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Chapter I

Chapter I

Windows and Mirrors

In which, in the late spring of the year two thousand and nineteen, Owen finds a mysterious book in a library desk and is spellbound by its owner, whose elegant annotations fill the pages. He takes a walk with his friend Ivan, during which the pair speak long-windedly about the nature of art and other tedious subjects. Owen has a mystical experience at Evensong and meets the woman of his dreams before receiving a distressing message that will ultimately cause him to spend the summer in Chicago.

Alone in a library, the first rays of dawnlight flooding through the amber, violet, and sapphire stained-glass windows, he sat in a stupor sketching interlacing lines that formed an eagle gripping a snake in its talons. He blew the excess lead off the paper and leaned back in his chair staring at the drawing, unsure if it was finished and, if it was, unsure what to do next. Thoughts charged into his mind and marched around in a cyclical formation, each one trumpeting a suggestion for the next direction of his energies, but the resulting cacophony only sapped his focus.

His gaze wandered until it settled on the drawers of his library desk. Owen opened the top-right drawer, then the bottom-right, but both were empty, and the top-left held only two pencils and a used tissue. When he opened the bottom-left drawer, however, he found a frayed book with a green cover titled The Poetry and Prose of Percy Bysshe Shelley. There was no call number on the spine, no indication of it being the property of Cambridge University’s Pembroke Library, but annotations filled the pages from beginning to end. Owen was writing his dissertation on Shelley, but was not surprised by this coincidence, and had in fact grown numb to the godly luck that had followed him since he was young. He constantly claimed prizes in raffles, won several low-stakes lotteries, and had predicted the last three American presidential elections within ten electoral votes, all without much effort or time.

But now, as he opened the poetry volume and found the name Maria Bella Ligera in elegant cursive in the top corner of the title page, something profound descended upon Owen. He quickly thumbed through the editorial introduction that recounted all the details of Shelley’s life and labor: his failed loves, lost children, and ultimate drowning off the coast of Lerici. At the bottom of this introduction’s final page, the mysterious owner of the book had penciled in the comment, “Poetry translates the Mystery of Divinity into Beauty.”

Owen put away his sketch and cleared his desk of everything but the book. His vision narrowed, and he fixated on every detail of the text as he coursed through the volume poem by poem, line by line, annotation by annotation. He flipped through to “Mont Blanc,” closely considering each of the notes written all over the page.

The everlasting universe of things

Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,

Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—

Now lending splendour.

And beside these lines, a note written in elegant cursive hand:

“Beauty is Eternity’s cloak, Mystery is her language, and Grace is her movement. Beauty stills the tongue, Mystery silences the mind, and Grace stirs the soul.”

Owen read for hours as his restless head reverberated with sounds of a violent river that quieted only when he returned to the poems before him. Morning shifted into afternoon without warning, and night darkened the sky even more abruptly. Neither hunger nor thirst bothered him, and he turned page after page until sliding down the lines of “To a Sky-Lark” in rhythmic stillness, hearing the handwritten annotations as whispers addressed directly to him.

We look before and after

And pine for what is not:

Our sincerest laughter

With some pain is fraught;

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Sorrow is the certainty of the past, excitement the ambiguity of the future, and awe the mystery of the present. What time is it in Heaven right now? Is it morning or night, are the angels singing or sleeping…

Upon reading this note, Owen remembered it was Sunday evening, and the library would be closing early.

He wanted to take the book home with him, but could not check it out without a call number. He almost gave in to an urge to simply walk out with it in his bag, but when the librarian called out that it was closing time, he came to his wits and placed the book back in the drawer where he found it. He left the library, but instead of heading home, his body seemed to travel of its own accord to the Pembroke College Chapel, where he sat in a pew and stared blankly in the empty and silent nave as if waiting for something. Nothing extraordinary occurred, but his mind emptied of all the words he had read that day and harmonized with the amber hues of flickering candlelight around him. Soon, his eyelids became heavy and he returned to his room in the college, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling until he fell asleep.

