Finally he was ready to talk.
I had brought him outside and showed him the trail and offered to walk with him if he wanted. He had set out, as I’d expected, alone, without a word. I had settled onto one of the stone benches on the patio—which Mr. Barnard always called a veranda—and, after a few minutes, had taken a cigar from my pocket and lit it with a sparker, feeling a little like Mr. Barnard myself.
I had told myself, while I sat there waiting, that we had told Corbin for his own good, that waiting would have meant deceit, that ultimately this was kinder. I had told myself that this was Mr. Conway’s decision and that Mr. Conway didn’t commonly make mistakes. I had told myself that Corbin seemed to be a bright kid and would undoubtedly have figured out the situation soon enough.
But Corbin’s eyes, as I remembered them, outweighed all this logic, and I wondered if for once Mr. Conway had miscalculated.
Also, something about Mr. Barnard’s explanation to him bothered me. I couldn’t put my finger on it; there wasn’t any particular loose end my mind was tugging at; but something—if I could find it—wasn’t quite right.
I had sat so long after finishing my cigar that I was considering starting on another, just to pass the time, when Corbin returned. He had obviously walked far enough, vigorously enough, to burn off some nervous energy. Equally obviously, he had stood, or more probably sat, looking out at the vast expanse of emptiness that was the barren mountainside—and at the enigmatic mass of rock and snow that was Karakal. You can’t long be surrounded by so much sky and bare rock and silence without being taken from behind with serenity. Comparative serenity, at least. In his case, not serenity, not tranquillity, but a certain stillness. He was visibly calm, visibly more tired, as he picked his way back to where I was and stood facing me.
I held out a cigar. He shook his head. “I don’t smoke.”
I put it back in my robe’s pocket. “How about talking? Want to talk?”
He smiled with half his face. “What’s to talk about?”
I motioned him to take a seat and after a moment’s hesitation he sat on the other end of the bench, extending his feet far forward and leaning back against the building, his hands interlocked behind his head, gazing up at the blue‑black sky.
“Dennis,” I said, “I know it’s hard for you to believe, but what you’re going through now, everybody here has gone through at one time or another. None of us—not one of us—came here of his own free will. God brought us here, if you want to put it that way.”
“I don’t believe in God,” he said shortly, almost contemptuously.
“All right, forget about God. Say it was life that brought us here. It amounts to the same thing. It isn’t something that anybody has chosen.”
Corbin didn’t bother to reply.
I knew that when his feet were firmly planted on the ground, he would be cock‑sure, even arrogant. But he’d been knocked off‑balance. Perhaps he would open up a little.
“Are you close to your family?”
The question was unexpected, I could see. He stopped looking off at the sky and looked at me instead. “Does that make any difference?”
“I don’t see what it has to do with anything, but I don’t have any brothers or sisters and my mother died when I was still in high school. My father is a jerk.”
“Are you married?”
He shook his head.
He shook his head again, impatiently. “Knock off the questions, okay? I don’t even have a steady girl friend, so I suppose that makes it okay that I’m stuck here now. My career doesn’t count for anything, what I want doesn’t matter, everything happens for the best. Except, my life isn’t here in your little dream world, it’s out in the real world. I’ve got friends and responsibilities out there. I don’t much feel like giving them all up for a monastery on the side of a mountain.”
Quite a vivid portrayal of the pain he was in. I already knew that Mr. Dennis Corbin did not ordinarily display his emotions. He reminded me of somebody I once knew.
“Listen, Dennis, I’m not going to sit here and just tell you to look on the bright side of things. It hurts. And it’s going to hurt like hell for a long time. I know.”
I did. But how could I convince him I did? I looked for an approach. “Something tells me you’re a reader, Dennis. That true? Read a lot?”
“Sure,” he said dismissively, not seeing where I was going.
“Fiction? Not just technical stuff?” There was that public library card. That wouldn’t have been for technical stuff, surely.
“Some. When you’re trying to keep up in three fields, though, you don’t have a lot of time for pleasure reading.”
“No, I’m sure you don’t, and you’ve been working particularly hard, it sounds like. Well, how about when you were a teenager, or in college? Much fiction then?”
I asked him to tell me some of his all‑time favorites, hoping there would be at least one I knew, and there was.
