Once upon a time there were three children who meant to save the world.
The first, and the oldest of the three—and whose name was Flannery—knew this on arrival: the world was in terrible trouble. The Great War, still less than seven years past, had left the world in a darkness that for all the optimistic political rhetoric—and the noble aims of the League of Nations—never quite lifted and which was soon to return fully fledged with a small mustache and renewed violence.
The second child—whose name was Heather, and who was the youngest of the three—arrived in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in December of 1950, just a little over five years after the Second World War finally ended, and on the very day that her sister Flannery left Ridgefield for her painful and prolonged audience with death. When in her seventh year, Heather’s Irish Catholic father beat her younger brother senseless with his fists, and then killed him by tossing the lifeless five-year-old boy down a set of stairs—deemed an accident by the local Irish Catholic investigator, and grandly forgiven by the local Irish Catholic priest—Heather knew that evil roamed freely in this world and that God seemed to turn a blind eye. She did, however, not remember that she was meant to give God a hand.
The third child, Gabriel, was born on the 9th of August, 1945. He took his first breath the very instant that the atom bomb over Nagasaki, Japan, detonated. He was later to muse that his first lungful of air contained the souls of 40,000 Japanese children. He (like Heather) had no notion about his purpose on this Earth until one summer morning when 40,000 dust motes, shimmering in the slotted sunshine of an abandoned attic (where a man recently had hanged himself), suddenly began to sing.
Then there was the fourth child: Netoniel.
Gabriel was half-way up the dilapidated ladder. The day was Saturday and the date was July 23rd, 1960. The time was a little after ten in the morning. The rungs showed evidence of age or rot or both so he proceeded up them slowly, taking care to place his feet close to the sides where they would be the strongest. The ladder groaned softly under his weight, but didn’t seem to mind him.
A perverse curiosity had brought him here. A few years ago—no one had been very specific about exactly when—a man had hanged himself in this very attic. If the truth be told, Gabriel didn’t know that for a fact, he hadn’t even asked his parents or other such authority to confirm it, but it was rumored, and quite widely—common knowledge, as it were—especially among the kids (and as yet he was not much more than one himself).
So, in essence, a fact.
From which beam? he wondered as his head cleared the opening in the attic floor and his eyes slowly (while dilating) took in the windowless and darker space above him—which beam had the man hanged himself from?
There were several to choose from. There were—he counted them, one, two, three, four—five joists, each spawning its vertical riser supporting the fairly thick and roughly hewn ridge beam running the length of the peak of the ceiling.
He took this in for quite a while, but he couldn’t picture it. There would not be space enough for a fully-grown man to hang himself from any of the joists and tying a rope to the ridge beam would have been quite a project, possibly too hard for someone that intent on dying.
The distance from the attic floor to any of the joists was less than six feet, and with the rope and the noose and at least five or so feet worth of man, he would be staying put on the attic floor, no matter what—no matter which one he chose. Unless, well, of course, he realized with a little shiver, of course: he would have secured the rope to the joist just above his head where it crossed the open hatch he was now standing in.
He looked straight up and yes, yes, of course, that’s what he had done. He would have secured the rope from the joist right here, then placed the noose over his head, tightened the knot, kicked the ladder down onto the floor below and then jumped through the hatch. That would still count as hanging oneself in the attic, wouldn’t it? or at least from the attic, if indeed it had happened at all.
Then the shiver returned and said: you are at this very moment, it said, standing on the fourth rung from the top of this ladder, occupying the very same space that the hanging man would have dangled in, life draining.
Gabriel shivered some more. Then he tried to taste it.
How did he die? he wondered. Did he know enough about hangings to place the knot just right—slightly to the left of but touching the atlas, he had read—so the fall would snap his neck, or unaware of this had he strangled himself and died from asphyxiation? Most hanging suicides do—the same article had said—do strangle themselves. He imagined the hanging man, losing breath and life, to never breathe again.
Gabriel held his breath and counted. By forty his lungs had had enough and screamed for air and he obliged. The man could have done the same, he thought, could have reached out and heaved himself up by the edge of the opening, back up to the living.
