Aren't you dumb? Here it is past noon and you're still lying abed. Not that you can see the light, huddled here in the southwest corner of the basement on your bed with those blankets over the windows to block out every ray of light.
Block out every ray of light: that's the important thing now. It's been the important thing for a long time.
Weren't you dumb that evening two months ago when you actually went out the south door of the basement to look at the sunset? Weren't you dumb to think you could still do something like that? Only two steps outside the door, and you were gasping and retching red stuff when you (just barely) made it back inside and slammed the door. It took you at least a week before you felt normal again.
And your skin came peeling off like grey cellophane.
Now you get up and walk past the ping-pong table to the bathroom, walking the long way around the ping-pong table so you don't have to go near that door, even though there are blankets three inches thick over the window, and duct tape around the door jamb.
You come out of the bathroom and stop for a minute by the bathroom door, staring dumbly at the door which leads into the garage under the house. Not safe to go there now, not until after dark, when no light will be shining through the translucent fiberglass of the sliding garage door, and even then only if you know that no one is using the car that night.
But even when it's dark, you don't go to that part of the basement much anymore. The boundaries of your world are contracting, and that's really dumb.
Let's see now...
Not up the basement stairs. It's safe to sit on the bottom step or two, and you do that sometimes when you want to feel a bit adventurous without going outside. But you don't want to be too adventurous: try to walk up the stairs, and you'll trigger that electric eye and set off those lasers your brother the engineer mounted up there in the wall.
Now into the "lounge," small carpeted area in the northwest corner of the basement. You're really dumb to hang around here, because there are no windows here to be covered with blankets, and you can dimly sense that, as time goes by and your world contracts to a point, this will be the last place you will call your own. It is still inside, moreso than any other part of the basement. Even the bathroom has started feeling like outside, this past week or two. And the more you hang around in the lounge, the faster it seems to tug the "insideness" just a bit more into itself.
You put on the mood lamps; they are yellow and they are dim, nothing like natural sunlight, so your yellowstripes can take it, and you turn the TV on, with the bright control turned almost all the way down, but still enough so you can make out the picture.
Now you're sitting down in the chair, beside the fish tanks and in front of the Apollo astronaut suit that stands there like a suit of medieval armor. It's the suit you wear when you absolutely must go outside in the daytime, though come to think of it, you haven't worn it out in midday very recently because the polarized visor isn't powerful enough. And although you won't admit it to yourself except in moments of exceptional candor, you've taken to wearing your astronaut suit out even on nights when there's a moon out that's more than half full.
Isn't that dumb?
This evening, if the gang comes by, you may go running, wearing that suit, and afterward, you will all come back here and sit around watching TV and drinking Southern Comfort and Peppermint Schnapps and other drinks from behind the bar.
That's really your only contact with other folks from the outside world, except for when one of the family opens the basement door to throw a cooked steak down to you, and it sort of hurts down inside to know that the only real reason the gang comes by to go running is so they can get the drinks afterward, and once in a while you wonder what will happen after the almost inexhaustible supply of liquor in the bar runs out. That will have to happen some day. When it does, most of the gang will just stop showing up. One or two, driven by a sense of courtesy, may drop by once or twice after that to play Risk or Krypton or cribbage, but in the end you will be all alone.
And going out to the liquor store, even in your space suit, is out of the question. Several months ago, while you were out for a walk, the man who owns the liquor store made it clear to you that he wouldn't care to have you as a customer. Not since you've become a yellowstripes.
Now Outdoors Calling is on TV, and you get up to feed the fish. Outdoors Calling, "the oldest TV show in America still on the air!" You start laughing at the amateurish performance of Stan Bran, the show's host, and immediately you have to stop, for two reasons.
One is that if you keep it up any longer, you will go into that hiccoughing laugh that will take you fifteen or twenty minutes to shake off, almost as if one of the synapses in your brain has become rusted open and is stuck.
The other is that you realize that your whole life has become like one of those amateurish episodes of Outdoors Calling with Stan Bran. The whole thing has become permeated by an atmosphere of a peculiar quality, the air of television production values which may have been the norm in the 1950's, but which have since become laughably below par, like something out of a time warp.
It's like the old live commercials on TV, in black and white, where something would go wrong, to the embarrassment of the host and the great amusement of the TV audience.
Only you realize, as you adjust the aerator on the fish tank, that that isn't right either. Time isn't the key element in what's been happening to you, though the comparison to TV production values decades out of date is strikingly apt in catching the feel of it. The key element is more one of dimness, of huddling here in the basement with the mood lamps on and blankets carefully covering the windows. That's what your yellowstripes are all about.
