Commentary Magazine


Ancient Life

Squatting at the edge of a rock outcropping, Paul Lipinsky, twelve years old, heard the sound of tires disturbing the bungalow colony’s gravel road. With his oversized geologist’s hammer and garden spade, he had been working through the heat of a July afternoon to free a large rock from the soil that encased it. If he could cleave the rock along one of its sedimentary layers, he knew he might find fossils more than 400 million years old, when the warm Devonian seas of the Paleozoic Era—teeming with trilobites, nautiloids, sea scorpions, and other creatures as bizarre and wondrous as any that ever lived—had covered what would become Eastern Pennsylvania.

He had amassed an impressive fossil collection, marking each specimen with its own identification number in black India ink. On corresponding index cards he carefully wrote out the phylum, class, order, family, and genus of each one—as best as he could judge from the books he consulted. As he learned what he could about how they lived, he felt the collective life of those long dead seas calling to him from the ground beneath his feet, waiting to be revealed.

Paul was awed by the sight of Maxwell Fagan’s brand-new 1961 Cadillac Coupe DeVille as it lumbered toward him, kicking up a cloud of dust in its wake. Smoke from one of Fagan’s big cigars trailed from the driver’s window. Paul stood up to watch the car and savored the ineffable—if vaguely nauseating—pungency of the smoke as Fagan passed. The Cadillac was not beautiful, like the water lilies floating serenely in the bungalow colony lake. It was, rather, sublime, and challenged Paul’s senses to take it all in—its radiant, aggressively finned, metallic mass, the subdued rumble of its engine, its sheer automotive concupiscence, and its canary-yellow vulgarity.

The car drew to a stop at Fagan’s bungalow, next door to the Lipinsky’s. Fagan got out and, seeing Paul, took his cigar from his mouth, waved, and called out warmly: “Hey, there, boy!” (Fagan always called Paul “boy” until he was reminded again of his name.) “How are you doing? Still digging for rocks?”

“Fossils,” Paul said.

Paul found Fagan exotic, with his fancy automobiles, his affability, his effusive laugh, his foul cigars, his Polish-Jewish accent. But there was, to Paul, an oddity about Fagan; he and his wife, Sarah, were the only childless couple in the colony. From remarks his parents had let drop, Paul knew that Sarah Fagan couldn’t have children “because of what happened to her in the concentration camp.” And he knew as well that all her hair had fallen out there, which was why she wore a wig. But he did not know what had happened to her. The darkness of his parents’ allusion made the question feel off-limits, while the need to know the answer felt all the more urgent, and his dread of knowing that answer all the greater.

Fagan gestured grandly at his new car and asked: “So, what do you think?”

“Brand-new. I picked her up just yesterday in New York. Want to take her out for a spin?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Paul said, trying to hide his excitement. “Okay.” With that, he turned and hurried toward a large rock next to the Fagans’ cottage, where he put down his hammer and spade. Returning quickly to the car, he was surprised to see Fagan offering the keys to him in his outstretched hand.

“Ready?” Fagan asked.

“I don’t know how to drive, I’m only twelve!”

“So you’ll learn,” Fagan said with a shrug. “A scientist has to be able to drive a car, right?’

“Yeah, I guess,” Paul replied.

“You know, when I was twelve years old, I drove a team of oxen in my father’s fields in Poland. Oxen, do you know what are oxen? Well, let me tell you, a Cadillac is easier. You can’t put keys into an ox, right?”

“Right,” Paul said.

“It’s Alan?” Fagan asked.

“No, I’m Paul. Alan’s my older brother.”

“Yes, of course…Paul. Of course. Alan’s your older brother. I remember now. You know,” Fagan said, “I had an older brother, too. Did you know that? His name was Chaim.”

“Where is he now?” Paul asked.

“Where?” Fagan said with a sigh, not so much asking as intoning. “Where?”

He rolled up his left sleeve. “Look,” Fagan said, showing Paul his forearm.