Then again, what’s to say that he didn’t? Or that he tried to, and failed. What’s to say that he didn’t try to claw his way up the rope and onto the attic floor, without much success, desperate for breath, strength draining.
Then again, what’s to say that it happened at all? It probably wasn’t true. Kids talking.
Outside the little house a cloud found the sun and suddenly the attic turned several degrees darker. His next thought was that even the sun knew about the hanging, and was sending him a warning: get out of there.
Maybe he should.
But: Oh, god, you’re such an idiot, the sun knowing about it. You’re here to look around, so look around. Besides, if someone did hang himself in here, that was years ago, no bodies here now, so come on.
Could be ghosts, though. No, not in broad daylight.
Convincing himself that he was quite safe, he stepped up another rung, then another, then held his breath: the attic was dead still, just the renewed groan of the ladder. He looked all around and could see no danger. And he was brave, right? Yes, he was.
Then he ascended the last two rungs and stepped out onto the attic floor. Here he rose to full length. His eyes had adjusted now to the diminished light and he could see quite clearly by the sunless daylight seeping in through the narrow slots between the vertical planks of bare walls.
Dust, and lots of it, softly contouring what it covered with a wheat-colored blanket. Things in the corners. Things. He walked over to take a closer look, treading carefully, but even so stirring clouds of dust into the air behind him—obscured by the gloom.
Yes, things: shoes, two of them but not a pair (odd, that), the lower part of a broken ax handle, a bicycle seat (surprisingly new), a pile of old newspapers (from a little over a decade ago by the dates), a wooden bowl, huge. He pictured someone kneading dough for very large loaves of bread in the thing, old hands, grandmother-old hands, it was that kind of bowl, and he wondered if it might have value; whether this bowl in particular was one of an impossible-to-find kind that would make him immensely rich now that he, Gabriel, intrepid youth, had discovered it, and as such would pave the way for a great, rich life as yet unlived and undefined.
Of course not, it was just an old wooden bowl, tossed up into this above- the-ceiling out-of-the-way as in the way and worthless. Besides, it was chipped, and cracked. Not worth much, if anything. Or it wouldn’t be here, would it? Of course not. Maybe in a hundred years.
More newspapers. These were in a neat pile, held together with fraying string. He blew on the top paper to clear the dust, then read the date. Not as old. 1955, August. He untied the string and looked at the next paper. August 1955 as well. So the whole pile. He straightened up and looked around some more. More newspapers, these nailed to one of the walls as makeshift insulation, now torn and peeling, and only on this far wall. Why, he wondered. Then he looked closer at the other walls, and saw traces of newspaper on all of them. So, they had initially covered the whole attic. Not much of a padding, he thought. He leaned closer to check the dates of these papers. 1941, 1942, war pictures, originally in black and white, now more like brown on yellow. Fighting in Finland. Sweden still neutral, it said.
At that moment, outside, the obscuring cloud released the sun and the attic virtually exploded into light, surprising his eyes, now used to the cloudy gloom. He turned around by reflex, as if someone behind him had just thrown a light switch, and found the air startlingly alive with a long row of brilliant sheets of dust where the sun now raced in through the evenly spaced bars of narrow air between the wall boards.
He had never seen anything quite like this, anything quite this beautiful before, not in his entire life. It was a gallery of sun and dust and suddenly—it’s the only way to describe it: they started singing.
He stood stock still, then sat down on the neat pile of papers, very slowly so as not to disturb the display. Very slowly down, down, and now he was sitting.
Seeing and hearing this silent song shimmer in the still air, he felt a need he had never felt before: it was to capture some of this, to, somehow, preserve what he saw—in words.
Not taking his eyes off the flickering sheets of dust and sunrays, he groped for and found a stub of pencil in his left pocket, and a sheet of paper in his back pocket. He unfolded the sheet (it held a phone number to call, don’t forget), turned it over, smoothed it a little on his lap and touched it with the pencil, thus:
Am I a troll or a human being?