Now you happen by chance to glance up at the cinder block and lumber bookshelves that go from ceiling to floor along two sides to form an alcove in the corner where your bed lies. You glance at the volumes of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, at "Lobo" and "Day of the Surgeon" and "Duel With a Witch Doctor" and "Cry, the Beloved Country."
Beside them you see that small octavo volume, with the soft, brown, crumbling, limp leather cover, and the gold-edged pages with rounded corners and the saffron bookmarker ribbon sewn into the binding.
You step back around the Apollo astronaut suit and pluck the small, thick book from the shelf and hold it in your hand. Tooled into the leather on the front cover (which is the opposite from the usual "front" cover of a book) is something that looks like a scene of ginkgo trees on a rolling landscape, and a little gazebo in a gully amongst the ginkgo trees, and a sun floating, half-concealed by clouds, on the bald hilltops, and overhead something which is either an old biplane or else an unusually elaborate box kite ghosting through the sky beneath a single star which, remarkably enough, shows a small but discernible disk at its center between the rays.
You go back to your chair and sit down. On TV, Stan Bran has just finished interviewing a guest about muskie fishing, and is ready to go to a commercial for the Huber Brewing Company.
You hold the book gingerly in your hands and let it flip open.
The pages are covered with columns of spidery characters, each one like a delicate, intricate cats-cradle. When you first saw the book, you thought the characters looked Chinese, but you realize now that there is hardly any similarity. The characters are more intricate, more cobwebby, with sharp spikes and loops and ovals and arcs like something off a French curve. And some of the characters connect one to another down the column.
A finely drawn line illustration in the corner of one page portrays things like Chinese fans with eyes and tails, drifting through the air beneath that bright star while off in the distance lies a walled city with domes and minarets.
For some reason, you find some of the illustrations vaguely disturbing, perhaps because they manage effortlessly to combine a lighthearted, exotic whimsy with the measured, steelplate exactitude of an anatomical diagram.
Then you flip to one of the doublewidth, glossy, full-color plates that fold out, and you remember like a blow that this book is your only remaining tie to her. And to how you became a yellowstripes.
Aren't you dumb? You thought you could forget that. And you thought you could forget her. But one of the figures in the little color lithograph looks just like her.
The book is very thick, and you realize this is the first time you've seen this particular plate. Underneath a drooping ginkgo tree which is shedding its leaves that look halfway like feathers, there lies a forlorn little creature who could be your princess herself, with her hair like the white trim of a parka hood around those big black eyes, and a harlequin suit of pastel diamonds. She is supporting herself sadly on rigid forearms while, to her right, two other harlequin-creatures, one lavender-grey and the other creamy-yellow, pirouette madly in a dance.
The lavender-grey one is playing something like a mandolin while it dances, while the yellowish harlequin spins in defiance of the laws of balance with its disproportionately heavy forearms over its head. Off in the distance, its outlines slightly blurred, is another of those impossible walled art-deco cities, its domes and minarets and chimneys (chimneys?!) hinting at something Persian but beyond possibility, while overhead in a slate-grey sky is that blinding star with its cutting white rays, and on the horizon the sun is setting, a lurid orange.
The painting makes you feel sad, and wistful, and as if you're reaching back and grasping for a memory that just eludes you, a soft memory made of colored tissue paper and tinged with a gentle ache of loss.
But that was just the way she used to make you feel. And your memory slips back to last fall, to the wind and the leaves and to how you met her and to how you became a yellowstripes.
You remember sitting upstairs in the living room (that was when you were yet free to roam the whole house and the whole world) and watching the family TV on an Indian summer afternoon in October, and you remember vaguely hearing a hubbub out in the alley to the side of the house.
Young Kerry Springer, who was about ten years old and who in those days came in and out of the house like one of the family, slammed the screen door and tripped on the pile of the carpet, breathless, trying to run across the living room to you.
"Keith!" He had to stop while he caught his breath. "You should come outside. Out in the alley and see!"
You gave him that blank, studied stare which you had worked to cultivate. He got up and started jabbing toward the door.
"You should see! There's a big stained glass window in the side of Wilsons' barn and you should see what came out through it! There's a crowd out there looking at it..."
Kerry had to catch his breath again. You tossed off a black thought concerning the overly active imaginations of ten year olds when for some reason his next comment galvanized you and brought you up out of your seat:
"They're just looking at it, but I think some of the folks are getting twitchy."
With a gruff syllable, you stalked past young Kerry and out the screen door. Too late you thought of your jacket, but as you stepped out you found you would not really have needed it anyway.
Even before you got up to the crowd, you could see over their heads the colored panes.
It was a stained glass window all right, or rather, it was not quite a stained glass window, but an intricate object of wood frame and colored glass which-- despite a byzantine intricacy defying categories-- resembled a stained glass rose window more than it did anything else...
But the involved, rococo designs looked like no style you'd ever seen. And the "window" was not on the side of the Wilsons' barn... but in the air a foot or two in front of it.
