Woman Into Wolf

Chapter Seventeen – Occam’s Razor

Downstairs Persey was surprised to find Babe garbed in a black velvet caftan padding disconsolately about outside her library. Babe usually had breakfast in bed brought by loyal Mickey. Babe claimed she never slept until dawn began to break. She must have been up all night. In this early light she seemed broken and witch-like. Without makeup she was a different person; someone with timid, tired eyes, rousted prematurely from hibernation to face an upside down world.
“I hope I didn’t take your last Ambien,” said Persey, conscience stricken.

“No, no, no. Of course you didn’t. They just don’t seem to work anymore. When I close my eyes I can’t stop thinking I won’t wake up.” She sighed and shrugged her shoulders helplessly. ”So much left undone. And who, I’d like to know, could sleep through all those phone calls? Feet up and down the stairs? Didn’t you hear it? You heard the good news?”

Persey wasn’t going to call it good news. Not for anybody. Not to serve any purpose. “I heard about the suicide.”

Babe rattled the silver coffeepot, filling a cup for Persey, even though she hadn’t asked.

“It’s always hard to live with what we’ve done, but in his case he saved us a lot of bother, poor man. Jarod said Stormee could be very, very difficult. Very demeaning. When a woman really knows how to find a man’s pressure points, well, a lot of men can’t handle it. Not when a woman is demeaning in that way.” Her eyelids fluttered suggestively.

There was no milk for the coffee but Persey didn’t care. She wanted things to taste different now; harsher. The very air felt crueler. In the past she had disliked and avoided the “library”, the one room in the house with no real windows. A whisper fan circulated air from God knows where; it smelled of multiple disinfectants.

Babe had stigmatized the place with a disturbing nautical theme that made Persey feel seasick; a faux figurehead jutted from the wall as if a ship had assaulted the house; trompe l’oeil portholes showcased shadowboxed views of an alternate universe. Stay here too long, thought Persey, and we’ll drift beyond help.

To spite its name only a few morocco bound books huddled together under glass. Stage prop tributes to a staging master. Persey had actually tried to borrow one once, only to be told it was “uncut”. Reading it would diminish its value, Babe warned. After all, she told her daughter-in-law, you can get all the books you want for free at the public library.

But this felt like the right place to tackle Babe, a place where she checked defenses at the door. Already the lighting had been adjusted to a soft pink. At the touch of a button she could summon appropriate background music just as if life itself was one long entertainment. Persey recognized Berlioz swelling soulfully around them now. Babe settled back on the crushed velvet sofa and patted the cushion beside her.

Persey braced herself for the usual shellacking of self-pitying goo; Babe’s coin in Babe’s house.
“Don’t go back, Persey. Relax. You can stay here for as long as you want.”

“They probably need me,” said Persey, thinking actually of Digger but not daring to say so. Babe considered all pets children substitutes, airily devaluing their wildness link. Persey was sitting so close to the older woman now, she could see white roots nestling like doves at the roots of Babe’s night-black hair. A conversation with Babe was usually a question of landmine detection. The game of weapon du jour was bitterly hard to play if you weren’t a natural scorekeeper.

Nobody had grappled with Babe over the truth for a long time. Why had she sentenced herself to this cruel fate, Persey wondered. It was a self-punishment crueler than any crime could possibly be. In any case, it was time to set her free and show her the consequences of arming herself against the realities of the universe. Persey put down her coffee cup, picked up her mother-in-law’s hands and just came out with it.

“Where’s Bruce, Babe?”

Babe’s eyes retracted in their doughy lids. “Mickey will be disappointed.” What’s this, wondered Persey. The insanity defense?

Persey massaged Babe’s be-ringed hands and stared her down. “Where’s Bruce, Babe?”
Babe closed her eyes. Easy to imagine Babe as a little girl, winning every
battle with the power of passive resistance: “You can’t make me” “I won’t look” “You’re not there” and “I’m not listening to you.” Powerful, powerful weapons, even in the hands of toddlers. In Persey’s hands her mother-in-law’s claws quivered like rescued birds. Persey said,
“Bruce has been hurting people again, Babe. You have to tell me where he is.”
Babe sucked in a death rattle of processed air.

