Jacob intended to carry the luggage, and Edom announced that he would carry Barty. The boy, however, insisted on making his own way to the house.


“But, Barty,” Edom fretted, “it's dark."


“It sure is,” Barty said. When only a mortified silence followed his remark, he added: “Gee, I thought that was kinda funny."


With his mother, his uncles, and Maria hovering just two steps behind, Barty followed the driveway, not bothering with the cane, keeping his right foot on the concrete, his left foot on the grass, until he came to a jog in the pavement, which apparently he'd been seeking. He stopped, facing due north, considered for a moment, and then pointed due west: “The oak tree's over there."


“That's right,” Agnes confirmed.


With the great tree ninety degrees to his left, he was able to locate the back-porch steps at forty-five degrees. He pointed with the cane, which otherwise he had not used. “The porch?"


“Perfect,” Agnes encouraged.


Neither hesitantly nor recklessly, the boy set off across the lawn toward the porch steps. He maintained a far straighter line than Agnes would have been able to keep with her eyes closed.


At her side, Jacob wondered, “What should we do?"


“Just let him be,” she advised. “Just let him be Barty."


Forward, under the spreading black branches of the massive tree, receiving continuous green-tongued murmurs of encouragement from the breeze-stirred leaves, Barty was Barty, determined and undaunted.


When he judged that he was near the porch steps, he probed with his cane. Two paces later, the tip rapped the lowest step.


He felt for the railing. Grasped at the empty air only briefly. Found the handrail. He climbed to the porch.


The kitchen door stood open and full of light, but he missed it by two feet. He felt along the back wall of the house, discovered the door casing and then the opening, probed with the cane for the threshold, and stepped into the doorway.


Turning to face his four trailing escorts, all of whom were hunch shouldered and stiff-necked with tension, Barty said, “What's for dinner? “


Jacob had spent most of two days baking Barty's favorite pies, cakes, and cookies, and he'd prepared a meal as well. Maria's girls were at her sister's place this evening, so she stayed for dinner. Edom poured wine for everyone but Barty, root beer for the guest of honor, and while this couldn't be called a celebration, Agnes's spirits were lifted by a sense of normality, of hope, of family.


Eventually, dinner over, cleanup finished, when Maria and the uncles had gone, Agnes and Barty faced the stairs together. She followed, holding his cane, which he said he preferred not to use in the house, prepared to catch him if he stumbled.


One hand on the railing, he ascended the first three steps slowly. Pausing on each, he slid his foot forward and back on the carpet, runner to judge the depth of the tread relative to his small foot. He ran the toe of his right shoe up and down the riser between each tread, gauging the height.


Barty approached stair climbing as a mathematical problem, calculating the precise movement of each leg and placement of each foot necessary to successfully negotiate the obstacle. He proceeded less slowly on the next three steps than he had on the first three, and thereafter he ascended with growing confidence, pumping his legs with machinelike precision.


Agnes could almost visualize the three-dimensional geometric model that her little prodigy had created in his mind, which he now relied upon to reach the upper floor without a serious stumble. Pride, wonder, and sorrow pulled her heart in different directions.


Reflecting upon her son's clever, diligent, and uncomplaining adaptation to darkness, she wished that she had described to him the dazzling sunset under which they had made their journey home. Although her words might have been inadequate to the spectacle, he would have elaborated on them to create a picture in his mind; with his creative skills, the world that he'd lost with his sight might be remade in equal splendor in his imagination.


Agnes hoped that the boy would spend a night or two in her room, until he was reoriented to the house. But Barty wanted to sleep in his own bed.


She worried that he would need to go to the bathroom during the night and that, half asleep, he might turn the wrong way, toward the stairs, and fall. Three times they paced off the route from the doorway of his room to the hall bath. She would have walked it a hundred times and still not been satisfied, but Barty said, “Okay, I've got it."