I don't know.
But I do know that long before
I came here
this page of my life
was long written.
Here he stopped and read what he had written.
Somewhere within him a not-so-kind voice begged to demur, in fact it ridiculed him a little—just a little, mind you, a sort of snide whisper—for what he had just so reverently done had nothing at all to do with engineering, his paternally decreed, and on the whole much manlier, destiny.
But, he managed to answer, this felt right, it was right somehow, important somehow. Yes, they were just words, of course, he knew that, just made up words. Still.
He read them again. They sounded true, these words, though of course they were not. Just fantasy, but good fantasy, he said to himself, or thought to himself so loudly that his ears picked up on it.
He read the first line again, aloud. Listening closely to it while he read. Then he crossed out “a troll or a” and “being”. Then read it again: “Am I human?” That, he knew, was the better question, the real question. And again he read what he had written:
Am I human?
I don't know.
But I do know that long before
I came here
this page of my life
was long written.
Then he scratched out “do” and “long” from the third line, and then once more read the six lines aloud to himself:
Am I human?
I don't know.
But I know that before
I came here
this page of my life
was long written.
Another shiver: it rose from a faint but unmistakable internal resonance. The sheets of dancing dust motes still talked to him and now struck him as his very own and silvery northern lights, a private winter sky made small especially for him. And so he trembled again, smiling this time.
At the very moment Gabriel for the third time finished saying the word “written,” his tongue still resting against his top teeth in the final “n,” Flannery hit the “?” key on her new, and still unfamiliar Underwood typewriter to complete a quick note to Fiona McCullough, a friend from the State University of Iowa, who now lived in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and with whom Flannery still maintained a regular, almost weekly, correspondence. This is what the note said:
Well poor old Jack. I hope he gets elected. I think King Kong would be better than Nixon. We didn’t see any of it, having no television, but one night I listened for a spell on the radio when we had company who must hear it. Fortunately the company soon left to seek out a television so we went to bed.
By the way, do you ever cross paths with any of the Paleys on your strolls through Ridgefield? I assume that you still stroll.
She read her note, was satisfied with it, and signed it. She then addressed and stamped an envelope, folded and inserted the note and licked the envelope shut. She would take it to the mailbox the following morning before the mailman came.
Gabriel remained for some time looking from the sheets of light dancing before him to the words he had written, then back to the flickering, silvery dust. He felt there was more somewhere, that there were other internal wells with other waters to find and tap. Watching the sun and dust dance, he groped around within him for more words, for more meanings to pencil down, but could find none. Then another cloud found (or the same cloud re-found) the sun and the dust suddenly stopped singing. The moment was gone.
He surveyed the dark stillness one last time, the dust now invisible again, or mostly so. He felt slightly shifted from center, though, as if he no longer was quite himself, or just a little more himself. It was an odd feeling, one hard to put a finger on. Dance-less, the attic was dead still again, dust is not noisy. Outside he could hear birds in the nearby trees. Arguing, it sounded like. A raucous family gathering, perhaps. A truck geared down up on the road, its engine now groaning up the hill that he himself would soon have to climb to get back home. He stood up, folded his paper and put it and the pencil back in his pockets. With the same care he had climbed it, he now descended the rickety ladder, which again groaned its laddery protests but let him down unscathed, all rungs intact.
His bicycle, leaning against the red wall, waited for him. Green and silver it was and almost new. And always shiny, he saw to that. He was proud of it.
He climbed on, began to pedal, avoided the larger potholes in the old, now untended road leading up to the paved one where the truck had just gone by. He reached it, and picked up some speed before the hill. Steepest in the county, they said, and he could believe it, especially on a bicycle. It took some doing this hill, and with the effort he now had to exert to make it all the way to the top without getting off the bike to walk the last bit (it was a matter of self-discipline and honor not to), he forgot all about the folded sheet of paper in his back pocket.