“The Virginian,” I said, echoing him. So that’s still in print. Great. Read it when I was 15. The young cowboy, on his own since he was 14. The young New England schoolteacher, worlds above him socially. The Virginian making his way in the world, tying to make her love him.“
[I was using The Virginian for my own purposes, but unexpectedly found myself moved by my memories of the pictures it painted. The wide‑open Western country, the forested mountains populated by bear and elk, the thousand miles of emptiness in the heart of the fledgling nation. Suddenly those imagined memories fused with real memories of sleepy creeks in the pine barrens and brilliant sunlit days amid the leafy canopy of the forest of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, and the icy streams of New Hampshire. I had to make an effort to prevent myself from getting lost in those pictures—and smells (pine needles)—and sounds (mourning doves. Mocking birds!).]
“If it’s one of your favorite books, something in it must have moved you.”
“I guess,” he said casually.
I smiled. “Relax. I don’t want to know what. I’m just pointing out that Owen Wister wrote that book before our fathers were born, but he touched us, just like he touched millions of others. Sure, everybody’s different, but not all that different.” A little reluctantly, I realized what I would have to do to try to help him. “Let me tell you a little story. True story, about myself. I was just about your age when I came down here, and I had even fewer reasons to like it here than you do.”
That aroused a faint flicker of interest. “Were you some kind of hot‑shot?”
“Not like you. I was just your ordinary garden‑variety flyboy. But I had my ties to the world, naturally.” My parents growing old, perhaps dying, without me. My brothers and sisters marrying and having kids I’d never see. Marianne. I was surprised to realize, as I sketched it out to him, that acceptance hadn’t removed—only altered—the pain. He heard it in my voice. He heard it as an echo of my own, and for the first time began to really accept the connection. So I found myself telling him about Christmas, 1963, my second Christmas at Shangri‑la, but the first after I’d accepted that I’d never again see the world and the people I’d left.
That was before Mr. Conway had begun my training, in the days when I was still merely a guest, filling my time as I pleased with chores, conversation, studies, reading—and radio.
Sometimes—but not too often, for I had left the world too recently to hear its voice without pain—Mr. Barnard and I would listen to the BBC and other broadcasts. It was from the BBC that I heard the inconceivable news that President Kennedy had been murdered. Mr. Barnard had heard the news first, and had summoned me, as he sometimes did, and I had assumed he wanted me to listen so that I could help him interpret some event for the others. No doubt he had that in mind too, but he did it primarily, I think, because he thought I’d want to know.
He’d seen a lot of the world, and he’d lived through many things, but he was about as shocked and incredulous as I was. Yes, there had been three other assassinations, but none since 1901. Now? In 1963? The fact took a while to sink in.
Then came a period of mourning, for I remembered Kennedy as an attractive, intensely alive person. Debating during the 1960 campaign. Decorating John Glenn. Integrating Old Miss. Getting the Soviet missiles out of Cuba. And I remembered sitting in this room, listening to this radio receiver, hearing him announcing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, ending nuclear testing in the atmosphere, underseas and in outer space. “A significant accomplishment,” Mr. Conway had said. “Perhaps the most significant turning point since Sarajevo, but in the right direction.” (I didn’t understand quite why he thought so.)
And now he was dead.
I couldn’t quite remember what Lyndon Johnson looked like, and couldn’t remember a thing about him except that he used to run the Senate. I wondered what my father’s reaction would be.
Probably it was Mr. Kennedy’s assassination, indirectly, that made that Christmas so hard. In the wake of the tragedy, I lost myself to the radio, listening for longer and longer stretches at a time. For the first few days, I switched from broadcast to broadcast, seeking news, hungering to hear more, as though continuous listening could somehow change what I listened to. But by Thanksgiving day, a few short days later, I was listening to anything. With enough channels and a proper location (and was Chang wrong about radio!) you can hear pretty nearly any kind of thing you want to hear, any time day or night. I spent some lonely December evenings alternating, as my mood changed, from classical to jazz. Naturally, the more I listened, the more I missed the world the sounds were coming from, the world beyond the mountains.
Christmas day, I knew before I got out of bed, was going to be hard. For that reason I stayed later in bed, missing my breakfast with Mr. Barnard entirely. (I half expected he’d come hunt me up, so ingrained was our morning habit, but in this I underestimated his perspicacity. Or maybe they’d been talking about me.)
