no escaping them: the bearded faces and horns and glass eyes staring into nowhere. A wall-to-wall mortuary of bison, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, antelopes. More taxidermy in one place than Jonah had ever seen.
Why had she brought him here? Why? He experienced it as a racial insult, this holocaust of animals, as if he and the glass-eyed herd were somehow of the same blood.
While Ethan slept and the stars shined, they tried to talk it out, and they were still trying when the sun rose burning over the red peaks.
They were assigned a "wrangler" named Tim, a Pepperdine graduate student who knew his way around goalposts and horse barns. His most important task, he explained, was to give them a taste of all the activities the ranch had to offer. "It's what makes us different," he said. "There's a lot more to us than feedbags and hay. Believe me, you could spend a month here without going near a saddle and you'd still have fun."
That said, item number one was a trail ride. Ethan with a youth group. He and Anne with two other couples. Jonah did it but didn't like it—sitting atop the bent creature like a fat conqueror—but he told himself he was riding the horse, not eating it, and maybe he was even holding off its day at the glue factory. Under a searing sky, they clip-clopped to the very top of an arid peak, whose color and texture was like stale cinnamon. There Tim stopped the show and let them wander off for lunch in the privacy of a parched, leafless thicket. Jonah was aware of Anne watching him eat his salad. It made him think of the way a hunting lioness watches grazing zebra. When he slid the last jicama slice in his mouth, she pounced, telling him everything and not inviting or even accepting any true questions. He felt she had lived so intensely alone with the answers, she couldn't see why there were any questions left.
As he listened to her describe the day of horror, he pictured Ethan—with that young Einstein look of his—a willing prisoner of a bedroom desk and a fat plastic cup of blue slurpy soda, his every pore oozing the zeal of a lovable bug-eye bent on winning some science fair. He pictured all of this pimply ardor pouring into the computer screen—for what? If only it had been huge hooters or ass cheeks ballooned by Photoshop. But this, this abomination Anne described, the hideous gleaming barrel of a Glock, the very name invoking a bestial middle-earth monster... it made him wish he hadn't eaten the salad, hadn't even swigged water. The more information he took in, anything besides air moving through his gut might just as well have been battery acid.
He picked up a pebble, red with trail dust, and threw it into the wind. "Is it our fault? It is. It is. All our fault."
"Does it matter? Stop thinking about yourself. This isn't about your guilt."
"I said our..."
"I heard you. And I said stop thinking about yourself. Can you do that? I want you to hear what I have to say."
But before two sentences were out of her mouth, he wanted to turn his back on her and the whole lot of them, the riders and the ridden, and pick his way down the mountain on foot. Anything to not hear another syllable of what she was proposing.
After years of not even letting Ethan near a water pistol, she would have them do a total about-face. They would become pro-gun.
No longer, Anne announced, would they find Ethan hiding in the hard drive with his magnums and calibers. He would now have a mother and father who preached virtuous marksmanship. In their house the subject would be open and above board. There would be dialog, not denial. Bookshelves could come down and, yes, a rifle rack could even go up.
"If we make him an outlaw at home he'll become one in the street," she declared. "The syndrome has been documented up and down. I'll show you chapter and verse."
Jonah scooped a handful of dust, dark as dried blood, and sifted it through his fingers. A part of him wanted to smear it across his face and chest. "So what do you want me to do, join the NRA?"
The jaw stiffened."How many times do I have to say it, Jonah? This is not about you."
It was Day Four, just after dawn. The three of them trudged across the dry weedy lawn to breakfast in the big lodge. They sat at long western style tables with other East Coast families, encircled by the great stuffed heads peering on high over their granola bowls. As they finished up, Tim came by, punctual as a rooster. He poured them coffee and handed out seven-grain muffins. "No worries," he said, studying his clipboard, "today you have it easy." He led them outside, looked up at the sky and grinned. "Perfect light, couldn't be better. You folks just follow me over the ridge and, Ethan, you be sure and wipe that sleep from your eyes."
At the bottom of the small slope was a flat basin, the harsh, short grass parched like a brown crewcut. Tim was greeted by an older man in guide apparel, a hulking version of the ruddy male you see in Orvis catalogs. In back of him were a half dozen small stations of some sort, machine-driven clusters of upward-angling stacks, all brick-colored. A final station was cloaked in khaki canvas.
Tim excused himself and wandered back over the ridge, leaving them alone with the Orvis man. He mopped his brow, adjusted the buckle on his paunch, and came forward in a rush of gruff warmth, eclipsing Jonah's pudgy hand in his leathery one. Up close, he smelled of motor oil and grass clippings.
