by Miss Elward
A dedicated scientist makes the gravest of decisions. It's for an audition, please review.
|Excerpt from The Book of Ezra
Poised cross-legged atop a hefty black desk, Lark bathed in the dissipating sunlight. Scarlet and strawberry hues painted him through yawning windows and blocks of looming thunderheads as he watched the clouds form. Like an island stranded in the vast mouth of the chamber, he sat unmoved. The room was largely empty, yet its dark paneled walls and cathedral high ceilings commanded the impression of a temperamental power, one that reflected in Lark’s contented smile. As Ezra and his father crossed into that simple office, they knew they were entering into an erratic game.
“Hello again, Ezra.”
Striding headstrong into the chamber, his father crossed the span of the ocean and grasped Lark’s skeletal hand in a handshake, “Benjamin Fallen,”
“Charmed.” Lark purred, his voice frilling with refinement. Quickly turning to Ezra, his sharp emerald eyes danced upon the leather-bound journal tucked beneath Ezra’s arm, “Have you brought me something new to read?”
“I’ve brought you a lifetime of research- my lifetime of research if you wish to be precise, sir. Twenty three and a quarter years edited to your liking.” Looking ready to pounce as Ezra slid the book across the desk, Lark’s thin, lithe shoulders rose to meet his savvy grin. He was a finicky kind of man, the type whose decision making process could have rested on the color socks he wore that morning for all anyone knew. But of course, he was entitled to that freedom. As the head of the only publishing house within three days’ travel of Bristol, his decisions could have depended on the color of his clients’ eyes if he so deemed it necessary.
“So certain. That’s what I like about you, Ezra.” He snatched up the journal and hungrily pawed through the pages with the dexterity of a man whose spider-like fingers had pillaged many lifetimes of work. With slow, savored amusement he read and when he had devoured his fill of words with those carnivorous feline eyes, he tossed the tattered jade-tinted book on the desk and finished with a satisfied Cheshire grin. “Ezra, Ezra. I should have known you were a man of your word. A vengeance you vowed and a vengeance you have delivered.”
“I should hope you’ve found my revisions favorable- more intelligible as you put it.” Deep beneath the skin of his façade Ezra seethed, disgusted at his own feeble submission. But what choice did he have than to stroke this man’s ego and pray to he would never see that broad, toothy grin again. Lord help him if he did.
“I have.” Suddenly turning to Benjamin with pupils swelling into eager moons, Lark burst into a smile that transformed his gaunt, chiseled cheek bones into vessels of beaming mockery, “And you, sir, ought to be proud your son is such a fine social activist.”
“An activist? Why, that boy’s never done a thing in his life, save for scribbling in that book of his.”
Ezra’s stomach clenched before his father had said two words. Of course, Benjamin would make no fuss about concealing his disappointment. He wore it with the same shameless blatancy with which he chastised any with the mind to oppose him. It would be his end should a man catch a grain of acceptance creeping across his wrinkled brow at the mention of his son’s shortcomings. ‘Dishonored’ they’d call him, or worse still ‘thin-skinned’. Silently Ezra seethed. Flames rippled across his tongue, coursing him to speak and he pressed his lips tight, denying his thoughts’ absolution.
A slim, charcoal eyebrow arched as Lark glanced between Benjamin and his wayward son. “I have found your revisions to be quite in order.” Still eyeing the two, he bounded from the desk and drew a single skeleton key from the shallow breast pocket of his suit. As the sun fled from the earth and darkness dampened the streets of Bristol, that single tri-toothed key shined like the self-evident center of the universe. Lark laughed wickedly because he knew that to Ezra, it was nothing less. He flaunted it shamelessly before tearing it from Ezra’s hungry gaze and scampering to a cabinet opposite the windows. The sudden flight released the rough stench of burning oil and ink, gagging Ezra savagely, though Benjamin evidently took no notice.
“What does he mean an activist?” He raged, forcing what would have been a shout in the presence of any other man into a whisper, “Ezra, what’s in that book?”
“You’ve read it, Father.”
Lark soon produced a pre-written statement of either warm acceptance or pitiless denial and slammed the parchment on the desk, declaring theatrically, “Sign this.”
“Now, hold on.” Benjamin injected.
“The pen, Ezra. Take it and write your name here.”
