I know how jarring sudden transitions to second-person present-tense can be, so I hope you won’t be too mad with me.
Regardless of the medium, I’m glad that we’re getting the chance to meet! I know that you’re eager to see Tup and Bell and Presh, and I don’t blame you for that, but I’ll have to ask you to remain patient. Before we can move on, I’d like for us to have a chat.
Don’t worry, nothing serious. I only want to tell you my story. Personally, I’m only connected to all of what happened in the loosest possible sense, but I still think what I have to say is relevant.
It’s long, but I’ll make it easy and split it up for you, spreading the chunks throughout the narrative. It wouldn’t do you much good to hear all of it now, with how little you know. You need proper context. If you want to learn the one lesson that I’m trying to shove down your throat, you need to understand what happened to that person, and part of that means understanding what happened to me, and part of it means learning about what’s happening to Hallie.
If you’re curious, yes, I’m dead. If I had managed to hold on a little longer, I might have been able to explain the truth of those messages to my husband, and most of this would have never happened. Now that I’m able to examine the situation from the other side, I can see that it all boiled down to bad communication. As tragic as it as, I can’t help but find it interesting, the impact that words can have.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, my history.
Once, a long time ago, I lived in a society.
I was born on April 20th, 1851, in Racine, Wisconsin. It was Easter Sunday.
My parents were immigrants from an area that would one day become part of Czechoslovakia, and I was their fifth and last child, one of four sons. Despite being highly educated, my father arrived to America and somehow ended up in a town called Mineral Point, working as a lead miner to support himself and my mother. He despised it, but it was excellent money, so he bided his time and saved carefully, hoping to eventually leave and start a business. He worked like that for three years, toiling in misery.
One day, one month after the birth of his first child, he came home with a large fortune. At first, my mother was overjoyed, but she soon remembered that money did not come from nowhere, and she asked him how he’d gotten it. His work as a miner provided him with what was for the time a comfortable income, but nothing even approaching what he’d brought home to show her, so she was right to show concern.
My father thought of my mother as an intellectual equal, which was uncommon for the time, so my mother was surprised to hear him tell her that she wouldn’t want to know.
She looked at him and told him that she certainly did, and he repeated himself.
She asked him if he had killed anyone, directly or indirectly. He shook his head.
She asked him if he had stolen from anyone, or cheated, or lied. He shook his head.
She asked him if he had broken any law. He paused for a moment, thinking about what the man with twelve toes had said, and then shook his head.
She asked him, slowly, holding her first sleeping child, if his actions had in any way endangered them. He kissed her gently on the lips, and then kissed my brother in the same fashion on the forehead, and then held both of them closely, assuring her that no harm would ever come to the three of them.
The next day, my father left his job, moving them east to Racine. Using the money he’d obtained, he bought a modest home and a building in the center of town, which he converted to a bookstore. The two of them then set to the task of turning that bookstore into the booming town’s cultural hub. My mother offered free literacy classes to both young and old, and my father delivered introductory lectures on science, literature, and world history, creating a customer base through education.
It worked. My parents found success both socially and financially, with the town coming to see them as pillars of the community. Several blissful years passed, and my mother was soon blessed with a second child, and then a third.
Before my oldest brother was born, my mother thought she was impartial to which gender it would be. Before my second brother was born, she thought that she had a slight preference that it be a girl. Before her third child, she knew what she really wanted.
On the day my third brother was born, my mother was grateful for a safe delivery and a healthy child, but she found a small part of herself saddened not to have gotten her wish. Her and my father had previously agreed to a firm limit of three children, but she came to him later and asked him to consider one more, wanting more than anything to have just one girl.
He looked at the love of his life and asked her to give him one week to think it over. Happy to hear that he was open to the prospect, she thanked him and left him to it. The next week was almost tortuous for her, but she stayed quiet about the topic, not wanting him to feel pressured.
After seven days, he came to her and told her that he’d be fine with it, under a single condition. If it happened that they had a fourth child and it also not be a girl, she would promise to accept it. Under no condition, he stressed, could they have a fifth child. She happily agreed, thinking his condition both kind and reasonable. As much as she hoped for a daughter, she knew that it wouldn’t do to keep having children forever only to satisfy that wish, so she accepted the necessity of a hard limit.
