He looked through the cold morning windows with the Jack-in-the-Box in his hands, prying the rusted lid. But no matter how he struggled, the Jack would not jump to the light with a cry, or slap its velvet mittens on the air, or bob in a dozen directions with a wild and painted smile. Crushed under the lid, in its jail, it stayed crammed tight coil on coil. With your ear to the box, you felt pressure beneath, the fear and panic of the trapped toy. It was like holding someone's heart in your hand. Edwin could not tell if the box pulsed or if his own blood beat against the lid.
He threw the box down and looked to the window. Outside the window the trees surrounded the house which surrounded Edwin. He could not see beyond the trees. If he tried to find another World beyond them, the trees wove themselves thick with the wind, to still his curiosity, to stop his eyes.
«Edwin!» Behind him, Mother's waiting, nervous breath as she drank her breakfast coffee. «Stop staring. Come eat.»
«No,» he whispered.
«What?» A stiffened rustle. She must have turned. «Which is more important, breakfast or that window?»
«The window…» he whispered and sent his gaze running the paths and trails he had tried for thirteen years. Was it true that the trees flowed on ten thousand miles to nothingness? He could not say. His sight returned defeated, to the lawn, the steps, his hands trembling on the pane.
He turned to eat his tasteless apricots, alone with his mother in the vast and echoing breakfast room. Five thousand mornings at this table, this window, and no movement beyond the trees.
The two of them ate silently.
She was the pale woman that no one but the birds saw in old country houses in fourth-floor cupola windows, each morning at six, each afternoon at four, each evening at nine, and also passing by one minute after midnight, there she would be, in her tower, silent and white, high and alone and quiet. It was like passing a deserted greenhouse in which one last wild white blossom lifted its head to the moonlight.
And her child, Edwin, was the thistle that one breath of wind might unpod in a season of thistles. His hair was silken and his eyes were of a constant blue and feverish temperature. He had a haunted look, as if he slept poorly. He might fly apart like a packet of ladyfinger firecrackers if a certain door slammed.
His mother began to talk, slowly and with great caution, then more rapidly, and then angrily, and then almost spitting at him.
«Why must you disobey every morning? I don't like your staring from the window, do you hear? What do you want? Do you want to see them?» she cried, her fingers twitching. She was blazingly lovely, like an angry white flower. «Do you want to see the Beasts that run down paths and crush people like strawberries?»
Yes, he thought, I'd like to see the Beasts, horrible as they are.
«Do you want to go out there,» she cried, «like your father did before you were born, and be killed as he was killed, struck down by one of those Terrors on the road, would you like that?»
«Isn't it enough they murdered your Father? Why should you even think of those Beasts?» She motioned toward the forest. «Well, if you really want to die that much, go ahead!»
She quieted, but her fingers kept opening and closing on the tablecloth. «Edwin, Edwin, your Father built every part of this World, it was beautiful for him, it should be for you. There's nothing, nothing, beyond those trees but death; I won't have you near it! This is the World. There's no other worth bothering with.»
He nodded miserably.
«Smile now, and finish your toast,» she said.
He ate slowly, with the window reflected in secret on his silver spoon.
«Mom…?» He couldn't say it. «What's… dying? You talk about it. Is it a feeling?»
«To those who must live on after someone else, a bad feeling, yes.» She stood up suddenly. «You're late for school! Run!»
He kissed her as he grabbed his books. «Bye!»
«Say hello to Teacher!»
He fled from her like a bullet from gun. Up endless staircases, through passages, halls, past windows that poured down dark gallery panels like white waterfalls. Up, up through the layercake Worlds with the thick frostings of Oriental rug between, and bright candles on top.
From the highest stair he gazed down through four intervals of Universe.
Lowlands of kitchen, dining room, parlor. Two Middle Countries of music, games, pictures, and locked, forbidden rooms. And here-he whirled-the Highlands of picnics, adventure, and learning. Here he roamed, idled, or sat singing lonely child songs on the winding journey to school.
This, then, was the Universe. Father (or God, as Mother often called him) had raised its mountains of wailpapered plaster long ago. This was Father-God's creation, in which stars blazed at the flick of a switch. And the sun was Mother, and Mother was the sun, about which all the Worlds swung, turning. And Edwin, a small dark meteor, spun up around through the dark carpets and shimmering tapestries of space. You saw him rise to vanish on vast comet staircases, on hikes and explorations.