Christmas, 1962, had been lonely, thinking of my family going about their Christmas routine without me. But in 1962 I’d thought I’d be back in the world by the following summer at the latest, and I’d felt a certain guilt over the shadow that my being reported missing would have cast over the day. Somehow even the guilt helped make the situation less grim.
But I’d only been missing two months then. The determined among them could find solid reason for hope. By Christmas, 1963, they had surely been reduced to hope against hope. And for me there was no hope, so I lay late in bed and wondered how I would get through the day.
I’d reached up and opened my curtain, and estimated by the angle of sunlight that it was perhaps 10 a.m. Half a day behind me—halfway around the world—my family would soon be going to Midnight Mass. And when Mass was over, they would each get to open one present from under the tree, and then they’d have a huge 1 a.m. breakfast of eggs and sausages and toast and pastries, and would stay up till three or so, talking, teasing, making bad jokes.
I had wondered, lying there, if maybe there wouldn’t be fewer jokes this year. Maybe with the first of the children dead (presumed dead) the holidays wouldn’t be quite what they were. Maybe there would be a pall on the holidays. A tear came to my eye, and I brushed it away in impatience and some irritation. What was I doing? Ridiculous to cry for myself. Especially since I wasn’t even dead! But they wouldn’t know that.
Why should that thought bring a stab of guilt? Not my fault, for God’s sake! Unless joining the Air Force could be considered to be the decision that brought me here. But by that reasoning, why not blame the fact that I’d read The Spirit of St. Louis? Think—I told myself—of something else. Or of nothing at all.
But that proved not so easy. Staring at my blank ceiling, I found myself wondering where Marianne would be spending Christmas. (With her parents, probably, at Virginia Beach.) I wondered if she still had her job in D.C. (Why not?) I wondered if she was still seeing David Feulner. (Think about something else.) I wondered what my family would do when they got up today. If Marianne still missed me. If she had already put me into her past. . . .
I threw off the covers, cupped on a pair of the thick warm socks I’d been given, got into a fresh robe and stuck my feet into my sandals. Maybe the day was going to be hard: I didn’t have to take it lying down. . . .
“It wasn’t any easier for me, Dennis.”
“So what happened?”
“Christmas Day? Oh, I functioned. Merry Christmas to this one and that one, many happy returns of the day to another one. A big festive meal in mid‑afternoon, exchange of presents— ”
“With 60 people?”
I smiled. “Everyone picks a name out of a dish, usually at Summer Solstice, and gives to that one person. Mr. Barnard gave me something he’d carved out of wood, a cat, curled up asleep. You wouldn’t think that’d be something he’d know how to do, would you? But he said he’d learned whittling from his father, and had taken it up again. Beautiful little thing. Must have taken him months to carve. Or maybe not. Remind me sometime to show it to you.
“Anyway, the day passed.” My instinct here was to skate lightly over the memory rather than relive it. I made myself participate in it. A little gift to Dennis Corbin that he’d never know about. “The worst time was that night. I got blind‑sided.”
Now, carefully. “You have to understand,” I said, looking him in the eyes, “that when I came here at age 26, I was very closed‑off emotionally.” A lot like you. “I was more used to thinking than feeling, and I really didn’t trust emotions much. Didn’t know how to express them, didn’t know how to listen to them and be taught by them, often couldn’t even be sure what I was feeling. If something made sense to me intellectually, I listened. If it made sense emotionally, I didn’t pay much attention.”
A little too abstract: I was losing his attention. “Until I started listening in on the radio in November, 1963, I thought I’d come to terms with being here. Like you, I figured it was just bad luck, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I did try to escape once . . . [a quick flash of keen interest here, which I saw him instantly suppress] but I found out it was impossible. So then I told myself there wasn’t anything to be done, and I told myself I’d accepted it.”
I looked at him again, trying to see if he really understood. “You see? I told myself I had to get resigned to it, so I assumed I was resigned to it, when I was just trying to tell myself what I ought to feel. But that all went out the window Christmas night.”
Trying to anticipate his reaction, I had to smile. “Probably you will think this is silly, but every so often the monks come together to sing and play instruments and entertain each other. When you are totally on your own, as we are, you make your own routine, and part of any routine has to be a break in the routine, if you follow me. So, we have a Christmas program and a Easter program and smaller celebrations throughout the year. Like any community.