Paul had seen the tattooed numbers before and knew—if only imprecisely—that they were something terrible and grotesque and had to do with the war, with things Jewish, and with suffering. He knew that, like the India-ink numbers on his fossil specimens, they could not be washed off. He knew what indelible meant.

“You know what are these numbers? You know about the camps? About what happened?”

“Sort of, I guess,” Paul said, looking down at the ground, so as not to stare at Fagan’s arm. “The Germans and everything.” He raised his head to find Fagan looking directly at him.

“But you don’t know what were the Einsatzgruppen, do you?” Fagan asked. “You don’t know what was that, the things they did?”

Fagan’s eyes grew watery. Paul wanted to look away, but could not.

“Max!” Sarah Fagan called out, hurrying eagerly down the short hill that led from the bungalow to Fagan’s car, moving her plump body deftly over the graveled slope. Fagan turned to greet his wife, freeing Paul from the grip of his sorrowful gaze.

Sarah wore a loose-fitting, drab sleeveless dress. To Paul’s eye, her thick, coiffed wig looked slightly askew. The couple embraced warmly. Sarah beamed at her husband, took his face in her hands, and kissed him on each cheek. Paul noticed—not for the first time—the tattooed numbers on her forearm as well.

“So, Sarah,” Fagan said, proudly gesturing at his new car, “what do you think?”

Sarah gave the car a cursory once-over.

“Very nice,” Sarah said. “And if it makes you happy, it makes me happy.”

“Good!” Fagan said, quickly adding: “And Paul here is taking me for a drive around the colony.”

“What are you talking about? He’s twelve years old!”

“Sarah, the boy’s going to be a scientist,” Fagan said earnestly.

“So, Paul,” Sarah asked, “what kind of scientist are you going to be?”

“A paleontologist,” Paul replied.

“And what does a paleontologist study?” Sarah asked.

“Ancient life,” Paul said. “Things that lived millions of years ago and then died out. There are fossils of them in the ground, and you can dig them up and discover what they were like and how they lived, even though they’re all gone now. Things like that.”

Sarah smiled at Paul, and he noticed the same liquid look in her eyes that he had just seen in Fagan’s. “That’s fine,” Sarah said. “You study. You study plenty. You’ll discover things.”

“So, let’s go,” Fagan said. “Let’s show everyone how the scientist can drive. Come. Come!”

And so, in the afternoon light of a hot July day in 1961, Paul Lipinsky sat at the wheel of Maxwell Fagan’s gleaming new Cadillac Coupe DeVille and strained to see out the front windshield, as the massive car careered around the gravel road that encircled a Pennsylvania bungalow colony. Intoxicated with a sense of mastery and power he had never before experienced, and immersed in the overwhelming glory of the moment, Paul forgot about the mystery of ancient life.

As they rounded the far end of the colony, Fagan noticed Frieda Tucker walking beside her lakeside cottage, and he had Paul bring the car to a stop. A polio survivor, Frieda had shrunken, atrophied, asymmetrical legs that seemed to cling to each other as she walked, a walk that, to Paul, was at once both comical and grotesque. Paul was aware of another haunting aspect of Frieda’s life: He knew her brother had been killed on his first mission in World War II, when the B-17 in which he was nose-gunner was blown out of the sky over Germany.

“Frieda, darling!” Fagan called out extravagantly.

Paul, trying not to stare at her legs, looked here and there.

“Max, it’s absolutely gorgeous!” Miss Tucker called out, smiling.

“So you’re coming tonight for dinner, no? Everyone’s coming. The Lipinskys, the Kleins, everyone.”

“You know I wouldn’t miss Sarah’s cooking for the world. And Paul, look at you! You’re being careful, aren’t you?”

“Paul is going to be a great scientist, Frieda,” Fagan said. “And a scientist has to know how to drive a car.”

“How exciting!” she said. “So I’ll see you later?”

“Yes, darling,” Fagan said. Paul watched as she turned and walked slowly toward her cottage, her legs in close lockstep, as if bound by invisible ropes.

“So, we go on now,” Fagan said, “around the circle and home again, okay?”

