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Cavendish in the Sky with Diamonds

“Watch them [the birds], listen to them. They will tell you many things.” --Alfred Hitchcock the film producer in a 1973 interview

A man turned sixty-five, retired a few years earlier to devote himself full-time to writing and composing poetry, meditations, and music under a nom de plume, doesn’t expect to find it all over--but so it seemed, for a period of two years after receiving the death sentence: cancer. Then, at the edge of the grave, he’s unexpectedly given a reprieve, while his wife still bears the same sentence of shared cancer.

"Skip" Cavendish was thinking about his reprieve--could think of little else, in fact, since his discharge from the hospital. How did the Welsh poet "Dylan" (nobody called him "Thomas") phrase it?

Gads, where was his world-renowned memory? He used to quote reams of Dylan's stuff, but now all he could remember was something about an urn that was the size of a man, and out of a room came a heavy something the weight of his trouble, and out of a house that could hold Olympia and in a fossil that was the size of a continent... It was no use! He gave up!

Leaving the hospital, Cavendish drove by the local brewery with its modest-sized standing emblem, the urn-fountain of green-glazed concrete, pouring forth the natural artesian water which the beer had made famous--he had driven by it without more than a glance, arriving home--hardly believing he had escaped the “room the weight of his trouble”--that hospital room he thought he might never leave alive--only to find that the hospital had followed him home, he couldn’t get rid of it so easily, for his life lay enchained there in the suffering person of his wife. Why, without her, everything he looked upon and touched was dead! He might as well have put “Vacancy” on a shingle and tacked it up on the front door that he pushed open slowly, feeling the closeted, stale air within brush against his face like a fossilized hand. Once his home had been his castle. Now it seemed like an empty warehouse.

Skip Cavendish's Castle

He grimaced as he abruptly entered the living room, there being no hallway to the entry of this thifty 1940's house.

“She won’t be here, so don’t be expecting her to come out of the bedroom or come home from the store with groceries,” he had already cautioned himself, keeping his shoulders stiff as a soldier’s against the reality he dreaded.

It was hard pushing against his grain like that, and he didn’t get as far as the kitchen, pausing to wonder where he was going. Now what? Was he hungry? Was he needing a drink? No, not a smoke! He couldn’t touch one again if he were paid a cool million by Lucky Strike, his favorite brand! Yet he craved it more than words could say. His wife always knew what his needs were, whatever the hour. Now that she was gone, he stumbled over his own feet.

Trembling, he felt all the warmth go out of him. He went to the thermostat and turned it on and then up as far as he dared.

Dylan came back to mind at that moment. He couldn't for the life of him recall the specific lines, but it was something about death, how one by one people were laid in the dust, and how fathers would cling to the hands of dead daughters, which was a mistake, because sometimes it would be a dead hand leading the living to who knows what!

That's appropriate! he thought. How he, in his dust and shawl of retirement age, clung to his wife’s sweet but ever fading hand even now! It was a phantom’s, to be sure, but he had to hold it, yield to it, allow her to lead and guide him to the sources of life, even though he might find them all dried up.

The refridgerator was for food and joy and life, wasn’t it? The stove, the sink, the other implements of wifely concern and expertise--they drew him now. He wasn’t hungry, wasn’t even thirsty, but he opened up the refridgerator and looked in. A carton of milk--soured, no doubt. Coke for the “kids’” who were now too grown-up to drink it. The freezer containing their favorite ice cream. Some old bologna that never made it into party sandwiches for some forgotten or missed occasion. Some old cheese. Mildewed bread. A black, oiley putrefaction in the vegetable drawers. The oranges turned to bright green, hairy puffs of mold. Sickened, he slammed the refridgerator.

The hand had betrayed him, he knew it now. Everywhere the hand led him in the house, it was going to be like the insides of that refridgerator. The hand frightened him. He had erred terribly in giving in to it.

He found himself in the bathroom, thinking, “I am a cul de sac, I am used-up, I can’t work anymore, I can’t even write or compose anything worth publishing. My eyes are blurring and moths are flying in them, I can’t even hold a newspaper or a book, I’m so weak and my attention span is so childish. In the morning I must go and say, “I love you,” and hold her skeletal hand. Where will I find strength to do that?” he wondered, knowing the sight of her was unendurable. “She’d forgive me if I didn’t come, wouldn’t she?”