“Well, that year I represented spectatordom, as Thoreau put it. Mr. Barnard and me. The others all participated, singing sometimes, forming part of the audience other times. I don’t know if that sounds dumb to you.”
“It doesn’t sound dumb,” Corbin said.
“Really, it was very nice and sort of homey. Reminded me of college. Well, anyway, as you can imagine, we had music from all over the world, China and India and all over. And it was interesting, and I told myself that I felt okay, I’d gotten through Christmas. I don’t know why I didn’t see it coming.
“The third piece was a bell choir. Eight of the monks put on gloves, gathered around a table, and each picked up a single copper bell. And just before they hit the first note, I shivered, and I could feel the hair rise on the back of my neck. Before it happened, somehow.”
Remembering, even 16 years later, I closed my eyes for a moment.
“I’d been congratulating myself on getting through a difficult day, and then, halfway up the side of this mountain in the middle of nowhere, they started moving their bells, note after note, and they were playing `Silent Night,’ that I’d heard every Christmas night of my life. I sat there and cried, Dennis. First time since I was a kid. I cried and cried, and couldn’t stop myself. Didn’t even want to stop myself. And that was very much unlike me.” And you. “It caught me by surprise.”
Corbin didn’t say anything, but his eyes were brighter than they had been. A little tell‑tale moisture? A little indication that I’d cracked his shell?
Sunnie came out and joined us. Corbin stood up when she appeared, greeted her politely, offered her his seat and in general conveyed by his body language his awareness of her presence. Good manners, I thought at first—then I realized that if Corbin didn’t have a steady girlfriend, it wasn’t from lack of opportunity. He was a born ladies’ man. Even in the presence of a woman 80 years his senior (assuming he believed our story) he automatically kept himself in practice.
“I was just telling Dennis about Christmas of ’63,” I said.
Sunnie’s expression was as serene, as placid, as ever, yet it conveyed to me the existence, if not the content, of some hidden purpose. I prepared myself to follow her lead as soon as I could discern it.
“Anyone here could tell a similar tale,” she said gravely. “We all, at one time or another, were plucked from the land of the living and yet were preserved from death. A fate difficult to bear, at times, but not without its compensations.”
“A long, long life,” Corbin said—and if his shoulders did not shrug, his voice did.
“Long, but scarcely boring,” she said. “Life is quite as full of challenge here as anywhere, for the very good reason that life is much the same here as elsewhere.” She had his attention, I could see. “It is, you know. We are as near God here as elsewhere. No nearer, no farther.”
“Dennis doesn’t believe in God,” I said neutrally.
“Do you not? Well, at that, disbelief is not so very discreditable, provided one doesn’t let one’s doubts harden into dogmatic certainty about what one cannot know.”
I saw that innocent remark catch Corbin on his blind side. He didn’t know how to respond.
“I say, you aren’t dogmatic about it, are you, Dennis? You do leave room for doubt?”
Corbin was tactful, but not deceitful. “I guess I don’t think about it all that much. But I haven’t seen much reason to believe in God. If he made this world, he’s out of practice.”
(Corbin’s statement had an unexpected effect on me. Instantly I was transported to the world of my childhood. Sometimes we would visit our cousins who lived on the Maurice River, down near Mauricetown where that placid river starts to become a tidal estuary. Sometimes four of us cousins would take their wood‑and‑canvas canoes up one of the tributary streams. Around us—above us—would be sea oats and sawgrass and wild flowers. Birds flitted around from clump to clump. We’d hear the splash of a fish, or the longer, startling splash of an otter or possum. I’d forgotten, in these long years stranded on a mountain, the feel of a small boat on the water; how your every movement shifts the balance, how the swell from passing boats lifts first bow, then stern, or rocks you from side to side, or, taken on the quarter, lifts and tilts you and turns you to one side, then lowers you while turning you to the other. And for some reason I’d forgotten the look of a light‑blue sky, seen filtered through a perforated screen of green leaves. I’d forgotten the odd, unbalanced, but not painful or unpleasant, strain on muscles—unlike any other I could think of—that comes from pulling a paddle through the water. I’d forgotten how much I’d loved those excursions. My last was—when? when I was 17 or so? No, I’d gone out my third summer of college. Nearly a quarter of a century, a long time to be away from open water. Odd it never struck me until it was precipitated by some “chance” remark of Corbin’s.)