Darkness dominated Owen’s dreams that night, deprived them of all color and variation so that only a boundless void remained. He was deep underwater with an ocean weighing upon him, and he felt shackles on his wrists and ankles that extended infinitely downward, anchored by some heavy and malevolent weight, with air bubbles rising around him as he slowly sank. Unconscious of time’s passage, he ebbed in a state of perpetual waiting until, in a moment, an orb of light appeared and drew closer, growing in size and acquiring a human-like shape with long white hair and a billowy white dress. This woman, clad in the incandescence of angels, was soon within arm’s reach, but Owen could not move his arms, and though he longed to embrace her, the white flame that enveloped her petrified him. With a gentle smile, she slowly lifted her hand and rested it on Owen’s forehead, stroking downward as if closing the eyes of a corpse. His chains loosened and fell away into the abyss, and Owen, still paralyzed, floated upwards, ascending until he could see the far-off glimmer of the sun.

The only interruption to his slow, spellbound progress through the book the next day was a seminar, for which he was profoundly unprepared and after which he promptly returned to the library.

Relieved to find no one at the desk, he settled back into his seat, inexplicably frightened of finding the book absent but likewise apprehensive of finding it present. Owen opened the bottom-left drawer, and there was the green orchid-ornamented cover sealing the pages that possessed his attention for the remains of the day. Sunlight gushed through the windows and shadows danced around him with each passing hour, but Owen perceived no indication of time’s procession. Even as he read, his thoughts were ever on the lady of light, the sacred soul who floated in a body of silent music, whose loving gaze dissolved despair, who lived eternally in the light and yet loved those still trapped in darkness.

That day blended into the next, divided only by the reappearance of the lady in his dreams, and then Tuesday crept into Wednesday. But on that morning, the quiet continuity stopped when Owen opened the desk drawer and found it empty.

“Excuse me,” he began after reaching the librarian’s desk downstairs. “Have you happened to find a volume of Percy Shelley’s poetry? With a green cover?”

The librarian’s eyes did not move from the document they scrutinized, nor did her hands move, one holding a pen and the other a pair of reading glasses in the air, until she signed her name at the bottom of the paper, licked her finger, and turned the page.

“I found a book in a desk, yes, and it shouldn’t have been there.”

“I had to run out and just wanted to leave it there for when I came back, and then something happened, and I couldn’t make it back before closing. I’m sorry—it’s mine, though: check my annotations, next to line five-forty-five of Julian and Maddalo, I wrote—”

She struck her finger in the air and darted her narrow eyes up at him. Then, suddenly, her gaze softened as she apprehended his mysterious glow, golden and almost divine in nature, as if he were half-immortal like the heroes of the Greek myths she’d once obsessed over.

“Oh, well, that’s alright. How would you know I had it if you didn’t leave it there?” She spoke cordially. “But do try to be more careful. It’s a rare volume, quite old… and you’re very lucky. I would’ve died for this book when I was your age.”

“I’ve been told. Thank you very much, Ms. Pearl,” Owen replied, reading the bronze plaque on her desk.

She took the book from under her desk and handed it to him. He thanked her again and put it in his bag, resolving to keep it with him from now on.

* * * *

“But I swear to God, the annotations add something that makes it a whole different book,” Owen rambled to his friend Ivan, a philosophy student from Russia who was currently wearing an English riding cap. “I don’t know what it is or why it makes such a difference, but I feel like I know her, whoever’s book it is. I can almost see her face.”

They stood on a bridge overlooking the River Cam on the rare cloudless Sunday, watching canoe-like boats called punts float by, along with leaves, ducks, geese, swans, and a few empty beer cans. Bright-green grass lined the riverbank, where groups of students and solitary professors lounged in the sunlight. Tourists, scholars, and residents of the city crowded the bridge to take pictures. Owen and Ivan sipped champagne from clear plastic cups they had bought on their way to the bridge, and Ivan smoked an old-fashioned tobacco pipe. They usually spent their weekends this way, sipping, smoking, babbling, and wandering. Mind is work, body is pleasure—so went Ivan’s philosophy. However, Owen’s babble had become more serious of late. The usual lightness of his bearing grew heavy, a change noticed by Ivan over the past three weeks, ever since Owen found that green book.