Yes, she would! That was the worst part. Particularly after getting sick, she was always expecting people to come, and they didn’t. But she always forgave them. He groaned. Back when he was two and twenty, Skip Cavendish on the stages of the old vaudeville circuit, there had been pretty girls available everywhere. Why had he gone and married a saint? Her unfailing decency and Christian love for everybody made it very hard on the specimen of rotten, human frailty married to her. He could hardly bear the guilt at times of failing her, again and again, especially while knowing she was making excuses for him, and then thinking good of him. He had given up the bright lights and excitement for a settled, 9-5 job for her sake, and knew he had the best of the bargain.

It was all so strange! How could they be so different after over forty years of marriage? He had found Christianity very appealing in her but sweaty, hard work on his side of it. Just remaining a Christian in the storms of life was more than he could endure at times, yet, she sailed right into the face of the tempests as if she were on a calm sea, even when her boat was visibly sinking slower and lower in the water.

“Truly, this woman--” he thought, and then Dylan again came to mind, the lines that had to do with children leading the older life to something fresh and new, a paradise of revived hopes and dreams pershaps, where old men forget their age and sing, because a "son" of their old age is born, giving them a new life they had almost despaired of seeing. Too bad the lines escaped him, but he still somehow retained the meaning, which was a comfort at least--at a time when he knew few such mental comforts!

He and his wife--like two old trees, leaning upon each other for support!

Weren’t the two Douglas firs they had planted in 1966 when they moved to the little house in the suburbs, weren’t they tossing their tops in the wind when he came home? Tough and bred to hard climates, they seemed to thrive on the bad weather that gripped the South Sound for months in the fall, winter, and spring. Maybe, when all was over, he and his wife’s souls would climb into each tree, and interwine their branches and ride through every storm to come?

The wind died, or he couldn’t hear it moving about the neighborhood at the moment, but he could imagine the centuries throwing back their hair, and like old men singing with reborn spirit. It seemed almost a song of promise had to come forth, but he knew better. His memory, no good for a lot of things, had failed him when it came beomg ab;e to recite his favorite passages, yet still their meaning could not be stolen--it was bedded in his heart. Again, another passage came to mind, welling up from below. It had to do with that "son" being born, but it was ironical too, how still-born new things can be, or even dangerous to what is contemporary life. New things can supplant old things, that is a fact of life. The acorn can "fell" the grand, old oak, in that sense--and it will, in time! The chicken's egg will produce another chicken, which will out live its parent, right? Or was Dylan using a hawk? Chicken, somehow, didn't seem poetic enough for Dylan. He realized he was maybe confused. Dylan might have said something like a hawk in the egg killing a wren. Oh, well, what did it matter? He got the meaning--or part of it, anyway.

What supreme ironies life held to spring at you without the least warning, if you lived long enough! he reflected. The trick was living long enough in order to pull a rag of wisdom from life’s experience. He couldn’t bear the bathroom, even though he could weep there safely. He left it and wandered out to the yard, leaving the door ajar. Let the house fill with fresh air, he thought. He couldn’t bear the unoxygenated air, like a catacomb tomb’s, nor did that atrocious Pinesol his daughter used to disinfect the bathroom help either.

The air was fresher, indeed, especially since a storm had knocked in many of the glass panels of the thirty foot high garden-roof. His feet, in hospital sandals, caught in the thick, unmown grass, and he stumbled. He had no thought to what he wanted next, he just moved past the flower beds, the vegetable plot, and then paused at the pool.

Like everything else, it was a horrid muddle. Chilling temperatures from polar outbreaks had murdered the flowers and vegetable garden plants. He would have to get the roof repaired, then start over. What an expense! Could they afford it? He doubted it very much. Property insurance? He had stopped payments they could ill afford, and now it was too late to renew.

