Charles Edward Brooks
Beware, for I have found no trade more profitable than the selling of dreams.
(Naguib Mahfouz: Echoes of an Autobiography)
"Look!" the boy piped to his sister. "It's Miz Sugg."
The girl giggled. "We've seen Mister Sugg go in there, and now her. But we're still missin' the preacher and his wife."
"Wonder what that woman says to 'em all?"
"Or does to 'em. She has to be a witch."
Ensconced in blooming lilac bushes on the opposite side of the street, Lewis and Lois Anne Dunlap were spending the Saturday morning observing the visitors to their quondam family home. The girl registered each of them in a little composition book. "And all of 'em pretend they don't even know her!" she fumed as she entered Mrs. Sugg's name in perfect Palmer-method script.
"Liars an' hypocrites," the boy appended.
An immaculately groomed boxwood hedge, higher than the town's tallest citizen, surrounded the entire block across the street. From the children's vantage point, only a bit of rooftop peeked over the dark green, almost black, foliage that blocked off all view of the extensive grounds. Set back behind the gap of the entranceway, another polyhedron of box cut off visibility through that aperture as well. Visitors entering the property vanished quickly through the protective masses of shrub.
"We've still never seen her," the boy complained. "Don't she ever go out?"
The girl pursed her lips. "Never. She even has the groceries delivered. Who ever heard tell o' such airs?"
A masculine but skirted figure strode into sight and down the sidewalk toward the gap in the boxwood hedge. The twins held their breath: It was the teacher who was making their passage through the seventh grade as painful as she possibly could.
"Shit!" Lewis exploded. "She's goin' on by."
"Don't say that word!" objurgated Lois Anne. "Anyway, she slowed down and read the sign. Next time she'll go in for sure."
"When she does, I'll tell it all over school," the boy vowed.
"So will I," the girl agreed. "Her and her highfalutin talk about goin' off to teach philosophy."
The almost-intoxicating perfume of the purple lilac blossoms filled the shady thoroughfare, both the town's main residential street and the state highway to Charleston. In the absence of further pedestrians, the children reverted to their other favorite occupation: reading aloud and writing down the license plate number of every vehicle that passed. When the bread truck rattled by, Lois Anne wrote down its license number from memory. Just as she finished, Mrs. Sugg made her exit through the boxwood ramparts. The plump woman, spouse of the high school principal, sailed down the sidewalk with her head held high. From time to time she lifted her right arm as though drawing figures in the air.
"Like the Pope in the newsreel," Lewis commented. "When he's ridin' in that chair on people's shoulders."
"They all act funny when they come out o' there," Lois Anne opined. "They're mighty important or they're real sad."
Decided footsteps rang down the momentarily deserted street. An erect man of forty, in jacket and tie, barely glanced at the wooden sign by the curb and disappeared behind the hedge.
"Lord Jesus!" Lewis gasped.
"It's Daddy!" wailed Lois Anne.
• • •
"Yes, indeed," the woman was saying. "I've never regretted acquiring this lovely home from you and Mrs. Dunlap. I've been happy here."
A dainty intarsia table separated the new householder from the man sitting opposite her. His glassed-over blue eyes contrasted with the woman's fiery black ones. "I'm glad, Miz Przy…" The voice trailed off listlessly, as though completion of the name lay entirely beyond the speaker's power.
"Not to mention the garden," she continued. "I was so fortunate to buy the property from a nurseryman. I've been told you bred the wonderful climbing rose on the house walls yourself."
"I did. It won a blue ribbon at the State Fair. Named it for my wife: the Bertie Dunlap."
Through the open window, zephyrs of warm air conveyed the aroma of peonies into the sitting room. The prize-winning rose was not yet in flower.
"Splendid. My congratulations." The next words followed in a suddenly solemn tone. "Mr. Dunlap, you've come to me for a chiromantic reading. Let us proceed."
Isaac Dunlap cleared his throat and laid his right hand, palm up, on the table.
The woman bent over the palm and passed a fingertip lightly along several lines in the tough skin. At a certain point she recoiled. A wave of infinite sadness seemed to engulf her. The black eyes filled with tears; the slim, ageless body sank back in the chair. The lower lip trembled.
"What's the matter?" the man cried, abruptly alert. "Miz, ah, Przz… , what did you see in my hand?"