“Okay,” Paul said, and they continued around the colony.

Paul did not allow himself to be distracted from his exhilarating effort by thoughts of Fagan’s lost brother and of the Einsatzgruppen, nor by the tattooed numbers, nor by the persistent images of Frieda Tucker’s shriveled legs. Nor did he dwell too long on the thought of what it must be like in the moment when a nose-gunner feels his aircraft being ripped apart by flak, feels a blast of frigid air at fifteen thousand feet, and knows his life is about to end.

Paul had known Rebecca Klein for the three summers the Klein family had spent at the colony. Before the summer of 1961, she had simply been a childhood friend. But in the course of that summer, Rebecca became a powerful disturbance in his world, a source of delightful agony. When they went swimming with the other children at the bungalow colony’s day camp, Paul felt compelled to let his eyes wander over the alien landscape of her body, travelling the highways from earth to heaven that were her legs. He was led to ponder the great mystery of breasts, and their astonishing emergence from the dull plain of an androgynous chest. His imagination was drawn especially to the borderlands where the flesh of her thighs vanished beneath her bathing suit, and to the unknown territories just beyond his sight.

Sometimes, Rebecca tagged along on Paul’s fossil-hunting outings around the colony. He impressed her by pointing to a slab of half-buried rock and confidently predicting that when he split it with his hammer, there would be fossils inside.

“But how can you tell?” she asked.

He smiled and said, “Some rocks look a certain way. I can just tell.” Then, he freed the rock from the soil and split it open to reveal a dense cluster of fossil impressions.

“Wow!” Rebecca exclaimed. “You were right.”

“Of course I was right,” he said boastfully.

He hacked off the excess rock and handed her the palm-sized specimen. She examined it and then offered it back to him. He raised his hand and said, “No, you keep it. I have lots of them.” Rebecca smiled. They walked off together toward the lake. His head felt hot and his hands felt cold. He took a deep breath and felt as if he could inhale forever.

As they neared the lake, they saw the Fagans’ Cadillac approaching and waved, stepping to the side of the narrow road to let the big car pass. Fagan—Sarah at his side—slowed the car almost to a stop and called out: “So, the scientist and his assistant!”

Paul flushed with embarrassment. Rebecca giggled. The car passed them and sped off, kicking up gravel. They continued their walk and soon reached the lake’s edge. Paul turned to Rebecca as a gentle gust of wind blew a lock of hair across her face. His pleasure in the beguiling way she drew it aside detained the thought, but only momentarily.

“Do you know what happened to Mrs. Fagan in the concentration camp?” he asked. “And why she can’t have children?”

Rebecca shrugged. “Something bad, I guess. I don’t know what. Why?”

“I was just wondering.”

After a moment’s silence, Rebecca said: “Let’s go down to the dock and put our feet in the water.”

And so they did. Sitting next to one another on the dock, the twelve-year-olds kicked their feet to see who could splash the most and within a minute both were wet and full of glee.

On July 3, Paul’s father, Nathan, was to celebrate his forty-eighth birthday with his family. Early in the day, a radio broadcast brought the news that Ernest Hemingway had died of a gunshot wound to the head the day before. Paul’s mother, Lilly, was an avid reader and admirer of Hemingway’s writing; she was shocked and pained to hear the news. “I can’t believe it,” Lilly said, shaking her head. “They’re claiming it was an accident. But it was no accident. It was suicide. I just know it.”

“Why are you so upset?” Paul asked. “I mean, if you didn’t know him.”

“I’m disappointed in him,” she answered. “Terribly disappointed.”

His mother’s use of the word disappointed didn’t fit its meaning, as Paul understood it. Hemingway, a complete stranger to her, had blown his brains out. How could she be disappointed?

“What are you disappointed about?” he asked.

“It was a cowardly thing to do,” she said.

This too made no sense to him. To be a coward is to be afraid when you should be brave. Guns are frightening. Wouldn’t you have to be brave, Paul wondered, to shoot yourself in the head?