“I’m going to tell you a secret, Persey,” she said. “Now that you are about to become a mother yourself it’s only right that you know the truth. But you have to promise me –“ The hands became claws and gripped Persey’s fiercely – “You will never, ever tell.”

“I promise,” said Persey, thinking, Thank God you don’t have to keep the promises you make to insane people. Ned lied to the mutants to find out facts; so could she.
Babe opened her eyes to their widest extent as if drinking Persey in.

“I’m sick,” she said. “I’ve been diagnosed with a disease of the spine. Dr. Zu is treating me. Mickey knows. But I don’t want Roy – or anyone else – ever to find out.” She hissed the words.

God, thought Persey. Was I naïve. Never saw this one coming. What can I say now? She wins this round, too.

“Is it cancer?”
Babe nodded. She couldn’t say the word.

“I know I caught it from Roy Senior. But Dr. Zu says the life force is too
strong for me to lose as long as I believe and I do believe. Bryan — I mean Roy Junior of course, used to give me such wonderful massages, protecting me with nourishing little sensitive strokes. He kept the damage from internalizing. Then when he began to hate me his touch became destructive. I think I caught the cancer then.”

Her death-grip was so tight it made Persey wince. She struggled with this new round of blame. It was everyone’s fault, ultimately, for not loving Babe enough, for not giving her their souls to use however she chose. How did Ned stand it? Did it help knowing it was just a performance, that others were looking through the glass approvingly?

But she and Babe were utterly alone in the privacy of secrecy, peering into a never-opened Pandora’s box of pain. What had Ned called it? The abyss? Persey tried her hardest to stay calm. You couldn’t let the wilderness know you were afraid of it.

“Cancer isn’t contagious, Babe,” she said wishing she believed it. “You can’t catch it from other people.”

“But don’t you think it’s possible, Persey, to contaminate another’s soul with anger and revenge?”
“No,” lied Persey painfully. “Impossible.” She refused to set foot in Babe’s crazy world. Talk about contamination! Babe’s bruised eyes filled with tears.

“I want to believe you, Persey, but I can’t be sure. Someday – maybe sooner than we think — you’ll be alone with him and you have to know how to manage him. That’s why I’m going to tell you about Bruce. If you tell Roy I told—“ she gulped, then hissed, “He’ll kill me.”

Persey’s hands were going numb. The heat pouring off Babe was suffocating; we’re all drowning in a hot flash now, she thought. Locked in the stare of those dark, dark eyes, she thought, this is it, this is the decisive moment when the cobra unfurls the secrets of the universe and spits them at the rabbit.

“Bruce… is… dead,” sighed Babe, surrendering her furnace of pain. “He died a long time ago.”
Persey snatched away her hands. What a liar!

“It wasn’t my fault,” Babe insisted. “I didn’t have enough milk for two babies. I thought I wanted twins to replace my lost uncles, but it was just too much for me. You can’t imagine the pain when your own child seems to hate you, rejects your milk, and cries nonstop. I was surrounded by foreigners and Roy Senior was never home; off with his slender-bodied women no doubt.

I had no help at all and I was hardly more than a child myself. I thought Bryan needed me most because he was the weak one. Bruce seemed so strong but he died anyway. Bruce was Roy Senior’s favorite and he was so disappointed. But there we were with two passports, two Social Security numbers, and Roy Senior’s parents had already set up two separate trust funds, so I agreed it seemed a shame to let that money go to waste. Was I wrong?

Roy Senior’s mother was afraid to leave her house so we knew they’d never visit. It was all Roy Senior’s doing, I just went along with it. But…I don’t know how to explain this to you… in some ways Bruce never left. We could see how he was growing because of Bryan.

It started as a rainy-day game, you know, a mother’s effort to put a smile on frowns. A joke. When Bryan was naughty, well, then he was Bruce. When he behaved himself, he was back to Bryan. But as he grew up he got worse and worse. He wanted to be Bruce all the time, just so he could do these terrible things. I couldn’t manage him and Roy Senior refused to try. He loved having another sword to wound me with. After Roy Senior’s parents died, and we could come home, I thought we could get rid of Bruce. We didn’t need Bruce any more.