You pushed your way through the crowd of ten or a dozen neighbors, with Kerry at your elbow. The "window" hung unsupported in thin air, all right...
And lying on the ground beneath the rose window was something which was evidently alive.
"She came right out through the window, like the glass was soft like gauze. Just like Alice in Wonderland coming out through the looking glass," explained Kerry at your elbow.
You looked up at the window hanging in thin air, just as solid and substantial and material as the wood of the barn behind it. And you looked down again, and saw her lying on the ground, propped up on her forearms.
It was definitely "she," you knew that somehow even though you had never seen anyone or anything like her before. Had she stood upright-- you doubted the wisdom of her trying to support all her weight on those spindly legs-- she would have been maybe four feet tall.
Her body was covered by something like a colorful harlequin suit. The legs were too short, and spindly like broomsticks, though they ended in things like hands. The forearms were much more massive, heavier at the fur cuffs of the wrists than at the shoulders.
You stepped forward and bent down beside this creature who carried herself with a sad, tragic gentility, and you looked up into the faces of your neighbors. They looked dumb. But the dumbness, you could see even as you looked, was curdling into something mean.
The instant you had seen your princess, sitting beneath her stained glass window, you knew two things, don't ask how.
One was that she had been going somewhere, and had arrived here by mistake instead. There had been a misrouting. She had never meant to come out of the stained glass window here.
The other was that she was from... somewhere else, if even such a term was not inadequate; from some realm terribly and inconceivably other, in a sense altogether beyond your dull and ignorant neighbors, with their Sunday supplements and their astronomy primers and their garish Tolkien paperbacks. Those were keys to an answer altogether too simplistic...
Any creature from any possible world, however alien, has to obey a certain architecture of limb, certain dumb physical laws of structure to which your princess was blithely indifferent. Some psilocybin-driven draftsman, some cosmic Picasso, might have conceived something like this, something that bore itself with a sad and frightened grandeur even as it looked as if it might blow away in the wind... but nothing like her had any right to be real this side of the looking glass.
A rock skipped in the dust at your feet.
You looked up and saw Mister Smith, who owned the hardware store. He had thrown the rock. And there was a look on his face like the look on Tommy MacDougall's face the time Tommy had castrated that stray cat and burned it alive with gasoline.
Behind you, a gentle tinkling on the wind like far-off Chinese wind chimes. You turned and saw that the stained glass window wasn't there any more. Or rather, there were just shifting patterns of light on the side of the Wilsons' barn, patterns like sunlight through shifting leaves, patterns that looked for a second like the stained glass window before they dispersed.
That was the wrong moment to turn. Now there were angry murmurs in the crowd of neighbors around you and as you looked up you saw that they were really getting twitchy. Mister Smith's mouth was nervously working, and under his breath he was muttering, "Filthy thing, filthy thing, filthy thing, filthy thing..."
You were frightened, because you didn't know why everyone was acting so dumb; and then you did the thing that sealed your fate, the thing that ended in making you a yellowstripes.
You scooped up the princess in your arms (she was remarkably light) and you walked stiffly through the circle of people, carrying her. You heard their angry mumbling behind you as you carried her up the concrete steps and opened the aluminum screen door.
You set her down on the couch in the living room, this feathery one like nothing that had any right to be, and you went out to the kitchen to get her a glass of water. F Troop was playing on the TV.
When you came back, she was gone. You searched the house, and finally you found her down in the basement, crouched down and curled up in the corner on your bed.
Your princess wouldn't drink the water, and she never moved far beyond your bed in the month that she lingered with you.
It must have been almost a month; you stood guard in your room all that time, day and night, slouching for rest now and then in your TV chair, or leaning against the bar.
You found out that, although she wouldn't drink water from the tap, your fur-hooded princess would take distilled water in small amounts. You had your dad run out to the supermarket and get it for you in plastic gallon jugs. She never touched any food.
All that month she lingered, you kept watch with her, and there were never any words. There didn't have to be. Because somehow the two of you, down there in the basement behind the cinder blocks in Indian summer heat, became very close.
There were the fish in the tank. And there was the TV, which fascinated your princess though seldom for as long as an entire show. There were the books from the cinder block bookshelves, which she would page through for hours at a time. She was never very interested in games. And there was her worn little leatherbound book, which she would show to you like a teacher presenting a pantomime lecture, pointing out pictures and lines of characters. The book was... something she had brought with her, through the stained glass window.
But most of all there were just the silent times together, in the heat of an afternoon with light filtered through the drapes, or at three in the morning when all the rest of the world was crickets and darkness and trucks down on the highway, and a light was on in the room.
