MILES TO GO BEFORE YOU SLEEP
© 2011 Dennis James Browne
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening
ggggggg I committed my first murder at the age of fifteen.
ggggggg She and I were knee deep in the waters of the creek
at the back of the estate. It was wide in spots, cold as ice even in the
hot July sun. If you looked down, the waters ran fast enough to make your
head spin and lose your balance, so you had to hold your eyes on the opposite
bank in order to get across. At the time we stood in a quiet spot behind
a bend in the creek, smooth as glass with a clean white bottom. She looked
much older than she really was, and had long blonde hair, down past her
waist that looked quite beautiful in the hot July sun. It was only later,
when her mother realized how fast she was growing, how beautiful she was
really becoming, that the old lady had it cut, cropped into that horrible
ggggggg But at the time it was quite long, she was next to
me, and we were alone, looking down into the water for...clams. I say
it like that and all the romance is gone, but it was romantic in a way
because we thought we might find a beautiful pearl--King Soloman's Pearl,
that's what she called it. Today of course it seems a lot different, the
way the mind works, holding the two of us forever in that delicate suncrystal,
the creek flowing around the side of town, and in the town with the factory
being closed and people out of work and all--and even if we did find King
Soloman's Pearl, her mother would have just taken it from us and dropped
it into her jewel box, with all her other precious stuff.
ggggggg We were climbing out of the water when we heard a
noise overhead. In spots the sides of the creek rose sharply to steep
dirt banks riddled with hundreds of nest holes by swallows. A pair of
swallows was noisily flying over our heads, trying to frighten us off
for some reason--either we were too close to their nest or...
ggggggg "Miles, Miles, a baby sparrow--and look at its
ggggggg In a small patch of grass on the bank lay a baby
swallow. Its mouth was open, gasping like crazy, and its little black
eyes were filled with terror. One of its legs was broken, bent like a
ggggggg "Miles, what can we do? We can't just
leave it here."
ggggggg Of course that would have been the best thing--to
just leave it there, I mean, because anyone could see that in a few hours
it would be dead anyway. But the way she looked at me with those big sad
blue eyes...Its parents dived straight at us, shrieking like mad as I
picked it up. We ran up the hill toward the house. The swallows followed
after us for a while, still darting and shrieking. Then, when we nearly
reached the top of the hill, I looked back over my shoulder and they were
ggggggg We kept the baby sparrow in a cigar box filled with
bright pink cotton stuffing from an old doll, then hid it on a dresser
in Clare's room, near the sunlight. Clare fixed up its leg with a splint
made out of toothpicks and sewing thread while I caught some worms and
tried to feed it, but it wouldn't eat. On that same afternoon we gave
it a secret code name--Leopold--because we knew Clare's mother, Georgianne,
would have a coronary if she ever found out we had a filthy little bird
in the house. (She always had a way of making us feel dirty and guilty
about everything we did, like we were some kind of secret Nazis.)
ggggggg But Georgianne already knew about the bird, like
she seemed to know about everything else. So the next morning at breakfast,
when Clare tried to get clever with her...
ggggggg "Miles, did you hear Leopold broke his
ggggggg My heart nearly dropped into my socks. Georgianne,
who had just walked into the kitchen--that was before her stroke and the
wheelchair--looked at us with those icy hazel eyes. She poured herself
a cup of tea and sat down next to Clare, reminding me exactly of the Ugly
Duchess and Alice.
ggggggg "Who's Leopold, Victoria?"
ggggggg Victoria was Clare's middle name. No one ever called
her "Victoria" except her mother, and the way she asked, grim
and flat, was more like a command than a question.
ggggggg Clare just kept on eating without looking up.
ggggggg "Nobody, Mother, just somebody I met in
ggggggg Georgianne's eyes turned ice cold. They flicked in
my direction for a split second, then she lifted her cup to her lips and
kept looking at Clare.
ggggggg "Victoria, I've told you a hundred times
not to go down to the creek. Or have you forgotten what happened to the
ggggggg Clare must have known right then that the cat was
out of the bag. The old lady must have been watching us from the living
room window. But Clare kept right on eating her breakfast, playing out
her part to the very end.