Much later, in London, in another language, he would look back on this day in the old attic, and write:
Dust and sun rays
dance for me
in sheets of light
that flutter silently
Still too young
this simple dreamer
gently gathers them
in his hand
An ever so real
handful of sun
rises to heal
hearts that crumble
lives that stumble
his very heart
but always depart
The popular view is that a possessed human being is nothing but bones, flesh, heart, and skin operated by the Devil—but it does not have to be the Devil. According to the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Possession, the term given to the supposed control of a human body and mind by an alien spirit, human or non-human; or the occupation by an alien spirit of some portion of a human body, causing sickness, pain, &c. The term obsession (Lat. for siege) is sometimes used as equivalent to possession; sometimes it denotes spirit control exercised from without, or it may mean no more than a maniacal focus as a result of hypnotism. From an anthropological point of view, possession may be conveniently classed as (a) inspirational, (b) demoniacal, (c) pathological, according to the view taken of the reason for or effect of the spiritual invasion of the possessed person.
The spirit that possessed Frank Paley, however, that afternoon in 1957 when he killed his son Michael, was not the Devil, nor was it a spirit or anyone or anything other than Frank Paley himself doing battle with his vividly hallucinated army of children surrounding him and drawing closer and closer and that he knew would smother him were they to finally corner him and make him own up to the monster he truly was. So, purely in self-defense mind you, for his own survival—he was only fighting back, for he had a right to live too, didn’t he?—so, fighting now for his life, he pinned the five-year-old boy to the floor of the second floor landing with his knees, and pummeled the little face with his fists until there were few teeth left in their original sockets and until no part of either eye could be seen.
As he hammered away, Frank swore at every cut those sharp little teeth (where broken into jagged chards) inflicted on his knuckles and proceeded to teach them all the lesson of breaking more evenly.
Having survived the vicious attack upon his hands by sharp little teeth, he then tossed the listless body down the steep set of stairs, where an unfortunate tumble—or fortunate perhaps, this is a matter of viewpoint—snapped the little neck with a sick crack that told Heather, sitting on the living room sofa and clutching her 13-months-old little sister to her, that Michael was no more.
When Michael’s body came to a stop at the foot of the stairs, it looked a little like a sack of dirty laundry, she thought. Frank must have thought something along the same lines for now he was yelling for his wife to get her ass out here and clean it up.
Then for precisely sixty seconds no one in that house could breathe.
Flannery, sitting on her porch in Milledgeville sensed the Paley violence so many miles to the north, as she knew of and sensed so much violence elsewhere, but this had made her particularly sick to her stomach. So she strangled the house with her fist and deprived all who lived there of oxygen for exactly sixty seconds.
Frank Paley’s face was alternating between the white of terror and the red of asphyxiation when Flannery finally let go and oxygen was once again free to enter starving lungs.
“Who the hell did that?” he said, then turned around, hoping to find a child source for this terrifying inconvenience.
“He’s dead,” said his wife from below.
“What the hell was that?” he screamed, still afraid.
“You’ve killed him,” said his wife from below. Then she, too, began to scream.
Heather, tasting the air and finding it breathable again, dialed the police.
Flannery opened her fist and closed her eyes. She sat like this for several deep breaths, very still. She could hear the crickets and the birds. A cow mooed nearby, another answered farther away. The wind rustled many treefuls of leaves which to Flannery’s ears sounded like applause. She saw the peacocks strutting about the place like they owned it, dragging their multicolored plumes in the dust. Over in the kitchen, the help was arguing about something to do with dinner—their voices carried through the open kitchen window. So many things around her were alive.
Then she rose and walked back into the house, into her bedroom, which also served as her study and library. She sat down at her desk and found a pen, then a sheet of paper. Then she decided to type the note instead, a little faster, perhaps—clearer for sure, and easier on her hands, which had grown annoyingly weak of late—now that she was getting more used to this darn thing. She still hated it. The girl who convinced her to buy it had had called it a technological innovation, Flannery thought of it as a technological invasion, as a stealer of pens’ work, this horrid thing and she hated it, though, to be honest, not as much as before. Yes, she had to admit, it was a little quicker, or for certain would be once she’d learned to use the darn thing a bit better. Easier to read what she had written, too. Noisy though.