Lilly was listless the rest of the day and prepared Nathan’s birthday cake in a detached and desultory way, icing it unevenly, leaving it minimally decorated, much to Paul’s chagrin, with the wax-candle numerals 48 slightly askew on the cake’s top.

The next day, everyone in the bungalow colony gathered eagerly near Frieda Tucker’s lakeside cottage to watch fireworks. The aroma of barbequed hamburgers and hot dogs filled the air, as Paul and the other children lit and waved sparklers. Rebecca accepted Paul’s dare to let some of his sparkler’s incandescent jets strike the bare skin of her arm. She did the same to him, and his heart beat with the exquisite knowledge that they had felt the same thing.

Frieda Tucker wore a dress in honor of July Fourth—a festive, colorful gown of red, white, and blue. In the gathering darkness, her distorted gait reminded Paul of the delicate way Japanese women walk when they wear their kimonos. Nathan Lipinsky and Maxwell Fagan sat next to each another on white Adirondack chairs, smoking cigars and conversing intently in Yiddish. Lilly Lipinsky found that none of the other women was particularly interested in discussing the death of Hemingway, and Paul was relieved when, with a final sigh, his mother seemed to give up the ghost of her moroseness and allowed the rising tide of gaiety to sweep her up and bear her away. She told Frieda Tucker how beautiful her outfit was, just as the fireworks began, and the successive ooh’s and aah’s of the whole group merged into a chorus that nearly matched the fireworks in splendor.

At the edge of the colony’s playing field, there stood a tall flagpole on which, every weekday, the flag was raised and the Pledge of Allegiance recited by all the children in the day camp. But on one particular day, the pulley at the top of the flagpole jammed, preventing the flag from being raised. George Bishop, the owner of the colony, had earned a purple heart in the Army’s Tenth Mountain Division during the War, and raising the flag was, for him, more than a matter of mere custom. And so, the pulley had to be fixed. Mr. Bishop and a helper raised a ladder confidently in the clear summer sun and leaned it up against the pole. Mr. Bishop made his way to the top.

As he set about his task, a group of campers—Paul and Rebecca among them—were playing capture-the-flag on the field below. Paul had managed to make his way into the opposing team’s territory and seize its white banner, which he bore jubilantly across the goal line, for the winning point.

“Paul! Paul!” Rebecca shouted. Paul turned to see Rebecca waving her arms wildly. He waved back with pride. Beyond her, he saw Mr. Bishop at the top of the pole, silhouetted against an intensely blue sky. Paul tried to imagine the world from that height, and for a few moments, he was up there with Mr. Bishop, sharing the sky, filled with the breath of absolute victory.

A loud snap pierced the air. Paul watched, frozen, as Mr. Bishop fell, struggling futilely to disengage himself from the ladder and from the flagpole’s ropes. He fell in a wide and terrible arc until he hit the ground—audibly—and bounced up a few feet, like a half-inflated rubber ball. The force of the impact expelled all the air in his lungs in a single, involuntary, inhuman grunt. He lay on his back, barely moving. Paul ran toward the fallen man, stopping when he was close enough to see a rivulet of blood emerge from Mr. Bishop’s ear and run down his neck. He stared at Mr. Bishop’s unconscious face as it pointed upward toward the sky that embraced them both. Of the many horrors Paul had conjured out of his twelve-year-old brain, a living body’s bouncing off the earth was a notion his mind could not, as yet, contain.

After the ambulance had taken Mr. Bishop away, the children were escorted from the field and returned to their cottages. A few days later, Paul was relieved to hear that, though terribly injured, Mr. Bishop would survive and probably walk again. But long after, a haunting image would remain fixed in Paul’s mind: the air gently ruffling the man’s shirt during the several horrific seconds of his descent, as if he were being caressed by a sweet summer breeze on the way to his fate.

