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       As a child, he made a game of being home alone in the afternoons.  Between three-thirty and five, Alistair searched the house for secrets, examining the worlds hidden in drawers.  He was not yet a great spy, but he was already a thorough investigator.  It was imperative that he collect as many clues as possible, because the secret nature of his work did not allow for questions.  Several things in his mother’s bedroom required further investigation, but, having exhausted the possibilities the day before, he chose instead to see what he could find in Grandma’s room.  Though most of the time, his grandmother seemed mysterious and ageless, her bedroom was elderly, antiseptic.  Hospital corners, rocking chair, family photos – even the dusty way sunlight filtered through the curtains seemed old-fashioned.  Unlike his mother’s room, which was bright and soft and public, Grandma’s room was cold and old and private.  It seemed to Alistair like one of those period rooms at the museum:  strange and unlivable, even without the ropes.  There wasn’t much to see; most of what Grandma had bothered to save was locked out of reach in the attic.  The Spartan setting left little to explore, no boxes in the closet, no bookshelf, and only clothes in the dresser.  His only hope was the bedside table – small, scratched wood, shiny with oil soap, marked permanently with a water glass.  There was just one small drawer, barely worth looking into.  Alistair was careful as he slid it open.  That he was alone was irrelevant; a good spy must always move in stealth and silence.  He caught a breath and held it.  Inside, arranged from left to right was a large, old volume, a small package of tissues, and a lavender sachet.  He was disappointed.  Even Grandma’s secrets were boring and old.  He lifted the book cautiously, minding the worn edges.  It was large, unwieldy, bound in flaking, finger worn brown leather embossed in gold.  BIBLE.  On the first page, in calligraphy elaborate as a hieroglyph, it read FOURNIER.  The edges were decorated in tiny pictures of gold-flecked shapes and flowers.  He blew dust from between the pages.  Following FOURNIER was a sweeping, spidery, pages long list of names and dates in varying hands, the oldest dated almost two-hundred years before.  It was the sort of thing that should have been in a museum, not a nightstand.  Alistair paged through the names.  His was the only one that hadn’t been listed.  His mother and grandmother and even his father had their names down.  He was the only living exception.

      Alistair poured over the pages, trying to memorize them.  At five, he put the Bible carefully back into place, tucked the lavender sachet in behind the tissues, and left Grandma’s room just exactly as he’d found it.  As he did every afternoon, Alistair switched on the television and started his homework, no one the wiser.  A perfect alibi.

      That night he dreamed in ancient sepia tones the chanting of names, branches of trees.  He roamed strange woods, barefoot, alone, out of breath.  He saw his own face repeated in shadows, a sea of mothers and grandmothers impatient over the next ridge.  There was a crooked cabin tucked in behind rocks and trees.  He should have been afraid, but he wasn’t.  The damp earth was soft and cool between his toes.  A lantern glowed yellow, insistent from the porch, swinging gently, flickering in the breeze.  It wasn’t time yet, not time to head home.  Leave the lights on, he thought, leave it lit for me.

      He studied the family bible as often as possible, searching for clues to mysteries long ago forgotten.  He feared and worshipped it in secret, as if being discovered might drain it of the magic.  Alistair thought he might gain from it a secret knowledge or some kind of mystical power.  It worried him that he might have to give up his name to gain it.  What else would have to be sacrificed?

      In hopes of learning more, he set about copying the list.  He was so careful and patient, his writing so practiced and tidy, that it took him two afternoons to write it.  He was convinced it held immeasurable magic.  He had read once that witches kept similar lists, separated into blessings and curses, determining a town’s worth of fates by a penstroke.  He used to read a lot about witches because he felt powerless, and wanted to understand the secret to their strength.  Now it seemed less important.  What power the list held was his birthright.  He had been named for his grandmother’s older brother who had died young in the fire that razed the barn and nearly bankrupted the family before they sold the farm.  It had been an accident.  Gussie, the old mule, kicked over an oil lamp and set the hayloft afire.  Uncle Alistair died trying to save her.  A timber from the loft knocked him out and he burnt up with the barn.  His grandmother didn’t tell the story much, but when she did, she’d always end it saying, “The damn mule made it out with nary a scratch on her.  Those things are programmed to survive.”