She began, pecking out one letter after the other, reminding herself of a multi-headed chicken hunting for and finding seeds, her wrist the neck, fingers the many beaks:
“Once upon a time there were three children who meant to save the world: Flannery, Heather, and Gabriel.
“Flannery, the older of the three was eight years old and had long, cascading red hair, bleached, but not much, by the sun. Her eyes were blue and non-believing.
“She was very pretty,” she added.
She read the last sentence, once, then again, frowned at it, then brought back the carriage and x’ed it out. “What has that got to do with it?” she mumbled to herself before she continued:
“Heather, the youngest, was six years old and one of her small legs taller than her dark brown hair was long. She always wore a plain, blue dress.
“Gabriel, at seven, was all a blond mop of hair with blue eyes in a deep tan from playing in the fields most days of his life. He was Heather’s and Flannery’s brother.
“They had no parents, nor could they remember ever having had any.”
“There was also a fourth sibling: Netoniel.”
At this very moment, this fourth sibling, Netoniel, was hiding—as he had for some time now—enjoying what he deemed a safe distance. And from this safe distance he still wondered why the silver strands did not evaporate like they had during the trial, why instead they had gathered (and still kept on gathering) to form an ever-growing, ever-thickening shroud now smothering the distant little planet they called Earth. This was something he had not foreseen, could not possibly have foreseen. How could he have? No, he told himself for the he-had-lost-count-ieth time, he was not to blame.
Yes, silver strands had formed when he was putting the mirror to the test, but they had vanished almost immediately.
The mirror, as designed, had intercepted and reversed his trial wishes, returning them to him as their opposites, while his original wishes passed right on through the mirror to exit the far side of it as thin silver strands, finer than the finest hair, and to then evaporate into nothing within seconds.
In fact, he told himself again, these strands had not existed long enough to even be called strands, they were more like the promise of strands, the thought of strands.
Now, could this have been, he wondered, because he (obviously) had been well aware of the mirror’s presence? Is that what made his wishes turned silver strands evaporate almost instantly into nothing. And was it the ignorance about the mirrors’ existence—which, of course, was the case with all on Earth (again by design)—that kept the silver strands of the original wishes alive?
He also wondered (also again) whether Flannery had gotten wind of this by now. He would have to assume that she had—it had been nearly five thousand years, after all—and that she would do something about it. She always did things about things.
The field was an emerald sea. The sky was a dark, luscious blue. The wind was thick and slow and sweet and swayed the huge green valley surface now this way, now that, as the three children made their way through a waist-high grass that pretended not to want to let them through.
There were many movements around them of animals small and not so small scurrying—some to meet them, some to act afraid of them, though none were. The siblings noticed this and smiled but did not stop to talk, nor to pat them. They had things to do and were on their way to do them. The children were Flannery first, then Heather, then Gabriel.
An older bear, watching them from a short distance, noticed this scurrying back and forth through the tall grass of these many unbridled welcomes silently told the younger, and smaller—and, perhaps, happier—creatures, to leave them alone. The children were busy, didn’t have time for your nonsense now.
Flannery, who could hear the bear’s admonition, didn’t quite know what to make of it—the little things were not disturbing them after all, not getting in their way or anything, just happy to see them again. Should she thank, ignore, or chide him? The bear, though, knew her all too well, and had sensed her urgency. He had done what he thought would help, and she decided to appreciate this and so smiled in his direction: thank you.
The bear glanced at her sullenly beneath furry brow and forehead, and nodded, turned, and left them to their purpose.
The many smaller animals left too. That left only the three of them, wading through the green grass, which now parted to let them through uncaressed. The bear’s doing as well, thought Flannery.
Heather was quiet with thought. Gabriel, too, wondering why the urgency, though he had his suspicions.
Flannery had insisted that they come, now. As in immediately.
They were nearing the far edge of the long valley where a small structure now came into view. It was a one-room cottage, seated by a lively stream. Brightly red it was in the glittering sun, and with a thatched roof. White corners and a gray chimney made from many mortared stones.