Sometimes he and Mother picnicked in the Highlands, spread cool snow linens on red-tuffed, Persian lawns, on crimson meadows in a rarefied plateau at the summit of the Worlds where flaking portraits of sallow strangers looked meanly down on their eating and their revels. They drew water from silver taps in hidden tiled niches, smashed the tumblers on hearthstones, shrieking. Played hide-and-seek in enchanted Upper Countries, in unknown, wild, and hidden lands, where she found him rolled like a mummy in a velvet window drape or under sheeted furniture like a rare plant protected from some wind. Once, lost, he wandered for hours in insane foothills of dust and echoes, where the hooks and hangers in closets were hung only with night. But she found him and carried him weeping down through the leveling Universe to the Parlor where dust motes, exact and familiar, fell in showers of sparks on the sunlit air.
He ran up a stair.
Here he knocked a thousand thousand doors, all locked and forbidden. Here Picasso ladies and Dali gentlemen screamed silently from canvas asylums, their gold eyes burning when he dawdled.
«Those Things live _out there_,» his mother had said, pointing to the Dali-Picasso families.
Now running quickly past, he stuck out his tongue at them.
He stopped running.
One of the forbidden doors stood op en.
Sunlight slanted warm through it, exciting him.
Beyond the door, a spiral stair screwed around up in sun and silence.
He stood, gasping. Year after year he had tried the doors that were always found locked. What would happen now if he shoved this one full open and climbed the stair? Was some Monster hiding at the top?
His voice leapt up around the spiraled sunlight. «Hello…» whispered a faint, far lazy echo, high, high, and gone.
He moved through the door.
«Please, please, don't hurt me,» he whispered to the high sunlit place.
He climbed, pausing with each step to wait for his punishment, eyes shut like a penitent. Faster now, he leapt around and around and up until his knees ached and his breath fountained in and out and his head banged like a bell and at last he reached the terrible summit of the climb and stood in an open, sun-drenched tower.
The sun struck his eyes a blow. Never, never so much sun! He stumbled to the iron rail.
«It's there!» His mouth opened from one direction to another. «It's there!» He ran in a circle. «There!»
He was above the somber tree barrier. For the first time he stood high over the windy chestnuts and elms and as far as he could see was green grass, green trees, and white ribbons on which beetles ran, and the other half of the world was blue and endless, with the sun lost and dropping away in an incredible deep blue room so vast he felt himself fall with it, screamed, and clutched the tower ledge, and beyond the trees, beyond the white ribbons where the beetles ran he saw things like fingers sticking up, but he saw no Dali-Picasso terrors, he saw only some small red-and-white-andblue handkerchiefs fluttering high on great white poles.
He was suddenly sick; he was sick again.
Turning, he almost fell flat down the stairs.
He slammed the forbidden door, fell against it
«You'll go blind.» He crushed his hands to his eyes. «You shouldn't have seen, you shouldn't, you shouldn't!»
He fell to his knees, he lay on the floor twisted tight, covered up. He need wait but a moment-the blindness would come.
Five minutes later he stood at an ordinary Highlands window, looking out at his own familiar Garden World.
He saw once more the elms and hickory trees and the stone wall, and that forest which he had taken to be an endless wall itself, beyond which lay nothing but nightmare nothingness, mist, rain, and eternal night. Now it was certain, the Universe did not end with the forest. There were other worlds than those contained in Highland or Lowland.
He tried the forbidden door again. Locked.
Had he really gone up? Had he really discovered those halfgreen, half-blue vastnesses? Had God seen him? Edwin trembled. God. God, who smoked mysterious black pipes and wielded magical walking sticks. God who might be watching even now!
Edwin murmured, touching his cold face.
«I can still see. Thank you, thank you. I can _still_ see!»
At nine-thirty, half an hour late, he rapped on the school door.
«Good morning, Teacher!»
The door swung open. Teacher waited in her tall gray, thickclothed monk's robe, the cowl hiding her face. She wore her usual silver spectacles. Her gray-gloved hands beckoned.
Beyond her the land of books burned in bright colors from the hearth. There were walls bricked with encyclopedias, and a fireplace in which you could stand without bumping your head. A log blazed fiercely.