The woman spoke with yet more solemnity. "Aristotle said that Nature made the hand of man the principal organ and instrument of his body, Mr. Dunlap. Everything that we are now, everything that we are to be is right there in the hand."
"But what's in my hand?"
"Your destiny, Mr. Dunlap. Neither more nor less. Don't ask me to reveal it to you unless you're sure you can bear the knowledge."
"I am sure. Go on, for God's sake!"
"It starts here." The woman pointed to a line close to the wrist. "This line reaches into the hill of the moon. That signifies betrayal by a woman."
"What?! You mean—"
The woman touched the edge of the palm opposed to the thumb and went on: "The rest is here, in the mounts of Mars. The woman will try to kill you. But you can forestall her."
The color had drained from Isaac Dunlap's wind- and sunburned face. "What… what woman, Miz, ah, Przz…?"
"What's the name of your rose, Mr. Dunlap?"
• • •
The previous year, when the lilacs, forsythia, and sweetbuds were in their full glory, the Dunlap family had moved out of the ancestral home, hidden behind the bulwarks of boxwood. Though the property they left behind was quite splendid, the new abode was even more so.
Having succeeded mightily in the nursery business, Isaac built an imitation of Mount Vernon on the edge of town—but on a larger scale than the model. Rising at the top of a knoll, clearly visible from all sides, it had become one of the sights of the county. Every Sunday afternoon drive, every tour with out-of-town guests included the mansion, christened "Mount Vernon II," in its itinerary. No hedges of any kind graced its sweeping grounds.
Acting for an undisclosed client, a Charleston real estate agent purchased the house abandoned by the family. The whole neighborhood expected the new owner to be black. Although no one who later laid eyes on her suggested that she was anything other than Caucasian, she was not at all like the town's other white citizens. Her skin was indeed white, even lividly so, but the features had an uncanny stiffness, like a face rendered immobile by repeated liftings. Her hair and eyes were jet-black and frighteningly alive. Her coiffure, an odd arrangement of plaits, reminded several observers of writhing snakes.
The newcomer's name was as puzzling as her appearance. No one who saw it in writing had the slightest idea how to pronounce it, and no one ever heard its bearer utter it herself. The consensus of opinion was that the name was simply unpronounceable, a sinister concatenation of letters with a meaning that could only be diabolical.
But even worse was to come.
Soon after the purchase, two red trucks with odd license plates drove into town on the Charleston highway. A crew of men in red uniforms carried crates and furniture into the house and chased curious children off the grounds. Exactly when or how the new mistress herself arrived, no one knew. One day she was just there, ordering groceries by telephone, and the delivery boy was the first townsperson to see her in the flesh. Recounting the delivery to an eager audience, he expressed perplexity at the woman's speech: "She don't talk like a Southerner. Not like the Yankees that stop at the fillin' station either. More like a foreigner. Like Dracula in the picture show." The boy declared himself unable to estimate her age.
For many decades, a discreet hanging sign at the front entrance had identified the old Dunlap place and the family residing there. The builders of the long two-story house, its walls of yellow-gold sandstone, had called it "Buxus Hall," celebrating the boxwood circumscribing the property and forming the maze that filled most of the garden. Without a by-your-leave from anyone, the new owner promptly changed the name and replaced the weather-beaten old sign with a new one:
Mrs. Sugg explained that the region known as Mesopotamia had been a cradle of the chiromantic art. For most of her listeners, she had also to explain that said art was the reading of hands. But even she, dubbed "Miz Know-It-All" by the townspeople, had nothing to say about the new resident's name.
On the Halloween night following the chiromancer's advent, a gang of seventh graders threw assorted brickbats, empty bottles, and tin cans over the hedge into Mesopotamia's grounds. With a fine sense of propriety, Lewis and Lois Anne Dunlap declined to take part in the operation. They watched it from a desiccated clump of lilac bushes across the street.
To their amazement, not to say horror, every single object tossed over the hedge was thrown back with redoubled force—by whom or by what, no one ever knew. Three of the Halloween raiders landed in the emergency room with brain concussions. All three recovered, but from that day onward, the belief prevailed that Mesopotamia enjoyed supernatural protection.
With unaccustomed vigor, the church and the chapels, the schools and the civic clubs condemned the woman's calling, the epithets used to descry it ranging from fraud to witchcraft. The preacher predicted that she would never find a single client in a community where people had their feet on the ground and their faith in the Lord.