ggggggg "You're right, mother, I'm sorry...But
maybe Bobby Jaeger would still be alive if you were by the window watching
him instead of us."
ggggggg Georgianne looked like she'd just been slapped in
ggggggg But then, suddenly, a small, strange smile crept
across her face. She leaned over, talking to Clare in a slow, creepy voice--
ggggggg "And how do you know that I wasn't watching
ggggggg Clare and I stared at each other. Georgianne got
up from her chair and turned away from the table without looking at us.
ggggggg We knew what she meant of course. The Jaegers were
a German family she'd hated for as long as we could remember, so in a
way her remark shouldn't have surprised us. It was just the way she said
it--so strange and creepy--like maybe she really did watch Bobby Jaeger
ggggggg "--Birds spread disease, Victoria. I want
that filthy little creature out of this house immediately!"
ggggggg "But Mother, I--"
ggggggg "Immediately! Do you understand?"
ggggggg Clare bolted from the table in tears. I ran after
her. I knew that soon my father would be home and he'd straighten everything
ggggggg But by that time it didn't make any difference. We
went back upstairs and I could see that Leopold was dying. Clare didn't
think so of course, but the way it was just lying there, hardly moving,
I knew that something inside it had just snapped, and that in a few hours
it would be dead.
ggggggg I couldn't let that happen--it would break Clare's
heart, I knew it would.
ggggggg So I settled on a plan. I took the baby swallow and
made Clare promise to stay in her bedroom until I got back. Then I hid
Leopold down in the basement, and ran outside back down to the creek.
Minutes later I was back down in the basement.
ggggggg I decided to use the killing bottle. The one I use
for my moths. I only collect cecropias because they're so beautiful and
easy to find. In the fall the cocoons stick out on branches like ripe
fruit. Quite a few of them have little brown holes, which means that the
pupas have been sucked dead by birds. Anyway, I collect the good ones
and in the house where it's warm they hatch in a few weeks. Then I mount
them in glass cases. In only two years I've collected five beautiful cases
in my bedroom, with the largest moth--a real beauty, almost seven inches
across--right in the center. I never show my collection to anyone except
ggggggg She thinks it's beautiful, and that's all that really
ggggggg Anyway, Leopold went with a few weak flutters, almost
immediately. In the killing bottle I mean. Of course I didn't use cyanide,
just the rubbing alcohol I use for the cecropias, and some of the pink
cotton from the cigar box. And when it was over I hid Leopold down in
the basement and buried him a few days later out back near the rose garden.
ggggggg At the time I actually felt good about what I'd done
because of Clare, and I knew that the baby swallow would only suffer for
maybe hours more and then die anyway. It was only years later that I realized
how much like children some animals are, and that taking one of their
lives is far worse than killing certain people...
ggggggg When I was done I went back to Clare's bedroom and
showed her the empty cigar box. At first she didn't understand, but then
I took her down to the creek and we climbed up one of the banks not far
from where we found Leopold. I managed to get her to peek inside one of
the nest holes--the whole colony was crazy as wasps around us. Inside
were three baby swallows almost exactly the same size and color as Leopold--that's
why I had to go down to the creek, to find a nest with a baby sparrow
ggggggg I made Clare believe that I took off Leopold's splint,
but when she tried to take a closer look, I pulled her back--the swallows
were getting crazier by the second!
ggggggg That night she gave me a kiss. On the cheek of course,
she was so happy. I never told her what really happened because even years
later she remembered Leopold with that big happy smile...
ggggggg And that's all that really counted.
ggggggg Clare and I rarely saw each other during school hours
because I was two grades ahead of her and I would have been a senior at
Benson Memorial High School when she was a sophomore. But that never happened--my
graduating from Benson High, I mean--because of the scandal and everything
that happened afterward...
ggggggg We were a very important family in Benson. My father,
Robert Morris Spaulding, was owner of Fairfield-Cody, Ltd., one of the
town's two big manufacturing plants. Since Benson is a blue-collar town,
my father provided work for a lot of people--including the parents of
quite a few of the kids we went to school with.
ggggggg But that didn't stop some of the people in Benson
from resenting us--even hating us because we were outsiders. And the fact
that Georgianne kept her maiden name, Rothstein, didn't help either. Some
of the old German workers who'd been with Fairfield-Cody for years even
threatened to quit when we first came to town and bought the Walters estate.