During Barty's hospitalization, they had graduated from the young adult novels by Robert Heinlein to some of the same author's science fiction for general audiences. Now, pajamaed and in bed, with his sunglasses on the nightstand but his padded eye patches still in place, Barty listened, rapt, to the beginning of Double Star No longer able to judge the boy's degree of sleepiness by his eyes, she relied on him to tell her when to stop reading. At his request, she closed the book after forty-seven pages, at the end of Chapter 2.


Agnes bent to Barty and kissed him good-night.


“Mom, if I ask you for something, will you do it?"


“Of course, honey. Don't I always?"


He pushed back the bedclothes and sat up, leaning against the pillows and headboard. “This is maybe a hard thing for you to do, but it's really important."


Sitting on the edge of the bed, taking his hand, she stared at his sweet little bow of a mouth, whereas before she would have met his eyes. “Tell me."


“Don't be sad. Okay?"


Agnes had believed that through this ordeal, she'd largely spared her child from an awareness of the awful depth of her misery. In this, however, as in so many other instances, the boy proved to be more perceptive and more mature than she'd realized. Now she felt that she had failed him, and this failure ached like a wound.


He said, “You're the Pie Lady."


“Once was."


“Will be. And the Pie Lady-she's never sad."


“Sometimes even the Pie Lady."


“You always leave people feeling good, like Santa Claus leaves them."


She gently squeezed his hand but couldn't speak.


“It's there even when you read to me now. The sad feeling, I mean. It changes the story, makes it not as good, because I can't pretend I don't hear how sad you are."


With effort, she managed to say, “I'm sorry, sweetie,” but her voice was sufficiently distorted by anguish that even to herself, she sounded like a stranger.


After a silence, he asked, “Mom, you always believe me, don't you?"


“Always,” she said, because she had never known him to lie.


“Are you looking at me?"


“Yes,” she assured him, though her gaze had dropped from his mouth to his hand, so small, which she held in hers.


“Mom, do I look sad?"


By habit, she shifted her attention to his eyes, because though the scientific types insist that the eyes themselves are incapable of expression, Agnes knew what every poet knows: To see the condition of the hidden heart, you must look first where scientists will not admit to looking at all.


The white padded eye patches rebuffed her, and she realized how profoundly the boy's double enucleation would affect how easily she could read his moods and know his mind. Here was a littler loss until now shadowed by the greater destruction. Denied the evidence of his eyes, she would need to be better at noting and interpreting nuances of his body language-also changed by blindness-and his voice, for there would be no soul revealed by hand-painted, plastic implants.


“Do I look sad?” Barty repeated.


Even the Shantung-softened lamplight blazed too bright and did not serve her well, so she switched it off and said, “Scoot over."


The boy made room for her.


She kicked off her shoes and sat beside him in bed, with her back against the headboard, still holding his hand. Even though this darkness wasn't as deep as Barty's, Agnes found that she was better able to control her emotions when she couldn't see him. “I think you must be sad, kiddo. You hide it well, but you must be."


“I'm not, though."


“Bullpoop, as they say."


“That's not what they say,” the boy replied with a giggle, for his extensive reading had introduced him to words that he and she agreed were not his to use.


“Bullpoop might not be what they say, but it's the worst that we say. And in fact, in this house, bulldoody is preferred."


“Bulldoody doesn't have a lot of punch."


“Punch is overrated."


“I'm really not sad, Mom. I'm not. I don't like it this way, being blind. It's ... hard.” His small voice, musical as are the voices of most children, touching in its innocence, spun a fragile thread of melody in the dark, and seemed too sweet to be speaking of these bitter things. “Real hard. But being sad won't help. Being sad won't make me see again."


“No, it won't,” she agreed.


“Besides, I'm blind here, but I'm not blind in all the places where I am."


This again.


Enigmatic as ever on this subject, he continued: “I'm probably not blind more places than I am. Yeah, sure, I'd rather be me in one of the other places where my eyes are good, but this is the me I am. And you know what?"


“What?"


“There's a reason why I'm blind in this place but not blind everywhere I am."


“What reason?"


“There must be something important I'm supposed to do here that I don't need to do everywhere I am, something I'll do better if I'm blind."


“Like what?"


“I don't know.” He was silent a moment. “That's what's going to be interesting."