“The river’s like stained glass on days like this,” Ivan said, staring at the teal water, which turned the willow trees, stone bridges, baby-blue sky, and all other surroundings a shade darker in its lucid reflection. “The glass artist crafts intricate designs into an already visually compelling medium, and then another artist illuminates the glass with color, and it’s a totally new work.”

Ivan was onto some point, Owen could tell, because he took the intellectual tone and posture he always did in his reflective mode, veering left and right before coming to the question at hand. He went on. “Shelley makes the glass, and your Maria paints it. The reader struggles with the author’s struggle, and a new struggle and victory are born. As for why you can’t stop thinking about it, or her, it’s simple: you don’t go on enough dates—or any dates, Owen. You know a little about this woman’s intellectual interests and fill in the other ninety-nine percent with your imagination. It’s such an old book—are you sure those annotations aren’t a hundred years old? What if she’s a hundred and twenty? You’re not entranced by her, you’re entranced by yourself.”

Owen shrugged off the comment and observed the punts pass beneath the bridge. One boat rammed into another, almost knocking its rower off. Everyone in the punts laughed, even as they were wedged against the riverbank, holding up other boats from going through.

Owen wanted to change the subject. “I’ve come up with a title for my dissertation: A Gaze Beyond Life: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Window to Eternity,” he announced, and then stroked his hands through his hair, a bad habit he couldn’t shake. “I don’t know how much longer I can stay in academia. I don’t even know if I can write this thing—I want to write a real book for real people, or articles for Rolling Stone or The New Yorker. I’m just looking for something to write about, something that connects people to art without all the ivory tower stuffiness.”

Ivan didn’t respond, his mind still on the stained-glass analogy. “Art explains the artist,” he started in a somber tone, staring out over the river. “It uses the artist to achieve its purpose and burns her up in the process. Her desire to create dominates her desire for everything else that makes life worth living, even the desire to be happy.” He spoke with muted passion, turning to Owen to briefly address his friend’s difficulties. “Maybe you know more about her than I said, if you think the annotations compose a work of art. But who’s turning them into art, this Maria, or your own imagination? Like looking at clouds and finding patterns: the clouds don’t make themselves into symbolic shapes, but we make symbolic shapes out of clouds. The viewer becomes lost in his own interpretation, and the same thing happens with the artist. Her creation becomes separated from her mind, and she doesn’t know what it means anymore, whether her symbols match the ideas she began with. She can’t explain her art, even if she thinks she can. She doesn’t even know where it came from, because to create art, you have to die to the world, enter a dark and formless place, and return with a vision of what you’ve seen. That’s why artists are so impossibly bent on both self-knowledge and self-destruction. And if you kill that force within the artist, if you stifle it, you kill the artist.”

Owen kept his gaze low and nodded solemnly after Ivan said this. He knew his friend was thinking of his mother, who’d died a few years before. She was a painter with only mild commercial success, but prolific nonetheless, painting scenes from her childhood village that grew progressively more abstract over the years until they were essentially unrecognizable, filled with impossible shapes that didn’t resemble anything in the real world, though friends and audiences at small art shows understood that her works somehow captured the character of exile. They depicted brightly colored, incomplete shapes separated across the canvas from corresponding shapes that would make them whole, with heavy, dark paint filling the rest of the canvas. Even in her portraits, those around Ivan’s mother said she painted souls, not people. She’d left Russia with Ivan just after he was born and moved all over Europe for the next couple decades before finally settling in London, Ivan attending school and working there until he started his philosophy post-grad at Cambridge in his mid-twenties. His mother lost many friends during that time, and fewer and fewer guests attended her showcases. She would ask Ivan, “Is there any greater torture than desiring recognition and fame?” After coming to the UK, she poisoned herself twice, both times unsuccessfully. In the end, she did something drastic, ending her life in a way Ivan never told Owen.

“If you knew an artist intimately,” Ivan went on with a gloomy smile, “and they were absolutely honest with you, and you saw how they lived, you’d think they were crazy. I mean, you think you’re a writer, right? Is it possible to be a writer who doesn’t drink too much? A good writer, I mean. They’d go crazy without alcohol, trapped in their own minds with nothing to slow the wild thoughts. So, they usually end up going crazy with alcohol, which seems more professional, I suppose.”