He stared at the pool. It was a mass of leaves. In a pocket of water, a floating goldfish. White belly, slightly puffed. It wasn’t much of a fish. What had happened to all the others? His wife’s imported Japanese temple-bred koi for outdoor pools? This was just one of those he had thrown in from a bowl in the house as he was leaving for the hospital the first time.

He leaned over, picked up a small tree branch and moved the leaves in the water, but the dirt clouded the water, and nothing more. Then he saw the feather in the water. A snow hawk's feather.

“Oh!” he thought. With no humans about, some snow hawk heron in the neighborhood had paid several calls until he had got all the fish, disdaining this one only, it was so pathetic. No doubt the hawk, with its four foot wingspan, had knocked out the biggest glass panels in its trips back and forth to the pool.

The fish gone, he felt the whole weight of his losses on him, and he had to sit down. A leave-cluttered, sodden wicker chair was all he could find, and he sat on the leave-cushion, damp as it was, and didn’t care.

He was sitting out there, shaking with cold, when he remembered he had left the house open, so he went back indoors, and shut the door, and turned up the thermostat. With the furnace on, the house seemed to revive a bit. The comfortable throb of the furnace and the blowing at the vents became a living thing, while he remained the drifting phantom in the dark.

He finally went and turned on a light, pulled dusty two-year-old reading material from the magazine rack, and began to look through it.

A newspaper he hadn’t glanced at before--BEFORE. Everything now was BEFORE or AFTER, like BCH or ACH--BEFORE THE CANCER AND HOSPITALIZATION, or AFTER THE CANCER AND HOSPITALIZATION. This paper represented BEFORE. It was pure escape, in other words. So he began reading, burying himself in the articles. .

Then he recognized it--the Smithsonian’s “The Centennial Post”--a complementary copy of the institute’s celebration of the Philadephia Exposition of 1876, together with a sampler of the great events of the year. His former employer had sent it over in the mail, probably. And under it were some old letters, unopened. He looked at them, and they were forgotten, overdue statements and bills.

Except for power and light and water, creditors could wait a little longer, he decided. A little longer, and there would be no money to pay them anyway, and his wife’s care came first, now that, to mix his metaphors, their insurance policies were bled white and running dry.

He turned back to the paper, found his eyes blurring, and then turned to the TV. The news, all on New York’s latest killer blizzard and renewed talk about building a giant, protective dome to keep out the weather. He had seen it all before at the hospital, so he flicked it off.

Taking up the Smithsonian paper, he tried to read around the dancing moths dancing. Troubles in the Balkans--Kosovo, Albania, Serbia up in arms! That in 1876! Well, nothing new there, the delightful South Slavs were always cutting each other’s throats, and not stopping at the women and children either.

Then General Custer and his army--tut tut!--all wiped out at Little Big Horn after commander had cut such a fine figure in the Civil War, standing just behind General Grant at the surrender of Lee's armies of Virginia (which, in effect, meant the South as well). But before Custer’s comeuppance General Crook suffered a nasty rebuff, being driven back in the Battle of Rosebud with the loss of most of his men, outmaneuvered and out-fought by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Elsewhere, the Red Man was not finding easy victory. They suffered reverses at Slim Buttes, where the chief American Horse was killed, and at Powder River, where Chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf were defeated. With such losses, and inability to gain sufficient weapons, even with superb commanders the Indians could not sustain the war effort, and the tide was turning against them, the U.S. Army’s Western Expeditionary Forces claimed.

Stuart’s attention turned quickly from to suffragist agitations, the Tilden-Rutherford presidential campaigns, and incidents of rank corruption in government forcing an apology from President Grant to a report of the successful move in Congress lead by Senator Justin Moril (R-Vt) to tear down the lower sections of the unfinished and controversial Washington obelisk and build a gigantic, neo-Roman style triumphal arch to Lincoln instead.