Rebecca’s father was a criminal defense lawyer in Montclair, New Jersey. A tall, handsome man who walked with swagger and exuded confidence, Jeffrey Klein wore smartly tailored suits and sported a diamond-studded, sapphire pinky ring. In July 1961, a prominent surgeon named Laurence Turner was arrested and charged with murdering his wife and attempting to conceal his crime by setting his own home on fire. The murder was widely reported in the newspapers and on television. Not long after the case broke, Paul heard Rebecca’s mother, Ruth, say something about “Jeffrey’s murderer.” There was an unmistakably proud gleam in her eye. Turner had hired Jeffrey Klein to represent him. Word of the case spread quickly throughout the colony, and Paul noticed as seemingly all the adults around him—all except the Fagans—took to punctuating their conversations with the phrase “Jeffrey’s murderer.”

One afternoon, Ruth let everyone know that her husband was going to be on a television newscast, and she invited all her friends—and their children—to watch it with her at the Klein cottage. She prepared a variety of canapés and pitchers of freshly squeezed lemonade for her guests. Paul looked forward to the chance to be near Rebecca. His parents were in attendance, along with the Fagans and several other couples and their children. Frieda Tucker was there, wearing a black silk pantsuit with a colorful Chinese motif. Out of deference (it seemed to Paul) to her handicap, Frieda was given the most comfortable seat, a plush club chair into which her frail body seemed almost to melt. When the news came on, everyone clustered around the television, the adults at the center, the children at the periphery. Ruth drew the shades for better visibility, and the room darkened just enough so that Paul felt pleasantly unseen. He sat next to Rebecca on a wicker sofa, against a wall. Her mother fiddled with the antenna. All eyes were fixed on the television screen. The broadcast began:

“I’m standing outside New Jersey Superior Court in New Brunswick, where Dr. Laurence Turner was arraigned today, charged with first-degree murder in the gruesome death of Marie Turner, his wife of twenty years. The forty-six-year-old Turner is accused of savagely bludgeoning his wife to death in their lavish Edison home before setting the house on fire in order to conceal his crime. At his side during the proceeding was Montclair criminal defense attorney Jeffrey Klein, who entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of his client. Following the arraignment, Klein read a prepared statement to the press.”

“My client maintains his innocence…”

“There’s Dad!” Rebecca shouted.

“…and we intend to contest these charges vigorously. Dr. Turner is a man of distinction in his community, a respected physician, a healer…”

Paul looked down at Rebecca’s legs, so close to his. In the dimmed light, he could just make out the texture of her skin where it emerged from the hem of her shorts. She had a few scrapes and scratches, a small scab on one knee, the slightest blemish on the other, all of which made her flesh seem to him more real and alive.

“…and I have the utmost confidence that when all the facts have been presented to an impartial jury…”

Paul leaned toward Rebecca and whispered in her ear, “What’s bludgeon?”

“Huh?” Rebecca said.

Bludgeon,” he said, in a more emphatic whisper. “What’s bludgeon?”

Rebecca put her hand on Paul’s shoulder to draw him close enough so that she could whisper and still be heard. She had never touched him like that before. The rush of sensation delighted and unnerved him.

“I think it means, like, he smashed her skull in, or something,” she explained. “Like with a hammer, or something like that.”

As she spoke, Paul felt the heat of her breath and the lightest brush of her lips on his ear. He noticed that his mouth had gone dry. She removed her hand from his shoulder. Paul looked back at the television and listened to the broadcast, trying to picture a hammer shattering Marie Turner’s skull. He thought of different types of hammers, but especially of geologists’ hammers—like his own—with a flat, square head and a chisel pick. He thought that if Dr. Turner had in fact bludgeoned his wife to death, he probably did not use a geologist’s hammer. It must have been an ordinary claw hammer, like the kind his father used around the house, or maybe a ball-and-peen hammer, like the one he had used in shop class to make decorative metalwork.

Without really thinking about it, Paul put his right hand on Rebecca’s knee, letting his palm and fingers curve to match its contours precisely, allowing only gravity and the friction of his skin against hers to hold it in place. Until that moment, touching her, like dividing by zero, had been an operation undefined in his calculus of desire, and he felt as if someone else were the author of his own boldness. Rebecca, at first, showed no reaction and continued to watch the television screen intently. Paul feared a rebuff, but to his utter astonishment, she put her hand on his. He discerned a tiny, but unmistakably voluntary, motion of her fingers against his hand. He dared not move a muscle, and barely breathed.