The door closed, and there was a warm quiet. Here was the desk, where God had once sat, he'd walked this carpet, stuffing his pipe with rich tobacco, and scowled out that vast, stained-glass window. The room smelled of God, rubbed wood, tobacco, leather, and silver coins. Here, Teacher's voice sang like a solemn harp, telling of God, the old days, and the World when it had shaken with God's determination, trembled at his wit, when the World was abuilding under God's hand, a blueprint, a cry, and timber rising. God's fingerprints still lay like half-melted snowflakes on a dozen sharpened pencils in a locked glass display. They must never never be touched lest they melt away forever.
Here, here in the Highlands, to the soft sound of Teacher's voice running on, Edwin learned what was expected of him and his body. He was to grow into a Presence, he must fit the odors and the trumpet voice of God. He must some day stand tall and burning with pale fire at this high window to shout dust off the beams of the Worlds; he must be God Himself! Nothing must prevent it. Not the sky or the trees or the Things beyond the trees.
Teacher moved like a vapor in the room.
«Why are you late, Edwin?»
«I don't know.»
«I'll ask you again. Edwin why are you late?»
«One-one of the forbidden doors was open…»
He heard the hiss of Teacher's breath. He saw her slowly slide back and sink into the large hand-carved chair, swallowed by darkness, her glasses flashing light before they vanished. He felt her looking out at him from shadow and her voice was numbed and so like a voice he heard at night, his own voice crying just before he woke from some nightmare. «Which door? Where?» she said. «Oh, it must be locked!»
«The door by the Dali-Picasso people,» he said, in panic. He and Teacher had always been friends. Was that finished now? Had he spoiled things? «I climbed the stair. I had to, I had to! I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Please, don't tell Mother!»
Teacher sat lost in the hollow chair, in the hollow cowl. Her glasses made faint firefly glitters in the well where she moved alone. «And what did you see up there?» she murmured.
«A big blue room!»
«And a green one, and ribbons with bugs running on them, hut I didn't, I didn't stay long, I swear, I swear!»
«Green room, ribbons, yes ribbons, and the little bugs running along them, yes,» she said, and her voice made him sad.
He reached out for her hand, but it fell away to her lap and groped back, in darkness, to her breast. «I came right down, I locked the door, I won't go look again, ever!» he cried.
Her voice was so faint he could hardly hear what she said. «But now you've seen, and you'll want to see more, and you'll always he curious now.» The cowl moved slowly back and forth. Its deepness turned toward him, questioning. «Did you-_like_ what you saw?»
«I was scared. It was big.»
«Big, yes, too big. Large, large, so large, Edwin. Not like our world. Big, large, uncertain. Oh, why did you do this! You knew it was wrong!»
The fire bloomed and withered on the hearth while she waited for his answer and finally when he could not answer she said, as if her lips were barely moving, «Is it your Mother?»
«I don't know!»
«Is she nervous, is she mean, does she snap at you, does she hold too tight, do you want time alone, is that it, is that it, is that it?»
«Yes, yes!» he sobbed, wildly.
«Is that why you ran off, she demands all your time, all your thoughts?» Lost and sad, her voice. «Tell me…»
His hands had gone sticky with tears. «Yes!» He bit his fingers and the backs of his hands. «Yes!» It was wrong to admit such things, but he didn't have to say them now, she said them, she said them, and all he must do is agree, shake his head, bite his knuckles, cry out between sobs.
Teacher was a million years old.
«We learn,» she said, wearily. Rousing from her chair, she moved with a slow swaying of gray robes to the desk where her gloved hand searched a long time to find pen and paper. «We learn, Oh God, but slowly, and with pain, we learn. We think we do right, but all the time, all the time, we kill the Plan…» She hissed hef breath, jerked her head up suddenly. The cowl looked completely empty, shivering.
She wrote words on the paper.
«Give this to your mother. It tells her you must have two full hours every afternoon to yourself, to prowl where you wish. Anywhere. Except _out there_. Are you listening, child?»
«Yes.» He dried his face. «But―»
«Did Mother lie to me about _out there_, and the Beasts?»
«Look at me,» she said. «I've been your friend, I've never beaten you, as your mother sometimes must. We're both here to help you understand and grow so you won't be destroyed as God was.»
She arose, and in rising, turned the cowl such a way that color from the hearth washed over her face. Swiftly, the firelight erased her many wrinkles.
Edwin gasped. His heart gave a jolting thump. «The fire!»
«The fire!» Edwin looked at the fire and back to her face. The cowl jerked away from his gaze, the face vanished in the deep well, gone. «Your face,» said Edwin numbly. «You look like Mother!»