But my father could charm the socks off a snake, and when he made his
weekly tour of the plant and they all saw what a really decent man he
was, all the fuss just sort of died down.
ggggggg In a way I can't blame them though. We aren't your
typical All-American family. There's a lot of mystery surrounding our
past, and to this day even Clare and I don't know much about our parents...
ggggggg What we do know is that we were both born in London
and came to America when my father landed a big government contract for
navy ship diesel engines. He bought out the Fairfield-Cody plant when
old Leon Cody died, leaving Frank Fairfield's widow the only owner. We
all moved to Wisconsin in 1963.
ggggggg Georgianne is Clare's mother. She was married to
a lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. His name was Vincent Crittendon.
Georgianne's twin sister, Marianne Rothstein, was my mother, who married
my father just after World War II. My father once told me that the Spaulding
name is well known in England and can be traced all the way back to the
royal family of Plantagenets.
ggggggg On the other hand Clare and I know nothing whatsoever
about the Rothstein family. Georgianne likes it that way. It was only
pure luck that Clare and I eventually found out that my mother and Clare's
father drowned together in a boating accident on the Thames! Right away
Clare and I assumed that they were having an affair.
ggggggg And if they were lovers, why on earth would Georgianne
and my father come to America together--with us? They certainly weren't
lovers, even though they'd been living together for years, hardly saying
a word to each other.
ggggggg As soon as we found out about the boating accident,
Clare made the mistake of asking Georgianne about how our parents died.
A big mistake. Georgianne's hand lashed out like a whip and caught Clare
full in the face...I don't think she ever realized how much Clare hated
her after that.
ggggggg Georgianne and my father are about as much alike
as sulphuric acid and water, and heaven only knows what mysterious bond
holds them together. It's not love, that's for sure. In fact, at times
I think my father hates Georgianne as much as us and some of the old Germans
in town--especially when she treats Clare and me like dirt.
ggggggg And it can't be money either. Though we can't be
sure, Clare and I are almost positive that Georgianne is even richer than
my father, though we have no idea where all her money came from.
ggggggg Anyway, when we found out that my mother and Clare's
father died together, Clare was in tears for days. For her sake, I pretended
that I was just as upset...but I wasn't really. Whatever happened to our
parents happened years ago in another world, and whatever Clare and I
did or found out couldn't possibly make a difference...
ggggggg It was that simple.
ggggggg You see, in many ways I'm a lot older, a lot more
mature than Clare--and worldly too, though I haven't traveled further
than Madison or Chicago. Don't misunderstand me. I did care what happened
to our parents, but it was more out of curiosity than remorse. I don't
even remember my mother, and it all happened so long ago that it really
doesn't mean that much to me...
ggggggg Besides, I have my own problems.
ggggggg As you may have already guessed, I'm a mute.
ggggggg I say it like that and I can tell right away you
assume that something else is wrong with me--psychologically I mean. But
that's all right, I'm used to that kind of response. It means nothing
ggggggg Besides, it could have been worse, couldn't it? I
mean I could be blind--that's worse!--or I could have been born normal
and had an accident or contracted some disease like cancer when I got
older--and then lost my speech. I think that would have been a lot worse
ggggggg As it is, since I've been this way since I was born,
I'm used to it. Georgianne thought I should go to a private school, but
my father insisted that I go to public schools like everyone else and
learn to deal with my "problem" like a real man (He loved John
ggggggg But I'm not John Wayne, and the first few years in
school were pretty rough, especially since I was one of the richest kids
in town and some of the other kids' parents worked at my father's plant.