“…Klein refused to comment on any of the details of the crime, saying only, ‘I am confident that in the end, justice will be done.’”

With the end of the broadcast, Ruth Klein raised the shades. Rebecca removed her hand from Paul’s and stood up, her knee vanishing from beneath his hand.

“So, your father’s a celebrity now!” Mrs. Klein exclaimed. She gave her daughter a quick, excited hug and then moved on to mingle with her guests.

“Let’s get some lemonade before it’s all finished,” Rebecca said to Paul, with an urgency that thrilled him.

“Yeah,” Paul answered, following closely behind her as she made her way to the porch table where the lemonade pitchers and canapés were set up. She poured a glass for him and then one for herself. He drank eagerly, deriving all the more pleasure from his drink in watching Rebecca drink her fill, as if the satisfaction of her thirst somehow helped to satisfy his own.

“Hey, listen, I’m supposed to help my mom with the canapés,” Rebecca said. “But I’ll be right back, so don’t go away, okay?”

“Okay.”

While he waited for Rebecca to return, Paul watched everyone milling about and noticed how oddly animated and merry they all were, all except the Fagans, who, though cordial, were not sporting the celebratory masks of the other guests.

“Hi, Mr. Fagan. Hi, Mrs. Fagan,” Paul said. Maxwell Fagan offered up a smile as he puffed on a cigar.

“How are you this evening, Paul?” Mrs. Fagan asked. Her tone was warm, as always, but with no trace of the high spirits that seemed to have permeated the Klein cottage.

“Fine, thanks, Mrs. Fagan.”

A few seconds of silence followed, which Paul felt the need to bring to an end.

“I guess Mr. Klein’s a celebrity now!” he said.

“It’s a terrible thing that happened to that woman,” Sarah Fagan said, and shook her head. “A terrible thing.”

“Yeah,” Paul said. “Bludgeoned and everything.” He felt a certain self-assurance in using the word correctly. Sarah continued shaking her head. Paul wished she would stop.

“And then the fire,” Paul continued. “All burned like that.”

Now Sarah began to nod. And still Paul wanted her to stop.

“Beyond recognition was what they said,” Mr. Fagan added gravely. “Burned beyond recognition.”

The accumulated weight of the Fagans’ remarks made Paul feel leaden. He had nothing to offer in reply, no move to make. He stared silently at the incandescent tip of Maxwell Fagan’s cigar—heavy with ash—waiting for Rebecca’s return and for release from the grip of the unutterable.

A half hour later, when the canapés and lemonade had been consumed and the incongruous merriment of the evening had run its course, the guests said their good-nights and filtered off into the evening air. Paul reluctantly said good-night to Rebecca, thanked Ruth Klein for her hospitality, and returned with his parents to their bungalow. The three of them sat in their small living room, his mother knitting, his father leafing through a newspaper.

“So, do you think he’s guilty, this Dr. Turner?” Paul’s mother asked his father. The elder Lipinsky tilted his head, pursed his lips, and raised his eyebrows in an ambiguous reply.

“I mean, if he didn’t do it, who did?” his mother continued.

“I don’t know….I don’t know,” his father said.

After a minute’s silence, his father asked him, “Did you have a nice time at the Kleins’, Paul?”

“Yeah.”

“So, Jeffrey Klein’s a celebrity now,” Nathan Lipinsky said to his son, smiling.

“Yeah, I guess,” Paul replied.

He was struck by how his father’s comment resembled his own reply to Sarah Fagan’s question and, earlier still, to Ruth Klein’s proud boast to Rebecca. He felt as if time had condensed to a single point.

“What happened to Mrs. Fagan in the concentration camp?” Paul asked.