Ivan finished his short monologue and refilled Owen’s cup with champagne. A tour guide steered his punt toward the bridge, lecturing his guests at an ecstatic volume. “Now you might be able to see the University Library tower if you look way out ahead.”

Ivan shook his head in amused frustration as the group pretended to see the tower. There was no way to see the library from there.

“If you want an adventure while you’re here at Cambridge,” the tour guide went on, “I suggest trying to get into the top of the library. It’s an open secret around here that no one but a small set of professors are allowed in because it’s where they’ve locked away a stash of Victorian era pornography.”

“C’mon,” Owen groaned.

“That’s bullshit!” Ivan called out to the punt, now on the other side of the bridge. “I’ll tell you shitty stories on a boat for half-price!”

“Damn, Ivan,” Owen laughed. Everyone in the punt had turned toward them. “Let’s go.”

They walked toward the city center, and Ivan tried to entertain Owen with his plan to buy a motorcycle and ride from Barcelona to Moscow after he finished his Ph.D., and summarized his training regimen for swimming the English Channel over the summer. Owen didn’t say much back, and Ivan, sensing his mental absence, grew frustrated.

“Why do you do this?” Ivan asked him.

“Do what?”

“Torment yourself. It’s a perfect Sunday, you have free time to spend with friends and not stress over anything, but you’re stuck in your head, tangling your mind up in knots,” Ivan asserted as they walked on, Owen staring at the ground. “Obsessing over this book with its annotations, eating all your meals alone—it’s like everything you do makes you more alone and miserable. And on the nights you do come out, you barely say a word until you’ve washed down your boredom with twice as many drinks as anyone else. I sometimes torture myself too, but I don’t make it my lifestyle. Don’t you think you could choose to be a bit happier?”

They walked past Trinity College toward the markets, which were abuzz with activity. King’s College Chapel stood before them, shading them from the sun while couples and families gawked at the medieval architecture, gelato or coffee in hand.

“Yeah, I do think I could choose a happier lifestyle, but I don’t mind melancholy, honestly,” Owen replied, talking over the noise of the spirited crowds around him. “I actually think the highest feeling we’re capable of is, um, a sort of melancholic passion, like experiencing powerful opposites of emotions at once—that’s what art does, right? Provokes joy and sorrow, dread and pleasure, laughter and weeping… The opposing feelings are woven together so tightly that you can’t tease them apart. It’s an enjoyable sensation—if enjoyable is the right word. Even when a great painting or play is tragic, it’s awe-inspiring, suffused with longing and desire, because the vast spectacle of life is concentrated into one artistic performance. Bliss has to be contrasted with misery to be perceived for what it actually is. There’s nothing wrong with feeling something more complicated than happy, or to feel that way for days at a time. I enjoy it.”

They were in the shade now, walking along a narrow brick street, and Ivan didn’t reply immediately, but emptied his pipe and stuck it in his small leather bookbag. Eventually, he said rather severely, “You’ve become more poetic lately, a brooding Romantic. Romantics walk alone, I think, because they’re always bewailing or worshipping life rather than living it.”

They went on in silence, Owen regretful he had soliloquized for so long. He did not know where his thoughts had been coming from lately.

“We don’t have to talk like this all the time. Aren’t you sick of it?” Ivan asked as they neared the college. “It’s like neither of us has an actual life. Can you imagine someone overhearing us for more than two minutes? Who do we think we are?”

Owen was flustered, but he agreed. “No, you’re right. It’s a bit sad, isn’t it.”

Owen regarded choral evensong not so much religious worship as fine drama in a religious context, Christian art rather than prayer service. If it were the latter, Owen wouldn’t have come every Sunday night. The tragic, God-fearing, grief-stricken undercurrent of Christianity was heightened to an overwhelming pitch and married to the glory, wonder, and triumph of Christian salvation in a symbiotic clash of polarities. The choir’s song invoked in him a sensation of rising and falling, soaring in the Magnificat and plummeting in the Miserere Mei. With closed eyes, the melodies came to him as colorful vapors gliding through the air, and he tasted them on his breath, saw them spiraling brilliantly through the darkness of his vision. Enchanted, he floated on each note, empty but for the mystic dance of ancient chords within him.