The bill passed 33 to 14, carrying provisions for an architectural contest, the best ideas to be combined into one monument. Moril’s architect son was to be chief administrator of the project and was empowered to declare the governing theme. In another article, Moril’s son, being interviewed, stated that he favored anything to do with elephants. “Elephants are unarguably the most noble beasts in the Animal Kingdom, lions clearly second-most even though they are called kings of the jungle. Outside man’s intervention with rifle and bullet, nothing can kill an elephant. Insofar as nothing could kill the Union of the Federal States, the noblest beast, the elephant, is the most fitting mount for the late President Lincoln His figure will be riding it, while the four legs are to be positioned to form an arch large enough for ten wagons drawn abreast.” Work is to begin as soon as competing architects have submitted their drawings to the reviewing committee of which Congress has seen fit to appoint me head.”

Cavendish snorted. “What incredible, poor taste they had back in 1876!” he mused. “They gave up a simple, classic Egyptian obelisk for an elephantine monstrosity that belongs over in Africa! Now, thanks to Moril’s folly, nobody can look that direction from the Capitol without gulping with embarrassment! It’s the biggest eyesore in the Western World, and that philistine Moril is responsible! How typical of the GOP! We’ve been elephantized! Yet I suppose that goes with the era--they killed off every redskin they could get their hand on, Admiral Perry strong-armed the sleeping giant of medieval Japan into the 19th Century, the Turks were butchering Bulgarians and picking their teeth with scimitars, and John Habertson’s puerile and saccharine “Helen’s Babies” was preferred by the Washington Post literary critics over Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer”!

As for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, crowds in the West Hall viewed such mechanical marvels as an elevator, electrical power machines, pumps, gas engines, a refridgerator compressor, electrical communications, a steam hammer, and steam power machines and boilers.

The North Hall was a worse hodge-podge, displaying furniture, foot-powered tools, musical instruments, photography, candy making machines, shovels, ceramics, silver, paper patterns...

Stuart’s eyes began to blur. He jumped to the East Hall, saw nothing there but a locomotive, full scale, then passed to the South Hall, which was dominated by a 42 foot sloop from the Navy Department -- the PRION, a retired Pribiloff sealing-station coastal guardship. Ranged about the sloop were the minerals and precious gems, and cannonry. “Mammals,” “Ethnology,” the Patent Office completed the displays. Except for “Fishing and Whaling,” and something called “Lighthouse Board and Coast Survey, the exhibits around the sloop made no sense to him.

“Why they left out ‘Modern Advances in Corsetry,’ I have no idea!” Cavendish thought. “At least corsets were linked to the naval theme, being made of whale bone back then!”

About to fold the paper and cast it back into the rack, he noticed the “Whittier Hymn Celebrates Centennial,” a tribute to the International Exposition by America’s unofficial poet laureate, John Greenleaf Whittier. The tribute was not Whitter’s best, to be sure, Cavendish decided. But the fourth stanza of the six given passed muster came off as reasonably good verse:

Thou, who has here in concord furled

The war flags of a gathered world,

Beneath our Western skies fulfil

The Orient’s mission of good-will,

And, freighted with love’s Golden Fleece,

Send backs its Argonauts of peace.

“The old Quaker windbag’s sentiments tie in well with the sloop in the South Hall,” he decided. At least he had that going for him. As for peace and good-will and love being the cargo of the New World’s ARGO? There, undeniably, everything grand and sublime in Whittier’s vision fell flat on its face. For in the 100 years that followed, did the Old World receive anything like peace, good-will, and love from American shores? Fighting troops, certainly, and Wilson the Peace Messiah’s aborted Fourteen Points, and then more troops and armadas in the Second World War--but what good had it all done? Whittier’s ARGO, his idea of it, had sunk somewhere in the mid-Atlantic apparently. Even Henry Ford, volunteer Peace Messiah--his white-painted “Peace Ship,” stuffed with doves and peace-loving cronies, though it reached Europe in the hopes on the eve of World War I, was seen as a laughingstock, the brainchild of an ignorant, meddling American automaker with too much time and money on his hands. Besides that, he was a rabid anti-Semite to boot!

Cavendish put the paper down. He was tired of dodging the moths, and let the seventh stanza go with only a glance, noting only that it spoke about a “Final War” and peace and righteousness kissing each other from severed ends of a long-severed bridge.

The folly of misspent dreams, the crimes of world leaders, the homicidal madness of ignorant, clashing armies--it was Western civilization digging its own grave in one world war after another! Where would it end? A whimper?