His mother stopped knitting as if a switch had been flipped, glanced up at Paul, then turned to her husband. His parents looked at each other for a long moment. Then his father took a deep breath and said, “Well, conditions were very bad there. Very bad.”

“But what happened to her?” Paul asked insistently. “What happened to her so she couldn’t have children?”

“Well,” his father said, “They did things to prisoners in the camps…medical experiments, they called them.”

“Did they do some experiment on Mrs. Fagan?” Paul asked. His father hesitated and looked at Lilly.

She nodded her head quickly and sharply.

“And they beat her terribly,” she said. “They bludgeoned her.”

Paul’s body seized up. He heard again in his mind, first, the newscaster’s words: “savagely bludgeoning Mrs. Turner to death,” and then Sarah Fagan’s: “It’s a terrible thing that happened to that woman.” But superimposed on that recollection was the remembered pleasure of Rebecca’s breath on his ear and the touch of her hand on his shoulder as she told him the terrible meaning of the word.

Soon after, Paul went to his room, tired, but as yet too ill at ease for sleep. From beneath his bed, he pulled out his trays of fossils and began inspecting them at random. One in particular—a species of coral—drew his attention, and he took out its corresponding index card:

#17, Genus: Pleurodictyum, 8/02/60,             (Road cut, Old Rte. 220)

Phylum: Cnidaria

Class: Anthozoa

Order: Tabulata

Family: Favositida

He looked at his fossil handbooks for information about this species. He perused the specimen from every angle, trying to picture it, eons earlier, filtering minute particles of food. He tried not to think about Sarah Fagan or Marie Turner, and, so, he thought of little else. He put the specimen back in its box and got into bed. The words murder...bludgeoned...hammer...brutal...defense...justice swirled, in all their permutations and combinations, in the dark, inchoate firmament of his mind. And fixed in that firmament, was the ineffable Rebecca, now less remote and nearer at hand than she had ever been.

Paul awoke the next morning from a night of tumultuous dreams whose traces clung only briefly to his consciousness before falling mercifully away. His parents were already preparing for a Sunday morning at the lake.

“Are the Kleins going to be there?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” his mother answered. “Why don’t you run over to their cottage and ask.”

Paul found Rebecca seated on the porch glider, towels and beach totes at her feet.

“Hi!” she said with a smile.

Before Paul could answer, Ruth Klein emerged from the cottage.

“Oh, hi, Paul,” she said. “Well, it looks like another beautiful day, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah. My mom wanted me to tell you that she’s going to be down at the lake soon and that she’s bringing the Scrabble set.”

“Perfect!” Mrs. Klein said with a smile, as she went back inside.

“So, you’re coming down, too?” Rebecca asked.

“Yeah, in a while. There’s just something I have to do first,” he said. “Something with my fossils.”

Paul felt an unease, compounded of his desire to reveal and his need to conceal. He wanted to tell Rebecca everything he felt. He wanted to tell her what he felt when he saw George Bishop fall through the air and bounce off the ground. He wanted her to know that his specimens of ancient life seemed less important to him now than they used to. He wanted to ask her why Frieda Tucker had gotten polio, and what terrible things the Einsatzgruppen had done. He wanted to see again the water flowing over Rebecca’s skin. He wanted to touch her.

 “Oh. Okay,” Rebecca said. “So, I guess I’ll see you down there.”

“Yeah, in a while.”

Not long after his parents had left for the lake, Paul took out his file of index cards and began examining them. He was soon distracted by a familiar voice.

“Paul?” It was Rebecca, calling to him from outside the screened window of his room. “Are you okay?”

Stepping to the window and looking out, he answered, “Yeah, I’m okay. Aren’t you going?”

“I wanted to see what you were doing. Is everything all right?” Rebecca asked.

“Yeah, everything’s all right. I’m not doing anything.” Then he stepped away from the window.

But Paul was doing something.

He had begun to tear up his index cards, with their meticulously gathered taxonomic information.

He heard the porch door slam and the sound of steps approaching. Rebecca had let herself in through the unlatched front door of the cottage. He continued tearing the cards.