He had not been very productive over the past week, but enjoyed milder thoughts and quieter dreams even as the due date for the spring term’s work approached. If he could stay on schedule and formalize his research before the summer, he’d be on course to complete his dissertation the following year. So, after evensong ended, Owen walked over to the library, the buoyant sensation induced by the music still with him, resounding on the ground beneath his feet, and he seemed to bounce up the library stairs to the top level and instinctively walk to the desk where he’d originally found the green book. Someone was already sitting there, so he walked by and looked for another place to work, but then he looked back at the young woman at the desk.

She read from a textbook with her head on her hand, pale blond hair hanging down against an airy white shirt, an unmistakable glow in her bearing, and yet there was something darker enfolded in the light, a shadow cradled in her arms and resting untroubled behind her eyes, serene like the embrace of night and day. Owen stood there a moment longer, beguiled by the golden gleam surrounding her and the darkly seraphic glimmer of its undercurrent, which pulsed with a radiance that struck him as intensely familiar. He could not shake the feeling that it was her green book he’d found two weeks ago, and she was the Maria Bella Ligera who wrote her name on the title page.

Stop staring, he told himself.

He walked past her again, his eyes cast to the ground, and found a desk near the doorway, on the other side of the main walkway so that he was a far diagonal away from her.

Owen pulled the green volume out of his bag against his instinct to keep it hidden and set up to work, but his concentration lasted only in short spurts, interrupted by unconscious glances at the woman who unfortunately was still in view, though he couldn’t see her face. Her glow invaded his periphery. The ivory-bronze luster drew him to her no matter how hard he fixed his eyes on the pages before him.

She looked back and her gaze flitted over to Owen—he quickly glanced down, wondering if she had noticed him. Not long after, she put her belongings into her bag, except for one book still on the table. She opened the bottom-left drawer and, as if she knew he was watching, placed the book inside. Owen, whose extremely acute eyesight had made him a marvel to optometrists, could see that it was a text on the architecture of Antoni Gaudí.

She stood and turned from the desk, her hair twirling gently around her shoulders, and he glimpsed her profile. Twin impulses competed viciously in his mind, one to look down and the other to see her face. She left her desk and walked his way, toward the doorway beside him. Owen looked up for a moment, and she gave him a playful smile, then approached. He desperately shuffled the papers before him and acted busy.

“You were at evensong,” Maria said in a smooth, warm voice once she reached him. “Are you very religious?”

“Oh, no, not very. Not at all, really. I’m probably one of those ‘spiritual not religious’ types, as sappy as that sounds,” he replied, half-hoping she would walk away.

“Oh, yes, I’ve never known what that means.”

“I think it’s just the whole everything happens for a reason thing,” he answered, desperate to find something articulate to say. “I’m open to everything, really, and I think all religions are trying to describe something real, but guess I’m agnostic—”

“Agnostic! Tell me your name so I can pray for you.”

“Owen,” he replied with a nervous laugh, unsure how seriously to take her. “I take it you’re very religious, then?”

“I’m Catholic,” she answered. “So, yes, about as religious I can be, I think.”

Owen was perplexed for a moment, and his smile melted. How could this beautiful being, so expansive in nature and grand in demeanor, be so narrow as to confine herself to the Catholic Church? He imagined her suffocating within it, like a Kafkaesque tenant in a Kafkaesque flat breathing polluted Kafkaesque air.

“How did your mother raise you?” Maria asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he muttered.

“Well, you’ve got one, right? A mother?”

“Oh, yes, three actually,” he declared.

“Three! A miracle!”

“Yes, two step and one genetic.”

“Lord,” Maria exclaimed and crossed herself. “But life is so lonely without God! I wonder how you go about your days without God at your side with words of comfort?”

“The days seem to come and go on their own,” he replied.

Then, for the first time, she glanced down at the volume of Shelley and picked it up.

“Do you mind if I read a little?” she asked, before flipping to a random page, and starting her recitation.