We tried to make a ceremony out of killing him – so many times. To make it stick, you know. We gave him the most beautiful graveside service — told the funeral director we brought the cremains from overseas and were keeping them at home just so we could fill the casket with things bad old Brucie broke or ruined. I bought the most expensive casket they had, the very best grave plot. Bryan promised it was over, promised solemnly. He swore to God. He took his father’s name to symbolize the new start.

But Bruce wouldn’t stay dead. Bryan kept resurrecting him, just to punish me. His father couldn’t handle it. No help as usual. He just ran away.”

She spat into a lace-trimmed handkerchief. “That’s what men do. They leave the filth, the cleanup, to us. I warned him Bryan was dangerous but he refused to believe me until Bryan insisted on moving in with him. What’s the next thing I hear? Roy Senior’s dead! That big man’s heart gave out. So who was the strong one, after all?”

Persey struggled to keep up. What the hell had happened in this family? It sounded like Babe had murdered her eldest child to punish her husband for abandonment and then resurrected him at will to stop her conscience. But didn’t that mean…

“Are you saying that Roy is the one…”
But Babe was in spate. No one could ever stop her then.

“I know I made mistakes. I’m not denying that. Battlefield decisions, Mickey
calls them. You have to think on your feet and if you’re tired and under pressure and not well to start with then of course you make mistakes. Wait until you’re a parent, Persey, then you’ll see.

There’s so much I bitterly regret. Nothing I’ve ever tried works. But how was his becoming a felon my fault? I have to face the fact that Roy hates me. My own son hates me. He had a poor example from his father, I’ll say that. He learned how to treat me with utter contempt in my own house. You know what the worst thing is?” Tears sprang into her eyes and dribbled down her cheeks. “I know I should have given Bryan his money…when his father died…but I was so afraid. I knew he’d leave just like his father did, take off and never come back. I didn’t see how else to keep him. And then when he went to prison I was trustee for life. Of course that only made him hate me more. So Persey, I say, thank God for you.”

She shook her daughter-in-law’s hands fiercely. “You saved him. You must admit it’s been just miraculous.”

But Persey was still clinging to the cliff-edge, unable to go up or down. “Are you saying Roy was the rapist?”

Babe barked a short, sharp laugh and gave Persey a shrewd look.
“I’ve owned up to my part in this, Persey, now it’s time for you to do the
same. Didn’t you abandon Roy in his hour of need? Roy loved you. Roy gave himself to you. Roy takes after my side of the family; I’m proud to say he’s a one- woman man. He made it clear he’d chosen you for life, but you were toying with his heart. There’s been no one else for him, ever. He pledged himself to you at an age when most men are happy to play the field.

He was fine when he was with you. What were you thinking? You dumped him, Persey. Of course he was angry. Of course he went crazy. Bruce came back with a vengeance because Bryan had been so rejected and wounded. He hated all women. You didn’t make my life any easier, I’ll tell you that. You can’t demean a man in that way, Persey. No woman can – it guts their masculinity. Don’t you understand?

You should be grateful that Roy gave you a second chance. He’s quite a catch, my son; especially compared to that first husband of yours. You owe that second chance to me. I told him that once you’d had a chance to experience other men you’d see how lucky you had been. And I was right, wasn’t I? Doesn’t he treat you like a princess? I’ll bet he hasn’t hit you once – unlike Roy Senior — and let’s face it, most of us deserve it.

I know you’ve been fine since the wedding; I’m not saying anything different. But haven’t you been leading a very self-indulgent life? Now it’s time for you to mature, Persey, and step up to the plate. Stop taking and give a little. You have a place in this family. I understand it’s hard to give up girlish dreams and focus just on what’s in front of you; no one knows that better than me.
Stop worrying. All the misery is behind us, as long as you keep Brucie dead. We have the future to think about. New life, Persey! Don’t you see how it cancels out the bad things, just as if none of it ever happened? And thank God for Jarod when we’re not around. Jarod knows everything. Jarod has promised to keep him out of trouble. Why would he ever need another woman if you’re giving him what he wants?”

“It means Roy’s a killer!” shouted Persey, trying to stand up. “Don’t you see?”

“We can contain this,” Babe argued comfortably. “Hurt young men lash out! There will always be plenty of women who want to test their power by teasing men into fits. But he’s got you, Persey. He’s going to be a father and he’s so proud. You’ll see, that changes everything.”