Sunnie was looking at him quite quizzically.
“Everyone suffers disappointments,” she said. “But p’raps disappointment is merely the result of limited perspective. One wouldn’t expect playwrights and their characters to see matters in the same light. Not if the playwright is competent, and I trust this one is.”
Corbin smiled. Graciously, but a little condescendingly. No point in arguing with these people, he said without speaking. Intellectually they are children.
Sunnie naturally read his expression as easily as I did. More easily, most likely. “Devising clever machinery is a very useful life’s work, Dennis,” she said. “Very much underrated by those in other fields, I am sure. Machinery has done much to make our lives more comfortable. Perhaps even more useful, though in that instance there is reason to doubt. You will find ample scope for such activities in Shangri‑la, both here and in the valley below. Our lives here are difficult enough to make us welcome improvements that reduce drudgery. But there are other things to do in one’s life, you know.”
Apparently the morning had sharpened Corbin’s ability to hear things coming. “Such as?”
“You needn’t take anyone’s word on religious questions. Ask George.”
I was still lost in the marshes of the Maurice River. It took me a couple of seconds to come back. “Ask me. . .?”
“Must one depend upon others for the truth about God?”
I hadn’t ever put it in those terms. “Well,” I said, “I can only speak from my own experience, but it seems to me that when you’re talking about religion, you’re usually talking about two different things and mixing them up without noticing. I don’t mean you, Sunnie, I mean people do. You know, in general. There’s opinion, and there’s experience. If you’ve had the experience and you’re talking to somebody who hasn’t had it, you might as well give up. It’s the old thing about describing color to a blind man.”
Corbin was looking at me doubtfully, but was noticing that Sunnie approved.
“But even if you’re talking to somebody else who has had the experience, you’re likely to get into an argument, because even if you’ve both had exactly the same experience, it’s likely to mean different things to you. You try to fit it into the general framework of what you know.”
“New wine into old wineskins,” Sunnie said.
“Exactly. So if you’re a Buddhist talking to a Moslem, or a Christian talking to a Jew, or a mystic talking to somebody who may not have any religious background at all, you might or might not be able to realize that you’ve had the same experience, but you sure aren’t likely to agree on what it means, and you’ll be lucky if you don’t start regarding each other as perverters of the truth, or as ignorant, malicious fools.”
“Shangri‑la excepted,” Sunnie said lightly, “because we are so few, and we have had time to learn what each one’s words are intended to convey. We have realized that God speaks differently to different individuals.”
“And what’s nice about it is that there’s still room for people like Miss Brinklow, who don’t believe that.”
“Do you understand the implications of George’s remarks, with which, by the way, I am in full agreement? We can offer you the experience, so that you may judge for yourself.”
“I guess I had enough religion growing up,” Corbin said, a bit shortly.
Sunnie considered him gravely. “Your parents mandated your attendance at religious ceremonies, I take it? Services from which you derived no sustenance?”
“You got it.” He laughed. “That’s an understatement, if there ever was one.”
She was still watching him calmly, observantly. “Has it occurred to you that perhaps none of the people in that church had personally experienced the reality, however sincere they may have been? Does it seem at all possible that you have never seen the real thing?”
Judging from Corbin’s slightly pensive expression, the idea was striking him for the first time.
“You can find out, if you want to,” I said. I don’t think he believed me, and even if he did, he couldn’t know that I was talking about coming out of the world he’d always known into a new way of seeing, another world.
“For all you know, Dennis,” Sunnie said, “it may be that God has in mind for you a career altogether different from what you had in mind. Different, but not less important. Certainly not less difficult, or less interesting.”
All true. But I was suddenly struck by a strangely disquieting thought. Why the rush?
It was still considerably less than a day since Corbin had wakened. Already Mr. Conway had told him that life in Shangri‑la defied the aging process. Mr. Barnard had told him that he was trapped here. Now Sunnie had told him (hinted, anyway, and pretty strongly) that life here could increase life’s depth as well as its length.
All in one day.
Why the rush?