Still, amidst the madness, there was the divine muse of music! The muse had wings too, and could carry him aloft into the heavens, where he could soar and forget all his troubles down on the earth! He glanced at his piano, letting his paper drop to the floor. Could he try a tune or two?

He lifted the bench lid, got some sheet music, and sat down. Herbert Howell’s “Pastoral Fantasy Adapted to Piano”? “A Short Medley from Rachmaninoff and Chopin”? There had been a time when he could have played for hours. But not now. Not with his wife in the hospital, sinking lower every hour.

Cavendish’s shoulders sagged. He slunk back to the couch, putting his head in his hands.

“There you are! What in the world are you doing out here?” The voice spun Cavendish around. He was holding something, and he nearly dropped it.

Cavendish’ eyes focused, and he saw his daughter coming rapidly toward him from the house.

“Dad, when you didn’t come today, the hospital called me at work, and I had to give them an excuse, for Mother’s sake, and go check on you--and you---”

He was confused, hearing her scolding words. How could he tell her? And the object in his hand, it was melting. Best put it down.

He felt her eyes on him as he set the bird down on the leaves. Embarrassed, he shuffled away a few feet, then stopped.

“Well”? she called. “”Aren’t you coming in the house, Dad? Are you ill. Da-a-a-a-a-ad?”

Feeling very weary, he turned back toward the house, without looking at her. The Vision was already fading. How could he ever explain it to her?

How could he make her understand that the bird, which he had picked out of the leaves in the half-frozen pool, had somehow connected him with a thousand thousand galaxies? The moment he touched it, his feet swam in the air, and his body lifted and he was hurtling skywards toward the North. He had seen stars wheeling in every kind of configuration, and yet onward he flew, bird in hand. Then the heavens spread out around him, showing him thrones, pleasure domes, columns, ivory palaces, and avenues of starry sands that opened from pearly gates, each gate a single pearl.

What could he have seen? Had he been taken to the Great Nebula of Orion, the stellar cavern that could contain thirty thousand solar systems with ease?

Even as he flew amidst indescribable hues and shapes of the immense star-cities ranged high and low along the walls of the Cavern, floods of light poured out from some hidden source in the purplish, coal-dark clouds, floods of color and light that brought the blinding Creation Day-glories of Albert Bierstadt’s Yosmite Valley series together with the delicate, other-worldly overlays and complex patterns of tints and hues of Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescos in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi Chapel in Florence to mind--only these kaleidoscopic, ever-changing patterns of Colors and Lights were primal, living, verwhelming, as if they issued from the Godhead Himself. Shielding his eyes and face from the spectacle he could not humanly bear, words seemed to fly out from the center of the Creating Light:

Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man, the things that God hath prepared for them that love Him.

Though he had lost memorized passages of numerous secular poets, a song burst in his heart, the one composed by Reverend Carl Boberg in 1886 after he was caught in a suden thunderstorm visiting a beautiful estate in the Swedish countryside. Rev. Boberg died in 1940, and saw the hymn translated into German and Russian. Rev. Stuart K. Hine, a missionary in the Ukraine, sang it to his little flock of Christians with his wife, before translating part of it into English.

Cavendish had researched this particular hymn, known to the world as "How Great Thou Art!" intending to use it for a local church pageant he was asked to organize, but never got around to doing because of his illness. Now the stanzas Rev. Hine had translated from the original nine flooded his being while writing itself on the star-tapestried walls of the Cavern-Cathedral of Orion.

The famous stanzas of Hine’s version quickly followed with the fourth that Hine himself composed, but something seemed unfinished. What was missing?

Words formed like shining gold in his mind and spirit, each letter too bright to look at as it radiating beams of every color, and the starry sands of the Nebula seemed to glow all the brighter in response to them, swimming together in a swordlike configuration that mirrored the same letters in his minds like a celestial calligraphy more intricate and splendid than any Ottoman sultan’s Kuffic script emblazoned on a towering marble edifice.

There is no sacrifice of love that’s wasted,

No brother’s tears forgotten by the Lord.