That built up a lot of resentment--especially when we had the strike in
'64. In those days more than a few times I went home with a black eye
and bruises. But after a few years I got to know everyone, they knew me,
and things settled down. Now it's only strangers who give me trouble.
ggggggg As I got older, I also came to know that my blood
runs back much further than the Plantagenets--to a race of ancient and
wise men who ruled by their actions, not their words. Only they knew the
truth--that speech is mankind's greatest curse, leading to endless lies,
confusion, deceit, misery and war. Without speech politicians would be
seen as the impotent little worms they really are. Hitler would have died
in obscurity, and slaughters by religious fanatics would end overnight.
ggggggg I've come to accept my silence as a mantle of dignity
and wisdom. At times I can tell that others--the sensitive ones--can also
feel this deep inner strength of mine, but only after they get to know
ggggggg That's why I hate sign language. My father forced
me to learn it, but I never use it because of those silly movements--all
those birdlike gestures are so foolish and degrading.
ggggggg I never associate with other mutes for the same reason.
Once at the estate Georgianne threw a big birthday party for Clare. We
all sat out by the veranda under a big tent. Seated next to me was a little
girl my age in a pink pinafore. Her name was Mary, and her mother was
a close friend of Georgianne.
ggggggg At first I thought Mary was just shy. Then, suddenly,
she started working her fingers like crazy right in front of me--and smiling!
ggggggg Georgianne had deliberately seated me beside another
ggggggg I was so humiliated I thought I'd explode! I could
have strangled the little bitch right there--smiling at me and working
her fingers like a deranged clown. I looked around. People were staring
at us. They too were smiling.
ggggggg I ran to my bedroom and slammed the door behind me,
humiliated and blinded by tears of rage. That was the closest I think
I ever came to murdering Georgianne outright.
ggggggg And the others--the fools!
ggggggg Didn't they know that God intended me to be with
only one woman in my life?
ggggggg Clare Victoria...
ggggggg Clare Victoria Rothstein.
ggggggg The only woman I could ever protect. The only woman
I could ever love...
ggggggg And the only woman I could ever hate.
ggggggg To know the way I felt, you had to know her. In one
way Clare was the prettiest, sweetest person you'd ever meet. I mean even
at the age of thirteen she had the kind of face that made men stop right
in the middle of the street and gawk at her. She was that beautiful. She
had very pale white skin, just the opposite of her mother. And her eyes
were blue, but not an ordinary blue. When she got up in the morning and
had no makeup on they seemed ordinary enough--but at night, at night when
she dressed up or put on dark eyeliner, those eyes...they'd just take
your breath away they were so beautiful. She used to say she was turning
on her high beams--and she knew exactly what effect they had on me.
ggggggg But there was something else. A lot of women are
so attractive they seem untouchable, like Deanna Connors. She was so beautiful
no one asked her out until she was a junior. With Clare it was just the
opposite--and it drove me crazy. And it wasn't her fault either. She was
too shy to ever wear sexy clothes--which Georgianne would never allow
anyway--and she went shopping or walked down the street, she always kept
ggggggg But that didn't make any difference. Once at the
mall some old guy walked right up to her and offered her money--and another
time some stranger in a Rolls Royce practically grabbed her right off
the street! She just had that look that drove men crazy enough to want
to grab her and do terrible things to her...
ggggggg Like that stupid dago Angelo. He was the first man
to make love to Clare, I know he was. She always denied it, but I could
ggggggg Angelo and I hated each other from the second we
met. He was in high school--fours years older than Clare. Georgianne would
have had a coronary if he knew Clare was dating such a druggie motorcycle
dago scumbag...but I guess that's part of the reason she went out with
him in the first place.
ggggggg "Here, Miles, have a drag."
ggggggg The three of us, Angelo, me and one of his brain-dead
buddies--I don't even remember his name--were sitting on the bleachers,
watching our football team scrimmage and waiting for Clare. Angelo was
smoking dope--right in the open like he owned the world.
ggggggg I shook my head. The dago laughed.
ggggggg "Come on, Miles, loosen up--have a drag."
ggggggg Again I shook my head. I guess he could see I was
getting angry. He winked at his creep sidekick and looked at me.
ggggggg "You don't like me, do you, Miles?"
ggggggg I kept ignoring him, but you could see he was getting
high--and totally obnoxious. His buddy kept egging him on--
ggggggg "Come on, Miles--cat got yer tongue?"
ggggggg I got up to leave, but just then Clare showed up
with her girlfriend, Becky Anderson.
ggggggg "Hi, guys. Sorry we're late."
ggggggg I just looked at Clare and started walking away.
ggggggg "Miles, where are you going?"
ggggggg I didn't even look back. I felt her hand on my jacket.
