Between Daphne and Willow Pond stood another complication—an old man holding blue light.
He was alone on a day when generalized bleakness was forecast for much of New England. Things were no rosier in the country beyond. The Commander in Chief had just secured the Senate’s high-five to attack a country that posed no threat to American soil. A terrorist bomb in Bali had just killed and injured hundreds, reminding Americans of the at-large status of those who posed a mighty threat to their soil.
It was only noon and already the complications had piled themselves on, beginning with the biologist and his foraged heart.
“I feel so calm these days,” Victor Slocum confessed on arrival at the specimen hall. “You can see it, can’t you? Can’t you see it, Daphne? Can’t you feel it?”
Her feelings had roots that went straight down rather than out, but she managed to nod.
“It’s amazing how I do everything so calmly,” he went on. “I used to brag to people, ‘I’m a total type A, know what I mean?’ I was a bastard with anyone wasting my time. And now”—like a thespian he breathed majestically in and expansively out—“everything so calmly.”
Calmly her mind repeated as the Harvard professor talked genetics and birds. Calmly is what they advised during fire drills: Exit calmly and no one winds up dead. But wasn’t death the one thing you’d explicitly panic over, the thing to cause even flaccid hearts to leap into throats and throats to erupt into shouts and shouts to lead to irrational behavior like grabbing a gun and shooting the person standing closest?
“Daphne, are you all right?” he stopped himself to ask, prying his nimble mind from the limitless potential of avian corpses.
She had no rational reason for fleeing the specimen hall—or for flagging a taxi on Kirkland and directing the driver to Mount Auburn’s gates. Once inside those gates, however, she was able to breathe like Victor Slocum. She felt at home amid the rolling acres of ashes and dust—the famous and infamous, the merely historical, the utterly forgotten. She never expected to wind up there but always had something to do when she arrived: place two nickels on top of Buckminster Fuller. There was this, there was a segue to collect pine needles for making tea, and then there was a complication named Ethan.
“Screw Ethan, is that it? It’s Screw Ethan Day and I didn’t get the memo!”
She had stopped for needles and was found by him, this popup confidant shouting into his phone.
“I said fuck your fucking Outlook, Emily!”
Brochures rhapsodized about Mount Auburn being “a special place for quiet reflection,” but few of the living arrived here alone, and those who did rarely kept to themselves. For the second time in an hour, Daphne felt the need to flee—this time taking Halcyon Avenue to Christian Science’s Queen Mother.
It was over the top, the urban legend surrounding Mary Baker Eddy—that the sprawling memorial featuring a miniature lake with perpetually restocked swans also included an in-crypt phone line. The rationale seemed to be that when Mary was awoken from death’s slumber, she’d be able to dial Christian Science 911 to get someone to spring her.
Daphne always wondered why Mary didn’t trust Jesus to go the extra mile. After all, once he got past the big decision to reactivate her card, why wouldn’t he plop her down in Times Square with a new set of clothes and cab fare—maybe even a ticket to Letterman? But it was also possible that the phone line was a shrewd enticement, an Oh, yoo-hoo to show that Mary had done half of Jesus’ legwork for him. Whatever the logic, you had to marvel at her uncanny foresight—that the first thing she’d want to touch when Christ performed the Lazarus Maneuver would be a phone.
“Fuck time!” Daphne heard from the voice called Ethan, now trailing her on Halcyon.
Within the space of a second she did an about-face, swapping out Mary and her phone line for the destination of Willow Pond, where in the summer you could watch Jacobean drama unfold in the form of a bullfrog lunging at and barely missing a dragonfly and then a great blue heron lunging at and barely missing selfsame frog.
And now, after so much ado, standing in her way was this old man with his blue light.
There needs to be someone she thought as she assessed the degree of his solitude. His khaki windbreaker bore the recognizable plaid of privilege in its hood, but this was no match for generalized bleakness. There needs to be someone she muttered—someone to pluck him from this dismal day and tuck him safely into a still life . . . armchair, cup of tea, the kind of purring lap cat that Mark Twain telegraphed ahead for hotels to supply him with.
The clouds had at some point stopped churning. Their swag of gray fell loosely across the sky, permitting faint illumination of the earth below, like Haarlem in a sheen of oil.
“Henry James declared that the most beautiful words in the English language are summer afternoon.”
The light-holder had seen her; there was no turning back.
“Too bad we’re not living one!” she hollered, more so to the world.
The reservoir of mist seemed to melt around the blue radiating from his hand. “A place where imagination is possible,” he continued, doing his all to achieve the volume of a shout.
Something made her move to see what had been underfoot. It was a metal plate with a number—252—paid for by someone waiting to die. “Are you talking about here?” she asked, looking up.
“Faith and believing,” he went on happily, “the divine milieu.” He folded the phone in his hand, causing the blue light to disappear.
“Divine milieu,” she hollered back. “You don’t hear people say things like that.”
He held out his hand as he began to walk toward her; she ran to him to ensure that nothing bad came of it.
“Linus Steinbrenner,” he declared when she gently shook the hand with enormous liver spots.
His counteraction was to drop the phone into his jacket pocket and clasp his other hand—on which the spots barely left any flesh-tone visible, like a map of Occupied France—over the back of hers.
“Can I ask,” she ventured, staring at his sagging pocket, “why the phone?”