They reached it and entered the cool interior. It smelled fresh with morning, it was clean and safe. Flannery set about making some tea. This was her house. Tomorrow, this house might be somewhere else, in some other valley, by some other stream, perhaps. Perhaps in a forest, or on a mountainside, or by a lake or sea, to serve some other need. Perhaps it was the same house moving, perhaps they were different houses appearing and disappearing. Be that as it may. Today, this was the house Flannery had expected to find right here and her need was a meeting place.
Flannery turned from her task at the stove, where the fire had now begun to crackle, to face the other two: Heather already sitting by the table, Gabriel remaining by the doorway. “We must go there,” she said without preamble, and so loudly that Gabriel started a little.
“I take it you mean Earth?” he said.
“That is what I mean, yes,” confirmed Flannery.
Heather nodded, already in the know.
“He’s really done it this time,” said Flannery. “And now it has gone too far.”
Her parents never knew quite what to make of Mary Flannery. She was an unusual child.
For one, there were times when her mother Regina would swear that her daughter, not even a year old yet, could read; so intently would Flannery scrutinize the magazines and papers she seized with strong fingers if they came within her reach. This to the point where she finally mentioned this to her husband, Edward.
“Don’t be silly,” he assured her. “She’s just looking. The pictures, you know. Look at her.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she’d answer, “I don’t know.”
“Nothing to worry about,” said Edward.
“I don’t know,” said Regina. Then she thought to herself—though this she would never let her husband know: you scare me sometimes, Mary Flannery.
However, by the time Mary Flannery was almost two, all doubts had fled and Regina knew for a fact that her daughter was reading the papers and most likely had done so all along. She said nothing about this to Edward, though. It would upset him, she presumed. Instead she leaned close to her daughter and whispered directly into her ear, “I know that you can read, Mary Flannery. And I know that you do.”
Flannery looked up at her with the smile that often was to be confused with a frown in her later years. “I know,” she said.
At that moment Regina knew that she was in the presence of greatness, a sense that would never leave her and which later gave her the strength to help her daughter through her long and slow dance with death.
Perhaps Regina, had she reflected on this logically, should have been scared, should have sought some help, should indeed have told her husband, but she did none of these things. Instead she accepted what she saw with a proud heart and she was grateful to be in its presence.
Over the next few years Regina kept Mary Flannery’s ability a secret, all the while she supplied her with the books that she asked for.
“Crime and Punishment,” said Edward over dinner one night.
“I didn’t know you liked the old Russians,” he said.
“Oh, him. Yes. Well, he is a very good writer. A bit dark perhaps,” and shot Mary Flannery a glance, where on earth did you leave that book, girl?
“A bit much for my taste,” said her husband. “What are we having for dessert?”
At five, Mary Flannery told a chicken to walk backwards, and it did. She proudly showed her mother, who hurriedly showed her father, who happened to mention it to Morgan White, a realtor colleague, who mentioned it to his cousin, a reporter, who on a slow news day brought camera and notepad to Lafayette Square to see for himself, which is how the story found its way into print. The local story in turn caught the eye of Pathé News, a British newsreel company with a New York branch, which sent a cameraman to film Flannery and her chicken in action, which is how cinema visitors all over the country, and some even in Europe, got to marvel at Flannery’s amazing chicken feat.
“The highlight of my life,” she would say later, with that sardonic smile of hers that to so many looked like a frown.
At ten she was reading openly and voraciously, making sure that others knew what she thought about the fare by writing short comments on the flyleaves of the books she read. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland she adorned with “Awful. I wouldn’t read this book.” Shirley Watkin’s Georgia Finds Herself merited “This is the worst book I have ever read next to ‘Pinocchio’”. She liked Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men better: “First rate. Splendid.” At times, Regina pondered whether to tell her daughter to stop defiling perfectly good library books, but she thought better of it and said nothing. And the library never complained.
At twelve she was already writing poetry and short stories that she would not show anyone, not even her mother.