She stood glaring at Angelo.
ggggggg "Did you say something to him?"
ggggggg Angelo and his cretin friend looked at each other.
ggggggg "I just offered him a drag and he freaked
ggggggg Clare frowned at the joint in Angelo's hand.
ggggggg "I don't believe you're smoking that here!"
ggggggg "Come on, Clare--you're not jealous of
good ol' Mary Juana, are you?"
ggggggg Clare just shook her head.
ggggggg "Let's go, Becky. Miles and I are walking
ggggggg Becky laughed--along with the other two. She was
one of them.
ggggggg Clare and I walked home. The dago, his creep buddy
and Becky followed alongside us in their big Harleys, making clever little
wisecracks and trying to impress Clare. By the time we got home he had
her laughing, but she never left my side.
ggggggg Clare only went out with him once or twice after
that. He kept following her home from school and playing the clown on
his flashy bike, but I think Clare just outgrew the thrill of his motorcycle
mentality a lot quicker than she thought she would--and when she dropped
someone that was it. She never looked back...
ggggggg Except for the Greek of course, but that was years
ggggggg Anyway, that was the last either of us had to do
with Angelo Burgoni--except for the incident with Frank Haley...
ggggggg In his senior year, Frank was the only student in
the country to have perfect scores on his SAT's. He also looked like a
Greek god and could have been the best athlete in school, but wasn't.
Frank's father left his mother when she got sick and I guess Frank went
a little crazy. He stayed to himself, worked full time as a night watchman
at my father's plant and never said a word to anyone.
ggggggg Needless to say, a biker and pothead loafer like
Angelo hated a guy like Frank Haley from the day they met. And since Angelo
was a big shot senior and Frank only a freshman, he probably thought Frank
was afraid of him. I saw him shove Frank around a few times in gym class,
but nothing came of it.
ggggggg Then one day Frank found a note in his gym locker.
It was signed Angelo and said something real rotten about his dying mother.
I watched Frank walk right out into the basketball court with the note
in his hand. His eyes were like a man from another planet. Frank handed
Angelo the note and asked him if he wrote it. Angelo frowned like he knew
he was being set up--but then he made a big mistake. He laughed and said
yeah, he did write the note--and Frank's mother was great!
ggggggg All the other kids laughed. I guess they didn't know
how sick Frank's mother was and how much he loved her.
ggggggg Anyway, it was over in a second. Frank's fist moved
so fast I didn't even see it. Angelo's head made a real sickening sound
when it hit the basketball court. I thought he was dead right there!
ggggggg But Frank wasn't finished. He picked up a javelin
lying near the tarpaulin and stuck it right through Angelo's face, from
one side of his jawbone to the other. The javelin was sticking straight
up in the air, pinning Angelo's head to the basketball court...
ggggggg There was blood all over the place.
ggggggg The incident made headlines and Frank was arrested,
but Angelo recovered and Frank was back in school a few days later...
ggggggg Any girl in school would have gone out with Frank
Haley and done anything he asked, but he never asked.
ggggggg Except for Clare, I never had any close friends while
I was in school. If I did it would have been Frank Haley, because we're
so much alike. Aside from being a lot wiser and more mature than his classmates,
Frank carries wounds in his heart--secret wounds--that would destroy lesser
men...He too is a member of that ancient and wise race who despise words
and let their actions do their talking. Frank Haley hated Angelo Burgoni
as much as I did, and he had to be directed in his actions only by the
secret bond between us...
ggggggg That's why I never told him. I mean about me being
the one who put the note in his locker. I didn't have to...
ggggggg I knew that Frank already understood.