“My daughters worry.”
“You don’t strike me as the kind of person who’d use a phone here.”
“Is that considered bad form?” he asked, looking around. “Placing a call from a cemetery?”
“Do you really need to call someone right now?”
This only conjured a smile. “A question similar to Paul’s to the Corinthians: ‘Why am I in peril every hour?’ ”
“For me,” she confessed, “having or not having constant access to a phone doesn’t erase the hourly peril.”
“That you are pleasantly conversing with me,” he began, raising his shaky hand, index finger poised to underscore his point. “That is something.”
“Yeah,” she said with an unintended smile. For someone to choose to speak to Daphne Passerine unbidden—that was indeed something.
“Sit?” he asked, motioning toward the pond-side bench.
She helped him lower his body onto the slats and then sat beside him.
“I reserve a special reverence for your name,” he said.
She winced with remembered guilt. “Sometimes I lie about it to strangers.”
“Never lie when you don’t need to,” he advised in a dire tone. “Needing to lie is anguish enough.”
She nodded as if no one had ever warned her against telling lies. “What about my name do you revere?”
“I find the story of Daphne and Apollo an extraordinarily good one, rich with lessons for individuals and nations.”
“People generally don’t do much with my name except misspell it.”
He smiled, apparently wanting more.
“There’s a Daphne Path here, near the main gate.”
He continued to smile.
“Someone I once knew told me, ‘I was lost, and then I found myself on the Daphne Path.’ Although he probably made that up.”
He was intrigued. “Which part? That he was lost or that the Daphne Path was where he found himself?”
“Geez, I know who you are!”
Her desire to change the subject was conveniently concurrent with this sudden burst of recognition.
“Man, I feel so stupid! I think of your name with the likes of George Marshall and Dean Acheson.”
“Elder statesmen of the elder statesmen.”
“Oh, of course,” she said. “You couldn’t be that old.”
“Or that dead.”
She offered him her hand to shake a second time, saying this was indeed an honor. Then she apologized because that seemed to imply that meeting him would not have been an honor had he not been Linus Steinbrenner the diplomat and historian.
“My relevance to contemporary affairs is this,” he began, clearing his throat. “Magazine fact-checkers place wagers before it is verified that I’m not dead. This is shortly followed by barks—howls perhaps—of incredulity. And perhaps even annoyance. My being extant could be considered an arrogant affront.”
She nodded. “At least George Marshall and Dean Acheson have the decency to remain dead.”
“You sound like”—again with the wobbly finger—“you have a vocation.”
“It’s what’s needed in these unconsecrated times—needed more than anything, Daphne. In Oliver Wendell Holmes’s learned phrasing, ‘Not to share in the activity and passion of your time is to count as not having lived.’ ”
“The activity and passion of my time is to talk into a phone. So I guess I don’t count.”
“Great vocations arise, my dear, from people’s unwillingness to accept that their vote doesn’t count, that they don’t get a say in how the universe deals out hands.”
“Alas,” she conceded, “I have but a job.” She produced a postcard from her bag.
“Live Every Day,” he read, repeating the phrase with alternating pronunciations of Live as verb and adverb.
“I see what you’re getting at. I could be working for a place where you buy lobsters.”
“And what is it they do at Live Every Day if not selling lobsters?”
“It’s a nonprofit with a website,” she said.
He nodded. “A dangerous combination.”
She laughed. “It’s bankrolled by a rich couple who don’t want their identities made public. We do subway posters and billboards. It’s basically an ad agency where the product is inspirational people. I write things—slogans. Things maybe eight words long.”
“OK, so that’s a lie.”
Again the wobbly finger.
“The website has bona fide stories about these inspirational people. And there’s a national lecture series and conferences. But I’d have to say that it’s not a vocation, and the salary is embarrassing.”
He sighed. “Do you at least follow your inspirational advice? Do you live every day, Daphne Passerine?”
He looked so happy she hated to disappoint. “I guess I’m more like Paul nagging those Corinthians. You know—in peril every hour.”
“This one included?”
She smiled into her lap. “You’re asking too many concerned questions about my life.”
“Such a reply, dear lady, would indicate peril.”
He was dead-on about that—dead-on despite his crazy blue phone. She tilted her head back. “That sky can’t even decide what it wants.”
He looked up at the accused. “What makes you think it hasn’t already decided?”
They stared at the sky together.
“If I tell you what made me come here today,” she proposed, “will you promise not to think less of me?”
“I am sure I shall still think you worthy of your name.”
For some reason, she felt the sudden need to confess. Maybe it was his extreme age; maybe his extreme wisdom. Or maybe it was because he wasn’t as dead as George Marshall and Dean Acheson.
“I was interviewing an evolutionary biologist at Harvard,” she told him, “not even an hour ago, because we’re going to feature him in an ad. He’s had a heart transplant and does all kinds of strenuous things—cycling races for hunger and breast cancer. He just resumed his fieldwork studying rainforest birds for deviations of color.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding, “Vic Slocum.”
“Oh, no, you know him!” she exclaimed, somewhat relieved. “It wouldn’t be right to talk about him.”
“No, no,” he insisted, reaching over to grasp her hand. “Please, go on, Daphne—tell me before it rains. I want nothing more than to hear your story.”