Regina did, however, come upon one of her stories while cleaning her room. Her initial reaction was that she was trespassing, but curiosity got the better of her and she sat down to read her daughter’s inky pages. The story was about a bear and a green valley, complete with illustrations. Had she not known this had to be Flannery’s—it was her scrawl, unmistakably—she would not have believed her daughter could have written it. She finished reading, confirmed in her conviction that her daughter was not of this world, then replaced the manuscript where she had found it and left the room.
The following afternoon, once Flannery had finished her homework she sauntered out into the kitchen for some juice and crackers, and said to Regina, “You’ve read my story, then?”
“Why, what makes you think that?” Regina answered, looking up from her task.
“You reordered the pages for me,” she answered. “Please don’t read what isn’t finished yet,” she added.
Regina thought of answering, and sternly at that, but no words came to mind. Being upbraided by her daughter, even if mildly, was nothing she’d had experience with, and besides, she still felt a little guilty for intruding. Nonetheless, she was casting about for the courage and means to restore the authority of motherhood when Flannery asked, “So, what did you think?”
“Oh dear,” she said then, almost in tears. “You have a gift, Mary Flannery.”
Flannery grinned a smile that bore no resemblance to a frown, and Regina felt happy to have helped and to have such a daughter.
At fourteen, Flannery drew cartoons and wrote for the Peabody Palladium, her school newspaper. While considered odd by most students, she was nevertheless appreciated for her caustic articles and cartoons.
When at sixteen she began sewing clothes for her bantam hens in her home economics class, she quickly gained notoriety as the weirdest person on campus.
“And proud of it,” she’d add to anybody voicing that sentiment.
Then, after a brief illness, Edward died, and she never mentioned her father again, erasing him along with the pain of losing him. That’s when she began addressing her mother Regina as “Parent.”
She loved geese and set out to immortalize many of them in little illustrated books that she described to those who wondered what they were about as being “too old for children and too young for grown-ups,” which was her way of saying that these stories were not for public consumption. She hid them well, even from Parent Regina, as she viewed these little books as private exercises—as getting ready, as finding her voice and medium. At that time she was partial to drawing thinking that “things with pictures talk louder, and these people need loud talking to.” Words struck her as too subtle, it was with pictures she would touch them, she was pretty sure of that. So she filled her books with them.
When she entered Georgia State College for Women, just a few blocks from where she now lived in Milledgeville, Georgia, she involved herself in all aspects of student life, except dancing, which she considered a waste of time, and sports, which she was no good at. She majored in Sociology and English.
While family and friends still addressed her as Mary Flannery, Flannery decided to drop Mary from her artistic name, and from this point on signed all academic work, and all writings and cartoons Flannery O’Connor. Regina thought of objecting, but as usual when it came to Mary Flannery’s quirks, thought better of it and said nothing.
So it was as Flannery O’Connor that her mother wanted to talk to her about two of her recent stories: My Relitives and Why I Chose Heart Trouble. These were two more little books that Flannery had written and illustrated for her own amusement and as her way of preparing.
“I’ve read these,” said Regina, indicating the two stitched sheaves of lined paper which lay on her desk.
“I know,” answered Flannery.
“I’m sorry,” said Regina, “I know you don’t want me prying.”
“I left them out for you to read,” she answered.
“Parent,” said Flannery. “I need someone to tell me how I’m doing. It’s so easy to lose perspective when all you have is your own opinion, and that of infantile juveniles.”
“Well,” said Parent Regina, and flattened the fabric of her skirt against her legs. “Well,” she said again. “Although I must admit that what you say in these stories is true, or mostly true anyway, you can’t really say these things about people in this house.”
“Who’s to know?” said Flannery.
Regina thought about that for a spell, and yes, if Flannery kept them to herself, none would be the wiser. “You can’t publish these things in The Corinthian,” she said.
“Didn’t intend to.”
At which point Regina had run out of things to say. Except the one thing, of course, which she had noticed first of all: “Oh, and Relatives is spelled with an a, rel-a-tives, not with an i, rel-i-tives.”