Ezra stared, but the thick blocks of script never wavered. They heralded their message in commanding black ink and declared among a maze of half-legible scrawl the hallowed word: Accepted.
“Sir, I’d like to know just what persuades you to say- “
“Mr. Fallen, I mean only that your son’s efforts for equality are commendable.” Lark began to take on the look of a man at the good end of a bad joke. Anxiously he adjusted the pair of petite, plainly useless spectacles balanced atop his nose and said to Ezra, “E-Z-R-A F-A-L-”
“Say what you mean, lad. Equality in what?”
“Well, sir, if you don’t already know, your son is--“
The cathedral-like ceiling roared with the shout and sparked it with a passion even fiercer than when it had flown from Ezra’s lips, “This is fiction!”
“--educating a woman.”
The silence that inserted itself into that office was the kind that started wars. In one instant, Benjamin’s face drained of all color and the pallor of Lark’s scrawny cheeks flared red in agitation, a subtle tint compared to the scarlet rage that engulfed Ezra. The three stood motionless. With the dire severity of battle-hardened soldiers, they endured the silence. Flickering lamp light crashed against their faces like the angry hands of ghosts and seeped into their eyes until they glowed orange with wrath. Rolling beyond the windows, the lightning lent its fury and Ezra’s voice became the thunder. The storm, so long building, commenced.
“Did you think I wouldn’t notice, Lark?”
“Come now Ezra, you must understand-”
“We are pleased to inform you that your novel has been selected for publication,” he read, tearing his book from the desk. “This isn’t fiction. It’s research and I need it published.”
“You and I both know there’s not a true word in that book. I can’t waste my time on every poor soul that wanders in here chasing a dream, but
I can save you a lot of humiliation trying to publish that thing as fact.”
“Then publish it as theory.”
“Ezra, you know I can’t do that. Sign the paper or walk away.”
The thunder bellowed in oppressive contempt as Ezra leaned over the desk. His head hung low. For a moment, he noticed that faithful black ink still lingered in dry smudges across the cuff of his left sleeve. It was the known mark of a writer and one that he had once worn with pride but now as he looked at it for what seemed the first time, it became a savage, ugly scar. “Twenty three years, Lark. I’ve been searching this earth for longer than you’ve been on it.”
At last irritation crushed Lark’s fragile patience and he struck the desk hard with livid hands, “And still you have found nothing! What have you to show for all your years of wandering but that sad excuse for science? Believe me, Ezra, when I tell you it would be better off as fiction.”
“Have you lost your bloody mind, son?” Through the battlefield of thunder, all sound was stolen by a whisper. Benjamin breathed such a low, ethereal sigh that the rage of both men dispersed at the quite rumble of his voice. His eyes were fixed on some unseen face engraved into the floor and for the first time, Ezra noticed how his father had aged. Deep, spanning valleys raced to crease his brow and the zeal of his springing smile had vanished long ago. Dull gray feathers fell in strands across the scalp that had once been covered in dark, rusty curls so much like Ezra’s. He watched the pride of his father’s eyes fade and the serene power of his stature sink. The man who had once stood as an unmovable stone had been reduced to a wallowing crow, yet still the man commanded the room with his stillness, “She’ll be lost. The knowledge is a vulture, far too strong to fight. It will consume her like a fire to a forest.” The frayed, silver thread of air that had become his voice diminished and was overtaken by a wounded silence. Every breath was held and every eye rested on Benjamin Fallen’s failing spirit, waiting for the man to move or speak- to raise his voice or stone-set eyes, filled with the ash that had once been fire. And he did. Those hollow grey eyes rose like ebony smoke and fixed on his son, questioning rather this man was his son at all. For some time, his lips quivered but could find no words. When at last he exhaled he said only, “Do you know that, Ezra?”
Ezra knew far too well. Though he seethed with indignant battle cries, the words that fled from his mouth were little more than somber pleas. “She deserves to know.”
Letting his gaze drop from his father, Ezra turned towards the door, no longer caring to see Lark. As his palm pressed to the worn and splintering wood he heard the words that broke him, the final gunshot that would ring inside his head like the howl of a wounded coyote. Mournful, desperately weak, he heard his father wither. “Ezra. Oh God help my son understand. He can’t be the hero.”