A sister’s prayer, and mothers’ supplications

Will sheathe the bitter, and the vengeful Sword...

The poet paused--struck by the words of this newly created passage of his own. What bitter, vengeful sword? In instant replay, his own poems flooded into his mind, which he had written in response to a thousand outrageous slings and arrows thrown at him without cause by fellow human beings in the course of his life--deadly missiles of envy, spite, anger, hatred, and cruelty. If that wasn’t enough for his lifetime, he had only to turn to the paper and read about wretched men, women, and children who were pushed against trees by rebel troops in supposedly civilized Africa, who then routinely hacked off their hands and feet and then left them crawling in agony--was it really so different the murderous words that hacked at a person from all sides year after year? The process was agonizingly slow for a journalist and Christian, but it was, when all the pain was put together, sheer agony. Fortunately, with just the right word, or knowing when to ignore and let a thing pass without comment, his wife had steered them into safe havens whenever he had been attacked. She had been the peace-maker, and no sword formed against him had ever succeeded in striking him down.

But he knew there must be a deeper meaning. Earth couldn’t be the only place that had this fox gnawing its vitals. Surely, the whole Universe was threatened by the sword, and was being slain by it--so the weapon that sought his life also sought the life of everyone. When was anyone beyond its reach? Only after death was there ultimate escape, for the sword, like Damocles’, hung over all Creation. What was this Great Sword? It was Quenchless Revenge, it was Intractable Unforgiveness, it was Remorseless Murder-lust. These three Sisters, like fanged Harpies, rode the nations and the life of every person in them, stirring up an endless cycle of endless vendettas like those that made the Balkans a snake-pit.

Was there any hope? Would the river of blood from countless Abels flow to the end of time?

Then new words in his mind formed in conjunction with yet another celestial image. He saw a crystalline bridge like innumerable blue star-sapphires arching, unfinished, across vast stretches. Under construction, he saw it growing, as new “star-sapphires” crystals were birthed from gas-clouds like blow-torches. The two ends reached toward each other, even as the sword hung over the bridge, threatening it. But would the bridge ever be finished? Or even if it was, would it then be destroyed by the Sword? The fate of the Blue Bridge seemed to be hanging in the balance as he looked at it. Yet the words promised victory:

God’s Son was sent to be the Bridge once broken

‘twixt God and Man since Adam’s sin was sown.

Christ spans the gulf that no man’s deeds, or goodness,

Can satisfy, or sin atone.

Yet why wasn’t the Sword totally destroyed? Why had it been left to threaten the yet-unfinished Bridge of Reconciliation? If the work of God in providing atonement between God and man was completed in the life and death of Christ, why then was he viewing construction still going on?

Unable to explain what he was seeing, what was birthed in him so unexpectedly that he had no words for it he now carried into to the Great Nebula’s depths.

The fragments of the seventh stanza, or what could possibly be the seventh, burst from his heart and spirit like blazing diamonds, born from the unbearable pressure and heat of his own pain and struggle:

O Shepherd’s heart, in lover’s tryst that’s quenchless,

--what fire burns so fiercely, and so true?--

What did it mean? A half of something--what good was that going to do? He was both amazed and baffled. Then he saw a streaking, red super-star strike the roof of the Cavern of Orion. Immediately, the glories of countless stars and solar systems began to blacken in the smokes of fiery ruin. Structures more intricate and lustrous than the the palaces of a Chambered Nautilus dissolved into falling ash. Reefs of star-corals extending fan-like, like peacocks’ displays of purples, greens, reds, and golds, shriveled instantly. Across tens of thousands of light-years of space, the Destroyer’s hand spread havoc. It was horrible, watching so ravishingly beautiful and splendid a Universe being destroyed.

As he was watching, a Brancusi-elegant and slender object like the Prion in his hand sped into the darkness of the stellar war zone like a silver arrow. Then another just like it appeared from yet another direction, both turning like heat-seeking missiles in his direction. What were they? Reflections of himself, or something other? The objects and himself converged, and before he could determine what it was, his half of the stanza was wrenched from his mind and heart, and he was hurtling backwards, his Ice Bird mirror-image speeding past and vanishing amidst the smoking chaos of the Nebula.