Flannery cast a glance down at the cover page of the top manuscript. “Ah, yes,” she said. “Spelling’s not my strong point.”
“That would be good,” said Flannery, and from that point on Parent Regina became her personal line editor-cum-critic.
A couple of her other pieces did, however, make their way into The Corinthian, the college literary magazine: The Domestic Bliss of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and The Bookkeeper’s Chaucer, to the delight of her classmates who had heard Flannery read them to the class firsthand as completed class assignments.
Her reputation as a comic and satirical writer as well as an artist grew, somewhat to her teachers’ dismay, who felt that perhaps Mary Flannery was not taking her assignments seriously—though even they could not help smiling as they read her pieces.
By now she had begun submitting her stories and poems to various publications, but commercially her work did not yet cut it. When asked at that time what she was up to or how she spent her time, she claimed that her main occupation was to “collect rejection slips.” But then she would add, without smiling, and mostly as a promise to herself, “I have things to say. I will learn how to write as well as I can, perhaps a little better.”
Of all her teachers it turned out to be a new college faculty member, George Beiswanger—being an outsider hit with a Flannery now in full stride—who saw her talent the clearest. He encouraged her to work for extra credit to win a scholarship, and to apply for the State University of Iowa’s graduate writing program.
“Could I cut it?” she wanted to know. “Or am I wasting my time?”
“I have no doubt,” he answered. “You are good enough.”
And he was right. At first, however, she not only took classes in literature, but also in advanced drawing, American political cartooning, advertising, and magazine writing, still thinking that pictures were perhaps how best to touch more of “the normal people,” even though the cartoons she had already submitted to The New Yorker and other commercial magazines had been rejected.
In fact, it was not until Paul Horgan, the director of the Iowa State Workshop’s fiction program, one day took her aside and convinced her to concentrate on fiction that she finally, and somewhat reluctantly, abandoned her cartoon aspirations.
Her roommate at Currier House in Iowa City, Fiona McCullough, agreed: If Flannery would concentrate on words instead of drawings—“let them form their own images,” she told her, referring to her readers—she would certainly be published. She would become a major writer, she added.
Flannery, who rarely listened to (and much less took) advice from anyone her own age was nonetheless heartened by Fiona’s encouragement, which was to form the foundation of for a lifelong bond between them.
As if to corroborate a decision correctly made, Accent magazine accepted her story The Geranium in March of that year—it was now 1946. And that was it: she knew that she would make it, and knowing, now she began writing “for real” as she put it. She started a novel.
She remained at Iowa during 1947 and part of 1948 when she accepted an invitation from the Yaddo Foundation to spend June and July at its artists’ colony near Saratoga Springs, New York. She was still working through chapter after slow chapter of what she at the time called Wise Blood and Simple.
By the end of that summer she received a modest teaching fellowship offer from Iowa State while she at the same time was invited to stay on at Yaddo through the end of the year. Much to Parent Regina’s dismay, and over her long distance protests, Flannery declined the teaching position at Iowa and remained at Saratoga Springs until February of 1949 when she left for New York City to continue the work on her first novel.
While in New York, she met Robert and Sally Fitzgerald who invited her to live with them in their Ridgefield, Connecticut house. This, they said, to let her finish the novel without financial worries, or with fewer, as Flannery put it at the time.
By October the following year she had found a publisher for her book and she knew now that she was on the cusp of success. She even allowed herself to taste the pleasure of renown, and to contemplate the coming fruits of her labor—an indulgence her bear didn’t take too kindly to.
So, to prevent Flannery from succumbing to the infectious distractions of success and fame and so fall prey to the silver shroud, and also to keep her wide awake and focused on her graver task, he gently reached inside her body with tendril fingers and began to squeeze.
She was twenty-five then, and when these first tendrils reached her, when these bear reminders in the form of slow death first arrived (soon to settle in for good), she once again—and very clearly—remembered why she was here, green valley and all.
Flannery’s bear would not leave her side for the next fourteen years.