"Great day," he boomed. "Let's get cracking." He turned and yanked the khaki canvas away, revealing a stand of shotguns, a good dozen of them.
Jonah would never forget the instant the guns were revealed or how fast and efficient his one seeing eye operated. The first shocking flash was the guns themselves, the black steel of the barrels aiming straight at the perfect sky. But in the very same instant he caught the fervor exploding in Ethan's face, the innocuous nerd-eyes flaming like a ravenous wolf's. Anne caught it, too. She flared like a great bird and spread herself in front of Ethan, hiding the manic thing that gripped her son from the big-handed ranch man.
He lumbered towards her with a courtly grin. "Let's do it ladies first. That's the proper way out here."
"But we're not from out here," Anne said, forcing a grin of her own to mirror his—and not yielding an inch of ground. With Ethan at her back, she pointed at Jonah, bristling yet pleading. "My husband goes first. Please, I insist."
Jonah did as his wife wished—and did as the Orvis man wished, too—hoisting the weapon he was handed and obediently yelling "Pull" before each clay pigeon was flung into the air. He tracked the target with his good eye, squeezed the trigger and winced as the shotgun butt kicked back into the soft hollow of his under-shoulder. From start to finish, the experience was like a wretched punishment. Bruised flesh and not even one glimmer of prowess. He couldn't hit a single target. He lacked the aptitude as surely as he lacked the stomach—and, turning to the Orvis man, he actually said, in the most fawning of voices, that he lacked the eye.
Eventually, Anne and Ethan shot, too, missing the mark only slightly less often than Jonah had. But at the end Anne turned enthusiastic, peppering the gun-keeper with questions about stance and technique. Too many questions. And as Jonah's day wore on, the whole morning with the guns and the clay pigeons took on the dark aura of betrayal, an act of treason by his own wife. Moment by moment the darkness of the thought deepened until it became demonic, and Jonah found he now carried a solemn conviction that his first-born son had been stolen from him.
The afternoon's activity was supposed to be a whitewater float trip, but Jonah fabricated a work excuse while they were in the cabin getting ready. He said he had been hit with a sudden email squall that would occupy him for hours, and he phoned Tim and canceled himself off the raft. Standing on the cabin doorstep, he lost himself in a huge pocket of time watching Anne and Ethan, with their bright, bouncy gear, head down the trail to the gorge and the rapids. Most of it was spent studying their wake, the emptiness of the path long after they had turned and gone beyond it, without so much as a look back at him. What lingered there, the hollow aftermath of light and air, finally became unbearable. He felt it as a gash in the planet and in his own being, the gut-place that had been ripped open when his boy, his flesh and blood, had been snatched from him and given over to her. To her—and to her side of the human race.
Later in the day he left the cabin. He made his way over now-familiar territory, the sun-beaten, treeless center of the compound, weighed down by what seemed like a sudden expansion of terrain—more steps to take, more ground to cover just to reach the shade of the main lodge. Even the planks of the staircase seemed steeper, but once inside he knew this was the right place to be—cool, dark, virtually unoccupied—the quiet time between lunch and dinner when all of the guests were off on their hikes and rides and river trips.
As he stood in the shadows of the great doors, he had the sense of deepening visual power, the ability to see a world beyond what was in front of him. It was a perspective so different from that of his good eye he felt it must be the miraculous awakening of his blinded one.
Of the scores of empty tables and chairs, he chose a place where the seating position and the light were best for viewing the upper walls. Someone, another eager collegiate like Tim, came over for his drink order, the steps of his cowboy boots echoing to the rafters. He left and marched back promptly with a tall iced tea and a small, clear pitcher of simple syrup. Jonah held the tea but did not sip it. The spectacle above was so riveting, it pulled at all the energy in his face, jaw to brow. From above, they surrounded him like a pantheon of martyrs—the shaggy, antlered beasts of the mountains and prairies—beheaded, drained of all blood, blind yet somehow staring down at him. In the play of light around the ceiling their glass eyes sparked and flared.
Somehow the display of grim dazzle—so many heads, so many pairs of eyes—brought to mind the day at the lake, the water flashing and the sea of yarmulkes, and how he had stayed back by himself on the shore while the others waded in, locking their arms and shouting songs of battle and triumph. He remembered the terror of the black and white dog and, just as vividly, he remembered how different from the others he had felt, how unwilling to leave his spot on the shore, and now an old phrase suddenly crossed his mind: Wandering Jew. Which Jonah now felt meant not an exile of a people, but an exile of one.