Ice Bird in Space

Suddenly, as quickly as he had been spun into deep space, he was back in his blackened, ruined garden, trembling with the ice bird in his hand and feeling as if everything of possible value in his heart and life had been stripped from him.

He had not yet recovered from the desolating shock when his daughter’s voice cut through his thoughts like a knife through warm margarine.

Stepping into the house, he felt the warmth, but his feet remained stone-cold, and the offended, pitying eyes he encountered in his daughter’s face also seemed stone-cold to him. What did she want from him? Why was she always demanding he be like everybody else? Couldn’t she ever get it into her head that her father, born to the stage, musical comedy, and composing, was not like everybody else on the block?

“Dad, I’m going! I can’t waste anymore time here. Please don’t give us a fright like this again. For the family’s sake, try and be more responsible at your age! Everybody at the office is talking about you behind my back! You created quite a stir at the hospital, calling all the doctors imposters and quacks out to get your money and then, when your money runs out, they’re going to shove you into a pinewood coffin while you’re still alive! How on earth could you say such mean things to all these nice people, when you know how much they are trying to do for you and poor Mom?”

She was at the door, and without another word (thank God, for he was about to throw a book of his poetry with his nom de plume Stuart Hawkins ("Skip Cavendish" did not have the right poetic ring to his ears) on it directly at her head), she let herself out.

Stewart stood, looking at the closed door. He was ashamed of himself--for wanting to throw a book of all things at his own flesh and blood, however insensitive and stupid that detached part of his flesh and blood happened to be. Why defend himself to her? He knew he had said such things, and some even worse things that they richly deserved for their chicanery, hypocrisy, and cruel exploitation and profiterring off suffering human flesh. He had seen them for what they were behind their veneer of professionalism and authority--black seagulls scavenging on the shores of a polluted lake. In fact, he had composed a poem about them, “Black Seagulls.” Behind him, the ruin of Orion, ahead of him, the ruin of his own life. He sank down on the couch, and put his head back into his hands.

He was still sitting there like that minutes later when, again, the red star streaked through the firmament of his mind.

“What is it?” he wondered. “What is it?”

What was even stranger, the three, tiny, white, ice birds flew in rapid circling orbits round the star, diving at it like smaller birds dive-bomb a hawk or eagle in order to drive it off their nests. Then, most unexpectedly, the red star gave way, retreating into the vast reaches of space away from the attacking trio.

A week later, being chastened enough by his daughter’s rebuke and advice to keep his mouth shut while visiting his wife, he was fiddling around in his garage workshop. He found a bird house, unfinished, lying under a pile of old newspapers he had intended to bundle up for a paper drive but never quite got tied together for the pickup, though the string and sizzors lay right on top.

A Purple Martin’s--which really wasn’t much good, since decades had past since the last Purple Martins had fled south, seeking more warmth than a month of two of summer could give.

Could sparrows live in it? he wondered. Maybe it was worth finishing, even though Purple Martins only live in northern zoos and domed nature preserves these days.

Getting busy with his tools, he attacked the bird house with sudden determination, but his trembling hands fumbled badly, and he wasn’t at it for more than a minute when he sliced his finger.

Swearing, he dropped the birdhouse and went into the kitchen, looking for something to stop the bleeding. Then he remembered what his wife would do for him. He ran cold water over the cut, and waited. The blood flowed just as red. He began to get worried, as a minute went by very slowly, and the blood wouldn’t quit flowing with the water down the drain.

“Oh, great! Like a stuck pig I get to bleed to death right here in the kitchen!” he thought. "Where's the dignity in that?"

He pulled out his finger, and waited a bit, but no more blood came.

Cavendish sighed, looking at it. “I guess the wretched, useless, old codger will live after all.”

The phone rang. Jerking about, his breath gone from the panic that suddenly struck him, he rammed the receiver against his head and ear. It was someone calling from the nurses’ station in the ward where they kept his wife.

“Mr. Cavendish, your wife has sustained a very serious insult to her breathing and circulatory systems,” a superficially cheery but cold, hospital voice informed him. “Dr. Woodmuir says to come in at once. How soon can you be here?”