“Why can’t you face the truth for once?” shrieked Persey. “Your son is a murderer! He probably killed Stormee too!”

Babe slapped Persey’s face hard. “You keep your voice down in my house! Don’t you ever talk that way around Roy! If he thinks you’ve lost faith in him, he’s finished! Roy would never do anything to hurt Jarod! Jarod is his best friend! Jarod’s the one that’s kept him from running off the rails!
He’s the only man Roy has ever looked up to, ever even respected. He needed a role model when Roy Senior bailed out, don’t you see? Persey, focus. You have a job to do. I’m telling you my mistakes so you don’t have to repeat them, don’t you see? You’re too small for twins, so that won’t happen, doctors know how to prevent that now. They kill the weak one to give the strong a chance. I’ll make sure you don’t suffer the way I did. And you’ll have all the love and help you need. I guarantee it.”

Persey backed away, Babe’s red handprint staining and stinging her cheek. Ned had marked her and the demons answered back. The ice that had frozen this family for so long was melting, exposing the river of fire beneath. She, Persey, had been the human sacrifice all along.
“You mean Roy never was in Special Forces — he was in prison all those years?”

Babe waved a hand dismissively. “A prison record is a terrible blot on a young man’s escutcheon. We couldn’t allow that. Those poor young men are marked for life. So many doors are closed to them. We all agreed Bruce needed to be brought back just one more time. Prison’s just like boot camp, really. Jarod told us all about it. Jarod’s a hero.”

“You know nothing,” snapped Persey. “Your truth is poisoned. Everything you think you know is a lie.” She backed against the door, planning her escape route. Where was her purse? Her keys? She didn’t want to share oxygen with this woman for one more second.
Babe folded her stained handkerchief and pressed it to her face.

“I understand the power of denial,” she sniffed. “I won’t judge you. I’m not saying the truth isn’t painful. It’s hell, Persey! I’ve groveled and groveled for years! Why aren’t I forgiven? No; I had to be destroyed. But you, Persey, you and your child have nothing to fear. Bryan takes it all out on me. He killed Bruce, he killed his father, and when he’s killed me, we’ll all be even.

Don’t you see we have no choice, Persey but to believe? To hope? We have to accept our role, which is to model forgiveness and love however painful that may be.“ She was openly weeping now. “I don’t understand why is this so hard for you. After all, you have nothing of your own. Everything you are, everything you have, comes from Roy.”

This may look like love to the uninitiated, thought Persey, but the Bird Lady’s pupil cannot be fooled. You name the demons, and then get rid of them. Their names are rape, theft, soul-rape, soul-theft, bribery, murder and blackmail. She turned her back on the doublethink-polluted air. She had to flee before she went down with the ship.

“Where are you going?” A shocked Babe pursued her, stumbling, as if her legs had fallen asleep. “What are you going to do? Don’t make decisions when you’re so upset! Don’t you see this is bad for the baby? Please don’t leave!”

“I have to go,” said Persey. She was quivering with rage on Bish’s behalf. She imagined Babe’s cold response if she tried to explain how the universe had been impoverished. Babe knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

“But what about your luggage?” gasped Babe. It was almost ludicrous, her evident conviction that Persey was tethered to this house by the contents of a suitcase. “Let me get Mickey.”
“Forget the luggage,” said Persey cruelly. She could keep the luggage. A pile of bloody sheets was all the baby she’d ever have. “I thought you said everything

I have comes from Roy.” It was stupid to answer back, she recognized as she said it. Wasn’t she right now climbing into Roy’s truck?

“Don’t be that way, Persey,” Babe begged, clutching at the window. “Don’t tell me I’ve misjudged you! I trusted you. If you tell Roy you’re signing my death warrant!”

He probably would kill her, thought Persey, detaching her mother-in-law’s fingers one by one. Why not? He’d been killing her for years. But it would be needlessly cruel when Babe was never really alive, and when there was so little left to kill.

Gravel spat at Babe from beneath the massive tires, pushing her away.

“I won’t tell him,” Persey promised, over her shoulder, “I’m the only one in this goddam family who knows how to keep a secret.”

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