      That Alistair, Alistair Leblanc Fournier (1914 – 1930), had been named after another, several generations back, who lived to eighty-three and never married.  The problem with reading from the list, of course, was that all he had were names.  He would have to go to the source if he wanted to know anything more.

      “Who am I named after?” he asked Grandma.

      “My brother, Alistair.”

      “What was he like?”  These were children’s questions, but every spy needs a good disguise.

      “He was older’n me by a good ten years, so I can only remember him a little.  He was real tall, and he’d put me up on his shoulders sometimes when I followed him on his chores.  He wasn’t a real serious boy, like my other brother, your great-uncle Alvin is.  He didn’t have any big ideas.  Looked like he’d take over the farm when my Daddy was done with it.  ‘Course, that all changed.

      “Real good boy, my brother. You’d be doin’ him proud, the way you help me’n your Mama out.”  Alistair smiled.  He knew the better and quieter he behaved, the more inclined Grandma would be to keep talking.  “It’s a family name.  A little old fashioned now, but it’s an heirloom.  My brother was named after an uncle, or great-uncle – “

      “Great uncle.”  Alistair shut himself up and waited to see if she’d notice that he’d let slip that he knew more than he should.

      “He was the first Alistair, I think.  He was a religious man, a preacher.  Not too many of them in our family.  Wasn’t enough time in the day, as my father would say.  This was back when nearly anyone with a big voice and a conviction was preaching.  That was before my time.  Once we sold the farm, you didn’t see so many folks doing it.  In proper cities, it got to be that proclamations of any kind make you look lost instead of saved.  Your great-grandfather, though, must’ve thought enough of him to name a son in his honor.  His name, your name, means “defender of men.”  He used to tell folks he was called that because his meaning on earth was to defend them against the Devil, to keep them safe for God in Heaven.  He took it seriously.  You come from pretty honest people, at least on my side of things.”

      The dreams he’d been having were not entirely nightmares.  He wasn’t afraid when they were happening, and nothing he remembered in the morning seemed frightening, but the images stayed with him throughout the day.  The other Alistairs haunted him with his own face.  He watched it shift from youth to death.  The younger’s always went first, scorching black from within, glowing first, then darkening, crumbling to ash.  The elder was worse.  In the dreams, they sat across from each other in old high-backed chairs, staring.  Alistair could see straight ahead and from afar, like watching a movie.  He grew younger and younger as the other one aged faster and faster, disintegrating until there was nothing left but bones, and then Alistair disappeared.  He couldn’t get any younger than his own existence.  There was always a moment of blackness before he woke up, a deep, syrupy, surrounding darkness that he could feel between his fingers and rising up to his neck.  He would snap upright in bed, waiting for the streetlight outside his window and the nightlight in the corner and the light from under the door wash over him and convince him of their brightness.

      It had been days since he last saw the book, because his grandmother had been home sick, and he’d had no time alone.  He settled himself with his copy of the list, memorizing it in pieces like a prayer.  He chanted it slowly in a whisper while he watched cartoons and did his homework.  He thought it while he was eating dinner, and taking his bath, and while his mother kissed him goodnight.  In the dark, once she was gone, he would pull it out from underneath the mattress and tuck it into his pillowcase, hoping that this would be the night he understood what he was meant to do with all he had learned.  In the morning, he checked the paper for any sign or difference, and tucked it into his backpack for safekeeping.  There was a compartment on the inside, which he thought was the best place for it during the day.  He worried that if it left his possession for more than a moment, he might be discovered.  After school, it went safely back under the mattress until he needed to consult it again.

      When she was well and back at work, Alistair went to her room.  He pulled the book from the drawer, and sat at the foot of the bed with it in his lap.  The weight of it overwhelmed him.  He started the list from the beginning, letting his finger trace the names he recited from memory.  Everything was as he remembered it until the last page, where there was one small difference.  There, in his grandmother’s loopy, measured hand, was his name.  He was the last now instead of the exception.



Jaime Fountaine was born two weeks late in New Orleans, and invented herself some time later.  She is a writer and performer in Philadelphia, where she hosts a quarterly and a monthly reading series.  She can also be found on the web at jaimefountaine.com.
     
 



If living with memories is like being haunted by your own ghosts, then nothing is more mystical or terrifying than childhood.

 





  


Copyright 2009