But the clients found her.
As the Dunlap twins soon discovered, many of the townspeople, including some of those who railed loudest against the chiromancer, began to slip through the boxwood hedge at regular intervals. When they came back out, all of them behaved oddly.
Some manifested grandiose ideas about what destiny had in store for them. The seventh-grade teacher announced that she would be leaving town at the end of the school year to fill the chair of hermeneutic philosophy at the state university. A fifty-year-old waitress withdrew her life savings from the bank and left for Hollywood, where she was confident of attaining stardom within a few weeks. Mrs. Sugg delivered a series of evening lectures in the high school auditorium entitled "Life Beyond the Stars." By the last lecture, the audience consisted of her patient husband and of him alone.
But there were others who emerged from Mesopotamia feeling far less grandiose than when they went in. The dwarf who ran the printing press swallowed a can of lye crystals after his second session. The sixth grade teacher, after a single visit, hanged herself in her room at the boarding house. And the director of religious education at the church, after a number of calls, jumped off the ledge over the railway tunnel just as the Silver Meteor was zooming into it.
Not one of the hand reader's clients ever admitted to knowing the woman at all. Strangely, it was only two children, Lewis and Lois Anne Dunlap, who noticed the link between the chiromancer and the grandiosity or despondency affecting ever more of the town's men and women. And beyond recording it in a composition book, between lists of license plate numbers, they knew not what to do with their knowledge.
• • •
A vase of fresh gardenias stood in the center of the intarsia table. Bertie Dunlap, a comely brunette in her late thirties, inhaled the perfume rhythmically while the other woman spoke: "'He seals up the hand of every man, that all men may know his work.' That's the way the Book of Job puts it, Mrs. Dunlap. We all carry our destiny in our hands."
"I'd never thought about that till you came to town, Miz Purr-bee-zew-skah. I've learned a lot from you." Bertie slurred her words as though struggling against sleep.
The fiery black eyes peered into the client's china-blue ones. "I'm glad, Mrs. Dunlap. This will be our last session, for there's only one more revelation to be made. By this time, I think you're able to bear it."
Bertie shook off her somnolent air. "One more…revelation?"
The chiromancer took the client's hand in her own and ran a fingertip over the hump of the thumb. "It's right here, Mrs. Dunlap, in the mount of Venus. Staring us in the face, so to speak."
"I'm afraid so."
"Afraid, Miz Purse-bye-zoo-skar?" Alarm widened the china-blue eyes.
"A man is planning to kill you, Mrs. Dunlap."
"What?!… What man?"
"A man who's abusing his own children, his own twins. He'd like to have their mother out of the way, to enjoy his evil perversion even more."
"Ike?! Lord Jesus, Miz Pert-boo-zor-sker!"
"But this transverse line tells us something important. You can forestall him."
Bertie Dunlap seized the other woman's hand and shook it convulsively. In the street, the ambulance raced by with sirens howling.
• • •
"The twins have had their supper," Bertie Dunlap snapped. "They both have Scouts tonight."
"You don't have to bite my head off," rejoined her husband. "I just asked."
The breakfast room at Mount Vernon II faced west. In the distance, beyond the pine woods on the hills, the sun was sinking majestically beneath the horizon. The smell of freshly mowed grass and the flowers of high summer wafted in through the open windows. As far as the eye could see, peace lay over the land.
But inside the house, an undeclared war clashed soundlessly. In tense silence, the couple consumed the food on the board, each of them preferring to gaze at the sunset rather than look at the other. At length Bertie rose to clear the table.
She came back from the kitchen bearing a tray with two crystal compotes. "There's crème brûlée." She set one of the dishes before her husband and the other on her own place mat.
No sooner had she sat down than Isaac brusquely switched the dessert dishes and turned a triumphant sneer on his wife. His vision dimmed by the light of the setting sun, he failed to see the flash of triumph that lit up on her face.
Crème brûlée was Isaac's favorite dessert. After emptying the compote dish completely, he licked his lips. "Real good. But there's somethin' different. An aftertaste."