She traded silence for silence. Then: “Kiddo, I'm still totally confused by this stuff."


“I know, Mom. Someday I'll understand it better and explain it all to you.


“I'll look forward to that. I guess."


“And that's not bulldoody."


“I didn't think it was. And you know what?"


“What?"


“I believe you."


“About the sad?” he asked.


“About the sad. You really aren't, and that ... just stuns me, kiddo."


“I get frustrated,” he admitted. “Trying to learn how to do things in the dark ... I get peed off, as they say."


“That's not what they say,” she teased.


“That's what we say."


“Actually, if we have to say it at all, I'd rather we said tinkled off."


He groaned. “That just doesn't cut it, Mom. If I gotta be blind, I think I should get to say peed off."


“You're probably right,” she conceded.


“I get peed off, and I miss some things terrible. But I'm not sad. And you've got to not be sad, either, 'cause it spoils everything."


“I promise to try. And you know what?"


“What?"


“Maybe I won't have to try as hard as I think, because you make it so easy, Barty."


For more than two weeks, Agnes's heart had been a clangorous place, filled with the rattle and bang of hard emotions, but now a sort of quiet had come upon it, a peace that, if it held, might one day allow joy again.


“Can I touch your face?” Barty asked.


“Your old mom's face?"


“You're not old."


“You've read about the pyramids. I was here first."


“Bulldoody."


Unerringly, in the darkness, he found her face with both hands. Smoothed her brow. Traced her eyes with fingertips. Her nose, her lips. Her cheeks.


“There were tears,” he said.


“There were,” she admitted.


“But not now. All dried up. You feel as pretty as you look, Mom."


She took his small hands in hers and kissed them.


“I'll always know your face,” he promised. “Even if you have to go away and you're gone a hundred years, I'll remember what you looked like, how you felt."


“I'm not going anywhere,” she pledged. She had realized that his voice was growing heavy with sleep. “But it's time for you to go to dreamland."


Agnes got out of bed, switched on the lamp, and tucked Barty in once more. “Say your silent prayers."


“Doin' it now,” he said thickly.


She slipped into her shoes and stood for a moment watching his lips move as he gave thanks for his blessings and as he asked that blessings be given to others who needed them.


She found the switch and clicked off the lamp again. “Good-night, young prince."


“Good-night, queen mother."


She started toward the door, stopped, and turned to him in the dark. “Kid of mine?"


“Hmmmm?"


“Did I ever tell you what your name means?"


“My name ... Bartholomew?” he asked sleepily.


“No. Lampion. Somewhere in your father's French background, there must have been lamp makers. A lampion is a small lamp, an oil lamp with a tinted-glass chimney. Among other things, in those long ago days, they used them on carriages."


Smiling in the fearless dark, she listened to the rhythmic breathing of a sleeping boy.


She whispered then: “You are my little lampion, Barty. You light the way for me."


That night her sleep was deeper than it had been in a long time, deep as she had expected sleep would never be again, and she was not plagued by any dreams at all, not a dream of children suffering, nor of tumbling in a car along a rain-washed street, nor of thousands of windblown dead leaves rattling-hissing along a deserted street and every leaf in fact a jack of spades.


Chapter 70


A MOMENTOUS DAY for Celestina, a night of nights, and a new dawn in the forecast: Here began the life about which she'd dreamed since she was a young girl.


By ones and twos, the festive crowd eventually deconstructed, but for Celestina, an excitement lingered in the usual gallery hush that rebuilt in their wake.


On the serving tables, the canapé trays held only stained paper doilies, crumbs, and empty plastic champagne glasses.


She herself had been too nervous to eat anything. She'd held the same glass of untasted champagne throughout the evening, clutching it as though it were a mooring buoy that would prevent her from being swept away in a storm.


Now her mooring was Wally Lipscomb-obstetrician, pediatrician, landlord, and best friend—who arrived halfway through the reception. As she listened to Helen Greenbaum's sales report, Celestina held Wally's hand so tightly that had it been a plastic champagne flute, it would have cracked.

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