The echo of his father’s voice chased Ezra down the moaning stairs and into the lonely streets. Above, the heavens cried for someone, but it was not him. The rain cursed Ezra and bore down with savage hands on his head. The sun, all but dissolved behind black storm clouds, watched in strands of dull hues from afar. He shivered in the vicious cold. But even as his father’s voice lashed inside him, nothing but the icy rain flooded his mind as he sulked homeward- just the cold, lonely rain. Each well aimed drop sank through a mess of copper curls onto his cheek like makeshift tears to the eyes that never cried. The whole world drifted by like lonely ghosts before vacant eyes. Faces scuttled by with no greeting and hurried words melted before they reached an open ear. Still, he thought of nothing but the rain. The meager shelter of Ezra’s porch shielded him from the storm before his mind shifted again. As he stood before his own front door, he noticed only that a lamp had been lit in the window to light his way home- the signature of Alexandria. For the first time since their meeting, Ezra wished she had forgotten him.
Stepping inside, he was overcome by the surge of a familiar, bittersweet warmth. Inside the tiny library Ezra and Alexandria had so often confined themselves to during their studies, a placid fire burned. It warmed the house and washed over his face in a wave, coiling its sweet, adoring arms around the numb that had saturated Ezra’s mind and frozen skin. He fought its embrace, refusing to be deceived by false affections. As he lingered in the doorway of the study, he found Alexandria resting before the fire and gazing patiently at its unsteady light. She sat in the glow of an otherwise dark floor, resting among long, distorting shadows. They masked her, turning every tender curve of her face into dark, forlorn caverns and the tentative diary that lay open in her lap into a lurid, living thing. She threw back her hair from her eyes when she caught sight of the hollow outline prowling at the doorway and her vast shadow shuddered against the far wall, “What happened?”
“Find your books, Alex.” Ezra watched as she rose to her feet, setting the journal on a weathered table that tilted slightly beneath its weight. She followed him with wide, inquiring eyes and as he shed his rain-drenched coat, he imagined only for a moment what she must have seen. The ruthless cold had mangled his temperament unrecognizable, and his father’s words, still sounding in his mind, left him nearly dehumanized. Ezra was a stranger, nothing like the man she knew.
He scanned every neatly arranged title of the shelves lining the library walls, searching them as if for the first time. Each one he had read a thousand times and held a hundred more, yet still they all were alien. They were fresh and unfamiliar upon his sorry hands. Pausing suddenly, he traced each hazy thought and frozen finger along a lonely spine, a journal much like his own. So modestly it declared its triumph, a simple title arranged on a bulky backbone that read Thoughts on Morality. He touched it without feeling. All the years that he had wasted in Germany, writing one distorted theory after another, searching for the answers that did not exist, it was unfit for publication under a title as ridiculous as Thoughts. An amateur’s musings were more worthy than his collection of misgivings.
Fists slammed into the shelf. Teeth sunk into his swollen lip. That bloody book of his. That damnable child’s play! But it was the glass that shattered first. Through the rush of his pounding heart, Ezra heard it in slow motion as it cut the air into shards of murdered sound. Violently it tumbled, bending and rippling at the moment of impact with a thunderous clash. The heavens split as the first crack snaked from the corner- lightning branching from the battered edge to touch every bend of the glass before hundreds of shards fled in a thousand directions, raining on the hard wooden floor. Then came the silence. Roaring. Deafening! Ezra clasped his hands to his ears, starved for sound; a cry, a whisper, anything would do. But as suddenly as it had set it, the silence was melted by the ethereal melody of that shattered music box.
Ezra’s eyes flashed to Alexandria. He was consumed by the memory.