“What are you doing to—you’re destroying them?” she asked.

“I don’t want them anymore,” he said.

“What do you mean? You worked so hard on those cards! You just can’t tear them up like that!”

“They’re mine. I can do whatever I want with them!”

“Oh, don’t!” she shouted. Then she snatched the remaining undamaged cards from the stack.

Paul stopped, unsure of his next move.

“I’ll help you tape them back together,” Rebecca said. “Where’s the scotch tape?”

“You really want to help me?” he asked.

With that, he began to pull trays of fossil specimens out from under his bed: four square, shallow wooden trays his father had made for him, each carefully divided into multiple shallower compartments, one specimen per compartment, totaling nearly two hundred specimens gathered over a span of three years.

“Help me carry these,” Paul said.

“Carry them where?” Rebecca asked.

“Just give me a hand, okay?”

Paul put two trays on Rebecca’s outstretched hands and carried two himself, adding a shoebox of loose, as yet unclassified specimens to his load.

“Follow me,” he said, walking with his trays toward the back door of the bungalow.

“Follow you where?” Rebecca asked.

“To the field.”

“Why? Why the field?”

“Could you just please help me?” Paul said impatiently.

“Okay,” Rebecca answered.

They marched off, passing the stump of the fallen flagpole, to where the field ended at a small, undeveloped wooded area, overgrown with poison ivy, vines, and thorn bushes. Paul set his load down and Rebecca followed suit.

“What do we do now?” Rebecca asked.

Without uttering a word, Paul picked up one of the trays in both hands and took a few steps into the brush. Then, with a great sweep of his arms—like a fisherman casting his net into the sea—Paul swung the tray around in a wide arc and hurled its contents into the woods.

“What are you doing?” Rebecca cried out.

He picked up the second tray and stepped again into the brush.

“Paul, why are you doing that?” Rebecca asked plaintively.

“I don’t want them anymore!” he shouted. “They don’t matter! It’s all stupid! Stupid dead fossils!”

He cast the contents of the second tray into the woods. Then the third tray and the fourth. Finally, he picked up the shoebox of unclassified fossils and walked a little further into the brush. He looked into the box and fingered through the specimens—which would remain forever free of indelible India-ink numerals—as if he were sifting sand at the beach. Then he hurled them as far as he could into the brush. He stood still for a few moments, looking into the thicket, his back to Rebecca, who was now sitting on the grass, her head resting on her arms. Paul knew that something had changed, but he could not yet grasp what it was. He sat down, close to Rebecca, and lowered his head, hoping she would not notice the tears in his eyes. Rebecca put her hand on his shoulder, as she had done the evening before.

“Paul,” she said, “the fossils are all still right there. They’re all right there in the woods. We could find them and you could get them back.”

Paul raised his head and looked at her. Just over her shoulder, in the distance, thirty or forty yards beyond the spot where George Bishop’s body had met the earth, he glimpsed a splash of canary yellow that he knew was Maxwell Fagan’s Cadillac, parked along the colony road. Tears filled his eyes. He shook his head decisively.

“I don’t want them anymore. They don’t matter to me,” he said, almost persuaded that it was so.

But they mattered still. Like newborn stars seeking—but as yet failing—to form a constellation that would cohere as a recognizable figure, they had joined the newly constituted firmament where Jeffrey’s murderer, the Einsatzgruppen, and disappointment had assumed their respective places among the other celestial bodies vying for ascendency: Frieda Tucker’s ghastly legs, the Fagans’ tattooed arms, the imagination of Marie Turner’s bludgeoned skull, burned beyond recognition.

Paul laid his head on Rebecca’s outstretched leg, where it seemed to belong and was welcomed, and he let his tears flow down the unknown skin of her thigh into the earth. He remembered Jeffrey Klein saying, “I am confident that, in the end, justice will be done.” Then, consumed by Rebecca’s ineffable fragrance, he closed his eyes and tried to imagine what secrets the dark earth still concealed.

About the Author

Peter Lopatin is a freelance writer in Stamford, Connecticut.




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