Without replying, Bertie hastily piled dishes on her tray and made off for the kitchen. Isaac stood up, stretched, yawned, and suddenly bent double. "God Almighty!" he cried. "My stomach: it's awful! Bertie!" There was no reply. Still contorted, the man stumbled toward a Queen Anne lowboy in the hall and extracted a revolver from the top drawer. Bellowing like a wounded bull, he staggered into the kitchen, where a pale Bertie stood frozen against the refrigerator door. Before crumpling onto the floor, he fired six bullets into her rigid body.
• • •
In the Blue Room at Mount Vernon II, the attorneys and the siblings of Isaac and Bertie Dunlap, deceased, were quarrelling over the fate of the twins. A guardian had to be appointed. No one among those present, so it seemed, wanted the responsibility.
In the meantime, the objects of the discussion huddled in the lilac bushes, now thickly leaved, across the street from Mesopotamia.
"She was behind it," Lewis stated in as deep a voice as he could muster. "We've seen how crazy she makes people act. I'm gon' ring the doorbell and tell her so."
"Not without me, you're not. I don't care if I am a girl. I'm goin' too."
"All right. Come on."
The twelve-year-old versions of their late parents, their features now shadowed by a premature adulthood, scudded into the street. A sudden burst of traffic impeded their crossing: a few vehicles from neighboring states and others whose provenance they could not identify at all. Despite the gravity of their mission, the convergence of strange license plates compelled their attention.
Once inside the boxwood hedge, an unexpected sight confronted them. Workmen in red uniforms were lugging furniture and crates out of the house and loading them into two red trucks.
Lois Anne pointed at the license plate on the first truck. "Lordie! What kind o' writin's that?"
"It looks like some o' that writin' in the fifth-grade geography book. Remember? In the part about the Tigris and Euphrates. But wait a minute—here comes somebody."
Lewis stalked toward a man who stepped through the front door with a sandalwood chest in his arms. "That woman movin' out?" he demanded to know.
"Clear out o' here, you little fart," the man barked back.
"Don't you talk to my brother like that!" yelled Lois Anne, shaking her finger at the brute.
The moving man set down the chest, snatched up a fire poker from a tangle of miscellany on the ground and lunged at the children.
"Little bastards!" he snarled.
"The maze!" Lewis commanded.
In a trice, brother and sister slipped between two boxwood dragons and out of their pursuer's reach. The straight hedges limning the passageways gave way at short intervals to topiaries succeeding one another in orchidaceous variation. No longer cared for as they had been under Dunlap rule, the excrescences of neglect endowed the leafy gnomes and dinosaurs with a menacing air. Almost no one else in town dared to enter the confusing construction, so exasperating was the ordeal of finding the way out again. The moving man, too, seemed to sense danger. He halted at the mouth of the labyrinth and desisted.
High summer heat lay over Mesopotamia like an enervating pall. Stout vines of the climbing rose created by the children's father, the Bertie Dunlap, covered the sun-drenched wall of the house facing the maze. The odoriferous chalk-white blossoms lured clouds of insects toward them. Despite the noise made by the movers, the drone and buzz of bees permeated the whole expanse of the garden.
Safe in the depths of the maze, perched on the branches of a pine tree pruned into pagoda shape, the children looked up at the same instant. A second-floor window was being raised. In what had once been Isaac and Bertie Dunlap's bedroom, a livid face they had never seen before pressed close to the window screen.
"It's her!" Lois Anne exclaimed.
"Got to be," Lewis concurred.
Her fiery black eyes fixed on the twins, the woman held her right palm against the screen and made odd gestures with her left hand, pointing now to her own exposed palm, now to the watchers.
"She wants us to show her our hands," Lois Anne deduced from the miming.
Lewis grabbed his sister's wrists. "An' that's just what we're not gon' do!"
Lois Anne freed herself gently from her brother's grasp. "Course not. Long as she doesn't see our palms, she can't hurt us."
And taking care not to turn her palms toward the open window, the girl stuck her thumbs in her ears, wiggled her fingers, and grimaced at the watching woman. The boy seconded her, adding the most unpleasant noises his organs of speech were capable of producing.
The livid face withdrew from the window.
"We got her," the girl triumphed. "She can't do one thing against us. We're in charge."
"If we have to, we'll wear gloves till she's gone from here," Lewis resolved. "The ole bitch!"
"Don't say that word," scolded Lois Anne without conviction.
But in the event, gloves proved needless. By the next morning, Mrs. Przybyszewska had disappeared from the town forevermore.