Like a porcelain doll, an angel in a music box, she had smiled. She had taken my hand, a fire dancing in those blazing blue eyes and she led me away to a place like no other. Cobblestone streets were lined with tattooed canvas caravans like I had never seen and the civil nature of those streets was overthrown by dancing- bare feet dancing in the street. So subtle it began. The music started so gently, like a civil ballet churning in the streets as men and women alike abandoned their quarrels and danced together unbridled beneath the autumn stars. Untamed, shimmering eyes and fierce, unkept hair flowed in a maddening haze as they chanted and glided over the ground so naturally. Every movement personified a grace I’d never known. Together they danced in the valorous light and the earthy smoke of burning leaves and incinerated obedience. And Alexandria. She slipped off those petite little boots and she danced with the sweetest of passions. Eyes closed, she swayed with the melody singing from the violinist’s soul- her quiet rebellion. Like the melody of a ragged music box, she morphed from a docile farm girl into the most beautiful of gypsies, completely consumed by some secret god. At once she was a child, wings spread in delight and a woman, skirts spinning around her sweet silhouette. I was mystified- captivated by this side of her I’d never seen. With a clever madness her arms spiraled in the air, beckoning the stars and the depths of my soul to sing with the firelight that played on her lips. In that boisterous light, those fiery eyes like pale ghosts found me. Christ, what a smile she gave as those silken hands took hold of mine. She pulled me to the fireside and without a single spoken word she persuaded me to dance. It was a tempest all around us. Laughter and silks of vivid colors blurred at maddening speeds but none were as spectacular as the pale of Alexandria’s eyes- no dance as free as her spirit as she soared above all heights. And I laughed, so mesmerized. We were in another world and the music was our master. As it moved us faster, we danced for no other reason than to serve it. Violins trilled with the racing of our hearts and in that moment, I knew happiness. In that realm of boundless serenity, I knew love.
But that was before. So much time had passed since he had seen her smile- so long since he had felt the rush of freedom- and as the music of the ruined box faded, the words returned to his mind so fiercely that his heart pounded at their entrance ‘The knowledge is a vulture, far too strong to fight. It will consume her.’ Ezra didn’t need to look at Alexandria; he had noticed it long ago. Each night as she would join him in that crowded chamber, books tucked beneath her arm, she wore a tiredness on her face that needed no explanation. She had known when she accepted his instruction the cruelty she would face as a women discontent to be ignorant, but neither of the two had intended it to enslave her. Under Ezra’s study, her infinite curiosity was condemned to dabble in the asylum of that tiny room. It held her like an amber iris pressed into a diary, a wide-eyed child dreaming fantastical dreams of the science that never meant a thing, a tiny dancer waltzing solo in an empty wine bottle. Nevermore could she turn away, she had learned too much to suffer the fate society had dealt her. But Ezra’s father was wrong. It was not the learning that had drained her face of passion. It had enlivened her. It was Ezra the disenchanted, the inadequate that troubled her fearless heart. It simply had to be.
Alexandria crouched over the ruined music box, “Let me get a broom,”
“No, that-that’s fine. Just leave it Alex.” He drew a sharp breath, kneeling beside her over the broken glass. Again, he forced his heavy lead lips to lie, curling into a strained smile. He went to the shelf and chose the book without looking. For so long he had awaited the night when he would pull it from its place on the shelf, turn right to bookmarked passage and give it to Alexandria. Wiping a thin layer of dust from the seventh volume of The Republic, he broke open its stiff, neglected pages. “I want to show you something, if you’re not too tired.”
Along with the volume, an unspoken knowledge passed between the two. Alexandria’s mouth contorted into a perverse frown as she watched Ezra. He could keep nothing from that curious soul she possessed. Every morsel of knowledge that he offered, she drank like sweet wine. Even what he kept from her wandering mind she would seek with dawning blue eyes. Her questions were endless of course, yet his word was truth to her. As she took the book from his hands, she studied him for a long, lingering moment. Their gazes were locked, but neither wavered. They just held each other in that moment, their faces keeping steady all the while. Finally accepting she could not triumph against his stubborn will, Alexandria surrendered, sank to the couch and withdrew. As she read, Ezra abandoned the warm glow of the library to return with a half-emptied bottle of wine. It rippled into dusty glasses as she read in silence, taking no notice. Ezra slowly drained his glass. He watched without seeing. With a tired sigh, she read the last of the passage aloud, “Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.” Forcing himself to breathe, he downed the rest of the glass followed soon by another. In the rigid stillness presiding over them, he didn’t bother to respond. He didn’t ask for her interpretation though she had hoped he would; just seeing her captivated figure lean over the book without the faintest idea as to why was enough to cripple his mind and morph it into new and changing pangs of guilt. She deserved to know. She deserved to know all the earth had to teach, but all he could give her was fiction. As the night waned, few theoretical whispers drifted through Ezra’s broken daze and the few that did were answered half-heartedly. Still, like a well-armed regiment marching wearily through the night, the evening waged on.