It was the comradeship of two soldiers together in the trenches. It was the chemistry of two personalities mixing. And there was something in it you couldn't define, something in it that was due to her, like sad little wind chimes far off across the lawn on a hot afternoon, echoing from far off down the corridors of the soul.
There was something quite sad about it all, as if things were slipping away and would never come back, and toward the end she would lie there in the afternoons still and listless, with her big black liquid eyes looking up at the ceiling all unfocused. And somehow you knew that your princess was dying.
You sat there by the bedside holding her hand, and flies would buzz around the light in the ceiling overhead and you would think of swatting them. And toward the end you wondered why your little princess was marooned, why there wasn't some way for her to go home through a stained glass window, to go home, wherever or whatever that might be. And in the very asking of the question, you realized how foolish it was, and you wept as it sank into you with terror and vertigo just how childish it was even to phrase the question in such humanly bound terms.
You wept, and you went off in the basement bathroom and sobbed with aches in your stomach over the porcelain sink, knocking little soap figurines off onto the floor. Because it dawned on you with awful realization just how dumb that question really was. What made you cry was not that you couldn't answer the question. What made you cry was that you had realized how awfully far it would have been beyond even the deepest human imagination, to find categories adequate to phrasing the question you wanted so badly to ask yourself aright, but couldn't...
That last afternoon, you sat there in a strap tee-shirt in the heat of the last hot day of autumn, by your princess's side, and her chest rose and fell, more and more irregular in its rhythm. Now she exhaled, barely ruffling the snow-white down on her face. Now she inhaled.
Once, she moved her head to look over at you, with those wet black eyes, as if she knew. And then the breaths came, slower now and more labored.
The end came at twilight. You felt empty, and hollow, and you sat there not moving until after dark. Then you stirred yourself, and got a large garden shovel from the garage.
You lifted the feather-light body of your princess, and realized you didn't know how or even if the harlequin suit came off. You took the body out into the back yard, and you dug a hole beneath the moonlight. That was when it first struck you about being a yellowstripes. Because it was a full moon that night, and at first you thought you were blinking because of tears in your eyes, but then you realized that it was because the moonlight was so bright that it hurt.
You saved out the leatherbound book. But her body, that you buried beneath six feet of red-brown dirt.
Afterward, you came back inside the basement, and you lay there on your bed, and you couldn't get to sleep until almost dawn.
You slept you didn't know how long, but when you awoke, you had already come down with it.
That was the time of fever and ache, the time when things were not extraordinarily clear to you. There was day, and night, and all things seemed unreal as they moved through a phase of too-bright clarity.
That was when everything took on sharp edges like cut glass, and the gold of the carpet was like gold fresh from the furnace, and the precise pattern of folds and pleats in the shirt flung over the chair back was heavenly enough to drive a person mad.
That was when the plywood panelling on the far wall, this knot here, that knot there in the wood grain, had a message hidden in it for you, if only you had eyes to see.
Then they came down in the basement and found you tossing in bedsheets soaked with sweat. You slipped in and out of consciousness. Sometimes it was day. Sometimes it was night. You were on fire.
You remember coming to, and your father was there beside the bed. He had a whirling Black and Decker power drill in his hand, and he was coming at your head with it. And you remember the sudden look of terror in his eyes as his face went white, and he backed off, and you realized that he could never do anything to you ever again.
Then there were cymbals, and sounds far off down the lane, and something terribly important looking about your pillow, only you couldn't remember what.
Somewhere along in there, after the fever had begun to break, you remember weakly struggling with the blankets to get them fixed up over the windows in the basement. Because already, some time in the depths of the fever, you had become a yellowstripes.
That was when your brother installed the lasers on the staircase. They were afraid, they didn't dare, but they didn't dare not.
That was when the Apollo astronaut suit arrived in a shipping crate, compliments of the United States government, with dire warnings of what would happen if you ever transgressed the five-mile perimeter. They were bluffing, you could sense that, but you also knew they were genuinely afraid. If you had gone beyond the five-mile mark, they would have been too terrified to do anything to you. They were scared witless of the day of righteous retaliation.
They need not have been. Already your world was beginning to tug inside itself. It was all you could do to carry yourself through pale afternoons and wan evenings which drifted by like crumpled drafts of some half-forgotten skit. They need not have feared what you had become. Mister Smith need not have feared the left hand of God. If only they had known!
And that was the beginning and that was the end. You had become a yellowstripes. The beginning... of life like a poor quality low budget TV production. Sealed away from the world. The end... of life lived in the light of day among barking dogs and laughing children. Sealed away from every ray of light. Life like something produced on a third-rate sound stage, in the days back before living technicolor. Lying abed till noon. Somewhere out there, the sun hangs overhead, indifferent and saffron. Keep out every ray of light. That's been the important thing for a long time now.
You had become a yellowstripes.
Aren't you dumb?