In the final months of her fourth pregnancy, my father became anxious, although he worked very hard not to show it. When it finally happened, he discovered that he’d been worrying for nothing, the sight of his first daughter relieving him in a way he never thought possible. After reaffirming their promise to never have another child, the two of them and their four children enjoyed several more happy years together, all sharing about as much love as a family could.
Five years later, an extremely famous writer came to visit the town, one of the greatest and most talked about in the entire country. Racine had gotten large, but it still wasn’t nearly as noteworthy as many other towns and cities that the author could have gone to, so it caught both my parents by great surprise one day to see him walking into their shop. My parents had read a lot of his work, and they were very enamored by him, so it meant the world to them when he accepted their offer to join them for dinner.
My parents almost never drank, but they made an exception for the night the author was coming, knowing that he had a reputation for being an extremely heavy drinker. They weren’t typically the type to go around changing their behavior to impress others, but the presence of an artist they respected so much clouded their judgement.
The evening they spent with him was, as far as they saw it at the time, one of the most memorable moments of their shared lives. After eating together with my siblings, the three of them went together and sat in the family garden, discussing his process and the hidden meanings present in his work. Both were pleasantly surprised with how polite and down-to-earth he came across in person, having expected someone darker and more withdrawn, in keeping with the dark romantic literature he was known to write.
They might have noticed, once or twice, specific moments where the author stepped too far away from the persona they’d expected, enough to draw suspicion. Once, when discussing a long poem he’d written, he’d explained it incorrectly, mixing it up with several others. It wasn’t a matter of opinionated authorial interpretation; he’d forgotten clear factual details, including the names and livelihoods of multiple important characters.
They never corrected him on it, despite both having read the work enough times to have quoted it back to him word for word. It seemed ridiculous, to do that. Even the greatest of writers, they knew, made mistakes from time to time. That wasn’t any reason to get uppity. With him, they were drinking, laughing, sharing more than they’d ever shared with anyone but themselves. And it felt wonderful. So what, if he’d forgotten some minor details, if he’d made little mistakes. It was him. Him! Someone who made them feel, who made them think. No one was more worthy of worship.
And it went on into the late night and then the wee hours of the morning, only getting better. He was equally as generous with compliments as they were, and that wasn’t from a lack on their end. They were a beautiful couple, he insisted. He loved it when they drank, when they smiled, when they touched, and he told them that repeatedly, making sure they knew it well. His favorite theme of discussion throughout the long conversation — despite it hardly ever appearing as a central topic in his bibliography — was love, and love of all stripes.
He talked about philosophy, about Plato. About the different types of love, as defined by the Greeks. Agape, love between man and God. Philia, love between friends. Storge, love between parents and children.
And then, while drinking, and while also insisting that they drink as well, as good philosophy could only be conducted while inebriated, he reminded them of Eros, the love of lovers. The love of touch, of beauty, of passion. And he told them how important he thought that Eros was, and how important the Greeks thought it was, and how wonderful a couple they were, and that they should keep drinking, because he liked it when they drank. The children were asleep, and they had long since drank enough not to find issue with what he was saying, so they kept drinking. And the idea that they’d ever empathized with teetotalers started to feel silly, because everything felt silly. And they kept drinking.
At some point, he said his goodbyes and thanked them profusely, calling them once more an example of a perfect love, telling them that they were the ones he worked so hard to create for. And they cried with big dumb drunk smiles, and hugged him, and then he left.
And then, as drunk as they were, and thinking about Eros and the nature of love and what good readers they were and how much they loved each other and the author and his books and the universe, they went inside. And then, together, not thinking of old commitments, they made me.
It wasn’t until the weeks and months that followed, when it became absolutely undeniable that she was carrying me, that my father came to realize how he’d been tricked. That there was a very precise reason why the author had falsely remembered his own writing, which had nothing to do with alcohol consumption. Why he’d come to Racine, and to that book store in particular, accepting a dinner proposal from complete strangers without a moment’s hesitation. Why he’d been so forthcoming with compliments, why he’d wanted them to drink, and drink, and drink. Why he’d talked about Eros.
Why the man had been wearing such large, oddly-fitted shoes, with extra width afforded near the front, as if additional space was required.
The perfect amount of space, my father realized too late, for a man with twelve toes.