How he ever reached the hospital in one piece, driving as crazy as he did, he could not imagine, but he couldn’t get their fast enough. He was running down the corridors, weeping regardless of all the people stopping to star at him in alarm, but he knew in his heart, by the sickening dread that formed there like an icy knot, he was too late.

When he finally stared at her face across the room, as close as the doctors would permit him, he realized how late he was. He found himself a chair and sank down on the brittle, hard, pumpkin orange plastic that made him be sorry for every bone he had in his body.

Hours seemed to pass, nurses went in and out, more things were done, but the face never changed expression, or gained back any color of life.

His family came into the room eventually, and took charge.

“I won’t let them give up on her like this!” he said, but there was no authority in his voice, only an undignified whimper. “She’s not leaving me, I tell you!”

A doctor came to him, and suggested he go into another room, where they could talk.

Fighting, Cavendish stood his ground. He knew what the “little talk” would be, word for word.

“She’s gone for good!” you mean. “But you’re quitters! She’ll rally again! You’re just letting her die, when she would come back in five or ten more minutes and make a recovery! Killers! Murderers! Fiends!”

His savage tones no longer intimidated or impressed the staff gathered in the room, though his family showed their shock by their anguished, horrified faces turned in a solid, bristling phlanx on him, stabbing him with their long-piked eyes.

Ignoring them, he stomped out into the corridor, shaking his fist at the world. “You’re all in bloody, hypocritical cahoots! I hold you all responsible for her death! You could have saved her if you tried, but you just let her go so you could get on with your miserable lives with the nuisance of having to visit her in the hospital!”

He rushed back into the room, and tried to reach his wife. Everyone tried to stop him. “Mr. Hawkens, please, you’ll do yourself no good getting all stirred up--” a doctor protested. "Besides, think about the others here, and their feelings for once! You aren't the only person hurting in this world--you're only making it inconvenient for others who need our attention."

Stewart seized his wife’s hand, which felt hard and cold as marble. “No!” he cried. “Berta, you can’ can’t leave me like this! Try harder! Breathe! Berta! Breathe! It’s me, Skip! Breathe for me! Push! Push! Birth a reprieve for me, your lover, your life-mate! Don’t leave me with them--these wolves! Don’t leave the world! It’ll die without you! It can’t possibly go on without you, darling! For me, you’re shepherd, and I’m your lamb! Your little, lost lamb!”

His pathetic cries (something like a lamb’s pitiful bleats, as the wolf snatches him up in his powerful jaws) were attracting attention through that whole end of the ward. Cavendish felt hands pulling his arms. His pupils dilated into huge, yawning gulfs in his eye sockets, he shook them off, but they kept on pulling him back away from the bed.

Then he gave up, but not before he turned around and faced them--his eyes speaking more than his words that everything would end in this stupifying, cold drop into unknown darkness and utter loss that he now was experiencing first-hand.

All he could think to do, in the face of so much stupifying cold-hearted life of professional hospital-dom mixed with death and destruction all around was quote from a William Blake poem about a sick rose, slain by an invisible worm that has come to slay the "crimson joy" of the once beautiful rose.

“The poor old man’s gone crazy with grief,” someone in the room commented as he was led off firmly held by the arms. “Imagine, quoting something about a rose and a worm after comparing himself to a lamb. What do roses and worms and sheep have to do with what’s happened? I heard he's a writer. That explains it, why he's so goofy. He's just one of those poets with his head in the clouds!”

After the funeral, the same day he was informed that his latest test had turned positive, he was finally still not able to put the broken pieces of his life’s tapestry together. Once, when he thought he had made sense of life, he had composed “The Gate.” Now, thinking of it, the words mocked him.

With everyone else, he had gone the wrong way, but seeing his situation had clawed his way back to the gate that was just then closing. He got back through just in the nick of time only to discover, with his wife’s death, that he still hadn’t got his answer to the riddle: why was the Sword still hanging over the uncompleted Bridge?

And Skip still had no answer until after he passed, as all men must, over the bar of mortal life and entered the realms beyond.

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