A soft chiming drew Ezra from his trance. 2 o’clock, it heralded. He had been home for hours. Nearly stumbling in the dim glow of the dying fire, he staggered to his feet. Alexandria had fallen into a dreamless sleep on the sofa, cradling her journal against her chest. Trying not to stir her from the fragile rest she had succumbed to, he stepped into the ruthless cold of the world outside their sanctuary. A new, harsh wind bit at him and the city became an unearthly dream strewn with images of black and white, as if he were looking back on dark memories from a distant future. Numb, nothing touched Ezra. Nothing had for so long. The devil and God had been dueling inside him, raging a long bloody war, but it had to end. In God’s name it had to end. Dear Alexandria. He had tucked the letter beneath the wineglass she’d not even touched, where she alone would find it in the morning. No other eyes would read the breathings of his soul. No mind would exploit his every folly. She alone would know the reason. My mind, ever lost and crestfallen, has reached the point where I can wait no longer. As he drifted through the forgotten streets, buzzing just hours before, he shivered violently. The air had grown colder still and far less forgiving. Falling drops of rain transmuted into the semi-solid white lace veil of the winter’s bride-to-be and crashed to the earth in a ruthless snowfall. I’ve focused on our learning to forget the crime I’ve committed against you. Barely noticing the storm, Ezra drifted down the avenue that he had once traveled so mindlessly. He glanced up at the clock tower as he always had, but took no notice of the time. The fire escape had been left down at the publisher’s building. Before his own thoughts could object, Ezra stood upon the roof. Alone, so high above the city, he watched the snow fall from far above. Then, in a sporadic flash of lightning, he noticed it. Tucked habitually beneath his arm was the tainted green journal that had begun his journey to total collapse. Cursing the Earth and roaming lightning, he let it plummet to his feet and its pages danced in the wind of their new freedom. For I know that as long as I stand upon this earth, you will never be free.
Then, behind him, he heard her cry. His name once more tainted those lips. So innocently she called. Ezra, Ezra. Her song lifted, drifting far above him, far above that forsaken rooftop, far above all sound and sadness. Her voice filled him and stirred him like a warm violin in the midst of the requiem crashing in his head. But it was the murder of his hesitancy. She wasn’t meant to be here. I write you, who knows my soul better than had you written life upon it, because I have no other desire than to give you these words. There she stood opposite of him, draped in layers of cascading white. Her bare arms and trembling lips betrayed the urgency with which she had flown. She was the lightning, rushing to find him. Ezra spoke without a sound; none would rise to fill the void her silence left in him. With a slowness that pained him, she came closer and each step drawing them nearer- the ever-hopeful Alexandria and the empty, weeping Ezra. I cannot bear a moment longer to see you suffer for my fallacy. His name again, it was all he heard- the music that she spoke. And I can withstand the failure I’ve created no longer. When at last she stood before him, speaking words he dared not hear, he shattered. Hesitantly, so carefully, his frozen hands met the warmth of her face and he was melted. Believe, love, that I felt no pain. The numbness that had shrouded him dispersed like a frightened ghost, fleeing in every direction. The numb was gone. She had chased it away, as she alone could, but there was no resolve to fill him. There was nothing but the constant, pervading shame. Believe with all your heart that I rest- at last I rest. Cradling her face in his trembling hands, Ezra stared into frightened cobalt eyes, wondering what they saw, and hoping that it was not him. He prayed it was not him she had come looking for, that he was not the one she sought. To God’s name above, he pleaded that he was not the one she loved. Her eyes flickered between each of his unwavering pupils, longing for an explanation. But there was so much to tell her, so much she could never have known.
In that maelstrom of blinding snow and lightning, Ezra drew her closer. He drew her heart even nearer to his. Lifting her small and shivering chin, he told her everything. Without a single word he told her all that he could never say. Let this sin be my vow that I have loved none other. He felt her confusion in the blushing warmth that spread across her cheeks, but against the sweet innocence of her kiss, he tasted only his own saline tears. “Please,” he trembled, touching his forehead to hers. “Forgive me.” The world fell silent.
For a time no one could measure, the only sound to fill Ezra’s ears was Alexandria’s scream as the warmth of his embrace faded. He leaned against the worldly wind and he his pulse became the fleeting snow. The bitter pages of his book still beat against the air.