“Teach me half the gladness

That thy brain must know,

Such harmonious madness

From my lips would flow

The world should listen then, as I am listening now.”

Owen’s heart swelled with longing, but he could say nothing. It only struck him now that she spoke with a distinct Spanish accent; somehow he could not pay attention to anything particular and definite about her, but was overcome by the grandeur of her whole demeanor.

She put the book back down on the desk. “Well, I study architecture, and poetry doesn’t have much to do with that, anyway. Or maybe it does. Either way, I’m happy to leave the book in someone else’s hands.”

With that, she walked away as if she had never started the conversation.

Owen sat there, spellbound, without a thought in his mind, until he tried to remember the particulars of her face, but failed in the same way he’d failed to summon an image of the luminous lady from his dreams. He could recollect her presence as no more than a flame in his heart. The image of purity she had impressed on his soul was too spectral, too heavenly for mental replication or linguistic expression, and he knew it would haunt him.

Shame soon took hold, and frustration heated his body to a sweat as he felt his every defect rise to the surface, his character becoming clear as if it were illuminated by the lamp of Maria’s being. He was a shadow with too much substance, incorporeal except for the thick decay reaching its roots into the mud. He had stolen her book, had lied to the librarian, and now kept it in his bag. Even if Owen saw Maria again and returned it to her, there was no way to explain himself because there was nothing for someone like him to say to someone like that.

Owen fumbled his books into his bag and rushed out of the library to his room. He flung his door open and tossed his bag onto the bed, sat down in a chair, and immediately stood back up to pace around in circles. His skin itched and his face felt tight; his muscles tingled and twitched and he was too hot, but the room was too cold. Through his rapid breathing, he said the words, “Just clean everything up,” and began doing that furiously. Then he brushed his teeth, went downstairs, and took a cold shower. He shivered as he returned to his room and put on fresh clothes that still irritated his skin. He marched over to the laundry room with his hamper and threw his clothes into the washer, then stood watching them turn in circles with frustrated groans escaping every few breaths.

“All right,” he murmured to himself, “it’s really fine, it’s really alright, all okay, everything’s all good. Go back and try to sleep, or go on a run or stretch or watch a movie.”

He returned to his room, turned off the lights, and lay on the ground, breathing consciously, trying to block out visions of the black corruption clinging to his heart and seeping through his veins.

“Okay, all right, close your eyes.”

When he did that, things slowed down. Gradually, he sank deeper into his body, but the images in his mind grew more vivid, and soon he inhabited the bizarre midlands between dream and reality, where spectral visions and sounds invaded his waking world as he lay motionless on the floor. He had been to this domain many times before and had never enjoyed it; he always arose with the biting despair that things were not alright and never would be.

Most of his body was paralyzed, but he was able to pry open his eyes to see the ceiling, and he suddenly heard cheers and shouts around him. It took him several seconds to realize an invisible crowd stood about his immobile body, eagerly awaiting his impending execution, and though he did not understand their words, their hateful excitement was palpable. As he perceived the vague outline of a blade hanging from the ceiling, fear filled his heart and he tried to scream but could not. The blade sharpened into a guillotine. The shouts grew louder and deafened his hearing. The guillotine dropped.

Owen cried out and rolled onto his stomach and covered his head. “Don’t be like this,” he moaned repeatedly. “Why do you have to be like this?”

He stood up off the ground and moved to the medicine cabinet, opened a bottle of Xanax and popped a .5 mg pill, then poured himself a plastic cup of wine and sipped it on the edge of his bed while waiting for the medication to kick in. Ten minutes later, he still felt panicked and popped two more pills. Twenty minutes after swallowing those, he was on the ground, terrorized but exhausted, slowly slipping into dreamless sleep.

Half past three a.m., Owen opened his eyes again, and for an hour, he lay in languid agitation. Finally, he stood up and ambled over to his medicine cabinet. He removed a pill bottle, twisted off the cap, and tapped a couple Vicodins into his palm. As he lifted them to his mouth, his phone illuminated the dark room with a message. It was from his brother Colton, stating simply, Oh my god.

He dropped the pills onto his tongue and swallowed them with a swig of wine. The phone again lit up with another message.

Marshall died.



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